Top Rated Wineries – Sonoita AVA, AZ

Banfi Stock Photo in Italy

This is a beautiful pic of an Italian vineyard, without VSP trellising. Somehow, this producer manages to make great wine. Thinking outside the box and regional differences are not necessarily a bad thing… not today’s topic though.

I advocate for balanced and restrained wines in every category. This style is a passion for me and I hope for others as well. I will be making the case for why these wineries are some of the best in their respective regions. It will be addressed one American Viticultural Area (AVA) at a time. Since my most recent tour and interviews were in Arizona, we can begin there.

Sonoita AVA – Sonoita, AZ

Stock Photo of Sonoita Grasslands, Arizona.

Sonoita AVA is a high-altitude (4,500-5,000 ft), warm climate wine growing region. The soils are mostly types of sandy loam, with a high pH character both in the soils and water. The terroir (growing environment) mirrors many wine regions in Southern Italy and Spain, but the elevation adds a significant wrinkle. Historically, the area began with trying to produce Bordeaux style wines (Cab Sauv, etc.), but a better understanding of the growing conditions and trial and error have moved the vineyards towards French Southern Rhone (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, etc.), Spanish (Tempranillo, Graciano, etc.) and Southern Italian (Aglianico, Sangiovese, etc.) red varietals. Today’s white varietals are also warm climate: Viognier, Malvasia Bianca, Petit Manseng, etc. The individual grape varieties are not the important part of this story though, as many AZ wines are blends and the varietals often change by vintage due to so many new plantings in the area. The next varietal up will be Greek Assyrtiko – the climates are similar, although the soils are quite different. Maybe… it will be the next big find, like Petit Manseng was in the last few years.

The List

These four Sonoita wineries make wines the closest to my palate. Although other wineries there make good wine, these producers deliver consistent quality and have winemakers with palates similar to mine. Does that make them the best wineries in this region? Possibly, but that judgement also depends on your taste. None of these wineries are making the fruit-forward, high alcohol, slightly sweet, low acid/tannin red blends that have become more common today (i.e. Apothic brand). These Sonoita wines are a serious attempt at chasing the premium wine category and they all succeed in some fashion. Whether or not you agree, this list is certainly a great starting place for an introduction to the region. In no particular order, they are:

Callaghan Vineyards

Tasting Room Entrance

Winemaker – Kent Callaghan the owner, vineyard manager and winemaker is a man of historic proportion to the local industry. His family has consistently nurtured the growth of the Southern AZ wine scene through their generous help and support to the local wine community and his accepted role as technical resource for the area. Since 1991, he and his family have been producing wine in Sonoita.

Wines – The first Callaghan wines I tasted date back to the late 90’s vintages. I have never tasted a Callaghan release that was not a quality wine. Their wines have been served at the White House during several administrations and generally have received enough notoriety to say they set the quality standard for the area. The wines are always made to deliver the character of the local terroir, while offering the best contribution to his vision for premium wines. While the Callaghan wines have not necessarily been restrained over the years, they have been balanced and both ageable AND approachable young. This character is what makes the wines special and is a testament to Kent’s knowledge in the vineyard and winemaking skill.

Wines to Try – All. Look for blends and single bottlings of Grenache, Mourvedre, Graciano and Tannat for reds and Malvasia Bianca and Petit Manseng for the whites and enjoy.

Rune Wines

Outdoor Tasting Area

Winemaker – James Callahan is the owner and winemaker here. He also makes the wine for Deep Sky Vineyards (also on this list), but Rune is where his palate and sensibility really shine through. James makes wine I consistently enjoy. He has had extensive experience in several different wine regions and more importantly, has developed a diverse and educated palate in his travels. His emphasis is on building the whole wine profile and that includes balance and mouthfeel, in a restrained style. These are the kind of wines that appeal to enthusiasts and foodies. Attention to the nuanced details really shines through, perhaps because of the more understated approach.

Wines – It is rare you can taste a winemaker’s vision in the wine. If you enjoy medium bodied wines that aren’t too high in alcohol, consider a visit. James has a vision for the impact of his wines and they deliver.

Wines to Try – The Syrah is the flagship and is good, but find the Grenache and Viognier. They are representative of the best of the region and capture a real fine wine experience.

Twisted Union Wine Company

Winery – This winery’s story is about the large ownership team, not an individual. All with experience in a different aspect of the industry, together they bring a total skillset to the organization that somehow… just works. The group is only together 4-5 years and is already producing a quality product. I am looking forward to what their future endeavors bring. This is a beautiful facility worth visiting to enjoy the space. For an area with limited accommodations, they offer two very spacious and well-appointed rooms for local stays. The vineyard is still a work in process and will likely be re-planted in the near future. A producing estate vineyard will be an important addition.

Wine – These are well thought-out wines. Since the vineyard is not producing yet, they acquire fruit from the local area and California, with an eye on blending for quality. The wines produced are balanced and have a sensibility worth exploring.

