Sunday, December 09, 2007

Judging Syrah, and the Syrah Ripening Curve

Geoff Kelly, the noted New Zealand wine academic and writer, has updated his notes on Judging Syrah, and the Syrah Ripening Curve. Anyone interested in Syrah/Shiraz will find this little contribution overflowing with information on Syrah, not only as it relates to New Zealand but Syrah/Shiraz in general. His listing of the aroma profile of Syrah as it ripens to physiological maturity should be memorized by all Syrah lovers, and detractors as well!

Its no secret that Geoff Kelly is Eurocentric in his wine preferences – he would say he favors the “mellow beauty” of wine. This makes him no lover of Australian Shiraz, but this in no way detracts from the knowledge readers can gain from his all too infrequent writings.

Another Rubbish High Alcohol Wine

“There is much experience and scientific understanding to verify that these wines age poorly.” Clark Smith, Grapecrafter.

I’m currently in Australia, but before I boarded the puddle-jumper from San Diego to LAX, and then QANTAS to Sydney, Miranda asked me to select some wines from the cellar that she could drink in my absence; she didn’t want to fall afoul of cellar theft! I thought that was very considerate of her so I put together a mixed group of mainly reds that will suit her palate and those of any friends that visit. In the course of searching out these wines in what is quickly becoming a very disorganized cellar I found a wine that we had not tasted for quite a while. There were three bottles. We could try one with dinner and the other two would be added to her little stash, after all it was a wine that she had purchased when we toured Napa and Sonoma 4 or 5 years ago. Besides the label said 15.5% alcohol and described the wine, when young, as “a ripe port-like wine”. And as all the experts will tell you these high alcohol wines are just rubbish, and they don’t age anyway.

The wine was to accompany a very tasty beef pie; that would send the evening even further downhill because, as all the pundits cry from the rooftops of their ivory towers, these high alcohol wines just don’t go with food. Before the pie was served I decided to decant the wine which was approaching its 10th birthday. There was not a lot of sediment, but enough to warrant the ceremony. The anti-high alcohol league will call that another waste of effort.

The color of the wine was vibrant, with a mahogany red center that faded to orange/brown at its edge. A few sniffs revealed an enticing and charming bouquet that continued to change during the evening. First caramel sweet toffee, then spices, tobacco, pepper, and licorice. And then Bonox, and then raisins: I just couldn’t keep up!

On the palate the wine was full bodied with excellent carry of flavors and the remaining drying astringency carried through to a lengthy finish that was enhanced by a note of sweet cold tea. Juicy acidity framed the package with a hint of sharpness suggesting that the wine had approached its zenith some time before. But it was still a palate pleaser, well aged, and refreshingly complex. In style it could almost be an aged Shiraz or even a Petite Syrah. Would it go with the beef pie?

I have tasted very few wines that have been so abundantly transformed by food. The markers of age, the slightly drying tannins, and the faintly piquant acidity dissolved and were replaced by a fullness and roundness that grew on the palate; it literally seemed to seduce my mouth. That sweet, spicy bouquet exploded in wave after wave of flavor. The meal became a simple process of eat a mouthful of pie, sip some wine, and then sit back and let the senses enjoy themselves. Rubbish high alcohol wine. Who could possibly enjoy this?

What was the wine? Hop Kiln Russian River Valley Zinfandel (Primitivo Vineyard) 1998. This bottling was the first from a replanted vineyard, but when I visited the winery site online to see if more recent vintages were available I could find none. That should please the anti-high alcohol league.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Scoring

I’m one of those individuals who likes to take notes when I drink wine. I believe that putting down my impressions of a wine in written form helps focus my powers of vision, smell and taste; helps me appreciate the wine. A tasting note is what I like to think of as one part of a complete wine experience and, importantly, it is an aid to remembering the taste and smell of the wine. I’m also a wine drinker who likes to compare wines. Yes, I’ll even taste multiple wines in one sitting and, God forbid, I’ll even rank them in order of how my palate perceives their quality. And just to add insult to injury I’ll give the individual wines a score. After all wine, to me, is a beverage and even though some may try to argue the point, not all wines are the same. In fact very few wines are the same. And even though a wine may provide great pleasure (even intense disgust) resulting in an emotional response I don’t view wine with the same emotional attachment that a film, or a painting, or a book may evoke. Yes, I’ve admired the bottle, read the label, become one physically with the cork (or screwcap), appraised its color and legs, and maybe even viewed enticing pictures of video about it in cyberspace.

But I’ve also smelled and tasted it. I’ve taken in too much information for a simple like or dislike response, or even an emotional association with some pleasurable event in my life. During the viewing, smelling and tasting I’ve been accommodating an entirely new combination of attributes recorded by my senses, and fitted them into a new space in the wine library in my brain. And to help me recall that experience I’ve documented the smells and tastes. I’ve put my senses through a series of tough hurdles, trying to discern if its plum, blueberry, blackberry or mulberry that is the predominant aroma. And is there a little bit of vanilla here, perhaps a hint of violets, and maybe just a few molecules of Brett! I’m not being subjective. I’m forcing my senses to be as objective as they can be. An objectivity gained by over 30 years of absorbing as much written knowledge about wine that I can, collecting wine, comparative wine tasting, visiting wine regions and talking with winemakers, even trying to make sense of Robert Parker’s tasting notes. I’ve invested too much into this mad pursuit to wax lyrical about a wine, comparing it to a summer’s breeze or a woman’s breast. I want to score it! I want to give it some credibility with its peers. Place a number on it, give it a medal. Not frame it on a wall, or confuse its qualities by comparing it to a subjective, emotional fragment of existence that only I may have experienced.

And so I score, and score, and score. Wine deserves to be scored, some wines call out for a really BIG score. Others whimper, and accept a lesser accolade; both they and I know they deserve it. I trust my senses of sight, smell and taste so I know I’m correct in my judgment. OK, I will go back through the wines again, from least to best, just to confirm the agreement of my palate with the ranking I’ve recorded.

But how do I score wine? Those who read my Tasting Notes blog know I score out of 20 and then convert that to 100 by simple multiplication. Out of respect for Dan Murphy, a wine taster has to give a score out of 100. Yes, I know that my inactivity with the TN blog means that fewer and fewer of you visit there, but who knows I may want to share all my hard work scoring with you again, so be patient.

Do I need to use just numbers? No, I could score with stars, or medals, or any other method as long as it can provide an objective ranking, none of this subjective imagery. Of course all the forms of ranking should be comparable. How is that done? Its very simple really, you steal someone else’s graphic of wine scoring. I’m going to steal Geoff Kelly’s. Why? Because it actually makes sense. I look at it and think yes, that fits neatly with being objective about wine. That is a thoughtful, clear assessment of how wine ranking methods compare.

Friday, October 26, 2007

A Wine Critic Who likes to Repeat Himself

It can be difficult to write new things about wine, especially if you write about a lot of wines. How can you keep your originality? One wine critic has an answer. You just use the same phrases to describe different wines like Cabernet and Merlot. And sometimes you use exactly the same description of a wine from different vintages.

1995 Russian Hill Cabernet Sauvignon
This wine is not a blockbuster, but rather, an open-knit, richly fruity, expressive wine unburdened by excessive tannin or weight. Plump and hedonistically-styled with natural textures, it merits serious attention. The 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon offers an expansive, open-knit, black currant, earth, and spice-scented bouquet. Soft, round, generous, and richly fruity, this medium-bodied wine is meant to be drunk over the next 5-7 years.

1994 Russian Hill Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain
This wine is not a blockbuster, but rather, an open-knit, richly fruity, expressive wine unburdened by excessive tannin or weight. Plump and hedonistically-styled with natural textures, it merits serious attention. The 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain reveals a saturated purple color in addition to blackberry/cassis and floral scents. Expansive, rich, chewy, and succulent, with low acidity, exuberant, pure fruit, and a hedonistic, fleshy mouth-feel and finish, this is a sumptuously-styled Cabernet Sauvignon to enjoy over the next decade.

