Is it Vodka?

Thursday was Thanksgiving here in the United States. A time for families to gather together, and give thanks for all our blessings, as well as a time to celebrate the coming holiday season. This year, we had the normal family gathering. I brought a couple bottles of wine for the dinner (a California Rose, and a French Regnie) My brother-in-law brought a bottle of Cîroc Vodka, that was a hit with all the "twenty-somethings" in the family.

Ugni Blanc
I wasn't familiar with Ciroc (not a big spirits drinker to begin with), so I started reading the label. This was a berry flavored vodka, but it was made from grapes. In particular, the grapes were Ugni Blanc and Mauzac Blanc. I am very familiar with Ugni Blanc, as the main grape in Cognac production, and it just so happens that last week, I was discussing wine production in Gaillac, France, and one of their grapes is the Mauzac Blanc.

The question arose..."How can this be a vodka, if it is made from grapes? Aren't vodkas made from potatoes?". The other thought was, why isn't this a brandy, since it is made from distilled grapes. So let's take a look at what the definition of vodka is.

Alembic Still
Vodka is a beverage made from water and ethanol alcohol. The alcohol is the result of distillation of fermented grain, fruit, potatoes, or basically, anything that has sugar, or starch that can be converted to sugar. The standard process is distillation, and possibly filtration to produce as clean and flavorless a product as possible. The repeated distillation will continue to increase the amount of alcohol, to as high a level as 96% abv (alcohol by volume). The final distillation is then cut with water, to produce a lower alcohol level (usually around 40%), and any potential flavors are added to the final product. In Europe, the minimum alcohol level is 37.5% for vodka (65 proof). In the United States, the minimum is 30% abv (or 60 proof). Since the goal of vodka is to produce a clean, clear product, it is not aged.

Compare that to Cognac (see my blog on Cognac). Cognac can only be produced in the Cognac region of France. It is strictly regulated. it is distilled twice, then aged for a minimum of 30 months in oak barrels.

The Cîroc brand of Vodka is actually distilled 5 times, so you end up with a purer product, and again, no oak aging. So, Cîroc does pass the test, for the current definition of a vodka, but not the definition of a Cognac, or even a brandy. However, the European Union has begun talks concerning the definition of vodka The traditional vodka producing countries are insisting that only spirits produced from grains, potato and sugar beets be allowed to be labeled as "vodka", and must follow the traditional methods of production.

So, as of today, Cîroc is a vodka, but we'll have to see if that stands.

Cîroc is available in four flavors: Snap Frost, Berry, Coconut and Peach. It is marketed as an "ultra-premium" vodka, and distributed by Diageo, the worlds largest spirits producer.

Carbonic Maceration = Beaujolais Nouveau

Today is the third Thursday of November, and you know what that means? The first release of the 2012 vintage is on the shelves. Every year, on the third Thursday of November, the French release the Beaujolais Nouveau, a wine that is fermented, bottled, shipped, and on the shelves in less than nine weeks. Due to French laws, the wine cannot be served or sold until this day.

I have written about Beaujolais Nouveau in the past, but every year is a new vintage. This year, the European wine growers have had a challenging year. Faced with severe frost in February, and hailstorms in April and August, the amount of available grapes was half the normal crop.

Beaujolais Nouveau is meant to be a celebratory wine, to welcome the latest harvest. If you haven't tried a Nouveau style wine, you might be in for a surprise. It has a different taste to it, due to the fermentation process that the grapes go through. Instead of the normal crushed grapes, sitting in open vats, with the active yeast and sugars working together, these Gamay grapes go through a process known as Carbonic Maceration.

Carbonic Maceration is a simple way of making fruit forward wines, with less tannin. The grapes are put into large, covered tanks, un-crushed. The weight of the grapes in the tank, does crush the lower grapes, and those begin to ferment as normal. Since the tank is covered, the carbon dioxide that is given off by the ferementing grapes, is captured in the tank, creating an anaerobic atmosphere. In the absence of oxygen, the uncrushed grape berries begin to go through an enzymatic, intracellular process. They basically begin to breakdown from the inside out. The sugars, and harsh malic acids also breakdown. The polyphenols (in the grape skins) are absorbed into the grape pulp, turning the pulp pink (remember that most grapes have clear juice and pulp). Once the alcohol level reaches about 2%, and before the grapes actually die, the must is pressed, and the juice continues to ferment in the normal way.

