French vintners are angry with American wines labeled 'château' or 'clos,' saying they are mislabeled
You don't typically expect to find a "château"-labeled wine made in the U.S., but apparently, they do exist — and want to be recognized as such. But these French-labeled wines, made in America, are making French vintners across the ocean very angry.
The Wall Street Journal says that French vintners are making a stink about these "mislabled" bottles, saying they are diluting the tradition and craft of French winemaking. The terms "château" and "clos" often refers to the (French) vineyard where the wine is produced.
If American wineries sell these "château" and "clos"-labeled wines that are not up to the French quality, they say, it would hurt the overall name of these French-branded wines. Plus, these lower-priced bottles might lure away customers from the true product. Now, they are taking it to the EU to determine whether these American bottles should even be sold in the EU. "The European Commission is bartering our heritage and our economic clout at the expense of globalization," said Laurent Gapenne, of Château de Laville and president of the Federation des Grand Vins de Bordeaux, to the Associated Press.
Americans, on the other hand, don't understand why the French should own the definition of "château" and "clos." Said WineAmerica chief operation officer Cary Greene to the AP, people use the words in different ways — tossing the French labels up for grabs.
Château Magnol's winegrowing history goes back to 1842 when Monsieur Delisse, an experienced agronomist, consolidated the vineyards surrounding the former Château du Dehez. The estate was purchased under the name "Château Magnol" in 1978 by Barton & Guestier, who undertook major investments in the vineyards and cellars. The efforts were crowned with successs when Château Magnol was classified Cru Bourgeois in 1987.
Location : 30 hectares of vines in the Haut-Médoc Appellation, west of the city of Bordeaux.
Climate : M icro-climate thanks to its proximity to the ocean and the estuary.
Soil : Gravel and some sand.
Blend : 48% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon and 12% Cabernet Franc.
The average age of the vines is 22 years.
Time to re-think Bordeaux
Paradise Rescued Block One Cabernet Franc, Bordeaux, France 2016 (£18, winebuyers.com) Bordeaux may be the world’s most famous red wine region, but how many people actually drink its produce these days? There’s a persistent sense, even among serious wine enthusiasts, that it’s become too polarised. On the one hand, some of the most expensive wines in the world, wines that are doomed, as the Observer’s David Mitchell put it recently, to become “investment wine, not drinking wine… notional, like a currency”. On the other, a sea of mediocre reds, with interchangeable names above the same line drawing of a château on the label. As a result, the region has begun to seem a little off the pace when compared to the dynamism of countless rising-star wine regions across the globe. But there’s much more to the enormous Bordeaux region than the twin extremes of the dull and the deluxe. With its uncharacteristically striking label, the swish, silky, fresh blackcurrant of Paradise Rescued Block One shows a different side to Bordeaux.
Marks & Spencer Classics Claret, Bordeaux, France 2019 (£7, Marks & Spencer) Paradise Rescued is not your usual Bordeaux estate in other ways. It’s the work of an Englishman with a background in chemical engineering, David Stannard, who bought up the land around his holiday home in the village of Cardan, initially as a way of protecting it from developers, and then, as an increasingly serious wine project, overseen by local mother-and-daughter team Pascale and Albane Bervas. Both the wines that Stannard’s PR sent me to try (there’s also a merlot-cabernet franc blend), exhibit one of Bordeaux red wine’s most attractive features: that combination of ripe black and red fruit with an appetising freshness and some food-friendly tannin. In the recent run of warm vintages in the region, you can also find this combination in some superb-value everyday wines: your basic supermarket claret, such as M&S’s excellent, recently re-badged example, can be a crunchy-fruited, thirst-quenching, inexpensive joy.
Château de Béru Is the One Natural Wine You've Got to Try Right Now
Natural wine doesn’t have to taste like it’s been hanging out in the back of a barnyard (BTW: if you smell this aroma, it usually means the wine is high in Brettanomyces, a yeast strain—it doesn’t mean the wine is bad, so if you like it, drink it!). Natural wine can be straight-up delicious. And there’s one we can’t stop thinking about: Château de Béru Côte aux Prêtres, 2015.
We recently tasted over 15 different wines from the RAW Wine fair, an independent wine fair celebrating natural wines, created by Isabelle Legeron MW (Master of Wine! The first female MW!). The fair is taking place this weekend in NYC and the following weekend, for the first time, in L.A. Of all the wines we tried, Château de Béru was the showstopper.
The wine we’re crazy about is made from Chardonnay grapes—yes, Chardonnay can be cool even if it’s your mom’s favorite wine—but this Chardonnay is different from the rest. First of all, Athénaïs de Béru made this wine. Athénaïs is a new French winemaker, however, her family’s Château has been producing wine for years—about 400 years! But, in 1887, the phylloxera crisis hit (Cliff’s notes: A pest known as “phylloxera” came over from North America, and it destroyed many of Frances vineyards, setting back Chateaus like the Béru's up to 100 years.)
Fast forward a bunch of years, the winery switches hands, and finally ends back with Athénaïs. As the story goes, she was one of the last in the family to be called upon to take over the vineyard. At the time, she was living in Paris and working in finance, but she eagerly accepted the challenge. In 2004, she moved back to Chablis and started to teach herself how to make wine. Her first order of business was to improve the quality of the vineyard and implement organic and biodynamic viniculture. Athénaïs produced her first vintage in 2006.
Her approach is unique in that she doesn’t have a standard recipe that she follows each harvest. Instead, she listens to the grapes and changes her approach based on what they need. For example, sulfur is often added to wines to protect them from oxidization and unwanted yeast. Athénaïs adds sulfur only if it will improve the characteristic of the wine—the goal is to keep the wine as true to the terroir as possible.
Decoding French Wine Labels and Terms
This bottle of red Bordeaux is a blend of Cabernet Sauvginon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.
France labels wines by region and not grape variety. This labeling behavior works well because there are 200+ unique varieties in France and many of the wine regions blend grape varieties together. So, when you look at a label, the first thing to pay attention to (besides the producer name) is the name of the region where the wine originates. This is your best clue to determine what grapes are in the wine.