1996 Russian Hill Merlot (87 points)
This wine is not a blockbuster, but rather, an open-knit, richly fruity, expressive wine unburdened by excessive tannin or weight. Plump and hedonistically-styled with natural textures, it merits serious attention. This wine is dark ruby-colored, with plump, sweet, expansive, black cherry fruit intertwined with a subtle dose of wood. The acidity is low, and the fruit succulent. Drink it over the next 4-5 years.

1995 Russian Hill Merlot (88 points)
This wine is not a blockbuster, but rather, an open-knit, richly fruity, expressive wine unburdened by excessive tannin or weight. Plump and hedonistically-styled with natural textures, it merits serious attention. This wine is dark ruby-colored, with plump, sweet, expansive, black cherry fruit intertwined with a subtle dose of wood. The acidity is low, and the fruit succulent. Drink it over the next 4-5 years.

Let me guess? Its not abusive use of cut and paste, even though it does occur in the same group of tasting notes. Its all the publishers fault! No matter, its all good!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

It has arrived!

I now hold in my hand the truth teller, otherwise known as the Vinometer. OK, that may be overstating the case. But this rather fragile looking glass tube has the ability to measure the alcohol in dry wine. No, its not infallible but it has significant advantages over more precise but much more involved methods.

The most precise method for determining alcohol in wine is by distillation. This method is based on removing and collecting all of the alcohol contained in exactly 250ml of wine. The distillate is diluted back to exactly 250 ml. using distilled water, and the alcohol concentration is then determined by measuring its density using an alcohol hydrometer, usually calibrated at 20C and in % v/v. Other methods include ebulliometry, which uses the depression of the boiling point of water in the presence of alcohol. This method requires more expensive equipment than distillation and is also dependent on the accurate measurement of the change in boiling point of wine compared to water.

The Vinometer, as the blurb says is a piece apparatus that consist of an open, graduated glass tube with a small filling resevoir. The vinometer's reservoir or funnel is filled with a small amount of wine being tested until some wine exits out at the other endIt is then turned around and placed on a flat surface, filling reservoir side down, and allowed to self drain.The alcohol concentration level is read of the vinometer's scale, on the capillary, at the top of the liquid being measured, in %v/v alcohol.

The level of the liquid is determined by the modifying affect that alcohol has on the interfacial tension between water and glass and the opposing surface tension of water. The greater the alcohol concentration the less marked the liquids capillary action and the lower it will sit in the tube of the vinometer

The vinometer is calculated on the basis of pure alcohol and water solutions, whereas wine is not a pure water/alcohol solution and the accuracy of a vinometer can not be relied upon.
Sugar interferes with the interfacial effects that a vinometer's action relies on and hence the method can only be applied to dry wines. Similarly other components in wine can also interfere with accurate measurements.

So I will need to check out my vinometer by diluting pure alcohol with distilled water so that I have some idea of how accurate this little instrument can be. But seeing as how that will have to wait until next week, I just couldn’t resist the temptation of checking one wine. The wine is a Spanish Tempranillo from Rioja (2000 Valenciso Reserva). The label says 13% alcohol. The vinometer gave the same reading (two measurements) of between 14-15%, so let’s call it 14.5%. That is quite within the law as below 14% a wine is allowed 1.5 points above or below the value stated on the bottle.

Terroir is an excellent marketing tool, that’s why everyone uses it

I’ve not jumped into the terroir argument in any substantial way. The reason is that while I believe there are wines that display a sense of place (e.g. the eucalyptus notes in Cabernet Sauvignon from the Willows vineyard in the Barossa or the influence of calcrete on Coonawarra wines), I just don’t see many wine drinkers showing that much interest or facility in identifying the flavors and tastes that may indicate that a wine is expressing its terroir.

Others, like David Farmer of Glug, are even more suspicious of the concept of terroir. An article written by David makes some interesting points, and is certainly worth reading. Like all well written opinion pieces he saved the best for last.

As for being able to recognise when a wine is expressing terroir this seems more hope than reality and it seems more and more that terroir simply means making the best wine possible from that site. After all that is what humans have been learning to do for centuries.

Perhaps the last word should be this from the Beaune négociant, Louis Latour as reported in the August 2000 edition of Bourgogne Aujourd'hui.

"What definition do you give for terroir?

"None! It’s an idea that doesn’t move me much. A great wine is born from a set of conditions amongst which is the soil. We must simplify! The essential thing is to say to the client that this wine comes from this place. Full stop! This is already the case when we speak of ‘wine from Beaune.’ And then when you try to analyse in detail the diverse elements of terroir you find yourself with such uncertainties that it's better not to stick your nose in too far. That said, terroir is an excellent marketing tool, that’s why everyone uses it." *

* This translation is by Warren Moran, Professor of Geography, University of New Zealand and is from Terroir-The Human Factor.
Link to article.

Additional Note: David Farmer's Land Surface Studies.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Academics to the Rescue

Regular readers will have noticed that I have challenged the anti-high alcohol league to address their concerns with more than just words. After all, members of the Australian wine industry have addressed this issue in a constructive manner, so why not here in the US.

Alcohol levels in wine are increasingly becoming a hot topic in the wine world. Here in the US there is significant use of reverse osmosis (RO) to reduce alcohol levels in wine. However wineries/winemakers are not keen to come out of the closet about their use of the technology. This makes it difficult to find wines that have undergone RO in order to identify any changes that the process may make to a wine beyond removal of alcohol (and apaprently volatile acidity (VA)).

I was therefore quite pleased to find this post on the West Coast Wine Net forum. The 3 year old post provides tasting notes on a Syrah (made by students at Fresno State University in California) that was made with differing levels of alcohol.

Fruit for the experiment was harvested at 31 Brix (the 0.55 multiplier doesn't account for the 18% alcohol) with a 2-day cold-soak, the fermentation ran for 17 days at 55-60 degreesF. Pressed at 1 Brix, the fermentation proceeded to 0.6% rs afore sticking.

..........the wine was sent to Vinovation for reverse osmosis to reduce the alcohol, from the original 18.0% to 12.8%,and everything in between in 0.1% increments. The four "sweet spots" at above alcohols were selected for aging 6 months in American oak. Each lot completed alcoholic fermentation except the original 18.0%, stopping at <0.2%>. Three of the four reduced alcohol lots finished M-L fermentation. Then given a 5 micron filteration and packaged in a slick redwood box.


The final wines were 13.35%, 13.75%, 14.35%, 15.0%, and 18.0% alcohol. And after the tasting the 17 participants rated the 13.35% the worst wine (14 votes) and the 15% the best (8 votes) followed by the 14.35% with 5 votes. One individual favored the 18% wine!

The comments on the tasting, from several individuals, are interesting and worth reading.

One point to note is a comment by Mike Officer (of Carlisle Winery & Vineyards) that it's virtually impossible to get syrah to taste pruney or raisiny. Our syrah last year was around 31 brix as well. Not a trace of overripe character. I'm not sure why syrah behaves like this but might have something to do with phloems cavitating around 22 brix. It's definitely a physiological issue unique to syrah.

I must admit that I don't recall finding overt prune character in Syrah/Shiraz except for the 2004 Massena The Eleventh Hour Shiraz (Barossa Valley).

Any more examples of approaches that have tested whether or not alcohol levels adversely affect wine appreciation?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A note to Dan Berger (and the rest of the anti-high alcohol league),

After several attempts to post a comment on Dan Berger's latest article on high alcohol wines, and getting the message of an error on the page, I've decided to post my thoughts here. Maybe they will take my comment later?

Appellation America is directed toward a very small segment of the wine drinking population, so I wonder how much thought you or any of the other writers on the “big wine” topic give to the average wine drinker. Is it in the interests of the majority of consumers that appreciate the riper style of wine that you pen these articles?

There are an additional few questions I would like some data for, and no I don’t want dogma or anecdotes. Let’s put some meat on these bones!

1) Where are the studies showing that there is a correlation with the popularity of high alcohol wines and cola drinkers? (Just pose that possibility to the average Australian wine drinker and see what answer you get).

2) How many wine drinkers buy wine so that they can determine the regional characteristics of a wine? (Do you really believe that Mr/Mrs Average Winedrinker is at all interested in regional character when they drop by their local wine shop to get a few bottles to serve at their dinner party?)

