I don’t normally go out of my way to write about any particular winery, but I was introduced to these wines several years ago and EVERY bottle I have tasted since has ranged from very good to spectacular. Disclosure: I have NOT been paid by any winery, broker, or distributor regarding this article.
This winery has a few different labels: Vina Alberdi, Vina Ardanza, Vina Arana and the flagship Gran Reservas – 890 & 904. The Alberdi has a street value of about $20-25 and the Ardanza and Arana are any where from $35 to $45/750ml. I have tasted the Ardanza and Arana in the past. Also beautiful wines, but different due to the varying varietal blends and the different aging profiles of Reserva and Gran Reserva. These other two wines represent outstanding value with exceptional quality too. The last two are much more expensive and represent their premium tier. If your not familiar with the Spanish aging classification system, see this link for an explanation: Spanish Wine Classification System.
I am done with over-extracted, high-alcohol fruit bombs from the Napa Valley floor and have moved up to the Napa mountain locations. I am also finding that Bordeaux is now going down that path too. In the past, I was able to find reasonably priced Bordeaux wines that were dependably lighter in body, but lately, not as much. This has led to too much wine poured down the drain. So, when I find wines like this, I want to share the info with other Old World style wine enthusiasts. This winery is no new player on the scene (established in 1890) and if any of you have explored Spanish wines, you will have run across them. I wanted to post this piece, because I feel it is my duty to amplify the word about cooler climate style wines, as they are not always easy to find in the U.S. On that topic, I usually prefer Spanish wines from the North-Western Rioja region, but especially the Rioja Alta around the Oja River Valley where the vineyards have some elevation. If you like more structure (especially acidity), keep an eye out. 2,000-3,000 ft. with a southern exposure is a good place to start. Much higher in this area and the fruit does not ripen properly.
I am rating this wine a bit higher than others, likely due to my preference for bright, fresh fruit. I am not a big fan of red wines with candied, jammy, or stewed fruit flavors. In particular, those wines that are strong with black currant, prune, or fig type flavors.
(I have discontinued my practice of scoring wines. Now, I rate wines as: poor, barely drinkable, drinkable, superior and excellent.)
2018 Vina Alberdi Crianza (Labeled Reserva in the U.S.)
Variety: 100% Tempranillo
Region: Rioja, Sub-Region: Rioja Alta
Tasting Note: Aromatic nose of sweet, fresh red fruit, oak, vanilla and earth. The wine is medium bodied, with high acidity and med+ soft tannin. Fruit-forward palate of fresh red and black cherry, black tea and olive tapenade, but not overly extracted. Mid-palate introduces the vanilla and oak and moves to a long earthy finish. Very well made and nicely balanced. Plenty of structure to pair well with red meat and red sauces, but fruit-forward enough to handle lighter fair such as pork, or cream sauces. This is still a young wine and could handle another 3-5 years of bottle age to integrate the oak more… and will improve. If you enjoy Old World style structure in a lighter bodied wine without overwhelming alcohol, at this price… this wine could easily be your go-to.
My personal history with L’Aventure goes back to the first winery visit in 2007, when my wife and I were blown away by the amazing balance and elegance Stephen Asseo (winemaker) was able to achieve with these crazy big Southern Rhone style wines. At over 16% (sometimes 17%) alcohol fruit bombs, he was somehow able to get just the right balanced mix of fruit, structure and alcohol to make it all work… and they were fabulous. The Estate Cuvee is the winery’s flagship wine and almost always a mix of the best estate Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot in varying percentages, depending on vintage. Asseo was one of the first few in Paso to experiment with eliminating filtering/fining and the wines almost always have that opulent mouth-filling feel. This label is aged in 100% new french oak, integrating better in some vintages than others.
Scoring and Tasting Method
I am done with the attempt to achieve a fair systematic scoring method. So, I will continue to follow the WSET/UC Davis process, but I am done with both the 100 AND 20 point systems. Moving forward, I will only be rating (not scoring) wines with a simple five tier description: Poor, Barely Drinkable, Drinkable, Superior and Excellent. The basis of these ratings will be: balance, fruit character, acid/tannin and sugar/alcohol levels. I will always comment when appropriate on specific characteristics, such as harvest timing, winemaking style, cellaring potential, etc.
2013 – 2017 Vintages
I opened these bottles for a group of friends two hours in advance of the tasting, decanted and returned them to the bottle prior to serving. I poured a personal tasting to write my notes prior to the group arriving. I also opened a 2014 L’Aventure Cote-a-Cote as a comparison. All of the Estate Cuvee wines were generally similar in flavors, so I will not get too detailed with the notes. All of the wines generally tasted of blackberry and black currant fruit and had both high tannin and acid (surprising after the years of bottle age). The differences were primarily in character and balance. After developing first impressions, it became clear, these wines were NOT meant for cellaring. On release, I had thought there was plenty of structure to lay these wines down in my cellar, but I was mistaken and I will tell you why after I provide the tasting notes.
This wine had a very weak nose, with no fruit apparent. On the palate, it was slightly fruit-forward. The mid-palate was complex with savory leather, black tea and dark chocolate. The finish was medium+ in length. The alcohol was a big piece of the profile, but not completely overwhelming. The oak was well-integrated. After nine years in the bottle, the tannin and acid were still both high.
