Monday, February 27, 2012

The Crossings New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

This is the fourth and last installment on New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and like the second installment, it is mistitled. The Sauvignon Blanc description from the last blog actually was cribbed from a review of The Crossings so if you want to know what the Crossings tastes like, read the last article. It is fun to mess with you all in these things. In blogging, there is freedom.

Marlborough, the northeast tip of the southern New Zealand island, is the finest region for wine production in New Zealand and 65% of all of New Zealand wine comes from there. Sauvignon Blanc is New Zealand's claim to fame wine-wise and 75% of Marlborough production is Sauvignon Blanc. The Crossings comes from the Awatere Valley which is southeast of the larger, better know Wairau Valley in Marlborough. Awatere, while sunny, is also cooler, drier, and smaller in area (3,000 acres) than Wairau. It gets its name from the Awatere river and the valley surrounds the township of Seddon.

Like most of the world's fine wine regions, Awatere soil is semi-fertile at best. It is loess (clay and silt windblown sediment) over gravel which is both heat reflective and ideal for drainage. In Bordeaux where the Sauvignon Blanc grape originated, the soil is similarly gravelly but with a different minerality makeup. The wine there lacks the intensity of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc but the floral component is heightened and as is always the case, the wines are more food friendly. Loire Valley Sancerre only starkens the contrast.

So here's the rub. The subtext of this series has been that stylistic differences make assumptions of greatness relative. To proclaim New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to be the world's best, overlooks the attributes of others and the appropriateness for the cuisine on the table. That and "in your face" New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc may win in an intensity dash, but "less is more" may win the marathon.

This Friday (5-7pm) we will be tasting The Crossings Sauvignon Blanc and another white along with four reds which seems to be our norm at this time of the year. Cite this blog and get 20% off on Crossings on the night of the tasting.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Best Sauvignon Blanc...Part 3

Let me correct two misstatements from the previous blog. While good Pinot Noir should be a lighter red wine, it should also have an earthy dimension. If it is too crisp and clean with bright varietal fruit and lacks an earthiness, then that wine has a fault in my opinion. All things to their balance, I guess.

Then as to my comment about cookie cutter pinots, I believe I misstated that too. There should be a norm, a model for pinot, and since the finest pinot comes from Burgundy, France, that should be what we should be looking for in any pinot. Now since that goal is unattainable to date then we should look for reasonable approximations. Now back to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc...

We have already said that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc got its start in the 1970s when economic and cultural changes were taking place there. At that time New Zealand saw its first vintage dated varietal wines but in any effort to get a new industry started, mistakes were to be made. Wrong grape varietal plantings and winemaking stylistic choices (oak) are just two. 1977 marks the vintage that proved to be the turning point for this industry when the Sauvignon Blanc produced that year was so good that larger scale investment increases demonstrated the commitment needed to keep the project on track.

Unintended consequences in the history of product development are always noteworthy. Who would have thought that the large established New Zealand dairy industry would play a role in the new budding wine industry? Apparently stainless steel dairy equipment was utilized by early New Zealand winemakers for cleanliness purposes only to reap rewards in the wine itself which seemingly showed an intensified purity of the intrinsic Sauvignon Blanc fruit flavors.

And what are those flavors? Honeydew, key lime, passionfruit, grapefruit, and lemon are most often mentioned. How about cut grass, celery seed, and nettles for the herbal component. Minerality always must be there and yes, a piercing acidity too. And that concludes this chapter with one more to go on this subject.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Best Sauvignon Blanc...Part 2

I just tasted a twelve dollar Lodi, California Pinot Noir for which I was warned in advance that half the people who taste it, hate it. I thought that actually sounded like my kind of wine and after tasting it, I was right. It was earthy with ample barnyard aromas and flavors and it was, frankly, over-the-top in a style quite counter to what commercial pinot should be.

What does your local wine merchant do with such a beast? If textbook pinot is light, clean, nuanced, and food friendly and this example has heavier earthy attributes with darker, duller flavors, why, of course, anyone in their right mind would escort that sample bottle right out the door. I bought a case. As a matter of fact, I tasted a twenty dollar version of this style of pinot from Van Ruiten of Lodi six months ago and I have sold about four cases of it since then, always telling the purchaser that this was not mainstream wine but it was well worth checking out anyway. Are these eccentric versions of Pinot Noir good examples of pinot? No, they are not. Are they good red wines? Yes, in their own right.

Who says that all pinot must be cookie cutter copies of each other? When in Burgundy, France, go ahead and make best of its kind Pinot Noir; when in Lodi, California, utilize all that the good Lord affords in the way of terroir and winemaking skill and go for it. Make the beast in all of its glory.

So what does this rant have to do with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc? It has to do with the style of the wine. Obviously the Marlborough terroir matches up quite nicely with the Sauvignon Blanc grape vine and the winemaking talent for this kind of effort measures up to the undertaking, but is the end product necessarily better than French Sancerre?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Best Sauvignon Blanc in the World

This is what was being bantered around noteworthy wine circles twenty five years ago when New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc first appeared on these shores. The acclamation was loud and fairly unanimous because of the universal high quality displayed by the wines and probably in part because of the suddenness of their arrival here. Everyone likes an overnight sensation.

