Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Italian Wine Classification System

Italian wines are more than just a passing fancy here at the old blogspot.  As a conscientious retailer I  pay attention to what my customers buy here and since the Italians always overperform at our tastings, more often than not, I report on those wines here.  Then I usually neglect to explain what the heck a DOC or DOCG rating means in those reports, so this post is meant to atone for those lapses. 

Last Friday, by the way, the Il Falchetto Tenuta Del Fant Moscato d'Asti tripled the sales of the next most popular wine on the table.  Admittedly I promoted it heavily, especially after just blogging about the Moscato-loving Valdeon Blue cheese here, so I guess we need to blog about the Moscato soon, just to be fair.

Anyway, here is an explanation of the four classification levels in Italian wine law, three of which were created in 1963 and modeled after the French system, while the fourth was a necessary add-on in 1992.

1.  VdT (Vino da Tavola) is the lowest quality level in the Italian system and the least important to us since we rarely see those wines here.  VdT wines, simply put, are Italian table wine that can be anything from anywhere in the country.  In 1992 this level became even less relevant than before with the creation of the IGT level.

2.  IGT (Indicazione Geographica Tipica) was the necessary class of Italian wines forced into the system in 1992 by the Super Tuscan revolution of the mid-eighties.  Those producers chose to deliberately defy the existing system with their designer label creations using alternative grape varieties(see blogpost 1/16/14).  In order to save face, the government had to distinguish those fine wines from the plebian VdTs.

3.  DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) is the main tier of the Italian system with three hundred thirty vineyards being so classified.  Those vineyards are viticultural zones restricted in the grape varieties approved for wine production and the resultant wines must reflect the historic style of a region.

4.  When a DOC vineyard shows consistently high quality over time it may earn DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) status.  There are currently seventy-three such regions in Italy with the first being designated in 1982, almost twenty years after the category was created.  DOCG wines, like DOCs, control for production methods but with even more stringency.  Yields are reduced; ageing is often required, either in barrel or bottle; and most importantly, DOCG wines must pass an analysis by government-licensed inspectors before bottling to prevent production deceit.  To assure the "guarantee" implicit in this level, the bottles are then sealed and numbered.

Please join us Friday the 31st of January as we again tackle red wines here.  The lineup will include six of the following: Casarsa Italian Pinot Nero, Torres Spanish Sangre de Toro, Maggio Lodi Petite Sirah, IQUE Argentine Malbec, Sterling Carneros Pinot Noir, and Provenance P-wave Napa Red Blend.  Kunde Sauvignon Blanc will be the event's token white.  

Friday, January 24, 2014


Or perhaps "Queso de Valdeon" or "Picos de Europa".  And isn't it just like Europe to have multiple names for something.  Anyway, Valdeon (vahl-day-ohn) is a remarkable blue cheese from the Valdeon Valley on the edge of the Picos de Europa Mountains in the Castilla-Leon province of northwestern Spain; an agricultural garden place known primarily for cereals, grains, and vegetables along with wines that bear the DOs: Ribero del Duero, Rueda, Toro, Arlanza, Cigales, Arribes, amongst others.

I have a theory about places like this: It's all interconnected.  Back on November 1st of 2011, we blogged about d'Auvergne, France, a garden spot so special great European chefs were disproportionately born there.  Think about that.  Closer to home, I have always thought Monterey County, California produced wines that reflected the long history of vegetable harvests there and please excuse me if I don't view vegetal characteristics as a flaw in wine.  So if the vegetation that the goats, sheep, and cows consume in the Valdeon Valley helps to produce the remarkable cheese there, then why can't the same earth that grew vegetables be praised for the wines from the same place?

Anyway...back to the cheese.  What makes most cheese (and wine) special is complexity and Valdeon is nothing if not complex.  The cheese is usually constructed from 80% cow's milk and 20% goat milk, but it could use sheep milk if necessary.  The animals are mountain fed and that mixture, itself, is complex.  The finished Valdeon product is a 5-6" tall, 8" diameter cylinder wrapped in Sycamore leaves which not only don't seal the cheese flavors within, but this wrapping also imparts even more earthiness from the leaves and ambient bacteria in the air to the cheese over time.

