Friday, February 19, 2016

Book Review: Suzanne Mustacich's Thirsty Dragon

This book is the War and Peace of wine literature. I had to read it twice in order to tease out the many threads and fully internalize and embrace the story that it relates. It is a tour de force, throughly researched and impeccably sourced with 40 pages of chapter-specific notes and an index; but the fullest potential is unrealized.

My issue is not with the content. Rather, it is with the presentation, the style chosen by the author with which to convey the story. This is an incredibly complex story with many moving parts and multiple individuals and entities cutting across geographical boundaries. Add to this the fact that many of the Chinese state-owned companies covered in the book will be unfamiliar to a large swath of the potential target audience, and the cultural difficulty that many western readers have with Chinese names, and it increases the difficulty of keeping up with the story. In my opinion, the reader would have been better served by a straightforward writing style rather than the Tom-Clancy-like, multi-threaded plot-line approach that was employed. But, unlike a Clancy novel, the threads do not converge.

The style made it difficult to put the book down and pick it up again if any length of time had transpired between those two acts. In the cases where I had set the book aside, I had to read a few pages back from where I had left off in order to regain the cadence of the story. And in my second pass through the book, I made lists of Chinese companies, joint ventures, Chinese winemakers, and distribution entities so that I could keep track of the players (I had resisted doing that on my first pass through but this is a necessary evil if you are reading this book seriously.).

That being said, the reporting and analysis contained within the book are exceptional. The epilogue, titled Shangri La, is an especially cogent and insightful piece of analysis.

The core story here is about the Chinese wine market that was realized after Li Peng's speech at the 1996 Party conclave wherein he lauds the benefits of wine drinking and essentially gives approval for consumption of said beverage. Susan leads off with an institution -- the Place de Bordeaux -- which had, for centuries, been the marketplace for wines produced in Bordeaux, one in which the players knew the rules and their places within the system (The chart below was developed mostly from Susan's description in the book's initial chapter.).

It is a story of how that institution and system became corrupted by (i) the promise of a vast Chinese wine market and (ii) the pursuit of of that market potential by traditional players and new entrants -- well-meaning or criminal-minded. And it is a story of how markedly different than imagined is the market that does emerge, a product of fickleness and the reward structure of state-influenced "market forces".

There are no heroes in this story. Or at least none that transcends it. There are four honorable characters -- only one of whom ends up better off than when we first encountered them -- and their "goodness-contribution" is drowned out by all the nefarious and selfish acts which undergird the tome.

According to Susan, China had been a "lilliputian" wine market prior to Premier Li Peng's speech at the 1996 National People's Conferrence wherein he stipulated that it was okay to drink wine. Between that period and an effective closing of the window for high-priced Bordeaux brought about by the anti-corruption initiatives of Xi Jinping, we saw the evolution of two markets in China: First Growths purchased primarily for gift-giving and lower-cost Bordeaux (plonk according to the author) and local wine bought to be consumed. We also saw a number of new players enter the market to help service the needs: Individuals, industrialists, state-owned companies, Chinese regional governments, wine distributors, Chinese grower/producers, and French-Chinese joint ventures.

Bordeaux wines had historically been sold as shown in the chart above but the Chinese wanted to cut out the middleman and we see many a Chateau cooperating in this venture by cutting out everyone downstream and selling to a Chinese wholesaler or "club." We see negotiants bypassing their clients and selling direct to distribution companies. According to the author, the environment devolved into a "four-way wrestling match" between the "state-run conglomerates", "entrepreunerial charlatans", the Bordelais establishment, and rogue wineries (Latour deserting en primeur being a prime example of this latter category).

The book goes into exquisite detail on Chinese initiatives to gain the high ground to include brand-squatting, counterfeiting, rogue tax authorities, officials on the take, joint ventures with technology training and technology transfer commitments, technology/material/means-of-production confiscation, and intimidation to force a partner out. The French on the other hand, cut out their long-term business partners to pursue this business. As the Chateau's pursued the Chinese market they not only cut out their negotiants and courtiers, they also cut out the businesses to which the negotiants would sell their wines. And as the hot money pursued the wines, the prices continued to rise. This was a disaster for American Bordeaux consumers as their suppliers were getting access to a much smaller amount of the wine and at ridiculously high prices.

