What Wine Writers Want You to Know

Put 300 or so wine writers in the same room and you’ll know what people mean when they say, “Everybody’s a critic.” It’s especially true among those who understand what’s in your glass and how it got there. Opinions, interpretations and (sometimes) attitude will swirl about you like a funnel cloud.

Uruguay class

[Masterclass in Uruguayan Wines, taught by Amanda Barnes, South American wine authority]

But we all agree: we’re crazy about wine (that’s why we come together) and we love learning about it. I brought home plenty of new wine knowledge after the 2018 Wine Bloggers Conference (now Wine Media Conference) in Walla Walla, Washington, and thought I’d share a few takeaways here:

— Walla Walla is a cute, walkable little town, but there’s more: in just a few blocks, you’ll find more than 30 tasting rooms in the core downtown. Sure, we all love to drive from winery to winery and sip great wine on patios overlooking lush vineyards–if we have unlimited time and cash. The beauty of a town like Walla Walla, where the streets literally are lined with tasting rooms, is that you can try the region’s best wines, buy some bottles to take home, and still get to the airport on time. Or just keep people-watching.

— Washington is almost ideally positioned to produce superior wines. The Blue Mountains east of Walla Walla catch the humidity, and no wineries sit in a rain shadow–that is, a “sheltered” slope that doesn’t get sufficient rain. There’s just one snag: the region also doesn’t get much fog, so the sunlight can be pretty intense. Vineyard managers have to pay close attention to the canopy (the parts of the vine above ground, especially the branches and leaves sheltering the grape clusters) so the grapes don’t get sunburned. As one winemaker put it, “These slopes are like a Disneyland for grapes.”

— If you don’t know wines from Uruguay yet, you have a real treat coming. Considering that Uruguayans are the world’s biggest consumers of beef (124 lbs./person annually, compared to 78 lbs./person in the U.S.), it’s no surprise that their wines are 80 percent red (mostly Tannat and Merlot) and just 20 percent white (largely Albariño). Uruguay also walks the walk in terms of educating kids: the government gives families one laptop per child. Cool, yes?

— Back in the U.S., winery owners will be interested to know that 45 percent of wine club members live with a couple of hours’ drive from the winery, according to Wine Business Monthly. And here’s a kicker: 35 percent of winery customers are under 50 years old, yet they bring in only 18 percent of revenues. Apparently they love the wine culture and trappings, but they’re not buying the expensive stuff.

— Another age-related message for all businesses: 50 percent of Gen Z (under age 25) and 42 percent of Millennials (currently age 25-39) think social media is the most relevant channel for ads. If you’re trying to reach the under-40 audience, forget buying print ads; that generation couldn’t care less about magazines and newspapers. Almost never touch ’em.

— Here’s a sobering statistic about websites: 74 percent of smartphone users will abandon a website that takes more than five seconds to load, according to Lewis Perdue, publisher of Wine Industry Insight. Some 42 percent of users expect mobile pages to load in under two seconds. (That figure was eight seconds in 1999–we’re getting more impatient!)

— During a quick visit to the Owen Roe Winery in the Yakima Valley outside Walla Walla, I learned that Yakima shares Walla Walla’s sunshine challenges. (Living in Cleveland, I can tell you it’s a “problem” we’d love to contend with.) The valley runs east-west, so vineyards enjoy a plethora of sunny, south-facing hillsides; some winemakers in this region cover their vines with little white tents to shield them from the intense sun. Driving past the vineyards, those hills blanketed with white tents make quite a sight. Grapes don’t do well on the Yakima Valley floor, where crops can face frost, floods, and soil that can be too deep and “soft.” The solution: many farmers plant hops on those lower elevations.

The next Wine Media Conference will happen next fall in Australia. I’m registered, so I expect to be writing like crazy after that one.

Wine Lingo = Teinturiergrapes whose flesh and juice are red. If you love red wines, you may not realize that your BigSexyRed usually gets its color from the skins. The pulp and juice of almost all grapes are clear; we get red wine when the skins are soaked in the grape juice and they stain the juice red. (“Teinturier” comes from the French word meaning to dye or stain.) One teinturier grape you might recognize is Chambourcin, a French-American hybrid.

Dama, medium

Vino ‘View: DAMA 2013 Cowgirl Cab (14.8 percent alcohol; $19) is a happy discovery from those tasting rooms in downtown Walla Walla. A cowgirl, DAMA’s label explains, “may have an exterior as rough as the desert scrub, but underneath you’ll find an intense, alluring woman who loves deeply and fears little.” This inky-dark-purple wine doesn’t fool around; with such high alcohol you know it’s going to be robust, yet it’s silky with balanced tannins. Cherry and black olive aromas compete, then you settle in with cocoa, coffee and delicious tobacco on the palate and light smoke on the finish. I had it with a spicy chicken pesto and it stood up to the full-flavored dish beautifully.

Cheers!

Mary

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Viognier, the “White Wine for Hedonists”

The cherry blossoms are about to pop in northern Virginia, and I’m looking at the first green grass I’ve seen in six months. We’re sipping Viognier, the state’s signature grape—crisp, fruity and the perfect varietal for welcoming spring—but this bottle is from the other side of the country: Maryhill Winery in Goldendale, Washington.

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I visited Maryhill, perched above the Columbia River near Mt. Hood, last October after the Wine Media Conference in Walla Walla. At about 8,000 cases of Viognier a year, Maryhill is the state’s biggest producer, though the American Northwest is a latecomer to Viognier-growing.

Viognier—a close DNA match to Syrah, by the way—may have originated in Croatia. One story has it imported into southern France as early as 281 AD: we know it grew in Condrieu during the Roman Empire. But it’s a notoriously difficult grape to grow because it’s more prone to disease than most varieties, and by the 1960s it was nearly extinct—only about 35 acres remained across the globe.

But as wine’s popularity grew, so did wine lovers’ awareness of this luscious white grape. Growers planted vines in California and Eden Valley (Australia) in the ’70s; now it’s found in New Zealand, Israel, North and South America, and the Cape Winelands of South Africa–for starters. In spite of its susceptibility to disease and unpredictable yields, Viognier also is drought-resistant, so it can thrive in warm, dry climates.

Viognier is a crisp, fruity wine, with aromas of peach, honeysuckle and tangerine. On top of the stone fruit layer you might detect a steely quality, along with some herbal notes–pine, chamomile, perhaps thyme. This festival of aromas is why wine authority Jancis Robinson calls Viognier, “the hedonist’s white grape variety,” but the perfume party doesn’t happen by accident. In order for the nose to fully develop, Viognier must hang on the vine longer than most grapes, sometimes rendering it “too rich to ferment to dryness.”

I think Viognier makes a delicious varietal, but increasingly I’m seeing it in blends, often with Grenache Blanc. Italian winemakers sometimes blend it with Chardonnay, especially, as Jancis Robinson notes, if it needs the Chardonnay’s added acidity. A few  creative winemakers, especially in California and Australia, have even started mixing it with reds, especially its close cousin Syrah, for a deeper texture and brighter color. And if you’re a person who likes a little oaky taste in your whites, look for Viognier that’s been aged in oak; it will give you that creamy mouthfeel you get in oaked Chardonnay.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  pH = a measure of a wine’s acidity, indicated by the amount of hydrogen in it.

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Vino ‘View:  Maryhill 2017 Viognier (14.5 % alcohol; $19) delivers superb balance in spite of that high (for a white) alcohol content, thanks to a hot summer and late harvest that give the wine a slightly tingly acidity. The grapes were sourced from four vineyards in the Columbia Valley AVA, picked in the cool morning hours to keep those peachy-bright aromas. The wine was partially fermented with French oak staves, but it’s so lively and fruity, I wouldn’t call it an “oaky” wine at all. Don’t drink it straight out of the refrigerator; take it out half an hour before you serve it so you can experience its richness. I drank mine with a spicy Thai curry, a perfect pairing for the grape’s natural sweetness.

[The Maryhill Viognier was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary