Getting around Lisbon is very simple. And it is just as easy taking a combination of train and bus for day trips to local wine producing areas, to the DOCs in Greater Lisbon. I visited Colares the other day, for example, with absolutely no difficulty. From the Rossio train station it is just over two euros for the train to Sintra, a worthy destination in its own right. Trains depart every 15 minutes or so. The ride is roughly 40 minutes long. Once in Sintra it is a euro and a half by bus to Colares, just a few miles further on.
The bus ride to Colares is itself quite thrilling. Full-sized municipal busses whip down a road almost too narrow for the two-way traffic of compact cars. Indeed, it is a great mystery to me why so few vehicles here bear no signs of collisions or fender-benders at all.
Colares is a small parish of the Sintra municipality with just over 7000 souls, according to 2001 figures. As a wine region, its history is quite dense, dating back to the 13th century. But it was in the 19th that Colares entered the more general European imagination when the parish escaped the devastating phylloxera epidemic that brought not only the balance of Portugal but the greater European continent to its knees. By virtue of their vines being planted in sandy soil, a habitation unfit for the offending insect, Colares has the lion’s share of ungrafted vines surviving in the whole of Europe. My understanding is that there are exists a very few hectares scattered in France, but it is the environs of Colares where these unique survivors remain in abundance. It is for this reason, among others to be discussed in another post, that the region was given its DOC status in 1908.
Of the vineyards, to say they are grown in sand requires significant qualifications. The Wines of Portugal, an official Portuguese wine industry text published in 1979, writes
“When planting grape vines, holes are dug in the sand to a depth of often three metres until ‘firm soil’ is found and the vines securely anchored.”
But from the same text is written this ambiguity,
“‘Sandy’ soil wines may only be marketed bottled but those produced on ‘firm’ soils may be sold in 5-litre demi-johns provided they indicate the designation of origin. They must, however, be blended with ’sandy soil’ wines.”
I shall try to discover the meaning of this distinction. Indeed, I shall provide details and photos when I return to the area in a matter of days. A full tour of vineyards and the adega is planned. But for my purposes on this occasion, it was the adega (wine cellar) that I came to visit, properly titled the Adega Regional de Colares. A cooperative, only wines made in the adega, on the premises, may carry the name Colares on their labels. Grapes are therefore brought in from the surrounding vineyards near the Atlantic for winemaking, all on shared equipment.
Owing to the luck of the draw I arrived on the very day a private tasting was planned! I had all of ten minutes to wander the grounds before the guests were to arrive. No amount of pleading would help. That is not quite true. As mentioned above, I have been granted a hosted tour and interview(s), the details of which I shall post in the fullness of time.
Much, much more to come.
A little bird from the Alentejo told me of a wine tasting at the Ritz in Lisbon. Would I be interested? Yes.
Today I thoroughly enjoyed tasting through Portuguese distributor Américo Maia’s Decante catalogue. The occasion was greatly enriched by the presence of many of the winemakers themselves. This proved extraordinarily helpful as I was able to get important insight into their varied winemaking philosophies.
As is well understood, the current economy is playing havoc at the high end of the market. The pressure is on to produce quality wines at a certain price point, whether for the Portuguese or American wine drinker. In America that translates generally into downward pressure on existing winery stock. For a wine company struggling with an established high-end brands, these have been difficult days.
One industry response has been the wild proliferation of new, lower priced labels. Indeed, for every new animal or savvy pop label that appears you can be sure that behind the scenes a winery is creatively working to reduce its liquid inventory. (Cameron Hughes, anyone?) Needless to say, this shifting of juice from one label to another does nothing to add to over-all variety. Though the wine drinker benefits temporarily from this brand-protecting strategy, they may get to (unknowingly) taste wines previously outside their budget, for example, you can be sure that as the economy rebounds so shall the prices. More importantly, as we all put on our worn work boots for the long slog to recovery, who is to say that a lower price point will not become the standard for quality, that our budgets, as well as our palates, will not become ‘re-calibrated’, as it were?
As amusing as it would be to have a negociant relabel Opus One as ‘Summer Breeze’ and sold for $15, there is an even more creative, and honest, solution: Portuguese wines. What will prove to be a constant refrain on this blog during my stay here in Lisbon, and beyond, is the observation that Portuguese wines are fundamentally unique and distinctive, across the board. And not only with respect to their modest price points. They are quite simply, in the main, stylistically and philosophically different than what is generally found in domestic American wines: Different grapes historically wedded to terroirs; different winemaking traditions; a basic orientation toward the enhancement of food; the very conscious resistance to forces of globalization (with notable exceptions, of course. The subject of a future post).
Though I continue to insist that Portugal is one of the world’s last great terroir cultures, this is only to suggest that international distributors serving the America market take a hard, fiscally responsible look at what the country has to offer. Decante’s Portuguese holdings in his most recent catalogue is a good place to start.
Two of the biggest surprises of my afternoon of tasting were wines from Goncalo Souse Lopes (left) and Nuno Araujo (right). The first gentleman is half of G&R Consultores (Rui Cuhna, the other half). Out of the Duoro, their wines and the specific meaning of the labels may be read about on their Secret Spot website, still under construction. They are quite new. Just click on a label in the banner. CataVino has additional info.
Nunu Araujo is a biodynamic producer working under the Covela label. His website is in need of a bit of a make-over. Basic information on the wines may be read here.
It is worthwhile to note that the two gentlemen pictured above likely shared a table at the Decante tasting because both utilize the profound talents of enologist Rui Cunha, Nuno’s cousin. These three folks deserve far wider recognition, certainly in the United States, no doubt. And so I add my thoroughly American endorsement to their growing European acclaim. None, I repeat, none of these wines are currently available in the US. The clincher? The wines begin at under 10 euros, for god’s sake.
Other wonderful wines included a range of bottlings by producer Quinta de Chocapalha, located near Lisbon. I shall try to visit them while here. From the Alentejo, the always dependable Cortes de Cima was present. At least they are available stateside! Their unique cuvée Courela, referred to by asst. winemaker Helena Sardinha, as a “crisis wine”, a wine for our troubled economic times, reinforced the truth of the exceptional quality and finesse Portuguese wines offer at such modest price points.
Time constraints prevented me from enjoying all of the wines on offer. And of those I did taste, many are not mentioned here. Another time. Alas, I have a train to catch! I will, however, close with special mention of the braille labels on all the bottlings of Pinhal Da Torre’s wines, the first to do so in Portugal, it is said. The wines are generally available in the US. The affable CEO Paulo Saturnino Cunha impressed me with his humility.
Off to Colares…
A fine Saturday afternoon in October saw the first outing for Wine on the Tyne, a new wine consortium in the North East of England made up to showcase the diverse range of wines available from 8 independent retailers.
The Sir Bobby Robson suite in St James’s Park, home of Newcastle United Football Club, was the venue for a 5 hour marathon tasting session of over 80 wines from most of the main wine countries. Unlike previous Newcastle Wine Fairs (organised by Chris Powell of the Newcastle Wine School) this was an independent event with no supermarkets or national retailers.
