Archive for: February, 2018

Wine Competitions — Should Wine Drinkers Care?

While the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang have wrapped up, the medals will be flowing all year long in the wine world.

So far this year we’ve had the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition give out over 4000 gold, silver and bronzes while the American Fine Wine Competition announced 14 pages worth of winners. Oh and the Winemaker Challenge International Wine Competition also gave out a hefty haul of hardware.

Still to come:
Finger Lakes International Wine Competition (March)
Sommelier Wine Awards (March)
California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition (March)
Seattle Wine Awards (April)
International Wine Challenge (April)
International Rose Championship (April)
Decanter World Wine Awards (May)
Los Angeles International Wine Competition (May)
Dan Berger’s International Wine Competition (May)
Concours Mondial de Bruxelles (May)
International Women’s Wine Competition (July)

And oodles and oodles and oodles more.

There are so many competitions out there giving wineries boatloads of awards that I’m honestly surprised that Oprah has not gotten in on the action with her own wine competition.

YOU get a medal! YOU get a medal! Everybody’s getting a MEDAAAAAAAAL!!!

God knows how many medals the the Tasters Guild International Wine Judging gives out.


Unlike the Olympics where there is a finite amount of medals awarded for each event, wine competitions can give out virtually a limitless number–which really stack the odds in a winery’s favor.

In 2015, Victoria Moore of The Telegraph noted that of the nearly 16,000 wines that were entered in the Decanter World Wine Awards, around 70% won some kind of award. At the International Wine Competition (IWC) they gave out 490 golds, 2,110 silvers, 3,426 bronzes and 3,668 commended awards.

For their 2012 event, W. Blake Gray of Palate Press highlighted that the San Francisco Chronicle Competition (one of the largest and most recognized wine competitions in the US) gave medals to more than 80% of the wines that were entered.

Who benefits from all these competitions?

I don’t think you can be more blunt than Master of Wine Sarah Jane Evans in her article “So you want to be a wine judge?”

Remember that ultimately you are doing the judging for the winemaker and brandowner. They want to enter or remain in your market, and the medals and scores enable them to do so. Like a good parent or teacher, try to find the good points in any wine. — Sarah Jane Evans 2/20/2018 WSET Blog

Wine competitions are all about marketing for wineries. Paying a $55-175 entry fee per wine and sending in 4 to 6 bottles is actually pretty darn cheap economics if you happen to strike gold (pun intended). Even a lowly bronze medal has benefit for wineries, mostly by playing off the ignorance of wine consumers who assume that winning a bronze medal meant that the wine was the 3rd best out of thousands rather than just being a wine that was “not mortally flawed”–as Lenn Thompson of The Cork Report describes in his post on why he and his team no longer participate as judges for wine competitions.

Plus, you can take that obscure award you won 7 years ago and use that sticker for everything.


Think of how much mileage that Gallo has gotten off of touting the 2000 medals that their Barefoot brand has won from entering practically every wine competition in existence? It doesn’t matter if they were gold, silver, bronze or whatever. Likewise Constellation Brands widely advertises their 50+ gold medals (from whom?) for their Black Box wines.

Gallo and Constellation didn’t become multi-billion dollar companies by throwing away money. They know there is benefit in flooding wine competitions with their wines.

There is also a strong argument that the competitions themselves are the biggest beneficiaries–generating revenue from not only entry fees but also sponsorship & naming rights (for instance, the San Francisco Chronicle Competition is not ran by the newspaper, they’re merely a sponsor), tickets to tastings featuring award winners and selling medal stickers to wineries.

Is there any value for consumers?

A little…

The shiny stickers are very pretty though.


You have to start with acknowledging that, as Ronald Jackson notes in Wine Tasting: A Professional Handbook, the purpose of wine competition is to increase market awareness for wineries–to get your attention. They don’t exist for the benefit of giving you an unbiased and objective recommendation of what to drink.

It’s fine to give them that attention and maybe even buy their wines to try. Just like with everything in life, you will never know how much you like something until you try it. If being curious about a medal winner is a reason for you to trade out your same ole, same ole for something new then go for it.

But you should keep a few considerations in mind.

1.) Know that it’s okay to disagree with the results — because most likely the judges themselves disagreed after 30 minutes

Any post about wine competitions would be remiss without acknowledging the studies by Robert Hodgson into how inconsistent judging is at competitions and how seemingly random the results are. Wines that were gold medal winners in one flight of tasting were just as likely to be scored as bronze winners in the next flight by the same judges.

Tasting wine is highly personal and extremely subjective. There are so many things that influence how we perceive a wine and whether or not it gives us pleasure from the ambiance of the room, the glassware, our mood that day, the wine we just had before, etc. Wine itself is also a moving target that not only changes in the bottle but changes in our glasses as well. Plus, just as some of us weren’t great “test takers” at school, some wines simply don’t show well being “tested” on their own and often need the context of food and social occasion to give pleasure.

That is why you really have to view wine awards (as well as critic scores) as only a single snapshot of how that wine tasted at that moment to that particular judge. Just like if your friend had this one really great bottle of wine at dinner that you have to try, take a wine competition result with the same “your mileage may vary” caveat. While that wine may have been great for them at that one moment, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be great for you and your moment.

