The Ancestor Vines of Barossa

Photo by Stephan Ridgway

Photo by Stephan Ridgway

Old vines…for many of us, the term “old vine” implies that a wine is produced from grapes grown on a grapevine of more than 20, or 50, or 100 years of age (the exact number depending on where exactly the vineyard is and your point of view), and that the fruit, having been painstakingly ripened by a grizzled old vine, will be exceptionally rich, concentrated, and complex.

While I am sure most wine aficionados would agree with that purposefully vague description, the truth remains that “old vine” (or vieilles vignes, as the French say) remains a largely unregulated and undefined wine term. After all, a lot depends on context. If you grow grapes in Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Jerez, the idea of “old” might actually start at about the half-century mark. On the other hand, if you grow grapes in the Canterbury Plains or Elkton, Oregon, you might start to think of your vines as “old timers” once the hit 20 years old.

One thing that just about everyone can agree upon, however, is that the older vines of the world need to be protected, respected, and – in the best of all possible worlds – documented and substantiated. To this end, Australia’s Barossa Grape and Wine Association, which has over 500 grape growers and claims to have more old vines than any other region in the world, has taken steps to do so. After all, as Ron “The Dirtman” Gibson, of Gibson Wines in the Barossa says, “Old vines aren’t good because they’re old, they’re old because they are good.”

Photo by Verita Photography

Photo by Verita Photography

The organization has released what might be one of the only specific definitions of the term “old vine” in the wine-making world. Although these terms  are not regulated by the Australian Government, nor are the approved as “official” wine descriptors, this is at least a good first step in understanding and honoring the areas “old vines.”

The classifications of Barossa’s old vines are as follows:

  • Old Vines: 35 years old or over
  • Survivor Vines: 70 years old or over
  • Centenarian Vines: 100 years old or over
  • Ancestor Vines: 125 years old or over

The Barossa Grape and Wine Association has also published the “Barossa Old Vine Charter,” a declaration of sorts intended to protect and recognize the region’s oldest vines, some of which date back to 1909 or earlier and are to be considered part of Australia’s living history. The organization also keeps a Barossa Vineyards Register, which details the vineyards of the area by grape variety and by age.  The Barossa Vineyards Register, and the Barossa Old Vine Charter can be found on the Barossa Grape and Wine Association’s website. An excellent overview of the different categories of the Barossa’s old vine classifications can be found on the website of the Barossa’s Langmeil Winery.

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

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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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And Then There Were 12: Paso Robles Gets 11 Sub-appellations

Map via PasoWine.com

Map via PasoWine.com

In a week of AVA-shuffling galore, the TTB announced today via the Federal Register that 11 new AVAS, all of them sub-regions of the Paso Robles AVA, have been approved. The AVAs will be “official” one month from today, on November 10th, 2014.

The petition for the 11 sub-regions was originally filed in 2007. The petition turned out to be the longest and most detailed proposal ever filed with the TTB, due to the scale of the proposal and the depth of the information need to support each individual AVA.

A close inspection of the climate data surrounding each new AVA shows the diversity of the region – average annual rainfall ranges from 11 to 29 inches, elevations range from 600 to 2,400 feet above sea level, and climate regions II to IV are represented.

The 11 new AVAs, all sub-appellations of the Paso Robles AVA, are as follows:

  • El Pomar District – Climate Region II, 740-1,600 feet in elevation, average of 15 inches rainfall.
  • At the Justin Winery in Paso Robles

    At the Justin Winery in Paso Robles

    Paso Robles Willow Creek District - Climate Region II, 950 – 1,900 feet in elevation, average of 24-30 inches rainfall.

  • Santa Margarita Ranch – Climate Region II, 900 – 1,400 feet in elevation, average of 29 inches rainfall.
  • Templeton Gap District - Climate Region II, 700 – 1,800 feet in elevation, average of 20 inches rainfall.
  • Adelaida District – Climate Region II-III, 900 – 2,200 feet in elevation, average of 26 inches rainfall.
  • Creston District – Climate Region III, 1,100 – 2,000 feet in elevation, average of 11.5 inches of rainfall.
  • Paso Robles Estrella District – Climate Region III, 745 – 1,800 feet in elevation, average of 14 inches of rainfall.
  • San Miguel District – Climate Region III, 580 – 1,600 feet in elevation, average of 11 inches of rainfall.
  • San Juan Creek – Climate Region III-IV, 980 – 1,600 feet in elevation, average of 10 inches of rainfall.
  • Paso Robles Geneseo District – Climate Region III-IV, 740 – 1,300 feet in elevation, average of 13 inches of rainfall.
  • Paso Robles Highlands District – Climate Region IV, 1,600 – 2,086 feet in elevation, average 12 inches of rainfall.