What wines does each French wine region produce?
It’s pretty common for French wines not to be labeled with the grape varieties in the wine. So, it’s helpful to know what major wine grape varieties are produced in each wine region of France.
See French Wine Map
Common French Wine Terms
Beyond knowing what’s inside the bottle there are a myriad of other French wine terms that appear on labels. While there are several terms that apply to all French wines, some terms are used only in specific regions. Here is list of terms to know that are often found on French wine labels:
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- Biologique: Organically produced
- Blanc de Blancs: A term for sparkling wines to denote a white sparkling wine made with 100% white grapes. (100% Chardonnay in Champagne)
“Brut” and “Blanc de Blancs”
- Blanc de Noirs: A term for sparkling wines to denote a white sparkling wine made with 100% black grapes. (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in Champagne)
- Brut: a term for sweetness level in sparkling wine. Brut indicates a dry style.
- Cépage: The grapes used in the wine (Encépagement is the proportions of the blend).
- Château: A winery
- Clos: A walled vineyard or vineyard on the site of an ancient walled vineyard. Commonly used in Burgundy.
- Côtes: Wines from a slope or hillside (contiguous)–usually along a river (e.g. Côtes du Rhône “slopes of the Rhône river”)
- Coteaux: Wines from a grouping of slopes or hillsides (non-contiguous) (e.g. Coteaux du Layon “slopes along the Layon river”)
- Cru: Translates to “growth” and indicates a vineyard or group of vineyards typically recognized for quality
“Cuvée” a specific wine/blend.
- Cuvée: Translates to “vat” or “tank” but is used to denote a specific wine blend or batch
- Demi-Sec: off-dry (lightly sweet)
- Domaine: A winery estate with vineyards
- Doux: Sweet
- Élevé en fûts de chêne: Aged in oak
- Grand Cru: Translates to “Great Growth” and is used in Burgundy and Champagne to distinguish the region’s best vineyards.
- Grand Vin: Used in Bordeaux to indicate a winery’s “first label” or best wine they produce. It’s common for Bordeaux wineries to have a 2nd or 3rd label at varying price tiers.
- Millésime: The vintage date. This term is commonly used in the Champagne region.
“mis en bouteille”
- Mis en bouteille au château/domaine: Bottled at the winery
- Moelleux: Sweet
- Mousseux: Sparkling
- Non-filtré: An unfiltered wine
- Pétillant: Lightly sparkling
- Premiere Cru (1er Cru): Translates to “First Growth” and is used in Burgundy and Champagne to distinguish the region’s 2nd best vineyards.
- Propriétaire: Owner of winery
- Sec: Dry (e.g. not sweet)
- Supérieur: A regulatory term commonly used in Bordeaux to describe a wine with higher minimum alcohol and aging requirements than the base.
- Sur Lie: A wine that is aged on lees (dead yeast particles) which are known to give a creamy/bready taste and increased body. This term is most commonly found with Muscadet of the Loire.
- Vendangé à la main: Hand harvested
- Vieille Vignes: Old vines
- Vignoble: Vineyard
- Vin Doux Naturel (VDN): A wine that is fortified during fermentation (usually a sweet dessert wine).
French Wine Classification
French wines and wine labels are controlled by a wine classification system called Appellation d’Origine Protégée or AOP This system was first developed in 1936 by Baron Pierre Le Roy who also founded the regulatory board for wine in France (called INAO ). AOP is essentially a hierarchical system of rules and regulations that determine where the wines are produced, what they are made of and their level of quality. Generally speaking, the more specific the region is, the higher the rank.
French wine has 3 primary classification tiers:
AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée): This means the wine came from a specific regulated region which can be a large area (such as Bordeaux) or specific area (Listrac-Médoc–within Bordeaux). Each region has its own rules for allowed grapes, growing conditions and minimum quality. In English, AOP is called PDO (Protected Designation of Origin).
IGP (Indication Geographique Protégée) or VDP (Vin de Pays): An IGP is often a larger area with slightly less regulations as AOP. You’ll notice that IGP wines are often labeled with the grape varieties as well as the IGP zone. The term Vin de Pays is the Pre-EU version of IGP and you will sometimes find wines labeled with Vin de Pays such as “Vin de Pays du Val de Loire.” By the way IGP is the same as PGI (Protected Geographical Indication).
Vin de France: This is the most basic regional quality labeling term for wines from France as a whole. Wines with “Vin de France” can originate from anywhere in France (or be a blend of regions). Vin de France are often labeled by grape variety.
Be It a $10 Wine, or Much More, the Judgments Come Free
As with so many platitudes, a germ of truth supports it. For example, it’s certainly correct to say that higher prices do not guarantee better wines. And one could rightly conclude that a $30 bottle is not necessarily better than a $10 bottle.
But while I can easily gather a dozen $30 bottles that will be exponentially more interesting wines than the same number of $10 bottles, I would have a hard time doing the reverse.
There is a correlation between price and quality (though I can point to many exceptions), and that relationship changes depending on the price range.
For example, the price-to-quality correlation is far easier to demonstrate when comparing bottles priced at $30 and $10 than it is at $300 and $100. In that stratospheric realm, price depends on variables that might have little to do with the wine, like status, fame, and supply and demand. In the lower echelon, the cost is more often a result of the economics of site and production, which can directly affect the quality.
Here at Wine School, our business is to challenge things we assume to be true about wine. Not in a belligerent manner, but we challenge nonetheless because so much of what people believe about wine is untested by personal experience. Rather, we may believe something because it’s repeated often or because it appeals to certain biases.
The relationship of price to quality in wine is tricky for many reasons. Among them: Who wants to spend more money than necessary on anything? Higher prices for, say, cars, are easier to justify because of tangible attributes. Anybody can notice the virtually silent state-of-the-art engine, the track record of craftsmanship and the baubles and ornaments added as options.
But in a glass of wine, who can see the sweat equity of a well-farmed vineyard, or the laborious cellar work of a patient vigneron? One bottle’s the same as the next, and besides, they all contain the same key ingredient, right?
Many people who dispute the relationship between price and quality in wine have vested interests of one form or another. Fred Franzia, who has sold hundreds of millions of bottles of Charles Shaw, also known as Two-Buck Chuck, has often said that no wine is worth more than $10, a self-serving mantra aimed at selling the next hundred million bottles.
Less obvious are those who repeat the cliché in order to rationalize their own choice not to spend on wine. They are often quick to brandish the snobbery card at those who assert that many wines are worth more than $10 and are often far superior to the cheaper bottle.
As a society, we understand that spending on most consumer goods often depends on one’s priorities. Some people see audio equipment as simply a means to listen to music. Computer speakers or the earpieces that come with their phones are good enough. Others are fascinated by high fidelity and wish to luxuriate in the rich bass notes and perfectly modulated treble that come with expensive equipment. It’s mostly understood that these are personal choices, not windows into one’s soul.
I’m not sure we can say the same about wine. Too often, those whose priorities do not include spending on wine are eager to portray those who do as chumps and suckers. And vice versa.
Forgive the rumination, but over the last month we have been drinking red wines that cost under $10, an exercise that brought a lot of feelings to the surface.
“Ten bucks is more than I would pay for any bottle of wine,” one reader, Ajax, said. “All the supposed differences among wines boil down to one thing only: snobbery.”
What to Cook This Week
Sam Sifton has menu suggestions for the coming days. There are thousands of ideas for what to cook waiting for you on New York Times Cooking.
- One of the best things about Melissa Clark’s chile-roasted chicken with honey, lemon and feta is the sweet-and-sour drippings in the pan.
- Yewande Komolafe’s glazed tofu with chile and star anise is a take on the technique behind Sichuan hui guo rou, or twice-cooked pork.
- Mark Bittman’s shrimp burgers are perfect with mayonnaise, mixed with Texas Pete hot sauce and plenty of lime juice.
- This spring-vegetable japchae from Kay Chun is made with the Korean sweet-potato noodles known as glass noodles.
- Millie Peartree’s brown stew chicken is built on a base of store-bought browning sauce, a caramel-hued burnt sugar concoction.
Another reader echoed this point. “I really wonder why Americans pay so much for their wine,” said Greg of Amsterdam. “My partner finds good wines all the time, usually on sale at three bottles for €10.”
As usual, I suggested three wines for us to try. They were: La Vieille Ferme, Vin de France Red 2019 $8, Masciarelli Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2018 $9 and Los Vascos Colchagua Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 $9.
For the prices, these were all decent wines, straightforward and unpretentious, made without artifice. The producers made no effort to dress them up with flavorings like oak chips, intended to convey the veneer of more expensive wines that had been aged in barrels of new oak.
Nor were they sweet, another tactic for covering up the shortcomings of poorly made wines. Remember the Apothic Red we tried in our exploration of supermarket wines in 2019?
La Vieille Ferme has long been an inexpensive brand offered by the Perrin family, owners of Château de Beaucastel, a renowned Châteauneuf-du-Pape estate, among other properties. This was made of a typical Mediterranean blend, grenache, cinsault, carignan and syrah, mostly but not entirely from the Ventoux area in southern France, hence the Vin de France notation on the label. Roughly 2.5 million bottles are made annually.
It was juicy, dry and well-balanced, with peppery flavors of red and black fruits.
Los Vascos is also part of a big company. It’s the Chilean outpost of the Domaines Barons de Rothschild, owners of the storied Bordeaux estate Château Lafite Rothschild. It’s 100 percent cabernet sauvignon from the Colchagua region of Chile. More than 3 million bottles made annually.
It was fuller and richer than the Vieille Ferme and discernibly cabernet sauvignon, with soft flavors of spicy fruit and herbs.
Of the three wines, I thought the Masciarelli had the most personality. It was made entirely of the montepulciano grape, with sweet-bitter aromas and flavors of juicy red fruits and flowers. About a half million bottles are made each year, and the owners make wines from only the Abruzzo region of Italy.
These are all simple wines, and nothing is wrong with simplicity. We sometimes get caught up in the idea that complexity is always better. Complexity may often be interesting, but when the occasion is simple — a weeknight pizza or burgers — sometimes you want a simple wine.
“What do I think makes it inexpensive?” said Amy of Alaska, a devotee of La Vieille Ferme’s white. “It’s not fussy. You don’t have to think very much about it when you just want to drink some wine!”
Other factors keep prices down. The large quantities of wine produced make it easier to economize on farming and winemaking. None of these wines come from prestigious areas, so you are not paying for real estate or status.
You also don’t get much transparency about who’s farming or making the wine, or how the vines are farmed. That’s important to me, as I want to know the details about the viticulture, the production and the people involved.
You do get a regional sense of place. La Vieille Ferme tastes like a red from the south of France or the Southern Rhône. The Masciarelli tastes like a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, and Los Vascos tastes like a South American cabernet. That’s to be applauded in such inexpensive wines.
These wines have their fans, especially La Vieille Ferme and the Masciarelli.
Dan of Austin gave a thumb’s up to the Masciarelli. “I’ll still look for more inspiring wines and expect to pay a lot more,” he said, “but this wine was a pleasant surprise.”
Inspiring was the key word here. The wines are simple and easy, as they ought to be. They might be among the best wines you can find at the price. But I didn’t find them particularly inspiring or joyous, either. They did not spark much emotion in me, something that I want to feel in a wine even if it is simple.
That’s why, for me, the best values in wine require spending a little more money per bottle, $15 to $20. At that range I find plenty of inspiring wines.
That’s not everybody’s priority. If you are happy with these bottles, for whatever reason, that’s terrific. But if you want a little more excitement in a bottle of wine, your best bet is to spend a little more, with qualifications.
You will want to find a good wine shop, and you will want to make informed choices, even if that means asking a merchant for advice.
Because spending more often buys a better wine, but it’s not an ironclad deal.
Lucchetti Spumante Rosé ($20)
When you can’t decide between pink and effervescent, this bottle from Italy’s Marche region ticks both boxes. Made from the lacrima grape by a husband-and-wife team, it’s a goes-with-everything expression that Erik Segelbaum, the founder of Somlyay hospitality consulting who has also served as the corporate beverage director for Starr Restaurants, touts it as one of his favorite sparkling wines. “It has gorgeous citrus acidity and beautiful berry notes of wild strawberry and raspberry backed by fresh pomegranate,” he says. “It’s gently floral, almost like a whiff of perfume from a beautiful person who just walked past you.” Pair it with everything from salty cheeses and charcuterie to crudo and sushi to roasted, grilled or well-seasoned poultry and meats.
The Classic French Chateaubriand
The meaning of the French term chateaubriand can be confusing. Depending on whom you ask, it can either refer to a cut of steak or the method of roasting a beef tenderloin. Despite this confusion, rest assured that when you order a chateaubriand from a French restaurant menu, you will receive a beautiful center-cut piece of beef tenderloin (usually enough to serve two), along with a classic red wine sauce.
Beef tenderloin is one of the most expensive pieces of beef but for a good reason. The cut lives up to its name, providing the most naturally tender, succulent piece of beef available. Note that a filet mignon, another pricey steakhouse cut, is the skinny part of the beef tenderloin.
This chateaubriand recipe is a traditional version of the restaurant favorite. The lusciously tender beef is seasoned very simply, roasted to perfection, and then sliced on the diagonal. Be sure to make the easy shallot and wine sauce to accompany the meat and serve with chateau potatoes for authenticity. Chateaubriand is a perfect roast for the French Christmas table.
Making Cabernet Sauvignon
There are two important keys to determining the success of any grape varietal. The first key is its adaptability to the local climate where it is planted. We have discussed in this column how many varietals are better suited to either cooler or warmer climates, and rarely is both true for the same varietal. The second key, and probably the trump card in this circumstance, is that the wines produced from any given varietal must be marketable as a varietally-labeled wine or as a significant blending component. Worldwide there are very few varieties that can rise up to these challenges. Cabernet Sauvignon, the most noble of all grapes, is one grape varietal that can meet all of those challenges.
Because of its adaptability and marketability, Cabernet Sauvignon has risen to a high level of prestige and prominence in the international wine community, and it is an internationally recognized grape that has held a market share in every major wine growing region of the world.
Cabernet Sauvignon is known for making some of the world’s most robust red wines. The grape was originally thought to be a descendant of the ancient Roman variety Biturica. Given its notoriety, you might think this grape has a long history, but that is not to be the case. Cabernet Sauvignon is native to France and — surprisingly — has only been recorded as growing in the Bordeaux region since the 17th century. DNA analysis performed at UC-Davis in the 1990s confirmed that the variety is the progeny of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. It was very likely the result of a chance pollination as mixed cultivars were grown side by side in vineyards at that time. I am still amazed at how these kinds of chance pollinations are discovered. The seed from that single grape had to have been deposited in the soil in some way and then germinated to develop into a full fruit-bearing plant. The odds of that happening, followed by the grape becoming the second most popular grape in the modern world, has to be staggeringly high.
In Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon is predominantly grown on the left bank of the Gironde, specifically in Graves, the Médoc and Pauillac. It was once widely planted on both the left and right banks, but over the years winegrowers in the region determined which soil types the grape preferred. The limestone and gravel based soils of the left bank are best for the variety and thus plantings on the right bank shifted away from Cabernet Sauvignon. On the right bank, in St. Émilion and Pomerol, red blends now consist primarily of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, while Cabernet Sauvignon is a distant third in popularity. While Cabernet is the talk of Bordeaux, Merlot is gaining popularity — even on the left bank — as it ripens two to three weeks in advance of Cabernet on average, which can be very important in the region. However, Cabernet is still the predominant component in the first growths with better than 75 percent of the blend. The one exception being Chateau Haut-Brion, where it is only present as about half of the blend component. There are about 6,000 producers of Cabernet or Cabernet-based blends worldwide. In the United States alone there are about 750 producers. Therefore you can find a Cabernet or Cabernet-based blend in just about every price point of wines sold worldwide.
. . . the Judgment of Paris wine competition in 1976 swayed many opinions in the international wine world about Cabernet’s reign in Bordeaux and the rest of France.
Bordeaux produces 60% of the Cabernet Sauvignon grown in France. Plantings also exist in the Loire, Midi and Provence, which produce lighter styles of Cabernet as well as rosé styles. There are many good vin de pays in the Languedoc, where it is produced as a varietal rather than a blend. It all depends on who is writing the review, but many wine drinkers have been led to believe that the best Cabernets come from Bordeaux. However, the Judgment of Paris wine competition in 1976 swayed many opinions in the international wine world about Cabernet’s reign in Bordeaux and the rest of France. That year Cabernet wines from the Napa Valley in California scored comparatively to similar wines from France, signaling that France had an up and coming rival.
Today the acreage of Cabernet in California is about equal to that of Bordeaux at about 75,000 acres, and it is grown in all of the state’s reporting wine districts. Fruit quality in the Napa Valley is considered superb and many high quality wines are produced there. Some of the wines have even achieved cult status and sell in excess of $1,000 for a 750-mL bottle. Alas, not all the wines produced in the Napa Valley cost that much, but bottle prices of $50-100 are the norm. In 2010, not a good year by California standards, the Napa Valley (District 4) crushed 50,487 tons, more than every grape reporting district except the northern San Joaquin Valley (District 11) which crushed more than 96,000 tons. District 11 incorporates much of the fruit into varietal wines by companies including Constellation Wines, Gallo and Bronco Wine Company, who sell at price points from $7–$17 per bottle. The high quality of the fruit commands high price per ton, and most prices range between $4,000–$8,000 with a range of $1,000 to $50,000 per ton in District 4 (yes, you read that last figure right!). Compare that with $200–$1,800 per ton in District 11. I find District 11 and Languedoc wines very affordable and drinkable, which lends to the testament of the universal nature of Cabernet Sauvignon. Because of its adaptablity, Cabernet thrives all over the world, most notably in the Maipo Valley of Chile, as well as Coonawarra in Australia and the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. It is also an important red wine grape in New Zealand, South Africa and Italy and is growing in popularity in Spain and Portugal.
Cabernet Sauvignon grape clusters are loose with small berries and tough skin, which can contribute to some pretty harsh tannins. It can be a vigorous vine, and vigor is controlled with rootstock choice and proper site selection. Some say that if the Napa Valley had to be planted all over again, it should have been planted on the hillsides where the rocky soils are more effective in controlling vigor. The rocky soils also drain better, much like the soils of the left bank in Bordeaux. When grown on the fertile soils of the valley, tonnage is controlled through green harvesting clusters after veraison. Many winemakers believe that high fruit loads on vines lead to lesser quality grapes, but this is difficult to prove scientifically, primarily in that no one can agree what the definition of “quality” actually is. What is generally agreed on is that ripening of Cabernet is critical and several studies in the last ten years have focused on tannin and flavor maturation. It is a variety that ripens later, requiring more hang time on the vine to develop fruit flavors. This is very important in Bordeaux because the region is more likely to have a shortened growing season. (Thus blends with Merlot and Cabernet Franc help make up some of the shortfalls of ripening). The rules of the Bordeaux AOC dictate yields in order to get the grape to ripen in any given season. These loose clusters can hang long through the growing season, and research has shown that the concentrations of methoxypyrazines in the berries decrease the longer the clusters hang. Methoxypyrazines are a class of compounds that are responsible for the vegetal characters of green bell pepper — a signature flavor marker that Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc connoisseurs either love or hate. The concentrations of these flavors are highest at veraison and the compounds are progressively broken down by sunlight as the fruit hangs on the vine. This often leads to the potential for very different styles of wine depending on the vintage.
If you give Cabernet a long time on the vine you will have a very fruit-forward style. Unfortunately, this fruit-forward style also comes with high alcohol levels and low acidities. When I taste wines like this I consider them fat and flabby, and they are dull and do not have much prospect for aging. It’s true that wine styles for Cabernet have changed over the years, but winemakers have long known about how best to ripen the grape. A number of years ago we made an interesting discovery in the wine cellar at UC-Davis: a treasure trove of vintage 1980 Cabernet Sauvignon wines from appellations that included Napa Valley, Sonoma, Anderson Valley, Central Coast, the Sierra Foothills and a few others. There were 24 different producers in all. Of course we had to create an opportunity to taste through them, which fell under the guise of “research.” The common component between the wines is that they had been cellared under identical conditions for more than 25 years. First of all, before we even tasted, we determined that there was not an alcohol above 14.5%. Most of the wines covered a range of 12.5–13.5% ABV. Two or three had deteriorated badly, specifically those with lower acidities and higher pH values. But the wines that showed the best were low in alcohol acid/pH balanced, still had a lot of the bright red fruit characters and little in the way of meth-oxypyrazine. Wine styles and techniques have changed in 30 years, and there are now some winemakers hoping to create this distinct style of Cabernet from the past. After all, these are the wines that made Cabernet big in California. The parallel here to Bordeaux-based blends is the ripening and natural acidities of the grapes at harvest.
The tannins in Cabernet Sauvignon can be quite harsh, including powerful sensations of bitterness and astringency. Winemakers are not afraid to barrel down these wines for up to two years to add small doses of oxygen to help polymerize and soften the tannins. Both French and American barrels are used from a number of different coopers. Micro-oxygenation, MOX for short, is a mechanized way to add small doses of oxygen to wines, and this is commonly used to make wines sold for less than $20 per bottle. Some winemakers prefer to use age-old fining techniques with egg whites to craft their perfect cuvée.
Blending can also tame tannins. Experienced winemakers prepare their blends when the wine is young to integrate the tannins during maturation. Typical blending varieties include Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. This group is typically known as the Bordeaux blend, and in the United States the same blending schema is used in wines labeled as Meritage.
The rules of blending change from country to country, for example in Italy where Sangiovese rules, Cabernet Sauvignon is used to make Super Tuscans, and in Australia it is blended with Shiraz. In Spain you will find it blended with Tempranillo.
With respect to food pairing, Cabernet Sauvignon is the grape of kings, so think of meals that are fit for a king Cabernet invites a hearty meal with protein steak, prime rib, pork roasts — if they are grilled, all the better. On its own, the tannin structure, especially in a young wine, can be a bit much on the palate. Thus the proteins in the meat react with the wine tannins to soften the approach in the mouth and help bring out the fruit flavors. Pairing a big, tannic Cabernet with fish or light meat dishes doesn’t work as well because there is nothing to counterbalance the wine. As the wine ages and mellows, however, you can do some more experimenting with beef or lamb stew or even grilled pork. The pairing choice is even a bit more difficult when it comes to trying to pair Cabernet with vegetarian meals, but I would try pizza with red sauce and cheese, or pasta-based dishes with garlic. Cabernet also a good match with bitter vegetables like eggplant and greens like arugula and radicchio. This is because the bitterness in the vegetables matches the tannin bitterness in the wine. Cabernet also pairs well with cows-milk cheeses, both early ripening and aged. Unlike with meat dishes, however, it’s better to match your Cabs with milder cheeses so that it doesn’t compete with the wine (a big Cab with a big blue cheese can be too much). Try Dry Jack, Manchego, Parmigiano-Reggiano and Cheddar, or lighter blue-veined cheeses like Maytag Blue or Saga. Whatever your desires, given the popularity and abundance of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, there is sure to be a style you like that you can make yourself.
Cabernet Sauvignon Recipe
(yield: 5 gal/19 L)
• 125 pounds (57 kg) fresh Cabernet Sauvignon fruit
• Distilled water
• 10% potassium metabisulfite (KMBS) solution: Weigh 10 grams of KMBS, dissolve into about 50 milliliters (mL) of distilled water. When dissolved, make up to 100 mL total with distilled water.
• 5 grams Lallemand D254 yeast
• 5 grams Di-ammonium phosphate (DAP)
• 5 grams Go-Ferm
• 5 grams Fermaid K (or equivalent yeast nutrient)
• Malolactic fermentation starter culture (CHR Hansen or equivalent)
Other equipment or needs
• 1 15-gallon (57-L) food-grade plastic bucket for fermentation.
• 5-gallon (19-L) carboy, 1-2 one-gallon (3.7-L) jugs
• Racking hoses
• Crush equipment, destemmer/crusher
• Wine press
• Inert Gas — Nitrogen, Argon or Carbon Dioxide
• Ability to maintain a fermentation temperature of 81–86 °F (27–30 °C).
• Thermometer capable of measuring between 40–110 °F (4–43 °C) in one degree increments
• Pipettes with the ability to add in increments of 1 milliliter
• The ability to measure residual sugar at the completion of fermentation
• Tartaric acid — addition rate is based on acid testing results
Step by step
1. Clean and sanitize all your winemaking tools, supplies and equipment.
2. Crush and destem the grapes. Transfer the must to your fermenter.
3. During the transfer, add 15 milliliters of 10% KMBS solution. (This addition is the equivalent of 50 ppm SO2).
4. Take a sample to test for Brix, acidity and pH. Keep the results handy. We’ll take this up later.
5. Layer the headspace with inert gas and keep covered. Keep in a cool place overnight.
6. The next day sprinkle the Fermaid K directly to the must and mix well.
7. Go back to those lab results you took yesterday. Typical Brix for this style is 24–25 °B. Typical acid levels will be 0.58–0.62%. Adjust as necessary using tartaric acid. If the acid is higher than 0.70%, don’t panic, this recipe calls for a minimum final acidity of 0.55%.
8. Prepare yeast: Heat about 50 mL distilled water to 108 °F (42 °C). Mix the Go-Ferm into the water to make a suspension. Take the temperature. Pitch the yeast when the suspension is 104 °F (40 °C). Sprinkle the yeast on the surface and gently mix so that no clumps exist. Let sit for 15 minutes undisturbed. Measure the temperature of the yeast suspension. Measure the temperature of the must. Do not add the yeast to your cool juice if the temperature of the yeast and the must temperature difference exceeds 15 °F (8 °C). To avoid temperature shock, acclimate your yeast by taking about 10 mL of the must juice and adding it to the yeast suspension. Wait 15 minutes and measure the temperature again. Do this until you are within the specified temperature range. Do not let the yeast sit in the original water suspension for longer than 20 minutes.
9. When the yeast is ready, add it to the fermenter and mix.
10. You should see signs of fermentation within about one to two days. This will appear as foaming on the must surface and it will appear that the berries are rising out of the medium. This is referred to as the cap rise.
11. You need have on hand the ability to push the grapes back into the juice to promote color, and tannin extraction. This is called “punching down” and this should be done three times per day.
12. Monitor the Brix and temperature twice daily during peak fermentation (10–21 °Brix). Maintain a fermentation temperature of 81–86 °F (27–30 °C).
13. At about 19 °Brix, sprinkle in the DAP and punchdown.
14. When the Brix reaches 4 °Brix, transfer the must to your press, and press the cake dry. Keep the free run wine separate from the press portion for now and label the vessels.
15. Transfer the wine to your carboys or 1-gallon (3.7-L) jugs. Your press fraction may only be a gallon or two. Make sure you do not have any headspace. Place an airlock on the vessel(s).
16. Inoculate with your malolactic (ML) bacteria. Check the manufacturer’s instruction on how to prepare and inoculate. Cover the tops with a breather to allow CO2 to escape.
17. Monitor the ML fermentation using a thin layer chromatography assay available from most home winemaking supply stores.
18. When the ML is complete, measure the residual sugar. You are shooting for 0.5% or lower. If the sugar is higher, give it more time to finish fermentation.
19. Add 2 mL of fresh KMBS (10%) solution per gallon of wine. This is the equivalent to
20. Measure the pH and titratable acidity. Most importantly you want a finished TA of about 0.55 to 0.60%. The pH is secondary but should be around 3.6. Add acid to adjust the TA prior to settling. Place the wine in a cool place to settle.
21. After two weeks, test for SO2, adjust the SO2 as necessary to attain 0.8 ppm molecular SO2. (There is a simple SO2 calculator at www.winemakermag.com/guide/sulfite). Check the SO2 in another two weeks and adjust. Once the free SO2 is adjusted, maintain at this level. Check every two months, and before racking.
22. Rack the wine clean twice over a 6–8 month time frame to clarify. Once the wine is cleared, it is time to move it to the bottle.
23. Blending the wine to integrate the press fraction back into the free run. You may not need it all, use your judgment. Fining with egg whites may be necessary to tame the tannins.
These wines are cheap and available everywhere. But are any worth drinking?
Browsing the wine aisle at a supermarket or convenience store can be disorienting for someone used to shopping at a fine wine retailer. Mass-market labels such as Barefoot, Yellow Tail and Cupcake are everywhere, rather than the smaller family-owned wineries more common to wine stores.
But what do they taste like? My recent notes on some of the nation’s best-selling chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons include a few positive words such as peaches, blackberries and minerals, but many more terms like machine oil, inner tubes and sewer gas. In short, if you buy wine based solely on price and wide availability, you might find a gem or perhaps something pleasant, but there’s a better chance you’ll be wasting your money, not saving it.
And these are the wines most Americans drink. According to Wines & Vines magazine's annual list of the 20 top-selling wine brands in U.S. retail stores, based on figures from market research firm IRI, Americans spent $670 million last year on Barefoot wines. Sutter Home was a distant second at $368 million. The list includes other familiar names such as Kendall-Jackson, Chateau Ste. Michelle and Beringer. Australia's Yellow Tail was the only foreign brand to crack the top echelon in sales, though some American brands use imported wine. Three box wines made the list: Franzia, Black Box Wines and Bota Box. Most sell for the equivalent of less than $10 a bottle. Altogether, the top 20 brands racked up $4.14 billion in sales in 2016.
Our panel’s favorite chardonnays and cabernets in a tasting of cheap wines. (Goran Kosanovic/For The Washington Post)
Those 20 brands are owned by only 10 companies. That shows the predominance of such behemoths as E&J Gallo Winery (owner of Barefoot, Apothic, Gallo Family Vineyards, Carlo Rossi and Liberty Creek), Constellation Brands (Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi, Black Box Wines, Clos du Bois and Robert Mondavi Private Selection) and the Wine Group (Franzia, Cupcake Vineyards). The romantic vision of the artisan vigneron toiling among the vines does not apply to our daily tipple.
None of these names have appeared in my column lately. So I headed to Costco and Morris Miller Wine & Liquor in the District and the Montgomery County Liquor Store in White Oak and purchased as many chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons from the top 20 brands as I could find. I also bought some other cheap brands I’ve enjoyed over the years, as well as Costco’s Kirkland. Finally, I included two sweet red blends, Gallo’s Apothic and Yellow Tail’s Sweet Red Roo. Apothic’s presence on the top-20 list demonstrates the popularity of this category. All but a few of the wines cost less than $10 a bottle.
Just for fun, I added a few more expensive wines, then put the bottles into bags to hide the labels, a “blind tasting” designed to prevent any preconceptions from influencing my perception. I was joined for the chardonnay tasting by Mike Tate of Silver Spring, an avid consumer who is not in the wine trade, and my wife, Leah, who has a much sharper palate than I do when she’s paying attention. Tate also volunteered to help with the cabernets, along with Elyse Kudo, the regional representative for Jackson Family Wines.
The 10 chardonnays fared better than the 19 cabernets and blends. In fact, you can buy delicious U.S. chardonnay for less than $10. Just look for the name Robert Mondavi on the label. When we ripped the bags off the bottles, we found the Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi to be our favorite, with the Robert Mondavi Private Selection in second place. The Woodbridge — which costs just $7.59 — was fresh, fruity and so well balanced that we all suspected it was one of the more-expensive ringers I had put in the lineup. The Private Selection was also quite nice, with more oak flavoring and richness from malolactic fermentation./>
The panel’s least-favorite wines in the tasting. (Goran Kosanovic/For The Washington Post)
The Woodbridge should be easy to find: Constellation Brands made 1.1 million cases of it in 2016. Perhaps one reason it stood out from the crowd is that it is only about 77 percent chardonnay the rest is a blend of various grapes, including French colombard, Viognier and muscat. This “secret sauce” is not mentioned on the label, but is listed on a tech sheet Constellation sent me. And it’s perfectly legit: A wine can be labeled as chardonnay as long as at least 75 percent of the blend is that grape.
Most of the other chardonnays were pleasant enough but overtly sugary, appealing to the famous American sweet tooth. (Sweetness can come from incomplete fermentation, blending with sweeter grapes or simply the addition of sugar.) Some were noticeably flawed. The Cupcake smelled like a wet dog, suggesting sloppy hygiene in the winemaking, and Sutter Home — the second-most-favorite brand in America — was simply awful.
The red wines as a group disappointed. Of the 19 we tasted, we found only three to be noteworthy, and all were ones I had selected, not on the best-selling list. They were the Santa Rita 120, Cousiño-Macul and Los Vascos, all from Chile. So here’s your cabernet takeaway: Look for Chilean cabs in the $10 range — cheap, but not bottom barrel. Two other Chilean brands, Walnut Crest and Frontera, cashed in at about $5 but did not show well./>
The panel’s favorite cabernet was Chile’s Santa Rita 120, hand-picked by the author. (Goran Kosanovic/For The Washington Post)
The U.S. brands were almost uniformly depressing. Some were pleasant enough, but sweet and dull. Even overtly sweet red wines, such as Apothic, did not stand out as sweet among the treacle that is cheap Cali cab. Others tasted of cough syrup, rubber, machine oil or worse. The boxed wines failed to impress. It was as though the companies — I hate to say “winemakers” — were following a recipe of fake tannins, grape concentrate and artificial oak flavorings to appeal to the American palate. I would be happy with a simple wine for less than $10 as long as it’s delicious, but whether for reasons of economics or market research, that does not seem to be possible for domestic wines.
Our least favorite red was the 14 Hands from Washington state, a popular brand that tasted simply like a junkyard in a bottle.
We all want to be conscious of value when shopping for wine. But with the exception of a few pleasant surprises, the quality simply isn’t there under $10, especially when it comes to domestic wine. To get your money’s worth, look for the $15-to-$25 range for quality that justifies the price. You are most likely to find this in imported wines.
We Should All Be Drinking More Lebanese Wine
The modern nation of Lebanon might be only 100 years old, but the wine trade here has been around for more than 5,000 years, thanks to a longitudinal coastline that runs the entire length of the country. Ancient Phoenicians shared amphorae with bustling port cities across the Mediterranean and shipped wine and other goods to the rest of the stops on their route, from Alexandria, Egypt, to Cádiz, Spain.
Today’s Lebanese wine industry is small — its total production would barely match the output of one boutique winery in Italy — but mighty. Its growth really hit its stride in the early 2000s after the end of the 15-year civil war, and the country’s numerous vineyards now produce grapes for close to 80 official and unofficial local wineries. With Syria to the east and Israel/Palestine to the south, Lebanon’s limited square footage for wine production is often split into four or five distinct appellations and further segmented into varying microclimates clustered across the Bekaa Valley, where the majority of grapes are harvested.
Contrary to the grainy, yellow filter deployed by Hollywood, Lebanon is not made up of sand dunes. What it does have are mountain ranges cresting at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, a valley floor at 3,000 feet, a natural water table, predominantly limestone soils, and 300 days of sunshine each year. The overall weather and topography are ideal for the kind of diverse, low-intervention grape-growing that makes for truly great wine. The irony in this overview is the enduring need for it to be included here in the first place — or in any piece of writing on the subject of Lebanese wine.
But there is more to the story than just the natural blessings granted to Lebanon’s winemakers. They are counterbalanced by the country’s curses. From the steel tanks that store the juice to the glass bottles that hug it, so much of what goes into creating Lebanese wine depends on managing costly imports and dodging fastballs. Aside from the country’s recent fiscal collapse, decades of corruption and theft within Lebanon’s mismanaged ministries means that basic utilities are not guaranteed. Backup generators and alternative water sources are a must. Land is expensive, and infrastructure is poorly maintained or still in disrepair from the 34-day war between Israel and Lebanon in 2006. Manual labor is often left to underpaid refugees escaping human rights catastrophes in neighboring Syria and Palestine. Winemakers are forced to push through the rot on their own dime to invent a style that’s distinctly Lebanese.
As a Lebanese-American wine writer, podcaster, and researcher, I am hyperaware of Lebanon’s depiction in international wine media today. Despite having been around for millennia, Lebanon as a wine-producing country is still a revelation for most readers. This is in part because of a huge gap in wine education, which remains Eurocentric and generally dismissive of the ancient world’s contributions. All things wine typically begin and end in France and Italy, while the burgeoning comeback of lands whose winemaking histories date back millennia is reduced to a paragraph, if mentioned at all.
Lebanon has for decades had to battle an outdated narrative. It goes like this: Lebanon is first and foremost a land of war where the people’s resilience, despite it all, makes their beauty — in this case, their wine — worthy of your attention. The legendary Serge Hochar of Lebanon’s Chateau Musar was the driving force behind this narrative in the 1970s. After 400 years of Ottoman rule pushed it into dormancy, Lebanon’s wine scene was revived during the French Mandate of the 1920s, but it still comprised less than half a dozen players when the civil war broke out in 1975. Hochar made it his mission to show the world what Lebanon could do, even while foreign and internal forces split the country into pieces. His vines grew on through the chaos as he went abroad and charismatically pitched his funky Bordeaux-style blends to British drinkers. In the midst of intermittent invasions and raids, the duality in this story made sense. It was, at the time, reality. But here we are, 45 years later, still waxing poetic about this juxtaposition. While Lebanon’s politics remain stuck in the ’70s, so do its stories and the people who write and read them.
There is no chance for new generations to shake the aftershocks of instability if the media consistently portrays the country in extremes alone. We Lebanese shouldn’t shy away from what we have been through, either it’s just one bitter note in an otherwise complex bottle that has a lot more to say.
Many of Lebanon’s family-run micro-wineries that were born after 2000 are now on their second or even third generation. Château Cana, a winery overlooking the Lamartine Valley, was established by Fadi Gerges but is now run by his daughter, Joanna. After taking over, Joanna revamped the brand identity, positioned the winery as a wedding venue, and opened a small guesthouse on the premises. The winery is known for its use of possibly native grapes like the inky sabbaghieh and green apple-tinged meksassi.
The trend of leaning into indigenous varieties began about two decades ago when Bekaa Valley’s Château St. Thomas confirmed the white obaideh grape as 100 percent Lebanese via a DNA test in Montpellier, France. Other supposed natives await further testing to confirm their origins, work that must be privately funded by the individual wineries. Like so much in Lebanon, winemakers are left to figure everything out among themselves without any official state referee.
Chateau Rayak is named in honor of another Bekaa village, Rayak, which was once a hub for travelers passing through the town’s massive train station on the Beirut-Damascus track. Rayak’s winemaker, Elias Maalouf, used to run Train/Train Lebanon, an organization dedicated to the preservation of the now-defunct railway’s legacy. Each of his bottles commemorates a different chapter of Lebanon’s history, like Rayak 43, the first aircraft built and designed for the valley skies. He also produces a lightly perfumed, short-lived red with the native grape maryameh, which visitors themselves can bottle straight from the tank.
New stories like these are absolutely worth telling, but paradoxically it’s the older one that continues to lure writers and readers and, most importantly, compel people to purchase a bottle of Lebanese wine. But the industry’s need for support should not be the sole reason for writing about it. Lebanon’s wine producers need spotlights and profiles, but not only when their vineyards are on fire or their offices have caved in on them. The country isn’t the easiest to find on a map, but it should not be used only as a token location on a restaurant’s vast wine list featuring bottles from far, far away.
To make matters more complicated, the country finds itself once again inching toward collapse even as I type. Our wretched version of 2020, which featured a pandemic, an economic implosion, and a devastating chemical explosion, has left the Lebanese struggling to keep any industry alive, much less one that produces a so-called nonessential product. Obstacles like these continue to make the idea of winemaking in the Middle East seem impressive. And it is. I want to be proud of what Lebanon has accomplished, but applause doesn’t solve anything. As we wear our tenacity like a badge of honor, those responsible for the mess are clapping for us, too. Our undying spirit makes the news and it becomes our trademark, but I don’t want to wow or be wowed by our ability to overcome trauma anymore.
I’m not attempting to proselytize others so they pen dithyrambs about the glorious land of milk and honey. Minimizing the challenges we face would be normalizing the delusion. The media can be fair to the stories and the wines and to those who consume them if it walks the tightrope using nuance and depth as counterweights.
So, to editors and content producers: It’s time to tell stories with fresh angles that unpack the subtleties of this ancient and renewed culture. Continuing to introduce readers to Lebanon’s wine scene via photos of fermentation tanks alongside military ones only further cements this trope of the dangerous yet exotic home of contradictions. Go deeper.
Sommeliers and wine directors: Keep stocking Lebanese wines and revisit the story you’ve been telling as the reason for their inclusion. Get to know your producers beyond the summary on the tech sheet. Ask more questions.
And to all you enthusiastic wine drinkers: It’s time to try more Lebanese wines and talk more about them. Talk about how the pinot noir of Lebanon tastes different from that of Champagne because it’s reflecting the terroir of the Eastern Mediterranean, not inland France. Talk about the experimental skin-contact merwah and the spicy old-vine cinsault. Talk about how all this great wine comes to be, even as the morally and financially bankrupt people in power pass the buck. Talk about it so we can continue to outgrow this reductive synopsis. There is new blood here, not just spilled blood and there is good wine here, not just wine from the turbulent Middle East.
Don’t pity the nation: Drink our wine and talk about it.
Farrah Berrou is contributing editor of theWine Zine and creator of the B for Bacchus platform and podcast.Cynthia Bifani is a Lebanese illustrator, exploring and questioning meaning, justice and freedom.