Friday, July 21, 2017

CHARDONNAY: What are we drinking?

A 'winemakers grape', where all the tools of the cellar and masters' expertise can be applied, Chardonnay remains the most popular white wine grape varietal worldwide, in-spite of  or perhaps because of its many disguises. It proves to be a vigorous, adaptable vine which is grown by most vine-cultivating countries.  Ampelographers, those botanists who search out the origins of winegrapes, offer that from its historic beginnings around the Roman crossroad of Macon in southern Burgundy, it probably evolved as the cross of the widely planted, ancient peasant grape, Gouais Blanc and volatile Pinot Noir.  And from there it grew, and grew to become what we are drinking.

Of course, being reliably adaptable and vigorous is not enough to make a variety noble. It must offer mind-blowing nuance, a spectrum of personality, and possibly the chance for winemakers to use all of their cellar tools to bring out what may have been hidden. With its popular adaption to the alkaline-clay soils that are prominent in the Cote-d-'Or, Cistercian monks systematically began to tame chardonnay, making written reference to it in the early 1300's.  Prior to the introduction of contemporary stainless steel vessels, oak barrel fermentation was common, and additional wood treatment with aging or storage in cask allowed for even more texture and personality to dress-up chardonnay.
New Zealand chardonnay vineyard, North Island
As described by the Society of Wine Educators, chardonnay quickly loses it acid strength as it ripens, so naturally, warm locations would produce 'flabby' chardonnay. Its natural juice is fairly neutral; a secondary fermentation(malo-lactic) that provides de-acidification and a buttery compound(diacetyl), and aging on decomposing yeasts(sur lie) can add texture and more assertive flavors. Add extended exposure to oak barrels(or cheaper forms) to introduce heightened notes of vanilla, toast and spice to a developing chardonnay, all combine with other cellar treatments to add weight and texture where it may not have been before.  Contemporary chardonnay from large industrial producers introduces even more juice manipulation, from adding sugar for body to a reverse osmosis to re-configure the experiment.  So, really, what are we drinking?
A secondary M-L ferment with oak chips
Recently, one of our tasting groups got together to compare eight(8) global chardonnay's under $20. retail.  Most were out of balance and not distinguished or interesting, masking yellow and green fruit flavors with heavy manipulation. Domestically, the top two chardonnay's skirted the $20 ceiling, being found discounted to just below the qualifying threshold, providing complexity and better balance. But in the race for the top there was also a pure-bread.  It was stainless steel fermented with a light oak treatment that did not shroud the uniqueness of its soils or the chardonnay grape or its viticultural environment that is uniquely Chablis AOC.  The widely distributed wines of William Fe'vre, in this case the pure 2015 Chablis Champs Royaux, displayed lean, generous fruit dressed with chalky mineral notes, supported by mouth-puckering, refreshing acid.

Chablis' famous Grand Cru vineyards
Closer to Sancere of the Loire Valley's central department than to Burgundy from which it is physically separated, chardonnay vineyards blanket the hills surrounding the Serein River town of Chablis. This is chardonnay country, having a semi-continental climate and nurturing the vine on poor soils of limestone, clay and fossilized sea shells.  Its traditional evolution(e'velage) in the cellar is an effort to reflect the uniqueness of this special place and the single grape variety to which it has been nurturing for centuries.  It is chardonnay in its purest form, and that is the refreshingly great value that I am drinking.


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Friday, June 30, 2017

METHOD: All that Sparkles...

Not the first wine to sparkle, but an important cellar method
Special events deserve a sparkle.  Be it the summer solstice, a birthday or anniversary, or even making it to Wednesday is a reason to celebrate something.  It is reasonable to suggest that BIG celebrations deserve a special bottle, but what about those everyday occurrences; those more frequent times that would be made even more special by lifting a glass that sparkles to announce those eyes you gaze into?

It's the bubbles that stream to heaven in a glass and can even tickle your nose that makes sparkling wines so entertaining.  Champagne is the universal standard for sparkling wines.  Not Spain's cava's or Piemonte's spumanti or Venetos prosecco, or even the traditional method sparkling wines outside of France's historical standard region, called cremant or mousseux.  German sekt is not the benchmark, even as some of their northern tier wine regions flirt with similar Champagne conditions. Not the sparklers of South Africa(Methode Cap Classique), or those of America(California Champagne?) or Chile rank in the marketing prowess, the quality hierarchy and regulated high standards that come from the Champenoise.  Even as you may find $25 -30 Champagne values in the marketplace(Piper-Heidsieck, etc.), what would be the best everyday quality for, say, less then $20?
Vineyards of Epernay, Valley of the Marne
Production of by product carbon dioxide is basic to winemaking, just as is ethanol(alcohol).  Just as it has always been when man liked the lighter feeling resulting from drinking fermented juice.  Imagine the thrill of being able to create an effervescence, a sparkle of mystery from once still juice left in a covered earthenware jar.  Or the ability to capture that sparkle with the production of stronger glass bottles produced from the 17th century English invented coke-fueled ovens.  Only then could consumers find it possible to hold the bubbles until that special moment when fanfare would follow their predictable release.

