Category Archives: San Francisco Chronicle

Bordeaux’s second wines affordable, exceptional

We Americans don’t realize it, but the Chinese are determining what wine we drink.

They’re not flooding the market with knockoffs or gray-market bottles. Instead, their voracious appetite for big-name Bordeaux has relegated us to buying the leftovers.

Fortunately, there is a silver lining. Bordeaux’s so-called “second wines” are exceptional, and are an affordable way to access top chateaus.

“Today they must be good because they are a true and authentic introduction to the estate,” says John Kolasa, managing director at both Château Rauzan-Ségla in Margaux and Château Canon in St. Emilion. “Your name is on the label.”

Historically, most second wines from the Médoc were sold in French supermarkets, according to Emmanuel Cruse, owner of Château d’Issan in Margaux, and few producers cared about their quality. Only a rare chateau would make a third wine; Latour, for example, introduced its third wine, labeled simply Pauillac, in 1990 to enhance the quality of its second wine, Les Forts de Latour.

But over the last decade, as the prices of the standard-bearer wines escalated, in large part due to demand from China, producers realized there was real money in promoting their second wines. The notion of sloppy seconds has vanished.

“Ten years ago, there were perhaps five to 10 (second wines) that merited attention. Now there are scores of them,” notes Christopher Shipley, former sommelier at the 21 Club in New York and currently U.S. sales director for Joanne, a large importer of Bordeaux.

Top prices go up
The numbers are one reason why chateaus are smiling. At third-growth Chateau Palmer, annual production of its top wine fell from 15,000 to 20,000 cases to about 10,000 cases since the winery’s 1998 introduction of a second wine, Alter Ego de Palmer. But not only did the quality of the grand vin increase enormously – so did the price, from about $80 a bottle upon release for the 1996 to $350 for the 2009. The 2009 Alter Ego – about 6,000 cases – sells for $80 a bottle.Although it’s not clear which chateau made the first second wine, the concept became entrenched when Chateau Latour introduced its second wine with the 1966 vintage. Now, most properties in the Médoc, Pessac-Léognan, on the Right Bankand even in Sauternes, make one.Typically, second wines are made from younger vines or parts of an estate that historically made inferior wine. Young vines, which for Cruse are less than 18 years old, can make good wine. But, he points out, they can be inconsistent.Initially, Bordeaux vintners made these seconds to bolster the quality of the first wine – in large part to win the race for critics’ scores and also to protect a chateau’s reputation. But Rauzan-Ségla, unhappy with its 1987 vintage, bottled its entire crop under its then second label, Château Lamouroux. (Today, Ségla is the label for their second wine.)

Only the best at the top

Choosing only the very best for top wines has become a virtual necessity as prices have spiraled.

“Selection is the key for making good wine,” says Marcel Ducasse, who before his retirement was largely responsible for the dramatic 1980s turnaround at St. Julien third-growth Chateau Lagrange.

When Ducasse took over at Lagrange, everything from the harvest, including press wine, went into the blend for just one wine. It was, he says, a “fosse commune” – everyone in the same grave.

Now, Lagrange makes at least three and sometimes four wines, with the grand vin representing less than half of total production. Its second wine, Les Fiefs de Lagrange, plus bulk wine and other discarded lots, comprise the other half. While improvements in the vineyard can take a decade, Ducasse points out, selection can improve a wine overnight.

Yet at Palmer, the second wine starts in the vineyard. Management identified plots that produce good wine, but are never up to the standards for the grand vin. Wine from those parcels, which typically matures earlier, as well as selected barrels that don’t make the cut, wind up in Palmer’s Alter Ego.

The blend

The blend for both is roughly equal parts Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. A little Petit Verdot goes into the grand vin as well.

Elsewhere, the wine is made and aged in the same way, regardless of its original plot. Winemakers taste each barrel, eliminating those not up to snuff. Even some of first-string quality, but not in the style of the chateau, are excluded.

In 2005, Chateau Margaux diverted more of its superb Merlot into its second wine, Pavillon Rouge, because its higher-than-usual alcohol content would have perturbed the balance of the grand vin, according to Paul Pontallier, Margaux’s managing director.

Jean-Philippe Delmas, managing director at both Chateau La Mission Haut Brion and Chateau Haut-Brion, explains that his team first makes the blend for the top wines and then goes back and makes another blend for the second wines. What’s left, he says, “goes into the garbage.”

Concept spreads

The concept has spread beyond Bordeaux. Ornellaia, in Tuscany’s Bolgheri, introduced its second wine, Serre Nuove, in 1997, just in time for its first wine to soar in quality. Coincidence?

Consumers should be smiling. Second wines mature sooner and are far more approachable when young. They are typically only slightly less polished- lamb’s wool versus cashmere – than their big brothers. While less complex, they still qualify as refined Bordeaux.

And second wines are inevitably much cheaper. Even for less prestigious wines, the price difference between the grand vin and the second is significant. The 2009 Chateau Lagrange sells for about $66; the excellent Les Fiefs goes for about $32. A similar ratio exists for 2009 Chateau d’Issan – $85 for the first wine, $34 for Blason d’Issan.

So thank you, Beijing.

From the notebook

2009 Alter Ego de Palmer ($80, 14% alcohol): This blend of equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is extraordinary, reflecting the polish of Palmer and the stature of the vintage. Engagingly lush now, a dark mineral component complements ripe black fruit notes. Plush tannins makes this almost feel like a grand vin. Importer: K&L Wine Merchants.2008 Blason d’Issan($40, 13%): A super second wine with remarkably suave tannins and uplifting acidity that balances its exuberant fruit. The velvety texture is textbook Margaux. Importer: Joanne Bordeaux USA.2008 Les Fiefs de Lagrange ($35, 13%): Les Fiefs is perhaps the best value Bordeaux in the market. Charming and accessible, the 2008 has the class of top-notch Bordeaux, delivering a wonderful mix of fruit flavors and slightly savory nuances wrapped in glossy tannins. Importer: Joanne Bordeaux USA.2008 L’Hospitalet de Gazin ($50, 13%): Concentrated with an engaging touch of tar, the second wine of Gazin tantalizes with just a hint of the flamboyance of Pomerol. Importer: Vintus Wines.

2008 Le Serre Nuove dell’Ornellaia ($58, 13%): Hints of chocolate and spice embellish the black fruit character of this lively and plush wine. Vibrant acidity – it is Tuscan – amplifies the flavors and enjoyment. Importer: Folio Fine Wine Partners.

May 13, 2012

Alcohol levels can make a big difference

“I only had two glasses of wine.”

It’s not an unreasonable amount to drink with dinner, yet how much you feel from those two glasses can vary widely – whether you’re worried about a curbside Breathalyzer or just hoping you don’t feel the effects the next day.

Despite the frequent discussion of rising alcohol levels in wine, the effect on blood alcohol concentration is often overlooked. Does it matter whether you’d been drinking a lean white at 12 percent alcohol instead of a ripe Chardonnay with 14 percent alcohol or a high-octane Zinfandel?

It’s a difficult question to answer because it depends on how you metabolize alcohol – and it’s different for men and women. But, in a word, yes – it most definitely does matter.

Although the liver breaks down most of the alcohol we consume, alcohol metabolism really starts in the stomach, which contains an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase, similar to the ones found in the liver. But not all stomachs handle alcohol the same way; gender, age and whether you ate while drinking all help determine how much alcohol is broken down in the stomach before it makes it into the bloodstream.

Women have less of this enzyme than men (or it doesn’t work as well because it might be estrogen sensitive). As a consequence, women break down less alcohol in their stomachs, which means they will have a higher BAC even if they drink the same amount as men. Some scientists believe that the enzyme becomes less functional with age, which might help explain why people become less alcohol-tolerant as they get older.

Alcohol is distributed only in the portion of the body composed of water, as opposed to fat. Since men’s bodies contain a higher proportion of water than women’s, the alcohol is dispersed in a larger volume, which means a man would have a lower blood alcohol despite drinking the same amount as a woman.

The stomach pushes its contents into the small intestine, where most alcohol is absorbed. It empties more slowly when filled with food, so drinking while eating means alcohol stays in the stomach longer, where it can be broken down, resulting in lower blood alcohol levels. So eating before or while drinking – but not after – will result in a lower blood alcohol than drinking on an empty stomach. (As for the urban myth about eating butter before drinking to “protect” the stomach, it’s not true, but it will result in a lower blood alcohol.)

Those who drink wine regularly – one or two glasses a day – will have lower blood alcohol levels than those who drink occasionally. Drinking one to two glasses of wine daily tells the liver to recruit more enzymes – to rev up the factory – to break down alcohol. Everything else being equal, a chronic imbiber will have a lower blood alcohol than a sporadic drinker because the liver has more enzymes ready to break down the alcohol.

Most daily wine drinkers recognize this phenomenon when they have a brief illness, such as a cold, and temporarily stop drinking. After a week of abstinence, the first glass of wine has a bigger impact than usual. After a week of not drinking, the liver is out of practice.

Even if you enjoy wine daily, how fast you drink is important because the slower alcohol is presented to the enzymes – whether they are in the stomach or liver – the more efficient they are in breaking it down before it reaches the bloodstream.

So if you’re a 200-pound male who drinks wine regularly and has just finished two glasses over a two-hour meal, your blood alcohol will be dramatically lower than that of a 130-pound woman who drinks occasionally and has polished off those two glasses quickly.

Still, don’t discount even the small differences in the alcoholic content of what you drink. Obviously, drinking 80-proof spirits can have more impact than drinking an equal amount of wine. But even a 1 to 2 percent variable in the alcoholic content of wine can make a big difference. (See table). When practicing moderation, keep the wine’s alcohol level in mind.

BAC comparison

Does a 14 percent wine really get you more drunk than one at 12 percent? It can. The table below shows the blood alcohol concentration for an average 130-pound woman who consumes two 5-ounce glasses of wine over 1 1/2 hours.

While the alcohol content of the wine rises 25 percent (from 12 to 15 percent), BAC goes up by 35 percent – above California’s legal driving limit of 0.08 percent. As more alcohol hits the stomach, more of it gets through into the blood.

These calculations are rough estimates because the formula does not account for differences in how the liver metabolizes alcohol, so don’t rely on these values or other calculators for determining whether it is safe to drive.

-Michael Apstein

Source: Formula at

This article appeared on page G – 6 of the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday, August 7, 2011

Wine culture starting to take hold in China

The scene stopped me in my tracks. There, on the street in the middle of the bustling market, stalls filled with fake Longchamp bags and knockoff Ralph Lauren, was a young Chinese man standing behind a table wearing a portable microphone and hawking vacuum-powered wine-pump openers.

Is this the sign that wine culture has really arrived in China?

The enthusiasm of the Chinese for top Bordeaux has already pushed up prices for the 2008s and 2009s. Just imagine what will happen to wine prices overall if even only 10 percent of the Chinese population – the equivalent proportion of Americans who regularly drink wine – is bitten by the wine bug.

China clearly is on the way. Look at the results from any recent auction in Hong Kong. Paul Pontallier, technical director of Chateau Margaux, told Bloomberg News that one-third of Margaux’s sales were in China, Hong Kong and Macao.

“The Chinese are drinking wine,” insists Simon Tam, head of wine for Christie’s China. While Tam can’t gauge how much wine bought by the Chinese at auction is for drinking as opposed to investment, he noted, “You can’t drink 24 magnums of Chateau Ausone immediately.”

Then, he added, “The Chinese love to entertain and honor their guests with famous wines.”

Mark Conklin, general manager of Hong Kong’s JW Marriott hotel, known for its wine program, recalled a recent group of eight Chinese wine lovers who consumed more than $19,000 of high-end French wine at lunch at the hotel’s well-regarded Man Ho restaurant – “and they weren’t mixing it with Coca-Cola the way they might have 10 years ago.”

Preference for luxury

Chinese consumers have a reputation for being label-conscious and seeking prestigious products to impress friends and colleagues. So it’s not surprising they should reach for Bordeaux’s luxury labels such as Chateau Lafite-Rothschild and Chateau Pétrus.

“If you have a bottle of Lafite on your table while you are eating stir-fried noodles, no one can tell you that you are ignorant or wrong,” explained Andrew Manktelow, sales director of ASC Fine Wines, a major wine importer and distributor in China.

Wine culture

But the market is evolving beyond status. There are signs a more mature wine culture is taking hold.

