Monday, April 25, 2016

Bordeaux Town Moves to Restrict Vineyard Pesticide Spraying to Protect Sites Where Local Children Live and Play

Parents protesting in Feb. in the Gironde
Vineyard owners in the Gironde district of Bordeaux face new restrictions on pesticide spraying, due to local protestors' concerns about children's health risks in the region.

While the prefecture voted in 2014 to protect schools from spraying at certain times, this week the region voted to expand the list of protected sites to include other places were children play or live, including day care, nurseries, playgrounds and health facilities, according to La France Agricole and the French TV as well as other French news sources.

Gironde growers will be encouraged to install protective vegetation, such as hedges, and employ anti-drift measures, during spraying. The government-recommended steps include maintaining a distance of 50 meter from sites, unless using specialized spray equipment, in which case the distance can be reduced to 20 or 5 meters from the site).

The government took these steps after public hearings were held, which were attended by parents and local growers and winemakers.

In the past year, the region has become a lightning rod for anti-pesticide activists who have become alarmed over children's health risks from vineyard pesticides, which was sparked in part by a 2014 incident at the school in Villeneuve-de-Blaye when vineyards sprayed fungicides during a windy day, sending 23 children to the hospital. One of those spraying was the town's mayor.

The local families' rising concern and fight to protect their children was documented in the French TV expose on pesticides that aired in February across France.

(I posted about the show in Feb.)

Quoted in Rue 89 Bordeaux, the pesticide activists say the new measures fail to address the dangers of pesticide sprays, saying that a hedge cannot protect against the chemicals sprayed in vineyards.

A vineyard worker is quoted as saying, "The Prefect does not takes its responsibilities seriously...making dialogue impossible."

The story hasn't made the wine press yet, but was featured in The Times of London (subscription required).

Gironde is the largest wine region in France.

The response from Bordeaux's leading wine association CIVB was swift, with CIVB leadership saying it the industry has a duty to be exemplary, and must sharply cut back on or even eliminate the use of pesticides. Speaking on behalf of CIVB, Bernard Farges said the goal will not be met in the short term, but that growers should begin by being careful in areas near residences.

Though the Gironde vineyards comprise only 3 percent of agricultural land in France, they use 20 percent of the pesticides applied in the country.

This local TV news report presents many of the residents and growers involved in the conflict.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Ancient Wine Seminar: The Morning Session Videos

Dr. Patrick McGovern's keynote address is now available online, thanks to the generosity of Darrell Corti.

Enjoy this introduction to ancient wine from one of the world's leading experts on the topic. (And be sure to check out his book Ancient Wine, as well).


After you're finished with the keynote, continue your Ancient Wine experience with the next video - on Georgian wines, via a Skype interview with Georgian wine expert and MW Lisa Granik speaking
from Tbilisi.


Thursday, April 7, 2016

Ancient Wine Seminar, A Blast from the Past, Part 1: Wines from the Earliest Known Winemaking Regions in the Caucasus (Georgia and Armenia)

Has there ever been such an exciting day in the history of wine classes?

For those of who love ancient history AND wine, there probably has never been a more thrilling assemblage of learned speakers and wines from ancient wine regions than the class and grand tasting The Origins of Wine Civilization. This one day event took place March 13 at the San Francisco Wine School in South San Francisco. (You can read the schedule of the day's event here.)

David Furer, right, who organized the event (with David
Glancy. left, of the SF Wine School)
Thanks to David Furer for putting the event together, a process which is said to have taken place over a period of 15 years. (The last ancient wine gathering of note took place in 1991 under the auspices of the Mondavi winery. Perhaps things move slowly in the world of ancient wine.)

Not one, but two Dr. Patricks (Patrick McGovern, the distinguished wine archaeologist from UPenn and author of the essential book Ancient Wine, the classic in the field, published in 2003, and Patrick Hunt, an archaelogist who has taught at Stanford) attended, each giving an engaging keynote address, with Dr. McGovern kicking the event off in the morning and Dr. Hunt leading the afternoon's proceedings.

As fate would have it, I took a seat in the front row (the better to take pictures and record audio) only to find a few minutes later that Dr. McGovern had the adjoining seat. It was good fortune to be able to ask him a few questions over the course of the day.

Dr. Patrick McGovern, the leading U.S. academic in the field of ancient wine;
his lab is the most advanced in terms of analyzing the chemistry of wine
residues found in ancient clay containers
Morning Keynote

Dr. McGovern introduced the morning session's coverage of the most ancient wine sites in the Caucasus, including Georgia and Armenia.

