Tag Archives: Winemaking

Wine Geek Notes 3/20/18 — Wine Fraud in Rhone, Robert Haas and Synthetic Yeast

Photo by Phillip Capper. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0
Here is what I’m reading today in the world of wine.

Interesting Tweets and Weblinks

Massive Rhône Valley Wine Fraud Reported by French Authorities from Suzanne Mustacich (@smustacich) of Wine Spectator (@WineSpectator)

This scandal has been making waves in the wine world for a couple days now but this report from Mustacich is the first I saw that named names–pointing to the négociant firm and bulk bottler Raphaël Michel. This is important because when consumers read headlines blaring that 66 million bottles or 15% of the Côtes du Rhônes produced from 2013-2016 were cheap swill passed off as higher AOCs, that naturally cast suspicion on every bottle of Rhone.

It also doesn’t help when publications like The Daily Mail use pictures of esteemed estates like Ch. Beaucastel and Clos de Papes as the illustration for their article that talks about Raphaël Michel’s CEO, Guillaume Ryckwaert’s, arrest back in August 2017.

With Wine Spectator getting the name of the real culprit out there, consumers should know that the Rhone wines made by established and small family producers are not part of this scandal. Unfortunately, it is not easy finding all the names of the bulk wine and négociant labels that Raphaël Michel produces (their eShop has only a few names) so the best advice for consumers is to do their homework. If you’re at a wine shop and see a Rhone wine from a producer you don’t recognize, Google them to see if they have an online presence that connects them to a real person or family behind the wine.

Buying guides like Master of Wine Benjamin Lewin’s (@BenLewinMW) on the wines and producers of the Northern and southern Rhone are also valuable resources.

Tablas Creek Founder Dies by Rupert Millar (@wineguroo) for The Drinks Business (@teamdb). Brought to my dash via Vino101 (@Vino101net)

Photo by Deb Harkness. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-2.0

Tablas Creek’s nursery in Paso Robles.

The death of Tablas Creek founder Robert Haas is a great loss for the industry and my condolences go out to the Tablas Creek family. The entire Tablas Creek operation is top notch and I recently charted my path to becoming a wine club member there in my post Wine Clubs Done Right.

Beyond just the establishment of Tablas Creek winery, Haas had far reaching influence in the Rhône Ranger movement by pioneering the introduction of several Rhone varieties to the US.

Haas and Tablas Creek did the heavy lifting in getting cuttings from Chateau Beaucastel through quarantine and TTB label approval for numerous varieties like Counoise, Terret noir, Grenache blanc, Picpoul and more. Additionally the high quality “Tablas Creek clones” of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre have populated the vineyards of highly acclaimed producers throughout the US.

For that we should all grab our favorite bottle of Rhone grapes (even better if it is Tablas Creek) and toast the amazing legacy of Robert Haas.

THE FUTURE OF FERMENTATION: THE ROLE OF SYNTHETIC YEAST IN WINEMAKING by Becca Yeamans Irwin (@TheAcademicWino) for Spirited Magazine. Brought to my dash via Wine & Spirits Guild (@WineGuild).

This was a very timely article for me as I just finished reading Clark Smith’s Postmodern Winemaking which deals with some of the philosophical issues and conflicts between improving wine technology, the Natural Wine movement and the winemakers caught in the middle who just want to make good wine.

I’m not going to add any commentary at this point because Smith’s book has given me a bit to chew on. It’s clear that there is still a lot of discussion to be had about the “Future of Fermentation” with Yeamans Irwin’s article adding some worthwhile insight into that dialogue.

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60 Second Wine Review– Aniello Blanco de Pinot noir

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

The Geekery

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

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

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

The Wine

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

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

Little bit of earthy apple notes in this wine.

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

The Verdict

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

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

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Thought Bubbles – How to Geek Out About Champagne

By Joseph Faverot - [1], Public Domain, on Wikimedia CommonsLast week I got into a bit of a tizzy over some ridiculous things posted by a so-called “Wine Prophet” on how to become a “Champagne Master”. See Champagne Masters and their Bull Shit for all the fun and giggles.

But despite the many failings of Jonathan Cristaldi’s post, he did dish out one very solid piece of advice–to learn more about Champagne, you have to start by popping bottles. I want to expand on that and offer a few tidbits for budding Champagne geeks.

