Tag Archives: Wine Education

The Zinfandel Dilemma

I attended a presentation today at the 2017 Wine Bloggers Conference by a group of four Zin winery owners sponsored by ZAP (Zin Advocates & Producers) and heard this plea: we are serious winemakers producing serious wine, we deserve to be taken seriously! The session was titled “Zinfandel: Old and New.” I was expecting a serious discussion about old and new wine styles, but instead we heard the usual tired Zin topic: comparing old vs. young vine Zin. Not that this isn’t a viable topic, it has just been covered many times in many places and not really what these winemakers were passionate about. The ZAP moderator had to focus the discussion back on promoting the vineyards several times. This brings me to the reason for this commentary. I have seen it many times, when a winery doesn’t understand how best to develop a coordinated marketing plan, the focus is put on expression of place (terroir). There are definitely worse ideas, but Zinfandel in particular is a special case. Zinfandel has an identity problem first and foremost and if that isn’t addressed, all discussion of place is lost in the noise.

Red Zinfandel Wine & Consumer Perception

Zinfandel is the most manipulated wine grape on the planet. It is made in so many styles, you really have no idea what to expect every time you open a bottle from an unfamiliar producer. In contrast, when I pop Bordeaux/Meritage, Burgundy, or Rhône style wines, regardless of where they are made, I have a rough idea of what I will be tasting. That is a serious problem. If ZAP is trying to bring Zin into the premium space, they should be focusing on this issue. Collectors and restarauteurs need to have a point of reference. It must be quite difficult to build a marketing plan around a wine profile that is not generally familiar. Does the marketplace need some sort of generally accepted Zin style indicators?

So, here we go… my attempt to address this challenge:

RICH Zinfandel – Characterized by winemaking technique aimed at broad general appeal and high volume production. Usually driven by ideas like: whole cluster vacuum fermentation to add extraction and big fruit flavors, extended cold soak for more extraction, late harvest to accentuate over-ripe and raisiny fruit flavors and optical sorting to isolate late harvest raisins to make a concentrated must used to fortify larger batch production. Good examples would be Lodi and Paso Robles producers chasing the jammy Zin profile.

WARM CLIMATE Zinfandel – These would be producers in warm climate areas with a fine wine sensibility. Using Guyot trellising and vertical shoot positioning to build a Bordeaux style approach to Zin. This type of winemaking in these locations makes what I would call Zin with finesse. Not overly fruit-forward with low tannins and medium to medium-high acidity, often shooting for soft wines with good mouthfeel. Napa and Dry Creek Zin producers would be the example here.

COOL CLIMATE Zinfandel – These producers are trying to build a leaner style Zin with medium to high tannins and high to very high acidity. Often traditionalists, these estate vineyards are usually head-trained and laid out with more space 8’x8’ or 8’x12’ between the vines building a large cluster approach to fruit production. Zin tends to always drive fruity flavor profiles, so growing in a location with just enough sun and warmth to ripen the fruit seems to work. This is probably a “truer” expression of Zin for you purists and builds a wine much better for pairing with food. Producers from Amador and El Dorado Counties and Russian River are examples in this category.

Zinfandel BLEND – This is the newest idea in the industry and popularized by the very successful release of “The Prisoner” by Orin Swift orginally. Zinfandel as a varietal has broken through the stigma and become a more common blending grape. Several producers in Paso Robles have begun using Zin to add a fruit-forward and aromatic character in lieu of the traditional Grenache found in most Rhone blends. I find the result quite interesting. Try an example of a red blend with Zinfandel in the mix. When done well, these wines can be fruit-forward, acidic, tannic and have great mouthfeel all at once.

 Wine Tasting Session

2015 Terra d’Oro Deaver Vineyard – Mildly fruit-forward and slightly sour. Much like a Chianti without the structure. Some complexity would add interest. Medium acidity and tannins.

2015 Cedarville Vineyard Zinfandel – A fruit-forward nose and palate with black cherry and strawberry. A light mid-palate and finish of bitter dark chocolate. Medium-high acidity and medium-high tannins. This had a nice aromatic nose. Nice effort that maintains the integrity of the Zin profile, while offering a structured food-friendly approach.

