Friday, October 21, 2016

Organic and Biodynamic in Champagne? Reason for Hope

Don't miss Caroline Henry's very fine piece in on the 2016 harvest in Champagne and growers' increasing (albeit small) interest in using organic and Biodynamic farming techniques.

Champagne has been a region where pesticides are more heavily used than in many others in France. (Bordeaux uses more, according to Henry). If you saw the film A Year in Champagne, you may recall the scene where a helicopter is spraying pesticides on camera.

Henry's story highlights:

• Legislation is being considered in France that could restrict pesticide use in vineyards 25% by 2020.  (What a contrast to the scene in California, eh?)

• Organic and Biodynamic vineyards fared well in comparison to their chemically farmed counterparts in the 2016 vintage in Champagne

One interesting note for us here in California: Roederer, one of Champagne's major producers, with 568 acres in the region, has 20+ acres of Biodynamic vines it is piloting in Champagne.

Here in California, the company has three estate wineries in Mendocino's Anderson Valley (Domaine Anderson, Roederer Estate and Scharffenberger Cellars), and a similarly small percentage of its vines here are organic or Biodynamic.

Domaine Anderson, its newest winery in Anderson Valley, has just recently certified 17 acres of Biodynamic vines. It also has two smaller certified organic vineyards as well. (Alas, no sparkling wines - just Pinot Noir - is made from Domaine Anderson).

I hadn't heard anything from the Roederer folks I spoke with here about their Biodynamic vines in Champagne, so that was interesting to discover that they have 20+ acres there.

Of course, we do have a limited number of sparkling wine options here in the U.S. for organically or Biodynamically grown wine - McFadden's Brut, Terra Savia, and Alma Rosa are some. Selected vintages of some Domaine Carneros sparkling wines are also organically grown (and bottle labeled with certification). Others include Sea Smoke Cellars and Johan Vineyard's Pet Nat (Biodynamic).

Maybe one day, sigh, Roederer's Mendocino sparkling wines from Mendocino will be on that list.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

How Did We Ever Live Without This Book? French Wine: A History - Including 10 Things to Know About French Wine

For years we've had books about French wines, but never a book like this before. Rod Phillips' comprehensive book, French Wine: A History, is an absolute tour de force, sure to be an instant classic. I read an advance review copy, but the book just went on sale today.

(For those of us who follow organically grown wines, this book could, loosely, be said to be a history of organic wine, since all wine was "organic" until the last 100-150 years.)

To hear many modern French wine books talk about it, French wines consist of wines from Bordeaux,  Champagne, and Burgundy, along with the Rhone. These first three - historically the biggest producers of fine wines - account, as Phillips writes - for just one sixth of French vineyards and a small percentage of France's output. Instead, Phillips writes, we should pay broader attention to the rest of France:
"...most French wine produced today comes from Mediterranean France, especially from the broad Languedoc region that is the cradle of French viticulture."
Sound familiar? Just as Napa and Sonoma get so much press, it's places like California's Central Valley that do all the heavy lifting.

Uniquely, Phillips also puts Algeria in context, a region that's often neglected or disowned in most French wine books. But many, many French wines came from Algeria either as blends or a wholly sourced Algerian wines. The region was especially important during the period when phylloxera killed off most of the European country's vines. Phillips gives us the precise value of the African colony's contribution when he writes,
"...shipments of wine from Algeria to metropolitan France represented three times the combined wine exports of France, Italy and Spain in the 1930s and easily exceeded them until the 1960's." 
How's that for modifying existing views on French terroir during that period?

Author Rod Phillips is a historian, by profession, and a wine expert who is a wine columnist for the daily paper in Ottawa. His book covers wine grape growing and winemaking in France from 500 BCE when the Romans appear to have been making their first wines around Massalia (today, Marseilles).

But aside from that, there are juicy bits about, of course, the English and the French, Champagne and the court, the neglected Rhone region, and the recent invention of historical traditions in both Bordeaux and Burgundy by vintners anxious to create lines of historical legitimacy where there were none.

But the book's comprehensiveness is also part of its great value - Phillips gives us great chapters on the earliest years with details not revealed elsewhere (at least in English translations). The medieval period is as fascinating as any of the later eras. And the realization that the French revolution was responsible for the breakup of the great church-owned Burgundian estates that then passed into private hands. If only we had bought then...

I found myself underlining, underlining and underlining - there were so many Big Facts and Interesting Revelations in this book. One could easily write a lengthy review, but I will restrain myself and simply share:

10 Things About French Wine I Learned from Reading French Wine: A History

1. The First French Imports to Italy May Have Been in 79 CE

When Pompeii, a major wine producing area, was buried by the volcanic explosion of 79 CE, the Romans imported Gallic/French wines to Italy to make up for the shortage of Italian wines.

2. Vines Planted in Rows: A First in 1630

Before 1630, vines were planted as field blends and not in rows. Row planting did not really take off until phylloxera forced the French to replant, which was in the late 1800's.

