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Malbec in California? Mixed bag, emerging story

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I reviewed a very nice wine from Trefethen, the 2010 Dragon’s Tooth, a blend of 58% Malbec, 22% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Petit Verdot. (My full review and score will appear in an upcoming issue of Wine Enthusiast.)

In the paperwork accompanying the wine, Janet Trefethen had written of the winery’s “tinkering with Malbec for the past 12 years” and added, “Clearly, we are not alone in our interest in Malbec as Napa Valley plantings have tripled since the year 2000.”

That sent me to do my own research in the latest Grape Acreage Report, produced every year by the fine folks at the California Department of Food and Agriculture. According to it, prior to 2004 the state had 1,255 acres of Malbec. Last year, acreage had grown to 2,689–considerably more than double. Acreage of Cabernet Sauvignon in California, by contrast, increased in the same period from 71,472 acres to only 80,630–a much smaller rate of growth.

In Napa County, according to the Acreage Report, Malbec increased 70% in acreage between 2004-2012, from 230 acres to 392 acres. That’s still not a lot: There were just under 20,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in 2012. Still, this is evidence that vintners are taking a second look at Malbec and what it can bring to red wine.

Personally, I don’t think California Malbec, bottled on its own as a varietal, is very interesting. Dark, tannic and fruity, yes: compelling, rarely. My scores tend to be in the 86-88 point range. There are, as always, exceptions: Mt. Brave’s 2009, from Mount Veeder, is an awesome wine.

But as a blender, well,…Some wineries in Paso Robles (Bon Niche, for example) are tinkering with Malbec as a component, as are others in Napa: Michael Pozzan’s 2010 Marianna, a Bordeaux blend, is excellent, as is Mount Veeder’s 2009 Reserve Cabernet, blended with Malbec and Petit Verdot. That formula is hewed to at CADE, which adds a little Merlot to it, with their 2009 Napa Cuvée. Newton, meanwhile, replaces the Petit Verdot with Cabernet Franc in their delicious 2010 Unfiltered Merlot. Across the hill, Lancaster, in their 2009 Nicole’s, deepens the interest of their Cabernet Sauvignon with 25% Malbec, bringing a brooding, earthy quality. In all these cases, what the Malbec brings is depth, color, and a certain juicy softness despite the tannins.

Just yesterday morning, Peter Cargasacchi had asked, via Facebook, what the components of the 1961 Cheval Blanc had been. I went to Eddie Penning-Rowsell’s 1969 The Wines of Bordeaux where he wrote that the vineyard, in the Sixties, was “37% Merlot, 43 Bouchet and 20% Pressac (Malbec).” (“Bouchet” apparently was not the Alicante that we know in California, but an old name for Cabernet Franc.) Michael Broadbent, in The Great Vintage Wine Book, ranked that wine higher than Ausone of the same vintage, although not as highly as the five First Growths of the Médoc. The point, anyway, is that Malbec in Bordeaux and especially in the Right Bank historically was considered good enough to put into the cuvée, but I think it’s lost its luster in recent decades; after the devastating 1956 frost in Bordeaux, which killed much of it off, it was replaced with other grapes, in the belief perhaps that Malbec is a bit rustic. (That is precisely the word Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson use to describe it, in The World Atlas of Wine.)

It is rustic, although I certainly wouldn’t complain if you opened a bottle of Catena Zapata for me. I suspect that Malbec’s recent popularity in Napa Valley is as much due to the search for novelty (and playing off its popularity in Argentina) as anything else. Sometimes, winemakers “throw spaghetti at the wall” to see what sticks. I suppose you can’t blame them for not wanting to rest on their laurels, but sometimes I wonder where the line is between innovation that actually improves things, as opposed to change for its own sake.


Can Petite Sirah be the Next Big Thing? Can anything?

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At Tuesday’s Petite Sirah Symposium,  there was plenty to talk about: viticulture and enology best practices, and lots of personal history, but one question overrode all else: How can we make Petite Sirah a “hot” category?

That’s what people asked me. Generally, it would take place privately: they’d approach me, do their introductions, and then graduate to the main point. “Say, in your opinion, what do you think we have to do” or “How long do you think it will take for…” and similar inquiries along those lines.

