March 31, 2012

A shared obsession with petrol

We share a passion, Max and I. A passion for the substance with the too long name, 1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronaphthalene. Fortunately, the nickname is shorter; TDN. Prefer the latter. 

“Rich fruit, lemon and a lot of petrol. Medium bodied, distinct acidity, concentrated, lemon, petrol, some honey, good length.”  Max analysed the wine in his glass and continued, “Will continue to develop nicely over the next ten years I guess. And that magnificent petroleum. Great wine!” 

Max had shut his eyes, delighted. There was a big smile on his face. I had nothing to add to his account. Just nodding. 

The wine was a Hugel Jubilée Riesling 2007. A good choice for illustrating the petrol character often found in Alsacian Riesling. 

We were sitting in Max kitchen. He had phoned me some days before and asked me to come over. He wanted to try a few wines before a tasting. Max is always so thorough in his preparations, at least when it comes to wine. 

We both love great Riesling. Preferably a few years old, with an evolved nose of petrol. Often the great ones, the ones with a distinct petrol character, origin from Alsace. 

Isn't it strange that some people think TDN is a fault? We love it. Are obsessed with it. Look for the bottles with potential, put them in the cellar and wait, wait, wait. Ten years later, or more, we get a great reward.

Luckily for us, there are many distinguished producers in Alsace.

Alsacian vineyard (Gustave Lorentz).
One favourite , which we often return to, is the Altenberg de Bergheim from Gustave Lorentz.

Marcel Deiss, Josmeyer and Trimbach are also on the top list. But there are many more.

Longing for the next visit…

March 25, 2012

For the love of wine and friends

What can be more exciting than to host a tasting for your friends, the nearest and dearest? For wine lovers who think wine is more than just some fun to drink. For those who share the deep interest in this multifaceted beverage. Who always want to learn more. Who want to hear the story behind it. Who love to share the impression and discuss it.

On my part, the answer is obvious. To plan the tasting!

A few times each year we meet for a blind tasting.  The host chooses the wines. That is the exciting task, to come up with a good selection. Sometimes I begin to think about it almost a couple of months before the event. Now it is time again.

There could be a theme. They often expect one. An ordinary one would be a country, a region or a specific grape. Perhaps a bit boring? Even if you can learn a lot, we have had that a number of times.

What about  a more subtle one?  Nice wines exposed to different kind of oak during maturation? Or a flying winemaker’s global contribution to the world of wine?

What have we tasted recently? Something to pick up from the recent months’ tasting? Where there any interesting discussions, something that we can take a closer look at? Yes, could be a path to explore.

Yet another perspective - trends. What are the hot topics in the wine magazines and on the blogs? Should we jump into and explore a trend? “Natural wine” seems to be a talking point of today. Could that be something?

Although, I could refrain from the theme. Fool them all. Mix haphazardly. Pick some goodies from the cellar. If asked, the theme would of course “my favourites”. And I have a lot of favourites.

Ordinary? Contemporary? Surprise?

It is worth thinking about, and a great pleasure to do so. For the love of friends and wine.  

March 18, 2012

Amazing stories of great wine brands

Passion for wine and business. Two sides of winemaking throughout history. When ingeniously combined, a great and celebrated wine can be born. But great brands? Is it passion for wine or is it passion for business behind such achievements?

The Ho Bryan story
One of the stories fascinating me on this theme is the one about “Ho Bryan”. A history stretching centuries back in time. And a story about a brand still on top after 350 years. It must be the first example of conscious brand building in the world of wine. 

Hugh Johnson has described the remarkable rise of this luxury brand in the book I love most when it comes to wine history; “The Story of Wine”. 

We start around the year 1200. London had then reached the position as the prime export market of Bordeaux wine. The position was realised after a chain of events, which began when the incredible Eleanor of Aquitaine became Queen of England in 1154. It continued when King Richard, known as Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor’s son, wanted wine from Bordeaux to be served on the tables of the royal English court. And was accomplished in 1203 when John Lackland, the next king of England, and the youngest son of Eleanor, removed the heavy taxes on wine exported from the harbour of Bordeaux. His decision opened the gates to London. The claret flowed north, but it was still of ordinary, everyday quality.

We move forward to the 1660s and give the stage for Arnaud de Pontac. Head of the Parliament of Bordeaux and a man determined to take the family wine business to new heights. His plan involved ingredients well known to many modern brand builders. 

Strategy for a luxury brand
Arnaud started to differentiate his product from the competitors’ by raising the quality. “Ho Bryan” was a dark coloured wine with a power that outperformed the previously known standard. There were no lack of resources to put into the production, so the quality was presumably achieved by selecting the best grapes and perfecting the winemaking methods. 