A traditional or Champagne method produces its CO2 from a second fermentation inside each individual inverted bottle where the yeast are collected until disgorged.  Generally, this process is more laborious, producing wines of more finesse, more complexity, and more balance from regional grape sources. In the Charmat method, used mostly in Italy, the second ferment occurs in large pressurized stainless steel tanks that allow an economic transfer to bottles at a fraction of the cost. Cheaper still is the soda or bulk method, where the CO2 is pumped into a tank, resulting in bubbles that are typically short-lived(think cola soda).  Variations of these methods have evolved over wine history, but higher quality here is associated with a longer, more regulated process.
Cava cellars of Codorniu at Sant Sadurni d'Anoia
Our tasting group recently investigated eight sparklers from Spain, Italy, and New Zealand, each under $20.  By consensus, the best sparklers tasted stood head and shoulders above the rest, as all that sparkles are not created equally.  For my money, to sip, to savor, and to celebrate any day you cannot sparkle better than the cavas of Catalonia.

Segura Viudas Reserva Heredad;  full bodied, dried fruits and biscuits, reinforces aromatic notes. A blend of Macabeo and Parellada grapes produces an outstanding example of cava.  Outstanding quality for the price, which is saying something from a producer that offers a perennial entry value with its Brut Reserva(under $10).
Cordorniu Anna de Cordorniu;  notes of dried citrus and baked apple, a hint of tropical fruit on the palate with flavors that reflect the lighter nose, yet it is complex and elegant, and displays a generous finish of length.  A delight at around $12!
Glera vines in the Prosecco DOC zone

Salute' & Cheers!

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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

PINOT NOIR: Nobility in America

Pipeage, a French punch-down of noble pinot noir (Naked Winemaking, Palate Press)
"Wine quality is defined like pornography. We don't know what it is, but we know it when we see it." Francis Percival,  The World of Fine Wine.

It is a wine of kings and those famous dukes. In the world of Pinot Noir, there's just Burgundy, and then it seems there's everything else. Not Oregon, not Central Otago, not even the Russian River Valley or the Santa Rita Hills AVA's.  Not the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County, and not even the pioneering remote hilltop locations of the broad Sonoma Coast.  Burgundy, the long established and historic home of the noble red grape is where it was born, where it was lovingly nurtured, and to this day arguably reaches its greatest heights.  But Burgundy estate wines are scarce and expensive, and only find a few great vintages in a decade due in large part to mother nature.  The rest of the pinot-loving world gets along with those second/third tier Village wines, and the wines of increasing quality being produced in the new(relatively) vineyards of the world.
Grape de-stemmer(prior to pipeage)
Currently enjoying unprecedented market and acreage growth over its long history, the red grape of Burgundy was introduced to California in the late-19th century(think Pierre Mirassou and Paul Masson), and today is the leading red grape in Sonoma County. Locally, it has evolved to earned for its patient and attentive growers the highest per ton pricing for red wine grapes here.  Growing the fickle, thin skinned orb has become increasingly consistent with ever developing recognizable styles as growers adapt, develop specific vineyard sites, apply new viticultural techniques and employ constant canopy/irrigation management across the many sustainable farmed vineyards while managing yields. The big players, those nationally distributed giants, have helped to move Pinot Noir into the mainstream, forging vineyard development, improved large scale winemaking, supported by focused marketing and broader distribution.  Our domestic Pinot Noir is finally coming of age.

Loaded with nuance, power and grace, the noble varietal is typically less astringent, less tannic than most other market leading reds, so that may make it easier to introduce to emerging neophyte wine drinkers. While cabernet is assertive and, in my opinion, takes years of bottle age to come into a balanced maturity, Pinot Noir is resonate and sensual almost from the outset. At times we find it voluptuous and velvety;  this is an aromatic variety, so it is often presented in a wide bowl glass so that more aromatic compounds can introduce it. Stylings of Pinot Noir can be generalized into two camps: ripe and sweet, as compared to complex and savory, which is the style I prefer. When ripe it can be highly extracted and fruit driven; when vinified as a savory varietal selection it tends to have more depth and nuance.  For me that makes it intrinsically a more interesting sipper.

