Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Wines of Antiquity

In the early years of the 8th Century B.C.E., Greek colonists were plying the western Mediterranean seeking new land for expansion. Phoenician explorers had gone before them and the Greeks followed the Phoenician routes to a fertile land they named Oenotria.

As settlements grew in Oentria, agriculture flourished and with it an ancient form of viticulture. The colonists saw potential in the rich volcanic soil, deposited along the slopes of an active volcano that towered over a natural bay. Vineyards thrived and expanded, eventually moving northward on the peninsula. 

As civilization moved further north, the Etruscans, who were influenced by the Greeks, established their luxurious lifestyle, in an area known today as Tuscany. 

By the time of the Roman era, vineyards and wine were firmly established and every wealthy Roman had his own vineyard. Falernian was valued as the best Roman vineyard, but it was one of a dozen top vineyards planted between Rome and Pompeii. It is believed that Falernian was made from Falanghina, one of ancient Rome's most valued grapes.

South of Rome, the region of Campania became known as the site of what Antonio Mastroberardino called "The Wines of Antiquity." The Mastroberardino winery is in Avellino, a small city inland amidst layers of Italy's history and some of its scenic gems: the bustling port city of Naples, the scenic coastal town of Positano, the romantic Isle of Capri and the historic ruins of Pompeii. Towering over it all is Mt. Vesuvius, on whose slopes are many of Campania's best vineyards, the source of modern versions of ancient Greek and Roman wines.                                                            
For Antonio Mastroberardino, making modern versions of ancient wines was a passion matched only by his interest in restoring grapes that were planted in Campania in the days before Christ. For his work, Mastroberardino has been called "The Grape Archaeologist."

 And that reminds me of my first visit with Antonio Mastroberardino...

                                                   Image result for free photo of Antonio Mastroberardino

When I drove up to the Mastroberardino winery on a narrow street in Avellino the first thing I noticed, besides the absence of street parking, was the wall, in the front of the winery, that was still showing signs of damage from an earthquake a few years ago. Antonio shrugged in that way that Italians have as a silent comment about the slow-moving bureaucracy that affects everyday Italian life. 

Before we visited the winery and tasted the wines, Antonio led me into his study to see the collection of books, some quite old, about local grapes and wines. He was especially proud of a large illuminated book with numerous watercolors of ancient grapes and Latin descriptions. "These," he said, "are the grapes of antiquity."  We drove out to the back slopes of Vesuvius in his dark blue Lancia (Italian vintners then either drove dark blue Lancias or Fiats) to see some of his vineyards, planted in the same spots as the ancient vines were, or as close as archaeologists tells him they were.  

Back in the winery, we tasted through a line of seven wines from the seven grapes of antiquity: one of Greek origin, one purported to be from Greece; the other six traced to the Romans that are grown in Campania by a small number of wineries, with Mastroberardino the most recognizable brand.  

The Greek grapes are Greco di Tufo, a white grape that grows well in the local Campanian zone around the village of Tufo. Contrary to popular belief, Greco di Tufo does not take its name from a type of soil known as tufa. Greco bianco is dry, with a forward aroma and full body. 

Campania's most important red grape is Aglianco, purported to be of Greek origin (Ellenico is the corruption of the Italian word from Hellanic). Aglianco is the grape of Taurasi, Campania's best red wine. It has a deep color, choco-berry aroma and flavors and bracing acidity.  

Piedirosso, is not quite the quality of Aglianco and doesn't enjoy the same popularity. But along with Aglianico, Piedirosso is one of Campania's few red grapes. Piedirosso makes fruity wines with firm tannins.  

A trio of classic white grapes believed to be of Roman origin are: Fiano di Avellino, with an assertive honied aroma that attracts bees; Coda di Volpe, or "tail of the fox," another full-bodied classic white with lots of character; and Falanghina, one of Campania's most a valued white grapes.  

Finally, there is the common but popular Lacryma Christi, made from the Coda di Volpe
and Verdeca grapes and is thought to be the closest equivalent to the wine drunk by the ancient Romans. The story behind the name Lacryma Christi, is an example of Italy's many wines with fanciful names and background stories that, while they may not be true, are charming. 