Map of Paso Robles and sub-appellations, climate data via PasoWine.com

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

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A New AVA in Mendocino County!

Map of the proposed (now approved) Eagle Peak Mendocino County AVA, from the TTB's original docket (see link below)

Map of the proposed (now approved) Eagle Peak Mendocino County AVA, from the TTB’s original docket (see link below)

Not even one day old….today – October 9, 2014 – the Federal Register published a new rule establishing the 21,000 acre Eagle Peak Mendocino County AVA.

This new AVA, which will become “official” one month from today, is located entirely within the North Coast AVA – it is not, however, located within the Mendocino AVA, nor is it a subregion of the Mendocino AVA.

The Eagle Peak Mendocino County AVA is located adjacent to, and to the west of the eastern “wing” of the Mendocino AVA. As a matter of fact, the Mendocino AVA and one of its subregions, the Redwood Valley AVA, both had their boundaries moved. Each had its acreage reduced by about 1,500 acres. This was to eliminate any overlaps, and because the TTB was convinced that the area in question has more in common, terroir-wise (and especially climate-wise) with the newly-approved area than it has with its former parents.

Here are a few more things you might want to know about the Eagle Peak Mendocino County AVA:

  • The name of the AVA was approved as “Eagle Peak Mendocino County” as opposed to just “Eagle Peak” for good reason: while a 2,700-foot high mountain known as “Eagle Peak” is indeed a major feature of the region, there just so happen to be 47 other mountains in the US that are named “Eagle Peak.”
  • mendocino-fogAnother reason the long version of the name was required for approval is that there was some concern that an AVA named “Eagle Peak” might confuse consumers, and/or might infringe upon the “Eagle Peak Merlot” brand produced by Fetzer Vineyards.
  • The new AVA is located 125 miles north of San Francisco. The nearest city in this mountainous region is Ukiah; the AVA is situated about 10 miles north and slightly to the west of Ukiah.
  • There are currently at least five commercial vineyards operating in the area, with a total of just over 115 acres of vines.
  • The region’s many streams feed into the headwaters of the Russian River, which flows through Mendocino and Sonoma Counties on its journey to the Pacific Ocean.
  • Soils are shallow and composed of mainly sandstone and shale.
  • The typical climate conditions of the area include: marine fog and breezes, cool temperatures in the spring, warm-to-hot summers and gusty winds.

For more information, including all of the details on the Federal docket, click here.

For a shortcut to the map submitted with the application, click here.

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

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Guest Post: The Romance of Scotch Whisky

FiveToday we have a guest post from Spirits Educator Russ Kempton, CSS. Russ shares with  us some of what he learned about Scotch whisky during his five trips to Scotland!

Impersonal – that’s how I would describe most of the distilleries in the world.  However, the opposite is true for the distilleries located in Scotland. Do other regions and countries have long and just as distinguished history in producing distilled spirits? – Yes; but I feel that for the romance and the mythology, there are none like the Scotch whisky distilleries.

Rugged, rustic, and remote outposts describe most of Scotland’s distilleries in operation today, not one alike and all unique. Scotland’s unique, complicated, eco-system produces exceptional, tradition-rich whiskies. Due to this environment, Scotch whisky is among the most diverse spirits in the world.

Since the mid 1800’s, the debate among whisky drinkers has been which type of Scotch whisky is the complete spirit – single malts or blends? Single malts epitomize the distilleries signature as to what can be produced at a single distillery, while the blended whiskies style come from the vision of the Blending Houses.

OneTo be classified as a single malt Scotch, these requirements must be met; distilled from 100% malted barley, a product of one distillery, produced exclusively in Scotland, aged a minimum of 3 years in oak barrels, and placed into the bottle at no less than 80 proof or 40 alcohol by volume. Single Malt Scotch has three basic ingredients; malted barley, water and yeast with the color coming from the oak during maturation.

Blended Scotch will come from whisky produced at many distilleries with the majority (average 60%) being distilled from various grains such as unmalted barley, maize, and wheat. The grain whisky in the blend must be aged a minimum of three years and aged to the label year, if the blend carries an age. The remainder of the blend will contain, on average, approximately 35 to 40 single malts.

