Articles in Wine

On warm days, red wines can benefit from the ice bucket. Credit: Tina Caputo

When the temperature climbs near triple digits and you’re outdoors feeling the heat, there’s nothing like a nice refreshing glass of … red wine. I know what you’re thinking: red wine on a hot day? You must be crazy!

But before you head for the cooler full of ice-cold beer or chilled white wine, answer this question: What’s going to taste better with the juicy burger or gorgeous rib eye you’re grilling? “Lite” beer or Pinot Noir? (That’s a rhetorical question, of course.)

The trick to making red wine suitable for summer is simple. Just chill it.

I’m not talking about keeping the bottle in the refrigerator for days or plunging it into an ice chest for hours. I’m merely suggesting that you bring the wine down to a more hospitable serving temperature by popping it into the fridge for a short period or putting it on ice until it’s lightly chilled.

This may sound like blasphemy to some people, but I’ve seen many a winemaker chill down their reds before serving them on hot summer days. They are also not above dropping the occasional ice cube into a glass of wine. If winemakers do it, why can’t you?

The right reds

When choosing a red for the cooler, steer clear of big, oaky wines. Don’t even think about chilling a Brunello di Montalcino or Napa Cab, or you’ll be sorry. The cold mutes the fruit and complexity in those big reds, amplifying the oak and alcohol.

What you do want is a fruity red with some finesse. Beaujolais is a classic example of a chillable red, but other wines, such as Pinot Noir, Grenache and lighter styles of Zinfandel, can also benefit from the ice bucket. Sparkling red wines — not rosés, but true reds — were born to be chilled, and the drier styles (think sparkling Shiraz from Australia) are excellent with grilled meats and sausages.

Dry red sparklers, served cold, are refreshing and pair well with grilled meats. Credit: Tina Caputo

Dry red sparklers, served cold, are refreshing and pair well with grilled meats. Credit: Tina Caputo

Just cold enough

There’s a very good reason most people avoid drinking red wines in hot weather: Reds served at “room temperature,” which in the summer can easily be 75 degrees Fahrenheit, are not at their best. Warmer temperatures can render them flat and lifeless, and far from refreshing.

In my home experiments, I’ve found the ideal temperature for red wines to be around 65. Any colder than that and they begin losing their aroma and flavor complexities. In a refrigerator set to 38, as mine is, it takes about 30 minutes for a bottle of wine to reach the desired serving temperature. The timing is a bit less for chilling a bottle on ice. (If a chilled red seems dull and muted, warm the bowl of the glass in your hands for a few minutes and it will perk right up.)

Cool reds for hot weather

Here are five chiller-ready wines, tested by yours truly, to help you beat the heat this summer:

A to Z Wineworks 2012 Oregon Pinot Noir ($19): Light red in color, this light- to medium-bodied Pinot has aromas of raspberries, cherries and spice, along with bright acidity. The wine loses a little of its brightness when chilled, but retains its lovely red fruit character.

Cantiga Wineworks 2011 El Dorado County Grenache ($28): Light, transparent red in color, this juicy wine has aromas of berries and spice. The wine has some tannic backbone and acidity, along with raspberry and vanilla flavors. Don’t let this one get too cold, or the tannins will start to take over.

Dry Creek Vineyard 2012 Sonoma County Heritage Vines Zinfandel ($20): This medium-bodied Zin has black and blue fruit aromas, with some woody notes. The wine has blackberry and cherry flavors, with moderate acidity. The chiller brought out its cherry and spice notes.

MacRostie 2012 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($34): With aromas of red fruits and spice, the wine has bright flavors of raspberries and cinnamon. The spicy quality comes out a bit more when the wine is chilled, along with a tart cherry note on the palate.

Korbel Champagne Cellars Sonoma County Rouge ($14): This sparkling red has a base of Pinot Noir, with a tiny bit of Merlot added. The wine has a beautiful dark purple color, with fine bubbles and a black cherry aroma. It’s full bodied and flavorful, with black cherry flavor and a dry finish. Serve this one nice and cold.

Main photo: On warm days, red wines can benefit from the ice bucket. Credit: Tina Caputo

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A selection of Robert Biale Vineyards wines. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

The 2014 Auction Napa Valley-The American Wine Classic shattered last year’s record and raised a staggering $18.7 million over one weekend in June.

The auction was the brainchild of the late Robert Mondavi, known as the “Godfather” of Napa Valley. His vision was supported by the Napa Valley Vintners Association, and the auction was launched in 1981. To date, the group has invested more than $120 million from auction proceeds in Napa County nonprofit organizations.

