Articles in Viticulture
Whenever I mention Swiss wine — which I do at every possible opportunity — most people get a glazed look in their eyes. Some folks are unaware that wine is even grown in this tiny, mountainous, landlocked country. Those lucky few who have had the chance to taste a delicate Chasselas from Lake Geneva, say, or a smooth, plummy Merlot from Lake Lugano tend to get distracted by their high price and lament the fact that the wines are hard to find outside the country.
Besides, they may add, there are so many interesting — and more accessible — bottles out there waiting to be sampled, and the time and effort required to track down these expensive, elusive Swiss drops is just too much of a stretch.
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Bear with me: There are treasures in them there hills (make that mountains), and now is the moment to start discovering them. Why now, all of a sudden? Wine has been made in Switzerland — as in the rest of Europe — for at least 2,000 years, but it’s in the past 20 that there have been huge changes. Swiss winemakers have access to all the same kinds of recent technical advances that have benefited wine making all over the world. But a hugely significant — and specifically Swiss — development came in the 1990s, when restrictions on the import of foreign wines were lifted. At a stroke, that oh-so-comforting protectionist cushion was removed and winemakers were faced with serious international competition and forced to raise their game.
An introduction to Swiss wines
For Paolo Basso, Best Sommelier of the World in 2013 and a Swiss national, the key players in this story are the new generation of wine growers. “They are much more dynamic (than earlier generations),” he explained in a recent email. “They have studied viticulture and enology not just in Switzerland but also abroad, they travel widely and they enjoy discovering wines from other countries.” While they remain hugely proud of their deeply rooted wine making traditions and culture, this does not stop them from constantly striving for innovation and improvement.
Swiss vineyards are a magnificent patchwork of different climates and terroirs, which means there are always exciting discoveries to be made. At a time when more and more of us are interested in sampling curiosities and hunting down original wines that stand out from the crowd, these Alpine beauties press plenty of buttons. Basso concludes, with complete impartiality: “If the Best Sommelier of the World is Swiss, it’s because Switzerland has some of the best wines in the world!”
Here’s a selection of Swiss wines to put on your bucket list. The country’s calling cards, which together account for the majority of plantings, are Chasselas and Pinot Noir, but some of the most exciting finds come from grapes that are indigenous to Switzerland and seldom (if ever) found outside.
Chasselas (aka Fendant)
Switzerland’s signature white grape, known in the Valais as Fendant and in all other Swiss regions as Chasselas, gives delicately fragrant, low-acid, low-alcohol wines with a slight prickle. When made from the best genetic variants, planted in prime sites (such as Lavaux, recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, whose impossibly beautiful vineyards climb steeply up from the shores of Lake Geneva), and its vigorous growth carefully controlled, Chasselas can give wines of distinction and subtle depth. Most examples are floral, fresh and highly quaffable, making them the perfect aperitif wine.
Petite Arvine is one of Switzerland’s most thrilling white varieties, indigenous to the Valais region and to neighboring Valle d’Aosta (Italy), which has recently shot to stardom. It makes wines that vary from lip-smackingly dry with gorgeous grapefruit tones and a characteristic salty finish to luscious, highly concentrated, sweet wines from late-harvested grapes. Some of the most expressive come from the village of Fully near Martigny, whose biennial event, Arvines en Capitale, celebrates this unique variety. This distinctive white wine is perfect with raclette, preferably made using an aged alp cheese from the Valais.
Heida (aka Païen)
This is none other than the Savagnin grape of the Jura region (where it gives the famous Vin Jaune), which is now firmly anchored in the Valais region. When the wine is made in the upper part of the Valais region, where German is spoken, its name is Heida; further down the valley toward Lake Geneva, where French is spoken, its name is Païen. Grown in tiny — but steadily increasing — quantities, it gives full-bodied, spicy white wines of enormous distinction. The excellent Provins cooperative, which makes this bottle, recommends Heida with assertively spiced and seasoned dishes such as scallop carpaccio or fish tartare with coconut milk.
Another grape indigenous to the Valais, this ancient white variety is extremely rare: worldwide there are only 40 hectares (98 acres) grown, of which 35 hectares (86 acres) are found in the village of Vétroz, its spiritual home. The small-berried, late-ripening grapes give luscious, deep golden, honeyed wines of varying sweetness. In Amignes from Vétroz, the degree of sweetness is helpfully indicated on the label by a bee motif: one bee indicates an off-dry wine, two is sweeter and three bees is fully sweet. In August 2015 the winegrowers of Vétroz introduced a festival dedicated to “their” grape titled Amigne on the Road, with food and wine trucks serving local specialties and wines from 15 of the village’s wineries. Amigne is a delight served with a buttery, caramelized tarte tatin or enjoyed on its own, just for the pleasure of it.
The famous red grape of Burgundy, this is Switzerland’s most widely planted vine. In the French-speaking cantons it goes by its French name, while in the German-speaking regions it may be labelled Pinot Noir or Blauburgunder (“blue Burgundy”). It is grown in almost all regions, with cantons Graubünden in the east and Neuchâtel in the west both acknowledged centers of excellence. Today, thanks to the effects of climate change, ever finer, fully ripe examples are emerging from the more northerly cantons of Zurich and neighboring Aargau. At the Gasthaus Zum Sternen in Würenlingen, where this one comes from, they pair it with Suure Mocke, a fine dish of beef braised in red wine.