It wasn’t just the Wine on the Tyne banner that was new, with 4 of the 8 businesses trading for less than a year and 2 presenting to the public for the first time since start-up. Taking part were;
– Carruthers & Kent – a new start-up with Claire Carruthers, formerly manager of a local Oddbins who has featured on these pages before. The C&K range covered the New World including Australia’s Willunga 100 & Mount Horrocks and Chile’s Viña Chocalán.
– Castello Italian Food & Wines – one of the established “old guard” serving a solid and diverse range of Italian wines, including the Piemontese Cossetti family vineyard.
– Lovely Bubbly – fizz only from Fiona Amann and her range of small family Champagne houses.
– Portovino – I’ve already discussed Alan Holmes & Paul Raven’s new Portuguese venture in a recent Greybeard’s Corner and it was good to see more of their range on the table here, including several from the Companhia das Quintas group.
– Proteas Wines – This new company specialises in South African wine and was set up by Tony Raven, brother of PortoVino’s Paul. Their range is championed by Klippenkop (an export label for the Robertson Winery) and Umkhulu (a brand name for a South African internet based merchant cybercellar.co.za).
– Spanish Spirit – My “local” and a firm favourite for the Spanish component of my cellar. Bodegas Hededad Ugarte heads their current range.
– The Hop, The Vine – another newbie concentrating on the New World and especially Australia. What caught my eye was the extent of their full range, over 150 wines, of which they’d brought 18 to the event including the only North American presence in the room with the Snoqualmie Winery Sauvignon Blanc and a Domaine Ste. Michelle sparkling.
– Tyne Wines – Irwin Thompson has been flying the flag for small independent French producers for several years now, concentrating on Burgundy and the Rhône.
With so many wines to choose from there was plenty of opportunity to compare styles and varieties so I spent a few minutes comparing the sheets before deciding on the best route round the room, keeping to a varietal theme as much as possible.
South Africa was first with the Klippenkop 2009 Chenin Blanc. Tony Raven also had a cream & berry Pinotage Rosé and a simplistic Cinsault-Shiraz red from the Klippenkop range, but the Chenin was most memorable if only for the fact that it smelled and tasted of Sauvignon Blanc! It was a good wine, light and dry with some pineapple custard on the nose, but so atypical for a Chenin that I changed my plans and headed for the nearest Sauvignon Blanc to compare it against! I didn’t have far to go, as Proteas were also presenting the MAN Vintners 2007 Sauvignon, but this was uninspiring with a musky/savoury nose and simple flavour, so it was onto the Chilean Calbucco 2008 Sauvignon from Carruthers & Kent which was much more what was expected from the grape with a rich, pungent nose, dry, somewhat tart but a fruity mid-palate. Finally on to The Hop, The Vine where the Snoqualmie 2006 Washington Sauvignon added subtle, bitter flavours with a big honey finish. It was probably my favourite of the group though nearly as varietally atypical as the Klippenkop Chenin was to start with.
Other whites of interest included a powerful and strongly oaked Mount Horrocks 2008 Semillon and the mixed fruit of the Tanca su Contissa 2008 Vermentino Superiore by Cantina Trexenta. However my “best white of the afternoon” was shared between Spain and Italy after a hard fought battle. Spain provided the burnt orange delight of the Villa Narcisa 2006 Verdejo, Fermentado en Barrica, by Javier Sanz. I’ve had this before both at home and at Spanish Spirit tastings but this was the first time I noticed an extra richness of flavour with orange peel and bitter tangerine aspects coming through. On the nose you could almost mistake it for a dessert wine and the full texture may put some people off, but I found it a delight!
Italy countered this with the Cossetti 2008 Roero Arneis from Piemonte. Extremely fruity on the nose this was a stunning wine with complex, dry, honeyed stone-fruit flavours.
There was a brief Rosé interlude (the Reinares 2008 Tempranillo Rosado and Klippenkop Pinotage Shiraz Rosé were both very enjoyable) before I moved onto the serious business of red tasting and the tannic oak monster that was the Two Hands 2007 “Angel’s Share” Shiraz. There was plenty of fruit locked away which may get a chance to shine in a few years although it was a little hot on the finish and definitely needed more bottle age. I spent the next few minutes rinsing the oak splinters from my mouth before continuing, so it was with great relief that I landed at the PortoVino table and the two soothing glasses of red that came with the 2008 Gaiao and the 2005 Azamor, both Vinho Regional Alentejo.
The Gaiao, a Trincadeira, Aragonez and Alicante Bouchet blend, had a creamy, berry-fruit nose which reminded me of a rosé, although more concentrated. It was well balanced in the mouth, very easy drinking with subtle tannins. The Azamor contains Syrah, Merlot, Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira, Alicante Bouschet, Mouverdre and Petit Verdot. In spite (or because?) of this confused mix it was very smooth with some menthol on the nose and a hint of liquorice; more complex than the Gaiao but equally drinkable, as my partner Sarah confirmed (she who does not drink red wine!).
Moving onto something stronger and Malbec was the next variety under the spotlight beginning with Ferngrove’s 2006 “The King” from Western Australia. This was very elegant with a spicy complex nose and subtle flavours, drinking well now but with good grip and ageing potential.
A quick jump over the Tasman Sea for a blend from New Zealand, the Cable Bay 2006 Five Hills. Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and a splash of Cabernet Franc combined to give a muted nose with a little white pepper, while in the mouth it was meaty with medium tannins and good complexity.
Westwards to South Africa next for the Umkhulu 2002 Malbec which had eucalyptus on the nose and a suggestion of smoothness which was translated in the mouth; gentle and warming this was well made with mild tannins. Bottelary is cited as the origin of the grapes and is home to Bellevue Estate which Umkhulu use as one of their major suppliers.
Finally across the South Atlantic to the spiritual home of the grape, Argentina, with the Altos Las Hormigas 2008 Malbec from Mendoza. On the swirl this looked very young and had a smoky, meaty nose and a burnt aspect on the taste. It was a touch too tannic and although obviously young I had some doubts as to whether there was enough fruit to carry it past the next couple of years.
In general I was very impressed with the quality of the Malbec based wines, with the Ferngrove just pipping the Umkhulu – if only because the South African was nearing the end of its life while “The King” had definitely not left the building.
It’s worth noting that not many local retailers hold stock with much bottle age, so the accolade of “most venerable wine” this day went to the enjoyable Monte Toro 1997 Reserva from Spanish Spirit. There was a hint of liquorice and it was drinking well with a mix of secondary flavours, although probably it has now past its peak and should be drunk within the next year or so.
Champagne had a table dedicated to it with Fiona Amann from Lovely Bubbly offering tastes and background on their small producers. Although I’m not a sparkling wine fan I tasted a couple and was suitably impressed; the Lancelot Pienne Cuvée Rosé had a fine mousse and a delightful berry & marzipan component while Georges Vesselle’s 2003 Brut Zero was dry with apples and a lovely hint of cinnamon.
