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Brut Sous Bois Q & A with Mathieu Roland-Billecart

No one needs a reason to drink Champagne but ringing out 2020 is certainly a good opportunity to reach for something beyond your sentimental favorite. In an effort to learn more about Billecart-Salmon’s Brut Sous Bois, I asked Mathieu Roland-Billecart for the inside scoop on this particular cuvée.

Mathieu Roland-Billecart is the seventh-generation of his family to oversee Billecart-Salmon. He took over the management of the family holding company and joined the supervisory board in 2013 and became CEO of the Group in 2019. He now manages all the activities of Champagne Billecart-Salmon, including the tasting committee that shapes and validates all the house’s vintages.

Billecart-Salmon Mathieu Roland-Billecart
Billecart-Salmon CEO Mathieu Roland-Billecart

DPW – Brut Sous Bois which was first introduced to the U.S. market in 2011 has been compared to Burgundy on several occasions. What do you think of the comparison?

MRB – If people mean it as a compliment then great! There are similarities in terms of grape varieties and terroirs to a certain extent with Champagne when you look from afar, but the two regions are quite distinct when you look at them closely in my opinion. I think where the comparison might come from is that the Brut Sous Bois is vinified in 15 year old Burgundian oak barrels, which give it additional structure and depth to a typical base NV Champagne.  It is also the non-vintage we age the most on lees before release (c. nine years on lees for the current release) hence there is a richness to it that make it more of a gastronomy wine than a lighter champagne for an easy aperitif.

DPW – Brut Sous Bois has settled nicely into its very specific style niche and is competing easily with wines that are triple and more of its price. Would you say the wine represents the best quality for its style on the market?

MRB – I am biased perhaps but I certainly agree it is right up there and it is a must try for all wine lovers! With Brut Sous Bois, you have a non-vintage wine that is older than the majority of vintage champagne on the market, including in the prestige category. The blend also includes a majority of grand cru and premier cru so you have amazing quality for the price for those that are looking at a richer style of Champagne. It is also particularly well suited to be paired with food like poultry, mushrooms, (hard) cheeses, etc.

DPW –  Although it’s not a direct comparison of style, there are oak-aged Blanc de Blancs receiving very high scores. Is it complexity from the composition of the blend that sets Brut Sous Bois apart or are there other points of differentiation that are more significant?

Brut Sous Bois Champagne
Brut Sous Bois

MRB – It is really a combination of factors that makes the Brut Sous Bois blend unique. It, of course, includes the three mains grapes which makes it different from a Blanc de Blancs but there are more technical differences that set it apart:

  • The selection of some of our best parcels are vinified in our oak barrels across Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay with a significant proportion of grand crus and premiers crus.
  • The fact we use barrels that are 15 years old on average give richness to the wine through the micro oxidation without making the wine overly marked by the taste of the barrels (that you can get with new barrels).
  • The very long ageing on lees (six/seven years minimum and c. nine years in the last release) allow the wine to gain additional complexity.
  • A balanced dosage – always decided by blind tasting with our tasting committee – to be able to have a balanced and harmonious tasting experience.

DPW –  Given the percentages of Pinot noir and Meunier in the blend, are there any plans for a rosé?

MRB – No plans of that nature currently. Our Brut Rosé has a very distinct identity and we already have a very wide range with 12 cuvées, but never say never.

DPW – What vintage is the base wine for the current release of Brut Sous Bois?

MRB – Base year 2010 with c. 1/3 of reserve wine

DPW – Reviewers have commented that the oak influence has been dialed back from earlier vintages, please elaborate on that observation.

MRB – That’s correct, we have indeed ‘refined’ the style since the very first releases… the oak barrels are getting older, we have aged the wine more on lees, and adapted our selection of parcels to have more finesse. We constantly challenge ourselves to make better wines and we are not scared to adapt/change if we feel it delivers better quality. Whilst it is 100% vinified in barrels it is important this cuvée shares the full Billecart DNA: Finesse, elegance and balance.

DPW – I’ve read that this style relies on partial ML but the house is known for often blocking ML. If partial, why does this work better with the oak fermentation and aging regime?

MRB – For the house as a whole, there is nothing systematic about ML at Billecart-Salmon, we taste every tank after alcoholic fermentation and decide whether to do the ML based on the year, parcels, grape variety etc. hence the vast majority of the blends are partial ML.

Now if we are more specific about Brut Sous Bois, you are correct that because the chai of barrels tend to get more of the top parcels (that typically have greater power and depth), we tend to block (almost) all ML. This is to preserve the tension and freshness with a vinification method (barrels) that tend to bring more oxidation and we also know that the wines from the chai are very likely to end up in cuvées that we age more (Brut Sous Bois, Nicolas Francois, Louis Salmon etc.)

DPW –  Is Billecart Salmon’s hallmark technique of double cold settling of particular importance to this style?

MRB – It is across the board, but I would not say this is more important for Brut Sous Bois than the other cuvées. The double cold settling combined with our cold fermentation is one of the main reasons our wines tend to have the finesse and elegance that is the signature of Billecart-Salmon.

Billecart-Salmon Chai
Billecart-Salmon Chai

Five Reasons to Love Grenache, Garnacha Blanc and Gris (Chinese translation)

Chinese translation by Rex Ting-chia Ting, DipWSET

Protected: A New Chapter in California Wine History

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Taint or Terroir?

A tipping point for the appreciation of smoky wines

Wildfire is certainly a factor of terroir. This unwelcome truth is bringing about a shift in the U.S. wine industry’s attitude toward the flavor of wine made from grapes that have been exposed to smoke.

After historic fires in 2017, many winemakers in Oregon and Washington decided to embrace the volatile compounds associated with smoke exposure in grapes such as guaiacol and 4-methylguaiacol, which are released during fermentation.