Ross Meder, managing director of Margaret River Wines, a small shop in Hong Kong’s Wanchai neighborhood that specializes in wines from Australia and New Zealand, had few Chinese customers when he opened about four years ago. Now he estimates 20 to 30 percent of his customers are Chinese. And he notes that one key barometer – the drinks offered at weddings – has shifted from beer or Cognac 20 years ago to wine today.

“The wine culture is here to stay,” he said. “Now it’s mainly the young, westernized Chinese (who drink wine). The label is still important, but more and more are experimenting with less well-known wines.”

In part, that’s because they’re more willing to learn about them. At a recent tasting, Derek Ho of ASC Fine Wines explained the labeling of Maison Louis Jadot’s Burgundies. A lineup of famous Bordeaux was designed to draw guests – 95 percent of them Chinese – but Ho relished an opportunity to teach his guests about Burgundies and Spanish wines.

Drinking patterns in restaurants are changing. Five years ago, a mixed group of Chinese and Western business types might drink wine in fine restaurants. But now at Lin Heung, a boisterous Cantonese restaurant in Central Hong Kong filled with Formica-topped tables, a group of young Chinese pours upscale wines into the Riedel glasses they toted along.

And along nearby Hollywood Road, wine bars filled with Asian customers – where a glass of what might be called “supermarket wine” sells for $10 – are displacing the antique dealers who have been there for decades.

What prompted the change? Tam traces the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997 as a seminal event: “Mainland Chinese, including a burgeoning middle class from Shanghai and Beijing, could visit easily and experience Western culture and tastes, including wine.”

Another boon came a couple of years ago when the government eliminated the duty on wine. Emmanuel Cruse, owner of Bordeaux’s Chateau d’Issan, suggested that lifting an “onerous tax” stimulated a market already being defined by the emergence of the Hong Kong wine auction market.

Yet lifting the tax brought chaos. Prices dropped – stimulating purchases – but the need for an importer’s license disappeared. “Anyone could import wine,” Meder says. “Wine shops sprang up like mushrooms after a rain. Some folded after six months, but many are still around.”

Even amid the chaos, savvy producers see the wisdom of establishing Chinese beachheads. Most are European. Cruse estimated that brokers and Bordeaux negociants currently direct 85 percent of their energy at selling wine in China. Pierre-Henry Gagey, co-president of Burgundy’s marketing trade group and head of Louis Jadot, announced a budget of about $580,000 last year to “conquer the Chinese market.”

Not to be left out, Opus One just opened a sales office in Hong Kong. The Napa Valley Vintners last month took 40 winemakers on a Chinese trade mission, similar to trips planned by California’s Wine Institute. To target the Chinese middle class, the institute is also bringing Chinese “lifestyle” journalists to visit California Wine Country.

Big jump in exports

Something is paying off. U.S. wine exports to China in 2010 were $45 million, up almost 400 percent from 2006, according to Linsey Gallagher, the institute’s director of international marketing. While China represents a “small base,” she says, California wineries “have a great interest in it” – not unlike the interest in Japan 30 years ago.

So smirk all you like at adding Coca-Cola to Chateau Pétrus. China’s impact on the wine market is plenty serious. The only one laughing might be the man with the vacuum-powered wine openers – all the way to the bank.

This article appeared on page H – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday, May 8, 2011

Italy’s Soave region split over DOCG label

Italy – Everything should be coming up roses for Soave. The wines, historically among Italy’s best whites, have never been better.

Yet a debate over whether to use a new designation, Superiore DOCG, threatens to spoil the renaissance of a region that has finally recovered from a long spell as a source of underwhelming wine.

Ironically, DOCG status – Italy’s top wine category – is set aside for the country’s best wines. But a fight over geography has left some of Soave’s best winemakers boycotting the Superiore mark.

Historically, Soave’s central Classico zone produced the best wines, but “very few Classico producers are using the DOCG,” says Stefano Inama, a prominent small grower.

Only about 1 percent of wines in the Classico zone – 150,000 bottles out of an annual production of about 15 million – are labeled Superiore. Most are produced by large cooperatives, which account for 80 percent of the region’s production. The region’s best wines are frequently designated as Soave Classico, a less prestigious category.

Soave, a picturesque village complete with storybook castle and crenellated walls, lies just north of Verona in Italy’s Veneto region. Its Classico zone encompasses about 4,200 acres over a series of volcanic hills, about 25 percent of the total area. The indigenous Garganega grape forms Soave’s core. Sometimes it’s blended with Trebbiano di Soave; locals are quick to point out that grape is different from popular Trebbiano Toscano, which they believe makes vapid wine, and which has been banned from the Soave region.

Certainly this isn’t the first time wine designations have become a sore point in Italy. In the 1970s, the best wines from Chianti shunned that famous name and were sold as vino de tavola, the country’s lowliest wine category. Even today, Angelo Gaja, one of Italy’s most famous producers, sometimes uses the less-exalted Langhe designation for his best wines instead of the prestigious Barbaresco.

But Soave’s regulations are confusing even to experts. The wines are stratified into three broad categories. Soave, which applies to lesser wines from the region’s plains, remains at the base. In the middle is Soave Classico, which applies to wines from its hilly central area, plus a new DOC, Soave Colli Scaligeri, for wines from hillsides outside the Classico zone. The newly minted Superiore mark, established for the 2002 vintage, sits at the top.

Here’s the rub: Regulations allow any wine from hillsides – not just those in the Classico zone – to become Superiore if it meets tougher analytical standards: higher minimum alcohol, lower yields and so on. Classico wines meeting the standards can say both Classico and Superiore. That has incensed traditional Classico producers, who are unhappy to be sharing the perch with others, especially cooperatives. Inama calls Superiore “a marketing tool,” not a quality measure.

“If it applied only to wines from the Classico zone, I would join,” he says.

Wine drinkers are faced with this paradox: Many of the best Soaves aren’t labeled as the best. It seems to defeat Superiore’s very purpose.

This glitch comes at a particularly unfortunate time for Soave. Historically known for growing Italy’s most famous white wine, the region became the victim of its own success in the 1970s as industrial producers shipped tanker trucks of insipid wine made from flatland vineyards, literally diluting the wines from the prized Classico hillsides.

But the past decade has witnessed a return to glory in Soave, as small quality-minded producers embraced modern high-end winemaking.

“Ten years ago, you could count the number of top-notch producers on the fingers of one hand,” says Patricia Guy, an American living in Verona and an expert on Italian wine. “Now, there are scores of small growers making distinctive wines.”

Even so, enthusiasm for Soave remains spotty. Mark Middlebrook, Italian buyer at Paul Marcus Wine in Oakland, says the store usually stocks only one or two out of about 30 Italian whites. “Soave is just not that popular,” he says. “Other Italian whites are more exciting.”

But Soave moves well at Prima Vini Restaurant in Walnut Creek, according to wine director John Rittmaster. “All Italian whites are recovering from a poor image problem,” he adds. “Soave is selling as well as any of them, except, of course, for Pinot Grigio.”

Good Soave has a unique flavor that, according to Giovanni Ponchia, enologist for the Consorzio Tutela Vini Soave, the region’s wine trade organization, comes from the area’s volcanic soils. The hillside areas are composed of lava, like the area around Vesuvius in Campania, which may explain a similarity to some Campanian whites.

As part of Soave’s resurrection, the trade group undertook a Linnaean effort to categorize vineyards, identifying the best 51 sites to use on labels. That only complicated the problem. Made-up names also abound, and almost no one outside the region can discern a prized vineyard site, such as FroscÀ, from a brand name. Aldo Lorenzoni, the consorzio president, has vowed to clarify things.

But that’s not where the confusion ends. While Soave’s most popular style is fresh and vibrant, some producers now favor fermenting and aging wine in barrels, or even using the appassimento method that harnesses partially dried grapes, which is used for the region’s other DOCG, the sweet wine Recioto di Soave. Sometimes the differences are mentioned on the back label, sometimes not.

So while most Soave should be consumed within a year or two, some examples from top producers and sites, such as Gini’s from the FroscÀ vineyard or Coffele’s from Ca’ Visco, evolve beautifully for up to a decade.

How to sort this out? Consider the explanation from Classico producer Graziano PrÀ about why he spurned a Superiore classification.

“Mi chiamo PrÀ” – my name is PrÀ – he says. “That’s the only guarantee a customer needs.”

The take-home message is no different than buying Burgundy. Learn your favorite producer’s name and leave the exalted Superiore neckband to the bureaucrats.

Soave worth seeking

2008 Gini Soave Classico ($20)
You can’t go wrong with this wine from Gini, one of Soave’s best producers. Slightly floral and nutty, it’s more minerally than fruity, with uplifting acidity. And keep an eye out for the single-vineyard 2008 La Frosca when it arrives. (Importer: Marc de Grazia/Estate Wines)

2008 Pieropan Soave Classico ($17)
Pieropan is another of Soave’s excellent producers. They blend a small amount of Trebbiano di Soave with Garganega to achieve this angular mineral-infused wine. Its laser-like finish amplifies its flavors and charm. (Importer: Empson USA)

2007 PrÀ Soave Classico Staforte ($22)
Not a single vineyard wine, Staforte is a selection that undergoes extended lees aging and stirring. An unusual richness and creaminess – an almost brioche-like yeastiness – complements its underlying minerality. (Importer: Vinifera Imports)

This article appeared on page K – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday, October 25, 2009

Does wine really prevent heart problems?

When people discover that I’m a liver doctor and a wine writer, they invariably ask, “How much can I drink without developing liver disease?” They never ask, “How much should I drink to stay healthy?”

People know that alcohol – and wine – can cause liver disease. But since the headline-making “60 Minutes” segment in 1991 popularizing the seductively simple French Paradox (the French eat a high-fat diet but have less heart disease because they drink red wine), people have embraced the concept that drinking wine, especially red wine, prevents heart disease. Despite the absence of an ironclad linkage, it’s what everyone wants to believe: Alcohol, a forbidden fruit, is actually good for you.

As a physician, I am skeptical of the health claims made for wine – or any single food, for that matter. Such medical skepticism hasn’t stopped some in the wine industry from promoting wine as a health drink. Wineries boast about the amount of resveratrol – a modern-day fountain of youth – in their wines. And yes, red wines are filled with antioxidants.

But how strong is the evidence that wine prevents heart disease? At this point, not strong enough.

How we got here

The possibility that wine might reduce heart disease came from the same type of study that suggested alcohol could be responsible for liver disease. In separate studies, World Health Organization researchers and others in the United States and Europe in 1970s compared the amount of alcohol that countries consumed in total with the country’s rate of liver or heart disease. The countries with the highest alcohol consumption – France, Italy and Spain – had the highest rates of liver disease, but also had low rates of heart disease.

These kinds of studies, called observational studies, can never determine cause and effect. They only highlight associations – possibilities. But they’re important because they direct future research. Is alcohol causing liver disease – or preventing heart disease – or is something else the real cause?

Advertisers trumpet associations, hoping to dupe consumers into thinking that their product causes the desired effect. To promote sales of prepared dinner entrees on its Web site, Stouffer’s touts research that “teens who have frequent family dinners are likelier to say they get mostly A’s and B’s in school.” The clear implication is that eating together causes students to excel in school. A more plausible explanation is that families who eat together have higher incomes and support their children’s education. Eating together doesn’t cause better grades; it’s associated with behavior that results in good grades.

We liver doctors debated for years whether it was alcohol or poor nutrition common among alcoholics that caused liver disease. Dr. Charles Lieber at the VA Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y., settled the debate in 1974 when he fed baboons alcohol and a nutritionally complete diet. The animals developed every stage of human alcoholic liver disease.

Without proof, how has it become conventional wisdom that that wine prevents heart disease?

Observational studies around the world have shown the same association: People who drink moderately – one to two drinks daily – have less heart disease than those who don’t drink at all or who drink heavily. Although they don’t show cause and effect, the results are compelling.

Researchers also proposed several ways alcohol might be beneficial. Consumption, up to two drinks a day, increases blood levels of HDL cholesterol, so-called “good” cholesterol, which unclogs arteries. Cardiologists believe that raising HDL levels, as occurs with exercise, reduces the chance of heart disease.

Like aspirin, alcohol inhibits blood clotting; it “thins the blood.” Aspirin decreases the chance of a heart attack in some people. Similarly, alcohol’s anti-clotting effect potentially could reduce the chance of a heart attack. Does it definitively? That’s unknown.