3) More to the point, how many wine drinkers can actually identify regional characteristics in a wine?

And finally,

When is the anti-high alcohol league (Corti, Dunn, Asimov, McCoy, yourself and others) going to attempt something constructive in terms of addressing alcohol levels in wines? No, the diatribes that have been written thus far are not constructive. They are destructive, divisive and elitist. When will any of you judge these wines blinded against food? Wine has been judged this way at The Sydney International Wine Competition for the last 26 years. (Just as an FYI, the 2007 winner was the 2004 Neagles Rock One Black Dog Reserve Cabernet Shiraz. At 15% alcohol it came away with best Fuller Bodied Dry Red Wine, Best Red Table Wine of Competition, and Best Wine of Competition.) When will any members of the wine press pull together both sides of the argument to discuss alcohol and balance in wine as the Wine Press Club of NSW attempted in July of this year? If winemakers believe that less ripeness and lower alcohol levels will be popular with the cognoscenti then why don’t they make limited releases of such wines? These wines would likely sell at a premium, albeit to very small market. But surely that is a more constructive approach than writing “The current fad of higher and higher alcohol wines should stop.” If the Australian wine community can approach this topic in a constructive manner then its about time that the US does the same.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Art of Decanting

As a prelude to a summary of the results of The Great Decanting Experiment I thought it might be prudent to review the only book I can find that, at least according to it’s title, is devoted to the decanting of wine.

Written by Sandra Jordan, of Jordan Vineyard and Winery, The Art of Decanting: Bringing wine to life is an extremely well presented volume. Chapters cover everything from the historical aspects of wine storage, to corkscrews, wine glasses, wine appreciation, and even a menu for a dinner to show off your ability to decant your favorite wines. The images, although a little too close to commercial photography, are nonetheless eye catching. I found myself impatiently reading the text just to get to the next page to see what other images of wine glasses, corkscrews and additional accoutrements of wine tasting might be found there. Its no coincidence that the title includes the word art, nor is it coincidence that a number of the photographs are less than subtle in their advertising of Jordan wines.

Yes, this is one of those books that you do read for the pictures! And that is a problem because there is precious little examination of why wines should be decanted and what happens when wines are decanted. There is simply no support provided for dogmatic statements such as “ In truth, the beneficial influence of air upon young reds may be the closest thing to certainty in the world of decanting. In all other matters – particularly in those pertaining to treasured library wines – the experts continue to engage in fierce debate and friendly disagreement.” Or “ For a young wine(a red one to five years old), however, consider decanting one to three hours before your dinner to allow more oxygen to reach the wine, unleash the flavors, and smooth out the texture. In short, some patience, and a good decanter can improve the flavor and bouquet of a rough young red immeasurably.”

But is all this exposure to air a good thing? The wonders that oxygen will bring to a young wine are seemingly fraught with danger for we are told that in decanting a wine it should not be allowed to splash into the decanter lest it “tire”. And please don’t “shake the decanter to more fully aerate the wine – a controversial move, to put it mildly” as Hugh Johnson, if he is present, is likely to faint.

No, this is not a book for those looking for knowledge on the benefits (or otherwise) that aeration will bring to wine. It is chock full of the art of decanting, thou.

The Art of Decanting: Bringing Wine to Life (Hardcover) by Sandra Jordan with Lindsey Lee Johnson. 132 pages, Publisher: Chronicle Books (Oct. 1, 2006). $12.71USD.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Great Decanting Experiment – Wine #13

For the last wine in this decanting series we head back to Burgundy and the Mercurey Appellation. And this time it’s a Faiveley. That’s right, the last wine will be the most severe test of the idea that aeration softens tannins because this wine, like all good Faiveleys, has astringency in spades. Oh, excuse me. Its more robust than most. Let’s see if a little air will bring it down to earth!

Wine #13: 2003 Faiveley Mercurey Clos des Myglands Premier Cru, Burgundy, France ($21.00USD, 375ml), 13% alcohol.
One bottle was splash decanted and the other left unopen; both in the cellar at 56 degrees F. After two and a half hours the second bottle was opened and the two wines poured randomly into three marked opaque glasses while I was out of the room.

Glass A: Muted notes of strawberry and cherry over toasted oak and anise. Very soft and supple entry that is overrun by gripping tannins. Nicely structured with good clean acidity.

Glass B: Is there wine in this glass? Nothing except a faint whiff of toffee. Same palate as glass A ; soft and supple on entry but the astringency is overpowering.

Glass C: As for glass B, very, very closed. Just a little anise and oak. Again a palate overpowered by astringency.

My opinion: A and C are from the bottle and B the decanter.

Reality: A is from the bottle and B and C are from the decanter.

Conclusion: My first assessment of the glasses was that A was from the bottle. Why didn’t I stick with that? Well, the aromas in this wine (like a lot of red Burgundy that I have tasted) are very subtle and I knew that I should spend time searching for them. In the end it was a somewhat futile exercise as the astringency of a young Faiveley batters the palate into resignation. But I will say one thing. Two hours of air seemed to make this wine more astringent, if that is possible!

Just to see what a long exposure to air might do I left one bottle about a quarter full of wine and the other was filled with the remaining wine and corked. After 24 hours the wine in the full bottle was still quite fresh and had developed a note of mushrooms while wine from the other bottle was quite oxidized and almost undrinkable.

Score: Wines tested 13, Decanters 1, Non-decanters 4.

Friday, August 31, 2007

The Acid in My Alcohol

Or is it the alcohol in my acid, or the pH of my…. Oh hell, it’s just wine!

I think most folks know that I’m not a fan of the anti-high alcohol league. I’m not completely sure why but for some reason the league stirs in me images of The League of Gentlemen. No, not The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The League of Gentlemen. There is something about this cadre of criers of “nothing above 14.5%” that casts a grim shadow over my world. It’s akin to the foreboding behind the 'Welcome to Royston Vasey. You'll Never Leave!' sign. I picture myself being locked into a little corner of the wine world with people that, well, just don’t sound like a lot of fun. But I digress.

Dan Berger is one of the biggest critics of big wines and Big Wine lovers. I give Berger credit; he knows he’s in the minority. Still I’m not so naïve as to believe that all wines with alcohol above 14.5% are great wines, or even representative of their style or variety. However I’m also not convinced that delicacy, harmony, and balance is found only below the magical number of 14.5% alcohol. But this is the thesis of folks like Dan Berger, Darrell Corti, Randy Dunn and others. It's just unfortunate that they don’t test their hypotheses. But I’m always willing to help, if I can! One of Berger’s most recent discussions on high alcohol wines made a point that I thought worthy of follow-up.

“Look at it this way: The bigger the wine, the more alcohol it typically contains. And the more alcohol a wine has, the less acidity it usually has. High-alcohol wines need more, not less, acid and a lower pH to balance the “sweet” taste of the alcohol. But with high-alcohol wines, we almost always get a higher pH, not a lower one.”

It seemed just a little limiting to me, given the complexity that goes to generate balance, that Berger should focus on the relationship between alcohol and acidity. Does he know something the rest of us don’t? One way to find out is to look at the alcohol and acidity in several wines. It’s a little difficult to do this with a large number of wines simply because alcohol, pH and total acidity (TA) numbers are hard to find for most wines. But I was able to get some data on three wines: Penfolds Grange (Shiraz) from 1955 to 2002; Penfolds St Henri Shiraz from 1993 to 2003; and Carlisle Dry Creek Zinfandel from 1998 to 2005. Grange and St Henri have yet to pass 14.5% alcohol, while the Carlisle Zinfandel has not been below 15.4%.

Graphing alcohol and TA reveals significant positive correlation for both Grange and the Carlisle. St Henri shows a non-significant correlation, although higher alcohol tends to indicate lower TA values. Graphing alcohol and pH reveals a significant negative correlation for Grange; that is the higher the alcohol the more acidity (lower pH), a positive correlation for St Henri (alcohol and pH values both increase) and no significant correlation for the Carlisle although the acidity tends to increase with increasing alcohol.

