Monday, August 30, 2010

Top Ten Up & Coming Wine Regions

From Latvia to Peru most countries around the world make some variation of what they call wine. While many consumers are familiar with major regions like Napa, Chianti and Bordeaux there are hundreds more that don't have the same reputation or market presence. After looking around the world, and taking into account that plenty of farmers with shovels are trying to grow grapes, I came up with a list the top ten quality up-and-coming wine regions. Some of these regions have been making wine for thousands of years, but recently have seen a change for the better in the production of their wines.

1. Douro, Portugal
The Douro region of Portugal is famous for their fortified dessert wines called Port. While some would argue they have been making quality wine for last four centuries it's not the dessert wine I'm referring to, it's their still red wines. Many don't realize that the region makes as much still table wine as they do Port.

Ten years ago visitors to Portugal would choke down the table wines from the region to hurry up and get to the world famous Ports. Over the last decade, however, the region has stepped up its game and has been producing not only palatable juice, but good quality wines. Producers like Barca Velha have taken Portuguese table wines to a new level showing depth, structure and age-ability. The reds from the region, when done well, can prove to be remarkable values.

2. Toro, Spain
The wines from the Toro region of Spain, located only about 60 miles from the Portuguese border, were famous in the Middle Ages. But many of the region's vines were ripped out in the 14th and 15th century to plant other crops. In 1987 it was given DO status (Spanish quality wine status) and in the last decade it has become a promising wine area. The region is best known for its big powerful reds made from Tempranillo, called Tinto de Toro in Toro. Its recent popularity and quality surge stems from a number of high profile producers who set up shop there in the past ten years. Today the wines from Toro are big and bold and compete with the quality wines of Rioja and Ribera del Duero.

3. Eger, Hungary
Hungary has seen vast improvements in still wine production since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, but is still has a ways to go. The country is best known for its dessert wine called Tokaji, which is made from Botrytis infected grapes. The country's spike in quality reds has come about in the last decade, impressive considering only 30 percent of its vines are planted to red grapes. Regions like Villany, Hajos-Baja, Szekszard and Sopron are all promising regions but I chose to highlight Eger because it's a bit larger than the others and has more presence in the US market.

Eger, located half way between Budapest and Tokaj (the region), is famous for the legend of Egri Bikaver or the "Bulls Blood of Eger." The story dates back to a battle in the mid 16th century where the Hungarian army was defending the fortress of Eger from the superior Turkish army. The story goes that the Hungarian army drank copious amounts of the region's wines, turning their beards red. When the Turks saw them they ran in terror thinking that the Hungarian army had gained strength by consuming the blood of bulls. The name stuck, and today the region makes a wine called Egri Bikaver, which is a red wine made from a blend of Kékfrankos (also called Blaufränkisch), Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and a few others. Eger has begun making quality wines from grapes like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, and a number of large investors have entered the region assisting in the rise in quality.

4. Nashik, India
Like many of the regions on this top ten list, it's tough to say "up-and-coming" with a country like India because they have been producing wine for the last 6000 or so years. But like the other regions highlighted in this article, India's quality has surged in the last decade showing promise and excitement. The shift in quality began in the early 1980's when self-made Bombay millionaire Sham Chougule asked the Champagne powerhouse Piper-Heidseck to consult on a mission to create world-class sparkling wines in India. Today we see examples of still and sparkling wines in the market, with the most readily available being Sula, a venture started in the early 90's by a Stanford-educated engineer.

Sula, located in Nashik, produces red wines from Shiraz, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes as well as whites from Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc. Sula also makes a blush from the Zinfandel grape, a dessert wine from late harvest Chenin Blanc, and a sparkling wine made in the same manner as Champagne from France (Traditional Method). Production methods and an emphasis on site selection and quality fruit have improved resulting in good juice being made throughout the country. The most successful wines from the region are still sparkling wines however.

