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April 2013

Natural Wine is the next big thing

I've been working with wine since I was 18 and I've seen plenty of trends and fads develop in the wine industry.  I've never been much for predictions, but I really believe that consumer awareness of natural wine is about to hit a critical mass and take off.  People may not have a really deep understanding of what the term and all it's variations mean, but they are starting to care and want to know more.

My career in the wine industry started when I was 18 and with my driving passion for terroir I seem to often find myself on the industry's leading edge. Years ago I was pouring dry rose down peoples throats when everyone still thought pink wine was sweet. I watched as my friend Tabitha (Crush Wines) rode the wave of Austrian Gruner Veltliner.  While rose and Gruner are now accepted main stream wines I've seen plenty of other bubbles inflate and then burst.  Some of the best examples of wine fads would be chocolate wine, Sideways Pinot Noir, and Central Coast Rhones (sadly some of my favorite wines). 

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Where super inexpensive mass produced wine comes from. 

Natural wine is a recently popularized term that means wines made with little or no chemical and technical intervention.  Over the past 50 years all kinds of new chemical treatments and additives were created to make mass produced wine taste better.  Some of the practices can be useful, but they're also easy to abuse.  Natural wine is made with:

  • organic or biodynamic agriculture
  • no irrigation
  • no commercial added yeast
  • hand picked grapes
  • no addition of sugar or acidity or tannin or color or flavor agents
  • no manipulation such as watering the wine down or removing water through reverse osmosis
  • very little or no addition of sulfur at the end    

There's plenty of human intervention in natural wine making, but it's very primitive manual intervention such as pruning the vines extensively to allow more light to reach the grapes or hand sorting the harvested grapes to ensure only the best go into the wine.  The goal is to make a more enjoyable, more alive, and more honest wine by stripping away all the modern tricks that have been developed over the years.  Making wine in this hard core labor intensive way isn't easy but it's possible and the resulting wine can be amazing!

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Benoit at Terres Blanches is a very small scale natural wine maker

I'm putting my money (literally) on natural wine being the next Gruner Veltliner for a variety of reasons.  Let me list some:

  • People care a lot about where their food comes from and how it is grown.  I always thought it was odd that people wouldn't apply the same concern and standards to what they drank.  More and more people seem to finally feel the same way, or maybe I've just personally talked to enough of Portland's about it; either way consumers are more aware than they used to be.  
  • Retailers and restaurants are starting to get on board and promote natural wines.  The Rosemont Markets and Joe Appel have made a big push to bring in and feature more of these wines.  Whole Foods is working on rolling out a slightly different organization in it's wine area to feature more natural wines that aren't certified organic. Restaurant Bresca and the Farmer's Table focus their wine lists on natural wines. 
  • Natural wines seem to matter enough that large established wine publications such as Italy's Gambero Rosso are criticizing them as not classic or proper enough and creating even more attention in the process.
  • Just the adoption of the term "natural wine" is a big deal.  The term natural wine is several years old.  People didn't just start making wine without chemical additives and machines a few years ago; this is how wine always used to be made!  The practices of natural wine making kept being used by some wine makers because they just thought that was a better way to make wine.  The term "natural wine" has been adopted because now it's an idea every body is talking about and thinking of in a different way.
  • Other distributors are starting to get talk about natural wines too.  Devenish may be on the leading edge of this, but other wholesalers are starting to talk about how natural their wines are.  That's a big validation for me.
I've had the most success in the wine industry by following my gut and focusing on wines that I love and find exciting.  I've found a lot of natural wines that I love and are compelling, so Devenish is going for it!

Food and Wine Pairing; it's not always what you expect

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Sometimes you've gotta just do what you want to and ignore convention.  I got my hands on a killer 28 day dry aged local grass fed ribeye steak from Roseomone (best butcher in Portland according to the Phoenix) today.  I also had a bottle of a new 2012 Provencal Rose that I was excited to try.  Dry aged steak and dry rose seem like a total mismatch of a food and wine pairing but it was not the case.

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The steak wasn't ovelry gamey or meaty and actually had some really cool delicate meaty flavors that were great with the rose's bright cranberry and strawberry flavors.  The Houchart had more fruit than the average rose and had a rich meaty finish.  They ended up beinging a perfect match! 

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Maybe they only worked because both were fantastic.  The Houchart has lot's of strawberry aroma, but on the palate it's substantial with more vibrant strawberry and pink grapefruit followed by a meaty briney finish.  The Houchart is deliciously powerful and elegant at the same time!  It's available at all the Rosemonts and I hear they just pulled another cut of rib eyes out of their curing room on Brighton Ave....


Spring Change in Portland Food Scene

I'm convinced that there's about to be a serious change in the Portland food scene.  My frustrated longing for spring could be influencing me, but it really feels like things are just about to shift, and shift with a sudden Bang, not a slow evolution.

Here're my predictions:

1. Natural Wine will be the next big thing in wine.  Call it the next Austria or next rose.

2. Portland restaurants will noticeably improve their wine programs and drastically raise their game in order to compete.

