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Wine Geography: Italy
The Phoenicians who planted the first grape clippings in what is today Southern Italy didn’t really know whether the land would be good for that crop. However, it didn’t’ take long for those ancient cultures to realize that Italy was a fantastic place to grow grapes for making wine. The Greeks even called it “The Land of Wine”. Today, Italy is one of the top wine importing countries to the United States - battling it out with Australia for the #1 spot each year for the past several years. Italy has some marvelous mid-range and high-end wines for us to try; the only problem is that it is also one of the most complicated regions to understand and study. For example, there are over 2,200 named growing regions in Italy and more than 2,400 varieties of grapes grown. The wine labels don’t help us much either since Italy follows a similar quality classification and regional labeling system to that used by the French. But as challenging, frustrating, and intimidating as that system is, there is so much more to Italy than Chianti, and we’ll help you figure it out – and believe me it’s worth the effort. Italy produces some of the finest wines in the world, and it is worth the extra effort to explore this incredible winemaking region. For a first look at Italy, join us on April 30th for our Intro to Italian Wines class.
New Wine
Old World vs. New World
What do people mean when they use the term “Old World Wine” or “New World Wine”? Well first of all, the terms are not meant to imply any sense of the quality of one versus the other. Old World wines are those wines from Europe where the production techniques emphasize the character of the ‘terroir’, or the region where the wines were made and the grapes were grown. France, Italy, and Spain are all examples of Old World wine making countries. The style tends to show more earthy characteristics, good acidity, and moderate levels of alcohol. In contrast, New World wines are from those areas of the world outside of Europe, and those wines emphasize more of the grape varietal characteristics. The USA, Australia, and New Zealand are all New World wine regions. New World wines tend to contain more alcohol and show more fruit-forward characteristics. Both styles are recognized as “World Class” when done well, and the elements of the wine are balanced. To learn more about Old World and New World wines and do some side-by-side comparisons, join us for the January Specialty class “Simply Reds” on 1/31/08; see if you can pass the blind tasting pair at the end of the class and successfully determine what region of the world the wines are from. See you there!
Wine Geography: Bordeaux, France
Bordeaux is arguably the most famous wine region in France. This is primarily due to the strong connection with the British during the medieval period of European history. However, did you know that the Dutch actually had a profound influence on this area’s ability to make great wine? After the Hundred Years War which culminated in the British being tossed out of France, the Dutch began to exert their influence on the Bordeaux region. In the 17th century, it was the Dutch who drained the area of Bordeaux known as the Medoc which was up until that time just a swampy bog. The Dutch had long been experts at reclaiming land from the sea, and they put that knowledge to use in Bordeaux. The result was the creation of some of the most famous vineyard properties in the world. Chateau Lafite, Chateau Latour, and Chateaux Margaux; each of which are “First Growth” vineyards were all planted on this reclaimed land in the late 1600’s. To learn more about Bordeaux and some of the other famous wine regions of France, join us at the end of September for our Introduction to French Wine class at the Warehouse on September 27th.
What does it mean to see the word “Reserve” on the label?
In most countries of the world, the word “Reserve” has no legal meaning that can be applied on a consistent basis; it is simply a marketing term used to imply that some special attention has been paid to the wine and therefore the quality (and hence the price) is higher. However, there are a few countries in the world where the word “Reserva” or “Reserve” really does have a legal connotation: Spain, Portugal, Argentina and Chile. In Spain, which is the second oldest winemaking region in Europe after Italy, the word “Reserva” means the wine must go through at least 3 to 4 years of ageing, with at least 1 year in oak. “Gran Reserva” means the wine must have 4 to 5 years of ageing with 2 years in oak. The other countries mentioned above follow a similar, though not identical, pattern to discern their wines from the younger versions. In Spain, that younger version is labeled as “Crianza”. Crianza wines are aged 1 to 2 years, with at least 6 months in oak. If you want to try a fun experiment, buy all three versions of the same wine by the same producer so you can compare the wines: Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva. Cheers!
