Great strides have been made in recent years by the cork industry to clean up its act. I refer specifically to the problem of cork taint. Excellent recent articles on this matter may be found here and here, both from Wines and Vines, a wine industry magazine of record. And the major Portuguese cork manufacturer Amorim, in particular, has gone on the offensive with a routinely updated, very informative web site. Deserving special mention is their publication Bark to Bottle. This (possible) resurgence of the cork industry comes at a time when new questions are being asked about the screwcap, especially with respect to the matter of reduction. An interesting experiment using both cork and screwcap has been ongoing at Tablas Creek Vineyards.
While I remain an agnostic on the controversy of cork versus screwcap, especially with respect to young wines, one small issue frequently gets lost in the discussion: the carbon footprint of screwcap production and disposal as opposed to cork’s inherent recyclability. Indeed, many countries have begun cork recycling programs. Following, as part of Amorim’s media offensive they’ve recently announced a cork recycling pilot program (where else, but in Oregon) called ReCork America. Among their ambitions is to collect 1 ton of wine and champagne corks by September, 2008 for the purpose of recycling them into “flooring tiles, building insulation, automotive gaskets, craft materials, soil conditioner and sports equipment.”
However, I have found a Mom and Pop company, Yemm & Hart, deserving of greater recognition. Tucked away in the Missouri Ozarks, they have been involved with the recycling of wine corks since 2004. And so far, they’ve collected 3000 lbs of them! I had the pleasure of speaking with Steve recently. Yemm & Hart is the brainchild of Steve Yemm and Deborah Hart Yemm. Steve has been self-employed since the mid-seventies as a cabinet and furniture maker. In 1981 they incorporated, and by 1989 they were working extensively with post-consumer materials, particularly polyethylene, PVC plastic with embedded polyester strands and rubber from auto tires, materials that would have otherwise ended up in landfills. In 2004 they began an experimental, nation-wide program to recycle wine and champagne corks for use in flooring, wall insulation, and any other use the architecturally-minded might imagine.
Once gathered, the wine corks undergo a heating process which fills their contract factory with the heady smell of wine. The lovely scent eventually boils off, as do the winery markings disappear. What is left is a block of material that can be sliced into sheets of a requested thickness.
Steve and Debra’s ambitions are limited only by the public’s awareness of their program. What they need most of all is a dedicated list of suppliers. For all of us who have suffered a tainted bottle of wine or one that was glorious, give the cork a second life. I encourage readers to explore their site and, most importantly, find the time to send wine corks, still and bubbly, to Yemm & Hart. Keep a simple mailer near where you most often open your bottles; when full, drop it in the post.
Finally, their web site contains many useful links to world-wide organizations concerned with conservation generally. One of my favorites is an excellent, well-researched story that first appeared in Audubon about the extraordinary nature of the cork oak and the ecosystem(s) dependent upon their forests. An eye-opening read. It may be found here.
Steve and Deborah, my corks are in the mail!
This past weekend, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo ended. It’s the largest and richest rodeo in the world, with people coming from all over the world to attend this institution held every year for the past 75 years.
It officially ran from March 3rd to the 22nd this year; however leading up to the rodeo there are many events to kick off the rodeo in style. One of these is the Roundup and Best Bites Competition. Houston’s best restaurateurs serve delicious food paired with the winning wines of the Houston Livestock Show’s International Wine Competition. Four thousand foodies converged February 18th, 2008 into the now sadly unused Astrodome to eat, drink and make merry.
The actual wine competition was held November 10, 2007 where 1,969 wines were awarded 1,544 medals in various categories. The wines are presented at the Best Bites Competition on February 18, 2008 and culminate in a giant wine auction on March 3rd which raised $1,115,800 for the Houston Rodeo Scholarship Foundation.
This years Best in Show was Stag’s Leap Winery 2004 California Cabernet, Reserve Champion was Orogeny Vineyards 2005 Green Valley Pinot Noir and the Texas Champion was Brennan’s Vineyards 2006 Viognier.
This is also the yearly kickoff for the wine industry in Houston. Following the busy holiday season, the wine sales industry experiences a slow down in the month of January as the buying public sobers up a bit after the heavy drinking holiday season the year before ends. At the Best Bites Competition, distributors, importers, sommeliers, buyers, collectors all gather with the local foodies for a bacchanalia of food and wine and recharges everyone for the year ahead. All the champion medal winning wines are served and it’s a great time to see old friends and meet new ones.
The most important people in the Rodeo are the volunteers who give their time and energy to make its running a success. Two of the most important volunteers that make the wine competition such a popular event are Bear Dalton, the head wine buyer of SPECS warehouse and Guy Stout, Master Sommelier, CWE who is the director of beverage education with Glazer’s distributors. I’m quite proud to know these fine gentlemen and their unselfish contribution to the wine industry of Texas needs to be acknowledged.
So, whether or not you are a cowboy or cowgirl, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is definitely a destination everyone should experience once in their lifetime as it has something for all to enjoy. Especially wine lovers.
Arif Nihat Asya Sokak #37, Oran, Ankara.
On my first night in Ankara I was invited to the Wine House Restaurant, in the Southern district of Oran, with a group of Turkish business colleagues. Stepping through the doorway you pass by a small barrel and a rack of wines from the local Kavaklidere winery and walk into an elegant wooden interior, similar in style to Eastern European hunting lodges (it says Swiss Chalet on their web-site). There are two floors, the main lower dining room and an upper balcony floor with an open central area looking down on the diners below.
The wine theme is maintained as you walk to your seat past a display table containing bottles in baskets and racks. My hosts knew of my wine interests and they briefly showed me the wine list, but, on seeing the indigenous varieties and producers, I knew when to admit defeat and was happy to sit back and let them discuss with the Sommelier on which wine to have with our meal. The Kavaklidere Öküzgözü Elazag 2000 was settled upon and, as there were 6 of us drinking, a Magnum was opened and decanted (this was my first ever Magnum!).
In the glass the colour was very light, similar to a Pinot Noir, with orange-brown edges showing the bottle age. It had a delicate, oaky nose with some sweet spice and possible a dash of liquorice. The taste was also light, but still had some good tannins and a little sour cherry on the tongue. This was a good wine, oaky, complex and medium length (88-89pts).
The food was very enjoyable too. We started with Feta-style cheese with fresh crusty bread, olives and olive oil and then some baked cheese, a local equivalent of baked Camembert. For the main dish I had a Bodrum Kebab, thinly sliced sirloin on a bed of crispy shredded potato, almost vermicelli like, and some fresh yoghurt on the side. The potato wasn’t to my taste, a bit too crispy, but the meat had an excellent flavour and I finished off the food and wine while watching the other patrons enjoy their evening.
I couldn’t tell you how much the dinner came to, as my hosts covered the bill (thanks to Murat and Riza for the experience!) – the food would have been reasonable, as is usually is in Turkey, but the wine was likely to have been expensive as the Turkish Government imposes painfully high taxes on alcohol, especially wine. Nevertheless this was a lovely evening and this is a good restaurant to visit if you are ever in Ankara.
On leaving I noticed a wall plaque of the key wine producing areas of Turkey showing how widespread Grape and Vine are – something that tends to get overlooked by Western drinkers when they consider this country that straddles Europe and Asia.
So, I’m in Turkey again (and not for the first time) but as with other trips recently I’m now thinking of wine as a background to the business that’s paid for my ticket. The country is a series of contradictions – nominally Muslim, and with a pro-Islamic government (although not in the same league as Iran or Saudi Arabia) it is actually one of the most secular, open societies I’ve been to outside of Western Europe. Alcohol is widely enjoyed and the Turks are rediscovering a long tradition of winemaking spanning several civilizations, including the Hittites, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Ottomans. However out of more than 1.5 million acres of plantings only about 2% of the fruit is turned into wine, with the bulk going for table grapes and raisins.
Istanbul itself is a typical modern city, the business hub of the dynamic Western half of the country while Ankara, the capital city and seat of government, is less vibrant, but still open and busy. In both cities, more so in Istanbul, Islamic strictures are frowned upon by the populace. This is an effect of the Atatürk republic, set up in response to the stagnation of the Ottomans and the disaster that was WWI – to set the country on a road of modernisation and to separate Mosque and State ( there were demonstrations recently when the Government repealed a law banning headscarves for female students, many Turks worry it is the start of a slide towards Islamic fundamentalism ).
As befits an area with ancient ties to wine there are a host of indigenous grapes for Turkish Winemakers to choose from, estimated between 900 and 1,250 varieties. The excellent Vinotolia site covers the main ones – from my experience I’d say look for the red Öküzgözü, Bo?azkere or Kalecik Karasi, while for white try a dry Narince or Emir.
The country has 7 main wine regions.
Thrace and Marmara – including European Turkey and the Sea of Marmara area, centred on Istanbul. This is the key winemaking area to date.
Aegean – South West around Izmir and including the Turkish Riviera (the coastline which is a favourite for holidaymakers).
Black Sea – the northern coastline stretching east to Georgia.
Central Anatolia – the Anatolian plateau, Ankara and areas east, including Cappadocia, which can date winemaking back to early Christian times.
South-Eastern Anatolia – the landlocked southern area bordering Syria.
East Anatolia – Eastern Turkey up to the borders with Armenia, Iran and Iraq, including the Elazig area.
Mediterranean – southern coastline to the border with Syria.
Mustafa Kemal Pasha (Atatürk) founded the modern Turkish state in 1923 and less than 2 years later founded his own personal wine cellar which he continued to stock, and drink, until his death in 1938. The Kavaklidere winery was established near Ankara in 1929 with Atatürk’s support and is one of the more famous of the modern wineries, with Diren, Kayra, Pamukkale and Villa Doluca (DLC) amongst many others, although nowadays even small local farmers are seeing the financial benefits of planting vineyards.
One problem for the wine lover in Turkey is the cost. Since the conservative AKP government came to power in 2002 taxes on alcohol have soared, which is hurting consumers and producers alike 2. This means that Turkish drinkers pay up to 3 times the price for a bottle compared to an equivalent quality bottle bought in America or Europe. The 3 bottles I came back with this trip came to more than £30 ($60) which, for typical local wine bought in the country of origin, is amongst the priciest in all my travels. This cost has led to a black market in wine production, with counterfeit wines becoming a problem, similar to neighbouring Georgia (discussed in an earlier R.O.T. post).
