Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Please be safe this weekend and give a friend you haven't spoken to in a long time a call. It will be worth your time.
Monday, November 24, 2008
We were all participants of a tasting on Twitter Taste Live. On November 19th Lenn Thompson of LENNDEVOURS announced that he was hosting the tasting and that his choice was four wines from Humanitas Winery, a winery owned by Judd Wallenbrock who is also the winemaker. I read Lenn’s blog all the time so I decided to check it out. Judd blogs at Drink Charitably and the concept of his winery is a beautiful one, to make good wine and to give back to charities in local communities where the wines are sold. The profits from the winery go to three primary causes: hunger, affordable housing and illiteracy. They have chosen Feeding America (formerly America’s Second Harvest), Habitat for Humanity, and Reading is Fundamental as their targeting charities, but do not limit the donations to only those. Judd and company are just as likely to donate to local charities that best address these issues in individual communities. One of the best winery missions I have heard to date.
If you’ve never seen or heard of Twitter before, you are not the only one. It might be the latest online craze, but then again it might not. The format of using Twitter Taste Live (TTL) was an interesting one. The notion is that everyone buys the wines and meets at the same time and tweet about them. Yes, that’s the new verb, and no I did not coin it (thank goodness). TTL was created by Craig Drollett, John Hafferty, and Chris Gillis and was originally connected to their retail store Bin Ends. Today TTL has distanced itself from the store and is completely open to the world of the wine industry, especially the consumers. The userbase is currently nearing 500 with participation in 8 countries. Not bad for a site based on tweets.
“The real vision is that this platform is a direct line of communication between consumers and wine makers,” explains Craig. “So far it’s working out very well.”
The tasting itself was very interesting, but turned into a case of the hiccups that won’t go away. I loved being in an online space where there are so many people who love to talk about wine all expressing their opinions of the same wines. The way it works is that as long as your tweet has #ttl included then it will pop up on the live feed. The only problem was that every ten to fifteen minutes or so the live twitter feed (I almost said tweet feed, but that seemed wrong somehow) would cut out. The only thing that really kept everything together was Matt doing a live video feed from his house.
All said and done, it was a good experience. The wines we tasted were:
- Humanitas Sauvignon Blanc 2006, 13.8% ALC, Monterey County, California, USA
- Humanitas Oak Free Chardonnay 2007, 13.8% ALC, Monterey County, California, USA
- Humanitas Gap’s Crown Pinot Noir 2006, 14.6% ALC, Sonoma Coast, California, USA
- Humanitas Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, 14.2% ALC, Paso Robles, California, USA
My clear favorite and that of the two others I tasted with (ok, so it is also nice to taste wine with live people too) was the Chardonnay. It was that classic pear and apple that Chardonnay should produce and had a great balance on the taste. The Cabernet started coming through for me after it sat out a while; I had not expected to need to decant it. When I first tasted the Cab it had huge tannins and was extremely rough. It started to smooth out and find some fruit after about an hour or so. I’ll know better for next time.
You can buy the wines here, and be sure to check out Twitter if you have not done so yet and Twitter Taste Live.
Friday, November 21, 2008
There was once a bunch of grapes. Someone left these grapes outside in a bowl in the sun for too long and the sugars in the grapes fermented and became alcohol. Since by that time humans had already found an enjoyment of alcohol (A History of the World in Six Glasses), they drank it and found it delicious or at least that it took the edge off. And so, wine was brought into the world (well, close enough anyway). Eventually, people learned how to make wine better by crushing the grapes and letting the juice ferment, leading to wonderful moments of Greek mythology and I love Lucy.
And since there has been wine there have been people who want their wine to be known as better than anyone else’s wine. There was a classification in 1855 that solidified in history the prestige of the wines in Bordeaux, all of which was simply based on the price that each Chateau charged for their product. For the time being, a wine’s quality was fixed by the prestige of the winery and had very little to do with what was in the bottle.
Then came the Judgment of Paris in 1976, where some of the top Californian wines and the top French wines were compared in a blind wine tasting by some of the most prominent wine journalists and sommeliers in France. The results staggered the wine world, as the Californian wines not only held their own but were also considered better than the French wines by some of the judges.
After that more wine critics started doing more blind tastings and considering the wines based on taste and no longer on the prestige of the winery. One of the motivators of this trend was Robert Parker, who brought the 100-point rating system into the mainstream. The point ratings are based on the educational grading system in the US (90-100 = A, 80 – 89 = B, etc.). Now Parker’s publication The Wine Advocate as well as competitors such as Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits and the International Wine Cellar use this system.
So why do people get so uptight about ratings? Mostly because the financial health of any single winery can break even, go under, or have amazing success based on these ratings. I think I explained my thoughts on ratings and their impact in my last post. A wineries entire future can change depending on if it received a mediocre 89 or an impressive 90. Today’s most prestigious rating publications are The Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator, but the others are fast evening out the playing field and bloggers (hurray!) are adding a whole new twist on wine recommendations.
When it comes down to it, ratings are just one person’s opinion about a wine and I don’t think anyone has the same tastes as anyone else. There are just too many factors that can change your experience of a wine: who you are drinking with, how you are feeling (Happy? Good wine! Sad? Bad wine!), etc. So drink what you feel like drinking. If you need advice, ask someone. If they steer you to a wine you like, ask them for another recommendation. If you did not like what they sent your way, then ask someone else.
Questions? Comments? Post them below! I’d love to hear them.
I am also going to be involved in an online tasting tonight (who decides to do tastings on a Friday night??). I will let you know how it goes when I post this weekend.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
2) Chateau Les Hauts-Conseillants 2005, 14% ALC, AOC Lalande de Pomerol, Bordeaux, France
3) Chateau de Lescours 2005, 13% ALC, (80% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc), AOC Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, Bordeaux, France
4) Chateau Merville 2001, 12.5% ALC, AOC Saint-Estephe, Bordeaux, France
5) Chateau Lacoste-Borie 2005, 13% ALC, AOC Pauillac, Bordeaux, France
6) Charmes de Kirwan 2005, 13% ALC, AOC Margaux, Bordeaux, France
I liked many of these wines. Each had a certain character and was definitely closer to the earth and mineral side of taste rather than the bigger fruit explosions.
1) For those that did not know that good white wines could come from Bordeaux, you should try this one. This wine had such soft vanilla aromas. In the group that tasted with me someone said, "butter cream frosting". I think that is right on the mark. The taste was very pleasant, an easy expression of softer pear with a little lemon zest. It had some nice honeycomb overtones as well. Relaxingly good to drink.
2) Lots of mineral/earthy smells came out of this wine for me. There was a bit of leathery, cedar boxish things going on here. The taste was something to get used to, not in a bad way, but in a way I did not expect. It was smooth up front with most of the taste coming well after the wine had past my lips. The texture was of fine grain sands washing over your tongue, or as one of our group said, "velvet".
4) To me, this is the best wine of the bunch. The nose was so funky that it almost put many of our group out from tasting it. However, when we tasted the wine it showed itself to be complex and elegant. There were some great black cherry and strawberry flavors with length and structure. A really solid and balanced wine.
5) When I tasted this wine I just wanted food. Perhaps that was because it was roughly 7 pm and I had not eaten dinner yet, but this wine made me crave a rosemary lamb stew. This wine was rich, with some dark chocolate and blackberry flavors. The scent was a little hot, reminding me of fresh leather and cassis.
How many products have over 7,000 brands to choose from? I think I can name five brands of cereal, six brands of mustard, and perhaps (if I stretch really far) eight or nine brands of salad dressing. However, when you walk into a wine store and look around there are easily hundreds of different wine brands sitting on the shelf, waiting for you to make a decision on which one to purchase.
How are you supposed to make a decision as to which one to buy?? There are large bottles, small bottles, green bottles, brown bottles. There are bottles with cute cartoons on the label (be wary) and bottles with funny names (be even more wary). There are bottles that look like you need a jackhammer to open and bottles that look like you could sneeze and they might break. Bottles, bottles, more bottles, and then even more bottles...
It's daunting! You almost prostrate yourself in relief when a helpful employee comes over and asks you what you are looking for and then points you in a direction. However, the only way to have a suggestion coming into the wine store is by checking out the ratings.
Some writers talk about how ratings are like training wheels. I think this is pretty accurate (although those that know me might find this funny since I do not know how to ride a bike). Wine ratings are, when all is said and done, a report of what one person thought about the wine. The higher or lower the rating the more or less they would recommend the wine over another. I think the only way to know if you agree with the individual rating the wines is if you taste the ones they rated and see if your tastes match theirs. If not, perhaps it is time to find a new writer to follow (there are plenty out there).
As a final note, a writer who I read often on his blog is Steve Heimoff, the West Coast Editor of Wine Enthusiast. He posted about reviews and the people who malign them on his blog. It is an interesting read, mostly because you get to see the cat fighting in the comments.
Sunday, November 9, 2008
These are the gatekeepers, the last line to cross before a wine is purchased by the ordinary restaurant patron. Sommeliers listen to their customers and determine the direction of trends. Always looking for the next great wine, they constantly taste wines from places like Australia, California, Chile, France, Germany, and Italy.
And through all that work, sommeliers know where to go for a good drink. I went out on Friday with a few of these wine junkies and had a great time. At Elmo, the first place we went, every part of the restaurant was taken in and measured on a scale of how much each person enjoyed the experience. We had drinks and caught up on how each person’s restaurant was doing in these unknown economic times.
Then the discussion turned to where to go next. Terroir, PDT, and Employees Only were among the places considered. These are establishments the members of the New York food industry know well, but your average bar hopper might not.
We ended up going to Pegu, a place on Houston. The door had a small design with the name bracketed, easily missed by a passerby. The atmosphere was dark and perfect, and the drinks were great and inventive. It was the kind of place I wanted to go to hang out with a group of friends and not a night club where I would have to yell at the top of my lungs just to get a gin and tonic. While we were there another sommelier joined us, bringing with him a glass in his backpack he brought from his restaurant. In the glass was a '71 Burgundy that a collector had opened at the restaurant. Imagine, that someone walks into a bar with a 40 year old wine in a wrapped glass in their backpack after they had biked to get there. These people are awesome.
So being a sommelier is a lot of work. One has to deal with customers, pushy salespeople, and determined public relations professionals. But the perks seem pretty good to me.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
1) Catena Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, 13.5% ALC, Mendoza, Argentina
2) Norton Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, 13.8% ALC, Napa Valley, California, USA
3) Chateau Lastours 2005, 12.5% ALC., (30% Syrah, 30% Baucol, 20% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon), AOC Gaillac, Bordeaux, France
4) Greenpoint Shiraz 2005, 14% ALC, Victoria, Australia
5) Andezon “A” 2006, 14% ALC, AOC Cotes-du-Rhone, France
6) Qupé Syrah 2006, 13.5% ALC, Central Coast, California, USA
7) Cantele Primitivo 2005, 13.5% ALC, IGT Salento, Puglia, Italy
8) Seghesio Zinfandel 2006, 15.4% ALC, Sonoma County, California, USA
A bunch of wines for this tasting and not many good ones. Instead of reviewing all of them I'll just give my two cents on the ones I liked.
5) This wine was meaty, a little smoky and called for food. It probably had a little bit of Granache with the Syrah, leading to some rich spicy flavors. Very earthy but surprised me with the ripe new world style fruit on the taste.
7) What a price for this wine. A great example of a wine that most people will enjoy. It had sweet fig aromas and was jammy on the taste.
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
On Saturday night I treated myself and a date to a dinner at Veritas and it was an experience that everyone should have at least once in their lives (hopefully many more). I picked Veritas because I had been on a business trip to visit the Chilean wineries with one of the sommeliers, Patrick Cappiello.
My goodness, were we treated well. The menu was small enough to make a choice easy, but there were so many amazing sounding dishes. I chose a seared fois gras, my date chose the langoustine roti. My fois gras was fantastic and it really highlighted for me what the combination of a great chef and very talented sommelier staff can produce. With the fois gras I was poured a Volnay, a really great choice and not one I would have expected. Usually I would expect a sweeter white wine, but the Volnay was perfect! The smoked flavor in the wine hit the exact right note with the seared flavors. Then there was a linguini dish that came out, made with chestnuts and topped with white truffles. With that we were poured a Piedmont, a nebbiolo based wine. Again, melt in your seat perfection. The tastes complimented each other perfectly.
My entree was Duck a l'Orange, with which I was served a young Chateau Talbot (2005). My mother actually has about half a case of the '78 in her basement and another half case of the '89 for my brother. I think I was on food overload. I wasn't nearly as impressed with this pairing as I was with the others, but it was still great food and wine.
When we were done we could barely move. We paid the bill (ok, I paid the bill and yes it was quite expensive, but well worth it), thanked Patrick for such a good meal and making sure he thanked the Chef for us, and left. We were stuffed and decided that the only way to unstuff was to walk the two miles home. I was nearly asleep in a food coma the entire way.
This was one of those meals that I will probably remember for many years to come. The company was good, the food was amazing, and the service helpful but unintrusive. It is an experience you pay for and you feel good about it. I don't know if I could do it again anytime soon, but I'm glad I went. There is probably no where else in the US that takes dinning as seriously as New York. From the very high end like Veritas to the very low end junk food pizza place. Being from Philly, we take our junk food very seriously. My favorite spot is a shack on a corner that sells the best, greasiest cheese steaks in the world. "One, wit, wizz" and you're on your way with a heart attack in your hands.
I can see how fine dinning can be a difficult draw in harder economic times, but hopefully there are enough people in New York who understand that this experience is worth the cost. Just not every night...
The grapes typically produce a robust red wine, but in the United States a semi-sweet rosé (blush-style) wine called White Zinfandel has six times the sales of the red wine. Zinfandel has such high sugar levels that it was originally grown for table grapes in the United States, and the sugar can be fermented into high levels of alcohol, sometimes 15% or more.
The taste of the red wine depends on the ripeness of the grapes from which it is made. Red berry fruits like raspberry predominate in wines from cooler areas, whereas blackberry, anise and pepper notes are more common in wines made in warmer areas and in wines made from the earlier-ripening Primitivo clone
Europe (6000 BCE – 1870)
Archaeological evidence indicates that domestication of Vitis vinifera occurred in the Caucasus region around 6000 BCE, and winemaking was discovered shortly after. Cultivation of the vine subsequently spread to the Mediterranean and surrounding regions. Croatia once had several indigenous varieties related to Zinfandel, which formed the basis of its wine industry in the 1800s. This diversity suggests that the grapes existed in Croatia longer than anywhere else. However, these varieties were almost entirely wiped out by the phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century, reducing Zinfandel to just nine vines of locally-known "Crljenak Kaštelanski" discovered in 2001 on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia.
The first documented use of the term Primitivo appears in Italian governmental publications of the 1870s. The name derives from the terms primativus or primaticcio, which refer to the grape's tendency to ripen earlier than other varieties. This name's appearance 40 years after the first documented use of the term Zinfandel was previously thought to suggest that Primitivo was introduced to Italy from across the Atlantic; however, this hypothesis became unlikely since the discovery of the vine's Croatian origin.
Primitivo is now thought to have been introduced as a distinct clone into the Apulia region of Italy in the 1700s. Don Francesco Filippo Indellicati, the priest of the church at Gioia del Colle near Bari, selected an early ("primo") ripening plant of the Zagarese variety (the name possibly derived from "Zagreb") and planted it in Liponti. This clone ripened at the end of August and became widespread throughout northern Puglia. Cuttings came to the other great Primitivo DOC (denominazione di origine controllata or "controlled denomination of origin") as part of the dowry of the Countess Sabini of Altamura when she married Don Tommaso Schiavoni-Tafuri of Manduria in the late 1800s.
United States east coast (1829 – 1850)
The arrival of Zinfandel in the United States may have been via the Imperial Nursery in Vienna, Austria, which likely obtained the vines during the Habsburg Monarchy's rule over Croatia, after Dalmatia was absorbed when the Venetian Empire fell in 1797. George Gibbs, a horticulturist on Long Island, received shipments of grapes from Schönbrunn and elsewhere in Europe between 1820 and 1829. Sullivan suggests that the "Black Zinfardel of Hungary" mentioned by William Robert Prince in A Treatise on the Vine (1830) may have referred to one of Gibbs' 1829 acquisitions. Webster suggests that the name is a corruption of tzinifándli (czirifandli), a Hungarian word derived from the German Zierfandler, a white grape from Austria's Thermenregion.
Gibbs visited Boston in 1830, and Samuel Perkins of that city began selling "Zenfendal" soon afterward. In 1830, Gibbs also supplied Prince with "Black St. Peters", a similar variety may have come from England, where many vines have "St. Peters" in their names. Little is known about this vine, except that the Black St. Peters that arrived in California in the 1850s was the same as what became known as Zinfandel by the 1870s.
By 1835 Charles M. Hovey, Boston’s leading nurseryman, was recommending "Zinfindal" as a table grape, and it was soon widely grown in heated greenhouses for the production of table grapes as early as June. The first reference to making wine from "Zinfindal" appears in John Fisk Allen's Practical Treatise in the Culture and Treatment of the Grape Vine (1847). Meanwhile the fad of hothouse cultivation faded in the 1850s as attention turned to the Concord and other grape varieties that could be grown outdoors in Boston.
California (1850 – 1933)
Prince and other nurserymen such as Frederick W. Macondray joined the California Gold Rush in the 1850s, and took Zinfandel with them. Prince's notebook records that the grape dried "perfectly to Raisin" and that he believed his Zinfandel was the same as the "Black Sonora" he found in California. When the vine known as "Black St. Peters" arrived in California, it was initially regarded as a distinct variety, but by the 1870s it was recognized as the same grape as Zinfandel.
Joseph W. Osborne may have made the first wine from Zinfandel in California. He planted Zinfandel from Macondray at his Oak Knoll vineyard just north of Napa, and his wine was much praised in 1857. Planting of Zinfandel boomed soon after, and by the end of the 19th century it was the most widespread variety in California.
These Zinfandel old vines are now treasured for the production of premium red wine, but many were ripped up in the 1920s, during the Prohibition years (1920–1933), but not for the obvious reason. Even during the Prohibition, home winemaking remained effectively legal, and some vineyards embraced the sale of grapes for making wine at home. While Zinfandel grapes proved popular among home winemakers living near the vineyards, it was vulnerable to rot on the long journey to East Coast markets. The thick-skinned Alicante Bouschet was less susceptible to rot, so this and similar varieties were widely planted for the home winemaking market. Three thousand cars (about 38000 t) of Zinfandel grapes were shipped in 1931, compared to 6000 cars of Alicante Bouschet.
Rediscovery after Prohibition (1933 – present)
By 1930, the wine industry had weakened due to the Great Depression and Prohibition. Many vineyards that survived by supplying the home market were located in California's Central Valley, with a non-optimal environment for growing quality Zinfandel. Thus, the end of Prohibition left a shortage of quality wine grapes, and Zinfandel sank into obscurity as most was blended into undistinguished fortified wines. However, some producers remained interested in making single varietal red wines.
By the middle of the 20th century the origins of California Zinfandel had been forgotten. In 1972, one British wine writer wrote, "there is a fascinating Californian grape, the zinfandel, said to have come from Hungary, but apparently a cépage now unknown there." In 1974 and 1981, American wine writers described it as "a California original, grown nowhere else" and "California's own red grape".
In 1972, Bob Trinchero of the Sutter Home Winery decided to try draining some juice from the vats in order to impart more tannins and color to his Deaver Vineyard Zinfandel. He vinified this juice as a dry wine, and tried to sell it under the name of Oeil de Perdrix, a French wine made by this saignée method. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms insisted on an English translation, so he added "White Zinfandel" to the name, and sold 220 cases. At the time, demand for white wine exceeeded the availability of white wine grapes, encouraging other California producers to make "white" wine from red grapes, with minimal skin contact. However, in 1975, Trinchero's wine experienced a stuck fermentation, a problem in which the yeast dies off before all the sugar is converted to alcohol. He put the wine aside for two weeks, then tasted it and decided to sell this pinker, sugary wine. Just as Mateus Rosé had become a huge success in Europe after World War II, this medium sweet White Zinfandel became immensely popular. White Zinfandel still accounts for 9.9% of U.S. wine sales by volume (6.3% by value), six times the sales of red Zinfandel. Most white Zinfandel is made from grapes grown for that purpose in California's Central Valley.
Wine critics considered white Zinfandel to be insipid and uninteresting in the 1970s and 1980s, although modern white Zinfandels have more fruit and less cloying sweetness. Nevertheless, the success of this blush wine saved many old vines in premium areas, which came into their own at the end of the 20th century as red Zinfandel wines came back into fashion. Although the two wines taste dramatically different, both are made from the same (red) grapes, processed in a different way.
As of 2004, Syrah was estimated to be the world's 7th most grown variety at 142,600 hectares (352,000 acres), after having enjoyed a strong growth in plantings for several years.
The grape is also known under many other synonyms that are used in various parts of the world including Antourenein Noir, Balsamina, Candive, Entournerein, Hignin Noir, Marsanne Noir, Schiras, Sirac, Syra, Syrac, Serine, and Sereine.
Syrah should not be confused with Petite Sirah, a synonym for Durif, another grape variety which is a cross of Syrah with Peloursin dating from 1880.
Syrah has a long documented history in the Rhône region of Southeastern France, but before 1998 it was not known with certainty if it had originated in that region or was brought there. In that year, a study conducted by Carole Meredith's research group in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at University of California, Davis used DNA typing and extensive grape reference material from the viticultural research station in Montpellier, France to conclude that Syrah was the offspring of the grape varieties Dureza (father) and Mondeuse Blanche (mother). Dureza is a dark-skinned grape variety from the Ardèche region in France that have all but disappeared from the vineyards, and the preservation of such varieties is a speciality of Montpellier. Mondeuse Blanche is a white grape variety cultivated in the Savoy region, and still found in very small amounts in that region's vineyards today. Both varieties are somewhat obscure today, have never achieved anything near Syrah's fame or popularity, and there is no record of them ever having been cultivated any long distance from their present home. Thus, both Syrah's parents come from a limited area in southeastern France, very close to northern Rhône, where Syrah came to fame. Based on these findings, the researchers have concluded that Syrah originated in the same place where it came to fame - northern Rhône.
The DNA typing leaves no room for doubt in this matter, and the numerous other hypotheses of the grape's origin which have been forwarded during the years all completely lack support in form of documentary evidence or ampelographic investigations, be it by methods of classical botany or DNA. Instead, they seem to have been based primarily or solely on the name or synonyms of the variety. Because of varying orthography for grape names, especially for old varieties, this is in general very thin evidence. Despite this, origins such as Syracuse or the Iranian city of Shiraz have been proposed.
The parentage information does however not reveal how old the grape variety is, i.e., when the pollination of a Mondeuse Blanche vine by Dureza took place, leading to the original Syrah seed plant. In the year AD 77, Pliny the Elder wrote in his Naturalis Historia about the wines of Vienne (which today would be called Côte-Rôtie), where the Allobroges made famous and prized wine from a dark-skinned grape variety that had not existed some 50 years earlier, in Virgil's age. Pliny called the vines of this wine Allobrogica, and it has been speculated that it could be today's Syrah. However, the description of the wine would also fit, for example, Dureza and Pliny's observation that the vines of Allobrogica was resistant to cold is not entirely consistent with Syrah.
The name Shiraz and associated legends
It seems that many of the legends of Syrah's origins come from one of its many synonyms - Shiraz. Since there also is a city in Persia/Iran called Shiraz, where the famous Shirazi wine was produced, some legends have claimed that the Syrah grape originated in Shiraz, and was brought to Rhône, which would make Syrah a local French synonym and Shiraz the proper name of the variety.
There are at least two significantly different versions of the myth, giving different accounts of how the variety is supposed to have been brought from Shiraz to Rhône and differing up to 1,800 years in dating this event. In one version, the Phocaeans should have brought Syrah/Shiraz to their colony around Marseilles (then known as Massilia), which was founded around 600 BC. The grape should then later have made its way to northern Rhône, which was never colonized by the Phocaeans. No documentary evidence exists to back up this legend, and it also requires that the variety later has vanished from the Marseilles region without leaving any trace.
In another version, the person who brought the variety to Rhône is even named, being the crusader Gaspard de Stérimberg, who is supposed to have built the chapel at Hermitage. Even before the advent of DNA typing of grapes, there were several problems with this legend. First, no ampelographic investigations of the grapes from Shiraz seem to have been made. Second, it is documented that Shirazi wine was white, ruling out the use of dark-skinned grapes such as Syrah, and no known descriptions of this wine's taste and character indicate any similarity whatsoever with red wines from the Rhône. Third, it is highly doubtful if any crusader would have journeyed as far east as Persia, since the crusades were focused on the Holy Land.
The legend connecting Syrah with Shiraz in Iran may however be of French origin, since it is supposed to have been included in a 1826 book called Œnologie Française, although that book used the name Scyras for the grape variety.
Since the name Shiraz has been used primarily in Australia in modern time, while the earliest Australian documents use the spelling "Scyras", it has been speculated (among others by Jancis Robinson) that the name Shiraz is in fact a so-called "strinization" of Syrah's name via Scyras. However, while the names Shiraz and Hermitage gradually seem to have replaced Scyras in Australia from the mid-19th century, the spelling Shiraz has also been documented in British sources back to at least the 1830s. So, while the name or spelling Shiraz may be an effect of the English language on a French name, there is no evidence that it actually originated in Australia, although it was definitely the Australian usage and the Australian wines that made the use of this name popular.
Another legend of the grape variety's origin, based on the name Syrah, is that it was brought from Syracuse by the legions of Roman Emperor Probus sometime after AD 280. This legend also lacks documentary evidence and is inconsistent with ampelographic findings.
Rise to fame
The wines that made Syrah famous were those from Hermitage, the hill above the town Tain-l'Hermitage in northern Rhône where there is an hermitage (chapel) on the top, and where de Stérimberg is supposed to have settled as an hermit after his crusades. Hermitage wines have for centuries had a reputation for being powerful and excellent. While Hermitage was quite famous in the 18th and 19th centuries, and attracted interest from foreign oenophiles such as Bordeaux enthusiast Thomas Jefferson, it lost ground and foreign attention in the first half of the 20th century.
In the 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries, most Hermitage wine that left France did so as a blending component in Bordeaux wines. In an era when "clarets" were less powerful than today, and before appellation rules, red wines from warmer regions would be used for improvement (or adulteration, depending on the point of view) of Bordeaux wines. While Spanish and Algerian wines are also known to have been used for this purpose, top Bordeaux châteaux would use Hermitage to improve their wines, especially in weaker vintages.
Arrival in Australia
In 1831, the Scotsman James Busby, often called "the Father of Australian viticulture", made a trip back to Europe to collect cuttings from vines (primarily from France and Spain) for introduction to Australia. One of the varieties collected by him was Syrah, although Busby used the two spellings "Scyras" and "Ciras". The cuttings were planted in the Sydney Botanical Gardens, and in Hunter Valley, and in 1839 brought from Sydney to South Australia. By the 1860s, Syrah was established as an important variety in Australia.
Syrah continues to be the main grape of the Northern Rhône and is associated with classic wines such as Hermitage, Cornas and Côte-Rôtie. In the Southern Rhône it is used as a blending grape in such wines as Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Côtes du Rhône, where Grenache usually makes up the bulk of the blend. Although its best incarnations will age for decades, less-extracted styles may be enjoyed young for their lively red and blueberry characters and smooth tannin structure. Syrah has been widely used as a blending grape in the red wines of many countries due to its fleshy fruit mid-palate, balancing the weaknesses of other varieties and resulting in a "complete" wine.´
From the 1970s and even more from the 1990s, Syrah has enjoyed increased popularity, and plantings of the variety has expanded significantly in both old and new locations. In the early 2000s, it broke into the top 10 of varieties planted worldwide for the first time.
Despite its prominence in the industry, the grape is a relatively new variety, the product of a chance crossing between Cabernet franc and Sauvignon blanc during the 17th century in southwestern France. Its popularity is often attributed to its ease of cultivation - the grapes have thick skins and the vines are hardy and resistant to rot and frost - and to its consistent presentation of structure and flavours which express the typical character ("typicity") of the variety. Familiarity and ease of pronunciation have helped to sell Cabernet Sauvignon wines to consumers, even when from unfamiliar wine regions. Its widespread popularity has also contributed to criticism of the grape as a "colonizer" that takes over wine regions at the expense of native grape varieties.
For many years, the origin of Cabernet Sauvignon was not clearly understood and many myths and conjunctures surrounded it. The word "Sauvignon" is believed to be derived from the French sauvage meaning "wild" and to refer to the grape being a wild Vitis vinifera vine native to France. Until recently the grape was rumoured to have ancient origins, perhaps even being the Biturica grape used to make ancient Roman wine and referenced by Pliny the Elder. This belief was widely held in the 18th century, when the grape was also known as Petite Vidure or Bidure, apparently a corruption of Biturica. There was also belief that Vidure was a reference to the hard wood (French vigne dure) of the vine, with a possible relationship to Carménère which was once known as Grand Vidure. Other theories were that the grapevine originated in the Rioja region of Spain.
While the period when the name Cabernet Sauvignon became more prevalent over Petite Vidure is not certain, records indicate that the grape was a popular Bordeaux planting in the 18th century Médoc region. The first estates known to have actively grown the variety (and the likely source of Cabernet vines for other estates) were Château Mouton and Château d'Armailhac in the Pauillac.
The grape's true origins were discovered in the late 1990s with the use of DNA typing at the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology, by a team lead by Dr. Carole Meredith. The DNA evidence determined that Cabernet Sauvignon was the offspring of Cabernet franc and Sauvignon blanc and was most likely a chance crossing that occurred in the 17th century. Prior to this discovery, this origin had been suspected from the similarity of the grapes' names and the fact that Cabernet Sauvignon shares similar aromas with both grapes--such as the black currant and pencil box aromas of Cabernet franc and the grassiness of Sauvignon blanc.
While Cabernet Sauvignon can grow in a variety of climates, its suitability as a varietal wine or as a blend component is strongly influenced by the warmth of the climate. The vine is one of the last major grape varieties to bud and ripen (typically 1-2 weeks after Merlot and Cabernet franc) and the climate of the growing season affects how early the grapes will be harvested. Many wine regions in California give the vine an abundance of sunshine with few problems in ripening fully, which increases the likelihood of producing varietal Cabernet wines. In regions like Bordeaux, under the threat of incremental harvest season weather, Cabernet Sauvignon is often harvested a little earlier than ideal and is then blended with other grapes to fill in the gaps. As global warming has increased the number of warm vintage years, the possibility of creating varietal Cabernet in Bordeaux has also increased, making the decision to blend based more on ideology and tradition. In some regions, climate will be more important than soil. In regions that are too cool, there is a potential for more herbaceous and green bell pepper flavours from less than ideally ripened grapes. In regions where the grape is exposed to excess warmth and over-ripening, there is a propensity for the wine to develop flavours of cooked or stewed blackcurrants.
The Cabernet grape variety has thrived in a variety of vineyard soil types, making the consideration of soil less of concern particularly for New World winemakers. In Bordeaux, the soil aspect of terroir was historically an important consideration in determining which of the major Bordeaux grape varieties where planted. While Merlot seemed to thrive in clay and limestone based soils (such as those of the Right Bank regions of the Gironde estuary), Cabernet Sauvignon seemed to perform better in the gravel based soil of the Médoc region on the Left Bank. The gravel soils offered the benefit of being well drained while absorbing and radiating heat to the vines, aiding ripening. Clay and limestone based soils are often cooler, allowing less heat to reach the vines, delaying ripening. In regions where the climate is warmer, there is more emphasis on soil that is less fertile, which promotes less vigor in the vine which can keep yields low. In the Napa Valley wine regions of Oakville and Rutherford, the soil is more alluvial and dusty. Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon has been often quoted as giving a sense of terroir with a taste of "Rutherford dust". In the South Australian wine region of Coonawarra, Cabernet Sauvignon has produced vastly different results from grapes vines planted in the region's terra rosa soil-so much so that the red soil is considered the "boundary" of the wine region, with some controversy from wine growers with Cabernet Sauvignon planted on red soil.
In addition to ripeness levels, the harvest yields can also have a strong influence in the resulting quality and flavors of Cabernet Sauvignon wine. The vine itself is prone to vigorous yields, particularly when planted on the vigorous SO4 rootstock. Excessive yields can result in less concentrated and flavorful wine with flavors more on the green or herbaceous side. In the 1970s, a particular clone of Cabernet Sauvignon that was engineered to be virus free was noted for its very high yields-causing many quality conscious producers to replant their vineyards in the late 20th century with different clonal varieties. To reduce yields, producers can plant the vines on less vigorous rootstock and also practice green harvesting with aggressive pruning of grape clusters soon after veraison.
In general, Cabernet Sauvignon has good resistance to most grape diseases, powdery mildew being the most noted exception. It is, however, susceptible to the vine diseases Eutypella scoparia and excoriose.
The "green bell pepper" flavor
There are a couple of noted Cabernet Sauvignon flavors that are intimately tied to viticultural and climate influences. The most widely recognized is the herbaceous or green bell pepper flavor caused by pyrazines, which are more prevalent in under-ripened grapes. Pyrazine compounds are present in all Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and are gradually destroyed by sunlight as the grape continues to ripen. To the human palate this compound is detectable in wines with pyrazine levels as low as 2 nanograms (ng) per liter. At the time of veraison, when the grapes first start to fully ripen, there is the equivalent pyrazine level of 30 ng/l. In cooler climates, it is difficult to get Cabernet Sauvignon grapes to ripen fully to the point where pyrazine is not detected. The green bell flavor is not considered a wine fault but it may not be desirable to all consumers' tastes. The California wine region of Monterey was noted in the late 20th century for its very vegetal Cabernet Sauvignon with pronounced green pepper flavor, earning the nickname of "Monterey veggies". In addition to its cool climate, Monterey is also prone to being very windy, which can have the effect of shutting down the grape vines and further inhibiting ripeness.
Two other well known Cabernet Sauvignon flavors are mint and eucalyptus. Mint flavors are often associated with wine regions that are warm enough to have low pyrazine levels but are still generally cool, such as Australia's Coonawarra region and some areas of Washington State. There is some belief that soil could also be a contributor to the minty notes, since the flavor also appears in some wines from the Pauillac region but not from similar climate of Margaux. Resinous Eucalyptus flavors tend to appear in regions that are habitats for the eucalyptus tree, such as California's Napa and Sonoma valleys and parts of Australia, but there has been no evidence to conclusively prove a direct link between proximity of eucalyptus trees and the presence of that flavor in the wine.