While using techniques like whole-bunch pressing to minimize smokiness, they didn’t try to hide it entirely. Because these volatile phenols reside in grape skins, whites and rosés that are pressed off of the skins immediately after harvest carry less risk for taint.

Oregon producers take a new approach

Winemaker Darryl Joannides of Viola Wine Cellars in Portland made a lightly smoked Dolcetto rosé that was a hit at local wine bars. “We focused on making younger, fresher styles that we could get to market quickly,” he says. “If I’m faced with that situation again, I’m planning on making as much rosé as I possibly can.”

Teutonic Wine Company’s Barnaby Tuttle, meanwhile, produced a skin-contact Riesling that tested for high levels of guaiacol in a style he dubbed Rauchwein (a play on Rauchbier, or “smoked beer” in German). The resulting wine had a subtle smoky aroma, more texture than the average Riesling, and a mezcal-like finish.

In his 2019 book Flawless: Understanding Faults in Wine, Jamie Goode characterizes smoke taint as an automatic fault. But it’s one winemakers are going to have to contend with, given the fourfold increase in forest fires in the Western U.S. since 1986 and the fact that, according to a recent article in The Lancet, the number of days per year of high bushfire risk in Australia is expected to increase as much as 70% by 2050.

Consumers enjoy smoked flavors

Consumers enjoy the flavor of smoke in many food and beverage products, including wine: When derived from the process of aging in toasted oak barrels, low levels of guaiacol and 4-methylguaiacol are described positively as toast, smoke, char, and even camphor. But when they overwhelm a wine’s varietal character, they’re treated as a fault.

In the extreme, smoke-tainted wines are often described as smelling and tasting like a wet ashtray, medicine, or burnt bacon (which some of us admittedly enjoy). Sensory testing at the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) has shown that up to 20% of people cannot taste smoke flavors in wines that others find unpalatable. For the remaining 80%, the smoky phenols can go undetected until the wine comes in contact with the enzymes in their mouths, which break them down and release them.

To mirror or mitigate

It’s not possible for winemakers to eliminate the risk of producing a red wine that’s faulted by offensive phenols, but they can mitigate it through carbon filtering, reverse osmosis, and manufactured yeast strains. According to researchers at AWRI, oak treatments and tannin additions can also mask some of the effects of mild smoke exposure by amplifying the same compounds that are found in wood smoke, including lactones, eugenol, and guaiacol. Some of these also exist in certain grape varieties, like Syrah.

What can we expect as winegrowers in Australia, Chile, France, and the United States are increasingly forced to adapt their winemaking practices and styles to account for devastating fire seasons?

Anticipate more rosés, early-drinking reds, and even skin-contact whites as they seek to get the most out of high-quality fruit that might otherwise be destined for the bulk market due to smoke exposure.

Vodcasting for Success

The 2020 Wine Media Conference, August 20 – 23, may have been virtual this year but it was as robust as ever. My talk explored vodcasting, a catch-all term for prerecorded video segments that feature a host/s and guest/s designed to be published across several online outlets and social media platforms. 

Vodcasting is where podcasting is headed. In July, Spotify announced that it added video content creation for its podcasters. Viola, they are now vodcasters. One of my favorite wine industry podcasts is Levi Dalton’s “I’ll Drink to That” but watching Levi record a podcast would be like watching paint dry. A vodcast needs to be visually compelling.

Superb vodcasting relies on the quality and reliability of your recording software and internet connection. By adopting a format for your vodcast that works towards the goal of ‘one and done’ and requires little or no editing, you can create media assets that have value and be prolific.

In my talk I covered basic technology and best practices however, I didn’t address looking your best on camera. You’ll find tons of tips out there on how to do that with the simplest being “Use the fix up my appearance-setting when you’re recording a vodcast on Zoom.”

The final questions is what to do with your content once you’ve created it. The 2020 Wine Media Conference offers plenty of guidance. There are sessions like those by Phil Pallen who breaks down Instagram, Scott Fish from 32 Digital dishing up straight talk about SEO strategies and Kelly Wagner offering social media savvy.

Optimizing the video and audio quality of your vodast

Wifi for all its splendid convenience can be unstable. When you’re recording a vodcast using your preferred video conferencing platform, use a wired Ethernet connection. If WiFi is your only option, work within 20 – 30 feet of your router which is referred to as the “overpowered” zone. Range extenders are handy but they don’t make your signal stronger, they simply extend it.

Bandwidth requirements for recording using video conferencing tools are a minimum of 6 Megabits per second (Mbps) to 10Mbps. If there are other users sharing your network, you’ll need 10Mbps to 20Mbps which provides enough ‘headroom’ for everyone’s traffic. For optimal video and audio quality, minimize the load on your network when recording a vodcast.

Clear the Decks

I’ve adopted a simple housekeeping routine for my computer prior to recording a vodcast or video conferencing which includes closing any applications that may be running in the background, closing open browser tabs and turning off notifications. I’ll usually have Powerpoint running to share slides but if the presentations are overly large and tend to lag, I’ll use a correctly-displayed pdf instead.

Low battery power will cause performance problems so always plug in. Typically, when battery power starts getting low, your laptop will prioritize processing and powering the screen over powering devices like webcams. If your CPU can’t keep power to your microphone and camera stable, the quality of your vodcast will suffer.

Audio and video conferencing via VOIP software requires a lot of processing power from your computer. It has to both encode and upload audio and video to the service you’re using in real time. This is heavy lifting for your machine so expect battery life to be brief.

The single most helpful tool I’ve added to my system is an externally- powered Universal Serial Bus (USB) hub. Every external device I own is connected to my computer by USB and my laptop just couldn’t power them all resulting in an unstable system that caused audio latency and frozen video. With the addition of an externally-powered hub, my set up is now very stable and my computer is freed up for running and recording using my video conferencing software of choice.

