We explored Michigan once before, but that episode was recorded about a month before I got the chance to drink some fantastic Michigan wines courtesy of a #winestudio event and the Michigan Wine Collaborative. Among the bottles sent were two bottles of 2016 Chardonnay; one from Amoritas Vineyard, and the other from Chateau Chantal. These wines are from the Leelanau AVA and Old Mission AVA, respectively. The original idea for this episode was to focus on vine age and resulting vintages, but the conversation quickly shifted to different modes of making Chardonnay–not all Chardonnay vintages are made for the same purposes, as it turns out!
These two bottles, provided through the kindness of the Michigan Wine Collaborative and #winestudio turned out to be perfect examples of the two main styles of New World Chardonnay: Buttery and oaky, and crispy stainless steel. Both of these wines had us saying Chardon-yay, for sure, and allowed us to take a deep dive into a grape varietal that is perhaps overlooked due to its prominence in the wine market but is really just as fascinating as any hipster varietal you may not have ever heard of.
I learned a lot about Michigan wine thanks to the interactions on #winestudio with the folks tweeting at the Michigan Wine Collaborative and the veritable host of winemakers (most of whom were women, which is freaking awesome) over the course of the three weeks of this program. Emi Beth was fabulous at answering all of our strange questions about the wine scene that is exploding in Michigan currently. Another wine from this particular #winestudio program, a Grüner Veltliner, will appear in a later episode this season for a deep dive of this unique Austrian varietal.
We’ve had a couple of sparklingwines 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.
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.
It’s pretty freaking cold everywhere you go east of the Rocky Mountains in the United States and Canada right now, so it seemed like as good a time as any to talk about Ice wine. Our main wine focus of this episode is the 2017 Creekbend Vidal Blanc Ice Wine from Oliver Vineyards in Bloomington, Indiana, though we drank this alongside the 2009 Golden Icewine Valley from Changyu in Liaoning, China, and the 2017 Late Harvest Vidal Blanc from Arizona Stronghold Vineyard, sourced from Bruzzi Vineyard in Young, Arizona. The latter, of course, isn’t an Ice wine but is still a varietal Vidal Blanc.
As it turns out, over half of the ice wine vintages made throughout the world are made from Vidal Blanc, because of just how hardy this grape is. Vidal Blanc (also known simply as Vidal), is a complex hybrid cross between Trebbiano (also known as Ugni Blanc) and Rayon d’Or. Vidal is very winter-hardy and produces surprisingly high sugar levels in cold climates. This aspect, combined with the natural tendency of Vidal Blanc to have moderate to high acidity, makes this varietal a favorite in harsh climates across the Northern Hemisphere, even being grown as far north as Sweden and Norway. Since these climates are prone to freezes, it makes perfect sense that the Icewine tradition would tend to find a home wherever Vidal Blanc is grown.
The secret of Ice wine is that it is produced from grapes that have frozen while still on the vine. The sugars and other dissolved solids in grapes will not freeze, but the water within the grapes does. This means an incredibly concentrated grape juice results; the must is pressed from these frozen grapes, which results in a smaller amount of more concentrated, very sweet wine. Only healthy grapes kept in good shape are used for this wine; none of them may be infected with noble rot. Furthermore, time is of the essence, since re-thawing the grapes will cause them to spoil quickly since ice crystals destroy cell walls. Thus the harvest must be completed within a few hours on the first morning that is cold enough. The result of all this hard work is a wine with refreshing sweetness, balanced by high acidity.
Ice wine production is risky for several reasons: the frost may not come at all before the grapes rot, or are otherwise lost, for one. The production also requires the availability of a large enough labor force to pick the whole crop of grapes within a few hours, at a moment’s notice, on the first morning that is cold enough, often before sunrise. This results in rather small amounts of ice wine being made worldwide, making ice wines generally expensive. The bottles used for ice wines are generally small, holding only 375 mL of wine, as befitting this small production. The increased production of ice wine has been dramatically assisted technological inventions in the form of electric lighting, driven by portable generators, remotely-controlled temperature alarms, and the invention of the pneumatic bladder press.
While there are some indications in the writings of the world’s first wine critic, Pliny the Elder, along with the poet Martial, that the Romans were making vintages in this style on occasion (probably in Northern Italy), the first ice wine that we definitely know about was made in Germany in 1794. The story goes that the winter had been harsh, and some wine growers had the idea to leave grapes hanging on the vine to use as fodder for their animals; when the growers noticed that these grapes after being frozen yielded a very sweet must, they were pressed anyway, and a wine revolution slowly began. Only six 19th century vintages with Eiswein harvests have been documented, and there seems to have been little effort to systematically produce these wines. Over time, with the technological developments listed above, ice wine production became more common… but at the same time, growers in Germany, the region where this wine style was invented in the modern era, have noticed that in the last few decades, good ice wine vintages have been less common. Many vintners have cited climate change as the cause of this decline.
The first ice wine produced in the United States was made in the Finger Lakes region of New York in 1981 by Great Western Winery. Today, Michigan leads the charge in creating ice wine in America; as an example in 2002, six Michigan wineries alone produced over 13,000 half-bottles of ice wine. The US law for ice wines specifies that grapes must be naturally frozen; the TTB declares that “Wine made from grapes frozen after harvest may not be labeled with the term ‘ice wine’ or any variation thereof, and if the wine is labeled to suggest it was made from frozen grapes, the label must be qualified to show that the grapes were frozen post-harvest.”
I get asked somewhat often, “What are tasting notes, really?” Or rather, to be honest, I get asked: “What am I supposed to be tasting, anyway?”
Well, when you get down to it, you taste what you taste. Sure, I can help, but really, wine is such a subjective thing that I generally hate to push what I think I’m tasting or smelling onto the drinker I’m with. This can also make tasting notes (and notes on the aromatic profiles of wine) seem somewhat arbitrary to the beginner. And that’s okay!
Basically, tasting notes refer to a wine taster’s (or, in some cases, a coffee taster’s!) testimony about the aroma, taste identification, acidity, structure, texture, and the balance of a wine, designed to allow the reader to get an idea of what the experience of imbibing that particular vintage is like. They can get as creative as you like, or as simple as you like. Often-times, such notes may seem like gibberish, but this Sommelier-speak has a code that isn’t as difficult to translate as beginners think. In short, what you taste, is what you taste.
These notes are NOT related to what is in the wine or how it was made, usually; these flavors are not added. The winemakers for this wine didn’t pour in pickle juice during fermentation, for example. In many cases, they aren’t even the same molecule, but they hit the receptors in the olfactory lobes of the brain in the same way as those flavors in food, drink, or spices do. Wine Folly has a great article on how to approach writing your own tasting notes which can be found here.
For this podcast discussing Tasting notes, Elizabeth Krecker and I decided to drink the 2014 Sémillon from Dirty and Rowdy Family Winery, based out of Napa Valley, though they source grapes from multiple vineyards across the state of California. This wine is a complex blend of two different styles of fermentation; one on the skins (a.k.a., Amber Wine) and another aged in concrete. Elizabeth and I loved the tasting notes that they used to describe their wines and thought it would be fun to explore what we tasted in this wine versus what the winemakers tasted. They’ve got a lot of fun wines, and I highly recommend them.