The Peculiarities of Wine Nationalism

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french wine in storeThankfully, the 100% tariff proposal is now off the table at least for a few months, so fans of European wines can breathe a little easier.

Speaking of European wines, this article about wine nationalism by Don Kavanaugh at Wine Searcher is interesting and sort of disturbing.

We took a look at wine searches from countries that produce wine and, to be perfectly honest, we assumed the situation would be akin to George Bernard Shaw’s definition of patriotism: the conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it, but it turns out the situation is quite different.

Just four of the 10 countries put their local producers first when searching for wine, while some countries even had merchants who didn’t stock a majority of local wines.

France (of course), Chile, Argentina, and Portugal were the most nationalistic with regard to the number of local wines being offered in wine shops listed on Wine Searcher.

The U.S., Spain, Germany, and New Zealand were the least nationalistic. The figures paint a complex picture especially in the U.S. and Italy. The U.S. consumes mostly domestic U.S. wine (67%). But most of those consumers are not perusing the offers in wine shops or doing searches on Wine Searcher. Only about 43% of the wines on offer in wine shops were domestic. Italy was anomalous as well. Mostly domestic offers in wine shops but lots of searches for global wines.

Praise be to the globalists.

Here is what strikes me as curious. Wine is an aesthetic object and part of what makes wine interesting are the variations it’s capable of producing. And we know terroir matters—the variations are the result of local geography and climate. Drinking some local wine makes sense because it is likely to be distinctive and interesting. But there are interesting terroirs all over the world. If you’re interested in the variation wine is capable of, why would you drink mostly local wine? Of course, cost factors might come into play if imports are expensive and there are environmental reasons for drinking local. But neither explains the fact that the French are exposed to mostly French wine (90% of all offers) and the Chileans are exposed to mostly Chilean wine (93% of all offers).

Now the French invented wine as we know it and tradition dies hard especially in the wine business and especially in France. But if they think no one else can make great wine they’re not paying attention.

And the Chileans? I don’t get it. If you really love wine why the narrow focus?

Wine Review: Domaine Eugene Carrel Jongieux, Savoie 2018

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jongieuxJongieux is an appellation in the larger Savoie region nestled in the foothills of the Alps of Eastern France overlooking the Rhone River

Made from the Jacquère grape, the most widely planted grape in Savoie and seldom found elsewhere, this gentle, mouthwatering white wine is worth seeking out if you like modesty. It slips away, sighs but then reluctantly tells its.

Very pale in the glass, shy but quietly pretty on the nose, it haltingly reveals freshly golden apple, anjou pear with a hint of pine and a faint roasted nut quality.

Simple and refreshing, light weight and soft with a  whisper of creaminess at midpalate, it’s quietly balanced and harmonious, as the long deliberate finish slowly unfolds its mineral essence.

Tender and demure, it becomes more self assured developing a nice rhythm on the finish as the acidity and minerality play a game of bounce around the mouth and the texture turns pleasingly granular.

Pair with the tender and demure Lasso by Camille.

Technical Notes: Aged on the lees until bottling, this 6th generation farm has been producing primarily wine grapes on steep limestone slopes since the 1970’s

Score: 90

Price: $15 (Purchase here)

Alc: 11.5%

How to Be Happy

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person cookingWhen former Poet Laureate Charles Simic was asked in New York Times interview: “What advice would you give to people who are looking to be happy,” Simic replied, “For starters, learn how to cook.”

I would only add, learn how to cook accompanied by a glass of wine.

Why would an accomplished poet think cooking is the key to happiness?

Food of course is fuel and an element of good health. But it matters that we create that fuel ourselves. The troubles of life seem a little more distant after pulling together a pot of soup. And of course time spent hovering over a stove is time you’re not spending fighting traffic, gazing distractedly at the TV or banging away at the keyboard.

But the most important reason to cook is that attentive cooking provides ample opportunity to practice respect—respect for the people you cook for, respect for your ingredients, and self-respect. That such a simple, uncomplicated, routine activity can provide an occasion for such regard is the key to the connection to happiness.

The world would be a better place if we spent more time at the stove.

The Latest on the Flavor Pairing Saga

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flavor bridgingBack in the 2000s data scientists began crunchy large data sets of recipes searching for the secret behind why certain flavor combinations work. Chefs were excited with the discovery that recipes tend to be built around ingredients that shared flavor compounds. That discovery helped chefs find unusual pairing combinations such as chocolate and blue cheese that really worked.

