Category Archives: Wine Education

Introducing “Ask Kathy”


The world of wine can be intimidating. Where should I shop? Which wine goes best with a certain meal or cuisine, or favorite cheese? What is Carménère? Where is Irouleguy? What’s the best itinerary to enjoy the wines of Tuscany? Why is Pinot Noir so difficult to grow? Where can I take wine classes, and which type of education is best for me? Is Soave and place or a grape? Can you help me “translate” a German wine label? And so it goes…

This is an experiment to gauge interest among readers in addition to my immediate friendship network (and to try using WordPress as the vehicle)! If you have a question, just fill out the “leave a reply” comment box on the “Ask Kathy” page of my website (or use this post), and I will get back to you as quickly as I can.

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Southwest France: Diverse by Design?

Southwest France (Sud Oest) is best known for what it isn’t. Frankly, and unfortunately, it’s not widely recognized at all. With an accompanying eye-roll, I must report that many people have asked me – quite genuinely – “where is Southwest France?”!

Let’s get positioned on the map. Sud Oest is the deepest rural France, la France profonde. “In terroir terms, it’s a big area and rather difficult to generalise about, but most of the high-quality vineyard zones…owe their existence to the slopes created by rivers coming down either from the Massif Central, or from the Pyrenees. The overall zone is the Aquitaine Basin, and almost all of the soils…have been developed from sedimentary rocks of various kinds, or by the action of the rivers themselves.”[1]

  • To the west, the Atlantic Ocean curves along the French coastline, moderating altitude and winter weather (along with several smallish rivers) to create both maritime and semi-continental climates with plenty of rainfall.
  • To the south, the Pyrenees Mountains separate France from Spain. Beautifully majestic and occasionally craggy, the mountains are quite permeable. Basque language, food, and culture seep into the foothills on the French side.
  • To the north, Southwest France stretches inland, cupping the edges of Bordeaux and capturing misty river effects to generate some of the world’s greatest (if little known) sweet wines.
  • To the east? Well, that’s a good question. Several of the appellations that comprise Southwest France are actually nestled within the great Massif Central. The city of Toulouse might be a good eastern marker signaling the regional shift to Languedoc-Roussillon.
Map Credit: Wine Folly

Map Credit: Wine Folly

So what is (or is not) Southwest France? It is not an official appellation; it is a collection of appellations, glued together for convenience into a sort of cornucopia. Its terroir is not homogenous, although there are some common threads. It is the spiritual home – exclusive, in some cases – to spectacularly interesting grapes. Despite New World claims to the contrary, Malbec and Tannat can rightly claim Cahors and Madiran, respectively, as their spiritual homes. It’s not all obscure and mysterious, though. The appellations closest to Bordeaux do grow international varieties and make familiar blends.

This all adds up to a perplexing global-market branding nightmare for the winegrowers of Southwest France. There is very little that ties this huge geographic region together naturally as either an appellation or a brand. What might it be called instead? South X Southwest? Pyrenees North? Bordeaux Near? Gascony? High Country? l’Aquitaine?

Contributing to the overall brand issue is the fact that only about 25% of the 330 million bottles produced in Southwest France is AOC wine. Most of it – nearly 2/3 – is a regional designation of IGP (formerly Vin de Pays), and the rest is basically table wine for local markets. It is difficult to lift up and distinguish the highest quality wines.

It’s quite possibly impossible to create a proper synthesis of the region. While this alignment and branding problem is being sorted out, perhaps at a smaller scale on an appellation by appellation basis, the interim solution seems clear to me. Take a deep breath, hire a driver, plan a wine route that matches your sense of adventure, and enjoy by design the diversity of Southwest France. Just be sure to plan enough time to make the most of the >1,800 km touring experience!

Up next: Part 2 | History, Food & Wine

[1] Thank you to Andrew Jefford for the use of his extensive reference notes and excellent leadership of a Wine Scholar Guild tour of Southwest France.

Tradition Meets Innovation in Bergerac, FR

(This article was published October 20 by Wine Scholar Guild)

Day one of the Wine Scholar Guild (WSG) study tour of Southwest France, led by Andrew Jefford, was a very special opportunity to spend quality time with the owners/winemakers of three appellations, each providing a different glimpse of the diverse terroir of the region.

A bit behind schedule, we stopped for lunch at La Flambée near Bergerac just before 1:00. Bruno Bilancini had earlier explained the region’s daily rhythm of cool mists lasting until about 1:00, then giving way to warm sunshine (and thus perfect conditions for botrytis). The daily weather story was right on schedule!
Back on the bus, warmed by a lovely meal and and a preview of a white wine from Château Tour de Gendres, we headed to our third and final visit of the day in Bergerac with winemaker Luc di Conti. Instead of vineyard cats, we were greeted enthusiastically by a boisterous pooch who was determined to latch onto the knitted scarf of one member of our group.

In Ch. Tour’s vineyards we walked high atop a hill where we could see clearly the patchwork quilt of soils that provide great diversity and a perfect setting for organic farming (since 1996) of each parcel in a different manner. While the complete picture of the di Conti family vineyard holdings encompasses 50 ha, Luc farms 20 of them, choosing the 6 ha closest to the winery and cellars for biodynamic farming. When asked whether organic farming is more expensive than traditional commercial methods, Luc said unequivocally “no. If you are playing chess, you are always one step ahead. The same is true of viticulture.” After 20 years, nature is in balance at Ch. Tour and inspires new directions such as the dozen amphorae where Luc is also making orange wines.

Our tasting included a sample of Sauvignon Blanc from amphora (no skins, 10 days in the vessel) to compare with SB from a wooden vat. The amphora sample was cool, cloudy, slightly effervescent and sweet. The vat sample was warmer and also cloudy at this stage; though there was no sign of effervescence, there was more residual sugar. Continuing with comparisons, we tasted a vat sample of 2016 Bergerac Blanc (Muscadelle a Petits Grains) and a finished sample from 2014 which had been aged 80% in vat and 20% in amphora. The vat sample was quite leesy and tasted of pamplousse (grapefruit), while the finished wine was rich and full bodied with a slightly saline character. The vines for a 2014 Sauvignon Blanc are 80 years old, grown on calcere soil, resulting in a style typical of SW France. The final taste was a sample of 2015 Cabernet Franc, aged 14 months in a vat, ready to spend a year in bottle prior to release.

Chateau Tour Des Gendres

Chateau Tour Des Gendres

Southwest France: Monbazillac, Pecharment and Bergerac

Day one of the Wine Scholar Guild (WSG) study tour of Southwest France, led by Andrew Jefford, was a very special opportunity to spend quality time with the owners/winemakers of three appellations, each providing a different glimpse of the diverse terroir of the region.

Chateau Tirecul La Gravière

The misty morning launched with great aplomb: sweet breakfast treasures from Monbazillac. Standing with us on the edge of vineyards where botrytised grapes awaited the launch of harvest (by hand) on October 19, Bruno Bilancini led a discussion of the vineyard’s primarily clay (with a bit of limestone) terroir, explaining the influence of being situated in the microclimate of a valley on the left bank of the Dordogne River and the effects of slopes that face north and east (rather than the more customary south and west). Although Sauternes is perhaps better known than Monbazillac, the latter has twice the vineyard area. We also savored a vineyard sampling of raisined Semillon and Muscadelle grapes. The Bilancini family’s hunt for their white vineyard cat — yes, cat! — added a suspenseful moment to the visit.

Winemaker Bruno Bilancini; Wine Scholar Guild study group led by Andrew Jefford; misty morning in Monbazillac

Winemaker Bruno Bilancini; Wine Scholar Guild study group led by Andrew Jefford; misty morning in Monbazillac

Our tasting started with a dry white wine, 70% Muscadelle and 30% Semillon (2013), named “Andrea” for Luc’s daughter. Unoaked, virtually no skin contact, only a single day of fermentation (no MLF), resulted in a rather flinty but elegant super-dry wine. The centerpiece of the tasting, however, was a trio of sweet wines, all revealing a tangy tangerine note that Bruno said was characteristic of the region. Ranging from light and crisp (young vines) to bold and complex (vines 20-30 years old), these field-blended wines are not intended for dessert! Bruno’s advice was to serve them decanted for as long as two days and quite cold, the lightest (2015 Les Pins) as an aperitif and the more luscious pair (Tirecul La Graviere, bottled spring 2015, and a 1998 Cuvee Madame) with spicy cuisine.

Chateau de Tiregand

Onward to Pécharmant, where the youngest heir to the Saint-Exupéry dynasty met us for a tour of the vineyard, winery and tasting. Cyril is the son (and winemaker in training) of the current winery leader, François-Xavier, who was en route from a trip to Belgium. A bit nervous to lead the presentation for eight wine students and professionals, young Cyril did a fine job walking us through the vineyards, the basics of wine production, and a tasting. (At one point in the cellar, a black cat, heavy with soon-to-be-born kittens, managed to give us all a start as we discussed barrel aging.) Due primarily to its location, Ch. de Tiregand specializes in blends of traditional Bordeaux varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec, as well as Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle. Our walk through the vineyard revealed vines heavy with nearly ripe grapes, sweet and juicy to the taste until met with the crunch of a still-green pip. The date for harvest will be soon, but had not yet been selected.

Cyril Saint-Exupery; Cabernet Franc nearly ready for harvest; busy preparations in the winery.

Cyril Saint-Exupéry; Cabernet Franc nearly ready for harvest; busy preparations in the winery.


South America’s (Wine) MVPs


My first wine tour of South America begins today. In every region, everywhere in the world, there are always a critical few people who lead the shift from bulk to quality wines, and show the pathway into global markets.

Absent major political and economic deterrents, it’s true that winegrapes can grow reasonably well without much human intervention. Many would argue that less is more. But personal touches matter, especially today because we know so much about terroir, agriculture, chemistry and other key process factors. Selecting a good site, planting grapes well suited to that site, nurturing the vineyard through Mother Nature’s life cycles, healthy practices in the vineyard and during winemaking operations, and knowing when to pick in good conditions and bad. These are all human decisions that make a difference in the quality of finished wine.

Every New World country was propelled onto the global stage by a late 20th  century catalyst. The infamous 1976 “judgment of Paris” was a dramatic turning point for wine development in the U.S. In 1994, the end of South African apartheid unleashed 25 years of private entrepreneurship for white and black owners. New Zealand found its international magic in ideal growing conditions for Sauvignon Blanc. Australia overcame a poor reputation owing mostly to a glut of sweet and fortified wines, first by grubbing up vines and later by investing in production technology and enforcing quality standards. At various points during a twenty-year period (1970s-90s), key individuals in South America made the dramatic moves that reset the game board for quality winegrowing in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. (This same story can be told about some European countries, notably Spain, which took great advantage of advances in equipment, technology and labeling regulations to restore eminence to an historic wine producing reputation.)

