Rosé History: From Ancient Rome to Today’s French Trends

Looking at Philippe Plantevin’s darkly colored 2015 Cotes du Rhone Rosé – a wine that’s closer to light red than pink – got us thinking about rosé history. When did rosé start and how did it become a “thing”? Why do so many people prefer pale pink rosé to darker ones? And, as pink wine continues to grow faster than any other wine category, where does rosé go from here?

For that last question, check out this short video, “The French Do WHAT to Rosé?” about the hottest trend in France for making pink wine even cooler than it already is. But, for a bit more on rosé in general, read on!

 

Who Made The First Rosé? Probably the first person to make wine from dark-skinned grapes! Before modern growing and winemaking techniques developed, black grapes were seldom fully ripe at harvest, and so they were loaded with harsh, bitter, tannin. The longer the fermenting wine stayed in contact with the grapes’ skins and seeds, the more bitter the wine got.

Free Run Juice

“Free Run” juice comes out pink. Pressing the grapes produces darker color, among other things.

So, by ancient Greek times, wine was drained off the skins and seeds as soon as it started bubbling away. Because all of red wine’s color comes from the skins, ancient wine always started out as pink – at least before it started turning tawny/brown from contact with air (remember – no bottles and no sulfur dioxide to protect it).

 

Pink for the Rich, Dark for the Poor. Eventually, someone figured out that if you pressed the skins remaining after this “free run” juice was drained, you’d get more wine out of each harvest. This wine was darker (pressing pushed some pigment out) and much more harsh. Being all about efficiency (and making a buck), the Romans favored this darker wine – perhaps they thought tough wine made for tough soldiers?

The fad for dark wine fell with Rome, and through the centuries pale wine was viewed as the superior sort to be drunk by counts and kings while the darker press wine was for the common folk (with the harshness often masked by sweeteners and spices).

When the English began drinking wine in serious quantities in the 1600s, they favored the lightly red colored wines of Bordeaux over the darker, more tannic produce of Cahors and the Rhone valley. The ideal was vin d’une nuit or “wine of one night,” meaning the grapes spent less than 24 hours on their skins before the free run juice was drained to finish fermentation.   They called these pink/orange Bordeaux wines clairet – an old French term for a dark rosé. By the 18th century, claret was the British wine of choice.

Wait, Dark for the Rich, Pink for the Poor? As the 18th century went on, the English began to notice that while darker wines were more harsh and tannic at first, a long stay in a cool, dark castle cellar allowed them to soften and develop greater complexity. Since buying and holding wine for a decade or two was something only the wealthy could do, it quickly became a way for the rich to separate themselves from the growing merchant class who were now drinking claret by the bucketful.

Once the rich folks started drinking darker wine, the middle-class wanted it too. By the mid-19th century, “everyone” agreed that “dark wine was best,” much to the chagrin of Bordeaux and Burgundy growers, who had to start sneaking Northern Rhone Syrah into their cellars to make their naturally lighter wines dark enough for fashion.

When France’s 19th century economic boom and growing railroad network made wine affordable for all (before then most Frenchmen drank beer), acres and acres of grapes were planted across the under-developed fields of Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon to serve growing demand. The customer wanted cheap wine, though, and so growers planted high yielding grapes and let the vines groan under huge crop loads. Lots of bunches per vine means not much color per grape, so most low-end French wine ended up somewhere between dark pink and light red. Pink for the poor!

But, even the poor wanted dark red wine, so growers in the Rhone and Sud developed a trick. They’d crush their large-berried, over-cropped, fruit and let fermentation start. Then, they’d bleed off 10-30% of the juice. That left a higher ratio of color-containing skins to juice and let them make a darker and more commercially attractive wine.

What to do with the bled off, lightly pink juice? They simply fermented it dry and made it their everyday summer sipper. Not because it was good, but because it was cheap.

rose outsideRosé’s Big Comeback. Rosé’s big comeback is “driven” by the automobile. Specifically, by the development of highways from Paris to Provence and Languedoc after WWII and the subsequent flood of Parisians driving south in search of the sun.

