Scratching the Surface of Sicilian Wine

I was intrigued when we were asked if we’d like to sample wines from a Sicilian cooperative winery. The history of Sicily’s wine industry — and the role of cooperatives within it — is a roller-coaster tale and such sagas in wine do not always have happy endings. I was thirsty to learn more about the situation today.

I learned about the history of Sicily’s wine sector from The World of Sicilian Wine by Bill Nesto MW and Frances Di Savio (see the Wine Economist review here). Wine in Sicily has been buffeted by a combination of shifts in the external markets and changing domestic incentives. It is no wonder that cooperatives arose to help growers navigate the ups and downs and gain a measure of control over their own destinies.  Cooperatives spring up in times of crisis, but it is their ability to adapt when conditions change that is most important.

Incentives Matter

Sometimes the economic incentives the cooperatives and other wine actors faced favored quality, but all too often quantity was the dominant strategy. This was particularly true during the years when EU wine policy unintentionally encouraged over-production of low-quality wines with no obvious market potential. These unsalable wines, the source of the famous EU “wine lake,” were bought up and distilled into industrial alcohol, a process that was not sustainable in economic, political, or environmental terms.

The wine lake days are gone — EU incentives now favor market-driven wine production — and the wines have changed faster than their reputations in many cases. Not all wineries have raised their game, however, and that inconsistency is a headwind.

The wines we sampled were from the Cantine Ermes cooperative, which was founded in 1998 in the Belice Valley in northwest Sicily. The cooperative is very large with 2373 members farming more than 12,000 hectares and operating 11 winemaking facilities.  In total Cantine Ermes produces 11.5 million bottles annually, which are sold in 29 countries around the world. Does this surprise you? Cooperatives are important in Italian wine, more important than most people realize.

Beyond Low-Hanging Fruit

One criticism I have heard of many Italian cooperatives is that they cut their own throats by focusing too much on bulk wine and private label products — they take this low-hanging fruit and fail to build the brands that might yield higher margins that would improve their economic sustainability.

Some of the deep dark red wine made in Sicily, for example, is sold off to be blended with lighter Italian reds to give the result more body, color, and alcohol — a practice that has been going on for a long time. Cantine Ermes gives attention to several brands, however, including the Vento di Mare wines that we sampled.

Vento di Mare means sea winds and so it was inevitable that we would ask our friends R and M to sample the wines with us. Their visit to Sicily was punctuated by gale force sea winds that nearly blew them off the island and caused sea foam to pile up on the shoreline like drifts of snow.

The three wines we tasted were screwcap-topped bottles of Grillo DOC, Nerello Mascalese IGT, and Moscato Frizzante that retail for about $12 here in the US — right about the center of the retail wine wall in today’s market.  The Grillo had nice varietal flavor and good balance. It seemed very versatile and would pair with many dishes as well as on its own. It was probably our favorite wine.

The red Nerello Mascalese was more intense and called out for a bold food pairing. Nerello Mascalese is the most-planted red winegrape in Sicilty according to my sources, and it was easy to see how it could be the foundation of a number of interesting blends as well as a single-variety wine.

The Moscato was fizzy and slightly sweet. Just 10.5% abv, the wine has a secondary fermentation for two months in an autoclave and then ages another two months on its lees. Aromatic (think orange blossoms) and nicely balanced. Like the Grillo it would work in a number of situations. Very pleasant indeed.

Sicilian Wine Ambassadors

We were impressed with the Vento di Mare wines and a bit surprised at the affordable entry-level price point. Other Cantine Ermes brands probe the higher reaches of the wine wall. I hope the attractive packaging and price point encourage consumers to give these wines a try (and that some restaurants see the potential for wine-by-the-glass sales). These wines are good ambassadors for Sicily and its cooperative wineries.

Since we aren’t able to travel to explore the wine world these days as we did in pre-pandemic times, we find it useful to focus on invitations like the one we received from Cantina Ermes. Clearly we have just scratched the surface of the wines of Sicily and the progress of Sicilian cooperatives, but we are encouraged, nonetheless. These are good wines that chart a path out of Sicily’s quantity-driven past towards a more sustainable future.

A Keynesian Theory of Investing in Fine Wine

Fine wine has been a hot alternative investment category this year, as Blake Gray recently reported in his Wine-Searcher column. Fine wine investment is a very specialized field and anyone who is interested in taking the plunge is advised to get acquainted with research on the topic, especially including the reports from Liv-Ex, a leading fine wine trading platform.

Drinkers, Collectors, Investors

I divide the world of fine wine buyers into three over-lapping groups: drinkers, collectors, and investors. It is important to “know thyself” in this taxonomy. We are drinkers here at the Wine Economist household and, although we have a few special bottles squirreled away to share with friends at the right moment, it isn’t a collection or investment.

