Saturday, July 30, 2016

Elena Walch

It's always helpful to have a story behind the product in the wine business and in this case it's a good one.   Elena Walch is one of the contemporary giants in the wine industry.  She is renowned for her winemaking skills but she is really more of a director, manager, and visionary of her eponymously named winery.  Here's her story...

Elena was an architect in her early thirties when she was hired by like-aged Werner Walch to restore Castel Ringberg, a Renaissance castle built by the Hapsburg dynasty in 1620.  Werner Walch is the largest vineyard owner in Alto Adige in northeastern Italy and the castle lies on his property in the northern, German-speaking half of the region.  This region is also called Sudtirol and has previously been part of Austria.  The southern portion of Alto Adige is called Trentino and both lie in the Dolomite mountain range in the southern Alps, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Elena was new to her craft, having traveled extensively through New Zealand and Australia as a young adult before getting her professional training in Germany.  She was soon to fall in love with Werner and they were married two years later in 1985.  She had been raised comfortably as a city dweller in Milan so it is from her travels that her wine interests are believed to have sprung.  Architecture didn't completely leave her though as she settled into her new lifestyle.  Elena chose to involve herself in the family business by redesigning how that business would be configured and modernized both in the vineyards and the winery.

It should be noted that the family business Elena married into was a fifth generation wine family affair (est. 1869) and Werner was quite traditional when it comes to making wine.  Consequently, going forward, the business effectively became two separate businesses under one winery roof with Werner continuing to make his workman-like vino da tavola with the vast majority of the grapes and Elena making her new modern and internationally-styled efforts from her own vineyards.

  So what exactly did Elena do?  The most widely planted grape in Alto Adige heretofore had been Schiavo, a popular local red variety.  Elena fundamentally changed the direction of wine making in Alto Adige by assessing the terroir there and concentrating her efforts on the international commercially-driven white grape varieties: Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Grigio, and Pinot Bianco.  She also made four fundamental changes in the vineyards to facilitate a transition to sustainable farming and made a cooresponding four changes in the winery to reduce the environmental impact of the business.

Additionally she drastically reduced individual vine yields for more intensely flavored berries while at the same time planting vines more densely for more production.  The varietal clones selected were also carefully scrutinized and she modified trellising for her purposes.  After everything was said and done and time had past, her improvements were to become the norm for others in Alto Adige, now regarded as the most awarded wine region of Italy.

The Elena Walch winery is located in the village of Tramin which is the historical home of the Gewurztraminer grape.  That is the best wine produced there.  While Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay would be the most commercial wines made there, Elena prefers her Pinot Bianco, which is the one we choose to sell here at the store.   That wine is characterized as straw-colored with aromas of apple, pear, pineapple, and melon and flavors on the palate of citrus, apple, and tropical fruit.  As rich as the description sounds, the minerality therein makes this medium bodied white quite linear and food-friendly.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Alsatian Pinot Blanc

When we hear the word "pinot" we think of Pinot Noir since it is arguably the finest red wine grape there is.  Actually pinot is a family of grapes characterized by an unstable genome, meaning the grapes tend to mutate in the vineyards.  So while Pinot Noir deserves our attention as the overachiever in the family; Pinot Gris/Grigio, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Meuneur and others have all emerged over time in European vineyards and become commercial types in their own right.  Contrasted with Pinot Noir, however, all of the offshoots are ordinary.

When we hear the word "Auxerrois" (oh-ser-WAH) we think, "Huh?" Auxerrois is another European grape of ordinary stature.  Its singular claim to fame is its sibling relationship with Chardonnay.  Genetically they both share the same parentage resulting from an inadvertent vineyard crossing of Gouais Blanc and Pinot Noir and in some French locales they are treated as one and the same type. While Chardonnay ended up with the noble flavor profile attributes, however, Auxerrois was relatively shortchanged.  At its best Auxerrois offers citrus and musk flavors in a full-bodied, low acid package.

