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.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Argentina; Not just for Gaucho's Anymore

When I think about Argentina, I generally think about steak.  There is more to Argentina than Medium Rare, well aged beef.  Be back in a moment, just drooled on my shirt.  Talk amongst yourselves.

Ok, I am back.  So as I was saying, the steak is great don't get me wrong, but where there is great food, there is usually really good wine.  Argentina is no exception.   Too hot you might think, but what you will find is that while hot in the valley, most of Argentina's wineries are on mountains.  Also, the further south you travel (Remember Southern Hemisphere) the cooler the climate becomes.  Patagonia can be outright cold with snow and everything.  Back to the vines on the mountains, their lofty perches allow the grapes to overlook the parts of the country that are hot and dry, , but they also temper the climate quite nicely allowing for the perfect growing conditions for many types of wine.

In addition to the high altitudes, Argentina has a few other variables that lend to its happy grapes.  Most of the vineyards are planted in the Andes Mountains on the West coast of the country.  These are remote vineyards that allow the grapes to be grown far from big cities.  This allows for pristine, pure spots with little pollution to disturb the country's happy vines.  Additionally, due to sandy, high altitude soils, many of the vines are on their own rootstock.  There is SOME Phylloxera in Argentina, but in most of the vineyards, it is not an issue do to both the altitude and the soil composition.  Finally, a rain shadow as well as high winds called Zonda.  Both of these factors allow for a appropriate struggling of the grapes.   Finally, a water supply that can be controlled through irrigation from the snowy mountains mitigates the risk of having too little water.  It is no wonder then that Argentina is a growing, developing, and improving wine region.  Already, they are the 5th largest producer of wine in the world.

Wine was brought to the region by the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s.  In addition to needing grapes for the church, the conquistadors also wanted the wine because... they liked drinking it.  The first grapes planted were Criolla aka Pais or the Mission Grape.  This was the wine produced in large part by missionary types for the church.  In the 1800s there was an expansion and with it came more vineyards and more grape varieties.  There is a huge domestic market, as Argintinians drink a lot of wine, so exportation came later.

A couple of rules.  If you see a wine that is listed as a varietal wine on the label, it must contain 80% or more of that grape.  For a region to be listed on the label, 85% of the grapes must have come from that region.  Reserva wines have been aged at least 6 months for white and 1 year for reds.  Gran Reserva wines must be aged one year for whites, and at least 2 years for reds.  They also limit yields in the vineyards as part of this designation.  The reserve option has only be available since 2008.

Malbec, Bonarda, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Tempranillo are the most important red grapes, while Pedro Ximenez (Not of Sherry Fame) is the most widely planted white grape.  Looking to the future, Malbec will be the red that will drive the success of the wine industry in Argentina, as well as a white grape called Torrontes.  Torrontes, a cross between Muscat of Alexandria and Criolla Chica. is a white grape that makes some powerful white wines.  There are three varieties and the most important is Torrontes Riojano.  They are extremely fragrant and often have a fruity front end with a great back end acidity.

In the domestic market, pink-skinned varieties including Cereza, Criolla Chica and Criola Grande make up 30 percent of the total vineyard space.

Malbec (Also called Cot in France) makes a dark in color, powerful red wine that is currently the most important grape in Argentina.  For quality wine, there is more Malbec planted in Argentina than any other grape.  

Bonarda, also called Charbono in the US is the second most planted grape after Malbec.  This is a great fruity wine that gives a balanced, peppery finish.  When fully ripe, these wines can be dynamic and interesting at quite a value.

Back to the map above if you are a visual learner.  There are 3 main regions for wine production in Argentina.  They are from North to South as follows:

1.  Northwestern
2.  Cuyo
3.  Patagonia

More than 3/4 of the total wine production happens in Cuyo.  Within its borders are La Rioja, San Juan and Mendoza.  La Rioja is the northern most of the 3 provences.  Torontes is the most cultivated grape followed by Malbec.  While a lot of wine is produced in La Rioja, it is dwarfed by its two sisters to the south (Mendoza and San Juan).  La Rioja was one of the first areas to be planted in the country.  More grapes would likely be grown here, but a lack of water has slowed growth.

