Ten Years of Open That Bottle Night

Photo OTBN2009By Sue Veseth, Contributing Editor

In 2009, a group of people with a love of wine and connections to the University of Puget Sound decided to celebrate Open That Bottle Night. Our wines on that February evening included a sparkling wine and a Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington State, a classic Bordeaux, a Chateauneuf du Pape, a California port-style wine, and a Sauternes. The only “rule” of our gathering was that each participant had to bring a story with his or her wine.

At that first OTBN dinner, we knew we were on to something exciting. Open That Bottle Night was an opportunity for our core group — Mike and Sue, Ken and Rosemary, Ron and Mary, Richard and Bonnie — to get together to share wine, food, and, stories.

OTBN logoOver the years, our OTBN celebrations have included additional friends. A few times, one or two people from the core were unable to attend because of work or family needs. Some years, we met at someone’s home for an elegant dinner. Other years, we met at restaurants (with our own wine, of course). We even held potluck dinners for OTBN.

We have toured the world on OTBN, with wines from Washington State, Oregon, California, Arizona, Okanagan Valley in Canada, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Hungary, China, and South Africa.

The rule of wine-and-a-story is still the centerpiece of our OTBN. As expected, most of the wine stories have included special people: My mentor (or parent or boss or friend) gave me this. This was my engagement (or wedding) wine. This wine is from the birth year of my child. We visited with the winemaker at this winery. A wine merchant we trust recommended this wine.

Photo OTBN2019By coincidence, but not by design, our wine selections and stories have complemented each other. This year, with a decade of OTBN experience, a theme of “firsts and lasts” developed with our wines:

  • Sorelle Bronca Brut Prosecco — Mike thought this was the last bottle in his stash of this beautiful Prosecco, but there may be another one or two.
  • La Grande Dame Champagne Brut 1989 — For Ken, the Champagne “was the last of a four bottles I bought from a London wine merchant soon after moving there in 1992. They were the most expensive bottles of anything we had bought up to that point but as you know, I was always on the lookout for the 1989 vintage because Rosemary and I were married that year. Of course, I wish now that we had bought more.”
  • Ramsay Mouvedre 1995 Napa — For Ron, this wine “represents the last bottle of booty Mary and I brought home from our twice annual trips to Napa from 1991-2002. We always brought home to Connecticut some of our favorite tastings from these trips, and this bottle is the last of those souvenirs.”
  • DiStefano Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 Columbia Valley — This was the last bottle from the first full case of wine that Bonnie and Richard purchased. “I think we were all surprised that a Washington Cabernet had held up so well,” Richard said. “That bodes well for our collections!”
  • Andrew Will Sorella 2007 Horse Heaven Hills — For Ron and Mary, this wine was a “first” because it is their favorite Andrew Will wine. It also was the last bottle in a case of Sorella they purchased when it was released.
  • Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape 2014 —This was the first bottle of the first case of wine that Bonnie and Richard purchased on a futures basis. Maybe not quite ready to drink but a double-first!
  • Dow’s Vintage Port 1994 — This was the first bottle out of a case Ken bought in London. “I have been eager to try it but decided to wait until its 25th birthday to try the first bottle,” he said.
  • Armagnac Napoleon J. Dupeyron Condom c. 1955 —Sue liberated this bottle from her parents when they down-sized. Jacques-François Ryst of Ryst Dupeyron said it dates from about 1955.

“I find it uncanny and wonderful how each year a collective story emerges from our individual wine contributions,” Ron said. “In vino veritas — and narrative!”

At a time when we lament that we are glued to our devices for interaction with family, friends, and colleagues, Open That Bottle Night gives us an opportunity to gather together to share, talk, eat, and drink. The beauty of OTBN is that your event can be as over-the-top or as modest as you want; it’s yours. Even better, the evening reinforces and strengthens long-standing friendships.

Misunderstanding Romanian Wine


It is easy to misunderstand Romania and its wine industry.

Romania is a very old culture but a surprisingly young nation-state. The Great Unification of 1918 finally brought all the historical provinces together under one roof a hundred years ago, an act that Romanians celebrated on December 1, their Great Union Day.

Contemporary Romania is even younger, dating to the end of the Soviet era in 1989. It entered the European Union in 2007 — another important date. Romania is a country with deep roots and vigorous new growth. It is both very old and very new, a work in progress (like the rest of us).

It is tempting to view Romanian wine as both old and new, too. Wine has been made in Romania for six or seven thousand years and the culture both embraces wine and consumes it with gusto.

Romanian wine today is also a work in progress and Sue and I learned as much as we could about its current status and future prospects when we spent a week there last month. We participated in the International Wine Competition Bucharest (held in Iasi this year) and I gave a lecture to students and faculty at the University of Agricultural Sciences and and Veterinary Medicine.

King of Wines

73205One particular Romanian sweet wine — Grasa de Cotnari — has an important place in wine history. Grasa de Cotnari, Tokaji of Hungary, and Constantia of South Africa were once the most celebrated wines in the world. King of wines, wines of kings, they were the kings of the hill in a world where luscious sweet wines were treasured above all others. Time have changed, however, and wines like these no long rule as they once did.

The thing about Romanian wine is that just when you think you understand it, you discover that there’s another layer and you have to start over.  Sue and I wanted to taste a few Romanian wines before our trip and I hit pay dirt at a local Total Wine store where I discovered several wines made by Cramele Recas, one of Romania’s largest producers (and a Total Wine Winery Direct partner). Two were international varieties (Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir) and two were native Romanian varieties (Feteasca Negra and Feteasca Regala). All were inexpensive — typically $5.99 per bottle or $5.39 as part of a Winery Direct six-bottle purchase.

The Recas wines were clean and well made, with good acidity and varietal character. We shared some with our neighbors, who were surprised at the Pinot Noir given its price. The Recas winemaker has lots of experience producing commercial quality wine at affordable prices. He divides his time between Recas in Romania and a winery in Australia that you might have heard of. It’s called Yellowtail.

But Wait … There’s More

So Romanian wine is cheap but pretty good — a bottom shelf bargain. Is that right? Well, yes it is, but as soon as we arrived in Iasi we discovered another layer. There has been a very strong movement to higher quality since the end of the Communist era and especially since Romania joined  the European Union and opened its doors more widely to international competition.

The semi-sweet wines that were a mainstay during the Soviet era remain popular. Sugar can be used to cover up a variety of wine flaws, and so sweet wines are often suspect, but we tasted some that were well-made and delicious.  Many producers make both dry and semi-sweet versions of their wines to satisfy the diverse consumer audience. I don’t think these sweetish wines will or should go away, but dry wines are clearly the future and a lot of effort is going into their production.

But which dry wines? Romania is fortunate to have a wine grape treasury that includes a number of indigenous varieties that make distinctive, delicious wines. In the right hands, Feteasca Regala (white), Feteasca Neagra (red) and Busuioaca de Bohotin (rosé) produce exciting wines, for example, and there are other promising varieties.  I admit that my prejudice is for the native grape varieties and not the international varieties that you see everywhere, but it is important to have an open mind.

davinoWe spent a day in the Delau Mare region near Bucharest, which is known for its excellent red wines. Our last stop was Davino, which was Romania’s second privately-owned winery (S.E.R.V.E. was the first). We tasted the Purpura Valahica, which is made from Feteasca Negra clones specifically selected for the local terroir. It was terrific — a wonderful example of just the sort of terroir wine I had my heart set on finding. Romanian grapes, Romanian soil, Romanian wine-maker, even Romanian oak.

But then we tasted a Cabernet Sauvignon and it was wonderful, too, and impressed me even though I was not really interested in international grape varieties. And then came the Domaine Ceptura Rouge — Cab, Merlot, and Feteasca Negra. It was a fascinating fusion. Bottom line: Romanian wine does and should focus on its native varietals, but in an open context that allows winemakers to make the best wines they can.

No One-Liners in Wine

The wine that fills Romanian glasses represents an interesting mixture of past, present, and future, dry and sweet, native and international. No wonder it is hard to pin it down. But that’s not all. Home-made wine is very important in terms of total consumption and I understand that some of this is made with the hybrid grape varieties that were introduced here after phylloxera.

The popularity of the home-made stuff is a bit of a problem, since it can be so different from commercial production using vitis vinifera grape varieties.  Convincing thrifty buyers to pay more for a very different product is a challenge.

