Category Archives: Wine regions

Viva La Vida New Zealand — The Coldplay of the wine world?

At a recent panel on New Zealand wine held in London, Richard Siddle, a long time editor of several UK wine business publications, called the Land of the Long White Cloud “The Coldplay of the wine world”.

Photo by Zach Klein. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.5

Ouch.

Ostensibly, it was meant to be a compliment with Siddle noting that Kiwi wines are “consistent, popular and in everyone’s collection”.

But liking a country’s wines to a band that has just as much ink devoted to wondering why they’re so loathed as they do positive press, doesn’t exactly scream “Highly Recommended!”.

With compliments like that, who needs insults?

Dad Music and Mom’s Wine

Nylon columnist Anne T. Donahue aptly summed up the criticism of Coldplay following their 2016 Super Bowl performance as a chafing against “dad music”.

I mean, it’s not that Coldplay was incompetent or bad—they were fine. But “fine” isn’t enough, especially when compared to Beyoncé’s “Formation” battle cry, and her dance-off with Bruno Mars. To appear alongside both artists on stage served only to highlight Coldplay’s normality; to draw attention to the overt safeness of a band we once felt so strongly for, which then reminds us of who we used to be. Ultimately, Coldplay has become the musical equivalent of a friend we had in high school: okay, I guess, but someone you don’t have anything in common with anymore. — Anne T. Donahue, 2/12/2016

I have to admit, that “okay, I guess” sentiment really does encapsulate my thoughts on New Zealand Sauvignon blanc. Maybe Siddle is onto something?

Now don’t get me wrong. New Zealand Sauvignon blanc does have many charms. They’re always exceptionally well made and consistent. Virtually regardless of producer or vintage, you can order a Kiwi Sauvignon blanc and know exactly what you’re going to get.

Grapefruit, passion fruit, gooseberry and guava. Check. Lemongrass, green bean and jalapeno. Check. Crisp, lively mouthfeel. Check.

For students taking blind tasting examinations, you pray that a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc is included in your flight. In a world of so many exceptions, a classic Marlborough Sauvignon blanc is as much of a sure thing as you can get.

Which makes it boring as hell.

When you get what you want but not what you need

There’s no doubt that since Montana Wines/Brancott Estate introduced to the world Sauvignon blanc from Marlborough in the 1970s, it’s been a raging success for the New Zealand wine industry. In 1985, it status was elevated even further when David Hohnen established Cloudy Bay as the first dedicated premium Sauvignon blanc producer in New Zealand.

Soon supermarket shelves and restaurant wine lists were awash with the wine of choice for suburban moms everywhere. Led by labels like Kim Crawford, Nobilo, Villa Maria and Oyster Bay, around 86% of all the wine exported out New Zealand in 2017 was Sauvignon blanc.

The flood of grapefruit and gooseberries to the US alone generated around $571 million in sales. Those figures, coupled with still healthy sales in the United Kingdom, pushed the value of New Zealand exports over $1.66 billion NZ dollars in 2017.

Yet the overwhelming dominance of the industry by one grape variety has given many folks, such as Master of Wine Tim Atkin, reason to question if this is “…too much of a good thing?

Arguably the biggest problem with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is the influence it has had outside the country. It’s not just the idiotically named Kiwi Cuvée, produced in the Loire Valley by the French company Lacheteau, it’s also the me-too styles that are produced in countries like Chile, South Africa and Australia. Yes, I know that there are different interpretations of New Zealand’s signature grape, but the most successful is the one that someone described as a “bungee jump into a gooseberry bush”. With some residual sweetness, of course. — Tim Atkin, 3/7/2018

The bounty of options of not only authentic New Zealand Sauvignon blanc but also a parade of facsimiles is like skipping over “Clocks” on Spotify only to have the next song be a cover band version.

Is It All Yellow?

Really fantastic Pinot gris from Martinborough. It had some of the zippy acidity and even gooseberry of a NZ Sauvignon blanc with the tree fruits and weight of an Oregon Pinot gris.

Even New Zealand producers are starting to fret about the risks of having all their eggs in one grapefruit basket.

Lucy Shaw of The Drinks Business quotes Philip Gregan, CEO of New Zealand Winegrowers, at that London panel with Siddle “The challenge now is to broaden the story beyond Sauvignon Blanc. We’re a New World country so we need to be open minded, think differently and come up with fresh ideas in order to keep our wines exciting and relevant.”

Google “New Zealand wines beyond Sauvignon blanc” and you’ll get a laundry list of wine writers and bloggers craving something different.

Will those cravings eventually extend to consumers who are still driving the thirst for tankers of Sauvignon blanc?

Perhaps.

While right now Pinot noir has a head start in crafting its own identity in New Zealand, it could be the sirens of Chardonnay and Pinot gris that tempt bored Millennials back to the islands.

Tell me your secrets, And ask me your questions

The last chapter of Gibb’s book gives tips about visiting the wine regions of New Zealand. This will be extremely handy next year when the wife & I visit the country either before or after the Wine Media Conference in Australia.

If you’re interested in learning more about New Zealand wine–both Sauvignon blanc and the vast diversity beyond that grape–here are a few of my favorite resources.

The Wines of New Zealand by Master of Wine Rebecca Gibb.

I highlighted this book back in a July edition of Geek Notes and it has certainly lived up to its billing. By far this is the most comprehensive and in-depth coverage of the New Zealand wine industry that I’ve come across. While a lot of the producers and wine recommendations that Gibb make may be hard to find in the US market, she definitely spends considerable time highlighting the diversity of New Zealand wines beyond Sauvignon blanc.

UK Wine Show with Chris Scott

Chris Scott is a New Zealand native and wine educator in the UK. Sprinkled among the show’s 570+ episodes are numerous interviews with New Zealand wine producers and experts. A few of my favorites are below.

Harpers Podcast 1 New Zealand wine growers (58:23) — A bit unique compared to the usual UK Wine Show format with Chris interviewing Philip Gregan and 3 growers from different parts of New Zealand.