So where are we going with this discussion?  I've made it no secret that the Alsace region of France is my favorite for white wine production.  While the marquee varietals like Gewurztraminer and Riesling get the critical acclaim and Pinot Gris has commercial success, both Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois have their own claim to fame albeit one that is easy to overlook: they both have their finest expressions in Alsace.   Prolific to a fault in the vineyard but when attended to vigilantly there and in the winery, these two varieties in combination will complement each other as well as any two white grapes.

But there's more...

Alsatian Pinot Blanc is not a varietal wine.  It is not a wine made from the Pinot Blanc grape type, although it could be.  Alsatian Pinot Blanc is actually a white wine using any or all of the family of pinot grapes allowed in the region, including Auxerrois.  So Alsatian Pinot Blanc may actually have every other allowed pinot grape but no actual Pinot Blanc.  One common style is a Pinot Blanc that is 100% Auxerrois. Alsatian Pinot Blanc usually does contain a goodly amount of Pinot Blanc juice though since Pinot Blanc is the most widely planted grape in the region.

In the store at this time we have the 2014 JB Adam "Les Natures" Alsatian Pinot Blanc which is a fine example of type.  It is a medium-bodied dry white exhibiting almond and stone fruit flavors with minerality in the background.  "Les Natures" refers to their biodynamic certification.  Contrasting examples in the store include the 2013 PJ Valkenberg Rheinhessen Pinot Blanc and the 2015 Elena Walch Alto Adige Pinot Bianco.


So I have been studying up on what I have recently declared to be my favorite cheese, Gruyere (Groo-yehr), and much to my chagrin I have learned I have been quite wrong about a few things.  I have always thought there was an understanding between France and Switzerland that the cheese made on each side of the border could legitimately be called Gruyere.  After all, at the other end of the country, the Basque region overlaps the French-Spanish border with products from both sides using the Basque name.  But I guess that's regional branding as opposed to specific product branding, but you know what I mean.

As it turns out Gruyere is actually a village in Switzerland and after a three year court fight ending in 2001, they have won the naming-rights battle for their cheese.  French Comte, which I have been calling Gruyere for as long as I can remember, hasn't in fact been Gruyere for fifteen years.  Moreover, there are actually two other French cheeses from the Jura region of France that have also been called Gruyere in the past but now must be known as Beaufort and Le Brouere.  France is allowed to market Gruyere but it must have a different appearance (more holes) so as not to be confused with the Swiss standard.

Another factual tidbit I have learned is that Switzerland makes ten times the amount of Gruyere cheese that French Comte makes.  That would have to weigh heavily in a court case.  And Swiss Gruyere cheese has been so named since 1655!

Here's one more noteworthy factoid: Swiss Gruyere is the only cheese to be declared the "Best Cheese in the World" five times at the World Cheese Awards in London.  True to form in the new (August) Wine Spectator magazine, in an article on Comte they say it is "toothsome, nutty, sweeter, fruitier, and grassier" than the Swiss version which says to me they probably ought to stick to wine.

Saturday, July 9, 2016


Funny how things change.  Prior to 2009 when the French wine appellation system was fundamentally changed, Luberon (LOO-ber-on) was considered to be a Vin de Pays, a region of lower quality wine production.  It was then known as Cotes du Luberon.  Now this horizontal belt of land in southern France has been upgraded to top level AOC quality which seems fitting considering its proximity to Gigondas, Vacqueras, Tavel, and Beaume de Venise of the Cotes du Rhone.  Moreover, the Luberon belt separates Ventoux, another recent AOC upgrade, to the north from the Provence AOC to the south. Lying approximately twenty miles north of the Mediterranean Coast and so sandwiched between AOC's, Luberon just has to be an AOC too, right?

 Luberon is also apparently a massif (massive) which in geological terms is a sizable unit of earth crust that moves as a whole like the much larger tectonic plate.  Considering what we learned about the geology of Comte Tolosan in our 6/11/16 post about southwestern France, the geology of the whole of southern France would seem to be somewhat unsettled.

