Articles in Viticulture
One of my favorite bistro restaurants in New York City is Le Philosophe, which offers a delicious, reasonably-priced blanquette de veau as well as a list of wines that won’t break the bank. This gulpable 2010 Chateau du Coudray Montpensier Chinon, with its fresh ripe spiced-berry flavors and soft tannins, is one of them. Its refreshing fruity style resembles that of Beaujolais-Villages, but this red has more spice and depth. It was perfect with the creamy main course I savored at Le Philosophe.
Elin McCoy's Wine of the Week
2010 Chateau du Coudray Montpensier Chinon
Region: Loire Valley, France
Grape: 100% Cabernet Franc
Serve with: Blanquette de veau, roast pork
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Chinon is a historic town in the Loire Valley and also the name of an appellation where almost all the wine is red, made primarily from Cabernet Franc grapes. The vineyards, which cover 19 communes, span both sides of the pretty, winding Vienne River. My introduction to the area, though, was through history, when I came as a student to tour the town’s famous stone castle, the grand 11th-century Chateau de Chinon, built on a high rocky outcrop above the river. It has a complex early past: English King Henry II rebuilt it and resided there in the 12th century; later it was captured by the French, and it’s where Joan of Arc claimed divine voices told her that Charles VII, the Dauphin of France, would give her an army to fight in Orleans. Writer Francois Rabelais made Chinon’s wines famous in the 16th century.
U.S. catches up with 2010 Chateau du Coudray Montpensier Chinon
I first drank these delicious, fragrant reds in Paris bistros and wine bars 20 years ago, but they’ve become popular in the U.S. only in the past five or so years. That’s partly because wine lovers are now hunting alternatives to big, alcoholic reds. When Cabernet Franc is grown in cooler climates like the Loire Valley it makes wines that are lighter bodied and more aromatic than Cabernet Sauvignon, but have some of the same character. And the newfound popularity of Loire reds has also been helped because they are often stunning bargains.
Climate change and improved vineyard practices have helped make Chinon’s wines more appealing. When Cabernet Franc doesn’t ripen fully, the wines taste lean, green and herbaceous. In recent, warmer vintages, the wines have been richer. The 2010 vintage was one of the best of the past few decades.
Chateau du Coudray Montpensier was built in the 15th century, but was only established as a winery 10 years ago. Its 2010 Chinon is well worth seeking out.
Top photo: Chateau du Coudray Montpensier and wine label for Chateau du Coudray Montpensier Chinon. Credit: Courtesy of Chateau du Coudray Montpensier
Among the 60 or so Austrian wines I’ve tasted in the past couple of weeks I found my Thanksgiving red for this year. The 2011 Paul Achs Zweigelt from Austria has cherry aromas, soft fruit and spice flavors, and the fresh acidity that will keep palates alive during an hours-long dinner heavy on rich foods.
Elin McCoy's Wine of the Week
2011 Paul Achs Zweigelt
Region: Burgenland, Austria
Grape: 100% Zweigelt
Serve: With turkey and all the side dishes
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Everyone worries about what wine can possibly go with the many contrasting flavors on a Thanksgiving table, from sweet potatoes to creamy onions to rich sausage stuffing to tart cranberry sauce to turkey roasted with a rosemary rub. I used to be a purist, offering only two American wines, a white and a red, to match the nationality of the holiday. But this year I’m branching out. My white pick last week was from Italy. Selecting a California Pinot Noir for the red seemed like taking the easy route. And this Austrian red is wonderfully versatile with all kinds of foods.
Zweigelt (pronounced Tsvy-gelt) , a cross between two other Austrian red grapes, St. Laurent and Blaufrankisch, the country’s best red, was developed in 1922 by viticulturalist Dr. Friedrich (Fritz) Zweigelt, for whom it is named. The popular varietal isn’t hard to grow, like finicky Pinot Noir, but the wines from both have a lot in common. Zweigelt doesn’t share the complexity and ageability of fine Burgundies or expensive California examples, though some producers make mouth-filling single vineyard versions.
Zweigelt also reminds me of Gamay or even a light-bodied Zinfandel. The most planted red grape in Austria, it’s a fruit-forward, easy-drinking crowd-pleaser. Most, like this one, are medium-bodied, with silky tannins, juicy acidity and no new oak flavors, all reasons why they’re so food-friendly.
2011 Paul Achs Zweigelt aged in older barrels
The winery, named after owner and winemaker Paul Achs, is in Burgenland, south of Vienna, in the village of Gols. He owns 58 acres of vineyards, all cultivated biodynamically since 2007. This Zweigelt comes from vines planted on gravel in an area between the village and Lake Neusiedl known as the Heideboden, the source of all his young, fresh wines. This one is aged in older oak barrels, which allows it to retain its bright fruit.
This 2011 Paul Achs Zweigelt also fulfills another of my Thanksgiving wine criteria: affordability. When different generations of a family, all with very strong opinions, gather at a table for hours, the key to party success is plenty of wine to smooth over heated discussions and keep everyone mellow. Happy Thanksgiving!
I usually pour American wines on Thanksgiving, but after recently tasting this northern Italian white at New York’s Nougatine restaurant, I changed my mind. I’ll be serving this fragrant 2012 Abbazia di Novacella Kerner from the Alto Adige region that’s crisp and generous, balancing bright fruit with notes of flowers and fennel. It’s also amazingly food-friendly.
The combination of tart, savory and sweet tastes in the typical Thanksgiving feast is one reason selecting wines for this all-American holiday is so difficult. At Nougatine, the café section of the more famous restaurant Jean-Georges, the wine not only made a fine aperitif, but also went well with everything from a gently sweet butternut squash soup to a rich tuna tartare to a savory organic roast chicken. I have no doubt the Abbazia di Novacella Kerner will enhance my turkey as well as my rich oyster stuffing.
Elin McCoy's Wine of the Week
2012 Abbazia di Novacella Kerner
Region: Alto Adige, Italy
Grape: 100% Kerner
Serve: As an aperitif, with turkey and rich oyster stuffing
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This exuberant white also answers another of my problems: finding a wine that will appeal to the wine novices as well as the geeks who’ll be gracing my table. A family holiday dinner, I’ve discovered, is not the time to serve some controversial, unusual tasting cuvée you’ve been dying to try, nor that super-expensive collectible you’ve been saving for a special occasion. Instead, I look for easy-drinking, reasonably-priced reds and whites that can please everyone from my aunt who loves Chardonnay to wine-knowledgeable friends who would be disappointed if I didn’t come up with something unexpected.
The Kerner grape is a fascinating cross between Riesling and Schiava, a light red. Named after a German doctor and composer of drinking songs, it originated in Germany in 1929, but wasn’t released for planting until 1969. Now widely grown in Germany as well as in Austria and parts of northern Italy, it shares Riesling’s tangy acidity and apple and citrus character, but has a rounder, softer, more opulent texture.
Abbazia di Novacella Kerner thrives in the Isarco valley
The Isarco valley, in the shadow of the southern Alps, is one of the places this grape seems to excel, especially in the high vineyards planted on granitic schist around the Abbey in the quiet town of Novacella. (Italian and German are spoken in the valley, also known as Eisacktal.) The historic monastery, founded in 1142 by monks in the Augustinian Canons Regular, is one of the oldest wineries in the world, noted for its exuberant whites.
I always savor Thanksgiving leftovers, so I’ve ordered a case of the 2012 Abbazia di Novacella Kerner, and am hoping my guests don’t drink it all. Naturally, I’ll serve a red, too. Look for that pick next week.
Top composite photo: 2012 Abbazia di Novacella Kerner label, with its vineyard in the shadow of the southern Alps. Credit: Courtesy of Abbazia di Novacella
Sicilian wines made from vines planted on the slopes of the famous Mount Etna, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, have been getting well-deserved buzz for the past few years. The fresh, savory 2012 Tascante Buonora Carricante, a white with aromas of flowers and flint, bright acidity, and an intense taste of green apple and slightly smoky rocks, really reflects Etna’s distinctive terroir and has plenty of personality for its very reasonable price.
Elin McCoy's Wine of the Week
Region: Sicily, Italy
Grape: 100% Carricante
Serve with: Rich fish with lemon sauce, pasta and truffles
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Tascante is one of five Sicilian estates operated by Tasca d’Almerita, founded in 1830 and now run by the Count Lucio Tasca and his two sons, Giuseppe and Alberto. On my first visit to the island, I spent a day at their 500-hectare (1,235-acre) Regaleali estate in Sicily’s center, where Anna Tasca Lanza presides over a stellar cooking school. Eight generations of the family have been intertwined with Sicily’s history. In the late 1990s, Giuseppe became fascinated by Mount Etna, and eventually bought 21 hectares (51 acres) of land in the best zone on the northern side of the volcano, where vines are planted on steep terraces. The name Tascante combines the family name and “Etna” spelled backward.