When they got to the Riviera, French tourists were thirsty – but what to drink? Local wineries made almost no white wine – too warm for most white grapes – and the southern sun was too hot for drinking big, gutsy reds. But there was all that pink wine, and it was light, refreshing, and still cheap. Let the guzzling begin!

And, perhaps sipping that same pink wine at a Parisian café would remind you of those lovely warm days on the Riviera – or let you at least pretend you were there. Plus, more and more Parisians had refrigerators to keep the stuff nice and cool. So, what began as a trickle of pink wine in Paris and the rest of France soon became a steady flow that grew to a flood in the early 2000s. In 2008, for the first time ever, the French drank more rosé wine than white.

With growing demand came competition on quality across Provence and growth in rosé production in other regions of France and across all of Europe. Today you’ll find pink wine being made in every corner of the European wine world, and even top Bordeaux and Barolo estates are starting to get into the game in an effort to catch the pale pink wave.

sutter home

Remember these?

Coca Cola Wine in the USA. To tell the story of pink wine in the USA, we have to take a detour to 1940s Portugal. The story is a bit muddy, but essentially two Portuguese producers – Mateus and Lancers – realized at about the same time that once WWII ended, folks in the New World would be ready to drink wine. But, lacking a broad wine heritage, North and South Americans were unlikely to enjoy the dry, high acid wines common in Europe. The solution? Coca Cola was pretty popular everywhere, so…

Enter lightly fizzy, sweet, pink wine. Mateus targeted mainly Brazil and Latin America while Lancers focused intently on the USA from 1947 on. The wines’ blend of sweetness, fizz, and just a touch of citric bite were easy to understand in a nation weaned on Coca Cola. And clever packaging and national advertising very quickly made Lancers and Mateus the USA’s bestselling wines (not just rosé) period.

White Wine Boom Makes Pink Wine Soar. As the 1960s and 1970s went on, Americans’ palates expanded a bit and turned their attention to dry wines, increasingly from California, and the Lancers/Mateus phase began to wane. Then, in the early 1970s, Americans suddenly embraced white wine as their cocktail, poolside, and fern bar beverage of choice – and, bizarrely, that brought off-dry rosé back with a bang.

The problem was that California vineyards were planted mainly to red wine grapes – the choice of the Italian and Eastern European immigrants who started the Golden State’s wine business. As demand for red wine plummeted, growers struggled to sell all of their red wine grapes. Gradually, vineyard owners began to pull up their gnarly old Zinfandel vines – the staple of California’s popularly priced reds – replanting with Chardonnay.

Replanting was expensive and took time, though, and some growers asked themselves, “Isn’t there a way we can make white wine from our red grapes? After all, they make white Champagne from black grapes!” The owners of Sutter Home in Sonoma decided to give it a try with a Zinfandel vineyard. They called it “White Zinfandel,” but Zin’s ample pigment meant that even the barest crushing put some color in the wine. Plus, Zinfandel develops a lot of sugar during ripening, and turning that all into alcohol left the wine feeling big, bloated, and not yummy.

In 1974, a little accidental magic saved the day. A Sutter Home White Zinfandel fermentation “stuck” – the yeast died off before all the sugar was converted to alcohol. Winemaker Bob Trinchero tasted it and realized that the lower alcohol, somewhat sweeter, wine was actually more balanced than the dry version.   So, he bottled it, shipped it off to market, and started American’s white Zinfandel boom.

Like Mateus and Lancers before it, White Zinfandel was many Americans introduction to the world of wine. But, just like the rich of England decided that dark wine was “better” than pink, Americans soon decided that dry was better than sweet – and by the 1990s the “blush” was off White Zinfandel.

From Bust to Boom in (Pale) Pink. When I got into the wine business a decade ago, we carried 3-4 rosé wines each summer and sold 30 cases in a good year. Last year, we sold comfortably more than 10 times that amount and offered more than 20 different selections. That’s right in line with the rest of the country – rosé sales were up 30% last year, the 5th or 6th year of double-digit growth, and are booming again this year.

Driving this amazing growth are the pale pink rosé wines of Provence, so much so that selling darker colored wines from Tavel, Bandol, Spain or Italy is still a bit of a challenge. Why the supremacy of pale? Simple – Mateus, Lancers and White Zinfandel were all darker red, so many Americans (consciously or not) assume “dark = sweet” and “light = dry.”