Unfortunately, further data crunching showed that the flavor pairing hypothesis only applied to European and North American cuisines.  East Asian cuisines used contrasting flavors. It was furthermore discovered that when you pull dairy products and eggs out of the picture, the flavor-pairing hypothesis is less salient. It succeeds as a method for finding interesting combinations that work but not as a comprehensive explanation of food preferences.

In 2017, a Spanish research team developed a new theory again based on a massive database of recipes:

The basic idea is that when two ingredients do not share flavors, the team look for a third ingredient with flavors in common with each of the first pair. In this way, they were able to identify flavor chains and explore how recipes in different parts of the world use them.

For example, apricot and whiskey do not share flavors with each other but do have flavors in common with tomato. This creates a flavor chain that links all three ingredients, making them suitable to be used in the same recipe.

Called flavor bridging, the theory suggests that the bridge flavors smooth out the contrasts between ingredients that don’t share flavor compounds thus enabling the flavors to harmonize.

But even this theory is not complete.

In Latin America, for example, recipes exploit both food pairing and food bridging, while East Asian food seems to avoid both principles. Southeast Asian cuisines such as Thai and Vietnamese seem to rely only on food bridging, while North American and Western European food use only food pairing.

It’s beginning to look to me like there is no universal theory that explains food preferences. And why should there be? People eat what is available and enjoy what is familiar. History and happenstance play an important role in explaining a culture’s food preferences.

But this data is great for creative chefs. Maybe a gas chromatograph should be in every kitchen. You can find one for around $70,000.

Ageing Report: Levendi Cabernet Sauvignon Stagecoach Vineyard Napa Valley 2006

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levendiYoung Cabernet Sauvignon is like shredding guitars and wham bam thank you m’am–big, edgy, even angry. But with age it can settle into a deep, rich, gentle jazz groove. This Cabernet from hillside vineyards east of the Silverado Trail is in its soft jazz stage.

The wine needed air and time before showing its best. Animal fur aromas were prominent when I first opened it, but after an hour the cassis and fig emerged cocooned in dusty earth, mossy undertones and eventually plenty of brown sugar and forest floor characteristics. The oak is now well-integrated, a soft background note although some burnt toast appears on the back end. It’s not particularly complex but the aromas are lush and fragrant.

The palate too acquires richness with time as the seam of crushed rock and dried cherry softens and swells giving it a gentle, lifted quality from ample acidity that keeps the wine from seeming heavy. It loses some bass notes as it heads into the finish where the powdery tannins stay in the background but they show breadth with no grip and there is some quirky oscillation happening with the fruit. The finish has lost some length but flows with languid ease. It is still in its drinking window.

A mellow, earthy, contented wine that sings like Cassandra Wilson’s rich, inviting contralto.

Technical Notes: Aged in French oak.

Score: 91

Price: Recent vintages sell for around $100

Alc: 14.5%

A Wine Country Travesty

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wine countryIt is sad to hear stories like this. Rob McMillan posts an email he received from a wine lover and his daughter who  were treated shabbily at several wineries they visited in wine country.

We had 15 visits;  every one with an appointment set many weeks in advance.  Four had no record of our reservations while others had it for the wrong time or type of tasting.  Only two had bothered to look at what we had bought from them in the past.  Only once were we met by the person we were told would be meeting us.  Several set us down with a glass and a bottle and walked off — only to reappear while bruskly asking ‘you want to taste something else now?’

With declining overall sales and direct-to-consumer sales as the only bright spot, this is not what the wine industry needs. We don’t know, from what was published, the location of these wineries although the post mentions wine country and appointments so I assume its Napa and/or Sonoma.

I’ve visited several hundred wineries over the last 6 years, and I must say this hasn’t been my experience. I could count on one hand the wineries where we have been treated with indifference. But we stay away from the tourist traps and large, commercial wineries. We don’t care about event spaces, gondola rides,  which band is playing on Saturday, or the movie memorabilia in the tasting room. We seek wineries that take pride in their wines and want to talk about them.

My advice if you want a decent wine country experience is visit smaller wineries with good reputations. If you see limousines in the parking lot, run away very quickly. A winery that in anyway resembles a bar on Saturday night will not be worth experiencing.

And give some thought to visiting emerging wine regions that are hungry for recognition. We’ve had some wonderful experiences in California but wine regions such as the Finger Lakes, Oregon, Michigan, Texas, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona and Virginia offer a more intimate experience and the wines from the best wineries are outstanding.

If you’re a winery, treat your customers like honored guests, thoroughly train your staff to assess what customers want,  and please offer interesting wines that set you apart from the competition.

