Weird Science

I started on the reading material for my class last evening. The first chapters are the “technical” ones, first biology : the vine, its parts, how it lives, what it needs, photosynthesis and all that. Then, it’s chemistry : fermentation, alcohol, sugar, blue meth,… It’s all well and good if you ignore the fact that I hate science. Chemistry and physics were the two classes I always dreaded in school and to this day I feel nothing but apathy at best and loathing at worst for science.

But, wine science serves a greater good, so studied on I did. I was reminded of a quote by Rabelais, 16th century French philosopher ( a class I didn’t dread in school) about “Science sans conscience n’est que ruine de l’ame.” Science without conscience is just ruin of the soul. If you switch “conscience” with “purpose” in the quote, then you get something. Science for wine isn’t too bad, it serves a purpose, the purpose tastes good. I’m willing to see science as a necessary evil if it leads to grapes being fermented. Also, topically, Rabelais is often associated with good food and wine, especially Chinon wines from the Loire Valley, coincidence ? I think not.

Credits : Wikipedia

Credits : Wikipedia

Having reconciled myself with science, I kept studying. A big challenge is going to be the vocabulary, since I’m learning english words whose French translation I don’t know. It’s a process, nothing a little googling can’t solve. I am now familiar with buds, nodes, canes, spurs, shoots, tendrils and of course, permanent wood (not to be confused with transient wood which just phases in and out of reality). Okay, vines are plants, roots go down, sun comes in, photosynthesis happens, the plants grows. Everybody wins.

It gets more interesting when the lesson moves on to grafting. Basically, every vine producing grapes for wine is the result of grafting. Grafting is the process of joining 2 species of vines together to get qualities from both. Example : vitis vitifera is a vine that can produce wine grapes, which is good, but it is really fragile against the phylloxera parasite, which is bad. In fact, it those little bastards almost destroyed european vines in the 19th century. Enters vitis berlandieri, its grapes are unfit to produce wine, which is sad, but its roots can stifle phylloxera parasites by filling their greedy little mouths with sticky sap, which is good (and also really funny). Grafting the top of vitis vinifera on some vitis berlandieri roots, you get a vine that produces good grapes and can resist phylloxera. Jesse, you take this one.

fbd

Thanks Jesse. Now I’m starting to look at the scary part for me : chemistry. Compounds and reactions, fermentation, stuff turning into other stuff because stuff happens. I’m not kidding, “stuff” is an accurate snapshot of my knowledge level here. I’ll have to take copious amount of notes. I can’t wait to get to the part of the class where there are maps. I like maps, I understand maps. In the meantime, onward, for science !

Advertisements

Meet the Willamette Valley

After exploring Portland and its wonders, it was time to make our way to the Willamette Valley for some wine tasting action. Conveniently, wine country is about 20 minutes outside of Portland, it made the whole thing a short trip. The Willamette Valley AVA is the biggest and most famous of Oregon’s wine growing region. It follows the Willamette Valley and is sheltered by two mountain ranges, the Coastal Range to the West and the Cascade Range to the East. This situation shelters the region and provides mild winters, cool and cloudy summers and damp autumns, sounds like good Pinot Noir Country.

The AVA is pretty big, as I mentioned, and there are even a few sub-appellations. Our wine tour actually took us to two of these smaller AVAs: Chehalem Mountains, centered on the town of Newberg which is really the heart of the Willamette wine country, and Dundee Hills, famous for its red soils and admittedly the top ranked sub-appellation.

The red Hills from the bottom

The red Hills from the bottom

Winemaking in Oregon is a recent development. The first modern attempts were made in the late sixties by rogue UC Davis students and they didn’t realize the potential for Pinot Noir until the mid-seventies. Once it happened though, it happened fast with the number of vineyards growing exponentially. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that exploitations tend to be on the smaller side, just like in the other Pinot Noir paradise, Burgundy.

Another Oregon-Burgundy connection is the Drouhin family, from Beaune, who decided to buy a vineyard in the Dundee Hills (we actually passed the vineyard during the trip). The legend says that it was the performance of Oregon Pinots in the 1979 Paris Wine Olympics (where an Oregon Pinot took second place) that prompted the interest of the Drouhins in the region. Whatever the cause was, the result is that they are there now, and that their wines are top notch.

The Red Hills from the top

The Red Hills from the top

That’s it for the region, next week I’ll finally talk about the wines and the three stops we made during our tour. A lot of wine was tasted and a lovely picnic was had on those famous Red Hills.

 

MWWC10 : Values, tradition and the value of change

It’s a new month, it’s a new Wine Writing Challenge! As always, the theme was chose by the last winner, The Sybarite, and his choice was “Values”. I’m looking forward to reading what people will come up with, in the meantime, here is my entry. I hope you will excuse the very academic title, just a shout out to high school French students now taking their philosophy baccalaureat exam.

MWWC

Values, tradition, and the value of change

“Values” is a tricky word, so many possible meanings… When in doubt, I like to start with a quote; it helps settle the issue at hand and give perspective. I think something important about values was formulated by an early 21st century philosopher, Seth McFarlane: “It seems today that all we see is violence in movies and sex on TV. But where are those good old-fashioned values on which we used to rely?” A good question if I ever heard one.

“Good old-fashioned values”– that sounds like something I can work with. Let’s just go through other possibilities: San Francisco values (too political), Addams Family values (too black and white), Risk-adjusted business value (too from my day job). You know what, I’ll stick with the “good old fashioned values.”

And it’s not because that expression contains the name of a great cocktail; I actually have things to say about the idea of good old-fashioned values in wine. Added bonus: this angle allows me to channel and use what is pretty much my only advantage against the other writers in the competition, the fact that I’m French. It’s kind of a dumb thing to leverage, but we must all focus on our strengths, right?

Mad Men old fashioned

It’s old fashioned

There is something in the French psyche that can drive me insane when I think about it too much: it’s the rampant, pervasive and maddening conservatism. To foreigners, a common French trope is the constant striking and demonstrating in the streets. This trope holds true, but what people don’t realize is that strikers do not ask for more, they just protest change and reform. There is entitlement here, but I think there is also a fear and rejection of change and evolution. Let’s continue to do things this way because that is the way we always did them.

French winemakers and French wine can have a tendency to hold on tight to those good old-fashioned values. I am not saying it’s a bad thing; I just have a problem when people do things a certain way just because it’s tradition without even considering potentially better ways.

To be fair, this reliance on tradition is more prevalent in Burgundy and Bordeaux, the two classical wine growing regions.  Bordeaux wine still relies on a classification of Grand Crus dating back from 1855, with only one Chateau changing ranks (Mouton Rothschild moving from second to first in 1973). As for Burgundy, most of the terroirs were classified by monks in the Middle-Ages. As you can see, there is a premium on tradition here.

And to an extent, it makes sense, because tradition really is part of the brand. When you buy a bottle of Bordeaux, you pay not only for the wine but also for the name, the tradition, the aura of Bordeaux. That’s why things tend to move slowly there. And I’m not just talking about wine-making techniques; even marketing, sales channels and labels tend to emphasize tradition and old-fashionedness.

chateau-chasse-spleen-374997

It says Chateau and it shows a chateau

Bordeaux labels will depict the Chateau, and Burgundy labels will aim for an old-timey feel with cursive letters, family crest or even faux-parchment labels. Once again, those characteristics are part of what you pay for. They’re the cultural trappings of the wine. In a way, it’s akin to buying Apple products: you’re paying for more than just a phone or a computer, there’s a mystique you buy in, some turtleneck clad values you display to the world while making a purchase.

Old-timey much ?

Old-timey much ?

Maybe I’m overthinking this? You’re right, I’m totally overthinking this. Anyway, traditional winemaking values are being challenged in France, but you’ll have to explore less iconic regions to see it. It’s not very surprising: Bordeaux and Burgundy rely on their traditional, high value image, and they are shackled by restrictive and strict labelling laws. When you move down in the hierarchy of appellations, you have more freedom and you can have some fun.

Take the Loire Valley for example. It’s definitely an old region of France, and one with strong ties to French history, but its wine industry doesn’t overly play the old-fashioned card. In a way that wine region is less scrutinized than Bordeaux, and so producers can try things out, stretch boundaries and get away with it. Here’s one of my favorite wine labels.

SO2

Notice the difference?

Can you imagine a Burgundy producer going with something like that? That would shatter a painfully constructed image and go exactly against their commercial and advertising policy. The good old-fashioned values are part of wine culture, especially the French wine culture, and for the most part it’s a good thing. My problem is, sometimes those values can get in the way of fun.

And I like having fun. I mean, given the choice between having fun, being bored and feeling miserable, I will probably pick having fun 99% of the time. When I tell people I’m into wine, I sometimes feel that their minds race to words that start with an “s,” like snobby, stuffy or serious. Wine should be fun; you should be able to like a wine because the bottle looks cool, you don’t need to know the ancestry of a wine producer over the last twelve generations to enjoy his wine. The heritage, the values are part of what makes a wine, but if they are the only thing it has to offer, then, well, that does not sound appealing. I don’t like tradition for the sake of tradition but I don’t like change for the sake of change either.

I know I might sound like a hypocrite because I do write a blog dedicated to learning as much as I can about wine, about the winemaking, the varieties, the producers…. And I love doing so; it’s a significant and happy part of my life. I just don’t want it to come at the expense of enjoying wine for what it is, a fun way to get a few friends together. Here are my wine values, I don’t know if they are “old-fashioned,” I’m not sure if they are “good,” they are probably not “good old-fashioned,” but they’re mine. Now I just need to find a way to get a few more of that skull and bones bottle !

