Tuesday, May 31, 2011

History and wine


Ξ MAY 30TH, 2011 

Which is more natural, the English Bulldog of the 19th Century or our modern model? The Belgian Blue of yesteryear or today’s Super Cow? Selective breeding has produced both. So too has it given us all of the plant crops upon which the world’s peoples depend. From roses to wheat.

“Domestication of plants is an artificial selection process conducted by humans to produce plants that have more desirable traits than wild plants, and which renders them dependent on artificial (usually enhanced) environments for their continued existence. The practice is estimated to date back 9,000-11,000 years. Many crops in present day cultivation are the result of domestication in ancient times, about 5,000 years ago in the Old World and 3,000 years ago in the New World. In the Neolithic period, domestication took a minimum of 1,000 years and a maximum of 7,000 years. Today, all of our principal food crops come from domesticated varieties.”

This is emphatically not genetic engineering or recombination in the post-modern sense. The domestication of plants and animals is as old as the primal scene of the first hungry dog wandering into a circle of paleolithic Homo erectus huddling around a campfire. Today the very survival of domesticated plants and animals is entirely dependent upon our collective political and agricultural will, however abstract. So it is with Vitis vinifera.

Abandon any cropland and it will be overtaken by suppressed local vegetation in a matter of years, if not in a single season. Which is also to say that this local biodiversity (as we now call it), just as with the ancients, must be vigorously controlled for the sake of the crop itself; the invasive and opportunistic species excluded, whether weed, insect, deer, wild boar, or pathogen.

The natural world is conjugated and extrapolated by the development of the agricultural. Moreover, agriculture is thehistorical engine of humanity’s advancement. So we may insist that there is no nature without human cultures maintaining such a distinction; just as we know there can be no concept of the future without a concept of the past, or that, for example, a formerly nondescript region of the brain is suddenly revealed through scientific research to be the center of language acquisition. Nature is what resists and remains, what tests the practical and creative limits of any given people.

When we look at a modern domesticated crop in situ, we see neat rows, a marvel of geometric planning and practical efficiency. Far from its meaning being exhausted by the principles of industrial agriculture, an ancient Egyptian would surely recognize the logic of the appearance of a Montana wheat field; but not its scale, or its disease-free quality and robust yield. So it is with a vineyard.

Trial and error. Domestication. Techné. So it follows that Cabernet Sauvignon, especially its many subtle amphilogical variations, exists as an international variety only through a long process of equally subtle cultural choices and selections. Nature would not and does not do it alone. Nature does not plant a vineyard of Pinot Noir. People do. And people plantwhat they know, what is culturally relevant and of practical use to them.

Let’s look for a moment at what is involved in the planting of a vineyard. First comes site selection and its soil analysis, counting heat days, determining drainage patterns and orientation. Next the land is cleared of competitive, undesirable vegetation, excavated, planted with specific rootstock grafted to chosen varieties. The soil is supplemented with mineral nutrients and fertility enhancements. As the vines grow, vineyard hygiene must be observed, the vines pruned, disease and pest management exercised, and the ever-rebounding local biodiversity, controlled. There is still much, much more to be done in a vineyard, but this is enough to illustrate my point.

All vineyard activities listed above are learned and repeated cultural practices and techniques, some of which were great historical discoveries, many are immemorial. It is thereforenot accurate to say, as some do, that in planting and managing a vineyard ‘we work with Nature’. No. We contest and forcefully redirect the processes of the natural world for our own purposes and ends. This we call viticulture. And I believe terroir is the word we use to describe a wine that in some small way defeats this contest and redirection. Put another way, a terroir wine exceeds the agricultural mastery of its originating vineyard. In short, terroir becomes possible when mastery fails. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

A winery may use amphorae, clay jars, oak, redwood, or chestnut barrels (there are other options), steel or concrete tanks, even t-bins, for fermentation. (We no longer use animal skins or tree hollows, but we could.) For the settling or aging of wines, a winery selects from among the same container technologies. Innovations are always welcomed. Further, we now better understand the chemistry of the resulting olfactory qualities each variety of container best promotes. But even a few generations ago this was not the case. Far from it. For millennia little attention was paid to anything other than the stability and preservation of the precious liquid within, how to prevent spoilage. A partial understanding of the agency of fermentation, yeast, would have to wait until Pasteur, for example.