Without further ado, introducing South America’s “Most Valuable Pioneers” (MVPs), a small collection of the most influential people who helped to propel the “big four” countries into the modern era of the global wine trade!

Clockwise from upper left: Ana, Susana and Jose Balbo; Nicolas Catena; Miguel Torres; Aurelio Montes Jr. & Sr.

Clockwise from upper left: Ana, Susana and Jose Balbo; Nicolas Catena; Miguel Torres; Aurelio Montes Jr. & Sr.

Only one in ten winemakers in South America is female. The grand dame is most certainly Susana Balbo who has dominated the wine scene in Argentina for more than 35 years. In 1981, she was the first woman to graduate from the school of oenology in Mendoza. She has served three times as elected president of the trade group Wines of Argentina. Launching her own winery in 1999 in the Luján de Cuyo region, and recently joined by her two children, Balbo makes three ranges: “nosotros” single vineyard 100% Malbec, signature reserve, and crios (“children”).

The undisputed patriarch of fine wine in Argentina is third generation winemaker Nicolás Catena Zapata, widely credited with reviving Argentina’s industry in the 1990s. Among his revolutionary moves was to hire renowned international consultants, including Paul Hobbs and Michel Rolland, to share their deep knowledge with winemakers in and around Mendoza. For example, they pioneered extended maceration and use of new oak barrels in Argentina. Catena was named “Man of the Year” in 2009 by Decanter Magazine. His daughter Laura joined the family enterprise in 2001 to manage R&D, and the next year created Luca Wines named for her oldest son – a 5th generation on the way?

Antonio and Rinaldo dal Pizzol are considered to be leaders of the boutique wine movement in Brazil since 1974, focusing on direct sales to customers (consumer and trade) rather than large-scale production. Even today, the Dal Pizzol winery sells more than half its wine independently without distributors.

Reinaldo de Lucca is the current generation of an Italian immigrant family that began making wine in Uruguay in the 1940s. He was one of the leaders of the so-called “reconstruction” of the wine industry at de Lucca winery 20 years ago. With multiple wine-related and business degrees from prestigious higher education institutions around the world, he is one of the most highly trained winemakers, certainly in Uruguay, and perhaps in South America. Enjoy Alder Yarrow’s recent Vinography post sharing his October visit to de Lucca winery.

Although his influence was felt a full century before the modernists in this blogpost, no story about MVPs would be complete without Don Pascual Harriague. He is credited with bringing the Tannat grape to Uruguay in 1870 from the Basque region near the Pyrénées, specifically Madiran. Today, Tannat is the signature grape of Uruguay, occupying nearly 50% of all vineyard area.

Adriano Miolo is Brazil’s largest grower and producer of fine wine. According to Evan Goldstein in “Wines of South America,” Miolo is the Catena of Brazil in his “visionary outlook and focus on quality” and is known for pioneering new winegrowing areas such as Campanha Gaúcha. Miolo Wine Group, formed in 2006, has assembled more than 100 products from national and international partnerships, including 8 wine projects in Chile, Argentina, Portugal and Spain (in addition to Brazil).

Aurelio Montes is a pioneer and the modern patriarch of quality wine in Chile. With three other partners, in 1988 Montes founded the winery originally called Discover Wine. Soon their Cabernet Sauvignon wines, rebranded as Montes Alpha, were being sold in 100 countries worldwide. Other growing regions, vineyards and varietal wines soon followed, and are widely considered benchmarks for quality Chilean wines. Iconic wines include Montes Alpha M, Montes Folly and Purple Angel. Son Aurelio Montes, Jr., runs Kaiken, a premium winery established in Argentina in 2002.

Continuing the Spanish tradition of exploring the new world and building on three centuries of family winemaking in the Penedès region of Spain, Miguel Torres “discovered” Chile in 1979. He declared it a viticultural paradise. Looking back 35+ years, Torres considers that initial foray to be stage one of a decade-long journey that helped to catapult Chile’s international reputation starting in the mid-1990s. The hallmarks of a second stage of development included identifying new growing areas, planting additional vines, and taking advantage of viticultural technology. Today the Torres empire includes nearly a dozen brands in Chile.

Clockwise from upper left: dal Pizzo brothers; de Lucca; signature Tannat wine; Morio

Clockwise from upper left: dal Pizzol brothers; Reinaldo de Lucca; signature Tannat wine; Adriano Miolo

Andes photo courtesy of

Balbo, Catena, Montes and Torres photos courtesy of;,,

dal Pizzol, de Lucca, Miolo and Don Pascual wine bottle photos courtesy of,,,


South America’s Big Four: Argentina, Brazil, Chile & Uruguay

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Contains Sulfites

Consumer warning: this is a lengthy article debunking the myths and legends of sulfites.

Let me cut to the chase and provide dessert before the entrée: unless you are asthmatic or one of the 1% club of people who have a bone fide sulfite allergy, it is highly unlikely that sulfites are the cause of your hangover or any other ill effects from drinking wine.

I will make this hypothesis: you like high alcohol wines, you perhaps drink too much wine in one sitting, and/or you tend to mix types of alcohol (including types of wine) in the course of an evening or event. Gotcha! Those choices are the real culprits. Oh yes, and if you think that red wines cause extra problems because of sulfites, you should know that they tend to have lower levels than white or sweet wines. And your theory about European wines having fewer sulfites because you can drink them without ill effects? As a general notion, it’s just not true. Wine made in Tuscany and sold in Italy is the exact same wine that is exported to the U.S. There’s only one difference in the U.S.: the bottle has the required warning “Contains Sulfites” on the back label.


