Monday, June 23, 2008

Bordeaux's 2005 `Vintage of the Decade' Is Ready for Dinner

Wine critics are overly fond of pronouncing the latest Bordeaux release to be a ``vintage of the century'' -- 1982, 1989, 1990, 1995. Yet since we are in the eighth year of the 21st century, I'm confident that the 2005 Bordeaux is at least the best vintage of the decade -- and with high prices to match.

The most illustrious bottlings have soared out of sight for all but the wealthiest collectors of wines. Chateau Latour is $1,600, Chateau Ausone is $4,000 and Chateau Petrus is $5,000, even though most is already presold. Bottles from less- prestigious yet still well-regarded estates like La Mission-Haut- Brion ($950), La Mondotte ($500) and L'Eglise Clinet ($450) are tough to find in the market.

Fortunately, there are an amazing number of 2005 Bordeaux priced well under $100 that share the same strengths as more famous estates. The 2005 vintage -- about 900,000 bottles -- is full of bright wines with an early balance of fruit, acid and tannin. They are very easy to drink, even now, and it is not at all clear just how much better they will be in years to come.

The reasons for 2005's excellence are not difficult to understand: Good weather counted. Yet like everyone in the global wine market in the 21st century, Bordeaux vintners have learned how to make finer wines by cutting back grape yields, picking only the best fruit, carefully monitoring aging in the proper casks from vintage to vintage, and allowing the fruit -- not the tannins or alcohol -- to shine.

Lower Profiles

Many of the wines I tasted over the last two weeks don't have high profiles, yet I found them as wonderful as Bordeaux can and should be. You taste their distinctive cabernet sauvignon, with softening elements of merlot and other varietals.

These are red wines whose virtues are dimmed by sipping them without food. With red meats, poultry and game their luster emerges, full-bodied, mineral-rich and as satisfying with the first glass as with the second and third.

Chateau Marquis d'Alesme-Becker ($34), a third-growth Margaux, has come a long way in recent years. The 2005 is a superb wine, ready for the table, with big fruit and peppery flavors beneath. At 13.5 percent alcohol, it's a wine to drink and drink again over the course of a dinner.

Another third-growth Margaux, Chateau D'Issan ($85), was tight on first sip yet blossomed quickly when served with a rare grilled steak, accentuating the flavors of the beef while showing a burst of fruit and black cherry, with an edge of oak beneath.

Velvety St.-Emilion

Chateau Fombrauge ($55), the largest vineyard in St.- Emilion, is from vintner Bernard Magrez, who also makes the famous Grand Cru Pape Clement. Fombrauge is 77 percent merlot, 14 percent cabernet franc and just 9 percent cabernet sauvignon. Unfiltered, it's a velvety, intensely rewarding, highly refined St.-Emilion. It is also one of the best buys of the vintage. If you can get a case, do so.

Chateau Rocher-Calon was the biggest surprise of my tastings -- a big, brawny St.-Emilion to be sloshed into a glass, swirled and enjoyed with a lamb stew. At $17-$20, it's an astounding bargain.

If you like soft, merlot-based Pomerols, the blend of 95 percent with 5 percent cabernet franc under the simple label Pomerol Christian Moueix ($32) is a dreamy wine for those who cannot afford Moueix's great Chateau Petrus.

I did sample some well-structured though very tannic 2005s that will take a few more years to come into focus. Sarget de Gruaud-Larose ($40-$75) from St.-Julien was one of the more tannic examples -- much like its better-known sister wine Gruaud- Larose. Those tannins are stubborn right now, requiring at least a year or two more to release their grip.

Chateau Les Gravieres ($40), a Grand Cru St.-Emilion (not to be confused with la Graviere in Pomerol), usually made with 100 percent unfiltered merlot, was so tight that I couldn't puzzle out what other flavors lay beneath the tannins. Give it five years.

Vintages like this do not come along often enough. Yet if Bordeaux viniculture continues to modernize without losing the soul of its terroir and history, we should see more outstanding vintages like 2005 than would have been possible 20 years ago.

