Season 2, Episode 5: The Traditional Method (RJR Brut Cuvée, Westport Rivers, MA)

We’ve had a couple of sparkling wines in this program before, but we’ve never really had a traditional method sparkling wine on the show before.  Let’s change that, with a look at the 2007 RJR Brut Cuvée, from Westport Rivers Winery, in Massachusetts.

In case you were not aware, “traditional method” is code for the same method which is used to make Champagne in France; it’s just that nobody outside of Champagne can use this word to describe a wine method, due to very strict provisions laid down by the EU and France. You will occasionally see wines made in this method labeled as ‘Classic Method,’ also.  What these words mean is that the sparkling wine in question was bottle-fermented; that secondary fermentation which produced the bubbles occurred in the bottle in which the wine was sold.  This can be a time-consuming process if done by hand, but other places (such as Gruet in New Mexico, as an example) have figured out how to do mass-production of such bottles.

As you may have guessed from the implication above, sparkling wines made in the traditional method undergo two separate fermentations.  The first, which is usually carried out in tanks, creates what is known as the base wine, which is still–no bubbles. If the wine in question is a non-vintage blend, the base still wines will be blended according to whatever style and quality requirements exist for the given produced to produce a unified flavor for the brand; or still wines from a given year will be blended together (which is likely what happened with this wine in question).  This process, known as assemblage, ends with the blended wine put into bottles, along with a mixture of yeast and sugar to kick off a secondary fermentation.  The bottles are then closed with the same sort of cap you see on a beer bottle. (In case you wanted to expand your French wine terms, this mix is known as the liqueur de tirage).

Next up, the bottles are then placed on their sides in cellar environments, while that secondary fermentation begins.  It is this secondary fermentation that creates the CO2 which gets trapped to become bubbles. After the second fermentation is complete the wines are left ‘sur lie‘ (resting on its lees – wine terminology for the dead yeast cells in each bottle) for any period of time the winemaker wishes. This could range from a mere 6 months to upwards of several years, like in the case of this vintage. The longer the wine rests on these lees, the more amino acids and other compounds that are in the dead yeast cells will break down and be released into the wine.  Known as autolysis, this process is what adds toast, bread, and the yeasty character and aromas that are often associated with higher-end vintages made in this style.

The final steps of this process are known as remuage and disgorgement, where the lees are removed from the bottle.  The bottles are carefully rotated and shaken and slowly moved upside down so that the sediment in the bottle is slowly moved towards the neck of the bottle. This process is known as riddling–it can either be done by hand, or by automatic machinery.  After the sediment has been gathered to this part of the bottle, the material must be disgorged–something done by freezing the neck of the bottle in a freezing brine bath. After being frozen, the cap is removed, and the bottle of frozen lees sediment will shoot out.  The final step of this disgorging process is quickly topping off the bottle with a mixture known either as the dosage or ‘liqueur d’expédition. This is a mixture of wine and sugar, the amount of which is determined based on the eventual style of the wine.  As an example, the dosage for the  RJR Brut Cuvée probably contained somewhere between 6g and 15g/l of sugar; pretty standard for wines labeled as ‘Brut’.

After this, the bottle is closed with the traditional Champagne-style cork, with the wire cage (known as a muselet) and foil. The wine can now wait and age as long as the winemaker demands before being released to the adoring public. These styles of wine can age very well; as evidenced by our reaction to this bottle in the podcast.

RJR Cuvee Westport Rivers Winery
The 2007 RJR Brut Cuvée is our tasty introduction to the world of the Traditional Method sparkling wine – the same method used to make classics such as Champagne, Cava, Franciacorta, and others the world over.

Season 2, Episode 4: The Forgotten Pinot (Oregon vs. Germany)

Everyone knows Pinot Noir. Most folks know Pinot Gris, aka Grigio. Pinot Blanc has a few die-hard fans even among the general public. But Pinot Meunier seems to remain the province of wine geeks alone. In this episode, the gang tackles the challenge, when we compare the 2017 Pinot Meunier from Teutonic Wine Company (sourced from Borgo Pass Vineyard in the Willamette Valley AVA of Oregon), with the 2015 Darting Pinot Meunier from Pfalz, Germany. In this episode, we also talk about wine-making techniques and compare the Old-World style of Winemaking, to the New World style, and touch again upon the subject of Natural Wine. I REALLY need to do an episode just focusing on Natural Wine at some point. This also reminds me, I need to reach out to the folks at the fine Natural Disasters for a collaboration on the subject… I digress.

