This topic has been controversial since the tasting in Judgement of Paris back in 1976 (see movie Bottleshock). A related topic would be the controversy surrounding the “Parkerization” of wine. Read about this issue here: Wikipedia Link. There have been books and movies on both topics. The discussion is certainly fun, but way more controversial in real-life than it should be.
As a wine enthusiast who usually tastes blind (having a trained/experienced palate), I don’t understand the continuing controversy on this topic. The studies done have all been ridiculously skewed. The controversy seems to rise mostly because the average person simply cannot believe some wine snob in a suit can taste a wine blind and tell you the varietal, location, vintage, vineyard name, etc. I can tell you personally, it is very real, but takes decades of training, experience and practice. Training and experience matter in any profession and yes – wine IS a profession (see Sommelier here: Wikipedia Link). Does that mean this same guy could guess at the wine I would enjoy without him evaluating my taste in wine? Definitely NO! So, why do consumers put so much credence in scores by wine writers? Well, what other measure does the average consumer have to select a wine from thousands available (there are other options)? I buy and consume large quantities of wine and enjoy it very much! Many of us think of great food and wine as a fabulous lifestyle (no denial here). All this wine I drink, training I have had… do you think my idea of a good wine qualifies me to recommend a wine to someone I don’t know? The average consumer sifting through 100’s of wine scores is just wasting time. Perhaps, if you spent the time to learn a particular wine critic’s palate… but how many would take the time?
… But, the Studies!
If you read the articles linked to this commentary above, a big piece of the discussion is price. Are expensive wines necessarily better wines? The unqualified answer is positively NO! Can you impress a guest at a fine dining restaurant by ordering an expensive bottle of wine? Likely yes, and there in lies the rub. Price is often confused with quality in many product categories, but whether you personally would enjoy any given wine has nothing to do with its cost. I have written much on the topic of how to evaluate your own palate in past articles for anyone who has an interest. Just remember an important piece to this discussion, the average consumer is likely to enjoy many average priced wines and could likely not tell the difference. I can tell you definitely, my taste in wine is very, very different from most of my friends. Just because I have wine training and experience, does that mean you should like what I like? Think about it…
Can the Topic be a Serious Discussion?
What really matters in evaluating a wine for the general public is: is it faulted? is it balanced? is it made for cellaring? will it pair well with foods? etc. A few other general measures: is it fruity/savory? is it acidic? is it sweet? is it drying in the mouth? So, why don’t critics talk about these characteristics more generally, instead of sharing a score with a flowery completely worthless description attached? It won’t sell Wine Enthusiast ™ magazines! Personally, I am so tired of pro critics scores and notes! So, spend what you can afford, drink what you like and enjoy the wine with your favorite foods! Here is to hoping the media does not trap you with all this nonsense!
In many European countries, wine is thought of as a companion to food, not typically to be drunk as a cocktail on its own. This common viewpoint in many countries places wine on the dinner table to act as a flavor enhancer, much the same way as seasonings, or sauces would be viewed. It is a cultural concept. I did not grow up thinking of wine this way. It was a learned behavior for me, after I was introduced to fine wines and cuisine TOGETHER. The question is: how could you change cultural norms to include this thinking? NOT, how does the industry convince Millennials to drink more wine…
The Answer Is a Focus on Food
This does not seem intuitive, unless you dive into the European fine dining concept a little more deeply. Many countries take pride in and raise their children to think of natural local foods and the local culinary tradition as a part of their identity. I am not suggesting this should be the goal here, but it does give you an insight into how this wine pairing tradition could begin in the U.S. Investing money in a media campaign would be critical, but not to simply advertise wine, strangely… the media content would need to be focused on how the wine enhances the FOOD experience. Currently in the U.S., younger generations view wine more as a “cocktail” to be drunk on its own. With this viewpoint, wine is a poor value compared to Beer, Cider, Hard Seltzers and Spirits/Cocktails. A perception that could have a huge affect on future demand and ultimately wine production. It is all a matter of changing perceptions…
Famous Chefs as Spokespersons for Wine?
I am not an advertising exec, but it seems fairly clear. Think of it this way: a professional chef would never be trained without a wine pairing education. The wine industry must begin creating marketing content around cuisine, with the appropriate accompanying wine. Pay famous Chefs from the Food Channel to be out front, not winemakers. Have them talk about their favorite wine-food pairings and why. I am sure other creatives would have even more engaging ideas for marketing using this theme.
Could Culinary be the Savior of the Wine Industry?
