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The future of wine is in flux for both casual drinkers and aficionados. Environmental factors, business fads and agricultural trends are bringing about rapid changes in farming regions and in restaurants. We talk with Wine Review columnist Michael Franz about the headlines making waves among the vines.
- Michael Franz Editor, Wine Review Online
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe wind trivia that you use to impress people at parties, that Prosecco grapes are best grown on the south slope of hills, that red wines from Burgundy are most often made with cabernet grapes and that there's no such thing as a decent pinot noire from Oregon. Forget it. Old rules of thumb have been upended in the last two decades due in large part to the weather as changing climates bring new ways of doing things to an age old vocation.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWeather isn't the only shift though taking place in the industry. Here to bring us up to speed on all things new in the world of wine is Michael Franz, editor of the Wine Review Online. Michael, great to see you.
MR. MICHAEL FRANZKojo, great to see you as well.
NNAMDIWeather can make or break a harvest, Michael, and has long had a big effect on wine. But in the time you've been writing about wine climate change has begun to, well, complicate things a little bit. What are the new challenges you're hearing about and how are they different from the old ones?
FRANZWell, it really has been a striking development in the nearly 20 years that I've been writing about wine. And it wasn't something that I was initially all that attentive to. As I was learning about wine I sort of had picked up the conventional wisdom that soil was the big factor. And trying to learn about whether we've got clay or granite or whatever was my sort of initial focus. But really the impact of climate is much more dramatic and most regions of the world are planted with particular grapes because those grapes are well suited to the climate, as opposed to the soil or the other local factors.
FRANZSo a shift in climate ended up in the span that I've been working on this producing much more dramatic changes than almost anything else and have actually literally sort of taken the foundation out from beneath styles that we tend to traditionally associate with certain parts of the world. In some cases, indeed I would say in most cases, probably to the detriment of the traditional style in a few cases to be, you know, fully forthright about this, things have actually gotten better in some places like the famous Barolo and Barbaresco districts in Piedmont in northwestern Italy.
FRANZSo it's not as though I'm necessarily an activist on this or a climatologist. I'm really just a reporter who has, you know, done over 1100 (word?) around the world at different places. And what I see is striking. The changes in climate are widespread, they're consistent, they're dramatic. And for vintners in many parts of the world, frightening.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. We're talking about wine and the headlines of wine, so to speak, with Michael Franz. Have you noticed changes to wines you once considered a go to? Call us, 800-433-8850, or if you have questions about anything wine related you can also send email to email@example.com or send us a Tweet at kojoshow. Michael, some of the regions and wineries feeling the effects of climate change from Burgundy to Oregon and Australia to Virginia are very closely linked to certain kinds of wine. Is this causing a sort of identity crisis, if you will, in some places?
FRANZI would say that it is. And an interesting case in point would be Riesling from Germany, which is in many cases sort of what we would think of as the homeland or the sort of epicenter from which Riesling has radiated to the rest of the world. And one of the great things about German Rieslings is that they are very distinctive in style. And the style has never been really quite copied anywhere else in the world.
FRANZAnd the fairly simple reason for that is that the climate there has been traditionally so cool that the wines retain so much acidity that it was actually necessary to retain some sweetness in the finished wines in order to counterbalance the tartness of this natural acidity. But as the climate has warmed there, the need for retaining sweetness in the finished wines has basically again been eroded out from beneath what vintners are working with.
FRANZAnd so consequently, for better or worse, depending upon one's stylistic preferences, truly dry Rieslings from places like the famous Moselle Valley in Germany which were essentially unheard of when I started writing about wine are now commonplace. And it is -- it can actually be, in some years, a bit of a challenge to find the style of wine that was once ubiquitous, which is a quite dramatic change.
NNAMDIThat is identity crisis indeed. 800-433-8850. How do you choose wine when you're in a store or at a restaurant? Or where do you go for advice on selecting wine? Call us at 800-433-8850. The geography of a wine is one way people identify their favorites. And you say that aiming for geographic diversity is one way that restaurants can offer more well rounded wine lists. Will climate changes make that more difficult?
FRANZWell, actually the short answer is yes. The slightly long answer is that geographical distance is still the strongest assurance of stylistic diversity. So for instance, if you're looking to build a wine list or to build a cellar, you know, for yourself that would have chardonnays that would reflect different styles that would suit different foods that you might be interested in, you'd still be far better going to geographically disport places like the Hunter Valley in Australia for a rich chardonnay and Chablis for a lean chardonnay than you would be staying within one region and trying to pick by producer.