McGovern giving his keynote; the event was sold out
Armenia is home to Areni, the cave that, so far, appears to be the earliest known wine making site. It was only "discovered" in 2007 and announced in 2011. (Sadly the cave is not open to the public). Several new wineries have opened in the Areni area, leveraging its historical notoriety for hoped for commercial winemaking success as well as homage to wine history and Armenian pride. (It should be noted that none of the current Areni wineries can be said to be growing the indigenous varieties that were made in the Areni cave as these varietals have not yet been identified).

The site of the Areni cave, which dates back to 4000 BC, making it the earliest known winemaking site
Also in the Caucasus is Georgia which, as many know, is still the living repository of what many consider to be ancient varieties and wine culture, celebrating a love of the vine that is enshrined in daily life and rituals.

McGovern's talk ranged from the earliest known sites to later developments in Egypt, Turkey, Italy and beyond. (If you feel desolée because you missed the seminar, much of what he said can be viewed in an earlier presentation he gave which is on YouTube here.)

To read the first chapter of McGovern's book, which covers the earliest known period of winemaking, click here. He recapped his first major finding, which was determining that wine was definitely present in jars found at Godin Tepe, a site in Iran, in 1991, by identifying the presence of tartaric acid. This discovery was explored at the 1991 Mondavi seminar when McGovern and his colleague brought the jar to Napa.

Other important ancient sites include Tel Kabri in Galilee

Most ancient wines were blended with herbs and resins, to preserve them. They also served as a way to deliver medicinal herbs. Wines were also blended with other fermented beverages including mead and ale as well as honey.

By 3150 BC wine growing and winemaking had migrated south, as those south of Lebanon and the Egyptians mastered the art of growing vines with irrigation.

Here are a few slides from McGovern's lecture:

One of the most interesting slides from McGovern's talk, which provides
some surprising correlations; it shows that most cultivated European wine grape varieties
came from sources in the Caucasus, Zakros and Taurus mountains
Caucasus Panel and Tasting

L to Right, Alberto Antonini, winemaker at Zorah (one of the Areni area wineries);
Lisa Granik, MW, Georgia; Zorik Garibian, Armenian native and Zorah's founder and proprietor
Following McGovern's lecture, a tasting panel with winemakers from the Caucausus region featured wines from Georgia and Armenia along with Skype appearances by Lisa Granik, MW, widely considered to be the most well informed authority on Georgian wines (she works for the U.S. AID-sponsored Georgian Wine Association) and Zorik Gharibian, an Armenian native and Milanese resident, who started Zorah, and Zorah winemaker Alberto Antonini.

Jeff Berlin, standing, center, of A Cote, explaining how to get diners to
taste wines beyond their comfort range
The panelists who attended live included Jeff Berlin, manager and wine director of A Cote in Oakland's Rockridge neighborhood (a spot which I frequent), known for his flights of comparatively obscure wines (like those of Georgia) along with Paul Hobbs, a Sonoma winemaker who also works for Yacoubian-Hobbs, an Areni area winery, and Pasadena resident Robert Michero, the wine importer for another Areni area winery, Trinity Canyon Vineyards.

"Wine is a sacrament," said Jeff Berlin, "a part of everyday life, a part of celebrating life, and it was treated with much more reverence then than it is today."

Berlin got a big laugh from the audience as he explained how he got A Cote diners to taste wines from Georgia and other lesser known regions. "I just remove all their other choices from the menu," he said.

Lisa Granik, MW, who works for the Georgian Wine Association, described the two main wine regions in Georgia on the east and west sides of the Caucasus Mountains. "There are 525 indigenous varieties in Georgia," she said, of which 46 are in commercial production. Georgia's indigneous wine grape varieties are in a Renaissance phase, following the collapse of the USSR. Many, if not most, are made in the traditional kevri, which are large clay pots buried in the ground.

Blue Danube imports Shumi Tsianandali, a Georgian wine, which
is 85 percent Rkatsitelli; it retails for $12-13 a bottle; it was
one of the four wines in the Caucasus panel tasting
In neighboring Armenia, a landlocked country between the Caspian and the Black Sea, the Soviet Union converted all of the wineries into brandy making facilities until recently. Sweet wines were mandatory. The discovery of the Areni cave was a turning point for the country's winemaking, catalyzing the recent trickle of western funds and producers - including Zorah, Yacoubian-Hobbs, and Trinity Canyon - who are interested in producing dry red wines.

Zorik, who made it as a Milanese clothing manufacturer, said he had originally intended to start a winery in Tuscany, but after the discovery of the Areni cave, returned to visit his native Armenia and decided to start his winery there, with Antonini as his winemaker. Zorah's wines sell for roughly $35+ in the U.S. and are made from indigenous varietals, including Areni Noir, from the Areni area. Well crafted, they have won praise from the likes of Jancis Robinson and won a Decanter wine award in 2012. It is going after the high end of the market.

