Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Italian Wine Merchants Tasting

Recently, a small group of wine enthusiasts gathered at the home of WineORL to be introduced to the portfolio of Italian Wine Merchants (IWM). IWM is based in New York, and is the brainchild of long-time wine professional Sergio Esposito, with partners Chef Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich (son of Chef Lidia Bastianich). IWM also has sister companies in Hong Kong, as well as IWM Cellars, specializing in cellar management services.

Representing IWM at the tasting were Ms. Tina Rusiecki, IWM's Florida representative, and Mr. Chris Deas, Vice President of IWM. The tasting began with introductions, a bit about IWM (as noted above), and a framework for the tasting to follow.

The first wine was the Roger Coulon Premier Cru Brut Champagne. Situated in Montagne de Reims and covering 10 hectares (22 acres), the estate consists of 70 distinct parcels, all of which are Premier Cru. The wine was bright and crisp, with aromas and flavors of green and red apple, roasted pear, and some yeasty, nutty notes. Somewhat of an oddity, this wine is composed of equal parts of Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Noir.

The next wine, a 2000 Gravner Ribolla Gialla, piqued my interest when I saw it in the tasting line-up. Josko Gravner is a winemaker in the Fruili region of northern Italy. Ever the innovator, Gravner has stood white wine making on its ear utilizing first stainless steel fermentations, then abandoning that for long-term barrique fermentation and aging, and in 2001, fermentation and aging in clay amphorae. The wine we tasted was the last of the "barrique period," spending up to seven (7) months fermenting with skin contact. The wine is almost orange in the glass, with notes of lime zest and cooked fruit, and what I likened to the aroma of Coca-cola syrup. The wine was not really showing well early in the tasting, and I stashed a glass for later. After several hours, there was dried apricot, butterscotch, and caramel to complement the citrusy notes.

Switching to red wines, we moved onto the 2006 Bodega Chacra Pinot Noir from Patagonia, Argentina. The wine is the project of Piero Incisa della Rocchetta, the grandson of Mario Incisa of Sassicaia fame, and the founder of the Super-Tuscan movement in Italy. Piero Incisa della Rocchetta purchased the first of his holdings in Argentina in 2004, with a then-abandoned Pinot Noir vineyard originally planted in 1932 on its own rootstock. The wine is very New World in style, and masculine in structure. The nose is dominated by aromas of smoked meat, black fruits, and cola notes from the barrels, and these aromas follow through to the palate.

Next up was the 2006 Aldo Conterno 'Cicala' Barolo. Regarded as the "King of Barolo," Aldo Conterno continues a tradition that extends back more than five generations in the Piemonte region of Italy. A relative baby, and from an outstanding vintage, this wine probably needs 10 years of evolution in the cellar. This wine showed a great nose of roses, red fruit, and just an ever so slight hint of menthol green-ness. I would look forward to an opportunity to re-visit this wine when it was really ready to be enjoyed.

From the Piemonte, we moved south into Tuscany for the next two wines, both Brunelli di Montalcino. The first of two was the 2000 Case Basse di Soldera Brunello di Montalcino Riserva. Soldera, a former insurance broker from Milan, planted the 2 hectare Case Basse vineyard in 1972, and produced his first Brunello from the vineyard in 1990, when Soldera deemed it to finally be worthy. From a hot vintage, this wine was garnet in the glass with a hint of bricking. The wine is dominated by red fruit aromas and flavors, with a note of mint or basil, as well as extreme acidity and high levels of tannins. The second Brunello was the 2004 Talenti Brunello di Montalcino. The estate was founded in 1980 by Pierluigi Talenti, long-time winemaker at Tenuta il Poggione, and consists of 20 hectares of vines. The nose on this wine showed brighter, sweeter red fruit, leather, and an earthy, mushroom note. On the palate, the wine is softer and broader than the first, with flavors of cherries, berries, and baking spices like cinnamon and cardamom. There are granular tannins reminscent of "Rutherford Dust," and the wine seems to float across the tongue and take forever to dissipate.

