What’s New in Ningxia?

Photo of Helan Mountain vineyards used with permission of Indigo Communication

Photo of Helan Mountain vineyards used with permission of Indigo Communication

The Ningxia Hui (pronounced Neen-sha H-way) Autonomous Region of China is located about 500 miles west of Beijing. The Ningxia region has proved to be one of China’s most promising areas for viticulture and wine production, and as such is the focus of significant investment. China’s first official appellation, the Eastern Foot of Helan Mountain Wine Region is located here, and several international companies have interests in this zone.

Ningxia has, by some counts, over 50 wineries making a range of wines using Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Gernischt (the local name for what has recently been confirmed to be Carmenère), Chardonnay, Riesling, Syrah,  and other grapes. This includes some of the highest quality wines in China, some of which are starting to win medals at international competitions.

The area is basically an alluvial plain of the Yellow River, situated on the eastern edge of the Gobi Desert, south of Mongolia. Due to centuries of agriculture, the soil here has been depleted to a fine type of loess soil, highly susceptible to wind and water erosion. Viticulture is encouraged due to its affinity with such marginal conditions, and to help prevent further erosion in this area.

Thoroughly landlocked, Ningxia has a true continental climate, with significant day/night and summer/winter temperature variations. Summertime temperatures into the 80s F (upper 20s C) are assuaged by the altitude of the vineyards, which typically approach 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) above sea level. The winters are long and very cold, however, which means that many vines must be buried under an insulating layer of dirt in order to survive.

Map of China - Wine GrowingThe months of December through February also see negligible precipitation; rainfall is concentrated in summer months, reaching only 8 inches (194 mm) annually. Irrigation is necessary for agriculture, and early methods to divert water from the Yellow River, which flows through much of Ningxia, were developed during the Xia Dynasty (2100 – 1600 BC) and expanded in later periods.

In 2013, Ningxia established a classification modeled after the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux. There are five classes or “growths.” The first ten properties have been selected as so-called 5th growths; these wineries will be eligible for promotion to a higher rank every two years. The stated intention is to have wines at all five tiers in due course. The classified properties must adhere to Ningxia’s regional regulations requiring that only 75% of the grapes must be grown in the region, and that 85% are to be from the vintage and grape variety stated on the bottle (as reported by Wine Spectator).

Moët Hennessy’s newly completed Chandon winery, which released its first wine in 2014, is located in Ningxia, and provides a notable exception to the dominance of still red wines in Ningxia and throughout China. The regional government has announced an ambitious development plan for Helan Mountain East, increasing acreage to 165,500 acres (67,000 hectares) by 2020. There are possibly as many as 100 leases that have been granted for new wineries in various stages of construction. The companies in this locale include Xixia King, Helan Mountain (Pernod Ricard), Helan Qing Xue, Chateau Yunmo, Silver Heights and Changyu.

China recently was confirmed to have the second largest vineyard acreage of any country in the world, following Spain and ahead of France and Italy. By last count (according to the 2015 report of the International Organization of Wine and Vine (OIV)), China now ranks #5 in consumption and #8 in production of wine, worldwide.

It’s yet to be seen what’s on the horizon for Ningxia – and the rest of the Chinese wine industry as well!

Post authored by Jane A. Nickles – SWE’s Director of Education and Certification –  jnickles@societyofwineeducators.org

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South Africa Expands its Wine Repertoire

Bo-kaap Neighborhood in Cape Town, South Africa

Bo-kaap Neighborhood in Cape Town, South Africa

South African wine is serious…serious about shedding its bulk/fortified/ co-operative-made reputation of the past, serious about producing world-class wines from modern producers, serious about protecting its heritage grapes, and serious about regulating its high-quality wines and spirits. (Try some South African pot still brandy for a real treat.)

South African wines are regulated and controlled via the WSB – the South African Wine and Spirit Board.  They regulate the grape varieties that may be used (102 at last count), the regions, districts, and wards that represent geographical indications (99 at last count), labeling requirements and other legalities, and – a true quality control if ever there was one – also taste, sample, and approve every product that earns the right to bear their seal.

THE WSB regulates and approves wines according to “class.” To be approved, a wine needs to meet the parameters of one of these 45 pre-defined categories. Some examples of these categories include dry wine, noble late harvest wine, sweet natural wine (in these regulations, “natural” means non-fortified), tank-fermented sparkling wine, and bottle-fermented sparkling wine. Categories that are somewhat unique to South Africa include Cape Ruby – a young, fruity, fortified wine and Cape White – made from non-Muscat varieties and oak-aged for at least six months.

View of Cape Town from the waterfront

View of Cape Town from the waterfront

Six new classes of wine, approved on August 21, 2015, are now among the 45 approved categories of South African wine. These newcomers were proposed to the WSB over two years ago by the Swartland Independent Group – a group of young winemakers working in the Swartland District. Swartland is a rugged district, despite being only an hour’s drive north of Cape Town. Swartland is one of the newer winemaking regions of South Africa, and has rapidly developed a reputation for unique wines in addition to high-quality wines of the more conventional styles.

For the record, the six new categories of South African Wine are:

  • Skin-macerated white: A white wine fermented and macerated on its skins for at least 96 hours, should be light golden to deep orange in color.
  • Extended barrel-aged white/gris: A wine produced from white or gris grape varieties, aged in oak casks at least 2 years, should show a golden or amber hue, and have a nutty, oxidative character.
  • Natural pale: An unfortified white wine matured in oak casks under flor yeast for at least two years.
  • Watsonia Tabularis - Unique member of the Fynbos (Cape Floral Kingdom) growing atop Table Mountain
    Watsonia Tabularis – Unique member of the Fynbos (Cape Floral Kingdom) growing atop Table Mountain

    Methode Ancestrale: A slightly sparkling wine made from fermenting must which completes its fermentation while stored in the bottle in which it is sold.

  • Alternative white/red: A dry white with a gold or amber color, or a dry red with a light red to deep purple color.
  • Sun wine: A white wine that has undergone maderization; must be pale gold to deep gold in color.

To download the entire set of regulations, which include the list of 99 approved grape varieties, the entire cast of categories and spirits regulations as well, click here for the: Wine and Spirits Regulations – South Africa WSB

Post authored by Jane A. Nickles, your blog administrator –  jnickles@societyofwineeducators.org

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Connecting the Bubbles: The Méthode Marlborough

image via: http://www.methodemarlborough.com/

image via: http://www.methodemarlborough.com/

The most successful people in the wine industry, whether they are conference speakers, teachers, or salespeople, are skilled at drawing connections and parallels within the world of wine.  Tying regions, styles, history, and current events together is thought provoking and shows a deeper understanding of the world around us.

On the surface, this post is about the newish Méthode Marlborough; however, the subject also brings into play the greater world of sparkling wine world, as well as the on-going debate of New World vs Old World.

The Méthode Marlborough is a society, created in September 2013, in order to promote the high-quality Traditional Method sparkling wines produced in Marlborough. The requirements for a Mèthod Marlborough sparkling wine include:

  • Produced using 100% Marlborough grapes
  • Made in Marlborough and exclusively produced using the Traditional Method of sparkling wine production
  • Made using the traditional Champagne varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier
  • Aged in the bottle, on the lees, for a minimum of 18 months

There are currently 10 producers that are making this style of wine and have joined the club:

  • Allan Scott
  • Cloudy Bay Vineyards
  • Hunter’s Wines
  • Johanneshof Cellars
  • Lion
  • Nautilus Estate
  • No. 1 Family Estate
  • Spy Valley Winery
  • Summerhouse Wine Company
  • Tohu Wines
photo via: http://www.no1familyestate.co.nz/

photo via: http://www.no1familyestate.co.nz/

These wines are just now beginning to show up on store shelves. The first-ever Méthode Marlborough sparkler to be released was No. 1 Family Estate’s Assemblé, which was sabered in celebration on August 14th 2015.

It is perhaps fitting that No. 1 Family Estate, owned by Daniel Le Brun, was the first winery to release. Le Brun is, after all, part of a Champenois family, and has produced this style of Traditional Method sparkling wine from the three Champagne grapes in Marlborough since the winery was established in 1999.

This is impressive coming from a region that specializes in – and stakes its reputation on – Sauvignon Blanc. In fact, 77% of all the vineyards in Marlborough grow Sauvignon Blanc, and some of it is used to create delightful (if, admittedly, simple) Charmat method sparkling wines.

As lovely as these Charmat method sparkling wines are, it is just this type of wine from which the Méthode Marlborough producers are trying to distance themselves. South Africa was the first new world region to recognize the need to differentiate their quality sparkling wines, and, in 1992, created the Cap Classique Producers Association. However, Cap Classique rules are a bit less stringent that those of the Méthode Marlborough is attempting to do: Cap Classique can come from anywhere in the large, diverse Western Cape Geographical Unit, the lees-aging requirement is only 12 months, and they allow the use of Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc in addition to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

image via: http://www.kimcrawfordwines.com/us

image via: http://www.kimcrawfordwines.com/us

Perhaps – and this is where the “Old World/New World” aspect of this discussion begins – a set of Old World-style quality controls is ever more important in a category of wine where the production methods can be elusive, the grapes in the blend are a mystery, and vintages are rarely discussed or disclosed. Time spent on the lees, which is a major component of a finished sparkling wine’s flavor, is also not discussed. Essentially, we’re missing the what, where, when, and why of the wine. (Thankfully, the who is published on the label.)

Controls such as these are built into the production standards of the DOCs and the AOCs of the Old World, so the customer at least has a good idea of what they are getting in the bottle, and adherence to their standards is mandatory if the producer wants to use their “stamp of approval” on the label. However, in the case of New World producers bonding together for a marketing and consumer-driven end, admission to the club is voluntary.  As such, there will always be “rebels” who refuse to join – perhaps because they believe their brand is stronger that of the association – such as Kim Crawford’s “Fizz,” produced using the Traditional Method from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

The topic brings up many questions. Will these New World quality alliances that imitate Old World appellations will stand the test of time.  How much do we rely on the Canadian VQA or the San Rafael DOC in Mendoza over individual brands? Will more regions around the world band together to “guarantee” quality in the nebulous world of sparkling wine?  (I’m keeping my eye on England, Brazil, and Tasmania.)

We wait with curious minds and palates as the ten producers of Méthode Marlborough captivate our attention – and we promise to bring the bubbles, no matter what.

For more information:

MarkPost authored by Mark Rashap, CWE. Mark has, over the past ten years, been in the wine world in a number of capacities including studying wine management in Buenos Aires, being an assistant winemaker at Nota Bene Cellars in Washington State, founding his own wine brokerage, and working for Texas-based retail giant Spec’s as an educator for the staff and public.

In August of 2015, Mark joined the team of the Society of Wine Educators as Marketing Coordinator to foster wine education across the country.







Uisce Beatha Eireannach Goes Legit!

Dunguaire Castle, County Galway

Dunguaire Castle, County Galway

Ok, for the record, Uisce Beatha Eireannach – Irish whiskey – has always been legit! However, soon, the legal standards that regulate the spirit will be greatly expanded and enhanced.

As every good CSS student knows, Irish whiskey has been defined and regulated since 1980 by the Irish Whiskey Act.

The Irish Whiskey Act of 1980 is a fairly concise document – no more than one page long – and states that Irish whiskey must:

  • Be distilled in Ireland from a mash of cereal grains
  • Be distilled to an alcoholic strength of less than 94.8% alcohol by volume (189.6 proof)
  • Be distilled in such a way so that the distillate has an aroma and flavor derived from the materials used
  • Contain no additives except for water and caramel coloring
  • Be stored in wooden casks in Ireland for no less than three years

The act further goes on to define blended Irish whiskey as a spirit which must be comprised of at least two different distillates. And that’s it!

However…as of October 30, 2015, a new set of technical standards will be implemented in accordance with the European Union requirements for the PGI status of Irish whiskey.

These standards expand upon the Irish Whiskey Act of 1980 and include the following regulations:

  • Irish whiskey must be bottled in Ireland or, if not bottled in Ireland, it must be shipped off the island in inert bulk containers and subject to company controls and strict verification to ensure the safety and integrity of the product.
  • Irish whiskey is not allowed to be exported from Ireland in any type of wooden container.


These new regulations also provide definitions for the following types of Irish whiskey: 

Irish Malt Whiskey: Irish malt whiskey must be made from 100% malted barley. The wort is separated from the solids before fermentation. Irish malt whiskey must be distilled in pot stills. The traditional practice is to use smaller pot stills in order to encourage complex flavors and a full, oily texture, however, there are no requirements as to the size of the still.  Irish malt whiskey is traditionally triple-distilled, although double distillation may be used.

Irish Grain Whiskey: Irish grain whiskey is produced from a mash containing a maximum of 30% malted barley. The remainder is made up of unmalted cereal grains – typically maize, wheat, or barley. The mash typically does not undergo any separation of the solids from the liquids before distillation. This type of whiskey is continuously distilled using column stills.  Irish grain whiskey may have either a light or a full flavor profile, depending on the cut points and other techniques employed by the distiller.

Irish Pot Still Whiskey:  Irish pot still whiskey is required to be produced using a mash containing a minimum of 30% malted barley and a minimum of 30% unmalted barley. The remainder of the mash may be either malted or unmalted barley, and may include up to 5% other unmalted cereal grains (usually oats or rye). The wort is separated from the solids before fermentation. This type of whiskey must be batch distilled in pot stills. The traditional practice is triple-distillation in large pot stills, although double distillation may also be employed and there are no requirements as to the size of the still. 



Blended Irish Whiskey: Blended Irish whiskey is a blend of two or more different whiskey types, which must be made in accordance with the standards stated above, and which may include Irish malt whiskey, Irish grain whiskey, and/or Irish pot still whiskey. The whiskeys that make up the blend may also be chosen from different distilleries, ages, types of cask finish, and flavor profiles in order to achieve the desired flavor and consistency.  Blended Irish whiskey tends to be smooth and mellow with a range of flavors, and a light, silky mouth feel.

So on October 30, 2015 (and maybe every other day of the year), raise a glass – of Jameson, Tullamore DEW, Kilbeggan, or whatever you choose – and toast your friends “Sláinte mhaith!”

Post authored by Jane A. Nickles, your blog administrator

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The AVA Shuffle: Introducing the Squaw Valley-Miramonte AVA!

The 2015 harvest at Sierra Peaks Winery - via http://www.sierrapeakswinery.com/

The 2015 harvest at Sierra Peaks Winery – one of 3 wineries in the new Squaw Valley-Miramonte AVA  http://www.sierrapeakswinery.com/

There’s a new AVA in town!!

Officially established on September 8, 2015, the Squaw Valley-Miramonte AVA is located in California’s San Joaquin Valley and snuggled safely into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

But before we move on, let me clarify a few things that this AVA is NOT:

  • Despite the name Squaw Valley, this is NOT the famous ski resort, host of the 1960 Winter Olympics (The ski resort of the same name is actually located about 300 miles away, near Lake Tahoe).
  • Despite the fact that the AVA is indeed located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, this new AVA is NOT part of the Sierra Foothills AVA.  The southern end of the Sierra Foothills AVA is actually about 50 miles – and at least two counties – away. (Keep in mind that the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range is over 400 miles long.)

So now we can turn to a few things that are indeed true concerning this new AVA:

  • The new viticultural area covers approximately 44,690 acres in Fresno County, California. The area is mostly rural and located in the foothills about 40 miles to the east of the city of Fresno.
  • Approximate location of the new Squaw Valley-Miramonte AVA

    Approximate location of the new Squaw Valley-Miramonte AVA

    The AVA is located along the highway to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National parks. (Sequoia Sequoia National Forest is the home of the giant Sequoias, considered to be among the largest trees, and the largest living organisms, on earth).

  • The area currently has 2 wineries and 3 commercial vineyards totaling about 7.5 acres, including Sierra Peaks Winery , Riffelhoff Winery, Buttercup Vineyards,  and Purgatory Vineyards. The region grows mostly warm weather varieties.
  • The topography of the AVA varies from the gentle rolling hills of the lower elevations to steep and rugged hillsides covered with boulders and oak woodlands as on travels east.
  • Elevations range from 1,600 to 3,500 feet with slope angles measuring from 15 to 40 percent, which generally requires all vineyard work – including harvesting – to be done by hand.
  • Other distinguishing features of the AVA include cooler daytime temperatures and warmer nighttime temperatures than the surrounding San Joaquin Valley, and significantly more rainfall than the surrounding valley (but less than the forest to the north).

You can catch the full details – straight from the TTB – just click to read the document concerning the:  Establishment of the Squaw Valley-Miramonte Viticultural Area

Welcome to the world, Squaw Valley-Miramonte AVA!

Post authored by Jane A. Nickles, your blog administrator.

Guest Post: Holiday in Champagne!

Today we have a guest post from renowned Wine and Spirits Educator Harriet Lembeck. Read on to hear about Harriet’s recent wine trip to the Champagne Region!

Holiday in Champagne!

Photo of the Argence Fountain in Troyes by Serge Collana, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of the Argence Fountain in Troyes by Serge Collana, via Wikimedia Commons

If you haven’t thought of Champagne as a holiday destination, now’s the time! The Champenois, with tourist boards in both La Marne and in Aube to the south, are ready for you and your family.

Champagne symbolizes success, celebration, joy, and prestige. It also symbolizes sharing, and has done so since the time that King Clovis, the first French King, was crowned there in 481. Today, at least 30 crowned Kings later, the Champagne industry employs 30,000 people.

A visit to Champagne will show you new signs on touristic routes, new hotels, oeno logical museums, timbered churches, the Lac du Der (an artificial lake in the Argonne Forest, which regulates the water flow of the Seine) where you can ride in small boats, plus six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the départements of the Marne. And don’t forget the famed 3-star Restaurant Les Crayères, established by the now-retired, renowned chef Gérard Boyer.

Structuring Your Visit

Start your trip as I did, with a flight to Charles De Gaul (CDG) airport in Paris. Then, board the TGV high-speed train towards Strasbourg, and get off 30 minutes later at the first stop, the Gare (station) Champagne-Ardennes, a region of NE France.  Then a short taxi or bus ride will take you to the center of Reims, about 20 minutes away.

Nearby, the cellars of the House of Taittinger are built on the site of the old, destroyed L’Abbaye de Saint Nicaise. The first level has remains from the Thirteenth Century, while the second level dates to the Third Century, with its Gallo-Roman chalk pits (crayères), dug by the Romans. The temperature in the cellars is a constant 20 degrees Celsius, and the humidity is 80%.

In World War I, the cellars were used as bomb shelters for families. FYI – the aromatic ‘Brut Reserve’ is the same as Taittinger’s ‘La Francais’ in the US. Personally, I feel that nothing can surpass the latest expression of Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2005, a Champagne that is never released until it is 10 years old.

The entrance to Dom Caudron (note the wooden presses and the mural of vineyard work) photo by Bill Lembeck, CWE, CSS

The entrance to Dom Caudron (note the wooden presses and the mural of vineyard work) photo by Bill Lembeck, CWE, CSS

In the Marne Valley, where 66% of the Champagne vineyards are located, you would enjoy a visit to the Champagne cooperative Dom Caudron, in Vrigny. In 1929, a priest named Aimé Caudron had the first press in the village. Since 2010, this is a cooperative with 75 grower-members. In this part of the Marne Valley, the Pinot Meunier grows very well, with many hectares of old vines.

Dom Caudron specializes in that grape, and they produce exceptionally fruity 100% Pinot Meunier Champagnes in different styles (Note: there are about 16 companies in the area producing 100% Pinot Meunier Champagnes). Dom Caudron still uses antique wooden presses, and has a small museum with a short film on vineyard work. Their “Prediction” rosé Champagne, Le Meunier au Singulier, is fruity and rich. The back label tells the harvest date and the disgorgement date, among other information.

Champagne Charlier, in the Vallée de la Marne, is a small, family-owned Champagne house – a “single grower” in today’s parlance. This category has been brought to the fore by wine importer Terry Theise, starting around the year 2000. It is now quite familiar and acceptable to serve Champagnes that are not exclusively from the famous houses.

At Champagne Charlier, they use their own grapes, do not buy any grapes, and do not sell any grapes. Their Champagnes are sold mostly in France, but some go to Belgium, England, Japan, and Italy. All of their Champagnes are aged in large oak casks from Alsace. There is no stainless steel. An oversize cask has been converted to a charming sitting room for a few people. My favorite Champagne, made mostly with Chardonnay, is their fragrant Cuvée Spéciale Club Millésimé 2004, produced from the oldest vines that have the smallest yields. The property is very decorative – with carved barrels, painted murals, and copious flowers.

A walk down the Avenue de Champagne in Épernay shows large buildings and mansions owned by many of the most prestigious Champagne houses – one right after the other. It begins at the Tourist Office, and continues for 1 km, on both sides of the wide street.

Leaving the Marne for the Aube

Flasks of liqueur for dosage at Drappier - photo by Bill Lembeck CWE, CSS

Flasks of liqueur for dosage at Drappier – photo by Bill Lembeck CWE, CSS

A visit to Urville, in the Aube, takes a little over an hour. While there, a visit to Drappier should not be missed. The home and furnishings and cellars are exquisitely mounted. Those wine cellars were built in 1152 by Cistercian monks, and the Drappier family has been cultivating the vineyards for the last two centuries. The Jurassic-era Kimmeridgian soil is like that of the Grand Cru Chablis. The white chalky soils, many former oyster beds, are best for Chardonnay, while the little valleys with stones and minerals further north are best for Pinot Noir.

Michel Drappier is the seventh-generation winemaker. His son is studying enology, while his daughter is hand-selling Drappier Champagnes with the importing company Dreyfus-Ashby in New York. Wines are made in the original stone cellars. Right now, there are 30,000 liters in wood for the reserves. A large egg-shaped barrel is being studied. Michel says it is the most perfect shape. Currently, it is the only one in Champagne.

The entire vineyard is organic, and one-third of it has now been certified. Even the Martinique sugar cane used for the dosages is organic. These dosages, incidentally, are aged for 15 to 25 years in Limousin oak tanks. It gets thick and concentrated, and one drop per bottle is all that is necessary. These “liquors” are stored in glass demijohns, some for more than 50 years. Further, Michel is using less sulfur, to reduce chances of reduction in

Pierre Auguste Renoir's "Dance in the Country" - photo via Google Art Project

Pierre Auguste Renoir’s “Dance in the Country” – photo via Google Art Project

his wines. He ferments at very low temperatures, noting that longer, cooler fermentations result in smaller bubbles.

Michel Drappier is aiming to be Carbon-zero, and solar power provides 55% of his electricity needs. Further, he uses 99% recycled glass, cardboard and wood, and 85% soda glass from the north of Paris.

The Drappier “Grande Sendrée” 2006, with almost equal parts of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, gets six years of bottle aging before release. Incidentally, this Champagne has been matched with Renoir’s painting “Dance in the Country” as part of a collection of ten independent Aube Champagnes matched to ten Renoir paintings.

Last Stop: Les Riceys

The municipality of Les Riceys, which consists of three villages, has three specific AOC/ AOP designations: Champagne (designated in 1936); Coteaux Champenois (designated in 1970) and Rosé des Riceys (designated in 1947). This region is so far from Reims and Épernay that it never had any of its vineyards designated as Grand- or Premier-Crus.

Nevertheless, still red wines from Les Riceys are used by other Champagne producers when making rosé Champagnes. Nicolas Feuillatte Cuvée Palmes d’Or Rosé, for example, is made from Pinot Noirs from the village of Bouzy (using 50%) for power, and from Les Riceys (50%) for fine aromas. Champagne Morize Père et Fils Brut Réserve and the Morize Rosé des Riceys 2011 are very fruity examples of those appellations. They go so well with food that they are often referred to as ‘gastronomic rosés.’

Wrap up your tour with a visit to the medieval city of Troyes, which was laid out like a Champagne cork. Illuminated red hearts proclaim this a “city of love.”



Harriet Lembeck, CWE, CSE is a prominent wine and spirits educator. She is president of the renowned Wine & Spirits Program, and revised and updated the textbook Grossman’s Guide to Wines, Beers and Spirits. She was the Director of the Wine Department for The New School University for 18 years. She may be contacted at hlembeck@mindspring.com.

This article was originally published in the article was originally published in Beverage Dynamics Magazine – reprinted with permission!

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From Napa to Massachusetts…Wine!

Martha's Vineyard

Martha’s Vineyard

Today we have a guest post from Brenda Audino, CWE about what she’s been up to in Massachusetts!

What does a Napa wine professional do during a stay in Boston?  Attend a wine festival of course!  This may be the opposite coast of the United States in terms of wine, but wine is produced in all 50 states -and Massachusetts is definitely in the game.

Before attend the festival, let’s look at a little primer on Massachusetts wine industry….

Recognition of the Massachusetts wine industry started in 1614 when the Dutch explorer Adriaen Block noticed wild grapes growing on an island off the Massachusetts coast.  He then named the island “Martha’s Vineyard” in honor of his daughter Martha.

History similar to this shows that wild grapes grew all over Massachusetts, but it took Ephraim Wales Bull of Concord, Massachusetts (near Boston) to develop the Concord grape in 1849.  He named the grape in honor of his home town.  The Concord grape is an American Vitis abrusca grape with pronounced fruity flavor and dark thick skin.  It is leading table grape variety in the United States, popular as refreshing juice, and makes the perfect jelly to go with peanut butter.

Unfortunately for wine production, the Concord grape is not as sweet as Vitis vinifera; plus it is very high in acid and has a “foxy” aroma.  In order to make a wine with enough alcohol to be stable, sugar (in the form of chapatalization) generally has to be added.  After fermentation, Concord-based wine is usually finished with some degree of residual sugar to balance the acidity and try to mask the “Foxy” aromas.

Vitis labrusca Concord

Vitis labrusca Concord

Today, Massachusetts’s still grows Vitis labrusca, but the area is also having success with Vitis vinifera and French hybrids.  Winemakers are busy handcrafting wines from grapes, fruit, berries, honey and flowers in a myriad of styles.

There are two specific American Viticulture Areas (AVAs) that call Massachusetts home; Martha’s Vineyard AVA and the Southeastern New England AVA (shared with Connecticut and Rhode Island).

The Martha’s Vineyard AVA includes all the land on the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Chappaquiddick.  This AVA was established in 1985, but not without quite a bit of controversy.  Owners of a famous vineyard with the same name in California felt it could dilute their brand.  Federal regulators ruled in favor of the AVA stating historic evidence that viticulture was practiced going back as far as 1602.  The maritime location of these islands helps create a slightly warmer climate than nearby coastal regions and the growing season is almost three weeks longer.

The Southeastern New England AVA was created in 1984 to include the coastal areas of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.  This AVA is heavily influenced by the Atlantic that helps to moderate the temperatures of the vineyards.