San Juan is known for its HOT climate which lends itself well to the production of Brandy and Vermouth.  It is the second most productive region in Argentina.  Most of the region produces pink-skinned grapes although Barbera and Syrah are slowly becoming a thing in the region.  

Mendoza like Denver is a city that is a mile above sea level.  Located in the shadow of Mount Aconcagua many vineyards are well over 2000 feet above sea level.  Low rainfall is found here but the snow capped mountains allow the plants enough water.  Also the sandy soil allow for good drainage and a lack of Phylloxera.  Mendoza is divided into 4 regions, the North, South and Easter sectors as well as the most prised sector called the Uco Valley.  Vineyards in the Uco are the highest vineyards in the world allowing the fruit to hang longer and develop wonderful balanced flavors.

Red grapes account for over half of the grapes planted in Mendoza with Malbec leading production.  Maipu, and Lujan de Cuyo produce amongst the best Malbec wines in all of Mendoza.  Cabernet is quickly catching up with Melbec in Mendoza as an important grape.  Also grown are Chardonnay and Semillon as well as Chennin.  Pink skinned grapes are also grown still accounting for a quarter of all grapes grown.

The northern most wine region in Argentina is called Northwestern.  Catamarca, Jujuy and Salta are located near the equator in some of the highest vineyards on the planet.  Many of the grapes have a view from almost 5000 feet above sea level.  Catamarca is the most widly planted of the three regions while Salta and even more so Cafayate within Salta have a reputation worldwide for attaining great quality.  Grapes that have gained the world market's attention include Torrontes Riojano as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat.  Vineyards in Salta can be as many as 10,000 feet high.  Because of the elevation and soils, Salta produces wines that retain high acidity and attain great balance.

Catamarca has less prestige than Salta but has more area under vine.  Torrontes, Syrah and Malbec lead their production with Cabernet Sauvignon starting to gain some traction.

The furthest south growing region of Argentina is Patagonia.  Patagonia is known for cool climate.  White grapes such as Torrontes and Semillon do well here while red grapes like Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir are showing great promise as well.  Bodegas Chacra, spearheaded by the family that produces Sassicaia is among the top producers in the region.

Finally Rio Negro is much cooler than Mendoza.  It produces grapes at lower altitude as well with many of the vineyards being planted at 1000 ft above sea level.  Chalky soils produce good drainage, and most of the grapes are white.  Top planted varieties include Torrontes, Sauv Blanc, and Chardonnay.  Red grapes are almost all Pinot Noir, and some sparkling wines are made in the region as well.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Emerald City

When I think of Washington state, I think of Seattle, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Pike's Market, and Starbucks.  The grunge scene started there, there are great restaurants, My friend Jim lives there and I don't get to see him enough.  Eventually my thoughts drift to wine.  Washington state is afterall the second leading producer of wine in the United States.  Yes, I just said that, they are second.  Surprised me when I heard that too.  Washington has 31K acres of vineyards and the state boasts over 500 wineries. 

Despite Seattle's reputation for high levels of rainfall, once you go East of the Cascade mountain range, you experience a rain shadow.  For those of you who read my Alsace post, this is the same concept.  The mountains take the rainfall, leaving little to none for the area to their East.  Thus, most of Washington wines grow in a desert.  This Desert leaves a very dry climate, and thus, like in any desert, Washington experiences Hot days and cool nights producing good stress on the grape vines.  Second Phyloxera has never found its way to this desert, and thus, the vines of Washington exhibit the purest expression of the grapes planted.  Merlot tastes a bit more Merlot like, because not only is it Merlot, but it is still Merlot planted on Merlot roots.  There has NEVER been a need for grafted Vinifera in Washington.  This allows the purest expression of all of the varietals planted in the state.