Our subject here is relevant today because we recently brought in a case of 2014 Guyot Luberon Rouge "Les Luquets", a moderately priced blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Carignon.  Luberon reds at their best offer concentrated, full-bodied, herbal wines that will age well, like a Rhone.  Since Guyot is a prestigious producer, one would expect a wine approaching Cotes du Rhone quality.

 Syrah is always the primary grape in Luberon red blends and it offers color, complexity, tannin, aromatics, and alcohol to that blend.  Grenache offers more body and Carignon brings color, power, and structure.  Any Luberon red blend must have at least sixty percent Syrah and Grenache which should yield a wine with dark fruit, truffle, leather, and herbs.  Since our Guyot is a moderately priced example of type, it falls short of the "big and racy" ideal of production but none the less reaches the flavor profile depicted above.

Luberon has a five thousand year history of civilization with wine making being a big part of it. Today 53% of production is rose; 26% is red wines; and 21% is white.  35% of that production is exported.  Luberon also makes international-style varietal reds and whites that carry an IGP Vaucluse label.

So just as we learned in the Comte Tolosan post, government can act as an advocate for industry in the promotion of wine and that may be the case here.  The Guyot red is a solid example of the historic wine of the region, that is, it tastes the same as it did when it was Cotes du Luberon Vin de Pays.  The 2009 elevation of Luberon to AOC status seems to reflect the growth and sophistication of the global wine marketplace and the need to fill more slots at the top.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Good Wine Is Where You Find It

That's what my good friend would tell me regularly.  My friend was insightfully eclectic with his wine selections and seemed to strike gold more often than not, so his tag line about locating good wine makes sense in that light.

I remember calling a wine consultant at one of Atlanta's largest distributorships many years ago when I was searching for an obscure allocated wine.  He didn't know me or the reason for my call but said the item was depleted from their warehouse but I may find some at outlying Big Star grocery stores.  Being the first Atlanta grocery chain with a fine wine department, Big Star was ahead of its time back in the eighties.  There was a real drop-off in sales, however, once you left the Atlanta perimeter.  Those rural stores couldn't turn inventory that quickly so his suggestion made sense.  What the gentleman didn't know at the time was that I was looking for the wine for a customer in my position as a wine sales person at one of those outlying Big Stars!

Good wine is where you find it.

I remember a cross country truck driver who patronized my store occasionally and he told me he would stop in small retail stores across the country in hopes of finding a deal on fine wine.  He had "Champagne" tastes in red wine.  He said he regularly would find bottles that were either priced wrong or were marked down because they didn't sell at mom and pop stores.  He was a good shopper who took advantage of others' misfortune.  Actually, I think his wine hobby was more like an obsession, come to think of it.

Close-out lists from distributors are a real crap shoot.  I think one of the unsung heroes for all of us is the guy at the distributorship who decides to close something out.  If that guy is on top of his game and dumps a wine at a fraction of the regular price with the wine still holding its own in quality, everyone benefits.  But if that guy waits too long and the wine is too much in decline, well, it ain't pretty.  I guess bad wine is where you find it too!

Restaurant wine lists in general are not where one is likely to find good wine.  Most restaurants get their mass market California varietals handed to them on a platter from the large Atlanta liquor distributors.  As a result, the real artisan wine producers, who actually make food-friendly wines, can't get their foot in the door in most restaurants.  The idea that wines are supposed to complement meals doesn't seem to occur to most restaurateurs.

Unfortunately that is the way things are in general in the wine business circa 2016.  Distribution channels are clogged with "industrial" wines that all taste the same making it nearly impossible for artisans to get their product out to the marketplace.  So you ought to shop at mom and pop stores like this one that offer real wine and if our artisan efforts don't sell they'll get marked down and you can clean up like the truck driver!  Actually since chains don't buy closeouts, shop the mom and pops for those too!