What's happening in the wine world
Like most pursuits and professions, the wine world is ever-changing. Wines go in and out of style (consider the recent craze for rosés, and the popularity of Prosecco), and new winegrowing regions catch the attention (and the dollars) of wine buyers. A few years back, most California Chardonnays were subjected to heavy oak treatment. Then the fashion tilted back the other way, and people developed a taste for purer, more fruit-forward flavor profiles. Now, we’re back to the more buttery styles.
So it might be a good idea to look ahead a bit, especially considering the recent global situation, and try to divine what might be in store for wine lovers in the coming months.
First, industry professionals have noted a trend toward wines from Oregon and Washington State. Of course, Oregon is best known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and maybe consumers have become a bit tired of the “typical” California style of these varietals. Example: a few years ago at the New York Wine Experience, Wine Spectator Senior Editor Bruce Sanderson and I sampled down a whole row of California Pinot Noirs. There must have been ten or twelve tables, and they all tasted remarkably similar, with upfront aromas and flavors of strawberry…one after the other.
In Oregon, they tend to make their wines in a more Old World style, perhaps because several winery owners from Burgundy have bought vineyards there. A bit more complexity, more layers of flavor, more earth, spice, cedar, smoke, and leather.
There has been a swing toward wines from Washington State, as well. The winegrowing region is in the dry land east of the Cascade Mountains, and quite a hike from the cities on the west coast. But since it’s colder and drier there, the big reds, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, are more reserved and austere than those same varietals grown in California. A distance of around a thousand miles makes for a completely different climate down south, where the grapes ripen more fully, resulting in wines that are more dense, more plush, and a lot more fruity. Maybe the trend is going toward a more reserved, classic flavor profile. Plus, the prices of Washington State wines tend to be a bit more consumer friendly. That’s a biggie.
Another trend that will certainly have long-term effects on the wine we drink is climate change. Many experts maintain that vineyards will be affected not so much by increasing warmth, but by volatility in the weather patterns. While it’s true that French grape growers are thinking about moving their vineyards farther north because of increasing temperatures, events like heat spikes or unexpected frost, drought, hail, and flooding are really keeping vineyard managers up at night.
And then there are wine prices. While we haven’t yet seen the full effect of projected tariffs, the industry predicts that volume of production will slightly decrease (because of weather patterns?) and prices could rise just a bit. Might be a good idea to stock up now, and fill all those empty slots in your collection. Hope you enjoy some new recommendations.
Ask the Wine Whisperer
Why is French oak so widely preferred for making wine barrels? David L., Port St. Lucie
Winemakers use French oak because the grain of the wood is very tight, and the barrels impart more subtle flavors and characteristics to the wine. The average age of a French oak tree used for wine barrels is 170 years.
Lions Head Panthera Chardonnay Russian River 2017 ($35) – The extended aging in new French oak gives this sumptuous Chardonnay deep notes of candied lemon, smoke, and crème brulée. A distinctive style. WW 89
Lions Head Lion Tamer Cabernet Sauvignon Napa 2017 ($60) – Mostly Cabernet, with touches of Petite Sirah and Malbec, this mouthfilling red hits all the right notes. There are black fruits, cherries, coffee, oak, and chocolate all over the place, and it’s all nicely integrated on the palate. A winner. WW 97
Gva’ot Dances in White Blend Israel 2016 ($27) – A blend of 75% Chardonnay and 25% Gewürztraminer, this wine clearly demonstrates that the Israeli wine industry is making its mark on the international scene. The palate is a mélange of spice and tropical fruit that will go nicely with Thai or other Asian cuisines. WW 88
New Book Coming Soon!
It's a memoir (slightly fictionalized) about my family's connection with the old Jewish resort hotels in New York's Catskill Mountains...and my years working as a waiter in the hotels to get money for college.
Here's the first version of the cover we're working on!
The Great Cork Controversy
Wine in Whiskey Barrels? Huh?
Rolling Out the (Whiskey) Barrels
Right around 2014, a new trend in winemaking emerged, and it’s started to gain a lot of traction…and attention. Some winemakers have begun to age their wines in used Bourbon whiskey barrels. They call it “cross-aging.”
The venerable oak barrel plays a critical role in the way wine ages and tastes. There are dozens of ways winemakers can use oak to flavor and “season” wine, but until now they’ve mainly stored and aged their wines in new or used French or American oak barrels. But apparently, this new trend of putting red wine in used whiskey barrels opens a new world of flavors and textures. And this is no “underground” phenomenon. Even major wineries like Mondavi and the Australian Jacob’s Creek are doing it.
White wines are also getting the treatment, being aged in barrels that formerly contained tequila or other clear spirits. And the situation gets more interesting from there.
Jeff Kasavan, Cellarmaster at Cooper & Thief in Lodi, California, has over 30 years of experience as a winemaker, and says that “cross-aging” is a relatively new trend because “Bourbon barrels present a new array of aromas and richness that you can’t extract from traditional new oak barrel aging.” He also ages his white Sauvignon Blanc in used tequila barrels. “Sauvignon Blanc is one of my favorite varietals,” he says, “so I experimented with how the barrels could enhance the wine’s flavor experience. The acidity and citrus notes of Sauvignon Blanc are complemented by the subtle heat and toasty vanilla flavors imparted by the former tequila barrels.”
However, this technique may not work with all wines. The reds that Kasavan chooses to age in Bourbon barrels need significant tannin structure and flavor intensity. “For my red blend,” he says, “I use predominantly Merlot and Syrah complemented by Zinfandel, Petit Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon. They stand up the best to the big bold aromas and flavors imparted by the whiskey barrel aging process.”
All cross-aged wines start out in traditional oak barrels, but then winemakers like Jeff Kasavan and 1000 Stories winemaker Bob Blue put their wines in used whiskey barrels for an additional two or three months.
Blue agrees that richly-flavored wines are the ones to use for this technique. “Big, bold wines are best for the intensity of Bourbon barrel-aging,” says Blue, “which is why Zinfandel is our flagship varietal.” He continues, “Bourbon barrels are intense. Most wines can’t tolerate that kind of barrel intensity, but Zinfandel seems to fit the bill just right.”
He also sees a bright future for wines made this way. “At first, we thought 1000 Stories would be more appealing to men, but women have become very enthusiastic. And the wine also cuts across various age groups, which shows that the category really has universal appeal.”
Discover the appeal for yourself with these new recommendations…
1000 Stories Gold Rush Red California 2016 ($20) – Deep rich garnet in the glass with toasty oak and vanilla aromas. Charred vanilla and smoke flavors with blackberry, blueberry and 15% alcohol. WW 89-90
1000 Stories Zinfandel California 2014 ($20) – Contains about 19% Petite Sirah, so it’s big, bold, and concentrated. Some minerality on the nose, fresh black cherry that lingers on the finish. Smoke and vanilla. Aged in old and new Bourbon barrels. WW 90
Cooper & Thief Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2016 ($33) – With a whopping 16.5% alcohol, this is not a typical example of the varietal. Vanilla and smoke, with almond notes and a creamy texture. Long finish of oak, vanilla, and crème brulee. Blended with Colombard, Semillon, and “other whites.” WW 86-87
Cooper & Thief Red Blend California 2014 ($33) -- Almost a Port, with 17% alcohol, this blend of Cabernet, Syrah, Zinfandel, and Petite Sirah is all about smoke, vanilla, and deep black fruit. Nothing subtle about it, and lots more smoke and vanilla on the finish. WW 89
Discover the Delights of Sweeter Wines
What is sweet wine? Why do so many people like it? Find out in this informative and entertaining article from my friends at ilovewine.com. Copy and paste this link into your browser.
Discovering New Regions--and New Wines
The Pleasures of Paso Robles
In early May of 2018, I joined a gaggle of wine journalists from Florida on a private tour of California’s Paso Robles wine region, and it was a revelation. Guided by Chris Taranto of the Winegrowers Alliance, we spent four days visiting vineyards and wineries throughout the expansive area, and what a delightful surprise it was. Of course, I was somewhat familiar with this part of California, but an in-depth guided tour, and the opportunity to tastes dozens of wines, was a real eye-opener.
First of all, “El Paso de Robles” (which means the Pass of the Oaks) is located about halfway between Santa Barbara and San Francisco, not far from San Luis Obispo. If you’ve ever taken the scenic Pacific Coast Highway drive, just jog inland to Route 101, and you’ll find it. One of the city’s founders was Drury James, who made a fortune during the gold rush of 1849. He also happened to be the uncle of infamous outlaws Frank and Jesse James.
Revelation One: Paso has no real “signature” grape, unless it’s maybe Zinfandel. They grow everything out there, not specializing in a single group of varietals the way Napa does, or Bordeaux. They have Rhône grapes like Syrah, there are Italian varietals, Spanish, even some Portuguese. What’s more, the innovative spirit of the vintners leads them to create highly unconventional blends. We didn’t sample many wines that were 100% one grape or another.
We were joined at our dinners by several winemakers, so there was plenty of opportunity for informal chats. Over and over, we heard them say “what’s good for one of us, is good for all of us.” The spirit of mutual support for everyone in the industry was as surprising as it is rare.
As a winegrowing region Paso is vast, and in many ways, it’s still considered the wine industry’s “wild west.” It’s not as polished as Napa, or as compact, so the drive between wineries can be something of a haul, but it’s all worth it. It’s generally divided it into East and West areas, and then into several sub-appellations, each with its own soil and climate characteristics. For example, the Templeton Gap is a passage in the mountain range between Paso and the Pacific that brings cooler days and nights because of the ocean breeze that blows through. All in all, a very varied region, with an extremely varied selection of wines.
There’s lots more to know about this exciting, unconventional area, and we’ll do that in future articles. Meanwhile, I’d like to share some of our discoveries. These wines may not all be available locally, but can be purchased through individual wineries’ websites.
Ancient Peaks Chardonnay Santa Margarita Ranch 2017 ($19) – From one of the area’s coolest regions, this wine is blended from three blocks in the vineyard. Only a small percentage of the total had oak contact, preserving the flavors of tropical fruits, plus pear and peach. There are hints of caramel as well. Very nice. WW 90
Pomar Junction Sidetrack White NV ($24) – Out in Paso, they love to blend. This is a traditional Rhone mix of Viognier, Roussanne, and Grenache Blanc that offers notes of peach and pear, along with a hint of orange and white flowers. One of our favorites. WW 92
San Simeon Stormwatch Red Blend 2014 ($65) – A classic Bordeaux blend of Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec, and other traditional varietals, this bold blend explodes with rich blackberry and blueberry notes. The two years it spends in new French oak contribute overtones of spice and vanilla. Excellent. WW 95