Funk is the New Black

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Markham Heid explores the hermeneutics of “funky” in the wine world.

Traditionally, funky meant that something was off,” says Linda Bisson, a professor emeritus of enology and viticulture at the University of California, Davis. “If something was funky, that’s when you brought in the quality control people to see what was wrong.” But times have changed. While some still use “funky” to describe a wine that has obvious or unpleasant flaws, many now employ it as a synonym for “unconventional,” or as a sort of catch-all adjective for those hard-to-pin-down qualities that make natural wines unique and appealing….In other words, “funky” is a wine that surprises you.

I’m old enough to remember when “funky” referred to James Brown and his Famous Flames. But long before that the word referred to a pungent odor.

So here we are today; consumers are coming to wine shops with funk on their minds.

I for one am very happy with this development. We’ve had enough of nice, pleasant wines—round, soft, polished and conventional—pretty things with nothing of difficulty about them. Real beauty is less comforting, more disruptive. A pretty face becomes beautiful when animated by something tumultuous and tense just below the surface. Same with wine.

Great wines are deviant, they don’t conform, they have an otherworldly quality, depraved but interesting, like that guy you decided not to marry.

The fact that fermented grape juice can smell like bacon, sweaty saddles or decomposed leaves is a source of endless fascination. Lemon zest is lovely but doesn’t scream originality.

 

Terroir as Talisman

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stones in the vineyardWine writer Margaret Rand has written the best piece I’ve read on terroir in a long time. We all know that climate deeply influences what a wine is capable of. We know that because of vintage variation. We also know that soil type and drainage characteristics deeply influence how wine tastes. We know that because the same varietal and clone from the same producer from the same vintage using the same winemaking practices on sites with different soils can produce quite different wines.

But we don’t get those differences without countless decisions made in the vineyard and winery by the winemaker as well as the feedback loop between consumers, critics, and producers that influence wine styles. So Rand asks:

How much terroir expression do we really want? And, most importantly, who decides what the expression of a terroir should be?

My contention is that we want something that we can describe as terroir expression, rather than the full-on thing itself. Do we want to buy wines that are dilute from rain, suburnt from heat or mouldy from rot? Not particularly. But rain, heat and rot are part of terroir. We want the pretty face of terroir; the taste (we imagine) of stones, but not of mud. We want it tidied into perfect balance.

“Terroir” refers to the relationship between geography, geology, and the vines—the raw material that the winemaker has to work with. But even that raw material is the result of decades, in some cases centuries, of co-evolution between a wine culture and a place.

After listing the litany of decisions winemakers routinely make when getting grapes to express terroir Rand writes:

Even if you chuck the grapes into an amphora and go away for six months, that is a decision and an intervention. (And might or might not end well; we tend not to see the disasters.) There is no reason why that should give greater terroir expression, if that is your desire, than anything else. The rival claims by lovers of field blends, all picked and fermented together on the same day, and by lovers of separate parcels of separate varieties, each picked separately at optimum ripeness, to superior terroir expression, should make one wonder about what terroir expression actually is.

What we taste in wines of terroir is distinctiveness and variation. Distinctiveness and variation come from the confluence of geography, geology, the vines, the winemaker and her culture. Trying to sort out which of those factors is the main factor is like trying to figure out where the child of tone-deaf parents got her musical ability. Complex phenomena are chaotic and don’t lend themselves to simple causal explanations.

“Terroir” is a useful concept because it reminds us of the importance of geography and geology. But it is more inspirational than explanatory and a charm to ward off technocracy.

Wine Review: Cave De Tain “Grand Classique” Crozes-Hermitage 2015

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cave de tainA smoky, meaty bundle of joy when you first meet up. But this is a swaggering, spirited guest who then has way too much to drink.

From a great vintage, blackberry, red raspberry, olive and violet notes round out this sumptuous bacon-laced nose.

On the palate it shows ripe, concentrated berries up front penetrated by a persistent mineral seam that turns woody and aggressive at midpalate, then drying, coarse and puckering as it heads out the door with a cola-like flourish.

A tenacious, tough Syrah with loads of flavor and a bad attitude, it’s too young to fulfill its promise right now but this surely has the stuffing to age well.

It paired well with the relentless, deflated bravado of Franz Ferdinand’s Take Me Out

Notes: At the bottom of the hill in Hermitage, Cave de Tain is a large co-op that produces wine from several sites in the Northern Rhone. Destemmed and fermented for 10-18 on the skins, aged for 11 months in 400 litre French oak barrels.

Score: 90 (this includes points for ageability)

Price: $36  (available here)

Alc: 13%