5. Tasmania, Australia
Australia has emerged as a wine giant in the last ten years, with big brand names like Rosemount Estate, Yellowtail and Lindemans accounting for a large percentage of wine we see on the retail shelves. The country/continent is currently suffering from a wine glut caused by an identity crisis. Commercial bulk wine producers like Yellowtail are making generic, robot wines that lack regional identities and structure, while winemakers like Max Schubert (1930-1994) chose a different path for the country's wines with his conception of the world-class Penfolds Grange Shiraz. Today wines from Australia vary from producer to producer and region to region but one thing is clear, Tasmanian wine quality is on the rise.

Tasmania is considered a new region even though vines were first planted in the early 1800's. The region's wine production is relatively small, but they are quickly becoming recognized worldwide for quality sparkling wines. Tasmania is the most southern region in Australia, which makes it a great environment for producing cool climate grape varieties. Producers continue to improve winemaking practices, and are now focusing on red varietals like Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon as well as whites like Chardonnay and Riesling. When buying from Tasmania, go for their sparkling wines or Pinot Noir; they are the most consistent, best quality examples from the region.

6. Bio-Bio, Chile
There is no question that Chilean wines have a strong presence in the United States wine market. Much of the quality wine from the country comes from the Central Valley. However, innovative producers like Cono Sur have ventured further south to Bio-Bio to make some remarkable wines.

Bio-Bio is one of the most southern wine producing regions in the world. Its location, a similar latitude to that of Otago region of New Zealand, provides a cool climate. Varieties like Pinot Noir and Riesling are producing some fresh, balanced, delicious wines. As Bio-Bio's quality and fame continue to rise, we will see more producers planting vines in the region.

7. Rio Grande do Sol, Brazil
Brazil is the fifth largest producer of wine in the Southern Hemisphere behind Argentina, Australia, South Africa, and Chile. The country has been making some variation of wine for centuries, but only in the last twenty years have we seen quality turn a corner. In the 1970's, large producers like Moet & Chandon, Seagram, Domecq, Martini & Rossi and many others established wineries in the area. Like many young regions the best wines were sparkling, however today many quality reds are being made with grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Merlot.

Brazil, along with many regions across the globe, is benefiting from the concept of the "Flying Winemaker,” basically a winemaker who travels to the Southern Hemisphere in his off season to consult. With popularity and interest from quality winemakers comes investment, better equipment and more education. We will see more Brazilian wines in the domestic market in the next 5 years, much of it good quality.

8. Salta, Argentina
Salta has seen a surge in production in the last few years. Many producers in Argentina focus on one grape from one region: Malbec from Mendoza. But Mendoza is cool and won't ripen all grape varieties. To expand their portfolios, many producers have sourced fruit from the warmer northern Salta region. The wines produced here are usually whites like Torrontes, but more varieties are being experimented with including Cabernet Sauvignon, which is known for its ability to thrive in warm climates. If you’ve ever tried a Torrontes, you may have had a wine from Salta and not even realized it. It’s my prediction that we will see more variety and an increase in quality from Salta in the next four or five years.

9. Okanagan Valley, Canada
The Okanagan Valley is the oldest and most important wine region in British Columbia. It's also one of the world's most northerly wine growing areas. The region is Canada's best chance at producing world-class varietal wines from grapes like Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir.

A recent dam break caused over a million gallons of water (enough to fill 8 Olympic sized swimming pools) to rush down the mountainside into the Okanagan Valley. The water took with it boulders, trees and plenty of mud burring some vineyards up to 25 feet. Only 40 total acres of vines were affected, but experts say the new soil deposited is better than the existing, so I guess there's a silver lining. This region produces wines of good quality, but you have to pay for them. Not the most value packed, but certainly an up-and-comer.

10. Long Island AVA, United States of America
The Long Island AVA (American Viticulture Area) is located in New York. Its climate and position to the ocean make it a great place to grow cool-climate grapes like Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Recently, producers have been experimenting with grapes like Chardonnay, Viognier, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (only in the sunniest spots).

