TIME Food & Drink

French Wine Council Explores Use of Drones to Detect Vine Diseases

wine vineyard
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One of those diseases is the wood-rotting affliction known as esca, which is an increasing concern for winemakers in France


This article originally appeared on Decanter.

An alliance of Burgundy’s wine council, Airbus air defense engineers and Bordeaux wine magnate Bernard Magrez have agreed funding to test the use of drones to detect killer vine diseases.

The consortium plans to spend up to €1.7m during the second phase of its drone project, named Damav and set to last 36 months, according to Burgundy’s wine trade body, the BIVB. It will be part-financed by the French state, with drones supplied by Novadem.

‘It’s not science fiction,’ said the consortium. ‘Images obtained using drones and interpreted using sophisticated analysis systems will, in the near future, constitute a key instrument of diagnosis for growers.’

Cecile Mathiaud, spokesperson for the BIVB, said the group’s next challenge is to ‘make sure that what the drone sees can be analysed to get results, and to get better results than with the human eye. That would stop winemakers from having to check every single vine.’

The project’s second phase follows ‘promising’ initial trials to detect the early signs of flavescence doree disease; a relatively new vine illness that has no known cure and is currently at the centre of a bitter court battle between one biodynamic winemaker and French officials.

‘Flavescence doree is what everybody talks about right now, but this may help with other diseases, too,’ said Mathiaud.

One of those diseases is the wood-rotting affliction known as esca, which is an increasing concern for winemakers in France. Early detection is key to limiting the damage wreaked by vine diseases. There is currently little effective treatment for flavescence doree or esca.

In January this year, Bernard Magrez, who is also part of the alliance, said he would begin using drones to analyse vines in his four classified estates in Bordeaux.

Separately, the BIVB is also part of a second consortium that is researching ways to stimulate vines’ natural defences against disease, without resorting to chemical sprays. That project is also set to last 36 months, with a budget of €1.7m.

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Organic Champagne Growers Survive the Rough Summer

Francois Nascimbeni—AFP/Getty Images A worker puts wine-grapes in a case after collecting them in a vineyard during the grape-harvest on the farm of an organic wine producer in Champagne, in Cumieres, eastern France, on September 8, 2014.

A wet August made many wary that pesticides would be needed

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This article originally appeared on Decanter.com.

Organic growers in Champagne believe they have ‘proven themselves’ in 2014 after a wet August increased tension with their non-organic counterparts over the use of sprays.

In the year that the Comite Champagne approved a new environmental directive, many growers are understood to have pushed the legally allowed sprays to the limit to protect their grapes during a very wet August.

Organic and biodynamic growers were criticised in private for their refusal to apply the recommended synthetic sprays. Neighbours feared disease contamination. Oidium and mildew rot were considered real risks, and there were also concerns about the number of wasps.

But, an unusually warm and sunny September helped to turn the situation around and several organic growers said they felt vindicated in sticking to their principles.

‘Overall, we have very little problems,’ Vincent Laval, president of the Organic Movement in Champagne, told Decanter.com. ‘We are very happy about the quality, with the fruit coming in at average alcohol level of 10.8%. This means we will not have to chaptalise. Furthermore, I am very happy with the quantity and we made the appellation [requirements] with a little bit left to spare. This proves that organic treatments can work even in difficult years.’

Johann Merle, vineyard manager at Roederer, which farms 65 hectares biodynamically, said biodynamic Pinot Noir from Verzenay and the Chardonnay from Avize had been exceptional this year. Since last vintage, Roederer’s Cristal and Cristal Rosé have been exclusively produced from biodynamic vineyards.

The house’s chef de cave, Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, said biodynamic methods ‘add a pureness and extra vibrancy to the wines’.

Jean-Pierre Fleury, who has farmed biodynamically in Champagne 25 years, added, ‘We haven’t seen such big yet concentrated bunches in a few years.’

Some growers and producers believe organically farmed vines have developed stronger natural resistance to diseases, such as rot. Bruno Paillard, of the eponymous Champagne house, said he saw one third fewer ‘botrytis attacks’ in his organic vineyards, versus conventional ones.

The overall vintage picture in Champagne was looking promising at the end of picking, thanks to a warm spring and good September weather. Paillard declared Chardonnay the early varietal winner.

The Comite Champagne set 2014 maximum yields to 10,500kg/ha, of which 400kg had to come from the grower’s individual reserve. Another 3,100kg/ha can be used to replenish reserves. Harvest began on 8 September.

