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Friday, February 16, 2018

Burgundy Goes High-Tech


                 Ancient monks built walls ("clos") around vineyards to demarcate the best plots

Wine-making in Burgundy is deeply entrenched in centuries of traditions. It began with the monks of the Middle Ages who carefully and methodically mapped out each square inch of the region’s vineyards.  Detailed maps of the monks identified which plots of earth consistently made the best wines---this mapping today serves as the basis for Burgundy’s hierarchy of vineyard classification.  But, recently Burgundy has shifted on its axis by installing high-tech solutions to solve its age-old issue of poor weather.

                 Hail, sometimes as large as golf balls, has wreaked havoc on Burgundy's vineyards

Hail storms have long been a threat to the Burgundy region, but in recent years they have been appearing more frequently and with greater force.  Their destruction in the last five years has been particularly horrific with as much as >90% of the grapes lost to hail during the worst storms.  Burgundian vintners are fed up and have turned to technology for an answer.  The region has become the first in France to be totally covered by a “hailstone shield.”

                                       Grapes can be split completely open by hail

Burgundy is now protected the region's grapes with high-tech machines. The idea is to kill the storm before it arrives and avoid any hail from forming.  A network of 125 specialized machines have been dispersed throughout France’s smallest wine region.  These machines send particles up into the atmosphere that act as a hail-shield. The anti-hail devices have not only  been placed throughout the region, but the machines have been extended to a perimeter up to 30 miles around Burgundy’s vineyards.

               Netting has been used to protect the vines from hail but its cost was too prohitive

It’s not just grapes, however, that are destroyed by hail.  All of Burgundy’s produce has been a target, everything from fruits to vegetables.  Cassis, the berry liquor made from Burgundy’s prized black currants, has also been impacted.

Coming with Wine Knows to Burgundy in 2019?  If so, we’ll have an opportunity to observe the technology and hear first-hand about its efficacy from the first year of use.  For more information on this trip to Burgundy (we'll also be visiting Champagne) see our website,  www.WineKnowsTravel.com.




Friday, February 9, 2018

Lirac: Before Chateauneuf-du-Pape


                                         Lirac is a small wine region but has a great terroir

The wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape have been a personal favorite of mine well before I first visited the area > twenty years ago.  Being a sort of history buff, I was enchanted not only with their wines but the fascinating history of the papacy moving in the 14th century from Rome to Avignon, France.   (Chateauneuf-du-Pape translates to the “new chateau of the Pope.”)   But, recently I’ve become enamored with the contiguous wine district, Lirac.  Located just outside of Avignon, Lirac is across the Rhone River from Chateauneuf.

The Rhone, which separates the two, exerts a tremendous influence on both Lirac and Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  Lirac, which lies on the western side, was the premier wine district back when the Popes were looking for land to buy in the early 1300’s.  The Popes quickly ascertained that Lirac produced the finest wine in the region, however, there appeared to be no vineyards for sale.  Thus, the papacy purchased land on the eastern side of the Rhone…which today we know as Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  Soon the Pope’s vineyards were also producing excellent wines, but it was the Lirac wines that were coveted by the royalty of Europe for centuries.

                               Rocks left from the Rhone allow the grapes to fully ripen

Both Lirac and Chateuneuf-du-Pape have amazing terroirs.  The limestone soils of these regions are exceptional.  The Rhone River, which has changed course multiple times over the past millenniums, has deposited large stones (called galets) on both sides of the river.  These rocks act as a natural heating system, absorbing heat during the day and radiating it back to the vines during the cooler nights.  This is essential to the ripening of the grapes.  But the galets serve an additional purpose in that they promote excellent draining…a critical component in making world-class wines.  

The Popes moved their headquarters ultimately back to Rome nearly a century later, but Lirac and Chateauneuf-du-Pape remained formidable forces in the production of high quality wines until the 1800’s.   This is when Lirac committed a major faux-pas that destroyed most all of the vineyards in Europe.  A well-known Lirac chateau decided to experiment with new grape varietals and imported vines from America.   The American vines were on root-stalk that was resistant to the louse phylloxera, but the Lirac root-stalk on which the vines were grafted were not resistant.  Thus, began the viticultural pandemic that wiped out the vineyards of both Lirac and Chateaunuef-du-Pape, traveling across the continent and taking no prisoners.   Lirac has had a black eye ever since.