Summer cocktails 101

If that is alright with you, I will make a small infidelity to wine today by talking about another drink. Something vaguely resembling spring has come to Boston, at long last, and so, it becomes socially acceptable to drink Campari. By the way, don’t bother drinking Campari in winter, I’ve done it, it just doesn’t work for some reason. It’s like drinking pastis when you can’t hear cicadas, the whole things seems off.

campari

What is Campari you ask? Well, Campari is technically a liqueur (a distilled spirit flavored with fruit, herbs, spices… and bottled with additional sugar). It’s more specifically a bitter and its flavor comes from various herbs and fruits, the exact composition being of course a secret. The more distinctive feature of Campari is its red color that originally came from the use of carmine dye.  Campari was created by Gaspare Campari in 1860 in the Italian city of Novara, near Milan. From there it spread to the French Riviera and then to the rest of the world.

How do you drink Campari you ask? Well, you could drink it on the rocks but it’s not my favorite approach, it might be too bitter and a little syrupy. An alternative would be to make it a Campari and soda, very refreshing, not as bitter and actually sold pre-bottled in Italy.

Campari Soda Bottle

Campari is used in some classic cocktails such as the Negroni: gin, vermouth, and Campari or the Campari Spritz: Campari, soda, Prosecco). My personal favorite though is the Americano. It’s simple enough to make: Campari, Cinzano (sweet vermouth) and club soda, served in an old-fashioned glass with a slice of orange. It’s very refreshing, bitter without being overpowering and it’s an absolutely iconic cocktail, James Bond drinks it, and Gaspare Campari, the inventor of the liquor was the one who created the cocktail. That is some solid credentials. Additional bit of nerdery, the Americano is also known as the Milan-Torino, because Campari is from Milan and Cinzano is from Torino.

cocktail_americano_pag_foto

Why should I drink Campari you ask? Well, the truth is, you don’t really have to… I love the bitter taste, I think the color is awesome and screams summer, sunglasses and swimsuits. It’s a perfect warm weather drink, a great aperitif and to me, at least, it summons images of Italy, classy summer dinners with relaxed but impeccably dressed guests, a perfect vision of an Italian vacation that probably only exists in my mind.

That is actually a great transition to this song, Voyage en Italie (Trip in Italy), a French summer hit from 1994 that mentions driving down the Italian Riviera, drink Martini, bathe on a Capri beach, dance the calypso while looking down at the Arno river, and of course, drink some Campari. They even include a bad pun in the lyrics : Campari / Quand Paris (when Paris). Of course it’s a song after my own heart.

Versatile and aromatic : Riesling

Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet-Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Syrah… Most of the international grape varieties originally came from France. I can think of only a couple that are from other countries, Grenache from Spain (Garnacha) and Riesling from Germany. Since I’m all for reconciliation, and because I had a very good one last weekend, let’s take a look at Riesling.

Riesling is from Germany, from the Rhine region to be more precise and it’s been there for a while with first records of the grape dating back to the 15th century. It’s a pretty easy going grape as far as growing it goes and, most importantly, it’s more than capable of surviving long and cold winters thanks to the fact that it ripens late. And a good thing that is because German and Alsatian winters are indeed long and cold. Ironically, Riesling doesn’t do as well in warmer climates where it tends to produce flat wines without much interest.

riesling

Like Chardonnay, Riesling is known to be a grape that reflects the terroir in which it is planted, with different aromas and characteristics depending on where the wine comes from. We’ll go through those in a minute but let’s first see what the common characteristic of most Rieslings is. At the core of Riesling, you’ll find a high acidity that gives it both a refreshing feeling and the ability to age long and well, especially for a white wine. To preserve that freshness, Riesling producers rarely use oak or malolactic fermentation and tend to favor a “clean” style to better express the characteristics of the grape.

Riesling aromas can vary a lot depending on the terroir. It is a fairly aromatic variety that gives off strong aromas that can range from tree fruits notes, like apples, in colder climates whereas Rieslings from warmer regions can summon peach, or even tropical fruit flavors. Depending on the ripeness of the grapes when harvested, the level of residual sugar in the wine will vary.

Another factor in the wide variety of Rieslings is that several winemaking techniques can be used. Riesling can be made as a dry white wine or as a very sweet dessert wine, and also as pretty much any style in between. Various levels of residual sugars can be achieved through various techniques, late harvesting, noble rot, ice wine, which gives even more potential style for Riesling. The Germans have a classification system for the sweetness of the wine, it starts with the dry Kabinett and then in increasing order of grape ripeness (and by consequence, residual sugar) Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese.

I don’t think this variety is used in blends; it is mostly made as a varietal. Germany is the main home of Riesling, especially in the Mosel and Rhine regions. Riesling is also the main grape in the German sparkling wine Sekt. Across the French border, Alsace is definitely the second home of the grape. Alsace Rieslings are usually more acidic than the German ones and have longer life expectancies. Outside of Europe, Riesling is a grape growing in popularity in regions like Australia, New-Zealand and especially Washington State in the United-States.

To sum up, Riesling, is versatile and has high acidity like Chenin Blanc, reflects the characteristics of its terroir like Chardonnay, thrives in cold to moderate climates, can age beautifully and has a wide range of possible aromas.

The best kind of fog, Nebbiolo

It’s a particularly ugly day in Boston from a weather standpoint. It’s been raining and snowing at the same time, a fact that meteorologist describe as “wintry mix” which sounds like a cereal brand or a granola bar. Rain, snow and fog don’t make for a great early Spring. Actually, fog might help. If you translate fog into Italian, you get Nebbiolo which is way more fun to be around than fog.

So, Nebbiolo is an Italian red grape variety from the Piedmont region (Northwest Italy, capital Turin).

1034px-Piedmont_in_Italy.svg

It is considered the noble grape of the region, which I guess makes Barbera the bourgeois grape and Dolcetto the peasant grape. That’s actually a pretty accurate comparison because Nebbiolo is a really fussy and temperamental grape. Seriously, it makes Pinot Noir look easy to grow in comparison. Nebbiolo is extremely fragile, needs constant care and takes forever to ripen. It is also very particular about the type of soils and climate it needs to grow properly and thus, can only be cultivated on the very best tracts of land. All those factors contribute to its rarity and its “nobility” status.

Nebbiolo Grapes

Nebbiolo Grapes

Why do people bother growing it then? Well, it produces spending wines. That might have helped. Wines made from Nebbiolo have extremely high acidity and tannins level. Often they are way to tart to be drunk early. Most high quality Nebbiolo requires oak aging and then a few years in the bottle to reach its potential and be enjoyable. A peak Nebbiolo makes me think about a tighter, denser Pinot Noir where the gamey, Fall-like notes of Burgundy would be replaced by more peppery, spicy notes. That’s my own experience however, generally accepted descriptions of Nebbiolo insist on aromas like roses, liquorice, mulberries or even tar.

The most famous appellations for Nebbiolo are the Barolo and Barbaresco DOCGs in Piedmont with high reputation and price both. Other DOCGs for Nebbiolo include Gattinara and Ghemme. There is also a DOC, Nebbiolo d’Alba. Outside of Piedmont the grape is not widely planted even so there are Nebbiolo wines from California and Australia.

I’ve been drinking a few Nebbiolos recently and I was I could drink some more because it is usually great stuff. But the relative rarity, high reputation and necessary ageing makes it an expensive passion, especially for Barolos and Barbarescos. Other DOCGs and DOCs are more affordable and they tend to be easier to drink young. It’s usually a good bet if you can find one of these at your local wine shop.

Listen all y’all it’s a Pinotage

Chenin Blanc might be the most planted grape in South Africa but the true “native” South African variety is Pinotage. Why? Because it was invented in South Africa, back in 1925, and because it is hardly ever planted outside of the country, making it quintessentially South African. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a great wine for barbecuing, a staple of the South African way of life.

Pinotage was invented, the correct word is bred, in the XXth century in order to try and solve a problem. South African winemakers wanted to plant some Pinot Noir.  A fine idea, except Pinot Noir is a temperamental, hard to grow, fragile grape. Results were not good. Enters Abraham Izak Perold, professor of viticulture at Stellenbosch University (Stellenbosch is the premium wine growing region in the Cape). Mr Perold decided to tackle the Pinot Noir fragility by crossing it with Cinsault, another French grape, known for its robustness.

Mr. Perold, notice the hipster moustache

Mr. Perold, notice the hipster moustache

The idea was to keep some of the Pinot character while making the vines sturdied. The result was something completely new. Another happy accident if you want. Instead of blending characteristics from two French grapes, Perold ended up creating a new, distinct variety that had nothing to do with its parents.

Since Cinsault was called Hermitage in South Africa then, the portmanteau word Pinotage was created to describe this cross of Pinot and Hermitage. It is the signature South African grape, used in a lot of red blends but also to make varietal wines.

Pinotage grapes

Pinotage grapes

Pinotage has high acidity and strong tannins which gives it potential for ageing. Pinotage has somewhat of a bad reputation because it can easily develop unpleasant flavors, mostly acetone. Normal and more pleasant flavors include smoke, bramble fruits or even banana. It’s an earthy wine that goes well with grilled meat.

I only tasted some recently and I quite liked it, finding it very distinctive. I bought a couple bottles and I will try to form a more informed opinion.