It is with great pleasure and humility that I announce the US premier of the my documentary Mother Vine at the Santa Rose International Film Festival this Friday, September 16th. As some regular readers know, Mother Vine it is a deep and abiding testament of love for the country of Portugal and her wines. The documentary, however, concentrates of what we may generally call historical wines, by which is meant wines not only of considerable antiquity with respect to their production techniques and use of indigenous varieties, but also wines of a decidedly out-of-time character and taste. One definition requires another…
It is often observed that modern winery technology, including but not limited to micro-oxygenation, acidification, industrially manufactured yeast strains, and modern vineyard practices such as longer hang time, canopy configuration, synthetic fertilizers, irrigation etc, have all conspired to produce, as if by some unseen hand, wines of considerable uniformity, homogeneity, wines tasting of what is called ‘the international style’, essentially of the obese, ponderous taste profile of Coca Cola and Sno-Cone syrups. Broadly speaking, the observation, rarely polite, insists that it has become increasingly difficult for even the most practiced palates to discriminate between a Cabernet from Napa and one from Argentina, from Australia; a Grenache from Spain and one from Southern Rhone or from Paso Robles. The Anything But Chardonnay movement has such a recognition at its core. Through homogenizing viticultural and enological practices are wines more commonly made with a uniformity of flavor it is supposed consumers demand. The biggest loser? Terroir is ultimately disfigured, then lost by modern winery and vineyard manipulations. Just taste widely and one can easily see this is more often the case than not. After all, a Mac Donald’s cheeseburger tastes the same in Los Angeles, Dallas, Paris, France, Manila and Hong Kong. QED.
Setting aside the alternately dull and fascinating complexities of all of the above, we may nevertheless say without fear of contradiction, that consumers are restless. The wine cognoscenti is restless. Marketers are nervous. A glance at the rapid rise in intellectual celebrity of so-called ‘natural wines tells us as much. Difference, distinction, singular and unique, character, this is the new nomenclature of innovative, creative winemakers.
Among Mother Vine’s many salient observations is that Portugal has been at the forefront of precisely this difference for generations. It is only now that the rest of the world is catching up. Of her nearly 300 indigenous varieties, her Atlantic terroirs, her bewildering range of local expressions, only now is Portugal receiving the first tentative knocks on her door of the international attention the country truly deserves. And Mother Vine’s greatest ambition is to kick the door down.
Great thanks to Jose Pastor Selections for their generous assistance in supplying wines for the tasting scheduled after tomorrow’s showing. The list:
— Arenae Colares DOC 2004 RED Ramisco
— Arenae Colares DOC 2006 WHITE Malvasia
— Los Bermejos Diego 2010 ( White ) Lanzarote (Canary Islands)
— Los Bermejos Malvasia Dulce NV Solera ( Sweet ) Lanzarote (Canary Islands)
— Fronton de Oro 2009 Tradicional Red- Gran Canarias (Canary Islands)
— Monje Hollera Maceracion Carbonica 2010 Red- Tenerife (Canary Islands)
I hope to see you at 5 p,m. at the Summerfield Cinemas, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa.
Rodrigo has NASCAR ambitions. This I discovered as he drove a narrow road off N221, over the mountains to Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo in the Douro DOC sub-region of Cima Corgo. But his talent for automotive speed and agility would surely be wasted at Daytona where the unofficial mantra is “Turn Left!” With his wife Joana Mesquita — scientifically trained, she works public relations for Amorim & Irmãos — in the passenger seat and yours truly excitedly leaning forward from the back, Rodrigo maintained the delicate balance between skill and risk. Besides, on most rural back roads of Portugal, not to mention city centers, there is hardly ever enough room for opposing traffic. And median striping is a perpetually deferred ambition.