Wines to Try – The reds here are good, but the whites are exceptional: look for the Malvasia Bianca and Viognier. Although, the special wine at this tasting was the Roussanne. I am not usually a fan of Roussanne in general, but this bottling was special – balanced, with just the right acid level and an accompanying soft mouth-feel. A profile I often search for in a white wine.

Deep Sky Vineyards

Tasting Room Building from Vineyard

Winemaker – James Callahan is the winemaker here too. We established James’ credentials in the Rune Wines description, but at Deep Sky the sensibility is different. Bigger wines with higher alcohol in a more ageable style. The same balance is there, but with a serious structure that has higher tannin and acidity as a solid backbone.

Wines – This is the AZ home for Malbec. The owner Phil Asmundson (Sci-Fi writing fame) also owns another winery in the Uco Valley in Argentina. This is a special opportunity at their tasting room to try the Argentina and Arizona Malbecs side-by-side. They are different, reflecting the different location and terroir. Deep Sky offers other varietal wines and with James at the production helm, you know they are made well.

Wines to Try – The Malbecs of course. These are best with a few extra years of bottle age on them, but well worth the wait.

Dos Cabezas Wineworks

Tasting Room Bar

Winemaker – Todd Bostock is the owner, vineyard manager and winemaker here. He has had some success in the past acquiring distribution for Dos Cabezas wines in and out of state, but the three-tier distribution system (topic for another article) leaves very little room for a small winery to make a profit. Todd has been busy changing the game plan, focusing on moving their distribution to direct-to-consumer retail sales. The tasting room in downtown Sonoita has added a larger food menu and is pairing dishes with food-friendly wines – focusing on the tasting experience. Their specialty is gourmet pizza, but other food dishes are also available.

Wines – The wines here are terroir driven and represent the region well. The thinking is clear, blends are the answer to making approachable, food friendly wines with structure. Todd has a deft hand at building wines to drink now, or age. These blends are a broad mix of varietals, attempting to use the strengths of each varietal to compliment the other and build the profile to match Todd’s vision for the wines. The vintage variation is managed by varying the percentage mix to take advantage of the strength of each year’s fruit crop. The latest adventure has been a fun release of sparkling rose in a can. It is amazing how versatile sparkling wines are. They accompany a wide variety of foods so well!

Explore Something Different

Hops & Vines

Tasting Room Area

Winery – The founding story and the two Owners here provide reason for consideration and addition to this list. Megan Stranik and Amanda Zouzoulas originally started this winery on a shoestring. Today, the continuing operation is limited to re-invested profits, with an eye on maintaining a down-to-earth atmosphere. The winery concept was built on lampooning the sometime high-brow attitude in the wine industry. A light-hearted attitude sorely missing from many wine circles. The two are making the world of wine more accessible and have opened the eyes of an entirely different community of potential wine drinkers.

Winemaker – Megan makes some very good wine, with very little to work with. She has her challenges and sometimes encounters factors outside of her control, but I enjoy her wine sensibility. I am not sure how the local industry perceives her, but she deserves to be taken seriously. Her palate is educated and they are making restrained wines of a much higher caliber than their party atmosphere would suggest.

Wines – You can either have fun with these labels, or look past the marketing and try some serious wines. Visit their tasting room and taste through them. I am sure you will find wines you enjoy. I did.

Overview

Sonoita AVA is still evolving and has not really “found itself” yet. I originally came here with the expectation of tasting some good reds, but the big surprise was the quality of the white wines! As of today, roughly only 10% of the wine produced here is white, but that is changing. The story that drives many decisions in the wine industry here is two-fold: 1) The lack of pure growers and well-managed vineyards, and 2) The barrier of entry to estate winery ownership caused by the high cost of vineyard development. The end result is generally more demand than supply. While not a problem necessarily, it does have the potential to bring down the overall quality of the wines in the area. I will be very curious to see where the next few years take this wine region. It seems to me, all the components are in place for serious growth and overall improved quality. The future is looking bright for all of Arizona’s wine regions!

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Ideas to Influence Wine Selection

High Yield Vineyard

At least a third of the wine I purchase each year is from unfamiliar wine producers, especially from outside the U.S. How am I comfortable doing this? Most of my purchases, even from producers I know, is based on reviews, tasting notes and professional and amateur ratings. Vintage variation demands it. So, what other information can I use to determine whether I will enjoy unfamiliar wines? There are several other strategies, including researching: the winemaker’s style, the regional style where the wine is produced, the growing conditions (soil, climate, etc.) for the fruit and finally, the vineyard management and harvest strategy for the fruit. This may seem like more work than you care to put into the decision, but if you purchase 200-300 bottles per year like me, it is a necessity. Let’s look at the last strategy on the list in greater detail…

Does Vineyard Yield Matter to a Wine Drinker?

