Random thoughts on the world of wine, presented in no particular order.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Last night, over a simple meal of pizza and wine (naturally), my thoughts turned to the region where the wine came from -- Sicily.

Sicilian wine has had a bad reputation in past years; they produce a relatively large volume of wine, most of which is jug-wine quality whites (only 1.5% of Sicily's nearly 300 million gallon production comes from DOC plots).  So, fine wine producers from that region don't get a ton of respect; it's sort of like saying, "hey, we've got this fine wine, grown right next to where they make Carlo Rossi."  Sicilian winemakers are well-known for their progressive nature; they're big users of alternative closures (Stelvin and VinoLok, although it wouldn't surprise me to find a Zorked wine from Sicily as well), and they're not hidebound to tradition in their grape selection and winemaking methodology -- the attitude is generally "let's make good wine for a good price."

The most famous wine of Sicily is Marsala, but with that fairly out of fashion (it's too sweet -- perhaps a post for another time should be done on how "sweet" doesn't mean "bad," but not now), I'll concern myself more with the dry reds here (oddly enough, red wine is only 5% of Sicilian production).

Probably the best-known Sicilian varietal is Nero d'Avola (the "black [grape] of Avola").  It's not unlike a good syrah -- slightly peppery, spicy, with smooth rich tannins, and enough acidity to compliment many foods.  In fact, it was a Nero that prompted this post.  Nero d'Avola shouldn't be too expensive -- $20 at retail would be too much, and the Nero I drank last night was like $8.

You'll also find Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet amongst the Sicilian winemakers' arsenal -- like I said, not hidebound to tradition, they're not afraid to grow French grapes in Italian soil.  The Syrahs, especially, tend to be good, as the climate is not dissimilar to that of the Rhone.

So, next time you're looking for value in a wine that's from a bit off the beaten path... remember that Sicily is more than just the soccer ball that the rest of Italy kicks around!

Monday, June 29, 2009

How to taste wine for (almost) free

One of the things that people who aren't "big wine drinkers" often cite as a reason for not trying a lot of wines is the expense -- buying bottles to take home can add up, buying glasses in a restaurant is even more so.  But... how do you find wine you love without trying new wines?

Ahh, the eternal dilemma -- the safe, comfortable, known wines versus the new, unusual wine with a hard-to-pronounce grape name from an appellation that you didn't know even made wine!

So, barring winning the lottery, what's an aspiring wine geek to do?

Simple.  There's tons of opportunities for you to try wine for little to no money!

Get on the mailing list of wine stores and restaurants with good wine lists.  It's not unusual for them to have regular, scheduled, tastings, and special events when producers come into town.  For example, there's 4 major wine stores in my region that have such -- two have monthly tastings that cost $10 ($5 of which is returned in the form of a gift certificate), one has semi-regular tastings (some of which are free, some of which are up to $25), and one has regular weekly tastings for free.  Additionally, one has monthly themed, in-depth tastings ("Cabernet around the world," or "Celebrate with Champagne and Sparkling Wine" for themes) for $25.  In all these cases, it's not uncommon for there to be specials or coupons on the wines tasted -- so if you like something in the store, you can take it home for a little off retail.

As for restaurants, one in my area has "wine down Wednesday," where house pours are $2, and the rest of their by-the-glass list is half off.  Others will host tastings (generally costing $5-$10) on a semi-regular basis; keeping track of the emails can be a bit of work, but it's easier than paying full price!  You'll also hear about "big name" tastings at some -- one steakhouse near me, for example, is having a dinner with the makers of Nickel & Nickel... for $125 a seat.  Still, that's only marginally more money than a bottle of their wine and a steak would cost, and you get to try 5 wines (and a 4-course meal).

Additionally, when you eat out -- look for wine flights for tasting.  In my area, a number of places now serve a flight of 4 wines for roughly the same price as 1 by-the-glass.

Then, there's the option of hosting a wine tasting on your own -- get together with 5 or 6 friends, everyone buys a bottle in the same price point (generally, my rule here is "about $20, and something you've not had before"), and get together to try them and compare notes.  

One good resource for finding out about cheap/free wine events, pretty much nationwide, is localwineevents.com.  Yes, some of the information will be repeated (two of the wine stores in my region, for example, post their events here too), but better to hear about something twice than miss it!

And how do you keep track of what you taste?  In my case, a notebook for recording stuff "in the field," and then Cellartracker for keeping it all straight and organized -- the whats, whens, and how-I-liked-the-wines of tasting.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Closing the deal.

While reading through my favorite consumer blog, Consumerist, I found an article about advertising and persuasion, which linked to this longer post, which distills the knowledge of the book "Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive". I found a number of these points to be important to the sale and marketing of wine, especially:

1. Inconvenience the audience by creating an impression of product scarcity: Does the allocation system ring a bell here? "Oh, I can't find Sea Smoke in stores, it must be awesome..." Making sure that the wine is available under only some circumstances (the allocation being in a store, or a restaurant having gotten some) is a great idea for marketing. Of course, it sucks for consumers, but as they say, them's the breaks.

5. Too many options necessitate selection, and hence frustration, when brain decides it’s unnecessary work: Far Niente has done a great job of this. They make 2 wines -- a cab and a chard (I've heard rumblings that they'll be making a zin next year, but for now, just the 2). Not like, say, Mondavi, where you can find 30 or more different types of wine. 2. Once you've decided on a bottle of Far Niente, there's basically no decision making left. With Mondavi, there's 6 or more varietals, each of which has several different wines -- Private Select, Napa, Sonoma, etc. There is something to be said for simplifying your product line -- find something you do well, and do it a lot.

7. A more expensive product makes the old version look like a value buy: Kind of at odds with #5, but look at Silver Oak, for example. Their Napa cab is around $100. Their Alexander Valley cab is $50-$60. Now, the Alexander Valley cab isn't cheap, by any means... but in comparison, it's a bargain!

9. A small gift makes people want to reciprocate and 6. Giving away the product makes it less desirable: Seemingly at odds, this explains why a lot of tasting rooms work the way they do -- spend $x on a tasting flight, get a free glass, or $x off of your order. People will take advantage of free samples... but even a small fee takes the sample out of the range of "free" and into the realm of "something I've paid for." Getting a glass, or a deal on your order? Why... bonus! Now I want to buy!

15. Labeling people into a social group tends to increase their participation ratio: Have you ever been told at a wine store or winery, "Ahh, you must like the good stuff!" (or something similar)? Congratulations, you've been labeled into the group of "people who buy expensive things." And therefore, you're more likely to buy expensive things... like that pricey bottle of wine you were eyeing...

41. Abstract names allow the customers to come up with reasoning: This explains why winemakers name their wines after abstract things; "Rattlesnake Hill," "Siena," "Trifecta." These have no solid meaning in the wine world... so they make the consumer create their own meaning, or at least ask (and get involved with the wine by doing so) why it's named that way (respectively: the hill had a rattlesnake nest on it when it was cleared, the wine's a Tuscan-style blend, it's 1/3 each cab, merlot, and cab franc, if you're curious).

Good wine is made in the vineyard (or the winery), but sales are made in the customer's head, and the wine industry knows it as well as any other one.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

One to watch...