This is another characterful variety that came from the Valle d’Aosta region of northern Italy (where it is known as Cornalin). Arriving in the Valais via the Grand Saint Bernard pass during the 19th century, it made a niche for itself, while always remaining a bit of a rarity. In the past 20 years it has enjoyed a renaissance, joining the Valais’ other highly sought-after specialty grapes. It can be a bit of a country cousin, with a rustic character and pronounced tannins, but in the right hands and with careful vinification (including some barrel-ageing) it gives scented, cherry-red wines that can age with elegance. Try it with richly sauced game dishes (venison or wild boar) or roast lamb, or with a soft, washed-rind cheese such as Vacherin Mont d’Or.
The world-famous red grape arrived in Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, from Bordeaux, France, in 1906 and now occupies almost 90 percent of the region’s vineyard surface area. You can find it both as a single varietal and in a blend with other red grapes. Wine maker Ivo Monti of Cantina Monti (whose wines regularly sweep the board in the annual Grand Prix du Vin Suisse) comments that “Merlot is a great soloist, but if you add other varieties, you get the whole orchestra.” Tiny quantities are also vinified as white wine (the Merlot grape has red skins but white juice), labeled Merlot Bianco. Merlot pairs well with richly sauced meats, porcini mushrooms or — for a typically Ticinese match — a bowl of roasted chestnuts.
This relatively new variety, a Gamay Noir x Reichensteiner cross, was developed in the 1970s by Switzerland’s viticultural research station. It has been particularly successful in the Geneva vineyards where it is made as a single varietal, as here, or blended with its sibling grape Garanoir. Its early ripening, bluish-black grapes give deeply colored, supple, spicy wines, which would match well with pinkly roasted duck breast or beef in a red wine butter sauce.
Sourcing Swiss wines
In the United States (Madison, Wisconsin): Swiss Cellars.
In the United Kingdom: Alpine Wines.
In Canada: Swiss Wine Imports.
Alternatively, consult www.winesearcher.com for your nearest local supplier. Better still, visit Switzerland and explore the vineyards yourself, using the free app supplied by Swiss Wine Promotion body, Vinea.
Main photo: A patchwork of Swiss vineyards in the Valais, near Chamoson. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style
Fifty years ago this year, David Lett, of Eyrie Vineyards, noticing the Willamette Valley’s similarity to France’s Burgundy region, planted the first Pinot Noir grapes in the Oregon valley. A half a century later, Oregon is home to 1,027 vineyards and 676 wineries, and 15,356 acres of the noble varietal.
A group of pioneering Pinot producers gives a strong picture of just how much it has changed and just how diverse it is.
Though it has made many varietals throughout its 44-year history, Adelsheim Vineyard, one of the oldest in the Valley, has focused on its true love of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. A leader in the Chehalem Mountains American Viticultural Area, the winery was one of the first to designate a full-time export manager to send Oregon wine out into the world. “We really want the world to know about the high quality of our winemaking and our potential,” said Diana Szymaczak, marketing and communications manager. The winery’s 2012 Adelsheim Elizabeth’s Reserve Pinot Noir builds on what winemakers have learned through 29 vintages to create a wine both elegant and intense, with layered aromas of red fruit, brown spice and cedar.
The family-run winery Broadley Vineyards, based in Monroe, Oregon, does everything from the philosophy that great land produces great wines. “I love that each year the wines/vintages provide memories for me and my family, like a timeline, both good and bad,” said Morgan Broadley, winemaker and son of the company’s founder. Over the years, the winery has developed a following from wine lovers who enjoy its layered, rich and sometimes decadent Pinot Noir, which once earned as high as a 97 in Wine Spectator. Its 2013 Estate Pinot shows some of the exceptional characteristics of the winery’s site, with red fruit notes and hints of baking spices like cardamom, cinnamon and clove.
Based in Newberg, Oregon, and the first vineyard in the Ribbon Ridge AVA, Chehalem Wines is a pioneer in making changes to adapt to changing climate conditions. Owner Harry Peterson-Nedry and his head winemaker daughter, Wynne, see the winery as being a catalyst in all areas of winemaking, whether it’s dealing with changing conditions or emphasizing new varietals of Riesling and Chardonnay. ” ‘Over time’ is important to us — we view aging as more and more important, since it adds a fourth dimension to the wines we make,” Peterson-Nedry said. Its 2012 Chehalem Pinot Noir Reserve is a top-of-the-line wine from a top-of-the-line vintage, with lots of dark fruit and flavors of rose hips, tamarind, tobacco, blackberry seed, warm oak and Bing cherry.
Cooper Mountain Vineyards
Cooper Mountain emerged when founder Robert Gross made the transition from conventional farming to organic and biodynamic wine-grape growing in the early 1990s. All of its wines remain certified organic, producing wines free to express the place and time where they were produced. “We farm to increase the natural antioxidant levels of the grapes with the goal of avoiding sulfite additions,” says Barbara Gross, daughter of the vineyard’s founder. Under winemaker Gilles de Domingo, who has been with the Beaverton, Oregon, company since 2004, Cooper Mountain produces its signature wines, including its Life Pinot Noir, with a flavor profile of dark blue fruit, minerals and spices.
Founded by one of the true Oregon Pinot pioneers, Dick Erath, who moved from California to Oregon in 1967, Erath Winery makes the No. 1-selling Pinot Noir in Oregon. “We strive to make pure, clean, fruit-focused wines that showcase the breadth of terroir across Oregon’s many distinct growing regions,” says Ryan Pennington, communications director. Erath’s winemaker Gary Horner, with the company 10 years, shoots for a pure expression of Oregon’s terroir in wines like the winery’s 2012 Prince Hill Pinot Noir Dundee Hills, which has assertive cherry, raspberry, warm vanilla and German chocolate cake notes with just a hint of smoke and is the centerpiece of its founder’s Prince Hill vineyard.
