By Elin Mccoy
LISTEN UP: Do you know what these phrases mean: “Pet-nat,” “concrete eggs,” “en rama,” “koshu,” or “red blotch”? You’re not up to speed with the latest trends if you don’t. These terms tip off changes in the ever-more-evolving wine world that affect what you’re drinking.
Fortunately, they also happen to be among the 350 new entries in the just-published 4th edition of the weighty, authoritative, indispensable The Oxford Companion to Wine, so it’s easy to catch up.
First published in 1994 and last revised in 2006, the book keeps pace with the times. The new must-have edition packs 978,609 words and more than 4,000 entries into 912 pages. It weighs 6.2 pounds, so forget reading it in bed.
Over lunch at Gramercy Tavern, accompanied by glasses of savory 2012 Kiralyudvar Furmint Sec ($20 at retail), OCW editor Jancis Robinson filled me in on how she and her co-editor Julia Harding, both Masters of Wine, backed up by some 200 experts, updated this sumo wrestler of a reference guide.
Their guiding question: What new trends, regions, grapes, wine-making methods, and more would people want to look up?
Such as “petillant naturel,” the lightly fizzy, often cloudy bubbly known affectionately as pet-nat. Currently beloved by hipster sommeliers, it’s a return to a old-fashioned way of making sparkling wine. My current favorite is Agnes & Rene Mosse Moussamoussettes Rosé ($20).
The popularity of this low-fi wine making is one example of the recent mainstreaming of “natural wine.” The term, barely used in 2006, gets an entry.
“There’s been a massive change in the style of wine that people seek,” explained Robinson. “Very ripe, high-alcohol wines are out. Wine makers are looking to tradition — returning to their grandparents’ methods — and moving away from aging wine in new oak.” (Wake up, barrel-addicted California wine makers!) Bordeaux’s Chateau Pontet-Canet, like a growing number of estates, has replaced some cooperage with “concrete eggs” (look under “concrete”). Producers who use these egg-shaped concrete tanks for fermentation and ageing instead of oak barrels say it results in wines that have fresher, fruitier aromas and rich textures without the harsh overlay of oak.
Current curiosity about native grape varieties that people hadn’t heard of a decade ago inspired the inclusion of Japan’s koshu (try delicate white Grace Kayagatake Koshu, $25) and Santorini’s red mavrotragano (try Domaine Sigalas, $30), while “sauvignon gris” has become newly fashionable. An example I tried last week: subtle, complex 2014 Les Arums de Chateau Lagrange ($20). The white blend from Bordeaux now includes 20% sauvignon gris.
New wine spots you’ll be hearing about include Nova Scotia, a source of quality ice wines, and, thanks to climate change and milder winters, Sweden (yes, really) with about 350 winegrowers. Most are hobbyists producing tiny amounts of grapes. But about three dozen commercialize their wines (the best are the whites) at winery restaurants or through Sweden’s government-owned chain of liquor stores.
The latest exciting trend of the sherry revival is “en rama,” or crisp, superfresh, unfiltered raw sherries bottled straight from the cask. A top example: Lustau Fino en Rama from El Puerto de Santa Maria ($20), first released two years ago.
Even the language people use to describe a wine’s taste is shifting. The OCW has added a tart, highly entertaining entry on “minerality.” A now ubiquitous buzzword used by critics and sommeliers, it implies quality and refers to flavors that remind wine lovers of chalk, slate, and wet rocks.
One depressing contemporary issue reflected in the massive tome is the rise in wine crimes. Robinson and Harding included “counterfeit wine,” “authentication,” “provenance,” and “vandalism” for the first time. One of the latest examples in the news: In September, thieves stole €40,000 worth of grapes from Maison Etienne Guigal in the Rhone Valley, which go into a fabulous rare white dessert wine called Luminescence ($125).
Wine apps are another recent wine-world addition (look under “apps, wine”). Though there are now hundreds you can download onto your tablet or smartphone, and more will be coming, most I’ve tried are useless. Among the most popular are free tasting note databases, such as label reader Delectable, one of my favorites. Scan a label at a wine store or restaurant and get information, price, and reviews and rate it yourself.
You may not be as interested as I am in red blotch (a recently identified vine virus that’s playing havoc with the ripening of grapes in California vineyards), but given the state’s ferocious wild fires this year, you may want to check out new entry “smoke taint,” which includes the latest research on how it affects a wine’s taste.
The 21st century urban winery movement also gets recognition, and hundreds are now in cities across the US, including New York. Berkeley, California, is the pioneering hotbed, with several vintners, including Edmunds St. John (Bone-Jolly Gamay Noir, $22) and Broc Cellars (Valdiguié, $25), making delicious wine.
The OCW is such a comprehensive compendium of what’s au courant in the wine world that I found myself wondering why wine crowdfunding wasn’t among the new terms.
Turning to such sites as Seedrs.com and Indiegogo.com is how many wineries are beginning to raise cash. In August, eccentric California vintner Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon offered wacky perks to those who contributed a total of $171,470 on Indiegogo.com for Popelouchum, his project to breed 10,000 new grape varieties. The wackiest: a 650-pound spacecraft sculpture designed to look like his Le Cigare Volant wine logo.
If the trend lasts, I’m guessing this term will make it into the next edition (or maybe even the online version that will make its debut on www.jancisrobinson.com later this fall). Meanwhile, just about everything else you want to know about wine is right here.
(The Oxford Companion to Wine, Fourth Edition, edited by Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding. $65, $40 on Amazon.com; digital versions also available.)