Thursday, July 30, 2015

PINOT BLANC: Refreshingly Under the Radar

Pinot Bianco, the mutant
Surprisingly, I've become a Student of wine, rather than the Educator that became my goal.  I continue to consume wine information in the form of many books, articles and beverage/lifestyle blogs. There are days every week when I engage wine country visitors, sharing wine trivia and subjective impressions of personal taste.  And, I even absorb retail wine displays and restaurant wine lists with a perspective I could not offer prior to becoming a Certified Wine Educator.  Yet, a Student of wine is the lifelong path that I have found myself on.  It is an exploration into a world of wonder and mystery, bottle to glass.  To that end, our congenial wine tasting group recently focused on an under the radar grape varietal, Pinot Blanc, and the expose' was enlightening for a journeyman on a path as a Student of wine.

An offspring of Burgundian Pinot Noir, this widespread white juice variety is the result of a progressive genetic alteration in the noble grape resulting in the permanent change in its DNA; the loss of its skin color pigments.  It is easy to imagine that the powerful14th century Dukes of Burgundy who famously outlawed prolific Gamay rouge in favor of Pinot Noir would have also found displeasure with the albino bastard of Pinot. Today, we can find Pinot Blanc widely dispersed in vineyards from Alsace to Austria and beyond. In Alsace, the spectrum of this grape is prominently featured in lovely Cre'mant d'Alsace traditional method sparklers, traversing to the still, mineral driven and crisp wines(Pinot Bianco) of Italy's wine regions northeast of Venice.
Fittingly for such a world traveler, our tasting group samples covered three(3) countries, with typical descriptions of apple/pear aromas, stone fruit and citrus flavors, having floral notes, as well as medium-bodied currents of mineral and honey.  As is our tasting groups quest, all wines tasted were considerably less than $20/retail.  Some of the domestic selections seemed to be out of balance, a shadow of other examples we tasted.  Prominent among the best of them was the Navarro Mendocino County 2014 Pinot Blanc, a recent sweepstakes winner at the North of the Gate wine competition.  France's northern Alsace region was well represented with the refined Domaine Allimant Laugner 2013 Vin'dAlsace showing well; its tight focus and long length on the palate found it a favorite among most of our experienced tasters.
A widely distributed selection from Italy's glacial Alto Adige DOC, brilliant and stainless steel fermented Elena Walch 2013 was my top rated selection.  Slightly restrained on the nose, it amplified those impressions of scent with a rich volume of white peach and citrus fruits, joining wet flowers and honey with rich texture and mouth-feel that gracefully danced to a moderately long finish.  I found myself pleasingly thirsty for more.  At the close of the tasting I was left with the undeniable impression that the domestic selections were not as focused, or even as refined as those from Alsace or Alto Adige, and yet all were examples of the varietal less expensive than their domestic comparisons.

Alto Adige vineyards
This pleasing international variety was certainly under the radar.  Interestingly, upon review, all of our varietal reviews(Gamay, Muscat, Barbera) have been under the radar grapes.  As I reflect upon that discovery, I am reminded that what I typically drink without analysis on a regular basis are under the radar varietal selections.  They consistently seem to offer the most interest with typically the best value and generally the quality for my particular palate. If you just know where to look, there are a broad selection of friendly, available food wines, like Pinot Blanc, that will keep wine interesting. What more could a frugal student of wine want?

Wine Sip: Germany is second only to Italy in the amount of Pinot Blanc(aka Weissburgunder) planted nationally, and the dry varietal is on a dramatic & popular increase with savvy consumers.


Wine Link:

Sunday, June 28, 2015

BRAMBLES: Tasting Science

*The following will offer a minimum amount of science.

Fermentation: a 'natural' physical change with happy results.

Science. Even an exploratory thought of it was never of interest to me, and even the baking soda fueled rockets of childhood that left the family yard were a just a passing flight. In high school when given the choice between chemistry and physical science I chose the latter and was lucky to just get by. As a result, the basic wine science required by the many industry examinations remained a very challenging and difficult understanding for me to fully comprehend. Plus, I don't think my brain works that way.  Perhaps I am more of a visual artist, recognizing patterns, textures and contrasts.  But as much as I love wine, I am beginning to enjoy the relationship that wine has always had with science.  Wine, of course, is life in a bottle!

A simple grape holds the physical properties that allow it to reflect the environment in which it was grown, give it the elements to produce healthy fruits and juices, and can also create an intuitive and developing life apart when captured as wine.  On its skin sit millions of native yeasts that in the right environment will feed upon its hosts sugars(6 carbon- fructose and glucose) and a resulting ferment creates an amazing physical change.  With the resulting by-product of CO2, the catalyst produces alcohol(ethanol); plus a ferment will contribute more personality and character to the juice, built on the backs of its principle(among many) acids(tartaric and malic) and developing organic compounds.  These magic yeasts need air to do their work, and yet too much air will drastically change the character, even the nature of wine(think vinegar from acetic acid). Thankfully, it is a controlled fermentation that makes wine apart, more evolved than just grape juice.

