Extreme Wine South Africa: De Toren Book 17 XVII

Regular readers know that I’m interested in how Old and New intersect in the world of wine — and that I like to push arguments to their extremes (that’s why my next book will be called Extreme Wine). So it should come as no surprise that I sought out extremes of new and old during my time in Cape Town. And I sure found them!

[This is part of a series of posts reflecting on my recent visit to South Africa to attend Cape Wine 2012 and give the keynote address at the Nederburg Auction. Thanks to Wines of South Africa and the Nederburg Auction for facilitating my visit. Click here to see all the posts in this series.]

My interest in seeing what’s new in South African wine provoked me to call on a number of wineries in the CapeWine 2012 exhibition hall. One of them was De Toren Private Wine Cellar, a boutique winery started by Emil and Sonette Den Dulk in 1994 to make Bordeaux-style wines that showcase Cape wine terroir. The first wine, a 1999 vintage, was Fusion V, a left bank (Cab-centered) Bordeaux blend using all five (or V if you will) traditional grape varieties.

Extreme in Several Dimensions

I tasted the current release of De Toren Fusion V as well as a right bank (Merlot-centered) blend called De Toren Z. Both were classic representations, noteworthy for their fine tannins and delicate balance. This part of the New South Africa is doing very well, I thought. And then things started to get extreme.

Emil reached behind the counter and pulled out a bottle labeled “Book 17 XVII,” the most extreme wine in the De Toren collection. It’s extreme in several ways at once. First, its inspiration is pretty extreme. Pliny the Elder wrote about wine and viticulture in Book 17 of his treatise on Natural History and De Toren sought to apply Pliny’s farming principles to make a modern wine (Emil showed me the relevant passages from Pliny’s text). Pliny’s favorite wines were quite sturdy, potent and age-worthy, but elegant, too, and that’s what this project aimed to achieve.

Having started with an extremely old way of growing grapes, De Toren’s winemaker Albie Koch then studied the most extreme contemporary winemaking techniques, focusing on cult wines such as Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate. Extremely low yields in the vineyard (300 grams of grapes per vine). Hand de-stemming, foot stomping, hand punch-down and 200 percent (not a misprint) French oak.  I tasted from one of the extremely scarce 650 bottles that resulted.

I don’t have much experience tasting cult wines and I admit to being a little frightened as I stared into the black hole at the bottom of the glass. Book 17 XVII was notably darker and more extracted than the other wines I had tasted. But in fact the wine was balanced and elegant and while all the oak showed in the glass it didn’t knock me down with a two-by-four as might happen in less skilled hands.

Chicken or Eagle?

Going to extremes without going over the edge is a tricky business and you can see it in Neil Martin’s Wine Advocate review of the wine (I think he was tasting from barrel).  On one hand “It has a super-ripe creme de cassis, fruitcake and fig scented bouquet with a palate that is ostentatious to the point of vulgarity” which sounds like it’s over the top. “However, this full-bodied turbo-charged wine is so damn silky smooth and seductive in a super-Tuscan kind of way, that its charms will be nigh impossible to resist.” Hmmm. Sounds a little like Lady Gaga.

Making cult wines must be a bit like the “chicken game” in Rebel Without a Cause. I think De Toren Book 17 XVII succeeds in mixing ancient inspirations with extreme techniques to make a very interesting wine. Martin was obviously seduced by the wine’s elegance in the end (as was I), which pulled it back from the cliff edge at the last minute.

Unlike the Z and Fusion V wines, I wouldn’t want to drink XVII  every day (which would be impossible in any case given cost and limited production). But I appreciate its potential to make wine enthusiasts reconsider the potential of South African wine.

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Is that an angry chicken or a screaming eagle on the title page of Pliny’s book? You be the judge. Thanks to Emil Den Dulk for letting me taste the wines and providing helpful background information.

Frogs, Secrets & Satire: Extreme Wine Goes to the Movies


I’m working on the two chapters of Extreme Wine about wine and popular culture — celebrity wine and wine in film, television and on the web and I thought I’d share some of my discoveries with you and, as always, ask for your feedback in the Comments section below. Sideways and Bottleshock are the two best-known wine-centered films, but here are three others for your consideration.

Art Imitates Life: Grenouille d’hiver

Grenouille d’hiver means “Winter Frog” and it is the title of a short film by the director Slony Sow that was first broadcast on French television in 2011. It is making the rounds of film festivals, including Cannes;  I haven’t seen it yet except for the short trailer on YouTube. It stars Gérard Depardieu in an emotional role. “Benjamin, grower, sees his wife die in his arms following a long illness. Only one way out for him: death. But a young Japanese girl, came especially for its wine tasting, will bring it gently to mourn a series of symbols and exchange between two cultures,” according to the film’s official synopsis as quaintly translated from the French by Google.

Gérard Depardieu has played many roles in his long career – over 170 of them since he began in the 1960s according to his French Wikipedia page. He’s played everything from Cyrano the big-nosed patriot of the Edmond Rostand play to Oblex the big-nosed patriot of French cartoon fame. He’s worked with iconic directors like Francois Truffaut and won most of the top awards including the César and the Legion of Honor. He is scheduled to portray libertine French socialist politician Dominique Strauss Kahn in an upcoming film. That should be interesting!

