Monday, June 27, 2011

BULGARIA & ROMANIA: Cradle to Grave to Cradle

Recent orientation on this page seems to be alphabetical by wine region(country?), and as I was hesitant to dive into the wine pool that is regal Burgundy, I decided to go back to wines cradle.  What was found in my survey were two wine countries of great promise.  Bulgaria, a mountainous land of many rivers that opens eastward to the Black Sea, had grown grapes and made wines in its fertile flatland's and rolling hills for more than 1000 years prior to the arrival of the Romans.
From the late14th century, more than 5 centuries of Turkish Islamic control of its lands did not kill grape growing here, just its wine-making. What viticulture remained, saw the ravages of the vineyard louse phylloxera, as did most of Europe, in the late 19th century. Fortunately, replanting efforts brought in international varieties prior to the decades of war and global recession that were to follow.  Small family farms organized cooperatives to strengthen their fortunes and the new state ushered in Vinprom as its wine-grape monopoly.Yet once again Romania was to fall under the authority of a foreign power. This Soviet satellite's post-war economic development was to be in the form of an agri-industrial complex, modernizing farm equipment to feed a new empire. International varieties, like Cabernet Sauvignon, were introduced in the1960's, along with mechanization that combined to help build success in western wine exports. For a brief period, Bulgaria was Europe's fourth leading exporter of wines. It was all about state-driven quantity.
Thracian Lowlands
A Soviet campaign to curb domestic alcoholism in the 1980's resulted in many of Bulgaria's vineyards replanted to subsidized agri-crops. Early in the 1990s, following the collapse of the USSR, many free market reforms were initiated, as well as the disbanding of Vinprom. Although increasingly industrialized, Bulgaria today struggles to modernize its agri-business and its winemaking, as they now produce only about 2/3 of the agricultural crops harvested in 1999-01.  The state is divided into five(5) large viticultural regions, and its wine industry is currently lead by small and inconsistent private companies, rather than large corporations. Now an EU member, the best wines of Bulgaria are designated DGO, or quality wines from a specific region.  A superior Controliran sub-classification regulates lower yields and generally higher sugar measurements at harvest.  These wines can be labeled "Reserve" or "Superior Selection", which require one(1) to two(2) years additional aging, respectively.

The northern Danubian Plain, is a fertile, mineral rich appellation that is home to the prominent Suhindol winery and the countries best co-op.  To the East lies the Black Sea region, producing about 30% of the annual grape harvest and known for its high acids white wines. In the center of the country, south of the Balkans is the Rose Valley, known for its production of  rose oils, and the multi-use natives Misket Cherven, with both red and white grape varietal variations. Agriculturally rich and Greek influenced, the Thracian Lowlands to the south is home to the legendary spicy red grape called Mavrud. Having the most Mediterranean climate, the warm Struma River Valley in the southwest is a productive region known for the storybook village and the Melnik grape variety.  Recognizable international varieties remain very important here, as Bulgaria's slow growth continues, as reflected by its increase of more than 10% in wine exports for 2010. But, it remains (for the time being) that consistent quality wines and a national, marketable identity that includes its indigenous grape varieties are largely missing from a potentially great producer of quality wines.

On the North banks of the Danube, there is situated one of Europe's largest wine producing nations, with acreage totals comparable to Portugal's.  Romania sits on the same latitude range as France, and has a similar grape growing history from antiquity as its Black Sea neighbor to the South. It is distinctly shaped by the east to west Transylvanian Alps and the north-south Carpathian Mountains, historically creating environs for distinct cultures of grape growers.Today a united, westward-looking Romania is the world's 9th largest wine producer, harvesting more than 600,000 acres of grapevines.

It too was part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, and Romanian viticulture also suffered during this period, only to benefit from its association with France as its late 19th century re-plantings developed. As part of the Eastern Block, Romania saw the evolution of collective agriculture, dominated by its state owned wineries and co-ops, and fueling its development as a quantity producer of recognizable varieties in the 1960's. An open market economy and increasing privatization developed in the freed state in the 1990's with its open arms for international investment.  But, Western investment has been slow here too, even as EU standardization and more positive reforms grew out of 2007. In 2006 Romania harvested only about 37% of the wine grape volume it had in 1997!
With fifty viticultural areas within its eight(8) major, but widely dispersed wine regions, Romania remains a crossroads, a union of the ethno-cultural and historical regions of Transylvania, Moldavia, Wallachia and others. Among the best across its non-cohesive landscape is cool-climate Tarnave, in Transylvania.  Sparkling wines and crisp, high-acid  international whites predominate in this iron age countryside, where Jidvei is an especially important and historical commune. Dealu Mare, south of the southern range is another old wine region famous for its red wines as well as the widely planted native grape Feteasca, with is grown in both red and white varieties.

