Friday, December 30, 2011

Select list of the best wines tasted in 2011

Over the last few weeks I have seen a number of articles on the best wines of 2011 but hard as I looked, I couldn't find any of the wines that had moved me during the past year.  So I decided to create my own list.  This is a list of the best wines I tasted in 2011, regardless of vintage.  These wines were, for the most part, consumed at our Orlando tasting events and were acclaimed wines of the flight, and in some cases, wine of the night, by our tasting panels.  There is no preferential ranking implied other than chronological. So here goes.  

The first set of wines is drawn from our 13-vintage Dominus tasting:
  • Dominus 1984 Nose of ripe red fruit. Earthy. Sweet fruit, coffee, tobacco, and earth in the mouth.
  • Dominus 1992 Beautiful nose of cassis fruits, cedar, earth, and coffee. Nicely balanced with good fruit structure.
  • Dominus 1994 Yes it was richer and more opulent than the 1991. Huge ripe black fruits, spice, earth, and truffle with amazing texture and a super-long finish.
  • Dominus 2007 Nose of sweet ripe red fruits and licorice. Richer and denser on the palate than both the 2005 and the 2006.
The next wine on the list was tasted as a part of the Italian Wine Merchant's tasting held at my home:
  • Valpolicella Superiore 2001 from legendary producer Giuseppe Quintarelli. Aged for six (6) years in Slovenian oak, this wine did not reach the marketplace until eight (8) years post-harvest, a massive amount of time for a Valpolicella. The wine is made in the Ripasso style, where the finished Valpolicella wine is passed through the pomace (crushed grapes, skins, etc.) from the production of Amarone. The wine was phenomenal, presenting a nose of flowers, dried fruit, dark caramel, and figs. The aromas carried over to the palate, with some hints of earth and licorice added for good measure.
The 1982 Bordeaux tasting held at the Bull and Bear yielded quite a few gems:
  • L'Evangile 1982. Aromas of dried rose petals, potpourri, acorn-fed meat, prosciutto, sugar cane, and cedar box. On the palate reinforcement of aromas along with a chocolate creaminess and  long finish. 
  • Leoville Las Cases 1982 had notes of of carmelized chocolate pudding, fresh pine, spice box, vanilla, and sweet tobacco.  This wine was concentrated, a "big boy." On the palate, stiff tannins with a rich, lush, long finish.  This wine was still in a youthful phase.
  • Cos d'Estournel 1982 Notes of black fruit.  Rich and concentrated with black olives showing through on the palate.  Balanced, with acidity and fruit retention.
  • Pichon Lalande 1982 Roasted pine nuts and coffee. Lush creaminess. Well balanced. Very long finish. 
  • La Mission Haut-Brion 1982 Notes of mushrooms, earth, tobacco, molasses, and dried stewed fruits.  Layered, complex, with a long finish.
  • Laville Haut-Brion 1982. Notes of crushed pineapple, ocean air, boat exhaust, linseed oil, and a certain waxiness. On the palate, freshness, gasoline, smoked lychees, stony minerality, volcanic ash. Dry, balancd finish. Vino da meditazione.
  • Ducru-Beaucaillou 2003 On the nose hints of chocolate, clove, and ripe fruit. On the palate a good mouthfeel, structure, and body with persistent soft tannins on the backend. This wine had a Napa structure -- a result of the heat in Bordeaux in 2003 -- without the jamminess and alcohol. Excellent finish.
  • Heitz Martha’s Vineyard 1985 This wine was huge and expansive on the nose. Hints of graphite, chocolate, leather, tobacco, asian spice and earth co-exist with a decided creaminess. The wine retains some acidity, is silky smooth, balanced, and elegant with a long finish. This is the way California wines used to be. 
  • Leonetti Reserve 2003 Raspberry and blackberry on the nose along with a certain creaminess.  The components of the wine hang together well.  Beef stock and petrol flavors. Well integrated tannins. Described by one panelist as "refreshing and in a perfect place in terms of development."
Two wines stood out at our Missing Link(s) tasting:
  • Magrez Fombrauge 2000 Aromatic. Ripe. Opulent. Surprisingly well balanced. Seamless and seductive.
  • Masseto 1996 Terroir-driven. Coffee. Smooth. Great texture and complexity. Grippiness. Concentrated but not weighty.
Flight winners from our 1996-vintage Champagne tasting sparkled:
  • Pol Roger Cuveé Sir William Churchill Brut 1996 This wine showed amazing balance, a laser-like focus on fruit and acidity, and notes of buttered apple and pear danish.
  • Deutz Cuveé William Rosé 1996 Freshest, most vibrant, and most open of the Rosés.  Rhubarb and sherry.
  • Krug Brut 1996 Off the charts in intensity.  Its bracing acidity, steely minerality, and fruit structure are reminiscent of a great Chablis.  Notes of toast, marrow, and sea shell.
Non-Sparkling wines from the  post-Champagne-tasting dinner:
  • Gruard Larose 1961 Cigar box, tar, minerals, brush.
  • Chateau Rayas Chateauneuf du Pape 2000 Meat, herbs, cherry, vanilla, brambles, cigar box, mint.
A number of wines tasted in less formal settings demand attention:
  • Fiorano 1985  Dark gold in color. Lively. Earthy. Waxy.
  • Antinori Solaia 2001 Blackcurrant, earth, coffee and vanilla.  Balanced wine with a smooth texture and a long finish.
  • Brunello di Montalcino Riserva Madonna del Piano 1999 Dark fruit, sweet tobacco, new leather and spices.
  • Brunello di Montalcino Riserva Madonna del Piano 2001 Ripe and fruit-endowed. Fine tannins. 
A number of wines deserving of honorable mention include 2004 Abreu Madrona Ranch, 2004 Abreu Thorevilos Vineyard, 2007 Ovid, and 1992 Guigal La Mouline.
    In discussing this list with Russell last night, his wine of the year was the Laville Haut-Brion 1982. I do not disagree with his choice as that was truly a phenomenal wine.  But by a thin margin I will give the nod to the 1982 L'Evangile, because every time I open a bottle of this wine it is orgasmic.

    So there it is.  Fire away.