The Romanian case reminds me a bit of the challenge that U.S. winemakers faced in the 1930s when Prohibition finally ended. Home-made wine production had surged dramatically during Prohibition, encouraged by a loophole in the law that allowed limited home wine production. The quality of the wine was, um, variable and its taste is how consumers came to think of wine, which is perhaps why they focused more attention on beer and spirits. It took decades to fully overcome that memory.

Jon Fredrikson always says that there are no one-liners in wine, so perhaps this multi-layer aspect is what makes Romania akin to other regions, not different from them. But the tendency to be misunderstood is particularly powerful in Romania based on our experience. Resist any attempt to over-simplify the country or its wines!

What lies ahead for the Romanian wine industry? The future looks bright, but there will be headwinds. Come back next week to learn more.

Have Some Madeira?

madeiraIt is in a way the most American of wines, even though it actually comes from a Portuguese island off the African coast. When it came time to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, this is the wine that filled the Founding Fathers’ glasses.

Workers at the Liberty Hall Museum in New Jersey recently discovered three cases of the stuff dating from 1796 — too young to be the wine that Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams raised for their toast, but old enough that they might have sipped it a few years later.

Oh, Madeira!

Madeira (because you have already guessed the name of the wine I’m talking about) has a glorious history here in the United States. Once upon a time you could find it prominently displayed on the top shelf of any reputable drinks shop, it was that popular. But when I went looking for a bottle at my local upscale supermarket I had to go deep into the corner where the fortified and dessert wines are kept and then stoop down to the bottom shelf.

O, Madeira. How far you have fallen!

But looks can deceive and Madeira is alive and well even if its not as prominent as it was in 1776. Madeira was America’s wine back then in part because America didn’t make much wine of its own and imported wine often suffered badly on the long sea trip from Europe to North America.

Live Long and Prosper

Madeira’s secret was (and is) its unique production process, where the wine is both heated and oxidized. The wines used to be conditioned by sending the barrels on round-trip ocean voyages in hot cargo holds. The movement of the ship and the heat below deck did the job very well.

Now it’s done shore-side in the lodges. The wines start out with high acidity (the island soils are part of that) and end up both fresh and nearly invincible. A bottle of Madeira has an almost long half-life after its been uncorked. You’ll certainly drink it up before it goes off.

There’s not a lot of Madeira wine produced, which is one reason you don’t see oceans of it in the shops.  Vineyard land is not plentiful on Madeira — about 500 hectares in total cling to the steep mountainsides. Just enough to provide raw material to eight producers.1928

France is the number one market for Madeira wine, where it is a popular aperitif (France is the top market for Port wines, too, for the same reason). Tourists visiting Madeira enjoy enough of the wine there to make it the number two market followed by Germany, the UK, Japan, and the United States. U.S. demand has been slowly ratcheting up in recent years, now accounting for about seven percent of total production.

You Don’t Know What You’re Missing

Sue and I traveled to Madeira about a year ago and learned a lot by visiting Blandy’s and Justino’s, two of the most important producers. We were fortunate to be invited to refresh our memories last month at a seminar and trade tasting in Seattle. We tasted the range of Madeira wine types including the one pictured here from 1928. Here are some impressions from that experience.

If you haven’t tasted Madeira in a while, you need to get to work. Chances are you’ve forgotten the balance and lifting acidity that characterize the wines. These aren’t  sticky sweet fruitcake wines, (although there is such a thing as a Madeira cake,  which is meant to be eaten with a glass of Madeira.)

You can make Madeira as simple or complicated as you like — it is up to you. By far the majority of the wines are sweet or semi-sweet 3-year-old blends. Sweetish or drier — those are your basic choices. Drier Madeira, like Fino sherry, is pretty versatile and might surprise you.

Only small amounts of aged Madeira is made from white grape varieties like the Sercial in the photo and these wines have very distinctive characteristics that anyone who wants to take a deeper dive would appreciate. Because the wines basically last forever once opened, you can pull the cork on several different ones and enjoy the kind of comparative tasting that we experienced in Seattle without being anxious about finishing up the bottles before they goes off. On-trade readers take note!