I was in Portugal, first in Porto, then in Lisbon, at the generous invitation of APCOR, the Portuguese Cork Association. I had spent two enlightening days listening to and learning from scientists on the cutting edge of cork production and TCA control — very good news on this latter front — on cork oak research and industrial design; and from cork harvesters. I was also there to shoot a small film on cork from cradle to grave, the footage soon be edited. All of this will be the subject of a series of posts to come.
The upshot is that I was, to be perfectly honest, a bit fatigued by the multiple cork-saturated conversations! But I knew going in to the wonderful country, shoulder to shoulder with my APCOR colleagues — and they are my colleagues, cork fundamentalist that I am — that I would be taken to Quinta Nova. Oddly, despite my more than half dozen visits to Portugal, including the Azores, during which I travelled extensively shooting for the documentaries Mother Vine and Azores, From Lava To Wine, I had never set foot in the mountains and hills above the serene Douro River. The intellectual division of labor being what it is, I left the demanding, historically complex subject of Port, and the Douro DOC generally, to others. So I really had no idea what to expect as Rodrigo motored ever higher up into the mountains.
How to put this…. If you have never skipped across the mountain tops above the Douro then you must add it to your list of things to do before you shed this mortal coil. Passing over the summit, with the late afternoon sun spilling into the valley, on the hillside the Quinta Nova sign in warm ivory light, the vista was breathtaking. Slow and deep, the Douro River, even from a distance, is the artery of life here. In many of Portugal’s wine regions it is rain fall and aquifers upon which winegrowers and all agriculturalists depend. But here the steep watershed, terraced with vines as far as the eye can see, receives back what it gives. Water.
Indeed, though a non-believer, a contemplative spiritual mood was right away cast upon my arrival on the high grounds of Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo (Our Lady of Mount Carmel). Not only may one vacation here, but there stands a chapel on the property of great local significance. Catholic services as well as religious festivals are regularly held in the modest refuge. It stands directly across from the Quinta’s formal entrance. Far cooler air surrounded me upon entering, and I saw pools of wax and blackened wicks from the many spent candles and wooden pews smoothed by thousands of visitors and penitents. In a vase on the altar a bouquet of fading flowers still faintly perfumed the room.
I also noted right away what must be an on-going, if minor, tension between worshipper and the more secular tourist. Of the small framed lithographs of the 14 stations of the cross evenly spaced on the walls, two had been stolen by persons unknown: Jesus’ death on the cross, #12, and his removal from the cross, #13. They lithographs are of particular artistic merit. Measuring 3×5 inches, the remaining illustrations rather resemble old American baseball cards from the 30s. I do not know what would possess (no pun intended) an individual to perpetrate such an act; I left the chapel wanting to know the whys.
Magic hour was deepening, a film business term for that special light that lingers near the end of the day, when the sun’s brightness yields to the thicker atmosphere above the horizon. My guide, Joana Mesquite, knowing of emotive quality of magic hour had hardly put her luggage away, and I mine, when she insisted I walk with her to a place quite she quite loves. Just a little climb up a dusty road to an walled orchard of great antiquity. I shall mention now that Ms. Mesquite was eight months pregnant and was wearing casual shoes better for poolside or domestic routines. But she was not the least bit concerned as we set out on the quarter mile hike. All up.
Near the orchard stood a granite obelisk about four feet high engraved with the nearly three century-old official proclamation issued from the Marques de Pombal granting Quinta Nova permission to grow and produce wine — an obelisk and engraving typically found on the grounds of the older Douro DOC properties. I stood with Ms. Mesquita as she patiently narrated a sketch of the Quinta, her enduring love of the vineyards and house, her voice often trailing off as she reflected on the beauty of the place. It was then I heard, well, nothing. The silence high above the Quinta, and throughout Portugal for that matter, is the most intimate I’ve ever known, almost like the breathing of a lover. For when I pause to listen, really listen, it is not silence I hear at all, but the delicate atmospherics of our ancient belonging in this world. Birdsong, cockerels, barking dogs, children’s voices….
