Month: March 2015

How much would you pay for Thomas Jefferson’s Wine?

Thomas Jefferson is famous for many things: for being the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, the third President of the United States, an architect, a philosopher and fluent in six languages. He is also regarded as America’s first great wine connoisseur.

Jefferson served as Minister to France from 1785 until the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1787. It is this posting that became instrumental in one of the most notorious alleged wine frauds the world ever saw.

At 2:30pm on December the 5th, 1985, at Christie’s Auction House in London, bidding opened on a bottle of wine. Expectations were high. The bottle had been hand blown and was inscribed simply with a year; 1787, a name; Lafitte, and the initials Th J.

It was believed that this bottle of bordeaux was acquired by Thomas Jefferson, presumably during his posting to France, from Chateaux Lafitte.

This estate is now Chateaux Lafite Rotheschild, one of the four wine producing Chateaux of Bordeaux originally awarded first growth status in the 1855 classification. Wines from this estate demand exceptionally high prices. A case of 1982 might set you back around £30,000.

So, on that December afternoon Christopher Forbes, of the family that own Forbes Magazine, paid £105,000 for this single bottle. This is still the highest price a bottle of wine has ever fetched at auction.

Other bottles from the “Thomas Jefferson Collection” went on to be sold at auction. Unfortunately however, the authenticity of the bottles was questioned. One of the purchasers, US billionaire Bill Koch was told by the Jefferson estate that they had no record of those bottles ever being owned by Thomas Jefferson.

The subsequent investigation into alleged wine fraud became the subject of a book, “The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine”, by Benjamin Wallace. This is now being adapted into a film starring Matthew McConaughey.

The authenticity of the wines of the Thomas Jefferson Collection is still in doubt and divides experts. Some claim the wines taste far younger than they should, and show no sign of appropriate oxidation. Others claim that the engraving on the bottle is more reminiscent of modern engraving tools than those available in the 18th Century.

This mystery rumbles on. Full story in The Guardian.

Image is “Thomas Jefferson” by Rembrandt Peale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Following In The Footsteps of The Past

In Georgia wine is fermented and stored in clay pots as part of a wine making tradition that supposedly stretches back to 8,000 BC.

Known as Qvevri (or Kvevri), they are typically built to contain hundreds or thousands of litres of wine. Made of red clay and built in a coil method, they are sealed inside with beeswax. Once ready they are fully buried in the ground and as such are very stable where temperature and moisture are concerned.

Georgian wine is made by pouring grapes into a Qvevri and crushing them. Over a period of days the grape skins are periodically stirred and crushed. Finally the Qvevri is sealed with a stone cap and the wine is left to ferment and mature over a period of a few years. Once the wine is ready it is pumped out and bottled. The Qvevri is sterilised with lime ready to be used again.

Wines produced in Qvevri is said to be stable by nature, rich in tannins and do not require preservatives to ensure longevity. The tannins found in this wine are meant to limit protein content and prevent the production of particulate matter.

The Greeks and Romans also used large earhenware pots for the fermentation and transportation of wine. The Romans had simple amphorae, with a pointed base. Compared to the Georgians however, the Greeks and Romans were comparatively late to the party.

The vast majority of Georgian wine is exported to Russia, but if you’d like to try Qvevri you can buy it in M&S!

Image is “Georgian Kvevri” by Levan Totosashvili Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

What Does 150 Year-Old Wine Taste Like?

On the 6th of September 1864 a British-built steamer left Hamilton, the capital of Bermuda bound for Wilmington, Virginia. The manifest stated it was carrying canned-meat and general merchandise. In fact this ship, the Mary Celestia, was carrying Enfield rifles and other munitions to the ailing Confederate States of America. Whilst rounding the southern tip of the island she struck rocks and sank.

Her wreck has been of interest to divers and archeologists ever since, but recently wine enthusiasts have had also had good reason to take interest. Why? Read on.

The Mary Celestia was launched in February 1864 by William C. Miller & Sons, a shipyard in Liverpool. She was a side paddle-wheeled steamer, iron hulled, 225 feet long and 207 tonnes. It took two months to outfit her and she then set sail for Bermuda, arriving in May.