Depardieu has played so many characters for so long that there might seem that Benjamin would be just another role. Except that the vines he stands among as he contemplates harsh fate and his own mortality are actually his own on his vineyard estate in Anjou. And I’m pretty sure the wine he sips with the young Japanese visitor, which opens the door to grief, is his too. Depardieu has owned Chateau de Tingé in the Coteau du Layon appellation since 1989. He owns the estate, which includes a 14th century castle, and oversees things generally in the way that a busy global media star can, leaving the actual winemaking to an old friend.

The film seems to be an interesting commentary on wine’s ability to store and release feelings and its power to transcend language. I’m looking forward to seeing all 18 minutes of this film when it finally becomes available.


Wine? We Have No Wine

The second film is completely different and yet manages to strike some of the same notes. I’m talking about Stanley Kramer’s 1969 The Secret of Santa Vittoria, which is based upon Robert Crichton’s best-selling novel. It stars Anthony Quinn, Anna Magnani, Virna Lisi, Hardy Kruger and Sergio Franchi. The entire two-hour plus film is available on YouTube — just click on the image above to watch as much or as little as you like.

The setting is a sleepy Italian town in the closing months of World War II. The film is played as a romantic farce with town drunkard Quinn  unexpectedly elevated to mayor just as German troops approach, intending to occupy the village and seize its only important asset — more than a million bottles of the local cooperative’s wine stored in the cellar under the town hall.

With Quinn as their leader, the townspeople risk death to save themselves by saving their wine, hiding it in the old Roman caves beneath the city. This act brings the divided town together in a way that probably nothing else could do, making the deception’s ultimate victory all the more miraculous.  Great fun!

This is Spinal Corked

The third film is called Corked! and it is a 2010 satire made, like “This is Spinal Tap” and “Best in Show,” in the form of a “mockumentary.” In this case an innocent film crew shows up in the Sonoma Valley and interviews a collection of increasingly outrageous caricatures of the “usual suspects” of the wine world including a world-famous wine critic with initials RP. (The naïve wine tourists are my favorite characters.)

Documentaries tend to be uneven and so is this film — the characters who get the most screen time aren’t always the funniest or most interesting but it all comes together in the end. The romantic image that we cultivate about wine and wine making (see films above) is a bit of a fraud. It isn’t a complete fake as Corked! suggests (by definition satire needs to go over the top), but it’s not a completely noble calling, either.

Wine is about people and relationships (the point of all three films, I suppose). No wonder it is so complex. No wonder it translates so well to film.

Extreme Wine: A Sideways Analysis of the World of Wine

I’ve started writing my next book which I’m calling Extreme Wine and I’m looking for a little help from Wine Economist readers.

Extreme Wine is a sequel to the best-seller Wine Wars. Where Wine Wars probed the center of the world wine market, Extreme Wines focuses on  edges based on the same theory that wine lovers use when they tilt their glasses “sideways” and analyze the liquid’s rim: the forces of change first make themselves visible at the outer limits.

I’d like to invite you to read about the ideas behind Extreme Wine by clicking here and to scroll down to see the working table of contents. Then please use the Comments section below to tell me what extremes you find the most interesting. What are the most unusual wines? Who are the most extreme wine personalities? What are the most extreme wine films and televisions programs? Where should I go on my “Around the World in 80 Wines” analysis of extreme wine tourism?

You get the idea — let me know your Extreme Wine suggestions and I’ll try to incorporate them in my book!

>>> Working Outline <<<

Searching High and Low for the Best, Worst and Most Unusual in the World of Wine

by Mike Veseth

  1. X-Wines: In Vino Veritas?
  2. Extreme Wine: Best and the Worst
  3. The Fame Game: Most Famous, Most Forgotten and Most Infamous
  4. Sold Out: Rarest, Most Unusual and Most Ubiquitous
  5. Money Wine: Cheapest, Most Expensive and Most Overpriced
  6. Extreme Wine Booms and Busts
  7. Extreme Wine People
  8. Fifteen Minutes: Celebrity Wine
  9. Message in a Bottle
  10. Extreme Wine Tourism
  11. BRIC by BRIC: Going to Global Extremes
  12. Tasting Notes  from the Edge

Extreme Wine: Mad Wine Science in Oregon

Jason Lett’s business card reads “President, Winemaker & Curator” and it is true that he performs all three tasks at Oregon’s The Eyrie Vineyards. The first two jobs are easy to understand, but Curator? Yes, of course, since Eyrie is an important part of Oregon’s wine history and Lett’s challenge is to preserve the heritage without choking off the innovative spirit that defines the place.

Three jobs are a lot, but maybe Jason Lett should add a fourth to his business card: Mad Wine Scientist. The scientist part is uncontroversial — Lett has scientific training and he seems to approach wine and life with a scientist’s combination of curiosity and discipline. The “mad” aspect … well I’ll leave that up to you to decide.  Maybe it’s not madness so much as innovation and experimentation taken to the extreme. Either way he seems to belong in The Wine Economist’s “Extreme Wine” file.

Sue and I visited Jason Lett at Eyrie last fall when I was giving lectures at Linfield College. Jason invited us to visit the winery (housed in a converted turkey processing plant) and when we arrived he asked if we wanted to taste through the current releases or to check out some of his experiments. No question, we said. Take us to your laboratory. And so we learned about and sampled three different extreme wines.