Why Do Winemakers Use Sulfites?
Sulfur Dioxide (Sulfites) is a natural and critical part of all winemaking. During fermentation, the process of converting the sugar from the grape juice into alcohol, sulfur dioxide is one of the natural by-products. Sulfur dioxide is also added at different stages of the winemaking process to kill bacteria, inhibit additional fermentation, and prevent oxidation. In the USA, winemakers cannot have more than 350 parts per million (ppm) of sulfites in their wine. However, most wine contains much less than that and even organic wine contains sulfites, but not more than 100 ppm; even wines that say “No Sulfites Added”, still contain the sulfites that occurred naturally during fermentation. Sulfites also occur naturally in many other foods such as broccoli, potatoes, garlic, onions, fruit juices, salad bars, etc. According to Natalie MacLean, noted wine author, “…a single serving of most of these foods has more sulfites than a whole bottle (of wine)”. So who truly is affected by Sulfites? There is a small percentage of the population that is allergic to this chemical, and in particular the asthmatics in that group who can develop a severe reaction to them; that’s what prompted the US FDA to require the “Contains Sulfites” on the label. Finally, while it’s certainly important to read the cautionary label and note if you really are allergic, for the vast majority of people sulfites are a non-issue and they actually make our wine better for their use.
How Does Wine Get Its Color?
“Why is it that Zinfandel, which I always think of as a red wine grape, can also be made into White Zinfandel which is a semi-sweet blush wine?” I get that question a lot in my classes. What most folks don’t realize is that with just a few exceptions, the juice that emerges from wine grapes is clear. The wine gets its color through exposure to the skins during the production process. One of the options that the winemaker has is just how much color to give the wine. If they want to make a blush wine or a white wine, the juice and the skins will be in contact with each other for just a few hours. In the case of red wine, the skins and juice could be together for days or even weeks. The color of your wine in the bottle will also change as the wine ages. Young white wines are more clear and have a slightly green-ish tinge to them but get darker with age. Red wines are more dark and purple-ish when young, but pale and turn more brick-red in color over time.
Tips on Storing Wine
Here in the dry climate of Colorado Springs, it’s important to know how to store your wine. That’s especially true if you’re storing wine for a few more years to let it age; you want to protect your investment. The most important thing to remember is to always store your wine horizontally – that is, on its side. By storing it sideways, you’ll allow the wine to stay in contact with the cork. That swells the cork just a bit, and ensures the cork has a nice, snug seal. If you store your wine upright, there’s a chance the cork could dry out allowing air to seep into your bottle and wreck your wine. The next most important thing to consider is the temperature. A nice cold spot in your basement should work just fine. The ideal temperature for ageing your wine is 55 degrees, but even more critical than achieving that temperature is to avoid large swings in temperature. For example, storing your wine in an upstairs bedroom where the temperature might be 60 degrees at night but 75 degrees during the day is definitely bad for your wine. Lastly, keep your wine in a dark area that doesn’t get a lot of light or excessive vibration. So to summarize, store your wine on its side, in a cool environment without a lot of light or excessive vibration.
Reading French Wine Labels - Part 2
Last month in part 1 of “Reading French Wine Labels”, I mentioned that one of the keys is that the French primarily label their wines using a regional classification system, not by the wine grape. The French classification system is intended to help consumers by supposedly guaranteeing the quality of the wine in the bottle, by closely associating it with a set of laws and a specific location. Most French wine sold in the USA will have the designation either Vin de Pays (Wine of the Country) or Appelation d’Origine Controle (AOC which refers to a specifically registered region). Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Loire are noteworthy French AOC’s to watch for in your local wine shop, as are the smaller AOC’s Pouilly-Fume, Medoc, and Vouvray. Each of the latter AOC’s is actually part of one of the other three respectively. Think of an archery target with a series of consentric rings. As you get closer to the bull’s-eye, the size of the AOC region gets smaller, the quality gets better, and the price typically goes up. To learn more about the differences between the “Old World” wines of Europe, and the “New World” wines of the USA & Australia, come to our red wines class in March called “Simply Reds”, and our white wines class in April called “White Wine Please”.