A word about tonight’s (today’s?) grape of the episode: Pinot Meunier.  Also known variously as Meunier, Schwarzriesling, Müllerrebe, and Miller’s Burgundy, this grape gets its name (and most of its synonyms) from the flour-like dusty white down which is found on the underside of the leaves; like the result of grinding wheat.  First mentioned by name in the 16th century, Pinot Meunier is what is known in the plant world as a Chimeric Mutation, where different plant genes are expressed in different places.  In the case of this varietal, the inner cell layers are composed of a Pinot genotype which is close to (if not identical to) Pinot noir, but the outer, epidermal, layer is a mutant, distinctive, genotype. I have no idea how this happens, but it is my understanding that the genetics of most Pinot varietals are about as stable as my average mood, and therefore the plant can mutate simply if you look at it in a funny way.

Of note: Pinot Meunier is apparently almost one-third of all the grapes planted in Champagne, but the French don’t like to talk about this fact and prefer to emphasize the use of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay… though I will say the best Champagne I’ve ever had was a Grower’s Champagne (the Vallée de la Marne Rive Gauche Extra Brut from Bereche & Fils) made of 100% Pinot Meunier, so, uh, take that, popular kids!  Or something?

I acquired this bottle of the 2o17 Teutonic Pinot Meunier directly from their tasting room in Portland, Oregon, while visiting there last September; the German example was acquired from Lloyd’s Liquors, in Prescott, AZ.

Pinot Meunier
The 2017 Pinot Meunier from Teutonic Wine Company is the centerpiece of our third episode of Season 2.

Episode 46: Arkansas

Welcome to Episode 46, where we focus on the Natural State, Arkansas. Arkansas is known for the state’s natural scenic beauty, clear lakes and streams, and abundant wildlife, but also has quite a few wineries. It is also one of the few states that even has a “State Grape” as well: Cynthiana, one of the oldest clones of Norton in existence. However, the wine we’re looking at today isn’t a Cynthiana vintage; it’s the Majestic Merlot, from Hot Springs Winery, located in Hot Springs, Arkansas. (I tried really hard, for the record, to find a Cynthiana from Arkansas, but nobody would ship one to me here in Arizona.)

Now, before we get into the nitty-gritty of the history of wine in Arkansas, let’s talk about that much-maligned varietal: Merlot.  We’ve had a few blends with Merlot in our podcast so far, but never on its own, and it’s time to fix that.  The grape became maligned after the movie Sideways, with the main character stating, bluntly, “I will not drink any fucking Merlot.” This film caused the market for Merlot to tank precipitously. In fact, Merlot is used to create some of the finest vintages in Bordeaux–including the vintage that Miles drinks in a styrofoam cup at the end of the film. The name of the grape comes from the French word for Blackbird, both for the dark color of the grape, and that these birds really do seem to love gorging themselves on the ripe grapes still on the vine. In reality, Merlot is actually pretty popular: it’s the second most abundantly planted wine grape in the world, coming in just after Cabernet Sauvignon with 657,300 acres planted across six continents. One of the reasons for the popularity of Merlot with winemakers (and wine drinkers) is the “softness” and “fleshiness” of the flavors, which combine well with the sterner character of the later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon.

The history of wine in Arkansas begins to the first French Catholic settlers, who were then followed by German and Swiss settlers who came to settle in the town of Altus. This region began making wine commercially beginning in the 1870’s, and today the four oldest-running wineries in the state are located here.  (One of the notable settlers and winemakers of the area is Jacob Post, who emigrated in 1872, and his descendants are sixth-generation winemakers at Post Familie vineyards today.) At one time, Arkansas had over 100 wineries and was producing produced more wine and grapes than any other state. Prohibition, however, intervened, (oddly enough, regarding the wine industry in the state, after prohibition ended elsewhere) and the industry in Arkansas has yet to fully recover with only fourteen wineries in existence as of 2019.

