Saturday, March 26, 2016

Dr. Olmo, Rubired, and Mega Purple - Part 1

When we think of the giants of the California wine industry, we tend to think of the "front men", the stars of the industry; the winemakers, winery owners, and perhaps the writers who make it all understandable for the rest of us.  If we dig a little bit deeper we get to the pioneers who stood at junctures in industry history and through their individual impact, changed the future of wine in America.  Dr. Harold Olmo, U. C. Davis viticulturist, was one of those pioneers, a modern one whose lifespan overlaps most of ours.  

During Dr. Olmo's almost fifty year career he traveled the world studying grape types and advising natives of far-flung corners of the world as to what they should be planting where.  He studied ancient and obscure vines in the Middle East and cataloged clonal varieties of popular commercial grapes here.  Many cuttings from around the world ended up being rooted in his U. C. Davis quarantine area for further study.  Along with thirty grapevine hybrid creations now called Olmo grapes, Dr. Olmo is directly responsible for the popularizing of the Chardonnay clone that makes most of the popular styled California Chardonnay today.

In 1958 Dr. Olmo created Rubired, a Teinturier cross of Alicante Ganzin and Tinta Cao, two varieties that are themselves the result of crossing grape types.  Teinturier grapes have a red pulp.  Most red (and white) wine grapes have a clear pulp. Wine color is derived almost exclusively from the grape skins.  Teinturier grapes are considered to be too tannic for wine making but work well for making food colorings and dyes.  Rubired was cultivated as a high yielding hot climate grape thought to be potentially useful in a port-styled blend.

Mega Purple is the commercial name for a grape concentrate marketed by Constellation, one of the largest wine companies in the world.  The grape juice that makes the concentrate is Rubired.    

Dr. Olmo, Rubired, and Mega Purple - Part 2

Mega Purple is one of several competing brands of grape concentrate that sell for upwards from $100/gallon.  Ten thousand gallons of Mega Purple alone are sold per year.  Twenty-five million bottles of wine per year contain some miniscule percentage of Mega Purple.  Not surprisingly there is a Mega Red with competing brands in that category also.  As the industry leader, Mega Purple's sales figures are easier to obtain than others so the total production of this kind of product is probably known only to industry insiders.

While Mega Purple's primary purpose is to add color to wine, that isn't its only benefit.  Mega purple is a syrup so it offers texture and weight.  Also as a grape concentrate it is 68% sugar so it must be added prior to fermentation so the wine doesn't end up too sweet.  Inevitably Mega Purple imparts an enhanced fruity character to a wine which, when added to all of the other characteristics above, goes a long way toward covering the shortcomings of less than stellar grapes.  In fact Mega purple covers major flaws like pyrazine and brettanomyces, two of the worst qualities a finished wine can display.

What's wrong with that?  Absolutely nothing if you're a mass marketer of vin ordinaire who wants to provide a palatable product for all of the thirsty American wine lovers who have earned a glass after another hard day at work.  Constellation and all of the other mass marketers of economy wine never had it so good.  This is progress.  Who cares if vineyard distinction is lost if the overall quality level is raised.

But if you're aiming higher and competing with high-minded competitors who take what the vineyard gives them and do their best to make wine the old fashioned way, then Mega Purple is cheating. Either that or else this whole industry needs to re-define itself and that may be what is going on in California today.  The bag of wine making tricks has been greatly expanded in this modern era to include oak chips and staves, chemical extracts and essences, powdered tannins, tartaric acid, gum arabic, and different strains of yeast for a multitude of different purposes.  At least Mega Purple is made from grapes.

Perhaps it all comes down to what your understanding of wine is.  As a thirty-five year veteran of this industry I remember all kinds of wines judged to be flawed by standards way above my pay grade.  Over time I have come to agree with most of those pronouncements but at the same time, some of those "flawed" flavors added to many wine profiles and made them more distinctive to my way of thinking.

Only twenty percent of the annual Mega Purple production goes into wine making, by the way.  One might wonder where the rest is going.

Saturday, March 19, 2016


There are the noble grape types and then there are all of the rest, as the man once said to me.  Chenin Blanc decidedly belongs to the latter category but with the same caveat shared with many other types - in the right terroir it performs admirably.  So why is it any different than the noble Pinot Noir which is a stinker in most venues but sublime in Burgundy?  It isn't any different and therein lies the fallacy in the noble/ignoble hierarchy.  Virtually all vinifera grapes just need to find the right terroir to excel.

Vouvray (voov-ray) is a 5,000 acre AOC (1936) located in the Touraine district on the north side of the Loire River.  It is just east of the city of Tours, a hundred forty miles east of the Atlantic Ocean, almost half way to Burgundy.  It is also the home of the finest Chenin Blanc in the world and for that reason no other grape is allowed there.