To freshen up, rinse the fine dust from my hair, I went to my room overlooking the valley. I was to meet Joana and Rodrigo for dinner in an hour or so. I wasted no time — the internet is available only upstairs via a computer shared by all lodgers — in returning outside, now to the grand plaza where, at a modest remove, a couple quietly swam the pool, and nearer me, two children played between regal junipers running the plaza’s length. I sat gazing at the vista, enthralled. At some point a young local hireling was passing (regular help is hard to find, so remote is the Quinta). Diogo works the kitchen and dining room I was soon to learn. I silently gestured to him with a sweeping motion at the stunning view. He looked out and then lay his cupped hands over his chest, moving them as though his heart were beating rapturously. Perfect.
Solitude. Landscapes have different effects and acoustics. There is the melancholy and longing at an ocean’s tideline, a roar that drowns out speech; the flirtation with domination and mastery on the summits of higher mountains, the echo; mind-numbing monotony of a forest of lodge pole pine; deserts offer a terrible featureless beauty; while a jungle runs riot with fertility, ever-pregnant with more and more and more. Then there is the view from Quinta Nova. Something Ms. Mesquita said to me near the orchard stuck in my brain. Some time ago an Italian visitor looked out from the same spot and exactly described what goes on here and in the Douro DOC overall: Heroic Viticulture. Yes, this landscape is one of labor, of work. All of it hard. The steep hillsides, the hammering heat, a dust that penetrates the very pores of your boots; yes, it is a landscape of a magnificent human achievement.
A heady delirium at the vast terraced landscape may set your mind soaring, but the understanding its creation and maintenance by generations of calloused hands brings you right back down. And this would be a good development for the wine tourist, were it ever to happen. Because thought properly, labor has a beauty all its own, even if from within the wine world, with its bottle and label fetishes (among others), one rarely hears anything of it. So understand what was subtracted from the silence I listened to above: The murmur of vineyard workers, their footfalls, pruning shears rasping.
After a fine dinner of Portuguese specialities, with even better company and conversation, Rodrigo and Joana, our silent waiter, Diogo, I wandered the pitch black grounds before turning in. Millions of stars. Ms. Mesquita had explained to me precisely where the sun would be rising this time of year. For the next morning, still dark, I did get up for a long walk deep into the vineyards to meet and film precisely the dawn. But the mountains were too proximate, too dense. The sky had already turned a lighter blue before the sun had even summited. All of Quinta Nova’s cooler north-western sloped vineyards, the trail I took, were in pastel from first light, while across the river other vineyards were already broadsided by a harsh sun, which set the windows of the odd house there flashing.
Below me I saw a helipad. At dinner last night it had been explained to me that though as the crow flies no town is too far away, it is that the kilometers must be traveled by car. So given the arduous climbs in all directions a tourist can enjoy, it was decided that in the event of a medical emergency a helicopter ought to be able to fly in. Helipad. Pausing here and there to film some severe planted incline, my thoughts again turned to the tremendous amount of work involved here. I noted a curious thing. The dust was inches deep in places on all the level trails and roads. I sunk in and my boots became covered — and probably even now still have fine Quinta Nova silt now well worked into the leather. It can be tiring walking in such silt! Then I saw the foot prints of local dogs in the tractor tracks left by its heavy wheels. So I took to hiking after their fashion. Much easier! I explored for nearly two hours. Two hours of brilliant peace and quiet.
When I returned I packed what little I had removed from my bags, added a Quinta well designed notepad and the small bottles of shampoo, one of which I had actually opened. I was to return to Porto mid-day. Upstairs the well-appointed kitchen the Quinta was in full swing. A group of European tourists had rented out all of the rooms and would be arriving later that afternoon. Much preparation had to be done, of fresh sauces, fruits, and marinades . I listened to the playful conversations, about shared lives, not isolated exactly, but chaste and chosen; of the successful dinner preparation the night before; of whose tractor needed work; who had recently fallen in or out of love.