1776 and All That

I am glad we attended the seminar and tasting, but having said all these positive things about Madeira wines, I have to report that Sue and I came away a little bit disappointed. Not with the excellent presentation. And not with the wines themselves.

We were hoping for something more in the way of a hook to draw consumers into the world of Madeira wines and we couldn’t find one. The history is great and even important, which is why I used it as the hook for this column, but is it enough to make an significant impact in the crowded wine marketplace?

Madeira was once the Big Thing in American wine. Is it The Next Big Thing today? No — can’t be. There’s not enough of it to go around. But it is a unique wine of time and place that deserves a closer look.

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Special thanks to Bartholomew Broadbent for his help with this column.

 

 

The Cabernet Boom and Its Discontents

Our recent trip to the Napa Valley provokes two columns: this one about the Cabernet Sauvignon boom and next’s week’s about Zinfandel’s uncertain future.

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What winegrape variety comes to mind when I say “Napa Valley …”? There are lots of possibilities. Chardonnay. Merlot. Sauvignon Blanc, of course! Hey, Larkmead makes a tasty Tocai Friuliano.

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But I’ll bet that your “fill in the blank” answer was Cabernet Sauvignon and there are several good reasons for this. Cabernet is a noble grape and many of the world’s great wines are made from it or with it. American consumers are in love with this winegrape variety. Cabernet Sauvignon has recently overtaken Chardonnay as America’s #1 favorite.

Cabernet is #1

According to recent Nielsen data taken from the August 2018 issue of Wine Business Monthly, sales of Cab wines totaled more than $201 million in the most recent 4-week period, up 3.9% from the previous year. That compares with $190 million and 0.5% growth for Chardonnay, which has for years topped the league table.  Next in line but far behind, is Pinot Gris/Grigio ($96 million / 1.3% growth) and Pinot Noir ($82 million / 2.6%). The fastest-growing category is Rosé, as you might have guessed, with 67% growth on a relatively small $22 million sales base.

Consumers love Cabernet Sauvignon and growers love it, too, because they see it as a potential solution to the their financial squeeze. The costs of land, labor, equipment, and supplies keep rising, but the prices of many grape varieties have been stagnant, putting pressure on profits and, in some cases, generating rivers of red ink.

The Cabernet grape price premium can be substantial according to the 2017 California Grape Crush Report. Cabernet grapes fetched $700 per ton on average in Lodi, for example, compared with $552 for Merlot and Chardonnay. A ton of Cabernet sold for $2209 on average in Mendocino county, $2352 in Lake Country, and about $3000 in Sonoma County.

Premium Prices

Napa county topped the list with an average Cab price of $7,421 per ton. That average translates into a $70+ bottle price using the one-percent rule of thumb. And that’s the average. The very best Napa Cab grapes from exceptional sites sold for $10,000 per ton and more. Lesser Cab grapes sold for less, of course, but still generally for more than other grape varieties. Cab Rules.

And it’s not just a California thing. Cabernet is now the most-planted winegrape variety in Washington state, too, with 62,200 tons harvested in 2017 compated with #2 Chardonnay’s 39,300 tons.  The overall average price of Washington winegrapes was $1200 per ton, with Cabernet selling at a significant premium at $1500-$1600 per ton.

No wonder more and more Cabernet is being planted wherever it might possibly grow successfully. Jeff Bitter, recently appointed President of Allied Grape Growers, presented the results of the 2017 California Nursery Report at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium meetings in January. Bottom line: Cabernet is big and getting bigger.

The Nursery Report provides insights about what grape varieties are being planted or grafted, which foretells shifts in winegrape production a few years from now when the vines are productive. The 2017 report showed that 72% of new vines were red varieties with only 28% white. Cabernet vines accounted for an incredible 37.4% of all new vines followed by 19.5% for Pinot Noir and 16.7% for Chardonnay.

Cab Pipeline is Full

If you combine Cabernet with other varieties that are often blended with it (such as Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot), they account for over 42 percent of all new California vines. I am not sure what the composition is of the vines they may have replaced, but I suspect the disproportionate emphasis on Cab and Cab blending grapes represents a significant net increase in future production.

