Henry Wine Group Learning Center
Southwest France comprises an area that at one time was known as the “High Country” and, while under English rule in the Middle Ages, wines from here were of much higher importance than those of the now more famous Bordeaux area. The Garonne and Dordogne rivers continue to the west and south after splitting from the Gironde estuary at the port of Bordeaux, and it is up these rivers and along their tributaries that the region lays. At the heart of the area is Gascony, and the great brandy district of Armagnac. It was from here that d’Artagnan set off in the early 17th Century to seek fame and fortune in the King’s Musketeers, and the land has not changed much since then. Because it is a collection of diverse areas, rather than one region with a natural boundary, the appellations of the Southwest at first seem numerous and confusing, with needless duplications. This wide range of town names, place names, wine names, and sub-regions within sub-regions have helped contribute to the lack of marketing success for many of the wines from here. Savvy consumers, however, are beginning to recognize the high quality to price ratio in many wines from the area, a trend that is sure to continue.
CLIMATE AND ASPECT
The region is bordered by the Atlantic (and Bordeaux) to the west, the Pyrenees to the south, and the Languedoc-Roussillon to the east and southeast. The climate is Atlantic influenced, with rain in the winter and spring, warm summers, and long, sunny autumns. Vineyards to the south of the region are subject to greater heat and some influence of the Mediterranean. Most of the vineyards are planted on slopes that face east through to south, affording protection from the Atlantic’s weather systems.
MAIN GRAPE VARIETALS
Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec (Cot or Auxerrois Rouge), Syrah, Gamay, Tannat, Negrette, Fer
Sauvignon, Semillon, Mauzac, Chenin Blanc, Manseng (Gros & Petit), Courbu, Ugni Blanc, Columbard
The encépagement of the region is largely influenced by Bordeaux, as is the style of many of the wines. There are also some native grapes that make very particular, and in many cases exciting, local wines.
The appellations of Southwest France can be split into two groups. The first is made up of the areas whose wines are logical extensions of Bordeaux and which are, for the most part, made from the same grapes. These are typically referred to as “Bordeaux look-alikes.” The second is made up of a range of wines from long standing local varieties that have characteristics clearly distinct from those of Bordeaux. These are referred to as “Southwest wines.”
BORDEAUX LOOK ALIKES
BERGERAC AOC: at the hinterland of Bordeaux, adjoining the eastern border, Bergerac is an important winegrowing area, once famous in England, and its wines can be as good as some of the more modest regions of Bordeaux. The wines, both red and white, are produced from the same varieties as its neighbor. The general appellations for the district are Bergerac and Cotes de Bergerac for red, rosé, dry (Bergerac Sec, with no more than 4 g/l rs) and sweet whites. Within the region are sub-appellations for the best wines:
PECHARMANT AOC: for reds with great concentration of color, flavor, and tannin, from Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec.
ROSETTE AOC: a white only appellation, the wines must contain 8 to 54 grams of residual sugar. Any red wines would be sold as Bergerac AC.
MONBAZILLAC AOC: dating back to 1080, with sweet white wines made from grapes affected by noble rot, which offer an amazingly valued alternative to Sauternes.
MONTRAVEL AOC: Reds are elegant and fruity, from a minimum 50% Merlot, plus the Cabernets and Malbec. Whites are dry, crisp, and aromatic, dominated by Sauvignon Blanc with Semillon and Muscadelle.
SAUSSIGNAC AOC: A sweet wine only appellation. the wines must contain a minimum of 18 g/l of residual sugar. Reds would be sold as Bergerac AC.
To the south but adjoining Entre-Deux-Mers lie the following two appellations:
COTES de DURAS AOC: an area of increasing interest, whose red and white wines closely resemble those of Bordeaux. The whites from 100% Sauvignon are gaining a reputation for high quality at a low price point.
COTES du MARMANDAIS AOC: on the border of Bordeaux itself, with soft fruity reds and some rosés from the traditional varietals, and dry whites from mostly Sauvignon.
In the valley of the Garonne, on the northern edge of the Armagnac district lies:
BUZET AOC: a very good-value Bordeaux satellite that makes whites, rosés, and fruity reds with considerable charm, all from traditional Bordeaux varietals.
CAHORS AOC: located in the upper Lot Valley is a district that produces a wine once famous as the “black wine” from the Malbec grape. Prior to the onslaught of phylloxera, wines from here had an inky dark color and tannin structure that gave them tremendous agebility. The vines did not graft well, however, to the first American rootstocks brought over, and the area fell into decline. Eventually, compatible rootstocks were developed, and by the late 20th Century, with the introduction of Merlot and Tannat, Cahors had gained back much of its former reputation. There are a large number of consistently good producers fashioning deep-colored wines with plum and blackcurrant fruit, a silky texture and a distinctive violet-tinged finish, from a minimum of 70% Malbec, plus up to 30% in total of Merlot and Tannat.
COTES du FRONTONNAIS AOC: is located just north of the city of Toulouse, and is an up and coming region that produces a violet and blackberry-scented wine, mainly from the Negrette, a local variety, with Cabernet, Malbec, Syrah, and Fer. Some fruity rosés are also produced.
GAILLAC AOC: lies just to the east and the vineyard area is among the oldest in France. The majority of production is dry white, from the local varietals l’En de l’El (Courbu) and Mauzac. Sweet and sparkling whites from Mauzac, l’En de l’El, and Sauvignon are also produced, as are soft, fruity reds from Duras, Fer, Gamay, Syrah, Merlot, Negrette, and both Cabernets.
MADIRAN AOC: is a serious red wine appellation with the potential for greatness. The main grape here is Tannat, which gives deep color, high tannin and alcohol. A minimum of 40% and up to 60% may be used, with the two Cabernets and a bit of Fer making up the rest of the blend. So tannic and meaty in their youth that they are difficult to choke down, the wines age into serious beauties that can rival the First Growths.
BÉARN AOC: in the Basque region, produces fruity, light reds and rosés from the same blend as Madiran, and whites from Petit and Gros Manseng, with Courbu and Sauvignon, as well as some obscure local varietals such as Lauzet, Camaralet, and Raffiat.
JURANÇON AOC: is a nobler appellation for whites from the two Manseng grapes. The sweet version of this wine is famed for being used at the christening of Henri V, and is said to have inspired him ever since it touched his lips. This sweet style, made from nobly rotten and/or late harvested grapes, is sold as vendanges tardive or moelleux, and has a fine spicy-sweet flavor. Today, most of the production is slanted towards the dry.
JURANÇON SEC AOC: from less ripe grapes and with much less residual sugar. The wines have been described as having a certain nervosity, with the same spicy tang as those above.
IROULÉGUY AOC: is a Basque region, and lies on the border of Spain. Some distinctive reds with an earthy-spicy finish and large amount of rosés are produced from Tannat, with at least 50% (in total) of the two Cabernets. Modest dry whites are also produced.
A mention should be made of the Vin de Pays region of Cotes de Gasgogne, located in the heart of the Armagnac area. The white wines are deliciously tangy and crisp, usually sourced from the undistilled Ugni Blanc and Columbard grapes of the mostly brandy producing region. The reds are fruity and delicious, usually with Tannat as the base.
Category: Peter's Wine Articles
A Visit to the South Central Coast of California
The South Central Coast of California continues to move from strength to strength as winegrowers and producers explore various terroirs, and match grape varieties with climate and soil like never before. We are seeing the quality of wine from this area rise exponentially and the future looks bright for a wide range of wine styles. I recently took a trip to the area to visit with a few of the producers in the Henry Wine Group portfolio.
The San Luis Obispo County region continues to grow in importance, in terms of both quality and plantings. Its two most important AVAs are Paso Robles and Edna Valley. My stop was at Ancient Peaks Winery, whose vineyards are at the Margarita Ranch, located at the southernmost tip of Paso Robles.
Paso Robles AVA is one of California’s oldest winegrowing regions, with grapes grown since the late 18th Century. It is the largest AVA in San Luis Obispo County with 18,500 acres under vine. Aside from a small gap near the town of Templeton, the Santa Lucia range shelters the region from the fog that cools the southern San Luis Obispo AVAs. The rolling, gravelly upland plains are perfect for warm-weather viticulture. The AVA is effectively divided into two sections, bisected by Highway 101. To the west the climate is cooler, particularly towards the foothills of the coastal mountains. It is here where a carbonate-based silicate chalkrock is found, and these two elements create a situation where Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon, and Rhone varietals do quite well. To the east of the highway, one enters a long, open plain with deep topsoil, and the climate turns hot. Here, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah thrive, as well as various Italian and Rhone varietals.
Margarita Ranch is found at the far southern tip of the AVA, and is the only vineyard in the area. It is located only 14 miles from the coast, and is much cooler than central and northern Paso Robles. The vineyard unfolds in roughly three sections that tell the land’s geological story, from fine sandy loam deposited by extinct waterflows to fields of small rocks lain by thousands of years of erosion. The most spectacular soil is found along a block called Oyster Ridge, where the ground is riddled with white ocean fossils that testify to the land’s origins as an uplifted sea bed. This creates a diverse array of mesoclimates and a wide variety of grapes are successfully grown here, including Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Merlot, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Ancient Peaks and Margarita Vineyard are owned by three longtime local winegrowing families—the Filipponis, Rossis and Wittstroms—who are actively involved in the daily operations of the vineyard and winery. Ancient Peaks wines are crafted under the guidance of Mike Sinor, a local winemaking veteran and one of the highest-rated winemakers on the Central Coast. Mike is a talented and passionate winemaker, and his wines display fantastic varietal typicity and drinkability.
I then drove into Santa Barbara County. No one could have guessed 20 years ago that this region would become synonymous with the production of Burgundian varietals, particularly Pinot Noir. The area was virtually devoid of vines in the 1960s, and the foundations for the sudden surge in production and quality were laid in the 70s, when land was cheap and growers planted the varietal in order to supply the sparkling wine industry in the north. In 1970, there were 200 acres of vines planted, today there are more than 11,000. No one can pinpoint exactly when local winemakers realized the potential for still wine here, but the word spread quickly and today the region is a hotbed of activity, with Syrah hot on the heels of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The region has three AVAs.
To the north is the Santa Maria Valley, a funnel-shaped valley where Pacific winds blow, providing a cooling effect. The AVA’s east-west orientation allows Pacific fog and coastal breezes to permeate the valley, creating a long extended growing season. Grapes are mainly grown in well-drained sandy loam and clay-loam soils, on slopes with elevations ranging from 200-800 feet. Much of the AVA’s 7,500 acres of vine is planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and the area’s grapes command some of the highest prices in North America, reaffirming the AVA’s distinction as one the finest viticultural regions in North America.
To the south lies the Santa Ynez Valley, unique in that it has an east-west aspect, with mountains to the north and south. The long valley is a well-drained bench of sand, silt, clay, and shale loam. At the west side of the valley lies the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, which benefits from the moderating effects of the Pacific. This is one of California’s premier cool-climate viticultural regions, and also one of California’s smaller AVAs. The soil is a seabed composition with many diatomaceous deposits (chalk-like sedimentary rock). The region’s leading varietals are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with increasing amounts of Syrah.
As one follows the Santa Ynez River east, the elevation rises approximately 800 feet. At this higher altitude, in north-south running canyons, vineyards experience higher diurnal temperature fluctuations and a warmer overall climate. In this environment Cabernet and Merlot thrive, as do Syrah along with other Rhone varietals, providing excellent fruit sources for the “Rhone Ranger” wineries in the area.
The eastern section of the region, called Happy Canyon, just received AVA status. The area has come into its own as a top-quality appellation for Bordeaux varietals.
My final stop of the trip was at Demetria Estate, located above the Foxen Canyon trail. The property, owned by the Zahoudanis family, consists of 213 acres of rolling hills with 38 high elevation hillside acres currently under vine. Red varietals include Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre, and white varietals include Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, and Grenache Blanc. The estate has been farmed Biodynamically since 2005. Winemaker Michael Roth is a thoughtful yet tactile vintner, who strives for texture and balance in the wines, which have a purity and essence of place that is hard to achieve. The family also owns vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills, and produces excellent Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris from there.
What is Organic?
One of the most confusing and murky issues to confront the modern-day wine drinker is sorting out the meaning of the word “Organic” as it applies to wine and winegrowing. The development of Organic as a commercial selling term for everything from apples to zamarano cheese has not made it any easier or clearer. Only recently have regulations been passed in the United States which attempt to put a clear stamp on the term as it applies to wine.
Organic viticulture has been around since the man began his shift from hunter-gatherer to farmer. The vine has been an important source of fruit (and its fortunate by-product) for millennia. It was not until the 20th Century and the development of the agrochemical industry that there was a need to think of viticulture as anything but “organic.” But by the 1950s the entrenchment of such “miracle” products as chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides in the agriculture business had become nearly complete. Yields went up and fungal disease and pest infestation went down—at first seen as a huge boon to farming, and, by extension, winegrowing. By the 1970s, however, it became abundantly clear to a number of producers, first in France, followed by elsewhere, that this reliance on monoculture (only one type of crop grown) and systemic chemicals was destroying the soil upon which their vines were planted and having serious consequences on the surrounding environment. The added scare of the possibility of pesticide residues being found in wine only added fuel to the fire. The organic viticulture movement rose out of this concern, among both winegrowers and the public. Negative publicity about modern farming methods and pressure from organic farmers and consumer organizations in France led to the legal definition of “organic farming” (agriculture biologique) as “farming which uses no synthetic chemical products”. The European Union enacted a series of directives, based on the French model, in regards to organic farming in the early 1990s, as did the United States. Basically, the laws are similar: various bodies are entitled to supervise organic farming by way of unannounced farm visits, analysis of samples, and checking of accounts. Organic farming is defined by standards of production, and label granting must be verified by an independent body. All of the world’s organic farming organizations are federated within the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM). Conversion from “conventional” to “organic” viticulture is strictly overseen and can take a period of years.
There are several basic tenets that unite the organic approach to viticulture. The first is for the soil itself. Chemical fertilizers, while fast-acting on production, in the long run rob the soil of its microbial content and ability to sustain itself. They also pollute the environment. In addition, these types of fertilizers all contain the same chemicals and are used in thousands of different vineyards, imparting a sameness to all of these diverse sites and robbing the vineyards of their terroir. The organic viticulturalist uses compost and manure to feed his soil and creates a natural, vibrant environment in which earthworms and microbes can flourish, bringing his land back into harmony with itself.
The second major emphasis is to transform the vineyard ecosystem from monoculture to polyculture. The biological diversity of the vineyard ecosystem is encouraged by using cover crops that consist of a mix of grasses and legumes. These often include companion plants that have pesticidal properties, such as mustard and oats. The use of these crops provides the soil with organic matter, which helps retain the structure of the soil, and aids in water infiltration. A by-product of all this is reduced yields, due to reduced vigor of the vine as it is forced to compete for water and nutrients. The fruit is of higher quality, but the price that must be charged is typically higher than that of a “modern” vineyard.
One difficulty becomes clear. By denouncing the use of fungicides, pesticides, and herbicides, the organic winegrower has a more difficult time dealing with pests and diseases. To a great extent the success of an organic endeavor depends on climactic conditions. While organic winegrowing takes place in nearly every major wine region, it is only those areas with a warm, dry climate that can hope to produce commercial quantities of high-quality grapes on a regular basis. A vineyard located in a more marginal climate is simply more prone to the various maladies that can adversely affect production. The effort and time associated with organic farming increases, with varying degrees of success. Recent developments of canopy management and the planting of disease-resistant varieties have helped significantly.
One offshoot of the organic viticulture movement is “Sustainable Viticulture”, a term popular in California. It is a practice that aims to avoid any form of environmental degradation, including waste and energy use. The system encourages ecological diversity in the vineyard, soil health, and the use of copper or sulphur sprays instead of fungicides. There are, however, no strict rules for governing the application of this form of farming.
Biodynamic Viticulture is a method based on the work of an Austrian named Rudolf Steiner, the father of anthroposophy, a broad-based philosophy relating education, health, and the attunement of man to the spirit of the earth and universe. In 1924, concerned about the negative effects already being seen on agriculture as a result of the use of chemical fertilizers, he gave a series of lectures that are collected in a book called “Agriculture” that is the “bible” of biodynamie. The method operates on a few basic precepts: 1) The planet is a living being. 2) The cosmos, the earth, and man are intimately and inextricably connected. 3) Man can either destroy or embellish that which he has been given.
Biodynamic farming calls for an end to all chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. It calls for extensive use of natural processes and preparations in conjunction with a calendar of lunar and planetary cycles. These ideas are not actually new, for ancient man was attuned to such concepts. In the 1st century BC, for example, Pliny the Elder wrote on the influence of the waxing and waning moon upon plant growth. The preparations used in Biodynamic agriculture take into account the four stages of matter (mineral, liquid, gas, and heat) and how they interrelate to each other. These preparations include the composting of animal and vegetal waste as fertilizing elements, the use of plant-based preparations to stimulate beneficial humus development, the spreading of Horn Manure on the ground to increase microbial activity, and the spraying of powdered compounds such as Horn Silica on foliage to reinforce photosynthesis, balance vigor, and improve the taste and aroma of the fruit. All of this is accomplished in an environment of polyculture (other crops are also grown and farm animals are part of the equation). The result is a unified piece of land and sky, rich in natural microfauna and at balance with itself. Pests and diseases are kept in check by the regulation of nature. The land is no longer enslaved to the agrochemical industry and its endless cycle of dependence. The land is able to truly express itself through the fruit, and we are able to lend real credence to the concept of appellation of origin. It should come as no surprise that a number of the greatest wine producers in the world have converted to Biodynamic viticulture.
Finally, a word about wine labelling. In the United States, the term “Organic Wine” may only be applied when the grapes are grown 100% organically and no additives of any kind, including sulfites, are used in the winemaking process. This can result in a wine with a short and unstable shelf life. The more popular and recently recognized term “Made from Organic Grapes” (or Made from Organically Grown Grapes) allows for no more than 100 parts per million of sulfites to be present in the wine upon release. This minute amount of sulphur dioxide, a natural antioxidant, provides for bacterial stability and protection against oxidation. The grapes themselves must be from a vineyard that has been certified organic.
Whether the wine is from Sonoma or Sancerre, made with or without sulfites, $6.00 or $26.00 a bottle, the fact that the wine was made from organically grown grapes demonstrates a commitment to produce the most civilized beverage in a most responsible way: by caring for the well being of Mother Earth and all living things.
Magic in the Canyon - Saucelito Canyon
This summer my wife and I went on a camping trip to Lopez Lake, which is located about ten miles east of the town of Arroyo Grande, in San Luis Obispo County. The lake and surrounding area is beautiful, and we had a great time there with a group of close friends. But the area is a pretty long drive from where we live – nearly six hours, and there are beautiful areas to camp located much closer to us. So why drive all that way? Well, don’t tell my wife, but I had a bit of an ulterior motive. For I knew that not far from our campfire was the upper Arroyo Grande Valley, where some of the oldest Zinfandel vines in the United States still live, at the Saucelito Canyon Vineyard and Winery. And I had to pay them a visit.