I’m not going to promise to make you a “Champagne Master”–because that is a lifelong pursuit–but I will promise not to steer you towards looking like a buffoon regurgitating nonsense about Marie Antoinette pimping for a Champagne house that wasn’t founded till 40+ years after her death.

Deal? Alright, let’s have some fun.

1.) Start Popping Bottles!

Pretty much you can stop reading now. I’m serious. Just go try something, anything. Better still if it is something you haven’t had or even heard of before. Pop it open and see what you think.

They say it takes 10,000 hours to master anything so take that as a personal challenge to start getting your drink on. Well actually that 10,000 hour thing has been debunked but mama didn’t raise a quitter.

Though seriously, if you want to make your tasting exploration more fruitful, here are some tips.

Make friends with your local wine shop folks

On Wikimedia Commons under PD-US from United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ppmsca.05590.

Online retailers can be helpful as well but sometimes it’s good to have a face to put with a bottle.


They pretty much live and breath the wines they stock. They know their inventory and you can usually tell when they have a passion to share their love of wine with people. Admittedly not every shop is great but go in, look around, ask questions and see if you find a good fit. Finding a great local wine shop with folks whose opinions you trust is worth its weight in gold for a wine lover. Once you’ve found that, the door is open for you to be pointed towards a lot of fantastic bottles that will only enrich your explorations.

Learn the differences between négociant houses, grower producers and co-operatives

In Champagne, you can often find on the label a long number with abbreviations that denote what type of producer made the Champagne.

NMnégociant manipulant, who buy fruit (or even pre-made wine) from growers. These are the big houses (like the LVMH stable of Moët & Chandon & Veuve Clicquot) that make nearly 80% of all Champagne produced. These Champagnes aren’t bad at all. Most are rather outstanding.

But the key to know is that while there are around 19,000 growers, the Champagne market is thoroughly dominated by several large négociant houses. Chances are if you go into a store (especially a grocery store or Costco), these wines are likely going to be your only options. You should certainly try these wines but you may have to do some leg work to find the whole wide world of Champagne that exists beyond the big names. This is a big reason why making friends at the local wine shop (who often stock smaller producers) is a great idea.

RMrécoltant manipulant, who make wine only from their own estate fruit. These are your “Grower Champagnes” and while being a small producer, alone, is not a guarantee of quality, exploring the wines of small producers is like checking out the small mom & pop restaurants in a city instead of only eating at the big chain restaurants. You can find a lot of gems among the little guys who toil in obscurity.

CMcoopérative-manipulant, who pool together the resources of a group of growers under one brand. This is kind of the middle ground between true Grower Champagne and the big négociant houses. Some of these co-ops are small and based around a single village (like Champagne Mailly) while others cover the entire region (like Nicolas Feuillatte which includes 5000 growers and is one of the top producers in Champagne). Some of these are easier to find than others but they are still worth exploring so you can learn about the larger picture of Champagne.

An example of a négociant (NM on left) and grower (RM on right) label.

Pay attention to sweetness and house style

While “Brut” is going to be the most common sweetness level you see, no two bottles of Brut are going to be the same. That is because a bottle of Brut can have anywhere from Zero to up to 12 grams per liter of sugar. 12 grams is essentially 3 cubes of sugar. Then, almost counter-intuitively, wines labeled as “Extra Dry” are going to actually be a little sweeter than Brut. (It’s a long story)

By  Kici, Released on Wikimedia Commons under public domain

Though to be fair, if they served Champagne at McDonald’s, I would probably eat there more often. It is one of the best pairings with french fries.


This is important to note because while Champagne houses often won’t tell you the dosage (amount of sugar added at bottling) of their Bruts, with enough tasting you can start to discern the general “house style” of a brand.

For instance, the notable Veuve Clicquot “Yellow Label” is tailor-made for the sweet tooth US market and will always be on the “sweeter side of Brut” (9-12 g/l). While houses such as Billecart-Salmon usually go for a drier style with dosages of 7 g/l or less. If you have these two wines side by side (and particularly focus on the tip of your tongue) you will notice the difference in sweetness and house style.

The idea of house style (which is best exhibited in each brand’s non-vintage cuvee) is for the consumer to get a consistent experience with every bottle. It’s the same goal of McDonald’s to have every Big Mac taste the same no matter where you are or when you buy it. All the major négociant houses have a trade mark style and some will be more to your taste than others.