Intrigued? Read on.

This is a complex topic, and I am keen to help simplify it. I cannot be the only reasonably well-educated wine-lover to get confused by the differences among sulfur, sulfur dioxide and sulfites, or about their health effects. Do they matter in the winemaking process? Sure, but why and how? Why is it that sulfites get blamed for many maladies and keep otherwise enthusiastic sippers away from vino?

For wine enthusiasts not terribly intrigued by the chemistry of wine, this analysis may be a bit of a rat-hole. But let’s level-set the chemistry backdrop.

Sulfur (or sulphur) is the tenth most abundant chemical element in the universe. Usually found in salt deposits, it is pale yellow, odorless and brittle. Because it existed naturally near volcanoes such as Pompeii, sulfur was known and used as a preservative in the winemaking process in ancient Roman times, but it was not officially named a chemical element until the 1770s.

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) forms when fossil fuels (e.g., coal, oil) are burned or sulfur-rich mineral ores (e.g., copper, zinc, lead, iron) are smelted. It can be deadly in high concentrations. Commercial SO2 is typically used as a bleaching agent, solvent, disinfectant and refrigerant. SO2 is also used to preserve fresh foods and as a preservative ingredient in processed foods such as jam, soda, canned soups and dried fruit.

dried fruit

Sulfite is a class of sulfur compounds. Because SO2 is one of the best known sulfur compounds, the terms “sulfur dioxide” and “sulfite” tend to be used interchangeably (and thus constitute the main source of consumer confusion).

To simplify things for the balance of this article, I am going to use primarily the compound name SO2 rather than the class name of sulfites. Please hang on to the truth that they are often used interchangeably (and at times incorrectly) in many references as one and the same.

Where does SO2 come from? Two sources: yeast and the winemaker. Some yeast is wild. It may be found in the vineyard on grapes and in the winemaking facility. Most commercial strains of yeast produce 10-30 ppm of SO2 during the normal process of alcoholic fermentation.

Why is SO2 added during the winemaking process? SO2 is considered to be the most important additive used in making wine. As author Jamie Goode describes it in the second edition of his book Wine Science, sulfur dioxide is the “chemical custodian” of wine. (I highly recommend this book as an excellent resource for both consumers and professionals, as it is written in a very approachable style.) SO2 acts a preservative in wine just as it does in solid food. It is both antimicrobial (kills bacteria and fungi) and antioxidant (inhibits the damaging effects of oxidation). The degree to which SO2 exists in finished wine is expressed as “parts per million” or ppm for short. (This is the exactly same liquid measure as milligrams per liter, or mg/l.)

Wine is inherently volatile due to many changes that occur from grape to glass. It can easily spoil from bacteria, turn to vinegar, or develop other faults during fermentation and aging. In Roman times, sulfur-based candles were burned in amphorae (aging vessels). This unnamed discovery stabilized and preserved the wines which were so popular two millennia ago. In modern times, winemakers employ a similar burning process, using SO2 to clean barrels. Sulfur dioxide is increasingly used to augment good cellar practices as part of a winery’s “housekeeping” regime to clean hoses, fermentation tanks, valves and other processing hardware.

When is SO2 added? SO2 is often added to protect and preserve the wine’s character, flavor and color. Among other things, it inhibits enzymes that cause browning, controls the balance of bacteria, controls wild yeasts from growing, helps to extract pigment making red wines “redder,” and prevents secondary fermentation in the bottle. The winemaker’s challenge is to use SO2 judiciously.

Sulfur dioxide can be added at four main stages in the winemaking process depending on the condition of the grapes and desired style of the finished wine:

  1. Arrival of fresh grapes to control wild yeasts and/or to protect the berries from disease as the surface is broken in the process of destemming and crushing the grapes.
  2. Beginning of alcoholic fermentation to prevent browning from oxidation and premature malolactic fermentation (MLF) for fruit-forward wine styles that are not intended to be barrel-aged.
  3. After MLF to achieve certain wine styles, and to preserve and stabilize the wine for barrel aging.
  4. Prior to bottling to support bottle aging.

How much SO2 is added, and why? What factors influence this decision? Two main factors influence how much SO2 should be added at any stage in the winemaking process to achieve antimicrobial and antioxidant goals. The proper conventional dose of SO2 is determined by a technical formula that maximizes the effects of SO2 in the context of alcohol by volume (abv) and pH level.

Alcohol by volume (abv) is the total percentage of ethanol (the type of alcohol in wine) expected in the finished wine. This measure matters because the higher the abv, the less SO2 protection is required. There is no longer a threat of secondary fermentation in the barrel or bottle, and ethanol enhances the bacteria-killing effects of SO2.

The pH scale, which ranges from 0-14, measures acidity (0-6) vs. alkalinity (8-14). Seven is considered neutral. The higher the pH, the more SO2 needs to be added to prevent MLF, Brettanomyces or other bacteria. Acidity (low pH) helps to keep those things under control.

While it may seem counterintuitive, for a quick mnemonic, remember these ratios. It is these ratios that matter.