Because of the diurnal shifts (Warm days and cool nights) fruit in Washington is able to predictably achieve ripeness.  The cool nights also allow for the fruit to maintain its crisp acidity.  This allows for a great combination of well concentrated ripe fruit, and acid that allows the wines of Washington to be paired easily with most foods.

In 1987 Washington created the Washington wine commission, and 12 years later in 1999 the Washington Wine Quality Alliance was formed to increase the consistency and standards for labeling and in wine making itself.  Later in 2003, the Washington Wine Institute developed a 2 and 4 year educational program to give necessary training to the people of the state, to ensure a well educated workforce for the rapidly growing industry.

Washington is broken into 13 distinct AVAs with all but one coming to the East of the Cascade mountain range.  The Puget Sound AVA is near Seattle, West of the mountains and thus sees an average rainfall of 50 inches of rain a year.  East of the mountains they are lucky to see 8 inches.

We will start our tour East of the mountains in the Columbia Valley.  Established in 1984, this is the largest AVA covering 11M acres and representing 30 percent of Washington's total land.  The Columbia Valley holds 99 percent of the wine grapes grown in WA.  Within the Columbia Valley AVAs of Red Mountain, Yakima, Walla Walla, Wahluke Slope, Rattlesnake Hills, Horse Heaven Hills, Snipes Mountain, and Lake Chelan all exist.  The main grapes of the region are Riesling, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Cabernet.

The Columbia Gorge, not to be confused with the Columbia Valley, extends into Oregon.  This AVA hugs the white Salmon river and extends up to the Columbia Valley Appellation.  Columbia gorge has 500 planted acres of vines and top growers in the region include many that you see in Alsace.  Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Gris in the cooler parts of the region, and high quality Red Wines in the warmer regions.  The Columbia Gorge is a small area with many changes in Terroir.  Changes in climate, soil, geology, and topography cause many micro climates that allow for tremendous grape diversity.  Growers in the region produce everything from light whites to Zinfandel.  The further east one travels, the less rainfall and the more sunshine.  Western vineyards have a cool marine climate ideal for growing pinot noir, gewurz, Pinot Gris, and Riesling.  Eastern vineyards have a desert climate where Bordeaux, Rhone, and Italian varietals rule.  Soils change just as rapidly from red volcanic to mud to basalt, and finally the altitudes of the vineyards vary vastly as well going as high as 2000 feet above sea level.

Yakima Valley was established in 1983 and is Washington's OLDEST wine region.  (AMAZING)  It includes 16K acres of grapes and accounts for a third of the grapes grown in the state.  Yakima valley is most known for Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Syrah.  Silt-loam soils are the major soil type allowing for great drainage, and the growing season is long with many days of sunshine and only 8 inches of rain yearly.

Walla Walla Valley was established in 1984 but grape growing has occurred there since the 1850s lead largely by Italian Immigrants.  Cabernet Sauvignon is the leading varietal, but there is plenty of Merlot, Chardonnay and Syrah as well.  Gewurz, Cab Franc, Sangiovese, Grenache, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Tempranillo, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Sauv Blanc, Semillion, and Viognier are grown too.  Basically if you can turn it into wine, it is being grown in Walla Walla.Rainfall is low but greater than Yakama at 12 inches.  The soil is largely Loess and still drains well.

Horse Heaven Hills gets a lot of street cred for making incredible wines.This area is known for steep South facing slopes that allow for high quality wines.  Established in 2005, HHH as it is frequently called is bordered on the North by the Yakima Valley and on the south by the Columbia River.  It is located in Southeast Washington and has 570K Acres but only 10K planted acres (25% of Washington's Production)  Grape varieties are all over the board with 37 distinct grape types planted.  Most popular are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chard, Riesling and Syrah.  The wind is heavy, the sunshine is plentiful, and temperatures are kept moderate due to the river as well as the winds.  Most famous in the area is the Champoux vineyards but also present are Alder Ridge, Andrews-Horse Heaven Vineyard, Canoe Ridge and the Wallula Gap Vineyards.  Also of note that the first 3 100 point wines from Washington all came from this region.  

