Sunday, August 28, 2016

Iberia's Douro and Duero : One of the World's Great Wine River Valleys

News Flash: Wine Terroir Trumps National Borders

In this article, I'm going to focus on yet another approach to understanding wine for relatively new enthusiasts. For far too long, I've heard wines referred to by their country of origin, as if the national boundaries are the end of the story. I believe the wine producing world needs to be understood without the constraints of national borders and "political maps"....or at least this additional angle should be taken into serious consideration.

When you focus on the concept of "terroir" especially, the regional topography, climate, soil type, and substrata do not know anything about which country they are in. With the exception of Australia and New Zealand who have no land neighbors, there are often adjacent wine producing regions right across the border in the next country. The Iberian peninsula has a couple of clear examples of this. 

In the northern corner of Portugal where Vinho Verde is made, one grape in particular, Alvarinho, is sometimes used to give this popular (mostly white) blend more structure and elegant flavor. It grows very well in the granite laced, high acid soils. Prevailing winds from the Atlantic Ocean to the west introduce an additional saline quality that enhances the effects of mineral deposits beneath the topsoil. This makes the wine extra refreshing, and a natural to pair with fresh shellfish. Well, travel due north across the Spanish border, and you're in Rias Baixas, perhaps Spain's most important white wine region. Their most popular white is--you guessed it--Albariño (the Spanish name for Portugal's Alvarinho). Similar soil and climate conditions exist there, where nature ignores the national boundary.

Less than a one hour drive south, back in Portugal, lies the Douro River, famed for it's contribution of Port wines to the world. Travel eastward towards Spain, and you pass through the Douro wine region, where the grapes for both Port and for the excellent dry red wines of Douro are grown. Then you hit Spain.    ...Does the wine world end there ?   Haha!

Focus on the Blue-Lined Douro / Duero River
Of COURSE NOT. The Douro River cuts north, forming a portion of the border with Spain, then it turns eastward.  Guess what's there?  Toro, Rueda, and Ribera del Duero among others. Rueda is arguably another of Spain's top white wines, made from the Verdejo grape. The other two regions boast some of Spain's boldest reds, each made from variations of Rioja's famed Tempranillo grape. The same river system has given birth to a large number of important wine growing regions. Terroir wins out by contributing what the environment has to contribute.

The fact that they're in a different country, and the river has a slightly different name doesn't seem to bother the vines. 

-- Marc Soucy  FWS  CSW  WSET

definition:  FWS (French Wine Scholar)  
Certification (with honors) by the Wine Scholar Guild, Washington D.C. & Paris France

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Big Swing (price targetting and affordability)

Well, where do I start?

The Big Swing is a process I've experienced as a wine lover over the years. I think most wine drinkers know the temptation of trying wines that are above their normal price range. Is it worth it? Will it be greater than what I'm used to? Will I then be stuck spending more money on wine because I can't go back to that plonk I was drinking? Might I feel cheated, like I wasted my money? These are very common feelings believe it or not, but ones we rarely share with each other.

Wine prices vary...a lot. I've encountered many people who've asked me why wine is so expensive. (I have written quite a bit about the answer to this question in a series of articles that starts here.) The short answer though is: How can they make wine so cheap? The answer, as in so many other industries, is mass production and shortcuts. These facts are not to criticize or diminish the value of the wines they produce, since they allow people of modest means to choose wine as a part of their lives. On average, this is a positive thing.

If you are used to drinking mass-produced wines because of their lower price point, you will at some point get to try something more expensive, and more carefully produced. Will you like it? That's when all those questions I presented above come into play.

As a devoted wine lover, I have obviously tried many wines at many price points, and struggle with the economics of the whole process. When is a bottle of wine worth $30 or more to me? Clearly it's when I feel like I can afford it, and like I am ready to experience something a little more special. And it's only by doing it once in a while that you learn to appreciate the "special-ness" of those wines. The exact price point is not the point here. It's whatever you consider to be "too expensive for me". Special occasions certainly come to mind here, but I also love the idea of making an occasion special by getting a nicer wine to try. 