  • higher pH = lower acidity (which needs more added SO2)
  • lower pH = higher acidity (needs less added SO2)
  • higher alcohol (and drier wine) = less need for SO2
  • lower alcohol (and sweeter wine) = more need for SO2

White wines tend to be higher in acidity than red wines, so applying this ratio, they should require less SO2. But that’s not usually the case. They actually require more SO2 because they are prone to oxidation. The more color in the grape pigment, and the longer the period of maceration (contact with skins and stems), the less added SO2 is needed. In most cases, red wines do not even need to have SO2 added because they contain these natural antioxidants, but conventional winemakers may still add it as a precaution. Additionally, higher pH wines (alkaline) made from very ripe red fruit to enhance youthful drinkability are more susceptible to bacteria, thus may require excessively high levels of added SO2. Wines with higher levels of residual sugar need more SO2 to prevent secondary fermentation. The typical order from most-to-least use of SO2 is as follows: sweet white dessert wines, blush and semi-sweet white wines, dry white wines, and dry red wines.

What happens to SO2 during the winemaking process?

The basic formula for sulfur dioxide in wine is this: total SO2 = bound SO2+ free SO2.

When SO2 is added to wine, it is initially “free” to serve intended antimicrobial and antioxidant purposes. Over time, a portion of the SO2 binds (or dissolves) with other components of the wine and is becomes inactive, undetectable to most people except the small percentage who are genuinely sensitive. Some proportion of the SO2 evaporates as gas, but the unbound portion remains “free,” continuing to work as an antimicrobial and antioxidant agent. Of the total SO2 in finished wine, 50-90% tends to be bound. The remaining 10-50% is active, or free. It is the only portion of the original dose of SO2 still actively working in the wine, and is thus the component most likely to have a negative impact on sulfite-sensitive wine drinkers.

Labeling Laws and Consumer Protection

It’s a conundrum. Labels are frankly not helpful. But how would a consumer know any of this?

All bottles of wine sold in the U.S. with more than 10 ppm of SO2, regardless of country of origin, must be labeled “Contains Sulfites.” By now you should be quite clear that this information borders on irrelevance. All wines will have at least this level of SO2, whether naturally from yeasts or added by winemakers. It simply isn’t a helpful warning.

In the United States, the Food & Drug Administration discovered nearly 30 years ago that about 1% of the population is severely allergic to sulfites, and that about 5-10% of people who have asthma are prone to having adverse effects from sulfites. This prompted the health warning label “Contains Sulfites” starting in 1987.

Why you may ask? Other countries do not do this. For example, SO2 limits vary in the European Union according to type of wine, from 160 ppm for red wine to 400 ppm for sweet wine, but the EU does not require this information to be disclosed on bottles sold/purchased in the EU.

My recommendation is to create a worldwide standard for sulfite content and labeling requirements that actually achieve the intended goal of health protection and education for the consumer. The warning “Contain Sulfites” is neutered by so many misunderstandings of its meaning.

The Bottom Line

If you are one of the rare people with a known sulfite allergy, or if you suffer from asthma plus sulfite sensitivities, please be careful. If you are not certain, do check with a physician who understands the nuances of this type of allergy. Sulfite reactions induce symptoms such as hives, itching, swelling, nausea, diarrhea and low blood pressure. Headaches and hangovers are another matter.

Choosing your wines carefully is another option. If you are particularly sensitive, look for “no sulfites added” on the label. Know your winemaker and his/her practices. (Ask if you aren’t sure – many winemakers can tell you the amount of sulfur dioxide added or the total ppm of SO2 in the finished wine.) Organic wines typically limit SO2 to 110 ppm or less, a good option for people with sulfite sensitivities. Biodynamic wines go a step further, typically building on organic farming and winemaking practices. This class of “natural” wines is an interesting subject unto itself.

And get to know your wine merchant. There’s no substitute for good advice in buying wine.

For everybody else? Don’t drink too much, choose wines that have a low-to-moderate alcohol level, and don’t mix too many different types of alcohol. Don’t buy cheap wine that may have been heavily processed unless you know how the wine was made. If SO2 is an aromatic annoyance, decant and chill the wine before serving. Wines served at warmer temperatures tend to release their free SO2 compounds, which can also be mitigated by chilling and decanting.

In Pursuit of More Knowledge

For another angle on this topic, please read the Vino Ventures blog post from July 2013 “I Can’t Drink Wine. It Gives Me a Headache.” In coming weeks, there will be more posts about natural wine trends, an exploration of various types of wood and toasts used in barrels for aging, and other influences on the overall wine experience.

The references used for this post are primarily secondary based on quality original source material.

  1. Butzke, Christian. “Use of SO2 in High-pH Wines.” Purdue University Extension. March 2010.
  2. Good, Jamie. Wine Science: The Application of Science in Winemaking, Second Edition. Octopus Publishing Group Ltd (Mitchell Beazley), 2014.
  3. Henderson, Pat. “Sulfur Dioxide: Science Behind this Anti-microbial, Anti-oxidant, Wine Additive.” Practical Winery & Vineyard Journal. Jan/Feb 2009.
  4. Jancou, Pierre. “Sulphites in wine.” Undated.
  5. Miller, Mike. “How SO2 and pH are Linked.” Undated.
  6. Robinson, Jancis et al. Oxford Companion to Wine.
  7. “The Bottom Line on Sulfites in Wine.” January 15, 2014.