Aromatic fruity blackberry nose. On the palate, it was slightly fruit-forward. The mid-palate was a bit simpler than the 2013, but similar. The finish was medium+ in length. The alcohol was big. The oak showed a bit too much, but was reasonably integrated. The wine filled the mouth more than the 2013.
Medium fruity blackberry nose. On the palate, it was slightly fruit-forward. The mid-palate was the simpler leather and dark chocolate profile. The finish was long in length. The alcohol was overwhelming. The oak dominated the wine with very strong vanilla and brown butter flavors. The wine texture was very mouth-filling. The oak did not integrate at all in this vintage and this wine was enjoyed the least by us and our guests.
This wine had a weak nose. On the palate, it was slightly fruit-forward. The mid-palate was the simpler leather and dark chocolate profile. The finish was long in length. The alcohol was big. The oak showed a bit too much, but was reasonably integrated. The big mouthfeel was here too.
The nose was all alcohol, overwhelming any other character. On the palate, it was fruit-forward with blackberry, black currant and black plum. The mid-palate was all savory with leather, black tea and dark chocolate. The finish was very long. The alcohol was a big piece of the profile, but not completely overwhelming. The oak showed a bit too much, with nice sweet vanilla and was reasonably integrated.
2014 L’Aventure Cote-a-Cote
This is L’Aventure’s Grenache dominated Southern Rhone blend (GSM), with: Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah – percentages usually in that order. By the time we reached this wine, the group was a couple hours into the tasting and this wine was very welcome. It was very aromatic on the nose and the palate was fruit-forward, layered and balanced. The oak was very well integrated. The mouthfeel was wonderful: elegant and silky. This label handled the 8 years of bottle age extremely well. A very enjoyable and impressive bottling.
When we tasted these wines on release, they all seemed to have enough structure (tannin/acid) to age well, but the balance presenting on release did not last well. The big fruit flavors when bottled dissipated too quickly, changing many of these Estate Cuvee wines into a disjointed jumble after five years. The other challenging element seemed to be integrating all that new oak. In some vintages showing well, in others not so much. I would not suggest holding the Estate Cuvee wines more than five years and would guess, three years would be better. Finally, it is clear the Cote-a-Cote and Optimus bottlings respond better to bottle aging and the one we tasted on this night was excellent!
New Communes (sub-regions) Established by Statute in Italy
The trend in Italy the last two years has been to establish new wine sub-regions in existing wine areas. Historic Sangiovese wine growing regions are being significantly impacted. I have not explored Sangiovese in this kind of depth before, outside of Montalcino (Brunello, Sangiovese clone). Certainly, nothing like the effort I have put into Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. These recent changes in Italian wine laws had me wondering: could there be enough unique wine character from Sangiovese to justify this many new sub-regions in Central Italy?
Can Italian Terroir Produce Sangiovese Wines Different Enough to Justify The Changes?
I decided to investigate this idea with a group of wine collector friends I meet with regularly. In the beginning of the year, I began looking through all the U.S. wine auctions trying to find 10 year old Sangiovese wines from various Italian regions outside of Montalcino (Brunello). To give this a fair evaluation, 10 years of bottle age seemed as if it might be close to the optimum drinking window for these wines. I wanted to taste the best potential versions of these wines for the comparison. While doing the research, I found a couple of U.S. made Sangiovese wines from respected producers and thought it would be fun to add these to the comparison. The tasting was held in my home just this last weekend and produced interesting results. There were a few disagreements across the group, but generally our impressions were similar enough. Here are my notes and scoring in the order of my best score first. I did not take detailed tasting notes, but did record my overall impressions.
Nobile di Montepulciano – Montepulciano Region, Italy
#1) 2012 Avignonesi Grandi Annate – 94/100 pts
This region is just east of Montalcino. Don’t get it confused with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. That is a completely different region and grape variety. Through history, this area has been well-known for the quality of its wine production, often just called “Nobile”. Thomas Jefferson mentioned this area as his favorite wine region.
This was very near a great wine, quality on the order of the bordeaux style wines produced nearby in Bolgheri. It was nicely balanced, with fruit, acidity and tannin in roughly equal measure. Just enough fruit to enjoy on its own and just enough acid/tannin to work paired with foods. It was not big and structured like many of the Chianti area wines I have tasted. It had a lighter feel with a perceived finesse. The flavor profile was typical Sangiovese red cherry, but only slightly tart. This was an impressive effort for a 100% Sangiovese. This wine could make you believe Sangiovese deserves a place as one of the world’s great varietals.
Radda – Chianti Classico Region, Italy
#2) 2011 San Giusto a Rentennano Percarlo – 93/100
This is one of the better-known Sangiovese labels, from one of the most respected Chianti Classico wineries. 100% Sangiovese from the selected best fruit of the Tuscany region. This is not your typical Chianti Classico wine. 30+ day maceration, 30+ day ferment in concrete tanks, 20+ months in French oak barrels and 18+ months in bottle in the producer’s cellar. 3.5+ years before release… That attention to detail built an excellent wine, if not a wine that could carry the DOCG label. This wine is a definite example of why Italian IGT does NOT mean an inferior wine. Not sure the value was as special, but the wine was excellent and another great example of what Sangiovese wine can be in the right hands.