Lange Winery’s winemakers have seen the industry grow from justifying growing grapes in the Willamette Valley to making some of the finest wines in the world. “We craft wines that express terroir, and we do it without the pyrotechnics and heavy-handedness so prevalent in most winemaking these days,” says Jesse Lange, a second-generation family winemaker. Lange has quadrupled its Dundee Hills Estate vineyards over the past decades and its current vintages are beginning to show the fruits of those additions. Its signature wines include its 2014 Pinot Gris Reserve, the first barrel-fermented wine with that varietal, and its 2012 Pinot Noir Lange Estate, its top expression from its Winery Estate property. That wine draws high accolades for its notes of crème brûlée to the plum, and currant.
Ponzi Vineyards, southwest of Portland, is known as much for its highest quality wines as for the hospitality of its tasting room and estate. “Farming our land with the same families for 45 years, it has been able to bring consistency and complexity to our wines,” said Maria Ponzi. The estate created a new, 30,000-square-foot winery in 2008, and a modern tasting room in 2013 — complete with seated tastings, small plates, bocce ball courts, a covered terrace and fire pit. There, visitors can drink Chardonnay (winemaker Luisa Ponzi is a trailblazer) and its 2012 Ponzi Pinot Noir, a benchmark vintage that sources from the oldest vineyards in the valley.
Rex Hill, located in Newberg, Oregon, doesn’t throw grapes in a vintage just because they own them.
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“Everything is done by hand — hand-pruned, handpicked, hand-sorted, and handmade — so we can select from the best of the best of all the vineyards we work with,” says Katie Quinn, marketing manager. “We only make Rex Hill wines in a vintage when we believe they are superlative.” Producers of top-tier Pinot Noir and small quantities of what the company calls “shoot for the moon” Chardonnay, the company believes that sourcing the best grapes from multiple vineyards increases a wine’s complexity and has been pursuing this strategy since 2007.
Under the leadership of executive winemaker Michael Davies, the company, which benefits from its ownership by A to Z Wineworks, has played a considerable role in elevating perception of Willamette Valley wines across the globe. Its 2012 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir carries aromas of blackberries, blueberries, black raspberries, dark cherries, plums, quince and spices, moving toward earthier notes when the nose opens.
Now in its second generation, Sokol Blosser Winery has brought the industry forward many times in the past half-century, most recently with the addition of its new tasting room, a sustainably built, modern structure envisioned to express the soil its wines are created from. That’s not surprising, considering the family also built the state’s first official tasting room. “We are trying to carry forward the collaborative qualities of the pioneers, with an emphasis on quality, family, and long-term viability and sustainability,” said Alison Sokol Blosser, who is co-president with her brother, Alex Sokol Blosser. Its estate now produces wines from more than 86 certified organic acres, including its 2012 Sokol Blosser Dundee Hills Pinot Noir, which showcases dark fruit flavors of cherry and blueberry with earthy and spicy elements.
Main photo: Now run by the second generation of the Sokol Blosser family, the winery of the same name produces exceptional Pinot Noir. Credit: Copyright Andrea Johnson
Le Marche is an unspoiled, green and beautiful region in central Italy bordering the Apennines and the Adriatic with which even many Italians are unfamiliar. Although there have been attempts to designate the region as the “new Tuscany” or call the excellent wines SuperMarche (dropped because, hey, who wants to call a top-flight bottle supermarket?), Le Marche speaks for itself. And, what it says is good food and wine, medieval villages, ancient abbeys, silvery olive groves, golden fields of wheat and vineyards as straight as arrows streaking across the rolling hills.
As Federico Bomba, director of the innovative Bioculture app project, says, the landscape reflects man’s attempt to impose order and precision on a naturally unruly terroir. The recently launched app offers an English-language walking guide through the inland region of Le Marche that brings together digital technology, contemporary art and green lifestyle. Where a traveler once depended on Baedeker or Fodor’s, all they need now are a cellphone or tablet and a charger.
Using the app
Wine? Check. Art? Check. Walking shoes? Check. Mobile digital device? Check. Did I mention wine? Using the well-constructed app is easy, even for technophobes. Click on the location you are in either before or during the visit to map your route, read about the main points of cultural interest from medieval frescoes to chocolate box opera houses to esoteric museums, view original art works and videos that connect to the locale, listen to stories and contemporary sound compositions, and head for local organic vineyards, restaurants and agritourism farms.
Go on a cultural pilgrimage
Explore Le Marche, Italy
Sample the local foods
The entire trip takes three weeks, but the visitor can dip in and out of the route as they wish, sampling local food specialties on the way. It is a sophisticated yet accessible concept of “culture” that goes far beyond the mainstream.
One of the most memorable features of the app are the videos made by Carotti and Simona Sala that reference the interaction between locals and visitors in a witty, dramatic and often moving way.
Rachel Rose Reid, the only non-Italian artist among those on the app, is a gifted storyteller who took inspiration from the people and places she encountered. It is a moment of pure Marche magic to listen to her honied tale while sitting on a sunny hillside overlooking the famous Verdicchio vines and contemplating an artisan of The Mountain Beekeepers Cooperative at his work.
