Archive for: December, 2019

Dry January Can Go To Hell

Oh, it’s that time of year again.

Man with megaphone image by Peter Milne, Motion Picture Directing; The Facts and Theories of the Newest Art, Falk Publishing Co., New York, 1922, on the Internet Archive. Updated to Wikimedia commons under the Public Domain

Social media feeds are about to get flooded with #NewYearNewYou hashtags and selfies of self-determination. For those who frequently comment about wine and other beverage issues, the algorithm gods have a special treat in store for us.

The #DryJanuary fad.

Yay!

It’s not that I’m against the idea of drinking less.

Anyone that regularly reads this blog knows that I firmly support moderation and meaningful consumption. I’m also a staunch supporter of innovations in the wine industry that encourages moderation like small-format bottles and box wines. Heck, I even gave non-alcoholic wines a serious look.

But what I can’t get behind is sanctimonious virtue-signaling–especially for something that the science is far from conclusive about.

Yes, reducing overall alcohol intake is a good thing. But that is only good if it is sustained and habitual–not if it’s a temporary “binge” of abstinence. Just as detox diets don’t work, the idea of giving up alcohol for a month to “give your liver a rest” is similarly fraught with issues.

As Dr. Michael Apstein, a professor at Harvard Medical School and gastroenterologist, notes, “…there’s no science to support this practice, nor does it make sense physiologically.”

Bingeing during the holidays and then giving your liver “a rest” for January before bingeing again come February is like trying to catch up on sleep. It just doesn’t work. Overcompensating with sleep on Saturday and Sunday isn’t going to change the effects of your Monday-Friday sleeping habits.

Now I don’t think that everyone who scales back in January is a sanctimonious virtue-signaller.

Nor do I doubt the sincerity and good intent of folk who want to make more mindful choices in their lives.  However, these usually aren’t the people plastering their IG with #DryJanuary selfies.

The problem I have is that making “Binge Sobriety” a hashtag fad distracts from the seriousness of actual alcoholism.  To make matters worse, it’s often counterproductive. As Dr. Niall Campbell of Priory Hospital in London notes, many of the folks who feel compelled to try Dry January because of problematic drinking are setting themselves up for failure.

I know compulsive drinkers who have stopped for several Januarys in years gone by, but just counted the days until February…

They think ‘because I have stopped, I can stop anytime’. It’s rarely the case. — Dr. Niall Campbell, January 4th, 2019.

This sentiment is echoed by K.C. Clements in his very personal narrative about dealing with his own issues with alcohol, “I’m Skipping Dry January This Year— Here’s Why.”

He tried binge sobriety for many years. While he got some short term benefits, Dry January ultimately “provided just enough proof that I could continue on with my life unchanged, trapped in the delusion that I could quit drinking any time I wanted.

People who need help with alcohol addiction are not going to get it from a hashtag.

Photo by Susanne Nilsson. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

The road to hell is paved with #GoodIntentions.

The flexing and selfies of strangers on the internet are never going to replace genuine support from family, friends and trained health professionals.

But what about the rest of us?

On the website of the UK group Alcohol Change, which actively promotes Dry January, they describe their “fun challenge” as a way for folks to “reset their relationship” with booze.

However, for many people, binge sobriety doesn’t even pause–much less reset–that relationship. To truly “reset” anything, you can’t avoid the item in question. You have to reframe your thinking about it.

If alcohol is just a means to get drunk–a buzz, a “social lubricant”–then your relationship is always going to be a challenging one. It’s like if you value your partner only because he’s “so good-looking” or she’s “great in bed” and never move beyond those superficial reasons.

If you think that the sum total and benefit of a glass of wine, a bottle of beer, a shot of whiskey or a cocktail is just as an alcohol-delivery vehicle then, yeah, that’s not healthy. It will always be difficult for folks with that mindset to follow guidelines of moderate consumption–up to 1 drink per day for women and 2 for men.

But moderation is much easier when you practice mindful consumption.

This is the same tact that nutrition and wellness experts recommend we take with our food. Don’t just mindlessly gulp down your drink. Slow down. Take time to engage your senses.

Bevan at a Brazilian steak house

Another tactic of moderation and mindful consumption is to limit your alcohol intake to mealtime.

With alcohol, it’s especially important to think about what you’re drinking.

Who made it?
Where did it come?
What makes this drink different from anything else I could have ordered?

Frequent readers of the blog know that there is a story behind every bottle. However, the reality is that the story for some bottles is simply that they exist.

That mass-marketed Sauvignon blanc produced in an anonymous factory and shipped by the tanker? That patio-pounder Prosecco that always tastes the same every time you get it? Yeah, I’ll admit that their stories are pretty lame.

But these are essentially the fast-food versions of wine and it’s pretty hard to mindfully consume stuff like that. This is why mass-produced and anonymous wines should frankly be avoided.

That’s hard, no doubt. It’s so easy to order the house red or pick up that recognizable bottle that you see everywhere. Instead, you have to ask questions.

You have to actively seek out the bottles that have genuine stories behind them driven by real people. At its core, wine is an agricultural product. It’s made by folks who shepherded it along from grapes to glass. Find wines that talk about those people.

Instead of Dry January, think about #TryJanuary.

I have to give credit to one of my #UKWineHour friends, James Hubbard, for bringing this idea to my attention.

His comment came up during an interesting thread that pointed out how independent wine shops and restaurants often bear the brunt of Dry January. The big grocery store chains and mega-corps behind mass-produced brands can weather a month of binge sobriety till February. However, small local businesses–the ones that employ your neighbors and support the community–keenly feel the pain of four weeks of lost sales.

Hubbard’s advice to spend January trying new things works hand in hand with becoming a moderate, more mindful drinker.

Break out of your rut. Try something different. Visit your local shop or wine bar and talk to the people there about wine. Ask about its story.

No one is saying that you have to become a wine connoisseur, obsessing over terroir and coming up with long, flowery tasting notes. You don’t have to do any of that.

But if you truly want to “reset your relationship” with alcohol, paying attention to what you’re drinking is going to do far more for you than a month of “Binge Sobriety.”

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60 Second Wine Review – La Cuvée Mythique Sparkling Chardonnay

A few quick thoughts on the La Cuvée Mythique sparkling Chardonnay from the Pays d’Oc.

The Geekery
La cuvee Mythique

La Cuvée Mythique is the flagship brand of the Vinadeis group (previously Val d’Orbieu), which is a consortium of growers and co-ops in southern France. Tom Fiorina of The Vine Route describes it as “a cooperative on steroids.”

As Jamie Goode notes, each domaine is run mostly independently with the consortium sharing resources and providing marketing support. The exception is La Cuvée Mythique. The wines for this label come from a collaborative project among several growers made at a central location.

Founded in 1967, the group has been a fixture in the Languedoc wine industry, even earning the first 90+ score of a Languedoc wine from Robert Parker.

The name change to Vinadeis came about in 2015 when the company secured more holdings in the Bordeaux merchant firm Cordier Mestrezat Grands Crus. Between their Cordier interest and own growers, Vinadeis owns over 17,000 ha (42,000 acres) of vineyards throughout southern France. Most all of the vineyards are at least sustainably farmed with a significant portion being certified organic.

La Cuvée Mythique Brut Reserve is 100% Chardonnay sourced from vineyards throughout the Languedoc. It’s fermented in the traditional method with the wine spending at least 12 months aging on the lees.

The Wine

Lemon tarts by Ruth Hartnup. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Very rich and ripe lemon pastry in this sparkler.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Citrus and green fruit driven-lemon, pear and even a little Sauv blanc-like gooseberry. Ripe but not as much as I would expect from a Languedoc sparkler. There’s also some brioche, but overall it’s not very autolytic on the nose.

However, on the palate, the script switches. Full-bodied weight with much riper fruit. It has a lemon tart pastry feel. Very creamy with medium-plus acidity helping but could use some more. Relatively dry but not bone-dry, so guessing a dosage around 8-10 g/l. Moderate finish lingers on the pastry notes.

The Verdict

For $12-15, this is a decent sparkler with some complexity. It’s definitely for folks who like riper and weightier style bubbles.

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The Hunt for Aussie Bubbles

Note: Unless otherwise stated, all the wines reviewed here were tried as samples during the 2019 Wine Media Conference in the Hunter Valley and Mudgee region.

