Sustainable, Organic, and Biodynamic Wine

These days, wine drinkers are increasingly seeing the words sustainable, organic, and biodynamic on wine bottles and in wine producers promotional materials.  Stewardship of the land and the lack of chemicals sound appealing, and who doesn’t like something that is dynamic?  But what, really, do these terms mean?  In fact, they are not just amorphous “feel good” terms, but do have specific definitions as well as institutional certifications to go along with them.

Note: These criteria and certifications only specifically apply to wines made in the United States.  Other nations may or may not have similar programs.

Sustainable

When a wine is termed sustainable, it means the winery engages in eco-friendly practices such as using drip irrigation or dry farming; limiting or eliminating chemical waste and the use of pesticides; replanting crops or trees to replace those harvested for production; reducing the winery’s carbon footprint; using cover crops between vineyard rows  to improve soil health; prevent erosion, control vine vigor, discourage weeds, and promote the sustainable health of the vineyard; deploying beneficial insects to control pests whenever possible; recycling packaging; taking part in energy efficiency initiatives; wildlife conservation; and other ‘green’ initiatives. Sustainability basically implies that the business is leaving as little negative impact on the land as possible.

CERTIFICATIONS

Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW) is a statewide certification program that provides third-party verification of a winery’s commitment to continuous improvement in the adoption and implementation of sustainable winegrowing practices.

Sustainability in Practice (SIP) Certified helps farmers and winemakers demonstrate their dedication to preserving and protecting natural and human resources.

Global Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) Certification is an internationally recognized system that sets standards to ensure safe and sustainable agriculture and ensure product safety, environmental responsibility and the health, safety, and welfare of workers.

The Napa Green organization supervises two programs.  Land is an umbrella program that recognizes growers with validated environmental compliance and verified farm plans as meeting standards for watershed stewardship. Winery is one of only four sustainable winegrowing programs nationwide, offering the opportunity for comprehensive soil-to-bottle certification in both the vineyard and winery.

The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance is a certification program that provides verification that a winery or vineyard implements sustainable practices and continuous improvement.

Organic

Organic wines are about the protection of natural resources, to promote biodiversity, and limit the use of synthetic products, especially in the vineyards.  Organic wines are made with organic grapes, of course.  That starts with the use of no synthetic pesticides in the vineyard.  Once the vinification process begins, substances like commercial yeast must also be certified as organic. Further, for the wine itself to be organic, there can be no sulfites added during production, although some sulfites do occur naturally in all wines.  Sulfites are chemicals used as preservatives to slow browning and discoloration in foods and beverages, including wine, during preparation, storage, and distribution. Sulfites have been used in wine making for centuries, but some people are sensitive to them.  If you’re not asthmatic, sulfite sensitivity would be very unusual. If you do have asthma, your chances of being sensitive to sulfites is in the range of between 1 in 40, and 1 in 100.   (I myself am asthmatic, and have no sulfite sensitivity.)

Certification

Certification is an arduous, three-year process during which producers have to transition vineyards by discontinuing any use of prohibited substances.  To be “Certified Organic,” wines must meet the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Organic Program’s criteria in both farming and production, as well as requirements set by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

Biodynamic

Biodynamic is the most rigorous of these three protocols.   Although based on both sustainable and organic, it goes much further.  It is a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, gardening, food, and nutrition. Biodynamic wine is made with a set of farming practices that views the vineyard as a complete organism. The idea is to create a self-sustaining system with natural plants, materials, soils, and composts. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are forbidden.  Instead, a variety of animals and insects will typically live in the vineyard to fertilize it and control pests. Biodynamic farming also has an association with ancient agricultural concepts such as following lunar growing cycles and astrological charts, connecting the earth, the vines, and the solar system.  (This last part gets a little squishy, imho.)

And more than just  concept, Biodynamic is a registered trademark of Demeter Association, Inc., the United States’ branch of Demeter International, a not-for-profit incorporated in 1985 with the mission to enable people to farm successfully in accordance with Biodynamic® practices and principles. Demeter’s vision is “to heal the planet through agriculture.”

Certification

The Demeter Biodynamic Farm Standard applies to the certification of farms and ranches for the purpose of allowing them and their resulting agricultural products to carry the Demeter certification marks Biodynamic®, Demeter® and Demeter Certified Biodynamic®.  The Demeter Biodynamic Farm  Standard meets the minimum requirements set by Demeter International.  These base standards form a common legal foundation and agricultural framework for Biodynamic practice worldwide.