I have only a few friends who are really fine wine investors, although many of the collectors I know sometimes speak about their collections in investment terms. The key is what you do when a particular wine has reached its market peak. Do you drink, sell, or hold?

An investor sells, of course, and takes the profit if there is one. A collector holds because now the wine is ever more precious as a collectable.  A drinker has no decision to make — the wine is already gone. What do you do?

I was introduced years ago to a wealthy man who generously endowed scholarships at my university. He liked to talk about wine and economics, so we got along very well. “I never pay for my wine,” he once told me. For every case of fine wine he bought to drink he also bought one with the clear intention to sell for profit. The investment gains paid for the wines he drank and, since he sometimes shared bottles with us, I cannot criticize his logic!

Drinkers buy what they want to drink, obviously, which is a matter of personal taste. Collectors buy what they want to hold, which can be influenced by many factors including status and rarity (with a nod to economist Thorsetin Veblen, I have called this “conspicuous non-consumption”). What should investors buy? This got me thinking about John Maynard Keynes, one of the 20th century’s most influential economists.

Keynes and the Beauty Contest Dilemma

Keynes was an investor and a wine lover as well as an economic thinker, but I can’t find evidence that he invested in fine wine. From what I know he was more of a drinker, like me. When asked late in life if he had any regrets, he replied that he regretted that he did not drink more Champagne.

It is possible Keynes’s advice about investment in general can provide some useful insights into fine wine investment. Keynes once compared investment in the stock market to a kind of contest that was popular in the Sunday newspapers of his time. The newspapers printed pictures of a number of women and asked readers to rank them according to their attractiveness — a classic “beauty contest.” Times were clearly different — I cannot imagine such a contest today, can you?

The winner of the reader contest wasn’t the entrant who got the answer right — because there was no right answer. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder or, as an economist would say, de gustibus non est disputandum. No, the winner was the person whose choices came closest to the choices of all who entered. The wisdom of crowds in action!

So, Keynes noted, while a naive person would just choose the photo that seemed the prettiest, a clever person would try to guess what others would do and rank them accordingly regardless of personal preference. And a strategic person would assume that others were clever and so take this into account.

The winner, according to Keynes, is the person who best guesses what other people will think other people will do. And that, my friends, was the foundation of Keynes’s investment strategy, or at least the part that he discussed in one of his books. You don’t buy shares in the company you think will be most successful, you look for the stock that other people (the ones who will buy the shares from you at a profit) will think other people (the ones who they hope will buy the shares from them) will favor.

Other People’s Money

Do you see how this analysis applies to fine wine investment? Wine drinkers buy what they like and so are likely to make wide-ranging purchases since wine offers such great variety.

Wine collectors sometimes buy what will impress their friends and try to guess what they might be and so their purchases are likely to have a much narrower range.  Wine investors, however, make purchases based on what they think other people will think other people will do with their money and so are likely to focus on a relatively small number of “blue chip” wines — those that are most likely to meet the “other people – other people” criterion.

Many have noted that the range of investment wines seems to have broadened to include some American and Italian wines in addition to top tier Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne. That is a good thing, since investment markets should be broad and deep if they are to serve real investment needs by providing liquidity and the opportunity for diversification.

Otherwise investing in wine or anything else is a little bit like investing in emerging economy stock markets, which are often dominated by a small number of equities and experience boom-bust price behavior driven by liquidity dynamics.  If your 401K account includes investments on the Turkish stock market, you know what I am talking about.

Bottom line: I am not going to advise you whether to invest in fine wine or not or which bottles are most likely to pay off. But this advice I give freely: wine investor, know thyself!

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Sue and I wish all Wine Economist readers a happy holiday season!

Wine Book Review: Ch’ Ch’ Changing California

On California: From Napa to Nebbiolo … Wine Tales from the Golden State edited by Susan Keevil. Académie du Vin Library, 2021.

Steven Spurrier, through both word and action, has left a remarkable enduring legacy to the world of wine, including the wine book publisher Académie du Vin Library. The Library’s very ambitious wine book list collects both classic works and new contributions (including Spurrier’s own A Life in Wine) that break from the typical “Wines of ____” (fill in the country or region) mold to address a variety of topics from many personal and professional perspective.

From Bordeaux to California

On Bordeaux, a collection of essays about that famous wine region, appeared last year. Given Spurrier’s central role in the famous 1976 France vs California “Judgement of Paris” tasting, On California seems like a natural next step, officially released last week and available directly from the publisher  and via the usual sources including Amazon.com.

