Tuesday, July 31, 2018

BRAMBLES: Almost a Case...

A glee, that could be described as like a kid in a candy store, had overtaken, and almost an hour had eclipsed.  Joyfully filling empty rack spaces and re-arranging sections in a modest, pine-racked wine cellar had produced a few additional rewards, as well.  There was discovery: almost a mixed case of wonderful 2012 Rioja's present, as well as the big-fruit 2015 Beaujolais' collecting dust in that dark, cool space.  And, even as our small medley of cherished 2010 Bordeaux remained undisturbed, we found that our broad collection(1 of this, 2 of that) of Italian values had actually expanded, with odd lots picked up here and there.  It was time well spent for any disciple of wine.

Although there are a few exceptions(mostly generous gifts), the collection of bottles in this particular hoard has been put together having an average price of less than $15 per bottle.  In and of itself, a good quality wine of modest price that can actually enhance a meal is worth celebrating.  Adding the patience to naturally develop that wine, allowing it to mature in a living cellar for its surprising debut around a loving table is just that much more fulfilling.  As all wines have the capacity to benefit from aging, these selections from trusted producers and revered locales provide much more of a reward for those of a little cellar restraint.  You also need to have an idea of what you have, and importantly, what you may be missing for variety.
Variety, the spice of life, even in a modest cellar
In the game of value collection, bottle by bottle the wine cellar slowly grows until there is not a simple space left.  But, then, these are not simple wines. We can buy more storage space, or plan a string of meals that our oldest wines can complement to provide the needed capacity.  With any 750ml bottle perfect for sharing, it does not take long to begin to see vacancies in any humble wine cellar.  Market researchers tend to measure we regular wine consumers at a bottle a week or more, but for those who love this type of delicious research a few bottles a week is so much more likely.

A couple of Rieslings, one from an Alsace domaine, the other from Anderson Valley AVA, an award winning Gamay Beaujolais from the remarkable 2015 vintage, a white-Rhone blend from the Central Coast, and a few rose' bottles graced our table over a recent week.  Not one cost more than $20.  Each of these dry selections offered typical varietal characteristics, some even echoed the season and unique place they were from. Each was intended to either complement or contrast the principal flavors and strengths of most of the delicious preparations they would dance within the mouth.
Wine & food pairing, an insightful art
Repeat. Then, every once in awhile at even the most modest of tables, a wine from the cellar explodes.  It exceeds any expectations; it offers a unique, compelling experience that our routine and evolved standards fall behind. Those occasional wines produce a liquid reward that makes the game of collection quality value wines richly validated, and affirms the joy such a delicious hobby offers. From another typical week, a Malbec from the southwest of France, a 2015 Cahors AOC, over-delivered on its promise of spice and dark fruits.  But it was its texture, its weight, balance and tremendous length in the mouth that made it such a contemplative pleasure to drink.  Days later, an award-winning 2010 Rioja DOC Crianza(minimum one(1) year oak cask, two(2) years aging) made a simple al fresco meal a culinary event to savor.

For neophyte wine collectors, referencing vintage charts and reading labels from known producers can help, but a trusted importers' label may be more valuable.  Those ubiquitous shelf talkers, if accurate, can encourage, but most are just typical marketing fluff.  Most wines available from volume retailers are just that, produced by the vast industrial wine complex, and not much beyond vin ordinaire.  Search out small shops and smaller regional producers that along with heritage, have lower costs of production to supply your value wine cellar. More valuable may be the insight offered by the independent wine merchant and a relationship that is built over time.  And, as always, the information we gather independently to nurture our wine hobby, weather by tasting or reading is a valued base for any collector.  Shopping local wine sales and on-line flash sites will only add to the liquid adventure. Ultimately, for the price of a single movie ticket, a surprising and delicious bottle of value vino can be acquired, matured and pleasingly shared.  If, by now any remain unconvinced of the hedonistic pleasures offered by such a frugal wine hobby, at the very least it is almost a case.
Wine from the cellar, a special treat regardless of price!