There is much hand-wringing among the wine cognoscenti about yeast these days. Wild (read natural) or industrial (readartificial). Take your pick, for you see, there is no other choice. But all yeasts are both natural and artificial. As naturally artificial — to coin a phrase — as any Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir vine selected and propagated over time. For all yeasts (exclusive of ML01), whether used in the making of bread, beer, cheese, or wine, like rootstocks and grape varieties, Bulldogs and Belgian Blues, all are the products of oft times ancient events of domestication. Refinements to the consistent, practical isolation of yeast strains would come in the 19th Century.

From vol. 1 of Thomas Pinney’s magisterial A History of Wine In America.

Work on isolating and propagating “pure” strains of yeast was first successfully carried out by the Danish scientist E.C. Hansen in the 1880s, with results that allowed a higher degree of control over the process of fermentation never before possible. By 1891 the French researcher Georges Jacquemin had established a commercial source of pure wine yeasts, and within a few years their use had become a wide-spread commercial practice in Europe.

The first experiments with strains of pure yeast began in [UC] Berkeley in 1893, with striking results: “In every one of the experiments, ” Boletti wrote, “the wines fermented with the addition yeast were cleaner and fresher-tasting than those allowed to ferment with whatever yeasts happened to exist on the grapes.” Samples of pure yeast cultures were sent out to commercial producers in Napa, Sonoma, St. Helena, Asti, San Jose, and Santa Rosa, with equally positive results.
 [His reference is Boletti's summary in UC College of Agriculture, Report of the Viticultural Work during the Seasons 1887-93 published in 1896]

Mr. Pinney goes on to provide a perfect quote for our purposes.

As the distinguished enologist Maynard Amerine has written, the contributions of biochemistry to wine “have changed winemaking more in the last 100 years than in the previous 2,000,” delivering us from a state of things in which “white wines were usually oxidized in flavor and brown in color” and most wines were “high in volitile acidity and often low in alcohol. When some misguided people wish for the good old days of natural wines, this is what they are wishing for.” [Ohio Ag Research and Development Center, Proceedings, Ohio Grape-Wine Short Course, 1973]

Though the process of fermentation remained an unexplained mystery for the greater part of the history of our enchantment with alcoholic beverages, many cultures learned techniques to tilt its success in its favor, such as selecting for reuse only vessels that had successfully carried a fermentation to an acceptable result, or adding other fruits, figs and berries for example, known to promote the secret process. And with respect to the stabilization of a finished wine, Patrick McGovern writes in his Uncorking The Past,

Tree resins have a long and noble history of use by humans, extending back into Paleolithic times. [....] Early humans appear to have recognized that a tree helps to heal itself by oozing resin after its bark has been cut, thus preventing infection. They made the mental leap to apply resins to human wounds. By the same reasoning, drinking a wine laced with a tree resin should help to treat internal maladies. And the same healing properties might be applied to stave off the dreaded “wine disease” by adding tree resins to the wine.

Even the Romans added resins such as pine, cedar, terebinth (known as the “queen of resins”), frankincense, and myrrh to all their wine except extremely fine vintages. According to Pliny the Elder, who devoted a good part of book 14 of his
 Natural History to resinated wines, myrrh-laced wine was considered the best and most expensive.

After all the above we now might better understand why the ancients reused only selected vessels from season to season; why resinating wines was popular; why isolated yeast cultures were celebrated in 19th Century Europe and America; and why Mr. Amerine so harshly judged what he called ‘natural wines’. The answer is stabilization, including, but not limited to, bacterial sanitation and the prevention of runaway levels of volatile acidity. In short, spoilage, the winemaker’s ancient antagonist.

So why are we these days in the thrall of a return to ‘natural wines’, a return to the Jules Chauvet’s modest environmentalism, near universal among Western peoples the 1960s? For it is surely true that by dawning of the Age of Aquarius, pesticides, herbicides and a host of other industrial insults had made a fine mess of vast tracts of France’s wine growing regions. In a nation of chain-smoking vignerons, of an exalted nuclear power program, and struggling environmental movement, it is not difficult to understand Mr. Chauvet’s appearance in France. What is more difficult to understand is why he should make a difference to us now.

Nevertheless it is asked, “How can winemakers afford to take the risk?” The answer is very simple: Winemakers can take the risk because of the hard-won agricultural victories and associated technologies historically achieved, but which are now selfishly taken for granted. The natural winemakers of today benefit from the leaps and bounds in our modern understanding of biochemistry, viticulture, plant physiology and pathology, and winery sanitation. Never before have we known so much about the biological and physical processes involved. Yet often select terroirists refuse to admit it. For some there are only natural wines and industrial swill. This is a false, dishonest choice. Or perhaps, more charitably, we may say that rarely has an agricultural product been so poorly named. In either case, winemakers of today, but drinkers and connoisseurs as well, stand on the shoulders of generations of nameless farmers, experimenters, of researchers and their discoveries. Our extended family of the vine.