On the southeastern side lies the Black Sea influenced, fertile farmland plateau of Murfatlar, long known for its sweet Muscat, its reds and increasingly for Chardonnay. Perhaps Romania's most famous wine is found in Moldova in the countries northeast.  Cotnari, also known as Grasa de Cotnari, is a natural dessert wine, once the international rival of Hungary's Tokay. Today, Romania's wine laws show both French and German influences, as the best wines are classified by their defined growing region and their must sugar content(weight).  High quality wines from specific areas are labeled as DOC(VSO), with Romanian wines with higher degrees of ripeness(sugar) are designated DOCC(VSOC) typically, with an additional suffix to designate level of sweetness.
A modern Brasov, Transylvania winery
The current decade has shown increasing economic stability and some sustained but slow growth for Romania. Its diverse cultures continue to be united as Romanians, working together for an improved free market and a diverse society.  Looking forward, it is inescapable not to find great potential in both of these Balkan border neighbors with their long and tested wine chronicles. Bulgaria and Romania have shared histories of small family farms and coops, of the acceptance of established international varieties and also historically indigenous grape varieties. With the support of the European Union and its markets, perhaps we will see these prolific, old world wine producers making wines of consistent quality and come back from the cradle!

Na zdrave ("To your Health") and Noroc ("Good Luck")!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

BORDEAUX: Right (Bank)where it Started

It has been described as 'another world' when compared to the neighboring Left Bank. Here, in its complex soils of limestone, alluvial sands, clay and gravel, there are small rural villages with even smaller wine estates.  Known as the Libournais wine region, it is on the Right Bank of the Gironde Estuary and Garonne River where composition of soil and aspect, where terrior really matters.  There are world class winemakers here who produce great growths(crus) in predominantly limestone soils, like Chateau Ausone and Chateau Canon. And, yet others growing in mostly gravel(graves) soils, such as Cheval Blanc, and scores of others with acclaim producing world class wines in clay soils.  It is all about pairing the right grape with the right location, and then blending.  Even as these wines are blended red varieties, as with the Left Bank, here it is all about the Merlot grape, the most widely planted grape of the Bordeaux.

Hillsides(cotes) cultivated since the Roman occupation, the region of the Right Bank is an exposed landscape of vine; a patchwork of ancient soils that has only come to world class prominence in the last 40 years. It was not until the middle of the 19th century that bridges even crossed the Garonne and Dordogne rivers, and national rail opened markets beyond Northern Europe to the Libournais.  For all of the Medoc's venerable polish, this region was throughout the centuries of vine, a backwater. Due east of the Haut-Medoc's St. Julien appellation lie the hay fields and vineyards of Blaye, surrounded by the Cotes de Blaye and the Cotes de Bourg to the south  These are some of the oldest vineyard sites in all of Bordeaux, and today on its eroded hillsides and slopes produce generally serviceable, everyday blended red wines using just about all of the known 'Bordeaux' varietals.
Cotes de Blaye chateau

Fronsac AOC and the smaller Canon-Fronsac AOC appellations fan to the south, on the northern banks above the Dordogne. This region, with vineyards densely planted on its steep clay-limestone slopes, was regarded among the best of Bordeaux as late as the 19th century.  Today numerous Merlot producers of these appellations are emerging once again as a quality value region, favorably compared to their higher priced cousins further inland. A blended red wine region, these two appellations are eligible to use the combined AOC of Lalande-de-Pomerol, and may have late ripening Cabernet Sauvignon in their house cuve'e.