In Italian, Lacryma Christi means "tears of Christ." The story goes that Christ cried over the fallen saint Lucifer, casting him out of heaven. Where Christ's tears fell on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius, vines grew. The extension of that tale is that when Lucifer's body hit the earth, the impact formed the Bay of Naples. The tale of Lacryma Christi and the wine  captured the imagination of literary figures from Voltaire to Ray Bradbury.

Image result for free photos of Mt. Vesuvius vineyards
Vineyards on Mt. Vesuvius slopes

Prices and supplies of Campanian wines vary, with the average price for most wines below $50. Taurasi averages about $26, with the Mastroberardino "Radici" Taurasi priced at $40. Other prices: Fiano di Avellino, $26; Falanghina, $15; varietal Aglianico, $13 and Piedirosso, $19.                            

Antonio Mastroberardino passed away in Jan 2014, but his legacy of promoting ancient grapes continues to focus attention on the wines of Campania as valuable additions to the range of Italy's other great wines. 

To read more about the wines of antiquity, look for Hugh Johnson's excellent "Vintage: The Story of Wine," from Simon & Schuster. 


Next Blog: From the first issue of Gerald D Boyd On Wine in July 2019, a popular feature with readers has been my personal remembrances that relate to the blog topic. Beginning April 4, 2020, "My Life in Wine" will become a regular monthly feature. 

Comments?  Suggestions?  Email me at boydvino707@gmail.com

Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Demise of a Unique Wine

The canon of world wine is crowded with unique and unusual wines. Wine making, as we know it today, started centuries ago in Europe, with many of the wine rarities, discovered by accident, that have evolved over the years. Progress, unfortunately, doesn't always mean positive stability.

Before winter disappears completely, here is a look at German Eiswein, an iconic dessert wine that was discovered by accident and now faces an uncertain future. The 2019 German vintage was one of the warmest on record, prompting the German Wine Institute to declare there will be no 2019 eiswein.

The culprit is said to be climate change, with 2019 possibly being a harbinger of what is to come for the German wine industry.   

A Cold Discovery
In the winter of 1830, A German vintner mistakenly left some frozen grapes overnight in a harvest vat. The weight of the grape mass partially crushed some of the grapes on the bottom of the vat and the sweet juice fermented. The result of this fortuitous accident is what is known today in German wine making as eiswein (ice wine).

Germany is the northern most wine region in Europe and because of its location, the wine industry struggles most years getting grapes to ripen for wine. Some winemakers, however, gamble by leaving a portion of their grapes to freeze on the vine. If all of the conditions are right, the gamble pays off and the winemaker produces limited quantities of eiswein, one of the world's truly unique wines.  

Although eiswein is usually associated with the Rhine, it is made in other German wine regions where it gets cold enough. The key requirement for eiswein is the temperature to be at least 18F on a morning in November or December. Although rare, eiswein has been made from grapes frozen in January or February of the following year, the wine is still labeled for the year of the growing season.  

Image result for free German eiswein photos
German eiswein grapes

Most dessert wines, such as Sauternes and Tokaji, are made from botrytis infected grapes. German law does not forbid the presence of botrytis in eiswein, although most eiswein is not made from botrytized grapes. Still, in recent years growers have resorted to covering their vines with plastic sheeting to protect the grapes from birds and wild boar, but the practice is controversial as the plastic creates humidity, one of the things needed for the development of botrytis.

Frozen grapes are brought into the winery and pressed immediately to preserve the essence of the sweet juice or must. German winemakers measure must weight on the Oechsle scale, which is not easily converted to brix, the scale used by many other wine countries, including the United States. While it depends on the region, German eiswein must be 110-128 Oechsle, about 35 brix. The sweetness level for eiswein is at the same level as beerenauslese. If that level is not met then the wine is bottled as an auslese.

Understanding a few basic German labeling terms will help you make better buying decisions.
Under the German Wine Law, all wine is generally divided into Deutscher Wein and Qualitatswein. While it bears some similarities to the French AOC system, the more precise German Wine Law is unique and has provisions not found in other official wine requirements.

Within Qualitatswein are wines in pradikat ("distinction") categories based on must weight; must is a mixture of grape juice, skins, seeds and pulp. The pradikat categories:
Kabinett, lightest of the six pradikat wine
Spatlese, late harvest
Auslese, selected harvest
Beerenauslese, botrytized berry select
Trockenbeerenauslese, botrytized shriveled ("dry") berry select
Eiswein, ice wine
In cool growing years, non-pradikat German wines may be chaptalized or sweetened with sussreserve, a sweet reserve juice.