Extreme Pinot Gris

Oregon is Pinot country — everyone knows that! But let me tell you a secret. It’s Pinot Gris (PG), not just Pinot Noir. Pinot Gris is Oregon’s #2 wine grape variety and its a darn useful one, too. Pinot Gris is what I call a Chateau Cash Flow variety, since the time from harvest to market is shorter than Pinot Noir and the production expense (think expensive oak barrels) is lower, too. No doubt about it, Oregon PG is a great wine for producers and consumers.

But there’s that respect thing. White wines seems to get less respect than reds in most parts of the wine world and probably nothing can match the status of Pinot Noir, so Oregon PG is the “second wine” in more respects than vineyard acreage. No wonder a group of winemakers has come together to create OregonPinotGris.org in an attempt to get their grape the recognition it deserves.

Eyrie was one of the PG pioneers in Oregon, but these wines (which account for 60 percent of Eyrie’s production) suffer from the recognition problem, too. (“Oh, it’s just Pinot Gris?”) So Jason Lett decided to try to do something to change the perception of PG — by tweaking it in a modestly extreme way. The result is the 2008 Pinot Gris Original Vine Rose, which has three unusual qualities according to Lett: 1) all “original vine” (first planting in the US ca 1965),  2) 100% skin contact fermentation like Pinot Noir  and 3) three years age sur-lies.

It was Pinot Gris all right, but a very different take on it. More serious? Maybe. It certainly made me think about Pinot Gris differently, which is what extreme wines are supposed to do.

The History of Oregon in a Glass

The second extreme wine was actually more interesting than delicious … but that’s not a criticism because it was very interesting. It was the history of Oregon wine in a glass and it came about through Lett’s curatorial duties.

Eyrie’s wine library contains Chardonnay vintages going back to the very first year. Lett went through these wines sorting out the good wines, the ones that had gone bad and some interesting wines in the middle — oxidized (“sherried” I guess you’d say) but still drinkable, with a certain distinct character. Lett mixed these middle wines from all 40 vintages along with some fresh 2009 Chardonnay and a little eau to vie made from estate grapes.

The wine tasted old because of the oxidization, but made me think about how young the Oregon wine industry really is — so young that you can drink a slice of its history this way. An extreme non-vintage blend. Very memorable.

Coltraine versus Hildegard

The final extreme wine was the result of a mad experiment. Lett knew about Clark Smith’s theories of wine and music. Wine’s taste can change depending on the music you are listening to, according to Smith. Although this sounds a bit wacky, some of my students have experimented and they say that there is some effect.  There’s a potential scientific basis, too, since music stimulates some parts of the brain that are also active in the sensory perception of wine. So far, so good.

But Jason Lett decided to take the next step. If music makes a difference when you taste wine, then how about when you make wine?  You know, the way that they say it is good for pregnant women to listen to Mozart — it is supposed to help the baby’s brain develop? (Alois Lageder has his “pregnant” wine barrels listen to Mozart played at a very low speed.)

So Lett set up an experiment. Identical grape juice and yeast, but with different music. One fermentation listened to music by  Hildegard of Bingen (click on the YouTube video above to get a sense of what this might sound like) while the twin tank grooved to the jazz of John Coltrane (see video below for one of my favorite Coltrane performances).

Incredibly, the two fermentations developed differently (the Hildegard started first) and the wines taste different, too. Or at least that’s what Sue and I thought as we tasted back and forth. Hmmmm. Maybe there’s something to this music thing!

Sue challenged Lett to take the next step. Does the Hildegard taste different listening to Hildegard than to Coltrane? Does the affinity for the music extend all the way down the line? Maybe we can find out when we go back in July for the International Pinot Noir Celebration.

Jason Lett isn’t really a mad scientist, but he is an innovator and I think that’s great. His role at Eyrie represents perfectly the modern winemaker’s dilemma — how to respect the past while creating the future.  Cheers!

Dirty Jobs: Extreme Wine Edition

Dirty Jobs is a popular television show where host Mike Rowe goes out and works alongside ordinary people as they earn a  living for themselves and their families and make products and services for the rest of us. The jobs are frequently dangerous and often have a high “yuck!” factor  but, as they say, it’s a dirty job and someone’s gotta  do it.

Memo to Mike: Next Time Wear a Maroon T-Shirt.

Winemaking is a Dirty Job

Mike’s done all sorts of dirty things — he’s even worked as a winemaker. Mike gets pretty dirty in this episode (click on the link to view it) although the brief clip on the Discovery Channel website is relatively clean.

One job that is apparently too dirty for the Dirty Jobs crew is research. At the end of each show Mike pleads with his audience to send in ideas for even dirtier jobs. If you don’t, he says, I’m out of a job!

Now I don’t really believe that the Dirty Jobs staff is as clueless as they say, but I think they have the right idea. The people who watch their show have a world of experience and are full of great ideas. They’d be crazy to ignore this great (and free) resource. No wonder the show is so successful.

Wine Writing is a Dirty Business, Too

This started me thinking. Wine writing is a dirty job, too, and readers of The Wine Economist are pretty smart and creative. Maybe I should exploit their expertise for the book I’m working on now.

My new book, Wine Wars will be out in June and I’m doing research for a follow-up project tentatively titled Extreme Wines that explores the world of wine from its outer limits — the best, worst, cheapest, most expensive and most outrageous wines that I can find. The idea is that the forces that are shaping wine today will show up first and maybe most clearly at the edges, so that’s where I want to go.

I’ve got a lot of ideas about what extremes would be the most interesting and I have gathered them up into a few categories:

  • Extreme Wines: Best and the Worst
  • The Fame Game: Most Famous, Most Forgotten and Most Infamous
  • Sold Out: Rarest, Most Unusual and Most Ubiquitous
  • Money Wine: Cheapest, Most Expensive, Most Profitable and Most Overpriced
  • Big and Small:  Extreme Wine by the Numbers
  • Message in a Bottle: Wine Magazines, Critics, Books and Films

Like the Dirty Jobs folks, I’m looking for a little help here, folks. Can you think of interesting categories I have left out? Do you have nominees for wines (or wine regions or types of wines) that I should include in the book? If you do, leave a comment below or send email to Mike@WineEconomist.com. Like that other Mike, I need all the help I can get.

Because writing wine books is a dirty job but, hey, someone’s gotta do it. Why not you?

The Rodney Dangerfield of Wine


Petite Sirah is the Rodney Dangerfield of wine. Like the famous comedian, this grape variety “can’t get no respect.”

For a long time nobody really knew much about Petite Sirah (PS), except the fact that it produced “the biggest, toughest, brawniest red wines in California” (according to The New Connoisseurs’ Guidebook to California Wine & Wineries). It’s true identity was a hotly disputed mystery. DNA tests finally settled arguments about its parentage — it is the Durif grape from France, a combination of the Peloursin and Syrah varieties discovered by Dr. Francoise Durif in the 1880s when he was searching for solutions to Syrah’s powdery mildew problem.

PS: The Prohibition Grape

It never caught on in Europe, but PS was quickly embraced in California and South America, where it thrives. Many of the early California vineyards included Petite Sirah along with Zinfandel and other heat-loving varieties and it figured prominently in field blends. If you’ve tasted Ridge Lytton Springs (71% Zinfandel, 21% Petite Sirah, 5% Carignane in the 2008 blend) or Frog’s Leap Napa Zin (80% Zinfandel, 19% Petite Sirah, 1% Carignane in 2008) you have some idea of what I’m talking about.

Petite Sirah took center stage during Prohibition. Most people don’t realized that wine consumption in the U.S. actually increased during “The Great Experiment,” through bootleg sales, of course, but mainly because millions of families took advantage of a loophole that allowed up to 200 gallons of legal homemade wine per household.  Rough, tough Petite Sirah grapes survived the long railroad trips necessary to get the grapes to home winemakers across the country. Bootleggers liked it, too, according to Jim Lapsley’s Bottled Poetry. Petite Sirah could make a wine so strong and deeply colored, Lapsley writes, that illegal sellers could stretch it out without fear of detection by adding up to 20% water! (I am tempted to make some sort of lame “water into wine” joke here, but it don’t want to be sacrilegious.)

So valuable was Prohibition Petite Sirah that in 1934 PS vines accounted for 4400 of Napa Valley’s 11,000 vineyard acres! The total for all of California was 7,285 acres in 1938. Petite Sirah went into decline again in the postwar years, as winemakers realized that it was not really Syrah after all as some supposed and moved in other directions. The spike in the 1960s and 1970s in the chart above is driven in part by the increase in generic jug wine sales (think Gallo Hearty Burgundy). A lot of the “Burgundy” in those blends was really Petite Sirah.

Do you see the “I can’t get no respect” angle here. Poor, misunderstood, mislabeled Petite Sirah.

But Petite Sirah is experiencing a renaissance today as a varietal wine as well as a blending component. PS vineyard acreage is up as is the number of wineries making varietal PS.  There is even a very dynamic advocacy group called PS I Love You that promotes the wine.

PS Renaissance: Why Now?

Why Petite Sirah now? Well, one reason is that it is different at a time when a lot of wines taste the same. Many of the old PS vineyards survive, so old vine PS is available, which is a special treat. Sue and I enjoyed a bottle of 2005 Arger Martucci Petite Syrah made from 140 year old Calistoga vines for our last wedding anniversary. That’s not an experience you can get with many other wine varieties.

But there is more than longevity to Petite Sirah. I asked Julie Johnson of Tres Sabores to explain the appeal and here’s what she said.

The old timers planted PS because they loved it and it happened to blend particularly well with Zinfandel.  That’s why I planted it:  a really old timer shared with me that he remembered it being planted on our property long, long ago.

I’m determined to continue making PS in an open and fruit forward style—some versions have gotten quite alcoholic and leathery  (not unlike Zinfandel) but I think that people are loving the depth and zest that the grape puts forward (sort of like Syrah +). … But in general, I think it’s a perfect wine for the rather amazing charcuterie and “all things from every animal” cuisine that’s so the rage right now.

People are discovering that it can be made without terribly extracted tannins as well so that helps the pairing—even with cheese.  At the winery–I offer guests a tasting choice–they can taste PS with a rich chocolate (70% +/-) cookie/cracker (not very sweet, nice texture) or a lovely piece of salumi. It’s kind of fun for people to delve into why aspects of each food pair well.   My main source of PS is up in Calistoga.  Dry farmed and always in need of a major taming of the crop —I love it.

