Defining terroir with technology

I was thinking of writing a column exploring the concept of “terroir” and its different meanings for wine lovers and winemakers. But a quick search of my past columns on reveals this from February 2015. Been there, done that. Not that I don’t repeat myself on occasion, but …

Terroir may sound romantic, but to some winemakers, it’s precise


Terroir is a word with almost mystical charm for wine lovers. And no wonder: It’s French, and therefore romantic. It allows us to stretch out the second syllable with that raspy, guttural sound – “ter-HWAHH” — that speaks of sophistication and savoir faire. And it has no real definition, so we can use it any way we want without fear of contradiction. Terroir is what we want it to be.

[2017 interjection: In the redux, I was going to describe the second syllable as “somewhere between a pirate’s “arrrrrr” and a lecher’s “rrrrwowrrrr.”]

Terroir may lack definition, but it has meaning. When most wine lovers bandy the word about, we mean “a sense of place.” That is to say, a wine shows terroir if it tastes like it came from somewhere. See what I mean? It makes perfect sense.

Terroir is part of a romantic, anti-modernist, anti-technology vision of a lonely artisan winemaker toiling in her vineyard to produce a wine that could only have been grown there — not halfway around the world, not even on the next hillside.

Many wines taste as if they could have come from anywhere, products of modern technology that strips wine of not only any faults but also its character. Terroir is part of a romantic, anti-modernist, anti-technology vision of a lonely artisan winemaker toiling in her vineyard to produce a wine that could only have been grown there — not halfway around the world, not even on the next hillside.

[ Four wines to help you through the winter chill.  Remember, this was published in February.]

Bordeaux winemakers define terroir not with romance, but with precision. In the Médoc, along the left bank of the Gironde River, the top of a “slope” might only be a few meters above sea level, yet that detail might determine whether a vine’s grapes go into a chateau’s premier wine or a second label.

At Château Pichon Baron, a renewed micro-focus on terroir has influenced gradual changes in style of the wine, says Jean-René Matignon, Pichon Baron’s technical director and winemaker.

“We are more focused on the best terroirs of our chateau and trying to be very precise in our selection of grapes,” Matignon said during a recent visit to Washington. “It’s very important for our blend.”

Pichon Baron is a historic estate, a “second growth” in the famous 1855 classification of Bordeaux chateaux. Since 1987 it has been part of AXA Millésimes, a company that owns several wineries in France and Portugal. Under AXA’s stewardship, the vineyards have been improved and a new modern winery built. The efforts have borne fruit, as critics have cited improvement in Pichon Baron’s wines over the past 15 years.

Until 2012, the winery was known as Pichon-Longueville au Baron de Pichon-Longueville. Simplification of the winery’s name signals perhaps the completion of this transformation. (I’d rather have a mouthful of the wine than a mouthful of a name.)

As Matignon and his team have studied their terroir, the blend has increasingly emphasized cabernet sauvignon. That might not seem like much; Pichon Baron is in Pauillac, prime cabernet country. And cab has always dominated, forming about 65 to 70 percent of the blend depending on the year, with the rest usually merlot and cabernet franc. With the 2010 vintage, though, cabernet sauvignon became nearly 80 percent of the blend.

“Technology helps us be more precise in our selection of grapes and in blending our wines,” [Matignon] said. “It gives us more control.”

Matignon was in Washington to present several vintages of Pichon Baron at a dinner for Bordeaux lovers organized by Panos Kakaviatos, a Bordeaux fiend and contributor to Decanter magazine. As we tasted wines from 2000 to 2010, with 1989 and 1990 thrown in to show how the wines age, Matignon explained how two factors have contributed to changes at Pichon Baron. The first was the market: The decline of the traditional Bordeaux negociants market over the past 30 years shifted power away from brokers and back to the chateaux, “giving us flexibility to make wines the way we want to,” he said.

And the second factor? Technology. Pichon Baron’s new winemaking facility, completed in 2006, allows Matignon to use smaller fermentation tanks to isolate wines from various parts of the vineyard, in turn allowing him to choose only the best parcels for the final blend. Matignon even refers to this as “inter-parcel selection.” If you throw all the grapes into one big vat, such distinctions are lost.

Matignon also invested in the favorite toy of winemakers everywhere, an optical sorting table. This device scans newly harvested grapes before they go into the fermenters and identifies and removes any that are not fully ripe. It is faster and more reliable than a team of trained humans.

“Technology helps us be more precise in our selection of grapes and in blending our wines,” he said. “It gives us more control.”

In the hands of a skilled winemaker, technology is not the enemy of terroir but the instrument of its finer expression.

Originally published on on February 21, 2015.

Posted in Bordeaux, Terroir, Washington Post, Wine | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Chatting up the best and worst of cheap wines

I had fun yesterday taking a long lunch break from my day job to participate in the weekly online chat for The Washington Post’s Food section. My feature published that day on rating the best-selling U.S. wine brands inspired a lot of questions. We discussed the merits of oaked and unoaked chardonnay, cheap wine vs. not-so-cheap wine, and well, you get the idea.

Readers also asked about the best wines from the southern hemisphere (Argentine Chardonnay or South African Chenin Blanc, anyone?), the rise in alcohol levels, and why cheap imported wines are consistently better than domestics at the same price level.

No discussion of local wines really, though I managed to work in a Virginia Chardonnay. We’ll have to work on that for next time.

Posted in Argentina, Cheap Wine, Chile, Too Much Alcohol!, Washington Post, Wine, Wine Humor | Tagged | 2 Comments

Vintage perspective from Hugh Johnson

One of my favorite books to pick up whenever I have a few free moments (seldom) or need inspiration for my wine writing (often) is Hugh Johnson on Wine: Good Bits from 55 Years of Scribbling, published last year by Mitchell Beazley. It’s a collection of articles from the writer I learned most from in my early wino days, peppered in the margins with observations and bons mots from his perspective of today.

I picked up the book again this weekend and laughed aloud at Johnson’s introduction to a thumb-sucker piece from Wine Times in late 1989, called “Into the Nineties: A Spot of Prophesy.” On one level, it’s just a clever way to worm himself into his piece, but it also is a vivid example of how our love for wine influences our outlook on life.

“I confess I never quite know what the media are driving at when they use a decade as shorthand for a mood, a style, or a way of living. We are supposed to nod wisely when a journalist says how very ‘sixties’ someone is. I’m too dim to get it. To say that some splendid person is a proper ’61, on the other hand, or some wretch is a mouldy little ’65, strikes me as a very acceptable shorthand. A vintage year and its quality are historical facts that gradually permeate our wine-loving consciousness. The great ones stay there for a very long time.”

Yes, they do, Hugh.

Posted in Wine, Wine Humor, writers | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Wednesday wine recommendations, 8/30/2017

Let’s contrast the Old World and the New this week, with pinot noirs from Burgundy and California’s Central Coast, plus rosés from New York and Spain. And just for good measure, an Australian Riesling.

*** = Exceptional, ** = Excellent, * = Very Good

Baileyana Vineyards Firepeak Pinot Noir 2014

*** Great Value

Edna Valley, California, $24

One of Central California’s best pinot noirs, year in, year out, doesn’t disappoint in 2014. It’s rich and silky, with black cherry and blackberry flavors and a long finish. Alcohol by volume: 14.2 percent.

Distributed by Country Vintner: Available in the District at Cairo Wine & Liquor; on the list at 1789, P.J. Clarke’s. Available in Maryland at Rodman’s (White Flint), Waugh Chapel Wine & Spirits in Gambrills; on the list at Isabella’s and Reina in Frederick, Redwood in Bethesda. Available in Virginia at Arrowine & Cheese in Arlington, Balducci’s (Alexandria), Grape + Bean (Rosemont), Swirl & Sip in Fairfax, Unwined (Belleview); on the list at Gentle Harvest in Marshall, Parallel Wine Bistro in Broadlands, Salamander Resort in Middleburg.


Domaine Nicolas Rossignol Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2014

**-1/2 Stars

Burgundy, France, $35

From a revered Volnay producer, this entry-level Burgundy is anything but basic. It offers lively dark fruit flavors, grounded in earth, with an appealing herbal note emerging on the finish. This is a harmonious and lovely wine. ABV: 13 percent.