We then moved on to a study in the expression of Bordeaux-style wines. First up was the 1995 Chateau Musar Rouge from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. The work of Gaston Hochar, and then his sons Serge and Ronald, is nothing short of amazing given the turbulent history of the region. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, and Carignan, this wine is often hit or miss, as there have often been issues with storage and shipping conditions on the way to market. This wine had a hint of tomato on the nose (something I typically associate with Rioja and Chianti), and a nice assortment of red fruits. There was also a hint of Volatile Acidity; not enough to be off-putting, but enough to elevate some of the aromas of the wine.

Next to be tasted was the 2008 Guidalberto from Tenuta San Guida (home of Sassicaia) in the Tuscany region of Italy. Based on a different model than Sassicaia, the Guidalberto is composed of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, separately fermented and then aged for twelve months in French and American oak barriques. The wine was an opaque purple in the glass, and exhibited a massive amount of black fruit on the nose, balanced with some spice, vanilla, and cedar. On the palate the wine also shows some red fruit, and a pleasant balance of acid and tannin leading to a supple finish.

We then progressed to the 2007 Chateau Latour a Pomerol. The vineyards, which cover several parcels totaling 8 hectares in Pomerol (including one surrounding the commune's church), are composed of 90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc (although only one taster professed to sense any presence of Franc in the wine). The Chateau is run by the Moueix family (Petrus, among others) and the quality shows in this wine from a less than stellar vintage. Red and black fruit dominte the nose and the palate, with hints of earth, eucalyptus, and cedar. There was a moderate amount of acid, and the tannins were well disguised. It would be interesting to see how this wine progresses over then next 10 years, which is the usual amount of time for most vintages of Latour a Pomerol to reach their optimum.

The final offering in this category was the 2006 Rudd Estate Oakville Red Wine. Produced by Leslie Rudd (owner of the specialty food and lifestyle purveyor Dean and Deluca), this wine resulted in a considerable amount of animated discussion. The wine presented a massive amount of sweet vanilla, blackberry, black cherry, and spicy aromas on the nose, followed by black and red fruit flavors with hints of dark chocolate and roasted espresso on the palate, and satiny tannins and a moderate dose of acidity leading to a long, pronounced finish. Given the ripeness of the fruit and the structure of the wine, this could easily have been slowly sipped after dinner with some bits of dark chocolate as a substitute for dessert.

The final two wines of the afternoon were from the Veneto region of Italy. The first was the 2001 Valpolicella Superiore 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 final wine of the event was the 2003 Nicolis 'Ambrosan' Amarone. The wine is 70% Corvina, 20% Rondinella and, rather than the typical third grape Molinara, 10% Croatina. The grapes are harvested, placed in wooden drawers that provide air circulation, and then are allowed to dessicate in special dry, well-ventilated areas for 3-5 months, after which they are pressed and vinified. The wine presented itself as the classic Amarone, with a nose of dried red fruit, prune, leather, and red berry, followed by a sweetness on the palate that seemed to persist for more than a minute.

It appeared that the wines and the knowledgeable and affable staff of IWM were well-received by the attendees. IWM has a unique portfolio of wines for wine enthusiasts of all levels but the company's offerings and programs are especially focused at the avid collector.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Key Issues Facing the Wine Industry: Sarah Kemp, Publishing Director, Decanter

China, and its evolution as a wine consuming/producing nation, is one of the most significant issues confronting the wine industry for the foreseeable future.  So said Sarah Kemp, Publishing Director, Decanter, when our conversation turned to key wine industry issues.  In previous posts I have reported on aspects of our conversation to include her entry into the wine publishing business and Decanter's positioning vis a vis its readers.  In this post I report on Sarah's views on the issues facing the wine industry.

According to Sarah, a fact that is not widely known is that by 2014, China will have as much acreage under vine as does Australia.  With this rapid growth of in-country capacity, it is probable that the west will be absorbing commodity wines from China in the not-too-distant future.  Wines made from grapes grown in China are not generally highly regarded but she tasted some Chinese wines that showed promise on her last trip over.

