Saturday, January 30, 2016

Egyptian Travels and Wine Tasting

I just got back from 12 spectacular days in Egypt, and I cannot say enough good things about the trip. It was a cruse down the Nile, and now I'm totally sold on river cruising. If you need any recommendations for an Egypt visit, post your questions in the comments!

Ahem...back to wine... Of course I researched wine in Egypt before I went. Egypt has thousands of years of winemaking history, going back to the earliest ancient times. Today, Egypt is a primarily Islamic country, which means many Egyptians drink no alcohol. However, Egypt does have a small wine industry, and I tasted and brought back some samples.

The History of Wine in Egypt

Images from the tomb wall of Kha’emwese in Thebes, c. 1450 BC,
showing winemaking in ancient Egypt.

The knowledge of winemaking came to Egypt from Mesopotamia around 3500 BC – more than 5000 years ago. As early as the Old Kingdom period (2650 - 2152 BC), winemaking scenes were painted and carved on tomb walls. The inscriptions tell us that wine was produced in the northern part of Egypt, the Nile delta, and five different types of wine are mentioned as being desirable to take into the afterlife. A few New Kingdom (1500 - 1000 BC) temples also show grapes and wine as offerings to the gods.

Grapes and wine as offerings to the gods in the Temple of Horus at Edfu.

The average ancient Egyptian drank more beer than wine, which was more of an upper-class beverage. However, wine was important as a drink for pleasure and one of the only medicines available. If used as a medicine, wine was often mixed with herbs, spices, or plant extracts.

Most wine in ancient Egypt was probably red, but newer evidence suggests white wine may have been made as well. Because wine in ancient Egypt was stored in clay jars called amphorae, we can study the wine they drank by analyzing the residue of wine remaining in the jars. This may be a tiny amount which has been absorbed into the porous clay.

When Christianity came to Egypt (around 33 AD or soon afterwards), monasteries were founded and produced wine for communion. Later, the spread of Islam to Egypt (in the 600s AD) greatly reduced the amount of wine produced, since Islam prohibits drinking alcohol. But not all Muslims follow that provision, and some amount of alcohol has always been produced in Egypt and widely available.

Wine in Egypt Today

Egypt's climate is too hot and dry to produce wine in most areas. The Nile delta in northern Egypt receives an average of 1-8 inches of rainfall per year, but the central and southern parts of the country average near zero. Grapes can only be grown in the wetter regions of the delta and near the sea, which moderates the heat.

One of the biggest producers of wine in Egypt is Al Ahram Beverages Company or ABC (owned by Heineken), which produces beer, wine, and spirits. One of their most popular wine brands is Omar Khayyam. For the 12 days I was in Egypt, we drank mainly Omar Khayyam Red. We brought back a bottle of red and a bottle of white (both from the 2013 vintage).

Omar Khayyam Red is made from the grape Bobal, which is a lesser-known variety of Vitis vinifera and originates from Spain. The wine has jammy aromas of raspberry, blackberry, cherry, and cedar. It's dry, with a smoky finish, and moderate levels of acid, tannin, and alcohol (12.5%). This is a fine, everyday sort of wine. It isn't showy and probably wouldn't win awards, but it tastes good, it's well balanced, and it can pair with a wide variety of foods. We drank it and enjoyed it with dinner most nights.

Omar Khayyam White is made from the grape Sultanine Blanche, which is usually a table grape. However, it makes a pretty good wine. It reminded me a bit of a Chenin Blanc or a Chardonnay. It's an old world style, with lots of mineral aromas, lemon, almond, and a bit of oak. It's dry, with high acid, medium body, and a slightly higher perception of alcohol than its actual 12.5%. The Omar Khayyam website describes it as "simple, clean and fresh" and says it "needs to be drunk young." I'd agree with those statements. Like the red, the white was also perfectly fine, but the red was better.

And Beer Too!

Egypt also makes beer, and it's pretty good. The two most popular are Stella (no relation to Stella Artois) and Sakara, both owned by ABC/Heineken. Stella is a light lager, which is extremely refreshing in the heat. Sakara Gold has more flavor and more bitterness. We liked both, but preferred Stella.


Sakara is named after the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Sakara (sometimes spelled Sakkara or Saqqara), which is older than the more famous Pyramids of Giza.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

New Projects and Travels Afoot...