2.) Pay attention to who gave out the medals

A Platinum winner that was likely judged by at least 2-3 MWs and Master Sommeliers might be worth taking a look at.


With no offense to Podunk State Fair, there is a bit more cache to having your wines judged by a panel of Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers that competitions like the IWC, Decanter World Wine Awards, TexSomm and a few others regularly have.

Even if the juries aren’t stacked with MW & MS credentials, there is still something noteworthy when you look at the lists of judges for competitions like San Francisco Chronicle Competition and Seattle Wine Awards and see acclaimed writers, sommeliers, educators and winemakers.

Yes, these events still give out way too many medals and the judging of even highly trained professionals is subject to vagaries, but if you are going to pay attention to the results of any competition, it’s worth having an idea of who was doing the judging. Be extremely skeptical of any competition that doesn’t have a published (and updated) list of who their judges were and their credentials.

In the Seattle market, the high esteem of the judges and caliber of wines that are entered into the Seattle Wine Awards gives their Double Gold and Best of Class winners a fair amount of cache.

3.) Give Double Golds a double look

While all the caveats above about wine competitions being just a single snapshot of a wine hold true, there is something to be said when that snapshot involves all the judges of a panel unanimously thinking that a wine is worth a gold medal–making it a Double Gold.

Some competitions do allow the judges to have discussions and “sway” the other judges to give more points but a single judge can still hold their ground and keep a wine as just a gold medal winner. At the very least with Double Golds, you know that the wine had some level of quality to be able to impress 4 to 5 different people.

Then you have “Sweepstakes Winners” and “Best in Show/Best of Class” that often require the wines going through another round of judging with different tasting panels. This is like a second snapshot being taken and if a wine does well there, you know that it had to have impressed around a dozen or so people.

The wine still might not be your personal style but the odds of a Double Gold/Sweepstakes winner from a reputable wine competition being “junk” is fairly low.

So have fun exploring. Don’t be afraid to try the highly touted “Award Winners” but still keep a healthy amount of skepticism–especially if someone is trying to give you a hard sell on their bronze medal winning wine from the Podunk State Fair.

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Wine Geek Notes 2/28/18 — Interesting Tweets & Burg Vintages

Photo by William Lawrence. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Here’s what I’ve been reading today in the world of wine.

Odds & Ends from Twitter

Some interesting weblinks from Twitter that are worth the read.

Smelling Terroir: A New Study Suggests People Can Smell the Difference Between Wines Solely Based on Terroir (but can we, really?) from the Academic Wino (@TheAcademicWino)
Very cool read about a 2016 study that showed that both experts and non-experts were able to smell the difference between wines grown in two different terroirs. Becca looks a little more in-depth at the study to question if it’s really the terroir differences they are smelling or something else.

new maps & saturday afternoon in the meursault sunshine from Bill Nanson (@billnanson) at the Burgundy Report with the tweet coming across my dash via @RealWineGuru
I’m a bit of a map geek (as evidence by my geek out over this Clos Vougeout map) so I absolutely squealed at the discovery of these incredibly detailed Beaujolais cru maps. Also some lovely pictures of Meursault that had me daydreaming about sipping on a Les Charmes.

So you want to be a wine judge by Master of Wine Sarah Jane Evans (@SJEvansMW) courtesy of @WSETglobal
As noted in yesterday’s Wine Geek Notes, I’ve been doing a lot of research on Wine Competitions and this article from Sarah Jane Evans added another perspective. One of the questions that I’ve been debating in my head is “Who benefits from Wine Competitions–the winery or the consumer?” which Evans answers rather bluntly “Remember that ultimately you are doing the judging for the winemaker and brandowner.”

Photo by Marianne Casamance. Released on Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-4.0

Plant more Chenin!!!! The author screams into the void.


Wine of the Week: Lang & Reed, 2016 Napa Valley Chenin Blanc from Peg Melnik (@pegmelnik) at The Press Democrat with the tweet coming across my dash via @jncorcoran1
The subheader is what hooked me: “What happened to chenin blanc in California?” I have a soft spot for Chenin and have bemoaned the lack of interest of it in Washington State so I was similarly disheartened to read the staggering stat of how 3000 acres of Chenin blanc in Napa in 1980 has shrank down to just 14 acres today.

Burg’in Around

For my 60 Second Review of the 2013 Domaine Coquard Loison Fleurot Chambolle-Musigny I did some background research on the estate and 2013 vintage that had me stumbling across a few nifty links.

Pearl of Burgundy YouTube Channel
Features well produced short 2-4 minute videos from several Burgundian producers. While the Domaine Coquard Loison Fleurot vid is what initially caught me, I also enjoyed the videos from Domaine Henri Gouges, Domaine Lamarche and Domaine Grivot. By this point I was hitting the subscribe button for the channel.

2013 burgundy – the fairy-tale vintage? from Master of Wine Jancis Robinson (@JancisRobinson)
Always some of my favorite vintage write-ups. Great summary at the bottom of the article about the big issues facing 2013 but I also like how she explores the potential similarities (and differences) between 2013 and 1996 that also segue into comparing 2012 to 1998/1988.

