Tuesday, August 30, 2011

SPAIN: Iberian Improvements

Across a large and arid landmass important rivers cut through the new wine industry of culturally-diverse Spain. From the North runs the Rio Ebro from West to East, slicing through the Rioja, the Navarra and on to the golden schist Ilicorella soils of Priorat.  Out of the northern hills, the prominent Duero empties to the West, past Ribera del Duero, Rueda, and Toro, before becoming the Port highway thru neighboring Portugal. And in the Andalusian south, the Rio Guadalquivir flows under the bright sun through fertile valleys until it spills into the Atlantic, just north of Jerez de la Frontera of the Moorish frontier. It is these important rivers, a handful of others, and the warmth of the almost-perennial sun that has made it possible for Spain to amass the greatest area of wine grape plantings in the world today.

From the Albarino vineyards of Rias Baixas in the Atlantic influenced Galician northwest, across the dry plain that is Don Quixote's La Mancha, and on to the poor, phyloxera-free soils of Jumilla near the Mediterranean coast, this is a very diverse wine growing country. This varied landscape is collectively the world's biggest vineyard, but its irrigated soils here are generally unproductive, and grape yields per acre remain among the smallest in Europe. In this dry climate, vineyard diseases are fortunately relatively few, and these factors combined with recent investment in modernization has allowed Spain to enjoy remarkable improvements in wine quality and value from the last quarter of the 20th century. Spain's four-tier classification system, consistent with EU wine-laws, has the Denominacion de Origen, or DO wines of specified regional standards as the mainstay of its national wine regulatory system. Today, almost 3/4 of all Spanish wines fall into this regionally regulated quality category.

Reserved for its highest levels of proven quality, the Qualified Denominacion de Origen(DOCa) ranking was adopted in 1991, and today only mighty Rioja DOQ and recently elevated Priorat have qualified. Of the more than 400 Spanish grape varieties planted, regional Rioja Alta-Alavesa-Baja-blended Tempranillo(Cencibel) is the principal base of the aged Riojas', while red Garancha Tinta(Grenache) and work horse Carinena(Carignan or Mazuelo) dominate in the distinctive soils of Priorat. Other emerging regions of note include Castile y Leon's white wine dominated Rueda DO, where crisp Verdejo's are of good quality, and tiny Toro DO, producing reds/rose's from Tinta de Toro(Tempranillo) and good whites from Verdeho & Malvasia. In the Mediterranean influenced south, the Murcia region has become notable for good quality reds from the Monastrell(Mouvedre or Mataro)grape in Jumilla DO as well as Yecla DO.

As important as the improved wines from the warm regions are, there is also excitement in the 'Green Spain' of autonomous Galicia, which gets more than 50 inches of rainfall each year. Known principally for seafood friendly white wine blends dominated by Albarino, it includes the DO's Valdeorras, Ribeira Sacra, prominent Rias Biaxas and Monterrei. Along the Rio Mino valley, which runs into neighboring Portugal, Rias Biaxas is further divided into five(5) sub-zones. Catalonia is yet another autonomous region of Spain, where north of Priorat the sparkling wine or Cava center of Penedes DO is found.  Produced in the traditional method, the blended base of these good-value sparklers are the white natives Xarel-lo, and Macabeo(Viura), and even some Chardonnay.
Albariza soils of Jerez

A change to quality from most accounts has come quickly in these areas of Spain, yet it has been the Andalusian Jerez - Xeres - Sherry DO district around Cadiz province that has continued over the centuries to produce the 'neglected wine treasure' that is known simply as Sherry. The dry fermentation of white Palomino(Listan)grapes grown in the regions chalky albariza soils, time-honored Sherry is then fortified, barreled, and then await natures determination as to its classification, fino or oloroso. Once classified, it is adjusted and enters the nursery of the Solera System.  Sweetness and color are added by virtue of dried Pedro Ximenez and Moscatel grapes, to create a fortified wine that is a copy of every bottle of that style that has come before it.

With their regional guarantee of authenticity proudly displayed on the label, young Spanish wines can be noted as Vino Joven. Red wines indicated as Crianza, have been aged at least for two(2) years, with whites and rose's aged for a minimum of a year. Reserva wines have been aged almost twice as long; at least 3 years for reds, and even longer cellaring of  Grand Reserva generally only appears in the best vintages.

In our modern world regulatory cellar aging is only one of the endearing things about proud Spain. Her long wine history, going back to the Phoenicians, and diversely autonomous regional peoples, give Spain strong cultural traditions. The harsh climate adaptations in her vineyards, and the quick modernization of her wine industry instill the admiration of many wine lovers. Combined with a recent French Vignerons Independents report that cited Spanish wine production will soon overtake totals from France, and currently released figures that reflect the export growth in the wines of Spain now eclipsed the 2-billion litre volume mark for the first time ever, there is no better time to explore these Iberian improvements. It is a taste of traditions!
Old Tempranillo vines in Rioja

Sunday, August 28, 2011


Bulgarian Grape Harvest
Sun, soil and water combine to nurture the physical and physiological ripeness(ripe tannins) of a vineyards wine grapes where sugars and acids are in balance for the winemaker. Once extracted it is just fruit juice, but, it becomes wine as our harvest season begins anew when the inevitable variables of nature are controlled in the cellar. Truth is, great wine comes from preserving the integrity of great fruit from well managed, sun-drenched vineyards. Vinification needs great viticulture. It is the wine-grapes 6-carbon ferment-able sugars, glucose and fructose, that get converted into carbon dioxide and ethyl-alcohol by hungry little enzymes of yeast, either native or cultured. Five(5) carbon sugars remain un-fermented in solution, but are generally unrecognizable in wine. A volatile, heat-generating process, a controlled alcoholic fermentation produces additional compounds that reside in the finished wine, such as acetaldehydes, phenolics(anthocynins), and even a little byproduct of sulfur dioxide. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.  The winemaker's choices of controlling many winegrape variables start early in the process.

In the cellar, it quickly becomes about the choices made by the modern winemaker; about their ability to control what nature provides. Do they de-stem the berries or ferment the whole clusters of fruit increasing the measure of air circulation and bitter tannins?  Will there be a pre-fermentation 'cold-soak' or cold maceration to soften seed tannins, enhance extraction, color, and aromas?. If so, for how long? Employed mostly on Burgundian varietals, this procedure still has its critics that discount its winemaking virtues. One thing is for certain though, a controlled cold maceration slows down the cellar process, extracts water-soluble pigments, and gives the wine maker more time to control a few variables. Extracting as much flavor or character is paramount, as well as preserving the color and the right balanced levels of the many acids in the young wine. Prior to fermentation, acid and sugars are measured to calculate the character of the finished wine.  Fragile white wines ferment just the juice of the berries in cooled temperatures and with very calculated, limited exposure to oxygen to preserve aromatics and freshness. Red wines by comparison are fermented on their skins to extract the character of color and structure, and benefit from oxygen exposure.
Chardonnay ready to Press

Yeasts are the catalysts of alcoholic fermentation in the cellar, so a yeast selection that produces greater control of the outcome(cultured) may be beneficial over native(wild) yeasts that live on grape skins, which can produce higher levels of alcohols and acetaldehydes. A cooler fermentation for white wines would follow a press, a juice settling(de'bourbage) and adjustments to acid or sugar(chaptalization) levels. A secondary fermentation may be introduced following primary fermentation here, changing the tart malic acids for the softer lactic acids(malolactic). And then in a series of steps intended to develop complexities and clean-up the new wine, it is racked to remove the dead cells(lees), adjusted, clarified and stabilized prior to its blending and bottling. Some white wines, notably Chardonnay, become rounder, more complex from being fermented in oak barrels rather than the more common stainless steel tank.

A warmer red wine fermentation is engaged prior to pressing the solids, where the hotter temperatures aid extraction of critical wine elements like color and flavor components from the pulp and grape skins. A malolactic or secondary fermentation is introduced to most red wines here to soften its coarse and aggressively tannic nature prior to an extended maceration which can include aerating the wine, and pressing off the juice. A calculated aging schedule in barrels allows for evaporation(concentration) and oxidation of the new red wine, as well as the softening of its course tannins, which pulls suspended particles out of solution and adds the dimension of oak flavors.  As with white wines, red wine clarification and stabilization is needed, and can happen before, during or after the aging process. Alternative whole-berry fermentation or Carbonic Maceration is practiced in oxygen-free environments where the freshness of red fruit is to be preserved. Typically lower in alcohol, tannin and pigments, the natural sugars in these grapes are broken down without the intervention of yeasts, resulting in fruitier wines like Beaujolais Nouveau.
Carbonic Maceration Tanks

Along the way, the winemaker uses a number of steps to control variables, such as sulfur adjustments to control yeast action, eliminate spoilage or browning. The new wine can be further processed by using techniques like heat or cold stabilization to remove unwanted proteins or to remove tartaric acid crystals respectively. Fining agents which bond to suspended particles, and micro-filtering give winemakers yet another way to clean-up and control the many variables in the winemaking process.  It is all about timing and calculated choices in a series of  time-tested steps that preserve the integrity of the vineyard fruit prior to bottling for every winemaker.