    Thursday, December 29, 2011

    2011 Blog Year in Review and Foreshadowings of 2012

    This was a very satisfying year as I endeavored to share my learnings on wine and the wine world, colored as it is by my Orlando domicile.  It was satisfying because: (i) I exit the year knowing more about wine than I did at the beginning (yet this is but a drop in the bottomless wine-knowledge bucket); (ii) I secured my WSET Level 3 certification; (iii) I have been enriched by meeting and interacting with wine lovers from all corners of the world; and (iv) I have been able, through the platform that this blog provides, to share my experiences and learnings with other inquisitive wine lovers from around the world.

    Over the course of the year I have put pen to paper (or, more correctly, fingers to keyboard) 91 times (an average of 7.58 times per month, 1.75 times per week) to write posts of interest to me.  My posts were concentrated in the following broad categories (ranked by frequency): wine regions; wine tastings; wine culture; book reviews; and soils.  Posts not falling into one of these categories are lumped into a catch-all called "other."

    I have always sought -- without reward -- a single source for comprehensive information on global wine regions.  In order to fill this perceived need, I have been writing periodical posts on wine regions associated with stories I am already covering. My hope is that this will allow me to build a substantial wine region data base over the course of a number of years.  The table below shows the wine regions covered in this blog this year listed in order of appearance (See the tab above for the wine regions covered over the life of the blog). The Douro region stood out for me based on its antiquity, its beauty, and the extreme environment in which grapes are grown for the production of quality wine.

    I attended a number of wine tastings during the course of the year, but, for the most part, only wrote extensively about sit-down affairs.  The table below shows the wine tasting events that were covered by the blog.  As can be seen, our group does not sit around waiting for formal organizations to take the lead in putting on tastings.  We follow our taste buds.  The La Mission tasting was impressive, held as it was at London's Trinity House and presided over by HRH Prince Robert of Luxembourg (President of Domaine Clarence Dillon) and Jean-Philippe Delmas (Estate Manager).  The 13-vintage Dominus tasting was held in less-impressive surroundings but the number of times that this post has been read is a testament to the esteem in which this label is held.

    Prompted by an article in the Huffington Post that took the position that American wine culture was on the ascendancy -- due to the fact that our wine consumption had surpassed that of the French -- I wrote a piece titled The Myth of an American Wine Culture which argued that, based on the anthropological definition of culture, we lacked a true wine culture.  An Inside IWM blog post took me to task slightly for my conclusion and this fueled a number of articles further detailing my thoughts on an American wine culture, the movement towards a global wine drinking architecture, and several posts on the demise of the French wine drinking culture and potential solutions to the malaise.  I found the research in this area fascinating and hope to further leverage my anthropological background to do additional work in this area in 2012.

    I reviewed four books this year (Passion of the Vine, Wine Drinking Culture in France, The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, and A Toast to Bargain Wines) and, while each affected me in its own way, I was most influenced by Wine Drinking Culture in France.  This book, as stated in my review, "is a dense, scholarly effort which ... utilizes disciplines as diverse as sociology, political science, philosophy, law, and consumer market research to lay out a framework and context for a French wine drinking culture and its evolution through the years."  The principles and arguments contained in this book informed my views on wine drinking architectures and cultures and the demise of the French wine drinking culture.  See the tab above for all of my Book Reviews.

    An article on the differences between forests grown on sedimentary and non-sedimentary bedrock appeared in the September 1 issue of Nature.  The authors attributed this difference to the release of trapped nitrogen from the sedimentary bedrock during normal weathering processes and this led to my proposition that a number of the great vineyards in the world could have been unknowing beneficiaries of this phenomenon.  The research requirements associated with this post sparked an interest in the role of soils in wine grape production and led to two subsequent posts on the topic as well as development of a soils-type page on this site.  I expect to continue exploration of this topic in 2012.

    During the course of the year I made four wine-oriented trips to Europe that provided valuable source material for 2011 posts.  Early in the year I travelled to London for the Institute of Masters of Wine La Mission Haut-Brion vertical tasting and while there interviewed Sarah Kemp, Decanter Publishing Director.  In early summer I visited Tuscany with Bordeaux Index and while there visited Montalcino and Bolgheri, after having feasted within the hallowed Florentine walls of Enoteca Pinchiori.  In late summer I visited Porto and the Douro wine region with Decanter followed by an early fall trip to the European Wine Bloggers Conference in Brescia, Italy.  The post-conference trip to Friuli-Venezia Giulia informed much of my late-year postings.  I expect to continue to source material from Europe in the upcoming blog year with the 2012 European Wine Bloggers Conference in Turkey already on my agenda.  Given this region's potential position as the home of wine, I expect to be posting a few articles on vitis vinifera and the origins of wine in 2012.

    My "Occupy" moment this year centered around the battle to change the requirements for Rosso di Montalcino.  The Brunello Consorzio had proposed the changes and called for a vote.  A number of voices were raised in opposition to the proposal and I lent my voice to the cause. I had an overwhelming sense of relief when Brunello producers voted down the proposal.

    Bye bye 2011.  Seemed like you just got here.  Gone too soon.

    Wednesday, December 21, 2011

    1996 Vintage Champagne Tasting at Vintage Vino

    Vintage Vino is a wine shop in Kissimmee, Florida best known for being the site of Ron Siegel's 13-vintage Dominus tasting.  Well, Ron and Vintage Vino teamed up again to showcase a number of Champagnes from the spectacular 1996 vintage in an event titled '96 Champgne Tasting and Dinner.  The event combined a three-flight tasting of Champagnes from that heralded vintage followed by a 5-course dinner prepard by Chef Josh from the Ravenous Pig, one of the leading restaurants in the Orlando area.  But first, the vintage.

    The 1996 vintage in Champagne was one of the most highly acclaimed in recent memory.  Superlatives abounded.  "Exceeded all expectations."  Most successful vintage for Champagne since ... 1990" "Best vintage since 1928."  What seemed to catch the eye of the experts was the combination of ripeness of fruit and high levels of acidity, a state of affairs resulting from the growing season depicted in the figure below.

    So it was with great anticipation that we showed up at Vintage Vino last evening.  The tasting had been organized into three flights of three wines each:

    Flight 1:
    1996 Pol Roger Cuveé Sir William Churchill Brut
    1996 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne
    1996 Philipponat Clos des Goisses

    Flight 2:
    1996 Dom Ruinart Brut Rosé Grand Cru
    1996 Deutz Cuveé William Rosé
    1996 Moet et Chandon Dom Perignon Rosé

    Flight 3:
    1996 Moet et Chandon Dom Perignon
    1996 Louis Roederer Cristal
    1996 Krug Brut

    The details of the tasting are reported brilliantly here by Steve Alcorn, one of my tasting companions, on his blog.