I took a few pictures. Tried to keep out of the way as I waited to be called to go. But this was among my favorite experiences at Quinta Nova. Not the dramatic history, the magnificent vineyard and mountain vistas, the riot of stars, or Rodrigo’s thrilling drive here — they were memorable and I have safely tucked them away — but it was these playful conversations, discrete, demure, occasionally bawdy, that drove home the real meaning of a stay at Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo: The persistence of the domestic, the filling of everyday with small tasks well done. For that too is heroic.
Summer’s end has come and as the northern year slips towards shorter days and colder nights it’s time for my monthly roundup of the greater wine world and my miniscule corner of it.
Wine News: South Africa hit the headlines for the wrong reasons with the release of a report from Human Rights Watch, an international non-government organisation. The detailed report, entitled “Ripe with Abuse” is based on research conducted between September 2010 and May 2011 in the Western Cape, where most of South Africa’s wine industry is based. The reading is grim, with claims of appalling living conditions for farm workers, unsafe practices at work, including pesticide exposure, and institutionalised discrimination of farm workers. It ends with a comprehensive list of recommendations to the SA Government Departments and Industry organisations, but also for international retailers and consumers to (amongst other things);
*** “put pressure on suppliers to improve … conditions”
*** “ Inquire into the conditions on farms that grow the products they purchase”.
*** “Push retailers to only purchase from farms with (ethical) working conditions”.
The take home message for consumers is pragmatic, “The answer is not to boycott South African products, because that could be disastrous for farmworkers”.
News of the report and its obviously negative description of sectors of the South African wine industry quickly spread through the International media and was picked up by bloggers and social networks. In counterpoint Wines of South Africa (WOSA) questioned bias in the report and defended the effectiveness of Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association (WIETA) and other organisations in actually improving conditions across the country’s Wine Industry.
Interestingly, within a week of the news, I saw two unrelated and markedly more positive pieces on South African winemaking; first in the Guardian with its piece A fairer Cape – the rise of South Africa’s black winemakers, which references the HRW report but states “there is a wind of change blowing through the staunchly Afrikaner wine business.”; then on Palate Press with How the Swartland Crew is Bringing Up South African Wine. Both paint a more upbeat view of South Africa, different sides of the coin.
The end of the month also saw terrible weather in Northern Europe, with massive hailstorms in the Middle Mosel which hit on Friday 26th. “Golf ball” sized lumps of ice damaged houses and cars in areas around Wehlen, Filzen, Lieser, Kinheim, Maring-Noviand, Brauneberg, Wintrich, Mülheim, Veldenz, Bernkastel-Keus, Graach, Neiderberg, Zeltingen and Kröv. Apparently there was also hail damage farther afield in Rheinhessen and Baden, although other Mosel areas such as Ürzig and Erden were spared, as were the Saar and Ruwer. Video of the ferocity of the storms can be seen on a host of YouTube uploads (search for Mosel + Hagel).
With traditional media slow to pick up on the weekend story twitter proved its worth with updates from those near to the affected areas. This allowed Reign of Terroir’s own twitter feed (@ReignofTerroir) to put out regular updates, including news that; Christian Klein in Kröv feared the loss of half his harvest; Johannes Selbach in Zeltingen was expecting 40% crop loss; Willi Schaefer in Gaach feared the loss of 50% of his fruit and his new warehouse. Whilst actual vine damage was shocking the risk of rot is now a bigger concern as the 2011 harvest starts in earnest.
The mainstream media finally caught up on the 31st with Adam Lechmere’s Decanter piece “Hailstorms decimate Mosel“, although few others seem to rate the damage to some of the world’s greatest white wine vineyards as worthy of a report.
Many thanks to @DREI_Riesling, @moselriesling, @larscarlberg, @Eurocentric, @RieslingandI and @RieslingAC for those first reports, and to Gismondi on Wine for the first written piece.
