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.