Of course, that’s not really true. We’ve rejected several light pink rosé wines because they had a distracting level of sweetness and can show you darker ones that are bone dry. What darker color does usually mean is more body and texture, and most darker colored rosés stand up to hearty food better than their more lightly-colored relatives. But that doesn’t mean they will be heavy or even that they’re not fun to drink on their own.

Plantevin Rose and Glass (1)To end where we started, Philippe Plantevin’s 2015 Cotes du Rhone Rosé is a great example of where rosé started – as a light, fresh, smooth wine from red grapes – and where it’s going – as a wine you’ll want to drink with food and in any kind of weather. It’s open all week this week (through July 23), so come by and give it a try!

Chablis: The Home of Fine White Wine Values

Dom des Malandes“Values” probably isn’t quite the right word here. What we really mean is “QPR” – Quality to Price Ratio. But either way, the region of Chablis is currently the best source we know for white wines that give complexity, richness, and refreshment, not only for lovers of White Burgundy, but also for fans of white wines from anywhere in the world.

And this week, we are offering four great 2014 Chablis from Dom des Malandes an excellent “QPR” prices.

Changes in Chablis. The wines from the chalk and Kimmeridgian clay (found also in Sancerre) in this northernmost outpost of Burgundy (only Champagne and Alsace are farther North) have historically been thought of as “steely,” “flinty,” and “saline” – brisk, high-acid wines built for shellfish and lacking the richness, depth, and power found further south.

Chablis_Grand_Cru_vineyardsBut the combination of climate change (warmer weather) and rapid improvement in viticulture (lower yields and waiting for ripeness) mean that modern Chablis has elevated its quality to new heights even as its style has changed. And Chablis continues to mature earlier than wines of the regions further south in Burgundy – no bad thing for folks who don’t want to cellar wines for decades or who worry about premature oxidization. In fact, more and more, experienced Burgundy lovers are heading north for great white Burgundy at surprising value prices.

Lyne Marchive, Dom des MalandesMalandes: Wines You Need to Try. Domaine des Malandes has been in the Tremblay family for generations and has been run by Lyne Marchive since 1972. The wines have always been “solid,” but as winemaker Guénolé Breteaudeau has asserted himself since joining the Domaine in 2006, the wines have moved up the scale to “outstanding”! As Allen Meadows, who writes as Burghound, said after tasting the Domaine’s 2014s:

“I have said this before but it’s worth repeating that [these winemakers] continue to drive the quality … to new heights. Readers who are not familiar with the wines owe it to themselves to try a few bottles; moreover the prices are reasonable and thus the wines offer excellent price/quality ratios.” – Allen Meadows, Burghound

But, your window is closing. As Decanter magazine reported last week, “Chablis prices to rise as weather hits 2016 vintage.” Overall production will be off 50% and Malandes lost its entire crop.

Malandes’ 2014 releases are coming to us direct at simply unbeatable savings. From a Village Chablis to drink as a “house white” to two different majestic 1er Crus and the profound Grand Cru Les Clos, all of Malandes’ 2014s are compelling, captivating, and available to you while they last at substantial savings.

The (Deliciously) Bitter Truth about Vermouth

33933542 - red and white vermouth in a bar.

We’ve gotten more and more interested in vermouth over the past few years. But tasting the stunning Miro Vermut De Reus Extra Seco and Rojo from Catalonia, Spain, made us out and out vermouth fans. You can hear more about Miro Vermut in the video below and see all the options we have now – including the very handy 187 ml quarter bottles – by clicking here.

 

You may be asking yourself, What the heck is vermouth? Where did it come? When do you drink it? How do you drink it? How long can you keep vermouth? And, most important, what is the classic food match for vermouth?

Read on for answers to all these pressing questions!

What is vermouth? It’s a white or red wine that’s been fortified with neutral brandy to 15-20% abv and then flavored with an infusion of herbs, seeds, spices, berries, flowers and barks and then, almost always, sweetened a bit. The base wines are usually pretty terrible, having little flavor, harsh acids, and pretty low alcohol. The brandy is added to give the thin wine body and also help preserve it. And, the alcohol helps pull out the flavors and aromas of the infusion ingredients.

wormwood

The herb wormwood, often added to vermouth. The German word for this shrub,”Wermut,” gave us the name Vermouth.