2015 Proulx Zinfandel – A strong red fruit profile with a brambly note and a dominating nail polish character on the nose. Medium-high acidity and medium tannins.

2015 Limerick Lane Wines 1910 Block – This is loosely a Zinfandel “field blend”. More blackberry than the other wines tasted here (more black vs. red fruit). The enhanced black fruit is likely due to the other red varietals planted in this vineyard. There was a brambly character that added a pleasant complexity. High acidity and medium tannins.

Cool Climate Zinfandel

These four wines were grown in areas where at least the evenings are quite cool and the fruit is often picked a little earlier than other California Zin producers. These wine profiles were deliberately built to offer a more classic style of red wine with good structure and to pair well with food. Think food pairings like poultry, or pork – in particular, a Thanksgiving meal sort of sensibility.

Zinfandel Marketing

How do YOU feel about Zinfandel? It can be made in a very serious wine style, but is not often thought of this way. Marketing is critical for the producers in this style. It was mentioned in the session that these producers were not successfully selling into the Midwest and East Coast markets. The answer has to be an organization like ZAP that could develop a product identity well understood by the wine community.

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Filed under Cool Climate Wine, Lodi, Napa Valley, Paso Robles, Sonoma County, U.S. Wines by Region, Wine by Varietal, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes, Zinfandel

Italy: North vs. South – A Red Wine Blind Tasting

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Wine

    

  • Zenato – 2012 Alanera – Veneto, Italy

  • Fuedo Maccari – 2012 Saia – Sicily, Italy

  • Tenuta Sette Ponti – 2014 Poggio al Lupo – Tuscany, Italy

  • Planeta – 2015 La Segreta – Sicily, Italy

  • Altesino – 2013 Rosso – Tuscany, Italy

  • Planeta – 2011 Burdese – Sicily, Italy

The Setup

A Young’s Market (wine distributor) rep hosted this blind tasting at Alessia’s Ristorante (Mesa, AZ). All wines were drunk while enjoying a charcuterie platter.

  • For the purposes of this tasting, it was assumed Tuscany was “South”.
  • Northern Italy is cooler than Southern: cooler climates generally produce wines with more acidity.
  • Northern Italy generally utilizes a different winemaking style: Southern Italy tends to make easier drinking red wine, versus Northern where reds tend to have more tannin and can be bottle aged. Tuscany in Central Italy can make both styles, but the Sangiovese and Cab Sauv grapes that dominate this area are not difficult to recognize.
  • The ringer:
    • Unusual winemaking processes commonly used by producers in the Western Veneto area (North) can produce fruity, rich red wines:
      • Appassimento – a process for drying of grapes and concentrating flavors (think raisins)
      • Ripasso – a process where additional skins from previously pressed fruit is added to the must to add structure

Wine Tasting Notes  & Comments

So, I landed five out of six for North/South growing region and the one ringer DID fool me. The Zenato wine was made Appassimento style and I thought it was Southern. The wine selections was great, but I missed having a traditional Barolo (North region) in the mix and it would have been fun to add a Dolcetto, Barbera (both North varietals), or Aglianico (South varietal) that might trick us. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is a classic southern wine and probably should have been represented instead of multiple wines from Sicily.

Before we begin with the tasting notes, an observation about my palate. I enjoy fruity wines with the best of them, but they need to have some structure. Flabby, grape juice tasting wines are not my favorite, in fact I can enjoy big, young Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. Keep that in mind when reading the notes below…

Zenato – My favorite wine of the night. Lots of fruit both red and black on the nose and palate. Medium-low acidity and tannin with a dark chocolate mid-palate and finish. There was an interesting almost tar-like finishing note, with violets. Something like the finish of a good aged Barbaresco… The wine had some structure, but the complexity was the real draw. This is a drink now wine. Best drinking window 2016-2018.

