A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.
Wednesday, March 14, 2012
Emerald Riesling - Shomron, Israel
As with most issues, I find myself somewhere in the middle of this argument. I am fascinated by the body of scientific research done on grapes, as many of my recent posts will indicate. I also can't help but feel that modern technology has a deserved place in most wineries and has served to elevate the average quality of wine on a worldwide scale to an extent that is difficult to measure. On the other hand, I am wary of things like reverse osmosis machines and Mega Purple. I have a soft spot for the backwards, ultra-naturalist wines of producers like Frank Cornelissan and Vinos Ambiz, but I wouldn't want to drink them all the time. I believe in terroir, but am not a fanatic or a mysterian about it and am skeptical about the kinds of things that a place can actually contribute to the overall flavor of a wine. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I have faith that science and technology can deepen our understanding of wine and even improve the overall quality of it, but only if applied in a careful, judicious kind of way that is respectful of the unique qualities of wine that make it different from any other agricultural or consumer product.
All of which brings us to Dr. Harold Olmo and today's grape, Emerald Riesling. We've briefly dealt with Dr. Olmo in the past when we took at look at one of his creations, the Symphony grape. Dr. Olmo was a scientist at the University of California, Davis, which is the institution in the US most synonymous with grape and wine research. As a result, UC Davis is something of a polarizing force in the world of wine and has been at the forefront of the struggle between the idea of wine as an agricultural consumer product and the idea of wine as an artisanal creation that is crafted, not manufactured. UC Davis was somewhat notorious at one time for churning out winemakers whose wineries resembled laboratories more than farm buildings and who were more concerned with making a technically pristine wine than an interesting, characterful one.
Dr. Olmo worked at UC Davis for many decades. In the 1950's, his creation of a quarantine facility for foreign vines on the UC Davis campus allowed California wineries to import vines safely and legally into the state and resulted in an expansion of the number of varieties available for use within the state. What he is best known for, though, are the so-called Olmo grapes. He is credited with creating over 30 new grape varieties in his time at UC Davis, which have had a huge impact on the wine industry in the state of California, though most consumers aren't aware that the grapes exist. Since UC Davis is a state agricultural school, the focus of the grape breeding program there (as it is in similar institutions in Germany or at Cornell in New York) was to create new grapes that could be profitably grown (meaning the vines should yield prolifically) in some of the harsher climactic regions of California. In particular, Olmo was interested in grapes that could withstand the intense heat of the Central Valley, which is much too hot for most European grape varieties. His aim was mostly to create high yielding vines that could tolerate these conditions and would make "good" wine, and it is this focus on production over superior quality that causes many wine lovers to look on Olmo's work with suspicion (or outright disdain). While his work wasn't revolutionary in terms of quality wine production, it was profoundly important economically and there's something to be said for that. The two most successful grapes he created to this end were Ruby Cabernet and Rubired, which are widely grown in some of the hotter valley regions of California, but which are mostly used in bulk wine production.
The most successful white grape that Olmo bred was Emerald Riesling, which was created by crossing Riesling and Muscadelle (maybe...see note at the bottom). Emerald Riesling and Ruby Cabernet were Olmo's first wine grapes (he had released a few table grapes prior to this) and they were released together in 1948 after nearly a decade of testing and experimentation. Like the grapes mentioned above, Emerald Riesling was bred specifically to yield profusely and to endure the intense heat of some of California's hot, fertile valley floors. Unlike Rubired and Ruby Cabernet, Emerald Riesling has enjoyed some success as a varietal wine. In the 1960's and 70's, Paul Masson marketed a wine called "Emerald Dry" which was made from Emerald Riesling grapes, which was quite successful for awhile. The wine is apparently still made (with a retail price around $5 a bottle), though it is nowhere near as popular these days. It is estimated that fewer than 250 acres (100 hectares) of Emerald Riesling are left in the United States.
Though the grape is declining in popularity in its native home, it is has found new life in an unlikely place: Israel. Israel is interesting because it lacks any native wine grape varieties, so all grapes grown for wine production in Israel have been imported into the country at some point. In the 1880's, Baron Edmond de Rothschild decided that Israel would be a good place to grow grapes for wine. In 1887, Rothschild began to bring in the major red Bordeaux varieties and began to focus seriously on producing fine wine in Israel. Phylloxera put an early stop to Rothschild's dreams, though, and in its aftermath, the locals planted the high yielding, low quality grapes of southern France like Carignan and Alicante Bouschet. The wine industry began to turn to the "international grape" varieties in the 1970's and quality wine production really began in earnest in the 1980's.
Emerald Riesling was brought over at some point in the 1970's and by the mid 80's, it was the best selling white wine in Israel. Like Lancers or Mateus from Portugal or Liebfraumilch from Germany, these wines were made in a semi-sweet style and were not all that expensive. The wines are still fairly popular, but they don't seem to be the face of the Israeli wine industry any longer. I'm finding more and more Israeli wines made from the international varieties on my local shelves these days, but have only ever found a single bottle of Emerald Riesling.
**Every source online says that Emerald Riesling is a cross between Riesling and Muscadelle, but the Oxford Companion to Wine has it listed as a cross between Muscadelle and Grenache. When I emailed them to inquire about the discrepancy, Julia Harding would only respond that the Riesling x Muscadelle info was incorrect, but that I'd have to wait for the publication of their new book on grapes for the full story. I was able to track down Dr. Olmo's paper written in 1948 when he released the grapes where he says the grape is a hybrid between White Riesling and Muscadelle of California. The VIVC has the parentage listed as Riesling x Muscadelle of California, and Muscadelle of California is listed separately from Muscadelle. My guess is that Muscadelle of California is a different grape than the Muscadelle propagated in France and Australia, but since the OCW is being coy about it, I suppose we'll have to wait until October to know for sure.
Reader George sent me a link to a UC Davis newsletter published in 2006 that clarifies this issue (here). The correct parentage for Emerald Riesling does appear to be Muscadelle x Grenache. I've written a longer piece here detailing this information and also detailing many of the problems that I have with the way that the OCW has handled this issue.