The resulting acids add important balance to the 'fruity-ness' of the wine, inhibit the production of bad bacteria, and unfold to bring out a wines flavor(personality). Once fermented, oxygen becomes their enemy, or their friend, depending on the style of wine created. Oxygen can be safely hidden from outside the must cap of an open top fermentor, or measurably introduced to produce a unique veil of yeast(flor) to slow the wines' change.  White wines that are about freshness hide from too much oxygen, while red wines in barrel measure an oxygen exchange thru porous barrel staves or bungs to purposely create oxidative and reductive environments. Magically, all the natural accidents happen, and wine appears.  It tells of its nurturing, the hours in the sun and its journey to the bottle.

All that CO2 must go somewhere!
It is a wonderful accident, repeated over and over again.  The best of wines, like the 2003 Opus that just recently happened to be near the table, offer it consistently. Older vintages come together, evolve as the strength of their acids age along with their vitality. And when offered the freedom of oxygen the wine will flower, offering an all too brief  bridge to a lifetime of nurturing in the bottle.  As I was recently reminded, nurturing to maturity can be a very pleasing and good thing to enjoy, but certainly greater to share. I do still, however, need to be reminded of my wine science.

Anthocyanins: water soluble plant pigments,  influenced by strength of the acids
Aromatics: the results of volatile esters(good & bad) produced during and after fermentation.
Esters: result of ethanol & acid at the same party, and you smell them.
Fusel alcohols: natural heavy alcohols come along, and may not be wanted.

Malic acid: think Granny Smith or Pippin apples, and you'll be fine.
Mercaptans: volatile sulphur compounds stink
Polyphenols: bitter tannins, anti-oxidents and the coloring compounds held in grape skin
Tartaric acid: principle acid that crystallized to become cream of tartar

Raise a glass to the marvel of science, and Cheers!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

BRAMBLES: What am I Tasting?

It was innocent enough. "How do I taste?", she politely inquired, her elbows perched on the bar. Collecting myself, I said, "we all taste differently; although we use more or less the same facilities to access and evaluate tastes. Our human physiology, the way we are built, is unique to the individual, so we do not taste things identically."  Although casual tasting for enjoyment is a fun way to experience the diverse wonder of wine,  serious quaffers will easily become analytic over each pour and taste.  On those opportunities to taste wine blind(without knowing its identity), the exercise becomes a sensory discipline to rationally deduce what is being tasted. With practice, the best can typically offer a fairly accurate deduction of a wines identity and even its age. But for most of us, understanding what and how we taste can be a satisfying indication of what qualities are in the glass.

Inspecting wine by site requires a clear, clean glass that can be held against a white background in good indict light.  A wines purity of color, translucent to opaque, can be seen looking through the glass. In that instant, we can obviously and simply identify the wine as white, rose' or red, and eliminate most possible compositional grape varieties.  More than just chardonnay or zinfandel, a visual inspection of the wine can also indicate if it is well made and even its relative age, as older wines lose luster and show aged oxidation on their rim color.

Aromas sit on the top of the glass, so a good swirl will expose even more of these volatile compounds. Inhaled aromas will be instantly compared to the thousands of smells cataloged in our sensory memories, as the recognition of aromas and tastes are based in large part to a lifetime of what we have experienced.  Remember that Christmas fruitcake or the kitchen aromas when granny was baking your favorite pie?  It is our brain that interprets flavors through smell(olfactory), and taste(gustatory), along with tactile and even thermal impressions that create those flavors.  Sip and hold a small amount in the mouth, where it evolves to a chemical sense.  As it warms on the palate, flavor compounds and the wines structure send taste impressions thru to the olfactory bulb in our brain.  Again, as taste is a subjective science: those cataloged impressions are either sweet or salty,  sour or bitter, or savory(umami).  Aggressive alcohol warms the mouth and seeps into the nasal cavity, and strong acid puckers the front of the mouth, while the a wine's weight, or texture, blankets the palate and its taste receptors.  It is all happening at once, so we should linger a bit. Perhaps draw in some air thru a puckered mouth or chew the wine like it was porridge. As it lingers in the mouth, there is even more taste information being sent to the brain.

We all taste things differently. There are even 'supertasters', with their inherited high concentrations of taste receptors, but most of us evaluate a wine based on its prominent fruity personality or its lingering astringency.  My preference has evolved, just as my taste recognition has developed.  Wines of harmony, aromas to taste, get me interested.  If a wine has complexity and weight on my palate, there is more delicious material to savor and enjoy. And, if a wine offers balance in its expression and unfolds to a lingering finish that leaves me thirsty for more, I am hooked. 

There is so much contemporary wine to taste, particularly in California, by far the nation's top wine producer. Across the country, restaurants expand their wine by the glass listings, and an array of imports compete for tasters with quality wines from established and emerging American Viticultural Areas(AVA). It is a wine lovers treasure hunt!  Importantly, food pairings offer today's wines an opportunity to show their best, like a bib-overalled farmer wearing his Sunday suit. And just like that unique occasion, with each glass we can approach the unfolding mystery of what we are experiencing.

"There is so much contained in a glass of good wine. It is a gift of nature that tastes of man's foibles, his sense of the beautiful, his idealism and virtuosity." K.Lynch, Adventures on the Wine Route

Salute, and Good Health!

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)