Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What's on top?

Many of you have probably noticed the use of cork to seal a bottle of wine is declining rapidly. More and more producers tend to lean towards the Stelvin closure (Stelvin is registered trademark of Alcan Packaging which is the largest manufacturer of screw tops) and other materials to seal the deal. From synthetic (basically plastic) cork to the Vino-Lok (a glass closure device) you never know what is going to be under the foil.

One of the main reasons we are seeing new methods for sealing a bottle of wine is cost, in a few different ways. The first is the price of cork. Cork comes from the bark of the cork oak tree which mainly grows in places like Portugal, Spain, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Sardinia. Most of the cork we see here in American comes from Portugal. The first round of corks cannot be taken from the bark until the tree is twenty five years old. After the bark is taken off of the tree for the first time it cannot be taken again for about ten years, this can happen fifteen times until the tree is cut down and made in to Dunder-Mifflin Paper; sad. It is a labor intensive job to strip the bark and mold it in to the cork's appropriate shape. This process is time consuming and after all of that the bark has to dry for about year after it is taken from the tree before it can be cut in to corks used to seal wine.

In the mid 1900's cork was on the fritz until the Portuguese government took action and commissioned the restoration and replanting of the resource. With all of the efforts to keep up with the demand, unfortunately there is just not enough to go around. The number of wineries all over the world grows every day. To give you an idea of growth taking place, somewhere in the realm of 800 wineries occupied California in 1990, today there are over 2600. The demand domestically alone has contributed to a lack of corks, not to mention globally. So with these figures we see why it is important to develop new ways to seal a bottle.

The first and most criticized method is the screw top or more romantically the Stelvin closure. Today it does not have the same stigma as it did when it closed you favorite flavor of Boone's Farm in college. Some great wines use the Stelvin closure. Some regions have adopted it as their primary closure method. For example in 2000 a group of wineries in Clare Valley, Australia banded together to make it policy that they close their wines with the screw cap. This in turn lead to a number of producers to further investigate the screw top method. For example in 2001 in New Zealand only 1% of wine producers used a screw cap, but by 2008 more than 90% were using it. In addition more than 60% of all of the wine made in Australia uses the screw top closure.

The Stelvin method of closing wines was first developed in the late 1960's, it did not become fully commercialized until the 1970's when a French company, now Alcan, mass produced it. It was developed in 1964 by the Production Direct of Australia's Yalumba winery, Peter Wall. His prototype used a Stelcap/cork combination. He closed the wine with cork and then put a long skirted screw cap over the top. This patten was in turn sold and mass produced. Initially the cap did not have a very good coat to separate the wine from the aluminum leaving the product tasting metallic. The stigma and the ineffectiveness lead to the abandonment of the screw top in the 70's.

To test the longevity of the process the esteemed Haut-Brion (prestigious Bordeaux producer) sealed some of it's 1971/72 vintage with the Stelvin closure. In 1978 they opened it up and found it similar to the cork sealed wines. They found that the fruit was more vibrant and almost better preserved. Both a good and bad thing. The fruit being preserved is a good thing for wines produced today that are meant to be drank young when they are bright and colorful with sweet fruit flavors and youthful aromas. However trace amount of oxidation is appropriate for aging. The same cork that can be blamed for the cause of a wine going bad can be praised for making a wine better. The natural amount of trace and I mean trace oxygen that a cork can provide can add character and development to a wine.

Also, as you can imagine screw tops are less expensive, but that does not mean that the juice inside is. In 2005 one of Burgundy's best-known producers Jean-Claude Boisset closed some of their wines with a screw top, including a $125 bottle of Chambertin Grand Cru. In 2008 almost a third of their 200,000+ bottle production used screw caps.

Another advantage to the Stelvin closure is that it is idiot proof. What I mean by this is that the screw top has the ability to compensate for improper storage. A cork requires wine contact in order to keep the cork moist so it does not dry up and allow air to enter the bottle. This is the reason a bottle is traditionally stored on its side. A screw top on the other hand can be stored in a variety of position, upright for example, with out the fear of the wine being tainted. Also, a cork will expand and contract depending on the elements. For example, a cellar that does not have enough humidity can cause the cork to dry up and let air in to the bottle oxidizing the bottle (ultimately turning it in to vinegar).