Kangaroo crossing sign

The wine world has a wicked way of promoting FOMO–a fear of missing out.

From the luxury end, there are cult wines and trophy bottles. In years past, score hounds would scavenge the shelves looking for highly-rated gems before they sold out.

Now for wine geeks and wanderlust Millennials, the entire world of wine is a temptress. But what we fear missing out on is not what the pack is gobbling up. Instead, our minds quiver at the thought of missing out on what’s new and exciting by settling for what’s old and boring.

Why feel content with the same ole Cab and Chardonnay when you could have Touriga Nacional and Grenache blanc?

Yeah, Champagne is charming. Prosecco is perfect for patio sipping. But that’s what everyone else is drinking. It’s what you can find in every wine shop. You can’t have FOMO if there is nothing to be missed.

And that’s the dirty little secret of the human psyche.

Despite the real repercussions when we let FOMO reach anxiety levels, we still crave it. We still crave the thrill of the hunt. But how much thrill is there in shooting ducks in a basket?

No, what we crave are the unicorns out in the wild.

In the world of sparkling wine, finding premium Aussie bubbles is a tough unicorn to bag. Unless, of course, you’re one of the 25 million people who call Australia home.

Now yes, we’ll get some sparkling Shiraz exported.

Golden Gaytime ice

Actually Australia is home to many unicorns.
If only I could’ve found a way to keep these frozen for the plane ride home.

Though the ones that make their way to the US tend to be mass-produced and underwhelming. Of course, there is the ubiquitous YellowTail, which has several sparklers in their line up. However, that’s basically the “Fosters of Australian wine”–a well-known ambassador but not really a benchmark.

Occasionally, some internet sleuthing can find a merchant offering mid-size producers like Jansz from Tasmania. (Though, ugh, their website!)

But only around a fifth of Australia’s sparkling wine production gets exported. That means you need to go down under to even get a hint of what the rest of the world is missing out on. Luckily, I got such a chance this past October during the Wine Media Conference.

There, in both the Hunter Valley and neighboring Mudgee, I was able to try several sparkling wines that I could never find in the States.  But I barely scratched the surface. Even spending extra time in Sydney, I found that the highly regarded Tasmanian sparklers were surprisingly difficult to find.

I’ll share my thoughts on many of the sparklers I tasted below. But first a little geeking about Australian sparkling wine.

Australia isn’t an “emerging” sparkling wine producer.

Bubbles were produced on the island of Tasmania nearly 2 decades before Nicholas Longworth crafted the first American sparkling wine in 1842.

As Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan note in the Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine (one of the five essential books on sparkling wine), an English immigrant, Mr. Brighton, produced Australia’s first sparkling wine in Tasmania back in 1826.

Napoleon III painting uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under the public domain

I’d imagine it was quite the scandal having a non-French sparkler served to the French emperor.

Up in the Hunter Valley, James King began producing sparkling wine around 1843. King’s wines would receive great international acclaim–doing particularly well at the 1855 Paris Exposition. Yes, that 1855 Paris Exposition. At the end of the event, King’s sparkling Australian wine was selected as one of only two wines that were served to Napoleon III at the closing banquet.

It’s hard to know exactly what these first Aussie sparklers were. King, in particular, was noted for the quality of his Shepherd’s Riesling (Semillon). However, he also had Pinot noir in his vineyard as well.

These early Australian sparklers were made using the traditional method of Champagne.

The 20th century saw more innovation in sparkling wine techniques with producers experimenting with a “twist” on the Champagne method known as the Transfer Method or transvasage. (We’ll geek out more about that down below) The exact date and who was the first to pioneer this technique in Australia is not known though Minchinbury helped popularize its use.

In 1939, Frederick Thomson started using carbonation (or the “soda method”) to make his Claretta sparkling fizz. We should note that while many cheap sparkling wines (including some so-called “California Champagnes”) are made with added carbonation, in Australia these wines can’t be labeled as “sparkling wines.” Only wines that get their effervescence through fermentation (either in a bottle or tank) can use the term.

Speaking of tanks, adoption of the Charmat method took hold in the late 1950s–beginning with Orlando’s Barossa Pearl Fizz. Today, the tank method is gaining in prominence–especially with the strong sparkling Moscato and “Prosecco” market in Australia. (More on both of those a little later too.)

The 1980s saw a spark of French interest in Australia.

Much like in California, the big Champagne houses took an interest in Australia’s growing sparkling wine industry. In 1985, both Roederer and Moët & Chandon invested in new estates.

Roederer help found Heemskerk as a joint-venture in Pipers Brook, Tasmania. But eventually Roederer moved on from the project–selling back their interest in the estate in 1994.

Chardonnay harvest in Tasmania photo by Mark Smith. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Throughout Australia, sparkling wine accounts for around 6% of production. In Tasmania, that number jumps up to 30%.

Moët’s Domaine Chandon at Green Point in the Yarra Valley of Victoria, though, saw immediate success thanks to the work of the legendary Tony Jordan–who sadly passed away earlier this year.

Like Roederer, LVMH also looked to Tasmania as a potential spot for sparkling wine production. However, they wanted a location more prime for tourism and cellar door sales.

Bollinger was also briefly a player in Australia’s sparkling wine scene through their partnership with Brian Croser in Petaluma. However, the hostile takeover of that brand by the Lion Nathan corporation in 2001 seemed to have ended Bollinger’s involvement.

Today, except for Domaine Chandon (and Pernod Ricard’s Jacob’s Creek), most all of the Australian sparkling wine industry is wholly domestic. This makes me wonder if this is why Aussie sparklers are so hard to find outside of Australia?

Even the most prominent players like Treasury Wine Estates (Wolf Blass, Penfolds, Seppelt, Heemskirk, Yellowglen) and Accolade Wine (Banrock Station, Arras, Bay of Fires, Hardy’s, Croser, Yarra Burn) have their origins as Australian conglomerates before they gained an international presence.

The Transfer Method

Diagram from Wine Australia presentation

Diagram from Wine Australia’s “Australian Wine Discovered” presentation.

Understanding this is a big part of understanding Australian sparkling wine. Like the traditional method, fermentation happens in the bottle. However, it’s not happening in the bottle that you’re taking home. Instead, after secondary fermentation and aging, the wine is emptied into a pressurized tank at around 0°C where the lees are filtered out. Then the sparkler is bottled anew with its dosage.

The Champenois themselves use transvasage for 187ml airline splits and half bottles as well as large format Champagnes starting with double magnum (3L Jeroboam) in size. This is because these odd formats would be difficult to riddle without excessive breakage.

The Australians were keen to adopt the labor and cost-saving benefits of the transfer method and it’s the most widely used technique. It allows wineries to increase efficiency without sacrificing the quality character of autolysis. Ed Carr of Accolade Wines noted in Christie’s that the difference is as much as $30-40 AUD per case compared to traditional riddling. Plus, winemakers can do one last “tweaking” (such as SO2 and acidity adjustments) before final bottling.

However, many boutique producers stick to using the traditional (instead of transfer) method. These bottles are labeled stating “Methode champenoise,” “Methode traditionnelle” or simply “Fermented in this bottle.”

The sparklers that are made using the transfer method are more likely to state that they are “Bottled Fermented” or “Fermented in the bottle.”

Australian Moscato & “Prosecco”

As elsewhere in the world, Australia has had its own “Moscato Boom.”

Now usually Moscato is associated with the Moscato bianco grape of Asti (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains). However, in Australia, the term is used to refer to the whole Muscat family when the wine is made in a light, sweet style with low alcohol. So a bottle of sparkling Australian Moscato can be made from Moscato bianco, Muscat of Alexandria, Orange Muscat, Moscato Giallo or a blend of multiple Muscats.

King Valley photo by Mattinbgn. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The King Valley in north-east Victoria has a strong Italian heritage. The Glera/Prosecco grape thrives in the cooler southern end of the valley with vineyards planted at higher altitudes.

Australian Prosecco is also apparently a big deal–though I didn’t personally encounter any bottles on my trip. The first Australian Prosecco was made by Otto Dal Zotto in King Valley (or “Victoria’s little Italy”) in 2004. The success of that wine and others caught the attention and ire of producers in the Veneto.