The flavor of Valdeon has been described as salty, rich and creamy, intensely flavored, spicy, baked bread yeasty, roasted meat, and chocolate.  Chocolate?  Aromas are damp earth, tobacco, and vanilla.  Vanilla?  Underlying all of this is a basic caramel-like essence.  Caramel?  And just like fine wine, the flavors are long and fine, nuanced, and piquant.  And again just like fine wine, if you hold the cheese in your mouth and savor it for a while, the rewards are lasting.

Visually, blue cheeses are artistic beauties, by definition.  This one is an ivory-cream colored paste with greyish-green mold, which is, of course, penicillium roqueforti.  The cheese gets its first infection in the form of spores injected into the curds while still in brine.  After draining and molding, the cheese is salted and pierced with long needles to create air channels, soon to become its blue veins.  The cheese is then aged for one and a half to two months in dry caves so as to inhibit too much blueing from undue humidity.  Before wrapping in leaves, the thin exterior rind is a visually splendid mosaic of life in blue cheese.            

Valdeon finds a suitable companion in Riesling or Muscat still white wine, sturdy red dinner wine, desserts like Sauternes, or the fortifieds like Port or Sherry.  Valdeon also likes fresh fruit and/or dribbles of honey, cream, or butter poured on it.  Ooh-la-la!

This Friday, January 24th, between 5 and 7pm we will meet here for a tasting of Red Bordeaux, Gascogne Cabernet, Lodi Petite Sirah, Castilla-La Mancha Tempranillo, and more.  Please join us and ask to taste the Valdeon.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Soave, Garganega, and the IGT Classification, Part 1

After setting up a fairly decent lineup of reds for last Friday's tasting, we threw in a ringer as an afterthought.  We chilled down a bottle of Riondo Soave Excelsa which had just come in the door hours before show time.  We thought it would be a decent if ordinary $10 white warm-up wine.  How it so overperformed that evening prompts this post today.

The primary grape of Soave (So-AH-Ve) is Garganega (Gar-GAH-Neh-Gah) which typically makes up about 70% of the blend.  In order to further understand the wine's makeup we need to look at Tuscany, the home of Chianti, which is popularly perceived as the red wine counterpart of Soave.  In Tuscany the winemakers rebelled in the 1980s against over-regulation by creating the Super Tuscan category.  Basically they threw the rulebook out the window and made the kind of wines they wanted to.  As a result those properties lost their DOC or DOCG rating by not toeing the line on grape types and production methods.  In order to give those properties credit for the obvious wine quality in the new creations (and to cover its backside) the government created the IGT (Indicazione Geographica Tipica) category which is less strict than the top two categories but separates the new stuff from ordinary table wine.

In 2002 in the Soave region the government did it again only this time the objection of the local industry had more to do with vineyard practices and the newly designated DOCG and Classico Soave regions codified in the new legislation.  The Soave properties responded by sacrificing their DOC and DOCG ratings and going with an IGT Soave classification and then doubled down on the issue by adjusting the grape compositions like the Super Tuscan producers had done earlier.  Those Soave properties believed to be DOC or DOCG quality added up to 30% Trebbiano di Soave (Verdicchio) and Chardonnay to the up to 70% Garganega with minor local varieties allowed in the blend up to five percent.  These properties then expelled both Pinot Blanc and Trebbiano Toscano (Ugni Blanc), two grapes that really added nothing to the quality of the wine, thereby improving the product by subtraction.  In fact, Soave may now be 100% Garganega which is obviously the variety that makes Soave what it is anyway.

