Friday, January 19, 2018

A Drive Through the Country

It has been too long, entirely too long, since I have written anything at all.  Taking a new role in sales means I am not writing much at work these days, a fact that makes me slightly sad.  The company and the job make up for most of my sadness because I have been very lucky with both the company and the team that I find myself on.  Sometimes I feel the need to pinch myself.  The lack of writing is really the only thing that is lacking.

I have also been horrible about keeping up with this blog.  This I have complete control of and hope to remedy in 2018.  Fortunately, I recently came back from California.  Most of the trip was void of wine because we have two kids (10 and 7), and wine tasting is not exactly high on their list of things to do while on vacation.  Fortunately they were tolerant of a little wine oriented activity (WOA), and thus we got a little bit in along the way.

We flew into San Jose California and promptly headed south through the entirety of the central valley of California USA, that is after a quick stop at In-N-Out Burger by the airport.  If you have not had a double double animal style from this iconic California chain, you ain't living life.  Get your derriere to an In-N-Out post haste.  It may change your life forever...

So back to the drive.  The central valley is something that I read a lot about over the years.  It is responsible for producing a lot of wine.  To give you some understanding, Napa produces about 3 percent of the total wine produced in California.  The central valley produces more than half of the total grapes for wine in the state.  Yea, that is right, as big as Napa feels when you are there, the amount of wine they produce is not even 1/10 of what is produced in the central valley.  You cannot understand or appreciate how big the vineyards are.  The vines ebb and flow like waves over the undulating hills of the valley.  They seem to go from the highway all the way to the mountains in the far distance.  They almost disappear in the distance.  Despite the fact that we took multiple pictures, the vastness of the valley and its vines is impossible to appreciate unless you visit in person.  It is really quite awe inspiring.

While the valley produces a lot of wine, the quality is... not that great.  It gets hot in the valley and it lacks some of the cooling winds that grace the vines in Napa, Sonoma, Santa Barbara, and Paso Robles to name a few.  As a result, the wines are big and fruit forward, but lack some of the nuance that the wines in the more famous regions enjoy.  That is why many of the grapes of this valley are destined for boxes and jugs, or to be blended with wines from better regions to keep costs down.

As we drove through the valley, night fell quickly.  It was dark, and we were in the sticks.  As is normally the case on road trips, one of my kids had to pee, so we stopped at a rest stop off of the highway.  When we came out of the building, it was dark.  We also noticed a bright light in the sky.  A glowing orb, with two bright lights blinking in the middle.  Did the aliens finally decide to save us?  No such luck.  We would later find it was a communications satellite being launched from Santa Ynez, and while far from us, you would have sworn it was only a few miles away.  The rest stop was buzzing.  Every phone in the place was out filming this strange phenomenon.  What was it? We all chatted a bit, which was cool, and then were on our way.

We finally arrived in Paso at 9 pm after a long ride.  As we pulled up to our VRBO, we were greeted by the sound of what we thought were goats.  Bahhhhhhhhh.  This would continue until we went into the house and went to bed.  The next morning we found out they were sheep, and very interesting looking sheep at that.

That first night, we heard that there was a concert at a winery called tooth and nail.  Coincidentally, the winery was one that was said to cater to families.  They also serve food, so it seemed a great idea to grab dinner there, have our first wines of the trip, and rock out to some local artist.  The coolest part of the winery, besides some of the killer labels on their bottles, is the fact that it is built to look like a medieval castle complete with a moat and a draw bridge.

There was only one small problem.  The chef went home leaving NO FOOD.  We were hungry from the drive, and did I mention we had kids with us.  They were starting to lose their shit too, so we tasted nothing, went to a local exquisite Mexican establishment called taco bell and called it a night.

Now back to the real wine stuff.  I had tasted a Grenache Blanc at a steak house in Orlando by a producer called Halter Ranch.  It was a very nice and spicy Grenache Blanc (Which I tend to like a lot anyway) and so I was eager to try the rest of their lineup.  I would not be at all disappointed.  

We started with the grenache blanc and instantly, i remembered why I liked it.  It is fresh and lively in the glass with a honeyed pear and melon approach and a zesty finish.  It would be great with many foods, and would even stand up nicely to salted meats. 

We also tasted the CdP (a not to the southern Rhone), it was a strawberry and cherry fruit forward wine with brushy herbs and a floral finish.

For me the star of this tasting was a beautifully made Syrah.   Warm raspberry compote with blue fruit give way to wet earth, and cinnamon.  It also finished very nicely with some orange peel.   There was a bit of the telltale reductive quality and meatiness that Syrah often carries as well.

Overall we had a great tasting experience, and our kids were happy playing outside and overlooking the beautiful vineyards.  I also give them a lot of props for being SIPP certified (Sustainability in Practice).  Many feel this is the most stringent environmental accreditation a vineyard can achieve.

The only other tasting we were able to do was on Christmas Eve at Daou vineyards.  All I can say about the place is that they make some kick ass wine, and the winery itself sits in an awe inspiring setting made even more beautiful by the extravagance of the architecture.  Daou sits on a hill that is 2200 feet above sea level overlooking what seems like the rest of Paso Robles.  You can basically see in any direction and have some of the most breathtaking views I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing.  On top of that, there wines are very nice, and made better by the experience and the place.  Again, pictures cannot begin to do this place justice.  

The views, the appointments in the tasting room, the service and the wine at Daou is hedonistic.  Beautiful big reds, oozing with class, and fruit while looking at the views...Not a bad way to spend a few hours.  

The other comment I will make is that they were so accommodating.  Here it was Christmas Eve, we were some of the last people there, and we never once felt rushed.  We felt very well taken care of, and we enjoyed every minute of the tasting that we shared due to time constraints.  They also brought juice for the boys, and a chocolate truffle.

Overall, I loved what we saw of Paso.  It is a farm town, a small town, and it is less serious and imposing than Napa.  The wineries that we visited were great despite the fact that we came with kids.  Our kids are well behaved, but they are kids, and some places, especially those as nice as Daou, might have had a completely different reaction.

There is also plenty to do and see that is not wine related in the area.  There is a great airplane museum, there are fantastic restaurants.  Hearst castle is a short drive away, and the Elephant seals were getting ready to have their pups.  we also went for a great hike in a dried up river bed.  All of this goes on within 45 minutes drive of Paso.  We stayed on a farm that was REMOTE.  Every morning we saw deer walking past the bungalow we stayed in, and yet, we were 5 minutes from downtown Paso.

Paso Robles is a great mix of nature and wine, modern and old world, the ocean and the mountains.  I did not have nearly enough time to explore, so I will have to go back.  Soon I hope.

Until next time...

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Mission Accomplished

Mission Accomplished

Did you miss me?  Probably not.  I know many of my family members and friends have over the passed several months.  

I have been off studying for both the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) level 2 and Level 3 exams.  I took them both back to back (within a month of each other) through the American Wine School, which teaches classes in many cities throughout the US.  If you are in the midwest and looking to take the WSET exam, I would suggest that you look them up.  They have a great approach to the exam prep, and distribute several mnemonic devices, and other hints for passing the exam.  I found the test prep course to be invaluable for helping me feel confident and prepared to take the test.

The Level 2 test has 50 questions and is straight forward.  I already received results.  I passed as seen by the pin above and did so with distinction (pat, pat, pat on the back). 

The level 3 test ironically has 3 parts.  The first part is multiple choice.  This is 50 questions on wine regions, wine making, vineyard practices, soil types, wine types, spirits, and other fun facts about wine and spirits.  It is a lot of information to cover, but otherwise is not very difficult to handle.  The second section is a short essay section.  This is the most challenging part of the exam as not only do you need to know the topics, but you also need to have knowledge of what the test administrators and graders are looking for.  Questions are broad, like describe a wine from XYZ and its style...GO!  You could spend a week answering a question like that, but in this case they are looking for certain things, and you get points for each item you mention in your answer.  The prep class was great for explaining what the WSET is likely looking for with each type of question.  Finally, there is a blind tasting.  The blind tasting covers one red wine, and one white wine.  You have to write an appropriate tasting note and guess the wine along with the age-ability and price.  The wines chosen were straight forward, and naming the wine only counts for a small portion of the points.  Most of the points are given for a proper tasting note. 

Overall, I felt the test was more than fair, and was actually enjoyable to take.  The only drawback is that there is a lot of writing, and at the end I felt like my hand was going to fall off.  I even brought a wrist brace knowing that I sometimes have difficulty when asked to do a lot of writing.  It did not matter much.  I mean, hen was the last time you wrote, like actually wrote that much with a pencil and paper?  For me, it was likely grade school.  Those muscles were not used to that kind of writing.  OUCH!!!

WSET logo is the sole property of the WSET
I will say, that the WSET is unique in many ways.  They are not teaching you to only work in a fine dining establishment as a Sommelier.  Nor are they teaching you to be a wine educator.  Both of those philosophies are heavy in some of the other accrediting bodies of wine, and while you can do either with the WSET accreditation, there is much more that one can do with this certification.  Really, if you are in or desire to learn about any part of the wine business, the WSET has something for you.

The WSET is different than other accrediting bodies in wine, in that they basically teach you wine from vine to glass.  Perhaps this is why I leaned their way after much research and contemplation.  I know I am interested in wine, but where I want to focus my interest changes for me still day to day.  As many of you know, I make wine at home, which is fascinating and humbling.  I grow grapes in my yard, Vertical Shoot Positioning (VSP), Cane pruned Hybrid vines that grow well in Chicago.  I also have interest in a wine store concept of sorts down the road  (More to come on that later).  Finally, I have always entertained a job in wine distribution at some point in my life either direct from the wineries, or through a distributor.  This is why I believe the WSET is a perfect option for me.  I continue to challenge my brain and learn a broad cross section of the wine business, while keeping future options opened.

I am glad to be done, and looking forward to finding how I did on the Level 3 test.  I feel good about passing, but they also do one additional step and give people a chance to pass with distinction.  I set a personal goal for myself to gain distinction with both exams.  I am hopeful but cautiously so, particularly due to the essay.  It is a lot of information, and one needs to gain a score of 85% or higher to get that added to their certificate.  Again, I am hopeful.

I should mention that there is one more step in the WSET called Diploma.  It is 6 grueling tests that take place over the course of 2-3 years.  Topics are vast and broad and include independent research, Wine technology, wines of the world, Spirits, Sparkling and Fortified wines, and others.  I would love to sit that exam at some point, but for now, I am content with the level 3 certification.

When I finished the exam, I went home, and packed for Napa, CA.  I will share that experience with you all when we chat next.  Until then, take care.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Soap Box Issue

Soap Box Issue

I went to get a quick workout in this morning, and, as I frequently do on the elliptical machine,  I listened to a podcast on wine.  Which podcast is unimportant, but it was one of my usual suspects.  About half way through, the hosts began talking about the issue with consumers being overwhelmed by wine.  The premise put out by the two hosts was that, "Wine is still Mysterious to people and we have to solve the mystery."  I loved that quote.  After all, is that not why we desire to be Sommeliers in the first place.  Our job is not to memorize esoteric facts about grapes, regions, and weather.  Our job is to educate, and pair the right bottle of wine with the right person at the right time.  So far, I have no issue.  However, I went on listening.

The next thought that came out of the podcast was in the form of a question, "Is that even a problem that can be solved?"  WAIT A MINUTE???  Can we make people fly?  Can we cure Cancer, Can the Cubs win the World Series?  These are problems that cannot be solved!  

Wine, and the education of people who are curious about it, is most certainly a problem that can be solved.  How you might ask?  Well, I am going to tell you.  I can think of at least one example today.  