John Mariani

LEBANON: Wine Flows Under Hezbollah's Shadow

BEIRUT, Jun 23 (IPS) - Pine trees adorn majestic mountain flanks separating south Lebanon from the Chouf region in the village of Jezzine. Amid the shrubbery, lush vines, their crisp leaves tinted emerald green, bear the promise of a future harvest as the grapes start to form on the twisted branches. Bordering known Hezbollah strongholds, wine production seems to be thriving, in an area where the peaceful co-existence between the culture of the vine and the 'party of God' is indeed a paradox.

The neat rows of vines that neatly align the main road in Jezzine bear Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and many other grape varieties. "Lebanon is blessed with a consistent amount of rain and sun every year, which are factors that facilitate to a great extent the vinification process and make our country perfectly suited for wine production," says Habib Karam, partner at the Karam winery.

The Lebanese started producing wine 5,000 years ago. Their ancestors, the Phoenicians, were among the first people to commercialise and sell wine regionally, exporting their produce to the far shores of Mediterranean countries, including Italy and Greece. The wine industry witnessed a boost in 1857, when monks from the Ksara village in the Bekaa Valley, east of Beirut, started cultivating new varieties of vines they imported from Algeria, at the time a French colony and the second largest wine producer after France.

Karam examines the vines under the scorching sun, fixing a stem against the wire that supports the shrubs. In the background is Mount Safi, a mountain chain located north of the Litani river, its white rocky summits glowing in the sun. Since the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, and the subsequent deployment of troops from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) south of the Litani river, the militant group's military operations have become extremely difficult if not impossible, leading to their building fortifications on the mountain peaks surrounding Jezzine.

Karam nonetheless maintains that Hezbollah has never interfered with his work. Launched in 2003, his operation has been growing steadily, spreading over 75,000 square metres and boasting a yearly production of 55,000 bottles.

The wine maker has strayed from traditional Lebanese wine making by choosing an area away from the country's known 'wine country' in the Bekaa valley. "When I decided to establish my winery, the question I asked myself was what would make people buy my wine -- what would really differentiate me from the rest? I decided to produce a wine that would be distinguishable from others, something that could be only achieved if I grew my vines in a new territory outside the Bekaa Valley. I chose Jezzine." Karam comes from the area, which was occupied by Israeli armed forces until 2000.

His vineyards are currently scattered in different villages around Jezzine, such as Roum and Bisra. Looking at the picturesque landscape, it is difficult to imagine that the area was in the midst of a war only two years ago. Vine shrubs are firmly planted in soil of different shades, creating an earthy palette of beige and reddish brown, surrounded by pink wild flowers and red anemones.

"In spite of the war and the systematic targeting by the Israelis of any suspicious vehicles, I was able to irrigate my land. They had drones flying over the region -- luckily they never targeted my irrigation trailer, which was at one point filmed extensively. I suppose they wanted to make sure we were not engaged in any suspicious activity," says Karam.

The wine maker was in fact approached by Hezbollah members during the conflict, who inquired if he needed help with irrigating his vineyards. As the war lingered on, wine producers around the country worried about their autumn harvest. Fortunately, the conflict ended on Aug. 14, and the first white grapes were picked Aug. 18.

Two years after the July 2006 war, Lebanese wine production is in full throttle. One potential obstacle to the sector is the ever changing political climate, among which feature Syria's recent peace negotiations with Israel over the return of the Golan Heights. "The Golan Heights is known to produce a wine of excellent quality, which is comparable to Lebanese wines. In the event that the area is returned to Syria, it could represent serious competition for Lebanese wines," predicts Habib Karam.

As the sun sets over the Karam vineyard, the sound of explosions resonates in the distance, the source unknown, as Hezbollah has barred the entry of security forces. Nevertheless, the wine continues to flow.

Mona Alami

Steinhauer Looks to the Future

Portland, Ore. -- Speaking in front of a packed room at the Oregon Convention Center on Thursday, Robert Steinhauer reflected upon the changes he's seen since first entering the wine industry 40 years ago. Honored by the American Society for Enology and Viticulture (ASEV) as the recipient of its 2008 Merit Award, the noted grower said that during the past several decades an influx of new people changed Napa Valley, bringing in money and different life experiences that changed the area and the way wine is made there. He said that if the industry is going to continue to evolve and thrive, more money must be invested in research--both to increase quality and fight the pests that threaten crops.