Look at the feature photo above this article for a sec. Common practice in many premium wine regions is to allow one cluster per shoot. This vineyard is different…

Am I suggesting you should ask your local wine shop about yield and vineyard management for each bottle you purchase? Well yes, sort of. Vineyard yield is a big part of the story for estate wineries. Most wineries producing premium wines usually graph yield against quality data, to find optimum production. It varies by varietal and growing conditions (Terroir, in the industry), but most premium wineries are harvesting around 2 tons/acre on 4′(vine) x 6′(row) vine spacing. Growers selling to jug wine producers, often harvest over 8 tons/acre. You would think a winery could produce four times more wine with four times more fruit. While this is true, you need to add optimum quality into the mix. Am I suggesting the average wine enthusiast can taste the difference between wines made from different vineyard yields? Yes I am, and here is how…

Yield Impact on Wine Character

To harvest the larger crop, you need: a warm climate, high daily percentage of sunshine, more irrigation water and fertile soil. This is your first clue. The location (Terroir) can be an indication. Some of the best vineyards in the world are in cooler regions, with arid conditions and soil so rocky, it looks like nothing would grow. The idea with premium vineyards is to “stress” the vines to the max, driving smaller berry size and the associated increased complexity and concentration of flavors. When making the decision whether to limit crop size, a winemaker has to think about: alcohol (sugar in fruit), pH (acidity in fruit), concentration (flavors in fruit) and structure (tannin, phenols in fruit). All of these are impacted by crop yield and harvest timing decisions. Work with me here… if you enjoy monster 17% alcohol, fruity red Zinfandels, you won’t care about the rest of this article, but if you enjoy balanced, food friendly wines that won’t get you drunk after a half bottle consumed, please read on…

Balanced Wines

“Balanced” is a term typically reserved for medium bodied wines with: under 14.5% alcohol, good acidity and medium tannins with good mouth-feel. That is a long description for wines that don’t hit you over the head and will taste good with, or without food. If this sounds like the kind of wine you enjoy, it requires a harvest strategy in the vineyard to get there. Premium vineyards require warm, sunny days to ripen, but cool nights/mornings to develop acidity. It is the reason why most premium fruit is harvested at night, to keep the acidity as high as possible. Issues like sugar content in the fruit (Brix, in the industry) is modulated by ripeness – pick too early and the structure and complexity can suffer. Over-water and it can dilute flavors and concentration.

Can You Taste the Difference?

I often taste wines looking for these characteristics, more than the flavors. High yield vineyards tend to produce wines that can be: watery/diluted, flabby and missing acidity, have candied, or jammy fruit flavors and have higher alcohol. This is the most severe example. Even with this jug wine growing strategy, you may not taste some, or any of these characteristics, because winemakers can breakout their chemistry set. Common additives can make a big difference in the wine, these include: adding tartaric acid for acidity and/or fruit juice for flavors and sweetness (etc.) in an effort to overcome the poor fruit quality. Although, “forcing” wine to match a better profile can also be detected by looking for: “sharper” bitter acidity, grape juice flavors, oily texture, residual sweetness and/or too much alcohol. All of these characteristics are your indication the winemaker is trying to cover up other problems. Better wine through manipulation is a strategy that often does not work in making quality wines. Selecting wines to buy without tasting can be hit, or miss… even with recommendations. So, if researching vineyard yield before buying can improve your chances of finding wine you enjoy, why not?

Postscript

This topic is one of the most vehemently argued ideas in the wine industry. It has significant impact on grower and winery profitability. This is especially true in growing regions dominated by wine grape “farming” (agricultural growers, rather than estate wineries). Lodi AVA is a good example. When I was there touring wineries and growers 5-6 years ago, this was a VERY hot topic. At the time, the largest bulk wine producer in the U.S. was taking about 70% of the fruit production in the area and paying by ton of yield, regardless of quality. The other 30% was being produced by wineries trying to overcome the negative quality reputation driven by the 70%. There are some great vineyards in Lodi AVA in locations with cooler nights. Those owned by estate wineries in particular are making very good wine from that fruit. Keep in mind, there is a built-in bias associated with maximizing fruit production and I have spoken with many growers who still believe vineyard yield makes no difference in the final wine quality. I am convinced untrained palates can often tell the difference, depending on the skill of the winemaker… therein lies the rub. Experienced, highly skilled winemakers able to overcome these challenges via manipulating the juice (Must, in the industry) are more likely to work at wineries attempting to grow/buy better quality fruit. Like usual, most contentious issues are rarely simple.

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Winery Owner on Your Bucket List?

Zarpara Vineyards – from AZ Central

Minimal Barrier to Entry

Are you a successful professional and serious wine enthusiast dreaming of owning your own winery in an established AVA, only to find the start-up costs in California are insane? Have you investigated California vineyard properties costing $75K per acre, or more? No one individual with business ownership experience would ever consider an opportunity with near zero ROI in the first five years and a 10-15 year payback. Well, hello AZ at $1-2K per acre!

Even still, an estate winery start-up is not cheap: $30K+ per acre to prep the soil, purchase and plant the vines, plus VSP trellising system and five year wait for mature vines, etc. Considering it normally requires a minimum of 1,500 cases of production output ($400-500K revenue) for the beginnings of a profitable winery business, add the major risk of variable climate/weather and you will have to bite-off a huge chunk of both savings and determination to go down this road… but if the countryside lifestyle, the great industry people, connection to fine wine & culinary culture and rubbing elbows with the rich & famous makes it worth it, AZ is your destination!