Organic food and wine production in Le Marche is amongst the most extensive in Italy. It is an instinctive harmony with the untouched, verdant landscape combined with pride in local traditions and concern for the future. The rugged, mysterious Sibillini mountains are broken with stretches of lush farmland spread out like geometric mosaics; there are breathtaking vistas, villages clinging to the top of precipitous hilltops, forests, farmhouses and pure white roads. Change comes slowly here and local traditions vary widely from village to village: There are more than 200 dialects in Le Marche alone, a reflection of the varied influences on the region for many centuries.
Aurora, the oldest organic winery in Italy, was started by a group of libertarian students in the 1970s who quit their jobs to return to working the land with eco-conscious respect for a sustainable future. Their aim was to create an independent and self-sufficient community in which they could convert social and economic ideals into concrete actions and projects. They were instrumental in founding Terroir Marche two years ago, an association of small organic and biodynamic wine producers committed to producing good, healthy wines at reasonable prices. As they say, “Each member has their own style, but we share certain principles: No one over-crops, for example, or makes thin, poor wines. We can’t reach perfection, but we’re trying. The key is to know your plants.”
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The app feeds the body as well as the soul and directs the traveler to organic agritourism inns, wineries and country restaurants where you can sample the superb white wines of the region as well as the gutsy, forthright reds that are a fine match for the robust food fortified with rosemary, tomato, wild fennel and garlic. At La Pietra Maula, a gem of an agritourism restaurant located in a hamlet of 16 inhabitants, oenologist Alessandra Venanzoni’s welcoming family aspires to run a “zero kilometers” restaurant using home-produced meat, salamis, fruit and vegetables as well as their own Verdicchio wine.
Meals, family style
The wine of Le Marche, as the app demonstrates so well, does not just encourage exploration of the flavors of local varieties but also the taste of local food, which is as immediately likable and unfussy as the people. Meals in Le Marche are always leisurely, convivial affairs.
End of a journey
My journey to the interior via the Bioculture app was a discovery of green Le Marche; blue Le Marche lies eastward, toward the Adriatic Sea. The region is a dichotomy between sea and land that defines the two separate personalities. Both beg to be explored further with wine, food, art and walks.
Main photo: Using the Bioculture app in the ancient hilltop town of Camerino. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman
Faugères is one of the smaller appellations of the Languedoc, and yet it punches above its weight for the diversity of the origins of its wine growers and the quality of their wines. Among the 50 or so growers you will find people from Australia, Ireland, England, Catalonia, Canada, Belgium and Switzerland, not to mention other parts of France, such as Normandy, Champagne, Bordeaux and Alsace.
For the 2014 vintages, there were four new wine estates. Only one of the newcomers is from outside the region, but all four have taken quite different paths to reach Faugères and all bring individuality to their wine making. So far they have only made one vintage in Faugères, but the first tastings bode well for the future. It may be too early to know much about their wines, but their passion and energy — and some early tastings — hint at good things ahead.
Nicolas Maury: Branching off from the cooperative
Let’s take Nicolas Maury. His father, Philippe, is president of the cooperative of Faugères, as was his grandfather, but Nicolas felt that it would be more rewarding to make his own wine. His father agreed to rent him 4.5 hectares that could easily be released from the cooperative contract. I jokingly suggested that they might be the family’s best vineyards, but Nicolas shrewdly observed that as all their grapes went into the cooperative vats and were blended with other growers’ grapes, they actually had no accurate idea of the taste of the wine from their own vineyards.
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Jérôme Vialla: An adopted heir
Jérôme Vialla is a winegrower’s son, but without any family vineyards. His grandparents had vines on the coastal plain, but they were sold to divide the proceeds among their heirs, and his father now runs Domaine Valensac in nearly Florensac. Jérôme has worked for another coastal estate, Domaine de Pommière, which he described as a factory. He wanted to find more interesting vineyards up in the hills away from the plain. Chance took him to the Faugères village of Fos, where he met his neighbor, an elderly wine grower, who was retiring with no children to follow, so Vialla stepped in and now has 20 hectares planted with the usual five grape varieties of Faugères, namely Carignan, Cinsaut, Grenache Noir, Syrah and Mourvèdre.
When I met Vialla in May 2014, his cellar consisted of several holes in the ground, but as yet no bricks and mortar. He achieved a miracle in completing the cellar just in time for the harvest. In 2014 he made five wines: a fresh, herbal white from Carignan Blanc, a crisp rosé and three qualities of red wine. Two are kept in vat, one with lightly spicy fruit, and the second more substantial; the third wine, a blend of Syrah and Grenache Noir, is aged in barrel, making for some red fruit and a tannic streak. The name of Vialla’s estate, Domaine Epidaure, relates to his wife’s career as a pharmacist, as the city of Epidaurus was an important center of ancient Greek medicine.
Sébastien Louge: A Languedoc outsider
Sébastien Louge does not come from the Languedoc, but from Tarbes in the Hautes-Pyrénées. He studied in Toulouse and Bordeaux and has had a varied career as a winemaker, including a year at Cross Keys in Virginia, as well as working in Madiran and Châteauneuf-du-Pape before coming to the Languedoc, to Domaine de la Grange in Gabian, a village that adjoins the appellation of Faugères. But he wanted to do his own thing, and like Jérôme Vialla, met an elderly winegrower who was looking for somebody to take over his vines. Louge now has 10 hectares and in 2014 made four wines under the label of Domaine de l’Arbussèle.
