Saturday, May 23, 2020

Malbec's New Life in Argentina

In recent years, South American wines have had a major impact on the U.S. wine market. Today, the impact has lessened, or perhaps settled in. Years ago, Chile, and to a lesser degree, Argentina, were known for their historic efforts to penetrate foreign markets.

Chile was shipping wine to the United States since the early years of the last century. Vine Undurraga, a storied Chilean wine, first shipped wine in flask-shaped bottles to the United States in 1903. 

Bocksbeutel - Wikipedia
Franken bocksbeutal

Undurraga's flask-shaped bottle was fashioned on the bocksbeutal, a square, flattened bottle used for Franken wines, from the central German region of Franconia. The local translation of the bottle name is "goat's scrotum," although the more likely meaning    comes from the Low German word for a pouch to carry prayer books.

Since the early 1990s, Chilean wine making and marketing has been aggressive, producing all of the popular varietals, while expanding vineyards to new regions, such as Casablanca in the north and Bio-Bio in the south. Argentina has lagged behind its neighbor, but is catching up fast.

Getting Argentina Up to Speed
Due to social and political unrest in Argentina, wine exports were slow to expand.  Exports were light because Argentine wineries were selling most of their wine to Argentinians. Except for Bodegas Trapiche, most Argentine wineries were content with cellar door sales and supplying the restaurants of Buenas Aires.

Mendoza region Wine Region | Gold Medal Wine Club
Malbec vines against the Andes
Mendoza was the first wine region to gain notice outside Argentina. The region is a sprawling high desert at the eastern edge of the Andes mountains and a couple of hours by plane from Buenos Aires. Mendoza city is the staid small provincial hub of a wine producing province, while in contrast, Buenas Aires is a bustling vibrant metropolis and the nation's capital.  

Converting the semi-arid desert into fertile vineyards is a vast network of irrigation channels that feed run off from the Andes into the vineyards. Although most of the vineyards are on flat lands, there are many grape vines planted in terraces on the eastern face of the Andes. In Mendoza, altitude is the answer to providing more moderate growing conditions, the opposite of the warmer continental climate on the valley floor. Chilean vineyards enjoy cooling conditions from being close to the Pacific ocean.

In the decades of the 1980s and 1990s, Argentina had all of the popular varietals that other wine regions had. But that was the problem; Argentina had all the same popular varietals, so the competition for a place at the world table was fierce. Europe was established, California and Australia were on the rise, Chile was already moving ahead, so Argentina needed a wine to capture the world's attention. 

Malbec in France 
Malbec is not native to Argentina. In fact, Malbec has long been a staple in the Cahors region of southwestern France where it makes a robust red once called "The Black Wine of Cahors." More familiar to American wine drinkers is the position of Malbec as one of the five red grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot) used to make the great Bordeaux red wines of the Medoc.

However, Malbec is prone to damage from frost in the cool climate of Bordeaux. Prior to the devastating spring frosts in 1956, Malbec was an important component in the Bordeaux blend.  But Malbec never achieved the status of the top three varieties.  

After the frosts of the 1950s, Malbec plantings in Bordeaux dropped and the grape became an after-thought for many chateaux, although a number of them still add a small amount of Malbec to their blend. Despite Malbec falling out of fashion in Bordeaux, it remains a major grape in Cahors and is growing in popularity throughout southwest France.

Malbec in Argentina
Malbec was likely brought to Argentina in the 19th century by European settlers, but for decades the grape competed with popular varieties like Bonardo. Long periods of economic and political strife, including a disastrous vine pull scheme, held vineyards and wine making back until the late 1980s. Growth took off in the '90s and Malbec plantings bounced back. 

Today, Malbec is Argentina's most planted variety, especially in top Mendoza vineyard zones of Maipu and Lujan de Cuyo . Growing conditions in Lujan were considered good enough for Malbec to be granted Argentina's first controlled appellation. 

Free Wine Tasting - Understanding Malbec - Table Wine Asheville
The deep red of Argentine Malbec

Enjoying Argentine Malbec
What attracts wine drinkers to Argentine Malbec is its juicy, fruit-forward flavors, supported by firm but not raw tannins and good acidity. Dominant flavors include black fruits and hints of chocolate. The tasty combination makes Argentine Malbec an ideal choice with grilled meats and hearty cheese.

