Is that rancid peanut butter in my wine?
No, it’s ladybird taint.
But ladybirds are so cute. How can they taste so bad?
These cheeky things love a damaged grape to feed upon and with cool climates getting warmer, these pests are moving into regions previously too cool for them. Kevin Ker of Brock University told the International Cool Climate Symposium, “It’s a hitch hiker that we really don’t like but it will find a way to spread.”
It has been found in the US, Argentina, the UK, Czech Republic, Italy and Denmark, and it is thought it is more widespread but no-one’s owning up.
When the ladybirds inadvertently get harvested along with the grapes they emit a methoxypyrazine that smells of rancid peanut butter or bell pepper. Not something you’d want in your glass.
What’s worse, it’s pretty potent – as little as 1200 beetles per tonne can taint the batch. The sensory threshold is just 1 part per trillion.
“One the wine has been made, cleaning up the wine is virtually impossible,” said Ker.
So what to do about these pesky ladybirds?
Brock University researchers have discovered that potassium metabisulphite, which is used as an antioxidant in the winery has been found to be relatively successful.
Ker added, “If used pre-harvest, the wines made from vines treated with potassium metabisulphite seemed to be fairly successful. It can be used pre harvest to reduce the number of lady beetles below the sensory threshhold levels.”
However, anything that’s added to the grapes so close to harvest could be an issue.
Back in May, I complained that while the New Zealand wine industry prided itself on its green credentials, it had thus far failed miserably on environmentally friendly packaging (making me somewhat unpopular with various members of the NZ trade!)
While the rest of the wine world has turned to lightweight bottles, plastic (a.k.a PET) bottles, and tetrapaks, Kiwis had been stuck in the twentieth with heavy bottles. The lightest bottle available in New Zealand was 450g yet the Aussies were already down at 330g, reducing energy use by 20% and water by 12%.
At the time, Mike Needham, national sales manager for glass bottle manufacturer O-I, admitted it was expensive technology to install, and New Zealand was a relatively small producer of wine. “I don’t think people will go down to 350g or 300g. We have found very few people that are interested. The industry has not been as demanding here as in Australia,” he said.
Yet there was interest from producers. And this week, Nelson organic producer Richmond Plains has bottled its first wine in a 325 gram bottle.
Lars Jensen, owner of Richmond Plains, says, “It has been a big challenge to find suitable lightweight bottles in New Zealand. The lightest bottles we have been able to use previously were 40% heavier. So these really do make a big difference to the environment and across our business.”
The bottles are 20 mm shorter which means it is possible to stack more cases onto a pallet and fit more into a container. Taking fewer resources to produce and transport, reducing fossil fuels consumption significantly. They are also much lighter for trade and customers to handle with a case weighing 1.5 kg less at just 13kg.
Jensen adds, “Maximising the use of our resources and minimising our impact on the environment is a global issue so we’re very excited to be leading the way by using such lightweight bottles.”
I hope that others will follow their lead.
Unfortunately, consumers often feel they are getting better value for money and a better wine if it is packaged in a heavy bottle.
However, a WRAP study found bottle weight differences of up to 40% (for an empty container) and 20% (for a full container) were not noticed among a significant number of those surveyed, so perhaps if the proportions of the bottle mimic those of a heavier equivalent there will be little impact in perceived values.
The size of the Australian 2011 has given the industry an unwelcome surprise.
Disease ravaged the country’s vineyards with rains encouraging botrytis, and powdery and downy mildew, yet the crop still surpassed the 2010 harvest, coming in at 1.63 million tonnes.
Stephen Strachan, the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia chief executive, admitted: ‘The vintage is too big. It may seem harsh, given the year many people have had, to focus on the longer term rather than the demands of the present, but a harvest in excess of 1.6 million tonnes (despite the rejections) is out of step with the realities of sustainable production and the market opportunity for premium Australian wine.’
Producers are equally surprised by the figures. Peter Gambetta, senior winemaker for Yalumba told rebeccagibb.com: ‘We thought it would be up to 1.5 but not 1.63m tonnes. Some people may have made wine that they shouldn’t have.’
‘We have made some really good wines; we have created some surprising wines that we thought may not come out well but we also left a fair bit of fruit out. We pride ourselves in Merlot but we may not release a Merlot this year,’ he added.
