Season 2, Episode 8: “Everything’s gonna be Viognier.” (Viognier Deep Dive with Michelle Petree)

First of all, let me apologize for the erratic upload schedule this January. There is a lot of stuff going on in my life right now; a struggle with depression, a struggle with finances, and my mother is on her deathbed. I beg pardon for not following my every 2-week schedule as I planned. Now, onto the blog. (If you want to help, please support the Patreon for this podcast!)

One of our very first episodes of season one focused on the supposed wonder of Virginia Viognier. As you may remember, neither Gary or I were impressed with the 2016 Horton Viognier and were deeply confused as to why Viognier was supposed to be the state grape of Virginia in the first place.  I told this to my friend Michelle Petree, who asked which one I had imbibed, and she proceeded to be horrified by my selection.  “Don’t worry,” she said, probably shaking her head sadly, “I’ll fix that for you. I know the good ones. The 2017 Viognier from King Family Vineyards is especially great.”

In return, I promised her my favorite bottle of Viognier from Arizona, the 2016 Rune Viognier, made by James Callahan. (He will be a guest in later episodes in season 2, so stay tuned!)  At some point, one of us (I can’t rightly remember who, lots of alcohol was involved…) decided we should drink these two wines side by side with a vintage from Viognier’s homeland, Condrieu… and settled on the 2017 De Poncins, from Francois Villard, as a comparison. And so this podcast was born.

Viognier, if you are unaware, has made a huge comeback in the last 60 years from near-extinction (in 1965, there were only 30 acres of this grape remaining) to a worldwide sensation, being grown across the world, from Arizona to New Zealand. Most of the Viognier acreage planted in the United States can be found in California, but it is also grown in 15 other states. One of the main reasons for Viognier’s fall from grace until the 1960s is due to the fact that this varietal is very difficult to grow, being prone to Powdery Mildew, as well as suffering unpredictable yields from one vintage to the next.

However, this grape is increasing in popularity as an attractive alternative to Chardonnay, so I feel we can only expect more Viognier to appear as time goes on. Watch this space!

viognier deep dive
So much Viognier to drink, so little time…

Season 2, Episode 7: “Norton Deep Dive (featuring Kim Musket)”

Over my holiday hiatus, I was thinking recently about what 10 varietals might define the overall Wine industry in the United States. Would it be defined by which grapes are grown by highest amount of acreage?  What about grapes that may not tip the scales in terms of total acreage, but have found themselves to be widespread around the country? Would it be defined by which grapes have had the largest influence in the history of winemaking here? Would it be defined by grapes used to make historical vintages that alerted the Old World to the New?

I haven’t quite finished that list yet, but I will say that Norton, a grape we’ve met several times before on The Make America Grape Again Podcast, should qualify for that top ten list. After all, any indigenous American varietal that manages to have its own Riedel Glass is definitely important. This glass, unveiled in 2009 at Les Bourgeois Winery, indicates the importance that Norton has to the wine industry in the American Midwest. As a matter of fact, the vintage we drink in this podcast comes from Les Bourgeois. Kim, a longtime Norton aficionado and friend of mine, has for years been trying to convince me that Norton is actually worth my time and energy to understand, but I have been tragically dubious. She comes from Missouri, where this grape is, unquestionably, the king of the local industry there.

I first became convinced there was something to Norton with our first ever episode, featuring a Norton from Kentucky, but when she brought this vintage over, I was truly smitten.  Take a listen, and learn about Norton.

Missouri Norton
Norton has had a prominent role in the wine industry in the midwest for generations: the 2008 Premium Claret from Les Bourgois in Missouri proves it.

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.

Season 2, Episode 3: “Icewine, baby”

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.”

Creekbend Vidal Blanc Ice wine
Our main focus for this episode, the 2017 Creekbend Vidal Blanc Ice Wine from Oliver Winery, is only the second vintage of ice wine produced by this vineyard. Ice wine is a difficult endeavor, after all…

Season 2, Episode 1: An Unexpected Birthday

Welcome to the first episode of Season 2! This was originally going to be an additional bonus episode for Season One, but harvest, crush, and a new tasting room job meant I didn’t get much time to get this ready, so we’re going to open Season 2 with this episode instead!  Future episodes will continue at roughly every 10 days, as with season one.

In this episode, Megan (alias VeniVidiDrinki), James, our friend Ruben, and I drink a Henri Marchant Cold Duck that dates back at least to the early 1970s. Why? Because it was there. More seriously, VeniVidi found this bottle at an estate sale somewhere in Illinois, and had it sitting around… and so we decided to drink it.  For myself, this is probably the second or third oldest bottle I’ve had in my life, but for the others, it was their oldest bottle; in fact, this bottle was older than every one of us excepting possibly James.  Old wine is fascinating, often lauded, but sometimes misses the mark.  But we decided to try this one anyway and record it for shiggles.

What is Cold Duck, anyway?  Well, it so happens that Cold Duck is pretty much a uniquely American innovation in the wine world.  The wine style was invented by one Harold Borgman, the owner of Pontchartrain Wine Cellars in Detroit, Michigan in 1937. This inaugural Cold Duck vintage was made at the Ponchartrain Wine Cellars by simultaneously pouring Champagne and sparkling burgundy into a hollow stem wine glass.  However, this recipe was based on a German legend that involved Prince Clemens Wenceslaus of Saxony ordering the mixing of all the dregs of unfinished wine bottles in his cellar with Champagne. The wine produced by Borgman was at first given the name Kaltes Ende (“cold end” in German) until it was altered to the similar-sounding term Kalte Ente meaning “cold duck”.

It was this translation of the second name that took root for this particular wine style, and many other American wineries, particularly in California and New York, followed in the wake of Pontchartrain.  Today, you can still find bottles of Cold Duck in most grocery stores, as a “low-end” wine (see: Frasier, Season 4, Episode 9), but for the time it was a revolution that allowed most Americans who would never have been able to afford high-end sparkling wines from France to get their first experience with bubbly.

Of note: we dated this bottle based on a particularly awkwardly hilarious commercial we found on YouTube; the audio of which is featured in the podcast, but the video is below:

henri marchant cold duck
Cold Duck revolutionized the way Americans drank in the years just prior (and during World War 2). This bottle dates back at least to 1970, and we drank it… because it was there. Also, we drank it for your amusement.  How did it taste?  Listen, and find out.

Episode 52: Mexico (Bonus Episode 1)

¡Bienvenidos amigos, al episodio cincuenta y dos del podcast Make America Grape Again! ¡En este episodio, volvemos a hacer uva de México con el Rosado 2017 de Casa Madero, la bodega más antigua del Nuevo Mundo!

Okay, sorry for my horrible Spanish there. Welcome to Episode 52 of the Make America Grape Again podcast, where we’re going to sneak across the border and explore the 2017 Rosado from Casa Madero, which happens to be the oldest winery in the New World! Founded in 1597 as Hacienda San Lorenzo, Casa Madero has been producing wines intermittently in the Parras Valley of Coahuila over the course of the last 422 years. There have been times when the vineyard was left fallow, but the winery is currently producing again.  I wanted to do at least one Mexico bonus episode, so I was stoked to stumble across this bottle randomly at Total Wine in Phoenix.

The 2017 Rosado is made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, and for more information on production, we do a ceremonial reading of the tech sheet in this episode. (I should also note that I will have at least one more Mexico episode in the future… probably.)

Mexico is a wild frontier for winemaking, with only about 7,700 acres under vine. As I mentioned above, the history of Mexican wine begins with this winery. Winemaking here, and in other vineyards in New Spain produced such fantastic vintages that King Charles II decided to prohibit the production of wine in Spain’s colonies, except for the making of wine for the Church in 1699. This prohibition stayed in force until Mexico achieved independence from Spain in 1821. Naturally, this meant that from the end of the 18th century to the middle of the 19th, most wine production was done by clergy. The Santo Tomás Mission, founded in Baja California in 1791 by the Jesuits, reactivated larger-scale production of wine in Mexico. In 1843, Dominican priests began growing grapes at the nearby Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe del Norte mission, located in what is now called the Valle de Guadalupe.

Today, the Valle de Guadalupe is largely touted as the premium wine-producing area of Mexico.  No longer just a gag in Frasier, vintages of wine from this are, along with the neighboring San Vicente and Santo Tomás Valleys produce 90 percent of all Mexican Wines.  The region has become famous for wines made from Nebbiolo, Mission, and Zinfandel. Part of the reason for this region’s popularity is the ease of travel to this area from tourist ports and towns in Baja Californa, such as Ensenada.  In addition to the wine regions in Baja, wines are also being made in Durango, the aforementioned Parras Valley in Coahuila, Aguascalientes in Zacatecas, and Queretaro in Central Mexico. Wine Folly does have a brief intro guide and overview of Mexican wine on their website. In short, Mexico is producing some good wines, and those vintages are well worth exploring.

If you like the work we’re doing here at the Make America Grape Again Podcast, please kick us some wine money over at our patreon, located at https://www.patreon.com/TheMakeAmericaGrapeAgainPodcast

2017 Rosado
In this episode, we explore a little bit of the wine scene of America’s southern neighbor, while drinking the 2017 Rosado from Casa Madero.