Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Gateway To Heaven

Wine wars: the French strike back

TALK to France’s wine-lovers and makers and it won’t take long — sometimes even before the third glass — until they start getting misty-eyed and talking, well, Frenchly, about things such as terroir — the mysterious quality of the land where grapes are grown, and which is said to imbue a wine with its je ne sais quoi.

That all-pervading national obsession is one of the main reasons for the extensive reverberations around the wine world following the French’s decision to change the way their wine is labelled.

On the surface, the changes are minor: where previously they had only the names of where the wine was made, labels will follow the lead of New World wines and may include the grape variety as well as chateau, region and year.


Restrictions on where grapes can be grown, what grapes can be blended, and in what quantities they can be grown will be lifted. Gewurztraminer, for example, could now be grown in Languedoc or even Bordeaux and not just Alsace. A chardonnay from one region can be mixed with a chenin from another.

And for the first time, the use of new world additives such as extra tannins and woodchips are now permitted. All such wines will fall under a new Vignobles de France category. It might not seem like much to those used to sipping on wines from California or New Zealand, but the seriousness with which wine-making is taken in France can be gleaned from the fact that the move had to be approved by President Nicolas Sarkozy and his cabinet.

Behind these changes lurks an economic imperative. After years of resting on their laurels, French wine-makers have admitted that they have to do something about new world wines taking such a hefty slice of the growing global market.


French wine accounts for 35 per cent of European production, and reigns supreme at the highest levels, but it is worth remembering that 99 per cent of wines bought globally cost less than £7.50. At that level, the French lag behind the Australians and Californians.

Consumers of French wine have long had to feel their way towards a purchase based solely on labels displaying obscure villages and, if lucky, dates; such were the guidelines under the Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) system. Even if a wine was classed in the lower-grade, sub-AOC Vin de Table category, no mention of grape was permitted.

It’s a system that became its own worst enemy. David Campbell, who founded the best-selling Hachette Guide To Wines books and now runs wine website vineyardsdirect. com, says: “The French have had a problem, because unless you’re of a certain age or have taken a lot of trouble, you actually can’t read a French wine label. New world wines have understood about branding and the importance of marketing grape varieties.”

The addition of brightly coloured animals and comical names to labels hasn’t hurt either. So it’s a long-overdue change, and could be the shot in the arm that the French wine industry needed.

Nicolas Kowalski, buyer at London Bridge wine emporium Vinopolis, says, “I see this as a natural evolution. I don’t think it will be harmful; rather it will bring quality upwards. Top vineyards will remain, AOC might be tougher to obtain and therefore quality will be up.”


Vinopolis has recently taken on one of the first producers to use the new system, Chamarre, which sells Loire-sourced grapes in wines from £5.99 and in bottles with simple, snazzy labels. Kowalski sees a lot of untapped potential in France, particularly in vineyards currently given over to AOC wines.

“The AOC system is a great invention but should be a lot more dynamic, and allow people to experiment with new types of vines/techniques on their land if the producer chooses to do so,” he says. The so-called “heritage” vineyards are likely to be safe since the wines they produce generate very good revenues for the producers, but other land can now be freed up for other more suitable grapes.


The new system could give positive and tangible effects across the French wineproducing world, because the new rules mean more creativity and flexibility, which will help to exploit the potential of available grapes.

For the first time, wine-makers will be able to react to trends and fashions in wine: they can signal to drinkers which grape a wine is made from. Producers can give customers what they want.

“Profit should soar since the producers should be able to get more for their grapes on the new system without having to be labelled Vin de Table,” says Kowalski. “However this will very much depend on how well the French take up this opportunity and use dynamic marketing to promote these new wines.”

In other words, whether pride or profit takes precedence. Watch this space.