This was a very similar wine to #1 above, but not quite as refined. The finesse was evident here too, but not quite the same mouth-feel and therefore one point less.
This was the surprise of the evening for me. Over 60% Sangio, 20% Merlot and a few percent of these: Canaiolo, Colorino, Petit Verdot. This area is viewed as “up and coming” and is just Southwest of Montalcino. Maremma is the younger brother of the Bolgheri region and the area has been making great value IGT bordeaux style blends for some time now.
This was nothing like the first two wines, complex and layered with high acidity. Fruit-forward but not extracted, this hit the sweet spot for an Old World wine that could appeal to a New World palate. Of course, they had the luxury of blending varieties here and that can make a difference with the right winemaker. With reasonable value, I will be keeping an eye out for this producer in the future.
Napa Region, USA
#4) 2011 Biale SangioveseNonna Vineyard – 91/100
The two most well-known Sangiovese wines in Napa are this and the Del Dotto bottlings. The winery was kind enough to sell us a bottle from their library specifically for this tasting! This winery operated through prohibition and this particular wine has a family history, the vineyard was planted by the current owner’s grandmother.
This was the softest of the wines tasted. The mouth-feel was excellent and was definitely still fruit-forward after 11 years in the bottle. It was light on acidity at medium-minus and had medium tannin. This was an enjoyable wine. It had just enough Old World character to identify as such. This is another of those wines that may have been better a few years ago. Not past its drinking window, but perhaps nearing it.
Montefalco – Umbria Region, Italy
#5) 2012 Adanti Montefalco Rosso Riserva – 91/100
This area is in Umbria and while the area is known for its Sagrantino DOC, it has its own denomination for its Rosso DOC that must be no more than 25% Sagrantino and no less than 60% Sangiovese. This bottling also had 20% Merlot. This was a powerhouse wine, even after 10 years in the bottle. The Sangiovese dominates, but the Sagrantino pulled it towards a Southern Rhone type feel. I really enjoy Sagrantino wines and if you haven’t tried one, you should track down a good example to enjoy for yourself.
This was a bold, fruity wine, with medium plus acidity and tannin. Old World wine drinkers may find this a bit too extracted for their palate, but this was balanced enough not to feel hit over the head with too much oak, or too much fruit like many modern day Napa Cab Sauv’s.
Colli Fiorentini – Chianti Region, Italy
#6) 2013 Torre a Cona Badia a Corte Riserva – 89/100
This is a highly regarded sub-region of Chianti that now has its own denomination. This bottling is typically 100% Sangiovese. The area is North of Chianti Classico and attempts to focus on lighter, aromatic versions of Sangiovese.
This is another wine that may have been better had we opened it a few years ago. Lighter styles of wine can sometimes be limited in their capacity for bottle aging. This wine was a reasonable representative of a typical Chianti, but was too disjointed. It showed too much tannin and acid for its age and the fruit and mouth-feel weren’t there to round out the package. Would have been great with a tomato based pasta dish, but was lacking on its own.
Walla Walla Region, USA
#7) 2011 Leonetti Sangiovese – 89/100
This is a well-known premium bordeaux style producer in Washington state. Their Sangiovese label is grown and produced every year in Walla Walla and this was the most expensive bottle of wine in the group. The wine is 87% Sangiovese and 13% Syrah.
This reminded me of a better than average typical Italian Chianti. Very “one-note”, but definitely varietally-correct. Not as soft as the other U.S. wine we tasted. Would have been a good food wine, but certainly nothing special to mention.
Greve – Chianti Classico Region, Italy
#8) 2010 Podere Poggio Scalette Il Carbonaione – 88/100 This winery is well-respected for its Tuscany styled IGT blended wines. This bottling was 100% Sangiovese from several vineyards located in Greve. Not sure why this needed an IGT designation, instead of DOCG. This area now has their own regional denomination.
This was an uninspiring average Italian Chianti. With age, it had lost its fruit and was thin with nothing to balance out the acid and tannin. Not undrinkable, but given the choice, would prefer a different wine.
Observations & Conclusions
The differences between these wines had more to do with winemaking style and blending varieties, than the Sangiovese fruit itself. Although, there was enough diversity to claim we experienced various different styles of Sangiovese dominated wines. There is more to “terroir” than just soil and climate. If other contributing factors define these regions as unique, so be it. There is a clear marketing advantage to differentiating these wine “communes” and promoting a specific regional style. It will remain to be seen whether all these new sub-regions will be justified in the long-run, or the average wine enthusiast will just find it too confusing to care. I have mentioned DOC, DOCG and IGT classifications several times in this article. If you would like a quick explanation, here is a link: Wine-Searcher – Wine Labels Italy
Here are a few conclusions I drew from the tasting:
Sangiovese fruit alone may not show enough diversity at the premium level to support this many different style designations. Although, the Brunello clone grown in Montalcino is certainly a cut above the others.
Sangiovese is a fabulous blending grape. It carries structure with it, high acidity and tannin, if the winemaking style allows it.
In the U.S., we do produce Old World style Sangiovese wine that compares well with the Italian labels.
Finally, generally Sangiovese wine can be made with finesse. Not sure what I was expecting, but I did not anticipate the subtler wines we found in this tasting.
I recently had the good fortune to taste a flight of 1986 Gran Cru Bordeaux. They were:
2nd Label – Margaux Pavillion Rouge
Chateau Cos d’Estournel
Chateau Pichon-Longueville Baron
Chateau Du-Cru Beaucaillou
I don’t often get a chance to taste labels like these in aged vintages, but I have drunk many wines in the last 20 years from producers in the French AOC regions of Margaux, St. Estephe, St. Julien and Pauillac. These Left Bank Bordeaux areas are the home of some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon produced in the world. Margaux is by far my favorite Left Bank region and St. Estephe next. Not that the others are not very good, just that these two regions match my palate better. I have been tasting Bordeaux Left Bank vintages back to the late 90’s. This was my first tasting from the 1980’s vintages.
These wines were all original purchase origin and were stored in near perfect conditions. There was hardly an oxidized brown tint at the edge of the glass with all these wines. The wines tasted amazingly fresh! None were fruit forward (if they were at release), but had good acidity and a few still had residual tannin. Perfectly balanced, these wines were expertly made… but in a completely different style than 2000 era Bordeaux wines. All tasted as if the fruit had been harvested early. There were vegetal and savory flavors reflecting a completely different winemaking and vineyard management style than today. Whether you enjoy wines with this much age on them is dependent upon your palate. All of these wines would have been fabulous accompanying a Black Truffle Risotto, although much of the nuance would have been lost. In the bigger picture, my palate has found Bordeaux Rouge Gran Crus from before 2000 tasted best at roughly 20 years of bottle age (depending on producer). After 2000, that started to change… In my experience, that has now become 10-15 years of bottle age.
Margaux AOC Region
I have tasted and enjoyed many different Margaux producers in quantity over the last 20 years: Brane Cantenac, Cantenac Brown, Giscours, Lascombes, Rauzan Segla, Prieure Lichine and my favorite Malescot St. Exupery. All of these with 5-10 years of bottle age tend to be fruit forward, structured, balanced and all often have a great… what I call “Margaux mouth-feel”. This is sometimes silky, but always softer, round and mouth-filling. This was missing from the older Margaux tasted here. In fact today, most Bordeaux premium wines are made to taste fruit-forward and vegetal flavors can be viewed as a fault. Especially for New World palates, I would suggest Margaux producers. These wines often are not as “muscular” as the other Left Bank regions.
Wine Styles… They Were a’Changin’
Bob Dylan aside, it was obvious something happened in the 90’s to the winemaking philosophy of Bordeaux producers. Most, would attribute this to chasing the Robert Parker 100 point score… and all that implied. Some would suggest back to the ’82 vintage, when Parker’s influence began… but I was not a wine drinker back then and can’t bear witness to that thinking. These comments attributed to the BBC in the late 80’s refer to this, “The globalist domination of the oenological press by Parker’s ideas has led to changes in viticulture and winemaking practices, such as reducing yield, harvesting grapes as late as possible for maximum ripeness, not filtering wine, and using new techniques—such as microoxygenation—to soften tannins. These widespread changes in technique have been called “Parkerization”… have led to a fear of homogenization of wine styles around the world as Parker’s tastes are irrevocably changing the way some French wines are made…”.
The changes in Bordeaux wine styles that began again in the 2000’s were most definitely impacted by attempting to appeal to the U.S. palate and open the U.S. market to more French exports. These changes I can attest to. I have witnessed that difference from 2000 to 2015. Personally, I feel the pendulum has swung a little too far towards softer, fruitier wines in France (and the U.S.) – as a generalization. As a wine consumer, your palate matters and whether you prefer these type of wines should be what drives your purchases, not wine critics.
Tasting these wines was a tremendous opportunity. I don’t often have the chance to evaluate wine styles over 30+ years in any wine region. Tasting these 35 year old wines side-by-side was a real pleasure and thanks go to Mr. Mandel, a fellow wine collector here in Phoenix. His generous hospitality made this a truly special experience.
Are you a successful professional and serious wine enthusiast dreaming of owning your own winery in an established AVA, only to find the start-up costs in California are insane? Have you investigated California vineyard properties costing $75K per acre, or more? No one individual with business ownership experience would ever consider an opportunity with near zero ROI in the first five years and a 10-15 year payback. Well, hello AZ at $1-2K per acre!
Even still, an estate winery start-up is not cheap: $30K+ per acre to prep the soil, purchase and plant the vines, plus VSP trellising system and five year wait for mature vines, etc. Considering it normally requires a minimum of 1,500 cases of production output ($400-500K revenue) for the beginnings of a profitable winery business, add the major risk of variable climate/weather and you will have to bite-off a huge chunk of both savings and determination to go down this road… but if the countryside lifestyle, the great industry people, connection to fine wine & culinary culture and rubbing elbows with the rich & famous makes it worth it, AZ is your destination!