Going south, the esteemed wine regions of Pomerol AOC and the postcard medieval village of St. Emilion radiate out from the hills circling the up river port of Libourne. Here the interior foothills meet the coastal plains to the west, finding St. Emilion AOC sandwiched between two plateaus, the St. Martin and the St. Christophe. The walled town itself sits on cleft in a deep limestone plateau, surrounded by ancient sand and gravel soils. Having a more continental climate than the Medoc, early ripening Merlot thrives here, as does Cabernet Franc, locally known as Bouchet, on the regions more gravely soils. Barely 6 kilometers North, 800 hectares of clay rich iron pan vineyards define the appellation of Pomerol, and perhaps noble Merlot as well.  In petite Pomerol, which lies on the pilgrim route to Santiago,  more than 80% of grape growers here farm less than 2 acres of vineyard.
St. Emilion's Jurade

Regional AOC Classification and their regulations came to Pomerol and St. Emilion in 1936, with other regional communes to follow. It took 20 years more for the Syndicat Viticole to classify the best estate wines of St. Emilion, but uniquely with the intention to update the list every ten(10) years. Importantly, the St. Emilion Classification of 1955 identified their best fifteen(15) Premier Grand Crus in two(2) categories: A & B. Below them sat 57 Grand Crus Classe's, which has added and demoted chateau over the years based on peer tasting panels as recently as 2006. Confusingly, the region also has a St. Emilion Grand Crus AOC category, which is an appellation rather than a classification, and has been awarded to over 200 chateau that have applied. Even as they remain among the best of Bordeaux, wines of Pomerol AOC do not have a classification system. Perhaps established as a contemporary reaction to the styling of its regions wines, a movement among the micro-chateaus with limited funding spawned the independent vin de garage or Garariste in the last decades of the 20th century.  These small producers saw meteoric and perhaps unwarranted price increases for their small lots of polished Merlot-based wines.

Surrounding St. Emilion are four(4) satellite communes who typically attach noteworthy 'St, Emilion' to their names: St. Georges, Montagne, Lussac, and Puissguin. While these rural vineyards have similar soil composition to their better known neighbors, it is said that they generally are thinner, rougher and lack the power of the best of their region.  Across the Dorgone lies a land between two 'seas', Entre-Deux-Mers AOC, producing mostly dry white wines in one of Bordeaux's largest regions.  Throughout its scattering of fortified towns there are vineyards mixed among other crops where almost everything grows.  Today, Entre-Deux-Mers and its producers are responsible for most of the wine sold under the classifications of the generic Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Supe'rieur AOC labels.

From the graveled banks of the Dorgone, across rolling hills to the waters of the Garonne to the south, the Entre-Deux-Mers  has historically been a strategic landscape in controlling the fortunes of the region. Important AOC's here include Graves de Vayres, which has been producing fruity red wines of quality since the Roman occupation, and the sweet wines of  Sainte-Croix-du-Mont AOC on its southern flank across the Garonne from Sauternes. The regions better wines can also carry the Premie'res Cotes de Bordeaux AOC designation.

The best of the Right Bank, situated on their micro production estates and unique terroir, are among the most expensive, age-worthy wines in the world today.  These high profile wine estates are surrounded by many quality controlled producers, banded together in cooperatives or who today go it alone into the markets outside of their regions. What we know is that the wine farms of the Right Bank produce an ocean of good wine.  While a few continue to push the price boundaries of an international marketplace, informed consumers can navigate the landscape and still find benchmark quality and good value from appellations like Canon-Fronsac and Cotes de Bourg...Right(Bank) where it Started!


Friday, June 17, 2011

BORDEAUX: Take It to the Bank(Left)

Medoc Vineyard

Bordeaux. It is such a benchmark wine subject and region of such esteemed prestige that countless volumes have been written about it. Some scholars have even built long careers around trying to get a grasp of regal Bordeaux.  But, I cannot contribute to that here.  All I can do is try to understand it simply, so that its many references are not too obscure. Plus, Bordeaux is a huge and varied maritime vineyard environment where everything produced, red or white, is a blend of grapes, with multiple and overlapping classifications in 60 appellations. Arguably the greatest wine region in the world is such a big nut to crack, that I'll only look at half a nut here, the Left Bank of the river Garonne and the Gironde Estuary.

