Thursday, February 24, 2011

FORTIFIED: Wine takes a Trip

As my Wine Exam gets closer, it becomes necessary to look back so that we can look ahead. With more than a dozen postings since December, the chapter-ed overviews here looked at the worlds important wine production areas(with some personal bias).  We saw that red and white wines of improving qualities have been made throughout Europe's modern history, across a lateral band of old world countries, that eventually colonized the New World too.

It has been suggested on other sites that fortified wines were the result of their respective production areas not being able to produce anything other than simple, thin wines without the benefit of fortification by available spirits. Perhaps, but my research indicates that there may have been other forces at play. Emerging domestic merchant classes, expanding international trade encouraged by favorable tariffs with principal trading partners, and thirsty foreign markets drinking up the exotic flavors of the week all impacted the development of a fortified wine product. Central to all of this was transportation, either overland or over sea, where the maritime colonizing powers had distinct advantages, not to mention increasing ports of exchange.

Fortified wines, or wines that have added spirits, like Spain's Sherry, Portugal's Port and Madiera, France's VDNs, or Italy's Marsala and Vermouth, have things in common. Grape brandy or neutral spirits are typically used too arrest fermentation, resulting in a stabilized product that is able to be shipped. At 16 - 18%abv, alcohol is toxic to yeasts which are the catalysts to wine fermentation, usually leaving un-fermented sugars. It should be no mystery then that these wines developed and proved to be very popular during the Age of Exploration.

North African Moors introduced distillation to Spain in the 8th century, and the two styles of Sherry, Fino and Oloroso evolved. Fortified after fermentation is complete, Finos are the result of biological aging, where the fermented juice is in contact with a veil of yeasts(flor) which controls oxidation. Olorosos undergo physiochemical aging, having direct contact with air in a controlled environment. Both are products of a complex system of fractional blending and aging known as the Solera. Desiring to expand its export market, Sherry's export tax was abolished in 1491. A year later, Columbus set sail from Sanlucar de Barrameda(one of 3 Sherry production sites) for the New World with Sherry on board.

As the adventurers Columbus, Vespucci, Velasquez, and Cortez, introduced Spanish culture to the New World throughout the 16th century, the market and reputation for fortified(15-18%abv) Sherry grew. When Sir Francis Drake sacked Cadiz in 1587, he returned with a hold full of Sherry for his Queen, Elizabeth I. Sherry, fortified after fermentation is complete, will be dry unless sweet is added back in.  Due to its complex production system, the Sherries of Spain are the least acidic and most aldehydic wine in the world, offering a range of delicate and dry to lusciously sweet styles.

 Distillation was an important part of the 12th century medieval medical school in southern Italy. Simple wines could certainly be distilled to create a grape brandy, continued to increase in popularity. Late in the 18th century,  Marsala, a fortified white DOC that may be produced dry to sweet, was created by an enterprising English merchant. Today the best blended Marsala's can be found in oro(golden), ambra(amber) and rubino(ruby) styles, in selections labeled Fino or Superiore.  Highly esteemed,  a dry Vergine Stravecchio Riserva, has been aged a minimum of ten years in cask.

About the same time Northern Italy's aromatized wine, Vermouth, which can be made in dry or sweet styles, began being produced from house herbal 'recipes' that go back to the late 18th century. Also in Piedmont, Barolo Chinato DOCG, a bitter quinine flavored fortified wine, is a regional specialty.

In the South of France, vin doux naturals have been produced since the 13th century, and today spread across the southern arc of the country. In the Cotes du Rhone, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise is produced naturally sweet. The Rhone also produces a spectrum of  Rasteau VDN's from the village of the same name, from Grenache Blanc and Grenache Noir grapes. Frances largest producer of VDN's, Roussillon  produces notable wines from the workhorse Muscat grape, Muscat de Rivesaltes, and also Rivesaltes AC which is made in available grape blends in red, white or rose styles. Banyuls also produces top quality VDNs from regional Grenache red grapes.
Portugal was a global nautical power throughout the 1400's. With a well developed island wine industry by the 16th century, Madiera's, Vinho da Roda, or wines that made the round trip sea voyage were very popular on ships and in colonial port cities. Styles of Madiera, the result of controlled heating(estufagem) and oxidation,  are pale, dry Sercial, golden Verdelho, sweeter and darker Bual, and luscious Malmsey(Malvasia).  These are also the names of their traditional 'noble' grape varieties, although the native Tinta Negra Mole remains the islands most planted grape variety. Today we can join our Founding Fathers by raising a glass of Madiera to celebrate signing our Declaration of Independence, or making a terrific pot of soup!