3. Sauternes - A Dutch Treat

The Dutch ran things in Bordeaux during much of the 1600's, and it was on their watch that Sauternes were produced, making the sweet wine popular and famous.

They also made Cahors and its Malbecs prominent and sought after wines.

4. King Louis XV Forbade Vineyard Planting

Concerned that the craze for planting vineyards - which made a nice profit - might take too much land out of production that was needed for growing essentials like grain, in 1731 Louis XV issued an edict forbidding the planting of new vineyards without his consent. (The edicts were widely ignored).

5. In the 18th Century, Burgundy's Big Market Was Parisians not the British

In the late 1700's Bordeaux and Champagne were mostly exported to English, who paid twice the price for Bordeaux wines than the French did, while the wines of Burgundy were embraced by Parisian wine drinkers.

The finest wines of Burgundy - from Chambertin, Clos de Vougeot and more - were priced at just 50 percent above those of ordinary wines.

6. The French Revolution Revolutionized Vineyard Ownership

During the revolution, the state confiscated land owned by the churches, enabling citizens with money to buy land to snap up many of Burgundy's finest vineyards, which had been owned by abbeys. The largest was the 5,000 acres vines owned by the Abbey of Citeaux which were sold to wealthy buyers.

La Romanee, now of DRC fame, was among those auctioned at 1794. Wine from it was said to "restore life to the dying."

It was from this time onward that Burgundy's vineyards began being subdivided into smaller and smaller fragments.

The revolution also liberated wine presses, enabling anyone to make wine. Until that time, using the seigneur's press would cost you 5 to 30 percent of the wine you produced. And you couldn't use it during peak harvest times if the seigneur needed it to crush his own grapes.

7. Pas De Punchdowns

Winemakers in the 1800s were advised not to punchdown wines, according to a manual by Cade-de-Vaux.

Many winemakers also appear to have died from carbon dioxide poisoning during fermentation, judging from his warnings on carbon gas.

8. The Comet Vintage was Superb

In 1870 Donati's comet streaked across the sky; vintners proclaimed the wines from this harvest as notably superior.

9. The Railroads Revitalized Languedoc

By the 1850's, when railroads could transport wine to Paris in tanker cars, Languedoc's plantings and output rose exponentially, to 1.1 million acres producing, with higher yielding varietals, 400 million cases.

10. The American Import - Powdery Mildew - Debuted

There was no powdery mildew in French vineyards until the 1840s when it came to France from America.

And one last bit, which I cannot resist: in 1905, when there was widespread wine fraud with pernicious additives or wine made from raisins were widely distributed, vintners fought back with the slogan: "Long live natural wine [i.e. real wine]! Down with the poisoners!" - a sentiment that should still ring true today.


As excellent as it is, I do have a few issues with this book,. The subject of viticulture is only sporadically and tantalizingly touched upon.

It's unclear to me from reading it when copper started to be used, as well as sulfur, and when insecticides came into play. What kind of tillage was being done? When did tractors start to be used?

There is a brief, all too brief, mention of organic and Biodynamic farming starting in the 1970's, but not much detail about why and what the results and scope of it was.

Perhaps we can beg the author to write another book that will address this equally worthy side - the viticultural practices (and history of pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and fungicides) - of French wine history.

Final Note

This is such a grand and wonderful book that I would hope that someday it could be republished as a coffeetable book with lots of color illustrations and photos.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

RAW WINE Meets Slow Food: Geeking Out on Heritage Winemaking Gear with Via Vecchia

Via Vecchia's housed in Columbus' old Brewery District 

There's a place where people like to geek out on heritage vines. That's California.

Then there's a place where a guy likes to geek out on actually using heritage winemaking equipment. That's Columbus, Ohio. Say what? you say. Yes, Columbus, Ohio.

English by birth and Tuscan by heritage, winemaker Paolo Rosi uses his treasured, century old winemaking equipment to make an organically grown wine at his Via Vecchia winery. (Aptly, "Via Vecchia" means the "old way" in Italian.)

When Rosi moved to the U.S. from London, he brought with him his family's winemaking equipment:

• Three 100-140 year old demijohns in their hand beaten, riveted metal carriers
• A hand corker
• A device used to pull olive oil off the top of the wine in the neck of the demijohns

His old time methods caught the attention of the Piedmont-based Slow Food leaders. He was invited to bring his wine to Italy.

Although he wasn't raised as an Italian American, he might be considered one now, since he follows another time-honored Italian American tradition - buying his wine grapes from Lodi, and having them shipped across the country to his winery.

His Respiro Cabernet comes from the Mettler family vineyard in Lodi.

He'll be pouring the Respiro at RAW WINE, the natural wine festival in Brooklyn, in Nov. Now you can see (from these pix) where it comes from.

Cin, cin.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

What a Native Yeast Ferment Looks Like

Everyday millions of wine are made with commercial yeasts designed to bring out certain flavors in wine. Except for those who use native yeasts - the yeasts found on the grapes. For many wine purists, using native yeasts is the only way to go.