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Brutocao Cabernet Sauvignon Vertical

Here at Winervana, I use this disclaimer, “Although you will see vintage dates throughout Winervana, I don’t put too much importance on them. Major producers these days strive for a consistent style, year after year, and largely succeed. For instance, when shopping for a particular wine, if you have a choice between a current release and one that’s a few years old, there will certainly be differences in price and the character of the wine. But upon release, those two examples of the same wine are likely to be quite similar.”

To test that position, I acquired a “vertical” of three Brutocao Cabernet Sauvignons.  A vertical tasting is simply the same wine from different vintages.  These three selections were indeed quite similar.  Sourced from Brutocoa’s estate vineyards in Mendocino county, they all were aged 18 months in oak, 50% French and 50% American, and all have an ABV of 14.5% and .69% acidity.

These wines are a deep garnet in the glass.  Surprising for Cabernet Sauvignon, they are semi-transparent rather than opaque.  They start, predictably, with aromas of dark fruit, particularly blackberry, with hints of cedar.  Those dark fruits continue on the palate, but these wines are restrained instead of fruit-forward, perhaps to be expected from a producer with a strong Italian heritage.  They have a medium-long finish that features black-tea tannins.

There were subtle differences, however.  Nothing that you would notice tasting the wines weeks or even days apart, but they were there.  The 2015 had the highest levels of perceived acidity (all three were bottled at .69%) and tannins.  Very unforeseen, because the common wisdom is that as a wine ages in the bottle both acidity and tannins become softer, rounder, and more balanced.  Go figure.  The 2016 was the most integrated of these selections, with well-balanced acidity and tannins, both less demanding of attention than in the 2015.  Finally, the 2017 fell between the other two, with slightly more acidity but softer tannins than the 2016.

You can read more about Brutocao here: https://winervana.com/brutocao-cellars/

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Riedel Brandy Glasses

Riedel of Austria, famous for its varietal-specific stemware, makes both of these glasses, and both are intended for use with brandy and its variants Cognac, and Armagnac.  How is this possible? They could hardly be more different.

L: Riedel Brandy Snifter  /  R: Riedel Cognac Hennessey Glass

The glass on the left is the iconic brandy snifter, as instantly recognizable as a martini glass.  Its large balloon bowl is intended to display as much of a brandy’s aroma as possible.  And the wide bottom is intended for cradling in the palm of your hand, warming the brandy to further enhance the nose.

The glass on the right, although named by Riedel specifically for Hennessey Cognac, is suited for any brandy, Cognac, or Armagnac, and is the one preferred by connoisseurs and professionals.  The bowl still allows for appreciating the aroma, without accelerating the evaporation like a snifter can, and the tulip shape concentrates it.  A similarly-sized and -shaped wine glass can work nearly as well.

While I enjoy stemware like this, as always my advice is to use whatever you like.  As far as I’m concerned, if you don’t have to slurp your beverage directly off the counter you’re good to go.

Find out more about brandy by listening to the Winervana Podcast Episode 10 – Brandy, Cognac, and Armagnac.

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My Riedel Stemware

Established in Bohemia in 1756, Riedel (REE-dəl) Crystal is a glassware manufacturer based in Kufstein, Austria.  Riedel was an early pioneer and proponent of glassware designed to enhance different varietals of wines.  In the early 1990s, wine writer Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate became a major fan and proselytizer.  The glasses below are the ones I own and discuss in my podcast on stemware (these are from Riedel’s Vinum line).   If you are interested in Riedel but think this is overkill, I suggest you go with the Bordeaux and Chardonnay.  Those two glasses should accommodate about 85% of your needs.

Read about Riedel’s in-depth explanation of why different glasses matter here.

Although, like Parker and many others, I am a fan of Riedel, not everyone agrees.  In 2004, Gourmet magazine reported that “Studies at major research centers in Europe and the U.S. suggest that Riedel’s claims are, scientifically, nonsense.” The article cites further evidence from Yale researcher Linda Bartoshuk, saying that the “tongue map,” claimed by Riedel as an important part of their research, does not exist. According to Bartoshuk, “Your brain doesn’t care where taste is coming from in your mouth … and researchers have known this for thirty years.”  I leave it to you to decide for yourself.