We drove along the shore of the lake for a mile or so, then up a canyon road into the wilderness. After a few miles we turned off onto a narrow dirt road and entered a beautiful valley of chaparral lined on each side by rolling hills. Hawks circled overhead and cattle grazed in the distance. There were no signs of civilization whatsoever – no power lines, no phone wires, no street signs – and as we ventured deeper into the valley we felt completely and utterly alone, with nothing but the sound of silence in our ears, broken only by the occasional cries of the hawks.
After a few miles a sign appeared, signaling the entrance of Saucelito Canyon. And there, like an apparition, was a rustic looking building, behind it a ramshackle house, and beyond them a pool of green-canopied vines that stretched into the near distance.
The vineyard was originally planted in 1880, a three-acre block, dry farmed, that is the centerpiece of the vineyard today. Gazing upon these beautiful ancient vines is a magical experience, and as I looked around I saw a landscape that has remained virtually unchanged for over one hundred years. Almost like small trees, these vines are a living piece of history. They lay fallow for years, until the spring of 1974, when Bill Greenough went camping on the abandoned Rancho Saucelito. Surrounding him were the gnarled crowns of old Zinfandel vines, laid out in an 8x8-foot grid so that they could be farmed by horses. The vines were entangled in dry scrub brush and poison oak. A few were completely covered, piquing Bill’s curiosity. And when he pulled the overgrowth back, he made a startling discovery—little grape clusters.
Sure enough, the vines that were protected from the elements and wildlife were actually still producing grapes nearly a century since they had been planted. At that moment, Bill realized that the vineyard didn’t need to be replaced. Rather, it could be restored to its original glory. So he set about doing exactly that. Bill and his wife Nancy purchased the property, and Bill painstakingly cleared the scrub from the vineyard, cut the dead wood from each vine, then dug down a foot to find a strong shoot that could be trained into a new fruit-producing, head-pruned vine. The shoots grew from the original roots and the vines remain ungrafted to this day. Bill later built the small winery building and house that I first saw upon coming to the property. He began to propagate cuttings from the heritage vines and planting out the vineyard, then set about making wine from the resulting harvest. Bill sold his inaugural 1982 vintage from the trunk of his car. The wine garnered immediate praise, and one of California’s singular Zinfandels was born.
Today there are nine acres in total on the estate, divided into four dry-farmed blocks. The vineyard lies at eight hundred feet above sea level, yet just sixteen miles from the Pacific Ocean, enabling the Zinfandel grape to achieve exquisite balance amid inland warmth that yields daily to the prevailing coastal breezes. The vines are all dry farmed on deep, sandy well-drained soils composed of marine and alluvial deposits, as well as organic materials eroded from the surrounding chaparral ecosystem. Together, the vineyard’s mesoclimate and soil come together to produce a wine of bright, fresh fruit flavors, excellent balance, deep complexity, and a unique terroir of coastal scrub and gravelly minerality.
We met with Tom Greenough, Bill and Nancy’s son and the winemaker here since 2009. Tom, tall and lanky, is an extremely likable young man who grew up among these old vines. His intimate knowledge of this place, and his love for it is palpable as we walk the rows, and it is clear that he knows each vine intimately. The vineyard is farmed organically and it a picture of balance and health. Back at the small winery we barrel tasted through a number of wines, each of them showing the natural approach and judicious use of oak that have always been the hallmark of the wines from here. My friends, who had never tasted from barrel before, were in awe.
The next day we visited the tasting room, which is located in nearby Edna Valley and much more accessible to consumers. My friends Pat and Mary wanted to purchase some of the 1880 Zinfandel, made exclusively from the original old vine block and available only at the tasting room. The staff there is personable and knowledgeable and makes you feel right at home, like family. Which, after all, is the sense that pervades the entire operation –an historic estate, heritage vines, beautiful, pristine land, family owned. You can certainly taste all of these things in the wines, and that is a magical thing indeed.
The Wines of New Zealand
New Zealand is located between 36 and 45 degrees south in the Pacific Ocean, and is 1,400 miles from Australia, separated from that continent by the Tasman Sea. The climate is tempered by the surrounding oceans.
The wine industry, for all intents and purposes, began again in the late 1970s, when exports of the amazing Sauvignon Blancs produced in the region of Marlborough on the South Island began. By 1985, New Zealand had made its mark as a world-class producer of the varietal. Tom Stevenson, the noted British wine writer has even said “New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc now surpasses anything the French could possibly produce.”
The production of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and increasingly, Cabernet-Merlot blends, has grown to the point where the top wines of New Zealand must be included in the discussion of world-class wines from these varietals.
The climate is maritime due to the country's two long and narrow main islands that are at no point more than 80 miles from the sea. The majority of vineyards are planted in cool coastal areas, ideal for the production of fine wine, with sunlight providing warmth during the day and sea breezes cooling the vineyards at night.
The North Island has a climate somewhat similar to Bordeaux in temperature, although with higher rainfall. The Auckland area has the highest of all, and the humidity
can be heavy – it is, for all intents and purposes, a rainforest. Rainfall levels get lower to the south. The amount of water and the high humidity can lead to problems with wet weather diseases such as grey rot and downy mildew. The South Island is cooler, sunnier and drier. The regions of Marlborough and Nelson get the most sunshine, with 2,448 hours during the growing season.
Soil and Aspect
Fertile clay and loam are found in all areas, with outcroppings of gravel or sandy soils, particularly on the south island. Around Hawkes Bay and Canterbury volcanic subsoils exist. Most vineyards are planted on gently sloping land, with northern exposure insuring maximum hours of sunlight.
Viticulture and Winemaking
The combination of Old and New World techniques has led to the exciting state of winemaking in this country–with one foot in the traditions of the past and one foot in the future, namely, the influence of new age Australian methods. Vineyard management is at the forefront, with Dr. Richard Smart (the government viticulturalist between 1982 and 1990) being a huge influence on viticultural techniques and experimental trellising systems. The aim is to allow for a greater fruiting area, less canopy shading, and resistance to mildew and rot. Vines are generally trained on the Scott Henry (spur and cane), Vertical Shoot Positioning (spur and cane), and Sylvos systems. These methods also tend to match soils and mesoclimates better. Most vines are planted on grafted rootstocks.
In 2001, a small number of winemakers adopted the screw cap as a closure instead of traditional cork. They created an organization called The Screwcap Initiative to assist members with any technical aspects of application and to promote the new seal to an often skeptical market locally and in export markets. Ten years later, more than nearly all New Zealand wine bottles are sealed with a screw cap.
The wine industry has a well established reputation both nationally and internationally for its long-term commitment to sustainable management practices. In 2007 New Zealand Winegrowers issued a policy with a bold industry-wide goal to have 100% of industry members operating under approved independently audited sustainability programs by 2012. The policy recognizes participation in SWNZ, and other environmental based programs including certified organic and biodynamic production and ISO 14001.
The North Island
This is where the industry began. 70% of the country’s population lives here, and until 1973, this island was the dominant force in the trade.
Auckland CO (sub-regions Greater Auckland, Kumeu-Huapai, Henderson, Waiheke Island, Northland, Matakana, Cleveden): Auckland is the traditional heart of the wine trade in New Zealand, and the region was planted to vineyards a full decade before the South Island. The fertile soils range from sandy loam to clay loam, all with a clay base. Although its vineyards produce relatively small amounts of wine, it remains a dominant force in the wine trade, as a number of big companies bottle large amounts of wine (90% of the country’s total production) from fruit sourced all over the country here. The Kumeu-Huapai area produces high-quality whites and some Pinot Noirs in good vintages. Worth noting is beautiful Waiheke Island, located in the Hauraki Bay 11 miles off the coast of Auckland. With hot, dry summers and stony soils, Waiheke is home to roughly 30 boutique wineries that produce unique, high quality wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and a recent move into Syrah and Chardonnay. There are vineyards, wineries and olive groves spread throughout the island. Such icon wines as Stonyridge’s Larose have put the region on the map, and newer producers such as Man O’ War continue to bring acclaim to the region.
Gisborne: is located on Poverty Bay on the sunny East Coast of the North Island and is the first city in the world to see the sun each day. The Maori name for the district is Tairawhiti, which means “The coast upon which the sun shines across the water.” Kaiti Beach, near the city, was the first European landing place in New Zealand.
Gisborne has become known in the past 10 years as the “Chardonnay Capital of New Zealand.” Much of the credit for the region’s recent quality reputation must go its high, hot sunshine hours and clay loam soils. These help produce wines with nuances of melon, peach, grapefruit and passion fruit. The clay soils of the Ormond Valley and Golden Slope sub-regions produce the richest Chardonnay wines. More vigorous sites are better suited to sparkling wines, while silts make a more delicate style of Chardonnay. Gisborne wines have body and finesse, a firm structure on which to age, and a delicate floral expression to the aroma.
Aromatic varietals like Gewürztraminer are also being grown with a good degree of success, and have generated some buzz for their quality and character.
Hawkes Bay: is New Zealand’s leading producer of red wines and the second largest wine region in the country. Complex soil patterns and mesoclimates make it difficult to generalize about the wines of such a diverse region, particularly when they are made by such an eclectic group of winemakers.
Hawkes Bay is one of the hottest and sunniest areas of New Zealand. Hawkes Bay’s warm maritime climate provides a long growing season, low rainfall, and high sunshine hours.
Over thousands of years, 4 major Hawkes Bay rivers moved and formed valleys and terraces to create over 25 different soil types from clay loam, to limestone to sands and free draining gravels and red metal.
The potential for excellent Bordeaux varietal red wine lies here, and the Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc (which has a nectarine/stone fruit character) can rival Gisborne’s for the former and Marlborough’s for the latter. Of note is a small area formed by a group of grower/producers known as Gimblett Gravels. It is a 800 ha (1,976 acre) area near the town of Flaxmere, made up of deep gravel beds that are left over from several thousands of years of the changing course of the lower Ngaruroro River. These warm, free-draining soils are perfect for red winegrowing and the appellation now produces some of the finest Cabernet/Merlot and Syrah wines in the country.
Wairarapa: roughly an hour north east of Wellington and with its eastern boundary the Pacific Ocean, Wairarapa was first known for its outstanding farmland. This was and largely remains sheep country. The name of the region comes from Lake Wairarapa, located in the southwestern part of the region.
With 3% of the nation’s planted vineyard area, this area is home to three fine wine sub-regions, linked by the Ruamahanga River which flows from the Tararua Mountains to Palliser Bay. The three sub-regions (Martinborough, Gladstone, Masterton) share similar soils and a geology based on river gravels cast over thousands of years, and a broadly similar climate.
By far the most well-known sub-region is Martinborough, an area with deep (up to 15 meters) well-drained gravelly soils and the driest mesoclimate on the North Island. Average yields are well under 2 tons an acre and all wineries here are considered small (annual production of under 22,000 cases). Martinborough producers’ nearly fanatical quest for high quality and the resulting superbly stylish wines have deservedly achieved world-class status. The region has a number of top quality Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs, and clearly, exceptional Pinot Noirs. Styles range from big, seductive super-concentrated wines to lighter, more feminine, quasi-Burgundian interpretations.
Martinborough was the first wine district in New Zealand to prepare its appellation under New Zealand‘s Geographical Indications Registration Act 2006. The GI protects the use of the name Martinborough by restricting its use to wines produced from grapes grown within the legally defined area, which are identified by a combination of physical points (including the Ruamahanga River to the west and Haurangi State Forest Park to the south) and territorial points between local authorities. A concession was made by a number of producers in the so-called “Martinborough Terrace” area (which is only 1km long and 5km wide) to drop their application for a separate sub region so that the larger regional application would be approved. Note that a few producers (Martinborough Vineyards key among them) use the term Martinborough Terrace as a brand labeling term.
The South Island
Much lower in population than the north island.
Marlborough: the most famous of the country’s winegrowing regions. Today there are 19,295 ha planted, triple the plantings of 2003 (6,831 ha).
Two-thirds of the vines are concentrated in the relatively flat flood plain of the Wairau Valley, with cultivation also spreading into the Awatere Valley. The Wairau Valley is flanked on three sides by the Southern Alps, and these towering mountains act as a suntrap for the region. At this latitude, however, sunshine does not necessarily equal heat, in fact, average daily temperatures during summer rarely exceed 75° F. Compensating for this is the soil, which is formed by the shifting course of the Wairau River. Made up of large pebbles, rocks, silt and gravel, it reflects sunlight during the day, and absorbs heat which is radiated at night, helping to keep the vines warm and frost at bay. The lack of water requires some degree of drip irrigation, although some producers with shallow, free draining soils force their vine roots to dig deep in search of moisture, thereby reducing vigor. This is the key to quality in Marlborough; indeed, many of New Zealand’s best wines are made from grapes that are grown in winery-owned vineyards where the winemaker assumes total responsibility for wine quality.
The sunny yet cool climate and shallow, free-draining gravelly soils make this a perfect region for the cultivation of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, with many pundits feeling that the latter varietal achieves its greatest expression in the world here. It is certain that no other growing region in the world can conjure up such an amazing array of concentrated, vivacious aromas and flavors – pure grapefruit, gooseberry, freshly-mowed grass, tropical fruit, and that famously pungent but somehow compelling capsicum/herbaceous “cat’s pee”– all wrapped up in a suit of sharp lime zest acidity. In the past few years Pinot Noir has also made inroads, with some excellent examples now on the market. The best come from warmer years when the ripeness reaches full potential.
The oldest and most established appellation of Marlborough is the Rapaura District, the so-called “Golden Triangle.” Within this triangle are some of the top vineyards of the region, and the wineries that took high quality Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc to the world. The old riverbed gravels of the Wairau have proven to be excellent for top-quality grapegrowing. These warm, free draining soils, made up of riverstones and silty river deposits, make the ideal base for a world-class terroir.
Nelson: the country’s eighth largest wine region, Nelson is located on the western side of Mount Richmond, a two hour drive from Marlborough. Mountains to the west provide a rain shadow effect while the coastline helps to moderate temperature extremes. The region is made up of a series of low, rolling hills, and is more agriculturally diverse than Marlborough, with apple and stone fruit orchards sharing the landscape with olive trees and vineyards. All of the wineries here are boutique, small production artisans, in keeping with the regions reputation as an artists’ colony.
The stony, well-drained soil, warm summers, days of long sunshine and cool nights make this a perfect area for fine wine production. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Riesling all offer very good to excellent potential.
Canterbury: this promising area is centered around the city of Christchurch, with vineyards surrounding the town and in the sub-region Waipara, to the north. The rainfall here is even lower than that of Marlborough, and the autumn is cooler. Soils have moderate but sufficient fertility whether on flat plains or gently rolling country. It is rapidly gaining a reputation for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Riesling.
Central Otago: the most southerly wine region in the world with a continental rather than maritime climate. Vineyards are carefully selected to maximize warmth. The summer days are very long, with dry autumnal conditions and the lowest rainfall and humidity in New Zealand. The nights can be very cold. The hot days provide good ripeness and the nights help retain the acidity in the grapes, resulting in intensely flavored wines with bright fruit. Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc are all good, with Pinot Noir (making up 75% of plantings) shining as the real star. The best are silky, intense, and voluptuous. Gibbston, the original area of plantings, was established in the early 1980s. Today, Bannockburn is widely regarded as the highest quality district, with Earnscleugh, Cromwell/Bendigo, and Alexandra all showing great promise. Waitaki, in North Otago, is on limestone and is rapidly being developed.
Category: Peter's Wine Articles
Emerging Wine Regions: CHILE
Vineyards were planted in the Central Valley around Santiago as far back as 1554, and by the 18th century Chile was known for the quantity of wine it produced, to the dismay of many Spanish wine producers. Because of the fear of competition, Spain restricted the production of wine in Chile, making it available only for Mission use. The succession from the Spanish Empire saw the establishment of a true local wine industry, in the decade from 1820-1830. At the end of that decade, a Frenchman named Claudio Gay persuaded the Chilean government to set up an experimental nursery, and imported high-quality vinifera cuttings that were safely ensconced in isolation before the onset of the twin scourges of powdery mildew and phylloxera in Europe. As nearly every other vine-growing country was ravaged, the Chilean wine industry flourished until the European vineyards were re-established.
The volatile nature of the political and economic situation of the country in the latter part of the 20th Century impeded the progress of the wine industry, until the return of democracy and free trade policies in the late 1980s. Between 1987 and 1993, more than 25,000 acres of vineyard land were planted, investment was made in new technology, and the focus of the wine industry went from quantity for the domestic market to quality for the export markets. Today, more than 75% of Chilean wine is now sent overseas, the highest national export level in the world.
Chile is often referred to as a “Winemakers Paradise” due to its abundant sunshine, cool nights, and ample irrigation. It is a narrow country with over 3,000 miles of coastline to the west and the 23,000 foot high peaks of the Andes mountain range to the east. The northern part of the country is arid desert and the southern part is wet and cold, due to its proximity to Antarctica. These four factors have effectively isolated the country, keeping it free of vineyard pests and scourges. The hotter northern growing regions produce mostly table grapes and the base for the national grape spirit, Pisco. Most of the high quality vineyards are located between 32 and 38 degrees latitude, in the area around the capital of Santiago known as the Central Valley, a high plateau that is crisscrossed by rivers fed from the snow melt of the Andes, making irrigation cheap and easy. The climate here is mitigated by the Pacific Ocean, and is generally Mediterranean, with no frosts, warm, sunny weather, and little rainfall. The nearby coastal hills, in the Secano region, are home to the Casablanca district, which is considered to have the greatest potential for fine wine production. The cooling influence of the ocean breezes and enough rainfall to grow vines without the need for irrigation, helps to keep yields at a reasonable level.
Vines are grown on a wide variety of soils here, with the majority planted on flat, fertile land that is easy to irrigate, so the root systems are somewhat shallow. The best sections of the higher-quality districts have a deeper limestone subsoil. Recently, quality-conscious producers have been establishing vineyards in the eastern foothills of the Andes, on sloping, gravelly soils.
As for white grape varietals, Sauvignon Blanc now leads planting with 8,862 ha. Chardonnay is a close second (8,733 ha), with Moscatel of Alexandria next (6,035 ha).
The quality reds are produced mainly from Cabernet Sauvignon (40,766 ha), Merlot (13,283 ha), and Carmenère (7,284 ha). Syrah is increasingly planted (3,513 ha), as is Pinot Noir in the cooler climate regions (1,413 ha). As producers continue in their quest for quality, employing such practices as lowering yields and using new oak to mature the wines in barrel, wines of power and aging are appearing. The future looks bright for a continued renaissance of fruity, lush Bordeaux and Northern Rhone styled reds that combine the best qualities of the Old and New Worlds.
THE APPELLATIONS OF CHILE
These are listed in geographical order beginning in the northern part of the region.
Note: Wine legislation is in terms of age. A Special wine must be 2 years old, Reserve 4 years, and Grand Vino 6 years.
Atacama Viticultural Region:
This region; made up of coastal hills that join the Andes; is primarily dedicated to fruit, vegetable, and flower production. The region is an arid desert, with very little rainfall, and viticulture would be impossible without irrigation. Until recently, most of the vines grown here produced table grapes. Recently, the region has pioneered the planting of Syrah in Chile and currently has large extensions of land dedicated to organic and biodynamic agriculture.
Coquimbo Viticultural Region:
Like the Atacama region, this area consists of coastal hills that join the Andes, and is made up of desert-like land. There are three small valleys that comprise sub-regions. The most important of these is the Limari Valley. Despite its northerly latitude, this region is cooler than the Central Valley to the south, due to its proximity to the Pacific. The cooling breezes throughout the day provide for a long growing season. Both white and red grapes do well here.
