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My journey through the country of Georgia, full of people I adore, the wines, the characters, the drama, the silk worms, the homeopathic remedies, the food, the adventures and a special guest appearance by Stalin's last remaining winemaker. It's true.
It was a stop and go, was I leaving or not? A reservation had been mysteriously cancelled---the tricks of Mercury in retrograde? A plot to keep me stateside? Then, the word came, quick, head for the plane.
I ran for the A train to Iberia, forgetting important items back home. Once through security, waiting for the plane, I flipped through Food and Wine magazine and what do you know?
There it was. The Feiring Line recommended as a must read for those interested in organic and natural wines. So if you're not a subscriber ...correct that!
Recognition is sweet. I admit it. I like attention as much as the next guy. We all need pats on the back and affirmation. The TFL really shouldn't be a secret and this should help. So tell your friends and local co-op, wine shop, wine bar and help spread the word.
Fueled by that good news, I want to send you all greetings from Haro in the heart of La Rioja where pig is considered a vegetable.
When a waiter heard that I was a vegetarian, she explained: "The minestra only has a little bit of chorizo, and the soup only has bone, which one will you have?"
"I won't have anything," I answered to her confusion. That's okay. I can stand to lose a kilo or two, and anyway, I more than made up for it with the wine.
After all, I flew here for a tasting of older Rioja to celebrate the first annual Haro Station , where the historical cantinas of Haro open their doors to visitor.
Probably the most sensational wine was the 1964 Lopez de Heredia Tondonia.
That was the wine in my glass when this picture was taken with me and Maria Jose Lopez de Heredia. Obviously we were trying to solve the problems of the wine world (or love, I can't remember which.) It all seemed possible with that Tondonia Gran Reserva 1964. How, I wondered, could a wine taste so evolved but be so very young and vibrant? Mostly 75% Tempranillo, with Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo full of cocoa and leather and zingy acidity, so very vibrant and full of under-leaf yet plumptuous? Age-defying glory.
Other great moments were walking the vines of Contino, Lopez de Heredia and Muga, finally getting a grasp of the soils in this complex region.
This brings me to an odd segue.
My next book, For the Love of Wine, my odyssey into the world's most ancient wine culture ( I know, a mouthful) has a pub date!
Look for it March 1st.
Hot off the presses; another book will be on its tail. That book might be called The Dirty Wine Guide, or even Dirt. Helping me will be super-sharp sommelier, Pascaline Lepeltier. The two of us will serve up what we aim to be a groundbreaking beginner wine guide. For sure, there's nothing else like it.
Tomorrow, an early morning flight, then a long layover in Madrid so I can sneak in a quick visit with Fabio Bartolomei (Vinos Ambiz).
We'll march through his vines, switching out the limestone of Rioja for the granitic hills of Sierra de Gredos. It's only an hour drive from the airport, so should all be doable in time to get back for my plane and then flap my wings across the Atlantic.
Lastly, a new essay of mine is up on the New York Times's Opinionator site, The End.
So, that's it for now, hope all is well with you.
Someone hadn't received the memo that ever since 2008 when I penned an editorial slamming the bold Californian wines, I had been banned from a number of West Coast-centric tastings. And so believe me I was appreciative when I received an invitation to celebrate and examine Cathy Corison's 25 -years of history under her own label. I said, "Thank you!" before anyone could change their mind.
But, Cathy, actually never read the memo about how California was supposed to taste, and instead she followed her own vision, very much owning her vigneronne voice, never paying attention to the style of the moment and very much intent on having her wine be the best it could be within the parameters of the vintage.
With the knowledge that this was going to be a very special event, I headed to taste through her vinous history, from that first solo vintage of 1987 to her most recent release of 2011.
sorry for the crappy foto: Cathy at March Skurnik office tasting in March.
In view of the industry's love of following trends, from concrete eggs to cold soaks to whatever, Cathy has remained true to one grape ("I'm a cabernet chauvinist."), the same vineyards and one way of making wine. Her wines were true reflections into the vintages, a window into the year's history and changes in the vineyard, just the way it used to be when people embraced vintage instead of fearing the differences. Here were some of the highlights. But wait! After browsing them, don't stop there. In honor of her anniversary, I have reprinted a copy of her email interview to me, of 2010.
Some selected wine impressions
1987: Her first attempt. A very remarkable nose, and a taste of sanded down stones. Gently, with a touch of old-fashioned Napa mint. Refreshing, as it should be as this was a long and cool season with no heat spikes. An easy birth for her first child.
1988- More of a plummy aroma with a nice tang of acid on the Kenya coffee made in a French Press. Good bit 'o tannin and a patchouli finnish which I like on wine and dislike on people.
1989-- At first there's the pencil shaving and tired nose then it goes all gentle and sleek even though faded Bordeaux-like with black Nyon olive and oregano. The critics said forget the vintage. Idiots.
1990- lots off flat and snuffed on the nose but inside, there comes the savory and a superpacked blackberry finish. Surprise!
1992: Exotic touch of coffee, the tannin evident, the fruit muted, but lots of wine.
1993: Milk chocolate sweetness, never overpowering yet a little one or two notes.
1998- Touch o' funk on top of a power-fruit foot forward of raspberry.
2001: It's not just the youth, but something is different and continues through the rest of the wines. the rootstocks? Big. Complete. Young. Classic. Culty cab stand in, but one done by a pro with style. Tannin and fruit dance with savory, pepper and a happy finish. Let's see it in another ten.
2004: Fruit and ash and acid with a long, grippy dusty finish and medium Napa fruit sensibility.
2006: This was picked late, near November, but the wine is balanced power and a touch of orange-like acid.
2008: Fruit reigned in balance with acid, elegance, long finish with vibrancy of young muscles. look for that long roasted heirloom carrot painted in raspberry flavor.
2009: A cool season package that is tight, silty classic.
2010: Also a lot going on here, with chocolate and cocoa but with balance. Has quite a lot in common with 2004.
And......here's the interview.
All is well here. I'm expecting a terrific vintage with all this cool weather. Thank you so much for the Portland connection. I've come to love the serendipity of Twitter.
I've been observing the maelstrom of the 'natural' wine discussions from the corner of the room. Like most everything, the truth often sits in the gray area between black and white. (And the truth is different for each person.)
In a day when I am shocked by the manipulation I see in winemaking everywhere, I wonder what happened to growing grapes well in a great vineyard, crushing the grapes and letting Mom Nature do the rest. Our roll should be one of shepherding; we don't want our charges to go over the edge of a cliff.
For me the less manipulation the better. I think of a winemaker's bag of tricks like a doctor's black bag. You hope you don't ever need to use them, and you seldom do, but you're glad they're there. Sadly the tricks have become a routine part of much winemaking.
I don't think anything precludes me from being considered a 'natural' winemaker.
As to specifics, I have not acidulated a Cabernet for nearly 30 years. Fresh out of UCD, over 30 years ago (!), I had been taught that no sound wine could have a pH higher than 3.3. I quickly learned that that was rubbish. That said, I believe that good acidity is one of the most important components of a great wine, both from a winemaking standpoint and wine enjoyment. There are far fewer technical pitfalls in making a wine with a healthy pH. For me, it boils down to growing the grapes well on a great site and picking properly. If I need to wait for flavors to come arounduntil 25°+ Brix and the natural acidity has plummeted, I've failed in the vineyard (or I'm growing the wrong thing in the wrong place).
SO2 seems to be the other bugaboo. First of all, every cell in most people's body produces SO2 as a byproduct of metabolism, so most of us have enzymes in place to deal with it. It is also produced by yeast during fermentation. Some yeast strains produce more than others- a possible tool for winemakers. There IS widespread over- and misuse of SO2 all over the world. One of the things I took away from my academic background in enology is an understanding of how it works. People always say it's added as a preservative. That's true sometimes, but such high levels are sometimes necessary to inhibit microbial activity that the wine is ruined. Making wine from sound grapes and monitoring the health of the wine at all stages allows very minimal SO2 use. For me, the most important reason for SO2 use is to bind up aldehydes that are a byproduct of fermentation (and can occur during cellaring if practices are sloppy, mostly lax topping regimes). High aldehyde levels in wine mask fruit.
Personally, I do something that results in very low total SO2 in the bottle but is frankly very risky. I don't use ANY SO2 at all until after the malolactic fermentation is complete. SO2 added to must to inhibit wild yeasts, gets bound up by acetaldehyde as it is produced during primary fermentation, resulting in a new wine with a basement of significant total SO2 but no free SO2. It is free SO2 that protects the wine in the barrel from spoilage organisms, notably Brettanomyces. This is very risky because of the possibility of a "ferocious" Lactobacillus spoilage (by species related related to the benign ML bacteria) that can produce so much VA during alcoholic fermentation that the wine is spoiled before it goes dry. Again, my best defense is picking sound grapes that don't come into the winery already spoiling. That said, someday I will likely encounter a Lactobacacillus spoilage and need that bag of tricks I mentioned. (Though maybe not- I've been doing this for over 30 years.)
This is turning into a tome and I'm out of time. Natural wine is a big subject. After harvest I should have more leisure to elaborate if you want.