Unusual and Exotic Wines

 

Looking for something completely different?  Here are some grape varieties and wines from around the world to consider to really shake up your drinking experience.

Argentina

Charbono is a relatively obscure French variety, but today it is much more widely grown in Argentina, as well as Napa Valley. It is often mistaken for the more common Dolcetto grape, though genetic testing has proven that they are not related. This grape produces a dark wine that is high in both tannins and acidity.

Austria

Austria offers Gruner Veltliner, its most widely-planted varietal. Gruner’s naturally high acidity makes it one of the world’s best food wines, especially with spicy cuisine. It can be light and easy, or with lower yields and higher ripeness, it can burst with aromas of white flower and flavors of grapefruit, herbs, mineral, and fresh-ground white pepper. .

The Austrian red varietal Blaufränkisch has characteristics of both Pinot Noir and Syrah. (And it is sometimes incorrectly thought to be the same variety as Gamay.) The wines it produces are lighter-styled reds, usually with plenty of acidity. It is grown in Germany, as well, where it is usually called Lemberger.

France

Gewürztraminer is thought to have originated in Italy’s Alto Adige region, but is now mostly famously grown in Alsace, located between France and Germany. It is planted throughout other nations in Europe, as well as California, Oregon, Washington, and New Zealand. These highly fragrant and crisp wines have flavors of spices such as clove, nutmeg, and lychee. You should drink a Gewürztraminer when young; they won’t last past five years.

Picpoul is normally grown in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France, but is also sometimes grown in Spain. It is notable for its strikingly high acidity. One reason this grape isn’t as well known as others is because it is much more likely to develop a certain kind of fungus, making it more difficult to grow. There are three varieties of Picpoul: Picpoul Noir, Picpoul Gris, and the most well-known variety, Picpoul Blanc. Piquepoul Blanc is used both for blending and for varietal wines. Red wines produced from Picpoul Noir are high in alcohol, are richly scented, but have a very pale color, which has made the variety more popular as a blending ingredient than as a producer of varietal wines.

Valdiguié also hails from the Languedoc-Roussillon region. In the 1980s, this grape experienced a boom in Napa Valley, but poor cultivation and problems with disease quickly ended that. However, recently some intrepid wine makers in the United States have been trying to save Valdiguié’s tarnished reputation. When properly cultivated and prepared, Valdiguié is a unique wine, one with distinct fruity notes and a sweet-and-sour flavor profile, with a notably low alcohol conent.

Vouvray is the largest white wine appellation of the Anjou-Saumur-Touraine region of the Loire Valley, known for its siliceous-clay and limestone-clay soils and cool climate. The wine is made from the Chenin Blanc grape, grown in the region since the fourth century. It is capable of both dry wines and elegant sparklers. In years when botrytis cinerea, the mold responsible for sweet whites, hits, harvest is delayed in order to pick the grapes at their peak ripeness to produce a rich dessert wine.

Georgia

Grown in Georgia (the country, not the state) the white varietal Rkatsiteli can drink like a Pinot Grigio. It’s also popping up in wines from New York’s Finger Lakes region, having been adopted and planted by the Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery there.

Mtsvane is like Sauvignon Blanc, but without the grassy notes that I find to be off-putting.

Kisi has been described as something between Chenin Blanc and Viognier on steroids.

Finally, Georgia’s Tavkveri is a workhorse, and the best examples are often vinified as light red wines (ala Beaujolais), with similar tangy, red-fruited, bright, and zesty characteristics.

Greece

Assyrtiko hails from the island of Santorini, where the volcanic soil produces juicy wines with good body and high acidity, great with South Asian food.

Malagousia is a rare variety grown mainly in Macedonia, with flavors of white peaches spritzed with jasmine.

Moschofilero, a pink/gray-skinned grape grown in central Peloponnese, has vibrant citrus acidity, attractive aromatics such as exotic spice and violet, and is often made as a Rosé.

Kourtaki Retsina of Attiki, the wine I like to call “The Greek Wine Even Greeks Won’t Drink.” The traditional grape for Retsina is Savatiano with Assyrtiko and Rhoditis sometimes blended in. Retsina is made like other white wines, but with the addition of small pieces of Aleppo pine resin being added during fermentation. It is this pine resin that gives Retsina its name, as well as its unique flavor profile. Read more about it here.

