Thursday, April 28, 2022

This and that...

Like most wine writers, I read a lot and scan web sites and blogs to learn what's happening in the expanding wine world, while trying to stay current on a fast-changing wine industry.

I can say, without exaggeration, that there's a lot of nonsense and useless information about wine circulating around, but there's also items I think help wine drinkers be better informed. 

This blog then contains seven items, both useful and useless, gathered from various sources over the past few weeks.  

Ridiculous Wine Prices:  Wine pricing may be the third rail of wine marketing, but the potential danger hasn't stopped some wineries from charging shocking prices for their wine...and foolish wine drinkers from buying the wines.

Readers with a wine budget and those who get nervous reading large dollar amounts, should skip to the next item.  For those who find high wine prices outrageous and titillating, check this out. 

Not long ago, Krug Vintage Champagne was one of the top expensive bottles of bubbly; today Krug, at $500, is a bargain luxury Champagne.  Compare the price of Krug, though, to these Champagnes: Jacques Selosse Millesime, $2,500 and Salon Cuvee S Blanc de Blanc, $1,400.


Then there's Burgundy, a coveted wine that has always meant big bucks.  Today,  2019 Romanee Conti, a consistently good and highly coveted red Burgundy, will set you back $4,800 a bottle!  

Since the first release of Napa Valley so-called "Cult Cabernets," prices have been astronomical.  Colgin Cellars now sells for a modest $600, but the wine to make your wallet scream is the Screaming Eagle Sauvignon Blanc, listed at $1,200.

All of the above prices were gathered recently from online sites. Since prices vary, the above prices have been rounded down.  Up or down, maybe I have been away from the main stream too long, or someone is pulling my cork.

CAVA Goes Organic: Effective with the 2021 vintage, all vineyards supplying grapes for CAVA sparkling wines, must be organic. The new tiers will be: Cava de Guarda, aged a minimum of nine months; Cava de Garda Superieur, aged more than 18 months; Cava de Paraje Calificado, single vineyard source, aged 36 months. Cava's new move is in response to the success of Italy's Prosecco.  The move by the popular Spanish bubbly strives for "climatological and geological excellence."

Alsace Sweetness Scale:  Also beginning with the 2021 vintage, the Association of Alsace Winegrowers, has agreed to the application of a sweetness scale, that will appear on the back label of all Alsace wines belonging to the association.  For sec (dry) wines, sweetness will not be more than .4% residual sugars; demi-sec (medium dry) will be between .4% RS and 1.2% RS; moelleux (mellow) 1.2% to 4.5% and doux (sweet) over 4.5% RS.  The new sweetness scale will bring Alsace wines in compliance with EU regulations.  Cremant d'Alsace sparkling wines already use the scale.   

                          wine route sign in alsace - alsace wine stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

South Africa's Wine Problem:  Climate change, a roller coaster economy and a stubborn pandemic are challenging wineries and growers in many parts of the world, but no more so than in South Africa. 

Covid and local laws have placed restrictions on international travel for members of the South African wine community; the industry is just emerging from the third year of a crippling drought; sanctions on trade have meant vast quantities of wine and limited storage for the coming harvest. 

Huge quantities of bulk wine are being processed by large wineries but small wineries are suffering, causing them to sell the excess to the fruit juice industry or abandon a large percentage of this year's harvest.  The final insult: South Africa's President Ramaphosa has placed a prohibition on the sale of alcohol for the third year in a row. 

The good news is that South Africa got substantial rainfall in 2020 and the economy is beginning to open up.  So look for more South African wines at your local wine store.

Aside: For a different take on life in South Africa, after the freedom of Nelson Mandela, read "The Promise," by Damon Galgut.  The book is the winner of the 2021 Booker Prize.

The Future of Capsules: To capsule or not to capsule is an argument that is raging right now in wine circles.  Well, maybe not raging, but it is stirring up enough interest to qualify as a controversy. 

A capsule is the cylindrical piece that goes over the top of the cork and bottle; also known as the foil.

Pro capsule people, mainly traditional wineries and winemakers who like the way a capsule dresses up the package, want to keep it.  Anti capsule folks object to the additional cost, the environmental impact and the fact that there is no longer a need for capsules as most wine storage areas today are not cold, damp breeding grounds for mold and dirt. 

Poop to Wine:  Organic and biodynamic grape growers use animal dung to fertilize their vines, but who would have thought that dinosaur droppings may be the key to unlocking the secret of terroir. 

 Dinosaur, Reptile, Prehistoric, Raptor

Palentologists at a dig in the Cognac region of France have discovered a razor-thin layer of dino poop on the top of Jurassic rock.  Scientists suggest that vine tap roots may be drawing nutrients from this "herbivore excrement." Similar findings have been discovered in New Zealand's Hawke's Bay and the Burgundy region of France.

