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.


Wine Links:

Saturday, February 24, 2018

SYRAH: a Shiraz by Value

Terraced vineyards of Cote Rotie, Rhone Valley
A river runs thru it; the mighty liquid highway churns south, just as it was for the conquering and wine loving  Romans.  Today, the Rhone River Valley of southeastern France remains that ancient birthplace and a benchmark of the ancient dark skinned Syrah grape. Here it produced the wine of French Kings' and their diplomacy from the 17th century, crafting notable wines even then that invited cellar aging and convenient favors. Outside of the Northern Rhone, Syrah found the sun that promoted its stiff, fleshy backbone, allowing the brooding variety to be a decorated foundation to the blends prominent in throughout the Mediterranean south. However, this noble grape of historical origins has gone global over the last two plus centuries, now to be found widely introduced from South Africa to Washington State and Australia.

Savory. Blessed with acid and tannin strengths that encourage bottle aging, having opaque skins that could tolerate warmer climates, Syrah today is one of those grapes that can reflect where it was nurtured, thereby altering its Old World character. Tasting of savory dark fruits, bramble and olive, often described as gamy or of smoked meats, Syrah in warmer climates can introduce a riper, jammy fruit and occasional notes dark of spices and roasted earth.  It has proven to be quite adaptable, finding success with regional and international consumers far beyond its noble origins in the continental Rhone.
Groomed vineyards of McLaren Vale, South Australia
Here in the States, venerable Cline, Bonny Doon Vineyard, a host of Central Coast AVA wineries and boutique local producers from the 1980's still toil to grow the lagging Syrah domestic market. As of 2016, California still produces about 85% of all our domestic U.S. wines, farmed on more than 600,000 sustainable acres, but Syrah acreage remains stagnant at around 18000. In emerging Washington State(2nd largest U.S. producer), Syrah production in this past decade has grown measurably,  even as fruit pricing remained somewhat flat; and still sits far behind Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in acreage worked east of the Cascades.

Australia today dominates the value to quality Syrah marketplace with fruit-driven brands like Layer Cake, d'Arenberg Stump Jump, and behemoths Rosemount and Penfolds. From the heat of the Barossa Valley to the cooler coastal vineyards of the Great Southern, smaller Aussie brands like the widely available Paringa Shiraz, are consistent best buys, offering cost-conscious consumers bright Syrah character for pennies. Across its 65 winegrowing regions, nurturing almost 100 thousand acres of what is known down under as Shiraz, this long-tenured Aussie variety is today accounting for about a third of a thirsty nation's total wine production.
Distinctive grapeleaf of Syrah/Shiraz

Global acreage of the Rhone grape has continued to increase(lots of domestic Syrah planted in years that straddle the millennium), yet sales domestically remain modest, annually losing share to other popular millennial growth varieties (rose,malbec??). Syrah's challenge is today a varietal identity at these more modest retail pricepoints.  Mass produced, it consistently offers wines that are typically ordinary, non-distinctive, a lowest common denominator kind of full-bodied wine where savory is lost along with memorable personality.

Noble Syrah needs the right environment in which to shine, such as demanded by the continental Rhone Valley. She is not ordinary.  With attention in the vineyard, situated in draining soils, and nurtured with patient crafting in the cellars, Syrah shows all her many charms.  Her allure can be displayed at festive regional events, like the annual Hospice du Rhone, Paso Robles; her noble honor supported by the championing of the Rhone Rangers.  She can maintain her varietal mystery, her potency that can hold blended wines seamlessly, and remains faithful to feed our need to find really good value memorable Syrah.  Always a perfect lady, for many in the global consumer marketplace, Syrah's value is simply known as Shiraz.
New World vineyards of South Africa



Saturday, January 27, 2018

BRAMBLES: A $ellar of Values

Most wines come from a handful of large beverage companies
Beginnings. January is for many of us a month of organize and purge; shuffle those receipts, and finally get around to putting away the summers wardrobe. It does not take much more time or experience or even information to also begin to collect wines to fill a value cellar that provides a very hedonistic joy for almost any wine lover. Today, more than ever before, value wines abound in our increasingly global marketplace, and more avenues exist to acquire them.  It is a great vino game that invites the intrepid wine consumer, a hunt for storable nectar.

Long standing consumer trends indicate that we are buying more wine than ever before, even as industry consolidation continues with distributors and retailers(convenient supermarkets sell a lot of low to mid-priced wine).  That means that the value oriented wine consumer does not have to search far or wide to begin to collect a selection of wines that will contribute to any meal or occasion.  Once you find a place to store your collection that is out of the sunlight and in a stable environment(a ground-floor closet or dark basement corner), the game is on.
Building a cellar starts with one or two bottles
Fact is, the more we know about wines, ie. characteristics of grape varieties, details on their wine labels, etc., the easier it becomes to find a value that will benefit from a little bottle development. Does your meal need a zippy white wine to take a mild dish or appetizer over the top?  What a joy then to retrieve from your cellar an Argentine Torrantes, or a Spanish Verdejo, or a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Should that red sauced pasta need accompaniment, then pull a bottle of Sierra Foothills AVA Zinfandel, or a Rosso Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Sangiovese from Italy's southeastern hills to provide dimension not present in the dish alone.  For the consumer, these selections and many others continue to represent not only value, but also a nectar that can change our perceptions about collecting wines.  You see, all wines benefit from some further development, not unlike the way children benefit from our patient nurturing.
Even in winter, we look towards new beginnings
Not all wines are created equal, as well.  Most of the wines available conveniently to consumers are products of large industrial corporations, where uniformity in manufacturing and bottom line oriented production costs guide their development.  You see, most wines produced in the U.S.(by volume) are intended for immediate consumption, because that's the way most domestic consumers' consume.  So the game of collecting becomes a little more challenging when we seek out wines that can really benefit from time in the bottle. Those mandatory front labels only represent part of their commercial story however.  Typically, by turning the bottle around consumers can find notable details that assist their selection, such as the important name of the importer or the distributor.  A back label can offer you suggested food pairings, the composition of the bottle or the unique history of the winery, and that can help consumers make a better informed selection for the cellar.

For the informed, clues can include a good vintage year for the producers region or a long-standing reputation for quality and value(Ch.Ste. Michelle or Ge'rard Bertrand); wines bottled by the producer or the domaine, or even a reliable importer(Winebow, Kermit Lynch) can also be informing. Increasingly, finding a reliable on-line flash site offering selections you routinely like can be of benefit to device-savvy collectors.  At on-premise retail, those impulse wine buys can encourage us with promotional pricing or a prominent shelf-talker that trumpets its accolades.  And, it all starts with one bottle that you don't intend to consume right away.  Heck, by two.  Before you know it, you are in the game, your stored wine collection is filling with a broad selection of values for almost any meal or occasion.  You will have a quality wine to bring to a friends' dinner party or to share with that special someone. And that, value wine collectors, can be just the beginning.