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

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Marc Soucy's Vertical Tasting: 2009 2010 and 2011 Château Jouanin Côtes de Bordeaux - Castillon

2009 Château Jouanin   Castillon - Côtes de Bordeaux
Côtes de Bordeaux AOP, France     Grapes:  90% Merlot  -  10% Cabernet Franc

2010 Château Jouanin   Castillon - Côtes de Bordeaux
Côtes de Bordeaux AOP, France     Grapes:  85% Merlot  -  15% Cabernet Franc

2011 Château Jouanin   Castillon - Côtes de Bordeaux
Côtes de Bordeaux AOP, France     Grapes:  90% Merlot  -  10% Cabernet Franc

In my review of the 2009 Château Jouanin back in March of 2013 (see here) I was tasting what was believed at that time to be the best vintage since the much admired 2005 vintage. 

The weather in 2010 was nearly perfect, as it had been in 2009. Variations in month-to-month temperatures and rainfall occurred of course, but nobody was complaining. Growers and winemakers alike were thrilled with both seasons. 2009 experienced more rain, though a lot of rain is never a good thing where wine growing is concerned. That said, it was a very healthy amount that contributed to the fruity quality of the vintage. 2010 by comparison was drier, with wider temperature swings, and a pretty wet June. 2011 experience near drought conditions in the early part of the year, had a very hot April, and luckily, experienced better weather as harvest approached. What does this all mean?

Viticulture and viniculture both include the making of corrections, mainly in the timing of things. How long to wait before beginning to harvest the first wave of Merlot, for example. Every step can be crucial to the result in the wine. For this post, I made sure to taste the 2010 and 2011 side by side to have a more direct experience. My 2009 notes are repeated below. My memory of that wine is in agreement with what I wrote here.

Now this is too complicated a topic to delve into here in any depth of course, but my intent is to acquaint you with the concept of weather's effect on wine flavors and aromas. I encourage you to explore this topic by researching other sources. 

And as I always say: Do your OWN vertical tasting. You learn a lot! (continue below)

Now back to the vertical tasting notes:

Marc's Tasting Notes:

2009 Château Jouanin   Castillon - Côtes de Bordeaux

Very dark ruby, almost opaque. Nearly surprising aromas of bright red raspberry balanced with vanilla taffy make this wine alluring. On the palate, though, its true nature emerges: black cherry, dark flowers, assorted dark berries, and earth are complemented by prominent but smooth tannins. The intermingling of opposite traits in this wine make it a pleasure to experience, especially for the price. The small amount of Cabernet Franc definitely finds expression.

2010 Château Jouanin   Castillon - Côtes de Bordeaux

Dark ruby with a few millimeters of brickish hue on the rim. The initial nose reveals an attractive combination of black cherry, blackberry, vanilla and toffee, with hints of underbrush. Over time, sweet spice and coffee aromas develop. A taste brings a nearly granular structure and tight but smooth tannins. Flavors of plum with a tinge of prune, and continued dark fruit and oak influences make this a most enjoyable wine for its youth. The finish is long and pleasant with the flavor components mingling in a smooth and consistent manner.

2011 Château Jouanin   Castillon - Côtes de Bordeaux

Ruby with some translucence. The wine shows assertive aromas of plum, mixed dark berries and underbrush, licorice, mint, and a hint of tobacco. One expects quite a mouthful based on this, but here is where the less than ideal weather has had its effect:  The wine is substantially lighter on the palate than you would have guessed based on the aromas alone. Rougher tannins and obvious acidity sit with green flavors like bell pepper and a certain stalkiness. That said, this Castillon holds a certain intrigue all its own. The earth from the vineyard shows through, as do the various fruit components, however lighter in body. I found this easy to drink, and yes even easy to enjoy. The attractive aromas certainly make it so.

My final comments:  Château Jouanin if you noticed doesn't use any Cabernet Sauvignon, so the quality of their Merlot grapes is paramount, as is their careful use of Cabernet Franc to add interest and balance. Right bank Bordeaux wineries are not unused to this. The heavy soils of Castillon helps the winery's Merlot achieve good characteristics.

