Oregon’s new star wine

Chardonnay from Oregon is experiencing a resurgence as the new star wine in the region. For publication in the week starting 27 March 2017.

Chardonnay will soon overtake Pinot Gris as the main white grape in Oregon, the state regarded as the home of premium wines on America’s west coast.

Oregon’s output is small by American standards — it makes about 1 per cent of the country’s total — but one in five of wines that received scores of 90 / 100 points or higher from Wine Spectator magazine in the past two years came from that state.

Chardonnay is now the “sexy new thing”. Oregon sits at 45 degrees north, about the same latitude as Burgundy in France. For many years Burgundy was considered the benchmark for Chardonnay, but lately Oregon’s winemakers have focused on creating a style unique to the region.

David Millman, winemaker at Bergstrom Wines, believes Chardonnay needs to be picked early. It was vital to “pick for acid,” he said, because acidity created the structure needed for longevity and quality. “The story goes locally that if you pick your grapes when they taste delicious you’ve waited too long.” Winemakers in Oregon needed to have the courage to “harvest for acidity,” he said.

David Adelsheim, winemaker at Adelsheim Vineyard, said acidity was the winemaker’s “magic ingredient”. “We need to pick soon after the phenolics arrive.” This is winemaker speak for choosing grapes that are ripe chemically without being overly ripe to the point of tasting too tropical.

Adelsheim said Chardonnay initially declined in Oregon because people planted the wrong clones – mainly from California – and these produced the wrong kinds of wines. “Some years Chardonnay never ripened.” A change to clones from Dijon in France had helped remedy the situation, though the key still was to “pick for acid”. He believes a combination of Burgundy clones and a change of approach – making “cool-climate New World wines and not trying to copy Burgundy by over oaking and picking over ripe” – were the reasons Oregon whites were becoming so accepted.

Wines that are high in alcohol, the result of picking late, tend to extract more flavours from oak barrels than wines with lower alcohol (say 12-13 per cent). So by picking early winemakers get the twin benefits of lower alcohol while reducing the need for large amounts of new oak, letting the fruit express itself better.

Eugenia Keegan, general manager and winemaker at Jackson Family Wines in Oregon, said she moved to the state from California two vintages ago because she wanted to make a different kind of Chardonnay. Californian winemakers used too much new oak, she said, which nullified the grape’s natural freshness. She uses about 10 per cent new wood, and keeps wine in old 500-litre foudres rather than 227-litre barriques so oak does not overwhelm the fruit. “My aim is to make the style of wine that will make Chardonnay sexy again.” She was referring to the ABC movement – “anything but Chardonnay” – that still plagues the American market and has become something of a cliche since its arrival about two decades ago.

David Millman said “ABC thinking” still existed in the United States but winemakers in Oregon were in the process of “rehabilitating the market”.

Keegan said Oregon producers were making a wide range of styles from wines with no oak fermented in stainless steel through to barrel-fermented wines with full malolactic fermentation. This last process converts harsh lactic acid to softer malic acid, which makes wines taste more buttery or creamy.

About 28,000 hectares of vines are planted in Oregon. In 1980 the state had almost no vines. Pinot Noir is by far the most planted, with about 62 per cent of the total, with Pinot Gris contributing another 13 per cent. Chardonnay is only 6 per cent of the total but Eugenia Keegan said plantings of Pinot Gris in Oregon were “flatlining” while those of Chardonnay were “growing exponentially”.

Why is Oregon Chardonnay so expensive? Production costs are high. To get the best fruit yields need to be kept deliberately low, which affects the number of bottles that can be sold. Noted Eugenia Keegan: “People need to know that Chardonnay is just as difficult to grow as Pinot Noir in Oregon.”

A tasting of Chardonnays in London in March showed wines that were bright and fresh, with good acidity and judicious use of oak. Most Oregon wine is sold on the domestic market. Why organise a tasting in London? “We are only in the UK to show the quality [of Oregon wine],” David Adelsheim said. “London remains an elite market in the wine world.”

The 2014 Bergstrom Sigrid Chardonnay made by David Millman is an excellent example of the new style, all intense fruit flavours and brightness in the mouth. He uses about 10 per cent new oak and the resulting wine is elegant and delicious.

Millman relates a compelling story about the price of Chardonnay. A few years ago he sold his wine for USD 28 and people tended to ignore it when they came to the cellar door to taste. He realised he was barely covering costs so he trebled the price. “People used to ignore my Chardonnay and taste my three Pinots. Now they say ‘A 70 dollar Chardonnay, I gotta try that’ and then they discover how good our Chardonnay is,” he said with a broad smile.

The 2008 Chehalem Ian’s Reserve Chardonnay showed that this type of wine has the capacity to age. The wine, which was under screw-cap, was still fresh with zingy acid, and tasted like a fresh breeze on a hot and sweaty day. ABC needs to be changed to BBC: Buy beautiful Chardonnay.

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Bringing closure to cork taint

French company Diam Bouchage has introduced a new closure designed for long-term cellaring. For publication in week starting 20 March 2017.

Imagine the disappointment when after cellaring a bottle for decades we have to tip the wine down the sink because it is “corked”. A little more than a decade ago perhaps one or two bottles in a dozen were ruined because of a chemical called trichloroanisole (TCA) in tainted corks.

TCA deadens the flavours of wine and produces aromas (at best) like mouldy cardboard or at worst like a wet dog drying by the fire. Faults in wines are one of the reasons restaurants have justified massive mark-ups. This remains bogus reasoning because restaurants can always return faulty wine to the maker for a refund.

One reaction to TCA was the introduction of screw-cap closures. In the decade to the end of last year, the number of corks used in the 18,000 million bottles of still wine and 2,500 million of sparkling wine produced each year fell from 78 per cent to 61 per cent. The use of screw-caps surged from 5 per cent to 26 per cent.

But some wine experts believe screw-caps limit a wine’s ability to age gracefully and some sommeliers maintain they lack aesthetic appeal. One cannot ignore the romance and ritual of a cork being pulled.

In 2005 a French company, Diam Bouchage, introduced a closure that aimed to return to the natural feel of cork. These corks are known as “Diam”. Dr Christophe Loisel, Diam’s director of research and development, said the name was an abbreviation of the word for diamond, implying precision. “We aim to be pure like a diamond.”

Diam Boucharge is the world leader in closure technology and the word Diam has come into our lexicon to mean a cork-like closure. The company produces 1,500 million closures a year. Diam is the name of the closure for still wine, Mytik for sparkling wine and Altop for spirits such as cognac.

The company is based in the Pyrenees region of France near the border with Spain and has built its reputation on the Diamant process that removes the chemicals that taint the taste of wine.

This week the company released a new closure known as Origine that focuses on using only sustainable ingredients. The process which purifies the cork also uses minimal electricity. The new closure is made of tiny cork granules, beeswax and vegetable oils. It satisfies the needs of winemakers who want a closure suitable for long-term cellaring. The new method is to be used with Diam10 and Diam30, the quality closures designed to be used with bottles to be cellared for 10 or 30 years.

Dr Loisel said the new technology was the result of more than a decade of research aimed at improving “permeability”. This refers to the way that a closure allows for the minute flow of oxygen through a cork, necessary for allowing premium wines to mature slowly, meaning long life in the cellar.

Traditional corks come from the bark of cork trees grown in western Mediterranean countries such as Portugal and Spain. Bark from each tree is harvested about once a decade, so it takes a lot of trees to produce closures for the 20,500 million bottles of still and sparkling wine the world consumes each year. (Global wine consumption is about 35,000 million bottles; the balance is bulk wine in bags and boxes.)

Natural cork production wastes a high proportion of the cork bark because corks are punched out of a piece of bark. More than half of each piece of bark is discarded, whereas Diam corks use all of the bark. About 95 per cent of a Diam closure is made of tiny cork granules. The rest is beeswax and natural binders like castor oil.

Bruno de Saizieu, vice president for sales and marketing, noted a major return to closures instead of screw-caps. Use of Diam rose from 4 per cent to 10 per cent in the past decade. “The trend is for prestige wines to use Diam.”

The company charges 60 to 500 Euros for 1,000 still corks, depending on the quality required. The Bordeaux and Burgundy regions spend a lot of money on quality closures for long-term cellaring, de Saizieu said. Sparkling wine closures cost between 100 and 200 Euros for 1,000. They tend to be cheaper because bottles are opened more quickly compared with closures used for long-term cellaring. About 40 million Diam30 closures are sold each year to prestige champagne houses.

Diam Boucharge, whose motto is “guardian of aromas,” has built a new factory at Ceret in south-west France and this week invited wine journalists from around Europe to attend a launch of the new closure. The factory cost 30 million Euro and was part of an 80 million Euro investment in research and development last year.

CEO Dominique Tournieux said the company remained environmentally aware. “Our objective is to source all our raw materials locally. Wine and cork are closely connected. Traditional cork has had problems with taint in the past.” Human creativity combined with natural products remained the answer, he said.

The company harvests 20,000 hectares of cork trees a year, which is small compared with the amount of cork harvested globally – about 2.2 million hectares. Portugal produces about half of the world’s natural cork though it only has about a third of all the cork trees. Spain has about 27 per cent of the world’s trees.

The company plans to build a factory in Portugal next year. The Ceret factory employs laser printers to enable winemakers to apply unique messages on premium closures.

Beeswax is a key ingredient of the new Diam closure, though the amount of wax used in each cork is tiny. To demonstrate its ecological beliefs, Diam Bouchage is supporting a French association called A Roof of Bees by sponsoring beehives in wine regions around the country. Diam Bouchage only needs about three tonnes of beeswax a year compared with the 100,000 tonnes the world’s honey industry uses.