Blended Scotch of higher quality and price will carry a higher concentration of single malts in the blend. Blends on the opposite end of the scale will carry more grain bringing the quality and price down. The blender wants their whisky to be consistent for their loyal consumers. For this reason, they strive to produce a whisky which has a distinguishable quality and characteristic.

FourMany Scotch whisky distilleries are located in the mountains or glens, near rivers, lochs, or along the coast. The four seasons and weather in the areas will affect the barley, fermentation, distillation, and maturation at the distillery. During maturation the oak barrels and casks “breathe” the local air simply because the barrels are watertight but not air tight. For example, whisky aged in warehouses by the sea will pick up definite maritime qualities, therefore affecting the finished whisky and giving it the signature from that specific region.

There are five steps to a finished product: malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation, and maturation.

MALTING: Barley is germinated during this step, converting the starches into fermentable sugars. It is then arrested by drying the barley in a kiln, usually over a peat fire, for 24 – 36 hours.  The longer in the kiln, the more smoke influence in the finished product. Peat is simply decomposed plant life, usually heather. Before being used in the kiln, the peat is pressed and dried.

MASHING: The dried grain, now known as malt, is milled into a coarse flour called grist. The grist is then mixed with hot water in a mash-tun where the conversion of starch into sugar is completed. This sugary liquid is now known as wort. The wort is next transferred into huge vats (washbacks) for fermentation.

FthreeERMENTATION: Yeast (unique to each distillery) is added to wort.  The sugars in the wort are converted into a low-proof alcohol known as wash.  This process takes 48 – 72 hours (average), some distilleries fermentation cycles are lower or higher.

DISTILLATION: The Wash is put in copper pot stills and distilled twice. The first distillation is the wash still with the spirit vaporizing, condensing to produce low wines. The second distillation in the spirit still consists of three cuts; only the middle- the heart- of the run is pure enough for maturation. The usable spirit is called “new make spirit” and sent on for maturation.

MATURATION: The new make spirit is aged in oak barrels or casks for a minimum of three years and starts to pick up its color and flavor profile. A ten-year maturation or longer period is typical for single malts of high quality. During aging, 1% – 3% of the spirit will evaporate each year; this is simply known as the “angel’s share”. Oak barrels or casks play a significant role during maturation; as much as 60% of the whisky’s flavor comes from the wood influence. Some distilleries use only sherry casks in their maturation process; however the vast majority will use used bourbon or Tennessee whiskey barrels since bourbon and Tennessee whiskey can only be produced in new charred oak barrels.

TwoThe Scots in the whisky industry are highly dedicated to their heritage, passionate about quality and committed to excellence.  All of this magic is fused from three basic ingredients, time, place, and environment.

Slainte Mhath! (pronounced Slan-Je-Va) – meaning “good health to yours” in Gaelic.

Russ Kempton, CSS, is a Distilled Spirits Educator conducting spirits education, training, seminars, tastings, events, dinners, and consulting throughout the United States. He also holds the Certificate of Expertise in the Sales & Service of Scotch Whisky, received in Edinburgh on one of his 5 journeys to Scotland.

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Guest Post: The Resurgence of Geek Wines!

geek winesToday we have a guest post from Houston Wine Educator James Barlow, CS, CWE. James shares with us how its a great time to be in the wine business!

It is a great time to be in the wine industry in the United States.  American consumers are more educated and adventurous than they have ever been.  There is now a willingness to step outside the box when buying wine which shows a changing of the guard is in progress.   The newer consumers are starting to seek out ‘geek wines’ rather than buying the standard Cabernet, Chardonnay, or Merlot.

As a Wine Professional, it is my job to guide the customer into a bottle that will not only give them pleasure, but also expand their palate and open up their eyes to new experiences with wine.  I have found that this is becoming easier because customers are now seeking me out and asking the question that every wine geek loves to hear:  Sell me a wine that I have never tried.  When I hear these lovely words, inevitably, my mind starts racing with varietals that are off the beaten path.  These are some of the wines that are starting to gain traction in the US market that consumers and sommeliers alike are starting to ‘Geek Out’ on.

geek wines 2One such varietal is Assyrtiko.  This eclectic varietal is catching on like wild fire in the wine community.  It is a dry to bone dry grape that has become famous for its smoky characteristics from the volcanic Island of Santorini.  The wine is quite versatile as it may be oaked or (more often) un-oaked.  Assyrtiko has been called the most terroir driven wine in the world.  It has bracing acidity and with citrus lemon lime and yellow apples flavors that are compounded by earthy minerals such as ash, flint, lava and gun smoke.  Warmer vintages allow for more stone fruits to come forward in the flavor profile.  The finish on the wine is typically clean and somewhat haunting.  It is becoming popular due to its fuller body which allows the wine to pair well with numerous dishes.