This led Italian authorities to take some dramatic steps in 2009. First, they petitioned the EU to change the grape’s name from Prosecco to Glera. Then they expanded the DOC to the province of Trieste, in Friuli Venezia Giulia, where there is a village named Prosecco. This gave them the justification to claim the entire region as a protected geographical area.

Obviously Australian wine producers balked at this with the conflict between the two parties still ongoing. But while Australian Prosecco can be sold domestically, none of these wines can be exported into the EU.

A few of the Australian Sparklers I’ve enjoyed this year.

Amanda and Janet De Beaurepaire

Amanda and Janet de Beaurepaire at their family estate. Amanda’s parents, Janet and Richard, started planting their 53 hectares of vineyards in 1998.

De Beaurepaire 2018 Blanchefleur Blanc de Blancs $45 AUD (Purchased additional bottles at winery)

I’ve got a future article planned about the intriguing story of the De Beaurepaire family and the genuinely unique terroir they’ve found in Rylstone, southeast of Mudgee. The family’s name and ancestors come from the Burgundian village of Beaurepaire-en-Bresse in the Côte Chalonnaise. So it’s no surprise that their wines have a French flair to them.

It’s also no surprise that their 2018 Blanchefleur was quite Champagne-like. Indeed, it was the best sparkling wine I had on the trip. A 100% Chardonnay with 15 months on the lees, this wine had incredible minerality. Coupled with the vibrant, pure fruit, it screamed of being something from the Cote de Blancs. I’m not kidding when I say that this bottle would stack up well to a quality NV from a grower-producer like Franck Bonville, Pierre Peters, De Sousa or Pertois-Moriset.

Peter Drayton 2018 Wildstreak sparkling Semillon-Chardonnay$30 AUD

I had this at an Around the Hermitage dinner that featured many gorgeous wines. But the folks at the Around Hermitage Association started things right with this 80% Semillon/20% Chardonnay blend that spent 18 months on the lees. Hard to say if this was transfer method of not. However, the toasty autolysis notes were quite evident with biscuit and honeycomb. Very Chenin like. In a blind tasting, I’d probably confuse it with good quality sparkling Vouvray from a producer like Francois Pinon or Huet.

BTW, the Around Hermitage folks made a fun short video about the dinner (3:20) which features an interview with me.

Logan 2016 Vintage ‘M’ Cuvee – ($40 AUD)

With a blend of 63% Chardonnay, 19% Pinot noir and 18% Pinot Meunier, this is another bottle that is following the traditional method and recipe. Sourced from the cool-climate Orange region of NSW, which uses altitude (930m above sea level) to temper the heat, this wine spent almost two years aging on the lees. Lots of toasted brioche with racy citrus notes. It feels like it has a higher Brut dosage in the 10-11 g/l range. But it’s well balanced with ample acidity to keep it fresh.

Hollydene Estate 2008 Juul Blanc de Blancs$69 AUD

Hollydene Winery

Hollydene Estate Winery in Jerrys Plains is about an hour northwest of the heart of the Hunter Valley in Pokolbin.

Made in the traditional method, this wine is 100% Chardonnay sourced from the cool maritime climate of the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. It spent over 60 months aging on the lees and, whoa nelly, you can tell. Hugely autolytic with yeasty, doughy notes to go with the lemon custard creaminess of the fruit.

Peterson House 2007 Sparkling Semillon – ($60 AUD)

If you love sparkling wine, make sure you book a trip to Peterson House. Each year they release more than 30 different sparklers. Beyond just the traditional varieties, they push the envelope in creating exciting bubbles. You’ll find sparklers made from Verdelho, Pinot gris and Sauvignon blanc as well as Chambourcin, Petit Verdot and Malbec.

I’m generally not a fan of overly tertiary sparklers. But this wine made a big impression on me during the conference.

Robert Stein NV Sparkling Chardonnay and Pinot noir$25 AUD

I raved about the Robert Stein Rieslings in my recent post, Send Roger Morris to Mudgee. But there are so many good reasons to put this winery (and the Pipeclay Pumphouse restaurant) on a “Must Visit Bucket List”. The entire line up is stocked with winners–including this Charmat method sparkler.

At first taste, I had this pegged for transfer method. It wasn’t as aggressively bubbly and frothy as many tank method sparklers can be. However, the considerable apple blossom aromatics should have tipped me off. If this ever made its way to the US for less than $30, I’d recommend buying this by the case.

Gilbert 2019 Pet Nat Rose$25 AUD (Purchased additional bottles at winery)

Gilbert Pet Nat

Gilbert’s Sangio Pet-Nat was just bloody fantastic. I wish I brought more than one bottle home.

It’s always trippy to have a wine from the same year (2019)–especially a sparkler. Gilbert harvests the Sangiovese in February and bottles before the first fermentation is completed each year. Released in July, this wine was surprisingly dry and is teetering on the Brut line with 12.5 g/l residual sugar. Very clean with no funky flavors, this wine had a beautiful purity of fruit–cherry, strawberries, watermelon and even blood orange.

Domaine Chandon 2013 Vintage Brut (purchased at a restaurant) – Around $30 AUD retail.

The Christie’s Encyclopedia notes that Domaine Chandon shot out of the gate partly because of the lessons that Tony Jordan learned at Napa’s Domaine Chandon. In particular, Jordan was well aware of the challenges of dealing with grapes from warm climates. In Australia, Domaine Chandon casts an extensive net by sourcing from cool-climate vineyards in both Victoria and Tasmania.  They have vineyards not only in the Yarra Valley but also in the King Valley, Macedon Ranges, Whitlands Plateau and Strathbogie Ranges as well as the Coal River Valley region in Tasmania.

For the fruit that comes from Tasmania, Domaine Chandon follows the tact used by many Australian sparkling wine producers. They press the fruit at local press houses in Tasmania before transporting the must in refrigerated containers to the mainland. This helps maintain freshness and ward off spoilage organisms.

The 2013 vintage Brut is 47% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot noir and 3% Pinot Meunier. As in Champagne, Domaine Chandon ages their vintage sparklers at least 36 months on the lees. Fully fermented in the same bottle, it tastes very similar to other Moët & Chandon sparklers with rich, creamy mouthfeel holding up the ripe apple and citrus notes. An enjoyable bottle priced in line with its peers.

Bleasdale Sparkling Shiraz (tasted in London at the WSET School) – Around 15 euros
Bleasdale Sparkling Shiraz

I’ll admit that the color of sparkling Shiraz is always very striking.

Admittedly I’m still on the search for a genuinely impressive sparkling Shiraz. But this Bleasdale came close. Like the Paringa I’ve reviewed previously, it’s sweeter than my ideal though I get the winemaking reasons behind that.

Sparkling red wines are notoriously tricky to pull off because you have to balance the tannins. This is why many of these wines often have more than 20 g/l sugar.

Most sparkling reds come from the same regions as premium Australian still reds. Think places like the Barossa, McLaren Vale or the Langhorne Creek (Bleasdale). Interestingly, producers will harvest these grapes at the same time as those for still reds wine. Instead of harvesting early to retain acidity, producers want the extended hang time for riper tannins.

However, these sparklers sorely need acidity to balance both the intense fruit and sweetness. While secondary fermentation does add carbonic acid, I suspect that these wines are routinely acidified.

Still, this Bleasdale had enough balance of acid to go with the dark plum and delicate oak spice. That got me wondering how well this would pair with BBQ pulled pork.

Or, if I’m brave, maybe I’d pair some of these Aussie sparkling unicorns with steak de cheval.

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Champagne and Climate Change – is blocking MLF the answer for fresher bubbles?

One of my favorite study techniques is to guess potential questions on exams. Even if my guesses are entirely off, the studying that I do to answer these hypothetical questions is always worthwhile.

Photo by Gzen92. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

While prepping for the WSET Diploma sparkling wine exam in January, I’ve been jotting down a few possible topics. One, in particular, I keep coming back to.

What are some things in the vineyard and winery that Champagne producers can do in response to climate change & riper vintages?

Now the viticulture part of this question is fairly straightforward. There are numerous tacts you can take–beginning with seeking cooler sites (particularly north-facing slopes) and exploring new (or rather historic) grape varieties that ripen later with more acidity. Likewise, houses like Pierre Peters are experimenting with new clones as well. Of course, those require replanting with significant time and cost commitments.