We finished off with the dessert course, and there were 3 sweet & fortified wines to try.
The Mount Horrocks 2008 Cordon Cut Riesling had an oily nose and was a typical sweet Riesling, no surprises there, so over to Portugal and the fortified Muscatel da Setúbal, from Casa Ermelinda Freitas in the Terras do Sado, south of Lisbon. This had a burnt orange nose and was sweet and slightly hot, with raisins on the finish, a very enjoyable treat; however the best was kept until last, with the Full Fronti from Pertaringa Vineyards from the McLaren Vale. Frontignac is the Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains variety, named for the Languedoc town of Frontignan which is famous for its fortified Muscat. Australia has taken the variety and style to heart and the Full Fronti is a powerful 20 year old wine with a massive attack of raisins on the nose which continues into the thick, sweet taste with toffee and chocolate aspects. A revisit to The Hop, The Vine table for refills of this nectar was required, and Sarah repeated this several times.
You may have noticed the absence of any mention of Tyne Wines. This was primarily because Irwin Thompson only arrived for the last hour or so of the event after just flying in from Australia. He would have been earlier had the car carrying the wines for the tasting not broken down en-route! I did manage a fine glass of his “La Roche” 2005 Pouilly Fuissé by Domaine Chataigneraie-Laborier but before I’d realised it 5 hours had come and gone and I had only managed 45 of the wines on offer (still the most I’ve done in one session) -I definitely need more practice at the bigger tasting events and I wasn’t spitting anywhere near enough (as the quality of my note taking at the end will testify). I can only hope the bottles I missed didn’t include anything earth-shattering and hopefully I’ll get a chance to try them in the future when this group gets together again.
As for all these new businesses starting; the increase in choice is encouraging for local wine enthusiasts, but it is also a little worrying – is the North East wine market big enough to support all these new ventures? Only time will tell, meanwhile I will enjoy what is available.
Tomorrow morning I shall be leaving for Portugal and the European Wine Bloggers Conference (EWBC). It has been my great fortune to have been selected by ViniPortugal to attend. Arriving Sunday morning, the 25th, will provide me precious days prior to the EWBC, beginning Oct. 30th, to productively explore the wine world of perhaps Europe’s least understood region. Indeed, Conference organizers, the folks at Catavino, Ryan and Gabriella Opaz, and Robert McIntosh of the blog Wine Conversation made a brilliant decision in choosing Lisbon.
Owing to a combination of circumstances, both commercial and historical, Portuguese wines, their origins, distinctions and terroirs, have simply not entered into the popular imagination, certainly not the North American imagination, as vividly as they deserve. It is hoped by this writer that much useful information will be generated by the 117 bloggers attending the conference, a small but necessary step toward a greater international recognition of Portugal’s rich wine traditions. I am pleased to be a part of this effort.
By arriving days earlier I will have an opportunity to work on the following subjects:
1) The cork industry of the Alentejo, including a trip to the cork forests and a visit to a production facility. The importance of cork forest ecology, the fascinating variety of life this biome contains is of special interest to me.
2) The cultural contrasts (and even conflicts) between traditional producers and their ‘modern’, more technologically-minded brethren deserves a close look. This area of research dovetails with larger questions of the preservation of terroir, the threat of the potential loss of the same by homogenizing technological innovation.
3) Biodynamic and organic approaches, conventional viticulture, especially in the context of the effects of global climate change. Water issues. I hope to have something worthwhile to say on these matters.
4) Also of great interest will be a look into the history of the practical tools and architecture of Portugal’s long wine history. Tractors, irrigation tech, the layout of wineries, barrel construction, etc., the history and evolution of tools, this is a particular fascination of mine. Anybody who knows of the varied styles of barbed wire used across America’s West the past 150 years and their purposes, for example, will understand what I am getting at.
5) Class and ethnicity of farm workers. Their labor unions, healthcare, housing, all will be explored as best as I am able.
6) Did I mention the wines?! And the food?! Yes, I believe I have.
To be submerged in Portuguese culture, to lose myself down unknown streets, to dissolve in strange pleasures, this, too, is the point. With luck and a bit of resourcefulness, I hope to end up in territories so remote that not even an infernal Google GPS tech will be unable to get a fix. This I will do.
“I acquired my love for the taste of wine as a small child when it was first dropped into my mouth or mixed in a glass of water”.
This is not how the book begins. Liquid Memory follows no sequential narrative logic, one recollection does not force the next. For that is not how memory works.
Neither does the book begin with reflections on Mondovino, though the popular memory of that ground-breaking film might, too, have made thematic, if not commercial, sense. (Indeed, I suspect the majority of reviews will follow this noisy thread.) And don’t think for a moment we have before us a guidebook of wine tasting notes fetishistically severed from place and time, isolated by a ‘wine professional’ from all worldly contamination. Isolated from memory.
Instead, Part One, The (None)sense Of Place, chapter one, Why We’re Not Dogs begins with this.
“The term globalization is frequently misused. This is particularly disturbing for me, a child of the globe. My father, Bernard Nossiter, an American journalist, moved our family from Washington D.C., to Paris when I was two. I grew up across the cultures of France, Italy, Greece, India, and England, as well as the United States. So, where do I belong?”
Liquid Memory is not an attempt to answer this question by submitting to an easy, marketable nostalgia; you know, a story of the search for a warm hearth before which one might safely curl to sleep. Instead, Mr. Nossiter performs his answer with a very personal journey of recollection, exploring the multiplicity of ‘homes’, ‘heimat’ or terroirs that memory itself calls into being.
We are not dogs because we possess the unique freedom to cross ideological borders, to resist cultural and commercial forces that offer to name us in exchange for a kind of security. (‘Consumer’ is one of many such names.) And wine is the agency of resistance par excellence. This book is an invitation to escape from the kennel of advertisement, to snap the tether of scores; to cultivate an intellectual nomadism of both sapience and of culture, in the company of others.
“Without terroir–in wine, cinema, or life (I’m happiest when the three are confused)–there is no individuality, no dignity, no tolerance, and no shared civilization. Terroir is an act of generosity. The last thing it should be is sectarian or reactionary.”
We are all complex mixtures of the past, the present and the future. There is nothing new in this. What is new is that Mr. Nossiter demonstrates through generous, playful stories that bottles of wine, what he calls liquid madeleines, may quietly, entirely by themselves, stir in us the experience of blended time, so to speak. We have only to learn how to listen.
“Wine bottles to me are not inanimate objects. And not just because the liquid inside them is biochemically alive. The shape of the bottle, the label, with its carefully printed place names, family names, and year of harvest, both evoke deeply human stories that remain vital even once the contents are consumed. When I see a bottle of wine, I travel in space–of course to the place the wine comes from (if its identity and personality have been respected), but also to the place, people, and circumstances where it was consumed.”