FRANZSo really respecting geographical diversity is the best and most consistent way to achieve stylistic range. But the thing is that as the cool regions get warmer, they become much more like warm regions. And the sheer range of the continuum, stylistically speaking, becomes compressed. Once the grapes are ripe you have to pick them. And that's true in warm regions. It's true in cool regions. And, you know, the fact is that the impact on cool climate regions of climate change is much more dramatic.
FRANZAnd so many places like Burgundy that used to be dramatically different in terms of the pinot styles that they would produce than say New Zealand, California, Oregon are now year after year after year creeping toward that bigger riper style that we associate with warm climates.
NNAMDISpeaking of cool regions, here is Greg in Washington, D.C. Greg, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GREGHi. I just wanted to ask your guest if he thought the pinots in the Russian River Valley are just fantastic now. And I've noticed over the last say ten to twelve years, they've gotten better and better to the point where I think they're a lot better than main traditional pinot areas in France. And I just -- do you think that's from climate change?
NNAMDIThe pinots from the Russian River Valley.
FRANZYou know, I do share your opinion and I admire many of those wines. One interesting thing is that when I got started writing about wine 20 years ago the buzz for pinot noir in California was in Carneros which was then thought to be a quite cool region right above the San Pablo Valley at the southern portion of both Napa and Sonoma Counties. And as things have warmed, they've now gotten away from growing pinot and they're growing (word?) merlot there.
FRANZPinot has shifted to the cooler Russian River Valley, which is currently the sort of epicenter of things in terms of quality. So I share Greg's opinion there. But interestingly there are many vintners who are now finding that they can't get pinot ripe without the finished wine coming in at 14.5 alcohol or higher. And so actually in terms of new plantings, the push has been farther west to the absolute extreme of the Sonoma Coast. That's where one has to go now to have any sort of assurance of having a sufficiently cool climate for one's pinot in another five or ten years.
FRANZAnd you can't go any farther west and you can't get any cooler than that. So I don't want to be overly dramatic here but there's a sense in which pinot has kind of crept its way out to the very edge of the California coast, which is a little bit reminiscent of these shots that we see of polar bears on a shrinking ice sheet. And it's a little bit scary.
NNAMDIGreg, thank you very much for your call. There are a couple of regions on the rise you say we should keep an eye on this year. Where are you watching?
FRANZWell, I mean, for me this is the most exciting thing about following the world's wine and writing about it, is that things never seem to sit still. And there's always someplace that seemed formerly obscure and second rate that all of a sudden looks like it's really ready to make a push and produce something interesting.
FRANZSo for example, in this past year I had a chance to get to Uruguay for the first time. And, man, the wines are delicious. The red grape of most interest there is tannat, which is traditionally from the southwest of France but seems to do much better in Uruguay, just as malbec has really come out of the shadow of other grapes in Bordeaux and excelled in Argentina.
FRANZOn the white side sauvignon blanc from Uruguay is fabulous. And our problem here is that Uruguay has absolutely beautiful beaches. And that's where a lot of that sauvignon blanc gets drunk before it makes it to us. And similarly the Uruguayans, as I learned down there, exceed even the Argentines as well as everyone else in the world in terms of per capita meat consumption, which is where a lot of that red wine goes. But when you have a chance when you see a wine from Uruguay you should really give it a try.
FRANZAlso South Africa continues to really come on in interesting ways. It seems like, you know, now that we are nearly, you know, 20 years removed from the reintroduction of South African wines in the wake of Nelson Mandela 's election, you'd think that wow, they should long since have undergone, you know, all of their growing pains. But that's really not true. It's taken a long time for them to really get themselves reintegrated into the world community and up to the rigors of international competition.
FRANZBut South African wine has really gotten much stronger in the course of the last four or five years in areas like Swartland within South Africa that were formerly on virtually nobody's radar, now producing dynamite red wines as well as terrific chenin blanc. I guess one other thing I'd mention would be that places that we have a kind of set notion of like Chile are also doing things that didn't formerly seem possible for them.
FRANZI mean, a lot of -- when I was an impoverished graduate student, I mean, I was all about ultra cheap Chilean cabernet. And, you know, like a lot of other people I think that I sort of thought this was a place to turn for just inexpensive wine. But now at higher price points, $15, $18, cabernet from Chile is maybe the best in the world. I think that in that price range that you get manifestly more interesting wine than you get out of cabernet from California.
FRANZAnd, you know, I'm as patriotic as the next guy but, I mean, if you're really looking after what you can get for your money, a place like Chile that you might have dismissed as being just the sort of bargain basement is really pretty near the top of the pyramid for a lot of things now.