Last week I was called to give quote to ABC news for their story on the Morgan Stanley report on the topic. "Could this be really true?" the reporter Alan was in a panic, his beloved Great Western sparkling wine might be in danger, and what would he do then when he wanted his favorite kind of "champagne" cocktail.
I suspected a Chicken Little approach to news --press releases that go out on the wire primed to painc. I tried to get the original MS report before the interview but could not (and still cannot.) And, anyway, didn't anyone remember that just in 2004 the world was drowning in the Euopean Wine lake? Wasn't that a relevant part of the story?
In response to that horror, the wise EU offered financial incentive for landowners: pull out their old vines in exchange for money.
The ruse worked and acreage is down in Italy, Spain and France. It was heartbreaking to see old vines go out and housing go in. In all, according to a WineSearcher article "98,244 acres of vines were ripped out of the ground between 2008 and 2011, equivalent to 10 percent of the European vineyard area. An additional 275,186 acres were grubbed up without any financial incentive. None of the articles I found on the subject even mentioned this short-sighted EU approach. I suppose in the new world where a single vineyard could be 1,000 acres, under 400,000 of lost acres is a whisper, not a shout.
Manipulation of data and the market has always been a mosquito dive bombing me--it bugs me. Where's the truth? First a lake and then a desert? Who's twisting the data for their own purposes. The Morgan Stanely report, it seems, is oddly positioned against odds another, the OIV's. There it is stated that the world wine production has increased and consumption is stabilizing.
I started to wonder what MS had to gain in this study. The savvy blogger for Reuters, Felix Salmon had this to say,
“It was simply trying to present the idea that demand for Australian wine exports is likely to rise, and to justify the fact that a company called Treasury Wine Estates is the bank’s ‘top Australian consumer pick."
But readers of this blog should have real concerns.
Two devastating devastating vintages have ravaged some of the most important (and favorite) European vineyards in the past two years.
2012/2013 were not only backbreaking but puny in (to name a few) Burgundy and the Loire and Champagne. Austria didn't do so well either. Some smaller winemakers simply cannot afford to continue. Those that survive will show fewer and more expensive bottles. This is bad.
If people are looking for industrial strength wine--as most are-- trust me, there will be no scarcity any time soon. In time, China with technology and vast acreage possibility will come on board, they will hire marketers, they will have lovely labels --some critter some not--and out do Australia and Chile in their ability to crank out cheaper wine for the masses. What we have to worry about theare the great wines. Of those there is just not enough to go around. And yes, that is going to get worse.
That Americans and Chinese are drinking more wine and in a few years the demand will outpace the supply, is not groundbreaking news. As I told ABC, don't worry, there will be no shortage of crap around to drink, there certainly isn't now.
Because of bitchiness between Italian natural wine factions-- ViniVeri and VinNatur-- many unhappy winemakers defected to the corporate side. This meant that they actually crossed the threshold and showed their wines at ViVit. This was the Vin Italy's (the huge Italian trade show's) attempt at relevance. They aimed to give some space to wines that are natural and organic.
The verdict from those who went? Thumbs up.
Drama followed. Sunday, when the likes of Arianna Occhipinti and Alesandra Bera were pouring for tasters, suits walked in and tried to catch a thief. These guys were the same fraud squad that snagged the Bulzoni wine shop in Rome back in June. The authorities demanded proof of farming and practice just to be sure there was no fraud perpetrated on the public.
Meanwhile, over in Spain, no squad has trained natural wine in their crosshairs--yet. But the unnaturals are taking advantage of the natural-free- for- all. It could well be the basis of a Luis Buñuel film.
Case in point? Two wine events. Coming right up in Spain, one real, one pretend. Both embody the fight for the sole of wine that just won't quit. Let's start with the fake. Part Two: Talk about burying the lede! When in Italy, Vincent Poussin linked me up with this abortion of justice. May 13th is the day for Vinum Nature - Barcelona.
VN-bcn is a must for everybody who wants to enjoy organic, natural and biodynamic wines from out nearest wine appellations. A gathering space where wineries and its people bring us closer together with a glass filled with sceneries, land and the soul of its wines.
I'm the first person to say that I don't mind the word natural, there's no other word that really works as well and no word is iron clad. But to see the names like Condonui and Paris Balta included and only one biodynamic producer (and a very conventional one at that)?
Forget about natural wine. This is natural travesty.
All is not lost.
A few years back I was held hostage in Ribiera Sacre by the "golden nose. " I was not happy having spent the day with a spoof wine instead of my original plan. But the bonus was, at the end of the day, I found out that my fellow hostage was one of the brothers of Can Roca in Girona and we shared similar palates. Some bond was forged. And yesterday I received this email from Josep Roca of Can Roca in Girona.