Bermuda consists of 181 islands ringed by reefs, and sits some 600 miles off the coast of North America. Spanish mariner Juan de BermudezIt discovered Bermuda in 1505. Unsurprisingly, the first settlement of Bermuda happened because of a shipwreck. Today Bermuda is famous for being part of the Bermuda Triangle, an area formed by Puerto Rico to the South and Florida to the West, which has claimed hundreds of ships and aircraft, often disappearing mysteriously without a trace.

In 1864, the American civil war was in it’s fourth year and the Confederacy of southern states was being brought to it’s knees by a Union naval blockade. Called The Anaconda Plan or Scott’s Great Snake, the blockade was proposed by Union General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, and it was working.

500 Union ships were trying to prevent supplies reaching the confederacy, covering 3,500 miles of coastline. The Union Navy would capture 1,500 ships trying to cross the blockade over the course of the war. Many of these “blockade runners” were ships commissioned by the Confederacy to bring in vital supplies, notably from Britain. The Mary Celestia was one of these ships.

Her career was brief, perhaps performing tens of journeys in the three or four months before she sank. Brief, but full of drama. Whilst being pursued by a Union blockader the captain had to throw 100 bales of cotton overboard to lighten the ship, some $100,000 in todays money. This wasn’t enough, and she only escaped her pursuer when the ship’s engineer opened the safety valves to allow the boilers to heat past safe levels so that she could generate enough steam to hit 17 knots.

However, on the of September 1864 her luck ran out. She struck rocks near the Gibb’s Point Lighthouse and sank. Her wreck is now been visited by hundreds of divers each year. She is one of Bermuda’s “top ten” diving attractions and continues to be investigated due to her historical significance within the context of the American Civil War.

Her watery grave was periodically disturbed by passing hurricanes over the next 145 years, tossing the wreck around, sometimes revealing more of the wreck, sometimes burying it in sand. In 2009 it was reported that a corked bottle of wine was visible in the bow next to a wooden case, exposed by the passing Hurricane Bill. The bottle appeared to be intact and contained a grey looking liquid.

It was not until 2011 that this case was recovered, and not until this month (6th of March) that a bottle of the “grey wine” was actually uncorked and tasted at a wine and food event in Charleston, South Carolina.

And what did it taste like?

Apparently it “smelled and tasted like crab water, gasoline, salt water, vinegar, with hints of citrus and alcohol.” So seawater then.

A crate of wine retrieved from a ship involved in a war over 150 years ago, painstakingly recovered but sadly with little of the original wine remaining. Still, a fascinating story!

Full story in The Independent.

Image is of a ship similar to the Mary Celestia, also built in Liverpool, the Colonel Lamb by U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Certainly, Would You Like Arsenic With That?

In a class action lawsuit, filed in the USA on Thursday, 28 wineries producing 83 wines have been accused of producing wines containing high levels of arsenic. The lawsuit alleges that the wines contain up to five times the levels of arsenic than the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows for water. The varieties listed include bottles from prominent brands and all retail for less than $10 per bottle.

The ensuing pandemonium in the media has so far not addressed the most important question: how much arsenic is safe?

Arsenic is a metal that occurs naturally in the air, soil and water in small amounts. Very small amounts can occur in wine, other beverages, fruit and so on. Larger amounts of arsenic can definitely be problematic. Arsenic is carcinogenic and has been linked to causing cardiovascular disease and respiratory illness.

As far as arsenic in wine is concerned, the U.S. doesn’t have specific rules about acceptable arsenic levels for wine, but many other countries do. For example, in Canada wines are allowed to have arsenic levels up to 100 parts per billion.

The tests performed by BeverageGrades, the lab whose research has been cited in the lawsuit, found that some wines had an arsenic content of 40-50 parts per billion. In the US drinking water may contain a maximum concentration of inorganic arsenic of 10 parts per billion. In the EU the total amount of arsenic permissible is 10 parts per billion.