The Wahluke Slope is the driest part of the wine growing regions in the state.  The warm dry climate allows for Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet, Riesling, Chardonnay, and Chennin Blanc to grow.  Irrigation is necessary to ensure vine growth.

Rattlesnake Hills is known for high altitude vineyards.  Established in 2006, it is located four miles South and East of the Yakima.  1566 acres are planted.  The top wines producse are Cab Sauf, Malbec, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Riesling.  Vineyards can be planted at over 3000 feet above sea level in RSH.  Cold is a concern here in the winter and thus vineyards are typically located on terraces with good air movement to avoid frost kill.

Red Mountain has huge diurnal shifts from 90 degrees by day to 50 degrees at night.  Established in 2001 it is located just East of the Yakima Valley.  Despite the name, it is really not a mountain at all.  It is similar to a Cote in France.  A steep slope that allows for good sun exposure.  Gapes grown here include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc, Syrah, Sangiovese, Malbec and Petit Verdot.

Puget sound is beautiful.  Some of my greatest memories of Seattle include sitting at a fish house on the Puget sound, watching the sunset.  It is quite beautiful.  As an AVA, the Puget sound was established in 1995.  The temperate climate does not allow the winter temps seen elsewhere in the region.  It is warm and dry in the summer.  Vines here reach their roots way down into the soil to allow them to survive the dry hot summers.  There is a lot of rain, up to 30 inches, but almost all of it falls in the dormant months.  Thus, by the end of the summer, it is often that plants are facing a water deficit.  This region is known for a grape called Madeleine Angevine which is a type of Riesling.Siegerebbe, and Muller Thurgau.  Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir are also starting to show promise.

Lake Chelan is one of Washingtons most sought after summer vacation spots.  It is also the 11th AVA to be recognized in the state.  It sits in the Columbia Valley AVA but it has a higher elevation and more temperate climate than most of the AVAs to the south.  The soil holds a lot of the interest in the area.  Ice age glaciers brought rocks, sand, quartz and Mica giving the wines interesting texture and great minerality.  The weather is temperate due to the lake thus reducing the risk of frost.  Top grapes grown include Syrah, Merlot, Malbec, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewuztraminer, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir.

In 2009 Snipes Mountain became the newest AVA in Washington.  Rocky soils, high elevations, and temperate climates lend this area to great grape growing..  It is the second smallest winer growing region in WA, however over 30 grape varieties can be found in the region.  It lies in the middel of the Yakima Valley but is unique due to the soils and elevated topography.

That is pretty much a whirlwind of Washington.  More to come in coming weeks, but hope you enjoyed.

Friday, September 11, 2015


To understand why I call California wine an underdog, one needs to understand the history of the area.  The arrival of vitis vinifera, lead to excitement for California as a wine region, but as in any great underdog story, disaster followed.  Disaster in this case came in three flavors.  First, in the late 19th century, Phylloxera reared its ugly head, just like it did in Europe before.  It was devastating to the early vineyards, however.  in the case of California they were able to recover quickly.  , The European disaster suffered at the hands of Phylloxera had already occurred and the solution was well known.  Quickly, the vineyards were replace with grafted vines on native rootstock which were known to be resistant to the killer louse.  By the turn of the 20th century, there were over 300 distinct grape varieties being grown in California.  In this case, the destruction of the vineyards lead to diversification of the product offerings.

The next major event in the history of California was one that was a bit longer lived.    In 1920, prohibition hit the winemakers of California hard.  Vineyards, which were just beginning to be established were ordered to be ripped from the earth and cellars were destroyed, the contents spilled on the ground.  ( I am back.  Just needed some time to cry)  Some vineyards and wineries survived this however.  How?  They turned to God...  You see, while wine was the devils' work, if you made your wine for the church, and the wine was blessed and used for sacramental purposes, it was allowed and given an exception to the prohibition laws.  In 1933, when prohibition was repealed, there were only 140 wineries still in operation.  (Bottom lip is going again... I am OK)

The third was the great depression which lasted through much of the 1930s and made income that was disposable very hard to come by.  As you are trying to build a new industry, and the established industries around you are failing, it is not what you might call good for business.