Aeration of the wine 'cap'

As you expect, many variations exist within the process.  Arresting the fermentation prior to all the sugars fermenting will create a sweet wine.  If achieved by the addition of alcohol, you have a fortified wine(VDN). Should the winemaker capture the escaping gas(CO2), either in the bottle or a tank, a sparkling wine is the result. Exposing an aging wine to air can create a slowly oxidized wine(Sherry), or heating the finished, fortified wine to create something unique, like a Madeira.  Making fine wine is not really a simple process.  It is the wonderful marriage of science and art, that advanced dramatically thru the development of the agricultural  sciences in the last half of the 19th century. Controlling what nature provides allows the modern winemaker to determine when the best grapes of each harvest become the best wine he can create.
Unclassified Pomerol Cru Merlot

Only then is it wine!


Monday, August 15, 2011

GERMANY: A Quality Tradition of Precision

North of the Alps, wine grapes that were cultivated by the Romans and then by Charlemagne, hang on the very edge of the most northerly situated viticultural region in the world. They were organized and lovingly tended by the monastic societies of the Middle Ages; these Church influenced vineyards(einzellagen) saw the cultivation of Riesling and Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir), today the most popular white and red German grape varieties. With its fertile soils offered to other agricultural crops, these vineyards were anchored in the poor soils of slate and basalt on the south-facing hillsides above the moderating climates of the important rivers of Germany's southwest. Then among the most prestigious wines in Europe, they were the result of precision and hand-worked tradition until the secularization of Church holdings by Napoleon in 1803.
Vineyards above Mosel River

The 19th century saw the 'golden age' of German wines, supported by the many advancements in the science of agriculture(viticulture). Established as a research center, the Rheingau's Geisenheim Wine Institute, founded in 1872, developed grape crossings like the popular white Muller-Thurgau, and continued to search for disease resistant, reliably ripening grape varieties. With the European outbreak of the vineyard louse, phylloxera, in the late 19th century, progress continued to be set back by the devastating world wars and economic depression that followed. A radical overhaul of the industry occurred in 1971 with the enactment of the German Wine Laws, condensing more than 30,000 individual einzellagen(vineyards) into slightly more than 2600 registered properties within defined districts(beriech) that are inside a demarcated wine region(anbaugbiet). Four(4) quality categories were defined, based upon subjective wine qualities and its objectively measured sweetness. In its theory, any property, any producer was capable of producing a great German wine.

German table wine or Tafelwein is the base category, with typical country wines(Landwein) above them, each with controlled minimums on sugar levels at harvest or must weight(Oechsle scale) and alcohol. As the top major categories, quality wines from a specific region(QbA) and the top ranked superior quality wines(QmP) compose the most heavily regulated and tested tiers. Analysis for typicity and authenticity is required, with registered 'A.P.' numbers as displayed proof of their testing. Chaptalization, the process of adding sugar prior to fermentation,  is not allowed on QmP wines.

Precision and time-honored traditions are seen in the steep, terraced cliffs of slate above the river Ahr, in the anbaugebiete of the same name, one of the coolest, northernmost regions.  Surprisingly, here Pinot Noir(Spatbungunder) dominates, producing light, fruity red wines. Traditions are similarly honored in the vineyards of Baden in the warmer southwest, where Weissherbst, a Rose' of Spatbungunder, is a much heralded specialty. Between these bookends Germany's best wines are consistently found in important regions like the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer.  With its multi-colored slate soils, these (3)river valleys are home to the steep, hand-tended vineyards of bright, acid-driven and mineral-ed Rieslings. To the southeast, sits the distinguished Rheingau, producing among the most renowned and elegant of Rieslings from an undulating south-facing vineyard landscape that uniquely runs east to west along the mighty Rhine. Across the river to the south is this predominately white wine countries largest wine region by volume.  The fertile rolling hills and varied soils of the Rheinhessen find many grapes sharing acreage with other agricultural crops, but it's the small amount of Riesling it produces that is its greatest wine. To the south sits the warmer Palatinate or Pfalz, Germany's second largest anbaugebiete(region) in acreage. Across the Rhine from Alsace, where it too enjoys a dryer climate by the Haardt (Vosges) Mountains, the Pfalz makes a spectrum of different wines and styles from as many different types of grapes as anywhere in the country, including the neutral white Silvaner.