The concept of ‘natural’ wines, who might qualify as a producer of the same, has undergone what in realpolitik speak is called ‘mission creep’. In an effort to fire the imaginations of the greatest number of winegrowers, producers, influencers and consumers, the definition or parameters of what constitutes a ‘natural’ wine has in recent years been expanded to include the products of ‘organic’ and Biodynamic winegrowing, however negotiable those practices may be. Every movement — such as it is — needs all the friends it can get. (On a personal note, my work in Portugal has revealed numerous natural wines that have existed long before Jules Chauvet was a twinkle in his mother’s eye.)

But a parallel rhetoric has emerged that threatens to alienate the very wine producers that the natural wine movement needs most to win over: the conglomerates still heavily dependent on petrochemicals, pesticides and herbicides; excessive synthetic nitrogen applications, the subsequent pollution of streams and waterways, and the increasing use of GMOs in the wine industry. It is a rhetoric that can draw no qualitative distinction between pesticide use and tartaric acid additions (one shudders to think what some terroirists would have to say about ancient Roman myrrh or pine resin wine additives); it is a rhetoric that dithers over alcohol levels rather than a winery’s carbon footprint; a rhetoric that finds objectionable some quite arbitrary level of SO2 but whose program does not appear to reflect in any meaningful way on enhancing vineyard biodiversity.

Rather than debate the ludicrous notion that volatile acidity or brettanomyces are praiseworthy expressions of terroir, concerned wine writers of every shade of green ought to instead turn their collective attention to the big picture. The rest is medieval scholasticism.

Gone are the days for strong in alcohol, intense jammy, fruit forward wines.



Too Much Alcohol in Wine or Too Many Wines with Imperfect Balance ?

(More wine news on www.vitabella.frFine wine and High-alcohol. Wine journalists consider it is time to write about this subject. Jon Bonne from San Francisco Chronicle decided to print the listed alcohol levels of each wine he recommends in the Food & Wine section. Britain's Decanter magazine also started to publish alcohol levels beginning in May. Why did they decide to do so ? SF Chronicle explains this move by suggesting "Our decision comes at a time when it is harder than ever to understand the implications of alcohol in wine."This move confirms a general concern from consumers who ask for more information on the wines they drink. Giving more information about what's in the wine is very useful. Starting next year, some wines in Canada will carry a warning label with the words “Contains Eggs, Fish, or Dairy". In fact, some customers would like full nutritional information on the bottles - calories, sodium, carbohydrate, protein, fat and alcohol. Why not? It is on practically every other food and beverage. So, in that sense, knowing about alcohol content is a good information regarding wine. But does it say much about the wine itself ?
Sometimes I taste wines that contain 13.5 % alcohol and I find them burning. Then I taste a wine with 15% and alcohol is perfectly integrated in a fresh wine. Finding the balance of a wine, that is the key role of a successful winemaker. Without artifice. Take the example of the 2010 vintage in Bordeaux, a year that the world celebrated as one of the greatest vintages. This special year brought concentrated grapes, with full flavors and degrees that exceeded 15% for some vineyards. After tasting en Primeurs, the world realized that the greatest wines, even if they had a high alcohol content, had succeeded in keeping a perfect balance. The best successes in 2010 showed that alcohol was beautifully integrated even if its presence was important. However, some chateaux have found the balance of their 2010 wines at a lower level of alcohol. It was the case, for example, of Chateau Margaux with a surprising 13.5%. The choice of the winemakers was paramount.
Each year and everywhere in the world, the greatest winemakers have the extraordinary ability to find the ideal balance for their wines. In California, a Ridge Montebello Cabernet from Paul Draper or a Pinot Noir from Ted Lemon's Littorai are delicious wines. Their owners have found the perfect balance with alcohol and those wines often reach 13.5% - 14%. It's a fact! For a consumer, choosing a wine based on its alcohol level would be too simplistic. Especially since the wine is not made for tasting immediately. Each wine has its own life that sometimes gives an extra chance to alcohol for a better expression. Consider two examples. For some wine lovers, alcohol can interfere with Port. I feel so when I taste unbalanced Ports, with the unpleasant feeling that this alcohol burns my palate. But a great Port, such as a perfectly balanced Quinta do Noval Nacional 1994, delivers a silky feeling on the palate, even at an early stage. And, after tasting old vintages, we understand this alcohol gives a great pleasure after a few decades. Second example: Let's consider Chateauneuf du Pape, some of which are unbalanced and reveal a particularly disturbing alcohol. But others (with the same level of alcohol as the former ones) reveal great balance and get an extra dimension which could have never been revealed without the presence of this alcohol. Moreover, that alcohol becomes of a rare subtlety when those balanced wines have the chance to spend some 10-15 years in a cellar. In fact alcohol, balance and aging make up a whole.
Gone are the days for strong in alcohol, intense jammy, fruit forward wines. Very seductive in the beginning with overripe flavors, these wines are now boring for most wine drinkers. In fact, this trend is international and does not only concern mature markets. So, will it be helpful to print in magazines the listed alcohol levels of each wine recommended? Certainly, but not only for consumers. I am convinced that this will also result to raise awareness to the whole wine industry that we enter a new era in wine consumption. The message is clear: consumers want better food pairing wines and not those old fashioned, over-concentrated, over-oaked, burning wines strong in alcohol.