Sancerre is One of the World's Great Sauvignon Blancs
Though You Wouldn't Know It from the Label
So, the "Big Swing" (remember that's the title of this article), is the periods of time I experience when I've decided I'm sick of the cheaper wines I've been settling for, and it's time to up my game, at least for a while. Yup, more of my money will be spent on wine, and eventually this will start to bite. At some indeterminate point, I will decide that I've had enough luxury, and am ready to come down to earth and spend less on my average bottle.  It's a little hard adjusting, but I do. This becomes the time when I seek out the lower priced wines that are simply better than the rest. Yes that's right, trying the more expensive wines helps me identify the good ones from the less good at the lower price range. This has happened a couple dozen times to me over the last twenty years. These periods can last for a few weeks, or even a year or more. Ultimately, it starts over and over, swinging from once price range to the other. 

Of what value is this concept? I guess it's that this experience has taught me a great deal about wine: it's relative value, pricing, characteristics of higher priced wines, what wine adds to a meal, how much of a good "cocktail" it can be (or not, depending), and my own relationship with it. Why do I now understand what I get for my $20 when I buy a bottle of Sancerre? It's because I've tried them enough times for it all to make sense. And I've paid attention to the experience.

I hope that more and more people start reaching above their own comfort zones into wines that have more character and uniqueness. You only have to do it in spurts, and stop when it starts to bite. Small producers, hand picked grapes, lower chemical content, carefully selected vineyard sites, these are hallmarks of special wines, though those alone do not make the wines themselves special. 

Only you can do that. 

Me too.

 -- Marc Soucy, FWS CSW
Marc Wine Blog

Friday, May 27, 2016

Greece and It's Wine Identity

"The Major Wine Producing Countries: A Short Primer"
In No Particular Order   (..Well Maybe in some order...)


Greece, as mentioned in my recent article (read here), spread wine production to many parts of the Mediterranean Sea, facilitated by its exploring, seafaring, and commercial enterprises. Greece was in fact a loose collection of self-governing city-states, with Athens usually at the forefront of commercial success. These city-states often competed with each other, even went to war, but more often cooperated in certain efforts, or at least deferred to Athens for leadership. One thing they never tolerated was invasion by outsiders. 

Winemaking of course was not invented by the Greeks. In fact, there is archaeological evidence of wine making going back a few thousand years before the Greeks! They just accelerated its viability as a commercial endeavor. During their exploits, they visited and colonized coastal areas of the Black Sea, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Sicily, Sardinia, southern Italy, southern France, and even the east coast of Spain. Everywhere they felt they had a foothold, Greek settlers sent for the vines so they could plant them and make wine. The Romans would later follow in these footsteps.

Certainly No Comparison to the Later Roman Empire, but the Greeks Took Themselves Pretty Seriously 

It may take a little imagination for us to picture the world they lived in. There was virtually no knowledge of lands or seas much beyond the Mediterranean area. And much as we Americans would like to think of the Mediterranean as a serene vacation spot, the seas can be very treacherous, and the modest wooden vessels of ancient Greece were often lost in storms, so spreading Greek culture was not for the faint of heart. What would be a "routine" trip today could take a chunk of someone's life....or take it altogether. But spread they did, and wine studies indicate that they planted the first vines in the inland Rhone Valley in France (ref: "Cotes du Rhone"), actually working alongside the scary bearded Gauls, and also contributed heavily to the Etruscan and Italic tribal groups' acquaintance with the vine. A number of Italy's successful grape varieties today in fact originated in Greece. 

One important side point about ancient Greece. Remember these were the ancient Greeks, not modern Greeks. Modern Greeks are a mixture of their ancient ancestors and numerous Persian, Turk, and Assyrian influences, besides other Balkan migratory bloodlines. It is arguable that today's Italians--especially those with roots in the south--can be just as "Greek" as modern Greek nationals are, since they share a lot of similar genetic material from ancient times. 

Greece has had a hard time of it, living as part of the Byzantine Empire (eastern descendent of the Roman Empire) for a thousand years. Desperate for revenue, the Byzantines tried to extract money from this "luxury" industry through such huge taxes and tariffs the Greek wines could not compete on the pan-Mediterranean market. So the vines gradually decayed and the industry almost ceased to be. In the 1400s, Byzantium was conquered by the Ottomans, and their new empire--a Muslim one--discouraged or outright forbade the consumption of alcohol. They ruled Greece until their defeat in World War One, so clearly Greece's wine industry has been at a disadvantage. 