In France, one of the Rhône’s most dynamic producers, Jean-Luc Colombo, has established beehives at their Cornas vineyard and also become a corporate supporter of the British Beekeepers’ Association. The first Colombo vineyard, purchased in 1986, is named Les Ruchets, which means “the beehives” in honour of the colonies on the property.

Jean-Luc Colombo believes in a natural co-existence between insects, animals and grapes, which can only be accomplished through sustainable vineyard practices in which no pesticides are allowed. Colombo considers the dwindling bee population to be one of the biggest threats to nature. “Honey bees pollinate more than 90 per cent of flowering crops and play a vital role in our food chain,” he said. He has named one of his best Côtes du Rhône wines Les Abeilles (the bees).

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was the guest of Diam Bouchage in southern France for the release of the new closures.

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Good things from small regions

Alto Adige may be Italy’s smallest wine region but it produces some of the country’s finest wines. For publication in week of 13 March 2017.

Small wine regions seem to have a talent for winning awards for quality compared with much larger regions. The Margaret River region of Western Australia makes perhaps 2 per cent of Australia’s wines but wins about a third of all prizes. Oregon on America’s west coast produces about 1 per cent of the country’s output but wins a much higher proportion of awards.

Such is the case with Alto Adige, Italy’s smallest and most northern region. It is sandwiched between Austria and Switzerland and in parts has a Mediterranean climate amidst an Alpine landscape. Wines from Alto Adige, also known as Sudtirol, are four to five times more likely to receive a “three glasses” score — the highest  — in the prestigious Italian wine guide, the Gambero Rosso, than wines from Piemonte or Tuscany. These last two are considered some of the premier wine regions in the world.

Why is Alto Adige not better known? Two in three bottles are consumed on the domestic market and most of the rest is sold to nearby countries – Germany, Switzerland and Austria. About 10 per cent goes to the United States. Winemaking is also a small-scale operation – about 5,000 growers tend a mere 5,400 hectares of vines.

About 70 per cent of all wine is made by 13 co-operatives. Small family-owned estates produce most of the rest, with the Association of Independent Winegrowers contributing about 5 per cent of the total. These three groups are represented by the Consortium Alto Adige Wines, which has a useful web site at http://www.altoadigewines.com.

DOC or “denominazione d’origine controllata” stands for the controlled designation of origin of food and wine in Italy. All DOC wines are subject to strict quality standards with maximum yields set for each grape variety, and minimum values established for things like alcohol levels and acidity. Alto Adige is the region with the most DOC wines in Italy, about 98 per cent of the total. All DOC wines bear a green “Sudtirol” insignia on the capsule to guarantee their origin and quality.

Peter McCombie MW noted that a vigorous reduction in yields in recent decades had improved quality significantly, which helps explain the high number of awards.

Alto Adige is divided into seven sub-regions. The warmest is Bassa Atesina, which is also the largest, producing just over a third of the region’s total. The most common varieties are Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Gewurtztraminer, Pinot Noir and Schiava. The last is one of the region’s three indigenous grapes and is also known as Vernatsch or Trollinger. Monastery records show the grape has been grown in the region since at least the 13th century.

Even though it is the warmest sub-region, Bassa Atesina is home to Alto Adige’s highest vineyards and these high altitudes produce lovely cool-climate wines. Muller-Thurgau vines grow at more than 1,000 metres near the village of Magre. The best Pinot Noirs come from the villages of Mazzon and Montagna, and Gewurtztraminer is experiencing a rebirth in Termeno.

Gewurtztraminer has a complicated history with uncertainty about its origins because it tends to mutate, but locals claim it as an indigenous grape. The German name Gewürztraminer means “spicey or perfumed Traminer”. Some grape historians claim the grape originated in the Alsace region of France, and is a mutation of Savagnin blanc (not Sauvignon Blanc).

The Adige Valley sub-region is north of Bassa Atesina and focuses on whites. Its output is small, at perhaps 5 per cent of the region’s total. A feature is the pink soils from weathered porphyry. Vines need to sink their roots deep to find moisture in these dry soils. The village of Tramin in the Adige Valley claims to be the home of Gewürztraminer and has some of the best vineyards dedicated to that variety.

When fully mature, wines made from this grape become rich and silky in texture with intense aromas and flavours of musk, rose petals, spices and lychee fruit. The Cantina Tramin co-operative makes a beautiful version, the 2015 Gewurtztraminer Nussbaumer, with aromas of rose and Turkish delight and a touch of ginger on the finish. It would pair beautifully with Asian food with ginger as one of the ingredients.

The Oltradige sub-region is the second largest, making about 31 per cent of all wine from Alto Adige. It is famous for its beautiful hills and valleys and historic castles. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are grown in the warmer areas, while Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurtztraminer and Pinot Noir ripen in the higher elevations. It is a popular tourist destination because of its beautiful lakes and scenery.