Every wine starts tasting like brandied plum pudding...

Alcohol rising

Industry reps hot under the collar about ABV
by : Megan Headley
The alcohol in wine has been causing quite a buzz lately, and not just the kind that makes you want to hug everyone. One of the hottest issues in the industry these days is wine’s rising ABV (alcohol by volume). Certainly not a new trend, alcohol levels have been climbing for decades. However, some recent decisions by retailers and sommeliers to not stock wines over 14 percent ABV, along with a law passed in the UK mandating restaurants to publish all ABVs on their wine lists, are getting those who see ABV as merely a number all hot and bothered.
A wine’s alcohol comes from the ripeness of the grapes that made it. Riper grapes mean more sugar to be converted into alcohol during fermentation. Alcohol adds body and a perception of sweetness to wines, so when the ABV increases, these qualities are amplified. Sounds appealing, until every wine starts tasting like brandied plum pudding. But, there’s a palate out there for these fruit bombs pushing 16 percent ABV, and it belongs to the world’s most influential wine critic, Robert Parker, whose scores tend to go up as ABVs do. Producers caught on and began letting grapes over-ripen in order to make wines so high in alcohol that they should come with a designated driver. Parker’s allegiant followers buy by score, so even sun-challenged winemakers began producing walloping wines. And now, with what’s been termed “The Parker Effect,” many wines once known for elegant restraint (Burgundies) and quiet strength (Bordeaux) are becoming clumsy, characterless versions of themselves.
How much does this matter to wine drinkers who don’t know their ABVs from their ABCs? Considering the fact that higher alcohol wine gets you drunk faster, it should matter to anyone interested in getting home safely. Without the boring math, the difference between having two glasses of 12.5 percent wine and two glasses of 15.8 percent wine within an hour is 25 percent more alcohol—and the potential to go from within the legal limit to beyond it. Richmond-based wine importer Bartholomew Broadbent believes that consumers should be informed of a wine’s ABV before ordering it and hopes to see a law passed for American restaurants like the one passed in the UK.
“I check the ABV on a wine before the sommelier opens it and I turn it away, more often than not, if it is 15 percent or higher,” he says. “It would save time for them and aggravation for me if I knew the level before ordering it.” For him, it has nothing to do with balance. “A 7 percent wine can be just as balanced as a 16 percent one, but if I can safely have one extra glass of wine a night by buying a 12.5 percent wine versus a 14.5 percent wine, I will always prefer an evening spent with a lower alcohol wine.”
Should it be the restaurant’s duty to provide full disclosure, or simply be a case of buyer beware? Keswick Hall’s sommelier, Richard Hewitt, expects that people who order wine are aware of how it may influence them. “It seems a bit rude to publish ABVs—that would imply that people are not responsible or educated enough to know that alcohol levels vary.” At Keswick, ABVs are discussed in terms of food pairings, though, since a 15 percent Chardonnay isn’t going to match the chef’s hamachi crudo any better than a shot of Jameson would.
And how about those sommeliers and retailers who won’t let beefy wines past their velvet ropes? Rajat Parr, wine director for a San Francisco restaurant group, stirred up controversy when he banned any Pinot Noir or Chardonnay above 14 percent alcohol from his own restaurant. To Parr, it’s all about the balance in these Burgundian grapes, but his decision got him an online slap on the wrist from Parker, who suggested that “arbitrary cutoffs make no sense, and are nothing more than a form of wine fascism.” An interesting criticism from a man who’s made his living and ruined others’ by way of the arbitrary. Fortunately, some retailers, like Tastings of Charlottesville owner Bill Curtis, stay above it all. “I’ve spent my life goading people into exercising their own judgement when I sell wine and the ABV is clearly printed on every label.” And, for those of us who find the number inconsequential and just don’t care? Well, we can just ignore it and enjoy the buzz. 

