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.

Episode 34: New Hampshire

Welcome to Episode 34 of the Make America Grape Again Podcast, where we explore the wine scene in New Hampshire through the lens of the 2015 Marquette from Poocham Hill Winery. In this episode, I also have two new guests joining me: Greg Gonnerman, the owner of Laramita Cellars/Chiricahua Ranch Vineyards, and Ginger Mackenzie, owner of the Vino Zona tasting room in Jerome.

One of the main features of this episode is a discussion of the complex genealogy of “complex” French-American hybrids; see the chart of the Marquette family tree below. Furthermore, Greg’s discusses his take on the wine scene in New Hampshire based on first-hand experience, and Ginger also gives us a crash course in decanting wines.  Which means… this is an episode you decant afford to miss. (Ha!  I slay me.)

Holy Complex Hybrid Genealogy Charts Batman! To the wine cellar!

According to a chart I recently shared on our facebook page, New Hampshire has 59 bonded wineries, as of December 31st, 2018. Some of these wineries are importing grapes and juices from other viticultural regions throughout the world, or exclusively making fruit wines. The history of New Hampshire wine begins relatively recently, due to the climatic challenges of growing in such a harsh environment; as of now, pure vinifera varietals cannot grow there.  But with the breeding of complex hybrid varietals (such as the Marquette featured in this episode) at both Cornell and the University of Minnesota, viticulture has now become possible here.

The first winery and vineyard in the state that records exist for was planted in Laconia, New Hampshire, in 1965.  This vineyard, called White Mountain Winery, was later sold and changed names to New Hampshire Winery.  Financial problems caused the winery to close in 1992. In 1994, Jewell Towne Vineyards, located in South Hampton opened–it is the oldest still operating vineyard in New Hampshire today.  There are no American Viticultural Areas in New Hampshire as of yet.

This bottle was bought by guest Greg Gonnerman from the vineyard itself, and he was kind enough to share it with us for the podcast!  I’m really glad he did; this is the best red wine made from a complex French-American hybrid grape so far that I’ve tasted.

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The 2015 Marquette from Poocham Hill Winery stands tall against the Sedona skyline, daring anyone who mocks the stance that Complex French-American Red varietals can’t be used to make good wine.

Episode 17: Maine

Maine is the focus in our 17th episode of the Make America Grape Again Podcast.  The wine in question is the first fruit wine we’ve explored in our podcast, the Wild Blueberry Wine (Semi-Dry) from Bartlett Maine Estate Winery, located in Gouldsboro, Maine.

At this time, Maine has only 17 wineries and vineyards, which are largely focused on fruit wines, as well as French-American Hybrid varietals, because of the cold, harsh climate of the region.  The oldest winery in Maine, which happens to be the winery we are focused on in this episode, opened in 1983.  This focus on fruit wines makes the industry in the area a little different than other regions we’ve explored thus far in our podcast.  Fruit wines, for me, are hard to pin down and discuss, as we explore in this episode, as they stretch “sommelier speak” to the absolute limit.

Generally speaking, fruit wines are defined as fermented alcoholic beverages that are made from a wide variety of base ingredients which are not grapes.  These wines may also have additional flavors taken from other fruits, flowers, and herbs. This definition is sometimes broadened to include any fermented alcoholic beverage except beer, which of course is the state of the ground in American liquor laws, making this definition so broad as to be effectively useless. (Although, for historical reasons, mead, cider, and perry are excluded from the definition of fruit wine.) In other parts of the world different terminology is used; as an example in the UK, fruit wine is commonly called country wine. As a rule, these wines in the United States are labeled according to their main ingredient: in the case of this wine, blueberries.

Anyway, onto the show!  This bottle was brought to me for use in this podcast by my friend Elizabeth Krecker, who acquired this bottle from a bottle shop in Maine.

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The Wild Blueberry Wine from Bartlett Maine Estate Winery in Maine was pretty fun to explore, as I don’t have much experience with fruit wines.

Episode 16: Vermont

Vermont is the focus of our 16th episode here at the Make America Grape Again podcast.  Barely more than a stub of a Wikipedia page, Vermont so far has only seven wineries, and a very recent beginning, with the first commercial vineyard there being only since 1997.  But boy howdy, have they been running to catch up with the rest; the wine we selected for the first episode examining the viticultural industry in this state has absolutely blown me away.  It is not every day that I meet a wine that can single-handedly make me doubt my commitment to Arizona viticulture, but the 2016 Tectonic from Iapetus Wine (a label from Shelburne Vineyard) has done just that.

The 2016 Tectonic is our vintage introduction to a number of new wine concepts, as well as a continuation of some themes we explored in our last episode about Wisconsin wine. This vintage is an all-natural, skin-contact wine made from a grape called La Crescent.  We touched upon natural wines a little bit in our first California episode; to explore the idea further, these wines can be roughly defined (since there is no official legal definition as of yet) as wines that are farmed as organically as possible, and are made/transformed without adding or removing anything while in the cellar.  The idea is that these wines are fermented using the natural yeast growing on the grape, without any additives or processing aids, and that intervention in the fermentation is kept to a minimum. These wines are not fined, nor filtered, and it can be argued that the result is a wine that is “alive”–still full of naturally occurring microbiology and the truest expression of the terroir of a region possible.

Like the Seyval Blanc we examined in our last episode, La Crescent is a complex American hybrid varietal, and one which is very recent; only developed by the University of Minnesota and released in 2002.  The genetics for this grape look like something out of a Habsburg family tree: with ancestry including Vitis viniferaripariarupestrislabrusca and aestivalis. Saint-Pepin, and a Muscat of Hamburg crossing feature among this grape’s progenitors. (I really wish I still had the genetics diagram I referenced when recording this wine–I lost it somewhere. Alas.)  Also like Seyval Blanc, this grape is a white wine varietal; to make a Skin-contact wine such as the 2017 Tectonic (also known as Amber wines or Orange wines),  the grape skins are not removed from the must, (unlike in as in typical white wine production) and instead remain in contact with the juice for days or even months. As in red wines, these skins provide pigments and tannins to the resulting vintage. This is actually a very ancient style of wine, dating back at an absolute minimum of about 6,000 years in the Caucasus Mountains.

That, in my mind, is one of the coolest things about the 2016 Iapetus: it is made from an ancient style of production for one of the newest-developed grape varietals out there.  I look forward to hopefully trying more wines from this label: Ethan Joseph is doing some pretty cool stuff up there in Vermont.

While I first encountered this wine via a #winestudio event on Twitter, this bottle was provided to me through the kindness of Elizabeth Krecker who purchased this wine for me directly from the vineyard when she visited New England earlier this year.

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The 2016 Tectonic from Iapetus wine is, without a doubt, my favorite wine of this podcast so far. There, I said it.