A Certain Smile

Another reason for the PS Renaissance is that makers of this variety have come out of the closet, so to speak, and begun to celebrate the grape and their wine through the PS I Love You advocacy group and events like Dark & Delicious, which was held at the Rock Wall winery in Alameda, California a few weeks ago. I couldn’t attend the big tasting (I was in Argentina), so I asked my  good friend Lowell Daun to fill in for me. Here is his report.

If turnout is any indication, I think Petite Sirah production will have to get back to the 1970s numbers – the place was not easy to find, the weather was abysmal, tickets cost $63, yet the place was absolutely packed! I would estimate between 800 - 1000 people participated. And of the many wine tasting events I’ve attended, this group seemed more enthusiastic than any I’ve seen. And it wasn’t a “drunk-fest”, rather oenophiles whom seemed to know what they were looking for,enjoying and analyzing.

“Accidental Pairings” was my assumption upon finding some unusual wine-food combinations set throughout the Rock Wall facility. In retrospect, I think the organizers are too smart to have not had some design as to where each winery and food purveyor were located.  … Many chocolate pairings made sense, but I was surprised to find wonderful cupcakes worked with the wines, too. The most unusual food being paired with P.S., was spicy bacon and almond caramel popcorn, by HobNob Foods, set next to Tres Sabores’ pouring station. As it turned out Tres Sabores poured my favorite wines and the spicy bacon-almond-caramel popcorn was my hands-down favorite food, and they paired perfectly!!

In addition to hands-down favorite, Tre Sabores, other very interesting pourings were: Biale’s Punisher, Clayhouse, Rosenblum’s Rock Pile, Silkwood, Aver Family and Cecchetti.

Lowell did have one reservation. A health professional, he was concerned about all the purple smiles he saw at Dark & Delicious — Petite Sirah is famous for its ability to stain tooth and tongue. Is PS a threat to your tooth enamel?  Click here to read the 30 Second Wine Advisor on red wine and your teeth.

I think that all this proves that Petite Sirah really is the Rodney Dangerfield of wine — and I mean that in a good way. It may not be The Next Big Thing, but that’s not the point. Different and not to everyone’s taste, but with a large, loyal and growing fan club, that’s Petite Sirah.

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Thanks to Jo Diaz of Diaz Communications for information about the PS I Love You program and for the charts above. Thanks as well to Julie Johnson for her comments on PS and to Lowell Daun and Miller Freeman III for representing The Wine Economist at the Dark & Delicious tasting.

Extreme Wine: A Certain Idea of Malbec


One of my goals in coming to Mendoza was to add to my collection of Extreme Wine stories (yes, I’m working on another book). I was thinking that the story would be the Great Malbec Boom, one of the most extreme regional wine surges in recent years.

The Malbec boom may still make my extreme wine list, but a fellow wine economist suggested a different entry: Tempus Alba‘s  ambitious project to create an extreme wine, one that uniquely captures the essence of Malbec.  Here’s the story of Vero Malbec.

One Hundred Years of Winegrowing

The Biondolillo family has been in the winegrowing business in Mendoza for more than 100 years. This means that they have lived through booms and crises, both in the wine industry and in the Argentinean economy more generally. Aldo Biondolillo, who holds a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Minnesota, is the third generation to make a living this way. His sons Leonardo and Mariano are in the family business, too, and there is a very young fifth generation in the wings (if you look closely you can see their fingerprints on the wine label in the video above). Theirs is the kind of business that necessarily looks to the long run.

When Aldo began the Tempus Alba project in the 1990’s he was looking for a way for his family to continue the winegrowing tradition well into the future. He knew that they couldn’t live on grape sales alone and becoming a bulk wine producer would be a dead end road. Commodity pricing — of grapes or bulk wine — often puts an emphasis on cost more than quality – and there is always some one who will charge less.  Economic theory teaches that product differentiation is key to escaping the commodity trap. But how?

Aldo’s project is ambitious: to create not just another good Malbec, but a different idea of Malbec.

His method is to isolate the purest or perhaps just the best Malbec vines in the region from among the many different clones that have been planted here over the years. The goal is to identify the truest clones and, in the long run, to make them available to other wineries who could join a circle of producers making unique wines – unique in terms of the particular grape clones and then unique once again as expressions of their respective terroir.

In Malbec Veritas?

And so Aldo and family began, planting 800 different Malbec cuttings in the Mother Block. The 800 vines were narrowed in stages to 589 vines and then finally 20 by teams of experts. After 10 years of hard work, the project’s first commercial Malbec was made in 2007.

It is called Vero Malbec (vero is Italian for truth, although the letters are also the initials of Aldo’s grandchildren). The Biondolillo do not claim that it is the original Malbec brought over from France or The One True Malbec. It is their version of the truth, seen from their family’s particular 100 year perspective.

Everyone knows that I don’t rate wines or give tasting notes, but I found the Biondolillo’s version of the truth very appealing (as have a number of wine critics). It will be interesting to see how this wine develops over several vintages. It will be even more interesting if Aldo’s dream of a winemaking circle evolves, so that a group of Mendoza winemakers adopt the Tempus Alba clones and produce their own unique wines, perhaps along the lines of the Coro Mendocino project that I wrote about a while back. (Hmmm … they could call it Vero Mendocino!)