Higher Ed Degree Programs, Research and Incubators

There is a program accredited by Yavapai Community College offering a two-year Oenology degree located in the new Verde Valley AVA run by Michael Pierce (trained/experienced AZ winemaker) that has been in operation for a few years now. They currently have 15 acres of planted vineyard and are producing roughly 1,500 cases of student-made wine. The Agricultural Extension at University of AZ is also now getting serious with research surrounding climate and fruit production for the local wine growing industry. Maynard Keenan helped to start the custom crush and industry incubator facility “Four Eight Wineworks” in the Verde Valley AVA. A real place where winemakers can cut their teeth. By the way, if you have not seen Maynard’s wine movie “Blood into Wine”. Track it down. It is a fun intro to the AZ wine industry.

Continuing AZ Legislation to Encourage Wine Tourism

AZ now has a significant retail wine footprint in the Sedona-Grand Canyon tourist area, with many new projects for wine tasting rooms in planning. The recent legislation allowing licensed in-state wineries to have two satellite tasting rooms instead of only one, has caused a boom in planned tasting rooms for construction in the Sedona-Cottonwood area.

Crazy AZ Wineries and Distribution

I have been writing about California and Washington wineries for more than 10 years and I have not found one that decided to self-distribute without a major Direct-to-Consumer sales footprint via an established tasting room experience. Without a tasting room, or commercial distribution agreement, the wine business can be a pretty lonely affair. In AZ, I found two, both with high quality wines. Break-even with this scenario seems impossible, but you need to understand the special nature of the AZ wine industry. There are several contributing factors: 1) Current advantages from state statutes making it more difficult for out-of-state competition (licensing/tax barriers) and creating sales advantages for in-state grower/producer/local self-distributors, 2) The 3-tier distribution system bloating retail pricing by including two additional mark-ups, and 3) In-state wine demand exceeding supply. These two wineries load-up personal vehicles and deliver cases of wine to customers at their homes on periodic runs through the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas. It took me weeks to get my head around this wine business model.

AZ Wine Identity

The area is finally starting to find a wine identity and is slowly coming around to the realization: the best wines use what the terroir gives. Forced wine styles do not work consistently well and because of this the local industry has been experimenting with lesser-known warm climate varietals native to the Rhone, S. Italy and Spain. Some of these wines are fabulous, surprisingly enough – especially the whites. Don’t be scared by varietals you may not recognize, because the whites (Viognier, Malvasia Bianca, Petit Manseng, Picpoul Blanc) and reds (Tempranillo, Graziano, Syrah, Grenache, Aglianico) are tasting as good as many popular California wines. The blended wines are definitely the best expression of AZ terroir. When the wine industry began in AZ in the late 80’s, the few vineyards that were planted attempted to plant Bordeaux varietals and the results were of mixed success. Although, a friend of mine and trained wine judge Jay Bileti (yes, AZ has trained wine judges too!) and I were recently given a Sonoita Vineyards ’89 Bordeaux style blend from their library that we enjoyed with a wonderful meal of Ossobuco made by his wife Lynn and it was very good!

Talented Winemakers

I interviewed several talented winemakers in the last few weeks. They are making wines of unique character and style. With fruit-forward, balanced profiles that would stand-up to any evaluation as “premium wines”, anywhere in the world. The last time I tasted through the state about eight years ago, it was difficult to find a winemaker able to make consistently good wine, although there were a few: Kent Callaghan, Maynard Keenan, Eric Glomski were examples. In my opinion, the strength of the AZ wine identity will be blended whites & reds. Leading you to the idea: fortune will smile on winemakers with classically trained palates, able to leverage that knowledge to deliver the best possible product from the local terroir. This was an absolute necessity to take AZ wine to the next level.

Critical Mass

AZ has definitely reached the critical mass juncture. The local wine industry and it’s future is exceedingly bright. The resources are in place to support a vibrant and successful wine community. The past several weeks of AZ winery tours and interviews have generated a significant amount of material and brought many insights into the AZ wine industry. Many more articles to come!

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Changing Arizona Wines

Lisa Callaghan – Callaghan Vineyards

A friend and wine judge (Jay Bileti) and I spent four days of intensive touring through the Southern Arizona wine country about 10 days ago and were pleasantly surprised. The quality of wine overall had significantly improved since my last serious visit to this area eight years ago. This visit produced tasting notes on many premium wines and a large selection of well-made value wines.

We tasted roughly 30 different varietals and numerous non-traditional red and white blends. There is still much searching for identity and character of terroir here, but producers are closer to consistent quality product than ever before. Warm climate Rhone, Southern Italian and Spanish varietals seem to produce the best wines here: Viognier, Petit Manseng, Malvasia Bianca and Picpoul to name a few whites and Syrah, Grenache, Tannat, Aglianico, Tempranillo and Graziano on the red side. Don’t be scared off by the unusual grape varieties. There is high-caliber wine making going on here and the most successful wines are the blends. The identity of the Arizona wine industry will likely become the home of high-quality non-traditional white and red blends. Some of the white wines (who would have guessed) in particular could be served in the premium category anywhere in the world.

