This website is my limited contribution to the growing wine industry in the state of Georgia, USA.
Georgia is not the best known of the wine producing states in USA. But it does have a presence, though most production is consumed locally. It is on the climatic edge of reasonable grape production (unless your interest lies in muscadines, scuppernongs or other grape species). Most production is in small boutique wineries, so production is limited.
This website offers a directory of the various vineyards, wineries and tasting rooms around the state. There are also a number of "interesting" links around my home town, Dahlonega, and also other wine-oriented websites.
Below are some of my contributions to the Cavender Creek blog, The Vine.
The Friday Club
I am a Serious Wine Drinker. Not just volume, but also for a long time. After years of wine tasting and lecturing, I studied in the wine trade to obtain my professional qualifications (WSET Level 3). Then a few years ago, I moved to Georgia from my native England. Now, on most Friday afternoons, you will find me in the tasting room at Cavender Creek Winery.
People have asked me “So, why go to Cavender Creek?” Well, in England, pubs are not bars, they are community living rooms. When I lived in London, a group of friends, eight, ten or even a dozen of us, used to chill out every Friday at our local pub, the Wheatsheaf on Haven Lane. We would discuss the successes and disasters of the week, the upcoming weekend and everything of interest. We would drink a bottle or two of wine or maybe a few beers together. But, these days, it’s a bit far to go to drop into the Wheatsheaf and we have found a similar friendly atmosphere at Cavender Creek.
A winery tasting room is more than a shop front for the winery. It is a place where the spirit of the place shows through. And Cavender Creek is a place full of happy, determined folk who are making a success of the difficult business of producing wine. Which is why I am happy to be part of the Friday Club, along with good friends I have made here.
You may not need to be mad to own a winery – but it might help
On the face of it, owning and running a vineyard and winery is a pretty thankless trade.
First of all, it is a farm with just one crop – grapes. Grapes are not an easy crop – it takes several years for vines to start producing fruit. And they take constant care right through the year. A little bad weather at the wrong time (like a late spring frost, or a bad storm at harvest time) can destroy everything overnight, and there is never an opportunity to plant a second crop to take up the slack.
Then there is the second business to run – a cross between a catering operation and a chemical laboratory. Even if the crop is good, turning grapes into wine takes the brute force of a donkey, the skill of an alchemist, the investment in a small factory and infinite patience.
Even when the wine turns out well and has been stored for years to mature, it has to be sold to fund the whole business. So being a skilled salesman, marketing guru and an entertainer to charm visitors, all rolled into one, is a prerequisite.
And above all there is the need for a great business head. Keeping half a dozen juggling balls up in the air is simple compared to juggling the demands of a winery. How many businesses face the mountain of government regulations imposed on an alcohol related business? How can the risks of a whole year’s crop being lost overnight at the whim of the weather be managed? What other enterprises take years before their first crop, and then another year to turn it into a product, and finally even more years holding it in stock to mature before receiving a single cent of revenue?
I asked Claire Livingston, the owner of Cavender Creek why she took on such a burden. “I had a dream”, she said, “and now I am living it. I have a great team of people helping me, which makes it all possible.” And all her loyal customers have confidence that Claire can make an even great success of Cavender Creek.
Grapes and Vines, Fruits, Wine - and Vikings
When the first wine was produced in North America isn’t certain. Certainly not Virginia, where attempts to plant European vines in the early 1700s failed dismally. Spanish monks planted the first European grapevines in 1629 near what is now Socorro in New Mexico, USA. The first winery growing European vines in Mexico, Casa Madero, was founded in 1597. Wine production by Huguenot settlers in Florida using native American scuppernongs was recorded in 1562. However, maybe there was even earlier winemaking,
But what is “wine”? A general definition involves grapes grown on vines. But what about fruit wines, involving berries, apples, pears and the like? Or even more unlikely starting materials – pea shucks is one that I know of. To make a fruit wine needs a fruit starting point, yeast (which may occur naturally on the fruit), plus the know-how. Sugar or honey is needed if there is not enough natural occurring sweetness. The concept is not new. Recent excavations in China revealed evidence of fermented liquors based on rice, berries, honey and grapes produced 8,000 years ago. Over the millennia, wine making became more sophisticated and the Roman Empire then spread this expertise across Europe.
So where do Vikings come into this? Wheat beer and strong mead were their tipples of choice. Scandinavia is not prime grape growing country, but there are many tasty berries found in the wild from which fruit wines and spirits have been made for centuries. From the 900s onwards, Viking traders had exposure to grapes and wine in Spain and the Eastern Mediterranean. So fermented drinks were common amongst the Vikings a millennia ago, and they knew about using grapes too.
In about 992, Leif Eriksson led an expedition from Greenland to establish the first European colony in North America. They built stone longhouses in a base camp at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Then they explored further south and stayed in America for two winters before returning home. Tyrki, Leif’s foster father, found abundant supplies of wild grapes. In the subsequent history of their travels, Leif Eriksson’s Saga, they called the place Vinland (Wine Land).
The Viking explorers found source materials for wine making, they had the technical knowledge of fermentation, they had the time to make a wine during two long winters. They even named their discovery Wine Land. It is not unreasonable to think that theirs was the first wine making in North America, more than 400 years before Columbus sailed across the Atlantic.
It seems possible that wine (though perhaps not of the quality of Cavender Creek) was made in America far earlier than the average history book tells us.
Have No Terror of Terroir
Terroir is a word that sounds horribly like Terror – but I am glad to say that there is no link!
This French word translated literally means "land". But that is just the beginning of what it is in the wine trade. It implies all the characteristics affecting grapes grown there. The quality of the soil and the underlying geology. The regional climate and the microclimate of the specific site. The slope of the land, affecting both draining and exposure to the sun. Even nearby hills and cliffs changing winds and fogs. There is the belief that grapes and wine gain a unique quality from their terroir, and the terroir should identify the wine.
Terroir is not a new idea. Three thousand years ago, ancient Egyptian producers inscribed the source of their wine on pottery storage jars. In France, where so many ideas about wine developed, the belief in terroir is strong. Cross a road between two apparently similar pieces of land. One side may be worth twice as much per acre as the other because they are identified as different terroirs. Woe betide the winemaker who tries to buck the system and produce wine that is not true to its terroir.
In USA, labelling rules for wine to identify origin (state, county and even district) are more flexible than in France. Many of the big name brands you see in the shops do not come from anywhere specific. Instead, the winemaker blends grape juice or wine from anywhere at all in a factory to achieve a consistent tasting wine without any local pedigree.
I recently visited a small vineyard with a huge winery near Asheville. The bottles carry comforting words like "Estate" and "Reserve". It produces 46 different wines made from 18 different grapes. But only three were from grapes grown in North Carolina, let alone on the property. Tons of grapes and juice were trucked in from California. It may be a triumph of marketing, but the wines do not have much to do with the locality.
It happens in Georgia too. California grapes are used for most expensive wine produced in Georgia. There is even a wine mixing Georgia grown with imported French wine.
So, if you want a wine which really reflects to place where it was born, don’t just grab any bottle at a grocery or package store. Go to a boutique winery like Cavender Creek or many of the other Georgia wineries, and ask the winemaker where the grapes, all of them, come from and what makes this wine special. It’s all to do with the terroir.
How many grapes does it take to make a bottle of wine?
Not all grapes are the same. Big ones, little ones, maybe more juicy if it rains close to harvest, maybe more flavorsome but less plump if they have been left to ripen longer. But as a general rule, about 600 to 800 grapes go into each 750ml bottle.
But that is only one answer. Perhaps we could ask how many different varieties of grapes go into bottles of wine. There the number is much much larger.
Most wine drinkers could name a dozen or more grape varieties. Try it yourself – Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, how long a list can you think of? If you visit Cavender Creek winery, your mind may turn to Petit Manseng or Norton. There is even a club (http://www.winecentury.com/ ) for people who claim to have tasted at least 100 grape varieties.
But how many different varieties are there?
To say “nobody knows” doesn’t help. A recent attempt to name and describe grape varieties in a very weighty book gives us a list 1368 varieties which are grown commercially. Experts have made informed guesses of more than 10,000 varieties. To confuse the picture, many of these are called different names in different places (like Syrah and Shiraz, or Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio).
There is an established science of grape genetics, tracing the ancestry of the grapes that end up in our wine bottles. The stories can be very interesting for wine lovers. For example, Zinfandel, first documented in USA in 1829 is a Californian specialty giving us rich, full bodied red wines (and sweetish pink “blush” wines). In the 1970s, it was identified as Primitivo from Italy. That sparked a small trade war - Italian growers began selling their Primitivo labelled as Zinfandel, much to Californian fury.
DNA testing is a science not limited to episodes of CSI and paternity tests. Plants have their own DNA. Now, with the coming of modern DNA testing, both Zinfandel and Primitivo have been identified as really being Tribidrag. This is a much older grape variety still grown in Croatia, written about as early as 1518.