While future Chinese exports merit some consideration, the issue at hand is its seemingly insatiable appetite for First Growth Bordeauxs.  Sarah illustrates the state of affairs by revealing that 60% of the production of a particular St. Emilion chateau is going to China while 40% of Farr Vintners (UK wine merchant specializing in the purchase and sale of top Bordeaux wines) 2010 revenue was attributable to sales into the Asian market.  It is Sarah's contention that the business being done with China is under-reported because no one is tracking wines that come into the UK before being re-exported to China.  This increased demand is impacting the price of both new and old vintages of Bordeaux First Growths.

In response to a question on how the Bordelaise would balance new markets versus old, Sarah stated that top proprietors do not want to lose their traditional markets because the Chinese market is still immature and may not be able to withstand a shock at this early stage.  Snubbing traditional markets could prove to be a flawed strategy if such a shock were to occur.

A second big story, according to Sarah, is South America's rise in quality wine production.  This is a major challenge to Australia and New Zealand whose problems are compounded by UK advertising programs based on a "3 for £10" mentality.  This advertising program provides a great challenge for the really good wines.  Decanter just concluded an Australin Chardonnay tasting (February issue) and many of these wines were well received by the tasting panel and garnered good scores but selling these wines into the market will be difficult.

A third issue, especially for the European wine industry, is falling consumption.  There are a number of factors driving this issue: (i) there is greater concern in Europe about health and wellness issues; (ii) much more focus on physical appearance and the things that need to be done, and avoided, in order to promote a better look; and (iii) a generation that is growing up with new world wines.  In the latter case, the US experience may be a shot across the European bows.

Sarah foresees a major Bordeaux chateau being snapped up by Chinese investors at some point in the future.  There is already Chinese ownership of minor Bordeaux properties (February, March Decanter issues) but if it is so prestigious to own a bottle of a First Growth, think how much more prestigious it would be to own one of those properties.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Part II of my Conversation with Sarah Kemp, Publishing Director, Decanter

On Friday February 4th, I sat down with Sarah Kemp, Decanter Publishing Director and founder of, to discuss Decanter, its readers, and key wine industry issues.  I reported on Sarah's entry into the business in a previous post and now turn to a discussion of Decanter and its readers.

Sarah sees Decanter as a magazine for people who are interested in wines with personality; non-commodity wines.  Wine, according to Sarah, has a language all its own and exerts a socializing influence on its adherents.  She cited the Yquem Bordeaux Weekend experience to illustrate her point.  The weekend brought together people from different countries and backgrounds yet, within a few minutes, attendees had "gelled."  They shared a love of wine and a common language and could converse at length on the subject without the eyes of the other party "glazing over."

Decanter is a communication tool and a reader is making a statement when he/she take out a subscription to the magazine; according to Sarah, "they have crossed a bridge."  Decanter strives to meet that customer's expectations by providing content and events that entertain, guide, and educate on old and new regions, personalities and estates.  Decanter accomplishes these objectives by bringing a "broad church" of experts to the table.  One of Sarah's jobs is to find the best and most authoritative experts and provide them a platform and, in so doing, expose the reader to a broad range of views on any single topic.  Decanter will have done its job if the information and events that it provide increases the confidence of the reader in his/her own taste.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Part I of a Conversation with Sarah Kemp, Publishing Director, Decanter

Decanter is the UKs foremost wine magazine and one of the most respected across the globe.  With a 90-country subscriber base, Decanter commands the attention of the world's major fine wine producers as they seek to get their message heard above the clamor that is the world wine industry.   Its mix of news, interviews, and wine/wine-region reviews keeps its subscriber base informed  on industry happenings and aids purchasing decisions.  Its eclectic mix of world-renowned contributors, its online offshoot, and a newly minted education initiative all contribute to making Decanter readers some of the best-informed wine consumers in the world. 

Sarah Kemp is the Publishing Director of Decanter and the founder of  I sat with her to gain some insight into the magazine's view of the issues confronting the wine industry today and will report on that conversation in this and two subsequent posts.

I first met Sarah at the Decanter-organized Bordeaux d'Yquem Weekend and was favorably impressed by this fun-loving, story-telling bon vivant who exhibited a deep knowledge of, and connection with, the Bordelaise.  At the time I asked her if I could interview her for my blog at some future date and she responded in the affirmative.  Once it was determined that I was going to be in London for the Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion tasting, we agreed to meet on Friday, February 4th  for our conversation.