I had the joy of getting to taste two of Coelho Winery's wines at a trade tasting yesterday.  Here I am, to tell you... these folks are one to watch.

Their business plan is sound (they're running a profit in the fourth year of operations -- this is well-nigh unheard-of in the wine world).  Their costs are low (it's a family winery -- the family's children do some of the bulk work).  Their winemaking philosophy is minimalist (free-run juice only -- a good idea for pinot -- native-yeast fermentation, sustainable vineyard practices including encouraging kestrels to nest nearby and control rodents -- they're certified Salmon-Safe right now, and will probably be getting Organic certification in 2010), which appeals to me.  And, most importantly... their resultant wines are outstanding.

I got to try both the 2007 Renovação Pinot Gris and the 2006 Paciência Pinot Noir (all of Coelho's wines are given a Portuguese descriptive name -- in this case, it's Renewal and Patience, respectively).

Tasting notes on the Pinot Gris:

Pale in the glass.  Inviting nose of pear and some white floral bouquet.  Surprisingly abundant flavor, showing crisp apple and pear, a vanilla midpalate, with grassy undertones.  A pop of mineral acidity on the finish.  Quite tasty; this is not generic white starter wine, this is serious stuff.  Dry wine with moderate to high acidity balancing a mid/full body, nicely complex, well-balanced, with a long, lingering minerality on the finish.  89 points.

The Pinot Gris was, in a word, excellent pinot gris (I generally dislike this varietal, so a rating in the 89-90 range is high praise).  Good acidity, but not overpowering, perfect as an aperitif or with a light "white wine" meal -- fatty sashimi tuna comes to mind, as does turkey.

The 2006 Pinot Noir -- from 4-year-old vines! -- was similarly good:

Ruby/purple in the glass.  Inviting nose of cherries over mulling spices.  Powerful flavors, showing a bit of raisin right on the forepalate, cherry, more of the mulling spices, and some smoky vanilla notes on the finish.  Tasty.  Perfectly balanced, with moderate acidity and a medium body, very fine-grained tannins barely present.  Finish is around 30 seconds.  Drink now through 2012.  90 points.

And this from 4-year-old vines.  It's generally accepted wisdom that good wine comes from vines 6+ years old, and great wines from 15+ year old vines.  These are young vines.  Not ready for prime time!  Imagine what they'll be in 10 years.

Now, these are not cheap -- $20 for the Pinot Gris in my local store, $33 for the Pinot Noir.  On the website, they're $16 and $35, respectively (although, currently they offer 10% off of cases -- solid or mixed -- and free shipping to legal states in the lower 48).  But, I'll say this... I've had a lot of crappy $30-$40 Pinot Noir (many producers have raised their prices in response to the "Sideways effect," to profit-take -- for $30 or $40, I expect a lot from my Pinot).  This is emphatically not crappy $30-$40 Pinot Noir.

So, get a bottle.  Heck, get a case.  In ten years, you can say you had them "when."

Image from the Coelho Winery website.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Wedding wine.

It's summer, and that means wedding season; perhaps you or someone you know is planning a wedding?  A few tips for dealing with the wine aspect of it:

The general rule of thumb is that each adult will have 1 drink per hour.  That's an average, taking into account your teetotaler cousin Julie, and your lush of a brother-in-law Chris.  Over a long party (more than 3 hours), in fact, people will tend to drink a bit less than that, but it's a good place to start.

You get about 4 pours and a splash from a normal wine bottle.  Therefore, for a 3-hour long reception, plan on 3 bottles of wine for every 4 guests.  For toasting, you get about 8 pours out of a sparkling wine bottle, so plan on a bottle for every 8 guests or so (unless you intend on having a sparkling wine throughout the reception, in which case treat it as you would wine, as people go through bubbly faster).

Now, if this seems like a lot of wine -- I mean, let's face it, I'm saying "get 75 bottles of wine for 100 people, plus 12 bottles of bubbly for toasting, for a 3-hour reception with 100 people,"-- remember that I'm trying to overestimate the amount of wine people will drink; that way, you don't run out.  Most wine stores will take returns with a receipt, provided they can resell the wine (so don't dunk them in ice, which will make the labels peel).  If they don't have a return policy... you might want to consider another store.

As for the debate of how much red/white should you get, figure about 50-50.  In our hypothetical reception, I'd get around 3 cases of each.   When selecting wines, plan on a red and a white -- a cab and a chard, a Chianti and a pinot grigio, whatever.  But only one (or at most two) of each color -- keep it simple, make your life (and your bartender's life) easier.

As for the quality of wine -- don't skimp, but don't feel the need to pull out top-flight wines for a wedding reception.  Most people really aren't paying attention to the wine at that point, so why waste bottles of $50 cab, when $10 cab would do just as well?

Similarly, for the toast, Champagne is nice, but expensive.  Why not toast with Cava, or Prosecco, or Cremant?  The quality level of many non-Champagne sparkling wines is very high (and most people can't tell the difference between a Prosecco and a Champagne, really), and they're much less expensive.  Also, why limit yourself to brut?  If you're toasting with wedding cake, try something sweeter!

Of course, you may want a couple of bottles of good stuff for the head table -- a nice Champagne, a top-shelf cab, whatever.  But that's more of a splurge for the bride and groom than anything else.

So, how do you budget?  Again, consider the hypothetical wedding above -- 100 people, a 3-hour reception means about 7 cases of wine.  If you've got a $1000 budget for wine, it means you've got to keep it under about $12 a bottle (and, if you worry that this is too much money for an event -- it's $7 a person.  Or, roughly what an open bar will charge you for a glass of Beringer.).

So what would I choose for a wedding like this?  Let's go with a standard merlot/chard/sparkling mix; for the merlot, there's any number of good California and Washington wines that fall under that price point.  My favorite here would be one called Buffalo Grove -- it's light, friendly, and hits a lot of people's sweet spots.  Coming in at $6 a bottle, or $64.80 a case (with a 10% discount), we've got $194.40 in cheap reds.  A good bottle, for the head table, would be something like Twomey, which should run about $50 or $60, so let's call the red $250 total.

On the white side, there's even more choices.  Again, trying to keep it under $12, a favorite is Cupcake, a Central Coast chard that's got plenty of cream, a little oak, and nice ripe pineapple flavors.  At $10-ish, it's $108 a case, so $324 in cheap whites.  Add a bottle of Mer Soleil, at $35, and we can call it $360 in whites.  Running total: $610

Finally, there's the bubbles -- here, we'll go a bit over the $12-a-bottle mark.  For general consumption, I'd look at something like Louis Bouillot, a very nice Cremant de Bourgogne, that runs about $16 a bottle for either the brut or extra dry (slightly sweeter).  A case will run $172.80, so call it $175.  The running total at this point is $785, which yields a lot of wiggle room for a really nice bottle of Champagne for the head table.  A personal favorite would be Feuillatte's Palmes D'Or vintage, which comes in at about $120 a bottle.  So, there, for just over $900 (out of a budget of $1,000), is a wedding for 100 people.