2009 has been very easy to like since it was released. It has great fruit and intensity. 2010 is emerging as getting the most positive response recently. Its structure and complexity are standing up extremely well at least over these short years. 2011 is at a huge disadvantage, and yet I have to salute the Château. They pulled this one out, and managed a wine that is not to be overlooked. Sure it's not a layer downer...a year or two perhaps. That said, you can pop one of these open now and drink it with your steak or chops, and leave the 2010 in the rack for a while.

 -- Marc Soucy, FWS CSW

Marc Wine Blog

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Stress Free Wine Tip #8: Chilean Wine and Argentinean Wine

Stress Free Wine Tip #8:  South America's Wine Countries

South America's two big wine producers, Chile and Argentina, lie on either side of the Andes Mountain range, both being fed by streams and rivers created by the mountains' melting ice and of course rainfall. Chile's wine country is largely a long series of valleys running east to west, each with a river travelling from the Andes: a country that seems to have been designed to be a wine producer. Argentina's wine output is substantially larger than Chile's due to its size, but Chile's quality is not to be overlooked. 

Chile's and Argentina's Wine Regions
Separated by the Andes Mountains
If you notice on the wine map above, Argentina's regions reach much further north--towards the hotter equatorial regions--than Chile's does. This is due to the huge high elevation plateaus in western Argentina that provide cooler temperatures than the surrounding low lands. Argentina's current famous export, Malbec has been a hit with American wine drinkers, and has joined the small list of beef lovers' go-to favorites. Argentina also makes wine from two other lesser known grapes, Torrontes and Bonarda. Chile, for its part, does make an attractive wine from the Carmenere grape, but mainly sticks to the better known grapes of French origin that we all know, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc.

There are still many real bargains to be had by shopping in the Chile and Argentina sections of your local wine department, so check them out. 

 -- Marc Soucy, FWS CSW
Marc Wine Blog

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

American Wine Industry Has had A Spotty HIstory

America's Wine History in a Flash 

The United States considers itself a major wine producing country today, and rightfully so. With the contributions mainly from California, but spreading into many other states, the U.S. has become the fourth largest wine producer in the world. (note: If you read last week's Wine Tip, you already know that France, Italy, and Spain occupy the first three spots.) 

Dots Represent Wineries.
(Magnifying Glass May Be Needed)

When the English colonists started arriving on the East Coast, they were thrilled to see grape vines growing all over in the wild. They had had access to wines from France, and dreamed of making their own here in the New World. After many attempts, they realized that the grapes growing here just weren't the same. Meanwhile, Spanish Catholic Missionaries had brought some vines from Europe to South America and California to produce sacramental wine.  By the 1800s, vines from Europe were being imported in much larger numbers, and the wine industry started to become substantial. Blights, bad weather, and the devastating phylloxera epidemic (an insect deadly to European grape vines), dealt successive blows to our fledgling wine industry, and then the final blow: Prohibition.

The Final Major Obstacle to America's
Growth as a Wine Producing Nation
The repeal of Prohibition finally released the industry to grow, but much damage had been done, to American tastes and receptiveness to fine wine. Much work was needed in the fields as well. It wasn't until the 1970s that California was finally recognized--after years of hard effort--for the production of some world class wine.  

Today, we tend to take this state of affairs as if it has always been. It hasn't been easy but we have arrived!

'till next time... -- Marc Soucy, FWS CSW
Marc Wine Blog

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Stress Free Wine Tip #5 How Wines Are Named

Wine Tip #5:  Naming Wines

The names of wines can appear confusing initially. Throughout the "new world" (meaning outside Europe) wines are usually named after the grape they are made from. A Merlot for example is made from a strain of grape actually called "Merlot". The wine industry refers to this as "varietal" naming. This might become taken for granted, and mystery ensues when you encounter wines with no such names on the label. 

A Typical California Wine Label

While some countries--and some areas of certain countries--label their wines with the name of the grape, it is also quite common for the wine producing region to give it's name to the wine instead. This has been the tradition in France, Spain, Portugal, and much of Italy for centuries. Think about it:  If a pretty large wine region grows mainly Chardonnay as their white grape (as in the Burgundy region of France), over time, differences are noticed between the Chardonnay grown in one location vs Chardonnay grown in another. For the sake of telling them apart, the place becomes more important than the grape itself. 

When Europeans started colonizing the rest of the world, their wine came with them, and so did the vines needed to produce quality wines. The vines were called by their grape name, and the resulting wines named after them. We are today seeing the start of place names becoming quite important in the new world, such as Napa Cabernets, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and Mendoza Malbecs from Argentina.  