But where did all these thousands of varieties of grapes come from? They didn’t emerge miraculously out of the mists of pre-history. That’s a story for another day.
Why don’t wines just taste of grapes?
A few years ago, I studied for my formal wine educator certification. It was an intense course, covering the history, geography, theory and practice of wine making and tasting. The class spent much time tasting wines - thirty or forty different wines (and a few spirits too) every day. Even with tasting size samples, that is a lot a wine to go through. On the course, I learned to spit politely rather than swallow. I also made sure that I did not drive to classes – I have no desire to attract unwanted attention from the law!
You might think that this would be a great way to build up course credits, tasting wine after wine. But it’s harder work than you might imagine. The underlying objective of all the sampling was not just glugging down wine. We analyzed what wines taste like. We learned to categorize what we discovered for each of 18 items.
One of the 18 different items about each wine was the “flavor” of the wine - and there are more than twenty standardized categories of flavors, each with its range of options. It’s not enough to simply say “this flavor of the wine is fruity” – is it like a grapefruit, or a red cherry, or a fig or a banana? And the list of flavors extends widely, including unlikely oddities like tar, tobacco and steel.
But why does a wine taste of such things that certainly are not included in its makeup? There is a science behind it!
Open a bottle of wine and many different aroma compounds called stereoisomers are released. These compounds reach the smell receptors in your nose. The smell receptors, each with its own sensitivity, send signals to your brain to identify and match that particular compound with something remembered. However, some aroma compounds can be very similar and share comparable chemical structure, such as honey and apricot, or more surprisingly spearmint and caraway seeds, or cinnamon and green bell pepper.
Wines contain many naturally created stereoisomers. Your brain tries to pick out the characteristics of several different flavors at once. No surprise that flavors considered as total opposites can become confused as the brain takes a shortcut trying to second-guess the flavor.
Food technologists mix natural and synthetic flavor compounds trying to create new flavorsome products. Wine makers must rely on the natural juice of their grapes and the fermentation process to make stereoisomers which generate the aroma and taste of the wine. Many of a wine’s aroma compounds match things we may smell or taste elsewhere. Viognier wine may offer a touch of peach and almond, and Cabernet Sauvignon (like that produced at Cavender Creek) often includes a flavor compared to black currents and plums.
There is a grape-like flavor sometimes detected in wine, especially muscadine wine. But do you really want a wine that just tastes of grape juice?
Is the wine in your glass the same wine as in mine?
It is not uncommon. Groups of people try a wine, and everyone has a different opinion. Why?
In a previous blog, I described the hard work in becoming a professional wine taster. I was one of a group of thirty thirsty students, all seriously committed to upping their game when it came to wine tasting skills. We worked hard to apply a standard approach to describe the wines we tasted. Each wine tasting led to a group discussion sharing our conclusions. More often than not, there were clearly different opinions.
It can be perplexing when you pick up a flavor that seems way off compared to everyone else’s impressions. But we all do find different things in the same wines - because each individual has a unique and personal approach to taste. The point about personal taste was driven home when the course tutor passed around a clear liquid. Opinion was completely divided – half found that it tasted neutral or even sweet; the other half said it was unpleasantly bitter. We had all tasted a chemical called PTC (phenylthiocarbamide). This standard biochemical test has been subject of tens of millions of trials. Whether you find PTC bitter (and how you react to many other flavors) depends upon your DNA and genes.
I saw this in practice recently at the Friday Club at Cavender Creek. We had a chance to taste a new wine, still in production. We tried three samples of the same wine, each with a miniscule difference in the amount of naturally occurring tartaric acid. Three samples, and every sample was at least one person’s favorite. Who is to judge which of the samples is the “best” wine?
Everyone has their own inbuilt preference for one sort or another of tastes. Nobody has a perfect palate giving the only correct opinion about a wine, however experienced they may be at tasting.
I am often asked: “Which wine would I like?” I can only offer one safe answer: “The one you like the best”. Everyone finds their own taste profile in a bottle of wine, and the wine you like is the right wine for you!
An unwelcome immigrant from America
From the beginning of contact between Europe and America, plants were shipped in both directions. Wheat to America, potatoes to Europe, there were many great successes from this transfer. In the early 1800s, botanists began experimenting with crossing native American vines with European vines, trying to produce better grapes. The introduction of fast steamships permitted American vine samples to survive the passage across the Atlantic.
The thought that this could lead to eco-disasters did not cross anyone’s mind. Nobody was particularly concerned when French vineyards noticed that a few vines were dying. In 1863, the scale of the disaster became apparent. This new disease was now attacking French vineyards on an ever-increasing scale. Over 40% of French vineyards were destroyed within ten years – small pockets remained free of the disease, but for no discernable reason.
The disease marched ever onwards, eventually reaching around the globe as far as Australia and Argentina. Investigations were conducted, theories propounded and cures proposed, all to no avail. The French government offered a reward worth $5 million in today’s money for a cure for the disease.
Viticulturists and botanists at Montpelier in eastern France discovered a sap-sucking louse called phylloxera infesting the roots of the dying vines. As well as the damage done by boring into the root to feed, the louse opens the way for bacterial infection that finally kills the vine. Nasty! Entomologists working in France (Planchon and Lichtenstein) and America (Riley) concluded that the louse causing all this trouble in Europe was an American immigrant. Phylloxera had hitched a lift on the vine samples sent to Europe for breeding trials. The wheel turned a full circle when the phylloxera louse arrived on the West coast of USA, previously an uninfected region.
Knowing the cause did not provide a solution. Chemicals and pesticides were tried without success. More desperate measures including placing toads under each vine or allowing poultry to roam free in the hope they would eat the insects. Even more extreme was flooding the vineyards every winter to drown the pest. None of these methods worked.
What did work was grafting European vines onto American vine roots (though much work had to be done to select American rootstocks that would flourish in European soils). Today, almost all wine producing grapes around the world grow on rootstock with American parentage.
The only major wine producing country in the world remaining free of phylloxera is Chile – how long will that last, I wonder. Other unexpected consequences of the phylloxera plague are worth a further post, coming soon.
What about that reward from the French government? It was never paid. The viticulturist who had pioneered growing European vines on American rootstock claimed the prize. The French government refused to pay, claiming that he had not cured the blight, but rather stopped it from occurring,
A Sparkling Start for the New Year
In the season of holidays, it is an enticing idea to open a bottle of celebratory sparkling wine, to toast Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or the New Year (though obviously not for Eid ul-Fitr celebrations earlier in the year).
But what makes a wine sparkle? The very best sparkling wines (the French would have us believe) are made by a still wine undergoing a second fermentation in the bottle. This secondary fermentation is caused by adding sweetness (for example, unfermented grape juice or sugar) and yeast culture to the wine and sealing it tight for nature to take its course. This technique is called the méthode Champenoise after the Champagne region where it was perfected. Champagne is a fiercely protected trademarked name, so in most of the world the “approved” terms for the technique include méthode ancestrale, méthode traditionelle, metodo classico and klassische flaschengärung.
There are other ways of making a sparkling wine including secondary fermentation in a closed tank or even [shudder of horror] by pressurizing still wine with carbon dioxide.
The French would also have us believe that méthode Champenoise and sparkling Champagne were invented by a monk called Dom Perignon (1639-1715). Don’t be fooled by this propaganda. Dom Perignon did work as cellar master at Hautvilliers Abbey in Champagne and he focused on improving vineyard and cellar techniques. Secondary fermentation in the bottle was a very bad thing, and sparkling wines were regarded as faulty. Much more important, French bottles of that time were not strong enough to contain the pressure and exploded! Cellar workers were at regular risk of injury from flying fragments and wore heavy iron masks for protection
In fact, the first document describing how to deliberately create a sparkling wine by secondary fermentation was a paper presented at the Royal Society of London by Christopher Merrett in 1662, six years before Dom Perignon even arrived at Hautvilliers. The English were technology leaders in glassmaking in Europe at this time and they were able to make bottles fit to contain refreshing sparkling wines.
In the end, the result is a bottle of sparkling wine containing up to 50 million bubbles at a pressure of 6 atmospheres (88 pounds/sq. inch). So be careful when you open that bottle to welcome the New Year. The pressure can send a cork flying at 50mph, and there are regular reports of injuries and even deaths.
Where did that wine bottle come from?
The bottle you buy your wine in is a truly iconic object. The shape is fairly consistent (there are oddities like the dumpy bottle of Mateus Rose or the tall Riesling bottle). The bottle volume is a global standard of 750ml. Even the US, home of fiercely national units of measurement, sells wine in bottles containing 25.36 fluid ounces. But it wasn’t always like this, and it may not be this way in the future.
