Thursday, September 30, 2021

Changing Vineyards

                   Photos Show the Devastation of the Glass Incident Fire on Wine Country
There's a lot of talk in wine circles today about climate change and how it is affecting vineyards and the types of wine grapes to be grown in the future. Climate change deniers are vocal and persistent but the evolving vineyard environment tells a different story.
Changes taking place in vineyards around the world is happening is nothing less than a revolution that bodes well for the wine consumer.
Environmental problems that have been affecting grape growing are numerous, but growers are finding ways to cope.  Smoke taint, once a rarity, is something that growers and winemakers deal with now almost every year.  Persistent drought dogs grape growers who are facing increasing competition with other farmers for evaporating supplies of water.  
These natural hazards  are mostly beyond the control of growers and winemakers, but many of them are are spending sleepless nights worrying about loosing a harvest. 
According to a flood of articles in the wine press, sustainable practices in the vineyard has surfaced as a positive answer to these persistent problems.  As I see it, growers and winemakers, in all major wine regions, are not just looking at sustainable vineyard practices, but are becoming pro-active about sustainability.  
In the near future, that means the types of wines you see at your local wine shop may be changing.   And the changes promise to be mind-boggling.  Imagine a different red wine from Bordeaux, made from grapes other than the Bordeaux five, that will cause a shift in the long-standing rules governing which grapes are legal in the Medoc or St. Emilion.
Here are highlights of just a few of the articles I have read recently.  Keep in mind, that grape growing and vineyard development are dynamic, so what you read here now may soon change. 

Sustainable growing:  This is more than just a buzz phrase.  Liz Thach reports in Forbes magazine that the Napa Valley has "Napa Green," a sustainable certification program addressing environmental stewardship.  Sonoma County has a "Climate Adaption Certification Program."

And there are similar sustainable growing programs elsewhere in California, as well as Chile, Portugal, Italy (with Europe's largest organic growing area), South Africa (where 95% of growers and vintners follow a sustainable program), and Washington state (where growers and winemakers have been dealing with smoke taint).
Smoke Taint: The topic of smoke taint has growers and vintners lining up on both sides of the argument.  Some say that vineyards close to large fires will have tainted grapes and thus tainted wine. Others are saying the claim is over blown and not as wide spread as reported in the media. 
Winemakers analyze grapes for effects of smoke taint from wildfires
Smoke taint on grapes
Meanwhile, the issue of smoke taint on grapes and in wine, has gone to court.  A Sonoma County grape grower has been denied by a Lake County judge to force a Lake Co. grower to release 45,000 gallons of wine alleged to be tainted by smoke from recent fires. (CHECK THIS)

Different grapes: No matter where one stands on the effects of smoke taint and the definition of sustainable grape growing, the undeniable fact is that these problems are forcing growers and vintners everywhere to look at different grapes that are better suited to handle the ravages of climate change. 
Hybrid grapes are getting a new look, especially in eastern U.S. vineyards.  In Vermont, vintners are applying the same care in the vineyard for hybrids as they do with Vitis vinifera, such as Marguette (a Pinot Noir hybrid), Louise Swenson and La Crescent, both white hybrids, plus Arendell and Rougeon.  
And the grape experiments are even happening in conservative Bordeaux, where growers are looking at different grapes, including once ignored hybrids. While climate change is impacting the growing of standard varieties (Cabernet, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, etc.), hybrids and old, mostly forgotten, native grapes are proving to be more resistant to climate change.  

Bordeaux vintners have been running a test of 52 different varieties, selecting a small number, including the Portuguese Touriga Nacional red and white Alvarinho (Albarino in Spain).
Aside:  Touriga Nacional is Portugal's top red wine grape that shows its real character when combined with other grapes like Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinta Franca, Tinta Cao and others to make Port, the great fortified wine.  Rich in berry flavors, with a hint of pepper, Touriga Nacional can be aggressive, a fault that is tamed when blended with other grapes.
Elsewhere, in California, the tongue-twisting Greek grape Assyriko is being experimented with in the Lodi region and growers near Calistoga are making room for new varieties such as Touriga Nacional.

