Thursday, April 30, 2015

BRAMBLES: Big Question(s)

Alexander Valley AVA above the Russian River
A second generation grape grower in the Alexander Valley leaned on the tasting bar, scarecrow erect in his bib overalls and leather skin. For weeks it seemed visitors had asked me about the reportedly dire conditions for local grape farmers in the current growing season.  Spring time frosts, heavy rains during vine flowering, broad temperature swings during early development can all have great impact on the quality and quantity of premium wine grapes.  Casually he looked up at me and rumbled, "we've seen it all before".  A moment of clarity followed.  That was it. There is nothing new under the sun.  We just toil with what is given to us and try to make the best of it.

The comfortable convenience of knowing a good growing year verses a poor or challenging year is a relief for many wine lovers. It allows for an extra boost of confidence when choosing the vintage selection from a wine list or a retail shelf.  But, in fact, each and every year someone in our neighborhood is producing outstanding, world-class wine.  The best of vintners do it regularly.  But, surely California's continuing drought conditions, combined with the marketing push for environmental sustainability must have weighted impact on growers of our billion dollar grape crop. Currently, there is a bulk wine surplus and a serious labor shortage for vineyard labor to boot.  The increasing strength of the dollar against overseas wine producing currencies has kept the ocean of imports reasonably priced, and more domestic brands fight for retail shelf space each and every day.

"We will have rain again", I recently declared to another Sonoma County winegrower. "Oh, yes", he replied, "and it will be early(in the harvest season)".  "Our calendar has just moved up a month", he reasoned. So that's it!  We like to have summer begin on Memorial Day or when the kids are out of school.  But, Mother Nature operates under an entirely different Hallmark calendar.  This year bud break, flowering and fruit set are all well ahead of schedule, and that means that harvest should also be among the earliest in our history.  For our local grape crop August has evolved to become September.

Over the cultivated centuries, native wine grapes have acclimated and evolved to the conditions of their unique environs, their terrior. Survivability requires that we adapt to our circumstances for the continuing sustainable growth of the species. So throughout the more than 8000 year history of cultivated grapes, the strongest have continually adapted and have survived to see another calendar.  With historical perspective, our current season is an inch in the tendrils of the grapevine mile. Our current drought, as serious as it is, will once again challenge growers and producers to adapt to a dry environment that can offer earlier seasons. Their perpetual goal of crafting world class North Coast wine remains, as does the big question. Will we be able to drop our month-to-season mentality and adapt to Mother Nature?
Invasive flora & low water in the Russian River
Happy Birthday, Momma, and Cheers!

Tasting Values: Gouguenheim Malbec, 2013 Valle Escondido, Mendoza, Argentina. Opaque black plum hue, an earthy nose of dried dark fruit & vanilla, with a dense, round texture of red fruits, tea and cola. Well made, balanced across the palate and a bargain to boot!

Monday, March 30, 2015

RED BLENDS: A New Old Trend

Vineyards of France Sud front the Pyrenees
Budbreak has started in the spring-like Russian River Valley, a sure sign that our growing hopes to produce the very best wine(s) is renewed.  Recently, a January Nielsen 2015 report noted that domestic red blends, as a consumer category, eclipsed $900 million in annual retail sales; strong evidence that this is a very fast growing selection trend for a growing number of wine lovers. But why? There have almost always been blended wines. And, marketers have trained us consumers to follow the minimum 75% rule for varietal identification. My local wine shops display vast selections of domestic wines, with prominent signage by grape variety. As a consumer trend it seems what was old has once again been renewed, just like our grapevines.

Today, I believe,  there are more widely distributed producers offering consistent wine quality than ever before. And, the science of global viticulture, promoted by world leading institutions such as University of Adelaide(Australia), the University of Bordeaux, and our own UC Davis, among others, continue to promote advancements in sustainable, quality grape farming.  Plus, a growing number of wine consumers have wine traveled, explored broader international selections in wine by the glass programs, and may have found blended wine pricing easier on their young pocketbook.  Yet, for more than a thirsty generation, many consumers have been adamant that they would only drink Cabernet Sauvignon, or anything but Chardonnay(ABC's). 

