An updated look at Texas wine, part I


This is the first of three parts looking at the state of Texas wine. Today, an overview of current trends. On Thursday, a Texas wine of the week. On Friday, some of the most interesting wines that are currently available.

The good news is that the quality of Texas wine is better than it has ever been. The not so good news?  Some of the same problems that have cropped up over the past decade are still there — price/quality ratios that are out of whack, dirty and unclean wines, and poor fruit quality.

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? Pour another glass of red wine: One of the most common questions that the Wine Curmudgeon gets is about wine and heart disease. Yes, apparently, there is some evidence red wine makes a difference. And now comes news that it also may help fight cancer, according to researchers at the University of Rochester. A natural antioxidant found in grape skins has destroyed some pancreatic cancer cells. The other key to the study? Drink wine in moderation, said the lead researcher.

? Blog winners: Alfonso Cevola didn’t win, unfortunately. The complete list is here.

? Burgundy prices skyrocket: By as much as 20 percent — and it’s not like Burgundy was inexpensive to begin with. The weak dollar, as usual, is to blame (as I wrote here, if I may be allowed to note my prescience). “But we have now arrived at a situation where we cannot take it any longer and from now on we will feel the full brunt of any further dollar weakness,” said the president of the Burgundy wine association.

In search of the mysterious aligote

Burgundy’s most important grapes are chardonnay and pinot noir, which produce the best chardonnay and pinot noir in the world. So why does the Wine Curmudgeon care about aligote?

Because it is so mysterious — Burgundy’s other white grape, sometimes used to blend but often used on its own. Legend has it that Burgundy’s landowners and winemakers grew aligote to make wine for their employees, the field hands who worked the harvest and did the heavy lifting in the wineries. After all, the bosses couldn’t let the employees drink the good stuff, could they?

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Pinot grigio: What’s in a name?

image Much pinot grigio has a poor reputation ? and deservedly so. Some of it is badly made Italian wine that gets shipped to the U.S. and sold to people who think it ?s supposed to taste like turpentine. Some of it is badly made U.S. wine, sold by companies piggybacking on the Italian wave.

How has this happened, with consumers paying as much as $25 for bottles of wine that really aren ?t very good? Much of it comes from people who want white wine that isn ?t chardonnay, and don ?t understand sauvignon blanc. Much of it comes from restaurants, which sell pinot grigio aggressively by the glass to people who want something more sophisticated than white zinfandel. In fact, it ?s the second most popular white wine sold in the U.S. according to Nielsen, and in 2006 it was even more popular than white zinfandel.

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Wine of the week: Armand Roux Carousel NV

I stumbled on this when I needed an inexpensive, French-style sparkling wine to use for the white wine tasting at my Cordon Bleu class. I was quite overwhelmed by its quality and its $8 price.

The wine, made with French chardonnay, comes from the Armand Roux company, best known for the L ?Epayri jug wines. But there is nothing jug-like about the Carousel. It’s dry, clean, and crisp with decent bubbles, and it doesn’t have any of the off-flavors or sweetness that inexpensive sparkling wine sometimes shows. It’s not as tight as similarly-priced Spanish sparklers; whether this is an advantage or not depends on how you feel about cavas like Cristalino.

I’m not quite sure that it’s as food friendly as the Spanish wines (it doesn’t have as much acid), but serve it chilled for summer porch sipping or Sunday morning brunch and you’ll be more than happy.

Wine through the mail: The do’s and don’ts of direct shipping

Your wine could be in the back of a UPS or Fed Ex truck. Doug Nalle makes some of the best zinfandel in California. There ?s just one catch. It ?s difficult to buy outside of California, what with his limited production of just 1,500 cases a year, and the restrictions of the three-tier distribution system.

So what ?s a wine buyer to do?

The answer is to order directly from the winery, an option that is gaining in popularity not only in Texas (where the Wine Curmudgeon lives), but across the country. A 2005 Supreme Court decision struck down many state laws that prohibited interstate shipment, while Texas liberalized its direct shipping laws ? for both intra- and inter-state orders ? several years ago. Texas wineries, for example, can ship to dry parts of the state.

This makes it much easier to get cult wines from California, limited-release and small winery wines from places like New York or Missouri, and even mainstream winery club offerings without leaving the house, something that was legally impossible earlier this decade.

In addition, many state laws, including Texas ?, restrict direct shipping from out-of-state and on-line retailers. Which means that anyone who orders the Nalle zinfandel from a California liquor store could be committing a crime.

Which also means, that as much of a boon as direct shipping has been to the wine industry and to consumers, there remain some caveats:

? Can the winery ship to or within your state? Does it want to? In Texas, for example, out-of-state wineries need shipping and sales tax permits to ship to consumers here (though in-state wineries don ?t). Not every small winery will go through that process just to sell a couple of cases of wine a year. Most wineries list the states they ?ll ship to on their web site or if you call. Again, if an out-of-state winery ships to you and hasn’t satisfied all of your state’s requirements, you ?re technically breaking the law.

? Understand the costs and restrictions. Shipping is expensive, and can add 40 percent to the cost of a bottle. Nalle charges $14-$18 for a three-bottle minimum, while Texas ? Haak Vineyards & Winery charges about $6 a bottle for one to three bottles. These charges are usually discounted if you buy more a case or two, but the days of free shipping are almost all gone. Also, many state laws limit the amount of wine you can receive, such as about one case every 30 days.

? Make sure someone can sign for it. This is not just about satisfying the legal requirement that someone older than 21 receives the wine; it also takes into account the weather. Shippers like UPS and FedEx aren ?t supposed to leave wine without an adult signature, which means your $200 bottle of Harlan Estate cabernet blend could be riding around in the back of a truck for a couple of days, being baked beyond recognition. If there ?s no one home during the day, consider an alternative delivery site, like the office.

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? Rose sales increase:  Which is good news for those of us who enjoy pink wine. Sales increased about 50 percent in 2007, according to a Nielsen study. Why did this happen? A couple of reasons, I think. Consumers are beginning to understand that rose is not the same as white zinfandel, and offers value for money — especially in the $10 range. Also, producers are making better wine, particularly in California.

? Wine sales in a recession? Tom Wark at the Fermentation wine blog may have found a relationship between wine sales and economic downturns. This is something wine people talk about a lot: How much of a luxury product is wine, and will consumers give it up when times get tough? Wark tracked wine club sales, and there seem to be a cancellations that are following the on-coming recession. “I have no doubt that were it being done for the past 15 years we’d see that at this moment that Index will be in a severe downward trend,” he says.

? Blog awards: And while you’re at Fermentation, take a moment to vote for Alfonso Cevola, whose On the Wine Trail in Italy has been nominated for two American Wine Blog awards. Alfonso not only knows more about Italian wine that almost anyone I know, but he is always incredibly kind and generous with his time. Especially when he is dealing with the Wine Curmudgeon, and we know how difficult that can be.