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24 Sep

The snobbery with which many Europeans view US wines is proving stubbornly resistant to change.

Despite monumental tastings, competitions, and positive changes in winemaking philosophy, Europeans still can’t seem to fully wrap their heads around American wine.

Even with the rise of high-quality producers in California, Oregon, Washington, and other American growing regions, the same negative stereotypes seem to prevail. So the question remains – in the mind of the European consumer, will American wines ever really be “as good” as those produced closer to home?

“American wines are still regarded as mass and huge production wines,” says Gregor Greber, owner of Zurich-based Napa Wine. Greber believes that although consumer awareness is starting to change, education on the subject is still needed. Earlier this year, Greber’s company hosted its own “Judgment of Zurich” tasting – and the results were surprisingly in favor of the States; five wines from Napa took the top slots amongst the group of tasters.

Greber’s importing business and restaurant, Napa Grill, focuses exclusively on wines from Napa. “The restaurant really gives the wines a true home. It’s a place for people to discover – and fall in love with – Napa Cabernet.”

Yet somehow, the stereotypes still remain. In Norway, Pal Dahle, owner of Tramontane Vinimport, notes that many people still regard American wines as “lower quality” than European wines.

“Part of this is due to history,” he explains. “The wines that drifted into Norway (and Europe as a whole) 15-20 years ago were indeed of inferior quality.” Dahle explains that while this is currently changing, regaining consumers’ interest takes time. “There is an enormous amount of American winemakers making wines in an Old-World style these days, that is, early harvest, low alcohol, high acid, etc. Quality is increasing steadily and the price is still fair.”

Dahle currently works with 12 different American wineries that he believes represents this style, including Kutch Wines, Black Sheep Finds, and Rhys Vineyards.

“Europeans actually view American wines as a luxury product – I’m saying this on behalf of the British market,” says Michael Sager, owner of London based wine bar Sager + Wilde. “This is because of the strong work done by IPOB and Jon Bonné in the past, as well as the work of Roberson Wines and Flint Wines as importers. They changed the perception of California wine post-Robert Parker.”

Sager explains, however, that many British consumers have come to compare the value (or lack thereof) of American wines to that of Burgundy, in that they are almost seen as “worse value” due to their rising prices. “This is why the third wave of natural and affordable US wine will be quintessential to the overall perception of US wines,” he states. Sager works with the wines of Domaine de la Côte and Sandhi (Rajat Parr & Sashi Moorman), Pax Mahle, Jaimee Motley, Steve Matthiasson, Abe Schoener, and more.

Keith Kirkpatrick, buyer at Roberson Wine, feels that Europeans’ inferior views of American wines isn’t just exclusive to America. “As a whole, I would say Europeans from winemaking countries view US wines as lower quality, but that would be the same for wines from anywhere else in the world, even other regions of their own country!”

He finds that, historically, there has been a view that US wine is either mass produced and low value or very expensive (100-pointers) and meant for collection, with nothing for the average consumer in between. “At Roberson, [we] show the huge variety of wines from small and medium-sized producers that sit in this middle ground and offer the best quality and value. Hopefully we have helped change this view at least in the UK.”

© Shutterstock
| The perception of US wine in Europe is that they are two-dimensional and over-extracted.

Kirkpatrick believes that there are certainly wines from the States that do indeed rival some of Europe’s best, both in terms of quality and value. However, it took some personal experience for him to form that opinion. “It was not until I started to spend time with the winemakers in California and explore the different terroirs for myself that I really understood the incredible potential of US wines.”

He also notes American producers are much more keen to work the market and sell their than Europeans producers, which is beginning to give them traction both on wine lists and online. Kirkpatrick finds that less-strict appellation laws also work in American winemakers’ favor. “[These producers] also have much more freedom to change quickly and react to market trends – so they have the opportunity to continue to grab the attention of the consumer and steal more market share,” he explains.

Totte Steneby, senior wine specialist at Zachys Wine Auctions, worked the floor as a sommelier in Stockholm as of 2007. In addition to running his own import company and sommelier education program, he also consults for a handful of California wineries. “I still think the average [European] consumer has a lot to learn about American wines,” Steneby says. “The stereotypical American styles seem to be what consumers gravitate towards, [which are also] the same styles that people who dislike American wine think is the norm.” Steneby feels that sommeliers in Sweden tend to be more confident in “classic” styles of American wines, which hinders them from tasting more progressive bottles. “There’s only a handful of sommeliers in Sweden who put in the effort of expanding their knowledge base and palate when it comes to American wines,” he says.

Steneby reveals that he has spent at least one month in California every year since 2015, which has greatly helped him to understand the versatility in styles/grape varieties in the United States. “These wines should be held to a high regard,” he firmly states. “For the curious-minded, there’s a lot of exciting [bottles] to be found.” He feels that, at the end of the day, the cost of American wine is their downfall. “Unfortunately, the domestic US market is strong on American wine and prices reflect that. A wine from Europe is, in most cases, cheaper for us here then the ‘same’ wine from US. That said, there are bargains to be had at every price level and of course very exciting wines. You just have to read and listen to know what’s going on.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the French as a whole don’t seem to be nearly as progressive in their opinions towards American wine. “For us buyers, American wines are too powerful and extracted. Finding quality often means expensive,” says Jan Bussière, owner Vins Urbains wine bar in Bordeaux. “[Certain] selections have a different approach (finesse, delicacy, etc.) but only on micro-cuvées.”

Victor Vautier of Early June restaurant in Paris agrees. “[In France], American wines have a high price and little visibility on the quality,” he says. Vautier notes that consumers’ perceptions of American wines have been slightly degraded by the classic stereotypes (noting “super oaky, only classic grape varieties used, etc.” as a few.) However, he recalls a unique experience with Lewandowski wines that personally changed his mind. “The wine was very good, but I imagine that it’s not representative of the American wine scene.”

Jules Deloffre, an off-premise buyer at Saint-Germain-en-Laye’s Cémiyon (located just outside of Paris) actually finds American wines to be very good New World selections. However, their image isn’t always viewed that way by his customers. “American wines aren’t ‘foreign’ enough to be considered exotic in a French wine store,” he says.

Deloffre also notes that France’s negative view of American gastronomy is additionally unhelpful in changing consumers’ minds about the perception of the country’s wines. “When my customers come back from Argentina or Chile, they talk to me about wines. When they come back from the United States, very rarely, do they talk about the wine.”

Fabien Suquet, chief sommelier at Experimental Group, also has a good perception of American wines, though he credits this to living in the States for three years. He finds that the French are now more interested in learning about American wines than ever, though price and “psychological barriers’ ” remain problematic.

“The French will order a bottle between €30 and €60 [$33-65] without advice, generally based on a grape that they already know but, beyond a recommendation, guidance is definitely necessary,” he explains. Suquet suggests that French wine bars offer American wines by the glass, as this creates a gateway for consumers to learn about new vineyards they may not have tried. “American wines are progressing enormously, leaving the notion of grape behind and putting more emphasis on the place of origin and terroir,” he says.

However, Mathilde Goujat, buyer at Paris’ famed Cherche-Midi sums it up best, and perhaps represents the most stereotypical image of French consumers’ relationship with American wines – he doesn’t work with them at all.

“They’re oaky, very concentrated, and lack acidity,” he says. “Not very good.”

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30 Jul

On Friday, more temperature records are falling in Europe as the historic heat wave that brought the hottest weather ever recorded in Paris, London, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany shifts northward. In a few days, the weather system responsible for the heat wave will stretch all the way across the top of the globe.

It’s what this system, characterized by a strong area of high pressure aloft — often referred to as a heat dome — will do to the Arctic that has some scientists increasingly concerned.

Norway, Sweden and Finland will experience unusually high temperatures through the weekend, as a potentially record strong area of high pressure in the mid-levels of the atmosphere sets up over the region, blocking any cold fronts or other storm systems from moving into the area, like a traffic light in the sky.

Temperatures in parts of Scandinavia will reach into the 90s or higher, on the heels of an intense heat wave in 2018 that led to an outbreak of damaging wildfires.

Bergen, Norway, already set an all-time record high Friday with a temperature of 91 degrees (32.8 Celsius).

Accelerating Arctic ice melt

So far this year, Arctic sea ice extent has hovered at record lows during the melt season. Weather patterns favorable for increased melt have predominated in this region, and an unusually mild summer has also increased melting of the Greenland ice sheet. Unlike with sea ice melt, runoff from the Greenland ice sheet increases sea levels, since it adds new water to the oceans.

If the entire ice sheet were to melt, it would raise global average sea levels by 23 feet.

Ruth Mottram, a researcher with the Danish Meteorological Institute, tells The Washington Post that as the high-pressure area, also referred to as a “blocking ridge,” sets up over Greenland, it could promote a widespread and significant melt event like the one in 2012. During that summer, nearly all of the ice sheet experienced melting, including the highest elevations that rarely exceed 32 degrees.

“Assuming this comes off (and it seems likely) we would expect a very large melt event over the ice sheet,” Mottram said via email. “This was a very similar situation to 2012 where melt reached all the way up to Summit station. As you have probably seen the Arctic sea ice is already at record low for the time of year so clearly we may be looking at a situation where both Arctic sea ice and Greenland ice sheet have record losses even over and above 2012 — though we won’t know for sure until after the event.”

Zack Labe, a climate researcher at the University of California at Irvine who focuses on Arctic climate change, says the upcoming Arctic heat wave could have major ramifications and may push sea ice to another record low at the end of the melt season.

“This appears to be a very significant event for the Arctic,” he says.

“A massive upper-level ridge will position itself across the North Atlantic and eventually Greenland in the next few days. This negative North Atlantic Oscillation-like pattern will be associated with well above average temperatures in Greenland. In fact, simulations from the MARv3.9 model suggest this may be the largest surface melt event of the summer,” Labe said, referring to a computer model projection of surface ice melt in Greenland.

“Whether or not we set a new record low this year, the timing and extent of open water on the Pacific side of the Arctic has been unprecedented in our satellite record. This is already having significant impacts to coastal communities in Alaska and marine ecosystems,” Labe said.

Elsewhere in the Arctic, this summer has been similarly extreme.

Alaska had its warmest June on record, and more than 2 million acres have gone up in flames across the state as a result of a long stretch of above-average temperatures.

Arctic-wide, an unusual spate of wildfires is burning, affecting vast stretches of Siberia, as well. Smoke from these fires is circling the globe, tracked via satellite imagery.

These fires are also emitting greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.

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26 Jul

I just attended the wonderful and stimulating FLXcursion global Riesling conference in the Finger Lakes (FLX) region of Upstate New York where I also presented a seminar on Tuesday, 23rd July. I got a lot of requests that I should post at least my introductory comments, so here they are. Please look at today’s European weather report before dismissing my argument. Sadly, I am not yet able to post the four tables that accompanied this text, but I have included all the vital stats in the text so it ought to function.

Welcome to the Wrong Side of the Tracks seminar at the FLXcursion conference about Riesling in warm and warming regions around Planet Wine in the 21st century. I suggest we all belong to the reality-based community and that means there’s no place here today for nostalgia or wishful thinking. The title of this seminar is appropriate, because it’s seriously shocking. I know I’ve got a reputation for liking to shock people, and it’s true I enjoy doing that, but this is all shocking solely because of the massive change that recently occurred in many Riesling regions.

We all know the climate is warming, but I think most of us think it’s a slow process and for Riesling is mostly positive. I felt that way too until I took a long hard look at the recent weather stats and came to the conclusion that Cool Climate is Dead in Old Europe. Global warming just abolished cool climate viticulture there (though not in the New Europe of wine, by which I mean places like Poland, Denmark and England). This is particularly clear if you look at the Riesling regions of Europe. I must stress that what I’m talking about here is the weather in certain Europe regions during the last decade. How this new climatic pattern affects the aroma and flavor of the wines from these regions is another matter entirely, and with today’s tasting we’ll be seeking answers to the latter question.

This seminar has a global
theme, so it is also about understanding what’s happening in Riesling regions
far outside Europe with very different landscapes and the implications of
warming climates there. If you taste those wines with an open mind, then I
think you find many Rieslings from rather warm regions that show
characteristics (for example, fresh fruit and floral aromas, crisp acidity and
sleek body) we consider reliable markers for cool climate wines. Clearly, ins
spite of the conditions there this type of wine possible, but in those regions
too, the situation is changing fast.

Now on to the stats. Let’s
start with how things were at the end of the 20th century. The first
table shows the long-term average heat summations (on the Huglin Index) for a
selection of winegrowing regions around the world, some important for Riesling,
others not. This picture, plus a bit of warming, is what most wine industry
people around the planet regard as the current situation, but even then we tend
to make some serious mistakes. For example, Clare Valley in South Australia is
frequently declared to be cool climate, but it has a heat summation of 2388,
which is higher than Barossa at 2342! This common misjudgment results from the
fact that Clare is the largest Riesling region in the Southern Hemisphere and
because the fresh aromas and crispness of Clare Rieslings make us wrongly
assume the region must be cool.

Now let’s turn to the 2018 vintage in Europe. The second table shows what happened in Geisenheim in the Rheingau (the location wine university and research station) last year. Note that the Rheingau is not the warmest winegrowing region in Germany by far. Southern Rheinhessen, the Pfalz, Southern Baden and Central Württemberg are all significantly warmer. In 2018 Geisenheim had a heat summation of 2277 compared with an average of just 1623 during the period 1961-1990. What a huge leap! A Huglin Index of 2277 is warmer than Eden Valley and almost as warm as the Clare Valley, the two premier Riesling regions of South Australia!

The third table shows how a rather similar situation is developing this year. Here is the weather report for June 2019 for Norheim in the Nahe Valley, one of the “classic” cool climate Riesling regions of Europe. I chose Norheim, because it’s the closest weather station to Weingut Dönnhoff and to Gut Hermannsberg where I work. Cornelius Dönnhoff (a member of my panel) tells me the Norheim weather station is positioned close to a cliff that may push the highs up by as much 1°C, so you may want to adjust these figures accordingly.

Globally, June 2019 was the
warmest June ever recorded by a margin of 0.1°C. For Europe it was the warmest
June ever recorded by a margin of 1.0°C, and in Norheim June 2019 was fully
2.9°C warmer than the average for the late 20th century. Even if you
correct down the measured high of 39.6°C in Norheim, then,it still
tops the month’s high of 37.1°C in Bordeaux and that of 37.8°C in Madrid. The
297 sunshine hours during June 2019 in Norheim are also extraordinary, since
they are 42.4% more than the average for the late 20th century. July
2019 started cooler in the Nahe like most of Germany, but today’s high in
Norheim is 32°C and the predicted highs for the next four days are 37°C, 38°C,
37°C and 34°C!

I’m sure that some of you are
now saying to yourselves, “yes, but there are still some vintages in Europe
that are much cooler,” because that’s what I also said to myself. However, we
are wrong.

The fourth table shows the
mean temperatures during April – October (the growing season) for the last six
years and selected earlier vintages in Geisenheim. When I started getting
interested in Riesling in the early 1980s I could still buy wines of the great
1976 vintage rather cheaply and I can still remember that very warm dry summer
in England. Only much later did I learn that actually the summer of 1947 was
the warmest of the 20th century. The mean growing season
temperatures in Geisenheim for those exceptional vintages were 15.7°C in 1976
and 16.9°C in 1947, far above the average for the late 20th century
of 14.5°C.

Now let’s turn to the figures for the last six years. Wine industry people inside and outside Germany generally regard 2013 as a cool vintage, because the wines have high acidity/low pH and taste sleek and taut. However, 2013’s mean growing season temperature in Geisenheim was 15.5°C, almost as high as that of 1976. Since then the figure for every year equaled or exceeded that for 1976. In 2018 the record of 1947 was smashed by a margin of 1.1°C ! I rest my case and pose the question, where do we go from here?

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24 Jul

Take part in a long-standing Spanish tradition as you savor this simple one-layer cake, and discover the esteemed reason behind its iconic cross.

Leading up to July 25, legions of people embark on a spiritual journey to walk (and sometimes cycle) the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James). This ancient pilgrimage route, which consists of a large network of pathways across Europe, has drawn in hundreds of thousands of people in recent years. On some routes—many marked by gold scallop shells, the symbol of the pilgrim—travelers will encounter the Pyrenees mountain range, while others will be graced with trails flanked by vineyards or eucalyptus forests.

No matter which route is taken, all roads lead to Galicia, a breathtaking region tucked away in northwest Spain. What awaits them at the end of this pilgrimage, after meeting the steps of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela? A dense, lightly sweetened almond cake called Tarta de Santiago that people have been consuming for centuries.

Boasting a picturesque coastline and a gastronomy that rivals the best of Europe, Galicia is home to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where it is reputed that the remains of St. James (Santiago), the patron saint of Spain, rest. The cathedral represents an overwhelming mix of Romanesque, Gothic, and baroque architecture, with its crowning artistic jewel being the world-famous Portico of Glory, an elaborate gateway depicting more than 200 detailed, hand-carved biblical figures. Those hiking the Camino will ultimately arrive here, the final destination, in order to pay their respects and begin the day of feasting, delighting in Tarta de Santiago in remembrance of St. James.

While the origin of Tarta de Santiago is, like many old traditions, fairly unclear, most claim the cake was brought to Galicia by a pilgrim and subsequently consumed by those making the journey to the cathedral. Written references to this cake stretch as far back as 1577, when it was referred to as torta real, or “royal cake.” However, the first recorded recipe of tarta de almendra, or “almond cake,” didn’t appear until 1838.

Most recipes called for three simple ingredients signature to desserts in the Iberian Peninsula region: eggs, almonds, and sugar. But what it lacks in complexity, it makes up for in utility. Its hefty, crunchy crumb—due to the absence of flour or aeration in the batter—makes it a durable, on-the-go snack for hikers on the Camino de Santiago. And nearly everyone agrees its density makes it an ideal companion for a warm cup of café con leche.

While the cake itself has a minimalistic formula, its adornment, an outline of the cross of St. James, is what sets it apart. This particular cross is known as an espada, a hybrid of a sword and a cross, and can be made by gently placing either a stencil or a physical cross of St. James on the center of the cake and then dusting a generous amount of confectioners’ sugar on top.

Though it may seem unassuming, this emblem dates all the way back to the year 844, and it was used as a symbol of the Order of Santiago, a religious and military order founded in the 12th century. Nowadays, the cross of St. James exemplifies the power of Christianity, serving as a reminder of God’s protection for the people of Galicia, along with those who make the trek and who bake this iconic Galician cake.

Of the thousands who flock to Galicia each summer, not all take part in the daunting expedition on the Camino. But by baking this cross-bearing cake, they are engaging in a fundamental part of the spiritual journey. While a one-layer cake may seem much too modest to hold such paramount significance, it’s a right of passage when honoring the patron saint of Spain, with each bite connecting you to countless pilgrims who have been nourished by this very same cake. It doesn’t get much sweeter than that.

Find the recipe for the Tarta de Santiago in our July/August 2019 issue, and adorn your cake with the signature cross of St. James! We make it easy for you with a printable PDF stencil. 

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