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.”
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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I was intrigued at the above video which chronicles the advent and popularity of plant-based milk products like Almond Milk and at the same time the decline in the consumption of real milk. Milk and wine were both described as a healthy part of a normal diet at one point. So what happened? It’s a little bit of Deja Vu.
What Do Milk and Wine Have in Common?
We’re not talking about alcohol here. We are talking about milk! Apple pie. Americana. Wholesome food.
Today the total volume of all types of milk sold, the price of milk, and the number of dairies are all in decline because of various negative scientific studies. That’s not what I envision or hope for the wine industry.
So how did milk’s star fall over the past 75 years and more recently, how did soy, rice, coconut, almond, and oat milk become such strong and growing substitutes? The CBS program in the lead video notes how the plant-based milk craze started. It all started with our changed view of fat.
Fat, just like alcohol today was at one-time cast as the villain with respect to health outcomes. Was it accurate?
While that view turned out to be flawed inevitably, the account caught on in the press and drove people to consume more lean meats like chicken and fish, eat margarine instead of butter, limit the consumption of cheese, and seek out low and fat-free foods.
The dairy industry adapted. If fat is bad for you, let’s sell more “skim milk” but change the name to “fat-free” milk and emphasize the evolving consumer trend away from fat. That was followed by extensions in low-fat milk, low-fat yogurt, ice cream, and cottage cheese.
At the same time, the broader food industry jumped on the consumer trend by creating fat-free cheese and different varieties of processed snacks and convenience foods, using hydrogenated vegetable fat instead of animal fat and using more sugar in the formulas.
And what was the result of all that science that ran down the health impact of eggs, red meat, cereal, wine, and milk? Today we have the highest level of obesity – EVER as noted in nearby chart.
Consider how quickly the impact of positive health information contributed to the consumer changing back to real fatty butter and whole milk.
The New Milk Threat
The combination of sustainability and the lingering questions about the value of red meat in a healthy diet lead many people to make the personal choice to move away from meat and adopt more plant-based diets including plant-based ‘milk.’ That seems to be the current health craze.
Interestingly, as the above video notes, much of the plant-based milk has additives, trace chemicals from processing, sugars, stabilizers, and even hydrogenated fat. It’s processed food and the science isn’t in on the health benefits and risks yet, but the tale that comes through today is plant-based milk is healthy and sales are soaring.
The story of milk’s decline reminds me of wine, which has gone from being part of a healthy lifestyle under USDA guidelines to now being viewed as unhealthy and like red meat, linked to very slight increases in some cancers in studies.
How Did Wine Become Unhealthy?
In much the same way as milk and red meat lost demand with the consumer, wine is losing today in the popular narrative because of negative studies that often start with an agenda to reduce consumption.
At one point in the 90s and early 2000s, science and the public narrative had wine as a HEALTHY component of life, possessing a positive impact on coronary heart disease and stroke.
Left alone, that statement would have found agreement even from alcohol producers. We all recognize the negative effects of alcohol abuse and all want to limit those harmful effects. But reducing harmful effects wasn’t the outcome and perhaps was never the purpose.
After demonization, they then drafted policies such as calling for higher taxes, requiring labels to be placed on wine reflecting the WHO cancer findings, and “enacting and enforcing bans or comprehensive restrictions on exposure to alcohol advertising across multiple types of media, and enacting and enforcing restrictions on the physical availability of retailed alcohol.” (Global Status Report 2018, p 15)
The real goal of the WHO is the reduction in worldwide consumption of alcohol. They don’t distinguish between healthy consumption or unhealthy consumption patterns. They don’t care about the science that shows moderate consumption adds to positive health and life outcomes.
Wine’s Response to the Negative Health Message
How has the wine industry responded to the overt threat that is leading to declining growth rates?
The wine industry is content thus far to talk about hospitality, the user experience, long days and cool nights, and how special our soils are. Maybe that’s enough?
What’s Your Opinion?
- What should the wine industry do about this issue?
- Can we learn anything from what the Milk Industry has done?
Please join this site on the top right-hand side of the page, and offer your thoughts below. I respond to everyone.
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San Francisco Chronicle wine critic Esther Mobley was named feature wine writer of the year Thursday in the Louis Roederer International Wine Writers Awards, a prestigious international competition.
Mobley was recognized for her body of work in 2018, which included “Battle for Napa Valley’s future,” an insightful look at the 50th anniversary of the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve and the controversial 2018 ballot measure, Measure C, that sought to limit new vineyard plantings.
In reporting the story, Mobley found Napa Valley bitterly divided over the measure. She went on to detail in the article how “Measure C, and the oak trees it aims to protect, epitomize a battle over what Napa Valley has become and what it should be.”
“The great wine country of California has met its match in Esther Mobley, who has in a few short years become not only the go-to expert on the region’s industry and its world-renowned wines. She’s also the chronicler of a way of life, found in the stories of the winemakers, and the histories of the vineyards and their future under climate change,” said Kitty Morgan, deputy managing editor of The Chronicle. “It’s her amazing range — whether she takes up pop culture trends or the serious business of cult wines — that sets her apart.”
The Roederer awards — named after famed French wine producer Louis Roederer — is arguably the most prestigious writing award for wine journalists outside of an award from the James Beard Foundation.
“This award doesn’t just recognize my individual work — it also reflects The Chronicle’s amazing, ongoing commitment to wine coverage,” Mobley said. “I’m lucky to be the only wine critic at a daily newspaper on the West Coast, and we’re uniquely positioned to tell the story of California wine.”
Mobley joined The Chronicle in 2015 to cover the state’s wine, beer and spirits. She previously was an assistant editor at Wine Spectator magazine in New York.
Justin Phillips is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @JustMrPhillips
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MITZPE RAMON, Israel — In the Negev Desert, the sun beats down on a parched landscape of brown, undulating hills. But on a parcel of land here in southern Israel, trees grow in green rows, and fat bunches of grapes dangle amid lush leaves.
This is not a desert apparition. It is a research vineyard, where scientists are studying how grapes can best grow in this harsh environment.
The Negev is a far cry from the temperate climates of many wine-growing regions. Yet about 20 wineries have sprouted here over the past 15 years, along with a budding wine tourism business.
The researchers are focusing on this harsh environment for a reason: to study how wine grapes can grow in the desert conditions that dominate Israel. That knowledge will become even more valuable in a world with more frequent droughts and heat waves.
“Climate is becoming more and more unpredictable,” said Aaron Fait, a biochemistry professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “The desert model is a way to study how climate change will affect wine worldwide.”
The techniques being tested here on 30 varieties of grapes include the use of nets that provide shade, trellises that coax vines to grow in formations that limit sun exposure, sensors that measure soil humidity and thermal cameras that track how much sunlight grapes and leaves absorb.
The work is gaining increased interest from European winemakers as summer heat waves and other climate shifts affect their vines. In July, temperatures hit 106 degrees in the French wine-growing region of Bordeaux — the hottest day on record. Heat records were broken elsewhere on the Continent, including in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
In recent years, scientists and vineyard owners from France, Italy, Slovenia and other parts of Europe have visited the researchers in the Negev. Experts hope Israel’s desert agriculture can provide valuable lessons about adapting crops to extreme and unpredictable weather.
To study innovations in winemaking, Dr. Fait works with several Negev wineries, as well as European researchers like Enrico Peterlunger, a professor of viticulture at the University of Udine in northern Italy. The effort started in 2014 with the Israeli irrigation company Netafim and support from the Italian and Israeli governments.
“Growers are concerned about climate change” in Europe, Professor Peterlunger said. In his region, he said: “It rained a lot in May, which caused some problems during flowering and fruit set. June, July and August were really hot, and that is not optimal for grapevines.”
Naftali Lazarovitch, a soil scientist at the Blaustein Institutes of Desert Research in the Negev, also studies desert viticulture at the research vineyard. Europeans “are looking at Israel and the way we are dealing with harsh conditions and trying to learn from it,” he said. “We produce more with less, that’s our objective.”
More than 40 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface is made up of drylands, including tropical dry forests, savannas and deserts, that are home to roughly 2.5 billion people. These regions are already threatened by resource overuse and desertification and more vulnerable to extreme weather, including droughts, heat waves and dust storms, according to a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Most of Israel is arid; the Negev spans more than half of the country. Out of necessity, Israel has honed desert agriculture to yield bountiful crops. In the 1940s, the Polish-Israeli inventor Simcha Blass pioneered modern drip-irrigation systems that now are used around the world.
Desert agriculture has existed in the region since ancient times. The Nabateans, nomadic Arab peoples dating to the fourth century B.C., used runoff and built small stone dams to divert water to irrigate crops and grow wine grapes.