Though Liquid Memory makes serious arguments, there is nothing doctrinaire or ideologically rigid about Mr. Nossiter’s approach. Philosophical, yes; but he is too disciplined, too creative an independent film-maker to write sermons. The book’s prose is bright, often lyrical, always entertaining, even when discussing dark topics. He is never pugnacious, but he is willing to push back. How could it be otherwise? This book is a self-avowed “Proustian journey”, after all. But unlike Proust, Mr. Nossiter has not spent years in a cork-lined room endlessly scribbling emendations in the margins of an infinitely unspooling text. And unlike Proust, memory for Mr. Nossiter must be fed with the real-world anticipation of future pleasures. Indeed, his tone is resolutely upbeat, open to new loves.
(As a purely personal aside, rather than Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdue, the text that actually returned to me again and again when reading Liquid Memory was Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques.)
Before beginning his thoroughly original adventures across the Parisian winescape, the greater part of the book, he writes,
“When I enter a wine shop–a magical place for me since adolescence (an arrested adolescent replacement for the childhood delights of a toy shop?)– or when I scan a restaurant wine list, I feel a surge of excitement, like someone arriving at the doorstep of a potential love affair. A tour of places in Paris where wine is critical–wine shops and restautants–becomes for me a kind of triple Proustian journey. I might go back in time with one glance (a bottle last drunk or seen years before), forward with another (there are millions of bottles that are unknown to me that I hope one day to meet), and rooted in the present with a third turn of the head (because the choice of wines is like choice of friends: it instantly reveals character and taste).”
But, push back? Yes, there is plenty. Robert Parker’s work, for example, is discussed with a combination of bemusement and genuine revulsion, as is “modern wine gibberish” generally. But the reason for his hot and cold critique throughout the book has nothing to do with personal animus (despite the unrelieved hostility of Mr. Parker and some of his board members, the wine world’s equivalent of Rush Limbaugh and his excitable ditto heads). Rather, it is the simple proposition that, among other Parker foibles, lugubrious tasting notes and scores do not get at what is most important in wine. Tasting notes and scores dumb down wine, at best rendering each bottle one of an endless series of Warhol-esque Campbell soup cans.
“But Parker is not alone. Modern wine gibberish (and the desperate attempts of winemakers to make wines that correspond to that gibberish) is a global product.”
And as a global product,
“Consumers all over the world have now become accustomed to seek out ‘Parker 95 wines’ or ‘ Wine Spectator 90’s,’ no longer sure of, or necessarily interested in, the wines’ origins, makers, or contexts. [....] To assign numbers to a wine, given that a wine is fully living and infinitely mutable, is almost as repugnant to me as assigning numerical worth to humans.”
Memory is aborted; our fundamental distinction from dogs is no longer necessary or even minimally required. Consumers, like dogs, run in packs. This is the great insight of modern business psychology. And we, as dogs, are left obediently waiting permission to feast from the bowl of the one who eats first.
Setting aside the ridiculous theater of modern wine gibberish for a moment, the finest section of Liquid Memory in my view is Part lll, All Roads Lead To Burgundy. Here Mr. Nossiter steps away from driving the narrative; he largely subtracts himself in order to let others speak. He then lovingly devotes 35 pages to the voices of some of the finest vignerons of Burgundy’s new generation. Can they find “a means of communication as limpid as their wines”?
“We are in the home Jean-Marc Roulot and his wife Alix de Montille to find out. They’ve been joined by their friends Dominique Lafon and Christophe Roumier, creating a quartet of inspired vignerons, all of whom are themselves children of talented vigneron fathers. Though anchored in a sense of tradition, they have each one of them acquired international reputations as modernist pioneers. Indeed, because the opposition between tradition and modernity is as absurd in wine as it is in cinema, it’s not surprising that the tradition within the Roulot, Montille, Lafon, and Roumier families is to assert a new ideal of progress in the expression of terroir with each generation.”
The next four chapters are quite simply a tour de force in contemporary wine writing. Mr. Nossiter has done brilliant work here. I cannot review the chapters without repeating them. But I will say there may be found detailed discussions of biodynamics and organic viticulture, the burden of tradition, the fragility of familial relations, of fathers and sons, with respect to the preservation and transmission of historical experience and memory. How does one persevere, how does one make durable a vision, a terroir, while all around is compromise and accommodation? The many strengths and pleasures of Liquid Memory notwithstanding, ‘All Roads Lead To Burgundy’ will be read for many years to come.
The section ends with this reflection.
“It must be said that the current practitioners of marketing are often congenial figures with no wish at all to subsume us in any evil design. But those who preach the cult of the individual nonetheless are contributing to the erasure of our collective culture and therefore, ironically, of our individual identities. The (historically mutable) delineation of Burgundian terroirs and their highly idiosyncratic interpretation by people like Jean-Marc, Dominique, and Christophe seems to me a very graceful (if infinitesimally miniscule) response to this threat.”
Part lV, The Taste of Authenticity, the last part of the book, reads a bit like a compilation of essays; of related pieces, to be sure, but with a free-standing quality. Each may be read independently of the book as a whole. All chapters will be welcomed, deepening, as they do, our understanding of the politics and culture of wine.
Finally, I can only imagine that Mr. Nossiter is pleased to finally set Liquid Memory on its way, to give it a life of its own. My interview with the gentleman was sprinkled with new ideas, new departures for thought, new terroirs. Thoroughly future-oriented, with children to raise, movies yet to make, should he have met Marcel Proust I suspect he would have slapped him on the back and spirited him off to Caves Legrand for a cheering-up. Yet Mr. Nossiter’s relation to Literature remains a mystery to me. He writes on pg. 14,
“In fact, nothing so complex, so dynamic, and so specific, nothing that links both nature and civilization, can be said in relation to memory in literature, painting, cinema, music, architecture: and any of the other records of human civilization. However, precisely because neither terroir, nor nature, nor men are fixed, and because a wine itelf is destined to be consumed–to vanish–a wine of terroir is by its nature, an ultimately undefinable, unquantifiable agent of memory. This is a curse for relentless rationalists, unrepentant pragmatists, and all the busy codifiers of this world, anxious for absolutes. And a blessing for the rest of us.”
But it is equally true people are destined to be consumed; they vanish. They, too, are records of human civilization. Yes, it is true that men are not fixed. But a man is, when he vanishes. As does all that he knew.
From Borges’ Dreamtigers.
“In a stable that stands almost within the shadow of the new stone church a gray-eyed, gray-bearded man, stretched out amid the odors of the animals, humbly seeks death as one seeks for [sic] sleep. The day, faithful to vast secret laws, little by little shifts and mingles the shadows in the humble nook. Outside are the plowed fields and a deep ditch clogged with dead leaves and an occasional wolf track in the black earth at the edge of the forest. The man sleeps and dreams, forgotten. The angelus awakens him. By now the sound of the bells is one of the habits of evening in the kingdoms of England. But this man, as a child, saw the face of Woden, the holy dread and exultation, the rude wooden idol weighed down with Roman coins and heavy vestments, the sacrifice of horses, dogs, and prisoners. Before dawn he will die, and in him will die, never to return, the last eye-witness of those pagan rites; the world will be a little poorer when this Saxon dies.
