January 4, 2011
A question for the end of the year, a time to look back: What’s the oldest kind of wine still in modern production?
If you answered “Commandaria,” I’m impressed. I had never heard of such wines until a few weeks ago, when I attended a Smithsonian Resident Associates lecture about the cuisine of Cyprus. It’s a sweet dessert wine, with a dark amber to light brown color, and an intriguing taste that starts like honeyed raisins and figs and ends like coffee. It reminded me somewhat of Hungarian Tokaji wine, while the woman next to me said she found it pleasantly similar to Portuguese Madeira.
I learned that Commandaria’s history dates back at least 3,000 years, although it was called Mana for much of that time. The ancient Greeks drank it at festivals celebrating Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who, according to myth, was born from the sea foam on the shores of Cyprus. The wine’s modern name can be traced to the 12th and 13th centuries, when the Knights Templar and Knights of St. John established a headquarters (commandery) in the growing region and began to produce and export the wine commercially. Commandaria proved so popular with European palates that it is said to have been served at King Richard the Lionheart’s wedding, and to have won what was perhaps the world’s first wine-tasting competition in France.
Commandaria is made from two kinds of native grapes which I’d also never heard of before—white Xynisteri and red Mavro—which are partially dried in the sun to concentrate the juices before pressing and fermentation. By law, Commandaria wines must be aged for at least two years in oak barrels, but many of the best are aged for a decade or more. (I sampled a phenomenal 30-year-old vintage, Etko Centurion, although at $100 and up a bottle I don’t expect I’ll drink it again. But younger versions are also excellent, and much more affordable at around $20.)
Although its international popularity faded in the centuries after the knights lost power, Commandaria has been staging a comeback in recent decades. The name has been given “protected designation of origin status” in the European Union, the United States and Canada, and there is an official Commandaria wine region in southern Cyprus.
To learn more about the history of Cyprus, currently the subject of an exhibit at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, read this Smithsonian magazine piece.
October 27, 2010
Some people prefer red wine. Some swear by white. A few like rosé. Personally, I like ‘em all (or at least some kinds of each color). And I just discovered another color to add to my wine palette: orange.
So-called orange wine is not made from oranges (although, apparently, some people do make such a thing). It is the name frequently used to describe white wines in which the macerated grapes are allowed to have contact with the skins during part of the fermentation process. Although this was once, centuries ago, common practice in Europe, it fell out of favor in the 20th century. But in the past few years some adventurous winemakers—with a concentration in the Friuli region of Italy, near the Slovenian border—have been experimenting with orange wines.
So, how is orange wine different from rosé wine? Standard winemaking practice is that red wines are made from red or purple grapes (e.g. pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, merlot), with the skins left on during fermentation. White wines are usually made with white grapes (Chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, riesling), although they can also be made with red grapes with the skins removed (one example is Champagne, which often uses a blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier). Rosé is generally made with red grapes with the skins are left on for only part of the time.
Orange wines are made the same way as reds or rosés—allowing some skin contact—but since they use white grapes, the skins only color the wine a little, ranging from a light amber to a deep copper. But they also add tannins, the compounds normally associated with red wines that give it a slight bitterness and structure. The wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, Jon Bonné, wrote a good article on orange wines last year, including a history of the “mini-movement.”
I got my first taste of an orange wine last week, when I attended part of the Food & Wine Weekend at Lake Placid Lodge, an upscale Adirondack hotel. One of the sessions was a New York wine tasting with Channing Daughters winery of Long Island and Hermann J. Wiemer, from the Finger Lakes region. Channing Daughters is one of only a handful of wineries in the United States experimenting with orange wines. We tasted Envelope (so named because they are pushing it, explained the winemaker, James Christopher Tracy), a blend of Chardonnay, Gewurtztraminer and Malvasia bianca grapes.
