In-Depth: Deciphering - German Wine Labels

Jun 30, 2009


I know what you’re thinking already. Did I step back into time? Is this an old German wine label?

German wine labels have been known to exhibit a Teutonic quality, with illustrations of the Rhine and medieval villages while featuring old Germanic script. Not to mention the amount of writing on the label, all of it in a foreign language contributing to what most wine marketers and buyers would call a ‘nightmare’.

But once you get past the label’s archaic illustrations (I find them quite beautiful myself but I have a fascination with German culture) and learn how to deconstruct the label, you’ll find that the Germans have made it a lot easier for you than the French or Italians.

Greg Nees in his fascinating book, Germany: Unraveling an Enigma, provides some of the most fundamental insights into the German people. He writes of their need for order, knowledge and clarity.

Germany wine labels offer all of this. Let’s break this label down together.

JOH. JOS. CHRISTOFFEL ERBEN – this is the name of the wine producer/estate in Germany (and a personal favourite of mine). You will always find a producer’s name on the front of the bottle.

2003 – The year of the vintage. So far so good. Easy, right?
ÜRZIGER WÜRZGARTEN RIESLING AUSLESE - Alright now, don’t panic, we can handle this.
Ürzig is the name of the town. The name of the town always ends in the ‘er’ on a
label. (Basically, it is the possessive, ie. Ürzig’s’…)
Würzgarten is the vineyard name. So the first title would read in English as: Ürzig’s Würzgarten.
Riesling (pronounced REEZ-ling) is the name of the grape.
Auslese or selected harvest (lese = harvest, aus = out) is the time when the grapes were picked. The grapes used to make this wine were harvested late in a warm season. These wines tend to be more expensive because the growers picked individual bunches. Most likely this wine is going to be medium-sweetness.

QUALITÄTSWEIN mit PRÄDIKAT (QmP) – literally translated as ‘Quality wine with specific attributes’. These are top of the class. The wines are natural with no Chaptalisation (a process by which grape juice or sugar is added to get higher levels of alcohol) is allowed.

You will also find on other German wine labels:

QUALITÄTSWEIN bestimmter ANBAUGEBIET (AbA) – translating as ‘Quality wine of a particular region’. There are thirteen wine-growing regions or Anbaugebiete in Germany. The ones you’ll most likely encounter in the North America wine market, including the Mosel Saar Ruwer are: Nahe, Rheingau, Rheinhessen and the Pfalz. The remaining regions, Ahr, Mittelrhein, Baden, Franken, Wurttemburg, Hessiche Bergstrasse, Saale-Unstrut, and Saachsen are either much too small (Ahr and Hessiche Bergstrasse) or the domestic market leaves little to export (Baden for instance, which also imports a great deal of red wine).

QbA simply means that the grapes for this wine can only come from the specified region on the bottle. Blending between different regions is absolutely verboten. These wines are generally chaptalised with higher levels of sugar and alcohol.

Let’s look at the different quality categories (found on QmP labeled German wines) indicating when the grapes are picked.
KABINETT – a wine made from grapes during the regular harvest. Normally a Kabinett wine will be low in alcohol and typically dry but there are variations and exceptions (see below). Kabinett wines are food-friendly but great with conversation.
SPÄTLESE (pronounced ‘SHPATE-lay-zuh’) – which means “late harvest” The grapes are riper, the intensity and strength is more full on. These wines can be either dry or blessed with a touch of sweetness.
AUSLESE (pronounced ‘OUSS-lay-zuh) – already mentioned…
BEERENAUSLESE (BA) (BEER-EN–ous-lay-zuh) “berry selected harvest”. These wines are rare, expensive and usually affected by noble rot, Botryis cinera, a friendly rot that concentrates the sugar of the grapes, giving these grapes a tangy-honey component. Not to be missed.
TROCKENBEERENAUSLESE (TBA) (TRAWCK-EN-BEER-EN-ouss-lay-zuh) – or ‘dry selected harvest’. Don’t let the dry fool you. These are rare, very sweet, very exquisite wines, made in the most exceptional of years. The individual grapes picked for these wines are shriveled up like raisins. It will take one person a full day just to select these grapes. The alcohol is low but the price isn’t.
EISWEIN (pronounced in German as ICE-vine) or Ice Wine. The grapes are usually picked in the early, early morning (2 or 3 am) by harvesters wearing gloves so their hands don’t warm up the grapes.

GUTSABFULLUNG – the wine was bottled at the estate of Joh.Jos. Christoffel Erben.
WEINGUT – meaning Wine Estate
MOSEL SAAR RUWER – one of the most famous Germany quality wine regions. The Mosel (Moselle in French) is a left tributary of the Rhine with the Saar and Ruwer being its tributaries. The vineyards in the Mosel are among the most beautiful and steepest in the world, making mechanical harvesting impossible and hand-picking a necessity. The high cost of labour is factored into the cost of these bottles.

You’ll also notice a lot of numbers on the wine label. This means the wine has been given a quality-approved number, letting the customer know that a special organization has approved of these wines.

Still with me?

German Rieslings are perhaps, like Sherry from Jerez in Southern Spain, the most under-appreciated wines in the North American market. At the turn of the 20th century, they were the most sought after. But tastes change and so do perceptions. Many wine buyers are either put off by their labels or the sugar levels. Most fine German wines are not sweet, but rather intense and bold. The ones that are sweet are far less sugary than a can of cola.

It was in the 1960s that mass-produced German bulk wine (aka ‘sugar water’ like Liebfraumilch) came on the market and ruined Germany’s reputation for being regarded as a fine wine producer.

If you happen to like Riesling but are not partial or prepared for the occasional sweetness, there are ways to tell if the wine is going to be sweet or not.