In the lawsuit, four plaintiffs are said to be bringing the suit on behalf of California consumers. The plaintiffs are seeking a recall on all the wines with high arsenic levels, money back to the consumers who purchased these wines and wish to shed light on what they allege is a minimally regulated US wine industry.

The lawsuit is set to be defended with a number of producers already issuing press releases denying the allegations. Further, the Wine Institute of California has responded stating that the lawsuit was irresponsible and that the allegations were misleading and false.

As far as the lawsuit is concerned, and the question of how much arsenic is safe, we’ll just have to await the decision at trial.

Image is “Arsenic trioxide“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Chianti or Chianti Classico – What’s the Difference?

Ever wondered why some Chianti’s are called Chianti Classico and some aren’t? We sum up the distinctions for you, starting with Chianti.

Where it is made

A Chianti wine must be produced within the Chianti region. So far so good.

The first mention of a wine area called Chianti dates back to the 13th Century. At that time, the area included the villages of Castellina in Chianti, Gaiole in Chianti and Radda in Chianti. These three villages in the hills between Florence and Sienna formed the League of Chianti to promote their wine – interestingly, at this time it was a white wine!

It was none other than Cosimo III de’ Medici, the penultimate Grand Duke of Tuscany, who in 1716 added the village of Greve and a further area to the north of Greve to the League and declared that these were the only recognised producers of Chianti.

This delineation remained until July 1932 when the Italian government expanded the zone, doing so again in 1967, to cover a large part of central Tuscany. Today the Chianti zone has eight distinct districts, all of which have Denominazione di origine controllata e Garantita (DOCG) status. Chianti Classico is one such district.

DOCG status is the strictest of the three destination of origin regulations used in Italy. These require wine produced in such an area to use defined production methods and meet rigorous standards of quality.

What it contains

Baron Ricasoli created the Chianti recipe of 70% Sangiovese, 15% Canaiolo and 15% Malvasia bianca in the middle of the 19th Century. In 1967, DOC regulation set by the Italian government firmly established the “Ricasoli formula” of a Sangiovese-based blend with 10–30% Malvasia and Trebbiano.

However by the 1970s producers were releasing blends with a higher proportion of Sangiovese. These so called “Super Tuscans” began to outperform the established Chianti’s on price. The Italian authorities responded by upping the content of Sangiovese in Chianti’s to between 75% and 90% – note, this did not affect Classico or Riserva wines.

So what about Classico?

Chianti Classico wines must be produced within the Classico district of Chianti. This district includes the original Chianti heartland dating back to the 13th Century.

As with Bordeaux, the different districts of Chianti have unique characteristics that can be exemplified and perceived in some wines from those areas. Chianti Classico wines are premium Chianti wines that tend to be medium-bodied with firm tannins and medium-high to high acidity. Floral, cherry and light nutty notes are characteristic aromas.

Chianti Classico must be at least 80% Sangiovese, must have a minimum alcohol of at least 12% with a minimum of 7 months aging in oak. Also, since 2006 Chianti Classico cannot be white, it can only be red.

What’s with the Black Rooster?

Chianti Classico wines are easily identified by the black rooster seal (known as a ‘Gallo Nero’) on the neck of the bottle. This indicates that the producer of the wine is a member of the Chianti Classico Consortium, the local association of producers. The consortium was founded in 1924 to protect and promote Chianti Classico and to prevent wine fraud.

Legend has it that in the 13th Century, the warring provinces of Florence and Siena agreed to settle their border dispute on the crow of a cockerel. The provinces agreed to a race; when the first cockerel crowed at dawn they would each send out their fastest rider to the rival city. Where the riders met would become the new boundary.

On the night before the race, the Florentines starved their black cockerel to ensure that he sang earlier, thereby giving their rider an advantage. Hence the inclusion of the black cockerel motif to designate superiority.

It has been said that when you taste Chianti Classico, you’ll never forget it – and we couldn’t agree more.

If you are interested in trying a Chianti Classico we have one available.

Image is “Montefioralle-Panorama“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Italian Sparkling Wine On Tap, Is It Prosecco?

Prosecco, the Italian cousin to France’s champagne, has quickly been gaining in popularity in the UK, but are you enjoying the real thing? Not if your prosecco is served on tap apparently.

