Villamagna DOC: Leading the Way for Montepulciano in Abruzzo

Villamagna is a tiny appellation by any measure: 85 hectares, seven producers, two wines (Villamagna DOC and Villamagna DOC Riserva). But its importance exceeds its size and points the way forward for Abruzzo and its Montepulciano wines. Sue and I only spent a few hours with the Villamagna winemakers, but we came away deeply impressed with the wines and the people who make them.

About the wines … well, I have been trying to think how to describe them to you and here is the best I can do. Do you know the wines of the Stags Leap District in the Napa Valley? Well, to me at least, the wines of Villamagna DOC are to Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wines in general what Stags Leap is to Napa. You can see the family resemblance in each case, but the wine from the smaller region is distinctive and makes a strong impression.

Distinctive by Design

It is not an accident that the Villamagna wines are distinctive. Starting in the 1990s some of the producers in this small village began to think about what they could do to increase quality and to stand out and perhaps above others in the region.  They had nature on their side, with soils and climate well-suited to quality grapes.  The vineyards are located about 10 km from the Adriatic Sea and about 10 km from the foothills of the Majella mountain range, so a combination of influences affect the grapes, including especially a large intra-day temperature variation during the growing season.

But natural advantages are not always enough, so the appellation founders began to identify specific areas with the best potential for high-quality grapes and to establish appellation protocols that would produce wines that were both individually distinctive but also clearly part of a common family tree. These efforts culminated in the creation of the Villamagna DOC appellation in 2011.

Higher and Lower

The standards for Villamagna DOC wines are higher than for Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC wines generally. The maximum permitted vineyard yield is lower, for example, and the minimum alcohol level higher. Americans will wonder why a higher alcohol level is desirable, since the problem here is often that alcohol levels are higher than we might like.

But the point of the regulation is to require producers to fully ripen grapes rather than pick early when the grapes are not necessarily of peak quality. Villamagna DOC requires fully ripe grapes that achieve at least 14% abv, for example, while the minimum standard for Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC is only 11.5% abv.

The ageing requirements are also different. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC can be released in the spring after harvest. Villamagna DOC wines must wait two years (three years for Riserva) and spend time in oak.

A New Generation of Wines

Obviously, many Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC wines exceed the minimums in these areas, but there is considerable variation. The point is that all of the Villamagna DOC wines must meet the higher standards.

Elegant and powerful is how the producers describe their wines. I think I’d say elegant, balanced, and distinctive, with a line of bright acidity running through the wine that makes me think of Stags Leap.

The grapes and geography as very important, but Villamagna DOC is really a people story most of all because it is not very often that a small group of winemakers can achieve so much. Part of this can be explained by generational transitions within the wineries.  New faces and new thinking are useful indeed when the world of wine has changed and quality, not quantity, is the surest path to success.

But it is inevitably more complicated than this because the seven wineries are such a diverse group. Some are very old family affairs while others have been established during the period when the Villamagna DOC project was evolving. Two are cooperatives, which is noteworthy since changing directions, which is never a simple thing, is even more challenging when cooperative members must be convinced to give their votes.

The seven members of the Villamagna DOC are Agricosimo, Cantina Villamagna, Cascina del Colle, Palazzo Battaglini, Piandimare, Torre Zambra, Valle Martello. Congratulations to them all for their commitment and achievement.

The Road Ahead

But it is too soon to rest on laurels. Making excellent, distinctive wines is the beginning of the project. The next step is to get the word out so that the wines can have the market (and earn the prices) they deserve.

And then? Well, the step after that is for other Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOC producers to follow along by making a very serious commitment to quality both in the cellar and vineyard.  The vast majority of Abruzzo wines are Montepulciano and elevating both the wines and their reputation won’t happen overnight. But it is the way forward in today’s market.

Is Abruzzo the Next Big Thing for Italian Wine?

Is the Abruzzo region the next big thing in Italian wine? That’s the question on our minds here at Wine Economist world headquarters after returning from a media tour of Abruzzo last month. The tentative answer is that Abruzzo has the foundation needed to move up to the next level in the Italian wine hierarchy. Abruzzo is on the rise — let’s see how far it can go!

Abruzzo By the Numbers

From the standpoint of volume, of course, Abruzzo is already a big thing. Abruzzo boasts 33,000 hectares (over 80,000 acres) of grape vines, of which more than half are planted to its signature red wine grape, Montepulciano. Total production is 3.2 million hectoliters or more than 35 million 9-liter cases of wine each year. About a quarter of the wine is designated DOC.

There are more than 250 wineries in this region. With more than 6,000 grape growers it is obvious than many of the vineyards are quite small. No wonder, then, that cooperative wineries are very important here (as they are in most of Italy and Europe generally).

The “Good Value” Curse

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Trebbiano d’Abruzzo wines are produced in large quantities and are available world-wide. But, as I wrote a few weeks ago as we were preparing for this visit, the wines entered the U.S. market years ago at what were then the “sweet spot” price points. As the market has moved up to higher price tiers, however, Abruzzo’s wines (like those of Chile) lagged behind s bit, recognized for their   good value rather than great quality.

Indeed, I remember stumbling onto a big 1.5 liter bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo by a well-known producer at a local Grocery Outlet discount store a few weeks ago. It was priced just above the Two Buck Chuck level. Not the best advertisement for Abruzzo wines!

The Abruzzo wine producers have adopted a strategic plan to raise the profile of their wine region (the media tour, which included journalists from North America, Europe and the UK, and Asia was part of that program). One small step that I think will be important is to establish a stronger Abruzzo identity by unifying some of their classification systems and adopting the logo you see above. This sort of strategy worked very well for Sicilian wines and it holds promise for Abruzzo.