    The tasting notes of the event organizer, Ron Siegel, are presented below.

    The Champagnes were amazing and having them served side by side was a great way to compare and identify house styles. In the 1st flight, the clear winner at our table was the Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill. It showed amazing balance, a laser-like focus on fruit and acidity, notes of buttered apple and some pear Danish; really a beautiful wine. This was followed by the Taittinger CdC which showed some earth and toast on the nose with a beautiful sour green apple on the palette. The Clos des Goisses showed a more oxidative note which some compared in style to the Jacques Selosse Substance which uses a solera aging system going back to 1986 (Cider and baked apple were the distinguishing notes on this wine).
    The 2nd flight (Rosé) did not show as well as the other two flights. The favorite at our table was the Deutz Cuvee William which seemed the freshest, most vibrant, and most "open for business" with a nose of Rhubarb and some sherry-like notes.  I have gone through 6 bottles of this wine and can’t seem to keep my hands off it. This also happened to be the lowest- priced Champagne of the night.
    This was followed by the Dom which happens to be one of the most expensive and I felt this night did not live up to its lofty reputation, maybe it needed more time in the glass to really show its stuff or it was off. There were notes of orange, horse saddle, sweat, and some felt a slight brettiness on the nose. No one thought that the Ruinart tasted like a prestige cuvee, most found it simple and uninteresting, comparing it to their non-vintage Rosé. 
    I felt that the 3rd flight was spectacular.  All of the wines lived up to their reputations of being long-lived and some of the best Champagnes in the world.  The WOTN, and most everyone’s favorite, was the Krug.  This Champagne was off the charts in intensity. Its bracing acidity -- showing green apple -- steely minerality, and fruit structure reminded me of a great Chablis. There were also notes of toast, marrow, and sea shell. This will turn out to be one of the greatest Krugs ever made! The Dom was also showing well. It had nice structure and a long finish with crème brulee and roasted nuts along with some spicy citrus. A great Dom. The Cristal, which I feel usually needs more time to open than the Dom, showed beautiful fruit and acid structure with florality, some apple and pear along with a lemony citrus and brioche 
    It was a great night and lots of fun!

    Friday, December 16, 2011

    Port Master Class with Paul Symington, CEO Symington Family Estates: Decanter Great Port Wine Weekend

    I will use the Douro soil discussion from my previous post as a springboard to launch me back to Portugal and the events surrounding Decanter's Great Port Wine Weekend.  It has been awhile.  On Friday morning we were scheduled to tour and taste at both the Taylor's and Graham's Port Lodges.  The tasting at Graham's was led by Paul Symington, CEO of Symington Family Estates, and I report on that event in this post.

    The Symingtons have been involved in the Port business through their grandmother's line since 1652 and in Port production since 1882.  The family is the largest vineyard owner in the Douro with 947 hectares under vine in 27 separate estates.  The family has direct ownership of five Port Houses (Graham's, Cockburn's, Dow's Warre's, and Smith Woodhouse) and the fabled Quinta do Vesuvio.  The family is currently responsible for 30% of the world's production of Premium Port.

    After completing the tour of the Graham's Lodge, we were led upstairs to a light, airy room with a long table  running down the center.  Ten glasses, each with a tasting portion of wine, stood at each seating position.

    According to the sheet lying beside the glasses, we would be tasting: Graham's Six Grapes, Graham's Late Bottled Vintage 2006, Graham's 10 Year Old Tawny, Graham's 20 Year Old Tawny, Graham's Crusted 2004, Graham's Quinta dos Malvedos 1999, Graham's 2007 Vintage Port, Dow's 2007 Vintage Port, Warre's 2007 Vintage Port, and Warre's 2009 Vintage Port.  Based on the lineup, this was a Graham's tasting with the Dow's and Warre's 2007 Vintage Ports thrown in for comparison with the 2007 Graham's Vintage Port.  The Warre's 2009 Vintage Port was a limited-edition bottling which commemorated the liberation of Oporto in 1809.

    Graham's, with its acquisition of Quinta dos Malvedos, was one of the first Port companies to invest in the Upper Douro.  Today Graham's is considered one of the top Port houses in the world. Its complement of estates, their sizes, and the distribution of varieties grown are shown in the figures below.

    Source: W. and J. Graham's Port
    The characteristics of the Douro region, in general, and the soil, in particular, have been described previously, as has been the viniculture as it relates to Quinta do Vesuvio.  The vinicultural processes for Graham's is similar to Quinta do Vesuvio except for the widespread use of mechanical treaders in lieu of foot-treading.  Graham's feels that mechanical treading allows better temperature control during the fermentation process and is more reliable in a time of diminishing availability of human resources.

    The first wine tasted was the Graham's Six Grapes.  According to Graham's, this wine is sourced from Quinta dos Malvedos and Quinta das Lages, the source for Vintage Port in declared years.  These wines are bottled young in order to present a profile that is not dissimilar to a young Vintage Port.  This wine has been aged in wood.  Pepper on the nose.  This wine is smooth, elegant, balanced with great structure and acidity.

    Next up was the Graham's Late Bottled Vintage 2006.  LBVs mature for an average of 5 years in seasoned oak casks prior to bottling.  The grapes for this particular wine is sourced mostly from Quinta dos Malvedos.  This wine has a rich, structured, perfumed nose accompanying elegance and restraint.  Good acidity, caramel, butterscotch and a nice clean finish.

    Graham's Tawny Ports, according to Paul Symington, are made in an "old woody style" through being aged in 534-liter oak casks.  The wines are a blend of several years production and generally present with a light amber color.  The 10 Year Old Tawny was pale in color and had hints of almond, cinnamon, honey and butterscotch on the nose.  Unctous and rich on the palate with great acidity.  Delicate, clean finish.  The 20 Year Old Tawny had a green tinge on the nose along with walnut, almond, cinnamon, and vanilla.  Some oxidation.  Rich, syrupy, slight medicinal quality, buttered popcorn, and nuttiness on the palate.