And, the best part is, since we've over-estimated consumption slightly, the likelihood is that the happy couple will either have some wine to stock away in their new household, or a nice little return of $100 or so when they come home from the honeymoon.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I know I've done it.  You've done it too.  You're in an unfamiliar (or even familiar) wine store, looking at new wines, and you look at the shelf talker, and in the corner you see "WA: 91."

You cave, skipping the description.  You buy the wine.  Based on a number.

Don't feel bad, we've all done it.  There's a number of sensory biases that the little number feeds into -- the bias of the expert ("if Parker likes it, and he's an expert, I should like it too"), the desire for simplicity (let's face it, it's easier to look for a number than to read a description), the sheer number of non-rated wines (I've heard many wine store customers say "well, this one's got a rating, it must be better.").  It's natural.

The thing is... (and this deserves bold text) a rating is what one person thought of the wine one time!  Often, in fact, this number is arrived at during a marathon tasting of 20, 30, even 40 wines!  So, what's going to score highly?  Wines that are gigantic, fruit-bombs with extreme flavors and intensity.  How could you remember anything but that style of wine when you taste so many in a row (if you've not had the opportunity -- trust me, palate fatigue sets in surprisingly quickly).  The truly amazing thing is this: day-to-day, your palate's sensitivity will change (imagine tasting wine with a very mild head cold -- a little hay fever, perhaps -- versus tasting it with completely clear sinuses; the wines tasted with the cold will rate lower).  So how in the world can we be precise to within 1% on how "good" -- as subjective and divisive a term as there is in the wine world! -- a wine is?

Additionally -- a number of vintners couldn't care less about what some critic in an office in New York or LA thinks of their wines.  They care about what the people who actually drink their wines think!  As one importer I have chatted with said -- "if you like the wine, and I like the wine, who is Parker to say the wine is bad?"  Do you think that people with that sort of attitude towards wine critics are likely to submit their wines for rating?  Probably not -- so there's a ton of hidden gems in the unrated wines.

A little secret: I've got about a bit over 750 ratings recorded on CellarTracker, and my average score is about 86.5.  86.5 should be, by the 100-point chart I've linked to above, that means that half of the wines I've rated are "good to very good" from Enthusiast, and "above average to very good" from Advocate and Spectator.  So is this a fair rating system?

No.  There's no way that I've been drinking wines that are that consistently above-average.  Heck, I've had wines that I've actively disliked that scored an 83 (the system I use is up to 5 points each for nose intensity, balance, and finish, 10 points for flavor quality, and 15 points for flavor intensity.  Add 50 points, and you've got the score.  Wine with a ton of intensity, a long finish, and reasonable balance can taste like crap and still score high -- and it has.).

So what's the point?  Well, for one, ignore the difference between an 88 and a 91 -- it's really subjective, and the margin of error for one person's tastes from day to day can be higher than 3 points.  Two, don't compare apples and oranges -- just because, say, Parker gives a wine an 88 and James Laube gives it a 93 doesn't make Laube's score any more or less valid; it just means that Laube liked it more.

It's not like there's a certification program for wine critics, after all; anyone with a working palate and an Internet connection can post blogs with scores!  There's no standardization, so really the best advice is to taste a lot of wines, and trust your own palate.  Don't slavishly follow anyone's dictum that this wine is good and that wine is bad -- be it Robert Parker, Micheal Broadbent, your wife, your wine-snob friend, or even me. 

Chart from DeLong Wine Info, with the JPG compiled by the Wine Economist.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Contains Sulfites

Few terms on a wine label cause more contention -- and more misunderstanding -- than the little phrase "contains sulfites."  It's on almost every bottle of wine sold in the US, and I'd wager that 95% of consumers don't understand what it really means.

For a wine to be sold in the US, it must have a "contains sulfites" label if there's more than 10 parts per million (ppm) of sulfite -- ususally sulfur dioxide, or SO2, which has it's Lewis structure pictured here.  That's it -- wines without the "contains sulfites" label will often boast "no detectible sulfites," or "no added sulfites," which are two different things -- the former just has less than 10 ppm, while the latter is a wine made in a minimal-interventionalist process using no sulfite.  However, "no added sulfites" wines will still contain some sulfite, as it's a natural part of the fermentation process (generally 5 to 9 ppm result from fermentation).

Why do you add sulfites to a wine?  Well, mainly to impede secondary fermentation from wild yeast and impede the growth of bacteria that may wind up in the bottle, and also to sterilize the bottles and barrels (and they've been used for this for hundreds of years -- vintners in the 1600's would burn sulphur in their cellars to clean the barrels and bottles, as S+2O->SO2).  They're also used to prematurely end fermentation for sweet wines.  Finally, they're used to protect both raw juice and finished wine from oxidation.

Now, there is a movement towards making wine with little to no sulfite use (a good article on it is found here), as some people are sensitive to them -- mainly as a slight, unpleasant taste of struck match or rotten egg.  There are a very small percentage of the population who have a true allergy to them (under 1%, and the majority of them are steroid-dependant asthmatics -- around 5% of asthmatics have sulfites as a trigger).  So there is some merit to the "contains sulfites" label, as the people who are allergic to them are deathly allergic to them (a severe asthma attack can be fatal, after all).  Sort of like how many foods are labeled "contains tree nuts."

But, go into a wine store and talk with the customers, and most of them will be completely in the dark about what sulfites are doing in their wine.  For some reason, the American consumer views the "contains sulfites" label as something sinister.  There's a number of myths around this, the most popular of which is "there are more sulfites in American wines than European, because they use traditional winemaking methods and don't need them."  Why they wouldn't need them is unknown -- but the use of sulfites in the US versus Europe depends on the wine (eg, Sauternes and Auslese Rieslings use sulfites like it's going out of style, up to 300+ ppm, while dry table wines tend to be on par, between 15 and 50 ppm).

However, by far the most popular myth of sulfites is "they give me a headache."  My standard response to that is that any wine will give you a headahce... if you drink two bottles of it.  But, seriously, there's no conclusive positive link between sulfites in wine and red wine headaches -- and, in fact, the current thinking is that the problem is another chemical entirely called tyramine, which can act as a trigger for migranes, and also a blood pressure elevator (which can cause pounding headaches), especially for people taking a class of antidepressent called MAOI's.  Of course, the best course of action in that case would be consulting with your physician and/or pharmacist if you think a medication is interacting with your wine, as it could save you from serious problems down the road.

And the odd thing about sulfites?  There's generally more sulfite in the cheese you eat with your wine, than in the wine itself -- a 4 oz serving of hard cheese has more sulfites than a 750 ml bottle of wine!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Tasting room etiquette.

So, you're in wine country for a vacation.  You spot a cute looking winery, and their tasting room is open!  You walk in, and you're confronted by a bar with bottles, and a friendly looking person behind it asks you if you'd like to try their wonderful Sauvignon Blanc.  What should you do?

Chat with the host; ask about the wines.  I mean, you're in the tasting room, you're obviously interested, right?  Don't be a silent lump!  These people know more about the wine than you do -- they can often point you to the block of the vineyard where it came from, explaining why this one has a hint of mint while that one tastes of cocoa.

The order of tasting will almost always be white, rose, red, dessert.  If there's a variance, ask why, as it'll give your host a chance to talk about the wines and why this white follows those reds, or whatever the variance is.