As in previous years, 2014 auction lots were gilded with trips to far-flung locales in private jets or luxury yachts, flashy sports cars, magnums of pricey Napa red wine and the ultimate indulgence — dinner for 50 at the venerable French Laundry restaurant.

After all, this is the Napa Valley brand: touting high-end Cabernets and projecting a sexy, glamorous image. And it takes a village to stage an auction of this magnitude — an event that draws oenophiles from around the globe.

Napa Valley’s vintners are as diverse as its terroir. There are the stratospheric cult labels such as Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Colgin and Araujo. Then there’s the other face of Napa: winemakers who are active participants in the auction but seek a lower profile.

After the adrenaline rush of this year’s auction slowed Sunday morning, I had the opportunity to meet one such winemaking family, the Biales of Robert Biale Vineyards, who are among the pioneers making up Napa’s historic landscape.

Clementina Biale, 82 years young, and her son Bob Biale greeted me in the matriarch’s Tudor-style house in the city of Napa. For 70 years, the family has farmed Zinfandel in Cabernet country. “Aldo loved Zinfandel,” Clementina said of her late husband while walking us out to the terrace overlooking vineyards planted with Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Sangiovese.

Today, the Biales are continuing their family tradition of Zinfandel. Their annual production of 15,000 cases includes 12,000 cases of 14 vineyard-designate Zinfandels from various properties in the Oak Knoll appellation and 3,000 cases of Petite Sirah and blends. The wines reflect elegance and balanced fruit — none of the jamminess you associate with Zinfandel.

“Napa was full of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah,” Bob Biale said. Then Cabernet Sauvignon came along in the late 1960s. After Napa’s win at the 1976 Judgment of Paris competition, Cabernet became even more popular, he said. “Napans found that Cab grows well, so they pulled out all the Zinfandel.”

Biale family has humble origins

An active octogenarian, Clementina drives around Napa doing errands and going to church. She draws the line at driving on the freeway, though.

“I never went to university,” she told me. “I was happy to raise a good family. We had a good life, nothing fancy.”

A few times a week, Clementina visits the humble barn-like Biale tasting room in Napa, where her handmade aprons and bottle bags are sold among other items.

“Aldo always said you don’t need a million-dollar room to have good wine,” she said fondly about her husband, who passed away in 2009 at age 80.

Aldo Biale was born in 1929 on Napa’s Mount Veeder to Pietro and Christina, who arrived in the early 1920s from Liguria, Italy. To help Aldo learn English, the family moved to the valley floor and purchased its first 5-acre parcel in 1937. They planted Zinfandel and fruit orchards while also raising white leghorn chickens. Pietro passed away in 1942, leaving 13-year-old Aldo and his mother to tend the ranch.

 

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Clementina Biale with her son, Bob Biale, on the terrace of her house overlooking the 6-acre vineyard in Napa. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

In 1953, Aldo visited Italy for the first time and met Clementina in Piedmont. “He took me to a fiesta,” she recalled.

They married a year later, and Clementina arrived in Napa in 1954. She raised four children and helped out in the farming operation.

In his teen years, Aldo worked on the family vineyards, delivering fresh eggs in the community. At age 14, he figured out there was more money in wine than selling Zinfandel grapes at $25 per ton, so he started making homemade jug wine and sold it without a license until the mid-1960s. Aldo continued selling grapes until 1990, including to such companies as Gallo and the St. Helena Co-op.

Aldo also kept his day job, working for Napa City’s Water Department. He would come home at 4 p.m. and start farming till 10. “There were lights on the tractor,” Bob recalled. “He had chores for me and my brothers. Now I’m glad we grew up this way and learned from him.”

As we taste the Black Chicken Zinfandel, a blend from different vineyards, Clementina tells the story behind the label. The name was a code for the jug wine for customers who ordered by telephone. The Biale family’s phone was on a party line, meaning it was shared with possibly nosy neighbors.

Clementina had just arrived from Italy when she answered a call from someone asking for two dozen eggs and a black chicken. “I said to this fella, ‘We have no black chicken, we have white,’ ” she said, laughing. She soon learned it was the code for Aldo’s secret Zinfandel.

“But my father’s dream was to have a brand that was our own wine,” Bob said. That was realized when Aldo and Bob founded Robert Biale Vineyards in 1991. Later, a partnership was formed with Dave Pramuk and Dave Perry.

“We had a nice little team, but we still kept our day jobs,” Bob said. He worked with the cellar team crew at Beringer.

Bob reflects sadly about the old-vine Zinfandels that were pulled out and replanted to Cabernet Sauvignon. He points in part to Robert Mondavi for this conversion.