Friday, June 29, 2018

BRAMBLES: On the Way

Down the road and On the way. In the soft afternoon light, meandering thru a bucolic Russian River Valley lately dressed with opaque evergreens and plumed golden grasses, it presents itself, a strikingly varied and unfolding viticultural edge landscape.  Drawn around the next curve, its multitude of coastal hills surround that lazy serpent of a river, with ever changing pockets of flourishing orderly expanse. This region provides a mild maritime-influenced climate, filled with even smaller micro-climates; offering a long agricultural history that had once celebrated hops and prunes, peaches and apples among its rich bounty. But, it is premium winegrapes that drive its agri-commerce now, and with that predictable summertime Pacific fog lurking; you can feel and smell its chill, posed to advance inland. Sea breezes introduce that regular summer evening cooling here, allowing for an inspiring ride in the late lazy day's decline. It is on the way.

Across its more than 16-thousand bearing acres, the waning light highlights the vines developing fruit set, now cooling down to signal time to end the cycles work day.  These acres of mostly pinot noir and chardonnay(about 2/3rds of all) will rest at night and their un-ripened acid strength will reserve into the evening.  Tomorrow will introduce another day, like the one before and those that will follow, to continue its adolescent photosynthesis. Benefiting from millions of years of geologic shift and upheaval created here its many varied soils with exotic names like: Goldridge sandstone loam, Arbuckle, and Huichica. Add fanned alluvial's and volcanic to the undulating landscape mix and you have some of the most diverse regional grape growing soils in the entire world.
More brands, more choices, more consumers
Pinot noir likes these conditions of freely draining soils, rapid evening cool-downs and regular ripening sunshine. Its invigorating adaption in this unique environment had attracted pinot visionaries and artisans to the region, perhaps beginning with Joseph Swan and Joe Rochioli back in the early '70s.  The regions established pastoral attributes were recognized by immigrant farmers back in the late 19th century, with names like Foppiano and Martini&Prati, and Kanaye of Fountain Grove. Local pinot noir's consumer market, too, has grown rapidly over the last few generations, introducing an increasing range of varietal products and a variety of price points to trending neophytes.  More vineyards get planted to the numerous clones of pinot year after year, and its county-wide average price per ton now has ballooned to over $3600(that's about 60 cases of wine).  Neighboring chardonnay is lucky to break $2000. on average. Established as an American Viticultural Area(AVA) in 1983, the Russian River Valley today supports around 1800 growers and producers, most of whom are small family enterprises. They are either artisan or commercial, and some with the prestige/notoriety to be occasionally both.

Of Sonoma counties 17 AVA's, the Russian River Valley is among the most widely planted.  Even with some of its definition sub-divided over recent decades, it remains quite varied, rising from almost sea level to above 1000 feet; encompassing the fanning plain, the reach, the ridges, the hills and the river valley itself.  There is such diversity of not only soils and micro-climates here, but also grape varieties, with zinfandel, savignon blanc and other 'interesting' varieties added to the end of cycle harvest.  Those supporting and artisinal varietals, however, can't compare to the fame and fortune brought to the Russian River Valley from its current signature varieties of chardonnay and pinot noir.
Consumers flock to new brand introductions
Even with no two vineyard settings exactly alike here, pinot noir needs only a few essential nutrients: nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus.  To thrive, it also requires visionaries and risk-takers along with a little sunshine at the proper times.  And to be successful, it needs a character reflection of the uniqueness of its special environment.  The French would call it 'terrior', everything that goes into making it noteworthy.  Now further down the RRV's sustainable road, passing one after another boutique producer, the cool down accompanies the fading light.   For those past few generations, pinot noir and chardonnay have brought limelight notoriety to this alluring landscape, and as our standards remain high and consumers are drawn to the next turn in the road there will be more on the way.