There's often a fee.  It'll be upfront.  Sometimes you get something for the fee (a glass to keep, for example, or a the fee is applied to pay for wines you purchase at the tasting room).  Sometimes you don't.  There's no standard for that -- just accept it and move on.

If you're offered a bonus of some kind during a tasting -- be it a reserve wine, something offbeat that's not for sale yet... accept!  I once watched someone turn down a tasting of a pre-release rose of Pinot Noir that was absolutely amazing because "I only drink red and white, not pink."  Insanity!

The same goes for taking a quick tour -- you're in wine country, why on earth would you not want to see the winery?  Take some pictures -- wineries are often quite photogenic.  Ask questions -- why does the winery use new barrels for this wine, and used barrels for that one?  It'll improve your appreciation of all wines, not just the ones of the winery you're visiting.

Actively taste.  A tasting room isn't a bar.  Slamming down wine is bad form.

The spittoons are there for a reason -- again, it's not a bar, you're not there to get drunk, so spit your wines.  Especially if you're going to be driving.

The crackers are a palate cleanser, not a snack.  If you want a snack, bring your own (although, some wineries do have light snacks for sale in their tasting rooms).

If you want a second taste of a wine, that's fine, but you should buy a bottle of something at that point.  Remember that the tasting room is also a store -- the wines should be priced reasonably competitively with retail, and there's often tasting-room-only wines (eg, Sobon's Tempranillo, Heitz's Grignolino and Port).  The words "I can get this less expensively at home," should be banished from your vocabulary.  The producer's gross profit on wines sold on-site is 100%.  On wines sold at retail, it's around 30% (more or less).  You want to support a favorite producer?  Buy a bottle directly.  It'll be a souvenir you can savor at home.

Photo of the Martin Ray tasting room, from Sonoma Uncorked.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A rose by any other name...

White wine is easy to understand -- when you squeeze a wine grape, almost any wine grape, the juice runs white (yes, you could, in theory, make a white Cabernet).  Red wine is a bit harder -- the red color comes from contact with the skins, so you leave them in the mix for a while.  Rose, though, is hardest still -- you have to leave the skins on for just a little while, and the juice is pink.  Note, of course, that this has nothing to do with how much sugar is in the wine; pink ≠ sweet.

Of course, you can also just mix red and white to make pink; this is the easy way out, and it's how some American wineries make their pink wines.  Folie a Deux, for example, makes a rose in their Menage a Trois line that's 2 parts red (Merlot and Syrah, for color and fruitiness) and 1 part white (Gewürtztraminer, for some sweetness).  In fact, this method is also used to make rose sparkling wine -- make the bubbly, then add some red wine at the end to make it pink (everyone from Cava to Champagne does this -- there are some who use the method of leaving the juice on the skins for a bit, but not many, and those are quite expensive).

Many European vintners have complained about the blended roses; they're cheap to produce, and they tend to make all consumers think of rose as cheap pink stuff, not serious wine (how seriously can you take a bottle of $9 wine that's got a punny name, after all?).  The wines produced through the traditional method, of course, are expensive and worthy of consideration, at least in their eyes (and mine, for what it's worth).

So, in the light of the recent EU ban on using certain terms on import wine labels, I felt I had to give the EU their due -- they banned the import of still rose made using the blending method, and the production of blended rose.  Blending is still OK for bubbles, though.

Good for them, for sticking up for traditional methods in winemaking.  Yes, it's a protectionist move, same as the name thing, but in this case it encourages people to make better wine, to treat it as a craft and not a beverage.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Some of this, some of that...

In wine, as in many things, what's on the outside isn't always on the inside -- to put it simply, the things that the label advertises is not always what's in the bottle.

Let me explain (from a general US-centric perspective -- other countries do vary, and specific appellations may have different rules).  When you go to the wine store to buy a bottle of 2007 Reserve Napa Sauvignon Blanc at 13.8% alcohol...  all of those things are approximate.

The grape?  Once 75% of the bottle is filled with juice from that grape, the vintner can put anything they want into the bottle.  So your Sauvignon Blanc may well have some Semillon or Muscadelle.  I know of one major producer who's back-label text (which is, as far as I know, completely unregulated) begins with the phrase, "this 100% Chardonnay," despite the fact that their wine tastes severely of Gewürtztraminer -- I suspect about 10%.  Another producer -- Woodbridge, by Mondavi -- will only verify that their Chardonnay is 75% Chardonnay, and the remainder is "a blend of white grapes."  Why would vintners want to fudge the grape?  Well, for one, they don't want to give away their formulas -- and trust me, for the big producers, it's a formula, an attempt to make the same product year-from-year.  For another, consumers seem to self-brand as "I drink Chardonnay," or "I don't like Merlot."  I guarantee you that there's some guy out there right now drinking (or thinking about drinking, if it's early) Silver Oak Napa, saying "I hate Merlot," blissfully unaware that Silver Oak is only around 90% Cabernet, and that the remainder is a healthy chunk of Merlot, with a dash of Petit Verdot.

The alcohol level?  Nope.  There's wiggle room -- it varies from region to region -- but you can go anywhere from +/- 1.5% in Australia (although this may be changing soon to 0.8%), to +/- 0.5% in the US.  Figure that the alcohol level is approximate.  Again, it's to a producer's benefit to estimate the alcohol level -- generally to lowball it.  High-alcohol wines are taxed as "fortified wine," even if there's no addition of alcohol during the vinifiation, and therefore there's a tax break to underestimating the alcohol.  Additionally, in some states (South Carolina comes to mind, but it's assuredly not the only one) anything under a certain alcohol level can be sold in a wine-and-beer licensed retailer (an easier and less expensive licensce to get), while anything over that level is from a liquor-licensed retailer.  Since there are more wine retailers, it makes sense to try and keep your wine in their shops, rather than having it shunted over to the liquor stores.

The appellation?  I mean, as important as terroir is to wine, that's got to be dead-on, right?  Nope.  Once 85% of the juice has come from an appellation, the remainder can come from outside.  It allows vintners to source grapes for their blends that aren't found in a specific appellation, or to find the best grapes they can (ideally this would mean "best-quality," but it often means "best-priced").

The vintage?  Really, c'mon, even the year?  Yep.  Again, depending on the appellation, you're allowed some wiggle room there too -- older wine to add depth and complexity, younger wine to add fruit and youth.  Generally, there's not a lot of wiggle room here -- around 5% is the norm -- but not all the wine has to be from the same vintage.

Other terms -- "reserve," "old vines," even "estate grown" can be subverted.  "Reserve" is a marketing term in the US, nothing more (other countries have different rules -- in Italy and Spain, for example, the term has legal weight).  I know of two lines of wine that make only "reserve" wines, and nothing else.  Not that they're not decent, but the term is suspect.  "Old vines" generally means the vines used in the wine are an average age of 30+ years, and most producers respect that.  Is there a legal standard for it?  Nope.  Is someone out there bottling wine from 5-year-old vines and labeling it "old vines?"  Almost assuredly.  "Estate grown" generally means the grapes were grown on-site, but I know of a producer (in fact, the Chardonnay producer who makes "100% Chardonnay" with a splash of Gewürtztraminer) that labels all their low-priced wines as "estate grown" on the case, even though they make so much wine there must be outsourcing of production (additionally, the "estate grown" wine has a generic "California" appellation.  So, unless the "estate" is larger than any single appellation in California...).