The Allure of High Definition

80% of US households have a High Definition television set and consumers are used to seeing High Definition video. As such, I consider this a priority for optimizing the quality of your vodcast.

My Logitech HD webcam C920 is mounted on my monitor at eye level and the dual microphones deliver clear stereo sound. The 16:9 aspect ratio means I can’t switch to standard format in some video conferencing platforms. The 16:9 aspect ratio requires a rather large green screen; mine is eight feet by seven feet to be exact. I’ve made a green screen that I can put up and take down in less than a minute and it’s been key to the polished, higher production value of the Planet Grape Wine Review vodcasts I produce and host.

The author hosting a vodcast in her home office.

Improving Audio Quality

When vodcasting I don’t want a visible microphone in the shot so getting the quality sound I need from my webcam is a bonus. If there’s unavoidable background noise, I’ll resort to earbuds that have a microphone. A low-profile desktop speaker like a Jabra is another option as well.

One of the easiest ways to get good audio is to record in a furnished room. My small office has a carpet and some soft furnishings but it’s my fleece green screen that works as an acoustic panel. If you have a space with a lot of hard surfaces, you can strategically position stand alone-acoustic panels to improve your sound quality.

Lighting 101

As the host of a vodcast it’s absolutely key to get lighting right but it’s a lot harder when it comes to your guests. Even celebrities are frequently seen in video segments with less than ideal and truly unflattering lighting. My goal is consistency and I like the look of warm LED bulbs (3000K – 3400K) the best against lighter backgrounds. You can adjust the warmth of your adjustable but cool LEDs using a standard photography gel filter; Rosco Sun comes highly recommended.

Vodcasting Formats for Success

When you’re presenting virtually you lose any advantage you might otherwise have from being in person with your audience. Your content and the quality of your video recording must carry the day. As a writer, I’d rather spend my time writing a script than editing poor-quality video. In fact, the format that I enjoy using the most requires little or no editing.  Most video conferencing platforms have some simple editing tools but the InShot video editing application comes in handy for on the fly-editing.

Vodcast Format #1 – Slow Wine Guide Virtual Visits

What:  15 to 30-minute hosted segments where winemakers describe the three wines that are being listed in the 2021 Slow Wine Guide.

Why:   We could not make winery visits this year for the guide due to shelter in place restrictions and recording virtual visits was the ideal way to help promote the wineries participating in the guide now and in 2021. The recorded segments are a high-quality media asset that are currently being vodcast on several websites and social media platforms and will continue to be used through 2021.

How:     The information gathering portion of the interview and any housekeeping is done upfront before I begin recording. I’m only recording the last 10 minutes of the Zoom conference call. By that time I’ve established a level of comfort with my guest and they’ve had a chance to rehearse some of their talking points.

I typically taste along in the background while the winemakers talk which gives me something to do and keeps them doing most of the talking. Using a consistent format means little or no editing on my part and allows me to produce more content. The recordings are uploaded to social media within minutes and archived both on the cloud and an external hard drive.

Vodcast Format#2 – Planet Grape Wine Review Vodcast Series

What:              Two to 20-minute segments on seasonal wine and food topics targeted at the hospitality industry.

Why:               We saw a demand for video content for the hospitality industry which looks underserved.

How:              Segments are closely scripted for time management and to prioritize messaging. We typically record two or three at a time and use a green screen to help provide context for the topics and to add visual impact and a higher level of production value to the segments.

Our Premiere Napa vodcast has about 140 views which is very similar to’s recorded segment featuring Frog’s Leap, Grgich Hills and Tablas Creek wineries. There’s plenty of opportunity to expand the online reach for these segments.

I’ve shown you two possible formats to use as a model for your own vodcast and offered some ideas about low-cost gear that performs well and will help insure that the quality of your recordings. The vodcasts that I’m producing and hosting are successful in terms of production value and a return on the investment in the amount of time required to produce and publish a valuable media asset. The sky’s the limit as to what you can do with your vodcast content once you’ve created it. Happy vodcasting.

Taking a Closer Look at Modern Hybrids

In the search for alternative ways to control grape vine diseases while reducing the use of synthetic herbicides and pesticides, a cadre of modern hybrids—second- and third-generation interspecific varieties— are demonstrating considerable promise in both the vineyard and the glass.

A team of researchers from universities in Trento and Udine in Italy and Geisenheim in Germany recently published a groundbreaking study of the 2013, 2015, and 2016 vintages of 16 disease-tolerant hybrids. It analyzed their lipids, volatile compounds (low-sulfur compounds and esters derived from fermentation), and non-volatile compounds (grape tannins, anthocyanins, and minerals) and compared the data to that of Vitis vinifera varieties.

Chemically, disease-tolerant and vinifera varieties are identical in terms of the types of compounds they contain, though the levels of some of those compounds vary. Hybrids have higher amounts of polyphenols and their tannins are typically lower (though more evident in some hybrids than in others).

Lower levels of anthocyanins (color pigments) were found to be the biggest differentiator between the hybrids and vinifera varieties, while vintage variability was identified as a significant factor in overall wine quality. Interestingly, low-volatile sulfur compounds contribute complex aromas like quince, truffles, and flint in disease-tolerant varieties but present as off-flavors in vinifera wines.

Among the white varieties studied were Muscaris and Souvignier Gris, created in 1987 and 1983, respectively, by German scientist Dr. Norbert Becker. Souvignier Gris, a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Bronner, is a cultivar with a loose canopy and robust red-tinged skin that is compared to Pinot Gris; Muscaris, a Solaris and Yellow Muscatel hybrid, resists both mildew and frost to produce acidic white wines with intense nutmeg notes. Muscaris was approved in Austria as a Quality Wine Grape
Variety in 2018.

Souvignier Gris, a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Bronner.

Christof Winkler-Hermaden, who runs his family’s eponymous winery
in the Vulkanland Steiermark region of Styria, started trialing Muscaris
and Souvignier Gris ten years ago.

