Category Archives: Wine Industry

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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Why Do #Wines Taste Different? Part 2d – Vineyard Management

Vineyard Management

'We only produced 50 cases this year. Most of our competitors spill more than that.'

The effects of Vineyard Management are critically important, but not always easy to recognize. They usually impact wine structure: Acidity, Tannins, Alcohol, Complexity, Phenolic Development and Mouth-Feel. Choosing one practice, over another… often has little to do with science. A limited amount of empirical scientific data is available on this topic and terroir differences often demand widely different approaches. It is difficult to settle on universal best practices. These are the reasons wineries often depend on individuals with extensive experience in the local region. Does implementing these ideas have a direct observable connection to quality? Perhaps yes… at the very least, these ideas can impact the character of wine from individual vineyards. Here is a very recognizable example:

Pergola_Vineyard     (Pergola Trained)

Guyot trained 1     (Guyot Trained)

Italian producers have been converting old pergola style trellising (photos above) to head-trained systems (i.e guyot). This has been a major factor in the on-going improvement in consistent quality across Italian vintages. Head-trained vines make it much easier to employ pruning strategies throughout the growing season. A major factor in accommodating annual climate variation.

Harvest Yield Management

Vineyard managers typically have experience with enough harvest variation to get a feel for the tonnage of quality fruit their vineyards can produce. Too big a yield, and the vines don’t seem to focus on producing concentrated flavors and complexity. Too small a yield and the vineyard is not financially viable to farm. In some locations, the government dictates the yield, if the winery wants to put the appellation name on the label. Yield is a reasonable indicator of basic quality. Anything over 4 tons per acre will be approaching bulk wine territory. Most premium wineries drop anywhere from a quarter to half the berries in the field every year.

Soil Supplementation

Fertilization and soil prep is a scary idea in a vineyard. Grape vines are highly efficient at growing successfully in very poor conditions, so any small change tends to have a big impact. The idea here is NOT for the vines to grow more vigorously. The optimum conditions desired for increasing harvest yield is the exact opposite of what is desired. Although, soil prep before planting vines is very common and usually deals with soil pH and plant metabolism. For example, in many wine growing areas in Arizona, it is critical that calcium carbonate and/or magnesium carbonate be mixed into the soil. So called “liming” of the soil is a vineyard tradition that has been practiced for hundreds of years. Higher pH soils tend to add acidity to the fruit, a critical component in quality wines.

vine-rows

Pruning Strategies and Row Orientation

This approach is more recent. Canopy management as a criteria for producing quality fruit is a strategy that requires a significant amount of pruning labor (high cost) and therefore is mostly employed in the premium and ultra-premium wine categories. A few years ago, I interviewed Jim Duane, winemaker and vineyard manager at Seavey Vineyards in Napa Valley. With a BS in Biology and a focus on botany, he spoke passionately about meticulously pruning the vines and modifying the canopy to match each vintage’s growing conditions. The row direction decision is now made based on optimizing drainage and improving direct sun availability. Vineyards planted on relatively flat acreage in the last 20 years are almost always planted with North-South facing rows to maximize consistent sun exposure. The vineyard in the photo above is planted down the rise and is unusual in recent times. Rows today are usually planted across the rise to facilitate optimal drainage. These ideas have become common practice in the U.S., although not as pervasive in Europe.

Harvest Strategies

Single pass harvesting is the standard in the industry, but in the premium and ultra-premium category that is changing. Paloma Vineyard is an estate winery in Napa Valley that takes this idea to the extreme. Harvesting over extended periods of time, tracking rows and blocks for ripeness, or desired character. They have planted different clones of Merlot and vary the harvest timing as necessary for each. In addition, they bring in blocks early to improve structure and others later to enhance flavors. This is very labor intensive and must be a challenge to manage every year… but the results  are hard to argue with… Paloma achieved a Wine Spectator #1 wine in the world rating in 2003 and regularly earns 95-100 scores every vintage. By the way, if you are lucky enough to catch a visit with the owner Barbara, you will get an in-depth peak into the life of a winemaker as farmer and the lifestyle that comes along with it!

