Sunday, September 30, 2018

BRAMBLES: Nothing else Like It!

Vitis vinifera, a self-pollinating berry-fruit vine native to Europe and Asia Minor, with a domesticated history that goes back thousands of years, is once again in the Northern Hemisphere harvesting season news.  A venerable agri-industry, global wine is now on a grand international scale that continues to impact its growing consumer demands by testing those ever-changing market forces. From growers to producers to marketplace, today's wine meanders thru a complex, cosmopolitan web to get its products on the tables of thirsty consumers.

With a reported widespread French vineyards return to a  'new normal', and a locally declared "vintage year" sitting on one side of our current harvest; opposing local Lake & Mendocino county grape farmers who are having their vineyard contracts now cancelled by large, regional wine producers(corporations) that now reside on the weighted other.  We are a market driven industry; 'it was the best of times, it was the worst of times', to borrow drinking a phrase.

In production and marketing: That mysterious cork-taint problem was never in the Old World's natural corks, however, it was found to be the human process that followed; and a passed U.S.Senate resolution(HR766) that says uniqueness is defined by our AVA's, created legislation that now acknowledges distinctiveness and its considerable value for America from our growing national wine industry.  Our first AVA was defined way back in 1980 to ostensibly position the nation's wines for an international market, to regulate production and to advocate for consumers. Who knew it would take almost 40 years(my drinking years) for its inherent value to be recognized?
Vineyards of Columbia Gorge AVA
If you stick your nose in a glass, you may find that wine smells truly like nothing else(even with muting cork-taint).  Fruit and spice, pronounced or composed, it's a note here and there, perhaps even framed by toasted wet wood, or lingering dried fruits.  Prominent aromatics tend to originate from the namesake wine grape, as it carries personality from the vineyard to the consumer glass.  It has collected the characteristics of place and varietal; and even its gender can be considered an 'inherited' quality.  In this social equality era, it may be wine-reasonable to ask: Is it feminine or masculine that consistently engage with us in that glass?

For me the sauvignon(savage), either white or red(masculine, having an effective untamed leverage) reflects strongly where & how it is grown.  Conversely, grenache(feminine, but fiesty) presents less assertive amicability, but always willing to join in. When compared to cabernet sauvignon, the companion merlot grape has historically been seen as the more feminine of the two: approachable early, its tones softer, rounder. Minor whites, verdicchio and muscadelle and melon de Bourgogne, and even richly perfumed and queenly chenin blanc, express feminine virtues for me; where noble riesling and pinot gris/grigio suggest qualities that let them sit with the boys.  It is, of course, a personal relationship. Yep, male and female do exist in the world of grapes, but because it is nature- evolved there can even be a neuter or two.  It is something that for each of us remains an intimate and unique experience to savor.
Bulgaria harvests
Today's European Union has grown cooperatively to 28 member states, with wine-loving republics Bulgaria and Romania joining in 2007.  Once among the largest wine producing regions in the world, modernization supported by EU investment over the last decade has improved vineyard development, wine quality and has revitalized more than 6000 years of wine history across these Balkan States.  With growing production and exports, Old World regions here in the cradle of wine are now being globally promoted as 'symbols of quality wine' and 'modern wine destinations'.  What was once old is now new again.  In the composite, the ever-changing world news of wine, there is nothing else like it!


Liquid Update Links;



 Old World:   romania-and-moldova/#4ac3bdcf270f

Wine Links:

Friday, August 31, 2018

BRAMBLES: Harvest Dreams

Inspiration surrounds us.  We see it in the glory of our environment, hear it carried on the wind across the seascape, and find it in the abundant humanity of to soon departed beacons like sister Aretha,  John McCain and Neil Simon.  It's imagination absorbed, raising our own aspirations, prompting us to dream.  As this years annual winegrape harvest gets underway across our Northern Hemisphere, whiffs of the incentive are once again found in every vineyard and cellar.  This is the year many dedicated artisans will make great, definitive examples of their unique proprietary wines.  Those are dreams that they actually harvest.

Another harvest cycle now gets underway, so it is a good time to sneak a peak at marketplace changes.  As recently reported in the drinks business, a Jordan survey found that Zinfandel remains a popular 'gateway varietal'(one that is getting newbies into wine), because we generally like wines that are perceived as smooth and fruity. Yet, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon remain the 'go to' leading varietals for most returning consumers. Even as direct to consumer market segments continue strong sales growth, and new packaging such as wines in cans still gains momentum in our markets, red Zinfandel is sadly languishing.  Like most popular, flavor-of-the-week varietals today, most of the flat Zinfandel volume is being produced by large industrial producers of one note selections, while richer price points continue to deter inquisitive neophyte consumers.  And, we are drink more wine per capita than ever before(thank you)!

Perhaps its association with sweeter white Zinfandel(white outsells red), or the lack of distinctive flavor designations have influenced consumers to look to other more popular varietals.  Yet Zinfandel, proudly California's grape, remains a mystery to even the most regular of consumers.  We've heard of its genetic relationship to Italy's Primitivo, and perhaps marveled that Croatian sibling Crljenak ancestry goes back almost 3000 years(think Greek), but today's Zinfandel is just not growing in our markets.

Uneven ripening and sugar levels
In spite of a string of outstanding premium California  vintages, in the Sierra foothills, in Sonoma and in Lodi, uneven ripening Zinfandel still has most of its volume and acreage in the bulk fields of our Central Valley.  When dry farmed and in lower production yields found in Mediterranean climates from vines that grow like trees, Zinfandel produces wines that are multi-faceted and memorable.  Back in 2012 I noted, " when ripe, it can be an exotic walk through a berry bramble, almost savory and sweet at the same time.  Aromas of ripe berries and spice are common, along with the brambly undercurrent of flavors that offers hints of herb and pepper spice". 

These terrific food wines complement and contrast a range of dishes, and particularly like tomatoes as long as its alcohol is in balance. Look for Primitivo's from Italian producers like Luccarelli or Cantine san Marzano, or to Amador County AVA's Cooper or the Jeremy Wine Co.  Sonoma County's Seghesio or Carol Shelton or Cline Cellars continue to produce fine value Zinfandels at modest price points.  And, Ridge, Ravenswood and Rosenblum, know as the '3r's of Zinfandel', continue to produce very fine premium products that echo the unique places they are from.

Subject to the whims of Mother Nature and the sites on which it is nurtured, Zinfandel can be a haunting mistress for wine lovers in search of inspiration. It remains a true canvas for the gifts of talented winemakers who adopt an intimacy with the varietal and its place.  One advantage to our diverse and competitive marketplace means that minor varietals like Zinfandel tend to hold their price points compared to popular varieties, and offer consumers a chance to search out quality values.  When they are found, label-loyal consumers can return to those complex, satisfying examples that are a true reflection of so many harvest dreams.


September is California Wine month!

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.