“He was right by planting more Cab varietal, which put Napa on the map,” Bob said. “God bless him, that Cab conversion has allowed us growers to actually make a living. But it came with a sacrifice by removing old Zinfandel.”

Standing by their Zinfandels, the Biales are part of Napa’s mosaic of vintners. Over the years, Biale wine has been poured at the barrel auction’s marketplace tasting. “I am considering participating in the barrel auction next year,” Bob said.

That Biale Zin is sure to stand out in a barrel room full of Napa Cabs.

Main photo: A selection of Robert Biale Vineyards wines. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

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Craggy Range's Gimblett Gravels vineyard.

The speed of change in New Zealand never fails to amaze me. These days Craggy Range is generally considered to be one of the leading producers of Hawke’s Bay and the sub-region of Gimblett Gravels, yet its first vintage was only in 1997.

Craggy Range was developed by Terry Peabody, a successful Australian businessman who had the acumen to select Steve Smith as the person who would put Craggy Range on the international wine map. Smith, generally considered to be New Zealand’s leading viticulturalist, oversees the winemaking for Craggy Range in the regions of Hawke’s Bay, Martinborough and Marlborough.  He is a down-to-earth New Zealander who is not prone to exaggeration, so his declaration that 2013 is the vintage of a generation deserves to be taken seriously. It is, after all, distinctly more modest than the usual bordelais claim of the vintage of the century.

Smith was in London recently to substantiate his claim, which he did quite effectively. He explained that 2013 had enjoyed low cropping levels, as a repercussion of the cool 2012 vintage. A naturally low crop produces much better results than a similar crop level achieved with a green harvest. And the weather was just right, with warm but not excessively hot weather in the critical weeks after flowering, followed by a cooler period that helped retain the aromatics in the grapes. “The stars aligned!” he said.

Age of vines influence vintage quality

Another factor in the quality of the vintage is the age of the vines. Older vines give a much better expression of place. Craggy Range has Riesling vines that are 28 years old and Sauvignon vines that are 20 years old, which give quite different results than younger vines. Older vines also need less management, and they produce lower alcohol levels. This is something that is not yet fully understood but Craggy Range has observed that the grapes are ripe at a lower alcohol level, which translates into more elegant wine in the glass.

Steve Smith of Craggy Range

Steve Smith, winemaker at Craggy Range.
Credit: Courtesy of Craggy Range

To illustrate his point, Smith started the tasting with Riesling from the Te Muna Road vineyard in Martinborough. This comes from a 2-hectare vineyard on old rocky soil, with a volcanic influence. In the past, New Zealand has planted German clones, but it now has access to Riesling clones from Alsace, which are giving even better results.

The Sauvignon, too, comes from Martinborough, and for a New Zealand Sauvignon was nicely understated, with mineral characters, firm fruit and a restrained finish.

The final white wine was a Chardonnay from Kidnapper’s Bay in Hawke’s Bay. Smith observed that if you put Chardonnay in a dramatic vineyard, it takes on the character of the place. He didn’t want this Chardonnay to be overtly fruity, but was looking for a sense of the ocean, a Chablis style. To this end he uses large oak barrels and indigenous yeast, and the wine certainly exhibited some of the oyster-shell character that you can find in good Chablis.

Next up were barrel samples, components of Craggy Range’s flagship Bordeaux blend from Gimblett Gravels. Gimblett Gravels is an 800-hectare plot of stony, gravelly soil from a riverbed that changed its course about 150 years ago. At a time when the value of agricultural land was measured by the number of sheep you could graze on it, Gimblett Gravels was deemed pretty worthless. But pioneers Alan Limner from Stonecroft and Chris Pask from C. J. Pask saw its potential for exceptional vineyard land, and planted the first crop in 1999. The drainage is excellent, which is an asset after heavy rainfall, but as Smith observed, getting enough water is the greatest challenge. The area enjoys a certain amount of humidity, thanks to the oceanic influence, and it is rare to get seriously warm days.

The various grape varieties showed their characteristics. The Merlot was rich and fleshy, with plummy fruit.  The Cabernet Sauvignon was more restrained. Cabernet Franc was fresher, and Smith observed that there was a lot of clonal variation on Cabernet Franc. His Cabernet Sauvignon came from cuttings from Kim Goldwater’s estate on Waiheke Island. Petit Verdot, which accounts for 2% of the final blend, is “tricky to manage”: “It’s the oddest grape variety I have ever grown and it can look like a wild scientist!”  This vat sample was rich and powerful, with acidity and tannin.