From Macedonia comes Xinomavro, Greece’s premier red grape, which typically shows characteristics of red fruit, sun-dried tomatoes, kalamata olives, and spices.

Hungary

Egri Bikaver (”Bull’s Blood of Eger”), is a vintage-dated red wine that is made mainly from the Kadarka grape. I’ve been drinking it for decades, and it is relatively widely available, but aside from Hungarians it seems as almost no one knows about it.

Italy

Sicily’s white Carricante is likened to cool-climate Chardonnays, and the red Nerello Mascalese, with its earthy, herbaceous, yet muscular notes echoes some of the wines of Burgundy.

Verdicchio is a white wine grape grown mainly in the Marches region. The wines made from it have a subtle greenish hue, are generally crisp and dry, and have a light but elegant aroma and flavors of minerals and lemon. Verdicchio traditionally comes in a green, two-handled urn-shaped bottle called an amphora.

Portugal

Grapes such as Souzao and Touriga Nacional, traditionally used to make Port, can make a classic table wine, too, that tends to be juicy and unpretentious. They are drink-me-now wines, particularly those from Douro, which stretches across north-central Spain and Portugal.

Vinho Verde comes from Portugal’s largest designated growing region. The wines made from it are slightly effervescent, can be red or white, are fresh and fruity and are meant to be drunk while still young.

South Africa

South Africa is famous for its Pinotage, but it’s an enthusiasm I don’t share. It was cultivated there in 1925 as a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut. It typically produces deep red wines with flavors of smoke, bramble, and earth, sometimes with notes of bananas and tropical fruit.

Orange Wine

Emerging recently is a new category called orange wine. While Rosé is made from red grapes with a little grape skin contact to impart a small amount of color, orange wine is made from white grapes with extended skin contact creating anywhere from a peach to orange to amber color. So, since orange wine is a “white wine” made in the style of a red, there is at least the potential for plenty of flavor.

Ice Wine

Ice wine is a type of dessert wine produced from grapes that have frozen while still on the vine. The sugars and other dissolved solids do not freeze, but the water does, and this makes for a more concentrated juice, which is then pressed from the still-frozen grapes in unheated wineries. This is then fermented, resulting in a small amount of highly concentrated, very sweet wine with high acidity.

Ice wine production is risky (the frost may not come at all before the grapes rot or are otherwise lost) and requires the availability of a large enough labor force to pick the whole crop within a few hours, at a moment’s notice, on the first morning that is cold enough. This low yield both in the field and in the winery makes them generally expensive. Canada is the largest producer, followed by Germany. There are also ice wine producers in the Niagara region of New York.

Odd-Ball Wines

The Rapazzini Winery of Gilroy, California, “Garlic Capital of the World,” makes four garlic-infused wines, two reds and two whites. British wine expert Oz Clarke once braved one of the garlic white wines, describing it as an “unholy alliance of flavors.” Not a fan, apparently.

Winemaker Ian Hutcheon runs Tremonte Vineyard in Chile, as well as an astronomy center there. He has played off of that theme for a number of his wines. He has installed a “wave room” at his observatory which captures cosmic power from outer space that is then converted into audio. He claims that these sound waves trigger a structural molecular change in the wine stored in bottles and black oak barrels in the room. “The sound is eerie, and tourists state that they feel goose-pimples and even energized as they sip their cosmic wines while huge images of Galileo, Newton, and Einstein observe them from the dark,” said Hutcheon.

In 2012, Hutcheon produced Sacrificio wine, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, and Syrah aged in French oak barrels for 12 months. These were then buried at the summit of Mount Tunca (in Australia, a long way to send the wine) and left to the elements for an entire winter. Tourists wanting to try the Sacrficio wine had to climb the mountain and locate the wine using a map.

Also in 2012, Hutcheon produced a Cabernet Sauvignon wine called Meteorito, which was aged with a chunk of a 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite placed into the barrel. “The meteorite used in the creation of this wine came from the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter,” he explained. “And the idea behind submerging it in wine was to give everybody the opportunity to touch something from space, an extra-terrestrial rock, the very history of the solar system, and feel it via a grand wine.” Ahem.

In western Massachusetts, Vermont, Nova Scotia, and other spots in North America’s “maple belt,” farmers sometimes blend grape wines with maple syrup or ferment straight-up maple sap. The sweet result works well as a dessert wine.