Events far-reaching enough to people all space, whose end is nonetheless tolled when one man dies, may cause us wonder. But something, or an infinite number of things, dies in every death, unless the universe is possessed of a memory, as the theosophists have supposed.
In the course of time there was a day that closed the last eyes to see Christ. The battle of Junin and the love of Helen each died with the death of some one man. What will die with me when I die, what pitiful or perishable form will the world lose? The voice of Macedonio Fernandez? The image of a roan horse on the vacant lot at Serrano and Charcas? A bar of sulpher in the drawer of a mahogany desk?”
Liquid Memory is a valuable contribution to the conversation about wine, of course. But it is a rare book. It makes the strongest case that I have ever read that wine matters; it matters to culture, to history, to our self-understanding of what makes us human. I highly recommend adding it to your library.
For my three part interview with Mr. Nossiter please see this and follow the links.
September started with a larger than usual Decanter magazine (352 pages!) thumping its way through the letterbox, the annual tome that covers the Decanter World Wine Awards competition held in April. With nearly 7,000 awards it took the rest of the month to work my way through the results picking out the interesting or relevant winners, but with 41% of entries being below the $15 level then this is a good way to add to the quality of your everyday drinkers.
This was the 6th year of the DWWA and this time round 10,285 wines were entered, the largest ever. 4 bottles of each wine are submitted so over 40,000 bottles were received and sorted for the judging, an enormous undertaking (although an entry fee of $150 per wine gives $1.5 million to help cover costs). As with many wine competitions don’t expect to see first growth Bordeaux or cult Napa Cabs in evidence, but the strong representation from wineries all over the world means plenty to choose from across the more affordable price ranges. Even though many wines are not available in the U.K. or U.S. there’s still more than enough to make a decent wine list from, you can browse the results on Decanter’s web-site here.
Two of the top awards, the International Trophy, went to U.K. supermarket own-labels; the co-operative Santa Helena 2008 Pinot Noir and Sainsbury’s 2006 Amarone della Valpolicella by Cantina Valpantena – both of which are now in residence at my home!
For the (British) retailer awards Waitrose and Marks & Spencer (M&S) cemented their reputation as winner and runner up in the Supermarket of the Year award, while by-the-case retailer Majestic took Wine Chain of the year.
I spent a few days in Oslo in the middle of the month through work and had a delicious meal at “The Edge” restaurant at Aker Brygge, the popular night-life area in the renovated Oslo docklands. This is a new establishment (it wasn’t there when I visited Oslo last year) but is well worth a visit with a small but delicious menu and an interesting wine list. To go with our meal that night I had a glass of Vielles Vignes Sylvaner, the 2007 by Domaine Ostertag, which went well with the smoked salmon starter.
Unlike some other Sylvaner/Silvaners I’ve previously tried this was a well flavoured, dry wine with a strong honey aspect in the mid-palate – although the nose was closed with only a suggestion of flowers.
The main course was a hearty wild boar steak in a rich berry sauce and a bottle of M. Chapoutier Côtes du Rhône Villages 2007 Rasteau alongside. The wine had a sweet smoky nose with a little spice and good fruit with some liquorice and cherry, but was too young – overly tannic for its medium body needing some more years to mellow.
To finish I spied a Kracher 2006 Beerenauslese on the menu. This vintage dessert wine from Burgenland was a blend of Welschriesling and Chardonnay; medium-sweet, elegant and refreshing, strong on apricots and 4 stars all the way.
I went to my second NEWTS (North East Wine Tasting Society) meeting in September and tasted some Spanish treats at a presentation by Greg Wilson from the Newcastle Majestic store. As well as a selection of the current Majestic range Greg had also brought some older bottles no longer in stock, including the delicate delight that was the 1985 Marques de Caceres Rioja Gran Reserva. Some around the table said it was past its best but for me it was still a pleasure to have something so venerable which still drank well and offered subtle, almost ethereal flavours to contemplate.
The group vote for best wine of the evening went to the Torres 2005 Mas la Plana, DO Penedès. While I thoroughly enjoyed this I preferred the Bodegas Emilio Moro 2006 Ribera del Duero which I felt had more character – both had plenty of balanced fruit and tannins to keep them going for several years.
The last wine of the evening raised a few eyebrows as it was an overt “blockbuster”, the Bodegas Muga 2005 Torre Muga Rioja. This was much too over-extracted – a tannic and fruit laden points-seeker which didn’t sit well with the more elegant bottles which had preceded it.
As September marked the anniversary of my visit to the Côtes du Ventoux I dropped a line to Château Pesquié to see how the harvest was progressing. Frédéric Chaudière told me that picking began on the 25th August with the Viognier and they were expecting to be finished by the first week of October. First indications were very good and they are hoping for a great vintage after a very dry summer – of the vinification Fred said that the “extraction processes are the easiest ever seen”. This matches news coming out of all the French regions this year, 2009 promises to be an excellent vintage.
I attempted to add another wine store to my list when I went looking for The Corkscrew in Carlisle, on England’s North West border with Scotland. I only infrequently visit the city I was born in even though it’s less than an hour drive from where I live, and it was somewhat ironic that the wine store was shut when I did, the owner’s taking a late summer vacation! I’ll be back though, as this is where the best Rose of the year came from (via my parents); the Vina Valoria from Rioja.
I still managed to end the month with another store though, courtesy of The Italian Wine Cellar in the beautiful old University City of Durham. The store is nestled in a corner of the indoor market and it was a bottle of Pecorino by Tenuta Cocci Grifoni that caught my eye, another unusual and rare variety to try out sometime soon.
Other wines purchased this month include Tim Adams 2006 The Fergus Grenache blend, another wine from this respected Australian producer to go into my stores. After 3 years of buying his wines I still haven’t tried one, although the 2005 Riesling is steadily creeping up the drinking list and I’d expect to have it within the next few months to find out if he really lives up to the praise heaped on him by the likes of Oz Clarke!
Along with the co-op Santa Helena I also purchased the Meerlust 2006 Pinot Noir to add to its predominantly Californian brethren and replenishing my stocks of this variety which, up until May, had fallen to a single bottle (and that was a German Spätburgunder!). Given my budget and anti-establishment purchasing tendencies it probably won’t come as a surprise that I don’t hold any red Burgundy at this time.
On the drinking side September’s wines fitted more into the quaffing category at home. A spectrum of the French regions was covered with serviceable efforts from Fitou, Cahors, Bordeaux Supérieur and Muscadet – even a St. Emilion Grand Cru, the 2004 Château Grand-Pey-Lescours, was uninspiring. South America fared slightly better with a fresh, dry 2007 Sauvignon Gris from Cousiño Macul and an enjoyable Torrontés, the 2006 Crios de Susana Balbo – although it was showing its age a little. Only the Henriques & Henriques Malvasia Madeira added an element of sophistication to the month; deep, dark and rich with complex burnt caramel flavours this was delightful with fresh and juicy acidity.