We finished with a sample of Sophia, a projected blend of the different components. Each variety would be matured separately until October, before blending and finally taken out of wood just before Christmas and bottled in February 2015. The proposed blend was rich and intense with blackcurrant fruit and some spicy oak and, despite its youth, was beautifully balanced, harmonious and complete. There was no doubt that it was more than the sum of the preceding parts, adding up to what might indeed be the vintage of a generation.

Main photo: Craggy Range’s Gimblett Gravels vineyard.  Courtesy of Craggy Range

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2013 Domaine des Bérioles Saint-Pourçain Les Grandes Brières

I discovered this under-$20 French red wine on a recent visit to Burgundy, though it wasn’t  from that famous, fashionable region. Legendary wine broker Becky Wasserman poured the deliciously light and fruity 2012 Domaine des Bérioles Saint-Pourçain Les Grandes Brières at a family-style staff lunch of creamy asparagus risotto and a pork casserole, both cooked by her husband, Russell Hone, at their homey offices in the center of Beaune. The domaine is one of the 100-odd fine producers that their company, Le Serbet, represents.

Elin McCoy's Wine of the Week


2012 Domaine des Bérioles Saint-Pourçain Les Grandes Brières
Price: $18
Region: Loire Valley, France
Grape: 90% Gamay, 10% Pinot Noir
Alcohol: 13 %
Serve with: Asparagus or mushroom risotto, roast pork, grilled chicken

Saint-Pourçain appellation

The appellation Saint-Pourçain was new to me, though it’s actually one of the oldest viticultural regions in France, its wines prized by royalty in the Middle Ages and served at the coronations of kings. The group of 19 villages surrounds the small, dull market town of Saint-Pourçain-sur-Sioule in the cool, gently hilly landscape of the Auvergne region in central France, west of the Maconnais. Though it’s generally regarded as a Loire Valley satellite, the connection is pretty tangential — the vineyards are on a significant tributary of the Loire river, but closer to the Macon. Sort of a lost appellation of Burgundy, Saint-Pourçain is better known for whites made from Chardonnay and local grape Tressallier than for reds, and only started attracting interest in 2009, when it was upgraded to an Appellation Contrôlée wine region.

The domaine’s owners, Odile and Olivier Teissèdre, originally bought an old seven-acre walled vineyard named Clos des Bérioles in 1989, and over the years gradually acquired another 10  acres. One-third of their vineyards are devoted to red grapes Gamay and Pinot Noir.

The dominant red variety is Gamay, planted on granitic soils, as it is in the northern part of Beaujolais where the region’s best wines originate. The Teissèdre’s son, Jean, took over running the estate in 2011 after studying enology and working in Sancerre, the Maconnais, and Beaujolais. He makes five wines. The Les Grandes Brières is not aged in oak, which preserves its fruitiness.

With its bright flavors and hint of spice and minerals in the finish, this vivacious blend of mostly Gamay with a dash of pinot noir is just the kind of red I like to drink in the summer. It’s crisp and refreshing, has expansive aromas of red fruit and rose petals, and still tastes good when very slightly chilled, all of which means it pairs well with an amazing variety of summer foods.

Main photo: 2012 Domaine des Bérioles Saint-Pourçain Les Grandes Brières. 

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The Café des Musées in Paris. Credit: Marguerite Thomas

From the nondescript exterior of the Café des Musées in Paris, you wouldn’t expect it to be one of the city’s best bistros. Yet inside you’ll find plenty of conviviality and good cheer, and a simply stunning Champagne, Drappier Brut Nature, being poured by the glass.  Even on a chilly rain-swept evening such as the one I experienced last month, a visit to this restaurant and a glass (or two, or more) of this sensational wine will be sure to warm body and spirit alike.

That the Café des Musées serves such an exceptional Champagne is a testament to the French approach to Champagne in general.  There, unlike here in the United States, Champagne is first and foremost a wine, not a luxury product, and should be enjoyed like all wines—without snobbery or pretense, but with good will and joie de vivre.

Drappier Brut Nature is a non-vintage, non-dosage wine. The first designation means that, like most Champagnes, it is a blend from multiple harvests, the winemaker’s goal being not only to display quality but also to maintain consistency. Wherever and whenever you drink it, a non-vintage Champagne should taste much the same as the last time you had it.

In the case of this particular wine, it will taste completely dry, “non-dosage” meaning a Champagne deliberately crafted without the sugary syrup that most winemakers add to their cuvées in order to soften and, yes, sweeten them. Because the Champagne region lies at the northernmost geographical limit for ripening grapes, wines there are naturally high in acidity, leaving a tart impression that sometimes can turn unpleasantly sour.

In recent years, due in part to improved winemaking but even more to a series of quite warm summers, dosage levels have gone down in Champagne, with the amount of sugar used now being roughly half of what it was 15 to 20 years ago. Entirely non-dosage Champagnes remain, however, quite rare. The base wine in them needs to be exceptionally good. Sugar can conceal faults, but its absence will magnify them. No matter how much the region’s climate has changed, these Champagnes still run the risk of tasting harsh and acerbic. That’s why only a handful of producers even try to make them.

Drappier’s Brut Nature tastes flawless. Surprisingly rich on the palate (surprising precisely because of the absence of sugar), it is enticingly aromatic and very yeasty in the finish. Made with 100% Pinot Noir, most of which comes from Drappier’s home vineyard in the village of Urville, it exhibits a depth of flavor typical of wines made with that grape variety but unexpected in a non-dosage Champagne.

Decant this Champagne

I would advise decanting this wine because it will really come into its own when in contact with air. The two glasses I had at the start of dinner at Café des Musées came from an open bottle, in fact a magnum, so had been exposed to plenty of air before being served. My enthusiasm for them surely was due in part to that interplay of wine and oxygen, a chemical exchange that helps the wine develop a softer, more appealing texture and a more complex so compelling bouquet.

Drappier Brut Nature Champagne. Credit: Paul Lukacs

Credit: Paul Lukacs

Much of my enthusiasm, though, surely also came from the situation. This was my fourth dinner over the years at this restaurant, and as with my earlier visits, I was enthralled. Although it’s located on the edge of the hip Marais district, the Café des Musées is no gastronomic temple, and its menu is anything but cutting edge.  Instead, this is the place to go for traditional French bistro fare — juicy steak frites, spicy andouillette, “black pork” loin, steak tartare and the like.

As that list suggests, the menu here is a carnivore’s dream. While the house-smoked salmon is some of the best you’ll find anywhere, and the chef always offers at least one fish as a main course, you’ll want to go only if you can bring a hearty, meat-eating appetite. Portions are large, the atmosphere joyous. You’ll be sitting close enough to a fellow diner to bump (not just rub) elbows. So long as the Champagne keeps flowing, however, no one will much care.

So reserve a table the next time you are lucky enough to be in Paris. And toast your good fortune with a glass of Drappier Brut Nature. Then hum this song. Though in reality spring in Paris tends to be wet and chilly, Vernon Duke and Y. A. “Yip” Harburg got the sentiment just right:

I never knew the charm of spring
Never met it face to face
I never knew my heart could sing
Never missed a warm embrace
Till April in Paris . . .

Drappier Brut Nature is imported into the United States by, among others, A. Hardy USA.  It retails for roughly $50 a bottle.

Café des Musées is in the third arrondissment, at 49 rue Turenne, 75003 Paris. The telephone number is 1 42 72 96 17.  (Dial 330 before the number if calling from the United States; dial 0 if calling from within Paris.)

Main photo: The Café des Musées in Paris. Credit: Marguerite Thomas

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Vince Cable, U.K. business secretary, center, gets a tour of the Rathfinny Estate from Mark and Sarah Driver. Credit: Adam Lechmere

The evolution of English sparkling wine over the last decade has been remarkable. Ten years ago few outside what was a dynamic but very domestic cottage industry took it seriously. But with investment, huge improvements in technology and vineyard management, and — most important — a clutch of major awards, the best English sparkling is internationally recognized.

Nyetimber, which recently released its first single-vineyard cuvée, the $126 (75 pounds) Tillington, and Ridgeview, which beat Champagnes including Taittinger and Charles Heidsieck to Decanter’s International Sparkling Trophy in 2010, are just two of a clutch of English wines that are taken very seriously indeed.

There are very good white wines too, made from a variety of northern European hybrids such as Bacchus and Ortega. Quality is patchy, though, as temperatures and sunlight are often sufficient only to ripen grapes for sparkling wine. English red wine seldom passes muster. But sparkling wine is now an important industry, producing about 3 million bottles a year. That sounds a lot until you compare it with the amount consumed in the United Kingdom alone: last year 13.3 million bottles of Champagne and 43 million bottles of sparkling were guzzled. “The biggest problem with English sparkling is, there isn’t enough of it,” Mark Driver, a hedgefund manager-turned-vigneron says.

Changing misperceptions at Rathfinny

Driver, the owner of Rathfinny, a $16.8-million (10 million pounds) vineyard in Sussex, intends to go some way to meeting demand. With 160 acres (64 hectares) planted, and  250 acres (100 hectacres) more  to come, it’s on course to be England’s biggest single estate. There’s a gravity-fed, purpose-built, million-bottle-capacity winery; guesthouses set among rolling fields of young vines (all planted since 2012); and a wastewater treatment plant, all the trappings of the modern, wealth-created winery. I was prepared to find the exorbitant dream of a rich man, complete with luxury hotel and manicured lawns.

