Friday, June 14, 2013

A tough business in a beautiful place: The World of Sicilian Wine

This piece initially ran on the website of The Deal,, and reappears here with the permission of its editors.  

Making wine in Sicily may sound idyllic, but it’s a challenging business. Grapevines have been cultivated on the island since the 8th century B.C., resulting in a wide range of native varieties and wine styles, but fragmented production, a lack of commercial sophistication and the European economic crisis have made it hard for many Sicilian producers to prosper.
Frances Di Savino is well suited to understand both the history and the contemporary realities of the Sicilian wine industry. A venture capital lawyer in the Boston area and a longtime aficionado of Italian culture, Di Savino and her husband, Bill Nesto, one of 300 or so people in the world who hold the Master of Wine title, recently published “The World of Sicilian Wine” (University of California Press, $34.95). The book tells the story of Sicilian viniculture and describes the important producers currently at work there. The couple combined on the first part of the book, while Nesto wrote the second based largely on research that he and Di Savino did on 10 trips to Sicily between 2008 and 2012.
“No one else has done the analysis that was done in this book,” said Antonio Rallo, co-owner of the producer Donnafugata Srl and head of Assovini Sicilia, an association of the island’s premium winemakers. “This is the first book that is so complete in speaking about the Sicilian producers and in going back to the roots of Sicilian wine.”
Di Savino was born and grew up near Boston but took a roundabout path to practicing law there. She studied classical Greek and Latin in high school and picked up Italian at Wellesley College, from which she graduated in 1981 with a degree in both medieval and renaissance studies and Italian culture. Di Savino spent a year studying in Florence after college and a summer working at the Milan law firm Pavia e Ansaldo while she was a student at Columbia Law School. She considered a career in international business, but instead became a corporate associate at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP in New York after graduating from Columbia in 1985. 
She moved to Mabon Securities Corp. in 1992, the year after Italy’s IMI Group bought the brokerage, and became general counsel two years later. She moved to San Francisco in 1996 to take a position as associate general counsel at technology investment banking boutique Montgomery Securities, an experience she calls her “professional year abroad.” NationsBank Corp. bought Montgomery the next year, and Di Savino consulted for rival Hambrecht & Quist before moving back to Boston and opening the boutique law firm InCounsel with her brother, Sam, in 1999.
In 2000, the Di Savino siblings helped structure a Cambridge, Mass.-based venture fund with close ties to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They’ve worked with a number of tech companies since then, including Virtusa Corp., a Westborough, Mass.-based information technology outsourcing company that went public in 2007; Lightlab Imaging, a medical device manufacturer spun out of MIT that was sold in 2002 to Goodman Co. Ltd., which in turn sold Lightlab to St. Jude Medical Inc. in 2010 for $90 million; and I-logix Inc., which was sold to Sweden’s Telelogic AB for $80 million in 2006. IBM Corp. paid $745 million for Telelogic two years later.
Di Savino and Nesto met through a Wellesley alumnae event in 2002 and married in 2005. Nesto, a 1973 graduate of Harvard College who founded the wine studies program at Boston University and is currently a senior lecturer there, has a deep knowledge of Italian wines, and the couple first travelled together to Sicily in 2008 when he was researching an article for the online wine magazine Sante, an assignment that became the genesis of their book “The World of Sicilian Wine.” Di Savino researched and wrote the book’s opening chapter on the origins of Sicilian wine and culture, and Nesto picked up the narrative in 1770, when Englishman John Woodhouse arrived at the port of Marsala in western Sicily and saw the possibility of imitating the success of his countrymen who’d developed the Madeira wine trade. He seized the opportunity and began exporting Marsala wine to Great Britain.
Woodhouse and the Britons who followed him to Sicily brought with them “the spirit of enterprise, the understanding of commerce, the knowledge of markets and the ethos of industry and collaboration,” Nesto writes, traits that were rare in Sicily at the time and have remained so since then.
Now greatly diminished in popularity, Marsala was a very successful premium export product and thus an anomaly in Sicily, where today only 20% of the wine produced on the island is bottled there, with the rest shipped to mainland Italy to be packaged and sold as bulk wine. That’s true even though Sicily’s vineyard surface area fell by 21% from 2001 to 2011—“a trend that probably needs to continue,” Di Savino said, since Italian consumption of wine continues to fall and most of the island’s producers have found it difficult to compete with more efficient rivals in Australia and the Americas. She added that the 80 or so cooperatives that produce about 80% of Sicily’s wine will need to consolidate as well.
Sicily’s midsized and small producers also face daunting challenges. “The middle class is struggling in the EU, and a great wine industry cannot exist without a solid middle class,” Nesto said. The U.S. is an attractive export market, but a difficult one for many producers to enter because of the country’s byzantine regulation of wine.
Nesto identifies three Sicilian producers as “essential for the future because they can surmount the current economic downturn:” Donnafugata, Planeta and Tasca d’Almerita. Diego Planeta in particular is “a tremendous entrepreneur,” Nesto said. Not only did he excel at running a cooperative and launch his own highly successful winery; from 1985 to 1992 he was the president of Sicily’s Instituto Regionale della Vite e del Vino, a state-owned company formed in the early 1950s to promote improved viticulture, wine production and marketing techniques.
Planeta’s ability to strike a balance between competition and cooperation is one that most successful entrepreneurs have and that Sicilian winemakers would do well to emulate, Di Savino said. “Regardless of industry type, a company enters into a web of important contractual and business relationships with competitors, some of whom become investors, partners and customers,” she said. “History has shown that Sicilian entrepreneurs have found it difficult to collaborate. In the wine industry, there are a lot of producers and only so many foreign importers.”