Argentine Malbecs range in price from $10 to more than $50 a bottle . Here are seven popular brands to look for that have national distribution: Susana Balbo, Luigi Bosca, Catena, Bodegas Norton, Familia Zuccardi, Trapiche and Terrazas de los Andes.

U.S. Malbec
Washington state has had some success with Malbec. California wineries, however, put more effort into Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and while Malbec is bottled as a varietal, most of it goes into Bordeaux-style blends and blends carrying the "Meritage" label.

Meritage: In the early 1980s, an effort was hatched to give a new name to California red blends made in the Bordeaux image. The idea was to distinguish those wines from those based on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. A contest was held and the winning name, Meritage (rhymes with heritage) was adopted by the newly formed Meritage Association (now Meritage Alliance). Wineries that joined the association were permitted to use the Meritage name on their labels so long as the blend consisted of at least two of the known Bordeaux red varieties.  Besides the five varieties, Carmenere (which itself has an interesting history in California), St. Macaire and Gros Verdot, are also permitted, although these obscure grapes are rarely seen today in Bordeaux.There is also a Meritage white wine. 

With warmer weather arriving soon, it's time fire up the grill and enjoy a glass or two of Malbec from Argentina, Cahors, California or Washington state. 


Next Blog: "My Life in Wine" Episode 3 

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Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Remembering Michael Broadbent and Explaining Wine Acronyms

Over the course of a working life, there are people you meet and almost immediately forget. Then, there are people you meet and never forget. For me, Michael Broadbent was unforgettable.  

                                         Michael Broadbent MW dies aged 92

John Michael Broadbent, who died in early March, was a distinguished Master of Wine, an unerring wine taster, an author and the former managing director of Christie's of London wine department.  And those were just a few of his many accomplishments. He was 92.

In 1960, just five years after the Institute of Masters of Wine was formed in London, Michael Broadbent sat for the five written papers and five practical tastings, passing all to become a Master of Wine. He went on to become chairman of the Institute in 1970.  Currently, there are 394 MWs living in 30 different countries. 

To the casual wine drinker, the name Michael Broadbent doesn't mean much. To the serious wine collector and those of us who write about wine, he was an astute wine authority, particularly on the wines of France and Port. Besides writing the notes for Christie's wine auction catalogs, many of which are still consulted for their wealth of information, Michael was the author of a number of wine books.

When wine lovers first began collecting wines, a common practice was to record their notes on every wine tasted. It was a way of remembering what you tasted and when and with whom. And if you had multiples of the same wine, you had a record of the wine's progress with every bottle tasted.

Unfortunately, most of us stopped with the record keeping, but not Michael Broadbent.  He is reported to have amassed tasting notes on about 120,000 wines in 150 tasting books. Such a remarkable achievement produced an invaluable record of most, if not all, of the best (and possibly the worst) wines ever bottled.

I first met Michael Broadbent in the late 1970s when I was editor of the Wine Spectator. Marvin Shanken and I had traveled to Europe to meet a few movers and shakers in the wine business, including Michael.
Anyone even remotely close to the wine business in those days knew the Broadbent name. He was a contributor to Britain's Wine magazine (the predecessor of Decanter), then the most widely read wine publication, as well as one of a number of English writers that were recognized then as authorities on European wines. 

Michael received us in his office at Christie's and I remember thinking at the time how much he looked like a banker in his conservative bespoke three-piece suit, shined brogues and combed back salt and pepper hair. Although I sensed that our appointment was one of a number Michael had that day, he was gracious and welcoming, offering a coffee to his American visitors.

The second time I met Michael was just by chance. Janet and I were flying from France to California, with a stop in England to see our eldest son who lives there. As we wandered through the busy British Airways boarding lounge in Charles de Gaulle, looking for an open seat, I noticed Michael, seated with his long stretched-out legs crossed at the ankles, intently reading the Financial Times. My American-accented greeting must have momentarily caught him off guard, but ever the gentleman, he rose to greet us with a smile and nod of recognition. Following a few minutes of wine small talk, our flight departure was announced. We three were on the same British Airways flight to Heathrow, but after boarding, I didn't see Michael in England.

