Monday, May 20, 2013

Climate Change and the Wine Industry, Part 1

Last week I read an academic paper on this subject and while admittedly not understanding it all, I did get that the wine industry is imperiled.  I then proceded to search for related articles and came up with several.  All seem to have sprung from the same academic spadework with the key target date of 2050 appearing in each.  By that date it is imagined the industry will have changed dramatically to survive in the expected hotter climate.

Carbon in the atmosphere has been measured since the mid 1950s and average world temperatures have now been calibrated backward millions of years.  In the current era the globe has warmed 3-4.5 degrees in the last fifty years which contrasts dramatically with earlier centuries in which temperatures fluctuated by as little as a degree or two.  For the wine industry the recent warming has actually been good for viticulture.  It has meant a longer growing season which in turn means a more consistent harvest.  Production has been fine through the decades also although 2012 was off a bit.

Heat hastens ripening, producing more sugars (alcohol) and bolder flavors.  Coincidentally the current popular style in wine appreciation includes robust, overly ripe, fruity, high alcohol wines.  Knowing the power of advertising and the ability of this industry to woo its base, this may be more of a case of us convincingly offering what we have as the style du jour.

"Heat spikes" are days when the vineyard temperatures reach 95 degrees.  Those extreme temperature days have increased in recent years causing concern (and expense) for the industry.  Wine grapes prefer to live in the 55-68 degree range and need to be frost free at the other extreme.  Life is best for grapes when it is lived in the middle of the extremities.

Climate Change and the Wine Industry, Part 2

We in the industry have casually talked about global warming for twenty years.  Gallows humor may aptly describe the banter.  Envy may also be in there somewhere knowing that some of the most expensive real estate in the world is planted in vineyards.  Going forward, owners of that cultivated land in Napa, Tuscany, Burgundy, or any of a number of other wine appellations may not have the treasure trove they once did.  By 2050 all of these meccas may be too warm to produce what made them famous in the first place.

Moreover the legally controlled appellation system Europe created to protect those historically important wine production regions, the system that worked so well for a hundred years, now seems to be the opposite of what it once was.  Whereas it once guaranteed quality, with temperatures rising, in time Chianti will be ordinary at best.  If it's your fav, buy it now.  Inevitably, Europe will have to abandon these soon-to-be-meaningless appellations in favor of varietal labeling or something else.

At the heart of the French appellation system is the idea of terroir.  Terroir is the "universe" of the grape in the vineyard including: weather, soil, topography, and the grape variety, itself.  In theory the right grape variety planted in the right setting with competent care will produce a consistently premium product for as long as the vines are in the ground...and vines last a l-o-n-g time.  If one of the terroir variables (such as heat) changes though, all bets are off.

Heat in the central valley of California is one of several factors that causes Cabernet Sauvignon grapes to fetch one-fifteenth of the price of Napa Cabernet.  Other factors are of course at work besides the heat, but the heat amounts to a mere five degree difference between the two places, so if Napa heat rises five degrees, does it turn into Fresno?  It may be that the high dollar wines like Napa Cabernet and others will take the biggest hit from global warming.

A recurrent topic here in the blog is consolidation in the wine industry and the movement from estate produced wine to bulk production on a mass scale.  With global warming in mind, that movement now seems prescient.  If the climate is going to change the product anyway, why not recreate your formerly estate-sourced wine using fruit from cooler climes?  You could still market it as Chateau XYZ with the public being none the wiser and thoroughly ambivalent toward estate-sourcing anyway.

Climate Change and the Wine Industry, Part 3

One of the impressive new breed of winery owners is John Williams of Napa's Frog's Leap Winery.  He is proactive ecologically from a larger-than-just-the-wine-industry prospective; as in, "It's about humanity, Stupid".  Frog's Leap is 100% organic with electricity provided by solar panels mounted on poles over Merlot vines; heating and cooling provided by a geothermal system using the earth's temperatures; and NO IRRIGATION!  Because access to fresh water may be endangered and/or expensive in the future, "no irrigation" is huge.  Williams says we don't know how climate change may alter the environment; it's just that fretting about this industry is really small compared to the survival of humanity. 

Changes in climate and temperature will, of course, not be evenly applied everywhere even within individual vineyards.  Some proactive measures may mean just planting the Zinfandel in a less impacted area of the vineyard or pruning the vines and/or constructing trellises for more shade.  Crossing the Zinfandel with Syrah or another more heat resistant grape may also provide a solution but with every measure taken comes another unforeseen consequence.  The new grape from the Zin crossbreeding would no longer be Zinfandel which has been promoted for a hundred years in one way or another.  So the new creation would now have to be supported with new advertising dollars.