Riesling is the preferred grape for German eiswein, however there has been some  experimentation with other varieties such as Muller-Thurgau and Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) and even a few red grapes like Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir).  A variety of grapes has been used to make ice wine in other places, such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Vidal, Merlot, Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer. 

Outside Germany, interest in ice wine has been active in Austria, the Alsace region of France and 16 other countries, including the United States. But there is one country that has made ice wine its premier wine.

Image result for free Canadian ice wine grape photos
               Picking frozen grapes in Ontario                               

Since the 19th century, Germany has had a lock on ice wines. Then, in 1972, the first Canadian ice wine was made in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. Twelve years later, Inniskillin (the leading ice wine producer in Canada) made an ice wine from Vidal, a hybrid grape that proved to be a survivor in Ontario's punishing winters. Today, Canada produces more ice wine than any other, including Germany. 

United States
Interest in eiswein and ice wine has been sluggish in the United States. Perhaps it's because the plea has always been to drink dry. That may be contradictory, though, because, while American wine drinkers talk dry, sales figures show they drink sweet; Kendall-Jackson off-dry Chardonnay proves that point. 

Production of ice wine in the United States has mostly been limited to the Finger Lakes and Michigan. Great Western, in Hammondsport, made the first U.S. ice wine in 1981. Wineries in Michigan have turned out promising ice wine from Riesling and ice wine production has had modest success along Lake Erie, in Ohio and Pennsylvania. 

Cold Cash
German eiswein is usually sold in half-liter bottles and can cost $200.00. Canadian Ice Wines from Inniskillin or Jackson Triggs are available in 200ml and 375ml bottles, the later sell for $150.


Next Blog: Wines of Antiquity

Comments?  Suggestions?  Email me at boydvino707@gamil.com

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Rediscovering New York Wine

I first went to New York state to look at wine in the mid 1970s. I was in Colorado then drinking California wine, and when I could afford it, the odd French and German wine.  In those days, California was flexing its wine muscle and hardly anyone was paying attention to New York wine. 

Fact is, I had been to the Finger Lakes in an earlier life. In the fall of 1953, I spent twelve weeks, at the invitation of the U.S. Air Force, to attend basic training at Sampson AFB, on Seneca Lake, the largest of the 11-lake chain. I never imagined then, as I stood in formation, freezing in the dark, waiting to enter the chow hall and breakfast, that there were wineries across the lake that I would visit thirty years later.

The problem in the 1970s with New York wine was image - isn't it always. For years, the New York wine industry, mainly scattered along a few of the Finger Lakes, was based on native Vitis labrusca grapes, while slowly building interest in French-American hybrids. A few hopefuls like Konstantin Frank and Charles Fournier worked to hold off the harsh winters on the lakes, by burying their Vitis vinifera vines before the first freeze, but the experiment was labor intensive and not cost effective.  

The New York wine industry in the seventies was fragmented: Long Island vintners were fighting off birds in vineyards that had been reclaimed from potato fields; a string of small wineries were trying to attract day-trippers from New York City to the Hudson River Valley; Finger Lakes vineyards were expanding along Keuka, Seneca and Cayuga and to a lesser extent Canandaigua lake.

Image result for free Cayuga Lake photos
Cayuga Lake
Nearly fifty years later, I returned to the Finger Lakes with my wife, this time to spend a week with friends who had rented a summer house on Cayuga Lake. 

Most of the time during my wine trip in the 1970s was spent around Hammondsport on Keuka Lake. The wine scene was concentrated then, with small family-owned wineries scattered along a few of the larger lakes. Within a mile or two of Hammondsport were the large wine companies: Taylor, Pleasant Valley (Great Western) and Urbana Wine Co (Gold Seal). On Canandaigua, to the west, on Canandaigua lake, was Canandaigua Industries, then the second largest Finger Lakes winery and Widmer Wine Cellars. Today, there are more than 100 wineries in the Finger Lakes. 

In the late 1930s, a young French champagne maker named Charles Fournier, was looking for new challenges, so he left Champagne Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin to make sparkling wine at Urbana Wine Co., that became Gold Seal in 1953. 

