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/.

Wine Book Review: Adventures on the China Wine Trail

chinaCynthia Howson & Pierre Ly, Adventures on the China Wine Trail: How Farmers, Local Governments, Teachers, and Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the Wine World. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).

I remember my first taste of Chinese wine very well. My university student Brian brought a bottle of 1999 Changyu Cabernet Sauvignon back from his study abroad semester in Beijing. It didn’t really taste much like Cabernet, but it was the smell that really got me. “Ashtray, coffee grounds, urinal crust” was the tasting note I found on the internet. Exactly. Quite an experience.

The second taste was not much better. Matt, another student, found a case of Dragon’s Hollow Riesling in a Grocery Outlet store in McMinneville, Oregon. He gave me a couple of bottles that I tried (but failed) to serve at a student tasting. The smell (something rotten?) got in the way of tasting and the wine went down the drain.

I learned two things from these tastings. First, maybe my students were out to kill me! And second, Chinese wine had a long way to go.

And a long way it has come, too, in only a few years. That’s one of the messages of Cynthia Howson’s and Pierre Ly’s fast-paced new book, Adventures on the China Wine Trail. Howson and Ly, partners in life as well as wine research, might have been initially attracted to Chinese wine by its peculiar taste and unexpected existence. But as they have immersed (I nearly said marinated) themselves in the wine, the people, the geography, and the culture they have discovered so much more, which they enthusiastically share with their readers.

Adventures on the China Wine Trail works on many levels. It is in part the record of the authors’ personal journeys and it is interesting to travel with them as they lug their seemingly-bottomless wine suitcase from place to place. The authors have an amazing mastery of the detail of the people and places, food and wine. It’s almost like being there.

In fact, the book works as a travel guide as well wine journey account, providing information of where to go, what to do, where to stay, and so on. But beware: Howson and Ly aren’t your typical tourists, so while they do take us on a walk along part of the Great Wall, this is only because they took part in a wine conference quite close by. They still haven’t seen the famous Terracotta soldiers despite spending time in that region.  They couldn’t pull themselves away from the wineries. Maybe next time, they sigh.

More practical advice appears in the closing chapters. Where should you go to buy or drink excellent Chinese wine if you visit China? They have recommendations for you. And when will you be able to enjoy Chinese wines (good ones, not the drain-cleaner stuff) at home? Sooner than you think, they say.

Some of the wines are already here, including the $300 Ao Yun that Pierre bought at a Total Wine in Washington State. But that is just the iceberg’s tip and if you are reading this in London or Paris you may know that Chinese wines are no longer the shocking discovery that they were just a few years ago.

And how are the wines? They vary in quality, just like wines from any place else. But many of them (more each year) are excellent and even distinctive. I know this both because Howson and Ly tell us about the wines and also because Sue and I have been fortunate to share some of their Chinese finds — including that luxury Ao Yun.

There’s a final layer to the story that I can’t forget. Howson and Ly are both professors and serious scholars. Although the book doesn’t read like an academic treatise, it has a serious purpose. The authors began their study of the Chinese wine industry wondering where it might lead? Could wine possibly be the basis of sustainable rural economic development? Or was it an alcoholic dead end in terms of a greater purpose?

Chinese wine’s journey has been anything but simple or smooth and continues today. It will be a long time, I suspect, before we know for sure how the story will end. But as for economic development, Howson and Ly have overcome their doubts. Wine in China is the real deal, whatever specific shape it takes in the future. All the hard work of the farmers, government officials, teachers and entrepreneurs we meet in the book has succceeded in building a viable industry.

So here’s my tasting note:  Adventures on the China Wine Trail is a fast-paced journey through the world of Chinese wines that will appeal to readers who love wine, China,  travel, or who just looking a good adventure yarn. Highly recommended.

Wine Book Launch Today: Discover Hungarian Wine

Our good friends, Charine Tan and Matthew Horkey of Exotic Wine Travel, are launching their fourth wine book today: Discover Hungarian Wine: A Visitor-Friendly Guide, available for pre-order via their Kickstarter website.

Sue and I have crossed paths with Matt and Charine in typically exotic places — Tbilisi, Georgia; Iasi, Romania; Carcassonne, France — and we have come to value their judgement and to admire their creativity, energy, and commitment. They bring these qualities to their wine guides, which are written to help independent travelers (and travel dreamers, too) get the most out of their experiences.

Hungary is a great choice for their latest book. Hungarian wines were once celebrated as among the best in the world. Then a perfect storm of crises changed everything. Phylloxera, war, depression, war, communism, post-communism struggles, and emergence into an increasingly competitive wine world. It is amazing that Hungarian wine survived. But it did.

More and more visitors are coming to Hungary (many on those ridiculously popular river cruises) to discover the culture, history, music, and food of this unique land. And they are discovering the wines, too. But this is unknown territory for most visitors (and most wine consumers generally), so they need a sympathetic guide to get the most out of their experiences and that’s where Matt and Charine come in.

“The book will offer practical information that help visitors to learn about Hungarian wine, shop for Hungarian wine, enjoy Hungarian wine, and most of all, feel empowered to explore Hungarian wine,” said Matthew Horkey.

“The Exotic Wine Travel’s guidebooks are always written and designed with one goal in mind: to help wine lovers and travelers save time and money by helping them to skip or shorten the trial-and-error process of finding the wines they like. We always aim to produce a guidebook that we wished we had when we first visited a wine country,” said Charine Tan.

A book launch is like a grape harvest — it sets in motion the process that eventually fills our glass with delight. Looking forward to a great Hungarian wine vintage from Matt and Charine. Cheers!

What’s Up in Walla Walla? Wine Tourism

downtownwallawallaWalla Walla has become an important wine center and an exciting place to visit, but it wasn’t always that way. When Sue and I first came here years ago you could count the wineries on one hand and Main Street, which really was the main street of the town, was strictly for locals and their everyday needs. If there was a destination address on Main Street it might have been Brights Candies or the historic theater across the street.

Walla Walla’s business was agriculture back them –wheat, peas, and the famous sweet onions — and the banks and suppliers that farmers need to get along.  A state prison and prestigious Whitman College — an unlikely combination — were the urban anchor bookends.

The farms are still there and still very important and so are the prison and the college, but what draws thousands of tourists to Walla Walla today are wineries and vineyards.  Sue and I paid a quick visit to the valley in the middle of the week shortly after Labor Day and here’s what we found.

Urban Wine Village

Although the buildings look the same from the outside, downtown has been transformed by wine tourism. It is possible to spend a few days enjoyably tasting wine just by meandering up and down Main Street and its tributaries, without every getting into a car or walking too far from your hotel.

Winery tasting rooms line the streets along with restaurants, cafes, tourist shops … and Brights Candies.  Strolling on a weekday afternoon watching people sitting at sidewalk tables sharing bottles of wine presents a scene that could not have been imagined twenty years ago.  As the sun went down, lights and music came up and people of all ages appeared — seniors, families with children, college students. Lots of dogs, of course. A nice mix.

With so many tasting rooms in just a few blocks, product differentiation is important. Cayuse, the ultimate local allocation-list cult wine, is famous for having a brightly painted tasting room  … that never seems to be open. How exclusive is that? Other wineries keep their doors open as much as they can because direct-to-consumer sales and wine club commitments are critical to their economic sustainability.

One tasting room featured wine slushies as a way to stand out in the crowd. Kinda like a Slurpee at 7-11, I guess, but with alcohol from the wine base. Didn’t try it but I wouldn’t entirely rule it out on a 90-degree August day. Something for everyone.

Slowly then Suddenly: Critical Mass

A successful wine tourism sector requires a critical mass of visitors, tasting rooms, accommodations, food, and drink, which have all slowly and then suddenly come together on Main Street. Or at least that’s how it feels to us, and this is backed up by a 2019 economic impact study (pdf here).

Although many of the visitors surveyed indicated that they first came to Walla Walla ten or more years ago like us, nearly a quarter only made their initial visit in the last two years  (see table II-11). And they returned because there is so much to do, see, and taste. Impressive.

Even the prison gets some love. We stopped to taste at The Walls, which is named for the prison walls that are just a short distance from the winery.  The wines were powerful but elegant — a difficult balancing act — even the “Concrete Mama” Syrah (another reference to prison walls). Sue was especially fond of a Tempranillo from The Rocks district called “Wonderful Nightmare.”

Rioja to Walla Walla

The newest wine tourism destination is south of town near the Oregon border — Valdemar Estates.  The winery facility opened just a few months ago, but it is already getting hundreds of visitors each day. The winery is the project of Jesus Martinez Bujanda Mora, the fifth generation of his Spanish winemaking family, who has planted a flag here in Walla Walla.

The winery and tasting room are stunning, with stylish contemporary Spanish flair, but I think visitors come for a unique experience. They can taste Valdemar’s Walla Walla and Red Mountain Syrahs — with additional wine offerings in the pipeline. But there’s more because Valdemar’s Spanish wines are also available. And you can taste them, comparing old world and new, in the best possible way, gazing out over vineyards with plates of tasty fresh-made tapas to pair with the wines.

Delicious tapas and fine wines — no wonder that visitors are attracted to Valdemar Estates. And the winery seems committed to becoming part of the community, advancing the region and not just their own wines and business.

Love Me Like the Rocks

It will be interesting to see how this project develops, especially as a new center of gravity develops in Walla Walla.  Wineries and tasting rooms are just about everywhere in this area — Main Street, out at the airport, near the Blue Mountains, in the vineyards south and west of town, too.  But there’s one area that hasn’t seen much development … yet.

Some  great wine comes from the rocky vineyards across the state line in Milton-Freewater, Oregon, including iconic Reynvaan and Cayuse, but not many visitors head this way. Is this the next frontier for Walla Walla wine tourism? Come back next week for our closer look at the future of The Rocks.