Allan Johnson on Palliser Estate, Martinborough (30:22) — Palliser is making some fantastic wines including Pinot gris (mentioned above) and Pinot noir that are distributed in the United States.

Martinborough Vineyards with Paul Mason (34:12) — Really great insights about the terroir of the Martinborough region on the North Island and the style of Pinot noir grown here.

Steve Smith Craggy Range on Terroir (20:27) — Steve Smith is a Master of Wine and here he touches on a lot of the unique aspects of New Zealand terroir–including why not every area is suitable for Sauvignon blanc.

Dr John Forrest of Forrest Estate on Riesling (24:12) — While I haven’t had an opportunity yet to try a New Zealand Riesling, it’s clear that there are some special areas in New Zealand (like the Waitaki Valley in the Central Otago) for the grape.

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Prosecco Ponderings — Paying More For Less

Earlier this week, Wine Enthusiast announced that Constellation Brands was expanding production of Ruffino Prosecco with the purchase of 311 acres (126 hectares) of added vineyards in the Veneto & Treviso areas. Additionally, they acquired a second wine production facility with the capacity to crank out 9.2 million gallons (35,000 hectoliters) of Prosecco.

Photo by John W. Schulze from Tejas. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Prosecco vineyards in Guia in the Veneto

9.2 million gallons.

If they max out production that would be over 45.6 million additional bottles of Prosecco from Ruffino. Now granted, that is almost a drop in the bucket for a region that produced 475 million bottles in 2016.

But even beyond Ruffino, the Prosecco DOC zone is growing with the Consorzio di Tutela Prosecco DOC authorizing the additional planting of 3000 more hectares (7,413 acres) of vines in 2016. This coming only 7 years after the DOC region was established in 2009 with 20,250 ha (50,039 acres). This was essentially an expansion upon the original 7,191 ha (17,769 acre) Prosecco zone that is now DOCG Prosecco from Conegliano and Valdobbiadene.

That’s a lot of bubbles.

Now wait…wasn’t there a Prosecco shortage?

It certainly seemed that way earlier this spring with breathless headlines encouraging people to “Stock Up Now!” and blaming the shortage on poor yields from the 2017 vintage.

Never mind that we heard this song before back in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

However, with each threat of shortage also came increasing pressure to raise prices with Nielsen data reporting in 2018 that the $13+ category of Prosecco saw the largest growth. Never mind that many of these $13+ Proseccos used to be closer to the $10 mark only a few years ago.

So even when the new Prosecco vineyards are fully on line, we’re likely still going to be paying more.

And for what?

Expansion vs Quality

Good quality vineyard land is a finite resource. While our knowledge and application of modern viticulture and winemaking techniques can help us maximize the potential of a parcel, there will always be a point where expansion means expanding to areas that aren’t going to produce great wine.

In 2016, more than 5.3 million cases of Prosecco were imported to the US with Shaken News Daily reporting the biggest volume coming from LaMarca and Mionetto.

This is a cycle we’ve seen repeatedly throughout history with expansion leading to eventual gluts and wine lakes. In the early 20th century, the European Union was spending around 1.3 billion euros ($1.75 billion USD) a year to encourage the uprooting of poor vineyard sites and “crisis distillation” of excess wine.

Now I’m not saying that these new Prosecco vineyards are going to need be distilled into brandy anytime soon, but I am highly skeptical that we’ll see an increase in quality to go with increase production. I can’t think of a single instance where substantial expansion of an already established wine region has resulted in an uptick of quality.

If anything, expanded production only highlights the value in protecting the original “classico” region that built a wine’s reputation in the first place–a lessons the producers of Soave, for example, took decades to figure out.

The trade off in expanded production zones is supposed to be lower prices following increased supplies on the market. You know, law of supply & demand stuff? But it never seems to work quite that neatly in the wine industry.

Lessons of Champagne

It wasn’t that long ago that the Champagne wine region was riding high and needing to expand their production zone to meet demand. In 2008, the INAO expanded the boundary to include 40 more villages and an additional 33,500 ha (82,780 acres) of vines.

Then the global recession came and the very next year we were talking about a Champagne glut even though the supply from the INAO’s expansion weren’t going to hit the market till at least 2020.

Oh but don’t worry, we’re back to threats of a Champagne shortage again. Even though the recent 2018 vintage was one of the largest on record, that also didn’t stop expectations of prices increases as well.

Gravity Doesn’t Apply To Wine Prices

Photo by Mruzzene. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-user

Hillside vineyard in the DOCG Prosecco production zone of Valdobbiadene.

What goes up, often stays up.

Even with “gluttonous” over supply and waning demand, the best hope is usually just a mere slowing of how fast prices hike up. Each time a new bar is set with pricing, that becomes the new normal–regardless of quality.

A consumer’s best resource against these market dynamics is simply to increase their own vigilance and awareness of what they’re drinking. This means paying more attention to where your wine is coming from and how much you are being asked to pay for it.

There is already a big different in quality of wines labeled as DOC Prosecco versus those from the much more limited and restricted DOCG production zones. It’s worth looking at the bottle to see what kind of Prosecco it is.

Yes, you will likely have to pay a little bit more for a DOCG Prosecco over a DOC one but you’re already paying more for those DOC Proseccos anyways. Now you have to ask yourself if the quality level is what you’re expecting–or if its what you’ve been used to getting.

This truth goes beyond Prosecco to really every wine.

That bottle of your favorite old standby that was once such a great deal, might not be quite as good the next time because now there’s 5x more of it on the market and the winery has had to get different fruit sources to meet that number. It might not be bad. But it won’t be what it once was even though you might be paying the same amount (or more).

As consumers, we will always have choices. Sometimes it’s worth paying a little bit more for something better. Other times there will be different producers or different regions offering options that deliver just as much (or even more) pleasure for the same amount of money that you were used to spending for your old favorites.