It was nothing like any other wine I’ve tasted—aromatic, almost floral, fairly dry, with none of the acidic zing that many white wines have. I’m not a very practiced taster, but I thought I noticed a little of a citrus-rind flavor. According to the winery’s description, there are notes of “quince paste, apples, brown spice, roses, lychee, guava and dried papaya.” Tracy said the wines pair especially well with earthy fall foods.
Judging by the reaction in the room, orange wines can be polarizing. But I found the one I tasted intriguing—not something I’d want all the time, but every once in a while. I’d be interested in trying others. Since they are still relatively uncommon, though, it may be a while before I cross paths with an orange wine again.
September 23, 2010
Quick, think of a wine from Argentina.
I bet I can read your mind: Malbec?
That’s the first thing I think of, and the first thing I see in wine store displays these days. There’s a reason for that: It’s consistently good, and often a bargain. Argentine malbec is my go-to red wine in the $8 to $15 range, and although I like some bottles more than others, I’ve never encountered one I truly disliked. The best ones are rich and smooth, full of dark fruit flavors livened by a peppery zing.
But did you know malbec is originally French? The malbec grape was once a backbone of Bordeaux blends and is still grown widely in France’s Cahors region. It’s a fairly recent immigrant to Argentina, where other wine varietals (mainly criolla) have been cultivated since the 1500s.
According to Vino Argentino, a new book by Laura Catena, malbec was introduced to Argentina in 1853, when the government hired a French agronomist named Michel Aime Pouget to establish a vine nursery in Mendoza. He brought cuttings of several French varietals, including malbec, which thrived in the semi-arid, high-altitude vineyards.
Not long after that, malbec was hit hard on its home turf by a phylloxera epidemic. Catena writes:
Some 6.2 million acres (2.5 million hectares) of vines in France were destroyed by the disease, caused by an aphid-like insect, from 1875 to 1879. At the same time, in Argentina…Malbec was being propagated through the province of Mendoza by new immigrants from Italy and Spain. The dry climate and sandy soils in Mendoza inhibited the propagation of phylloxera, and Malbec plants are almost never affected here. The grape ripens beautifully.
Though beloved domestically, it took more than a century after that for Argentine malbec to gain international renown. I can remember when I first tasted it—only two years ago, in 2008, which is roughly when its popularity seemed to explode in the American mainstream. That’s due in part to economic factors, but it’s also due to a lot of hard work in recent decades by Argentine winemakers and promoters, including Catena and her family.
Catena’s father, Nicolas Catena, was born into the wine business—his Italian-immigrant father had been making malbec in Mendoza since the 190os—but he was troubled by the turn the country’s wine industry took during the financially turbulent 1970s. Price seemed poised to trump quality.
In the early 1980s, Nicolas Catena spent time in Berkeley as a visiting professor and was inspired by the exciting developments in the California wine industry at the time. Napa Valley winemakers were still glowing from their victory in the Judgment of Paris tasting, and maverick geniuses like Randall Grahm were just getting started.
As Laura Catena writes, her father returned to Argentina “obsessed with the quest for quality.” He spent much of the next decade studying the soils and microclimates of Mendoza, consulting the experts and developing a rigorous winemaking methodology. By the mid-1990s, Catena wines were garnering critical praise from the likes of Robert Parker, and foreign wine luminaries like Michel Rolland were dabbling in Argentine vineyards. International investors took heed. The U.S. mainstream, however, was still largely oblivious.
“I can remember when I was first selling Argentine wine and no one had ever heard of it,” Laura Catena said at a panel discussion organized by the Smithsonian Latino Center earlier this month. “Now, selling malbec seems so easy.”
She attributes this in part to the devaluation of the Argentine peso in 2002, which made the wines much cheaper on the international market, and thus more attractive to importers in the United States, Canada and Britain. Consumers were drawn in by the price, then hooked by the quality. Between 2001 and 2005, Argentina’s global wine exports doubled in value to $300 million, and had nearly doubled again to $553 million by 2009.