Here's Pinot fermenting away at Brooks winery in Oregon's Eola-Amity Hills wine country outside Portland. If you close your eyes after looking at this photo, you can almost smell the juice...

If you want more than that, check out their Rastaban Pinot Noir. Made from Biodynamic Grapes.

Organic Estate Wineries Dominate The Daily Meal's Top 10 Wineries List for Second Year in a Row

The Daily Meal web site, an online web site focused on food and drink, has once again announced its list of the 2016 Top 100 Wineries in the U.S. based on input from 50 somms, chefs, restauranteurs and wine writers.

For the second year in a row, five of the top 100 are wineries with organic vineyards.

In the U.S., fewer than 3 percent of vineyards are organically farmed, even in fine wine areas. Five wineries with extensive organic estates in the top 10 means they're outperforming their peers with conventional vineyards significantly, since their numbers represent 50% (not 3%) of the top ten.

Overall, there were 13 wineries with certified organic estates on the list.

Of these, 11 made the 2015 list as well.

1. Ridge Vineyards
No surprise - this is one of the country's bests on almost any list. The Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet - internationally acclaimed, every prize in the book. The old vine Zins from its Sonoma vines - also top rated (and much more affordably priced).
Organic vineyard acreage: 277

2. Tablas Creek
This Rhone powerhouse in Paso Robles brings the cachet of the Perrin family of Chateauneuf du Pape to a limestone rich site in California's Central Coast. Plus, the Paso estate features a vineyard full of the Perrin's valuable Rhone clones.
Organic vineyard acreage127

4. Calera
Another Central Coast wonder created by an American vintner obsessed with finding just the right limestone soil - but in his case, it was for growing Pinot Noir. It's been acclaimed for decades - and justly so.
Organic vineyard acreage83

6. Heitz Wine Cellars
A grande old dame of the Napa Valley, Heitz makes acclaimed Cabernet and a very nice Sauvignon Blanc. Its Trailside Cabernet is not to be missed. (Nor the Martha's.)
Organic vineyard acreage: 275

10. Robert Sinskey Vineyards
A Pinot Noir powerhouse in Napa's Carneros region, Sinskey has prevailed over wine critics who "didn't get" its food friendly wines by appealing to chefs directly and finding receptivity there. It also makes a great Alsatian blend.
Organic vineyard acreage: 176

11. Turley*
Old vines and especially old vine Zinfandel rule here. They make more than 14 unique single vineyard wines from historic vineyards around the state. Visit them in Paso for the biggest selection.
Organic vineyard acreage: 150

23. QupĂ© 
California's best Rhone wines. The estate wines are Biodynamically farmed and made with native yeast and without additives (except sulfites to preserve the wine). It's a high wire act - making sure the terroir, the vintage, and the yeasts all sync up - and they do, producing stellar wines vintage after vintage.
Organic and Biodynamic vineyard acreage: 40

33. Spottswoode
Often charmingly referred to as the Grace Kelly of Napa, this pristine St. Helena estate is the product of the Novak family, who rose from a tragic death in the family to create one of the region's most renowned Cabernet brands.
Organic and Biodynamic vineyard acreage: 40

50. Neyers
All of its current estate wines come from certified vines (although future vintages will not). The Cabernet, Merlot and Left Bank Red are all from its organic estate and are highly recommended.
Organic vineyard acreage: 12 (through 2014)

55. Beckmen Vineyards
A leader in the American Rhone movement, the Beckmen's Biodynamically farmed Ballard Canyon vineyard is a thing of beauty, perched on the top of Purisima Mountain. You can choose from three different Grenaches or four different Syrahs, made from its grapes - that's how meticulous the Beckmens are.
Organic and Biodynamic vineyard acreage: 125

70. Eyrie Vineyards
The most famous Pinot Noir winery in Oregon, run by the descendants of those who brought the fabled Burgundian grapevine to its Northwest home. Try the white wines, too.
Organic vineyard acreage: 150

81. Bokisch Vineyards
The Lodi outlier for being both devoted to Spanish varietals and organic farming - neither of which are common among in this Central Valley region. Its wines are affordably priced, too. If you haven't tried Albarino, now may be the time.
Organic vineyard acreage: 84

88. Staglin Family Vineyard*
A Cabernet great among greats in Napa Valley, it grows its Cab on sites beloved by the great Andre Tchelistcheff, a giant among giants in Napa, for his own Beaulieu reserve Cab back in the day. Their wine philanthropy is admirable.
Organic vineyard acreage: 41

*Wineries that were not on the 2015 list (strangely enough) but were added to the 2016 list.

See the 2015 organic winners here.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Biodynamic Wine Tincture Made with Pot

You've got to read the LA Times story on this one. Find it here.

Of course, wine in ancient times was often made as a medicinal beverage, carrying healing herbs.