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Here’s Why You Should Care the Lowest pH Riesling in the World Comes From Okanagan Valley, British Columbia

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All Images by Lauren Mowery

If you missed my Village Voice column, here’s a second look…

Acid: wine needs it for balance. It makes your mouth salivate, cuts through fat and cream, keeps wines fresh, especially sweet ones, and helps them age gracefully in the bottle. But too much of it, and the drinking experience mimics sucking a tart, mouth-puckering lemon. Too little of it, and the wine tastes flabby, or flat, or even syrupy like bad, store-bought Margarita mix.

Bright, zesty wines have long been considered the provenance of the Old World. Self-proclaimed “acid freaks” who love the crackling, electric tension (myself included, to the detriment of my teeth), track regions where high-acid levels occur naturally. Chablis, Austria, Germany, and Northern Italy, for example, reliably produce laser-sharp, racy whites. But pH levels taken from a global pool of rieslings uncovered an interesting phenomenon: the semi-desert grape-growing region of the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, Canada — the New World — delivered some of the lowest numbers ever recorded.

Acid, naturally occurring in grapes, diminishes as they ripen, especially in warm climates. The general backlash against the over-ripening of fruit, and trend towards picking earlier to create wines with “balance” (simplified: less ripeness in grapes means lower sugar levels and higher acid, which makes lower alcohol and higher acid wines) is in full-throttle, but not all growers have the luxury of retaining acid levels naturally after fermentation. Wines from hot zones like South Australia and Central California often require an addition of tartaric acid (which comes as a big bag of white powder, and gets measured and dumped in like sugar in a cake recipe).

Let’s geek out for a moment on pH. This scale from zero to fourteen measures acidity versus alkalinity. A pH of seven is neutral. The higher the number, the more alkaline or basic the substance, like root vegetables. The lower the number, the more acidic the substance is, like apples. Most white wines fall between three to four pH; reds lean a bit higher, depending on the variety.

Riesling specialist Stuart Pigott ran a story on the variety’s range of pH levels in the December 2013 issue of Wine & Spirits. The lowest pH wine he’d ever encountered in the world was “the off-dry 2012 Platinum from Cedar Creek in the Okanagan, with an astonishing pH 2.73.” He noted that “the only wines that sometimes match that figure are chardonnay base wines for Champagne, deliberately picked early to get that acid.”

You might be wondering why anyone would want to drink a wine with such a low pH if high acid levels equate to a jarring tartness. Well, sometimes you wouldn’t. Just as acid can be added to wine, it can also be removed. But the key here is balance; Okanagan rieslings have equilibrium because their fruit expressions soften sharp edges, as do the occasional, small amounts of sugar left in some wines. (Think about lemonade: the synergy of sugar and lemon juice is greater than the sum of its parts.)

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While this isn’t exactly fresh news to the industry, the revelation lacked relevance to the average New York consumer because British Columbia’s wines weren’t available in our market. Until now.

Recently launched on the Wines of B.C. website, an e-commerce platform makes available select bottles from a small portfolio of boutique producers, directly to New York consumers. The selection won’t overwhelm you into indecision, but there’s enough to whet your palate. Plus, shipping costs are relatively nominal (although the wines are rather expensive).

Located a four hour drive east of Vancouver in south central British Columbia, the Okanagan Valley has around 130 producers spread across sub-regions like Kelowna, Naramata, Oliver/Osoyoos, Summerland, and the neighboring Similkameen Valley.
The Okanagan is considered the northernmost fine wine producing region in the world. (Although climate change is pushing the latitudinal reach of vitis vinifera further into Northern Europe).

The lake- and wilderness-dense countryside encompasses a stunning 125-mile swath of patchwork vineyards running south to the border with Washington State. The semi-arid desert climate provides hot, dry summers and long sunlight hours for the ripening of grapes, with cool nights helping to retain fresh acidity.

Not sold on Wines of B.C., but available in the New York market, are the rieslings of Tantalus. Winemaker David Paterson and vineyard manager Warwick Shaw are experts at transforming the grape into a transparent, piercing expression of their vineyard sites. Tense, almost quivering, lemon-lime notes snap like pop rocks above a chalky, mineral complexion.

Riesling isn’t the only grape to enjoy the favor of the climate and soils. Vivid pinot noir, chiseled syrah, savory cab franc and attractive Bordeaux blends, show promise in the red category. Available on the B.C. site, Meyer Family specializes in pinot, and Black Hills Estate and Painted Rock produce some of the region’s most serious red blends. Until more producers penetrate the competitive NYC market, however, my best advice for exploring Okanagan Valley wines: go there, and bring along a big suitcase.