Reading French Wine Labels – Part 1
In the United States, French wine imports rank #3 behind Italian and Australian wines. Why? One reason is labeling. A wine must “communicate” itself to the consumer largely through the label on the bottle. The French label their wines primarily by the region in France where the wine was made, and “New World” countries like Australia and the USA label their wines primarily by the grape varietal used. That’s an oversimplified explanation, but one we can all see clearly when two bottles are placed next to each other. The only way to really know what you’re buying if you buy a bottle of French wine is to get a book and study French wines. Barring that, you’re just going to have to experiment. Next month, I’ll explain the basics of the French classification system and give you some key regions to watch for on the bottles at your favorite wine shop.
American Viticulture Areas (AVA's)
In France, one of the key labelers to designate a wine's relative quality is its quality designation; Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) being one example. It denotes a very rigid set of growing, harvesting, production, and regional restrictions have been followed, and are your guarantee of what's in the bottle. Bordeaux, Pomerol, and Pauillac are all examples of registered French AOC's. By contrast, the United States uses a classification system called AVA, or American Viticulture Area. However, the AVA system is NOT used to designate quality but rather to distinguish a particular growing region. AVA's can be large or small such as a State, County, region within a County, or even a specific vineyard. There are some labeling restrictions for AVA's too. For example in order for a wine bottle to show a specific vineyard listed on the bottle, it must have 95% of the wine produced from that specific vineyard. The next time you look at an American wine label, check out the AVA listed.
Wine Geography: Alsace France
Compared to the more famous French wine growing regions like Bordeaux, Burgundy, or the Loire Valley where incredible wines have been produced for centuries, the appellation known as Alsace might seem like the relative no one talks about. However, to ignore Alsace as a respected wine growing region of France would be a mistake. Located on the western side of the Rhine river which separates France from Germany, Alsace experiences wonderful growing conditions; warm summers and winters that are not extremely cold. Due to the close proximity to Germany, the area shares some traits of each country: German-style food and architecture, but the locals speak French and the winemakers on the French side of the river have a completely different view of what they want their wines to be compared to the German-style wines made with the same grape varieties grown just a few kilometers away. Whereas Rieslings from Germany might display a bit of sweetness; the winemakers of Alsace ferment their Rieslings in a dry-style. The results from both sides of the river are unique and terrific. Riesling is considered a "food friendly" wine and is an excellent choice to accompany a variety of meals; especially shellfish, sushi, poultry and goat cheese. Some of the other white wines from this region include Gewürztraminer, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Muscat, and Pinot Gris.
What is Tannin?
According to Kevin Zraly in his book, Complete Wine Course, “Tannin is a natural substance that comes from the skins, stems, and pips of the grapes, and even from the wooden barrels in which many are aged.” Tannin is found in both Red and White wines, but is much more prevalent in red wines. Tannin is also not a taste, but rather a tactile sensation. The sensation you get in your mouth to detect Tannin is a drying out of your mouth, also known as astringency. In a young wine, the tannin sensation can be quite pronounced, and can make the wine taste bitter. This may sound unappealing, however, Tannin is a natural preservative and a critical component necessary to help wines age well. What you’re looking for is a wine where the Tannin experience does not overwhelm the rest of the wine; in other words, a wine with balance. Tannin softens with age, and also when exposed to oxygen. So if you’ve got a wine with a “Bite”, you might want to let it breathe out in the open for a few minutes or hang on to that extra bottle for a little while longer.
Deciphering German Wine Labels - Part 2
Last month I began a two part explanation of how to read German wine labels. I first explained the German quality rating system, with QmP being the highest quality. Within the QmP level, there are further distinctions called Prädikats. These Prädikats are primarily based on the level of sugars in the wine as grape sugars are highly prized in that cold growing region.