Fuedo Maccari – My number two from the list. Saia is one of the few wines coming out of Sicily with a reputation preceding it. This is a fruit forward wine of black fruit and dark chocolate, with medium acidity and medium-low tannins. There is a touch of sweetness. This is a lighter, softer wine, but a bit muscular compared to a typical Nero d’Avola. These Sicilian Nero d’Avola wines are fantastic value red table wines, but definitely don’t elevate to the level of product coming from better mainland producers. Saia is arguably the best of the Sicilian group, but will cost you a few dollars more. For those who enjoy a consistently fruity wine year over year, easy drinking – with some complexity, this would be a solid selection. Best drinking window: 2015-2019.

Tenuta Sette Ponti – This was a very disappointing, overpriced wine. I would choose their Crognolo label for much less money, or their Oreno label for a little more. High tannins and acidity make up its structure. The wine is not fruit forward and primarily presents an extremely bitter chocolate palate with some earthy character. You could say: “with some bottle age this may tone down”… but there is not enough balance to think it will improve drastically. The texture is good, with a long finish. Best drinking window: 2020-2030.

Planeta

La Segreta – Fruit forward with all red fruit on the nose and palate. The structure has no tannins and low acidity. The texture is slightly watery. This wine is past its drinking window. You can tell this is a drink now wine, that should have been drunk: 2014-2016. The 50% Nero d’Avola and 20% Merlot in this mix was a match made for a drink now table wine.

Burdese – Slightly fruit forward with red fruit on the nose and palate. Strong dark chocolate character on the mid-palate and finish. The cab franc adds a slightly spicy character. The structure was high in both tannins and acidity. This wine still needs more time in the bottle. Could make an effective food wine. Best drinking window: 2019-2022.

Altesino – Fruit forward with red and black fruits on the nose and palate. There was a forest floor character to the nose that blows off after about 20 mins. This is a very average Rosso di Montalcino with a very little bit of Brunello character. It is easy drinking and without much structure. The typical dark chocolate finish is there. Pretty decent, but maybe I just want to compare it too much with the much more expensive Brunello wines.

Fun Stuff

We invited our neighbors to join us and we all had a great time, including dinner afterwards. There were four other couples at the event and everyone enjoyed themselves. The rep from Young’s Market was fairly knowledgeable and added interest. If you haven’t tried a blind tasting, give it a shot. It adds a little extra entertainment to a tasting and the suspense of your assessment adds to the experience.

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Can You Identify Wines Matching Your Taste? Part 1 – Wine Without Food

2011-07-06-wine

Wine online has become such a gimmicky topic. Today, we have wine questionnaires that profess to tell us which wine we will prefer. If we like strong coffee, or bitter dark chocolate, we will enjoy this wine, or that… such bull. Many trained wine professionals choose to define wine styles by defining categories of wine. I will try something similar, but approach it from the opposite viewpoint: by categorizing wine enthusiast preferences. This two part series will break the issue apart into primary categories: those who enjoy wine by itself and those who prefer wine with food. This will be my opportunity to share a few observations with you from my experience.

With Food, or Not?

The first question your server in a restaurant should always ask is: “Will you be enjoying a beverage before, after, or with your meal tonight?” Next, “Beer, wine, cocktail?” For those answering wine with your meal, the final question should be: “to assist you with a wine selection, which dish(es) are you considering?” These questions are at the core of what a properly trained fine dining waiter/waitress does: pair food and wine… but not everyone in the U.S. drinks wine with food. So, unlike most Old World restaurants/bars, a U.S. wine service attendant has to think differently and broaden their mind to include clients that drink wine before, or after a meal, or those who drink wine like many beer drinkers: “I just want to go out today/tonight, hang-out and have a few.”

Which Type of Drinker are YOU?

Wine produced in Europe in traditional Old World styles is specifically made to taste its best when paired with food. Although, there are many European wines made to drink without food today, all the traditional labels are meant to be food friendly. Keep this in mind, when you are searching out a new wine to try. How do you determine if your palate is geared to wine with food? If you are a “Foodie” that can appreciate nuanced, or bold vs. subtle flavors, or velvetty vs. silky textures, or enjoy sweet & salty together, or appreciate how acidity breaks through richness… if you are not drinking wine with food, you should give it a try. If you enjoy wine on its own, it is likely you experience alcoholic beverages differently than “Foodie” types. I believe there are two categories here. Those who: enjoy how wine (or alcoholic beverages) makes them feel, or those that focus on how it tastes.