What makes the Vouvray terroir so perfect for Chenin Blanc?  Soil primarily.  The calcareous soil (tuffeau) of Vouvray developed ninety million years ago during the Cretaceous Period.  At that time the area was a seabed comprised of everything that fell to the floor from above and, of course, sand.  Today this rocky soil provides a perfect balance of drainage and water retention for grape vines.

Chenin Blanc grapes also thrive in the northern climate of the Loire Valley, which is partly maritime and partly continental.  When it's more maritime (cool) the wines tend to be drier and when more continental, the wines end up sweeter.  Also when it's cool more sparkling wine is made there and when it's warm, more lush dessert wines are made.

Ampelographers have determined Chenin Blanc got its start in the ninth century in Anjou, fifty miles to the west.  With that long of a history you could imagine that every possible style of wine making was explored.  Today six styles prevail:

                             1.  Sec - the driest at .4% residual sugar
                             2.  Demi-Sec - off-dry .4-1.2%
                             3.  Moelleux -  noticably sweeter 1.2-4.5%
                             4.  Doux - very sweet 4.5%+
                             5.  Petillant - slightly sparkling
                             6.  Mousseux - fully sparkling

In a typical year 52% of production will be sparkling and 48% still, but percentages change with the weather.  The typical yield for a Vouvray vintage is one million cases.  No wines see any oak or malolactic fermentation.  The typical flavor profile includes some combination of honey, nuts, ginger, fig, apple, apricot, white flowers, or candied fruit.  The aroma shows rose, quince, acacia, or green apple.

The wine color is straw yellow when young and more amber as it ages and aging is something Vouvray does very well.  Sec (dry) Vouvrays can hold for fifteen to twenty years while sweet Vouvrays can last a hundred years.  A good average for Vouvrays from superior vintages is forty years.  So what accounts for this ageability?  Acidity.  Chenin Blanc grapes have a naturally high acidity which acts as a preservative when the wine is laid down.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Thermal Amplitude

Funny how we get sidetracked while researching blog subjects.  We began with an investigation of Piattelli Vineyards 2013 Premium Reserve Malbec, number forty-four on the Wine Spectator's 2015 Top 100 list.  Having a couple cases of that one in the store, we found their story to be moderately interesting and their website to be exceptional compared to others but we found their location in the Lujon de Cuyo appellation in western Mendoza to be of greater interest.  Then we stumbled upon the term "thermal amplitude" and really got an education as to why Mendoza Malbecs are so good.

The Lujon de Cuyo appellation in the upper Mendoza valley in western Mendoza was Argentina's first legislated wine appellation (1993) and today boasts many hundred year old vineyards. Argentina's long (by new world standards) wine production history began with immigrants from southern Europe in the early 1800's.  Cuyo is the historic name for Mendoza and it hosted many of those early wine making immigrants.  In 1830 one thousand hectares there were in vines.  By 1910 vineyards numbered forty-five thousand hectares.  Clearly a nineteenth century wine boom was happening in Argentina.

The conditions in Mendoza that were so inviting to immigrants included rocky alluvial soils (sand over clay) in a semi-arid, continental climate desert - at a thousand feet elevation!  Worldwide, a thousand feet is usually the elevation where grapevines cease to grow but our intrepid pioneers planted their euro-vines and Malbec quickly ascended to the head of the class.  Today two-thirds of all Argentine plantings are Malbec.

Our Piattelli Lujon de Cuyo Malbec vineyards lie at a 3,152 foot elevation!  Benefits at that level include increased intense sunlight and automatic organic certification since no pests live at that elevation. Other radical differences from Europe include the flat lands of Mendoza which only rise gradually in altitude, the furthest thing from European hillside vineyards.  As these elevations increase, the soil becomes more granular and less fertile from organic matter forcing the vine to struggle for its existence while the temperatures become colder at an average of one degree per one hundred feet of elevation.  Pure irrigation water is amply available from the melting snows further up the Andes.

Here's where we'll turn things over to for an understanding of thermal amplitude.  "During photosynthesis in daytime, carbohydrates are taken into the vine's reserve organs including the grapes, themselves.  At night respiration takes place without photosynthesis consuming some of the carbohydrates.  A lower temperature (at night) means a greater thermal amplitude and a lower amount of components consumed during respiration. This results in a more intense grape expression with a richness of components that affect color, aroma, and palate structure."

When we think of tannins in wine we think of the burning quality in the mouth from young wine.  Actually tannins may be monomeric or polymeric, having one or more dimensions, and the high altitude intensely sunlit Mendoza vineyards decidedly yield the latter.  Malbec grape skins there are thick and heavy with tannins while the wines still end up being soft and round.