In the late 1980s and into the '90s, Michael Broadbent was a busy man. For a number of years, he was the auctioneer for the Napa Valley Wine Auction. It was there, a few years after the de Gaulle meeting that Michael and I met again. It was a hot and sticky June, especially for someone not used to high summer heat in England. We chatted for a few minutes during a break in the auction proceedings, then Michael returned to his seat at a table above the perspiring crowd. While taking bids on a wine, a slight breeze came up lifting the table skirt enough to show Michael, legs stretched out, shoe less and displaying a pair of very colorful socks. It was a light humorous moment for a man with a reputation for being formal.

Michael Broadbent was a constant presence in the world wine business, a fame that worked for and against him. In public settings like the Napa auction, he met the most fawning people with a gracious smile and a friendly word or two. Even the most jaded wine consumer, after meeting Michael Broadbent, was impressed by his gentlemanly attitude. The wine industry, especially in Great Britain, has yet to measure the impact of a future without him.

                             Free ABC Cliparts, Download Free Clip Art, Free Clip Art on ...

A change of gears now to a different topic that is an important part of wine writing and consumer education, as well as subjects, I believe, that were of interest to Michael Broadbent throughout his career. 

Wine writing often contains numerous acronyms, those lettered abbreviations of a wine term or wine organization, that while they are important to the text, are not always explained.  So, here is the first partial list, from A to N:

ABC -- Anything but Chardonnay (or Cabernet).
AOC -- Appellation d'Origine Controlee, French designation for its best wines.
AVA -- American Viticultural Area, the U.S. system of permitted geographical areas.
BA -- Common abbreviation for the German sweet wine, beerenauslese.
CAVA -- Although CAVA is often thought of as an acronym for Spanish sparkling wine, the word means "cellar" in the Catalan language.
CIVC --Comite Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne. The governing organization of Champagne wines.  
DAC -- Districtus Austria Controllatus, Austrian appellation system.
DO -- Denominacion de Origen, Spain's protected appellation system; now known as DOP see below).
DOC -- Denominazione di Origine Controllada, Italian appellation system; Denominacao de Origem Controlada, Portuguese appellation system.
DOCa -- Denominacion de Origen Calificada, highest designation for Spain's Rioja and Priorat wines. 
DOCG -- Denominazione di Origine Controllado e Garantia, highest quality Italian wines.
DOP -- Denominacion de Origen Protegida, Spain's equivalent of Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), the EU superior wine category.
DOQ -- Denominacion d'Origen Qualificada, Catalan equivalent of Spain's DOCa.
DRC -- Domaine de la Romanee Conti, prestigious Burgundy estate. 
GDC -- Geneva Double Curtain, popular grapevine trellis training system. 
GI -- Geographical Indication, Australian appellation system. 
GSM -- Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre red blend. 
IGP -- Indication Geographique Protegee, French term for what was Vin de Pays.
IGT -- Indicazione Geographica Tipica, Italian term for the equivalent of IGP.
MOG -- Material Other than Grapes, leaves, canes, other debris.
MW -- Master of Wine.
NV -- Non vintage.


Next Blog: Malbec's New Life in Argentina

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Sunday, May 3, 2020

My Life in Wine Episode 2

After the escapade with my friends sipping beer at a local tavern, we were desperate to think of new ways for an adventure.

One idea wasn't new and in fact had been a rite of passage for every high school senior since proms became part of the senior experience. The thing to do at your prom was make a splash, impress your date, and go to a restaurant for a late meal. Sonny and I (Billy was one year behind us) were looking for exotic, and outside of hotel restaurants in Philadelphia in the early 1950s, exotic meant the Hawaiian Village in New Jersey.

Sonny borrowed his parents' car so after the prom, the four of us drove across the Delaware River bridge, to the White Horse Pike, outside Camden. Thinking back, the Hawaiian Village wasn't exotic, with cheesy paper leis and piped Hawaiian music. And the food looked Polynesian but tasted like cheese steaks and hoagies. Two years later, I had a deja vu experience at a Chinese restaurant in Munich, Germany; the food looked like the Chinese food I remembered from Chinatown in Philly, but it tasted like wurst and sauerbraten.

Anyway, here we were in the Hawaiian Village, four nervous kids in tuxedos and formal gowns, hoping to get our first taste of rum. A tropical rum cocktail with an umbrella in it sounded exotic to us, but the waitress, who had obliviously heard it all before, gave us one of her best "in-your-dreams" looks. So, we had Cokes. 