All About the Wine Experience?

The focus on experiencing wine without food puts you in the “feel” category. When you prefer to enjoy a conversation over a glass of wine, relax with or without friends taking in atmosphere and enjoying social pursuits, you are unlikely to be a wine drinker overly concerned about structure in wine, or looking for complex/subtle flavors. In fact, many I have run into with this preference, find these types of wines annoying. This isn’t wrong, bad, or unsophisticated, it is just who you are – embrace it. It is probably the largest category of wine drinker in the U.S. It is OK to be all about finding good atmosphere and drinking straight-forward, easy-drinking wines. So, how do you find these wines and stay away from the others? Wine critics are unlikely to review lower-cost, simple wines. This is a serious missing piece in wine culture: professionals typically don’t review this category of wine. In my opinion, this is a contributor to many wine drinkers being turned-off by the supposed high-brow attitudes in the biz. Here are some mandatory descriptors for wines like this, if you can find a review:  low to medium acidity, little or no tannins and fruit-forward (fruity taste first).

All About the Taste?

A little more “complex” may be good for you. This kind of consumer should put a little effort into exploration, attend wine tastings and decide whether you enjoy the common categories of these flavors: earthy (dirt, bramble), mineral (crushed rock), funk (forest floor/manure), kerosene (petrol), herbal/spice (mint, pepper/cinnamon), vegetal (tobacco, tomato) and floral (violets, honeysuckle). For this category of drinker, the next two elements are most critical: residual sugar (sweetness) and high/low alcohol. The usual easy-drinking wine has at least some residual sugar and an average alcohol content in these ranges: reds 13-15%, whites 12-14%. These characteristics contribute to the description you may want to learn that ensures the wine will taste “good” to you. For example, this request to an attendant: “I prefer low acid, low tannin, fruit-forward wines that have some residual sugar and are easy-drinking.”

Suggested Wines

This category of consumer will likely enjoy these easy-to-find U.S. origin wines. Examples: Ravenswood Lodi Old Vine & Peachy Canyon Westside Zinfandels, Apothic Red (sweet & buttery – if you like that), Meiomi Pinot Noir (rich style vs. other PN), Andrew Murray Tous Les Jours Syrah, Robert Hall Cuvee de Robles, Sonoma-Cutrer Sonoma Coast, Twisted & Chateau Souverain Chardonnays, Handley Anderson Valley Gewurtztraminer or Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling (for a little adventure) .

This is probably the best website on the net to find this type of wine reviewed: https://www.reversewinesnob.com/ . Enjoy!

Next up:

Part 2 – Wine with Food

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Wine by the Glass at Restaurants and Bars

Are You Being Served Spoiled Wine ?

Great topic, but most relevant (I think) for the restaurant and bar trade. Most establishments don’t write the pop date on the bottle and even with single bottle storage solutions, I frequently am served oxidized wine. How many consumers just grin and bear it? Before my training, I kept my mouth shut because I couldn’t describe what I was tasting… I just knew it didn’t taste right. For everyone out there that is tired of this issue, there is an answer. On Madeline’s site right here there are two pieces that explain the issue: http://winefolly.com/tutorial/wine-faults/ and http://winefolly.com/tuto…/how-to-tell-if-wine-has-gone-bad/. Learn how to describe the problem and don’t tolerate spoiled wine! (pet-peeve of mine!). See the link to the original piece below:

 

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Wine Certifications MW, CWE, WSET and MS? Differences AND Why You Want To Know

Why Should a Wine Consumer Care?