I've been posting less of late, because 2 new projects have been taking up my time. One is wine related (hopefully more on that soon). The other is travel related. Here's a hint that relates to both:

I hope to be back on a regular posting schedule in several weeks.  Cheers!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Tasting Tannat from Texas

Tannat is a red grape (Vitis vinifera) native to France and historically produced in France's Madiran appellation.  Its deep color and strong tannins make it popular as a blending partner with lighter varieties, but it is not often produced on its own. 

Some New World wine regions are bucking this trend and producing Tannat as a varietal.  Uruguay has adopted Tannat as its national grape and hopes to become as famous for Tannat as Argentina is for Malbec.  Texas is experimenting with Tannat as well, and I tasted some Texas Tannat when I visited Barking Rocks winery earlier this year.

Barking Rocks is in Granbury, Texas and part of the Way Out Wineries wine trail.  Barking Rocks combines lovely scenery with a friendly tasting room and some delicious wines.  The Tannat grapes are grown in the Texas High Plains and transported to Barking Rocks for vinification.  (Check out the Texas Wine Cheat Sheet for more about Texas wine appellations.) 

Barking Rocks Tannat has a deep, ruby-purple color and aromas of blackberry, boysenberry, sweet spice, cedar, and a hint of savory smokiness.  The nose has lots of rich fruit, but the palate is a bit more tart, while still fruity, with more emphasis on the savory/smoky characteristics.  This is a big wine, with high acid and high tannin, but moderate alcohol at 11.8%.

Aging helps to smooth out the rough edges of Tannat, so this wine undergoes aging at the winery. I purchased it in 2015, and the current vintage for sale was 2008, so the wine was already 7 years old.  I drank it a few months later and enjoyed it as much as when I tasted it at the winery, but this wine could easily age and improve for another 5 years or more.  It costs $25 at the winery.  It's not currently available for sale in Houston, but you can order it from the Barking Rocks website.

For those unfamiliar with this grape, the Barking Rocks Tannat reminds me a bit of Syrah.  The flavor profile and the powerful structure are similar.  However, the Tannat is a bit lighter in alcohol than I'd expect from a Syrah that tastes like this Tannat.  I think that's an advantage, because I often prefer wines in the 12% range, rather than one with 14% or higher abv, simply because they're easier to drink and pair with food.

I'd encourage you to try Tannat and to visit Barking Rocks, especially if you live in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.  It's a short drive to Granbury, which has lots of other fun attractions to round out your day trip.

You might also be interested in:
Texas Wine Cheat Sheet
Argentina Wine Cheat Sheet
The Wines of San Juan, Argentina

Friday, November 13, 2015

Insights from Spain: 3 new grape varieties to know and love

A few days ago I attended a Spanish wine seminar led by Karen MacNeil (author of The Wine Bible), David Keck (Certified Advanced Sommelier and proprietor of Houston’s highly regarded wine bar Camerata), and Mark Rashap (a Certified Wine Educator and host of the “Another Bottle Down” radio show).  The seminar was educational and delicious, but the most exciting part was learning about up-and-coming Spanish wine regions and grape varieties.  Because they come from little-known regions and grape varieties, most of these wines are a good value.  Keep your Spanish Wine Cheat Sheet handy to locate these regions.

Hondarrabi Zuri from Txakoli (pronounced “Chacoli”)
The Txakoli region in northern Spain has been growing in popularity for several years and encompasses 3 DOs (Denominacion de Origen, the name for an official Spanish wine region).  The region produces light, white wines from the Hondarrabi Zuri grape.  Typically these wines have citrus and mineral characteristics, an impression of salinity (though no actual salt), and high acidity.  We tasted Bengoetxe Txakolina 2014 from DO Txakoli de Getaria, which retails for around $19.  

Godello from Bierzo
Godello is a white grape that produces wines with citrus and stone fruit character and some floral influences.  In Bierzo its fruitiness is often balanced by aging on the lees, giving the wine a pleasant smoothness and roundness on the palate.  Because it has thick skins, Godello can give a slight impression of tannin even in a white wine.  As the panelists pointed out, the resulting hint of bitterness is not unpleasant, but more like you’d experience from a good orange marmalade.  We tasted Abad Dom Bueno Godello, Joven 2014, which retails for about $17.