Aconcagua Viticultural Region:
This region has three wine districts: the Aconcagua Valley, the Casablanca Valley, and the San Antonio Valley.
The Aconcagua Valley is a beautiful region that begins at the foot of the Andes and follows the Aconcagua River to the coast. The warm, sunny climate is perfect for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which dominate plantings. Shiraz is also being experimented with.
The cooler Casablanca Valley, located on the western side of the coastal range, is an internationally recognized wine growing region of Chile. This long, coastal valley runs from east to west, and is cooled by the Pacific Ocean breezes. It has made its reputation for white grapes, particularly for the quality of its Chardonnay and, more importantly, Sauvignon Blanc. There are two reasons for this: firstly the naturally cooler conditions, which are conducive to development of the complex aromatics of this grape; secondly, the Sauvignon plantings are indeed 100% Sauvignon Blanc rather than the traditional, lesser quality Sauvignonasse. The prevalence of up-to-date winemaking techniques adds to the quality picture. The future also looks bright for cool climate red grapes such as Pinot Noir.
South of Casablanca towards the coast is the tiny region of San Antonio Valley, located in the coastal range and just a few miles inland. It is an arid, sandy landscape, dotted with cacti and eucalyptus trees. The region is divided into two valleys, of which the most important is the Leyda Valley. Vines were planted here in 1998, and the focus is on Pinot Noir. The potential for quality is high.
Central Valley Viticultural Region:
This is the oldest, most central and most traditional region of Chile. There are four wine districts.
The Maipo Valley covers the area immediately around Santiago, and is the country’s most planted area and it's most well-known, particularly for the quality of its Cabernet Sauvignon. There are a number of mesoclimates, and vineyards are planted at varying altitudes and on a variety of complex soils.
Winemakers unofficially divide the valley into three distinct sectors: Alto Maipo, closest to the Andes; Central Maipo, along the valley floor; and Pacific Maipo in the sector closest to the Pacific Ocean. All three enjoy a winemaker’s ideal Mediterranean climate with hot, dry summers and cool rainy winters, but vary with respect to the degree of influence received by the mountains or the sea. At more than 2,133 feet above sea level, the Alto Maipo sector (sometimes referred to as the Andean or Upper Maipo) rises ever higher into the foothills southeast of Santiago and is strongly influenced by the mountains. Vast differences between daytime and nighttime temperatures encourage complex, richly colored wines and firmly structured tannins that give rise to a number of Chile’s ultra-premium wines. To the south and southeast of Santiago, Central (or Middle) Maipo ranges from 1,800–2,139 feet above sea level, while the easternmost Pacific (or Lower) Maipo sector nearest the coast comprises areas below 1,800 feet. These areas tend to have warmer temperatures and more fertile soils, giving rise to softer, fruitier wines. Many winemakers blend wines from different Maipo vineyards to take advantage of the diverse qualities available in the three distinct areas.
The Rapel Valley is the largest region in the country. It is made up of the Cachapoal Valley to the north and the larger Colchagua Valley to the south and west.
The Cachapoal Valley takes its name from the river running through it. It is narrower and cooler, and has been long known for the high quality of its Merlot and Carmenère, although Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted varietal. The majority of the wineries are located in the cool eastern sector between the Pan-American Highway and the Andes Mountains around Requingua and Rengo. On the opposite side of the highway and approaching the Coastal Mountains, the western sector around Peumo receives just enough cool maritime influence to create a warm, but not hot climate, ideal for the area’s distinctive, full-bodied, fruit-forward Carmenère.
Colchagua Valley is the larger and southernmost of the Rapel Valley’s two sub-appellations. In little more than ten years, the valley transformed itself from a sleepy, fertile farming area to a leading producer of some of Chile’s finest red wines, and many long-time grape growers have established their own wineries and now offer wines under their own labels. Particularly worth watching are the expressive, full-bodied Cabernet, Carménère, Syrah, and Malbec. Vineyards now climb increasingly higher up the steep hillsides in search of the best possible balance between vine and the elements. Some notable examples of this are Apalta and Ninquén, which produce premium and super-premium wines that are by now well-recognized. Colchagua lies closer to the low and rolling Coastal Range than to the higher Andes and benefits from the cooling breezes that blow in directly from the sea, effectively extending the growing season for a long, slow ripening period. In fact, temperatures vary widely on any given summer day, which further contributes to the expressive, fruity, well-balanced character of the wines crafted here. The heart of the valley’s wine-growing area consists of San Fernando, Nancagua, Santa Cruz, Palmilla, and Peralillo, but enterprising efforts are pushing toward the sea and into the Marchihüe and Lolol areas. Other innovations include a growing shift toward organic and even biodynamic viticulture.
The Curicó Valley is Chile’s second largest wine producing valley. Only its southern neighbor Maule has more area planted to vine. Numerous factors, such as the Mediterranean climate, a 5-month summer dry season with an average temperature of 68°F and a maximum of 86°F, sufficient rainfall, and well-drained alluvial soils make this valley viticulturally attractive. This relatively large valley is sub-divided into the Teno River Valley to the north, and the Lontué River Valley to the south. Most of the area’s winegrowing and winemaking activity is concentrated in Lontue, primarily near the town of Molina.
The Maule Valley is Chile’s largest producing valley, with 43% of the country’s total planted area concentrated here. Once predominately planted to the rustic variety País, many of the older, head-trained vines have now given way to vertically-positioned Cabernet Sauvignon, while Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Carmenère follow close behind. This is one of Chile’s most geographically diverse valleys, and it can be divided into the Pacific, Inter-Andes-Pacific, and Andes regions. The climate is Mediterranean sub-humid throughout, with variations in the different sectors. The Pacific section, closest to the Coastal Mountain range, has higher temperatures and lower rainfall, while the opposite is true when moving toward the Andean hills with average annual rainfalls of up to 39 inches. The broad range of soil types lend a diversity of flavors and styles being developed in the Maule. One area to keep an eye on is the coastal town of Constitución, a site which is said to mirror the soil and climatic conditions found in Spain’s high-quality Priorat region.
Southern Viticultural Region:
This is the most southerly and the largest wine region in Chile. It is cooler, wetter and the average sunshine hours are lower than Chile’s other regions. The Pais grape makes up two-thirds of the plantings. There are three wine districts: the Itata Valley, the Bío Bío Valley, and the Malleco Valley.
The Itata Valley has some old vineyards that were planted near the port city of Concepción during colonial times. The Spanish black grape País still predominates in the area, although Cabernet Sauvignon leads the selection of French varieties. Muscat of Alexandría is the front-runner in white grape production, but Chardonnay is gaining ground.
The Bío Bío Valley has an average rainfall similar to that of the Medoc (more than 51 inches per year), a deep and generous subterranean water table, and cool evening mists that creep down the Andean foothills. Fruit ripens slowly this far south, and the harvest begins a full 20 to 25 days after the harvests in more northerly valleys have reached full swing. Rain and cold weather make winegrowing here more complicated than in other areas. Enterprising winemakers have initiated a transition toward varieties less suited to the warm conditions in Chile’s more northerly climates. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, and Riesling express themselves very well here with higher acidities closer to those found in Old World bottlings.
Malleco is currently Chile’s southernmost appellation, although experimental vineyards have been planted much further south in Osorno. The conditions are cold and very rainy this far south. Chardonnay does quite well, but most varieties do not reach maturity here. Wine grapes are grown under similar conditions in other countries, such as France, but the vinification process requires chaptalization, which is illegal in Chile.
Chile is home to an incredibly diverse range of mesoclimates and soil types. As today’s producers keep pushing the level of quality higher and higher, we are beginning to recognize distinct styles and even the glimmerings of terroir in the wines from this country. The next ten years will be interesting indeed as emerging regions and their vineyards and wineries show us what they are truly capable of.
For administrative purposes, Beaujolais is included as a part of greater Burgundy, but is quite different than that region, in terms of soil, climate, topography and grape varieties.
In a typical vintage, Beaujolais produces two-and-a-half times more wine than all of the rest of Burgundy put together—red and white combined! Located in the Rhone department, this region is sunny, with hills facing in all directions. The vines grow between 500-2,000 feet, on two different types of soils: in the north, home of the Crus, as well as the Beaujolais-Villages AOC, the soil is granite-based, making it the best area in the world for the cultivation of Gamay. The southern section is limestone-based, a problem for the grape, which accordingly produces much lighter wine.
The primary grape of Beaujolais is the Gamay Noir a Jus Blanc, or Gamay. It is typically vinified using the method known as maceration carbonique, or carbonic maceration. This is a vinification method where whole berry clusters are fermented inside a closed tank, where the trapped CO2 begins to cause the grapes to ferment from the inside out. There is little time for the skins to impart tannins into the wine, and as a result, the wines are generally light and fruity with a tell-tale banana-bubble gum aroma. Over half the production of wine here is sold just a few weeks after the harvest under the name Beaujolais Nouveau, a clever marketing ploy if there ever was one. The most serious wines are from the 10 Crus, villages which are allowed to put their name only on the label. Oftentimes, the term Beaujolais won’t be found anywhere on a bottle of, say, Morgon. These are the best examples of Gamay in the world, with some of the Crus capable of aging, and, after 7-10 years in the bottle, begin to show characteristics remarkably similar to those of a mature Pinot Noir from the Cote d'Or.
As of June 2010, new rules resolving long-disputed Burgundy and Beaujolais appellation issues have at last been released. Under the new rules white Beaujolais may no longer be labelled AOC white Burgundy. This is one of the most contentious of the issues to be addressed; the ruling closes a loophole that some Burgundians say has been open more than 70 years. Likewise, Beaujolais wines that meet varietal percentage criteria will be allowed to state the main grape on the label. A new appellation, Côteaux Bourguignons, will replace Bourgogne Grand Ordinaire and may be applied to any red Beaujolais.
The appellations of Beaujolais, in ascending order of importance and quality are:
Roughly one-half of all wine from this region is sold under this AOC, and more than half of it is sold as Nouveau. Most of the grapes come from the southern half of the region, the Bas Beaujolais. The wine may be sold as Beaujolais Superieur if the minimum potential alcohol at harvest is 10.5% rather than 10%.
Thirty-eight villages in the northern part of the region may append their name to the Beaujolais AOC if the grapes are all from that village. Usually, however, the wine is a blend of two or more villages and is sold under the Beaujolais-Villages AOC. These are good examples of the Gamay grape, with good color and a rich flavor that, while still exuberantly fruity, has more depth and complexity than simple Beaujolais.
The Beaujolais Crus:
These are ten named communes in the northern part of the region whose wines are so distinctive and of such high quality that they have earned their own appellations. They all share the granite-schist soil that, along with the hilly terrain, is the perfect growing environment for Gamay. They are, in alphabetical order: Brouilly, the most southerly of the Crus–full, fruity, and rich, with a pronounced earthiness; Chenas, the smallest cru, from chene, French for the oak trees that are interspersed with the vines- full, generous, with dark fruit; Chiroubles, high in the hills- the most fragrant of the Crus; Cote de Brouilly, situated in the higher slopes above Brouilly, with vivid fruit and none of the earthy elements of its neighbor; Fleurie, classic Beaujolais, with a fragrant, fresh red fruit, floral style; Julienas, in the hills above St.Amour–spicy, rich, with red/black fruit that ages well; Morgon, along with Moulin-a-Vent, one of the biggest in style and sheer power– with chunky black fruit and firm structure; Moulin-a-Vent, the “King of Beaujolais,” known for its power and longevity–with spicy, tannic fruit that turns soft and round with age; Regnie, the most recent Cru, upgraded in 1988–fruity, with good fat fruit and a fragrant aroma; and St.-Amour, the most northerly Cru, with charming, fragrant wines that possess a soft, fruity flavor.
A Look at Southern Italy - The Puglia Region
The south of what is now Italy was celebrated in antiquity as the greatest winegrowing region on earth. The wines from here were extolled in Virgil’s Georgics, and in poems by Horace, Pliny the Elder, and Columella, among others.
Flash forward to the 20th Century, where the ease of growing grapes and the resultant high yields led to a decline, in terms of quality, in the region. The area lagged far behind the rest of Italy, with its archaic methods of production, abundance of high-output co-ops, and the tendency to sell wine in bulk. The situation was not helped by a government that encouraged the planting of high-yielding varietals and handed out subsidies like meal tickets. But quality lurked just beneath the surface. It is no secret that truckloads of dark, high alcohol wine were sent north in the wee hours of the morning to boost the blends of cuvees that lacked substance. There must have been something to the wines for such wholesale blending to take place. All it took was for some forward thinking producers to turn a mirror on the region and do whatever it took to take their wines to another level. That is exactly what happened in the late 1970s, and thirty years later the revolution has touched many parts of the southern peninsula. Still, there continues to be much room for improvement, and a new generation has taken the reigns and is continuing to steer the region in the direction of quality.
This has been especially evident in Puglia (or the English Apulia), Italy’s “heel of the boot”. The exceptionally fertile plains and their easy-to-work vineyards make high yields easy to attain and for years the region produced nothing but darkly-colored, highly alcoholic wines destined for making Vermouth or for blending. Beginning in the 1980s, however, reacting to the diminishing demand for blending wine, a number of producers began making a swing towards quality that has resulted in international recognition for a number of DOCs in the region.
Named after the Apuli, an Oscan tribe among the many early peoples who settled in this hospitable area, Apulia’s undulating plains have been a host for vines and olive trees since the time of the Phoenicians and the Greeks. Even after the fall of the Roman Empire, the area remained one of the few thriving wine regions. Even though the region was occupied in the ensuing years by any number of conquering tribes, it remained a constant and bountiful source of wine and olive oil.
Today, the biggest obstacle in the way of fine wine production remains high yields. It remains to be seen if growers will take the measures necessary to reduce yields to a reasonable level, and continue the strides being taken by a relative handful of quality-minded producers, who are using a combination of old-vine sources and modern day winemaking to craft truly excellent wines that are rank among the greatest values in the wine world.
Apulia has the largest array of vine varieties in the south, with local grapes bolstered by a host of imports, including Cabernet, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, the Pinots, and Primitivo (Zinfandel). Red grape plantings outnumber whites by 4 to 1, although white plantings are increasing.
Bianco d’Alessano (Bee-ahn-ko D’ahl-ess-ah-no) an ancient vine, found mostly in the Itria valley. Usually blended with Verdeca to make golden-hued whites.
Bombino Bianco/Nero (Bom-bee-no Bee-ahn-ko) once the dominant white varietal of the region, has lost ground to the more productive Trebbiano Toscano. It produces soft, neutral whites. The red version of the grape ripens unevenly and therefore is most suited for Rosato production.
Malvasia Nera (Mal-vuh-zee-uh Nair-uh) clone of dark Malvasia that makes up part of the blend of the Salento peninsula’s many red wines. Usually blended with Negroamaro.
Negroamaro (Nay-gro-ah-mar-oh) black and bitter, literally. The main variety of the Salento peninsula, producing generous yields on the hot plains. Usually blended, when treated correctly (low yields from bush vines) it can produce excellent reds and rosés on its own.
Primitivo (Pree-mee-tee-vo) Apulia’s second most planted variety, this early-ripener produces robust, aromatic reds as well as sweet wines. It is identical to the Zinfandel of California, although how it got to both regions are still in dispute. It traces its origin to a native wild vine called Crljenik Kasteljanski (pronounced "kurlyenik kastelyansky") that grows on the Adriatic coast in Croatia in the former Yugoslavia. (Another Croatian red grape that had been tentatively identified as the parent of Zinfandel - Plavac Mali - proved to be a cousin instead.)
Uva di Troia (Ooh-vuh Dee Troy-uh) the name of this red varietal refers to Troy in Asia Minor, from which it was brought by the ancient Greeks. One of the better varietals of Southern Italy, it is the base for several DOCs, notably Castel del Monte Rosso.
Verdeca (Vair-dek-uh) Apulia’s most popular white variety, used for years as a base for Vermouth. The dry wines produced from it have a somewhat neutral aroma and flavor.
In addition to above named varieties, the following are cultivated:
Aglianico, Cabernet, Malbec, Merlot, Montepulciano, Piedirosso, Pinot Nero, Chardonnay, Greco, Moscato Bianco, Pinot Bianco, Sauvignon, Semillon, Trebbiano, Vermentino.
Other varieties are mentioned in the DOCs covered below.
Main Wine Zones
The region can be divided by a hypothetical line drawn from Brindisi on the Adriatic Sea to the port of Taranto, on the Ionian Sea to the west. To the south of this line lies the Salento Peninsula.
The Salento Peninsula: this is a region of undulating plains, with fertile soil and a hot climate that for centuries has produced dark, alcoholic blending wines based on the native red varietals Negroamaro, Malvasia Nera and Primitivo. Modern winemaking techniques have tempered the rusticity somewhat and the area is certainly capable of producing excellent wines, especially Salice Salentino and Brindisi Rosso. The Rosato wines from here show a depth of character not usually found in blush wines, and should be sought out.
Northern Apulia: this region sees more fluctuation in climate and geography. The weather is typically very warm to hot on the coast near the regional capital of Bari. As you move towards the interior to the west, the climate becomes progressively cooler. White wines from here are showing promise, particularly from the newly introduced Pinot Bianco, Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
ALEATICO di PUGLIA DOC: ancient, ruby-colored dessert wine from the Aleatico grape, made in both dolce natural (15% abv) and fortified liquoroso (18.5% abv) styles.
BRINDISI DOC: Rosso and Rosato from at least 70% Negroamaro, grown inland from the port of Brindisi. The reds can age for 5-10 years, and can develop a smooth and elegant side to balance the inherent power of the wine.
CASTEL del MONTE DOC: one Apulia’s best known zones, named after the eight-sided castle built in the 13th century by the Emperor Friedrich von Hohenstaufen. It is located in the arid interior of the northern region, with rocky hills so sparse that only certain parcels of land have enough topsoil to support the vines. The excellent Classico Rosso wines are from Montepulciano and Uva di Troia, with Aglianico also allowed. There are also a number of varietally named wines. The great producer here is Rivera, whose Il Falcone Riserva is one of the classic wines of Apulia.
COPERTINO DOC: Rosso and Rosato from mostly Negroamaro, grown around the village of Copertino in the Salento peninsula. The Rosso can be very good, and shows depth and harmony after 5-8 years. The Cantina Sociale di Copertino is the leading producer.
GRAVINA DOC: southeast of Bari, near the border of Basilicata, lies this DOC that produces some of Apulia’s top whites, from Malvasia, Greco di Tufo, and Bianco d’Alessano. Dry, semi-sweet, and sparkling versions are allowed.
LEVERANO DOC: on the Salento Peninsula, just south of Salice Salentino, this DOC produces Rosso and Rosato from Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera, and whites from Malvasia Bianca and Bombino Bianco. Two dessert wines are also allowed: Bianco Passito and Bianco Vendemnia Tardiva.
LOCOROTONDO DOC: from an arid area just north of the dividing line with the south, noted for its trulli (ancient cone-shaped houses of white stone). Verdeca and Bianco d’Alessano grapes produce a fruity, dry white wine that rates with Apulia’s best. The local co-op, the Cantina Sociale Cooperativa, makes a top example.
