Category Archives: Wine Collecting

The Future of Wine Marketing?

Premium Branding and Targeted Marketing

Market Research

I try to spend time occasionally researching wine consumption and how those trends affect the industry. Along that line, a couple of media items came to my attention this week. This article published by Beverage Dynamics on current wine trends at – https://bit.ly/2JZ1cjp and the NPR Radio program regarding the history of Grey Goose brand Vodka and Jagermeister brand liqueur at – https://n.pr/2Fk3ZEg. Take a look for some background, or just follow along below. I will do my best to take you through the impressions this left with me that caused my view of wine marketing to veer in a very different direction.

2017 Wine Trends

This Beverage Dynamics piece lists:  the largest selling wine labels in U.S. by volume, their growth in the last year and the fastest growing labels coming up. So, I am reading through this piece and it occurs to me – with over a 600 bottle personal cellar, I don’t have one bottle of any of the labels mentioned. Not one! Why is that? I am sure some of these are decent daily-drinking wine. Not everything in our cellar is expensive wine. Why hadn’t I found one of these as a daily-drinker for my enjoyment? Had me thinking. Then I listened to this radio program…

Guerrilla Marketing & Beverage Industry

It appears Sidney Franks (of Grey Goose Vodka fame) was the original mastermind behind the concept of “guerrilla marketing” in the premium beverage business. Relative to the Jagermeister brand, he took a product enjoyed in the USA by old German guys, and gave it a new hip, young and fresh make-over. This very successful re-branding effort was accomplished by sending out young, trendy brand ambassadors to college bars to promote the product face-to-face. Wow! Grass-roots demand generation from the ground up! It is hard to believe such a simple idea built a brand in U.S. with over $500M+ in revenue.

Wine Marketing

Hang in there with me… So, I am thinking about the wine labels from the Beverage Dynamics piece and I realize, I can’t remember a single piece of advertising regarding these brands! Broadly distributed, high-volume labels don’t register on my radar. Not because I am a snob, just because these wines tend to be homogenized. All much alike – very drinkable, but without much character. I tend to tune out products that I don’t believe will be of interest… there it is: “will be of interest”. How does my brain decide what wine information should be filtered out? Even more interesting, what would it take to grab and hold my interest? Fodder for another piece down the road…

Wine Collectors

It took me over ten years to find a group of guys that collect classic premium wines in the Phoenix Metro area. It always struck me, why was that so difficult? What organization in the wine industry identifies the individual market segments and brings like-minded consumers together? I was thinking at least one producer would attempt to do this to promote their product and build demand. Nope. Nada. Nothing. How is that possible? I did find an organization a couple of years ago that I thought might be the answer: the American Wine Society, or AWS (http://www.americanwinesociety.org/). It didn’t work out at the time. The chapters in my area were focused on typical, easy drinking, lower price wines. After some investigation, I just lost interest. Then recently I ran into Jay Bileti (an officer at AWS) and he “listened”. The net result was gleaning out of the current membership a few folks whose interests leaned in this direction. Voila!, we had a wine collector’s tasting group. The point is: where is the industry involvement? It is becoming increasingly clear as the baby-boomer generation ages, marketing must become more focused, target specific price categories and connect with consumer interests. Implementing a little of that “Guerrilla” thinking and investing in filling this gap would have a huge impact on label/brand awareness. Add a few smart folks to the mix and you would have the next great Sidney Franks-like story in the wine business!

Wineries & Marketing Investment

The first simple idea would be for wine producers/marketing reps to reach out to consumer organizations like AWS. No, not the way it is done now, but to invest in surveying wine enthusiasts to identify consumer market segments, categorize interests, separate price categories, build palate profiles and associated taste models. THEN, provide services to connect individuals. The best marketing ideas build a COMMUNITY! This is where brand loyalty begins. Right now, none are willing to invest this way, because there is no vision for how to monetize it. This has to be the future for premium brand wine marketing as Boomers age. Just holding local wine tastings and wine dinners is not the full answer. I wonder, what would it take for a few producers to embrace this idea?

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Filed under Business, Wine Collecting, Wine Education, Wine Industry, Wine Marketing

Quarterly Wine Collector’s Tasting

Wine List

  1. Champagne – 2013 Cedric Bouchard Roses de Jeanne Val Vilaine

  2. Cru Beaujolais – 2015 Marcel Lapierre Morgon Cuvée Marcel Lapierre

  3. OR Pinot Noir – 2014 Thomas Pinot Noir Dundee Hills

  4. Barolo – 1971 Barisone Barolo

  5. Barolo – 1970 Cantine Villadoria Riserva Speciale

  6. Barolo – 2000 Paolo Scavino Cannubi

  7. CA Syrah – 2014 Sine Qua Non Syrah Piranha Waterdance

  8. Vintage Port – 1985 Fonseca Porto Vintage

Barolo Education

Comparing the older style 47 and 48 year old Baroli to the newer style 18 year old was fascinating. The first two were definitely pushing the limit on age. The Barisone had lost most of its fruit and was highly oxidized, but the Cantine Villadoria still had some fruit on the palate and although it was oxidized too… there was still a fresher fruit aspect. The 2000 Scavino was very nice and just hitting its stride for my palate. Just the right balance of fruit, acidity and tannin. It was interesting to compare the aged bottles. Granted, a single instance with only a small sample, but it would appear the vicinity of 20 years seems to produce amazing Baroli for my palate.