The 2013 Red Burgundies: Fascinating and Challenging (Paywall) by Stephen Tanzer (@StephenTanzer1) on Vinous.
Tanzer takes a slightly more pessimistic outlook on 2013 and goes into more details about the challenges that the Côte de Beaune, in particular, had.

A Vintage Viewpoint…(2013, 2012, 2011…) from Bill Nanson at the Burgundy Report.
A nice little one page summary of the 2013 vintage in comparison to the 2012 and 2011 vintages.

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60 Second Wine Review — Domaine Coquard Loison Fleurot Chambolle-Musigny

A few quick thoughts on the 2013 Domaine Coquard-Loison-Fleurot Chambolle-Musigny.

The Geekery

Domaine Coquard-Loison-Fleurot (CLF) is a 5th generation family estate currently ran by cousins Claire Fleurot and Thomas Colladot. For years, the fruit from their enviable holdings in the Grand Crus of Grands Echezeaux (0.18 ha), Echezeaux (1.29 ha), Clos de Vougeot (0.64 ha), Clos de la Roche (1.17 ha), Clos St. Denis (0.17 ha) and Charmes-Chambertain (0.32 ha) went to négociants. But since 2010, when Thomas took over winemaking, they have been domaine bottling over 90% of their production.

Recently, Neal Martin of the The Wine Advocate has described CLF as “…your new favorite domaine” that has flown under the radar for many years but likely won’t for long.

The Chambolle-Musigny comes from 0.8 ha of vines located just below the premier crus. In The Wines of Burgundy, Clive Coates notes the high quality of village-level wines in Chambolle-Musigny is partly attributed to their being so little of it. The high portion of limestone and low fertility means that Chambolle-Musigny always produces far less wine than neighboring communes like Morey-St-Denis and Vosne-Romanée.

The Combe de Chamboeuf between the Grand Crus of Bonnes Mares and Musigny often deliver hailstorms. In many vintages, this further reduces yields. But while 2013 saw hail devastate the Côte de Beaune, Chambolle-Musigny was relatively untouched that vintage.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very floral but it also has an exotic black olive and Asian spice note that is very intriguing.

Photo by Rodrigo.Argenton. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

The black plums are well balanced by the fresh acidity in this wine.

On the palate, dark fruits emerge like black plum and black cherry. The medium-plus acidity balances the fruit well. The medium tannins have a soft, silkiness to them. Lovely and long finish.

The Verdict

At around $75-85, this is a screaming bargain compared to the village level 2013 Chambolle-Musigny wines from estates like Comte de Vogue (ave $164), Mugnier (ave $142) and Roumier (ave $178).

While Coquard-Loison-Fleurot hasn’t achieved the level of acclaim as those estates, it may be worth taking Neal Martin’s advice and discovering this domain before everyone else catches on.

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Wine Geek Notes 2/27/18 — Wine Competitions

Photo by Javaongsan. Released on Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-4.0I’m doing research on how effective wine competitions are for wineries and how much they may benefit consumers. This is what I’ve been reading today.

Interesting Weblinks

Understanding Wine Competitions (Nov. 2006) by Lisa Shara Hall at Wine Business Monthly.
Great PDF file at the end with listings of several major American Wine Competitions.

The truth about wine awards: why medals don’t mean great bottles (May 2015) by Victoria Moore at The Telegraph.
Interesting stats about the medal award rates at the Decanter World Wine Awards and International Wine Challenge (IWC)

Marketing Matters: Wine Competitions That Help You Sell (October 2007) by Tina Caputo at Wines & Vines.
A pro-wine competition slant, especially in the case of regional wine competitions.

We Won’t Participate as Judges in Wine Competitions: Here’s Why (August 2010) by Lenn Thompson at New York Cork Report.
Talks about some of the behind the scenes vagaries with judging. The story about different judges responding to Brett in wine had resonance for me.

How American Consumers Select Wine (June 2008) by Liz Thach at Wine Business Monthly.
Downplays the role of medals in influencing American consumers’ decision to buy wine. The fact that the #1 influencer for both retail and restaurant consumers is previous tasting experience with a wine is something worth exploring more. Bookmarking this link because this has a lot of good info.

Photo by Concoursmondial © Concours Mondial de Bruxelles - Giuseppe Napoli. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

Tasting at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles competition in 2010.


Wine Competition: For Whom the Medals Toll? by W. Blake Gray at Palate Press.
More behind the scenes judging insight and differences in American vs European competitions. Also pointing me in the direction to read more about Robert Hodgson’s studies.

An Examination of Judge Reliability at a major U.S. Wine Competition by Robert T. Hodgson on wineeconomics.org.
The aforementioned study with interesting charts.

Good Ole Fashion Books

Wine Tasting, Third Edition: A Professional Handbook by Ronald S. Jackson.
Chapter 6: Qualitative Wine Assessment goes into the value of wine competitions for wineries and the importance in having judges who are trained in sensory evaluation and experienced in the wine styles they are judging.