Mencia from Bierzo
Mencia is a red grape which produces wines that Karen MacNeil described as “a lot of frame on a small picture.”  I love this metaphor.  She means that the wines have lots of structure – acid and tannin – but more restrained fruit flavors.  In fact, Mencia’s youthful flavors have a tendency to mimic those of an older wine – leather, earth, savory/gamey notes.  The structure helps these wines to age well. This grape might be compared to a lighter-bodied but powerful Syrah.  We tasted Pago de Valdoneje Vinas Viejas 2014.

I can’t tell you where in Houston to purchase the exact wines we tasted.  But I can tell you that wines made from these grapes are available at the places you’d expect (Houston Wine Merchant, Spec’s, etc.) and I plan to drink more of them!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Wine Infographic: Syrah/Shiraz Wine Cheat Sheet

The next edition in the Wine Cheat Sheet series - Syrah/Shiraz!  See the full collection here.

To see the Cheat Sheet in full size…
…in Internet Explorer, right click on it and select “open link.”
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…in Firefox, right click on it and select “view image.”   

You may also be interested in:
Wine Infographic: Australian Wine Cheat Sheet
Sixty-One: An IPA Brewed with Syrah Grape Must
Wine Infographic: Argentina Wine Cheat Sheet

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Story of Phylloxera: How a Tiny Insect Changed the Global Wine Industry Forever

In the late 1700s Thomas Jefferson, a connoisseur of French wine, attempted to grow European grape vines at his home in Virginia.  All of his imported European vines died, and he never knew why.  A century later, the whole world was introduced to the vine-killing culprit.

The tiny insect Daktulosphaira vitifoliae in the family Phylloxeridae (phylloxera for short) comes from eastern North America.  This almost microscopic, pale yellow insect, related to aphids, feeds on a grape vine’s roots and leaves.  Grape vines native to the same areas (such as Vitis aestivalis, rupestris, riparia, and labrusca) have developed resistance to this pest, but European grape vines (Vitis vinifera) have no resistance.

The Nymph Form of Phylloxera Feeds on Vine Roots

For many years, American grape vines were brought to Europe as botanical specimens. Phylloxera insects that hitched a ride on the vines went unnoticed and died during the weeks it took for sailing ships to cross the Atlantic.  All that changed in the 1850s when steam ships reduced trans-Atlantic crossing time to only ten days, a short enough time that the insects could survive the journey. Thus, phylloxera arrived and began its slow march across Europe.

The problem was first noticed in southern France in 1863, when leaves withered, shoots were weak, and grapes did not ripen.  Symptoms worsened for a few years until the vines died.  Pulling up the dead vines revealed that their root systems had nearly disappeared. Once phylloxera was identified as the problem, a cure was difficult to find.  Because phylloxera live on both roots and leaves, have a complex life cycle, and are highly adaptable, they are difficult to kill.  Common pesticides either weren’t effective or couldn’t reach the roots of the plant which were being eaten away.  New techniques developed for combatting phylloxera were ineffective, impractical, or nearly as destructive as phylloxera itself.

Phylloxera on a Grape Vine

The phylloxera epidemic impacted France the most, as it was the largest producer, consumer, and exporter of wine at the time.  But phylloxera eventually spread to all of Europe.  Between 60% and 90% of all European vineyards were destroyed during this time.  In France, wine production fell 75% between 1875 and 1889.  Ultimately the entire global wine industry was threatened.

The resulting shortage of wine affected many countries and wine markets.  At first, the decrease in supply of French wine increased the demand for wine from countries not yet affected by phylloxera, such as Spain and Italy, until phylloxera reached their vineyards as well.  Demand for Chilean wine increased, since Chile’s vineyards were planted primarily with imported European vines.  The shortage also created a market for terrible wine, made from imported raisins, or flavored with the used must (seeds and skins) left over from previous vintages and combined with beet sugar to produce alcohol.  It also inspired a flood of fake wine, poor quality wines labeled and sold fraudulently under the names of famous chateaux.  The wine shortage in France also led to an increase in the popularity of absinthe, a hugely influential beverage of the early 20th century which requires an article of its own.  In Britain, the Scotch industry promoted itself as a replacement beverage and many British wine drinkers switched.

In response to phylloxera, the French could not simply pull up their European vines and replant their vineyards with phylloxera-resistant American vines, because the American varieties produce undesirable (“foxy”) wine flavors.  By 1870 American and French scientists had created American-French hybrid vines which they hoped might resist the pest but still produce good wine.  The resulting hybrids had a weak resistance to phylloxera, but were hardy and produced reasonably good wine.  (Some of them are still grown in the United States today.)

The best option turned out to be grafting.  Attaching a European vine to American roots gives the European vine resistance to phylloxera.  (The rootstock that worked the best came from Texas!) Since the genes for the grapes are in the scion (stem), the grapes are unaffected.  Implementing this solution was another challenge, since France had around 11 billion vines in need of phylloxera protection.  Grafting was not accepted overnight.  It took nine years to prove its efficacy and for the French authorities to approve its widespread use. The finest vineyards were reluctant to graft and replant, since the identity of their wines was closely linked to the old, traditional vines.  These producers fought to chemically treat and save each vine, while the smaller, less recognized producers pulled up their vines, grafted, and replanted all at once.  Some producers smuggled American vines into France illegally and made wine directly from the grapes, despite the less desirable flavor and regulations against this practice. Unlike France, countries affected by phylloxera in later years had the benefit of knowing to graft their vines as soon as the problem appeared.

A European Scion Grafted onto American Rootstock

A few wine regions in the world escaped phylloxera completely.  Soils dominated by sand and schist impede the progress of the insect, as do dry climates.  Chile, bordered by an ocean to the west, mountains to the east, desert to the north, and the Antarctic to the south, has never been invaded by phylloxera, though to this day any imported vines must be carefully checked and quarantined.  A quarantine is in effect in South Australia, because it hasn’t yet experienced phylloxera, though neighboring Victoria has.  The island of Cyprus, the Spanish region of Jumilla, and a handful of vineyards in France, Portugal, New Zealand, Greece, England, and the pacific northwest of the United States have also escaped this costly pest so far.

However, the danger is still present, as evidenced by the disaster that struck the California wine industry in the 1980s and 1990s.  Many vines had been grafted onto rootstock beneficial for production, but with a low resistance to phylloxera, under the assumption that the insect was not present in the area.  Phylloxera struck, killing many vines, causing many more to be replaced, and ultimately costing the California wine industry more than one billion dollars.

Ironically, a phylloxera infestation can bring about positive changes.  The need to dig up and replant vines provides an opportunity to change grape varieties to better suit a particular vineyard, or adjust the density of the plantings.   Grafting itself can be helpful, because the grower can choose a type of rootstock which thrives in the specific soil and weather conditions of the vineyard.

Does grafting affect the taste of the wine?  Opinions differ.  While some top wine critics say they cannot taste the difference between grafted and ungrafted grapes, others claim that the ungrafted and pre-phylloxera vines make better tasting wine.  One possible reason for any flavor difference might be that ungrafted vines may produce lower yields.

Phylloxera is the most destructive crop epidemic of all time, and it changed the wine industry forever. Today 85% of the wine grapes in the world come from European vines grafted onto American rootstock.  Despite the enormous costs, phylloxera acted as a catalyst for a huge growth in grape vine knowledge, the chance to improve viticultural practices in established vineyards, a more resilient global wine industry, and in many cases better wine.

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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Did you know Louisiana makes wine?

A friend from Louisiana recently gave me my first Louisiana wine.  Although I knew that most states make wine, I had never seen one from Louisiana and wouldn't have thought it had a good climate for winemaking.  I do know quite a bit about wine from east Texas, but I hadn't considered that Louisiana is right next door, and there are strong similarities!

Like east Texas, Louisiana struggles with high heat, humidity, and Pierce's disease.  As a result, Louisiana, like east Texas, grows several hybrid grape varieties which can withstand these conditions and is experimenting with various winemaking techniques and styles to see what best suits these atypical grapes.  

Louisiana has 7 wineries:
  • Amato's Winery in Independence, LA
  • Casa De Sue Winery between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, LA
  • Feliciana Cellars Winery in Jackson, LA
  • Landry Vineyards in West Monroe, LA
  • On Cloud Wine in Shreveport, LA
  • Pontchartrain Vineyards in Covington, LA
  • St. Amant Winery in Amant, LA
You can see them on a map here.

I tasted Zydeco Rosato from Pontchartrain Vineyards.  Pontchartrain makes wine from estate-grown grapes as well as grapes imported from California.  Zydeco Rosato is an unusual blend of estate-grown Blanc du Bois, estate-grown Cynthiana/Norton, and California Syrah.

This rosé has an orange hue with aromas of peach, strawberries, flowers, a hint of citrus, and a hint of something vegetal.  Unfortunately there's also an aroma of burnt rubber.  This is a common side effect of using too much sulfur dioxide as a preservative.  The good news is that this aroma "blows off" in a minute or two and then the wine smells and tastes fine.

Zydeco Rosato is dry, with medium body, high acid, and oak influence which gives it a taste of vanilla on the finish.  The tasting note on the web site describes the wine as having a "hint of madeira."  Madeira is a fortified wine which is intentionally oxidized (exposed to oxygen) and maderized (exposed to heat), conditions which are normally considered faults in other wines.  So it's unusual to see a wine compare itself to madeira, but I do smell and taste an impression of madeira here.  It comes across as a hint of nuts and caramel, which is highly unusual in a rosé, but tasted fine if a little strange.  I enjoyed drinking Zydeco Rosato with a variation on this recipe for Winter Pasta (I made it with arugula and basil).  A bottle will cost you about $13.

Can I recommend this wine?  Yes and no.  No, because it's technically flawed and has some odd flavor characteristics.  Yes, because I have a lot of affection for wines like this, from small wineries in out-of-the-way places that are doing unexpected things with unusual grapes and blends.  These wines express their local character in a way that sets them apart, and though they may not be perfect, they're definitely fun and interesting to drink.


Friday, October 2, 2015

Film Review: Red Obsession

If you follow any wine news, you’ve probably heard of the growing Chinese influence in the wine market, especially in Bordeaux.  Red Obsession opens with a parade of Bordeaux wine makers, wine critics, authors, and Francis Coppola (!) waxing poetic about the greatness of Bordeaux.  They talk of “magic,” “love,” “soul,” “miracle,” and use musical metaphors.  Just as I was getting impatient with the flattery, the real story begins with a short history of Bordeaux and a fast-forward to the en primeur event in 2010.  En primeur happens every year in Bordeaux.  Critics, journalists, and buyers are invited to taste the unfinished wines before their release.  Based on the response, the chateaux set their prices for the year.  Enter China’s nouveau riche, for whom no price seems too high for their favorite wine.

This documentary covers an amazing amount of ground in a short time.  How did the Chinese become so important in the fine wine market so suddenly?  Why do they love Bordeaux in general, and Lafite in particular?  Is there a downside to this new source of money and attention for Bordeaux winemakers?  Where does this leave Bordeaux’s former largest market, the United States?  What’s next for China, as it is poised to become the world’s largest wine market and a new producer of wine itself?

The filmmakers travel the world and interview an impressive array of experts and industry insiders, looking for the answers to all these questions.  I’ll admit that before watching Red Obsession, my knowledge of the Bordeaux-China connection was limited to the fact that the Chinese really like Bordeaux and are willing to pay high prices for it.  The film is packed with details and explanations that will be interesting even to those more familiar with the subject than I was, such as cultural factors, business interests, and the influence of westernization.  Though the subject seems narrow, the film provides so much context that it also educates its audience about the French wine industry, the Chinese wine market, and the emerging Chinese wine industry overall.  If you have any interest in these subjects, Red Obsession is worth 75 minutes of your time.

(Not Rated, 2013, 75 minutes, Directed by Warwick Ross and David Roach, Narrated by Russell Crowe)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Sweet Wine Goes Dry: Furmint from Hungary

Tokaji Aszu is a famous dessert wine from Hungary, made from white grapes affected by the fungus botrytis (known as "noble rot").  For a quick primer on botrytis, here's the Botrytis Cheat Sheet:

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Six different grapes may be used to make the sweet Tokaji Aszu, but Furmint is the most important, accounting for 60% of the plantings.

Now you can try this grape on its own in a dry wine.  In 2003 the Royal Tokaji company, which makes the sweet Tokaji Aszu, began producing a dry white wine made with 100% Furmint.

The 2011 dry Furmint has aromas of minerals and lemon, vegetal aromas, and a bit of something spicy and earthy.  On the palate it's dry, with high acid, and flavors which generally match the aromas.  There's also a hint of honey.  It has medium body, noticeable oak influence, and 14% alcohol.

This dry Furmint reminds me of a cross between a Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc (or Fume Blanc).  It's a good wine, if slightly hot on the finish.  Chill it well.  I found it at Costco for $11, which makes it a great bargain both as a wine to enjoy and as an unusual experience with a largely unknown grape in an even more unknown style.

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What Is a Wine Cheat Sheet?
Full Collection of More than 20 Wine Cheat Sheets