                       Phylloxera destroyed the vineyards of Europe in the late 19th century

If you can get past the phylloxera debacle you’ll probably love the wines of Lirac.  French in-the-know oenophiles, understand that these can be hidden treasure wines.  And, they can offer significantly better values than Chateauneuf-du-Pape which has soared in popularity…and price.   The following are some jewels from Lirac, listed in alpha order:  Duseigneur, Grand Veneur, Mont Redon, and Mordoree.

Coming with Wine-Knows on the Julia Child tour this June to Provence?  If so, you’ll be drinking red wines from a region that was around well before Chateauneuf-du-Pape.   That would be my faves from Lirac.



Friday, February 2, 2018

How Did a Cold Rainy Island Invent Modern Wine?


Perhaps the title of this article should have been the British Paradox?  No other country in the world has had more influence over modern wine than Britain.  For those of you who are scratching your head, let me explain. 

Bordeaux

It all began in the late 12th century when Britain’s King Henry married France’s Eleanor of Aquitaine.  Eleanor’s family was extremely wealthy and her dowry included the entire Southwest of France, including Bordeaux and all of its vineyards.  Now that this entire area was under British rule, Bordeaux wine was granted preferential tariffs by the British monarchy and an export boom ensued.  For nearly a century, hundreds of ships traveling together in massive fleets filled with wine began the journey north to London.

Many Brits moved to Bordeaux to manage their wine export or shipping business.  Chateaux such as Lynch-Bages, Palmer, and Talbott reflect this British heritage.  But, the 100 year war between France and Britain brought it all to a halt.  The Southwest of France passed back into French hands in 1453.

Port

The British were hooked on red wine and after Bordeaux reverted back to the French the Brits needed to look elsewhere for wines.  The Brits sailed further south and discovered the wines of Northern Portugal.  Getting these wines, however, back to London proved challenging as the wines often arrived spoiled. To stabilize the wine, brandy was added and this fortified wine became known as Port.  Today in Portugal many of these British families still have a firm hold in the wine industry.   Names such as Symington, Grahams, and Taylor reflect Port’s close ties to Britain several hundred years later.

Sherry, Madeira & Marsala

The British were responsible for the invention of the fortified wine industry.  Not only did they birth Port, but also Sherry, Madeira and Marsala.   Fortifying these wines with brandy enabled them to be shipped without spoilage to London.   Britain had an insatiable thirst for fortified wines, especially Sherry.  By the 19th century it is estimated that Sherry accounted for 60% of wine sales within Britain.

Madeira was very fashionable with the British Royalty who would voyage to the verdantly green “Garden Island” for a holiday of sunshine.  With the nobility came British merchants who set up wineries and shipping companies to bring a little slice of Madeira back to Britain.  The Brits monopolized the Madeira wine industry for generations and still to this day have a strong presence on the island.

The Brits sailed as far south as Sicily looking for their next new wine.  On the west coast they found the town of Marsala.  Having had great success in fortifying Portugal’s and Madeira’s wine for the long, arduous voyage back to London, they did the same with the table wine from Marsala.  Britain created Marsala as we know it today.

Glass Bottles

Our modern wine industry relies on glass bottles to prevent spoilage of the wine due to oxygen exposure.  While the Brits did not invent the glass wine bottle, they were the first to figure out how to mass produce them.  In 1821 a patent was issued to a chap from Bristol for his machine to bottle wine in a glass.  The rest is history.

Today, after centuries of influencing the development of the modern wine industry, Britain is finally producing its own wines.  While wine has been made for decades in England, the worldwide wine stage is now taking notice of English wines, especially the sparkling wines.  These “fizz” wines (as they are called) have out scored several well respected French Champagnes in blind tastings and have been given very high scores by international judges. 

Wine-Knows is heading to England this summer but the group is completely filled.  There are one or two openings, however, on the 2019 trip to the English countryside.


Cheerio!

Friday, January 26, 2018

Why is Champagne So Expensive?


There are several reasons for the luxury price tag on a bottle of Champagne.  The biggest one is the labor-intensive process in which it is made.   Unlike still wine, Champagne requires several added steps involving significant hands-on toil by a cadre of highly-specialized winery workers.   Moreover, the method of making these hallowed bubbles requires a lengthy period of time.  Time is money.

The unique process of making Champagne is one of the biggest reasons for its lofty price.  Once the grape juice ferments to wine, Champagne goes through an entirely separate process to create its bubbles.  This is called the Methode Champenoise and these words appear on every bottle of sparkling wine made in the Champagne district of France.  By law, no other region or country can use these words, or call their wine Champagne.

The Methode Champenoise involves a “secondary fermentation” in the bottle.  Already fermented still wine is placed in a bottle along with a tiny amount of sugar and yeasts.  A cork is then added.  Over the period of several weeks the added yeast eats the sugar and a secondary fermentation process occurs.   Carbon dioxide is a by-product of fermentation.  This carbon dioxide is responsible for Champagne’s illustrious bubbles.

  Dead yeasts from the secondary fermentation must be removed.

Once the yeast cells have consumed all the sugar they die off.  Now, comes the process for getting rid of the unsightly dead yeast sediment in the bottle.  It begins with “riddling.”  Bottles are placed in a special rack which allows them to be very slowly rotated to a vertical position over time (the cork end of the bottle ultimately ends up at the bottom).  Over a period of several months, each bottle is turned daily by a “riddler.”  Slowly, slowly each bottle is rotated so that over time the spent yeast cells gravitate toward the neck of the bottle. But, there’s much more.

  Riddlers painstakingly turn each bottle daily

Now that the yeasts have all floated to the neck of the now positioned vertical bottle, they must be removed.  This involves another hands-on process called “disgorgement.”  In short, the bottle is kept in its vertical position (cork side down) and placed in ice just long enough for the area near the cork to freeze.  With lightening-speed the cork is removed (and with the cork the frozen dead yeasts adhering to the cork are also removed), and a new cork is placed….all at the blink of an eye by a well-seasoned “disgorger.”    But the Champagne is not ready yet.  It now needs to “rest” for months or even years before it is sold. 

       Dead yeasts accumulate in the vertically positioned bottle & are frozen before removed.

Another reason that Champagne is pricey is the notion of supply and demand.  The Champagne region is the smallest wine region in France and produces a limited number of bottles.  Globally, Champagne accounts for <1% of total wine production.  To further complicate the issue Champagne is France’s most northern wine area.  There are some years in which grapes do not ripen adequately, thus further limiting availability and driving up the cost.

In summary, the Champagne process is long and complex, with many steps along the way that necessitate workers with well-honed special skills.  Production is limited.  All of this translates to do-re-mi for the consumer.   Wine Knows will be visiting both the Champagne and Burgundy regions in June 2019.  For more information about this trip visit www.WineKnowsTravel.com.

  



Friday, January 19, 2018

Burgundy & Champagne Awarded UNESCO

                                               Burgundy's unique Cote d'Or ("golden slope")

Now joining the ranks of the world’s most notable wine regions, Burgundy and Champagne have been granted World Heritage status by the United Nations.  Others include Hungary’s Tokaj region, the Douro in Portugal, Bordeaux and the Loire of France, Piedmont in Italy, the Rhine in Germany, along with Sicily’s Pantelleria Island.

While UNESCO lists several criteria for selection, the one criteria that all must have is an “outstanding universal value.”   Burgundy’s wines have had a cult following for some time.  Champagne has long been considered as the world’s best sparkling wine.  So, some may be asking what’s the big deal?  The World Heritage status matters, even for those already-in-the know wine lovers.  It ups the ante for difference.  After all, if there were no differences in wines then why should some cost so much more money?

                       Deep limestone soil has an impact on the nuances of Champagne's taste

A World Heritage wine region reinforces the concept of uniqueness.  It’s a distinction of place.  While there are killer Pinots and Chardonnays produced in California, Oregon, New Zealand and Australia, Burgundian versions of these varietals are incapable of being reproduced anywhere else.  Similarly, the Franciacorta district of Northern Italy is making absolutely jaw-dropping sparkling wines, but they are just a little different from Champagne. The voice of the land speaks.  While wine styles can be copied, the differences from terroir cannot be replicated.   Differences matter, and thus the UNESCO award.

Wine-Knows will be visiting both Burgundy and Champagne in June 2019.  At this time there are a few seats remaining.  


Viva la différence!  


Friday, January 12, 2018

Wine from a New Old World

           Uber modern winery in Hungary--Wine Knows will stay on this dramatic estate 

Visiting Hungary’s wine regions offers a tasting trip around a new Old World. 
State-of-the-art wineries right out of Napa Valley and winemakers armed with
viticultural degrees from top international universities are juxtaposed with ancient
cellars and winemaking traditions that remind us of this country’s remarkably rich
wine heritage.