You don’t have to settle for paying more for less quality. Though if you aren’t paying attention, that’s exactly what will happen.

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Race From The Bottom — How Should Wine Regions Break Into New Markets?

This morning wine writer Jamie Goode offered some sage advice to wine regions across the globe.

I’m not sure what prompted this particular dictum but reading it reminded me of Brand Australia’s wine marketing woes. People got so use to seeing cheap, cheerful “critter wine” flooding the market from down under that the idea of Australia making premium, high quality wine almost became a non-entity.

Which kind of puts a damper on the 2400+ Australian wineries not named Yellow Tail, Jacob’s Creek, Lindeman, Black Opal or Wolf Blass, doesn’t it?

In the huge shadow of the “Yellow Tail” effect, Australian wines today only command around 1% of the premium export market in the US. In contrast, 95% of Australian wines in the US retail for around $8 per bottle.

And both numbers may be shrinking.

While Australia is seeing some positive growth in export value to markets in Asia and Canada, it was recently announced that exports to the US has declined by $27 million in value.

It seems that Americans are getting a bit bored of the critters. The novelty of criminals has piqued some interest but that too will inevitably wane. Plus, gimmick labels like 19 Crimes certainly aren’t doing much to burnish the image of Australian wine for consumers.

Catch Up Marketing?

In response to the decline, the trade organization Wine Australia has invested $4.2 million to promote premium Australian wines.  They’re spending a good chunk of that money rehabbing the image of Australia wines abroad.

This past July, they hosted several Master Sommeliers, Masters of Wine, wine buyers and media personalities at Lake Tahoe for an event called Australia Decanted. Featuring high quality producers like Tyrrells, Penfolds, Vasse Felix, Clonakilla, Yalumba, John Duval Wines and Shaw & Smith Wines, the conference highlighted the people and terroir that often get overlooked by American consumers.

Next October, the Wine Bloggers Conference will be in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales–the first time the conference has been held outside of North America. Undoubtedly, a huge focus of that conference will be giving bloggers and other wine industry folks a chance to experience the world of Australian wines beyond Riverland and Riverina.

Are We Repeating The Same Mistake In Washington?

Here in Washington State, Jamie Goode’s warning is also pretty timely. Recently the American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE) published the “Top 10 Table Wine Brands” in the US by dollars.

You have the usual suspects of bulk California supermarket brands (and Yellow Tail, of course) but look at who is rounding out the top 10 with almost $177 million in sales.

Chateau Ste. Michelle.

Now being a bit of a Washington State-homer, I will be quick to point out something important. The quality of CSM wines are head and shoulders above the Barefoot, Sutter Home, Franzia and Yellow Tails of the world. While it is clear that the owners of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates are ambitious about expanding their portfolio with new labels and acquisitions, I take comfort in knowing that we’ll likely never see a bourbon barrel-age or cold brew hybrid wine coming out of Woodinville anytime soon.

In some ways, you could say that Chateau Ste. Michelle’s inclusion on this list is a good thing. Could this be a glimmer of hope that more Americans are drinking just a little bit better?

Perhaps. But there is a lot about this chart that gives reasons for pause.

Who Writes The Narrative Of “Brand Washington”?

Even if the quality of their wines are higher than entry-level wines from California, Australia and elsewhere, the overwhelming dominance of CSM wines in distribution still means that the banner of “Brand Washington” is being led by our entry-level wines.

Walk into any supermarket and look for Washington wine with multiple facings on the shelf. While Constellation’s Hogue or Gallo’s Covey Run ($5-6) might be there, chances are you will find only Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Columbia Valley ($6-10) label.

Or you may find one of CSM’s many, many, many sister brands like Columbia Crest Two Vines ($5-6), Grand Estates ($7-10), 14 Hands ($7-10), Snoqualmie ($6-8), Red Diamond ($6-8) or their 1.5L bulk brand Stimson Lane ($9-10).

Outside of Washington State, these may be the only Washington wines that consumers are exposed to–the state’s cheapest. Even within Washington, it’s near impossible to go into a grocery store or look at a wine list without being overwhelmed with “choices” of multiple different Ste. Michelle Wine Estates brands.

While, again, the quality of these wines are undoubtedly higher than Apothic or Menage a Trois, the narrative of “Brand Washington” being told to consumers across the globe and across the country is still being written by just one company–and with its cheapest wines.

Has Trickle Up Marketing Ever Worked?

Even if the narrative is much more “impressive” and slightly less cheap than the story of Yellow Tail or other entry-level wines that Jamie Goode is warning about, there is still risk to the Washington State wine industry in letting the entire branding of the state be made by one dominant brand.

Has there ever been a wine region where “Trickle Up” marketing has worked? Has an industry that first introduced itself to consumers with their lowest, entry-level wine ever been able to successfully rise above that initial perception?

Inflation aside, was Napa Valley ever known for its $6-10 wines? Oregon? Bordeaux? Burgundy?

It’s almost like we’re expecting an upside down “halo effect”. Instead of letting our top quality, premium wines dictate our narrative to consumers, we’re hoping that our bottom priced wines will “trickle up” and lead the way.

Again, has that ever worked?

Maybe Washington State will be the one to break the mold. If Chateau Ste. Michelle is our “bottom”, that is certainly a step above many other regions.

But there is a lesson we should learn from the pratfalls of other wine industries.  Once the die of your brand has been cast in the minds of consumers, it’s really hard to recast.

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Geek Notes 9/16/2018 — Wine For Normal People Episode 84 Featuring Tuscan Wine Regions

Screenshot from the Wine For Normal People podcast

Outside of blog land, I frequently teach wine classes. As part of my usual prep routine whenever I have a class to write, I’ll fill my Overcast queue with wine podcasts relating to the class. I find that listening to podcasts while cleaning the house, working out at the gym and driving helps submerse me into the topic and compliments my book studies really well.