I am no genius. Who knows? It might work. I would think the industry would not find it too difficult to fund a marketing board that could tackle such a large ad campaign… IF it was viewed as important enough to influence wine consumption trends in the U.S. I am curious, can anyone else out there see the merit in this idea?
This particular software branded as “Tasty” by name is similar in concept to others like “Quini” (if not in process), all have one very major flaw… Very few consumers have the trained palate and sensory awareness required to describe what they are tasting and how they perceive the wine components. I have been approached by software developers before and none had an appreciation for a trained palate and what it brings. These techno driven business models providing wine related services are all smoke and mirrors. Sounds great, until you dive a little deeper and find the missing piece. The idea that a straight chemical analysis, or even an analyzed database of wine tasting notes could provide any real insight into how wine is perceived by the human palate is misguided. Software can certainly accumulate, organize and label wine data, but how does that data have any relevance – unless it is filtered through human perception?
What Is Missing?
I have put some thought into this before and shared those ideas with other software developers in the past. The baseline in the software database must be established with trained professionals first – and not with WSET 4, MW, or CSW certified pros. The calibration has to be with Master Somms (MS) who evaluate consumer palates in restaurants on a daily basis. Once the underlying premise is established and the work is done to connect the human palate (sensory experience) to the chemical evaluation, the concept still requires a short consumer educational program to provide a shared vocabulary. That vocabulary is the vehicle for the shared human wine experience. Which words are chosen to describe each individual sensory experience? Is there a common understanding of what flavors/components they represent? I have yet to be introduced to software that attempts to address these concerns. Without that effort, the whole endeavor is a major waste of time and money.
Am I Biased?
I don’t think so. Regardless of my Somm training, I make my primary living in the technology and automation field. Perhaps that background gives me a little authority here. I most definitely believe the goal of these “AI” software products is achievable, it just requires more trade awareness to succeed.
New Communes (sub-regions) Established by Statute in Italy
The trend in Italy the last two years has been to establish new wine sub-regions in existing wine areas. Historic Sangiovese wine growing regions are being significantly impacted. I have not explored Sangiovese in this kind of depth before, outside of Montalcino (Brunello, Sangiovese clone). Certainly, nothing like the effort I have put into Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. These recent changes in Italian wine laws had me wondering: could there be enough unique wine character from Sangiovese to justify this many new sub-regions in Central Italy?
Can Italian Terroir Produce Sangiovese Wines Different Enough to Justify The Changes?
I decided to investigate this idea with a group of wine collector friends I meet with regularly. In the beginning of the year, I began looking through all the U.S. wine auctions trying to find 10 year old Sangiovese wines from various Italian regions outside of Montalcino (Brunello). To give this a fair evaluation, 10 years of bottle age seemed as if it might be close to the optimum drinking window for these wines. I wanted to taste the best potential versions of these wines for the comparison. While doing the research, I found a couple of U.S. made Sangiovese wines from respected producers and thought it would be fun to add these to the comparison. The tasting was held in my home just this last weekend and produced interesting results. There were a few disagreements across the group, but generally our impressions were similar enough. Here are my notes and scoring in the order of my best score first. I did not take detailed tasting notes, but did record my overall impressions.
Nobile di Montepulciano – Montepulciano Region, Italy
#1) 2012 Avignonesi Grandi Annate – 94/100 pts
This region is just east of Montalcino. Don’t get it confused with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. That is a completely different region and grape variety. Through history, this area has been well-known for the quality of its wine production, often just called “Nobile”. Thomas Jefferson mentioned this area as his favorite wine region.
This was very near a great wine, quality on the order of the bordeaux style wines produced nearby in Bolgheri. It was nicely balanced, with fruit, acidity and tannin in roughly equal measure. Just enough fruit to enjoy on its own and just enough acid/tannin to work paired with foods. It was not big and structured like many of the Chianti area wines I have tasted. It had a lighter feel with a perceived finesse. The flavor profile was typical Sangiovese red cherry, but only slightly tart. This was an impressive effort for a 100% Sangiovese. This wine could make you believe Sangiovese deserves a place as one of the world’s great varietals.