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Italian Police Seize 200,000 Bottles’ Worth of Wine

Brunello Wine 2004 Riserva, Val D'Orcia, Tuscany, Italy
Tim Graham—Getty Images Brunello di Montalcino 2004 Riserva bottle of red wine

The fake wine is suspected to be part of a mass fraud operation

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This article originally appeared on Decanter.

Italian police have seized enough fake Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino wines to fill more than 200,000 bottles as part of a probe into an elaborate fraud operation, according to officials.

Italy’s financial police agency said it was investigating an unnamed wine consultant, whom it suspects of orchestrating a mass wine fraud operation that included hacking into government records.

So far, 165,467 litres of wine have been seized, or enough for just over 220,000 75cl bottles, police said Tuesday, after initially being alerted to the scam via a tip-off from the Brunello di Montalcino producers’ council, or Consorzio.

Of the wine seized, 75,620 litres was cheap wine ‘dressed up’ as one of Italy’s most famous names, Brunello di Montalcino, and 89,847 litres was falsely labelled Rosso di Montalcino.

None of the affected wine was believed to have gone on sale to consumers yet. Luca Albertario, head of the financial police in Siena, told Bloomberg that the seized wine was still with distributors.

Officials said they believed the suspect tried to sell poor quality grapes and wine to wineries and trade customers between 2011 and 2013, after falsely claiming the products had been certified under the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) quality control system.

Police alleged that he abused professional relationships and produced false documents. Officials also accused him of ‘corrupting data’ in regional government computer systems in order to hide his activity. This included hacking into Tuscany’s Regional Agency for Agricultural Payments.

Tuscany’s governor, Enrico Rossi – who is currently under fire from winemakers over a government commissioned report questioning the environmental credentials of vineyards – said the case was a ‘very serious fraud against one of the brands that best characterises Tuscany and Italy’.

He said, ‘We want to give a clear signal. We are on the side of good business, legality and transparency.’

It was not immediately clear what the ramifications of that allegation could be for the region’s wine trade.

Controversy has enveloped Brunello di Montalcino before, when some producers were suspected of topping up their 2004 vintage with unofficial wine stocks in a scandal dubbed ‘Brunellopoli‘ by the Italian press. The US briefly blocked imports of the wines until it was satisfied that proper quality controls were in place.

Of the recent police raids, Fabrizio Bindocci, president of the Brunello di Montalcino Council, said consumers and winemakers were both victims. ‘It is a serious issue that could cause significant damage to Brunello di Montalcino, to its producers and its territory.’

The police investigation is ongoing.

This article was updated on 11/09/2014 to include comments from Fabrizio Bindocci.

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Wine Fraudster Sentenced to 10 Years in Prison

yangwenshuang—Vetta/Getty Images

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This article originally appeared on Decanter.

One of the biggest wine fraud investigations in history has seen Rudy Kurniawan sentenced to 10 years in a US prison for tricking collectors out of millions of dollars by selling them cheap copycats of famous names.

Federal district judge Richard Berman also ordered Kurniawan to pay $28.4m to victims of his fine wine scam, after prosecutors spent recent weeks working to identify Kurniawan fakes in collectors’ cellars.

That is on top of the $20m that Kurniawan – also known as Mr 47 and Dr Conti – must forfeit to the court.

It is unclear where the 37-year-old Indonesian will find the money given that he has spent two years in custody and earlier pleaded that he was too poor to pay more than a $12,500 fine.

Defence lawyer Jerry Mooney is understood to have said his client will consider appealing the sentence, but that could not be immediately verified.

A jury deliberated for less than two hours last December before convicting Kurniawan of making and selling counterfeits of some of the world’s best-known wines, largely from Bordeaux and Burgundy, at the Los Angeles home he shared with his mother.

The case was the first time the US Government has prosecuted anyone for wine fraud.

Kurniawan initially told friends his wines came from a ‘magic cellar’ in Europe. But, during the trial, jurors were shown stacks of labels, corks, stamps and bottles seized from Kurniawan’s house by FBI officers at the time of his arrest in 2012.

Prosecutors described his home computer as ‘a virtual ATM machine that printed out thousand dollar bills in the form of fake wine labels’.

He blended wines in his kitchen sink, hidden from view by a foil-covered window. Wines were then either sold privately or at auctions for several years prior to his eventual arrest.

‘Rudy Kurniawan planned and executed an intricate counterfeit wine scheme,’ said Preet Bharara, US attorney for the Southern District of New York, where Kurniawan’s trial and sentencing took place.

‘Now, Kurniawan will trade his life of luxury for time behind bars.’

‘He is responsible for doing an incredible amount of damage to the fine and rare wine market,’ said Geoffrey Troy, president of New York Wine Warehouse and who said he was one of the first to become suspicious about Kurniawan. ‘Frankly, his sentence was lenient based on the damages,’ he told Decanter.com.

The defence has consistently argued that Kurniawan was only one player in a much bigger wine counterfeiting scene, and that he only got involved to fit in.

Kurniawan, who was known as Dr Conti because of his enthusiasm for Burgundy’s vaunted Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, was also found guilty of fraudulently attempting to get a $3m loan.

Summing up in court this week, judge Bermann described Kurniawan’s heist as a ‘bold, grandiose, unscrupulous but destined-to-fail con’. He said an example should be made of the wine dealer.

Kurniawan, who has reportedly lost significant weight in custody, was heard to say ‘sorry’ in court.

A key question for many fine wine collectors now is where the rest of Kurniawan’s fakes are lurking.

Some information may yet emerge from billionaire collector Bill Koch, who bought many wines off Kurniawan. The Indonesian has agreed to pay Koch $3m in damages and tell ‘everything he knows’ as part of an out-of-court litigation settlement.

There are fears the pyschological damage caused to fine wine buyers will be difficult to reverse, but many of the major auction houses have cautioned that counterfeiting still represents a small part of the market and stringent checks are in place.

‘People have been robbed of the joy that is old and rare wines,’ said Maureen Downey, of Chai Consulting and who has inspected Kurniawan wines for several clients. ‘They simply do not trust the system. That is the real tragedy of this debacle.’

TIME Food & Drink

Chile Tries to Revive an Obscure Old Wine Grape

Christoph Hetzmannseder—Moment Open/Getty Images

Pais grapes are known for their thin skins and some critics have likened the wines to French Beaujolais

This article originally appeared on Decanter.

Some of Chile’s biggest wine producers are working to revive the Pais grape that arrived in the country with Spanish colonizers but has since lost favor to more modern international varieties.

There are around 7,250 hectares of Pais planted in Chile, mostly in the country’s Maule and Bio Bio Valley regions. But, many wine lovers outside of the trade have probably never heard of it.

That is changing as producers develop a better understanding of how to work with the grape variety, also known as Mission.

‘It is a forgotten grape,’ said Patricio Tapia, a Regional Chair at this year’s Decanter World Wine Awards. ‘For decades, Pais was considered a minor grape only suitable for bulk wines, but now a small group of winemakers are taking Pais very seriously, producing fascinating and enchanting wines.’

Many Pais vines in Chile are more than 100 years old, and the variety is believed to have arrived in the country on Spanish colonial ships in the 16th Century.

Several hundred years later however, it is Carmenere that is considered Chile’s signature grape variety, alongside international favourites such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Merlot.

‘We do expect more single varietal Pais [on the market],’ said Tapia, who has just launched the first English language version of his annual guide to Chilean, Argentine and Uruguayan wines, named ‘Descorchados‘. It includes information on winemaking trends, based on interviews and tastings with 250 wineries, as well as top wines to try.

Concha y Toro, Chile’s largest wine firm, is planning to launch a Pais and Cinsault blend under its Marques de Casa Concha brand in October this year. Marcelo Papa, the winemaker who is overseeing the wine, said the firm has been researching different winemaking techniques with batches of Pais.

One large producer already selling a single varietal Pais is Torres, a Spanish wine company that owns around 400 hectares of vines in Chile.

Its recently launched Reserva de Pueblo Pais 2012 vintage beat two Chilean Carmenere wines and a Malbec to scoop a Regional Trophy at the 2014 Decanter World Wine Awards. The firm also makes a sparkling wine from Pais, Santa Digna Estelado Rosé.

‘Chilean winemaking had a 300-year history before the arrival of Cabernet Sauvignon,’ said Miguel Torres Maczassek, Torres’ general manager. The company buys Pais from around 25 growers.

Pais grapes are known for their thin skins and some critics have likened the wines to French Beaujolais. Tapia described the grape as good for light, easy-drinking reds.

Torres Maczassek said advances in winemaking technology have helped to improve Pais quality. ‘You have to take care of the winemaking process, it’s important to treat the grapes with a lot of respect,’ he said.