Abruzzo Has Much to Offer

Tourism (and not just wine tourism) is one way to strengthen a regional identity in today’s competitive market. How many people do you know who took a Douro River cruise in Portugal, for example, fell in love with the country, and have been buying Portuguese wines ever since?

Abruzzo has a lot to offer tourists who take the time to explore. There are golden beaches on the Adriatic coast, for example, and delicious seafood served at restaurants located in converted trabbochi (extravagant fishing shacks built at the end of long piers).

There is beautiful scenery and charming towns in the hills and mountains, too, with wonderful food including juicy porchetta and tasty grilled lamb skewers. All this with fewer crowds than in the better-known tourist spots. Honestly, Abruzzo is hard to beat once you make the modest effort to get there. Abruzzo’s visibility in the world of wine will rise as more and more people discover its many charms.

Abruzzo Pecorino Potential

But wine regions are ultimately built on the quality of the wines they produce and we come away from our brief visit very optimistic. Part of this, as I will explain over the next two Wine Economist columns, is because of specific efforts to raise quality and create distinctive wines that we discovered. But a lot of it is because of our overall impression of the region’s wines, which I think was shared by many in our group.

The clear favorite among the wines we tasted were those made from the Pecorino grape. These white wines, both still and sparkling, were bright and appealing — alive in the glass for the most part — and seemed to us to be a perfect fit as the U.S. market shifts to white wines, especially Sauvignon Blanc, with a bit more zip than Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio.  We also enjoyed fruity white wines made from the Cococciola grape, which has only relatively recently been upgraded from blending grape to a varietal wine. But Pecorino was the star.

Pretty in Pink: Cerasuolo 

The other hit with our group was Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, a darkish rosé wine made form the Montepulciano grape. It was distinctive and delicious — perfect for the warm evenings we experienced. Some producers have been encouraged to make paler versions for the U.S. market because of the perceived prejudice against darker pink wines, but I don’t see the point. Anyone who tries this wine will want more.

So what about Abruzzo’s most important wines — Montepulciano and Trebbiano d’Abruzzo? Perhaps it was because of the heat, but the red wines didn’t impress as much as the whites, although (stay tuned for upcoming Wine Economist columns) we did find some really memorable wines. And, with a few exceptions, the overall impression of Trebbiano was overshadowed by the Pecorino wines.

The Road Ahead

One logical market strategy might be to highlight the Pecorino and Cerasuolo wines, which match so well with trends in the U.S. market, while raising quality standards for Montepulciano and Trebbiano. Indeed, it seems to me, that’s exactly what’s happening now.

But there are still many questions to be answered before Abruzzo’s wine sector can fully achieve its clear potential. Can the cooperative wineries, which are so important here (and were sometimes in the past blamed for low standards), raise their game? And can Montepulciano, the most-planted grape variety, refresh its image? I will address these questions in the next two Wine Economist columns.

The global wine market is almost insanely competitive. The standard is constantly rising. The Abruzzo producers we met have listened to what the market is saying and found a pathway ahead.

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Thanks to the Consorzio di Tutela dei Vini d’Abruzzo for inviting us to visit the region and learn more about it and its wine sector. Special thanks to our friends at I.E.E.M. for taking care of all the logistics and making the visit as smooth and enjoyable as possible.

We are especially grateful to four wineries who generously hosted us during out visit and showed us some of the very best of Abruzzo wines:

Cantina Frentana:  A cooperative winery on the move. See next week’s Wine Economist for details.

Agriverde Winery:  An award-winning winery seriously committed to environmental goals. Ambitious vision matched by achievement. Keep an eye on this one!

Bosco Winery: Historic family-owned winery that both looks back to tradition and ahead to the future. We could spend all day in the family museum, wandering with a glass of great wine in our hand.

Margiotta Winery:  A perfect example of a small family winery making excellent wines. Humble and proud in equal measure. Italian wine at its best.

 

We Don’t Talk About Abruzzo … But We Should!

The thing about Bruno, a character in the Disney film Encanto, is that everyone talks about not talking about him. Or at least that’s the gist of the wildly popular song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.

The Abruzzo Syndrome

For a long time this situation kind of applied to Abruzzo, the under-appreciated Italian region you reach by flying to Rome and driving east over the Apennine mountains to the Adriatic. My well-worn 1998 Knopf Guide to Italy, for example, devotes more than 500 colorful pages to tourist Italy, but gives poor Abruzzo precisely 2 pages of text.

The Abruzzo syndrome, as illustrated by the Knopf guide treatment, is that the Itay is full of the best of the best of tourist sights and attractions. Abruzzo’s natural beauty and modest charm is undeniable, but it struggles for the spotlight that is focused elsewhere.

Sue and I can appreciate this situation from our experience living in Bologna some years ago. For the most part foreign visitors only knew Bologna from changing trains at the station or attending conferences at the big convention center outside of town. Bologna was a place you passed through on your way to somewhere else. Abruzzo’s location makes it ever less of a destination point.

Abruzzo Wine Syndrome

The Abruzzo syndrome plagued the region’s wines, too. Take the usually-generous Burton Anderson’s Wine Atlas of Italy, for example. Anderson gives 3 pages out of 300 to Abruzzo in my 1990 edition of this classic volume, disappointed by what he saw as a lack of interest in quality.

… the growing of grapes in abundance as just another fruit crop still offers more attractive prospects than does the making of premium wine. The shame of it is that the Abruzzi’s sunny hills could make outstanding wines, not only from the native Montepulciano but from many other noble vines.

A few producers stubbornly swam against the tide — Anderson cites Edoardo Valentini in particular — but it was a difficult task given the region’s lack-luster reputation. Abruzzo’s reputation was nothing much to talk about even though the potential was clear.

Abruzzo Fast Forward

Fast forward to 2022. Sue and I hadn’t talked much about Abruzzo over the years, but an unexpected invitation to visit later this year was enough to make us circle back to see how Abruzzo has changed and it is clear that the region is getting some of the respect it was previously denied.