How wrong I was. “That’s going to be the hostel over there,” said Georgia Mallinson, the events and hospitality manager, as she pointed to a red-roofed barn in the distance. Ah, the luxury guesthouse, though “hostel” seemed an odd way of describing it. “It’s going to be used for seasonal workers, and the rest of the time it’ll be for visitors, walkers, school groups.” How much will a room be? “Youth hostel prices,” she said.

Youth hostels are for those who like their accommodation cheap, cheerful and sparse. The handsome winery — its curving grass-covered roof echoing the buxom green slopes of the Sussex hills around it — was full of guests. Among them were Vince Cable, the U.K.’s business secretary, and David Dimbleby, host of the BBC’s flagship current affairs panel “Question Time.” In green Rathfinny polo shirts were vineyard manager Cameron Boucher — a New Zealander whose last job was in Hawke’s Bay, supplying grapes to the renowned Craggy Range among others — and winemaker Jonathan Médard, a Frenchman from Epernay, fresh from a stint in the United States and Australia that included such internationally recognized names as Napa’s Newton Vineyard and Margaret River’s Voyager Estate.

Cable is Mark and Sarah Driver’s local representative in Parliament (they live in Twickenham, in west London), and when, early on, they became mired in planning bureaucracy, they sought his advice. “The local council was very obstructive, so I intervened,” Cable told me, concisely. He stepped in, he said, because he believed in what the Drivers were doing.

Finding promise from ‘the depths of the recession’

“The groundwork was done in the depths of recession, and it required courage and imagination to stick with such a project,” he said, praising the couple for the jobs they are bringing to an area of Sussex, with its depressed coastal towns, that has “serious pockets” of unemployment. “This is a real creative, imaginative industry,” Cable said, “and it’s also a successful export industry.” Rathfinny lies in the same band of chalk that forms the Paris Basin, which runs up through Champagne and northern France to form the North and South Downs. Southern England is only two degrees latitude north of Champagne — the only difference between the regions is the summer nighttime temperature, which can be 10 degrees centigrade (18 F) colder here. But there’s a microclimate here, Driver says. A substantial ridge, Cradle Hill, protects Rathfinny from the cooling breezes from the sea, six miles to the south. “It can be minus 6 degrees centigrade (21 F) a few miles away, and plus 6 (43 F) here.”

First vintage due in 2017

There’s no wine yet. The first sparkling vintage, from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, is expected in 2017. Driver doesn’t expect to turn a profit until 2020. He intends to export at least 50%, mostly to the U.S., Japan and Hong Kong. The Drivers are popular, not only for the work they are bringing to the area, but for the money they have put into the restoration of the Gun Room, an 18th century building in the town. “The best thing that ever happened to Alfriston,” June Goodfield, an 87-year-old local historian said. “It’s so nice to have something that isn’t a golf course.”

They also have sponsored a wine research center at nearby Plumpton College, where Driver studied viticulture after making his millions in the world of high finance. The beautiful countryside shimmered in bright spring sun as the guests happily quaffed Plumpton’s non-vintage sparkling (a trifle too acidic for my taste). Cable said his goodbyes and stepped into his ministerial car — into the driving seat, that is, of a nondescript, somewhat grubby 10-year-old Vauxhall — and engaged the gears. It had been a peculiarly English day.

Main photo: Vince Cable, U.K. business secretary,  center, gets a tour of the Rathfinny Estate from Mark and Sarah Driver. Credit: Adam Lechmere

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Picking Grenache at Grover Zampa Vineyards. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

India is trending toward wine. The favorite beverage of Dionysus is fast becoming the gateway drink for the nation’s younger generation. The tradition of two scotches before dinner is morphing into a wine-by-the-glass culture.

Noticing this change, France’s legendary House of Moët & Chandon has made its initial foray into India with the premiere release of Chandon India, a sparkling wine produced for the domestic market. The wine is made in the emerging wine region of Nashik (or Nasik), a four-hour drive north of Mumbai. The uncorking of Chandon Brut and Brut Rosé in October 2013 drew Mumbai’s glitterati and Bollywood superstars.

Most wine regions are known for their distinctive grape varietals: New Zealand’s Marlborough area for Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, France’s Chablis for Chardonnay, Germany’s Mosel region for Riesling and so on.

On my recent visit to Nashik, I was impressed by its Chenin Blanc. It was so good, I suggested to a few winemakers that they brand this region as “Chenin Blanc Country.” This is the varietal that goes into Chandon’s sparkling wine. Nashik’s diurnal temperature creates an ideal growing condition for Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc — wines perfectly suited for India’s hot weather and spicy foods.