So if Dan Berger is correct then poor old St Henri, my favorite wine and one of Australia’s most refined, harmonious and balanced Shiraz wines does not fit his thesis. Or could it be that balance (delicacy and harmony) in a wine is just a little more complex than pH and alcohol?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

What Does the Future Hold for Seppeltsfield Fortified Wines?

“Like the ’51 Grange, like a Streeton painting, a Melba recording, a Bradman bat, or a Lawson short story, its part of the Australian ethos. A true icon”. - Huon Hooke, Sydney Morning Herald September 24, 2002.


The purchase of Seppeltsfield and its stocks of fortified wines by Kilikanoon, or more correctly the The Seppeltsfield Estate Trust of which Killikanoon is a principal, is either pure folly or a marriage that will secure the essence that is both the Barossa Valley and Australian fortified wine. Yes, it is that simple.

One of the major concerns for the new owners has to be the marketability of Australian fortified wines, and particularly the Seppelts range. While there are plans for the Seppeltsfield infrastructure including “sympathetic redevelopment and adaptive re-use of many of the Heritage Buildings in line with the Seppelt family’s original wide-ranging food and beverage interests”, the fate of the range of wines that is Australia’s most diverse and most acclaimed is also of “para”mount concern. Oh, you think using para is just a little play on words? Well its much more serious than that because the 100 Year Old Para Liqueur Vintage Tawny which dates back to 1878 is a wine that is more than a national icon. It is unique in the world of fortified wine. The Seppeltsfield Trust appreciates this as evidenced by the recent statement from Nathan Waks that “Until last week it was in fact possible to buy nearly all vintages from 1879 to 1907- the current 100 year old, directly from the cellar door, as they are only hand bottled. We have agreed with Foster's to put a hold on sets being sold, whilst we evaluate the remaining stocks of each vintage, to ensure that we treat this [as] a very special resource and not simply sell it out quickly.” Even though it’s the flagship of the range, the 100 Year Old Para Liqueur Vintage Tawny is only part of this remarkable collection of wine.

As a lover of Seppelts fortified wines I wanted to find out how The Trust plans to market the wines especially overseas as the Seppelt fortifieds have not been for sale in the USA for a number of years. Following the original post by Shiraz on the sale of Seppeltsfield Nathan Waks emailed to say that he would be “Happy to answer any questions about the Seppeltsfield sale, and particularly the future.” I emailed back 10 questions.

1) First, how will the wines be labeled? Kilikanoon has been granted an exclusive license for the Seppeltsfield brand so will they carry the Seppeltsfield name or will they be under the Kilikanoon label?

Nathan Waks (NW): Our agreement with Foster's means that Seppeltsfield will be the fortified brand for all the current Seppelt Fortifieds. It will not make still or sparkling table wines under the Seppeltsfield label, and Seppelt will not make fortified wines. Kilikanoon will continue its business as usual. It may make a fortified wine or two at some point in the future but they would not be duplicates of the Seppeltsfield wines.

2) What countries do you see as potential international markets?

NW: Kilikanoon exports (small volumes mainly) to 25 countries. We would see them all as potential markets.

3) Roberts Parker has graced many Aussie fortifieds (Campbells, RL Buller, Chambers, Yalumba, Stanton and Killeen) with impressive scores. These are the sort of scores that drive consumer interest and yet it seems that Aussie fortifieds have lagged behind dry wines in terms of appeal here in the US. Why do you think that is and any ideas on how to create interest?

NW: I was under the impression that at least some of those you mentioned are doing quite well in the US, but overall the question is one of education. Once people realise that our "ports" are not copies of Port from Portugal etc, and that they are all distinctive, as are our table wines, then I think interest may rise. I doubt that many US consumers would know that wines like our Seppeltsfield Para Liqueur Tawny (Port) are made principally from Shiraz and Grenache, the grapes they love in our table wines...

4) Will the Trust continue to be part of The Muscat of Rutherglen group? Will you be contributing to, or learning from the project that The Muscat of Rutherglen group has initiated to study consumer attitudes to fortified wines and strategies to develop knowledge and interest in the wines in both domestic and international markets?

NW: Absolutely and enthusiastically.

5) At a recent tasting run by Classical Wines here in the USA I was amazed at how inexpensive Spanish dessert wines can be. For example the excellent Don PX Pedro Ximénez Gran Reserva 1971 from Bodegas Toro Albalá runs about $25USD for a 375 ml bottle. That is excellent value for any wine region. Which country do you see providing the greatest competition for the Seppeltsfield fortifieds?

NW: I look at this not so much in competitive terms with Spain or Portugal (the obvious ones), but rather hoping to get more people to try the many and varied delights of fortifieds drunk in moderation, and often with food.

6) With Fosters still taking some grapes from the Seppeltsfield vineyards can Kilikanoon/Seppeltsfield source enough grapes from the vineyards purchased in the assets sale, or will fruit be acquired from new vineyards for the wines?

NW: The agreement allows for us to source as many grapes from the Seppeltsfield vineyard as required for fortified production, and additionally Foster's is working to have their principal Rutherglen grape contracts assigned to us. We will of course be talking directly to these growers in due course.

7) Will there be any changes in sourcing fruit from Rutherglen?

NW: See above.

8) Earlier in the year Glug gave some information on the sales of some of the Seppelts fortifieds. The numbers were surprising. For example sales of the GR113 Rare Muscat were less than 3 bottles a day and the DP117 Fino had sales of about 20 bottles a day. I don’t know if those numbers are correct, but do you see poor sales numbers as reasons for concern about the viability of specific wines?

NW: We start with a clean slate. I note all the sales information which has been provided to us as part of the sale process, and which is of course confidential, but we are quite comfortable with our initial sales projections which are conservative. We will look at all the current SKU's and may make changes over time in line with market demand and supply, as does any normal wine business.

9) Did Kilikanoon make a NV Kilikanoon Reserve Muscat Wine? Parker reviewed this wine in the Wine Advocate # 161 (Oct 2005.) but I can’t find any other information about it.

NW: This is a wine made for cellar door sales only, and is sourced from Rutherglen. We will consider the future of Kilikanoon fortified in the context of our overall portfolio.

10) And last. When will the first Seppeltsfield Festival be held? Just as an FYI my wife and I make it over to Oz during the first 3 weeks of December!!

NW: That I can't say! We will of course be very focussed on the wine business initially, but we will be discussing this at our first Board meeting no doubt!

No, I’m not naïve enough to think that the Seppeltsfield Festival will be scheduled according to my travel arrangements. I’m also not naïve enough to believe that Seppeltsfield and its wines are now on a secure path for the future. The wine game is simply not that straightforward. However it is becoming obvious that the new owners are passionate, knowledgeable, and caring of the traditions of the past. And they have a vision for the future. The passage of time will tell. Benno Seppelt could not have predicted what he was laying the foundation for when he set aside that barrel in 1878, but he did it. We can feel fortunate that individuals like Janet Holmes à Court, Greg Paramor, Bruce Baudinet and Nathan Waks have the courage to lay down their barrel for the future.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Who Buys Australia’s Fortified Wines?

The recent sale of Seppeltsfield and its stocks of fortified wines to Kilikanoon got me wondering about who buys these extraordinary but amazingly inexpensive wines.

As recently as 1966 fortified wines accounted for some 62 percent of wine sales in Australia but by 1984 it was only 16 percent. Sales fell even further to around 7% by 1993, and have continued to fall to the present day. In the 1993-94 financial year fortified wines were 8.4% of domestic wine volume and 2.3% of export volume. By 2005-06 domestic volume was 4.2 % and export volume accounted for 0.35%. Much of this drop in market share has been the result of enormous growth in sales of table and sparkling wines, although the volume of fortified wine sold in Australia has fallen steadily from 27 million liters in 1993-94 to 18.5 million liters in 2005-06.

Eighteen and half million liters seems like a large volume but with a population of 20,434,176 (July 2007 est.) that is less than a liter per person. That 18.5 million liters looks even more insignificant when its broken down by wine styles (Sherry, Port, Other) and wine containers (glass less than2 liters, soft packs, other). For 2005-06 fortified wine in glass (of less than 2 liters) made up 1.36% of domestic sales by volume with Sherry at 0.4%, Port at 0.87% and Other accounting for 0.085%. I’m assuming that "Other" includes Muscat and Tokay which (in glass of less than 2 liters) sold 366, 000 liters in 2005-06. Divided amongst 20 million people that is less than 20 milliliters/person. That is not even a fluid ounce!