Bordeaux today is simply a massive wine producer. But it was not always that way. Although inhabited for more than 20,000 years, the region did not begin wine production until the arrival of the Romans in the first century AD.  Much of the region was marshland and rocky plains, so the first grapes appear to have been planted around Graves, south of the city of Bordeaux, as well as on the hills of the Right Bank. As part of a thirsty English empire for 300 years, Bordeaux's wine growers enjoyed favored nation status in the Middle Ages, and a deep water port with secure access to the Atlantic for their export products. In the following centuries the Hundred Years War, the Black Death and the Protestant Reformation combined to stall commercial growth in Bordeaux's wine trade, but the seed of its quality reputation had already been planted.

Bordeaux's vineyard acreage expanded northward with the drainage of Medoc marshland by the Dutch, and late in 17th century benefited commercially from the development of an overland Canal du Midi to connect the Mediterranean with Bordeaux(Atlantic), and then the 19th century Canal de Garonne. Socially, Bordeaux's principal trading partner saw the rise of its English middle class in those decades, the growth of the middlemen: wine merchants and brokers, and then ultimately the evolution of the French bourgeois in what was becoming a booming export trade for the regions wine.

Attempts to guarantee origins had already been decreed in Portugal's Douro, and in France's Jurancon to the southwest by the late 16th century, and in the Rhone several decades later. By the end of the 17th century leading chateaus like Latour in Pauillac and Haut Brion of Graves already had strong reputations, as did other large wine estates of the established region. By the time Napoleon requested a regional ranking for the Universal Exposition in Paris, Bordeaux's Chamber of Commerce could only agree on 5-tiers based on reputation and price from its best chateaus to produce the required Classification of 1855. For its purposes, the Bordelais only rated 56 of the hundreds of red wines of the Medoc, one(1) stellar estate from Graves, Haut Brion, and a handful(21) of sweet wines from Sauternes and Barsac. These rankings remained basically unchanged, even as properties have been divided, changed ownership, and have produced inconsistent wines.  But, these exhaulted growths(crus) in this dated classification continue to spare little expense in producing a quality standard that even today gives us some of the greatest, most age-worthy wines in the world.

In the late 19th century, Bordeaux's vineyards had to face yet other challenges. Sweeping outbreaks of a fungal powdery mildew, or oidium, were followed by the vineyard louse phylloxera, which was followed by the first World War. Bordeaux's vineyards and wine trade were devastated. As rebuilding/re-planting efforts began in earnest, the government's INAO passed its first national Appellation d'origine Controlee or AOC laws in 1936 in an effort to regulate the qualities of origin, including Bordeaux. Among other regulations, these laws helped to control permitted grape varieties, planting densities, harvest yields, and winemaking practices. Today, Bordeaux has more than 250,000 acres planted with mostly red grapes throughout its 60 appellations, with more than 10,000 wine producing chateaus and 13,000 grape-growers producing almost a billion bottles of wine each year. A testament to its quality control achievements, the European Union used the AOC laws of France as the basis of its current 'protected designation of origin' (PDO) system.
Premier Cru Classe'

Chateau Latour
Bordeaux's Left Bank situation may make it the perfect wine-growing environment. The Atlantic coast and tall pine forests to the west moderate the harshness of its maritime climate. Its Garonne River snakes its way out of the Pyrenees to the south, across well drained graveled soils, where it is said the best elevated properties can see the river. The Dorgonne River meets North of the commercial center of Bordeaux,  flowing into a wide, deep water estuary that spills into the Atlantic, creating its deep inland shipping port. In 1936 a list of the Medoc's best un-classified wines were given the designation of Cru Bougeois.  Long a subject of debate and legal squabbling, the latest version was approved in 2010, with additional production requirements regulating 275 wine producing Bordeaux estates.

To the south of the Medoc's eleven AOC appellations and the city of Bordeaux lies Graves. Named for its extremely gravely soils, Graves has a longer wine growing tradition than neighboring Medoc. Classified delinquently in 1953, these five(5) AOC's within Graves produce superior red, white and sweet wines. As with most AOC's, broad regional appellations, such as Graves AOC or Graves Superior AOC, are simply the most generic. But, within this large region we find the high quality AOC's of Cerons, Sauternes, Barsac, and Pessac-Leognan. Uniquely, Pessac-Leognan's Ch. Haut-Brion appears both on the Medoc's 1855 Classification, as well as the 1953 Graves Classification.