Precision is also reflected in the German wine label, many still decorated by their Gothic script. Consumers may find the term, Weingut, which is a wine producing estate, or  Gutsabfullung(grower/producer estate bottled), among the field of unrecognizable terms. Basically,  the producers name(11) will always be prominent, as well as the suffix-added village(5) and vineyard(6) that was the source of the quality fruit. Our lunch/dinner wines will always show the grape variety(4), as well as the ripeness level(7) of that fruit, where Kabinett's and Spatlese(late harvest) will be dry wines by degree, and Auslese(select harvest) can be off-dry(halbtrocken) to pleasantly sweet. Feinherb(8) wines are sweeter than off-dry, but as with all Pradikat wines, always balanced by acidity. Dryer wines(trocken) will always have higher alcohol levels(10), but never to our standards of warmer grape regions, because they are from the fruit of early pickings in a cool climate. Late season harvested grapes affected by Edelfaule or noble rot can be found in the wines of Beerenauslese(BA), TBA and Eiswein, which will always be levels of sweet. 

Ever the tinkerers, the German trocken label terms for wines of the Kabinett & Spatlese levels were re-introduced in 2000 as 'Classic' and the higher level, hand-harvested 'Selection' for easy consumer recognition. Since the enactment of the German Wine Laws, every bottle of these quality QbA, QmP wines is tested and analyzed to meet some of the most exacting standards in the European Union. They remain today the traditional product of grapes uniquely suited for the extremes of climate and the limits of ripening sunlight, hand nurtured on some of the most inhospitable vineyard sites on the planet. It is this environment that demands successive vineyard pickings over many weeks, producing not just a seasonal crop, but numerous levels of wine products that are based on the measured ripeness of the fruit upon harvest. Where else but in the wines of Germany could such precise tradition produce not just some of the world's greatest value wines, but also white wines that are among the greatest drinking & dessert wines in the world.

Zum Whol! (To Your Health)

Monday, August 8, 2011

CHAMPAGNE: Blending for Bubbles on the Edge!

On the edge of where grapes can ripen sits the benchmark for sparkling wines. It could only happen here in northeastern France, in a singular region of controlled origin, Champagne AOC. Only here in its rolling hills of impoverished soils atop chalky, seeping limestone  would the regions heavy rainfall and cool temperatures not doom a winegrape crop.  With the development of thirsty nouveau riche markets of the late 18th century in the commercial /social centers of the North and Baltic seas to the west, only here could the region's river Marne, which joins the Seine outside of Paris, become the world's expressway for this unique sparkling wine. Not beyond the influence of nearby rival Burgundy, only here in the Champagne region, could the under-ripe grapes Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay be partners to the art of blending in their high acid states to create one of the world's most important wines, known simply as Champagne.
Champagne village in chalky limestone
Above the 49th parallel of latitude, this cool regions still wines have re-fermented in the warmer Springs that follow harvest throughout history. As such, the re-ferment of a harvest was nothing new to French winemakers. In the Southwest of France, Limoux re-fermented sparkling wines have been purposely produced from around 1531, and the English physician and naturalist, Christopher Merret, described the process of adding a liqueur de tirage back to the wine in 1662, six years before Dom Perignon even took his post as cellar master for the Abbey of Hautvellers near Epernay. Decades of innovation and  trialed evolution were required in this part of France to create the sparkling benchmark we know today. Importantly, it was here in Champagne that the art of blending an under-ripe harvest of different Burgundian varietals from many different regional vineyards was to create the world standard for sparkling wines.

