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Bordeaux to explore non-Bordeaux varieties? Could happen as soon as this month

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Zinfandel from Bordeaux! Sacre bleu! Yet it could be a reality someday. So could a Bordeaux Chardonnay, Syrah, Chenin Blanc and several other grape varieties, if the heretofore hidebound INAO (National Institute of Appellations), the formal body that regulates such things, decides at the end of this month to allow vignerons to plant grape varieties that have long been illegal in Bordeaux. That’s according to this report from Decanter.

Only 14 red and white grape varieties are now permitted to be grown in Bordeaux, under INAO laws dating to 1935. Given France’s history of bureaucratically-mandated viticulture (who could forget Phillip the Bold’s 1395 banishment of “disloyal Gamay” from Burgundy?), if the authorities permit an expansion of the varietal palate, it would be a major departure from centuries of established practice.

It all stems from the Syndicat des Vins de Bordeaux, the producer organization for AOC Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur, who asked the INAO for permission to plant the non-native grapes. “Bordeaux wines are blend-wines. We wish to test new varietals to know if they can enhance the complexity of our wines,” a spokesman from the Syndicat was quoted as saying on the website, VinoWire. The deal, apparently (if INAO allows it to go ahead), is for 4 estates to vinify the new wines over the next 5 years. Then, “if the results are satisfactory,” reports the blog Bordeaux Undiscovered, “the use of the new grapes will be permitted in the Bordeaux regulations…up to 10% in the blend.” No explanation is provided as to how the results will be determined to be satisfactory or not.

Predictably, the trial balloon is raising some hackles among traditionalists, who don’t want to see change come to Bordeaux. Nick Stephens, who writes Bordeaux Undiscovered, calls it “half-baked,” and wonders if the Syndicat des Vins de Bordeaux is “attempting to change the character of Bordeaux wines to that of their New World cousins?” On that VinoWire website, a guest contributor and wine writer, Hervé Lalau, said it was “pathetic to hear a spokesman of what used to pass as the wine Mecca speaking of ‘enhancing Bordeaux’s complexity’. Does it lack complexity so much that even Bordeaux people confess it?” Then Lalau asked the big question: “This could be like Pandora’s box. If the INAO accepts these new grapes in Bordeaux, then how could it refuse Cabernet in Burgundy, Sauvignon in Châteauneuf and Sémillon in Sancerre?”

Well, it sounds like Bordeaux is becoming California-ized! I personally don’t see what the problem is with Bordeaux trying out new varieties and blends. Bordeaux has to compete in the international wine market just like everybody else. If they can make better, more interesting wines by tinkering with new varieties, great. Here in California, wineries such as Buoncristiani, Swanson, L’Aventure and Treana have achieved stunning success with Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah blends that blow your sox off. Who says that Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur — not the greatest wines to begin with — can’t be better by adding some exotic varieties to the mix?

P.S. Here’s the URL for Tom Wark’s American Wine Blog Awards. If you like my blog, you might consider nominating it in one of these categories, or all three:

- Best writing wine blog
- Best industry/business-oriented wine blog
- Best overall wine blog

Thanks.


California’s great white hope, or how to spot a coming trend

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Here are some of the California whites I’ve been tasting lately: Albariño, Verdelho, Torrontes, Vermintino (AKA Malvasia Bianca), Tocai Friulano, Gruner Veltliner, Cortese, Edelzwicker and Muscat Blanc.

Who woulda thunk? We’ve certainly moved beyond the Usual Suspects, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc! Not to mention Chenin Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Pinot Gris/Grigio and Grenache Blanc

It would have been impossible for me to have tasted this wide a variety of white wines even five years ago, because few wineries, if any, were making them. For example, in 2002 there were less than 100 tons of Tocai Friulano crushed in the state. Last year, it was over 400 tons. Ditto for Verdelho, 169 tons in 2007 versus a paltry 14.8 tons in 2002. Six years ago, there were about 950 acres of Muscat Blanc planted. Last year, it nearly doubled, to 1,700 acres.

So what’s up?

Partly, I guess, it’s vintners looking to hop on the next variety train before it leaves the station. After all, look what happened with Pinot Grigio. But it got me thinking about how to identify the early warning signs of a coming trend. I went down to our big BevMo store in Oakland and asked the guy who works the floor what was happening with white wines. Not much, he said. It seems that retail stores are not the leading indicators of trends. Nor, apparently, is the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Grape Acreage Report; the 2007 edition doesn’t even list Gruner Veltliner, Edelzwicker, Torrontes or Albariño as growing in the state, even though I’ve been drinking them! So I’m concluding that one early indicator of a coming trend — maybe the best one — is what wines are being discovered by critical critters like me (and being reviewed favorably, I might add).

If there is a new wave of whites, it’s great news. It indicates that the A.B.C. movement (“Anything But Chardonnay”) is working. Growers and vintners are thinking that the American consumer is ready to try new things, and they’re responding by making new kinds of wines.

Here are some of the more interesting of these new whites I’ve had lately. The italicized numbers are my Wine Enthusiast scores:

88 Cambiata 2007 Albariño (Monterey); $24
87 Dancing Coyote 2007 Albariño (Clarksburg); $11
90 Lee Family Farm 2007 Silvaspoons Vineyard Verdelho (Alta Mesa); $15
88 Stevenot 2007 Verdelho (California); $14
87 Stevenot 2007 Gran Reserva Torrontes (California); $22
87 David Noyes 2007 Pagani Vineyard Tocai Friulano (Sonoma Valley); $20
87 Von Strasser 2007 Gruner Veltliner (Diamond Mountain); $40
88 Navarro 2007 Edelzwicker (Mendocino); $13
88 Gianelli 2007 Vermentino (Tuolumne County); $18

P.S. Please check out my new blog post at Wine Enthusiast’s Unreserved.


Que sera Syrah?

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I was visiting Ryan over at Paul Marcus Wines, in Oakland’s Rock Ridge district. I asked how Syrah was selling and he made a long face that didn’t require any words to explain.

“In fact,” he said, “I was dusting the shelves the other day and there was more dust in the Syrah section than anyplace else.” (Ryan said Spanish reds are his hottest sellers now.)

Ryan’s quip accorded with numerous complaints I’ve heard from winemakers and winery owners that they can’t sell Syrah. Which is strange, because Syrah would seem to have everything going for it: It’s a pretty French word (like Merlot) that’s easy for Americans to pronounce. It usually makes a good wine and occasionally a great one in California. And it costs less than Cabernet Sauvignon. So why aren’t people drinking it?

Ryan speculated consumers may be confusing Syrah with Shiraz and thinking that Syrah is a big, hearty, robust and rustic wine, as Aussie Shiraz can be. If that’s how people view it, then they’re correct not to spend upwards of $20 or $30 for a bottle of something they think is boonie plonk.

Planted acreage of Syrah has been rising over the years, but not as dramatically as other premium red wine grapes, such as Pinot Noir (double since 1999). There’s 50% more Pinot Noir planted in California than Syrah, whose total statewide acreage, believe it or not, is only a little more than double that of Grenache.

And in the prime coastal areas new Syrah plantings have practically halted. Napa, Sonoma, Monterey, Mendocino and Santa Barbara have added only paltry amounts in the last 5 years. Purchased Syrah grapes actually declined in value last year, falling from $680 a ton to $660 on average. Compare that to Pinot Noir ($2,028 a ton), Cabernet Sauvignon ($998) and even Petite Sirah ($882). In fact, 42 other red varietal grapes cost more to buy in California than Syrah!

I mean, this is Syrah, one of the world’s most noble grape varieties. And people won’t drink it?

There are signs the industry is concerned about a Syrah slump and is gearing up to do something about it. In May, Gallo sponsored a Syrah Symposium in Santa Ynez, and they’re planning on investing in it in coming years to promote both it and Syrah; I know for a fact they want this Symposium to become a Very Important Event. At one of the Symposium seminars, I was struck when several of the panelist-winemakers blamed the wine media for Syrah’s failure to win hearts, minds and wallets. “You guys have to do a better job of educating consumers,” one said.

Well, it’s not the media’s job to promote any one variety, and besides, we in the wine press can only do so much. We can’t force consumers to buy a wine they don’t want.

But I’ll do my part by recommending the best Syrahs I’ve had lately. The numbers in italics are my Wine Enthusiast scores.

95 Novy Cellars 2005 Syrah (Santa Lucia Highlands); $27
95 Sonoma Coast Vineyards 2004 Syrah (Sonoma Coast); $45
95 Failla 2006 Phoenix Ranch Syrah (Napa Valley); $42
95 Signorello 2005 Estate Syrah (Napa Valley); $36
94 Kendall-Jackson 2005 Highlands Estate Alisos Hills Syrah (Santa Barbara County); $40
94 Rubicon Estate 2004 RC Reserve Syrah (Rutherford); $62
94 Kenneth-Crawford 2004 Lafond Vineyard Syrah (Santa Rita Hills); $32
94 Château Potelle 2005 V.G.S. Syrah (Mount Veeder); $75
93 Rusack 2004 Ballard Canyon Reserve Syrah (Santa Barbara County); $36
93 Luko 2005 White Hawk Vineyard Syrah (Santa Barbara County); $52


To look or not, that is the question

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There are different ways to taste wine and different reasons for each. Double blind tasting is where you know nothing about the wine. I’ve even heard of some people blindfolding themselves so they can’t tell the color! (I recall at least one study showing that people can’t distinguish between a red and white wine if they can’t see it.)

Single blind, or just plain blind, tasting is where you know something about the wines, but they’re in bags and you can’t tell which is which.

And then there’s open tasting. This is where you know exactly what the wine is, because you’re looking at the label, and you can read. It calls to mind the old saying, I’d rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy.

Open tasting has the advantage of context. You know this is 2004 Harlan, or whatever. You know the vintage, the producer, the history of the wine, the vineyards. The experience of tasting the wine is another piece of the jigsaw puzzle that Harlan (or any winery) represents. With each tasting, the picture becomes clearer. Tasting out of context can rob you of all the information you need to make a proper judgment. I’ve likened blind tasting to reading the script of Citizen Kane without seeing the movie. Would you be able to identify it as a great film?

In addition, for critics, sometimes there’s no other way to taste a wine except open. Some of the more cult-type wineries insist on having the critic come to them and taste open, often with the winemaker and/or owner. I think most critics agree that this is not an ideal way to taste wine (although we all do it out of necessity), the reason being that a wine usually tastes better at the winery, what with all the hospitality and joy of being in wine country.

Adherents of double blind tasting argue that its primary advantage is a psychological one: If you know nothing about the wine, you can’t possibly have any prejudices about it, for or against. It’s usually double blind tastings that generate eye-popping headlines like TWO BUCK CHUCK BEATS PETRUS.

Wine tasters tend to be absolutists about the different kinds of tasting, with fans of double blind insisting it’s the only honest way to go. Eric Asimov, over at the Times, has argued cogently in favor of open tasting, or, at least, single blind tasting, and I’ve heard for years, from pretty good sources, that Parker has been known to taste open. My own preference is right down the middle: single blind tasting. At home, I know what wines I’m tasting because I’ve chosen them and set them up. (Maybe one of these days I’ll be able to afford an assistant.) But I bag them, switch the corks around, and leave them alone for an hour or two. If you know me, it is perhaps not surprising that, by the time I’m ready to taste, I’ve frequently forgotten what it was that I opened!

I’ve had my triumphs with double blind tasting. The pinnacle was a few years ago, when I nailed a ‘78 Clos du Val. ( I guessed the Reserve, it was the regular, but I still felt pretty good.) But more often my experiences at guessing have been embarrassing failures of the kind that Bernard Ginestet describes, in Emile Peynaud’s excellent book, The Taste of Wine. “I myself have experienced moments of glory where everything seemed obvious to me, and I have also drunk the cup of humility to the dregs when, unable to interpret any clue at all, I have ended up making enormous blunders.”

Which of course brings up the late, great Harry Waugh’s immortal reply to the question, Did you ever mistake Bordeaux for Burgundy? Answer: “Not since lunch.”

How do you taste?


Of fires and whites

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After a long, cool Spring marked by record frosts, Summer has arrived in California with a vengeance. Now they’re saying there’s more than 1,000 fires raging across the state. A few days ago, it was “only” 800. The weather has cooled off, but it’s supposed to heat up again, and the weatherman said there’s a strong possibility of more lightning this weekend. Lightning is what caused most of the existing fires.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the heat’s on and it’s T-shirt time: backyard barbecues, picnics and the beach. Which means white wines. I find it harder to appreciate a red wine, even a very good one, when it’s hot. The body craves wines that are lighter, crisper and cleaner — and colder.

Fortunately California abounds with great whites (sharks as well as wines), and many are usually cheaper than reds (not always). Here are some of the best summer sippers I’ve tasted recently.

Ehren Jordan made a fantastic 2006 Chardonnay ($42) from his Failla estate vineyard. It’s way up and way out in the wild, remote Sonoma Coast mountains, and you can taste a tang of the sea in it.

An equally stunning, but different, 2006 Chardonnay was crafted by John Falcone at Rusack ($32). It’s from the Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County, a sometimes overlooked source of great Chard and Pinot Noir. (Santa Maria is where the Bien Nacido Vineyard is.)