Explore the Grand Crus and vineyard designated bottles

While Champagne is not quite like Burgundy with the focus on terroir and the idea that different plots of land exhibit different personalities, the region is still home to an abundance of unique vineyards and terroir. These are best explored through bottles made from single designated vineyards but these can be expensive and exceedingly hard to find.

Quite a bit easier to find (especially at a good wine shop) are Grand Cru Champagnes that are made exclusively from the fruit of 17 particular villages. There are over 300 villages in Champagne but over time the vineyards of these 17 villages showed themselves to produce the highest quality and most consistent wines. All the top prestige cuvees in Champagne prominently feature fruit from these villages.

To be labeled as a Grand Cru, the Champagne has to be 100% sourced only from a Grand Cru village. It could be a blend of multiple Grand Cru villages but if a single village is featured on the front of the label (like Bouzy, Mailly, Avize, Ambonnay, etc) then it has to be exclusively from that village. Since the production of the Grand Cru villages represent less than 10% of all the grapes grown in Champagne, you would expect them to be fairly pricey. That’s not the case. Many small growers have inherited their Grand Cru vineyards through generations of their families and are able to produce 100% Grand Cru Champagnes for the same price as your basic Champagnes from the big négociant house.

They may be a little harder to find than the big négociant houses, but Grand Cru Champagnes from producers like Pierre Peters, Franck Bonville, Pierre Moncuitt, Petrois-Moriset, Pierre Paillard and more can be had in the $40-60 range.

While not as terroir-driven as single vineyard wines, tasting some of the single-village Grand Crus offers a tremendous opportunity to learn about the unique personality of different villages in Champagne and is well worth the time of any Champagne lover to explore.

2.) Great Reading Resources

Truthfully, you can just follow the advice of the first step and live a life of happy, bubbly contentment. You don’t need book knowledge to enjoy Champagne–just an explorer’s soul and willingness to try something new. But when you really want to geek out and expand your knowledge, it is helpful to have solid and reliable resources. There are tons of great wine books dealing with Champagne and sparkling wine but a few of my favorites include:

A few favs

Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan’s Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine — The benchmark reference book written by the foremost authorities on all things that sparkle.

Peter Leim’s Champagne [Boxed Book & Map Set] — This set ramps up the geek factor and dives deeper into the nitty gritty details of Champagne. The companion maps that shows vineyards and crus of the region are enough to make any Bubble Head squeal.

David White’s But First, Champagne — A very fresh and modern approach to learning about Champagne. It essentially takes the Christie’s Encyclopedia and Peter Liem’s opus and boils it down to a more digestible compendium.

Robert Walter’s Bursting Bubbles — Thought provoking and a different perspective. You can read my full review of the book here.

Ed McCarthy’s Champagne for Dummies — A little outdated but a quick read that covers the basics very well. I suspect that if the “Wine Prophet” read this book, he wouldn’t have had as much difficulties understanding the differences between vintage and non-vintage Champagnes.

Don & Petie Kladstrup’s Champagne: How the World’s Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed Over War and Hard Times — One of my favorite books, period. Brilliantly written work of historical non-fiction about the people who made Champagne, Champagne. If you ever wondered what was the big deal about people calling everything that has bubbles “champagne”, read this book about what the Champenois endured throughout their history and you will have newfound respect for what the word “Champagne” means.

3.) Next Level Geekery

As I said in the intro, the pursuit of Champagne Mastery is a lifelong passion and you never stop learning. Beyond the advice given above, some avenues for even more in-depth exploration includes:

The Wine Scholar Guild Champagne Master-Level course — I’ve taken the WSG Bordeaux and Burgundy Master courses and can’t rave enough about the online programs they have. Taught by Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine, the level of instruction and attention to detail is top notch. They also offer immersion tours to the region.

Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages — This Master of Wine is one of the most reliable sources for information and tasting notes on all kinds of wine but particularly for Champagne.

Allen Meadow’s Burghound — While Burgundy is Meadow’s particular focus, he does devote a lot of time reviewing and commenting on Champagne and, like Robinson, is a very reliable source. But the caveat for all critics is to view them as tools, rather than pontiffs.

Visit Wineries

By Webmasterlescordeliers - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, on Wikimedia Commons

If you get a chance to riddle, it will be really fun for the first couple of minutes. Then you realize how hard of a job it is.