I arrived at the Blue Fin Building in London's Southwark district in good time for our 11:00 am meeting and took the elevator to the ninth floor.  I was met at the elevator by Shreena, a TA in the Events organization, and led through a warren of desks and magazines and industrious-looking young people to Sarah's office where I was welcomed with a warm hug (We do not stand on formality here.).  I had not seen Sarah since the evening of the dinner at Chateau d'Yquem so we spent some time catching up and reminiscing.  It was a blast; and then we turned to the business at hand.  I told Sarah that I wanted the conversation to focus on three broad areas: How she got into the business (wine and publishing); Decanter's role and positioning vis a vis its readers; and the key issues facing the wine industry.  She said "let's go."  And we went.

Based on Sarah's telling, where she is today is totally attributable to a number of key influencers in her life.  Her grandfather loved wine while her father had no palate.  When she attained her 16th birthday, her grandfather gave her a copy of Hugh Johnson's Wine Companion (2nd edition) and the lovely drawings and vignettes in the book sparked her imagination.  This initial flame was fanned by two early relationships.  First, a boyfriend whose father was an avid oenophile (and a subscriber to Decanter no less) and, second, a girlfriend who took her to many a wine tasting.  Her father did not have a palate but he was a journalist and from a young age Sarah was surrounded by writing, publishing, and media-related issues.

Sarah's first publishing job was with the magazine Field which, ironically, is just down the hall from where she sits today.  When an opportunity to work for Decanter presented itself, she leapt at it and, after 25 years, with the magazine remains excited about where she works and its prospects.

Even though she has this senior position at Decanter, Sarah does not view herself as a wine expert a la Jancis Robinson (She subscribes to the adage that the more you learn about wine, the more you find out how much you don't know.).  Rather, Sarah views herself as a passionate wine drinker and wine lover;  akin to a Decanter reader.  Bordeaux wines are her first love but she also has an appreciation for wines from the Stag's Leap District of Napa, Washington State, and South America.

She finds the wine industry eminently fascinating with family-owned businesses sitting side-by-side with corporate titans and drama and soap operas, especially in Bordeaux, being the order of the day.

This post covered Sarah's introduction to wine and the magazine industry and her perspective of her positioning within that environment today.  In subsequent posts the conversation will cover Decanter and its readers and wine-industry issues.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Jean-Philippe Delmas' (Haut-Brion) Perspective on the Bordeaux 2010 Vintage

On February 3rd I attended a vertical tasting of selected vintages of the wines of Chateau La Mission Haut- Brion. The tasting was held at Trinity House in London and was jointly hosted by H.R.H. Prince Robert of Luxembourg (President Domaine Clarence Dillon, owners of Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion) and Jean-Philippe Delmas (Director). While the Chateau’s 2010 vintage was, obviously, not a part of the tasting, M. Delmas felt strongly enough about it to provide some insight on the vintage to the attendees. In this post I will summarize M. Delmas’ comments on the 2010 La Mission Haut-Brion vintage and offer some comments of my own.

M. Delmas opened his comments on the 2010 vintage by noting that the average temperature in Bordeaux keeps rising every year and, as a result, since 2006, the Chateau has been using a higher percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon in its blend. The final blend in the 2010 vintage includes 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and the alcohol level will be 15%. The continued increase in temperature, according to M. Delmas, is making it increasingly difficult to compile the blend. Everything is now concentrated and powerful and the challenge is to build balanced wines with power.

Conditions in Bordeaux are not only warmer, they are also drier. The period of mid-June to mid-October 2010 was, according to M. Delmas, the driest on record since 1949. These conditions are yielding more concentrated wines. In 2010, for example, the Cabernet Franc looked more like Cabernet Sauvignon than Cabernet Franc.

The Chateau had chaptalized its wine up until 1997 but yield-management initiatives ( green harvesting, vine density, etc.), an extensive cloning program, and a warming trend have led to “scary” levels of alcohol today. The Chateau may have to review some of these yield-reduction programs in the future with the goal of increasing yields and reducing alcohol levels.