Imagine the shock Fournier must have had when he first tasted the base wine for New York champagne, made from the native Catawba (and occasionally Concord) grape. The unusual earthy flavors of Catawba were nothing like the delicate varietal flavors of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that was used to. 

Catawba, Delaware, Concord, Isabella and other native grapes were the backbone of Finger Lakes wine in the 1970s. French-American hybrids, especially white Seyval-Blanc and red Baco Noir, were just gaining interest. What appealed to growers about hybrids was the winter-hardiness of the American stock and the flavor and finesse of the French grapes.

Charles Fournier discovered Philip Wagner had planted hybrid grapes, in of all places, Baltimore, and Fournier was off on another challenge. He brought some of Wagner's hybrids to Finger Lakes' vineyards, hoping to offer Gold Seal customers an alternative to the labrusca taste.  

A sip of Welch's Concord grape juice is close to what wines made from Native North American grapes taste like. Certain compounds in native grapes give the resulting wine a feral or wild aroma and flavor. The pejorative term "foxy" was once used to describe these wines, but advances in wine making and aging has mostly eliminated that objectionable character. 

And that reminds me...As a child, I drank a lot of Welch's, but it didn't prepare me for my first sip of New York wines made from Vitis labrusca. As an adult, living in California, the delicate fruity flavors of Chardonnay resonated with me, but the feral white Niagara was a new taste experience and I had the same sensory shock with my first taste of the red Isabella. 

When I returned to the Finger Lakes in 2019, a must visit was to Bully Hill, a winery I had visited on my visit to Keuka lake in the late 1970s. Bully Hill, and its then owner,  Walter S. Taylor, has a long and storied history. The short version is that Walter S., the son of Greyton Taylor and grandson of the founder of the Taylor Wine Co., worked with his father at the Taylor Wine Company. But Walter raised so much hell at Taylor, that he was forced to resign. So, he moved up to Bull Hill and founded Bully Hill winery. 

But that wasn't the end of it. Walter fought with everybody in the Finger Lakes wine business and eventually the federal government. The Taylor Wine Co. won a court judgement forbidding Walter S. from using the Taylor name. So, he designed a new label, featuring his pet goat and a slogan: "They have taken away my heritage, but they didn't get my goat.


Walter  S.Taylor died in 2001, but Bully Hill thrives today under the management of his wife and a dedicated crew that make the wine and staff the museum and the excellent restaurant. 

Bully Hill is worth a visit and for the opportunity to taste a range of representative (fruit, native varieties, hybrids, vinifera) Finger Lakes wines, such as Sweet Walter Apple Sangria, Baco Noir, Meat Market Red, Cabernet Franc and Love My Goat Red wine. Most of the Bully Hill wines I tasted were pleasant and refreshing accompaniments to the luncheon dishes I had in the restaurant.

Before the Walter S. brouhaha was taking shape, Charles Fournier, and his friend and colleague, the gregarious Russian-born Konstantin Frank, were busy experimenting with vinifera grapes. Not only did the pair meet with resistance from locals opposed to planting vinifera, but Fournier's colleagues in Champagne were dismissive of him working with native North American grapes and calling his Gold Seal sparkling wine champagne.

Konstantin Frank's enthusiastic work with vinifera, especially Riesling, convinced many Finger Lakes growers and winemakers that vinifera grapes could survive the area's severe winters. Eventually he and Fournier succeeded with small plots of Riesling and Chardonnay which Fournier sold out of the Gold Seal tasting room. Frank became known for Riesling, the flagship wine from the winery that bears his name: Dr. Konstantin Frank.

New York's Finger Lakes region is a great place for a vacation. There are numerous wineries to visit: Bully Hill, Konstantin Frank, Heron Hill, all on Keuka lake; Cayuga Ridge Estate (Cayuga); Wagner Vineyards, Fox Run, Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars, Glenora, on Seneca lake. 

If you get wined out, there is the charming city of Ithaca and Cornell University and  the must-see Cornell Lab of Ornithology Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary, Watkins Glen, the endlessly amazing Glass Museum in nearby Corning and, of course, swimming and boating. 


Next Blog: The Demise of a Unique Wine 

Comments?  Questions?  Email me at boydvino707@gmail.com