Monday, May 30, 2011

AUSTRIA: Uniqueness beyond Gruner

There's more than a little that is unique about wine-lovin' Austria. Landlocked and mostly mountainous, it is traversed by one of the longest river highways in Europe, the Danube. Its strategic geographical location has been a crossroads historically, as it was for the Celts, and the Barbarians, and the Slavs.  Austria's history is a history marked by century upon century of invasions. For the Roman's it was an eastern border of the empire's edge, and to Charlemagne it needed to be conquered to introduce the wine rite that is Christianity.

Due to the numerous alpine rivers major moderating influence throughout the southeast and across the fertile Pannonian basin, Austria has grape growing evidence going back more than 4000 years! Nurtured by the Church, by the 14th century, Vienna had established itself as the wine trading center for the entire Danube basin. In 1784, an imperial decree of the enlightened emperor Joseph II intended to improve viticulture around the wine capital, gave licensed innkeepers Heurigen, a way to sell their self-produced wines. Austira's wine industry had evolved, and remained among the very best, most revered in the world for hundreds of years.

Heurige Tavern

An outbreak of devastating vineyard fungal diseases gave birth to the world leading Federal Institute of Viticulture & Pomology in 1860, only to be followed by widespread vineyard destruction from a root louse, phylloxera. Increasingly under Germany's influence, Austrian recovery was slowed by World War I, a global economic depression and then WWII. It was not until 1955 when Austria once again regained her independence. An international wine scandal followed in the mid-1980's, and its mandate resulted in the worlds toughest controls and regulations on a wine industry.  If that were not enough, the challenging 2010 growing season produced the smallest harvest in 25 years!

Austria's 4 wine regions of 16 districts run its eastern edge, like a backward crescent bordering the Czech Republic and Hungary.The western-most wine region of Wachau has its own unique, time honored classification system: dry, low alcohol wines which are mostly locally consumed are labeled Steinfeder; wines of mid-level ripeness, similar to Kabinetts are labeled Federspiel. Among Austria's best dry wines are those labeled Smaragd, having a minimum 12.5% alcohol. Neighboring regions in Lower Austria to Wachau, are Kremstal and Kamptal. Combined with Weinviertel in the countries far northeast corner, these regions produce most of Austria's fine wines.  They are also home to the national grape, Gruner Veltliner, which is
successfully planted no where else in the world.

Today, bright, zesty Gruner, makes up about 1/3 of this nation's wine volume, and it has become its current international calling card. The trade group, Wine Austria, says 70% of Austrian wine is consumed domestically, plus there's a long established export market to Germany. There is still a considerable volume to share with the global market. As recent as two years ago, Today's Wine Writer, Edward Deitch, proclaimed indigenous Gruner Veltliner, a marketing and quality wine value 'hit'. "One of the best attempts at wine branding I've seen", he wrote. Although there is more of this wonderful, food-friendly white wine it in the marketplace than ever before, it is current not displacing our white wine standards.

Here too we find dry Riesling, but generally more steely-edged and sharp than neighboring Germany's. Burgunland's Neusiedlersee region in the east is world known for sweet dessert wines, producing revered conditions right for botrytis along the shores of Lake Neusiedl. In the southeast the southern wine regions of Styria enjoy considerable success with international varieties, like Sauvignon Blanc. In its most famous district, Sudsteiermark, there's almost paradoxically, a popular harvest grape must called Sturm that's consumed with locally roasted chestnuts.

Locally bred red grape varieties, like Zweigelt,  are popular here too, finding wonderful pairings with the awards of the hunt. Blauer Zweigelt, is Austria's most widespread red grape variety, a bright and aromatic cross, with spicy, sour-cherry notes. All of these quality wines are classified based on the level of sugar at harvest, called KMW, and similar to Germany's Ochsle scale. Upper quality tier's, like Qulitatswein Kabinett's, and Pradikatswein Spatlese or Auslese, may not be chaptalized.  Wines of the Pradikatswein tier additionally cannot have sussreverve added.  These are the real deal, and their qualities are guaranteed!