Bolzano is the capital of Alto Adige and the centre of the third-largest sub-region, contributing about 13 per cent of the region’s wine. The climate is Mediterranean rather than continental. Summers are very hot and winters relatively cold.

Indeed, Bolzano is one of the hottest cities in Italy during the summer, despite being only 70 kilometres from the Austrian border. The mountains trap heat in the broad basin of valley in which the city sits. More red than white is grown here, with a focus on the two indigenous reds, Schiava and Lagrein.

Lagrein is believed to be a relative of Syrah and Pinot Noir. The name suggests it originated in the Lagarina valley of Trentino, the region just to the south of Alto Adige. The Cantina Bolzano co-operative makes a formidable 2014 Lagrein Riserva Taber that is almost black in the glass with aromas of earthy hedgerows and blackberries. Some Lagrein can have rustic or coarse tannins but the tannins in this wine are supple and sophisticated. The wine lingers like the beauty of a summer sunset over the lakes. It needs to be consumed with meaty dishes.

Franz Haas makes an excellent Pinot Noir in the Bolzano sub-region, the 2014 Pinot Nero Schweizer. He ferments the wine in concrete tanks and stores it in the bottle for a year before release. It has classic sour cherry flavours, zingy acids, soft tannins and a long finish. Peter McCombie MW believes this region makes some of the best Pinot Noirs in Italy.

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Swiss focus on quality

Little Swiss wine is exported but it’s worth seeking out because of the high quality, though prices can be high. For publication in week of 6 March 2017.

Domestic demand for wine in Switzerland is high by world standards, and consumers are also demanding in terms of what they expect. The Swiss spend an average of 600 Euro per person on wine each year and are in the top 10 of consumers globally.

But Swiss winemakers only produce 40 per cent of what people drink, meaning three in five bottles are imported. Luckily for consumers, three of the world’s major producers – Italy, France and Germany – surround the country.

A tasting of Swiss wine was held in London on February 27. Why bother, given the fact Swiss winemakers are not desperate to sell overseas. In a typical year perhaps 3 per cent of Swiss wine is exported. Michele Caimotto, a former sommelier who runs the Wine Rose consulting business, explained that winemakers simply wanted the world to appreciate the quality of what they create.

Switzerland is a sophisticated country with three national languages (German, French and Italian, though everyone seems to speak excellent English) and a high standard of living. One in four of the population was born overseas. The capital Geneva is a melting pot of cultures.

About two-thirds of Switzerland’s land mass consists of mountains so the area available for vines is limited. The country currently has about 14,800 hectares devoted to viticulture in six regions.

Vaud (25 per cent) and Geneva (10 per cent) in the west of the country produce about a third of all wines. Valais in the southern centre contributes another third. The Three Lakes in the north-west of the country (5 per cent) and the German-Swiss region in the north-east (19 per cent) are cooler and tend to focus on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Muller-Thurgau. Vaud is known as the “home” of the indigenous Chasselas grape, though it is grown in most parts of the country.

Viticulturalists have learned to grow vines anywhere. Some slopes are 60 degrees to the horizontal. It feels like vines grow in every available space. Mountains that average 4,000 metres loom above the valleys where agriculture takes place. Mont Blanc is the highest peak, at 4,800 metres. Even in summer snow flecks these mountaintops.

The limit for viable production is often said to be about 600 metres above sea level, but Swiss wines are grown at close 1,100 metres in exceptional meso-climates. Michele Caimotto noted that 90 per cent of the country’s vineyards refrain from using insecticides, one of the highest proportions in the world.

Pinot Noir represents about 28 per cent of total vine plantings, followed by the white Chasselas with 26 per cent. Switzerland’s total area of vines is smaller than Champagne, but it is the world’s seventh largest producer of Pinot (France and the United States are the world leaders).

Pinot Noir ripens early so it tends to flourish in cool areas of the world where the growing season is long enough for flavours to develop. Switzerland has the advantage of high diurnal ranges in summer; a wide difference between minimum and maximum temperatures enhances grape flavours.

Michele Caimotto presented a masterclass on Chasselas from 2015 and Pinot Noir from 2012. In the 2015 vintage “almost everything went well,” he said, giving wines with natural balance. But he noted that it required talented winemaking to extract a sense of terroir with the Chasselas grape. One of the finest is the 2015 Dezaley Chemin de Fer Chasselas from the Vaud region. Benjamin Massy, son of winemaker Luc, explained that the name came from the railway that hugs the edge of the valley where the vines grow. This is a wonderful wine with delicious texture that sings of the beauty of the valleys.

Also impressive was the creamy 2015 Classique Fendant from Domaine des Muses in Valais. Fendant is the local term for Chasselas in Valais. Winemaker Robert Taramarcaz named his estate after the Muses from Greek mythology. Special mention must be made of the 2011 Polymnie sweet wine, named after the muse for poetry. It is 80 per cent Marsanne with the balance Pinot Gris, and is an elegy to beauty.