PRIMITIVO di MANDURIA DOC: for years the blending wine of Apulia, Primitivo here bears little resemblance to its New World relative, Zinfandel. The heaviness is beginning to be tamed somewhat, and the better Primitivos show some of the grapey exuberance that makes Zinfandels from California so popular. Dolce Naturale and Liquoroso versions are produced as well.
SALICE SALENTINO DOC: from the zone around the town of the same name, the best-known of Salento’s DOCs produces 5 types of wine: a generic Bianco based on Chardonnay, a varietally named Pinot Bianco; a Rosato and the now world-renowned value Rosso from Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera; and a sweet red Aleatico. Cantele is an up and coming star of this region.
The Wines of Germany
Recent years have seen a real surge in interest in German wines, and Riesling sales, in particular, are increasing significantly here in America. I thought that an overview of the key varietals and regions of this important wine producing country would be illuminating.
There are nearly 40 grape varieties permitted to be used in Germany. White grapes account for over 80% of total plantings. The most important varietals are: Riesling, Muller-Thurgau, Silvaner, Rulander (Pinot Gris), Scheurebe, and Kerner. The black varietals planted include Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir), Blauer Portugieser, Dornfelder, and Trollinger.
Germany has a unique combination of vineyards planted on very steep hillsides, resulting in naturally low yields, and on flat, fertile plains, with among the highest yields in the world. Until recently, German growers have resisted the concept that lower maximum yields should form an essential part of their wine law in an effort to improve quality. That being said, vines are generally virus-free and are planted on excellent rootstocks and are very healthy, producing good quality fruit overall. The best vineyards produce fruit that is capable of making world class wines.
Different cultivation methods are used, depending on the topography of the vineyards. The best and longest established sites are located near rivers and often on slopes of varying steepness, to take advantage of the mitigation effect of flowing water on macroclimate, reflection of the sun’s rays, and aspect of the slope towards the sun. Most of these vineyards produce wines that fall into the late-harvest categories of the QmP. The vineyards are worked manually on these steep slopes, and the vines are usually planted individually on single stakes, at a distance from each other of 1.3 meters. On the plains and flatter river valleys, vines are trained along wires and are typically planted 3 meters apart to facilitate machine harvesting. The emphasis here is on maximum yields and the production of light, easy-drinking wines.
Because of the low natural sugars in German wines, must-enrichment, Anreicherung, is widely used up to and including the QbA level–it is not allowed in QmP wines. The wines also tend to have high natural acidity, and this can be alleviated in one of two ways. The first method is de-acidification using calcium carbonate or a similar product. The second is by the addition of Sussreserve, unfermented grape juice, which sweetens the wine. This is permitted even with QmP wines. The grape juice must be of the same quality as the wine to which it is being added, and ideally, from the same grape and site.
Must-enrichment and the use of Sussreserve should not be confused. Must is enriched here, as in Burgundy for example (Chaptalization), to increase alcoholic strength, while Sussreserve is used to balance natural acidity by sweetening the wine.
THE QUALITY WINE REGIONS OF GERMANY
There are now 13 Anbaugebiete in Germany, including the 2 in East Germany that were absorbed at reunification. They vary considerably in size, style, and commercial significance. Some are not available in America at this time.
AHR: a small region on the river Ahr, best known for red wines, which account for 60% of production. Spatburgunder and Portugeiser produce light, fruity wines.
MITTELRHEIN: this area follows the northeastern bank of the Rhine River from Koblenz to the north of Linz, where the Ahr meets the Rhine. The vineyards are amazingly steep, on slate soils, and Riesling accounts for over 75% of plantings. Fresh, crisp wines are made, and a good deal of sparkling wine (Sekt).
MOSEL-SAAR-RUWER (MOSEL): this region is made up of the valley of the Mosel River from Koblenz at the north, where it meets the Rhine, to the border of Luxembourg to the south. It includes the tributaries of the Saar and the Ruwer. The vineyards are located on very steep south and south-east facing slopes, whose mineral-rich, slatey soils reflect heat back onto the vines and provide great drainage. This is the perfect terroir for Riesling, which accounts for just over 50% of total plantings. Many of the vines are still planted on their original rootstocks–it seems that phylloxera does not like the red slate soils. Muller-Thurgau accounts for most of the plantings on the sand and gravel soils of the valley floor. The wines come in elongated green bottles, and are typically light and delicate, often with a hint of gas (spritzig). The best wines, from the villages that fall within the Bereich of Bernkastel, are stunning examples of minerally, elegant, intensely fragrant Rieslings. These villages are Piesport, Bernkastel, Graach, Wehlen, Zeltingen and Brauneberg. The best villages in the Bereich Saar-Ruwer are Maximin Grunhause and Eitelbach on the Ruwer, and Wiltingen and the Scharzhofberg on the Saar. Wines from here tend to show a steely acidity and robust character. NOTE: in 2008 the name of the Anbaugebiete was amended to simply Mosel.
NAHE: this region is situated along the river Nahe which joins the Rhine just east of Bingen. There are a variety of soil types. In the north the sandy loam soils are planted mostly to Muller Thurgau and Silvaner, which produce uncomplicated wines that are easy to drink. In the center and southern part of the region, particularly on the slopes around the towns of Bad Kreuznach and Schloss Bockelheim, the quartz and sandstone soils are planted to Riesling, which produces delicate wines of clarity and elegance. They are beginning to become better known.
RHEINGAU: a small, very high quality region on the south-facing slopes of the hillsides overlooking the Rhine as it flows due west from where it meets the river Main to Assmanshausen. The slopes are protected from the cold north winds by the Taunus Mountains, and the broad expanse of the Rhine reflects heat and light onto the vines, creating perfect conditions for the ripening of grapes. The region has a long history of producing quality wine–the term Hock, now meaning any Rhine wine, was coined by Queen Victoria in the 19th Century because she had a hard time pronouncing Hochheim, the original village that the wines came from. The main grape is Riesling, and it reaches world-class potential on these soils of slate, loess, loam and gravel. Here are many world-famous estates, including the single-vineyard Schloss Johannisberg and Schloss Vollrads, and villages, the best known being Johannisberg, Rudesheim, Rauenthal, Hattenheim, and Hochheim. The wines from the slopes are racy and elegant, from the valley they are fuller and richer. The best all show beautifully delineated peach-apricot fruit flavors. In the mid-1980s many of the top producers formed a group called the Charta Estates, to raise quality and promote the pairing of wine with food. This group was instrumental in growing the popularity of dry (trocken) and off-dry (halbtrocken) wines in Germany. The Riesling grape is the only varietal allowed for use by members of the Charta Estates, who are also the first group of growers to attempt to classify the vineyards of the region.
As the Rhine begins to turn north just past Rudesheim, the town of Assmanshausen appears. It stands out because, of all the villages of the Rheingau, it is planted to more red grapes than white. The principle varietal is Spatburgunder, with 60% of plantings, with Riesling making up the other 40%.
RHEINHESSEN: this is the largest winegrowing region in Germany, in terms of total area. It is located across from the Rheingau, on the south and west sides of the Rhine River. The area is made up of undulating farmland with sandy soils, and these are planted to mostly Muller-Thurgau and Silvaner, which account for two-thirds of the grapes grown here. At best the wines are soft and unassuming. The top wines are made from Riesling, grown on the red sand soils that stretch in the small area from Nackenheim to Oppenheim. Those two villages, plus Dienheim and Nierstein, are the names to know, and it from these villages that the original reputation of the region was based upon.
Rheinhessen is also the region where the now ubiquitous Liebfraumilch originated, from vineyards around a small church near Worms called Liebfrauenkirche (Church of Our Lady). It is now a blended, partly sweet wine that must come from one of these four regions: the Rheingau, Rheinhessen, Pfalz, or the Nahe. At least 85% of the blend must come from one of these, with the region stated on the label. The Rheinhessen and the Pfalz produce more than 90% of Liebfraumilch. The blend must contain at least 51% Riesling, Muller-Thurgau, Silvaner, or Kerner.
PFALZ: formerly known as the Rheinpfalz, and the largest producing region of Germany, the Pfalz stretches from the border of France (just north of Alsace) and sits on the western side of the Rhine. It is protected by the Haardt mountains, which are a continuation of the Vosges of Alsace. The soil is made up of weathered sandstone and limestone and the climate here gives hot summers and mild winters, which makes the region well-suited for winegrowing. The majority of plantings are to white grapes, with Muller-Thurgau the most planted, followed by Riesling, Silvaner, and Scheurebe. Red varietals are on the increase however, and some of Germany’s best red wines, from Spatburgunder and Dornfelder, come from here. Pfalz wines vary in quality but the best are great. They come from an area situated along the lower slopes of the Haardt called the Deutsche Weinstrasse (German wine route), including the villages of Wachenheim, Forst, Deidesheim, Bad Durkheim, and Ruppertsberg.
The wines from here have a rounder palate feel than those from more northern vineyards. They are more full-bodied, and have great structure and presence in the mouth.
HESSISCHE BERGSTRASSE: a very small region (until reunification the smallest) planted mostly to Riesling, with Muller-Thurgau making up the rest. Trocken and Halbtrocken styles are common. Little wine from here is exported.
FRANKEN: the vineyards here are situated along the river Main, east of Frankfurt. The steep, south-facing slopes are planted to Muller-Thurgau and Silvaner, the traditional grape of the area. Silvaner particularly, produce steely, firm wines. Long before the current trend in Germany towards dry wines, Franken was noted for its Frankisch Trocken, bottled in traditional flat-sided flasks called Bocksbeutels. The best wines are produced from vineyards around the village of Wurzburg, the center of the wine trade in Franken. There are two great vineyards–Stein and Leiste. Wine from the Wurzburger Stein vineyard is permitted to be called Steinwein.
WURTTEMBERG: most of the vineyards of this region lie north of Stuttgart in the Neckar river valley. Production is split equally between light, grapey reds from Trollinger and Mullerrebe (Pinot Meunier), and spicy whites, from Riesling and Muller-Thurgau. A local specialty is Schillerwein, a rosé made by blending white and red grape varieties.
BADEN: the vineyards of Baden, the most southerly of the German wine regions, are mostly spread along a strip extending beside the western boundary of the Black Forest, between it and the border of France. The vineyards of Alsace are directly across the Rhine river. Almost all wines are produced by large co-ops (the Badischer Winzerkellerei is the largest in Western Europe). Many varieties are grown, with Muller-Thurgau in front, followed by Spatburgunder. A small amount of good quality Riesling is produced. The wines from here have higher alcohol and fuller body than most German wines. The best, both white and red, come from the Kaiserstuhl-Tuniberg region, which has a volcanic soil that imparts distinct flavor and fuller body to the wines.
A local specialty in the southern part of the region is Weissherbst, a rosé made from a single red varietal.
The reunification of Germany brought two additional quality wine regions that were part of the former East Germany. They are:
SAALE-UNSTRUT: the most northerly of the German wine regions, situated at the confluence of the Saale and Unstrut rivers. The southeast facing vineyards are planted to Muller-Thurgau, Silvaner, and Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) in that order. Over 80% of the mostly dry, fresh wines are produced by two co-ops.
SACHSEN: the vineyards here stretch along the steep banks of the Elbe river, around the city of Dresden. This is Germany’s smallest wine region. The varietal mix is the same as above, with the addition of Traminer. The wines are dry, and possess good potential. Little of the wines from these two regions are ever exported.
Category: Peter's Wine Articles
A Look at the Veneto
Veneto, the wine region of Verona and Venice, stretches from the river Po to the border with Austria, between Trentino-Alto Adige to the west and Friuli-Venezia Giulia to the east. Most of its vines are grown on the alluvial plains to the south. It is northern Italy’s most productive growing area, ranking third nationally behind Apulia and Sicily in total production but first in DOC production–with more than 1⁄5 of Italy’s total. Over 2⁄3 of that comes from the province of Verona, led by the ever-popular trio of Soave, Valpolicella and Bardolino.
Native grapes are predominant in many areas such as Verona, where Corvina and Rondinella rule the reds and Garganega the whites. Merlot and Cabernet have come on strong, however, and in some areas have been grown for so long that the vines have acquired local traits. Merlot has become the region’s most planted varietal, however much of the tonnage comes from the high-yielding plains of the Piave river.
BARDOLINO SUPERIORE DOCG: red and rosé (chiaretto) wines from 15 communes on the southeastern shores of Lake Garda, made from a blend of Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara with up to 20% of other varieties. Minimum alcohol is 12º. The wines are generally grapey, with a bright nose of fermenting grapes. There is a hint of prickle and a light bitter undertone to the taste. If obtained in the oldest production zone of origin or in all or parts of the communes Bardolino, Garda, Lazise, Affi, Costermano, and Cavaion, the label can add the name Classico DOCG.
PROSECCO di CONEGLIANO-VALDOBBIADENE and COLLI ASOLANI DOCG: dry and semi-sweet fizzy wines from the Prosecco varietal. Made in the Charmat method, the best dry spumantes have a pleasantly fruity nose with a slightly bitter finish that make them a wonderful aperitif. Starting in August 2009, the area of Prosecco will be considered under the DOP (denomination of origin and protected) standard of quality. The Denomination will control the standard and provenience of the wine. The project will be helpful for the historic brand of Prosecco in Veneto and for the few Prosecco producers in Piemonte.
RECIOTO di GAMBELLARA DOCG: from dried, 100% Garganega grapes, made in both still (Bianco Classico) and spumante (Bianco Spumante) versions.
RECIOTO di SOAVE DOCG: from a minimum of 70% Garganega with the permitted addition of Trebbiano di Soave, Pinot Bianco, or Chardonnay, this is a dessert wine made from semi-dried grapes, smooth, rich, and sweet. It is one of Italy’s top dessert wines. When made from grapes harvested in the oldest zone of origin, which is limited and well-defined, the label can add the term Classico DOCG. Anselmi’s Recioto dei Capitelli and Pieropan’s La Colombare are shining examples. A liquoroso can be produced by fortifying with alcohol.
SOAVE SUPERIORE DOCG: this wine is produced from the same zone as the above, and from the same grapes. Minimum alcohol is 12º. A Riserva can be produced if the wine is a minimum alcohol of 12.5º, and the wine is aged for 2 years (min. 3 months in bottle) beginning November 1 of the year of the harvest. When made from grapes harvested in the oldest zone of origin, which is limited and well-defined, the label can bear the term Classico DOCG. When not overcropped, the top producers make a truly delicious wine with a “suave,” smooth mouthfeel and delicate scents of lemon and almonds. The best are from the Classico zone, and a number of producers are making single-vineyard bottlings that are outstanding.
BIANCO di CUSTOZA DOC: considered by most to be the white version of Bardolino, with a floral scent, soft fruit, and crisp, dry finish. From a blend including Trebbiano Toscano, Garganega and Tocai. A Superiore version may be produced if minimum alcohol is 12.5º, and the wine is aged for a minimum of 5 months.
BREGANZE DOC: Breganze red is a Merlot-based wine with the possible addition of Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Freisa, Marzemino, and Gropello Gentile. Breganze white is based on Tocai Friulano, with Pinot Blanc or Pinot Grigio added to the blend. Cabernet, Pinot Nero, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio and Vespaiolo can all be bottled as varietal wine.
VALPOLICELLA DOC: from the latin vallis poli cellae, or “valley of many cellars.” A popular red from a minimum of 40% and a maximum of 70% Corvina with Rondinella (20-40%) and Molinara (5-25%) with the possible addition of a few others, such as Corvinone, Negrara, Dindarella, and Oseleta. Minimum alcohol is 11º. The wines are sturdier, deeper, fuller in fruit, and longer-lived than Bardolino. The region is located a few miles north of the city of Verona, and the hilly Classico area, made up of the five villages of Negrar, Marano, Fumane, San Pietro in Cariano, and Sant’Ambroglio, produces the best wine. The term Superiore on the label means that the grapes achieved greater ripeness, with another degree of alcohol (12º), and the wines must be aged for 1 year. Valpolicella Ripasso (re-passed), a long tradition in the area, is made by putting the best young Valpolicella into tanks or barrels that contain the gross lees of just-produced recioto. By coming into contact with young wine, active yeast cells in the sediment create a second fermentation. This increases the alcohol content and gives the wine a fuller body with some recioto character.
RECIOTO DELLA VALPOLICELLA DOC: one of the oldest wines in the world, made for over 2000 years. The Romans praised the wine for its high alcohol level and sweet, intense flavors, which complimented the spicy/peppery taste of ancient Rome’s dishes. The wine was also prized for its perceived medicinal properties. Select grapes are semi-dried on mats into the winter, then vinified with some residual sugar left in the wine. Rich and strong, with a concentrated semi-sweet flavor buttressed by the characteristically bitter undertone. Minimum alcohol is 14º.
AMARONE della VALPOLICELLA DOC: the first mention of a dry version of Recioto comes from a document from the 18th century, where the Venician aristocrat and philosopher Scipione Maffei suggested to his readers to try a drier, more mature, and longer-aged version of Recioto, that he called Amaro, (literally, bitter) for its slightly bitter finish. For the next 150 years the style was often made by chance, by simply allowing the wine to sit in barrels for a couple of years to re-ferment all the residual sugar to dryness. By the mid-20th century, advancements in winemaking led to the legitimate production of an Amarone style, which was recognized by the DOC in 1968 as Recioto della Valpolicella Amarone. Finally, in 1991, a new regulation created the specific and definitive DOC Amarone della Valpolicella. The winegrowing area is divided into three main sub-zones: Valpolicella Classico (from here comes Amarone della Valpolicella Classico), Valpolicella Valpantena (Amarone della Valpolicella Valpantena, which may append the term classico), and Valpolicella Est (generic Amarone della Valpolicella).
About Amarone della Valpolicella Classico the critics have observed that Amarone of Negrar is “austere,” that of Valgatara is “delicate,” that of Marano is “highly aromatic,” that of Fumane is “particularly sapid” and that of Arbizzano is “velvety.”
Valpantena, on the contrary, shows vocation for producing less aromatic, less concentrated, more earthy/smoky, acidic and slowly-maturing Amarone than those of Valpolicella Classico (also thanks to a remarkable average altitude of the vineyards).
Valpolicella Est is a quite complex and promising terroir, especially in the sub-zones of Illasi, Mizzole and Mezzane, where copious amount of fossils and eocenic marls are found in the underground. It’s worth noting that some of the most dynamic Amarone producers work in this area (Trabucchi, Dal Forno, Corte Sant’Alda, Baltieri) and that several producers based in Valpolicella Classico are now investing also in Valpolicella Est.
To produce the wine, choice bunches of grapes, particularly Corvina, are dried on mats after the harvest. The wine is then vinified to dryness, and the result is a heady, rich, powerful red with deep aromas and flavors that can become port-like with age.
The traditional DOC regulation for Amarone della Valpolicella specifies that the grape mix has to be made up principally of Corvina (from 40 to 70%), Rondinella (20-40%), and Molinara (5-25%). According to new rules recently approved by the Consortium, Corvina’s maximum rises to 80%, of which Corvinone, never previously mentioned but recently identified as dissimilar from Corvina, may come in at up to 50%. Rondinella’s minimum is reduced to 5%, maximum 30%; Molinara no longer has a minimum and is relegated to the 15% of optional “species of vines producing non aromatic black grapes, authorised and recommended for the province of Verona,” along with traditional varieties like Croatina, Dindarella, Oseleta, Rossignola, Negrara and Terodola, and not-so-traditionals like Cabernet and Merlot (the maximum of which has been elevated up to 10%, from previous 5%).