Thankfully it seems that Hurricane Irene was more gentle on East Coast vineyards with the exception of a small amount of tornado damaged at Paumanok Vineyards, as reported by Lenn Thompson on the New York Cork Report.
Elsewhere the European Harvest may be underway (although a cool July meant not as early as previously anticipated) but for California, and Napa especially, it was still a waiting game for the grapes to ripen, as reported in the Napa Valley Register.
The recurring “100pts system, right or wrong” debate reared its head again, with Steve Heimoff and Jon Bonné adding lengthy pieces to the portfolio. I preferred Jancis Robinson’s two word response (no, not those two words!) in the all-too-brief Tom Wark interview on Fermentation.
Also raising controversy (mainly on the various Wine Bulletin Boards in the UK and US) was news of a $15,000 lecture fee for Jay Miller’s recent tour of Navarra, Spain, first blogged by Jim Budd and then Chris Kissack. A UK wine forum debated a $15K payout raising doubts of independence and objectivity, while one US forum briefly debated the information and seemed to be more forgiving. eRobertParker’s own boards suffered again from the heavy handedness of its administrator with an allegedly vocal discussion being locked before it got too outspoken, even though its behind a subscription pay wall where you’d think the participants would be allowed some freedom of speech.
And finally for the news we turn to internet wine maestro Gary Vaynerchuk, who announced his retirement from regular video wine blogging on the last DailyGrape piece, less than 6 months after Wine Library TV’s 1000 show. It didn’t come as a surprise as most people are amazed he lasted so long in the first place, with the overwhelming feedback positive and congratulatory for the impact Vaynerchuk has made over the last 5+ years. Although I’ve been only an infrequent watcher for the last couple of years I saw a part of my own wine life disappear in that final episode, as it was “The Vaynermeister” who led me to the WLTV forums in 2007 where I started my rough-and-ready education to internet wine writing. No doubt Gary will reappear in the future, but I found it quite emotional when he finished with a variation on his trademark sign-off “You, with such a smaller part of me than you realise, we have changed the wine world”.
North East wine: “Enough about the rest of the world” I hear you yell, “What about North East England?” Hush, hush I say, here come the tales of my small corner of Wineland!
August was relatively eventful, starting with the news that we will be having a regional Wine Festival, just not the one we were expecting! After the success of the 2010 North East Wine Festival in Corbridge over a sunny June weekend I know there was a strong intention from the organisers to carry the momentum through to 2011 with the same event planned for June. Sadly that never materialised with, as far as I can tell, a combination of factors (including illness) meaning it was first postponed and then cancelled completely. Luckily for wine lovers in the region whatever was going on in the background seems to have resulted in a completely new event rising from the ashes, with the 2011 Northumbria Food and Wine Festival announced over the weekend of 7th, 8th and 9th October. The format looks to be the same, with local retailers, pop up restaurants, music and a smattering of educational talks over the 2 and a half days. All that we need now is an Indian Summer to appear, as October is traditionally one of the wettest months in our famously wet country!
August NEWTS was a delightful evening wandering amongst some of the weird and wonderful grape varieties available in the UK. Fellow member Elaine presented a range of 9 wines, mostly from The Wine Society and Waitrose, made with Malagousia, Pecorino, Godello, Rotgiplfer, St. Laurent, Susumaniello, Xinomavro, Saperavi and Negroamaro.
All were enjoyable, but it was Heinrich Hartl’s complex 2008 Rotgiplfer, Racemi’s value for money Susumaniello (the Torre Guaceto Sum 2007) and Orovela’s restrained 2004 Saperavi which grabbed my attention. Additional details can be found on my North East Wino blog, “A most Unusual Tasting” Part I and Part II.
