Pinot chocolat? Won’t those New Zealanders stop at anything?

For a guy like me who loves the most natural wines, New Zealand is often a disappointment, with wines that are pure products of modern oenology.

But I never thought the doctoring would go as far as this: Kim Crawford’s Pinot Chocolat, for which cocoa bean extract was added to the tank at the moment of fermentation. That, for me, completely takes the cake. I mean, what is wine coming to?

The only thing I don’t get about this whole operation, is why Kim Crawford didn’t think of using the USBWine network to allow us to taste the Pinot Chocolat. Instead, they’ve used a virtual tasting system that is clearly not as effective. 

The pinot chocolat, released on April 1, is a great match for a traditional English dessert called a… fool.

If you find a bottle, let me know.

And in the meantime, if you’d like a wine that’s less of a joke, why not try the 2007 Kim Crawford Unoaked Chardonnay, a modern wine, yes, but one where citrus flavors, peach notes and a little caramel on the nose combine in a fresh, quaffable drink. A very decent bottle, and a good match with grilled fish or hard cheeses. 

Full disclosure: I received the chardonnay as a press sample. But not the pinot chocolat.

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The California Wine Fair is back already

A year can sure go by fast. It’s spring in Canada, and time for the California Wine Fair again. I even missed the Western Canada dates (sorry guys), and barely caught up with it on time for the East Coast part of the tour.

It’s no April Fool joke. Ottawa gets its turn this Wednesday, April 1, at the Westin Hotel, just a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill. Montreal is next on the list on April 2nd, and the event is as a fundraiser for the Heart and Stroke Foundation, while Quebec City’s Fair, on Friday, April 3rd, will benefit the Fondation Cardinal-Villeneuve, which seeks to help people with physical handicaps.

After that, it’s Toronto on April 6 and Halifax on April 8.

You can get the full details right here. As well as the list of participating wineries for each city. The list varies, but includes the likes of Heitz Cellars, Calera, Seghesio, Ravenswood, Bonny Doon, Bonterra, Kenwood, Hahn Estates, L’Aventure, Hess Collection, Jordan, to name only a few. 

While I’m at it, I should mention that the New Zealand Wine Fair will also come to Canada this spring. A first event took place on March 24 in Edmonton (sorry again), but the others will be in late May in Montreal, Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver. The list of participating producers is not out yet, so we’ll come back to this closer to the event date.

California wines for Obama’s inauguration – and thoughts about wine at the White House

I have to say that Americans sure know how to throw a big party. Case in point, Barack Obama’s inauguration, which is drawing an incredible line-up of artists over these few days, and millions of people in tow, to witness this historic occasion.

It may be presumed that, at some of these functions, wine will be served.

Actually, it is certain that wine will be served, including three California wines at the Inaugural Luncheon, served for the new president, the vice-president, their wives, and 200 other members of Washington’s who’s who, in the Hall of the Capitol.

In honor of the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, (more…)

On the way up, New Zealand is stopping by

In recent years, New Zealand has certainly been a growing concern on the international wine scene. The sauvignon blancs, of course, and, increasingly, the pinot noirs have been making great headway on world markets. The growth of the industry in general has been simply phenomenal.

Over the last decade, the number of wineries in New Zealand has doubled, the number of hectares under vine has more than tripled (from 7,410 to 25,355 hectares), and the value of exports has been multiplied nearly by ten (from 75.9 million NZ$ to 698.3 million NZ$).

In Canada as elsewhere, the signature sauvignon blanc (more…)

Kumeu River’s natural yeasts: now available at a store near you

One of the ongoing bones of contention within the wine world has been the use of natural or cultured yeasts in winemaking. Yeasts are an indispensable part of the winemaking process, since they are responsible for fermentation, which converts the sugars in the grapes into alcohol, and thus grape juice into wine.