Well, I’m not the Oracle of Delphi. But here’s what I think. Petite Sirah is not going to be the Next Big Thing. I don’t believe any new varietal from California will be. The market and cultural forces are such as to mitigate against the rise of a new wine. True, we’ve had Moscato, but that had several things going for it. It was cheap, it filled the niche of a crisp, sweet white wine, and there was plenty of it to go around (at least, once the giant companies saw the handwriting on the wall and quickly grafted over hundreds of acres of Merlot to Moscato, which they then could quickly push out with no bottle age!).

Petite Sirah, obviously, is none of those things, beginning with cheap. There are inexpensive Petite Sirahs, but very, very few of them: in the last two years I’ve reviewed only about a dozen below $20 (of well more than 200 tasted), and of those half-dozen, most were execrable. The best, from the likes of Envy, Turley, Grgich Hills, Sean Thackrey, Frank Family Retro, Rutherford Grove, Chiarello and Summers, all cost between $32-$75, making them rather costly for the average American (although certainly less than Cabernet Sauvignons that had similar point scores). Most of these high-scoring Petite Sirahs, by the way, were from Napa Valley, which is hardly a surprise. The climate (warm and dry) is right, the soils are well-drained, and vintners can afford the viticulture to get things right.

Nor does Petite Sirah fill any particular niche that currently is unfilled. I said in my remarks to the Symposium that Petite Sirah is a distinctive wine, and it is; but it fundamentally is a full-bodied, dry red wine, which tends to have highish alcohol and considerable oak, and in those things, it’s hardly alone. So are Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Zinfandel. So it’s not as if the consumer is forced to buy Petite Sirah if she’s looking for something to drink with the barbecue. There are plenty of other choices.

Finally, there is not yet a great deal of good Petite Sirah to go around. Most of the top examples are produced in the hundreds of cases (which partially accounts for their relatively high prices). You’re not going to find good Petite Sirah at the 7-Eleven. Along these lines, however, I was struck by this article, from the July 5 “The Drinks Business,” to the effect that Santa Rita, the giant Chilean producer, just released its own, first Petite Sirah, called Bougainville. The interesting quote comes from the winery’s technical director, who said, he “had originally intended to buy Syrah [for the new line]. However, he praised the results now being achieved with Petite Sirah” in Chile. So they’re making progress there, too, just as are the Californians.

Well, that won’t hurt to raise Petite Sirah’s visibility, assuming Santa Rita exports Bougainville to the States. Still, Petite Sirah is unlikely to erupt positively onto the consumer’s radar to the extent that everyone will be wanting some this Christmas. But that’s not the point. The way to build a category is one step at a time. Let individual wineries establish their own reputations, among sommeliers, merchants and selected consumers. Let word of mouth spread the message. Let critics praise the wines (as we already are) until consumers, here and there, start thinking, “What is this ‘Petite Sirah’ I keep hearing about?” Curiosity has launched many a trend.

But to expect Petite Sirah to explode like Pinot Noir post-Sideways? Nope. Not until George Clooney and Ryan Gosling make a buddy movie about it.


The new Cali acreage report: Chocolate, vanilla and strawberry continue to rule

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The 2012 California Grape Acreage Report is hot off the presses and the most noteworthy fact is that white winegrape acreage is down from 2011 while red winegrape acreage is up, but just barely: a mere 274 acres, about a tenth of one percent over 2011.

This actually continues the trend of the last ten years: acreage of both red and white varieties has remained nearly constant since 2003. To put this into perspective, in the ten years prior to that (1994-2003), white winegrape acreage increased, albeit only by about 5 percent, while red winegrape acreage during the same period soared, nearly doubling, from 142,000 acres in 1994 to 263,000 acres in 2003

What I make of this, in broad sweeping terms, is:

1.   White winegrape varieties have remained fairly constant in acreage for twenty years because growers know that consumers are buying pretty much as much white wine as they’re capable of.

2.   Growers planted a boatload of red varieties from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s because all the evidence pointed to increased consumption of Cabernet Sauvignon, in particular. Between 1995 and 2003, Cabernet acreage increased by 174%, a greater percentage than any other major red variety. (I think we also can assume that lots of white winegrape vines were budded over to reds.)