Higher Ed Degree Programs, Research and Incubators
There is a program accredited by Yavapai Community College offering a two-year Oenology degree located in the new Verde Valley AVA run by Michael Pierce (trained/experienced AZ winemaker) that has been in operation for a few years now. They currently have 15 acres of planted vineyard and are producing roughly 1,500 cases of student-made wine. The Agricultural Extension at University of AZ is also now getting serious with research surrounding climate and fruit production for the local wine growing industry. Maynard Keenan helped to start the custom crush and industry incubator facility “Four Eight Wineworks” in the Verde Valley AVA. A real place where winemakers can cut their teeth. By the way, if you have not seen Maynard’s wine movie “Blood into Wine”. Track it down. It is a fun intro to the AZ wine industry.
Continuing AZ Legislation to Encourage Wine Tourism
AZ now has a significant retail wine footprint in the Sedona-Grand Canyon tourist area, with many new projects for wine tasting rooms in planning. The recent legislation allowing licensed in-state wineries to have two satellite tasting rooms instead of only one, has caused a boom in planned tasting rooms for construction in the Sedona-Cottonwood area.
Crazy AZ Wineries and Distribution
I have been writing about California and Washington wineries for more than 10 years and I have not found one that decided to self-distribute without a major Direct-to-Consumer sales footprint via an established tasting room experience. Without a tasting room, or commercial distribution agreement, the wine business can be a pretty lonely affair. In AZ, I found two, both with high quality wines. Break-even with this scenario seems impossible, but you need to understand the special nature of the AZ wine industry. There are several contributing factors: 1) Current advantages from state statutes making it more difficult for out-of-state competition (licensing/tax barriers) and creating sales advantages for in-state grower/producer/local self-distributors, 2) The 3-tier distribution system bloating retail pricing by including two additional mark-ups, and 3) In-state wine demand exceeding supply. These two wineries load-up personal vehicles and deliver cases of wine to customers at their homes on periodic runs through the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas. It took me weeks to get my head around this wine business model.
AZ Wine Identity
The area is finally starting to find a wine identity and is slowly coming around to the realization: the best wines use what the terroir gives. Forced wine styles do not work consistently well and because of this the local industry has been experimenting with lesser-known warm climate varietals native to the Rhone, S. Italy and Spain. Some of these wines are fabulous, surprisingly enough – especially the whites. Don’t be scared by varietals you may not recognize, because the whites (Viognier, Malvasia Bianca, Petit Manseng, Picpoul Blanc) and reds (Tempranillo, Graziano, Syrah, Grenache, Aglianico) are tasting as good as many popular California wines. The blended wines are definitely the best expression of AZ terroir. When the wine industry began in AZ in the late 80’s, the few vineyards that were planted attempted to plant Bordeaux varietals and the results were of mixed success. Although, a friend of mine and trained wine judge Jay Bileti (yes, AZ has trained wine judges too!) and I were recently given a Sonoita Vineyards ’89 Bordeaux style blend from their library that we enjoyed with a wonderful meal of Ossobuco made by his wife Lynn and it was very good!
I interviewed several talented winemakers in the last few weeks. They are making wines of unique character and style. With fruit-forward, balanced profiles that would stand-up to any evaluation as “premium wines”, anywhere in the world. The last time I tasted through the state about eight years ago, it was difficult to find a winemaker able to make consistently good wine, although there were a few: Kent Callaghan, Maynard Keenan, Eric Glomski were examples. In my opinion, the strength of the AZ wine identity will be blended whites & reds. Leading you to the idea: fortune will smile on winemakers with classically trained palates, able to leverage that knowledge to deliver the best possible product from the local terroir. This was an absolute necessity to take AZ wine to the next level.
AZ has definitely reached the critical mass juncture. The local wine industry and it’s future is exceedingly bright. The resources are in place to support a vibrant and successful wine community. The past several weeks of AZ winery tours and interviews have generated a significant amount of material and brought many insights into the AZ wine industry. Many more articles to come!
The importance of climate in vineyard management can not be over-stated. The entire European culinary and beverage marketing model establishes food/wine character BY LOCATION. This European developed idea to turn place-names into unique trademarks defining specific flavors and aromas has been the cornerstone of worldwide food and wine marketing for decades. The same thinking caused governments to establish laws and trademark protections for food and wine production. Wine laws arguably could be the most stringent. Here are a few of the most famous wine examples: American Viticultural Area (AVA) in the U.S., Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) in France and Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) in Italy. This concept also applies to specialty foods: Parmesan Reggiano cheese may only come from Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena and Bologna, IT, Roquefort cheese can only be made in Roquefort, FR, Prosciutto de Parma can only be made in Parma, IT, etc. If you have never tasted these original foods (and not imitations), you need to splurge a little and buy these imported products. The difference in flavor is astonishing.
Impact of Climate Change on Wine Production
The French terroir concept is the basis of this wine marketing by area idea and has been developing for hundreds of years in Europe. It is the primary driving factor behind the establishment of wine laws controlling vineyard and winemaking practices by location. The definition of Terroir:
Complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as soil, topography, and climate. – AND / OR – The characteristic taste and flavor imparted to a wine by the environment in which it is produced.