Non-grape Wines

And, there are wines that aren’t made from grapes at all. If something has sugar in it, you can get alcohol out of it, and you can bet that someone has, or will, try that.

If some pumpkin-spiced booze appeals to you, California Fruit Wine Co. adds pumpkin-pie spices to fermented pumpkin juice, creating a semi-sweet, fall-flavored beverage.  Very big with Harry Potter fans, apparently.

Omerto, made in Quebec, Canada, relies on a secret family recipe for a pale-gold wine made from heirloom tomatoes. Winemaker Pascal Miche produces dry and sweet versions of this aperitif wine, comparing them to Sauvignon Blanc and white port. Unfortunately, you’ll have to go to Canada, Belgium, France, or Monaco to get it. The Florida Orange Groves Winery makes a spicier tomato wine, spiked with hot peppers.

Schnebly Redland’s Winery in Florida makes a wine from avocados. They peel and pit the fruit, then blend the flesh with water, sugar, and yeast before fermentation in stainless-steel vats. In addition to both dry and sweet all-avocado wines, they turn out blends made with coconut and guava.

How about wine made from grapefruit juice? Look to Florida once again, where juice from the state’s famous pink grapefruit gets aged for several months after fermentation to mellow its tart edge. I couldn’t find a commercial producer, but there are a number of DIY recipes on the Interwebs.

If you’re a fan of tropical-fruit aromas in your Chardonnay or Riesling, you could plunge into an all-mango wine. Several southern Florida wineries, as well as Island Mana on Kauai, Hawaii, make this sweet tipple.

And finally, North Dakota’s Maple River Winery makes a hard-to-find semi-sweet pink wine. It does not contain any grapes or grape juice, but is made with white and lavender lilac flowers, water, sugar, yeast, and “adjuncts” according to the producer.  Whatever “adjuncts” are.

See, I told you this would be something completely different.

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Summer White Wines, None of Them Chardonnay

Summer is a little more than half over, and the long, hot days are waning away. Which is fine with me, but I’m in the minority, as I am every year. Regardless, there are two months of nice weather left in most of the country, which is plenty of time to get together outside, at six-feet apart, of course, with a few close friends and enjoy some white wine. There are many to choose from, and I’ll get to that next. But first, what you don’t want for summer quaffing is a rich, buttery selection like a highly-oaked Chardonnay. (And I say “highly-oaked,” because for me, I’ve never encountered an “over-oaked” Chard.

That being said, here are eleven ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) grape variety suggestions for summer sippers, with some specific label recommendations as well.

1. Aligoté is the other white grape of Burgundy. The wines made from it are often citrusy and sometimes nutty. Try them while you can, because vineyards are being replanted to the much more popular Chardonnay all the time. One such is the Didier Montchovet Aligoté, which is fermented in enamel-lined tanks, rather than stainless steel. The wine is somewhat vegetal, with plenty of acidity.

2. Although justly famous for its Port dessert wine, Portugal isn’t a one-trick wine country. Its Alvarinho is from the Vinho Verde region. This thick-skinned grape produces wines of creamy richness, with apricots, peaches, and citrus flavors. The Reguengo de Melgaco expression is fresh and stony, with the typical citrus and some more exotic fruit. Once you cross the border into Spain, Alvarinho becomes Albariño. You could try the bright, fresh Salneval with its stone fruit and citrus, the refreshing Condes de Albarei that delivers stone fruit, melon, and actual stones, or the racy Brandal offering citrus, tangerine, and plenty of minerals.

3. Opa! Assyrtico from the Greek island of Santorini has citrus and honeysuckle flavors and a penetrating acidity. The Chatzivariti Eurynome has a nose of white flowers and that typical citrus, joined by minerals and spice on the palate. Or consider the Thalassitis, with its minerality and racy acidity supported by subtle lemon, spices, and herbs.

4. Italy’s Soave is famously made from Garganega. When carefully made, this grape can yield wines that are quite elegant, and exhibit a notable almond character. The I Masieri from Angiolino Maule is light and fresh, with plenty of mineral-laden tangerine, lemon, and grapefruit.

5. Known for its often high alcohol and low acidity, Grenache Blanc is widely planted in Spain and France, but this Acquiesce version comes from Lodi. It has a nose of pear, honey, and wildflowers, followed by flavors of honeysuckle, tropical fruit, and minerals.

