Thursday, February 23, 2023

New Zealand's Other White Wines

The year was 1996 and the place was Seattle.  A quiet man stepped to the podium at the World Vinifera Conference and introduced the attendees to Cloudy Bay Marborough Sauvignon Blanc. 

Almost to a person, the reaction after the first taste was, "What in the hell is this wine?"  It didn't take long for this "new" Sauvignon Blanc to take the country by storm.

The inviting fresh tropical fruit salad flavors, leaning toward passion fruit, crisp acidity and a long clean finish; what was not to like.  It took only a minute for most of the attendees to realize that the pungent flavors of Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc were unlike any Sauvignon Blanc they have ever tasted. 

Cloudy Bay would be the first of a flood of New Zealand Sauvignons to captivate a receptive U. S. market.

The Other NZ Whites

More than 35 years later, Sauvignon Blanc is still the most planted variety in New Zealand.  Not far behind are Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling, with Gewurztraminer struggling to stay in the game. 

Sauvignon Blanc

But to get Chardonnay to stand out, winemakers had to start making the wine in the vineyard, then coax the flavors from the shy grape in the winery, often with the help of oak.  Aromatic whites like Pinot Gris and Riesling can be simple and fruity, lacking complexity.  And no matter what a winemaker did to Kiwi Gewurtz, the nagging reality was that the Alsatians had the formula for that variety down pat.

The concern was not to rely too heavily on Sauvignon Blanc, to the extent that New Zealand would become known as a one-white-wine producer. And then there was the growing international taste for Chardonnay, posing a marketing challenge.  So plantings of Chardonnay  increased, moving it into third place behind Pinot Noir.  

Chardonnay is the main white variety in Gisborne and nearby Hawke's Bay on the North Island.  Gisborne Chardonnay has attractive flavors of ripe peach and pineapple, while Hawke's Bay Chardonnay is more citrus and elegant.



Perhaps NZ's best Chardonnay is Kumeu River Estate, from a smallish region outside Auckland.  Others of note: Te Mata (Hawke's Bay), Millton Estate (Gisborne) and Villa Maria.

In 2012, new and improved clones of Pinot Gris were approved for planting in New Zealand.  Also responsible for the revival of Pinot Gris was the growing interest in aromatic varieties, a sort of retro look at once popular aromatic white wines that all but vanished in the rush to plant more Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. As a popular varietal, Pinot Gris emerged quickly in the early 2000s, rising to the fourth most planted wine grape.

Pinot Gris

New Zealand Pinot Gris more closely follows the fuller richer style of Alsace Pinot Gris, than the lighter northern Italian Pinot Grigio.  Pinot Gris is happy in cooler soils like those of Central Otago, Marlborough and Nelson, all on the South Island.  Look for Pinot Gris from Kumeu River, Seresin, Gibbston Valley, Dry River.

Riesling is the emblematic grape of Germany, although it is grown in nearly every wine region in the world, even those with marginal growing conditions for Riesling, like certain parts of California.

Cool growing conditions in New Zealand are ideal for growing Riesling.  The wines have a citrusy character that is balanced nicely with ample fruit. The whole package yields Rieslings that are light and delicate. 


NZ Rieslings worth a search include Millton Estate, Felton Road (Central Otago), Giesen, Corbans, Neudorf, Villa Maria.

I have a friend who discovered New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and for quite a while, it was his house white. He and his wife spend time in Paris and during one of those trips, they started drinking Sancerre and found a different expression of Sauvignon Blanc.

The beauty of Sauvignon Blanc is it's many different styles. To some degree, Sauvignon Blanc adapts to local terroir better than Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling.  Get a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Riesling, invite over a few friends for a comparative tasting and decide if your favorite is Sauvignon Blanc or one of New Zealand's other white wines.


Next blog: Wine from a Narrow Country

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Thursday, February 16, 2023

France Series: Burgundy and Beaujolais

Sometime in the late 14th century, the red variety with a long name, Gamay Noir a Jus Blanc, was introduced into the vineyards of Burgundy.  The move was  controversial, mainly for those that grew the noble Pinot Noir grape.

Ripe Pinot Noir

The official name is long to distinguish Gamay Noir from the red-flesh Gamay Teinturier, which in French literally means "dyer."  At one time, the juice from these teinturier grapes was used to help deepen the juice of weak colored grapes.

Today, Gamay Noir accounts for less than 10% of the plantings in Burgundy, but the variety is planted in 98% of Beaujolais vineyards.  Burgundy and Beaujolais  are among the few regions in France with just one or a few grapes. 

Ripe Gamay

And there are more differences. Most importantly, red and white Burgundy are among the most expensive wines in the world, with the most coveted ones priced at hundreds of dollars, while the most expensive Cru Beaujolais costs little more than a hundred dollars. Aging is also different.  A well cellared Burgundy will last a few decades while the best cru Beaujolais will likely top out before 10 years.