This is a wine area of extremes, with an unpredictable brooding volcano, often covered with snow, dictating unpredictable weather, rough, steep slopes, lava-and-rock-laced soil. Costs to grow grapes and produce wines here are high, which is one reason vineyards were mostly abandoned. About 30 years ago, there were only a handful of producers; now there are more than 80. Old gnarled vines and the diversity of terroirs at elevations from about 1,000 to 3,000 feet were a draw for the new producers who’ve made Mount Etna one of Italy‘s most exciting wine regions.
Tascante Buonora ‘extremely special’
Though Etna’s reds seem to get the most attention, the whites, like this one, are also extremely special. The Tascante Buonora is made from the ancient, rediscovered variety Carricante, which people say has grown on Mount Etna for a thousand years. It’s aged in stainless steel tanks, which keeps its flavors very pure.
Back in 2010, Tasca d’Almerita began working with Italian scientific research institutes on a project of sustainable agricultural development and is to be commended for using more solar energy, reducing the company’s carbon footprint, managing water resources, reducing chemicals in their vineyards.
Sicily, like all of Italy, is a source of fascinating wines made from unusual grapes with highly individual flavors. This 2012 Tascante Buonora is one of them.
Top photo: 2012 Tascante Buonora label and the vineyards in the shadow of Mount Etna. Credit: Courtesy Tasca d’Almerita
I’m just back from more than two weeks in Australia, where I spoke at Savour, the first wine conference put on by Wine Australia, which was held in Adelaide. I tasted dozens of stunning wines during my visit, though many of the best, sadly, are not available in the U.S. — at least not yet. This intensely limey 2012 Grosset Polish Hill Riesling, with its chalky, slatey finish, is great and available here. It — and the 2013 arriving later this year or early next year — are pricey but worth it, and will age brilliantly. (A recent survey conducted by Wine Ark, an Australian storage provider, listed Grosset’s Polish Hill Riesling as the ninth most collected wine in Australia for 2013.)
Elin McCoy's Wine of the Week
Region: Clare Valley, South Australia
Grape: 100% Riesling
Serve with: Seafood curry, baked oysters
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On a tour of the hilly Clare Valley, a two-hour drive north from Adelaide, I stopped by the winery to talk and taste with owner-winemaker Jeffrey Grosset and his partner Stephanie Toole, owner of Mount Horrocks winery, whose wines I’ll write about at another time. Thanks to recent rain, the picturesque Clare, which I discovered isn’t a valley after all, was very green and magical, like an English shire, except that you see lines of gum trees and spot the occasional kangaroo. Thanks to Adelaide traffic, I was late.
The Clare has a long history as a wine region, going back to the 1840s, and is noted for its dry Rieslings. An enjoyable way to sample some of them is to bike or hike the 36-kilometer-long Riesling Trail, which passes near a dozen wineries, including Grosset, at the region’s southern end.
A top Aussie Riesling maker
One of the most celebrated Riesling makers in Australia, Grosset founded his winery in an old milk depot in 1981 and now makes three different Rieslings, including the lovely off-dry Alea bottling. The first vintage of the bone-dry Polish Hill, which comes from an organic vineyard planted on gravel, shale and blue slate at an elevation of 1,500 feet, was the 1980. The flavors are tightly wound, intense, steely and focused, with lemon-lime notes, zingy acidity and an elegant purity. Quality is surprisingly consistent from year to year. Older vintages we sipped and spit, 2005 and 2001, have developed more complexity and are filled with power and precision.
Grosset advises either drinking this wine right away or keeping it for at least six years. No worries about finding a corked wine when you finally open it, since Grosset pioneered using screw cap closures instead of corks. He was a driving force behind a group of 14 Clare Valley winemakers who collectively launched their Rieslings under screw cap in 2000.
Top photo: Owner-winemaker Jeffrey Grosset and the label of his 2012 Polish Hill Riesling. Credit: Courtesy of Grosset winery
Throughout the winemaking areas of the republic of Georgia, the qvevri — large clay vessels like giant amphors — are being readied for the new grape harvest. This fascinating country, nestled between the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountains, has the world’s oldest winemaking tradition: Wine has been made there for 8,000 years. And it’s always been made in clay pots buried in the ground. (Versions of it were adopted in ancient Rome and Greece.)
What’s exciting, too, is that the Georgian method is now being used in several countries in Europe and beyond by a few passionate organic and biodynamic winemakers wanting to make what are being called “natural” wines. Indeed, I was first introduced to these huge clay pots in northeastern Italy, in the cellars of Josko Gravner. Gravner was the first non-Georgian winemaker to bring both the method and the Georgian qvevris to Italy. (He calls them anfore, or amphors, though strictly speaking amphors were used in the ancient world to transport wine, whereas the large immobile qvevri are used to make it in.)