With numbers like that its no wonder that the Chairman of the Muscat of Rutherglen group, Colin Campbell recently announced a $1.4 million (Aust) dollar project to transform all sectors of the Australian fortified wine industry. Campbell stated “We expect the outcome of the project will be a totally new approach to presenting our wines – in bottle shops, restaurants and cellar doors. The renewed focus on fortified wines will permeate all sections of the wine industry – distributors, retailers, restaurants, wine producers, and vocational and tertiary training institutions. We believe consumers will also embrace the changes.”

Part of the funding for the project includes a grant of $500.000 (AUD) from the Australian Government to aid the Australian fortified wine industry re-brand its products and increase access to European markets. But how much fortified wine is exported? Unfortunately not a lot but in contrast to the steady fall in domestic sales the volume of exported fortified wines has remained remarkably constant between 2 and 3 million liters; 2.873 in 1993-94 and 2.587 in 2005-06.

Where is Australia exporting these wines today?

In 2005-06 over 70 percent of exported fortified wine went to four countries; USA 20.8%, UK 19.6%, Canada 16.7%, France 15.2%. However in the first three countries fortified wines do not constitute a large segment of total exports. Fortified wines only accounted for 0.26% of exports to the USA even though they consumed 28.4% of total exports. Its worse in the UK where 0.2% of wine imported from Australia was fortified and they received 36.2% of total exports. Canadians have a greater appreciation for Australian fortified wines with 0.89% of the wine being fortified; Canada receives 6.8% of exported Australia wine. Perhaps surprisingly France shows the greatest attraction for fortifieds. Even though France consumes only 1% of exported Australian wine, they accounted for 5.2% of the fortified wine exports.

I'm not even going to try to figure out the consumption per person in these countries, but if you want to do part of the exercise put these numbers in your calculator. 539,000 divided by 300 million. Yes that right its less than 0.0018 liters per person in the USA. But let's look on the bright side. It can only go up from there, can't it?

Note: The definition of fortified wine used to collect these numbers is: Wine to which grape spirit, brandy or both has been added, thereby adding alcoholic strength and precluding further fermentation. Fortified wine must contain at least 150 millilitres/litre and not more than 200 millilitres/litre of ethanol at 20° Centigrade.

Monday, August 27, 2007

A Fortified Future for (Australian) Wine?

The Foster's Group, the Australia-based global multi-beverage company, agreed today (Aug. 27th) on the sale of the Seppeltsfield site in the Barossa Valley to Kilikanoon, a Clare Valley winery. The fate of Seppeltsfield has been haunting lovers of Australia’s most awarded fortified wines for months. The Seppeltsfield property was purchased by Joseph Seppelt in 1851. Today the 185 hectare property includes the National Trust listed historic homestead and approximately 100 hectares of surrounding vineyards and its blue stone cellars are home to 9 million litres of fortified wines including stocks of the 100 year old Para Liqueur Vintage Tawny; begun in 1878 when Benno Seppelt placed a barrel of the finest wine from that vintage in the cellar and decreed that it would remain untouched for 100 years. In addition to the 100 Year Old Para, the other fortified wines make up Australia’s most diverse and most acclaimed range as the listing below proves.

The most awarded wine of any style is the DP 90 Rare Barossa Valley Tawny which has won 14 Trophies and 59 Gold Medals in Australian Wine Shows since 1990.

DP 59 Rare Rutherglen Tokay, recipient of 4 Trophies and 48 Gold Medals in Australian Wine Shows since 1990.

GR 113 Rare Rutherglen Muscat, recipient of 9 Trophies and 35 Gold Medals in Australian Wine Shows since 1990.

DP 63 Grand Rutherglen Muscat, recipient of 5 Trophies and 24 Gold Medals in Australian Wine Shows since 1990.

DP 57 Grand Rutherglen Tokay, recipient of 29 Gold Medals in Australian Wine Shows since 1990.

"Seppeltsfield houses the world's greatest collection of fortified wines dating back to 1878 in an unbroken tradition. We are proud to become the next custodians of this priceless national treasure", said Kilikanoon CEO, Nathan Waks. "We will work hard to ensure that Australia's already fine reputation in this area is enhanced and to rejuvenate the Seppeltsfield Village over time through sympathetic wine-related redevelopment" (see Press Release)

The sale includes the Seppeltsfield winery, Cellar Door, approximately 100 hectares of surrounding vineyards, the majority of Seppelt fortified wine stocks currently on site, fortified brands names including Para, Solero, Trafford, Old Trafford, Mt Rufus and an exclusive license for the Seppeltsfield brand for fortified wine.

I among others feel tremendous relief that Seppeltsfield and its fortified wines stocks have attracted the attention of a buyer and may now have a future. With interest in these rare but extraordinarily inexpensive wines having fallen into a slump, it was always on the cards that they could just fade from Australian wine culture. However the future is not assured. Foster’s will “continue to retain ownership of key fortified wine stocks on site which will form the basis of Foster's fortified wines.” These wines appear to include Penfolds Great Grandfather and Grandfather wines, but with Foster’s record of bowing to profitability one wonders about their future.

The other concern is more practical. Kilikanoon, although they have an enviable reputation as makers of dry wines like their Oracle Shiraz, they make no fortified wines. So there are unanswered questions. The most important being - Who will be responsible for maintaining the wines already stored at Seppeltsfield and for the production of future releases and future vintages of the 100 Year Old Para? Putting up the money to buy Seppeltsfield is one thing, having the experience to continue the tradition is an entirely different wine game.

EDIT: Killikanoon is the principal of the newly formed Seppeltsfield Estate Trust. The Seppeltsfield Estate Trust will buy the assets. The owners of the Trust include Kilikanoon Wines, Janet Holmes à Court, Greg Paramor and Kilikanoon’s major shareholders Nathan Waks and Bruce Baudinet. (see bottom of Kilikanoon Press Release).

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Great Decanting Experiment – Wine #12

For our twelfth wine we are finally headed to Bordeaux. Château Ducru-Beaucaillou is in the Saint-Julien appellation; one of the four major appellations of the Médoc region. On the left bank of the Garonne estuary, Château Ducru-Beaucaillou is one of the five second growth (Deuxièmes Crus) vineyards of St-Julien. The chief feature of the vineyard are the pebbles or "cailloux" which contribute to the greatness of many Medoc wines. This gravel, about 5 meters deep, is on a calcareous base of about the same thickness. The vineyards are planted in 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot.

Is this a wine that needs decanting? The Chateau recommends that a ten year old wine should be decanted two hours before serving, 20 year old decanted 1 hour and a 40 year old wine decant at the time of serving. Our wine is 5 years old so it will get at least 2 hours.

Wine #12: 2002 Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou (St Julien) ($37.00USD, 375ml), 13% alcohol.
One bottle was splash decanted and the other left unopen; both in the cellar at 56 degrees F. After two and a half hours the second bottle was opened and the two wines poured randomly into three marked opaque glasses while I was out of the room.

Glass A: A little muted with notes of banana skin, violets and dusty coffee. Full bodied with clean acidity and firm tannins carrying a short finish. More aromatics on the palate.

Glass B: Has the most complex aromatic profile with oak, cedar, dusty coffee and banana skin. More acidity and obviously firmer tannins that carry a longer finish than glass A.

Glass C: Very muted. Faint violet under dusty banana skin. Again firm tannins but little length to the finish. Nicely balanced but with less vibrant acidity than in glass B.

My opinion: B is from the bottle, A and C from the decanter.
Reality: B is from the bottle, A and C from the decanter.

Conclusion: After smelling all three glasses I was ready to name glass C as the decanted wine but tasting revealed that the wine in glass B was more vibrant with the firmer tannins encouraging a longer finish than the wine in the other two glasses. Still it did take a while to reach a final conclusion, and calling A and B as the wine from the bottle was always the backup decision.