Grower – Producer Champagne

The Bouchard Champagne to start off the night was excellent. No dosage, but still had a fruity-sweet character for a Brut. The bubbles were so fine, it was definitely a signature for this producer. This has opened a new category of Champagne for me. I intend to look for more small production, grower vintage Champagne.

Cru Beaujolais Intro

For under $30, these premium Beaujolais seem to be an interesting category to explore. I have never really been down this path, having been heavily influenced by Beaujolais Nouveau which I do not enjoy. The clean, freshness of the fruit with a nice acidic backbone – this reminded me of a quality Carneros Pinot Noir, with more of a strawberry/raspberry fruit profile. Another wine category I intend to explore moving forward.

Sine Qua Non

Second time I have tasted this producer and this was consistent with the first impression. Very fruity, but reasonably balanced profile. NOT a food wine. I would like to be aware of the hospitality expressed in sharing this wine… this is an expensive bottle, but I have to tell you… this reminds me of some Australian d’Arenberg Syrah I have in my cellar at a more reasonable price point.

Vintage Port Finish

Perfect topper for the evening. Beautiful soft, vintage port wine to finish our evening. Not overly oxidized, with a good balance of fresh & stewed fruit. This was right on what a vintage port should be!

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Filed under Barolo, Cool Climate Wine, International Wines by Region, Italian Wine, Nebbiolo, Piedmonte, Pinot Noir, Syrah/Shiraz, U.S. Wines by Region, Willamette Valley, Wine by Varietal, Wine Collecting, Wine Education, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

California Wine Has Been Changing

Sarcasm Seems Appropriate

Confession: I am a collector of wine. Hmmmm… Yep, the tone works. Lately, I am feeling like I need to apologize to wineries, retailers and distributors for collecting and storing their product. Maybe I need to start a Collector’s Anonymous group? Perhaps, I can develop a 12 step approach to curing my apparent illness and become famous. You may ask yourself, “Why haven’t I heard of this problem?” It has been camouflaged, lurking around the edges of changing demographics and trending demand.

These days, I am feeling the need to justify a collector’s version of wine appreciation. The majority of my wine inventory is 8-15 years old and some as much as 25. As my inventory ages, the enjoyment of complex, textured and elegant wine grows. This wine world I live in, is no longer fashionable to the industry crowd.

$$Another Impact of Changing Demographics$$

Let’s use Napa wineries as an example. 25-30 years ago most major Bordeaux style red wine producers in Napa (Beringer, Mondavi, Montelena, Jos Phelps, etc.) all were producing wines capable of aging 15-30 years (some more). After 2000, those drinking windows started moving and became 10-12 years. The next threshold was crossed about 2014. Now, many of the traditional Napa wines I drink have had drinking windows landing somewhere in a 5-8 year range. I now have to be careful NOT to hold these wines too long. It just goes against my grain to pop $100/btl wine in less than 5 years!

Why should the average wine consumer care? To produce earlier drinking red wines, the style usually requires more time in contact with new American oak, often are more extracted, higher in alcohol and less acidic. In short, easier drinking wines that are appealing to the younger, less experienced palate.

I am now thinking of canceling many of my California wine clubs and moving to more Bordeaux product. Even many Chianti, Chianti Classico and Brunello wineries have succumbed. Barolo and Barbaresco too, but those wines had aging windows of 25-50 years and are now landing at 10-25 years. I can live with that. Too many wineries are relenting to the economic pressure of appealing to the growing Millenial segment that is looking for drink-now wines, even in the luxury price range (over $50/btl). Caymus and Silver Oak are the well-known examples to reference in this category.

Old World Sensibility Matters

Balance, balance and more balance! All this extended cold soak and maceration and barrel aging in New American Oak, ugh! Many red wines are now so heavily extracted, they ruin all but the richest foods. Yes, oak makes the wine rounder and adds pleasing vanilla flavors… It also adds wood and butter in reds (like Chardonnay) and destroys the freshness of the fruit. If you enjoy wine with food, forget it. These wines are so round, they will not cut through accompanying food.

Thank goodness I still have Bordeaux to turn to. Fewer and fewer Napa wineries care about producing a structured, balanced red wine that can age. My wine buying days have not ended yet, just turned to 10 year old red Bordeaux from auction!