As is well-explained in this article, many winemakers will use cultured yeasts to inoculate the tanks where the grape juice, with or without the skin and pips, have been placed for fermentation: adding cultured yeasts ensures a reliable, predictable fermentation, and even predictable flavor patterns, through selection of specific yeast strains that encourage fruity or spicy notes. It’s a clear advantage when you’re looking for precise results, especially when you’re making millions of bottles of, say, Yellow Tail.

Traditionally, though, wine has been made through spontaneous fermentation, meaning that the process starts through multiplication of the yeasts that are found naturally on grape skins, in the vineyard environment and, over time, in the winery itself, as fermentation cycles leave behind yeast spores that are only too happy to go to work year after year, just as they do daily in bakeries. The specific and complex set of yeasts found in each given winery contribute to giving the wine its personality and distinctiveness. Like the specific minerals found in the soil, which combine with enzymes to provide particular aromatic components and give a sense of terroir, the yeasts are part of a wine’s sense of place. Something which completely goes out the window if you start using a spoonful of ICV-D80 or Lalvin T306.

But the frontier between cultured yeasts and natural yeasts is less clear than you’d think. For instance, researchers from the University of Auckland are making a specific kind of natural yeast available for commercial use, to help make New Zealand sauvignon blanc more “typical”. Thanks to this research:

Saint Clair, Delegat’s, Pernod-Ricard New Zealand, Nobilo, Kim Crawford’s and Forrest Estate wineries will be using a newly discovered, naturally occurring New Zealand yeast to ferment grapes from this year’s harvest.

Where does this yeast strain come from, pray tell? From the very successful Kumeu River Wines‘ vineyard. So essentially, this lovely family winery has just handed a distinctive component of what makes its wines special to Pernod-Ricard and Kim Crawford, so that these big players could make wines from more generic places more like Kumeu River wines… To me, that feels as if you had just handed your grandmother’s award-winning secret recipe for cherry pie to ACME bakeries Inc. Here’s another quote from the article on this:

“Kumeu River has a philosophy in winemaking which uses the yeast that occurs naturally on the vines to ferment the grapes,” says Dr Matthew Goddard of the School of Biological Sciences. “By working with this very successful vineyard, we have managed to isolate a yeast which adds to New Zealand Sauvignon’s distinctive characteristics. This trial will let us see if the yeast will also work in a commercial setting.”

Oh great. Soon enough, winemakers in Chile, Virginia or the Niagara Valley will have more tools at hand to join in the great Kiwi/Grapefruit overdose. I’m not sure congratulations are in order.

Carbon zero? Well, looking more closely…

In a previous post, I’d spent a certain amount of time exploring the limits and vagaries of “green” wine. I’ve always been skeptical of full-frontal claims of virtue, which seem to be as much about marketing than about actual environmental concerns. I tend to feel more in tune with winemakers who go the green way more naturally, so to speak, and don’t talk so much about it. There are limits to the claims of greenness, and pitfalls to promising too much.

Case in point: Grove Mill winery, a great New Zealand outfit that has laid a claim to being the world’s first CarboNZero winery. They put a lot of effort into this, even factoring in the shipping to Britain in their calculations. But guess what. Standards are changing for the CarbonZero program, so (more…)

Published in: on March 20, 2008 at 10:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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When wine turns green

There’s a lot of talk, these days, about wine and the environment. Conferences about climate change and its effects on winegrowing and winemaking. People who calculate the carbon footprint of a particular wine bottle, and aim for carbon-zero wine production. Decanter’s November issue is largely devoted to a report asking “Is wine bad for the planet?” (accessible with a free registration), and exploring everything from packaging to water usage, corks, chemicals and the regulatory mess that surrounds the very variable definitions of sustainable viticulture in several regions, like New Zealand or Oregon.