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Sticks and stones...

While reading through other blogs, I happened upon a link to this article in Decanter (a British wine publication, that I highly recommend).  The quick-and-dirty version of it is that the EU has banned the use of certain terms on the label of US wines.  The list?  Chateau, classic, clos, cream, crusted/crusting, fine, late bottled vintage, noble, ruby, superior, sur lie, tawny, vintage and vintage character.

Insanity!  This is to say that, say, Chateau Montelena -- which has a definitively European-castle styled building onsite (see the above left photo from their website) cannot bring their wine into Europe without changing the name (one that's been in use for over 30 years).  Nor could Clos du Bois, Clos du Val, Chateau Ste. Michelle, or Chateau St. Jean.  You can't call your Port-like wine (Port is a protected term already, although a number of wines have been grandfathered in) a Tawny or Ruby, even if it is in that style!  If you age your wines on the lees -- the yeast particulates left over after fermentation -- you can't say it's been aged "sur lie."  You dare not make both a nonvintage and vintage cuvee if you're an American sparkling wine producer!

What a crock!  It means that we, as Americans, would have to develop an entirely new vocabulary to explain wine, one for which perfectly acceptable terms have been being used for years!  Great, we'll have to make a subject that is already unreasonably complex and imposing even harder to understand and potentially less accessable to the average person.  Great marketing strategy, there, guys.

Now, I'm the first person to say we should protect European place names for wine – in my personal opinion, there's no excuse for an American winery producing a Chianti, or a Burgundy.  And don't even get me started on Champagne being used on American wines – even with the modifier “California” or “New York” in front of it.  I shudder to think of the beating that that appellation has taken due to greedy American vintners subverting it's fine name and putting out mass-market crap (well... different mass-market crap than the vintners who belong in the appellation -- and, in fairness, the American mass-market crap is often not even made using the same method; Cooks "California Champagne" is Charmat-method, for example).  But this move smacks of pure European protectionism; three of the better-known American producers of mass-market wines are affected by it (Clos du Bois, Chateau Ste. Michelle and Chateau St. Jean).

What's the solution?  Should the US slap the EU with a similar ruling, saying "you can't send wine into our market without an explicit explanation of what the grapes are?" (labels from the Rhone would get a lot more complex then, and I fear the Bordelais would simply revolt).  Perhaps a tariff on EU wines?  Great ideas, but then US consumers suffer for the sins of the EU, in the sense of losing the ability to choose European wines or in overpaying for them.  In that case, we'd be no better than the EU -- after all, the European consumer's freedom of choice has been limited by this as well (in fact, one of the better American wines made by a European vintner is Dr. Loosen's Eroica, made under the Chateau Ste. Michelle label!  So, if you're in the Mosel and you want Loosen Riesling, your choices are limited to only the local wines, and not any of his Washington State endeavors!).  And, of course, European vintners, who already make more wine than they sell, lose out on a fairly major market for export.

There's a fine line between protecting the uniqueness that terroir imparts in a wine, and heralding the history of technique used in making it, and trying to unfairly stifle the competition.  This EU ruling seems to be firmly in the latter category.  It's as crazy as trying to forbid the word "Glen" in the name of a non-Scotch whisky.  Oh, wait... that's been tried.  And failed.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A wishful tasting...

Friday, Dr Vino (a blog I highly recommend, by the way) posted about an amazing tasting attended by James Halliday, including '55 and '71 Grange, '55 Wynns Coonawarra Shriaz, '62 Penfolds Bin 60A, some '85 Hill of Grace, and '96 Clarendon Hills Australis, amongst others.  The whole list is here.

This is, if you don't know it, a hitlist of the heavy-hitters of the Australian wine scene, and most of them were aged either to perfection (yeah, even after railing against aging wines... but these ones deserve a chance to develop!), or in fact were over the hill.

All in all, I'm highly jealous.  I've had some great Aussie wines -- a mid '90's Grange, back in 1999 (alas, I didn't make notes, and it was before I got into the wine business in a serious way), William Randall, Amon Ra, and The Gate, amongst others.  But never this many on one table.

So, in that vein, here's the tasting note for arguably the best Australian wine I've ever had -- 2006 Amon Ra, which I had about a year ago.  I can still see the brick-red color of the wine, smell it's toasted oak and fruit, and feel the velvet of it on my throat.  Truly a wine to remember, and one that I happily pulled out of my personal cellar for a friend's going-away party.

The color is a deep, brick-red, almost opaque. On the nose, a rush of blackcurrant and rich berries. The nose intensity is overwhelming; I poured less than half an ounce into a glass when decanting the wine, and it almost knocked me over taking a short sniff from over the rim of the glass; I didn't even try to put my nose into the bowl. On the palate, the wine is indeed overwhelming in flavor. Notes include distinct cedar and oak notes, an overarching flavor of dark chocolate, red fruit, coconut, spice, and espresso. The mouthfeel is velvety. There's a richness to the flavor that's hard to put into words; it's mouth-coating, intense (even in a 1/2 oz tasting pour). The wine sets up camp in your mouth and stays there for seemingly ever. Truly amazing.  99 points.

All in all, too intense to have on a regular basis, but wine like that is amazingly nice to have for a special occasion.

Photo from K&L Wines, where you can buy 2006 Amon-Ra, and who did not contribute in any way to this update.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Ready to drink? Yep.

One of the questions I get a lot is "when is this wine ready to drink?"

The answer, of course, is always complicated.  Define "ready to drink," first of all!  I mean, once it's in the bottle, wine is ready to drink, in the sense that it's able to be poured into a glass, consumed, and won't do you undue harm (aside from intoxication, of course).

That being said, the assumption is that most wine needs to be aged for some length of time to be "ready to drink."  Completely incorrect, I contend.  I recall being told at a seminar once, "90% of all wine sold in the US is consumed within 4 hours of purchase.  95% within 4 days, and 98% within 4 weeks."

Admittedly, I'm not sure if it's 98% of all bottles sold, or just 98% of the money spent on wine, but either way, remarkably little wine is consumed after any aging at all.  As the joke goes, "everyone has a wine cellar -- it's called the back seat of the car, as they're driving home from the store."  It's unusual to age wine in the US; most people simply don't do it.

You don't think producers are aware of that fact?  You must be insane.  Of course producers know people don't age wine here!  Why in the world would you make a wine that "needs" to be aged, when only an insignificant portion of the wine sold is aged even as long as a couple weeks?

That being said, there are some -- very few -- wines that benefit from aging.  Generally, these are the big boys of the wine world; Bordeaux in a good year (by way of example, I've had a number of 2006's -- the last release for most producers -- that were ready to drink right out of the bottle, while the 2005's are still tightly wound and need time), Brunello, Barolo, vintage Port, and top-flight new-world wines come to mind.  That's really about it.  Exceptions exist, as they always will, but they're few and far between.