New Zealand's overnight success actually began in the 1850's with Roman Catholic missionaries (of course) who produced ordinary table wines along with ports and sherries for themselves and those local to them. Beer and liquor had the same kind of grip on the New Zealand culture that they had here in twentieth century America. That kind of ordinary everyday beverage culture continued through most of the century until about 1970 when England, their former colonial master state, joined the European Economic Community (EEC) thereby ending historic trade agreements between the two partners. Those agreements, interestingly enough, had to do with meats and other food products since European wines were the obvious preference for everyone, British included.

Faced with this loss of trade the New Zealand government urged landowners to utilize their marginal grazing land for other purposes and wine grapes that had a history of thriving in infertile soils were given a chance in part because of their perceived higher possible return. Coincidentally at that same time increased travel to Europe for pleasure and work by young New Zealanders resulted in their eventual return with tastes for finer foods and wines and...Voila! A star was born...the best Sauvignon Blanc in the world!

Join us on Friday for our Cabernet Sauvignon wine tasting which will coincidentally include a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and a California Pinot Grigio. The tasting requires a $10 fee which is applicable toward a $30 purchase. If you cite this article the white wines will be 20% off the regular retail.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Wine Trends: Part 2 Now

I hate statistics, but they are helpful and, Lord knows, we have to live with them. We don't have to love them, though. Anyway here is a snapshot of the wine numbers now, er, last fall, that is, when the three articles I read for this report were dated.

The United States is now the largest wine consuming nation in the world, surpassing France. (We're #1!) Wine sales here have actually shown growth annually for the past twenty years with the most recent annum reflecting a 2% growth margin. Prior to this era wine was up and down in part due to the wine cooler/malt-fruit beverage debacle (previous blog) and the always popular beer segment, which by the way is currently down (!) with liquor up. The twenty year mark, by the way, coincides with the first airing of the 60 Minutes program, "The French Paradox" and the health claims for moderate red wine consumption.

Currently sixty-one percent of wine sales domestically are California wines. Of the imported wines that register statistically, there are two clear winners, Italy and Australia. In decending order after that are: Chile, France, Argentina, and New Zealand. Noteworthy is the fact that France has dropped in position and Argentina and New Zealand are climbing quickly.

The good news in California varietal sales is that all varieties have shown growth in recent years as reflected in Nielson grocery store ratings. The most popular varietals continue to be Chardonnay (1st) and Cabernet Sauvignon. Moreover, their sales increase is two to three times greater than the others. In decending order after those two are: Merlot, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, and White Zinfandel. Another report I read noted large increases for Zinfandel and Riesling. Sparkling wine is also up significantly. One trend noted food friendly grapes like Sangiovese are becoming increasingly popular but the sometimes higher alcohol cocktail wines like Chardonnay continue to dominate.

So here's the rub so to speak. One third of wine sales are done in the grocery stores which track sales for Nielson. These figures are national sales figures reflecting a lower price point and they do contrast with my own numbers. Here is what is hot at my little outpost: Malbecs at any price; Pinot Noir, likewise but to a lesser extent; California Cabernets always; and Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc in whites in decending order. Moreover as a smaller independent retailer I do take chances with wine types you won't find in the chain stores and like my cheese business, sometimes we strike gold and get new trends started. May I claim Malbec?

Here, by the way, is a disappointing non-trend: Washington State Merlot and Syrah, great wines that have yet to find an audience. At a lower price point, Spanish reds still don't sell like they should. Likewise, dry German Riesling.

This Friday 5-7pm: Mark Caporalis of Rotta Vineyards will be here pouring tastes of his fine fare. Saturday 3-5pm: Jon Allen of Georgia Crown with Handcraft wines.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Wine Trends: Part 1 The Overview

This is a trendy business. After thirty years of selling this stuff, I can most definitely say, "This is a trendy business.".

For most of the past fifty years white wines predominated in sales in America by as much as three to one over reds. Prior to my entry into this game roses had their heyday in the sixties and early seventies along with everyday German and Italian cocktail fare and a whole lot of generic California jugs. Then came the "Judgment at Paris" wine tasting in 1976 popularized in the 2008 film, "Bottle Shock", and suddenly California varietals were on the map. It was California Chardonnay that then proceded to rule over all whites for about thirty years until Pinot Grigio, always a distant second to Chardonnay, passed Chardonnay in sales in this store two years ago.

Red wine was strictly for connosieurs until the eighties when California Cabernet and particularly Merlot grabbed a hold of the market while California Zinfandel became the cult wine of the time largely through industry promotion. Also at that time a rennaissance in the european wine industries began with Italy first, followed by Spain (June 29th blog and preceding), and France in the nineties. That pouring of both private and public money into european wine production was actually a culmination of a steady trend to restore what had been shattered by World War II.