A little less expensive would be changing trellising and canopy management approaches. Raising the fruiting zone higher and leaving more leaves encourages shading, which keeps the grapes cooler. Shade screens (that can also function as netting against birds) as well as using kaolin clay as sunscreen for grapes are other options. Champagne Bruno Paillard is doing an intriguing experiment with using straw in the vineyard to block sunlight from impacting the microflora in the soil.

But taking this question into the winery is a little more difficult–at least regarding Champagne.

Photo by ADT Marne. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Storage tanks at Champagne Joly.
Today many Champagne houses are relying more on higher acid reserve wines to add freshness to their non-vintage cuvees.

In many warm regions, the first tools out of the winemaker’s belt for dealing with overripe grapes are watering back and acidification. Technically, these aren’t permitted in cool-climate (Zones A & B) regions of the EU. However, in warm vintages like 2003, special dispensations can be given.

Other options include blending and various alcohol removal techniques like reverse osmosis and spinning cones. While the former is part and parcel in Champagne, the later may be more challenging to use.

Sweet spotting in wine is highly variable and sensory-driven. Anything done to the vin clair is going to get magnified during the secondary fermentation process–including imbalances with flavor. Plus, it’s important to note that the secondary fermentation adds 1 to 1.5% alcohol to the finished wine as well.

However, as I taste through many Champagnes in preparation for my exam (dreadful work, I know), I find myself being continually drawn to certain bottles. These wines crackle with lively fruit flavors that make an immediate impression on the palate.

Researching further, I found a common link between many of these Champagnes. They all tend to have little or no malolactic fermentation (MLF) done.

How common is MLF in Champagne?

Incredibly common. It’s almost standard protocol for a region that has historically had to battle racy high acidity. Some estimates are that as much as 90% of all Champagnes go through some malolactic fermentation.

Photo by Chris R. Sims (Simsc). Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

While lactic acid formed during MLF is considered a softer acid than malic, it’s important to remember that lactic acid is the critical component in sourdough and turning cabbage into sauerkraut.

Running a wine through MLF can drop the titratable acidity (TA) 1-3 g/l and raise the pH 0.3. This will have a significant effect on the mouthfeel of a Champagne–rounding it out and making it feel less austere. In addition to the tactile characteristics, Champagnes that go through full malo tend to have more dried fruit and nutty aromas to go with the brioche and buttery pastry traits of this style.

But more than just seeking the smoother, rounder mouthfeel that MLF brings is the importance of stability. Beyond consuming malic acid, the Oenococcus bacteria gobble up any residual nutrients left in the wine that could be prey for spoilage organisms. As noted above, secondary fermentation is like a high power magnifying glass that makes every quirk, characteristic or flaw of the vin clair more apparent.

However, running Champagnes through malolactic fermentation hasn’t always been standard in Champagne.

As Peter Liem describes in his book, Champagne (one of the five essential books on Champagne), MLF only became widespread in the 1960s.

This coincided with the renovation of many wine cellars with modern technology like stainless steel tanks that could regulate temperature better. MLF is inhibited in cold temperatures below 55°F (13°C), so being able to warm the must in winter is critical. Likewise, inoculated cultures that were more predictable and dependable became widely available. Many consumers found the Champagnes that went through full malo were richer and approachable younger–encouraging more experimentation with MLF.

Rebels or Vanguards?

Several houses did buck the trend of adopting MLF though. The most notable of these are Alfred Gratien, Gosset and Lanson. However, in recent years, Lanson introduced some styles with partial malo.

Photo by ADT Marne. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

The barrel room at Champagne Lanson

Gosset has also started to take the approach of Krug and Salon in that they don’t encourage MLF, but don’t actively try to prevent it either. This means that some batches may go through malo but, on the whole, the style of house is non-malolactic.

Krug is an interesting case. Because despite the ambivalence towards intentional MLF, their house style is decidedly rich and powerful like many full MLF wines. This is partly because of their use of small (205L) oak barrels to ferment in, extended lees aging and, in the case of their multi-vintage Grande Cuvée, the extensive use of reserve stocks.

As I went through my tasting notes, I found several of the partial-to-no-MLF houses similarly make use of oak barrels. These include Gratien, AR Lenoble, Bérêche, Camille Savès, Eric Rodez, Lanson, Laherte Frères, Nicolas Maillart, Perseval, Savart, Thevenet-Delouvin, Vilmart and Louis Roederer. Most intriguing, though, was that these Champagnes rarely tasted oaky.

Instead, these wines were fresh & vibrant with a searing expression of fruit character that felt lost in many of their “rounder” cousins. In a world of circles, these were wines with edges. They stood out and, in a crowded market place, that’s always a plus.

But the big question is–with rising temperatures and riper vintages pushing down acidity, are we going to see more wineries deliberately blocking malolactic fermentation?

Champagne houses that practice partial and no MLF

While I’ve mentioned several above already, here is the full list of Champagnes that I’ve encountered so far who don’t do full malo on all their wines. If you know of other estates, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll get them added to the list.

To my fellow wine students, I highly recommend making it a priority to taste Champagnes with little to no MLF side by side with their more prevalent malo counterparts. You can definitely pick up the stylistic differences.

Gosset Grand Reserve

Gosset Grand Reserve Brut.

Alfred Gratien
AR Lenoble (partial though in recent vintages it has been blocked completely)
Bérêche et Fils
Besserat de Bellefon
Guy Charlemagne (partial)
Gosset (Most no MLF. Partial with Brut Excellence NV)
Krug
Laherte Frères (partial for some cuvees. Completely blocked on others.)
Lanson (partial for Black Label. Completely blocked on others)
Roger-Constant Lemaire
Nicolas Maillart (partial)
José Michel & Fils (partial)
Louis Nicaise (partial)
Franck Pascal (partial)
Pehu-Simonet
Perseval-Farge (partial)
Eric Rodez (partial)
Louis Roederer (partial with the Brut premier and sometimes Cristal rose. Completely blocked on others.)
Salon
Frédéric Savart (partial)
Camille Savès
Thevenet-Delouvin (partial)
Vazart-Coquart & Fils (partial)
J.L. Vergnon
Maurice Vesselle
Vilmart & Cie
Philipponnat

Frederic Savart Champagne

Frédéric Savart L’Ouverture Brut

BTW, while researching this piece, I found that Tyson Stelzer’s article “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble” answered my hypothetical WSET question almost perfectly. If you’re a WSET Diploma student, his site is well worth checking out.

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60 Second Wine Review – Georges Vesselle 2009 Grand Cru Brut

A few quick thoughts on the 2009 Georges Vesselle Brut Champagne.

The Geekery
Georges Vesselle Champagne

Georges Vesselle was an icon of the Grand Cru village of Bouzy, having served as its mayor for 25 years as well as vineyard manager for Perrier-Jouët, Mumm and Heidsieck Monopole.

Taking over the family estate in 1951, Vesselle used his label to focus on single village, Grand Cru wine. Today the house is run by his sons, Bruno and Eric, who tend to the family’s 17 ha (42 acres) of vines.

Located on the south end of the Montagne de Reims, the Grand Cru village of Bouzy is noted for its Pinot noir, which makes up almost 88% of plantings. The warm south-facing slopes produces riper fruit with Bouzy being a major producer of still red Coteaux Champenois as well.

Georges Vesselle, in particular, was a long-time proponent for Bouzy Rouge–being interviewed in 1971 by The New York Times about the style while he was mayor.

A powerful presence and weighty mouthfeel characterize Bouzy Pinot. Champagne houses that prominently feature Bouzy fruit include Paul Bara, Bollinger, André Clouet, Duval-Leroy, Benoît Lahaye, Moët & Chandon, Mumm, Pierre Paillard, Pol Roger, Camille Savès and Taittinger. In addition, many houses use red wine from Bouzy to add color to their roses.

The 2009 Brut is 90% Pinot noir and 10% Chardonnay with 5 years aging on lees. Bottled with 8 g/l dosage.

The Wine

Almond cake photo by Michal Klajban. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

The roasted almond and pastry elements add complexity to this excellent Champagne.

High-intensity nose–lots of yellow fruits like Golden Delicious apple and lemons. Noticeable autolytic and tertiary notes of pastry dough and honey-roasted almonds.