 

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Filed under Cool Climate Wine, Wine Collecting, Wine Education, Wine Industry

Wine Collector’s Group Tasting

Introduction

This was our first group meeting and we elected to stay away from tasting themes and bring wines from our cellars we wanted to share. With that much diversity it was important to get the tasting order right (which I think we did). Great lineup! It was great to share all this wine with folks who can appreciate it!

FLIGHT 1 – EVENING OF RED WINE (7 NOTES)

We wanted to taste these in order of power, complexity and nuance and one of our members who was tasked to sequence the wines was awfully close… in this order: CdP, Barolo, Brunello, Bordeaux, Dunn, Barnett and Saxum. The only change I would have made is swapping the order of the Barnett and Saxum.

Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barolo

Fresh strawberry and raspberry on the nose. Fresh fruit on the attack that subsides to a light, medium length bitter chocolate finish. High tannins and medium plus acidity. Soft wine (in Barolo terms) without a lot of mouthfeel. Wishing for more complexity here… some floral or tar aspects would add interest, but is missing. Beautiful young Barolo, but missing the complexity that would rate this higher. Perhaps, more age will bring out more nuance.

France, Rhône, Southern Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Beautiful nose of fresh strawberry. Barely fruit-forward with fresh sweet strawberry on the palate, an earthy mid-palate and a medium length sour strawberry finish. Medium acidity and low tannins. As a 1978 CdP this was special. Having a soft texture with a fair amount of acidity and tannins, this expressed the best of the region in an aged format. I could drink this wine all night. Finishing the bottle was a definite disappointment. Complex, fruit-forward, soft wine, still with good structure… if every wine I aged in my cellar turned out like this, I would be laying everything down. This was a wine worth waiting for. Who knew CdPs could last 40 years!

Italy, Tuscany, Montalcino, Brunello di Montalcino

Plum and blackberry on the nose. Fruit forward palate of red and black fruit with a bitter chocolate mid-palate that follows through to a medium length finish. High acidity and high tannins. Wonderful Margaux-like round, soft mouthfeel. Still young Brunello that probably needs another 5 years (or so) to enter its best drinking window. Enjoyable now, but still developing.

USA, California, Napa Valley, Howell Mountain

Fruity nose of boysenberry, plum and blackberry. Blackberry and plum on the attack with a leather mid-palate. A slightly bitter, mildly fruity short finish. Medium plus acidity and tannin. Soft mouthfeel from resolved tannin. This wine is drinking great right now. Could be slightly past its optimum drinking window, but still a fantastic wine. Drink up!

France, Bordeaux, Libournais, St. Émilion Grand Cru

Rich blackberry and plum on the nose with a touch of herbal mint. The palate is barely fruit forward with plum in front giving way to blackberry. Medium acidity and medium plus tannin. Earth, leather and tobacco on the mid-palate with a fresh, medium length blackberry finish. Very balanced wine in its drinking window. Soft mouthfeel with a slightly silky texture. Drink now.

USA, California, Napa Valley

Blackberry with heavy oak on the nose. Fruit forward blackberry palate. A nicely integrated high alcohol wine. Simpler flavor profile focused more on the velvety texture. Very much like Silver Oak, but not quite as fruity. Integrated and balanced wine with medium plus acidity and tannins.

USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles Willow Creek District

Red and black fruit on the nose with a touch of alcohol. Fruit forward with blackberry from the Syrah and earthiness from the Mourvèdre. The touch of strawberry/raspberry from the Grenache does not present until the finish. This is a really gorgeous wine that was meant to drink in a 5-10 year window. High acidity and medium plus tannin. Long fruity finish. Solid fruit-forward structured wine. A Saxum drinking super well when young. Interesting to have such a silky mouthfeel without more age on it! Give this a few more years and it will continue to improve.

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Why Holding a Bottle of Wine is Worth the Wait…

Wait

How Long Does the Average Person Hold a Bottle of Wine?

There is a significant amount of conflicting survey data on this topic, but erring on the side of caution… well over 90% of all wine in the U.S. is drunk within a week of purchase. Since more red wine is drunk than white in the U.S. and Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular varietal, it is a shame more wine enthusiasts don’t experiment with aging at least a few bottles.

I have seen other figures thrown around that affect this thinking, i.e. 95% of all wine is made to drink within a year of purchase. As a percentage of all wine produced, this may be close to the truth, but as a percentage of all wine labels, it is significantly off the mark. As usual, the 80/20 rule roughly applies here… much less than 20% of the companies producing wine in the U.S. produce over 80% of the wine by volume, but this still leaves plenty of room for the many thousands of wineries producing under 10,000 cases per year that comprise a large percentage of the selection we see at the local wine shop, or grocery store.

So, many of the red wine labels you see at your local wine retailer over (let’s say) $15 USD/btl are likely to be candidates for at least 3-5 years of bottle age.