Travel and Leisure magazine, for example, named Abruzzo to its list of the 50 best places to travel in 2022.  Abruzzo has changed, as the article suggests, but perhaps travelers have changed, too, and now appreciate local charm and character more than before. Here’s an excerpt from the article.

Stretching from the heart of the Apennines to the Adriatic Sea on the peninsula’s southeastern side, Abruzzo, Italy has long been one of the country’s most overlooked destinations despite its unspoiled villages, picturesque Trabocchi Coast, and stunning natural escapes. Over the past few years, however, it has gone from a sleepy underdog to an ambitious harbinger of slow travel, sustainable gastronomy, and conscious hospitality.

Reality vs Reputation

Reality has moved faster than reputation on the wine front, too. Abruzzo is still noteworthy for the quantity of wine it produces. Abruzzo ranked #5 among Italian wine regions in 2020 for volume of production. Veneto and Apulia topped the table followed by Emili-Romagna and Sicily. Abruzzo was followed by Piedmonte and Tuscany. But quantity is no longer the only game in town.

My battered copy of Slow Wine Guide 2014, for example, highlighted the growing number of premium producers who were able to meet the guide’s high standards.

It is a mistake to speak about the Abruzzo as an emerging winegrowing region. Consistent quality has now become more general, no longer the prerogative of a handful of historic cellars plowing the furrow of tradition, but also a characteristic of the work of both small wineries and large cooperatives.  … All in all, the Abruzzo wine world is in good health, working the land more sustainably than in the past and affording consumer enjoyment with very reasonably priced labels.

Clearly Abruzzo has turned a corner, a fact underlined by the evaluation I found in my copy of the Gambero Rosso 2019 guide to Italian wines. “Abruzzo’s wine industry is in many ways a kind of microcosm of the nation as a whole,” the analysis begins, “… leaving behind an age in which it was dominated by large quantities of generic bulk wine used outside of the region.”

Slowly Then Suddenly

The wines today (and the people who make them) are a better reflection of the remarkable diversity found within the region. “And they won’t cost you an arm and a leg either,” the report suggests, “(it’s not a coincidence that once again a number of Tre Bicchieri come at a price that would allow for daily consumption).”

Slowly — and then suddenly — Abruzzo is a topic of conversation. Just last week, for example, the region was highlighted in two news stories. The Drinks Business reported that Italy’s National Wine Committee and Agricultural Ministry agreed to consolidate the central Italian region’s wines under a single IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica), Terre d’Abruzzo. IGT wines are an important category where innovation is encouraged and the new designation will raise Abruzzo’s visibility. The hope is that Terre d’Abruzzo  IGT will do for Abruzzo was “Terre Siciliane” did for Sicilian wine identity when the designation was introduced a few years ago.

Meanwhile, New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov featured two indigenous Abruzzo wine grape varieties in his column on “Ten Grapes Worth Knowing Better.”  Pecorino and Trebbiano d”Abruzzese — and recommended Abruzzo producers — made the list of wines worth discovering.

So apparently we are talking about Abruzzo now for the quality, value, and character of its wines. And it is good to keep the conversation going because it will take some time for Abruzzo’s reputation to catch up to reality. And it will not be easy to get attention in the crowded market for Italian wines, where famous names abound.

Sparkling Wine Surprises from England to Bali

Many of our friends are surprised when we mention English sparkling wine and it is easy to understand why. England isn’t exactly best known for its sunny weather. When economist David Ricardo wanted to illustrate his famous Law of Comparative Advantage, he used the example of England importing wine from sunny Portugal in exchange for warm wool cloth. English wine exports? Who’d have believed it?

English Sparkling Wine is a Thing

And yet English wine is not just a thing, it is a popular thing. But it takes some time for the word to get out. I hosted a virtual wine event for a UK group earlier this year that featured a wine from Nyetimber, a winery that helped put English sparkling wine on the map. About half the participants were familiar with the wine while the other half were taken by surprise. Everyone enjoyed it.

Sue and I were recently invited to sample wines from a leading English producer, Chapel Down. Chapel Down, as the 2015 video above explains,  is one of the largest and best-known wine producers in the UK with an expanding network of vineyard holdings and plans to further increase production. The wines are now available in the U.S. market through retailers in several states and via on-line sellers, too.

We sampled two Chapel Down wines: a Rosé Brut blanc de noir made with 100 percent Pinot Noir grapes and a Brut NV made with the three standard Champagne grape varieties with the addition of 5 percent Pinot Blanc. We all agreed that the Rosé was a great aperitif wine while the Brut NV was better with our meal of tuna and grilled vegetables. Both wines were easy to drink and enjoy — welcome additions to the sparkling wine category.

Chapel Down’s wines and those of other English makers benefit from a combination of factors starting with the vineyard terroir, which bears a resemblance to the chalky soils of the Champagne region (what do you think those white cliffs of Dover are made of?). Climate change has benefited English vineyards, both by providing more favorable growing conditions generally and by enabling a shift to classic grape varieties including especially Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and away from “usual suspect” cool-climate varieties such as Bacchus, Muller-Thurgau, and Reichensteiner. Add ambitious investment and mix with professional winemaking knowledge and technology and you have world-class sparkling wines.

Bali Sparkling Wine is Also a Thing

Prosecco, as I noted in last week’s Wine Economist column, has re-defined the sparkling wine category. Bubbles are not just for special occasions any more and they don’t just come from France, either. There is a world of sparkling wine out there and Champagne producers had a hand in creating it. Did you know that French producer Chandon also makes traditional method sparkling wines in Argentina, Brazil, California, Australia, China, and India?