Gobelet vineyard

Trellising

This is an Old World versus New World discussion. Many vineyards are still planted and grown the old traditional ways in Europe, i.e. Pergola (Italy), Gobelet (Spain), etc. I have seen 75 – 100 year old Zinfandel vines in Sonoma County trained in the Gobelet method. See a photo of a Gobelet trained vineyard in Spain above. These Old World style methods make no sense to me for fine wine. Head training (Guyot method & similar) clearly provides better opportunity to employ detailed pruning strategies. Oh well, I am sure THAT will start an argument with a winery in Europe somewhere…

Spring Mtn Vineyard

Terra-Forming, Terracing and Vine Spacing

I love the photo from Pride Mountain Vineyards above… Let me describe why this vineyard is so different:

This is a terra-formed terraced vineyard with a double row planting across the rise and a tight vine spacing layout. The vines in the front of the row produce riper fruit. Those in the back struggle and the fruit is more austere and structured. Everything in a Bordeaux varietal vineyard you could ever want, all in one place. This vineyard produces amazing wine. I doubt many vineyard owners would go to the expense of preparing a vineyard site this way.

Irrigation and Dry Farming

This is another one that will get me in trouble… This is one idea where I agree with the Old World thinking. In my experience, having tasted thousands of wines… There is a noticeable difference in wines from dry-farmed fruit versus irrigated. Why is there a difference? Is there verifiable science behind it? Not likely, but if I were to guess… dry-farmed vines struggle more, the roots drive deeper into the earth and build additional complexity in the wine?

The End

I have had quite enough of what has turned into a very lengthy discussion. There were literally too many contributing factors affecting wine flavors and structure to even scratch the surface in these few pieces. I hope the examples provided and the recommendations offered made the information a little less dry and I apologize to the Old World Wineries in advance for representing their growing regions poorly. I just haven’t interviewed enough European winemakers to understand their local wine growing practices in this kind of detail. It is my hope to rectify that someday 🙂 Anyone interested in subsidizing an old Sommelier to make a trip (or two) over to wineries in Europe? Strictly in the interest of discovery and wine research to educate a U.S. wine industry thirsting for knowledge…

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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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Why Do Wines Taste Different? – Part 2b: Vineyard Location

Vineyard Influence on Wine Flavors and Structure

As I dive deeper into this, the rabbit hole takes me deeper and deeper… I must apologize again. Location is too big a topic to include a discussion of soil types in the same piece… So, it appears I will have a part 2a, 2b and 2c in this series on “Why Wines Taste Different”. For those of you staying with me on this, thanks for your patience and perseverance.

Vineyard Location

Varietals

This topic has everything to do with the individual varietal. If you want to find the best wines, a big part of the answer is in the vineyard location. Learning to differentiate the common warm climate varietals from the cool climate varietals is important:

Cabernet-Sauvignon-Grapes

(Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes)

Warm Climate Reds 

Grenache, Mourvedre, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Tempranillo, Zinfandel, Malbec, Merlot, Sangiovese

Viognier grapes

(Viognier Grapes)

Warm Climate Whites

Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc

Pinot noir Grapes

(Pinot Noir Grapes)

Cool Climate Reds

Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Nebbiolo, Merlot

riesling-wine-grapes

(Riesling Grapes)

Cool Climate Whites

Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Albarino, Pinot Gris, Glera, Chardonnay, Gewurtztraminer

Climate Affect on Wine Character

There are many more varietals in each category, but these are frequently seen in single varietal formats and are the most common. Notice that Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Syrah are listed as both. These four are the most versatile wine varietals in the world. They can make quality wines in both warm and cool climates, but keep in mind the flavors and textures are totally different when grown in the different locations. Warm climate Merlot has less acidity/tannins and can be beautifully soft, or horribly flabby. Warm climate Chardonnay usually has less acidity and tends towards simple citrus flavors. Most warm climate Sauv Blanc tastes like fresh mown grass mixed with lemonade to me, but others enjoy it. Warm climate Syrah is another story… warm climate locations are better when moderated by a Mediterranean climate, but these areas can produce killer wines. Cool Climate locations can produce exceptionally complex Syrah, but sometimes are a little weak on fruit flavors, so are often mixed with Viognier to enhance approachability. I enjoy these wines tremendously.

What to Look For?

Spring Mtn Vineyard

(Spring Mountain Vineyard)

Inland Locations at Higher Elevation

(roughly 2,000-4,000 feet)

For example, try the top of Spring Mountain AVA and Howell Mountain AVA in Napa Valley. You will find bold wines with a pleasant blend of acidity, tannins and alcohol there. In the hands of an expert winemaker, these vineyards can produce a wonderful, fully developed mid-palate. Haven’t heard the terms “attack”, “mid-palate”, or “finish”? Drop me a line and I will write a piece explaining these wine characteristics!

Mosel Vineyard

(Mosel Vineyard)

Steep Vineyard Sites

These sites stress the vines and drain them very effectively. The berries are usually smaller and the fruit (and resulting wines) always have more intense flavors. These vineyards are everywhere, just keep an eye out. The opposite holds true, be careful with wines made from valley floor fruit. If not managed carefully, these vineyards can become bulk wine territory! The most extreme examples lie in the Mosel Region in Germany.

Langhe_vineyard

(Langhe Vineyard)

Inland Foggy Locations

Remember those Cool Climate varietals… if there is enough sunshine to fully ripen the berries at these sites, WATCH OUT! These wines are amazingly good. These vineyards can produce complex, fruit forward wines with high acidity. Watch your vintages with these producers. In cooler years, these wines can be very rustic, and/or thin. U.S. Examples: Santa Rita / Santa Maria AVA, or Russian River AVA.

Finger-Lakes-vineyard

(Finger Lakes Vineyard)

Inland Locations Adjacent to Large Lakes

Often, cold winter climates can support vineyards in these areas. The lakes moderate the low temps at night during bud-break and harvest (Spring & Fall). Depending on the amount of sun, these vineyards can produce fresh, brisk white wines, or a well-balanced lighter style of red wine. U.S. Examples: Lake County AVA or Finger Lakes AVA.

Sonma coast Vineyard

(Sonoma Coast Vineyard)

Coastal Locations

These sites can produce excellent, or horrible fruit from vineyard to vineyard. The best sites don’t get a lot of rain and are watered by the dew and fog. In addition, higher elevation sites adjacent to the coastline are an advantage. The elevation offers more time above the morning foggy conditions to ripen the fruit and destroy the potential mildew. These vineyards will not produce easy drinking wines, but if you like complex flavors (sometimes unusual) and good structure, try a few of these and find out if they are for you. U.S. Examples – Sonoma Coast AVA.

Conclusion

Valley floor locations almost always produce easier drinking softer wines, especially when located in warmer climates. These are not my kind of wines, but I recognize that many consumers enjoy this style. Each to their own, but at least with this information, you can understand what influences how these wines taste. If you are willing to evaluate your preferences and find the vineyard locations that match your palate for each varietal, it will enrich your wine experience (find my preferences below).

Vineyard Locations I Prefer (a few)

Chardonnay – Burgundy AOC, Champagne AOC, Mendocino AVA, Santa Maria and Santa Rita Hills AVA, Russian River AVA

Sauvignon Blanc – Marlborough Appellation, Sancerre AOC

Chenin Blanc – Vouvray AOC, Stellenbosch and Swartland Appellations

Merlot – Right Bank Bordeaux AOC, Spring Mountain AVA, Walla Walla AVA

Cabernet Sauvignon – Napa Valley AVA, Left Bank Bordeaux AOC, Bolgheri Superiore IGT, Maipo Valley Appellation

Syrah – Southern and Northern Cotes du Rhone AOC, Paso Robles AVA, Walla Walla AVA, Barossa Valley Appellation

Pinot Noir – Burgundy AOC, Willamette Valley AVA, Santa Rita Hills AVA

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Why Do Wines Taste Different? – Part 2a: Climate

Continuing the two part series, well… I realized this topic was just too much for one additional piece. Don’t forget, I am no industry expert. This piece is only offered from the perspective of the impact on enjoyment of wine flavors and structure. Folks, I have tasted a LOT of wine. Over the years, you ask questions, and you learn which factors affect the wine and how. Now I am sharing that experience with you.

PART 2a – How Terroir Affects the Fruit 

This second part in the series is the most complicated. This installment in the series provides insight into the location factors that influence wine flavors. It is impossible to cover these next topics without technical detail. I apologize in advance for diving into the dryer Somm training. I will try to associate these influencing factors with their specific impact on flavors and structure, so it will offer more interest and meaning…

0601_g1_2_terroir-wheel

Climate is closely related to the idea of “terroir”. I put the term in quotes, because it is a concept more than a word. Terroir impacts both flavors and structure in wine (for example: blackberry and acidity). Here is the Webster Dictionary definition: “The combination of factors including soil, climate, and sunlight that gives wine grapes their distinctive character”. Close, but there is more to it than just that. Some additional ideas would be: proximity to bodies of water (i.e. lake, ocean), heavy winds, or fog during the growing season and the most important – local wine growing traditional practices.

Each of these can have a bigger influence than you would think:

  • Foggy mornings can add a considerable amount of acidity to the fruit and ultimately the wine.
  • Heavy winds have a more basic function – the wind keeps the berries dry, so thinner skinned varieties (Pinot Noir, Merlot) can be grown in humid climates, without mildew and rot.

Wine growing tradition can affect things like:

  • Trellis design – Overhead trellising (called Pergola and common in Italy) makes it impossible to practice canopy management. This can lead to inconsistent vintages from varying weather conditions. Without canopy management, it is difficult to control producing burnt vs. under-ripe fruit from year to year. Italy has been slowly converting their premium vineyards to head-trained trellis and pruning systems for this reason.
  • Yield per acre – Some regions can produce 8 tons of fruit per acre, or more. This is bulk wine territory. You can taste the difference when fruit is pruned from the vines early and the yield is reduced to 2-3 tons per acre, commonly found in the premium wine category. This always develops more concentrated and complex flavors. Ask a winery about the yield per acre for their fruit source. They should be able to tell you immediately. It is a VERY important decision and will separate quality wines from bulk wine. Your dividing line is at about 4 tons per acre.

Terroir can also be a philosophy of sorts. Have you ever considered wine to be a unique indicator of “place”? Wine can and does reflect local cuisine and culture. In many of the Old World wine growing regions, wine is viewed as a definitive indicator for the location where it is made. That is why they have actual government laws regarding how wine must be made in many regions. In this way, Wines from St. Estephe AOC, or Sancerre AOC all have a consistent character. Before my Somm training, I would have told you this was completely crazy. In the U.S., we don’t think of wine in this way, but still… when I drink a Napa Cab Sauv, it does take me back to past visits to Napa Valley.

Affects of Climate and Location on Wine

So, now let’s pick-up where we left off in Part One and dive into the climate and location factors that influence the flavors in wine:

Where is the vineyard located, in a: Maritime (adjoining ocean), Continental (inland), or Mediterranean (moderate temps & ocean influence) Climate? If you add soil type, these are THE most important factors in vineyard influence on the wine. So, how does this affect the way we experience the wine? Let’s start with climate. The primary impact of climate is on the varietal selection planted. As an example, varietals grown in the Loire are completely different than those grown in Bordeaux and those choices have an obvious impact on flavors in wine from the two regions. Within the same varietal wine, the climate difference impacts structure: Acidity, Tannins, Alcohol, Complexity (especially mid-palate) and Balance. This is the part of the discussion that becomes more variable and interesting.

Winery Provence

Provence Region, France

Maritime Location

In Northern Latitudes, these locations can be cool with fog, but winter temps stay moderate. If the growers can get the grapes fully ripe, watch out – fantastic wine results. Think acidity here. Wonderful climate for growing cool climate red varietals (if the soil is right) like Pinot Noir, Cab Franc and Syrah. This type of climate can also produce interesting cool climate style whites, like Chardonnay, Albarino and Pinot Gris. Think U.S. Sonoma Coast, or Spanish Rias Baixas. In Southern Lattitudes, the hot days and cool nights make killer warm climate reds, like Cab Sauv, or Grenache. Think French Provence, or Italian Tuscan Coast.

Clear Lake Pic

Clear Lake Region, CA

Continental Location

These inland locations do not have the moderating affect of the ocean, so these regions cannot extend too far north, or south for that matter. Wine grapes have very specific climatic needs. A very interesting and different example is the California Clear Lake AVA – an inland location, but at higher elevation with a large adjacent lake. This AVA is starting to produce structured wines and as the local industry comes to understand the vineyard sites better, the wines form this area will continue to improve. The varying Continental climates can produce a wide array of varietals. Burgundy, France is the classic premium appellation. In the U.S., it might be Walla Walla Valley AVA.

northern-rhone-vineyard

Rhone Region, France

Mediterranean Location

These wine growing locations tend to be in southern latitudes, inland along rivers within 50-150 miles (or so) of the coast. The best reds produced in these areas are usually from Syrah and Mourvedre grape varietals. In the whites category, the varietals to look for would be Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. These areas offer some of the most complex wines in the world. You often find wines from these areas with crazy flavors, like: olive tapenade, tar and mint. Sounds unpleasant… but try extending your budget when the opportunity arises and buy a nicely aged bottle of Cote Rotie. Be prepared to have your socks knocked off! The classic premium appellation might be the Rhone Region in France. In the U.S., it would be San Luis Obispo County (Paso Robles AVA).