While little known to us stateside, Garganega is the the sixth most widely planted grape in Italy and the ampelographers there have determined that is genetically related to seven other Italian whites.  It's a chicken-egg dilemma as to which grape came first and parented the others so, more or less officially, origins of these related grapes are undetermined, meaning they go back a long ways in time.  The character of Garganega is what makes it noteworthy.  It profiles flavors of lemon, almond, and spice, with more nuanced smoke with salt and bitterness in a crisp, dry, but moderately hefty package.  "Weight and elegance" is the description I read that best sums the wine up for me or as someone else said, "Chardonnay with almond".

Please join us Friday, January 17th, as we taste reds from Italy and Spain, three from California, and a white Gascogne.  We start at 5pm.  Please join us.

Soave, Garganega, and IGT, Part 2

Back on March 3, 2013 we blogged about Valpolicella.  Much of the modern history of Soave parallels Valpolicella. Original Valpolicella and Soave production regions were hillside vineyards which were greatly expanded in 1968 for commercial reasons, not so coincidentally when each received their DOC classification.  Both expansions were downward into river basin flatlands which served to provide a steady stream of plonk Valpolicella and Soave for the mass markets of America.  It would be a full twenty years before a correction would be made when Pinot Grigio rose to assume the mantle as the new default Italian white wine for Americans.

Soave was first legally defined in 1927 as the 1,100 hectares of hillside vineyards around the town of Soave outside of Verona, Italy.  After World War II when American GIs stationed in Europe returned home, their new wine tastes resulted in a flood of Soave amongst other European types.  The 1968 vineyard expansion grew the Soave region to 4,000 hectares but the flatlands juice was a far cry from the cause celebre of the earlier era.  Fully eighty percent of the Soave on American store shelves was privately labelled by cooperatives in Italy and, in time and with consolidation, one cooperative has now become the sole player responsible for that eighty percent.

For most of the time I have been in the wine business, Soave has been a thin, insipid, neutral, acidic wine, the massmarketed plonk mentioned above, made from overproduced yields from the flatlands.  In the 1970s this version of Soave was actually the most popular Italian wine in America, even more popular than Chianti.  Garganega, a late ripening grape with a thick skin to ward off pests and disease, finds a more ideal environment in the Dolomite hillside (Classico) vineyards above the Adige river plain.  There the grapevine struggles in chalk, clay, and limestone alluvial soils of decomposed volcanic rock, a far less fertile environment than the river basin plains.  There the thick Garganega grapeskins thrive by storing atmospheric heat throughout the summer to magnify the grape ripening process.

In my research for this article I found one more quote worth sharing: "Italians don't drink Pinot Grigio".  And by the way, we should have a stack of Riondo Soave Excelsa here by the weekend priced at $10/btl!  Maybe, just maybe, we'll open one up Friday night in combination with reds from California, Spain, and Italy.  Please join us.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Wine Dump

Concurrently with the year ending holiday season, the larger wine wholesalers typically slash prices on those labels they choose to discontinue representing.  Last month there were more "wine dumps" than usual.  The truth is everything sells in December so it makes sense for suppliers to get rid of as much problematic product as possible before reverting back to business as usual again in January.  The reasons for these wine dumps are many and, not being inside that end of the business, I really shouldn't speculate about them.  What is obvious though is that the stuff wouldn't be purged if it was a real money-maker.

For retailers, since everything sells in December, we do our jettisoning in January when we need foot traffic in the store; hence, the discount rack.  We currently have two 20%-off racks here at the store; one for red wines, the other, whites.  As with basically anything in the store, if you hold it up and ask me, I will report what I know about the product and whether there could be a problem with it.  I try to shoot straight with my customers.  Afterall, they choose to spend their money here so why would I mislead them on a purchase. 

In the first ten days of the new year I have tasted out three bottles from the discount rack, two whites and a red.  They have all been fine and they have all sold out after tasting them, just as planned.  It's actually a no-brainer for the customer, considering the 20% discount.  Aside from older product with fading fruit, most discounted wines are afflicted with a problem more common than one would expect, the infamous bad label syndrome.  This was the case with the red wine we tasted.  It didn't help that it was a thirty dollar Syrah from Oregon.  Ninety-nine percent of wine customers would never consider purchasing it in the first place.  But the guy who sold it to me said it was good and it was indeed.