6. Gruner Veitliner is a white wine grape grown mainly in Austria, but is also cultivated in parts of eastern Europe. The wines are pale, crisp, light-to-medium bodied, and often come with subtle spice notes. A sparkling example to try is Schlumberger Gruner Veitliner Klassik. This wine is a bright yellow, with hints of green and a nice fizz. If you’d prefer a still wine, there is the bright and crisp Loimer Lois [loyce].

7. Although it originated in Burgundy, Melon de Bourgogne [boor-gwan-yuh] now almost exclusively makes its home in the Loire Valley, where it is also known as Muscadet if it comes from the Pays Mantais subregion. Often aged sur lie (in which the wine has prolonged contact with dead yeast cells and other sediment to increase depth and complexity), these wines can be soft and creamy with hints of citrus. The light-bodied expression from Marc Presnot, La Bohème, is all that, plus flowers, grapefruit, and figs. The bone-dry Henri Poiron Domaine des Quatres Routes has a nose of green apple and pineapple. More green apple pairs with lemon peel on the palate.

8. I like Pinot Grigio (also known as Pinot Gris depending on where it’s grown), but I just can’t get excited about it. Dunno why. Regardless, this grape can range from crisp, light and dry when it’s made in northern Italy, to rich, fat, and honeyed Alsacian versions. Predictably, the Luna Nuda from Alto Adige is bright and fresh, with citrus, apples, and minerals dominant. The widely available Lindeman’s Bin 85 from Down Under has citrus, white stone fruit, and some grassy notes. The high acidity makes it quite refreshing. Left Coast Cellar‘s The Orchards hails from Willamette, and offers up light citrus and a hint of flowers. The medium body has a creamy texture and medium acidity.

9. OK. Riesling. I’m going to be honest about this up-front: although Riesling is, by all accounts, one of the world’s greatest white-wine grapes, and makes classic food-friendly wines in a range of styles from quite dry to very sweet, I’ve never been much of a fan. This baffled me for a long time, but I finally figured it out. I find that most Rieslings exhibit both an aroma and a taste of oil. At their best, it’s like olive oil. At their worst, it’s like motor oil, at least to me. Once you get beyond that, they have zippy acidity, notes of spice and fruit (particularly peaches and apricots), and a flower-scented bouquet. A good German expression to try would be Armand Riesling Kabinett, which has that characteristic spice, fruit, and acid, plus a bit of sweetness. Another is the Schloss Schonborn Marcobrunn, an elegant wine with aromas of apricot, peach, and tangerine, balanced by minerality and hints of spice. Plenty of Riesling comes from California, too. Ser Dry Riesling, produced near Santa Cruz, tastes of mostly tart citrus, particularly lime, with subtle hints of pear and apple. (You can read more about Ser here.) The off-dry and medium-bodied J. Lohr Bay Mist entices with honeysuckle, spice, and a lush mouthfeel, accompanied by tropical fruit and pear. And there is the typically dry Gobelsburger from Austria, featuring white peach, nectarine, apricot, and a bit of pepper. Finally, the Jacob’s Creek Reserve from Australia is easy-drinking, crisp, and packed with juicy citrus.

10. Roussanne hails from France’s Rhône region, and its wines are often delicate and refined.  But these two are from California.  The Edmunds St John from Paso Robles offers an oily texture, tastes of mangoes, baking spices, and honey, all balanced by a vibrant acidity. The always reliable Cline in Sonoma makes a blend of Marsanne and Roussanne that has notes of honey, orange, and pineapple with a  mineral finish.  It is completely unoaked.

11. Probably the best well-known of these varietals to most people, Sauvignon Blanc is widely grown around the world, with France, California, and New Zealand being major producers. Sauvignon Blancs can show plenty of acidity and minerality, so they are crisp and flavorful, and best when young. This all makes them classic summer wines.  They can also have grassy and herbaceous flavors and aromas. These don’t appeal to me, but many others enjoy those sorts of things. Rombauer comes from Napa Valley. This is the same family responsible for The Joy of Cooking. This refreshing wine delivers flavors of grapefruit, lime, and white peach, with just a smidgen of grass. Riley’s Rows is owned by a young vintner in Sonoma who is just 20 years old and is still in college!  Her wine is nearly colorless, and has a delicate nose of papaya and honeydew. It is slightly sweet, with subtle flavors of lemon and grapefruit, and absolutely no grassiness.  From New Zealand I have three possibilities: there is te Pa, with gooseberry and nectarine on the palate, ending in mineral and flint notes. The international powerhouse Kim Crawford is readily available. It offers a tart, refreshing, distinct grapefruit nose and taste. It is completely dry, with a bit of flint on the finish. Whitehaven is a small producer, so it may be harder to find. Their wine is medium bodied, with blackcurrant and gooseberry flavors and a dry, clean finish. And I can suggest the Bird in Hand Sauvignon Blanc from Australia for its flavors of gooseberry and passionfruit and a bit of lemon curd.

Many of these wines share traits of citrus, minerality, and crisp acidity.  If you seek out selections for summer sipping with these same characteristics, you really can’t go wrong.

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Wine in a Can? Yes Please!

From left to right: Lubanzi (photo courtesy of Lubanzi), Underwood (photo by Jules Davis), and Alloy (photo courtesy of Alloy)

We’re all familiar with wine in glass bottles, and even boxes. but cans are gaining ground, particularly with Gen Zers and Millenials.

When it comes to wine packaging, the glass bottle has been the primary choice for centuries. Because of this long history and tradition, consumers associate the bottle size, shape, and color directly with the quality of the product within. By and large, screw-top closures, oddly-shaped bottles, non-glass containers, and boxes were relegated to lower-quality products.

That all began to change about 20 years ago, with a growing acceptance of screw-tops, the ones from Swiss company STELVIN® in particular. It is an aluminum closure system specially designed for wine, featuring a specific bottle neck finish and a range of liners. This was accompanied by the wide introduction of packaging alternatives such as Tetra Paks, wine-on-tap, bag-in-box, individual-serving sized plastic pouches, and aluminum cans.

A short history of canned wine

The story of canned wine, particularly, is much older, however. In the mid-1930s, metal-canning technology was developed, and people have been consuming assorted beverages, such as soda, juice, and beer in cans for over 90 years, of course. As early as 1936, the Acampo Winery began packaging a California Muscatel in steel cans under its Acampa brand. Another early pioneer was Vin-Tin-Age.  (You’ve got to love that forced pun. Or not.) However, these early efforts failed with drinkers, presumably due to the wine’s interaction with the unlined metal of the steel can. In the early ’80s there was another attempt to sell wine in cans, this time made of aluminum. Taylor California Cellars tried to convince airlines to serve their wine in lightweight, single-serve aluminum cans. However, small glass and/or plastic packaging won out instead; the now-ubiquitous 50 ml airplane bottle is familiar to anyone who has flown, or visited a liquor store.

Regardless of specific type, any wine packaging must serve three purposes. First, it must to protect the wine, which can be damaged if exposed to oxygen, bacteria, or other harmful contaminants. Second, it must contain the wine (duh!), allowing it to be transported, stored, and consumed. Finally, it must provide information about what you’re drinking: where the grapes were grown, the alcohol percentage (ABV), the name of the wine, and more. Cans do a excellent job of protecting wine, especially ones that are young, fresh, and fruity, with little to no oak contact, low to moderate tannins, and intended for consumption shortly after purchase.

The growing popularity of canned wine

Canned wine accounts for a tiny fraction of the market, about one percent. Even so, cans are one of the fastest-growing forms of alternative wine packaging. For years, a can was seen mainly as a convenient way to deliver cheap wine, but these days the same change in consumer acceptance that occurred with screw-caps is happening with canned wine, with higher-quality wines being introduced over the last two decades. Wine-in-can sales totaled $6.4 million in 2015, $14.5 million in 2016, and $22.3 million in 2017. In 2018, sales jumped to more than $69 million, totaling the equivalent of 739,000 12-bottle cases in retail outlets tracked by Nielsen. That’s up from just $2 million in 2012, compared with a five-percent increase in boxed wines and a 14.2-percent gain for wine in Tetra Paks during the same period.

A number of factors have contributed to wineries’ enthusiasm for canned wine. Cans offer drinkers convenience and portability, since cans are welcome many places glass bottles are not, such as private lawns and pools. The labeling is often fun, dramatic, and creative, allowing producers to position themselves as modern and forward thinking, which is of particular importance to Gen Zers and Millenials. Gotta stay hip, ya know. More substantially, aluminum is 100% recyclable, resulting in a very small environmental footprint. Due to lighter weight during shipping and handling, reduced breakage, and more-efficient stacking, cans versus glass bottles also yield typical savings to producers of approximately 15 to 20%, with some claiming as high as 40%.