Sit back, and listen to a little tale, a tale of a faithful ship...Oops, wrong tale.  A tale of a small wine region in Spain called Priorat.    Just 20 years ago, the wines of Priorat were not on anyone's radar.  In fact, because it was expensive to farm the steep cliffs, and all farming had to be done by hand, and the reputation of the region was not warranting big price tags for the wines, many farmers just abandoned their vineyards.  They just moved away, leaving the vines to grow.  Abandoned, cold and lonely these vines did what any vine would do, they dug their roots deep into the soil and continued to grow.  They went wild, and about 20 years ago, new winemakers showed up.  They invested money into the region.  They used good vineyard management.  These new wine makers implemented new technology, and soon they were making among Spain's best wines.  Priorat is one of two DOCa regions in Spain (The other Rioja), and yet, many people still do not know about it.

They don't know that these are big wines that tend to be fruit forward.  They tend to have big tannins, they tend to be high in alcohol.  They tend to drink like New World Wines in a lot of ways.  They will have black fruits and some spice.  We can bore people with the details that I just went through, or we can tell them, if you like your big, fruity, California Cabernet, and you tend to go that way, try this wine.  I think you will like it.

This is precisely why Australia has been so successful.  Brand Australia is good, easy to drink, enjoyable, fruit forward wines.  Ultimately, there is good quality for the money, and people like them.  What?  People like them... There is certainly no mystery in that.

I think wine stays a mystery in part because we continue to tell stories to mystify.  We are both the solution and the problem.  Because in the end, there is only one thing that matters when you think about wine and people.  Do they like it?  Not should they like it?  Not that it has a hint of salinity which matches well with oysters (Which I don't eat anyway), not even that it has black or red fruit, or big tannins or high acid.  Most people just don't care.  They know what THEY like.  We need to listen to what THEY like.  We need to find wines that are similar to what they like and slowly expand their horizons by saying, If you like California Cabernet, try this...  That will allow them to learn what they like and order it again.  People learn through their experiences, and we need to create those experiences for them.

We should take a page from the book of the beer makers and tell people that wines has the same number of calories as light beer, but it tastes better.  The story is great, and putting  wine on a pedestal is fantastic when you are geeking out with wine friends.  Ultimately, though, our role is to remove barriers, reduce the mystery and to sell more wine. Stop complicating the hell out of it.  :)

Saturday, November 21, 2015

In the Beginning...

In the Beginning....

I have two more days left of class.  It has been a year that I have dedicated my Thursday evenings to learning about wine.  As you and I both likely recall, I started this as a novice.  I knew what I liked.  I thought I knew what I did not like which may be at least as important as knowing what I liked.  I knew France was the modern day birthplace and Meca of wine, but I also knew very little of the ravings of the place.  I knew Bordeaux made wines from Cabernet and from Merlot, I knew I was not the biggest fan of Champagne, I knew I like Grenache based Rhone Blends.  I also had tried a lot of Burgundy, and was not the biggest fan of Pinot Noir.  (I have since rectified that problem)

I like many men who are new to wine liked, (Puff out chest and say with pride) "Really BIG reds."  Translation, "I like Cabernet Sauvignon from California mostly because I do not know a whole lot more about wine."  I also liked fruit forward, easy drinking patio whites as I call them now.  Things like Sauvignon Blanc.  I knew Riesling came in varying levels of sweetness, but I knew little of the dry version which has quickly rocketed towards my favorite whites on the planet.  Riesling from Mosel, or from Alsace really are red drinkers whites.  To borrow a quote from my teacher, the only problem with those whites is that they don't have any red in them.

So, why so reminiscent?  I already mentioned that I have only two classes left.  When I set out on this path, I thought a year in, I would know a lot about wine.  Many would argue that I have learned a lot, and I suppose I have.  In addition to Riesling, I have learned of the beauty of the wines of Italy and Spain.  I have grown to appreciate wine as a spice or seasoning to be appreciated with food, and that unlike California "BIG REDS",  wines from Italy and Spain maintain their acid, and provide tension.  The acid will make your mouth water and make you long for the next bite of food.  Italian wines in particular are beautiful in that regard.  I have built a growing cellar of 2010 Brunello di Montalcino.  I have also learned that Wines from Greece are interesting and emerging.  Wines like Xeno Mavro, and Asyrtiko have become bottles on somewhat frequent rotation in our home.  Gruner Ventliner from Austria is an amazing wine and even at 15 dollars delivers a fabulous drinking experience especially with food.  Finally, in the new world, I have learned that Chile and Argentina make some great wines from Camenere and Malbec respectively that offer some tremendous value.

I already knew of California and have spent some time in Napa and Sonoma exploring, but in the last year, I have also gone to Australia's Yarra Valley, and Santa Barbara County and enjoyed talking to winemakers and cellar masters about their trade. 

I have spent my first year making wine from crush to bottling.  Oddly, I now own 3 wood barrels, and they all sit in my basement, they are full of wine that will be bottled in 2016.  I have 40 bottles of my own 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon in the basement aging and I am ecstatic with the finished product.  I would have never believed a year ago that I would be making my own wine, much less making my own wine and enjoying drinking it.  Like, really enjoying drinking it.

Ok, I have definitely learned a lot.  And yet, as I prepare to take my test to get certified as a Sommelier, I am humbled.  I understand that I have spent a full year of my life learning about wine.  A DRINK for God's sake.  I have left my family, friends, kids, work, and many other opportunities in life behind to learn about a humble drink that has been made since the 1st century and likely before that.  People have been making the stuff forever, and drinking it just as long, and they likely knew almost nothing.  To me, that is the most amazing thing about this journey.  

They knew nothing, a short time ago in history.  They certainly knew nothing of the wine that was not made in their village.  They did not know  how grape juice miraculously turned into this magic elixir called wine.  Not why when placed in barrels, some of the wine disappeared (They called that the angels' share).  

I have spent the last year of my life learning about a single drink, and yet, like them, I feel like I know almost nothing as well.  The amount of information available to day about wine is staggering.  Soil types, geography, geology, wine making techniques, history, grape types, flavor profiles, wine laws, weather, who makes it, who bottles it, vintages and the best years in the vineyards, the best vintners in a region, customs, food pairing, service requirements, and much more.