I had asked Sarah Kemp, Publishing Director of Decanter, about some of these issues in an interview I did with her in February of 2011. In response to a question on demand, Sarah said:
... the issue at hand is its (China's) seemingly insatiable appetite for First Growth Bordeauxs ... 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.  ... 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 said:
... 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.
Well the Bordelaise did not read that interview and went ahead and snubbed their traditional markets in pursuit of the cash. The conclusion: these guys deserved each other.

As regards the book, buy it, read it slowly and carefully and with pen and paper at hand.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Wine and cheese in the clouds: The Rapsani (Mount Olympus, Greece) Vineyard Adventure

We were on cloud nine after visiting Ktima Geravassiliou on our tour of the North Greece wine trail: we had been led in a tasting by Vangelos Geravassiliou, one of the living legends of Greek wine; we had visited one of the best curated wine museums that I have ever encountered; and we had been treated to a spectacular lunch prior to boarding our vehicle for the next stop on our tour.

We were flying high. But higher heights awaited us in the form of the Rapsani Wine Adventure, a nail-biting, knee-knocking, white-knuckled, vertigo-inducing, end-of-the-rainbow, safari-themed tour of the Rapsani PDO vineyards which are located on the slopes of Mount Olympus, the legendary home of the Greek Gods. But wait, I am getting ahead of myself.

What it feels like to take the Rapsani Wine Adventure tour.
(Image from
We were scheduled to go on a vineyard tour so I was somewhat nonplussed when we pulled into what appeared to be a supermarket parking lot in a little village. Strange place for a vineyard, I thought. Stranger still, we were approached by a sunglass-wearing bloke who was dressed in attire more befitting the Serengeti Plain than this village parking lot. He spoke to the driver of our vehicle and the order was given for us to disembark. Strange.

Once we got out of our transport, I noticed two open-top, Jeep-like vehicles with logos for Rapsani Vineyard Adventure emblazoned on the doors. I got it then. We were transferring to our vineyard transports and the attire worn by the strange guy (who turned out to be Dr. George Salpiggidis, Viticultural Director and Head of Tsantali Rapsani) was all part of creating an atmosphere of a hard-bitten, no-nonsense, adventure guide. I liked it. So we clambered in and headed off.

This is probably an appropriate time to describe the environment within which the Rapsani vineyards reside. Rapsani is a protected designation of origin (PDO) in the Greek appellation schema. Its physical and legal characteristics are elaborated in the chart below.

The vineyards proper are located on the southern slopes of Mount Olympus and its "mainland mediterranean" climate is modified by the surrounding mountains and forests as well as by the Thermaic Gulf of the Aegean Sea. One of the heralded aspects of the environment is the 10 - 15 ℃ temperature variation between day and night, a condition which, it is held, "enhances phenolic ripeness and aromatic concentration of the grapes."

Ones mortality is constantly on the mind as you wend your way up steep mountain slopes with vertiginous drops on one side and ever-rising slope on the other. Funny but I constantly felt the urge to lean away from the gorge, willing the "Jeep" away from the edge.

Our first stop was at a level where we were directly across from Rapsani which draped down the side of a mountain slope.

And Dr. Salpiggidis began to tell us the story of the Rapsani vineyards as he guided us through the vineyards. Grapes had been grown in this region for a very long time. The quality of those grapes were evidenced by the produce being classified as an appellation wine in 1932 and one of the first Greek PDO wines in 1971.

The vineyards had always been owned by local farmers who provided grapes to a cooperative. In the 1980s, however, the region fell on hard times and the winery was repossessed by the bank. Growers began to look at other alternatives and were further encouraged to desert grape growing by an EU initiative which paid them to keep grapes off the market.

Tsantali took an interest in the region when viable vineyards were 10 ha in total. According to Dr. Salpiggidis, they embarked on a program to resurrect the greatness by first paying the growers more money to plant vines than the EU was paying them to pull them out. Secondly, they embarked on a cooperative program with the growers to guide them in the production of high-quality grapes. And third, they acquired the local winery in order to meet the PDO production requirements. Today, vineyard size is up to 90 ha from the 10 ha starting point.

After this scintillating discussion on the history and current practice of Rapsani viticulture, and tasting of wines which magically appeared from one of the non-Jeep vehicles following us (thanks Kiriaki Panagiotou), we re-boarded our vehicles to continue our trip up the mountain.