Much like the Library itself, On California collects classic and new perspectives on the Golden State’s wine industry. Unevenness is the typical fault of edited volumes like this one, but I have to say that the 39 essays and excerpts by 35 different authors hang together very well and make informative and enjoyable reading.

Perhaps that’s because of the strong thematic thread that runs through the volume: change. And change is everywhere here. The wine, the industry, the climate, even the history, which although quite short is now long enough that a certain amount of revision is needed. What fun to read excerpts from early essays by the likes of Hugh Johnson, Gerald Asher,  and Harry Waugh alongside some of the pioneers and shapers including Warren Winniarski, Paul Draper, and Randall Grahm. Mix in Elin McCoy, Elaine-Chukan Brown, and many others and you have a complex, balanced blend indeed.

Change and resilience — two key California characteristics — are everywhere in this book, but perhaps especially in a series of chapters that trace the challenges that California wine has faced over the years. Hugh Johnson writes about Prohibition years, Jon Bonné examines the New California that emerged from the ashes, Norm Roby charts the return of Phylloxera, Elaine Chukan Brown addresses drought, wild fire, and environmental change, and finally Clare Tooley MW tackles the threat to California wines form the rising  marijuana industry. Fascinating reading.

Here Comes The Judge  (ment)

If you connect the dots of California + Steven Spurrier + Change you inevitably arrive at the 1976 Judgement of Paris and so it is inevitable that the famous tasting appears here with both an excerpt from George Taber’s excellent book on the subject the commentary from Spurrier and others who had a hand in the wines and the event itself.

The Judgement of Paris, where wines from California were rated higher than some famous French wines by a panel of French judges, did it change everything? No, but it changed quite a lot. It certainly made French producers question their hegemony. I have argued that maybe the biggest impact was in the way it changed Americans’ attitudes about their own wines.  Suddenly there was respect after the long dark decades that followed Prohibition. The wine boom that was launched continues today.

It is interesting to speculate what California wine would look like today if France had won the 1976 competition.  I ask this question with a sense of irony because, depending upon how to look at it, the French really did win (or at least didn’t lose)! Talk about revisionist history!

Here are the average scores (out of 20 points) for the red wines. The winner was Stag’s Leap by a nose.  Stag’s Leap won if we add up and average the points, but did California win?

14.14 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 1973
14.09 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1970
13.64 Chateau Montrose 1970
13.23 Chateau Haut-Brion 1970
12.14 Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello 1971
11.18 Chateau Leoville Las Cases 1971
10.36 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard 1970
10.14 Clos Du Val Winery 1972
9.95 Mayacamas Vineyards 1971
9.45 Freemark Abbey Winery 1969

If we judge the Judgement as a team sport and not an individual competition, the conclusion changes a bit. The four French wines scored 2, 3, 4, and 6 while the California wines ranked 1, 5, 7, 8, 9, and 10. Even if you throw out the two lowest-ranked California wines to make the team’s equal in size, the result seems clear: Team France gets the gold.

The points table was a little different with the white wines. Although a California wine topped the list, I think you’d have to say the team competition was pretty much a dead heat. Still an impressive showing for California.

The situation gets even more interesting, as several studies have shown, if you dig down into the judges’ individual rankings, which varied enormously from one to another in their relative scores.  The final result could have been much different, too,  if the scores were treated as ordinal rankings rather than cardinal measures that can be summed up and averaged.

Does this finding matter? No. Not now. And probably not in 1976, either. The idea that California and France could be put on the same table was radical then, so the fact of Spurrier’s tasting was enough to raise eyebrows. The discovery that some of the French tasters could not tell which was which was quite a shock. That would have been enough to jump-start the changes that were already on the way.

Thanks to Académie du Vin Library and the many authors for their hard work and insights. Change is still in the air in California and On California connects the past and present with the emerging future. Well done!

Thinking About Laura Catena’s Grand Cru Project

Laura Catena believes we need to think about the concept of Grand Cru vineyards and wines, so she organized a series of Zoom events for trade and media participants built around the idea of the Grand Cru.

Sue and I recently participated in one of the sessions and it provided food for thought as well as some delicious wine to sample — Catena Zapata and Winebow generously provided a line-up of wine samples to help us think about Grand Cru-class wines in practice as well as theory. I will paste our wine lineup at the end of this column.

The idea wasn’t to do a blind tasting (can you tell Old World from New World, recognized  Grand Cru from an ambitious pretender?)  or stage a sort of “Judgement of Tupungato” competition, but rather to appreciate some really excellent wines and use them to stimulate thought and discussion.