Balletto Estate Grown Pinot Noir, 2015 Russian River Valley; bright, balanced and length, oh my!
Bogel California Zinfandel 2015; air out its red fruit nose, and a blackberry, casis and spice weighted palate of balance and length.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

BRAMBLES: Things are Rose'

A rose' or rosado or a rosato, has more than a pseudonym going for it.  By its very appearance it is a pleasant hue of blush, and presents itself as a bright reminder of the many summer fruits captured in that chilled bottle.  It also has a sense of mystery about it, due in part that it is made everywhere wine is made(hence the alias), and can be the product of just about any wine grape(s) that is dominated by red skins. It can be a malbec or a pinot noir, a native grenache or a sangiovese, or a combination of many.  Plus, it can be the result of blending white grape juice with red, an early manipulation in the cellar or a simple bleeding(saigne'e) of a maturating vat of dark grapes.  Think of that as the tea-bag method: the longer in contact with skin, the darker and more tannic the wine. Generally, today's blush wines are easy on the pocketbook, as they benefit from a comparatively low cost of production. Plus, being market popular, we find ourselves today in a value driven market where things are more than just rose'.
Sunny vineyards of Aix-en-Provence
Con-temporarily described as a 'lifestyle ornament', chilled rose' wines are today often to be found around sunny and lighthearted seasonal festivities. When it hit the market way back when as 'white zinfandel', cloyingly sweet and simple, it often could be found in a glass of ice.  It did satisfy our sweet tooth, and also helped build not only a category, but a brand or two, as well. Today, we increasingly find a broadening market selection of good acid, lower alcohol dry wines producing a(hopefully) mouth-watering crispness. This has become known as the, 'Provence-style'.  Historically, with wide-spread commercial refrigeration only becoming available in the mid-19th century, wines back then would often quickly oxidize in production.  Rather than turning brown like a sliced apple, red wines typically were bottled rose' pale.  In a weak vintage, rose' wines would become a red wine makers safety net for the many small regional producers.  Early in the 20th century, focused on the protection and regulation of its historic agricultural products, France enacted its important national Appellation d'Origine Controle'e(AOC) system.  In its continental climate Rhone valley, Tavel AOC, became officially regulated in 1936; and remains the only all-rose' appellation in France.

Now six months after the destructive firestorm that altered our local wine region, there are signs everywhere of a return to where we were. At retail you can still find dedicated sections and even prominent end-caps that are broad, international rose' selections. Distributors will tell you that the rose' market is 'hot', and a continued trending rise in those many south of France exports.  And, local restaurant wine lists maintain the exploration of a growing selection of rose' wines for their fashionable consumers.  For those of us with a rose' craving, exploring by the glass or at a local wine event, like the upcoming Grill 116, can help define our personal blush wine desires.

Looking for values among rose' wine producers is truly a journey that offers bright rewards.  As individual grape varieties have unique characteristics and personality, even when they are the early extraction of color and body, thirsty consumers can usually anticipate profiles of rose' wines made from different single red varietals, say, pinot noir vs. malbec.  Density of color of the blush hue is generally also found to be a good indicator of the intensity of fruit personality in these fresh bottlings. Becoming familiar with a particular region or producer will increasingly indicate the type of rose' style being offered.  And blends, typical across the south of France, will present a bellwether character that is increasingly easy to predict.  As rose' is about its freshness of the light red fruit signature, current vintages offer the brightest, most harmonious possibilities in the glass.

What grape(s) it was made from, how rich the extraction, where it was produced, and how young it is will typically direct consumers to a variety of styles of rose' wines that will please and entertain.  After that, you are on your own.  Add happy company, fresh Mediterranean inspired foods and a couple of bottles, and you will find that things around you are rose'.

Value Wine:
E.Guigal 2016 Cotes du Rhone Rose': think dried strawberries and watermelon rind driven by refreshing acid, offering balance and length at a modest price and widely available from a Rhone benchmark producer.