The world of wine in Spain evolves, and day by day is closer to the grape and further from the systemic products. I wanted to tell you about this slow by persistent progress in the sensitivity of many producers of our country. Little by little, that conversation you and I had driving on the way back to Santiago, is meaning to me the germ of a new hopeful reality to spanish wines: more pure, fresher, more daring, without any make-up, more sincere and authentic."
So, two tastings, side by side in Spain, one real one fake. Which side will win? I have my hunches. Do you?
Let's talk about the peach tree.
Remember when the Rome wine store, Bulzoni was busted for having a section of wines devoted to natural? As there was no such thing as natural wine, selling wine as natural was a fraud perpetrated on the innocent wine drinkers of Italy.
During that debacle the authorities seized four bottles of each offending wines for analysis. However, according to to Sonia Toretto who works for Stefano Bellotti ( the much beloved Cascina degli Ulivi) a dozen each of the degli Ulivi were taken for testing.
My speculation: as Stefano has been in biodynamics longer than any other winery in the country (since 1987) he's a marked man. Perhaps they were looking for a pot farm. Perhaps they were looking for a meth lab. But what they found was equally a danger to the people.
There in the middle of the cortese vines were peach trees.
Diversity in the vines is essential for vineyard health. Mono-culture, is anathema to organic and biodynamic farming. Yet, Regione Piemonte ruled that having more than 1% extraneous plants in a vineyard is considered no longer a mono- culture of vines and therefore not worthy of public financing and right of appellation.
Over the years, the government has given agricultural incentives to many winemakers and Stefano was one of them. Now, there was the threat that because of the trees, he was going to be stripped of the Gavi DOC. Gavi is where he makes wine. The DOC is emblem of pride. In addition, he had to pay money back years of incentives.
Forms of felonious life in Stefano's vines.
Sonia confirmed that the events took an even further bizarre turn. After all, we're talking Italy. "Last Wednesday," she wrote, "the government seized about 30,000 bottles, about a third of Stefano's stocks, due to inaccurate "non conforme"--criminal labelling of the wines."
The charge? He did not use both of his certifications on the label that he was entitled to. He used his Demeter certification on the 2007 vintage. He did not use his organic certification. Fraud! Of what I am not sure.
The team Piemonte was off and running. They tested those bottles they confiscated after the the Bulzoni affair for pesticide and herbicde residue and lack of sulfur. Stefano's wines were true to his word. Yet they still fined him about 1200 euro per label for certification issue and 'correct' the labels.
But there might be some good news about those peach trees and the salvation of the Gavi DOC. The technician called the winery and did a little back-pedalling, "Maybe I might think about this some more. Because I really don't know much about biodynamics and biodiversity."
Over Skype Sonia told me, "They are paying people to make decisions who don't know anything. If you ask my eight-year-old son, he knows about the importance of biodiversity. It's just common knowledge."
It's been a strange year in the world of wine where the race to steal its soul has been full-force. The Loire cracked down on Olivier Cousin. There was the Bulzoni affair. There is Stefano. Is it merely ignorance, or is it darker? Could I project that one day Monsanto will put pressure on the EU to make sure the peach trees aren't in the vines, that biodiversity is broken, so they can sell more chemicals? Can we see the day when winemakers are punished for not using Roundup? This isn't too far fetched. The world, after all, is nuts.
No matter the reason, wrong people are being challenged ,those who don't pollute, and those who seek purity are viewed as the culprits. Who was it who said, authenticity is always threatening?
I knew this was indeed rare. Yes, folk, on a Thursday in August, this little restaurant in Blanceret was packed. The 29.50 euro menu was the Maison Mayançon main event, the Thursday specialty, Tête de veau.
That would be the chin, Monique said to me. Ah yes, I thought, hair and all-- nestled between the blanched onion and the boiled carrot and some cartilige and whatever.
Now, one of the best versions I've come by how to make this gelatinous gloop, bolito misto-like boiled body part comes from Nicolas Lander. Monique, as powerful as a hummingbird attacked one head after the other. I was just compelled.
ear, she said to me, that thing falling off the plate.
The head is split, stuffed and cooked beyond recognition.
The great thing about this presentation is that you can ask for the bits you want, and hence the packed crowd. So if you want to avoid the hairy chin, it's possible!
And so I ordered a plate of tomatoes that I thought was a safe bet in August. But no. That didn't quite work. But it came with a sublime though surprising poached egg, (Russell said that Monique had feared for my nutrition, thus the supplement.) For a traditional, home cooked place if meat is your game, fresh eggs and well picked animals, this is a swell spot for a spot of that old-world Beaujolaise. I enjoyed the theater and saved my stomach for dinner.