So finally onto the wine itself. My previous experience of a slice of Turkey was 2 years ago with the Anfora Trio 2004 from Pamukkale, a blend of Shiraz, Kalecik Karasi and Cabernet Sauvignon. It was rustic but good and I noted raspberries bursting out of the bottle, with a subtle background of caramel, leather and tobacco.
This time it was Kavaklidere providing the initial experience with a 2000 Öküzgözü from Elazig and their popular white, the 2006 Çankaya . I’ll discuss the Öküzgözü in a separate post, but the white is a blend of “four different grapes from Anatolia”. Although they don’t say which grapes are included Narince is likely, as it’s from the region, and Emir is a certainty as the wine has a nice crispness which matches the flavour profile of this grape. It worked well with the spicy flame-grilled chicken wings we had that night (which may not sound particularly Turkish, but apparently so!).
Two additional whites I tried were the DLC 2006 Sultaniye, Emir – which was very aromatic, floral with a fresh acidity, and the Kayra Tilsim 2007 – a Sultaniye, Semillon and Emir blend with a wonderful smell of banana and tropical fruits which was very dry, but let itself down with a wateriness which didn’t match its nose.
As for the 3 bottles that made it safely back to the U.K. with me, the two reds are safely stored away. The Kayra Terra 2005 Öküzgözü looks like it will make a nice weekend red sometime in the next year or so, while the Kavaklidere Selection 2005 Öküzgözü-Bogazkere promises to be something a little more special to be enjoyed in the next 5-6 years. The white was the Diren Dörtnal 2002 , a 100% Narince that I was a little sceptical on buying, not knowing the grape variety I had worries that a 2002 was past its best. With that in mind I opened it for the Easter weekend and am currently sipping it while finishing off this article. The colour is medium, like a pale honey, and there was an initial hint of rubber on the nose before settling down into a floral perfume. It’s light in the mouth and very dry, not strong on flavour but, for a 6 year old white, still fairly fresh. I’d score it in the 82-83 range which doesn’t justify its £7 ($15) price tag, but it’s a new variety for me, and new experiences are what life is all about.
One final note. Cappadocia is famous not only for its wine but also for its landscape, and both can be viewed on an informative post on the Wine Library TV forums, A Turkish Wine Experience.
It is unusual to begin a book review with what is left out. But in Clive S. Michelsen’s otherwise useful guide Oregon Eco-Friendly Wine, Leading the World in “Green” Wine I found only a single line written about the Oregon wine pioneer David Lett of The Eyrie Vineyard. This is not a criticism of the book per se but, rather, it is meant to point out an odd paradox of the ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘green’ movement in the US wine industry, a movement perhaps strongest in Oregon. The paradox is that despite practicing such progressive vineyard and winery management programs a winery is effectively limited in promoting this value in its wines without certification.
Eyrie Vineyards is a case in point. Mr. Lett’s practice has always been ‘green’, avant la lettre, yet you would never know it from Mr. Michelsen’s book. In fact, the book’s competent index of wineries does not even provide contact information! This is because Mr. Michelsen’s central focus is less on eco-friendly or green as the title states than on certified wineries.
And what a list of certifying organizations he provides! There is Tilth largely a USDA Organic certifier; Low Input Viticulture and Enology, Inc. (L.I.V.E.); VINEA, though voluntary it requires for membership observing, in Michelsen’s words, “strict environmental standards and [...] high quality farming practices”; Demeter, the keeper of trademarked cosmic mysteries, so to speak; LEED, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, essentially a building and architectural certifier; and lastly, Carbon Neutral, an Oregon state government initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy use. A winery’s successful participation would be rewarded with tax breaks and carbon credits.
Each organization listed above provides their own assessment tools to a winery, of course, most require fees, on-site inspections, and exhaustive record keeping is a must for a winery to maintain its certification. In fact, it can be so demanding a regimen of paperwork that many Oregon wineries and vineyard managers, especially the smaller ones, simply choose ‘do the right thing’ anyway, practice sustainable agriculture, or continue to do so, just to avoid the hassle. Further, certification can bring associated risks of crop failure, for example. It is perhaps not quite credible that an Organic or Biodynamic etc. ‘winegrower’ (the mot du jour) would sit on his or her hands and watch disease or pests devastate their vineyard. And so it happens that some winegrowers do not seek certification precisely because they need a full ‘tool box’, as it were, owing to the multiple exigencies attending their agricultural craft. No mystery there.
On the other hand, clearly benefits flow from certification, and not only the obvious improvement of the environment. The consumer is directly informed with special marks and label modifications on the bottle itself that a wine is made responsibly and with care. The question becomes what impact such advertisements make, whether it informs consumer choice. Here in California there is a trend toward more informative ’shelf talkers’, little bits of supplemental info tacked alongside the omnipresent rating points of one critic or another, especially helpful when, for the smaller winery, label modifications my prove too costly. And in an increasingly competitive marketplace any idea will be explored.
In any event, Michelsen provides a good overview of Oregon’s AVAs, including very helpful geological notes, and writes clearly of the selected certified Oregon wineries, though many of his specific winery observations come from narratives already existing in their promotional materials on the web. In some cases little primary, independent research was conducted. Featured wineries include King Estate, Beaux Freres, co-owned by Robert Parker Jr., Sokol Blosser, and 13 others.