A Typical French Wine Label

The above French wine label names the source of its grapes, Cotes du Rhone as the actual name of the wine. "Cotes" means slopes, and the Rhone is a major river in eastern France. On either side of the river lies some incredibly good vineyard land, and the grapes used in this wine are grown within the boundaries of this region. It is in fact a blend of Grenache grapes, Syrah grapes, and sometimes others, but this is hardly ever listed on the bottle. In the Rhone Valley, it's simply common knowledge. Wine drinkers learn to rely on the style they can expect rather than focussing attention solely on the grape content.

Learn a few new names and expand your understanding and appreciation of wine!

 -- Marc Soucy, FWS CSW
Marc Wine Blog

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Stress Free Wine Tip #6 -- Spanish Wine Facts

Wine Tip #6:  Some Facts About Spain's Place in the Wine World

Spain is considered one of Europe's "Big Three" wine producing countries. Owing to both ancient Iberian traditions and influence from both Bordeaux techniques (France) and modern global wine trends, Spain is producing more and more world class wines. 

Spain has more acreage planted to wine grapes than any other country on earth. The output per acre is smaller however than either France or Italy, so Spain is perennially in third place for total volume of wine production. Spain's brandy industry accounts for a portion of the grape harvest as well.

The almost unknown white grape Airen is the most planted white wine grape in the world, even though almost its entire vine count is grown within Spain, mainly in the La Mancha and surrounding areas in the center of the country. Spain produces more brandy--which is made by distilling wine--than any other country.  Airen is the grape of choice in that industry, so much so that it accounts for the lion's share of Airen grapes grown. 

Spain Has Many Recognized Wine Regions

Some of the grape varieties made famous in the world of wine by French winemaking, like Grenache, Carignan, and Mourvedre, in fact were growing in Spain first, and migrated into southern France over time. The Rhone region of France first popularized these grape varieties commercially across the world. Spain's Garnachas (Spanish for "Grenache") are a not-to-be-missed side to this wine tradition.

Spanish Reservas Must Spend Time in Barrels in Their Aging Cellars
Spain is one of only a few countries for whom the word "Reserva" means something legally binding. A Reserve wine in the U.S. for example, is largely based on a perceived assurance that the head winemaker made a "special batch" for that bottling. In Spain (as in Italy and Portugal), that word means a minimum amount of time--months to years, depending on the wine region--has been spent in oak barrels and then bottled in their cellars before release. Spain has one of the most generous wine aging regimens in the world, intended to present their age-able wines "ready to drink" when you buy them.

Spain has two wine regions that have special designations that put them a level above all other "D.O." regions:  Rioja and Priorat. Both of these regions specialize in blends and winemaking techniques learned from migrant Bordeaux winemakers during the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century. 

Spanish wines today present a wonderful combination of bold and versatile style with relative affordability. They are great food wines, and should not be left out of your thinking when picking a wine.

'till next time...

 -- Marc Soucy, FWS CSW
Marc Wine Blog

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Stress Free Wine Tip #4: Wine in a Restaurant -- Part 1

Wine Tip #4:  Restaurant Wine -- Part 1

Ordering wine in a restaurant can be a very different thing from buying it in a store. Not only is it a lot more expensive, you're expected to evaluate it when the server opens it up. What is all that about anyway?  Many people have--understandably--gotten the impression that that taste they give you is to see if you like the wine.

It Doesn't Have to Be Like This, You Know.

In fact (not to add more pressure) you are expected to either ask advice from the server, or know the choice on your own. Giving you a taste of the wine for approval is to make sure that the CONDITION of the wine is acceptable to the person who ordered the wine. The word "condition" refers to the presence or absence of flaws in the wine, not to whether you like the wine's style (flavors, body, intensity, etc...) or not. Once you have agreed that the bottle is in fact the one you intended to order, you are taking responsibility for that bottle... ...UNLESS it is actually flawed somehow. In that case, the restaurant will get you a new bottle or something different.

So this shine a light on the fact that learning to spot flaws can be a pretty important thing if you plan to eat out in restaurants a lot. We'll cover some of these flaws in future articles.

 -- Marc Soucy, FWS CSW
Marc Wine Blog
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