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The Beauty of Vins Doux Naturels

The Roussillon region of Southern France is home to five AOPS that produce fortified vins doux naturel wines.

As the Tet River makes its way east towards the Mediterranean Sea, it bisects the combined AOPs of Rivesaltes and Muscat de Rivesaltes. The northern half of this AOP is divided once again by the Agly River and here, on Roussillon’s northern-most border, is the AOP Maury. A third river, the Tech, flows through the southern half of the AOP where perched above the Mediterranean Sea on region’s southern border with Spain is the AOP Collioure.

While they are diverse in size and geography, all of the wines produced here require 21.5% abv after fortification and rely largely on the same family of grape varieties.

Rivesaltes and Muscat de Rivesaltes combined comprise the largest of the AOPs (6,180 hectares). Rivesaltes is primarily made of Grenache with Macabeu as secondary grape in the blend. It produces four vin doux naturel wine styles from rosé, and red to tuilé and ambré. Rivesaltes requires a minimum of 100 g/l natural residual sugar although they can be far sweeter.

The vin doux naturel wines of Mas Amiel.

A combination of Grenache Noir, Blanc and Gris, Macabeu and Malvoisie du Roussillon (locally known as Tourbat) are used for the Rivesaltes where levels of residual sugar can and do vary. The white, rosé and red fortified wines rely on shorter periods of reductive aging while tuilé and ambré wines are defined by longer periods of oxidative aging.

In AOP Maury we find the same primary white and red grape varieties with the added bonus of Carignan Noir, Cinsault and Syrah.  The region’s 300 hectares produce white, ambré, multiple red styles and tuilé wines. As is typical, the white and red wines are aged reductively and ambré and tuilé wine styles rely on exposure to oxygen during aging. As in Rivesaltes, levels of residual sugar in the finished wines are determined by the producers.

While AOP Banyuls (938 hectares) grows the same varieties as Maury, the use of reductive, reducing and oxidative aging regimes produces a broader range of wine styles. White Banyuls ages with limited exposure to oxygen, rosé, rimage and rimage mise tardive red wines are aged reductively and the tawny “traditionnels” enjoy a fully-aerobic aging regime. 

As with Maury and Rivesaltes, the finished levels of residual sugar in the wines will vary. Banyuls is further distinguished by a Grand Cru designation for tuilé wines that can be designated dry, sec or brut if natural residual sugars are 54 g/l or greater.

EU quality policy protects the names of these specific wines to promote their unique characteristics, keep them linked to their geographical origin as well as preserving traditional know-how. Wines with a ‘geographical indication’ (GI) must have a specific link to the place where they are made.

The GI recognition enables consumers to trust and distinguish European Quality Wines while also helping producers to market their products better. According to the EU definition, PDO products are “produced, processed and prepared in a given geographical area, using recognized know-how”. Their quality and properties are significantly or exclusively determined by their environment, in both natural and human factors. The category is also referred to as Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP) in French.

Taking Control of Total Package Oxygen

Appearing in the March 2020 edition of Wine Business Monthly

The oxygen transmission rate (OTR) of a wine closure is just one of several factors that contribute to the total package oxygen (TPO) in a bottle of wine. According to Dr. Paulo Lopes who conducts research and development at Santa Maria da Fiera-based Amorim & Irmãos, S.A. and has extensively studied the OTR of natural corks, closures are the least variable aspect when considering TPO. “We know precisely how much oxygen a closure will provide to the wine but only by accurately measuring oxygen during the bottling process are we able to make precision additions during winemaking.”

Lopes’ current research illustrates the oxygen release of natural cork over time, a measurement that is particularly relevant in the context of an oxygen audit designed to measure total package oxygen – the combination of the oxygen contained within the closure combined with the presence of atmospheric and headspace oxygen during bottling and the dissolved oxygen in the wine.

Oxygen Dynamics of Natural Cork

Not surprisingly, different grades of cork contain different amounts of oxygen; a longer, higher-quality Grade A cork with fewer lenticels will release less oxygen. “Longer corks are much more homogeneous in oxygen release,” said Lopes. “Also, due to the [sloping] shape of the bottle neck, the cork is less compressed and thus releases less oxygen.” To that effect, Amorim has created an online application which makes the OTR rates of it closures readily available.