    According to Graham's, its Crusted Port is made from a selection of young ports from two to three harvests from Quinta dos Malvedas, Quinta das Lages, Vila Velha, and Vale de Malhadas.  The wines are blended, assigned to oak casks, and are then bottled and stored for a further three years of maturation prior to sale.  The Graham's Crusted 2004 had a deep dark nose of purple fruit and molasses along with butterscotch and almonds.  A lot of fruit and power on the palate.  Good acidity.  Bitter finish.

    In declared years, the wines from the Malvedos vineyard serve as the backbone for the Vintage but in non-vintage years they serve as the basis for a single-vineyard vintage offering called Graham's Quinta dos Malvedos.  The Graham's Quinta dos Malvedos 1999 had an elegant, restrained nose with hints of cinnamon, vanilla, and spice.  On the palate it was rich and creamy with dark chocolate flavors.

    The 2007 Vintage was widely hailed by all members of the Port fraternity.  Conditions were sunny but relatively cool and the resultant even and balanced ripening produced, according to 2007 Vintage Ports, "... wonderfully elegant wines, with superb vibrant fruit quality as well as the crisp acidity and firm tannins required for a long life in bottle."  The Graham's 2007 Vintage Port was elegant, with rich ripe fruit.  Clean taste with some drying on the finish.  The Dow's 2007 Vintage Port was edgy and full-bodied.  Dark fruit and good acidity.  Warre's 2007 Vintage Port was elegant with a spicy bite and good acidity.

    The year 2009 was very interesting in the Douro.  Taylor Fladgate declared vintages for Taylor, Fonseca, and Croft but Symington refrained from doing so for any of its major houses with the exception of one.  In an email exchange with Adrian Bridge, Managing Partner of Taylor Fladgate, Paul Symington referenced his family's pedigree in the Port trade and the reputation of his company as being key reasons for only declaring a vintage when he has produced a truly exceptional wine.  The implication was that such was not the case for the 2009 vintage.  In that same communication he did mention that the company would be declaring a 500-case Warre 2009 Vintage in honor of John Warre, a Major in the Portuguese wing of Wellington's Anglo-Portuguese army that faced Napolean, who played a key role in the 1809 battle that liberated Oporto.  A portion of the proceeds from each case (₤48) would be donated to a fund for soldiers wounded in the war in Afghanistan.  The Warre's 2009 Vintage Port exhibited a perfumed nose and dark fruit and dark chocolate on the palate.

    This was a special treat in that it was supposed to be a tasting but quickly became a master class.  Paul's wide-ranging knowledge of the history of the region, the Port trade, and his wines, coupled with his tasting capability, resulted in an exceptional experience for the Decanter readers.

    Thursday, December 15, 2011

    Growing grapes in soil-challenged environments: Carso (Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy) and Douro (Portugal) wine regions

    I have previously noted the importance of soil as a key influencer on the growth of the vine plant through the provision of: (i) a supply of water; (ii) anchorage in the ground; and (iii) a source of nutrition.  The Douro (Portugal) and Carso (Friula-Venezia Giulia, Italy) wine regions are separated by the land mass that is Portugal and Spain, the full width of the Mediterranean Sea, and the Italian land mass but they have in common a lack of a classic soil profile as represented in the graphic below.  Even with this challenge, both


    regions still manage to produce high-quality wines.  In this post I will detail the challenges presented to both regions and compare and contrast the solutions they have implemented in order to mitigate said challenges.

    Carso DOC lies on a Karst landscape and is subject to all of its vicissitudes: lack of a surface-water web; no water retention; hard, rocky surface with no surface soil or vegetation.  The Douro soil is schistose with granite at the borders and, in some cases, penetrating horizontally into the schist layers.  Prior to its current state, the Douro land under vine was characterized by "the presence of bedrock at less than 15 cm (5 inches) below the surface" (Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (IVDP)).  This was untenable for vine growth given the rooting requirements of the vine.

    In both Carso and Douro, viticulturists have found ways to get around nature's lack of gifts and to create environments wherein grape vines can thrive.  In the case of Carso, vineyards are prepared by cutting away any vegetation existing on the rocky surface and then digging down into the limestone to remove the roots.  Yellow soil trucked in from Trieste is laid to a depth of 3 meters and is then overlaid with 0.5 meter of Carso red (terra rossa) soil.  This red soil -- found in collapsed caves called Dolina -- is rich in iron and lime but poor in organic components.  According to IVDP, the Douro soil has been created by man "digging down deeply and forcing the vertically layered rock to break up, thus totally altering its original disposition and creating changes to its original morphology, added to which he has applied fertilizers."  This scarification has resulted in soils with depths of between 1 and 1.3 meters.  In both cases the roots take advantage of the pliability/makeup of the underlying bedrock to dive to great depths.

    In both regions the manufactured soil profile consists of three layers.  Carso soil has a 0.5-meter layer of terra rossa, a 3-meter layer of yellow soil, and then bedrock.  The pH of this soil is essentially neutral.  The Douro soil profile consists of a 12.5-cm layer -- "the result of the digging that is done around the roots of the vines every year" -- followed by a layer of between 87.5 centimeters and 1.17 meters thickness, and then bedrock.  The composition of this topsoil is a clay-rock mix with (IVDP): little organic matter; low calcium, magnesium, and phosphorous levels; and medium-high levels of potassium. The soil pH is predominantly acid (4.6-6.5).  The low nutrient levels in the region will act to reduce yield and retard fruit ripening if unaddressed.  The solution is the application of fertilizers for the macronutrients and foliar sprays for the boron deficiency.   Lime is added to the soil as necessary to counteract the effects of low pH.

    Carso terra rossa soil
    Douro surface soil at Quinta do Vesuvio

    The resulting vineyard architectures are similar in that both Carso and the Douro employ terracing.   In Carso, the vineyards reside on stone terraces and vines are Albaretto-trained.  In the Cante vineyard, the density is 8500 vines/hectare, a situation necessitated by the expense associated with creating each acre of vineyard.  In the Douro the vines reside on hillside terraces and are Guyot- or cordon-trained.  Planting density is on the order of 6000 vines/hectare.  Drip irrigation is utilized in Carso but is shunned in the Douro.