Climate has a direct impact on the terroir idea defined above. It affects many choices for producers, ie. grape varietals to plant, when to harvest, control of crop size, how to water, conditioning/fertilizing of soil, etc. All of these affect wine character, flavors and aromas. So, what is coming for the wine and food industries due to climate change? Hang on… crystal ball is out, here we go…
Vineyards and Resulting Wine by Location
Common thinking has been that vineyards should be planted between the 30th and 50th parallels (latitude) around the globe, both northern and southern hemispheres. Cool climate reds like pinot noir often are best grown near the 45th parallel and warm climate reds like nero d’avola and shiraz near the 35th. Cool climate whites like riesling are often grown near the 50th parallel (ripening reliably compared to past) and warm climate like petit manseng near the 35th. Vineyard elevation can affect this range, but only minimally. The impact is not just temps, but also length and intensity of sunlight during the growing season.
The most consumed varietals in the world: cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay are best grown in a much narrower range: 40-45th parallel. Why is this important? What if the most famous cab sauv growing region in the world (Bordeaux, France) became too hot for premium cab sauv wine production? Would these producers accept: producing poor quality wine, over-manipulate the wine to change its character, or tear out cab sauv vines and plant warmer climate varietals like aglianico and petit sirah? French wine laws would fall apart with any of these options and as a result wine consumers might change their ideas about where the best wines in the world are produced.
Climate Impact on Commonly Grown Wine Grapes
When cab sauv is grown in cooler areas, the wine acquires vegetal flavors: green bellpepper and tomato are common. When chardonnay is grown in warmer climates, it becomes too fruity and loses it signature acidity. What would happen if Burgundy, France became too warm to grow quality pinot noir, or Napa, CA became too warm for cab sauv? The transition has already begun… I have been collecting and tasting wine since the 90’s and red burgundy has become fruitier and Napa reds have become flabbier. Many Napa producers have already begun manipulating their wines to adjust for the differences. One option is to harvest earlier, but then the pips (seeds) are not allowed to ripen and complex flavors are lost. In Napa, where the area’s signature cab sauv is very fruity, this option would change the whole character of the regions’ wine production.
Changes and Timelines
Climate change has been slowly accelerating, but still is not likely to have a serious impact on wine in my lifetime. Although, consider this thought: a wine vineyard requires 5-10 years to fully mature and begin producing premium fruit for wine production. This requires thinking in terms of decades, not years. The last 25 years of climate change has seen a noticeable difference in the character of wine in many regions. Not enough to change the wine industry substantially, but at this rate, what will another 25 years bring? Will vineyard managers have the vision to react in advance, when there is still time to save the current wine styles of today? Will the industry opt to tear-out current vineyards and replant warmer climate grape varietals, or decide to abandon warming vineyard sites for planting in cooler climate areas farther north? It is likely to be too expensive to abandon existing vineyard sites… so my crystal ball shows the younger generations of wine drinkers adapting to Petit Sirah and Petit Manseng…
This has been a very interesting topic. If others in the trade have different ideas regarding the impact of climate change on the industry, please drop me a note. I am always curious about new strategies… and no, please do not suggest adding citric acid to the final product, thank you…
For those that are not familiar with Austria and its history with wine, this article will familiarize you with the 1985 scandal when millions of bottles for domestic and export sales were found to have had diethylene glycol (similar to automobile antifreeze) added. This stuff can be very unhealthy. But, on the upside, it does make the wine fuller bodied and sweeter. Nice trade-off there. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt, but the result of that mess was the destruction of 36 million bottles of Austrian wine and the complete collapse of their wine industry. It would take almost 20 years and the addition of numerous laws and legal safe-guards for their wine industry to fully recover. There has finally been a huge resurgence in the popularity of Austrian wines in the last decade.
Latest Austrian Scandal
In several wine producing countries, it is illegal to add any type of glycerine to wine. Unfortunately, in the U.S., it is permitted. There is a huge difference between synthetic glycerine and vegetable glycerine. The synthetic type CAN be quite toxic. The vegetable version is very safe, but desirable as a wine additive? (discussion to follow below) 25,000 bottles were discovered and destroyed in Austria that were found to have synthetic glycerine added this year. The added substance in question was a trivalent alcohol that gives wine a higher viscosity and is harmless, but is forbidden by Austrian law. This synthetic glycerine was petroleum-based. Convictions and fines were the result. Sentences are not yet legally binding though. With Austria’s past, any chance of toxicity is serious bad form.
Some of the additives listed below are illegal in certain countries, but most are permitted in the U.S. Although, we don’t get to know which are used in the wine we drink, BECAUSE WINE HAS BEEN EXEMPTED FROM USFDA FOOD LABELING REQUIREMENTS. What does this mean to you personally? Well, nothing here is outright dangerous, but don’t underestimate the impact on allergies, tolerances and such. For example, my wife has a known allergy to soy, others find they have limited tolerance to added sulfites, etc. In general, all of these can affect color, flavors, aromas and the viscosity of wine. Your reaction to this discussion might be: “but, these additives are only used in cheap wine”. You would be very wrong. This list is commonly used in all price categories.
Here is a short list of common wine additives:
Citric, Fumaric, Malic, Lactic and Tartaric acids – to acidify wine
Calcium Carbonate – to de-acidify wine
Oak and Oak Chips – to add tannin, flavors & aromas
Acetaldehyde – to stabilize color
Copper Sulfate – to eliminate sulfites and mercaptans (bad tastes/odors)
Sulfur Dioxide, Potassium Sorbate – to sterlize and preserve wine
Mega Purple – to add color and body
Tannin Powder – to add mouth-feel and make wine more ageable
Gum Arabic – to reduce astringency (tannin) in wine
Dimethyl Dicarbonate – to stabilize, sterilize and remove alcohol
Sugar, Saccharose, or Grape Juice Concentrate – to add sweetness also called “chaptalization”
Vegetable Glycerine – to add body and sweetness
Gelatin, Albumin (egg white), Bentonite, Casein – to remove haziness caused by free proteins
Water – to dilute over-concentrated wine
Engineered, Cultured Yeasts – to control the fermentation process (vs. wild yeasts)
Diammonium Phosphate – removes naturally occurring sulphur in wine
Protease – improves wine heat tolerance
Soy Flour – Feeds yeast to accelerate fermentation
Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wine
All of this talk of additives has to lead your mind toward interventionist vs. non-interventionist winemaking philosophies. Have you considered the issue for your own wine consumption? Personally, I believe I can taste the difference in over-manipulated wines. Napa Valley producers in the low to medium price range have been utilizing these methods more of late. This is the key reason why my personal wine cellar has been moving towards a higher percentage of French and Italian wines, especially in the low-medium price ranges. France and Italy have very stringent wine laws regarding additives and in general, have winemaking cultures of less intervention. So, if you would like to address this issue, how can you know which U.S. wines to buy? It may be time for you to read the back label of that next bottle of wine… Wine in the U.S. can be “labeled” as organic, biodynamic, natural and sustainable… and can also be certified as such by a third party. Many U.S. wineries are implementing at least some of these practices. Here is what these terms mean:
Natural – Typically are made in a low-intervention style, fermented with native yeasts and contain only trace amounts of added sulfites. These wines are not filtered, or fined. This means they could contain particulates, or appear cloudy. Which is not necessarily a problem. These wines should have gone through the bare minimum of chemical, or winemaker intervention and are not often aged in oak. Wines produced with this approach may have limited stability and cannot be mass-produced, but are a different drinking experience, if you should choose to try them.
Organic – These wines fall into two categories: organic wine and wine made from organically grown grapes. Certified organic wines (USDA) have stricter regulations. Vineyards must not use synthetic fertilizers and all ingredients in these wines (including yeast) must be certified organic. No sulfites may be added, although naturally occurring is permitted. These wines will display the USDA organic seal.
Biodynamic – Unlike organic winemaking, biodynamic does not change between countries. When originally devised, the method had each day organized by fruit days (grape harvesting), root days (pruning), leaf days (watering) and flower days (vineyards to be untouched). Biodynamic practices are not required to follow this calendar, however. If you’ve seen biodynamic and organic wines grouped together at your wine shop, there is a reason. Biodynamic wines employ organic practices. They avoid pesticides and depend on compost, rather than chemical fertilizer. Therefore, the majority of these wines are also organic in practice. Certified biodynamic wines are permitted to contain up to 100 parts per million of sulfites, far more than the USDA certified organic wines. So, a wine that is organic is not necessarily biodynamic, although a wine that is biodynamic is often organic.
Sustainable – These wineries make an effort to utilize winemaking processes that protect the environment, support social responsibility, maintain economic feasibility, and are of high quality. This idea has less of a direct impact on the wine, but is an “eco-friendly” designation.
Appelation: Paso Robles AVA, Sub-Appelation of Central Coast AVA, California
Score: 92 pts. – 100 pt. Scale, 17 pts. – 20 pt. Scale
Provenance: Buyer Cellared Original Purchase
This wine continues to improve with bottle age. Alcohol dominates the nose with blackberry and plum. The palate follows and adds black cherry. The fruit is very fresh and almost sweet, without residual sugar. Alcohol content is well integrated on the palate. There is high acidity and medium tannins. The finish is medium+ in length and very fruity. The fine-grained tannins provide a very soft mouth-feel after only six years in the bottle. This is a fairly balanced approach that could continue to improve in the next 3-4 years in the bottle. The last five Justin vintages (or so) have done a decent job of threading the needle between a New World taste, with an Old World sensibility. Still more fruit forward than I would prefer and the fruit over-powers any attempt at complexity.
The climate on the West side of Paso offers very hot days and cool nights. This area is much warmer than most of Napa Valley. These conditions can produce very rich, over-ripe and flabby cab sauv, if the producer is not careful. That is the reason this AVA has traditionally been viewed as a Southern Italy and Southern Rhone style growing region and the majority of vineyards are planted in hot climate varietals, like zin, syrah, grenache & mourvedre. Justin is one of the few Paso producers that has been able to produce quality cabs. The purity of fruit on the palate IMO is one of their hallmarks and I would guess, they are sorting the fruit heavily to achieve the correct fruit profile. Some Zin producers in Paso and Lodi actually sort to find the dried, raisin-like berries. This generates a more jammy wine profile. I would bet Justin does the opposite and drops all the raisins, opting for a fresher fruit profile. I need to visit their winemaker and discuss their process. I hope to be able to post an interview in the next year.
Appelation: Spring Mountain AVA, Sub-Appelation of Napa AVA, California
Score: 91 pts. – 100 pt. Scale, 16 pts. – 20 pt. Scale
Provenance: Buyer Cellared Original Purchase
Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered
I am always conflicted when judging these premium Napa cabs made to chase after a “cult” profile. So many American wine enthusiasts enjoy this style of wine, that I feel as if I am not being fair in my evaluation. If you have tasted Caymus, or Silver Oak, you have been introduced to the lower price point for this New World style of wine that can run upwards of $1,000/btl (Harlan Estate for example). These super fruity, high alcohol, smooth drinking red wines often struggle to get past the downside of over-ripe harvesting and winemaker manipulation. At the higher price-points, sometimes the producer succeeds, but more often not. If you would like to taste the premium Old World opposite, you could try Sassicaia from Bolgheri, Italy ($200/btl), or Pontet Canet from Bordeaux, France ($150/btl). I am not a big fan of the Napa new oak (vs. neutral oak) dominated wines. The richness in the fruit and texture is often achieved at the expense of the freshness of the fruit. My favorite vintages of these labels are the cooler ones, like 2011. The cooler vintages tend to either tone down the over-the-top profile, or they are unpleasant (like 2011 Shafer cab). It is bewildering for me, why so many hold this style of wine in such high esteem. I much prefer a clean, fresh, light to medium weight, under-manipulated Bordeaux-style wine over these any day. These labels often taste like the wine equivalent of a fruity rum cocktail to me.
Your impression of this wine will be very dependent on whether you have an Old World, or New World palate. The 7&8 estate vineyards are located at the highest point on Spring Mtn., but this wine doesn’t drink like a typical mountain fruit cab. The Pride Mountain vineyards are right next store, but proximity is where the similarity ends. If you enjoy this approach to winemaking, this bottle would probably merit a mid-90s score. The nose is full of alcohol, with little else. The fruit does not taste fresh and the new oak did not integrate well. This wine is still very fruit forward after 14 years aging in the bottle, with black currant, blackberry and black plum on the palate. The profile is fairly simple tho. Only a touch of dark chocolate on the mid-palate adds complexity. The wine has medium+ acidity and medium- tannin. The tannin has mostly resolved at this point and the wine is very smooth. The finish is medium length and tapers off leaving alcohol as the last impression. There is no noticeable residual sugar. This style of wine is off balance for me, with a texture and richness that approaches a stewed fruit profile. I can acknowledge that many wine enthusiasts will enjoy this wine, but in Napa, I much prefer aged Pride, or O’Shaughnessy mountain cabs instead. This has enough acidity to pair well with rich foods, but tended to overwhelm the steak my wife and I paired it with.
Appelation: Barolo, Sub-Appelation of Piedmonte – Langhe, Italy
Score: 92 pts. – 100 pt. Scale, 17 pts. – 20 pt. Scale
Provenance: Buyer Cellared Original Purchase
This is/was an Old World style Barolo. There are certain wine styles that are produced for extended bottle aging and Barolo leads this category. Don’t expect to purchase a classic Barolo and drink it in less than 10 yrs. I know for some this might sound bizarre, but nevertheless, it is the reality for this style of wine. This was not originally an overly expensive Barolo ($33/btl in 2011), so it was fun to see how this held-up. If you are thinking 14 years is a long time to wait for an experiment, I agree… but these are the kind of purchases that are the most satisfying… when they succeed. As a wine collector, I have developed my palate just for opportunities like this.
The drinking window for a traditional Barolo is usually 10-20 yrs from purchase. I popped this first bottle last night at 14 years and I enjoyed it very much, but for some, the tannin might still be too much. IMO, this wine is drinking really well right now, but another 3-5 years of bottle age and this Barolo will be positively singing. Decanted for an hour. Nose is very closed for a Barolo, just some alcohol, tar and red fruit. The palate is raspberry, black cherry and red plum, tar and a touch of wood. The fruit is really holding up nicely as the wine ages. Structure is superb: high acid with medium+ tannin. I enjoyed the mouthfeel. Tannin is integrated, but mouth-filling, rather than drying. It is missing the Barolo signature floral nose/palate and could use more complexity to add interest. The finish was lengthy with a touch of dark chocolate bitterness and tar to round it out. This is enjoyable to drink on its own, but especially with rich foods (red meats/red sauces), the high acidity will pair well.
This was a solid Classic Barolo and a real value (in retrospect). It was not in the top 3rd of Barolos I have tasted at any price, BUT it had truly classic Barolo flavors, was well made, held-up to bottle aging very well and is continuing to evolve. It could have had more complexity, but then again, it was not priced at the more typical $50-100/btl. I am impressed with what this producer achieved at this price.
Trained, certified Advanced Sommelier. AZ Art Institute Wine/Chef program focusing on wine pairing and beverage/culinary program development. Wine writer/blogger. Wine collector with extensive wine travel. Previously, consulting to the restaurant trade. Offering cellar management and procurement strategies, wine training & education, beverage business planning and marketing to the trade. Enjoy my blog at - www.coolclimatewine.net, my professional profile at: www.linkedin.com/in/douglasjlevin, my Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/TheDOCG, my Twitter feed at @douglasjlevin, or my tasting notes at https://rb.gy/r4xpom.
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