The Business of Wine: An Encyclopedia by Geralyn and Jack Brostrom.
Section F: Festivals, Trade Shows and Competition goes into the usefulness of wine competitions for marketers and retailers. Also emphasizes the importance and qualification of the judges.

Wine Marketing & Sales, Second edition by Janeen Olsen, Liz Thach and Paul Wagner.
Chapter 8: Wine Budgets and Pricing goes into the cost associated in entering competitions and their potential impact on wine pricing. Also makes the interesting point that for supermarket wines, having a floor stack is far more valuable than a gold medal.

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60 Second Wine Review– Aniello Blanco de Pinot noir

A few quick thoughts on the 2015 Aniello Blanco de Pinot noir from Patagonia, Argentina.

The Geekery

Bodega Aniello was founded in 2010 by winemaker Santiago Bernasconi and a group of partners. Prior to founding Aniello, Bernasconi worked at Bodega NQN in Neuquen, Patagonia.

The estate owns two vineyards, both in the Mainque district in the upper Río Negro region of Patagonia with the main estate planted in 1998 to Pinot noir, Merlot and Malbec. Mike Desimone and Jeff Jenssen note in Wines of the Southern Hemisphere that the climate of this area is much cooler than Mendoza with the soils here a mix of clay and sandy loam. The second vineyard includes blocks of Trousseau that were planted in 1932 and own-rooted Malbec planted in 1947. All the vineyards are sustainably farmed.

The Blanco de Pinot noir is produced by gently pressing and minimizing skin contact of the red Pinot noir grape (similar to what is done in Champagne). The wine is fermented in concrete eggs with a mix of native and inoculated yeast. Around 10% of the wine is aged for 5 months in French oak barrels.

The Wine

Medium-minus intensity on the nose. Very muted. A little tree fruit like peach and apple.

Photo by National Fruit Collection, Brogdale. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under Open Government Licence v2.0.

Little bit of earthy apple notes in this wine.

On the palate, the tree fruits comes through but have an earthier element to it–like bruised apple that suggest a little bit of oxidation. Medium-plus acidity gives some life. The wine has a bit of weight to the mouthfeel and a lot of phenolic texture which is surprising giving the little skin contact it had. There is a subtle spice element that is not very defined that comes out on the short finish.

The Verdict

Despite being a core component of many Champagnes, white Pinot noirs are fairly rare and interesting to try. In a blind tasting I can see myself thinking this is maybe a Pinot blanc or a less aromatic and spicy Grüner Veltliner.

At around $17-20, you are paying more for the novelty than the quality.

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Getting Geeky with 2007 Leoville Poyferre

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2007 Ch. Léoville Poyferré from St. Julien.

The Geekery

The history of Léoville Poyferré is intimately connected to its fellow 2nd growths, Léoville Las Cases and Léoville Barton, dating back to the 1638 vineyard founded by Jean de Moytie. Along with Ch. La Tour de Saint-Lambert (now Ch. Latour) and Ch. Margaux, this estate–known then as Mont-Moytie–was one of the first estates to produce wine in the Medoc.

Over the next couple centuries, the estate was the source of much innovation in Bordeaux, identifying some of the current Bordeaux varieties for their smaller berries and higher quality wine as well as utilizing the use of oak barrels and sanitizing them with sulfur.

In 1740, Clive Coates notes in Grand Vins the estate was acquired by Alexandre de Gascq, the Seigneur of Léoville. Under his stewardship, the estate grew to almost 500 acres.

During the French Revolution, a quarter of the estate was sold off and eventually became Léoville Barton. In 1840, the estate was divided again when Pierre Jean de Las Cases inherited 2/3 of the estate with his sister, Jeanne, passing her share to her daughter, the wife of Baron Jean-Marie Poyferré de Ceres.

In the 1920s, Léoville Poyferré came under the ownership of the Cuvelier family where it joined the family’s holdings of Ch. Le Crock in St. Estephe, Ch. Moulin Riche in St. Julien and Ch. Carmensac in the Haut-Medoc (which was later sold in 1965 to the Forner family of Marques de Caceres fame in Rioja).

At first, the Cuveliers delegated management of the estate to the Delon family from Léoville Las Cases as the two properties were interconnected with adjoining chais. In 1979, Didier Cuvelier took over management and began overseeing not only massive vineyard replanting but also renovations in the cellars. He brought in first Emile Peynaud and then, in 1994, Michel Rolland to assist in consulting.

2006 vintages of Léoville Barton and Léoville Poyferré on sale at a wine shop.


Coates quotes the famous Bordeaux wine merchant Nathaniel Johnston as describing Léoville Poyferré as having the best terroir of the 3 Léoville estates with their vineyards being second only to the First Growths in potential. Most of the vineyards are located on gravelly soils on the west side of the famous D2 road across from Las Cases that is on the river side.

Further inland near the Pauillac border with Ch. Batailley is the almost 50 acres of Ch. Moulin Riche. Declared a Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel in 1932, Stephen Brook notes in The Complete Bordeaux that until 2009 it was treated as a second wine of Léoville Poyferré. Since 2009, Pavillon de Poyferré has been the estate’s second wine.