On the palate, those fruit notes carry through and are very ripe. The high-acidity keeps the full-bodied and creamy mouthfeel well balanced. Long finish lingers on the tertiary almonds.

The Verdict

In France, this 2009 Georges Vesselle is around 40-45 euros. However, in the US, it’s unfortunately closer to $90. (Before extra tariffs!)

So while it’s very well made with subtle complexity, it’s hard to say that this is a great deal. But if you can get it for $60-70, grab it.

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The Tariff Trap

During the baseball season in Seattle, there’s a curious event that happens every year when the Toronto Blue Jays visit Safeco Field to play the Mariners.

A Canadian invasion.

While I’m a huge baseball fan, I never really followed the Mariners much. However, working at wine shops along the I-5 corridor connecting Vancouver to Seattle, I was always acutely aware of when the Blue Jays were in town.

Because then I would get a massive run on J. Lohr Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon and Kim Crawford Sauvignon blanc.

It was bizarre how cases I would be sitting on for weeks would suddenly vanish in a mist of maple leafs and excessive politeness. When I talked to these customers to understand why these two wines seemed to be the national drink of Canada, I would hear a familiar response.

“Oh, you won’t believe how expensive these are up in Canada!”
J Lohr LCBO

Or $23 in Toronto

When I traveled to British Columbia and Toronto with the wife for curling tournaments, I saw first hand how right they were.

That $13 bottle of J. Lohr Cab back in the US? $24
That $11 bottle of Kim Crawford? $18-20
That $5 bottle of Yellow Tail Shiraz? $12
That $7 bottle of Ch. Ste. Michelle Riesling? $16-18

Now some of that is obviously because of the exchange rate (currently 1 USD to 1.31 Canadian). But that would only make those J. Lohr and Kim Crawford bottles around $17 and $14. A significant contributor to the disparity is the local taxes and various tariffs that the Canadian government imposes on wine.

Canada has had a long history of protectionist tariffs–which used to be much higher. This CBC broadcast from 1987 when the original NAFTA negotiations were taking place is well worth the 6:38 to watch. There were stark fears that lowering tariffs (which were as high as 66% in Ontario) would be the end of the Canadian wine industry.

Note: I wanted to embed the video directly, but apparently CBC’s website and WordPress don’t get along.

Of course, those concerns were unfounded.

And, in fact, Canadian wines got better because the increased competition pushed producers to improve. You can see a microcosm of this quality movement in the CBC video (4:33) when they interviewed Harry McWatters at his Sumac Ridge Estate vineyard.

As they showed McWatters working in the vineyard, my eyes popped at the 5:01 mark seeing the overhead sprinkler system they were using for irrigation. This is something that California and a lot of major wine regions started phasing out back in the 1970s as drip irrigation became more widely available. Moving away from wasteful overhead systems towards understanding the importance of controlled deficit irrigation has been a harbinger of quality improvement in many regions.

But you can also see from the interview that McWatters was convinced that he could compete with small, quality-minded producers in California. Clearly, over the next couple of decades, he put that faith into practice as evidenced by Master of Wine James Cluer’s 2012 visit to Sumac Ridge (7:46).

Starting at the 1:40 mark, Cluer interviews McWatters’ daughter, Christa-Lee McWatters Bond, who described many of the changes her dad did in response to the free trade agreement–including pulling out hybrid varieties to plant more vinifera.

However, there is still more work to do.

While the quality of Canadian wine is rapidly improving, the high prices of foreign wine continue to be a crutch that holds them back. This is always the folly that comes with limiting competition.

Think about this. In the minds of many Canadian consumers, J. Lohr Seven Oaks is the benchmark standard of a $24 wine.  So how much effort then do Canadian wineries need to put in to make a better $20-25 bottle? Certainly not the same amount that producers in Washington State, Oregon and California need to do where consumers who are looking to spend $20-25 aren’t thinking about J. Lohr Seven Oaks.

Gramercy Picpoul

It’s hard to imagine paying $20 retail for Kim Crawford when stuff like Gramercy’s Picpoul (or $10-15 French Picpoul de Pinet) exists.

Instead, those consumers are looking at wines like:
Chateau Ste Michelle’s Borne of Fire and Intrinsic
Gordon Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
Adelsheim Willamette Valley Pinot noir
Ponzi Tavola Pinot noir
Elk Cove WV Pinot noir
Schug Carneros Pinot noir
Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara Pinot noir
Stags’ Leap Merlot
Trefethen Double T Meritage
Heitz Zinfandel
BV Napa Valley

Or, for a few dollars more, J. Lohr’s Paso Robles Hilltop Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

That’s before you even get to loads of compelling values from Australia, South America and Europe as well.

Yes, there is always a risk that consumers will choose these better value options from somewhere else. But the answer to that problem is to raise the bar, not artificially lower it with protectionist taxes and tariffs.

The US is at risk of making the same mistake.

There’s been lots of ink spilled over the recent threat from the US government to slap 100% tariffs on European wines such as Champagne. The primary justification for these threats is “unfair” trade practices, with some thinking that domestic American wineries will benefit from consumers turning away from more expensive European wines.

Already wine writers are penning posts about how folks can “drink around” the tariffs–noting many domestic options as well as countries that are not yet being hit by tariffs.

But it’s extremely telling that many American wine producers, as well as the US Wine Institute, are firmly against the proposed tariffs.

On Twitter, Jason Lett of Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon shared the letter that he sent to the US trade ambassador.

Lett brings up numerous excellent points about the impacts of retaliatory tariffs in other markets (which is already being felt in China). However, he touches on the pratfalls of limiting consumer choice.

Here Lett looks at it from the angle of distributors being hampered in providing a diverse portfolio. However, the lessons of those Blue Jay Weekends in Seattle still echos.

US wines are better when they’re striving to be the best.

Roederer L'Emeritage

Things like Roederer L’Ermitage from California already out-drink many Champagnes. Using tariffs to push up the price of Veuve Clicquot to $60 is not going to make this sparkler more outstanding.

From the fanatical quest of Martin Ray and Robert Mondavi to make wines on par with the greats of Europe to the legendary Judgement of Paris wines that beat them, the American wine industry has succeeded by raising the bar and not settling.

It’s the competition of outstanding Champagne at affordable prices that inspires high-quality producers in Oregon and elsewhere to keep driving. Otherwise, why not settle for Korbel?

The fabulous rosés of Provence put into context how incredibly delicious Bedrock’s Ode to Lulu, DeLille and other American rosés can be.

It’s the high benchmark of Savennières and the Mosel that encourages folks like Tracey & John Skupny and Stu Smith to make some of the best white wines in California.

Likewise, Anna Shafer of àMaurice in Walla Walla doesn’t need the bar artificially lowered with more expensive French white blends to have a reason to chase after the heights of Condrieu with her Viogniers.

It’s a trap to get complacent and think that pricing or placement is going to win the day. Yeah, that protectionism might give you a short term buffer, but it comes at a cost.

After all, how much of a victory is it to have consumers singing your anthem in another stadium if they’re drinking someone else’s wine?

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What makes a winery Twitter account worth following?

The website Glass of Bubbly regularly publishes a list of their Top 200 Social Media Influencers in sparkling wine. Now while most people think of “influencers” as Instagramers and wine writers (none of which are The Real Influencers of the Wine World), the Glass of Bubbly list is made up almost entirely of winery brands.

Photo by 472301 from https://pixabay.com/illustrations/social-networking-marketing-business-2187996/. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

I’ll admit that I don’t quite get the methods or metrics that Glass of Bubbly uses to compile their rankings. But as a regular Twitter user, I’m always game to finding new accounts worth following. So I went through and looked at all 200 accounts on this list.

I found that, much like winery Instagram feeds, a lot of them suck.

Now I did find a few worth following (which I’ll tag throughout this piece), but the most common theme of many of these accounts is that they were boring as hell. Instead of engaging and unique content, most winery Twitter accounts fall back on trite bottle shots and canned ad verbiage–if the account is being updated at all.

Unfortunately, many brands (like Jacob’s Creek) have not had a new post in months or even years. This is a darn shame because Jacob’s Creek Twitter actually had a lot of interesting posts that would make me want to follow them.