Distributed by Elite: Available in the District at Bell Wine & Spirits, Cork Market, Daily 14 Mart, Metro Wine & Spirits, Modern Liquors, Rodman’s, Schneider’s of Capitol Hill, Whole Foods Market (P St., Georgetown), Wide World of Wines; on the list at B Too, Brasserie Beck, Cork Wine Bar. Available in Maryland at Beards Hill Liquors in Aberdeen, Grand Cru, Mt. Washington Wine Co., Wells Discount Liquors and Wine Source in Baltimore; on the list at Parts & Labor in Baltimore, Petite Cellars in Ellicott City, Tino’s Italian Bistro in Columbia. Available in Virginia at Arrowine & Cheese and Grand Cru in Arlington, Balducci’s (Alexandria), Foods of All Nations in Charlottesville, Slater’s Market in Alexandria, Union Market in Richmond, Whole Foods Market (Arlington, Ashburn, Fairlakes, Vienna); on the list at Delia’s Mediterranean Grill in Alexandria, Evo Bistro in McLean, Pomme in Gordonsville, Ten Penh in Tyson’s Corner.


Pikes “Traditionale” Riesling 2015

**-1/2 Stars

Clare Valley, Australia, $22

Lovely fruit-basket flavors of tart apple, pear and quince, with a springtime herbal note. The lively acidity and great finish make this a fine example of New World Riesling. ABV: 12 percent.

Distributed by Country Vintner: Available in the District at Calvert Woodley, MacArthur Beverages; on the list at Bangkok Joe’s, Doi Moi. Available in Maryland at Balducci’s in Bethesda, College Square Liquors in Westminster, Cranbrook Liquors in Cockeysville. Available in Virginia at Oakton Wine Shop, Unwined (Belleview).


Bridge Lane Rosé 2016

**-1/2 Great Value

New York State, $17

Bridge Lane is the second label of Long Island’s Lieb Cellars, known for stellar sparkling wines. This scintillating rosé bursts with zingy strawberry and cantaloupe flavors, with a tang of minty mango on the finish. ABV: 11.9 percent.

Distributed by Hop & Wine: Available in the District at Glen’s Garden Market (both locations), Yes! Organic Market (Georgia Ave.). Available in Virginia at Altura Wine & Gourmet and Planet Wine & Gourmet in Alexandria, Cheesetique (Shirlington), Mom’s Apple Pie in Occoquan, Wine Styles (Montclair).


Usoa de Bagordi Rosado 2016

** Great Value

Rioja, Spain, $10

This organic rosé, made from 100 percent garnacha (grenache) grapes, is juicy with strawberry and raspberry flavors and an appealing bitterness that makes the finish refreshing. ABV: 13.5 percent.

Distributed by Dionysus: Available in the District at A. Litteri, Cleveland Park Wine and Spirits, Mom’s Organic Market, Rodman’s; on the list at Estadio. Available in Maryland at Balducci’s (Bethesda), Bradley Food and Beverage in Bethesda, in Gaithersburg, Mom’S Organic Market (Rockville), Wine Source in Baltimore. Available in Virginia at Balducci’s (Alexandria, McLean), Mom’s Organic Market (Alexandria, Arlington, Herndon, Merrifield, Woodbridge), Unwined (Alexandria, Belleview).

Originally posted on on March 25, 2017.

Posted in Australia, Burgundy, California, Eastern US, New York, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Rosé, Washington Post, Wine | Tagged | Leave a comment

Wine doesn’t Trump politics …

Our nation’s politics have gone sour, like wine left exposed too long to oxygen. A case in point: My column this week in The Washington Post Food section takes a look at Trump Winery, near Charlottesville. I conceived the article as an objective look at what Kerry Woolard, the general manager, and winemaker Jonathan Wheeler have done to improve the wines. After all, since Donald Trump bought the former Kluge Estate winery at a bankruptcy auction in 2011 and installed his son Eric in charge, the company has reinvested in the vineyards, constructed new production facilities, and refurbished several other buildings on the estate. And the wines have improved.


Trump Winery winemaker Jonathan Wheeler (l) and general manager Kerry Woolard in the tasting room.

But it is impossible to look at Trump Winery without the filter of politics. Hours after I visited and spoke with Woolard and Wheeler, neo-Nazis and white supremacists held their torch-lit march across the University of Virginia campus. The next day, protests and counter-protests over a Confederate statue turned deadly. And a few days after that, the furor over President Trump’s reaction to the violence engulfed the winery when Trump bragged that it was “one of the biggest” in the nation.