In the last half of the 17th century, the wines fortified to stop fermentation from Portugal's Douro Valley became known as Oporto, popularly Anglicised as Port. The colonial power's Methuen Treaty of 1703 with England provided a reliable trading partner for its much sought-after wines. In 1756, the Douro was defined and protected by the prime minister in a decree intended to control and regulate production, thereby becoming one of the oldest appellations in the world. Rarest of all are finest bottle-aged Vintage ports, which spend only about 2 years in cask(pipes), and Single Quinta's.  These styles are the product of the absence of oxygen or reductive aging from a declared vintage. Most Port's are wood-aged, a minimum 3 years for Ruby style and many years more for LBV and Tawny oxidative styles.

South of Lisbon, ancient Muscat(Moscatel) grapes are grown on the Setubal Peninsula to become the source of a fortified wine similar to Port,  Moscatel de Setubal DOC. These apricot-raisin wines are cask aged and have been produced for centuries. Setubal's are said to have been 'invented' by J.M. Fonseca, one of the oldest Port producers in the world.

In Central Europe around 1500, German alchemist, Hieronymus Braunschweig, published The Book of the Art of Distillation.  With the exception of noble Riesling, a grape suited for its climate extremes, the Northern edge of the wine-growing world seems then perfectly situated for the development of fortified wines.  Surprisingly, Germany and Austria, whose New World colonization waited until the 19th century, are not big fortified wine producers. Perhaps there were other factors that encouraged the development of fortified wines for us to enjoy.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

ITALY: Need to Know, Too

From its calf to its toe, Central and Southern Italy produce an ocean of everyday wine for thirsty regional consumption. Here we find mostly DOC regions. A small portion of this wine has fortunately evolved to higher EU standards to become DOCG; but, just about all of it has ancient origins.

South of Emiglia-Romana, and east of Tuscany lies the hilly Adriatic region of Marche. Here Conero DOCG is based on the native red grape Montepulciano, and grown in the hills overlooking seaside Ancona. Thought once to be extinct, the region's ancient red Vernaccia grape, produces Marches other DOCG wine, sparkling Vernaccia di Serrapetrona. Venerable Verdicchio, and old world white grape, is the base for the regions generously consumed and best white DOC wines produced throughout the region.

Like Marche to the North, Abruzzo is mostly mountains and hills that run to the eastern sea. The regions only DOCG wine, also made from Montepulciano grapes, can be found in its extreme northernmost  zone, Montepulciaiano d'Abruzzi Colline TeramaneTrebbiano, a native variety, produces the regions best white DOC wines. A reductive vino cotto or cooked wine, is a regional specialty here, much like Portugal's Maderia.
Without any DOCG appellations, Latium can only claim to be the home of Frascati DOC, a white blend of Malvasia Bianca and Trebbiano grapes. It can be found in dry, sweet or sparkling styles. Of note is a simple wine with a big thousand year reputation, Est! Est!! Est!!! di Montefiascone DOC.  It is based in a similar white grape blend, and then benefits from centuries of apostolic marketing following its discovery by a bishop.

Originating in Greece, high acid red Aglianico, produces the popular Taurasi DOCG in Campania, and Aglianico del Vulture DOCG in neighboring Basilicata. The regions white DOCG's are from the Greek introduced Greco grapes, Greco du Tufa, and raisiny Fiano da Avellino produced from the Fiano grape.

Apulia, the prolific wine producing heel of the boot, does not have a DOCG, in-spite of being one of the country's largest wine producers. Red grape dominated, it is the home of Salice Salentino DOC and Brindisi DOC, prominent among its 24 DOC appellations. It is home to red Negromaro and Primitivo grapes.