Austria formally joined the EU in 1995, and today continues to economically benefit from its neighboring trading partners. Surrounded by countries that had once occupied Austria, each has left an imprint on this nation's culture and it's unique wines. This then is among the many things of what is unique about Austrian wines, more than just Gruner.  Austria has taken a little from each who have traversed this crossroad, and in the end made it uniquely Austrian quality. Not surprisingly, its capital, Vienna(Wien) is also a wine producing region.  Now that is unique!



Saturday, May 21, 2011

AUSTRALIA: Adversity Drives Innovation to the Edge

In a crowded marketplace, standing apart is a challenge, but that is exactly what wines from Australia have been able to do.
Margaret River, Western Australia
An isolated and expansive island nation, it is one of the oldest and driest places on the planet. Its soils are leached and saline, and water management has evolved here as an art and a science.  Recently, a seven year drought across nations most important agricultural region, the Murray-Darling basin, was followed by the wildfires of 2009, only to be followed by record floods in the states of Queensland and Victoria that produced outbreaks of widespread vineyard disease. The global economic recession has hit hard in Australia, and wine grape prices have hit record lows, supported by an oversupply of grapes. In recent months, a growing number of smaller Australian wineries in the Southeast have given up and just walked off their land. As the vast majority of the wines Down Under are produced by a handful of large beverage corporations, earlier this year behemoth Constellations Brands sold its Australian portfolio for an estimated $800 million loss!

Even as the Australian wine industry battles to overcome these significant challenges, consumers continue to hear descriptors like 'new' and 'innovative', or 'generous' and 'easy going' to portray its wines.  I know that under the umbrella of their Guarantee of Quality there are the Geographical Indication(GI) designations, similar to the EU appellation system.  And, that the Australians are responsible for quality wines in a box packaging, as well as wines sealed by freshness guarantee screw caps. With a domestic per-capita wine consumption rate considerably higher than ours, the Australians still manage to export the vast majority of what they annually produce. For more than a decade, their successful Strategy 2025, has focused on growing Australia into a targeted $4.5 billion preeminent global wine export leader by volume and quality. But what else could they do to overcome these recent industry challenges?

Australia continues to lead the world in wine science, and also produces iconic wines that are among the best in the world. They have also ingrained standards of value wines into our conscience, like Jacob's Creek or so-called 'critter wines'.  But perhaps the most meaningful and important effort today is comprehensively displayed on the WineAustralia web site. Australia is hitting on all cylinders as they currently employ a disciplined strategy to raise awareness of their fine, widely available products. Marketing to improve image, to increase agreeable price points, and introduce a wider range of wines to global consumers, Wine-Australia, has launched a brand message with an implied assurance at every price-point of consistently better quality. This focused effort includes these framework 'personalities':
  • Brand Champions offer a strong premium brand message, supported by quantity and accessibility (i.e. Jacob's Creek).
  • Generation Next wines are socially innovative products in packaging or marketing(i.e. Clare Valley screw-cap initiative). Note: see blog entry 02/09/11 Quality Innovations Down Under.
  • Regional Heros, are wines from somewhere, with an association between region/style/variety(i.e. Shaw & Smith Adelaide Hills).
  • Landmark Wines initiative recognizes leading high-profile wines of inherent quality and world wide reputation(i.e. Penfolds Grange).
There are wine producing countries that still today move all too slowly from their Old World stature or dated  hierarchy.  And then from Margaret River in the west to Tasmania, there is Australia.  In the lead in so many facets of today's wine industry, Australia has once again shown that adversity can be a positive drive towards innovation in the world of quality wine.

Among the recently announced Decanter World Wine Awards 2011 Regional Trophies were the following Australian quality wine values:
  • McWilliams Mount Pleasant Cellar Release Elizabeth Semillon 2006 Hunter Valley
  • Tesco Finest Tingleup Vineyard Riesling 2010 Margaret River
  • Bird in Hand, Two in  the Bush Shiraz, Mt. Lofty Ranges 2009 Adelaide Hills
  • Catching Thieves Cabernet Merlot, Margaret River 2010 Western Australia
A toast to all that Australia brings to global wine lovers."Cheers, Big Ears; Same Goes, Big Nose!