Last year global sales of Prosecco overtook Champagne for the first time. In the UK, Prosecco achieved a 74.6% uplift in sales in the year to 20th July 2014 according to Kantar Worldpanel. There was similar staggering double-digit growth in 2013 with an increase in sales of £70 million.

Such is the staggering popularity of this sparkling gem that many eateries and pubs in the UK have started to sell it on tap. The advantage being a super sparkly glass of fizz without having to order a full bottle. However, according to EU Regulations, Prosecco must be produced in the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene area of north-east Italy (just as champagne must come from the Champagne region of France) and must be marketed exclusively in traditional glass bottles. So if it arrives on tap, it is not Prosecco.

The trend of pubs selling Prosecco from barrels so alarmed Italian producers that they contacted the Food Standards Agency asking them to stop the sale of prosecco on tap. The Food Standards Agency has confirmed that it is not an acceptable practice to sell prosecco in this way. As such, it is perfectly permissible to serve Italian sparkling wine on tap, but it cannot be called Prosecco.

So if you simply want a glass of Italian sparkling wine, by all means order from the tap, but if you want the real thing, buy a bottle!

Image is “Prosecco vineyards” by John W. Schulze is licensed under CC BY 2.0

¡Ay, caramba!, Rioja On The Rise In The UK

Here at Charles Rose we love Rioja. So it was no surprise to us that The Telegraph recently reported that one in twenty of all bottles sold in the UK is Rioja.

Spain has more land dedicated to vineyards than any other country in the world, just under 1.2 million hectares. Rioja is a beautiful region with DOC status, sitting just below the Cantabrian Mountains along the Ebro river. 34% of all the wine produced in Rioja ends up in the UK, thats around 36 million litres, 10% more than the previous year!

We are Rioja’s biggest export market, with sales of Rioja accounting for £220 million, around 4% of the total UK wine market. Why? Because we love it, and our appetite is growing!

The popularity of tapas is on the rise, so says the Telegraph, bringing with it a surge in demand for Rioja. Personally, we think the quality of wines coming out of Rioja have never been better. Renewed interest in Rioja will only bring greater consumption as people discover or rediscover just how good it is.

Rioja is also fantastic value for money. Around a third of all the Rioja consumed in the UK is Reserva, which can be as much as ten times cheaper than an equivalent Bordeaux. The Telegraph quite rightly raises the question of whether or not Rioja sales might soon outstrip sales of French wines. Bordeaux has unparalleled heritage, but this comes at a price!

A new generation of younger wine consumers faced with a choice between a cheaper Spanish wine and a much more expensive French wine might well save the latter for a special occasion.

So if you haven’t yet jumped on board the good ship Rioja, we suggest you join us and pick up a bottle! Cheers!

(Just in case you were about to google ¡Ay, caramba!, it is Spanish, wikipedia says so.)

Image is “Viñedo-en-Ventosa-LaRioja” by Jesús García – Propra verko. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Another Glass Of Sussex Please!

Sussex is famous for many things. The Royal Pavilion at Brighton, the Long Man of Wilmington, and Bodiam Castle (pictured). Its is also (weirdly) where banoffee pie was first created in 1972. If these things are not enough to show Sussex as exemplary, then why not Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status for it’s wines?

A few days ago Decanter Magazine reported that English wine producers are making a bid to obtain PDO status for wineries in Sussex. PDO would bring them the same protected status as wines from Champagne.

PDO is the most prestigious of the three geographical indications offered by the European Union for the protection and promotion of agricultural products. The other two are Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), and Traditional Specialities Guaranteed (TSG).

PDO is the strictest designation. It states that a product has been entirely produced within a region that gives the product unique properties. For example, beef produced wholly on Orkney has PDO status and can be labelled as Orkney beef. Beef produced in Scotland, including from Orkney, has PGI status and is labelled Scotch beef. So If the beef comes from cows raised in Orkney, but is prepared in the Outer Hebrides, it can only have Scotch beef PGI status as it wasn’t wholly produced on Orkney.