First of all, some German wine labels will have the following words on their labels:
TROCKEN – meaning dry
HALBTROCKEN – ‘half-dry’ with up to 1.8% residual sugar.
FEINHERB – also indicates dry
CLASSIC – or ‘harmoniously dry’

Sometimes these words don’t appear. You can get a Kabinett that is sweet and a Spätlese that is dry. Many German wine producers are quite small but produce somewhere between 20 and 30 different wines. How can you tell if one is going to be sweeter than the other?

Well, the lower the alcohol, the sweeter the wine. Sugar converts into alcohol. The more sugar converted into alcohol, the less sugar left in the wine. This is the best way to tell.

Now, that wasn’t so bad, was it?


Vino Variations

Jun 26, 2009

“There are few agricultural crops whose products are subtly diverse as those of the grape vine, Vitis vinifera. … from global variations between wines in different continents, to the local difference between adjacent vineyards…” – Tim Unwin, Wine and the Vine

Tim Unwin has a point. Wine is diverse but that’s the pleasure of discovering its beauty and complexity.

Pick up a tomato at the grocery store. Hold it in your hand, and see the different shades of red, the different shapes and varieties like Roma, Beefsteak and Vine-grown. But inside, no matter the variety, we know it will still taste like a tomato. By any other name….

Pick up a bottle of wine – you can never be a hundred percent sure. What has gone on behind the scenes to make the wine? What kind of soil were the grapes grown in (some soils can give a wine a flinty character as in Pouilly-Fumé), what was the climate like (cooler for whites – Germany and New Zealand, warmer for reds – Australia and California) and the weather variations during the year (heavy rain at harvest dilutes the grapes and makes the resulting wine thin)?

But that is just the vineyard side. What about the winery? How were the grapes pressed? When – early in the harvest or late? If late, the wine might be richer.

Then there are the techniques used in the winery from steel fermentation (fermenting the wine in temperature controlled containers), carbonic maceration (just throwing the red grapes in, not pressing them, letting them ferment), and the different yeast strains to assist in the process (different strains can bring out different flavours in the wine). A bottle of wine, unlike the growth of a tomato, is really the result of thousands of decisions made, some creative, some economic, some innovative, others arbritary.

I suppose this is the reason why I don’t have a favourite bottle. I want to try everything from everywhere. You can spend an entire lifetime learning about wine and still discover something new every time you open a bottle.

My brother and I were talking about this one evening when he tried to determine whether I had a favourite wine. He noticed I was always bringing home something different.

We talked about his friends, Yellowtail buyers who go to the liquor store with the Kangaroo-logo in mind. The familiar is comforting; you can’t blame them when it comes to wine. Wine can be not only diverse but incredibly confusing.

For instance, take a variety like Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet is universal in the world of wine. It is planted just about everywhere wine-bearing grapes are found (well, maybe not Germany, it’s a bit cold there and Cabernet needs a warmer climate to mature and ripen). It’s very much at home is Bordeaux, France but there is also California Cabernet, Chilean Cabernet, Australian Cabernet, Canadian Cabernet. There is even Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon. Which one to choose?

Good question to ask but not so easy to answer. Consider that the same grape would most likely make the same kind of wine around the world. And it usually does. Cabernet is high in tannins (the constituent of a red wine that has a mouth-drying effect) and usually associated with a blackcurrant flavour.

There are country variations. Chilean Cabernets often possess bell-pepper and cedar wood notes. In France, Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux will be blended with Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc so with blackcurrant notes, you’ll get pencil shavings and maybe cocoa (from the Merlot). In Australia, especially in Coonawarra, you’ll often find hints of mint and eucalyptus, sometimes menthol.

California Cabernet can be full-bodied, with ripe notes of dried sage, dust and rich dark fruit but this also depends on the price. (I know, I know, there are so many ‘buts’ in buying wine.) A cheap California Cabernet will most likely come from vineyards with high yields; that is, a lot of grape berries on the vine. Bulk wines are produced from high-yielding vineyards. The more grapes from a grape bunch, the more likely the pressed juice will be thin and lacking in nuance. A premium California Cabernet will have a bigger price tag because the vineyard will have lower yields as growers will prune back excess grapes. The vine, pruned back, will concentrate on the remaining grapes, imparting the most flavour and complexity.

Buying a bottle of wine isn’t easy. It’s truly about experimenting, choosing three to four Cabernet Sauvignons from three to four different countries, then making a comparison. The next step is to choose Cabernet Sauvignons from the same country and compare again. If you really want the challenge, buy a few Cabernet Sauvignon from the same region, i.e. Napa Valley or Maipo in Chile.

And then there’s the question about aging. Not only will you find a variety of vintages at the wine store but keep in mind that Southern Hemisphere wines from South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand all have their harvests between February and May. A 2007 New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc will be six months older than a French, American and Canadian Sauvignon Blanc of the same year. The vintage date is always the year of harvest.

Other brand wines or what I call prêt-à-boire, (ready to drink) and prêt-à-porter (ready to carry), will not substantially improve over time. Some maybe wines will get better after two to three years, four at the most. (In the Oxford Companion to Wine, under AGEING, there is a substantial list of wines that are not known to improve after a long time in bottle. Not surprisingly, boxed wine or bag-in-the-box.)

Basically Yellowtail, like any number of huge wineries – i.e. the size of oil-refineries - are known to be consistent by giving the customer the same kind of product year after year like a hamburger franchise. The Pinot Grigio 2007 and the Chardonnay 2007 from either Lindemann’s or Yellowtail will be the same in 2008 and 2009. These wines are meant to be ‘popped and poured’ as James Laube, an editor at Wine Spectator said about modern wines.

While the French depend on vintage, a good or bad year making or breaking the quality of a wine, the Australians select and blend their wines from any number of vineyards, many of them located in the South Eastern states: Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. If the Aussies had a great year in three locations and bad in two, they’ll choose the grapes from the best sites and blend them.

In France, if you are making Rhone wines in the Côte-Rôtie and a hail storm falls on your crop before the harvest, you’re basically screwed.

So really, the big-guns are in it for the money and the last thing they want is surprises. They want to give the customer a product that delivers and satisfies expectations. They’ve created a brand everyone can depend upon.

The wines that can age are often at a premium. But by premium, it doesn’t mean they have to be hugely expensive. I went to a blind wine-tasting in early 2009. The man who provided the wine, a collector, assured us they were top quality. I assumed they were all expensive, from $50.00 and up. But for many this wasn’t the case. When the bottles were taken out of their paper bags, we found a welcome assortment of fascinating wines. We had tasted some high-end French, Italian and Spanish wines but also some moderately priced ones, as well. One of the wines that wowed me was a mid-priced blend from D’Arenberg, a 1998 D’Arby’s Original Shiraz Grenache. Ten years had softened the wine. I still tasted the brown sugar but new wonders arose. There was a layer of exotic spices in the wine’s aged flavour profile, from the mint to the pepper onward into cedar, mineral and a dusty mulberry. I had sampled the 2006 Vintage the previous year, recalling a robust, full-bodied fruit bomb. But to see what the wine could do down the road was eyebrow-lifting.

But since D’Arenberg is a trustworthy name, I wasn’t surprised. Still, I was taken aback, not expecting a mid-priced Australian wine to impress me.

But there is another story I need to tell. I worked in a retail wine store in North Vancouver, British Columbia. We marketed an excellent, Old Vines Garnacha from Calatayud in North Central Spain, highly rated and recommended by the American wine critic, Robert Parker. Yet it wasn’t expensive. A 2004 offering, for about $14.00 CAD, this wine never seemed to run out. Every time a case appeared with the order, I wondered if the new vintage had finally arrived. But the supply never seemed to ‘dry up’. We went through dozens upon dozes of cases of this Spanish wine. It was wonderful in 2008, ready to drink, displaying notes of black liquorice, black fruit with heady spices of earth and anise.

The following year, when the store purchased enough wine to create a display in the 90 POINTS section (the point system devised by Robert Parker and adopted by many critics; 90 points is the equivalent of an ‘A’ on a report card), the Garnacha was found to be over-the-hill. Many bottles were bought and many returned, the two most common complaints: ‘off-smelling’ and ‘corked’.

What had happened? We thought the wine was top-rated and a great value. My colleague and I decided to check the Robert Parker’s website. We found the wine review and read Parker’s note – drink between 2004-2008. The wine had hit its peak. I used to think wine predictions were just devices of wine critics, but Parker had been dead-on.

But there are variations in vintage, too. A wine consultant once told me he organized a wine-tasting for a large group of friends. The hosts bought two cases of the same wine. Being the expert, he was asked to check the wines, to make sure they weren’t off or corked. He went through twenty-four bottles, finding that there were some variations even though the wines were supposedly the same. Most of them were alike but there were four or five that were different, unique, unlike the rest though they weren’t corked, no foul smells.

It takes time and a bit of memory work to figure out some of the main variations in wine, from country differences to the differences in wines available – i.e. an Aussie Brand wine to a small French winery. Variations can be surprising; there is so much to explore. Keep an open mind when it comes to ‘tackling’ wine and you will never be bored.

Robinson, Jancis, The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2003.
Unwin, Tim, Wine and the Vine: An Historical Geography of Viticulture and the Wine Trade. Routledge, London, 1991.


A Tale of Two Tuscanies

“To consider the history of wine in Italy is to consider the history of wine itself.”

- Daniel Thomases – American wine writer based in Florence

I have often joked that when men have a mid-life crisis, they go out and buy a motorcycle while women, just as restless in their forties, plan a trip to Tuscany.

Tuscany, or Toscana to the natives, is the great, beating heart of Italy and Italian culture. When we imagine Italy, chances are we don’t always think of the rugged Alps in the north or the rugged, volcanic landscapes of the south. We might think of Venice, its moody canals and dove-lined squares but most of us have a picture of rolling hills, sun-dappled with vineyards, olive groves and cypress trees. We see distant medieval villas and dusty, graveled walks. It is a timeless world and we long to wrap ourselves up in the storied dreams of past centuries, a place that has witnessed the rise and fall of Rome, the passing of the Renaissance and the roaring tide of the Risorgimento.

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was the renowned Florentine poet who wrote his famed work, The Divine Comedy in the Tuscan vernacular in the early 1300s. Before that time writing Latin was the norm for most scholars and poets. Dante broke new literary ground influencing the Father of Humanism, Franceco Petrarcha (born in nearby Arezzo in 1304, dying near Padua in 1374) and the great storyteller and author of The Decameron, Giovanni Bocaccio (1313-1375). The work of these authors eventually laid the ground for the modern Italian language with Pietro Biempo (1470-1547) creating the first model based on the Tuscan dialect.

So when you are learning Italian for the first time, you are learning the language of poets. And oftentimes, when you take your first sip of Italian wine, you are most likely drinking a wine from Toscana.

Chianti is the name of a specific geographical area between Florence (modern day Firenze) and Siena in Tuscany. Today, one is welcomed by the beauty of endless vineyards but centuries ago these hills were once the scene of gruesome battles between the Florentines and Sienese.

There is a curious legend that in the 13th century, these two rival cities decided to define their area of influence and put an end to the bloodshed. When the cock crowed in both Florence and Siena, horsemen rode out of their cities to meet each other. The devious Florentines, however, starved their cock so it crowed earlier in the morning. “The Florentine riders left the city well before dawn and met their Sienese rivals at Fonterutoli, only 15 kilometers from the walls of Siena” (The New Italy).

The Florentines’ ‘strategy’ paid off as the majority of Chianti fell into their hands. The land is rich with vineyards and olive groves, the climate ideally balanced between the humid winds of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the cooler breezes sweeping down from the north.

Chianti is made up of seven sub-zones that take up half the land of Tuscany. The Classico area is the ‘heartland’ of the Chianti zone and like the other sub-zones, the red wines are based mainly on the Sangiovese grape. It is believed the grape was first cultivated by the Etruscans, the name meaning ‘blood of jove’ (sangue di Giove).