There is a rosé, but no white, and three reds. Envol Rouge is the entry level, with easy fruit; Authentique comes mainly from old Carignan, and the name is a reference to the fact that Carignan was the original variety of Faugères. The wine is quite firm and structured, balanced with some spicy fruit. The oak-aged cuvée, Revelation, is based on old Grenache Noir, with a streak of tannin balanced by ripe liqueur cherry fruit.
Olivier Gil: Love and wine making
Olivier Gil has local roots — not in Faugères, but in the nearby village of Tourbes. His father is a member of the cooperative there, producing mainly white grapes for vin de pays. Oliver, however, wanted to make red wine and an appellation, so he looked for vines in Faugères and bought a tiny cellar in the center of the village. He learned his wine making at Montpellier, where he met and fell in love with his partner, Adèle Arnaud, who was also studying wine making. (She comes from the Gers in southwest France and has no other history with wine.) They traveled in South America and worked in Collioure before settling in Faugères. I met them the day before they bottled their first wines, under the label Mas Lou.
The names of their various cuvées all recall their South American experience, with Selva, the rosé, for the Amazonian forest. Angaco, the first red, is where they stayed and worked; Aksou refers to special Bolivian weaving; and Tio, for the oak-aged wine, is the god of the potassium mines. Olivier said that he looked for elegance and concentration in his wines, and for supple tannins, and that is certainly what he has achieved with his first vintage.
Main photo: The wines of Domaine Epidaure. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary George
Let’s say you bought some Cabernet Sauvignon vines from a local nursery to plant a vineyard. You decided on Cabernet because you determined that this particular grape variety would be best for your location because of its soil type, sun exposure and climate. But then a worrisome thought enters your head: What if the vines aren’t Cabernet Sauvignon after all, but some other less-suited variety? What if the nursery somehow got them mixed up with Sauvignon Blanc vines? That would be a mighty costly mistake.
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You could pray, sweat and grind your teeth until the first grape clusters appear, and then wait some more until they change color and mature enough for you to figure out the vines’ true identity. Or, you could call an ampelographer.
Ampelography is a type of grapevine botany that uses the physical traits of grape leaves to identify varieties. Grape leaves vary quite a bit between varieties, so a skilled ampelographer can easily distinguish Cabernet Sauvignon from Cabernet Franc.
In the world of ampelography, it would be hard to find a more renowned practitioner than Virginia-based vineyard consultant Lucie Morton, who travels around the country lending her expertise to grape growers and vintners.
Among Morton’s clients is one of California’s best Sauvignon Blanc producers, St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery, which flew her out to the Napa Valley earlier this month to teach an ampelography class. I was lucky enough to participate in the workshop, and learn some tips from a master.
Before taking us into the vineyard, Morton explained the background and basics of vine identification. Lesson number one: “Looking at clusters is cheating.”
In the early days of the California wine industry, American vintners often brought back vine cuttings from Europe to plant in their vineyards. Sometimes, the varieties were not identified correctly, or were known in their native country by a different name than the one used by the rest of the world.
In the 1970s Morton began to discover that some vines planted in American vineyards were misidentified. For example, she said, in the Finger Lakes region of New York people used to say that the Chardonnay grown there tasted “Germanic,” due to the area’s cold climate. The real reason was because their “Chardonnay” was actually Riesling.
Up until the early 80s, nearly all of the “Pinot Blanc” planted in California was not Pinot Blanc but a French variety called Melon de Bourgogne. An ampelographer — Morton’s teacher, Pierre Galet — set the record straight. “It does not make you popular, pointing out other people’s mistakes,” Morton told the class.
Even so, her skills are in demand, even in the modern world of high-tech viticulture. Although DNA testing can identify varieties, Morton pointed out, it can’t distinguish between clones. Ampelography can. “There’s still practical value in this skill,” she said.
Anatomy of a grape leaf
According to Morton, the main characteristics that distinguish grape leaves include:
Lobes: If you imagine the leaf as a hand, the lobes would be the individual fingers that extend outward. Some leaves have prominent lobes, other leaves are shield-shaped and have none.
Petiolar sinus: This is the empty space surrounding the stem of the leaf. Some sinuses are wide open, others are very narrow.
Teeth: These are the serrations on the outside edge of the leaf. Some are jagged and sharp, others are rounded.
It’s also important to look at the color and texture of the leaves.
In the vineyard
Providing each of us with a list of defining characteristics for several different grape varieties, Morton sent us out into St. Supery’s Dollarhide vineyard and challenged us to bring her back a leaf from each variety. If we got it wrong, we went back to try again.
Identifying the vines was more difficult than I expected. In a given vineyard row, not all of the leaves are identical, even among the same variety. Just when I would think I had a match, I’d notice that one of the distinguishing elements wasn’t quite right: The teeth were rounded instead of triangular or the surface was smooth instead of leathery. Each time I was sent back for another leaf, I came to respect Morton’s skill a little more.
Following are the characteristics of five of California’s most popular grape varieties:
Morton calls this leaf the “monkey face” or the “mask,” because when held with its tip facing up, it looks like it has eye and mouth holes. It has five lobes, rounded teeth and an open (or naked) petiolar sinus.
This is a shield-shaped leaf, with shallow, sawblade-like teeth and an open petiolar sinus. The vine’s young shoots will have red nodes that are distinctive to Chardonnay.
This leaf is longer than it is wide, with five prominent lobes, an open petiolar sinus and deep triangular teeth. It’s yellowish in color, with a waffled, leathery texture.