Friday, April 12, 2013

Variety Anxiety: Jancis Robinson's Wine Grapes

Producers and consumers of wine historically spent little time worrying about the grape varieties of the wines they made and drank. Europeans enjoyed the wines of their region; even today, if you go to a restaurant in, say, La Rioja or Burgundy, most of the wines will be from there. Producers worked with the materials at hand, though they could propagate vines with favorable traits by taking cuttings from those vines and replanting them, which in any case was how farmers developed new vines, as opposed to growing them from seed. Now known as clonal selection, the practice has a long history; Pinot Noir has immense clonal diversity, starting with Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.
The ancients realized there were different kinds of grapes from which wine could be made, and European scholars began trying to identify them systematically at least two centuries before Carl Linnaeus developed his system of biological taxonomy in the 1700s and included Vitis vinifera, the grape species from which virtually all wine is made. Despite these efforts, the knowledge of ampelography—the cataloging of the numerous varieties of that species—seems to have had a minimal effect on what went on in most vineyards before the mid-1800s. 
Three developments changed this state of affairs. Starting in the 1860s, phylloxera devastated the European wine industry. Winemakers searched frantically for solutions, some of which lay in the emerging science of biology. They grafted their vines onto American rootstock, which was immune to phylloxera, and started using pesticides. Scientists also developed new varieties by cross-breeding existing ones. In 1882, for example, the Swiss vine breeder Hermann Müller produced what is now known as Müller-Thurgau by crossing Riesling and Sylvaner; the new grape’s prolific yields and ability to grow almost anywhere made it the most widely grown variety in Germany by the early 1970s, though it now trails Riesling by a good margin.
Finally, as serious winemaking spread to North and South American, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, producers could choose which grape varieties they wanted to cultivate. In some cases, immigrants brought samples from their home countries. In others, producers carefully selected varieties with oenological and commercial potential, as David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon did in the 1980s when he planted Pinot Gris cuttings from Oregon, where the variety is now the state’s most widely cultivated light-skinned one. Here, too, scientists have experimented. The South African variety Pinotage is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault developed in 1925 by Abraham Izak Perold, the first professor of viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch.
Today, there are 1,368 grape varieties from which wine is made commercially, Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz tell us in their encyclopedia Wine Grapes, which was published last fall and whose 1,280 pages feature at least a brief entry on every one. (Not varietal, they say in the introduction. Varietal is an adjective.) It's a daunting profusion even for those who read only the tag lines on the entries for the minor grapes, which can be quite witty, like Aramon Noir, a “very productive vine once responsible for much of France’s least noble wine.”
The occasional obscure entry contains a great story. Cavus, for example, takes its name from the Turkish word for sergeant, one of whom brought it back from Taif near Mecca in the 1600s to give to the Sultan. In 1720, Sultan Ahmet III sent 37 vines of Cavus to the first Ottoman embassy in France, where Louis XV had them transferred to Versailles. Or the Swiss Completer, which derives its name from completorium, “the evening office during which the Benedictine monks were traditionally allowed to drink a glass of wine in silence.”
Or the Jacquez, now grown mainly in Texas and Brazil, which may come from the town of New Bordeaux near the Savannah River, where French Huguenots settled in the 18th century and introduced Vitis vinifera varieties. They discovered that grapes from one new seedling were more resistant to disease, and a Spaniard named Jacques apparently took a sample to Natchez, Mississippi, where the grape got its name.
The multiplicity of varieties reflects the history of wine. The obscure ones tend to fall into two categories. Hundreds are varieties developed since the dawn of modern biology, almost none of which have caught on despite the effort involved in developing them. The book includes a fold-out chart of the genealogy of Brianna, a hybrid obtained in 1983 by Elmer Swanson, who crossed 93 varieties to generate the Brianna. There are also hundreds of grapes grown only in a very small region. Most have fallen into oblivion, but a few have enjoyed a modest renaissance, like the Uva Longanesi, which was saved by Antonio Longanesi in 1913 after he discovered a hardy, fungus-resistant vine on a property he had just purchased near the city of Ravenna in the Italian province of Emilia-Romagna.
A handful of varieties dominate the modern wine world because producers want to market products with names consumers will recognize. Some varieties seem to resist travel, most notably Nebbiolo, the Piemontese grape form which Barolo and Barbaresco are produced. Others, like Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, do work well outside of their native territories, but only within a certain temperature range (cooler for Pinot, warmer for Cabernet); a few, especially Chardonnay, seem capable of producing good wine wherever they’re planted.
Swings of fashion can dramatically affect a variety’s fortunes. Syrah, for example, was once a minor grape even in France. Planted on only 3,959 acres there in 1958, it now occupied 169,482 acres in 2009. Fellow Rhone variety Viognier has enjoyed a more dramatic resurgence thanks to the dramatic increase of its wines in the 1980s; planted on a mere 35 acres in France a half-century ago, it now takes up 10,869 there, having caught in southern France, and California winemakers have also adopted the variety over the last generation after seeing the prices it can fetch.
The book’s one major omission is a cursory discussion of clones, a failure Robinson and her co-authors justify by pointing to the book’s current length. They suggest in their treatment of the Pinot family how important clonal selection can be, especially for such an old variety. But they note that there are more than 60 clones of Riesling in Germany without offering even the capsule explanation set out in the entry on clonal selection in Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine. According to that work, clonal selection for vines was first demonstrated in Germany in 1926, and the country has remained at the forefront of research in the area. In Dijon, researchers at the Université de Bourgogne have spent decades developing virus-free clones of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It’d be nice to have a little more of this detail, especially since the pervasive influence of modern science in winemaking is a major theme of Wine Grapes.
That quibble notwithstanding, the book is a major achievement and will enrich wine drinkers’ appreciation not just of the major grapes, but of varieties like Arneis and Grignolino, Mencia and Xinomavro as well.  