And there we get to the crux of it all. To make an account worth following, it has to be interesting.

It has to have content that you don’t find easily from other sources. It has to give you a reason to stop scrolling for a moment and pay attention. You’ll never “influence” someone if you don’t interest them first.

For most people, social media is an escape. So the question that every winery should ask themselves about their Twitter is,

“Is this a feed that someone would want to escape to?”
Sumaridge Twitter screenshot

I wasn’t planning on linking to any of the negative examples, but this Twitter feed baffles me to no end.

If you’re running your Twitter feed like a neverending ad or parade of bottle porn, then the answer is a resounding “No.”

More so than in any other type of marketing, wineries need to think like consumers when it comes to their social media.

Think about what you like seeing and reading about when you’re looking for a distraction from the day.

Think about what makes you stop scrolling.

Is it an endless stream of hashtags and emojis? Probably not.

Nothing but links to your IG or FB page? Erm.

And why on earth would any consumer care about an automated bot-message noting the number of people who followed & unfollowed you?

Plus, if I live several hundred miles away and can only buy your wine online, knowing what your holiday tasting bar hours are is not going to be a compelling reason to follow you.

But you know what is a compelling reason?

Monsoon Valley (@MonsoonValleyUK) sharing Thai dining customs and the unique sights of their homeland.

Parés Baltà (@paresbalta) posting a surprise they discovered while pruning, which highlights the biodiversity in their vineyards.

Rives-Blanques (@RivesBlanques) in Limoux, France pulling out an eye-catching quote from Jancis Robinson that “white wine can look even more alluring in a decanter than red.”

Raventós i Blanc (@RaventosiBlanc) in Spain sharing BABY SHEEP! First rule of winery Twitter–If you can post videos of baby animals, always post videos of baby animals. Guaranteed scroll stopper. Though do sheep always growl like that?

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Hanging the Mistletoe from The Bridgeman Art Library, Object 87464. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-PD-Mark

Dear, let’s kiss underneath the “poop on a stick.”

Dunleavy Vineyards (@DYvineyards) in Bristol & Somerset sharing an Italian greyhound puppy so small that they needed to use a pen for scale.

Ambriel Sparkling (@Ambriel_UK) of West Sussex shattering all my romantic notions about mistletoe with a tweet that sent me down the Google rabbit hole looking up the origins of the word “mistletoe.”

Carolyn Martin (@creationwines) of Creation Wines in South Africa tweeting (and sharing retweets) about what makes Overberg unique and worth visiting.

Show us the people and personalities behind your brand.

Wine is an agricultural product with dozens of distinct hands having a role in shepherding it from grape to bottle. Show us those hands and the heart of the people behind them because that is what truly makes your wine special.

Like Curtis Fielding of @FieldingWinery, who is apparently a big Toronto Maple Leafs fan and is fond of retweeting National Lampon Christmas Vacation clips. While I love geeking out about terroir, stuff like this is the cherry of the terroir sundae that people can relate to much more than soils and climate.

Biddenden Vineyards (@BiddendenVine) in Kent going back into the family archives to post old newspaper clippings from 1985 that shows that English sparkling wine isn’t that recent of a phenomenon.

Lakeview Wine Co. (@LakeviewWineCo) in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario spreading some holiday cheer with their staff’s toy drive.

Featherstone Winery (@featherstonewne) in Vineland, Ontario celebrating the last pressing of the harvest.

The human touch and face
Screenshot from Waterford Twitter

When scrolling through a social media feed, our eyes are drawn to faces of people. Not only does it make us more likely to stop scrolling and pay attention to who is posting it, but we’re also more likely to respond to what we see thanks to the “Jennifer Aniston cells” in our brain.

Babylonstoren (@babylonstoren) in the Drakenstein Valley of South Africa paying tribute to their “pruning maestro” on his 80th birthday. In my article How Can Wineries Use Instagram Better?, I raved about a similar post from the Washington winery Côte Bonneville.

Waterford Estate (@waterfordestate) in Stellenbosch, South Africa highlighting the next generation taking a family trip to Table Mountain.

Reif Estate Winery (@Reifwinery) in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario making excellent use of the #ThrowbackThursday hashtag. This is something that every winery should do. Share that nostalgia. Share the bad hairdos, shoulder pads, handlebar mustaches and bellbottoms. Those things resonate because we all have our own nostalgia and “Oh my god, did we really look like that?” pictures.

Show us the people and personality of your brand. That is why we follow your feeds.

Treat Self Promotion like Salt

By all means, post that great review or article mention. But make sure you’re sprinkling it in between other worthwhile and engaging content. Otherwise, we’re back to the same boring old ads. And, again as a consumer, why should I spend my time looking at your ads? If you want consumers to commit to following your Twitter account (and eventually seeing some of those ads), you have to make it worth their while.

A few wineries that do this well include:

Bob Lindo (@camelvalleybob) of Camel Valley sharing what makes English sparkling wine worth discovering with a well-produced Vimeo interview with BBC’s Saturday Kitchen.

Rathfinny Estate (@RathfinnyEstate) throwing out a bit of geeky wine history about Roman viticulture while encouraging folks to visit them in Sussex.

screenshot of Torres Twitter

Geeky and sentimental.

Familia Torres Wines (@TorresWines) has an outstanding winery blog so their posts highlighting their efforts to revive ancient varieties in their vineyards definitely stands out from the pack.

Dr. Loosen Wines (@drloosenwines) in Germany is headed by the legendary Ernst Loosen. Their social media team does a great job of highlighting articles and short videos featuring Loosen.

Newsflash: Wine drinkers who follow wineries on Twitter might actually like reading about other wines.

Know your audience. Not everyone is going to bother looking up the Twitter handle of a winery to specifically follow them. A lot of times, wineries are getting follows because Twitter’s algorithm is recommending their accounts to folks based on similar interests–such as WINE!

So make use of the retweet feature and tweet out interesting wine articles that capture your attention. This adds value to your feed. It can also help increase engagement, making your Twitter posts more likely to show up in other folks’ feeds.

A great example is L’Acadie Vineyards (@lacadiewine) in Nova Scotia who commented on Alice Feiring’s recent piece in The New York Times pondering if the Natural Wine Movement is dead.

Denbies Wine Estate (@denbiesvineyard) in Surrey, UK got a mention in this article about interesting dessert wines from around the world. But they didn’t make the tweet promotional and all about them. Remember, you want your social media feed to feel more like an escape for wine lovers than an endless ad. Well played, Denbies.

Even Bottle Porn can feel less “porn-ish” with meaningful content behind it.

screenshot JC Le Roux Twitter

Why hire models to pose with bottles when you could retweet photos of real live consumers *actually enjoying* your wine?

Villiera Wines (@villiera) in Stellenbosch, South Africa does this nicely with explaining the history of the wine as well as the meaning behind the color choices on their label. WAY less boring than another beautiful shot of bottles held by beautiful people in beautiful locations.

JC Le Roux (@JCLeRoux) in Stellenbosch, South Africa let their consumers supply the bottle shots with very effective use of their #JustCelebrate 🥂 hashtag. This is a terrific example of engagement and what I was desperately seeking from wineries in my post One Night Stands and Surprises. Bravo JC Le Roux!

Who else I followed from the Glass of Bubbly list

As I went through all 200 accounts, I focused on the most recent December tweets (if there were any). If I saw at least 2 to 3 posts of engaging content, I followed them.

Flat Rock Cellars (@Winemakersboots) in Ontario, Canada.

Klein Constantia (@KleinConstantia) in Capetown, South Africa.

Henry of Pelham (@HenryofPelham) in St. Catharines, Ontario. Admittedly more “bottle porn-ish” than I typically follow, but their Anchorman-inspired caption on their ice wine grapes made me smile and earned their inclusion here.

Prosecco Superiore (@ProseccoCV). One of the few non-brands on the Glass of Bubbly list.

Fox & Fox (@sussexvineyards) of Sussex, England.

screenshot from Spier Twitter Feed

Apparently the Spier Light Art Festival is quite a thing to experience in Stellenbosch.

Spier Wine Farm (@SpierWineFarm) in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Katnook (@Katnook) in Coonawarra, South Australia.

Ridgeview Wine (@RidgeviewWineUK) in Sussex, England.