Young Pinot Noir offers a range of floral aromas such as violets, rose petals or geraniums with flavours of red fruit such as strawberries and sour cherry (the latter is referred to as “griotte”). Tertiary aromas develop with age when typically Pinot Noir offers “forest floor” notes combined with traces of truffle, leather and spices such as nutmeg or clove.

The 2012 vintage in Switzerland was challenging, Michele Caimotto said, with variable weather in summer. “Winemakers needed to sort thoroughly to get quality fruit.”

Georg Fromm is a master winemaker with more than 50 vintages to his credit. He used to own the Fromm estate in New Zealand, and thus often worked two vintages a year. Fromm said Swiss clones tend to ripen up to a week later than Burgundy clones, sometimes in mid October. From the 2012 vintage he managed to produce elegant, savoury and precise wines that can be cellared for decades, yet are drinking easily now. Indeed, all of his Pinots are impressive and would adorn any serious wine drinker’s cellar.

Fromm pointed out that Oregon has started planting Swiss clones of Pinot instead of clones from Burgundy. He has planted different clones in four unique vineyards named Selvenen, Fidler, Spielmann and Schopfi in Malans in the country’s north-east. “The single vineyard Pinots are a quest for the essential characteristics of the respective clones,” he said. Selvenen means forest in the original Romanic dialect in the area and Fidler is named after the violin player. All are Swiss clones apart from Schopfi which is Burgundian, and all are tributes to his talent.

Also impressive was the 2012 Schlossgut Bachtobel Pinot Noir #2, with its soft tannins and zingy acids from the northern region near Zurich. Winemaker Johannes Meier said he avoided excessive oak to let the fruit “display its beauty”. The wine spends a year in relatively neutral 800-litre barrels. His Pinots are named simply #1, #2 and #3 but they are far from simple.

Michele Caimotto said a feature of Swiss winemaking was attention to detail in both viticulture and production. “Export volumes may be small but Swiss wines are worth having on any good restaurant’s wine list.”

Below is a video of the Richard Gilliard estate in Valais made in 2014. Getting into the vineyard is a unique experience. Access is through a 60-metre tunnel cut through a mountain. The world’s highest dry-stone wall surrounds the vineyard. It is 22 metres high in parts, made of slate and schist.


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Pinot revels in Kiwi climate

Climate and region are the keys to understanding Pinot Noir in New Zealand. For publication in the week of 27 February 2017.

Pinot Noir has come a long way quickly in New Zealand. The first commercial bottling of this grape was a mere three decades ago, a blink of an eye in the world of fine wine.

Growth has been most notable in the past 15 years. The current total of 5,519 hectares of Pinot planted represents a major jump from the 2,029 hectares a decade and a half earlier. Pinot has become the second most planted variety after Sauvignon Blanc, with about 15 per cent of the total, forcing Chardonnay into third place. Pinot accounted for 6 per cent of total wine exports last year, according to data from New Zealand Winegrowers.

Marlborough has the most vines planted (2,590 hectares in 2016) – almost half of the total. Central Otago has the second highest number – about 1,500 hectares – and we find another 490 hectares in the Wairarapa.

Peter McCombie, a Master of Wine based in Europe, was born in New Zealand. He believes the key to understanding Pinot Noir is climate as much as terroir and region. Most successful wine regions in the country are located near the east coast or are protected by hills. “The mountains [down the centre of the country] make viticulture possible in New Zealand. The worst weather comes from the west, and the mountains shelter the vineyards, especially near the east coast.”

McCombie believes some of the most exciting Pinots come from the Marlborough region, famous around the world for the Sauvignon Blanc it produces. Marlborough winemaker Dr John Forrest has long maintained that his country would be famous for Pinot Noir if Sauvignon Blanc had not become the dominant grape.

Originally from Burgundy in France, Pinot Noir has found a natural home in the cool climate regions of New Zealand. In terms of quality the main ones are Marlborough and Central Otago, with the Wairarapa (centred around Martinborough near the bottom of the north island) challenging them in terms of reputation.

The 2015 Esk Valley Pinot Noir and the 2015 Tohu Awatere Valley Pinot Noir represent fine examples of wines from the Marlborough region. The latter is one of the few wine companies in the country owned by a Maori tribe. Both have soft tannins and zingy acid and offer intense fruit aromas. The former tastes of a red fruit native to the country known as the tamarillo or “tree tomato”, and the latter has a pleasing chalky and silky feel to the tannic backbone. The 2015 vintage was small compared with earlier years.

The Esk Valley winery is located in Hawke’s Bay. It is an accepted practice in many New World wine regions for a winery based in one region to make wine with grapes from another region. This practice seldom happens in Old World countries. A wine labelled as Burgundy means the Pinot or Chardonnay grapes were grown in the Burgundy region.