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The mega-tasting

Dogs have a far more powerful sense of smell than humans do, but even they can’t employ endlessly it in a focused way. Dogs trained to sniff out explosives work only four hours a day, after which they need to frolic, run around, rest. Intense smelling is hard work even if you have a brain and sensory equipment that are well designed for it.
The mega-tasting confronts the wine taster with the same problem. Especially in the winter, which is the down time for winemakers in the northern hemisphere, various regions sponsor fairs at which importers and merchant can sample bottles from dozens of producers. Wine professionals say they start suffering fatigue at some point and are unable to make more than broad distinctions among the wines they taste. They need to frolic, run around, rest.
A few weeks ago, I felt a premonition of fatigue when I picked up a list of the wines to be poured at a tasting of selections from Louis Dressner sponsored by Chambers St. Wines, which has had a very close relationship with the importer since the store opened in 2001. The premonition began to be realized with disconcerting speed. I arrived when the tasting began at 12:30, and the person at the reception desk suggested I start in a small room that featured Italian wines, many of which were reds or whites made with skin contact, which imparts more flavor along with some tannins.
I could almost feel my palate start to cramp up as I worked my way through the room. The mere sight of an ambitious wine that would have greater concentration made me wince. Lighter reds meant to be drunk young gave both relief and pleasure, for example the Bera e Figle 2010 Arcese and the Cascina degli Ulivi 2011 Semplicemente Rosso, both about $15. Acidity, which is a good thing in a wine meant to be served with food, became a liability, and I was unsure about my judgment of the more expensive wines, though a 2010 Chianti Classico from Montesecondo and a 2008 Valpolicella Classico Superiore from Monte dall’ Ora in the high $20s both seemed like they would be worth the money.
Whites from the Loire and Germany were like fresh, cold water after a heavy dose of Italian reds – a response that made me question the received wisdom that reds must always follow whites in a meal and never the reverse. Louis Dressner and Chambers Street both champion wines from the Loire, and those from Domaine de la Pepiere, Domaine du Closel, and Francois Pinon, all but one under $25, were worthy of the hype.
For me, though, the Weingut Knebel Rieslings were the revelation of the tasting. Their 2010 Von den Terrassen was a steal at $17, a great introduction to the grape for those who think they don’t like it, and their 2011 Hamm at $37 was as defined and beautiful as a geometric proof, the acidity, the sugar, the nose in perfect balance.
Palate revived, tasting funk averted, I made my way through the rest of the tasting with thoughts of the warmer months in mind, according to the notes I scrawled in the margin of the roster of producers. The 2011 Gaillac from Causse Marines were nice summer porch wines, I wrote, and the two 2010 reds from Zelige-Caravent cried out for a grilled steak, maybe even on July 4.
Afterwards, what could be more patriotic than sniffing a little of Mauro Vergano’s Vino Aromatizzato Americano with its herbal aromatics, or, for more frugal souls, some Cocchi Americano, while listening to Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra and watching the fireworks with your feet up on the deck? Think of it as a frolic for the palate. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