The resulting wine typically produces strawberry, cherry and raspberry notes, but leaning more towards the candied variety. Notes of banana are often present. This is a light, fruity wine, with no, or little tannins. When serving, remember to chill the wine, as it is meant to be around 55 degrees. Also, don't hold on to the wine. This is not a wine to store, and probably won't make it to New Years.

As I have mentioned in two previous blogs, this is the perfect wine for Thanksgiving, as it can pair with a number of different types of food. And, what is Thanksgiving?...a mix of all types of foods (and people with different wine preferences). Since it is so light, this red can work with both light and dark meats, as well as salads, pasta, and cheese. On top of that, your wine budget won't go through the roof, as Beaujolais Nouveau is pretty inexpensive.

The most visible producer is George Deboeuf, but most visible, doesn't always mean the best. I find that Joseph Drouhin, and Louis Jadot make a better wine, and a slightly higher price. Of course, that is my opinion, and encourage you to try them and make your own decisions.

Have fun! Beaujolais Nouveau is meant to be celebrated, and the first sip of the 2012 vintage.

Quality Wine in the Old World

Have you noticed a change on the label of your favorite French wine? It might be subtle, and it may not even be there at all.

A few years ago, the European Union (EU) determined that something had to be done to tame the growing wine surplus. Indications are that many of the wines that were being produced didn't have much market potential, due to a poor end product. Many of these wines were so poor, that they were used for distillation. The ultimate goal of the EU was to  modernise the European wine trade, and improve its' quality and competitiveness with the new world producers. One of the significant reforms is the ability to mention grape variety on the label, making the wines more accessible to those who prefer New World market practices.

In the simplest terms, the EU wines will fall into two general categories: Table Wine (TW), and Quality Wine Produced in a Specific Region (QWPSR). Table wines are the basic cheap blends that are sourced locally, and rarely seen on the import market. What we are used to seeing is the QWPSR wines. These are wines of a higher quality, and must pass minimum standards of production, and come from a protected geographic area.

Within the QWPSR, there are two levels of quality wines: Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographic Indication (PGI). These are the English translations for the two levels.

Designation of Origin is defined in article 34 of the regulations as “the name of a region, a specific place or, in exceptional cases, a country …that complies with the following requirements;
-its quality and characteristics are essentially or exclusively due to a particular geographical environment with its inherent natural and human factors
-the grapes from which it is produced come exclusively from this geographical area
-its production takes place in this geographical area
-it is obtained from vine varieties belonging to Vitis vinifera”

Geographic Indication is defined as “referring to a region, a specific place or, in exceptional cases, a country …which complies with the following requirements;
-it possesses a specific quality, reputation or other characteristics attributable to that geographical origin
-at least 85 % of the grapes used for its production come exclusively from this geographical area
-its production takes place in this geographical area
-it is obtained from vine varieties belonging to Vitis vinifera or a cross between Vitis vinifera species and other species of the genus Vitis.”

Each European country has its' own name for PDO. In France, this level is known as Appellation d'Origin Protogee (AOP). This is equivalent to the current AOC level most of us are familiar with (think Bordeaux, Burgundy, Cotes du Rhone - all are AOC's). The AOP will not entirely replace the AOC on the labels, rather the producers will have a choice of using one or the other. In the case of the PGI, this is equivalent to the Vin de Pays level. Table wine in France is now known as Vin de France.

Italy, Spain and Portugal all have similar designations. Where it gets a bit confusing is with Germany. Since the wines are labelled based on ripeness levels, there is currently no system similar to the EU designations. In Germany, the PDO level is known as geschützte Ursprungsbezeichnung (gU) and the IGP level is known as

geschützte Geografischa Angabe (gGA). I have yet to see how this will affect German wines.

So, if you have stayed with me on this, you are wondering..."how does this affect me?" Well, it may or may not. Many producers of higher quality wines, don't like the idea of putting the grape variety on the label. For example, if you are lover of wines from Jura, does it matter to you if it just says Jura, or will it change your opinion if it says the grape variety is Savagnin (yes that is spelled correctly - it is a different grape than Sauvignon). Many winemakers are stuck in tradition.