Monday, May 16, 2011

ARGENTINA: More than Malbec & Tangos?

Malbec World Day, the inaugural,  was one month ago on April 17, with its focus being to introduce the Argentine Bordeaux grape variety to a wider audience. Celebrated all over the world, this wine showcase was truly an international event, with a focused media blitz and organized tastings from India to Washington DC. Argentina today benefits from a stable government and rebounding economy, investments in modern equipment, a wave of global wine consultants and has even adopted an eye for international marketing.  The result is that today's Argentine Malbec is of higher quality and more widely available than ever before in our marketplace. In 2010, Argentina overtook Chile, becoming the fourth largest wine importer into the US, with wine exports exceeding $220 million. Remarkable across-the-board quality growth, as well as production, has resulted in an increase of almost 10% in export wine volume, and an estimated $17% in value over 2009!

This development was no accident. Beginning in 2000, and without government support, Argentine winemakers launched a global strategy to increase market share, Vision 2020. In 2002 Argentine wines were exported to 81 countries, and by 2008, those markets had grown to120! With its dated vines averaging more than a few decades old, grown on their own rootstock in irrigated vineyards averaging more than 3000 ft. in elevation, in a dry continental climate, where flowering is limited by the 'zonda'(a fierce seasonal wind blowing out of the northwest), Argentina would seem to be limited in the ability to change. Additionally, domestic and international markets here have different tastes in wines, so big producers often produce two different lines of their brand. While total vineyard area has grown nationally, low quality wines acreage from white grapes, like Pedro Gimenez, or the high yield, bulk wine producing black grape, Criolla Grande(Mission grape) are on the decrease. Yet, the widely planted workhorse, fruity Bonarda, remains significant in its plantings. Across its grape growing regions low-yielding 'international' varieties are today on the increase.

Salta Torrontes
Of Argentina's seven grape growing regions, the expansive, dry Mendoza region in the rain shadow of the Andes, is an inviting home for the Malbec grape variety which is susceptible to rot and mildew. Native to southwestern France's Loire and Lot River valleys, Argentina has today more fruity Malbec planted than anywhere else on the planet. U.S. consumers here can find consistently good values and quality from Malbec producers like Tikal's Altos de Mendoza, or Hacienda del Plata, or Trapiche, and American winemaker, Paul Hobbs', Vina Cobos. Even American giant E & J Gallo distributes the prestigious Bodega Catena Zapata, which is annually one of the top restaurant import brands in the U.S.

Outside of dominant Mendoza, the northern regions of La Rioja and San Juan are this nation's largest wine producers. Balanced between domestic and export production, Malbec may soon have an Argentine partner in the global marketplace. With more than 230,000 cases exported to the US in 2009, according to Wines of Argentina, Torrontes, a high acid and fragrantly citrus-floral white variety from mountainous Salta region in the north, and the Catamarca Valleys, may be the next big thing. Regional sub-varieties may hinder its identity in the export markets, but it is refreshingly worth seeking out. Try Salta's Catena Almos, and Crios de Susana Balbo, or Mendoza's Norton Lo Tengo. Chardonnay acreage has grown too, it being a base for the country's sparkling wine production, planted mostly in the cooler regions of the Mendoza and the Rio Negro to the south.

Could Mendoza Pinot Noir be next? Trapiche makes a good one.  Or perhaps the next wave of wines from Argentina will be spearheaded by the fruity, light-bodied Bonarda(Charbono), or even the combination of native and international red varietal blends! With a de-valued currency against the US Dollar, Argentina, one of the world's largest producers, can certainly continue to provide oceans of value-driven wines. Whatever the outcome, like the tango, I am sure that it will be enjoyable for wine drinkers to watch!


Monday, May 9, 2011

CHILE; Center of the Universe

A shelf-talker placed in front of the wine display case would have been overlooked if not for the hand-written accolade from the wine retailer posted next to it. "Great value from a cutting edge producer", it said. "Lot's of generous black fruit", and "organic", also caught my eye. I knew that the wines from Chile that were currently in our marketplace had grown into becoming a world standard for value.  Yet, in the back of my mind was the image of a dusty basket of South American wines sitting on the floor of my first retail wine shop, with a $2 or $3 national flags erected proudly above.  But that was the 1980's, and so much has changed since then.  Intrigued, I decided to purchase a bottle of Chono Syrah from the Elqui region of Chile, in part because I was unfamiliar with the growing region. As I revisited my wine books on Chile, I was delighted to find out that the remote northern valley of the Elqui River is considered by many to be the magnetic center of our universe!

Most of Chile's wines are produced in the vast Central Valley DO, surrounding Santiago, its capital. These West to East valleys uniquely benefit from the cold air pushed off the Pacific Ocean's northerly flowing Humbolt Current, as well as the descending cool night air from the dominant Andes to the East. From its cool valleys North of the capital in the regional Aconcagua DO, world class Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnays are grown in the regions of San Antonio and Casablanca. To the west of Santiago, lies the large Maipo region, known for its red Merlot's and Carmenere's, but mostly it's distinctive Cabernet Sauvignon. Here in the sandy foothills of the Andes, above 1800 feet in elevation, is where the organically farmed Chapo co-op is headquartered. But my wine did not originate here in the Central Valleys. Nor was it grown in the Curico, or the widely planted Maule' regions that fan to the South towards the Patagonia, producing volumes of serviceable red wines. The international variety Moscatel de Alexandra, mostly used for grape distillation(Pisco), is also voluminously abundant here. I would have to look elsewhere for the center of the universe.
Elqui River

 In its northernmost wine region, 300 miles north of Santiago in Coquimbo DO, is where Elqui is to be found.  North of the Choapa region, and north of Limari, situated on the southern edge of the Atacama, the world's driest desert, is where the Syrah for my bottle was grown. This region is formerly known for sourcing Pisco, Chile's popular grape brandy, but of late has gained international attention with cool climate Syrah. This region is the Northern extreme, in a country of new world diversity.

For almost 500 years, Chile has been a wine culture.  It was the Spanish who introduced the Pais grape, or Mission grape, to this perfect climate. Free of the vineyard louse, phyloxera, vines continue to be planted here on their own rootstock. Once Pais was the most widely planted winegrape varietal in Chile; even representing a full third of all grape plantings as late as 1994.  In the decade and a half that has followed, Chile has more than doubled its total vineyard acreage dedicated to other international varieties, while the workhorse Pais has lost significant acreage. It is Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc that is today fed into the thirsty export markets, not Pais.

In this perfect wine place, with its diversity in soils and climates, abundant water for irrigation and mostly free of deadly old world vineyard maladies, wine growing seems easy and natural.  With international investments, modern techniques and an eye for the global market, the wines of Chile today are made better than ever before.My Chono Syrah was bright, clean and racy in its dark berry flavors, with a hint of tar and eucalyptus, nicely framed by sweet oak. It proved to be a perfect partner for our beef dish.  And, Chile today is becoming so much more.

Lead by value brands like Concha y Toro,  Santa Rita, Gato Negro, and Los Vascos, Chilean winesales continue to grow annually in the sub-$15 categories. Higher priced brands, such as Casa Lapostolle and Almaviva, regularily build the increasing up-scale image of these terrific, value oriented wines from that perfect place. Larry Challacombe, general manager of Berkeley's, Global Vineyard Wine Importers, has said that, "even at $49.99, put head to head with wines from other areas, it's a great value!" Year after year, these quality exports of Chilean wine continue to grow, according to the Chilean Office of Agricultural Research and Policy, up more than 7% in volume when compared to the first quarter of 2010.
El Tololo Observatory

My glass of Alicanto Sauvignon Blanc from the San Antonio region north of Santiago is now shining in the diffused window light as I write this.  An easy to enjoy dry wine, it has a yellow-green tint to it in the glass, with gooseberry - citrus aromas and flavors that seem focused and bright through a generous finish.  Acid driven, it will be perfect with almost anything that I'd like to squeeze lemon on.  Or perhaps I'll finish it while looking at the stars in the night sky.  After all, it did originate from the center of the universe!

To Your Health!