Today, the Left Bank of Bordeaux is facing new challenges, perhaps unlike those it has seen before. Dramatic price increases in the 2009 vintage, prompted the important wine critic Robert Parker to warn of a coming "big, big crisis" in Bordeaux. It seems that a growing Far East market of nouveaux riche are supporting the unwarranted price increases. For its many growers, the winter of 2010-11 was among the driest and warmest on record in Bordeaux, creating a vineyard challenge for its many small producers and co-ops. On the export side, Chateau & Estates, a leading Bordeaux importer, suddenly pulled out last year, as its publicly traded parent company thought it no longer made solid financial sense to continue sourcing Bordeaux's best wines.  What we do know is that great volumes of high quality wines will continue to be produced from this very special grape growing region.  Throughout its long commercial history, Bordeaux has remained a standard for those who enjoy the some of the worlds best wines and it will continue to be.  And that you can take to the (Left) Bank!


Monday, June 6, 2011

BEAUJOLAIS: A Part & Apart

At the southern edge of Burgundy, situated between Macon and Lyon, the red Gamay grape grows like no where else in the world. This landscape produces more than half of the wine in this wine Mecca known as the region of Burgundy. Yet, some proud Burgundian's don't consider Beaujolais part of Burgundy at all, even as they share the landscape south of Macon(Pouilly-Fuisse). These neighbors are even historically and physically connected by a navigable waterway, the southerly flowing River Saone. Beaujolais is technically part of the Rhone Department to the south, but administered by Burgundy to the north.  It is distinctly Beaujolais, a part of more prominent regions, but remaining distinctly apart.
Morgon Vineyard
Wine grapes came here by way of the Romans, who planted vineyards on the trade route slopes of the Saone Valley in the first century.  In the Middle Ages, the Benedictines brought order and developed a broad vineyard system throughout Beaujolais. The regions fate was defined later when Duke of Burgundy, Phillipe the Bold, issued edicts in the late 14th century banning the cultivation of the Gamay grape in Burgundy's heartland, thus fatefully pushing it southward to the granite based sub-soils where it thrives today.

As in many other wine regions, Beaujolais best vineyards lie in the well-drained terroir of its northern shale and granite hillsides.  But unlike other regions, the fortunes of Beaujolais are based on only one thin-skinned, high-density planted grape, Gamay. Hand harvested, most of this regions Gamay wine is produced by semi-Carbonic Maceration, and sold as fresh, lively Beaujolais Nouveau from the third Thursday each November.  Grown mostly in the clay-based soils of the southern region, it produces lighter, tannic-less wines of fruity character,  often described as "bubble-gum" or "pear-drops". This noveau wine has had considerable global marketing success, producing about a third to a half of all Beaujolais wine, yet is also known as 'Vin de Merde' by some prominent French wine critics. But the best of Beaujolais, its Crus or growths, continue to be produced in the more traditional fermentation.
Vin Nouveau et Japan

Its Grand Cru wines from Cote de Brouilly or Moulin-a-Vent can age for a decade or more in a good vintage, but it is the exception for Beaujolais. Of its twelve appellations, Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Village and the ten(10) Crus, most of the everyday wines consumed in the bistros of Lyon are produced by the regions many co-ops and negociants. For the most-part, these are food wines offered for informal immediate enjoyment.  But even everyday wines need their champions. Given the title, the king of Beaujolais, negociant Georges Duboeuf,  alone produces about 10% of the regions wine.

Ten of 39 villages are designated Grand Crus, producing about a quarter of all the regions wines. Wines from non-Cru or multiple villages can be labeled Beaujolais-Villages, with the Beaujolais AOC the blended, generic base classification.  But the glory of Beaujolais comes from the vineyards found in inhospitable and rocky outcroppings above these ten(10) notable villages.  North to South the Beaujolais Crus villages are:
  • Julienas and St-Amour
  • Chenas and Moulin-a-Vent
  • Fleurie and Chiroubles
  • Morgon and Regnie
  • Brouilly and Cote de Brouilly
Based on the marketing success of this region's vin nouveau, it is very possible to discount the more serious wines of Beaujolais.  Similarly, it is almost impossible to even think of proper Burgundy or Northern Rhone producers considering the same promotional scheme to move product to consumers. But this is Beaujolais, where fortunes are based on only one grape variety no one else wanted. Beaujolais, where you are considered as a part of agricultural and political regions that segregate and want no part of you!