The two whites we tasted here were French dinner wines with similarly unfortunate labels.  One actually had a huge "X" embossed on the front.  Why didn't they just reproduce a urine specimen container label for the thing.  Anyway, French wine is drier, more nuanced, and really shows its best with a plate of complementary food, which reminds me of an inside joke in the wine business: If you have a wine like I mentioned above, an older vintage with fading fruit, tell the customer it's a "food wine", which actually makes sense for everyone since such a wine would probably show best with a meal anyway.

Having been in the business for some thirty-five years, my tastes now go toward the older vintage European models as opposed to the young and forward, fruit-driven California wines.  I was trained to understand that wine is part of the dinnertable by my mentor, Jim Sanders, who started the fine wine business in Atlanta back in the 1960's.  I still believe that.  So the exemplary fresh and fruity California wines really are cocktail wines and that is my understanding of the subject to this day.

This brings me to the Rutini wines of Argentina, a new world country with fruit-driven wines, but with a much longer winemaking history than America.  Rutini is perhaps the second most widely esteemed winery of Argentina after the great Catena.  The Rutini wines were closed out by their wholesaler back in November so these suggested $18 retail wines are now available here at $10.  The Chardonnay is an '09 vintage, the reds are '07.  While the forward fruit is gone, all of them are fine nonetheless.  I can, without hesitation, recommend them as wonderful food wines.

This Friday, January 17th, from 5 to 7pm we will be tasting: 2010 Echelon Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010 Quadrant Paso Robles Red Blend, 2009 Riondo Veneto Rosso, and three others yet to be determined.  Please join us.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Trade Deal

So what could cause me to start blogging again after a two month layoff?  Actually that sounds like I haven't wanted to be blogging during the interim when in reality I have been way too busy with running the store during the holiday season.  For the first time in six years, business seemed to be somewhat normal or at least like what it used to be, pre-recession.  Anyway, back to the question.  In a news article posted 12/31/13, I read about a proposed trade deal between the United States and the European Union that, if it comes to fruition, may impact the wine and cheese industries in a way I think would benefit us all.

Back in 2011 during the depths of the horrendous economic crisis crippling both Europe and America,  bureaucrats here and there came up with a measure that would alleviate some of our shared pain and wouldn't cost us anything.  That proposed measure was a trade deal, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which when simplified, would knock down tariffs allowing for increased trade leading to greater demand for products which would, in turn, mean job growth for both parties.  It would be a cheap no-brainer stimulous of certain success because everyone would benefit, a win-win.

What products would be affected?  Basically, everything from soup to nuts, including large products like automobiles down to household cleaning chemicals.  Regarding my purview, the cost of wine and cheese and other saleables would come down minimally or not at all considering the markups of importers, brokers, distributors, and retailers, which range from 30-40% in most cases.  What would be affected would be the new products that would become available from smaller producers in Europe who would now be enabled to export their goods because of new economic feasibility. 

So what are the particulars?  In America small producers of wine and other goods are given tax credits which allow them to market their products affordably to the public, not necessarily enabling them to compete with the big guys but just getting them into "the game".  The effect of TTIP would be like extending these credits to small European producers.  The average tariff in place now is 4%.  Within that figure are "Non-Tariff Barriers" (NTBs) that deal with differences in regulations and standards between the political players.  Eighty percent of the expected economic benefits of the deal would come from cutting into those regulations and bureaucracy.  It is estimated that 10-20% of the retail price of goods lies within internal national regulations and bureaucracy.  TTIP would take just a small bite out of that.

If enacted, TTIP would be the largest trade deal in history.  Trade being a two-way street, US products exported to Europe would be expected to offer more choice and lower prices for European consumers.  But this deal is far from complete.  It is still in a very early stage.  With our economy improving and government action being as lethargic as ever, it could be that it just doesn't happen at all.  But wouldn't it be nice to see a bunch of new European wines on US store shelves?  And did I mention beer?