I've been thinking about the Maine wine culture and talking to a lot of people over the past months.  A lot is going to change this spring and here's why:

First though I'm going to have dinner.  I'll explain my two predictions in detail in two following dedicated posts.


General Wine Geekery 13: Chardon Sauvignon Blanc

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     Monday was Devenish's 10th annual Portland spring show.  Trade shows are a wine industry rite of spring where we open lots of wines in one place so that our customers can taste and build their summer wine lists.  There were restauranteurs and wine buyers from all over that attended and I heard lots of comments on how unusually exciting a group of wines it was.  That exciting diversity is a product of Devenish's focus on wines that honestly taste like where they come from: In Vino Veritas!

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     One of my favorite examples of wine tasting like where it comes from is the Chardon Sauvignon Blanc from France's Loire valley.  The Loire valley is arguably the traditional home of Sauv Blanc and few places in the Loire are as associated with the grape as the town of Sancerre.  Unfortunately Sancerre is so famous now that the prices have more than doubled over my wine career.  What's a wine geek to do if they love racy minerally Loire Sauv Blanc but can't pay $30 a bottle? 

     That's where the Chardon comes in.  Sophie and Thierry Chardon bought a vineyard up river from Sancerre about 10 years ago and even though they're outside Sancerre the terroir (you should know what that means by now) is extremely similar.  Just like Sancerre the climate is cooler and the soil is clay with limestone and flint in it.  The one way the Chardon Sauv Blanc isn't like Sancerre is that it costs under $15.  I met the Chardons last spring and was impressed both by their wine and their friendliness.  They came from wine making backgrounds, but the real reason they started the winery was because they wanted to raise their kids on a winery the same way they grew up.   The Chardon Sauv Blanc has a bright vibrant aroma with wild flowers, ripe citrus fruit, and something that makes me think of wet stone.  It tastes bright and vibrant too with fresh acidity and a stoney edge, but it's unusually ripe and has a lush feeling that balances out the acidity and stone.  Truth be told I like the Chardon more than many Sancerres, particularly for the price.  It's a delicious organic wine that's a classic expression of the cold flinty soil that makes it. 


Infiniti

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What: bar, distillery, brewery, restaurant

Where: Commercial St across from $3 Dewey's

Why: Infiniti is a really ambitious project, the craftsmanship is crazy, and I am kind of in awe of the scope of it.

When I first started hearing about Infiniti and got my self inside months back to look around my first question was "why isn't everyone talking about this?"  I was agog at the walk in cooler the size of an apartment, beautiful high tech German still, and incredible workmanship throughout the bar.  The fact that the owners of Novare Res were opening a brewery/distillery/restaurant on the water in the old port was a pretty big deal to me, but people didn't seem to know about it. 

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Those light fixtures are recycled portholes!

Now Infiniti's open and I've been there, I think, 5 times.  I've had every app on the menu, tried all the beers that they've made so far, and had plenty of opportunities to admire all the wood work.  Infiniti is a complicated project with a lot of different goals and moving pieces so this isn't like just writing about a normal restaurant.  Infiniti is a really gutsy undertaking that raises the bar for Portland both in the scope of their vision and in terms of investment in the space.  I can't help wanting them to suceed just based on what a big challenge they've taken on.  Owners Julie and Eric Michaud must be aiming for national attention with the brewery and distillery pieces and the bar seems built to be compared to the best San Francisco, NY, and Seattle have to offer. 

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The first night I went was their second official night open; it was a Tuesday night a few weeks ago during a snow storm.  Certainly not a fair time to judge a restaurant, but the food was good.  The Belgian frites seemed to be pretty normal fries but the housemade soft pretzel with housemade mustard was great. The mustard was really intense, but I warmed up to it as I got used to it. Housemade is a theme; it gets applied to everything from beer to spirits (eventually), and sauces.  I was also pretty happy with a scallop ceviche that I had.  The ceviche was nicely put together and not overly acidic.  In subsequent visits I think the cod loin became my favorite app.  The broth it is served in is rich and creamy and the piece of cod was substantial; it was one of the more filling meal like apps. 

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The food has improved quickly as the kinks were worked out over the first week and I've been impressed over all.  Infiniti's menu isn't mind blowing, but they just opened and it is well thought through for what they're doing.  I've tried all the beers they've made and they've all been clean tasting and well balanced; none has seemed overly hopped or unbalanced I'm really sensitive to that kind of thing.  The beer is surprisingly well made for such a new operation.

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The harder you look at the interior the more impressive it gets.  All the wood surfaces from stool tops to tables to bar top came from a single black walnut tree that fell down in PA.  The bar and all the railings are faced with barrel staves from used barrels and the lights are all made from re bent and welded barrel hoops.  I highly recommend getting a cocktail and watching their bar staff melt an ice block into a giant ice ball in order to chill the drink with as little water melting into it as possible.  It's pretty intense.

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Melting an ice ball

Infiniti raises the bar and you should check it out.  Check it out before this summer when the patio opens and it will get really crazy.  Plus they're open for lunch all afternoon so you have the opportunity to get in there while it's quite and appreciate the space.  My expiriences so far have been good, but it almost feels like a tech startup to me.  Julie, Eric, and crew have built themselves some big shoes and are now going to have to figure out how to fill them, but so far it's promising and I'm expecting impressive things.


General Wine Geekery 11: In Vino Veritas!

   In Vino Veritas translates as "in wine is truth".  This is often interpreted as "getting people drunk will make them tell the truth".  I read it differently.  To me the phrase means that wine is an honest product of the sun, soil, and people that made it.  This is one of my primary beliefs about wine: that it will truthfully reflect the place and people that made it.  Wine can lie, it is made by people after all, but that's a topic for a different article.
     Over the next few weeks I'll be expanding on this idea by covering some of the famous wine producing regions in the world.  I'll write about wines that have some of that truth: that concentrated soul of a particular place in them.  What a rough job.  First up is Cotes du Rhone!
     Cotes du Rhone in the south of France has rolling sun baked hills coming down to the Rhone river.  The hills are limestone and shale while down by the river sand and gravel are more common.  Importantly, the dry rocky soil is scoured by the relentless Mistral wind that sucks away what little moisture there is.  The wines from the hills have muscularly powerful rustic characters concentrated by the sun and lack of moisture.  No shrinking daisies or pale Pinot Grigios these!  These are wines to drink when you want to drink wine; wine that grabs your attention!

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     As a teaching aid I opened the 2011 L'Harmas Cotes du Rhone: an old vine Grenache Syrah blend made by a couple working on a 6 acre vineyard.  Without opening it I already knew I was in for a bruiser as the label read 14% alcohol.  The aroma was rich with ripe blackberry, cooked cherry, and aromatic spice.  Generous, outgoing, summer, open, spicy, wide; these are all words that went through my head as I drank the L'Harmas.  It's a very honest wine that Patrick and Nathalie (the wine makers) make to express their family's land and the place that they grew up.  In Vino Veritas!


General Wine Geekery: Describing Wine

       Sometimes inmy carryings on about terroir and wine tasting like where it comes from, I forget that some people aren't as comfortable describing wine as I am. Not everyone studied wine in Italy as a kid and runs a fantastic wine company like Devenish.   I remember my first wine teacher going around the room putting each student on the spot and asking "what spices do you smell?"  or "what animal aromas do you smell?" until everyone in class was comfortable blurting out whatever smell or taste association popped into their head.  With this article I'm going to try to cover some basics of describing wine.

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    Number one is that if a wine smells or tastes a certain way to you go with it, there's no right or wrong with wine, except for continuing to drink a wine you don't like.  Don't just ask yourself whether you like a wine, ask why you like it.  Then start running through flavors like fruit, flowers, spices, and food asking whether any of them match what you taste in the wine.  Your flavor comparisons won't always be a perfect match, but that's ok, you should just be looking for things that the wine reminds you of to see if anything fits.

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     Along with the wine's obvious flavors you should also think about some other taste characteristics.  Is the wine full bodied, medium bodied, or light?  Full bodied wines taste dense, are intense, and linger in your mouth; light wines are easier going and don't dominate
your mouth as much.  Sweet?  Sweet means that the wine has sugar that wasn't changed into alcohol.  Dry means the absence of sweetness: if a wine isn't sweet at all then it is dry.  Tannic is sometimes mistakenly used to mean dry.  Tannin is a chemical compound that leaves your mouth feeling sticky and dried out when you swallow. Don't forget acid!  You'll taste acid as a citrusy freshness as you sip the wine.
     It's a lot to take in. If you want to get better at describing wine so that wine geeks like me can recommend wines to you, just keep asking yourself why you like a wine as you're drinking it.  If you don't feel comfortable talking about a wine's hints of barnyard, a great way to give someone else an idea of what kind of wine you're looking for is to compare it to other similar wines that you've had. You can tell someone in a wine store that you're looking for a wine that is like an X but fuller bodied or drier. Bottom line: have fun with it!


Fiorano Sangiovese 2011

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This is kind of a revist of the Fiorano Sangiovese.  I've written about it before in a cheat sheet of Thanksgiving wines, but I opened another bottle today to taste some customers and once again it wowed me! Click here for the previous post: Fiorano

Where it comes from:

Fiorano is made by a couple that retired from Milan to the Marche.  They have a small farm near the Adriatic that they farm organically.  Fiorano is made from a specific 2 acre vineyard of Sangiovese that's grown on primarily sandy soil. 

Why this is awesome:

This is 100% Sangiovese, but it tastes nothing like all the Chiantis and other Sangioveses from Tuscany.  The Fiorano Sangiovese is way juicier, more fun and vibrant!  It smells like freshly crushed ripe raspberries and cherries and roses!  The Fiorano has a rich easy going medium bodied character with ripe cherry fruit, bright energetic acidity, and smooth tannin.  It's delicious!

$16.99 at the Rosemonts, Aurora, and Browne Trading