Brook describes the style of Léoville Poyferré as the most opulent and hedonistic of the 3 Léoville estates with Léoville Barton being more classic and structured while Léoville Las Cases is more concentrated. Coates compares Poyferré to being the Mouton-Rothschild to Las Cases’ Latour.

The 2007 vintage is a blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Merlot, 7% Petit Verdot and 4% Cabernet Franc. The wine spent 18 to 20 months aging in 75% new oak with around 20,000 cases made.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. While there is still some dark fruits like cassis and blackberry, the nose is dominated by savory notes of cedar cigar box, earthy forest and smokey spice. Very evocative and mouth watering bouquet.

Photo by AlejandroLinaresGarcia. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-3.0.

While the seductive and silky mouthfeel hints at being a St. Emilion, the tobacco spice and cedar cigar box notes gives the 2007 Léoville Poyferré away as a St. Julien Cab dominant blend.


On the palate, the smokey notes become more leathery and meaty while the dark fruits from the nose become more muted. Medium-plus acidity adds to the mouthwatering while the medium tannins have a silky, velvety curve to them. If it wasn’t for the tobacco spice and cedar cigar box, I can see myself being fooled into thinking this was a Merlot-dominant St. Emilion with the velvety mouthfeel. The finish is regretfully short for how savory and delicious the palate is.

The Verdict

As I noted in my review of the 2011 Ormes de Pez, you can’t overlook the issues of problematic vintages like 2007. A wet, mildew ravaged late spring was followed by an unusually cool and rainy summer. By the time more ideal weather came in September, the acidity of many wines were dropping faster than the flavors were ripening. This produced wines that Jancis Robinson noted are often “… characterised by what they lack: alcohol, acid, ripe tannins, flavour.”

But the truism that good wine can still be made in rough vintages is still apt and this 2007 Léoville Poyferré is a perfect example. Many estates responded to the troubles of 2007 by being more selective in the vineyard and winery and making less (but hopefully better) wine. While Léoville Poyferré usually makes around 31,000 cases a year, in 2007 they made around 20,000.

Photo by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User: Agne27 and released under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Really poor lighting but the 2006 Léoville Poyferré I had back in 2013 was outstanding too. You almost can’t go wrong with this estate.


It is not a great wine by any means, the short finish gives it away as well as the fact that there is so much tertiary aging notes emerging in a relatively young 10+ year old Bordeaux. This is not a wine that you want cases of in your cellar.

But it is still an absolutely scrumptious wine that is drinking very well now and will probably continue to give pleasure for another 3-5 years. With a Wine Searcher average price of around $83 for the 2007 vintage it certainly offers good value compared to the 2008 ($94 ave) and 2006 vintages ($97 ave) that people are cracking into now.

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What’s fine (and not so fine) about Vegan Wines

Photo by www.Pixel.la Free Stock Photos. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

Veganism is described as one of the fastest growing lifestyle movements in the world. Some estimates claim that in the United states alone, there was a 500% increase between 2014 and 2017 in the number of Americans (around 19 million) identifying as vegan.

For the wine industry, that is a sizable demographic that retailers and wineries have value in marketing to.

So what makes a wine “vegan-friendly”?

For the most part, veganism is a code of conduct that avoids using any animal products or by products as well as anything that has been tested on animals. There are various reasons why people adopt veganism but often ethical concerns about the treatment of animals and impact on the environment are cited.

While wine is often assumed to be vegan, the use of animal-based fining agents such as casein (milk protein), albumin (egg whites), isinglass (fish bladders) and gelatin (animal collagen) in winemaking is problematic for many vegans.

Let’s Talk About Fining Agents

As Alison Crowe notes in The Wine Maker’s Answer Book, fining agents are used to help clarify and stabilize wine by binding to molecules such as proteins and excess tannins. These are items that can cause unsightly haze in the bottle, aggressive bitterness on the palate, off odors and flavors. The agent binds to the target molecule to form larger structures that eventually precipitates and settles to the bottom of tank or barrel as sediment.

Bruce W. Zoecklein et. al in Wine Analysis and Production classified the various fining agents into 8 categories based on their nature.

Photo by self. Uploaded as User:Agne27 to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Isinglass and bentonite fining trials.

1.) Earths like bentonite and kaolin
2.) Proteins like the animal based ones above
3.) Polysaccharides like gum arabic and Sparkolloid
4.) Carbons like activated carbon
5.) Synthetic polymers like polyvinylpolypyrrolidone (or PVPP)
6.) Silica gels like silicon dioxide or Kieselsol
7.) Tannins often derived from insect galls on oak leaves though oak chip fining can also fall into this category.
8.) Others which includes both enzymatic fining (more fining aids rather than fining agents) and chelators that assist in the removal of metals such as “blue fining” with potassium ferrocyanide (illegal to use in the United States).

The different fining agents work on principles of electrical charge (like positively charged gelatin reacting with negatively charged tannins), bond formation (like the carbonyl group of PVPP bonding with the hydroxyl group of tannins) and by absorption/adsorption (like activated carbon absorbing off odors or bentonite adsorbing proteins).

There are positive and negative attributes to each fining agent with no one fining agent being perfect for every situation.