Wine just beginning to emerge in India

India’s wine industry is in its embryonic stage. In a country of 1.2 billion people, wine consumption in 2013 was estimated at 1.6 million cases, with an annual growth rate of 20% to 25%. The country has 70-plus wineries with more than 260,000 acres under vines spread among 11 Indian states. The noted areas are Bangalore in Karnataka state in the south and Nashik and Pune on the west coast, both in close proximity to Mumbai in Maharashtra state.

On the banks of Godavari River, Nashik (with a population of 1.5 million) is steeped in mythology. It’s among the four locations where Kumbh Mela — a Hindu pilgrimage — is held, making it one of India’s holiest cities. With more than 100 temples, temple tourism is a big draw. The city is also an automotive and pharmaceutical manufacturing hub. And now comes its newest attraction — wine tourism, with some 30 wineries, fancy tasting rooms and harvest festivals.

Chandon’s winemaker, Australian Kelly Healey, was my daylong guide in Nashik. The company purchases fruit from local growers, and production, started in 2011, is done at the local York winery. Chandon’s own winery is under construction in Dindori, a subregion of Nashik, and scheduled for completion later in 2014. New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay Winery is Chandon’s technical partner in Nashik, Healey said.

Avoiding soil that’s better for table grapes

Healey gave me the lowdown on Nashik’s geological profile. Hillside vineyards, some at an elevation of 1,300 feet, contain porous, red-brown, rocky basaltic soil with a slightly richer brown soil on flat land.

“The one we want to avoid is the black soil on alluvial plains,” Healey said. The rich organic matter with water-retaining property is better suited for table grapes. And there’s a lot of that going on, because table grapes exported to the United Kingdom and Russia fetch a better per-ton price than wine grapes.

From October to February, temperatures dip to mid-40 F. Harvest season is from February to March. “There’s no dormancy, so the vines are all confused as there’s year-round growth,” Healey mused.

Annual prunings are in April and September, and most farmers create artificial dormancy in April. “They spray with a hormone so the vines drop leaves,” Healey said. During monsoon season, June to August, vines are sprayed to keep them healthy. “It’s a difficult place to do organic farming,” he admitted.

Nashik’s popular varietals range from Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc to Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot and Malbec. Some producers are experimenting with Tempranillo, Grenache and Sangiovese. Nashik does not have an appellation certification, but the bottles bear the name. The region was pioneered in the 1980s by Chateau Indage, followed by producers like Sula and Zampa.

 

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Lunchtime for farm workers at Vallonne. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

I visited four wineries, starting with Sula, which was launched in 1998. Back then, visitors lacked wine culture, recalled winemaker Ajoy Shaw. “They didn’t know what wine was. ‘Can we mix with water?’ they asked.”

Sula ushered in California-style wine education with an upscale tasting room and winery tours. All Sula bottles have screw caps because many consumers don’t own corkscrews. “And waiters struggle to open bottles in restaurants,” Shaw said.

Sula is clearly the leader in the Indian market, with an annual production of 700,000 cases and 29 different labels. The flagship wines are Sauvignon Blanc and sparkling wines. The reds include Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Shiraz. In tasting the Nashik reds, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, I found they lacked the tannin structure. No wonder, because Cabernet requires a longer growing season, which this region does not offer. So what you get here is sugary ripeness, not flavor ripeness.

I tasted an exceptional Chenin Blanc at York Winery, a wine I feel could stand up to any world-class Chenin in a blind tasting. Owned by the Gurnani family of Nashik, York is run by brothers Ravi, in charge of marketing, and winemaker Kailash, who studied oenology at Adelaida University in Australia.

In 2008, they produced their first vintage of wines from sourced fruit and the six-acre estate vineyard. Annual production of 10,000 cases includes Sauvignon Blanc Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and a Zinfandel Rosé.

In nearby Kavnai village, Vallonné Winery sits on a 20-acre estate. Founder Shailandra Pai conducted a tasting of a fragrant 2013 Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon and a 2011 fruit-forward  Malbec. I was impressed with the barrel tasting of the 2013 Merlot, which showed integrated tannins.

A few miles further, Grover Zampa’s 13-acre vineyard is set on a 35-acre estate. Its annual production of 25,000 cases includes 18 to 20 wines. The whites lacked fresh acidity. What stood out was the flagship 2010 Chêne Reserve, a blend of Syrah and Tempranillo showing structured tannins and fruit.