Our recent Cousino-Macul blogpost now gains relevance in light of this foray.  Maipo Chile is just over the Andes from Mendoza.  Their incredible Cabernets mirror in a very different way what Argentina does with Malbec.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Why Doesn't It Taste Like... Part 1

So you taste the wine in the fancy restaurant, at the mountain cabin, or in Europe, Napa, Rio de Janeiro, or wherever and surprise, surprise, the wine doesn't taste as good now that you've bought it locally.  What on earth could be the problem?

Some form of this situational mindbender is regularly presented to the guy in the wine store, like he can account for all of the factors responsible for your disappointment.  In fact, there's a slew of monkey wrenches gumming up the works here.  Let's separate them into tangible and intangible categories.


The obvious reality is that you are no longer in Rio or wherever.  You are in America, that most capitalistic of countries, and you are stressed out for all of the same reasons the rest of us are, financial reasons being somewhere in the forefront of all of our collective consciousness.  You aren't feeling the breeze through your hair in the mountains or wading in the water on the beach and you sure aren't in some quaint Alpine village sipping the wine with the traditional foods they have always been paired with.   You are here now and your baggage has arrived ahead of you.

Moreover, unless you are in the wine business, you are probably moderately insecure about your wine knowledge, like this silly tasting business is something important and a must-master cultural touchstone.  Let's demystify.  While there really is a deep, deep well of objective wine knowledge that is there to be plumbed if that is your desire, there is also the pure enjoyment of the beverage.  In America (and everywhere else) when we taste we bring into the present our mood based on what happened prior to pulling the cork.  Weather and traffic, anyone?  We bring our expectations (see paragraph 1) into a present that already includes distractions like sights, sounds, and smells in the air and, of course, interpersonal exchanges both positive and negative.  In light of all of the above, how can the wine taste like you remembered it?

And just how reliable is your memory anyway?

As we taste more and more different wines we do accrue reference points for categorizing and evaluating wines, perhaps giving us a false sense of security in an ever changing wine landscape.  And while we profess to be hard at work perfecting our palate, why is it that when we think about enjoyable wine we keep going back to the one that was in the paper cup at the ballgame that day.

Why Doesn't it Taste Like... Part 2

There are actually many tangible reasons why the wine you enjoyed so much somewhere else tastes differently when bought at the local wine shop.  Here are ten - starting with the obvious and going to the, uh, not-so-obvious.


1.   Bad bottles - There are such things as bad bottles or as happens in our mass market economy, unfortunately, bad batches.  They happen.  Wine can be damaged in the wine making process.  With the mass market stuff, they can even be made at several different facilities, so of course, the wine will be different.

2.  Vintage changes - Maybe the one you bought at the retail store is a different vintage or as above, a non-vintage mass market batch change.

3.  Stemware - Could it be that the restaurant where you were introduced to the wine used a nicer stem?  Maybe the dish detergent there was superior to what's at home.

4.  Wine Temperature - A good restaurant knows optimal temperatures for different wines.  Americans are known to serve their reds too warm and their whites too cold.

5.  Decanting - Even retailers fall for this one.  We taste the samples that have been open a while and, boy, do they taste good!  Then we open the wine in the store for a customer and...uh-oh!

6.  Food pairings - We covered this somewhat in Part 1.  If you thought the wine you had in the restaurant was magical, it may have been due in part to the food.

7.  Wine storage - The restaurant may do this better than what we do at home.  A temperature and humidity controlled dark secluded area is optimal for wine storage and if chilling your wine is necessary, do so just before serving.  

8.  Bottle shock - Some types are more susceptible than others.  If you have the luxury of holding wines after purchasing them, that seems to help.  If it's European wine, hopefully the distributor has already done that before you purchase it.

9.  Transportation and storage - This is my hot button issue and there is absolutely nothing that can be done about it, except to not purchase brands we know have been abused in the past.  Make no mistake - some caretakers in the wine transportation/storage/delivery process abuse their product and that extends to the retail customer who forgets the wine in the car in the heat of summer.

10. Brand replacement - If your "foreign" wine tastes different here in the states, that may be because it actually is a different wine.  This isn't as unusual as you might think.  Some large European wine companies export a wine style they think Americans may like more than the traditional Euro version.

So if the wine tastes different it's not all in your head.  Consider the character, Miles, the classic headcase in the movie, Sideways, who was still able to enjoy his wine even as beset with problems as he was.  Then go put on your big boy wine tasting pants and raise a glass and celebrate the difference!  L'chaim!