Richard Granger Fine Wines also had an August tasting, this time of Aromatic Whites with a starting glass of Sauvignon Blanc to bed in the taste-buds, 3 Riesling, 2 each of Pinot Gris and Viognier, and a rich Gewürztraminer to close the event. Domaines Schlumberger in Alsace was the Old World standard bearer with a Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer from their classic Les Princes Abbés range, each showing typical varietal characteristics and all very drinkable. There was also a traditional, off-dry Bernkasteler Badstube 2007 Riesling by Mosel producer Dr H. Thanisch and the superb (if expensive, at £34.20) Domaine Louis Chèze 2008 Pagus Luminus Condrieu with fresh complexity and a pleasant salty aspect. In comparison the New World match-ups were less memorable, although the Crawford River 2005 Riesling from Victoria, Australia, stood out with its sharp acidity, elegant strength and smooth finish. It’s rare to attend an exclusively white wine tasting but I’d love to see more such themed events as none in the room showed any signs of red withdrawal symptoms!
Of course a visit to Richard Granger wouldn’t be the same without adding to my collection and I left with the Schlumberger 2007 Gewürztraminer plus an unusual Loire Cabernet Franc that I spied on the shelves, the Couly-Dutheil Blanc de Franc. This is a “white” Cabernet Franc made without skin contact but also against the Chinon Appellation rules, meaning it can’t even display the vintage on the label, but it’s exactly this sort of wine that intrigues me and guaranteed that I’d be taking a bottle home.
These two bottles added to the meagre purchases for the rest of the month, including what should be my last (of three) Château Musar 2003 (time to plan for the 2004 now) and an older Marlborough Pinot Noir from Wither Hills, their 2005 Wairau Valley which was a bin-end at a local supermarket.
Home drinking was less exciting with a batch of inoffensive but equally unmemorable quaffers. A pair of Rioja wines by Izadi had some character; the 2008 white a barrel fermented blend of 80% Vuira and 20% Malvasia; the 2006 red a fruity Crianza , 100% Tempranillo with a classic flavour profile, but it was an Australian Riesling that gave most drinking pleasure, the Tim Adams 2006 Clare Valley Riesling. This complex wine had razor sharp acidity, fresh citrus flavours and a dash of petrochemical which I love on a Riesling with a little bottle age.
Cellar Trivia: Tim Adams wines are only available in the UK from corporate behemoth Tesco, which got me looking at how much of my current stash came from that area of the wine trade regarded by many segments of the wine cognoscenti as the evil empire of retailing – Supermarkets. I am a firm believer that it is still possible to get hold of a decent bottle of wine whilst doing the weekly grocery shop, with one in three of my bottles rescued from a supermarket shelf. What surprised me a little was the average price working out at £10.83 ($17.50) – although if you drop M&S and Waitrose from the calculations that does fall to £9.54 ($15.50) – proof that it’s not all cut-throat price promotions and bulk brands. However, what surprised me even more was looking at the other two thirds, sourced mainly from independent retailers, and seeing the average price jump to £16.11 ($26) – far removed from what the majority of UK supermarket consumers would consider paying except on the most special of occasions.
Looking Forward: So to September, the start of a new season and that crazy month for grape growers and winemakers alike. It is also California Wine Month as proclaimed by Governor Jerry Brown, the seventh year a month has been dedicated to the California Wine Industry – a list of coinciding events is available from the website.
- September 10th & 11th is Portland’s Pinot in the City with over 100 Willamette Valley wineries and local restaurants hosting food and wine experiences on one city block (NW 9th and Marshall).
- September 23rd – 25th sees the (Trade Only) 10th Miami International Wine Fair with wine producers from over 20 countries showcasing their wines to retailers, distributors and restaurants, including the 7th annual Florida International Wine Challenge.
- 23rd September sees another “Grape Day”, hot on the heels of Tempranillo and Cabernet we now have Grenache Day. Unlike 2010, when The Grenache Symposium managed the event, it’s been difficult to see the guiding hand behind this year’s date. I know many in the industry dislike such contrived days as a marketing ploy, but I don’t mind having an excuse to open a decent bottle of wine, especially for such a soft, fruity, easy to drink grape!