The history of winemaking is full of examples of different containers for wine. In prehistoric times, the only practical container was a pottery vessel. As well as pyramids, the ancient Egyptians produced pottery wine flasks marked with the origin of the wine. For bulk transport, larger pottery containers called amphora, containing the equivalent of 50 modern bottles were used – but that’s rather a lot to put on the dining table. Small amphora, richly decorated and holding just a couple of modern bottles, were prized domestic tableware. Terracotta pottery vessels were even used as vats where grape juice ferments into wine.
Pottery flasks are heavy and risk being broken. Even so, the pottery wine vessel was the only show in town for more than five thousand years. Things started to change when the expanding Roman Empire clashed with the locals in what is now France around 50BC. The Gauls brewed beer and stored it in wooden barrels. Within a hundred years, the wooden barrel had largely supplanted the amphora as the preferred way to transport wine.
But a wine barrel has never been a domestic sized container. Glass was far too expensive as tableware for any but the richest of the Romans and too fragile for transporting wine. So pottery jugs, sometimes exquisitely decorated, continued in use for serving wine. Travelers wanting a portable drink carried leather bags of wine.
Roll on another 15 centuries. Refinements in glass technology in the 17th century led to stronger, cheaper bottles. Bottles had varying colors and shapes, and the volume was defined by a very non-standard “lungful” of the glassblower’s breath (very approximately comparable to a modern bottle). Wine continued to be sold by the barrel and decanted into these non-standard bottles.
Within a hundred years, wine drinkers began to recognize the importance of different winemakers, grape varieties, and vineyards. People also began to age their wine in bottles. The invention of the cork closure meant that bottles of wines could be transported without spillage. Bottles became more and more important. But it took a while for consistent bottle sizes to be produced. It remained illegal to sell wine by the bottle in England until 1860. And it is less than 50 years since the global standard of 750ml bottles started to emerge.
So where is the wine bottle going? There’s a lot of new technology being proposed and tried. Come back to this blog soon and find my predictions.
What's the future for a bottle of wine?
Making predictions is a recipe for disaster. Even if you get it right sometimes, only terrible blunders will be remembered. Nevertheless, here are a few of my expectations for the next few years.
> Glass wine bottles will be with us for a long time to come. Winemakers are conservative people – look how it took 5,000 years for pottery amphora to be replaced by wooden barrels. I can well imagine an argument between a winemaker and his progressive-minded son 400 years ago: "I can’t see why you want to use those fancy new glass bottle things. A goatskin dipped in tar was plenty good enough for your grandfather and me." And wineries have a lot of investment in facilities designed for glass bottles – why change?
> Weird and wonderful containers will be proposed, but will all fall by the wayside. Cans of wine with a ringpull, bottles made of cardboard with a waterproof lining, plastic glasses of wine with a pull-off foil top, I have seen and tried them all.
> Wine in boxes (with a flexible foil liner bag) will continue as a niche item. Good for parties but not so good for everyday drinking, they will continue to be used for cheaper wines. My tip for a box of wine – when it is nearly empty, turn it upside down and open the tap to let the bag fill with air. Then that last glass will come out easily.
> >More and more wine bottles will be sealed with screw cap closures, not corks. Cork producers did themselves no favors for decades producing poor quality corks in the face of growing demand. Up to 10% of wines showed traces of taint ("corked wine") - a chemical compound called TCA caused by natural fungi in cork. The Stelvin screwcap was introduced in the 1970s. It has made big inroads in specific sectors (Swiss wine since the 1980s, now in New Zealand and Australia, even Blackstock Winery in Georgia). This trend will continue as both premium wineries and the massive volume producers more introduce bottling lines for screwcap. Don’t expect to find many wine corks in Walmart or Kroger in five years’ time!
> Cork will still be around for many years to come. The cork industry are working hard to reduce the incidence of taint. Blind tasting tests have confirmed that wine in a Stelvin sealed bottle ages at least as well as its equivalent under cork, but the very high end producers and their rich customers are yet to be convinced for the future. I saw the chief winemaker at super premium Château Margaux confirm that they have been testing screwcap closures for fifteen year with good success – but they needed another 25 years to be sure. And, of course, pulling a cork does have a celebratory feel.
> "Synthetic" plastic corks will become less and less common. They are difficult to get out, don’t accommodate the minute variations in the diameter of the bottle neck and tend to leak after 18 months. And glass stoppers (with a synthetic O ring) are too expensive.
What’s important about Vintage?
Vintage can often seem both important and sometimes baffling to wine drinkers. The vintage of a wine is simply the year in which the grapes were picked. The idea of recording the age of a wine goes back a very long way. When archeologists in Egypt opened Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922, they found wine jars buried with him labelled with the year of production, the winemaker’s name, and comments such as "very good wine."
Because it takes time for grape juice to ferment into wine, wine from grapes picked in the fall is not normally ready to drink before next spring. Red wines can take even longer to be ready. So, usually wine is not normally available in the year of the recorded vintage. There are a few exceptions to this rule. For example, Beaujolais nouveau (new or young Beaujolais) is a red wine that is rapidly and only lightly fermented, and is released in November of the same year that the grapes were picked.
But things can get more complicated looking at vintages. Grapes in the Southern Hemisphere are picked when it is spring in the Northern Hemisphere. So, a 2014 Australian wine could be six months older than a 2014 wine from Cavender Creek Winery. Things get even more difficult when you encounter wines (yes, they do exist!) from countries such as Vietnam and Thailand. Here in Georgia the vines can only have one crop of grapes per year, but these tropical regions can produce two or even three grape crops per year. The vintage then becomes a bit difficult to record.
So, why does vintage matter?
The year of the vintage provides clues about both the quality and drinkability of a bottle of wine. Each year’s wine is different due to the weather during the growing seasons of the grapes. When we visit Cavender Creek, my wife is very picky about the white wine she drinks. There are two vintages of Petit Manseng wine available, 2012 and 2014. She immediately gravitates to just one of them – she has a distinct preference (though you might disagree with her choice, as your palate is different to hers).
Many of the mass-produced brands of wine do not declare any vintage on the bottle. The reason for this is that the manufacturers want to produce a totally consistent win, unaffected by the natural variations between years. So they blend wine from several vintages and vineyards to ensure the wine always tastes the same.
How long the wine has been kept in the bottle will affect how good the wine tastes. Like so many wines, Beaujolais nouveau is not suitable for keeping – it needs to be drunk within a few months of bottling. Most white wines should be drunk within about three years of release, and the majority of red wines are not suitable for long-term maturing either. So, if you have a ten year old bottle of Californian chardonnay hidden at the back of a kitchen cabinet – it is unlikely to be drinkable.
Be your own Wine Guru
Have you ever felt at a loss, trying to think of something to say in a discussion about wine with friends? Here are a collection of bizarre or unlikely facts about vines and wines. Now you will have enough information to amaze them by dropping one or two into the conversation.
> Wine grapes rank number one among the world’s fruit crops in terms of acres planted. USA is the largest market for wine in the world – but it is only fourth on the list of largest producers. So we are obviously drinking more than our fair share!
> So where are all these imports coming from? The top three imported wine brands sold in the U.S. are Yellowtail (Australia), Cavit (Italy), and Concha y Toro (Chile).
> But which country drinks the most wine per person? It’s The Vatican, with 74 liters (about 99 bottles) per head per year
> Amongst the thousands of grape varieties, just 35 varieties represent two thirds of world grape production. The leaders are now Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Changing fashion has knocked a fairly obscure variety called Airén (grown only in Spain, and used mainly for distilling into brandy) off the top spot.
> California grows more Chardonnay grapes than any other place in the world. It has been the most successful white grape in the state, and it is also the top selling varietal in the United States.
> The yeast that lives on grape skins is so active that it can cause fermentation to produce wine automatically. But these yeasts do not usually make good wine, so modern winemakers generally add selected yeasts to the fermentation process.
> When grapes are pressed, almost all produce a clear juice. Red wines are made by leaving the pressed juice on the red skins to absorb the color. The only grapes which produce red juice are called "teinteurier" (dye maker) – they include Alicante Bouschet and some clones of Gamay.
> Eiswein (ice wine) is produced using grapes left on the vine until winter. When they naturally freeze, they are picked rapidly (often at night) and then are pressed very gently to extract a concentrated juice. These days, some winemakers try to achieve a similar effect by freezing grapes in a chiller before pressing.
> A Nebuchadnezzar is an outside champagne bottle containing the equivalent of 20 standard bottles. As it weighs over 90lb when full, it is normally poured using a tilting bottle holder.
Wine, History and (maybe) Facts
Continuing the collection of odd facts about wine, I would like to put a few things into a historical context!
> When Tutankhamen’s tomb was opened in 1922, the wine jars buried with him were labelled with the year of production, the name of the winemaker and description
> The Code of Hammurabi (a set of laws enacted by the Babylonian King Hammurabi around BC 1800) included a law that punishes sellers of fraudulent wine: they were to be drowned in a river.