It took me a while to begin to figure out the point of the discussion. Why talk about Grand Cru now? According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, the concept of a Grand Cru wine is a bit of a moving target. The term, French of course, has a different meaning in Burgundy (where it applies to specific vineyards), in Alsace (where there are Grand Cru appellations), and Bordeaux (it is all about the producers).

New World Grand Crus?

Can (or should) the Grand Cru concept be applied to the New World? And if so, how and where? Much of the discussion focused on practical problems. Grand Cru is a French idea (or ideas) that would seem difficult to translate to foreign soil. Would consumers understand it? Would producers unite around the concept? And could they ever agree on a Grand Cru league table — who’s in and who’s out? Doubtful on all counts, participants suggested.

In any case, several pointed out, there is already a quality-assessing system in place and it is called the market. If you want to know the best vineyards look at grape prices (and the resulting wine prices). The Bordeaux Classification of 1855 was based on price and the market measure endures.

As an economist, I appreciate the power of price to establish hierarchies and find it interesting that the Bordeaux classification is still relevant. But I also understand that markets are very imperfect measures of quality.  It is not for nothing that Oscar Wilde complained of people who know “the price of everything and the value of nothing!”

I am more interested in the way what we say conditions how we think. Language doesn’t simply transmit thought, it also shapes it. Talking about Grand Cru means thinking about wine in a particular subjective way that reflects respect and admiration for the very best that I’d argue is different from measures such as extremely high prices or 100 point scores.

So talking Grand Cru may help us think about wine in a certain way. But American wine history suggests that as difficult as Grand Cru is to achieve, it may sometimes be even harder to maintain. I am thinking about the story of Martin Ray, which I recounted in my book 2011 Wine Wars (and also in the revised new edition that will be released next year) in the chapter titled “Martians vs Wagnerians.”

The Sad Tale of Martin Ray

Martians — a term I borrowed from wine historian Thomas Pinney — are inspired by Martin Ray’s idea of wine. Ray was upset that the standard of US wine was so low in the years following the repeal of Prohibition. He persuaded Paul Masson to sell him his once great winery in 1935 and proceeded to try to restore its quality with a personal drive that Pinney terms fanatical.

He did it, too, making wines of true distinction—wines that earned the highest prices in California at the time. His achievement was short-lived, however. A winery fire slowed Ray’s momentum and he finally sold out to Seagram’s, which used a loophole in wartime price control regulations to make a fortune from the Paul Masson brand and its premium price points, starting a trend of destructive corporate exploitation that forms a central theme in Pinney’s book on American wine history.

Ray’s history is therefore especially tragic since his attempt to take California wine to the heights through Paul Masson ended so badly. Paul Masson degenerated into an undistinguished mass-market wine brand that was sold to Constellation Brands, which eventually passed it along to The Wine Group (makers of Franzia bag-in-box wines among other products), which quietly withdrew the spent brand from the market. Paul Masson brandy still exists as part of the Gallo portfolio.

So in the end Martin Ray’s high Grand Cru values degenerated into the market prices they yielded and then degenerated again and again until nothing was left of them. How sad!

Gold in the Vineyards?

Laura Catena’s interest in Grand Cru vineyards isn’t a new thing. Her 2018 illustrated book Gold in the Vineyards surveyed the world of wine through stories of great wines, the families (and especially the women) behind them, and the great vineyards that are their source. The finally chapter is personal, focusing on Catena Zapata’s “Adrianna Vineyard: the Grand Cru of South America,” which is the source of the quote at the top of this column.

As Laura Catena tells the story, her father Nicholas Catena was determined to create a Grand Cru vineyard in Argentina. Scouring the Uco Valley countryside, he came across a cold, dry area with stony soils high up in the Andean foothills at 1500 meters elevation. The winery viticulturalist said it would be impossible to make anything except perhaps sparkling wines from vines planted in such a unfriendly site. But Catena stubbornly forged ahead with what we now call the Adrianna Vineyard, which produced four of the eight wines in our sample pack.

Re-reading Gold in the Vineyard and connecting the dots, I realized the unstated question at the heart of the Zoom events. Did Nicholas Catena and his Catena Zapata colleagues really do it? Is the Adrianna vineyard what he meant for it to be: Argentina’s Grand Cru vineyard? That’s what will be on my mind as Sue and I work our way through these wines in the coming weeks.

We’ve started with the White Stones and White Bones Chardonnay wines, which I have wanted to taste for a long time. They are fantastic — balanced, elegant, complex. The two Catena wines are very different from each other and different, too, from the Chablis wines including in the tasting, which is important since imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s not what great wine is all about. Grand Cru? Gotta think about it some more before I make up my mind. World-class? Absolutely!