Even if you can’t visit Champagne itself, chances are you are probably near some producer, somewhere who is making sparkling wine.

All throughout the world there are producers making bubbly from African wineries in Morocco, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa; Asian wineries in China and India; to more well known sparkling wine producing countries in Australia, Argentina, Chile, United Kingdom and Eastern Europe.

In the United States, there is not only a vibrant sparkling wine industry in the traditional west coast regions of California, Oregon (Beaver State Bubbly) and Washington State but also New Mexico, Missouri, New York, Virginia, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, Georgia, Colorado and more.

While they may not be making wine in the “traditional method”, there is still benefit to visiting and tasting at these estates. Especially at small wineries where the person pouring could be the owner or winemaker themselves, these experiences can give you an opportunity to peak behind the curtain and see the work that happens in the vineyard and winery. As wonderful of a resource that books and classes can provide, there really is no substitute for first hand experience.

So have fun and keep exploring!

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Book Reviews — Rosé Wine

A few thoughts on Rosé Wine: The Guide to Drinking Pink by Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan.

Overview

Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan earned her Master of Wine in 2008, becoming the 4th woman in the United States to achieve such a distinction. In the introduction of Rosé Wine, she describes the difficulties in finding resources on rosé while she was studying for her MW and with rosé growing in popularity (particularly in the US), this book fills a niche.

The book is broken into 3 sections with 10 chapters. The first part, “Getting Started”, covers the basics of making and tasting rosé and concludes with Chapter 3’s presentation of Simonetti-Bryan’s 10 question Rosé Quiz. This quiz, which features questions asking about coffee habits and whether you put lemon juice on your green beans, aims to identify what style of rosé you may enjoy based on your tolerance of bitter, sweet and sour components as well as alcohol heat.

The next section of the book goes into the world of rosés with chapters 4 through 7 detailing the four broad categories of rosés–Blush wines which emphasize sweetness, Crisp wines which emphasize acidity, Fruity wines which emphasize fruit and Rich wines which emphasize body, alcohol and deep color. In each section, Simonetti-Bryan gives specific wine recommendations that exhibit these particular styles and food pairing options for them.

The last section, covering chapters 8 through 10, is titled “Resources” and includes more in-depth food pairing guidelines as well as a pronunciation guide and checklist for the wines featured throughout the book.

Some Things I Learned

I must confess that when I picked up this tiny (6.5 x 8 inch) book, I wasn’t expecting much. I mean, come on, it’s about rosé! Outside of knowing which grapes grow in which wine region that makes rosé, how much is there to really know about it?

But y’all….

From Wikimedia Commons, taken by self and uploaded as Agne27

And truthfully, it’s often easier to find rose Cava in the US than Spanish rosados.

I got schooled by the Jedi Wine Master.

The first eye-opener for me came on page 2 when I learned that after France, Spain is the second leading producer of rosé. Spain?!? I know they make a significant quantity of wine but I would have surely pegged the US as #2 for rosé production–especially since we drink so much of it. But then, my US-centric experience is at play when I can find dozens of American rosé examples but only a handful of Spanish rosados on restaurant wine lists and store shelves–a Muga here, a Marques De Caceres there.

In Chapter 1 on “Making Rosé”, I geeked out on the varietal characteristics of the grapes. As someone who is toiling away on the WSET Diploma level, it’s helpful to know little blind tasting hints such as looking for herbal notes like oregano in Sangiovese, the raspberry flavors in Syrah rosés and how Mencía can come across like Malbec but with more blackberry, violet and spicy flavors.

I also never realized how much co-fermentation of white and red grapes was done in rosé winemaking. Typically when you think of co-ferments, you think of notable examples like Syrah and Viognier in Côte-Rôtie and field blends. But littered throughout Rosé Wine are examples that Simonetti-Bryan highlights from regions like Vinho Verde (10 different red and white grapes can be used), Veneto (the Prosecco grape Glera with red grape varieties), Rioja (Viura and Tempranillo) and Tavel.

I was also surprised to learn that Pink Moscato is usually made with blending red wine to white Muscat blanc wine. I always thought it was made from one of the countless red skin variations of the Muscat grape.