I am beginning to accumulate my flashcards to prepare for the test.  There are so many things to remember.  I began studying by looking once again at Burgundy, which by all accounts is the most difficult place to learn about in the wine world.  So many little vineyards, and makers, and vineyard sites.  All of the grand cru, the 5 wine making regions of Burgundy, and it should be so simple.  Burgundy, for the most part, is about two grapes.  Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  It is that simple.  From that simplicity comes the complex.  I took just over 100 flash cards for me to capture the things I will need to know in order to take this test.  That is one region, in one country. 

I can't help but be reminded that in the beginning, when I began writing this blog, when I began my class, and when I started drinking a lot more wine, I knew Nothing. I was overwhelmed, and I think my writing way back then reflected that.  I aspired to learn more about wine, and the places it was made, and yet, I felt like I could never be successful knowing all there is to know.

What the last year has confirmed is that I was right.  Here I sit a year in with more questions than answers.  I have hundreds of flash cards and I am learning more every day, but now I know what I don't know.  In the past, when I started all of this, ignorance was bliss (Whew). 

I realize I can't possibly know it all, but I also realize the learning process will bring a lot of enjoyment.  You see, the best way to learn about wine is to taste it.  I have A LOT more learning to do.

Monday, November 2, 2015


Sake; Not just with Sushi

This class was good for me in many ways.  It made me a novice again for one.  I like Sake, don't get me wrong.  I even once listened to a podcast with an expert talking about Koji rice, and how it is added to a wort like liquid and they make rice wine from a mold called Aspergillus.  

When I went to a Japanese restaurant, I would even frequently order some Sake.  How?  I would close my eyes and point to a bottle that was in a price range I liked, and presto, some sake would show up at my table.  The beautiful carafe, the cute little shot glass, or sometimes, the wooden box.  It is always exciting.  On occasion, I would actually make a good pick and really enjoy my experience.  The banana, the yeasty, champagne like nose, the jasmine flower.  Sometimes it will have been aged and give some caramel notes.  More often than not however, it is a nondescript, subtle, non-offensive drink.  It matches and supports the sushi, but it left no lasting memory of itself after the meal.  I rarely if ever asked, "What was the name of that sake again?"  And yet, I continued to order more.  Why?  I couldn't tell you.  Other wines pair famously with sushi.  Riesling, Sparkling, Grunner (I think it pairs with everything).  Dry Japanese beer works well too, and is one of the few beer categories I actually LOVE.  (Oddly the other is stouts and porters which bear no resemblance to the Japanese beers at all)

Perhaps sake is just like peanut butter and jelly.  It just goes with my sushi and just... belongs there.  Perhaps it was the tradition.  Perhaps there is something in its subtlety that continued to intrigue me.  I am not sure.  What I do know is that there are years of tradition behind the beverage.  People dedicate their lives to making it well, tasting it well, pairing it well.  It is wine after all.  Not grape wine, but rice wine.  It comes from an ancient society, with ancient rituals, and sake has been a part of some of those rituals for centuries.

The history of Sake began in 700 AD in Japan making it one of the oldest alcoholic drinks on the planet perhaps only slightly behind beer and wine.  True Sake, and there are posers out there believe me, is made from 3 ingredients.  Water (Special water), Rice, and Koji (A mold made from Aspergillus oryzae).  

Sake is produced in a Sake Brewery called a Kura or a Sagakura by a brewer called a Toji.  The rice that is used is not Uncle Ben's Rice either.  They use special long grain, low protein rice called Shuzo Kotekimai, the best of which is Yamada Nishiki rice.  I mentioned earlier that water plays a big role as well.  The Toji chooses water based on the style of Sake he is looking to make.  The harder the water, the dryer the Sake will be in the finished product.  Conversely, the softer, the sweeter.  (Soft=Sweet).  

The brewing process for Sake is sort of like beer in that you need to move the sugar out of the grain by heating the liquid converting starch into sugar.  It is unlike beer however in that it is a two step fermentation process.  The polished rice (More on rice polishing later) is cooked, and added, and the yeast and Koji and its enzymes which also help to creat sugar from the rice are added to the mixture.  These two steps are done in parallel.  Yeast is pitched, and converts the sugar to alcohol. 

Back to Rice polishing, and I always find this funny.  I picture little guys in a room with a tiny cloth, polishing rice grains one by one.  I am sure that is not the process but that is always what I picture.  The more the rice is polished, the more refined the finished product.  "Ginjo" Sake is a premium Sake that only uses 50-60% of the rice grain, while Daiginjo Sake is a super premium Sake that uses no more than 50%.
Also, sake comes in two other categories.  On the left of the pyramid, there is Junmai Sake, which has no distilled alcohol added during the process, and Honjozo sake, which has alcohol added.  The bottom of the pyramid is called Futsu Shu or regular sake, and the top starting with Junmai is referred to as Tokutei Meisho-shu or premium sake.

Honjozu-shu is more fragrant, generally more earthy, has a longer finish and often is served better warm, although not always.  Junmai is more delicate.  It also tends to have higher acidity and can also be more full bodied.  

Nama-Zake is a Draft Sake that is unpasteurized.  It preserves freshness and aroma.  All above sake varieties can be made Nama-Zake style.  Nigori is another unfiltered Sake.  It has a bursting nose by sake standards.  It is white and cloudy from the lees making it into the bottle.

Jizake are small boutique breweries that are not mass produced.  These are often hard to find in the US.  Amakuchi is SWEET sake,...Genshu is higher in alcohol.  Most Sake is watered down to bring alcohol levels down.  Genshu is not.

Another rare type of Sake is Ginga Shizuku.  This is a drip pressed Sake, that is drip pressed in an igloo which the brewery must rebuild each year outside of the normal production facility.  Sake may also be sparkling or aged to bring out different flavors.