                                   Waikiki Beachfront Bar - Mai Tai Bar | Royal Hawaiian Resort

Following graduation, in the summer of 1953, mom and I went to Wisconsin for a few months to visit my brother and his family. Dick was finishing his Air Force enlistment at a communications site in Osceola. Although I didn't realize it then, that trip was my introduction to world travel and with it, fine food and wine. 

Fresh out of a high school in suburban Philadelphia, I was dropped into Dresser, a tiny Wisconsin farming town, with a handful of small businesses, including a feed store and a tiny ice cream company. Kids my age were wearing OshKosh B'gosh overalls and and a feed store cap and here I was, this out-of-place east coaster, with my peg pants and duck's ass haircut. 

Eventually, I met a few local kids my age, but they all had summer jobs so I grew bored real fast and began banging on doors. There weren't many choices - a Grange Hall, mom-and-pop grocery, bank, farm machinery sales yard and a dairy that churned butter for Land 'O Lakes - but I guess my timing was right because the ice cream company needed summer help. 

On my first day, the owner was on the phone working sales. He turned to me and barked,
"Kid, take the pickup to the dairy and get two large milk cans of sweetened condensed milk."  He had obviously missed me saying the day before that I didn't have a driver's license. 

Running errands was a good way to learn my way around town. My main job, though, was making Eskimo Pies and fruit-flavored double ice pops. It was a sweet job for a seventeen year old; eating all of my mistakes. It didn't take long, though, before the thought of eating another Eskimo Pie lost its appeal. 

                             eskimo pies ice cream – Walkhandmade

With all of the sweet treats, I was thirsting for a beer. On the occasional errand I went on with Dick, we'd stop at a bar he knew for a schooner of Hamm's beer, "From the Land of Sky Blue Waters."  But boredom soon set in, so I joined the Air Force and in quick succession found myself in basic training, on Lake Seneca, New York, then tech school in Belleville, Illinois. Upon graduation, the assignment gods smiled on me, with a posting to Freising, Germany, in the heart of Bavaria.

If you are luck enough to find yourself in Bavaria, you drink beer and there was plenty of it around. The only wine I remember seeing was the odd bottle in restaurants. It didn't take long for my friends and me to fall into a routine: doing Uncle Sam's bidding during the day, take in the base movie in the evening and then downtown for a sociable brew. 

A favorite gasthaus had a large upstairs room that doubled as a meeting room and dance hall. Benches lined the walls with rows of coat hooks above the benches. In those days, German bottled beer came in re-usable bottles with ceramic caps and a red rubber washer-like gasket, held in place by a heavy wire clamp. Take a sip of beer, then hang your bottle on the wall coat hook while you danced, or took the long walk to the outdoor toilet.

During my three-year tour in Germany, Janet Boyle and I were writing to each other. One day I got a letter from her that her brother (and my future  brother-in-law), Gene, had been in a motorcycle accident near where he was stationed in France, and was in an Air Force hospital in Wiesbaden. Our mutual friend, Sam, who had been in tech school with Gene and me agreed that Gene needed to see some familiar faces, so we took a train north to Wiesbaden. 

In an earlier blog, I told of my wine epiphany at a French train station restaurant. But actually the first time I discovered there was another beverage, besides beer, to explore and enjoy was at a food and wine festival in Wiesbaden.  

Traditional German White Asparagus With Boiled Potatoes And Ham ...
White asparagus, ham and boiled parsley potatoes
After visiting Gene, Sam and I stopped at the festival celebrating the season of fresh white asparagus with local ham and a chilled glass of local Rhine wine. I had never had white asparagus and, in fact, didn't even think I liked asparagus. But the combination of the local ham, asparagus and the wine was a revelation. The Rhine wine (In those days, it was probably Sylvaner, not Riesling) was fresh, slightly sweet with a tangy finish that brought the other flavors together.  

I returned to Freising with an appreciation for wine and the realization that I had been missing out on one of life's great pleasures: the symbiosis of great wine and food. Later, I discovered another perfect match - Pinot Noir and grilled salmon - but at that time I couldn't get enough of fruity white wine and lightly salted ham. 


In Episode 3 of "My Life in Wine," to be published June 3, I discover the "Wine Sage of Santa Cruz Mountains," the early days of a great California Cabernet Sauvignon (not from Napa or Sonoma) and a noted family-owned winery I didn't know was just down the road from where I lived.

Next Blog: Remembering Michael Broadbent and Explaining Wine Acronyms

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