In Chapter 2 on “Tasting Rosé”, Simonetti-Bryan’s explanation of picking up flavors via your retronasal cavity is one of the best I’ve ever came across. She asks you to think about how you can taste food that you ate hours ago when you burp and that is bloody brilliant. Gross, but brilliant and I’m totally going to steal that the next time I have to explain retronasal olfaction.

Wines I Want to Try Because of This Book

Here Simonetti-Bryan gives a smorgasbord of options with each rosé style getting 15 to 22 recommendations of specific wines to try. I found a couple dozen that excited me but I’m going to limit this list to the top 5 that interested me the most.

Domaines Ott Clos Mireille Côtes de Provence Rosé (Crisp style) – I can’t imagine myself paying nearly $50 for a rosé but Simonetti-Bryan’s description of this wine having a long slow fermentation, spending 8 to 12 months in vats, makes this very fascinating.

Domaine la Rabiotte Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence (Crisp) – At around $13, this is more in my wheel house for rosé and the description of this wine’s minerally acidity cutting through the fat of pulled pork had my mouth watering just thinking about it.

By jean-louis Zimmermann - Flickr: vin

Very intrigued to explore the rosés of Tavel more

Conundrum Rosé (Crisp) – Made by the Wagner family of Caymus fame, this rosé is made from the uber geeky Valdigué grape. That right off the bat had me interested but then Simonetti-Bryan notes that the grapes are apparently “rolled” for 3 hours before pressing. Rolled? I’ve never heard of that before. By hand? By machine? In a tumbler barrel? I’m intensely curious.

Domaine Clarence Dillon Clarendelle Rosé (Fruity style) – Made by the Dillon family of Ch. Haut-Brion fame, a sub $20 Bordeaux rosé made from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc sounds delicious. I’d also like to see how the time spent aging on the lees impacts mouthfeel.

Château de Ségriès Tavel (Rich style) – Located across the Rhône river from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Tavel AOC specializes in producing deeply colored and fuller bodied rosés. I also liked Simonetti-Bryan’s tidbit that this AOC only produces around 500,000 cases a year–which she compared to Barefoot’s annual production of 17 million cases. With all the food pairing tips she gives for matching rich, robust rosés with heartier fare, I think I’ve found a way to enjoy rosés in winter.

New Reading Recommendations I Got From This Book

Unfortunately Simonetti-Bryan didn’t include an appendix of notes or reference section in Rosé Wine so I didn’t get as many recommendations for future reading materials as I have from other wine books (like Bursting Bubbles). She does name drop a few potentials in the book–including two in the Introduction as she recounts a sommelier at a Michelin-starred restaurant humorously telling a Master of Wine that “rosés are not wine”.

Benjamin Lewin’s Wine Myths & Reality (I wonder if he tackles the “rosés are not wine” myth here)

Benjamin Lewin’s Wines of France

But I was so impressed with Rosé Wine that, when I was finished, I went to Amazon to look up other books from Simonetti-Bryan that I could add to my reading list.

The One Minute Wine Master: Discover 10 Wines You’ll Like in 60 Seconds or Less

With Master Chef Ken Arnone, Pairing with the Masters: A Definitive Guide to Food and Wine

Final Thoughts

As I noted above, I wasn’t expecting much from this book–a quick read and maybe a takeaway or two–but I ended up burning through a highlighter. The fact that Simonetti-Bryan could jam so many usefully nuggets of info, and present it so unassumingly, is a huge testament to her skill as a teacher. Throughout reading Rosé Wine, I found myself continually surprised and presented with new ways of thinking about something.

While I initially eye-rolled at the Rosé Quiz and usually chafe at such over-simplification of people’s tastes (like I hate coffee and spicy food but love bitter dark chocolate and spicy, tannic, full-bodied reds), I was thoroughly impressed with her explanation of her methods and will have to admit that she nailed me as a Crisp rosé girl and my wife as Fruity rosé fan. While on the surface it seemed overly simple, the thinking and methodology behind it was solid.

I can see the full-bodied weight of this Counoise rosé from Washington pairing well with heavier fare.

I was also impressed with how Rosé Wine encouraged me to rethink my food pairing approach with rosés. I’m so nearsighted about matching weight to weight (light bodied rosé with lighter fare) that it was surprising for me to see Simonetti-Bryan’s recommendations of lamb with a Merlot and Malbec rosé from New Zealand, rich octopus with a Tuscan rosato and beef brisket with a Cabernet Franc rosé from Israel. None of those pairings would have been my first instinct for those dishes or wines but after reading Rosé Wine, I see how they make sense.

