Monday, March 28, 2011

BRAMBLES: Items from a Vines Spring

Discovery. That's what this journey is all about.  As I anxiously await Certified Wine Educator exam results, there has been a recent realization that this path of wine education is all about discovery. In the months before the test I felt the weighted pressure to study day after day, and the peaking anxiety as the test drew near was all about feeling the need to do so much more to be prepared.  What a relief it was to accept that I have already been teaching about wine in my chosen career, and that the challenge of the exam was simply a measure of my growing & summary wine knowledge.  That epiphany was a rebirth and offers a chance to grow forward.

A look outside and we are beginning to see the new growth of Spring bud break on our pruned grape vines. Perhaps this new seasonal vine growth is also reflected by our domestic retail wine sales. Based on numbers accumulated from 2010, the Nielsen Company has reported that wine consumers are beginning to trade up, with the largest growth in the +$10 market segments.

On the other end of the wine scale, Reuters reports that so far in 2011, leading wine auctions have sold over $46 million in ultra-premium collectibles. "I don't see prices going anywhere significantly except up", said John Kapon, head of auctions for New York's Acker, Merrall & Condit.

  • Three hundred and thirty million cases of wine, with a value estimated at over $30 billion, were consumed by Americans last year.  This benchmark makes the United States the worlds number one volume consumers of wine, surpassing the French for the first time in history! More than 105 million cases of that total(almost 1/3rd)  were produced in foreign lands and imported, according to newly released figures.  That volume makes the U.S. the biggest foreign wine marketplace in the world!
 The Wine Economist reports that the next big thing (TNBT?) in white grape varietals is going to be domestic Muscat and imported Torronte's from Argentina. Does that mean that imported and domestic Pinot Grigio/Gris has arched and is no longer the growth segment it once was? 
  • In the U.S Congress, an important new wine bill is currently making its way thru the legislative process.  HR1161 is the current version of last sessions HR5034, sponsored by the WSWA and  the National Beer Wholesalers Association, and takes aim to protect an individual states right to regulate alcohol under the 21st Amendment. If passed, this measure could reverse existing statutes and close many out of state markets to small wine and craft beer producers.

  • An appeal of the Fifth Circuit Court decision in Texas on the issue of direct interstate wine shipments was recently refused to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The outcome appears to be a victory for controlling Texas distributors, and spokespersons for the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America have applauded the high court's decision.

  • As a rite of Spring, Maryland state politicos this week overwhelming approved bills in two legislative committees that would allow as many as 18 cases of wine shipped to the states consumers directly from wineries!  If passed into law, direct shipments of out of state wines here would align with approved statutes in neighboring Virginia and Washington, DC.  In summary, that's two(2) pending victories for large, monopolistic beverage distributors, and just one(1) for the little guys who need open markets to survive.  These and many more legal updates are always available at!

Heavy rains during the current harvest season in South Australia's Barossa and Clare Valleys are reported producing rampant fungus on the regions grape vines. What may be the worst rain-affected vintage ever is being fought by almost constant spraying in the vineyards, but the forecast is for more of the same. Australia's winegrape yields are as a result expected to be down by more than 20%.

  • More than 1000 miles to the East, New Zealand winegrowers anticipate a near record grape harvest, as much as 50,000 tons greater than last year. With a continued growth in its wine exports, at about 10% each year, grape oversupply may not become a pressing issue and consumers should still find value from Down Under.

With a reduced California grape crop yield reported for 2011 and fruit prices generally lower than last year, it has been reported that our states grape supply is in balance. Average per ton grape prices were down across the state, including the Napa Valley, with the notable exception being the Lodi Viticultural Area, where growers enjoyed a marginal per ton price increase in 2010.

As consumers we're drinking more domestic and imported wines than ever before, but there continues to be formidable clouds on the horizon that would limit our beverage selections. And, it appears that the rich keep getting richer in a sustained market and drinking richer top end wines. It may be an old song, but vineyard management is not for the meek As this market gradually appears to be moving into 'balance', for all of those who are passionate about farming, winegrape-growing continues to remain a voyage of discovery!

Five(5) wines for $40.!
  • Castano Monastrell 2009Yecla, Spain
  • Figaro Tinto (Red Wine) 2009, Calatayud, Spain
  • Chono Reserva Syrah 2008 Elqui Valley, Chile
  • la MaiaLina 2008 Chianti, Italy
  • Domaine Laurier Merlot, 2007 Sonoma County Reserve, CA

    Wednesday, March 9, 2011

    JUST TESTING: Power in Wine Trivia

    A few days removed from the important Wine Educator's Certification exam, I thought it would be good to explore a few trivial items that I should have known more about.  This is a long process after all, and continued research after a benchmark exam is not unlikely or unrewarded. With the inescapable image of Atlas holding up the World, I realize now more than ever that there is a mountain of wine information, facts and details that must be commanded if I am to be successful in this quest.  It is the factual Power in Wine Trivia which I must command. To that end, here are a few odds and, well, ends.