Photo credits:;;

Washington Wine Vanguards

A lively session at the 2014 Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, hosted by Jon Bonne and Eric Asimov, inspired a maelstrom of chatter on social media and a verbal boxing match. The session frame was simple and elegant: introduce writers to California winemakers who are experimenting in a “back to the future” movement with old world grapes in new world settings. Reactions spewed all over the place, especially as they reached three and four degrees of separation from the actual event. Were all of the wines outstanding? Perhaps not. Were they all interesting, and an important lesson in exploring possibilities, absolutely!!

To my great delight, I discovered that the innovative and entrepreneurial winemaker movement is alive and well in Washington State. Seattle is the host location for the 38th annual conference of the Society of Wine Educators. So what to do upon arrival from Cincinnati? Take a short walk to the Purple Cafe & Wine Bar for some Washington wines!

Washington Vanguard Wine Flight - Purple Cafe & Wine Bar, Seattle WA

Washington Vanguard Wine Flight – Purple Cafe & Wine Bar, Seattle WA

Purple Cafe & Wine Bar is well known in the Seattle area (4 locations) for its extensive wine list, and especially for featured flights of wine. My selection, “Washington Vanguards,” included Gruner Veltliner, Aligote and Picpoul paired with a citrusy, floral and suitably acidic Humboldt Fog goat cheese. All three winemakers have been in business less than a decade, quite remarkably surviving the economic downturn during 2008-09. All three wines were vintage 2013.

W. T. Vintners was founded in Woodinville in 2007 by three families, the Whites (two generations) and Thorsens. Winemaker Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen is also wine director at the San Francisco-based Mina/Paar restaurant RN74 in Seattle. In addition to stints working vineyards in New Zealand, Burgundy and the Pacific Northwest, Jeff won the 2008 Pacific Northwest Super-Regional Best Young Sommelier Competition and competed as a finalist in the national competition hosted by La Chaine des Rotisseurs International Food & Wine Society (of which I am a member).

Gruner Veltliner is one of four wines made by W. T. Vintners, a notable exception since the other three are Rhone varieties. From the red volcanic/clay loamy soals of Underwood Mountain Vineyard in the Columbia Gorge AVA, the 2013 Gruner was fermented in both stainless and neutral oak. In a blind tasting, this wine could easily have been mistaken for an Austrian gem from Wachau. Notes of green apple, meyer lemon, underripe peach, nectarine, distinct minerality and a spicy vegetal note paired perfectly with the Humboldt Fog cheese.

The Bartholomew Winery is a self-described “Seattle urban winery” launched in 2007 by Bart and Chona Fawbush. With no formal training or experience in the wine business, the Fawbushes decided in 2004 to own a winery. Although this maiden attempt didn’t work out, they applied their learning to create the new winery operation in 2007 followed by a tasting room and wine club in 2010. The fruit for their Aligote — better known as the second white wine of Burgundy (if it is known at all) — came from the Upland Vineyard in Snipes Mountain, a sub-AVA of the Columbia Valley region.

Only 145 cases were made of the 2013 Aligote. On its own, the wine was a juicy melange of stone-fruit aromas and flavors tinged with a hint of melon and chalky limestone. It was tasty, but seemed to call out for a food partner. Indeed, the cheese lifted the flavors of the wine to a new level, luring thoughts of how this particular Aligote might work with other pairing options.

Gramercy Cellars was founded in 2005 by Greg Harrington, MS, and his wife Pam to specialize in Rhone and Bordeaux varieties. Greg is Seattle Magazine’s 2014 Winemaker of the Year. The Harringtons both grow and source fruit. They were buying fruit from a grower who had a small plot of Picpoul on the edge of a larger planting of Grenache. They decided to give the Picpoul a try before grubbing up the vines to plant more Grenache. The Picpoul plants had been imported from Chateau Beaucastel by Tablas Creek (based in Paso Robles). Perhaps if they had known how spectacular the result would be, the Harringtons might have given that plot a second try! Instead, the 2013 Picpoul will be Grammercy Cellars’ only vintage. So sad…

In Greg Harrington’s own words, the “Picpoul is an acid monster” — so true, and totally to my taste — with aromas and flavors of “lemon, lime, grapefruit, mineral, brine, white flowers and green herb.” The Humboldt Fog cheese actually moderated the acidity in the wine, another perfect match.

Sassy Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc
A group of 10 Cincinnati women who are wine lovers have enthusiastically embraced the “wine school” challenge issued three months ago by Eric Asimov and The New York Times. The gatherings are so popular that husbands and friends have clamored to expand “Femmes du Vins” to “Femmes et Hommes du Vins.”

After a safe start with red Bordeaux, followed by a surprising theme of Cru Beaujolais, the third class featured a personal favorite: Sancerre. A beautiful hilltown capping the eastern edge of the Loire Valley, Sancerre is arguably the spiritual home of Sauvignon Blanc. The wines are aromatic, with recognizable yet distinctive chalky and mineral notes, typically light and refreshing, pleasing alone or with food, and an absolute point of passion for people who love wine with an acidic tinge.

Since all of us original “Femmes du Vins” like to color outside the lines, we couldn’t help but expand class boundaries. Our favorite wine of the evening was a white Bordeaux, which ties as #1 spiritual home for Sauvignon Blanc even though it is always blended with Semillon (and at times Muscadelle). But since Sauvignon Blanc is grown everywhere in the world, to varying degrees of success, we felt compelled to explore New World selections as well.

Sancerre is at the eastern edge of the Loire Valley.

Sancerre is at the eastern edge of the Loire Valley.