“Both are easy to cultivate,” he says.
“We are spraying 85–100% less and seeing much better soil structure in
these vineyards.”

Having vinified both varieties, Winkler-Hermaden notes that Souvignier Gris shows more complex aromatics than its reputation for being neutral suggests, evoking “a blend of Sauvignon Blanc (gooseberry, passion fruit); Riesling (apricot); and Pinot Gris (pear, classic Pinot Gris mist)”; it also boasts fresh, lively acidity that exhibits minerality very well. Depending on the climate, soil, and ripening potential of the vineyard, it can deliver a high-quality expression.

Muscaris, a Solaris and Yellow Muscatel hybrid.

Winkler-Hermaden’s Muscaris vines are now in their 11th year, producing full-bodied wines that are similar to Pinot Blanc on the palate. “If picked at the right time, it exhibits aromatics of honeydew melon, lemons, grapefruit, and nutmeg,” he says. “We’ll be able to produce a Riedenwein [single-vineyard designate] with this variety in the future.”

Although he hasn’t vinified them, Winkler-Hermaden has tasted wines
produced from two of the red varieties featured in the study, Carbernet Cortis
(a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon, Merzling, Zarya Severa, and Muscat Ottonel) and Carbernet Carbon (a Cabernet Sauvignon–Bronner hybrid). He compares them to Cabernet Franc, though he notes that “they are typically made with a lot of wood and the addition of tannins, which obscures their varietal character.”

Winkler-Hermaden—who is a member of the quality-obsessed producer consortium Steirische Terroir & Klassik Weingüter (STK)—adds that several of his colleagues in Styria are also trialing disease-resistant varieties, including fellow STK member Weingut Frauwallner, Kobatl, BIO-Weinbau Thünauer, and Ploder-Rosenberg.

Valentina Cubi’s Decade of Organic Winegrowing in Valpolicella

When I first tasted the Valpolicella wines produced by Valentina Cubi in January of 2011, I was captivated. After visiting the organic estate a few times over the last decade and tasting the wines during the annual Amarone Anteprima events that are held every February in Verona, my appreciation has only deepened. This year the winery which is located in the Valpolicella Classica region of Fumane marks a key milestone celebrating a decade of organic certification.

The level of quality and beauty achieved in Cubi’s flagship Amarone Biologico Morar DOCG which was first released in 2016 represents far more than a return on an investment in organic certification. According to Valentina, “The first organic wine we bottled was Iperico, organic Valpolicella DOC, and that wine has traced our way.”

Morar, one of the very few Amarone made from organic grapes.

Winegrowing practices at the estate which was certified organic in 2010 include the use of vegetable compost or green manure that contains herbs to balance soil vitality and fertility while preventing imbalances. Cubi also incorporates biodynamic vineyard management practices as well with applications of 500P and 501 preparations to promote optimal vine health.

The ten-hectare estate is in Fumane, the northwestern-most region of Valpolicella Classica, and gets a moderating influence from Lake Garda just a few kilometers away. Vineyards are south and southeast-facing and planted on terraces from 170 to 350 metres on the slopes of the Lessini Mountains. Rocky, sandy, clay-based soils enable the estate to be farmed without irrigation.

Vintner and organic winegrower Valentina Cubi (center) with her daughter Paola and son Albano.

Cubi began converting the estate to organic viticulture in 2007 and conducted her initial trials in the Ca ‘di Cozzi vineyard, near Verona. After which she converted the lower-elevation estate vineyards including Casterna, the vineyard behind the winery. This vineyard is Guyot trained and planted to permanent cover crops.

Prior to the initial conversion to organic which has occurred in two phases, the estate had been farmed conventionally in a way that Cubi describes as being “environmentally friendly.” She credits this with significantly reducing the stress on the vineyards during conversion something that has enabled them to preserve even their oldest vines planted in 1973 in the higher-elevation Monte Tenda cru.

The Monte Tenda Cru

According to Cubi, the second phase of organic conversion began in 2010 to bring the oldest vineyards which are planted to the estate’s highest elevations in to certified organic production by 2014.

Today the estate produces a portfolio of wines that range from the easy-drinking Iperico, the estate’s first organic release; Italbarro, a Valpolicella Superiore that spends one year in Slavonian oak; and Arusantico, a Ripasso named for the indigenous people who inhabited the Valpolicella region prior to Roman occupation.

The winery’s flagship, Morar, is an elegant, dry Amarone that is only released when deemed ready. Melioto, a Recioto, and Sin Cero, a sulfite-free natural wine, are only produced when the vintage conditions dictate. The estate produces between 45,000 and 70,000 bottles annually.

Cubi has been an advocate for organic farming in Valpolicella for more than a decade and her convictions have resulted in a marked improvement in the expression and vitality that I find in the wines. When I was visiting the region in 2018 for the Valpolicella Educators Program sponsored by the Consorzio Tutela Vini Valpolicella, her wine Morar was among those presented in the blind tasting examination. It was like greeting a good friend after an absence and picking up immediately where you left off. Only better.

Congratulations, Valentina Cubi, and tanti auguri for another delicious vintage.

Alpine Sauvignon Blancs of Styria

It’s Sauvignon Blanc—not Grüner Veltliner—that’s the star of the show in Austria’s Südsteiermark DAC, a historic winegrowing region in the country’s southern state of Styria that has evolved rapidly over the last thirty years. The variety is grown at high elevation in all five of Südsteiermark’s sub regions and on steep slopes that rival those of the Mosel.   

Of them, Kitzeck-Sausal has the highest and steepest. With its elevation exceeding 2,100 feet and more than 100% slope, it is also the highest-steepest Sauvignon Blanc winegrowing region in the world. (The world’s steepest vineyard is the Bremmer Calmont located on the Mosel which has a 210% slope and sits at 950 feet.)

