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Environments of Wine

November 27, 2017 4 comments

We all love to wax-poetic about the wine – about the magic in the glass, about the liquid which can transport us through time, bring back memories, change our mood, brighten up any happy moments in our life and put smiles on our collective oenophile faces in the myriad of mysterious ways.

With all that magic, it is easy to forget that first and foremost, the wine is an agricultural product. The grapes are grown in exactly same way as tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, wheat, apples, and potatoes. Same as with any agricultural product, the success of growing the grapes depends on many conditions which we collectively call “the environment” – condition of the soil, conditions of the plants, climate/weather conditions, availability and quality of the water, avoidance of diseases and pests, ability to protect plants and fruits from animals and birds and many other factors.

 

Fall in the Vineyards

Once the grapes are successfully grown and harvested, this is where similarities with most (not all) of the rest of the agricultural products end, and grapes start their transformation to become that magic in your glass. But let’s leave that aside for now, and let’s get back to the grape growing environment.

Every year, the same process starts anew – with the first warm weather, the dormant plants come alive. The branches which looked completely dead just a day ago, are breaking with the tiny green leaves, and then at some point, a tiny clusters of future goodness show up, taking all the nutrients from the soil and the air, getting bigger and changing color from young green to golden and purple, until the time comes to collect them all and start creating the magic.

Every year, to get from the naked branches to the beautiful, sun-filled clusters, the vines have to be taken care of. They need enough water, they need enough sun, they need enough nutrients in the soil, they need to be protected from frost, excessive sun, mildew, and rabbits. The grape grower has to decide how to provide all of this. You can water the plants when you think you need to. You can bring in synthetic fertilizers. You can spray your vines with pesticides which will kill bugs and mildew. For many years, this is how the grapes were often produced, especially when they were produced in the large commercial quantities.

Little by little, grower by grower, winemaker by winemaker, the realization started that this might not be the right way to go. The chemicals and pesticides often bred resistance. Overfertilized and overwatered grapes simply lack the flavor and can never become the magnificent wines. With this realization, wine industry started changing its ways – the wines became “organic”, “biodynamic”, “sustainable” and even “natural”. All of these terms relate to the environment where the grapes are grown, but they are not interchangeable – organic is not always sustainable, and sustainable doesn’t equate organic. Let’s take a deeper look.

Sustainable might be my favorite term. There are many wine regions which define their own so-called “sustainable practices” – Australia, New Zealand, California, Oregon, Canada – all have their own sustainable practices defined, and for all I know, all those practices might be slightly different, but I’m sure they are all pursue the long-term relationship with the Mother Nature. Sustainability means that whatever we do to grow grapes successfully today, should ensure that the future generations will be able to continue to do the same with equal success. While we tend to the vines, we shouldn’t harm that environment, that habitat – use natural deterrents for the pests, use only natural fertilizers, ideally, generate our own power (think solar, for instance), be very cognizant about discarding the waste, or maybe have no waste at all, allowing land to rest and recuperate – the list can go on and on and on. At the same time, sustainable doesn’t mean organic – for instance, if you believe that one time use of the pesticide is warranted as the best way to deal with the problem (before it spreads or worsens), the sustainable rules will generally allow for it – but not the organic. All in all, the goal of sustainability is to leave the environment a little bit better than it was before – and I definitely like this approach.

We all know what “organic” means – only all natural elements are allowed in the whole entire process of getting from the first leaf to the harvested grapes – all organic fertilizers, all organic pesticides and so on. Do organic means better grapes? Yes, but only in the sense of absence of any harmful, bad elements. Organic doesn’t necessarily mean you would maximize grapes’ potential by utilizing dry farming. Organic doesn’t mean you will discard the waste in the ways least harmful to the environment. Organic doesn’t mean your power was generated in the sustainable ways. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for organic, but… I guess you understand where my preferences are.

Biodynamic? First, taking about biodynamic winemaking can be an endless endeavor – if we are talking about the magic of the glass of wine, biodynamic principles might be the most in tune with the subject of magic. Are the biodynamic methods sustainable? I believe they are to the largest degree as the end goal here is to create harmonious habitat, the best possible environment for the grapes and all other living beings to grow happily and successfully. Is biodynamic the same as sustainable? Probably not, as sustainable methods still cover more elements, such as power which we mentioned. But all the kudos to the biodynamic practitioners and their perseverance with magic.

Colors of Fall - grape leaves

And now, let’s touch on the most controversial “environmental affiliation” of them all – natural wines. It is interesting to see the first reaction of many people when they hear the term for the first time – “natural wines”???? “All wines are made from the grapes, aren’t they all natural”? The idea behind natural wines is low intervention. During the grape growing part of winemaking, the process is somewhat similar to the sustained/biodynamic principals with the exception that some of the rules are made absolute, like no irrigation under any circumstances – but unlike all other methods, where there are external bodies which certify and enforce the rules, the natural wines are the truth in the eye of the beholder – the winemaker, in this case – whatever the winemaker believe “natural” means, that is what she will be practicing.

The wine was first made about 8,000 years ago. Nobody would ever tell if it was sustainable, organic, biodynamic or natural – we can only guess that it was made from grapes. But if we want the wines to be made for the next 8,000 years, we need to take care of the environment. Sustainable, organic, biodynamic – let’s leave this place a little bit better than we found it, for all of those who will come after us.

This post is an entry for the 36th Monthly Wine Writing Challenge (#MWWC36), with the theme of “Environment”. Previous themes in the order of appearance were: Transportation, Trouble, Possession, Oops, Feast, Mystery, Devotion, Luck, Fear, Value, Friend, Local, Serendipity, Tradition, Success, Finish, Epiphany, Crisis, Choice, Variety, Pairing, Second Chance, New, Pleasure, Travel, Solitude, Bubbles, Smile, Winestory, Obscure, Faith, Translation, Once Upon A Time, Memory, Eclipse

And if you really like this post, please vote for it here: #MWWC36

Power of Perception

April 28, 2015 15 comments

Emiliana Coyam Chile Bidynamic GrapesI probably shouldn’t even write this blog post, as it will expose my true nature as a wine snob – this is something which I would always vehemently deny. Or maybe it is just about a human nature, and you might see your own reflection in my words. But hey, to make it all better, I will share with you a recent delicious wine discovery.

Few days ago I took a customer for dinner to the Seasons 52 restaurant (an outstanding dining place deserving its own post – I will plan to write one so I don’t have to inundate you with the food pictures). The wine list was well designed [by the Master Sommelier George Miliotes, who is in charge of wine selection at Capital Grille and Seasons 52 restaurants] with a good number of options from different regions around the world. I scanned through the list, looking for the interesting wines which would be also reasonably priced. Yes, I understand that “reasonably priced” is an extremely personable category – so I’m generally looking for the wines under $80 – everything above requires either super-special occasion or a unique wine. Fitting this criterion, I saw two wines – one from South Africa and another one from Chile. Great thing about Seasons 52 is that lots of wines are available by the glass – which means you can taste them. Two bottles arrived at the table. We tried South African wine first – it was excellent, dry and spicy. Then the Chilean wine was poured into the glass, and I was blown away – this was simply a “wow” wine. 2011 Emiliana Coyam Colchagua Valley, Chile (13.5% ABV, 38% Syrah, 31% Carmenere, 10% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Mourvedre, 1% Malbec, Biodynamic® grapes) had a nose of concentrated dark fruit, the one which informs you succinctly “I will be delicious”. That spectacular nose followed by the multi-layered, roll-of-your-tongue, texturally present goodness, with lots of fruit, dark chocolate and perfect acidity. An overall package which makes an oenophile ecstatic – I’m sure you got my point. (Drinkability: 9-/9).