So relax.  It's OK to get a bottle of wine -- even a moderately pricey one, or indeed some very expensive stuff -- and pop it open that night.  Most people do, and most producers are smart enough to make wine that fits that market segment.

Does that mean that there's no need for a wine cellar?  Oh, indeed not; I've got one, as do most wine aficionados that I'm friends with.  The bulk of the wine in my cellar is Bordeaux -- 2005's and 2003's.  I've got a couple of Barolos in there, and some upper-end California wines (two Stag's Leap District cabs, and a Diamond Mountain cab) that I'm not intending on keeping for a long time, but want to keep at proper temperature for when I decide to pop them open.

That's it.  Everything else is stored out, for quick consumption.  Because that's what the winemakers intend us to do -- wine isn't an object to be stared at behind glass doors, it's an accompaniment to a fine meal, a good evening snuggled up with a loved one on the couch, or a celebration with friends.  It's meant to be consumed.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Better than bark.

Since the 1700's, wine has traditionally been sealed with corks made from the bark of the cork oak (quercus suber).  Of the nearly 20 billion bottles of wine produced each year, around 80% are still sealed with this natural material, as it's elasticity and impermeability to fluid make it ideal for shoving into the narrow neck of a bottle to provide a barrier between delicate wine and the outside environment.  

Of course, cork has it's issues -- not least of which is the problem of "cork taint."  A chemical, called 2, 4, 6 tricholoroanisole (it's a benzine ring with 3 chlorine groups evenly spread around the ring and a OCH3 group between two of them).  TCA taint can cause wine to smell and taste "off" -- like musty basement, cardboard, or newspaper.  Roughly 5-10% of all cork-bottled wine is affected to some extent (where the flavor and aroma are noticibly changed), and in my experience about 1% of all wine is completely overcome by TCA.  Note that TCA taint has nothing to do with the quality of either the wine or the cork; Haut-Brion gets affected by TCA the same as Ravenswood.

So what to do?  Vintners have been utilizing alternative closures to avoid cork taint (although, in fairness, TCA taint can also happen in the barrel room -- if wooden barrels are used -- it's just much less likely, and will therefore affect a much smaller proportion of wine).  The 4 most popular are the Stelvin (pictured above), the Vino-Lok, the Zork, and crown caps.  Of course, plastic corks are also made, but this blog entry is going to be about the nontraditional, tool-free closures.

The Stelvin closure is also called the screwcap -- it's the most popular alternative closure, having gained significant ground in Australia and New Zealand, with a large number of American vintners using it as well.  It's probably the simplest to use -- if you've ever opened a 2 liter bottle of soda, you can operate a screwcap.  Having the biggest market share of the alternative closures, screwcaps are probably going to be the one that's best accepted by consumers.  

That being said, there are a few issues with them -- primarily that they don't let enough oxygen through, so that can throw the flavor off by being reductive in some wines.  Many consumers also view them as "cheap," primarily due to the fact that Americans were introduced to screwcaps on wine by Ernest Gallo and a little fortified wine called Thunderbird (as Gallo famously said, "bums don't carry corkscrews").  Stelvins also lack the "pop" of a cork leaving the bottle, something that many consumers (including myself) subtly look for in a wine.  Finally, studies by Haut-Brion in the 1970's indicated that after about 10 years, the silicon pad of a Stelvin closure becomes brittle, and can crack, overexposing the wine.

Still, for wine drunk within a decade of bottling (which is pretty much all wines save a minuscule percentage), it's a pretty good closure.  The convenience tends to outweigh the problems.

Next up would be the Vino-lok (pictured here).  This is used primarily in Europe, although at least one Australian producer (Molly Dooker) used it last year.  It's got a pretty small market share -- under 1000 wineries use it -- but it's a good closure on a technical level.  It consists of an aluminum cover over a glass stopper with a silicon pad in a slightly wider-necked bottle.  The seal is as tight as a Stelvin, and you can reseal the bottle with the stopper (although, you can only use the stopper on other Vino-lok bottles).  In fact, resealed, no wine will leak out, even if the bottle is inverted (I've tried this).

On the down side, it's a little more confusing to open, since there's no real frame of reference for it -- and you have to slightly twist the stopper to get it out.  Also, if you reseal the bottle, it seems that when you remove the stopper to reopen the bottle, you always get wine on your hands.  A small problem, but a problem nonetheless.  And, again, there's not much of a "pop" when you open the bottle.  More of a "clink."  Finally, from a vintner's perspective, these are much more expensive than other alternative closures, costing about 70 cents apiece -- about 2 to 3 times the cost of the competition.

That being said, again, it's better than cork.  Glass is as inert as we'll find -- that's why we use it for bottles, after all -- and the resealability is quite nice.  Plus, there's a certain elegance to the glass stoppers -- it's hard to quantify, but I feel that these are just less "cheap seeming" than a Stelvin.

Next up, we have a Zork.  No, it's not named after the old-school text adventure from Infocom (I'm showing my age here, I think...), rather it's a play on the word "cork."  It's made of vegetable-oil-based plastic, and primarily used in Australia, although Don Sebastiani uses it for his Plungerhead Zinfandels from Lodi and Dry Creek.

As you can see, the Zork is opened by peeling back a tamper-evident seal, kind of like on a jug of milk.  Then, the plug is pulled out, kind of like in a bottle of port -- there's a little plastic nub that goes into the neck of the bottle, which provides a satisfying "pop" when the bottle is opened.  Zorks are also resealable.

Alas, I've not found any data on the efficacy of the Zork for long-term storage, nor do I know how well it keeps out air when the bottle is resealed.  It's not a very popular closure, for some reason (and I can't figure out why, really.  But, I know of exactly 3 producers using it -- Plungerhead, Red Knot, and Whoop Whoop), so there's not that much information on it.

This is a crown cap -- some wines are bottled using them, mainly sparkling ones.  In fact, while the bottles are being riddled (the yeast encouraged to go into the neck of the bottle so that it can be removed and the dosage added), it's what sparkling wines are closed with.  Some producers are using them now for their finished wines -- Chandon uses it in California, as will Duval-Leroy with their Maestro closure, and some producers do in Tasmania, and artisan producers elsewhere.

The main problem with this is that it reminds people of beer, not wine, and that it requires a bottle opener (although the Maestro has that built-in).  If the point of using an alternative closure is to eliminate the need for corkscrews, why replace it with another tool?

So, the perfect closure for wine has yet to be found.  The Stelvin is probably the closest, if only we could get over the idea of "screwcaps = cheap," as a wine-consuming culture!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Active tasting.

I've realized, nowhere on this blog is the procedure for tasting wine described!  Yes, actively tasting wine -- as opposed to passively drinking wine, which is what most people tend to do.