    Grown around the world, and produced in a spectrum of wine styles, the Muscat family may be the worlds oldest domesticated grape variety. It sparkles as Italy's Moscato d'Asti, and as a multi-functional still wine, Muscat Canelli.  Across the continent, it becomes a deliriously ethereal syrup in Portugal's Moscatel de Setubal, and produces a number of sweet, fortified French Vins Doux Naturels(VDN's) in celebrated examples like Muscat de Rivesaltes. As one of the Alsace regions Noble grape varieties,  Muscat is produced in an AOC regulated dry style, or even patiently made as a late harvest treat, Vendenges Tardives.  In Hungary, where it can be in the Furmint dominated grape blend of the noble Tokay Aszu dessert wines, it is known by the varietal Muscat synonym, S├írgamuskot├íly or Muscat Lunel.

    Across two oceans, it is the pride of Australia's Rutherglen district 'stickies', possibly amoung the world's greatest fortified wines. As a grape brandy, this grape is the base for the aromatic Pisco's of Chile and Peru. South Africa too, long a fortified and late harvest wine producer, grows the same grape as Muscadel or Hanepoot.  Regardless of its synonyms, its unique property among all white grapes is its high concentration of 'flavonoids', as much as some red varieties. Perhaps it was these beneficial effects that were recognized by Muscat loving Kind Midas back in the 8th century BC! With its almost unmistakable fruity character, and in each of these manifestations, this noble, time honored grape is Muscat Blanc a'Petits Grains.

    Among the oldest wine regions in the world, Greece, is a much publicized member state of the EU.  Its standardized agricultural regulations meet the Unions requirements, allowing for inter-European trade in commodities like wine. From the Ionian Island region of Kefalonia, across to Nemea of the Peloponnesus, and stretching South to the Agean Islands of Santorini and Rhodes, this wine country is more than Retsina. A mirror of the French model(again), Greece has two designations of controlled appellation of origins for its best wines. Qualified traditional sweet wines are labeled OPE, with a separate Appellation of Controlled Status for its awarded dry table wines, OPAP. Noble indigenous grape varieties, such as red Agiorgitiko and Xinomavro, and white Vilana vines create some of the countries best wines.  Muscat Blanc a'Petits Grains, known as Muscat Aspro, here too is a time tested workhorse, producing sparkling, fortified and still wines.

    With archaeological evidence going back to the Stone Age, the Eastern Mediterranean has a rich, far reaching wine history.  East of the Lebanon Mountains there lies a fertile valley long ago discovered by the grape-loving Phoenicians. Among the few dozen wineries concentrated in Lebanon's Bekka Valley, it's 150 year old Chateau Ksara, Chateau de Kefraya, and Chateau Musar are the most prominent producers of world-class wines. With many decades of colonial influence, France today remains Lebanon's principal trading partner.  Grape varieties here are mostly southern French in origin, with the exception of indigenous white grapes, Obaideh and Merwah.

     How can you taste a Sherry barrel sample through that veil of flor that lies across the top of the wine?  Artisans of Andalusia, the veneciadors, use a venezia, a specifically designed cylindrical cup at the end of a long wand to taste the fractional blending of the solera.  Like Champagne, each Sherry is a blend of grapes and vintages that define a house style. Dry Sherry typically is produced from the neutral Palomino grapes grown in chalky albariza soils. Barros and arenas soils of the Jerez usually produce the sweet style Sherries from the white grapes Pedro Ximinez and Moscatel. There's that Muscat grape again!

    It has been said that great wines, including Muscats, are made in the vineyards. Every viticulturist knows that healthy vines are balanced vines with a managed canopy and controlled fruit yields that optimize the vineyards productivity.  One of the decisions that will be made in pursuit of balance will be which trellising or pruning system to use. A Vertical Trellis system directs the new growth of fruiting canes upward and offers a number of variations. A cane trained Guyot, Cordon de Royat(Cordon training), and the Goblet are variations of Old World spur and cane pruned trained trellising systems.The opposite of VSP, vertical shoot positioning, the Geneva Double Curtain, is a 4-arm trellising system developed in New York, where canes trail down. A Lyre system is similar, but with canes positioned up, and another French innovation.

    It is certainly not trivial to know and understand your subject. Consumers, too, can benefit from more wine knowledge.  True, that insightful bit of wine information can contribute to a parties parlor conversations, but has far more reaching impact for us when choosing a wine from our well-stocked retailers. With a greater command of these and a few other wine details, the power found in trivia will continue to make us better consumers.  And, hopefully, better Wine Educators!