The "French Paradox", an episode of ABC's 60 Minutes in 1991, introduced to the American public the apparent truth that moderate red wine intake can be beneficial to one's health as shown in studies of a French population that consumes red wine in moderation with meals while at the same time consuming a fattier diet than Americans. "Resveratrol" and "anti-oxidants" became the buzzwords of the times and sales of red wine here increased 44%. Now reds outsell whites by three to one with parity in the summer when whites taste oh-so-good.

In 2004 the fine film "Sideways" was released with its main character, Miles', memorable polemical outburst against Merlot and advocation of Pinot Noir providing yet another cultural shift in red wine tastes. While jammy Cabernets and other big reds still retain great popularity, lighter, more nuanced reds are now more fully appreciated for their value in the red wine spectrum.

Has there been a down side to this overall arcing growth in wine sales? Actually there have been two. White Zinfandel, accidentally created by a stuck fermentation valve and a perfectly pleasant apertif in its own right, actually became way too popular (if that's possible) and sidetracked would-be wine connosieurs from discovering other offerings by just being satisfying. Oh, well. The worse screwup in wine growth was the winecooler fad followed by the fruit flavored fifths of clear beverage that mascaraded as wine but if you read the print on the bottle, it wasn't even wine! Wine coolers and these other beverages were actually malt based and consequently more profitable for the producer.

This Friday Mark Caporalis of Rotta Vineyards of Paso Robles and a veteran California winemaker of more than forty years will be here tasting out a lot of his product. For this event we ask a ten dollar charge which is applicable toward a thirty dollar minimum purchase of Rotta wines.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Blackstock. Native Owned, Native Grown.

The above title is the new slogan for Blackstock Vineyards and Winery of Dahlonega, Georgia. David Harris owner, winemaker, and front man for Blackstock was just here promoting his product and dropping off literature with a message: estate production is key to meaningful wine. David says for the consumer, the word "produced" on the back label of a bottle, is key to what is in the bottle. Blackstock, which only bottles wine from its own estate production, represents a category that declares "place" to be primary over and against the mass marketing of wines under different corporate labels reducing the product in the bottle to the equivalent of a condiment, that is, anything from anywhere. Imagine Chianti being a generic product. Champagne?

Conversely, how good might Yellow Tail be if it were solely drawn from vineyards in Hunter Valley or Margaret River, Australia or what if Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio or Liberty School Cabernet were estate production? All of which, of course, would be supervised and controlled by local management guaranteeing the product reflected the terroir where it developed. Like Blackstock's Lumpkin/White county viticultural area all of the above "what ifs" would blossom into a better product because of their place of origin. But the mass market would have to be fed with other generic production to fill the chain store shelves. And so it goes.

Tonight at the store we are tasting wines from Catalan, France; tomorrow night, Mendocino, California. God's peace.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Wine Tasting Observations

The two whites tasted out friday night, Masciarelli Trebbiano and Cote Est blend, proved to be among the most popular of the evening. It was interesting, as a third party observer, to hear tasters comment on the two wines utilizing my mercenary's ear for learning what I could sell. Two hour's worth of eavesdropping left me with an understanding that this is indeed subjective and open to interpretation and if you think about this stuff too much, you will go nuts.

The differences between the two whites? Masciarelli is Italian; Cote Est, French. Masciarellli is forthright and flavorful (brash?); Cote Est is lighter and more nuanced. Masciarelli is old world; Cote Est is somewhat forward and could pass for new world. Masciarelli is food wine; Cote Est is too but it may be nice before dinner or by itself. In cool weather, Masciarelli; in hot, Cote Est. You see, even my observations are biased.

Both whites sold equally well, but tellingly, my two best white wine customers opted for Cote Est. I kind of liked the Masciarelli. Go figure!

FYI: We have four special event wine tastings with guest speakers scheduled for February 9th, 10th, 17th, and 18th. All are from 5 to 7pm except Saturday the 18th which will be earlier.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Der Scharfe Maxx

This is an offering from the Studer Dairy located on the Bodensee Lake in Canton Thurgau in the Swiss Alps. The dairy is traditional to that culture but Maxx has prerequisites making it unique. While Rouzaire Brie de Meaux (January 28th blog)stresses quality control from start to finish, Studer's Maxx elaborates on what cheesemaking actually is.

Dairy cows milked in the morning yield a lighter milk product while evening milking gets a creamier product. Maxx utilizes milk from each shift along with additional cream to get the desired texture. Moreover the milk is "thermalized" which is a process akin to pasteurization but stopping just short of that. Pasteurization lessens the danger of harmful bacteria living in dairy products but the master cheesemakers at Studer contend that thermalization in the making of harder cheeses does just fine while allowing for stronger earthy flavors to remain in the cheese.

Der Scharfe Maxx is then washed in an herb brine which further enhances the developing flavors of sweet hay, onions, and spice. The cheese is then cave aged for a minimum of six months. At release the cheese is semi-hard with tangy, meaty, pungent flavors that will get stronger with age. As a young cheese it is buttery but it becomes firmer with age. The rind, while edible, is not for everyone.

Der Scharfe Maxx is an amazing product and all readers are encouraged to stop in the store to taste it. Beverage affinities include Cabernet Sauvignon, white dessert wines, and amber ale.