Radda – Chianti Classico Region, Italy
#2) 2011 San Giusto a Rentennano Percarlo – 93/100
This is one of the better-known Sangiovese labels, from one of the most respected Chianti Classico wineries. 100% Sangiovese from the selected best fruit of the Tuscany region. This is not your typical Chianti Classico wine. 30+ day maceration, 30+ day ferment in concrete tanks, 20+ months in French oak barrels and 18+ months in bottle in the producer’s cellar. 3.5+ years before release… That attention to detail built an excellent wine, if not a wine that could carry the DOCG label. This wine is a definite example of why Italian IGT does NOT mean an inferior wine. Not sure the value was as special, but the wine was excellent and another great example of what Sangiovese wine can be in the right hands.
This was a very similar wine to #1 above, but not quite as refined. The finesse was evident here too, but not quite the same mouth-feel and therefore one point less.
This was the surprise of the evening for me. Over 60% Sangio, 20% Merlot and a few percent of these: Canaiolo, Colorino, Petit Verdot. This area is viewed as “up and coming” and is just Southwest of Montalcino. Maremma is the younger brother of the Bolgheri region and the area has been making great value IGT bordeaux style blends for some time now.
This was nothing like the first two wines, complex and layered with high acidity. Fruit-forward but not extracted, this hit the sweet spot for an Old World wine that could appeal to a New World palate. Of course, they had the luxury of blending varieties here and that can make a difference with the right winemaker. With reasonable value, I will be keeping an eye out for this producer in the future.
Napa Region, USA
#4) 2011 Biale SangioveseNonna Vineyard – 91/100
The two most well-known Sangiovese wines in Napa are this and the Del Dotto bottlings. The winery was kind enough to sell us a bottle from their library specifically for this tasting! This winery operated through prohibition and this particular wine has a family history, the vineyard was planted by the current owner’s grandmother.
This was the softest of the wines tasted. The mouth-feel was excellent and was definitely still fruit-forward after 11 years in the bottle. It was light on acidity at medium-minus and had medium tannin. This was an enjoyable wine. It had just enough Old World character to identify as such. This is another of those wines that may have been better a few years ago. Not past its drinking window, but perhaps nearing it.
Montefalco – Umbria Region, Italy
#5) 2012 Adanti Montefalco Rosso Riserva – 91/100
This area is in Umbria and while the area is known for its Sagrantino DOC, it has its own denomination for its Rosso DOC that must be no more than 25% Sagrantino and no less than 60% Sangiovese. This bottling also had 20% Merlot. This was a powerhouse wine, even after 10 years in the bottle. The Sangiovese dominates, but the Sagrantino pulled it towards a Southern Rhone type feel. I really enjoy Sagrantino wines and if you haven’t tried one, you should track down a good example to enjoy for yourself.
This was a bold, fruity wine, with medium plus acidity and tannin. Old World wine drinkers may find this a bit too extracted for their palate, but this was balanced enough not to feel hit over the head with too much oak, or too much fruit like many modern day Napa Cab Sauv’s.
Colli Fiorentini – Chianti Region, Italy
#6) 2013 Torre a Cona Badia a Corte Riserva – 89/100
This is a highly regarded sub-region of Chianti that now has its own denomination. This bottling is typically 100% Sangiovese. The area is North of Chianti Classico and attempts to focus on lighter, aromatic versions of Sangiovese.
This is another wine that may have been better had we opened it a few years ago. Lighter styles of wine can sometimes be limited in their capacity for bottle aging. This wine was a reasonable representative of a typical Chianti, but was too disjointed. It showed too much tannin and acid for its age and the fruit and mouth-feel weren’t there to round out the package. Would have been great with a tomato based pasta dish, but was lacking on its own.
Walla Walla Region, USA
#7) 2011 Leonetti Sangiovese – 89/100
This is a well-known premium bordeaux style producer in Washington state. Their Sangiovese label is grown and produced every year in Walla Walla and this was the most expensive bottle of wine in the group. The wine is 87% Sangiovese and 13% Syrah.
This reminded me of a better than average typical Italian Chianti. Very “one-note”, but definitely varietally-correct. Not as soft as the other U.S. wine we tasted. Would have been a good food wine, but certainly nothing special to mention.
Greve – Chianti Classico Region, Italy
#8) 2010 Podere Poggio Scalette Il Carbonaione – 88/100 This winery is well-respected for its Tuscany styled IGT blended wines. This bottling was 100% Sangiovese from several vineyards located in Greve. Not sure why this needed an IGT designation, instead of DOCG. This area now has their own regional denomination.
This was an uninspiring average Italian Chianti. With age, it had lost its fruit and was thin with nothing to balance out the acid and tannin. Not undrinkable, but given the choice, would prefer a different wine.