As a recent graduate of the master's program at California State University, Fresno, Steinhauer had managed a 5,000-acre vineyard near Delano, Calif., in the southern Central Valley, where he was involved in negotiating a union contract with vineyard laborers. In the 1970s, at the urging of his wife, Verna, Steinhauer took a job in the Napa Valley, working for Beaulieu Vineyard under Andy Beckstoffer, who is now renowned as one of the biggest private vineyard owners in Napa Valley. Steinhauer also worked with Andre Tchelistcheff, the Russian-born, French-trained enologist who directed winemaking at Beaulieu for several decades. One of the longest-lasting lessons Tchelistcheff gave Steinhauer was the importance of site selection--the grape variety must be matched to the appropriate site to make high-quality wine. This was a new concept at the time for many California wineries, which sometimes planted Grey Riesling beside Zinfandel beside Cabernet Sauvignon and Napa Gamay.

In 1979, Steinhauer began a 25-year career with Beringer Vineyards, a once-sleepy, 100-year-old Napa Valley winery that was then newly owned by the Nestle company of Switzerland. Steinhauer's tenure as Beringer vineyard manager coincided with the winery's growth from about 1 million cases annually to 10 million, he said.

"I kept saying to everyone that we can be good, and we can be big, too," Steinhauer recalled. He began a collaboration with Beringer winemaster Myron Nightingale and, later, his successor, Ed Sbragia, that enabled Beringer simultaneously to become one of the top White Zinfandel brands in California and also the maker of Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, both of which won the highest accolades from wine critics. For Beringer, Steinhauer expanded vineyards beyond the Napa Valley floor to Howell Mountain, to Knights Valley in Sonoma County, and to large vineyard developments in California's Central Coast.


Much as the new residents changed the Napa Valley's growing and winemaking traditions, the technology changed as well, Steinhauer said.

Drip irrigation--When Steinhauer began his career in the Central Valley, vineyards were flood-irrigated. Drip irrigation used much less water and made it easier to irrigate remote and hillside vineyards.
Mechanical harvesting--As far back as 1990, Steinhauer and staff did a comparative study of machine-harvested versus hand-harvested fruit. "It was proven out to be a good tool," he said. In a blind tasting of the resulting wines, the winemakers trying them could detect a difference, but they did not agree on a preference for one or the other.
Clean stock program--Steinhauer began his career at a time when leafroll disease and fanleaf virus infected hundreds of acres of vineyards and held back wine quality. A program to certify disease-free nursery stock was a boon for the industry, he said.
Chardonnay--The grower estimated that Chardonnay plantings in California have increased from 5,000 acres to 95,000 acres during his career, and he noted that improvements in viticulture produced increases in yields from 1.5 tons per acre in Napa Valley in the 1970s to 4 tons today.
Pinot Noir clones, and clonal selection availability for other varieties--Few options were available to growers in Steinhauer's early career, but he noted that the introduction of the Pommard clone, Beaujolais clones and, later, the Dijon clones, transformed California and Oregon Pinot Noir.
Phylloxera--In 1985, he first heard that a vineyard in Napa Valley was declining because of the infamous grapevine louse, phylloxera. "I had been a big fan of the AxR-1 rootstock," Steinhauer said, "and I was in the camp that said it will not be susceptible to phylloxera." Beringer had planted hundreds if not thousands of acres on this rootstock, known historically to have some susceptibility to phylloxera. "It was a $40 million mistake for Beringer," Steinhauer admitted, but as he directed the replanting of failing vineyards, many new viticultural improvements were implemented, including vertical shoot positioning of the vines, row orientation north and south, and other steps that "improved the wine quality by leaps and bounds."
Vine protection--Drip irrigation is nearly universal now, he observed, and many Napa Valley vineyards also install overhead sprinklers or wind machines for frost protection. Now, some growers have added water misters to cool the vines during heat spikes.
Filtered light--Early in his career, the California sprawl was a common vine-training design, which kept most of the fruit shaded by the canopy. Then in the 1980s and 1990s, canopies were stretched up and away from the fruit zone to allow sunlight on the berries. The next wave of research, however, showed that too much direct sun on the grapes is not good for wine quality, so the concept of a canopy that allows dappled light on the bunches is now preferred.
Sustainability--Steinhauer said he's proud that growers and vintners established the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance and promoted sustainable winegrowing guidelines for growers. He's happy with how far the program has progressed since early this decade, but said, "We've got to step back and find a way to certify this sustainability so the consumer knows he or she is getting a quality, responsible product."


Reflecting on the biggest challenges he faced as a grapegrower, Steinhauer recalled a trip to South Africa that he took with his Beringer teammate Tom Peterson and others. "I remember we were touring the vineyards, and Tom was afraid of the snakes, the puff adders and black mambos. That night at dinner, I asked the South African growers hosting us what their biggest problem in the vineyard was, and one said, 'Oh, the winemaker.' So that's universal," he quipped.

Pierce's disease and glassy-winged sharpshooter--Steinhauer said he was shocked to see the extent of damage in Temecula vineyards from Pierce's disease when he visited at the height of the infestation. "We have blue-green sharpshooters in Napa Valley, but you rarely see two or three at a time. In Temecula they were flying around us by the thousands." He said the industry had risen to the challenge of finding ways to defeat the sharpshooters through research.
Leafroll disease--Steinhauer mentioned the recent sighting of light brown apple moths in California as a potential threat, but added that vine mealybug and the recent fast spread of leafroll disease in Napa Valley vineyards are his biggest concerns. Believed to be the vector of the viruses that cause leafroll disease, the vine mealybug came in a suitcase on table grapes from the Mediterannean region to the Coachella Valley of California, according to Steinhauer, who said he saw the proof. "Leafroll is spreading very rapidly in Napa Valley," he said. "Believe me, this is extremely important. For some of us, it's as big a threat as phylloxera; but with leafroll, there is no known control, while with phylloxera there was," he said, referring to replanting on resistant rootstocks.
Climate change--Winegrowers need to accept that climate change is happening, and adapt to it, he said.
More challenges--The wine industry should find ways to make wines with the tannins and flavor of the current high-alcohol wines, but without so much alcohol, Steinhauer said. Handling salt accumulation in the soil of the San Joaquin Valley is another major challenge, as is fanleaf disease.
Moving forward

Steinhauer, who has been very active on industry boards such as the American Vineyard Foundation and the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium program committee, urged other members of the ASEV to support these and other industry associations at the local, state and national levels.

Finally, Steinhauer called for more research for the American wine industry to compete more effectively against its rivals. He acknowledged the work so far by the American Vineyard Foundation and National Grape & Wine Initiative, but said, "I challenge you to raise more money, a lot more money, for research. You might say that we're on the right track, that we're making progress, but as Will Rogers said, 'You can be sitting on the right track and still get run over.'"

Jim Gordon

"The United States is poised to become the leading wine consuming country in the world"


Majestic Fine Wines, the sales organization for Jackson Family Wines, has filled twelve newly created positions to support the expansion of its super-premium and luxury wine sales.

"The United States is poised to become the leading wine consuming country in the world," says Bill O'Connor, Vice President/National Sales Manager. "Despite the current economic slowdown, we at Majestic Fine Wines are expanding our sales efforts to meet the expected long-term consumer demand for fine wines nationwide."

Wine & Spirits Daily


Famed French winemaker Michel Rolland said Napa Valley has more great wines than any other country besides France.

In an interview with the Napa Valley Register, Rolland said: "Napa Valley has one of the highest ceilings in the world. Napa Valley is a place where we can find a lot of great wines now."

"There are more great wines in Napa Valley than in Italy."

He has been visiting Napa for 22 years and says "they don't need me much in the vineyards. They know what to do after 20 years." Instead, he assists more with blending.

Interestingly, he said good wines can be made everywhere, although great wines can't be made everywhere.

"Even at $2.99, you can make a good wine," he said. "People (growers and vintners) will be disappointed if they don't accept that."

He also said he likes working with American wineries because they have "more energy and creativity than elsewhere" and are quicker at making decisions.

"I was born in Bordeaux, and I know French behavior. You need five years to convince people to do something."

Wine & Spirits Daily