Changes relating to Amarone also include: to limit to 70% of total grape production the quantity of grape clusters destined for the drying process (this to oblige growers not to devote all their efforts to the high-priced Amarone, but to save some consistent raw material for straight Valpolicella production); an increase of the potential alcohol of dried grapes from 12% to 14%; the possibility of using mechanical means for drying grapes (provided these do not involve the use of unnaturally high temperatures); the establishment of a “Riserva” category for Amarone aged 4 years (from the 1st of December following the harvest); and finally the possibility of using the word “vigna” (vineyard) on the label, to be followed by the vineyard’s name.
Category: Peter's Wine Articles
Tolaini the Quest for Quality in Tuscany
On a rocky hillside in Tuscany, with the distant view of Siena as a backdrop, vines form a thick blanket of green. Their symmetrical rows undulate with the contours of the landscape, and the first thing one notices is their denseness and proximity to each other. In fact, these are among the most densely planted vines on earth. Among them walks a man of medium height, climbing the hill with the sure gait of a mountain goat. His face has a ruddy glow, and although it is clear that he has spent a half dozen or so decades on this planet, it is difficult to define his age. His energy is palpable and when he speaks, the words shoot out like bullets, in an intriguing accent that combines Italian and the English spoken by Canadian people. He gestures with his hands, his arm sweeping the landscape with a flourish. “I believe that this vineyard can produce among the best wines in the world” he says, “and I will keep at it until it happens.” The man’s name is Pierluigi Tolaini, or Louie, as he insists you call him. And Louie is a force of nature, with a quest that he will not back down from, no matter the difficulty, effort, or expense. That quest is for ultimate quality. The kind of quality that is world class, that defines its genre, that demands attention and recognition. The kind of quality that can put the final, fitting coda on a life that, upon inspection, seems more like a work of fiction than the confluence of will, hard work, and determination that it is.
Louie grew up in Lucca, Tuscany, the son of a dirt poor farmer. He grew up in a post World War rural Italy where families scraped out a meager existence from the land. It was backbreaking work with one cow and one cart, and Louie instinctively knew that he had to break free, to find a place where hard work could turn into money, maybe enough money to perhaps buy a bigger farm and even a car. That place was Canada, where immigration was open. Early one morning in 1956, at the age of 19, Louie, armed with a one way ticket, left his home, not turning around to see his father watching him go from the front door. As he walked the half hour to the train station, he kept repeating to himself, “I will never be poor again. I will never eat polenta again. I will never drink bad wine again…and someday I will make my own wine.” Louie landed in Toronto, unable to speak a word of English. He worked as a bricklayer, and, after a few months, journeyed west to Winnipeg, where he worked in the oil fields on a drilling rig, 18 hours a day, 7 days a week. He bought a truck and started hauling water for the rig, eventually saving $25,000. This was his down payment on a small trucking company – 5 trucks, 7 people, 1 small building. His company hauled general freight and livestock between Virden and Winnipeg. He worked and worked, investing the earnings back into his business. He built his business into what it is today: TransX, the largest privately owned transportation company in Canada, with over 1,500 trucks, 4,000 trailers, and 2,500 employees.
Louie never forgot his dream of returning to Tuscany and making wine. In 1998, he bought a small property in the hills of Castelnuovo Berardegna, overlooking the beautiful Siena skyline. He added acreage, eventually accumulating 267 acres. He hired the well-known agronomist Andrea Paoletti, who told him that if he wanted to make great wine, he would have to make some changes. As Louie puts it, “when I bought the land, the rows alternated with strips of wheat and olive groves, according to the old custom. In places, the vineyards had mixed red and white varieties of uncertain origin. Good enough if you want wine for your own table but that wasn’t what I was looking for. So we ripped out everything and replanted the varieties that were most suitable for the wine I had in mind, and even before that, for the host soil type and environment.” These included the native Sangiovese, as well as Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot. There are two estate vineyards that make up a combined 160 acres: Montebello, with classic galestro soil (friable clay and limestone) and San Giovanni with porous tufa. Both sites overlie limestone to create outstanding conditions for long term vine growth. The vines are planted at an astoundingly dense 4800 vines per acre, and yield tiny amounts of concentrated fruit – each vine only produces one kilo of grapes, which are hand harvested into small crates and hand sorted at the winery.
The enologist is the famed Michel Rolland, about whom Louie says “at harvest time, he strides up and down the vineyards like a hungry fox…it’s awesome. He tastes the grapes continuously, thinks, and walks up and down, up and down. It’s the same in the cellar. He tastes each wine individually, but he already has the final blend in his head. He remembers figures like a computer and in the end his decision is always absolutely spot on.” Rolland has specified two-chamber, open top fermenters that allow for a gravity flow rack and return that optimizes color and flavor extraction. The best grapes from each harvest are fermented in small open top fermenters made of French Allier oak. Rolland supervises the purchase of barriques of Allier and Troncais oak from top barrel makers. To me, the Rolland influence shows in the purity of fruit and smooth tannins that show in the young wines aging in barrel right now.
Before I move on to the wines, one final observation. As I walked the vineyard with Louie, one thing was notably different from the typical scene of bent-over vineyard staff, working the vines. As he greeted each by name, they responded warmly, looking up from the seat of a small minitractor that was invented by, yes, Louie himself. He calls it the Rossetto. After observing the traditional ways of working the vineyard, with the back-breaking amount of bending over and then bending some more, he figured that there had to a way to make life easier on the workers, while achieving better results and saving time and energy. So he conceived, designed, built, and subsequently patented a red track-driven minitractor that the estate workers can steer with their legs while sitting across it sidesaddle, facing the rows of vines. They don’t have to walk, carry loads, or, worst of all, keep stooping over all the time. They sit at cane height with their hands free to prune, tie, thin, or pick. Rossetto tows a special cart so that cuttings or just-picked grapes can be stowed safely, immediately. No one needs to go through the vineyards collecting the harvested bunches or the leaves, canes, and other debris. As a result: “During the 2007 harvest, we had a 50% savings in time and 40% in labor, even though we still did everything by hand. We harvested more and better and the workers were very happy.”
What about the wines? There are three, all Toscana IGT, although Louie says that the Al Passo will be bottled as a Chianti Classico beginning with the 2007 vintage.
Al Passo is a blend of 80% Sangiovese and 20% Merlot. The wine shows classic Sangiovese character, with red cherries and cranberry fruit supported by the black cherry essence of Merlot. There is a spicy sandalwood character as well, and the finish has bright tones and an overall impression of harmony and balance.
Valdisanti is a blend made up of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The wine shows ripe, rich blackcurrant and cassis aromas with warm cooking spices from the French oak. The palate has wonderful intensity to the dark fruit, with well-integrated oak and smooth, fine tannins. This is one of those rare wines that is eminently drinkable right now but would also cellar for a decade.
Picconero is the estate’s top wine, and no amount of effort, time, or expense is spared in its creation. The blend is 85% Merlot, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Verdot. The fruit undergoes three selection processes before only whole berries are transferred to open top French oak fermenters. Grand Cru Classé style winemaking ensues, with a 30 day maceration accompanied by manual push downs, 6 months on the fine lees, aging in French oak for 18 months, and aging in bottle for another 12 months. The result is frankly stunning. I have rarely experienced such superlative quality in a relatively new wine. It is difficult to not resort to hyperbole when describing the class, elegance, purity, and complexity of this wine. At Louie’s beautiful house for dinner, he went down to his cellar and brought up three bottles: 2004 Picconero, 2004 Chateau Palmer and 2004 Masseto. We gladly tasted the three wines side by side. To my amazement, the Picconero surpassed the Palmer easily, and was a serious contender to the suppleness and breed of the Masseto. Unbelievable.
It turns out that I am not alone in my assessment of the superior quality of the Tolaini wines. In Italy, the wines are getting some serious attention. In June of last year, at a blind tasting of the top Tuscan wines at the famed Sira e Remino restaurant in San Gusme, Picconero came in first, followed by Sassicaia and Valdisanti. 62 sommeliers, enologists, agronomists, and winery owners were the judges. In October, at Two Star Michelin Cracco restaurant in Milan, Picconero came in third after Ornellaia and Chateau Palmer in their blind tasting of top international wines. And at the 18th Annual Merano Wine Festival in November, Picconero was the top scoring wine. The American press has also recognized the wines, with numerous publications (the usual suspects) awarding 90+ point scores to the wines. Something is clearly happening here!
I urge the reader to look into these superlative wines. They all come in at various price points, and there is something here for everyone. This is an opportunity to turn your customers on to the next Sassicaia or Ornellaia. This is an opportunity to join in the quest for quality. - Written July 2009
Italy - Off The Beaten Path
One of the most fun aspects of my job as a Wine Educator is being able to illuminate less-traveled regions and their wines to both buyers and the public. Most people that I come into contact with are well aware of my love for Italian food and wine. Many accounts, even non-Italian restaurants, and certainly retailers, carry a selection of Italian wines that predominantly come from the more familiar regions such as Tuscany. There are, however, hundreds and hundreds of regions and varietals that are a slight step off of the beaten path. These wines hold a lot of interest to wine lovers and offer a tremendous opportunity for a retail shop or restaurant to provide diversity, selection, and value.
I will be focusing on these regions and their wines over the next year or so. Today we will look at Liguria and Valle d’Aosta.
Liguria is home to the beautiful Italian Riviera, with a dramatic coastline that rises from the azure waters of the Ligurian Sea to the Maritime Alps and Appennines Mountains that form a backdrop in the distance. The region stretches in an arc, hugging the sea, from the border of France (Monaco is only minutes away) to the northwestern part of Tuscany, and is home to the busy port of Genova. It is an obscure wine region, the second-lowest in production (the almost unknown Valle d’Aosta produces less) in Italy. The best-known wine from here is Cinque Terre, from steep, theatrically perched hillsides above five villages, some of which are accessible only by boat.
Liguria is a region where most wine is still made at family or artisan levels. Growers are loyal to local vines and over time have perfected various methods of training them, from the pergolas of Cinque Terre to the spur training of the west, where the French influence is felt.
Albarola: a white varietal that is a relatively characterless ingredient in Cinque Terre.
Bosco: the white grape from Genoa that goes into the blend of Cinque Terre.
Granaccia: (aka grenache, garnacha, cannonau) used for a light red wine at Quiliano.
Ormeasco: a clone of Dolcetto from the Piedmont town of Ormea, in the Apennines across the border from the DOC of Riviera di Pontente, which produces the wine of the same name.
Pigato: thought to be of Greek origin, produces a white of full body and class at Albenga.
Rossese: a prized vine, the origins of which are thought to be from France. In Liguria since the 16th century, now planted mainly in the west around Dolceacqua, where it makes a fruity, pleasant red of medium body.
Vermentino: the Rolle of southern France, this varietal is thought to have arrived in the 14th century from Spain via Corsica. Produces very good varietal whites in the Riviera di Pontente and Colli di Luni DOCs, and also goes into the blend of Cinque Terre.
CINQUE TERRE DOC: with a romantic history and absolutely stunning terrain, this area is postcard perfect and a top destination for picture-takers. From Bosco grapes with Albarola and Vermentino grown on the steep hillside terraces of the “five lands”–the villages of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore–the wine is delicately fruity, dry and fresh. A passito wine is also made, called Cinqueterre Sciacchetrà, and is usually excellent.
COLLI di LUNI DOC: The Luni hills of this eastern extremity of Liguria were planted to the vine by the ancient Romans. The zone extends into the northern part of Tuscany, and produces Sangiovese-based reds and notable whites from Vermentino.
RIVIERA LIGURE di PONENTE DOC: on the western Riviera, four former VDTs are grouped together to form this DOC. They are: Ormeasco, Dolcetto-based wines with bright, juicy, raspberry fruit that can age into a rich, velvety wine with surprising class; Pigato, which thrives around Albenga, a white that is well-structured and rich in flavor; Rossese, zesty, bright reds with character; and Vermentino, with fragrant aromas, firm body and
ROSSESE di DOLCEACQUA DOC: a favorite of Napoleon, these soft reds have fragrant aromas, lush fruit and a spicy-aromatic finish. With two or three years of age they become quite elegant and plush.
High in the Alps, sandwiched into Piedmont’s northwestern corner and bordering France and Switzerland, lays the smallest wine region of Italy, in terms of both size and production. The picturesque, high-altitude vineyards are planted over pergolas on terraces hewn out of stone on south-facing slopes along the Dora Baltea River, and are tended to by a persevering and dedicated group of winegrowers. Most of the wines are consumed locally by tourists who come to ski in the winter or hike in the summer.
The region is planted to mostly native varietals, with a number of French imports making headway.
Blanc de Morgex: an indigenous white of the upper Aosta Valley, grown on pre-phylloxera vines at altitudes up to 1400 meters.
Fumin: a dark variety used in blends, also produces a red on its own.
Malvoisie de Nus: this local clone of Pinot Gris makes a rare sweet wine at Nus.
Moscato di Chambave: a clone of white Muscat grown at Chambave that makes sweet and dry wines.
Neyret: the native red used in blends of Donnaz.
Petit Rouge: the best of the native dark varieties,
produces a wine of distinctive character.
Picotendro: aka Nebbiolo, grows mainly in the southeast.
VALLE d’AOSTA DOC: This comprehensive appellation takes in almost all of the region’s vineyards. The names and labels may be in Italian or French.
The main wines are listed below.
Arnad Montjovet: red-only, Nebbiolo-based wines from the villages of Arnad and Montjovet.
Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle: from the indigenous grape, a crisp, dry, slightly petillant white from the villages of Morgex and La Salle.
Chambave: well-scented, crisp reds from Petit Rouge with up to 40% Dolcetto, Gamay, and Pinot Noir; two whites from Moscato, a perfumed, dry one and a passito version of great depth and age ability.
Donnaz: soft, well-balanced Nebbiolo-based wines with good bouquet and a slightly bitter aftertaste.
Enfer d’Arvier: medium-bodied red from Petit Rouge with other red varietals allowed.
Fumin: little-known red varietal that makes an interesting wine.
Nus: reds from Petit Rouge and Pinot Noir, whites from Malvoisie in both dry and passito versions.
Premetta: bright cherry-red wines, light in tannin, from this local grape.
Torrette: red-only appellation that produces age-worthy wines from Petit Rouge with others.
Also of note: Vin de la Sabla, one of the region’s best reds, from Petit Rouge, Fumin and others by Constantino Charrere.
Category: Peter's Wine Articles
The First Family of Mendoza
In recent years, Argentina has emerged as a serious player in the world of wine.
The country is producing and exporting wines of real quality at every price point, with Malbec leading the way as the varietal that the country has made famous. But there is more to the country’s wines than just Malbec. This spring I had an opportunity to travel to the main winegrowing region, Mendoza, and learn more about what is currently happening from one of the icons of the area, Jose Alberto Zuccardi of Familia Zuccardi.
Argentina is the largest producer of wine in South America, and the fourth-largest in the world. Its vineyards, which were largely planted by Italian immigrants towards the end of the last century, only came into their own when the railway arrived in 1880. Per capita, the country is the fifth largest consumer of wine, so the domestic market is very important. However, realizing that to survive is to export, the top producers have made a commitment to lowering yields and modernizing winemaking techniques. The results have been impressive.
By nature, the vineyard area is desert with an average annual rainfall of less than 10 inches. Most of the wine regions are confined to the western strip of the country bordering the foothills of the Andes. The foothills are fed by a network of irrigation canals that are fed by the abundant snowmelt of the mountains. The dry desert air helps protect the vines against the usual fungal diseases, and the sandy soils have, for the most part, kept phylloxera at bay. Most vines are planted on their original rootstocks.
The Mendoza region is located in the far west of the country, just over the Andes from the Central Region of Chile. This is the largest and most important wine growing region of Argentina, accounting for more than two-thirds of total production. The climate and soil are conducive to the production of fine wine grapes. The continental climate has four clearly defined seasons but no severe temperature extremes. Rainfall rarely averages over eight inches a year, most of it occurring during the summer months. The soil consists of a clay substructure covered by loose, sandy alluvial topsoil. The vines are fed by a well-planned system of reservoirs, canals and irrigation channels. Red varietals predominate, with Malbec being planted in the most quantity. Cabernet Sauvignon, which does very well here, is beginning to catch up. Tempranillo and Italian varietals are also grown extensively. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are the most highly planted white varietals, particularly in the higher elevations. The region has a number of sub-areas: The Maipú department and the Luján department are located in and around Mendoza proper; to the east of the region is San Martín, to the south, San Raphael. In the upper Mendoza Valley lies the Luján de Cuyo department, Argentina’s first controlled appellation. Malbec performs admirably here.
Familia Zuccardi is the largest family-owned winery in Argentina. It was founded by Jose’s father, Don Alberto Zuccardi. During the 1950s, Don Alberto began his own irrigation company in Mendoza. In 1963, as a way of demonstrating the effectiveness of his irrigation systems, Don planted the first vineyards in Maipu. Ten years later he bought a second vineyard site in the desert area of Santa Rosa, a half-hour south of the city of Mendoza. Jose recalls that “when we arrived here, this was just desert. There was nothing…no roads, no electricity. We brought generators to run pumps and to drill for water. There is an underground aquifer three to four hundred meters below, and it is this water that allowed us to plant grapes here.” The vineyard today is almost entirely organically farmed, with the plan being for both the Maipu and Santa Rosa vineyards to be entirely organic within five years. The vines are trained to the Zuccardi “parral,” an overhead cordon that allows for maximum solar access to the vine leaves, protecting the grapes underneath and providing a high degree of ventilation. This system guarantees the health of the leaves and encourages better aromatic expression in the fruit while
retaining natural acidity.
Jose Alberto Zuccardi is a force of nature. Rarely have I encountered an individual with such real and infectious passion for what he and his family do. His integrity and his commitment to the environment, the families that work the vineyards and at the winery, is impressive. Whole families have worked at the winery for decades. Jose has built a school to educate not only the children but also the adult workers, bringing literacy to a generation that never saw the inside of a classroom. In addition, the winery itself is a model of self-containment and innovation. Nothing is wasted, as Jose put it, “we are obligated to the future. We must do everything possible to make a minimal impact on the environment.” The use of modern winemaking techniques and innovations such as isolation of the indigenous yeasts from both varietals and vineyards, combined with an emphasis on organic farming, result in wines that reflect both the vineyard site and varietal typicity. At every price level, the wines of Familia Zuccardi deliver bang for the buck. The philosophy of the family is summed up best by Jose Alberto, “there are two ways to view winegrowing and winemaking, one way is simply as a business. The other is as a way to be, a way to live. For Familia Zuccardi, this is the way we live.” He went on to list the four elements that define the philosophy: “Quality, Innovation, Environment and Being Useful to Society.” Jose’s commitment is real and true. I believe him when he says that “Terroir is not just the soil, it is all the things that go into the wine; the people who farm the land, the sunlight, the snowmelt which provides us water, the grapes varieties and the passion. We try to bottle the passion.”
There are four ranges of wines produced by Familia Zuccardi.