The Dividing Line

Why should wine consumers care? Who should be holding wine? Think of it these ways:

  • If you are a foodie, drink wine with meals and prefer wine that accompanies a dish well…
  • If you pay attention to different varietals, vintages and/or wine regions, you obviously recognize and appreciate different wine profiles…
  • If you recognize structure in wine (tannin, acidity, phenolics)…
  • If poorly balanced, bad wine gives you a headache and you try to be aware…
  • If texture (mouth-feel) in wine (silky, soft, plush, velvetty characteristics) is something you seek out…

You should own at least a 30 bottle wine fridge!

What Makes Aged Wines More Enjoyable

When the appropriate wines are chosen, age improves wine. Which wines are appropriate for aging? Any wine with multiple structural components… enough tannin (cotton feeling on gums), acidity (stimulates saliva) , phenolics (depth of flavor), fruit and/or sweetness (sugar) is a potential candidate. Most of us can usually identify these general categories. Though, the additional analysis that can make a significant difference is the balance between these components. Here is a brief look at how each of these components may evolve in an aged wine:

Sweetness (sugar)

  • Can add a nutty character to aged whites such as Sauternes, or Sparkling and an apricot character to German Riesling
  • Improve viscosity (richness/thickness) in all sweet wines

Alcohol

Percentage of alcohol never changes in the life of a bottle of wine, but it can become more integrated and less noticeable. Although, I have rarely seen it.

Phenolics (depth of flavor)

Working with wines that are heavily extracted, or made from over-ripe fruit is hit, or miss for a winemaker. This is an area where age can have a dramatic effect, sometimes adding layers of textures or flavors. A higher level of phenolics often accompanies over-ripe fruit, which can be lower in acidity. This lower level can effect the “vibrancy” of the wine, in other words – eliminating freshness, allowing candied flavors and eliminating “bite”.

Fruit

In reasonably balanced wines (get into that later), fruit flavors almost always diminish over time. Most of the exceptions to this rule have come from California in my experience, but in general, this rule does apply. I drank a 1993 Beringer Reserve Cab Sauv last year that was wonderfully fruit-forward after 22 years in the bottle!

Acidity

High acidity in a wine is critical to successful aging, but winemakers walk a fine line with this component:

  • Too much acidity and the wine is sharp, unpleasant and feels like it is burning a hole in your stomach
  • Too little and wine tastes “flabby”, grape-juice-like and will not pair with food

Tannin

This is the astringent character found in red wines and the primary change agent. Tannin can be harsh, grainy, fine, mouth-filling, etc. The character of tannin in wine can be affected by varietal type, terroir, vintage variation, the amount of stems and skins used in the maceration stage and more. Red wines with no tannin rarely age well and the maturing of this component is the key to enjoying soft, silky, round, or velvetty red wines when aged.

“Balance”

Determining balance is one of the KEY evaluations made by a wine professional. Evaluating young, fine wines upon release for potential ageability requires experience to determine whether to expect greatness, or just another so-so vintage… but that shouldn’t stop the average wine enthusiast. The average consumer rarely has the opportunity to evaluate $100 – $1,000 USD/btl wine. The decision should be simply: do you think this wine will taste better in five years? Often, when faced with this simpler evaluation, my answer is YES!

The most common, but misguided statement in the wine industry is: “Give this wine time in the bottle. It will come together!” This is rarely the case.  A wine may “close”, or “open” over time (release, or hide its character), but if it is too sweet, or has too much acidity upon release, time in the bottle is unlikely to change that. The one exception is tannin, which will always soften over time. This is due to a chemical reaction that creates a sediment in the bottle that can be filtered out when poured. Always filter, when pouring a red wine older than five years. The sediment resulting from resolved tannin is not pleasant to drink.

My Wine Cellar and Yours

I store over 500 bottles of wine in environmentally controlled cellars. I rarely drink wine younger than five years, unless I am dining out. I now find it difficult to drink both:

  • Harsh, young wines
  • Easy drinking – flabby, no tannin, no acid wines

Try setting aside a few better bottles for special occasions. Use the information above to choose the right wines and enjoy unique, amazing wines. As you gain experience, you will find age can improve wine you never considered for aging, like Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauternes and many sparkling wines (especially Champagne).

I wish you much good wine shared with many good friends!

“Age appears best in four things: old wood to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust and old authors to read.” ― Francis Bacon

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Filed under Wine Cellar, Wine Collecting, Wine Education, Wine Tasting

Making #Wines to Drink Now, or Cellar?

The sun barely illuminates the land under a thick fog of red smoke as seen from Highway 97 just south of Okanogan Friday August 21, 2015.

What a crazy week to have scheduled a wine tasting adventure in Washington State! Forest fires everywhere! The entire state is one big campfire… Flying into Spokane, we descended through a wall of billowing smoke. Driving down to Walla Walla the smoke cleared somewhat.