Common to many wines the act of swirling the wine in the glass over time did open this wine even further. That does seem like a contradiction if exposure to air actually lessened the appeal of the wine. But exposure to air in a decanter and coating the inside of a glass with a thin film of wine by swirling are not one in the same. That thin coating of wine is likely to release its volatile components more readily possibly due to effects of surface tension and exposure to warmer air within the bowl itself. If you don’t believe me take two glasses, pour several ounces of wine into one and just a few milliliters into the other. Now swirl for a few moments and smell. Notice any difference?

Score: Wines tested 12, Decanters 1, Non-decanters 4.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Lower Alcohol Wines – Oh, the irony of it all!

Those who favor lower alcohol in their wines point, not infrequently, to European wines as the saving grace against the onslaught of high alcohol wines from the New World. And in fairness the argument does have some merit as many white wines particularly those with residual sugar, including the sweeter Riesling styles, do have quite low alcohol. But even if a wine does have high alcohol the anti-high alcohol league has remedies. All you have to do is run it through reverse osmosis or a spinning cone and watch the alcohol drop off like the extra pounds on a dieting Oprah! The problem is that both practices "are not currently permitted in the production of wine for sale within the European Union", and that has the potential to create significant problems. In recent weeks wines have been banned from sale in the UK because their lower alcohol levels were achieved by these practices. Sovio, a semi-sparkling Spanish wine, bottled at 8% abv, had been subjected to spinning cone treatment, and the French Plume wine range sold by Tesco achieved its alcohol levels by reverse osmosis.

What to do, what to do? Well, wines from the USA and Australia (pending agreement) that have undergone alcohol reduction by either treatment can be sold in the UK due to bilateral agreements with the EU. But that subjects EU wines to unfair competition from both non-EU nations. To address the problem the Wine & Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) in the UK is seeking a temporary derogation under the appropriate EC Council Regulation to allow lower alcohol wines made using these two practices to be marketed and sold in the UK.

Problem solved? Not really because the European Union will need to develop uniform legislation to address this problem as its member states appear to have different solutions to the dilemma. Both reverse osmosis (in France) and spinning-cone technology (in Spain) are under experimental use but the wines made using these processes can only be sold in their country of origin. However, according to French producers, wines made using reverse osmosis are being sold and marketed in the Netherlands, Austria and Germany.

Getting lower alcohol wines to consumers in Europe, especially lower alcohol European wines, looks like being a tricky process. Who would have thought that would be the case?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Erotic Wine Evenings Strike Educational Note

From Decanter.com (August 22, 2007)

At Babeland - which is owned exclusively by women - some 60 libidinous oenophiles sipped wines with names like Seduction Cabernet and Foreplay Chardonnay, listening to erotic poetry and bid for a goodie bag filled with wine paraphernalia, as well as vibrators and other adult toys.

'It's important to first titillate the senses with a little Foreplay - for your palate, that is,' the note accompanying the Chardonnay said.

I wonder what their Shiraz is called? And what its tasting note says?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Great Decanting Experiment – Wine #11

For our eleventh wine I’ve chosen a style that the pundits argue benefits from the aeration that accompanies decanting. It’s a wine made from the Nebbiolo grape and can be massively tannic in its youth. That’s right to test the idea that decanting can soften tannins I’m turning to a Barolo! The decanting times recommended for Barolo run the gambit. The wine before me, the 2001 Paolo Scavino Barolo, has been given anything from no decanting to “double-decanting 8 hours before dinner”. And it can still be unapproachable. As science shows that decanting does not soften tannins it will be interesting to see if a few hours have any effect on this wine. This Paola Scavino Barolo has another distinction; it is the first of the wines I have purchased from Halfwit Wines, so I stole their bottle image!

Wine #11: Paolo Scavino Barolo 2001($29.00USD, 375ml), 14.5% alcohol.
One bottle was splash decanted and the other left unopen; both in the cellar at 56 degrees F. After 3 and a half hours the second bottle was opened and the two wines poured randomly into three marked opaque glasses while I was out of the room.

Glass A: Rich ripe notes of dark fruits, anise, black coffee, smoke and oak. And a little tar. The palate is awash with BIG, drying tannins but also excellent depth and concentration. The finish is not lengthy but not overpowered by the astringency.

Glass B: Very muted with anise and the suggestion of alcohol. On the palate similar to glass A but with more juicy acidity that gives the wine some angularity. The finish is of charred, tarry notes.

Glass C: Muted; anise over sweet fruits. On the palate, the same as glass B with mouth drying astringency and angularity from the juicy acidity.

My opinion: A is from the bottle. B and C are from the decanter.
Reality: A is from the bottle. B and C are from the decanter.

Conclusion: My goodness, what is that sound? Oh, its OK. Its only the pundits shuffling in their ranks as they mill about hoping that someone will defend the decanting of Barolo; if only to get rid of that dry feeling they have in their mouths! In truth I was just a little apprehensive about this wine because if big, tannic wines do benefit from aeration then this is the style to show it. And it was very clear from the first whiff of each glass that there were two different flavor profiles. Tasting the wine revealed additional differences which, at least to my palate, argue that this Barolo should not be decanted. As to decanting softening the tannins? Barolo is so tannic that its really only aging that will soften these wines, a LOT of aging.

The wine that remained after the tasting was used to fill one of the 375 ml bottles and stored in the refrigerator overnight. It will be interesting to see what effect that produces!

Score: Wines tested 11, Decanters 1, Non-decanters 3.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Great Decanting Experiment – Wine #10

For our tenth wine we return to the Napa Valley and the other variety that has made this region famous, Cabernet Sauvignon. Paradigm Winery has been reputed to make one of the top 50 Cabernet based wines in Napa Valley. In the past it has been one wine that I have rated highly in blind tastings. This wine also has the distinction of having Heidi Peterson Barrett as its winemaker. Barrett has been the winemaker for Screaming Eagle, the pinnacle of cult Napa Cabernets. An impressive pedigree indeed!

Wine #10 2002 Paradigm Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, Napa valley, California: ($24.99USD, 375ml), 14.8% alcohol.
One bottle was splash decanted and the other left unopen; both in the cellar at 56 degree F. After 2 and a half hours the second bottle was opened and the two wines poured randomly into three marked opaque glasses while I was out of the room.

Glass A: Dusty earth, charred, tarry notes over evident alcohol and black olives. Very soft entry with unexpected finesse on the palate, fine tannins but lacking a persistent finish.

Glass B: More richly flavored with stewed, charred flavors over coffee and black fruits. Softer tannins but otherwise as for glass A. More flavor carry than glass C.

Glass C: As for glass A with dusty earth, charred and tarry notes over black olives. Softer than glass B, but otherwise more like glass A. Not a lot of flavor carry, almost dead in the mouth.

Note: Dusty note blows off in the glass and is not evidence of a corked wine.

My opinion: Glass B is from the bottle, glasses A and C are from the decanter.
Reality: Glass B is from the decanter, glasses A and C contain wine from the bottle.

Conclusion: Well it only took 10 wines to find one that shows improvement with decanting. OK, you could argue that its less because some of the wines tested might never benefit from decanting, but as I have said before there will be no discrimination against any wine. What was questionable about this decanting test was the lack of varietal definition in the Paradigm even with aeration. Compared to a bottle of 2003 Whitehall Lane Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (14.2% alcohol) drunk a few days later, the Paradigm showed little of the freshness and fruit flavor that you might expect from a wine still in its youth. Still it will be interesting to source a few more splits (375 ml) of Napa Cabernet to see if any more benefit from decanting. My opinion? A simple no should suffice.

Score: Wines tested 10, Decanters 1, Non-decanters 2.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Alcohol Debate – Wine and Food

The current outcry against high alcohol wines has, at its center, the notion that these wines are simply not food friendly. Randy Dunn, of Dunn Vineyards, has written “Most wine drinkers do not really appreciate wines that are 15 -16 +% alcohol. They are, in fact, hot and very difficult to enjoy with a meal. About the only dish that seems to put them in their place is a good hot, spicy dish.”

Eric Asimov of The Pour has noted “Many Californians argue that nothing is wrong with high-alcohol wines so long as they are balanced. Nonsense. I like to drink wine with my meal, not sip it, and the more alcohol in the wine, the less I can drink.”.