You are attending a wine tasting, wine class, an attendant is recommending a wine at a restaurant, buying a wine at a shop, or deciding which vintage to pop from your cellar… If you are an average consumer and “Two Buck Chuck” (okay, probably $4 now) is your thing, please move on to the next article of interest. If wine selection is a bit more important to you read on…

Most wine enthusiasts are faced with these situations frequently and try to make sense of the value proposition. Do you trust recommendations? How could wine professionals understand what you enjoy? Should I pay $20 for a bottle, or maybe splurge and spend $30? What IS a quality wine and how does it taste different? Which food tastes better with which type of wine?

If you spend any time asking yourself these questions, you need to know the difference between these certifications. Well, why should you trust my explanation? If a certification helps to define my content here… I have trained formally, tested and passed the first two levels of Sommelier certifications. Strictly speaking, I am a certified Professional Sommelier. The next level is Advanced and then Master Sommellier. There are a little over 200 MS certified individuals in the world and just the Master test requires a 3 day commitment for the Theory, Service and Tasting sections. Even with a fair amount of experience, it would take me a year (or more) off work to study for that one! All of these certifications require much preparation and are quite an accomplishment. The failure rate for all of these tests is high.

What is a Master of Wine (MW)?

The certification body is the Institute of Masters of Wine and requires a research project and paper. This should give you an idea of the direction here. The path here is Stages 1,2 and 3, prior to the Master designation. An MW will KNOW virtually everything about all wines around the world: all varietals, how they are farmed, all individual world Terroir, vineyard strategies, winemaking techniques, wine taste variation, etc. Where do these people play in the industry? Usually, they work as technical consultants to media, wineries, publications, distributors and importers, etc. There is much to learn about wine from one of these individuals, IF they know how to teach it.

What is a Certified Wine Educator (CWE), or a WSET L4 certified Consultant?

The certification bodies here are the Society of Wine Educators and Wine & Spirits Education Trust. The path to CWE can be to study and test for the Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW), or not. The path to WSET L4 typically goes through L1-L3. These are the most prestigious wine education organizations in the world and they certify as you might guess… the teachers of wine. Why is this distinction important? Think of these people as the educators. If you were to take a wine class, it would be good to have a teacher with one of these certs. It validates their level of knowledge and that they have been introduced to a methodology for teaching wine.

What is a Master Sommelier (MS)?

The most prestigious certifying body here is the Court of Master Sommeliers. I was certified by the International Sommeliers Guild (ISG). They are connected to the Food & Wine education programs at the Art Institutes in major cities in the U.S. In my case, the Phoenix Art Institute and we had the opportunity to work with the chef education program there for food pairing training. The path to MS is already described earlier in this article.

I have a real bias towards these people. The difference here is, you are trained on Theory, Tasting and SERVICE. Why is this different than the other certs? Yes, I was trained to understand how different varietals and styles TASTE and I was tasked to learn about wine production and growing, but the big difference here is the focus on FOOD and matching an individual palate. I was mentored to believe that there can be a difference in wine quality, but wine flavors only apply to an individual palate. There is no “bad tasting wine”, only wine flavors appreciated by different clients. I was trained to learn HOW to pair different flavors (both FOOD & WINE) with different clients and their perception of an enjoyable EXPERIENCE. In essence, this certification focuses on recognizing HOW & WHY people enjoy different foods and wines and how to build an experience that is tailored to an individual. Look for these certified attendants at RESTAURANTS. They will know their stuff and if you can get some one-on-one time, they will enhance your dining experience.

The Difference Based on Your Need

I think you will find this quick guide helpful and easily understandable. If you are taking a wine class, look for WSET and CWE certified individuals. If you have decided to start some sort of business in the wine industry, an MW as a consultant would be a good choice. If you are at a restaurant, a Sommelier on staff would be a good indication of the quality of their wine program. All of these individuals have a level of wine knowledge that can offer much to your personal wine experience, but there are differences as noted above. If you are participating in a wine tasting, any of these people could lead a group successfully with very interesting and rich content for you to enjoy.

So, keep an eye out and ask about certifications. There are a million so-called wine experts. In fact, some can be amazing. I have spent time with wine collectors that would blow you away. Although, if you want to be sure that your money is being spent wisely for classes, education, or dining… Look for the folks with formal training and certification testing. You will have a better chance of getting the most for your money and a much improved experience!