Kiwi Pinot styles vary from region to region. Marlborough wines sit in the red fruit spectrum on the nose and taste of raspberry, plum and cherry. Wines are typically fresh with subtle acidity and soft tannins. Winemaking influences play a part. Grapes are usually de-stemmed so the whole berry surrenders its full character, and a “cold soak” method used to extract flavours and colour from the skin without getting excess tannins.

Other notable Marlborough Pinots come from Villa Maria. The 2013 Reserve is a blend of fruit from the region and is simply delightful to drink, redolent with aromas of black and red cherries, plus a range of spices like cloves. The 2014 Pinot Noir has slightly more acidity and sits more on the red fruit spectrum in terms of flavours and aromas, but is equally charming.

Wine styles from Central Otago vary depending on the sub-region. The warmth of the Bannockburn and Lowburn areas means bigger wines with more tannins, and flavours of dark fruit such as black cherries. Wines from the Gibbston Valley tend to be softer and sweeter with flavours of strawberries, raspberries and a range of fresh herbs. Some people believe pinots from Central Otago smell of dried thyme. Early settlers planted a lot of this herb, McCombie said, and it grows wild.

That thyme was distinct on the nose of the 2013 Ceres Composition Pinot Noir from the Bannockburn sub-region. This muscular wine still needs time to evolve, with its tight and chalky tannins. The 2014 Burn Cottage Pinot Noir from Cromwell in Central Otago is delicately yummy with lashings of spices and herbs and a juicy mouthfeel. It comes from one of the bio-dynamic producers in the area.

Wairarapa Pinots tend to have darker fruit aromas and are slightly savoury. The tannins are long and fine. Wairarapa is a Maori word meaning glistening waters. The 2013 Paddy Borthwick Right Hand Pinot Noir from this region has a pretty and elegant nose of spices, with refined and slightly pronounced tannins and a mouthfeel that continues the spice theme. A delicious wine.

The wine’s name offers an interesting story. Two winemakers, one a right-hander and the other left-handed, decided to experiment to see if “handedness” influenced wine style. They each made a wine using the same grapes from the same vintage to see if the result was influenced by their “handedness”.

The Borthwick web site notes: “The Left Hand and Right Hand Pinot Noirs represent the different personalities of our winemaking team. Left-handed winemaker Braden Crosby (logical, creative and precise) and right-handed vigneron Paddy Borthwick (intuitive, impulsive and thoughtful) each selected a premium parcel of grapes they believe to be the finest expression of the Borthwick Estate Vineyard. Applying their own individual winemaking nuances, with much tasting, lively debate and careful barrel selection Braden and Paddy have made two distinct wines each of 840 bottles. Produced in only the best seasons, these wines display expressions of Pinot Noir as much as the winemakers themselves.”

Previous columns have extolled the virtues of Pinots from Pyramid Valley Vineyard, in the Waikari region north of Christchurch. The vineyard is bio-dynamic and the wines are divine.

All Kiwi Pinot Noirs tasted tended to have alcohol levels of 13.5 to 14 per cent. This level of alcohol suggests the wines should best be served with a range of foods, though lighter styles with lower alcohol could be drunk alone.

What is the future for Pinot Noir in New Zealand? McCombie believes that wines will improve as vines mature. “Better site selection and fine tuning of sites and winemaking will produce even better wines in the future,” he suggested. One trend worth noting was the planting of vines on clay soils to get more “substantial” pinots.

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Red wine and longevity

The link between Sardinian red wine and improved health and longevity is considered this week. For publication in week of 20 February 2017.

In recent years attention has focused on the five areas of the world where people live long and healthy lives known as the Blue Zones. Sardinia, 190 km off Italy’s west coast and the second largest island in the Mediterranean, was the first discovered.

Much of the attention has come from the United States. Despite having some of the world’s best health services, only one person in 5,000 lives to 100 in that country. Women centenarians outnumber men four to one. A study of 17,865 Sardinians born between 1880 and 1900 reported 91 centenarians. The gender ratio was one to one. In America the number of centenarians in a similar-sized cohort would be perhaps 4.

A 2012 study showed that the number of Sardinian centenarians as a proportion of the population had declined compared with the earlier study, probably because of the influence of prosperity, but was still far better than in the United States.

Many factors contribute to longevity. Our genes represent about 20 per cent of the equation. Other factors include exercise, diet, stress, laughter, a sense of purpose and certain styles of wine consumption. Because this is a wine column we will only describe the other factors briefly.

Dr Paolo Francalacci of Sassari University in northern Sardinia believes the people of Sardinia remain genetically distinct from Europe, which explains the genetic component of their longevity. Journalist Dan Buettner wrote a series of articles for National Geographic magazine that he published in the book The Blue Zones. He wrote that the red blood cells of Sardinians were unusually small “providing … a lesser chance of dangerous blood clots” which cause heart attacks.

Sardinia has about five million sheep, against 1.6 million people. Shepherds typically walk at least 8km a day. The island’s rugged terrain and relatively small number of vehicles meant that people got lots of exercise, though that has changed in recent years as people became more prosperous and purchased cars.