Continue reading

Posted in Current Affairs, Eastern US, Local Wine, Oregon, Virginia, Washington Post, Wine | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Wednesday wine recommendations, 8/23/2017

Riesling can be one of the most thrilling wines. This week’s selections include a scintillating example from Alsace, made from organic grapes, plus a lovely Rhone red and an electric white from Sicily. For novelty, how about a tasty kosher rosé from Italy and a gentle frizzante sparkler from Italy?

 *** = Exceptional, ** = Excellent, * = Very Good

Boeckel Brandluft Riesling 2016


Alsace, France, $23


This is a fantastic single-vineyard Riesling, made from organic grapes. It shows zesty lime flavors on top of ripe tree fruit – peaches and apricots – and full body. This is a dry wine, but the ripeness gives a hint of sweetness to appeal to wine lovers with a sweet tooth. Alcohol by volume: 13 percent.

Distributed by Dionysus: Available in the District at Mom’s Organic Market (New York Avenue), Rodman’s. Available in Maryland at Balducci’s and Bradley Food & Beverage in Bethesda, Mom’s Organic Market (Rockville), Wine Source in Baltimore. Available in Virginia at Balducci’s (Alexandria, McLean), Mom’s Organic Market (various locations), Unwined (Alexandria, Belleview).


Chateau Mourges de Grès Galets Rouges 2015


Costieres de Nimes, France, $15


Southern Rhone Valley at its best, this lovely red is a blend of syrah, grenache, mourvedre, carignan and marselan. It tastes of sun-drenched red fruits, with a hint of wild herbs and sea air. It’s a robust wine for robust foods. ABV: 14 percent.

Distributed by Simon ‘N’ Cellars: Available in Virginia at Leesburg Vintner, Unwined (Alexandria, Belleview).


G. Milazzo, Terre Della Baronia Bianco 2016


Sicily, Italy, $24


This brilliant white wine is made from a grape called catarratto, native to Sicily. The wine is crisp and citrusy, with lemon and lime flavors and an appealing mineral freshness that seems to come from a spring. ABV: 12.5 percent.

Distributed by Rapp Wines: Available in the District at Batch 13, Chevy Chase Wine & Spirits, Paul’s of Chevy Chase, Rodman’s, S&R Liquors; on the list at Centrolina, Dino’s Grotto, Lupo Verde, Pesce, Tartufo.


La Citadelle de Diamant, Mademoiselle Rosé 2016


Galilee, Israel, $23


Okay, this rosé is expensive. But it has a lot going for it. It’s quite good, for one thing, a blend of cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc, an unconventional combination to make a Provencal-style rosé. The packaging is striking, if you’re into that sort of thing. And it’s from Israel, and kosher. ABV: 12.5 percent.

Distributed by M. Touton: Available in the District at Capital City Wine & Spirits, Rodman’s. Available in Maryland at Bethesda Co-Op in Cabin John, Bradley Food & Beverage in Bethesda, Old Farm Liquors in Frederick.


Il Monticino Pignoletto Frizzante 2016


Italy, $19


Fizzy white wines from Italy were popular in the 1970s but have fallen out of favor. That’s too bad. This isn’t a serious wine, but it’s seriously fun. The spritz from the bubbles – much softer than Champagne or other wines made in that style – is gently palate cleansing. It leaves you ready for the next sip or bite to move your meal along. Try this as an aperitivo or with light pasta dishes. ABV: 12 percent.

Distributed by Simon ‘N’ Cellars: Available in the District at A. Litteri; on the list at Lupo Verde.

Originally posted on on August 12, 2017.

Posted in Alsace, France, Italy, Rhône, Riesling, Sparkling Wine, Washington Post, Wine | Tagged | Leave a comment

Wednesday wine recommendations, 8/9/2017

Just when I thought I’d tasted and recommended enough rosé for the season, along come two that get me excited all over to drink pink. After all, when the heat and humidity settle in, what’s better than rosé to help us chill out? And because there might be some red meat on the grill, here are two delicious reds. And a new California sparkler with a French pedigree.

Domaine la Bouïssiere Vacqueyras 2013

3 stars

Rhone Valley, France, $33

This earthy, savory blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre is classic Rhone Valley red, with flavors of dark fruits and wild herbs. This wine wants food, especially braised, grilled or smoked meat. Alcohol by volume: 14.5 percent.

