Friday, September 29, 2017

HARVEST; the Cycle of Past Perfect

Dried leaves danced in a race across the dry pavement.  It was a reasonable escape considering the sweltering heat spikes that repeatedly visited wine country throughout the weeks of summer, but the effort used up entirely too much energy.  No fewer than 5 weekends over a two month period saw triple digit temperatures blanket our vineyards hanging full of fruit.  After a historically wet winter with a generous snow pack in the mountains, the vigor of the vines that had introduced the 2017 season had now slowed to a listless crawl.  What was an early promise of good fruit quality and average crop yields was altered; it had become a different harvest.
Sonoma County American Viticultural Areas(AVA)
That wet spring gave way to sustaining sunshine to begin flowering and fruit set of the vines, and then came a rare hail event in June.  This is the type of weather that may be more common in continental Burgundy, not maritime-influenced and Mediterranean Sonoma County. Weeks of summer went by seasonally, albeit higher than average humidity.  By the end of July, sparkling wine producers were already calling out picking orders, expecting a traditional early crop of higher acid ripening fruit with sufficient sugars. Then in late August seasonal temperatures began to rise; Labor Day weekend saw three days of invading triple degree digits.  September, a typical harvest month, began a patient game of waiting for sugars to threshold and phenolic ripeness to develop in the fruit. It all stalled, as it remained unseasonably hot.  Locally, there were even a few rain 'events' mid-month promoting the fear of widespread fungal rot.
Vineyard rows adapted to machine harvesting
Grapes are cyclical survivors, they want to complete the process.  As photosynthesis shuts down to produce ripening of the sugars, it is common for growers to remove grapeleafs, promoting even ripening by exposing the fruit to more sunlight. It is a balancing act, for we know that stressed vines produce more intense fruit color(flavor) and richer aromatics. During a heat spike sugars climb and then drop during sustained waves, the maturity process shuts down with this continued vine stress. To combat, growers can irrigate their stressed vineyards, but that dilutes flavors and runs the danger of altering the fruit flavors.  Harvesting under-ripe fruit does not help much either.  The fruit bakes; light, thin skins can sunburn, the fruit dehydrates, and may even raisin the berries.  Months of dedicated toil and nurturing can change to critical over a scorched weekend. 

Sonoma county is not alone in this current climate challenge. "The heat was excessive to the point where it actually slowed ripening", noted celebrated Lake County AVA winemaker, Jed Steele. Moist conditions from winter's rains and rare monsoonal periods in September introduced rot to many vineyards.  Talley Vineyards of Arroyo Grande Valley AVA noted it sorted out a surprising 14% of its harvest from Rosemary's Vineyard due to the blight. Globally, according to Decanter, Italy and France are expecting to see the smallest harvests in more than 60 years due to a late season heat wave the Italians have dubbed 'Lucifer'.  To balance the scales, cool, sun-deprived Germany is having a historically early harvest, as reported by Bloomberg's, E.McCoy!
Italian wine raisins in the Mediterranean sun
If we add the agricultural labor challenges to pick fruit at the peak of ripeness in more vineyards than ever before with a shrinking seasonal migratory work force, the annual increased farming costs, and a more competitive producer/consumer marketplace it is a wonder that growing premium wine grapes still invites the dreamers.  And, the wildfires in Mendocino, Lake and Santa Barbara counties, and in Oregon would only add to a winegrowers challenges this year, too. Welcome to the new normal of farming cool climate sites, the real new McCoy, as it were.

Record amounts of carbon dioxide hang in the atmosphere, our rising sea levels and increasing deforestation are global events the worlds' agrarians have never before seen on this scale. Locally, our Sonoma September was 3+ degrees warmer than our historical average for this harvest month. Those increasing global temperatures have introduced to once marginal, cool extreme vineyards the rarity of more hours of sun and increasingly consistent ripening. Now at this edge, indications are that we are currently living in the new climate normal. A few longtime fruit farmers may have see it all before in their day, but for the rest of us we may be entering a vineyard environment of the Cycle of Past Perfect!