Sauvignon Blanc grows in a variety of terroirs around the world: the deep gravels next to the Napa River, the silex and calliottes-riddled soils of Sancerre, the oceanic clime of Bordeaux, the banks of Marlborough’s Awatere River and Chile’s Casablanca Valley to cite just a few. But nowhere in the world will you find Sauvignon Blanc grown at the altitude, slope and in the soils like those found in Austria’s Südsteiermark DAC and Vulkanland Steiermark.

Südsteiermark’s transition from producing sweet, classically-styled wines to incredibly high-quality dry wines from Sauvignon Blanc began more than 30 years ago with winegrowers Erich Polz, Willi Sattler, and Manfred Tement. In 1993 the wineries Sattlerhof, Tement, Polz, Prünte, Winkler-Hermaden, Lackner-Tinnacher and Gross established the Steirische Klassik, a precursor of the producer group now known as Steirische Terroirs & Klassik Weinguter aka the STK.

Similar in many respects to Germany’s VDP, the STK in 2006 established guidelines for further classifying the region’s Rieden (registered single vineyards). In doing so they relied on historic vineyard names taken from the oldest maps of Styria many of which have been noted on labels since the 1980s. The work of the 12 producer members who now form the STK was instrumental in the recent elevation of Südsteiermark to a Controlled District of Austria (DAC) region in 2018.

STK producers Gross, Lackner-Tinnacher, Wolfgang Maitz, Polz, Erwin Sabathi, Hannes Sabathi, Sattlerhof, Tement, and Wohlmuth are located in Südsteiermark DAC. Producers Frauwallner, Winkler-Hermaden and Neumeister are located to the east of Südsteiermark in the neighboring region of Vulkandland Steiermark where Sauvignon Blanc is grown in all three subregions.

The producers of Steirische Terroirs & Klassik Weinguter aka the STK.

In addition to the regional, village and riede wines produced in Südsteiermark and Vulkanland, the STK has further designated single-vineyard sites as Erste STK for the production of STK Premier Cru wines and Grosse STK for STK Grand Cru-designated wines. The criteria that define Erste and Grosse sites and wines relies on both vineyard and winemaking factors. Most notably, the requirement for hand harvesting which given the extremely sloped vineyards is practically a given. Sites must be sloped – many exceed 45% and approach 90% – and run from east to west with a favorable mesoclimate.

Alpine-Mediterranean Winegrowing

Styria can be roughly divided into a northern mountain region, which is not suited for wine growing, an the southern region which has a mixed Alpine-Mediterranean climate in the higher-elevation western regions and a Pannonian-Continental climate in the lower eastern region. Südsteiermark DAC is defined as having a humid Alpine (also referred to as Illyrian)-Mediterranean climate with marked diurnal shift (~25-30°C during the day and 8-20°C at night) and warm, amphitheater-like sites that sit above the fog line where they are protected from overnight frost that occurs in the spring. Cool rain moderates summer temperatures but hail poses a risk during the long growing season that is ideally suited for achieving balanced ripeness in Sauvignon Blanc.

Although winegrowing practices are not universal, there are a number of best practices like the use of mechanization that has been specialized over the last decade to manage ground cover. For example, permanent in-row ground covers are often rolled instead of mowed to preserve habitat. Austria recently passed a law prohibiting the use of the synthetic herbicide Glyphosate in vineyards and winegrowing in harmony with nature is emphasized.

Netting is used to protect the vines from hail and to restrict the canopy. Stony soils also help manage the requirement for low yields of this typically high-yielding variety. Clonal selection in the vineyards is more or less homogenous as massal selection has been the primary source of plant material since Sauvignon Blanc was introduced to Südsteiermark by Archduke Johann in the early 1800s. Vines are quite healthy with Eutypa being the only common virus.

Made with the Intention to Age

In addition to their unique terroirs, specified minimums for vine age and extremely low yields, STK Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines are subject to lengthy bottle conditioning and aging requirements. STK Premier Cru wines are released no earlier than September twelve months post-harvest and must demonstrate five years aging potential while Grosse STK Grand Cru wines are cellared for eighteen months and must have the ability to age gracefully for ten years. The resulting quality and style of these elegant wines makes them some the longest-lived of their kind.

Within the STK there’s been an intentional effort by producers to move beyond fruit forward-styles toward smokier, flinty wines showing complex fruit, spices like ginger and more evolved fruit like grilled pineapple.

As they rely on pristine fruit—typically with no evidence of Botrytis—winemaking practices include malolactic conversion, native yeast fermentation, extended lees aging and very low amounts of sulfur. Fermenting and aging typically takes place in large-format 600-liter
Slavonian oak foudre known as a “startin.” Screwcap and glass closures are commonplace although some producers including Polz have returned to using natural cork.

NAVIGATING THE SUBREGIONS Given this general consensus with regard to winemaking practices, wines that hail from the STK Erste and Grosse-designate single vineyards are differentiated more by subregion than by winemaking. We’ll navigate the region beginning in the north then move south and finally east to Vulkanland.

KITZEC-SAUSAL Kitzeck-Sausal is the northern-most subregion where single-vineyards sites were on record as early as 1322. Vines are planted to elevations of 1,250 to 2,130 feet on slopes that can exceed 90%. Soils are very low vigor, weathered slate and schist that retain heat.

Weingut Gerhard Wohlmuth is a 20-hectare estate just outside of Kitzeck where the Wohlmuth family has five single vineyards (Riedes) planted to Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay known as Morillon.  Gerhard J. Wohlmuth is a second-generation winemaker.