By now, malbec and Argentina have become so closely linked in the public’s perception that the grape’s heritage is all but forgotten. France seems to know it, says Washington Post wine writer Dave McIntyre, who spotted this slogan on a booth representing malbec’s homeland at an international wine expo last year: “Try Cahors—The French Malbec.”
Of course, as that Smithsonian panel featuring Catena, McIntyre and others emphasized, there’s also much “more than malbec” to Argentine wine. There’s also bonarda, a bright, often earthy red, and torrontes, a wonderfully fragrant white, along with better-known varietals like syrah and merlot. Even cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, the proverbial king and queen of the wine world, have been persuaded to rule there.
There’s more than Mendoza, too—although that region accounts for some three-fourths of the country’s total production, it’s just one of seven main wine regions in Argentina. I was intrigued to learn that grapes can even prosper in the distant deserts of Patagonia, in the regions of Neuquen and Rio Negro. (At the tasting after the lecture, I especially liked a red from the aptly-named Bodega del fin del Mundo, which means “winery at the end of the world,” in Neuquen.)
When the panel’s moderator, Argentine wine promoter Nora Favelukes, asked if anyone had ever tasted a wine from Argentina, nearly everyone in the packed auditorium raised a hand.
“Twenty-something years ago, had we asked a big room like this…we might have seen only two or three hands,” Catena said. “That really touches my heart.”
August 24, 2010
We’ve all heard of micro-breweries by now, but how about micro-wineries? The concept was new to me until this summer, when I went on a family vacation that involved spending a few nights in Conifer, Colorado.
My aunt, who lives nearby, had made reservations for us at a charming four-room B&B called the Clifton House Inn. She mentioned that the place doubled as a “micro-winery” called Aspen Peak Cellars, but I wasn’t too sure what that meant.
A bottle of their Conifer Red—a simple, pleasant blend of half Sangiovese and half Cabernet Sauvignon that tasted like sweet berries—welcomed us when we reached our room late the first night. In the morning, the view from our front balcony revealed only mountains and a meadow flickering with the movements of finches, hummingbirds, jays and a single grazing horse. No sign of vineyards or winemaking facilities.
Turns out, that’s because they don’t have any. Marcel and Julie Flukiger, the couple who own the place, don’t want to run a huge winery. They’ve got enough on their hands running an inn and bistro. As Marcel explains, winemaking started as a hobby and had grown into an obsession by the time they bought the inn last year.
“I got Julie a winemaking kit for Christmas about five years ago, and we just couldn’t seem to stop playing with it. There was never a carboy empty in our house after that,” he says, wearing a T-shirt that reads “Cork Dork.”
They buy grape concentrate from vineyards in California—selected after some sampling at trade shows—and ferment it for about two weeks in plastic vats stored in an annex of the inn’s kitchen. Then the wines are aged for three to six months in American oak barrels, which are half the size of traditional ones, because of space constraints.
When wines are ready to bottle, as they were on the morning we departed, one of the dining room tables gets temporarily re-purposed as an assembly line. I watched as the Flukigers, their friends and even a few random volunteers (two of the men said they’d just come for brunch at the bistro the day before and thought coming back to help with bottling sounded fun!) operated the hoses, filling, corking and labeling equipment by hand.
Every time a case of 12 was complete, Marcel carried it away…at least, about 15 feet away. The walls of the inn’s small kitchen were lined with cardboard boxes of wine.
“This is pretty much it for storage,” he said with a sheepish shrug. “It’s not a big place.”
Aspen Peak Cellars made about 1,000 cases in its first season, which ended in June. The Flukigers hope to incorporate some Colorad0-grown grapes in future seasons—there weren’t any surpluses available to buy this year, due to drought—and have started experimenting with adding skins to create more tannic reds, Marcel said.
“We didn’t go to college for winemaking,” he’s quick to point out. “We’re both chefs. So for us, it’s the food pairing that’s important. We want to make fun table wines, and make a menu to match those wines.”