Sue and I have been saving a bottle of sparkling wine from Bali, Indonesia to share with our friend Janice, who carried it back from a South Pacific trip in the pre-covid days. Ascaro, made by Sababay Winery, is a “Prosecco-style” sparkling wine made from Pinot Grigio and Muscat Saint Valier,  a cross between Seyve Villard 12 and Muscat Hamburg, which is generally grown as a table grape but has been used successfully to make wine in Bali for more than two decades.

We shared the wine with Janice and it was fantastic. Fizzy, fruity but not sweet, nicely balanced, with enough complexity to make things interesting — it was everything you would want from a sparkling wine on a warm summer evening. It would stand out in any line-up of similar wines from around the world.

Sababay Winery is an interesting project as my former student Ali Hoover reported in a 2014 Wine Economist guest column. The mother-daughter team of Mulyati and Evy Gozali founded Sababay because they were concerned about the economic circumstances of grape farmers in North Bali. The local table grape market had boomed and then came the bust, which left the farmers with high debt. The Gozali family  offered to help the farmers get out from under their debts and move toward economic stability by creating a market for quality wine grapes, which promised to yield more value to the farmers than commodity table grapes.

The project has been a success, as the video below suggests and a distillery has been added to the project. I have a bottle of award-winning Saba grappa spirits waiting for the right occasion.  When that time comes we’ll toast the Gozali family or their grace and determination.

The sparkling wine category is full of surprises. Glad to see consumers embracing the diverse pleasures that this part of the wine wall offers.

Scratching the Surface of Croatian Wine

We finally pulled the cork on that bottle of Croatian wine we’ve been saving. It was a Babić from Rak winery — a gift from Dr. Matt Horkey that we set aside to share with a particular Croatian-American friend and then, well, covid happened and lots of things, including this wine, were put on hold.

Croatian Wine Uncorked

The wine was terrific. Babić is a medium-bodied red wine with nice fruit and good balance and acidity, and a certain distinctive character. It matched up well with the sausages we served that night.

Babić is a common family name in Croatia, I’m told, but the wine less so both because Croatia produces more white than red and because another red grape, Plavac Mali, is more famous and readily available. The sources I consulted all talked about the potential of this wine when the vines are not over-cropped and the Rak wine we tasted makes a strong case. Croatia is blessed with dozens of indigenous grape varieties. Our first taste of this Croatian wine makes us thirsty to learn more about them.

Croatian Wine in Context

Croatian wines have yet to make a big dent in the U.S. wine market. A search of Total Wine’s national online inventory turned up just 9 wines in total including two Plavac Mali and a cheery cherry wine, which I think  we found at a local store a few years ago and enjoyed.

When Croatian wine comes up in conversation it is often in an unusual context. The famous California winemaker Mike Grgich, for example, was born in Croatia and many fans of his  Napa wines know that he has established a winery called Grgić Vina in his native region of Croatia.

Croatian wine also comes up in discussions of international economic relations. You probably know how protective some European regions are about their appellation designations. Don’t even think about calling your local sparkling wine a Champagne, for example. It’s a big deal because that designation is very valuable.

Prosecco is a valuable name, too, and Prosecco producers are doing their best to keep others from using it. Australia and the European Union, for example, have had fairly high-level discussions about the fact that the sparkling wines the Aussies make in the King Valley are called Prosecco. The Italians object on both principle and economic interest, as you might expect.

They have also objected to the name of a Croatian dessert wine called Prošek. It isn’t hard to tell the wines apart. Prosecco is light and sparkling, produced in vast quantities for a global market. Prošek, made from dried grapes, is sweet with a tiny total output.  The similarity in names has been a sticking point in relations between Italy and Croatia before and, as The Guardian reported last month, has become an issue once again.

Croatian Wine Touring Guides

The idea of visiting Croatia and exploring the wines in person at some point is very appealing and I already have two guide books to help me navigate the complicated wine scene. The first, which we reviewed back  in 2017, is Crackling Croatian Wine: a Visitor-Friendly Guide by Dr Matthew Horkey and Charine Tan, written as part of their Exotic Wine Travel collection.

The  second book, which was published just a few months ago, is Croatian Wine: Regions, Grapes, and History by Greg Viola. Viola is a U.S. Foreign Service Office who obviously used his time assigned to the Croatian embassy to learn as much as he could about the country and its wine scene.

First glance at these two slender paperbacks (or handy e-books) suggests that they cover much the same territory: regions, grape varieties, wineries, and so forth. Both provide tips for wine tourism in Croatia, which was a growing activity before the pandemic and is sure to return as travel opportunities re-emerge.

Having spent a little time with the books, however, I’ve come to think of them as complements, not substitutes. The authors may write about many of the same topics, but they come to Croatia from different places and look for (and see) different things.

Viola admits that he’s not a expert wine taster, for example, so his tasting notes aren’t quite as rich as those of Horkey and Tan, who have served on professional tasting juries and offer more information about particular wines and winemakers.

On the other hand, Viola provides a really strong sense of place and seems particular good at giving the local knowledge that wine tourists typically crave.  When we read Viola’s description of Brac to our friend he said “that’s it!” That’s where his family came from. There are lots of travel tips and I admit that my favorite appears in an endnote, where he advises that the island of Vis, like most of the Croatian islands,  is free of the roughly 31,000 unexploded landmines left over from the Homeland War. Good to know.

Both books are well written and interesting and, together, are offer a fun and informative introduction to Croatian wine and wine tourism. A good place to begin if, like me, you want to scratch the surface of Croatian wine.

Back to the Future of Armenian Wine

The mission of Boston-based Storica Armenian Wines is to introduce U.S. consumers to the pleasures of Armenian wine and they seem to be off to a good start.