What we know about blending wine is that it can add complexity: more than a single flavor or personality, it can enhanced a wines color, power or finesse. A blend varietal may be needed to add balance, to offset sharp astringency or to contribute a firmer backbone or an acid adjustment to bring the wine into balance.  Many times, for these 'built' wines, the sum becomes greater than its component parts. Over the centuries, wine grape growers have discovered which varieties grew best(productively) in their vineyards, producing quantity that many times sacrificed quality. A local blending may have been required to produce a better wine. Importantly, the market was historically local, so comparisons and competition were non-stop. And not all production would have been in the hands of the grower, as a specialist, a negociant, would have built the wines from local resources.

With mandated standardization, the southern Rhone wine based in the widely grown red variety Grenache, Châteauneuf-du-Pape once allowed 13 designated blended varietals.  Initially designating 10 approved varieties in 1923, it grew to 13 in 1936, and currently allows 18!  Further north a Côte-Rôtie AOC is typically a blend of Syrah and up to 20% Viognier.  Over in world-famous Bordeaux AOC, we find a classic red marriage of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, providing the house(chateau) the resources to create a blend that reflects their unique place.  White Bordeaux's typically blend Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon & Muscadet, to create their signature, and a domestic 'Meritage' is by definition a blend.

Traditional method sparkling wines are not immune. Classic Champagne is a blend. Head south to Spain and sparkling cavas are blends, too.  As is the Fino Sherry I adore. With more than 500 chronicled grape varieties, Italy's Super Tuscans, and most wines produced from their twenty DOC wine regions are typically blends.  With some of the earliest protective wine regulations, Portugal's red native's: Touriga Nacional, Toriga Francesa, and Alicante Bouschet are prominent among the hundreds of grape(castas) varieties approved for production of Port wines.  The winemaker can ferment the varieties together, combine during the aging process, or marry in a tank prior to bottling, all with the goal of creating a better wine.

If a drinking memory serves, two generations ago you could easily find a restaurant wine list that offered, "Red - White - Rose'".  Those bulk wines were blends, and seemed to pair effectively with everything on the menu.  Then you needed to be 'Cab-savy', or trend with the latest and greatest Chardonnay.  Perhaps it was the business meals and the expense account, or maybe it was just easier to remember Merlot rather than Amarone della Valpolicella, but we called out single grape varieties.  Today, it seems just as common to call for an easy drinking, great food-pairing proprietary blend.  We are renewed, having happily grown into something new that is an old trend.

Values Found:
  • Dona Paul Black Label Red Blend 2012(Argentina)
  • Bogle Vineyards 'Essential' Red Blend 2012(California)
  • E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone 2013(France)


Friday, February 20, 2015

BARBERA; Taking a Shine to Ordinary!

Hills of Monferrato, Italy
There's something about Barbera. And, as it turns out, I really like this kind of wine. Barbera is not a grape variety widely enjoyed by most wine lovers, and when it does appear it is typically hidden on a table of food.  Fruity and acid-driven,  it is perhaps the quintessential food wine.  In the home vineyards of Italy it is a vigorous vine, producing good dark-skinned yields of a quaff-able red wine that is high in acid and modest in tannin; making it the casual table wine of many a ristorante and trattoria in the regions of the North. Its many clones, are widely planted from Lombardy to Campania, but it is around the ancestral hills of Monferrato, south of the River Po where this workhorse variety can create something noticeably unique. Today, in a broad swath that are the demarcated and controlled wine regions by the River Tanaro, surrounding the villages of Alba, Asti, and, of course, Monferrato DOC's is where this common, often ordinary grape variety shines.

From about the 1970s, with the developing administration of the Italian DOC regulations(modeled after the earlier French AOC-system), there has been a quality push, a regulated standardization in viticultural practices and winemaking techniques which have benefited the consistent quality of the regions wines, even lowly Barbera. In the hills around Alba, there the prized Nebbiolo grape of Barolos dominate the best vineyard sites, Barbera was a second or third site crop that benefited from the quality Barolo producers cellar techniques. Further north in Asti, Barbera found better south-facing hilltop sites, improved by the new limits on yields, and found producers heavily dependent on the varieties success.  Its red-jewel color and nose of plum candies presented a tartly refreshing red wine brightly echoing of red plums, cherries, a nuance of pepper, or even cloves.  To recognize regional wines of higher minimum alcohol, and wines that aged for at least a year(6 mo. in oak), a superiore designation was regulated.