The basic line is Santa Julia, named after Jose Alberto’s only daughter. The wines are fruit-driven, very drinkable and a fantastic weeknight bargain wine. I love the Torrontes, an expressive white wine with fresh peach and apricot flavors. It makes for the perfect summer quaffer.
The next up is Santa Julia Reserva; wines crafted from high-quality, lower-yielding fruit and aged in French Oak for six to ten months. Both the Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon will satisfy the urge for complex yet very drinkable wines for the table.
The Vida Organica line is entirely from certified organically grown grapes. I really enjoy both the Sparkling Chardonnay and the Malbec Rosé, just in time for summer!
Zuccardi Q is made from specially selected grapes from the winery’s top vineyards, from exceptional vintage years. They are aged in French and American oak for twelve to fourteen months. These wines are exceptional wines and amazing values. I am particularly fond of the Tempranillo, which Jose feels is one of the top varietals grown by the family. The Malbec is also lip-smackingly delicious.
The newest addition to the lineup is called Zuccardi Zeta, and is the result of Jose Alberto’s personal dream of blending his finest Malbec and Tempranillo fruit. It is a super-premium wine with aspirations to a world-class level. The grapes are specially selected from the best blocks of both the Maipu and Santa Rosa vineyards. No expense was spared and no stone was left unturned in the quest to make great wine. The result is fantastic, with aromas of violet, plum, cassis, blackberry and chocolate. The palate is silky smooth and adds tobacco and blueberry flavors. The wine beautifully combines the ripe black fruit and spice of Malbec with the elegance and finesse of Tempranillo.
Bravo to Jose Alberto and the Familia Zuccardi!
Category: Peter's Wine Articles
A look at Washington State
The first vineyards on the state of Washington were planted in 1825 by traders working for the Hudson Bay Company, although it is not known if wine was produced from them. The industry in Washington really got its start when the New Deal allowed funding of the Columbia River irrigation project, which transformed the arid desert east of the Cascade Mountains into an agricultural paradise. In 1951 the first commercial plantings of vinifera vines took place, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that plantings really took off. By 1978 there were 2500 acres planted. Today there are over 30,000 and counting.
Much of the topography of Washington was created by cataclysmic geological events, known as the Missoula Floods. As temperatures began to rise toward the end of the last Ice Age, violent floodwaters repeatedly broke through the confines of a 2,000-foot-high glacial ice dam that blocked the canyon of the Clark Fork River east of Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho. First breaching, then fracturing the icy monolith, dammed waters escaped from a 3,000-square-mile lake behind the dam, tearing huge, frozen blocks and boulders of granite and schist from the walls of the dam. Water, icebergs and boulders were propelled across the Columbia Basin at an initial, maximum rate of about 9.5 cubic miles of water an hour, scouring out the “Scablands” of eastern Washington and collecting more soil, rocks, and boulders along the way. By the time they reached what is now the Wallula Gap, at the east end of today’s Columbia River Gorge, floodwaters had “slowed” to a rate of 1.66 cubic miles of water an hour–190 times the volume of the largest Columbia River flood in recorded history. For two to three weeks at a time, these recurring, stone-laden floodwaters swept through the area, scouring and sculpting the Columbia River Gorge landscape, leaving river tributaries hanging as waterfalls in their surge toward the sea.
Washington State’s northerly latitude provides an average of two more hours of sunlight during the prime growing season than California. Washington’s 17.4 hours of daily sunlight and warm days allow the grapes to ripen fully while cool nights keep fruit acids high, creating rich, flavorful, well-balanced wines. Primarily grown on their own root stocks, Washington state vines produce grapes of consistent quality, resulting in strong vintages year after year.
Roughly 57% of vines are planted to red grapes. In order of acres planted they are: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc. Whites make up 43% of plantings, with Chardonnay dominating, followed by Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Semillon.
East of the Cascades is a semi-desert area with no influence from the Pacific. Extensive irrigation systems provide water for crops and vineyards. The winters can be very cold and there is some risk of damage to the vines, and frost before the harvest can also pose a danger. In the summer there are extremes of temperature between the very warm days and cool nights. It is the combination of this and the long daylight hours that provide the environment for fine winegrowing.
PUGET SOUND AVA: The Puget Sound wine region is Washington’s only AVA on the west side of the Cascade Mountain Range. It was recognized in 1995. Only about 2% of the state’s wine grapes are grown in this region, which includes the islands and mainland adjoining the waters of Puget Sound, extending east into the Cascade foothills. While more than 50 wineries are based in the Puget Sound appellation, only a few of them actually use locally grown grapes to make wine.
COLUMBIA VALLEY AVA: Encompassing approximately 18,000 square miles, the Columbia Valley Appellation is 185 miles wide and 200 miles long. Within this “macro” appellation (authorized in 1984) lie other officially recognized “meso” appellations. The Columbia Valley’s northernmost boundary is near the Okanogan wilderness, near the Canadian border, and its southern border extends into Oregon and east along the Snake River to the Idaho border. The western border of the appellation follows the Cascade Range to the beginning of the Columbia Gorge.
The Columbia Valley’s gently undulating, open land is thought by geologists to be what’s left of an ancient volcano. Separated from Seattle’s rainy, marine climate by the Cascade Mountains, the Valley is shielded by the rain shadow of this north/south-stretching barrier, and it experiences annual rainfall of only 6 - 8 inches. Nearby river systems bring vineyards the additional water needed to produce premium wine grapes.
WAHLUKE SLOPE AVA & MATTAWA: Sloping gradually toward the north side of the Columbia River from Vantage to Othello, is a high plateau known for producing distinctive varietal character. The Wahluke Slope on the north side of the Columbia actually includes Mattawa, one of the warmest sites in the state, known for Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
YAKIMA VALLEY and RED MOUNTAIN AVAs: These are among Washington’s most important appellations. While the Yakima Valley lies within the larger Columbia Valley, it is identified as its own appellation, just as the Red Mountain area lies within the Yakima Valley but is defined and federally authorized as its own AVA. The Yakima Valley appellation is distinguished from its macro appellation, the Columbia Valley, by three geologic folds in the earth’s crust (the Ahtanum Ridge, the Rattlesnake Hills and the Horse Heaven Hills) east of the town of Yakima, along the edges of the Yakima River valley. A system of canals and wells, along with the Columbia, Yakima and Snake Rivers, supplies growers in these dry valleys with ample water to carefully control the irrigation of their vineyards. The potential for quality is excellent, and world-class Merlots, Cabernets, and Syrahs are being produced here.
The Red Mountain AVA, recognized in June 2001, is one of the premier growing sites for fine wine grapes, and is the warmest of the five viticultural areas in Washington State. Carbonate-rich sandy loam soils, coupled with low yield growing techniques, allow for grapes of intense concentration, structure and complexity.
WALLA WALLA AVA: This is the most remote of all Washington State wine regions. Lying within the larger Columbia Valley Appellation, the Walla Walla wine region includes land in both Washington and Oregon. Although all Walla Walla wineries are currently located in Washington, there are vineyards in both states. The geologic past of the Walla Walla Valley is riddled with cataclysmic events -- events that contributed to today’s fine grape-growing soils. Enormous basaltic lava flows (dating back 15 million years) established the foundation of the Columbia Plateau (which also includes the Walla Walla Plateau), the earth’s youngest basalt plateau. Beginning about 15,000 years ago, periodic melting of ice dams caused giant “glacier outbursts” every 35 to 55 years. Huge volumes of water burst through the melting dams, scouring out channels in the landscape where water velocities were highest. The “Channeled Scablands” of today’s eastern Washington are the result of these phenomenal floods, documented as the largest in geologic history. When flood waters retreated, ponds were left behind, as they were in the Walla Walla wine region, and fine-grained slackwater sediments were deposited. Ancient geologic catastrophe has set the stage for some of the best winegrowing area of the Pacific Northwest.
HORSE HEAVEN HILLS AVA: is located on the north banks of the Columbia River near the small town of Paterson. The area’s unique topography offers many advantages, such as steep south facing slopes and mitigation of temperature extremes because of its proximity to the Columbia River. The outstanding sites that have been developed in this area are Canoe Ridge, Alder Ridge, and Zephyr Ridge. Alder Ridge shares the same soil composition as Canoe Ridge but with areas of fractured basalt and caliche. Inland from the river ridges are a variety of more established vineyards such as the Champoux Vineyard (formerly Mercer Ranch), Destiny Ridge Vineyard and the Andrew Vineyard.
RATTLESNAKE HILLS AVA: Encompassing an expanse of hills running east to west along the northern point of the Yakima River and south of Moxee Valley, this AVA lies within both the established Columbia Valley and Yakima Valley appellations. Beginning at an elevation of 850 feet and rising up to 3,085 feet, the region sits higher in elevation than the surrounding Yakima Valley region and is located approximately four miles southeast of Yakima. Temperatures are among the most moderate in the state thanks to its geographical location. To the west, the Cascade Range shields eastern Washington from the Pacific Ocean’s climactic influence while the Rattlesnake Hills divert polar air from Canada which can often damage grape vines. Soils are characterized by their fine texture, in contrast to the sandy soils found in nearby AVA regions. Consistent pH and neutral alkaline levels control vine growth and help to create balanced grapes. Key varietals grown in Rattlesnake Hills include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Riesling, Chardonnay, and Malbec.
COLUMBIA GORGE AVA: The Columbia River Gorge and its surrounding lands are unquestionably a national treasure. Viticulturists think so, too. Pockets of old vineyards found near Bingen, Washington, suggest this is not a new conclusion. Today, hundreds of newer vineyard acres occupy a variety of terroirs throughout the Gorge. Flood-scoured plateau lands offer winegrowers gravelly soils, long and sunny summer days, limited rainfall, and the temperature-moderating influence of updrafts from the nearby Columbia River Gorge. Climate and terrain range from conditions found in Germany to France’s Burgundy and northern Rhone Valley to northwest Italy’s Piedmont. The AVA was authorized on May 10, 2004 and straddles both sides of the Columbia River for a stretch of about 15 miles, including 280 square miles.
As new vineyard sites are planted, and the resulting grapes and wines are evaluated, vintners discover which mesoclimates are most suitable for particular varietals. Washington’s vineyards include several sites that have distinguished themselves by producing perfect fruit and, ultimately, exceptional wines.
ALDER RIDGE: One of Washington’s higher vineyard locations, Alder Ridge is a steep slope rising 1,000 feet from the bank of the Columbia River. Its proximity to the river also makes it one of the warmest vineyard sites. It produces Washington’s signature grape variety, Merlot, as well as Zinfandel, Barbera and several Bordeaux varieties. Alder Ridge shares the soil composition of Canoe and Zephyr Ridges.
CANOE RIDGE: Canoe Ridge is an optimal growing region. Some of the state’s top wines are produced from fruit grown on the wide south-to-southeast facing slopes sited above the Columbia River, west of Paterson. Major varietals planted are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
ZEPHYR RIDGE: Directly overlooking the Columbia River, Zephyr Ridge is a unique slope with varied exposures producing both high quality red and white wines. It is a moderately warm site with sandy loam soil providing good drainage and control over the vines.
COLD CREEK: A southerly facing slope of the Columbia River which enjoys one of the longest growing seasons in the Columbia Valley. The low rainfall and meager silt loam soils produce very intense and concentrated fruit. Cold Creek is part of a high plateau that runs along the south side of the Columbia River and is particularly noted for its distinctive Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
COLUMBIA BASIN / SNAKE RIVER: This is where the Columbia, Yakima and Snake rivers meet. The area surrounding the Tri-Cities and including the broad hills bordering each side of the Snake River is blessed with a good climate and ample irrigation. Several large vineyards have achieved reputations for excellent Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and other varietals.
LAKE CHELAN VALLEY: Located in North-Central Washington, this is known as a prime apple growing region. The narrow, fjord-like lake acts in a similar fashion as a river in moderating temperatures for the growing area. Recently, growers have planted vineyards in the area to a number of varietals. The same growing conditions that produce premium apples are key to growing premium wine grapes... warm days and cool nights, with temperatures moderated by the waters of Lake Chelan.
Champagne is the world-renowned sparkling wine from the region of the same name, located 90 miles northeast of Paris. Only sparkling wines from this region can bear this illustrious name, which is synonymous the world over for wines of ultimate finesse, breed and style. That this is an undisputed fact is due to a number of factors that make this region the unique area for producing grapes that bear the singular ability to make the world’s greatest sparkling wines.
The vineyards of Champagne are the northernmost in France, and lie at the very limit of being able to ripen grapes sufficiently for the production of wine. The grapes grown here seem to have the perfect balance of bright acids and fully developed flavors needed to produce great sparkling wine. The other significant factor affecting the unique style of wine produced here is the soil. It is made up of a limestone-rich chalk, from calcareous matter secreted by ancient sea organisms, mixed with clay and silicates. It provides the perfect amount of drainage, yet holds just enough moisture to nourish the vine. This type of chalk is known as Kimmeridgean, after the village in southern England where it was first identified. It is the same type as found at the cliffs of Dover and in the nearby region of Chablis.
Vineyards are laid out with the rows a maximum of 1.5 meters apart and the vines planted every 1 to 1.5 meters. There are a number of pruning methods permitted, though the best vineyards must be either in the Taille Chablis or Cordon de Royat system.
Vineyards in Champagne are among the oldest in Europe. No written evidence exists of viticulture until the Romans inhabited the area, where they increased the plantings of vines, as they did throughout France.
Sparkling wine had been noted for some time after the invention of the bottle and cork stopper early in the 17th century, as wine had a tendency to begin refermenting in bottle during the spring, causing at least half of the thin glass vessels to explode from the pressure built up inside them. It wasn’t until the discovery near the end of that century that the pressure was caused by CO2 and the subsequent recommendation that thicker bottles and better stoppers be used that Champagne as we know it began to appear. Today the Champagne trade is made up of growers (recoltants), co-ops, and merchants (negociants). Of the latter category, the seven biggest account for 70% of the total production of the region.
Despite the fact that the process of making Champagne requires special equipment, space and time, therefore money, a small but significant number of growers make their own Champagne, particularly those in the most highly rated villages. Quite often the words Grand or Premier Cru will be seen on the labels of these wines, as they are likely to be from a rated vineyard.
The majority of growers sell their grapes either to one of the Champagne producing houses or to a co-op. Few of the major names can satisfy more than a minor proportion of their requirements from their own vineyard holdings, and instead concentrate largely on the vinification and blending parts of the process.
On each Champagne label there is a small number that begins with a pair of initials. These initials are the Matriculation Number, and refer to the status of the producer, whether they are a house (NM, or Negociant-Manipulant), a grower (RM, or Recolte-Manipulant), or a Co-op (CM, or Cooperative-Manipulant). SR means Societe de Recoltants, growers that make and market more than one brand; ND is a Negociant-Distributeur, meaning the company selling the Champagne didn’t make it; and MA means marque d’acheteur, a brand name owned by the purchaser.
THE MAIN DISTRICTS, VILLAGES AND VARIETALS
The vineyards of Champagne are classified according to a village-by-village percentage rating known as the Echelle des Crus, which establishes a pro-rated basis for grape prices. Seventeen villages (with the maximum rating of 100%) are Grand Crus, forty one (with a rating between 90 and 99%) are Premier Crus, and receive a correspondingly lower price for their grapes. The lowest rating is 80%.
There are 5 main districts in Champagne, each producing a distinct wine from the varietal grown there. Often a producer will blend base wines from a number of districts together to make a house style. The districts are:
Montagne de Reims- the “mountain of Reims” rises from the flat plain to between 600-900 feet in elevation. The vineyards face north and would not sufficiently ripen grapes if it were not for the fact that the montagne is freestanding, allowing cooler air to sink down onto the plain and warmer air to rise and replace it. Pinot Noir is grown here, producing wines of the biggest body and deepest color of the region. The top villages, all Grand Crus, are: Ambonnay, Bouzy, Verzy, Verzenay, Sillery and Mailly.
Vallé de la Marne- the valley of the Marne river is home to mostly south-facing, frost prone vineyards that are planted extensively to Pinot Muenier, which produces an early maturing grape, rich in flavor and color, that is a favored ingredient in many top cuvees. The top villages are: Ay-Champagne, Tours-sur-Marne (both Grand Crus), and the 1er Crus Mareulle-sur-Ay (rated 99%), Dizy and Vincelles.
Cotes des Blancs- this area, home to many of the famous villages of the region, gets its name from the nearly exclusive cultivation of Chardonnay along its east-facing slopes. The wines produced here are the most sought after in Champagne, due to the combination of delicacy, finesse and the ability to age well. The top villages are the Grand Crus: Avize, Chouilly, Cramant, Oger, les Mesnil-sur-Oger, and Vertus (a 1er Cru).
Cote de Sézanne- 10 miles southwest of the Cote des Blancs lies this expanding district, almost a southern extension of the Cote, planted largely to Chardonnay.
The Aube- this separate region lies at the southernmost boundary of Champagne, nearer to the Chablis appellation than the vineyards of the Marne. Mostly Pinot Noir is planted here, producing a clean, fruity style of wine. The top village is les Riceys.
Harvest - Late Sept/ Early Oct.- the harvest is usually in mid-October, due to the cool climate and long ripening season. The grapes are picked manually because it is considered that machine picking would damage the grapes too much. Immediately after picking the grapes are taken to the press-house and weighed.
Pressing the Grapes - care must be taken here, since the juice of what is to be a white wine must not be tainted by the skins of the mainly black grapes that are used. The traditional vertical press, known as a Coquard Press, is still the preferred system used to extract the juice, in two pressings. The first pressing is called the cuvee, the second is called the tailles. The amount of juice that can be extracted is strictly controlled. The law states that to get 100 l (1 hl) of must entitled to the Champagne AOC, 157 kg of grapes are needed. Of the 100 liters just mentioned, the first 80 would be vin de cuvee, and the last 20 vin de taille.
First Fermentation - the initial fermentation usually takes place in stainless steel and results in a thin, acidic still wine that is neutral in flavor. This neutrality in character and high acidity is necessary for the secondary fermentation to be able to have its subtle effect on the wine. Many still wines also undergo malolactic fermentation, depending on the final style of wine required by the house.
Blending - unlike most other wine regions around the world, the blending together of wines not only from different vineyards and villages but also different vintages is elevated to a fine art in Champagne.
Master blenders put together an assemblage from up to 70 different base wines, and this ability to combine not only different vineyard sources and vintages, but also grape varieties, is the true art of the blender. The adding of reserve wines from the cellar, some of which are kept for decades, adds additional complexity and consistency to the blend. This process results in a “house style” that ideally remains the same from year to year.
Second Fermentation - after the blended wine has gone through its final racking, the liqueur de tirage, consisting of a small amount of still wine, sugar, yeast, yeast nutrients, and a clarifying agent, is added to the wine. The wines are bottled and capped with a crown cap, and the secondary fermentation takes place inside the bottle. When the yeasts begin to consume the sugar, three things are produced: alcohol, CO2 gas, and, when they die having completed their work, a deposit of dead yeast cells (lees). As the wine slowly ferments, the gas caused by this fermentation, unable to escape, dissolves into the wine.
Aging on the Lees - after the second fermentation is finished (between 10 days-3 months), the champagne then goes through a period of aging sur lie or sur latte before the sediment is moved to the end of the bottle. This lends character to the wine, as part of the sediment is dead yeast cells, which break down in a process called “autolysis” and influence the flavor and texture of the wine. Non-vintage Champagnes must be aged for a minimum of 15 months beginning the January after the harvest. Vintage Champagnes must be aged a minimum of 3 years after the harvest.