Another detail not to be overlooked is the lining that coats the inside of the can, and prevents the liquid from interacting with the aluminum, which was the bane of the false starts of years ago. The pioneer in this regard is the Baroke Winery of Australia. In 1996 they introduced their patented can-coating system, trademarked as Vinsafe. However, no U.S. producers use the Vinsafe technology, relying instead on coatings developed by domestic can makers, primarily Ball. Note that because wine is acidic (less so than beer, more so than cola), eventually the polymer coating can degrade. Another reason to enjoy canned wine as soon as possible (as if we need one).

Finally, we must not disregard the impact of the Internet. It is full of selfies of consumers with colorful, creative cans. The fun and festive nature of many of the designer cans inspires social media blog entries, hashtags, and pictures of friends enjoying the wine together as well.

Currently, 350 wine-in-a-can products are available from 125 wineries in 13 countries. In Japan, wine in cans is very popular, in part because selections are widely available in vending machines. (This is a convenience that will likely never be seen in the U.S. market, due to our century-old hangover from Prohibition.) Quite a number of canned sakés are also offered there.

Three prominent “wine in a can” pioneers

In the U.S., Francis Ford Coppola (yes, the director of the Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now, as well as many other films) recreated the wine-in-can category in 2002 by producing a wine named after his daughter, Sofia, to serve at her pool-side wedding. He also cans his Diamond brand. Since then, Coppola has been joined by such major producers as E. & J. Gallo with their Barefoot and Dark Horse labels; The Infinite Monkey Theorem of Colorado and Texas; Precept Wine conglomerate’s House brand; Field Recordings / Alloy Wine Works offering California selections; and Union Wine Company of Oregon which sells its products under the Underwood label.

Andrew Jones founded Field Recordings, a single-vineyard project, in Paso Robles, California, in 2007. Jones released his first canned wine, Fiction Red, under the Alloy Wine Works label (Get it? Metal? Alloy?) in 2014. It was intended as a one-off release, but the positive response from buyers prompted him to pursue the format; today, around 40% of the winery’s production is canned. The lineup consists of three core wines: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Everyday Rosé. In addition, they frequently release unorthodox, limited-edition offerings, mainly for the can-wine club members, though they sometimes become permanent additions to the portfolio. “It was about meeting people where they wanted to be,” says Jones. “They wanted top-quality, terroir-driven grapes, treated the same way they would be for the bottle, but in a smaller, endlessly recyclable package that could be consumed anywhere.” Jones sold the company to Vintage Wine Estates in 2019, but is still involved. He reports that his production line is currently 20 times what it was when he launched.

Union Wine Company dove into canning by launching its Underwood label in 2014, relying on 375 ml cans. Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris were the first two varietals offered, but the lineup has since expanded to include still rosé, white and rosé sparkling wines, a white blend, and wine coolers. Today, 55% of the company’s 448,000-case business is in cans, up a remarkable jump from just over 100,000 cases in 2014.

Founder and owner Ryan Harms credits the success of Underwood’s canned products to their affordability and lack of pretension. “With cans, we embrace the artistry of making great wine, minus all the fuss,” Harms says. “And we’ve remained committed to our original mission of bringing craft quality and affordable Oregon wines to people’s tables for everyday occasions.” Harms says the appeal of the Underwood wines is that they have “an implied ‘ready to drink’ quality, which allows them to lend themselves to the can better than other styles might.”

A final note, and a few recommendations.

Most canned wines are either 375 ml (a half “bottle” of wine) or 250 ml (the size of a can of Red Bull). While the 375s can be sold individually, the federal government prohibits individual sales of the 250 ml cans, requiring that they be sold in four-packs. I prefer the 375 ml size when I can get it. Some wines come in 187 ml or 500 ml cans, but these are less common. And, an individual winery won’t offer a variety of can sizes; they pick one and stick with it.

I can recommend just about all of the Underwoods, especially The Bubbles, Dark Horse Rosé, Butter Chardonnay (even though its oaked profile is atypical of canned wine), Creamery Chardonnay, and Cupcake Chardonnay.

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