Some of our recent favorite Barbera's include:
  • Sant'agata Barbera d'Asti Baby 2011
  • Vietti Barbera d'Asti Tre Vigne 2012
  • Renato Ratti 'Battaglione' Barbera d'Alba 2013 

As Barbera grows in a variey of soils & climates around Italy, it is natural that immigrants would plant the reliable vine in many New World locations.  At a recent tasting of Barbera's from California's Amador, Lake, Lodi, and even from Napa County, a Barbera d'Asti was included. Amador County saw Barbera plantings as early as 1856, in soils that are alluvial to decomposed granite, and having a diversity in vineyard elevations. Lake County soils are the result of geologic upheaval; sandstone & shale from the sea floor, to volcanic with a peppering of obsidian.  Here elevation can moderate temperatures without a significant marine influence seen in parts of Napa. And the inland Lodi vineyards are typically of alluvial & clay soils deposited by once great rivers running out of the Sierra Nevada.  Each domestic region produced very fruity, drinkable sub-$20 wines, but I found a multiple dimension lacking in each of them.  It was the affordable Barbera d'Asti to which I took a shine.
If it is possible to smell history, then that is what I was smelling. In each nose their was a complexity, an earthiness that made my head spin. Was it dusty dried plums or stewed cherries and steamed wood that I was recognizing? Where the California wines were big, juicy in the mouth, the Italian was a taught, restrained and a more focused tasting engagement that had more depth.

Increasing, I find that the wines I am drawn to are those that make me thirsty for more.  Wines that are acid-driven often do just that. Acid puckers the mouth, produces a dry sensation that causes the saliva glands to get working.  If there is a depth of dry fruit in the mouth as well, I find the feeling to be mouth-watering, and making me thirsty for more. Ordinary Barbera does not do that for me, but a complex and well balanced Barbera, the kind that is consistently produced by many of the wineries of Italy does.  And, its personality is a terrific match for a broad range of foods that make it even more delicious.

In the marketplace, for about the same money as most domestics, there is a modest selection of Italian Barbera's, and they are worth searching out.  Back in the taverns of Piemonte, regional Barbera can be quite vin ordinaire, just as it should be for those tables. But looming in the village or commune tier above, awaiting our exploration, are some outstanding examples of a widely planted grape variety for the cost of a song.  Deliciously, these Barbera's have me taking quite a shine to ordinary!


Learn more, Drink more!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

MUSCAT: One for the Ages

Vineyards of Asti, Piemonte

Label images began to populate the app's storage once it was downloaded. The smart phone application was to help visualize what I drank, and perhaps keep a few notes as a refresher. Recently, Vivino presented its top 100 rated sub-$50 wines, confirming a few drinking trends, and offering a few surprises. Sure there was Chardonnay and Pinot Noir represented, but more than 25% of its list rated red grape blends.  At least six(6) of the rankings were of the venerable white grape, Muscato Blanc, so that everything that was old was new again. Once dismissed as being grapey and ubiquitous, old Muscat is making a comeback. As a result of the widely distributed survey, it appears that our wine consumption trends where everything is new again, currently is one for the Ages.

Muscat itself is a very large family, known by many local synonyms, and has a documented history that goes back at least three thousand years! Countless clones and variations are part of its lineage, which is perhaps something expected from a very old grape vine that has literally traveled the world. Know as Anathelicon moschaton by the ancient seafaring Greeks, Muscat traveled too with Roman conquests, eventually making its way beyond the Mediterranean with the exploration of the New World. As Muscat was reliable and adaptable, it found itself the as a base principal of many emerging styles of wine around the globe.

Rutherglen vineyards of Australia
Vigorous Muscat historically is a workhorse of sorts, producing wines of no residual sugar(dry), semi and sweet, as well as fortified and even sparkling styles. Old World ships eventually brought Muscat to the tip of Africa, there partially fermented in Constantia to travel sweet and celebrated to the far away European courts. More than a century later, early 19th century English vine plantings in Australia saw fortified Muscat wines back sent to anticipation in the UK by 1854. Today, Muscat vineyards of the Rutherglen region of SE Australia continue to produce some of the worlds finest sticky, fortified, barrel aged and celebrated wines(Liqueur Muscats).  Additionally, the unique brandies of Peru and Chile, know as Pisco, as well as Metaxa, a grape brandy from Greece, have historically been produced from long cultivated Muscat grapes.