Here are the names of the QmP Prädikats you'll find on German labels: 1)Kabinett: Normal, fully ripe grapes; 2) Spätlese: "Late Harvested" grapes, may yield slightly sweet wine; 3) Auslese: Very ripe grapes, sweet wine; 4) Beerenauslese: Individually selected, very ripe grapes, makes extremely sweet dessert wine; 5) Trockenbeerenauslese: Individually selected, used to make the sweetest of German dessert wines; and 6) Eiswein (icewine): grapes naturally frozen on the vine, concentrated sugars, sweet dessert wine.

One other word to look for on a German wine label is trocken which means "dry". Halbtrocken means "half-dry". The first two Prädikats listed above are also made in a completely dry style too, so look for the word trocken on the label if that's what you're after. There you go, you're armed with the basics you need to start experimenting with German wines.
Deciphering German Wine Labels – Part 1
If you like sweet wines, why not look to the country that produces internationally acclaimed sweet wines: Germany? One reason you may have left Germany off your list of countries whose wines you’d like to try is because you can’t read the darned labels. Here’s the first of a two-part lesson in reading German wine labels. First off, the Germans use a government-regulated quality rating system like other European countries. The three quality levels are: 1)Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP): this is the highest quality and the translation means “Quality wine with distinction”. 2)Qualitätswein Bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA): this is the designation for middle-quality wine. 3) Tafelwein: this is the lowest quality table wine, and it is not imported to the USA. Unless the label specifies that the wine is a Riesling, then it is made from another variety or blend of varieties. Some other common German varietals are: Sylvaner, Müller-Thurgau, and Gewürztraminer. Next month, we’ll talk about the various levels of distinction in QmP quality wines. Hang in there, because German wines are worth the effort!
Wine History: The Roman Influence
As the Romans expanded their empire throughout the Mediterranean, they found grape vines already under cultivation. The Phoenicians and Greeks had already come to appreciate wine, and were widely planting it in the temperate climate of the eastern Mediterranean. The Romans also acquired a passion for wine. By 1000 B.C., they were classifying grape varieties, identifying diseases, and experimenting with new, improved growing techniques. They developed wooden casks and barrels to store their wine in place of the jars and skins previously used, and they may have even been the first to put wine into glass containers. One story has it that Roman soldiers carried two things with them as they ventured into new territories: olive pits to plant which would grow into trees, so they’d always have something to eat; and a wine grape cutting to plant, so they’d always have something to drink.
Wine Geography: Sonoma County, CA
Drive north from San Francisco on Highway 101 over the Golden Gate bridge, and about 20 minutes later you'll have left the hustle and bustle of the Bay Area behind. The rolling hill country of Sonoma County, the western neighbor of the more famous Napa County, is home to open pastureland for dairy cows, oak trees, vineyards, and a wide variety of other produce including the famous Gravenstein apple. Until 1960, there weren't many vineyards in this area. But over the past 45 years, this traditionally agricultural community, with its almost perfect weather for grape growing, the variety of micro-climates, and the incredibly rich soil have allowed Sonoma County to enter the list of regions where remarkable wine is created. Some of the registered sub-regions within the county are becoming known to be associated with particular grape varieties that flourish in their unique micro-climates: Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, and Russian River Chardonnay & Pinot Noir to name a few.
What Does "Vintage" Mean?
The term "Vintage" refers to the year the grapes were harvested that went into your bottle of wine. It does NOT refer to the year the wine went into the bottle. In fact, it is quite rare to have a wine bottled in the same year the grapes were harvested. Whether or not a particular vintage is "good" is dependent on the region where the grapes were grown, and the weather conditions in that particular year. Of course "good" is a subjective assessment, but one place you might look is at www.winespectator.com - they have vintage charts which rate, according to their judgment, the relative quality of vintages for each major winemaking region of the world.