Malcolm Stopp, PR manager for Peter Lehmann, admitted: ‘It will go down as tough year but we are trying to focus on what we harvested . Our yields will be down 30% we have crushed around 10,500 tonnes as opposed to 20,000 in 2004.’
Biodynamic producer Henschke has some theories about the 2010/11 vintage. Stephen Henschke, said: ‘It rained non stop this year. The last time it did that was 1974. It comes in lunar cycles 1974 and 1992 were wet years and 2010/11.’ To find out more about this lunar idea, read Plimer’s Heaven on Earth, advises Henschke.
He was clearly surprised by the size of the vintage: ‘I was seriously thinking it was going to be about 1.3million tonnes.’
‘I’m amazed it’s that big but there was potentially a big crop at flowering so if we had not had those rains it could have been an even bigger crop, so perhaps those rains were a blessing in disguise,’ added Henschke.
Corporate social responsibility is becoming one of the buzzwords that we’ll be hearing a lot more about in the wine industry.
Producers and retailers are now feeling the pressure to improve their environmental and ethical credentials, and thus help customers be greener and healthier.
With the major multiples selling eight out of every 10 bottles of wine in the UK, the grocery sector is thus expected to lead the wine industry’s adoption of corporate social responsibility.
Today, the Co-operative Group launched a three-year Ethical Operating Plan, which sets a new benchmark for other retailers. It has reduced its own operational carbon emissions by 20% since 2006, the target will now increase to 35% by 2017. In addition to a 15% weight reduction achieved in packaging, it will reduce this by a further 10% by 2012 and increase its carrier bag reduction target to 75% by 2013.
It also aims to increase its Fairtrade range as well as make its healthier option range the same price as its ‘normal’ range.
Challenges to corporate social responsibility
What difference will you make if you buy a Fairtrade wine or a lightweight bottle? Isn’t it a drop in the ocean when you consider BP’s Gulf of Mexico leak and China’s profusion of coal-fired power stations?
Producers and retailers have to make consumers think that they can make a difference buying ethically and/or environmentally. That choice must not be more expensive than a less ethical option. And customers who shop on price or promotional offer need to be given an incentive to shop ethically or environmentally, through reward points, which we have seen when reusing carrier bags.
Without consumer support, corporate social responsbility will fail before it even gets going.
Has biodynamics and organics become mainstream? The holistic approaches to grape growing are becoming more popular. They still represent a minority of vineyards but even the most traditional producers are starting to experiment.
In the news this week: Champagne producer Lanson starts dabbling in biodynamics and New Zealand aims for 20% of vineyard to be organic by 2020. If you’d predicted this 10 years ago, you would have been called a loon.
Yes, Lanson has purchased 14ha of biodynamic vineyards in the Marne Valley and Louis Roederer has bought 2ha of biodynamic vineyards in the same region. Conveniently, both sites are already certified so they don’t have to go through the drawn-out conversion process but it will represent a challenge for companies that are better known for buying the grapes to make wine rather than tending the vines.
In the same week, a group of New Zealand producers has announced that it hopes 20% of the country’s vineyard will be certified organic by 2020. It’s an admirable aim but it’s a big ask considering only 4.5% of NZ’s vineyards are certified organic at the moment.
I wonder what the herbicide, pesticide and fungicide manufacturers are thinking? I don’t think they’ll be quaking in their boots quite yet. And, even if producers do look to go organic or biodynamic, they’ll still be using sulphur and copper sulphate for powdery and downy mildew respectively.
Chemical companies would be smart to adapt to the changing attitudes toward chemical intervention by producing biodynamic preparations on a commercial scale. Or, will we see what’s happening in the on-trade with the drinks major companies offering no-interest loans and cash incentives to stock their products?
If youâ€™re planning on having a conference, stretch the budget to Saatchi & Saatchiâ€™s CEO Kevin Roberts. It may have been 8.30am, an ungodly hour for a wine conference to start, but he managed to wake the industry without the help of caffeine.
The advertising guru certainly gave the industry food for thought when it comes to its image. â€œYou have the most sensual business in the world yet you insist on using packaging that makes it look like toilet cleaner. Following that classic comment up with another criticism of the industry: â€œMost people have websites that bore you into submission,â€ he said. Sad but probably true.
