Friday, January 28, 2011

BRAMBLES; Items from a Spring-like Winter

It has been dry for more than two weeks now, in a season when we usually get most of our rain.  Warm day time temperatures have continued to set local records for date over this period, and several of the local creeks that funnel our run-off into the Laguna's watershed are now dry.  With many grape growers here just coming out of the worst growing season in memory, our abundant early season rains and mountain snow fall must have seemed like a blessing.  Now the rains have stopped. Perhaps it is a good time to assess where we are, and where we are going.

  • Local grower, Rick, proudly announced recently that all of his estates premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines had already competed their dormant season pruning. Continuing dry weather has allowed his vineyard workers to focus on other maintenance, like re-securing the arms or cordons to their guide wires.
  • John, who has been growing wine grapes for more than a generation on the family farm, said that he has had vine health issues in the past on his Chardonnay. Pruning wounds can invite systemic fungal infestations or bacterial infections like Pierce's Disease, so he won't prune anything until just before bud break.  My few ornamental vines of late-season ripening Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon,  are already showing signs of the Spring bud break due to the false Spring-like conditions here.

Mixed Messages; At the recent Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, it was announced that demand for California wines continue to increase, and have resulted in as much as an additional 17,000 acres planted in the last year alone. In addition to perennial favorites, hot new varieties include Muscat of Alexandria and Pinot Grigio.  Take heart and raise a glass white wine drinkers!

  • Wine industry expert, Bill Turrentine, reports that far and away the U.S. is the most lucrative wine market in the world, and expects that we will account for as much as 19% of global consumption by 2030. That figure is more than double our world market share in 1980!  Keep drinking those value based imports, because they know we are here!!

  • It was also reported that high end(+$20) wine sales grew significantly in the last quarters of 2010, but that North Coast wine grape production fell again, about 20%, due to an erratic and challenging growing season.With the State grape harvest down, there could be a significant shortage of some wine grape varieties ahead. So, drink it now, for it may not be that bargain in the future!

  • Allied Grape Growers President DiBuduo notes that most Sonoma County AVA grape growers only produce about three(3) tons per acre, while the average cost of farming those acres is about $12,000, annually. Based on 2009 prices, a grower would need to harvest about 5.6 tons per acre to break even! California, the Sunshine State, continues to produce about 90% of the nations wine, followed in production by Washington and New York. Domestic price increases should be anticipated by consumers, so stock up now!

More than half of California's production comes from the Central Valley, home of generic table and bulk wines. The states 2005 wine grape harvest set a new benchmark, more than 3.15 million tons, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay acreage leading the way. Each of the last five(5) harvests produced less and less premium fruit, but our wine consumption as a nation continues to grow. I must be drinking more!

  • One of the nation's most prestigious wine judgings, the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition,  was held recently at the City's Fort Mason Center. Paso Robles AVA of  California's Central Coast, was the big winner among the wines of 23 states entered. Sweepstakes awards for best White was given to a New Mexico Gewurztraminer, and the best Rose' was judged to be from Washington state. Of the 27 White Wine Best of Class winners, only five(5) came from Sonoma county.

Summarizing, we are growing more higher quality fruit and importing more wines in California than ever before, but we are also drinking more too. Costs relative to producing those domestic wines continues to climb, but, so too does the competition with ever increasing foreign markets. Savvy wine shoppers will continue to ferret out quality values, and after years of belt-tightening, local growers should have an easier time going forward, if only Mother Nature will cooperate. And, North Coast AVA wine producers should expect that even though we consumers are drinking more premium wines than ever before, more of it will come from outside our backyard and arrive at our dining tables everyday.

And, I still don't know if I should prune my grape vines.  Finally, rain is in our forecast.

Now that's a Bramble!  Cheers!!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

IBERIA: Wines of History

Portugal and Spain share the same peninsula in the southwestern edge of the European continent, yet have remained distinctly independent neighbors throughout history.
From the westernmost corner of Moorish Spain, the Jerez, where the white, chalky albariza soils grow the best Palomino grapes in blinding sunshine, producing my beloved Sherry, to the rainy estuary lands that are the Celtic influenced Minho province of Vinho Verde and the early harvested(green)wine that shares its name, this edge of the old world is richly steeped in cultural extremes.