In the cult road movie, Sideways, Miles offered, "quaffable,....but, uh, far from transcendent", when speaking about a south Central Coast tasting room sample.  In truth, that's the way it is for most of today's Pinot Noirs.  And it is that sentiment that keeps us pinotphiles searching for a taste that transports us to another place.  A consuming search that has many pinot lovers seeking out the latest crafting from a boutique producer that offers something more than just a glass of wine, just like in Burgundy.
Domaine Romane'e Conti, the gold standard
This increasingly popular grape seems quite adapted to reflecting its location, part of the reason we will never be Burgundy. With an estimated 200 - 1000 clones only adding to its unique complexity, Pinot Noir is today an important part of the growing demand in $10-20 wines that are driving the industry. Consumers will find that this category is mostly offering Pinot Noirs' that are ripe and sweet, industrial stylings, where it is more important to be consistent year after year than to reflect a site or season. Like a good novel, well executed Pinot Noir can bring you some place, it can evolve in the glass with contemplation, and can offer the taster a resonate, satisfying experience that is meant to share.

Critical pinot success stories seem to mushroom almost every week, from Oregon's cool Willamette Valley, to warm and fast ripening Santa Lucia Highlands, even as the industry is facing new challenges just as we are beginning to get it right. A recent Stanford University study has noted that a 2 degree increase in average temperatures could reduce  wine growing sites by 30 - 50 per cent, and considering the advancement of undeniable climate change pinot growers will have to adapt. Agri-laboratories are aiding the fight too by shuffling genetic material, but at what point is it no longer Pinot Noir?  But then, inbreeding can be berry noble!

"What makes a wine worth drinking is that it is honest and authentic" Terry Theise, The World of Fine Wine.


Thursday, April 27, 2017

BRITISH COLUMBIA: Beautiful Bottles Too!

Okanagan's Gray Monk invites
Way up north in neighboring Canada, skirting the 50th degree parallel north from the Niagara escarpment in Ontario with its calcerous soils and continental climate, to British Columbia in the west with its distinctive alluvial soil landscapes stretching across its more than 600 miles, Canada is making world class wines. Near the northern edge of where the vinis vinifera will ripen, recent generations are making tremendous advances in producing what can be the very best examples of established wine varieties. The grape varietals are dominated by Pinot Gris and market pleasing Chardonnay; you'll find Merlot and Pinot Noir, and those typical international varietals are here too....Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Riesling and Gewurtztraminer, etc.

Regulatory control comes in the form of the industry's  1999 Vintners Quality Alliance, or VQA; wines so declared have a minimum of 95% of the grapes coming from the region(GI) stated, and an 85% minimum from the declared harvest year(which is important when northern weather suddenly turns).  The board controls grape varieties and ripeness, applied winemaking standards, established sensory and chemical criteria, and consumer labeling. Standards have not been established for vineyard density, yeast types for fermentation or wine aging, thus allowing for continuing experimentation and innovation.  Wines labeled VQA are distinguished as typical of their grape variety and recognized growing region.

Today's British Columbia wine industry has grown from a handful back in the 1960's, to more than 350 province wineries today, producing an annual economic impact of around $3billion.  The vine acreage in the province has grown as you may expect; more than 10,000 acres planted to more than 75 varietals.  Those established quality national standards, the broad diversity of the B.C. landscape and cuisine, and growing consumer demand have helped to promote this emerging wine region.

Within the most productive of wine Canada provinces, there are boutique wineries of the southwesterly Gulf Islands;  the maritime climate challenged by the pioneers of Vancouver Island so close to an international metropolis; there's the mixed soils of the fertile, east-west oriented Fraser Valley that follows the great river; heading east to the emerging border region, the Similkameen; and further eastward to the bountiful, semi-arid Okanagan river valley with its alluvial soils.  British Columbia would seem to have it all.

One of the warmest regions in all of Canada, it lies in a broad rain shadow of the Cascades;  the Okanagan Valley is blessed with hot long days during critical ripening cycle. This world-class growing region today overwhelmingly produces most of the wine from a most picturesque and outdoor lifestyle province, with wines increasingly recognized on the world stage for their acid-driven purity and resonate qualities.  Hours from metro Vancouver, it is one beautiful region for eco-tourism, too.

Keelowna Okanagan Lake
Ice wine may be the historic marketing tool for the wines of these provinces, and as historically accurate as it is, this too is changing. World-wine producers in the extreme northern latitudes have long found something special about picking frozen berries left on the vine thru the depths of winter. Freezing dehydrates reducing water content, sugars concentrate, in frigid conditions the fruit is laboriously picked berry by berry.  Here, without varietal restrictions, these wines are sugar heavy, but strive for an acid balance, drop by drop, to create a delicious nectar, one (expensive) bottle at a time.  Unfortified, Canadian ice wine tends to be low in alcohol, with broad flavor profiles that invite experimentation even in this historic category.