Terroir in Sake also plays a role.  In the North and East of the island of Japan, Sake tends to be tight, compact and light, but as one heads South and East, it gets bigger.  This is due in part to the water sources used as that plays a big role in the flavor of the finished product.

As you can see, there are 6 major regions in Japan for Sake.  It is made everywhere on the island, but the 6 major regions are as follows.  First Nada.  One third of sake in Japan comes from Nada.  Nada benefits from good water and a port which makes shipping easier.  The Sake from this region are sturdy yet feminine.  

Second is Fushimi.  Fushimi also makes a more feminine product.  In the city of Kyoto, it is not far from Tokyo and easily accessible to ship by train.

Third is Niigata.  Snowy, with lots of mountains and known for high quality rice,  this is the Burgundy or Bordeaux of Japan.  It makes very good dry Sake, and due to a high number of master brewers of Toji, it is sought after Sake.

Fourth is Akita.  Akita used to be a mining town, and it has converted to a Sake town due to high quality rice.  This is tight sake with great balance.

If you can get past the glowing in the bottle, Hiroshima is 5th.  (Kidding of course)  Soft water allows for great soft, sweet and balanced sake.  This is the region that has also lead the country in adopting technology.

Finally, Fukushima too has great rice and water.  These are soft and light wines.  Subtle flavors, but styles vary vastly in this region.

So maybe now, I will be able to do a little more than guess on the menu.  Hopefully you will too.  By the way, there is one more thing you should know.  It is not good form to pour your own Sake.  So make sure to pour for others first, and let someone pour for you after.  It is bad luck or something.  If you are ordering Sake, you may need all of the good luck you can get.


As for how I started, blue cheese pairs well with Sake too.  Who knew.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Austrailia, Home to the World's Deadliest Animals and Good Wine

I have been to Australia once.  It was over a year ago, and I was preparing to leave for 10 fun filled days away from home on business.  I had just explained to both of my boys that I was going to be getting on a plane, and flying to a country called Australia.  I continued telling them that Australia was half way around the world, and that as a result, I would be gone for 10 days.  This was the longest I had ever left either of them.  I could see the sadness in their faces as I started to pack.  In the background we were watching a program about sharks on the discovery channel.  The program ended, and the next program comes on.  Before I could realize what was happening, the announcer comes on with his best announcer voice and says, "Australia, home to the most deadly animals on the planet."  He then went on to talk about snakes, crocs, spiders, sharks, and other animals that could kill any man that crosses their path.  Needless to say, my oldest, who understood what the man said got very concerned and began to cry.  I told him that I would only be in Melbourne, which was a big city like Chicago, and that I assure him that I would not be seeing ANY of the deadly animals that the man spoke of.  I think 10 days later when I came home, he finally believed me.

As I mentioned, I was in Melbourne, and I did have one day to play, so I had scheduled a trip to the Yarra Valley (seen in Victoria in orange above).  It was a beautiful countryside filled with beautiful vineyards.  I drank some amazing wines while I was there.  Makers such as Yarra Yerring, Oakridge, Jamsheed, Timo Mayer, and Mac Forbes to name a few.  The wines I had from Australia prior to tasting in Melbourne, were largely jammy Shiraz offerings exploding with fruit.  I did drink some of that, and enjoyed them, but what struck me was the diversity of wine in the Yarra Valley.  I found Bordeaux blends, Cabernet, Shiraz, but most notably at Mac Forbes we tasted some of the better Pinot Noir I had ever had.  These wines were single vineyard offerings from 5 different sites each screaming the story of the earth they were planted in.  We also tried several versions of his Rieslings all made at differing levels of sweetness.    At the time, when I had tasted Riesling in the past, I had found it to be cloyingly sweet.  This was my first interaction with a balanced dry Riesling, and a beautiful off dry Riesling that was balanced by acidity cutting through the sweetness as well.  The trip opened my eyes in many ways to wine.  As I covered before in this blog, that trip was also the reason that I decided to go and get certified as a Somm, and also was the reason I became inspired to try making wine on my own.  (By the way, I just took possession of my third barrel for wine making this afternoon)

A brief history of wine in Australia starts with the beginning of the continent as a British Colony in 1788.  On a boat, carrying a bunch of prisoners, along with soldiers and those seeking a fresh start, Captain Arthur Philip landed in Australia bringing with him cuttings of vines from South Africa.  Fortunately, the vine grew well in this new land, and while the quality was not there, the new colonists made wine and carried clippings of new vines as they discovered uncharted land within the continent. 

Shortly after, there was a gold rush.  In the 1870s as people were striking it rich discovering gold, they were also building a large appetite for wine.  As the Gold dried up, so too did the thirst for wine.  To make matters worse, shortly after, two things tore a gaping hole in Australia's growing wine industry.  The first was economic recession, which slowed demand and put strain on the newly growing industry, and the second and potentially more devastating was Phylloxera.  This should sound awfully familiar as it is almost the exact same story through much of the new world wine regions.  Fortunately, Australian officials acted quickly, and confined the Phylloxera to Victoria.  At the time, Victoria was the leading producer of Australian wines.  The louse devastated the vines in the state, but fortunately spared the rest of the country.  As a result, Australia boasts some of the oldest vines in the world.  Also as a result, the wine capital of Australia shifted from Victoria to South Australia where it remains to this day.

The focus in the early days was on sweet dessert wines.  Not much of a surprise since the British at the time liked themselves a good Port, or a lovely Sherry.  (Pip Pip)  The focus on the "Stickys", as they call sweet wines continued until recently.  Australia still makes some sweet aparatif type wines, but it is less than 1 percent of total production today.

Wine Australia is the governing body for wine in Australia today and has set up GIs (Geographical Indications)  This is a relatively new phenomenon in Australia starting only in 1981.  When listed as a varietal, wines must contain at least 85% of the grapes listed on the label.  If they list a region, again 85% of the grapes must come from that region, and if they list a vintage, they must also follow the 85% rule.  They must list all  grapes in a blend that make up 85% of the blend.  Grapes must be listed in the order of their concentration in the wine.  So if you have a Cabernet (60%) and Shiraz (40%) blend it must be listed in that order.  Also, you may not mention a grape that is only 4% of the blend if you don't list one that is 8%.  Other than that, there are not a lot of rules, and Australian Winemakers are free to create.  On the other hand, they are still learning what the terroir of Australia is capable of producing.  

You will note when you look at the map above, that all of the wine producing regions of Australia are located in the south.  This allows for cooler climate, and a tempering of the temperature by the ocean.  There are 7 states within the country.  They are West Australia, North Australia, Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and the island of Tasmania.  You will note that the Northern Territory and Queensland have no wine regions, and that Western Australia's wine producing regions hug its southern coast.

 Starting with the largest producer of wines in Australia, we start our journey in South Australia, which confusingly is not the Southern most part of the country.  Both Tasmania and Victoria are located further South, so on a test, don't miss that!!  As you would guess in an area that produces so much wine, a lot of the wine produced is not of the highest quality, however, there is also some amazing wine from some interesting places in South Australia.  We will focus mostly on the GIs producing the highest quality wines.  The region is broken up into 5 major GIs with sub regions within them.  The first is the Adelaide Super Zone.  Within this zone is Barossa (Regions Barossa valley and Eden Valley which also contains the High Eden).  Fleurieu (Regions: Currency Creek, Kangaroo Island, Langhorne Creek, McLaren Vale, and Southern Fleurieu), Mount Lofty Ranges (Regions: Adelaide Hills which also has sub regions Lenswood and Picadilly Valley, Adelaide Plains and Clare Valley).

Leaving the Adelaide Superzone there is the far North (Southern Flinders Ranges), The Limestone Coast (Regions: Coonawarra, Mount Benson, Badthaway, Robe, Wrattenbully and Mount Gambier), Lower Murray (Region Riverland) and finally The Peninsulas.  

The best from this region come from the Barossa Valley, Eden Valley, McLaren Vale and Clare Valley all of which sit in the Adelaide Superzone.  Note that only the Coonawarra Valley gets equal praise, and that sits within the Limestone Coast Zone.  

The Barossa has some of the oldest Shiraz and Granache vines in the world.  Many also believe that due to the lack of Phylloxera in the area they may have some of the oldest Cabernet vines as well in the Penfolds block 42 vineyards.  This has lead them to set standards for what is considered "Old Vines."  Old vines must be 35 years or older, Survivor vines at least 70 years or older, and Centerian vines must be at least 100 years or older.  The oldest demarcation are Ansestor vines which are older than 125 years.  The Barossa valley is the fourth largest wine region in Australia and the largest fine wine producer.  This is Shiraz country with big bruiting examples of the grape.  Many of the wines carry high levels of alcohol, frequently in excess of 15%.  Top producers include Penfolds, "The Grange", Torbeck's Run Rig and the Laird.  Barossa also sees other warm weather varieties and does quite well with them too.  Cabernet, Grenache and Mataro produce well and GSM mixes are on the rise.

Eden valley produes mostly whites and the star is Riesling.  Dry, sharp and acidic, the wines of the Eden allow Riesling to shine.  High Eden produces some of Australia's best versions of Chardonnay.

McLaren Vale (Note "Vail" not Valley) is the most important of the regions in the Fleurieu Zone.  It has a warm climate and the wind is a formidable presence.  This allows for a decrease in disease, so McLaren Vale has lead the way on organics in Australia.  The majority of vineyards planted are dedicated to red grapes.  Shiraz is the most heavily planted grape followed by Cab and Grenache.  Due to the warmth, again alcohol levels can get up there and be a bit hot. 

Clare Valley GI is the most heavily planted region.  The interest here lies in the region's diversity.  Riesling, Shiraz and Cabernet can all be found and done well in Clare Valley.  Jesuits built the first true winery in this region called Sevenhill Cellars, as a source of communion wine.  Elevation is the big moderator of temperature in this GI and vineyards are often at high altitude.  Shiraz is the workhorse in the region, but Cab, Malbec and Riesling are also of high interest from the Clare Valley.  Riesling is particularly interesting form Polish hill which shares soil characteristics with Mosel Valley.

Leaving the Adelaide Super zone and going to the Limestone Coast one finds the Coonawarra GI.  This is Cabernet Sauvignon country.  Here Cab grows in a soil called Terra Rossa or red earth.  It is a clay based soil that allows for good water retention allowing the vines to grow through the dry growing season found in Coonawarra.  Cab, Merlot and Shiraz are the leaders in the region making up north of 85% of the grapes grown.  Coonawarra is referred to as Australia's "Red wine Centre".  The region has gotten its bruises on the international scene for over manipulation of wines in the winery.  Or the flip side of that which is not paying enough attention to the growing of the grapes in the vineyards.  This can be seen by over acidification, and additions of tannin to the must.  This has caused the winemakers to take pause and return to more natural production methods.

New South Wales GI is broken into 8 Zones.  Note that these are the regions closest to Sydney, Australia's most populous city.  Additionally, it is where wine making in Australia began.  The 8 zones are as follows, Big Rivers (Region:  Murray Darling, Perricoota, Riverina, Swan Hill), Central Ranges (Regions: Mudgee, Cowra, Orange), Hunter Valley (Regions: Hunter with subs Broke Fordwich, Pokolbin, and Upper Hunter Valley), Northern Rivers (Region: Hastings River), Northern Slopes (Region: New England Australia), South Cost (Regions:  Shoalhaven, Southern Highlands) Southern New South Wales (Regions: Canberra District, Trumbarumba (FUN TO SAY), Hilltops, and Gundagai), and finally the Western Plains.

