Guest Blogger: Alsace – The Unheralded King of White Wines!

Rue Mercière in Strasbourg

Rue Mercière in Strasbourg

Today we have a guest post from Houston-based Wine Educator James Barlow, CS, CWE. James article is all about the glory that is Alsatian wine – and an attempt to understand why more wine professionals and consumers alike don’t seem to truly appreciate this unique wine region.

In my humble opinion, Alsace is, unequivocally, one of the best producers of white wine in the world.

And yet, I have worked in wine retail industry for a decade and have often scratched my head at lack of Alsatian sales.  The region seems to play second fiddle to Germany and other white wine producing areas in France.

There’s no argument that Alsatian wines are an enigma – first and foremost for the mere fact that it is the only region in France that puts the varietal on the front label. But somehow, this does not lead the American consumer to gravitate more towards these wines.  Sommeliers and retailers alike often note that the wines of Alsace are a niche hand sell.  The question is why?

It could be due to the common misperception that Alsace produces wines that are light and sweet; in reality, they are, for the most part, dry and full bodied. It could also be that all of us – consumers and wine professionals alike – just need to take a closer look at Alsace and its long history of vine and wine.

Alsace SceneThe region has exchanged hands between France and Germany several times and even had its independence for a brief period.  It is separated from the rest of France by the Vosges Mountains in the west.  Most vineyards are located in a long thin strand throughout the foothills of the Vosges.  This mountain range gives Alsace a unique ‘rain shadow’ effect which makes it one of the driest climates in all of France.  Colmar, the capital of the Haut Rhin, is the driest city in France.

Alsace is divided into two departments, the Haut-Rhin and Bas-Rhin with the former housing over two-thirds of the regions Grand Cru vineyards.  There are 51 Grand Crus overall with Kaefferkopf being the latest addition in 2006.  The Grand Cru vineyards are typically located on south or southeasterly exposures which give the vines ample sunlight to reach phenolic ripeness.  Most Grand Crus require 100% single varietal wines produced from one of the four noble varietals, which include Riesling, Muscat, Pinot Gris, and Gewurztraminer. Grand Cru vineyards have strict requirements as to minimum must weight, alcohol, and hand harvesting.

Alsace is a kaleidoscope of soil structures with ‘gres de Vosges’ pink sandstone being the most famous. The higher elevation villages are generally composed of schist, granite and volcanic sediment, whereas the lower villages typically are more clay over limestone based.  The plains consist of richer more alluvial clay and gravel soils.

White varietals are 90% of the production of wine in Alsace, which in turn are dominated by the four noble grapes.  These wines are markedly different than those of neighboring Germany.  Alsatian wines are typically fermented dry, whereas the Germans have a classically sweeter appeal.  The dry wines of Alsace can be some of the most food friendly wine in the world, especially with spicy cuisine. They have higher alcohol while retaining excellent acidity which makes them some of the longest lived white wines in the world.

Half-timbered houses in ColmarAlsace is the one region on Earth where these four noble white grapes are at their richest and most voluptuous expressions.  Alsatian Rieslings are some of the more powerful expressions of the varietal produced.  They are amongst the longest lived dry whites in the world with a plethora of acidity and minerality to go with the higher alcohol content.  Zind Humbrecht Riesling Brand Grand Cru is a stellar example with Master of Wine Olivier Humbrecht at the helm.  He is an ardent believer in biodynamics and the terroir really shows in the wines produced.  One might note that the residual sugars have been creeping up in recent years.

Pinot Gris (formerly Tokay d’Alsace) thrives in Alsace.  In fact, this region may have the most complex expression of the varietal in the world.  The Pinot Grigios of Italy are typically light and tart, whereas Pinot Gris in Alsace tends to exude a rich, round mouth feel with just a touch of residual sugar and higher alcohol.  Trimbach is one of the better producers.  They make a moderately priced Reserve Pinot Gris that is full bodied and power packed full of delicious tropical fruits, crushed rocks, and poignant acids.

Gewurztraminer is a pink skinned variety that shows excellent aromatics and spiciness combined with a round, textured mouth feel and spectacular minerality when grown in Alsace.  Gewurz, meaning spice in German, is believed to have been first encountered in the German speaking town of Tramin located in northern Italy, and thus the complicated name.  Gewurztraminer is usually sweeter than Riesling and offers perfumed bouquets of white flowers and rich tropical fruits.  Domaine Weinbach’s Gewurztraminer Altenbourg Cuvee Laurence offers one of the best versions of this dynamic variety.

Street Corner in Strasbourg

Street Corner in Strasbourg

Muscat is more distinguished here than its counterparts throughout France.  Alsatian Muscat offers grapey, floral notes that can be appreciated in a young wine, but can also produce some age-worthy dessert wines. Selection de Grains Nobles is a wine produced from botrytised grapes.  This only occurs in perfect weather conditions, so the wines are quite rare.  These wines are fully sweet and can be aged indefinitely.  They are considered some of the best dessert wines in the world.  Marcel Deiss is a stunning producer of not only Muscat but all the noble varietals in the Selection de Grains Nobles style.

I believe the average consumer’s misunderstanding of the Alsatian wines keeps them from delving fully into its wines.  The stigma that is haunting Alsace must be changed. It must be up to the wine professionals who are in love with these exquisite wines to slowly but surely teach the modern, wine-savvy consumer to fall in love with Alsace – the unheralded king of white wines.

Our guest author, James Barlow, CS, CWE, is a wine director of over 6,000 wines labels for a store owned by Spec’s Fine Wines and Liquors in Houston, Texas.   He is also the author of the widely recognized wine blog thewineepicure.com.  James is also a recent recipient of the CWE Certification (Congratulations, James!) and as such has taken on the duty of teaching the Certified Specialist of Wine course to fellow employees in hopes of having the best educated staff in the state of Texas. Way to go, James!

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Conference Preview: On the Wine Routes of Europe with Thomas Jefferson

Today we have a guest post from Linda Lawry, CWE, DWS. Linda is always one of the most popular speakers at our SWE Conferences. In this postLinda tells us a bit about her upcoming conference session entitled “On the Wine Routes of Europe with Thomas Jefferson.”

TJWine from long habit has become indispensable to my health.”           - Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States, was a multi-faceted genius whose numerous areas of expertise ranged from architecture to zoology.  His passion for wine, while largely  neglected by historians, is one of the most fascinating aspects of his persona.

Jefferson’s journals and correspondence contain many references to wine, including detailed critiques of the wines he tasted.  He may, in fact, have been American’s first wine critic.

In 1787, while he was living in France as a representative the Untied States government, Jefferson took a three-month tour of many of the wine regions of France, Italy, and Germany.  He traveled incognito, so that he could learn what life was really like in these regions, and so that he would not have to spend his time in formal dinners with the aristocracy. He sought out vine growers and winemakers as well as the “common man and woman” living in the various wine regions.

Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Plantation

Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Plantation

Lucky for us modern-day wine lovers, Jefferson kept an extensive diary of his adventures in the wine regions of Europe, charting his travels as well as his opinions on quality and character of the inns, the food, the architecture, and of course, the wines he tasted. His diaries are a fascinating insight into the wine world of the 18th century, and of the character and persona of this complex and charming man.

At the 2014 SWE conference in Seattle this August, I will give a program on Jefferson’s European wine adventure. We will taste wines from the regions he visited, including some of the very same wines he tasted back then, which (lucky for us), are still being produced today.

Linda Lawry, CWE, DWS, is the Director of the International Wine Center in New York City. She is also on the faculty of New York University, where she has been teaching the Wine and Spirits Studies course in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies since 1997. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Society of Wine Educators, a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier, and program co-chair of the Culinary Historians of New York. Linda graduated with honors from the New York Restaurant School, holds the WSET Diploma, and is a Certified Wine Educator.

Linda’s session, “On the Wine Routes of Europe with Thomas Jefferson,” will be held on Thursday, August 14, at 1:15 pm as part of the 38th Annual Conference of the Society of Wine Educators.

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Conference Preview: An In-depth Look at St.-Émilion

Today we welcome a post on the wines of St.-Émilion from SWE Board Member Paul Wagner.  Paul is always one of the top speakers at SWE’s Annual Conference, and in this article he gives us a sneak peak at what is sure to be one of the most intriguing sessions to be offered this August at SWE’s 38th Annual Conference in Seattle.

St EmilionSt.-Émilion is unique in the world of wine.  Not only is it a region that produces wines of legendary quality; those very vineyards have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The city of St.-Émilion would draw tourists from around the world to its historic architectural treasures even if there were no wine there at all.  But none of that makes it truly unique.

What makes St.-Émilion unique in the world of wine is the classification system that re-evaluates the wines of the region every ten years.  Most recently completed in 2012, this system determines the select few that shall be allowed to use the term Premier Grand Cru Classé, which may use the Grand Cru Classé, and which must wait another ten years for that honor.  In 2012 there were only eighteen Premier Grand Cru Classés and only sixty-four Grand Cru Classés.  There are nearly 700 growers.

Where to begin?  We are in France, so we must begin with the terroir.  This is the land of Merlot.  Gentle slopes with a high portion of clay and limestone combine with a temperate climate on the Right Bank of Bordeaux to produce wines that are among the greatest examples of Merlot in the world.

Nearly two-thirds of the vines in St.-Émilion are Merlot.  Smaller percentages of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and a trace of Malbec add spice and complexity to the wines.  While the size of St.-Émilion is nearly 1/3 the size of the Napa Valley, the average vineyard parcel is something like 12 acres.  These are jewel boxes, each creating a wine worthy of poetry.

Merlot St EmilionIn fact, the Roman poet Ausonius praised these wines (and gave his name to Chateau Ausone) nearly two thousand years ago.  It was the Romans who began to cultivate grapes here, and the wine, even then, inspired odes.   And when a humble monk paused on his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela to become a hermit in a cave nearby, the local community and his disciples built a church to honor his holy example.  His name was Émilion, and the church of St.-Émilion, built in 787, can still be visited today.

During the complicated British rule of Aquitaine in the 1100’s, St.-Émilion’s role as a religious center was recognized as it was granted remarkable autonomy with the creation of the Jurade of St.-Émilion.  This allowed St.-Émilion to have far greater control over the production and sales of wines from the area, and proved to be a key element in developing a reputation for quality and integrity.

Today that continues with the unique classification system that makes sure every bottle of St.-Émilion is worthy of the name and history of this remarkable terroir.

At the SWE’s national conference in August there will be a tasting session featuring some of Grand Cru Classé wines from St.-Émilion from 2009 and 2010.  It should be the perfect opportunity to taste the character of Merlot, the history of a legendary region, and the terroir of poetry.

1 paulwagner1 12 11 (3)Paul Wagner is president of Balzac Communications & Marketing and is also an instructor for Napa Valley College’s Viticulture and Enology department and the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. He is a regular columnist for Vineyards & Winery Management Magazine, and contributes to Allexperts.com in the field of wine and food.

Paul is a founding member of the Academy of Wine Communications, a member of the nominations committee of the Culinary Institute of America’s Vintner’s Hall of Fame, and was inducted into the Spadarini della Castellania di Soave in 2005.

In 2009 he was honored with a “Life Dedicated to Wine” award at the Feria Nacional del Vino (FENAVIN) in Spain. He is also a member of the board of directors of the SWE.

Paul’s session, “An in-depth look at St.-Émilion,” will be presented at SWE’s Annual Conference on Friday, August 15th at 10:30 am.

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Grottino di Roccanova

The town of Matera in Basilicata

The town of Matera in Basilicata

Grottino di Roccanova…if you’ve never heard of it, don’t be too hard on yourself.  I chose to write about Grottino di Roccanova because it is so obscure.  If this is the first you have ever read about it, I am sure you are in good company.

Grottino di Roccanova is a small, relatively new DOC located in the Basilicata wine region – which is about as far south as you can go in Italy.  Basilicata is located on mainland Italy’s southern border, tucked in-between the “heel of the boot” (Puglia) and the “toe of the boot” (Calabria.)  Perhaps we should say Basilicata is the “instep” of Italy (or maybe not).

In 2009, Grottino di Roccanova was approved as a DOC region and became the fourth DOC located in Basilicata.  It joined three others:  – Matera DOC, Terre dell’Alta Val d’Agri DOC and Aglianico del Vulture DOC. Of course, seasoned wine students may recognize Aglianico del Vulture Superiore as Basilicata’s lone DOCG.  The richer, longer-aged version of Aglianico del Vulture received DOCG status in 2010. A wide range of wines is also produced in the region under the Basilicata IGT.

GrottinoGrottino di Roccanova DOC produces red, white, and rosé wines using primarily Sangiovese for the reds and Malvasia Bianca for the whites. The area itself is part of three communes:  Sant’Arcangelo, Castronuovo di Sant’Andrea Potenza, and Roccanova. The terrain, being made up of hills and mountains in the southern end of the Apennine Mountain Range, is rugged and diverse.

The red and rosato wines of the Grottino di Roccanova DOC are based on Sangiovese, which must be present in the wines between 60 and 85%. The remainder may be made up of Malvasia Nera, Montepulciano, and Cabernet Sauvignon; each of which may be present at levels between 5 – 30%. Any remainder may be comprised of any native red grape approved to be grown in the Basilcata IGT.

The white wines, known as Grottino di Roccanova Bianco, must be a minimum of 80% Malvasia Bianca.  The remainder of the wine may comprise any non-aromatic white variety approved to be grown in the Basilicata IGT.

More information on Grottino di Roccanova DOC may be found on the website of the Cervino Vini Company.

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All of Vienna in One Glass

viennaVienna has a unique history of wine production.  The bustling capital city is home to 612 hectares (1,500 acres) of vineyards, planted in both the outer districts and outskirts of the city.  These vineyards provide a substantial amount of lovely scenery as well as a significant economic input to the city of Vienna.

The wines have historically been classified under the “landwein” region of Wien (Vienna), and considered PGI-level wines.  As is to be expected for a modern urban region, Wien is by far the smallest, in terms of both square mileage and production, of Austria’s four landwein regions. Wien produces a mere 1% of the total output of Austria.

Traditionally, wines from Wien have been known as “Heuriger,”or wine tavern wines.  A unique Austrian tradition, a Heuriger is basically a tavern operated by a wine maker and may only serve its own wines.  Some are open year-round and serve a wide variety of food, while others, known as “Buschenschank” are hidden among the vineyards and may only be open a few weeks a year, serving the new wine of the vintage and simple “snacks” to accompany the wine.

Vineyards ViennaNowadays, the wines of Wien are enjoying a newly-found reputation as fine wines; many are to be found on the wine lists of the most forward-thinking and renowned restaurants, and some have even reached “cult wine” status. As of the 2013 vintage, the region’s traditional wine has earned the highest classification status available to Austrian wines – the Districtus Austriae Controllatus (DAC).

The new DAC – only the ninth one to be granted in Austria – is known as “Weiner Gemischte Satz.” Gemischter Satz means (loosely translated) “mixed set” and the qualifications for the DAC are both highly unique and very strict. This style of wine has been called “all of Vienna in one glass.”

To qualify, the wine must be made from white wine grapes grown in Vienna area vineyards planted with at least three quality grape varieties. The grapes must be harvested, pressed, and fermented together, with the largest portion of a single grape variety no more than 50% and three varieties must make up at least 10% each. The wines are meant to be fruit-forward and are not allowed to show “significant influence of oak.”

St. Charles' Church (Karlskirche) in Vienna

St. Charles’ Church (Karlskirche) in Vienna

An unusual factor of this DAC is that the grapes must not just be processed together; they must also be grown together in what is now known as a “field blend” – side by side in the vineyard. While the regulations require a minimum of three different varieties, up to 15 varieties are listed as “approved” for use and may be present in a single wine.  Approved varieties include traditional Austrian varieties such as Grüner Veltliner, Sylvaner, Traminer, Rotgipfler, Neuburger, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) and Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris), as well as international varieties such as Chardonnay (sometimes known in Austria as “Morillon”).

Viennese wine not made according to the strict standards for the Weiner Gemischte Satz DAC will continue to be bottled under the “Wien” landwein classification.

Click here for more information on the new DAC from the AustrianWine.com website.

Click here for a discussion on the new DAC from Weininger.

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Spain Takes the Lead?

spain Heredia WineryAs of the 2013 harvest, Spain might catapult to the top of the wine-producing heap and earn the number one place among wine producing countries.

This news, as reported by the online newspaper “The Local – Spain’s News in English,” is based on statistics provided by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture concerning the 2013 crop.  According to the Ministry, Spain produced over 50 million hectoliters, or 6.7 billion (with a “b”) bottles of wine in 2013.  This is an increase of 41% over 2012.  This is somewhat of a good news/bad news proposition; its good to be number one, but it also may make the competition to sell Spanish wines on the world market more intense.

The statistics provided by Spain were compared with the self-reported estimates from the French and Italian wine industries. Italy reported producing 47 million hectoliters, and France reported 42 million.

Whether or not this 1-2-3 position remains in place will be seen once the final statistics – provided by the International Organization of Wine and Vine (OIV) – are released in May.

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Post authored by Jane A. Nickles, CWE – your SWE Blog Administrator – jnickles@societyofwineeducators.org

 

Guest Post: Modern Wines from Ancient Santorini

santorini island james bToday we have a guest post from Houston-based Wine Educator James Barlow, CS, CWE - all about some modern wines from a most ancient place…the Greek Island of Santorini.

When one thinks of Greece, one might envision the great Greek Gods – Dionysus, Zeus, and Apollo – sipping wine from golden goblets, perched on high watching the humans battle in epic duels.

When one thinks of Greek wine, one might envision pine resin and retsina  - and this has often kept people from delving much farther into the world of Greek wines.

However, Greek wine is so much more!  Greece is home to some of the more interesting indigenous grape varietals on earth.  Smoky, bone dry whites such as Assyrtiko or full bodied reds such as Mavrotragano and the deliciously sweet Vinsanto are truly the “nectars of the Gods.”

Vines have been grown in Greece for centuries, but in the modern world, Greek wines have been widely overlooked by the wine community.  However, the small island of Santorini, located in the southern Cyclades Islands, is looking to change the way the world looks at the wines of Greece.

santorinin cliffsides firaThe History and Geography of Santorini

First, a bit of history about Santorini, which will give a better understanding why this small island has excellent terrior and climate to cultivate vines.  Santorini was the core of an ancient volcano that erupted in about 1640-1620 BC.  This submerged a large part of the island and created a caldera where the center of the island had been.  The result was a unique mix of chalk and shale beneath ash, lava and pumice, which contributes to the vines having to struggle deep into the soil to find nutrients.

This, in turn, gives the resulting wines intense minerality and singularity in the wine world.  It also is the core reason why the root louse, phylloxera, has never become an issue on this small island.  This fact allows Santorini to have many old vine vineyards.  Grapes are grown on the eastern edge of the caldera at nearly 1,000 feet in altitude.  To add even more stress to the vine, Santorini sees almost no rain during the growing season and the vines only source of water comes from the early morning fog condensation that covers the island.  This is enough to keep the vines alive and thriving.

Steady westerly winds keep the grapes from seeing much of the condensation thus eliminating any chance of rot.  In fact, the winds are so fierce that the vines are typically trained to grow in a Stefani shape, a round basket, where the middle is left open for the clusters of grapes to grow unimpeded.

santorini vineyardAssyrtiko:  Rich, Mineral-driven Whites

It is in this environment on Santorini that Greece’s most intriguing white grape is grown.  Assyrtiko (A seer’tee ko) might just become the next “darling” white wine for sommeliers and wine critics alike.  The varietal is often referred to as ‘the white grape in red’s clothing’.  It is a high acid, full-bodied white with moderately high alcohol that gives the consumer a chance to taste the essence of Santorini.

The minerality that the grape inherits from the soils is sky high.  Flavors of crushed rocks and smoky minerals meld into the bone dry acidity while maintaining ripe citrus fruits such as melon, apple and key lime.  Assyrtiko will be sometimes be blended with small amounts of Athiri and Aidani to add aromatics to the bracing acids.  The wine may sometimes see oak, but is typically aged in stainless steel vats.  Wild yeasts are usually used in fermentation which gives the ensuing wine unique character and flavor profile.  Santorini has 70% of its vines dedicated to this variety.  Some of the best examples are done by Gaia, who produces an unbelievably good wild ferment, and Paris Sigalas.

Vinsanto from Santorini

Assyrtiko(minimum 51%) and Aidani are also the main grape varieties used for the passito-style Vinsanto dessert wines. The late harvested grapes are left out on straw mats for 1-2 weeks which causes them to concentrate and raisinate.  The grapes then go through a santorini sunsetlengthy fermentation process then are aged in oak casks for a minimum of 24 months, but usually for much longer.  The ending results are deliciously sweet wines with flavors of matured honey, dried apricots, and molasses.

The wines are typically low in alcohol and high in sugar, yet are not cloying due to the vibrant acidity of Assyrtiko.  Vinsanto of Greece, not to be confused with Vin Santo of Tuscany, now has the exclusive rights to the name ‘Vinsanto’ although Tuscany can still use the name on the label to describe the ‘style’ of wine making. Vin meaning wine, Santo short for Santorini…Vinsanto. Makes sense.

Mavrotragano:  Big, Bold Red

Santorini may be best known for its indigenous white varietals, but the reds are beginning to make head way in the market.  Mavrotragano is the red grape that is making the biggest waves.  This rare, indigenous variety produces small, thick skinned grapes of very low yield.  Due to the lack of phylloxera issues, this varietal remains largely on its original rootstock.  Mavrotragano was nearly extinct before being resurrected by Haridimos Hatzidakis and Paris Sigalas to critical acclaim.  The wine is aged for a minimum of 1 year in oak, usually French.  The flavor profile is reminiscent of Nebbiolo with red fruits, large notes of minerality and full, yet supple tannins.

The complex, indigenous varietals of this small, yet uniquely gifted island is leading the resurgence of Greek wine in the world.  Greece is leaving the tarnish of Retsina in the past and forging forward with its indigenous quality varietals and the island of Santorini leading the way.

Santorini Greek TavernOur guest author, James Barlow, CS, CWE, is a wine director of over 6,000 wines labels for a  store owned by Spec’s Fine Wines and Liquors in Houston, Texas.   He is also the  author of the widely recongized wine blog thewineepicure.com.  James is also a recent recipient of the CWE Certification (Congratulations, James!) and as such has taken on the duty of teaching the Certified Specialist of Wine course to fellow employees in hopes  of having the best educated staff in the state of Texas. Way to go, James!
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Guest Post: “It is in fair Verona that we lay our scene…”

Today we have another guest post; an in-depth look and unique perspective on the many styles and flavors of Valpolicella…the jewel of the Veneto!  Our guest author today is Ben Steel, a wine educator and writer based in Encinitas, California.  Enjoy!!

veneto veronaTo quote Shakespeare, “it is in fair Verona that we lay our scene.” Verona, or the Veneto, is an Italian paradox. It is among the largest producers of Italy’s 20 main regions and is home to many of the largest commercial producers and big name mass marketers of the Italian wine industry. At the same time, it is renowned for its stylistic variations of Valpolicella, producing some of the most popular and sought after wines in all of Italy.

Veneto is also one of the biggest producers of quality wine at the Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) level. The DOC’s originally were granted to regions whose geographical characteristics were thought to contribute to outstanding wines, but as the wine from these regions became ever more popular, financial interest overshadowed quality concerns. The DOCs were expanded well beyond their original or “classico” sites, often to inferior regions and allowable yields were greatly increased, resulting in mass-market wines of mediocre quality.  So what was Italy’s answer to this dilemma?

Ironically, rather than restricting yields and expansion, they decided to play the labeling game.  Consumers could buy wines from the “classico” sites, but that wasn’t enough. To that end, the consortiums created the DOCG, which was supposed to be what the DOC clearly failed to be – a guarantor of quality. Yields are more restricted for the DOCG and there are other stylistic mandates, but here’s the rub. As we will see, many of these DOCGs were granted to styles of wine that were produced in the same areas as the now defunct DOC. So what Italy is really attempting to guarantee is that you’ll like a particular style of wine, rather than ensuring that wine is necessarily of high quality.

Veneto - Map“This is not to say that the Veneto is defined by bargain-rack wine. Soave can be a rich, aromatic, mouth-filling white. Valpolicella can be a luscious, age worthy red. Even Prosecco, the wine for carefree night in Venice, can be a serious sparkler. And Amarone, of course, is Amarone. There’s nothing quite like it.” – Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch, Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy.

The Veneto is most well known for its red wines, particularly the various expressions of Valpolicella. The Valpolicella region is often pictured as an open hand whose fingers start in the Monti Lessini range north of Verona, spreading southward along hillside ridges. It is sandwiched between the Soave and Bardolino regions. The “classico” zone reaches from Sant’ Ambrogio in the west to Negrar in the east, but many of the outlying areas (Valpentena, Squaranto, Mezzzane, and Illasi valleys) are natural extensions of the zone and there are as many respected producers inside the classic zone as outside.

Valpolicella is historically made from indigenous grapes, of which Corvina Veronese is almost always the most prominent. It’s a thick skinned varietal with bright sour cherry flavors, fresh acidity, and firm tannins that forms the backbone of the Valpolicella blends, anywhere from 40-80% of the blend. The other major grape is Rondinella, which cannot compose more than 30% of the blend. It produces fruity, cherry flavored wines, but doesn’t really have the chops to make a great wine on its own. Molinara may compose a  small percentage of the blend along with a few other varieties, both internatinal and obscure.

I like to think of the styles of Valpolicella as sisters, each with a unique personality, but obviously related to the others. The various sisters are Valpolicella, Ripasso Valpolicella, Amarone della Valpolicella, and Recioto della Valpolicella.

veneto - valpolicellaValpolicella

The youngest sister is Valpolicella. She is known to taste of sour cherries, bright red fruit, and sometimes bitter almonds. She’s got a saucy personality and displays a little spice and sass. Basic Valpolicella is light and fruity and best drunk young, but some of the better known producers restrict their yields and produce wines of serious substance. One such producer is Stefano Campedelli and I’ll review his wine below.

Marion, 2011 Valpolicella Classico Borgomarcellise is made from extremely ripe grapes that Campedelli rests in old Slavonian casks for up to a year. The wine is a medium ruby color with medium intensity aromas of ripe strawberry, plum, and a rich undercurrent of blackberry. It actually has some of the floral notes that remind me of good Barolo or Barbaresco - roses, sweet tobacco, and churned earth that all combine to make a subtle perfume very reminiscent of Nebbiolo. The tannins are present, but mild and the medium plus acidity is nicely balanced by the fruit. This is a wonderfully balanced wine with a beautiful nose and a palate of ripe fruit along with a Nebbiolo-like floral character. There is a slightly spicy note to the wine that would make it a great accompaniment to a rich Arrabiata sauce.

Recioto della Valpolicella

Recioto is the eldest sister. In fact, all of the other styles of Valpolicella were preceded by Recioto. She was enjoyed in the Roman era when the predominant style was for highly alcoholic and sweet wines because they could withstand long voyages without spoiling. The Recioto, Amarone, and even the Ripasso style to some extent, owe their creation to the appassimento process. The Romans are thought to have developed this process in which very ripe grapes were hung to dry for several months, concentrating sugar, phenolics, and flavor. The process of desiccation not only concentrates the juices within the grape but also increases the skin contact of the grapes, elevating the phenolic end-products of the wine. The drying process further metabolizes the acids within the grape and creates a polymerization of the tannins in the skin which contribute to the overall balance of the finished wine

veneto ricioto bottleFollowing the drying, the grapes are crushed and fermented. In Recioto, the fermentation is halted before all of the sugars are converted to alcohol, resulting in a wine with considerable residual sugar. Recioto della Valpolicella is Italy’s answer to Port.

The wine I’ll review for this style is Domenico Fraccaroli’s 2008 Recioto della Valpolicella Grotta del Ninfeo:  This is a thick, luscious dessert wine that smells like a dark mélange of raisinated, jammy fruit. Imagine chocolate syrup poured over orange peel, fig, prune, blackberry, raspberry liquor, black cherry, and espresso beans highlighted by notes of cinnamon, ginger, and allspice.  This is an all out syrupy orgy of flavor. The wonderful thing about Recioto is how balanced she tastes. Her tannins are bold, but silky. Her acidity is high, but completely balanced and almost unnoticeable due to her residual sugar. This is a big wine, but it is rich and velvety smooth. This wine reminds me of a cross between Vintage Port and Rutherglen Muscat. It has the dark fruit and body of a Vintage Port with the orange peel and spice notes of Rutherglen Muscat.

Amarone della Valpolicella

Amarone is the popular sister. She is arguably Italy’s most popular wine, which is ironic since she was created by accident.  The story goes that an unattended cask of Recioto was accidentally allowed to ferment to dryness. The mistake proved a popular one and the wine became known as Recioto Amaro, “amaro” meaning bitter and referring to the tart, almond, and dried fruit flavors of the wine. It was later rechristened Amarone della Valpolicella.

Amarone has become wildly popular, surpassing even Barolo in production at roughly 13 million cases a year. As a result of the rapid increase in demand for Amarone, the local consortium limits the appassimento process to no more than 50% of any harvest, primarily to protect less popular, but culturally important styles such as Valpolicella Classico.

Many of the better known producers fear a potential decline in the standards for Amarone, especially since there are no existing laws to differentiate between vineyards for Valpolicella and those for Amarone. In fact, if you look at the map, you’ll see that they co-exist within the same relative delimited areas of Valpolicella Classico and/or Valpolicella Estesa (Valpantena) – there is no separate area for Amarone even though its production has been granted a DOCG.

veneto - reciotoIt’s all about location – at least according to the people who make Amarone. Hillside vineyards with good southern exposure allow for a gradual ripening due to the marked difference between day and nighttime temperatures. The respite from the daytime heat provided by the higher elevation vineyards allows the grapes to retain more of their acidity and primary fruit, while also developing the thick skins that can cope with the appassimento process. Most producers are adamant that the process produces far superior wines at these higher altitudes that avoid the warmer, damper condition of the valley floor. The worry is that money-driven producers will cash in on the popularity of Amarone and begin making it in these lesser quality valley floors and non-hillside sites. So what, you may ask?

Is there really a difference in the finished product based on where it was produced?  Well, yes…and no. Some famous producers, such as Romano Dal Forno, have set up shop in outlying areas closer to Soave than to Valpolicella, but here’s the rub. The wines are vinified in such a way as to compete directly with those wines grown in the more classic regions such that you end up getting wines of comparable quality from widely different zones, which of course puts our entire premise of site-specificity on the fritz; however, it likely that it is the producer’s attention to detail that accounts for much of the final product. There is a concern among traditionalists that Amarone might lose her soul to money, but then again, tradition can seem a straight-jacket to forward-minded producers of newer generations. I think it’s nice to have a variety of interpretations to choose from.

veneto amaroneWhy is Amarone so popular?  Well, she is deeply concentrated and deeply colored with a big palate of rich dried fruit that accompanies a wine of brooding depth and high levels of alcohol, tannin, and acidity. In short, this is the epitome of the heavily extracted, big wine that is currently so popular amongst consumers (and Robert Parker).

Great Amarone is highly dependent upon the producer so it is worth getting acquainted with some of the best known producers.  Ten of the top producers of Amarone include Accordini, Allegrini, Begali, Le Salette, Masi, Quintarelli, Romano Dal Forno, Sant’ Antonio, Speri, and Viviani.

The wine I will review for this region is the Vaona, 2009 Amarone della Valpolicella Paverno. This is a seductive blue-black wine that seems to scream of richness, depth, and intense flavor. Dried fruit tones of raisin, fig, and plum marry well with maraschino cherry and mix of blueberry/blackberry compote.  The fruit is accompanied by leather, almonds, chocolate, and coffee. This is a big, brooding wine glycerine richness, hefty tannins, high alcohol, high acidity and loaded with dark flavors.

Ripasso Valpolicella

Ripasso is the confused sister. She can’t decide if she wants to be Amarone or Valpolicella, and in fact, she’s something of a hybrid. She’s about midway between Valpolicella Classico and Amarone della Valpolicella, offering some of the raisinated fruit and chocolate of the full bodied Amarone, while maintaining the brighter fruit and somewhat leaner profile of the Valpolicella.

The Ripasso sister is conceived in an intriguing process that involves both her younger and older sister. Valpolicella is made in the standard manner of dry wines, but partway through the fermentation process, the pomace (the solid remains of the grapes after pressing) left over from making Amarone della Valpolicella is mixed into the fermenting Valpolicella must so that the wine is “re-passed” over and re-fermented with the Amarone pomace, hence the name Ripasso. During this process, the wine absorbs some of the color, tannin, alcohol, and flavor from the Amarone sister.

veneto ripassoThe Ripasso sister is a stellar value offering a complex, but accessible wine with a lot of fruit and depth, but not overwhelmingly so. It is one of the best values in all of Italy and, I would argue, one of the best values in the wine world, period.

The wine I chose for this region is the Domini Veneti, 2010 Ripasso Valpolicella Vigneti di Torbe. The wine is a deep ruby with purple highlights and wonderfully floral bouquet. Cherry, raspberry, strawberry, and even blueberry commingle with roses, leather, dusty earth, pie crust, and a hint of chocolate and coffee. The tannins are much more noticeable than the Valpolicella, providing excellent structure, fairly drying, but still supple. The acidity is medium plus, but well balanced by the tannins and fruit.  This is a silky wine that goes down easy.

The Valleys of Valpolicella offer some of the most intriguing wines in Italy. The youngest sister of Valpolicella Classico offers bright fruit and charming personality. The eldest sister, Recioto, drinks like a vintage port for half the cost. The ever-popular Amarone sister offers a big, rich palate, but with some unique flavors that you just can’t find anywhere else.  Finally, the confused Ripasso sister offers much of the appeal and allure of Amarone at a fraction of the cost and represents one of the best wine values on earth.

veneto benIf you would like to try any of the wines featured in this article, you can contact the folks over at Protocol Wine Studio in San Diego, California. All of these selections were taken from their recent wine club release entitled the Valley of Valpolicella.

Our guest blogger, Ben Steel, is the founder of the Global Vine, LLC, a foundation dedicated to the enjoyment of wine through education. Ben is a CSW candidate with the long-term goal of earning the prestigious Master of Wine certification and is currently studying at the Neptune School of Wine, with Peter Neptune, MS.  His long-term goal is to expand his growing company into an internationally recognized wine education business. You can learn more about Ben and the Global Vine him by visiting his website .

If you would like to be a “Wine, Wit, and Wisdom” guest blogger, please contact SWE’s Director of Education, Jane Nickles, at jnickles@societyofwineeducators.org

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Of Roads and Négrette

The Coat of Arms of Fronton

The Coat of Arms of Fronton

The year is 100 BCE…the Romans are continuing their northward expansion into southern Gaul – the land which will become modern day France.  Everywhere the conquering Romans go, they make their mark with the two main defining elements of the Roman Empire – roads and wine.

It is believed that the first vines in The Languedoc-Roussillon were planted around this time, as was Fronton – another, smaller area to the west .

Located just north of Toulouse, Fronton, now an AOC, features rustic red and rosé wines.  Known as Côtes du Frontonnais until 2005, the region has rocky soils and a very dry, warm climate.  The main red grape of Fronton is Négrette, an ancient Gallic variety that is related to Malbec.  This was recently determined through genetic testing of Négrette which unfortunately disproved the traditional story of the grape:  that it was originally from Cyprus and was introduced into the area by the Knights Templar, returning from the crusades.  While it is true that the region was taken over in the 12th Century by the Knights Hospitaler, a monastic military order similar to the Knights Templar, it seems the grape was in the region before the Knights.

Almost 85% of Fronton AOC wines are red, which must contain a minimum of 50% Négrette.  The other 50% may include a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, and Malbec.

Négrette at Harvest

Négrette at Harvest

Négrette has a very distinct character and profile, featuring aromas of anise and red fruit.  Some people describe the wines as “foxy.” On the palate, the wines can show strong dark and dried fruit flavors with very little tannins, lending the wine a pronounced suppleness.  Winemakers making blends based on Négrette have to blend carefully with other grapes, as the delicate characteristics of the grape can be easily overpowered by more tannic varieties.

There are scattered plantings of Négrette found throughout the world, perhaps most surprisingly in the San Benito AVA, located in the Central Coast of California.  In California it was known as Pinot St-George until 1997.  There are some plantings of Négrette in the Loire, notably in the Fiefs Vendeens area.  In the Loire, Négrettecan legally be called “Ragoutant.” 

Viticulturally, Négrette does best in warm climates, as it is very susceptible to gray rot and odium.  The wines are best consumed within a few years of their release.

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Post authored by Ben Coffelt  – bcoffelt@societyofwineeducators.org

Cheers to the Kir Royale!

Kir RoyaleIf you are looking for a festive cocktail to serve this holiday season, you can’t do much better than a Kir Royale.  The recipe is simple:  put one tablespoon of Crème de Cassis in the bottom of a flute, top up with Champagne and, if desired, garnish with a lemon twist. As you can probably imagine, there are dozens of variations on the classic recipe, and you can find versions of the Kir that include cranberries, frozen raspberries, Prosecco, and Chambord, among other things.

The Kir originated in the region of Burgundy. It is named after a local priest, Canon Félix Kir.  Canon Kir was a war hero of the French Resistance, and is remembered for helping 5,000 prisoners of war escape from the Nazis during World War II.  During the war, he was eventually captured by the Nazis, seriously wounded, and condemned to death; but despite it all, he managed to survive the war.

In 1945, Canon Kir was made a knight of the Légion d’honneur and, soon after, was elected the Mayor of the town of Dijon.  He remained the mayor of Dijon until his death in 1968.

Tribute to Mayor Kir

Tribute to Mayor Kir

Mayor Kir, like many people in Burgundy, enjoyed the local custom of combining two local products – a wine that we would call Bourgogne-Aligoté, and the locally produced liqueur known as Crème de Cassis de Dijon – into a refreshing aperitif.    The resulting drink was known as a blanc-cassis. Mayor Kir was a big fan of the beverage and was often seen in public drinking a blanc-cassis.

Mayor Kir, as you might imagine, was very popular in his community and very keen to support local products as well.  Thus, he lent his name to the drink mixing Bourgogne-Aligoté and Crème de Cassis de Dijon and soon people all over Burgundy were enjoying a Kir before dinner.

The combination of local flavors became so popular that it spread all over France, with several regional variations along the way.  The legend says that once the idea of the drink reached Paris, café society mixed their cassis with Champagne, and the Kir Royale was born.

À votre santé! 

Note:  It’s important to note that while Crème de Cassis is a generic product and made in many locations, “Crème de Cassis de Dijon” is a product specifically of Burgundy, made using “Noir de Bourgogne” black currants.

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Post authored by Jane A. Nickles, CWE – your SWE Blog Administrator – jnickles@societyofwineeducators.org