SO FINALLY.... The turbulent 20th Century took Greece through chaos, failed governments, occupation by Nazi Germany, and military dictatorship. Things have only been stable for a few decades really. And as we know, their economy has not been the best. However, in their wine industry, it's amazing what's happened.

Today Greece is producing an almost dizzying array of wines, red and white, with vivid fruit, crisp acidity, striking minerality, and a rapidly growing dedication to world class winemaking. Things are likely to continue improving too!  I can't think of a better testimony to the never ending drive to grow and ferment grapes than the experience of Greece. They deserve a try...
            ... probably a few. 

And now after that sad story, the required comic relief:

Dimitris and Spiros, Drunk On Retsina, Dare Each Other To Eat Disgusting Things

'Til Next Time....

Marc Soucy   FWS  CSW

Friday, May 13, 2016

Marc Soucy's Wine Blog: Wine, The Roman Empire, and well, a Hopefully Not- Forgotten Comedy Troupe

What Have The Romans Ever Done For Us?"

("The Life of Brian"  Monty Python, 1979)

When you spend time reading about and studying wine's history and wine culture, you learn about the huge role the Greeks played in spreading wine--among many other things--across the Mediterranean. In much more recent history, we know about the central role France has played in providing us in the New World with the grape vines and the inspiration and example to make wine wherever the vines will grow.  

Hmmm...something is missing though isn't it?     ... ...  Yes.

(Funny they don't look dangerous.)

The Roman Empire bridged the historical gap (no offense) between the aforementioned Greeks and French, bringing the grape vine to many parts of France Greek settlers had never been to, and exposing the Gauls (a huge pre-French Celtic group conquered by the Romans under Julius Caesar) to wine culture, hooking them on it forever.

Roman wine culture itself was based on that of the Etruscans, the society that inhabited what is today's Tuscany. Rome, once a rural dependency of the Etruscans, adopted many of their cultural habits and institutions. Once they adopted Etruscan wine culture as their own, the Romans continued to spread it wherever they went. Soon, much of Italy would be vine land. Italy is such a natural growing environment for grapevines, the early Greek colonists called southern Italy "Oenotria" or "land of wine". This reality would truly take off in the hands of the Romans.

The Romans tried to Make Wine from Pomegranates at First, but Only Got Frustrated

Wine was such a high priority to the Romans, it was one of the first things they did once a region had been secured under their control: plant vines and get the locals to help them make wine and export it.   
Large scale wine commerce was born. 

Italy was soon the center of the wine world, not just the center of the western world (no great shakes, really...), with large swaths of the empire producing huge amounts of wine as well, from Turkey to Portugal. When the empire began to collapse centuries later, wine culture had such a foothold across the Roman empire, it survived and thrived on its own. Even as the Byzantine and later Ottoman Empires squelched the wine trade in the eastern Mediterranean (for two very different reasons), wine flourished in the West, and Italian wine making comprised a huge percentage of the total output, as well as preserving and developing dozens of interesting grape varieties, some of which we enjoy today and are primarily unique to Italy.

The Romans introduced their subjects to wine, and triggered the events that would--over 1500 years later--result in Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay being planted all over the planet by the imperial nations of the day. Today, Italy's wine industry is more vibrant than ever, and produces some of the finest and most original wines in the world. 

..Thanks, Romans.          (Well, we'll have to think of something else, then.....)

 -- Marc Soucy, FWS CSW WSET
Marc Wine Blog

Monday, April 25, 2016

Marc Wine Blog - Ordering Wine in a Restaurant Part 2B: Wine Corks

An Addendum to my last comments

Marc's Wine Tip:  Restaurant Wine --  Spotting Wine Faults  Wine Corks

I recently explained that the wine cork condition can be a strong hint about the condition of the wine in the bottle.

If you haven't yet read my last post about looking at the wine cork in a restaurant, as well as comments about screw caps, read them HERE.

A second indication that something may be wrong with the wine when you look at the cork is absence of moisture... the cork dry and brittle?  Did it break or crumble while opening the bottle?  Remember that storing wine bottles on their side allows contact with the wine to keep the corks moist and therefore create a better seal. Well, just as too much moisture in the cork (i.e. wine) indicates that too much oxygen may have penetrated the wine while in the bottle, so too does a dry cork set up a similar circumstance. 
This Cork Has Had To LITTLE Contact with Wine. ...Much Like Many People.