Just like any California wine area, if you are a serious wine aficionado, you will want to do your homework before deciding to visit these up-and-coming AVA’s. I would be happy to make some recommendations, if you would like to drop me a note. With the warm climate, I was surprised to find the most successful wines were those made with less intervention and in a more understated, balanced profile. For those that like the big fruity wines, there is still plenty of that wine style to taste.

I will be writing about the winemaker interviews and research that has been going into my evaluation of the wine, wine industry and terroir here and I look forward to introducing you to what I believe will be a top quality wine location in the years to come. I followed the Paso Robles, Walla Walla and Santa Barbara regions on their rise and in many ways, Arizona is on the same path.

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Food, Wine and Climate Change

Harvard Business School Graphic
(Harvard Business School Reference Material)

Wine and Food Products by Location

The importance of climate in vineyard management can not be over-stated. The entire European culinary and beverage marketing model establishes food/wine character BY LOCATION. This European developed idea to turn place-names into unique trademarks defining specific flavors and aromas has been the cornerstone of worldwide food and wine marketing for decades. The same thinking caused governments to establish laws and trademark protections for food and wine production. Wine laws arguably could be the most stringent. Here are a few of the most famous wine examples: American Viticultural Area (AVA) in the U.S., Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) in France and Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) in Italy. This concept also applies to specialty foods: Parmesan Reggiano cheese may only come from Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Bologna, IT, Roquefort cheese can only be made in Roquefort, FR, Prosciutto de Parma can only be made in Parma, IT, etc. If you have never tasted these original foods (and not imitations), you need to splurge a little and buy these imported products. The difference in flavor is astonishing.

Impact of Climate Change on Wine Production

The French terroir concept is the basis of this wine marketing by area idea and has been developing for hundreds of years in Europe. It is the primary driving factor behind the establishment of wine laws controlling vineyard and winemaking practices by location. The definition of Terroir:

Complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as soil, topography, and climate. – AND / OR – The characteristic taste and flavor imparted to a wine by the environment in which it is produced.

(Oxford Dictionary)

Climate has a direct impact on the terroir idea defined above. It affects many choices for producers, ie. grape varietals to plant, when to harvest, control of crop size, how to water, conditioning/fertilizing of soil, etc. All of these affect wine character, flavors and aromas. So, what is coming for the wine and food industries due to climate change? Hang on… crystal ball is out, here we go…

Vineyards and Resulting Wine by Location

Common thinking has been that vineyards should be planted between the 30th and 50th parallels (latitude) around the globe, both northern and southern hemispheres. Cool climate reds like pinot noir often are best grown near the 45th parallel and warm climate reds like nero d’avola and shiraz near the 35th. Cool climate whites like riesling are often grown near the 50th parallel (ripening reliably compared to past) and warm climate like petit manseng near the 35th. Vineyard elevation can affect this range, but only minimally. The impact is not just temps, but also length and intensity of sunlight during the growing season.

The most consumed varietals in the world: cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay are best grown in a much narrower range: 40-45th parallel. Why is this important? What if the most famous cab sauv growing region in the world (Bordeaux, France) became too hot for premium cab sauv wine production? Would these producers accept: producing poor quality wine, over-manipulate the wine to change its character, or tear out cab sauv vines and plant warmer climate varietals like aglianico and petit sirah? French wine laws would fall apart with any of these options and as a result wine consumers might change their ideas about where the best wines in the world are produced.

Climate Impact on Commonly Grown Wine Grapes

When cab sauv is grown in cooler areas, the wine acquires vegetal flavors: green bellpepper and tomato are common. When chardonnay is grown in warmer climates, it becomes too fruity and loses it signature acidity. What would happen if Burgundy, France became too warm to grow quality pinot noir, or Napa, CA became too warm for cab sauv? The transition has already begun… I have been collecting and tasting wine since the 90’s and red burgundy has become fruitier and Napa reds have become flabbier. Many Napa producers have already begun manipulating their wines to adjust for the differences. One option is to harvest earlier, but then the pips (seeds) are not allowed to ripen and complex flavors are lost. In Napa, where the area’s signature cab sauv is very fruity, this option would change the whole character of the regions’ wine production.

Changes and Timelines

Climate change has been slowly accelerating, but still is not likely to have a serious impact on wine in my lifetime. Although, consider this thought: a wine vineyard requires 5-10 years to fully mature and begin producing premium fruit for wine production. This requires thinking in terms of decades, not years. The last 25 years of climate change has seen a noticeable difference in the character of wine in many regions. Not enough to change the wine industry substantially, but at this rate, what will another 25 years bring? Will vineyard managers have the vision to react in advance, when there is still time to save the current wine styles of today? Will the industry opt to tear-out current vineyards and replant warmer climate grape varietals, or decide to abandon warming vineyard sites for planting in cooler climate areas farther north? It is likely to be too expensive to abandon existing vineyard sites… so my crystal ball shows the younger generations of wine drinkers adapting to Petit Sirah and Petit Manseng…

This has been a very interesting topic. If others in the trade have different ideas regarding the impact of climate change on the industry, please drop me a note. I am always curious about new strategies… and no, please do not suggest adding citric acid to the final product, thank you…

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Austrian Wine Scandals

The Most Horrific Wine Event of the 20th Century

I was reading a recent Meininger Wine Business Report and found this piece: https://www.wine-business-international.com/wine/news/wine-adulteration-austria.