    Albaretto-trained vines in Carso
    Terracing in Carso
    Terraces in Douro (Quinta do Vesuvio)
    Production levels differ greatly between the two regions.  Given the ready availability of raw materials, and the size of the region, the Douro has by far the greater number of hectares under vine.  But due to the relatively harsh conditions in which the grapes are grown, the berries from both regions are small and thick-skinned with high skin-to-pulp ratios.

    These regions were both handed a similar challenge -- lack of a readily apparent wine growing region -- but pioneers living therein saw it not as a problem but as a challenge. And both regions met the challenge in their own inimitable way.

    Thursday, December 8, 2011

    The Carso DOC of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy

    Between Trieste and Collio Goriziano, and running from the Gulf of Trieste over the border into Slovenia, lies a rocky strip of land called the Karst (German; Carso in Italian and Kras in Slovenian) Plateau, an area whose name, according to Gams (Origin of the term "karst," and the transformation of the classical karst (Kras), Environmental Geology 21(3), pp. 110-114), derives from a pre-Indo-European word "karra" which means stony.  And stony it is.

    A karst landscape forms when water interacts with soluble bedrock, such as limestone or dolostone, to create an environment that is riven with unique landscape shapes and underground rivers and caverns. This condition arises when falling rain picks up carbon dioxide (either from the atmosphere or ground) and forms carbonic acid.  This mildly acidic solution dissolves the surface of the soluble bedrock and, over time, creates distinct surface shapes and underground cavities and drainage systems.

    The characteristics of a karst landscape are :
    • Absence of a surface water web
    • Partial or total lack of soil
    • Irregular plateau
    • Closed depressions
    • Rocky, stony surface which reflects a higher degree of the sun's radiation than say a gneiss surface
    • Limited vegetation cover due to a lack of soil and surface water
    Karst landscapes exist in many parts of the world but the area in the Slovene-Italian region was the first to be subjected to rigorous scientific study and, as a result, is called Classical Karst.

    And it is in this area that we find the Carso DOC of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region.  Bounded by the Gulf of Trieste, the border with Slovenia, Vipacco River, the Gorizia-Monfalcone Railway Line, and the A4 Autostrade, this land is a testament to man's perserverance, patience, and ingenuity.  Cultivating land here is a hard, intense, expensive process.

    The Carso climate is maritime Mediterranean at the coast and continental approaching the Julian Alps.  A sea breeze -- Yugo -- during the day time keeps the vineyard dry while a nightime breeze --Tramate -- brings the temperatures down at night.  A strong northeast winter wind called Bora-- named after the Greek mythological figure Boreas (the North Wind) -- pummels the area in the winter time with gusts that can reach up to 120 km/hr.

    I have just described the karst landscape and it is not vine-friendly in its native state because of a lack of surface soil.  Vineyards are prepared by cutting away any vegetation and then digging down into the limestone to take away the roots of the old vegetation.  Yellow soil from Trieste is then trucked in and laid to a depth of 3 meters.  This soil levels the ground as well as retains some humidity in the environment.  One-half meter of Carso red soil is overlain on the base Trieste soil.  This red (terra rossa) soil is found in collapsed caves called Dolina and is both hard to find and expensive.  This soil is rich in iron and lime but poor in organic components.  This soil is the result of the mixing of calcium carbonate solutions from the bedrock with blown sand from the Sahara and Sahel regions of Africa.

    Vineyards reside on stone terraces and vines are Albaretto-trained.  In the Cante vineyard, the density is 8500 vines/hectare, a situation necessitated by the expense associated with creating each acre of vineyard.

    Grapes are hand-harvested.  DOC wines must contain 85% of the stated variety with the remainder from permitted varieites of the same color.  The permitted varieties are the major internationals plus two indigenous whites -- Vitovska and Malvasia -- and one indigenous red -- a strain of Refosco called Terrano. The Vitovska is a cross between the Malvasia and Prosecco varieties.  A Rosso is also produced from 70% Terrano and the remainder from other permitted red grapes.

    Monday, December 5, 2011

    The influence of soils on grape vine growth

    The Douro (Portugal) and Carso (Friula-Venezia Giulia, Italy) wine regions are separated by the land mass that is Portugal and Spain, the full width of the Mediterranean Sea, and the Italian land mass but they have in common a lack of a "native" soil.  Even with this challenge, both regions still manage to produce high-quality wines.  I will detail the challenges presented to both regions and the solutions of choice but will precede that discussion with some background on soils and their role in the production of quality wine.

    According to Christopher Bargman (Geology and wine in South Africa, Geoscientist 15(4), April 2005), soil is the major influence on the growth of the vine plant as it provides: (i) a supply of water; (ii) anchorage in the ground; and (iii) a source of nutrition.  According to, " soil is more than just dirt."  It is, instead, "... a complex system of decomposed rocks that have been enriched over time by decomposed organic matter."  The classic soil profile is shown below.


    Adequate amounts of the appropriate nutrients are required to support proper growth of the vine, fruit development, and fruit maturity.  The table below shows the mineral requirements of the vine plant, the role of each mineral, acceptable ranges of each mineral in the soil, and the impact of mineral deficiency on the vine.

    Source: Compiled from and others

    The key factors in nutrient availability are soil type, soil composition, and root structure.

    The soil type dictates the quality of nutrients present and the adequacy of water drainage.  Our soil-type page shows the different types of soil that are of interest to the viticulturist.  The optimal soil type has a moderate content of low cation exchange capability (CEC) clay (Clay minerals act as harbors for nutrients because the positive ions of the nutrients are trapped by the negative charge of the clay minerals.  The abundance and types of minerals determine whether the clay is classed as low- or high-CEC.).

    Soil composition affects root growth and development and the availability of nutrients for soil uptake.  Areas of interest here are soil pH, texture, and drainage.

    Soil pH is a measure of the acidity (3.5 - 6.5) or alkalinity (7.4 - 9.0) of soil which, through its influence on nutrient solubility and micro-organism activity, affects the number and types of nutrients in the soil. Soil pH between 6 and 7 is considered optimal for vine plant growth as most of the needed nutrients and micro-organisms are available in that range.  Alkaline or acidic soils can be chemically treated to bring them closer to optimal.

    Soil texture refers to the nature, size, shape, orientation, and arrangement of particles.  In our soil-type page we showed that sand, silt, and clay have standalone properties which are transformed when the soils are combined.  Clay forms flexible elastic bridges between soil particles to maintain soil structure and preserve porosity.  Pebbles and rocks in clay-rich soils break up the soil, providing pathways for water and root penetration.  Deep, rich soils will provide high-vigor growth and large, watery grapes.