The book is well illustrated, most of the full color photographs taken by the author himself. But just who might work the vineyards and do the harvesting is undocumented. And surprising for a book with a copyright date of 2008 its statistical charts of Oregon’s wine industry date from 2005. Significant changes have occurred. In 2005 the total planted acreage topped 14,000, by 2006 the figure had grown to 15,600, 2007 saw yet another increase, to 17,400 total acres. Similarly has the total number of wineries grown: the 2005 figures cited report 303 (op. cit.), while by 2007 the figure climbed to 370!
The book is quite hefty, 264 pages of glossy paper (impossible to recycle!), and measures 11 1/2 x 9 1/2, not very traveller friendly for that. I would hope later editions be scaled down to a more manageable guidebook dimension. And have the pagination corrected! A bit chaotic.
All in all, Oregon can feel justly proud of their extraordinary strides forward, both with respect to the quality of their wines and ‘green’ viticulture. This book will bring a greater appreciation for what Oregon has accomplished.
Over the last few years the media has reported on Champagne producers looking to buy land in the South of England. As the resident Brit on Reign of Terroir it made sense for me to look into these reports of an expected French invasion– are Les Champenoise really buying into the English dream, and why would they even want to?
As far back as 2004 there was talk of French growers becoming interested in land in the South of England (primarily Kent, Sussex & Hampshire). Since then some of the more substantial stories worth repeating are;
• May 2005, Champagne House Duval-Leroy is apparently looking in Kent.
• November 2005, The Telegraph reports on the first confirmed purchase of English land by a Champagne producer, albeit a small one – Didier Pierson of Avize and his English wife Imogen Whitaker.
• January 2007, Decanter told of the proposed venture between Duval-Leroy and their own Stephen Spurrier (a story that was then picked up by The Independent).
• October 2007, Decanter reports that Louis Roederer (makers of Cristal) is looking in Kent or Sussex. Again this was also run by the The Independent.
• November 2007, The Times lauds the future of English winemaking.
• January 2008, the local media get in on the act with the Kent News picking up on the Louis Roederer visit and hoping for increases in tourism and local wine production.
• March 2008, The International Herald Tribune and the Boston Globe put a broader spin on the same stories.
So, the interest is definitely there, but why? It’s not difficult to understand why Gallic eyes would be looking across La Manche for new terroir when you realise the south coast of England is, to all intensive purposes, geologically identical to the Champagne region , both share the chalk formations created during the Late Cretaceous period (100-65mya, million years ago). Chalk is the calcite remains of the single cell creatures which, over those millions of years, deposited on the bed of a vast sea covering much of what is now mainland Europe, stretching from the U.K. to the Crimean peninsula and beyond. The specific geological time period for the main chalk formation is called the Campanian (85-70mya) which was originally named for the village of Champagne and it is chalk that is a key factor of the region’s Terroir. The south English coast’s similarity used to be just a geological curiosity, one of the coincidences of nature after England ceased to be important in viticulture in the Middle Ages – a combination of factors over hundreds of years including Henry VIII closing the Monastic wineries and the onset of the Little Ice Age in the 1500s. However more recently 3 factors have come together which now makes English land a logical target for the French.
1. Champagne saturation – The region is at maximum output and supply is barely keeping up with demand. With Asian market growth increasing dramatically and traditional markets showing no sign of a let-up, even the new expansion of Champagne by 40 new communes this week (something cynically received in some areas of the wine world) may not be enough in the coming years to keep up with the World’s seemingly insatiable demand for the sparkling stuff.
2. Recent victories by English producers. With the likes of Nyetimber winning blind tastings against top Champagnes and the Queen preferring an English sparkler for her 80th Birthday it is clear that there is potential for English vineyards to match some of the best Champagne has to offer (although this scenario is not without its cynics, such as the outspoken critic Malcolm Gluck). With the general acceptance that sparkling wine as we know it was invented by a 17th Century Englishman, Christopher Merret, it could be a case of the best fizz returning to its natural home.
3. However, it is the overriding factor of Global Warming that is likely to be the main issue here. Although controversial the effects of Global warming seem to be an uncomfortable truth, although whether it’s due to the reckless abandon of mankind or a simple cycle of nature remains hotly debated. Projections are for a 1.1 to 6.4 °C rise across Northern Europe by 2100. For France, already experiencing earlier harvests than ever before it could mean changes to what we expect out of Champagne, while for the English it will likely mean better conditions to improve the quality and quantity of their wine.
OK, so much for the geology, history, socio-economic and environmental lessons, lets get back to the point of the story! Now that we know why the French would be interested let’s revisit some of the articles and check out whether the vineyards of the South of England really are about to take on a Gallic flare.
I couldn’t find out any recent information on the original Duval-Leroy and Roederer interest, so I contacted Stephen Skelton of EnglishWine.com who has been mentioned as a consultant in several of the stories. He confirmed that, up until now, only the Pierson-Whitaker’s have actually planted in England and he told me that the Duval-Leroy collaboration with Stephen Spurrier was not progressing, which was helpful as Decanter themselves did not reply to my request for an update of that story. I also got a reply back from winemaker Samantha Linter at Bookers Vineyard in East Sussex. Sam said that “Although I have heard of French producers looking around, no one has approached us directly or looking in our near vicinity”.