Our visit to Tempus Alba’s beautiful winery in Maipu was informative in several respects. First, It was interesting to see a project that is at once so scientifically ambitious (the labs and the clones)  and, through the winemakers’ circle idea, so socially progressive. Although there is a lot of plant science employed here, however, the work to narrow down the cuttings was done using nose and palate, not by sequencing grape  DNA.

I accused Aldo of being an empiricist in his search for true Malbec and someone in the group said, “Well of course … he’s an economist.” Aldo and I reacted in the same instant, “No, no, no!” we said in unison, shaking our fingers. We know that most economists are more comfortable with theories that with facts. (It is an old saying in economics, for example, that a theory cannot be refuted by facts – only by a more appealing theory will do the job). Wine theories are well and good, but it’s what’s in the bottle that really counts.

Stop and Think

I was also fascinated by the visitors to Tempus Alba. The other wineries we visited in Mendoza were fairly remote and sometimes difficult to find; most had guarded gates meant to restrict entry to those with pre-arranged tours. Tempus Alba’s winery is in the Maipu valley,  an area with lots of wineries and a good many backpacker hostels. The courtyard was filled with the rental bikes of the 20-somethings who travel from winery to winery as long as they can manage to stay upright. The action in the restaurant and on the deck overlooking the vineyard was young, lively and fun.

I’m not sure the 100+ per day biking visitors (a big wine tourist number by Mendoza standards) buy much wine, but they appear to have a great wine experience – almost a unique one it seems to me. The self-guided tour shows them the winery, teaches some viticultural science, and even exposes them to the family’s “dogma” or guiding principles. Then it is up to the sunny deck to taste the wines and have a bite to eat. Many will be untouched and just enjoy the good wine, food and company, but some will stop and think, and that seems to be the idea behind Tempus Alba’s whole approach.

Is Tempus Alba’s Vero Malbec really unique? I won’t judge the wine, but certainly the idea is completely different and a potentially important addition to the rich mosaic of  Mendoza wine.

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Update: Leo Biondolillo writes

“Answering your question of Is Tempus Alba’s Vero Malbec really unique? in my personal opinion, every wine is unique or every good wine must be unique… that is the magnificent wine world.”

Vino Ogopogo: Wine Tourism Okanagan Style

We recently returned from an “extreme wine” research trip to the surprising Okanagan wine region in British Columbia (click here to read part one of the series).

Surprising? Well, many U.S. wine drinkers find the very idea of Canadian wine surprising (ice wines apart), which is understandable since only a handful of wineries have successfully navigated the process to get distribution south of the border. The wines themselves hold many surprises, if you can find them.

And then there are the wine tourism opportunities. Wow! For a lot of people, this will be the biggest  surprise of all.

On the Wine Tourist Trail

Wine tourism has become big business as enthusiasts seek closer links to their favorite wineries, wine producers try to make more high margin direct sales and the hospitality industry has embraced the wine tourism trend. George Taber has written a fascinating book, In Search of Bacchus, that surveys the global wine tourist scene and gives a sense of the industry’s rising profile.

Wine tourism is a naturally appealing — even if you omit the wine! — because vineyards and wineries are often located in areas of real scenic beauty. But wine tourism in many areas has been slow to develop because vineyards are agricultural zones often  lacking in the expected tourist infrastructure and amenities. And at some point as more people arrive there is tension between farming and tourism. The debate over the Napa wine train captures some of this problem.

Vino Ogopogo

The Okanagan wine region in British Columbia has a decided advantage over most winegrowing regions. Usually the wine comes first and then the tourist infrastructure slowly develops. It’s the other way ’round here. The Okanagan region has spectacular scenery with four season sports and recreation opportunities that have long attracted visitors. At the center of it all is beautiful Lake Okanagan, a long narrow north-south body of water that feels like a fjord and has just about everything a tourist might desire, including a resident Lake Monster named Ogopogo.

Wine grapes are known to love to look down on lakes and rivers and so do people, of course. So the Okanagan developed its tourist infrastructure long before the current wine boom (which I’ll discuss in an upcoming blog post). We benefited from this timely development on our trip, staying right on the lake at the Summerland Waterfront Resort in Summerland, B.C. and enjoying meals made from regional ingredients at Local, a restaurant just next door. Sipping wine in the evening with the fireplace roaring, looking out across the lake to the vineyards on the Naramata Bench — well wine tourism does not get much better than this.

Raising the Stakes

As this region’s wine industry developed from the 1990s on, many wineries made very significant investments in wine tourist facilities — partly, I think, because of the need to compete with and complement the amenities already here in order to attract tourist business.

Direct sales of the kind that wine tourists provide are extremely important to wineries in this region. Every wine maker I talked to noted the cost and difficulty of getting distribution in other Candadian provinces to say nothing of entering the U.S. market. Direct sales are therefore key and tourists from Vancouver in the west, Alberta in the east and the U.S. down south are a big part of that business.

Burrowing Owl Estate Winery in Oliver a good example of a B.C. destination winery. Perched on a hillside, it is a beautiful facility in a great location that includes the winery, a tasting room, restaurant and an inn with a swimming pool. A must stop on the wine tourist trail, they count on cellar door sales to move most of  their substantial annual production.

Wine economics note: tasting room fees are still very low in this region — amazingly low for anyone who has visited Napa Valley lately. Most of the wineries I visited offered free tastings for a limited number of wines. At Burrowing Owl, a $2 donation was encouraged — the money goes to the a nature conservancy group.