Later this week, my wife and I will be joining trade tastings and interviewing winemakers, but today we wanted to relax and stop at a couple of wineries of interest – as wine tourists. We stopped in first at K Vintners and then Five Star Cellars today and two interesting questions came to light: (tasting notes coming in future posts)

  1. Should winemakers be producing wine to drink now, versus wines to bottle age?
  2. Does making wine specifically to be drunk with food play well in the broader U.S. market?

I will tackle the first question now and the second in a follow-up piece.

Drink Now?

I was floored today. These were two respected Walla Walla producers recognized by critics and neither was focusing on structured wines more capable of aging in your cellar.

K Vintners

After one tasting experience, I am quite sure I could recognize any of their wines blind. This is not meant to suggest I did not enjoy a few of these wines, but more to emphasize their singular dimension. All of the wines are quite clearly made in a single style, utilizing similar techniques: noticeable French oak, high to very high acidity, very light and a minimum of mouth-feel, minimal finish, low to medium tannins and fruit forward.

Five Star Cellars

We tasted two vintages of their flagship wine, a Bordeaux blend called “Stellar”. The 2008 was good, showing high acidity, medium tannins and a palate of plum, blackberry, apple pie spice, graphite and touch of earthy minerality… but the 2009 was so much better, similar to the 2008 – but adding higher tannins and a fuller mouth-feel. The owner David Huse actually apologized for the additional structure. After a few minutes of conversation, it was obvious he believed their goal was to make easy drinking wines and that 2009 just didn’t fit into that focus.

Price Point, Wine Quality and Structure

I get it. Wineries have to sell their wine and in case you haven’t seen the numbers, somewhere between (depending on the study) 80 to 95% of all wines purchased in the U.S. are drunk within a week of purchase. Since we are throwing out statistics, how about this:  90% of all bottles purchased in the U.S. cost less than $12 USD. The wines we were tasting today all retailed for $40-$70/btl. Where am I going with this? Are these wineries correct in thinking that the majority of wine drinkers spending over $12/btl. want drink now, easy drinking wines? I have spent the last 20 years listening to feedback from wine enthusiasts and while very few are looking for the other end of the spectrum – rustic, cheap Chianti style wines, MOST do prefer red wines with good structure. How else could Napa Valley be able to sell so much Cabernet Sauvignon at an average price of $64.77/btl (2014 Wines & Vines) direct-to-consumer? It is certainly not because these wines are easy drinkers!

Winemaker’s View?

So how does the winemaker feel about this issue? I ask this question during interviews all the time. The answer too often is: “business sometimes dictates we make a wine for broad appeal”. At some wineries, this discussion is a non-issue. The winemaker makes a wine profile focused on quality in the classic sense and they find their market. Others I have interviewed, spend time with their customers and really understand the product their clientele wants… and then there are those that “think” they know what the average consumer wants. The perceived pressure to produce easy drinking wines in the U.S. is huge. For large volume wineries over 50,000 cases of production this discussion is irrelevant, but for the 60% of wineries in the U.S. that produce less than 5,000 cases, it is THE discussion to have. There is a place for all styles of wine in the market. My surprise came from visiting recognized, critically acclaimed wineries with this kind of thinking.

Wolf howling

Howling at the Moon!

If there is one thing I can definitively take exception to in the industry, it is this idea that wine enthusiasts (spending more than $12/btl) want flavor in red wines and don’t care about structure. Okay, I agree there are not many folks like me in the U.S. who will maintain a large enough cellar to buy young structured red wines and regularly drink 5-10 year old vintages. At the risk of boring readers by saying this again: STRUCTURE is what differentiates good wine! Red wine can taste like black, red, or blue fruit, have earthy minerality, or even exotic flavors like tobacco and tar, but these matter little without the primary structural components: Acidity, Alcohol, Tannins, Phenolic Development, Mouth-Feel (texture) and Balance. When wines are missing any of these elements, they can be unpleasant to drink, or more commonly – just boring.

Tasting note for the Five Star Cellars 2009 Stellar (Bordeaux Blend) that was supposedly not as “good” as the 2008:

The nose hints at the level of extraction with blackberry, plum and currant fruits, a touch of alcohol, fresh tobacco and earth. The palate follows with a dense fruit-forward attack that is very lively in the mouth, with high acidity and high tannins.  The vanilla comes through from the oak, but doesn’t overpower. The tannins have a plush, granular texture producing a big mouth-filling wine with a very long finish. This wine is fast approaching its optimal drinking window of 2016-2018. It is only missing a defined mid-palate… a 91 score without. This would have earned a 94-95 score with more complexity.