Calabria, Italy's toe, has its most famous DOC, Ciro', a rosso from the ancient Galioppo grape that it is said has been produced here for thousands of years. Also notable is Greco di Bianco DOC, a dessert wine made from dried greco grapes along the regions coastline. Documents indicate that this specialty has been produced here since the 8th century BC!
One of Italy's largest producers, Sicily, is most famously known for Marsala DOC, a dry or sweet fortified wine produced on its western edge. White Cataratto Bianco grapes dominate the islands landscape, and its only DOCG, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, is from the red grape Nero d'Avola. Two important dessert wines are produced here, Moscato di Pantelleria DOC, and Malvasia delle Lipari DOC, it made from malvasia grapes on the islands of Lipari.
Vermentino di Gallura comes from the white grape(Vermentino) of Spanish origin that is Sardinia's only DOCG zone. On the other side of the island, a bone dry, partially oxidized wine, Vernaccia di Oristano DOC, from the local white Vernaccia variety is produced.  It is said to be reminiscent of a simple Sherry. Continuing today to reflect its Spanish past, the most widely planted red grapes on this island are Connonau, also known as Garancha, and Carignano(carignan).

With a historical perspective, it probably is important to realize that Italy was not united as one kingdom until the last part of the 19th century.  Prior to that, these independent city states that sit at the crossroads of the old world were visited time and again by foreign powers. Yet, throughout it all, century upon century, with local wine traditions firmly in place, it has remained distinctly Italian.  For one of the world's foremost producers, it must be the wine. Salute!

'Wine is Life' -Petronius

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

ITALY: Need to Know

Attempting to be as well prepared as possible for the upcoming Wine Educators exam, I asked the Society to send me their Preview Workbook. Along with a few sample questions and critical grading criteria, it noted that a full third of the written exam would cover the wines and regions of France & Italy.  With just a few weeks left, it  was time to explore the 'need to know details' of the vine paradise known by the ancient Greeks as Wine Land.

  • Northern Italy Need to Know's

Veneto's dominant grape of Soave DOCG is Garganega, a required 70% of blend minimum.
The region's principal grape of blended Amarone della Valpolicella is red Corvina. Bordolino Superiore DOCG is made from the same grapes, but grown in different zones and with different blended proportions.
Amarone Riserva aging requirement is a minimum four years prior to release.
Proscecco DOCG sparkling wines are made from 85% minimum Proscecco white grapes.

Friuli-Venezia Giulia's Colli Orientali del Friuli DOCG and Ramondolo DOCG's are made from local variety dried grapes, Picolit and  white Ramandolo, respectively.
Most of Trentino-Alto Adige's production shows its German-Austrian roots, with volumes of quality wines from Muller-Thurgau, Traminer and the red Lagrein and Teroldego grapes.
Italy's most important DOCG for traditional method sparkling wines is Lombardy's Franciacorta DOCG. Riservas must be aged a minimum of five years. In the northeast of this region, Valtellina DOCG wines are produced with a minimum 70% Chiavennasca(Nebbiolo) and blended with Pinot Nero(Pinot Noir)

 Albana di Romagna, located in Emilia-Romana,  was Italy's first white wine DOCG. The region produces great volumes of vino da tavola, like the popular Lambrusco, based from the grape of the same name.
Umbria's Orvietto is based in principal white grapes of Grechetto and Trebbiano(Ugli Blanc). The red grape, Sagrantino is the basis of Montefalco DOCG, and the region's Sangiovese blend, Torgiano Riserva DOCG, produce arguably the region's red best wines.

Important Piedmont communes of Neive and Treiso found in the Barbaresco DOCG, where we also find the village of Barbaresco. Of the numerous communes producing some if Italy's greatest, long lived wines,  Cannubi is considered among the best cru of Barolo DOCG.
Barbaresco and Barolo's Nebbiolo grape is known by a variety of synonyms: Spanna, Chiavennasca(Lombardy), and Picotendro (Picutener). The regions Northern hills are the home of Gattinara DOCG and Ghemme DOCG, with red blends based on Spanna.
Gavi DOCG is produced in the south of the Piedmont region and based on the white Cortese grape.
A sweet, sparkling red wine from native Brachetto grapes is a specialty of the region, Brachetto d'Acqui DOCG.  Another important regional product is Vermouth, produced with a minimum 70% wine base, and then fortified and flavored with herbs and local spices.

