Thursday, March 31, 2011

Big, dry reds just a passing fad?

A great piece by Tim Patterson, in which he quotes Tim Hanni, says the following:

1. Big dry reds are clumsy, too extracted, too tannic, too alcoholic, freakish, and should never have been allowed to rule the wine world.

2. Most wine lovers prefer wines with noticeable sweetness and lower alcohol--if only producers had enough sense to make them. (I can verify, through correspondence with wineries scattered all across the US, that this is true. It is mostly in the big cities and in states like OR, WA, and CA where the big dry red is king.)

3. Winemakers and critics have bamboozled the public, by trying to persuade them what they should drink. Instead, they should be catering to the natural preference for wines that are more balanced, elegant, and a touch sweet (yes, even for food).

4. 1200 wine drinkers were extensively studied. We all break into these groups: a. At one end of the spectrum: the "Bitters:" The black coffee crowd. This group comprises only about 15% of the wine populace, and is mostly male, and is the group which pushed for big, dry, red wines. b. At the other end: the "Sweets:" about 25% of the drinkers. These people can drink a really sweet wine with food. c. And in the middle: 60% of drinkers; these folks can drink a drier wine but prefer some residual sugar, and balance, and lower alcohol. (This group includes me, and probably a whole lot of you who are reading this.)

5. You would think that big, dry, red wines have been around forever. But it was only after World War II that they became dominant in France. Dry wines didn't even emerge until the 18th Century. Sweet white wines on Parisian winelists outpriced all big Bordeaux, even into the 20th Century. Ancient wines were all sweet. And some residual sugar in a wine covers up its flaws and contributes to shelf life. Who knows? Maybe the 15% who are "Bitters" are more likely to be Type A personalities, or even tyrants. When will the Sweets rise up and re-assert their rightful place in Wineworld? Stay tuned.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

March Madness! Wine Tournament

No, really. My friend Don created a fun basketball-style bracket for a single-elimination wine tournament, and we were lucky enough to attend last night. Thanks to the lovely Lisa, all wines were tasted blind (in decanters, each with a unique ribbon, and only she knew which wine was in which decanter).

There were four regions (and two wines in each region, for a total of eight wines): West (California) vs North (Oregon/Washington) and

South (Latin America, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand) vs East (France, Germany, Spain, Italy) The winners were poured off then, against each other, and after three rounds we were done.

All wines must cost more than $30 retail.

Side note: Horatio brought an entire roast pig from Uwajamaya (apparently they have three different cooking methods: Hawaiian, Asian, and ???). Somebody carved it and we enjoyed it immensely. What a great hostess gift! You have to get past that head, though . . . ;)

West started out, where my wine (Hartford's Russian River Zin) fell to a wine that turned out to be a real surprise: Madrigal's Petit sirah. Who knew that neither CA wine would be a cab or cab blend? My Zin wasn't quite opened up when it lost; later it had by far the best aromatics of the group and was delicious; everyone agreed; I think it might have been first or second overall if we re-ran the tasting once it was at its peak.

East featured two Italian wines: A Barolo and a Barbaresco. One of them was corked (smelled of wet moldy cardboard); I see very, very few corked wines. Someone said it's more of a problem in places like Colorado, where the extreme low humidity allows more gas exchange past the cork. The other seemed thin to me. I have Barolos laid down because they're supposed to be great after twenty years or so, but this one didn't do it for me.

South was fun: The eventual runner-up was a Chilean Cab; very good wine. The wine it beat really opened up later and could have been the overall winner at that point: An Aussie Shiraz.

North had the winner: L'ecole No. 41 Apogee. It beat a 2008 Oregon Pinot noir. It's a good wine but I think there are many better from Walla Walla. However, again we see the quality of WA wines, versus CA and lots of other places.

My tasting successes:
1. I think I was the first person who correctly identified that it was a Pinot (a difficult choice, as it was very young and had enough grip to pose as a thin Cab, strange as that sounds). Also I was sure the North winner was a Cab blend (telltale leather and purple fruits in the nose). I was sure both Europeans were Italian wines--the Sangiovese's high acid was a giveaway, and both wines were too thin in a way that I see in Italy.
2. I recognized my own wine immediately.
3. I knew that we weren't drinking from France or Spain, nor a Malbec from Argentina.
4. I did not, however, detect the Aussie Shiraz. Syrah has such a wide range that it can fool you, and I just don't know Shiraz from Oz well enough yet. Also, the wine was completely shut down and easily lost its first round, but later it was amazing. And I had no idea the CA winner was a Petit Sirah. You must admit that was kind of a curveball.

Some stuff I learned:
1. The timing of when you drink a wine, after it's been opened, is critical. If you chug through a glass in short order you probably will never know what the wine is capable of. It is more critical than I realized to get a wine (especially a younger one) fully aired out and to let it rest on air for a long time; only then will it show itself fully. We saw this with the Zin and the Shiraz. However, the Chilean Cab was heading down when it lost in round three. Nobody puts the "opening/closing" cycle on a label, so how are we to know? Best practice is pour your wine early and let it sit in the glass for a long time, then begin tasting and smelling it and observe how it is changing. Start drinking it faster when it reaches an impressive point (if it does). If it starts falling, finish it immediately. I cannot count how many times I have gotten tipsy at a dinner and for no special reason, towards the end, my wine just sits for a long time in its glass. Later when I go back to it, it has evolved and sometimes is much more fantastic. If we swig from our glasses quickly, we miss out on those special moments. Learn to savor! Be patient! Wine needs to be coddled, until it must finally be converted from a bottle to a memory.