Dan Berger of Vintage Experiences has penned “Meanwhile, I keep trying the 15% wines and can’t get a single (small) glass down. Too hot. Too heavy. Not a wine to go with food.

And since I consume food with almost all red wines, and have no real desire to make a plate of mature cheeses my main course any time soon, I am left with only one choice: wines with balance.”

Who is responsible for all these food unfriendly, unbalanced monsters? Well according to Randy Dunn (and I’m sure many others) it seems to be critics and reviewers who taste and spit and fail to remember that wine is supposed to accompany food. (Randy Dunn: "Reviewers -please at least include the labeled alcohol percentage in all your reviews, and try to remember that not everyone is spitting.") This criticism is perhaps somewhat unfair given that the most influential wine critics taste thousands of wines each year and organizing appropriate meals to go with the wines would simply be an overwhelming task. Plus food can influence the flavor-profile and taste of wine and let’s face it its hard enough sorting through several wine critics perceptions of a wine without having to figure out how the different meals they paired with the wine influenced their assessment. Plus, when was the last time you visited a cellar door and tasted your way through their range of wines to the accompaniment of separate foods for each wine?

I guess we will all just have to learn to find the food friendly wines ourselves. Either that or bend the knee to the anti-high alcohol hoards and agree that high alcohol wines have to be banned. Not bloody likely! There are always options and alternatives and smart people out there willing to create what must be created. Enter The Sydney International Wine Competition where 2,000 wines are “assessed blind beside appropriate food, by a highly qualified international panel of wine professionals who offer you their personal opinions.”

The SIWC was founded in 1982 , although the archived results for the Top 100 wines only goes back to 1999. Since 2004 the entry numbers for the SIWC has been set at 2,000 wines divided into 13 style categories including lighter, medium or fuller bodied dry white or dry red table, dessert and sparkling wine. The award winning wines have won when tasted with appropriate food in the same style categories.

How do higher alcohol wines fair in this competition? In the 2007 Fuller Bodied Dry Red Wines category the alcohol levels range from 13 to 15%. The winning wine was the 2004 Neagles Rock One Black Dog Reserve Cabernet Shiraz. The Neagles won the trophy for its category plus trophies for “Best Red Table Wine of Competition” and “Best Wine of Competition”.Weighing in at 15% alcohol only one of the six reviewers found the wine “just a little bit hot” Others said “It showed especially well against the beef structurally”, “The palate has nice oak and fruit integration and quite a bit of finesse on the finish. Opening up further with the food.” and “A pleasure to drink. A great match. Well balanced. Delicious flavours. The beef was complemented very nicely with this wine.”

What food was paired with this style category? It was “Marinated “Beef Grand Veneur”, Herbed Crepes, Oyster Mushrooms & Green Peas Puree”, and one of the great attractions of the SIWC is that the recipes for all the meals are available on the site.

A 15.1% wine, the 2003 Bremerton Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, did very well in the Medium Bodied Dry Red Wines category. Two of the seven judges thought it did not pair well with the matched meal of “Lamb & Eggplant Charlottes, Red Wine Reduction Sauce”, with one noting the high alcohol. But the other judges were much more complimentary “With the food, this is an excellent match.”, “A great food wine.”, “It goes very well with the food. It seems to increase its richness and persistence and the flavours go well.”, and “An excellent food match. Did everything you could ask for from a wine. A real work horse of a food wine.”

Now detractors will argue that there are not many wines above 14.5% listed as award winners in 2007, and that this is a competition for Australian wines, so what use is it? But do those concerns carry weight? What is important is that for 26 years there has been a competition that has paired wine with food that is open to all comers. But perhaps the most telling question has to be directed to those who say they have long lamented the rising levels of alcohol in wine and the loss of food friendly wines. To them I say why have you not established a competition like SIWC here in the United States? What holds you back?

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Lower Alcohol Wines – A Better Approach

Alcohol levels in wine have been increasing for at least several decades, and there is good reason to believe that this has been driven by the consumer’s desire for fuller flavored wine. Put simply, to achieve riper flavors grapes have to be harvested later in the growing season and fermentation of the riper grapes with their increased sugar levels often leads to increased alcohol levels. The higher alcohol does not seem to have swayed the consumer against these wines, evidence the popularity of one of the major proponents of the style Australian Shiraz. Australian wines are, as Oz Clark said, “sunshine in a bottle” because many of the wine growing regions in Australia have local climatic conditions that have long, hot growing seasons that are conducive to ripening all manner of fruits.

Recently there has been considerable discontent over the increasing amount of alcohol in wine. As I have noted in previous posts I am not a fan of the attempts by individuals like Darrell Corti and Randell Dunn to foist their dislike of high alcohol (14.5% or greater) wines on the drinking public. I am however not adverse to wine makers or retailers giving the consumer the option of lower alcohol wines, or indeed of trying to educate the consumer on the virtues of such wine. Unfortunately, here in the USA the chest beating against higher alcohol wines appears to have no other purpose than to stop the production of high alcohol wines; Randy Dunn, of Dunn Vineyards, made this more than obvious in his letter to the US media.

There is a better way! And its being led by the major supermarket chains in the UK, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer. All three have introduced low alcohol wines in recent months. Last year Sainsbury introduced Early Harvest, a 9.5% alcohol white wine from sun drenched Australia. Early Harvest wine made news last year when introduced as wines that would appeal to women because of the reduced number of calories; the implied sexism created its own little furor. The Early Harvest wines, a Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blend and a Chardonnay, are both 9.5% alcohol and have 12 grams/L of sugar. This level of sugar equates to halbtrocken or medium dry in style and the sweetness would be hard to detect and even with that level of sugar the calories would be less than a bone dry Shiraz with higher alcohol.

But why are these wines being introduced? Is it because of a desire for food friendliness in wine, a facet that is argued to be lacking in high alcohol wines? No, in the UK its not food friendly wine that is being sought. The real goal is to reduce alcohol consumption and the introduction of low alcohol wine is seen as a socially responsible move on the part of the big supermarket chains.

Between 1991 and 2005 the number of alcohol related death has doubled in the UK. And a report by the government on alcohol misuse notes “two major, and largely distinct, problems: of crime and anti-social behaviour in town and city centres, and on the other harm to health as a result of binge- and chronic drinking.” The report also lists numerous additional problems that arise from excess consumption of alcohol.

I certainly have no complaints with consumers wishing to reduce their alcohol consumption and lead healthier lifestyles. And I applaud retailers in the UK for responding to this demand by offering their customers the option of wines with lower alcohol. It’s a far more reasoned approach than the shrill voices in the USA that call for the end of high alcohol wines simply because they don’t appreciate them.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Do Wine Drinkers Prefer Lower Alcohol wines?

It would be much more convincing if folks like Randy Dunn and Darrell Corti et al could provide firm evidence that high alcohol wines are not what the consumer wants. I’ve tried to find evidence that consumers do purchase based on alcohol content. There does not seem to be much data out there, although I did find the following from the WSTA.

Over 1 in 3 women (35%) and 1 in 4 men (27%) believe that lower alcohol wines are becoming more fashionable according to the May Consumer Intelligence report issued today by the Wine & Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) and Wine Intelligence. (Comment: Which implies that 65% of women and 73% of men believe that lower alcohol wines are not fashionable.)

WSTA also noted that:-

59% of all UK regular wine drinkers claim to read the alcohol content of a bottle of wine before purchasing, but only half of those say it is important when deciding what wine to buy. (Comment: If that means half of 59% then less than 30% of these consumers consider alcohol important in their buying decision.) They consider seven other factors more important when choosing a wine including grape variety, promotional offer, brand, country of origin, recommendation by friend or family and region of origin. (Comment: I don’t see the wine press listed there. And that’s strange because Randy Dunn points the finger directly at the wine press: “Influential members of the wine press have led the score chasing winemakers/owners up the alcohol curve……”)

Consumers also link higher alcohol levels with better quality and better value for money.

I don’t see any of the information from the WSTA as evidence that that lower alcohol wines are preferred - and let's face it in the UK they have access to a LOT of cheap (supposedly lower alcohol) European wines.