NNAMDIKeep talking. I'm writing this all down as we speak. We're talking with Michael Franz. He is the editor of the Wine Review Online. And if you're interested in joining the conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. When you travel, do you seek out regions to visit based on the presence of wineries? Let us know, 800-433-8850, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Here is Robert in Washington DC, speaking of traveling. Robert, your turn.
ROBERTHi. I just came back from Australia and was absolutely blown away by the wide variety of wine that is available in that country. The south -- I mean, I've been to the Hunter Valley, and been to the wine country near Sydney before, and this time I went to South Australia and Tasmania, and I was really impressed with wines that are produced down there in Tasmania. I can't find those here in this country. How can we get more wine from these formerly obscure wine regions back here to the United States?
FRANZWell, Robert, you're a lucky man having gotten down there, and it's one of my favorite places in the world to go and people are so relaxed and open, and you can really learn a great deal traveling there. What you mention about Tasmania is especially interesting as a case in point for the climate change topic that we were addressing before, and it also can provide an answer to your question about why it's so difficult to find wines here that carry a Tasmania (word?) .
FRANZAnd the answer to this is that as the climate has gotten warm and drought ridden in Australia...
NNAMDIThey're dealing with a lot of wildfires right now.
FRANZExactly right. It has become extremely difficult for producers who were making -- seeking to make a consistent style of wine to retain that style as the grapes got riper more quickly. And so one of the things that they've done, is they've used grapes from Tasmania to blend into wines that are made further north in the country in warmer regions, and so famous producers like Penfolds that make yattarna chardonnay, probably the most chardonnay made in Australia, are now pulling the bulk of the fruit from Tasmania.
FRANZIt's not all the fruit, so the wine doesn't say that it's from Tasmania, but insiders know that Tasmania is basically the cool climate source for retention of stylistic consistency, and that's where a lot of that fruit goes rather than being bottled as Tasmanian wine and coming to us in that form. So your frustrations may continue, but boy, I sure share your opinion. Those wines have a kind of freshness and vibrancy that you really don't see in warmer parts of the country.
NNAMDIRobert, I guess you'll just...
ROBERTI really wish -- I really wish I had your job to go back there and...
NNAMDII was about to say...
FRANZI count my blessings daily, Robert. Thank you.
NNAMDII was about to say, Robert, it looks like you'll be having to do a lot more traveling to Australia. Thank you for your call. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll conversation with Michael Franz. He is the editor of the Wine Review Online. If you've called, stay on the line. We'll get to your calls. Where do your favorite vintages come from? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking wine with Michael Franz. He is the editor of the Wine Review Online, and more specifically, about how climate change is affecting vineyards around the world. But if you have any questions at all about wine, feel free to call us at 800-433-8850. If restaurants made new year's resolutions, Michael, you would like to suggest that they all pledge to have better wine lists. Why are they often either under or overwhelming?
FRANZWell, you know, I do respect the challenges that, you know, are confronted by those who have to try to maintain inventory and, you know, sort of build the list during the day and work the restaurant floor in the evenings, and so I don't, you know, underestimate the challenges of those who are involved in this job. And, you know, just by way of, you know, full disclosure, I've been working on a wine list for the Clyde's Restaurant Group here in Washington for more than a decade. So I do have a bit of a dog in the fight here.
FRANZBut, you know, one thing that I would say is that, you know, things are slowly getting better. I mean, I -- as I get into restaurants, I find fewer wine lists that are just absolutely gargantuan in size due to undisciplined buying and, you know, really...
NNAMDITwo hours after being in the restaurant I'm still reading the wine list.
FRANZI mean, which is really not doing anyone a favor when you want to be speaking with your friends and, you know, to have to pour, you know, through this giant thing, and, I mean, admittedly even that problem is a little better than it used to be because one can go through the wine list often online before showing up in the restaurant, but not everybody is as geeky as I am to be wanting to do that for 45 minutes before going to dinner.
FRANZSo, you know, I mean, I really feel like, you know, a really excellent restaurant list should be manageable in size. It ought to offer a diversity of styles, and that's, you know, I mean, that really requires that the wine buyer or buyers not just pick a whole bunch of things from their favorite region. I mean, you're going to have to taste from elsewhere in the world to offer diners in the restaurant a range of choices that can suit the different foods that they prefer, and likewise their own palate preferences.
FRANZAnd, you know, also to have a wine list that really points helpfully toward how you can relate it to the lunch or dinner menu as something that really marks excellent lists from less successful ones. I mean, you know, sure you could try to rely on your server tableside, but, I mean, anyone who knows a little bit about the sheer rate of personnel turnover in the restaurant business knows that, I mean, you are really rolling the dice if you ask most servers, you know, for their notion of, you know, what on this wine list is going to work with the dish that they prefer.