Concern on Santorini as Assyrtiko grape prices rocket - Decanter
Assyriko  grapes on a traditional vine
Vineyard experiments aside, reports are showing that wine output in France is predicted to be down by 29% for 2021, below the levels of 1991 and 2017, all three years hit by heavy spring frosts, and growers are wondering if this is due to climate change.  
A positive aspect of climate change is warming temperatures will allow grapes to come to full ripeness more often than just the one or two years out of a decade.  And while traditional wine grapes, especially in strict AOC ruled Bordeaux and Burgundy, will not disappear any time soon, changes in the vineyard are coming.  
To fight the impact of climate change, wineries are working toward zero carbon emissions, by incorporating such diverse practices as using horses in the vineyard instead of tractors and by using lighter-weight glass bottles in the winery. 
Change is good may be a tired cliche, but the changes taking place in the vineyards can only mean good choices for consumers in the future.  Stay tuned. 
Next blog: Wines of Israel   
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Thursday, September 23, 2021

My Life in Wine Episode 19

My Life in Wine had progressed, in 1994, to a staff wine writing job at the San Francisco Chronicle that involved, among other things, an encounter in a elevator with a cranky colleague and a tasting of corn flakes that prompted me to think twice about Kellogg's, but consider how the panel tasting idea would work with wine.

                    person holding glass bottle on round brown wooden table

At first, my editor in the Chronicle food department, was lukewarm to the idea of a wine tasting panel.  Food was a stand-alone section, growing in readership and he didn't see any open space, even every other week, for the results of a wine tasting. 

So, my pitch was to make the wine tasting panel a companion piece to the food tasting panel.  Eventually he agreed and we set about working out the details. 

Then the hard part began: getting the word out to the wine industry, finding  judges who could evaluate wine with the consumer in mind and finding space for the avalanche of wine samples I knew would be coming.

The one thing the Bay Area has in abundance is food and beverage people and a wealth of winemakers not far from the city.  A string of phone calls over a few days and I had a group of enthusiastic sommeliers, wine importers, retailers, winery owners, winemakers and wine savvy consumers, as panelists.

Large wine competitions that taste thousands of wines are often geared more toward "improving the breed of wines within a category," meaning feedback to wineries and winemakers on what is working and what isn't with a particular wine type; sweetness in Chardonnay, oak levels in Cabernet Sauvignon, excessive alcohol, quality/price ratio for high-priced wines. 

Wine competitions also provide winemaker/judges and others with a rare opportunity to taste and evaluate, even compare against their own wine, a large number of a specific varietal. Being faced with hundreds of Chardonnays is a daunting task but it also is a good learning experience.  

The Chronicle Wine Tasting Panel was looking only for three things: the best wine in a flight (grouping); the quality/price ratio; and some idea what food(s) would go with the wine. 

My job was to facilitate the tasting, invite the judges, organize the wines and fill in for a missing judge, while acting as an arbitrator, to break all ties and determine if a wine was perhaps flawed.  We always had a backup bottle or two for each wine tasted. If a wine didn't pass muster twice, it was eliminated and not mentioned in the tasting report. 

Panelists were selected from my personal knowledge of their qualifications, people I knew in the wine business that I had tasted wine with before.  Other panelists were recommended as having a "good palate." 

Some of these people worked out, others didn't.  Occasionally, a first-time panelist would throw around a lot of wine buzz words but didn't have a trained palate.  Most often these people were trying to break into the wine trade and, perhaps, had a part-time job as the sommelier at a small cafe, not known for its wine list.



A surprising discover was some winemakers did not have a sense of what the consumer wants in a wine, not as much as, say, a wine retailer.

Winemakers are taught at university how to detect possible flaws in a finished wine and then, how to "fix" the problem. Consumers are looking for appealing flavors, varietal correctness and not flaws. 

An example of a potential problem for judges would be agreeing on an acceptable level of Brettanomyces, a spoilage yeast found in some red wines such as Pinot Noir.  Winemakers disagree on what level of Brett is acceptable, while most consumers would not detect Brett in a wine and might not object to it being in the wine unless the level was really high. 

Winemakers were once taught that zero Brett is the only acceptable level, so if the presence of it is questioned in a judging and one judge follows the "zero rule," then there is a possible impasse in rating that wine. 

Fortunately, once the Chronicle Tasting Panel was up and running, the panelists were mostly in general agreement.  Wine judges learn to work together, so that one person who is not overly sensitive to sulfur, relies on another panelist, with a sulfur sensitivity, to bring that potential problem to the attention of all panelists.

After eight years, my tenure as the Chronicle wine writer and tasting coordinator ended in 2002, my wife and I moved to Santa Rosa, California and I embarked on the next chapter of My Life in Wine.