The Nashik trip was quite an experience — modern hotels in the city yet bullock carts, corn fields and sun-dried cow dung cakes along wine country’s rural trail. But Ravi Gurnani is positive about the future.

“Chandon being here is a good push for others,” he said.

Main photo: Picking Grenache at Grover Zampa Vineyards. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

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The Cornalin Museum, Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins in the village of Flanthey. Credit: David Latt

Which Swiss wines do you love? Hands? Anybody? Nobody? Know why? Only 2% of Switzerland’s wine production is exported. All the rest is consumed domestically. The best way — actually, the only way — to sample Swiss wines is to visit Switzerland. That’s what I did last fall.

The Valais’ microclimate

Having grown up with images of Switzerland as a land of snow-covered mountains,  I expected cold weather when I visited the Valais, a  French-speaking canton east of Geneva. But the climate was better suited to shorts and T-shirts than to parkas.

Neatly trellised vineyards climb up steep hills taking advantage of a hot, dry microclimate. With 300 days of sun a year, the Valais feels like Napa and Sonoma except for the Matterhorn looming in the distance.

In Switzerland, family-owned vineyards and wineries (called vignerons-encaveurs) are the rule. Even if unprofitable, they stay in the family. We met one winemaker whose family was regarded as a newcomer. They had worked the vineyard for only three generations, whereas the neighboring farm had been owned by one family for seven generations. Neither winery was self-sustaining. Everyone had a day job.

During a hosted trip we tasted dozens of varietals from local vineyards, some with such a small output that customers who lived in the neighborhood consumed their entire production.

The wine most closely associated with the Valais is Fendant, a white wine made with the Chasselas grape. But it is a red wine, not a white, that is making news these days.

Cornalin, the new kid on the block

Twenty years ago the Swiss government encouraged farmers to plant improved strains of grapes that were indigenous to Switzerland and to pursue new blends with distinctive qualities. The goal was to expand the export market for Swiss wines.

In the Valais that led to the improvement of Cornalin, a grape that had been cultivated since the Roman Empire. Used primarily in blends to make inexpensive table reds, the wine was often bottled without appellation or date of production.

Rouge du Pays

Frequently confused with an Italian grape with a similar name, the Swiss variety (Rouge du Pays or Cornalin du Valais) is genetically distinct. In the 1990s the Agroscope Changins-Wädenswi, a federal agricultural agency, funded research to cultivate promising local strains to improve the quality of the grapes and the survivability of the vines. A group of young vintners adopting the appellation Le Coteaux de Sierre planted the new vines. Over time, the acreage in the Valais devoted to Cornalin has expanded.

 

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The Cornalin Museum, Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins in the village of Flanthey, Switzerland. Credit: David Latt

The wines have a low-tannin, fruity flavor and a dark cherry red color. Helping market wines made with 100% Cornalin grapes, the wineries of the area have enlisted an unlikely champion.

Antoine Bailly is an internationally respected academic and a Nobel Peace Prize winner (Geography, 2012). A native of Switzerland, Bailly travels the world as a lecturer. These days his passion project is Cornalin.

A Cornalin Museum: Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins

On a tour of the under-renovation Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins in the village of Flanthey, Bailly pointed out details of the building, parts of which were built in the 13th and 16th centuries. Restored at great expense, the building is unique in the area for its history and architectural details. Open to the public in late August 2014, a photographic tour of the museum is available on a French language website.

In the tasting room, products from 17 of the local wineries can be sampled, along with cheeses and charcuterie from local purveyors. To visualize where the grape is grown, Bailly created an interactive map with the locations of the Cornalin vineyards in the Valais. Another interactive display with video screens illustrates the cultivation of the grape.

A temperamental grape

In the tasting room, with Bailly leading an animated discussion accompanied with appetizers of local cheeses and slices of beef sausage from Boucherie La Lienne in the village of Lens, we sampled several of the 100% Cornalin wines. Each of us had our favorite. Mine was the Bagnoud Cornalin, Coteaux de Sierra (2012) Rouge du Valais.

Bailly described the grape as difficult to grow and unstable. Slight variations in heat or rainfall can ruin the harvest. Through trial and error, the vintners have learned how to get the best out of the grape.

So why bother with such a temperamental grape? The answer was pretty direct. The vintners like the wine they’re making with Cornalin. For them, the extra effort and increased risk are worth it.

Cornalin needs three years in the bottle to mature. With the vintages currently offered for sale, these wines will be at their best just about the time the museum opens. Bailly invited us all to come back then. In the meantime, we bought bottles of our favorites to bring home. We had become little agents of export for Swiss wines.

Top photo: The Cornalin Museum, Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins in the village of Flanthey.  Credit: David Latt

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