Buy Wine Get a Snake:  Actress Elizabeth Banks takes the prize for absolute nonsense. Banks, part owner of Archer Roose Wine, a company trying to sell "luxury" canned wine, made a promotional video saying that if you buy 100,000 cases of ARW canned wine, you get a live snake!  

Yes, you read that right. But not to worry. Banks followed that jaw-dropping bit of nonsense with a second video saying that the offer is against the law. By the way, 100,000 cases of Archer Roose wine would set you back $10 million.  

Next blog: My Life in Wine Episode 29

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Thursday, April 21, 2022

The Appeal of Chilean Red Wine

If you're a serious red wine drinker (and who isn't?), and you've been ignoring Chilean red wine, it's time to rethink your wine-buying strategy.

Some of Chile's most exciting red wine comes from a central band of prime vineyard land, between the Andes mountains and the Pacific Ocean.  The most important grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.

Long & slender Chile on the left

Chile, a long slender country along South America's west coast, is a mere 217 miles at its widest point.  The wine magic takes place in a broad central plain,  from a few miles north of Santiago to just south of Talca.  Within this area are seven major wine regions: Aconcagua, Casablanca, San Antonio, Maipo, Rapel, Curico and Maule.

Maipo, the northern most major red wine region, stands out for its top reds.   Unlike Argentina's inland Mendoza Valley, where cool growing conditions are achieved by planting at higher elevations, Maipo, which is just across the Andes from Mendoza, benefits from cool breezes off the Pacific Ocean. 

Chile exports a lot of wine to the United States, so a trip to the local wine shop can be bewildering at best.  Here's a brief region-by-region guide of what to look for when you're looking for Chilean red wines.  

These appellations, from north to south, appear on the front labels, with Casablanca, Maipo, Rapel and Curico being the most common. 

Aconcagua: The interior of Aconcagua is hot and dry, but there are places where red wine grapes grow nicely. Errazuriz, one of Chile's major wineries, farms grapes for its iconic Maximiano Cabernet Sauvignon in Aconcagua. At $20, the 2019 "Max" is possibly one of the best Cabernet values from Chile. 

Maximiano vineyard

Casablanca: First planted in the 1980s, Casablanca and San Antonio, are cool temperate coastal regions, known for Pinot Noir, but more so for Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

San Antonio: Moderating ocean breezes and morning fog are ideal conditions for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, used for Chile's burgeoning sparkling wine business, especially from such producers as Valdivieso and Tabali.

Maipo: Not far from Santiago, this small inland region is famous for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  Some of Chile's best Chardonnay comes from Maipo.  Of note is the region's Carmenere

Rapel: Cachapoal and Colchagua are Rapel's two major sub regions that run east to west, meaning that growing conditions vary from cool coastal areas to warmer inland ones closer to the mountains.  Cabernet Sauvignon thrives in the inland vineyards, as do Merlot and Syrah.  Interest has been building in recent years for Pinot Noir from coastal vineyards.  Promising conditions in Rapel has attracted investment by the French, including Casa Lapostolle and Los Vascos.

Curico: Smaller than Rapel, but no less important, Curico attracted the Spanish vintner Torres to establish vineyards and a winery there in 1979.  Curico is best known for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Maule: Although there are other vineyard regions further south, Maule, for now, is the southern limit for quality grapes, although there is considerable  experimentation in Maule and even further south in Bio Bio.  Carignan is more widely planted in Maule than Cabernet Sauvignon.  

The price range for Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon varies, but the following dozen wines are $12 to $50, most in the low $20's: San Pedas Cachapoal, Toro de Piedra Colchagua, Perez Crus Maipo, Miguel Torres Curico, Undurraga Maipo, Tabal Taluid Maipo, Tarrapaca Maipo, Vina Aquitania Maipo, Arbuleda Aconcagua, Concha y Toro Maipo, Valdiviso Central Valley.

Chilean red wines are solid values in a market that seems to be getting richer by the month.  Cabernet Sauvignon was featured here, but Chile is a good source  for reliable Merlot and Syrah. 

Next blog: This and that...

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Thursday, April 14, 2022

My Life in Wine Episode 28

In Episode 27, my life in wine participated in the arm-busting job of raising a wine barrel, attended a session with the inimitable Bernard Hine analyzing the merits of new spirit destined (or not) to be Cognac and  spent an afternoon in Australia's Hunter Valley learning that a little advance knowledge is always helpful when tasting Hunter Semillon. 

The following episodes look back at two occasions in my life in wine when confidence in my wine knowledge and tasting ability were tested under high pressure.  


Sherry in the Morning.  In 1978, while living in Colorado and writing about wine for the Rocky Mountain News, I got a call from Nathan Chroman, then chairman of the Los Angeles County Fair Wine Competition, held at the Pomona fairgrounds. 

Chroman invited me to be a judge at the three-day competition.  As a new wine writer hoping to bolster my reputation on the national stage, while having the opportunity to taste hundreds of wines, I readily accepted. 

Bright and early the first day, all of the judges and support staff gathered for the chairman's greeting, instructions and panel assignments.  The late David Lake MW and I were the new judges that year. Probably because he was a Master of Wine, David was assigned to the Cabernet Sauvignon panel. Lake went on to make a name for himself as winemaker at Columbia Winery in Washington state.

Because I was an unknown from Colorado, Chroman sent me to the panel tasked with evaluating California brandy and Sherry.  The other three panelists were Phil Posson, an expert on fortified wines specializing in Sherry, another distiller of wine spirits whose name I forget and Daryl Corti, a Sacramento wine merchant with an encyclopedic memory who enjoyed putting new judges to the test.

The first morning, at 7:30 am, sharp, I was at my judging booth, ready to put my limited knowledge of California wine spirits to the test!  Our first assignment was 30 California Sherries, divided into three flights of 10 wines.  I stared at the daunting lineup, then dutifully tasted my way through the wine, made my notes and assigned awards, then joined the other judges at the conference table.  

Only by applying learned tasting techniques and remembering to taste past the higher alcohol, was I able to keep pace with my fellow panelists, defending my opinions and awards, especially under Corti's withering cross examination on why I eliminated one wine and gave a gold medal to another wine. 

Corti's panel went on to judge other wines and I became more at ease with my new assignments.  My performance as a rookie judge apparently impressed both Corti and Chroman enough to invite me back the following nine years.  


Chateau Y on Maui.  For most people working in the wine business or writing about wine, there are two dreaded encounters with the curious, usually when least expected: You get asked, "What's your favorite wine?"; and someone hands you a glass of wine and asks you to identify it.  

I stopped counting the number of times I have been asked the first question, but there was one memorable evening when I was confronted with the second challenge.

During the Kapalua Bay Wine Symposium, held at the Kapalua hotel on Maui, my wife, Janet and I and a few friends dined at the hotel's specialty restaurant.

As the meal came to an end, Eric Hansen, Kapalua's late wine director and sommelier, came to the table and asked me to participate in a challenge.  Eric and I were friends, so I agreed not knowing what he had in mind. 

Eric presented a bottle of wine sealed in a brown paper bag, cork removed and poured a glass for me.  "Can you guess what the wine is, he asked with a conspiratorial grin?"

While he was pouring the wine, I had a quick peak at the bottle still in the bag, then I took a good long sniff, followed by a few sips.  Placing the glass on the table and pausing for effect, I said, "Chateau Y, from Chateau d'Yquem."

My table mates looked at Eric, who stammered, "That's right, how did you guess so fast?" 

I didn't divulge my secret that evening, but my guess was based partly on observation and knowledge and partly on luck.  Eric had removed the branded cork so that I didn't see the producer, but he forgot to completely hide the bottle, allowing me to see that it was clear and not green glass.  And, even though the bag partially hid the bottle shape, I could see it was a Bordeaux bottle. 

The medium gold color of the wine narrowed the possibilities further, plus the first sniff said honeyed fruity Semillon, which was confirmed by my first sip of the wine.

So, clear glass Bordeaux bottle, characteristic Semillon aroma with a mineral note and a medium gold color.  Could be a Bordeaux blanc, but the wine was too dark and the smell and taste too rich, for Sauvignon Blanc with a touch of Semillon, so my guess was a dry Sauternes and the only widely available one at the time was Chateau Y, from Ch. d'Yquem, perhaps the best known Sauternes.

A final note on Sauternes.  Years before the Maui dinner, I had the good fortune to taste a Ch. d'Yquem from the 1920s at a wine auction in Denver.  Local press and wine writers were given 30 minutes to taste select wines before the auction began. 

After tasting a few old Burgundies, which I don't remember, I headed directly to the Yquem.  I was in luck, as a small amount of medium-dark gold wine remained in the large-bowl glass.  

The bouquet of this 50-year-old wine was incredible!  Deep, rich, honeyed exotic spice, pineapple upside down cake, ripe apricots and more.  A tiny sip was textured and complex with a long lingering finish.  

I returned to the Yquem a few times and though the glass was long empty, the wine's bouquet was still strong and inviting.

Next Blog: The Appeal of Chilean Red Wines

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Thursday, April 7, 2022

Pinot Gris' Ascending Popularity

Pinot Gris is one of those fashionable grapes, versatile enough to reflect a wide range of styles.  Stores are full of Pinto Gris/Grigio, but you needn't look no further than Oregon for a take on Pinot Gris that is attracting a lot of attention.


Pinot Gris is the second-most planted variety in Oregon, behind another member of the pinot family - Pinot Noir.  And there is three times the acreage of Pinot Gris  than Chardonnay, mainly in the Willamette Valley, the state's prime wine region, but also in the Umpqua Valley.

First planted in 1966, Pinot Gris lags behind Pinot Noir in recognition, an irritant that prompted seven wineries (Airlie Winery, Christopher Bridge Cellars, Sartori Springs Estate, David Hill Winery, Oak Knoll Winery, Pudding River Wine Cellars, Terrapin Cellars, Yamhill Valley Vineyards) to form a marketing group to say that Oregon should be known for more than Pinot Noir.

The group's effort is all about promoting the style of Oregon Pinot Gris, focusing on forward and pronounced fruit with bright acidity.  To my taste, honeyed and nutty are the best working descriptors for Pinot Gris.  The sweeter the style, the more the honey comes out, even with a trace of exotic spice. 

Aside: Wine-Searcher, the online wine finder, published two recent articles on Pinot Gris/Grigio.  A close look at both articles shows that consumer preference doesn't necessarily mean quality.  One article lists the "Best Pinot Gris Wines," while the other shows the "Most Wanted Pinot Gris Wines." 

The 10 "best" PGs (no Grigios) were all Alsace wines, seven from Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, and most either Vendage Tardive (late harvest) or Selections de Grains Nobles (a more amped up version of VT).  Domaine Weinbach and Hugel round out the "best" list of Pinot Gris wines. 

Reflecting the market for Pinot Gris/Grigio wines, Wine-Searcher's 10 "Most Wanted Pinot Gris Wines" include nine Grigios and one Pinot Gris: Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Clos St. Urban, $90.  The Grigios range in price from $11 for Voga delle Venezie, to $34 for Vie de Romans Dessimis Fruili.

Pinot Grigio in Italy

Before Oregon discovered Pinot Gris, the wine was enjoying success with white wine fans in France and Italy.  In recent years, the global wine market has been flooded with vast quantities of what the Brits call "cheap and cheerful"  Pinot Grigio, an unoaked medium-dry Italian white wine with pleasant pineapple  and honey aromas. 

Pinot Grigio

In 1990, there were 8,000 acres of Pinot Grigio in Italy. In just 10 years, that number shot up to nearly 43,000 acres.  Most of it is grown in the Veneto, with substantial vineyards in Alto Adige and Friuli.

Italian Pinot Grigio is fresh, with the scent of apple and mango and lightly spiced with a hint of mineral.  Veneto PGs have a faint copper tinge, while PGs from Alto Adige and Friuli are more aromatic.

Pinot Grigio is the "most wanted" style of Pinot Gris.   So well-liked is Pinot Grigio, that it is the most popular white wine in the world, replacing Chardonnay. 

 Pinot Gris in France

Grigio is the Italian take on Pinot Gris, the French wine made almost exclusively  in Alsace, the eastern region in France on the border with Germany. Alsace is rich in French and German heritage, seen in the town names, road signs, cuisine and architecture. 

On any weekend, especially if the weather is good, a common sight at an Alsace vintner are cars with German license plates loading wine in to the trunk.  Germans appreciate the stylistic difference between sweeter German wines and drier Alsace wines, including Pinot Gris.  In Germany, Pinot Gris is known as Grauburgunder. 

Pinot Gris in Alsace

Alsace Pinot Gris, formerly known as Tokay d'Alsace, is more commonly seen as a dry wine, although the high profile fruit of Pinot Gris, often gives the dry style a sweet impression, especially in the finish. 

Richer and more decadent are Alsace Vendange Tardive Pinot Gris.  The Alsatian concept of Vendange Tardive (late harvest) was explained in the last blog (March 25, 2022).  Alsace VT wines are made under strict regulations, including the forbidden use of additional sweetness or chaptalization. One step up are Selection de Gains Nobles, sweeter than VT wines, SdGns also contain botrytis (the "noble rot").

With all that richness, Pinot Gris needs acidity.  In the vineyard, PG tends to be a little low in acidity.  Knowing that, the winemaker must look for a balance between natural acidity and natural sweetness, without the aid of acidification. 

Aside: Acidification is the wine making process of raising the acidity in a wine.  While it sounds easy, knowing how much acid to add and when to acidify is crucial.  Acids that are normally added to wine are tartaric acid, malic acid and citric acid.  As tartaric is the natural acid of ripe grapes, it is the most commonly used. Citric, on the other hand, is less expansive and thus is more commonly used in inexpensive wines. Acidification is not used in cool climates where there is usually sufficient natural acidity.

The opposite of acidification is deacidification, a process that removes excess acidity, sometimes found in cool climate wines, such as those from northern Germany and Tasmania.  

Some wines you need to work with to develop a liking, like Zinfandel, while other wines, like Beaujolais, are not taken seriously by some red wine drinkers.  Pinot Gris, however, is not demanding and has immediate appeal.


Next blog: My Life in Wine Episode 28 

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