From Estrella Damm to Can Roca

Football is an ideal vehicle for selling beer in Europe as in America, but the televised advertisements for the beverage on the two continents take forms as different as the sports. The Spanish beer Estrella Damm is currently running a 90-second spot that perfectly illustrates the country’s attitudes toward food. A fishing boat bobs along the Mediterranean on a sunny day. There’s a shot of Hideki Matsuhisa, a sushi chef at Koy Shunka in the Barcelona, then one of FC Barcelona star Cesc Fabregas, before the fishermen pull in a net full of shrimp. Matsuhisa pulls out a cutting board, rubs it with wasabi, prepares eight pieces of shrimp sushi , and offers them to the crew. The men enthusiastically consume the shrimp with Estrella Damm, then start kicking around a spherical buoy, which one of the seamen heads into the water. Undaunted, the crew cracks open more Estrella Damm and sits arm in arm on the bow of the ship in the sun.
The ad reflects a culinary culture that obsesses over freshness, is open to influences from around the world, and believes food should be playful and fun, tenets so pervasive that a mass-market beer commercial can celebrate them. For the last decade, the high-end standard-bearer for this approach was El Bulli, the shrine to molecular gastronomy in northeast Spain. Ferran Adria closed the restaurant in 2011, and the mantle has been handed over to Celler Can Roca in the town of Girona, about an hour north of Barcelona.
Founded in 1986 by chef Joan Roca I Fontane and sommelier Josep (younger brother Jordi later joined as the pastry chef), Can Roca has become more experimental over time. When I went four years ago, it offered appetizers, entrees and desserts along with longer tasting menus, but now only the latter are available, one comprised of Can Roca classics, the other of Joan’s current creations. I had the latter and enjoyed it thoroughly, from the white asparagus ice cream with dried ground truffle to the grilled whole prawn – perhaps an homage to Extebarri, the Basque temple of grilling – and sea bream and mullet.
I spent much of the meal reading Josep’s wine list, which shows a love of Burgundy and German Riesling as well as Spanish wines, a diversity you’d rarely see in France or Italy. There are even about ten wines from the Jura producer Jean-Francois Ganevat. Josep pairs wines with each course, and he isn’t afraid to break out some of his older bottles. A 1998 Lopez de Heredia reserva blanco was unexpectedly floral on the nose but had the producer’s customary cleansing acidity on the palate, and the 1973 gran reserva blanco was intensely earthy – one of the sommeliers said it smelled of white truffle – but again with perfectly fresh orange peel on the finish. It reminded me of a scene in the great 1973 Spanish movie The Spirit of the Beehive where a father takes his two young daughters out to pick mushrooms, and it was a little like a sherry bottled in 1966 that Josep poured when I asked him about sherries, a number of which he has on his list.
Can Roca takes reservations many months in advance and is priced like the Michelin three-star that it is, though the wines remain a good value. Bargain-hunters averse to planning can head to Falset, two hours south of Barcelona, where Celler de l’Aspic has a wine list that would do any restaurant would be proud at prices that make a cheapskate salivate, especially when paired with a €30 menu that includes an amuse, four courses, and dessert. Chef and owner Toni Bru is generous in all respects. Beyond the portion sizes, ingredient quality, and prices at his restaurant, when I told him I was going to Can Roca a few days later, he said he was headed up for dinner the day before my reservation and would tell Josep Roca I was coming. Sure enough, Josep was waiting for me when I got to his restaurant. “You are famous in Priorat,” he said with a smile.
For all of its openness to foreign influence, Spain has great food traditions of its own, which Oriol Rovira celebrates at Els Casals, a restaurant, hotel, and farm in the mountains north two hours north of Barcelona. He’s cooked at a number of great restaurants, including Taillevent in Paris, but his model, he said, is cucina povera, the food the peasants eat. My meal at Els Casals began with a delicious curlicue of a chitlin seasoned with a touch of pepper and lemon peel and a fresh pate topped with a white bean puree. A small dish of beautifully prepared chicken accompanied by a huge bowl of leek mousse followed, then suckling pig with a potato puree that was really a delivery device for good melted cheese.
The Spanish affinity for Riesling reached even here; the sommelier/waiter/chauffeur David (he picked me up from the bus stop in a nearby town that morning) smiled when I ordered a 2008 Zusslin, a Riesling from Alsace, and he brought small samples of various wines throughout the meal, ending with a rare Catalonian red that like Madeira is deliberately exposed to heat and tasted like balsamic vinegar, unsweetened chocolate, and tobacco. That may not sound good, but the flavor grew on me, and I could see sipping an ounce of the stuff late on a summer night while sitting on the porch at Els Casals with my feet up, looking at the mountains. 
I also encountered the local cuisine on the €20 lunch menu at Mon Vinic, a wine bar in Barcelona that pours several dozen wines by the glass and had hundreds for sale by the bottle. Their eggs gently scrambled with green onion and morcilla, or blood sausage, was at once comforting and elegant, the kind of dish you could eat once a week for years on end. It went perfectly with an Amontillado sherry that had the complex nose of a good Scotch and the clean finish typical of sherry, but it would also have been great with an Estrella Damm. 

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Paradox of Priorat

For two nights last month, I was the only person at Hostel Elvira in Gratallops, a small village in northeast Spain. Not just the only guest – the only person. When the taxi driver dropped me off at the residence at 6:00 P.M. on a Sunday evening, he used his cell phone to call the number listed on the front door, then drove off. Fifteen minutes later, a car arrived and parked at the agricultural cooperative across the narrow street. A woman hopped out, let me into the hostel, turned on the heat and hot water, gave me the keys to my room and a brief orientation, and left. Fortunately, I was full from a late, large lunch at Celler de l’Aspic in the nearby town of Falset, because none of the four restaurants and three stores in Gratallops is open on Sunday night. I could channel-surf the hostel’s cable television or watch the sun set behind steep hills covered with olive trees, grape vines and almond trees whose white flowers were beginning to bloom. 
The combination of extreme remoteness and modern technology is typical of Priorat, until the last few decades a poor region that for a century had lost population to cities where jobs were in far greater supply. It’s mountainous terrain cold in the winter and brutally hot in the summer, one ungenerous to farmers and often too steep to work by tractor.
The locals have grown grapes for centuries, Grenache and Carignan, from which they made rustic wine for their own consumption. The vines were not trained in rows but planted individually on soft slate through which the roots of the plant burrowed in search of water. As some farmers abandoned their vineyards when they moved, the grapes continued to grow in fields left to wild grasses and trees.
In 1979, René Barbier, the scion of a Franco-Spanish winemaking family that had sold its firm to the cava producer Freixenet, started making wine in Priorat at what became Clos Mogdor, which is about a ten-minute walk from Hostel Elvira in Gratallops. Others followed. They brought with them other varietals and modern wine-making methods. The heat, harshness of the land, and in some cases the age of the native Grenache vines resulted in low yields with high sugar levels that produced intense wines with high alcohol levels.
That style of wine was perfect for the 1990s, when thanks in part to Robert Parker robust red wines were in high fashion. Priorat’s wines bore some resemblance to the Grenache-based Rhone wines such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape that Parker popularized, a similarity that helped drive demand for Priorat.
Parker’s power has receded, and a new generation of Priorat winemakers is emerging. Some have grown up in the region, but land and housing here remain affordable, and aspiring winemakers continue to come to Priorat, bringing with them their own tastes and methods. The one constant is high alcohol; a wine must have at least 13.5 percent to be labeled Priorat, and it would be hard to make a wine with less than that given the conditions here. 
René Barbier’s son, also named René, still makes Clos Mogador with his father, but he’s experimenting as well. The son is about 40, with a wife and four children, but when he was younger he worked harvests in the Southern Hemisphere, which exposed him to other wine-making techniques. The harvest in California occurs at about the same time as it does in Priorat, so he couldn’t go to Napa Valley, but as an 18-year-old he did venture to Lubbock, Texas in August to pick grapes before returning to do the same in Priorat. René is remarkably honest about his winemaking, and he even took from a barrel what he admitted was a bad Grenache, whose shapelessness will destine it for some end other than a bottle of Clos Mogador. The most interesting wine René offered me was a Grenache aged in amphora, or a large clay pot, which was beautifully fresh and tasted of cranberries and orange.
He’s also making wine from White Grenache and Macabeo, a relative novelty in Priorat, where 95% of the wine is red. René makes Mogador with his father, he collaborates with his wife, who runs Mas Martinet, one of the other five original Priorat producers, and he and wife own vineyards with three other couples with whom they make wine, but the whites are his project. That reminded me of Telmo Rodriguez in La Rioja, whose father insisted on making Remelluri reds until a few years ago but allowed the son to make the whites. René smiled with recognition and said he remembered tasting the first Remelluri whites in the mid-1990s; they were a revelation, he said. The next day I visited Mas Martinet, which is also innovating by replacing the Cabernet and Syrah vines introduce in the 1980s with Grenache and making a little rancio, a red wine that’s exposed to oxygen and heat and thus acquires a flavor reminiscent of Madeira.
The commercial possibilities of Priorat attracted Rhone winemaker Phillip Cambie and Rhone wine merchant Michel Tardieu, who in 1999 launched Mas Alta, a ten-minute drive from Gratallops on steep, winding roads that offer stunning vistas onto the surrounding mountains and villages. The wines are big but not absurdly so, since Mas Alta doesn’t use that much new oak, and well-made if to my taste unexciting. But these wines aren’t made for my taste; they’re made for a specific, well-heeled segment of the export market, and the owners’ expertise in navigating that market is a critical skill given the EU’s heavy regulation of the wine trade.
My last visit in Priorat was with Fredi Torres, a Spanish native who was raised in Switzerland, where he studied oenology in college. Fredi came to Priorat to work for René Barbier and ended up buying vineyards nearby, one of them across a road from one of René’s. Those plots are steep enough that they have to be worked by mule, and Fredi occasionally lets René house his animal in a small stone hut on Fredi’s land. I was surprised to learn that some mules, like the one Fredi worked with for many yeas, can be quite tractable; that animal is pretty much retired, and her successor is younger and more of a challenge. The mule is the only way Fredi can work one of his vineyards, which is covered not with soil but with soft slate stones and is so steep that I worried I would slide all the way down the hill with every step I took.  
Fredi greatly prefers Carignan to Grenache, and he’s one of the few people to make wine entirely from Carginan, which is much more commonly a blending grape. After two days of tasting Grenache, I found that Fredi’s wines had a nerviness that should develop beautifully as they age. He’s recently added capacity, having purchased an abandoned vineyard whose 80-year-old Carignan vines had grown wild for a generation. He wasn’t crowing about their age, though; instead, he was worried about the quality of the grapes they would produce in their first year free of underbrush in a long time. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

A spoonful of sugar

The nineteenth German Riesling I tasted on Saturday – for the record, a 2011 Geltz-Zilliken Saarburger Rausch Spätlese – was, like too many of its antecedents, unremarkable: a vaguely tropical fruit nose with perhaps a little ginger ale aroma, then slightly sweet on the tongue, with little definition of taste. Whatever. But the twentieth glass I sampled, the 2003 vintage of the same wine, was one to quit on. The nose was vivid, orange peel, apricot and petrol (think not of a gas station, but perhaps of the peel of some novel citrus that’s just been squeezed into your cocktail), and the wine had peaks and valleys of acidity, spice and sweetness in the mouth. If the 2011 delivers that kind of experience in eight years, then those who pluck down their $50 for a bottle now will have received good value.
The two pours came at the end of the last of the tastings at the four Manhattan wine stores that participated in Rieslingfeier, an event devoted to the grape beloved by both the hipster wine crowd and the traditionalists. The latter love riesling aging potential, its distinctive aromas and its subtlety, the former the seemingly infinite expressions of the grape that a small plot of land can offer.
A wine like the 2003 Geltz-Zilliken offers ample reason for riesling love. There’s something magical about tasting a vintage that’s starting to come into its own against one too young to show much. It’s like witnessing alchemy, or watching a great golfer hit an iron shot to the back of the 16th green at Augusta National and then seeing the ball snake back thirty yards to within a putter’s length of the pin. You realize that the winemaker or golfer thinks in completely different terms than you do and is capable of effecting a thought whose possibility you hadn’t even contemplated.
For all that, the veterans on the Manhattan riesling trail whispered that many of the wines weren’t good values, a critique that extended beyond the rieslings being poured. Some of the entry-level wines meant to be drunk young were indeed head-scratchingly high in price at $25 or more. Perhaps the real value is at the higher end, where prices are quite reasonable compared to white burgundy or ambitious California chardonnays.
The lower-end product may also have been hurt by Germans’ preference in the last generation for wines with less residual sugar, which was apparent on Saturday. By the end of the tasting, I felt the acidity of the wines more than I would have liked. A comparison from another tasting showed how much a little sugar can add to a riesling. On Friday, an importer poured the 2011 wines of Hofgut Falkenstein at Chambers Street Wines. One, a trocken, had an intense acidity with little sugar to balance it; the other, a halbtrocken (long story short, more residual sugar than the trocken, or dry), had a much more interesting nose and was livelier on the tongue. I don’t think most Americans would characterize it as sweet. The trocken was not a particularly good value when compared to a a Muscadet from the Loire or an Albarino from Galicia. But the Feinherb – a synonym for halbtrocken meant to avoid that word’s now pernicious implication of sweetness – was distinct from a chenin blanc or a muscat. It demanded some thought and offered some pleasure. A little sugar can go a long way.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Emile Peynaud: Bringing science to the cellar

Emile Peynaud is one of the most important figures in the history of wine. Born in Bordeaux in 1912, he studied oenology at its university in the 1930s and after World War II spread a scientific approach to winemaking as a consultant to many of the great Bordeaux houses and, in later years, to vignerons around France and across the globe.
Critics of Peynaud argue that his advocacy of modern technique and wide-ranging consulting, which became a model for later “flying winemakers,” helped lead to a standardization of wines from different regions in the same way that Robert Parker’s wine scoring has. But while Parker succeeded by publishing a sort of Consumer’s Report of high-end wine and wrote with the all of the stiffness that one would expect from that publication, Peynaud communicated his ideas with style. His books Connaissance et travail du vin and Le Goût du vin are classic works on winemaking and wine tasting, activities that in his view were inextricably linked. They have been translated into English; his collection of essays Le vin et les jours has not, but it evidences the same intellectual rigor, arrogance, and gift for the aperçu.
Peynaud balanced a typically French respect for hierarchy and tradition with a scientist’s willingness to experiment. He worried about losing “the personality of terroir,” and believed that the great wine regions should be wary of changing their styles to appeal to the lowest common denominator – or, as he put it, “to the thirst of other throats or to certain boldnesses in presentation,” which reads like a veiled shot at Parker. But Peynaud also loved the freedom of New World winemaking, where “the future is open to all experiences, and oenology has an open field. I am attracted by these situations without constraints.”
A good chunk of Le vin et les jours is devoted to the history of winemaking, and here the key figure is Louis Pasteur, for whom faulty wine was a model for human disease: “When one sees beer and wine undergo profound alterations because the liquids have given asylum to microscopic organisms,” Pasteur once wrote, “how can one not be obsessed by the thought that events of the same order can and must be present in men and animals.”
That insight animates modern oenology. If a wine tastes off, there must be a flaw in the way the wine was made that can be identified and corrected. An early solution to microbial spoilage, of course, was pasteurization, which also has the effect of removing much of a wine’s subtlety. Later, Peynaud writes, “the rational addition of sulfites emerged as a more effective practice,” since sulfites kill bacteria and unwanted yeast. The use of sulfites has become one of the most controversial subjects in the wine world, but it was adopted to solve a serious problem, and can be minimized by an improved understanding of how wine is made.
Peynaud acknowledges that new styles of winemaking have not always led to a better product and sometimes have degraded a producer’s wine in the process of abandoning older ways of doing things. Mechanization, he emphasizes, is not synonymous with progress.
Despite the influence of science, winemakers are still confronted with many choices, starting with how to train their vines and when to pick their grapes – or which varietals to plant in the first place. Here, the consultant plays a valuable role by accumulating experience that no single producer could. Peynaud writes, “The hundreds of cuvees vinified every year, of all crus and all varietals, have been an unequaled field of observation. Lacking the ability to experiment rationally in this area, I engaged in comparative vinification. In thirty harvests, if one has the chemist’s observant eye and the taster’s trained palate, one will likely have encountered practically every kind of case and be ready from then on for the unforeseen.”
One of Peynaud’s first harvests was 1934, when in the course of an experiment on bottling in a Medoc laboratory he wrote in his own hand labels for bottle of Barsac from Chateau Dudon. One of his friends sends him a bottle of the sweet wine when he’s in a German POW camp in Wurtenberg in 1942. The commanding officer, a model of German humorlessness and efficiency, is nonetheless from Neustadt in Pfalz, a region where Riesling is produced, and understands that Peynaud has helped make the wine, so he gives him the bottle and orders him to consume its contents as quickly as possible.
“He even gave me a corkscrew,” writes Peynaud, who shared the gift with French and Belgian friends. “This wine from the past, I was sure, had come to revive me in my exile by speaking to me of liberty, of the future, and by rekindling hope within me. They all awaited me at home, my friend and others, to write works of oenology together. For a long time – believe it if you will – I could not taste a Barsac without a little emotion. It is the only wine which once made me weep with joy.”