In closing his comments on the 2010 vintage M. Delmas drew a parallel between Bordeaux and Napa. The Napa wines of the 1970’s averaged 12.5% alcohol while today’s Cabs average 15%. Warmer temperatures and riper grapes were the culprits, same as is true for Bordeaux today.

As a Bordeauxphile, the picture painted by M. Delmas of Bordeaux 2010 fills me with dread. My affinity for Bordeaux wines has stemmed from an appreciation of their partnership with my food choices, the retiring nature of the fruit, the ever-present acidity and minerality, and the ability of the wines to age and improve in the bottle. If Left Bank vignerons are forced to strip out Merlot in an effort to control alcohol levels, and if Cabernet Franc manifests Cabernet Sauvignon-cy, will the wines be driven to a certain uniformity over time? And what of the Pomerol and St. Emilion wineries and their Merlot-heavy blends? Will the sense of place that has so long been associated with these wines be submerged by an onslaught of ripe fruit and overpowering alcohol? The current generation of Bordeaux vignerons have been driven by an all-consuming desire to reduce yields and, in so doing, increase concentration and Parker scores. With the prospects of climate-driven concentration on the horizon, these vignerons may have to revisit their strategies and farming practices in order to take account of this new reality.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

One-Year Blog Anniversary

A year ago today my weekend plans came crashing down around my ears and I had no contingency.  I sat on the couch in the living room watching TV and quickly discovered that I did not want to do that.  I had been considering writing a wine blog for some time but had put it off as I pondered questions such as "where are you going to find the time to do this (I was working full time while pursuing a Masters in Archaeology)?" and "what exactly are you going to be writing about?" and "what makes you think that anyone would want to read your crappy writing?" And such like.  But I was sitting on the couch and the weekend stretched interminably before me. So I decided to write a wine blog.  And thus started my one-year journey.

My initial concept was a blog with daily posts focused on the metro-Orlando wine scene and associated events (MOWSE -- intended to be a cutesy play on the Disney character but invariably got lost in the translation) with especial focus on the activities of my regular Friday wine tasting group and contributing posts from members of said group.  The first post was an announcement of the upcoming @thewinebarn Clash of the Spanish Titans wine tasting event.  I was able to convince @hlyterroir and Robert Goulet to contribute posts to the blog.

Very early in the year I realized that there were subjects that I would like to write about that fell outside the stated scope of the blog so, rather than be boxed in by my initial shortsightedness, I decided to expand the scope of the blog.  Rather than focus on the metro-Orlando wine scene, the blog would cover wine-related issues and events as seen by someone(s) operating from an Orlando base.

A second evolutionary thrust was a search for an anchoring feature for the blog.  I had initially thought that our Friday afternoon tastings would serve that function but quickly realized that that would not work.  I next latched on to tasting the wines of the decade as identified by Master Sommelier Andrew McNamara  but that is a lengthy quest with infrequent, high-intensity activity along the way.  A trip to New York to the launch of the Wines of Greece marketing initiative provided the inspiration for the current and, hopefully, enduring focus of the blog -- sharing wine-related experiences with an underlying educational thrust.

The year has had many notable highlights: encouraging a number of retailers in the Orlando area to participate in #Cabernet Day; playing a key role in the 12-vintage Shafer Hillside Select vertical tasting put on by @wineontheway to celebrate #Cabernet Day; exploring Frank Husic's (Husic Vineyards) massive cellar; traveling to Decanter HQ in London to attend Steven Spurrier's Mastering the Medoc and Graves class; attending the IMW Austro-Hungarian tasting held at the residence of the Austrian Ambassador to the UK; the Chef's table at Victoria and Alberts with Ron and Adam among others; and dinner at Chateau d'Yquem with GM Pierre Lurton as host.

I have made many new friends over the course of the year and consolidated my relations with old ones.

I have consistently sought to increase my wine knowledge both to add to the credibility of the blog and to provide a more informed basis for my musings.

I look forward to an equally exciting second year.