The UK already has 65 products with protected status. Far less than Portugal (125), France (217) and Italy (267). If successful, Sussex wine would join PDO holders such as Native Shetland Wool, Jersey Royal Potatoes and our favourite cheese, Swaledale. Given that English wine has already been granted a PDO, what advantage does a Sussex PDO designation bring?

Well, English wine may be enjoying its most successful years, but presumably it’s easier to market Sussex sparkling wine rather than English sparkling wine. For example, ordering a bottle of Sussex in a restaurant sounds more pleasing than ordering a bottle of English…

And why not have a go! English sparkling wines have been racking up the awards. In the 2014 International Wine Challenge competition they were awarded 5 gold medals and two trophies. Obtaining PDO status would be another big boost to the reputation of wines produced in Sussex, and England in general.

It is perhaps debatable how the varying landscape of Sussex can be realistically expected to imbue the geographical characteristics a PDO is meant to guarantee. But with the English wine retail sector forecast to hit £100m this year, and the number of wineries in the UK at an all time high, this latest PDO is clear evidence of a confident market.

Interestingly Nyetimber, one of the most famous UK producers, has two thirds of its vineyards in Sussex and a third in Hampshire, and so would be excluded from applying the PDO designation to its’ products.

Image is “Bodiam-castle-10My8-1197” by Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Colour Red Dominates Chinese Wine Consumption Habits

The colour red carries great cultural significance in China. It is associated with fire, success, happiness and good fortune. This contrasts sharply with the colour white, which is associated with purity but also death. White is a colour for funerals and mourning.

Perhaps it is not surprising then that in the world’s fifth largest market for wine, over 85% of the 2.17 billion bottles consumed annually are red.

According to research by VInexpo and International Wine and Spirit Research published last year, consumption of wine in China rocketed 136% between 2008 and 2013, making China the largest consumer of red wine in the world. Through the same period, consumption of spirits also increased over 82%. This means that China consumes over 40% of spirits annually world wide!

Around one in five of those 2 billion bottles is imported and half of those imported come from France. Perhaps its not surprising then that recently the Telegraph reported that the hundredth Bordeaux chateau has passed into Chinese ownership. China is now the principle export market for Bordeaux wines, with the UK the second largest market.

Apparently 80% of wine produced from those 100 chateaux now makes its way to china were it can fetch prices around ten times higher than the achievable price in France.

Do not fear though, if you are interested in purchasing a chateau in Bordeaux there are more than 8,400 others to choose from!

Image is “Cars, Gironde” by michael clarke stuffCars, Blaye 02 HDR. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Wine Based Drinks: 75% Wine, 25% Egg And Milk?

We aren’t fans of buying wine in supermarkets. It’s a bit of a minefield as we wrote about recently. Now the consumer has another complication to deal with.

A few of the big supermarkets are now stocking wine based drinks. They come in wine bottles. They are in the wine aisle. But are they wine? I guess that depends on your definition of wine.

Wine based drinks are defined by the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) as products consisting of at least 75% wine. What’s the other 25% then? Well, you might hope it is water however the photos supplied by The Daily Mail suggest otherwise, namely milk and eggs… honest, take a look!

As a totally irrelevant aside, The Daily Mail article lists the OIV as the European industry body, which isn’t quite right. Various European member states are part of the OIV. However, the European Union itself is an observer of work from the OIV through participating organisations such as the International Federation of Wines and Spirits (FIVS)… aside complete!

Let us pretend that we can live with the fact that if we buy one of these drinks and drink it, we are drinking something that is 75% wine and 25%… well we aren’t sure. Let us also pretend we don’t care if that 25% is water, or eggs or milk… Wouldn’t you be ever so slightly annoyed if, in an impulse purchase you picked up a bottle of wine on an aisle end, took it to a party and someone noticed that in tiny print on the back of the bottle it says “wine based drink”?

The Daily Mail claims supermarkets stocking these products are misleading their customers and we would agree. If it isn’t wine, make it clear on the front of the bottle. Or, put it somewhere else more appropriate, perhaps the dairy section.

Image is “Wine” by Christine592 licensed under CC BY 2.0