So far, he said, at least 95 percent of people who have tasted the wines reacted favorably.
“Then, of course, you have the ‘wine snobs,’” he said. “We’ll make something for them in the future.”
June 15, 2010
Through the Smithsonian Resident Associates, I had the pleasure of meeting renowned California winemaker Randall Grahm at a tasting event last week. He discussed the idea that some wines uniquely express the place, or terroir, where they were made.
“It’s time for us in California to start taking seriously the notion of terroir,” Grahm said, defining it as “the precise opposite of nowhereness.” A vin de’terroir (wine of place) has distinct characteristics connected to the particular soil, climate, weather, history, farming practices and even the admittedly nebulous “essence” of the vineyard where it was born.
Grahm believes modern American culture suffers from “brand sickness,” meaning that names, labels and logos have become more important than the actual products they represent. We’ve been so distracted by signifiers that we’ve lost track of real significance.
I see his point; haven’t you ever walked into a wine store and grabbed whichever bottle is the right price—or the highest-scored by critics, or adorned with the wittiest pun or cutest animal on its label—without even caring to ask where and how it was made? I admit, I’ve done it more than once.
Respecting good terroir as a winemaker, Grahm explained, means not manipulating a vineyard or its grapes too much—and not needing to. If a winemaker needs to make “heroic interventions” in order to produce a palatable wine, it probably speaks to a problem with the terroir they have chosen, Grahm said. (Or, to quote an old joke—what did the doctor tell the patient who said he’d broken his leg in three places? “Well, stay out of those three places!”)
In recent years Grahm has also become interested in biodynamic farming, which he defines as “agriculture with a very light hand, never making gross changes in soil quality…having an empathy with one’s site,” and keeping future generations in mind rather than focusing on immediate gain. It includes quirky practices like burying cow horns full of manure in the soil (“Totally mysterious, but it works,” he says) and paying attention to lunar cycles and “life forces.” (A review of research (pdf) on biodynamic farming concludes that, although the practice doesn’t appear to be harmful, it is “a vista of starry eyes and good intentions mixed with quasi-religious hocus-pocus, good salesmanship, and plain scientific illiteracy.”) True to his reputation, though, Grahm doesn’t care what anyone else thinks.
“I believe technologically speaking, we’ve reached sort of a glass ceiling in winemaking,” he said, explaining that he finds that boring because it means most winemakers can produce essentially flawless, sure-to-score-high wines—and most of them do, preferring stable profit margins over the gamble of inventing something truly unique.
“A technically perfect wine may be likable, but it’s hardly lovable,” Grahm argued. “A wine of terroir speaks with openness and candor…and an esteem for terroir makes us look at our land, and our custodianship of it, with deep respect and love.”
I thought about this as I sipped some of Grahm’s 2005 Le Cigare Volant, a rubied blend of mostly Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah whose rather silly name belies its elegance. I wondered whether it tasted particularly of California’s Central Coast, where I’ve never been. To me, instead it evoked places I have been: A pub in the basement of a Salzburg castle. The rooftop of a former apartment. An island campground in the Adirondacks. A commune in rural France. The fireplace of an old Vermont inn. A particular patch of sun-dappled grass.
In other words, places where I have experienced joy and beauty. That’s not terroir, exactly, but it is darn good wine.
I ran into Grahm again the next night, as he and other American “Rhone Rangers” poured their wines at a Smithsonian reception celebrating sustainable seafood. I asked if he felt that the Le Cigare Volant was a good example of terroir and/or a biodynamic wine. He said no, because it’s made with grapes from several different vineyards that were cultivated with a mix of practices.
Well then, I asked, which of his wines is the best example of those concepts?
Above his owlish eyeglasses, Grahm’s brows jumped and then furrowed.
“Dammit! None of them!” he said, laughing at himself. “It’s more of an aspirational thing for me right now. I mean, biodynamic farming and terroir are really cool, and you can make some really good wine that way. But it’s not the only way to make good wine.”