Nevertheless, recovery did come.  It came on the backs of a group of pioneers.  People like Robert Mondavi, Joe Heitz of Heitz cellars (Illinois native in the house), and David Bruce winery, who all formed new wineries in Napa post prohibition.

Prior to the 20th century, some of the oldest wineries in California were established.  Buena Vista Winery was the first, to be bonded, then Charles Krug winery, Inglenook Winery, and Schramsberg vineyards, and Beaulieu vineyards started by a gentleman named Georges de Latour.  Latour did two smart things.  First, he hired a real winemaker by the name of Andre Tchelistcheff who had studied in Bordeaux.  This proved a great discision both for his wine, as well as for Napa Valley.  Tchelistcheff  not only made Beaulieu into a serious wine, he also helped and mentored people like Joe Heitz, Robert Mondavi, and Mike Grgich who at the time was at Chateau Montelena.  We will talk more about him when we discuss the Judgement of Paris.  These people and wineries in many ways were the pioneers of good wine in California.

Prior to these guys coming on the scene, California was content producing sweet wines from Carignan and Thompson Seedless grapes.  That is why the above deserve acclaim.  Not because they brought the idea of California as a wine region, but that they had a dream that California could compete on the national stage.  They wanted to produce wines as good as were produced in France, and they set out to do just that.

French Wine Snob
In 1976, a blind tasting was being held in Paris France.  At that time, a British wine merchant named Steven Spurrier invited several US wine makers to participate in the tasting event. and the French thought, "Hee, Hee, Hee, zee Californians sink they can make wine like Uz... Ptewy."  Little did they know, and little did Spurrier know, that The US wines would sweep both the white and the red category.  The Chardonnay that won was Chateau Montelena.  Oddly, in addition to their wine, California wines took 3 of the the top 4 spots in the white wine category.  Also notable were Chalone and Spring Mountain vineyards rating 3 and 4 respectively.

The Reds also were topped by an American wine.  Stags Leap Cabernet took the honors there.  Ridge Cellars also took number 5 in that competition.  So it was a fluke right?  I mean, it had to be a fluke... NOPE!  You guys have your french fries, and your french toast, and your fancy hats, but our wines are the real deal.  We are here to stay.  Whats that, you want a repeat?  Fine...

20 months later, the experiment was repeated in San Francisco, and guess what?  USA, USA, USA, and again in 1986, and finally, a reunion tasting for the 30th anniversary, again organized by Spurrier, and what do you think happened?  USA won again.  What was interesting here is that I hear people saying California wines won't age.  In 2006, the same wines from the same vintages were tasted as in the first Judgement, and not only did the US take the first spot, but it took the first through the fifth spots.  (And the crowd goes wild!!!!)  So to the French wine snob, what say you?  I say, wines are good from lots of places, and there is no longer a one size fits all approach to wine making.  After all, that is the edge that California has.  More on that later.

California wine sales have continued to climb and the prices have gone up with them.  The largest sellers from California have historically been Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, but that has been changing of late.  Pinot Noir on the coast has grown, along with Rhone and Italian varietals (Lead by the Rhone Rangers and the CalItals).  California also makes dessert wines, Sparkling wines, sweet wines, rose and any other type of wine you can think of.  Why?  because they can...

Like in Europe, California and the rest of the US for that matter, as an Appellation of origin system.  Called the American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). 

Unlike Europe, these are geographic markers of where the wine has come from, but there are not the same rules about what can be grown, the crop yields, etc.  We as Americans don't want anyone telling us what to do, what to grow, what to produce... Not even us.

As a result, we have a vast number of grape varieties, growing methods, tons per acre, etc.  There are no rules governing the production in many ways.  However, wines that denote a state or a county must have 75% of the grapes come from that area.  If on the bottle it mentions an AVA, then 85% must come from that location.  