Producers like Bedell on Long Island have begun to receive international attention. Their flagship wine, Musee, is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and Syrah. The wine received a 90-point rating (out of 100) from Wine Spectator for their 2005 vintage. The region is gaining recognition, but it's hard to find wines from the area. Many of the producers make small amounts and only sell their juice at the winery. If you are in a state that allows direct-to-consumer shipping, look up a few wineries and order a bottle. Like the wines of the Okanagan, they are not cheap, but they make some damn fine examples of Riesling.

There you have it, a list of the top ten up-and-coming wine regions in the world. While there are certainly many that one could argue would fit into this category, especially ones from Italy, this list looks at some of the lesser known places and their promising future. I wanted to put this together to help promote wines from these lesser known regions. Without a market to sell its juice, a producer has no drive to increase its quality. With awareness comes buying power, when we support these regions we encourage growth and ultimately more variety in our market.

I hope you have a chance to try wines from a few of these regions, and please let me know if there are any "up-and-coming" regions you like by emailing me, posting a comment on the blog here or contacting me on Facebook.

Until next week, thanks for reading.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director

Monday, August 23, 2010

Top Ten Reasons to Order a Bottle Over a Glass

In today's age of chain restaurants and flare ordering untainted wine can be a challenge. This isn't limited to just chains however, local bars, steak houses, diners and other eatery establishments have a difficult time maintaining freshness and quality in the wines they offer by the glass. When going out for a drink or dinner the odds of enjoying your wine increase exponentially if you order a bottle over a glass. Here are the top ten reasons why:

1. Selection
Many restaurants and wine bars have three times more wines available by the bottle when compared to the by the glass selection. In an attempt to maintain freshness many establishments only put a handful of wines by the glass. Ordering wine by the bottle allows you to choose from a much larger list.

2. The fourth glass is free
It's almost always a better deal to buy wine by bottle than to purchase it by the glass. Establishments that serve wine take less risk when customers order it by the bottle, and they reward us for it. If you really want a value (price vs quality) order the $100+ bottles. While that sounds crazy these wines usually have a flat fee added to wholesale price whereas many wines under $100 are based on a certain margin like 200% markup or something.

3. Quality
This is the single most important reason to order a bottle of wine over a glass. Many establishments who serve wines by the glass don't maintain a freshness quality policy. In other words, that Merlot behind the bar, that was closed by putting the cork back in to it, has been sitting back there for the last three weeks. A good wine bar or restaurant will have a three day freshness quality policy meaning that if it's opened on Monday it needs to be dumped down the drain at the end of the shift on Wednesday. A great establishment has a two freshness quality policy so that wine that was opened on Monday is dumped at the end of the shift the next day.

Spoilage and dumping wine can be a major cost issue for restaurants so many just choose to open it and leave it open until it's gone. I still don't understand the chain restaurants that serve their wines by the glass out of magnums (equates to two standard bottles). They have a tough enough time selling 4 glasses before it goes bad let alone 8. Ordering a bottle ensures that the juice inside is fresh and if it's tainted with any number of wine related faults you can send it back. Not that you can't send back a glass of wine but who's to say the situation is going to be any better?

4. Temperature
Optimal service for most red wines is between 60 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. However many red wines served by the glass are stored behind the hot bar on shelves (bar coolers emit a lot of heat so it gets very hot behind the bar, that's why a lot of bartenders wear shorts). For whites the optimal service temperature is between 45 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Yet many white wines are stored in the beer coolers that are usually set around a cool 32 degrees Fahrenheit, way too cool for even the coldest of whites.

If your order a glass of wine and it's served too warm the only ways to chill it down are to put ice in the glass or ask your server to put it in the freezer. Ice dilutes the wine and the freezer could take a while, neither option sounds good.