Sauvignon Blanc drinkers are also looking for something new, which gives me an opportunity to show off some obscure grapes that have similar characteristics.   Sylvaner (Silvaner) is one such grape that is starting to become popular from Germany, Austria, or France.  In fact, Silvaner has gained so much traction that in 2006 Alsace gave the varietal Grand Cru status in the vineyard of Zotzenberg.  I had the pleasure of trying several versions of this varietal while traveling through the Pfalz this past summer.  I was stunned at the beauty and terroir that these wines exuded.   The varietal is usually un-oaked and high in acid, yet the grape is fairly neutral so the characteristics of the soil really sing in the ensuing wine.  In Germany, Weingut Hans Wirsching Silvaner from Franken is producing stellar Silvaner that is worth seeking out.  This zingy white is best known for being grown in the Rheinhessen or the Palatinate (Pfalz).  While Austria is most likely its original home, only minimal acreage is devoted to the grape now, but is high quality and deliciously dry when one can find it.

geek wines 4Light, refreshingly whites are becoming the trend, leaving the heavy, oaky Chardonnays in the dust.  Melon de Bourgogne is one such varietal that is famously known to be produced in the region of Muscadet in the Loire Valley on the coast of France facing the Atlantic Ocean.  It can really thrive in the schistous soils of the region.  The grape is rarely blended with other varietals thus keeping the purity of the flavor profile.  One process used to enhance complexity in Muscadet is ‘Sur Lie’ aging.  This process is implemented by leaving the wine on the dead yeast cells which gives the wine a nutty, creamy complexity that softens the acids, adds richness and often just a hint of sparkle to the finished wine.  Over 80% of all production comes from Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine; these wines are meant for early consumption and pair perfectly with light seafood dishes.

Rose’s sales are exploding, yet some drinkers still prefer red wines.  Grignolino, which means grape seeds, is an Italian red grape that can often be a bridge between the two styles.  One can find Grignolino in California (Heitz makes an excellent Rose), but it is primarily found in the Piedmont region of Italy.  The wine is pale red and borders on Rose in color.  It has medium to high acidity and light to medium tannins.  Its profile shows sour bing cherries and raspberry with hints of minerality throughout the core.  It is meant to be drunk young and slightly chilled, which is perfect for the hot summer weather.  I open a bottle of Grignolino every Thanksgiving because it pairs perfectly with fowl.  A top producer is Marchesi Incisa Della Rocchetta.

geek wines 1Several geeky red wines are now coming into the spotlight.  I have been quite surprised and ecstatic to see interest in the lightly sweet sparkling wines of Bugey Cerdon.    Bugey Cerdon is fully sparkling and made mostly from Gamay (Beaujolais) and Poulsard.  The wine is produced Methode Ancestrale which skips the disgorgement step and allows the wine to naturally finish fermentation in the bottle.  This method typically will have residual sugars left over.  Bugey Cerdon pairs wonderfully with softer chocolates or fresh fruits.  Bottex is a small producer that is making high quality wine from Savoie.

Wine Professionals have found an alternative to the high priced reds of Burgundy with Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) from Germany.  Burgundy has had several very high quality vintages, yet dangerously low yield in the past several years.  This has allowed Spätburgunder to come to the fore front in the world of Pinot Noir.  The Pfalz and Rheingau are hot spots where the varietal thrives.  Spätburgunder is usually lightly oaked or aged in a neutral vessel with excellent acidity and light tannins.  The ensuing wines are deliciously vibrant in youth.  Pinot Noir from Germany has proven that it can rival some of the best in the world.  Knipser is one of my favorite producers with their Blauer Spätburgunder.

‘Geeky’ varietals are becoming the trend for wine drinkers to seek out.  It has become hip to be a ‘wine geek’ with knowledge about what is in the bottle.  The American wine drinkers are becoming very savvy shoppers.  I find that it is much easier to steer a potential buyer into something other than the standard varietal and, more importantly, they are coming back for more.  Cheers to the future of the American Wine Geek!

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 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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SWE Takes Minneapolis!

MinneapolisSWE will be hosting a Minneapolis Mini-Conference on Thursday, September 18th! This event will take place at the at The Westin Minneapolis, located at 88 South 6th Street, Minneapolis, MN, 55402.  Sessions will meet in the hotel’s “Manufacturing Room” and will run from 1:00pm to 4:00pm.