Today in the Negev, farmers can control water with precise drip irrigation, unlike parts of the world that are at the mercy of rainfall. “Desert viticulture, where we can control a large number of variables like nowhere in a traditional vineyard, is of immense importance to test certain climate scenarios,” Dr. Fait said.
For his tests, he works with Negev wineries like Nana Estate, whose owner, Eran Raz, left a career in film production. Mr. Raz moved to the Negev to start a vineyard “because no great story ever began with salad,” he joked.
Water piped from a local aqueduct nourishes Nana Estate’s grapes, which produce chardonnay and chenin blanc wines.
“I have total control over water,” Mr. Raz said. “I control how big the grapes will be.”
He closely monitors his vines to ensure that grapes grow — not the leaves — and checks sugar levels of the fruit. An optimal yield for one vine is four kilograms, or almost nine pounds. If there are too many grape clusters, it strains the plant, so Mr. Raz discards them.
In the Negev, days can reach 97 degrees and nights can drop to freezing in the winter. With its dry climate, Negev vintners might spray fungicide twice a season, whereas some European counterparts spray every week.
In addition to viticulture, Israeli researchers are studying a range of techniques to grow other crops. The Ramat Negev Agro-Research Center has about 15 hectares — or 37 acres — of research plots and greenhouses where scientists cultivate wine grapes, date palms, olives and jojoba.
In large greenhouses, researchers cultivate cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, eggplant and other vegetables, like an edible, crunchy grass called sarcocornia that thrives in saline conditions. Even strawberries are grown in long, suspended planters.
Mr. Lazarovitch and other scientists are testing innovations including cameras that monitor plant roots and sensors that monitor carbon dioxide, fertilizer and salinity levels. Mulching techniques can reduce water use by 20 percent. Covering plant roots with plastic also prevents evaporation.
These innovations “will be more and more relevant to many countries as a result of global warming,” said Ofer Guy, an agricultural researcher at the Ramat Negev center. “Issues of saline soil and water, extreme hot weather and lack of water are going to be big problems in the global future as agriculture is forced into marginal soils,” he added.
“Today agriculture, and food consumption, is based on a small variety of plants that are relatively sensitive to salinity,” Mr. Guy said. “This poses a great challenge to humanity.”
In a region that gets about 300 days of sun each year, scientists closely study how crops are affected by shade, assessing the color, density and material of various kinds of canopies and netting. For example, when grapes ripen, researchers cover them with nets to shield them from the sun. This reduces temperature, but increases humidity and the potential to draw insects.
The Ramat Negev center works with local farmers, many of whom are not from farming backgrounds. This helps bolster an industry whose numbers are dwindling. In the 1950s, more than 70 percent of Israel’s population worked in agriculture, compared with less than 2 percent today.
“It’s difficult to be a farmer,” Mr. Guy said. “You’re like a gambler. You don’t have any guarantees. It’s a very big risk. In 10 to 20 years, if no one promotes farms, less and less people will want to be farmers. There’s a lot of potential and cooperation. There’s a lot to learn from us, and a lot for us to learn still.”
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By Mathew Lyons
Published: 20 September, 2019
Climate change has transformed wine production globally, according to the latest edition of the World Atlas of Wine.
The most immediate impact is on the wine harvest, which is now on average up to four weeks earlier than it was 20 or 30 years ago in both the northern and southern hemisphere.
The Bordeaux harvest now often starts in August, whereas it traditionally began in late September or early October. At Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the Rhône, the harvest has been brought forward by a month since the 1940s.
A secondary effect of climate change is the spread of wine making into latitudes where it was formerly impractical. The book highlights the beneficial impact this has had on wine production in England, Germany and Canada, in particular, and notes the establishment of commercial wine industries in Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden.
Wine production methods have also been forced to adapt. Vines in established vineyards are being planted both at higher elevations and in wind-exposed areas to slow the ripening process. Likewise, many winemakers now need to protect their crops from over-exposure to the sun, whereas traditionally, they would have been attempting to give their vines as much sunshine as possible.
Plantings of grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon are increasingly being replaced with hardier varieties that are better adapted to high temperatures.
Other new features of the book include a focus on emerging wine regions such as the Lebanon, Israel, Uruguay and Brazil.
The eighth edition of The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson is published by Mitchell Beazley on 3 October.
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Wine challenges tend to favor wines with high ethanol and sugar levels
Carolyn Ross from Washington State University. (Credit: WSU)
SEATTLE — Award winning wines tend to be more complex and the best have high ethanol and sugar levels.
That’s the finding of a recent paper in the Journal of Wine Research from Washington State University scientists, working with a colleague at the University of Lisbon in Portugal.
The researchers wanted to know what characteristics were prevalent in the wines that won the top awards at an international wine competition.
To find out, they crunched several years of data from the Mundus Vini Challenge, which is held twice a year in Germany.
Their analysis shows large wine challenges tend to favor wines with high ethanol and sugar levels. Flavors often associated with sweetness, including exotic fruits in white wines and dried fruit and spiciness in reds, also increase the chances of winning top prizes.
Conversely, white wines with tones of acidity and astringency and red wines of green/vegetative and red berries tended to not receive the top awards.
But simply making the wines sweeter, or less vegetal, may not make an award-winning wine.
“Complexity and harmony are hard to define,” said Carolyn Ross, WSU professor in the School of Food Science and an author on the paper. “According to the data, you may want to add more exotic fruits, or spiciness. But that may have an impact on the broader attributes of the wine. The fact remains it will always be very impressive to make a wine that wins an award at a prestigious competition.”
Previous research has looked at factors like pH level or acidity of award-winning wines, but the complexity of those characteristics made the results hard to quantify simply.
This new data breakdown helped scientists find more specific characteristics, Ross said.
Wine awards can have a huge impact on marketing, so competition at prestigious international events is fierce.
“Some people will decide between two different wines just because one has an award sticker on it,” Ross said. “There’s a major positive impact for a winery.”
–Washington State University
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Sojourn winemaker Erich Bradley parked his truck at the end of the vineyard and turned the engine off. Sitting beside him was Sojourn co-founder Craig Haserot. It was 102° F and both were sweating as the interior of the cab began to swelter. They’d come to this hopefully quiet patch of wine country to record voiceover for a short film about their journey into wine.
They laugh about it now, but that voiceover segment was the most difficult part of the shoot. “It felt like an eternity,” Bradley told Wine Spectator. “Every time a tractor drove by, we had to redo everything.” But their persistence paid off: “Journey to the Edge of the Earth” is Wine Spectator’s 2019 Video Contest winner.
Their video offers an inside look at Bradley’s journey in the Sonoma Coast appellation. This year’s contest theme, “Wine Wanderlust,” felt natural for Bradley and Haserot, who met over a tennis game and bonded over their love of wine, specifically Pinot Noir, for its ability to express terroir. They eventually founded Sojourn and their first vintage, 2004, began their challenging exploration of Sonoma Coast, where weather conditions change on a dime thanks to its proximity to the Pacific.
Bradley says he wants viewers to learn “how geographically big and complex the puzzle of the Sonoma Coast appellation is … Telling that story allows people to connect with us and understand what we’re about.” Bradley and Haserot’s Video Contest Grand Prize includes two full weekend passes to Wine Spectator’s New York Wine Experience, where the video will be screened for more than 1,000 attendees.
Want to see more great wine videos? Sign up for Wine Spectator‘s free Video Theater e-mail newsletter and get our newest videos and more, delivered straight to your inbox!
This year’s second-place winner, “From the Bayou to the Bay,” also showcased Sonoma. Lawyer and winemaker Arthur Murray of Flambeaux Wines takes viewers on a symbolic trip from the historic streets of his native New Orleans to his family-owned winery in Healdsburg, Calif., where friends and family take part in the winemaking process. As Murray passes the torch to his kids, he hopes viewers will take away the same lessons he learned from his leap of faith: “Don’t be afraid to chase a dream,” Murray told Wine Spectator. “If your heart’s in it, you make it work.”
This year’s third-place winner, “Winetastic Path Home,” takes viewers to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. Local filmmaker Martina Miličević shows viewers how wine allows people to balance passion, nature and connection. She cuts and mixes vineyard and street scenes to show that wandering doesn’t require great distance.
“I made a commitment to myself that I would do my best to show as many people as I can how close they are to this enchanting wine world,” Miličević told Wine Spectator.
There are many more inspiring stories amid the 2019 Video Contest finalists. From winemakers to wine lovers of all degrees, there is a story for everyone! Watch all the winners, finalists and honorable mentions share how wine took them on the road less traveled.
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Here are a few things you should know about Moldova as a wine country. First, wine is constitutionally recognized as food. In March 2017, the Parliament of Moldova declared wine as a food product. The new law allows wine to be sold in shops after 22:00; advertising wine products on the mass media is also permitted. Second, there’s a public holiday dedicated to wine. Along with the declared holiday comes an annual national wine celebration held in the capital city Chișinău on the first weekend of October. Third, it is home to the largest wine cellar and the largest wine collection in the world. The state-owned Mileștii Mici winery contains around 2,000,000 bottles of wine and boasts a 200 kilometer-long cellar, of which 55 kilometers are currently in use. Fourth, Moldova has the greatest density of vineyards in the world: 3.8% of the country’s territory and 7% of the arable land. Fifth, the wine sector accounts for nearly 10% of Moldova’s labor force.
The Kremlin Breakup
Wedged between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova is a landlocked country located in the Black Sea Basin—an area where the history of wine dates back thousands of years and a few Black Sea countries claiming to be the birthplace of wine. Together with Georgia, Moldova was one of the two most productive wine states in the Soviet Union. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Moldova’s independence, Moldova continued to supply inexpensive bulk wine to Russia. To cater to the Russian market, besides the focus on quantity over quality, Moldova’s wine production was dominated by semi-dry and semi-sweet wines, which were favored by the Russians.
The customary setup was disturbed in 2006—and again in 2013—when Russia applied an embargo on Moldovan wine. In 2006, when Russia accounted for over 80% of Moldovan wine exports, the embargo pushed Moldova into a deep recession.
What does one do when one has its trust broken and feels betrayed? One turns away, runs as far away as possible, and tries to never look back.
After the 2013 embargo, in a political piece for The New York Times, American journalist Nicholas Kristof wrote, “If there were an Olympic competition for bravest country in the world, the gold medal might well go to Moldova.”
Moldova adopted an international approach in order to find new export markets and sustainable growth. A key challenge that arose from this shift was how to satisfy the new customers and investors who had different psychographics and different taste preferences from the Russians. Tested, Moldovan wine producers started their march from quantity to quality and from bulk to bottle.
Exotic Wine Travel Meets Moldovan Wine
We had our first taste of Moldovan wine when we judged at the International Wine Competition Bucharest (IWCB) 2018 and scored several of them well between 85 and 94 points. So when we received our invitation to visit the Moldovan wine regions, we accepted it with enthusiasm and high expectations. The week-long trip offered us a comprehensive overview of the three wine regions of Moldova, along with some penetrating observations of the past, present, and future of Moldovan wine.
During the week, we tasted more than 150 wines from over 20 producers. We met with enologists from some of the biggest wineries in Moldova, small-scale producers, winemakers who have just started commercializing their wines, vine breeders, wine bar owners, representatives from the tourism board, and several other key players in the wine and tourism industries. Our expectations were exceeded by the quality of Moldovan wines, the above-mentioned exponents, and the human spirit that inevitably upholds the collective vision of the Moldovan wine world.
Moldova: Born to Wine
Moldova has 112,000 hectares of vineyards planted with over 50 types of wine grape varieties, 10% of which are local types, 17% are Caucasian, and 73% are European.
The country sits on similar latitudes to the classic wine regions of the world, like Bordeaux and Piedmont. Coupled with low hills, sun-soaked plains, flowing rivers, and moderately-continental climate with influences from the Black Sea, Moldova offers suitable conditions for cultivating high-quality wine grapes.
There are three Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) Moldovan wine regions: Codru (central Modolva), Valul lui Traian (southwest Moldova), and Ștefan Vodă (southeast Moldova). The latter two are more renowned for reds because of the southerly location and slightly warmer climate. However, there are some age-worthy, cool-climate reds from the Codru region as well. On the other end of the spectrum, Moldova has many aromatic white grapes and the wines made from those grapes tend to be fresh and floral. Other styles made in Moldova include sparkling and sweet. The latter includes icewines, which can be outstanding and some of the best in the world—especially if one considers their price-quality ratios. The former consists of generally simple wines with less than a handful of exceptions; however, Moldovan sparkling wine, in fact, has a history dating back to the 1950s as the deep limestones quarries at Cricova Winery (second biggest wine cellar in the world) and Mileștii Mici Winery proved ideal for aging and storing traditional-method sparkling wine.
International for Good Reason
The Moldovan wine industry is largely reliant on international grapes. While the first impression may appear weak on this account, there are several commendable Bordeaux-style blends that rank high for being value for money and are likely to satisfy discerning drinkers on a weekday business dinner. Most of the international red grapes—such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, and Syrah—are also ideal for blending with local varieties. As one might expect, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are omnipresent white varieties and can also be found in Moldova.
Recommended white wines: Asconi Sol Negre Chardonnay 2015, Cricova Blanc de Noirs Extra Brut NV, Château Vartely Taraboste Alb 2017, Château Purcari Alb de Purcari 2017, Fautor Illustro Chardonnay Sauvignon Blanc Rhein Riesling 2016
Recommended red wines: Minis Terrios Negru Împărat 2016, Vinaria Nobila Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Castel Mimi Merlot Reserve 2012 & Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2012, Château Vartely Taraboste Roșu 2015, Mileștii Mici Codru 2009, Fautor Illustro Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, Equinox Echinoctus 2015, Chateau Cristi Cabernet Sauvignon Old Vines 2016
Moldovan Wine Goes Glocal
Moldova shares a long history with next-door Romania. As such, both Romanian-speaking countries also share a number of native varieties. These grapes, both in blends and as varietal wines, produce the most memorable wines of Moldova.
The important local red grapes are Fetească Neagră and Rara Neagră (known as Băbească Neagră in Romania). The important white counterparts are Alb de Onițcani, Fetească Albă, Fetească Regală, Plavai, and Viorica.
Eastern European grapes like Bastardo Magarachsky, Rkatsiteli and Saperavi are also cultivated. Despite Saperavi’s Georgian origin, it thrives exceptionally well in Moldova and makes a formidable backbone for the most profound Moldovan red blends. The best dry red Moldovan wines we tasted were made from either Moldovan varieties, Georgian varieties, or both.
Recommended white wines: Novak Alb de Onitcani 2017, ATÚ Viorica 2018, Cricova Crisecco NV, Château Vartely Fetească Regală 2018, Salcuta Winemaker’s Way Alb de Onitcani 2018, Kazayak Viorica 2018
Recommended red wines: Minis Terrios Roșu Împărat 2015, Carpe Diem Bad Boys 2016, Vinaria Nobila Fetească Neagră 2014, ATÚ Calibru 2017, Château Vartely Individo Rara Neagra 2017 & Individo Saperavi 2017, Mileștii Mici Negru de Mileștii 1987, Salcuta Eno Reserva 2015, Château Purcari Negru de Purcari 2015 & Roșu de Purcari 2015, Fautor Negre 2016, Gitana Lupi Rezerva 2015, Gogu Metafora 2017
Moldovan Wine Finds Its Sweet Spot
The first Moldovan wine that awed us was an icewine made from Riesling. During our visit to Moldova, we were thrilled to learn that that wine wasn’t a fluke.
There are many exceptional botrytized sweet wines and icewines made in all three Moldovan wine regions. Icewine can be made in Moldova nearly every year as winter usually dips below -7 degrees Celsius. What further strengthens this ‘Moldovan sweet spot’ is different varieties are used to make sweet wines, including Muscat Ottonel, Traminer (Gewürtztraminer), Chardonnay, Rkatsiteli, Riesling, and even Cabernet Sauvignon.
Recommended sweet wines: Asconi Rosé Icewine Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, Castel Mimi Late Harvest Rkatsiteli 2013, Château Vartely Chardonnay dulce alb 2013, Mileștii Mici Margaritar 2005, Fautor Ice Wine Traminer Muscat Ottonel 2016, Ialoveni Reserva Pelicular 1995
Divin, Moldova’s Cognac
Moldova, along with Armenia, was renowned for its grape brandy production in the Soviet states. Back then, those brandies were called Cognac. However, since 1909, only grape brandy produced in the Cognac region in France is legally allowed to be labeled as Cognac. As a result, Moldovan grape brandy needed to be renamed and rebranded if it wanted a share of the international market in the post-Soviet era.
Like Cognac, today, Divin bears PGI. With a tradition of over 100 years in Moldova, Divin is produced by double-distilling grape-based alcohol and aging it for at least three years in oak barrels. Depending on the length of maturation, Divin offers a range of scents and tastes: from flowers and spices, to caramel and tobacco. The best Divin, like Cognac, is smooth on the palate and balanced in taste, with a plethora of flavors that persist through a long finish.
An entry-level Divin, in a half-liter bottle, usually retails for less than five euros. For a respectable Divin, aged for 10 years and likely to appeal to experienced Cognac drinkers, expect to pay between 15 and 20 euros. For a truly hedonistic Divin that has been aged for 20 years, the price goes up to 80 euros and above. The step-up is boundless; 50 Year Old Divin exists too.
Moldovan Wine, the Wine of Change
Today, the wine industry accounts for 2% of Moldova’s Gross Domestic Product and 6% of the country’s total exports, and Moldovan wines are available in over 50 countries around the world. These numbers speak for themselves: while success is always a work in progress, the Moldovan wine industry has clearly moved from an unhealthy reliance on one country to a robust export portfolio.
However, other challenges remain, including selling more wines at higher prices, rebranding Moldova as a quality wine-producing country, increasing domestic consumption, upgrading infrastructures and the service sector to boost the overall value chain, and valorizing the cultural significance of Moldovan wine. The need to tackle these challenges is, however, well-timed as a new generation of internationally educated winemakers and cosmopolitan minds are ready to step up and lead in this time of change.
Mihaela Sirbu, who studied hotel management in Switzerland and worked in the tourism sector in Abu Dhabi, joined her family business at Asconi Winery in 2017. “With my international background in hospitality, I hope we will be able to showcase the most authentic Moldovan traditions while following the latest wine tourism trends,” she said.
Sirbu is now in charge of tourism development at the winery, while her brother takes care of the vineyards. Her father, the founder of Asconi Winery, continues to oversee the entire operation of the estate, which includes wine production, two restaurants, and 20 rooms for guests. With the wide offering at the estate, the family team aims to attract more people, both local and foreign, to experience Moldova’s culture through wine.
The Asconi Winery, one of the largest private wineries in Moldova, is one of the many case studies on how wine and entrepreneurship can be a core lever for nation-building in Moldova.
“During Soviet times, we did not have family-owned wineries at all, only state-owned, mega-wineries with hundreds and thousands of hectares,” said Ion Luca, former president of the Moldovan Small Wine Producers Association, winemaker-proprietor of Carpe Diem Winery and owner of Carpe Diem Wine Shop & Bar.
Luca was the first president of the Moldovan Small Wine Producers Association, which was established in 2008. To be a member of the association, a producer must have less than 20 hectares of vineyards and an annual production of no more than 100,000 liters.
Describing the members of Moldovan Small Wine Producers Association, Luca said, “We are a group of people who started from scratch in a boutique winery style, and we’re making limited quantities of wine. In order to place our wine on local and international markets, we have to unite in an association so that we can share efforts in promoting our wines on local and international fairs, make events together, educate consumers together, and also lobby and advocate for the ‘small guys’.”
Small producers are often squeezed out of restaurants’ wine lists and shelf space because they do not have the financial resources to compete with big producers. To counter that, Luca established Carpe Diem Wine Shop & Bar in the center of Chișinău, where wines of the small producers are under one roof.
Why Drink Moldovan Wine?
To drink Moldovan wine represents taking a stand for the country, supporting a revolution, championing resilience, promoting diversity in wine, and planting a future for the whole wine industry. A glass of Moldovan wine stands for how the human spirit prevails amid calamity. It means helping more Old World wine countries to re-emerge and rewrite modern wine history.
Wine may simply be a beverage, but it can also be symbolic. If there are two overriding considerations we would employ when buying wine, they are: “Are we supporting something that we should be supporting?” and “Are we doing our part to promote diversity in the wine world?”
Moldova may be a small corner of the wine world, but it has the capability to show us something new that we don’t already know about wine. That’s if we give Moldovan wine a chance today.
– Stay tuned to our website for an upcoming article entitled “A Journey Through Moldova in 15 Wines“.
– Find your nearest stockist of Moldovan wine on Wine-Searcher.
– Recommended reading: The Wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova by Caroline Gilby (Master of Wine) / Buy paperback on Amazon
– Cover image: Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0
We were on a press trip organized by the Moldova Competitiveness Project, funded by USAID and Sweden, in collaboration with Wine of Moldova. Our travel, meals, and accommodation were covered by the organizers. However, please note that the opinions expressed in this article are unsolicited and have not been paid for in any way. We do not sell editorial content as that would destroy the legitimacy of our reviews and the trust between Exotic Wine Travel and its readers. On occasion, we extend the option of purchasing the wines we review or/and the products we spotlight. Some of these product links are set up through affiliate programs, which means Exotic Wine Travel gets referral credits if you choose to purchase these items via the links we provide.
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