“Pope,” the highest honor granted

Wine Spectator

The First Wine Competition?

At the 13th century “Battle of the Wines,” wine tasting and trash talking went hand in hand
Ben O'Donnell
Posted: May 31, 2011
If you’ve ever been to a wine competition, you know that words can be had and contentions contended. It is unlikely, however, that you would see every red wine automatically dumped as inferior, or a wine be praised for having the power to put your eye out, or a judge who hated a wine enough to threaten the winemaker with murder, or that anyone in attendance—much less a member of the tasting panel—would drink enough to pass out for three straight days.
But then, it’s not the 13th century, and you’re not caught in the crossfire of the “Bataille des Vins”—the Battle of the Wines. The poem of that name, written by cleric and poet Henri d’Andeli in 1224, describes what could be called a wine competition, but “battle” really is the more apt term. Organized by French king Philip Augustus—as His Highness was the only wine critic who mattered—the battle pits some 70 wines against each other, mostly from grapegrowing enclaves around France, but also from the Mosel, Spain and Cyprus.
The poem is a prism through which we can glimpse what our wine-loving ancestors loved—and hated—in their wine, though there’s no evidence to indicate that it’s an accurate representation of real judging contests as they may have taken place in the Middle Ages, says City University of New York professor Francesca Sautman, a specialist in medieval French folklore who contributed to the journal Mediaevalia’s recent wine issue.
The action begins with the appearance of the two judges, Philip himself and a fictional English priest, tellingly, a sozzled buffoon who mangles all his lines. Though the Hundred Years’ War is still more than a century off, the relationship between the French and English dominions is a chilly one, and the cultural and political overtones are unmistakable in the poem.
“This English priest drinks so much that he falls asleep, he falls dead drunk,” says Sautman. “The English were characterized by the French at that time as people who can’t drink or wouldn’t know how to drink, largely because they can’t grow wine.”
Next, in march the wines. We see some familiar faces, including: Bordeaux and St.-Emilion; Sancerre from the Loire; Beaune and Chablis representing Burgundy, an Alsatian wine and “[his] lady,” a Mosel wine. The priest immediately sets to, ridiculing the bottle from Châlons (in the Champagne region) as “Sir Fart,” as the wine causes bloating. “Red-boy” from Etampes (near Paris), the only red wine on the table, is also blown off on medicinal grounds, as a flagon full of cramps and gout.
Sautman explains, “It seems that from this period into the 15th century, the wines that are given the highest praise are whites, and that reds are viewed either with contempt or suspicion.” (By the aristocracy, that is; the peasantry drank it up.) The priest chases out the offending wines with a stick.
All hell breaks loose when the wines themselves jump into the fray. “Clear as the tear from an eye,” the wine of Argenteuil, a once-prestigious region eventually overrun by suburban Paris, clamors to proclaim himself best. He is cut down: “Oh shut up, you son of a whore. You are playing to lose!”
The wines quickly pick sides based on geography. The Bordeaux/Saintes/Atlantic area wines (British territory at the time) tout their vigor and strength—the eye-gouging thing, an odd quality to brag of in a wine—as well as how they “bring all the cash.” The wines from more easterly France appeal to the king on their finesse and agreeableness.
It’s time to pick a winner. The priest is off saying Mass to himself before dropping his candle and taking a hard snooze. The French king surveys all the fine wines of his kingdom … and crowns the Cypriot wine “Pope,” the highest honor.
Rich, sweet, exotic and rare, Mediterranean dessert wines like this one were famed across Europe in the Middle Ages but are relegated to obscurity today.
Some have speculated that Commandaria, a style called “the wine of kings and the king of wines” by Richard the Lionheart, would have been the Cypriot wine to win Philip’s favor. Christos Limnatitis, owner of Commandaria Revecca, says that references to the wine go back as far as Homer. The Knights Templar drank it, and it has even been reported, somewhat fancifully, that Ottoman Sultan Selim II (“Selim the Drunk”) conquered Cyprus just to get the stuff on tap.
Commandaria is made on the island today as it has been for millennia, from the red grape variety Mavro and a white one called Xinisteri. The berries are dried on mats in the sun until they are partially raisined, then fermented, and the wine may be fortified.
The wine is hard to find, mostly retailing in communities with a large Greek or Cypriot population, but it could be worth tracking down: “In medieval culture,” Sautman notes, “some of these strong, sweet wines were thought of as having a kind of aphrodisiac quality.”
Bataille des Vins, which has never been formally translated into English, can be read here in French.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Holistic approach to vineyard grazing

Grazing Vineyards

Making Grape Farming Profitable and Ecologically Sound Through Innovative Grazing

Holistic approach to vineyard grazing

Grape farming can be simultaneously more profitable, ecologically resilient and socially responsible than the status quo of both conventional and sustainable practices. Through the synergy of human creativity, ecological principles and holistically sound decision making, viticultural practices can be weaned of the majority of off farm inputs and operate primarily by current solar income.