Wine isn’t necessarily like other drinks. In July at the 32nd World Congress of Vine and Wine in Zagreb, Croatia, Serge Hochar of Lebanon’s Chateau Musar, one of the wine world’s most compelling and controversial figures, rightly chided people for lumping wine with other alcohol because wine contains additional components that have important health impacts – at least in the test tube.

Nonalcoholic benefits

Even with the alcohol removed, wine raises blood levels of polyphenols and antioxidants such as resveratrol and has dramatic effects on blood vessels. Because the oxidation of cholesterol is thought to play a role in the development of atherosclerosis – the narrowing of arteries – and heart disease, perhaps it’s the nonalcohol component of red wine that’s beneficial. And there is other evidence for the benefits of white wine, which has a different chemical makeup, that further complicate the picture.

With the barrage of commercials, and even some wineries, raving about the benefit of antioxidants, you could be forgiven for believing that polyphenols are what make wine so healthy.

But we don’t know that. Other foods contain antioxidants, including resveratrol, but it is wine that captures the public’s attention because it satisfies two desires simultaneously. It’s a silver bullet, a simple and easy solution to the complex problem of heart disease. Hard-to-follow advice – exercise and eat reasonably – can be substituted with the more palatable – literally – recommendation to drink without guilt.

On a visceral level and as a wine lover, I hope these claims are true. On an intellectual level, I know there are no magic bullets. And drinking comes with inherent risks. A doctor might precede a recommendation to exercise with a stress test to make sure you’re in proper health. But there are no tests to ensure healthy drinking.

So what’s the problem?

Scientists do not know the exact relevance of antioxidants in preventing heart disease. If they play only a minor role, increasing them even a thousand-fold would be of no clinical importance. Same with any wine-related factor.

That’s why I – like other physicians – am reluctant to recommend drinking for health reasons, despite the plausible health impacts and overwhelming observational evidence.

I am reminded of the certainty with which physicians recommended that women take estrogen supplements to reduce the risk of heart disease after menopause. Ample observational studies suggested a link: Women had less heart disease than men and this discrepancy disappeared after menopause. As with wine, there were plausible scientific explanations as to why.

In the 1990s the National Institutes of Health sponsored the Women’s Health Initiative, a cause-and-effect study of 16,000 post-menopausal women; half received supplemental hormones and half did not. Surprise. The women who received hormones had more heart disease, not less.

Why not commission a comparable study of alcohol and heart disease? The ethical considerations of chronically giving alcohol to people is one good reason.

Animal studies, similar to Lieber’s, might be possible. We need results that show cause and effect before recommending wine as a way to reduce heart disease. Try finding a government agency to fund that.

Without such studies, we are left with nagging possibilities. Maybe wine drinkers have less heart disease because they are more affluent, eat better, control their blood pressure better, exercise and do other things to take care of themselves. Perhaps we are not smart enough to know what these “other things” are.

To me, wine is not a health beverage. It’s to be enjoyed because it tastes good, and makes a meal and life more enjoyable. If moderate consumption turns out to be good for us, so much the better.

If it doesn’t, I’ll still have some with dinner.

The myths and facts, step by step.

How we got here

— In the 1970s and 1980s, observational studies by Dr. Arthur Klatsky in Oakland, Dr. Eric Rimm in Boston and many others showed that people who drank moderate amounts of alcohol had less heart disease. They raised the question “Is moderate alcohol beneficial?”

— In the 1990s, mechanisms for alcohol’s protective effects emerged. Dr. Michael Graziano in Boston showed that alcohol raised the levels of HDL cholesterol, the “good” cholesterol. Other scientists showed that alcohol inhibited clotting.

— In 2009, Dr. Kenneth Mukamal in Boston started a six-month experiment giving some people a small amount of alcohol – equivalent to one drink – daily and withholding all alcohol for others. He plans to compare blood lipids and plaque buildup in arteries of the two groups to determine if alcohol slows the cholesterol-clogging arterial disease atherosclerosis.

Does alcohol have magical powers?

Resveratrol, a polyphenol found in wine, has almost magical powers in animals, extending the lifespan of fruit flies and worms and reducing inflammation and protecting against the adverse effects of obesity in mice. These potentially ground-breaking discoveries need to be tempered by the knowledge that very high doses – the equivalent of 100-plus bottles of red wine daily – were given to mice. Importantly, after resveratrol is absorbed into the blood, it is broken down quickly and may have limited effect in humans.

The headline-creating clinical studies purporting to show that moderate wine consumption prevents Alzheimer’s disease do not show cause and effect, but are observational studies. A plausible explanation is that the healthy elderly can drink moderately without becoming impaired, but those with early or mild Alzheimer’s will be pushed over by even a small amount of alcohol and hence, don’t drink. Drinking wine, like driving a car safely, doesn’t prevent Alzheimer’s, it’s just more evidence that you don’t have it.

The downside

— Several large observational studies show an increased risk of breast cancer in women who drank moderate amounts of wine. As with the observational studies showing a reduction of heart disease, cause and effect remains unknown, but the results are worrisome.

— Women are more susceptible to all effects of alcohol, both potentially beneficial and harmful. They have a higher blood-alcohol level compared with men after drinking the same amount of wine or other form of alcohol because they have less of an enzyme in their stomach that starts to break down alcohol. Keeping the alcohol in the stomach, which occurs with eating, allows more of it to be broken down. Less is absorbed, so the blood alcohol level is lower.

— The calories in dry wine come entirely from alcohol. A 5-ounce glass of dry red or white wine (at 13 percent alcohol) contains about 110 calories.

Please note: Nothing in these articles should be construed as individual medical advice. For specific recommendations regarding alcohol consumption, consult your physician.

Wine writer Michael Apstein is a gastroenterologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

This article appeared on page K – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle on Friday, August 23, 2009

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Economic squeeze hitting Bordeaux wines

“This could be the crash of the century instead of the vintage of the century,” quipped Coco Conroy of Château Brane-Cantenac, a second-growth property in Margaux, as she jokingly referred to Bordeaux’s 2008 vintage.

Like other blue chips, Bordeaux, the bluest of blue chips in the world’s wine market, is not immune to this economic downturn. The Bordeaux market is currently in chaos. Buyers are reluctant to step up to the plate. Prices are falling sharply. It is possible that Bordeaux’s long-established, and intricate, system of selling wines faces fundamental change.

Bordeaux has seen crisis before in the early 1970s and early 1990s. The major difference now is that Bordeaux represents a much smaller portion of the overall wine market. And back then, importers had to buy Bordeaux for their portfolios; without it, they were not credible.

Now Bordeaux represents a much smaller portion of the overall wine market. Despite its shrinking share, Bordeaux prices have risen – at least until now – like a rocket, making it much more capital-intensive than any other types of wine.

Hence it is far less important and far more risky for an importer to handle Bordeaux than it was even 15 years ago. And this year, with fewer buyers for expensive wines, many importers are shying away.

Historically, Bordeaux sales are predictable. The wines are sold en primeur, a system unique to Bordeaux, in which the wines are sold in advance – as “futures” – two years before they are bottled and shipped to retailers. (Unlike buying pork belly futures, the consumer typically wants to take delivery of the wine.) Buyers and critics troop to the region the first week of April every year to attend organized tastings of the new vintage and to assess the wines.

Once the reviews of critic Robert Parker come out, usually in May or June, individual chateaux set their prices. Prices generally move in the same direction – usually up compared with previous years – but by varying degrees depending on the reviews.

But this year, to jump-start the market, some set prices even before Parker weighed in. Most have dropped substantially. Chateau Angelus, a top St. Emilion and the first to announce prices, cut its price almost in half, to 2004 levels. Even the sought-after first growths – Chateau Haut-Brion, Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux and Mouton-Rothschild – who always easily sell their wine and who usually announce their prices last, have already posted dramatic decreases compared to prior years. Latour’s initial price of 110 euros was less than half the 2007 price.

Impact on 2007 prices

The price drops sent a tsunami through the retail market. Many 2008s are selling for less than the 2007s, an inferior vintage by all accounts. Retailers around the country are slashing prices – and taking losses – on unsold 2007s and even 2006s. MacArthur Beverages in Washington, D.C., just slashed the prices on its stocks of 2006s by 50 percent. Mark Wessels, MacArthur’s Bordeaux buyer, expects something similar for the 2007s. “Who’s going to buy the 2007 l’Angelus for $199 when the 2008, a better wine, is selling for $99?” he asks.

Clyde Beffa Jr., who buys Bordeaux for K & L Wine Merchants in San Francisco, anticipates taking a loss on his 2007s, but customers have responded to the lower-priced 2008s. He points to Chateau Leoville-Barton, a well-regarded St. Julien, for $44: “It’s hard to find good California Cabernet at that price.”

So there’s strength for some wines. Parker, whose reviews came out in late April, praised the vintage in general and Lafite in particular, causing its price to double. But up until the publication of Parker’s assessments, buyers were showing far less interest in the 2008s.

This year, Bordeaux’s en-primeur week was missing some habitually large purchasers – including Wessels and Beffa. Attendance was down overall by about 10 percent.

The weak demand and falling prices prompted some producers to consider abandoning the whole system, at least temporarily. Typically, the en primeur system shifted power toward producers; they have been reluctant to give it up because it provides owners with early sales and an ability to test the market by releasing only part of their stock. Lafite’s preliminary Parker score of 98-100, for instance, allowed them to dramatically raise prices for their remaining stocks of 2008s. But that has been the exception.

“The 2008 en primeur campaign isn’t going to work,” according to John Kolasa, director of Chateau Rauzan-Ségla in Margaux and Chateau Canon, a leading property in St. Emilion. He thinks the prudent thing to do is to “recognize the horrible economic situation and hold wines for a couple of years.”

Some holding back

Patrick Maroteaux, president of Château Branaire-Ducru, a top property in St. Julien, is considering a similar tack. “People are clamoring for me to reduce my price by 50 percent,” he says, “which would mean that I would be charging less for my 2008, a much better wine, than for the 2007. And there’s no guarantee that it will sell even at that price.”

A few properties, including the prestigious Chateau Pichon-Longueville (Baron), adopted this strategy in the early 1990s during a similar economic turndown. But many estates simply need the cash. Others aren’t willing to abandon tradition. Jean-René Matignon, technical director at Pichon-Longueville (Baron), expects management to sell at least a portion of the 2008 vintage en primeur.

Large-scale buyers are just as hesitant to place orders in an uncertain economy-especially at prices they may not be able to pass onto their customers-for fear of being stuck with wines they cannot sell. Volatile currency exchange rates – the dollar has fluctuated against the euro by 20 percent in the last six months – only make things worse. Yet those who fail to buy the 2008s could face retaliation from producers, who could punish them by refusing to sell them their allocation in the future.

Given its hidebound ways, it is improbable that the en primeur system even survived this long, especially given Bordeaux’s shrinking dominance of the world of wine. It served an important function when most chateaux were short of cash and wines needed prolonged aging. But now there is less barrel aging and the wines are consumed sooner. With so many other regions producing similar wines, it’s surprising that the Bordelais – but no one else – still persuade buyers to pony up two years in advance.

More reluctance

So this year’s turbulence may change the game. Fred Ek, a principal of Ex Cellars Wine Agencies, an importer based in Cambridge, Mass., and Solvang (Santa Barbara County), says importers in general are leery of putting money up front now.

“Just look at the last two years,” Ek says. “The economy is unstable. The currency risks are substantial. It doesn’t make sense to take a greater risk to capture a smaller portion of the overall wine market.”

Although it’s hard to envision Bordeaux’s long-established system disappearing entirely, the economy is accelerating the trend of some of its players abandoning it.

Bordeaux price plunge

Some initial release prices for Bordeaux chateaux in 2008 show marked drops from previous years. Prices are in euros per bottle. Currency rates have created further instability: The euro was about 1.29 for the 2004s; 1.55 for the 2007s and about 1.32 for the 2008s.

Source: Decanter, Chateau Palmer

This article appeared on page J – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle on Friday May 10, 2009

Venerable Burgundy auction gets a makeover

‘Irrelevant” was the word a high-ranking representative of a leading Burgundy negociant firm, who prefers to remain anonymous for fear of offending the tightly knit Burgundy wine community, used to describe the current Hospices de Beaune auction. That’s a startling assessment of what was – and probably still is – the world’s most important wine auction.