French wines will now fall into one of three categories: Vignobles de France (Wines of France); IGP (Indication Geographique Protegee or Protected Geographical Region), which corresponds to existing Vin de Pays; and AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protegee) which tallies with the old AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlee).
Labels will have the name of the grape and the year it was produced.
Growers can now plant any type of vine anywhere in France – Gewurztraminer will no longer be restricted to Alsace, for example – and producers can now put the name of the grape on the label.
Blended wines from different regions of France will be available for the first time.
Producers will be able to use oak chips and tannins in their winemaking.
The flexibility will allow producers to react more easily to market trends.

Wine-rating system leaves some with sour taste

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Mention the name Robert Parker to those in the wine business and most will toast him while others will spit.

Makers of Bordeaux credit him and his 100-point rating system, which Americans have embraced, with revitalizing their livelihood.

But others blame Parker and his points for what is termed the "international" style that has overrun vineyards from Bordeaux to Healdsburg and Porto to Perth.

"It is wine that has no sense of place. You can take one sip or 10 and still not know where it is from," said Alice Feiring, author of the book "The Battle for Wine and Love or How I Saved the World from Parkerization."

"Basically, it's a formula, a recipe. The winemaker isn't working with what nature gave him, but a chemistry set and machines," she said.

Parker could not be reached for comment on Feiring's remarks.

But she quotes him in her book as saying, "When I started out I don't remember running into organically or biodynamically run vineyards. So the idea that you think there is a bland international style out there ... You can drive an 18-wheel truck through that argument."
Dismissing most of the Californian wines that sell for between $50 and $150 a bottle, she said they are wines that are passed off as high-art but are just a beverage.

And she described collectors who pride themselves on buying wines that rate a 96 or better from Parker as "just snobs who buy according to the label. They like to show the label. They'd wear it if they could."

Feiring prefers her wines to be made by traditional methods such as those used by Catherine Roussel and Didier Barrouillet of Clos Roche Blanche in France's Loire region. The couple produced a "Cot" or Malbec that makes her palate zing.

She despaired over the fate of Rioja, which like many other wine regions, has tried to plant grapes and blend wines that appeal to what they perceive to be Parker's palate in hopes of a higher rating.

She prefers instead the white, red and rose wines produced by Lopez de Heredia, elegant, old-style, long-aged and made pretty much as it has been for the last 130 years.

"The wines I advocate for are never going to be mass produced. They're like plays, not television shows or musicals ... They're individuals with a point of view," she said.

Parker's rating system started about the same time that Americans started to discover wine and global companies began buying family-owned vineyards. The U.S. share of the wine market has grown steadily over the past 15 years. In 2007 the country replaced Italy as the second largest wine consuming country.

Like Don Quixote, Feiring passionately battles to bring a sense of place to American palates. Her perfect winemaker is not a consultant, but a philosopher.

"He's part artist, part philosopher, part scientist. You need to be a philosopher to make great wine ... a philosopher with great timing. You have to time when to pick the grapes, you have to know that instinctively," she said.

Leslie Gevirtz

The Six Best Boxed Wines Out There

Drinking wine out of a box, it’s pretty fair to say, has over the years generally not been the path to recognition by one’s peers as a gentleman or a lady. Problem drinker is more like it.

Indeed, as a conduit, wine from a box is usually lumped with the likes of keeping a cheap keg in the garage or stocking your liquor cabinet with Mad Dog. But the times, it seems, they are a changing.
Increasingly, some very good wineries have taken to packaging their product in a box. Boxed wines, in fact, have become the fastest-growing segment of the industry.

“Boxes are very, very chic now,” says Leslie Sbrocco, author of The Simple & Savvy Wine Guide: Buying, Pairing, and Sharing for All.

Aside from the all important up-tick in quality, boxed wine have some distinct advantages over their bottled brothers and sisters. First and foremost, properly packaged opened wine keeps far longer in the box than it does in a bottle—about four weeks compared with just one in the bottle.

And, now that summer’s almost here, you can soon take advantage of the other big plus: portability. From the beach to the barbecue to the tailgate party, a box provides more wine in a break-proof container.

