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!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

GAMAY: Beaujolais' Triumphant Harvest

Autumn vineyards of Beaujolais
Yellow to brown hues decorate our neighborhoods as seasonal trees loose leaves and carpet the streets.  In the nearby vineyards, grapevines too display a change in color as they loose the green pigment, chlorophyll, producing a temporary tapestry of autumn shades. Here, grapes fill the wine cellars as this annual right of passage displays such outdoor beauty, only to drive its winemakers indoors. Weeks before the arrival of Fall, far away vineyard managers were triumphantly calling for an early harvest in the Beaujolais vineyards of eastern France.

Growing in popularity, early ripening Gamay(Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc) was ready for its collection. It had been a challenging growing season, but that was nothing when compared to its 'criminal' past. An offshoot of noble Pinot Noir, Gamay has found a home south of Burgundy, in an area barely 55km long, outside of the Rhone department. Ostracized from its native homeland, it had adapted quickly in the granite based soils north of Lyon. Historically, the Romans had planted on these hillside communes of Brouilly and Morgon along the established trading route. This region had less importance, but shared its agri-development during the Dark Ages sitting between nearby Burgundy and the Rhone.

Being less challenging to cultivate and earlier in ripening than its fickle parent, Pinot Noir, widely planted Gamay had run afoul of the law. It was the curse of the Philippes',  when in 1695 Philippe the Bold, then Duke of Burgundy, outlawed Gamay in the increasingly prestigious Burgundy zone, pushing plantings further to the south. More than two generations later, Philippe the Good issued yet another edict against lowly Gamay, sealing its fate to the lesser department of the southern hilly region demarcated today. There it languished, only to became known outside of the region once rail connected them to Paris near the end of the 19th century.

With the Massif Central to moderate its semi-Mediterranean climate, this 34-mile strip, larger than any one region in Burgundy, produces today more than 13 million cases of wine from the valleys and foothills west of the north-south River Sao'ne. Gamay is the bastard cross, a progeny of Pinot Noir and white Gouais, an ancient variety that long ago traveled from Central Europe. Gouais most famous offspring is Chardonnay, which was infamously cherished by the then nobles of Burgundy.  Here, the broad appellation is simply, "Beaujolais AOC", where almost everything qualifies, producing simple wines for the bistros of Paris. Advancing in quality, there are more than three dozen villages, mostly to the south of the region, that qualify for the Beaujolais-Villages AOC. If the grape reflects its site, here tended along a flatter terrain it is clay that becomes more prominent in the soils, producing simpler wines.
2014 Harvest under threatening Beaujolais skies
In the North of the region, 10 distinctive schist-granitic soiled hillside villages produce the pinnicle of Beaujolais, designated as 'cru'. Grapes from these sloping hillsides offer the best expression of Gamay, producing more full bodied wines from lower yield vineyards. From the deeper colored, long-lived AOC's of Moulin-à-Vent, Morgon and Juliénas, to the fruity, well-balanced wines of Côte de Brouilly, Chiroubles, Chénas, Saint-Amour and Fleurie, this is Gamay country. It is the 'cru' Beaujolais that can produce exceptional wines; wines that are bright, mouth-filling, palate lingering and cellar-worthy for comparatively very reasonable prices.

For this 'criminal' grape, outlawed to the hills, a grape of thin skin and a low density of tannins, this past growing season was unseasonably cool, and rainy throughout the summer. Further north,  Burgundy was hit by severe summer hailstorms, producing the smallest crop in many years.  Coupled with increasing demand from Asia for its already scarce Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, consumers should expected price increases of up to 15% for the wines of Burgundy, according to many estimates. Further south, the cool, wet summer in Beaujolais was salvaged by warm, sunny ripening conditions in early September, bringing again a triumphant early harvest. As a result, the pricing quality to value represented by quality Beaujolais will continue to be available to discerning consumers.

To keep its cherry-bright, low-tannin personality, most Beaujolais today is the result of a controlled fermentation called, carbonic maceration; a whole cluster evolution in a carbon dioxide rich pressurized environment.  Uniquely, fermentation takes place within each individual berry, producing an aromatic freshness, often associated with the notes that remind us of bubble gum. The resulting personality makes these quality wines perfect for the social gathering of the many flavors on a Thanksgiving table. Recent Beaujolais Village vintages have offered consistent quality as they ride on the marketing coattails of immature Beaujolais Nouveau, but it is in the delicious cru where this Gamay criminal annually triumphs.

Happy Thanksgiving to All!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

BRAMBLES: A Harvest of Values

 Tech savvy millennials don't use competitive on-line wine purchasing like us older boomers, so says a current wine marketing study from Cal Poly SLO, as reviewed in a current Wine Spectator issue. The overwhelming majority of on-line wines purchased appears to come from an older demographic that has not grown up with the internet, but would seem to have more willingness & confidence in taking an informed chance purchase of a yet untasted product that is shipped to our door.

Shipping costs, interstate direct sales restrictions, and waiting for a signature required delivery are some of the shop-restraint reasons cited by the younger wine generation.  It appears that these social networking consumers like to buy wine that they have a connection with, that is a product they can see and taste. In spite of a massive amount of credible wine information from numerous sources(blogs, publications, regional competitions, etc.) available, younger wine enthusiasts seem to want to experience a known and trusted liquid commodity. Perhaps even peer pressure and trend setting marketing also influence their non-buy decisions. Nationally, on-line wine sales show consistent annual growth, yet make up only about 2% of total wine sales according to the biggest e-commerce retailer,'s Michael Osborne.

A long-established three tier system of alcohol producers-distributors-retailers and the sovereign regulations within each individual state still remain restrictively in firm place.  As a result, even with the growth of on-line wine sales, more than 80% of all wines sold in America continue to be sold by brick and mortar retailers. In an effort to break out of my internet purchases, I recently shopped the surplus and over-run inventories offered by a local retailer, Grocery Outlet.  Offering a broad selection of discounted brand names I have not before seen, I purchased a number of selections for intended everyday enjoyment with the hope of harvesting a few values. 

  • Gunn Estate 2012 Pinot Noir Marlborough(New Zealand)dark garnet hue, aromas of dried black raspberries and boysenberries raced across the palate with good acidity, notes of cherry skin and fine grain tannins, ending bright with a moderate finish. Bargain retail: $6.99

  • Mosaic 2012  Zinfandel Russian River Valley(Sonoma County) from the Wilson Artisan Wineries group, so they know something about the local varietal. Bright, light ruby on sight, it offered stewed red and black fruits on the nose, a hint of smoke and spice. Bargain retail: $7.99

  • Gerard Bertrand 2010 Corbie'res(France) generous black fruit on the nose with a little spice, and dry wood, offering opulent dried black fruits, tea and licorice on the palate, filling the mouth to pleasantly linger; it drinks so much richer than the discounted price. Bargain retail: $3.99!!
When I returned to Grocery Outlet to purchase more, many of these discovered wines were unavailable, having sold thru their allotment. Just like our recently completed wine grape harvest, the search for the very best selections, the best of seasons will continue.  Attention now turns to the wines of our celebrations for the end of season holidays; as wine lovers can continue to enjoy searching out the retail/ on-line selections to find their very personal harvest of values.

Cremant d'Alsace or Beaujolais, anyone?