FRANZSo some sort of pointers in that direction really mark excellent lists, and then, of course, there's fair pricing which is a cause dear to all of our hearts.
NNAMDIMamuka (sp?) in Washington DC. Mamuka, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MAMUKAThank you, Kojo. Thanks Michael, for your wonderful job that you do in promoting wines from all around the world. I'm interested in your opinion about Georgian wines, if you've ever tried them, and in particular if you have ever tried the wines made in (unintelligible) , the traditional Georgian wine making technology.
NNAMDIWell, I'm going to put you on hold for a second Mamuka, because I think that Noel in Annapolis also needs to join this part of the conversation so that Michael Franz can respond to both of you. Noel in Annapolis, your turn.
NOELThank you so much, Kojo. And actually, I know Mamuka so it's glad that we're on at the same time. I wanted to ask a similar thing, because I had this wine experience when I went to Georgia and discovered 8,000 years of tradition, and then I came back to America and found out that pretty much nobody knew about it, and it was being imported in certain areas, mostly for an ethnic market without any real label, so they kind of got into the import business of bringing over stuff as well.
NOELSo I'd really be interested in your opinion about (unintelligible) . I know that most people actually know about it through (unintelligible) because there's a guy (unintelligible) interested in it in Italy. So wanted to hear about your opinion of orange wines and if you'd had any chance to try them.
FRANZI have had some opportunities, never as many as I would have liked. But I'm very interested in Georgian wines, and have made a couple of attempts to weasel my way over there, unsuccessfully, I'm sorry to report. But I remain resolved to get there before long. I've had more direct experience with orange wines from Colio, from (word?) and from other produced in that region, and, you know, what these are basically are, you know, wines that undergo an extremely long maceration meaning the skin is kept in contact with the juice for a very long period of time which produces this quite distinctive color as well as remarkable flavor and texture differences from more conventional modern-style lines.
FRANZAnd, I mean, I think that, you know, in terms of offering a quick assessment that wines that show some historical continuity, and that show some stylistic distinctiveness, and that are not part of the giant pipeline of sort of homogenized modern-style wines are incredible valuable, and, you know, so I can only encourage all of those who are either making these wines or seeking to import or distribute them, because the fact of the matter is that this is a very tough sell.
FRANZTo take something that not only smells and tastes differently, but looks strikingly differently, and is really not so easy to explain to people. I mean, those who are doing the work of trying to get these wines into stores and onto restaurant tables are really doing a great service to all of us in terms of keeping the sheer diversity of wine alive. And for my money, it's wine's diversity that is its single greatest virtue.
NNAMDINoel, thank you very much for your call.
NOELThanks so much. And I'm just going to put one little last thing out. There's going to be a Twitter conversation tonight about (word?) varietals that's also being made in America, so #winechat starts at nine o'clock eastern standard time.
NNAMDIShould I tell Mamuka you said hi?
NOELActually you should.
NNAMDIThank you. Thank you very much for your call, Noel.
NNAMDIMamuka, you heard Noel say hi, right?
MAMUKAYes. Yes. I heard it, and thanks, Michael. We hope you will have a chance to try more Georgian wines sometime soon.
FRANZI look forward to it. Thank you.
NNAMDIMamuka, thank you very much for your call. Some default to picking a bottle or glass based on one number, a rating from Robert Parker's influential Wine Advocate. But change is apparently afoot at that publication. What is on tap, and how does it reflect largest shifts within the industry?
FRANZWell, you know, some listeners may be aware that, you know, Robert Parker established in the relatively early 1980s a newsletter called the Wine Advocate, which essentially pioneered the 100 point scoring system, and has become extremely influential, not only for retailers and restaurants who are buying wines, but also for consumers, and most controversially has been fairly influential in the way wine producers around the world, in some cases fashion their wines, arguably in order to please Parker's palate earn lots of points and consequently be able to sell the wine for more robust prices.
FRANZAnd, you know, the depth of Parker's influence over the years is what has made him by far the...
NNAMDIEven though the circulation of Wine Advocate is not that much.
FRANZNo. It's really -- it's something on the order of 40,000 subscribers, but the influence is dramatically greater than that, and of course the reach is greater than that also, because the reviews are reprinted with permission of the Wine Advocate as long as the Advocate is attributed as the source of them. So the reviews have circulated far broader than the subscriber base. But, you know, so Parker has, you know, and he's the most controversial figure probably in wine in the generation that I've been writing about it, and he has stepped back gradually over the course of the last ten years or so has taken on assistance to cover various regions in the world for him, and now has sold off a controlling share, as I understand it, of the Advocate to a group in Asia.
FRANZAnd they are talking about making changes such as accepting some advertising, although my understanding is from, you know, not from wine producers, but I think other luxury products and so forth. So, I mean, you know, Parker's direct influence is sure to diminish somewhat and...
NNAMDIHeadquarters moving too, right?
FRANZHeadquarters as I understand it likewise moving to Asia. And, you know, just -- it seems to me like Parker may have done this at the right time. I mean, as, you know, as websites such as my own, thank you, have proliferated, you know, there are really more voices in wine criticism, and there's a sense in which consumers are now finding their way toward critics who suit their preferences and interests in ways that are somewhat similar to the way that, you know, political junkies are now finding their way to media outlets that have sort of ideological correspondence to their own thinking.
FRANZAnd that is both good and bad, you know. Obviously in politics there's a sort of dangerous feedback loop where people are sort of only talking to people like themselves, and one worries a little bit that without somebody like Parker really sort of sticking up for certain things, that, you know, that possibly without that sort of controversial lightning rod that we'll lose something, but we'll see. I mean, you know, he's a hard worker and I suspect that we have not heard the last of him.
NNAMDIAs are you, Michael. It's hard work, somebody's got to do it. Here is Todd in Washington DC. Todd, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TODDGood afternoon, Kojo. I'm enjoying your show, as always. I've had the good fortune of traveling to Uruguay for the last several years, and I'm glad to hear Michael's recommendation of so many of the fine things that come from Uruguay, as well as the lifestyle that appreciates their agriculture. I know firsthand, in fact, that the beef trade and the bovine agriculture of Uruguay is trying to make a greater world presence, but what about the (word?) wines that we seem to only be able to really enjoy there?
FRANZWell, you know, there is some progress on this front. I do see them somewhat more often. The fact is that you're still likely to encounter frustration if you resort to the simple, you know, method of just simply walking into the wine shop and asking where you can find wines from Uruguay. Now, those of us who are in Maryland who still have some barriers to direct shipping, you know, are going to have some ongoing difficulties, but one thing that I would really recommend for those who are in a position to be able to legally have wine shipped to them is to look at sources like winesearcher.com and find who in the country is doing the work of supporting wines from places like Uruguay at the retail level and buy from those sources and have the wines shipped to you.
FRANZAnd I don't recommend that anyone, you know, flaunt the law and do this in places where it can't be done safely and legally, but, you know, those retailers who are making the push into places that require them to work harder really deserve your support, and to the degree that you can use tools like, you know, web search sites like winesearcher.com in order to find your way to those retailers, I would certainly recommend that you try that.
NNAMDITodd, thank you very much for your call. The problem with some of the changes that we're seeing in the wine business is that even the most informed consumer might find the origins of some wines tricky to trace. Why is that, and what, if anything, can we do about it?
FRANZWell, you know, that's true. There has been a fair amount of consolidation in the industry, and what used to be in some cases just a boutique little producer in a place like Rias Baixas up in the northwest corner of Spain, now may very well be owned by a giant international conglomerate. And giant international conglomerates tend to make safer commercial choices in terms of how they grow grapes, finish wines, you're going to see more filtering in order to see to it that they've got a perfectly stable product, and they're also very good at concealing this by coming up with basically shadow importing companies so that it doesn't look like, you know, Goliath is importing this little boutique wine.
FRANZSo the fact is it has become increasingly difficult to know whether you're formerly favorite artisanal producer is still making wine in that same way, or whether it's been gobbled up and is really -- is pushed toward consolidation.
NNAMDIDon't have a lot of time left, but Sheila emails, "As a recent college graduate and one of Michael's former students, I'm on a budget when it comes to wine. I recently had a delicious and cheap Cava. What other sparklers are noteworthy and affordable?"
FRANZWell, in addition to Cava, which remains remarkably strong in terms of value, you know, Prosecco from Italy, you know, has become extremely popular, so those are very easy to find. The quality, as with anything that's rising in popularity, is going to be a little bit uneven, so you're going to need to, you know, pay attention and return to ones that you like very well. Also, Cremant from various parts of France, Cremant de Bourgogne, Cremant d'Alsace from Alsace are also really interesting sources.
FRANZBut, you know, if you really want to just sort of plunk down $9 and have a pretty reliable bottle of wine, it's going to be very hard to beat Cava. So you're already started in the right direction, Sheila.
NNAMDISheila, thank you very much for your email. Michael Franz, thank you so much for joining us. Great to see you.
FRANZVery good to see you again, Kojo. Thank you.
NNAMDIMichael Franz is the editor of the Wine Review Online. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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