A grand effort by a small Washington State winery. I sincerely hope they change their focus to making more wines like this…

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Filed under Bordeaux/Meritage Blend, Walla Walla Valley, Wine by Varietal, Wine Cellar, Wine Collecting, Wine Education, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

Why Do Wines Taste Different? – Part 2c: Soil Types

“Voodoo Magic” in Wine?

Voodoo Juice

(Unrelated Copyrighted Trademark used to illustrate the idea)

Winemaking can be complex chemistry, artistic expression, or a mixture of the two, depending on the winery. That first “science-based” option is certainly the most accessible and also the reason so many winemakers have chemistry degrees. This approach (topic of the first piece in this series) utilizes empirical processes that have a direct, identifiable impact on the wine. Climate (topic of the previous piece in this series)  is another easy to recognize factor when tasting wine (with training), but these last two pieces in the series are about the “voodoo” in the wine: soil type and  vineyard management. I doubt many consumers would recognize the importance of this topic and most high-production bulk wineries rarely care, but for an estate winery under 50,000 cases of production… it is the key to differentiating an individual wine label . That is why you see so much maneuvering in the U.S. to establish new AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas). Winery owners are trying to attach special significance to the fruit source (vineyard location). Developing a unique wine profile is critical to marketing strategies for these producers. As a consumer, I am usually only interested in the “voodoo”, if I have visited that vineyard at the estate. Analysis of soil and vineyard management is just too dry a topic to review without some sort of personal connection. Does the appellation factor into your choice in wine? Do you look for “Rutherford”, or “Margaux” on the label, before you select your Cabernet Sauvignon/blend?

Soil Types

I am reasonably sure no one is interested in a chemistry primer on soil composition, so I will try to move this discussion towards general soil categories. These vineyard site characteristics can have recognizable effects on quality and flavor. Let’s bypass mineral composition and move directly to key factors affecting the vines. There are many different vineyard soil types: Silt, Sand, Loam, Clay, Gravel, etc. There are even more specific sub-types: Calcareous, Schist, Shale, etc. Although, these soils all have just a few tangible characteristics that have well-known effects on the vines.

Water Drainage and Free Organic Matter – Soils that do not drain well, or are too fertile produce horrible wine. When vines grow vigorously, the berries are larger, the juice after press is less concentrated and the resulting wine is one dimensional. Examples: Poor Soil – Loam, Silt. Better Soil – Gravel, Sand.

Soil pH – Basic soil (higher pH) is the key here – think regions like Champagne, Loire, West Paso Robles and other locations with calcareous soils high in calcium carbonate. All the anecdotal evidence for this shows basic soils produce acidic wine – a key component to the structure of quality wine. I won’t bore you with the theoretical chemistry, but evidence seems to confirm this idea. Better Soils – Calcareous, Chalk, Marl.

Soil Depth – An impermeable layer should not be less than 40″ below the surface for dry-farming of the vines (dry-farming should be the goal).

Water Retention – This may sound contradictory, but the best vineyard sites have both good drainage at the site AND good water retention in the soil. These characteristics exist and are excellent for dry-farming vineyards (no irrigation).

Varietal Soil Preferences

Interestingly, when specific varietals are grown in an area over long periods of time (decades+) successfully, the vines seem to adapt to the terroir. This optimization has never been formally studied, but general observations abound in the world wine community supporting this idea. Currently, vineyard root stock for each varietal is available in many slightly different clone options adapted to different climatic and soil conditions. The growers choice of which clone to plant can be a make, or break business decision. Areas like Burgundy, where Pinot Noir has been grown for more than 500 years, have allowed the vines to adapt naturally and you can tell the difference in quality.

Grape varietals often have their own soil preferences:

  • Cabernet Sauvignon produces the best wine when grown in Gravel and Volcanic soils.
  • Merlot produces the best wine when grown in Sandy Clay.
  • Chardonnay and Pinot Noir produces the best wine when grown in Chalky soils.

Some varietals seem to do well in many different soil types, but manifest radically different flavors:

  • Sauvignon Blanc has tropical fruit flavors when produced in Marlborough (New Zealand) and lemon and/or grapefruit flavors when produced in Napa Valley (California).
  • Zinfandel tends toward Strawberry flavors when from Dry Creek (Sonoma County), but can have strong jammy blackberry and blueberry notes when produced in West Paso Robles (Central California Coast).

Vineyard - Larkmead Vineyards

Estate Wineries Embracing Vineyard Variation

A few years ago the head winemaker Dan Petroski at Larkmead Vineyards offered the best explanation I have heard for optimization of variable growing conditions at a single vineyard site. In recent years, Larkmead has invested heavily in their belief that soils and micro-terroir make a difference in the quality of the wine. Their estate vineyards (108 acres planted) have been separated into 40+ separate vineyard blocks, some quite small (against typical industry thinking). Some of these vineyard sections were re-planted to change row direction and take advantage of improved sun orientation and drainage characteristics. The blocks were separated based on soil testing and observation to define clearly different growing conditions. Where this gets really interesting is their further investment in numerous smaller stainless steel fermentation tanks. For those who say terroir impact on wine is a fallacy, they need to taste the lot to lot differences side-by-side at an estate winery using this vineyard strategy. This system of wine production allows the winemaker to take advantage of distinctly different wines and offer them as separately bottled vineyard designate releases, or blend the individual blocks to achieve a better, more complex product.