For those that are not familiar with Austria and its history with wine, this article will familiarize you with the 1985 scandal when millions of bottles for domestic and export sales were found to have had diethylene glycol (similar to automobile antifreeze) added. This stuff can be very unhealthy. But, on the upside, it does make the wine fuller bodied and sweeter. Nice trade-off there. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt, but the result of that mess was the destruction of 36 million bottles of Austrian wine and the complete collapse of their wine industry. It would take almost 20 years and the addition of numerous laws and legal safe-guards for their wine industry to fully recover. There has finally been a huge resurgence in the popularity of Austrian wines in the last decade.

Latest Austrian Scandal

In several wine producing countries, it is illegal to add any type of glycerine to wine. Unfortunately, in the U.S., it is permitted. There is a huge difference between synthetic glycerine and vegetable glycerine. The synthetic type CAN be quite toxic. The vegetable version is very safe, but desirable as a wine additive? (discussion to follow below) 25,000 bottles were discovered and destroyed in Austria that were found to have synthetic glycerine added this year. The added substance in question was a trivalent alcohol that gives wine a higher viscosity and is harmless, but is forbidden by Austrian law. This synthetic glycerine was petroleum-based. Convictions and fines were the result. Sentences are not yet legally binding though. With Austria’s past, any chance of toxicity is serious bad form.

Wine Additives

Some of the additives listed below are illegal in certain countries, but most are permitted in the U.S. Although, we don’t get to know which are used in the wine we drink, BECAUSE WINE HAS BEEN EXEMPTED FROM USFDA FOOD LABELING REQUIREMENTS. What does this mean to you personally? Well, nothing here is outright dangerous, but don’t underestimate the impact on allergies, tolerances and such. For example, my wife has a known allergy to soy, others find they have limited tolerance to added sulfites, etc. In general, all of these can affect color, flavors, aromas and the viscosity of wine. Your reaction to this discussion might be: “but, these additives are only used in cheap wine”. You would be very wrong. This list is commonly used in all price categories.

Here is a short list of common wine additives:

  • Citric, Fumaric, Malic, Lactic and Tartaric acids – to acidify wine
  • Calcium Carbonate – to de-acidify wine
  • Oak and Oak Chips – to add tannin, flavors & aromas
  • Acetaldehyde – to stabilize color
  • Copper Sulfate – to eliminate sulfites and mercaptans (bad tastes/odors)
  • Sulfur Dioxide, Potassium Sorbate – to sterlize and preserve wine
  • Mega Purple – to add color and body
  • Tannin Powder – to add mouth-feel and make wine more ageable
  • Gum Arabic – to reduce astringency (tannin) in wine
  • Dimethyl Dicarbonate – to stabilize, sterilize and remove alcohol
  • Sugar, Saccharose, or Grape Juice Concentrate – to add sweetness also called “chaptalization”
  • Vegetable Glycerine – to add body and sweetness
  • Gelatin, Albumin (egg white), Bentonite, Casein – to remove haziness caused by free proteins
  • Water – to dilute over-concentrated wine
  • Engineered, Cultured Yeasts – to control the fermentation process (vs. wild yeasts)
  • Diammonium Phosphate – removes naturally occurring sulphur in wine
  • Protease – improves wine heat tolerance
  • Soy Flour – Feeds yeast to accelerate fermentation

Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wine

All of this talk of additives has to lead your mind toward interventionist vs. non-interventionist winemaking philosophies. Have you considered the issue for your own wine consumption? Personally, I believe I can taste the difference in over-manipulated wines. Napa Valley producers in the low to medium price range have been utilizing these methods more of late. This is the key reason why my personal wine cellar has been moving towards a higher percentage of French and Italian wines, especially in the low-medium price ranges. France and Italy have very stringent wine laws regarding additives and in general, have winemaking cultures of less intervention. So, if you would like to address this issue, how can you know which U.S. wines to buy? It may be time for you to read the back label of that next bottle of wine… Wine in the U.S. can be “labeled” as organic, biodynamic, natural and sustainable… and can also be certified as such by a third party. Many U.S. wineries are implementing at least some of these practices. Here is what these terms mean:

