What a Great Group of People (@wine_educators)!

17 Aug

I just returned from the Society of Wine Educators’ 38th Annual conference in Seattle.  What a great group of people!  There was a profound difference between this conference, for which nearly all attendees are actively working in the industry, and every other conference I’ve ever attended – which number about two dozen, all in the manufacturing and energy industries.   Attendees were invariably happy, friendly and seemed unstressed.  These folks were laid back and clearly loved their jobs and their industry.  Nothing seemed to bother them, and they laughed.  A lot.  (Hmmm,  how can I get into this industry?!)

Total count of wines tasted was 99 by the end of the conference, from pretty much every significant wine producing region in the world.  Some general conclusions I came away with:

I definitely prefer New World wines.   Some of my new favorites are:

  • Barbera, particularly from Lodi,  a brightly acidic red with medium tannins and fruity berry and cherry notes (rich flavor from Lodi, more delicate from Piedmont.)
  • Carménère, from Chile’s Central Valley.  Lush and balanced, with dark berries and a hint of black pepper.  My sample was a RP 96 point wine, so it may not be representative of others, but it was amazing!
  • Tempranillo, from (believe it or not) Amador County CA.  A low acidity grape with medium tannins.  No strong fruit notes, but nice spice and tobacco on a core of dark plum.  This is the primary grape of the Rioja region, but the California sierra foothills produce a beautiful version.
  • Of course, my perennial favorite of Sonoma Coast/Russian River Valley Pinot was my favorite of the Pinot tasting session, where we sampled and learned about 8 regions known (or emerging) as good Pinot producers.

Barolos (well-aged) were stunning examples of the Piedmont’s Nebbiolo Grape, and I found almost every Barolo better than any of the Barbarescos – the other famous Nebbiolo-based Italian red.   Nebbiolo is quite tannic with characteristic notes of tar and roses, and needs lots of aging.  I found that I also liked the big Barolos better than the Sangiovese-based Brunellos of Tuscany.

Maybe not surprisingly given my California-honed palate, the Burgundies and Bordeaux were some of my least favorite wines.  Although there was one Grand Cru Classé (Saint Julien) from 1996 that was truly exceptional (but then, who can afford to regularly consume Grand Cru Classé Bordeaux??).  The 1st and 2nd growths were fine, but again, expensive.  Of the seven non-classified “Cru Bourgeois” (roughly translated as growths for the masses) from Bordeaux’ left bank which I sampled, none were above average.  I guess there is a reason these chateaux didn’t make the 1855 cut for one of the five classed Crus.

Speaking of Old World, the recent Rhone vintages are all great!  The Syrahs of northern Rhone have an ideal balance of structure and fruit – and all that I tried had interesting complexity – attained by selection and blending ratio of Syrah grapes from various terroirs.  The Southern Rhone has more stylistic flexibility of course, selecting (primarily) from Grenache and Mourvèdre as well as Syrah varietals.  The Director-General of Vidal Fleury brought 7 of their best for sampling, including a Chateauneuf-du-Pape GSM that was wonderfully delicate and complex.  Bottom line here, any 2009 – 2012 Rhone – northern (Syrah) or southern (GSM) is likely an excellent wine, and priced reasonably.

As one of my favorite varietals, I’ll talk a bit about Pinot Noir.   Almost every cool-climate grape growing region in the world has at least experimented with Pinot because Pinot clones are able to ripen and thrive in these climates – producing medium-alcohol, low-tannin fruity and approachable wines.  However, depending on the specific Pinot clone and the terroir of the vineyard, there are great variations in style, taste, acidity and mouthfeel.  Here’s what I found:

  • Burgundy is of course the standard for Pinot, and the Cote de Nuits that I tried had the characteristic cherry and berry muted fruit flavors with a touch of spice or tea.  The nose was characteristically multilayered and muted. The price was characteristically high.
  • Northern Italy produces flavors and body similar to Burgundy, but more aromatic and with perhaps brighter fruit.
  • Willamette Valley has a fuller body than the above, with similar “forest floor” aroma notes and ripe strawberry flavors and a nice touch of oak.
  • Patagonia Pinot has an unequaled aromatic intensity with soft fresh fruit and a long finish.  Supposedly these Argentinian Pinot’s can have a sugar beet flavor note, but I did not get that.
  • New Zealand is gaining fame for their sparklers, almost all of which are based at least partially on Pinot Noir, so it was not surprising that the two samples (Wairapa and Martinborough) I tried were pretty good,  a bit higher in acid than the other new world Pinots, they were lean yet with a dark rich color attributed to the high UV rays that hit the island.
  • Germany, the 3rd highest producer of Pinot (after France and the U.S.), produces lighter, leaner Pinots which have a green wood note and I found to have a bit of cocoa end note.
  • Again, my favorite was the Russian River Valley Pinot, with lush, rich dark fruit.  Lactic, with velvety tannins and a hint of cigar box spice, it was full bodied and wonderful.

The last interesting fact I’ll mention is the rapid growth to prominence of Chilean and Argentinian wines.  Chilean reds, primarily Cab, Merlot and Carménère (the “lost” grape of Bordeaux), are exceptional.  Chile is almost 3000 miles long, with the cooling effect of the Pacific Ocean and excellent diurnal variation, resulting in ripe wines with bright acidity and soft lush tannins.  Prices are currently rising, and many of the best wines I sampled are in the $80 – $120 range.  I mentioned Carménère earlier as one of my favorites, and these have come into prominence relatively recently.  For decades, this grape was thought to be a Merlot clone, and was thus harvested with the Merlot clusters (well, they LOOKED ripe!)  Actually the Carménère grape requires an additional 3 – 4 weeks to ripen, and now that they are harvested at the correct time, they have the right Brix and the seeds are no longer green.  The result is a wine with the structure of a Cabernet and the softness of a Merlot.

For anyone who wants to learn more and enhance their enjoyment of wine, the Society of Wine Educators offers a plethora of fun and interesting educational products. And, as a veteran conference-attendee, I can tell you that their conferences are truly unbeatable!

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