This five-lobed leaf is green in color, with a wavy texture. It has a narrow, almost-closed petiolar sinus, a round shape and rounded teeth. The lobes have three prominent troughs that resemble spouts from a fountain.
This leaf is a heart-shaped shield, with a relatively narrow petiolar sinus and shallow pointy teeth. It has a puffy, quilted look and a thick, leathery texture.
Main photo: In a sea of vines, ampelography can help growers tell which grape varieties are which. Credit: Tina Caputo
Start a sheep farm to lower your taxable income? That’s what Deborah Sowerby did when she launched Olive Ewe Ranch in 2005 in Bradley, California, 20 miles northeast of Paso Robles, the noted wine region on the Central Coast.
The idea started when Sowerby’s husband, Paul, the national sales manager at Adelaida Cellars winery in the mountainous Adelaida District of Paso Robles, brought home a book about it one day and suggested she try it.
For the stay-at-home mom, it sounded like a good opportunity, and the book provided the guidance she needed to get started. Because Sowerby enjoys lamb, she opted to raise a good meat breed, starting with four ewes that grew to a flock of 100. Her sheep of choice is the medium-sized hair breed called Dorpers, which are easy to train and flock well. “As a meat breed, they are mild and buttery in flavor. They don’t have strong flavor like the wool breed,” she said.
Sheep grazing benefits local wineries
In the past four years, the meat business has morphed into a Sheep in the Vineyard program, in which sheep help control weeds in vineyards and reduce the carbon footprint by cutting back on fuel emissions, Sowerby said.
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She got the idea to start the program after she was approached by vintners looking for a holistic way to farm. With Sheep in the Vineyard, grazing sheep clear weeds and other invasive ground cover that can deplete soil’s nutrients. The grazing helps restore soil vitality and even nourishes the vines.
Sowerby’s sheep have found homes in some top-notch wineries in Paso Robles, among them Adelaida Cellars, Tablas Creek, Booker Vineyards, Ambyth, Dover Canyon and Villa Creek.
“A 100-pound sheep deposits 4 pounds of fertilizer daily,” she said of another benefit to Sheep in the Vineyard. “Over a five-month period, 20 sheep deposited 12,000 pounds in the 7-acre Bobcat Crossing Vineyard.”
Bobcat Crossing is part of the Adelaida Cellars’ 168-acre ranch that is home to 24 sheep, a couple of alpacas and a guardian llama named “Lliam.”
Sheep in the Vineyard was initiated at Adelaida Cellars. “There was so much mustard and vineyards adding to the biodiversity,” she noted. In addition to the benefits to the health of the vineyards, the sheep are also a draw for the winery’s visitors.
Initially, Sowerby’s sheep were brought in from her ranch after the grape harvest, grazing in the vineyards from October to March. Soon, though, she decided to leave the flock year-round so they could graze in the walnut orchards and mustard fields between March and October.
“For two years now, this is home to 24 Dorpers,” she said of the Adelaida Cellars ranch. Of this herd, six are owned by Adelaida Cellars, while the rest belong to Sowerby.
Ill effects of California drought
The drought in California affects the sheep and Sowerby’s plans for the future. Each year, Olive Ewe Ranch attempts to grow a field of forage mix (oats, wheat and barley) with the hope that sufficient rain will fall so they can cut and bale it for supplement feed, along with purchased alfalfa, which is a good source of protein for the flock.
“The reality is with several years of drought, growing a crop based on the whims of Mother Nature to grant us sufficient moisture is like rolling the dice,” Sowerby said.
Sowerby’s work in agriculture work belies her fashion background. Previously, her only relationship with wool was with fabrics and textiles. As a design and merchandising specialist, the former Orange County resident’s travels took her around the world on Princess Cruises and working for Giorgio Armani boutiques. Her lifestyle changed when she moved with Paul to the Central Coast 20 years ago. They purchased their 40-acre property nine years ago.
Olive Ewe Ranch has expanded to the point that she has now partnered with Mary Rees, another sheep producer, to create a comprehensive program that not only supplies sheep but also training and assistance specific to the wineries. While some wineries rent their herds, others raise their own flocks.
Breed recommendations for sheep farming
When clients look for recommendations for a particular breed — more sheep breeds are available than any other type of livestock — Sowerby suggests Dorpers. “It’s possible to triple the flock’s size in one year (with Dorpers) since they have the ability to lamb year-round,” she said.
In addition, they shed and don’t require shearing, which can be expensive. Sowerby also advises picking a sheep species based on the desired taste. The species fall into two categories — hair breeds and wool breeds. The wool breeds have a more lanolin flavor that becomes more pronounced as the animals age, while hair breeds maintain their softer, buttery flavor.
Olive Ewe Ranch Lamb Sliders With Aioli
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Yield: 8 servings
For the lamb burgers:
1 pound ground lamb
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
Salt and pepper to taste
For the carmelized onions:
2 tablespoons butter
2 medium onions, finely sliced
2 tablespoons thyme
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 shallots, minced
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup Adelaida Cellars Syrah (or a full-bodied red wine)
For the aioli:
6 cloves of garlic, finely minced
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 egg yolks, at room temperature
1 tablespoon mayonnaise (optional)
1 cup olive oil
For assembling the sliders:
8 slider buns, gently seared on the grill
2 cups arugula
8 slices Gruyere cheese
For the burgers:
1. Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Form into eight small patties.