As for September’s weather – it started off wet but by the middle of the month the sun returned with some dry and relatively warm spells, heralding an Indian summer which should be good news for the English grape harvest.
You will have noticed October is half-way through and I’m only just getting round to September. I apologise for the tardiness of the latest ‘Corner post and can only blame the demands of the day job (the bills have to be paid!). I have some free time coming up soon so expect to be a touch more prolific than recent months, but for those wanting more real-time notice of my monthly ramblings try looking me up on Twitter.
Dr. Helmuth Rogg, entomologist for the Integrated Pest Prevention Management section of the Oregon Dept. of Agriculture Plant Division, has confirmed that both table and wines grapes have been attacked by the Spotted Wing Drosophila (Drosophila suzukii). In an email to this blog, Dr. Rogg wrote,
“[W]e hand picked wine grapes and table grapes from various vineyards in the Salem area and hatched out the SWD. So, we do know that SWD attacks wine and table grapes but we do not know the level of infestation, difference in variety, crop damage, etc. Unfortunately, we cannot conduct these experiments. We passed on our information to our colleagues from OSU and its Extension Service.”
A second email provided me reads,
Oregon Department of Agriculture has confirmed the presence of Drosophila suzukii in the following 11 counties of Oregon:
We also have confirmed the following hosts:
(10/14 Update.) Please also read this 10/13 release from Oregon State.
All the fruit listed above have also been attacked by SWD here in California, with the notable exceptions of table grapes and wine grapes. I wrote a follow-up email about this development to Dr. Martin Hauser, entomologist with the California Dept. of Agriculture. He responded,
“that is bad news… I still do not have any confirmed SWD from California grapes. With the first batch of suspects, the PCR failed [owing to a technical issue]. But maybe I will have new news tomorrow.”
PCR is short for polymerase chain reaction, a DNA sequencing technology. It clearly differs from Dr. Rogg’s more field-oriented approach. The question begs whether the simple gathering of grapes from a variety of suspect California vineyards and allowing SWD larvae, if present, to emerge, might prove more diagnostically helpful. Which is to say that ‘confirmation’ of SWD in California wine and table grapes should properly be done using with both field and lab taxonomic identification protocols.
Important gains from primary field research have already been accomplished by Mark Bolda of the University of California Cooperative Extension. His focus, though principally cane berries, has resulted in great insight into early detection of the pest, how to set up traps, the appropriate baits, pesticides, both conventional and organic, and field sanitation requirements. For a recent account of his work please see my August 30th post Spotted Wing Drosophila Emergency Meeting Results and follow the various links.
Very important questions remain. What is the intensity of vineyard infestation? Are grapes a ‘preferred’ host for SWD or a fruit of last resort? What was the ratio, if any, of damaged vs. intact grapes in the Oregon samples? What grapes varieties are especially vulnerable? What ought a grower do with respect to vineyard sanitation? Will the common practice of ‘dropping’ fruit have to controlled? Will the composting of grape pomace have the unintended consequence of maintaining or even cultivating damaging populations of SWD? The list goes on, as must the research.
One of the more serious questions, if and when SWD is found in California wine grapes, is whether the presence of larvae in the interior of harvested fruit might adversely affect some quality of the must during fermentation or taste in the finished wine. This would be in addition to the skin break created by the laying of the egg, of course, clearly already a pathogen pathway. We already know that common fruit flies are effective vectors of Brettanomyces and other spoilage yeasts. Similarly do Ladybugs, very fond of vineyards, produce chemicals capable of ruining fermenting wine. This new kind of MOG (material other than grapes), the Spotted Wing Drosophila larvae, will be of pressing interest to winemakers in the very near term.
—– More breaking news on another exotic pest just detected in Napa vineyards, the European Grapevine Moth (Lobesia botrana).
For those of us interested in the development and improvement of new wine regions; for those who cheer on the heroic struggle for the world-wide recognition of new wines from around the globe, fewer regions have shown as much promise so quickly as Israel. A Wine Spectator article from the summer of 2008 admirably sums up the changes brought to the wine-making culture by a new generation. As the article’s author Kim Marcus writes,
“I came away impressed by the leaps in quality, especially of the red wines, and by the dedication of the vintners. On my previous visit, many bottlings were tired or had matured before their time. This year, many reds displayed mineral elements and firm structures, as well as rich spicy notes, pointing to an emerging Israeli style.”
The article goes on to quote Shuki Yashuv of Agur Winery, located in the Judean Hills.
“In this country, we still don’t have enough vineyards. The plots are small, it’s expensive and we need capital—and the market is so small,” says vintner Shuki Yashuv, the owner of Agur Winery in the Judean Hills. Yashuv reckons that the potential domestic market is only about 2 million out of a total population of 7.2 million, once the nondrinking Muslim and Jewish populations are taken out of the mix. “We have lands, especially in the Judean Hills, but it’s a question of investment. We need to grow and export,” he says. “We understand it’s an extremely competitive wine world.”
From stories posted here about Israel’s thriving wine industry by one of Reign of Terroir’s writers, Greybeard, the point is emphatically made. This is a region to watch!
Indeed, one the greatest success stories is that of Agur Winery, which in 2007 did exceptionally well in a series of international tastings, from a Gold Medal in the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, another Gold at the prestigious Zarcillo competition. And the good news continues into 2009 with the inclusion for the first time of the Agur Winery in Hugh Johnson’s 2010 edition of his dependable Pocket Wine Book.
But one element in the Wine Spectator’s coverage is not quite correct, or was left out. Agur Winery has, in fact, additional owners, Rosa and Peter Schechter. From Mr. Schechter’s website.
“[...] Rosa and Peter are co-proprietors of Agur Winery in Israel. Situated next to Bet Shemesh in the beautiful Judean Hills between Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem, the area is designated by the Jewish Federation of Greater as Washington’s sister city. Shuki Yashuv, Agur’s winemaker, is Peter’s talented cousin. They have grown Agur in the past ten years from a garage winery into a blossoming, exporting winery with Gold and Silver Medals from prestigious wine competitions in Spain, USA, Argentina, Columbia, Panama and Israel.”
Who is Peter Schechter? In addition to being Agur Winery’s co-owner, Mr. Schechter has accomplished many other things. He is also a novelist of political thrillers, Virginia farmer, editorialist and a very successful Washington D.C. restauranteur. Indeed, he co-owns five D.C eateries. Again from Mr. Schechter’s website.
“Peter is also one of the founding owners of the celebrity chef, José Andrés’ DC food kingdom.”
For those interested in the very talented José Andrés, please see this.