For now, you may or may not see a change on the label. The wine producers are given a choice. We are slowly seeing some changes on the shelf now, but only time will tell if it helps Old World wine sales, or confuses the buying public even more.

A Brief History of Wine

Two years ago, I started our writing these blogs, with a small following of friends. Looking back at the history of this blog, I was lucky to get about 100 people checking out the site. Now people from all over the world are checking in, adding their comments, and e-mailing me with questions. I appreciate all of you who continue to read my blog articles, and who continue to vote my for my site by clicking the button on the upper right side of this page.

Most of you know that I teach wine classes to all types of wine students. From beginner to professional Sommeliers. This week, I was preparing my class presentation for a review of the history of wine. While I learned this for my Sommelier certification, it is not something that I spend a lot of time reviewing, or even discussing. So, I thought I'd give you my abbreviated version of the history of how wine made it to California (no, wine grapes are not native to our continent).

Vitis Vinifera Sylvestris
The wild grapevine (Vitis Vinifera Sylvestris) is thought to have been first cultivated (Vitis Vinifera Sativa) around 7,000 to 5,000 BC in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains of modern day Georgia and Armenia.

These first wines found their way south into the Mesopotamian cultures, and is even mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a story from the Sumerian culture dating to around 4,000 to 3,000 BC.

The wine and vines traveled down the Nile, and settled in the Egyptian culture. Here, the Egyptians began to keep records of vintages, and began to store and experiment with wine. After the Egyptians, the Phoenicians began to spread wine around the Mediterranean, where the Greeks became avid growers and traders of grapes.

The Greeks expanded their trade to the southern reaches of Oenotria (now Italy), by colonizing Sicily, Cyrpus, and continental Italy. It is with the Greeks that we are introduced to Dionysus (the Greek god of wine) and also Hippocrates (the father of medicine), who "prescribed" the consumption of wine to cure all sorts of conditions.

After the decline of Greece, the Romans stepped into the scene around 150 BC. The Roman Empire spread into what is now Spain and France, as well as the Etruscan regions of Italy. The Romans were the first to publish books on growing, and the importance of matching the grape variety with the proper soil and climate. At this point in history, the prized wines were typically sweet, or flavored to mask the spoilage issues. The influence of Roman doctors led a shift to drier styles. White wines were for the rich, and reds left for the poor. We also meet Bacchus, the Roman god of wine.

Christianity was the next step in the evolution of wine, as it became a key ritual representing the blood of Christ. Unlike Bacchus and Dionysus, the Christian approach to wine was in moderation.
 The monastic movement grew dramatically after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, but its' largest expansion was led by Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, around 800 AD. His interests in the vine were focused on the Rhone and Burgundy regions of Gaul (France). The two most influential orders were the Benedictine and Cistercian monks. They kept meticulous records, and their viticultural studies and advances were extensive. Under the monks, the vine moved all over Europe.

Junipero Serra
The next big jump took place during the "Age of Discovery". The exploration of trade routes, and new sources for gold, oil, wine, and spices began with Portuguese discovery of Madiera in 1419, followed by the Spanish (Columbus, and later Cortez), the French, English, and Dutch (South Africa).

Cultivation in Mexico began around 1520, with plantings of the Criolla Grape (also known as the Mission Grape). Mostly used for religious services of the Catholic Church. This spread into California through the advance of a series of missions, by Father Junipero Serra.

Buena Vista Winery
California's first documented imported European wine vines were planted in Los Angeles (at that time some of largest expanses of vineyards in the world) in 1833 by Jean-Louis Vignes. By the 1850's, Agoston Haraszthy, made several trips to import cuttings from 165 of the greatest European vineyards to California. Haraszthy opened the first commercial winery in California, Buena Vista, in 1857.

There is so much more to the story of wine. Volumes of books have been written on the subject. Hopefully, this very short review with wet your appetite to learn more. Maybe even join one of my classes, where we get more in-depth. If not my class, find a local wine shop that offers instruction, and have fun!