Observations & Conclusions
The differences between these wines had more to do with winemaking style and blending varieties, than the Sangiovese fruit itself. Although, there was enough diversity to claim we experienced various different styles of Sangiovese dominated wines. There is more to “terroir” than just soil and climate. If other contributing factors define these regions as unique, so be it. There is a clear marketing advantage to differentiating these wine “communes” and promoting a specific regional style. It will remain to be seen whether all these new sub-regions will be justified in the long-run, or the average wine enthusiast will just find it too confusing to care. I have mentioned DOC, DOCG and IGT classifications several times in this article. If you would like a quick explanation, here is a link: Wine-Searcher – Wine Labels Italy
Here are a few conclusions I drew from the tasting:
Sangiovese fruit alone may not show enough diversity at the premium level to support this many different style designations. Although, the Brunello clone grown in Montalcino is certainly a cut above the others.
Sangiovese is a fabulous blending grape. It carries structure with it, high acidity and tannin, if the winemaking style allows it.
In the U.S., we do produce Old World style Sangiovese wine that compares well with the Italian labels.
Finally, generally Sangiovese wine can be made with finesse. Not sure what I was expecting, but I did not anticipate the subtler wines we found in this tasting.
Are you a successful professional and serious wine enthusiast dreaming of owning your own winery in an established AVA, only to find the start-up costs in California are insane? Have you investigated California vineyard properties costing $75K per acre, or more? No one individual with business ownership experience would ever consider an opportunity with near zero ROI in the first five years and a 10-15 year payback. Well, hello AZ at $1-2K per acre!
Even still, an estate winery start-up is not cheap: $30K+ per acre to prep the soil, purchase and plant the vines, plus VSP trellising system and five year wait for mature vines, etc. Considering it normally requires a minimum of 1,500 cases of production output ($400-500K revenue) for the beginnings of a profitable winery business, add the major risk of variable climate/weather and you will have to bite-off a huge chunk of both savings and determination to go down this road… but if the countryside lifestyle, the great industry people, connection to fine wine & culinary culture and rubbing elbows with the rich & famous makes it worth it, AZ is your destination!
Higher Ed Degree Programs, Research and Incubators
There is a program accredited by Yavapai Community College offering a two-year Oenology degree located in the new Verde Valley AVA run by Michael Pierce (trained/experienced AZ winemaker) that has been in operation for a few years now. They currently have 15 acres of planted vineyard and are producing roughly 1,500 cases of student-made wine. The Agricultural Extension at University of AZ is also now getting serious with research surrounding climate and fruit production for the local wine growing industry. Maynard Keenan helped to start the custom crush and industry incubator facility “Four Eight Wineworks” in the Verde Valley AVA. A real place where winemakers can cut their teeth. By the way, if you have not seen Maynard’s wine movie “Blood into Wine”. Track it down. It is a fun intro to the AZ wine industry.
Continuing AZ Legislation to Encourage Wine Tourism
AZ now has a significant retail wine footprint in the Sedona-Grand Canyon tourist area, with many new projects for wine tasting rooms in planning. The recent legislation allowing licensed in-state wineries to have two satellite tasting rooms instead of only one, has caused a boom in planned tasting rooms for construction in the Sedona-Cottonwood area.
Crazy AZ Wineries and Distribution
I have been writing about California and Washington wineries for more than 10 years and I have not found one that decided to self-distribute without a major Direct-to-Consumer sales footprint via an established tasting room experience. Without a tasting room, or commercial distribution agreement, the wine business can be a pretty lonely affair. In AZ, I found two, both with high quality wines. Break-even with this scenario seems impossible, but you need to understand the special nature of the AZ wine industry. There are several contributing factors: 1) Current advantages from state statutes making it more difficult for out-of-state competition (licensing/tax barriers) and creating sales advantages for in-state grower/producer/local self-distributors, 2) The 3-tier distribution system bloating retail pricing by including two additional mark-ups, and 3) In-state wine demand exceeding supply. These two wineries load-up personal vehicles and deliver cases of wine to customers at their homes on periodic runs through the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas. It took me weeks to get my head around this wine business model.