And, finally, there’s the price. You can get three liters (four bottles-worth) for about $25 or less, which means you’re saving a bundle by opting for the box over the bottle.

So now that we’re sold you on the advantages, and (we hope) taken the shame out of lugging that box home, here’s a look at our list of the best boxed wines out there. Bottom’s up!

6. French Rabbit Pinot Noir, Vin de Pays D'Oc 2004; $9, 1L.
An earthy but smooth wine, with raspberry and strawberry highlights. Comes in an eco-friendly “Tetra Pak” container that’s biodegradable, so you can enjoy your red and still be green.

5. Black Box Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon 2006; $19, 3L.
A cabernet sauvignon, this is one of the more popular box wines out there. Medium-bodied and fruity, it’s pleasant and highly drinkable.

4. Hardys Shiraz 2006; $20, 3L.
From one of the top producers in the world is this Australia shiraz and makes good on the promise of shiraz’s deep, rich aroma of dark berries and spice. There are also luscious chocolate flavors and a nice medium finish.

3. Corbett Canyon, California, Chardonnay NV; $12, 3L.
This white is light-bodied, with chardonnay's crisp apple, citrus and pear flavors. Perfect with light pasta dishes. Priced to go (that’s about $3-a-bottle), you can’t go wrong.

2. Le Cask California Old Vine Zinfandel NV; $25, 3L.
A silver medal winner at the 2008 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, this red has “nice peppery notes and a fruity kick on the finish,” according to the judges. And “a nose of dried cherries, fruit and vanilla.”

1. Chateau de Pena Cuvee de Pena 2003; $25, 3L.
A mix of Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Carignan grapes, this red-in-a-box scored an 87 from Wine Spectator. Characterized by ripe, dark fruit flavors, this medium-to full-bodied wine had “lovely chocolate pudding notes and smoky elements on the finish.”

David J. Critchell

Hundreds of thousands expected at Bordeaux wine fest

BORDEAUX, France (AFP) — France's wine capital Bordeaux will hold a four-day celebration of its prized vineyards this month that is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world.

From June 26 to 29, a "wine road" will run along the Garonne river from the historic city centre through the heart of the surrounding region's vineyards, offering wine tastings, local food, a sound and light show, fireworks and concerts.

Organised for the tenth year, the festival is expected to draw 350,000 tourists from France and abroad.

A 13-euro (20 dollar) wine pass will buy visitors 12 wine tastings, while a 70-euro pass covers access to nine tasting routes through the region's vineyards, spread over the four days.

Keep Drinking! Red wine compound seen protecting heart from aging

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A natural compound found in red wine may protect the heart against the effects of the aging process, researchers said on Tuesday.

In their study, mice were given a diet supplemented with the compound known as resveratrol starting at their equivalent of middle age until old age.

These mice experienced changes in their gene activity related to aging in a way very similar to mice that were placed on a so-called calorie restriction diet that slows the aging process by greatly cutting dietary energy intake.

Most striking was how the resveratrol, like calorie restriction, blocked the decline in heart function typically associated with aging, according to Tomas Prolla, a University of Wisconsin professor of genetics who helped lead the study.

Much as Spaniard Juan Ponce de Leon once searched for the mythical fountain of youth, researchers now are seeking ways to extend the quality and length of human life.

In some studies, animals given a diet with greatly reduced caloric intake have lived longer than animals with normal diets. But perpetual hunger is a steep price to pay for greater longevity, some researchers say.

Resveratrol, found in abundance in grapes and in red wine, has drawn a lot of interest from scientists and some companies, including GlaxoSmithKline, which in April said it would pay $720 million to buy Sirtris Pharmaceuticals Inc, a company that is developing drugs that mimic the effects of resveratrol.

Some studies have shown that in high doses, resveratrol extended the life span of fruit flies and worms and prevented early death in mice fed a high-fat diet.
In this study, mice were given relatively low doses compared to the earlier research, and still experienced important aging-related benefits, the researchers said.