Next Blog: Changing Vineyards

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Thursday, September 16, 2021

Classy Grenache

  Grenache | Wine Varietals | Gold Medal Wine Club

Grenache is a class act. Its bright berry flavors and sassy spiciness have made Grenache a favorite in the southern Rhone Valley, Spain, California, Washington state and Australia.

The rule drink-or-wait for most red wine is wait a few years, or longer in some cases, before you pull the cork.  Not so with Grenache, an inviting red that shuns aging in favor of drink while still relatively young, for full enjoyment.

In its youth, Cabernet Sauvignon is raw and disjointed, young Pinot Noir tends to be grapy and lacks definition, and the same holds for Syrah.  But, with one or two exceptions, Grenache is ready to enjoy right out of the bottle.

In Spain it's Garnacha

Same grape, different name. Garnacha probably was first planted in the northern region of Aragon, then spread throughout Spain.  In one of those odd occurrences where a grape is not exported from France, Garnacha eventually made its way to Roussillon, in the south of France. 

Fans of Spanish red wines understand that the best expression of Garnacha comes from Priorat (Priorato in Spanish), where it is bottled both as a varietal or popularly blended with a handful of other red grapes. 

Priorat is a hilly enclave in Catalonia, producing concentrated reds based on Garnacha, sometimes blended with Carignan, or Merlot and occasionally Syrah. Priorat has become the darling of Spanish reds, thanks to pioneers Alvaro Palacios and Rene Barbier.  Priorat wines are expensive and sought after by those who like their reds powerful and richly textured.

The popularity of Garnacha as a blending grape is also important in Rioja where the traditional blend, based on Tempranillo, can include up to 30% Garnacha.  In neighboring Navarra, Garnacha is valued as a blending grape.  

And, Garnacha is the favorite grape for Spanish rose wines, that draw a lot of snarky comments from people who turn up their nose at pink wines.  Garnacha rose are the Spanish equivalent of French Grenache Rose.

Grenache and Chateauneuf-du-Pape 

Grenache Noir can be found across southern France where it is bottled as a red varietal and is the main grape for the oceans of pink wine, with the best roses coming from Tavel and Provence.  These two wines are the benchmarks for roses made from Grenache. 

The majority of Grenache, however, is planted  in the southern Rhone valley, with Chateauneuf-du-Pape (Pope's new castle) the grape's finest expression.  Fact is, the best use of Grenache in France is for Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Vineyards Near Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Provence, France Stock Photo, Picture  And Royalty Free Image. Image 99605100.
Old vine Grenache, near Chateauneuf-du-Pape

Originally, Chateauneuf-du-Pape was a blend of 10 grapes.  In 1936, three more grapes were added. Today, 18 grapes are authorized.  At the top of the list is Grenache, considered the essential core of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  Mourvedre and Counoise are the next important red grapes.  

Few producers use all 18 grapes, concentrating on less complicated blends based on Grenache.  There is also a Chateauneuf-du-Pape blanc, made mainly from Grenache blanc  and the northern Rhone white grape, Roussanne.   

Grenache's Worldwide Outposts 

Grenache has had a varied history in Australia.  Vastly popular in the 1960s, it began to lose interest and was eclipsed first by Shiraz (Syrah) and then Cabernet Sauvignon.  

Best Australian GSM wines - panel tasting results - Decanter
Aussie GSM wines

Today, the must popular use of Grenache by Aussie wineries is in GSM blends.  The popular blend of Grenache/Shiraz/Mourvedre was also of interest for a while in California and Washington.

At one time, Grenache was one of the most widely planted old vines in California, alongside Zinfandel and Carignane.  A lot of rose was made from Grenache, likely trading off the popularity of Tavel and Provence roses. 

Fortunately for California grown Grenache (and wine drinkers), a group of interested winemakers and consumers called the Rhone Rangers, got wine consumers interested in Grenache again. 

The rising popularity of GSM blends sparked an interest by Washington wineries in Grenache, though eventually the focus turned to varietal,Grenache, showcasing the grape's bright fruit and Washington's signature zingy acidity. 

Its been a struggle getting Grenache through the winters of eastern Washington and today there's maybe a dozen wineries in Woodinville and the Columbia Valley making varietal Grenache.

Next blog: My Life in Wine Episode 19

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Thursday, September 9, 2021

Albarino & Viognier

 Perhaps you've heard of the bar trick where someone is challenged to tell the difference, while blindfolded, between 7Up and Coca Cola.  Supposedly, without seeing the color of the soft drinks, one can't tell the difference just by taste. 