Bench 1775 Winery (@bench1775) in Penticton, British Columbia. Another Twitter that is a little heavy on the bottle porn but won me over with posts about the ice wine harvest. Truly a labor of love to go out in sub-zero temperatures at night to hand-harvest grapes.

Ravine Vineyard (@RavineVineyard) in St. Davids, Ontario.

Red Squirrel Wine (@RedSquirrelWine) in London, UK.

Hattingley Valley (@hattingleywines) in Hampshire, UK.

Breathless Wines (@BreathlessWines) in Sonoma, California.

Vasse Felix (@vassefelix) in Margaret River, Western Australia.

Balfour – Hush Heath Estate (@HushHeath) in Kent, UK.

Godstone Vineyards (@godstonevines) in Surrey, UK. If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey and the Christmas time classic Love Actually, you’ll be right at home following this winery.

Schramsberg (@Schramsberg) in Napa Valley, California.

Coates & Seely (@coatesandseely) in Hampshire, UK. I’ve realized in compiling this list that a lot of UK wine producers have a very solid winery Twitter game going on.

So check out these accounts and let me know what you think!

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60 Second Wine Review — Frank Family 2013 Blanc de Blancs

A few quick thoughts on the 2013 Frank Family Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine from Carneros.

The Geekery
Frank Family bubbles

While today Frank Family is known for big Rutherford Cabs and buttery Chardonnays, its origins were actually sparkling wine. In 1992, Rich Frank, a Disney exec, bought Hanns Kornell Champagne Cellars with Koerner Rombauer.

Hanns Kornell was a German immigrant who survived the Dachau concentration camp during World War II before founding his eponymous sparkling house in 1958.

Using the methode champenoise, Kornell helped innovate many new sparkling wine techniques in California. His wines earned high praise with Marilyn Monroe reportedly being a fan.

Rich Frank later bought out Rombauer’s interest in the winery and changed the name to Frank Family Vineyards. To honor Kornell, they kept producing sparkling wines.

The 2013 Blanc de Blancs is 100% Chardonnay sourced from Carneros. The wine spent 3 years aging on the lees with 500 cases made.

The Wine

Meyer lemons photo by ChaosNil. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under ) CC-BY-SA 3.0

Lots of ripe lemon notes in this wine.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Very citrusy with ripe lemon notes coupled with floral orange blossom. Apples with a toasted pastry element follow.

The palate echos the nose but also introduces an intriguing spiced pear note that adds more depth. Creamy mouthfeel enhances the toasted element and “California Chard” feel of the wine.

Medium-plus body. The medium-plus acidity is enough to feel balanced with the dosage (likely in the 10-11 g/l range). But it could use a little more zip of freshness. Long finish lingers more on the tree fruit, especially the spiced pear.

The Verdict

For around $45-55, it’s a decent value. It certainly offers more complexity and depth than many of your typical mass-market Champagnes in that range like Veuve Clicquot & Moet.

But it’s not going to knock your socks off and there are certainly better values out there. I also got a chance to try their 2011 Lady Edythe Reserve Brut (aged for 6 years on lees), which sells at the winery for $110. That was very tasty as well, but not that drastically different from the Blanc de Blancs.

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Send Roger Morris to Mudgee

Note: The wines reviewed in this article were samples from the 2019 Wine Media Conference post-conference tour of Mudgee.
Robert Stein winery
Just after Thanksgiving in the US, Roger Morris wrote a firebrand piece on Meininger’s Wine Business, challenging the sacred status of Riesling among sommeliers.

Reading the article, you would think that blaming consumer ignorance and the myth that “all Rieslings are sweet” was just a scapegoat. The real culprit for why consumers don’t adore Rieslings is the grape itself. It’s too precocious in aromatics and flavors with its worst sin, Morris argues, being that Riesling just isn’t very food-friendly.

For my palate, and I expect many if not most wine drinkers, Riesling is too often the precocious child whose parents think he is darling while the rest of us are edging toward the door. Its flavours and aromas, we doubters believe, clash with food. — Roger Morris, “The real reason consumers reject Riesling”, November 28th, 2019.

What.

The.

Fuck???

There have been many articles written about the challenges of selling Riesling. But this is probably the first time that a wine writer has picked “Riesling is not food-friendly” as their hot-take hill to die on.

Alanis, isn’t it ironic?

Don’t you think? That the one saving grace that has helped Riesling lumber out of it’s Liebfraumilch and sweet Johannisberg shadows has been its affinity for food. As early as 1988, Dan Berger was describing in the LA Times this growing epiphany among wine lovers.

The other day, John and Janet Trefethen of the Napa Valley winery that bears their name staged a cook-off to see which foods best went with their dry Riesling, which annually is one of the most attractive in the state. The winner, a Far East-leaning chicken dumpling sort of concoction, won by only a shade over six other excellent matches.

The point was thus made: The classic Johannisberg Riesling grape variety, when made into a relatively or completely dry wine, produces a beverage of incomparable quality that does, surprising as it may seem to some people, go with food. — Dan Berger, “What’s Wrong With Riesling? Nothing That a Little Information Won’t Fix”, September 15th, 1988

And even today, when you Google “Most Food Friendly Wine,” nearly every publication worth their salt will feature Riesling high on their list.

But maybe they’re all wrong and the salt they’re worth is more Morton’s table rather than fleur de sel. Could Roger Morris be right and everyone else is just “barking up the wrong grapevine” about Riesling?

Courtesy of Memegenerator

Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion.

Though here, in favor of full disclosure, I should note that I’ve quite publically disagreed with other articles that Roger Morris has done in the past.

But I don’t doubt Morris’ sincerity when he laments how often he wishes he’d ordered something else when pairing Riesling with food. Admittedly, though, I do wonder what in the world he’s eating. There are so many amazing cuisines in the world–Asian, Indian, Soul Food, Caribbean, Hispanic, etc.–that are bursting with “precocious” flavors that need a similarly precocious counterpart.

Yes, Riesling will most definitely overwhelm and clash with grilled cheese. But duck breast with red Thai curry and sticky jasmine rice? The thought of pairing that with ANY of the Rieslings I’m going to talk about below makes my mouth water.

Which brings me to my proposal to convert a Riesling skeptic into a Riesling saveur.

Send Roger Morris to Mudgee.

Gilbert 2010 Riesling

Interestingly, in that Wine Enthusiast article, Morris does recommend 2016 German Riesling as potential birth year wines to save. So he at least recognizes the immense aging potential of Riesling. Something that the 2010 Gilbert Riesling amply demonstrates as well.

For those of you who are thinking, “What the heck is Mudgee?” Don’t despair. That’s a frequent thought of wine lovers when it comes to this thoroughly under-the-radar gem in the New South Wales region of Australia.

While most folks justifiably know about the Hunter Valley when they think of New South Wales, it is well worth taking the 4-hour trek west from the Hunter over the Blue Mountains to experience the delicious combination of food, wine and hospitality in Mudgee.

Full disclosure part III: While the food and wine as well as travel to Mudgee from the Hunter were sponsored by Visit Mudgee Region as part of the Wine Media Conference, the wife and I paid for our own travel to Australia and hotel accommodations.

But we fell in love with the region and are already planning a return trip with friends. Heck, my wife was checking out real estate prices before we left. Because now, apparently, Mudgee is high on her list of places to retire to. The last trip that got her googling land prices was St. Emilion in Bordeaux. The wine, food and people of Mudgee impressed us that much. (And it’s WAY cheaper than St. Emilion too :P)

However, I’m not a Food or Travel blogger so this really won’t be a food or travel piece.

It’s just not my personal style. Instead, I’ll be linking to a few of my blogger friends who can give you a little more feel of Mudgee. All of their sites and IGs are well worth following.

But I will highlight 3 Mudgee cellar doors that I think would give Roger Morris some food for thought about Riesling.

Robert Stein Winery and the Pipeclay Pumphouse

Robert Stein Riesling

Kangaroo tartare and Riesling? Sure, why not?

This is the show stopper and should be on the bucket list for any food and wine lover. But it’s a particular must-stop for Riesling fans (& skeptics) because of winemaker Jacob Stein’s passion for the grape. He makes 3 Rieslings (dry, half-dry and reserve) sourced from both his family’s 40+-year-old estate vines and other historic vineyards in Mudgee like the Miramar vineyard.