Top of the World

The ultimate wine tourist destination in the Okanagan Valley must be Mission Hill Winery. Inspired by Robert Mondavi’s iconic winery in Oakville, Mission Hill sits atop a peak and looks out over the lake. The winery is stunning, with an entry arch that immediately made me think of the Mondavi winery and a soaring bell tower. Everything inside is strictly first class, too, including comprehensive tours that end with sommelier-led tastings from your souvenir Riedel glass.

As beautiful as the building is, I don’t seem to have taken any photos of it. I guess I couldn’t resist the view (shown above) looking down over vineyards to the lake below. I wasn’t alone: members of a photography club were buzzing around like bees making images of the vineyards, grapes, rose bushes, bell tower and, inevitably and unintentionally, each other.

Mission Hill is the cherry on the Okanagan wine tourism cake. Altogether, this wine region is quite a treat and sure to grow in popularity as the word gets out. We’ll be back — possibly staying at one of the guest ranches in the area, horseback riding in the morning and wine touring in the afternoon, or perhaps taking advantage of vineyard lodgings like the ones at Working Horse Winery.

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This is the second of my “extreme wine” reports on the Okanagan wine scene. Watch for the final post (on the region’s future) in a few days.

Extreme Wine: O Canada Ice Wine

Ice wine, Canada’s distinctive contribution to the world of wine, holds a fascinating place in the world wine price tables and so qualifies for inclusion in The Wine Economist’s extreme wine series.

Top of the World

Which country gets the highest average price for its bottled wine exports? You might think it would be France with all those expensive Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy wines or Portugal with its costly eponymous after-dinner wines. But both of these countries also export a good deal of much cheaper wine, bringing their average  export earnings (USD per liter) down to $4.24 and $3.70 respectively. (Data are for 2005 from my copy of The Global Wine Statistical Compendium.)

New Zealand with its gorgeous Pinot Noirs and Sauvignon Blancs ($6.64) and the UK with its classy sparkling wines  ($6.87) both earn more per liter of bottled wine exports than the “usual suspects” of France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain to say nothing of New World powers Argentina ($1.87), Australia ($3.65), Chile ($2.72) and South Africa ($2.42).

(Remember that wines that are exported for, say, $4.00 will have a much higher price on your store shelves due to transport  costs, distribution and retail margins and applicable taxes.)

At the very top of the table, for reasons that I think are due to exchange rate sand import resales more than domestic wine prices, is Switzerland ($8.23 per liter) followed closely by Canada ($7.32).  How can frigid Canada rate so high? Ice wine (or Eiswein) , of course!

The Highest Compliment?

Canada didn’t invent ice wine (credit Austria with that) but it is the world’s largest producer of this chilly wine, making nearly a million liters in a good year according to John Scheiner’s authoritative The Wines of Canada. Ice wine’s high cost is the biggest single factor in Canada’s lofty export earnings average.

Tiny bottles of ice wine bring enormous prices — $50, $100, even $500 and more for a half bottle at retail. Who pays these spectacular prices? Japan and other Asian countries are the largest export market.  Ice wine is the quintessential high end gift wine — attractively sweet, beautifully packaged and luxuriously expensive. Tourists snap bottles at Duty-Free to take home to Asia.

I’ve heard that so much ice wine is bought by Tokyo-bound travelers that some Canadian duty-free stores have special bonded facilities in Japan to make purchases more convenient. Pay at the airport in Canada and pick up your ice wine at baggage claim in Japan. Sweet!

Ice wines are so expensive and sought after in Asia that counterfeiting is a serious problem. Some experts believe that as much as 50 percent of the ice wine sold in Taiwan is bogus — sweet wines from Canada and elsewhere that are doctored up and repackaged.

Check out this image from the label of one of the faked wines — brewed, not fermented! Yikes. Must have got ice wine mixed up with ice beer. These may be big counterfeiting operations, but not necessarily sophisticated ones.

A recent Globe and Mail article suggests the problem may be even worse in China.

Well over 50 per cent of icewine in China is fake from what I’ve seen and heard,” said Allan Schmidt, president of Vineland Estates, which has quit the market entirely. “If it was 80 per cent … I wouldn’t be surprised.

The legitimate Chinese market for Canadian icewine has grown rapidly, which the industry attributes to a burgeoning middle class and the desire to give exotic gifts. It rose to $2.16-million in 2007 from $270,000 in 2005. The market sagged in 2008, but was worth $1.2-million in the first half of this year [2009]. It’s our most important flagship wine produced,” said Bob Keyes, vice-president of economic and government affairs with the Canadian Vintners Association.

Chilly Saga, Intense Experience

Ice wine is a very particular product. The grapes for ice wines are left on the vine long after regular grapes have been picked. By law natural ice wine in Canada can only be made from grapes that have been frozen to -7 degrees Celsius (17 degrees F) and harvested at minimum 35 degrees brix. The juice, what is left of it, is highly concentrated so each grape yields just a drop or so. Picking is done by hand, of course, since many clusters will have experienced bird damage or fallen prey to disease.

Vidal Blanc is the grape of choice for Canadian ice wine — its tough skin can stand up to harsh weather — along with lesser amounts of Riesling and other varietals. Most of Canada’s ice wine is produced in Ontario, where wine makers can pretty much count on frightfully low temperatures early in the winter season. But the first ice wines came from out west in British Columbia.