Sunday, April 29, 2018

BRAMBLES: Spring to a Southern Rhone Alternative

Rhoneglacier, Oberwald, Switzerland
From far away and near they have come. Tall bottles of familiar shapes containing notes of exotic fruits and floral bouquets, blessed with a pleasantly fresh volume of spring rich in their bright mouthfeel.  They have announced themselves with names like Domaine de Fontbonau or Guigal Cotes-du-Rhone, identities that preserve their humble origins in the ancient vineyards of the glacial Rhone Valley of France.  Then they traveled the world to far away places such as Australia and California, with monikers such as Yalumba and d'Arenberg Hermit Crab, or the Golden State's Bonny Doon Le Cigare Blanc. They are the 'alternative whites' as a wine category, and as these selections have gone global in recent centuries, we commonly know them today as the those valued 'white Rhones'.
Sunny vineyards of Tablas Creek, Paso Robles
Sure, you can drop a bundle for a classic Viognier from its ancestral home in Condrieu AOC, but for the most part, these international selections tend to be alternatives, under the radar for most springtime white wine lovers. Even from its glacial origins, Lyon to Marseille, along more than 170 north to south miles of the Rhone River, there is today only a small amount of acreage planted here to the white Rhone varieties, as this historically is a summer baked red wine country along a continental corridor.  As many as a dozen indigenous white grape varietals have evolved throughout this region, each with their own personality, their own power and weakness.  From the Old World they went globe trotting, now typically planted in more advantageous landscapes to trumpet their own unique individual qualities.

Wine it is said can be like music, where it takes the magic of an inspired musician invested in a dramatic musical score that is played with a distinguished instrument.  Alone, the white Rhone's can display different individual traits, but together they seem to have come from the likes of woodwinds.  Combine the oboe and clarinet, add the saxophone or bassoon to make beautiful, inspired music; just imagine Ravels's "Balero" without, or the desert siren of Duke Ellington's, "Caravan" minus its harmonic blending of reeds.  Typically, the splendor, the grace and multi-faceted personality of these uncommon white grape varietals shows best when blended with another;  a sort of yin and yang.
Vineyards of Languedoc-Roussillon, southern France
Among these notable selections, late ripening, aromatic Roussanne can harmonize with a honeyed richness, yet tends to be a wine of structure and moderate acid levels.  Often found together, a flabby, low-acid Marsanne is a hardy grower, but has the complexity of nuance, offering notes of toasted nut and apple-pear. Whereas long-established Piquepoul(picpoul) Blanc, contributes good strength of acid and has citrus notes, but is typically pale in color.  Adaptable, and as a result widely planted,  Grenache Blanc, a relative of the rouge, tends to be low to moderate in acid, but with a partners talent to acclimate.  And then, there's the a single varietal with name recognition, but with yields that are un-predictable: full bodied, golden Viognier offers its prominent floral aromas and ripe notes that remind us of tropical fruits.  Simply put, it is the relative power and distinction of these lesser known varietals that allow them to complement one another, while offering the consumer a versatile, food-friendly alternative to summer Chardonnay.
Refreshing acid strength comes in many colors
Eight(8) affordable white Rhone's of global origins were presented at a recent comparative tasting, priced from $13 to $19.  Amazingly, although they were unique of birthplace and blend, each offered a similar refreshing verse orchestrated with a different grape ensemble.  Each showed power in different parts of their score; their aromatics, mouthfeel, flavor personality and fresh, sometimes lingering exit.  Moreover, when the panels' scores were tallied it was found that there were only a few points between most to least favored.  Even as the fine selections of the New World showed well, most tasters had Cotes-du-Rhone Blanc alternatives ranked near the top.