This phase of the trip was even more "adventurous" than the first. I kept hoping that we would not encounter any vehicles coming the other way, mountain goats heading to lower ground, or wild boars hellbent on mindless destruction. I heaved a sigh of relief when we pulled into the courtyard of ... a church (According to Kiriaki, the name of the church is St Theodoroi Monastery Terrace)? Now this was the last thing I had expected to encounter at this level. But I can see its relevance -- the calm after the storm kinda thing.

But even more soothing was the spread that was laid out before us on some upturned wine barrels: breads and cheeses and wines that seemed to be surveying the valley at large. But before we partook of the bounties, Dr. Salpiggidis took us on a tour of the Monastery.

I have seen some idyllic settings for wine and cheese pairings but this one takes the cake.

I conversed intently with my seat mate on the way down and was very congratulatory to my driver when we pulled into the parking lot of the lunch restaurant. Mind you, it was 4:00 pm and we were embarking on lunch, our second of the day. And what a lunch it was. I am still sated after the passage of all this time.

This had been a fantastic experience whose conception was genius and the execution of which was flawless. The story of the region is captivating in and of itself but to tell it within that setting is absolutely brilliant. I have taken vineyard tours before. I have pursued the big five on safari in Masai Mara. And I have conversed with viticulturists while drinking wine in their vineyards. But never before have I experienced all three effects simultaneously.

The Rapsani Wine Adventure is an adventure worth having.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Characterizing Rioja wines: A blind tasting

There is a group of young Somms here in the Orlando area who are at various stages of the Guild Of Sommeliers certification process and have banded together to hone their skills as they pursue higher levels of individual accreditation. From time to time I act as a resource for the group by facilitating focused tastings, allowing the group to do deep dives into a region, variety, or soil type. Our most recent previous exercise was an exploration of the varying instances of Nebbiolo.

Last week we conducted another focused tasting, this time on the wines of Rioja. This tasting was held in the back room of Luma on Park (Winter Park), with approximately 15 people in attendance. In addition to the Somms, I had invited Ron Siegel and Andres Montoya to lend their expertise to the effort.

In that one of the Somms found Rioja wines rather challenging, I decided to conduct the tasting blind. The objective was to see if there were any natural groupings in the offered wines and to identify the characteristics which caused that grouping (if any). Towards that end, the wines were placed into numbered paper bags and were only referenced by number until a global reveal at the conclusion of the tasting. Of the wines tasted blind, six came from my cellar, five were purchased on the day of the tasting, two each were brought by Ron and Andres, and one bottle was brought by Kevin Quijano.

The traffic was brutal that afternoon so we got a late start waiting for some of our colleagues. But it was not wasted time. We whiled the time away first with a 1994 Lopez de Heredia Gravonia Blanco and then with a 1994 Tondonia Blanco. Melissa (Swirlery) felt that the oxidative notes of the Gravonia felt more like a Jura wine, or even a Sherry, while the Tondonia had a richer, nuttier feel, like a black walnut. I like oxidative notes and I like Lopez de Heredia so I was receptive to whatever was in the bottles.

I began the session with a brief overview of the factors that influence the character of a Rioja wine. This presentation was a summary of my detailed treatment of the region.

Tasted blind, the wines seem to fall into five groups which I will characterize as follows: Modern, Faulty, Over the Hill, Other, and Traditional. It should be pointed that while the wines were placed into groups during the tasting, the actual names of the wines within those groups were not revealed until the conclusion of the tasting. Now let us examine the wines within the identified groups.

The wines falling into the modern grouping are shown in the picture below. The Muga 2009 Seleccion Especial is not pictured here but is a member nonetheless.

Photo Credits: Anne Ryan
Andres characterized the 2009 Marques de Legarda as a wine with a very extracted style with dark mint chocolate and plenty of new oak. It reminded him of a Paolo Scavino Barolo. The 2009 Muga Seleccion Especial was also modern but its extraction, blackberry jam notes, and French oak was reminiscent of a Napa Cab. The 2005 Muga Aro had a very dark color, too much oak, and appeared unbalanced. Ripe fruit and sweet oak. I saw Super Tuscan characteristics while Andrew tagged it as a Cab-based Bordeaux. Melissa agreed with its modernity. The 2005 Capricho and the 2001 Faustino hewed closely to the unfolding story line. Surprisingly for us, the 2004 Castello Ygay showed up in this list. In the blind tasting I had described it as having raspberry notes along with vanilla, coconut and dried herbs and had placed it in the middle between a modern and a traditional Rioja. Andres described it thusly: "fresh-picked raspberries, floral but with high alcohol on the nose. Modern in style (or appeared to be)."