Friday, February 1, 2013

John McPhee, Edward Behr and Natural Winemaking

“Natural winemaking” is one of the wine world’s most prominent slogans. Its advocates favor grapes that are grown sustainably with minimal fertilizer and wines made in a “non-interventionist” way – that is, without new oak, which can overpower the flavor of the wine, and with minimal sulfur, which helps preserve wine but can also be an easy way to mask flaws in it. The natural winemaking crowd wants a product that expresses “terroir,” the unique qualities of the precise place in which the wine was made. Its bogeyman is mass-produced wine, particularly big reds with lots of oak, from Yellow Tail at the low end to Bordeaux at the high end.
Natural winemaking is a subset of the slow and organic food movements. Every ideology needs its popularizer, and Michael Pollan filled that role for slow foodies with to his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Behind Pollan lies Edward Behr, who moved to Vermont in the early 1970s to become a carpenter and in 1987 launched The Art of Eating, a quarterly magazine devoted to the search for the truest possible ingredients from vanilla to coffee to pork, which was the subject of a 1999 Behr essay that moved Chipotle founder Steve Ells to source his meat from the most agriculturally honest producers possible. In 1992, the Atlantic Monthly Press published a collection of Behr’s essays, and coincidentally or not, over the next generation various authors have produced a series of popular books focused on a single foodstuff.
Behind Behr’s work and its progeny is John McPhee’s 1967 essay Oranges, about the fruit of that name and the juice produced from it. McPhee became most famous for his books on geology and the environment, culminating in the 1998 book Annals of A Former World, which won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. Oranges is the third of McPhee’s 25 or so books and the first to focus on the concerns that would dominate much of his writing. He recorded a key inflection point in American agriculture and, while he was at it, a consumer mentality against which today’s environmentally conscious eaters are reacting.
Behr’s essays are often charming, and it’s a shame there aren’t more of them in book form so that the reader can track the development of his writing. Some of his best work comes in his shortest essays, on bay leaves or sorrel or various kinds of mint (a biological class that includes hyssop and lavender, we learn). Behr had read the classics of food writing and cookery and placed himself squarely in that tradition with the title of his quarterly, a nod to M.F.K. Fisher’s collection of that name. “Don’t worry about thieving The Art of Eating,” she reassured him in a letter; “I think I thieved it too, because it’s taken from something said by Brillat-Savarin, something about how men and animals may eat, but very few of them know the art of it.”
Behr is among that select group. In an age before bloggers posted photos and absurdly detailed descriptions of long tasting menus at Michelin-starred restaurants, he knew that Paris chef Alain Senderens favored a preparation of lobster with vanilla. He hunted down ingredients all over the U.S., including the dried Greek oregano and sage sold at Kalustyan’s on Lexington between 28th and 29th in Manhattan. (He doesn’t mention the deli, though, purveyor of my favorite sandwiches in New York.)
Behr is fundamentally an aesthete rather than an environmentalist and a cook rather than a scientist, but his obsessive focus on quality aligns him with the opponents of mass-produced food. That orientation comes to the fore in his essay on pork, which has became leaner in the 1990s as food companies sought to brand the meat as a healthy alternative to chicken. Not only is such meat flavorless; the pigs from which it comes are raised in an unnatural, unhealthy way that requires they be pumped full of antibiotics and cooped up in buildings that generated a horrible smell and immense amounts of waste, all to generate standardized food that gives no joy to those who consume it.
Behr takes endless delight in the diversity that comes with small-scale farming. He expresses the sentiment best in the final paragraph of his essay “A Multiplicity of Apples,” where he writes, “If you sample different varieties from one orchard to another, you come to understand that an essential apple virtue is its unexpected variety of flavor, its surprises from apple to apple, tree to tree, and especially from year to year – produced largely by the imperfectly understood influences of soil, cultural practices, climate, and weather. They are filters through which the flavor of each variety is expressed. And, in fact, it is the surprises – the unending variety, not only the high points – that goad you on.”
Variety is the enemy of the process McPhee explores in Oranges. Florida producers want their concentrate to taste the same from can to can to can. Even in a motel in the heart of Florida orange country, a waitress tells McPhee, customers want consistency. “Fresh is either too sour or too watery or too something,” she tells him. “Frozen is the same every day. People want to know what they’re getting.”  They want the same predictability in their fruit – no blood oranges, and oranges must be that color, even though the ripe fruit may be completely green. Whole processing plants are devoted to achieving that color after the oranges are picked.
But most of the oranges grown in Florida go into concentrate, and “an individual orange means nothing” in making it. Instead of selling oranges, growers sell “pounds solid,” especially sugar, as in the years to come Perdue will sell white rather than dark chicken meat and Iowa farmers will be paid more to produce lean pork. “We are growing chemicals now, not oranges,” one grower tells McPhee, a sentence that could stand for the course of big agriculture generally after World War II, and for the standardization of American life more broadly. Even in the mid-1960s McPhee could write, “Gas stations, Burger Queens, and shopping centers so dominate the towns of central Florida that the overall effect on a springtime visitor can be that he is in Trenton during an August heat wave.”
Surprisingly to the modern reader, wealthier, more educated consumers led the move to concentrate. “Farmers, craftsmen, and laborers buy the least concentrate,” McPhee writes, while “doctors, dentists, lawyers, and corporate executives are the heaviest consumers.” That relationship has been inverted. People like Behr and Pollan have helped change attitudes among the wealthy, while the ever-declining cost of industrialized food has made obesity and diabetes serious public health problems in America. The oenological debates about natural winemaking techniques often sound tinny and intellectualized, but they mirror more serious issues elsewhere in the world of food. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