It would seem that, for the moment, no-one with the exception of M. Pierson has actually spent their Euros for a piece of good old Blighty. However even though, for now, most of the press coverage is speculation on what might be there is no doubt that the interest is clearly there, even though no big deals have come to fruition. Given that the price of a hectare of English land is £4000 – £10,000 ($8000 – $20,000). While estimates for an equivalent French hectare in Champagne anything from £100,000 – £650,000 then money isn’t the obstacle either. Even with 40 new communes adding to the existing 319 villages in the Champagne area it is more than likely that demand will continue to increase. The fact that the UK is still Champagne’s biggest export market testifies to the English love affair with a good bottle of fizz; and with global temperatures and the quality and potential of English produced sparkling wine climbing it makes perfect sense that the Southern reaches of England are where the future lies. Already local English wineries are looking to buy up more land to increase their own production, as Kent producer Chapel Down did last year; and with current land prices in the area a fraction of what good Champagne soil costs then if they don’t it is certain that someone else will, French or not.
Another bottle of Methode Merret anyone?
On February 4th I posted on this blog “GM Wine, Cultural and Scientific Notes on ML01″. My earlier effort concentrated on the work done on ML01 at the University of British Colombia’s Wine Research Centre under the direction of Dr. Hennie van Vuuren. For a full appreciation of Dr. Hennie’s remarks to follow I strongly suggest reading that post first, visiting the links, and only then returning to the interview below.
Though I did a competent job on the Feb. 4th piece given my limited understanding of the rigorous science involved, I nevertheless knew its greatest shortcoming was not technical but the absence of Dr. Hennie van Vuuren’s comment. To remedy that omission, I contacted the gentleman and he graciously agreed to answer my questions.
How does ML01 differ from other genetically modified organisms currently in the marketplace?
Dr. Hennie All genetically modified organisms currently in the market place contain a selectable marker gene, usually an antibiotic resistance marker gene. ML01 does not contain any antibiotic resistance marker genes. We had to do a significant amount of extra work to screen (colony PCR) and find colonies that contained the malolactic cassette; this is one of the reasons why it took us so long to construct this yeast. I believe genetically modified organisms should not be released into nature if they contain antibiotic resistance marker genes. Furthermore, ML01 contains two genes from microorganisms that are present in wine. ML01 therefore does not contain any genes or proteins that are foreign to the wine making process.
What has surprised you most about the public’s response to the development of ML01?
Dr. Hennie I have published all of the research data on ML01 and this yeast has been fully characterized; it is the best characterized living cell in the market place. It is better characterized than yeasts that have been produced by mutation and/or classic genetic breeding. Apart from scientific presentations at conferences, I have also presented numerous popular scientific talks to the public. I find that people are intrigued that a yeast produced by genetic engineering can produce wines that are free of biogenic amines that act as allergens in many humans. Once people realize what we have done and why we have done it (not for the benefit of big corporations), many of them are interested in finding out where they can buy wine produced with ML01 since they suffer from headaches caused by bioamines in wine.
What surprised me is that a few people continue to oppose the use of this yeast despite the fact that ML01 is safe and they simply ignore the benefits that this yeast will have for many millions of consumers.
What do you believe to be the greatest obstacles to ML01’s acceptance?
Dr. Hennie Fear mongering by those who oppose the use of genetically modified organisms; I have no doubt that most wineries will use ML01 if they can be assured that their wines will not be boycotted. I find it curious that some people will inject insulin produced by a GMO into their veins to treat diabetes but refuse to recognize that others who suffer migraines might benefit by consuming wine produced by ML01. Many of those who oppose the use of ML01 for commercial wine making refuse to examine the facts and often spread false claims to discourage others (see comments on my web site).
With respect to ML01’s current use in Canada and California, for obvious reasons wineries are reluctant to mention its use on their labels. How might a customer, one with a susceptibility to migraines for example, therefore discern which wine might be better for them?
Dr. Hennie Unfortunately it is not possible for them to do so at this stage. However, I believe that new laws that are being considered in the USA will force wineries to disclose on their labels if their wines contain bioamines and other contaminants that may cause health problems.
What is the most important feature(s) of ML01 the public should be aware of?
Dr. Hennie Four regulatory agencies (US FDA, Health Canada, Environment Canada and the Directorate Genetic Resources in South Africa) have examined the data and declared that ML01 is safe to use and that it poses no risk to the environment. ML01 has been fully characterized at the phenotypic and genetic level. It is very effective in conducting the malolactic fermentation in wine preventing spoilage and the production of neuro toxins by other wine microorganisms. Growth, ethanol production, fermentation kinetics and the metabolism of ML01 is unaffected compared to the parent strain. Wines produced by the ML01 yeast have lower volatile acidity and improved color properties than wines produced with the parental yeast and a bacterial malolactic starter culture. ML01 produces fruitier wines with an improved body and wines are of a higher quality.
How are the U BC Wine Research Centre’s Wine Library and Vinotheque coming along? Can you tell us of recent acquisitions?
Dr. Hennie It is coming on great! In a few weeks I will be able to tell you of a major acquisition, which includes many of the world’s best wines.