Dating to the mid-19th century and held annually on the third Sunday of November in Beaune, the center of the Burgundy wine trade, the Hospices de Beaune auction offers the latest vintage of wines made from grapes grown in vineyards donated to, and now owned by, the Hospices, two local hospitals. It’s the oldest wine auction and as recently as 30 years ago, it actually helped determine prices of the new vintage of Burgundy.

“It used to be a weather vane for prices,” according to Peter Holt, a longtime consultant to restaurants and former vice president for purchasing for California’s now closed Liquor Barn. Holt has followed the Burgundy market since the 1970s. Although inflated, since proceeds went to charity, the prices paid at the Hospices de Beaune auction reflected the perceived quality of the vintage and helped set the prices of other wines the negociants bought. “If prices at the Hospices went up by 25 percent, everyone’s prices rose similarly.”

Not any longer. During the last three decades the importance of the large negociants has waned as scores of small, quality-oriented growers have bottled and sold their wines themselves and even started small negociant businesses. Traditionally most of the transactions occurred between growers selling the wine to large negociants who then “finished,” bottled and sold it to the public, which made price setting difficult. And unlike Bordeaux, quantities of Burgundy are small, quality varies even from within the same grand cru vineyard and there is no en primeur system, all of which further complicates pricing. As a result, with more growers selling their wines directly, the overall Burgundy market has expanded. The system still isn’t nearly as structured as in Bordeaux, where merchants and influential buyers effectively set prices, but today the broader wine market – not the auction – sets the price.

Prestigious partnership

To enhance its role as a charity fundraiser, the Hospices de Beaune partnered with Christie’s, the London auction house, in 2005 to modernize this century-plus-old event. They reduced the size of each lot to a single barrel to make it easier for consumers to buy.

At last year’s auction Christie’s further encouraged consumers to bid by introducing online real-time bidding via computer. Christie’s expects more online bidders for this Sunday’s auction, despite the grim economy, since last year’s inaugural run went smoothly.

Previously, the public was largely unwelcome to bid. Large Burgundy houses, such as Louis Jadot, Louis Latour or Joseph Drouhin were given the right to bid. They would perform the elevage – “raising” the wine – completing the winemaking and offering it for sale under their names. An individual could bid only in conjunction with one of large houses. Although now open to the public, the auction still poses plenty of hurdles for the consumer. Off-site bidders have no opportunity to taste the wines before the auction, so are forced to bid solely on the reputation of the individual wine and the vintage. The winning bidder must arrange for and pay a negociant to finish aging wine in the barrel for them and deliver it, no easy feat given the complex regulations of each state. “Christie’s will be delighted to advise you if you are not already in contact with a local negociant,” according to the auction catalog.

‘Raising’ a barrel

But it might be difficult to persuade a negociant to “raise” a single barrel (finish the aging and bottle the wine) especially a wine they didn’t bid on themselves. After all, the negociant’s name still appears on the label along with the buyer. Louis-Fabrice Latour, head of Maison Louis Latour, was adamant – “Latour will never raise a barrel they didn’t bid on” – though he added he was speaking only for himself. Despite these potential pitfalls, the public logged on last year, according to Anthony Hanson, Master of Wine, the head of the Christie’s auction team, and the first winning online bid even met with applause in the room. The 2007 auction raised just under 4.3 million euros (approximately $6.3 million) by selling 607 barrels. Prices for red wines were higher by almost 40 percent (though lower by about 5 percent for white wines) compared with the previous year. The dramatic rise in prices for the reds from a year most consider inferior to the 2006s suggests that the public participation is driving up prices, much as speculation has driven prices of top Bordeaux.

Prices go up

Christie’s presence and the new format clearly puts upwards pressure on prices,” says Alex Gambal, an American-born negociant in Beaune who specializes in small lots of wine. Clive Coates, the writer and Burgundy authority, adds: “You can never make sense of the prices at the Hospices, but Christie’s involvement probably explains at least part of the rise in 2007.”

Many negociants, not surprisingly, remain wary. The auction historically has been a local event and they were the only players. Pierre-Henri Gagey, president of Maison Louis Jadot, said he wouldn’t “want to see it turn into just another charity auction that attracts the wealthy.”

Several other negociants indicated they were concerned that consumers could outbid them for the most prestigious wines, though they declined to speak publicly for fear of antagonizing colleagues.

Despite the apprehension, the negociants are unlikely to walk away, and it is hard to imagine this century-old tradition morphing into a consumer event similar to California charity auctions. There is a strong commercial bond between the Hospices and the negociants because, in addition to the wines sold at auction, the Hospices sells wines made from young vines directly to the negociants. Even with the change in format – Christie’s involvement seems certain to remain – and the recent worldwide demand for Burgundy, there simply are not enough private buyers willing to negotiate the system to purchase the 600-plus barrels of unfinished wine every year (a Burgundy barrel contains twenty-four 12-bottle cases).

This weekend’s auction should help define the trend. If individuals jump into the Burgundy market the way they have in Bordeaux, prices for Burgundy could soar. That would change Burgundy even more than the shift of power between growers and negociants.

About the auction

The auction’s roots go deep, back to 1443, when Nicolas Rolin, chancellor to Philippe le Bon, Duke of Burgundy, and his wife, Guigone de Salins, established the Hotel-Dieu – a hospital to care for the sick and the poor. The Hotel-Dieu and the Hopital de la Charite are the beneficiaries of the money raised at the auction.

The first donation of vineyards to the Hospices de Beaune followed in 1459 and now, with the last donation of 3.5 acres in Pouilly-Fuisse by Francoise Poisard in 1994, the Hospices owns almost 150 acres of prime vineyards, almost all either premier or grand cru, from which it produces 42 different wines (called cuvees) – 30 reds and 12 whites.

Each cuvee honors an individual or group, such as Cuvee Nicolas Rolin, or the donor of the land, such as Cuvee Maurice Drouhin, in addition to the appellation of the wine.

From hammer to bottle: The costs

Hammer price for the wine: 3,000

Buyer’s premium: 210 euros

Price of the barrel: 500 euros

Estimated price for raising the wine: 900 euros

Approximate price/case in dollars: $269/case for Savigny-les-Beaune Cuvee Arthur Girard or $2,960/case for Clos de la Roche Cuvee Cyrot-Chaudron

Does not include shipping, customs clearing and duty. Adventures in Wine, a Daly City company estimates $115/case by sea, $210/case by air.

This article appeared on page F – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle on Friday, November 14, 2008

Campania’s world-class white wines

Taurasi, Campania’s best wine, has a powerful allure. Years ago, I spotted one on the shelf of a simple seafood trattoria outside of Naples, where instead of a wine list the choices were arrayed on a shelf. I asked for this sturdy red even though we had ordered grilled langoustine. The waiter brought it to the table along with another bottle. He handed over the Taurasi, then said: Da bere domani con carne – “drink it tomorrow with a steak.”

Without asking, he opened the second bottle, a Greco di Tufo, a local white wine. This is what you drink with langoustine, he all but commanded.

Most people think of northeast Italy – areas like Friuli – for Italian white wines. But Campania, far to the south and well known for red wines like Aglianico, has two top-quality appellations, or DOCGs, for dry white wines, more than any other region in Italy. Excellent white wine coming from south Italy surprises most consumers since southern climes are usually too hot to produce white wines with the requisite acidity to keep them lively. But Campania’s unique geology explains why its white wines are so exciting. Mountainous topography means that vineyards have been planted at higher elevations, where cooler temperatures allow grapes to ripen without losing acidity. Couple that with the region’s volcanic soil and you have the potential for stunning white wines.

Although Campania produces more white wine than red wine – the production of the two largest producers, Mastroberardino and Feudi di San Gregorio, is about 75 percent white – the focus of the press and consumers until recently has been on its ageworthy reds, such as Taurasi, the region’s only DOCG for red, and others made from the Aglianico grape.

It has become “the most important region in Italyfor making serious wine,” says Riccardo Cotarella, one of Italy’s foremost enologists and a consultant to several Campanian wineries, including Feudi di San Gregorio. Although he was speaking primarily of the red wine, he thinks that the region, formerly known for “chestnuts, potatoes and humble whites,” is ready for production of upscale, world-class white wines as well.

Greco Bianco and Fiano are the grapes responsible for Campania’s two DOCGs for white wine, Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino, respectively. Both trace their origins to the Greeks, who brought them when they settled this part of Italy in the seventh century B.C. The other two major white grapes in the region are Coda di Volpe (literally “tail of the fox,” because of the shape of the clusters) and Falanghina, an aromatic variety whose popularity is skyrocketing. (See “Buying guide,” this page.)

Greco and Coda di Volpe, like Fiano, do well in the volcanic soil in the mountainous terrain of Avellino, while Falanghina thrives in the towns of Sannio and Sant’ Agata de’ Goti in the neighboring province of Benevento.

Other white varieties, such as Pallagrello Bianco, are starting to appear on the radar screen, not surprising since there are hundreds of varieties native to this region, where wine has been made for 9,000 years. The wine made from Pallagrello has a wild character that could get out of hand if not vinified carefully. Good natural acidity tends to balance its viscous nature. Produced by only four or five wineries, it has limited availability in the United States, but so did Falanghina until about 20 years ago.

Local industry expands

After centuries of producing mostly rustic bottlings – plus the occasional compelling Taurasi – that were mostly consumed locally, Campania’s wine industry surged in the 1980s, expanding from a single major producer, Mastroberardino, to more than 100 wineries today. This growth resulted from a general decrease in poverty in the region, more widespread exposure from increased tourism to the Amalfi Coast, Pompeii and Naples, money from the European Union finally finding its way to wineries, and resurgence in interest in local grapes by the Italians themselves, according to Tom Maresca, a leading American authority on Italian wines. “The Italians discovered great resources that had always been there,” he says.

Importers specializing in Italian wines, such as Palm Bay International, Winebow and Vias Imports, saw a great opportunity for growth – and greater profits – for these wines compared to the more well-known ones from northern Italy, according to Jane Kettlewell, a public-relations executive who has worked for several Italian wine importers. They were aided, she adds, by the efforts of the Italian Trade Commission, which turned its attention to southern Italian wines.

The wines got a further push as sommeliers and wine buyers around the globe began discovering them and introducing them to customers. “Some customers order Pinot Grigio,” says Matteo Scaccabarozzi, sommelier and manager at London’s Alloro in Mayfair, “but I direct them to Fiano or Falanghina instead.”

Jeannie Rogers, wine buyer at Il Capriccio in Waltham, outside Boston, finds that “these wines are especially popular in the summertime when diners are choosing lighter fare.” Rogers’ theory: Customers are introduced to these wines during visits to the region and order them when they return home.

But the country’s leading booster for wines from Campania may be Shelley Lindgren, wine director at A16 in San Francisco. She has 25 selections of Fiano, Greco and Falanghina on her wine list and two Pallagrello Biancos, and is always looking for more. More and more small producers who previously sold their production to the larger wineries have started to bottle and export the wines themselves, as the region receives international acclaim. “But it’s still a big bridge to cross to get wines from small producers to market,” Lindgren laments.

Lindgren’s evangelism for southern Italian wines continues to resonate through the Bay Area. “These wines definitely sell,” says Mark Middlebrook, wine buyer at Paul Marcus Wines in Oakland. “I’ve seen a steady increase in their sales over the seven years I’ve been here.”

Major players

Though smaller producers have a growing U.S. presence, most consumers’ first exposure to Campanian whites comes from the so-called big three, who have given them name recognition and cachet: Mastroberardino, Terredora di Paolo and Feudi di San Gregorio. Mastroberardino, founded in 1878, is credited with resurrecting the focus on Campania’s native grapes – always eschewing international varieties – and until as recently as the early 1980s, was essentially the region’s only significant winery known internationally. The winery went so far as to analyze DNA from grape seeds buried in Pompeii in an effort to replant, cultivate and eventually make wine from the varieties growing at the time of Mount Vesuvius’ eruption two millennia ago. The research confirms the belief that Greco, Fiano and Falanghina were grown in the region at that time.

As is often the case with wine families, a dispute arose among the members and brothers Antonio and Walter went their separate ways in 1993. Older brother Antonio kept the name, Mastroberardino, the winery and a few vineyards. Walter took the bulk of the vineyards because they belonged to his wife’s family, and established a new winery, Terredora di Paolo, in a neighboring village.