As with every large family their is a hierarchy and a prominent member. For Muscat Blanc, the grape that turn wines that taste like the grape itself, makes a wine known for opulent aromatics of orange blossom, honeysuckle and stone fruits, and offering complementary taste that is typically viscous and high in acid, it is the variety Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains. In northern France near the end of the Roman trade route, an Alsatian regional and food-friendly dry wine is widely produce here from this golden orb variety. And, in the south near its origin, the white grape Muscato Canelli is the basis of a range of wine styles including the increasingly popular sparklers, Moscato d’Asti(frizzante) and Asti Spumante.

Still or sparkling, dry or sweet, and even fortified, Muscat Blanc is the world traveler that today produces quality wines for every occasion, every palate, and importantly every budget. Fueled by the younger culture of neophyte winos, its accessible pricing, and ever-popular range of styles, ubiquitous Muscato is today enjoying a consumer Renaissance. Our affinity for the grapes reliable character and its unparalleled functionality truly make it One for the Ages.



Wednesday, December 24, 2014

WINTER DORMANCY: Bubbles while Sleeping

 Napa vineyard in winter dormancy
 Almost every-time we need a wine to accompany a meal, I'll go into the basement and select something that will hopefully add to the table. Bold red wines, like those from Barbaresco and Rioja are sleeping there, and I can only imagine they wait for something braised and earthy. There are bright, worldly Sauvignon Blancs, and even a few Albarino's that would love to meet some soft cheese or a broad range of mild dishes. But, the essential wines found there, especially this time of year, are filled with sleeping bubbles. They had been bottled under great pressure, secured with a mushroomed cork and a wire cage. Dormant, like the sleeping vines not far away, sparkling wines seem only to wake excitedly this time of year when we have something to celebrate.

Sparkling wines known by monikers like cre'mant, traditional method or Champagne, are made from a time-honored process where the carbon dioxide/CO2 produced by a second fermentation is trapped in the bottle. Historically, it was cold air temperatures that had interrupted fermentation in a cellar, only to re-awaken in the warmer spring.  Wines produced as sparkling evolved in these cool cellars to become the wines of bubbles we know today. Sparkling cre'mants are produced outside the Champagne region using regional grapes, but adopting the same production method as their standard-bearing and expensive cousin. Regions like Alsace, Bourgogne, Loire and Limoux, among others, consistently produce high quality sparkling wines. Charmats, or Metodo Charmat-Martinotti, is an Italian mass production alternative, where the second ferment is controlled in a pressurized tank, and then transfered to bottle under pressure. It is not the same thing as the more laborous cre'mants.

Our current marketplace offers great value to quality in traditional method sparklers, among the best are:
  • Gloria Ferrer, vintage 2010 Blanc de Blanc & non-vintage Blanc de Noirs
  • Cavas from Spain: Cavas Casteller, Brut; Cordorniu, Rosado Brut; Codorníu, SelectÌon Raventós Brut; Segura Viudas, ARIA Estate Brut
  • Blason de Bourgogne, LA RE'SERVE Rose' Brut is a well made and award winning regional blend dominated by Pinot Noir. The blend represents the best fruit from as many as 800 family growers around Burgundy. A terrific value, it is produced in the traditional method by Les Caves de Marsigny. In the glass, its pale rose hue is the result of limited skin contact with dark skinned fruit, and offers bright, expressive aromas of dried strawberries, white cherries and apple blossoms, almost creamy in the mouth with a moderate strength to acidity.  Find it at Trader Joe's for around $10!

A recently published E&J Gallo Consumer Wine Trends Survey has noted, " as a whole, the survey told us that Americans are enjoying wine more often than ever before by bringing it into dining, entertaining and even the most casual experiences — all while demonstrating an eagerness to experiment with various flavors and formats". It continued, recognizing that emerging social media platforms allow every consumer to be a wine critic. Convenience is certainly important for this growing market with its increasing ease of accessibility. Even sleeping bubbles are "shedding the preconception that sparkling wines are just for special occasions. Many reported that they are popping bottles for everyday moments and nearly all of them (93 percent) would pair sparkling wine and Champagne with the foods they’re enjoying."

In this season of thankful celebration, and with longer days ahead, it is truly the time to open those sleeping bubbles, for spring will soon wake.

 How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
 To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
 As tho' to breathe were life!
 Life piled on life
 Were all too little, and of one to me
 Little remains: but every hour is saved from that eternal silence,
 Something more, 
 A bringer of new things; (Ulysses: A Tennyson)

Cheers for Peace and Goodwill, for All!