The formula for modern Chianti was born in the wake of the Risorgimento or Resurgence. Its father was the Baron Bettino Ricasoli (1809-80), nicknamed the 'Iron Baron' and the second Prime Minister of the newly unified country.

Italy in the 1860s stood on its own for the first time. The Italian people had long been ruled and bullied in turn by the French, the Austrians and Spaniards. In the nineteenth century, after the fall of Napoleon, a movement evolved to bring the peoples of Italy under one flag. Garibaldi and his Red Shirts were the last great wave. Backed by the Prime Minster of Piedmont-Sardinia, who later became the first leader of Italy, Garibaldi’s army began their expedition in Sicily, moving from south to north fueling solidarity with their patriotic fervor.

Ricasoli, a religious man dedicated to politics and a serious student of agriculture, took up his prime-ministerial position in 1861 after the death of Camillo Benso, conte di Cavour. It was short-lived. He fought incessantly with the king, Victor Emmanuel II who, as Luigi Bazini writes in The Italians was “as aristocratically stubborn as he was.” He shortly resigned, then married soonafter.

Now the Baron was not a handsome man. He was tall and lean, carrying himself with a military bearing. He was also cross-eyed.

One evening he took his young wife, Anna Bonaccusi to a ball in Florence. Recently married and half the Baron’s age, Anna exuded an aura of innocence and desire. She caught the attention of an equally attractive young courtier. The two youths found themselves in each other’s arms for several dances.

The Baron, who had kept his ‘eyes’ on his wife, suspected the worst, approached and tightly grabbed her by arm before the next dance and whispered ominously in her ear “We must leave, my dear.” Anna and the courtier exchanged embarrassed glances.

Outside, Ricasoli called for his carriage. He waited until his wife had gotten inside before telling the coachman to take them to Brolio.

Brolio Castle
Ricasoli needed to assure himself that his wife wouldn’t make a cuckold of him. For the remainder of his life, the pair lived in this lonely, desolate castle in Brolio, a family seat resembling our notion of a Gothic castle. No more balls and blushing cheeks for Anna, unfortunately. Bettino, content to keep his wife and thus his honor, occupied himself by repairing the manor and experimenting in the vineyard.

Through trial and error, he discovered that the Sangiovese grape when paired with the white grape, Canaiolo, created wines destined to be aged while blends based on Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Malvasia could be drunk relatively young. Before the ‘Ricasoli formula’, Canaiolo had been slowly emerging as the dominant grape blended with the two reds.

The formula became extremely popular and imitated throughout the region. For most of the late nineteenth and three quarters of the twentieth century Chianti Classico was made up of a maximum of 70% Sangiovese grape, and a minimum 10% from the Canaiolo grape, the rest made up of Malvasia and other varieties.

But that formula has changed and the laws state that up to 15 per cent from international grapes such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah can also be used if the winemaker so desires.

How and when did this happen?

Shortly after the Risorgimento, Phylloxera, the root-eating aphid, began to wreak havoc in Italy. The problem was easily solved as the French already hit upon a solution: grafting rootstocks from American grape vine onto European vines.

The real issue was the extreme poverty of the newly-unified country. Exhausted by wars and fed up with politics, many impoverished Italian immigrants left the country for the United States, Canada, Argentina and Australia.

When the region of Chianti recovered from Phyxlloxera, the remaining growers continued on with Sangiovese but started planting Trebbiano instead of the superior Canaiolo. Trebbiano was easier to grow and produced more grapes. The quality of the wine fell and for decades, Chianti became associated with its straw-covered bottle, the fiasco.

After World War II and with the rise of Communist parties throughout Europe, many peasants who worked the land fled to the cities for better opportunities. These peasants had long been part of a system called the mezzadria in which they worked an estate’s land and gave half their profit to the owners. “Each peasant’s small plot was a hopeless mélange of vines, olive tree, and other crops designed for short term gain” (Decantations). The quality of grapes produced were anything but mediocre.

The abandoned plots were soon consolidated and Sangiovese grew deliberately over vast tracts of vine land. Viewing the landscape of vineyards, the Marchese Piero Antinori felt he and his countryman knew very little about which grapes should grow where. It was a time of change.

The Antinoris, like the Frescobaldis and Ricasolis, belonged to the great upper echelons of Florentine families, their ancestors crossing paths with the likes of Dante and the Medicis. It was Giovanni di Pietro Antinori who first enrolled in the Vintners Guild of Florence in 1385. His family had first established their name in the banking world and moved on to wine (it is also interesting to note that we get our word ‘bank’ from the Italian word for banco - benches/desk – the places where bankers sat to do business in Renaissance times). The Antinori family used their capital to purchase land in order to grow grapes.

Piero’s grandfather, Piero and his brother, Lodovico, founded the modern Antinori firm in 1895. Niccolo, the elder Piero’s son, bought land in Orvieto to extend the house’s commercial network.

But it was Piero Antinori in 1966 that took Italian wine into the twentieth century.

It was obvious that tradition wasn’t working for the Italians. Piero Antinori was convinced that the country needed to free itself from the lower sector of the wine market and step up the quality of wine. They stood behind the French in terms of exports and ashamedly so. Little of the country’s best wines were rarely available outside of Italy, a kind of paradox considering the breadth of the cultivated vine in the peninsula (Italy practically grows grapes everywhere from the slopes of the Alps to Salento in the south).

Good fortune arrived from the north with the appearance of a young Piemontese winemaker. Giacomo Tachis began carrying out experiments in San Casciano and on a smaller property on the Tuscan coast. Piero Antinori met the innovative winemaker and an innovative modern relationship was formed.

To compete with the French, they borrowed a page from them (actually, several pages), using the teachings and techniques of a famous Professor at Bordeaux, Emile Peynaud (1912-2004). Peyaud advised wine makers to pick grapes when fully ripened, to crush the grapes gently and to invest in oak for barrel aging.

Tachis had mastered these and many other of Peynaud’s methods while working with the Cabernet Sauvignon grown on an estate owned by Antinori’s cousin, Mario Incisa della Rocchetta at Bolgheri. But they needed to start with what they knew.

Taking the Chianti formula, Tachis and Antinori simply abandoned Trebbiano and upped the percentage of Sangiovese. It was their first attempt at imitating the great rich, long-lived wines of Bordeaux. It wasn’t just Chianti anymore but an Italian wine with a French twist – they aged the blend in small French oak barrels, imparting an intense complexity to the wine. The resulting wine that appeared in 1971: Tignanello. The wine was the first breakthrough as French barrels had been unheard of Italy. In the vintage that followed in 1975, the make-up of wine was comprised of 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 80% Sangiovese.

Piero Antinori with a glass of Tignanello
An immediate uproar followed the release of this wine. Because Antinori and Tachis ignored the wine laws of the 1960s which specified the Chianti Recipe of Ricasoli and the region, they had to forgo the DOC status (Denominazione di Originie Controllata, an appellation system based on the French wherein the law stipulates the type, percentage and amount of grapes allowed in the region’s wine) and their wines were called vini da tavola or Table Wine. This law had stifled development and creativity for far too long. Instead of drinking a thin, lightly-coloured, oxidized wine, consumers in Italy and the world were treated to an a-typical but glorious offering of strong oak character and rich, charismatic spicy dark fruit.

The Sassicaia (dialect for ‘place of stones’) vineyard of Mario Incisa della Rocchetta on the Bolgheri coast went on to produce a trail-blazing Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated wine. One might have called it the first true Italian ‘Bordeaux’. Next door Piero Antinori’s brother, Lodovico, independently created Ornellaia (dialect for ‘place of the ash trees’), also based on Cabernet with a dab of Merlot blended in.

Eventually other winemakers and estates followed suit, forgoing the wine laws for quality. The authorities began to see their dilemma. Wines approved by the DOC designation were selling cheaper than these magnificent, bold and beautiful Super-Tuscan wines which were now fetching handsome prices.

The laws changed in 1992. The Italian ‘wine police’ caved in to create a new category for these wines so, as a result, the IGT or Indicazione Geografica Tipica status evolved, which provided a designation between DOC and Table Wine. It was also in 1992 that Sassicaia was given its own DOC status, the first of its kind awarded to a single estate (and given grudgingly by the authorities). Since then the laws have been more open to allowing international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah to be part of the Chianti Classico blend. The Ricasoli family (who also make Super Tuscan-style wines) are still at work as are the Antinoris with Pietro’s three daughters taking interest in the business.

Time will tell if Albiera, Allegra and Alessia will forge the same iconoclastic path as their father.

Barzini, Luigi, The Italians. Antheneum, New York, 1996
Cernilli, Daniele & Marco Sabellico, The New Italy. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2008.
Crow, John Armstrong, Italy: A Journey Through Time, Harper & Row, New York, 1965.
D'Epiro, Peter, Sprezzatura: 50 Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World, Anchor Books, New York, 2001.
Johnston, Hugh, The Story of Wine. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2004.
MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. Workman Publishing Company Inc. New York, 2001.
Prial, Frank J., Decantations. St. Martins’s Press, New York, 2001.
Robinson, Jancis (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2006.


Some wine, some strawberries and a little bit of moonlight

Jun 25, 2009

I drink alone, no friend with me.
I raise my cup to invite the moon.
He and my shadow and I make three.
Li Bai (701 - 761)

I already know that the wine has gone to my head and that the strawberries are not perfectly matched with my wine. It is a Gamay from Henry of Pelham, a bit rustic, a bit candied fruit, but wonderful for this moment.

There is a crescent moon across the way, over the trees. I put my feet up against the balcony, sitting back, listening to the wind run its fingers through the leaves, watching the giant trees sway back and forth.

It was a humid day today but then the sky darkened and the rain fell. Wet torrents of sky came down on my shoulder as I raced to the car.

I had another wine earlier today, a Cabernet Franc from Featherstone of Vineland. I had one glass with my lunch and listened to Chopin because on a rainy day, nothing beats his Nocturnes.

A friend came by and I poured wine for her and some more for me. She is stressed out looking for a job and I can understand, I can relate.

But now I’m here, unwinding, thinking, getting lost, sipping the wine, dropping another strawberry into my mouth.

The Spanish have a saying: Beber este vino es como hablar con Dios. “Drinking this wine is like talking with God.” Sometimes I feel that way when the wine and the moment pair well together.

The strawberries are finished. I place the bowl down beside my chair.

Watching the moon, taking another sip, I go through my day, flipping back pages of memories, falling nearly asleep. Closing my eyes, my chin drops against my right shoulder as I go back in time, thinking of a girl at winery I met in Victoria. She was blonde, beautiful, and she laughed at a few of my jokes. What happened to her?

I remember the windy days in Victoria, how the door banged at the liquor store I worked at. How many years ago now? There was a woman who lost both her husband and best friend to cancer in the same year. She drank a bottle of Jackson Triggs Chardonnay everyday. She would stand directly in front of the counter and request the bottle even though it was sitting in the cooler, just two feet to her right. Nonetheless, I’d come around to get it because maybe in some way it helped her feel cared for.

But the moon, the moon is taking me back. My colleagues and I are sitting at high tables draped in black cloth amongst barrels of wine in a winery cellar. The flames from the candles reflect along the crescent curve of our glasses. I smell the wood and the cold cement floor. We have asparagus wrapped in bacon.

The blonde girl appears again, holding a bottle of wine, the glint of candlelight running along the glass neck, along her neck. I can retrieve her but only briefly, drinking the wine she pours, a Pinot Noir from the Okanagan and quite good. Not knowing the contours of her hand, the wine running wild and silly through my veins, she comes back to me, bringing me something else to try.

We start talking. I ask her what she is doing in the wine business. She replies that she started out in graphic design. Interesting the way things go.

It is far away now. I open my eyes. I think I was drunk that night. A glass fell on the floor and the moment ended between us.

I was almost dreaming.

The moon and the wine are bringing me back. The night is just right. It is cool, lovely. And the wine is perfect. I don’t want to go back inside. Let me linger here.

I take another sip of this beautiful wine.


A New Kind of Pairing: Wine and Poetry

I love wine and I love food. To be honest, my knowledge of wine is better than my knowledge of haute-cuisine. Fine dining is fine but so far my experience has been this: pay a lot of money to get a pretty little dish that despite its beauty, its taste, texture, etc… still leaves your stomach going ‘c’mon… that’s it?’

I know it is about taste, about presentation and yes, there is the snobby cachet of the celebrity chef who may or may not be yelling at his kitchen staff in the back. It seems when it comes to fine dining, you should eat before you go out.

But wine and food pairing is just one aspect of the greater pleasure of pairing. I’m thinking of the pleasures of the mind, the soul, the heart. I’m thinking: poetry.

I know what many English readers are thinking – groan, sigh…poetry. High school English class memories are not great to relive and I realize that poetry, and no offense - to American poets, to Canadian poets, to lovers of Shakespeare - but the English language is just not that passionate – most of the time. It is intellectual, beautiful but sometimes quite… pretentious.

Yeats, Housmann, Tennyson, Eliot, and Whitman are a few of my favourite English-speaking poets but aside from Whitman, the rest are not what I consider sensual. One can rarely associate sensuality with English lyricism. Images of pedantic university professors come to mind. Much too dry. Think ‘tweed blazers’.

So sadly, for me, the poets and poetry I love have come from far away, from other languages. The poets I love are translated. One day I would love to read the originals but for now I’ll contend with anglicized-European verse.

So for those who hated poetry but would love to give it a try, I recommend the pairings below. One must bear in mind that with wine and food, regional character plays a role. So if you are thinking Argentinean Beef, automatically you chose a Mendoza Malbec. New Zealand Lamb with Hawkes Bay Merlot. Etc… I apply the same principal in pairing poets with wine.

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was one of the first poets of the Italian peninsula (you really couldn’t call it Italy because the country wasn’t unified until 1861) to use the language of the commoner, instead of Latin to write a work of great literature.

When it comes to his Nuova Vita (The New Life), a book about the poet’s awakening to love, written in prose and verse, I highly recommend a fun and innocent Chianti. Chianti is a blend of Sangiovese as the dominant grape with red Canaiolo and white Malvasia. It can be a rich wine with dollops of spice and yet there is a rustic, cherry tenderness. Dante wrote this famous work before exile, before taking on his famous work, the Comedia, often translated and famously known as The Divine Comedy.

In Nuova Vita he battles with the willful and stubborn god of Love after seeing his beloved, Beatrice, for the first time at the age of nine. The poetry is both intellectual and heartfelt, exploring the emotions, the embarrassment and qualms of falling in love. Drinking Chianti and reading this work, you will fully experience the blush of love, the soft but red-fruit melancholy of yearning and wonder. (Some good producers include Antinori, Frescobaldi, Ruffino, Ricasoli and Melini.)

Turning to the Iberian Peninsula, I highly recommend the poets Federic García Lorca (1898-1936) and the lesser-known Vicente Aleixandre (1898-1984). With Lorca, you can have any number of wines. For one, try an Olorosso Sherry with his famous collection, Romancero Gitano. Sherry from the region of Jerez is synonymous with the countryside of Andalucia. Lorca is the Spanish literary personification of the romantic Spanish past. His works exude sunburnt Moorish architecture, bullfights, flamenco and beautiful, almond-coloured Mediterranean women. Sherry is the wine of choice for bullfighters, a fortified wine with almond-fig flavours, not to mention the dark flesh tone of a beautiful senorita.

But I have to say, when reading “La casada infiel” (The Faithless Wife), I urge you to buy a beautiful bottle of a good Rioja Gran Reserva. This poem exudes the calm but ravenous darkness of the night, the sand, the far away moan of dogs, the rustle of rivers and the sensuality of sin. If you find the right bottle of Rioja, (great producers include Allende, Artadi, Marqués de Riscal, Montecillo, Muga, Marqués de Caceres and La Rioja Alta), you’ll experience a beautiful bouquet of cinnamon, strawberries, earth, leather and cedar.

A Gran Reserva, aged for 2 years in oak and three years in bottle is the perfect pairing. Smelling the leather of this wine you might smell the leather of the narrator’s gun belt and the earth of the lovers’ tryst. In my mind, I always imagine Penelope Cruz when I read this poem and in my mind, Rioja is the Penelope Cruz of wine – beautiful, complex and alluring. (If you can’t find a Rioja Gran Reserva, a tinta fino [tempranillo] from Ribera del Duero would be also perfect as the Tempranillo grape creates a deep, blackfruit rich wine with dusty spices.)

Vicente Aleixandre, too, was born in Andalucia in the south of Spain and belonged to the Generation of ’27. Whereas many of his peers either fled the country in the wake of the Spanish Civil War (Salinas, Cernuda, Guillen) or were killed (Lorca was executed by Franco’s troops, Hernandez died in prison), Aleixandre was apolitical and stayed in Spain. His poems are often regarded as ‘melancholic’ and sodden with desires.

My favourite is “Mano entegada” (Her Hand Given Over). The narrator examines his lover’s hands, how tender the skin feels but how impenetrable and truly frigid is the bone underneath the sensual surface. It is poem laden with layers of philosophy, longing and insight into relationships. I recommend a white wine from Rueda in northern Spain.

Why a white wine instead of a brooding red? Well, when I think of the poem, I think of Rueda, a plot of land that was once the frontier between the Christians and the Moors in the Middle Ages. There is a strange link between the narrator’s relationship to his lover and Rueda’s presence in the world of wine. The bone of the lover’s hand and the landscape of Rueda are both austere, impenetrable but what surrounds them, the beauty of the skin and wine brings us into a wonderful world of pleasure.

Verdejo, the grape of Rueda, was once used to make sherry-style wines. The grape naturally began to oxidize as soon as it was picked. Today, the grapes are rushed to a bodega under a layer of nitrate gas. The gas ensures freshness. Drinking a verdejo is drinking a moment of sunshine and reading this poem, one can feel the radiant beauty of the narrator’s lover.

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) and Mosel Riesling make a wondrous German pairing. Rilke was born in Prague, Czech Republic then known as Bohemia. He traveled widely, meeting Leo Tolstoy in Russia and worked as Auguste Rodin’s secretary in Paris. You can taste the ethereal, the dreaminess in his poetry. There is a heightened majesty to his verse, a pensive quality culminating in the German word for longing, sehnsucht. The beautiful imagery and the tactile in his works give you a sense of the immediate and the infinite, especially in the New Poems.

A great start to a wine and poem pairing, would be his lesser-known piece “Dum im Voraus” (You Who Never Arrived). There is a Teutonic splendor to the poem. Images of stone bridges, of country gardens and streets abound. The narrator describes the solemn frustration of not being able to meet his beloved. This ‘beloved’, whether a person or a God, is forever eluding the poet’s grasp. The lines that send the most chills down my spine:

And sometimes in a shop, the mirrors
Were still dizzy with your presence and, startled, gave back
My too-sudden image.

These words cause me to think of the steep, dizzying vineyard of the Mosel River in Western Germany. I think of far away towns, the taste of autumn, of golden fruit, apples hanging with limp wings of leaves waiting for harvest – this is what happens when I drink a Mosel Riesling. I love my Rieslings with that steely sweetness and Rilke’s poem is a perfect companion. (Look for wines from such towns as Piesport, Brauneberg, Bernkastel, Graach, Wehlen, Urzig and Erden. Usually they have an ‘-er’ at the end of their title on German wine labels. For instance, you may see “Brauneberger Juffer Riesling Kabinett” on the label which means the wine is sourced from the vineyard of Juffer in Brauneberg. Also it should say QmP on the label signifying it is of the highest quality.)

Rilke’s early poetry would also be a suitable match with Mosel Riesling. During the history of German wine, the monks played a huge role in cultivating the grapes. Rilke’s Book of Hours, poems with a distinctly religious theme, would be perfect, as would be The Book of Pictures (the poem “Autumn Day”: “Command the fruit to swell on tree and vine;…/and press/the final sweetness into the heavy wine”) not to mention his later Duino Elegies which embody the mystical isolation of a poet lost in the world. Riesling is such a wine. It is philosophical, as if you are drinking something from far away, dreamy, bright but subdued – Gothic, but sheltered in cool wet shadows and rain-soaked sunlight.

I get carried away by both poetry and wine. A beautiful poem needs a gorgeous wine. Dante is to Tuscany what Lorca and Aleixandre are to Spain, what Rilke is to German literature just as the wine paired with their works exemplifies the landscape of their origin. There is a national character to wine and great poets. Wine and food are great when you have a physical appetite but when your soul and heart are hungry, let these recommendations be your guide.

Rilke in his study

Recommended Works:
- New Life – Dante Alighieri. Hesperus Press, 2003.
Louis de Bernières, author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin writes the introduction to this excellent translation of the medieval poet’s work of love.

- The Selected Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca. New Directions Publications, 2005
Introduced by W.S. Merwin and translated by a host of critically acclaimed poets, this is the best place to begin with Lorca.

- Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, Modern Library, 1995. Stephen Mitchell is the penultimate translator of Rilke. This volume includes handsome selections of the poet’s greatest work.


The Cinderella Story of Carmenere

Jun 24, 2009

The Cinderella Story of Carmenere

I crossed roads,
trains carried me
waters brought me,
and in the skin of the grapes
I thought I touched you
- Pablo Neruda “Hands”

Have you ever felt incredibly baffled by the number of wines available in a wine store? Have you ever wondered about all the varieties - how many there are, the percentages that are popular compared to the least popular?

Grapes have their own character depending on the fashions of the time. It is like a high school popularity contest all over again.

Chardonnay has its own love it and hate it crowds (ABC – ‘Anything but Chardonnay…). Chardonnay is the blonde, blue-eyed cheerleader with straight A’s. She’s so perfect you can’t stand her.

Cabernet Sauvignon, known around the world, is the popular class president.

Shiraz is hip and great with summer BBQ. He’s the guy you want at your pool party.

Merlot and Cabernet Franc are the intellectual kids with the edge; Pinot Noir is the art student some people relate to but few understand. And Riesling is the cute German exchange student.

And then there’s Carmenere…


She was once popular but now, who is she? She’s French but she’s mostly Chilean. I call her the Cinderella grape of the wine world. Her story is similar to the high school one about the girl who wasn’t the prom queen, wasn’t really noticed until time and circumstances brought her to light.

In the mid-17th century, the Dutch, were fast experts on retrieving land from the sea. They worked their magic in Bordeaux and, using their drainage technology, transformed the desolate, salt-marsh land of Medoc into an area suitable for grazing livestock.

The ditches the Dutch installed proved so effective that merchants in the region eventually decided to plant the land with vineyards.

Carmenere, then known as Grand Vidure or Vidure, began to appear in the vineyards along with Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot.

In the nineteenth century, the Medoc enjoyed incredible fame and distinction. These Bordeaux wines, then known as Claret, were sought after in Britain. Some of the best properties’ reputations were earned due to the presence of Cabernet Franc and Carmenere.

But there was an aura of tragedy hanging over Carmenere. It was true that the variety was known to produce excellent wine but the vine was susceptible to coulure (French term describing a natural phenomenon in which berries fall off the vine soon after flowering).
The low yields frustrated French vignernons (wine producers) but the grape’s fate was sealed soon after the Phylloxera devastation (the rootstock-feeding aphid discovered in French vineyards in the late 1860’s). While replanting their ruined vineyards, many Bordeaux estates decided to forgo Carmenere feeling it was no longer a necessary part of their wines, and hailed Cabernet Sauvignon as their most important grape.

What would be Carmenere’s fate?

“…Chile lies at the end of all roads…”
- Isabel Allende

“long petal of sea and wine and snow”
- Pablo Neruda

Chile’s wine country has been described as a ‘viticultural heaven’. The central part of the country enjoys a temperate climate with sunny, dry conditions and is often compared with California. There are two major reasons for this: the mountains (Chile is 80% mountainous) and the ocean. Variations in altitude and exposure create variations in local climate. There is also the Humboldt Current (named after Prussian Naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt), a cold Pacific flow moving north-westward up along Chile’s coastline towards Peru.

Winemaking began with the first appearance of the Conquistadors in the 1500s. The Spanish, wanting to make the New World more like home, began to plant vineyards and produce wine. Initially, their first efforts were of poor quality as the wines they produced were made from País, which was identical to the Mission grape planted and used by missionaries in Mexico and California in the 18th century. Both País or Misión grape were used for religious purposes such as the Eucharist. The Catholics then weren’t so much concerned with quality as with ritual, so the bulk of the vineyard was planted with this mediocre variety. With lands to conquer and money to be made, the first wines were anything but fine.

In the 19th century, revolutions in North America and France gave rise to a wave of immigration - of people and vine cuttings. By the 1830s, there was a shift towards planting European vines. In 1851, a decade before Phylloxera began to creep slowly across Europe, Silvestre Ochavia Echazareta and a few associates began to import French varieties. They planted Chardonnay, Semillon and Riesling for the whites and Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Carmenere for the reds. (The work of Echazareta would eventually establish the basis of Chile’s modern wine industry.)

With Phylloxera about to hit France, Carmenere had a chance to come into her own in South America. Chile was not only perfect for the grape in terms of soil, climate and weather, but was phylloxera-free. With everything going for her, one would think the grape would take off and shine.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Carmenere became the victim of negligence.

While vineyards died in France Carmenere was no longer a vital part of the Bordeaux-team. She then found herself growing alongside Merlot.

To most growers, they were alike in flavour but little else. They could distinguish Cabernet Sauvignon from Merlot but Carmenere - maybe the wallflower wasn’t worth the bother.

Merlot’s long history of presiding royally in France, especially on the right bank of Bordeaux where the finest wines of St. Émilion and Pomerol (such as Château Petrus and Le Pin) were made, stood her in good staid. Merlot ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon but early flowering also makes her sensitive to coulure (like Carmenere). In France, the wine produced is notably lower in colour, acid and tannin compared to Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated wines of the Left Bank of the Geronde estuary. She can grow in climates cooler than hot or warm (unlike Cabernet Sauvignon). Merlot can often be lush and plump with notes of chocolate, black fruit and coffee while Carmenere has a deep rich chocolately black fruit component. In Chilean Merlot, there is often an herbaceous and leathery hint.

Carmenere, like Pinot Noir, is a bit feisty. A vigorous vine, she needs deep soils of moderate fertility. Carmenere also demands sun and warmth but a temperate, dry climate, relatively free of late-season rain. In Bordeaux, she was often harvested in November (in the southern hemisphere, late harvest falls in May). If planted in an area too cold, or harvested early, she is far too ‘green’ in flavour. Over-matured or saturated in sun, she becomes flabby. A happy medium is continually needed. The harvest time is crucial as are lower yields (the less grapes on the vine, the more rich the wine), good canopy management (making sure the leaves of the vine keep the berries cool but not shadowed) and site selection. Typical characteristics of a Carmenere wine are: ripe, black fruits, roasted herbs, grilled red pepper and paprika.

Considering what we know of these two grapes, it would appear that Chilean grape growers simply saw the similarities as opposed to the vast differences between the varieties. Peter Richards, in his book, The Wines of Chile explains that growers distinguished Merlot by calling it ‘Merlot Merlot’ and Carménère, ‘Merlot Chileno’. This explains why Carmenere was thrown in the fermentation vat with Merlot and how Chilean Merlot became distinct from Merlot in France and California. Wine consumers and connoisseurs for many years were actually drinking a Merlot that was primarily Carmenere. Talk about being upstaged!

Thankfully, in 1994, after over a hundred years of being a wallflower, Carmenere was able to put on her glass slipper when she was finally identified through DNA testing. Of the 13,000 hectares of Merlot in Chile, 6,000 were actually Carmenere. Something similar happened in Northern Italy. What was once thought to be Cabernet Franc, a variety planted in Bordeaux and the Loire Valley, had actually been 4000 hectares of Carmenere. Although the two grapes are similar in view of their importance in Bordeaux, they share a similar vegetal and herbal component. One wonders if this was accidental or not.

In the twenty-first century, Carmenere has become synonymous with Chile the way Malbec is identified with Argentina. The success of the variety in Chile has inspired the French to replant her in Pauillac and St. Émilion.

Because of the way this great grape proved herself in Chile, this wallflower now has the confidence to re-establish pride of place in Bordeaux. With a full dance card, Carmenere can now strut her stuff in future vintages.

Allende, Isabel, My Invented Country. Harper Collins, New York 2003.
Clarke, Oz, Pocket Wine Guide 2006, Harcourt, Orlando Florida, 2005.
Richards, Peter, The Wines of Chile. Mitchell Beazley, London 2006.
Stavans, Ilan (ed), The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2003.
Waldin, Monty, Wines of South America, Mitchell Beazley, London 2003.


About This Blog

My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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