He also called on the New Zealand government to get behind the industry with funding to back the New Zealand wine â€˜brandâ€™ to make it a â€˜Lovemarkâ€™, meaning a brand that is both respected and loved, eg the ipod. You could buy another MP3 player, he argued, but you donâ€™t because Steve Jobs and the clever people at Apple have created a cult following. The Kiwi wine industry needs to do the same thing.
Instead of Pure New Zealand, he also suggested â€˜Made with Love in New Zealandâ€™ should be its new strapline. Hmmm, not so keen on that one. Maybe we could take a poll on that.
I wouldnâ€™t have wanted to be the one to follow Roberts but UK journalist Matthew Jukes did a pretty good job. Following the pretty average 2007 and 2008 vintages in Burgundy, he claimed New Zealand has the chance to attract a new legion of Pinot followers, particularly in the UK. â€œYou have a long time gap between now and the release of the 2009 Burgundy vintage. There is a window of opportunity and it is only going to happen once so donâ€™t stuff it up,â€ he said.
Less talk, more tasting
The morningâ€™s 2007 blind tasting was an interesting chance to identify regional differences. The Central Otago Pinots were pretty easy to pick from the blind line-up for their powerful structure, dense fruity core, dried herb note and lovely line of acidity. While I picked the two Marlborough Pinots in the line up, it was mainly because they were fruit forward but lacked structure and length. Biodynamic Pinot producer Mike Weersing of Pyramid Valley (see previous blog on Pyramid) pointed out he doesnâ€™t look to make a wine that reflects regionality but his individual terroir. But thatâ€™s an argument for another day.
The 2003 line up this afternoon was a bit disappointing. The tannins had dried out on most wines and the acid and oak were sticking out like a sore thumb. The 2003 Felton Road Block 5, Pegasus Bay and Rippon Estate seemed to be standing the test of time better than the rest. Neal Martin, a UK-based reviewer for Robert Parker, had the honesty and guts to stand up and tell the room of 400 delegates what he thought. I wish I had had the balls to get up and say it but Iâ€™ve saved it for my blog. Thereâ€™s less chance of getting something thrown at me.
Wine of the day
This was a toss up between two 2007 Central Otago Pinots – Valli vs Peregrine.
Both would easily get a gold medal and 18.5+ but I’ve plumped for the Valli. What’s so good about it? It has great depth of colour with plum, cherry and signature Central Otago dried herbs. It’s silky in the mouth with a lovely chalky texture on the finish and a vibrant line of acidity. While some NZ Pinots lack structure, this isn’t one of them and the 14% alcohol is beautifully integrated.
So, my Wine of the Week is Pyramid Valley’s 2008 Earthsmoke Pinot Noir. Itâ€™s quite unlike anything Iâ€™ve tasted from New Zealand but then theyâ€™re doing things a little bit differently here.
The Burgundy-trained Californian, Mike Weersing, has been biodynamic since planting in this virgin territory in 2000. Before coming to New Zealand, he lived in a camper van â€œcadgingâ€ jobs off his heroes: Alsaceâ€™s Jean Michel Deiss, the Moselâ€™s Ernie Loosen and Burgundyâ€™s Nicolas Potel. People thought he was mad leaving his winemaking job at Neudorf to set up in the unknown Pyramid Valley but he seems to have proven the sceptics wrong.
What is it that makes his wines so different to the rest of the country? Perhaps itâ€™s the soil. Weersing said, â€œWe could not locate the combination of clay and limestone anywhere else in Waipara.â€
Or could the explanation lie in low crops? The two-hectare vineyard planted with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay is planted at an Old World density of 1m by 0.8m with only 400g of fruit per vine. Elsewhere, itâ€™s common to see 3.5kg of fruit on a vine â€“ and 5kg for Sauvignon Blanc. The concentration comes through in the wines.
Whatâ€™s more, 95% of his vines are ungrafted and he has found that those that are grafted on to American roostocks are the first to suffer drought. Heâ€™s also discovered that the roots of the ungrafted vines can penetrate the limestone whereas the grafted ones get to the limestone and stop burrowing down, missing out on all the mineral goodness of the limestone. While most would worry about the threat of phylloxera, this vineyard is pretty isolated and Weersing has little concern about the vine louse.