Pests have always been a reality for viticulturalists.  In North Georgia the reason for vineyard placements in the mountains was to avoid the Glassy-Winged Sharpshooter, an insect that spreads the deadly Pierce's Disease.  Cold winters are the prophylactic so one can either move up north or place your vineyard at a higher elevation.  With warmer winters a reality here now, the Sharpshooter and Pierce's are no longer avoidable.  Actually, Ted Turner bought Montana.  Hmmm.

Climate Change and the Wine Industry, Part 4

Climate change will produce winners along with losers going forward.  Old Europe with its appellation system will be gone.  England may be the new Champagne and other northern European countries may inherit winemakers from Italy and Spain with their new ventures.  Australia will largely lose going forward with the exception of the western (and best) region of the continent.  New Zealand will win because of the vineyard-friendly undeveloped lands available.  Chile and Argentina may experience a 25% loss of vineyard land due to climate change but they also have more available.  California could lose 70% of its dedicated vineyards with Washington and Oregon benefitting, especially Oregon which, again, has room to expand and is already experimenting with new varieties.

Being someone who buys wine for a living, the buyer in future transactions may be critical.  Thinking outside of the proverbial box may allow the adventurous buyer to jump on Patagonian or Canadian wines of the future to their advantage.  Wines made from other fruits may be another option ahead.

Losers would also have to include wildlife as their habitats would have to yield to expansion of wine and food cultivation.  Actually vineyards would eventually have to yield to food production if it comes to that.  And business-wise, if wine sales suffer; then hospitality, tourism, grocery, and restaurants would all take a hit. 

In the future, "In Vino Veritas", the old slogan meaning "in wine there is truth", may truthfully refer to the wine industry as the canary in the coalmine of global warming.  If grapes need an environment in the 55-68 degree range, an admittedly narrow window, then if that industry can't make it, how long until others collapse?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013


This Friday we'll be tasting Zios Albarino (al-ba-ree-nyo) from Pazos de Lusco of Rias Baixas, Spain.  Albarino is the great white wine of Spain and one of the few varietally named whites from that country.  It hails from Galicia in the northwest and the name means white wine (alba) from the Rhine (rino).  It is believed monks (it's always the monks, isn't it) brought the grapevines to Spain from the Rhine region in the twelfth century.

Albarino was the name of the district from which the wine was produced until 1988 when Spain joined the European Union.  The EU doesn't allow a district to be named for a grape variety.  Because of the geography of the region it was renamed Rias Baixas (REE-ahs BUY-shass).  Rias refers to the many miles long inlets of water from the Atlantic that create a fjord in Galicia.  Baixas refers to the lower Rias region that borders Portugal.  In Portugal the grape is called Alvarinho and it produces a fine varietal wine of its own in the northern part of that country known for Vinho Verde.

So what makes Albarino noteworthy?  I have always attributed its greatness to the fineness of its flavors.  Albarino is a light, clean, floral mineral-driven seafood wine with nuanced flavors of white peach, melon, apricot, pineapple, and mango.  The wine is a pale golden lemon color.  It is steel barrel fermented which may enhance its natural acidity.  It is crisp, elegant, and fresh.  I have always thought of Albarino as a lighter feathered Viognier but its origins may include Riesling as a parent and that may account for its acidity.  Some attribute its floral character to Pinot Grigio.

Albarino is a grape that may be manipulated in the vineyard and winery.  There are five subzones in Rias Baixas with varying soil types.  In general the more acidic granite soils impart minerality while sandier soils result in softer, rounder wines.  The small green thick skinned Albarino grape is resistant to fungus and a natural for the cool damp Spanish fifty degree coastal climate. The average temperature inland approaches sixty degrees.  The wine can undergo malolactic or barrel fermentation for richness and while viticultural and winemaking practices must conform to the historic DO model, leeway is allowed.

Other whites to taste here on Friday include the great Italian Zenato Pinot Grigio and the prestigious Oregon Sauvignon Blanc from Patricia Green.  Our reds for the evening include: Abundance Cellars Abundantly Rich Red, Le Lapin Multiplicity, and Domaine de Couran Ardeche Grenache/Syrah.  Please join us for that one and please become a follower of this blog.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


This Friday May 10th we receive our first order from a new Dutch-American supplier which will include six Goudas including: Mild, Cumin, Olive & Tomato, Walnut, Mustard Seed, Pepper, and Aged and that order, of course, prompts this post.  Also in the order is a case of Stroop Wafels (syrup waffles), the second most popular item from the town of Gouda in Holland.  Gouda, like the town of Stilton in England, actually has no known connection with the making of the cheese that bears its name.  In this case the town was the trading center for cheese and got the cheese name because of the transactions there.