Smallest of Northern Italy's regions, Valle d'Aosta, borders Switzerland and produces numerous wine varieties that have only attained DOC status. Flanking Piedmont to the South, Liguria's most important white grape is Pigato(Vermentivo), and also produces locally consumed DOC wines.

Central Italy's Tuscany region is home to seven(7) DOCG's, mostly based on the workhorse red variety, Sangiovese, and its many clones. Chianti Classico DOCG, the original zone of production, is located between Florence and Siena, and has rigid productions standards. Wines labeled Chianti DOCG are produced by growers in a much wider(varied) and encompassing landscape.
Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, is the noble product of the Brunello(little brown one) clone, from the small hilltop village. Neighboring Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG, is based on another Sangiovese clone known as Prugnolo.
Carmignano DOCG, is a rosso blend of Sangiovese and mostly Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc. In the regions Southwest, is the newly recognized, Morellino di Scansano DOCG, yet another Sangiovese based wine. Notable in this region, Vernaccia di San Gimignano is produced from the local white Vernaccia grape, and has DOCG status.

Terms indicating wine produced from dried grapes include: Recioto, Passito, and Sforzato. The term Ripasso, literally to 'pass over', reflects a fermentation on the wines lees. DOC and DOCG wines labeled Riserva have been aged longer. Wines indicating Superiore have a higher level of alcohol or aging or come from a specific geographical region.  Vino Santo is a Italy's maderized dessert wine made in sweet and dry versions from dried, local grapes.

DOCG wines rank at the top of Italy's quality pyramid, and are intended to guarantee the authenticity and region of origin with the highest standards. All of the wines in this ranking are subject to taste and chemical evaluations by professional panels. In 2004 there were only 29 DOCG wines, today there are 55 throughout the country!

And, that is just almost half of it.  More later...I need more time to study!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

AUSTRALIA & NEW ZEALAND: Quality Innovations Down Under

A current article here asked us to think inside the box, the wine box that is. Innovations in traditional wine packaging may have been born in the mid-1960's in South Australia's bulk wine Riverland region, where it is said that wine in a box was first created. In the decades since, eco-friendly Bota Box and Tetra Pak containers in various sizes have followed and have spread across the widely accepting wine consuming world.

By most accounts, screwcaps as wine closures grew out of the State of South Australia's Clare Valley in 2000 for its vibrant Riesling wines. Subsequently, Australia's Wine Research Institute proved screwcaps to be a superior wine seal. Global wine producers in the years that followed have adopted screwcap closures in dramatic fashion, touting its advantages of eradicating cork taint, offering convenience and 'consistency' in a wines qualities.

A thousand miles to the east, the New Zealand Screwcap Wine Seal Initiative, now just barely 10 years old, currently enjoys the success achieved by 90% of all NZ wines using this innovative closure. But that is not all.  Born in the mid-90's, the New Zealand Winegrowers recently announced that an impressive 94% of their members were following the nation's regulated principals of Sustainable Viticulture.  This revolution in farming is growing a commercial success too, as acreage has increased here more than three fold, and the average price earned per ton has grown for New Zealand viticulturalists by over 40% in the last decade.

Down Under, Australia's Wine Innovation Cluster, together with the University of Adelaine, and collaborative efforts with other wine industry members, continues to advance Sustainable Viticulture here too, while developing sound wine science and visionary global marketing. At the turn of the 21st century, Australia's wine industry launched Strategy 2025, aiming to be the worlds most influential and profitable wine industry by extending their global market-share.  Many of their goals have already been achieved.