But, (and here is where the rubber hits the road) Mr. Schechter is also one of the three founding partners of Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter, (CLS) a high-powered PR/lobbying firm headquartered in Washington D.C. CLS has been much in the news lately. They were recently hired by the Honduran military junta to improve its sullied international image following upon their coup of the Constitutionally-elected President, Manuel Zelaya. As The Hill reported on September 27th:
“According to Justice Department documents, the Honduran government signed Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter & Associates to a four-month contract worth more than $290,000. Filed on Sept. 18 with Justice by the public relations firm, the documents say the company will “advance the level of communication, awareness and media/policy maker attention about the political situation in Honduras.”
And again, from The Gov Monitor:
“The government of Honduras – referred to these days as ‘de facto,’ ‘interim’ or ‘illegitimate’ – is dealing with its public perception problem just like any tarnished ruling party would: by launching a PR campaign.
The interim government, installed after President Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a coup in June, has hired the Washington lobbyists Chlopak Leonard Schechter and Associates to sway policy makers’ opinions, The Hill reported last week. The nearly $300,000 contract was signed on Sept. 18. The lobbying firm – which has represented the governments of Brazil, Colombia, Nicaragua, Georgia and Serbia, among others – is tasked with advancing “the level of communication, awareness and media/policy maker attention about the political situation in Honduras.”
If you’ve missed this story of the first military coup in Latin America in many years, please read this October 7th story from the New York Times. It not a pleasant account, redolent as it is with the ugly politics the region thought it had put behind them.
CLS has also recently signed on to help shine the image of another controversial government, long-suffering Kenya. According to sources familiar with the contract, 1.7 million dollars will be paid out over the next two years dedicated to, in the words of the blog Muigwithania 2.0:
“[h]iring a firm to sanitize the [image of the] country when the country can’t feed its people; has wanting governance; can’t protect its citizens against crime; can’t supply electricity; can’t supply water and is selling parcels of land to multinationals is like washing a cup on the outside but leaving its inside dirty.” [word order slightly changed]
An interesting question emerges from Mr. Schechter’s discordant assemblage of commercial interests. Will the fortunes of Agur Winery continue to flourish, and that of the restaurants, or will public opprobrium leave Mr. Schechter very much in need of all the PR talent he can muster? It will be an instructive mis-en-scène to follow.
The FTC has issued new guidelines concerning endorsements and testimonials for the blogosphere, and the internet generally. Last updated in 1980, the new guidelines take a much needed step forward to include emergent social media on the internet. Though multifaceted, with respect to bloggers, the October 5th news release writes,
“The revised Guides [...] add new examples to illustrate the long standing principle that “material connections” (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers – connections that consumers would not expect – must be disclosed. These examples address what constitutes an endorsement when the message is conveyed by bloggers or other “word-of-mouth” marketers. The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service. Likewise, if a company refers in an advertisement to the findings of a research organization that conducted research sponsored by the company, the advertisement must disclose the connection between the advertiser and the research organization.”
For a fuller analysis of what this specifically means for bloggers we may turn to the FTC’s Endorsement Guides Notice itself.
“The Commission does not believe that all uses of new consumer-generated media to discuss product attributes or consumer experiences should be deemed “endorsements” within the meaning of the Guides. Rather, in analyzing statements made via these new media, the fundamental question is whether, viewed objectively, the relationship between the advertiser and the speaker is such that the speaker’s statement can be considered “sponsored” by the advertiser and therefore an “advertising message.” In other words, in disseminating positive statements about a product or service, is the speaker: (1) acting solely independently, in which case there is no endorsement, or (2) acting on behalf of the advertiser or its agent, such that the speaker’s statement is an “endorsement” that is part of an overall marketing campaign?
So how does one to distinguish between point 1 and point 2? Relevant facts would include:
” whether the speaker is compensated by the advertiser or its agent; whether the product or service in question was provided for free by the advertiser; the terms of any agreement; the length of the relationship; the previous receipt of products or services from the same or similar advertisers, or the likelihood of future receipt of such products or services; and the value of the items or services received. An advertiser’s lack of control over the specific statement made via these new forms of consumer-generated media would not automatically disqualify that statement from being deemed an “endorsement” within the meaning of the Guides.”
“Thus, a consumer who purchases a product with his or her own money and praises it on a personal blog or on an electronic message board will not be deemed to be providing an endorsement. 21″
Note 21 reads, in part,
“Even if that consumer receives a single, unsolicited item from one manufacturer and writes positively about it on a personal blog or on a public message board, the review is not likely to be deemed an endorsement, given the absence of a course of dealing with that advertiser (or others) that would suggest that the consumer is disseminating a “sponsored” advertising message.” (emphasis added)
However, page 10 is where it gets tricky.
“A blogger could receive merchandise from a marketer with a request to review it, but with no compensation paid other than the value of the product itself. In this situation, whether or not any positive statement the blogger posts would be deemed an “endorsement” within the meaning of the Guides would depend on, among other things, the value of that product, and on whether the blogger routinely receives such requests. If that blogger frequently receives products from manufacturers because he or she is known to have wide readership within a particular demographic group that is the manufacturers’ target market, the blogger’s statements are likely to be deemed to be “endorsements,” as are postings by participants in network marketing programs. Similarly, consumers who join word of mouth marketing programs that periodically provide them products to review publicly (as opposed to simply giving feedback to the advertiser) will also likely be viewed as giving sponsored messages. 22″
Note 22 reads,
“The fact that the participants technically might be free not to say anything about any particular product they receive through the program does not change the Commission’s view that positive statements would be deemed to be endorsements. The underlying purpose of these word of mouth marketing programs is to generate positive discussion about the advertiser’s products.”
The bottom line for the FTC (from pg. 11):
“[T]o the extent that consumers’ willingness to trust social media depends on the ability of those media to retain their credibility as reliable sources of information, application of the general principles embodied in the Guides presumably would have a beneficial, not detrimental, effect. And although industry self-regulation certainly can play an important role in protecting consumers as these new forms of marketing continue to evolve and new ones are developed, self-regulation works best when it is backed up by a strong law enforcement presence.”
Further, from pg. 39,
“The recent creation of consumer-generated media means that in many instances, endorsements are now disseminated by the endorser, rather than by the sponsoring advertiser. In these contexts, the Commission believes that the endorser is the party primarily responsible for disclosing material connections with the advertiser. However, advertisers who sponsor these endorsers (either by providing free products – directly or through a middleman – or otherwise) in order to generate positive word of mouth and spur sales should establish procedures to advise endorsers that they should make the necessary disclosures and to monitor the conduct of those endorsers. 79″
Note 79 reads,
“The Commission’s view that these endorsers have an obligation to disclose material connections with their sponsoring advertisers should not be seen as reflecting a desire on the part of the Commission either to deter consumers from sharing their views about products they like with others or as an indication the Commission intends to target consumer endorsers who use these new forms of consumer-generated media. As with traditional media, the Commission’s law enforcement activities will continue to focus on advertisers.”