Truly, the price of a simple bottle is a modest investment that can open any tasters' world.  Local events, too, like the annual Rhone Rangers celebrations, or the upcoming inaugural Garagiste Wine Festival, Northern Exposure, in Sonoma(May 12) can be a delicious educational buffet that will tastefully aid outdoor gatherings in the warmer months ahead. Or, orchestrate your own garden party around locally available white Rhone's. It is a great opportunity whenever presented to then get out and spring to a bright southern Rhone alternative.
Grapevine spring berry-set


Thursday, March 29, 2018

BRAMBLES: Changes to Spring

Morning breaks over vineyards, Margaret River, Western Australia
Budbreak, the annual growth cycle re-birth of the European grapevine, vitis vinifera, is awakening our North Coast vineyards and gardens.  Just as the chard wildfire area's landscape recovers, springtime flowers that abound can renew our hope for the future of not only our local communities, but our area wine industry, as well.  Wine and its commonwealth throughout its long human history has continued to be truly uplifting, an annual reflection of the best of our human spirit and our artistic creativity, in the vineyard, in the cellar and around the global table.  This then demonstrates the annual fertility of our spirit, the awaking of Mother Earth, and the changes ready to spring.
Spring vineyards of Sonoma 
Old is New Again. Back in 2008,  Ehren Jordan, having gone from Turley Wine Cellars, to his  vineyard-select Fallia wines, and then to his Day zinfandel's, was SF Chronicles 'winemaker of the year'.  Now, he is also making wines at Zenith Vineyards of the cool Willamette Valley, exploring its silty-clay soils for award-winning pinot noirs and other intriguing non-mainstream varietals.  Another former 'winemaker of the year' at Stagling Family, Celia Masyczek, has also broadened her ambitions, and today is another widely respected consultant for many boutique, emerging North Coast labels. A generation of contemporary artisans such as these, scores of them, continue to re-new us, while locally, creatively exploring new wine industry frontiers. These then are the complex building blocks of regional vineyard growth and marketplace evolution for today's renewing industry.

Back in 1998, Wine Spectator selections for top-rated wines of the year had 7 of the top 9 that were French(red & white). By 2008, their top rated wine of the year(#1) was produced in Chile, Casa Lapostolle's Clos Apalta. Similarly, Wine Enthusiast opted for another top southern hemisphere selection that very same year.  Over the last generation of vintages, more & more top rated wines are today coming from emerging, diverse and non-traditional global locations.  As an international market continues to emerge, this global recognition reflects the wider propagation of the quality standards for wine for consumers, especially for those in the value marketplace.
Sonoma now has 18 AVAs, adding Petaluma Gap
Notable growth continues to renew interest. Up north, the Oregon Wine Board reported recently that economic impact of its wines in the Beaver State has increased by as much as 67% from three years ago, totaling today more than $5.6 billion.  As you may expect, similar growth is reviving an expanding industry for their related employment, investment and wine tourism.  Conversely, recently the winemag, Decanter reported that US exports fell sharply in 2017(20%), supported mostly by a fall in the value of the dollar against the Euro.  So somewhere the market grows, while simultaneously other, sometimes traditional consumer habits wane.

Closer to home, a flowering of  diverse wine events also introduces our annual springtime revival. Nearby Sonoma Valley Vintners organize our invitation to hold their annual Visa - Signature weekend, April 6-8. Bringing its creative happiness to the masses, more than thirty members of the Mendocino Winegrowers Alliance sets up April 07 in San Francisco's Fort Mason Center, for the annual Taste of Mendocino. Locally. it is the intimate, A Taste of Olivet, April 14, that shares the fertile heart of the historic Russian River Valley. Beyond, wine enthusiasts can get further out and head northeast for a beautifully bucolic El Dorado Passport, the annual Sierra Foothills adventure, which begins April 21 thru April 29.  Spring showers bring more than just flowers for wine lovers.

Industry growers, producers, and its changing marketplace are just like wine consumers: the environment continually evolves.  From increased national wine sales to our Sonoma's growers cultivating towards an ever evolving commitment to 100% sustainability(a national first),  we all benefit from a fertile, living  industry that enjoys an annual renewal.  Constant in change, it is the sure sign of a growing spring in our wine country.


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