Since the split, Mastroberardino has purchased more vineyards, established contracts with local growers and now produces about 200,000 cases of wine a year. Terredora produces about half as much, but is far less reliant on growers, since its vineyards supply 90 percent of its grapes.

The third major producer, Feudi di San Gregorio, founded in the mid-1980s, was able to establish a thriving business as the Mastroberardino brothers were distracted by their internecine feuding. It is now the leading producer, by volume, with an annual production of 250,000 cases. Its wines are the most modern of the three since they have the greatest emphasis on new oak, especially noticeable in their reds. (See “Matters of style,” this page.)

Signature whites

With the whites, the choices seem to be whether to blend Fiano and Greco and bottle under the more liberal IGT regulations or blend Falanghina with Coda di Volpe into a wine called Lacryma Christi (literally “tears of Christ”). An occasional producer ferments Fiano on the skins, but unlike in northern Italy and Sicily, Chardonnay is nowhere to be found. While many of more modern-style reds show obvious oak flavors when young, it’s the rare white that conveys obvious oak influence.

These whites do not have allure of Taurasi or Supertuscans yet, but they might as more people taste them. It wouldn’t be the first time that demand for Italian whites has enticed high-quality small producers to grab a piece of the action. Lindgren sums it up. “People think Pinot Grigio is Italy’s white wine. But these are the noble whites of Italy.”

Buying guide

The white wines from Campania, the region of Italy surrounding Naples and its beautiful bay, pair exquisitely with seafood.

Greco di Tufo

Greco, an aromatic white with earthy nuances and bracing acidity, has a firm edge that reflects the volcanic soil where it’s grown. Sometimes shy when young, it gains considerable complexity after two or three years in the bottle. It’s a good foil for sushi or sashimi.

2007 Mastroberardino Nova Serra Greco di Tufo ($24) Earthy rather than floral, you can almost taste the volcanic soil in which the vines are planted. A clean citric edge in the finish of this firm wine adds to the appeal. Mastroberardino’s 2006 Greco – still available in stores – has more amplitude at this stage and reinforces the notion that Greco benefits from bottle aging. (Importer: Winebow)

2007 Benito Ferrara Greco di Tufo ($25) Ferrara, a very small producer with 7 acres of vineyards, produced a full-bodied Greco that is more forward – and ready to drink – than Mastroberardino’s at this stage. At first blush, it seems to have been oak aged, but it’s just the concentration of the stone-fruit flavors coming to the fore. Vibrant acidity keeps it together. (Importer: Estate Wines)


As with most wines, the character of Fiano varies with where the grape is cultivated. In Avellino, known as Irpinia by the locals and Campania’s most important province for wine, it offers intriguing minerality that’s fuller, riper and softer than Greco. When planted nearer the coast, floral elements overshadow its minerality. But its signature characteristic – a subtle waxy texture – persists regardless of where it is grown. Its popularity is spreading; consumers are likely to see Fiano from other parts of southern Italy including Sicily. Try it with full-flavored seafood, such as grilled salmon.

2007 Terredora Di Paolo Fiano di Avellino ($30) Distinct notes of ripe melons coupled with hints of minerality complement the characteristic waxy texture. Bright acid is the counterweight in this marvelously complex wine that demonstrates why Fiano di Avellino has DOCG status. (Importer: Vias Imports)

2007 Mastroberardino Fiano di Avellino ($22) Tighter with more minerality, you see the more traditional hand of Mastroberardino at work. The waxy texture is still apparent in this firmer rendition of Fiano. Not an aperitif-style wine, its racy acidity cries for a splash of olive oil on grilled fish. (Importer: Winebow)


Virtually unknown as a fine wine grape until the early 1990s when Feudi di San Gregorio’s version appeared on the scene, now everyone seems to be making one. Falanghina is a deceptive wine. Its engaging floral character suggests sweetness, but it is not. High acidity imparts a complementary cutting edge, which keeps it lively and refreshing throughout a meal. Quite versatile, it stands up to spicy seafood preparations that use cilantro or Thai basil. It’s also a fine choice as an aperitif or with antipasto.

2007 Feudi di San Gregorio Falanghina di Sannio ($17) Alluring aromas of white flowers are apparent and then hints of peaches and melons hit the palate and persist into the finish. The absence of oak flavors and uplifting acidity keeps it fresh and encourages another sip. The juxtaposition of the floral nose and cutting acid makes this an exciting wine and a good match for a wide range of foods. (Importer: Palm Bay International)

Coda di Volpe

The most difficult grape among these to transform into wine, Coda di Volpe, also known as Caprettone, has lower acidity and a tendency to oxidize when not handled correctly. Although the primary – when blended with Falanghina – or the sole grape for Campania’s best known white wine, Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio, it lacks the stature of Greco and Fiano. A fine choice for cioppino or another seafood stew.

2005 Mastroberardino Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio ($16) Made exclusively from Coda di Vopa; Mastroberardino shows that a talented producer can make fine wine from this temperamental grape. (It also makes a Lacryma Christi red from Piedirosso, another indigenous grape.) This midweight wine has a firm edge and almost tastes of lava, reflecting the volcanic soil of the region. An uplifting freshness in the finish makes it a fine choice for a hearty seafood pasta rather than a sipping aperitif. (Importer: Winebow)
– M.A.

Matters of style

Among red wines, there is the ongoing dichotomy in Campania as in other parts of Italy between traditional wines, such as Mastroberardino’s – although under Piero Mastroberardino, even this traditional firm is edging toward a more approachable style – and international or modern styles, like those from Feudi di San Gregorio and to a lesser extent, Terredora di Paolo.

Traditional Taurasi, similar to other great Italian red wines, such as Barolo, requires years of aging for its tannins to mellow and it grandeur to unfold.

The modern styles, sometimes named by Taurasi’s primary grape, Aglianico, usually have seen the inside of a small French oak barrel and a few even include Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot in the blend with the aim of making them more accessible when young.

Some producers opt to use the less restrictive IGT designation for their wines even though the grapes come from the DOCG Taurasi area because they are experimenting with shorter aging requirements and other techniques that fail to comply with DOCG regulations, but might make the wines more approachable.

This article appeared on page F – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle on Friday, September 12, 2008

A tale of two Bordeaux: Aside from the top chateaus, the region’s producers struggle to be relevant

Perusing the selection at a Cannes wine shop, I noticed a group of Japanese businessmen. Among the shop’s selection of upscale wines — such as Cristal and grand cru Burgundies — one gentleman selected two bottles of 1995 Cheval Blanc, one of Bordeaux’s greatest wines (for just over $600 a bottle). The customer, visibly upset, explained to the clerk through his translator that he was unhappy — not with the condition of the bottles — but with the condition of the tissue paper wrapping them, which was torn.

So which was more important, the wine or the presentation?

While Bordeaux’s best wines still carry a certain cachet, their influence is far less profound than it was 30 years ago. Though other winegrowing regions have emerged to knock Bordeaux from its perch as the world’s leading wine region, its considerable economic impact, especially for the top 100 or so wines, remains.

Although the region’s top names are still able to command stratospheric prices, many of their fellow vintners have been left in the dust.

In part, its current problems stem from a notion among new American wine drinkers that all Bordeaux are grand wines that need decades to mature and are mostly consumed by the moneyed class. U.S. wine retailers who have long found Bordeaux a profitable staple are suddenly trying to figure out how to dispel its stuffy reputation.

Just a year ago, it seemed like Bordeaux couldn’t be hotter. New records were set as chateaus unveiled their prices for the superb 2005 vintage, hoping to capitalize on what the Bordelais love to call a “vintage of the century.” The 2005 Chateau Petrus topped $2,000 a bottle, with other superstars not far behind. But a year later, faced with a 2006 vintage that received a lukewarm reception from critics, wineries still insisted on asking for top dollar. Recent futures prices, in which customers order wine two years before it is delivered, for the 2006 vintage — more than $1,000 a bottle for Chateau Petrus — reinforced an image that Bordeaux is inflexible and self-satisfied. Many Bordeaux loyalists steered clear of the 2006 vintage’s high prices. And most new wine drinkers simply shrugged, bypassing Bordeaux for Italy, Spain or the New World.

Peter M. F. Sichel, who has been a prominent figure in the Bordeaux trade for the last 40 years, believes that money has distorted the market. An increasingly wealthy upper class from around the world is pouring money into the market for top names and virtually ignoring smaller properties.

“There are really two Bordeaux now,” Sichel says. “One hundred or so chateaus (less than 5 percent of all properties) are doing exceptionally well, and everyone else is struggling.”

Bordeaux wines have been revered for centuries. When consumers were learning about wine in the 1970s and 1980s, Bordeaux was the natural place to start. The wines were available — most properties made upwards of 10,000 cases a year — and largely affordable. Novice wine tasters could compare for themselves — without taking out a second mortgage — the differences between properties and learn to distinguish one commune’s wines from another.

Historically, the 1855 Classification in the Medoc served as a road map to quality. But because this and other classifications were made well over a century ago, they often did not reflect the quality of those wines today. Robert M. Parker Jr. introduced the 100-point scoring scale in the mid-1970s and his ratings rapidly replaced the dependence on these classifications. Parker’s early assessments fueled a frenzy in the futures market — not only in the United States, but in growing markets like Russia and Asia.

“Thirty years ago the only market for Bordeaux was Western Europe and the United States,” says Kees Van Leeuwen, the enologist and viticulturist at Chateau Cheval Blanc, the esteemed St. Emilion property. “Now rich people are everywhere.”

And they’re competing for less of the best wines. Cheval Blanc, for instance, produced 150,000 bottles in 1982 (at about $50 a bottle, initially), but only 100,000 in 2005 (not yet released, but currently priced at about $1,000 a bottle) and 45,000 in 2006. And many of these wines are being sought not as a prized bottle to drink but as just another trophy, like a Ferrari or a Patek Philippe watch.

Ralph Sands, a Bordeaux specialist at K&L Wine Merchants in San Francisco, has seen a different kind of money pouring into Bordeaux purchases: “Venture capitalists and other investors, not my usual buyer, appeared to buy the (highly acclaimed) 2005 vintage. Some people view these wines as blue chip investments, despite the price.”

But as Bordeaux’s top names became luxury icons, most other producers were left out of the limelight. These small producers, especially from less prestigious areas such as Entre Deux Mers, Cotes de Bourg or Cotes du Blaye, made wines that were never highly sought after. With so many other choices for affordable wine from around the world, they have fallen further out of favor with the changing market.

Four of the 5 Cotes — an affiliation of five lesser known areas of Bordeaux — consolidated under one AOC (official wine appellation), Cotes de Bordeaux, starting with the 2007 vintage. These and other less prestigious areas, such as Entre Deux Mers, or those labeled simply Bordeaux Superieur or Bordeaux, produce wines that are ready to drink much sooner and that are far more affordable than the wines from the grander AOCs.

Some wine retailers have seized an opportunity with these lesser-known wines. Michael Traverso, of Traverso’s Gourmet Foods and Liquor in Santa Rosa, said that his typical Bordeaux buyer is someone who’s “fed up with high-alcohol California wine. They started with local wines but have become disenchanted by over-the-top California wines and are now looking for something different.”

Over the last 10 years, Traverso’s space for high-end Bordeaux has remained constant while the “bargain Bordeaux” section expanded. At MacArthur Beverages, a premium wine shop in Washington, D.C., with a vast selection of Bordeaux, general manager and wine buyer Mark Wessels has a display of $10-$20 Bordeaux bottles from lesser areas in the front of the store to sate growing customer demand.

Wine drinkers have manifested an enormous change in taste over the last 20 years, as food, and wine, have become more about impact than subtlety. For a wine to be “heard” in this environment it must be flamboyant and boisterous — everything that traditional Bordeaux is not.

One way some lesser Bordeaux producers fought to put themselves on the map was by making New World-like wines with more extraction, higher alcohol and extended oak barrel aging. Primarily found on the Right Bank of the Gironde River that divides the region both geographically and viticulturally, these so-called garagiste wines — named because they are made at small, garage-like, production facilities — received praise from Parker, but criticism from others. Some top garagistes like Le Pin became as highly traded as the first growths.

But many still face controversy as to whether they’re overreaching. Pioneering winemakers like Jean-Luc Thunevin, whose Valandraud was one of the first garagiste hits, have had harsh words for newcomers, and traditional producers — especially the top Left Bank properties — refuse to emulate the garagiste approach, and criticize their Right Bank garagiste neighbors for distorting the style of the region.