Another popular closure method is the use of a synthetic cork. These are found on a number of bottles and are much more cost effective for the producer and, by result, the consumer. This gives that same pop sound as the cork without the faults. Cork can some times have a bacteria in it called trichloranisole (TCA). Don't worry, it is not going to kill you. It is found in two to five percent of all cork produced stoppers. It is a bacteria that through contact with the juice leaves the wine smelling of wet cardboard. This can be costly for the producer because usually this comes back to them and they have to replace it. However with the synthetic stopper the wine is not threatened by this. A synthetic cork also does not expand and contract like a cork made from bark does. However the synthetic closures are made from a plastic material that is not biodegradable and are seldom recycled. They are also sometimes a real pain in the side to get out of the bottle because they get stuck in there.

One of the new and exciting types of wine sealant is the Vino-Lok. Most commonly I see them in Rieslings from Germany and wines from Austria. It is a glass nipple looking device with a small rubber seal. They are mainly used in wines meant to be drank young and will not benefit from any form of trace oxygen. The Vino-Lok helps preserve the freshness and youthfulness of a wine. I really like these types of closure systems, although when I approach a table and peal back the foil I am usually surprised and I sometimes stumble through the service steps.

The last type of closure method you may see is Agglomerate cork. This is waste cork particles, basically the ones that didn't make it to "the show", that go through a secondary cork production process. The particles are washed and dried and then are sent through a grinder to break them up. They are then pressed and put in to a machine that heats them up to mold them in to a big sheet, from which the cork shape will later be cut. Often an adhesive is used to bind the particles together. This process is still fallible because there is a risk of TCA, also known as cork taint.

As we can see there is no perfect answer for how to seal a bottle. With screw tops, synthetics, and the Vino-Lok we eliminate the risk of cork taint and oxidation, but we loose the romance and positive aging capabilities that we have with a cork. The most important advice I can give you is do not turn your nose up at the screw top, it is great for the price of wine and does wonders for the environment. Of the seven billion or so wine bottles sealed every year the number using screw caps will reach close to three billion this year. I would guess that over the next five years we will see virtually all bottles under $12 retail move to a screw top. Then again don't count cork out, it is trying to make a come back. The retailer Whole Foods is placing cork recycling bins at the ends of some their aisles to encourage people to bring in their spent corks so they can be reused.

Whatever the case remember it is what on the inside that counts. I love the romance of the unknown with cork. I like the craft I must apply in removing a cork from a bottle of 1985 Dow Vintage Port. But I also appreciate screw tops because I never have to wonder when I get to a table if the wine has cork taint. And I like them because no matter where I am, I don't need my wine key to open the bottle.

Nicholas Barth
Wine Director
Cru Wine Specialists

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What's hot this summer?

A lot of people have been asking me what is hot this summer. That is such a loaded question. I feel as though the market is being flooded with great juice and there is so little time to drink it all. I have heard people talking about "the next big region" and have often thought that I may have discovered it. Some of my classmates talk about some of the more obscure Eastern European wine regions like Bulgaria and Romania, but I don't think they are the next new popular wine producing region; yet.

Many wine distribution companies, and wine retailers for that matter put a lot of stock in South Africa a couple of years ago. It was unique to see some of these amazing French portfolios come across my desk and then at the end of the book they are loaded with obscure South African wine labels. I think that Australia made such an impact on the global market that people wanted that next big thing from south of the equator. Even major producers like Lindeman's set up shop in South Africa, but as trends seem to decline I would imagine that South Africa will soon be a small fraction of the market.

Last year the Wine Spectator came out with an article on Israeli wines, and more importantly kosher wines. Curious, I picked up a bottle and shared it with a couple of friends of mine. I thought that it screamed Pacific Northwest fruit. Coincidentally one of the friends that I was sharing it with was from the Pac Northwest and hated the wine. And don't get him started on Pac Northwest juice, he would argue that it is some of the best wine being produced domestically (so would I, but never to his face). I however knew that the region would have to be a hand sell on the wine list so I did not pick it up. I do not think that Israeli wines are the next major wine region, but it is fun to try and my friend Keith Stanhill appreciates the kosher part of the wine.

So that brings us to South America, they are producing some amazingly priced vino. A group of us deemed "The Grape Nuts" got together at my house last month and tried a dozen different labels. Chile and Argentina in particular have come a long way from the barnyard/earthy aromas that plagued their wine for many years. Don't get me wrong, there are still plenty of earthy wines being produced, especially when we look at the Carmenere grape. But I have noticed that they are really trying to cater to the American palate. On top of all of that water is free and labor is cheap so they are able to produce their wine rather inexpensively. All in all I would say that South America has come a long way and I have really seen the Argentinian Malbec's taking off in this market.

For those of you that enjoy the South American wines but like to drink cool refreshing whites in the summer you must try their Torrontes grape. It has gotten a lot of press lately and I have noticed a number of retails stocking up on several labels. The Torrontes is a white grape from Argentina. It is medium to full bodied and has a nice citrus finish. We had a gentleman bring a Torrontes at our South American tasting that he paired with a Ceviche he made. I was shocked at how well the Torrontes held up to the seafood dish. The Ceviche also had a little spicy kick to it and the Torrontes really calmed it down.

As the weather gets warmer for us in the Upper Midwest I find the trend usually shifts to white wines. Even the wine drinker with the palate for the most full bodied reds needs a refreshing drink in the mid-July heat. Most big red wine drinkers switch to a Chardonnay, and the ones that love tannins (that sensation when your mouth feels like it has been wallpapered with suede and velvet) tend to gravitate towards the oaky, California Chards.

As for me when the heat hits it is time to pull out the roses. That's right, think pink. I am not talking about Beringer White Zinfandel. Rather light pink roses from Provence, France or a Chiaretto from Northern Italy. Spain has a number of dry rose producers at really affordable prices. A lot of Americans do not realize that as the heat hits Europe they do not just go for the clean, crisp whites, but they tend to enjoy the rose wines. Again, I am not referring to the sweet pink wines, I am talking about beautifully crafted red grapes that have had minimal skin contact during fermentation that resulted in a pink symphony. With flavors and aromas ranging from raspberries and strawberries, to watermelon and cherries. Plus, rose wines go well with just about any summer dish, including food from the grill.

As the summer heat hits and the humidity rises I find myself sun bathing on the patio with a great book and sunglasses enjoying a clean crisp glass of Clare Valley dry Riesling, that is right, dry Riesling. The Clare Valley in Australia make an awesome dry Riesling that reflects the acid and structure of a Sauvignon Blanc with out all of the herbal notes. However Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand has made quite an impact on the US. What began as a bunch of rich doctors, lawyers, and investors soon became a citrus packed phenomenon.

Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc really put New Zealand on the map. Cloud Bay began when a group of wealthy investors wanted to retire. They got together and bought a plot of land in New Zealand. Using money to pull out all of the stops they created a citrus explosion consisting of flavors and aromas of Grapefruit, Lemons, Limes, and Gooseberries. Then out of now where, boom, New Zealand was on the map. The prices have skyrocketed over the last 3 years with 90+ ratings for labels like Dog Point and Kim Crawford (who until last year I thought was a woman). These screw top phenomenons have made summer wine drinking a year round pleasure. I find myself still trying to find that great deal from New Zealand, as prices on Nobilo and their Icon label rise, I tend to drift more towards the New Harbor side of the scale. A good Sauvignon Blanc for a great price.

All in all I think you have to drink what makes you happy. If you like a sweet Riesling from the Mosel (which I absolutely love), drink Riesling. If you enjoy the overly buttery oaky Chardonnays of Napa (certainly a time and a place for my palate), drink Chard. I like to mix it up, there are so many great wines to taste, why stop with just one.

A rep once tried to sell me on the idea of drinking red in the summers and white in the winter. His argument was that we usually drink at home and there for our house tend to be colder in the summer due to the air conditioning, and warmer in the winter, due to the heater. I told him I don't drink in my house in the summer, I drink on the Veranda.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Wine Literature

When people ask me "how do you know so much about wine?" I never know how to respond to the question. I have been very fortunate to acquire my knowledge from a number of sources. My first and most important was my year long stint in California. I had an affinity for the beach so I spent a lot of time traveling to the coast to go surfing on the weekends. Low on funds and of age I found that I could drink my way to the beach. Spending most of my time in the Central Coast (Paso Robles, Monterey County, Carmel) I was able to see first hand the wine making process. It also gave me insight to this amazing culture that I am now a part of.

When I relocated back to St. Cloud in May of 2005 to open the Veranda at Pioneer Place on Fifth I was taken under the wing of a local expert, Jeff Anderson. Jeff was an amazingly intelligent man when it came to wine, and he was able to teach me some of the basics about wine, but I was always lost trying to memorize terms and regions. Then I connected with another local expert Keith Stanhill. Keith grew up in California and was well read in all areas of wine. He was able to show me how much fun wine was while passing on a message that made sense.

After learning all I could from talking with those two, as much as I possibly could, I started reading trade magazines. The first subscription I bought was to the infamous Wine Spectator. This magazine is absolutely the industry standard, whether you care for it or not. It is a common place for us to come and find relief from all of the different wines that are destined to confuse us. The Spectator came up with a universal rating system and through tasting I was able to taste along with them, identifying what they deemed "quality wines". Since those days my palate and interests have changed but they are still a magnificent base for the consumer, novice and connoisseur alike.

I later subscribed to Decanter Magazine, a great industry magazine for people looking for some dynamite wines. I like Decanter for the unique wines that they seek and rate. Of course there is the ever famous Wine Advocate published by the great Robert Parker. I like Parker because I have found that he is able to taste a lot of wines that I may not have access to or the funds to purchase and I can sift through his rating system creating my own. For example if he gives the rating of 95 points to wine, I am destined not to like it. It will be big, full bodied, alcoholic and rugged (not all bad things). But I come to enjoy the well balanced finesse of some of his lower rated wines. If he gives a wine a lower rating of say 88 points I know it is still good quality, but has less of the giant characteristics he and quite frankly America has come to love.

Then comes my favorite wine magazine, Gourmet Traveller:Wine (that's right, two l's on Traveller), voted the world's best drink magazine, by who I don't know, but in the same breath I do not care. This magazine is written and published in Australia. It takes an in depth look at Australia, New Zealand and sometimes South Africa and France. The best part about this magazine is that it does not even acknowledge the United States. In the publication if they ever even mention America, which is rare, they usually find a way to poke at the American palate and degrade our wine styles. I am not saying I agree with, please don't misunderstand me, what I am saying is it is great to get a different perspective on the world of wine. Of all the wine producing regions in the world I would argue that Australia's over production of bulk wines has flooded the market and cause domestic producers to find a new angle, because the Jug wine market is cornered. Again do not assume that I do not care for Aussie wines either, to me there is nothing better than a Clare Valley Riesling on a hot day. Or maybe a Coonawarra Cab with my steak dinner. Or maybe a spicy McLaren Vale Shiraz to spice up my Thai dish (HOT!).

After reading more and more trade magazines I decided to jump in and get a bona fide wine book. But when I went to Barnes and Noble to pick one up I was overwhelmed by the number of titles available. How was I to know what I wanted to learn? So here are a few hints to help you with what you are looking for. The Oxford Companion by Jancis Robinson is a great reference for people looking for all of the facts including the history dating back to the settlement of that particular region. Great book to read at night if you are having trouble falling asleep. We use it in our Sommelier Degree Program as a great reference tool. Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson have created a book entitled the World Atlas of Wine. This book has great maps and when you are sitting down and enjoying a bottle it is fun to look through and see exactly where the winery or vineyard is in that particular sub region. Her text is perfect for an intro book, not too much information, and she has a great section about varietals.

I stay away from Joanna Simon, although people, especially novices, seem to like her. She is intelligent, I just have a tough time reading her books. However her book Wine and Food is unmatched in the industry. I really like Andrea Immer's Great Wine Made Simple, it was one of the first books I ever read about wine. She does a great job of providing practical applications and helping the reader create tasting groups, themes, and refining their palate.

The last book I will talk about is Karen McNeil's Wine Bible. This is a great reference tool as well as a good read. She writes like she speaks and she is easy to understand. I really enjoy her book and while not all of the information is perfect, it is really good. And no wine book for that matter will ever be perfect. With the ever changing wine laws and Spain's inability to stick with the same rules for more than a week, there is never an up to date book. However these books and magazines are some great insight in to wonderful world of wine. So there, that is how I learned so much about wine!

Nicholas Barth
Cru Wine Specialists
Wine Director

Sunday, April 26, 2009

What grape would you be?

I am attending classes to attain my Sommelier degree (wine degree) from the International Sommeliers Guild (ISG). The "If I were a grape" paper was an exercise that my class was assigned in order for my instructor to get to know us better. It also gave us an opportunity to explore the wild world of grapes.

There are roughly 5000 grapes that make some variation of the adult beverage known as wine (excluding synonyms). If you are interested in learning about the most important grapes you can check out one of Jancis Robinson's book. Jancis Robinson is know in the wine community as the "Varietal Queen" and for good reason. You can check out one of her books for more information. The most comprehensive being the Oxford Companion to Wine (more of a reference). One of her more consumer friendly books is The World Atlas of Wine, the book used for the introduction course to the Sommelier Diploma Program for the ISG. You could go one step further and check out her more in depth look at grapes in her book Vines, Grapes, and Wines.

This exercise was great for me, I had a lot of fun exploring, learning and relating. I wasn't the only person who had fun with this assignment, some of the other students in my class had unique answers. For example one of my classmates compared herself to Pinot Meuniot, one of the grapes used in making Champagne. She justified her choice by explaining that she blended well with others, because Champagne is made from a blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meuniot. She also highlighted that she was bubbly, self explaining. Another classmate of mine shared that he most resembled Chardonnay because like the grape he had many faces, pending on where he was.

I posted my paper on what grape I am most like in order to inspire you. I had a good time exploring grapes and myself and now I want to know what grape you would be and why.

Nicholas Barth
Cru Wine Specialists
Wine Director

If I were a grape?

The grape that is the closest in resemblance to me would have to be Grenache. First, like me, the grape has many different pronunciations and names pending on where it is. For example with my friends I am Nick, this name is used in a place where I feel comfortable and warm. Much like the warmer Spain, where the atmosphere is a little more laid back and the grape is comfortable being called Garnacha. However in my business I am Nicholas, where I must remain professional and poised, as is the Grenache in the south of France where everything must “mean business.”

Like the grape I blend well with others. As a matter of fact some of my social groups may be perceived as elite, much like the extraordinary social group Grenache is in with the Chateauneuf-du-Pape region of France. While I prefer to be with others, and seem to do best under those circumstances, I can be very good on my own, much like Grenache. However some times I consume too much and tend to get a little heavy on the alcohol, similar to the grape.
Like Grenache I love food. I pair well with many dishes pending on the group I am in. And I too have a brother with the same name who could not be more opposite. However we come from the same roots and are found in the same general region.

I am able to adapt and form in to many different personalities. For example I am able to attend a rock concert and then go to live theatre. I am able to hang out in a dive bar, and can rub elbows with some of the finest at dinner parties. Much like Grenache, where it can morph in to an alcoholic rowdy single varietal South African wines, or is a light delight in Tavel. It can also make delicious dessert wines, or accompany lamb as a full-bodied dinner wine. In short we both have many different styles.

The most important characteristic Grenache and I have in common is that we both love to travel, but have a tough time making it out of our own Continent. However when we do, we love the sun and warmth. We are not as big of an influence when we are on the road but we have a good time and are generally liked by others, at least we think so. And most of all, we have a special place in our heart for France, a country that is deep in history and rich in tradition.

I would like to believe that the Grenache is good at heart, that it genuinely means well and wants to make things better, which is why it is able to be a team player in it’s home, the Rhone region of France. I would like to consider myself of the same attributes. All of these reasons make up the fact that if I were a grape, I would be Grenache.

Nicholas Barth
Cru Wine Specialaists
Wine Director