So, here's the routine I go through, which is abbreviated as "see, swirl, sniff, sip, swish, slurp, spit and/or swallow."
  1. Pour about 1 - 2 oz of wine into the glass.
  2. Look at the wine with a white backing (generally a tasting note sheet).  Note the color of the main part of the wine and the color of the rim.
  3. Swirl the wine in the glass -- coat the inside of the glass with wine, to give the maximum surface area for the aroma to develop.
  4. Sniff the wine -- both long and short sniffs.  Really get the nose into the glass, to detect aromas.  Generally, at this point, I close my eyes here, to remove visual distractions and force me to concentrate on what I smell and later taste.
  5. Sip the wine -- a little bit goes a long way.  Note the immediate flavor of the wine on the tongue; is it the same as the nose, or different?  How acidic is it, how sweet?
  6. Swish the wine all over the tongue, to get a fuller picture of the flavor profile.  Is it dry in the back?  How does it feel?  Generally, this looks like I'm chewing the wine.
  7. Slurp some air over the wine; this allows the aromas to work up through the sinuses onto the olfactory bulb -- which is where 90% of what you "taste" really is noted (ever notice that when you can't smell stuff, everything tastes bland? That's why.).
  8. Spit -- if I'm at a tasting, where I may be tasting multiple wines in a row, as the alcohol in the wine will dull the senses.  Of course, at home, I swallow.
Note that this is real, active tasting.  That is how you people find "a hint of mint, and some creme de cassis" in a wine.  The best thing to do, to learn to pick out these kinds of flavors, is to actively taste everything.

Yes, you can even actively taste milk.  And water.  And soda.  And steak.

Image from Wine-Community.It.

Monday, June 8, 2009


In line with my earlier post about what to have for wine in the summer... I got to thinking this morning, "how do I like to eat in the summer?"

The answer, of course, is barbecue.  What could be more summery -- no matter where you live -- than meat cooked low-n-slow over a fire, with sauce?

So, what kind of wine should go with barbecue?  Of course, it depends on the style.

North Carolina style barbecue, with it's vinegar-based sauce and hefty use of pork, screams out for a heavier white.  Interestingly, I'd be curious to try Chateau Carbonnieux -- a fairly hefty and rich Bordeaux blanc -- with it.  White Rhone would go well, as would an uber-buttery Chardonnay.

A pulled pork sandwich, with it's heavier tomato-based sauce and distinct smoky/spicy notes would go well with Tempranillo, or an Australian Shiraz.  The sweet and spicy notes in the wine would pair off with the food.

Kansas City, with it's dry rub and side serving of molasses-based sauce screams out for a high-test Aussie Shiraz.  Depending on how spicy the rub is, Zinfandel might go well here -- I'm particularly thinking of Macchia, which makes a very high-test (15.5%-16.5% ABV!) zin.

So, there you have it -- for barbecue, it's pretty hard to go wrong with Shiraz, Tempranillo, or Zin.  Big fruit, spice, lots of weight, often a touch sweet.

Barbecue -- it's not just for beer anymore.

Image from gbleem at en.wikipedia.org.  Used under GNU Free Documentation License.

Wines for summer.

I spent the weekend out and about doing touristy stuff in the Florida heat, and it got me to thinking, "what wines would I like for this?"  

First thing I'd look for in such a wine would be chillability -- I don't want wine that has to be served at room temperature, not if it's hot out.  Much better is something I can throw into (or onto) a cooler of ice to keep cold and chill me down.

Next thing I'd want would be low alcohol levels; when it's hot out, I don't want my wine to be heavy, and the lower the alcohol level is, the lighter feeling the wine is.

Finally, a bit of fizz might go well; there's nothing quite as refreshing as some bubbles!

So, here's a dozen wines to get you through the summer:
  1. A good sweeter Riesling; anything from a QbA, like Dr. L (Dr. Loosen's QbA), to a good Einzellagen (again, I'm a fan of Loosen's Erdener Treppchen Auslese), it's all good.  Riesling like this is incredibly great just for sipping while watching a sunset, or with light food, especially seafood and fresh vegetables.
  2. Chilean Sauvignon Blanc; not quite as juicy as the New Zealand version, but quite excellent in general.  Also about half as expensive (Chilean runs between $7 and $11 in my local wine store, while NZ costs between $9 and $27 or so), so it's perfect quaffing wine.
  3. Cava.  Nothing like light, fizzy, and cold to take the edge off of the summer -- not to mention how well Cava goes with light foods!
  4. Pinot Noir.  I'm a fan of Monterrey as a region, especially for value.  Just a hair lighter than Russian River or Willamette in style, but with great flavor intensity.  Serve them slightly chilled.  I find half an hour in the fridge does them wonders, and I often leave them on top of -- that's "on top of", not "buried in" -- ice in a bucket.
  5. A rosé.  Pink  ≠ sweet -- the sooner we, as drinkers, get that through our heads, the better (not that sweet = bad, but too many people dismiss all rosé as the same as White Zin.  Not so!).  Dry rosé is perfect picnic wine; it goes with almost anything, from ham sandwiches through a plate of shrimp and scallops!  The ideal, for me, would be a Rosé de Provence, but there are great New World rosés as well -- a personal favorite is Elizabeth Rose Rosé, a great Syrah-based wine.
  6. Vihno Verde.  Slightly sweet, slightly effervescent, low-alcohol, high acidity, and best of all inexpensive ($5 to $9 in my local store)... what more could you ask for in a wine for relaxing by the pool!  Serve it ice cold.
  7. Tempranillo.  Personally, I like this one from Toro, but this grape in general is great with grilled meats and barbecue.  Slightly higher-alcohol than the former six suggestions, and not as much for being chilled (although, a couple of minutes in the fridge does wonders for this, too!).
  8. Unoaked Chardonnay.  The best in the world, in my opinion, come from Burgundy (inexpensive Burgundies are almost all either unoaked or use neutral barrels -- ask at the store if you can't find one), but there are great examples from Argentina, Australia, and even some from the US (although we do still have a bit of an oak fetish in our Chardonnay).
  9. Gamay.  This generally means Beaujolais -- and if all you have experienced from Beaujolais is Beaujolais Neuveau... give it a shot.  Cru Beaujolais is a wonderful wine (and generally under $20), so try a Moulin a Vent, or a Fleuire!  Dryer, much more complex than you wold think, enjoyable food wine.
  10. White Bordeaux.  This is wine made from Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle, and Semillon; much more mineral in style than New World Sauvignon Blancs, and a much more elegant food wine -- a good white Bordeaux with fresh bass fillets is heaven.
  11. Torrontes.  I posted about this grape a while ago, but it deserves some more attention; it's perfect for summer cocktails!
  12. Rhone wines.  Both whites and reds; the reds go perfectly with grilled steaks, while the whites would be beautiful with pork chops.
So, there's a mixed case of great wines for summer -- mostly white, with a rose, and two or three reds.  What will you drink for summer?

Image from Wine-Community.It.

Friday, June 5, 2009

More Champagne!

My prior post got me to thinking about the labels for Champagne.  There's some useful information to be found on them, so here's the quick-and-dirty on it, using this Deutz Rose 1999 label as an example.

First of all, since it says "Millésmé 1999," we know that this is a vintage wine -- most Champagne will not show a date, and is therefore nonvintage (it's a blend of juice from different years, so they can't label it with a vintage).  "Rosé" means the juice should be pink, either because of sangineé (leaving the juice from the pinot noir and pinot meunier in contact a short while with the skins to get the color from it), or because some still red wine was added (Champagne is the only region in France, as far as I know, where that's allowed).  Other types of Champagne would be Blanc de Blancs -- 100% Chardonnay -- and Blanc de Noirs -- 100% Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier.