New Zealand, too, has great global market impact with their benchmark Kiwi Sauvignon Blancs. After Chardonnay  and Pinot Noir,  Syrah is to now set become New Zealand's, "most important grape variety", according to giant Brancott Estates winemaker Patrick Materman, at the recent  NZ Annual Trade Tasting at Lord's, where 18 award winning Syrah's were on shown.From Northland on the North Island, to Central Otago on the South Island, New Zealand's ten (10)wine growing regions, which are scattered mostly on the eastern edges, continue to produce quality and value.  North to South, these superior efforts can be found in the following:
Auckland - 2007 Kumeu River Chardonnay
Hawks Bay - 2008 Sileni Estates Cellar Selection Pinot Noir
Martinborough - 2008 Stonecrop Pinot Noir
Martinborough - 2008 Escarpment Over the Edge Pinot Noir
Marlborough - 2009 Nautilus Sauvignon Blanc 
Central Otago -  2008 Gunn Estates Pinot Noir
Canterbury - 2008 Pegasus Bay Riesling Bel Canto

Across the 3000 mile southern arc of an old continent, 1200 miles to the west of New Zealand,  there are 60 Australia designated wine regions. Examples of their valued efforts are reflected in:
New South Wales - 2006 Tempus Two Pinot Gris
Mudgee - 2007 Robert Oatley Chardonnay
South East Australia 2007 Jacob's Creek Reserve Chardonnay
Margaret River - 2007 Art Series Riesling

And, not one of these bottled wines costs more than $20! With quality wine innovations continuing to be cultivated in Australia and New Zealand, consumers can only benefit by thinking inside the box. Cheers!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

SOUTH AFRICA in a DAY; Literally

White wine dominated South Africa seems to be represented on our retailers shelves more than ever before.  Tall green bottles of Steen (Chenin Blanc) and Sauvignon Blanc, WO white banderole topped bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage (Pinot Noir and Cinsault cross) seem to be popping up everywhere.  With just weeks to prepare for the upcoming Wine Educators exam,  I thought that I would read everything that I could about the wines of the Southernmost tip of a very old continent in just one day. Not surprisingly, I read early on that Wines of SA, a national trade organization, reported that sales to the U.S. have increased five fold in just the last 10 years!

With winemaking traditions going back more than 350 years, South Africa is defined by five main Regions in the Southwest, divided into 21 Districts, which are compartmentalized by 64 smaller Wards. Important Coastal Region districts of Swartland and Darling lie to the North, Paarl to the East, Stellenbosch and Constantia to the South, surrounding Cape Town. Most of the countries quality wines are produced here. Circling further North are the Olifant's River Region, the Breen River Valley and the Klein Karoo, and their inland districts which are dominated by bulk, sweet and fortified wines. Cape South Region, with it's cool growing districts, is today notable for Overberg, where crisp Sauvignon Blanc is leading the way, and Walker Bay's,  Hemel-en-Aarde,  a promising ward for Pinot Noir.

Since the dawn of the 20th century, South Africa has been dominated by cooperatives, as it remains today.  Surprisingly,  there are more producers today than 20 years ago, but more than three times as many cellars that crush grapes.  There were lots of co-op's, dominated by the KWV, now there are wine producing estates and privatized cooperatives(thank you for the correction, Mr. May!). Wholesalers too have grown, with four times as many as there were in 1991.  Vineyard acreage in South Africa has grown by almost 30% in the last decade following the repeal of apartheid, and with the growth of export markets.  And, this old world producer with a foot firmly planted in the contemporary world is exporting today more than 400 million litres of quality wine, four times greater than it did in just 1996!
 Tastings of South Africa:
  • Although a cooler climate than its latitude might suggest due to the cold Benguela Current, the industry has survived persistent vine threats, including the seasonal gale force winds know as the Cape Doctor. Irrigation is necessary in most Regions(particularly inland), and growers also battle fruit eating birds and even baboons!
  • Certified Wines of Origin(WO) have an absolute guarantee that the wine has been evaluated, what is claimed on the bottle is true, and contains 100% of stated cultivar & a minimum 85% of vintage.

  • Once the prized wine of 18th century kings and emperors, traditional Vin de Constance, typically from Muscat of Frontignan grapes, is a sweet dessert wine, and is still produces today south of Cape Town at several wine estates.