AZ Wine Identity
The area is finally starting to find a wine identity and is slowly coming around to the realization: the best wines use what the terroir gives. Forced wine styles do not work consistently well and because of this the local industry has been experimenting with lesser-known warm climate varietals native to the Rhone, S. Italy and Spain. Some of these wines are fabulous, surprisingly enough – especially the whites. Don’t be scared by varietals you may not recognize, because the whites (Viognier, Malvasia Bianca, Petit Manseng, Picpoul Blanc) and reds (Tempranillo, Graziano, Syrah, Grenache, Aglianico) are tasting as good as many popular California wines. The blended wines are definitely the best expression of AZ terroir. When the wine industry began in AZ in the late 80’s, the few vineyards that were planted attempted to plant Bordeaux varietals and the results were of mixed success. Although, a friend of mine and trained wine judge Jay Bileti (yes, AZ has trained wine judges too!) and I were recently given a Sonoita Vineyards ’89 Bordeaux style blend from their library that we enjoyed with a wonderful meal of Ossobuco made by his wife Lynn and it was very good!
I interviewed several talented winemakers in the last few weeks. They are making wines of unique character and style. With fruit-forward, balanced profiles that would stand-up to any evaluation as “premium wines”, anywhere in the world. The last time I tasted through the state about eight years ago, it was difficult to find a winemaker able to make consistently good wine, although there were a few: Kent Callaghan, Maynard Keenan, Eric Glomski were examples. In my opinion, the strength of the AZ wine identity will be blended whites & reds. Leading you to the idea: fortune will smile on winemakers with classically trained palates, able to leverage that knowledge to deliver the best possible product from the local terroir. This was an absolute necessity to take AZ wine to the next level.
AZ has definitely reached the critical mass juncture. The local wine industry and it’s future is exceedingly bright. The resources are in place to support a vibrant and successful wine community. The past several weeks of AZ winery tours and interviews have generated a significant amount of material and brought many insights into the AZ wine industry. Many more articles to come!
The importance of climate in vineyard management can not be over-stated. The entire European culinary and beverage marketing model establishes food/wine character BY LOCATION. This European developed idea to turn place-names into unique trademarks defining specific flavors and aromas has been the cornerstone of worldwide food and wine marketing for decades. The same thinking caused governments to establish laws and trademark protections for food and wine production. Wine laws arguably could be the most stringent. Here are a few of the most famous wine examples: American Viticultural Area (AVA) in the U.S., Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) in France and Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) in Italy. This concept also applies to specialty foods: Parmesan Reggiano cheese may only come from Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Bologna, IT, Roquefort cheese can only be made in Roquefort, FR, Prosciutto de Parma can only be made in Parma, IT, etc. If you have never tasted these original foods (and not imitations), you need to splurge a little and buy these imported products. The difference in flavor is astonishing.
Impact of Climate Change on Wine Production
The French terroir concept is the basis of this wine marketing by area idea and has been developing for hundreds of years in Europe. It is the primary driving factor behind the establishment of wine laws controlling vineyard and winemaking practices by location. The definition of Terroir:
Complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as soil, topography, and climate. – AND / OR – The characteristic taste and flavor imparted to a wine by the environment in which it is produced.
Climate has a direct impact on the terroir idea defined above. It affects many choices for producers, ie. grape varietals to plant, when to harvest, control of crop size, how to water, conditioning/fertilizing of soil, etc. All of these affect wine character, flavors and aromas. So, what is coming for the wine and food industries due to climate change? Hang on… crystal ball is out, here we go…
Vineyards and Resulting Wine by Location
Common thinking has been that vineyards should be planted between the 30th and 50th parallels (latitude) around the globe, both northern and southern hemispheres. Cool climate reds like pinot noir often are best grown near the 45th parallel and warm climate reds like nero d’avola and shiraz near the 35th. Cool climate whites like riesling are often grown near the 50th parallel (ripening reliably compared to past) and warm climate like petit manseng near the 35th. Vineyard elevation can affect this range, but only minimally. The impact is not just temps, but also length and intensity of sunlight during the growing season.
The most consumed varietals in the world: cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay are best grown in a much narrower range: 40-45th parallel. Why is this important? What if the most famous cab sauv growing region in the world (Bordeaux, France) became too hot for premium cab sauv wine production? Would these producers accept: producing poor quality wine, over-manipulate the wine to change its character, or tear out cab sauv vines and plant warmer climate varietals like aglianico and petit sirah? French wine laws would fall apart with any of these options and as a result wine consumers might change their ideas about where the best wines in the world are produced.