Currently over 90 percent of the wine made in the US is made in California.  California currently grows over 100 varieties of grapes.  That said, 6 varietals make up the vast majority of production, Pinot Noir, Sauv blanc, merlot and Zin, and as mentioned before the king and queen, Chardonnay and Cab Sauv.

The lack of regulation seen in Europe has aloud California to blossom in a way that their European counterparts cannot.  Winemakers can be innovative, and are often of the mind that breaking rules in wine making and taking risk pushes the art forward.  The other side of that coin is that we in the US, and California in particular are still trying to figure out what is best for our wine.  Years of practice, and regulation has lead to Bordeaux for instance producing wines that are unique and unmistakably Bordeaux.  California is a mixed bag.  Big, excessive over done, high alcohol wines, and a group that is trying to allow the unique terroir of California produce what the land wants to produce.  

On a recent trip to Sta. Rita Hills, I was talking to a winemaker by the name of James Sparks.  James is the head wine guy at Liquid Farm winery.  They make amazing Chardonnay.  Not the excessive oak laden creamed corn stuff of California fame, but rather wines with a tension.  They are high in acidity, light in the mouth, and would pair well with most foods.  They have memorable long finishes, and I really cannot say enough about them  It would be wasted breath anyway.  You really need to try them. 

In talking to James, I asked him if he puts his wine through ML fermentation.  His response to me is that he does not add yeast, he does not add ML bacteria.  He is the guide, but he pretty much lets the wine do what it wants to do.  

That is the direction that California needs to head.  It is the direction that many of the young winemakers are heading, and it is an exciting time to watch the growth that will be coming as we understand what is possible in the vineyards, but also in the winery.  California has a sense of place in all that it does.  It is moving towards place in its wines as well.  I for one find that to be exciting.  It will be a time of discovery for the wine makers, as well as for the American Palate moving forward.  Hang on, it might be a bumpy ride.

The thing I want to close on here is that California, like so much of American culture, IS the underdog that got knocked down, got up, dusted itself off, and won.  What will be fun moving forward is to see how the wines of California continue to get better as other places continue to up their game.  How California adjusts to climate change, new challenges, a water shortage, and so many other issues that they face moving forward.  If the history is any indication of what the future will bring, California will lead the way in wine for years to come.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Back in Class

So the summer is over.  I know this to be true for two reasons.  First, we are starting to get that cold air blowing in at night in Chicago, that shows that the seasons, they are a changing.  It comes on suddenly.  One week it is warm and humid by day and by night.  It is hard to sit outside as it feels as though you are sitting in a bowl of soupy air.  The next, the wind shifts and suddenly, it is cool, crisp, and a great time to sit outside in the evenings, in front of a fire pit.  We chose to grab Grams and marshmallows and make smores last night.

The second, well, school started for my kids, but also for me.  This time there are two other students in my class, and I am the only one who has completed a semester.  Last time I started, I had butterflies, this time, I am the BMOC (Big Man On Campus).  Or am I?  One of the newbies is a server in a restaurant.  He knows food and wine, and works around it day in and day out.  The other, like me is a marketer.  I sensed what he was feeling.  OVERWHELMED.  I told him that the first four or five weeks is like a whirlwind, but that things will slow down for him as the class goes on.  He seemed relived.

Today's topic, wine tasting.  Weird.  I have kind of been doing that since the beginning have I not?  It became apparent to me why it is suggested that one take new world wines first, and old world second.  It has nothing to do with the regions per se, but rather, it has to do with the up front tasting, and service related topics that one can learn prior to actually having to taste wine, which will help them to Ahem...TASTE WINE.

Today, we tasted two whites and two reds from California.  The whites were both lackluster at best, and the reds were quite good.  We followed the tasting methodology established by the Guild of Master Sommeliers.  First, you look at the wine, next you smell the wine, and finally you taste.  Along the way it is important to notice things like color, clarity, brightness and viscosity.  Next as you smell, you look for faults (Too much sulfer, overly reductive, cork taint.  Next you smell for fruit, non-fruit, and other tell tale signs of the wine.  Next you taste.  Here you are looking to confirm what you have discovered on the nose, and then to determine if you might have missed anything.  You are also determining the body of the wine, the acidity of the wine, and finally the tannins (astringent compounds that make your teeth feel funny in red wines), or phenolics in whites which are bitter.

I have done this hundreds of times.  If you don't believe me, friend me on twitter (JKAPPY) or find me on Vivino.  You can read all 500+ wines that I have prepared tasting notes on.  So I sat and thought about why we should care.  It really comes down to two reasons.  First, people need to communicate with customers (Or in my case friends) about the wines we drink, and why they should enjoy them too.  With an Albarino, you will taste stone fruit and a salinity that will pair well with the seafood you are eating..., or it is light and similar to a Sauvignon Blanc, but I think you would enjoy it more... or if you only like big reds, this one will be amazing and it is not a Cabernet, so you will be tasting something different, and still be able to enjoy your "Big Red".  None of this would be possible without establishing both a vocabulary for wine, as well as systematic way of assessing it.

The second is a parlor trick of sorts.  By systematically assessing wine, a Sommelier can taste blind and do a better job than the average person at guessing the type of grape, the region and the age of that wine.  Why is this important?  Because, as an expert, it is important that a sommelier can start to understand what is possible with place, and with grapes and to categorize things that they have tasted so that they have a catalog with which to compare wines within a category.  Oh and also, you can't get certified as a Somm unless you gain some level of proficiency at tasting blind.

In making wine so important, and elevating its status, I worry that often times we turn off people who might otherwise be interested.  Might otherwise want to be a part of the party.  So how do we find that balance?  Be able to converse, and teach, and peak interest, and not scare our guests and friends away?  How do we tell people what they should taste, without making them feel bad that they in fact can't taste it?  

Illustrative Story:  A friend walks in and I mention to them that they are going to taste a mineral driven Sauvignon Blanc by Massican (One of my favorites).  They ask, what does mineral driven mean?  My response, it tastes like licking a rock.  They might look an awful lot like the guy on the left.  How many of us have licked a rock?  I hadn't until I started this crazy Somm program and now I have licked many. (Indecently all rocks taste the same)  I have also licked seashells, and many other things to see what they taste like, but most of my friends have not.  As a result, they say, I don't taste it and get discouraged.  Have I taken some of the enjoyment out of their experience?  Do they care that it is mineral driven.  If they put too much pressure on themselves to taste those things, what does that do to the rest of the flavors.  Worse yet, has my mere suggestion of what they are to taste changed their perception of what the wine is "Supposed to taste like"?  Hmmm.

So what should matter?  For me, the tasting notes are a catalog that we should be using as internal speak to simply compare between wines.  We also may use them to communicate or teach.  For the average wine drinker however, they can be overwhelming, and suggestive.  For the average drinker, what matters at the end of the day, is what types of wines they like, how adventurous they are, and what they are planning to eat.  Our hope is to have the catalog that lets us say, "if you like that, you will likely enjoy this too because...  Or, if you are interested, I have something that tastes totally different, and might be something for you to try...Or, with that dish, I really like that this wine balances or contrasts with this food because...  I am not sure at the end of the day that the technical speak is needed.  I think one of the goals of a good Somm should be to make wine approachable, and so frequently, we do not.  It doesn't elevate an educator to make their students feel stupid, and we risk doing exactly that if we are not careful.  I know when I first started in the program, I went home often feeling like I was missing something, and today I saw that in one of my peers in the program.

My goal will be to make people feel comfortable, make them excited, geek out when they want to do so, but stay grounded when they don't.  After all, what matters at the end of the day is one thing.  It is not if there are apple flavors, or if there are pyrazines in the wine.  What matters is that our guests are in a safe learning environment, that they feel safe asking questions, that they understand at the end of the day, that the only thing that matters, is if they like what they are drinking.  It really is that simple.