Saturday, January 30, 2016

When French was Spanish

Last week John Perry Calaff, Export Manager of the fine Rioja estate, Bodegas LAN, stopped in to promote five of his estate wines.  Mr. Calaff is part of the family ownership of LAN (since 1972) so tasting with him means getting an in-depth history of the property.  This time the lesson included a look at a ten year period in the late nineteenth century that was even more critical to the development of Rioja than the current modern renaissance of Spanish wines brought about by new world investment (blogpost 10/29/15).

Spain has perhaps the oldest of European wine histories which is even now being extended backward  through archeological discoveries.  Interestingly enough, the earliest written references to grapes and wine making in Rioja occurred during the just barely tolerant Moorish rule in the eighth to fourteenth centuries AD.  With the return of Christian rule came legislated wine quality protections leading to a wine export industry.

Our story begins in 1850 when the first Rioja winemakers sought out Bordeaux estates to learn from the masters.  At the time Bordeaux was the center of the wine making universe and the obsession of Britain, the elephant in the room of international trade.  Among other things those Spanish winemakers learned the de-stemming of grapes, barrique aging, and the use of small fermentation tanks.  That training was brought back to Rioja where, without monetary support, it was promptly ignored.

Then in 1862 an aspiring Rhone Valley winemaker planted his newly arrived American grapevines and with them, the American Phylloxera louse, a nuisance in this country but a nascent plague in Europe.  In no time that pest devastated the French wine industry.  By 1875 the infection reached Bordeaux leading those industry leaders to the momentous decision of turning to Rioja for support.  Quickly arrangements were made to send French consultants with investment capital to expand plantings and build new wineries in Rioja.  Many of those French oenologists then would remain in Rioja for much of what became a ten year period supervising production and constructing a new distribution system to get the wine ultimately to Britain.

Because virtually the entire tonnage produced during that ten year period was exported, Rioja ultimately reaped the reward that comes with fine wine creation but that only occurred over time.  You see, the wines shipped to England over that ten year period were labelled as French Bordeaux!  Then once Bordeaux was replanted on disease-resistant American root stocks, demand for Rioja plummeted and without the faux-Bordeaux income, assets like high quality French wine barrels had to be replaced by lower quality substitutes.  While Rioja had gotten its ticket punched for fine wine cache, because of World Wars, Depressions, American Prohibition,and their own Phylloxera blight, it would be nearly a century before Rioja would shine on the world stage again.    

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Burgess Cellars

Burgess Cellars is the proverbial "treasure worth searching for" that has been hiding in plain sight all of the time.  In 1972 the Pillsbury corporation sold the Souverain Napa vineyards, complete with the beautiful new rock tasting room they had just built, to airline pilot, Tom Burgess.  Before getting out of the wine business, they then moved Souverain to its current site in Sonoma County.  Burgess, who had become acquainted with fine wines from his travels to Europe, intended to re-create that same quality standard in northern California.  In 1972 when there were only a couple dozen wineries in Napa, Pillsbury enabled that to happen.

There is a relevant prehistory though.  The vineyards that were to become Burgess Cellars were originally planted by Italian immigrant, Carlo Rossini back in the 1880's, when vineyard construction was done with mules over dirt roads if there were roads at all.  Moreover, for these particular vineyards on the sides of Howell Mountain one could assume dynamite would have been a toolkit necessity.  In 1972 when Tom Burgess assumed the reins of his new project he effectively inherited the labors of these workers along with ninety years of vineyard care under three previous owners.

The Burgess Cellars vineyards actually constitute 120 acres in three parcels.  Cabernet Sauvignon is grown on the western side of Howell Mountain; Syrah, on the east side; and Merlot is grown on the Oak Knoll valley floor to the south. The view to the south from the tasting room reveals a fresh water expanse called Bell Canyon Reservoir which lends its name to the Burgess second label line of varietals.  All Burgess wines are grown on these estate vineyards at 800-1,000 feet altitude.

Bill Sorenson has been the Burgess winemaker since the beginning and he has sustainably farmed eight grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Grenache.  In the Atlanta market the first three types are in distribution as varietals along with an occasional Library Selection Cabernet Sauvignon which is always held back ten years before release.  The prestigious Burgess Grenache and Petite Sirah are sold only from the tasting room.  

The twenty thousand case annual production of Burgess wines are remarkable for their pricing.  Most are under thirty dollars.  Because of the way the appellation was drawn, Burgess is not considered a Howell Mountain wine, which explains somewhat why they are favorably priced.  In any event the end result is that the elegantly balanced and harmoniously complex red wines of Burgess Cellars both stun when accompanying red meat on your dinner table and for those who appreciate the product in itself, they over-deliver.    

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Wine ABV

Recently while watching the TV news a report came on about the elevated alcohol by volume that has become normative in dinner wines.  The standard ABV thirty years ago was around twelve percent.  Now it is closer to fifteen percent.  So what gives?

First of all, lets resolve not to give the TV news too much credit for their hard hitting journalism.  The situation did not occur overnight.  As a matter of fact wine ABV has been rising steadily for more than thirty years, ever since Robert Parker's affinity for highly extracted red wines so impacted the commercial wine world everyone had to follow suit.  You talk about a guy with too much power!

What actually was the change?  What is now regarded as the "international style" of wine making makes use of additional "hang time" for grapes on the vine, effectively extending the growing season for riper grapes with higher sugars.  In wine making sugar gets converted to alcohol.  If there is more sugar present, unless it's intended to be a sweet wine, the alcohol content of the wine will, of necessity, be higher.  That has become the new normal.

So what's wrong with that?  Well, when dining, higher alcohol wines don't marry with foods as well as the old 12% standard.  So much of tasting is done with the nose and the stronger alcoholic bouquet blocks out the more subtle and nuanced wine aromas.  In the mouth it works similarly.  Just as heavily oaked wines tend to coat the tongue, the finer flavors in the dining experience just get clobbered by high alcohol wines.

Higher alcohol wines can also taste raisiny or as in my case, reminiscent of the stewed fruit of my Finnish-American childhood.  What are raisins anyway, but overly ripe grapes.  In the hotter grape growing regions, places like southern Italy and Spain, the entire Australian wine country, and the Central Valley of California, grape growers have to both avoid that result from harvesting too late and avoid the vegetal quality in wine caused by the inclusion of unripe grapes.  Those wine makers have to be fairly exact in their harvesting calculations, especially with modern mechanized equipment that indescriminately harvests all types of grapes in bunches.

So are these mass marketed wines the same as the Parkerized highly extracted wines we began talking about?  No, not really.  The wines Parker loved thirty years ago were the product of garagistas, the small guys who were rebelling against the conservative historic wine making norms of the times.  The mass marketers came later (as they always do) with lower quality approximations of what Parker liked.  Today while the boutiques can justifiably boast of the quality that comes with "handmade" production, the giants can also boast about just how far technology has come to raise the standards for their kind of production too.

And by the way, isn't it delectable to note how things have come full circle with regard to this subject.  Unfortunately, if the lower alcohol crowd wants to reverse the course we are now traveling, that change will have to be one of enlightening our cultural consciousness over time.