Distributed by Dionysus: Available in the District at Eye Street Cellars, Rodman’s, Whole Foods Market (Foggy Bottom, P Street, Tenleytown). Available in Maryland at Balducci’s and Bradley Food & Beverage in Bethesda, Wine Source in Baltimore.


Commanderie de la Bargemone Rosé 2016

3 Stars

Coteaux d’Aix en Provence, France, $19

This may be the palest rosé I’ve tasted this year – it has virtually no color. It may also be the best. Bursting with red currant and melon flavors, the wine seems to carry a hint of sea air across a long, satisfying finish. Simply fantastic. ABV: 13 percent.

Distributed by Prestige in the District and Maryland, Virginia Imports in Virginia: Available in the District at Bell Wine & Spirits, Calvert Woodley, Dupont Market, Harry’s Reserve Fine Wine & Spirits, MacArthur Beverages, Wardman Wines, Whole Foods Market (P Street); on the list at Flight, Thip Khao. Widely available in Maryland. Available in Virginia at Dominion Wine & Beer in Falls Church, Norm’s Beer & Wine in Vienna, Unwined (Alexandria, Belleview), Wine House in Fairfax; on the list at Bazin’s on Church and Clarity in Vienna, Brine in Falls Church, Landini Brothers in Alexandria, Oakton Wine Bistro in Oakton, Villa Mozart in Fairfax.


Hiruzta Txakoli Rosé 2016


Spain, $19

This scintillating rosé from Spain’s Basque region has a vibrant color, more Barbie Pink than Millennial Pink. It’s fruitiness (raspberry and cranberry, with some citrus) and acidity make it an ideal partner for zesty, spicy foods. ABV: 12 percent.

Distributed by M. Touton: Available in the District at Capital City Wine & Spirits, Eye Street Cellars, Morris Miller Wine & Liquor, Rodman’s. Available in Maryland at Dawson’s Liquors in Severna Park, Old Farm Liquors and Viniferous in Frederick, Old Line Fine Wine, Spirits and Bistro in Beltsville. Available in Virginia at Specials Wine Seller in Kilmarnock, the Vineyard in McLean.


Louis Pommery Brut


California, $20

Here’s a new California bubbly made by Pommery, a French champagne house. It’s soft and ripe, with flavors of apples and pears, and a hint of pastry crust. The price is nice, too. ABV: 12.5 percent.

Distributed by M. Touton: Available in the District at Cairo Wine & Liquor, Capital City Wine & Spirits, Eye Street Cellars, Magruder’s, Rodman’s. Available in Maryland at the Bottle Shop in Potomac, Cork & Bottle in Laurel, Downtown Crown Wine and Beer in Gaithersburg, Georgetown Square Wine and Beer in Bethesda, Old Farm Liquors and Riverside Liquors in Frederick, Silesia Liquors in Fort Washington, Wine Harvest (Gaithersburg, Potomac).


Luna Beberide Mencia 2015

2 Stars

Bierzo, Spain, $17

The mencia grape of northwestern Spain produces wine that resembles cabernet franc, with smoky white pepper and bing cherries. Give this beauty a slight chill and pair it will burgers off the grill. ABV: 13.5 percent.

Distributed by Elite: Available in the District at Quincy Liquor, on the list at Arroz, the Salt Line, Siren and Taberna del Alabardero. Available in Maryland at Captains Market in Cabin John, Downtown Crown Wine & Beer and in Gaithersburg, Georgetown Square Wine and Beer in Bethesda, Lyndwood Square Wine & Spirits in Elkridge, Snider’s Super Foods in Silver Spring, Takoma Park-Silver Spring Co-Op in Takoma Park, the Wine Bin in Ellicott City, on the list at Botanero in Rockville, Guardado’s and TapaBar in Bethesda. Available in Virginia at Arrowine in Arlington, Balducci’s (Alexandria), Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market in Richmond, La Tienda in Williamsburg, Market Street Wine Shop (Downtown, Uptown) in Charlottesville, on the list at Mas in Charlottesville, Requin in Fairfax.

(Originally published on on June 24, 2017.)

Posted in Bargain Wines, California, Spain, Washington Post, Wine | Tagged , | 2 Comments