And I honestly can’t wait to try them.

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60 Second Wine Review — 2005 Giscours

Some quick thoughts on the 2005 Chateau Giscours from Margaux.

The Geekery

According to Stephen Brook’s The Complete Bordeaux, vineyards have been planted in this area of southern Margaux since the 16th century. The estate was classified as a 3rd growth in 1855 and earned acclaim in the 19th century under the management of Pierre Skawinski.

Skawinski not only pioneered the use of sulfur spray in the vineyard to combat powdery mildew but also developed techniques of gravity flow winemaking at Giscours that his sons would later take to other notable Bordeaux estates like Léoville-Las Cases, Lynch-Bages and Pontet-Canet.

In the mid 20th century, the estate came under the ownership of the Tari family which included Pierre Tari who was one of the judges at the famous “Judgement of Paris” wine tasting in 1976.

Today the estate is owned by Eric Albada Jelgersma who also owns the 5th Growth Margaux estate Chateau du Tertre and the Tuscan estate of Caiarossa.

The 2005 vintage of Ch. Giscours is a blend of 62% Cabernet Sauvignon and 38% Merlot with 20,830 cases made. The estate produces a second wine called Sirène de Giscours that is made from younger vines.

The Wine

Pop and pour medium plus intensity nose. A mix of dark fruits (black currants and plums) with some tobacco spice. After an hour in the decanter some earthy truffle and dark floral notes appear knocking the nose up to high intensity. Very evocative.

On the palate, the dark fruits and spice carry through with silky medium tannins and juicy medium plus acidity. The spice lingers on the long finish with the truffle notes reappearing.

By Mortazavifar - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, on Wikimedia Commons

Beautiful black truffle notes on the long finish add to the layers of complexity in this wine.


The Verdict

Gorgeous. Simply gorgeous. This 2005 Giscours is in its peak now with velvety tannins but the still fresh acidity can probably carry it through for another 7+ years.

I think I have another bottle in the cellar but at around $100-110, I’m going to make every effort I can to secure a couple more. This is a fantastic steal for a top-notch Bordeaux from the 2005 vintage.

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Non-Alcoholic Wine — Because sometimes you have to

When a friend of mine was pregnant, we threw her a baby shower. We figured that if Mama couldn’t drink, then neither would we. So we hit the local liquor store to buy an assortment of non-alcoholic wines to give them a taste test to see which, if any, were actually tolerable.

Much to our surprise, we actually found them to be not that bad. Well except for one that was just hideous.

How do you get Non-Alcoholic wine?

Wine Folly gives a good breakdown, complete with illustrations on the process, but essentially non-alcoholic wine starts out as regular, alcoholic wine with the alcohol later removed. This process is not 100% exact which is why these wines can’t be sold to minors (and why we didn’t let our mama-to-be have any). If you look carefully, you will see that the labels note that they contain less that 0.05 or 1% alcohol. Technically, these are “alcohol removed” wines rather than non-alcoholic wines.

The two most popular methods to remove the alcohol are reverse osmosis (used by Ariel and Sutter Home Fre with the later using a spinning cone for the process) and vacuum distillation (used by St. Regis).

The Line-up

Sutter Home Fre is made by Trinchero Family Estates. In addition to Sutter Home, Trinchero also makes Menage a Trois, Charles & Charles, A3 wines, Bandit, Joel Gott, Sycamore Lane and many more. In the Sutter Home Fre brand they make a non-alcoholic sparkling wine, Chardonnay, Moscato, White Zinfandel, Merlot and Red blend. We were able to taste all but the Moscato and White zin.

Both Sutter Home Fre and St. Regis highlight lots of “Mocktail” recipes on their websites that are worth checking out.


St. Regis is a Canadian brand produced by I-D Foods Corporation. The wines are made in Europe with the Cabernet Sauvignon coming from Spain, the sparkling Brut from France and the Chardonnay and Shiraz rose from the south of France. They also make a sparkling Kir Royal from France that we did not get a chance to taste.