Cabernet’s dominance is noteworthy, but the upward trend in Cab plantings is part of the long term trend that Benjamin Lewin MW described in his 2013 book Claret & Cabs: The Story of Cabernet Sauvignon. Zinfandel, not Cabernet, was the most-planted winegrape variety in the Napa Valley in the decades following Prohibition.

Zin was thought to  make the best Claret, according to Lewin, which of course is interesting because Claret is the name the British gave to Cab- and Merlot-based Bordeaux wines. Ridge made a “Claret”  in 1981, for example, from Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Carignan and I’ll bet it was delicious!claret

Cabernet Sauvignon was a minor player on Napa’s wine scene, Lewin notes, although it made some historic wines including the great Beringer Cabs of the 1930s and the Beaulieu Georges de Latour Private Reserve wines that André Tchelistcheff made between 1938 and 1973.

The Napa Cab boom really picked up speed in the 1970s as new quality-driven wineries (think Robert Mondavi) focused on Cabernet. The Judgement of Paris in 1976 put Napa Cab firmly on the wine world’s radar.

No wonder new investment flooded into Napa Valley and Cabernet plantings expanded rapidly, both in Napa and California generally. Now the steady rise has accelerated, taking on some boom-time characteristics. The cycle of higher Cab prices, higher vineyard valuations, and increased Cabernet plantings continues.

Stein’s Law

Cycles and booms are a common characteristic of agricultural and financial markets, both of which I have studied. There are two things I have learned about the booms. First, they are driven by internal logic that seems bullet-proof from inside the cycle.  People (like me) who try to call turns often end up looking like Chicken Little fools. So don’t expect me to forecast a Cabernet bust!

The other thing I have learned is that Stein’s Law always applies in the long run. Named for the famous economist Herb Stein, Stein’s Law is says that if something cannot go on forever … it will end. And I think that Cabernet prices cannot go on going up forever (especially with new plantings on the rise) any more than housing prices could defy gravity forever a dozen years ago, no matter how how much rising prices might seem baked in the cake at any particular moment.

That doesn’t mean that the boom must inevitably be followed by a bust — there are many possible adjustment patterns as Kym Anderson’s analysis of Australia’s winegrape cycles shows. In the meantime, Cabernet is crowding out other grape varieties, including those Zinfandel vines that were once the pride of Napa Valley winemakers. That’s where we are going in the next column.

Sue and I came to the Napa Valley with Zinfandel on our minds. Circle back next week to find out what we learned.

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The Boom Varietal image above comes from a 2011 Sky Pinnick documentary of the same name about Malbec, which is sort of the Cabernet Sauvignon of Argentina. I was pleased to be part of the cast for this award-winning film. The film talks about the rise of Malbec in Argentina and the understandable concern that the boom could go bust (Argentina has a history of boom and bust).

 

Discovering the “Invisible” Cooperative Wineries of Languedoc and Roussillion

caramanyThey say that there is strength in numbers, which may explain why wine cooperatives tend to emerge during periods of crisis, when individual winegrowers are practically powerless to defend themselves and only collective action holds hope.

The cooperative in Caramany, the Vignerons de Caramany, was founded in 1924 in response to the Phylloxera crisis. It experienced ups and downs in the century that followed and seems to be thriving today — a good sign for Caramany and for French cooperatives generally.

Strength in Numbers

Caramany is a village of 150 inhabitants in the Pyrénées-Orientales scenic L’Agly valley in Roussillon. It has its own appellation:  Côtes du Roussillon Village Caramany. The cooperative has 50 members, some of them quite small holders,  growing mainly Carignan, Grenache and Syrah.

We were in Caramany to learn about its cooperative and its wines during our recent press tour to Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire Valley. Cooperatives were on our radar because they are very important in all these regions as they are in Europe generally. Cooperatives produce about 70% of all wine in Languedoc, for example, making their success critically important to the wine industry.

You sometimes have to look closely at a wine label to know that a cooperative has made the wine — seeing Caves Coopérative for a French wine or Cantina Sociale Cooperativa for an Italian one is a sure indicator, but sometimes the link isn’t clear, especially if the wine is sold through a negociant or, as is increasingly the case, made for a private label customer such as a supermarket.

Invisible but Important

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According to the latest edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine, cooperatives probably account for more than half of all the wine produced in the big three Old World wine countries: France, Italy, and Spain. These “invisible wineries,” as I have called them, are one of the most under-appreciated elements of the global wine market despite the commercial success of some of the wines. One of the top-selling Prosecco wines on today’s market — La Marca — is produced by a second-level cooperative — a cooperative of cooperatives.

Some Italian cooperatives — I am thinking Alto Adige and Piemonte in particular — are know for their high quality. But cooperatives in the south of France have the opposite reputation, which they continue to battle to change. It is easier to produce new, better wines that a new reputation.

The Vignerons of Caramany impressed us with their commitment to making delicious, market-friendly wines, which we sampled while eating a Catalan barbeque lunch that included snails grilled over live coals, grilled meats (including delicious blood sausage), and a variety of salads. One wine (see top photo) was a tribute to the past, but others looked to the future.

tremoineThe Reserve Rouge Carmin, for example, is a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Carignan (the Carignan was vinified with carbonic maceration while the Grenache and Syrah use conventional methods) that was one of my favorites. Delicious with the food we were served and impressive generally. Its packaging is modern and appealing and it sells for a premium price — about 8 to 10  euro, as I recall, which is impressive for a wine from this region.

There were wines from other cooperatives at the lunch and they were also noteworthy. The Rivesaltes Ambré from the Vignerons de Trémoine is a terrific sweet wine that I could sip  all day.

Sleep No More

So what has changed to make these cooperatives (and many others that we learned about) so different from the stereotype of sleepy, inefficient (and sometimes not very clean) cooperative cellars? Well, it isn’t that the cooperatives have simply become stronger — more strength through more numbers — because that’s not the recent trend. Cooperatives seem to be under attack to a certain extent, with the next generation of winegrowers looking beyond old practices to new market opportunities. An association of independent producers has been formed in Languedoc, providing a different sort of strength in numbers through collective marketing not production investment.

Some of the new independent projects are inspired, I was told, by Department 66, a wine project initiated by Dave Phinney and located in the Maury appellation of Roussillon. Its Grenache, Syrah, Carignan blend D66 wine sells for $38, which is a super-premium price for this region. A special old vines Grenache-Syrah blend received a 95-point score from Robert Parker and retails for $175. That would sure get my attention.

More than anything I think it has been competition that has stirred French cooperatives to raise their game — competition in the retail market and also competition between and among the cooperatives for the declining group of potential grower-members. Competition is disruptive but has obviously been a good thing and the results are clear when you consider the achievements of a relatively small cooperative in a tiny appellation such as the Vignerons de Caramany.

If other cooperatives are moving in the same direction as the ones we learned about on this trip. then the future of the “invisible wineries” is bright.

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Thanks to everyone we met on our trip to France and to the wine regions of Languedoc, Roussillon, and the Loire for hosting us.

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Three Faces of Languedoc Wine: Aimé Guibert, Robert Skalli & Gérard Bertrand

rosesAimé Guibert and Robert Skalli — these were the key protagonists in my analysis of globalization and wine in the Languedoc in my 2011 book Wine Wars.  Both Guilbert and Skalli revolutionized Languedoc wine, but in different ways. And they had different opinions of globalization, too.

If I were writing a second edition of Wine Wars today (readers: do you think I should?) I would add a third name — a champion of Languedoc wine who is revolutionizing it in another way today. That name is Gérard Bertrand.  Here’s the story.

Mondovino meets Mondavi-no

Aimé Guibert starred as one of the heros of the 2004 anti-globalization wine documentary Mondovino (flying winemaker Michel Rolland was one of the villians!).  Guibert helped revolutionize Languedoc wine at his estate Mas de Daumas Gassac  Working with Emile Peynaud and others, Guibert produced exceptional wines that changed the way that many viewed the Languedoc and its potential for fine wine. An impressive achievement and a great story.

That’s not the story that Mondovino told, however. The film was more interested in his opposition to Robert Mondavi’s plans to invest in the Languedoc and produce large quantities of branded varietal wine to be sold around the world. The local uproar eventually discouraged Mondavi, who turned his attention elsewhere. Did Guibert and his activist colleagues win? Mondavi was gone, but not the market strategy he represented.

That’s because, as I argued in Wine Wars, Robert Skalli was already at work to revolutionize Languedoc wines in a Mondavi-esque way. Skalli met Mondavi in California and was inspired by both his modern wine-making and by his marketing strategy, which focused on easy-to-understand varietal labels rather than sometimes-obscure appellations. Skalli was so impressed that he opened his own Napa winery (St. Supery, sold a few years ago to French icon Chanel) and invested in clean, modern, market friendly varietal wines at home including especially the popular brand Fortant de France.

Skalli embraced globalization just as Guibert shunned it, but they both drove change in a region that surely needed it and helped set the stage for the emergence of the new Languedoc wine world that Sue and I discovered during our recent visit. They also helped pave the way for the Languedoc’s current global market champion, Gérard Bertrand.

Celebrity Wine?

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It didn’t take long for Gérard Bertrand’s name to come up. We landed in Toulouse and on the road to our hotel in Carcassone our well-informed driver pointed to a vineyard on the right and said that he’d been there the day when the crowds gathered and a helicopter descended carrying Bertrand and his special guests, rocker Jon Bon Jovi and his son. Bon Jovi is famous for his music. Bertrand is possibly more famous (at least in this part of France) for his exploits for club and country on the rugby field.

Sport, music, and wine — a potent mix! Bertrand’s father was in both businesses– wine and rugby.  Besides running the family estate he was a professional referee; his son learned both disciplines from the earliest age.

The helicopter gathering was the launch of a joint Bon Jovi-Bertrand project — a Rosè wine called Diving into Hampton Water. A limited edition celebrity wine, for sure, its first vintage sold out on allocation in short order.  The wine lists for $20-$25 here in the U.S. when you can find it.

I don’t know much about Diving into Hampton Water, which has received mixed reviews, but I’m pretty familiar with another Gérard Bertrand Rosé, the Cotes des Roses pictured above. It’s a lovely wine in a distinctively graceful bottle that is easily found on the shelves of upscale supermarkets and even in Costco bins in my region. There is a red and a white wine in the Cotes des Roses portfolio, according to the website, but I see only the pink one in my market.

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You can think of the Cotes des Roses as an upscale evolution of the Robert Skalli idea of Languedoc wine. It is a wine made for the market, that represents the Languedoc very well, but does so by reaching out to consumers with a clear image and strong brand. That’s kind of how I thought of Gérard Bertrand wine at the start of my visit — and the Bon Jovi connection reinforced that perspective. But I soon learned that there is a good deal more.

The first formal masterclass in Carcassone was devoted to tasting a cross section of Cru du Languedoc wines and one of the favorites was the Gérard Bertrand 2011 La Forge.  This was very different from Cotes des Roses — it was a serious wine of origin and it made me rethink the whole Bertrand project. Bertrand is Cotes des Roses and Hampton Water, but it is also a collection of very well made wines that celebrate and explore the multiple regions and terriors of Languedoc and Roussillon, Gérard Bertrand’s home (he first played rugby for Narbonne).

legendAmbassador Bertrand

Bertrand’s wines appeared twice more in our program, reinforcing this more complex view. Tasting through a lineup of Crèmant de Limoux sparkling wines, I stumbled across Gérard Bertrand Cuvée Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson fell in love with Crèmant de Limoux when he was U.S. ambassador to France and championed the wine, shipping quantities back home to Virginia.

Bertrand’s bottling honors the appellation and its historic connection to Jefferson. I was beginning to think of Gérard Bertrand as more of an ambassador (like Jefferson) of the Langeudoc than a simple celebrity. His project includes many of these terroir wines that together paint a picture of the region.

Then, at a gala dinner at Château de Pennautier, we were served a lovely mature sweet wine, the 1974 Gérard Bertrand Legend Vintage Rivesaltes. What a wine! And a wonderful tribute to this appellation. The Legend Wine series includes select Rivesaltes vintages going back to 1875! Bottled history.

I’ve Got a Little List

And so I think you can see why I have added Gérard Bertrand to my Languedoc icons list. He seems determined to push Languedoc forward, but not just in one direction and always with an eye on his roots. A fine ambassador indeed.

Every emerging wine region needs a brand ambassador to help break into the market and get attention. Napa had Mondavi, for example. Strong brands, if linked to time and place, can open doors a bit wider. As Languedoc and Roussillon re-emerge in their contemporary form, effective ambassadors like Bertrand are especially important.

Languedoc has many faces and these three tell a story of the ways that the region has changed to adapt to new market conditions. Bertrand’s complex inks to and respect for the past make him a particularly interesting addition to my little list. But there are many more faces to consider — you should pull some corks and see for yourself.

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The Wine Economist will pause for a couple of weeks while Sue and I are in Italy. We’ll visit old friends in Bologna (I taught at the Johns Hopkins/SAIS Center there years ago) and tour Eataly World before heading to Forte dei Marmi, where I’m speaking about Money and Wine at VinoVIP on June 18.

Review of “Our Blood is Wine”: A Film about Georgia Qvevri Wine

 

Our Blood is Wine, directed by Emily Railsback, released by Music Box Films, 2018. Available as video-on-demand via iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, etc.

Our Blood is Wine is a fascinating look at traditional wine-making in Georgia (the republic, not the U.S. state) and how it survived the traumatic Soviet era to be widely celebrated today as a natural wine icon. This documentary has been made with the same restraint and respect for tradition that the Georgians use in making their qvevri wines. The wines let nature tell its story to a greater extent than most wines do. And the film lets Georgia tell its story in a very natural way, avoiding unnecessary intervention.  Highly recommended.

I admit that I was a bit concerned when I learned about Our Blood is Wine. Georgia is unique and I worried that the film would treat it with the generic techniques that are so often found in wine films — sunny vineyard scenes, the changing of the seasons, pick-up trucks with faithful dogs. You know what I mean. These scenes are charming and beautiful, but they are clichés. They could be anywhere, so they end up being nowhere. Wine films are filled with them.

Georgia is different, special, so the film needed to be different, too. Sitting at a key geopolitical crossroads, Georgia has experienced invasion, occupation, and foreign rule repeatedly and yet somehow the people, their culture, Christian religion, unique  language and alphabet, have all survived. Georgians are survivors and the same is true of their wines.

Our Blood is Wine shows the hard work and sacrifice of artisan winemakers in Georgia instead of sunny vineyard scenes. We travel along with Chicago-based sommelier Jeremy Quinn, our inquisitive guide, but he is not the star of this show. He usefully yields the screen to the Georgians who have created these wines, preserved the indigenous grape varieties, and crafted the fantastic qvevri themselves.

One thing that keeps the film moving is the fact that we mainly see people at work and often (as in a scene where several sweating shirtless men carefully move a large, awkward, heavy qvevri into place) the actions speak as loud as any words ever could. The hard work contrasts with the beautiful Georgian music that forms the film’s soundtrack.

The Soviet era, which the film shows through archival footage, was particularly hard on Georgian wine. Georgia-born Joseph Stalin made sure that he had a constant supply of good wine from his home region, but the rest of the country’s wine industry was not so lucky. Private vineyards were seized and industrial wine production replaced private cellars to satisfy undiscriminating palates elsewhere in the Soviet empire.

Traditional wine-making practices survived through home production and even today  most Georgian families make wine for their own consumption, some of it very good. Georgian wine consumption is high by U.S. standards. The rule of thumb for a party is two bottles of wine for each female guest and three bottles for each male. The domestic industry is necessarily focused on export since it is hard to compete with homemade wine for local sales.

There are, as I wrote in 2016, three wine industries in Georgia today. Some large producers focus on sweeter wines (which can be very good) to sell to traditional Russian and former-Soviet markets. Another industry has grown up around exports of clean international-style wines made with indigenous Georgian grapes. And, finally, a relatively small craft industry exists to satisfy the growing global demand for the natural wines made in qvevri — traditional hand-made clay pots that are buried in the earth. These wines and the people who make them and love them are the focus of Our Blood is Wine. 

Sue and I were delighted when, at the end of the film, the art of Georgian wine was driven home through the work of an artist who actually paints with wine and the juice of the grapes instead of oil or watercolor. Saperavi art? Could it be, we wondered? Yes! The artist was our friend Elene Rakviashvili, who helped us to learn about Georgian wine and culture when we visited in 2016.

Our Blood is Wine is worth seeking out for what it teaches about Georgia, history, culture, politics, and of course wine. One of the best wine documentaries of recent years.