2. Brush lightly with olive oil and grill until desired doneness.
For the carmelized onions:
1. Heat butter in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onions and thyme. Let the onions brown, turning occasionally, 15 minutes. Add garlic and shallots, continue cooking, turning occasionally, for another 3 minutes.
2. Add the stock and cook until the mixture is reduced to a brown color but not scorched. Then add red wine and continue to reduce until the onions turn light brown and caramelize, about 10 to 15 minutes.
3. Set aside and warm before serving.
For the aioli:
1. Put garlic and salt in a mortar and mash with a pestle to form a paste.
2. Place in a bowl and add egg yolks. Whisk gently.
3. If using, add the mayonnaise to the bowl and mix. (For foolproof aioli, this helps the binding process.)
4. Slowly start adding olive oil a few teaspoons at a time while whisking, until all the oil is added. The end result will be a mayonnaise-like consistency. Aioli can be refrigerated for up to five days.
For assembling the sliders:
1. Apply a thin layer of aioli to both sides of the warmed buns.
2. Place a lamb patty on the bottom portion of the bun, followed by a slice of Gruyere, a heaping teaspoon of hot caramelized onions and then a few leaves of arugula. Cover with the top portion of the bun.
Recommended wine pairings
Adelaida Cellars’ Anna’s Vineyard Syrah or select among other Paso Robles Syrahs, including Ecluse, Anglim, Tablas Creek or one of the full-bodied Paso Robles blends from Linne Calodo.
Main photo: Sheep grazing in Adelaida Cellars’ Bobcat Crossing vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2015 Courtesy of Deborah Sowerby
California’s Napa Valley is home to some of America’s best wineries. The valley is also well-known as an incubator of female winemakers. Shawna Miller is one of a group of talented women who have pursued a wine-making career in the valley.
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Growing up in a small Virginia town along the Appalachian Trail, Miller spent a lot of time outdoors, hiking and helping her grandmother tend the large garden that fed the family. In the summer they ate what they grew and canned the rest. During the wet, cold winters they happily supplemented their meals with the food they put up in the pantry, including jars of huckleberry and blackberry jam, tomatoes and green beans.
She never thought about grapes or wine.
Studying forestry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, she graduated with a degree in forestry, which was a natural fit for a woman who had grown up trekking the Appalachian Trail. That’s also where she met and married Zak, who shared her love of biology. To see the world and build their resumes, they picked up jobs wherever they could. After a stint with the U.S. Geological Survey in Florida, a friend invited them to work a harvest in New Zealand. That work-vacation changed their lives.
Learning wine making around the world
Near Margaret River in Western Australia, they worked at the Cape Mentelle Winery where she learned that each grape had a different temperament. Each had to be picked at exactly the right moment. Pick too soon or wait too long and the grapes would yield inferior wine.
She and Zak were hooked. They pursued harvests in California, New Zealand, Australia and Chile. They experienced firsthand how soil and climate — terroir — created different wines. The Indian Ocean breezes that swept across the grapes at the Cape Mentelle Winery yielded wines very different from the ones she came to love in hot, dry Napa.
Taking classes at the University of California, Davis Extension, Miller wanted to learn the science behind raising grapes and making wine. But there wasn’t time to get a degree in enology.
Her graduate work would be done in the fields and in the labs where her background in science got her jobs measuring fermentation levels.
Mastering the art and science of wine
To become a winemaker, she had to master more than chemistry. Wine making is part science, part art.
Even if a wine is made entirely from one varietal, the grapes grown in one part of a vineyard can be markedly different from those harvested from another area. Blending those different flavors is an art that must be developed by a winemaker.
Today as the winemaker at Luna Vineyards, she oversees the production of a collection of well-regarded, affordable wines.
What distinguished Luna Vineyards in its early days was the choice to produce Italian-style wines. When Michael Moone founded the vineyard in the mid-1990s, he wanted to make wine modeled on the Italian wines he loved. He planted Pinot Grigio (white) and Sangiovese (red) grapes and blended the wines in a way that set them apart from the largely French style wines produced in the valley’s other vineyards.
At times in their marriage, Miller’s husband Zak has worked half a world away at a winery in Chile. But now with Zaira, their little girl, to raise, Zak stays closer to home as an assistant winemaker at Domaine Carneros.
As harvest time approaches, they put the call out to their parents. When the grapes are ready to be picked, Shawna and Zak will be in the fields from before dawn until well into the night. Someone needs to be home with Zaira.
In the days before the harvest begins, Miller walks through the vineyard. The fat clusters of grapes hang heavily on the row upon row of well-tended vines. If the weather cooperates and no pests damage the grapes, she could have a very good year. She is always hoping that with luck and hard work, this year’s vintage could be one of the winery’s best.
Harvest — exciting and nerve-racking
With a last look at the refractometer that measures the sugar level of the grapes, Miller makes the call to the vineyard manager, “OK, let’s take it.” And that’s when the real drama begins.
The grapes are ready. Miller is ready. But during harvest time there is more work than workers available. Sometimes when she calls she is told there isn’t a crew available. The grapes won’t be picked for days.
During that waiting time she is at the mercy of the weather. If it gets too hot or if it rains, the grapes will be pushed past their prime and a vintage that could have been great will be less so.
At moments like this, all Miller can do is watch and wait. She busies herself, making sure the lab is ready and the fermentation tanks are clean. Finally, when the crew is available, then it’s all hands on deck. Time for their parents to babysit Zaira.
Fermenting and then blending
What makes one wine different from another? Of course the quality of the grapes matters, but so too does the palate and skill of the winemaker.