The question of what does Grand Cru mean today is thought-provoking and considering what it might mean in a New World context provokes debate. For me, the idea of the Grand Cru is worth holding on to and using as a source of inspiration — I am on board with Laura Catena’s project — even if the practical realities are messy and problematic.

In the meantime, perhaps it would help if you poured yourself a glass of wine from  your favorite maker or region and pondered  the notion of the Grand Cru.

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WINES

  • Alain Chavy Puligny-Montrachet Les Folatières Premier Cru 2018

Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard White Stones Chardonnay 2018

Louis Moreau Les Clos 2017

Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard White Bones Chardonnay 2018

Lingua Franca The Plow Pinot Noir 2019

Catena Zapata Adrianna Vineyard Fortuna Terrae Malbec 2017

Grattamacco Bolgheri Superiore 2016

Nicolás Catena Zapata 2017

Wine Book Review: Invisible Pignolo Revealed

Ben Little, Pignolo: Cultivating the Invisible. 2021. Available exclusively from The Morning Claret Shop.

Pignolo: Cultivating the Invisible is quite a fantastic multi-media exploration of one of Italy’s (and the world’s) nearly forgotten grape varieties. My first impression of the book was fascination — so playful, so colorful. I just had to thumb through it to discover what was on the next page. Then there was puzzlement, because I would read short passages and it wasn’t really clear what was going on.

First fascination, then puzzlement, then — finally — enlightenment. Ok, that might be too strong, but I went back and read it from the start and it all made sense.

First comes the history of Pignolo in the context of the history of its native region, Friuli Venezia Giulia in Italy’s upper right-hand corner. A really interesting explanation of how Pignolo, wine, and the region evolved. Then the history shifts a bit to author Ben Little’s personal experience with Pignolo, which started only a few years ago (2016) but developed quickly and soon involved many others. There is much of a technical nature to learn through Little’s first person reports.

And then there are the lessons that Pignolo teaches us, inspirations, meditations, not sure what to call them. But by the time you get there you are ready to slow down, let the flow carry you, and absorb them, which might not have been the case at the start. Colorful graphics act as signposts along the way.

Little’s notion that Pignolo is an invisible grape variety works. It was always there all along, you just didn’t see it. That’s how it happened for him. At first he thought that there were just a few people in Friuli growing the grapes and making wine. But once word got out that there was interest, more and more plantings and producers began to appear until there were enough to fill a room (which Little did, with a little help from Pignolo’s friends).

Pignolo might be invisible to you, too. That’s how it was for us. Did we ever taste Pignolo during our trips to Friuli? I had to think and use the ample resources of Little’s big book. We might have tasted Pignolo when we visited the Cormons cooperative, but there were so many wines there it is hard to know. Possibly when we stayed at Il Roncal. Bastianich makes an IGT blend called Calabrone, which is includes a splash of Pignolo as a key ingredient. When we didn’t have time to taste it at the winery Wayne Young wrapped up a bottle for us to take home and I’m very glad he did. Amazing.

We staying in one of the rooms at Borgo San Daniele and I remember distinctly the tasting where Mauro Mauri poured his Arbis Ròs Pignolo from magnum. What an amazing wine. I tried to get him to sell me some bottles, but it was all gone. Only that magnum was left. And the memory, too.

Our final taste of Pignolo was at Paolo Rodaro and that’s when we met Ben Little. Little was nice enough to help with some difficult translations, but you could tell even then, not too long after his Pignolo journey had begun, that his focus was on the particular wine and Rodaro’s version was especially intense and interesting. There was another connection that I only learned about by reading this book — like me, Little is a recovering student of economics and can’t resist adding his insights to the blend.

Having read Little’s book, I want to go back to Friuli and visit the small region of Rosazzo, which seems to be Pignolo’s spiritual home. Pignolo was pretty much invisible to me a few days ago, now that I see that it has been there all along, I want to ask it a few questions.

In the meantime, I couldn’t resist trying to track down a bottle of Pignolo here in the U.S. and refresh my memory. I was able to find the 2005 La Viarte Pignolo Riserva at Kermit Lynch‘s online store. We pulled  the cork and paired the wine with Caesar salad and a prime-grade dry-aged steak — clearly this was a special meal. The wine lived up to the occasion. The first glass was a bit wild, but it settled down and developed along several axes over the next two hours. Sue said that the wine really pulled itself together when the food arrived just as it was meant to do, I think.

Some wine experiences are delicious but not especially interesting — you know what you are getting. Others are interesting, but not necessary delicious — you are happy to stop after the first glass. The Pignolo was both, so it is easy to understand Little’s fascinating with it.

Pignolo: Cultivating the Invisible is a highly personal memoir of and tribute to a very distinctive grape and the people who have nurtured it as it nurtured them. More than a book, it is an experience. Highly Recommended.