Additionally, Arnaud took a completely new approach in wine business, when he as the first producer put a trade mark on his wine. It was carefully chosen to show the origin of the wine. The name was that of his family estate south of the town of Bordeaux. 

The strategy was to create high demand in England, so marketing was needed. Arnaud selected the channel carefully and put it in total control of the family. In 1666 he opened an exclusive inn, the first real restaurant in London. At “Pontack’s Head” the food and wine were exquisite. So was the price tag. “Ho Bryan” was sold at a price more than three times of an ordinary wine. Arnaud positioned his wine as top-of-the-line, aiming for the market of affluent citizens. 

The success came quickly. A luxury brand was born. London cried for Arnaud’s prime brand “Ho Bryan”, as well as the “Pontac” produced at his other estates. The demand drove prices to ever higher levels. 

The wine, yes, it is the Haut-Brion. One of the five premier crus of Bordeaux. Still on top after hundreds of years. And an amazing history of the creation of a great brand.

Fun and easy
The story triggers me to think of a more recent example of successful brand building in our contemporary global world of wine. We move to the other side of the range. From luxury to wines positioned to attract a larger group of people. A group even larger than the traditional wine consumers. The Australian, family owned, Casella Wines has really succeeded in their aim to provide "a fun and easy to drink wine of great value to everyone". 

The [yellow tail] brand has since the start in 2001 become a huge success. Available in more than 50 countries and the top selling wine in the US. More than ten million cases are produced every year. And, can you imagine, as much as ten per cent of the Australian grape harvest goes to the production of [yellow tail] wines! 

Passion for wine
Two different eras. Two different approaches. But still basically the same; an ocean of growth and business success created by a clear branding strategy. 

Brand building and market success in the wine business. What is the key driving force? A passion for wine or a passion for business? Hopefully both. What do you think?

March 10, 2012

The orange encounter

“What is this?” I asked, totally confused. It was a white wine. The colour was like amber, but most surprising, there were loads of tannins. I had never tasted anything like it before.

Jennifer had dropped by. Accompanied by this mysterious bottle. But she refused to show it to me.  She insisted, “you must make a guess.”

It was something totally new. And not just something interesting. I liked the wine. The nice amber colour, almost a hint of salmon pink, not quite clear. The nose, a tone of medicine and so much smoke. It could have been a tough single-malt. The dry, concentrated palate. Medium-bodied, good acidity, and all those tannins together with a touch of oxidisation, just as from a forgotten, half-eaten apple or a sherry. Good length with sweet smokiness.

There was no guess and Jennifer dropped the answer. “I thought you’d like to try and not just read about it. You talk about history. This wine is history.” 

It was from Georgia. Made traditionally in qvevri. Qvevri, a large amphora, 2000-4000 litres, made of clay and lined with beeswax. Then buried in the soil, giving a natural temperature control. A method known for 8000 years.

The grape was Mtsvane, organically grown and then fermented with natural yeast. The grape skins and some fine stems included in the fermentation and then retained in the qvevri during the storage period of some months. No filtration.

So this was the explanation to the tannins. And to the colour. Amber I say, but some see it as orange. Hence the term orange wines. 

My first orange encounter was the Pheasant’s Tears Mtsvane 2009. I hope for many more encounters along this path. A new dimension to be explored.

March 03, 2012

A moment of eternity

Ten thousand years! Of course, that is a long, long time. So what? Well, the reason it fascinates me is the link to the history of the shimmering liquid in my glass.

Yes, it is thought that wine first was made 10.000 years ago. In a region that is now Georgia and Armenia. Then of wild grapes. The cultivation was a later practice, believed to have started some 3.000 years later.

We know for certain that wine was elaborately made, by the hands of men or women with use of winemaking equipment, for more than 6.000 years ago. The location was Armenia, near the southern border with Iran.  In 2007 archaeologists found ancient grape seeds in a cave complex in the Little Caucasus Mountains. The discovery encouraged them to begin an excavation, with an amazing result. In 2010, the oldest winery of the world was found.

The cave holds a complete wine making facility, dated back to 4100 BCE, with a wine press, a clay vat used for fermentation and storage pots. There were even remains of pressed grapes and grape must made of vitis vinifera.

In Georgia, wine is still made very traditionally, using qvevri. A clay vessel buried under the ground, where the grapes are fermented up to six months, taking advantage of the natural coolness provided by the surrounding earth.

So different compared to the modern shining stainless steel wineries. And yet the same. The grapes are crushed, fermented, pressed and there it is - the wine. Young, but still possible to drink at once.

It is a breath-taking perspective, feeling the history and development during thousands of years. An eternity of time. Thinking of the people dedicated to wine then and now. I am grateful to them all. Thanks for this wonderful glass of wine!