    Drainage Water is needed to transport nutrients to the vine plant roots.  Sandy, well-drained soils with little or no clay mineral content may provide inadequate amounts of nutrition, leading to reduced grape quality and a vegetal taste in the wine. Soils which retain too much water will exclude the oxygen needed for the nitrogen cycle.

    Root Structure The roots of the vine plant: i) anchor the vine; ii) absorb water and nutrients; iii) store nutrients that nourish the plant during dormancy; and iv) produce hormones that control plant functions. The vine deploys a three-part structure to meet these varied needs.  First, quick-growing, short-lived roots deployed close to the surface are tasked with moisture collection.  Second, subterranean roots provide the anchoring function.  The principal roots are tasked with nutrient delivery and storage.  According to UCDavis, about 60% of the root structure of a vine plant can be found in the first two feet of the surface but individual roots can grow as deep as 20 feet depending on soil permeability, the level of the water table, and the rootstock variety.

    Now that we understand the role of soils in the wine grape environment, we can go on to the next step in the Douro and Carso wine regions comparison.

    Friday, December 2, 2011

    Schioppettino di Prepotto, the variety brought back from the dead

    "I unreservedly recommend the wines of Schioppettino di Prepotto.  High-quality, fresh, food-craving wines of great consistency." Thus did I tweet on October 27, 2011, after reflecting on a tasting of seven Schioppettino wines with the Association Produttori Schioppettino di Prepotto at Ristorante Al Monastero in Cividale del Friuli on October 10, 2011.  And that is still my position today.

    The Schioppettino grape -- also known as Ribolla Nera and Pokalça -- is native to the Prepotto commune of the Cialla zone of Colli Orientali del Friuli but is currently grown in other Friuli-Venezia Giulia communes (Buttrio and Manzano, for example) and in Sonoma County in the US.  Prepotto occupies a 30-square-kilometer area in the Judrio River Valley and shares a border with Slovenia.

    Source: Associazione Produttori Schioppettino di Prepotto
    The Prepotto climate varies between Mediterranean and continental but experiences significant temperature differentials between day and night which contributes to the aromas and flavors of the wine.  The dry wind that blows along the river valley serves as a preventative against rot.  The soil is alluvial marl and sandstone covered by a thin layer of clay or gravel.

    Schioppettino, a late-ripening variety: is blue-black in color; is thick-skinned; grows in long, large, winged bunches;  has a predilection for clayey, calcium-carbonate-enriched soils; and has a low tolerance for common vineyard diseases.

    Like Lazarus, Schioppettino was raised from the dead.  References stretch as far back as 1282 but the variety fell victim to the ravages of phylloxera and then competition from international varieties.  By the 1960s, less than 100 Schioppettino vines were in existence and it was banned as an illegal variety.  Then along came Sig Pancho Rapazzi.  He founded a vineyard in Ciallo in the late 1960s and sought out every Schioppettiano vine that he could find to plant on his estate.  His efforts paid off when the Prepotto local council met in 1977 and one of the agenda items was "defense of Schiopettino at risk of extinction." The EEC regulation in 1978 added Schioppettino to the vine species authorized for cultivation in the province of Udine and the variety was listed as authorized in 1981.  The 1983 EEC regulation -- EEC 3582/83 -- included Schioppettino among the recommended varieties for the province of Udine.  DOC status was attained in 1987.  The producer association was formed in 2002 and its efforts led to the designation of the subzone Schioppettino di Prepotto in 2008.  The association's production requirements are indicated below.

    After leaving the Bastianich Winery tasting, we headed into Cividade for a walking tour of the city and a Schioppettino tasting with the regional producers.  It was raining when we got into town so @aleskimethonen, a second blogger, and I found a small wine shop in which to hang out until lunchtime.  We arrived at the restaurant where the tasting was to be held at the same time as our larger group but were drier and in better spirits.  We entered the front section of the restaurant and then were led through a courtyard to a second section where tables had been set up in a u-shaped fashion to support the tasting.

    As soon as we were all seated, they began to pour the wines.  While the wines were being poured the President of the Association welcomed us to Cividale and Prepotto.  As the wines were being poured I was struck by the intensity of the color.  I tasted the first four wines and was struck by the consistency of aromas and flavors with the only distinguishing characteristic being increasing weight on the palate as I went from right to left.  On the nose, blackberries, violets, and some spice.  On the palate medium-bodied and fresh with good extension on the finish.  I liked this wine.  Then they brought out the meal, which was capped with a wild boar offering,  and the wines truly excelled in this environment.

    The wines tasted at this event were Stanig 2009, Grillo 2008, Pizzulin 2008, Vigna Lenuzza 2008, Vigna Petrussa 2008, La Buse dal Lof 2007, and La Viarte 2007.

    "I unreservedly recommend the wines of Schioppettino di Prepotto. High-quality, fresh, food-craving wines of great consistency."

    Wednesday, November 30, 2011

    James Beard Nominees Charity Dinner at Cress Restaurant: The Spinoff

    In an earlier post on the Cress Restaurant James Beard Nominees Charity Dinner, I had described how my wife became caught up in a bidding war to secure two tickets to dine with Chef Hari Pulapaka of said restaurant.  Bill Budzinski, owner of Elusive Grape, had spiced the offer up by promising that Chef Hari and his wife Jenneffer would join the lucky "winners" for dinner.  Further, Bill and his wife would also join the party and he would supply the wine.  Hence a three-way bidding war.  One of the wiser combatants called a truce just as things were about to really go off the deep end and proposed that the three parties split the current bid amount equally -- that's how bad it had gotten -- and would all participate in the dinner.  I jumped at that deal on behalf of my wife before she had a chance to do any alpha-dog stuff.

    The dinner was set for Sunday, November 27th.  One of the winning bidders could not make the date but gave us permission to press on.  So we did.  Eight of us in a downtown Deland restaurant that was closed to members of the public.  As I stepped into the restaurant I noted that it had been set up such that the focus was on a centrally located, tastefully appointed table.  The lighting in the restaurant was somewhat restrained.  The wines for the night were arrayed on the bar to the southern side of the restaurant. Napkins were carefully draped across every place setting and folded, sealed menus nestled comfortably on them.