My usual sources for hardcore geekdom are Levi Dalton’s I’ll Drink To That! (whose episode with Gramercy owner and Master Sommmelier Greg Harrington I featured in a previous Geek Notes) and the GuildSomm podcast hosted by Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth.

However, I’ll also frequently listen to Chris Scott’s The UK Wine Show, Heritage Radio Network’s In the Drink, Jim Duane’s podcast Inside Winemaking and the very first wine podcast that I started with–Grape Radio.

Two newly launched podcasts that are also in my rotation are Wine Enthusiast’s What We’re Tasting and James Halliday’s Wine Companion podcast.

But I’m always on the lookout for more options so if you know of any other great wine podcasts worth checking out, post them in the comments below!

It was while working on an upcoming Italian wine class that I stumbled upon what is definitely going to be a new go-to resource for me–Elizabeth Schneider’s Wine for Normal People podcast.

A Little Background and Why You Should Listen Too

Anyone who shares a disheartening sigh while looking at wine displays virtually dominated by the same 3 big mega-corps is fighting the good fight in my book.

Elizabeth Schneider is a Certified Specialist of Wine and Certified Sommelier who hosts the podcasts with her husband, M.C. Ice. I’m sure there is a story behind the hubby’s stage name but I haven’t came across it yet while listening.

Outside of the podcast, she does speaking engagements, online classes and has an upcoming book Wine for Normal People: A Guide for Real People Who Like Wine, but Not the Snobbery That Goes with It slated for release in early 2019.

Her website also has a super user-friendly list of brands owned by big mega-corps that is worth book marking. As I found in compiling my own list of supermarket wines, this is no easy task to stay on top of so I wholeheartedly support Schneider’s efforts in promoting more knowledge and transparency in this area.

I must confess that when I first read the description of the Wine For Normal People podcast, I thought this would be a bit too beginner for me. It could still be a great podcast that benefits a lot of people who want to dip their toes into the world of wine but I was expecting it to be something more like an updated version of William Wilson’s Wine for Newbies podcast.

But what I quickly found after listening through a few episodes is that Schneider has a fantastic teaching style and approach to wine that serves up ample geeky goodness but balances it by presenting the topic in a digestible manner.

Even for folks like me who have fell down the rabbit hole of wine geekiness, listening to the podcast and paying attention to how she presents her topics is of huge benefit. When we live in a world with a billion+ wine drinkers, one thing that us hardcore wine geeks have to realize is that we really are the minority here. Not every wine drinker aspires to be a Master of Wine or Master Sommelier or even a wine geek. The passion and enthusiasm that drives us to learn more–and to share what we’ve learned–can often be a bit much for many wine drinkers and ends up driving them away back to the comforts of the same ole, same ole.

In the end it is all about balance which, like a good wine, I find well exhibited in the Wine For Normal People podcast.

Plus, there is still plenty of geeky nuggets in each episode like these things I noted in Episode 084 on Tuscan Wine Regions (35 minutes).

Photo by Rob & Lisa Meehan. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Vineyards in Montalcino

Some Fun Things I Learned/Enjoyed From This Podcast

(3:36) I really liked Schneider’s answer to the question of if the French should feel threatened at all by the rise of Super Tuscans using Bordeaux varieties. She talks about the difference in French culture of “closing ranks” versus the in-fighting that you often see among Italian winemakers.

(7:06) Brunello is a relatively recent wine on the Italian wine scene with the particular Sangiovese Grosso clone isolated only in 1888. However, Schneider notes that winemakers as early as the 14th century were aware of the superior quality of wines in the Montalcino region.

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

The estate of Biondi-Santi pioneered the modern concept of Brunello di Montalcino.


(8:44) Very surprised to hear that only 4 vintages of Brunello were declared during the first 57 years of production after 1888. I definitely want to read more about this and why.

(11:55) This starts a really great discussion on the two zones of the Montalcino region–the northern and southern–with some very useful insights on the different wines produced in the different soil types. Nice tidbit on the winemaking approach of Silvio Nardi who own vineyards in both zones.

(15:24) The uniqueness of the Sangiovese based wines of Carmignano compared to Chianti. Often called “The Original Super Tuscan” due to its historical tradition of using Cabernet Sauvignon but Schneider also notes that Carmignano is distinct for growing Sangiovese on flatter lands whereas the grape usually thrives on higher elevation hillsides. Also of interest is that some Carmignano estates, like in Bolgheri, have Cabernet Sauvignon vines that were grafted from cuttings taken from Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux.

(21:20) Going to have a slight disagreement with the podcast here. After talking about some of the reasons why Chianti has historically been “a hot mess” (quite true!), Schneider encourages people to not really bother taking a chance on Chianti and instead look for wines from the Chianti Classico zone. This isn’t bad advice per se, but it is one of the Magic Beans of Wine that I’ve never been a fan of promoting.

Photo by Arnaud 25. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

I won’t deny that Chianti’s bad rap is well earned but sometimes there is a needle of a gem within the haystack of fiascos. You have to trust that a good quality producer is not going to put their name on crap.


Yeah, there is lots of crappy Chianti out there. But there is also a lot of crappy Chianti Classico out there as well. Instead of focusing on the region (Chianti vs Chianti Classico), it really should be about the producer–which, to be fair, is a common theme that Schneider makes repeatedly in this podcast. Yet, for some reason, she seems to ignore that a good quality producer of Chianti Classico can also make a good quality Chianti. This Chianti may even be made from grapes grown in the Chianti Classico zone but declassified down to Chianti for various reasons–younger vines, less aging, wanting to have a more approachable and easy drinking bottle at a lower price point, etc.

Sure, the Chianti Classico from that same producer will be the superior bottle but that doesn’t discount the potential value in a bottle of well made Chianti from a reputable producer.

(22:59) Canaiolo nero use to be the main grape of Chianti until the 1870s. Very interesting! I would love to try a varietal Canaiolo.