The researchers began giving the resveratrol diet to the mice when they were 14 months old -- their middle age -- and followed the animals until they were about 30 months old. The researchers then conducted tests on cardiac function and on gene activity related to aging.

"Resveratrol at low doses can retard some aspects of the aging process, including heart aging, and it may do so by mimicking some of the effects of caloric restriction, which is known to retard aging in several tissues and extend life span," added Prolla, whose study was published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE.

Using a method that permits simultaneous analysis of thousands of genes at the same time, the researchers found a huge overlap in the genes whose activity were changed by resveratrol and caloric restriction.

They looked at the heart, brain and muscles, and said that the effect of resveratrol was strongest in the heart but did prevent some aging-related changes in the other tissues.

Just because mice had these benefits does not mean people also would, although Prolla said, "I think there's a high likelihood that our findings are applicable to humans."

He said he expected to see a lot of studies in the coming years on the effects of resveratrol supplementation in people.

Some funding for the study came from DSM Nutritional Products, a company based in Basel, Switzerland that produces a resveratrol product called Resvida.

Madison, Wisconsin-based LifeGen Technologies, a genomics company that Prolla helped found, took part in the research.

Will Dunham

The Wines of India! "Red, White & Sultry"

WHEN Ranjit Dhuru, the owner of the Chateau d’Ori winery, walked through his gently sloping vineyards here in February, the harvest was in full swing. “Already sweet,” he said, nibbling from tight, healthy bunches of cabernet sauvignon grapes. “These will be ready to pick soon, in another week.”

Eight years ago, Mr. Dhuru, who made his fortune in the software business, bought land outside Nasik, a city about 100 miles northeast of Mumbai that has become the center of India’s rapidly expanding wine industry.

This year, with the help of a consulting oenologist from Bordeaux, Mr. Dhuru expects to produce about 300,000 bottles of white and red wines. By next year, he estimates that a million bottles will bear the Chateau d’Ori label.

The aggressive optimism of entrepreneurs like Mr. Dhuru is easy to understand. In Maharashtra state in central and western India, where Nasik is, more than 40 wineries are in varying stages of development. Government officials say that investment in wine increased by 74 percent over the last year.

“In the next 10 years there will be 300 million upwardly mobile Indians who can afford wine and for whom it will be a lifestyle choice,” Mr. Dhuru said. “A lot of them will be drinking Indian wines.”

Aman Sharma, the corporate food and beverage director for the India-based Taj hotel chain, agreed. “There is already a large population eager for wine,” he said. In 2006, the annual per-capita consumption of wine in India was estimated at about a tablespoon, but that droplet represents a fourfold increase since 2000.

Most wine made in India is consumed there. And as wine publications, wine clubs, competitions and tasting dinners have taken hold, gradually, Indian wines with notable finesse are becoming available and appreciated.

Grover Vineyards La Réserve, a cabernet sauvignon-shiraz blend from one of India’s top wineries, in another wine region near Bangalore to the south, is among the country’s most sought-after wines. The 2005 is rich and smoky, with hints of roasted peppers. Its alcohol is listed at only 12 percent on a label that proudly states: “Made in collaboration with Mr. Michel Rolland, Bordeaux, France.” Mr. Rolland is one of the best-known wine consultants in the world.

Indus wines, which is the name the Terroir India company uses on its labels, are made in a spanking new white stucco California-style boutique winery atop a hillside overlooking Lake Mukni, south of Nasik. The two-year-old winery has just started planting a vineyard, and buys its grapes from local farmers who, until recently, grew table grapes, still the biggest crop in the Nasik area. The fruit and alcohol of Indus’s fresh-tasting sauvignon blanc are well integrated, and the 2007 shiraz exhibits restrained richness.

Indian wineries have to cope with challenges that do not exist in wine regions elsewhere. For starters, the calendar is turned upside down. Even though the region is north of the equator, grapes are pruned in September and picked in February and March to avoid stifling heat and the summer monsoon season.