Sometimes, these questions are mixed up in many ways. The “conventional” (i.e. chemical) winegrowing techniques are, for instance, attacked as much for their negative impact on the environment as for their negative impact on wine quality. The well-known American wine writer and merchant Kermit Lynch, for instance, favored traditional methods for taste and quality, first and foremost. On the other hand, Alain Brumont, the famous Madiran producer, confessed, during a lunch where I had the pleasure of being a guest, to converting to sustainable methods after seeing that years of copper anti-mildew treatment had left some of his former vineyards barren, to the point where cereals would wither before reaching maturity. Treatments have since been reduced tenfold on his domaines.

It all depends what you look at, of course. If you’re looking at the local impact of winemaking and viticulture, dry farming and biodynamic practices are obviously better, environmentally speaking, than chemicals and irrigation in, say, dry areas of Australia. But if you look at the wine trade, packaging and transportation are pretty much the same all around. Mind you, wine has been traded around the world for thousands of year: it’s not the trade, it’s the intensity and the transportation methods in general, and not just for wine, that play a part in the whole climate change issue.

That makes me think of an old trick question: what’s heavier, 50 tons of lead or fifty tons of feathers? If you’ve answered feathers, you may think that it’s better to carry 20 cases of biodynamic wine across the Atlantic than 20 cases of industrial wine. ‘fraid not.

But even then, there are some comforting aspects to this whole environmental analysis. The Decanter report, for instance, pointed out this, about water usage:

Carmel Kilcline MW, who wrote her Master of Wine thesis on the wine industry’s use of water in Australia – the driest continent – says evidence suggests that when it comes down to consumption, viticulture is less culpable than other thirsty businesses such as cotton, pasture and livestock. ‘While 99% of the water used in winemaking is used for irrigation rather than in the winery, grapes are still a relatively modest user of water,’ she says. ‘In Riverland, 290 litres of water are used per 750ml bottle of wine. Rice, by contrast, requires 2,380 litres per kg, and cotton 5,020 per kg of cloth.’

In French, we have an expression that says “quand on se regarde, on se désole, quand on se compare, on se console”. Freely translated, it means that when you look at yourself, you feel bad, but when you compare, you feel better. From an environmental standpoint, you should feel less guilty about drinking a glass of imported wine than about wearing a cotton shirt. Cheers to that.

Kiwi (or is that grapefruit?) overdose

I really can’t stand it anymore. The grapefruit-fennel-green-pepper creature they call sauvignon blanc, in places down under. Really. I’ve had it. It’s like I’ve just had too much chocolate cake or sugar pie. The simple idea of eating more is repulsive.

I had some Kim Crawford sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, the other day, and now I’ve just been drinking some Klein Constantia 2006 sauvignon blanc from South Africa, and you know what? I feel like I’ve just switched from Canada Dry ginger ale to Schweppes ginger ale. The wines are dopplegangers. Same feeling, same fruit-surrounded acidity, same set of aromas, same taste overall. It’s flavorful, for sure. You can get why it’s attractive to so many people. But this impression of getting the same wine under two different labels has just done it for me.

I can’t help feeling that getting twin wines from two different countries – and one from a vineyard that is responsible for the incredibly distinctive and superbly elegant Vin de Constance – means that there is more chemistry at work here than geology and biology. Kiwi sauvignon blanc is doing well? By all means, let’s do the same! Add a little B254F yeast here, control temperatures this way, and voila, the recipe is reproduced. Forget individual character, this is globalized wine at its best (and worst).

I really should explore this more, but I will do so reluctantly.

Not all the New World falls under the spell of kiwi-grapefruit sauvignon, thankfully. I remember To Kalon vineyard fumé blanc (different name, same grape) from Robert Mondavi as a superb, refined experience, with a a whole different character and set of flavours. And Chilean sauvignon blanc, though playing in the same fruit leagues, has its own angle on the whole game.

If anybody out there knows a New Zealand or South African sauvignon blanc that goes off the beaten path, that has some mineral character, a different citrus fruit, or something different or other, please let me know. I’ll gladly amend myself.

In the meantime, I’ve just poured myself another glass of the Klein Constantia. The bloody thing just drinks itself.