What are your current lines of research?
Dr. Hennie I am currently studying the stress response in wine yeasts and the aging of wine.
Thank you very much, Dr. Hennie.
In a separate communication Dr. Hennie referenced the results of a survey conducted by The American Vineyard Foundation. The survey concerned “how winemakers feel about biotechnology”. Results may be found here.
He also mentioned the American Society for Enology and Viticulture. They have “commended [our] work on the malolactic yeast for offering ideas for pilot experiments at wineries that can be tested under each unique environment”.
I encourage readers to consider the merits of Dr. Hennie’s work.
This necessarily incomplete article began with a simple visit to Nuestra Senora de la Soledad, California’s 13th mission. Located at 36641 Ft. Romie Rd., Soledad (founded 1791), it is not the oldest mission nor the most significant historically, but it has what no other California mission has, twenty ancient Mission grape vines, vines dating from at least the mid-19th century, perhaps earlier. Or at least I believe them to be, along with a property maintenance man! No one seem to know with complete certainty just what they are or where they came from. I’ll explain in a moment.
Of course, San Gabriel Arcangel (founded 1771) has 3 or 4 ancient vines, one of which is 75 feet in length, and all are believed to be original to the mission (though some claim the vines were planted in 1861). Yes, they still produce. In fact, a few years ago grapes were harvested from the vines and a few bottles of wine were made. Sad to report, when the bottles were placed on display in the mission’s winery museum they were promptly stolen (private communication). And it is claimed that when La Purisima Conception (founded 1787) was undergoing restoration in the 1930’s original vines were dug up from the historical mission vineyard site at Jalama Beach and transplanted to the new mission grounds. It is also believed original ancient vines, now wild, survive on National Forest Service land near San Antonio de Padua (founded 1771). As well do untended vines survive on private farmland near San Miguel Arcangel (private communication).
There are other exciting examples of surviving vines, new information, new leads I’ve learned of and will discuss at a later date as my research firms up. Yet the idea of ‘research’ here requires significant qualifications. Some missions have more abundant, dependable historical records than others. Santa Barbara, the “Queen of the Missions”, for example, has quite rich holdings. But of Nuestra Senora de la Soledad…? Much has been lost. Situated between the Gabilan and Santa Lucia mountain ranges, on the windy floor of the Salinas Valley, it is of a particularly forlorn aspect. Isolated. One of the least successful missions with respect to neophyte recruitment and conversion.
Even as late as 1953 it still retained high adobe walls, structures of discernible use to mission life, but rains would virtually melt them away by the nineties. And theft would take a toll. All the remaining roof tiles not previously sold had been stolen along with who knows what else. Indeed, restoration was late in coming to Soledad. It is claimed by an authority, “Finally, in 1954, the Native Daughters of the Golden West began restoring what little was left of the Mission Soledad. When restoration was begun, only piles of adobe dirt were remaining.” As the recently surfaced photo I’ve posted reveals, this was not at all the condition of the mission in 1954. But the authority above highlights an ongoing problem with research on Soledad. Though their museum may contain artifacts, a modest archive including a big book of newspaper clippings waiting for proper digital preservation, it remains a sad fact that generations with knowledge of the mission have passed on without leaving a record, their oral memories untranscribed. Hence, the same stories keep getting reprinted, all using the same abbreviated, partial sources. Information is scattered, dispersed. Much of Soledad’s history is only recoverable, revitalized by chance encounters with the right soul. Such as the aged maintenance man I mentioned above. Though I had heard rumors of the age of the vines before it was he who told me matter-of-factly that many but not all of the vines and olive trees came from La Purisima Conception cuttings. It was a detail I’d not heard in weeks of research. Regrettably, he did not specify whether the cuttings arrived as part of Soledad’s 1954 restoration or if they were planted earlier. Indeed, though another oral source suggests an age of no more than fifty years, the vines appear much older than that.
In any event, the origin and age of the Soledad vines remain compelling mysteries for me, ones that I shall endeavor to solve; as well as that of the proper dispositions of other ancient grapevines throughout the California Mission system. When I visited Nuestra Senora de la Soledad on Saturday, 3/08, the buds were swelling on every vine. Bud break should occur in just a few days. I will return soon.
This is the first in a series of interviews I’ll be conducting with winemakers of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA.
Was wine a common drink in your family’s household?
Michael I grew up in England during the 50’s and 60’s when table wines were not as popular as they are today. Far more beer was drunk in those days. In my family wine was regarded as a bit of luxury. We had wine for dinner only on special occasions and then it was usually a white wine. But there was always sherry or port in the liquor cabinet. My mother would have a little glass of sherry on occasion in the evening.
When did you begin making wine? What was your initial inspiration?
Michael I really got into making wine when I was at UC Davis during the early nineties. But before that I had made hard cider when I was at art college in the UK and messed around with getting all manner of things to ferment. In England you can drink alcohol by the time you are 18, so at college, Mateus Rose was one the tipples of choice. Also my uncle had a pub, The Wagon and Horses, in Chorley, Lancashire, and he used to let me help him tap the oak barrels in the cellar. A year after I finished art college, studying photography, I started working on cruise ships as a social photographer. Ships are like floating hotels, and wine and food are very much part of the ambience the cruise ship. In this environment, I began to develop an interest in wine. Also we were visiting many of the wine producing areas of the world. This is when I began to take note of the various wine regions of the world. So when it became time to swallow the anchor (to settle ashore), I was ready to do something different. At that time I was visiting California, and the wine business seemed like a very attractive profession to be involved with.