Even with their Prohibition-era alcohol laws there is evidence that the industry is growing in a progressive, positive direction, Oh sure, they have the same problems of expensive land and expensive labor, and strong, physically-separated provincial identities.  But, they also have climate change increasing chances for reliable, regular ripening, and sustainable farming the new norm.  There is the increasing fame of their world-class wines, and the increase in foreign investment, as well as sustained overtures for more favorable trade & tariff laws . With a current measure to regulate beer sales at fast food restaurants, can a chilled glass of British Columbia Riesling at the local Canadian Taco Bell be so far behind?  Those would be some beautiful bottles.
Vancouver, a City of Glass, or two!

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Thursday, March 30, 2017

BRAMBLES: April AllReady in Central Europe!

IT is spring and perhaps more than ever my personal vision of the world of wine seems a little out of focus. Maybe it is just the time invested or the true nature of cycles, or even the lack of personal critical success, but it does give one pause to reflect. By the way, above is a photo of the old vineyards in Hungary's Soproni Borvidek. It sits in the border foothills of the Alps in the southeastern region of neighboring Austria.  As early as the XIV century, this former Roman colony was classified as the most important wine region in Hungary. Talk about wine history!  Its old soils have seen the shift in empires, numerous wars and an Eastern Block trade restriction, yet today there is the new promise of a wine renaissance here as investment and more international markets expand opportunity. In 2004 Hungary was admitted to the European Union and its spectrum of wine-lovin' customers. Current results here display hundreds of these unique vineyards increasingly planted to 'international varieties'. And to perhaps anchor its history, Hungary also produces the botrytized amber nectar, Tokaji.
Mechanical harvesting in lower region Hungary
Perhaps our vision of the wine world becomes clearer if we continue to step back, away from the consuming game that is the contemporary wine business. On those northern shores of misty Lake Neusiedler in neighboring Austria, the vine has also been cultivated for thousands of years, and survived across many a regional cataclysm. Today, the principal grape variety is Grüner Veltliner, which finds itself in classification systems defined by its regions, not nationality. Following the creation of the important Austrian Wine Marketing Board in 1986 and its admission into the EU in 1995, the Austrian wine industry has continued to produce some of the greatest wines in its long viticultural history.  Its evolving regulatory system assures consumers of high standards in quality(red/white bandolier capsule) and regional typicity for each varietal, and this former home of reform philosopher Rudolf Steiner continues to be among international leaders in vineyard sustainability, organic and bio-dynamic practices.  From disaster to contemporary eco-poster child, Austria has created a model of what is possible in the contemporary international wine marketplace.

Wine Folly graphics(nice!)

Heading northwest to focus on the current commerce engine of the EU with its diverse economy, neighboring Germany shares a lot of the same central European culture. This is white wine country, increasingly dominated by the noble Riesling grape, a native varietal which has hardily adapted to its northern climactic extreme vineyards.  Just as in the time of the Romans, here it is about a vineyards proximity to the river. A historically challenging landscape, the river valleys are dominated by many small hand-working growers. The vine has followed the rivers moderating influences along the mighty Rhine, and the Mosel, above the Elbe, the Saale and the Unstrut in the southeast. Its sweet fruit is harvested late in the grape season, sometimes a berry at a time;  the vines make it thru brutal winters and awaken annually with bud break again in the spring.

Hardly anything says spring quite like acid-driven Riesling, which is found in each of these three countries. Its greatest heights surely are found in Germany, but most of what is produced is from the broad category labeled Landwein, or ubiquitous table wines.  The best of the varietal most often come from a specific place.  Upper tiers of the German Wine Law offer first pick, mostly dry Kabinett; fuller, off-dry Spatlese; and textured, sweeter Auslese. Even with their confusing labels and language, the industry has advanced to simpler, user-friendly label declarations(trocken=dry) and friendly consumer symbols displayed. It is just another example of Old World producers staying true to their nature, yet acknowledging growing consumer trends, such as food & wine pairings.
Replanted vineyards above the Mosel in Zell

Again we ask ourselves why would a wine educator continue to spend time & resources to do this month after month.  There is little independent financial gain in its present form and I am not motivated to be the family 'wine expert'. Revived, it remains these new stories like those coming out of central Europe, seeped in history and turmoil. Step back, and you can see that wine history is our shared history.  It is the continued exploration and non-stop development of an agrarian life, the search for a unique expression of site, and stories that in ways define what it is to be human.  Wine Educators often times then become the oracle of this truth found in the cultivation of the vine.  Each of these countries with their common wine roots and independent cultures has grown, evolved with the ever-expanding international marketplace. And, even in a world filled with turbulence and strife, wine itself can be for many of us a return of focus.  It is all ready happening, for in wine there will always be truth.

In Vino Veritas & Cheers!
Vine renewal

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