(24:22) Oooh I love Schneider’s use of different varieties of roses as a vehicle for explaining the differences in Sangiovese’s clones. It’s not easy to explain clones but this metaphor is a good start.

(24:55) This starts a very useful overview of the different sub-areas within the Chianti Classico zone.

Photo by Viking59. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-self

While it’s not impossible to envision the Gamay of Beaujolais (pictured) growing in Tuscany, I would probably wager on this being a case of a weird Italian synonym for another variety,


(29:02) Very interesting to hear that some producers of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano have been grafting over to the Chianti Classico clone of Sangiovese–though Prugnolo Gentile still dominates. Also apparently Gamay can be blended in (29:23)!?! I wasn’t aware of Tuscan Gamay so I’m wondering if this is a synonym for another grape like Alicante? Will need to do some more research here.

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Knowing Rioja — A Look at the New Rules

Photo by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0
This month, the Consejo Regulador of DOCa Rioja unveiled a new marketing campaign around the slogan Saber Quién Eres “‘Knowing who you are” to coincide with several changes in the wine laws taking effect in the Spanish wine region.

The idea behind the 11 million euro ($13+ million USD) campaign is to reconnect consumers with Rioja by highlighting the traditions and values behind the region’s wines that, according to the marketing director for the Consejo Regulador DOCa Rioja, “rises far above short-lived trends”.

The Drinks Business‘ Patrick Schmitt break down several of the new rules in a recent article of which I’ll highlight three–one that I’m thrilled to see and two that I think are bad ideas.

Viñedos Singulares — Single Vineyard Wines

First announced in June 2017, this is probably the most exciting change for wine lovers. As fans of Burgundy and the many spectacular vineyard designated wines in the US know, having the name of a single vineyard on the label connects the wine to a distinct story and terroir. While often the regional name has more marketing power, having a single vineyard designation is one way for a winery to stand out from its peer as well as charge a premium for the extra distinction.

But where Rioja’s Viñedos Singulares is unique (especially compared to the US) is with the added quality restrictions that vineyards and wineries must abide by in order to use the single vineyard designation. Most notable are:

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

Vineyard in Rioja Alavesa.

*The vineyard (not necessarily the vines) must be at least 35 years of age.
*If the grapes are being purchased by a different winery, that winery must have had a commercial relationship with the vineyard for at least 10 years prior to using the Viñedos Singulares designation.
*All the grapes must be hand harvested
*Along with more restrictive yields and periodic quality checks.

In contrast, in the US the only restriction on vineyard designation is that the wine be composed of at least 95% grapes sourced from the named vineyard on the label.

I think this is a fantastic change and one that I would love to see adopted by other regions. A clear benefit for wine drinkers in seeing a Viñedos Singulares designation on a label of Rioja is that you can be fairly certain that the vineyard is relatively established and that the winery working with the grapes have had a reasonable amount of time to learn about the terroir and personality of the vineyard. While no label designation is ever a concrete guarantee of quality, this is one designation that does put a considerable amount of commitment behind its use.

Changing Joven to Genérico

Seriously?

Photo by Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine. Released on Wikimedia Commons under  CC-Zero

I suspect many wineries will just drop the term “Genérico” in lieu of putting no aging designation on the wine.

Are you telling me that while you can spend over $13 million on a marketing campaign, no one could spend more than $50 to figure out that having a quality level of wine called “Genérico” is not a stellar idea? I don’t speak Spanish but I have to feel that the term “Genérico” is just as unsexy in its native tongue as it is in English.

In trying to figure out the logic behind this move, the closest I found was this post by CataVino that referenced John Radford’s 2006 book The New Spain: A Complete Guide to Contemporary Spanish Wine. Here Radford notes that “new wave” winemakers were adopting the term to break free from the typical “oaky” connotation of the traditional Crianza/Reserva/Gran Reserva designations.

With Joven already being fairly well established to mean a wine with little to no oak character, the need to change to something so….generic seems pointless and detrimental from a marketing perspective.

Do the folks at the Consejo Regulador DOCa Rioja really see people asking “Waiter, I think I’ll have a glass of Genérico, please”?

Espumosos de Calidad for Sparkling Wines from Rioja

While not as bad of an idea as the Joven/Genérico debacle, I don’t see much benefit moving away from the clearly established name of Cava to something that is more difficult for English-speaking consumers in the UK and US to ask for.

I will admit that Cava does have a little bit of an image problem with the mass produced bottles of Freixenet and Codorníu painting a broad brush of Cava being nothing more than “cheap fizz”–far better than the Cooks, Andre’s and Korbels of the world but not much more. But quality minded Cava producers (and even Freixenet and Codorníu) are aware of that problem and have been making moves to elevate Cava’s images with the designations of Premier Cru and Grand Cru sites with more restrictive yields and aging requirements.

Photo by Pamela McCreight. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Cava vineyards in Penedes.

Rioja’s Espumosos de Calidad designation does add on its own restrictions, mandating a minimum of 15 months of aging (as opposed to 9 months for standard Cava) with the designations of Reserva (min. 24 months) and Gran Añada/Reserva (min. 36 months) likewise going above and beyond their Cava counterparts in Catalonia and elsewhere.

I applaud the idea of wanting to elevate the image and quality expectations of Cava–and for the winery’s benefit, the average cost of a bottle–but I definitely think this is a case where “a rising tide lifts all boats”. It seems far more fruitful to work with the greater Cava Consejo Regulador to raise the quality level and image of Cava across the board than it is to try and carve out your own little niche and identity.

I understand that thinking is counter intuitive to regional boards like Consejo Regulador of DOCa Rioja whose whole purpose is to promote Rioja’s niche and unique identity but Cava’s identity as Spain’s sparkling wine has long ago superseded individual regional identity (even that of its base in Catalonia). The likelihood of restaurant wine lists or wine shops separating out and distinguishing Rioja Espumosos de Calidad from its Spanish sparkling peers is slim to none. Likewise, the odds of most consumers making a mental distinction between the different bubbles is also slim to none.