Weersing doesnâ€™t irrigate either unlike many other New Zealand grape growers. In Marlborough, some producers on free-draining gravel soils have told me they irrigate twice a day with 400mm of water at the height of summer. But this goes against his idea of terroir. â€œYou are not just expressing the soil, you are expressing the season,â€ he says, â€œ and if thereâ€™s a bit of drought stress then so be it. For example, if you love Chambolle Musigny Les Amoureuses, you want to see it in all its manifestations.â€
He makes his wines in a shipping container rather than a swanky winery. He doesnâ€™t add anything including sulphur (until bottling) and when he does bottle his reds, he doesnâ€™t fine nor filter, so expect a slightly cloudy wine but with all the good bits still in it. Considering his wines have a high pH (4.1 for his 08 Pinot Noir), this should mean that the wines are really unstable and prone to microbial spoilage. It goes against all the wine books that his wines should work. But they do.
Some people might think Weersingâ€™s a hippy. Perhaps he is, but who cares? The wines are impressive and Iâ€™m slowly coming around to biodynamics. The proof is in the glass.
Last month after visiting Waipara for the first time, I noticed that the vast majority of vines were planted on the flat gravel lands while there were plenty of hillsides sitting unplanted. Coming from a European viewpoint, I questioned whether there was lots of untapped potential.
This led to an interesting debate with Brian Bicknell of Marlboroughâ€™s Mahi wines. While vines in Europe are planted on slopes mainly to find less vigorous soils, achieve better drainage, and a better aspect to the sun, he commented: â€œthe weird thing is that the situation here is nearly exactly opposite [to Europe] as the valley floors were rivers only a couple of hundred years ago so certainly in Marlborough, and I believe in Waipara, the free-draining soils are on the valley floors. The silts and clay soils in most cases are still on the hills so it is quite a different situation to that of Europe.â€
Iâ€™d heard about a winery in Waipara, Pyramid Valley, 15 minutes drive west into the hills, that was planting on limestone slopes with excellent results, so I headed up there to see what their view is on this whole hill thing.
Mike Weersing, a Burgundy-trained Californian, and his partner Claudia, planted the two hectare vineyard in 2000, after searching Europe, California and New Zealand for a place to plant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. “We wanted to add a new terroir to the world that could say something about the place via the grape,â€ he said. They found parcels of clay and limestone and thereâ€™s still plenty of virgin land on the property to be planted.
So whatâ€™s his take on the hill thing?
â€œHistorically itâ€™s been easier to plant on the flat and producers like the wines they are making enough, so they donâ€™t have the incentive to plant up the hills,â€ he says.
â€œThey would make more interesting wines and they would have one-hundredth of the water needs of the vines on the flat gravelsâ€ He says this because clays on the hills retain water better than free-draining gravel, adding â€œthe country is going to deplete its water resources with so much irrigation. We donâ€™t have to irrigate on the clay slopes.â€
So, is it laziness and complacency that is to blame for people heading up into the hills? Well at the moment, there is very little planting due to the oversupply and recession. When the financial crisis finally draws to a close, will there be more people looking upwards? Yes, itâ€™s going to be more expensive to work, so it would only be for premium players but there could be lots of new and interesting wines made.
In Hawkes Bay, the Glazebrook hills surround the main grape growing area â€“ the Heretaunga plains. According to Rod Easthope, chair of the Gimblett Gravels Winegrowers Association, they offer some new good-looking terroirs for the local producers. â€œThereâ€™s potential all through the hills with limestone. Itâ€™s elevated so they donâ€™t suffer frost. But they are always going to be an adjunct to what people are doing now,â€ he said.
In my next blog, more on Pyramid Valley and its unfined and unfiltered biodynamic wines.