So why have the last ten years seen a virtual moratorium on new plantings? It’s puzzling. Maybe a closer look at the data will give some answers.

Of the red varieties, all of the following are down in acreage, since either last year or since 2003: Zinfandel, Merlot, Grenache and Barbera. This suggests that growers believe these varieties don’t have a future (although individual wineries, of course, will continue to specialize in them).

These varieties are up since 2003: Cabernet Sauvignon (+12%), Petite Sirah (+103%), Pinot Noir (+89%) and Syrah (+27%). These are the varieties growers feel are likely to increase in consumption.

The only major white variety that significantly increased in acreage over the last ten years is–you guessed it–Pinot Gris. It’s up 380%, although the starting point was low. Pinot Gris now has 12,473 acres planted in the state, and is poised to overtake Sauvignon Blanc (14,911 acres, and dropping) as the #3 most widely-planted white variety, after Chardonnay and (sigh) lowly French Columbard.

The inescapable conclusion is that California growers are conservative. They plant what has been selling and what they believe will sell. Of course, the public doesn’t necessarily listen to growers; consumers, always a step ahead of the experts, drink what they want. Growers didn’t see Moscato coming, which is why plantings of the various Muscat varieties in California shot up from 2011 to 2012. Nor did growers see Pinot Noir coming before 2004’s Sideways. After that phenomenon, they planted it ferociously.

Still, there’s no escaping the fact that California continues to be basically a chocolate-vanilla-strawberry state when it comes to red and white wine. And that’s a situation unlikely to change anytime soon.


Grenache Blanc’s time to shine

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I’ve been reviewing some really good Grenache Blancs lately that me me wonder if this isn’t the up and coming white variety in California.

Other critics, it seems to me, give more emphasis to Roussanne and Marsanne than they do to GB. But good as those wines can be, they’re sometimes too oaky or heavy in some way. GB on the other hand is usually unoaked or just neutrally oaked, and so pure and bright in fruit and acidity, it offers something for everyone.

For example, the Jaffurs Vineyard 2011 Grenache Blanc, from the Thompson Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley, is one of the best I’ve reviewed this year. It was 35% stainless steel fermented and 65% fermented in neutral oak, which must be responsible for the creamy, smoky notes. But you’d never say this wine is oaky because it isn’t. Also typical of the successful GBs, the wine did not complete the malolactic fermentation, which is the secret behind the bite of green apple acidity that is so cool and refreshing.

I always get orange and tangerine fruit in GBs, although judging by winemakers’ notes, others find everything from melons (cantaloupe and honeydew) to peaches and citron. I can’t imagine a Chardonnay lover not enjoying the richness of a good GB, but I also can’t imagine someone who likes a crisp Pinot Gris or Sauvignon Blanc turning it away. It’s right in that middle of the spectrum, light-bodied, light-hearted and low in alcohol. Makes you think of a summer day in a garden (which is how Hugh Johnson used to describe Rieslings, but it applies equally to GB).

Other fine producers include Zaca Mesa, Tangent, Coghlan, Stark, Tres Hermanos and Tercero. Note the prevalence of Santa Ynez Valley origins. There’s no question that this wonderful, warmish inland valley, in the heart of Santa Barbara’s wine country, has established itself as the capital of Rhône varieties, red and white, in California. The Thompson Vineyard, by the way, is from the Los Alamos Valley, which, I understand, will be an official appellation sooner or later. It’s a very interesting part of the greater Santa Ynez Valley. I think of it as wedged between the warmer, more famous stretches around Los Olivos, Santa Ynez town and Ballard, and the cooler Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills to the west. Los Alamos Valley, then, sits at the balancing point where the valley goes from cool to warm, which is always a nice place for a wine region to be. I suspect somebody could grow a nice Merlot down there, but I don’t know anyone who does, because it would be a hard sell.

If you’re ever down that way, make a quick visit to the funky little town of Los Alamos, which is on the west side of the Freeway. It has some  big antique shops to browse. Eat at Full of Life Flatbread Restaurant, which makes pizzas to dream about. All the local winemakers hang out there. They have a great local wine list. If I lived in the area, I’d be at Flatbread all the time.


Aromatic whites, including Albariño, come of age

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Albarino is one of those grape varieties nobody in California thought too much of, like Pinot Gris and Gruner Veltliner, until comparatively recently.

Why should they have? California vintners fell into two categories in the modern era: those who wanted to sell commodity wines to lots of average consumers, and those who wanted to create prestige brands along the lines of Bordeaux chateaux or Burgundy domains. Either way, that meant producing those old familiar varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. If variety for variety’s sake was desired, the vintner could always throw in a little Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel or something Rhônish.

But something in the California psyche started shifting around the year 2000. I haven’t read much about what instigated this shift, which saw the beginnings of the emergence of what are usually called aromatic whites. There had long been plantings of Riesling and Gewurztraminer in California, but suddenly, one started hearing about Pinot Gris/Grigio, Viognier, Albarino, Gruner, Torrontes and others. Whaf the wines had in common were low to moderate alcohol, keen acidity, bright floral, citrus or green notes and, perhaps most importantly, little or no oak influence to mask the fruit.

What instigated this shift is hard to tell. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. Grape growers are very conservative when it comes to planting; they’re not going to stick anything in the ground they don’t think they can sell. So it didn’t come from the growers. But growers are sensitive to signs around them, and the more acute of them, who have their fingers in the wind all the time to detect changing consumer preferences, know what’s happening before most of the rest of us. Maybe they have a good network of restaurateurs and distributors to keep them abreast of what’s happening out there. Maybe they watch the critics, to see what new variety is being touted. Maybe the appeal for fresh, vibrant white wines really did start among consumers, and then traveled from the ground up. Who knows?

At any rate, it wasn’t until 2003 that I reviewed my first Albarino for Wine Enthusiast, a late date. It was a 2002 from the Lodi winery, Bokisch. It was pretty good; I scored it 88 points and, at $16 in price, it was worthy of an Editor’s Choice special designation. But I can’t say it knocked my sox off.

The first 90 point Albarino I reviewed was the 2004 Havens. It represented a big step above the Bokisch, in terms of utter dryness, light alcohol and a flintiness that was like a lick of cold stone. It put the idea in my mind that Carneros, and cool climates in general, were what Albarino likes.

Since then, the 90 point or higher Albarinos haven’t exactly flooded my doorstep, but they are coming in with greater frequency. Three producers now stand out as the most dependable: Marimar Torres, Longoria and Tangent. Each takes a different approach, but what all have in common is a cool growing region: respectively, the Green Valley of the Russian River, the Santa Ynez Valley and the Edna Valley. I’ve also been impressed lately by Kenneth Volk’s 2011 Albarino from the Santa Maria Valley, a little more-full-bodied than the others, but still Albarino-ey.

This new penchant among consumers for light, aromatic white wines is a very good thing, and I suspect it’s being driven by younger wine drinkers. It takes a certain amount of courage for a diner to request a wine type he’s unfamiliar with and may not even be able to pronounce, even if the sommelier recommends it. My friends who are floor staff confirm that it is indeed younger people who are drinking these aromatic whites, including Albarino, which pairs so well with today’s fresh, ethnic, pan-Asian fare and tapas-style small plates.

Acreage of Albarino is up sharply, although it’s still miniscule compared to other white varieties: a total of 176 acres in 2011. But 72 acres of that were non-bearing, meaning they’d been planted in 2009 or 2010; and I suspect that when the 2012 Grape Acreage Report comes out, we’ll see even higher numbers. Critics have long lamented that Americans are not drinking adventurously, creatively and experimentally. But I think that trope can now be laid to rest.


White Rhône-style blends on the rise? Yes. And please take my reader survey

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First, huge thanks to all of you who took the time to fill out my reader survey yesterday. It had an unbelievable 117 responses the first day! If you still haven’t done it, you can click here to access it. I sure would appreciate it. In a few weeks, this information will help me figure out what to do with steveheimoff.com to make it better.

* * *

I’m often asked which California wine type do I think has made the best improvement over the years. All of them, I usually say, because I think it’s true: California wine is better than I ever remember it, and I’ve been drinking it seriously (I mean studiously) for nigh on 35 years. (Does anyone under the age of 50 say “nigh on”? It means “almost,” of course, and comes from the old German word “Nahe” for “near.” Nahe” is also the name of the German wine region. Can anyone explain this connection? If you can, you get a free subscription to my blog.)

The problem with comparing wines separated by decades of time is that the comparison can only be done in memory, which is fallible. Did I really think David Arthur 2009 Elevation 1147 (99 points, $150), which I reviewed this summer, was better than a 1978 Clos du Val Cabernet (price and alcohol level unrecorded), which I had when it was a few years old? I didn’t rate the latter wine; why would I, years before I became a wine critic? But, to judge by my notes in my Tasting Diary, I thought it was superb (“Gorgeous, beautiful, tannic, but opulent, full of fruit and glycerine. Wish I had waited another 4-5 years [to open]”).

That I found both of these wines superlative, separated by nearly 30 years, is evident, so how can I say that one was better than the other? After all, if the Clos du Val actually was better–and had I been scoring it–I would have had to give it 100 points! So this illustrates some of the pitfalls in saying “California wines are getting better.”

This question of “Are California wines getting better” also arises during discussions of “score inflation” that pop up from time to time. If my scores are higher than they used to be (and they are a little, as Wine Enthusiast’s database shows), a rational explanation is that the wines have improved. However, an equally rational explanation is that my “palate” has changed in some way that prompts me to rate the wines higher. Or perhaps something in my mind has changed, which then influences my palate. It’s hard to say. To further confuse things, there are plenty of people (the anti-high alcohol crowd) who argue that California wines actually are worse than they used to be. They might accuse my palate (and those of critics like me) of having become jaded by these ultra-rich wines, so that anything with finesse or subtlety doesn’t get noticed.

Let’s take a step back. Strictly objectively, you’d have to say that California wines are better than they used to be because they’re less flawed. Fewer bad corks, cleaner wines due to cleaner wineries, healthier rootstocks and plant material, more grapes organically or sustainably grown, and so on.

So you can see that the simple statement “California wine are better than they used to be” is not so simple after all. It’s rather like asking, “Is America better than it used to be?” People of different ages and backgrounds will have all sorts of opinions, but nothing is provable, the way a mathematical equation (2+2=4) is provable to everyone’s satisfaction.

Still, I’d say California wines are better than they used to be. Can’t prove it. Just my opinion. Sue me if you disagree.

Having said that, it got me thinking about what wine type has improved (or seems to have improved) the most over the years. The answer, obviously, is Pinot Noir, but we all know that. Is there another type that’s less obvious? Yes: white Rhône-style blends. I’ve given more high scores to them in the last several years than ever before. Why this should be so, I think, is due to grapegrowers’ ability to better farm these often difficult varietals, and to winemakers’ increasing understanding of how to properly blend this family of grapes, which includes Roussanne, Marsanne, Picpoul Blanc, Grenache Blanc and Viognier.

A California white Rhône blend should be rich, fruity and balanced, although it will seldom equal the opulence of a great barrel-fermented Chardonnay. But the best of them are able to support some oak. Firmer than Chardonnay, nuttier and more floral, with more backbone, they pair well with a wider range of food than does Chardonnay. Some of the better ones I’ve had lately have been Krupp Brothers 2008 Black Bart’s Bride Marsanne-Viognier, Tablas Creek’s 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc and 2011 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (a nice value), Adelaida 2010 The Glenrose Vineyard “Version,” Calcareous 2009 Viognier-Marsanne, Demetria 2009 Cuvée Papou and Kiamie 2009 White Kuvée. Interesting that so many of them come from Paso Robles. Could a cool vintage in a hot climate be just what a white Rhône blend wants?

There still aren’t many of these wines produced. Statewide acreage of Viognier, the most widely-planted white Rhône variety, in 2011 was only 3,020, barely one-thirtieth that of Chardonnay, so the wines must necessarily be rare. Nor do they command particularly high prices, except for cult examples like Alban and Sanguis.

Still, the winemakers committed to making these wines are passionate. White Rhône-style wines haven’t made much of a dent on the national radar, yet; but sommeliers are well aware of them, and so are critics. They could be the Next Big Thing in white wine.


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