  • Cap Classique, traditional method sparkling wines, continue to be produced, typically from Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc grapes.
 As impressive as the contemporary South Africa wine industry has become over the last generation, I am very impressed that I was able to gather, digest and report all of this in just one day!  A glass of Stellenbosch Sauvignon Blanc, please! Perhaps it will be  a quality offering  from the estate of Saxenburg, or going further inland, Boschendal of Paarl.  With tonight's Big Game dinner, maybe we'll search out a glorious red blend from Stellenbosch's Chateau Libertas or one from Kanonkop.  Then there's a terrific Cabernet Sauvignon from Paarl's Nederburg. With so many choices on my wine retailers shelves, it may be hard to choose, but I am guaranteed of it's South African quality.


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

EXAMINE North AMERICA; A Continetal Divide

We all know that California is by far this continent's largest wine producer and that Napa's appellations of Oakville, Rutherford and Stag's Leap are among its most prestigious American Viticultural Areas(AVA's). Those facts have a lot to do with a persistent number of early immigrant families who became large bulk wine producers, as well as a hand-full of late-20th century dreamers and visionaries who believed that they could make some of the best wines in the world.  But, did you know that Sonoma County makes much more wine than Napa or that this Nation's second leading wine production state by volume is New York?

Canada's largest winegrape growing region is in Ontario VQA, surrounding the shoreline of the Great Lake by the same name, and on the Northern shores of nearby Lake Erie.  Ontarios's Northern lattitudes of 40-45 degrees are in the same band as the great wine growing regions of Europe, and its viticultural aspect benefits from a temperate climate and the moderating effects of those great bodies of water. Head three thousand miles West, crossing the continent, and your in Canada's other principal winegrowing region, British Columbia.  Of the four(4) Viticultural Areas in BC, the Okanagan Valley VA is the largest, and benefits by being on the lee side of the Coast Mountain Range, and extended daylight hours during its short growing season. On the shores of Lake Okanagan, one of BC's four(4) designated viticultural areas,  Mission Hill Winery, remains an industry leader, featuring a typically broad selection of vinifera and hybrid varieties.

When most of us think of Canadian wine we think of Ice Wine, that painfully laborious gift of nature that comes from harvesting frozen, raisins of grapes and extracting the water from them prior to fermentation.  But, did you know that the only grape varieties allowed in this process of Canadian pride were Riesling and Vidal, a hybrid of Ugni Blanc(Trebbiano in Italy) X Rayon d'Or(French-American hybrid), and surprisingly Cabernet Franc? Although produced in many countries(including the U.S) with similar late season growing conditions, Canada produces about 75% of global totals of this clean, non-botryized nectar.

 Across Lake Ontatio to the South, New York state grows most of this nation 's supply of Concord grapes (vitis lambrusca), along with French hybrids and European vinifera, like Riesling and Cabernet Franc. Notably,  Upper New York States Finger Lakes AVA region is the home of Pleasant Valley Wine Company of Hammondsport,  America's first Bonded winery in 1860.  Along with Lake Erie, Hudson River, and Long Island AVA Regions, the New York premium grape volume exceeds production of Upper Mississippi Valley AVA. This newly recognized region, established by the TTB in 2009,  is America's largest AVA, at over 29, 000 square miles! Also prominent is New York's neighboring  Ohio River Valley AVA which covers four(4) adjoining states! Down South, Texas Hill Country AVA and its sub-divisions is  second in regional acreage nationally at just over 9 million acres. By comparison, our beloved Napa Valley AVA is just over 225,000 acres in size, but has significantly more influence on the marketplace. Size does not really matter here, after all this is not the Cote de'Nuit in Burgundy!

From Napa to New York, including warm growing Paso Robles AVA, within the larger Central Coast Regional AVA and the cool reaches of Washington's Puget Sound AVA, the North American continent is a study in vineyard extremes.  Wine consumers also demonstrate those limits, as wine consumption continues to be dominated by West Coast and East Coast wine lovers, generation after generation. With quality, distribution and availability never better than it is today, perhaps with each glass we are beginning to close the Continental Divide.

Raise a glass!