Spiraling increases in fuel, equipment, labor and fertilizer costs, along with the associated negative impacts to our environment by many of these practices make it imperative for us to find innovative and viable solutions for sustaining agriculture.

Advancing the economic viability and ecological integrity of viticulture will increasingly necessitate the presence and impact of properly managed grazing animals during the growing season of both the cover crop and the vines themselves. Proven stratigies exist to allow grazing throughout the year in many established vineyards and effective solutions have evolved for designing new vineyards conducive to  holistically-based management.

The Synergy of Sheep

Results from a 2009 trial conducted in the Alexander Valley demonstrate that managed grazing of sheep in a vineyard through winter, spring and early summer can lead to the following benefits:

  • 80% -90% reduction in irrigation use
  • Eliminates the need to mow or cultivate under vines and between rows due to the grazing activity of  sheep which converts this plant material into fertilizer
  • Eliminates the need for hand suckering due to sheep browsing of this growth and converting it into fertilizer
  • Sheep can consume all canopy thinnings (laterals and leaves) placed on the ground and convert those into manure
  • Improves both yield and quality of fruit
  • Reduces reliance on and cost of machinery, fuels, fertilizers, hand labor and herbicides
  • Improves soils ability to sequester carbon
  • Reduces atmospheric carbon emissions

Kelly Mulville


(707) 431-8060


Thursday, May 26, 2011

The "Parker Effect" and Rising Alcohol Levels

1 Wine Dude

Want Some Wine with that Booze...?

May 24, 2011

The Center for Wine Economics released a report of a recent study on the sugar levels of wine grapes in California, titled “Too Much of a Good Thing?  Causes and Consequences of Increases in Sugar Content of California Wine Grapes.”  Not sure how new this news is, but it was new to me so I’m yappin’ about it!
While that title of the report doesn’t sound particularly fascinating, the report’s conclusions are – if you’re a wine geek, that is, and if you’re a fan of California fine wine and have ever wondered why alcohol levels seem to be kind of high in the premium vino coming out of that state.  According to the report, it’s not just your imagination – wine grapes in CA have indeed been getting riper over the last twenty years, which translates into higher booze levels, with white grapes bearing the brunt of the increase:
“The data show that the average alcohol percentage increased by 0.30 percent, with a larger increase for white wine (0.38 percent) than for red wine (0.25 percent).  This increase in alcohol percentage is consistent with an increase in the sugar content of the grapes used to make that wine of 0.55 degrees Brix, on average.”
That sugar measurement might look small, but according to the report it’s a “substantial” increase, and it’s that rise in sugar levels that is making CA wines a bit more… busty than they’ve been in the past (I imagine if you were used to drinking CA wine from 20 years ago, drank too much, passed out and pulled a Rip Van Winkle, upon waking up in 2011 you’d be forgiven for thinking that during your extended slumber your fave CA Cab had undergone the vinous equivalent of a boob job).  What this study does that is so fascinating is this: it puts data and critical thinking behindsomething that many CA wine drinkers may have already suspected… CA fine wines are getting boozier, and it might be the result of the fine wine market
Now, we’ve all heard of global warming, right (if not, please remove the large boulder from over your head and read the news)?  Well, it must be getting warmer in CA winegrowing regions, raising the sugar in the grapes due to the higher temperatures, and thus increasing the alcohol content in the final wine, right?
Not necessarily.  According to the CWE study, the weather patterns have had a minimal impact on grape sugars during the last twenty years:
“…an increase in heat during the growing season would contribute to an increase in the sugar content of grapes.  However, the heat index did not exhibit any statistically significant growth during the growing season..”
So what is causing the increased sugar = increased booze?  Probably the CA wine biz reaction to consumer demand. According to the study, it seems that premium wine varieties (especially reds) have seen some of the most dramatic sugar level increases – and they propose that this could be due to critics like Robert Parker giving higher scores to riper, more concentrated wines. This in turn causes consumers to demand those wines with higher scores, which causes winemakers to try to get higher scores, which causes grape growers to leave grapes hanging on the vines longer in an attempt to achieve more ripeness (and therefore raising the sugar levels in the grapes). To the study:
“In all of the models… the analysis shows a higher propensity for growth in sugar content for premium varieties, compared with non-premium varieties, even though premium varieties had higher sugar content to begin with.  This feature and the patterns of the level of sugar content among regions and varieties could be consistent with a “Parker effect” where higher sugar content is an unintended consequence of wineries responding to market demand and seeking riper flavoured more intense wines through longer hang times.”
The study doesn’t conclusively prove a link between a “Parker Effect” and rising CA wine booze levels – it merely concludes that is one logical interpretation of their results, since global warming / weather effects alone don’t account for the measured increase in CA grape sugar levels.
Still… it would explain quite a bit, wouldn’t it? And we don’t exactly have data coming out of ears disproving the link, or attributing the sugar/booze increase to something else, now do we?