Climate Impact on Commonly Grown Wine Grapes
When cab sauv is grown in cooler areas, the wine acquires vegetal flavors: green bellpepper and tomato are common. When chardonnay is grown in warmer climates, it becomes too fruity and loses it signature acidity. What would happen if Burgundy, France became too warm to grow quality pinot noir, or Napa, CA became too warm for cab sauv? The transition has already begun… I have been collecting and tasting wine since the 90’s and red burgundy has become fruitier and Napa reds have become flabbier. Many Napa producers have already begun manipulating their wines to adjust for the differences. One option is to harvest earlier, but then the pips (seeds) are not allowed to ripen and complex flavors are lost. In Napa, where the area’s signature cab sauv is very fruity, this option would change the whole character of the regions’ wine production.
Changes and Timelines
Climate change has been slowly accelerating, but still is not likely to have a serious impact on wine in my lifetime. Although, consider this thought: a wine vineyard requires 5-10 years to fully mature and begin producing premium fruit for wine production. This requires thinking in terms of decades, not years. The last 25 years of climate change has seen a noticeable difference in the character of wine in many regions. Not enough to change the wine industry substantially, but at this rate, what will another 25 years bring? Will vineyard managers have the vision to react in advance, when there is still time to save the current wine styles of today? Will the industry opt to tear-out current vineyards and replant warmer climate grape varietals, or decide to abandon warming vineyard sites for planting in cooler climate areas farther north? It is likely to be too expensive to abandon existing vineyard sites… so my crystal ball shows the younger generations of wine drinkers adapting to Petit Sirah and Petit Manseng…
This has been a very interesting topic. If others in the trade have different ideas regarding the impact of climate change on the industry, please drop me a note. I am always curious about new strategies… and no, please do not suggest adding citric acid to the final product, thank you…
For those that are not familiar with Austria and its history with wine, this article will familiarize you with the 1985 scandal when millions of bottles for domestic and export sales were found to have had diethylene glycol (similar to automobile antifreeze) added. This stuff can be very unhealthy. But, on the upside, it does make the wine fuller bodied and sweeter. Nice trade-off there. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt, but the result of that mess was the destruction of 36 million bottles of Austrian wine and the complete collapse of their wine industry. It would take almost 20 years and the addition of numerous laws and legal safe-guards for their wine industry to fully recover. There has finally been a huge resurgence in the popularity of Austrian wines in the last decade.
Latest Austrian Scandal
In several wine producing countries, it is illegal to add any type of glycerine to wine. Unfortunately, in the U.S., it is permitted. There is a huge difference between synthetic glycerine and vegetable glycerine. The synthetic type CAN be quite toxic. The vegetable version is very safe, but desirable as a wine additive? (discussion to follow below) 25,000 bottles were discovered and destroyed in Austria that were found to have synthetic glycerine added this year. The added substance in question was a trivalent alcohol that gives wine a higher viscosity and is harmless, but is forbidden by Austrian law. This synthetic glycerine was petroleum-based. Convictions and fines were the result. Sentences are not yet legally binding though. With Austria’s past, any chance of toxicity is serious bad form.
Some of the additives listed below are illegal in certain countries, but most are permitted in the U.S. Although, we don’t get to know which are used in the wine we drink, BECAUSE WINE HAS BEEN EXEMPTED FROM USFDA FOOD LABELING REQUIREMENTS. What does this mean to you personally? Well, nothing here is outright dangerous, but don’t underestimate the impact on allergies, tolerances and such. For example, my wife has a known allergy to soy, others find they have limited tolerance to added sulfites, etc. In general, all of these can affect color, flavors, aromas and the viscosity of wine. Your reaction to this discussion might be: “but, these additives are only used in cheap wine”. You would be very wrong. This list is commonly used in all price categories.
