Midwinter, and while this season has been particularly mild (regrets going to all my East Coast friends), this week we honestly can say “winter” with its recent return of cold and snow finds us wandering past brown, leafless vines and waiting for the return of spring, or spring as we know it.
While there isn’t much happening in the vineyards – except the occasional pruning in preparation for the warm weather to come – the wine industry itself never sleeps.
The biggest news nationally might be the tentative resolution of the nine-month labor dispute that paralyzed 29 shipyards in California, Washington and Oregon.
This goes beyond that case of wine you’ve been expecting, the one that’s been baking in the California sun all this time; the disruption affected many agriculture groups concerned the U.S. was losing market share due to its inability to serve export markets.
It’s estimated 80 percent of waterborne U.S. red meat exports move through West Coast ports. The leader of the Port of Los Angeles, the nation’s largest, said it would take three months “to get back a sense of normalcy.”
As you know, there’s been some talk in recent years about corks, or at least what some writers refer to as “cork taint,” a disagreeable order imparted to wood corks and then to the wine from the chemical 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole, more commonly known as TCA.
TCA is a natural compound that ‘s been been described as musty, earthy or “moldy newspaper,” which as a long-time newspaper hack I may know something about.
In many cases TCA is transferred to the wine from the cork but evidently it also can be transferred through the cork rather than from it.
While it takes only nanograms of TCA to ruin a wine’s aroma and flavors, the human threshold for detecting TCA varies by several orders of magnitude depending on an individual’s sensitivity.
Some of the best wine “super-tasters” may be able to pick up TCA in the single-digit parts per trillion.
About 20 years ago, when wine producers and consumers became aware of a growing perception of TCA taint (it one time was estimated as many as three to even five out of 10 bottles were TCA tainted), the natural cork industry saw its share of the $2 billion market slip from almost 95 percent in the 1990s to currently about two-thirds of the U.S. market.
Plastic corks and screwcaps have taken over the majority of the new portion.
Recent news, however, indicates the natural cork industry is fighting back.
The industry implemented a massive quality control and testing system in response to cork taint and last year the Cork Quality Council ran over 25 thousand tests, according to a council report.
The results reportedly showed an 81-percent reduction in TCA presence compared to eight years ago.
“We live in the shadow of a lot of problems that existed 15 or 20 years ago,” Neil Foster, president of wine-closure manufacturer M.A. Silva USA, said in a recent interview with the Press-Democrat of Santa, Rosa, Cal.
M.A. Silva sells more than 100 million closures annually, ranging from 7 cents to $3 a piece.
“The reality is today’s cork is light years ahead of where it used to be based on the technology we use to test our cork,” Foster said.
Now, if someone can come up with a solution to wine ruined from sitting nine months on a freighter in the middle of the Port of Los Angeles.
Here are some of the things I like about Australia: The vast distances between here and the horizon, the wide-open beaches and wave-pounding surf, native artists such as Stephen Hogarth of the Kamilaroi Tribe and, of course, given the scope of this blog, the wines.
My most-recent favorite is the Yangarra 2012 McLaren Vale Old Vine Grenache ($24).
McLaren Vale officially is about 35 km (21 miles) south of Adelaide but you might not notice the distance because of the continuing encroachment on the area by Adelaide’s expanding suburbs.
In spite of increasing citification, the area is considered by many as the most-important wine-producing area in the Fleurieu Peninsula and certainly the Grenache stronghold of Australia.
Vines were first planted in the area in the early 1800s, shortly after Captain Arthur Phillip dropped anchor in 1788 in Sydney Cove with a ship carrying Australia’s first grape vines from Brazil and the Cape of Good Hope.
But while many wine regions around the world had an initial spurt of production but then saw the vines ripped out or starved by Prohibition, some of the McLaren Vale Grenache vines survived and today there are wines being made from vines more than 100 years old.
The Yangarra 2012 McLaren Vale Old Vine Grenache comes from vines almost 70 years old, originally planted by Frederick Arthur Smart after returning from World War II.
On the surface, little has changed since Smart, who still lives in the area, first planted his early vineyards, with dry-farmed vines thriving on the deep sandy soils and Mediterranean climate at the foot of the Southern Mount Lofty Range.
To understand what has changed calls for a deeper look.
In 2000, Jess Jackson and his wife Barbara Banke (proprietors of Jackson Family Wines) purchased Yangarra Estate and soon appointed Peter Fraser as the winemaker and Michael Lane as viticulturist.
In 2008, the Yangarra team began farming the estate organically and in 2012 the property, according to the Yangarra press information, was certified A-grade organic as well as biodynamic.
What difference did this make in the wine?
One of the precepts behind biodynamic farming is to enliven the soil and make the organic nutrients in the soil available to the plants living there.
A press release explains that in order to further that transfer of a sense of the land to his wines, winemaker Peter Fraser incorporates traditional and time-consuming winemaking methods in his wine-making.
These including pre-soaks, indigenous yeast, open-top fermentation, hand punch downs, barrel fermentations, and the two-stage rack-and-return process, all key to Fraser’s drive to create balanced wines reflecting the terroir of McLaren Vale.
“I’m not interested in numbers on a piece of laboratory paper,” Fraser is quoted on the Yangarra website. “I’m interested in flavor.”
The 2012 Old Vine Grenache easily delivers all the flavor you might want, this brightly elegant wine brimming with dried red cherries, leather, black fruit and hints of white pepper.
In addition to Grenache, Yangarra produces other southern Rhone varietals including Shiraz, Mataro, Cinsault, and Carignan among the reds; Roussanne and Viognier are the major whites.