Conclusion

If you haven’t noticed what these locations have in common, think hot days and cool nights.

Grape vines need enough sunshine to ripen the fruit, but not too much heat… or else the wine tastes too flabby (try bottled grape juice). Cool nights add acidity, without which wines taste flat. It helps if Winter can be a little cold, so the vines can more effectively shut-down, go dormant and rest part of the year. Extremes within any of these factors makes for lousy wine, or dying vines.

This has been a brief review of Climate and its impact on Wine. The next piece will cover our most favorite topic – DIRT and vineyard site selection. I hope this series is offering deeper insight into the factors that affect wine flavors and structure. In particular, if you are interested in Wine Travel, this is the information that will make the experience much richer!

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Best Value Wine Destination in the U.S.A.?

value pic

I was recently involved in a discussion regarding preferred wine tourism destinations among serious wine drinkers / collectors. Napa Valley is consistently drubbed for its utter lack of value. Average tasting room fees are $25 – $40/pp… to access top quality, it is not uncommon to pay $75/pp. Now granted, these wineries are so gorgeous – Napa Valley itself creates its own ambiance, but let’s move past honeymoons and anniversaries and talk year-in and year-out wine tourism destinations. My wife and I have vacationed in Napa at least 10 times in the last 20 years and while it was previously my favorite location, it is now third on my list behind the California Central Coast and Sonoma County. To make things worse, Napa tasting rooms have steadily become more impersonal, making me feel like one of the massive herd, or a bother, rather than a valued guest.

Yes, my favorite wine destination is the Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties area in California!

Destination Comparison

Cuisine / Restaurant SceneWinner Napa Valley

The Central Coast is improving, but still has catching up to do.

Tasting Rm FeesWinner Central Coast

1/3 to 1/2 the cost of Napa.

Tasting Rm AtmosphereWinner Central Coast

The Central Coast is a big winner here. I have been getting tired of the attitude in Napa. The tasting rooms are so much friendlier almost anywhere else. I miss 10+ years ago when wine tasting was casual and inviting!

Lodging ValueWinner Central Coast

1/2 the cost of Napa with several resort quality properties to choose from.

Quality of WineWinner Central Coast

Slight edge, not because any single wine is superior, but because overall – the wines approach Napa in quality and the selection is amazingly diverse. There are top quality producers of Syrah, Cabernet Sauv, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay here… in Southern Rhone, Bordeaux and Burgundy styles. All of this diversity is driven by an area with crazy climate variability.

SceneryWinner Napa Valley

Maybe not as cozy as Napa Valley, but the hill and mountain regions west of Hwy 101 are very picturesque.

BeachWinner Central Coast

No Beaches near Napa. This region has Pismo Beach.

Winery ArchitectureWinner Napa Valley

Napa has a big edge here, but some wineries are starting to spend big money in the Central Coast area.

l'aventure winery

l’aventure winery

A Paso Robles Vineyard & Winery

Morro bay pic

Morro Bay, CA

Central Coast Winery Suggestions

(arranged from South to North)

Santa Barbara County

Carr Vineyards – All wines are good, but their 100% Cab Franc is special and reasonably priced.

Jaffurs Wine Cellars Quality Southern Rhone style wines that offer great value.

Brewer- Clifton Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Their Chardonnay is Burgundy style and fantastic!

Qupe – Beautiful, refined Syrah by a master winemaker.

Andrew Murray Vineyards The best value quality Syrah in the U.S. hands down.

Melville Winery Great values in Burgundy style Pinot Noir.

San Luis Obispo County

Laetitia Vineyard & Winery – Fine quality sparkling wines in a broad selection of styles.

L’Aventure Winery – Balanced Hedonism Incarnate (is that possible?). These wines are massive, powerful… and perfection.

Peachy Canyon Winery No winery makes more different single vineyard Zinfandels. If you are a Zin Master, you must visit Peachy.

Tobin James Cellars Their tasting room is definitely the most fun in the area!

Justin Cellars This is your bastion for Bordeaux style wine in the area. Their Cab Sauv and Merlot blends are very good! These wines are approaching the quality of the best in Napa.

Herman Story Wines THE BEST Southern Rhone Style Wines in the United States at prices that will cause you to do a double-take.

Other Wineries of Note Some of best wineries in the world are making amazing wine here, but are expensive and difficult to arrange access:  Alban Vineyards, Saxum Vineyards and Sea Smoke Estate Vineyards.

New Destinations My wife and I will be traveling to Walla Walla, WA this fall, six years after our last trip. I am hoping this location has much to show! I am looking for my next wine destination to add to our list! I will update our findings on this site after our trip!

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Follow-up to: “Cabernet Sauvignon Blend Comparison”

A few comments from readers outside the U.S. highlighted the cultural bias I showed in this piece.  So, for my readers outside the U.S., I decided to write a follow-up with that in mind…

Bias Cartoon

I have written before about cultural differences and how it affects wine culture and wine jobs around the world.  It is difficult to shed the result of our up-bringing.  My point has always been – evaluating the quality of a wine is the same around the world, but whether it is enjoyed with or without food… or which foods pair best to local palates – are not simple questions with easy answers.

Cultural “Liberties”

I took many cultural “liberties” in the previous piece, assuming a shared understanding.  Also, I SHOULD have offered an evaluation regarding the best wine-food pairing…  As a starting point, keep in mind, all four wines were essentially Bordeaux style blends, the wines were similar in profile and this style of wine pairs well generally with red meat.

When I hold a tasting of varietally similar wines like these, it definitely allows a focus on evaluating structure and balance vs. flavors/aromas.  A more technical approach, but one I prefer. If you read my tasting notes, I ALWAYS discuss the structure and balance of the wine – regardless of the pairing.  I tend to evaluate wines based on how well they are made vs. how much I enjoy them.  This is the FIRST concept I was taught in formal Sommelier training.  The French wine was BY FAR the best balanced wine at the table.  So, in a tasting of similar style wines, it offered the best wine-food pairing of the four.  Which wine did I enjoy the most without food?  The 1993 Beringer Private Reserve.

In my opinion, this “Cultural Bias” is the biggest challenge that a wine professional can face when trying to bridge the chasm between Old and New World locations:  accommodating the local wine culture.  This affects every discipline in the wine industry, affecting how the wine is made, how it is marketed, serving decisions…  Perhaps, this thinking explains the importance of an involved U.S. importer to a European producer.

Cultural Differences

In the U.S., it is more common to enjoy wine without food.  One of the challenges I had to overcome in my training, but it also affects how I approach evaluating wine for my U.S. audience.  I believe there are a few ideas differentiating wine drinkers in the U.S. from many other locations around the world:

1) A significant share of the wine consumed in the U.S. is enjoyed before, or after dinner, without food.

2) Americans are looking for a less formal and relaxed wine experience.

3) When paired with food, wine flavors should enhance food flavors, rather than just complement the flavors.  Wine is not often consumed primarily to clear the palate as is common in Europe.

In closing, I was asked for a better description of the food prepared and enjoyed with the wines. So, here it is:

Beef Short Ribs – braised with a balsamic reduction for 3 hours in a pressure cooker.  They were rich, meaty, and very tender.

Mac & Cheese – a uniquely American comfort food.  This is an extremely rich pasta dish made with butter, cream and lots of cheese.  In this case we made the pasta from scratch vs. pre-packaged.

Succotash – another uniquely American dish.  A mixture of corn, butter beans (we subbed cannelloni) and okra (we subbed zucchini) in a light butter sauce with salt pork flavoring.

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Obama Serves Hollande “CHEAP” U.S. Wine

This title is quoted verbatim from the “The Drinks Business” online magazine as one of the Top Ten Most Important Wine Stories of 2014… see the whole article here:

http://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2014/02/obama-serves-hollande-cheap-us-wine/

Trade Periodicals Trashing Their Own Industry?

What is wrong with a periodical that would publish a piece like this?  This is the attitude that validates the snobby reputation holding the wine industry back here in the U.S.  The beer or spirits industries would never generate a piece like this…

angry-obama

Your Reaction

How did you react when you read this? Personally, I started steaming out the ears…  Does wine have to be expensive to be good?  UGH, no of course not!  The wines selected by the White House were fine.  Did they need to serve Harlan Estate, Cayuse, or Bond at $200-$500/btl. to show a representative selection of U.S. wines?  If The Drinks Business had done some background research, they would have found the winemakers at these wineries all to be ex-pats from France who have been successful in America.  That is the more important message here.  Obama hit the nail right on the head.  While I may not agree with all of Obama’s politics, he does seem to demonstrate an excellent grasp of how to build a message.