> In the whole of the Biblical Old Testament, only the Book of Jonah has no reference to vines or wine.
> The standard wine container of the ancient world was the amphora, a clay vase with two handles (which could be carried by two men). It was reputedly invented by the Canaanites, who introduced it into Egypt before the fifteenth century BC.
> The ancient Greeks loved trick wine pots and drinking cups. One cup, designed to ensure moderation in drinking, had a concealed siphon tube. If the cup was filled above a certain level, the cup drained its entire contents out of the bottom.
> Early Roman women were forbidden to drink wine. A husband who found his wife drinking was at liberty to kill her. Divorce on the same grounds was last recorded in Rome in BC 194.
> The wine trade was vital to the economy of the Roman Empire. Pompeii was a major center of production. When it was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, there was a serious wine shortage. Wine production was massively expanded, including turning grain fields over to vines. The resulting wine glut caused both a collapse in wine prices and a shortage of grain. In AD 92 Emperor Domitian banned new vineyards in Rome and ordered the uprooting of half of the vineyards in Roman provinces.
> The man who most profoundly affected the history of wine was probably the prophet Mohammed. Within ten years of his death in AD 632, wine was largely banned from Arabia and from every country that heeded him.
> The first recorded wine tasting competition was held by King Phillip II of France, around 1210. The event, branded The Battle of Wines, included wines from all over Europe and France. The winner was a sweet wine from Cyprus widely believed to be Commandaria (still produced today).
> The founding fathers were serious drinkers. In 1787, two days before they signed off on the US Constitution, the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention partied at a tavern. According to the bill preserved from the evening, they drank 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 of claret, eight of whiskey, 22 of porter, eight of hard cider, 12 of beer and seven bowls of alcoholic punch large enough that "ducks could swim in them".
Gods, Saints and Wine
St Valentine’s Day is coming - the day for the Patron Saint of Lovers. February 14th is often celebrated by lovers with gifts and wine. So, how does wine link up with Saints and Gods? It has been going on for a very long time.
> Osiris was not only the god of the Dead for ancient Egyptians : he also had a particular link to grapes and wine.
> The Epic of Gilgamesh is more than four thousand years old - one of the oldest literary works known. Winemaking is a significant theme in it, and describes the goddess Siduri in charge of wine (and her picture suggests a link between wine and fertility).
> In the traditional Chinese Daoist religion, the God of Wine is called Du Kang (??). He is credited in the third century AD with inventing wine, and his story might have been based upon a real court official of that period.
> The ancient Greeks had two gods associated with wine and drinking. Dionysus, the god of wine, was first mentioned around 1200 BC, a son of Zeus. As well as being involved in wine drinking and wild celebrations, he also had a violent temper. I suspect something of a link between these characteristics. Ariadne, wife of Dionysus, was a goddess of wine (and the subject of many confusing myths).
> Under the Romans, the character of Dionysus morphed into the wine god Bacchus, who was associated with wine, excessive drinking and even orgies.
> When Christianity became the dominant religion in wine growing regions, there was no room for a god of wine. Since then we have had to make do with a patron saints for wine. In fact, there are several of these. What a surprise, most are French.
> Top of the wine saints list is Saint Vincent of Saragossa. This 3rd century Spanish martyr died for his faith, tortured on a barbeque grill. Since his death, he’s become the patron saint of wine makers (and vinegar makers. too) – but the reasons for this are unclear.
> Another wine saint, Urban of Langres, is also a patron saint of wine makers (and barrel makers and vineyard workers). He too was subject to persecution for his faith. He hid in a vineyard, and took the opportunity to convert the workers who concealed him. Afterwards, he became an itinerant preacher to vineyard workers, spreading the Gospel.
> Other useful saints include Saint Bibiana, the patron saint of hangovers. According to legend, she was both a virgin and a martyr, and was beaten to death after she refused to be seduced and to give up her religion. And if are concerned that you consume too much wine, you might like to appeal to Saint Monica, the patron saint of alcoholics.
So, lift a glass of great wine from Cavender Creek on Valentine's day and toast the gods and saints of winemaking!
Is wine good for your health?
There are regular reports in the news that wines may be bad or good for you. The image of wine has long has a love-hate relationship with health. Here’s a few facts you can throw into any discussion!
> The longest lived (unambiguously documented) human was Jeanne Calment (1875-1997) who died at the age of 122 years and 164 days. She ascribed her longevity and relatively youthful appearance to a diet rich in port wine and olive oil. She also ate 2lb of chocolate per week.
> >Women get drunk faster than men, and it is not caused by physical size or weight. If a woman and a man of the same size and build drank the same amount of wine, the woman would still show a higher blood alcohol concentration (BAC). This is because women have a higher fat content than men and fat does not absorb alcohol. The alcohol therefore spreads into less body mass, leading to a higher BAC.
> It is also suggested that women may be more susceptible to the effects of wine than men partly because they have less of a specific enzyme in the lining of the stomach that is needed to metabolize alcohol efficiently.
> According to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, there are 100 calories in a 5-ounce glass of wine (compared to 150 calories in a 12-ounce beer). Plus wine is a fat-free and cholesterol-free drink.
> Red wine is often thought more healthy than white wine, due to the presence of antioxidants and resveratrol (a naturally occurring phenol which protects plants attacked by bacteria and fungi) – but the research evidence is by no means conclusive.
> In ancient Greece, the dinner host would take the first sip of wine to ensure it was safe to drink (and not laced with poison), giving us the phrase to “drink to one's health”.
> Romans discovered that mixing lead with wine not only helped preserve wine, but also gave it a sweet taste and smooth texture. Chronic lead poisoning has often been cited as one of the causes of the decline of the Roman Empire.
> When syphilis appeared in Europe, a proposed cure was bathing in white wine. It didn’t work.
> The world’s biggest red wine consumers are the Chinese. The Chinese drank their way to a record 1395 million liters of red wine in 2013, thereby surpassing the French. The increasing popularity of red wine in China is largely due to the fact that red is considered to be a lucky color, though the perceived health benefits of red wine may be important.
> Oenophobia is an intense fear or hatred of wine.
In Lumpkin County, everyone knows what a Ranger is. One of the hard men (no women yet) of the US Army, doing their mountain training at Camp Merrill. There are other Rangers, from Texas and the Lone one with his sidekick, Tonto.
For the interested wine drinkers there is another sort, the Rhone Ranger. The Rhône valley in Southern France is the ancestral home of many notable grapes, now grown around the world. Leading the list of these global travelers is Syrah. That is also known as Shiraz (especially in Australia where "Shiraz" was a spelling mistake for the real name). The list of grapes which travelled the world includes more than 20 varieties. Others prominent on the list are red wine grapes Grenache and Mourvedre, and whites including Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc.
As the grapes travelled, they produced wines combining characteristics of both their new home and of the grape variety itself. Syrah, for example, became a huge fruit-filled mouthful as Australians produced monster Shiraz wines. The styles of many of the wines became less and less like those of their homeland.
In the 1980s, Californian winemakers (notably at Qupé and Bonny Doon) started agitating to go back to the original Rhône valley style of wines. In 1997, an association of Rhone Rangers was set up (somewhere along the line the circumflex accent over the o of Rhône got lost) to promote these wines in competition to the Californian staples of Cab Sav, Merlot and Chardonnay.
It was not just in US that this back to basics movement became fashionable. I recently attended a tasting of Rhône-style wine at my old haunt in London, Charlemagne Wine Club. We tasted wines from France, USA (including Qupé), Portugal, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. My own favorites were Syrah/Shiraz from Australia, France and South Africa (Qupé came 4th).
You don’t find many of these Rhône wines grown here in Georgia - the climate isn’t really idea. Cavender Creek Winery does have some very quaffable Viognier in their cellar, though.
Black Spanish sound like an odd name for a grape variety. This grape goes by several other names including Lenoir. Which is not French for “the black one”, as well it might. Like so many other supposed facts about this grape, the truth is lost in the mists of time. It might be named after Lenoir County in North Carolina (unlikely, as the consensus is that this grape was first found near New Bordeaux, South Carolina, on the Savannah River). It might be named after the first breeder, an unknown French person, possibly a Huguenot settler, called Lenoir. What is clearer is that the grape is a cross between a classic American vine, vitis aestivalis and the classic European grape vitis vinifera.
The Spanish part of the name is probably after a Spaniard named Jacques grew the vines in MIssissippi at Natchez. This crossbred “hybrid” was very desirable to early growers as it was resistant to two scourges of vineyards, phylloxera and Pierce’s disease. Both of these diseases, originating in North America, can (and have done in the past) completely wipe out vineyards around the world. In the 1860s, millions of these vines were imported into Europe to provide a solution to the phylloxera plague which was wiping out French vineyards. It was called Jacquez and was used both to produce grapes for winemaking and also as a phylloxera-resistant rootstock for classic French varieties.
Jacquez varietal wine eventually fell out of fashion in France in the early 20th Century and production declined. In the 1950s it was declared illegal and remaining plantings were compulsorily grubbed up. But it is still popular in USA under the name Black Spanish, especially in Texas.
Unusually for a red grape, this grape produces a red juice. Almost all red grapes actually have a clear juice and it is only color bleeding from the skins during wine making that makes red wine red.
So, what is interesting about Black Spanish?
Black Spanish vines have been re-introduced to Georgia (there were plenty of them before Prohibition, but not after!). And Cavender Creek has been lucky to obtain a supply of local grapes for their winemaking. I tasted two samples, both a 100% Black Spanish and a blend with Norton. They were both very good, and I look forward to when they are bottled and released later this year following a suitable maturing period.
Crosses, Hybrids and Mutants
What is your favorite grape variety? The Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay you enjoy has not been around forever. Documentary evidence may help to date its first appearance. Chardonnay first got a written mention in 1583, and Cabernet Sauvignon is a relative newcomer from about 1770. But where did they come from?
Grape vines were growing well before human records begin, and they all belong to genus vitis. Historically, most of the interest in grape vines was concentrated in Europe and the Middle East, as that is where vine propagation and wine production were so important. There was just one species of wild grape vines, believed to have originated region close to what is now Georgia (in the Caucuses Mountains, not the US state where you can visit Cavender Creek Winery). This species is called vitis vinifera. Today, vinifera is the most important species for wine production in the world.
Over the millennia, whilst vines were grown and wines fermented, producers selected their best vines for their disease resistance, climatic capability, volume produced, wine taste and other characteristics. This process of creating particular varieties happened in two ways:
Crosses : Different vive varieties can cross-pollinated and produce offspring vines with characteristics of both parents. Vine growers either did this deliberately or noticed strange new grapes in their vineyards. Either way, the producers carefully selected those varieties that met their needs.
Mutants : Many vine varieties exhibit another trait – they self-pollinate and they spontaneously mutate to produce new grape varieties (most of which are not viable). However, some of these mutations are valuable new varieties.
Pinot Noir is a classic example, and is believed to be the parent of twenty or more grape varieties including Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio), Gamay and Chardonnay. Hence we now have thousands of vinifera varieties (though less than 1,500 are commercially significant).
The story doesn’t end there. Unknown to the early winemakers, in North America there were grape vines too. And not just one species as in Europe – there were nineteen new species. Many of them only make poor wine. But, unlike vinifera they are resistant to the many vine diseases and pests present here. Early European settlers in North America had little success in growing vinifera, but they started trying to improve native species by cross-breeding with vinifera. The results were Hybrids – new grape varieties producing acceptable wines and resistant to American diseases.
A warning from Bananas
There are (according to a study in Australia two years ago) 1450 different grape varieties used for wine production globally. Just ten varieties make up 44% of the total (based on area of grapes planted). Add a further 50 varieties, and these then account for 76% of total global vineyards. So, only 4% of the commercially grown grape varieties account for more than three quarters of the vineyard planting.
If you want to impress friends with your knowledge, the big 10 are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Airen, Tempranillo, Chardonnay, Syrah, Garnacha Tinta, Sauvignon Blanc, Trebbiano Toscano and Pinot Noir.
Does this matter?
Consider the banana, one of the most popular fruits in the world. To ensure consistency of product and economy of scale, almost all commercial production is of a single variety. Commercial bananas are sterile, without viable seeds. Banana plants are grown using a technique called tissue propagation. All the plants are clones with the same DNA structure - an extreme case of a monoculture. The dominant commercial banana variety used to be Gros Michel. In the 1960s, a blight known as Panama Disease (fusarium wilt) completely wiped out this strain of banana. Producers switched to another variety called Cavendish (which produced smaller, less tasty bananas – but resistant to Panama Disease). That’s the one you find in your supermarket today.
Fifty years on, a variant of Panama Disease is wreaking havoc with the Cavendish banana plants around the world. No cure has been found. Maybe this will be the end of bananas as we know them. So why does this mean problems for grapes? Like bananas, most grapes vines are not grown from seeds. Cuttings from one vine are grafted onto a vine rootstock, producing clones of the parent vine. The focus on a limited number of grape varieties is a step down the road to reducing biodiversity and creating a monoculture. We have experienced what happened when a new pest was introduced to vines – phylloxera nearly wiped vineyards globally one hundred and fifty years ago. Since then, the diversity of grape varieties in production has shrunk. It has become easier and easier for plants to move around the world. We can only hope that no new vine disease will emerge to decimate vineyards around the world.
Petit Manseng - a coming thing
If you have not tried the wines at Cavender Creek, you may not have come across a white wine made from Petit Manseng grapes. With its name, you can probably guess that it comes from France (and for fluent French speakers, you will not be surprised that it has a close relative called Gros Manseng, which has bigger grapes). The name Manseng may have meant something in olden times, when it was first documented in 1562. But what that actually meant then has disappeared into the mists of time.
This variety comes from South West France, between the Pyrenees Mountains and the famous region of Bordeaux. It has been grown around Jurançon for centuries. It is rumored that King Henry IV of France was baptized with Jurançon wine in 1553. Like many grape varieties, it fell out of fashion in the face of increasing concentration on big name varieties like Chardonnay. The only foreign plantings were in North Spain (where it went by the unpronounceable names of Ichiriota Zuria Tipia and Izkiriot Ttipi). A microscopic amount grew in Uruguay (brought there a hundred years earlier by settlers from Spain) and in Japan.
At the start of the 21st Century, Petit Manseng was only number 365 on the global wine production rankings. Then winemakers around the world started to take notice of this overlooked grapes. It is expected to become “fashionable” like another almost extinct grape, Viognier. Within ten years, Petit Manseng reached number 260 in the global rankings.
In USA, production of Petit Manseng, at Chrysalis Vineyards in Virginia started at the start of this century. Success there led to more growers taking it up, and thus it arrived in North Georgia. The flinty decayed granite of the Southern Appalachians seems to suit the vines, and our hot summers enable sugars to develop in the grape, balancing its natural high acidity. And by harvesting the grapes late when they are partially dried out, it is possible to make sweet white wines from this grape – just as they do back home in France.
Cavender Creeks offers two vintages of this wine for you to taste and compare. And if you do try them, in years to come you will be able to amaze your friends by telling them how you were into Petit Manseng before it was raved over by followers of fashion.
Natural Born Killers
It is not just winemakers anxious to produce quality wines for a thirsty public who are interested in the vineyard and its grapes. A whole host of furry and feathered visitors want a share of that crop.
This is not a problem exclusive to North Georgia vineyards, it happens all around the globe. Lumpkin County has an additional pest that is not so common around the world – hungry black bears! So, what can be done to keep mice, raccoons, possum and other small mammals at bay? Not to mention deer and birds. Some vineyards take a fatalistic approach, dedicating a number of lower quality rows of vines on the property edge as a sacrifice to the scavengers, in hope that the remainder of the vineyard will not be ravaged.
However, a more proactive approach is to encourage natural predators to hang around the vineyard.
In Chile, a vineyard called Viña Caliterra launched a Birds of Prey Program to naturally control pests, mainly rabbits and rodents, in their vineyards. They encourage birds of prey by building nest boxes and feeders. In four years, the rabbit populations has decreased by 18% and there has been 30% less damage caused to the vines.
Californian vineyards in Lodi are also encouraging barn owls for "natural rodent control and integrated pest management" by providing nesting boxes. Initially this presented problems – attaching nesting boxes to electricity poles resulted in more cable strikes by the birds and power cuts. Things improved when the power companies assisted in moving nesting boxes from utility poles and erecting 100 freestanding owl homes. The vineyards definitely benefitted.
In Napa Valley, long grass prevented birds of prey from catching voles which were gnawing at vines and destroying them. Enter Whiskers, Tails and Ferals, an animal rescue center that collects wild cats. The feral cats are rented to local vineyards, where they do a great job of controlling the vole problem.
Encouraging predators can save grapes for winemaking. Cavender Creek has already had discussions with local falconry enthusiasts over using the vineyard as a free-fly hunting zone. Maybe the hunters will be a tourist attraction in their own right in future. And perhaps our local animal shelters could take a look at the Californian example.
A library without books
How can you store a vine? And why even bother?
An ever-increasing amount of every conceivable thing is being shipped around the world. And these shipments could be distributing some invasive pests. Kudzu and Dutch elm disease fungus hitched lifts to Lumpkin County from China and Europe respectively. As wine buffs will tell you, the phylloxera louse native to Eastern North America nearly destroyed the wine business as it spread around the globe.