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Winemaker Interview: Anna and Martin Arndorfer, Kamptal, Austria

 

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Anna and Martin Arndorfer, Owners/Winemakers for Arndorfer Wines

Signature Wines: Grüner Veltliner, Riesling, Neuburger, Chardonnay, Zweigelt; Riesling die Leidenschaft

Importer: Indie Wineries

I first met Anna and Martin Arndorfer in New York. My favorite NYC-based Austrian from the Austrian Wine Commission, Stephanie Artner, hosted a dinner party in Brooklyn to celebrate the Arndorfer’s arrival that day. Naturally, they had a slew of wines with them which kept us tasting and talking late into early morning.

What stood out to me about Anna and Martin was the not just the eagerness with which they poured and discussed their wines, but their inability to stop smiling and giggling all night. It reminded me why I love winemakers who actually love farming and winemaking. They spoke giddily about each bottle as though it were a loved member of their growing family, one not any better than the other, just babies with unique personalities they are only meant to foster not manipulate.

Like hands off parents, each wine picks its future. All juice ferments spontaneously; sometimes it finishes and sometimes it doesn’t. Whatever the wine chooses, the result will be its destiny for that vintage. The Arndorfers won’t force a dress on a little girl who wants to play in the mud.

They happen to also be parents of real children – two small girls, in fact, who help out around the vineyard, in the dirt, back home. I didn’t ask if they wear dresses.  Although the Arndorfers like to speak about themselves as though they are just a pair of aging, old souls who are mere stewards of the land, they have an unusual freshness of spirit; they view the world with wonderment that’s more grade school than grandparent. Jaded New Yorkers could rip a few pages out of their book.

Their winery is located in Kamptal, Lower Austria. It has been family-owned since 1770, and they are the third generation working with wine as a main business. Their first vintage together was in 2002. I attended Vie Vinum in Austria in June where I tracked down their table and tasted through their wines again, including my first ever Zweigelt rosé fermented on Grüner Veltliner skins (they explain why that’s logical, below).

Through an email interview, we touched on a number of topics including the benefits and drawbacks of working and living in Kamptal; whether winemaking in such a historic place can inhibit progress; and where they’d like to be traveling right now (hint: Denmark).

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What philosophy guides your viticulture?

We think that the most important part of the vineyard is life and balance. Both things are very closely connected with our soils and the work/management we do with the soil. There are lot of little animals and partly very big mycelium in the soil which help the vine to get water and nutrients, but they need their “home” and food. So in our viticulture we try to provide them what they need so they will provide our vines what they need… if we assault our vines (fertilizer and herbicide) we will not have life and balance in our soil.

What philosophy guides your winemaking practices?

We think a lot about our work in the cellar, but at the end of the day, we just press good grapes, ferment the juice, age the wine, bottle it, sell it and get paid for it – usually. We try to give the wines a good environment and home to feel comfortable developing the character of the vineyards. The thing we use most in our winemaking is water to clean, and patience combined with a bit of risk and strong nerves.

What is your biggest challenge as a winemaker (e.g., volatility of Mother Nature, expense to income ratio, having to actually market your wine)?

Time is probably the biggest challenge. If some wines need longer to develop because of a slow fermentation, it would be nice to have more time. The problem is if your customers and partners need/want the wine. You see that you could be selling it right now, except that it is still fermenting in barrels. The situation does not help your expense to income ratio – especially in “expense-intense” seasons like summer and harvest. It would be very nice to get in the situation where you don’t have to worry about the market and we could just be worried about our vines and wines.

Next to time are two more things which are not really nice: lack of water and hail. All the other things are more or less manageable but if we/our vines don’t have water we are not very happy. If hail goes over our vineyards it is not nice either – of course you know why…

Describe some of the unique wines/projects you are working on?

Since vintage 2012, we have produced a Zweigelt rosé fermented on Grüner Veltliner skins. Why? To get a rosé with more structure, complexity and expression… sounds pretty logical, no?

There are centuries and generations of winemaking history in the Kamptal, and Austria in general. How do you feel that history impedes your progress, if it does? How does it help?

We’re absolutely proud to live and work in Kamptal, especially in Strass im Strassertale. There is a very long history of winemaking and viticulture, but we don’t feel it creates problems for our personal work. Talking with the older generation provides a way of learning and understanding about the vineyards of our village; to see pictures of the vineyards from the past is very inspiring.

For example, why was the vintage 1947 so outstanding? Maybe the sun, maybe the small crop, maybe the pruning, maybe the” trellising system”, maybe crushing the grapes in the vineyard, maybe not having a tractor, nor herbicides and fertilizers, or maybe a little bit from everything. Anyway, I think it is good to learn from our history and use the experience from older generations, but combine it with the knowledge of the present time. The cheapest thing we can do is keep thinking about our work and our decisions…History gives us a bigger background for this idea…

Is the region, or perhaps other winemakers, ever resistant to change or new ideas?

The question is: what are new ideas or changes? Most of the wineries want to produce wines that show the character of the origin – village or single vineyard – to show a very typical wine from the region. Sometimes people call it traditional. We have these kinds of winemakers in the region, which is good.

The region itself is not resistant to new ideas (we can’t avoid them). It would be a pity if it were like this, because of all the diversity of soil, microclimate, varieties, and individuals, it would be a loss of resources if we just did the same thing forever. It is necessary to have new ideas and changes…

What are the benefits and drawbacks of grapegrowing/winemaking in your region?

At the moment, Kamptal is a really nice region in which to work with vines and wines. Climate, soil, varieties…nothing to complain about! One little thing is that we can’t write on most of our wines Kamptal even if they all grow in Kamptal, in Strass im Strassertale. They don’t fit into the “system” or model expected from Kamptal DAC wines… It is nothing to complain about really, because it is our decision that our wines should taste like they do!

What excites you most about Austrian wines right now?

Thanks to the work of a few very intelligent people Austrian wine has become known and now we can go to the “next” level. There is still big potential in our vineyards and it will be very exciting to see/taste/enjoy these wines.

Which wine or grape (in the world) is the least understood or respected?

Neuburger.

What do you drink at home when relaxing?

Wines with personality, preferably a little bit cloudy. It does not matter from where or from whom.

How do you spend your free time (if you have any)?

I spend it with my family. Work and free time are always very closely associated. It is a question of definition, really. Is it work if our daughters join us for a little vineyard tour?  For us it doesn’t matter if you call it free time or work, it is something we enjoy!

If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would you be?

Copenhagen.

Give one surprising fact about yourself.

We have never been to Jura!

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Holiday Sparkling Wine under $20–Stock Up for New Year’s Eve

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As festive as shopping and wrapping gifts can be (if battling crowds in search of the perfect gift to present neatly in a beautiful, Martha Stewart-approved package complete with red ribbon can be considered fun), the joy of the season quickly evaporates when the credit card bill comes in January — and the post-holiday hangover and crummy weather make the first month of the new year depressing enough. To keep your celebratory, seasonal buzz going sans bank-account depletion, you need bubbles that are delicious and well-made, that provide layers of flavor, and that are a good value. I plumbed the under-$20 sparklers at Astor Wine and Spirits (399 Lafayette Street, 212-674-7500) (because most in the $10-$15 category just don’t pass muster) to find out how easy it would be to compile a recommended list.

My goal was to find five bottles worthy of your dollars, but assuming a stinker or three might end up in the group, I left with eight. Amazingly, all picks impressed. Good work Astor, and happy (tasty and affordable) holidays, readers.

Val de Mer NV, Crémant de Bourgogne, Chablis, Burgundy, France, $19.96
Chablis is known for crisp, mineral-driven Chardonnay, but the region also produces bubbles. This Crémant (“Crémant” signifies a French sparkling wine made in the traditional method), has full-bodied flavors of quince, apple, and chalk with vigorous bubbles.

Gruet Blanc De Noirs NV, New Mexico, USA, $15.99
Great value sparkler full of creamy, rich red fruits; this New Mexican house has been around since the 1980s.

Avinyo Cava Brut Reserve, NV, Penedès, Spain, $17.99
Cava has become a mainstream, reasonably priced alternative to Champagne; made in the traditional method with no dosage, this apple and lemon-scented bottle will appeal to those who like their tipple crisp and bone dry.

Szigeti Sekt Grüner Veltliner NV, Neusidlersee, Austria, $18.99
An unusual selection — although not for Austrians — this attractive, Grüner-based wine made in the traditional method is dry and creamy with lemon and stone fruit base notes and white pepper and celery seed laced throughout.

Luis Pato Bruto Baga Rosé, Vinho Espumante 2010, Bairrada, Portugal, $12.99
Ever heard of the Baga grape? You’re not alone if not. This Portuguese variety has been lovingly cultivated by distinguished winemaker Luis Pato — he’s pretty much dedicated his life to it. The resulting sparkling wine has the grape’s characteristic earthiness mingled with red fruits — plus a streak of blood orange — at a superb price.

Ch. Greffe, Vouvray Brut NV, Touraine, Loire, France, $21.96 on sale for $18.96
This delicate sparkler from Chenin Blanc grapes has pretty flavors of Bartlett pear and white peach, and it delivers a bright, citrus finish with each effervescent sip.

Col Vetoraz Prosecco Brut 2012, Valdobbiadene, Veneto, Italy, $15.99
I find much of the ubiquitous Prosecco too sweet and lacking in complexity; this bottle, recommended highly by a staff member, revealed toasty notes with its pear and stone fruit, all in a deliciously dry package.

Contadi Castaldi Rose NV, Franciacorta, Lombardy, Italy, $21.99
Okay, I cheated adding this wine since it technically lies $2 above my price limit. The premium sparkling wine region of Franciacorta is considered the Italian equivalent of Champagne, often with comparable prices, so finding a bottle for $22 piqued my curiosity. Fortunately, the wine’s delicate mousse carried lovely flavors of strawberry and rhubarb pie, making this a wine I would definitely toast the holidays with again.

 

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