North America’s first commercial ice wine was made in 1978 by German-born Walter and Tilman Hainle of Hainle Vineyards Estate Winery in Peachland, British Columbia. Tillman Hainle, Walter’s son, generously shared precious bottles of a recent vintage from with us at the 2008 Riesling Rendezvous meetings. [See Tilman's helpful comment below.] It was one of the most memorable wines I’ve ever tasted, so I just had to visit Hainle Vineyards on my recent Okanagan wine country expedition.

Sue and I met with Dr. Walter Huber, the proprietor of Hainle Vineyards and Deep Creek Wine Estate, who purchased the business from the Hainle family after Walter’s death.  Dr. Huber was an extremely generous host, pulling corks with almost excessive enthusiasm. He’s refuses to release his wines before their time, choosing to let them dribble out slowly to lucky wine club members. He is generous to a fault with inquisitive visitors like me, even letting us sample an ice wine from 1984. Wow! I purchased some old vine Rieslings to drink a few years from now when they have fully matured.

Only the Beginning

Ice wine is what made Canada’s reputation in wine, Dr. Huber explained, but it’s not all there is to Canadaian wine these days, especially in the Okanagan Valley in eastern B.C., where the vineyards overlook Lake Okanagan and dozens of very different micro-climates co-exist. Winegrowers are able to ripen cool climate grapes like Riesling and Pinot Noir, of course, but also Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and apparently even Zinfandel!

I love ice wine, but it is only one element of Canada’s dynamic wine industry. I’ll report on the surprising wine tourism industry in my an upcoming post, followed by a peek at what might be the future of Canadian wine. O Canada, you produce some unexpected wines! Check back soon to learn about what’s happening today and what the future may hold.

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[Note: This post is part of an occasional feature on extreme wines. Extreme wines? You know, the cheapest, the most expensive; the biggest producers, the smallest; the oldest, the newest and so forth.]

The Wine Economist 200

This is The Wine Economist’s 200th post since it began a little more than three years ago under the name “Grape Expectations” –  a good opportunity to reflect briefly on readership trends, just as I did when we passed milepost 100.

Not that kind of list!

Milepost 200

The Wine Economist has an unusually broad readership given its focus (wine economics), content (no wine reviews, no ratings) and style (most posts are way longer than is typical for weblogs).

I never expected to get millions of visitors like Dr. Vino or Gary V. and other popular wine critic sites, so I’m surprised by how many people have found this page and come back to read and re-read.

About 200,000 visitors have clicked on these links, sometimes with surprising intensity. The Wine Economist has been ranked as high as #6 in the big “Food”  category where wine blogs are filed in Technorati‘s daily ratings and as high as the top 30 in the even broader “Living” group.

Reader Favorites

The most-read articles of the last few days are always listed in the right-hand column on this page, so it is easy to see track reader behavior. I thought you might be interested in readership trends since the blog began. Here are the top ten Wine Economist articles of all time.

  1. Costco and Global Wine — about America’s #1 wine retailer, Costco.
  2. Wine’s Future: It’s in the Bag (in the Bag in the Box) — why “box wine” should be taken seriously.
  3. The World’s Best Wine Magazine? Is it Decanter?
  4. [Yellow Tail] Tales or how business professors explain Yellow Tail’s success.
  5. Olive Garden and the Future of American Wine or how Olive Garden came to be #1 in American restaurant wine sales.
  6. Australia at the Tipping Point — one of many posts about the continuing crisis in Oz.
  7. No Wine Before Its Time explains the difference between fine wine and a flat-pack  antique finish Ikea Aspelund bedside table.
  8. How will the Economic Crisis affect Wine — one of many posts on wine and the recession. Can you believe that some people said that wine sales would rise?
  9. Wine Distribution Bottleneck — damned three tier system!
  10. Curse of the Blue Nun or the rise and fall and rise again of German wine.

As you can see, it is a pretty eclectic mix of topics reflecting, I think, both the quite diverse interests of wine enthusiasts and wine’s inherently complex nature.

My Back Pages

What are my favorite posts? Unsurprisingly, they are columns that connected most directly to people. Wine is a relationship business; building and honoring relationships is what it is all about.

KW’s report on the wine scene in Kabul, Afghanistan has to be near the top of my personal list, for example. I am looking forward to following this friend’s exploits in and out of wine for many years to come. (Afghan authorities found KW’s report so threatening that they blocked access to The Wine Economist in that country!)

Matt Ferchen and Steve Burkhalter (both former students of mine now based in China) reported on Portugal’s efforts to break into the wine market there. The commentaries by Matt, Steve and KW received a lot of attention inside the wine trade, but their thoughtful, fresh approaches also drew links, re-posts and readers from the far corners of the web world.

Looking back, I think my favorite post was probably the very first one, a report on my experiences working with the all-volunteer  bottling crew at Fielding Hills winery. I learned a lot that day about the real world of wine and I continue to benefit from my association with Mike and Karen Wade (and their daughter, Robin, another former student) who have taught me a lot about wine, wine making and wine markets.

Look for another report like this when The Wine Economist turns 300. Cheers!

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Thanks to everyone who’s helped me in various ways with these first 200 posts. I couldn’t have done it without you! (Special thanks to Sue, my #1 research assistant!)

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