The sessions for this mini-con will include:

1:00pm to 2:15pm – Sexy, sensuous and seductive – Now that’s Italian!!! 

Presented by Neill Trimble, CSW – Join us on a romp through the vineyards of Italy where we taste palate titillating wines from Piedmont,  Veneto and Tuscany – among others.  We will recount some fascinating stories such as how Gavi got its name, how Romeo and Juliet had a role to play in Soave and do you know when the first vintage of Brunello was born.  We will reveal this and much, much more!

2:45pm to 4:00pm – The Secret Life of Pinot Noir

  • Presented by Jane A. Nickles, CSS, CWE
  • Pinot Noir…it’s temperamental, it ripens too early, it has thin skin and it’s just Secret life of Pinot Noirplain complicated. It’s been called the heartbreak grape, and we’ve probably all been burned.  At the same time, the  delicious, haunting flavors of a good Pinot Noir – including include cherries, berries, smoke, spice, earthiness, brambles, truffles (and that’s just the beginning) – can inhabit your memory like a permanent smile. Join “Miss Jane” Nickles,  SWE’s Director of Education, for a tasting of some excellent examples of this finicky wine and an exploration of the “secret life” of Pinot Noir.

Members can join us for an incredible day as we taste and learn about wines from around the world. To RSVP, please contact Jessica Morse:  jmorse@societyofwineeducators.org. This event is open and free to all current members of the SWE; non-members may register for a $50 fee.

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Hollywood and Wine

Mission San Diego de Alcalá

Mission San Diego de Alcalá

Southern California might be more famous for sandy beaches than vineyards these days, but it is actually the birthplace of the California wine industry. Back in 1769, long before California was a state, Father Junipero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan missionary, founded the first Catholic mission in California on the site of present-day San Diego.

This new outpost of Christianity, named San Diego de Alcalá, was the first of nine missions Serra would found, stretching from San Diego to modern-day San Francisco.  Up and down the length of what is now the state of California, the Franciscan Fathers gave the area its humble viticultural beginnings by planting the Mission grape for use in sacramental wines.

While many Americans know the story of the California Missions, even dedicated wine lovers might be surprised to learn that commercial winemaking in California also had its origins in the southern end of the state. California’s first commercial wineries were established in what is now Los Angeles as early as the 1820s.

Jean-Louis Vignes, from the Special Collections of the  UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library

Jean-Louis Vignes, from the Special Collections of the
UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library

By 1833, the area was growing Bordeaux varieties brought to the area by Jean-Louis Vignes, a native of the Bordeaux region of France. Vignes named his estate “El Aliso,” in honor of an ancient Sycamore tree growing near the entrance to his property. Known to his neighbors as “Don Luis del Aliso,” Vignes was an adventurer who traveled the world before settling down, planting vineyards, and making wine in southern California.

Many producers following in Vignes’ footsteps, and the area of southern California soon became the largest grape-growing area in the state. However, winemaking in the region was decimated by the dual threats of prohibition and pierce’s disease. Soon, the land in southern California became more valuable to the makers of residential housing, parks, and office buildings than it was to the producers of wine.

However, winemaking still survives in the area today. The South Coast AVA with over 3,000 acres under vine includes parts of the counties of Los Angeles, San Bernadino, San Diego, Orange, and Riverside.  The Temecula Valley AVA, located in Riverside County, currently has over 1,500 acres planted to vine. Smaller plantings are to be found in the Ramona Valley AVA and the San Pasqual Valley AVA (both in San Diego County). The area’s most planted varieties include Zinfandel (including some very old vines), Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah. The area is also becoming increasing known for sturdy Rhône varieties including Petite Sirah and Viognier.

Springtime in the Temecula Valley AVA

Springtime in the Temecula Valley AVA

While not part of the South Coast AVA proper, the area just north of Los Angeles is home to California’s newest (as of mid-2014) AVA, the Malibu Coast AVA, established on July 18, 2014. Upon its approval, the area’s two existing AVAs, Saddle-Rock Malibu and Malibu-Newton Canyon, became sub-appellations of the new Malibu Coast AVA.

Warmer, drier, inland AVAs in Southern California include the Cucamonga Valley AVA, (shared by Riverside and San Bernadino Counties) with just over 1,000 acres of vines. The large Antelope Valley of the High California Dessert AVA, and its tiny neighbors, the Sierra Pelona Valley and the Leona Valley AVAs, are located slightly to the north and east of Los Angeles.

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

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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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