Christian Moueix, who oversees his family’s 10 properties in St. Emilion and Pomerol, including Chateau Petrus, the maker of Bordeaux’s most expensive wine, believes that the infatuation with garagiste wines is fading as consumers discover that many did not develop with age.

Marcel Ducasse, who just retired after 23 years at managing director of Chateau Lagrange in St. Julien, was proud that he consistently made “understated” wines.

Paul Pontallier, the managing director of Chateau Margaux, opted not to include the ripe — 15 percent alcohol — Merlot in the blend of the 2005 because “it would unbalance Margaux’s elegant style.” Ironically, it was two prominent Bordelais winemakers, the late Emile Peynaud and Michael Rolland, who encouraged fleshier wines that have defined the modern style of wine for the rest of the world.

Despite their push toward plusher wines, much of the U.S. interest in Bordeaux comes because of its original strength: wines that aren’t defined by the in-your-face fruit flavors and supple tannins that consumers seem to love in wines from California, Australia and other New World locales.

The typical high-end Bordeaux still offers the region’s hallmark: the complexity of non-fruit flavors — leather, cedar, coffee and so on — that comes from years of aging in the cellar.

Few people have the patience — or the money — to wait. (If you cellar a wine that costs $200 a bottle for 10 years, it’s worth about $400 adjusted solely for what the economists call “opportunity costs,” what you could have made from a 7 percent annual return had you invested that money elsewhere.)

It’s no surprise, then, that many retailers have found a market in older wines for customers who want to trade out the taste of New World “fruit bombs” for the taste of aged Bordeaux — without the wait. “Small lots of mature Bordeaux from the great vintages of the 1980s, such as ’82, ’86, ’89, sell out in a day,” says MacArthur’s Wessels.

Bordeaux is trying to adapt, too, but has yet to find the right formula. Sichel finds it odd that the largest fine-wine producing area in the world “has never been able to brand itself” — except for Mouton Cadet, owned by Mouton-Rothschild, which remains one of the top 10 imported wines in the United States. Most other attempts have failed.

There are other problems. The complexity of the French appellation system, which recognizes 57 different AOCs within Bordeaux but won’t allow grape varieties on the label, remains an impediment. Bordeaux proprietors and winemakers are so fixated on terroir — the concept that where the grapes grow, not the variety of grape, is key to the wine’s character — that they often stumble when asked about the blend. (The proportion of a chateau’s vineyard devoted to each grape type is easily found, but how much the winemaker uses varies year to year). Bob Harkey, owner of Harkey’s Fine Wines, a well-regarded small wine shop in Millis, Mass., a suburb of Boston, thinks the Bordelais “ignored a whole generation of wine drinkers by not adopting varietal labeling.” His customers are “shocked” when he tells them Bordeaux is a blend primarily of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

As for that riper style, many major Bordeaux producers have also looked beyond France, making New World-style wines with the traditional Bordeaux varieties. Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, one of the first to invest in California with Opus One, was followed by Christian Moueix with Dominus. Mouton’s presence is also notable in Chile with Almaviva and Escudo Rojo. Chateau Lafite Rothschild has Los Vascos in Chile, Caro in Argentina and Rupert & Rothschild in South Africa. Chateau Cheval Blanc has a joint project, Cheval des Andes, in Argentina.

Bordeaux still matters, but in a very different way from 30 years ago. Even though the top wines are seen more as an investment vehicle than something to be enjoyed at the dinner table, Bordeaux still produces large quantities of affordable wines. The Bordelais just need to figure out how to introduce them to American consumers who have different tastes from their parents and who now have more choices for the wineglass.

This article appeared on page F – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle on Friday, July 27, 2007

Super Tuscan producers size up Syrah

It was the first time I’ve been stopped by customs officials going into Italy. At Rome’s Leonardo di Vinci International Airport, the uniformed official looked up from his coffee and conversation with several co-workers as I pushed my luggage chart through the green — nothing to declare — channel.

“What’s in the box,” was my interpretation of his Italian as he pointed to the large brown cardboard carton next to my suitcase. “Vino di California,” I replied in broken Italian. He rolled his eyes and waved me through. I’m sure he was thinking to himself, “Crazy American bringing wine — California wine — into my country.”

But I had a plan. I had lugged a dozen bottles of California Syrah and reds from France’s northern Rhone Valley to compare to their Tuscan counterparts. I wanted to determine whether Tuscan Syrah was unique and stylistically different.

Syrah is making its first foray into Tuscany — causing a subtle shift in the signature of Super Tuscan wines, even appearing as a varietal wine. Super Tuscans originated in the late 1960s as a response to insipid wine made primarily from Sangiovese grapes, the mainstay of Chianti. Growers had failed to limit yields of Sangiovese and the resulting wines lacked concentration and flavor. To make matters worse, regulations required inclusion of white grapes like Trebbiano and Malvasia in the Chianti blend.

Breaking the rules

The Tuscan ego — the sense that they are the most cosmopolitan and innovative of all Italians — may explain why the Italian wine revolution started there. In what turned out to be a brilliant innovation, Piero Antinori jettisoned the traditional white grapes to buttress the indigenous Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, making the now legendary Super Tuscan Tignanello in the 1970s. (One of Antinori’s relatives, Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, is credited with making the first Super Tuscan, the 1968 Sassicaia, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.) Although Cabernet adds substance and structure, filling out the wine, its drawback is that even a little bit in the blend can dominate the final wine, muting the individuality of Sangiovese.

The driving force behind the creation of Super Tuscan wines — to make better wines without being constrained by antiquated regulations — explains why, even today, there is no accepted definition for this category. Nearly any upscale Tuscan red wine — except Chianti or Brunello — qualifies. (Some writers even include white wines.) Wines made exclusively from Sangiovese were included under the Super Tuscan umbrella as producers realized that viticultural practices to limit yields, such as high density planting and severe pruning, resulted in fabulous wines made solely from that grape.

Originally these pricey wines could only be sold under the lowliest category of Italian wine, vino da tavola (“table wine”), because they failed to conform to rigid Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) regulations.

Embarrassed to have their best wines relegated as ordinary, the Italian wine authorities created a new rung on the regulatory ladder — Indicazione Geografica Tipica (analogous to France’s vin de pays) — with fewer rules to give winemakers far more flexibility. Though better and more expensive than the category would imply, many Super Tuscans are labeled IGT Toscana. Confusingly, inexpensive wines that fail to conform to DOC regulations also carry the IGT designation. For the consumer, the choice should be based on the producer’s name and reputation, not a set of initials.

Now Syrah has crept into Super Tuscans. It has the potential advantage of filling out the wine without obliterating the more delicate qualities imparted by Sangiovese. Unlike Cabernet Sauvignon’s potentially hard-edged tannins, those from Syrah — at least Syrah grown in Tuscany — meld well with Sangiovese. In Italy, Syrah is not unique to Tuscany, but is also popular in Sicily. (Some argue that the grape originated and took its name from the Sicilian town Syracuse.) The modern origins of Syrah in Tuscany are hard to pin down, but all of the current plantings come from Rhone Valley clones.

Tuscan soil suits Syrah

Lars Leicht, a spokesperson for Castello Banfi, one of the wineries to embrace the variety, believes Banfi introduced the grape to the region in the late 1970s as part of its extensive new plantings for the then-new Montalcino estate. Others credit Paolo di Marchi, ironically from Piedmont, a region the Tuscans view as parochial, when he planted and made a varietal wine from it on his estate in the Chianti Classico region. According to one producer, farmers planted Syrah in Tuscany in the 19th century for the same reason they planted Sangiovese: its ability to produce a large crop.

Syrah has an affinity for Tuscany’s dense clay soil, which brings out the grape’s perfume and produces smaller bunches of grapes with smaller berries, which translates into more concentrated wine. Maurizio Marmugi, Banfi’s viticulturist, believes that soil has a greater impact on wine made from Syrah compared with wine made from Sangiovese grapes.

The dry Tuscan summer — rarely does rain fall from June to September — is the chief impediment to growing Syrah because it stresses the vine and actually inhibits ripening. Irrigation is permitted, but is an expensive undertaking. In Tuscany, Syrah, similar to Merlot, ripens earlier than Sangiovese or Cabernet Sauvignon, which means it is safely in the winery before autumn rains can spoil the crop.

Although exact numbers are unavailable, Syrah clearly remains a minor player in the region. Banfi, with 150 acres of Syrah, has more of it planted than anyone in Tuscany, but it still represents only 7 percent of its total vineyards. (For comparison, 700 of its 2,000 acres are planted to Sangiovese.)

Beatrice Bonacossi, whose family owns Tenuta di Capezzana in Carmignano near Florence, is enthusiastic about Syrah, which her father planted as an experiment in the early 1990s. They replaced Cabernet Franc with Syrah in their Super Tuscan, Ghiaie della Furba, and are gradually increasing the amount in the blend, up to about 30 percent, because they believe it adds spice and complexity. In 2004, to honor the 1,200th anniversary of the winery, they made a 100 percent Syrah.

Although many other producers throughout Tuscany — Angelo Gaja in Maremma in the west, Antinori and Alessandro Luigi in Cortona in the east, Fontodi and Isole e Olena in Chianti Classico, and Banfi in the south near Montalcino — are experimenting with Syrah, not everyone has embraced it. Despite regulations that allow up to 25 percent of “other red varieties,” including Syrah, in the blend of many Tuscan wines, such as Chianti, few producers seem to be using Syrah in this manner. (The 2003 Da Vinci Chianti, a wine in Gallo’s portfolio, had 5 percent Syrah in the blend.)

Microclimate effects

Laura Bianchi, whose family owns Castello di Monsanto, one of the iconic properties in the Chianti Classico area, thinks it is very difficult to produce good Syrah where they are located. They have four rows of it, but are not happy with the results. The microclimate and soil just down the road at Paolo de Marchi’s estate, Isole e Olena, must be different because he was one of the early advocates of the variety. Alessandro Lunardi, the U.S. market director for Tenuta dell’Ornellaia, one of the most sought-after Super Tuscans, believes that Syrah has potential as a component of a blend, though they have no intention of using it.

Unlike the customs officials, the staff at the Enoteca le Logge in Montalcino viewed the contents of my cardboard carton — 2003 Sonoma Coast Vineyards Syrah and 2003 Beckmen Vineyards Santa Ynez Valley Syrah, plus a 2001 Guigal Cote Rotie and others — with great interest as they wrapped the bottles in aluminum foil for our blind tasting. Roberto Cipresso, winemaker at his estate in Montalcino, La Fiorita, and consultant to other estates in Montalcino and Argentina, and Yoshiaki Miyajima, a certified sommelier and hospitality manager at Castello Banfi, joined several other American wine writers and myself.

The tasting showed Tuscany’s potential for the varietal. Not as fruit-forward as California Syrah, they still had plummy flavors as expected from Syrah grown in warmer climates — as opposed to the peppery element often found in Syrah from the cooler climes, such as the northern Rhone — balanced by the lively acidity inherent in Italian wines. In the blends, Syrah added an alluring — and exotic — edge.

Don’t expect Tuscan winemakers to replace all their Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot with Syrah, but it’s likely we will be seeing more Syrah in the Super Tuscans and Chianti of the future.

Tasting notes

2004 Ca’Marcanda Promis ($42) Angelo Gaja uses Syrah — about one third of the blend — to fill out the Merlot and Sangiovese in this entry-level wine from his Maremma estate. It works because it adds fullness and richness without overwhelming the typical bright cherry flavors and earthy components that Sangiovese and Merlot deliver. It’s a wonderfully harmonious blend. Its supple tannins mean you can enjoy this wine without further aging.

2000 Tenuta di Capezzana Ghiaie della Furba ($45) Capezzana is perhaps the leading producer in Carmignano, an area just west of Florence where blending Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon has been the tradition and was codified into the regulations when the DOC was established in 1975. Although this is not a DOC wine, this Super-Tuscan blend of 60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 30 percent Merlot and 10 percent Syrah has a more “international” signature than Capezzana’s Carmignano, but still retains Tuscan verve, earthiness and character. Its length and finesse — given its powerful fruit flavors — are remarkable.

2003 Castello Banfi Colvecchio Sant’Antimo Syrah ($36) Pipe irrigation spared Syrah, unlike Sangiovese, from the drought of the 2003 growing season and helps explain the balance in this wine. More plummy than peppery, as expected, it also delivers an alluring meaty component surrounded by supple tannins and uplifting acidity that clearly identifies its Tuscan origin. California winemakers should take note of this great Syrah.

2003 Castello Banfi Summus Sant’Antimo ($66) The rationale for using Syrah expressed by Paolo Benassi, one of Banfi’s winemakers, makes as much sense as all of the logical explanations: “In Tuscany we blend everything, we love to blend.” The proportion of Syrah in this Super Tuscan blend varies from 15 to 20 percent year to year. In 2003, it was 20 percent with the remainder split evenly between Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese. This big — but beautifully balanced wine — conveys a multitude of thick black fruit flavors, cherry-like acidity and engaging hints of cocoa or chocolate.

2003 D’Alessandro Il Bosco Cortona Syrah ($50) This 100 percent Syrah from Cortona exemplifies the powerfully plummy side of that grape in part because of the vintage. In every prior year of Il Bosco that I have tasted, its finesse coupled with power has stood out. The exotic leathery component supported by moderate tannins and ripe dense black fruit flavors suggests it will evolve nicely. Approach it now only if you like boisterous wine.

— M.A.

This article appeared on page H – 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle on Friday, April 20, 2007

THE ESSENTIALS: Spain’s Priorat region flexes its muscles

Editor’s note: Beginning today, the Wine section will profile noteworthy wine regions across the United States and around the world, with an eye toward helping you in your wine-buying decisions. Look for the Essentials every few weeks in Wine.

In just 20 years, wines from Priorat have gone from obscurity to being the most expensive in Spain. The surging popularity of wines from this rugged mountainous area in Catalonia, 80 miles southwest of Barcelona, stems from their ability to deliver the power and ripeness associated with California or Australia wines balanced by an uplifting freshness. Their chief drawbacks are their limited production, availability and steep prices.

Just like the French Appellation d’Origine Controllee (AOC) system — name-controlled regulations for making wine in specific geographic areas — the Spanish have a system, Denominacion de Origen, or DO, for wines. Of the 64 DOs, Priorat is one of only two that have been awarded the top status, Denominacion de Origen Calificada, or DOC — the other DOC is Rioja. (On Catalan labels, a Q, for Qualificada, is often seen in place of C.) In essence, the Spanish authorities have identified Priorat as one of the two best places in Spain for viticulture.

Priorat’s wines — almost exclusively red, although there is an occasional white — are blends made chiefly from indigenous Garnacha and Cariñena (Grenache and Carignan) grapes. Since Priorat’s renaissance, which started in the 1980s, winemakers have added Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah to the blend.

Priorat has been a place for wine since monks cultivated grapes in the Middle Ages — the region takes its name from the Spanish word for “priory.” As recently as 1900, there were 40,000 acres — about the same area under vine as in Napa or Sonoma counties. A combination of wars, political turmoil and the attraction of jobs in nearby Barcelona and in the thriving tourist industry along the Mediterranean coast led many farming families to forsake the vine.

Priorat’s wines sank into obscurity until the 1980s when five forward-thinking winemakers, Rene Barbier, Dafne Glorian, Alvaro Palacios, Carles Pastrana and Jose Luis Perez, combined their resources and started a renaissance. Initially the young, energetic vintners modernized the wines by incorporating “international” grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah into the blend, by using new small oak barrels for aging and by using modern winemaking techniques. These innovations gave the wines a New World sheen — power, suppleness and an emphasis on clean fruit flavors — while maintaining balancing acidity. Initially they made wine in a communal winery, but gradually established individual facilities — Clos Mogador, Clos Erasmus, Alvaro Palacios, Clos de l’Obac and Clos Martinet — respectively, which remain leading names in the region.

Now that wines from Priorat have captured the world’s attention, some winemakers have gradually altered the blend — using less Cabernet Sauvignon and relying more on the indigenous varieties. Barbier, who runs Clos Mogador, says he has not planted nor replanted any Cabernet Sauvignon and it now comprises about a quarter — instead of half — of the blend. Barbier and others are also reducing the amount of time the wine spends in new oak barrels to avoid masking the distinctiveness imparted by Priorat’s soil and climate.

“Ten years ago, when Priorat was undergoing its renaissance, they didn’t have confidence to exclude Cabernet, Syrah and Merlot, but now they do,” says Salustia Alvarez, the president of the governing body for Priorat wines. He thinks the change is good, but believes that there will always be some Cabernet or Syrah in the blend.

Priorat wines are intense and high in alcohol (regulations mandate a minimum 13.5 percent alcohol) because grapes ripen well — sometimes too well — under the Mediterranean sun. The ripeness can be a two-edged sword, producing wines that are overblown when the intensity is not balanced by acidity and tannins. If winemakers aren’t careful, they run the risk of being criticized for favoring size over elegance and producing jammy, overly alcoholic wines.

Priorat’s location should help make balanced wines. The altitude of the vineyards — 1,000 to 3,000 feet — keeps the grapes cool at night, so they retain their inherent acidity, keeping the wines lively. Some growers also attribute the wines’ freshness to elements extracted from the rocky slate soil. Because they are so well balanced, wines from Priorat have the potential to combine the intensity of the New World with the finesse and elegance of the Old World. One reason the wines are expensive is that all the vineyard work must be done by hand — often with the help of mules. The slopes are so steep that tractors risk tumbling down them. Workers plant the vines by chiseling a hole in the “soil” — a combination of quartz and slate called llicorella. The roots wend their way through the cracks and crevices to find water. The meaning of the name of Priorat’s leading town, Gratallops — “the place where wolves howl” — aptly describes the entire region. The landscape is so inhospitable that even those animals go hungry.

The top wines from these five “new school” Priorat producers are all priced well above $100 a bottle, and it’s rare to find any Priorat at less than $25 a bottle. Despite the prices, the wines rarely stay long on retailers’ shelves and they can be frustratingly difficult to find. There’s a large demand, in Spain and elsewhere, for a relatively small amount of wine.

There are a limited number of American consumers willing to pay $100 for a bottle of wine and a lot of wines at that price level vying for their wallets. So are wines from Priorat worth it? Probably no more or less than many other wines at that price — California Cabernets, classified Bordeaux, Grand Cru Burgundy, Barolo and Brunello.

Personal preference, as much as price, is likely to determine who buys these wines. To enjoy and appreciate Priorat, you need to relish the intensity and weight found in many young wines from California, Australia or France’s Rhone Valley. If you are a fan of the delicacy and nuances found in mature Bordeaux or Burgundy, Priorat’s power will overwhelm you.

The area’s recent growth suggests companies are gambling that consumers will pay. The number of wineries in Priorat has increased from 6 to 60 over the last 10 years, according to Katrin Naelapaa, director of Wines from Spain, a New York branch of the Trade Commission of Spain. In the last five years, vineyard area, while still only a small fraction of what it was 100 years ago, has almost doubled to just over 4,000 acres. Exports to the United States have climbed similarly.

Priorat’s recent history is short and how the wines evolve with age remains uncertain. Time will tell whether it will join the other great wine regions of the world and the wolves will finally stop howling.

A taste of Priorat

The recommendations below come from tasting wines costing less than $60 a bottle.

Perfect weather throughout the growing season made Priorat’s 2004 vintage excellent. Many producers say it was the finest since 1998. As in the rest of Europe, 2003 was scorching in the region, but the vines there tolerate heat well. Still, some wines were a little overdone. Atypical temperatures and rain resulted in great variability in the 2002 vintage, but some producers still made outstanding wines. The 2001 vintage, thanks to just the right amount of rain, produced balanced wines, similar to those of 2004.

2003 Alvaro Palacios Les Terrasses ($38) One of Priorat’s leading producers, Palacios makes two wines from single vineyards, L’Ermita (about $200), a blend of 80 percent old-vine Garnacha and 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and Finca Dofi (about $70), a blend of roughly 50 percent Garnacha and 25 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 25 percent Syrah. Les Terrasses, his “entry level” wine, is a refined blend of 30 percent Garnacha, 60 percent Cariñena and 10 percent Cabernet that is full of ripe black fruit flavors intertwined with minerals. One reason for its complexity is that almost half of the Cariñena used in the blend comes from old vines. It’s outstanding.

2003 Buil & Gine Plaret($55) Oak still shows at this stage, but does not obliterate the region’s typicity. Its overall size and supple finish means it’s a good choice with a hearty dish of short ribs.

2002 Mas del Camperol ($55) Tarry earthy nuances emerge and meld with black fruit in this concentrated wine. It has great length and, despite its power, remarkable vivacity. Tannins give it structure, but not astringency.

2003 Mas Igneus Fa 206 ($20) Fa 206 (Fa is the Catalan abbreviation for Allier oak; 206 means the wines spent 6 months in 2-year-old barrels) is a designation for one of Mas Igneus’ less expensive Priorats. Although it lacks the depth of its stablemates, it is still a remarkable $20 wine. Full of minerals and black-cherry fruit all nicely complemented with fine tannins and acidity, this mostly Garnacha-Cariñena blend is an excellent introduction to Priorat.

2002 Morlanda ($48) In addition to minerals and black fruit flavors, a haunting bacon-fat character that’s often associated with Cote Rotie (but there’s no Syrah in this blend) adds an intriguing note. The supple tannins complete the picture and allow it to be enjoyed now.

2002 Pasanau Finca La Planeta ($43) Composed of 80 percent Cabernet Sauvignon — the remainder is old-vine Garnacha — this stunningly luscious single-vineyard bottling shows the diversity of blends in Priorat. Fine tannins and succulent black-cherry acidity support the intense cassis-like fruit in this nicely balanced wine.

2003 Scala Dei Cartoixa ($35) Plump and ripe, probably a result of the vintage and the inclusion of 40 percent Syrah in the blend, the region’s signature minerality and attractive earthiness still shines. By Priorat standards, it’s a good buy.

2002 Vall Llach Embruix ($32) Vall Llach, like most of the producers in Priorat, makes several wines. Embruix, which means “bewitched” in Catalan, comes from young vines, but you wouldn’t guess it from tasting this one. Succulent and remarkably powerful, its length betrays the youthfulness of the vines.

— Michael Apstein

This article appeared on page F – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle on Friday, January 12, 2007

Australia’s western frontier: Maverick vintners make sophisticated, well-priced wines on the other side of the Outback

Everyone knows about Australia’s inexpensive, fruit-driven, mass-produced wines — think Yellow Tail, the largest-selling wine brand in U.S. food stores by dollar volume, according to ACNielsen.

But there is a wine-producing part of the country that shatters just about every aspect of that image.

By far Australia’s largest state in terms of land — about 1 million square miles — Western Australia is like California before the railroads. It’s isolated from the rest of the country, and far from the more well-known wine regions of the Barossa and Yarra valleys. Perth, its capital, is closer to Singapore than to Sydney.

And it looks and feels like California, except, of course, for the kangaroos. The Margaret River area, Western Australia’s best-known wine-producing region, could pass for Sonoma. The climate and topography are similar: unspoiled rolling farmland dotted with manicured vineyards and the occasional splendiferous spa.

Although it may seem remote, the region produces wines that are sophisticated and cosmopolitan. It accounts for only 5 percent of the country’s wine, yet it produces 25 percent of Australia’s premium wine (more than $15 a bottle) and wins a disproportionate share of awards and trophies at Australian wine competitions.

Western Australian wines “have a lot more in common with the French style than they do with South Australia,” says Chuck Hayward, wine buyer for the Jug Shop in San Francisco. “They’re more food-friendly — not as oaky. The Shiraz is very spicy, gamy, meaty. The Cabernets are very sophisticated, very elegant. The most exciting area is Chardonnay. They’re dead ringers for white Burgundy, especially Puligny-Montrachet. There’s a chalky, white chocolate component in there. They’re lovely.”

Western Australia joined the rest of the country in 1901 only after “other siders” — as the Easterners were called — flooded the region with the discovery of gold and voted for federation. Fiercely independent, the state has had several waves of secessionist fervor since its 1829 founding. Its independent spirit remains in both the style of its wines and the character of its winemakers.

The proximity of Western Australia’s vineyards to the Indian and Southern oceans explains why its wines are so different compared with those from South Australia, the country’s major wine-producing state. The cooling maritime influences allow grapes more time to ripen and develop complex flavors, resulting in wines that are more refined and less alcoholic than those from the hotter Barossa Valley in South Australia.