Shared history has seen the armies of numerous invaders marched across this landscape.  Celtic "Lusitanians", with their similar culture, had already integrated into the Northern territories, long before the 8th century would see a conquest coming from Africa across the South. Spain had seen the Romans and the Visigoths before the Islamic conquest, and not until the domestic Castile & Aragon unification of 1492, allowed this nation to became whole. Portugal saw the Romans, Visigoths and Moors too, yet, perhaps due to its rugged landscape and smaller size, was able to drive out the foreign invaders and become an independent kingdom much earlier in 1139. The wine production of these Iberian neighbors was being forged time and again by each wave of incursion.

Alliances with other kingdoms established important trade routes, and the Age of Discovery that followed brought a world of new products and opened new markets for the goods(wines)Portugal. Imperial Spain stretched its reach across the ocean trade routes too, on the way to becoming a global empire.  Along the way, developing trade with England, France and Flanders influenced the design and evolution of the wine industries  of these Iberian neighbors. Would there be a great Port, like Dow's and Taylor-Fladgate without the English and the Methuen Treaty?  Is it possible that without the early Dutch developed methods of fortification(brandy) and sulfuring, Spanish wines evolving time line would have been significantly delayed?

Standardization, forced by the European Union, has brought these neighbors into the contemporary world, upgrading their viticulture and wine classifications. Today, Spain has the largest grape acreage in the world, dominated by the white grape Aire'n.  One of its principal grapes, Tempranillo, is known by the synonyms Cencibel, Tinta del Pais, and  Catalonia's Ull de Llebre, underscoring the fractured, independent history of a single countries noble grape. In Portugal, this same grape is known by the name Tinta Roriz, and is one of the national grape pillars(among 4 others) of fortified Port wines.

But a new history is being written.  Spanish Denominacion of Origen's of Toro, Rueda and Ribera del Duero, north of Madrid, are following similar new world trade routes to establish exciting, high quality wines from these improving provinces.  Priorat, DOCa, sitting between Barcelona and Valencia, is emerging today as Spain's most important up and coming  wine region based on wines from the red rustic Carinena (carignan). Even old traditions of Portugal are modernizing in regions beyond Vinho Verde,  like the improving table wines of the Dao and the Douro DOC's. The clay soils of Bairrada DOC, known for the rich reds of Baga and the bright white Maria Gomes varieties, have long been consumed domestically and today can be increasingly found in our local wine shops. 

Quality wines from these two independent Iberian neighbors today offer a chance to taste their great histories in each glass.  They are unique, value driven wines that can enhance the histories each of us make, and allow us to celebrate greatness found in independence.

Cheers!, A Sia Saide, and Salud!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

GERMANY to AUSTRIA: Quality, Value & Standardization

Paired with a wonderful meal of squash with prawns soup, and sauteed skate wing with oyster mushrooms, soy and ginger, our bottles of a recent vintage Mosel Riesling added harmony and contrasts to the feast. The dry Kabinett was tart and austere, adding just the right sharp counterpoint to our creamy textured soup. And the off-dry Spatlese had richly textured stone fruit layers lifted by its bracing acidity as a rich foil for the exotic, earthy flavors of the fish dish.  Best of all, both wines were approved by their governments testing panels, had specific details about their content on the tall green bottles, and were less than $17 each from a local wine shop.  As I continue to prepare for an upcoming Wine Educators exam, this seemed like the perfect time to explore what is unique about the terrific, quality wine values from Germany and Austria.

Both countries have strict controls on place of origin, regulating every tier of production.  The majority of these wines fall into the QbA or Qualitatswein designation or the even higher Qmp(Pradikat) demarcation.  These wines are labeled by the weight or content of sugar at harvest, so expect to find wines labeled Kabinett to be dry.  Late harvested grapes or Spatlese, and even those late, hand selected grapes in an Auslese, usually will be off-dry to slightly sweet, but balanced with good acidity to make them clean, textured, and food friendly.