An encyclopedia worth reading

When I mentioned to a friend last month that I was reading the Oxford Companion to Wine, he replied that the task sounded like reading the encyclopedia, the paradigm of boredom, a pointless, mindless, joyless march through the alphabet. And he hadn’t even seen the book, which weighs eight pounds and is 800 pages long. Though not titled an encyclopedia, the OCW aspires to be as thorough as one, with entries on countries and regions from France to Pakistan (“where one of the richest resources of ancient, genetically varied plant material may still be found”) and grapes from Chardonnay to Grignolino.
More than once, I shared my friend’s assessment of the task I was undertaking, and of the implications for my own sanity. Planta Fina, Planta Nova, Plant cell diversity, Plantet. Why am I doing this to myself?
Far more often, though, I was enthralled and entertained. “Reading the encyclopedia” has a dismissive tone because it suggests someone who’s working through a long book only to finish it rather than because of curiosity or interest. It’s unattractive intellectualism taken to its extreme. But any broad subject contains within it interlocking universes; it’s the approach to cataloguing those realms that determines the value of the exercise.
Jancis Robinson, who edited the OWC, crafted a work that’s authoritative and deeply informed, as any reference work should be, but also witty, humane, and deeply aware of the contingency and subjectivity of its subject. In this sense, the most OWC’s significant entry may be “fashion,” which one would not expect to see in a definitive work. But tastes have always changed, and, “what has been most remarkable about fashions in wine consumption in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has been how rapidly wine production has reacted to them, and in some cases created them (see wine brands, rose wines, pale cream sherry, low-alcohol wine, and wine boxes among others.” Or Sauvignon Blanc, which we learn was only the 13th most planted grape in France in 1968 but had risen to third in 2000. The OWC gives extensive coverage to the scientific and technical advances have that also transformed the way grapes are grown and wine is made in recent decades, which along with the sensitivity to changing tastes gives the subject a dynamism not generally associated with encyclopedias, whose heft alone suggests stasis and completion. 
The acknowledgement of change in the wine world allows for a focus on the people who have fostered it, starting with the Burgundian monks who “had several advantages over lay growers: they had cellars and store rooms in which to mature their wine; and, most importantly, they kept records and had the time and a degree of organization necessary to engage in systematic improvements.” Or, more decadently, King Henry IV, who favored wines from Givry in Burgundy “perhaps because it was the birthplace of his mistress Gabrielle d’Estrées.”
Samuel Pepys makes a cameo appearance, since his “life seems to have been a succession of drinks if his diary provides an accurate record, with references to Tent, Canary, Rhenish, and English wines from vineyards around London.” The 17th century diarist was also the first to refer “to new French clarets, in particular that of ‘Ho Bryan,’ ” or Haut-Brion, one of the great wines of Bordeaux, an region oriented toward export to Britain since the middle ages. Yellow Tail makes its appearance as a triumph of Australian marketing, as do Ernest and Julio Gallo for their canny domination of the U.S. market. 
These personalities make it easier for the non-specialist to retain focus on the entries describing technical developments, such as canopy management, a method of maximizing the sunlight that the leaves of the vine receive and therefore to make sugar that will be concentrated in the grapes, or refrigeration during the fermentation process, which “more than any other factor has permitted warm and hot regions to produce wine of internationally acceptable quality.” 
The OCW conveys a sense of the magic of wine that its devotees have shared for thousands of years and that the ancient Greek poet Hesiod describes in a passage quoted in book: “I love a shady rock and some wine from Byblos, a cake of cheese, and goat’s milk, and some meat of heifers pastured in the woods, uncalved, of first-born kids. Then I may sit in the shade and drink the shining wine, and eat my fill, and turn my face to meet the fresh west wind, and pour three times an offering from the spring which always flows, unmuddied, streaming down, and make my fourth libation one of wine.”