When you order a bottle of wine you can control the temperature better than if you order a glass. If the wine bottle brought to you is too warm, most likely because they store it in their kitchen, you can ask for an ice bucket to cool it down. If a white is too cold you can just let it sit for a moment with a towel or napkin around it or put your hand on the bowl of the glass to warm it up (you could do this for a wine by the glass that is too cold as well). People who say it's taboo to put your hand on the bowl of the glass are assuming that the wine is stored and served at the optimal temp. If it isn't, putting your hand on the bowl to warm it up is a must.

5. Brown bag it
Many states allow diners to take their open bottle of wine home with them if they don't finish. As I mentioned, many restaurants have a smaller selection of wines by the glass. By allowing people to put the cork back in the bottle and take it home states promote responsible drinking while allowing people to have any wine on the list without having to finish the whole bottle. If you don't know the laws of the state you are in ask a server for clarification.

6. Decanting
If you don't like chewing your red wine than you might want to order a bottle. Many reds have sediment or floating particles. Restaurants decant (pour the wine into another vessel) to remove these particles. If you order a glass of wine and that particular bottle has sediment odds are you are going to get some chewies. When ordering a bottle diners can request that the server decant the wine to remove the particles.

7. Sherlock Holmes
When you order a bottle of wine you get a number of clues as to the type of establishment you are dining at. The way a waiter holds, presents, opens and serves a bottle of wine can tell you a lot about the type, and amount, of training the staff received and ultimately the type of restaurant or wine bar you are in. If the server shakes the bottle, opens it by pulling off the foil (also called capsule), brings it to you after it has been opened at the bar, or any number of service faux pas you can rest assured, the establishment isn't up for a Michelin star.

I'm not implying you need to dine at a three star every night, I'm just saying that ordering a bottle and paying attention to the way it is handled can tell you a lot about an establishment, which can come in handy if you are not familiar with the restaurant. If they open the bottle behind the bar and bring it to you let me recommend ordering the fried chicken strips, not the steak and shrimp.

8. The cork
When you order a bottle of wine the server should open it in front of you and present you with the cork. While presenting the cork is mostly tradition it can serve a purpose. I have had plenty of wines that have been tainted or unhealthy and have a perfect cork. Inversely, I have had wines that are perfect and the cork looks like a disaster zone. The cork can be one of the many components a consumer uses to check for a wines health. When you order a bottle you get an extra clue as to how the wine was stored which can help determine if it's worthy of purchasing.

9. Verification
When ordering a glass of wine you don't usually get to see the bottle. A server or bartender may accidentally, or worse yet intentionally, pour you a glass of Kendall Jackson Chardonnay instead of Talley Chardonnay ($5 glass price difference) and if you don't pay attention you may not notice it. Ordering the bottle ensures you get the exact vintage, style and producer you intended.

10. Size matters
When you order a glass of wine the bartender determines the amount of wine you get, which can be good if they have a heavy hand. But if it is the last pour from a bottle and they don't want to open another you may get shorted. Ordering a bottle ensure you get the four glasses you paid for without discrepancy.

While I feel like I have made a compelling argument for why it's a safer bet to order a bottle of wine over a glass it can have its drawbacks, especially at a quality establishment. When ordering a bottle you are limited to just one type of wine whereas if you order wine by the glass you can try a number of different things. If the place has a fancy Enomatic wine dispenser they might have some really cool stuff available by the glass and odds are it's still pretty fresh. Also, places that have great reputation for wine are a green light to order by the glass. But the majority of restaurants don't pay enough attention to their glass pours and so most of the time I recommend going for the bottle.

The best case scenario when dining is to have a group of four. It makes it easier to order a bottle because everyone can have one glass and you can try a couple of different wines. Or if you dine with me, a dozen different wines.

Until next time thanks for reading and please pass this along to a friend if you liked it.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director
Cru Wine Specialists

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Top Ten Reasons to Drink Grüner Veltliner

Grüner Veltliner is the most widely planted grape variety in Austria covering about 40,000 acres of land. Each year Austria makes about 20 million cases of Grüner which accounts for around 1/3 of the country's entire wine production.