While wine geeks like me might encounter a Rioja Espumosos de Calidad with some excited curiosity, it’s really not going to be that different of a reaction to encountering one of the new Cava de Paraje Calificado Grand Crus.

But while the later can build off the marketing of a “higher quality Cava” and association with the Grand Crus of Champagne, the former seems destined to get lost on the label–not really serving its purpose of helping the consumer “know Rioja”.

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Wine Geek Notes 3/15/18 — New Wine Books to Geek Out Over

Photo by Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Here are a few wine books that I’m highly intrigued by with release dates in March and April.

Wine: A social and cultural history of the drink that changed our lives by Rod Phillips. Released March 13th, 2018.

Along with Huge Johnson’s Vintage, Rod Phillips’ A Short History of Wine is probably one of the best wine history books that I’ve read. He has a very engaging writing style that effortlessly weaves in stories and anecdotes with some hardcore geekdom. It looks like this book explores more of the cultural context behind the role that wine has played in historical events.

As an aside, while researching this I discovered that Phillips also wrote French Wine: A History which I’m adding to my wish list.

Wines of the Loire (Guides to Wines and Top Vineyards) by Benjamin Lewin. Released March 15th, 2018.

I’ve been intrigued by the books of Master of Wine Benjamin Lewin since I reviewed Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan’s Rosé Wine. This looks to be a series that he is doing with editions on Burgundy, Alsace, Champagne and other regions that have been previously released. Since I’ll be visiting Burgundy in May, I went ahead and grabbed that book as well as his book on vintages to see if this is a series I want to invest more into.

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

Bethel Heights has always been one of my favorite Oregon wineries.

Oregon Wine Country Stories: Decoding the Grape by Kenneth Friedenreich. Release date April 9th, 2018.

Similar to the case with Washington that I noted in my review of Paul Gregutt’s Washington Wines, there are not that many resources for learning more about Oregon wine. Could Friedenreich’s book fill in that gap? It sounds promising with 192 pages that will include AVA maps and profiles of wineries like Bethel Heights, Eyrie and Portland’s growing urban winery scene.

Godforsaken Grapes: A Slightly Tipsy Journey through the World of Strange, Obscure, and Underappreciated Wine by Jason Wilson. Release date April 24th, 2018.

This is probably the book that I’m most looking forward to geeking out over. I’ve heard good things about Wilson’s Boozehound and, as frequent readers know, I’m all over anything that involves obscure grapes.

I’ve kind of taken trying the 1,368 grape varieties that Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz have cataloged in Wine Grapes as the ultimate #WineGeekGoal so I’m interested to see how far down the obscure grape rabbit hole that Wilson has traveled.

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Exploring The Burn with Borne of Fire

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about this new Washington wine.

In January, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates released their newest wine, Borne of Fire, featuring fruit from the newly proposed AVA The Burn of Columbia Valley. A 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon with 10% Malbec blended in, Borne of Fire is the only wine currently on the market that features fruit exclusively from this new region in Washington State.

The Burn

Located in Klickitat County just west of the Horse Heaven Hills and east of the Columbia Gorge AVA, The Burn encompasses the plateau and benchland bordered by the Columbia River to the south and two creeks (Rock and Chapman) flanking it northwest and northeastern sides. The name comes from the tradition of settlers in the late 1800s and early 1900s of setting the entire plateau on fire in the fall to provide ash and fertilizer that would rejuvenate the grasslands in the spring when the horses needed to be fed.

Cabernet Sauvignon vines were first planted in 2002 by Chateau Ste Michelle and the Mercer family of the Horse Heaven Hills. In 2015, plantings were greatly expanded with more Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Syrah, Sangiovese and Chardonnay. Of the nearly 17,000 acres in the proposed AVA, 1261 acres are currently planted. Chateau Ste. Michelle already has plans to expand to 2100 acres.

This expansion would surpass the 1671 acres currently planted in Walla Walla and almost reach the 2225 acres planted in Red Mountain.

The Next Red Mountain?

Map from the Washington State Wine Commission with edits added by the author

Location of The Burn within Washington State

The propose AVA draws some comparison to Red Mountain with its warm temperatures and similar heat accumulation numbers. However, the heat is spaced out over a longer growing season that allows more hang time to ripen stem and seed tannins while still maintaining fresh acidity.

The unique soils of The Burn are a mixture of silt-loam and loess that retains water better than the gravel and sandy loam typical of Red Mountain and many other Eastern Washington AVAs. With an average of 8.7″ of rain, vineyards in The Burn have reduced needs for irrigation and the potential to dry farm in some vintages.

The AVA petition for The Burn was officially accepted October 31st, 2017 with Joan Davenport (of Washington State University and Davenlore Winery), Kevin Corliss (of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates) and John Derrick (of Mercer Canyons) as the petitioners.

Wine Stats

Borne of Fire is made by Juan Muñoz-Oca, the head winemaker of Columbia Crest and Intrinsic, at Ste. Michelle Wine Estate’s Paterson facility. The wine is 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Malbec.  Sourced from 2015 plantings, the Malbec was harvested after only its second leaf.

The Cabernet grapes were mostly fermented whole cluster with the stems. The wine was then aged nearly a year in large 120 gallon puncheons of Hungarian oak. The casks were lightly toasted to pay homage to The Burn’s history. Around 35,000 cases were produced for the inaugural release. Plans for the 2017 release has that number jumping to 95,000 cases.

The Wine

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

This very young wine has some fresh red cherry notes.

Medium-minus intensity nose. Very tight. Some red cherry and spice. There is an interesting black tea component on the nose that I usually associate with Pinot noir from the Yamhill-Carlton District (like stuff sourced from Shea Vineyards).

On the palate, the tightness and youth still hold court. Medium plus acidity and medium plus tannins lock the fruit and doesn’t allow much to express itself. Working it around a bit in the mouth lets some red currant join the cherry fruit from the nose. The finish is short but that intriguing mix of black tea and “Malbec-like” spice briefly appears.