Every vermouth maker has their own secret list of ingredients, but almost all vermouth gets a big dose of wormwood – specifically the shrub Artemisia Pontica that grows across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Wormwood is loaded with exotic flavors and aromas, but most importantly, it’s super bitter. While “bitter” doesn’t sound like something you want to have in your drink, it’s the magic that lets vermouth enhance higher alcohol spirits and makes vermouth on the rocks so refreshing.

Where did vermouth come from? The Greeks and Romans hit on the idea of adding botanicals to wine, including wormwood, back in ancient times. Doctors in China’s Shang dynasty (1250-1000BC) and in ancient India seem to have begun the practice of soaking herbs and roots in wine to create medicines. And, the Greeks started using wormwood in sweetened wine around 400BC because they thought the shrub would help upset stomachs (and it was too bitter to drink on its own).

But the practice of making “wormwood wine” to drink for pleasure emerged in Europe in the 1600s and was common in England by mid-century. The first sweetened vermouths came out of Turin, Italy, in 1786 and gained popularity in early 19th century France – where the German “Wermut” (for wormwood) evolved to “vermouth.” Once cocktail culture emerged in the mid-1800s, vermouth was soon made and drunk across Europe and in the USA.

19th Century Americans LOVED the flavor of vermouth and the typical pre-Prohibition cocktail often included two or three parts vermouth to one part of whiskey or gin. But gradually vermouth fell by the wayside here and abroad as more dry – i.e., less sweet – cocktails gained favor. Eventually, Winston Churchill defined the ultimate dry Martini: three parts gin plus a nod towards France.

Today’s fad for “craft cocktails” – which, as near as I can figure, means any cocktail that costs more than $4 per ounce – is bringing vermouth back into fashion. But, in Spain, it’s never been anything other than a daily treat.

When do you drink vermouth? Anytime you’d like a flavorful, refreshing sip of something tasty with a bit more kick than wine but low enough alcohol to keep you sharp! In Spain – the world’s largest consumer of vermouth today – “vermouth hour” is the time before 2pm lunch or anytime Sunday afternoons.

The Spanish didn’t invent vermouth, but they caught onto the concept pretty quickly once it arrived in the mid-1800s (and today grow most of the wormwood used in vermouth no matter where it’s made). The Catalan city of Reus quickly became the epicenter of Spain’s vermouth (or “vermut” in Catalan) production – in the late 1800s, the city’s largest producer actually laid pipes to the local train station to pump the stuff into tanker cars for shipment across the country.

Under Franco, the tradition of fer vermut – literally “to have vermouth” – fell by the wayside as wine and beer gained popularity, but vermut remained the pre-lunch aperitif of choice in rural villages and among factory workers. In every working class and small town bar, you’d find not a bottle of vermut, but a set of kegs and taps ready to dispense what was then the least expensive alcohol in Spain.

Then, about 15 years ago, Spain’s young adults re-discovered the pleasures of vermut/vermouth. Today, as Saveur magazine reports, fer vermut “is to Spain what grabbing an espresso is to Italy. It’s a social activity undertaken pretty much whenever over the course of daylight hours, preferably with a friend or three. The beverage is less an intoxicant than a way to pass the time. It accelerates your afternoon rather than ending it, unlike New York City’s excessive bottomless mimosas. In Spain, excess is not the point; enjoyment is.”

How do you drink vermouth? In a glass of some kind is always best (although those little 187ml Miro Vermut bottles do tempt one to just take a little nip). Otherwise, there’s not much to it. Vermut Rojo is made from a red wine base, is lightly sweet, and pumps out fun flavors of sweet red and black cherry, ginger, spice, and a hint of cola. To steal the slogan of a not-very-nice vermouth, “Vermut Rojo on ice is nice!” But, if it’s especially hot outside or you’d like to have more than one, there’s no harm in adding a splash of soda water and a squeeze of lime or lemon!