Austria is a small player producing only 1% of the world's total wine. This is one of the reasons why we don't see a lot of Austrian wines on the retail shelf, well this and the fact that they consume a lot of their own juice. Over the past 5 years however, domestic consumption in Austria has been decreasing and exports have been increasing so we are seeing more and more Grüner in the US. Here are the top ten reasons you should pick up one of those bottles.

1. It's meant to be consumed young.
In the today's wine market about 90% of the juice produced is meant to be consumed within 3 years of vintage (the year on the bottle). As a consumer this can be really confusing and frustrating. Nobody wants to drink a bottle too late when the quality has decreased and the same goes for drinking it too early, we want to have it in it's prime. But with a large percentage of the wines produced worldwide only lasting a few years how can a consumer tell when they get one that is suppose to age?

Austrian Grüner takes all of the guess work out of aging, it almost always needs to be consumed within 3 years of vintage. If you see a Grüner in a retail store or on a wine list that is over 3 years old ask your clerk or waiter what's up? Maybe it fits in to that very small percentage of Grüner's that can age for a decade. Odds are they just haven't been able to move it and they are stuck with an old vintage.

2. Austria has perfected it.
Grüner is a delightful little taste of Austria. While small plantings of the grape existing in Hungary, the Czech Republic and the United States it is Austian Grüner we see on the shelves and for good reason, they make a lot of it, and recently they make a lot of it well. Very few grapes varieties produce such consistent quality and are not picked up and planted around the world. Grüner is to Austria what little pocket knives and holey cheese is to the Swiss, a little taste of that countries culture.

3. It tastes great.
Grüner Veltliner is delicious. It's racy acidity and astonishing minerality make it refreshing to drink. The grape's stereotypical profile descriptor is white pepper but it is so much more than that. It's citrus and stone fruit flavors coupled with lychee and spice make it a real treat to enjoy all on its own.

4. It was adulterated with "antifreeze".
While this may sound like a bad thing let me explain. In 1985 a few of Austria's producers used diethylene glycol to sweeten their wines artificially. The media, for fear of NOT having a headline, screamed from the mountain top that Austria puts antifreeze into their wines. Unfortunately the media was able to manipulate chemistry without anyone noticing. You see antifreeze is ethylene glycol NOT diethylene glycol. Diethylene glycol is actually less toxic than alcohol. So in short they were making their wines less poisonous.

Since the embarrassing scandal Austria has tightened up their laws and are now an open book to the world hiding nothing. Their production methods have since changed and their wines are better than ever. This scandal, while not good, resulted in a new era of scrumptious Austrian Grüner.

5. It's flexible.
Grüner is an incredibly versatile grape. It's used to make still, sparkling, dry, and sweet wines. No matter the form, if a producer does their job well Grüner's wonderful minerality shines through resulting in a pleasantly refreshing experience.

6. It doesn't go by any crazy synonyms.
While Grüner has a number of synonyms nobody uses them, at least not here in the states. So most bottles produced say Grüner Veltliner right on the label. Not a region like Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chianti or Rioja or not some crazy grape name like Spätburgunder in Germany (Pinot Noir), Steen in South Africa (Chenin Blanc), or Shiraz in Australia (Syrah) to name a few. When a white wine from Austria says Grüner Veltliner on the label you know the grape used to make the wine is Grüner Veltliner and the style is crisp and medium bodied.

7. It pairs well with asparagus.
Grüner is said to be one of the very few wines that pairs well with wine's arch nemesis, asparagus. It's vegetal qualities are said to mirror those of asparagus. But beyond asparagus Grüner is multifaceted. It pairs well with seafood and pork. Also with sushi and spicy Thai. I does well with cheeses and fried food, salad and bacon. It can pair with sweetbreads and schnitzel or mushrooms and pasta. It can even stand up to veal! All around it's a versatile food wine and has the acidity to compliment tough to pair foods. A great "go-to" wine.

8. Lenz Moser is a little piece of wine innovation.
Without getting all "cork dork" on you, in Austria in the early 1900's Dr. Lenz Moser developed a vine training system that changed the way Austrians, and most of Europe, plant their grapes. The vine training system is liked by many because it grows grapes in a manner that are easier to harvest in turn decreasing labor. It also trains the leaves in such a way that they shade the berries from the hot sun. Today over 85% of the country's vines are planted to the Lenz Moser vine training system. In addition Dr. Moser was a wine producer. Today Lenz Moser Winery is the largest wine producer in the country and his son carries on the tradition.

9. It's fun to say.
While this may seem like a lame reason to drink a bottle of wine it's true, Grüner Veltliner (GROO-ner VELT-lean-er) is fun to say, it sounds wicked Austrian. Really ham it up if you order it, you'll see what I mean. Wine is fun, saying words we aren't familiar with is a part of the fun.

10. It's different.
The truth is 8 grapes make up about 90% of America's wine sales. I have deemed them "The Great 8" (Riesling, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah). Many consumers in the states are beginning to step outside their comfort zones to try new, unique wines. Grüner is a great example of a unique wine. It allows consumers to try something new without having to venture too far. Its profile loosely lands it somewhere between Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. So the next time you reach for a bottle of wine, try an Austrian Grüner.

Well there you have it. There are the top 10 reasons to drink Grüner Veltliner. While they may seem like a stretch the long and short of it all is that the wines made from the Grüner Veltliner grapes are distinctive and delicious. Hopefully this inspires a wave of Grüner sales and a wave of very satisfied consumers.

As always thanks for reading and if you liked this article, please pass it along to a friend. Until next time.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director

Monday, August 9, 2010

Prosecco anyone? Or should I say Sparkling Glera?

On hot summer days I can think of few greater pleasures than a bottle of Prosecco and a book on the patio. With temperatures in Minnesota heating up to 103 degrees Fahrenheit this week, coupled with a humidity of 96% humidity, I'm thinking about just staying home. I won't even go outside, just open my window a crack and sit near it while reading In Search of Bacchus and drinking Prosecco. Or should I say Sparkling Glera?

Before I explain the Glera/Prosecco debacle we better break the wine world in to two categories: Old World and New World. Old World wine producing countries are basically classic European wine producing countries. France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Austria, and Germany for example. New World wine producing countries are anywhere Old World countries sent prisoners or explorers. Australia, New Zealand, United States, Argentina, Chile are examples of New World countries.

Old World wine producing countries are more focused on site selection, or region, than they are on what grapes are used to make the wine. So commonly Old World wines display the region the grapes were grown in on the label. Chianti for example is a region in Tuscany, Italy where they grow grapes and make red blends using the Sangiovese variety as the base. Another example is Bordeaux, France, a region where they make red wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and a few others. In Burgundy, France they make red wines from Pinot Noir and whites from Chardonnay but simply label them as Burgundy or a more specific region or vineyard.

Champagne, Chablis, Vouvray, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Barolo, Amarone, Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Tokaji are a few examples of popular wine producing regions in Europe that you may have seen on a bottle. Each of these regions uses different grapes to make wine. Sometimes it's a blend, other times it's a single variety (grape). Of course there are exceptions to the rules. Countries like Germany and Austria commonly put the grape on the label.

New World wine producing countries on the other hand are more focused on grape varieties. Not to say New World wine producers don't care about where they grow them, it's just that the region doesn't tell you what the wine's profile is like. For example if I said Napa what would you describe that wine as? Napa makes wines from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and many, many more. So it would be impossible to label a wine from Napa, California by its regional identity. This isn't just limited to California, all of the New World countries put the name of the grape or their proprietary name (ie. if it's a blend calling it "the red") on the label.

So why did you need to know Old World vs New World wines? Because the label is what scares a lot of people when purchasing. Are most people going to buy a $20 bottle of wine that says Cahors on the label? If they didn't know that Malbec is grape used to make it, probably not. But if people see Malbec on the label and they like big reds, they are more likely to purchase it. We know grape profiles better than we know regional profiles, especially if they are obscure. This has resulted in some Old World producers putting the grape names on the label.

Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene, more simply Prosecco, use to be the best of both worlds; it was the name of the grape and the region in the Veneto, Italy that produces sparkling wine. It was easy to sell Prosecco because you could simply tell the consumer just that "Prosecco is the name of the grape AND the region." There was no more grape/region confusion. But in 2009 the Prosecco region was promoted to the highest Italian status level, DOCG, and so begins the confusion.

In Italy there are basically 4 quality tiers with the best, DOCG, being made from grapes grown on the finest sites in the country. These regions are restricted to specific grapes, styles, labeling and aging requirements, and more. Now that Prosecco is a DOCG it is more valuable, and the Italian government wants to protect it.

Prior to 2009 a producer could make wine outside of the Prosecco region using the Prosecco grape and simply put Prosecco on the label. Because the Prosecco region was only a DOC (the tier below DOCG) nobody really cared. But now that it's top dog, the producers from the region want to eliminate the ability for others to tarnish the name. Enter Glera. Glera is the Prosecco grape's new name. So now if a producer makes sparkling wine from the Glera grape and it doesn't fit in to the DOCG specifications, they can't put Prosecco on the label.

I don't blame the Italians for wanting to protect the name, although they are not making Italian wines any easier to understand. I think my real beef with Italian wines are the DOCG laws in general. I mean, Moscato d'Asti and Prosecco are in the same quality tier as Brunello di Montalcino and Barolo. Don't get me wrong, Moscato d'Asti and Prosecco are delicious and I love them as a nice affordable summer sparkling alternative. But the fact that they are in the same tier doesn't make sense. The best sparkling wines are made when the second fermentation is done in the bottle, this is called the Traditional Method. It is used in the production of Champagne, Cava and many other quality bubblies. Moscato d'Asti and Prosecco are made using the tank method, the process of making the wine in big tanks and shooting them under pressure to the bottles. This is not the most artisan or quality method so it can't be the highest standard in Italy, in my humble opinion.

So Prosecco is the region and Glera is the grape. And while Glera has always been the name of the grape, the region used the Prosecco name to identify it (like Brunello for Sangiovese). They could have at least made up a new name for the producers making Prosecco that don't fall under the DOCG, maybe one that had a better ring to it. If you are a producer across the street from Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG and you have been making "Prosecco" all of your life you now have to change the name to Sparkling Glera? Sexy. More importantly many wine professionals like myself have spent their careers selling and promoting Prosecco and now we have to go back and explain "well, it use to be called Prosecco..."

So for the consumer, not a whole lot has really changed. Prosecco produced in the region will still be Prosecco. Prices will rise a little for Prosecco because it now has DOCG status and parties with the cool cats. But it will still taste and look the same. On the flip side though there maybe a new value find...Sparkling Glera anyone?

As always thanks for reading and if you liked it feel free to pass it along to a friend.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director
Cru Wine Online

See Nick and learn more at

Monday, August 2, 2010

La Mancha, No More Stinky Shoe!

As the quality of Spainish wines continues to rise, so does consumption in the United States. From their clean crisp white wines in the northwest to their amazingly value packed sparkling wines, called Cava, in the northeast - the region is producing some well received wines. The country has shed its stinky shoe reputation that plagued the nation in the 1980's and is quickly becoming a major player on the retail shelves in the United States. Wine lovers are drifting from the traditional regions like Rioja and Ribera del Duero and are looking for exciting new values from DO's (wine regions) in the heart of Spain like La Mancha, Jumilla and Manchuela.

These regions in the heart of Spain just a decade or two ago were believed to be the barbecue stain on the nations clean white shirt. La Mancha, for example, received a bad wrap in the 1980's because they had a problem controlling and producing quality juice. The problems started in the vineyard and stuck with the juice all the way to the bottle. In the vineyard growers were harvesting their fruit too late. They let the grapes pass ideal ripeness which resulted in unbalanced grapes to make wine from.

In the winery their facilities were unclean and they couldn't control fermentation (the process of converting grapes in to wine). This resulted in the stinky shoe aroma that unfortunately became their calling card. With a little help from technology they are now able to control the temperature resulting in fresher, brighter, more flavorful wines.

Bright flavors and fresher wines aren't the only La Mancha qualities enticing Americans, the price is an important factor too. Wines from popular regions like Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Priorat can be expensive. One of the many reasons for this is the use of oak. Rioja, Ribera del Duero, and Priorat use a lot of oak either to cater to the market demand or by law, and oak is expensive. A standard Barrique Bordeaux wine barrel can hold 59 gallons of wine and will make roughly 300 bottles or 25 cases. If you made this size of barrel from Limousin French Oak and applied medium toast (literally burning the inside) to it you would be looking at paying up to $1000 or more per barrel. That's an extra $40 per case, just for oak.

Regions like La Mancha are producing a style of wine that has less oak influence, if any at all. The producers from the region put more emphasis on fruit and freshness than depth and complexion. Because the prices of La Mancha wines are a fraction of those from Priorat if the region does use oak they must come up with clever ways to impart the flavor while trying to maintain a budget. Some examples of their creativity include stainless steel barrels lined with oak staves. This way a winemaker can choose how much oak they want to use and how much surface area they desire without having to pay the price for an entire barrel. In addition to submerging oak staves in to a stainless steel vessel some producers use oak chips or saw dust filled tea bags. Again, helping them impart oak flavor without having to pay for the barrel.

Beyond new winemaking techniques the wine prices from the region remain low because it produces a lot of juice, and I mean a lot. With only 300 wineries La Mancha accounts for almost 40 percent of all the wine produced in Spain. With that much juice they literally flood the market each year with low priced wines.

Now, before you go out and buy every La Mancha wine you can get your hands here are two things you need to know. Buy with caution. There is just as much, if not more, poor quality juice being produced as their is good. When buying a bottle of wine from La Mancha ask your sales rep, store clerk or sommelier about the wine before purchasing. Most of the time the juice is good and that's why it made its way on to the shelf or the list. But buying inexpensive wines to put on end caps or use as house wines can be appealing to some retailers and restaurateurs, so be advised.

Second, La Mancha wines aren't meant to age. The region is hot so the grapes get very ripe. This results in a fruit forward style that is high in alcohol. With only 3 or 4 years of age these wine lose fruit which heightens the alcohol perception. So stay away from anything with too much vintage depth (age). Instead go for the bright, young Tempranillos from the region. These wine display amazing fruit and character for the price. The region also produces quality single varietal and blended wines from red grapes like Garnacha, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah.

In terms of green grapes the region grows varieties like Airen (the most widely planted grape in the world accounting for over 30 percent of the grapes planted in Spain), Viura (also called Macabeo and is one of the grapes used in the production of Cava) and Chardonnay. White wines from the region can be a bit too alcoholic, so steer clear of lighter grape varieties like Sauvignon Blanc.

In short, there are some really exciting wines being produced in the region but buy with caution. Thanks to adventurous consumers the quality has gotten better but it still has a long way to go. The only way to encourage more consistency is to support the region and purchase the quality products. So get out there and drink, if for no other reason than to show the world wine market you support quality at a value. Who knows, maybe it will inspire quality production in places like Turkey or better yet some place domestic like Nevada (the two have a similar climate and are on similar latitudinal lines to La Mancha)? If La Mancha can do it, why can't Nevada? Go Rebs!

As always thanks for reading and if you liked this pass it along to a friend.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director