Zorah's Karasi wine made from the Areni Noir grape, which we
enjoyed over lunch

At Zorah, the vines are on their own roots, according to Antonini, in "a dreamland of limestone soils." There are no synthetics being used, he said. Fermentation of Zorah's wines takes place partly in amphoras and partly in concrete. The aging takes place in amphora and old casks.

Paul Hobbs from Sonoma, winemaker at Yacoubian-Hobbs, with Robert
Michero of Trinity Canyon Vineyards; both wineries are in the Areni region
Hobbs described his approach to planting a vineyard in the Areni region, using very dense plantings of 5-6,000 vines per acre.

He describes as the typical Armenian approach which he said is "Laissez-faire trellis and canopy management and no use of herbicides."

Hobbs and Yacoubian have planted 18 hectares, using concrete piers as posts. "We are taking two paths," he said. "Local cultivars as well as others from California, France and Argentina, to see what performs best."

"It's high elevation, with cold winters - colder than the Finger Lakes of New York," he said, "and the growing season is short, with bud break in April and picking by mid October."

Both Antonini and Hobbs are flying winemakers, who service a number of wineries.

By contrast, says importer Michero, Trinity Canyon, the third Areni area winery featured, uses a winemaker who lives locally and trained in Montpelier and Germany.

The Trinity Canyon 6100 (left), which I thought was superb, was on our lunch table,
along with the Georgian Shavnabadi and Armenian Zorah selections
An articulate and engaging raconteur, Michero, a California native of Armenian heritage, described Armenian winemaking as "pre U.C. Davis." Trinity Canyon has just 4.5 hectares in vine; three more hectares are coming soon, he said.

Half of the Trinity Canyon vines are head pruned, in the traditional way; half are double cordoned. The acidity of the wines is in the 12-13% range. The price for the outstanding 6100 red wine is $12-13 a bottle in the U.S. 

All three Armenian wineries talked about the difficulty of transporting equipment and other essentials to and from the Areni sites.

If you'd like to see some scenes of the Areni cave, check out this video from Trinity Canyons.

The Morning Wine Sessions

Overall, the morning's wines were outstanding and many were real bargains I am tempted to buy cases of.

It was interesting to see what we want to know about ancient wine and what it means to us now. We want to know who drank wine then (everyone or just kings?). We want to know what it tasted like. We want to know what grapes were grown. We want to know what wine meant in the society.

In approaching the winemaking today in these regions, it appears as if the very few Armenian wineries near Areni are trying to reinvent something that Georgia never lost.  The Soviet era dampened wine traditions in both countries. But Georgia's seems to have bounced back - or lost less of its continuity. While in Areni, modern winemakers are struggling to make something of their "new found" heritage, a heritage that could be eclipsed with a future discovery of an even older winemaking cave in another country. The Great Search is on for that cave and all of the countries in ancient winemaking regions is hopeful they will be the next winner.

For winemakers, there are lots of choices - dry farmed, head pruned? We also know that in some regions, wine grapes were grown up olive trees, for instance (to get two crops from the same area) so how was wine grown in 4000 BC?

At Areni, winemakers are grappling with these questions. To age in kevri or not? To grow on cordons? To irrigate? To prune?

Most of the Armenian producers exemplify these challenges, often choosing to experiment in this phase. But all are hopeful the region will attract more attention.

I was not able to determine which wine were grown organically, as there is very little certification in Georgia and I am not sure if there is any at all in Armenia. However, the use of pesticides in vineyards in these regions in general in no way approaches their use in more developed areas like France, Italy, Spain and California, so it's a pretty safe bet that many of these are grown organically. (I would wonder if Hobbs is an exception, given that his farming practices in Sonoma County, but I didn't ask.)

Trinity Canyon uses the word "organic" on its web site; it is unlikely that there is any certification involved.

Clearly these wine regions are producing some very novel and intriguing wines and expanding wine lovers' palates in entirely new ways, since so many of the indigenous grapes found here are foreign to us. And most are affordably priced, presenting a far more adventurous alternative to comparatively priced $12-14 bottles from American producers. I say take the plunge and discover new flavors. Get out of the box. There are some great wines here.

Stay Tuned for Turkey and the Middle East in Part 2

In the interests of making blog posts that are managemable in size, I'll make a separate post about the afternoon's speakers and wines in Part 2.

In the meantime, you can enjoy watching the first hour of the symposium, thanks to Darrell Corti, who had it videotaped and posted on YouTube. Organizers said he would be posting the entire day's proceedings online on YouTube, so stay tuned for updates or subscribe to his video channel. (Click on the YouTube icon below and go to the site to do that.)

I don't know why it is so heavily emblazoned with David Glancy's title, but...oh well.