2. A retailer I spoke with thinks that many newer wineries will fail soon, but he expects them to be snapped up into larger corporate ownership, rather than just torn down. This will likely result in more homogeneity of the wine, with fewer craft makers asserting their unique stamps on the wines. Overall, a bad thing for wine consumers. Commoditization has some benefits, such as lower average prices, but the loss of individuality will hurt.

Thanks to Don and Lisa for a great wine event!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

How to make a small fortune in the wine business

This is very easy. All you have to do is this:

Start with a large fortune.

No, really. It's that easy! Patricia Kluge shows us all how it is done:

1. Be a nude model for a prominent European magazine in the 1970s.

2. Marry a man with good prospects.

3. Divorce him when he has become the world's richest man.

4. Take millions from the divorce, and Albamarle, an incredible mansion in Virginia (by incredible, we mean a $45 million house).

5. Start a winery. Meet at first with great success.

6. Expand the winery, start up a ritzy real estate development, and incur $65 million in debt.

7. Fail to sell either your premium wines or your premium homesites.

Then, poof! Your property is foreclosed, your winery is shuttered, and presto!

It is interesting to see some of the posts, about this news, by some of the smaller Virginia winemakers.


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What would you pick?

You can tell a lot about a person by the wine they might choose for a semi-special dinner.

Here are some wines I might pick:

Hartford Zinfandel, Jolene Vineyard, from an outstanding year: There is something special about the fruit notes that are donated to the grapes by the high-elevation, warm days/cool nights site at the mountain headwaters of the Russian River. Talk about rich and luscious!

A 3rd-5th Growth Gran Cru Bordeaux from a very good year, at about ten years old. Or an aged Cab blend from numerous Walla Walla wineries, at about ten years old: Walla Walla Vintners; Colvin (now defunct); Maryhill's Reserve wines; Leonetti; Quil Creek; Zerba. And put some Cab franc in that blend!

A Syrah from Walla Walla, at 5-10 years old: K Vintners, or Buty, or Rulo, for example. Amazingly cab-like in terms of the richness it yields when aged.

A Chianti Classico Riserva from a great year, about six years old. Perfect pairer for foods. Bold and perfect. Sangiovese is tops in the right hands--even competing with Cab sauv for best on the planet.

A reserve Malbec from Argentina, from a good year, maybe five-ten years out. From some of the highest vineyards in the world, and baked in desert sun by day, yet cool at night. The perfect combination of grape, sun, soil, and climate. With a grilled piece of best beef.

Note the consistent theme in my comments: These wines require aging, to reach their full potential. Why rob the cradle? Instead, build or lease a good place to lay some good wines down, for future pleasure. It is an endeavor well worth the effort.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Natural State

In their natural state, organisms adapt to their environment. It might take millenia, but variations, both useful and harmful, appear in every species, and are tested in the Great Crucible of Life. The losers fall from the scene and the winners reproduce. How do you think you got darker skin or lighter-colored eyes? There was a clear evolutionary advantage from it, in your ancestors’ environment. But our ancestors who inherited the gene that made them run towards large hungry predators are no longer on the scene.

Thus it has been with every species, from dinosaurs to grapes. If left to their own devices grapes will create crosses (hybrids), some of which will resist diseases (a clearly superior trait).

But humankind has altered the process of evolution, everywhere, but especially as to grapes. For centuries we’ve maintained the genetic purity of our favorite grapes, by taking cuttings and rooting them. This ensures that the new plant is identical to the old one. That’s a good thing if what you want is that same classic Zinfandel flavor profie, but it is a disaster for disease resistance. With a stationary target to shoot at, the fungi and bacteria and viruses of the world (which are without question the most-successful lifeforms) have had a field day with vinifera grapes, to the point now that our favorite European winegrapes must be sprayed with a witches’ brew of chemicals to combat the diseases. If the sprays are inorganic, then they kill beneficial insects and organisms, and there is a huge environmental cost just to manfacture them. But even if they are organic, tanksfull of tractor fuel and thousands of hours of labor are needed to apply them to the vines, and the cost of all that must flow through to the wines’ prices.

Perhaps our love of particular grape flavor profiles runs too deep? What we are doing is simply not sustainable. Frankly, we should not be supporting the market for disease-prone vinifera grapes (European winegrapes), on a long-term basis.

Enter the world of grapebreeding. Breeders cross the female of one variety with the male of another, to create new hybrids. (this is how pink roses and mules were developed). After years of testing, some of the new varieties show excellent characteristics (easy to grow; early ripening; disease-resistance; good chemistry for wine; good flavor for wine or for table).

These grapes have defenses against the microscopic invaders. For the next few centuries most of them will allow low-spray or no-spray culture (at least in many environments). If we’re going to regulate everything else, we should also regulate the gradual abandonnment of disease-prone grapes. If you think about this problem, and if you taste some of the exciting hybrid grapes already on the market, you may well conclude this is a no-brainer.

But try telling that to the French, or even to the U.S. grapegrower who has invested hundreds of thousands in her precious vinifera vineyards. The establishment will bad-mouth hybrids all day long. However, there are already rumblings in Europe for enhanced regulations to reduce the amount of spray. There is only one way these discussions can go. Over time, our winegrapes must and will change. These changes are not particularly frightening; the breeders can retain the general flavor profile of the vinifera parent, when the disease resistance and early ripening of the other parent is introduced. For example, if you drink a good Traminette, you instantly know that the taste is Gewurztraminer. But the grape is also hardy.

We may as well get used to the idea, and start learning about (and tasting) the better hybrids. Sure, there are bad wines made from hybrids, but there are bad wines made from vinifera. I can prove to you that both red and white hybrid grapes exist whose wines will satisfy your most discriminating palates. And more are entering the marketplace every decade.

I say: Bring it on.

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