The 2005 Cincel Gran Reserva was identified as faulty due to an excess of sulfur on the nose.

Photo Credits: Anne Ryan

Over the Hill
The 2001 Berceo was characterized as "dark, port-like, oxidized, and disjointed."

Photo Credits: Anne Ryan

The Remelluri 2007 (Iron, meaty, potted soil, french oak on nose) and 2006 Coleccion Vivanco Graciano single varietal (Dark, unfiltered. Naphthalene (mothball) on the nose. disjointed, extracted. Reminiscent of an earthy Cab Franc from Saumur-Champigny) were classed as the "other."

Photo Credits: Anne Ryan

The wines that were placed into this category were everyone's favorites. While what had gone before was somewhat confusing, the wines that populated this category brought order to the tasting. As soon as you brought the glass up to your nose you knew that these were the aromas and flavors that you had found pleasing in an earlier wine.

Photo Credits: Anne Ryan

The 1994 Rioja Alta 904 was Andres' Wine of the Night! "Gorgeous nose of mushroom, forest floor, pine needle, pickled fruit, beef broth (umami sensation) and great acidity. Drinks like a Gevrey Chambertin!" As shown in the section below, this was also Ron's wine of the night (but for different reasons). 

The 1991 Lopez Heredia Bosconia exhibited coffee, earth, and great integration between oak and fruit. Intense pepper spice, great acidity, and an expressiveness on the palate. This wine was drinking beautifully. Andres tagged it as his second wine of the night: "dried flower, wet earth, forest floor, road tar, lovely aromatics, very Burgundian." 

The Cune Imperial 1994 showed barnyard, cherry, spice, fruit, herbs and flowers. Restrained, subtle, elegant. For Andrew, "Delicate, floral, pinot-noir-like intensity, gravel/mineral, chewy tannins.

Andres found the 1973 Valoria to be surprisingly youthful, exhibiting scorched earth, ripe cherry, and tobacco. Bold. He was extremely surprised at the reveal because he had had this down as a wine from the 90's.

One of the surprises for us all, and not necessarily fitting neatly into this category, was the 2011 Vivanco Maturana Tinta. It had an intense color along with black cherry, olives, and leather on the palate. Balanced. Northern Rhone character. Everyone liked this wine. 

Post-Tasting Thoughts
I really enjoyed the tasting as it gave me a good perspective of the different styles being made in the region. The wines that were poured represented a good mix of the top producers and their styles. while some showed over-ripe fruit -- and seemed clunky, out of balance, and short of finish -- another style seemed to show a wine that was made in a region such as Tuscany or Bordeaux. Those wines displayed dark colors, primary characteristics, and bell pepper and were made in a modern style including the use of French oak. 

My favorite wine was made in a more traditional style that was elegant, floral, and displayed bright fruits, good acids and had a silky texture. I felt that the wines showed so much better when they had some age on them, usually 10-20 yrs where they had developed complexity and had lost the dominant dill and vanilla flavors associated with American oak.

My top wine of the tasting was the 1994 Rioja Alto 904 which had bright cherry and berry fruits with cinnamon, leather, tobacco, and licorice It was elegant and floral with silky tannins.
My second favorite was the 1991 Lopez Heredia Gran Reserva Bosconio which displayed cherry and strawberry fruits and had an earthy, leather, and blood orange component along with lavender.

I also liked the Il Vivanco Maturana which had a completely different style that reminded me of a Northern Rhone with dark cherry and black olive notes. 

Tasting through 18 different Riojas was enlightening.  I was fascinated by the uniqueness of each wine--some due to winemaker manipulation and others simply a result of terroir.  Exploring them side-by-side really heightened the observation of the differences between each bottle, and made me quickly realize that Rioja is complex region that has distinctly varied styles.


In my opening remarks to the group I had characterized Rioja wines as shown in the chart below. 

The tasting panel very clearly opted for the classic Rioja style and traditionalism, soundly rejecting the modernist wines that were on offer. The tasting also revealed a few wines that did not fit neatly into any of the above molds and, of those, the Maturana was exceedingly pleasing with the others being eminently forgettable.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme