Oenology Uncorked: 5 Events That Changed the History of Wine

Image Source: Image by Flickr CC user Von_Hedwig

Growing wine is a long and subtle process. Soil conditions improve, vines tendril around a trellis as grapes bloom over the course of a year and are cultivated into vintages. The reputations of wineries develop over decades. Fittingly, in the wine world history changes in sips, not dramatic gulps — most of the time, anyway. Sometimes, there are events that change everything we knew. Here are five events that altered the history of wine in ways we are still feeling today.

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Image Source: Adapted from image by Flickr CC user Doug Harple

 1863 – The Great French Wine Blight

In the mid-19th century, Phylloxera aphids from North America appeared on vinis vitifera vines in the Languedoc region of France. These aphids feed on leaves and roots, causing nodules and eventually killing the vine.  Between the 1850s to mid-1870s, over 40% of French grape vines and vineyards were lost due to this infestation, and as a result the French economy suffered many lost businesses.

Because insecticide treatments were unsuccessful, the French government had to seek out an alternate way to prevent further damage to their vineyards. The solution? Grafting French shoots of vinus vitifera onto American root stock (vinus aestivalis), as the American roots seemed to be unaffected by the offending insects.

Today, European vintners are still searching for ways to cure diseased brought by the Phylloxera aphids, which remain a very real threat to vines.  Much debate has been had on whether or not European-American grafting has an effect on the quality of the wines, but this grafting method is still used in order to keep the rootstock resistant to invasion.  If you’re truly curious as to what ungrafted vines produce, it is still possible – keep an eye out for Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises, a rare Champagne made from some of the only remaining parcels of ungrafted vineyards in France.

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1935 – Creation of the AOC Label & Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité

The appellation d’origine controlee (AOC) was one of the first legal actions taken by the French to guarantee the origin and authenticity of an agricultural product. Following the creation of AOC standards, the Baron Pierre Le Roy (of Châteauneuf-du-Pape) co-created the Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité, a committee dedicated to regulating French agricultural products, including wine. This agency is responsible for ensuring that all products with AOC will hold to a rigorous set of clearly defined standards, with the goal to preserve the authenticity of production and to protect a product that has an established reputation.

There are over 468 AOC for wines, eaux-de-vie, and ciders alone. The AOC status identifies and guarantees a link between the product and the terroir (a concept that includes geographical location, local practices, and geology, and probably deserves a blog post all its own). Thus, a Bordeaux blend from any other region isn’t the same as one from a Bordeaux AOC — mais, bien sur.

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 1976 – The Judgment of Paris

Few California winemakers would argue that this wine competition, also known as the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, was what brought Napa Valley to the attention of the world. California Cabernet Sauvignon faced off against Bordeaux, and California Chardonnays went up against Burgundy Chardonnays in a blind tasting among 11 judges: nine French, one British, one American. The winners: Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (red) and Chateau Montelena (white) — both from Napa Valley, USA.

The scores, published by TIME magazine reporter George M. Taber, left French wine industry leaders stunned and a bit angry, claiming that this competition damaged the superior reputation of French wine. The organizer, Steven Spurrier, was also banned from France’s wine tasting tour for a year, but the effects of the tasting were revolutionary: New World wines took center stage on a global level, and Napa’s wine industry flourished.

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Image source: Robert M. Parker, Jr.

 1978 – Robert M. Parker’s 100-Point Wine Rating System

Prior to Robert Parker’s rating system, wines were rated on a 20-point rating system — still used today by several wine critics. This method was deemed “inflexible” by Parker, allowing for compressed and inflated wine ratings. Basing his system on the 100-point American Standardized Grading system of the 1970s, he evaluated wines on a scale of 50-100, with wines rating 85 or higher considered “above average” or “good.”  These scores, published alongside tasting notes in The Wine Advocate, became wildly popular as a reference to determine drinkability and collectability.

As a result, wine retailers used these ratings for marketing purposes to help sell their wares, with wines receiving ratings of 90 points or above (considered “outstanding”) garnering favorable sales right away. Parker’s reviews carry weight within the wine industry — a 100-point score could almost guarantee the success of a winery and a subsequent cult-like following. This was particularly useful for wines that weren’t often imported into the US at the time he began rating wines, like Vega Sicilia, or wineries that were just making their names for themselves. (Ever hear of a little producer called Sine Qua Non?)

Today, with the boon of the Internet and the number of wine publications available, Parker’s ratings may not carry as much clout as they did 20 years ago, but there is no doubt that his rating system has influenced an entire generation of wine merchants, producers, and consumers.

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Fake vintner labels. Image souce: FBI

 2012 – Rudy Kurniawan Arrested for Wine Fraud

In what is quite possibly the largest wine con in history, 37-year old “collector” Rudy Kurniawan was arrested (and later convicted) for selling over $20M of counterfeit rare wine. In the early 2000s, he began to make a name for himself by buying and selling large amounts of rare wine and hosting tastings of rare wines with other collectors — so much so that he became known as “Dr. Conti,” due to his affinity for the famed Burgundy producer, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

Kurniawan consigned lots of rare wines for auction to Acker Merrall & Condit, but began to arouse suspicion in 2007, when a few magnums 1982 Le Pin were called out as fakes by the producers themselves. He further drew attention to himself in 2008 when he consigned several bottles of Domaine Ponsot — Clos St. Denis, from various vintages between 1945-1971. Laurent Ponsot, of Domaine Ponsot, asserted that the domaine had not produced wine from Clos St. Denis prior to 1982 and had the fake lots removed from auction. Several other similar incidents were recorded through 2012, when several lots of wine were withdrawn from auction through Spectrum because they were believed to be consigned by Kurniawan through another party.

When Kurniawan was arrested by the FBI in March 2012, they searched his Arcadia home and essentially found a counterfeiting production. Thousands of fake labels, stamps, corks, and other items that helped him turn inexpensive Napa wines into bottles of rare Bordeaux and Burgundy. The amount of counterfeit wine that Kurniawan put into circulation over several years, according to Vanity Fair’s Michael Steinberger, “may have left the market for rare and old wines irredeemably corrupted.”

It’s hard to know what is going to make history when you’re living in the midst of it. At any moment, there could be an event that we’ll one day look back upon as the time that everything changed. All we can do is keep collecting, keep enjoying, and keep our ears to the ground and our nose in a glass, inhaling the history of our favorite subject.

Tips for Successful Wine Shipping

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Now that spring is finally starting to arrive, it’s the perfect time to ship wine!  Vinfolio’s standard of shipping is to use a weather check to make sure your wine ships when the temperatures are ideal. This system is linked directly to AccuWeather.com and checks to make sure that the points of origin and destination have temperatures that fall between 20°F – 75°F, and will automatically put a hold on your shipment if the weather is outside of those temperature parameters, attempting delivery the following week until the wine successfully ships. Depending on where you are shipping to and what speed you choose, you can also opt to waive the weather check and ship anyway.

Here are a few pointers for the most seamless delivery possible:

  • Always use the quickest speed possible.  This might mean a higher shipping cost, but weigh the costs of shipping against the risk to your wine should you choose to send it across the country using a slower speed.  More time in transit means longer exposure to a non-climate-controlled environment, especially if the package is delayed or sits at a shipping warehouse over the weekend. You’ve probably invested a fair amount of money into your wine – don’t skimp on shipping!
  • Ship to a business address, or to a building that has a doorman that can accept your delivery.  We recommend shipping to an address that is equipped to receive shipments during standard business hours.  This ensures that shipments will not remain overnight in vans or warehouse facilities without temperature controls.
  • Ensure the presence of a receiver of legal age.  Since a wine shipment contains alcohol, carriers are required by law to obtain an adult (over 21 years of age) signature upon receipt.
  • Or, opt to ship to a FedEx Office.  If you know you that no one will be able to receive your package, you can choose to ship to any FedEx location and have it held for pickup. Simply enter the FedEx address as your ship-to address, with your name, and add “Hold For Pickup” to the Recipient Name (i.e. John Smith – Hold for Pickup). If your shipment is already in progress and you’ve missed the attempted delivery, you can also call us and have us reroute the shipment to the nearest FedEx office for pickup as well.  Find your nearest FedEx office here.
  • Monitor your tracking number.  FedEx and Golden State Overnight often update their tracking information in real time, so if there is a problem with your delivery, you should be notified fairly quickly.  You can also sign up for FedEx alerts right on FedEx.com so you will be sure to get notification right away via email or SMS.
  • Be aware of any changes in weather or other issues that could delay delivery.  A sudden storm may throw a wrench into your delivery timing, which unfortunately, is uncontrollable.  The shutting down of streets for festivals such as Mardi Gras, the NYC Marathon, or a Presidential visit can also affect your delivery, so try to plan around them if possible.  If you are shipping wine to arrive for an important event, such as a tasting, party, or dinner, schedule perhaps a day or two to allow ample time for your wine to arrive and settle prior to drinking.

Things you should know about your shipment:

  • Vinfolio ships using styrofoam shippers.  This packing material does provide a fair amount of insulation against both heat and cold, so unless your shipment is sitting in extreme temperatures for hours, the internal temperature of the wine should not change too drastically.  Shipments sent in pulp packaging do not provide this same insulation.
  •  Shipments are insured for up to $100 per shipment.  This does not mean we can’t insure it for more, but you have to request the additional insurance.  Broken, damaged, or lost shipments are rare – but they can happen. Additional insurance fees are minimal, approximately $.90 per $100 of value. Email us at service@vinfolio.com for more details.
  • We won’t ship your wine inside its wood case:   It is never a great idea to ship your wine inside of a case that is not meant for shipping, so when your wine comes with a wooden case, we ship the bottles and the case separately to prevent breakage.  The exception to this is for banded cases of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, for which we have ordered custom fit shipping boxes that are meant to accommodate a bound DRC box.
  • Consider Temperature Control Shipping.   During the summer, FedEx offers Temperature-Controlled shipping that many of our clients use, a service that uses refrigerated ground transport to move your wine across country at a cost that is slightly higher than FedEx Ground service. To learn more, click here.

Questions regarding our shipping capabilities?  Contact us and we will be happy to help!  Also, stay tuned for our post on Summer Shipping options as the weather warms up across the country.  We’ve got you covered.

A Visit to Mouton Rothschild

"Château Mouton Rothschild x" by Benjamin Zingg, Switzerland - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ch%C3%A2teau_Mouton_Rothschild_x.jpg#/media/File:Ch%C3%A2teau_Mouton_Rothschild_x.jpg

It’s time for En Primeur, so it only seems right that we spotlight a few of our favorite Bordeaux producers, starting with Château Mouton Rothschild.  One of Bordeaux’s first-growth jewels, this estate is located in the village of Pauillac, 30 miles northwest of Bordeaux Centre, with 203 acres of vineyards on the slopes of the Gironde in the Medoc.

The Family

The Rothschild family has a rich history in finance, with family members working in main European financial centers all over the continent since the mid-18th century: Frankfurt, Vienna, London, Naples, and Paris.  One of two French branches of the Rothschild family was founded by Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild, a London-born aristocrat who moved to Paris with the intent of working with his uncle.  In 1853 – wanting to produce wine to serve to his friends – the Baron bought Château Brane-Mouton at auction, which he renamed to Château Mouton Rothschild.  Nearly 70 years later, in 1922, the Baron Philippe de Rothschild (great-grandson of Baron Nathaniel) took over the estate.  His daughter, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, inherited the estate upon Baron Philippe’s death in 1988, and took to becoming a global ambassador for the estate and for Bordeaux as a whole.  The Baroness passed away in 2014, and the estate is now run by her eldest son, Philippe Sereys de Rothschild.

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Pauillac and the Estate

Getting to the Medoc from Bordeaux Centre takes approximately one very scenic hour – lots of lush scenery interspersed between  little towns that you must cut through.  You will also pass a few famous names on the way – Margaux, Pichon-Longueville, Leoville-Poyferre, Beychevelle (if you take D2), the road map looking more like a well-curated wine menu at a Michelin-starred restaurant!  As you go through the vineyards of Pauillac, you may recognize some iconic landmarks – like the tower from Château Latour pictured above.  In a stark contrast to Napa Valley’s Highway 29 or Silverado Trail, the roads are quiet and the estates are more spread out – no buses full of tipsy bachelorettes in sundresses here, as many of the tastings are by appointment only and much more low-key.

Château Mouton Rothschild charges 45€ per person for the tour and to taste wine.  (This tour takes approximately two hours, maybe even a little longer, so plan any other appointments accordingly!)  It begins with an informative film on the family and the estate, and from there, you will tour the grounds – from the vineyards, to the vinification area, to the library and museum.

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The New Vat Room

In 2012, Mouton-Rothschild did an overhaul of their gravity-fed vat room, hiring a set designer and architect to design every inch – from the walkways to the halls – making the entire aesthetic pretty dramatic, and almost theatrical.  When we arrived, they had just cleaned all the equipment in preparation for harvest.  We went down to the vinification vats – 64 in total, (44 oak and 20 stainless), an artistic display of wood, concrete, and steel.  Much of the harvested grapes at Mouton go through an optical sorting machine, but Philippe Dhalluin, managing director of the estate, also likes manual sorting because it “allows more integrity in the grapes” – an indication of the level of detail paid by the winemaker.  They strive for precision at Mouton, even going so far as to vinify certain parcels separately and combining them later for a more careful and thoughtful blend.

 

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 The Great Barrel Hall

The Grand Chai, or Great Barrel Hall, is a result of the Baron Philippe’s decision to bottle wines at the château – the first estate to do such a thing.  Simply, the château needed more space to store the wine, so in 1926, this 100-metre-long room was built, designed by architect Charles Siclis.  It’s quite an impressive room that feels sort of like an old church when you’re standing at the back, gazing over the rows of barrels.  At the front of the room, the family’s crest.

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Gilded silver ram cup, c1590

The Museum of Wine in Art

In 1962, the Minister of Cultural Affairs inaugurated the Museum of Wine in Art, the estate’s private collection of precious wine-related objects.  This wing of the estate is quite interesting – artifacts from all over the world, and of all ages, are displayed in a carefully curated exhibit.  From tapestries to goblets, ivory carvings, glassware – if you love art and artifacts, you could stay in this section for a very long time.  I felt like this was one of the best parts of the tour, and especially loved this silver ram cup, above.  Another section of the museum displays the labels that Mouton commissioned over the years – great artists like Chagall, Jeff Koons, Picasso, Salvador Dali, and Keith Haring have designs that have appeared on various vintages of Château Mouton Rothschild since 1945.  

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The Wine

At the end of the tour, you will get to sample the vintage that is not yet bottled (barrel samples), or most recent release.   Sadly, you are not able to taste a selection of different vintages, but it is still a wonderful end to a tour that is rich in historical insight and beautiful displays.  Definitely a must visit for fans of Bordeaux wines and anyone who is interested in wine-related art!  Tours are available in several languages as well.

To visit:

Château Mouton Rothschild
33250 Pauillac
tel. +33 (0)5 56 73 21 29

By appointment only.

Some great Château Mouton Rothschild vintages available through Vinfolio:

1986 Mouton-Rothschild  (1.5L)     Buy Now  $2495.00

1988 Mouton-Rothschild  (750ml)  Buy Now  $395.00

2003 Mouton-Rothschild  (750ml)  Buy Now  $485.00

2005 Mouton-Rothschild  (750ml)  Buy Now  $669.95

2009 Mouton-Rothschild  (750ml)   Buy Now  $799.95

Wine 101: How to Decode a French Wine Label

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Most domestic wine labels are pretty straightforward – you can see clearly when you’re purchasing a Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, or Merlot.  But venturing into foreign wines can be a little intimidating for the uninitiated – a French wine label often omits varietal, and has a bunch of notations (in French, bien sur) that don’t immediately make sense upon first read.  Even the most seasoned wine professional can get stumped by a wine label now and then – the regulations for labeling wine vary by country, and each component may not be in the same place each time.  For new wine aficionados, reading wine labels can be overwhelming, so we’ll break down a French wine label here for you.

Producer

The company (or the wine’s trademarked name) must be on the label.

Vintage

The year the grapes were harvested for the wine.  This is not always present on the main label – some producers will use a neck label to denote vintage instead.

Appellation title or sub-region

An appellation is an officially formed wine region within a country.  For example, “Pauillac” is a specific appellation within Bordeaux, a wine-producing region in France.  Each appellation must abide by a set of regulations that dictate the quality and contents of the wine from that region, in order to be considered a true wine of that appellation.  “Appellation Origine Controlée” or, AOC, will be on the label if the wine is produced according to these guidelines.

Varietal

Unlike many New World wines, French wines often don’t include the varietal on the wine label.  This is because each appellation has a specific type of grape(s) they are permitted to grow and include in their wine, in order to qualify for an AOC labeling.  For example, all wines with a Bordeaux AOC denomination are limited to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec for red wines, and Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle, and a handful of other white varietals for white wines, grown in very small quantities in the area.

Estate Bottling Information

The words “Mise en bouteille au Château” mean that the wine has been produced with grapes grown and harvested in the winery’s own vineyards.  If the winery uses grapes grown by someone else (a negociant), the label may say “Mise en bouteille à la propriété” (bottled on property).

Other words to know on a French wine label:

Cru – “growth”, like “Grand Cru”

1er – French shorthand for “premier”, the French word for “first” (i.e. 1er Cru = “Premier Cru”)

Vielles Vignes – old vines

Blanc – white

Rouge – red

Millésime or Récolte – vintage/harvest date

Cuvée – house blend

Clos – translates as “an enclosure,” usually an enclosed vineyard (i.e. Clos du Caillou)

Crémant – sparkling wine not from the Champagne region (i.e. Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Bourgogne)

Have we left anything out?  Please feel free to ask our wine experts questions in the comments below.  Santé!

California’s Drought & Wine Country

A close-up of damaged grape vines in Michael Vandborg’s drought stricken vineyard in the Lamont farming community in southeastern Joaquin Valley in Kern County, CA on Feb. 26, 2014. USDA photo by David Kosling.

It’s the middle of March, and Californians from San Francisco to San Diego are enjoying glorious amounts of weather worthy of a coastline cruise in a convertible.  Rosé weather during Thanksgiving weekend?  Yes!  Beach day in December?  That’s right.  Our warm weather induces eye-rolls from our friends out East, who have been literally buried under record-breaking amounts of snow until recently. But the sunshine comes with a price – California is entering our 4th year of drought, the worst we’ve had in over a century, causing havoc and economic hardship in the agriculture sector.

The drought has given winemakers all over California some cause for concern, due to the potential damage that the lack of water can cause to the vines, should the vines dry up completely.  Last year, vineyard owners had to prune and harvest sooner than usual, as the grapes ripened faster due to the copious amount of sun they were receiving.  Many vintners have turned to dry-farming, in the face of a growing water shortage, but some say this changes the character and taste of the grape dramatically.  And, less water used can mean less yield from the vines, in turn decreasing overall wine production.  Wine shortage, people.  It could happen.

The silver lining in all of this?  The 2014 vintage could turn out to be a spectacular one.  Grapes are fairly drought resistant, and the stress of getting less water means smaller berries with more concentrated sugar & flavors.  This may mean higher quality wine with greater aging possibility.  Vintages during drought years, such as 2012 and 2013, garnered better rankings in publications such as Wine Advocate, than rainier years like 2011.  What do you predict for the 2014 vintage, and 2015 harvest?  Share your thoughts in our comments section.

Here are a few Vinfolio selections from drought years 2012 & 2013:

2013 Aubert – Chardonnay Eastside Vineyard  (98-100 pts, Wine Advocate)

2012 Schrader – Cabernet Sauvignon (LPB) Las Piedras Vineyard (96-98 pts, Wine Advocate)

2012 Orin Swift – Papillon (93 points, Wine Advocate)

2012 Arietta – H Block Hudson Vineyard (92-94 pts, International Wine Cellar)

How Much Light Is Bad Light When Storing Wine?

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So we’ve told you why vibrations are bad for storing wine, so today we’ll give you some tips on proper lighting and the important ways it can effect a fine wine. 

Do not expose your wine to excessive light. Sunlight or other forms of bright light age the wine too soon, leaving you with poor quality tastings. Ideally, wine should be stored in a dark, cool environment. Continue reading How Much Light Is Bad Light When Storing Wine?