Here is a short list of common wine additives:
Citric, Fumaric, Malic, Lactic and Tartaric acids – to acidify wine
Calcium Carbonate – to de-acidify wine
Oak and Oak Chips – to add tannin, flavors & aromas
Acetaldehyde – to stabilize color
Copper Sulfate – to eliminate sulfites and mercaptans (bad tastes/odors)
Sulfur Dioxide, Potassium Sorbate – to sterlize and preserve wine
Mega Purple – to add color and body
Tannin Powder – to add mouth-feel and make wine more ageable
Gum Arabic – to reduce astringency (tannin) in wine
Dimethyl Dicarbonate – to stabilize, sterilize and remove alcohol
Sugar, Saccharose, or Grape Juice Concentrate – to add sweetness also called “chaptalization”
Vegetable Glycerine – to add body and sweetness
Gelatin, Albumin (egg white), Bentonite, Casein – to remove haziness caused by free proteins
Water – to dilute over-concentrated wine
Engineered, Cultured Yeasts – to control the fermentation process (vs. wild yeasts)
Diammonium Phosphate – removes naturally occurring sulphur in wine
Protease – improves wine heat tolerance
Soy Flour – Feeds yeast to accelerate fermentation
Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wine
All of this talk of additives has to lead your mind toward interventionist vs. non-interventionist winemaking philosophies. Have you considered the issue for your own wine consumption? Personally, I believe I can taste the difference in over-manipulated wines. Napa Valley producers in the low to medium price range have been utilizing these methods more of late. This is the key reason why my personal wine cellar has been moving towards a higher percentage of French and Italian wines, especially in the low-medium price ranges. France and Italy have very stringent wine laws regarding additives and in general, have winemaking cultures of less intervention. So, if you would like to address this issue, how can you know which U.S. wines to buy? It may be time for you to read the back label of that next bottle of wine… Wine in the U.S. can be “labeled” as organic, biodynamic, natural and sustainable… and can also be certified as such by a third party. Many U.S. wineries are implementing at least some of these practices. Here is what these terms mean:
Natural – Typically are made in a low-intervention style, fermented with native yeasts and contain only trace amounts of added sulfites. These wines are not filtered, or fined. This means they could contain particulates, or appear cloudy. Which is not necessarily a problem. These wines should have gone through the bare minimum of chemical, or winemaker intervention and are not often aged in oak. Wines produced with this approach may have limited stability and cannot be mass-produced, but are a different drinking experience, if you should choose to try them.
Organic – These wines fall into two categories: organic wine and wine made from organically grown grapes. Certified organic wines (USDA) have stricter regulations. Vineyards must not use synthetic fertilizers and all ingredients in these wines (including yeast) must be certified organic. No sulfites may be added, although naturally occurring is permitted. These wines will display the USDA organic seal.
Biodynamic – Unlike organic winemaking, biodynamic does not change between countries. When originally devised, the method had each day organized by fruit days (grape harvesting), root days (pruning), leaf days (watering) and flower days (vineyards to be untouched). Biodynamic practices are not required to follow this calendar, however. If you’ve seen biodynamic and organic wines grouped together at your wine shop, there is a reason. Biodynamic wines employ organic practices. They avoid pesticides and depend on compost, rather than chemical fertilizer. Therefore, the majority of these wines are also organic in practice. Certified biodynamic wines are permitted to contain up to 100 parts per million of sulfites, far more than the USDA certified organic wines. So, a wine that is organic is not necessarily biodynamic, although a wine that is biodynamic is often organic.
Sustainable – These wineries make an effort to utilize winemaking processes that protect the environment, support social responsibility, maintain economic feasibility, and are of high quality. This idea has less of a direct impact on the wine, but is an “eco-friendly” designation.
At the risk of upsetting every wine critic/judge out there, I set out to create a wine scoring system that matched my view of fine wine. I will include this scoring template at the end of the article, for those that might be like-minded. Email me if you would like a self-calculating spreadsheet copy.
After pro Sommelier training (where scoring was discouraged), I was exposed to the WSET scoring method and wine judging courses. Both used a variation of the UC Davis 20 Point Scoring System. I was shocked how these systems were unable to separate amateur from premium wines effectively. In these classes, we scored fruit wines (cherry, blueberry, strawberry, etc.) and vitis labrusca wines (Concord, Chambourcin, Catawba, etc.). These wines were near undrinkable for me and were being given the same scores as mediocre Cali Cabernet. The methodology and scoring systems taught in these classes were intended to be appropriate for both amateur and fine wines. Although, away from class these same people would explain the intent of these systems was to score wines based on a comparison of LIKE wines. This is not how I understood the training and it is likely the public views this scoring similarly. This experience motivated me to build a scoring system that is weighted properly and could be used to provide comparatively accurate scores for amateur, professional AND fine wines, without a bias.
The Evaluation Criteria
First, it was necessary to determine what separates fine wine, from other wines. In that evaluation, I arrived at the following characteristics that are under-represented in the UC Davis System: Balance, Complexity, Finish and Aging Potential. All of these measures are intended to be scored in the UC Davis “Quality” category, but to make the scores more comparatively accurate, I decided these characteristics needed their own point categories. I then looked at what seemed to be weighted incorrectly in the UC Davis System and arrived at: Clarity, Color and Acidity. Four of twenty points for clarity and color is 20% of the score. This is weighted too heavily towards mediocre wines. Acidity was only 5% of the score – not weighted heavily enough. I realized, if I reduced the points for clarity and color, increased points for acidity and added balance, complexity, finish and aging potential categories… I might be able to devise a scoring system that could properly measure a Concord wine (for example) and build an appropriate score against say… an aged Bordeaux Gran Cru.
A Wine Scoring Template
Now I was ready to put my scoring template together. I realized that many media outlets still use the old Robert Parker 100 pt system and decided to add it to my template. I wanted to help both systems arrive at a roughly equivalent score. I realized this could only be done, if I started the 100 pt score at 50, instead of 0. You will see what I mean below. The closer the wine came to the premium category, the better my 100 pt method seemed to arrive at an accurate score. It was the opposite with my 20 pt method, albeit much closer to reality than the UC Davis 20 pt method.
After the long explanation, here is my effort to build a scoring system that can evaluate both a poor blueberry wine and a Gran Cru Bordeaux – with the same template – done accurately and with a logical systematic approach.
In the past, my Somm training won out and I tried not to add scores to my tasting notes. In retrospect, I think this was mostly due to being uncomfortable with the systems available. I intend to use my scoring template moving forward and hopefully develop consistency and comparative accuracy across my tasting notes.
I would be very interested in other opinions regarding both the thinking that drove this creative process AND the relative accuracy using this scoring system. I am also open to modifying aspects, if the changes fit within the logic model used to build it. Please feel free to leave your comments on this page. Thanks!
Here are the data points changing the face of the wine industry with limited response by producers (the numbers across multiple sources had some variation, so the figures below are approximate):
90% of all wine made in the U.S. is sold by the 320 wineries that exceed 50,000 cases of production. Of that 90%, more than half is dominated by the top FIVE: Gallo, Wine Group, Constellation, Trinchero and Delicato. The other 9,000+ wineries are bringing only 10% of all wine production to market in the U.S.**
With the recent on-going consolidation in wine distribution, the top FOUR by volume nationally (Southern, Republic, Breakthru & Young’s) deliver approximately 60% of all wine distributed in the U.S., but represent only 30% of the wineries.**
In the case of wineries producing fewer than 10,000 cases, distributors were responsible for only 33% of sales in 2016. A 6% decrease over the previous year and the trend is continuing.**
Is your head swimming with numbers yet? Suffice to say, BIG has become financially BETTER today and could very well push SMALL to the side of the road. Why? The answer is in the numbers above. How do those other 70% of under-represented wineries bring their wine to market? Winery Direct-to-Consumer (DtC) sales is only 2% of all wine sold in the U.S. currently.
Small wineries better become experts at marketing, capturing clientele and earning their continuing loyalty… and fast! If they do not already have a developed DtC customer base, it is near too late. Those who wish to survive, should be investing now! The large distributors dominating the market already have large portfolios of wine labels and shelf-space and wine lists only have so much room.
There were two great hopes: the loosening of rules in cross-state shipping of wine allowing the emergence of online wine retailers and the advent of wine big-box retailers (think Total Wine). At one time, it was looking like these two channels buying winery-direct could represent small wineries and fill the gap. Although just like the DtC space, they are missing the expertise to deliver the volume of sales needed. Can online retailers get better at building inviting online platforms and tools to identify and explore the consumer palate? Can big-box retailers provide a better buying experience that allows thousands of labels to be properly represented? Unfortunately recently, wine commerce laws have become stricter (see recent changes in FL) and it is making it more challenging for both of these channels to grow fast enough to fill the gap.
Why Should Consumers Care?
Well, if you have favorite wines produced by wineries with under a 10K case output… supporting them with your DtC purchases will become important to their continued survival and your continuing supply. It is that simple. The survival of small wineries is in your hands…
**Reference sources for this article were: Various Wines & Vines articles, Grand View Research – Wine Market Trends Report, Forbes Food & Agriculture articles, L.E.K. Insights – Trends Affecting the Wine Industry, Dr. Liz Thach MW – Blog and Statista – Alcoholic Beverage Statistics. The internet provides so much rich content, if you search!
Trained, certified sommelier. Wine writer/blogger. Wine collector with extensive wine travel. Working with the wine industry as a part-time consultant. Providing cellar management and procurement strategies, wine training & education, beverage business planning and marketing to the trade. Enjoy my tasting notes and blog at - www.coolclimatewine.net, my professional profile at: www.linkedin.com/in/douglasjlevin, my Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/TheDOCG, or my Twitter feed at @douglasjlevin.