Animal-based Fining Agents

Egg whites (Albumin)

Used primarily to remove excess tannins. Works by forming hydrogen bonds with the hydroxyl groups of tannins. Compared to other fining agents like gelatin, albumin tends to remove less positive flavor and aroma traits. Egg whites have a long history of use in winemaking in places like Bordeaux and Burgundy. The usual addition is 1 to 3 egg whites per 225L (59 gallon) barrel.

Casein (Milk protein)

Used primarily to remove browning or pink color in white wine. Can also be used to remove some off odors. Works by adsorption and attracting negatively charged particles. Like with egg whites, it has a long history of use in wine production, particularly with the great white wines of Burgundy. It also has the benefit of reducing the concentration of iron and copper in wine. In red wines, it can negatively impact the wine by removing the polyphenol resveratrol that has been associated with various health benefits.

Gelatin (derived from the boiling of animal tissues like bones and tendons)

Used primarily to remove excess tannins. It has a positive charge that reacts to the negative charge of harsh tannins. It can be prone to over-fining that can strip a wine of positive flavors and aromas.

A heat stability trial for rose wines that have been fined with isinglass.

Isinglass (derived from the air bladder of fish like sturgeons)

Used primarily to help clarifying wines, remove excess tannins and to “unmask” or bring out varietal character.

Chitosan (derived from chitin in the exoskeleton of crustaceans)

Used primarily to remove haze causing proteins from white wines. A positively charged agent, it often needs to be paired with a negatively charged fining agent like Kieselsol to be most effective.

Blood Albumen (derived from the blood of ox and cattle)

Historically used but illegal in the United states, France and several other countries.

Vegan-friendly Alternatives

The website Barnivore is a database of wines and other liquors that have been vetted by users to be either “vegan-friendly” or not. In answering queries about their use of animal based fining agents, many wineries share their alternative methods.

Photo by self. Uploaded as User:Agne27 to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Letting the wine settle and clarify on its own before racking into another container is one method to avoid using fining agents.

One common method is the use of time and gravity to let the wine settle and clear out on its own. This is the technique used by Baldacci in the Stags Leap District and many other wineries. Depending on several factors like the health of the grapes, method of pressing, pH and temperature, this method could take several months and even then the wine might not be completely stable. Some wineries facilitate this method with the use of mechanical centrifuges and ultra-filtration but these carry the risk of being overly aggressive and potentially stripping the wine of positive flavor and aroma attributes.

Along those lines, many wineries adopt a hands-off method of not fining or filtering their wines at all. This is the method used by many high-end wine producers like Black Cordon and Kapcsandy in Napa Valley. This does carry the risk of haze and sediment developing in the bottle. However, the risk is often presented to consumers as a trade-off for having potentially more complex and flavorful wines.

Bentonite and Yeast Fining
Photo by self. Uploaded as User:Agne27 to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The lees sediment and volume loss from bentonite can be significant (between 5-10%). Using counter-fining agents like isinglass can help with lees compaction but would obviously make the wine not vegan-friendly.

The most used “vegan-friendly” fining agent is bentonite. This is a type of clay that can dramatically swell in size to adsorb protein molecules. This is the method used by wineries like Chinook in Washington State, Ideology in Napa Valley, Spier in South Africa and many others. One big drawback is that it causes significant loss of wine volume due to the heavy sediment it creates. As much as 5-10% of volume could be lost. Roger B. Boulton et al notes in Principles and Practices of Winemaking that these voluminous bentonite lees also create a large amount of solid waste that can have an environmental impact (such as sealing percolation ponds) if not properly disposed. In red wine, there is also a risk of color loss.

Some wineries like Amici use the technique of “yeast fining” for wines like their 2013 Russian River Pinot noir. This involves adding fresh yeast to a wine.  The cell walls of the yeast contain about 30% positively charged proteins. These can then adsorb many polyphenols and compounds which cause off odors. It brings the risk of the yeast breaking down as lees, releasing sulfur compounds and enhancing reductive notes. Also, if not removed by filtration, the yeast in the bottle can start re-fermenting any residual sugars. This would cause spritziness in what is, otherwise, supposed to be a non-sparkling wine.

PVPP and Other Methods

PVPP is a synthetic polymer that can remove bitter tannins and brown discoloration from white wines. Like casein, it can remove the polyphenol resveratrol from red wines. There is also a risk of overfining. This is because the PVPP also binds to desirable tannins and anthocyanins needed for structure and color.

Sparkalloid is a blend of polysaccharides and diatomaceous earth (fossilized algae) that can be used to clarify white wines. It does take significant time to eventually settle. This also creates a fair amount of waste with the DE that requires proper disposal.

Activated Carbon can be used to remove off-odors such as mercaptans (rotten eggs, burnt match). It does have the risk of overly oxidizing wine as well as stripping color and resveratrol from red wines.

New Developments on the Horizon

Ronald S. Jackson notes in Wine Science that fears about the prions potentially in gelatin and “Mad Cow” disease, encouraged studies into the use of plant proteins like wheat gluten as a substitute for gelatin. (Note: most gelatin used in US winemaking is derived from pigs rather than cows) Likewise, a New Jersey company has been experimenting with using pea proteins in conjunction with bentonite and silica as an alternative to gelatin.