His Rieslings go for more of an Alsatian-style with a rich-mouth-filling texture that is exceptionally well-balanced by zippy acidity. Despite being a warm region, Mudgee’s altitude with vineyards going up to 1100m (3600 ft) above sea level encourages a sharp drop in temperatures at night. This maintains acidity and freshness of fruit flavor that you see throughout Mudgee’s wines.

Sharon Parsons of SpaWineFood posted a great rundown with pics of our group’s lunch at Robert Stein’s on-site restaurant, Pipeclay Pumphouse.

I got a chance to try the 2019 Dry and 2018 Half-Dry Rieslings with several courses prepared by Jacob Stein’s brother-in-law, chef Andy Crestani.

The Dry Riesling was my favorite with it going particularly well with the scallop boudin blanc and truffled pea. Oh, and the house-made pork rillette with this Riesling was to die for! The added weight of the residual sugar gave the Half-Dry Riesling enough body to hold up to the kangaroo tartare and sweet potato. Yes, I ate kangaroo and it was surprisingly tasty. But that could be because it was made really well and had a great wine pairing partner.

I’m not a mussels person, but both my wife and Diane Letulle of WineDineGo were fans of the Half-Dry Riesling pairing with those.

The Cellar by Gilbert

Will Gilbert, a 6th generation winemaker, made some of the most exciting wines that I tasted on the entire trip. Expect to see a future post with me raving about more of their wines. But for now, I want to highlight how delicious Gilbert’s 2015 & 2010 Eden Valley Rieslings were paired with locally sourced charcuterie and cheeses made by High Valley Cheese Company in Mudgee. The brie, in particular, was melt-in-your-mouth luscious. The high acidity of both Rieslings served as a nice contrast to the heaviness of the cheese.

The choice of Eden Valley as the source for their Rieslings was very deliberate.
Will Gilbert

Will Gilbert of Gilbert Family Wines

Will’s great great great grandfather, Joseph Gilbert, pioneered Riesling in Eden Valley and founded the iconic winery Pewsey Vale Estate.

A sub-region of the Barossa zone in South Australia, the Eden Valley is another region that defies expectations when it comes to producing intensely vibrant Riesling. However, while cooler than neighboring Barossa Valley, these Rieslings still shows ample weight with ripe lime and a generous mouthfeel. With only a smidgen of residual sugar–that I doubt the average wine consumer would notice–both the 2015 & 2010 had mouthwatering acidity.

2010 tasted distinctly drier and was starting to develop some of the petrol notes, which are, understandably, controversial. While I’m firmly in the “I love it!” camp, I accept that petrol in wine is a lot like Brett (A Spice of Brett). So I don’t blame folks like Roger Morris if that’s a bit too much.

Sharon Parsons of SpaWineFood, again, has another lovely write-up about our evening at Gilbert along with several of Will Gilbert’s other outstanding wines.

Moothi Estate

Moothi Estate owners

Jess and Jay of Moothi Estate

The Mudgee region takes its name from the local aboriginal word Moothi which means “nestled in the hills.” You get a sense of what the original Wiradjuri were talking about when you take in the gorgeous views at the family estate of Jess Chrcek and her husband, Jay. Like most cellar doors in Mudgee, Moothi Estate provides snacking platters of locally sourced meats, cheese and produce that folks can pair with wines while soaking up the sights.

Steve Noel of Children of the Grape has a few photos of those sights on his Instagram and write-up about our tour of Mudgee.

The 2019 Mudgee Riesling, again, stood out from the pack. But this was quite different compared to its peers. It would undoubtedly challenge Roger Morris’ sentiment that Rieslings are “too fragrant” and that “…if someone were wearing Eau de Riesling as cologne or perfume to a wine tasting, we would send them to the washroom to hose off before taking a seat.

When the Moothi Riesling was poured, at first I didn’t hear what it was.
Moothi Riesling

The beauty of Riesling is its diversity. Even in the same region, it’s far from monolithic.

Smelling it, my thoughts originally went towards Italian whites. Maybe something like a Soave?

The aromas were undoubtedly pleasant, a mix of peach and citrus zest. But they were distinctly on the medium to medium-plus side of the intensity scale rather than the high octane aromatics of Riesling.

However, the palate was all-Riesling. Mouth-watering acidity that made the flavors of aged cheeses and salume do the tango on your tongue.

I would gladly enjoy savoring the sights of Mudgee on the patio with a platter and “Eau de Moothi Riesling.”

And I think after a thoroughly memorable experience to the Mudgee region, Roger Morris would too.

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Wine Shops’ Biggest Mistake

On Reddit, there’s an interesting thread by a retail manager seeking advice about what consumers want in a wine shop. There’s a lot of replies focusing on selection, staff training and holding frequent tastings–which all good wine shops should do.

Wine shop photo by Bjørn Erik Pedersen. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

But the biggest mistake that wine shops make, regardless if they’re a boutique indy or big box retailer, is not hiring the right people.

Too often wine shops think they need to hire either:
A.) “Wine People” who are super knowledgeable about wine and love sharing that passion with customers.

B.) Salespeople with smooth selling skills that can sling bottles to anyone.

But what they really need is C.) People who genuinely like LISTENING and helping other people.

What makes or breaks every wine shop (or winery tasting room for that matter) is the abundance or lack of empathic listeners.

Wait! What’s wrong with hiring “wine people”?

Wine people are great. They’re my tribe and this post isn’t a criticism of them. But I’ve spent a lot of years working retail and many more years as a consumer. While I’ve encountered many wine people and salespeople at shops, only around a third of them knew how to engage me enough to open up my wallet and eagerly want to come back to their stores.

Diogenes statue in Sinop photo by Michael F. Schönitzer. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Who’s a good boy? Who’s a good listener?

That’s because wine and salespeople spend far too much time talking than they do listening. It becomes all about sharing their passion and their knowledge about the wine instead of cultivating the customer’s own passion.

As the famous Diogenes quote begins, “We have two ears and only one tongue…”. Even though the tongue is so important to us in the wine industry, sometimes we do need to give it a break.

Yes, it’s great that you’re passionate about wine and want to share that passion with customers.

Yes, it’s wonderful that you can describe all the ways that South African Cap Classique is similar and different from Champagne.

But knowing all the crus of Beaujolais is not going to help you connect to a customer who would probably be happier walking out of your store with a fleshy California Pinot or Spanish Garnacha.

Only empathetic listening–asking more questions instead of telling more details, seeking to understand the customer rather than trying to get the customer to understand the wine–truly “builds relationships.”

And isn’t that the goal of every wine shop? To build enduring and lasting relationships with customers?

An empathic listener is worth more to a wine shop than an MW or MS.

Wine knowledge can be taught. Good wine shops should never scrimp on their staff training programs.

Poster from the CENTRAL COUNCIL FOR HEALTH EDUCATION, Ministry of Health, HMSO in UK. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-scan (PD-UKGov

Thankfully not how passion for wine is spread.

And while, yes, passion is contagious, it’s not an airborne contagion. It doesn’t get picked up in the mouth spray of words.

Passion needs to be ingested. It needs to be consumed–which requires a deliberate action on the consumer’s part. But that action is only going to be taken after developing genuine trust in the person trying to share that passion pill with you.

And how much do you trust someone that is a poor listener?

A tip for pegging the empathic listener in your wine shop.

Whether you’re doing a hiring interview or staff evaluation, my favorite trick is to do a blind tasting with them. But the key is to tell the person that you are blinding them on one of your absolute favorite wines.

The Wine People will be caught up in the blind tasting part. They’re going to be trying to guess what it is and maybe showing off their knowledge.

The Salespeople will be zeroing in on what they think are the best parts of the wine. That’s because they’re looking for angles and thinking of how they would be selling it.

The Empathic Listener will be focusing on figuring out what you like about the wine and asking questions about it.

The good news is that empathetic listening can be taught. Though I’ll admit it’s not easy. As a wine person myself, it took me a long time on the sales floor to retrain my instincts. I always wanted to go full throttle in sharing all the fantastic details and stories about the wines I was passionate about.

The best tool I’ve found is to keep that Diogenes quote top of mind and regularly repeat it.

“We have two ears and only one tongue in order that we may hear more and speak less.”

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