Germany's wine lands make up its southwestern borders along the Rhine, where the wine growing regions of Austria run like a backward 'C', following the Danube across its southeastern territories surrounding Vienna. Riesling is royal in both countries, with the indigenous Gruner Veltliner only becoming regal in Austria. With their wine regions flanking the Alps, sitting below 50 and 47 degrees North latitude, and both nations produce 'stickies' from late harvest and botrytized grapes in their highest noted quality levels, the Pradikatswein. The important moderating effect of waters from these great, winding rivers contribute to successful grape growing in these cool regions.

Wine labels from both white wine giants will contain the name of the producer or bottler, usually in the largest type. In smaller type, the wines vintage date(year of harvest) and its single grape variety will also be noted. Proprietary names, like "Liebfraumilch", are typically blends of one grape from different vineyards.  But higher quality wines will note the village name(usually ending in 'er') as well as a vineyard name in conspicuous type.  In addition to listing its wine growing region, these wines prominently display their quality classification levels and their level of ripeness at harvest.  Wines labeled 'trocken' or 'halbdrocken' will be dry or half-dry, respectively.

 With their regulated QbA and higher QmP small production wines tested for authenticity and quality, it seems remarkable that they can be found a value.  Yet, these terrific wines have in recent years become quite standardized in spite of the cool regions where they are produced, and remain one of the wine worlds wonders. We consumers can find their consistent qualities at a reasonable price at our local wine merchants, if only we speak a little German!


Friday, January 14, 2011

WINTER WINELAND: Strategy Benefits

In the wine-making cellars of this hemisphere the Winter season is a busy time for the racking of new wines, sanitizing equipment and bottling finished products that represent the fruits of their labors.  Winery sales typically slow down as visitations are altered by poor weather and the general lack of wine driven holidays. It happens to be a great time of year for local wine events, like this weekends Winter Wineland.  Sonoma County's Russian River Wine Road, founded more than 30 years ago, continues to do a good job keeping local wineries on the itineraries of visitors and promoting standards for responsible hospitality.With 140 wineries from Cloverdale to Freestone participating in the January 15 & 16 annual migration, it benefits all participants to have a preplanned strategy to get the most out of their passports and maximize their enjoyment of this festive event.

  • Download the Google maps application or winery list by region(appellation) to minimalize travel time between venues and give you a layout of the landscape. Visit  My experience tells me that it usually gets more crowded and louder in the late afternoon, so there is less opportunity to speak with winemakers or knowledgeable staff.  Remember that late in the day, everyone wants to visit just one more winery!

  • Make plans to visit a few new wineries in the same area that are places members in your party have wanted to visit. Research these new venues, read reviews of their wines, and make a list of wines that you would like to try.

  • Get started early(this event starts at 11:00am) and drive towards your pre-designated, mid-day rest stop for a little nosh, a bite of lunch, or at the minimum, a bottle of water.  Be sure to take advantage of the winery prepared foods that complement their wines.

  • Don't be afraid of impulse buys on wines that speak to you.  It is nearly impossible to return later in the day once you get going on the wineroad. These are limited production, hand crafted wines, and when will you be here again?
  • Be sure to have a designated driver in your party.  Wineries can lose their license serving tasters that are intoxicated, and the potential for a DUI is too great a risk.  Know that local authorities have years of practice policing these popular events and will be looking for drivers under the influence.

  • Should you visit more than three(3) or four(4) wineries, be sure to use the available spit buckets.  You'll be able to enjoy the wines freely and limit your intake of alcohol.  You'll thank me in the morning! 
  •  It is physically impossible to do it all in just two(2) days.  So, be selective, concentrate on one or two areas, and make plans to return!

  • And, get your tickets for the regions Barrell Tasting Weekend, the second weekend in March.  You can pick-up where you left off!
As much as wine events such as these are personal explorations into finding new wines, the experience is so much richer if it is shared with other wine lovers who can provide their own insights into the ever evolving world of wine.  Whether along this wine road or others, a good, pre-planned  strategy provides visitors the benefits of an enriched tour with responsible sensibilities.