Interest in food allergies have also spurned innovations with Scott Labs developing a technique to isolated chitosan from the fungus Aspergillus niger (instead of shellfish and crustaceans) that can be used as a fining agent.

The California based ATP Group has developed a way to extract tannin powder for fining from white wine grapes instead of insect galls to help soften tannins.

In 2016, a Swiss company announced that they were experimenting with the use of UV light to soften tannins in lieu of using animal-based protein fining agents.

The Biodynamic Quandary

Are wines produced from fruit sourced from biodynamic vineyards truly “vegan-friendly”? Several of the “preparations” used in biodynamic viticulture require the use of animal products such as cow horns (BD 500 and 501), stomachs, intestines and bladders.

In an anecdotal account of a visit with the vineyard manager of the biodynamic Pinot noir producer Sea Smoke, Kirsten Georgi (The Armchair Sommelier), describes how the “Biodynamic approach” to removing gophers without the use of poisons or chemicals involves trapping several gophers, killing them, burning their ashes and spreading those ashes over the vineyard during winter solstice as a means to “scare off” the rest of the gophers. This method of “peppering” vineyards with the ashes of pests is not unique to Sea Smoke with recipes on biodynamic websites recommending its use for everything from weeds, snails and insects to mice, rats, rabbits and opossum.

PETA Approved?
Photo by Mark Smith. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Manure composting at a biodynamic vineyard in Tasmania.

Despite these practices, organizations like PETA recommend biodynamic wineries as “vegan friendly”. The UK website Vegan Wines Online notes that while “…natural animal products can however be used in the growing process all the biodynamic wines they sell are somehow suitable for vegans.

Even organic viticulture could be problematic with the use of animal-derived bone and blood meal being used in lieu of chemical fertilizers. There is even debate if manure, as an animal by-product, is acceptable. Like honey and milk, manure doesn’t require killing the animal but still often requires farming to acquire.

What about the presence of insects in healthy and vibrant organic vineyards? Does that makes a wine less “Vegan-friendly”? Eschewing the use of chemicals often means more insects as MOG (material other than grapes). Absent expensive sorting these bugs can get caught up in the harvest. On the Barnivore website, Calcareous Vineyard in Paso Robles expressed this reservation though their wines were still classified as “vegan friendly”.

More Manipulated=More Vegan-friendly?

Are the most “vegan-friendly” vineyards the ones being farmed with heavy saturation of pesticides and chemical fertilizers? It seems like it when you compare it to organic and biodynamic vineyards with high insect MOG and animal-derived fertilizers.

Mass produced wines like the PETA recommended Sutter Home and Moët & Chandon often employ these conventional, chemical dependent styles of viticulture.

While avoiding using animal-based fining agents to remove excess tannins and haze forming proteins, big mega-corps can use other tricks to manipulate the wine with things like lab designed enzymes, oak adjuncts and Mega Purple which will “smooth out” bitter tannins and cover up off-flavors.

Just a single drop of Mega Purple had this white Riesling looking and smelling like a Grenache rose. Crazy stuff.

Sure, Charles Shaw reds (Two Buck Chuck), Sutter Home Cabernet Sauvignon, Meiomi Pinot noir and Yellow Tail reds are made without animal fining agents but should vegans (and really all wine drinkers) be concerned with what other products are being used to make these wines?

And while it can be exciting to see advances in the use of pea proteins and fining agents derived from fungi like Aspergillus niger, its worth asking if these are only adding to the laundry list of the 60+ (and counting) additives that can be used in winemaking–taking it even further away from being just “fermented grapes”?

Now What?

While I’m not vegan myself, I wholeheartedly support anyone that chooses to live their life by convictions. I respect their ethical concerns for the treatment of animals.  I also share their concerns about the environment animal products have. It’s not my wish to stress-out vegans who just want to relax and enjoy a nice bottle of wine.

I do believe it is fair to think about the big picture involved in many seemingly “vegan-friendly” wineries.  Often the viticulture and winemaking practices they use may not align with the ideals of many vegans.

However, it is clear from sites like Barnivore that there are tons of environmentally conscious wineries (many of which are even owned by vegans) that are producing vegan-friendly wines. They may not be the easiest to find at grocery stores or restaurant wine lists that can be dominated by the portfolios of the large mega-corps but these often small family-owned wineries are well worth seeking out and supporting.

And that’s something that I think both vegans and non-vegans can drink to.

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60 Second Wine Review — Gosset Petite Douceur Rose

A few quick thoughts on the non-vintage Gosset Petite Douceur Extra Dry Rosé Champagne.

The Geekery

Founded in 1584 by Pierre Gosset in the village of Aÿ, long before sparkling wine was produced in Champagne, Gosset is the oldest winery in the region. Since 1994, the négociant house has belonged to the Renaud-Cointreau group, owners of the Cognac house Frapin. Gosset makes around 100,000 cases a year.