Up in the Anderson Valley of Mendocino, Ted Bennett made the best Muscat Blanc I’ve ever had, the 2006 Navarro ($19). It performs the magical act of tasting honey-sweet but finishing bone dry. Too bad more white wines aren’t this good, and this affordable.

Signorello’s 2006 Seta ($25) is a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. It has the weight and density of a fine Chardonnay, but the flavor profile is rich in citrus fruits and melons. I’ve always wondered why there aren’t more of these white Bordeaux- or Graves-style blends made in California.

For pure Sauvignon Blanc, you can’t beat Matanzas Creek’s 2006 ($24). It was partially barrel-fermented, which adds some creamy, yeasty notes, but it’s the acidity and grassy, lemony taste that really stars. The addition of a little of the Musqué clone adds complexity.

Made along similar lines is Chateau St. Jean’s rich, savory 2006 La Petite Etoile Fumé Blanc. This variety is the same as Sauvignon Blanc; the late, great Robert Mondavi dubbed it Fumé Blanc back in the Sixties. When people call a Sauvignon Blanc Fumé Blanc, it usually means the wine was barrel fermented.

Then there’s Handley’s 2006 Gewurztraminer ($18). Anderson Valley is making a name for itself with Alsatian varieties, and Milla Handley shows a deft touch with this spicy, just off-dry wine. Perfect with veggies with guacamole or cold cuts, especially ham.

Twisted Oak is a bunch of guys up in the rugged Sierra Foothills of Calaveras County. They made a wine whose name is unpronounceable and I won’t even try. It’s their 2006 %@#$! ($24) and it’s a Rhône blend of Marsanne, Roussanne, Rolle and Viognier. A truly interesting and different kind of white wine.

Finally, there’s Casa Nuestra’s 2007 Home Vineyard Old Vines Dry Chenin Blanc ($24). I am decidedly not a Chenin Blanc fan, but Casa Nuestra makes a dependably dry, appley one from their vineyard in St. Helena. There’s no legal definition of “old vines” although there should be (but who wants more government intervention in the wine biz?). In this case, the vineyard dates to the 1960s.

Enjoy your weekend, and if you’re in a fire zone, be safe.


Frankenwine?

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You’ve read for years how red wine’s antioxidant properties are good for your heart and may even prevent cancer. Maybe you don’t like red wine; it gives you a headache. Too bad white wines don’t have the same properties, but they’re not fermented on their skins, like red wines, so white wines don’t have nearly the same level of polyphenols as red wines.

But wait! Now comes news out of Israel that scientists have figured out a way to make white wine with the same antioxidant polyphenols as red wine. The technique was developed at the Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, by Michael Aviram, a professor of biochemistry and medicine. It is said to involve incubating squeezed grapes in the presence of alcohol for 18 hours before removing their skins. This allows the skins to ferment with the pulp before the final fermentation is completed. Aviram says the resulting white wine has the same antioxidant activity as red wine.

You’ll be able to find such heart-protecting wines in the U.S. later this year because an Israeli winery, Binyamina, is planning on releasing a wine that was produced with the Aviram formula. It’s a Muscat, and it’s sweet, because the alcohol is so high that the yeasts can’t complete the fermentation, resulting in residual sugar.

It’s not hard to envision where all this is going. Red wine sales have been on the uptick ever since Morley Safer did his famous “French Paradox” segment on Sixty Minutes in 1991. There have been anecdotal reports ever since that people would drink red wine for its health benefits if it didn’t give them a headache. If Aviram’s technology really works as advertised, then white wine could be the new red. It would help if the wines were dry, but with today’s new genetically-modified (GM) designer yeasts that can function at higher alcohol levels, that shouldn’t be too hard.

But how far down this slippery slope should we go? Critics have already sounded the alarm over GM food products, charging that the necessary safety tests have not been conducted. In the world of wine, harsh criticism has been leveled against GM grapevines and yeasts. Late last year, The Economist reported that many French people view such tinkering as a “war on terroir,” while here in the States, wines made with GM techniques have been dubbed “Frankenwine.” Such tinkering at the genetic level opens up vistas that previously existed only in science fiction. As The Economist mused, “Why should sauvignon blanc be stuck with boring old gooseberry and cabernet sauvignon with cassis? Genomics could beget some novel wine flavours and combinations to ensure the wine really does go with the food…”.

I’m all for conducting safety tests. We don’t want to be putting anything into our bodies that could harm us or the gene pool. But I have a feeling that some people will never be satisfied with anything GM because it just rubs them the wrong way. They’re philosophically opposed to it. What do you think about GM grapes, yeasts, vines and wines?



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