Just last week, for example, Wine Bible author Karen MacNeil‘s Instagram #TasteWithKaren webinar featured Vahe Keushguerian, founder of Keush wines, for a tasting of three of his Armenian traditional method sparkling wines. One of them, the Keush Origins, was our Open That Bottle Night 2021 wine. A delightful wine from an unexpected source, made from indigenous grapes that we’d never before experienced. A great introduction to Armenian wine.

Armenia’s Deep Roots

We are only now getting to know Armenian wine a little but, but already I can see that this is a topic full of fascinating puzzles and paradoxes. Wine in Armenia is both very old and very new.  Landlocked Armenia’s latitude is a bit too low, but its high elevation compensates and creates a sort of grape vine Eden. It is impossible to prove, of course, but Armenia just might be the place where Vine Zero was born, the ultimate source of the vitis vinifera grapes that fill most modern wine bottles today. The oldest known evidence of a working winery was found here.

Armenia’s neighbor Georgia shares some of this history and sometimes calls itself “the cradle of wine” (Armenians like to say they are the “birthplace of wine”) and I rather naively assumed that, because we have visited Georgia and tasted many of their wines, that this might give me a head start in understanding Armenia and its wines. But that’s not how it worked out at all.

No Escaping It

Wine is inescapable in Georgia. It is integral to the national identity. Home-production is so important that it has taken a while for commercially produced wine, most of it aimed for export markets in the former Soviet state markets, to attract a critical mass of local consumers.  Georgia is now investing to develop new markets in China, Europe, and North America in order to reduce their dependence on former-Soviet state exports.

Wine grapes are inescapable in Armenia, as near as I can tell from my research, but wine maybe not so much until quite recently. The World Atlas of Wine estimates at more than 80% of wine grape production goes to make brandy, the national drink.

The wine sector is relatively small, according to this source, with about 50 wineries in 2018, 30 of which only appeared in the last ten years, driven in part by investment from members of the vast international Armenian diaspora and technical “flying winemaker” expertise.

Armenia’s wine past is a mixed bag, as I’ll explain below, but its future is simply irresistible according to winemaking superstar Alberto Antonini. He rates his Zorah project in Armenia (along with his Otrona project in Argentine Patagonia) as the most interesting opportunities in today’s wine world.

Stalin Did It

Why was there so little attention to wine in its birthplace? It is complicated, of course, but one line of reasoning traces the situation back to Stalin’s Soviet Union. The Soviet system was all about exploiting the efficiencies of division of labor to generate maximum output with scarce resources. Thus was Georgia (Stalin’s birthplace and source of his favorite wine) selected to supply wine for the Soviet bloc while Armenia was assigned to specialize brandy production despite the fact that good wine was made in both countries.

That Armenian brandy is excellent and has been compared favorably to Cognac might make Stalin’s policy credible, but the impact on Armenia’s wine sector remains. The production and market structures established in the Soviet era have been slow to change, but change they have and the wines that Storica is introducing to the U.S. market is part of the story.

Terroirist’s Territory

Sue and I enjoyed our OTBN selection of Keush Origins sparkling wine, a traditional method blend of indigenous grape varieties: Voskehat, the most-planted white grape, and Khatoun Kharji, a grape variety that is rare even in Armenia. Sourced from 60-100 year old vines planted at 1800 meters above sea level. An extreme wine with character and finesse. It was an impressive start our Armenia research.

Next in line was Zulal Voskehat 2019, a dry white wine with medium body, good balance, and a very interesting finish, which evolved as we enjoyed the wine with pasta primavera. Vineyards planted on volcanic soils at 1400 meters in the Vayots Dzor region near the Azerbaijani border supplied the grapes for this wine.

Zulal, which means “pure” in Armenian, is a project founded in 2017 by Vahe Keushguerian’s daughter, Aimee Keushguerian. The focus is on indigenous grape varieties and own-rooted vines so old that they pre-date the Soviet era. They are, I suppose, a pure expression of Armenia’s wine past but made using modern cellar practices. It is part of a movement to bring wine back to the center of Armenian culture.

Areni, named for its home village in Vayots Dzor where evidence of the world’s oldest known winery facility was discovered, is said to be Armenia’s signature grape variety and, based on our sample bottle of Zulal Areni 2018, it is a sound choice. Grapes from vines at 1400-1750 meters elevation (wow!) were vinified in stainless steel to produce a fresh, medium-bodied red wine that one tasting note placed somewhere between Pinot Noir and Sangiovese, although I think it is something all its own. We enjoyed the spice and plummy flavors, which went especially well with our dinner of chicken and sautéed spinach with peanut sauce. A keeper for sure.

There is a Zulal Areni Reserve, which is aged for a year in used Caucasian and French oak, that we are setting aside to share with our Armenian-American friends Z and G. It will be a great pleasure, when the pandemic clouds have finally passed, to share with them this is wine as well as a Keush Blanc de Blanc traditional method sparkler. I am confident it will be worth the wait.

Armenian wine has a lot to offer and these first tastes are just the beginning. The Keush and Zulal wines are a fascinating introduction to the Armenian wine renaissance.

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WorldWineRegions.com has created a fascinating website with interactive maps of the world’s wine regions. Here is a link to the map of Areni in Vayots Dzor. Zoom in and out to see both the vineyard areas and the overall terrain.

OTBN 2021: Open That Bottle of Armenian Wine

We celebrated Open That Bottle Night (OTBN) 2021 on Saturday with a pandemic-mode Zoom gathering of the usual suspects. We shared stories, honoring the tradition, and felt good about being together even if we could not also share the particular bottles of wine we brought to the party. Next year. Fingers crossed!

Usually the wines we select for OTBN are a backward glance. They remind us of people, places, or events that live in our memories and are released when glasses are poured. This year was different. Sue and I recently received samples of wines from Armenia from Storica Wines, an Armenia wine import company.  We’ve never been to Armenia. Never tasted the wines. OTBN was our excuse to pop the first cork, look ahead not behind, and imagine a future Armenian adventure.

First Taste of Armenian Wine

Wine has a very long history in Armenia just as it does in neighboring Georgia. Armenia calls itself the “birthplace of wine,” while Georgia fancies itself the “cradle of wine.” Georgian wine, as I have written here, is getting lots of attention just now. Perhaps Armenia will be next? That’s a question we will discuss in more depth in a future column. The focus for today is our OTBN discovery.

The particular wine we opened is the Keush Origins Brut traditional method sparkling wine. It is made from native Armenian grape varieties: 60% Voskehat and 40% Khatouni. The grapes come from 60 to 100-year old ungrafted vines grown at over 5000 feet elevation in the Vayots Dzor region. Does that get  your attention. Extreme wine!  Voskehat is Armenia’s most important white grape variety and is used to make many styles of wine. Khatouni seems to be relatively rare, even in Armenia. I couldn’t find a listing in the encyclopedic Wine Grapes volume.

Wine Gets Personal

Wine is about people as much as grapes and that’s true in this case, too. The Keush Origins Brut was one of the Armenian wines highlighted by our friends Dr. Matthew Horkey and Charine Tan in their handy book Uncorking the Caucasus: Wine from Turkey, Armenia, and Georgia,  so it was satisfying to imagine that we were tasting it for the first time with them.

Matt and Charine were impressed with the Keush Origins wine they tasted — it was the first release of this wine. But it is easy to tell that they were also quite taken with its maker, Vahe Keushguerian. who is profiled in the book. Keushguerian, in turn, is obviously taken with Armenia and its wine industry’s potential. They write that

Vahe is committed to reinvigorating Armenia’s wine culture. By using DNA technology to identify grapes found in abandoned monasteries and villages, then cultivating those grapes in his nursery, Vahe and his team have been rediscovering historic wine grapes and bringing them back to life.

We will have more to say about Armenian wine’s past, present, and future in a few weeks when we’ve had time to open the rest of the sample bottles.  In the meantime, what about the Keush Origins OTBN sparkling wine?

Wine’s Superpower

Well, no one comes to the Wine Economist website for wine ratings or tasting notes, but we enjoyed the Keush Origins Brut from Armenia quite a lot. Dry, of course, and mouth-filling. Easy to drink and enjoy and paired very well with cheese, meats, and Sue’s home-made focaccia. Looking forward to opening the other Armenian bottles in our small stash.

Let me close with some reflections on OTBN 2021. Open That Bottle Night 2020 was the last in-person gathering we had before everything closed down last year and distancing and isolation defined social relations. We hesitated a bit about shifting the meet- up online. A Zoom OTBN might honor the tradition, which is important to us, but it wouldn’t be the same. In the end we decided to move ahead and see what would happen.

And I am glad we did. Wine brings people together — that’s one of its superpowers — and it did so again even if we couldn’t actually share the wine, only a screen, some stories, and good company. I was surprised at how much this moved me and am grateful to our friends for making this possible.

Here’s the wine list from OTBN 2021. Thanks to Dottie and John for inventing OTBN and keeping its flame alive. Cheers!

  • Tempus Cellars 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, Walla Walla
  • DePonte Cellars 2014 Pinot Noir, Oregon
  • Opus One Winery 1989, Napa
  • Chengyu-Moser XV Winery, 2017 Rosé of Cabernet, Ningxia, China
  • Keush Origins Brut, Armenia

Keush Origins Brut is imported by Storica Wines. 

Book Review: The Wines of Georgia

Lisa Granik MW, The Wines of Georgia (The Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library, 2020).

The wines of Georgia are having a moment, and it is about time. Wine is very old in Georgia, the cradle of wine, but Georgian wines are relatively new on the markets here in the United States, as Georgian producers pivot from dependence on Russia and former Soviet states and work hard to develop markets in the UK, EU, US, and China.

The push into new markets comes at a difficult time because pandemic restrictions have limited travel by charismatic Georgian producers, who represent their wines so well in person, and have shuttered or crippled many restaurants where hand-selling of the wines would be very effective.

We are fortunate, therefore, to have this new book by Lisa Granik MW to spread the word and build momentum for Georgian wine in the post-covid world. Granik tells us that she’s written a reference book, which readers can dip into as needed and read in any order that pleases them. This is partly true. The second half of the book, which presents information about each specific wine region, certainly fills the reference book bill. I am very impressed by the attention to detail and deep scholarship I see here. A wonderful resource for any who wants to take a deep dive into Georgia’s wine industry.

The first half of the book, on the other hand, is a compact primer on Georgia and its wines that I’d recommend to anyone who wants to get a basic understanding of this topic. The chapter on wine culture, with its explanation of the supra wine feast tradition, was fascinating. We attended a couple of supra feasts when we visited Georgia a few years ago for a United Nations conference and Granik’s analysis helped me understand a few fine points I missed at the time.

I was especially interested in the history chapter. Georgians are proud of their long history — dating back thousands of years — but I admit that I am even more interested in the history of the Soviet days and the transition to the market economy. I was not disappointed both with the main narrative and with the detailed footnotes (which are conveniently placed where they belong — at the foot of the page, not the back of the book).

One thing that I asked when we were there, and apparently it is not an uncommon question, is why grape vines are mostly planted on valley floors in Georgia and not on the hillsides as you might expect? The answer goes back to the Soviet days. Quantity and cost were paramount and hillside vineyards did not lend themselves to machine harvest and cultivation.

The chapter on native wine grape varieties is best seen as a reference because there are so many of them that it is hard to remember the names after a while, but I enjoyed reading through the descriptions, focusing especially on the main varieties.. Granik lists the grape varieties alphabetically: white grapes from Akhaltsikhuri Tetri and Avasirkhva to Tsolikouri and red grapes from Adansuri to Usakhelouri.