This is a developing story. The precise implications for our community of wine bloggers is as yet unclear. But we can say:
1) Bloggers who routinely write about wines should disclose whether the wines have been purchased or given as samples by a distributor, agent, or winery.
2) The advertiser’s lack of control over the review is not sufficient to disqualify a blogger as an endorser of a product.
3) The blogger is primarily responsible for disclosing a material relation with distributors, agents and wineries when they have previously received similar products or services from a specific commercial entity or from multiple commercial entities, and when they are in the future likely to receive such products.
4) The vote was unanimous, 4-0. The Guidelines will take effect December 1st of this year.
“What is in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Just as Romeo and Juliet, the “star-cross’d” lovers, would learn, the awful truth is that a name, a proper name, is a difficult obstacles to overcome. In the wine world there is perhaps no better illustration of this truth than the erratic fortunes of Petite Sirah/Durif.
By now the story of the obscure French nurseryman/scientist Francois Durif and his namesake creation is well-known, as minimalist as it may be. The same few details are always repeated: Peloursin and Syrah, his ‘star-cross’d lovers’, were successfully, well, crossed in the late 19th century. But just as suddenly as the hybrid, Durif, came into existence it would be plunged into a long history of taxonomic instability, especially in California, that only DNA profiling in 1999 would undo.
Oz Clarke writes of Durif in his 2001 ed. of Encyclopedia of Grapes,
“The confusion in California seems to date from the 1920s, when officialdom lumped together Durif, Petite Sirah, Syrah and several other vines under the name of Petite Sirah.”
And just as often repeated is that the resulting wines made of the grape were disappointing.
“[I]t was originally grown in the south of France for its resistance to downy mildew – though not for its quality in any other respect. It produces coarse, rustic red wine and has virtually disappeared from French vineyards.” ibid.
Jancis Robinson from her 1986 ed. of Wine Grapes and Wine (infamously) noted,
“The name Durif means almost nothing to most wine drinkers, but its California synonym Petite Sirah is known to millions. [....] There is nothing particularly petite about it, and it has no connection whatsoever with the noble Syrah of the Rhone valley [...]. [I]t was quite clear that it had none of the noblesse of the Pinot family and was always regarded as a rather ordinary variety, producing wine to match.”
She sums up the grape with a sniff.
“Rigorous though unsubtle.”
Of course, they note a few exceptions, hedge their bets. Mr. Clarke writes,
“In Australia Durif is grown under its own name, and produces dry, solid, four-square wines in warm climates that supposedly age forever – though they’re so impenetrable to start with, what the evolve into I’ve never been able to wait long enough to see.” ibid.
Ms. Robinson gives this,
“Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards is an exponent of the variety as good, rigorous blending material for blowsier Zinfandels, but his is a keener appreciation than most. Perhaps it is simply, as so often the American case, a question of skillful marketing of the name.” ibid.
Fifteen years separate the two books! But it seems in the summer of 2009 Ms. Robinson found at long last a Petite Sirah she likes.
“As for Middleton’s Clayhouse Petite Sirah Paso Robles, I tasted it blind in San Diego, and take back all those nasty things I said (yet never wrote) about California Petite Sirah. Too many of them are rustic, massively tannic, tooth-enamel-stripping monsters, from which I derive no pleasure. Yet the Clayhouse PS is something special, not just to me, but to most of the other Critics Challenge judges (all journalists of some renown), who collectively chose it the best wine of the competition.”
There are two rather large curiosities about the appraisals of both Clarke and Robinson. Clarke says that the wines made from the grape are “coarse and rustic”, but also that Australian bottlings exist that “supposedly live forever”, wines he implies he shall never live long enough to drink. Robinson draws a similar contrast between ordinary, rustic and “the best wine of the competition”.
What can be made of this tension? I suggest at least four elements are at work.
1) There have never existed significant European expressions Petite Sirah/Durif bottlings from diverse terroirs to provide guidance to critics as to what the grape can do.
2) There has been no sustained inquiry into Petite Sirah/Durif clones; neither has it been established from which Syrah and Peloursin clones Durif was originally hybridized.
3) Petite Sirah/Durif may well prove to be especially sensitive to terroir.
4) The highest quality expressions of the grape have long aging potential.
Of the first element, it is hardly surprising that the arbiters of an elusive ‘noblesse’ in wine be from Great Britain. Much of French wine-making history, from Champagne to Bordeaux, has historically been linked with British taste and with long-standing cultural exchange. Indeed, it has often been observed that early skirmishes between the American Robert Parker and some British critics were likely motivated in part by irritation with Parker’s interference in this history.
The story is far more complex, of course, but my point is that absent French examples of Petite Sirah/Durif British critics have not known what to make of purely American expressions.
The truth of the second element, the absence of research into clones, is clearly stated in the 2003 ed. of Wine Grape Varieties in California, published by the U. of California, Ag. and Natural Resources,
“Little, if any, clonal research has been done on this variety. The only selection currently registered is listed as Petite Sirah FPS 03. The old Napa Valley selection is currently in the virus testing and virus therapy process.”
That Petite Sirah/Durif may be sensitive to terroir is borne out by numerous tastings of varietal bottlings, including a recent event at Concannon hosted by the advocacy group PS, I Love You and one held just last week by Tom Merle of the Bay Area Wine Society. There is simply no credible explanation for the wild variety of expressions apart from that of experimental terroirs (and quite likely, clonal distinctions).
Of the fourth element, this last one hints at a difficulty not easily resolved in California. That of the aging potential of Petite Sirah/Durif. If we might agree with Oz Clarke about long-lived Australian expressions, and if we agree, again citing Wine Grape Varieties in California, “Durif produces full-bodied, red table wine with deep color and long aging potential”, what is a state that produces millions and millions of gallons of easy-drinking wine to do?
What if it were to turn out through on-going plantings from Lodi to Mendocino, from Paso Robles to Dry Creek, from high in the Red Hills of Lake county to the Santa Clara Valley, that somewhere in California could be found the finest place to grow the grape? Will we abandon the best it has to offer, potentially a world standard; will we sacrifice aging potential for the short sell?
I would like to introduce a 5th element. Years ago, but within living memory, California used to enjoy what we now know to be historically correct field blends, but also simple mixes of vines in a vineyard, mixes of unknown clones, vines identified by shared taxonomic characteristics alone, or simply through the intimacies of grower and plant. That all changed with the advertisement-driven emergence of consumer preference for varietal labeling. Endless acres of mixed vines were grubbed up for a single grape variety.
It does not follow, however, that there was, as Oz Clarke states, pervasive ‘confusion’ over Petite Sirah/Durif’s proper identification all those years ago, any more than there was confusion about what were precisely the numerous Italian varieties in a given field-blend. I would suggest that there must have also existed a difference, equally important, in grower philosophy, a philosophy which was not interested in the varietal ‘purity’ of its vineyard.
But that is another story.
For an earlier effort of mine please see this.