Sheep and goats graze on shrubs and herbs free of pesticides. Gianni Pes, the doctor who first identified the Blue Zones, is quoted in Buettner’s book as saying the Sardinian dwarf curry shrub contains “one of the most powerful anti-inflammatory drugs ever found”.

Sardinian markets sell fresh and high quality produce. Almost everything is grown locally. Various studies have shown that a diet high in flavonoids, typically found in brightly-coloured vegetables and fruit, is associated with reduced incidence of cancer and heart disease. Until recently the Sardinian diet was mostly plant based: pulses, whole wheat, garden vegetables and goat’s milk and cheese. People only ate meat on special occasions.

The population appears relaxed and unaffected by time pressures, and of course the word “sardonic” relating to humour comes from Sardinia. Buettner notes the importance of family. He quotes the daughter of a centenarian as saying her mother lived for the family: “It’s about loving and being loved,” the daughter said.

Last week’s column noted that Cannonau di Sardegna wines have attracted attention because of their association with longevity. Cannonau wines contain high levels of antioxidants, which have been linked to heart health.

Professor Torquato Frulio of the University of Sassari showed me a recent research study indicating that of 364 centenarians (149 men and 215 women) on the island, 93 per cent of men and 62 per cent of women were moderate wine drinkers.

What is moderate? About 200ml per day for men and about 100ml for women, Professor Frulio said, explaining that typically centenarians had one glass with lunch and another with dinner, every day of the week. Interestingly, only 2 per cent of the group drank beer. Sardinians often say “a chent annos” to each other, which translates as “may you live to 100”.

Buettner wrote that Cannonau had “two to three times the level of artery-scrubbing flavonoids as other wines” and suggested that moderate wine consumption “may help explain the lower levels of stress among men”.

Professor Luigi Bavaresco of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Piacenza in Italy confirmed that a healthy diet involved what he and colleagues called a “Mediterranean way of drinking”. This consisted of regular and moderate wine consumption, mainly with food, of up to two glasses a day for men and one glass for women, they wrote in the paper Mediterranean Way of Drinking and Longevity published last year in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. Moderate wine drinking “increases longevity [and] reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases,” the paper concluded.

“The Mediterranean diet is based on abundant and variable plant foods, high consumption of cereals, olive oil as the main added fat, low intake of red meat and moderate consumption of wine,” the paper said. “Red wine, which is typically consumed in Mediterranean countries, contains a complex mixture of potentially preventive bioactive compounds (predominantly phenolic) and in particular flavonols.”

Some years ago resveratrol was suggested as a way to explain the so-called French paradox, where people with diets high in fatty meat and cheeses had low levels of heart disease because they drank red wine. Sales of red wine soared in some countries. But Professor Bavaresco said a person would need to drink several bottles of red wine a day to obtain sufficient resveratrol in liquid form.

Chinese companies have started making resveratrol tablets by extracting the chemical from the pips and skins left over from the wine making process. Tablets are now available in pharmacies in Asia.

“Resveratrol in particular appears of relevant importance because it prevents or delays the onset of chronic diseases such as diabetes, inflammation, Alzheimer’s disease and cardiovascular disease; moreover, resveratrol induces neuroprotection and inhibits proliferation of human cancer cell lines and favours the increase of longevity,” Professor Bavaresco and his colleagues wrote in their paper.

Below are some of the Sardinian wines that won gold medals at Grenaches du Monde (reported in last week’s column). It is the premier competition for what is believed to be the world’s most-planted red grape variety. Grenache is known as Cannonau in Sardinia.

The 2015 Argei Le Fattorie Renolia, 2014 Chuerra Riserva by Vitivinicola Antichi, 2014 Costera and 2013 Senes Riserva by Argiolas, 2015 Dicciosu from Cantina Lilliu, 2015 Dolia from Cantina Sociale di Dolianova, 2015 Fudora from Societa Agricola Pranu Tuvara, 2013 Irilai from Cantina Sociale Oliena and 2013 Le Sabbie from Meloni Vini.

All are from the Cannonau di Sardegna DOC. The DOC, awarded in 1972, covers the entire island from the capital Cagliari in the south to Gallura in the north – a distance of about 265km. About one bottle in every five of Sardinian wine is a Cannonau di Sardegna. Sardinia has about 24,000 hectares of vineyards, with 7,500 devoted to Cannonau.

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was a judge at Grenaches du Monde and a guest of the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon.

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Golden Grenache

Medals for the world’s biggest wine competition involving Grenache were announced this weekend. For publication in the week of 13 February 2017.

France received the highest proportion of gold medals, slightly ahead of Spain, at the fifth annual Grenaches du Monde competition held this year in Sardinia, the island off Italy’s west coast.