On the plus side, the vintners can plan to harvest according to the ripeness of their grapes, without having to worry about unseasonal cold snaps and rain.

The grapes are usually gathered by migrant workers under floodlights, from 3 a.m. to around 9, before it gets too hot. “Labor is not an issue in India,” Mr. Dhuru said. At his winery, just-picked grapes are kept in refrigerated trucks until they are crushed.

Mr. Dhuru poured several of his wines for visitors in his sparsely furnished four-bedroom guest house, which overlooks the vineyards.

His 2007 chenin blanc was smooth and nutty, not sweet, with good acidity, but too alcoholic at 14.7 percent, Mr. Dhuru said. “We’re in a hot country, and next year we’ll have to keep the alcohol in check,” he said. His sauvignon blanc, in a slightly oaky California fumé blanc style, was another big wine.

Fresh-tasting sauvignon blancs, and chenin blancs, sometimes with a slightly sweet finish, are typical of India’s whites. They are good complements for seafood and for vegetarian dishes like bhindi masala, which is braised spiced okra, or saag paneer, which is a kind of dense fresh cheese in spinach sauce.

Chateau d’Ori’s red wines, like the 2007 cabernet sauvignon-merlot blend, offered lush fruit and hints of bell pepper, and turned out to be a suitable partner for meats and breads seared in the tandoor clay oven. The 2007 merlot was soft and elegant, but a simpler wine.

Many of India’s wineries produce shiraz and shiraz-cabernet blends. These often exhibit earthy, vegetal aromas and flavors along with bold fruit. When young, which is the way most of them are sold, they can hold their own against dishes seasoned with cumin, mustard seed, fenugreek and other musky flavors.

Sula Vineyards, established in 1996 on the outskirts of Nasik, is the brand most often on wine lists. Although Nasik has a reputation as the Napa of India, Sula is one of just a handful of wineries designed to receive visitors with a tasting room, tours and a guest house.

Chateau Indage, near Pune, another city in Maharashtra, is 25 years old and, with production at 1 million cases, is said to be the biggest winery in the country. It was the first to make a sparkling wine.

Although bottles from India’s smaller wineries are rarely exported, Sula and Chateau Indage wines are sold at and

And if there is a fast-track wine industry, can olive oil be far behind?

“Actually, the guy who fabricates my stainless steel tanks in Nasik is looking into that,” Mr. Dhuru said. “He has some land and is planning to import Italian seedlings.”

Nasik, India

Latour's Engerer buys in the Rhone

Chateau Latour director Frederic Engerer has invested in his own wine property in the Rhone Valley.

The property, Fort Boneau, is located at an altitude of 350m in the Drome Valley, on the eastern boundary between the northern and southern Rhone, where most vines grow on the steep slopes of the Vercors Mountains.

Fort Boneau has 18ha of vines near to the reputed Domaine Gramenon, on a property totalling 44ha. It contains Grenache vines that were planted in 1944, together with a few hectares of Syrah.

Engerer has bought the estate with friend and fellow wine maker Jérôme Malet from Domaine Sarda-Malet in Perpignan, one of the star estates in the southern corner of the Cotes de Roussillon.

Among his best known wines are the Syrah and Mourvedre cuvée Terroir Mailloles and a Rivesaltes vin doux naturel. Engerer and Malet are childhood friends and have been making a Cabernet Sauvignon together in Roussillon for the past three years.

'We need to build cellars and a winery, and will be performing test vinifications this year,' Engerer told

He stressed it was not 'just about wine – it's a family investment. The location is magical; there are olive trees, we'll be planting lavender, creating a place that is perfectly in balance with the surrounding country.

'The whole region has great potential – slightly wild and undeveloped, and with the altitude that Rhone wines need to keep freshness and balance.'

The first bottled vintage of Fort Boneau is due in 2009, with Sophie Mage, who has just finished a year at Chateau Latour, as winemaker.

Jane Anson
Bordeaux, France