    We were the first to arrive, followed in rapid succession by our fellow diners.  We greeted each other with a sense of anticipation.  We were going in and we were going in together. I was ready.  I had eaten lightly during the course of the day because Chef had promised us a meal fit for a Rajah.

    We were welcomed to the event by Jenneffer who thanked us for our contributions to the success of the original charity dinner and reminded us that the charities which had benefited from the event were The Taste of Orlando and Second Harvest Food Bank. We toasted ourselves with a bottle of Ca'del Bosco Brut Rosé and then followed up with a wonderful 1992 Bollinger.

    There were no servers or other help around.  The Chef was doing all the cooking, plating, and serving.  He appeared unflustered as he brought out the Amuse Bouche: Two types of Croquettes (Applewood Bacon and Vegetarian), a Blooming Onion Pakora, Cranberry Compote, and South Indian Coconut and Ghost Chile Sauce.  The Onion Pakora was bound together with chick-pea flour and had a distinct ginger flavor.  I tried the Croquettes with both of the sauces and felt that the latter provided a better textural contrast.  This was very flavorful all around with a definite undercurrent of exotic Indian spices.  The Bollinger paired very nicely with this course.

    The second course was a visually pleasing salad constructed with Smoked Heirloom Tomatoes, Roasted Grapes, Seasonal Local Lettuce, Sesame Sherry Vinaigrette, Chèvre, and Toasted Walnuts.  A distinctive smoked-herring and walnut flavor accompanied the crisp lettuce onto the palate.  The wines presented were a 1968 Vina Valoria Rioja and a 2007 Leeuwin Art Series Chardonnay.  Unfortunately the Vina Valoria was corked but the crisp acidity of the chardonnay carried the day.

    Had I mentioned that this was going to be a seven-course meal?  That was big enough but, within the courses, the chef presented options from which we could choose.  For example, the options for the second course were: i) Cast Iron Roasted Grimaud Farms Duck Breast; ii) Pan Roasted Breast of Ashley Farms Chicken; or iii) Butternut Squash Ravioli.  Each of option was presented with a black habanero reduction and, additionally for the third option, Point Reyes Bleu Alfredo.  I opted for the Duck Breast and was treated to an explosion of flavor tinged with spiciness.  A mixture of crispy, crunchy texture close to the skin and softer moistness as you moved towards the center. Wonderful.  This course was paired with a Two Hands 2003 Lily's Garden McLaren Vale Shiraz.

    The third course was Linguini with San Marzano Vodka Sauce and Parmeggiano Reggiano.  The pasta had great consistency with hints of pine nuts, lemon zest, and pesto.  Low-grade spiciness.  Paired with a 1997 Don Melchor Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

    As was the case for the second course, the fourth course provided options: i) Kurobuta Pork Cheek Tikka Masala; ii) Cape Canaveral Wild Shrimp Tikka Masala; or iii) Vegetarian Kofta Tikka Masala.  Each of these dishes was offered with Poblano and Grilled Garlic Naan.  I went for the Pork Cheeks.  Its soft texture allowed it to become fully engaged with the Tikka Masala in a mutually beneficial relationship.  A Tikka-Masala-dunked Naan is a special experience when delivered with this level of care and expertise.  Excellent.  Paired with a 2009 Zind Humbrecht Gewurtztraminer.

    For the fifth course the chef asked us to choose between a Darling Downs Wagyu Ribeye and an Exotic Mushroom and Pistou Napolean, both prepared with a Smoked Onion Velouche and Truffled Porcini Foam.  You have probably noticed my penchant for meat. This course was paired with the 2003 Lokoya Diamond Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. An excellent steak which I only succeeded in polishing off today.

    Following a cheese selection, our final course was Dark Chocolate Pots de Créme, Grilled Figs, and Salted Caramel Sauce.

    This meal had unfolded in a somewhat surreal setting: the restaurant was empty -- save for us --and downtown Deland was empty -- save for us.  It was as though we were alone in the world, eating in a vacuum.  But this was of no account to us.  Chef had gone from strength to strength as we moved through the courses.  The pace had been somewhat languid with Chef spending a fair amount of time at the table shooting the breeze.  Our conversation was animated and far-ranging (as it is won't to be in Jenneffer's presence) and it was now midnight (The dinner had originally been scheduled form 6:00 to 11:00 pm).  I had to give up.  I was begging for mercy and aluminum foil.

    This was a rich, opulent, and decadent meal fit for a Rajah.  And us.

    Monday, November 28, 2011

    Have the World's best wine regions benefited from a previously unrecognized source of nitrogen?

    Recently published research on sedimentary bedrock (Morford, Houlton, and Dahlgren, Increased forest ecosystem carbon and nitrogen storage from nitrogen rich bedrock, Nature, 9/1/2011, pp. 78-81) leads me to posit that some of the major wine growing regions of the world have been the unknowing beneficiaries of a heretofore unheralded source of nitrogen and that this has benefited them in their production of high quality wines.  Before expounding further on this hypothesis, I will provide some background.

    As shown in the table below, nitrogen is an essential element in the growth of grape vines and an imbalance in its levels can lead to problems in the vineyard and/or in the winery.

    Nitrogen and grape vines (Compiled from Grande Passione -- Soil minerals vs wine quality)

    According to Schwarcz and Schoeninger (Stable Isotope Analysis in Human Nutrition, Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 34, pp. 293-321), almost 100% of exchangeable nitrogen is found in the atmosphere or dissolved in the world's oceans and is transferred from these environments into the biological system through the processes illustrated in the figure below.  The commonly held view is that grape vine plants receive their nitrogen through the terrestrial nitrogen cycle but the Morford study calls this into question.


    Nitrogen, as is the case for all plant nutrients, is sourced from the soil by the plant.  According to Christopher Bargman (Geology and wine in South Africa, Geoscientist 15(4), April 2005), soil is the major influence on the growth of the vine plant as it provides: (i) a supply of water; (ii) anchorage in the ground; and (iii) a source of nutrition. The classic soil profile is shown below.