Could you tell us about your wines?
Michael With Sones Cellars we are focusing on only a few varietals, mainly Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. The reason for this is that we like these varietals ourselves; we want to make wines we enjoy drinking. For sale this year, we will have three Petites and a couple of Zins. Our aim is to produce vineyard designated wines of the two varietals showing off the grape and appellation. California is the natural home to Petite Sirah and Zinfandel, with both varietals having been heavily planted here since the late 1800s. Our goal is to produce quintessentially Californian wines, and both Zin and Petite thrive here. Why imitate Burgundy? Let the Burgundians do what they already do well. For the last couple of vintages we have also made a white wine blend, which we call La Sirena. This is a blend of Pinot Gris, Viognier and a little Sauvignon Blanc. Here our goal is to produce something that is different from the mainstream white wines.
Having worked at number of different Santa Cruz Mountain wineries I have been exposed many and varied styles of winemaking. It has been a good experience which has led me to believe that least intervention in the wine making process as possible is the best way to go. I like making wine without the use of some the modern processing techniques, such micro oxygenation or de-alcoholization. These techniques are used to produce wines that fill the marketing parameters set by a winery sales team. A lot of the wines you find in the shops nowadays is made this way. With our wines we make them to the best of our abilities and then let the customer decide whether they like them or not. Hopefully we will have enough people who like our wines and buy them, that will allow us to make a livelihood out of being winemakers.
How much do you produce, and what are your growth projections?
Michael We started off very small, producing only 350 cases for our first 2003 vintage. In 2007 we produced around 800 cases and for this year we hope to break the 1,000 case level. Lois and I want to keep Sones Cellars a small family winery that we can manage ourselves, so we plan to grow to about 2,500 cases and stop there. Though it sounds big to us now, that is still small in the winery scheme of things.
What projects are you working on now?
Michael Well, the next thing for Sones Cellars is to move into to our new little winery. Lois and I started making our own wine in 2003 at Byington winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Since then we have been itinerant wine makers, fermenting and cellaring our wines at other wineries in the Santa Cruz area. Finally some time in May of this year we will be able to put Sones Cellars and all our wine paraphernalia under one roof on the west side of Santa Cruz on Ingalls street.
Any advice for someone thinking of beginning their own label?
Michael Well, there’s a question. The wine business is something that prospective wine makers should think long and hard about before venturing into. It is relatively easy to make good wine; it is a lot harder to sell it. There is so much competition nowadays, and on all levels of quality. For a number of years you invest a lot money before you have even sold a single bottle. It is the nature of the business; you buy the grapes, cellar the wine for a year or two, bottle the wine and it is only then that you see any return. As they say “To make a small fortune with a winery start with a large one.”
Where can we find your wines?
Michael We have just started this past year in getting our wines into shops and restaurants. Locally in Santa Cruz, Vino Cruz and Shopper’s Corner carry our wines. Or you can get them directly from us if you live in California. Until we get our winery established, we are limited to Californian customers only.
Thank you, Michael.
At first glance Genetics may seem a strange topic for a Wine Blog, but look closer and you’ll discover that humans have been genetically modifying the grapevine ever since it was first farmed over 6,000 years ago – by selecting the best growths and characteristics (results of genetic variation and mutation) and then locking them in by vegetative propagation, aka cloning. As we progress into the 21st Century advances in molecular genetics allow us to look deep into the DNA of this intoxicating plant to uncover its history and potentially allow further manipulation of its future.
First some background Biology. There are over 60 distinct species of fruit producing vines of the Genus Vitis, in the Family Vitaceae, but, with a few rare exceptions (such as the Norton grape) there is only one that attracts the attention of you and I – Vitis vinifera L. This is the Eurasian vine used in the production of grapes, raisins and wine which has spread around the world with human agriculture. (The L. often used at the end shows that this was one of the original plant species named by the founding father of biological classification – Carl Linnaeus in his Species plantarum in 1753.)
Most members of the Vitis species, and all V. vinifera, have 19 pairs of chromosomes; 38 units of hereditary that carry the DNA within each cell and on into the next generation. Research has shown that V. vinifera has approximately 30,000 genes spread over 500Mb of DNA (Mb = Megabase pairs, a unit of DNA length). Compare this to humans, who have 23 pairs of chromosomes containing 3300 Mb of DNA carrying..… 30,000 genes. Yes, as a species we have no more genes that a grapevine, just a lot more junk DNA in between them!
Most members of Vitis are dioecious, separate plants are either male or female and cannot pollinate themselves, while V. vinifera are hermaphrodes and can self-fertilise. The Norton variety mentioned above is referenced as V. aestivalis, but the fact that it can self-fertilise suggest more than a touch of V. vinifera in its parentage. However modern viticulture is based on using cuttings (cultivars) to produce clones of the original plant to preserve their desirable characteristics, such as fruit quality. There could be up to 10,000 cultivars of V. vinifera in existence (about 7000 red and 3000 white varieties) and these are the names we see on the labels of our favourite wines; Cabernet, Syrah, Riesling, Verdejo, Assyrtiko etc. In trying to visualise the varieties genetically I liked the description found on “Professional friends of wine” likening them to human populations “each variety should be considered a “surname” which can have it’s own close family and extended relations stretching back in time, but which may have different names or marriages into other families.
