Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Phylloxera---the Black Plague for Vineyards

Say the word phylloxera to a winemaker and it’s akin to a death sentence for his wines.  Phylloxera (roughly pronounced  phil - ox - syrah) is a small louse that attacks the roots of the grape vine.  By the time the plant begins to show signs of disease above ground, it’s too late.   As it spreads very quickly from plant to plant, and from vineyard to vineyard, entire wine regions can be wiped out in a flash.

Nearly all vineyards in Europe succumbed to phylloxera in the late 1800’s.  Can you imagine 70-90% of all the vineyards in Europe destroyed by a microscopic bug?  What may be equally surprising is that the only cure for the horrible plague was to replant the European vines on American root stock---American vines were resistant to phylloxera.

Those of you who have been to Bordeaux with us may recall the colorful rose bushes planted at the ends of the rows of vines.  While most visitors think this is an aesthetic touch, the roses were originally planted as an “early warning system” for phylloxera.  In the early 1900’s, it was believed that the rose bush was attacked first by phylloxera, the grape vine second.  Thus, when roses began to die they became “the canary in the mineshaft” for grape growers.  Science now tells us that this is not true.  Once the rose shows signs of phylloxera, the grape vine is already infected and it’s too late.

Phylloxera first appeared in Bordeaux in the 1860’s.  So why get so excited about a plague that took place >150 years ago?   Phylloxera is still with us.  Although modern science has found ways to deal with phylloxera, the louse continues to mutate.  A different strain of phylloxera wreaked havoc on Napa Valley in the 1980’s when it destroyed thousands of acres of vineyards.  This  “sleeping giant” lies in wait and certainly gives new meaning to “dying on the vine.”

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Bordeaux’s Hierarchy---the World’s Most Ingenious Marketing Plan

In the 1850’s the French launched a 450 mile railway from Paris to Bordeaux, a great engineering coup at the time. Marketing gurus of the period were tasked with developing a strategy on how to attract travelers to Bordeaux.  The idea they came up with has changed the course of international wine.

Bordeaux, located in the southwest part of the country, had direct access to the Atlantic.  The town was heavily involved at the time in shipping wine to England.  As the voracious Brits were particularly fond of red wines, most growers surrounding the city of Bordeaux had planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and a now rather obscure variety called Petite Verdot.  When plans for the new rail line were disclosed, several prominent financiers in Paris predicted an influx to Bordeaux after the rail line was built, and began to purchase property around the area…many of them  bought wine-making chateaux.  Leading the pack were Mouton Rothchild and Lafite Rothchild.

The marketing folks decided to capitalize on Bordeaux’s relatively unknown wine industry within France…and the rest is history.  Their marketing strategy for enticing Frenchmen to Bordeaux involved creating a hoopla around the “best wineries.”  A hierarchy of the top producers was constructed.  Note that the criteria for this pecking order was NOT based on any wine tastings.  It was solely based on the price of the wine.  Quality did not enter into the equation.

Four of the wine chateaux had prices that far exceeded all the others.  These four (Latour, Haut Brion, Margaux, and Lafite Rothschild), were awarded the top status which they called “Premier Cru” (1st growth in French).   This top tier was followed by four other tiers: 2nd Growth, 3rd Growth, 4th Growth and 5th Growth.  All were clustered and based on price in descending order (e.g.  5th Growths were the least costly of all).   There were 61 wineries in total chosen and this marketing plan was called “The 1855 Classification.”  These 61 were all called "Grand Cru Classe."   At the time, there were hundreds of other wine producing chateaux in the Bordeaux area, however, their prices were significantly lower than those singled out for “Grand Cru Classe” status, so these wineries were not even referenced in the 1855 Classification.

Fortuitously, Paris was having a huge exposition in 1855.  The Grand Cru of Bordeaux were unveiled here to promote rail travel to Bordeaux.   It worked.  Anyone with a bucket of francs rushed to Bordeaux via rail to buy their status symbol wine.  Today, Bordeaux Premier Crus remain one of the most coveted wines in the world often commanding wines in the thousands of dollars for a new release (add a zero or two if it’s aged).  The same five red grapes referenced above remain the only red varietals still allowed by law.  Amazingly, there’s been only one change to the original 1855 Classification:  Mouton Rothschild was elevated from a 2nd Growth to a 1st Growth.   Viva la France for the greatest marketing maneuver of the wine world. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Blind Leading the Blind

We used to attend an annual party when we lived in the Bay Area---it was a blind tasting and attendees were asked to guess the grape varietal and approximate cost per bottle.  I looked forward to this party all year long as I loved the challenge of attempting to dissect 10-12 bottles of wine.  Although the number of wines made it far too complicated for the average oenophile, the blind idea was a grand one.  I miss those parties.

In my opinion all wine should be consumed blindly.   I’m not suggesting this because I love games (which I do), but because we should not be swayed by the price or by the producer…or, for that matter, by the country of origin.   I can’t tell you the number of times that my husband and I have hosted blind tastings with a fairly sophisticated group of wine lovers and found that guests scored a $20 bottle the same (or higher than) a $70 wine.  Many times attendees were shocked at their choices.

If you really want to learn something about wine, drink it blindly.  You don’t have to have a party to do so----my husband often opens a bottle without telling me what it is.  If you want to have some great fun, however, I highly recommend at your next gathering you consider tasting all the wines blindly.  This can easily be achieved by placing all the wine bottles in paper bags.  If it’s a varietal tasting do not cover bottles with aluminum foil as this gives away the shape of the bottle--savvy consumers will know that cabs are in bottles with “shoulders,” while syrahs and pinots are in non-shoulder bottles.   If the group is not terribly sophisticated you may simply ask them to rate on a 1-10 scale how much they like the wine.  

Regardless of whether it’s a varietal blind tasting, or simply a rating of wine for likeability, I recommend that you limit the number of wines to three or four.  Beyond that it’s hard for most people to focus.   Last but not least, at the annual blind tasting varietal party I used to attend, everyone had to turn in their score cards, results were tabulated, and everyone’s marks were announced.  I saw many hang their head in shame, their nights undoubtedly ruined when it was announced they guessed very few of the varietals correctly.  Learning about wine should be fun and should not be intimidating.  Whatever type of blind tasting you conduct, set it up so responses are confidential and that people feel safe and comfortable to learn.   I like to always remind folks that “Whether you like a wine (or not), it’s the only time that you can be a 100% right!”

Monday, January 16, 2012

Bordeaux Garage Wines?

Some of you may be scratching your head on this one.  Yes, I do mean garage….like the kind in which you park you car.  The term was coined in the 1990’s in Bordeaux to describe small, innovative producers who were making wines in their garages.  Garagistes, as the winemakers were called, were rebel rousers who bucked the traditional style of highly tannic Bordeaux that required long aging.  This group on wine-making renegades wanted more fruit-forward, bigger, bolder wines to reflect the changing international palate.

Garagistes typically produce miniscule quantities from quite low yielding vineyards---both factors influencing supply and demand, and hence, accounting for their generally stratospheric prices.  There is minimal manipulation during the “birthing process” of the wine, which means little racking, no filtering and no fining (a process used to make the wines clearer).

Thanks to Robert Parker, many of these garage wines have a cult-like following.  In 1995 Parker rated some of the garagiste wines higher than Chateau Petrus… and the wine world has been topsy-turvy ever since.  Some feel the garage wines are nothing but fruit bombs with high alcohol that are for collectors rather than wine drinkers.   One writer described their popularity as “ The Emperor’s New Clothes” syndrome.

Here are my favorite “Vins du garage: "    Rol Valentin, La Gomerie and La Mondotte.  If you’re lucky enough to find them be sure to bring beaucoup Euro’s.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Barolo & Barbaresco: World-Class Reds from the Same Grape

A well made Barolo and Barbaresco are among the greatest red wines in the world.  Both are made from the nebbiolo grape in Italy’s northwest region of Piemonte.  If the nebbiolo is grown near the communes surrounding the town of Barolo, the wine is called Barolo.  If its grown in the perimeters surrounding the village of Barbaresco, the nebbiolo becomes a Barbaresco. 

Barolo, often described as the “King of Italian Wines,” was one of the first wines given a special status in 1980 by the Italian government.  Barolo wines have stringent rules for production, one of which is mandatory aging.  A Barolo must age for a minimum of 3 years prior to being released, 5 years if it’s a Riserva.   Work the numbers and you can see why a Barolo is often a wallet-full-of-Euro’s.

Like Barolo, Barbaresco, the other exceptional wine made from nebbiolo, is also very pricey. Although  Barolo and Barbaresco are located only 10 miles apart, the climate and geography produce some distinct differences.  Tannins in a young Barbaresco are not quite as harsh as a Barolo--because of this the Italian wine laws allow Barbaresco to age one less year than Barolo).  Barbaresco, the more feminine of the two, is generally more approachable to drink at an earlier age but on the flip side it doesn’t age as long as a Barolo. 

Both Barolo and Barbaresco are complex, full bodied wines.  Nebbiolo in these areas results in intriguing aromas and flavors:  ripe strawberries, roses, mint and/or eucalyptus, licorice, tobacco, and occasionally a hint of white truffles.   Favorite producers?  Try Prunotto, Spinetta, and Elio Grasso---we’ll visit all of them on the October 2012 Truffle Tour.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Canelés—the Other Divine Treat from Bordeaux

I’m a lover of Bordeaux wine, but I don’t dream about it.  I do, however, dream of canelés, magical little pastries which are a specialty of the Bordeaux region.   These culinary treasures, thought to have been created in the 16th century, disappeared in the 19th century, however, they’ve recently gained cachet.  From as far away as Paris, la crème de la crème patisseries are now welcoming back these once forgotten tiny cakes. 

The fluted exterior of a canelé is a glossy, dark-brown-almost-black shell of crunchy, carmelized sugar.  Inside these small delectables have a soft, custard-like interior of rum and vanilla.   Only 2 inches tall, they can be consumed in a few bites.  I love mine for breakfast with a great cup of coffee, although canelés are often consumed for a snack as well as a dessert. 

Every pastry shop in Bordeaux features canelés, but my favorite spot to buy them is at Baillardran (they have several branches but the one in the heart of the downtown is located at 55, cours de l'Intendance.)  If you’re coming with us on the harvest tour to Bordeaux this September, they’ll be on our menu the first night at Chateau Beychevelle. 

Bon appetit...and Bon 2012!