  • Natural – Typically are made in a low-intervention style, fermented with native yeasts and contain only trace amounts of added sulfites. These wines are not filtered, or fined. This means they could contain particulates, or appear cloudy. Which is not necessarily a problem. These wines should have gone through the bare minimum of chemical, or winemaker intervention and are not often aged in oak. Wines produced with this approach may have limited stability and cannot be mass-produced, but are a different drinking experience, if you should choose to try them.
  • Organic – These wines fall into two categories: organic wine and wine made from organically grown grapes. Certified organic wines (USDA) have stricter regulations. Vineyards must not use synthetic fertilizers and all ingredients in these wines (including yeast) must be certified organic. No sulfites may be added, although naturally occurring is permitted. These wines will display the USDA organic seal.
  • Biodynamic – Unlike organic winemaking, biodynamic does not change between countries. When originally devised, the method had each day organized by fruit days (grape harvesting), root days (pruning), leaf days (watering) and flower days (vineyards to be untouched). Biodynamic practices are not required to follow this calendar, however. If you’ve seen biodynamic and organic wines grouped together at your wine shop, there is a reason. Biodynamic wines employ organic practices. They avoid pesticides and depend on compost, rather than chemical fertilizer. Therefore, the majority of these wines are also organic in practice. Certified biodynamic wines are permitted to contain up to 100 parts per million of sulfites, far more than the USDA certified organic wines. So, a wine that is organic is not necessarily biodynamic, although a wine that is biodynamic is often organic.
  • Sustainable – These wineries make an effort to utilize winemaking processes that protect the environment, support social responsibility, maintain economic feasibility, and are of high quality. This idea has less of a direct impact on the wine, but is an “eco-friendly” designation.

Here is a link to a page with detailed descriptions of all organic wine designations: https://organicvineyardalliance.com/organic-wine-definitions-behind-the-label/.

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2015 Justin Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve

Producer: Justin Vineyards

Varietal: Cabernet Sauvignon

Appelation: Paso Robles AVA, Sub-Appelation of Central Coast AVA, California

Vintage: 2015

Score: 92 pts. – 100 pt. Scale, 17 pts. – 20 pt. Scale

Provenance: Buyer Cellared Original Purchase

Tasting Note

This wine continues to improve with bottle age. Alcohol dominates the nose with blackberry and plum. The palate follows and adds black cherry. The fruit is very fresh and almost sweet, without residual sugar. Alcohol content is well integrated on the palate. There is high acidity and medium tannins. The finish is medium+ in length and very fruity. The fine-grained tannins provide a very soft mouth-feel after only six years in the bottle. This is a fairly balanced approach that could continue to improve in the next 3-4 years in the bottle. The last five Justin vintages (or so) have done a decent job of threading the needle between a New World taste, with an Old World sensibility. Still more fruit forward than I would prefer and the fruit over-powers any attempt at complexity.

Paso Climate

The climate on the West side of Paso offers very hot days and cool nights. This area is much warmer than most of Napa Valley. These conditions can produce very rich, over-ripe and flabby cab sauv, if the producer is not careful. That is the reason this AVA has traditionally been viewed as a Southern Italy and Southern Rhone style growing region and the majority of vineyards are planted in hot climate varietals, like zin, syrah, grenache & mourvedre. Justin is one of the few Paso producers that has been able to produce quality cabs. The purity of fruit on the palate IMO is one of their hallmarks and I would guess, they are sorting the fruit heavily to achieve the correct fruit profile. Some Zin producers in Paso and Lodi actually sort to find the dried, raisin-like berries. This generates a more jammy wine profile. I would bet Justin does the opposite and drops all the raisins, opting for a fresher fruit profile. I need to visit their winemaker and discuss their process. I hope to be able to post an interview in the next year.

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Filed under Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles, U.S. Wines by Region, Wine by Varietal, Wine Collecting, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

Chasing Napa Cult Status

Producer: Vineyard 7 & 8

Release: “7” Label

Varietal: Cabernet Sauvignon

Appelation: Spring Mountain AVA, Sub-Appelation of Napa AVA, California

Vintage: 2007

Score: 91 pts. – 100 pt. Scale, 16 pts. – 20 pt. Scale

Provenance: Buyer Cellared Original Purchase

Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

I am always conflicted when judging these premium Napa cabs made to chase after a “cult” profile. So many American wine enthusiasts enjoy this style of wine, that I feel as if I am not being fair in my evaluation. If you have tasted Caymus, or Silver Oak, you have been introduced to the lower price point for this New World style of wine that can run upwards of $1,000/btl (Harlan Estate for example). These super fruity, high alcohol, smooth drinking red wines often struggle to get past the downside of over-ripe harvesting and winemaker manipulation. At the higher price-points, sometimes the producer succeeds, but more often not. If you would like to taste the premium Old World opposite, you could try Sassicaia from Bolgheri, Italy ($200/btl), or Pontet Canet from Bordeaux, France ($150/btl). I am not a big fan of the Napa new oak (vs. neutral oak) dominated wines. The richness in the fruit and texture is often achieved at the expense of the freshness of the fruit. My favorite vintages of these labels are the cooler ones, like 2011. The cooler vintages tend to either tone down the over-the-top profile, or they are unpleasant (like 2011 Shafer cab). It is bewildering for me, why so many hold this style of wine in such high esteem. I much prefer a clean, fresh, light to medium weight, under-manipulated Bordeaux-style wine over these any day. These labels often taste like the wine equivalent of a fruity rum cocktail to me.