Most white vermouth is at least a little bit sweet and can be treated the same way. But Miro’s Vermut Extra Seco is a special treat that deserves special treatment. Because Miro uses only top-quality white wine for its base, this is the rare vermouth that needs zero added sweetener for balance. In fact, Miro Extra Seco is the only commercial vermouth in the world bottled bone dry.

Take it out of the refrigerator and pour it into a wine glass and you’ve got something like a more complex and biting Fino Sherry – loaded with savory notes of olive, bitter almond, and sea shell and delicious with just an olive dropped in the glass. But our favorite Extra Seco sip is to add equal parts tonic water – giving yet another dimension of bitterness and a hint of sweetness – and a twist or wheel of orange. It drinks like a very sexy, complex cocktail you had to go to bartender school to learn how to make. And, an 8oz drink has about as much alcohol as a beer – have two!

How long can you keep vermouth? Feel free to stock up and keep unopened bottles of any good vermouth – like Miro – in a cool, dark place for six months or a year. It’s pretty stable. Once you’ve opened it, vermouth’s life is somewhere between wine and whiskey. In a kitchen cabinet, opened vermouth begins losing some charm after six-eight weeks. In the refrigerator or your wine cellar, enjoy over the next 3-6 months.

What’s the best food match for vermouth? Pretty much anything savory or salty pairs very nicely with dry vermouth and slightly sweeter, richer Rojo is even pretty tasty with a burger. In Spain, you’ll find friends and family passing the Vermut Hour with classic nibbles like salted almonds, olives, and pickled or smoked clams, oysters, or anchovies.

But – and this is the very final reason we’ve come to love vermouth – the very most classic, delicious, perfect match for vermouth on the rocks or with a twist is: potato chips. Yum.

Feeling thirsty yet? If you’re in McLean on Saturday, July 9, come by the store between noon and 4pm and try Miro Vermut for yourself. You’ll have the chance to taste both the Extra Seco and Rojo straight up and with an added pour of tonic and twist of orange. We’ll even have some olives and potato chips to enjoy with the wine.

And, if you’re can’t come taste, check out our current selection of Miro Vermut right here. Let us know what you think!

Why is most California Chardonnay so Bad?

chardonnay_grapes
Tasting the new vintage of Poppy Chardonnay 2014 an honest, fruit-filled, lightly oaked beauty that sells for a song – made us think of two questions:

  • Why isn’t there more really good, honest, generous California Chardonnay out there for under $12? And …
  • Why is so much California Chardonnay so…er…bad?

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of great California Chardonnay out there. But finding the good ones seems to involve tasting an awful lot of awful wine. In fact, I just looked at my tasting notes for the past year. We’ve tried something like 150 different Cali Chards, and fewer than one in five – 16% of you want to be precise – made it onto our “Open to Buy” list – meaning we thought they were good enough in quality and price/value to offer you. And fewer than a dozen of those actually made it onto the shelf by knocking off a current selection.

Admittedly, we’re pickier than some. We demand that any California Chardonnay we sell have nice ripe fruit, that any oak and butter flavors be balanced and attractive, and that the wine finishes clean and fresh without any bitterness or puckery bite or sticky sweetness. And the wine has to sell at a price that makes sense – if you’re paying $25 for it, a Chardonnay should be a nice step up from whatever you’d find for $6.99 at the grocery store.

Why are those kinds of Chardonnays so hard to find? Four reasons.

First, “Chardonnay” has become a “brand” as much as a wine. This all started back during America’s great white wine boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Folks were looking for something with less alcohol than cocktails and classier than beer to sip on the porch, at parties and while out showing off big hair and flared pants at the disco and fern bar. Crisp, clean, fairly low-alcohol white wine fit the bill and sales exploded.

Back then, if you ordered “a glass of white wine,” you’d get something either sickly sweet like Blue Nun or crisp but bland like Gallo Chablis – a wine named for a great French Chardonnay region but made without any Chardonnay at all. How to get something with a bit more body, a touch more flavor, and a ton more refreshing? Chardonnay fit all those requirements, was the grape used to make some of the world’s best whites (i.e., white Burgundy), and was fun to say, too. So, pretty soon, “I’ll have a glass of Chardonnay” became one of the most common phrases heard in bars and clubs across the country – right after “What’s your sign, baby?”

When Chardonnay became the generic term for dry white wine, America’s vinous industrial complex swung into action, planting Chardonnay pretty much anywhere grapes would grow and banging it into bottle as fast and hard as possible. Hardly a recipe for quality!

Second, Jess Jackson accidentally discovered that Americans “talk dry but drink sweet.” In 1982, Jackson had a big vat of Chardonnay bubbling away when the fermentation “stuck” – the yeast all died before all of the grapes’ sugar had turned into alcohol. Jess could hardly afford to toss all that wine, so he stuck it in some barrels to add a little oak flavor, bottled it, and shipped it out to the market.

The crowd went wild. Sales of KJ Chardonnay exploded as folks discovered they really liked this rich, creamy, slightly oaky and a tiny bit sweet white wine. Over the years, a few winemakers how to make genuinely interesting wines in this style – Rombauer probably leads the pack here. But unless this style of wine starts with really great fruit and is very carefully nurtured through fermentation and aging, it ends up tasting like Butter Caramel Life-Savers dusted in ground oak chips and a dash of bitter quinine. Perhaps interesting for a sip, but you certainly wouldn’t want to drink a whole glass of the stuff!

America’s vinous industrial complex was less worried about quality and much more about making a quick buck. As demand soared, they kept planting Chardonnay – it’s a pretty flexible vine and it will produce a pretty large crop of grapes almost anywhere you plant it, including places like the scorching hot Central Valley where table grapes do well but wine grapes – not so much.

That leads us to the third reason why most California Chardonnay is so bad: most California Chardonnay vines are growing in places better suited for tomatoes and table grapes than for wine.

Chardonnay is the Golden Retriever of wine grapes. It’s friendly, agreeable, and eager to please. Given firm discipline and careful training, it will stay friendly but also develop real polish, finesse and class. Left to its own devices, it will slobber all over you and make a great big stinky mess. Either way, the dog has a strong tendency to end up resembling its owner – and the grape ends up reflecting the personality of its winemaker.

Chardonnay practically begs winemakers to do stuff to it. Pick it early, you get steely acids and minerality. Pick it late, and you get a tropical fruit basket. Ferment it cool in a steel tank and you’ll have fresh, crisp flavors. Ferment it warmer in oak barrels and you’ll get broad, creamy textures and spice.

Let it go through what’s called malolactic fermentation, and you’ll get even more softness and a new set of buttery, creamy flavors. Leave it in oak for a while longer, and you’ll add nutty, smoky notes. Use some kinds of barrels and – BAM! – you’ve got vanilla. Use others and get whispers of toast and spice.

When all these choices are made carefully, respecting the character of the fruit, the climate where it was grown, and the notion that a great wine is about balance and finesse, then Chardonnay can be a great, great wine even when grown in sunny California. But, we’re Americans, and we’re prone to believe that if a little of something is good, a whole lot of it will be better.

And having a whole lot of some stuff and not nearly enough of others is the fourth reason so much California Chardonnay is so unfortunately awful. And the hard work required to make a balanced, delicious Chardonnay is why so many of California’s best cost as much as they do.

We’ve got a whole shelf full of balanced, fruit-filled, lip-smackingly delicious California Chardonnays that prove that it doesn’t have to be this way – but, remember, we had to taste a bunch of bad ones to find the bottles worth your time.

Poppy Chardonnay 2014 is definitely in the “worth your time” class. It’s from a place that’s right on the edge of “too warm” for good Chardonnay, so the winemakers had to do a little extra work to keep it in balance. You can read more about how they did it here or swing by the store this week and give it a try. And, if you have any California horror stories or even some great finds, let us know in the comments below!

 

Austria’s Provençal Red Wine Region

steindorfer familyThe father and son team of Ernst and Roland Steindorfer are the best Austrian winemakers that even most Austrian fans don’t know.

That’s because instead of making wine from Austria’s best-known Grüner Veltliner and Riesling grapes, the Steindorfers focus on rich, spicy, red and wildly complex and delicious sweet wines from grapes Americans struggle to pronounce, much less recognize. Part of the problem is Steindorfer’s location in the Burgenland region, about an hour south of Vienna along the eastern border with Hungary. Burgenland was, for years and years, the poorest, most economically isolated, region in all of Austria – electricity didn’t reach most homes until the last quarter of the 20th Century!

BurgenlandIt’s also one of the flattest areas of Austria – a bump 80 feet high is called a “hill” here – and one of the warmest as hot breezes flow westward from the Pannonian Plain to the east. And, while daytime temperatures can soar, the long, shallow (just 3 feet deep!) glacial lake called Neusiedler See both cools the region at night and pumps out autumn fogs that cover vineyards near the lake.

The lake-effect fog makes Burgenland Austria’s best region for producing intense, long-lived, sweet wines based on botrytis – aka Noble Rot. Ernst Steindorfer got his start making wine with the famous master of this wine style, the late Alois Kracher. Now on his own, Ernst and his son Roland continue to make some of the most exciting sweet wines in Austria.

Burgenland mapBut away from the lake, plenty of sunshine and warm, sunny, days, make Burgenland a perfect site for ripe and powerful red wines. The weather is actually a bit like you’ll find in Provence in the south of France, but the grapes are definitely different. In place of Provence’s Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault and Carignan, here you’ll find rich, robust, Blaufränkisch, herb-laced St. Laurent, and fun and fruity Zweigelt as the main red wine grapes.

Many of you have already tasted the superb red wine Steindorfer creates with these varietals in the form of the very popular Apetlon Rouge. Picked fully ripe, gently crushed, and aged in new oak, these are wines that deliver plenty of dark fruit and spice but stay smooth and fruit-filled enough to savor solo, too.

Pretty in Pink, Too!  The same Provençal climate that makes for such great reds is pretty much perfect for rosé, too. Before the 2015 growing season, the owners of Burgenland’s important Villa Vita Panonia resort came to the Steindorfers and suggested that they create a rosé that captured the magic of the region’s climate and very best grapes. Roland Steindorfer, now the lead winemaker here, was up to the challenge and selected a few rows in the family vineyard to go pink in 2015.

Roland monitored his rosé vines all through 2015’s warm summer and opted to pick them a week ahead of grapes for his red wines – at the perfect point of full ripeness but while sugars were still a touch low and mouthwatering acids still nice and fresh. The grapes were picked by hand in the early morning hours – keeping the grapes cool and fresh – and placed into small containers – keeping the grapes from breaking in the vineyard and starting to oxidize.

After a second sorting to remove any berries less that absolutely perfect, Roland crushed his fruit and allowed fermentation to start naturally. After a day or so, when only a touch of vibrant color had been extracted, he drained the tank and lightly pressed the must. The still fermenting wine went into stainless steel tanks where it was allowed to finish fermentation at its own pace cool and slow.

That’s the process the very best Provence rosé makers use, and you’ll definitely find a touch of something Provençal in Steindorfer’s Passion Rosé. But, as planned, you’ll also find something uniquely Austrian here, including a uniquely Burgenland spice. Drink it with any summer (or fall, or winter!) food or by itself as the sun shines on and you’ll be very happy indeed.

2015: A Tenuous Bright Spot in France

As some of our previous posts (not to mention any major wine publication worth the purchase price) will tell you, it’s been a rough few years for many French wine regions. Hail storms have battered Burgundy, bringing down yields for the last several years and completely decimating some vineyards. In 2016 late-season frost in April brought disaster to the Loire Valley as well. Some producers lost nearly everything, with historic frosts hitting the region on three nights – April 18, 25, and 27.

Sancerre mapAlthough Sancerre itself escaped the very worst of the frost damage, this latest disaster combined with low stocks at wineries from lower than usual harvests for the past couple of years will mean that prices could move around quite a bit in the next few years.

Lower Yields, But High Quality. Amid all this doom and gloom, the wines from 2015 are a welcome relief. While yields were still a bit low, the wines are of great quality. A very hot summer gave the grapes a few extra notches of ripeness, creating a fuller mouthfeel, more pleasingly ripe fruit flavors, and toning down that grassy character that can sometimes get to be a little bit too much in Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc. Rain and some cooler weather came at exactly the right time in September, preserving the freshness that makes wines like Sancerre so pleasant on a hot summer day.

The rain also came early enough that it could dry thoroughly before the very early harvest, preserving concentration of flavor. In short, 2015 is a fantastic vintage in the Loire Valley for this wonderful concentration of ripeness and acidity. The 2015 Domaine de la Chazétte reflects this delicious balance – elegant, yet still fun to drink.

A Chance Discovery. A chance encounter led Stephane Defot, relative newcomer to the importing scene in the DC area, to this family-owned producer – and we’re glad it did! His father stumbled upon Domaine de Chézatte during a hike, and introduced Stephane to the wines.

This introduction came at just the right time, as Stephane needed a Sancerre producer to add to his portfolio. He always thought maybe he’d drop the estate for something he’d picked himself, but the wines are so delicious that they’ve become a best seller for him that he wouldn’t dream of dropping – and now we wouldn’t either!

 

More Disaster in Burgundy

Pretty much every time we’ve written about Burgundy in the past five years, we’ve had to tell you about another round of terrible weather and limited yields. Between 2010 and 2013, the average Burgundy producer saw yields down 20-35% (higher in Pommard and Volnay) – essentially, growers have lost at least one full harvest over the past four years.

The news in 2014 was exciting – fine weather, fine yields, and very, very fine wines. After seeing Burgundy prices moving up 10-25% annually, the large and excellent 2014 vintage promised some relief for the market and financial recovery for growers. We’ll see those wines start to arrive soon and should have some choice selections for you over the next few months.

A Short 2015
The 2015 vintage was a “back to the future” experience. On the plus side: it’s an indisputably great vintage, with many experts calling it a cross between 2009 (wonderful richness) and 2010 (impeccable balance, fantastic purity, and ageworthy structures). On the down side, it’s yet another short crop as bad weather during flowering plus a hot dry spell in summer driving down yields 20-30+%.

Given the early praise for the 2015s, continued strong Asian demand, and vignerons’ need to make up for small harvests since 2010, we’ve known for a while that prices will take a jump. Events of the past six weeks will ensure that the “jump” will be more like an “explosion.”

Hail damage

Hail Damage

An Epically Bad 2016 – Frost, Floods, Hail …  
Between April 24 and 26, clear skies and plummeting temperatures created severe frost conditions from Champagne through Chablis, Burgundy, west to the Loire, and even as far south as Austria. Nearly half of Burgundy vineyards suffered damage, including higher elevation sites like Chevelier-Montrachet that are normally spared. Within affected sites, losses for the 2016 vintage range from 30% to 100%. The frost was so severe that it may have actually killed thousands of vines – the long-term impact won’t be known until growth starts next spring.

Then in mid-May huge storms pounded all of France, leading to the floods in Paris you’ve seen on TV and in the papers. In Burgundy, flooding further damaged some low-lying vineyards. But a severe hail storm on Friday, the 13th of May was the real back-breaker. Damage was scattered across the region, including in the Cote d’Or, but was worst in Chablis, Beaujolais, and Cognac. In Chablis, hail damage looks to have cut 2016 yields by another 10-20% – again, before accounting for damage that won’t be felt until 2017.

… Means Now’s The Time to Buy
What does all this mean for you? Simply put, if you hope to buy fine Burgundy anytime in the next three years or so, then you should do it this year. Prices on the 2014s were largely set 6-9 months ago, and while almost all are up a bit, the increases are still manageable.

Prices for 2015s were already likely to go up 10-20% based on the quality of the vintage and growers need to make up losses on earlier short crops. Now many estates face the prospect of having half as much 2016 to sell as they’d hoped and some may not have any wine at all. Both to offset 2016’s losses and ensure there is wine in the cellar to offer long-time private clients, winemakers will have no choice but to increase 2015 prices to historic levels.

Perhaps we’ll get lucky and early estimates of frost and hail losses will prove too high and conditions will come together for great and plentiful harvests in 2017 and beyond. Well worth hoping, but not a scenario Burgundy lovers should bet on.

Click here for this week’s “Limited/Collector’s” offer on one white burgundy and three reds.