If there is one person responsible for stabilizing the precipitous drop in wineries in Arkansas and thereby setting the ground for future growth, it would be Alcuin C. Wiederkehr, of Wiederkehr Wine Cellars, who was responsible for penning and supporting many bills relating to wine in the Arkansas State Legislature. Despite the lackluster growth in Arkansas wine in the last few years, the state does have three viticultural areas, nestled inside each other like matryoshka dolls. The Ozark Mountain AVA, the sixth largest AVA in the US, surrounds the Arkansas Mountain AVA, which in turn surrounds the Altus AVA.  As I mentioned above, the area surrounding Altus is where wine in Arkansas began.

I acquired this bottle from the winery website for this podcast, where it was shipped to me here in Arizona.  I was not able to encounter any other wineries in Arkansas that shipped here, though I hope to get more bottles from Arkansas (including a Cynthiana) later this year when I will (hopefully) be passing through the state. If you like this podcast, please donate to us over on Patreon, at https://www.patreon.com/TheMakeAmericaGrapeAgainPodcast

arkansas wine
The Majestic Merlot from Hot Springs Winery/Bath House Row Winery is our introduction to the Arkansas wine scene, as well as Merlot.

Episode 41: Ohio

Welcome to episode 41 of the Make America Grape Again podcast, featuring the Buckeye State, Ohio.  Featuring one of the more unique flags of a US State, Ohio has a long and lauded history with the American Wine industry. It is fitting, therefore, that the bottle we have chosen for our first Ohio episode: the En Plein Aire pét-nat from Vermilion Valley Vineyards, is somewhat of an homage to that storied history.  This sparkling wine, made as a méthode ancestrale, is a field blend of roughly 75% Pinot Noir, and 25% Muscat Ottonel, with minuscule percentages of Lemberger and Müller-Thurgau, sourced from their vineyards in the Lake Erie AVA. For those who are new to the natural wine game, this method, known also as pétillant-naturel, allows the initial fermentation to finish inside the bottle without any additives, imparting a gentle carbonation by trapping carbon dioxide; there is no addition of new yeast for a secondary fermentation, nor disgorgement (unlike with Champagne and other sparkling wines of that ilk).

So, why a Sparkling wine to start Ohio off? To answer this question, we must go to the Ohio River Valley around 1825, and visit one Nicholas Longworth.  He planted, in the end, over 2,000 acres of Catawba grapes, and ended up producing sparkling wine that won not only national acclaim, but actually beat out titans from Champagne in at least one competition in Europe!  The resulting victory lead to a famous poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, entitled “Ode to Catawba Wine.” (I’m thinking this poem may be the subject of a dramatic reading in Season 2.) However, by the late 1850’s, black rot and powdery mildew had destroyed much of these vineyards, and the viticultural center of Ohio had moved to the region surrounding Lake Erie, where at the time, 33,000 acres of grapes and 161 wineries flourished.  Alas, like in other states, the grim specter of Prohibition ended this idyll, and to survive, most vineyards were converted to the growing of Concord for juice production–some vineyards dating to this period, such as Meier’s Wine Cellars survive today in this mode. By 1963, only 27 wineries survived, with only half making wine from Ohio-grown grapes.  The state was ripe for a renaissance.

Oddly, compared to other states we’ve explored in the course of our podcast, Ohio never needed farm winery legislation to aid that renaissance.  Instead, two major organizations devoted to viticulture jump-started this transition.  The first was the Ohio Wine Producers Organization; the second was the Ohio Grape Industries Program.  Both of these groups have catapulted Ohio wine to the impending super-stardom where the industry lurks at this time. Today, the state of Ohio has over 290 wineries, located within Five distinct American Viticultural Areas: the Lake Erie AVA, the Isle St. George AVA, the Ohio River Valley AVA, the Grand River Valley AVA, and lastly the Loramie Creek AVA.  Producing over 3,582,902 gallons, Ohio is (as of 2016) actually ranked 6th in the US in terms of wine production, and 8th in terms of total acreage under vine. Wine Enthusiast actually recently wrote an article about why Ohio wine is something to look out for, as well, so winemakers in the state are making some noise.

This bottle was kindly provided to the Make America Grape Again Podcast by the winemaker himself, Joe Juniper. I reached out to him after a kind couple in the tasting room I work for in Arizona mentioned that Vermilion Valley Vineyards was their favorite winery in the state. Thank you again, kind sir for your contribution, and for joining in on our podcast!

A sparkling wine in the oldest tradition, the En Plein Air from Vermilion Valley Vineyards starts our journey into Ohio Wine.

Episode 37: Alabama

Welcome to Episode 37 of the Make America Grape Again Podcast, where we focus on the Heart of Dixie: Alabama. Our wine is the 2013 American Oak Cabernet Sauvignon from Maraella Winery, located in in the foothills of the Appalachia Mountains near the town of Hokes Bluff. Maraella Winery is, from what I have been able to discern, home to the only Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the state. Maraella winery is a bit unusual since it is one of only two vineyards I could find which are growing vinifera varietals in Alabama; most others are exclusively growing muscadine varietals, or some French-American hybrids. The reason why Maraella is able to do this is the higher elevation of their vineyard site; located away from the humid lowlands, issues such as Pierce’s Disease are mitigated.  In this episode, new guests Nicole Silvestri and Joey Estrada join me in a discussion about the usage of American vs. French oak, as well as just how fascinating this wine really was: suffice to say, this wine bucked most of the traditional stereotypes we tend to associate with Cabernet Sauvignon.

The history of Alabama wine post-prohibition begins in 1979, with the signing of the Alabama Farm Wineries Act.  This bill, heavily influenced by the owners of what is now Perdido Vineyards, allowed a “native farm winery” to produce up to 100,000 gallons a year, and sell not only to the local ABC board, but to wholesalers, retailers, and consumers for off-premise consumption. The Alabama wine industry received a further boost in 2002 when additional agricultural reforms lifted additional restrictions on wineries; Maraella is one such winery to benefit from these reforms. Today, Alabama has over 15 vineyards and wineries, though no established American Viticultural Areas as of yet.

I acquired this bottle from the winery website specifically for use in this podcast.  I am regretting not acquiring the French Oak version of this wine as well, it would have made this episode even more fascinating to us than it was already!

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The 2013 Maraella Cabernet Sauvignon, aged on American oak, is our introduction to the wine industry of Alabama.

 

Episode 29: New Jersey

Welcome to Episode 29 of the Make America Grape Again Podcast, where we return to the Mid-Atlantic region and visit the Garden State. Our wine for this episode is the 2017 Outer Coastal Plain Blaufränkisch, from Tomasello Winery; this winery happens to be one of the oldest in New Jersey.

The history of New Jersey wine, as in so many places in the Mid-Atlantic States, begins with British colonization. In 1758, the Royal Society of Arts sought to incentivize agricultural innovation and cultivation in the North American colonies by offering a cash reward of 100 British pounds for the planting of vineyards and the production of “five tuns of red or white wine of acceptable quality,” and the wine produced equal “those Sorts of Wines now consumed in Great Britain.” In 1767, two men had been recognized by the society for their undertakings. William Alexander (the self-styled “Earl of Stirling,” which is a much cooler title than “Wine Monk”) informed the society in 1767 that he had planted 2,100 vines at his estate in Basking Ridge, located in what is now Somerset County in central New Jersey.  Sterling reported that his plantings were “chiefly Burgundy, Orleans, Black, White and Red Frontiniac, Muscadine, Portugals, and Tokays.”  Edward Antill, another colonial grower, advised the society that he had a vineyard of 800 vines of Madeira, Burgundy, and Frontenac grapes as well as a few “Sweet-water Grape vines, and of the best sort of the Native Vines of America by way of tryal.” The award was split between the two, but their work did not lead to any sort of long term success or the establishment of a thriving industry for viticulture in the state.  This instead had to wait until the 19th century, when New Jersey was again recognized for its suitability for growing grapes, largely by new German immigrants to the area. In 1859, an agricultural society was organized in Egg Harbor City and tested over forty different grape varietals for local cultivation.

However, as in so many places, Prohibition killed most of the wine industry in New Jersey, except for one winery that received an exemption to produce medicinal wines.  At the end of Prohibition, legislation was enacted in New Jersey that limited a winery license to one winery per million people; effectively limiting the number of wineries in the state to seven; one of these was Tomasello.  The industry here remained largely stagnant until 1981, when the state legislature passed the New Jersey Farm Winery Act, which sought to facilitate a rebirth for the state’s wine industry by exempting low-volume family-owned wineries from these restrictions, and also allowed wineries to create outlet stores. This act effectively allowed anyone with a minimum of three acres and 1,200 vines to apply for a winery license, which began the meteoric rise to the state of the industry today.

Today, New Jersey is home to over 48 wineries, spread across the state, with over 1,043 acres devoted to the cultivation of grapes. New Jersey also has three AVAs spread throughout the state, though only two of these have wineries and vineyards planted in them. The odd one out here is the Central Delaware Valley AVA, which covers includes 96,000 acres surrounding the Delaware River north of Philadelphia; on the New Jersey side, its southern border is near Titusville. At this time, all of the wineries in this AVA are located on the Pennsylvania side of the river.  The oldest planted AVA located in New Jersey is the Warren Hills AVA, which was created in regulation in 1988. Roughly 100 acres (with 5 wineries) are planted with grapes in this AVA, with a primary focus upon French-American Hybrid varietals. Currently, there are 5 wineries in the Warren Hills AVA.  In terms of vineyards, however, the Outer Coastal Plain AVA is the heart of the New Jersey Wine scene. The Outer Coastal Plain, created in 2007, is home to over 28 wineries and covers over 2.25 million acres in Southeastern New Jersey. (I couldn’t find a total number of vineyard acreage for this AVA, however.)

This bottle of the 2017 Outer Coastal Plain Blaufränkisch was acquired by my fellow wine junkie and podcast cohort Megan (@venivididrinki on Twitter) from the winery tasting room, specifically for this podcast. Thanks, Megan! In other news, the Make America Grape Again podcast now has a Patreon!  Check it out at https://www.patreon.com/TheMakeAmericaGrapeAgainPodcast if you are interested in supporting the podcast.

New Jersey episode 1
The 2017 Outer Coastal Plain Blaufränkisch, from Tomasello Winery, provides our introduction to the wine scene in the state of New Jersey

Episode 26: Texas

Howdy Partners!  Welcome to another episode of the Make America Grape Again Podcast!  This time around, we’re looking at Texas, through the lens of the 2016 Petit Sirah from Grape Creek Vineyards, located in Fredericksburg, Texas.

Texas actually holds a very special place in the history of wine not just in America, but in the world as a whole.  It was in the high plains of Northern Texas (in what is now the Texoma AVA) where horticulturist Thomas Mundson used indigenous American varietals to create hundreds of hybrid grapes, as well as finding particular root stocks that were immune to the Phylloxera epidemic of the late 1800s. This saved the French wine industry (indeed, possibly most of the Vinifera wine industry worldwide) from total ruin.  (I hope to go in depth about him in a future episode in a later season.)

The History of Texas Wine begins in a similar fashion to other landscapes in the American Southwest, with Franciscan priests and friars planting Mission vines in the deserts near El Paso for use as the Eucharist.  The industry grew, culminating in Thomas Mundson’s heroic labors to save the industry as a whole.  Yet Texas, like the rest of the United States, thanked its native son with the institution of Prohibition; one which still strongly affects the state today: a quarter of Texas’ 254 counties still have Dry Laws on the books.  (A few wineries did survive through this time, namely Val Verde winery, which made medicinal and eucharistic vintages.) The wine industry in Texas really only began to recover in the 1970’s, with the founding of Llano Estacado and Pheasant Ridge wineries in what would eventually become the Texas High Plains AVA, along with the La Buena Vida winery in Springtown, Texas.  The first AVA in Texas was the Bell Mountain AVA in 1986.

With 436 Wineries and approximately 4,500 acres of vineyards total, the state of Texas is actually the fourth largest producer of wine in the United States. The problem is that most people do not know about this because Texas wine is not widely distributed, and shipping outside of the state is notoriously difficult for local wineries.  Texas also has 8 AVAs, scattered across the state.

As a note: Texas Wine Geek has a great explanation of what For Sale in Texas Only actually means.  In short, while confusing as all hell from a consumer standpoint, it is crystal clear from the standpoint of federal legislation–something which arguably matters as much, if not more, from a wine sales standpoint.  After all, you need your federal approval if you’re going to sell wine at all, to begin with.  In short, when you see that label, know that it is a wine that is made in Texas, probably from mostly Texas grapes, probably scattered from among multiple AVAs.

In this episode, we talk a little about what “For Sale In Texas Only” means, and a bit about the concept of terroir, as we drink this side by side with an Arizona Petit Sirah from D.A. Ranch.  My friend Megan Looser (who is also a CSW) brought this bottle while on a recent trip to see her favorite band in concert.

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American wine shines big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas. *clap* *clap* *clap*