“Food without wine is a corpse; wine without food is a ghost; united and well matched they are as body and soul, living partners.” Andre Simon (1877-1970)

Wine and Food Wednesday
Wine Without Food? The Horror of It All
By Stephen Eliot

“Food without wine is a corpse; wine without food is a ghost; united and well matched they are as body and soul, living partners.” Andre Simon (1877-1970)

...well, just maybe it ain’t necessarily so. A recent study reveals the truth. Americans, it turns out, more often than not drink wine without food. Gasp!!

The noted market-research firm, Wine Opinions, finds that those gosh-darned Millennials are the worst of the bunch. Wine, it appears, is increasingly being viewed as a stand-alone beverage as opposed to a dependent part of the meal.

More than a few food and wine commentators have seemed quietly dismayed at the findings and have expressed a certain concern, but for the life of me I really do not see why. Julia Child is attributed to having famously said “a meal without wine…is uncivilized”, and I would not argue the point, but some seem to accordingly think that drinking wine without a meal is likewise the practice of pagans. When I was taking my first vinous steps way back when, wine was the thing, and food was a second thought if at all. It was only a good many years after I had been packing away cases of classified clarets and fine California Cabernets that I began to spend as much time in the kitchen as in the cellar. I suspect I was/am not alone. I did not feel especially uncivilized when pulling yet another cork from a 1970 Beaulieu George Latour or Chateau Figeac or Chateau Leoville las Cases of the same year and knocking back a few glasses not over dinner but simply as a late-evening catalyst to conversation with friends. Fine dining simply did not fit into my graduate school budget, but somehow I always found the funds to keep good wine on hand.
The Wine Opinion study is fascinating, but I do wonder just how these latest numbers in our metric-obsessed era might compare to those from ten or twenty or thirty years back if we had similar data. I have no doubt that far more wine is being consumed by Americans now than in the past…but it is possible that there might not be significant statistical differences between then and now when it comes to who drinks what where. So what’s it all mean? Not much I think other than perhaps a new marketing insight into the ways in which wine can be sold. Fair enough. I suppose I have no problems with anyone who aims to broaden American wine drinking culture, and I am frankly heartened at the idea that a new generation is becoming sufficiently comfortable with wine to ask for a glass in lieu of a beer or a Manhattan or such.
Curiously, however, I have already heard murmurs about how the study helps explain “evolving” wine styles, that this growing use of wines as a beverage only fosters more of the softer, riper stuff (read California et. al.) Maybe it isn’t the critics and high scores (I mean, really, is the wine-as-a-cocktail crowd really buying high-scoring, high-priced, cult Cabernets?). Just maybe it is the voice of a free-market. Maybe it is just people drinking what they like, and, yes, if sipping a glass solo without food, I would rather have something fruity and rounded rather than lean and austere. Others, however, apparently spend nights awake in anguish at the cultural damage done by ripe, very flavorful, high-alcohol wines (there, I’ve said it) that aim for richness rather than structured austerity, and the misdirected, uneducated youth seems likely to only make things worse.
My response to those whose feathers are somehow ruffled by the study’s conclusions is to simply say “take a breath, calm down and relax.” Connoisseurship comes slowly and of experience, and it is a matter of practiced individual taste. With practice comes increased appreciation, and, as I see it, the path to the table is inexorable. Of interesting note in the study, it was older wine drinkers who were most likely to drink the wine with a meal. Incomes and sensibilities and appreciation, I would argue, are all things that grow over time, and high-pulpit preaching about the “proper” situations and venues for wine drinking or rolling of eyes at those would might enjoy a fine Pinot without the requisite duck dish benefits none.
I remember all too well those times not so long ago when fine wine was snobbishly regarded as something whose enjoyment required a special education. These days it is my business to offer opinions about what and why a great wine is, as well as to make comment about those that for me may fall a bit short, but I have yet to see in a wine some special virtue that I believe only the sophisticated few can ever possibly comprehend. It would be a sad thing indeed to return to the days of the tuxedoed, nose-in-the-air, tastevin-bearing sommeliers who were the sole keepers of the truth.
I admit to drinking wine mostly at meal time and I find my greatest pleasures in a remarkable food and wine match, but I do like a glass from time to time on its own, and, as an unrepentant cheerleader for wine in general, I am delighted that so many new wine-drinkers are doing the same. 

hy·pos·mi·a (n.) A diminished or deficient sense of smell.