Unlike the rest of the country, which has made Shiraz its signature grape, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are the most planted varieties in Margaret River, Western Australia’s most important appellation. Riesling captures everyone’s attention in Great Southern, Western Australia’s other major growing region.

Denis Horgan, the owner of one of Margaret River’s best-known wineries, Leeuwin Estate, and one of that region’s “founding fathers,” notes that the wine industry in Western Australia is the antithesis of the Australian wine business in general, 85 percent of which is controlled by 20 companies (60 percent is controlled by five companies: Foster’s Group Lt., Hardy Wine Co./Constellation, McGuigan Simeon and Pernod Ricard Pacific).

Horgan estimates that Leeuwin Estate produces 0.05 percent of Australian wine and notes wryly, “The big guys spill that much.”

Even Evans & Tate, the largest winery in Margaret River, produces only 500,000 cases annually, which represents about one-third of all Margaret River wine. (Yellow Tail exports 6 million cases annually to the United States.)

Industry takes root

Though grapes have been planted in the Swan District east of Perth since the 19th century, the modern history of Western Australia’s wine industry started in the 1950s, when the Western Australian government invited the late Harold Olmo, professor of viticulture at UC Davis, to explore the idea of “cool climate viticulture” south of Perth.

Olmo suggested that two subregions within the large Great Southern appellation — Frankland and Mount Barker — showed great promise for making elegant table wines in the European tradition. Later, he also wrote that the Margaret River region shared similar soil and climate to Bordeaux.

Though it is clear he was correct about the potential of both the Great Southern and the Margaret River regions, growing premium wine grapes was slow to catch on. Ironically, a recession allowed the potential for great wine to be realized.

Merv Lange, founder and owner of Alkoomi Wines, was considered either a visionary or a lunatic when, in 1971, he planted Cabernet Sauvignon vines in Frankland, southeast of Perth. Lange says he only planted a vineyard because he was “desperate.” The consummate independent farmer — he still refuses to use bank loans — grew up in the region and took over a large traditional farm that raised sheep and grew wheat.

In the late ’60s, prices for these products fell dramatically and he realized he needed to diversify. The local agricultural department recommended grapevines, but as Lange points out, “It could have just as easily been pumpkins or strawberries.”

Initially he followed his plan and grew grapes to sell, but by 1976 he was making wine under his own label, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. He currently has 285 acres under vine and is out of the farming business entirely. Lange is especially enthusiastic about his white wines, notably the Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blends, but his Shirazes are fabulously complex and suave.

The recession drove more than a few self-reliant people into the wine business. In the nearby Mount Barker area, south of Frankland, Tony Smith, a feisty Englishman who had become a sheep and cattle farmer, faced the same economic downturn. He says it was “dumb luck” for him to decide to grow grapes, which he sold to Houghton Winery, a large producer in the Swan District that is now part of the Hardy Wine Co.

Smith sold grapes for several years before he started making his own Riesling in 1974 and struggled for another decade before turning a profit. According to Smith, the hurdle was convincing people that winemaking in the Mount Barker area was a viable option. The locals insisted that Mount Barker was apple, not grape, country.

Smith laments, “When I grew grapes successfully, my neighbors said, ‘You can’t make wine in Mount Barker.’ When I did, they responded, ‘You can’t sell it.’ Finally they tasted the wine and remarked, ‘Well, maybe you can.’ ”

Currently, Smith’s Plantagenet Wines, known for its stunning Rieslings, produces 120,000 cases annually.

Riesling country

The soil in Mount Barker is ordinary gravelly loam, not the schist or slate that usually nourishes great Riesling. The cooling influences from the Indian and Southern oceans explain the uniqueness of the Riesling grown here.

Unlike the flowery, fruity style from Germany’s Mosel River, or the drier, higher-alcohol ones from Alsace, Mount Barker Rieslings are infused with minerality combined with an attractive citrus rind, almost grapefruit-like character, intermingled with flavors of pears and apples. These racy Rieslings are waiting to be discovered by wine drinkers outside of Australia.

Although recession may have jump-started the wine industry in the Great Southern region, newcomers are now diving in because of the success of Alkoomi’s and Plantagenet’s endeavors. Ferngrove was founded in 2000 and has grown rapidly to become the third-largest producer in Western Australia, but still with only about 250,000 cases annually. Ferngrove has vineyards in Mount Barker — from which it also makes stellar Riesling — and Frankland but has expanded outside of the Great Southern and owns vineyards in the Margaret River region, from which it makes great Cabernet and Shiraz.

Despite the same maritime influences, the Margaret River region is very different from the Great Southern. While the Great Southern is largely uninhabited — there are more kangaroos than cars on the road — and its wineries are scattered — the Margaret River is home to many top-notch producers whose picturesque properties are practically side by side. Lange says Margaret River wineries receive 3,000 to 4,000 visitors a week, whereas wineries in the Frankland River area of the Great Southern will have 30 to 40 visitors a week — “most of whom are lost.”

Margaret River’s popularity is aided by its location, an easy three-hour drive south from Perth, and by its reputation as a major surfing destination.

Although Olmo’s report was the first time a scientific study identified the Margaret River as a place to grow a specific grape variety — Cabernet Sauvignon — it was tax shelters that launched the wine industry in this unlikely region, which juts out into the Indian Ocean. It was originally called the “medical belt” because physicians, largely from Perth, founded the wineries, in part for tax reasons. Now with their success, they’ll need to find other tax shelters.

The first wineries in Margaret River — Vasse Felix, Cullen, Moss Wood, Juniper Estate, Leeuwin, Woodland, Xanadu and Cape Mentelle — shared ideas and equipment as they found their way in this unexplored area. The wineries are still small and the atmosphere among winemakers and owners remains collegial.

Currently there are about 150 wineries in Margaret River, and about 10,000 acres of vines. Compare this with more than 500 wineries and 170,000 acres of vineyards in South Australia, according to Australia’s

Room to expand

Roger Hill, owner of Juniper Estate, an excellent small producer whose wines are unfortunately not available in the United States, estimates that another 10,000 acres in this 60-mile-long-by-18-mile-wide region could be planted.

Although Margaret River is best known for Cabernet Sauvignon — it accounts for more than 50 percent of the red vines planted — and Chardonnay, Horgan thinks most varieties will work well in the area. There’s about half as much Shiraz planted as Cabernet because substantial amounts were pulled out or grafted to other varieties in the 1970s. Nonetheless, Margaret River Shiraz is alluring because it has less alcohol and ripeness, which gives it complexity and finesse.

Howard Park Wines, a family company celebrating its 20th anniversary, exemplifies the style of wine coming out of Western Australia, with its focus on the excellent Riesling from the Great Southern and superb Cabernet Sauvignon from Margaret River.

Michael Kerrigan, the winemaker, had what he describes as a personal epiphany: “When I tasted my own wines and didn’t like them, I changed the style to ones that are less alcoholic, less oaky, and generally less overt,” he says. The obvious implication is that the winemaker adjusts the style to what is appropriate for the region, in this case lighter and less alcoholic wine.

Save Margaret River, few of the regions of Western Australia have name recognition in the United States. Pemberton and Geographe are obscure, even by Western Australian standards. Nonetheless, these areas are poised to put great wines on the world’s stage.

Pinot from Pemberton

Pemberton, west of the Great Southern and only about 20 miles from the coast, is cooler than Margaret River and well suited for Pinot Noir.

Geographe — the name of the area comes from the French, who explored the west coast of Australia even before the English — is located near the coast between the Margaret River and Perth. The leading winery in the region — and judging by its wines, one of the best in all of Western Australia — is Capel Vale, founded by a shy physician, Peter Pratten, who was willing to think outside of the box. Even when he planted his first vines in 1974, Pratten felt there was potential for making great wine outside of the Margaret River and Great Southern. Capel Vale’s Merlot and Chardonnay from Geographe indicate he is correct.

The Jug Shop’s Hayward says many Bay Area residents who buy Western Australia wines discovered them when visiting there.

“Because they’re not big, obvious, in-your-face wines, people who are well-traveled, a little more sophisticated, tend to be into them,” Hayward says.

Hayward says that until recently, the Western Australia wines that made it to San Francisco were both obscure and expensive, usually costing $30 to $60, but at least one of those qualities is changing.

“We’re starting to see a lot less expensive Western Australia wines now, in the $10 to $20 range,” Hayward says. “That’s helped the category.”

Western Australia will always remain isolated given its location, but with its quirky winemakers willing to try new ideas, its wines will not remain obscure for long.

Western Australia wine regions
1. Swan District: Quite warm; oldest wine growing region in Australia.

2. Perth Hills: Warmer region, not many wineries.

3. Geographe: Warm sun with cool bay breezes; richer, riper wines.

4. Margaret River: Source of some of Australia’s best Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays.

5. Pemberton: Very cool climate. Ripe, intense, yet elegant Chardonnays.

6. Great Southern: Large area; many wines are blends of subregion grapes.

7. Frankland River: Within the Great Southern. Cool area produces ripe Rieslings and spicy Shiraz.

8. Mount Barker: Within the Great Southern. Quite cool climate; peppery Shiraz and fine, tightly wound Rieslings.

A taste of Western Australia’s wines


2005 Evans & Tate Margaret River Classic White ($15) Australians refer to this style of wine as a “veranda wine” because it’s fresh and lively. A blend of two-thirds Semillon and one-third Sauvignon Blanc, it’s the perfect beach or poolside white because the limey bite of Sauvignon Blanc balances the lushness of Semillon.

2005 Ferngrove Cossack Frankland River Riesling ($20) Made entirely from Ferngrove’s fruit, the Cossack Riesling — named after a wildflower — is just delicious. Edgy and filled with enamel-cleansing citric notes, it is lighter than Alsace Riesling and less floral than German Riesling. It’s a great wine to pair with Asian food.

2005 Howard Park Western Australia Riesling ($20) Although labeled with the Western Australia appellation, the grapes come exclusively from the Great Southern region. The wine transmits the distinctiveness of the region and beautifully balances lemony flavors and minerality.

2005 Plantagenet Mount Barker Riesling ($20) A clean grapefruit-like edginess combined with minerality gives life and substance to this delightful wine.


2002 Alkoomi Jarrah Frankland River Shiraz ($33) Alkoomi uses the name of a local hardwood tree, Jarrah, for its flagship Shiraz. A great combination of gamy and black fruit flavors packaged with supple tannins and an incredible finish makes this a stunning Shiraz.

2002 Capel Vale Howecroft Geographe Merlot ($45) A wonderfully complex single-vineyard Merlot, Capel Vale’s Howecroft has an attractive herbal — slightly minty — character intertwined with lush black fruit and chocolate notes.

2003 Cullen Diana Madeline Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot ($75) An intense wine, with lots going on — fruit, spice and floral elements — Cullen’s top-of-the-line bottling is a study in balance and harmony. Each sip reveals more flavors of fruit, spice and floral elements.

2003 Evans & Tate Margaret River Classic Red ($15) Layers of spice and plum-like flavors arise from the blend of Shiraz (65 percent) with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Supple and seductive, it’s an excellent buy.

2003 Evans & Tate Margaret River Shiraz ($18) More savory than the winery’s Classic Red, this, a more serious wine, has a captivating meaty, peppery component and is impeccably balanced — you won’t even notice its 14.5 percent alcohol.

2004 Howard Park Leston Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon ($24) Juicy cassis flavors laced with chocolate and buttressed by fine tannins grab your attention. Like so many wines from Western Australia, it’s classy and refined, not heavy or alcoholic.

2002 Leeuwin Estate Art Series Margaret River Shiraz ($30) It’s rare to use “elegance” and “Australian Shiraz” in the same sentence, but that’s exactly what this lovely black pepper and plum combination delivers. It’s a big complex wine, yet balanced — not over the top — that makes you realize Margaret River is unique.

2004 Salitage Treehouse Pemberton Pinot Noir ($25) With real complexity, this Pinot Noir combines fresh cherry-like fruit flavors with the delicate, slightly earthy elements usually found in Burgundy — and it weighs in at only 13 percent alcohol.

2002 Voyager Estate Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot ($25) This elegant blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (85 percent) and Merlot delivers ripe flavors with attractive herbal elements supported by fine tannins. Here is another example of a sophisticated wine coming from Margaret River.

— Michael Apstein

This article appeared on page F – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle on Thursday, July 13, 2006