Tasting Note

Your impression of this wine will be very dependent on whether you have an Old World, or New World palate. The 7&8 estate vineyards are located at the highest point on Spring Mtn., but this wine doesn’t drink like a typical mountain fruit cab. The Pride Mountain vineyards are right next store, but proximity is where the similarity ends. If you enjoy this approach to winemaking, this bottle would probably merit a mid-90s score. The nose is full of alcohol, with little else. The fruit does not taste fresh and the new oak did not integrate well. This wine is still very fruit forward after 14 years aging in the bottle, with black currant, blackberry and black plum on the palate. The profile is fairly simple tho. Only a touch of dark chocolate on the mid-palate adds complexity. The wine has medium+ acidity and medium- tannin. The tannin has mostly resolved at this point and the wine is very smooth. The finish is medium length and tapers off leaving alcohol as the last impression. There is no noticeable residual sugar. This style of wine is off balance for me, with a texture and richness that approaches a stewed fruit profile. I can acknowledge that many wine enthusiasts will enjoy this wine, but in Napa, I much prefer aged Pride, or O’Shaughnessy mountain cabs instead. This has enough acidity to pair well with rich foods, but tended to overwhelm the steak my wife and I paired it with.

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Filed under Bordeaux/Meritage Blend, Napa Valley, Spring Mountain, U.S. Wines by Region, Wine by Varietal, Wine Collecting, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

2007 Giacomo Grimaldi Barolo

Producer: Giacomo Grimaldi

Varietal: Nebbiolo

Appelation: Barolo, Sub-Appelation of Piedmonte – Langhe, Italy

Vintage: 2007

Score: 92 pts. – 100 pt. Scale, 17 pts. – 20 pt. Scale

Provenance: Buyer Cellared Original Purchase

Tasting Note:

This is/was an Old World style Barolo. There are certain wine styles that are produced for extended bottle aging and Barolo leads this category. Don’t expect to purchase a classic Barolo and drink it in less than 10 yrs. I know for some this might sound bizarre, but nevertheless, it is the reality for this style of wine. This was not originally an overly expensive Barolo ($33/btl in 2011), so it was fun to see how this held-up. If you are thinking 14 years is a long time to wait for an experiment, I agree… but these are the kind of purchases that are the most satisfying… when they succeed. As a wine collector, I have developed my palate just for opportunities like this.

The drinking window for a traditional Barolo is usually 10-20 yrs from purchase. I popped this first bottle last night at 14 years and I enjoyed it very much, but for some, the tannin might still be too much. IMO, this wine is drinking really well right now, but another 3-5 years of bottle age and this Barolo will be positively singing. Decanted for an hour. Nose is very closed for a Barolo, just some alcohol, tar and red fruit. The palate is raspberry, black cherry and red plum, tar and a touch of wood. The fruit is really holding up nicely as the wine ages. Structure is superb: high acid with medium+ tannin. I enjoyed the mouthfeel. Tannin is integrated, but mouth-filling, rather than drying. It is missing the Barolo signature floral nose/palate and could use more complexity to add interest. The finish was lengthy with a touch of dark chocolate bitterness and tar to round it out. This is enjoyable to drink on its own, but especially with rich foods (red meats/red sauces), the high acidity will pair well.

Evaluation

This was a solid Classic Barolo and a real value (in retrospect). It was not in the top 3rd of Barolos I have tasted at any price, BUT it had truly classic Barolo flavors, was well made, held-up to bottle aging very well and is continuing to evolve. It could have had more complexity, but then again, it was not priced at the more typical $50-100/btl. I am impressed with what this producer achieved at this price.

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Filed under Barolo, Cool Climate Wine, Nebbiolo, Piedmonte, Wine by Varietal, Wine Collecting, Wine Education, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

2013 Berringer Cabernet Sauvignon Knights Valley

Producer: Berringer

Varietal: Cabernet Sauvignon

Appelation: Knights Valley AVA, Sub-Appelation of Sonoma County AVA, California

Vintage: 2013

Score: 91 pts. – 100 pt. Scale, 16 pts. – 20 pt. Scale

Provenance: Buyer Cellared Original Purchase

Decanted for 30 mins. before serving. Nose is a bit muted. Touch of blackberry. Palate of fresh blackberry, black currant and black cherry. Missing a mid-palate – fairly simple profile. Moderate oak. Medium-plus finish of blackberry and a touch of dark chocolate, but nothing nuanced. Tannin is medium-minus, with medium acidity. Very soft mouthfeel, especially noticeable when drinking without food. Nicely aged lower cost NorCal Cab Sauv. Very enjoyable on its own, but with the bottle age, missing a little structure to stand up to the coffee rubbed prime rib we paired it with. This label is one of my favorite daily drinkers, but I would say – at 8 years in the bottle – a couple years too many. Won’t wow you, but solid value and very enjoyable.

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Filed under Cabernet Sauvignon, Knights Valley, Sonoma County, Wine by Varietal, Wine Collecting, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes