Good Things Come in Small (Piemontese) Packages

Tagliolo Monferrato in Alessandria

Tagliolo Monferrato in Alessandria

Good things come in small packages – it’s an excellent concept to keep in mind with the annual gift-giving season staring down at many of us. It’s also good concept for wine lovers, as well, as we know that the smaller the region (DOC, AOC, GI), the more prestigious, unique, and defined a wine is likely to be.

In honor of that thought, I went in search of those tiny “jewel-boxes” of Italian wine, and came up with three of the most fascinating – and entirely tiny – DOCs to be found out of Italy’s total (at least for today) of 332. These three vineyards just happen to be located in Piedmont, however, my search was not limited to Piedmont – it just turned out that way!

I am sure, with their limited production, these wines are difficult to find outside of their native home – but if you have been lucky enough to ever try one of these wines – let us know in the comments below!

Rubino di Cantavenna DOC:   This tiny gem of a DOC, located in the eastern section of Piedmont, has 5 acres (2 hectares) dedicated to vines, and an annual production of just 1,380 cases. The area is part of the lowlands south of the Po River, at the far end of the Monferrato hills. The following communes are permitted to produce Rubino di Cantavenna: Moncestino, Villamiroglio, Camino and Gabiano (which has its own DOC, with slightly different regulations concerning the wine blend, and at 2 acres/1hectare definitely qualifies as its own jewel box of a DOC, but has not produced any wine in the last few years.)

One of the many Medieval towers in Asti

One of the many Medieval towers in Asti

Rubino di Cantavenna is approved for red wines based on the Barbera grape variety. The rules of the DOC mandate that Barbera be 75-90% of the blend, with the remainder (10-25%) being Freisa and/or Gignolino. The wine must be aged approximately 14 months before release.  (To make things difficult, the Disciplinare of Rubino di Cantavenna dictates that the wine must not be released before January 1, of the second year following the vintage.) Wines of the region tend to be pale red in color, with aromas of plum, cherry, blackberry and vanilla, with perhaps a touch of toasty oak. The wine is generally moderate in tannin, bright in acidity, and with a slightly (ever-so-pleasant) bitter tinge at the finish.

Loazzolo DOC: This tiny region claims 5 acres (2 hectares) of vineyards, and produces on average just 425 cases of wine a year. This region produces a sweet, botrytis-affected white wine based on the Moscato grape variety. The vineyards of the Loazzolo DOC overlook the Bormida River, about 15 miles south of the town of Asti on the southern edge of the Moscato d’Asti area.

According to the Disciplinare of Loazzolo the wines must be made with 100% Moscato grapes, and may not be harvested until after September 20. The grapes must be dried on or off the vine, must be affected by botrytis, and ripe enough to give the wine a minimum of 11% alcohol. The finished wine must have a minimum of 5% residual sugar and must be aged for a minimum of 2 years, including 6 months in barrel, before release. Typical descriptors of Loazzolo include Moscato’s “signature” floral, musky, and tropical fruit aromas, as well as vanilla, honey, and rich texture on the palate.

Strevi DOC: Saving the tiniest for last, the Strevi DOC claims just 2 acres (1 hectare) of vineyards, and produced 233 cases of wine in 2012.  Located in the town of Strevi, located on the eastern edge of the Moscato d’Asti area and bounded to the east by the Bormida River, Strevi was awarded its DOC in 2005. According to the Disciplinare of Strevi, grapes used for Strevi DOC wine must be grown in “vineyards on hilly, sunny ridges with clay soils based on marl and limestone.”

Summer landscape in Strevi

Summer landscape in Strevi

The grapes must be 100% Moscato and the wine must be produced in the passito style, with a minimum alcohol content of 12.5% and two years of required aging. All of these factors combine to make Strevi DOC a rich, golden-yellow wine with amber flecks, richly aromatic with notes of candied citrus, apple, sweet spices and honey, rich and sweet on the palate – and a fantastic match for foie gras, cheese, or apple-based desserts.

 

Thanks to our friends at Italian Wine Central for the acreage and production statistics!

Post authored by Jane A. Nickles, CSS, CWE – your SWE Blog Administrator

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Guest Post: Traveling in time at Château De Laubade Armagnac

IMG_0241Today we have a guest post from Hoke Harden, CSS, CWE. Hoke is well-known to SWE members as one of the contributors to the original CSS Study Guide and a popular (and highly-rated) conference speaker. Hoke invites us to travel back in time with a visit to Château de Laubade in Armagnac, and taste France’s oldest brandy, made by time-honored traditions now codified into law.

Located in the departement of Gers in the Gascogne region of south-west France, situated in the verdant rolling foothills of the Midi-Pyrénées, Armagnac hews to the old ways to make a unique rustic and earthy brandy celebrated the world over.

Brandy began here on the many small family farms dotted across the landscape. Thrifty landholders naturally cultivated wine grapes amongst their other crops so good, basic drinking wine could grace their tables. Eventually, the wine found its way into brandy—although most of the farms were too modest to have their own distillery and each year they waited until a local distiller could hitch up his portable still and take it to each farm for custom distillation.

Thus custom and tradition created an agreement on basic methods of brandy production, but allowed, even encouraged, a fiercely independent style by each small-batch producer, since most of the brandy would remain for family consumption, unlike its famous northern neighbor, Cognac, which was focused primarily on commercial exports. Today, the commercial houses of Armagnac remain fairly small concerns, with each having its own way of doing things, but all bound by the officiating body of the Bureau National Interprofessionel du Armagnac.

IMG_0242Château De Laubade, located in the tiny village of Sorbets in the Bas-Armagnac AOC, is a storybook picture of a place, with its gated entrance, sturdy round tower and ancient mottled brick buildings leading to a fanciful Normandy-style chateau from 1870 perched on a hill to view the sweeping expanse of vineyards in the valley below.

These well-tended vineyards are essential, for only they are used for Château De Laubade’s Armagnacs. After the upheavals of phylloxera and oidium that devastated French vineyards, Armagnac recovered and settled in with several approved varieties, but at Laubade, only the four key varieties are allowed: Ugni Blanc, known in Italy as Trebbiano, a workhorse grape;  Folle Blanche, a delicate and floral variety that is susceptible to rot and difficult to farm; Baco Blanc, a French-American hybrid cross between Folle Blanche and Noah intended to give the character of Folle Blanche without the problems; and Columbard, which in this terroir provides impressively spicy and herbal characters to the blend.

Each year the varieties are harvested, fermented, distilled and barreled individually, to be aged and blended by the master distiller into the various Armagnacs the estate produces.

Originally, all distillation in Armagnac was done in a pot-and-column continuous copper still , an alembic Armagnacais, so only one distillation was required to gain sufficient alcohol strength and clarity. Today, any type of distillation is permissible; most distillers use the traditional method, others use the alembic double-distillation approach, depending upon style preferences.

IMG_0240Another traditional touch comes in with the choice of barrel. The Armagnacais traditionally prefer initial aging, from six months to a year, in a local black oak heavy in tannin from the nearby forest of Monlezun, then transferring the eau-de-vie to lighter, finer-grained, and older, more subtle toasted oak barrels from such sources as Limousin and Tronçais for continued but more elegant development.

The minimum aging to be designated Armagnac is one year, but most are blends of much, much older brandies to create the various VSOP, Reserve, XO, Hors d’Age and other well-matured designations.  Armagnac has also continued the tradition of maintaining single-vintage and single-variety releases, with the proviso that any single-vintage must be a minimum of ten years in barrel prior to release.

To maintain blending stocks, and to retard the loss of precious alcohol through evaporation in barrel, when a brandy has gained all it can from the barrel, it is racked into large bulbular glass demi-johns, which are then placed in the most revered cellar location, referred to as Le Paradis—Paradise.  These will be doled out in miniscule amounts and used judiciously to enhance new blends with added depth and nuance.

In one of the more remarkable tastings I have been fortunate enough to enjoy, a master distiller at Chateau de Laubade took me through three levels of sampling.

IMG_0246First, he provided four samples of eau-de-vie from the 2013 vintage which had received no barrel treatment: Ugni Blanc, Baco Blanc, Folle Blanche and Columbard. The differences among the ‘naked’ eau-de-vies were immediate, impressive and actually somewhat startling. The Ugni Blanc was lean, tight, mineral, and tartly, astringently acidic. The Baco was the reverse of that coin, rich, earthy, full in the mouth and expansive. The Folle Blanche was wonderfully floral, light, and bright and lively.  And the Columbard was impressively spicy and tangy and strong with herbal coriander-seed aromas.  Even from this rough and undeveloped primal state, one could easily see the wide range of possibilities a blending could take in the hands of a master.

For the second step, the master distiller brought out four more wines—again, the four basic varieties, but this time they were individually barrel-aged samples: an Ugni Blanc and Baco Blanc from the 1994 Vintage, a Columbard from the 1995 vintage, and a Folle Blanche from 2001.

Again, the differences were immediate and amazing. The mature Ugni Blanc had become forceful and deeply colored, but had maintained that almost steely intensity and structure it showed originally. The Baco, on the other hand, had become even richer, more rounded, and significantly more earthy, with an umami-mushroom undertone. The Columbard had deepened and strengthened its herbal-spice focus, tightened its structure, and had become one of the most singularly expressive Columbards I had ever experienced. And the Folle Blanche had developed a lacy, fruit-floral elegance and airiness that was lovely to linger over.  Again, one could consider the infinite possibilities of mingling these creatures into a master blend.

IMG_0258For the last stage of the tasting we strolled over to the chateau and in the midst of the lavishly decorated sitting room, overlooking the vineyards, I was offered my choices of a dazzling array of bottles from the offerings of Château De Laubade.  While wishing I had the fortitude to taste each and every one of these precious mahogany brandies, I restrained myself—with difficulty–to only a few select choices:  an XO with 15 to 25 years of age; an XO l”Intemporel No. 5 with 25-50 years; a vintage 1990; a vintage 1983; and as a finale, a vintage 1942, a brandy I simply could not resist.

The import of the previous tastings varietal tastings became evident , for with these armagnacs I could discern the contribution of the varietal characters as well as the resonance and depth that maturity brought to the marriage.  The firm linear structure of Ugni Blanc was enhanced by Baco’s warm, earthy richness, with the spice-lash of Columbard coming up from below and the lacy aromatics of Folle Blanche wafting above, and all coming together in the center with four made one and sum magnificently greater than parts.

In the two XO’s, differences of age showed clearly. The younger  XO was lighter, brighter, with more citrus and flower and orchard fruit shining clearly, only beginning to show the tinges of oncoming maturity along the edges. The older No. 5 Intemporel, with obvious and welcome richness from Baco, was profoundly deep and brooding, redolent of dried orange peel, savory mince, and prunes vying with old leather, cocoa, and baking spices, and lingered for the longest time.

IMG_0257The 1990 Laubade, a worthy reminder of the worldwide excellence of that vintage, was still bright and lively with apricot fruit, laced with firm acids, and showing the ability to age gracefully for many, many years.  Again, the striking elements of structure, earthiness, spice and flower were all present. Think of the 1990 as an Audrey Hepburn Armagnac: always young, always charming, teasing, enticing and never out of style.

The 1983 Laubade was more abundant, with more heft and weight and substance, with the feeling it was just now beginning to hit its prime. The foundation of Ugni and Baco were clearly there, with the Baco deepening and mellowing, yet, oddly enough, allowing more room for the spicy-herbal Columbard and faint floral perfume of Folle Blanche to “fill in the spaces” seamlessly, showing the pure mastery of the blender’s art coupled with the seasoning of age.

The 1942 Laubade was a quiet work of art, a gentle, soft, round, warm delight. Initially a bit tentative, it warmed and expanded in the mouth, and the post-nasal aromatics effulgently stimulated the senses. There is something profound in a brandy that bridges the years, that connects you to a time before you were born and like an old film or photo album calls up glimpses of things you never experienced.

In 1942 France had been ignominiously conquered by archenemy Germany, had the heart of its country occupied, with the pitiful remainder shoved into Vichy. The devastating war was flaring even higher, spreading all over the world.  Times were still difficult in Gascony but the land endured, as did the people, and there was even guarded optimism for a brighter future. Grapes still had to be harvested, wine made, brandy distilled.

IMG_0262This Armagnac was a sign of that future; made in hard times, perhaps it would be consumed in far better times. Such is the cloaked power of a well-made brandy, made reverent with age.  And such is the power of Château De Laubade Armagnac that 70 years later the brandy remained vibrant and alive – while the distant past was only dull regret and faded memory.

About the author: An enthusiastic lover of wine and spirits, Mr. Harden left a career in academia to follow his other muse for the last 27 years, trekking around the world to the great producing regions. Recently referred to as a veritable walking omnibus of wine and spirits knowledge, he has experienced every possible facet of the world of wine and spirits as a retailer, restaurateur, bartender, buyer, wholesaler, supplier, marketer, critic, writer, competition judge and an educator. He is currently with Elixir Vitae Wine & Spirits Consultants, a member of the Society of Wine Educators, Wine & Spirits Instructor at Mt. Hood Community College, and a Master Instructor with the French Wine Academy.

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Guest Post: Onward to Trentino

Frescoed palazzo in Trento

Frescoed palazzo in Trento

Today, we have another guest post from New York Wine Educator Paul Poux, CSW, as he finishes his trip to Italy with a wine tour through Trentino!  Click here to read about the first part of his trip.

Trento – what a beautiful, impressive town, stuffed full of handsome Medieval palazzi, many of them frescoed – on the outside! After several days in chilly Alto Adige, we had returned to the Italy that we knew, and basked in the warmer temperatures and cheery “Buongiornos!” that we realized had been absent in the north.

That night, at a casual pizzeria alongside a piece of the Medieval city’s old wall, I only saw three wines on the menu, all by the glass: a white, red, and a Franciacorta. I of course ordered the Franciacorta, but what arrived was Trento DOC, a local product, and like Franciacorta, a traditional method sparkling. Its fine bubbles and Trento origin felt perfectly right to me – more so since I had a tasting the next day at the Trento DOC offices.

Schloss Tirolo

Schloss Tirolo

It’s actually “Trentodoc,” one word without spaces, explains Sabrina Schench, the director of promotion. I compliment her on the name since I think it’s a clever way to refer to itself. “It doesn’t sound like we are a doctor?” she asks uncertainly.

Awarded its DOC in 1993, two years before Franciacorta, Trentodoc has its vineyard zones in the cooler hills above Trento and allowed grapes are Chardonnay, Pinot Nero and Pinot Meunier, with Chardonnay dominant.  Trentodoc offerings range from non-vintage Brut aged at least 18 months on the lees to 24 months for Vintage brut to at least 36 months for a Riserva.

I tasted 15 brut and brut zero (“dosaggio zero”) wines dating back as far as 2004 and amidst the stream of what Trentodoc calls “tiny and persistent” bubbles I found neutral aromas but in many a delicious flavor of golden delicious apples. Why was I chasing Franciacorta when I had discovered a unique and refined wine right here in Trento?

Trentodoc tasting lineup

Trentodoc tasting lineup

Trentodoc produces 7 million bottles that are mostly consumed within Italy. They are outgunned in the promotion game by Franciacorta (14 million bottles) and by Prosecco (245 million) and they know it. They are planning outreach to parts of the US market in 2015 and realize it is going to take time. But to show me what is possible within Italy, they sent me to Ferrari.

Giulio Ferrari was the first to make traditional method sparkling wine in the area, over 100 years ago. He visited and studied Champagne’s methods and planted the first cuttings he brought back. His sparkling production stayed small until he sold to the Lunelli family in 1952.

Ferrari’s subsequent success has inspired almost 40 other Trentodoc producers but Ferrari is the largest, at 5 million bottles responsible for 70% of Trentodoc production.

Cantine Ferrari

Cantine Ferrari

The visitors’ center for Cantine Ferrari announces that it is not just a winery but something approaching a fashion brand. Red carpet runways lead past photo collages of boldface names enjoying Ferrari Trentodoc: Donatella Versace, Jessica Alba, Woody Allen, Andy Warhol, even Margaret Thatcher.

Camilla Lunelli, a member of the family who have owned Ferrari since 1952, is warm and welcoming. She assures us that it is a Ferrari Trentodoc, not Franciacorta, that is served at the official residence of the President of the Italian Republic, and to the Italian national soccer team.

I tasted four of Ferrari’s offerings, from the Ferrari Brut NV ($25), with a characteristic green apple flavor, to the Riserva Lunelli 2004 ($60 but not commonly available in the US), aged 8 years, that possessed remarkable earthy and umami aromas.

Why do Americans not know more about Ferrari and about Trentodoc?

Lunelli says the answer is somewhat complicated: “First we have to say what we are not. We are not Champagne. We are not Franciacorta. And we are not Prosecco.”

Pauls headshotOur guest blogger, Paul Poux, CSW, finds joy in combining food, wine and travel. Paul provides wine education ‘experiences’  to Millennials for wine brands and regions; and does marketing and sponsor management for food and wine festivals around the country.

Paul’s favorite wines are Amarone and Muscadet. Tell him yours at paul@pouxcompany.com

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Guest Post: Hiking and Sipping Through Alto Adige

Lago di Resia

Lago di Resia

Today we have a guest post from New York Wine Educator Paul Poux, CSW. Paul was lucky enough to take a summertime trip to Italy’s northernmost wine regions, and he is letting us come along for the ride! Read on for Paul’s fascinating account of this trip to Alto Adige and beyond:

I was determined to not drink Pinot Grigio until my trip to Alto-Adige.

Wouldn’t I have my fill of it then? It was the wine I recognized most from the region. Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige, with its mineral zing, was refreshing in the New York summer heat. It kept showing up at home, in our monthly wine club shipment and in the trips my dog (and husband) would make to Trader Joe’s NYC store. Our upstate NY store carried 4 wines from Trentino-Alto Adige, all whites, 2 of them Pinot Grigio. And the most recognized Pinot Grigio in the US, Santa Margherita, is from the region.

But when I got to the Alto-Adige, and then Trentino, I saw little Pinot Grigio in stores and on wine lists. The regional website, AltoAdigeWines.com, barely mentions the varietal.

What gives?

I had already had my wine world knowledge tweaked my first night in Milan, at a local trattoria. I chose a Franciacorta from the list, which, when in Milan, is a locally sourced wine from Lombardy. I love sparkling wine and had only had Franciacorta DOCG, once. It was the first night in Italy and I felt like celebrating! But what arrived was not bubbly but a still white wine. The menu had read “Franciacorta,” but the bottle said, “Curtefranca DOC.” I later learned that the Curtefranca DOC was created in 2008 for still whites and reds, to prevent just this sort of confusion. Luckily this Curtefranca Bianco from Ca’ del Bosco, one of the most famous producers in the region, was comforting and cool.

Kellerei Bolzano

Kellerei Bolzano

The next day we drove to Alto-Adige, in a blinding rainstorm coupled with the stop-and-go traffic expected on a Saturday in late July, what the Italians call the “esodo d’estivo” – the summer exodus. The swollen Adige River raced alongside the Autostrada and through sheets of rain I could see the vertical cliffs of the Dolomites. The Dolomite Mountains are compressed coral reefs, rich in calcium and acidity. Grapevines in Guyot and pergola formation cover the valley floor and stretch above in steep terraces, from 600 to 3,300 feet above sea level. Apple orchards and castles perched on hillsides fill in the few remaining spaces. As we ascended into the mountains, the rain abated, then stopped. The Dolomites form rings around parts of the region and we could see storm clouds hovering on the far side of the mountains, not able to advance. During our trip, we received very little rain, while the rest of Northern Italy had storms day after day. Some growing areas in the region receive 300 days of sunshine a year.

Our hotel was in the village of Tirolo, about an hour northwest of Bolzano, the capital. Tirolo gave the town and the entire region its name: Alto-Adige is called Südtirol in German. Alto-Adige was part of Austria until 1918, and it is still Italy in name only. The primary language is German. The food, such as the bread dumplings called knodel, is Austrian. All the tourists were from Germany. The architecture is picture-perfect “Sound of Music,” chalet-style houses with colorful flowers spilling out of balcony windowboxes. In every village, spotless cobbled streets frame beautiful clock towers that ring on the quarter-hour, all day and all night.  Not great if you are trying to sleep, but it means you don’t miss breakfast, either.

Hiking the Dolomites

Hiking the Dolomites

Dinner that night was – finally – an introduction to two of the wines of the region. A perfumed Gerwürztraminer from Cantina Tramin glittered gold in our glasses as the sun set. The town of Tramin claims the grape originated there. It was lower in acid and left a slight bitterness on my tongue. Our next wine, an inky Lagrein Riserva from Cantina Meran, showed black fruit, tobacco and some chocolate. It took me a while to learn to pronounce it as the locals do, la-GRYNE. This was my first good taste of this full-bodied wine from an indigenous grape, and I loved it, although it too was low in acidity, and slightly bitter on the finish.

The next day was spent hiking, where we had our introduction to a “rifugio” hut. These are located way up the mountains and are a destination for hikers, who can eat lunch or stay overnight. I was imagining a one-room shack staffed by an elderly couple who would share their cheese and charcuterie; so I was delighted when we arrived at a modern restaurant overlooking a mountain lake and surrounded by waterfalls and patches of snow. We ordered lunch and a bottle of Vernatsch, the indigenous varietal that accounts for 20% of Alto-Adige’s wine output. This wine (called Schiava in Italian and Trollinger in Germany) is Maraschino cherry-colored with strong candied fruit aromas. When sniffing it I was sure it was semi-sweet but it’s a dry wine, served chilled. It seems not to be taken very seriously except by its producers, but it proved a perfect pairing with my knodel soup. It felt good to be eating and drinking, not hiking. Two of the many dogs in the restaurant started barking at each other. We made friends with others at our farmer’s table. All was good at the top of the mountain.

Alto Adige has 8 DOCs and no DOCGs, and 75% of its output carries the “Südtirol” DOC designation, stamped on the label and on the top of the capsule, a great regional branding technique. Varietal name(s) are usually added to the label.

Piazza Walther in Bolzano

Piazza Walther in Bolzano

The day we descended from our fairy-tale village to visit Bolzano, we were almost sorry: this pretty, cheery town was crowded with vacationers and the line to see Otzi, the preserved Neolithic man recovered in 1991 from a retreating glacier, wound around the block.  So we walked, visited the local Medieval castle, and visited wineries since grapevines are strung in and around Bolzano. Vineyards planted in the local soils of quartz porphyry produce high-quality Lagrein, which is becoming the ‘it’ wine of the region, supplanting other grapes and even apple orchards. But at Kellerei Bozen and other cooperatives, and at the many wineries on the “Strada del Vino dell’Alto Adige,” a range of wines is on offer, not just LaGrein, Vernatsch and Gewürtztraminer but accomplished Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, and commonly a blend of all three; Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon; and traditional red blends and blends that incorporate Lagrein.  But I hardly saw Pinot Grigio: I don’t think much of it is consumed locally.

But it was time for a palate cleanser. We were ready to head south to Trentino and its capital, Trento. To follow us along on our trek, tune back in tomorrow and we’ll take you on a tour of Trentino!

 

Pauls headshotOur guest blogger, Paul Poux, CSW, finds joy in combining food, wine and travel. Paul provides wine education ‘experiences’  to Millennials for wine brands and regions; and does marketing and sponsor management for food and wine festivals around the country.

Paul’s favorite wines are Amarone and Muscadet. Tell him yours at paul@pouxcompany.com

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Guest Post – On the Weinstrasse: Pfalz

Today we have a guest post from Houston-based Wine Educator James Barlow, CS, CWE. James’ article describes an amazing trip he recently took along the Wine Route in the Palantinate. Read on!

Old Town Neustadt

Old Town Neustadt

Nestled comfortably in the Haardt Hills, which is an extension of France’s Vosges Mountains, is the exquisite town of Neustadt. The town happens to be the central point for the 85-kilometer long German Wine Route (“Weinstrasse”) through the Palantinate.  I recently spent two weeks in this fascinating area.

Established in 1935, this is the oldest of the German wine routes. The ‘trail’ is a windy road that delivers you past many of the great wineries and famous vineyard sites throughout the region. The Weinstrasse has the most expansive array of vineyards that I have ever encountered.  The drive is breathtaking as it winds through historic wine villages such as Forst and Bad Durkenheim, which holds the largest wine festival in the world.

The picturesque Haardt hills and Palatinate forest provide a stunning backdrop for the various varietals grown in the Pfalz. The trail starts right near the French border of Alsace with the symbolic German Wine Gate in the town of Schweigen-Rechtenbach.  It is made of sandstone which is also the main soil structure throughout the Weinstrasse.  There is a

The Wine Gate in Schweigen-Rechtenbach

The Wine Gate in Schweigen-Rechtenbach

rather unique tasting room with an abundance of excellent wine to sample and buy.  The trail ends at the House of the German Wine Route in Bockenheim an der Weinstrasse.  The Rhine River flows lazily through the area as it continues onward through Germany.

One common theme with the wine of the Pfalz was that most of the wines were Trocken (dry). The typical American consumer often has a stigma with German wines thinking that they are all syrupy sweet and uncomplicated.  The Pfalz wines are quite the opposite with most being dry and deliciously complex.  The reason that dry wines are common throughout this region is that it is one of the hottest in Germany and therefore the grapes can ripen to a greater degree.  The ensuing wines created can range from off dry to completely bone dry.

I had the distinct pleasure of traveling the entirety of the Weinstrasse as well finding quaint towns a little off the main road. St. Martin was one such town that we decided to visit.  Our guide’s favorite winery, Weingut Egidiushof, was located here and recommended that we try the wines.  The town’s name came from the huge sandstone church of St. Martin, with its statue of the saint overlooking the town.

The people of Weingut Egidiushof were very hospitable as we sat down in the small tasting room to try a plethora of selections such as Silvaner, Riesling, and Muller Thurgau. The whites had a common theme as all of them had a distinct tropical fruit bouquet, were un-oaked, and had good acidity. They produced some delightfully light reds with the Blauer Portugieser being the best of the bunch.  It, in fact, was the wine that we drank while watching Germany eliminate Argentina in the World Cup Final.  The wine was light bodied (like a Pinot Noir) with an easy acidity and vibrant fresh red fruits that reminded me of a Cru Beaujolais.

The Wine Village of Wachenheim

The Wine Village of Wachenheim

The crown jewel winery of the entire trip was actually in the Haardt hills of Neustadt. The winery was called Muller Catoir.  It is managed by 9th generation owner Philipp David Catoir (pronounced Kat wah) and the vineyards have been in the family since 1774. Muller Catoir is part of the VDP system in Germany.  This system holds the wineries to a higher standard of quality which include lower yields and typically hand harvesting.The quality wines at this winery were second to none.

The wine maker, Martin Franzen, is from the Mosel and makes a true effort to showcase terroir and varietal character. Five wines were tasted, starting with the Haardt Dry Riesling 2013. It showed an abundance of tropical fruit with vivacious acidity.  The Haardt Muskateller (Muscat a Petite Grains) 2013 was brilliant and a wine to seek out for summer.  My personal favorite was the Haardt Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir) 2012 which offered sleek acidity to pair with the delicious bright fruits and just a kiss of oak.  Spätburgunder is beginning to gain traction in the wine world with low yield, boutique wines that can rival Burgundy in quality.  The most interesting was the dessert wine Herzog Rieslaner Trockenbeerenauslese 2007.

The Hambach Castle and Vineyard

The Hambach Castle and Vineyard

Rieslaner is a cross of Silvaner and Riesling that is highly susceptible to Noble Rot. There is very little Rieslaner in the world and this vineyard is nestled in the Haardt hills, so a TBA wine is not able to be produced every vintage.  This wine was exceptional and rivaled the sticky Selection de Grains Nobles wines of Alsace.  The Haardt Riesling Kabinett 2013 was a surprise.  It had just a touch of residual sugar, but the wine was perfectly balanced by the backbone of acidity.  The minerality came to the forefront and gave the wine a striking personality.  All in all, Muller Catoir is a winery that is offering whites and reds of impressive quality that should be sought out.

Just outside of Neustadt in Wachenheim was another excellent producer called Weingut Dr. Burklin-Wolf. This winery is considered one of the three main quality wineries of note known as The Three B’s, the others being Von Buhl and Basserman-Jordan. Dr. Burklin-Wolf had excellent Rieslings that had definite aging potential, especially in the 2013 vintage.  The best of the selections tasted was the Wachenheim Altenburg Riesling 2013 which showed powerful acidity with precise citrus fruits and exquisite minerality.

The Pfalz wine country is an experience that one should definitely seek out if in Germany. The history and sheer volume of vineyards are enough to make a wine lover immediately start to geek out.  I had the pleasure of trying several wines like a Schwarzriesling Rosé

Neustadt, on the Wine Route in the Palatinate

Neustadt, on the Wine Route in the Palatinate

and Rubin Cuvee Halbtrocken Sparkling that I have never seen in the states.  The abundance of wineries throughout the wine road could keep any interested traveler busy for weeks.

Many can say that they have traveled through Paris, Champagne, and Burgundy, but how many can boast a trip through the picturesque Weinstrasse? I am thankful that I can.

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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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!

Click here to return to the SWE Website.

 

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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