Does anyone know of similar surveys of US wine consumers?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The High Alcohol Debate -continues

Because of all the high octane involved the debate on alcohol levels has flared to an even higher degree than usual. Here in the US it resurfaced when Darrell Corti of Corti Brothers, a retail store specializing “in rare and unique gourmet foods and fine wines" decided that he will no longer sell wines with alcohol above 14.5%. Others have jumped onto the band wagon including Robert Parker Jr.’ biographer, Elin McCoy. Even Ric Einstein (TORB) has posted on the subject.

Now Randy Dunn, of Dunn Vineyards, has added his personal opinion in a letter to the media in the US. Comments that include “The current fad of higher and higher alcohol wines should stop. Most wine drinkers do not really appreciate wines that are 15 -16. +% alcohol.” are clear, rational arguments against high alcohol wines; and if you believe that then there is this bridge I know about……..

The argument that wine should be below 14% in alcohol shows a lack of understanding of the buying public. Most wine is consumed within days of purchase, and only a small percentage of wine drinkers cellar wine for any length of time. More importantly even fewer have the facilities to correctly store wine for years; no, a cupboard in the kitchen is not the correct place. In my experience young wines that are full flavored and ready to drink are preferred to the youthful austerity (excess tannins and acid) of wines meant for aging. Its not surprising that most wine is rich and ripe in style, and its even less surprising for those wines to have higher alcohol.

To appreciate (non-dessert) wine of different alcohol levels all you need is a little commonsense. Earlier this week I drank a 1998 Cape d’Estaing Cabernet Sauvignon (Kangaroo Island, Australia). A beautiful wine that will live for many more years. The alcohol? Below 14%. Last night I opened a 2003 Carlisle Sonoma County Zinfandel that was bursting with flavors and palate appeal but not the 15.8% alcohol.

I wonder if any of the anti-high alcohol league have put their beliefs to the test? Has Dunn taken a group of wine drinkers and let them blind taste wines below 14% and above 15% to see which wines are favored? Darrell Corti’s store claims to “specialize in rare and unique gourmet foods and fine wines”. Does Corti have a program of educating the buying public by showing how the wines he sells match with the foods he sells? The fate of high alcohol wines in such contexts would be a useful contribution, as opposed to trying to force personal preference on the wine buying public.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Help, there is alcohol in my wine

The discussion of alcohol levels in wine rages on. It would be nice if there was unimpeachable evidence that high alcohol wines fail to please the drinking public, but I don’t see substantiation of that. If anything the reverse is true. What I do see are individuals trying to impose their personal preference on others. Darrell Corti is a good example with his statement that he will no longer sell wine with more than 14.5% alcohol. But Corti has been inconsistent, and his statement that "I made the rule, I can break it." highlights that inconsistency.

Elin McCoy, the writer of Robert Parker’s biography, has now stepped into the same fold with a piece in Bloomberg. She calls her dumping of a 15% alcohol Merlot down the drain a “personal rebellion against the latest wine-fashion craze”. I’m not sure I’d call increasing alcohol levels in wine the latest wine craze; its probably been going on for at least the last few decades. McCoy quotes the numbers herself, “In the Napa Valley, the average climbed to 14.8 percent in 2001 from 12.5 percent in 1971.” And I’ve noted a similar trend in the flagship Aussie Shiraz Penfold’s Grange over its 50+ year history.

Unlike Corti, McCoy does add to the argument in a constructive way by tasting a 2005 Amador County Syrah that Clark Smith had subjected to reverse osmosis to change the alcohol content. The resulting wines had alcohol levels of 15.4 percent (“seemed hot and super- rich”), 14.2 percent wine (“jammy, with a fresher nose and brighter flavors”), and 13.75 percent (“spicier, with fruit and leather notes, more Rhone in style”). Subjecting these wines to personal sensory evaluation is a worthwhile endeavor, and it’s a pity this was not done with a larger audience in a blinded fashion. The results would have been certain to be interesting.

There are no prizes for guessing that McCoy’s favorite alcohol modified Syrah was the 13.75% wine. But was she looking for the wine that gave her the most pleasure, or one that reminded her of a Rhone? Help me a little here, as an Australian who has lived in California for 20+ years I’m confused. Amador County is in California, right? That is part of the USA, correct? I thought the Rhone Valley was in France? Should Amador County Syrah be Rhonish in style? Amador County is divided into two appellations, Shenandoah Valley and Fiddletown. Amador County is Zinfandel territory, but it has been having success with Syrah. Shouldn’t they be allowed to develop their own style of Syrah?

The alcohol argument is unlikely to go away soon. We have all tasted low alcohol wines that have survived decades beautifully. But it’s a little early to be passing judgment on the longevity of high alcohol wines. I’ve got a bunch of Shiraz/Syrah from Australia and California sitting in my cellar waiting patiently for a decade or so to pass before I see if they have fallen to pieces. And therein lies the problem, I have to let them lie there rather then drink them sooner, like tonight! After all as one of the exponents of high alcohol wines Sparky Marquis of MollyDooker (and Shirvington, Parson's Flat, Henry's Drive, Marquis-Philips) says “People are always asking me, When should I drink this wine? How long should I cellar it?" "And you know what I say to them? I'm making another one next year! When should you drink it? How long will it take you to find a corkscrew?!! Or now that we're going screwcaps, How long will it take you to get a glass?!!"

Monday, June 25, 2007

Do You Want To Be a Supertaster?

After reading Mike Steinberger’s third article on the physiology of the oenophile. No I’m pretty sure I don’t.

Some gems from the article:-
1) By far the biggest consumers of wine criticism are male Caucasians, who according to Bartoshuk are also disproportionately represented among nontasters—35 percent of white males fall into this category. So it could be that, from a purely demographic standpoint, the ideal wine critic would be a low-sensitivity taster. (Hanni suspects that some of the more prominent wine critics are indeed low-sensitivity tasters, given their fondness for heavily extracted, high alcohol wines.)

No prizes for guessing who that is directed at!

2) If biology were determinative, I, as a PROP nontaster, would probably enjoy those sweet, soupy, high-alcohol Australian Shirazes and might not think so kindly of light, acidic red Burgundies. In fact, I generally can't stomach the former and adore the latter. Something happened in my life that dictated these preferences, and it clearly wasn't the genes I was born with.

Some might call that wine snobbery, or even bias. But then both wine styles are unlikely to appeal to supertasters.

3) Sure, there is near-universal accord about what attributes a top wine should have—appealing aromatics, ripe fruit, good structure, a sense of harmony in the mouth and a long finish. But given how enormously varied individual palates seem to be, one wouldn't think that there would be much consensus regarding individual wines. However, the critics tend to agree about wines a lot more than they disagree.

If critics are more likely to be non-tasters that would help reach consensus! More likely critics look for the same objective qualities in wine.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Darrell Corti Gives Himself an Out

Mike Dunne, Food Editor for the Sacramento Bee, has written on the terrible things being said in cyberspace about Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti. However it’s the last part of the article that is the most telling.

For the most part, once table wines with more than 14.5 percent alcohol are off his shelves, they won't be replaced.

But he isn't necessarily bolting the cellar door to all table wines over 14.5 percent alcohol, even aside from traditional exceptions. He acknowledges that a table wine with more than 14.5 percent alcohol can be balanced and graceful.

"If I'm served one and I like it, I might buy it, but I won't go looking for one. I'm always open to anything," Corti says.

Isn't he being a bit contradictory? "Life is a contradiction," Corti says. "I made the rule, I can break it."

Darrell Corti seems to like having things both ways. His stance truly does have the appearance of a storm in a very, very small cup. And if he keeps contradicting himself, it will blow itself out very quickly. Could all this contradiction be explained by the voting in the poll on Dave Chambers blog that has revealed that greater than 50% of respondents don’t pay much attention to alcohol levels when they buy wine?

Mr Corti’s store claims to "specialize in rare and unique gourmet foods and fine wines", so here is a suggestion for Mr Corti. Why not begin a program of educating the buying public by showing how the wines you sell match with the foods you sell? The fate of high alcohol wines in that context would be a more useful contribution to this topic than making rules so that they can be broken.