My Previous Recommendations

Now, let’s put this information to use (remember the “voodoo”). In past pieces, I have suggested that certain growing regions tend to generally produce better quality over-all. Let’s explore a few reasons why…

Valley Floors (in the flood plain) – These locations tend to have a high percentage of silt, but not always. For example, the right bank of the Garonne River in Bordeaux has sandy clay soil (premier Merlot region in the world). Putting aside complex locations like Bordeaux and speaking in generalities, valley floor locations produce simpler wines that often are missing structure… especially when grown in warm climates, examples: Puglia, Italy or Inland Valleys, California. There are some interesting exceptions though. Certain varietals (like Tempranillo) can grow in these locations (i.e. Ribero del Duero) and thrive, but I would be careful if you are searching out quality. Know your varietals and their optimal growing regions, unless you are comfortable experimenting with hit, or miss results.

Mountain/Hill Sides – These locations tend to be virtually barren, with well-drained schist, slate, granitic (etc.) topsoils. In many cases, wine grapes are the only crop these soils can support. Again, this seems contradictory, but these regions can offer perfect conditions for many different wine grape varietals. Examples of Mountain/Hill type optimal growing regions: Syrah – Northern Rhone, Nebbiolo – Barolo, Riesling – Mosel, Cabernet Sauvignon – Spring Mountain.

Examples of a few optimal growing regions by varietal: Cabernet Sauvignon – Napa Valley, Left Bank Bordeaux; Merlot – Right Bank Bordeaux, Spring Mountain; Pinot Noir – Burgundy, Willamette Valley; Syrah – Rhone Valley, Barossa Valley; Malbec – Mendoza, Riesling – Mosel, Chenin Blanc – Loire Valley, Swartland, Stellenbosch.

Magic-pot-witchcraft

The Voodoo

No one really knows for sure what specific chemical composition is changed due to these soil factors. Neither is it known the process by which these soils change the character of the wine, but I can tell you, a trained palate can taste wine blind and describe the type of terroir it originates from.

Next…

Is this topic never-ending? Yes! The potential for exploring variability in wine character is quite literally endless. Although, I will endeavor to finish this series in my next piece with an evaluation of Vineyard Management and its impact on wine.

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What a Waste of Wine & Money?

Exploring Wine can be Expensive and Overwhelming!

The number of different wines out there is daunting! Just walk into any wine shop (heaven forbid a Total Wine) and your first thought is: there are hundreds (if not thousands) of wines to choose from. How do I make a decision and who knows if I will enjoy it? When I first decided to explore wine, it killed me to think of wasting good money on lousy wine… just to find a few I liked. It became very clear to me that price had no correlation to matching my taste. I would guess many of you feel the same way. So… to lessen the pain, you limit yourself to trying wines by the glass at wine bars, or attend tastings at wine shops and/or even travel to wine country to hit the tasting rooms.

How Can I Choose Wines That I Will Enjoy?

Learn Your Palate

The first step is to learn your palate… Do you enjoy red fruit, or black fruit flavors? Do silky, or velvety textures appeal to you? Do you enjoy some astringency in the wine? Do you drink wine by itself, or with meals? Do you prefer slightly sweet, or dry wines? Taking the time to review and decide what you like, will go a long way towards helping you select wines to try.

Strategies for Finding Wines You Will Like

This can get very involved depending on your level of wine knowledge, but lets pare it down to the easiest, simplest strategies:

Follow the Winemakers

Many winemakers will allow each vintage of fruit to drive the wine. Some prefer to add wood, spice and vanilla flavors by selecting certain species of oak for aging. While still others will try to make the wine fruitier with whole cluster fermentation, or extended maceration. The processes really don’t matter though. Find what you like, identify the winemaker and track their labels. You will be more likely to find wines you enjoy this way.

Follow the Regions

Classic examples are:

Sauv Blanc from New Zealand typically has tropical fruit flavors, while the NorCal Sauvs are more citrusy.

Syrah dominated wines from the Northern Rhone typically have lower alcohol, are inky, with tar, floral and  olive tapenade flavors added to the black fruit, while Southern Rhones are very fruity, with high alcohol, highly textured and likely to have more red, or blue fruit flavors.

Red wines from Rutherford in Napa have an interesting dusty characteristic many find enjoyable.

Again, the specifics do not matter. If you enjoy wines from a specific region, selecting others from the same region will enhance your chances of hitting on wines you can appreciate.