  • Ried Edelschuh Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017 A monopole of red and blue-black slate and schist on a 90% slope that tops out at 1740 ft. Showing spiciness from white pepper and elegant white peach while brimming with acidity.  “This single vineyard produces wines with both warm and cool characteristics that are attributed to the long growing cycle and the distinctive slate soils,” said Gerhard J. Wohlmuth. 
  • Ried Hochsteinriegl Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017 A site with black and red slate that reaches an altitude of 1670 ft. and has a 78% slope. Spicy ginger, apricot and stone fruit slaked with cool mineral-drive acidity.
Weingut Gerhard Wohlmuth is a 20-hectare estate just outside of Kitzeck where the Wohlmuth family has five single vineyards (Riedes).

GAMLITZ The name of this village stems from the Slavic term gom, meaning hill. Vineyards here are planted at 1,800 feet on well-drained, sandy soils mixed with mica interspersed with orchards and Illyrian deciduous forests of spruce, fir, pine, and oak trees.

Weingut Hannes Sabathi is a 30-hectare organic estate is located southeast of Wohlmuth on the western side of the Kranach Gorge.

  • Ried Kranachberg Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2015 From a basin site at 1,500 feet with chalky, sandy, gravelly soils. Apparent floral aromas with optimally ripe tropical fruit and mandarin in a light-handed minerally, fumé style.
Weingut Hannes Sabathi is a 30-hectare organic estate is located southeast of Wohlmuth on the western side of the Kranach Gorge.

Weingut Sattlerhof is a 40-hectare estate run by Hannes Sattler on the western side of the Steinbach Gorge which runs parallel to Kranach.

  • Ried Kranachberg Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2016
    Soils here are tertiary sand with shell limestone and white mica. Extraordinarily complexity savory aromas, pear, green tea, and red pepper with a weighty texture.
  • Ried Kranachberg Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2012
    Apples and asparagus, chamomile, saline mineral with aging potential to 2026.
  • Ried Sernauberg Erste STK Premier Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017 From a site with sandy soils showing vibrant orange zest, fresh fennel and superb balance.

Winery Lackner-Tinnacher is a 27-hectare organic estate that lies further south and on the eastern side of Steinbach Gorge. The Tinnacher Family have been winemakers from 1770.

“Quality is not only a matter of having quality soils and vines, it’s a matter of manual work in the vineyards.”

Katharina Tinnacher
  • Ried Flamberg Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017
    This site is in Kitzek-Sausal with limestone soils considered by some to be the Holy Grail for long-lived Sauvignon Blanc. Showing orange zest aromas with savory, spicy, and stony mineral 􀃖avors.
  • Ried Welles Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017
    Sandy gravel site at 1,700 feet in Gamlitz. Sublime and focused with a whisper of smoke, tea leaves, green apple, white peach, and lemon pith on the finish.
Opok, the region’s distinctive chalky, limestone marl soil.

Weingut Gross is a 47-hectare estate in Ratsch where Johannes Gross is the winemaker, and his brother Michael is the director, of the family’s estate Vino Gross in Gorca, Slovenia.

  • Ried Nussberg Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017 This bowl-shaped basin reaches 1,500 feet with slopes that reach 85%. Tremendous fruit purity showing salty lemon and white peaches, resinous herbs, and a ripe, structured palate
  • Ried Sulz Erste STK Premier Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017Touch of fennel, citrus and pith, lean with intensity and length.

Weingut Wolfgang Maitz is a 15-hectare estate in Ratsch where the family operates a superb hotel and restaurant and Wolfgang Maitz is the third-generation winemaker. The Maitz family were very kind hosts during the long days of this intense research visit.

Weingut Wolfgang Maitz is a 15-hectare estate in Ratsch where the family operates a superb hotel and restaurant and Wolfgang Maitz is the third-generation winemaker.
  • Ried Hochstermetzberg Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017 This site has distinct gravelly marl soils known as opok. Fennel, spice notes and creamy texture and weight from aging in 300-liter French oak barrels. The 2013 showed ripe peach and lovely fruit purity illustrating the evolution forward from fruit forward to more austere wine styles.
  • Reid Schusterberg Erste STK Premier Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017 Lean and precise with lemon zest and pleasing intensity.

Weingut Tement combines 20-hectares in Ehrenhausen and another 30 hectares in Slovenia. Brothers Armin and Stefan are third-generation winemakers.

“Village wines are the bright future for Südsteiermark. We release them later and they can age for ten years.”

Armin Tement
  • Ried Zieregg Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017 A very protected site of limestone and opok. Extraordinary intensity, flinty with lemon thyme, young pineapple and saline mineral. The 2012 was riper, honeyed and earthier with oolong tea and white tree fruits.
Armin Tement of Weingut Tement an estate that combines 20-hectares in Ehrenhausen and another 30 hectares in Slovenia.

Weingut Polz is a 35-hectare family estate in Grassnitzberg run by fourth-generation winemaker Christoph Polz and family members. Polz’ ready smile and outgoing character played a significant role in conveying the nuances of the region as he patiently answered technical questions and provided insights.

  • Ried Hochgrassnitzberg Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017 Coral reef limestone soils inform the texture of this light-bodied, fumé style from neutral oak with marked citrus zest intensity and wet, white chalk on the finish. He said of the 2015 which was very intense on the mid palate that they “pop” with some age.
  • Ried Theresienhöhe Erste STK Premier Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017 This site has slate soils. Lean with melon, fresh herbs, saline minerality and a bright push of acid on the finish, Riesling-like.

LEUTSCHACH Südsteiermark’s southern-most subregion of Leutschach lies below Gamlitz and Ehernhausern and shares its southern border with Slovenia.

Weingut Erwin Sabathi is a 51-hectare family estate with a winegrowing history fr 1650. Winemaker Erwin is the tenth generation to work the estate with his two younger brothers.