Remuage - the bottles are transferred to pupitres (riddling racks) to undergo riddling or remuage. This is the process of loosening the sediment that is left from the second fermentation, and slowly turning the bottle on its end so that the sediment collects in the neck of the inverted bottle. This process, when done in the traditional method by hand, takes around 8 weeks (a skilled remuer can manipulate around 30,000 bottles a day). Some producers use a computerized gyro-pallet that accomplishes this task in 8 days. Whatever method is used, bottles which have completed the process and are being stored vertically upside down are referred to as being sur pointes.
Dégorgement - this is the process of removing the sediment from the wine. It is usually performed by immersing the neck of the bottle into a solution of freezing brine. The semi-frozen sediment is pushed out by the pressure inside the bottle when the crown cap is removed.
Dosage - before the bottles are corked, they are topped up with the liqueur d’expedition, which is a blend of Champagne and cane sugar. The amount of sugar in the blend is a factor in the resulting sweetness level of the Champagne. An important feature of each house’s style is the sweetness, or more accurately, dryness, of the Champagne. The following chart lists the legal sweetness levels of the Champagne styles, which is measured by the residual sugar level, or grams of sugar per liter (g/l). (See Chart)
Recorking - A cork is inserted halfway, then a protective metal cap is rammed onto the top, giving the cork its unique mushroom shape. A wire muzzle then secures the cork to the bottle, and the bottle is shaken to help marry the wine with the liqueur d’expedition.
Non-Vintage Brut - this style accounts for more than 75% of all Champagne sold. The skill of the master blender is of the utmost importance in this style. In quality houses, reserve wines are added to the blend.
Vintage Brut - In a vintage Champagne, 100% of the grapes are from the year indicated. Interestingly, no more than 80% of any year’s harvest can be sold as vintage Champagne, ensuring that 20% from of the best year’s wines are conserved for future blending into the house’s non-vintage wines.
Blanc de Blanc - literally “white of whites”, wine produced entirely from Chardonnay grapes. The best are from the Cote de Blanc area between Cramant and Le-Mesnil-sur-Oger. These possess the best aging potential of all the Champagnes.
Blanc de Noirs - made entirely from Pinot Noir or Pinot Muenier, or a blend of the two.
Rosé - this can be made by blending white wine with small amounts of red, or by brief maceration on the skins.
Single Vineyard – sourced from one vineyard, such as Krug Clos de Mesnil or Phillipponat Clos de Goisses, these are rare and expensive.
Still Wine - a small amount of red wine from Pinot Noir is produced. It carries the separate Appellation Coteaux Champenoise. Very little is seen on the market, the best known is the “Bouzy Rouge” from the village of the same name.
CHAMPAGNE BOTTLE SIZES
1/4 bottle 185ml
1/2 bottle 375 ml
1 bottle 750ml
Magnum 2 bottles 1.5 litres
Jeroboam 4 bottles 3 litres
Rehoboam 6 bottles 4.5 litres
Methuselah 8 bottles 6 litres
Salmanazah 12 bottles 9 litres
Balthazar 16 bottles 12 litres
Nebuchadnezzar 20 bottles 15 litres
The allowed varietals are:
Pinot Noir for structure 30% of plantings
Chardonnay for finesse 25% of plantings
Pinot Meunier for fruit character 45% of plantings
|Extra Brut: 0-6 g/l.||Brut: 5-15 g/l.||Extra Dry or Extra Sec: 12-20 g/l|
|Bone dry||Dry to very dry||Confusing because this is dry to medium-dry|
|Sec or Dry: 17-35 g/l||Demi-Sec: 35-50 g/l||Doux: 50+ g/l|
|Medium to medium-sweet||Sweet||Very sweet (no longer commercially produced)|
A Look at South Australia
The Australian wine industry is currently in a state of flux, with large volume export brands facing price increases and shortages of fruit due to the prolonged drought that has affected the winegrowing regions of the country. Meanwhile, estate bottled, family owned wineries continue to produce small quantities of high quality wine that speaks of where it comes from and often is sourced from very old vines. The focus in the future will be on regionality, and this is the first of a few looks that I will take at the individual states that produce Australia’s fine wine.
The state of South Australia is the most productive wine region in the country, responsible for over 60% of Australia’s total wine output, with a large part of this number being made up of bulk wines from the prodigious Riverland area. It is a region known also for its high quality districts, and some of the greatest and most expensive wines in the country are from here, namely, Penfold’s Grange and Henschke’s Hill of Grace. The vine was first planted in what is now metropolitan Adelaide in 1837, and by the mid-1850s was being cultivated in the Southern Vales, the Clare Valley, and the Barossa Valley.
Climate: In the Riverland area it is intensely hot, while the Clare and Barossa Valleys are less extreme but still quite hot and dry. The areas around Adelaide are tempered somewhat by cooling ocean breezes. Coonawarra is somewhat cooler, but still dry. The annual rainfall for the entire state is low.
Soil and Aspect: in the Riverland and Adelaide areas, sandy loam over red earth, with limestone-marl subsoil; in the Barossa Valley, sand, loam and clay with clay subsoils; in Coonawarra, a thick limestone subsoil covered with a red-stained mineral and limestone topsoil known as terra rossa. Vines are grown on all types of topography, from the flat plains around Adelaide to the slopes of the Barossa Valley.
Viticulture and Winemaking: in the Riverland, high yields and bulk-production methods rule, while in other regions a number of quality-conscious producers practice the highest level of vine management, yield control, and vinification techniques in an effort to produce arguably some of the world’s greatest wines.
A Super Zone, including Mt Lofty Ranges, Fleurie, and Barossa.
Mount Lofty Ranges
Adelaide Hills: located in the Mount Lofty Range just east of Adelaide with Mount Pleasant in the center and Lenswood, and Piccadilly in the south. The region is rapidly growing in importance for the production of super-premium table and sparkling wine. The climate is cool, with altitude being the major influence. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Rhine Riesling are the top varietals, and, depending on aspect, some excellent Cabernet and Merlot.
Adelaide Plains & Adelaide Metropolitan Area: the growth of the city has encroached upon the surrounding vineyards, and for the most part, they have all been torn up. The only one of note still extant is Penfold’s Magill vineyard- the onetime source for the legendary Grange of old.
Clare Valley: A beautiful area, with gently rolling hills, this is the northernmost of the state’s wine regions, and the hottest and driest, although cool afternoon breezes play a major role in helping to slow down ripening. Vineyards were planted here in 1852, and many are not irrigated, resulting in very low-yields, and intensely-flavored and robustly-textured red wines from Cabernet and Shiraz. Riesling, an important varietal in the Clare, is also widely planted, and many of Australia’s very best are from here. A number of world-class producers call Clare Valley home.
Barossa Valley: Not only the most important wine-producing region in the state, but in the entire country. It is the oldest of South Australia’s wine areas, with vineyards planted in 1847. The climate is hot and dry, and most vines are planted on flatlands at an altitude of 800-1000 ft. There are two basic soil types: brown, loamy sand to clay loam, and more sandy soils from a light brown-gray to dark-brown gray. Traditional viticulture (bush pruning, no irrigation) results in low yields of high quality grapes. Shiraz is king here, with old-vine plantings producing wines of deep color and weight, in fact, the top examples are arguably the best Syrah-based wines in the world other than those of Cote-Rotie and Hermitage. Cabernets are also excellent, and some very good Chardonnays and Semillons can be found from higher-altitude vineyards. Old vine Grenache and Mourvedre are also in high demand, which is ironic being that hundreds of acres were grubbed up during the vine-pull of the 1980s.
Eden Valley: The appellation, to the east of the Barossa valley and separated by a range of hills that varies between 400 meters at Keyneton to 500 meters high at the southern end of the Eden Valley, includes the subregions of Keyneton, Eden Valley and Springton, from north to south. Growing season temperatures are lower than those of the Barossa Valley, and the final stages of ripening take place in much cooler conditions. The famous Henschke Winery produces stunning reds here from its Hill of Grace vineyard and its Keyneton estate. The northern and central section of the valley is renowned for its whites, particularly Viogner and Riesling. Chardonnay is also excellent, and Pinot Noir is coming on strong.
Langehorne Creek: lies within the Fleurieu Zone just south of Adelaide. Lake Alexandria marks its southern edge and the vineyards extend 40 km north to the township of Langhorne Creek. The region mainly consists of flood plain. The soil is fine, fertile and deep, having been deposited by the Bremer and Angus rivers over eons, thus making it a very good region for horticultural production in general. The region has an irrigation system that also serves as a flood control system. Langehorne Creek is a very good area for soft, fruity, medium bodied reds, particularly Shiraz, and Cabernet Sauvignon–with its minty overtones it is the most significant product of the region.
McLaren Vale: beginning south of Adelaide and extending due south, this area is one of the most richly varied in Australia. Chateau Reynella planted its first vines here in 1838, and ever since the region has been known for its big, chewy, full-bodied Cabernets, Cabernet-Merlots, and Shiraz. It is home to more small wineries than anywhere else in the country, and a number of them are also producing some excellent whites from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. Indeed, the region has many varieties planted, Malbec, Merlot, Chardonnay, Semillon, Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Verdelho to name a few. There is much diversity in the grapes, reflecting the different soil types and topography. Sandy soils are on the coast, ironstone in the hills and red/brown earths on the flats. The altitude also varies from the coast to the Mount Lofty Ranges at around 350m
Currency Creek: this region on the Fleurieu Peninsula extends from Port Elliot in the west to the shores of Lake Alexandria in the east. Geographical features include three islands, the controversial Hindmarsh, Mundoo and Long islands, Murray Mouth where the Murray River meets the sea and Lake Alexandria. This is a young region with vineyards being established in the past 30 years. The main grape varieties are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. Although the climate is Mediterranean, it is surrounded by water, which moderates the temperature. The region depends on dams and bores as rainfall is insufficient during the growing season.
Kangaroo Island: the main vineyard area is on the north side of the island near the island’s largest town, Kingscote. The island industry is very young, with most vineyards being established post 1993. The climate is maritime, marked by strong winds and moderate humidity. The winter is cool and wet, the summer hot and dry. The island is well known for its red/orange ironstone soils as well as sandy loams that are rather alkaline. The main varieties grown are Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz.
Limestone Coast Zone
Padthaway: located just north of Coonawarra, this region is also called by its original name of Keppoch. Its potential as a top-quality wine region was recognized in the late 1970s, and excellent wines of all types come from here, particularly whites from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling and reds from Cabernet and Shiraz.
Coonawarra: Until recently the most southerly of the state’s wine districts, and the most recognized the world over of Australia’s fine wine regions. The combination of a relatively cool climate, which resembles that of Bordeaux, with terra rossa soil make this a perfect region for Cabernet Sauvignon production, and many of the country’s best are from here. The first vineyard was planted by John Riddoch in 1861, but it is interesting to note that from 1890 to 1945, most of the wine produced here was distilled into brandy! It wasn’t until the late 1950s that a number of producers recognized the potential of the area and began buying vineyard land in earnest. Coonawarra was entered onto the Register of Protected Names after an eight-year battle over boundaries. The fight was protracted because the name Coonawarra is world famous and because that fame comes from the earth. The famous Terra Rossa is red-brown topsoil laid over a thin layer of calcrete (calcium carbonate) sitting on a white limestone base. This soil gives the wine its unique terrior. Black soil areas are interspersed amongst the Terra Rossa and these soils produce quite different wines. And there lay the difficulty, how to impose bureaucratic neatness on nature. It should be noted that there is now a subregion called Wrattonbully, bordering the northern boundary of Coonawarra.
Mount Benson: this is a small but rapidly growing wine region. The region shows promise with its citrus infused whites and its highly colored and fragrant reds. The zone is centered between the towns of Kingston and Robe. The region is one of the youngest in Australia with most vineyard development occurring in the late 1990s. This is a cool climate region marked by strong winds across the Southern Ocean, cold, wet winters and spring frosts.
A Look at Central Italy
Tuscany, once the bastion of tradition, with a rich and proud heritage that dates back to the Etruscans, has become Italy’s most dynamic innovator in wine. Where less than 30 years ago the world thought of the classic straw-flask Chianti when it thought of Tuscany, today the image conjures up the great DOCGs of Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Carmignano Rosso Riserva, and the only recently officially classified “Super Tuscans.”
The story of these wines began in 1948 when the Marchese Incisa della Rochetta first produced wine from Cabernet Sauvignon vines reputedly from Ch. Lafite Rothschild. It was an attempt to produce top-quality Italian wine from a classic varietal, albeit one that was not traditionally Tuscan. It became so successful that in the wake of the 1971 vintage, Piero Antinori produced a blend of Sangiovese with 20% Cabernet, aged in barrique, as a compromise between Tuscany and Bordeaux, calling it Tignanello. It combines the bright fruit of the Tuscan varietal with the brooding depth and structure of the Bordelaise, and set off a vino da tavola revolution. As more producers, particularly from Chianti, began making their best wines outside of the DOC laws, the government faced the embarrassing situation of all the great wines being labeled as table wine, even those made from 100% Sangiovese. With the passing of the Goria Law, the introduction of IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) and the 1996 re-writing of the Chianti DOCG laws, the door has opened for producers to begin producing their top wines under the DOC umbrella and restore luster to the appellations, particularly Chianti.
Viticulture flourished in Tuscany with the Etruscans, a tribe of people who inhabited the north-central part of Italy from the 8th century BC until being absorbed by the Romans from the 3rd century BC onwards. The Etruscans were influenced by the culture of the Greek colonies that lived on the southern part of the Italian peninsula, and imported pottery from them to use in the storage of wine, and celebrated in elaborate drinking and dining parties that were recorded on paintings that covered the walls of their tombs. They also exported wine, most notably to the south of France, where the distinct amphorae they used for containers have been unearthed in archaeological digs.
Roman culture thrived here until the fall of the empire in the 4th century AD. Vineyards and olive groves remained during the Dark Ages, maintained largely by the Vallombrosan Monasteries who would often lease the land to sharecroppers (Badia a Coltibuono and Badia a Passignano are two of the remaining monasteries of that era). Increasingly, aristocracy and merchants from Florence and Siena began gaining ownership of vineyard land, and the wine trade began to increase in the two towns. Due to the mass migration of the population from the country, they had grown into great city-states (the population of Florence grew from 6,000 to 90,000 between the 11th and 14th centuries). The earliest reference to wine retailers in the city dates from 1079, and by 1282 the wine merchants had formed a guild, the Arte dei Vinattieri. The wine trade became a crucial part of Florence’s economy, and in the 14th century over 7.9 million gallons per year entered the city.
The emergence of the areas’ most well-known wines began around this time as well. References to Brunello exist from the late 14th century, and the two most important white wines were called “Vernaccia” and “Trebbiano,” after their respective grape varieties. The first mention of Chianti and Carmignano was in 1398—Chianti was at the time a white wine! By 1685, however, Chianti was recognized as a prized red, and, along with Vernaccia, Carmignano, and Montepulciano, was praised in Bacco in Toscana (Bacchus in Tuscany) by Francesco Redi.
Today, Tuscany boasts a number of top quality and world-renowned winegrowing areas.
BRUNELLO di MONTALCINO DOCG produces a majestic red from the Brunello clone of Sangiovese (locally Sangioveto) from the town of Montalcino, and is one of Italy’s most highly prized, expensive, and sought-after wines.
CARMIGNANO DOCG, just west of Florence, was recognized in 1716 by the Grand Duchy of Tuscany as one of the first wine zones in all of Europe, and it received its DOCG in 1990. What sets the wine apart from other Tuscan reds is that it was the first wine to include Cabernet Sauvignon in its blend, the varietal having been planted there in the 18th century as Uva Francesca.
CHIANTI DOCG is Italy’s best known wine, and is produced in most of central Tuscany in the hills that extend from north of Florence to south of Siena, between the coastal range and the Apennines. There are seven subzones in all, plus Classico. Of the seven subzones other than Classico, Rufina, the smallest, produces the highest-quality wines.
CHIANTI CLASSICO DOCG is in the midst of its third lifecycle. The first was the onset of phylloxera in the mid-19th century, the second was the disastrous replanting of the vineyards a generation ago. In the 1960s, in an effort to satisfy the demand for wine (per capita consumption in Italy at that time was over 120 liters, today it is less than 40) an ill-conceived plan was hatched by the government to rip up and replace vines, using inferior, high-yielding clones of Sangiovese, low-density planting, and high-yield training. This, plus the fact that Sangiovese easily mutates, resulted in the wrong clones producing a wine style that bordered on downright mean.
By the 1990s it was clear that something needed to be done. The regions’ producers embarked upon an ambitious replanting project called “Chianti 2000”, and today the transformation is starting to show itself, with superior clones being planted at high-density spacing.
New rules for the region do not allow the use of white grapes. A minimum of 80% Sangiovese is required, with up to 100% allowed. The rules also allow the use of up to 15% “non-traditional” varieties, thus opening the door for many of the Super Tuscans to be bottled under the DOCG.
ELBA ALEATICO PASSITO DOCG: Dessert wine from dried grapes, from 100% Aleatico grapes. Minimum alcohol 19% potential and 11.5% actual, with 30% minimum residual sugar.
VERNACCIA di SAN GIMIGNANO DOCG produces a white wine from the ancient Vernaccia vine grown around the town of San Gimignano, famous for the stone towers that rise above it like medieval skyscrapers. This was Italy’s first DOC, and it received DOCG status in 1993.
VINO NOBILE di MONTEPULCIANO DOCG was described as the “king of all wines” by the poet Francesco Redi in the 1600s, Vino Nobile only began living up to its name recently, with a new generation of winemakers taking full advantage of the zone’s potential and making a huge turn for the better. The wine bears a family resemblance to Chianti Classico and Brunello, since its mainstay is the Prugnolo Gentile, a clone of Sangiovese, but the addition of Canaiolo softens the wine and Mammolo adds a hint of violets.
MORELLINO di SCANSANO DOCG is the wine made from the hills southeast of Grosseto around Scansano and Montemerano, from a local clone of Sangiovese called Morellino with the possible addition of Canaiolo and Malvasia Nera. The wines can be quite Brunello-like, with thick, ripe fruit and the potential to age very well.
BOLGHERI DOC is located on the sea in the western part of the state. This area became known as the home of Sassicaia, the famous Cabernet-based wine, aged in barriques, from the Marchese Incisa della Rocchetta’s Tenuta San Guido estate, made by the famed oenologist Giacomo Tachis. When the 1968 vintage was released in the early 70s, it won numerous blind tastings (over first-growth Bordeaux) and put Italy on the map as a potential producer of world-class reds. The Marchesi’s nephew, Lodovico Antinori (Piero’s brother), founded the Guado al Tasso estate in the mid-70s and began producing Ornellaia, another world-famous wine. Sassicaia, which in 1994 became Italy’s first-ever single-estate DOC, is due for DOCG status soon. A number of famous winemakers have purchased vineyards here, and the region is destined to continue its high quality trend.
Wine has been made in Umbria, known as “the green heart of Italy,” since pre-Roman times, when the Etruscans and the Umbri, who gave the region its name, held territories on either side of the Tiber river. By the Renaissance the wines of Narni, Montefalco, Terni and Spello had earned high praise, but Orvieto overshadowed them all, and remains the most famous, if not necessarily the best, wine from the region.