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. 

Anatomy of Georgia’s Wine Export Surge

Exports of wines from Georgia (the country — the cradle of wine — not the U.S. state — the cradle of Coca Cola) have surged in recently years, a fact that is both well-deserved and timely. Georgia deserves the increased recognition of its wine sector both because it really is the cradle of wine, with literally thousands of years of history, and because the wine industry and government have invested heavily in recently years to raise standards and promote products in key markets.

Ticking All the Boxes

Georgia wine’s success in 2020 is especially timely because travel and tourism — another important Georgian industry — has been hard hit by the global coronavirus pandemic. Ideally the wine and the tourism industries work together to generate needed income, especially in rural areas. Georgia is sort of running on one cylinder this year, so wine’s boost is especially appreciated.

Sue and I visited Georgia in 2016 and we were impressed by the friendly people. beautiful scenery, striking crafts and culture, delicious food, and excellent wine. We recently re-immersed ourselves in virtual experiences of Georgia through the third annual Ghvino Forum  and a “Georgian Wines 101” trade tasting of six Georgian wines expertly led by Taylor Parsons with special guest winemaker Iago Bitarishvili of the iconic Iago’s Wines.

My particular focus for the Ghvino Forum was a presentation by Tornike Kodrzaia, Head of Research at TBC Capital on the economics of Georgian wine. Wine is important culturally in Georgia (a fact that a recent film Our Blood is Wine makes very clear), but it is also a key element of the economy.

A Complicated Situation

Kodrzaia presented data that showed the Georgian wine sector to be a complex mosaic. A survey of large- to medium-size wineries, for example, revealed high financial returns — about twice the average for Georgian businesses in general, he said. That is incredible. It would be interesting to dive deeper here, to see if the same is true about smaller wineries and if the returns to growers are also positive.

Georgian wine is not a single thing, so it is important to understand its components. Home production was very high during the Soviet era and is still large, especially compared to other countries we have visited. The foundation of Georgia’s high per capita wine consumption is wine made at home or by friends or family, although Kodrzaia noted that commercial wine sales have increased in the domestic market.

Georgian’s prefer white wine — and it is easy to see why if you sample a fine Chinuri, for example. But traditional export markets prefer red wine, so that is a production focus. Russia and the CIS markets demand semi-sweet red wines, which Georgia produces in abundance. Uncertain political relations, however, are behind a movement to diversity export markets and reduce dependence on Russia.

China has emerged as an important market for Georgian wines, but the Chinese prefer dry red wines over the semi-sweet products. Chinese consumers are drawn to the story of Georgian wine — its long history and Silk Road associations– as well as its quality. Many Georgian Wine Houses have opened in Chinese cities to tell the cultural story and promote the wines.

Rising Tide in the U.S. Market

The United States export market is growing quickly from a small base, with above-average prices.  Over 800,000 bottles were exported to the U.S. through October 2020, for example, a substantial increase from 678,000 in 2019 and less than 200,000 in 2014, when the current surge began. The average ex-cellar price of exports to the U.S. was $5.11, according to Georgian statistics, more than double the export price for China and CIS countries. So you can see why the U.S. market is a focus.

Georgian wine is exceptionally diverse, so it will be interesting to see which of its many facets shines brightest in the U.S. market. Natural wine is a growing market niche and many Georgian products can fly that flag proudly. But many of the traditional producers are quite small, so critical mass is an issue. Iago Bitarishvili is an immensely important producer, for example, but only 5000 bottles of his amber Chinuri were made in 2019 according to the data we received.

Georgia is home to literally hundreds of native grape varieties, which creates a kaleidoscope of interesting choices for some consumers and a confusing blur to others. (Sue suggests an initial focus on red Saperavi and perhaps also white Chinuri — excellent wines that buyers will not be afraid to try to pronounce.) Many of the wines are hand-sells, however, which makes Covid closures of restaurants and wine bars in many areas an additional challenge. The six wines that were included in the Georgian Wine 101 tasting were made from these grape varieties: Tsitska-Tsolikouri, Kisi, Chinuri, Tsolikouri-Otskhanuri, Tavkveri, and Saperavi.

But Georgia, Georgians, and Georgian wine have survived these thousands of years because of their determination, commitment, and resilience, so they are unlikely to be defeated by these temporary challenges. We look forward to learning more and Georgia and its wines and to witnessing their continued export growth.

Georgia’s Lost Eden

Just as I was putting the final touches on this column a friend wrote to tell me about a new Georgian wine he sampled over Thanksgiving and really enjoyed. The project is called Lost Eden Red Blend and it ticks many of the boxes needed to break through in the crowded marketplace. It is a blend of 100% Saperavi from several vineyards — I’m guessing the marketing folks thought “red blend” would be more approachable that Saperavi. The wine is made by an 11th-generation (!) winemaker. The packaging is unique, don’t you think? You will remember this wine if you try it and like it.

The wine is “semi-dry” with 15.4 g/l residual sugar and 13% alcohol. 4500 cases made. Suggested retail $18.99. It is a type of wine we tasted and enjoyed in Georgia and that is popular here in the U.S. where many consumers talk dry and drink sweeter. The wine is modern in style, according to on-line documents, but pays its respects to tradition by blending in a portion of wine made in the traditional qvevri method of clay vessels buried in the ground.

Some of my friends will be disappointed that a wine like Lost Eden gets attention. They would like Georgia to be known in the U.S. exclusively for its traditional qvervi wines. But Georgia is a small country that punches above its weight in the wine world by leveraging all of its many advantages, including some high quality sweeter red wines.

We haven’t tasted the wine, but we have sampled the story told on the website, which draws on the people and country, their culture and history, and of course the food, too, including the iconic supra feast. Georgian wine is complicated, as noted above. This is only one side of Georgian wine, but one that seems likely to spark greater interest in the wine and the country in general.

Georgian wine is on the move. Let’s see where it goes next!

Book Review: Wine & the White House

Wine and the White House: A History by Frederick J. Ryan, Jr. (White House Historical Association).

wh2President Trump doesn’t drink beverage alcohol and neither does Vice President Pence, and yet wine is a constant at White House state dinners and similar events.  What’s served is nice wine, too, according to records found in this rather fascinating new book.

A state dinner for French President Macron on April 24, 2018, for example, included Domaine Serene Chardonnay (Oregon), Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir (Oregon), and Schramsberg Cremant Demi-Sec sparkling wine (California).

Apart from the Prohibition years (when, if there was wine in the White House, it wasn’t served in public settings), wine has always been a White House staple and having your wine served at a state dinner has been the ultimate celebrity endorsement.

Wine and the White House is a big book (more than 400 pages), beautifully produced, generously illustrated, and full of information. It is not a book to read from cover to cover, but rather something to dip into and enjoy. There are wine-driven profiles of each president in one section, an examination of the White House collection of wine glasses, decanters, and other wine paraphernalia,  and even surveys of the different wine regions (and some of the producers) that have featured at White House events.

The author, Frederick J. Ryan, Jr., is Chairman of the Board of the White House Historical Association, a perch that gives him access to important source material. He was Assistant to the President under President Reagan, the founding CEO for Politico, and is currently the Publisher and CEO of the Washington Post. 

This book was created with a diverse audience in mind. There are sections on wine basics, for example, for history buffs who might not know a lot about wine. And there are other sections to guide wine people who might not have brushed up on their American history in a while. And, of course, there is a lot of material that both wine people and history people will find new and interesting. You can pretty much open any page at random and find something you are happy to look at or read.

The chapters that I like best focus on the wines that presidents served to their guests at state dinners and similar events.  There are menus going back to 1877, for example, with relatively complete data (including reproductions of the actual menus) starting with the Eisenhower White House years. I’m interested in these documents because they give a sense of how Americans and their leaders thought about wine in the postwar years and how those attitudes evolved.

f4758b03499942eadac83252f0119173Fine wine meant European wine in the 1950s. Eisenhower’s guests were only very occasionally served anything else. A typical Eisenhower state dinner started with Dry Sack Sherry, Spain, and then moved on to  Chateau Climens Barsac, France, and what is listed as Beaune Greves Burgundy, France. Pol Roger Champagne, France, brought the evening to a close. There were variations, of course, for particular guests. German Rieslings for Chancellor Adenauer and Lafite for Winston Churchill.

The Kennedy years saw the the range of wines broaden (more Rieslings and Soave, for example), but generally within a classic old world frame. Noteworthy: increasing presence of American wine (especially Almaden and Inglenook) and I noted Lancer’s Rosé from Portugal served at a luncheon for the Danish Prime Minister. Inglenook “Pinot Chardonnay” appears several times, a reminder that Chardonnay was still little planted in California in the 1960s and often went by this now-forgotten name on bottle labels.

LBJ’s White House dinners embraced American wine wholeheartedly, a trend that has continued. It is as unusual today for an international wine to be served as it was 70 years ago to see a domestic bottle on the table. The White House wine people were ahead of consumers more generally, especially early on, in their willingness to serve American wines to important guests.

It is also interesting to note that the range of American wines, once the trend got started, rather quickly moved beyond California (although that state’s wines still dominated). White House wine selections make a statement and it seems that this is intentional at least some of the time. Can you guess which president first served Texas wine or Michigan wine? Washington and Oregon have joined California as White House regulars.

Wine and the White House is a book that it would be fun to give or to receive.  Pour a glass of fine Madeira (a wine that Jefferson bought by the pipe according to a reproduction of his inventory sheet) and enter this unique world. Wine and history pair very well indeed.

Book Review: The Wines of South Africa

gi_157779_newsimage_vcsprasset_1603936_157779_a1e0438a-e7e6-4421-b354-a406a5fa9579_0Jim Clarke, The Wines of South Africa (The Classic Wine Library) Infinite Ideas, 2020.

Conventional wisdom holds that books with titles that begin “The Wines of …” are organized around what I call the “Three Ps” of wine: the people and their history, the places (geography, climate, terroir), and the plants (most important grape varieties). Good wine books provide interesting and informative accounts of each “P,” but the best ones find a way to rise above orthodoxy to give readers a taste of what really makes a particular region special.

Jim Clarke’s book on South Africa’s wine industry does just that and it is why I recommend it to you. Clarke is U.S. marketing manager for Wines of South Africa and that puts him in an excellent position to analyze South Africa’s wine sector. It is an important book and I encourage anyone interested in South Africa or global wine to read it, but it is not (and does not try to be) definitive for two reasons. First, Clarke wisely chooses to highlight selected wineries in each region rather than trying to cover them all. Balance is key — breadth can be the enemy of depth in this as in so many things. So you will want to have a recent edition of the Platter’s Guide for maps and comprehensive coverage of working wine cellars.

The pace of change is the second limitation. History is moving at warp speed these days — have you noticed? — and it is impossible for books to keep up, even if like this one they are hot off the presses.  Clarke tells the people story though his account of the twists and turns of South Africa’s wine history, which is necessarily intertwined with the country’s history more generally. One inevitable theme here is the importance of turning points — people and events that caused conditions to suddenly change, with effects that sometimes take years to fully unfold.

Balancing Act

2020 looks to be a year of turning points for South African wine. South Africa’s wine sector has for some time been balancing uncomfortably on an economic knife’s edge.
Some producers who go for high yields are able to coax out profits in most years despite low prices in bulk wine markets. Those who restrict yields and aim for higher quality achieve it — the best of the wines are simply spectacular — but often fail to earn prices high enough to produce profits. For at least part of South African wine, quantity pays better than quality. And many wine growers in both camps fail to earn sustainable returns.

Clarks explains this situation very well and the reader can sense his optimism going into 2020. Maybe this is a turning point moment when the country’s wines will finally achieve the widespread recognition (and higher prices) they need and deserve. I am optimistic about this, too.

But 2020 has turned out not to be that kind of turning point year. Instead it has been a year of disasters — the coronavirus pandemic, the global recession, and South Africa’s harsh national policies that have twice shut down domestic wine sales and once stopped export shipments, too. Wineries on the economic margins, many still recovering from severe drought, have been hard hit. A shake-out seems  likely and some wineries that went into 2020’s recession in weak condition will have trouble coming out the other side.

Follow the Money

The problem remains profitability more than wine quality and the collapse of global tourism flows adds one more woe to the pile. South Africa is a wine tourist dream, as Clarke suggests in a brief chapter on this topic, but it will take some time for wine tourists to return to the Cape Winelands in large numbers.

Who is going to lead South Africa’s wine sector out of the perfect storm it is caught in? As Clarke’s analysis makes clear, there is no shortage of institutions and organizations that aim to lead the industry in one way or another. A lot of people  — including a new group called Save SA Wine — are working very hard to limit the current damage and build a stronger foundation for the future.

I am not an insider, so probably I am wrong, but from my outside perspective I’ve always thought that the key must be Distell, the country’s largest private wine producer. Cooperatives, which are enormously important producers in volume terms, are unlikely to be able to lead the charge to boost prices in export markets, but Distell’s interests and those of the high quality wine sector in general are more closely aligned.

If Distell with its great scale and scope doesn’t do it, I don’t know who can or will. But I keep waiting for Distell to execute a sustained and ambitious strategy and make its big move. So far I’ve been disappointed.

Time Has Come Today

Time moves quickly in a crisis. The unfortunate facts of 2020 do not diminish this book’s relevance. In fact it is even more important now for us to understand South Africa wine’s underlying strengths amid significant challenges. And it is important to understand the stories of people and history that Clarke tells so well. South Africa has experienced turning points before and moved through them, drawing upon deep wells of strength and resilience.

Clarke captures South African wine’s bright promise, which we hope will shine through the current storm clouds. Excellent book. Very readable. Highly recommended.