How do corks become dry? Two major ways:  Too much time stored with the bottles standing up, or too much time in a refrigerator. Without the wine being in contact with the cork, it naturally will dry out over time. This can take months however, so rarely is there cause for concern when you consider that 90% of wine purchased is consumed within two weeks. The simple rules of economy drive people to buy what they will use quickly. Only wine enthusiasts who enjoy trying a bottle after additional aging in their "cellars" (whatever that might be) buy for future consumption and lay the bottles down.* This practice insures that the wine will age at a more proper speed. A dried out cork shrinks a bit, and lets the natural pores in the cork open up, allowing air to travel into the wine at a faster pace. This causes oxidation.

Cold temperatures dry out a cork as well, and make it shrink slightly, so don't keep wine in the fridge for more than a few days. 

*And sure there are people who are so out of touch with wine that they buy a couple of bottles and put them in the closet in case someone stops by, and those bottles can sit there for a year or more because none of their friends drink wine. Note: This also is not good.

Next time, we'll continue our adventures in ordering wine in a restaurant with examining the color of the wine.

'Till Next Time

 -- Marc Soucy, FWS CSW WSET
Marc Wine Blog  

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Marc Wine Blog - Ordering Wine in a Restaurant Part 2 Wine Corks

Stress Free Wine Tip #5: Wine in a Restaurant -- Part 2

Marc's Wine Tip #5:  Restaurant Wine --  Spotting Wine Faults  Wine Corks

In this series about ordering wine in a restaurant, let's examine some of the things to look for when smelling and tasting the sample of wine you've been given by the server. The first thing that happens usually is that the server presents you with the unopened bottle so you can easily see the front label. This is your cue to confirm that they have brought over the bottle you wanted. With your approval, the server opens the bottle and gives you (the person who ordered it) a small taste in your glass.

If there is a cork, the cork might be placed on the table somewhere in plain sight. Do look at the cork. This is your first clue as to whether there might potentially be something wrong with the storage of the wine.

The Cork on the Left is fine. The Two on the Right Might be Suspect

Wine bottles are stored on their sides to permit constant contact between the wine on one side of the cork and air on the other side. The tiny pores that exist in the cork (synthetic corks are still struggling to attain this, if at all) allow an extremely slow exchange of oxygen to enter the wine, contributing to the aging process. The speed at which this exchange takes place is very important. Too little, and the aging of the wine can take on a less than appealing direction. Too much, and the wine can be exposed to oxidation (from too much oxygen) or even contaminants from the surrounding air. Even a few molecules can have an affect. 

Watch for evidence on the cork that too much traveling of the wine through the cork has happened. This should serve as a red flag that the wine may have come into contact with too much oxygen. You shouldn't stop there though. Examination of the wine's color and smell, and then a taste are all necessary to making a final judgement. And remember, you are looking for faults (flaws) in the wine. The first fault could be oxidation, caused by excessive exposure to air during storage. I'll discuss how to identify oxidation in my next article on this topic.

A Very Important Note:  Increasingly, wine is being bottled with screw caps. I have written about screw caps on wine in the past (read here)   Screw caps have improved greatly in quality lately, mostly eliminating the concerns of the past. That said, they have so far not replicated the air exchange qualities of natural cork, and so do not contribute to the beneficial aging process of wine. Wineries have become very aware of this, and use screw caps on bottles that were never meant to be aged anyway. So there is no downside to using the screw caps. 

In this case, when at the restaurant table, focus your attention on the color and aroma of the wine next.    To be continued! 

 -- Marc Soucy, FWS CSW WSET
Marc Wine Blog

Friday, September 25, 2015

French Wine and Its Place in Our World

It's taken me a little while to get back to my blog, since I had to go to France to do some research (just kidding). Last time, I wrote about the position of France as a recognized "major wine power" in the world. So what makes their wines so special, I asked.

First it's important to recognize a fact about French--and for that matter most European--wines. They are and have always been considered a part of the meal, much like butter, mustard, or gravy might improve the dish you are serving, wine can elevate the eating experience by introducing enticing additional flavors. The French have been on top of this idea for centuries. 