The wines from each region are, in their own right, unique. So let's take a closer look at the two regions.   


Known as Bourgogne in French, Burgundy is a province in eastern France, best known for the Cote d'Or, a long pencil-thin region, famous for its white wines made from Chardonnay and reds from Pinot Noir. 

Administratively, Burgundy also includes Cote Chalonnaise, Maconnais, Auxerrois and Chablis. In terms of production, Maconnais is the largest, followed by the combined output of Chablis and Auxerrois, the latter a rather common wine used in blends more than as a varietal. 

An aside. Auxerrois is a prime example of the confusing nature of grape names being mixed up with wine names and place names.  To begin, Auxerre is a city in north east France.  Auxerrois is another name for Malbec in Cahors and Auxerrois Gris, is a synonym for Pinot Gris in Alsace.  Auxerrois is more popular than Pinot Blanc in Alsace, but is often not mentioned on a wine label, although can be labeled as Pinot Blanc.

The ancient history of Burgundy dates to circa 50 BC, when the Romans conquered Gaul, followed by the Celts, the Franks and the Vandals.  But by the 10th century, a major change occurred in Burgundy, from barbarian rule to Christianity.

Various monastic orders, notably the Benedictines, are credited with the origins and development of Burgundy vineyards and wine, starting in the 10th century.  By the 13th century, the Benedictines owned vast vineyard holdings, including what is known today as Domaine de la Romanee Conti: Romanee-Conti, La Tache, La Romanee, Richebourg, Romanee Conti and Romanee-St.-Vivant. 

Domaine de la Romanee Conti

Today, the Cote d' Or, (or "Golden Slope") is synonymous with Burgundy and, in fact, is the source of the region's most distinguished wines.  From the city of Beaune north, the Cote de Nuits is known mainly for red wines, from Pinot Noir, like Gevrey-Chambertin and Vosne-Romanee. 

South of Beaune, in the Cote de Beaune, white wines, from Chardonnay, are best known, such as Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet.  The famous growths of Pommard and Volnay, both red wines, plus Santenay and St. Aubin round out the wines of the Cote de Beaune.


Due south of the Maconnais lies the regional city of Macon and on the city's southern edge is the beginning of the province of Beaujolais.  Administratively, Beaujolais is often thought of as part of Burgundy, but it is different, mainly in soils, location and grapes. 

Limestone and granite, two of the elements that help varieties like Pinot Noir and Gamay to ripen fully, are found throughout the rolling hills of the Cote d'Or and Beaujolais. However, it is the Gamay Noir a jus Blanc (or Gamay Noir) grape that determines the character of Beaujolais. 

Perhaps, a third element is even more important thing as it sets Beaujolais apart from other French wines:  carbonic maceration (C-M) , the wine making technique used to fashion the clear juice of the Gamay Noir grape into a fruity grapy red wine that delights wine drinkers everywhere.  

Most of the wine bottled simply as Beaujolais is made using carbonic maceration. The process is involved, but the simple explanation is whole clusters are loaded into a tank and about a third of the mass is crushed by the weight of the grapes above. The grape juice on the bottom of the tank ferments as usual, releasing carbon dioxide that causes an intracellular fermentation in the grapes at the top of the tank. 

The new wine rests for a few days and then is released as Beaujolais Nouveau. A small amount of C-M is sometimes used to brighten standard Beaujolais but C-M is not used in Cru Beaujolais.


A step up from Beaujolais are the 10 Beaujolais Crus, so-rated for the vineyards around the named villages.  From north to south: St. Amour, Julienas, Chenas, Moulin-a-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Regnie, Brouilly, Cote de Brouilly. The wines from these select villages are considered so good that they deserve a special designation.  Morgon and Moulin-a-Vent are considered the biggest most concentrated.  In blind tastings, aged Beaujolais Crus have been mistaken for Cote de Beaune red.

Collectors of French red wine say that Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone are most desirable...and then there is everything else.  Try a bottle of red Burgundy or Beaujolais and see for yourself. 

Note:  The next entry in the France Series: Rhone and Loire, will appear in this space on March 10, 2023. 


Next Blog: New Zealand's Other White Wine

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Thursday, February 9, 2023

The King of Italian Wine

In 1980, Burton Anderson, an American journalist living in Italy, released "Vino," a personal account of the wines and winemakers of Italy, to great acclaim. Anderson's book introduced wine drinkers to Italian wine while persuading those who swore by French and California wine that Italy had something equally good to offer. 

Burton Anderson

Anderson praised Barolo, the famous red wine of Piedmont, as "extraordinary." And though American wine drinkers had made Chianti the most popular Italian red wine in the United States, Barolo maintained its reputation as Italy's finest. 

Although Burton Anderson reacquainted Americans to Barolo (and all Italian wine) in the 1980s, forty years earlier, fellow American, Harold Grossman, wrote sparingly but persuasively about Barolo.  Describing the village of Barolo and the surrounding Nebbiolo vineyards, spread over a hill of volcanic tufa, Grossman said:"On this hill the Nebbiolo grapes grow best, and they give the finest and most justy celebrated red wine Italy has.  In good years, Barolo can be classed as one of the kings of wine."

Barolo Basics

Among the top villages near the town of Alba noted by both authors for Barolo are Serralunga d'Alba, La Morra, Montforte d'Alba, Barolo and Castiglione Falletto.  The last two are thought by many Barolo aficionados as the site of "real" Barolo.

In recent years, Barolo producers have designated certain vineyards, or "Crus," for their high quality grapes.  A few of the better known Barolo Crus include Rocche, Bussia, Brunate and Ginestra.

Barolo owes its well-earned reputation to two things: the Nebbiolo grape and the volcanic tufa soil that makes up the hilly Piedmont countryside.  

Nebbiolo is a late ripening variety, maturing in October and November, when the hills of Piedmont are cloaked in heavy fog, or nebbia. Piedmont climate is continental, with hot summers and cold winters and lots of rain.  Nebbiolo does not like to get its feet wet and that presents a challenge for growers every year. 

In the winery, the use of traditional long macerations and fermentations is slowly giving way to shorter terms for both, using more French oak, resulting in Barolos  that are fruitier and less tannic and are drinkable earlier.

Traditionally, Barolo has been described as smelling like an unlikely combination of roses and tar.  As odd as it may sound, I picked up both in a well-aged Alda Conterno Barolo. Newer style Barolo has raspberry and dried herbs, with floral notes.  Barolo can be high in mouthwatering acidity and finishing with full tannins.

Nebbiolo on the vine

Nebbiolo d'Alba is a red wine made from the Nebbiolo grape in a zone surrounding the city of Alba.  Although lighter and softer than Barolo, Nebbiolo d'Alba is a less expensive alternative to Barolo and Barbaresco that is ready to drink earlier.

Although not apparent when buying a bottle of Barolo or Nebbiolo d'Alba, there is a clonal difference with the Nebbiolo grape, mainly Michet, Bolla and the most common Lampia clone. However, since Nebbiolo has a virus problem and Barolo producers don't want to gamble on the wrong clone, most of them use what is known as mass selection, a technique of field vine selection, the opposite of clonal selection.

Here is a short list of Barolo producers: Aldo Conterno, Giacomo Conterno, Michele Chiarlo, G.D. Vajra, Bartolo Mascarello, Ratti, Elvio Cogno.  Prices for Barolo range from $60 to hundreds of dollars.  A Giacomo Conterno Francia Barolo currently sells for $300. Nebbiolo d'Alba is priced around $25. 

Memories of Wineing in Italy

In the early years of my editorship of the "Wine Spectator," owner and publisher, Marvin Shanken, and I took a rare trip to Italy, to "show the flag," and increase the visibility of the Spectator.  Our first stop was Vinitaly, a major venue on the European wine calendar.

Upon arrival at Milan's Malpensa airport, we discovered that Lucio Caputo, then head of the Italian Trade Commission in New York, was on the same plane.  Caputo was driving to Verona and offered us a ride.  What we didn't know until later was that in an earlier life, he had been a race car driver. 

The memory of what car Caputo rented escapes me now...but it was fast!  He deftly maneuvered his way onto the Autostrada heading east, with me in the back seat and Marvin in the passenger seat, holding on for dear life. Noticing he had a white-knuckle passenger, Caputo smiled and pressed harder on the accelerator, as we sped our way toward Verona.

Later in the trip, Marvin and I were in the Piemontese town of Barbaresco to visit Angelo Gaja. He had extended an invitation when we met at Vinitaly to visit the winery and taste his Gaja wines.  

That evening, Gaja came to our hotel to get us in his Mercedes station wagon to take us to dinner at a nearby restaurant.  As I climbed into the back seat, I thought that a Mercedes was an unusual choice for an Italian winemaker, as they all seemed to drive a Lancia or big Fiat.

Marvin was in the passenger seat holding on tightly as Gaja zoomed along the narrow mountain roads in the dark.  It was another white-knuckle ride with another Italian winemaker who enjoyed his macchina as much as his vino.

And the trip promised to be great so long as we could stay out of fast Italian cars, driven by speed-loving Italian winemakers.


Next blog: France Series: Burgundy and Beaujolais

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Thursday, February 2, 2023

Understanding Wine Sweetness

For years, wine buyers have taken a wine from a store shelf and wondered if it's dry, or sweet?  The question is especially important with white wines like Riesling.

Germans have been trying for decades to dispel the myth that all German wine is sweet. Of course, it isn't true, as one taste of a Riesling trocken can shock your palate into numbness.  

Still, many German white wines are semi-sweet, sweet and dessert-wine sweet. German wines are hard to sort out, which is ironic since the Germans have a reputation for orderliness and organization. 

Before we get to specific sweetness scales, here are some terms to help better understand the basics of German wines: Trocken is dry; Halbtrocken means half dry or off dry; Kabinett is perceptibly sweet; Spatlese is sweet; Auslese is honied/sweet; Beerenauslese (Ba) means sweet/honeyed/complex and Trockenbeerenauslese, commonly referred to as "Tba," is Germany's rare and most complex sweet wine.  Eiswein, or Ice Wine, is a special category that fits between Ba and Tba and is made from grapes frozen on the vine.

The Sweetness Scales

In 2007, a group of Riesling producers created the International Riesling Foundation (IRF). In designing a scale to be placed on the back label of a Riesling wine label, the IRF hoped to answer the question once and for all: "How sweet is this wine?"

Using an arrow to point to one of four terms -- Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Sweet, Sweet -- a Riesling producer tells the consumer what he or she believes to be the sweetness level of wine.      


Eventually, global Riesling producers adopted the scale, but ironically, few German Riesling producers went along, citing one reason or another why they wouldn't participate.

In Alsace, the French wine region, across the Rhine river from Germany, the Association of Alsace Wine Growers was faced with the same sweetness question as their German neighbors, so they devised their own sweetness scale to indicate to consumers the level of sweetness of an Alsace wine.  

The Alsace sweetness scale looks similar to the IRF Sweetness Scale, but the four terms are different: sec (dry), demi-sec (off-dry), moelleux (med-sweet) and doux (sweet).   Alsace producers could either show the appropriate term on the back label or use a scale with an arrow pointing to the word.

Online site, Wine Folly, has its own sweetness scales. There's a scale for white wine and one for red wine, using claimed residual sugars from winery tech sheets.  The Wine Folly red scale, for instance, suggests that Tempranillo is nearly dry, Syrah is beyond medium sweet and Zinfandel is sweet. On the Wine Folly white wine scale, Riesling is nearly sweet, while Sauvignon Blanc is nearly dry.

There are more wines on both Wine Folly scales, but the confusing scales present  a dilemma for consumers when what they need is transparent guidance and information.

The Usual Dilemma

Any information you give a wine consumer is helpful, right?  Not when a collection of sweetness scales, that aims to give the consumer helpful information about the wine in the bottle, is murky and confusing.  The problem, unfortunately, is repeated over and over again.

For example, how does the consumer define the difference between "demi-sec" and "medium dry?"  Are those terms the same?  Or, because one term is in French and the other English, is there a cultural language difference?

Granted, the first scale is on the back label of a bottle of Alsace (French) wine and the other on a bottle of Riesling.  Riesling is a primary wine in Alsace, so why a different scale for Alsace Riesling, when Alsatians could use the IRF scale?

Obviously, the answer is a sweetness scale is proprietary and political.  And there are political/trade differences between the two countries, made even more complex by EU requirements.

A closing personal note:  Reflecting on the sweetness of Riesling reminds me of a visit my copy editor (aka, my wife, Janet) and I made to a wein keller in the German Rheingau, that involved tasting a number of Rieslings and then the challenge of spitting. 

Vineyards overlooking Rudesheim

After being greeted by our genial host, we were led down a long flight of steep steps into a narrow cramped and cold cellar.  Explaining the careful arrangement of equipment and tanks in his small cellar, the vintner selected a small stainless tank that had been fabricated to fit into a niche, grabbed three glasses, opened the spigot and while holding the glasses in one hand, poured a measure of golden wine into each.  

Then the seriousness of the tasting lightened up a little, at Janet's expense. 

Tasting a line of wines at a tasting bench or table is not like tasting in a cellar. There's usually a bucket or spittoon at the table. A modern winery has shallow trenches in the floor for water runoff and the disposal of spit wine. In the cellar, spitting demands expectorant velocity and accuracy, even when there is no trench or drain.

Americans who did not grow up in the wine business likely never learned to spit, especially on the floor.  Sure, young boys tend to spit a lot, to the displeasure of adults. But girls never spit, so on that day in a Rheingau cellar, Janet was expected to become an instant spitter. 

Back at the car, Janet took a tissue from the her purse and wiped the wine from the toe of her shoe.  At other wineries on the trip, the wines got better, but unfortunately, Janet's aim didn't. 

Next blog: Barolo

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