In my limited experience, the concept of terrior, or unique environmental qualities, is expressed very clearly in the Grand Crus of Beaujolais.  Each of these ten(10) growths have consistently distinctive character that makes a Brouilly full, fruity and supple or a Fleurie opening with a intensely floral and fresh fruit aromas. A seductively fruity bouquet combines with St. Amour's fragrant flavors, to contrast with a Morgon's sturdy and compact fruit personality.  In its current release, the vintage of 2009 has much to offer wine lovers.  These fine wines have been described as "intense" and "seemless", from what  may be one of the region's most expressive vintages.  Today there may be no better time to get into being 'a part' of something no one else wanted!


    Friday, June 3, 2011

    ALSACE: Border of a Special Greatness

    Throughout history the Alsace region has always been as a border, a no-mans land with a wild river as its edge.  It was for the grape-hungry Romans, the Germanic Alemanni, the Clovis, and the wine-lovin' Christian Franks, who each settled in its western Rhine valleys, the eastern side of the formidable Vosges Mountains. And that was just before the end of the 5th century!  The history of Alsace did not get any easier in the dozen or so centuries that followed. From the turn of the 20th century this borderland battlefield flew the nation flags of  Prussia, France, Germany, and then again France.

    What could be so special about Alsace?  Simply location, location, and location.  In the rain shadow wall of the Vosges, Alsace has great agriculture in its diverse soils for such a northern latitude. This region is among the driest places in all of France, which isn't bad for grapes. In its cascading eastern foothills we find granite, limestone, schist and sandstone in its well drained upper strata, Colluvial tiers below and Alluvial fans in its valleys. The Alsatian country side is also an active Tectonic structure; a seem between to giant faults, called the Rhine Graben.  Currently, there is an active horizontal displacement of at least 5cm every 20 years as the Vosges and the Black Forest plates pull in opposite directions! 

    Independent Alsace seems to be hybrid with its feet in two worlds, one French, the other German.  Most of its town names end in "heim" or "berg", a reflection of its German past. Here in its continental climate we find grape varieties like noble Riesling and Gewurztraminer that are successful no where else in France. These varietals, along with Cre'mant AOC, the regions traditional method sparkling wine, account for about 2/3rds of its quality production. With a long gastronomic heritage, along with the fluent French spoken here, not to mention the towns ending in 'ville', also anchor Alsace to France.

    Riquewihr on the Route des Vins
     Full-bodied Pinot Gris and dry, fruity Muscat d'Alsace are the two other noble white grape varieties that qualify here for its lofty Grand Cru pinacle. Overwhelming a white wine appellation, Alsace Grand Cru represents only about 4% of its total regional volume.  Its 100% varietal AOC Alsace status is reflected in about 3/4 of its annual wine production, with AOC Cremant d'Alsace the lion-share of the balance. Being German occupied, Alsace had to wait until after WWII to get its AOC status, with the first Grand Cru's recognized in 1983!. Having no VDP status in Alsace, and Vin de Table wines staying in the many postcard villages, the wines of Alsace are an easy guaranteed quality choice for consumers.

    Ribeauville Wine Merchant

    These wines are pure in character, uniquely labeled(for French wines) by varietal, and easy to recognize for their slender flute shaped bottles.  From steely Riesling's to floral and spicy Gewurztraminer's, the quality controlled wines of Alsace reflect the high standards of the more than 500 producers here. Most are negociants to small growers or cooperatives, representing the almost 5000 small vineyard sites.  When blending is necessary, wines will be labeled Edelzwicker(noble blend) or Gentile(noble grapes only).

    Lonely Planet has recently included Alsace as one of the globes 'Best in Travel' destinations, citing the region as being "out of the ordinary". In this special landscape with its independent culture, its fine wines and bounty of regional treats we find the extra ordinary.  Wine consumers willing to open a bottle and take that trip with a sip, can save the air fare and find themselves transported to that border of a special greatness, Vin d'Alsace.

    Value Alsatian producers include Albert Mann, the 200-member cooperative Cave Cinicole de Turckheim, Materne Haegelin, Hugel and Trimbach.