Many growers are small-scale, family businesses who earn little profit. Some have applied for Fairtrade certification and – perhaps unusually for a large producer buying in grapes – Torres Maczassek said he has encouraged growers to form trade associations.

‘It’s so they can have more of a voice. It’s actually easier for us to talk to them if they are just one organisation,’ he said.

He believes Pais’ profile is set to rise on the international stage, which should help Chile against its wine producing rivals. ‘Many critics and connoisseurs are talking about this, and that is the first step.

‘To really show a true personality in the future, Chile has to have a point of difference to other countries. These old varieties can help.’

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Washington State Wine Is the New Bordeaux

L’Ecole N°41 L’Ecole N°41 ‘Ferguson’ 2011

Washington State's rising reputation for Cabernet Sauvignon has been enhanced by a local winery winning one of the most prestigious prizes at the 2014 Decanter World Wine Awards

This article originally appeared on Decanter.

L’Ecole No 41’s ‘Ferguson’ 2011, a blend of 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot and 11% Cabernet Franc, beat all-comers to carry away the International Trophy for Best Bordeaux Varietal(s) Over £15 at last week’s Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA) ceremony.

It’s a coup for a US wine region that, while hardly new, is still trying to build a profile with many wine drinkers.

Washington was awarded 19 medals overall at DWWA 2014, including gold for Chateau Ste Michelle’s Ethos Reserve 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon and a Regional Trophy for its Eroica Gold 2012 Riesling.
’30 years ago Washington was unknown,’ said Martin Clubb, L’Ecole owner and managing winemaker. In 1983, Clubb’s wife’s parents, whose family name was Ferguson, founded L’Ecole as the 20th winery in Washington. There are 800 now.

‘Today, [Washington] is widely respected amongst the wine trade, but it is still a learning curve for most consumers. That seems to be changing fast.’

Washington Cabernet Sauvignon, in particular, has got wine sector tongues wagging following the arrival of Napa Valley stalwarts. In April 2013, Cakebread Cellars announced the launch of a Bordeaux-style blend from Walla Walla, named Mullan Road.

Later that year, Napa-based Duckhorn said it would release a 2012 vintage Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington’s Red Mountain region. It was also been scouting for land there.

Most recently, winemaker Todd Alexander left Napa’s Pritchard Hill winery to become head winemaker and general manager at Washington’s Force Majeure Vineyards.

‘Cabernet is King, even here in Washington,’ said L’Ecole’s Clubb, although he also noted rising popularity for Rhone reds.

‘The dry climate translates into smaller berries and smaller clusters [and] our long cool autumn gives long, natural hang-time for Cabernet.’ L’Ecole’s Cabernet Sauvignon harvest generally takes place in October, when there is up to 20 degrees celsius difference between day and night temperatures.

‘This slower ripening builds structure and helps preserve the natural acidity.’

Because the vines are grown on their own natural rootstock, Clubb argues this also gives more ‘varietal intensity’ to the fruit. ‘So we have what many refer to as new world fruit, with old world structure, acidity and balance; the latter giving the wines better age-ability.’

Jon Bonne, DWWA regional chair for the US and Decanter magazine columnist, said lower land prices have helped Washington to attract outside investment, especially from Napa.

‘The Washington reputation is relatively strong, and even if land has risen toward, say, $50,000 per acre in the best parts of Red Mountain or Walla Walla, that’s still an enormous deal by California standards.’

He added, ‘There’s almost no more land to buy in Napa, and certainly not at scale,’ said Bonne. ‘So do you try to build a Sonoma Cabernet brand, or a Paso Cabernet brand, at $50 a bottle? Or do you work with appellations that have both cachet and value?’

It’s not only Californian wine estates moving into Washington. Late last year, Canada’a Aquilini Investment Group bought 270ha of prime vineyard land in the Pasco area in a deal worth $16m.

There is also investment within the region. Clubb said the near-100ha L’Ecole recently expanded production from 32,000 cases annually to 44,000, and plans to expand the Ferguson vineyard from 7.5ha to 17.5ha, starting 2016.

Despite all the talk, Washington’s 2013 grape crush was still a paltry 210,000 tonnes versus California’s 4m-tonne haul. For wine lovers to make up their own minds on Washington wine, they have to be able to buy some.

With the investment taking place, availability could at least be set to increase over the next few years.

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