This wine does not list a cru status, so we can infer that either the wine was made with a blend of crus (some grand, some premier, and some plain ol' cru), or that the village where the grapes were harvested were neither grand nor premier cru.  Either way, there's probably not going to have a lot of terroir in the wine.

On the bottom, next to the bottle size, there's a code: NM-178-005.  The "NM" tells you that the wine is a négociant wine -- more than 5% of the grapes, juice, or finished wine were purchased from someone else.  Yes, it's practice in Champagne to purchase finished bubbles and blend it into your own cuveé!

Now, there are several other codes that could be used here:
  • RM: Récoltant-Manipulant.  Grower-maker.  Less than 5% of the grapes, juice, or wine was purchased.  The remainder was grown by the producer.
  • CM: Coopérative de Manipulation.  A co-op; the wine was made by a group of growers getting together and sharing their grapes.
  • RC: Récoltant-Coopérateur.  Grower-cooperator.  This is a grower who turns over their fruit to a co-op, but takes back the wine before it's done.
  • SR: Société de Récoltants.  Group of growers; this is a family business, where one part of the family grows grapes, and another makes wine.
  • ND: Négociant Distributeur.  This is a merchant selling finished wine under their own name.
  • MA: Marque Auxiliaire or Marque d'Acheteur.  This is wine sold under a name unrelated to the grower or producer.
In general, the quality level of the RM's, SR's, and RC's is fairly high (likely, you'll only see RM's -- there are few SR's and RC's out there).  The CM's are pretty good, generally, depending on where they get their grapes from -- so check the cru status and/or village name on the bottle.  NM's can be good, but the big ones tend to be pretty cookie-cutter, so tread lightly into them; look for a cru status (yes, there are Grand Cru NM's), and ask questions at your wine store.

Avoid the ND and MA wines, generally.  They're the stuff that couldn't be sold to the NM's.  There are exceptions, but they're very few and far between.

Now, if the name of the wine includes the word "Château," it means that the wine was bottled and cellared entirely on the estate.  There are, I'm given to understand, only a handful Château Champagnes, and I can heartily recommend one (Château de Bligny -- in the sense of full disclosure, I got to taste it for free with the owner's son at a tasting event).

Edit: Thanks to Boris for pointing out I'd incorrectly referenced the villages below Premier Cru as Cru Bourgois -- it's just plain "Cru," at that point in Champagne.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Champagne Manifesto

In the world of wine, few wines are as romanticized as Champagne; there's an aura of luxury, romance, and celebration surrounding the word.  Champagne is what we use to greet the new year, to celebrate weddings and birthdays, what we splurge on.  It's... well, Champagne!

Oddly enough, though, it's often about as artisan of a product as Pepsi.  Often, in fact, it's about as industrial a wine as the Australian "critter label" contingent.  Champagne is, for the most part, dominated by the big luxury-good conglomerates (LVMH -- Louis Vuitton Moët Hennesey -- and Rémy-Cointreau are the best known of these).  What could be considered "big house" Champagne accounts for around 90% of the market, as of 2008.

Why are these wines bad?  Well, not so much bad, as suboptimal?  An analogy1 may be in order; imagine a vintner -- your favorite, be it Heidi Peterson-Barrett, or Michel Gassier, whoever -- releasing a new wine called simply "California," or "Loire," or "Piedmont," named after the grand region where the wine is from.  There's no vintage date.  The blend of grapes is left unknown, but they do tell you "some of the grapes are from here, some from there, but we can't tell you where all of them are from -- trade secret, you understand.  Yeah, there's no appellation on it, but really, isn't all that appellation stuff just too complex anyhow?  At any rate, the wine is luxurious, worthy of top prices -- it'll start at $40 a bottle.  We made a million cases of it last year.  So buy it."

You'd look at them like they were insane, right?  $40 a bottle for a wine with a million-case production run (by way of comparison, that's on the order of quantity of Yellowtail Cabernet)?  No vintage date, no appellation, no terroir?  No thanks.

Yet, this is exactly what the big houses do.  Consider Veuve Cliquot (owned by LVMH) -- their production is around 1.5 million cases annually, when you take into account all of their wines (base nonvintage, rose, demi sec, vintage, and Grande Dame).  The vast majority of the wine is made with purchased grapes (Champagne has about 19,000 vineyard owners, and the big houses own very little land).  Most of their wine carries no vintage date.  It's been stretched and manipulated through dosage to meet the requests of a focus group.  It's a product, in the truest sense of the word -- the planned, plotted outcome of a very rigorously designed process.

Sounds a lot like the story of Woodbridge, doesn't it?  Except, at least, Woodbridge is vintage-dated; they allow for some small variance from year to year.  It might be interesting... perhaps.  Or at least different.

It gets worse, though -- even the grapes the big houses buy tend not to be very good.  They pay by weight, not quality, for their grapes.  Good grapes for sparkling wine tend to be just a hair under-ripe, and low on water -- hence, light.  If you are a farmer with two plots of land, one with heavy, wet grapes that are not ideal for sparkling wine, and one with perfectly under-ripe grapes, and someone offers you money for weight, what would you give them?  I'd save the good stuff for someone who paid for quality!

So why is this stuff $40+ a bottle?  Is it worth it?

My answer would be a resounding "no."

So what's the alternative?

Récoltant-Manipulant ("Grower-Maker") Champagne.  The other 10% of the market.  Where the good grapes tend to stay.  You can tell a Récoltant wine by the initials "RM" on the Champagne code (generally on the bottom of the front label).  These are wines made by people, not corporations.  Wines with a sense of place, not ones that are poked and prodded into bland nothingness.

And, even better, these are not wines that are more expensive -- in fact, due to a lack of marketing costs (sponsoring polo tournaments and regattas is expensive, it turns out!) RM Champagne often costs substantially less than the big-house products!

Often, an RM wine will even carry the name of the village where the grapes were grown -- there's several hundred in Champagne, and some even have a cru (Grand or Premier) status associated with them.  I find, personally, that the pinot-heavy wines of Bouzy are excellent -- very lively, with gorgeous cherry notes.  For blancs de blancs, wines made only of Chardonnay, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger is excellent, with focused citrus and biscuit notes.

Note that I'm not recommending a specific label here -- the RM's available in my market may not be the RM's available in someone else's.  We're talking about wines with a total production in the thousands of bottles, so even with as small a slice of the market as they have, there's a lot of producers out there.  And, that small slice is growing -- it's around 10% now, while 10 years ago, it was 3%.

The best thing to do, really, is explore.  Come to your Champagne with an open mind, forget what you "know" about the big houses, and discover what terroir really means in sparkling wine.  So buy a bottle with an unknown name, a little "RM" on the bottom of the label, and the name of a town half a world away, and preferably one with the words "Grand cru."  Taste.  Enjoy.  Be a part of the revolution in Champagne.  Say "no" to wine as a product, and "yes" to wine as an expression of place.

1 This is lifted pretty much wholesale from Terry Thiese, who is the visionary leading the trend to RM Champagnes.  Good writers borrow, and all that,  but I felt I had to credit him.