Like most countries in Europe, Hungary’s history with wine grapes dates back to
the Romans.  In the 11th century Hungary was a key player in wine production. 
During the Ottoman occupation of the 16th and 17th century, however, this all
changed as alcohol was forbidden due to tenants of the Muslim religion. Tokaj was
the exception as its wine production thrived thanks to it being an independent
state of Transylvania.

In the 1700’s Hungary once again  became a formidable force in the wine-making world.  The course of wine history changed for all of Europe in the late 1800’s when a bug called Phylloxera destroyed nearly every vineyard on the continent.  (Interestingly, it was, a Hungarian who played a major role in developing a Phylloxera-
resistant root stock that got the wine industry moving again).  Post World War II
Communism was the final nail in the coffin.  A once flourishing wine industry was
relegated to producing bulk wine for the masses.

Today, Hungary is the 17th largest producer of wine in the world.  To put its
regional size in perspective, it is larger in wine production than neighboring
Austria, but smaller than its neighbors Bulgaria and Romania.  Currently that are
>150,000 acres under vine spread across the Hungary’s 22 wine regions and sub-
regions.

Hungary joined the EU in 2004.  Financing from the EU has catapulted Hungary
from the downward spiral of Communism into a new world of opportunity. 
Hungary has stepped up to the plate, especially the Tokaj region.  One of the few
in the wine world to reinvent itself, Tokaj seized the opportunity to turn from sweet
wines to dry.  Old World Tokaj is a Cinderella story.   Many of Tokaj’s wines are
now stunning dry whites.  They are using the same Old World grape (Furmint) but
vinifying them bone dry.  Furmint is becoming the new darling varietal of many
Sommeliers.

But, Hungary is not a one trick pony.  The country is making some gorgeous red
wines.  In fact, one of Hungary’s reds beat out one of the most famous Old World
chateau in all of Bordeaux in a blind tasting. 

If you’re looking for something new to try in the New Year, but appreciate well-
crafted Old World wines, put Hungary on your 2018 list.  The country is emerging
as an exciting player on the international wine scene.  Highly recommend one of
the following producers that this autumn Wine-Knows will be visiting (sorry but this tour is sold out with a waiting list).

          Dry White (alpha order):
                 Hetzolo
                 Kikelet
                 Svent Tamás
    
          Red (alpha order):
             Attila Gere
             Bock


Friday, January 5, 2018

Rock-Star Minerality

                                          Minerality can add a compelling nuance to wine

“Lick it” the winemaker instructed.  “Lick the rock” he demanded of our bulging eyeballs’ group of Wine-Knows.   We were in a vineyard filled with rocks at the base of the Andes mountains in Argentina and we all giggled…and then complied.  Suddenly it became very quiet as everyone was seemingly trying to process the wonder and the words to explain what they had just tasted.

“Salt” one Wine-Know volunteered.  Another offered a caveat:  “What I taste is the smell of wet earth.”  This prompted another tour participant to chime in that she tasted the “smell of river pebbles.”  A few offered comments about the texture of what they tasted describing it as “pasty” or “thick.”  All appeared to be surprised about what they had just experienced.

Minerality can be a difficult concept, especially for new wine drinkers.  First, most novices are drawn to fruity wines.  Second, the majority of wines are fruit-forward so that subtle nuances of minerality take a back seat.  Last, there isn’t a lot of common language to discuss these mineral-like smells and tastes.  This makes minerality even tricky for some veterans to wrap their arms around.

Where minerality in wine comes from is still unknown.  We don’t really know how it happens although there are many theories.  What is known is that there are certain chemicals that have been isolated in wine that have been shown to promote smells and tastes of minerals.  With flavors of strawberries in a Pinot Noir, or green apples in a Chardonnay we understand that there are not actually berries or apples in these wines.  Thus, it makes sense that certain compounds would give off non-fruit smells and instead offer hints of minerals.

The best recommendation I have for trying to understand minerality in your glass is Assyrtiko wine from the island of Santorini, Greece.  This varietal is all about minerals and there's little competing fruit (you can actually taste the minerality of the island's famous volcano).  Suggested best producers of this enticing white wine include Gaia, Sigalas and Boutari.


Rock-out in 2018!