Someone Had to Refute this Piece

There should have been more outrage from the industry regarding this.  Please join me in sending an email to this periodical and expressing your displeasure with this kind of reporting.  You can send an email to:  info@thedrinksbusiness.com.

This piece not only missed the entire intent of the Obama staff and why they chose these wines, but also violated the most basic tenet of our industry:  there is excellent value in wines all over the world!  I am so tired of the high-brow approach to wine prices.  The wine world does not revolve around premium wines from Bordeaux, France and Napa, CA only!

U.K. versus U.S.

I hope The Drinks Business does not reflect wine attitudes in the U.K.  Wine should be accessible.  This is especially good advice for European wine producers who want to capture more of the U.S. market.  Without much exposure to the wine industry in Europe, others will have to comment on the culture there, but I can assure you in the U.S.  –  even the most ardent collectors are mostly down-to-earth people who enjoy a relaxed wine atmosphere, without the hype.

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Passion and the Human Endeavor

Life Speaking
I recognized long ago that I am a little different.  I work hard to find passion in all the major endeavors in my life.  Without it, I am lost, unfulfilled, totally aimless.  The marketing and business development fields can be cold and calculated, but I am unable to function this way.  When I craft a message, it must resonate with me FIRST, then appeal to the market… being able to enthusiastically engage with clients, groups, an audience… comes from inside and passion is the key driver.  Often I am terribly misunderstood by co-workers and clients, thinking I am a hard-charging, aggressive businessman.  I am truly just passionate about what I do.  I BELIEVE strongly in a well-crafted point of view with an associated message.  This relates to both my career and my pastimes.

Why Start a Blog?

I have a PASSION for FINE wines.  No, not the less expensive stuff that I and so many other people drink daily/weekly, but the wine that reflects the talent and/or art of the maker and evokes emotion when enjoyed.  I am a formally trained and certified Sommelier (some test that was, whew!).  Hopefully – with the knowledge to investigate effectively topics within the industry that are relevant and interesting.  So, please join me on this journey, as I delve into the wine industry and try to capture the stories of the people and their vision behind the labels.
very-controlling-person-new-yorker-cartoon

Finding an Audience

When starting a Public Blog, most choose to write about a pastime, or profession, but just as important as choosing the topic – is deciding the context.  Will the audience, or writer drive the content?  Can a writer control the direction?  Am I being a control freak by tailoring an approach to topics I find interesting?  When I first started this blog a few years ago, I thought it would be written for the average consumer and I would “bring wine education to the masses”, but I soon realized I was developing an audience among industry professionals and a large percentage were from outside the U.S.  So, as the readership grows, I have re-assessed and decided to step with both feet into wine writing with a different purpose in mind.  I am writing now for a range of readers beyond the casual wine drinker: Wine Enthusiasts, Wine Collectors, Winery Managers, Wine Distribution, Tasting Room Attendants, Somms, Wait Staff, Chefs and someday perhaps Winemakers.  If the typical wine drinker finds the deeper dive of interest too, then so be it.

The Message

In keeping with the audience, moving forward, this site will focus on the wines and wineries associated with the top 10-20% of consumer dollars spent on bottles over $20USD.  For anyone who has read a few of my posts, it is fairly obvious that is where my interest lies.  So, I am just aligning the blog more closely with my interests and hoping the readership continues to grow and finds the content worthy of the time spent reading it.

Thank YOU

I appreciate all of you that have stopped by this site in the past year, or two and found something of interest.  It is difficult to feel justified as a writer, unless someone is reading your words.  I can accept that committing to this direction for the blog may not have the potential to find the largest audience, but it DOES follow my passion.  A trade-off that seems well-made…

HAPPY HOLIDAYS and BEST WISHES FOR A HAPPY, HEALTHY NEW YEAR!

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Breaking Down Winemaking Styles

During a recent trip to Napa-Sonoma, California, I had the opportunity to interview several winemakers and talk with tasting room managers in the premium wine segment.  The discussion produced a large amount of material, but a few ideas stood out. One question continued to run over and over in my mind:  does a winery begin with some sort of vision for the final product?  If so, how does it come to be…

Is Wine Style Part of the Business Plan?

 

**INSERT Dilbert cartoon HERE** ©Scott Adams

 

Folks, I am not able to include this Dilbert cartoon, but you simply must click on this Link and check it out.  Funny stuff and right on point for this commentary.  This cartoon was excerpted from: Washington Business Journal, “Is your vision statement for real?”, Mar 17, 2011, Link Here.  Good read!  Unfortunately, even non-profit commentary use must still respect creative property!

 

The Vision

In the over $25/btl retail segment, I would say the wine itself easily contributes 2/3 (or more) to the brand identity.  Can you develop a brand, without developing a vision for the product?  I find this kind of discussion fascinating…

Is it important for employees and customers to understand that vision?

Should a Winery Have a “Wine Style”?

Every winery has a story to tell that differentiates them from the thousands of other producers in the marketplace.  That story is the cornerstone of each label.  So, what does this have to do with winemaking? Everything!  The questions posed in these interviews uncovered a glimpse into that underlying vision and ultimately how they wish their wines to be perceived by both their own organization and the consumer.

Why would an owner choose the difficult premium wine segment of the market in the first place?  There must be a calling, or a passion driving that decision?  Framing that story in a way that can capture a wine enthusiast’s imagination… is a message worth crafting.  So, where could wine style fit into this picture?  In this price category, more than any fancy, gimicky label design, or strategic marketing plan, the wine itself defines the brand.  If this thinking is sound, then the style of wine produced IS the winery’s identity.  Following this logic, finding a way to bring the story behind making the wine directly to the consumer is absolutely critical to building the brand.  If you look at wineries in this way, what stories do they have in common?  After interviewing enough winemakers / owners, you start to see commonalities.  In my opinion, the choice of wine style seems to manifest in one of three different ways:

1.  Begin With the Quality of the Fruit  –  Wine should express the character of the fruit and Terroir

  • This is the winemaker as viticulturist view.  Requires an emphasis on the wine growing.  With a complementary view of nurturing the vines to produce supreme quality fruit.  This is best implemented in an estate winery situation.

Impact on the Wine – Tends to add complexity and layering of flavors.  These wines often have a more defined mid-palate. This style is frequently made to be fruit-forward and emphasizes clarity and freshness.  This approach will usually drive good structure, but may not emphasize balance and often has a varietally correct flavor profile.  This style is typified by the winemaker as farmer – often with formal training in biology, botany, or agriculture and the winemaker leans heavily on learning his trade through internships and experience.

2.  Begin With Analyzing the Fruit  –  Better wine through better chemistry

  • This is the winemaker as technologist view.  Monitor and measure everything.  Wine is a mixture of chemical components and the optimum desired profile can be identified and reproduced.

Impact on the Wine – Brings more consistent quality.  These wines tend to focus on correct ratios.  There is rarely a desired component missing, but the product can often lack finesse.  Tannins, acidity, alcohol, phenolic development all carefully measured to arrive at the optimal formula generally accepted by the industry.  This style is typified by the winemaker with a UC Davis MS in Enology, who has taken the technological training completely to heart.

3.  Begin at the End  –  Start with a clear vision for the final product

  • This is the winemaker as artist view.  Where the winemaker is the star and bringer of quality.  This demands a winemaker as leader, who can leverage a history of experience, knowledge and technique to drive the wine to match his vision.

Impact on the Wine – These wines tend to be either elegant and composed, or knock your socks off with a focused over-the-top approach.  Focusing on the elegant approach…  Whether, or not the fruit is up to muster, these winemakers find a way to make the wine balanced and have great mouth-feel.  These most often are classically styled wines, with good structure, acidity, tannins and texture.  Flavors and aromas are less of an emphasis.  This style is typified by the winemaker as the leader and star – having a decade, or two of experience, always knowing the right decision to make, regardless of vintage variation.

Most wineries mix some combination of these ideas, but one of these philosophies typically shines through.

Does One Style Produce Better Wine?

The answer is most definitely no, but the wines within each style category do tend to have similar characteristics.  I enjoy wines in my cellar from producers that fall into all three categories, depending on my mood.

As a consumer, does identifying the story behind your favorite winery matter?

This time the answer is most definitely yes.  If you are like myself and many of the wine enthusiasts I know, we enjoy quality wines, but like to vary flavors and styles.  You may recognize these different styles in your favorite wines.

I have always found this to be sound advice:  “The key to finding new wines you are likely to enjoy, is to track the winemakers and vineyards.”  Pay attention to this information for your favorite wines and it will help you find other labels worth trying.  Connecting to the story behind your favorite winemakers and favorite vineyards can make your wine appreciation much richer.

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