Scary stuff – could an as-yet-unknown killer attack grape vines? As readers of this blog know, commercial growing of grapes is focused on very small proportion of varieties. Just 4% of the 1450 commercial grape varieties represent 80% of vineyard plantings. With this reduction in biodiversity, the risk of a global pandemic is real.
The best hope for the future is in finding a grape variety which is resistant to such a plague. There are thousands of grape varieties cataloged, any one of which could be the solution. Where could the grape variety to save vines and wine be found?
Plant seeds are stored in seed banks where they safely lie dormant, waiting to be withdrawn after a future catastrophe. For example, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a remote Arctic site, provides a secure storage for 860,000 samples from almost every country in the world. In England, the Millennium Seed Project holds seeds of over 13% of the world's wild plant species. And there are other seed banks around the world, preserving plants for posterity.
But seeds don’t address the problems of grape vines. Very few vines are grown from grape pips due to the global prevalence of phylloxera louse, which destroys tender young vine roots. What is needed are healthy live vines (growing on their own roots, ensuring a true specimen of the variety) providing cuttings for grafting.
The largest collection in the world of vines on their own roots can be found in France at an agricultural research station called Domaine de Vassal, close to the Mediterranean Sea. This is a living library of more than 7,800 different plants from 50 countries. There are 2600 varieties of Vitis vinifera and 720 hybrids in the 60 acre vineyard. The vineyard is largely sand, and the phylloxera louse cannot survive in a soil like that and destroy the vines. To prevent diseases arriving in this special site, new vines to be included in the collection may be held in quarantine for up to two years, many miles away.
After more than 60 years at Vassal, the vine library is being transferred to a new bigger home, 40 miles down the coast at Pech Rouge. Not only providing double the area of vineyards, the new site is less likely to be affected as rising sea levels increase flooding risks. This precious resource could be the salvation of the wine industry across the world if an unthinkable catastrophe were to occur.
Red, White and Blue
Red, White and Blue – patriotic colors to think about as 4th July approaches. Not just the stars and stripes, there are seven US state flags which are composed of these three. Of, course, you know all of them (though if you need to cheat, check below). But what about the color of wines?
It is easy to split wines by color, isn’t it? There’s red and there is white. And then some in-between stuff called rosé or blush.
In fact, red, white and in-betweens all come from grapes that ripen to a dark red-purple color. When the grapes are crushed at harvest, the juice that flows out is clear (apart from a very few varieties which rally are red grapes with red juice). And clear juice makes white wine.
Red wine is made by crushing the grapes, but leaving the juice in contact with the grape skins for a period – a process called maceration. The red color in the skin (a natural chemical called anthocyanin) dissolves into the clear juice providing the basis for red wine.
To make rosé wines, three techniques are available. The first is to leave clear grape juice on the skins for just a short while, between a few hours to two days. Another approach is to blend a little finished red wine into a white wine to create the desired color. Or finally, poor quality rosé is sometimes made by filtering red wine through charcoal to take out some of the color.
But Blue wine – surely not. Blue color is generally a big turnoff for food and drink – how many naturally blue foods can you think of? But a Spanish wine producer called Gik Live is selling a light wine with a strong blue hue. It is made from a blend of red and white wines with added artificial sweeteners. The bizarre blue color is mainly achieved using organic indigo – the same dye as that was originally used for jeans. It may be different, but somehow it doesn’t excite me.
And the US state flags which consist of just red, white and blue are Arkansas, Hawaii, Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming – but you knew that, really, didn’t you.
If your interest in wine is purely "which wine will get me smashed out of my skull fastest", this blog is definitely not for you. If, however, you want to delve deep into oenophilia and understand more about what wine really is about, there are many free (or at least inexpensive) resources out there for you to get a fuller knowledge of wine.
So, here are four of my favorite websites to help you learn more. They are all FREE.
Taste of the Vine offers two online wine courses to help you understand wine like the experts, which you can follow at your own pace.
Tom Cannavan has a good online course on wine appreciation broken down into six important areas.
WSET (the Wine and Spirits Education Trust) is the leading international body training and testing wine specialists. You may not have the spare time or money to go through their various formal courses, but WSET offer 21 three minute videos on wine regions around the world.
The Institute of Masters of Wine is the association of the most highly qualified and respected wine experts in the world. The lengthy required studies and the fiendishly difficult examination (with a pass rate of only 10%) are reasons that there are only 340 of these superheroes in the world. 38 of them live in USA. The course fees of about $12 thousand may be a deterrent, too. So, it is unlikely that you are expecting to join that number anytime soon. If you want to get a digestible introduction to what sort of knowledge might be required, go to Winetutor.tv where you will find a free and every-expanding set of videos on what experts need to know about wine.
So, you can make big strides in understanding wine without spending a cent - but it could be an interesting use of some of your spare time.
The Coming Harvest
In the vineyards at Cavender Creek and other sites across North Georgia, Véraison is nearly complete. This is the time when the grapes slowly turn from green through yellow and red to purple as they ripen. Irrespective of the color of the wine they create, almost all grape varieties follow this color change as they ripen.
With good weather and no big problems, it takes about a month from the end of véraison until the grapes are ready for harvesting. During this time, the tart green grape berries become less acidic and sugar levels increase (a process called sugar ripening). Simultaneously, the color of the grape and its flavors increase (this is called physiological ripening). The vineyard manager tastes the grapes and measures sugar level to assess ripeness.
The sugar content of the grapes is very important – it is this that will ferment to produce alcohol during winemaking. For grapes and their juice, this is usually measured using an optical instrument to obtain a reading called degrees Brix. Brix is actually a measure of the dissolved material in the juice – one degree Brix means 1% of the juice consists of dissolved matter. And since sugars are about 90% of the dissolved matter, this provides a measure of the amount of sugar in the juice.
1 degree Brix = 1% of the juice is dissolved matter = 18 grams per liter of sugar.
The ripening period presents its own problems. The changing color of the grapes attracts hungry predators like birds, mice and insects. And in Georgia we have other pests, like deer and even bears. Weather, especially rain, can also have a big impact. A little bit of rain may help to carry the process along. But too much rain can be bad – the grapes swell as the juice inside is diluted (which is bad for winemaking), reducing the quality. Rot can also set in, ruining the grapes.
At Cavender Creek, the fruit quality is looking good at véraison and we are hoping for a good harvest this year. Keep your fingers crossed for us that the weather hold fair and not too wet. If you are interested in participating in the seventh Cavender Creek harvest on September 17th, have a look at the Volunteer Harvesting event.
My recent blog about blue wines which have been “improved” by the addition of artificial sweeteners and dyes shows my feelings about such heresy. Now I hear of two new ventures into artificial wine, and I am not happy about these either.
Local wines labelled as “Georgia” must be made from at least 75% grapes grown in State. That limits what Cavender Creek and other North Georgia wineries can do, especially because the climate limits the range of grapes available. Other US States have it easier because of the huge volume and varieties of grapes grown. Putting it into perspective – the total volume of Georgia wine produced is less than one half percent of the volume of just one top-selling Californian brand, Barefoot.
The Californian megabrands use grapes from all over the State and from all sorts of grape varieties, carefully mixed to produce a very consistent wine. But at least they are made from grapes. But what about producers pushing wine production further and further into chemical engineering? I’ve recently read about two of these.
Replica Wines are a Colorado wine producer trying to make “master forgeries” of well-known wines. The company claims to have assembled the world’s largest database of alcoholic beverage flavor profiles, matching the chemical content with what a wine tastes like. It’s a step up from standard blending techniques – as well as a panel of skilled tasters, the resulting blends are now measured using sophisticated analysis techniques to check how closely they match the wine they want to copy. Replica blend wines from their own vineyards with other West Coast wines to mimic the original wines. Whilst not perfect copies (they claim at least a 90% chemical match), tastings of the results are fairly encouraging. Replica plans to launch their copies of high quality American wines at a quarter the price of the real thing. But at least it is wine from grapes with no flavor additives.
Much more alarming (and much further down the Frankenwine road) is Ava Winery. In my opinion, this is neither is a winery nor does it make wine. This company is trying to synthesize a liquid chemically identical to genuine wines using water and chemicals. No grapes are harmed in the production of this product! Ava first tried to produce a synthetic version of Moscato d’Asti. Ava sent samples to commercial analytic laboratories to identify its components. The results, often inconsistent, were used to work out which compounds contribute to flavor and then combine them correctly. Since some flavor compounds are used at concentrations of less than parts per billion, it’s not easy. Nor are the results so far encouraging – a critic in New Scientist identified notes of gasoline and plastic pool shark in a recent tasting of the first experiment.
Doctor Norton, I presume
Norton is one of the grape varieties grown at Cavender Creek. Whilst this grape is grown widely in North America (in the Mid-West and East of USA), it is almost unknown elsewhere. In the opinion of European wine regulators, Norton is not a “real” wine grape, which may explain its low profile internationally today. However, at the height of its fame, the 1873 Vienna (Austria) world-wide wine exhibition awarded a Norton wine from just south of St. Louis, Missouri the accolade of “the best red wine of all nations”.
Norton (also called Cynthiana) is named after Dr. Daniel Norborne who had an experimental vineyard in the Carver neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia. Sometime between 1818 and 1828, Dr. Norton identified a seedling growing there with potential as a wine grape. But somehow its promise at Vienna was never realized and plantings decreased. However, it now thrives in vineyards across North Georgia and used for winemaking either on its own or blended with other red wines like cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc.
But how American is it? DNA testing of Norton reveals that it is really a hybrid, a crossing two vine species, of vitis vinifera (the classic Eurasian domesticated grape which is used for making almost all wine) and native American vine called vitis aestivalis. Vinifera grapes wines are made from a large number of varieties, from Aglianico to Zweigelt. The vinifera parent of Norton is believed to be an obscure historical variety from the Jura Mountains in France – so obscure that there are today only 3 acres of this vine left. So, this archetypal “best American wine grape” is half an immigrant.
The American half of Norton’s parentage gives it some real benefits. It is unaffected by the louse carrying the dreaded phylloxera plague that decimated vitis vinifera vineyards around the world. It is also more tolerant of the heat and humid conditions in southern parts of USA. The downside of Norton is that it can be killed by the sulfur based pesticides often sprayed in vineyards to protect vinifera vines.
If you want to try this ruby red wine with rich flavors of red fruits, cocoa and peppery spice, have a tasting at Cavender Creek Winery on your next visit.
Smoke and Wine
Maybe the first thought you had on reading this post was Hank Williams and “little bit of smoke an’ a whole lotta wine”. But no, this is more serious.
Fruit can be affected by smoke. A few years ago, I attended a course at Smokey Jo’s on how and what to smoke. All the usual smoking techniques (and some pretty bizarre ones) were demonstrated. We experimented on meats, fish and cheese. The course tutors encouraged even wider application of smoking, and they made some awesome orange marmalade using smoked oranges. So I can personally assure you that smoke matters with fruit.
There has been debate for many decades over whether aromas from certain plants could affect the taste of wines from nearby vineyards. In the frame were some aromatic herbs like rosemary. In Australia, eucalyptus trees were another suspect plant. Then in 2003, there were major bushfires in Victoria and New South Wales (in Australia). It was feared that the smoke could cause the wines produced there to be tainted.
Investigations by the Australian Wine Research Institute confirmed that samples exhibited characteristics of smoke, burning, ash, salami, crispy bacon and even (shudder) ashtrays. White wines were less affected than reds, as the smoke taint was concentrated in grape skins. Red wines are fermented in contact with the grape skins to extract color and flavor, allowing the smoke taint to move into the wine. Similar results were found in South Africa after fires there in 2009. And even in USA, there have been problems in California and, last year, in Washington.
Nearer home, a wicked 2008 wildfire season in Northern California caused many wines (notably those from Mendocino County). This year, the extensive California fires has put Carmel Valley wines into the at risk category.
Various treatments have been proposed for the tainted wine, but they all provided small benefit in comparison to the costs. Most of the smoke affected wine ended up sold at a discount and blended into cheap wines.
But the news is not all bad. Smoke taint doesn’t present any health hazard, so no reason to stop drinking wine on account of this. Quality red wine is usually matured in oak barrels, which can also provide a smokey flavor – so many wine drinkers are used to this characteristic. And if you are really concerned – drink Georgian wines – we’ve not had serious fires here, thank goodness.
Archaeology and Old Wine
Without wishing to blow my own trumpet, can I take this opportunity to publicize a small event that I am presenting in November.
Since prehistoric times, wine has been an important agricultural product. The history of wine, revealed by archaeology, gives a fascinating insight into the development of human knowledge, technology and society. Over thousands of years, starting in what is now the Middle East, crude fermenting of wild grapes was refined. Agricultural and technology skills and multinational trade empires resulted. Wine consumption changed social structures, religion and even decision making skills.
What our prehistoric ancestors considered as great wine, with many unusual additives, is very different to most of today’s offerings. So it is probably a good thing that there will not be any ancient wine samples available at this illustrated talk.
Local wine educator Robin Hall DipWSET will describe where and how this all happened, with diversions into Egyptian wine labels, the Greek sense of humor and even the wine served in the Wedding at Cana.
The presentation will be the November meeting of the Blue Ridge Archaeological Group on 9th November, starting at 6pm. The venue is the Parks and Recreation Building, 365 Riley Road, Dahlonega, GA 30533. This event is open to the public and is free.
A V A
This blog is really not about the glamorous multi-married film star Ava Gardner (maybe I am showing my age that I even remember her).
Wine enthusiasts will know of the Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AC) designation which guarantee the origin (and occasionally the quality) of French wines. These have extremely complex rules based upon local laws – what sort of grape varieties are allowed, how many grapes per acre are permitted, what the label looks like and so on. Similar regulations apply in countries around the world, though thankfully they are usually less prescriptive.
The USA came relatively late into the great winemaking countries of the world with a well-deserved reputation for being innovative. So, since 1980, the USA has its own equivalent – the American Viticultural Area (AVA). The AVA name describes a geographic region that a wine comes from.
USA wines must fit into a hierarchy of wine origin labelling controlled by Federal regulations (administered by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau). In all cases the wine has to be actually made where it claims it was. But it is where the grapes come from that matters. At the bottom of the stack is “American wine” – it can be composed entirely of grapes from anywhere in USA (which probably means a lot of Californian grape juice).
Next up the list are wines labelled with the State or county that they come from. These require that the wine is made with at least 75% of the grapes from that State or County. By a strange bureaucratic quirk, if a wine is labelled as coming from a combination of two or three counties in the same state, it must be made 100% from grapes grown in those counties.
Top of the list are wines coming from an AVA. Not less than 85% of the grapes used for the wine must come from within the AVA.
There are (as at October 27 this year – this blog has all the latest information!) 239 AVAs. They range in size from a massive 29,900 square miles (the Upper Mississippi Valley AVA) to the 60 acres of Cole Ranch AVA. And there is one AVA, Upper Hiwassee Highlands AVA, which crosses the state line between Georgia and North Carolina.
Why is this of interest to Cavender Creek Winery? Because top of the list of proposed AVAs awaiting approval by ATTTB is the Dahlonega Plateau AVA. This will be first AVA located purely in Georgia. The petition for this AVA was finalized at the end of April 2015. Already, the phrase Dahlonega Plateau is appearing on the back labels and marketing materials. Before long, the wines produced in the five Lumpkin County wineries (Cavender Creek, Frogtown, Montaluce, Three Sisters and Wolf Mountain) plus two near neighbors in White County (Kaya and The Cottage) will be able to proudly boast their AVA status with their commitment to local production. It’s been a long time coming.
An update on AVA
Since I wrote this blog article, the Perfected Petition was moved on 2nd December to the "Notices of Proposed Rulemaking", available for public comment up to the end of January 2017. Things are happening!
High hope for profitable changes in Californian vineyards
Interesting things happened on November 8th this year. Apart from the issue of electing a President, many states had local propositions on the ballot. Californians passed Proposition 64 by a margin of 56% to 46%. This extends the legal growing and sale of cannabis beyond medical purposes to include recreational use. The full documentation about the proposition runs to 62 pages, placing many restrictions on age limits, advertising and the location of cannabis sales. The state of California has more than a year to put in place the regulations and licensing. But it certainly appears to be coming.
Growing grapes and making wine is not always a profitable venture. Now Californian vineyard owners have an interesting conundrum. Should they keep on growing grapes and making wine? Or decide to make a whole lot more money by grubbing up the vines to grow cannabis plants instead? That's the choice that is now open following the mind blowing vote.
It is estimated grape growers could make six times more an acre if they switched to growing cannabis. US drinks giant Constellation Brands has already said it is considering making cannabis-based alcoholic drinks. Constellation Chief Executive Officer Rob Sands said in an interview: "There are going to be alcoholic beverages that will also contain cannabis." But the timing of such a move will be affected by US federal law which is less friendly to marijuana.
You may be able to get recreational pot in California (and Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada - they also passed similar propositions on the same day, adding to four states which already permit this) in the near future. However, I cannot see this change coming to Georgia soon - so no likelihood of Cavender Creek turning into a weed farm.
Bigger bubbles makes better sparklers
The most expensive champagnes should be the best – though marketing expertise may distort that relationship. And the assumed truth is that these best wine have the smallest bubbles (called mousse).
Now Professor Gérard Liger-Belair, a respected physics researcher at the University of Reims (the heart of the Champagne country) has ruined this belief. His studies of fluid dynamics has revealed that bigger bubbles are better.
The bubbles in champagne and other sparkling wines are carbon dioxide gas, created during the secondary fermentation process which is the source of sparkling wines. When a bottle is opened, more than a million bubbles are released in each glass of bubbly. Bubbles rise to the surface of the wine and form a regular hexagonal pattern. One bubble collapsing leads to a chain reaction which sprays tiny droplets into the air at the top of the glass. And it is this spray of evaporating droplets which give the happy drinker the full sensory experience.
Bubbles in sparkling wine range between 0.02 and 0.16 inches in radius. But bubbles with a radius of 0.07 inches result in the highest number of droplets evaporating at the surface of the drink. Which is good news for cava and prosecco, which have larger bubbles than premium champagne.
Professor Gérard Liger-Belair has been researching the physics of champagne for more than a decade. His team have also come up with findings on how to pour sparkling wines to reduce the risk of the gush of bubbles overflowing (tilt the glass).
Champagne corks can also be the cause of serious injuries – the 90 pounds per square inch inside a champagne bottle can propel the cork at 50 miles per hour. At this festive time of the year, when runaway cork accidents generate a surprising number of Emergency Room visits, it is good to know that the ideal temperature to open a bottle of champagne is 4C (= 39F). According to the team, this reduces the speed of the cork coming out of the bottle and helps to prevent those accidents.
As I write, I have beside me a snappily titled brochure “Snapsguide för Lyckade Smakkombinationer” (a guide to combining food and Swedish schnapps). For generations, rules have been developed on what drink goes best with what food. And pairing wine and food has been raised to an art form.
Some basic rules are usually suggested. White wine with fish, red wine with meats. Sweet wines with dessert. Port with cheese. Norton, a native American grape grown in Georgia, with chocolate – both M&Ms and intense dark chocolate. And the wine of the region where the food is produced. And, of course, there are exceptions to every rule. For example, that sweet wine with your dessert may be even better with a sharp blue cheese or goose liver pate.
The source of these supposed rules may be lost in the mists of time, but marketing comes into play, too. Champagne is offered as going with absolutely everything (apart, maybe, from tomatoes), and that has been backed by self-serving advice from the big champagne producers for more than a century.
Now there is a big push to present another liquid as suitable accompaniment for fine dining. Yes, Coca-Cola™ is being promoted in TV ads with millennial foodies enjoying a can or bottle with their poppy seed and chicken salad, seafood paella or steak with salsa verde. Surprisingly, popular food blogs are enthusiastically endorsing these and other Coke and food combinations. Though maybe it is not so surprising when you learn that Coca-Cola is sponsoring these blogs. We can expect to see more of these sort of adverts in the New Year as Coke management conduct a campaign pairing Coke “with everything,”
Culinary Institute of America professor of wine, beverage and hospitality, John Fischer, points out that consumers may regret trying Coke with their lobster or Beluga-caviar or whatever, because it’s “a fairly powerful flavor” that will “obliterate” delicate foods. However, the company may try to repeat its claims that Coke goes well with everything, trying to “say it until it’s true.”
I think I personally will continue to pair food with wine and leave fizzy sugar drinks off the restaurant table.
What's on your bottle of wine?
How do you know what’s inside your bottle of wine? The Ancient Egyptians inscribed a description on their amphora, and two hundred years ago glass bottles had the information written with a white paint. Today we have a label to give us some information. But that’s not the only indicator of contents.
On the top of the bottle is the “Capsule” – the plastic or metal cap over the top of the bottle which covers the cork. There’s no obvious way of identifying wine, as each winery makes its own rules. Maybe a logo, maybe the color means something specific (I know of one local winery which uses different colors to indicate premium wines, oak aged wines and unoaked wines).
So, we must turn to the label for more useful information. Different countries have different rules – the French are very pernickety about the labels of quality appellation controlee wines, sometimes even banning the names of the grape varietals in the wine. The USA demands a whole range of different information. To ensure that wine bottles conform to the laws in both USA and the country of origin, a second “Back Label” is often used. Boring stuff and legal blurb (including the stern warning from the Surgeon General gets shuffled off to the back label, leaving the “Front Label” for marketing.
To help the public know what the information on labels mean, the US Federal Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau provides a handy one page guide. But what the guide doesn’t address is the multitude of rules and regulations, both at national and state level. And it is easy to fall foul of one authority with something that another office has already approved.
For example, a few years ago the Alabama Beverage Control Board banned Californian wines branded Cycles Gladiator because they considered the label pornographic. You can find examples of the label in your local Georgia wine store or by clicking this link. What Alabama would make of a much more risqué French label of a wine I tried recently cannot be imagined (click here at your own risk!)
The Front Label is a marketing pitch. Where there is marketing, there is a marketing consultant – so it comes as no surprise that a consultant has used “core defining features” to categorize wine bottle labels into nine groups:
So, when you next look at a bottle of Cavender Creek wine (or other brand), what label will you put on that label?
How much would you pay for your bottle of wine?
A recently released study of the ten most expensive wines in the world (they are all French) has some startling numbers. Top of the list comes Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 2005 at a staggering $28 thousand per bottle. A further seven of the list of ten also come from the same producer from different vintage years. And if you think that is expensive - you can only purchase it from the producer in a mixed case of twelve bottles - just one bottle of Romanée-Conti plus eleven other wines at eye-popping prices.
Comparing this wine with more affordable wines raises some thoughts. On the lower shelves of Walmart, you will find wine brands like Barefoot, Yellow Tail and Sutter Farm at $5 or even less. So, is that French wine from Burgundy really 5,000 times better? I don't think so. But why is there such a vast price difference? For the mega-expensive wines, the "true" quality of the wine is be affected by where the grapes grow and how the wine is made. Rarity of the wine is also a factor driving up prices. But way more important is the reputation of the wine - a brand image which may have nurtured over decades or even centuries. And the stupendous price demanded is a form of marketing, too.
For the cheap wines, cost is all important. Most of the cost are unrelated to what is inside the bottle. It has been calculated that a bottle of wine without anything inside would cost about $4 by the time it appears on the store shelves - all the non-wine costs like bottle, cork, shipping, marketing, retailer's margin, taxes and so on. Every cent of these costs spent is squeezed, with huge production and imaginative logistics. For example, that Yellow Tail merlot from Australia was not shipped in bottles over the ocean - it came in a huge tank and was bottled much closer to the consumer.
So, what about our local wines from Georgia? All are produced in a relatively small volumes, so no economies of scale. Most production is sold at the winery, meaning another layer of overheads. Most local wines range from $16 to $26, though a few wineries have enough of a reputation to push some prices to $40, and there is just one selling a $100 bottle.
Compared to what you can find on the shelves of the package store, our Georgia wines may seem rather expensive. But the costs of running a wine business and reinvesting in new vines, winemaking equipment and marketing are vital to growing the industry.
Doug Paul of Three Sisters Vineyard
I was extremely saddened to hear of the untimely death of Doug Paul, the co-owner of Three Sisters Vineyard, on March 7th.
Doug was a real wine pioneer. After a career in TV and radio, he and his wife Sharon established the first local vineyard and winery in Lumpkin County. Incorporated in 1996 after a year of careful planning, the vineyard has its first vintage in 2000. Doug and his family were totally committed to their belief in wines from grapes grown on the estate and produced in their own winery. They have a unique claim to fame as Dahlonega’s First Family Farm Winery. They introduced a range of trellising methods and grew a variety of vinifera and hybrid grapes. A peculiarity for the time was the plantings of Cynthiana – a kissing cousin to the more famous American Norton grape.
On the Three Sisters website, he is described as “Doug never met a stranger and always had some way to relate to everyone he encountered. He was a great winemaker, an astute businessman, and a funny guy”. I totally relate to that. I first met Doug and Sharon (both in their characteristic bib and brace overalls) more than ten years ago when I was starting to plan my retirement in Dahlonega. He lucidly explained his motivation with Three Sisters: “We were drinking so much wine we thought it would be better to make it”. The knowledge that there were such committed wine makers in Lumpkin County reinforced my plans to move here.
In June 2009 I took several bottles of his Cynthiana 2004 to a professional wine tasting in London. It received an extremely positive response (as well as much curiosity about a previously unknown grape variety). The following year, I presented their Cabernet Franc at another London wine tasting, again to serious approval. Over the years Three Sisters expanded their range of wines, including méthode traditionelle sparkling wines – samples of those were also showcased in London last year.
Doug was interested not only in Three Sisters but the wider Georgia wine industry. He was a driving force behind the first Georgia wine trade association, Georgia Wine Country and a strong supporter of the planned Dahlonega Plateau AVA. Both the dahlonegaplateau.com website and the social media presence supporting this AVA are thanks to him. And whilst he did not make a lot of noise about it, he and Sharon were instrumental in helping several Georgia wineries get started.
He will be sadly missed both by me and by all those at Cavender Creek winery who knew him and Three Sisters Vineyard.