By some estimates Gouda cheese accounts for 50%+ of all cheese sales worldwide which would make it quite impossible for the Netherlands to produce.  Actually the name Gouda was never legally limited and Gouda cheese is made everywhere.  Instead the EU has protected Noord-Hollandse Gouda (how-da) and Boerenkaas (farmers cheese) which are produced by about 300 farmers in south Holland and these two cheeses are the actual historic unpasteurized artisan product made there for centuries.

Most all Gouda made worldwide is industrially produced.  It is pasteurized cow's milk cheese made traditionally into six styles based on the amount of ageing.  A mild Gouda may be aged just one month.  The most aged Gouda may be aged thirty-six months.  The younger cheese is semi-hard, suitable for sandwiches, and would best be accompanied by white wine or a lighter beer.  The older is hard, served by itself, and would show well with red wine or a stronger darker beer or ale.  The wax rind covering the cheese is traditionally color coded with red, orange, and yellow reflecting younger cheeses and black reserved for the aged version.

Gouda is made by heating cultured milk until the curds separate from the whey.  Next the curd is "washed" by draining the whey and adding water to the curds.  This removes some of the lactic acid and sweetens the cheese.  The cheese is then pressed into molds, soaked in brine, and coated to prevent it from drying out during ageing.

What ageing accomplishes for the cheese is nothing short of dramatic.  Aged Gouda is both sweet and salty with hints of caramel, butterscotch and toffee at the finish.  The cheese is also crunchy due to the calcium lactate or tyrosine crystals which we blogged about on September 5th of last year when we dug into Ciao Angelo, "Italian-style Gouda".

Stop in this week and get a free wheel of Gouda here at the store.  Am I kidding?  Well, it's a gift basket Mini-Bonbel, an ounce at most and a far cry from real Dutch cheese.  Stop in after Friday and taste all of the new Goudas in the store.

This Friday David Rimmer of Artisan Vines joins us for our weekly tasting with two reds from Spain, one each from Italy and Portugal, and whites from New York State and Italy.  Please become a "follower" of this blog so I don't have to experience the humiliation of seeing all of the followers other blogsters have.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Cotes du Rhone Blanc

My mentor, Jim Sanders, who was the French Burgundy expert of Atlanta and probably the entire southeastern United States, once said that in a good vintage a White Rhone wine will be as good as any White Burgundy from the same vintage.  I just filed that tidbit away for a time like now.

The wine he may have been talking about would have been a great northern Rhone like an Hermitage, Condrieu, or even Chateau Grillet, which isn't even a Rhone but is, sort of, by virtue of its Viognier grape makeup.  The northern Rhone is the pedigreed region of the Rhone with the noble Viognier as its vanguard while the south is blue collar and earthy, but damn, it's good too.

Back to the north...along with Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne round out the triumvirate of exceptional wine grapes that this storied historic region has imprinted on worldwide wine culture.  Viognier offers layers of powerful, yet clean peach and apricot stonefuit aromas and flavors in Condrieu and Chateau Grillet while the Marsanne and Roussanne grapes are blended to make the great White Hermitage.  Roussanne is herbal while Marsanne is honeysuckle and those two were just meant to be together.  In a superior vintage all of these examples should have a lively acidity and structure enabling years of improvement in the bottle.  On the dinner table the wine should be seen as an alternative to Chardonnay.

In the southern Rhone whites aren't quite so cut and dried.  Change is at the heart of the nature of things in the south currently where commercial success has led to experimentation with grapes to improve their product.  The grapes in play in southern Rhone white wine making include:  Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano), Clairette, Bourboulenc, Picpoul, and Rolle (Vermentino).  All of these contribute significantly to southern Rhone blends but among the minor players, Ugni Blanc is trending downward in popularity while Rolle is on the rise.

We have already described Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne above so what about the others?  Grenache Blanc is probably the most important white grape in the south.  It offers high sugar (alcohol), low acidity, and citrus and herbal notes in lengthy flavors.  In a typical blend, Clairette offers delicate structure and finesse along with a floral nose and lively lemony flavor.  Bourboulenc offers spice and more structure.  The minor players in the blend are just that.

So you begin to get the picture, don't you?  This is winemaking as art and it is a work in progress replete with misunderstandings and misreadings of assumptions resulting in some disappointing efforts in recent years.  When it's right though, southern Rhone whites show honey, earth, and minerality moreso than the stonefruit of the north; you just don't often know how much of each you are getting in individual examples.

Two final points...90% of Cotes du Rhones are red with rose as the second most popular type meaning the great whites of the northern Rhone are expensive and the rest of the whites from the south, in my opinion, are a ridiculous bargain.  White Rhones are the alternative to Chardonnay on the dinner table, so if you have burned out on Chardonnay try one of these today.

On Friday May 11th from 5 to 7pm, David Rimmer of Artisan Vines joins us for another go round with fine examples of reds and whites from at least three continents.  Please join us for that one.  Hey, be a follwer of this site.  It'll do you no harm.