Lopes is also researching the contribution of cork phenolics to wine. “Phenols from cork in low amounts can help shape the oxygen reduction potential of a wine by polymerizing some compounds to reduce astringency and bitterness,” he said. In effect, they provide extra protection against oxidation. “We’re working to understand the relationship between cork length and different kinds of wine. By using the same approach as the barrel industry we’ll be able to identify the optimal pairing between wine and cork.”

On average, a natural cork will release up to one mg of oxygen during the first six months in bottle and then continuously micro-oxygenate at just over one mg  from its cellular structure over a period of 60 months of storage.  Although it’s impermeable to atmospheric oxygen, oxygen from the cell structures of the cork travels through the plasmodems and lenticels in to the wine.

Corks used to seal wine bottles have a lifespan of about 25 years, after which they begin to lose elasticity and can start to let atmospheric air into the bottle along their sides. “After ten years, a cork will lose only one to two percent of its elasticity,” said Lopes. “And if stored in contact with the wine, it will absorb about three millimeters of wine. “

You can read the complete article here –

Slow Wine Guide 2020 – your free digital edition

Your free digital edition of the guide can be found at Slow Wine Guide 2020.

Join more than 80 producers from Italy, Slovenia, California and Oregon in San Francisco on Tuesday, February 18th at Pier 27, The Embarcadero for the Slow Wine 2020 USA Tour. Register to attend here.

The Slow Wine Guide evaluates over 400 different wineries and treats each with the utmost respect and attention. The Slow Wine team prides itself on the human contact it has with all producers, which is essential to the guide’s evaluations.

While other guides limit their relationship to a blind tasting and brief write up, Slow Wine takes the time to get personal with each winery in order to create a well-informed, detailed review of the wines themselves and the people behind the production.

Slow Wine selects wineries that respect and reflect their local terroir and practice sustainable methods that benefit the environment. And for the first time ever, those wineries that receive the snail or the official Slow Wine seal are 100% free of chemical herbicides, a quality that the Slow Wine Guide continues to passionately support.

Brief History

The first edition of the Slow Wine Guide to the Wines of Italy, published in 2010 by Slow Food Editiore (Bra, Italy), marked a watershed moment in the contemporary history of Italian wine writing. With its publication, the editors-in-chief Giancarlo Gariglio and Fabio Giavedoni not only abandoned the score-based formula that had dominated the field for more than 20 years but they also adopted a wholly new and innovative set of criteria.

For the first time, the pioneering Italian wine critics looked not just to the quality of the wines: They also took into consideration the wineries’ sustainable farming practices and the winemakers’ “Slow philosophy,” as Gariglio has put it, “which continues to be increasingly important to consumers in wine and food globally.”

Where a previous generation of Italian wine writers based their evaluations solely on subjective (and often modern-leaning) tasting notes, Gariglio and Giavedoni had their contributors base their selections on the wines’ relationship to the places where they are made and the people who produce them.

It was the first time that the Slow Food ethos had been applied so broadly to the world of Italian wine and it was the beginning in a new era of how Italian wines would be perceived throughout the world — and not just in Italy. In Gariglio’s words, they “wanted to tell the wineries’ stories.”

With the 2019 guide, the editors have continued their expansion into the US that started in 2017 with California to include Oregon. 

In Pursuit of Sensory Literacy

When Sonoma’s La Crema Winery turned 40 last year, it celebrated the milestone with a unique exercise: Led by Dr. Henry “Hoby” Wedler, it was easily one of my top sensory experiences of 2019.

Wedler, who has been blind since birth, studied chemistry at the University of California, Davis, and serves as Sensory Innovation Director at Senspoint, a consulting practice he co-founded with several partners.

A native of Petaluma, Wedler has long explored the geology of the Sonoma County and has worked extensively with local clients in viticulture and winemaking—including Jackson Family Wines, which acquired La Crema from founder Rob Berglund in 1993.

After conducting a brief overview of the winery’s history and the terroir-related factors that influence the quality and style of wines grown on the Sonoma Coast, Wedler led a small group of professional tasters through six Russian River Valley AVA wines made by La Crema winemaker Craig McAllister.

While Wedler designed the experience to improve sensory literacy, he also described it as a “thought-provoking way of telling the story of a great growing region like the Sonoma Coast.”

To begin, the 2017 Kelli Ann’s Vineyard Chardonnay and the 2016 Bellflower Vineyard Pinot Noir were analyzed using all five senses. To help us connect aromas readily apparent in the wines with the aromas of microbial terroir from each expression’s respective vineyard, Wedler asked the group to moisten two vials containing soil samples with a small amount of water. 

Read the complete article here –

World Bulk Wine Expo 2019

Watch highlights from the show on this sizzle reel –

The bitter truth

According to neuroscientist Camilla Arndal Andersen, how consumers describe the taste of food can be misleading largely due to inherent biases. Among the most problematic is the “courtesy bias,” which comes into play when people respond with what they see as a socially acceptable opinion that doesn’t accurately reflect how they feel. There’s also the “bias blind spot,” in which we think we’re less biased than others. In short, we’re biased about our biases.

We see the courtesy bias at work in the wine industry when consumers say they prefer dry wines but, when given a choice, favor wines that are off dry or have much higher levels of residual sugar. Arndal Andersen points out that even trained tasters aren’t immune to bias; for example, foods that contain vanilla are rated sweeter by professionals even if they lack sugar. This can be explained by our long association between the two ingredients, which is based on a lifetime of exposure to their use in baked goods and desserts.

As one of the few low-threshold odors we still find pleasant even past the point of overexposure, vanilla—aka 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde—is known to have 170 volatile compounds, of which vanillin is dominant. The vanilla flavor wheel used by the flavoring company FONA International specifies 29 distinct flavor characteristics for natural vanilla that it groups into ten main categories: smoky, spicy, botanical, sulfury, sweet, creamy, medicinal, cooked, fatty, and floral.  

Like wine grapes, natural vanilla grows in different places—among them Madagascar; Mexico, where it originated; or Tahiti—and has different taste profiles and potency. For example, Madagascar vanilla, typically called Bourbon vanilla, is highly sought after for its rummy taste and sweet aroma.

The demand for vanilla flavoring, however, has long exceeded the supply of vanilla beans. Natural and synthesized vanillin are used to create the impression of sweetness in foods, as seen in the mass-market chocolate industry’s practice of adding synthetic vanillin to products to counter the bitterness of cocoa. With the growth and popularity of the sweet red blend category, it’s no surprise to find that vanilla/vanillin is a dominant flavor descriptor for this style, as it undoubtedly helps mask bitterness imparted by tannins.

When tasting across a commercial-quality range of single-varietal, and blended red wines from California for a recent sensory project, the use of vanillin-flavored oak alternatives left a ubiquitous stamp across all brands and varieties tasted. While the organic polymers known as lignins that are present in oak serve as one source of vanillin, few consumers know that an estimated 85% of the world’s supply of synthetic vanillin is derived from petroleum or crude oil. (The other 15% comes from the manufacture of cellulose.)

As for the perception of sweetness that vanillin can contribute to red wines, while we may be aware of unconscious biases, there’s little scientific evidence that supports the idea that heightened awareness will reduce the occurrence of bias in general. In other words, it’s very likely that we’ll still perceive vanillin-dominant red wines as tasting sweeter.

James the Wine Guy Interviews Deborah Parker Wong, DWSET

Prolific video blogger and wine writer James Melendez tells me that this insightful interview is one of his most popular to date. Read it on his James the Wine Guy site –

Find his highly-rated video blog on YouTube –

Alentejo’s Dark Horse, Alicante Bouschet

As grape varieties go, it’s fair to say that Alicante Bouschet (Ahlee-KANT Boo-SHAY) is flashy in the vineyard. It’s one of the few—along with Chile’s Carménère and Campania’s Piedirosso— whose leaves turn a deep, brilliant shade as the growing cycle winds down.

The resplendent, purple-hued robe of the variety’s canopy emerges when anthocyanins, the same pigments responsible for its red pulp and dark skin, are activated as the vine approaches dormancy.

A relative newcomer to the teinturier family of grapes, which are so named for their red pulp, Alicante has a unique anthocyanin fingerprint. It was bred as an improvement over its grandparent grape, Teinturier du Cher, a variety hybridized by renowned French viticulturalist Louis-Marie Bouschet with Aramon to create Petit Bouschet.

Henri Bouschet continued the experiments of his father in 1866 when he crossed Petit Bouschet with Grenache Noir (known as Alicante in southern France), resulting in Alicante Bouschet and several biotypes.

Alentejo, which covers almost a third of Portugal by area, encompasses roughly 18,000 hectares of vineyards. Last year, the region ranked third behind the Douro and Lisboa (formerly Estremadura) in total wine production, and although Alicante Bouschet is not among the country’s top ten varieties under vine, Alentejo is second only to Spain (where the grape is known as Garnacha Tintorera) in plantings of the variety.

In addition to vineyards, the region’s gently rolling landscape has historically been dotted with cereal crops, olive trees, and cork forests. In this continental climate with very low rainfall, the winters are cold and an ever-present risk of frost extends to the spring season; the hot, dry summers, meanwhile, necessitate irrigation.

A mix of heterogeneous soil types abounds, with outcrops of clay schist, granite, gravel, rañas deposits of sandy, clay loam, and ferrous limestone.
The region’s natural landmarks have helped producers define mesoclimates
ideal for producing monovarietal Alicante Bouschet.

The Vidigueira fault, which marks the border between the Alto Alentejo
and Baixo Alentejo provinces, is a long, east-west-facing escarpment that tempers the warmer southern climate. It’s here that Herdade do Rocim, an estate sited between the municipalities of Vidigueira and Cuba with 60 hectares under vine, produces an Alicante Bouschet expression from vines planted in the 1970s. Traditional foot treading and barrel aging produced a 2016 vintage laden with deep plum and velvety tannins framed by sandalwood and dark spice.

South of the fault lies the 1,700-acre Herdade dos Grous estate; its 70 acres
under vine share the schist soils of the nearby hills of Monte dos Magros. The 2016 Moon Harvested Alicante Bouschet, aged in French oak, illustrates how young Alicante Bouschet tends to show fewer primary aromas. Instead, there’s the promise of tertiary aromas that will develop and even predominate during aging, with bittersweet chocolate, espresso, char, and mulberry on the palate. Moderate acidity helps counterbalance the wine’s grip, and decanting will help release any reined-in aromas.

Alicante Bouschet’s adaption to this terroir has been helped along by its drought tolerant-nature and producers’ shared understanding that this thick-skinned, high yielding variety performs best when it’s planted in low-vigor soils and aggressively pruned.

Traditionally reserved for blending with Aragonez, Castelão, and Touriga
Nacional as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, Alicante Bouschet–dominant wines can be labeled either Alentejo DOC or Alentejano Vinho Regional (IGP). With a total approved vineyard area of 11,763 hectares, DOC wine production exceeds the IGP’s production of 6,233 hectares.

Another producer, Dona Maria Vinhos, bottles an Alicante Bouschet–dominant (50%) DOC Grand Reserva: a classic blend that sees the addition of 20% Syrah, 20% Petit Verdot, and 10% Touriga Nacional. Produced from old, dry-farmed vines planted in iron-rich clay-limestone soils at an elevation of 400 meters, the grapes for the 2012 vintage were foot tread before the wine aged one year in new oak. The firm and lithe result positively vibrates with crisp dark fruit, mocha, and uncured tobacco.

Because of its heritage, Alicante Bouschet contains a higher proportion of
anthocyanins than all of the other international varieties planted in Alentejo and in Portugal at large. With a total phenol index over 60, it ranks among the grapes— including Portugal’s native Tinta Barca and Borraçal, Italy’s Barbera and Corvina, and France’s Tannat—with the highest levels of antioxidant stilbenes known as resveratrol.

The presence of high phenol levels is readily apparent in the mouth coating texture of the 2015 Alicante Bouschet from Herdade São Miguel, whose clay- and schist-based vineyards are surrounded by the cork forests of Redondo. Lighter and more medium-bodied than the wines of southern Alentejo, the wine spends one year in oak and shows a combination of red and black fruit with lavender, nutmeg, and some white pepper.

Highlights from WSET Wine Education Week

The SOMM Journal’s Global Wine Editor, Deborah Parker Wong, DWSET
(’09), recently hosted three professional mixers marking the 50th anniversary of the London-based Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET).

Parker Wong teamed up with three Sonoma wineries—Balletto
, Sangiacomo Wines, and McEvoy Ranch—in welcoming WSET
alumni and students as well as members of the trade to taste and network
during Wine Education Week, held September 9–15. Three lucky attendees were awarded access to a Level 2 online certification course.

The world’s largest wine educator, WSET has more than 700 approved
program providers that deliver its wine, spirits, and saké certification programs in 70 countries and 15 languages.

Parker Wong offers both instructor-led and online Level 2 and Level 3 certification courses and specializes in bringing WSET training to winery staff on site.

Raffle winner Suzanne Martin with winegrower and vintner Steve Sangiacomo and Meghan Delzell, Director of Sales and Hospitality for Sangiacomo Wines. The Sangiacomo family celebrates 50 years of winegrowing this year.
Raffle winner Regina Baker (left) accepts her Level 2 study pack from McEvoy Ranch Event Manager Shannon Frances, who earned her Level 2 certification this year.
Pictured from left to right at Balletto Vineyards are vintner Jacqueline Balletto and winemaker Anthony Beckman with raffle winner Julie Pedroncelli St. John, herself a third-generation vintner.

Falling hard for Petrichor

Even knowing full well that geological minerals (with the exception of
halite, aka sodium chloride) have no smell, we’ve inherited a liking for the smell of petrichor from our ancestors, who relied on rain for their day-to-day survival.

The term, derived from the Greek words petra (stone) and ichor (the blood
of the gods), was coined by researchers Isabel Joy Bear and Richard Thomas in their 1964 paper “Nature of Argillaceous Odour” to describe the scent of rain.

At the time, the source of this particular smell was still unknown to scientists, but it had already been successfully captured in sandalwood oil by an Indian perfumer who called it matti ka attar, or “earth perfume.”

Bear and Thomas, who were working in the Division of Mineral Chemistry at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), mimicked the humid conditions experienced prior to a rainstorm by steam-distilling rocks that had been exposed to warm,
dry conditions.

The experiment produced an aromatic, yellowish oil that shared the same distinctive smell, which the researchers promptly named petrichor—the blood of the stone.

Petrichor is a combination of several fragrant chemical compounds, and while some have yet to be identified, one is 2-isopropyl-3-methoxy-pyrazine (IPMP). Also found in Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, it has a very “rain-like”smell.

Beyond plant oils, the primary contributors to petrichor’s complex aromatics are actinobacteria, a genus of soil-dwelling bacteria. Actinobacteria decompose dead and decaying organic matter into simple chemical compounds, and a byproduct of that activity is the organic
compound geosmin.

When the air becomes more humid and moistens the ground prior to a rainstorm, actinobacteria speed up their activity and produce more geosmin, which is the dominant aromatic compound in petrichor. Also found in beets, it can be considered a flaw or fault when readily apparent in wine and has a very low threshold for human detection
at 5 parts per trillion.

It wasn’t until 2010 that the “petrichor process” was documented on slow motion video by a team of scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Using high speed cameras, they witnessed how tiny air bubbles are created when a raindrop hits a porous surface; the bubbles shoot upwards, bursting from the drop in a cloud of aerosols that carry volatile aromas (and even bacteria and viruses) found on rocks and soils that are then spread by the wind.

Another compound associated with the smell of rain is ozone, created when lightning or ultraviolet light in the atmosphere splits oxygen molecules that then reform to create trioxygen.

The average human nose can pick out the distinctive smell of ozone—often described as the “clean” smell after a rainstorm—at a concentration
as little as 10 parts per billion; due to this higher detection threshold, ozone can be masked when geosmin is present.

In a subsequent paper, “The Genesis of Petrichor,” Bear and Thomas elaborated on the process by which rocks, clay, and soil absorb organic compounds. Silica absorbs more atmospheric contaminants—compounds
like lipids, terpenes, carotenoids, and other volatile decomposition products— when humidity is low. Those compounds are increasingly oxidized and transformed when it’s hot, and their volatile aroma compounds combine to produce petrichor when humidity increases before and during a rainstorm.

All of the organisms and compounds that have been identified in petrichor can be found in any given vineyard, and as a result, many can also be found in grapes and wine—for better or for worse. But regardless of the result, our appreciation of that unique scent known as earth’s perfume is seemingly innate.