Grenaches du Monde is the premier competition for what is believed to be the world’s most-planted red grape variety. About 200,000 hectares are grown worldwide; more than half around the Mediterranean. Spain has about 100,000 hectares while southern France has about 90,000.

The red version of the grape has at least 19 names. The French call it Grenache but in Spain its name is Garnacha or Garnatxa. In Italy the name depends on the region. For example, it is called Tai Rosso in the Veneto area, Gamay Perugino in Umbria and Alicante in Sicily, while Sardinians call it Cannonau.

Cannonau di Sardegna wines have attracted attention because of their association with longevity. Sardinia has one of the world’s highest ratios of centenarians and diet is considered a key factor. Cannonau wines contain high levels of antioxidants, which have been linked to heart health. Professor Torquato Frulio of the University of Sassari noted that 93 per cent of Sardinia’s male centenarians were moderate wine drinkers.

Grenache is a versatile grape. Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris are used to make white and pale pink wines respectively, while sparkling wine is made from all variations of the grape.

Grenaches du Monde is an initiative of the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon in southern France. Almost 700 wines were submitted for competition but only 684 were considered because a handful did not adhere to the regulations. Wines cannot be barrel samples and must contain at least 60 per cent Grenache. The handful omitted from competition did not satisfy those rules.

One hundred judges in 20 panels assessed wines. Each panel judged between 30 and 35 wines. Scanners analysed judges’ tasting sheets and compiled the results, which were announced at a ceremony in the capital, Cagliari, on the evening of February 11.

France submitted 149 wines in the competition and 28 received a gold medal, a strike rate of almost one in five. Spain had 322 wines in competition and 55 of those won gold (17 per cent). Italy offered 204 wines (including 182 Cannonau from Sardinia) and 21 got gold (10 per cent).

No other countries won gold or silver. Wines from Macedonia (with two submissions), Australia (three submissions) and South Africa (one submission) each received a bronze.

One of the reasons for the high number of gold medals – 104 out of 684 wines judged – was the fact that 88 points out of 100 was the starting point for a gold. In some competitions the number of points required for gold is higher. Decanter magazine awards a gold medal for a minimum of 95 points, for example.

Grenache ripens late, which means it needs hot, dry conditions such as those found in Spain and Italy to show its best attributes. The grape probably originated in Spain though some historians suggest it travelled from Sardinia to France and Spain.

With other red grapes it is relatively easy to trace origins based on the name. Monastrell is another red variety that likes heat. It probably evolved around the Spanish Mediterranean city of Murviedro near Valencia. This explains the name the French gave the grape – Mourverdre comes from Mourvèdre in the Catalan dialect – when they introduced it in the early sixteenth century. In Australia Monastrell is called Mataro. That name is believed to have come from the Spanish town of Mataro, near Barcelona.

Grenache thrives in hot parts of the world. It can be found in Portugal, Greece, Mexico, Israel, Lebanon, California’s Chaparral region and south of Santiago in Chile.

Flavours include red fruits like cherry, raspberry and strawberry with notes of white pepper and oriental spices, through to jams and fresh and dry herbs. Wines made from Grenache tend to lack tannin, acid and colour so the grape is often blended with Shiraz, Mouverdre, Carignan or Cinsault.

Because the grape ripens late, expect relatively high alcohol levels – often 15 per cent or more. The spice in Grenache makes it a good pairing for hot Asian foods. Alcohol is a solvent for capsaicin, the chemical that makes spicy foods feel hot. A high-alcohol Grenache can help reduce the “burn” of spicy food.

Grenache wines can oxidise during the winemaking process, resulting in unpleasant rustic or barnyard aromas. But when quality Grenache ages the wines offer lingering flavours of leather, spice and tar.

Winemakers can coax a range of wine styles from Grenache. In southern France we find fortified dessert wines called “vin doux naturel” such as Maury and Banyuls. Fermentation is stopped by adding grape spirit such as brandy to the red wine. These excellent wines feature in the Languedoc-Rousillon region of southern France. They need to be better known because they are delicious dessert wines.

In Australia probably the best-known version is Charles Melton’s Nine Popes blend of Shiraz Grenache Mourverdre, which helped introduce Grenache to a new breed of wine consumers. In California the so-called Rhone Rangers led by Randal Grahm, the winemaker behind Bonny Doon, created wines from old-vine Grenache with memorable flavours and names like Cigare Volant and Clos de Gilroy.

A technical conference about Grenache was held in Alghero, the town at the northern end of Sardinia, as part of Grenaches du Monde. Mariano Murru of the Sardinian Wine Association said Sardinia was the most ancient island in the Mediterranean and offered a wide variety of terroirs for making Cannonau.

Delegate Giuliana Dalla Longa, from the Murales Winery in northern Sardinia, believes granitic soils there are ideal for making age-worthy Cannonau. “Sardinia is a great place to make wine because of the soil, the sun, the clean environment and the tradition,” she said.

Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was a judge at Grenaches du Monde and a guest of the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon.

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