Following its establishment by the Romans, cities like Reims had remained a strategically important regional trade center. This regions prominence was galvanized with the early Middle Age's crowning of Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, and continued throughout the centuries that followed as a nobility Mecca, the site for the crowning of the Kings of France. In addition to its historic cereal grains, recent centuries have seen the regions cooler northern Montagne de Reims department became dominated by Pinot Noir, bringing a firm structure and important high acid to the cellar masters artful blend. All three regional grape varieties can be found in the East to West  river causeway, Valle'e de la Marne, around Epernay, but it's fruity, dark skinned Pinot Meunier that is most widely planted. South of Epernay, on mostly east-facing vineyards of Chardonnay, the important Cote des Blancs contributes finesse to the cellar master's grape and vineyard blend. Heading further South lies the Cote de Sezanne, offering a riper Chardonnay from its more protected South facing vineyards. The most remote and warmer Aube, once the scorn of the Champenois, is a dryer region that brings a fuller bodied Pinot Noir from its drier climates. Combined, these low-sugar grapes allow a great Champagne to became a blended sum that is greater than its individual parts.
Grand Cru vineyards of Verzenay

These forested and grain blanketed departments are the domaine of small, independent growers, more than 19,000 of them, many of whom contract their fruit to the houses of Champagne. Today, the large Champagne houses only grow and produce a small amount of the wine produced here, with smaller houses, coop's and independent growers accounting for the majority. After decades of debate and conflict, the I.A.N.O. (Institut National des Appellations d'Origine) mapped out the appellation to its current configuration of over 80,000 total acres in 1927. Seventeen(17) villages have been rated through the percentile E'chelle de Crus as Grand Crus, annually earning the top price for their grapes. Tiered below are the Premier Cru villages, who get from 90 to 99 per cent, and then more than 260 crus(villages) sell at 80 to 89 per cent of the established price. Such a hierarchy combined with the regions annual cool climate challenges means simply that blending not only vineyard lots, but, also grape varieties as well as reserve wines from previous harvests are necessary for the production of a consistent product and the economic health of this region's wine industry.

It is the artful blend that consistently defines the style of each producer, their signature as it were. Non-vintage blends make up the overwhelming majority of all production, and even when a producer declares a 'vintage' year, a minimum 20% of it must be held in reserve. Similar to Sherry, each vintage is not only a blend of different grapes, lots and vineyards, but also of years. Following harvest, the fruit clusters are gently pressed so as not to extract color, chaptalized if needed to increase potential alcohol, and then are mostly fermented to low alcohol dryness in stainless steel tanks. In the racking that follows, the cuvee or blend is created(assemblage) to achieve the artfully consistent house style. A dosage of a sugar and wine mixture(liqueur de tirage) added to the clear wine ignites a second fermentation(prise de mousse) inside the capped bottle, creating(autolysis) the dead cell sediment(sur lie) that is eventually trapped in the bottles neck. Following a minimum of 12 months aging, the degorgement or removal of the sediment, introduces a small amount of dosage(here as, liquer d'expedition) which is returned to the topped off bottle to create it final level of dryness(or sweetness), and then is cellared for a minimum of 15 months for non-vintage. I know simply, it's complicated.

We've all seen Champagne in the tiny and giant bottles of celebrations. Only the smallest bottles, or splits, and bottle sizes larger than Jeroboam(4 standard bottles) are allowed to be produced by a method called Transvasage.  Here, standard sized bottles are disgorged into a pressured tank where the wine receives its final dosage prior to a transfer to its final package. Every bottle produced carries a code assigned by the regulatory body, C.I.V.C., designed to identify the type of producer who made the wine. Most large houses are noted as, "NM", or Negociant Manipulant, or a producer who purchases some portion of their grapes or base wine. Grower-producers are labeled as, "RM", or Re'coltant Manipulant, and "CM", Cooperative Manipulant(a producing grower's cooperative) are among the most widely used declarations. Although the overwhelming majority of production is non-vintage, Vintage wines are presumably produced in the best years, where 100% of its content is from that declared year. The finest, most expensive wines that a house can offer are labeled as Prestige Cuvee, and are produced in all styles following additional years of aging.
Not all that sparkles is Champagne!

In the world of sparkling wines, only these refined products from this edge of wine-growing can be called Me'thode Champenoise. Outside this AOC, producers who follow the same production regiment have been EU regulated to identify their wines as, Me'thode Traditionnelle or Me'thode Classique, and within France as Cre'mant. The Champagne region also produces still wines from the same grapes, under the wide regional appellation of Coteaux Champenois AOC and the Aube's Rose' de Ricays AOC. Champagne alone remains the world standard in winemaking that is greater than the sum of its individual parts. It is a place that could not exist as a village or commune, but only a region. A place where the annual harvest on the edge is uniquely situated to artfully blend for those tiny bubbles. Cheers!