Umbria is the home of green, rolling hills and perfectly preserved medieval villages, and in fact bears a striking resemblance to its neighbor, Tuscany. The lime-rich soils and relatively cool climate make a perfect environment for the cultivation of fine wine grapes, but Umbria has lagged behind in production, especially compared to Tuscany (producing only one-third as much wine) and Latium. Agriculture is still the main farm economy, and seems likely to remain so. Nonetheless, this region produces some of Italy’s finest wines, from a wide variety of grapes. Whites dominate the equation, with 80% of the DOC (Orvieto alone makes up two-thirds of the total DOC production for both white and red), but the reds of Torgiano Rosso Riserva and Montefalco Sagrantino, both DOCGs, provide an example of the quality that can be achieved here.
The Apennine mountains surround Umbria is a lush, green upland at the center of the Italian peninsula. There are abundant lakes, rivers, and streams, but no outlet to the sea (it is the only region in Italy south of the Alps that is landlocked). The vineyards all lie above 1000 feet planted in soil of calcareous clay and sand, rich in limestone deposits. There is plenty of rain during the cold months and the summers are cooled by breezes, so the vineyards do not become overheated and the drought that can affect coastal climates is not as intense here.
Umbria can be divided into two main areas. The first comprises six DOC zones in and around the hills of Perugia, near the Tiber and Topino valleys and around Lake Trasimeno to the northwest. The second has two DOCs, and includes Orvieto and southern Umbria.
MONTEFALCO SAGRANTINO DOCG: this somewhat mysterious wine was nearly unheard of when it received a DOCG in 1992. It is made from 100% Sagrantino grapes, grown on the best-exposed hillsides outside of the town of Montefalco. The origin of the varietal is uncertain, some say that it is indigenous, others that it was brought by either Franciscan monks or Saracen invaders. The name comes from sagra (Italian for feast or festival), since the wine was traditionally made in a rich, sweet passito style, and was reserved for celebrations. The main thrust now is to a dry style, almost Amarone-like in its intensity and power, with a deep color, voluptuous body and pure blackberry flavors. From top producers such as Adanti, Antonelli and Caprai the wines can remain elegant and drinkable for many years. Both dry and sweet styles are produced, with the latter bearing the passito designation. Aging: 2.5 years, 1 in wood.
ORVIETO DOC: one of the most famous Italian white wines, Orvieto is from the zone around the hill town of the same name. The Classico district is in the immediate environs of the village, and the rest of the zone extends north along the Paglia and south along the Tiber into Latium. The wine, made from Procanico, Verdello, Grechetto and others, was traditionally golden-colored and somewhat sweet. Today most versions are made in a pale, dry style that can be somewhat neutral in flavor, although fine examples are being produced by a handful of estates. The best are from the Classico district, and show a combination of fruit and elegance.
In addition to the dry version, three styles of sweet wine are made: the off dry to semi-sweet abboccato, the sweeter amabile, and the sweet dolce, made partly from botrytis-affected grapes. Orvieto is one of the few regions in Italy where the “noble rot” attacks the grapes left on the vine or on racks to shrivel, and the 100% botrytized muffato, while extremely rare, offers a Sauternes-like concentration and depth of flavor.
Latium, the ancient homeland of the Latins, is also home to the city of Rome, the seat of Italy’s government and administration. It is an ancient wine region, with an illustrious history centered around the Romans, the Papal seat, poets and scholars. In the old days, the verdant vineyards of the Castelli Romani zone, located in the hills southeast of the city, produced soft, fleshy, golden-colored wines whose full flavors complimented the spicy dishes of Roman cuisine. The wines were fragile and did not travel well, however, and gradually were replaced by the crisp, white blends of Trebbiano and Malvasia that we see today. Latium’s days as a truly important and influential center of production have long since passed, and today the region is known more for the quantities of Frascati and Est!Est!!Est!!! di Montefiascone that are consumed by tourists and exported to a thirsty world.
Over 90% of the production here is white, and the wines of the Castelli Romani make up most of that. The few reds that are produced can be of extremely high quality, but rarely fall under the DOC, and are produced in very small quantities. CESANESE DEL PIGLIO DOCG was promoted (out of nowhere!) in 2008, this is the first DOCG classification in Lazio. The wine is a blend of Cesanese di Affile and/or Cesanese Comune (90-100%), as well as optionally one or more other permitted varieties (up to 10%). If matured for at least 20 months (6 mo in bottle), it may be called a Riserva.
Emilia-Romagna is located in east-central Italy, to the north of Tuscany. Much of the region lies in the deep, alluvial plain of the Po river, and contains some of Italy’s most fertile agricultural land—giving rise to a rich cuisine and a race of hearty eaters. It spans two individual and historically separate states, with the capital of Bologna acting as a kind of dividing point between them. To the east, bordering the Adriatic Sea, is Romagna, which stretches from Ferrara in the north through Faenza, Forli, Ravenna, and Cesena to Rimini on the coast at he south of the region. To the west, along the Apennines, lies Emilia, the home of such well-known towns as Modena, Reggio, Parma and Piacenza. The two regions still have loyalists that claim separate identities and indigenous cultures, but share enough in common to exist as a hyphenated state. The meeting ground is a love of food and drink, and the world is long familiar with such specialties as Parma ham, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and the most precious product of all, Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, or Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, which must be aged at least 12 years in various small barrels before it can be sold. It can reach heights of intensity of aroma and flavor that has never been duplicated.
Emilia-Romagna is a prolific region of wine production, and ranks with Sicily, Apulia, and Veneto in terms of sheer volume. Only 13% is DOC, however, and the locals tend to view the wines as bountiful, easy-drinking accompaniments to the large meals that are regularly consumed. The Emilians are firm believers in the digestive qualities of sparkling wine, both white and red, from Malvasia to Lambrusco. The Romagnans are justly proud of their DOCG Albana di Romagna, and the region is also known for a number of other wines that bear its name, among them Trebbiano di Romagna and Sangiovese di Romagna. Overall, most wines are made for early consumption, with a few reds showing the ability to age.
The highland hills of Abruzzo are well-suited to growing grapes, and growers here have taken advantage of this fact by achieving preposterously high yields for most of their crops. Irrigation forces production beyond the limits of quality—the average yield here is Italy’s highest—133ha/ha! Only the efforts begun by Edoardo Valenti have brought about a change towards fine wine production. Since farmers here were traditionally grape growers, as opposed to winemakers, most found it convenient to join co-ops, which account for over 2/3 of total production.
Montepulciano or Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is a grape native to the area, despite the confusing name synonymous with the Tuscan town and the coinciding (and false) theory that it is a mutation of Sangiovese. It was probably named by Tuscan wool traders a century ago. It is Abruzzo’s only fine wine grape, with the potential to produce full-bodied, mellow reds with low acidity and round, full tannins. The wines are certainly capable of aging well.
There is one DOCG:
MONTEPULCIANO d’ABRUZZO COLLINE TERAMANE DOCG: made from a minimum of 90% Montepulciano with up to 10% Sangiovese, from vines situated in the hilly area around the commune of Teramo. The wine must be aged for two years before release, three for Riserva, one of which must be in bottle.
The Marches is a beautiful region located on the Adriatic Sea at the easternmost edge of the central Italian section that stretches from Tuscany through Umbria to the sea. It shares the hilly, almost mountainous terrain of its neighbors (the Umbro Marchigiano Apennines lie along its western border) until the land flattens out and becomes the lovely band of coastline that beckons vacationers from all over the world. The weather is temperate, and the land shares that sense of easiness with the demeanor of the people who live there, and their wine and food. The balanced diet, produced from the land and the sea, is washed down by good amounts of well-made, classy wine. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Marchigiani, who consume more wine per capita than any other Italian region, also live the longest.
Vines have grown here since the Iron Age, and Etruscan-style viticulture thrived here before the Roman conquest in the third century BC. Before that the Greeks, who founded what is now the capital of Ancona, fashioned voluminous amounts of wine from the productive vineyards and shipped them in clay amphorae, whose shape, many centuries later, would inspire the bottle that made Verdicchio famous.
It is Verdicchio that put the region on the map. Known since the fourth century AD, when, legend has it, Alaric, king of the invading Visigoths, used it to fortify his troops as they crossed the Apennines to sack Rome. The varietal has long established a reputation as the perfect fish wine. In the 1950s Fazi-Battiglia came up with the idea of bottling it in the now-famous green amphorae bottle, and its popularity grew to the point that it became a fixture at nearly every Italian restaurant in the world. By the late 1970s, however, consumers began shunning the product, unfairly lumping the ubiquitous bottle in with the equally well-recognized straw flask of cheap Chianti. The top producers, faced with a dilemma, improved the quality even further and began shipping their wines in a standard bottle. The turnaround worked, and today Verdicchio ranks as one of the best whites from Italy, and certainly an incredible value.
Most of the region is mountainous, with the Apennines dominating the land to the west. Between them and the flat strip of sandy beaches on the coast lie a band of hills 30 kilometers wide upon which most of the vineyards are planted. Many rivers drain from these hills. The overall climate is reliably temperate, although the summer can occasionally see drought conditions.
Currently there are four DOCG regions in Marche:
CONERO DOCG: from Mount Conero and nearby slopes to the south of Ancona comes this Montepulciano-based wine (minimum 85% with Sangiovese up to 15%) that illustrates the supremacy of the grape along the Adriatic. Deep color, full body, round flavor, and the ability to age into a gracefully powerful wine make this a true contender for the upper echelon of Italy’s finest reds, and an incredible value. A number of top-notch producers make stunning wines. Garofoli’s Piancarda and Agontano set the standard, Umani Ronchi’s Cumaro and San Lorenzo, Le Terrazze’s Sassi Neri, and Mecella’s Rubelliano are equally outstanding.
VERNACCIA di SERRAPETRONA DOCG: a sparkling red wine, produced in both dry (Rosso Spumante Secco) and sweet (Rosso Spumante Dolce) versions, from the local Vernaccia Nera grape (minimum 85%) around the town of Serrapetrona. The wine has a long history and must be made by drying 40% of the grapes on straw mats before fermentation commences.
VERDICCHIO DI MATELICA RISERVA DOCG: this zone lies on the southwest-facing slopes of the upper reaches of the Esino river in the central Apennines. The soil is different here than that of Castelli di Jesi, being made up of more chalk, marine deposits, and trace minerals.The wines, from a minimum of 85% Verdicchio (up to 15% Trabbiano and/or Malvasia) are somewhat fatter, weightier, and more powerful than those from Castelli dei Jesi. Verdicchio di Matelica Riserva must be aged for 24 months (4 in bottle) before release.
VERDICCHIO DEI CASTELLI DI JESI DOCG and VERDICCHIO DEI CASTELLI DI JESI RISERVA DOCG: this justly famous wine, from a minimum 85% Verdicchio (the rest being either Trebbiano and/or Malvasia) comes from the hills around the town of Jesi in the eastern-central part of Marches. There is a classico district takes in all but the northwestern part of the zone. The soil is largely clay and marl. Undoubtedly one of Italy’s noble whites, it is often sold by top producers as single-vineyard or special cuvees. While the wines range from light and crisp to full and rich, they all share a vibrant personality and style. Wine with the riserva designation must be aged for at least two years before release, with six months in bottle.
Molise is a poor region, with hills that have been inhabited for over 700,000 years by a tough, fiercely independent people that have kept their rustic wine to themselves. It was part of Abruzzi until 1963, and it did not receive its first DOC until the early 1980s. The sunny hillsides between the Adriatic Sea and the Apennines are a perfect environment for the vine, and the potential is great here for wines of high quality.
The History of Syrah
The origin of the name of the grape Syrah or Shiraz has been the subject of much debate and speculation. It may have originated near the city of Shiraz in Persia, where the wine making process is thought to have originated 7,000 years ago. Other possible origins include Egypt, picking up the name traveling through Syracuse in Sicily on its way to the Rhône Valley. Historical accounts say that the varietal was brought into southern France by a returning crusader, Guy De’Sterimberg. He developed a vineyard on a steep hill where he lived in the Rhône River Valley, now known as Hermitage. In actuality, a vine known as “Allobrogica” was cultivated in the Northern Rhône by the Gallic tribe of Allobroges during the Roman Empire. It seems to have been selected from vines growing wild in the locality. The wine rapidly gained a reputation for fine quality and an unusual tarry flavor. At some point it seems to have developed into the vine we know as Syrah. In 1998, the University of California, Davis conducted a study that concluded that the grape variety in its modern cultivated form indeed originated in the vicinity of the Northern Rhône valley of France, as the result of a cross of the “Dureza” and “Mondeuse Blanche” grape varieties; and in 2001, using DNA analysis, this was proven to be the case.
In the last half of the 18th and first half of the 19th Centuries, there were small but significant amounts of Syrah planted on the Left Bank of Bordeaux, at châteaux as eminent as Lafite, Latour and Cos d’Estournel. Syrah was also brought in from the Northern Rhône and blended into many wines from the region, adding color and structure to wines; the resulting “improved” wines were described as “Hermitagé.” Wine merchant Nathaniel Johnston, wrote in the early 1800s, “The Lafitte of 1795, which was made up with Hermitage, was the best liked wine of that year.”
Today, France and Australia are responsible for most of the Syrah/Shiraz acreage in the world. In France, Syrah dominates the Northern Rhône bottlings and is a major component of the Southern Rhône blends. Syrah is also bottled as a varietal in the Languedoc. California, Washington state, Chile and South Africa are also experiencing considerable success with the variety, and expansion of Syrah/Shiraz plantings in these countries continues.
The vine is productive and fairly disease resistant; it buds late and ripens early to mid-season. It does best on shallow, rocky, well-drained soils. Care must be taken to discourage high yields, or else its deep color and fine black fruit flavors will be lost. In too cool a climate an unpleasant root vegetable flavor dominates; when left to ripen too long on the vine, acidity and aroma are depleted.
Winegrowers in the Northern Rhône maintain that there are two distinct clones of Syrah; the smaller berried, superior version known as Petite Syrah (no relation to the North American Petite Sirah, which is Durif), and the larger berried, Grosse Syrah, which produces wines with a much lower concentration of phenolics - levels of which Syrah is famous for - pigments in the grape can be up to 40% higher than the dark-skinned Carignan. Syrah is also high in flavor precursors called glucosyl-glucoses, which are unique to the varietal.
Syrah is grown throughout the Rhône valley, which draws its name from the Rhône River. The region is located just south of Burgundy, and stretches south from Lyon to the town of Avignon. There, the Rhône region ends and the winemaking region of Provence begins. Winemaking in the Rhône region dates back more than 2,500 years. The Greeks may have introduced viticulture and the Viognier grape to this area as early as the 6th century BC. By 100 BC, the Romans had occupied the area and were making wine from the Syrah grape. Terraced vineyards dating to the Roman occupation still exist in the northern Rhône.
Today, vineyards extend along the banks of the Rhône River in two distinct growing areas; the northern Rhône and the southern Rhône – separated by a distance of about 20 miles. In the north, the climate is Continental, with cool winters and warm summers, and can be
marginal in some years. The sites take advantage of sheltered, steep slopes to gain maximum exposure to the sun, and protection from the fierce Mistral wind. The Southern Rhône is hotter and drier, and care must be taken that the grape does not become overripe.
In the north, the wines can vary greatly. The differences in site, such as exposure, soil quality and changes in the slope produce different styles of wine. Young Syrah often smells of exotic flowers, smoke, black pepper, rosemary, blackberries and even dark raspberries. In Côte-Rôtie, the smoke and perfume jumps to the forefront, while Hermitage has more minerals and richness, with black fruit. Both appellations produce extraordinary wines that may require a decade of aging to reach their full maturity. St.-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage and Cornas also produce fine quality wines. Cornas is the darkest and most robust, with the other two offering somewhat lighter, peppery versions.
In recent years, Syrah has been planted more extensively in the hotter Southern Rhône, where it takes a second seat to Grenache. It’s also widely cultivated in the Languedoc-Roussillon region and is often blended with Southern France varietals such as Carignan and Mourvedre, and with international grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Shiraz grape was introduced to Australia in 1832 by a Scottish immigrant named James Busby. During a trip to Europe, he collected more than 400 vine cuttings and brought them back with him. Syrah was one of the most successful at adapting to the hot, dry conditions of Australia. Today it is the country’s most popular red grape.
Australians began to focus on making fine table wines in 1950. They set out to produce a red wine in the French Bordeaux style. However, they used the Syrah grape (rather than Cabernet Sauvignon) and American oak (rather than French) to create a sensational fruity and flavorful wine. Australians renamed the Syrah grape from the Rhône region in France with their own lingo, “Shiraz.”
However, Shiraz has not always been the favorite varietal in Australia; during the 1980s, Cabernet Sauvignon was considered the nobler black grape and white wine was so popular that growers, aided by a government-sponsored vine-pull scheme, ripped out unprofitable Shiraz and Grenache vineyards. Several factors, including the success of a handful of major Australian brands, were responsible for plantings dramatically expanding in the1990s.
Today, South Australian regions tend to be the most highly regarded for Shiraz in Australia. Regions such as the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and the Clare Valley are consistently producing some of the country’s best Shiraz and have done so for several decades. These regions produce very full bodied, high alcohol wines (between 13.5 and 16%).
Notable Victorian regions include Heathcote, roughly 2 hours north of Melbourne and Bendigo, roughly 1.5 hours north of Melbourne. Cooler climate regions such as Western Australia’s Margaret River produce Shiraz with marginally less alcohol content and often in a more traditional French style.
Australian Shiraz styles range from simple but delicious light wines with fresh strawberry fruit flavors to chocolate and blueberry jam flavored, heady fruit bombs. A handful of producers make serious, more complex wines that need time to evolve.
A newcomer to the California wine scene, Syrah has gained in popularity only in the last decade with the state’s wineries shipping 1.2 million cases to the U.S. in 2004. Within the United States, wine produced from the grape is often called by its French name, Syrah. However, when the winemaker chooses to follow a New World style, they may choose to label their wine as a Shiraz. Either name may appear on the label according to American wine laws. Syrah appeared as a varietal in California in the 1970s, where it was planted by a group of viticulturists who referred to themselves as the “Rhône Rangers.” Although the majority of the plantings of Syrah are in California, there are increasing amounts of it being grown in Washington state, where it is now as important as Merlot.
California Syrahs, similar to those in France, vary considerably due to the climate and terroir that they inhabit. In very warm regions, such as parts of Napa, the wine is often blended with other Rhône varieties. Other appellations, primarily mountainous ones, often produce varietal-based wines that stand on their own.
Rest of the World
Shiraz is being planted in increasing quantities in South Africa, helped by the availability of better clones. Paarl and Stellenbosch are the main regions for the style, which tends more towards Australian fruit than Rhône complexity.
Both Argentina and Chile have seen increasing plantings, with good promise in both countries. The main impediment to quality is high yields. In Chile, areas in the rocky foothills of the Andes, like Apalta in the Rapel Valley, are producing excellent examples of deeply-colored, floral scented, black fruit Syrah.
Syrah is planted in small quantities all over Italy and blends well with local varieties such as Sangiovese and Nero d’Avola. In Tuscany it also produces some top-class wines, such as Fontodi’s Case Via.