Depending on the style, the maturing wine spends time in stainless steel vats or in oak barrels. When Miller believes the wine is ready, she begins a series of trial blends that are like rough drafts. Making several blends, she and her team will sample and rate each, comparing that year’s wine with ones they liked from years before. Like the best chef, she will mix and combine until she has the flavor she loves. At that moment, she will call in the bottling crew.
During the year there are moments when Miller can take a break to spend time with her family. As all-consuming and as hard as the work can be, having time with Zak and Zaira is absolutely essential.
And then it’s time to start the process all over again. In spring the leaf buds poke through the dark wood. In the heat of the summer, the vines need to be tended, the grape clusters are thinned and the plants monitored for pests. And in the fall there is the harvest when so many moving parts have to work together to give Miller what she needs to make great wine.
At the end of the day, even with all those stresses, Miller counts herself lucky to have found a career she loves, in a valley that produces beautiful wines.
Main photo: Late-harvest grapes at Luna Vineyards in Napa Valley, California. Credit: Copyright 2014 David Latt
On my recent visit to Chablis, France, I asked to see new producers and was slightly taken aback to find the name Michel Laroche at the top of the list. Laroche has been making wine, and then running a thriving business, ever since his very first harvest back in the terrible vintage of 1963. Over the years he has been at the forefront of innovation in Chablis, with horizons stretching far beyond the narrow valley of the river Serein. And now he has reinvented himself as a true vigneron, cultivating the grapes for the wine that he makes.
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In the 1970s and 1980s, when expansion of the Chablis vineyards was at its height, Laroche was responsible for the development of a large négociant business, buying the grapes or juice for wine, and the growth of the family estate to some 100 hectares (about 247 acres). Not content with Chablis, he developed a wine estate in the Languedoc, Mas la Chevalière, outside Béziers for vins de pays (country wine), because he wanted to try his hand at red wine. In 2005, he bought a wine estate in South Africa, l’Avenir; there was also a venture in Chile. He was a fervent promoter of screw caps at a time when the French market deemed them an anathema. And making use of his wife Gwénaël’s talent for interior design, he opened an elegant hotel and wine bar in Chablis itself. Then in 2010, he sold out to Advini, a company run by the Languedoc family, Jeanjean, which incorporates several wine estates in the key vineyard areas of France.
Laroche can always be relied upon for a perceptive overview of the Chablis market. A former manager of the town’s main bank described him as un grand homme du marketing (a great marketeer) — and she should know, as she doubtless saw the business plans of most of the vignerons of the appellation. After the fusion with Advini, Laroche stayed on for a two-year transition period, consulting on marketing, but now has returned to his roots and become a vigneron, based on his father’s original vines. Appropriately, Laroche’s new venture is called Le Domaine d’Henri after his father, and the label features a charming photograph of his parents enjoying a harvest meal in their vineyard. Laroche has four children, and his two daughters, Céline and Margaux, work with him. Although his sons have taken different career paths, Laroche insists that it is a family business for them all.
The core of the estate is 14 hectares (34.6 acres) of vineyards that belonged to his father and he has bought 8 more hectares (19.8 acres). They are mostly on the right bank of the Serein and include several plots of Fourchaume. There is a new cellar on the outskirts of the town. The vineyards are run organically, but the label does not say so because Laroche wishes to reserve the right to use a conventional spray if the climate demands it, as it did in 2013. His winemaker is Thibaud Baudin, who has worked in the Côte d’Or and in New Zealand, and then most recently for Advini at Domaine Laroche.
However, these days Laroche is very much involved with wine making and vineyard work in a way that the scale of Domaine Laroche had not allowed him for several years – and he is in his element. You can sense his enjoyment at serving wines in which he has played a vital role. As he put it, “le jeu, the game, is to produce quality. It is like a new profession, with a new perspective.” And these days he can spend as much time as he likes in his vineyards, so that he feels so much closer to the product. “I’ve returned to its source.”
As well as simple Chablis from vineyards in the hills above the village of Maligny, Laroche has created a range of three premier crus from the prestigious Fourchaume region. Here you sense his marketing expertise. The first small vintage of Domaine d’Henri was in 2012, and I was lucky enough to be able to taste the wines.
The basic Fourchaume, if a premier cru can be basic, is a blend of several plots. Just 11% of it is fermented and aged in wood, and then blended with the vat-aged wine in the June following the harvest. The year 2012 was a fine vintage in Chablis, so no chaptalization was necessary, and the wine is firm and has great minerality. The Cuvée Vieilles Vignes comes from older wines that were planted in 1970. Here the percentage of oak aging is 21% and the taste is firmer and steelier, with a taut finish. And the third Fourchaume, Cuvée Heritage, comes from vines that were planted in 1937, from a vineyard that Henri bought rather than planted himself. There is just one new barrel out of five, with 37% of the cuvée fermented and aged in oak. The higher percentage of oak makes for a more oxidative style, with more structure and richer flavors. In 2012 they made just 4,000 bottles of Cuvée Heritage, including some magnums and jeroboams.
When I asked Laroche what he considered to be the biggest change in Chablis over the years, he replied without hesitation, “The very positive development of the awareness that we are an appellation with a great potential.”
Back in 1963, most people considered themselves farmers, merely scraping a living from their vines with the aim of quantity, not quality. These days it is the quality of Chablis that provides the excitement, and that is Laroche’s aim as a new vigneron.
Main photo: Wines from Le Domaine d’Henri. Credit: Courtesy of Le Domaine d’Henri