Follow the Vineyards

This is my favorite! The fruit from different vineyards makes wines taste VERY different. Examples of this are:

Cool, coastal vineyards tend to add acidity and structure. Early morning fog at inland vineyards can have the same affect.

Chalky soils can add a mineral aspect to wine – like the Chalk Hill area in Sonoma. Slate can add a flinty component like Riesling from the Mosel.

I regularly seek out wines made from vineyards whose flavors/characteristics I enjoy. It is a sound strategy for finding wines you have a better chance to appreciate.

Follow the Varietal

This is the most obvious. I am sure all of you have settled on grape varieties you prefer, but this is also the least reliable strategy. There can be so much variation within wines from even the same varietal, it does not provide a dependable method for choosing wines to enjoy.

These Strategies can Save $$Money$$

As you find success, you will notice it becomes easier to select wines to try. I have been using these strategies (and more) for many years. I am now comfortably buying wines I have not tasted via the internet and taking advantage of overstock and clearance pricing. I am hoping these ideas will help to end your waste of good money for lousy wine. Good luck and may you find many enjoyable, reasonably priced wines in your future!

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Old AND New World Style Wines

Drinking Too Many Napa Cabs…

Our trip to Italy last year brought one aspect of my wine consumption to the forefront… I drink too much New World style wine. The beginning of our trip, I was missing the oak and vanilla that I am comfortable with in many of the Cali & Washington reds I drink. American oak is much more of a flavor component, compared to the French, Hungarian and Slovenian oak used in Europe. In fact, of the 30 some odd wineries we visited in Italy, most were aging on neutral used oak… So why should this bother me? It is the idea of being able to enjoy and appreciate the subtleties of less manipulated wine. When we returned, drinking a Napa cab was a challenge initially. This realization has caused me to rethink how I would like to enjoy wine. Since then, I have expanded Italy and France in my cellar and pushed myself to drink more variety. No, I am not a masochist. I do really enjoy well made, balanced, less manipulated wines. I just find, now that I understand my palate better, I can appreciate both styles more fully.

Diversifying Your Cellar

This caused an interesting realization for me. Is it possible to move back and forth between each style and enjoy both? Certainly, there are extremes on both ends of the scale. Would I want to drink a Silver Oak Cab versus a Cain, or Ladera – where my palate is today? NO, but the Silver Oak is an extreme. Do I enjoy young Bordeaux, or Barolo in a cold vintage year? Not so much. You get the idea. I am trying to develop the palate and (I think more importantly) the mindset to appreciate both. This has been a challenge, especially after the change in palate I experienced after the two weeks in Italy. I think it was a good thing, though. Now, I find myself moving towards embracing more different wines. I may not choose to drink certain styles regularly, but I can enjoy the well-made ones, based on the quality they represent. I had a superb 2007 Sassicaia in Italy and last week I popped a wonderful 2001 Pride Mountain Reserve Cab. They were radically different, but I enjoyed them equally for what they were. Maybe this sounds ridiculous to some? Maybe it isn’t worth the effort? Don’t know… we’ll see where my palate takes me, as I continue down this path.

Drink the Wine You Like

OK, I am not saying you should drink certain wines strictly because of their quality, rather than the appeal to your palate. In fact, I truly hate that kind of wine snobbery. I am just trying to share what two weeks in Italy did to change me… Once the U.S. bias to my palate was purged, I discovered that I found some of these very subtle wines to be truly spectacular. A view that I had not reached, prior to the trip. If you too are immersed in wine as a hobby, perhaps, consider exploring a few weeks of wine that is a departure from the Parker faves. It may open your eyes to a deeper understanding of how you can enjoy less as more… one night, and then be hit over the head the next night… and be bowled over by both.

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2007 Château Gigognan Châteauneuf-du-Pape Vigne du Régent

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Château Gigognan Châteauneuf-du-Pape Vigne du Régent

France, Southern Rhone, Chateauneuf-du-Pape

Wine Tasting Note:

Much improvement since the previous bottle popped last year. The additional time in the cellar has helped to bring it together. The alcohol has subsided and the overwhelming black pepper has moved to the background. In addition, the Grenache has started to peak out and add sweet strawberry flavors to the mid-palate. The nose has aromas of prunes and plums with some residual alcohol. The palate begins with plums and black currant and moves to a sweet strawberry mid-palate with a mildly bitter, long dark chocolate finish. The black pepper notes have evolved into a nondescript spiciness that is quite enjoyable. The wine has a light, softer texture, with medium tannins and high acidity. My palate would suggest a few more years would help to bring this together a bit more, but is approaching its prime drinking window now. A nice aged Southern Rhone blend at a reasonable price.

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Filed under French Wine, GSM Blend, Southern Rhone, Wine by Varietal, Wine Collecting, Wine Critics, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes