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Bobal: Past, Present and Future

As one of the first American wine writers to conduct modern field research in the Utiel-Requena DO, an extreme winegrowing region in central Spain, I found a treasure there that has been hiding in plain sight. Other than having tasted the region’s indigenous grape—Bobal—on rare occasions, I was in the dark about the region’s ancient winegrowing history.

Guided by Nora Favalukus who had visited Utiel-Requena five years earlier, and presented a master class tasting on the region for the Society of Wine Educators, we embarked on a three-day immersion designed to demonstrate the modern range of style afforded by Bobal and the region’s extreme terroir.

Right time for old vines

As the region lies is 45 minutes northwest of Valencia, Utiel-Requena’s primary agricultural crops are oranges and almonds with one wine only recently being recognized as a value-added source of revenue for a winegrowing region that is Spain’s third-largest.

You begin to see vineyards as you approach the city of Requena with the
majority of wineries located here while much of the land under vine stretches towards the town of Utiel to the north.

Ancient, head-trained Bobal in ferrous red clay soils.

As a late-ripening variety, Bobal is ideally adapted to the region’s extraordinary climate, one that’s distinctly continental but bears a Mediterranean influence most evident in the landscape’s flora, a
scrubland known as matorral or tomillares.

Utiel-Requena’s climate is marked by a severe diurnal shift during the hottest summer months when daytime high temperatures can reach 40 C and an increasingly short growing season that is being attributed to climate change.

With its winged, tapered bunches, Bobal is said to be named for a bull’s head. Its berries tend to be uneven in size and it can ripen unevenly not unlike Zinfandel. Unlike Tempranillo, the variety isn’t oxidative and it was historically used to top up Rioja barrels that had lost volume during transport to the port of Valencia.

Where vineyard elevations reach heights of 940 meters in the region’s Campo Robles Alta, both altitude and increased exposure to UV help the late-budding Bobal variety retain high levels of acidity and produce thick skins dense with anthocyanin and tannin.

Winds—some hailing from the Mediterranean that lies to the south and the mountains that protect the region from the heat of La Mancha to the north—result in far healthier vineyards enabling growers to achieve organic certifcation. Many of the vineyards here have been farmed for generations without chemical inputs and producers see the value add of certifying those practices.

Bobal was traditionally vinifed as rustic bulk wine and almost exclusively exported to France. Over the last decade it has undergone a transformation, one that takes full advantage of the grape’s versatility and modern winemaking techniques that respect both its varietal character the region’s

It thrives in two primary soil types—ferrous red clay with limestone and Albar, chalky and limestone rich, and stony alluvial soils. The former producing richer, fruitier wines and the later wines that are floral and less structured.

Old-vine Bobal planted to chalky, limestone-rich Albar soils in the foreground.

With less than 400 mm of rain annually, Utiel-Requena is one of Spain’s driest and coldest DOs. But due to the water-holding capacity of the soils, dry-farmed, head trained or trellised Bobal vines have survived for centuries with the oldest vines at 80 years and the majority of plantings averaging 40years. As such, yields are generally around 1.5 kilograms per vine or one vine per bottle.

“The answer to success with Bobal lies in the old vines,” said Vicente
García alongside his daughter Rebecca at Pago de Tharsys. This
predominance of old vine material is working in favor of the
winemakers who are vinifying the variety across a broad range of
styles all of which are successful. Garcia is well known as the father
of Bobal-based sparkling from the Utiel Requena DO.

The father of Bobal Spumante, Vicente García alongside his daughter winemaker
Rebecca at Pago de Tharsys.

While Bobal isn’t a sugar factory like Garnacha and it’s abundance of
anthocyanins often result in darker rosés that perform well on the
domestic market, it’s a variety ideally suited to rosé produced by
direct press method.

Bobal was first planted at Bodega Sierra Norte in 1914 and according to winemaker Manolo Olmo the winery was among the first in the region to work organically. The winery produces a Bobal rosé from the winery’s Ladera Fuenteseca vineyard at 900 meters, the highest vineyard plots in the Camporobles. This wine is bright and lively with cherries and strawberries, and utterly pleasing.

Grupo Covinas’ tropically-fruited Aula Rosé shows watermelon and banana and is one of anexpansive portfolio of wines produced by the largest co-operative winery in Utiel-Requena.

Grupo Covinas’ Export Director, Manolo Pardo pouring “A” Reserva Cava from the Utiel-Requena DO.

In contrast, the Veterum-Vitium which means “old vine” in Latin, is an old vine Bobal that spends about six months in oak showing refined black fruit and savory secondary notes of tobacco and spice.

Superb examples of oak-aged Bobal were shown at several wineries. At Dominio de la Vega, a vertical of Paraje 2016, 2014 and 2006 sourced from the stony hills of the La Moella, a vineyard revered by winemaker Daniele Exposito as a very old site for Bobal, showed opaque black wines with mulberry, blackberry and plum evolving with bottle age to smokier, leaner aromas of prune, cedar, umami, earth, thyme and ferrous, licorice notes.

Winemaker Daniel Exposito of Domaine de la Vega produces long-lived Bobal wine from 100- year old vines.

At Marqués del Atrio, a Bobal–dominant blend with Tempranillo from the La Guardia vineyard spends 15 months in new French oak for a savory, sapid wine that over-delivers on its modest price while the 2013 Reserva showed dark spices and meaty, chewy tannins. Older vintages including a 2010 were focused and rich with compelling notes of orange zest.

French and American oak aging of the Ladrón de Lunas Exclusive LDL at Bodegas & Viñedos Ladrón de Lunas results in a wine with exotic spice notes, vanilla and red-fruited Bobal from sixth-generation winemaker Fernando Martinez.

An opulent 2017 barrel-fermented Bobal from Bodegas Vibe winemaker Juan Carlos Garcia showed more apparent blue fruit, graphite, star anise, and mocha as a result of battonage during malolactic conversion in barrel. The winery also works with the native white variety Tardana which has plenty of dry extra, beeswax and pear drop notes.

2014 Clos de San Juan is a richly-developed, old vine Bobal from Bodega Cherubino Valsangiacomo with mulberry, plum, leather, earth, and geosmin. Marta Valsangiacomo, fifth-generation family member led our tour.

Iron Age wineries tamed the wild vine of Utiel-Requena

The presence of Bobal in Utiel-Requena was documented in the 15th century in “Espill o llibre de les dones” by Jaume Roig, but evidence that a thriving wine industry existed in Spain’s Utiel-Requena region as early as the fifth century BCE points to the ancient origins of this thoroughly modern region that’s staking its claim with the indigenous grape – Bobal.

Having walked among the well preserved Iron Age ruins of Las Pilillas de Requena, a massive stone winery carved into a remote hillside 80 kilometers due west from Valencia, it’s thrilling to realize the connection between the region’s ancient winemaking heritage and the indigenous Bobal grape. Las Pilillas dates from the sixth century BCE and is considered the oldest industrial winery in the Iberian Peninsula.

Although we rarely hear of their contributions, the Phoenicians are credited with introducing the tradition of wine consumption to the native pre-Roman inhabitants of the Iberian coast. The amphorae used to transport wine by sea arrived in the region in the seventh century at a time when wine was an exotic and prestigious, imported good very likely used for the worship of Dionysus or Bacchus.

The presence of Phoenician amphorae shards which line the modern-day trail leading to Las Pilillas and other sites also points to early commerce between Phoenician settlements in the south and these ancient wineries. By the sixth century, local wine production was established and Phoenician
amphorae were used to store wine. During the fifth century, local amphorae were being produced at pottery kilns or workshops at or nearby the winery sites.

A granite basin at Las Pilillas de Requena which dates to the seventh century BCE.

While the Phoenicians brought viticulture and winemaking technology to the native Iberians, DNA evidence suggests[i] that they didn’t introduce cultivated grape varieties but instead relied on local, wild rootstock for their cultivars . The rise in cultivation of indigenous vines which were very likely the precursors of Bobal across the region coincides with the construction of the Phoenician wineries.

So it seems, ancient winemaking flourished in Utiel-Requena as the
result of an abundant natural resource and imported technology. In
addition to vines, olives which can still be seen growing near the
ancient wineries, almonds, figs, and pomegranates were commercial
crops in the Iberian economy from about the fifth century onwards.

As many as ten Iron Age wineries some dating to the seventh century
have been discovered in the region once known as Kelin, the capital
of a 10-hectare site covering much of the sub meseta de Utiel-
. The earliest was excavated at Edeta/Tossal de Sant Miquel
(Llíria, València) in 1934 and indigenous wine production was finally
confirmed in 1989 with the discovery of various presses and
associated amphorae and grape seeds at the site of L’Alt de
Benimaquia (Dénia, Alacant) dating to the end of the seventh

The sites for these wineries were selected along the La Alcantarilla and Los Morenos watercourses (Requena, València), where Las Pilillas de Requena is located. They provided fresh water for irrigation, wine production and possibly a means of transport. The ravines formed by these rivers resulted in a growing region that was warmer and protected from frost creating ideal conditions for ripening grapes.

The wineries themselves were ingenious adaptations of the terroir and the use of gravity. They are sited on the higher slopes of the ravines and comprised of one or two upper terraces that were used for foot crushing of grapes and pressing of the skins.

Small channels fed must into lower basins where it was collected in wells carved directly into the rock. Fermentation occurred either in the basins or in amphorae.

Once finished, the wine was transported to the head water of the
ravine in wine skins or amphorae and sold within the region. The floor plans of the wineries and some local houses include storage areas and dedicated cellars for wine amphorae.

These ancient wineries flourished for centuries and the Iberian
merchants who controlled wine production which is estimated at
about 40,000 liters annually per site were certainly affluent.

Not long after Valencia was founded in 138 BCE by retired Roman soldiers,
Romanization ensued and imported wine in Campanian amphorae
flooded the Kelin region. During that time, the hillside wineries were
abandoned as the Romans absorbed the local industry into their
broader production and trade networks.

Today, the curious can walk about one kilometer off the main road to
reach Las Pilillas de Requena and explore it unsupervised. The region
has applied for Unesco heritage status which would help secure the
resources necessary to protect and preserve its fascinating heritage.

Bobal’s characteristics defined

Low in alcohol, generous in tannins and chock full of antioxidants, this perfect combination of characteristics makes Bobal a wine for modern times.

A sensory snapshot of the variety reveals that it has far more complexity than the simple, commercial wines of the past have alluded to. Highly dependent upon the mesoclimate where it’s grown, Bobal shows
red fruits like plum, pomegranate, cherry, blueberry, damson plum and darker black fruits like mulberry, blackberry, and black currant.

After Airen and Tempranillo, the indigenous vitis vinifera grape Bobal, from bovale in reference to the shape of a bull’s head, is the third most-planted grape variety in Spain. Grown predominantly in nine
towns in the Utiel-Requena DO, Bobal is also farmed in significant quantities in nearby Valencia, Cuenca and Albacete.

Like many of Spain’s treasured high-altitude winegrowing regions, Utiel-Requena, located at 70 kilometres (50 miles) from the Mediterranean coast, sits at an altitude of between 700 and 950 meters (1960 and 2950 ft) above sea level where a mixture of Mediterranean and continental climates
result in long, cold winters.

Late frosts in April and May are a hazard for winegrowers here but Bobal is well adapted and protects itself from the frosts by budding late. An extreme diurnal shift, the difference between daytime high and nighttime low temperature variations during the growing season, helps preserve acidity in the grape which benefit from a long growing season and late ripening.

This vigorous variety prefers loose, sandy soils from the region’s alluvial river beds and has to be rigorously pruned to limit canopy and yields for high-quality wine. Typically grown head trained in gobelet (en vaso) and less often on trellises (en espaldera), Bobal is very tolerant of drought and resists both downy and pests including birds possibly due to its low sugar accumulation.

However, it can be susceptible to odium and botrytis and, when grafted to Rupestris root stock, coulure. In the vineyard, Bobal can be recognized by long, loppy shoots, large, juicy blue-black, thick-skinned berries, and light
red leaves after harvest.

In the winery, Bobal doesn’t tend towards oxidation but without
precaution acidity can be lost during fermentation. Naturally low in
alcohol and pH with plenty of natural acidity (5.5 to 6.5 g.l), the wines
have remarkably high levels of resveratrol and generous amounts of
anthocyanin, polyphenols, and terpenes.

The modern organic vineyards of Chozas Carrascal are planted to several varieties
including Monastrell, Garnacha, Tempranillo, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot.

Ranging from dark cherry to deep crimson in color, Bobal has notes of
violet, high-toned florals, spices, resinous herbs, and cherry,
raspberry and dark fruits. It’s typically medium to full in body with complex layers and high levels of tannins that range in style.

Considered an ideal blending partner with Monastrell, it develops
additional complexity and gains in quality from barrel aging. Old vine Bobal wines gain a specific designation in the DO as “Bobal Alta Expression.”

These are mono-varietal wines that may or may not be oak aged produced from dry-farmed vineyards 35 years old or older that are held to lower yields. Rosé wines and all styles of 100% Bobal can be designated “Bobal With Specific Mention” of Utiel-Requena.

[i] Arroyo et al. 2002

The Sauvignon Blancs of Concours Mondial du Sauvignon

There is no better time to gauge the quality and stylistic range of Sauvignon Blanc than during the only international wine competition devoted solely to the variety: the Concours Mondial du Sauvignon, which unfolded in Touraine, France, in early March.

While the lion’s share of the wines hail from France, Austria, and Italy, 21 other countries are also represented at the Concours, making it a one-stop shop for Sauvignon Blanc from lesser-known regions as well as world-famous ones.

For example, California made a strong showing, as did Central and Eastern Europe made a showing with wines from Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia—a small number of which received awards. All in all, entries from 15 countries merited recognition from myself and 73 fellow jury members.

Successfully identifying the origin of a Sauvignon Blanc requires relying on a full arsenal of sensory information related to aroma, flavor, texture, temperature, structure. The terpenes and thiols that the grape contains as a result of picking decisions and winemaking choices make for very distinct, pronounced aromas. But as Nick Jackson, MW, points out in his recently released reference guide Beyond Flavour: The Indispensable Handbook to Blind Wine Tasting, a blind taster must look beyond the obvious to succeed in making the right call.

Jackson characterizes Sauvignon Blanc by its acidity, describing it as spiky or jagged so as to seemingly prick the inside of the mouth. He makes one exception for high-quality Loire Valley wines, which represented almost 40% of the 1,110 wines that appeared at the Concours. “Top-quality Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé with limited yields tend to smooth out the rough edges of this rather aggressive acidity and make the wine more mellow,” he writes.

In addressing the wines of the Loire Valley, Bordeaux, New Zealand, Chile, and the U.S., Jackson notes that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to generalize about style; climate change and copycat winemaking are blurring the distinctions of what were once regional benchmarks, forcing bodied like the Institute of Masters of Wine to re-evaluate their blind-tasting exams.

That said, wines from the Loire receive praise for being chalky and flinty, while Bordeaux is described as “becoming a little ‘sweaty’-smelling quite easily.” His characterization of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc was plainly demonstrated in a flight I tasted during the competition: The wines showed hard acids, overt pyrazines, and restrained citrus.

At the top of my own list of Sauvignon Blanc–producing regions, meanwhile, is Südsteiermark, Austria. With luscious ripe fruit, mineral expressiveness, and finesse, its wines are not to be missed.

The Pride of Piedmont

Five reasons to love Grenache /Garnacha Blanc and Gris

In northeastern Spain, Garnacha Blanca can predominately be found in the regions of CalatayudCampo de Borja, Cariñena and Somontano but the Terra Alta PDO has the treasure trove with 1400 hectares of old vine Garnacha Blanca under vine. That amounts to one-third of the vines grown worldwide and growing as new plantings are on the rise. 

Throughout these European regions it’s not uncommon to find wines made from extremely low-yielding, sixty-year old vines thriving in what amounts to fossilized sand dunes. Recently designated as the Terra Alta 100% Garnatxa Blanca PDO classification, these wines hold up well to oak aging and deliver orchard fruit, herbs and spices with plenty of texture and creamy mouthfeel.

Garnacha blanca just prior to flowering in Terra Alta.

White and gris Garnacha/Grenache are varieties native to Spain that dwell happily in Roussillon where they are blended to make both dry and sweet wine styles. When designated expressly for the dry wines of PDO Côtes du Roussillon and Collioure, they are picked early to retain aromas and freshness that would otherwise be lost to the sun.

In the dry white wines of Côtes du Roussillon, Grenache Blanc often shares the limelight with Macabeu or Tourbat in a blend where the dominant grape cannot exceed 80%.  Grenache Blanc contributes alcohol and plushness to the wines with sweet floral aromas and flavors of white tree fruits like apple and pear, green citrus, stone fruit and dried green herbs. Macabeu contributes acidity and Tourbat which looks quite like Grenache Gris in color offers distinctive smoky and secondary aromas.

In Collioure, Grenache Gris which has been referred to Grenache Blanc’s “pink-skinned cousin” small amounts of mono-varietal wine are produced from old vines that grow on schist soils within sight of the Mediterranean Sea. The resulting wines have volume, good minerality, the coolness of fennel and dryness that doesn’t exceed 4 g/l residual sugar.

The role of these varieties has traditionally been as the star players in the white and ambré vins doux naturel wines of Rivesaltes AOP. Ambré wines mature in open wooden vats for two years and achieve the color of liquid amber with aromas and flavors characterized by roasted nuts, candied citrus zest, raisins and toffee. With an additional three years of aging that often extends to decades, the wines take on Hors d’Age and Rancio designations for their evolved oxidative characters. AOP Maury and tawny-colored Banyuls known as “traditionnels” can also be designated this way.

Geographic Indications (GI), Protected Designation of Origins (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indications (PGI) protect the name of a product, which is from a specific region and follow a particular traditional production process. Product names registered as PDO are those that have the strongest links to the place in which they are made. PGI emphasizes the relationship between the specific geographic region and the name of the product, where a particular quality, reputation or other characteristic is essentially attributable to its geographical origin.

Discover how European Quality Certification contribute to Grenache /Garnacha Blanc and Gris success story

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. 

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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.