  • Ried Possnitzberg Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017This site is the southern-most vineyard in Styria, is comprised of opok, and sits on a 75% slope. White blossom and white tree fruit, ripe citrus, linear acidity, lean bodied with stony mineral. The 2015 showed ripe peaches, vanilla custard, golden apple lovely balance.
  • Ried Poharnig Erste STK Premier Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017 A monopole site with weathered sandstone and gravel. More pyrazine evident as fresh green herbs, lime, and leaner overall with a saline mineral finish.
Winemaker Erwin Sabathi is the tenth generation to work the Sabathi estate with his two younger brothers.


Vulkandland Steiermark lies to the east of Südsteiermark on Styria’s eastern border. There are eight villages: Oststeiermark, Riegersburg, Gleichenberg, Kapfenstein, St. Anna, Straden, St. Peter, Tieschen and Klöch, three of which are home to STK wineries. The villages of Kapfenstein in the north, Straden in the central area and Klöch in the south totaling about 1300 hectares of vineyards much of which are Sauvignon Blanc. Vineyards are sited on the slopes and aprons of extinct volcanos and the soils that include tuff stone studded with Peridot (Olivine) that produce wines of power and structure. The region is often compared to Sicily’s Mount Etna. 

Winkler-Hermaden is a 40-hectare family estate run by Georg Winkler-Hermaden and his three sons Christof, Thomas, and Wolfgang. The geologist Arthur Winkler-Hermaden researched the region and the 11-century castle Schoss Kapfenstein is the family property.

  • Ried Kirchleiten Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017 A site with fine sand a volcanic tuffs. Riper white peach, balanced acidity. The 2013 showed grapefruit and peach with a nutty, peach pit development.
  • Ried Klöcher Hochwarth 2017 A red clay site with basalt and volcanic tuffs. Pronounced aromas of peaches, white pepper and petrol with a firm mineral finish.
  • Gebietswein Sauvignon Blanc 2017 International in style with lime, tropical fruit, gooseberries, saline and a lemony finish.
Christof Winkler-Hermaden checking the health of the vines at the 40-hectare family estate.

Weingut Frauwallner a 30-hectare estate run by third-generation vintner Walter Frauwallner. The winery joined the STK in 2018.

  • Ried Buch Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017 Defined by weathered basalt soils and 1100 ft. Fresh herbs, lime, green apple, salty peach, passion fruit, silky finish from small oak barrel fermentation.
  • Ried Buch Sauvignon Blanc TBA 2017 Rose petals, grilled pineapple, orange zest, oolong tea, mineral with perfect balance.
Volcanic tuff stone studded with peridot (olivine) in Vulkanland.

Weingut Neumeister is a 40-hectare family estate managed by Christoph Neumeister. The family owns and operates the Saziani Stub’n in Straden which is famous for is regional and experimental cuisine.

  • Ried Moarfeilt Grosse STK Grand Cru Sauvignon Blanc 2017 Silt over Sarmat gravel. Good mid-palate density, mineral and citrus on a lengthy
  • Buchberg Alte Reben Sauvignon Blanc 2015 Limestone and sandstone site in excess of 45% planted to Austria’s oldest Sauvignon Blanc vines. Fermented in neutral casks and bottled after three years. Ripe stone fruit, beeswax and autolytic notes with a tight, bright texture.
A view from the 11th-century castle Schoss Kapfenstein.

The Anosmia Threat

Anosmia, or the loss of one’s sense of smell, has previously been identified as an early warning sign of the mild cognitive impairment that can lead to Alzheimer’s disease. Now, along with ageuisa—the loss of taste—it’s been cited as one of the most common symptoms experienced by those who have contracted COVID-19.

While they weren’t commonly reported in Wuhan, China, during the early stages of the pandemic, these conditions are often the only symptoms experienced by people with mild cases. However, they can develop after other symptoms appear and remain after most signs of illness are gone.

In the United Kingdom, anosmia and ageuisa have been stronger predictors
of COVID-19 than fever. As of April 1 out of 400,000 people reporting one or
more symptoms on a mobile tracking app developed at King’s College London, 18% had lost their sense of smell or taste and 10.5% were experiencing fever.

Dr. Zara Patel, a Stanford associate professor who researches olfactory disorders, explains that COVID-19 is just one of a variety of viruses that can attack the trigeminal and olfactory nerves and their surrounding tissue. This type of inflammation, either occurring directly around the nerve in the nasal lining or within the nerve itself, is what causes the complete or partial loss of smell.

According to Patel, people who have a family history of neurological diseases
are more vulnerable to damage from viral-induced inflammation and may be
less capable of recovering from anosmia, ageusia, or hyposmia, the decreased ability to taste certain types of foods. For this reason, Patel urges seeking treatment, which could include olfactory training as well as medication, as early as possible for symptoms that persist after recovery.

Anyone who has experienced loss of smell or has recently recovered from an upper respiratory infection is encouraged to participate in the Global Consortium for Chemosensory Research survey at A joint effort between 500 clinicians, neurobiologists, data scientists, cognitive scientists, sensory researchers, and technicians from 38 countries, the survey aims to help uncover how the virus is transmitted—and how to prevent its spread—by asking participants to rate their ability to smell and taste before, during, and after their illness.

A similar survey called SmellTracker has been developed in neurobiologist Noam Sobel’s laboratory at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Participants are asked to pick five household items from a list that includes vanilla, peanut butter, mustard, garlic, and toothpaste and rate the intensity of their odor and taste over time.

The algorithm then creates an “olfactory fingerprint” that measures olfactory
perception and mirrors an individual’s unique genome. Such fingerprints predict genetic features linked to the olfactory system, such as aspects of immune regulation.

Scientists estimate that there are currently eight active strains of COVID-19, and Sobel and his colleagues believe that anosmia may be a differentiating symptom. While the specter of losing our senses of smell and taste, even for a short time, is anxiety-inducing for any wine professional, keep in mind that those who have experienced these symptoms report recovery times spanning ten days to several weeks, with two-thirds of surveyed patients at King’s College London reporting improvement in three weeks.

Well Born, the origin of Bien Nacido Vineyard

Much of the California vineyard land that is so prized today was established on tracts granted by the Mexican government to its military leaders, who
became the state’s earliest settlers. Among them was Tomas Olivera, who was granted the 9,000-acre Rancho Tepusquet in what is now Santa Maria Valley in 1837.

Olivera later sold the property—which took its name from the Chumash word for “fishing for trout”—to his son-in-law, Juan Pacifico Ontiveros. The first record of grapes being planted there dates to 1857, the year Ontiveros completed the adobe that still stands on the land.

Rancho Tepusquet had been reduced to about 2,800 acres by the time the Miller family purchased it in 1969. But from that seminal moment forward, the ranch and its owners began to play an instrumental role in the evolution of the California wine industry, serving as protagonists in a story that continues to unfold today.

While wine lovers the world over know the iconic Bien Nacido Vineyard, the Millers’ legacy in California agriculture began long before the family planted it on the Tepusquet site. They trace their heritage to Yorkshire native William Richard Broome, who settled in Santa Barbara.

In 1871, Broome purchased the vast Rancho Guadalasca, eventually bequeathing a large portion in what is now southern Ventura County to one of his three children, Thornhill Frances Broome. Thornhill was a talented businessman with diversified holdings, and his heirs have followed suit in forming Thornhill Companies, of which his daughter Elizabeth’s son, Stephen Thornhill Broome Miller, is CEO and President.

Miller’s sons Marshall and Nicholas represent the fifth generation to farm
the property now known as Thornhill Ranches, cultivating blueberries as well as the lemons and avocados their forebears grew. (The name Rancho Guadalasca survives as a popular trail at Point Mugu State Park, where Thornhill Broome Beach commemorates the family’s ancestor.)

The Birth of Bien Nacido

Despite their long history of farming, the Millers are relatively new to grapes.
When Stephen Miller and his brother Robert sought to diversify their crops to include wine grapes, they settled on the site at Rancho Tepusquet, which was thought by many at the time to be unsuited to viticulture.

Inspired by its striking maritime climate—attributable to the juxtaposition
of the San Rafael Mountain and Transverse Ranges to the Pacific coast as well as to its chalky, sandy loam soils—they named it Bien Nacido, which means “well born” in Spanish, and planted it in 1973.

Image courtesy of the Thornhill Companies

For 30 years, Bien Nacido held the distinction of being a major nursery for
varietal budwood as part of the California Grapevine Registration & Certification Program. Most of its original plantings were cool-climate varieties from stock grown by the University of California, Davis, including Santa Barbara County’s first Gewürztraminer and three Pinot Noir clones: Dijon, Martini, and Wädenswil.

Though the Millers no longer grow budwood, according to Nicholas, “there’s now a Syrah clone that is referred to as Bien Nacido.” Beyond that, the vineyard’s initial fame was won by Central Coast winemakers, including Qupé’s Bob Lindquist and Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen.

They produced single-vineyard designates of such high caliber that, for some
time, the Miller family was content to work behind the scenes as growers,
supporting the nascent industry that was emerging in the region.

In 1988, they opened Wine Services in Santa Maria, offering a consolidated
warehousing, bottling, and barrel aging facility; California Certified
Organic Farmer (CCOF) certified, it now has an impressive 10,000-ton crush
capacity. Seeing the rapid emergence of the industry in Paso Robles, they
next opened Paso Robles Wine Services in 2005, and their presence there has
contributed to the region’s status as the fastest growing in the state.

“We’ve been gratified by the success of the wineries we’ve worked with over the years,” Stephen says. “They’ve entrusted us by putting Bien Nacido and our other single-vineyard names on their labels.” He attributes the company’s success to its ability to build strategic relationships with the winemakers, characterizing it as an “interactive process” that led him to a watershed moment: “We received a letter from a consumer about how much they enjoyed wines made from Bien Nacido grapes; it was then we realized that consumers were trusting in our vineyard.”

From Growers to Vintners

When Stephen’s sons Marshall (who handles operations for Thornhill
Companies) and Nicholas (who spearheads marketing and sales) joined
their father in the business in 2006, they knew that it was the right time to
put their name on a label. “I applaud the next generation’s effort to lead the company forward,” says Stephen. “Becoming vintners has opened the aperture of what we do as a business.”

Image courtesy of the Thornhill Companies

In 2007, the Miller family began bottling their own vineyard-designate
wines from Bien Nacido as well as Solomon Hills Vineyard, the westernmost
site in Santa Maria Valley, which they acquired in 1999. Notable Bien Nacido bottlings include The Captain Pinot Noir, Old Vine Pinot Noir, and XO Syrah, all of which are among the Central Coast’s highest-scoring wines.

Marshall, meanwhile, is keenly aware of the myriad factors that are forcing changes in the wine industry. “Labor costs and the availability of labor, combined with rising minimum wage, is an ongoing concern,” he says,
adding that he’s made huge strides with respect to vineyard mechanization
at the company’s French Camp Vineyard in the Paso Robles Highlands, about one-third of which is CCOFcertified.

“We’re highly automated at French Camp, and we have a good understanding of what works well and what doesn’t,” he explains. “But mechanized farming is a bit like using a PC from the 1980s; 20 years from now, we’ll be seeing the hybridization of mechanization and optical recognition applied across the board. The goal is to find the places where automation can be used most effectively to assist hand labor.”

Future in the Making

Like son, like father: Stephen is similarly focused on the what’s next for the
family enterprise. “Now more than ever,” he says, “we are looking at all
aspects of the business and applying creativity with the goal of reaching
beyond solving immediate problems to advancing the industry.”

Sustainability measures are a key example: Bien Nacido is certified by both the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance and SIP to ensure the preservation of the terroir so beautifully reflected in the wines of the Miller family—whose long-held dream of a winemaking legacy looks to
be in good hands, thanks