Ariel is owned by J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines with their website claiming that they are sourcing their fruit from the same 3700 acres of vineyards used by J. Lohr in the Central Coast of California. They also claim to be the “World Best Dealcoholized Wine” with the website touting a gold medal won more than 30 years ago at the 1986 Los Angeles County Fair that saw their Ariel Blanc competing against alcoholic wines. While they make a non-alcoholic Chardonnay, we only had an opportunity to try the Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Verdict

First off, with all these wines you can certainly tell that they aren’t the real deal. Besides the muted aromas, the biggest giveaway is the mouthfeel with all the wines tasting very watery and light. The one exceptions were the two bubbles which I’ll discuss below.

Both of these were surprisingly good.


In tasting through the wines, the “house style” of the two brands that we had multiple examples of–Sutter Home Fre and St. Regis–quickly became apparent. The Sutter Home Fre was the sweeter of the two but not sugary sweet. In fact, they reminded several of us of the low-sugar kids fruit juices that you get at places like Whole Foods such as Honest Kids. In fact, the similarity of the Sutter Home Fre wines to the Honest Kids fruit juices were quite remarkable since none of the Fre wines had any real “winey” notes like oak. Even though these wines tasted like “healthy kids fruit juices”, I would never recommend letting kids try them.

The St. Regis wines tasted drier and more wine-like but they also tasted noticeably manipulated with the use of oak chips. Both the Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon smelled like “real” Cab and Chard but they smelled like real examples of mass commercialized under $10 wines made by large volume producers like Trinchero and J. Lohr which was a bit ironic.

The worst of the bunch, by a loooooooooooooooooong ways was the “World’s Best Dealcoholized Wine” Ariel. It tasted like stewed fruit cooked in plastic Croc shoes. I had to (unfortunately) revisit it several times to try and discern if the bottle was flawed but it didn’t tick off any of the typical wine fault red flags. I couldn’t detect volatile acidity (VA) and overt oxidation notes that typically go with “stewed fruit” flavors–like if the wine had been exposed to excessive heat such as being in the trunk of a car. Plus the cork and bottle looked fine with no bulging or seepage.

While the plastic Croc notes seem in line with some of the 4-ethylphenol (4-EP) “band-aid” Brett aromas, it definitely was more plastic shoe than band-aid. The wine also didn’t have the mustiness associated with TCA. Though the threshold for determining cork taint is heavily influenced by alcohol content so who knows if the reduced alcohol was doing something weird.

The one wine from this tasting that I would encourage people to avoid.

Ultimately, I can’t completely say that the Ariel Cabernet Sauvignon was flawed or not but I can say that this particular bottle was one of the worst things I’ve ever tried. If this was a blind tasting, I would have pegged it as a really bad and light bodied Pinotage–and that would have been the nicest thing I could say about it.

Perhaps, again, it was just this one bottle but the 2 star rating and reviews on Amazon hint that perhaps it wasn’t. A 2008 review on CNET described a tasting of the Ariel thusly:

There were three reds, including a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot, that were so weak and tasteless they were essentially undrinkable. The same was true of the Chardonnay. — Steve Tobak, August 23rd, 2008, CNet

Looks like not much has changed since 2008 since I would also describe the Ariel Cabernet Sauvignon as ‘undrinkable’.

But, happily, that was the only one. While the other wines certainly weren’t spectacular, they were definitely drinkable and it really all comes down to personal preference. If you want something on the Honest Kids’ fruit juice side, go with the Sutter Home Fre. If you want something more “wine-like” (i.e. oaky) then go with the St. Regis.

But the stars of the show were the two non-alcoholic sparklers. Both the Sutter Home Fre and St. Regis Brut were actually quite drinkable and pleasant. They essentially tasted like drier versions of Martinelli’s sparkling apple ciders. The bubbles followed the trend of the house styles for each producer with the Sutter Home Fre being slightly sweeter and more “Martinelli-like” while the St. Regis was drier and more “wine-like” with even a bit of toastiness.

If I was having a party and wanted a non-alcoholic option for adults, both sparklers are something that I would happily purchase and provide for my guests. As for the others, I would be interested in exploring some of the mocktail recipes found on their sites. They weren’t bad on their own (except for the Ariel, of course) but not anything I would be eager to try again.

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A Spice of Brett

Photo by Susan Slater. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0
Recently I watched a webinar from The Wine Scholar Guild by Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser about wine faults. One of the topics covered was Brettanomyces.

Gaiser noted how the presence of Brett in wine is fairly controversial with some wine industry folks having zero tolerance, considering any occurrence of it as a fault in the wine. Others are more forgiving, taking the view that a little bit of Brett can add complexity.

I am in that later group. I actually like a little bit of Brett in wine. I think of it as a spice that can add a dash of character and intriguing aroma notes. But my tolerance is usually only for that dash. It’s like ordering Thai food where you specify the level of chili pepper spice. With chili spice, I’m a wimpish zero stars but my wife loves her dishes 5 stars. With Brett, I like wines in what I call the 1 star range. Give me just enough savory meatiness to make my mouth water and I’m hooked.

Sure there are folks who would like wines with more “Brett-stars” and, of course, there are folks who are decidedly on the “zero-star Brett” side of the spectrum. But I’ll disagree with the zero-star Brett folks who think any instances of it is a sign of a flawed wine. It’s like thinking anyone who orders a difference spice level at a Thai restaurant is ordering bad food.

Yes, it’s different. Yes, it may not be your style. But that doesn’t necessarily means it’s faulted. Now, I say necessarily faulted because I think the winemaker’s intent needs to be considered. There are certainly cases where there could be no intention to have any Brett develop in a wine but it occurred via faulty barrels or bad hygiene or, perhaps, emerged to a degree far beyond what was expected. Those are wines that could rightly be described as faulted but I’ll acquiesce that some souls may still find charm in those wines.

Though I should clarify here that when folks talk about Brett in wine, there are different types of aromas and flavors that fall under that catchall term–some of which are more apt to be described as positive notes than others.

Three types of Brett-related compounds

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

Typically the more gooey the cheese, the more likely it is to have some funk.

A few things to keep in mind. One, not all of these compounds occur in every wine that has Brett. Two, everyone’s sensory threshold is unique and driven by genetics. What’s given below are the average sensory thresholds for the various compounds. Three, aroma descriptors are subjective. What is one person’s band-aid could be another person’s wet leather or iodine.

Isovaleric acid (sensory threshold >1000 µg/L or 1 ppm) Sweaty socks and rancid cheese. For many people (even those who tolerate a few stars of Brett) these aromas often fall into “wine fault” territory. However, there are pretty funky cheeses out there that some people would describe as “rancid” while others find them gorgeous. Different strokes for different folks. Heck, there are even folks who have fetishes for sweaty socks (which I’m not going to link to). While a wine with these aromas may have too many Brett stars for me (and probably most people), I can’t discount that there are going to be tasters that are fascinated with these wines.

4-ethyl phenol (4EP) (sensory threshold >140 µg/L) Barnyard and band-aids. For many people, these are the typical “tell-tale” signs of Brett and it is not surprising that these sensory notes are the most easily detectable among the Brett-related compounds. They’re probably also the most divisive. While I don’t find the smell of horses and pigs in the barn very appealing (That’s getting into “2 star Brett” territory for me), I can’t begrudge someone who like a little bit of odeur de cheval in their wine. Hey, if that rocks your boat then you go Glen Coco!

The wines of Washington cult producer Cayuse can be very divisive among wine lovers. For some they’re “too bretty”, for others they are savory, bacon-y goodness.


4-ethyl guaiacol (4EG) (sensory threshold of >600 µg/L) Bacon, smoke, mushroom, cloves. This is the bastion where I defend my spice analogy of Brett. A lot of people don’t realize that many of these savory aroma and flavors in wine are actually derived from the unsavory origins of the much-maligned Brettanomyces.

In fact, you can argue (and many wine folks do) that typical “terroir characteristics” of great Old World wines like Northern Rhone Syrahs, Ribera del Duero and old school Barolo and Bordeaux, are really just the earmarks of Brettanomyces. This is why, for me, Brett isn’t a bad word but rather a tool that a winemaker can use to add more layers to a wine.

Sure, there are things that can make a wine “too Bretty” for me. Bad hygiene in the winery and tainted barrels can pile on the Brett stars and take a wine far out of my pleasure zone. I’ll also confess that I’m not a fan of sour beers where Brettanomyces often plays a big role (though the “sour” part mostly comes from Lactobacillus and Pediococcus).

But variety is the spice of life and sometimes a little Brett can go a long way towards making a wine more interesting. I’ll drink to that.

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