Sancerre is a compact, action-packed appellation, not even 10k wide and barely that long. Fourteen villages and three hamlets have the right to use the appellation name. Three key vineyard areas distinguished by type of soil surround the main village of Sancerre. Given the amount of global information one must remember for certifiable wine geekery, these three sub-areas of Sancerre are not necessarily memorable. But they are important, so here we go. Chene Marchand, in the village of Bue, produces a refined style of Sancerre owing to mineral-laden soil of limestone and pebbles. Montes Damnes, in the village of Chavignol, offers a broader, more full-bodied style of wine. “Terres blanches,” a white soil mixture of clay and limestone known as Kimmeridgian marl, is the distinctive influence here. The third region, Menetreol, is known for sturdy, steely age-worthy wines made from vines grown in silex (flint, clay) soil. A distinctive “gunflint” essence is known as pierre a fusil in French.

Tasting notes for four selections of Sancerre tasted in order from lowest (12.5%) to highest (13%) alcohol content:

Gerard Boulay (2012) produces wines in Chavignol. In the Times article “Listening to Sancerre Tell its Story,” it was Eric Asimov’s favorite. We liked it too, declaring it a nice, drinkable sipper of a rather indistinct international style. But we didn’t think it was classic Sancerre, and found it to be less food-friendly than other selections. Chalk, citrus and herbal notes were restrained; a bit of honey on the nose and melon on the palate; tertiary aromas of white flowers. 12.5% abv

Domaine Andre Neveu (“Le Manoir” 2011, not on the Times list) is also produced in Chavignol. It offered up distinct chalky aromas reminiscent of Savenniere and Chenin Blanc in the middle Loire Valley. One year older than our other selections, the Neveu wine had more body and less acidity, and perhaps a little residual sugar, with green notes of asparagus and gooseberry skin. With food, especially goat cheese but even with asparagus quiche, the wine’s acidity came into even greater balance. 12.5% abv

Robert Parker calls Franck & Jean-Francois Bailly one of Sancerre’s best producers. Making wines since early 20th century, the family owns vineyards in all three of Sancerre’s premier vineyard areas. The (2012) was all about big citrus, green dried herbs. It was very fresh (but not grassy), and relatively low acidity. In the ultimate test of goat cheese vs. asparagus, the Humboldt Fog cheese definitely won! 13% abv

Lucien Crochet La Croix du Roy (2012) was an interesting selection, very full-bodied, owing in part to terroir and in part to style (unfined and unfiltered). Sourced from several parcels, the cuvee is described by Rosenthal Wine Merchant as the most masculine of Lucien Crochet’s Sancerre selections. On the palate, the wine was rich and round, a hint of spices (clove and jalapeno pepper). Although it decidedly failed the asparagus test, the wine was perfect with a lemony dish of shrimp and cannellini beans. 13% abv

And now for the white Bordeaux and three New World selections in the order we decided to taste them, again based on stated alcohol content:

Geisen (2012) is a large producer of New Zealand wines. Although the winery is physically located in Canterbury, southwest of Christchurch, the grapes for this wine are from Marlborough which is broadly considered to be the best growing region for Sauvignon Blanc and perhaps the world’s second spiritual home for the grape. We thought this wine was typical for inexpensive New Zealand SB. It had a strong, pungent nose — over-the-top ripe grapefruit, green pepper and gooseberry skin. There was no real depth to the body or finish. 12.5% abv

Steenburg (2012) is one of the most important wineries in the Constantia region of South Africa just south of Cape Town. It was part of the original farm developed by South Africa’s first governor, Simon van der Stel, in 1865. This very special bottle was transported to Cincinnati in December 2013 by a dear friend who is South African. Unfortunately, the bottle was off, having experienced a bit of reduction, so we were not able to evaluate it. Having visited this winery myself in October 2013, however, I can attest that the winemaker blends several parcels from the estate to achieve an interesting and delicious mix of classic flavors ranging from flinty to gooseberry to tropical fruit. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find in the U.S.

Andre Lurton “Chateau La Louviere” (2010) was an exquisite wine, showing clearly the ways in which Semillon (10%) contributes to Sauvignon Blanc at its finest. From the Graves region of Bordeaux, this complex wine exhibited honeysuckle, acacia flowers, beeswax — crisp citrus, floral and mineral notes. 13.5% abv (This bottle was approximately $50, but Lurton also makes delicious lower priced wines from Graves and Entre-Deux-Mers including Chateau Bonnet, which also contains a component of Muscadelle for further flavor experimentation.)

David Coffaro (2012) started out growing grapes for Gallo, and in 1994 decided to start making wine himself. Vineyards are located in the Dry Creek area of Sonoma, CA. Coffaro is experimenting with Italian and obscure French grape varieties, generating a diverse array of wines. This SB offering was “flabby” — too much body, not enough acidity. It was a pleasant enough, varietally correct, wine with notes of grapefruit rind and a hint of candied ginger. abv 13.6%


Selection of goat cheese, asparagus quiche, salmon & scallop cakes, shrimp & cannellini beans

Selection of goat cheese, asparagus quiche, salmon & scallop cakes, shrimp & cannellini beans

A selection of goat cheeses will always be a hit with Sauvignon Blanc from anywhere in the world. Although we were not able to locate Chavignol for our class, the most famous goat cheese of the Loire Valley is one of several important French cheese appellations.

Quiche made with fresh asparagus and peas, diced tomatoes, Gruyere cheese and fresh thyme is a great pairing to offer lessons in what works (and doesn’t!). The egg base of the quiche worked well with the more acidic wines, not so well with the ones that were more full-bodied. The same was true of the asparagus and peas. The Gruyere cheese and thyme worked well across all selections.

Salmon and scallop cakes, colorfully dotted with yellow and red peppers, were excellent with all selections. A home-made green goddess style sauce was a true enhancement with the more full-bodied wines.

Shrimp and cannellini beans, tossed in a mixture of lemon, garlic, olive oil and thyme, also worked well with all of the wines. At least one ingredient of this dish found an accentuating flavor match with every wine.

Never underestimate the power of a host (or guest) to add an element of surprise that makes the wine and food experience even more memorable. Guenter Matthews, pictured below, is a talented organist who regaled our tasting group with a rousing concert on his own organ in his own home!!

Top L: Guenter Matthews with World Atlas of Wine; Bethanie Butcher turning pages for organist Guenter Matthews; the Sancerre tasting group.

Top L: Guenter Matthews with World Atlas of Wine; Bethanie Butcher turning pages for organist Guenter Matthews; the Sancerre tasting group.

With great affection for wine (and the readers of Vino Ventures), from the Femmes du Vins: Kathy Merchant, Amy Neyer, Laura Landoll, Mary Horn, Laura Ginn, Bethanie Butcher, Joanna Argus Kirkendall Susan Zaunbrecher, Jodi Geiser and Reeta Brendamour (plus Guenter Matthews and Don Zaunbrecher)

Photo credits: Sauvignon Blanc, Wine Folly; Map of Loire Valley,; food images,,,

(Re)forming Global Wine Markets: The “New” South Africa

What’s red and white, costs millions of dollars to produce, and takes 20 years to mature? The rebirth of a New World player in the global wine market.

South Africa’s wine renaissance during the 1990s coincides with three other New World market leaders: Argentina, Chile and New Zealand. Their successes were built on Australia’s previous 20 years’ experience branding wines, which launched in the early 1970s, and the surprising victory of the United States in the 1976 “Judgment of Paris.”

These countries’ back stories provide interesting context for my journey to South Africa, though of course past is not always prologue. There are a few important and striking similarities.

In oddly regular 100-year cycles, four centuries of European explorers, missionaries and entrepreneurs planted the first grapes in each New World country: Argentina and Chile in the 1550s, South Africa in 1655, California and Australia in the mid- to late-1700s, and finally New Zealand in the mid-1800s. (It’s also worth noting that a wave of Bordelaise expats decided to invest in Chile after they were locked out of vineyard ownership when the 1855 Classification system fundamentally transformed the industry in Bordeaux.) Only Chile and Argentina escaped the curse of Phylloxera in the late 1800s. The early to mid-1900s was a cornucopia of tumultuous economic and political circumstances, and over-production of low quality wines, which certainly stalled the momentum of New World wine industries – and in some cases nearly killed them!

South Africa (SA) is one of those near-death stories. In many ways, it is miraculous that the industry has been resuscitated, albeit with very little resemblance to its colonial past. Wine gurus Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson write this telling note in their just-released 7th edition Wine Atlas of the World: “To the casual observer the Cape winelands may look just as they did in the decades leading up to 1994, but in reality the people, the vineyards, the cellars, the wine map, and the wines have changed out of all recognition.” BTW, I highly recommend this resource. In iBooks for iPad, it is highly interactive with great maps and photos with recommendations of Jancis Robinson’s favorite winemakers around the world.

Revisiting quickly what was happening in SA in 1994, which author Tim James notes in his book The New South Africa, the end of the white majority regime in 1994 allowed for tremendous changes in the wine industry. Other industry changes included the collapse of quota and minimum pricing systems.

The next key pivot point came in 1995 when SA was soundly defeated in an international wine competition against Australia. It was obvious to all that SA wines were of inferior quality. In a dramatic turnaround, and with significant investment in technology as well as improved vineyard and cellar management practices, SA became a late entrant in the flight-to-quality movement. Wine writer John Plattner described this change as a “swivel on its plinth.” (I had to look that one up! A plinth is a heavy base, typically supporting a statue or vase, in this metaphor the historic base of the wine industry.)

SA winemakers got to work with international varieties developing a style of wine that aimed to strike a balance between familiar Old World styles and the juicy, fruit-forward high-alcohol New World wines of Australia and the US. Happily they were getting ahead of the curve by backing off the latter “Parker points” style. Most of the wineries producing wines in what is now called SA’s “authentic” style were established after 2000. SA’s premier wines are blends, primarily from Bordeaux grapes including Savignon Blanc/Semillon. Sadly, traditional varieties such as Chenin Blanc, and SA’s own Pinotage, have taken a far back seat.

It worked! SA exports increased seven-fold between 1993 and 2011. When the government cooperative KWV was privatized, a sum of about USD47 million was set aside in a trust to fuel research and development. Today, with over 600 wineries and many new vineyards planted on virgin land in emerging wine regions, SA ranks 8th in worldwide wine production. Italy and France dance for first and second places, Spain is third, and the US is fourth followed by Argentina, Australia and Germany.

I’m looking forward to sharing my journey to South Africa, and meeting some elephants, starting Wednesday.

Previous posts:

Lost and Found?: 20th Century Wine Games in South Africa

Lost: The Wine Industry in South Africa

T-23 to South Africa

Image credits: vineyards; map; elephant crushing grapes