Weather in the region is hot and wet.  The Pacific Ocean and the Great Dividing range contribute to the weather patterns of the region.  Days are warm, and there is a lot of rainfall particularly in the summer months.  As you journey north, the weather gets hotter and dryer.  As one goes up the mountains it gets cooler with elevation.
Hunter valley is known for its Semillon.  These are dry, age worthy wines, generally low in alcohol and quite high in acid.  Tyrel's Vat 1 and Brokenwood's ILR Reserve are among the best examples.  Shiraz also shares some of the best vineyard sites, and Chardonnay is planted as well. 

 In the Central Ranges Zone, Mudgee is the best producer.  Although it borders Hunter, it is dryer and less humid Hunter in part because of its high altitude vineyards.  Cabernet and Merlot are the most planted grapes and there are little whites to speak of.  What is planted white tends to be Chardonnay.  Orange is cooler than Mudgee due to its mountain climate and higher elevations.  Grown in Orange is Cabernet, Merlot, Shiraz and Chardonnay but more often we are seeing both Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.  Pinot has a promising future in Orange. 

From here we will move on to Victoria.   In Victoria there are 6 GIs.  Central Victoria ( Regions: Bendigo, Goulburn which has a sub region called Negambie lakes, Heathcote, Strathbogie Ranges and Upper Goulburn), Gippsland, North East Victoria (Regions: Alpine Valleys, Beechworth, Glenrowan, King Valley and Rutherglen), North West Victoria (Regions: Murray Darling and Swan Hill), Port Phillip (Regions: Greelong, Macedon Ranges, Mornington Peninsula, Sunbury and the Yarra Valley) and finally Western Victoria (Regions: Gramplans with sub Great Western, Hentry and Pyrenees).  

Grape growing in the region started in the Yarra Valley in 1838.  This was not a heavily populated area until people discovered gold in them hills...  That same gold, and the wealth found from it also helped to boost the wine industry in the region.  In 1877 however, Phylloxera rared its ugly head, and the grapes were decimated in the region.  Shortly after, the temperance movement in Australia took out the rest of the industry, and it was not until the 20th century that the Yarra valley rebuilt.  As of now there are over 775 wineries in the region, and 21 GIs.  The beauty of the region is diversity.  You can get wines for all tastes here.  From Stickys to sparkling to still whites and reds.

 In port Philip, Burgundian varieties rule the roost.  The Yarra Valley is the most important region in Victoria today.  Mount Mary and Chateau Yarrinya are some of the top producers.  Due to its proximity to Melbourne, many international stars have begun investing in the region.  Among them are Chandon, which makes sparklers in the Champagne Method.  White grapes are more popular in the fields than red.  Most popular is Chardonnay, followed by Pinot Noir.  Also important are Cabernet which sometimes has difficulty ripening, and Shiraz.

 Also notable is Rugherglen which produces fortified wines.  They are perhaps most known for their Muscat. 

Western Australia is broken into 5 Zones all hugging the ocean.  Central Western Australia, Eastern Plains, Inland and North of Western Australia, Greater Perth (Regions: Peel, Perth Hills, Swan district with sub Swan Valley), South West Australia (Regions: Blackwood Valley, Geographe, Great southern with subs Albany, Denmark, Frankland River, Mount Barker and Porongurup, Manjimup, Margaret River and Bemberton) and finally West Australian South East Coastal.

The wine region grew up around the big city of Perth.  Margaret River is a coastal region and has the states best appellation.  It is one of the best regions in Australia for Chardonnay, Cab Sauv and Sauv Blanc-Semmillon blends in Australia.  The Cabernet in this region rival those of Coonawarra. 

 Tasmania also produces wine that is generally seen in cold climate producing regions.  Chardonnay is the best with Sauv Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Riesling showing the best promise.  There is sparkling with  and pinot noir as well most of which goes towards making sparkling wine.

Good wine is made in Australia, and values are still to be had.  The future is bright.  For a great read pick up a copy of the book THE FUTURE MAKERS, Australian wines for the 21st century by Max Allen.  In it he talks about the regions in detail.  There are beautiful pictures of the country, and a run down of the beneficial opportunities in front of wine Australia as well as the risks.  Most notably, he lists global warming.  Most of the land mass cannot allow for the production of fine wine.  It will be a shame if in the coming years, we are not in a place in which Australia can continue to produce fine wine. 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Long and Lean, Chile is Red Hot

Chilean wine should have likely come before Argentina.  After all, Argentina basically looked at what Chile has done, and mimicked their marketing plan.  I suspect other South American countries will do the same in the near future.  I also remember discovering Chilean wine 18 years ago, prior to me being able to spell the word W-I-N-E.  I happened upon a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon with a plastic black cat hanging from the cork.  It was about 6 bucks.  I am sure in my wine snobby state today, I would not have thought it was fantastic, but at the time, I marveled at the fact that one could find a perfectly drinkable red wine for under 7 dollars.  One thing that has not changed since back then, is there is some good wine to be had in Chile, and in general, at bargain prices.  The land is cheap, the labor is cheap, the climate is good, the soil is interesting, and there are vines that have been planted on their own roots with NO Phylloxera, making for wine that is the TRUE expression of the grape.  This is why many, including the top winemakers from France, Italy and other parts of the world are starting to invest.  This is a part of the wine making world that is up and coming, and I for one feel is just starting to figure out what the land is capable of producing.  It will be a wild ride, you may need to kiss some frogs along the way, but you will undoubtedly get to drink some spectacular wines at a very reasonable price relative to their French, American, Spanish, or Italian cousins.

Chile is a long and narrow country to the West of Argentina.  It is nearly 3000 miles from top to bottom, and only 100 miles and some change wide.  Chile can be broken into 4 major regions.  In the North is Coquimbo, and then heading south from Coquimbo you will enter Aconagua, the Central Valley and finally the South Region.  Not pictured here because they are relatively new you will also find Austral and Atacama.  In addition, since 2012 wines may also be characterized by their location.  One may label wines Costal (Near the Ocean), Entre Cordilleras (Between the Mountains), or Andes (On the Mountain).  As a result, labels can get confusing.  Since the country is nearly 3000 miles long, there is a vast change in temperature from top to bottom.  Wine is only grown in the middle third of the country as a result.  The south is too cold, and the north gets too hot.