In their 2006 paper Vouillamoz & Grando of the Istituto Agrario di San Michele all’Adige discussed a key aspect of cloning, namely that it was difficult, often impossible, to know the family history of a single cultivar – genetically it may be tens, hundreds or even thousands of years old. While leaf morphology was used to guess relationships in the past now molecular genetic techniques allow for more precise identification of related varieties of V. vinifera. Similar to the 1997 finding at UC Davis that Cabernet Sauvignon is the offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc they showed that Pinot Noir, “one of the most ancient western European cultivars still in cultivation today” is related to Syrah (either a “great-grandfather, great-uncle or cousin”). Unfortunately they also pointed out that getting a complete family tree of the major varieties is not realistic as many of the contributory family members will likely be extinct, something just avoided with Gouais Blanc, the almost extinct white variety which, along with Pinot, was involved in the parentage of grapes such as Chardonnay and Gamay.
Cloning of our favourite varieties is not the only genetic dabbling done in the name of viticulture, how about hybrids and chimeras? The devastation of European vineyards by Phylloxera in the 19th century led to the widespread grafting of old world V. vinifera onto the rootstock of native American species such as V. aestivalis, V. riparia, V. rupestris, V. champinii, V. candicans etc (or on crossings of these with V. vinifera). Let’s just be clear here, the grafting of components of one distinct species onto another separate species or a hybrid cross of mixed species – that is genetic modification of the highest level, and something done in agriculture for hundreds of years, not just with grapevines. Of course all of this is done primarily for disease resistance and maintaining plant and fruit characteristics.
Like many plants V. vinifera is highly heterozygous, meaning that for its 19 pairs of chromosomes the 2 members of each pair (the homologues) show a large degree of DNA variation when compared to each other. This was highlighted in the 2007 mapping of the Pinot Noir genome by Riccardo Velasco & colleagues, also of the Istituto Agrario di of San Michele all’Adige. Their findings showed that, on average, there was an 11.2% variation between each of the 19 sets of homologues, which is an enormous amount. As both of Pinot Noir’s parents provided one of every homologue this shows how different, genetically, those parent varieties were, and by assumption all V. vinifera varieties – that level of variation is greater than across all the members of the great ape families; Orangutans, Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Gorillas and, of course, Humans. This also explains why vegetative propagation of grapevines is a necessity, since V. vinifera does not seem to tolerate any degree of inbreeding and in normal sexual reproduction actively mixes up the DNA it passes onto the next generation, which would create chaos for viticulturists trying to maintain favourite features.
Velasco’s paper is the grape equivalent to the Human Genome Project and is a fascinating read, if somewhat technical, showing how genes for disease resistance make up a large proportion of the genome. But if this is so why are commercial varieties so vulnerable to disease? In comparison wild grape varieties typically exhibit significantly more disease resistance, and this is because they reproduce sexually and resistance evolves competitively with the diseases and vectors they’re exposed to – think of it as allowing their genes to download the latest Operating System updates and anti-virus software! However the Pinots, Cabernets etc, because of long-term cloning, have not been allowed to update to counter the new pathogens the vine is exposed to now. Of course you could cross wild and cultivated varieties to breed in the new resistance, but this would also affect the good characteristics you want to keep. Velasco suggests the research could lead to new “molecular breeding” programs, where clusters of resistance genes from wild strain vines could be selectively crossed into the domesticated varieties without losing the genes involved in grape or wine quality.
Elsewhere genetic research by scientists in Australia show that originally all grape varieties were red, but several thousand years ago two independent genes involved in skin colour mutated at about the same time to produce the first white grapevine, the ancestor of today’s white varieties. The earliest known white wine has been confirmed from the time of Tutankhamun, more than 3300 years ago.
It’s not just the vine itself that is now open to genetic changes, there’s another species involved in winemaking – Yeast. There are already new strains of these single cell organisms that can tolerate higher alcohol levels than ever before, perfect for the “No Wimpy Wines” generation and others designed to finish at lower levels to counter these Frankenwines, but that would be the start of a whole new controversy, so I’ll bring this article to an end by mentioning Dennis Gray of the University of Florida who has been working with Muscadine grapes for many years. According to The Economist last year, in their review of the Pinot Noir sequencing story, he’s already started field trials of genetically engineered grapes against Pierce’s disease (a condition which has been touched upon in an earlier Reign of Terroir post).
As a trained geneticist researching this topic allowed an intriguing glimpse into aspects of viticulture and winemaking I had not truly appreciated, and begs the question, should we be afraid of future genetic tinkering with our favourite beverage? For me the answer is no, partly because the fermented grape juice that makes it into our glasses doesn’t contain active DNA anyway, but mostly because we’ve been genetically modifying the vine for thousands of years – so why should we stop now?
International Grape Genome Program
Science daily, Pinot Noir Grape Sequenced
Science daily, Ripening Secrets Of The Vine Revealed