Wine Blog
"Juicy Tales by Jo Diaz"


Hyposmia ~ How’s Your Palate As You Age?

Probably not too many people in this lifetime want to admit that they’re palates are on the wane. No awards are given for fessing up, and it will definitely work in one’s disfavor, but I’ve always been one for telling it like it is, not like it isn’t… I just didn’t know there was a name for this life changing phenomenon.
I’ve got to thank Dan Berger for bringing it up years ago in his 02/21/08 Vintage Experiences Commentary. I’ve been thinking about this. I even talked to a colleague about it, and he told me to just let it go because I have wisdom to offer… Yeah, right… but it’s just not the same.
I’m always ready to reinvent myself. As one part of me is left behind, I discover another. It’s in the not letting go of the old room that doesn’t allow for one to discover what’s in the new one.
So, let’s discuss… What’s Hyposmia, anyway?
hy·pos·mi·a (n.) A diminished or deficient sense of smell.
The good news for me is that I was born with a hypersensitive sense of smell, so I probably still have a better than “average” ability now. None-the-less, having my sense of smell diminish a bit causes me to wonder what happens to people who are born with an average sense of smell.
Like Alice, I’m off into a new room, exploring new things, and not letting one thing that slips ever-so-slowly away become a negative… It’s just an opportunity for new things to come my way. For instance, I can go photograph a wine competition and bring back wonderful images, versus having to be the one where after a flight of wine, I’ve just lost it but must trudge on. (This image was taken at the Riverside Wine Competition in May 2007, thanks to the generosity of Dan Berger and Juliann Savage.)
I have something for my eyes (glasses), and even if someone invests something for my nose, I’m happy to smell a bit less… versus extending the length of my nose andits capabilities. Enough already!
It’s not the changes that happen in our lives that matter. It’s how we handle the changes that counts!
For Dan’s issue, please contact him thorough his Web site for his full story. It’s very enlightening, and he’s brave enough to put it out there. I’m just following his lead. I can’t call it an “opinion” because it’s got a medical name: Hyposmia.
This perhaps might explain to me, however, how Robert Parker can give (for instance) a 2004 Black Coyote Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon a score of 91, and write the following:
  • This deep ruby/purple-colored wine, made at the Judd’s Hill Winery and bottled by Robert Pecota winery, is outstanding. A beautiful, rich wine, it exhibits notes of black currant, licorice, underbrush, and subtle background oak. Medium to full-bodied, still very young and primary but very promising as well, this wine should age nicely for 12-15 years.
Then, another wine critic writes the following, with a score of 84:
  • Wholly absent of the polish and finesse that we associate with Stags Leap Cabernets, this brawny but soft-centered wine is singularly defined by ripeness, and its ongoing toughness and undisguised heat stand out for lack of buffering fruit.
Same bottle, two opinions. Having tasted the wine more than once, I’m running with the Parker review… regardless of my palate losing a bit of its luster, I know it’s as Parker tasted it.
And, thanks to Lewis Carroll for these wonderful images. Where would we all be in life without a little Alice in Wonderland!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Climates in vineyards

Wine Blog
"Juicy Tales by Jo Diaz"

Vit 101: Understanding Macro, Micro, Meso, and Canopy Climates

All  words that are used in writing about a vineyard’s climate terroir. There are significant differences with each. If you don’t have the luxury of a viticulture class close, or you’re just too busy to attend a class, here’s a good primer.
Vit 101 brought some interesting concepts to me, including that there just aren’t the microclimates that we hear and read about all the time. Climatologists recognize that there are four levels of climate that exist in vineyards, which is dependent on the size of the area that’s involved in defining what’s what.
I’ve added the image to the right, because it’s explained as a microclimate on rock located in intertidal zone in Sunrise-on-Sea, South Africa, to demonstrate that microclimates exist in nature… period, not just within agriculture.
Macroclimate is what exists in the grand scheme of things, like the image above. It’s the overall climate of a specific region, like a heavy fog that blankets the Russian River Valley, for instance.