The first vines in Chile were brought by the conquistadors in the 16th century, but it was not until
the 1980s until they began shipping wine to the international market.  In the last 30 years, Chile has gone from no exports to being the 5th largest exporting country for wine in the world.  They are also 9th in production of wine world wide.

Chile's climate is influenced by three major factors.  First the cold water from the arctic circle come up to Chile's West coast.  In doing so, they produce a cooling fog.  However, the cooling effect of the ocean is also shielded by the second most important contributor to Chile's climate, and that is the coastal mountains which blocks much of the sea air from traveling inland.  Except that it is able to travel up the rivers and tributaries that transverse the mountains.  There is very little rain, making Chile one of the driest countries on earth.  Fortunately the Andes mountain range gets sufficient snow to both cool the grapes at night, as well as to irrigate the vines.

Because of the dry, dessert growing conditions, the mountains, and the terrain, Chile benefits from a few advantages when it comes to growing grapes.  

1.  Little to now fungal disease (No spraying expensive anti-fungal products)
2.  Diurnal temperature variations (Warm days with cold nights in the desert)
3.  No Phylloxera (Due to the sandy soils, seclusion, and height of the vineyards)
4.  Sun, and lots of it
5.  Water from the Andes for irrigation
6.  And because of all of this, it is easy to farm organically

They grow lots of grapes in Chile.  Sauvignon Vert, Gris, and Savignonasse along with Pais (Brought by the missions) are still planted.  Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Riesling, Viognier, Tortotel, Pedro Ximenez, Gewurztraminer, and Muscat are grown.  Carmenere is a rock star, and perhaps the most promising grape grown.  Finally Merlot, Zin, Petite Sirah, Cab Franc, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Sangiovese, Barbera, Malbec and Carignan are all grown.  This is a staggering number of grape varieties and the diversity of Terroir and weather support them all.

You could imagine that while growing all of those grape types that you might tend to get a bit confused.  Chile did get a bit confused.  They have grown grapes and called them by the wrong name historically.  Merlot from Chile was sometimes Carmenere, and Sauvignon Blanc was often Sauvignon Vert or Sauvignonasse.  Much of this has been fixed, but if you find an older bottle and think, hmmm, this is not Merlot, you might be right.

The wine laws are relatively new and went into effect in 1995.  Wines must have at least 75% of a grape variety to call it a varietal wine.  It must also have 75% of the grapes from the vintage listed on the label.  Wines must have 75% of the grapes from a given region to list that region as well.  So if on a test you are thinking Chile, think 75% and you will usually be right.  The only exception is if the label lists Costal, Entre or Mountain then 85% of the grapes must come from that geography.  Also to be reserva it must have 12 percent Abv, Grand Reserva must have 12.5% Abv and all must spend time in oak.  

Atacama is the Northernmost region and the warmest wine growing region in Chile.  There are two sub-regions called Copiapo Valley and the Huasco Valley.  Due to the heat, most of the production in the area is for Pisco.

Coquimbo has 3 sub regions called the Elqui Valley, Limari Valley and the Choapa Valley.  Pisco is also grown here along with simple table wines.  Pisco is a liquor that is originally from Peru, but also made in a slightly different way in Chile.  In Chile it is made from Muscat, Torontel and Pedro Jimenez grapes.  A different mix is used in Peru.

The first place that makes serious wines in Chile is the Aconcagua valley which takes its name fromt he river by the same name that runs through the region.  It is warm, sunny and dry.  Like in the rest of Chile, red grapes rule the day in the Aconcagua.  Most planted are both Merlot and Cabernet.  Much of the valley is too hot for serious grpe-growing, however Panquehue has a more moderate climate.  Perhaps the most accomplished estates in the area is Errazuriz producer of Sena, a Bordeaux blend that placed quite high in the 2004 tasting.  They also make some amazing Carmenere wines called Max and Kai that we tasted in class.  Kai in particular is a silky, sexy big red wine.

San Antonio and Casablanca are two other sub-regions of the Aconcagua.  Casablanca wine makers are producers of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.  San Antonio is also a predominately white wine producing region with Pinot Noir showing some promise as well.  The cool weather in these regions are in contrast to the rest of the  interior valley and are one of the few Chilean DOs focused on white wines.

The Central Valley is the oldest producer of wine in Chile.  Sub regions include the Maipo Valley (Most Famous) which is known for Cabernet Sauvignon.  It is also located in close proximity to Santiago making it a perfect place for foreign winemakers to travel in and start a winery.  Errazuriz and Concha y Toro's have a presence here.

Other sub-regions include the Rapel Valley which contains Cachapoal and Colchagua and also produces Cab Sauv as the leading grape.  However, Carmenere is growing rapidly in its acrage as well as its importance.  Lapostolles "Clos Apalta, Vina Montes "Alpah M are tow iconic wines from the region.  Vina Montes also produces Purple Angel which is a spectacular wine made from Carmenere.

Maule and Curico are the rest of the Subs in the region of the Central valley.  Maule is one of the largest regions in Chile.  Quality here is questionable but the acreage is huge.  Much of the valley produces wines to be enjoyed locally.

Curico has two sub-regions called Lontue and Teno.  Here again Cab Sauv dominates but many others are grown in the region as well.

The Southern Region is the Southern Most region in Chile (Duh) and contains 3 valleys including the Itata, Bio Bio and the Malleco.  Much of the region is sparsely planted and contains Pais and Muscat de Alexandria.  Malleco also has Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Chile is evolving slowly, but one would think that it will beging to change more quickly.  Why?   There is a list of the A list wine barons that have invested heavily.  Robert Mondovi, Miguel Torres (Spanish Winemaker) Chateau Lafite Rothchild (With Los Vascos) and Chateau Mouton Rothschild along with others, all have collaborations and investments in Chile.  This allows for great wines, produced by great houses, to be had at reasonable costs.  Get excited about Chile.  I am.