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Friday, August 25, 2017

ANDERSON VALLEY; Logging Gewurztraminer

Islands in the Clouds, Mendocino County
In the waning bright of summer you can leave the spine of Hwy.101 and meander the edge of the coastal range above Cloverdale to reach the Yorkville Highlands AVA on Hwy.128.  Isolated and bucolic farms dot the rolling emerald hills as you continue north-westbound, and then from the crown of a hill's rise it appears like a misty land that time forgot. It is the Anderson Valley AVA of Mendocino County that grows shades of green across these fog-veiled, open spaces.  Surrounded by the heights of the Coastal Range, it is for many a wine route that is so off the radar, where a few of the 'pioneers' are still with us, and of late a region fertile to more than a few wine dreams.  It is also the epicenter of California Gewurztraminer, a noble variety too often forgotten.
New vineyard investment in Philo, Anderson Valley AVA
Late 19th century logging entrepreneurs with names like Gschwend, and Sterns, and Hiatt harvested the once abundant California coastal redwood above the valley farms. Timber men were typically hard, independent sorts, living in isolated camps, coming to town occasionally to raise a little hell. There were choppers and peelers, swampers and teamsters somewhere in those forested hills.  With the rebirth of San Francisco in the early century years there was an industrial logging boom, growing into the 1940's, when more than 50 area mills were operating; today there is just one that remains outside of lazy Philo. Unfortunately, the once abundant old growth redwood too has been lost, with today only about 5% of its native acreage remaining as protected or privately owned lands.

Early 20th century ag development along the 20-mile Anderson Valley saw new Swiss and Italian immigrant plantings of familiar grapes varieties, as well as apples and hops across the isolated valley. Here, the early wine pioneers had branded names like EdmeadesHusch or Navarro; even by the late 70's there were still just a handful of area wineries. Still, cool tolerant Alsatian varietals had established a diverse vineyard foothold. In the early 1980's, sparkling wine producers saw the valley's unique qualities, bringing the prestigious French Champagne-house Roederer and John Scharffenberger investing chardonnay and pinot noir into this forgotten landscape.  Today, valley plantings of pinot noir in clay loam soils now blanket across her rolling hills, joining adapted varietals with a generally cool growing season, and abundant dormant seasonal rainfall.  And, just about everyone bottles a fragrant Gewurztraminer.
Pretty, blushing Gewurztraminer/
Early ripening Gewurztraminer adapted well, importantly retaining really good acid in the fruit from this cooler environment; where the generous humidity can even invite a late harvest specialty across the more than 100 acres now planted. Typical notes in the glass of rose hips, exotic fruits and lychee are present in these wines, where the abundant aromatics invite the taste.  Its mouth filling body too can be a pleasure in the mouth, offering a luscious and cooling foil to spicy Asian fare. Vine tourists exploring the former hills of the Central Pomo's can find fine examples of delicious at benchmark Navarro, or Husch, or Lazy Creek Vineyards to name just a few of many.

Recently featured at our informal tasting, Gewurztraminer from the Anderson Valley showed promise and consistency in all the dry selections tasted from the 2014 and 2015 harvests.  In another league was the star of the evening, a Late Harvest Gewurztraminer from the Navarro Vineyards 2006 harvest.  Golden in the glass, it shared aromas of dried stone fruits, honey, lychee and dried flowers by way of introduction.  Its viscous nectar filling the mouth round with so many pleasurable notes it was difficult to linger on just one for very long. Moments later, perhaps minutes, it was still casting a delicious shadow across the palate as it lingered to luscious memory.

"We manage to sell it, but it certainly is not a widely popular wine. I don't think demand has grown", offers Navarro winemaker Ted Bennett. There remains a bittersweet parallel. Both Anderson Valley logging and gewurztraminer perhaps may share a historical fate.  Unless it finds a consumer marketplace and continues to be managed sustain-ably it may one day be threatened with severe scarcity or worse yet, loss.  That would be indeed logging tragedy, if only because this under appreciated, good value ambrosia varietal always loves my kung pao takeout.

Salute! And, Happy Harvest!

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Coastal Redwood logging:

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.