Some tricksters claim that the same challenge works with aged Cabernet Sauvignon and aged Pinot Noir.  In this vinous comparison, some of the flavor and aromatic components that separate the two wines when young fade away, or become similar, with age. 

Point being, grapes are grapes, and while there are differences, there are also similarities.  A red-on-red challenge is easier than red-on-white, because the chemical makeup of like varieties is more similar.  

Take Albarino and Viognier, both white grapes, native to different European regions: Albarino is most common in Spain's Rias Baixas and the Vinho Verde region of northern Portugal, where it is known as Alvarinho; in France, Viognier is mainly grown in the northern Rhone and southern Languedoc and there is substantial acreage in Australia and California. 

From the 1990s onward, both Albarino and Viognier spread outside of Europe to other worldwide regions, notably Virginia, New Zealand and Argentina.  

Learn about Albarino


For many years Spain was known more for red wines than white.  The aromatic whites of Galacia were known more in Spain than in export markets. Then, in 1988, Galacia's Rias Baixas was awarded a DO (Spain's denomination of origin) and Albarino soon took the world white wine market by storm.

In a relatively short time, Albarino eclipsed Alvarinho (its Portuguese name) in Portugal's Vinho Verde. Today, Albarino is Spain's fashionable white and vineyard acreage is increasing to keep up with the demand. 

Both Albarino and Alvarinho are grown on wire-trained trellises, as well as growing up trees in the fashion that was popular long ago.  Modern vineyards sport large canopies, supported on wires, to promote vigor in the hot humid climate.

What does Albarino taste like?  Forward fruity aromatics, with apricot and peach scents, bright acidity and traces of spice in the finish.  In general, Albarino is lighter with more natural acidity than Viognier.

What tastes good with Albarino?   LIghtly chilled Albarino is a great sipping wine and it goes with just about any light food and grilled fish with a fruit salsa and rich shellfish like lobster with drawn butter or a light cream sauce. 

Albarino may require a search, but look for these popular brands, priced between $16 and $35: Granbazan, Granja Fillaboa, Santiago Ruiz, Morgadio, Bodega Torgo, Monte Pio, La Cana.

Viognier — Aerovina Estate


In 2000, there was a spurt of interest for Viognier in California, but growers struggled to keep alcohols in check, while still getting the level of ripeness needed for the variety to show its character.

Australian winemakers were more successful with Viognier and, indeed, continue to focus on it as a major white variety, especially in South Australia, where Yalumba added a string of Viogniers to their line of white wines, based on different growing areas and vineyards.  Yalumba's top Viognier, Virgilius is richly aromatic with a hint of ginger and Muscat and a finish at 13% alcohol.

To be sure, Viognier is a well-traveled wine grape.  For thousands of years, though, Viognier has been grown in the Rhone Valley of France, the place that most people think of when they think of Viognier. 

Condrieu, Cote Rotie and the tiny Chateau Grillet are are all known for Viognier-based wines.  Actually, Cote Rotie red may legally add up to 20% Viognier with Syrah.  Ch. Grillet, all 7.5 acres of Viognier, is one of France's smallest appellations. 

In the northern Rhone, Condrieu is the major producer of Viognier, from more than 500 acres of vines, except for Ch. Grillet, an enclave in the Condrieu appellation.

Yields are low for Condrieu (thus the high prices) and the use of malolactic conversion and oak aging varies considerably. 

What does Viognier taste like?  Not unlike Albarino, the flavors are peach and apricots with, perhaps, more intensity and depth.  Viognier also can show subtle tropical floral scents like jasmine.  Acidity is usually low in Viognier, more in the California version than the French.

What tastes good with Viognier? Chicken or lobster in a cream sauce, Indian dishes with exotic spices and any dish seasoned with aromatic herbs like rosemary.

Although Ch. Grillet is priced at $150 for a current vintage and the odd Condrieu breaks $100 a bottle, you can find Condrieu for $50 to $70, including Guigal, Domaine Georges Vernay, Delas Freres.  

California Viognier like Pine Ridge, Cline, McManus and Mason Cellars are more modestly priced at about $12.

Viognier and Albarino do share some similarities, but the only trickery is the chemical composition of the grapes.  Try the two wines blindfolded and see if you can taste the differences. 


Next blog: Classy Grenache

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