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Recently, I attended the International Qvevri Symposium in the handsome Georgian capital city, Tbilisi. The symposium showcases Georgia’s top wineries, including those that make wine in European-style barrels using international varieties. I was keen to learn more about the qvevri and their wines. A few are available in Europe, but this was a rare opportunity to find almost 20 professional qvevri producers — including two monasteries — gathered under one roof.
One of them was John Wurdeman, an American who has long been based in Georgia. As well as being an enthusiastic expert about all things Georgian — he sings in a marvelous polyphonic choir there — Wurdeman has set up one of the country’s most dynamic wineries, Pheasant’s Tears. I spoke to him on his stand at the symposium, and again a few days later as we toured his vineyards near his home in Sighnaghi, in the Khaketi region of eastern Georgia.
“Qvevri are like large coil pots with conical bottoms that are made by hand and fired in walk-in kilns by one of only five master potters who now remain,” he explains. “They are then buried in the ground — usually inside a cellar, but sometimes outside, too — and can range in size from 100 to 4,000 litres (26 to 1,056 gallons) in capacity.”
Cellars containing qvevri are disconcerting at first for those of us used to visiting rooms filled with vats and barrels. They seem empty, with just the qvevris’ round “necks” protruding from below. Yet the volumes of liquid being stored in the vessels underground give these cellars a very special atmosphere. They may seem empty, but one senses the presence of the wine below.
“Packing the qvevri in sand gives the wines stability, but the winemaking method differs, too,” he continues as we stand in his cellar overlooking the vineyards. “Clay is porous, so before the qvevri can receive the grapes, they need to be treated inside with hot beeswax. This goes deeply into the pores but does not completely seal the inside surface: a tiny bit of air needs to be able to breathe as the wines are being made.
“We crush our grapes lightly and put them into the qvevri, stems and all,” Wurdeman says. “This applies to both red and white grapes. The alcoholic fermentation gets underway within a few days, spontaneously, without the need for added yeasts.” Indeed, the qvevri cellars host wild yeasts in the same way that some caves help to ripen cheeses.
“That fermentation lasts for between two to four weeks. We punch the cap down twice a day during this period until it falls. Then, if the grapes are white, we leave the wine on its skins and stems. The red wines are handled differently: they’re taken off the skins and stems and transferred to another qvevri. Both types of wine are then loosely covered with a stone — again, to allow a tiny bit of air to enter. The malolactic, or secondary, fermentation begins spontaneously within a few weeks. When the malolactic is finished, the qvevri are sealed more tightly using a wooden lid and more beeswax, and a heavy stone is placed on top.
“That’s it until spring, when the earth’s temperature begins to warm. At that point the wines are racked: pumped out into bottles or into a clean qvevri, leaving behind the lees and any other sediment that has fallen into the vessels’ narrow, pointed bottoms.”
Georgian wine’s natural development
The qvevri’s stable temperature allows for a very slow, steady fermentation. Once the wine has been sealed into its home, the winemakers can’t — and don’t want to — interfere with its natural development.
“Everything depends on the quality of the grapes,” he adds. “We don’t use any of the chemical ‘correctors’ that many wineries resort to if problems occur during winemaking. This is how it’s always been done in Georgia, and the results are proof of how successful the method is. The white wines are particularly impressive: Deep amber in colour, they acquire as many tannins and polyphenols as red wines.
“The whites do acquire fragrance and an earthy body that makes them a perfect match for the diversity of Georgian food,” Wurdeman says as we sample a glass of his remarkable Rkatsiteli, an amber wine that hints at spice and honey in the nose, yet leaves the palate refreshed and dry.
This red-stemmed white grape is just one of dozens of native grape varieties the Georgians are working with that offer an exciting future for those wanting to discover winemaking’s ancient past.
Top photo: John Wurdeman at Pheasant’s Tears winery with a large qvevri. Credit: Carla Capalbo
The Greek island of Santorini is one of the world’s mysteries. Maybe it was the Atlantis of ancient civilizations; maybe it had an impact on the demise of the Minoan civilization. But there is no doubt about its breathtaking beauty. A dramatic volcanic eruption in about 1530 B.C. blew a great big hole in the middle of the island, forming a sea-filled crater, or caldera. On our first evening, we dined at the Santorini cooperative, Santo, and looked out on the sun setting over the caldera. Words could not do justice to the view.