 

 

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Guide to Buying Wine at a Restaurant

Restaurant Wine Lists are intimidating, sometimes even for professionals. I know I feel pressure as the wine expert at the table to immediately grasp the entire wine library and recommend the best value and best paired selection with our meal(s). Here are a few suggestions:

Don’t Recognize Any Wines on the List?

If you don’t recognize a single wine on the list, the wine buyer is deliberately trying to:

  • Sell unknown garbage wines, because they do food… and beverage doesn’t matter (yes, I have met restaurateurs with this attitude)
  • Sell unknown wines you cannot price check with a wine app
  • Only listening to a distributor pushing unknown wineries producing cheap unknown wines that are priced to deliver ridiculous profits
  • Are true wine experts attempting to offer a broad selection from small boutique wineries from around the world that add interest to your wine discovery experience

How can you tell which situation you are dealing with? Ask to speak to the sommelier / wine steward / owner and ask him / her to give you a short explanation of their wine list and the wines they would recommend. You will be able to read the response… are they disinterested, don’t know their wines, can’t offer much background on the wines, or do they get excited about the opportunity to share their wine selection, have stories about the winemakers / wineries because they have visited them, ASK YOU ABOUT YOUR TASTE IN WINE, etc. It is likely you will know which kind of wine list you are dealing with pretty quickly. The bottom line is: if the list is not floating your boat… DRINK BEER, or HARD CIDER. This is especially true when eating spicy foods that do not pair well with wine.

Are the Wines Cheap Brands You Recognize?

This is the sign of a lazy beverage manager. Life is too short to drink bad wine. Again, I would drink beer, or hard cider.

Find a Wine Label You Know

Find a wine you know and buy at the store / shop at least occasionally and check the restaurant’s sell price. If it is twice the price per bottle (or less), you have found a manager / owner that is pricing wines fairly for the restaurant trade. For many of you, 100% mark-up may seem excessive, but there are justifications. If the wine is being served by the glass too, often a single glass is purchased and the balance of the wine is undrinkable after a day two. This makes it difficult to recover cost on the bottle. In addition, when wine is offered correctly, there is more investment in inventory than any other beverage type AND wine service when done correctly is labor intensive and requires higher cost employees. For the regular wine drinkers having familiarity with a few different brands, do what I do… pick a low, medium and high priced wine you know and check their sell price vs. the store bought price. I LIKE the restaurants that lower their profit percentage on higher priced wines as an incentive to up-sell and turn their wine inventory dollars.

Watch Out for Trendy Spots

I put extra scrutiny into my patronage at these restaurants. Are you getting interesting, imaginative wines and recommendations, or are the suggestions crazy, stupid, predictable and/or eye-poppingly expensive? Pay attention before you have had a few and it will be simple to assess. Of course, there are those establishments that are worth a visit just for the ambiance, or the people watching. I don’t expect much from these bars / restaurants, but do enjoy hanging out at these locations occasionally. Before you decide on a restaurant, you might want to include an assessment of your mood and add that into the selection process. It really does inform your approach to beverages: none, cocktails, beer, wine, etc.

Should You Stick With What You Know?

This a tough question. Is there a compelling reason not to pick a wine you have enjoyed previously? If you are anything like me, I often enjoy the adventure of selecting new wines, but only from restaurants that have a good wine list and with recommendations from knowledgeable attendants. This is why restaurants that do wine well are a strong draw for me… LISTENING RESTAURANT OWNERS?

Canvass Your Guests

If you are dining with friends / family chat about the beverages they enjoy. If you have wine in common, ask them about favorite brands, or what type of wines they enjoy. It is awkward when the wine hits the table and your choice is criticized.

The Choice

For all of us who are stuck with making the wine decision for the table, because either we are paying the check, or your guests are familiar with your wine knowledge… the bottom line is, you have to pick a bottle eventually. So, take a little advice from above, cross your fingers… and jump! With a little educated evaluation, it is likely to be a pretty good decision!

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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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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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