According to Peter Liem in Champagne: The Essential Guide, Gosset is one of the few major houses (along with Lanson, Alfred Gratien and Vilmart & Cie) that ardently avoids having their base wines go through malolactic fermentation which is usually employed to soften the naturally high acidity of Champagnes, making the wines more approachable in their youth. Historically, Krug and Salon have kept a policy of not encouraging MLF but they don’t take steps to avoid it like Gosset and the other aforementioned houses with the use of temperature control, barrel hygiene, pH and sulfur adjustments.

The Petite Douceur Rosé is a blend of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot noir with 7% of Pinot being red wine added for color. The fruit was sourced from the Grand Cru Villages of Ambonnay, Avize, Bouzy and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and the Premier Cru village of Cumières located in the Vallée de la Marne. The Champagne was aged 3 years on the lees before being bottled with a 17 g/l dosage.

The Wine

Photo by Juhanson. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Fresh raspberry and vibrant acidity characterize this Champagne.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Mix of red fruits–strawberry and raspberry–and floral notes. Also a little orange peel.

The red fruits carry through the palate but what is most remarkable is how well balance it is for a sweet Extra Dry with 17 g/l dosage. The acidity is fresh and vibrant, perfectly matching the weight of the fruit and dosage. Smooth mouthfeel and long finish with some spice notes emerging.

The Verdict

At around $90-100, this is an exceptionally well made Champagne.

It tastes drier and more balanced than many Bruts north of the $100 mark and is a considerable jump in complexity from many $50-80 rose Champagnes.

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60 Second Wine Review — 2012 Mark Herold Brown Label

A few quick thoughts on the 2012 Mark Herold Brown Label Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Geekery

Mark Herold got his start in the wine industry as a research enologist for Joseph Phelps before founding Merus in 1998 in his garage with his then wife, Erika Gottl. Jim Gordon notes in Opus Vino, that over the next 10 years Herold turned his small 1500 case production of Merus into one of the most acclaimed wines in Napa. In 2007, Merus was sold to Foley Wine Group with Herold leaving the following year as Camille Benitah and Paul Hobbs took over winemaking.

After leaving Merus, Herold continued consulting at estates like Buccella, Celani Family, Kamen, Kobalt, Harris, Hestan and Maze. As part of a divorce settlement and non-compete, he agreed not to make any Cabernet Sauvignon under his own label until 2010.

According to Barnivore, Mark Herold Wines are vegan-friendly. The 2012 Brown Label is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon with around 575 cases made.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. Lots of sweet oak spices and vanilla. Rich dark fruit–currants, blackberries. There is also a smokey, roasted coffee element to the nose as well.

On the palate, the wine is very big and full-bodied with medium-plus acidity and medium-plus tannins. The dark fruits carry through but the oak still dominants with the vanilla adding a lushness that rounds out the tannic edge. I wished the coffee note carried through with the smokey element instead being more toasted wood on the palate instead of roasted coffee. Moderate length finished.

Photo by Paolo Neo. Released on Wikimedia Commons under Public Domain

Rich dark fruits like black currant and oak are abundant in this Cab.

The Verdict

The 2012 Mark Herold Brown Label falls in line with your classic big, bold Napa Cabs that have noticeable oak. Though while it does have rich dark fruit and vanilla lusciousness, it is a bit better balanced than most of its peers with the tannins keeping it from being sweet and the acidity bringing freshness.

At around $95-110, it is very much in line with wines from estates like Cakebread, Silver Oak, Frank Family and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

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60 Second Wine Review — 2004 Comtes de Champagne Taittinger rose

A few quick thoughts on the 2004 Taittinger Champagne Comtes de Champagne Rosé Brut.

The Geekery

Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan note in Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine that the historical Comtes (or Counts) of Champagne date back to the mid-9th century but the title of Count of Champagne did not appear in records till 1077.

Among the notable Comtes was the 12th century Theobald II who was one of most powerful people in France and a rival to the king. When his descendant Joan of Navarre married Philip IV, the titled was united with the crown under their son Louis X.

The Taittinger line is named after Joan’s grandfather, Theobald IV, a famous poet that moved the court from Troyes to Reims. The Taittingers purchased his 13th century home shortly after World War I and named their prestige cuvee after the Comte in 1952. The first Comtes de Champagne Rosé was released in 1966.

The 2004 Comtes Rosé is sourced 100% from Grand Cru vineyards (Ambonnay, Avize, Mesnil, Mailly, Oger, Verzenazy and Verzy) and is a blend of 70% Pinot noir (including 12-15% red wine from Bouzy) and 30% Chardonnay. It was aged for 5 years on its lees before being bottled with a dosage of 9 g/l. Around 25 cases was imported to the United States.

The Wine

Photo by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-NC-3.0

Lots of rich red fruits like pomegranate in this Champagne.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very red fruit dominant–raspberry, strawberry and even pomegranate. There is also quite a bit of Asian spices as well.

On the palate, the Champagne is very rich and full-bodied. The red fruits and spice carry through and bring some toasty notes along. The finish is very short which may hint that this wine is still too young.

The Verdict

Around $220-250, this rosé has a lot of weight and presence. It’s almost calling to be paired with a steak.

There is a lot of complexity that makes it well worth the price. However, the short finish is a bit disappointing. If you’re going to splurge, probably should wait a couple more years.

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