The Verdict

At around $23-26, you are buying this wine on its potential–both of the wine and the terroir of The Burn. As Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon usually cost $35+, this AVA could offer compelling value.

There are definitely some intriguing hints. I can see this wine developing on a steep learning curve over the next year. Right now, it just needs more bottle age.

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Beaver State Bubbly

I’m a bit of a bubble fiend. I love drinking sparkling wine. I love talking about it.

Easily at least half of the wine reviews I post here are about bubbles and when I get new sparkling related wine books like Bursting Bubbles, I eagerly devour them.

Living in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve watched with excitement the growth of the Oregon sparkling wine industry that Forbes.com contributor Joseph V. Micallef highlighted in a recent post.

The founding father of Oregon Bubbles is Rollin Soles who started Argyle Winery in Dundee in 1987. His venture had a lot of all-star firepower backing it with Australian winemaking legend Brian Croser (the 2004 Decanter Man of the Year) and Christian Bizot, then owner of the Champagne House Bollinger.

In 2001, Argyle became part of Lion Nathan corporation with their US branch spinning off in 2012 to become Distinguished Vineyards. Now Argyle is part of a portfolio of brands that includes MacRostie, Wither Hills and The Counselor. In 2013, Soles stepped away from the winery to focus on his brand ROCO that he founded with his wife, Corby Stonebraker-Soles.

While I’ve enjoyed Argyle since Soles left, I must confess that I haven’t been as wowed by the winery’s offerings in recent years. Part of it could be the increase in competition as wine shops have been bringing in more sub $25 Crémants from Alsace, Burgundy and the Loire that way over deliver on value. While years ago, Argyle’s basic brut at $20 stood out from the pack, now it is just middle of the road with even sparkling wines from New Mexico like Gruet and Jacqueline Leonne delivering delicious value in the under $15 category. Still, the 1998 Argyle Extended Triage remains one of my all time favorite wines.

But times change and winemakers move on, which is why I was very excited to try Soles’ new ‘RMS’ sparkling wine project at The Herbfarm’s holiday dinner series “The Holly & The Ivy”. While it didn’t reach the level of that 98 Extended Triage, the 2014 RMS Brut did remind me of all the things I missed about Argyle.

Not a bad way to start off a 9 course meal.


Around 66% Pinot noir with the remainder Chardonnay, the wine had high intensity aromatics of spiced pear wrapped in a toasty pastry crust. Those notes carried through to a creamy but powerful mouthfeel not that dissimilar to Charles Heidsieck. It also reminded me of Pol Roger where the weighty flavors are balanced by fresh citrus notes and racy minerality that give lift to the wine. An incredibly well-made sparkler that would probably continue to age even in the bottle under cork. It is certainly well worth the $65 winery price.

What Makes Oregon Bubbles Special?

In his Forbes post, Micallef quotes Tony Soter on how the “sweet spot” of Oregon’s cool-but-not-too-cool climate gives its an advantage over both warmer California and cooler Champagne.

“[In Oregon you have] … a generosity of fruit that is expressive of the grape varieties (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) reaching a high level of maturity while still maintaining an admirable level of acidity, finesse and elegance critical to sparkling wine. [While] … in California, the weather is too warm, forcing a premature picking to minimize excessive alcohol at the expense of the nuance and delicacy of fully developed grapes.” — Tony Soter, as quoted on Forbes.com January 19th, 2018

Far from being an “Oregon-homer”, Soter’s opinion on the differences between Oregon and California’s terroir is backed by his 30 plus years of experience working at some of the best names in California wine like Chappellet, Araujo, Shafer, Spottswoode and Dalle Valle.

The stats on Oregon’s favorable “goldilocks position” also bares out according to Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s Wine Atlas. While Champagne sits along the 49th parallel and averages a daily growing season temperature of 58.4°F, Napa Valley (home of Schramsberg, Domaine Chandon, Mumm Napa, etc) sits on the 38th parallel averaging growing season temperatures of 66.8°F. The Willamette Valley is nestled right in the middle of that on the 45th parallel with average growing season temps of 60.6°F.

Photo by Hahn Family Wines. Released on Wikimedia Commons via Flickr under CC BY 2.0

In addition to losing acidity, if you wait too long to harvest your grapes in warm climates you risk “baking out” the more delicate and complex flavors. This produces over ripe and dried fruit notes that the French call ‘sur maturité’. For many California sparkling wine producers, its a Catch-22.

Harvests in California for sparkling wine regularly taking place in early August while in Oregon it doesn’t start till September. In Champagne, which wine authors like Robert Walters in Bursting Bubbles claim often harvest too early and too unripe, harvest typically begins late August and early September. Many high quality grower producers in Champagne harvest later into September.

The timing of harvest is key because you want ample acidity for sparkling wine production which you can risk losing if the grapes hang too long on the vine. But at the same time unripe grapes can give bland and uninteresting flavors. Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan note in their Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine that having ripe grapes is absolutely essential for high quality sparkling wine.

Photo by Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives. Released on Wikimedia Commons under Oregon Historical County Records Guide public use

In the Willamette Valley, daytime highs in July in the low 80s (°F) can drop to the low 50s (°F) at night.

Like Washington State, Oregon also benefits from having drastic diurnal temperature variations during the growing season where temperatures can drop at night 30-40 degrees from day time highs, letting the vine literally “chill out” and retain fresh acidity.

This extends the growing season, allowing the grapes to hang longer on the vine, developing riper flavors while still maintaining that vital acidity.

Oregon Sparkling Wine Producers to Seek Out

Micallef notes that there is around 40 producers making sparkling wine in Oregon. While most of the production is small and limited to sales at the winery’s tasting room or wine club, there are some producers with ambitious aims.