    Now back to the Morford, Houlton, and Dahlgren study.  According to the authors, sedimentary rocks contain considerably more fixed nitrogen than all of the fixed nitrogen in the biosphere due to the capture of "... organic matter in marine and freshwater sediments, where it is incorporated into rock as organic N or as ammonium in silicate materials."  Greater amounts of this rock-based N is contained in sedimentary rock (consolidated rock deposited in layers) than is contained in metamorphic ( a rock formed from preexisting solid rocks by mineralogical, structural, and chemical changes, in response to extreme changes in temperature, pressure, and shearing stress -- and igneous rocks (formed when molten minerals cool from a liquid into a solid).  Even though it has been known to geologists that this fixed N is secreted in bedrock, "... it is generally believed that rock N is not sufficiently important to alter the terrestrial N cycle."  The results of this study has shown otherwise.

    The authors studied the nitrogen content of soils and forest foliage in forests that were underlain by both sedimentary and igneous bedrock and found the following: (i) the nitrogen content in soils and foliage that grow above sedimentary bedrock is 50% higher than soils and foliage that grow over igneous bedrock; (ii) nitrogen isotope values for rock, soils, and plants are indistinguishable among each other when located above a nitrogen-rich sedimentary bedrock but that is not the case for the same elements overlaying an igneous bedrock; and (iii) "forest responses to geological N inputs are manifested as higher foliar biomass production ..."

    The authors conclude that "Our results raise the possibility that rock weathering may be a significant source of N to terrestrial ecosystems..." underlain by terrestrial bedrock.

    I compiled the following table of wine regions that may and may not have benefited from the phenomenon described by the authors.  The table shows that some of the world's foremost wine regions are underlain by sedimentary bedrock and may have benefited from that "siteing.".

    Additional study will be required to determine the benefits and disadvantages associated with subterranean nitrogen, the implications, and what, if anything, should be done to maximize its effects and minimize its disadvantages.  The information provided herein could be of benefit in making decisions regarding vineyard locations or vineyard retention in the case of a vine-uprooting program.

    Wednesday, November 23, 2011

    In Search of the Missing Link(s): A Wine Tasting

    There is an avid and motivated group of wine drinkers residing in the Orlando area who meet regularly to indulge in their passion.  This group has formed a syndicate which buys and holds wines for the benefit of the group.  Individual members can, and do, have wine holdings of their own. This group holds syndicated tastings wherein either the community wine is used or where the wine used is supplied by an individual who is then reimbursed by attendees.  The group also holds non-syndicated tastings where each attendee provides bottles from his/her cellar and the cost of the following meal is divided between attendees.  The event held last Saturday night fell into the latter category.

    I am not a member of the group but was invited to last Saturday's tasting by Ron Siegel, a good friend who has written a guest post for this blog in the recent past..  The format of the event was a blind tasting wherein each attending couple brought three wines which were linked in some way and the tasting group was expected to decipher the linkages.  I had never tasted with this group before, nor had I participated in such a format, so I had some angst in putting my offering together.  I did not complete my final list of wines until 3:00 pm; the event was scheduled to begin at 6:00 pm.

    The tasting was held in the basement cellar of the famed Winter Park restaurant LUMA on Park.  A total of 13 people participated in the event.  The cellar room at Luma has a beautiful cocktail area where we drank champagne and ate hor d'oeuvres prior to the start of the sit-down tasting.  At the completion of the cocktail hour, we were called to take our seats for the actual tasting.

    This turned out to be a very challenging format.  In the blind tasting that we do at Antoinio's on Friday afternoons, you are asked to identify the varietal and age of a single wine at a time.  In this format, you are being asked to decipher the linkages between three wines and these linkages could include varietal, year, country, etc.   The difficulty posed is that the first wine may give one indication which may be totally reversed by the second wine which is then further set ablaze by the third wine.  Further, the conclusions are discussed publicly -- which serves to place further doubts in your mind about your conclusion -- before the actual revelation of the labels.  Each individual poured his/her own wines with assistance from the dedicated wait staff.

    As the table below shows, an equal number of the offered wines originated in the US as did from France and the dominant varieties were Merlot and Pinot Noir.  A majority of the offered wines were from the decades of the 1990s (seven) and 2000s (also seven).

    The distribution of the linkages is shown below and the most common linkages were a single varietal or a single varietal distributed between two countries.

    The outlier linkage was the Steve's flight, the first flight tasted.  We were provided information that the bottles were priced at $6, $66, and $466 and we should identify which wine was associated with each price.  I approached this with a jaunty step because I was sure that differences between the high- and low-end wines would be easily discernible.  That was not the case.  I expected the $6 wine to be relatively young and fruity but no such characteristic showed up.  The flight (Flight 1) was revealed to consist of a 1979 Charles Krug Cabermet Sauvignon, a 1986 Chateau Margaux, and a 1980 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon.  According to Steve, the effective price for the Krug when bought at auction is $6; I checked a retail site and it was $27 at that store.  The other difficulty is that old Napa Cabs can be very Bordeaux-like on the nose and palate.  The Chateau Margaux also did not show as well as it should. We were bamboozled.

    The most consistent flight in terms of quality was Russell's Merlot flight which consisted of two St. Emilions (2000 Magrez Fombrauge and 2003 Bellevue Mondotte) and one Bolgheri (Masseto).  Russell had decanted these wines previously (the only one to do so) and had then returned them to the bottle and to his cellar.  These wines showed beautifully both on the nose and the palate and was the only flight that was retained in its entirety by the group for continuing consideration.

    The most complex linkages were associated with Ron's offering.  His wines were the same variety (Cabernet Sauvignon) from the same year (1990) but from three different regions (Bolgheri, Napa, and Bordeaux).

    The flights are presented in the pictures below.

    Flight 1: 1979 Charles Krug, 1985 Chateau Margaux, 1980 Jordan

    Flight 2: 1990 Louis Latour, 1989 Drouhin Vosne-Romanee, 2004 Evan's Ranch Pinot Noir

    Flight 3: 2000 Magrez Fombrauge, 1996 Masseto, 2003 Bellevue Mondotte

    Flight 4: 2006 Derenoncourt Merlot, 1995 Masseto, 1982 L'Evangile

    Flight 5: 1994 Rex Hill Pinot Noir, 2001 Penner-Ash Pinot Noir, 2004 Vosne-Romanee Beaumont

    Flight 6: 2006 Flor de Pingus, 1996 Castillo Ygay, 2006 Remirez de Ganuza Trasnocho

    Flight 7: 1990 Dominus, 1990 Chateau Montrose, 1990 Solaia