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The next morning we saw our first vineyards, which are quite unlike any vineyards I have seen anywhere else in the world. The viticulture is so extreme that it has to be seen to be believed. The vines need protection from fierce wind and harsh sunshine, and so they are pruned in the shape of protective baskets in a small hollow. The soil is volcanic ash, with some pumice and other stones, but there is no organic matter, and it is astonishing that anything grows at all. There is no irrigation — the vines depend on sea mist for moisture and can also tap some water retained by the pumice stones after occasional rains. Inevitably, yields are tiny. The island is immune to the destructive insect phylloxera, for if there is no clay, there can be no phylloxera. Actual replanting is rare. When a vine needs replacing, it is “decapitated” and will regenerate from the existing deep root system. This can be done about every 80 years. When it is finally dying, after about 400 years, growers practice the system of provinage, taking a shoot and placing it in the ground so that it will grow roots.
There are very few conventional vineyards. The key exception is Sigalas, where the winemakers argue the case for more traditional viticulture, giving each vine a pole to help it withstand the wind. More leaves also help shade the grapes from the intense sunlight. In the 1980s, many vines were pulled up in favor of building accommodations for tourists, who provide the island’s main source of revenue. But in recent years, although the vineyard area has not changed, the average age of the winegrowers has decreased significantly, so the future of Santorini wine is more secure.
Assyrtiko elevates on Santorini
The principal white grape variety of Santorini is Assyrtiko, which is also found in northern Greece, but on the island it takes on a fabulously original mineral character.
We tasted the wines of the eight main makers, including the cooperative that accounts for two-thirds of the production. The most typical were the mineral flavors of Assyrtiko, from producers such as Gaia, Hatzidakis and Argyros, with a wonderful depth of flavor. But there are also other grape varieties, white Athiri and Aidani, which can be blended with Assyrtiko and make for riper flavors, and gutsy red Mavrotragano, with some peppery fruit.
Santorini also produces dessert wine, vinsanto, a naturally sweet wine from dried grapes. Drying in the sun would be too brutal, so they are dried under cover and then the juice is put in a barrel and ignored for 10 years or so. Rediscovered, the result is something absolutely delicious, rich and concentrated with the flavors of dates and figs.
Top photo: Island of Santorini. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Italy is a huge source of reasonably-priced, food-friendly wines. This juicy, delicious 2010 Vietti Barbera d’Asti Tre Vigne, with its tangy taste of smoke, licorice and sour cherries is one of them. So it’s no surprise that it was one of the most-poured-wines-by-the-glass listed in Wine & Spirits Magazine’s 2013 restaurant poll.
Elin McCoy's Wine of the Week
Region: Piedmont, Italy
Grape: 100% Barbera
Serve with: Pork medallions with onions, braised beef stew with Barbera, pasta Bologna
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Vietti is one of the top producers in Piedmont, where the star grape is Nebbiolo, which makes the region’s great, complex, long-lived and definitely pricey Barolos and Barbarescos. But as everywhere, hanging out with the star grape is rarely the way to get the region’s best buys. Barbera is less grand, but it’s also softer and more approachable than Nebbiolo, with charm, wonderful berry-like flavors, and the bright acidity that’s the key to its easy partnership with food. It’s the third most-planted red grape variety in Italy, and accounts for about half the grape plantings in Piedmont.
Founded in 1919, the Vietti winery is in a tiny village, Castiglione Falletto, and has about 90 acres of vineyards in various appellations. The late Alfredo Currado, who married the daughter of the winery’s founder, was one of the first to vinify grapes from single vineyards, then a revolutionary concept, and essentially rescued nearly extinct white grape Arneis from oblivion.
Their talented son Luca spent time in California at Opus One, and in Bordeaux at Mouton Rothschild before taking over as winemaker. His approach is to focus on organic viticulture and expressing the terroir or sense of place in the wines. The wines are clean and modern, but with a very traditional undertone. They’re rich but not heavy or extracted.
The winery makes five Barberas. This entry level Barbera d’Asti Tre Vigne is a blend of three vineyards in a designated region around the town of Asti. It’s usually released a year later. The Barbera d’Alba Tre Vigne comes from three vineyards in a neighboring area overlapping that of Barolo. The Barbera d’Alba is richer, bolder, more powerful, with more elegance, and costs a bit more. The three others come from special single vineyards; one is a cuvée of old vines.
Today, there’s a Barbera renaissance in Italy, but until fairly recently it was considered a rustic, peasant wine. Alfredo Currado was one of the pioneers who believed that growing it on top sites and keeping yields low was key to quality.
His son Luca carries on that idea, which is why this 2010 Barbera d’Asti Tre Vigne is so good.
Top composite photo: Winemaker Luca Currado and the label for 2010 Vietti Barbera d’Asti Tre Vigne. Credit: Vietti Winery