Where is the promised talk about power of perception, you ask? Yes, this is what this post was supposed to be all about – so let’s talk about it. My wine lover’s path took me through a fair share of Chilean wines, which were concurring the U.S. market at that time. Do the names such as Frontera and Concha y Toro mean something to you? Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot – all priced at around $7 for the regular bottle, or around $11 for the magnum; perfectly drinkable for what they were. This was many years ago. Yes, there were and there are wines like Los Vascos Reserva and Terra Noble Gran Reserva – which are again perfectly drinkable at around $15. And of course I’m aware of the wines such as Don Melchor or Casa Lapostolle Clos Apalta (both are trailing $80), but those are registered in my mind as an exception rather than the norm. So here at the restaurant, the Emiliana wine was $72 on the list. To be entirely honest, and this is where the power of perception comes to play, if I wouldn’t be with the customer (meaning – I’m not paying for the dinner), there is practically no chance I would chose Chilean wine for that amount of money. I wouldn’t even blink if that would be Ridge or Turley (both can be found on the restaurant wine lists for about $70) – but not the unknown Chilean wine. Yep, the mind is interesting like that – some decisions are made on the subconscious level and you need to actively intervene to change them.

To dig myself even deeper, I can tell you more. I was so impressed by this wine that the next day I checked the trusted wine-searcher to see how much this wine would be in retail. It showed up well available in the U.S. for about $30. The first running thought – “hmmm, this is expensive for the Chilean wine”. Luckily, the second thought was “man, you are crazy. You just had this wine and it was stunning – what do you mean expensive?” Again, preconceived notions, perception are so hard to deal with – they try to take control whenever possible. This $30 bottle of wine would beat lots and lots of California wines priced at $100 or $200 – I don’t want to name names, but I seriously mean it. And nevertheless, I need to make an effort to understand and consciously accept it.

Perception is a formidable force when it comes to wine. Don’t know if the wine world is all so unique in regards to perception, but at least this is the subject of interest here. We all know the prolific effect of the producer’s name, label, price, critic’s rating and many other factors on the way we buy and perceive the taste of wine. But the power of the prior experience was somewhat a revelation for me, hence this post.

So, do you have a story to tell? I’m listening… Cheers!

Terroir, Unaltered

August 5, 2011 2 comments

Terroir. Sense of place exhibited by the wine. You can find definition of Terroir in Wikipedia, but interestingly enough, you can’t find it in Webster dictionary.

“Terroir” was always part of the winemaking, in transparent fashion, if you will. Wine was initially (we are talking thousands years ago) produced locally, to be consumed with local food. There was a traditional way of making the wine in each place, and it was repeated over and over, harvesting the same grapes from the same parcel of land. Even today you can find plenty of wines made for local consumption only, challenge is – you have to be “there” to taste them.

Needless to say that wine in those old days was made in “natural” and “organic” way, as it was the only way possible (no pesticides, no chemicals, no reverse osmosis machines, no oak dust, …). Then situation changed. While wine trade exists for thousands years, I would guess that extreme commercialization of it, which happened in the second half of the 20th century, and appearance of wine critics such as Robert Parker, forced a lot of change in the way the wine was produced. As for vast majority of commercial products, producer usually wants to limit the cost and maximize profits – when this principle is applied to wine production, we end up with a lot of wines which have no “terroir” concept whatsoever, and simply made to have a “familiar”, or “category required” taste. And as it is a commercial product, all means are good to guarantee an output and a profit (without going into any details, that includes all the stuff which you don’t want in or around your wine).

Luckily, the situation is changing. More and more wineries and winemakers are going back to the nature, and let terroir shine again, in its unadulterated form. Call it “organic”, “natural”, “sustainable” or “biodynamic” (each term has it’s own meaning and even philosophy behind it, but I have to refer you to Wikipedia to read more about it or we will never finish this post), but the main idea is similar among them all – interfere as little as possible, and let nature take its course. This is happening throughout the world, and in many cases is not even advertised on the bottle. For instance, Domaine Romanee-Conti, makers of some of the most famous (and expensive) wines in the world, are using organic farming and since 1985, and I’m sure there are lots of others which are simply doing it without much fanfare.

Sustainable, organic and natural are all very important, but there is more which goes into the winemaking process to let terroir to be the king. A lot of it goes back to that “do not interfere” concept. For instance, you can use 600 liter new oak barrels to age your wines, or you can use and reuse 15000 liter barrels. Which wine do you think will better showcase the terroir? Of course the bigger barrel will impart much much less oak flavor, and will let the grapes and soil to tell its story in a clear voice.

Okay, enough of this abstract talking, let’s talk about actual wines. I have to tell you that it was a seminar on Natural and Biodynamic wines, hosted by nobody else but PJ Wine, which prompted this post. This event was definitely both an education and experience, as all 10 wines presented in the seminar were not your average wines. To give you an idea, if you think about organic food, in many cases you only know that you are eating something which is healthier, better for you, but you can’t really taste it (if you are sure you can, I would love to play a blind tasting game with you). Talking about wines in that tasting, eight out of ten wines tasted totally different and unique – you can not necessarily tell that they are organic or natural, but you can tell that they can be distinguished from anything else you had before. These wines were made with “don’t interfere” concept in mind, letting the terroir to shine through. Another interesting fact about all the wines presented is none of them has alcohol level in excess of 13%, most of them are 11% or 12% – there were no jammy fruit bombs presented in the tasting (luckily!).

For what it worth, here are my notes, in the order the wines were presented.

Font I Jordana “Reserva” Penedes Cava NV – Interesting nose, with some yeastiness, full bodied. Very little amount of bubbles, almost none. Good acidity. Very refreshing due to the mouthwatering acidity. Good summer wine, but it is hard to call it a “sparkling wine”.

Jean Paul Dubost Gamayleon Rose Sparkling NV – Very unusual nose, almost off with  some spoiled food smell, like spoiled strawberries. On the palate – honeysuckle, in its purest form, very small amount of bubbles, if any, good mouthwatering acidity.

Frank Cornelissen Susucaru 3 Vino Da Tavola Rosato NV -Very interesting wine. Nose similar to Beaujolais Noveau, reminiscent of freshly pressed grapes. You can literally smell volcanic soil. Nose is perfumed with fresh soap aromas. Very unusual flavor profile – no strawberries (which is a typical component in many rose wine descriptions). Soap also comes as part of the aftertaste. Very herbal, with may be thyme being most prominent.

2009 Jean-Paul Dubost Beaujolais Villages “Tracot” –Very sweet nose. Big contrast between the nose and the palate, as plate is much drier, but overall there are pronounced raspberries, first on the nose, and then after dry start, the same on the palate. The wine just disappears in your mouth, doesn’t have any bottom – it is more juice than it is a wine.

2006 Jean Bourdy Cotes Du Jura Rouge – very interesting wine. Kitchen spice cabinet, like some nice rub, on the nose. Very good tannins, very nice and restrained overall on the palate, with some dry dill notes. Doesn’t show any age at all (and it is 5 years old). It appears that wines of Jean Bourdy are known to age very well (note to self). One of my favorites in the tasting.

2007 Italo Pietrantoj Montepulciano d’Abruzzo – The most unimpressive in the tasting so far. This is the case when I know it is good for me, as I’m told it is made differently, but can’t taste it at all. This wine actually was aged in 15,000 liter barrels for 2 years – but it is impossible to pick it up. It might be a food wine.

2009 Reunion Malbec Mendoza – Very grapey. Has some foundation, and some balanced fruit. Easy to drink, but not impressive at all.

2007 Le Pavillon de Saint Jacques Lalande de Pomerol –Very interesting. Smells like dirt, pure dirt after the rain. Very vegetative, no fruit on the palate, just pure dirt again. Almost no acidity. This wine was fermented in concrete tanks, aged for 18 month. It is “certified organic” and made with 90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc – classic Pomerol wine. I would love to taste it in 10-15 years – I think it will greatly evolve, but it is not easy to say ” I like it” now.

1996 Bodegas Las Orcas “Solar de Randez” Rioja –Classic Rioja on the nose. Beautiful, with limited fruit expression, but very balanced. I guess this is how Rioja was in the old times. This is Reserva level Rioja. One of the best in the tasting.

2009 Jean Pierre Robinot Concerto d’Oniss Pineau d’Aunis -Loire valley wine. Beautiful fruit, rose petals on the nose, funky. Beautiful palate, somewhat reminiscent of Beaujolais, but with more substance and good acidity. Best in the tasting.

I just realized that many of the descriptions above start with the words”very interesting” – these wines are truly interesting, they are all telling their own stories. These wines are letting the terroir to shine through. I might not be able to understand all their stories yet, but this is great, as we there is more to learn. You don’t have to try them all, but make an effort, find and try some of them  – you might discover a whole new wine world. Happy learning! Cheers!