Your Typical French Wine Dinner?   Not Really.

The term "French wine dinner" may conjure up images of bite-size decorative gourmet food on little plates, but wine is such an integral part of the typical French meal, you will find it paired with the simplest of foods. I often call pairing the right wine with even a sandwich an "elevating your meal" type of experience. What wine lover hasn't said at least once, that they would be completely satisfied with just some good bread, perhaps a little cheese, and a nice glass of wine? Is it only the French who have discovered this simple pleasure? Of course not. They did however turn it into an international commerce, a systematic approach to agriculture, a formal regulatory system, and the envy of the world, quite a while before anyone outside Europe was making wine that could compare in quality.

A Bottle of Wine Awaits at Home. (The kid gets Orangina, I guess.)
Developing a disciplined approach to picking vineyard sites that will eventually produce the best wines is something the French worked at for centuries. Many of the best quality wines of France were once produced by monks. Their record keeping traditions helped to monitor and alter what they were doing year to year. Through this trial and error approach, they found patterns to look for, like certain mineral deposits or soil density and porousness, that would lead to better wine production. Today, it is accepted without question in France that the unique characteristics of a vineyard locale has a direct impact on the resulting wine. They even have a word for this which has no direct English equivalent: terroir. While there are contrary opinions about this, more and more viticulturalists in other countries are pursuing terroir as their mantra. And once they start, they usually don't go back, so it's doing something. 

Lastly, France's wine industry has set the bar for the rest of the world on what good wine really is. Different styles are evolving and quite a few countries now have respectable wine industries. The United States is now the biggest consuming country of wine (in real volume), and the world's fourth biggest wine producing nation. It's been a gradual steady process, and thanks to inspiration from the French (and our own competitive spirit, it should be said), our wine industry has improved dramatically. Some of the top schools of viticulture in the world, like the University of Bordeaux and the University of California at Davis, have emerged as two sides of the same wine culture that France's traditions have triggered in the world. Even respected wine powerhouse Italy has increasingly embraced many of the practices and standards that France has inspired. If you look at the average American wine lover in the 1960s, you will find that, other than a few good Italian wines available, the only choice for something "special" was:  you guessed it, French. 

Try pronouncing Pouilly Fuissé correctly. Somehow, back in the '60s, they weren't intimidated.

'Till Next Time

Marc Soucy   FWS  CSW
Wine Consultant & Educator

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Serious Wine for Beginners: What's the Big Deal with France, Anyway?

As an American wine lover, I've run into some fellow Americans who do not have much awareness of wine's history in the world. American wine culture is rapidly developing in some parts of the country, but it is still very young. As a consumer product, wine is seen through the lens of a commodity, like crude oil or soda pop. The fact that what we call the "New World" wine industry (hint: we're a part of it) has only existed in its present form for a few decades gets lost.

More than one person has asked me "What's so special about French wine? We make good wine too. I like California wine better anyway." ...or something along those lines. The question is not about what you personally like, and sure, tons of good wine, and many great wines are made in the U.S.A.  We're getting better at it all the time, in spite of the nagging trend of industry consolidation and the corporatization of the industry. However, that again is really not the point.

Some perspective: We experimented and failed at quality wine making during colonial times. A century later, we successfully planted French grape vines, and started making decent wines, but disaster after disaster--some from nature, some man made--doomed our wine industry to failure. It wasn't until the 1970s that we really started making some world class wines. We've been doing quite well ever since, and so have a number of other New world countries, like Australia and Argentina for example. 

As all of this has been unfolding, it's important to remember that France, Italy, Spain, and others had already been making quality wine for centuries, in some cases millennia. Look at the map of France above. Those blotchy colored areas are its major wine producing regions. If you go back three hundred years, they existed and made wine in what today we would certainly call relative isolation. Local traditions develop over time, and expectations are built regarding what each of those wines is supposed to be like.

The E.U.'s Seal Designating The Class of Unique Quality Wines

Today, those traditions and expectations have become partially codified into an elaborate regulatory scheme, which the French led the way on. The European Union is enthusiastically mimicking this approach for all of its member countries. We Americans have little concept of this, and that's understandable. We are all a product of history after all, and our history is simply too short at this point.

So what makes French wine special?    More on this next time!

Marc Soucy   FWS  CSW

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