Granik’s accounts of the places we visited and the people we met in Georgia rang true and went beyond what we learned while we were there. Granik is obviously a fan of Georgia and its wine, but not an uncritical booster. She doesn’t hold back in discussing problems and challenges where she finds them. Her final chapter, where she pulls together challenges and opportunities, is required reading. Highly recommended.

Kiwi Malbec? Signature Wines & the Dutch Disease Effect

Some people like to define wine regions by their signature grape varieties. New Zealand = Sauvignon Blanc. Argentina = Malbec.  You know what I am talking about. So what should you think of a Kiwi Malbec like the one shown here? Read on to find out.

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What do you think of when I say Malbec? Well, there are lots of things that could come to your mind, but I expect that Argentina or Mendoza are at or near the top of your mental list for this term. Malbec is Mendoza’s signature wine grape and it tends to dominate the region’s image.

Signature Wines & the Dutch Disease

This is convenient from a marketing standpoint — it is good to stand for something in the world’s congested wine markets. Here in my home state of Washington, for example, we make great wines from many different wine grapes and we sometimes yearn to have a defining variety like Argentina or our neighbor Oregon with its famous Pinot Noir.

But signature wines have a downside, which I have compared to an economic condition called the Dutch Disease. Sometimes when one sector of an economy becomes particularly successful the result isn’t a tide that lifts all boats, but rather a sort of whirlpool that drags the other sectors down.

Thus Argentine Malbec’s great success makes it more difficult for other interesting wines to get attention. Personally,  I always look for Argentine Cabernet, Semillion, Cab Franc, and Syrah, for example, and there are some wonderful Chardonnays and high-elevation Torrontes, too. But I imagine they are tougher to sell than good old Malbec. The signature wine rises high, but can cast a deep shadow.

New Zealand and the Dutch Disease

Now consider New Zealand wine. What comes to your mind? Chances are that Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc comes first, with Pinot Noir from Central Otago on the list for many. I’m a big fan of these wines, but the Dutch Disease dilemma applies here, too. Other wines and other regions don’t get the attention (Rodney Dangerfield would say they don’t get the respect) they deserve because of the signature wine phenomenon.

So what would you think about a Hawke’s Bay Sauvignon Blanc or a Gimblett Gravels Malbec? Well, I hope your interest would be piqued at the very least. Sue and I visited the Hawke’s Bay area (think Napier on New Zealand’s north island) several years ago, where we were fortunate to meet with Steve Smith MW of Craggy Range. He helped us understand this interesting region and introduced us to the Gimblett Gravels’ rocky dry river bed terrain that makes me think of alluvial fan terroirs such as To Kalon in Napa Valley or The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater in Oregon. Hawke’s Bay is warm enough to make great wines from Bordeaux grape varieties (of which Malbec is one), which are unexpected for those who haven’t fully explored New Zealand’s varied wine scene. The Gimblett Gravels is a special case within that special case. Fascinating.

Now Hear This!

Which brings us to some wines we’ve been for fortunate to be able to sample during this pandemic period. Daniel Brennan is an American who came to New Zealand in 2007 with the intent to focus on Pinot Noir. But somehow the people and terroir of the Hawke’s Bay region captured his attention, which is something Sue and I can appreciate. We stayed with a modest grower/winemaker family in the Esk Valley during our visit and got a deep sense of the people and place.

Brennan makes 11 different wines under the Decible and Giunta labels (including a Pinot Noir from Martinborough). We had the opportunity to sample three of them: the 2019 Decibel Crowethorpe Vineyard Hawke’s Bay Sauvignon Blanc, 2020 Giunta Malbec Nouveau, and 2017 Decibel Gimblett Gravels Malbec.

The Sauvignon Blanc broke through some of the stereotypes about Kiwi Sauv Blanc, with more savory notes than you might expect. The Malbec  Nouveau was just what you want from a young wine like this: fruity, juicy, easy to drink and enjoy. The Gimblett Gravels Malbec featured a line bright acidity that tied together fruit and tannins in ways that evolved in the glass over time. The acidity made it different from most of the Argentina Malbecs we’ve tried.

Brennan makes a number of wines that run counter to the signature wine stereotype, but his passion for Pinot Noir is undiminished. He hosts a popular podcast called Vintage Stories that spreads the word about Kiwi Pinot and the people who craft it.

I’m a Pinot fan, too — and I hope to taste Brennan’s Martinborough wine at some point — but I enjoy these Hawke’s Bay wines because they are distinctive and because they challenge the signature wine stereotype and the Dutch Disease that can go with it. The Gimblett Gravels Malbec forces you to re-think the conventional wisdom about New Zealand … and about Argentina, too, I hope.

Book Excerpt: On the China Wine Trail

chinaI thought you might enjoy using your imagination to travel to China along with Cynthia Howson and Pierre Ly via this excerpt from their new book Adventures on the China Wine Trail: How Farmers, Local Governments, Teachers, and Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the Wine World, which won the 2020 Gourmand Awards gold medal for wine tourism books.

Many thanks to Cynthia and Pierre and to Rowman & Littlefield for giving permission for publication here. This selection is from Chapter 2: Sea, Sand, and Shandong. Enjoy!

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It was serendipitous that we ended up on the beautiful coast of Shandong, with its sandy beaches and romantic restaurants, on Qixi, the Chinese version of Valentine’s Day. We were travelling with our colleague, Jeff, an adventurous traveler with enough Chinese to get into trouble. This is even more so since Jeff’s then wife had stayed in Seattle and no matter how much he emphasized he was married, he seemed to get quite a bit of attention. That he found himself declining offers at 4:00 a.m. in the Qixi-themed night club was to be expected. The unsolicited calls to his hotel room from would-be escorts took him by surprise. We probably also got such calls, but since we didn’t understand them, we assumed a wrong number. For us, the city of Yantai was brimming with kitsch and romance. Our hotel bathroom was adorned with stickers with cute animals and hearts. And on the bed, we found towels folded into heart-shaped kissing swans.