Nelson has had plenty praise from the wine literati. The regionâ€™s press pack proudly contained quotes like:
â€œNelson is home to New Zealandâ€™s finest aromaticsâ€
-Steven Spurrier, Decanter UK
â€œNelson produces outstanding Pinot Noir which can equal the best from anywhereâ€
-Nick Bulleid MW, Australian Gourmet Wine Traveller
As youâ€™d expect from such comments, I went there with high expectations. Apart from a few shining stars, I came away slightly disappointed by the general standard. Perhaps I was having an off day or it was the 2008 that let the region downâ€¦
What did excite me was Neudorfâ€™s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir â€“ but then thatâ€™s nothing unexpected. It has had write up after write up for its Puligny-like Chardonnay. Iâ€™ve turned up late to join the party of admirers. The 2008 (18.5-19/20) has a beautiful streak of acidity coupled with elegant nectarine fruit, minerality and well integrated hazelnutty new French oak (Â£14.50, Richards Walford). I also started waxing lyrical on my tasting notes for its â€™08 Tomâ€™s Block Pinot Noir and â€™07 Moutere Pinot. In brief, both were tight and focused with good mid-palate weight with fresh acid and firm chalky notes and savoury complexity. I wonâ€™t bore you with the other tasty adjectives.
Another shining light is Richmond Plains/Te Mania. Same winemaker, two labels. Richmond is biodynamic; Te Mania isnâ€™t but sticks to organic principles. Thereâ€™s clearly been a lot of work put in here since converting to Rudolf Steinerâ€™s tenets from making compost tea to regular oil sprays against powdery mildew. Iâ€™ve seen many vineyards recently and even if they grow cover crops down the middle of the rows, under the row youâ€™ll still see a strip of bare earth where weeds have been hoed or killed with herbicides. Not here. The vineyard is almost meadow-like. The vines look incredibly balanced here with shoot growth appearing to be much less vigorous than in other vineyards Iâ€™ve visited.
Balance in the vineyard is reflected in the wines. The majority of my notes included the phrase â€˜great balanceâ€™, which many wines fail to achieve. Alcohol levels are in check – as low as 12% in the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc â€“ with structure and some old world-esque restraint.
Neudorf, Richmond Plains plus Seifriedâ€™s Decanter trophy-winning â€™08 Sweet Agnes Riesling showed what Nelson can do when itâ€™s on form but many lacked the wow-factor that I had come searching for.
Across the board the Rieslings and Sauvignon Blancs didnâ€™t do it for me when compared to Central Otago, Waipara and Marlborough. The Sauvignons were certainly more food friendly than those of Marlborough, which tend to jump out of the glass and bop you on the nose. But from the cross section I tasted in the region, many wineries need to up their game to warrant the praise Nelson has received, rather than basing their reputation on a small clutch of award-winning wines.
Harsh? Maybe, and I’d like to be proven wrong.
Iâ€™ve just attended a debate, which asked whether the promotion of environment credentials is a marketing ploy. The room was half-full at best, which is a sad indication of the importance of the green issue in the UK wine industry. Or perhaps everyone had gone on half-term a day early? Compared to the full-house at the recent low alcohol forum, it was a poor showing â€“ I didnâ€™t spot one major retailer.
It appears many wine producers are going green for the right reasons but retailers were accused of using the green message to suit their own agendas â€“ making a profit. Unfortunately the supermarkets werenâ€™t there to defend themselves, but there were some damning comments.
Michael Cox, UK director for Wines of Chile, which is one of the main producing countries leading the sustainability drive along with South Africa and New Zealand, said, â€œMost multiple retailers will pay lip service to green initiatives.â€
The main problem is consumers see wine as a natural product and that means the word sustainable or organic on a wine label has less meaning than organic on a bunch of carrots. It goes some way to explaining why sales of organic wine have not kept pace with the rest of the organic industry. Cox added, â€œHaving a social conscience does not appear to sell more bottles. The consumer is not prepared to pay a premium for organic wine because they donâ€™t understand the concept. â€
Retailers are clearly doing things to help the environment such as the plastic bag reuse scheme but a cynic would argue it is only because the authorities have ruled they must reduce their plastic bag use. Angela Mount implied retailers didnâ€™t give a damn about saving the environment â€“ it is all about saving money. If the changes didnâ€™t save money, then they wouldnâ€™t do them. She argued bulk shipping and lightweight bottles improved margins for retailers, adding â€œI donâ€™t believe the green issue is driven by the consumer. It is often a convenient ploy to reduce costs.â€
Peter Darbyshire, MD of UK importer and distributor PLB agreed, “The green solution is to move the point of packaging as close to the point of sale. It is moving to the UK but sadly driven by retailers’ price motivation rather than the green agenda.”