One that is mentioned in the Forbes article is Radiant Sparkling Wine Company that was founded in McMinnville by Andrew Davis, a protege of Rollin Soles. After 8 years at Argyle, Davis founded his company to serve essentially as a mobile méthode champenoise facility, traveling to wineries with his sparkling wine equipment and technical know-how to help winemakers turn their base wines into bubbles.

Among the wineries that Davis has worked with includes Adelsheim, Anne Amie, Brooks, Ponzi, Raptor Ridge, Sokol Blosser, Stoller, Trisaetum and Willamette Valley Vineyards. In 2017, Davis helped create over 20,000 cases of Oregon sparkling wine to add to the 25,000 cases that Argyle produces yearly.

The Stoller rose sparkler more than held its own in a line-up of impressive bubbles.

One of these wines that I’ve recently had the opportunity to try was the Stoller 2014 Legacy LaRue’s Brut Rosé. The 25% Chardonnay and 75% Pinot noir base saw 10 months aging in neutral French oak before bottling and secondary fermentation. The wine spent 2 years on the lees prior to disgorgement with around 275 cases produced.

The LaRue rosé had a beautiful medium plus intensity nose of fresh cherry and strawberries. But what most intrigued me was the tinge of citrus blood orange that framed the red fruit notes. On the palate, the wine added another depth of flavor with some spicy and mineral notes.

I had this wine only about a couple weeks after I had the Louis Roederer 2011 Brut Rosé that I described in my post Cristal Clarity. We had another bottle of the Roederer rose opened with the Stoller and it was quite impressive how the Stoller showed in comparison. While it was more on the delicate and minerally side versus the fruitier Roederer, the Stoller clearly won out with much more vivid aromatics and longer finish that didn’t fade as fast as the Roederer. Considering that the Stoller LaRue is $65 while the Roederer is around $70 and you have some substantial value.

For a relatively young sparkling wine industry that just reached 30 years, the future looks exciting for wine geeks wanting to explore Oregon bubbles.

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Running Out of Stones (and Glaciers) in the Age of Climate Change

By the year 2100, some of the most exciting wines being made could be Scottish Pinot grigio and Suffolk Syrah. Such is the (potential) reality of climate change predicted by professors from the University College of London in a study commissioned by wine merchant Laithwaite’s. While the English sparkling wine industry has already seen some benefits from changing climates, an expected increase in global temperatures of 2° Celsius (3.6° F) and more rain could mean a dramatically new landscape for both wine lovers and producers.

Image Credit: Laithwaites

Image Credit: Laithwaites

But at a cost.

For every climate change “winner”, there are also losers as traditional and well established wine regions have to grapple not only with changing vintage patterns but also the changing dynamics of consumer tastes and fashion. It’s no secret that consumers’ tastes have been trending towards riper, more fruit-forward wines that are either sweeter in sugar or “bolder” in flavor and alcohol for some time now.

While there are still fans of lower alcohol, less fruit-driven wines, it’s hard for those kind of wine drinkers to not feel like their taste and preferences are being relegated to the Stone Age of the wine industry. As we start seeing strings of highly acclaimed “blockbuster vintages” being bolstered by warmer climates, it may be more than just the wine map that has to change in this new age of wine drinking.

Would you like a little acid for your Riesling?

http://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?section=news&content=177266

Dr. Monika Christmann. Credit: Jim Gordon, Wines and Vines

In Germany, producers are enjoying a “boon” of riper vintages. But they are finding themselves in the unique position of being a country known for bracingly acidic and vibrant Rieslings, needing to now acidify their wines. A recent Wines and Vines article on the 62nd German Winegrowers Congress in Stuttgart, included comments from the keynote address of Dr. Monika Christmann of Geisenheim University .

Dr. Christmann noted that producers are finding themselves at a crossroads. On one hand, they can let the impact of climate change steer the style of wines in their region towards a different direction.  Or they can adapt new methods afforded by modern technology to help maintain the “traditional styles”. But that comes with the trade off of potentially using very non-traditional means like reverse osmosis, crossflow filtration and additives.

While the issue of climate change and the trend towards fruit-forward, high alcohol wines certainly vexes the hoi polloi of wine writers and “taste makers”, you can complete that trifecta of ire with the battle of modern winemaking that embraces the use of technology versus natural wine which eschews it use.

Moving On or Moving Away?

Does the thought of German winemakers needing to add acid to their Rieslings horrify you? Then you may have some sympathies with natural wine enthusiasts. They would argue that if you have to “manipulate” your German Riesling to taste like what a German Riesling is expected to taste like, is it still really a German Riesling?

But are “natural” German Rieslings that are indistinguishable from tropical, lush, high alcohol New World Viogniers any better? This is something that winemakers will need to ponder.  One lesson worth listening to is this quote from Dr. Christmann.

“The Stone Age did not end because there were no stones left,” she said, but because early humans moved on when they discovered how to work with a better technology: metal.

What is the Greenlandic translation of Vinho Verde?

We may not run out of stones in the world of wine. However, an unquestionable consequence of climate change is that something is going to get left behind. Eventually the industry and consumers will need to adapt to the changing reality of the world around us. We may have to give up “tradition” and expectations of what certain wines from certain regions should taste like.  And we may have to open our minds to the possibility of new styles and new fashions.

In the long run, we may gain new knowledge and introduction to fantastic terroirs.  We may also see the birth of new classics. However, this could come at the cost of mourning the loss of old favorites and classics. There will be conflict and there will be battles over the soul of wine. There will be change and there will be costs that the wine industry will have to bear.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37582061

Seriously, if you haven’t seen this film yet, go watch it now.

But in the bigger picture, beyond the scope of wine, will be the tremendous costs that the whole of humanity will bear. As we ponder the changing wine map, we also shouldn’t forget that the world is losing things like glaciers at a frightening clip. Reading the warning of scientists about climate change and watching brilliant, but sobering, documentaries like Chasing Ice is enough to drive anyone to drink.

Though maybe we could pass on the Scottish Pinot grigio.

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