We made the mistake of overfilling our schedule and requesting a meeting with renowned Chinese wine journalist, Jim Sun, just as he returned from a business trip on the erstwhile romantic evening. Of course, he and his wife were incredibly gracious as he led us through a tasting to showcase some of China’s best wine regions. It was only later that we considered the couple may have better things to do than a 7:00 p.m. meeting with economists.

His shop was in the perfect romantic space, near Yantai’s “World Wine Walk.” The pedestrian path connects the road to the crowded sunny beach and it’s lined with facades of shops named after world wine regions. A young man with a burgundy-colored shirt and black pants held his fiancée, whose red dress was a great match for the red circle shaped sign of a shop referencing wines of . . . Niagara. We never figured out why the gate that led to it was behind a giant yellow rubber duck, but this, too, was photo-worthy. In any case, Yantai is a must-see capital for a wine tourism enthusiast in China.

winewalk

Yantai’s World Wine Walk: a great place for wedding pictures

What makes the city so special? It turns out that this is where Chinese wine began, longer ago than you might think, in the late nineteenth century. When we prepared for our first China trip, we jumped straight to the index of our brand-new 2013 Lonely Planet China, and searched for the word “wine.” Of course, this was no California or France travel guide. But we were pleased to find at least one mystery wine destination: the Changyu Wine Culture Museum, in Yantai. Back when we began our China wine adventure, that was the only place the Lonely Planet sent English-speaking tourists looking for wine in the country.

Changyu was the first winery, and to commemorate this, in 1992, they built the Changyu Wine Culture Museum. Only a short walk from the waterfront, conveniently located near other top sights, bars and restaurants, the museum attracts large groups of tourists who are happy to take the guided tour and hear the story. Since then, a booming wine industry has developed in the province, including many wineries designed as attention-grabbing tourist attractions.

When Changyu opened the first modern winery in China, founder Zhang Bishi had help from an Austrian Vice Consul and winemaker, Baron Max von Babo.i It is one of the first names you learn on the tour, but it could have been someone else. When the company was founded in the early 1890s, the first foreign consultant, an Englishman who had signed a twenty-year contract, fell ill before he was due to arrive and died of a toothache gone wrong. The Dutch winemaker that followed him turned out not to be qualified. Von Babo got the job and the rest is history.ii “Babo” might ring a bell for dedicated Austrian wine enthusiasts. It is another name for KMW, the standard measurement of grape ripeness still used today to classify Austrian wines. KMW was invented by Max’s father, August Wilhelm Freiherr von Babo, an important figure of Austrian viticulture and enology.

The place was designed to promote Changyu’s brand, of course, which is well known thanks to its overwhelming market share and supermarket shelf space. But there is a clear effort to teach visitors about wine and viticulture, with details on each aspect of production. Armed with knowledge from the museum, tourists can head out of the city toward Chateau Changyu Castel, a joint venture with the Castel wine group from Bordeaux. It’s close to a popular water park and the new construction we saw in 2013 gave a sense of ever-expanding options. There is a museum component here too, but this one is a ginormous working winery. Unlike our Beijing Changyu trip, there were large buses of tour groups, exiting en masse, walking through the vineyard (“Don’t Pick!” one sign said). They took the guided tour of the winery, observing the large stainless-steel tanks and taking pictures of the long rows of oak barrels, or in front of the display riddling station for sparkling wine bottles. On the way, our taxi driver told us he didn’t drink wine, but he recited with pride how the winery got started in 1892 by Zhang Bishi. We invited him along, and he enthusiastically took even more pictures than we did.

The winery tour included a tasting in the bar with views over the vineyard, as well as a percussion set, two foosball tables, and coin-operated barrel dispensers. Families seemed to have fun with the tasting, studiously following their guide’s instructions. But tastings weren’t presented as the highlight of the tours. At the museum, the tasting was in the underground cellar, with pre-filled glasses lined up and covered with plastic wrap, leaving the white wine samples awkwardly warm. Unlike in Napa, no one came here hoping to get tipsy. As one Chinese expert told us when we asked about these tours, if the tasting is deemphasized, it’s probably not the best part. We knew that Changyu wine had won international awards, so why did they serve underwhelming wines to visitors? These museums did a good job promoting wine culture in beautiful spaces, but the wines themselves seemed to be extras on the set rather than main characters. Three years later though, on a return visit to the museum, the wines on the tour were good. Did this reflect a renewed focus on wine quality, or did we show up on a good day? Time will tell.

Changyu and wine street are just the beginning of a wine tourist route along the coast. We drove north to see where thousands of families plan their beach vacations, just a short hop from Beijing, Shanghai, and Seoul. Our hotel lobby was filled with an all-ages crowd, geared up with matching hats. The group was among two million visitors hoping to see a magical mirage at the Penglai Pavilion, one of the four great towers of China. Add glorious beaches, an ocean aquarium with dolphin shows, fresh seafood and nightlife opportunities, and you can see why investors see wine tourism dollar signs in the making.

Adventures on the China Wine Trail: How Farmers, Local Governments, Teachers, and Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the Wine World by Cynthia Howson and Pierre Ly. Rowman & Littlefield, 2020.  Reprinted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Notes:

i His employment contract, in English, is an auction item at Christie’s. See Christie’s, “Wine in China,” Christie’s, January 16, 2014, https://www.christies.com.
ii Michael R. Godley, The Mandarin-Capitalists from Nanyang: Overseas Chinese Enterprise in the Modernisation of China 1893-1911 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Jonathan Ray, “Wine: Is China the New Chile When It Comes to Wine?,” Telegraph, January 18, 2008, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/.