Most vintners in both areas have the best success with cold-climate vitis vinifera and French hybrid grape varieties.  The most common grape varieties include:

  • Vitis vinifera: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris
  • Hybrids: Vidal Blanc and Cayuga

Enough background, now to the tasting at “Crush Wine Festival”…

Crush Wine Festival

This festival was held in large tents at the Marshfield Fairgrounds near Boston.  There were 17 wineries present out of the 25 total wineries in Massachusetts according to the Massachusetts Farm Winery and Growers Association.

The selection of wineries exhibited a good representation of wines using local vinfera and hybrid grapes, imported grapes (mostly from California, Chile and Washington State), fruit, berries, honey and even maple syrup.  Most of these wineries were very small, family owned operations.  One of the larger winery still only produced 300 cases per year!

I spent a lovely afternoon tasting wines, talking with the winemakers and enjoying the Massachusetts weather.  By the end of the day I had a new appreciation to the wines these family owned wineries were producing.

Here is my un-official “Best of” at the festival.

photo via: http://aaronapcellars.com/

photo via: http://aaronapcellars.com/

Best Local Vitis Vinifera Grape Wine: Aaronap Revolution Road RedThis is a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc grown in Southeastern New England AVA.  Aromas of black cherries, raspberries and forest floor.  Classic Bordeaux style wine in both aroma and flavor.

Best Local Hybrid Grape Wine: Mineral Hills Winery Seyval Blanc – A semi-dry crisp wine with aromas of lemon and melon.  French Hybrid grapes (reds – Frontenac, Chamborcin, Whites – Cayuga, Seyval Blanc) are grown on their Goddard’s Red Hen Farm along with apples and berries.  They also make their own Mead!

Best Fruit or Berry Wine: Raven Hollow Winery Strawberry Rhubarb – Grown entirely on their own farm, this semi-sweet blush wine bursts with strawberry flavors and yet has crisp acidity.  Great chilled on a hot New England afternoon.

Best (only) Mead: 1634 Meadery – Hard to believe that this meadery has only been open for 12 weeks.  Dan Clapp, head Meadmaker, was an avid brewer and sometimes winemaker.  While on vacation in Denmark he brought back a bottle of Mead for his wife.  After several years of sitting on the shelf they finally opened it and were hooked.  He has been experimenting with Mead ever since.  Puritan Pride Mead is made with local wildflower honey, fermented dry and aged in American Oak.

Best use of Maple Syrup: Aaronap Forest Gold Maple Wine – Vermont maple syrup is diluted to about 50%. Champagne yeast is used for the fermentation.  The heady aromas of maple, cinnamon and clove.  Would be great over vanilla ice cream!

photo via: http://www.farfromthetreecider.com/

photo via: http://www.farfromthetreecider.com/

Best Hard Cider: Far From the Tree Cider – Locally grown apples (no sugar, water or acid added) using techniques from the 1700’s.  These ciders are anything but mainstream! The assortment of ciders resemble craft beers pushing the envelope of creativity. Nova is an off-dry hopped cider, Sprig is a dry hopped mint cider, Roots is a dry New England Cider and Rind is a Saison cider with orange and coriander.  I loved all of them!

Although even I must admit that  Massachusetts can’t compete with Napa in regards to its grape growing climate, the enthusiastic and talented winemakers I met at this festival are doing some great things with what nature gives them.  Mass. produced wines add to the many reasons to visit Massachusetts!

Post authored by Brenda Audino, CWE. After a long career as a wine buyer with Twin Liquors in Austin, Texas, Brenda has recently moved to Napa, California (lucky!) where she runs the Spirited Grape wine consultancy business. Brenda is a long-time member of SWE and has attended many conferences – be sure to say “hi” at this year’s conference in NOLA!

Are you interested in being a guest blogger or a guest SWEbinar presenter for SWE?  Click here for more information 

A New PGI – Ratafia de Champagne!


photo via: http://www.champagne-courtillier.com

Quick! If you are a CSW, tell me – what is Pineau des Charentes? If you are a CSS, answer me this: What is Pommeau de Normandie?

The answer to both questions is: a sweet, fortified, wine-based beverage, typically referred to in the European Union as a Vin de Liqueur.*

Now, here’s my next question: What is Ratafia de Champagne?

Answer: A Vin de Liqueur, produced in the Champagne region that – after an 800-year history of production – just received its first-even PGI status as of August 27, 2015. Bottles of Ratafia de Champagne, alternatively known as Ratafia Champenois, will be eligible for PGI status as of the 2016 release.

The new PGI is actually part of a larger project, begun back in June of 2014 when a group representing distillers, wine growers, and wine producers in the Champagne region created an organization known as the “Association of Producers of Spirits of the Champagne Geographical Indication” (Boissons Spiritueuses Champenoises). Among the goals of the group was to obtain PGI status for Marc de Champagne, Fine de Champagne, and Ratafia de Champagne. PGI status was obtained for Marc de Champagne in January 2015; the PGI for Fine de Champagne was approved in February 2015.

The regulations for Ratafia de Champagne PGI specify that the product is produced using the three main grapes of the Champagne region – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. The juice that will be fortified and made into Ratafia is pressed after the juice to be used in the area’s famous sparkling wine is pressed – during the first part of the final – or rebèche – pressing.  The juice is then fortified with grape-based brandy of the region, which is also produced from the rebèche juice.  Production of Ratafia de Champagne will be limited to 15 million bottles – about 6% of the total output of the AOC – per year.

*More specifically, Pineau des Charentes is a Vin de Liqueur produced in the Cognac (Charentes) region of France, from must freshly pressed from the allowed grapes of the region. The must is fortified with Cognac, and the resulting beverage – at 16–22% alcohol by volume – is aged for at least 18 months, with a minimum of 12 in oak.  Being produced from unfermented must, Pineau des Charentes can also be classified as a mistelle.

*Pommeau, also technically a mistelle, is made in the Calvados region with unfermented apple juice, fortified with one-year-old Calvados. The resulting mixture, which has 16-18% alcohol by volume, is then aged in oak barrels for a minimum of 14 months.

Post authored by Jane A. Nickles – your blog administrator!


Barbera goes Solo in new Nizza DOCG

Nizza map via: http://www.viniastimonferrato.it/en/the-wines/barbera-dasti/general-notes.html

Nizza map via: http://www.viniastimonferrato.it/en/the-wines/barbera-dasti/general-notes.html

Today we have a guest post from Mark Rashap, CWE…

It’s time for Nizza Barbera to take its rightful place in center stage!

Effective as of the 2014 harvest, the consortium that oversees wine laws for Asti and the Monferrato Hills in Piedmont promoted Nizza Monferrato and 18 surrounding villages (comuni) from a mere subzone of the Barbera d’Asti DOCG to a DOCG of their own: the autonomous Nizza DOCG.  This promotion deserves particular attention from the wine community because it highlights the evolution of many European wine appellations, as well as Italy’s insistence to snub its nose at the EU’s DOP.

The most obvious marker of the Nizza DOCG is that all the grapes must be grown within a delineated geographic zone, which was already established, along with Tinella and Colli Astiani, as a subzone of Barbera d’Asti DOCG Superiore    The new DOCG gets a bit particular, however, as every vineyard destined for the Nizza DOCG must be registered with the Consortium and tout particular soils and exposures.  Vines must be entirely estate, planted on the slopes of hills facing south-east to south-west. The required density is at least 4,000 vines per hectare, and harvest must be done entirely by hand.   This limits the total vineyard acreage of the DOCG to 250 ha (620 acres) – roughly the total area of Chateau Margaux.

In the winery, there are additional controls in place to ensure quality and to differentiate the Nizza DOCG from the greater Barbera d’Asti DOCG.  Perhaps most importantly, Nizza must be 100% Barbera compared to the 90% for Barbera d’Asti.  Yields are capped at 3.1 tons per acre, and there is a minimum ageing of 18 months (6 in barrel) before the wine is released to market.  Finally, there is an organoleptic and laboratory analysis to make sure the finished wine has met the standards put forth by the Consortium. An interesting facet of this analysis that the minimum requirement of 26 g/L “dry extract.”



If you don’t place importance on minutiae, then the take-home is that Piedmont is dedicated to making some serious Barbera. Furthermore, it adds to the modern trend that “controlled” regions in Europe are tightening their quality standards, and promoting sub-regions to higher categories when – perhaps – their neighbors have suffered from over-production or unscrupulous producers.  Other examples of this trend include Chianti Classico’s addition of the Gran Selezione category of quality, and the breakup of the Coteaux de Languedoc into individual AOC’s (blog post to come).

In the case of Nizza, if the year or producer’s bounty is not up to par, then the wine can be de-classified to Barbera d’Asti DOCG, Monferrato Rosso DOC, Piemonte Barbera DOC, or Piemonte Rosso DOC, thus allowing the image of Nizza to stay intact.

We also must be amused by Italy’s complete rejection of the EU’s Denominazione di Origene Protetta terminology because there is no means of distinguishing between the DOC and DOCG tiers.  As we know, with the re-organization of the EU’s agricultural standards, it was left open for individual producer-countries the two systems of nomenclature. Italy was thus allowed to continue to apply for new DOCGs – as is apparent with Nizza – the newest, and the 74th.  Perhaps…Tinella and Colli Astiani will be next?

For more information:

Guest Post: On the Wines of Saxony

The city of Dresden, on the Elbe River

The city of Dresden, on the Elbe River

Today we have a guest post from Lucia Volk, CSW. Lucia shares with us her interest in and discovery of the wines of Saxony!

If you have had your fill of Rieslings and Pinots from the Mosel, Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Pfalz – and find yourself in the mood for a different kind of German wine – let me draw your attention east, to the re-emerging wine region of Saxony!

Upstream and downstream from the city of Dresden, with its many baroque palaces, churches, cobble stone streets, and numerous museums, are about 1,100 acres of vineyards. These vineyards are part of the Sachsen region, which ranks 11th in size among Germany’s thirteen wine regions. The Elbe River and the hills along both sides helps create the weather and soil conditions that make wine growing possible at 51 degrees latitude. Officially, the wine region of Saxony stretches from Pillnitz in the south to Diesbar-­‐Seußlitz in the north, along roughly 60 miles of Elbe, which then continues on to Hamburg and the North Sea.

Equestrian portrait of August II the Strong (1670-1733) - Old Masters Gallery

Equestrian portrait of August II the Strong (1670-1733) – Old Masters Gallery

Saxony’s glorious history involves a late 17th century duke-turned-king by the name of August the Strong, whose claim to fame (among many other things) is breaking horseshoes with his bare hands. He loved the good life (when he wasn’t going to war), and sponsored palaces with gardens, plazas and fountains; and filled museums with art. He hosted lavish parties and, of course, he needed wine. The historical record shows that within decades of his reign, 4,000 acres of vines were under cultivation by up to 8,000 wine makers – vastly more than Saxony’s current holdings.

The 1888 phylloxera infestation did much to reduce the vineyard acreage – two world wars, real estate development, and the state-planned economy of the German Democratic Republic did the rest. 1990, the year of Germany’s unification, is often considered as the starting point of Saxony’s wine revival. The eastern-most German wine region holds much promise with many young winemakers eager to catch up to the much more established wine regions in the southwest of Germany.

Wine producers along the Elbe currently come in three kinds: privately owned wineries, which include the prestigious – and Saxony’s oldest – Schloss Proschwitz as well as small innovators with 5-15 acres of each; the state-owned winery in historic Schloss Wackerbarth with nearly 250 acres and 100 employees; and the Wine Cooperative Meissen (Winzergenossenschaft Meissen) with 360 hectares and 1,500 participating part-time growers. The production volume varies accordingly, from 8,000 to 600,000 to one million bottles a year. Due to steep slopes and challenging growing conditions – late frosts in spring time, dry summers, and cold and wet harvest seasons – none of the producers above can expect a high yield, regardless of their vineyard locations or the grape varietals. If necessary (and feasible in terms of staffing) vineyards are harvested two or three times to give more grapes the opportunity to ripen fully.



Grapes grown in Saxony are mostly white (85%):  Müller-Thurgau, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Traminer are the most widely planted; Bacchus, Muscat, and some Chardonnay are minor white grapes. Pinot Noir and Dornfelder lead the reds;  Portugieser, Regent, and Schwarzrieslings can be found as well. A large part of the production is made into sparkling wine, following various production methods. Single-variety still wines come in the usual choices from dry to sweet, from Landwein to Trockenbeerenauslese. Cuvees are also offered, for instance, Traminer along with Riesling, or Pinot Noir plus some Portugieser. Premier vineyards are Seußlitzer Schlossweinberg, Proschwitzer Katzensprung und Radebeuler Goldener Wagen.

Schloss Proschwitz is Saxony’s oldest private winery, with its own castle and artistocratic owner Prinz von der Lippe.  A renowned restaurant and upscale bed and breakfast invite guests to stay for a while. Still wines, sparklers, and liqueurs are on the shelves, each category in dazzling varieties, from a 13 Euro bottle of Müller Thurgau to a 58 Euro bottle of Pinot Noir. Many of its vineyards were originally owned by the church, most of the wine was made for mass. The church lost ownership over many of its estates to secular, liberal movements in Germany; later, the von der Lippe family lost its vineyards to state socialism, and only in 1990 did they begin to buy back what the family used to own. The winemaker hired to bring Schloss Proschwitz back to its old prominence was Geisenheim graduate Martin Schwarz, who recently started his own “wine manufacture,” as he calls it. In his able hands, Saxon grapes turned to refreshingly dry, aromatic, earthy wines. If you never had Müller-Thurgau you liked, you might find one here.

photo via http://www.schloss-wackerbarth.de/deutsch/erlebnisweingut/

photo via http://www.schloss-wackerbarth.de/deutsch/erlebnisweingut/

Erlebnisweingut  Schloss  Wackerbarth  translates  to  “adventure  vineyard”  on Wackerbarth’s website. It is a winery that offers a full schedule of paired food, music, dance and theater events throughout the entire year, Christmas and New Year’s included. Guests can walk around expansive grounds with a historic palace and brand new restaurant, wine bar, cellar, and shop.   With a seasonally adjusted staff of   plus/minus 100, Schloss Wackerbarth bottles up to 600,000 bottles a year, the majority sparkling wine.  On its premises, only traditional method, hand-riddled sparklers are made, a process visitors can witness from the tasting room overlooking the storage cellar facility.   Another Geisenheim graduate, Jürgen Aumüller, took charge in 2002, dividing his attention between his cuvees (mostly for sparkling wine, but also for still) and single-variety wines.   The state of Saxony   owns the winery, and with the help of substantial investment of the Saxony Development Bank in the early 2000s; Schloss Wackerbarth now represents the new way of doing wine business on the Elbe river.



Founded in 1938 as Saxon Wine Cooperative (Sächsische Weinbaugenossenschaft), renamed the Wine Cooperative Meissen in 1955, and currently led by a woman winemaker, Natalie Weich, the cooperative produces half of Saxony’s wine, a million bottles per year on average. The vineyard holdings span the entire Elbe region, from Pillnitz to Diesbar-­‐Seußlitz. You can find an interactive map (in German) on the cooperative’s website. Cooperative production historically allowed people to share production facilities and spread production risks. Grapes were an additional source of income, and under state socialism, an additional source of goods to trade. Grape quality was historically sacrificed to grape quantity, as producers were paid by weight they delivered. Those days are mostly days of the past, as producers realize that they need to compete with national and international standards. Wines from the cooperative regularly win gold, silver and bronze medals in the annual Federal German Wine Awards (DLG -­‐-­‐ Deutsche Landwirtschafts-­ Gesellschaft).

The natural beauty and regional history of the Elbe valley are already reasons for a visit. If you enjoy hiking and biking, you will be able to fill your vacation with memorable activities – but be sure and leave time to schedule wine tastings throughout. And you will want to leave space in your suitcases to bring some home!

Lucia Volk, CSW, is working on a manuscript on the lesser known wine regions of Germany. This summer, she discovered vineyards in Berlin, excellent Pinot Noirs along the Elbe and the Ahr, and phenomenal Riesling wines on the Mittelrhein.

Suggested further reading: