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, Wine.com'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?


Saturday, October 18, 2014

BRAMBLES: Change Buy Design

Buzet, France 2007
Once harvest is done the winemakers attention goes into his workshop, the cellar. Outside in the vineyards, grapevine leaves are changing color and dropping. Chlorophyll in the vines leaves breaks down, its work is done, and the eventual leaf fall prepares for the dormancy of winter. Yet here, it can be the most beautiful, colorful time of year to be outside. There is still plenty of Sonoma County sunshine, but there is also the feeling that things around us are slowing down.  It is nature's change by design.

A discount coupon and a need for wine to complement a beef and onion stirfry brought me to discover Trapiche Oak Cask Malbec 2012 from the hills of  Mendoza, Argentina. This historic and bio-dynamic enterprise grew with its nation's developing rail transport to become one of the biggest wineries in Argentina from its humble origins more than 100 years ago. Its entry level Malbec displays a opaque purple hue, smoky floral black plum and cassis; firm, refined tannins grip the front of the mouth, with resinous dark fruit and spice that linger. With wide distribution it offers a suggested retail of $14, a discounted price of $11 or below, and cost a staggering $5.99 with my coupon at check-out. How can they afford to offer delicious, quaff-able wine at this price, I thought?

Trimmings & Pomace:
  • With an early start to this years North Coast grape harvest, as reported by the North Bay Business Journal, overall tonnage is expected to be above average following record harvests of the previous two years, with good to excellent quality.
  • Harper's reports, following a low 2013 harvest which followed consecutive unexceptional vintages, which has translated into a downturn in global sales(US/UK/China), Bordeaux's(world's most regulated and orchestrated wine region) Conseil Interprofessionel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB) has announced its first ever global marketing campaign to help counter fall in wine sales and volume.
  • Reported recently by Nation's Restaurant News, the nation is seeing the best sales trend in two years, traffic remains constant, however spending by customers is on the rise. On-premise wine and alcohol sales remain a consistent growth segment for this developing market.
  •  Federal regulators with the Tax & Trade Bureau(TTB) have approved eleven(11) new (sub)viticultural areas within the existing Paso Robles AVA, dividing up more than 614,000 acres. Created in 1983, the Paso Robles winegrape area had grown from less than 5000 acres to more than 32,00 acres and more than 200 wineries in the last grape-lovin generation. Marketing jobs to follow...

  • Industry rag, The Drinks Business, reported on the "Top 10 Wines in the U.S. Press", offering single selections from France(Beaujolais), Spain, Argentina & Italy. The list was filled out with two(2) selections each from California, Washington State.....and Virginia!! 
In the Spring that follows the cycle starts again. Even as California produces about 90% of the nation's wine, other regions are beginning to earn well-deserved acclaim, adding to consumers choices. After a string of successful harvests, domestic supply is steady, markets continue to evolve, and wine consumers benefit. International distribution into our markets continues to grow, and even the seemingly immoveable standard bearers of the wine market are beginning to change with the times.  For us global wine consumers, these are each positive changes, all buy design.


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

BRAMBLES: A Summer's Harvest

Harvest of Pinot Noir in Cote du Beaune
Early picking for higher acid grapes used in sparkling wines began here in August as usual, but a few weeks earlier than is typical. August is usually a time when wineries check crush equipment, assess barrel inventories and try to schedule production activities, like bottling a prior harvest, around the frenzy that is the anticipated fruit-picking season.  Not unlike spring baseball, every producer has renewed dreams of crafting award-winning, critically acclaimed wines from their soon to be harvested and newest, best cuvee. It is an annual cycle, where almost nothing is always exactly the same as prior years.

A summer's harvest is an exciting time in wine communities, and the buzz is felt in surrounding localities.  There are the hard-working migrant workers that swarm to the vineyards, the early morning arc lights that pop-up in otherwise undisturbed locations, and the short-lived fruit flies that are nursed in the grape pomace. At the winery there is the well orchestrated dance of arriving fruit trucks, the snake-like noodles of hoses that seem to go everywhere, and the smell of crushed grapes ready to get happy from the conversion of their sugars to ethanol and carbon dioxide.
Grapeskin cap in open top fermentation tank

On a hilltop south of a quaint Russian River Valley town there sits a 44 acre sustainably-farmed vineyard estate, award-winning Chardonnay and Pinot Noir anchored to its Goldridge soils. Morning and late-afternoon fog are chronic visitors here on this southern boundary of the Russian River Valley AVA, but so too is the warming mid-day sun.  It must have seemed as idyllic to the retired couple who in the late 1990's became the stewards of this beautiful land, as it remains today. But after more than a decade of cultivation, Rick & Diane DuNah sold their estate in mid-2013.  From their first vintage in 2001, the quality of their site and clonal selections, and the quality of the retired couple's stewardship was evident. It was advantageous as well to have a heralded and skilled winemaker, scientific traditionalist Greg LaFollette, at the helm.

It too is part of the cycle. Local farmers diversify and become grape growers, and grape growers become winegrowers, and after riding for a time the industry roller coaster that is commercial agriculture you may just think about getting out. One of the earliest adages I remember hearing in wine marketing classes was, 'the easiest way to harvest a small fortune in the wine industry is to start out with a large one'. It is a usable adage because for the most of the small producers it is still a chosen business and it is still true. In Matt Kramer's New California Wine, he states that unlike the Old World, we here lack a 'true primitivism', an adhesion to place. European winegrape farmers historically had no choice but to continue to work the land that their fathers had.  Grape growing on their family plot was their subsistence, for better or worse, cycle following cycle.

Unlike the current global trend, our national wine consumption per capita is growing with America(California) ascending to be among the largest producers in the world. For consumers there are more choices in bottles and retailers than ever before.  The ranks of domestic producers have swollen as well over the past two decades.  Even though a handful of big guys(corporations) produce & distribute most of our domestic vino, California's 4000+ wineries & almost 6000 grapegrowers remain predominantly family owned and multi-generational. Just like the DuNah's.

According to the industries Wine Institute web site, the large number of domestic alcohol products 'continued to squeeze distribution channels, and many small- and medium-sized wineries look to direct-to-consumer sales through tasting rooms, wine clubs, online marketing and other direct sales channels, using social media and other digital communications to reach out to consumers'.  So today small producers not only need to be passionate about viticulture or winemaking, but also need to know how to reach the diversity of this saturated market thru contemporary & diverse means. Fortunately for Generation X to Millennial(Generation Y) consumers, and even us Boomers, there is today a new and impassioned upcoming generation of wine producers, from Sonoma's venerable Benzinger Family Winery to Livermore's Wente Vineyards. They too are part of our domestic cycle, just like a summer's harvest.

A cool night harvest in the warm Sonoma Valley AVA

A special thanks to Rick & Diane for great wines and warm memories.
Notable wine: LaFollette 2012 Sangiacomo Vineyard, Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir; bright notes of cherries & raspberries rise from a brilliant garnet hue that offers integrated red fruits, like cranberry, with accents of roasted nut and warm earth that dance across the palate gracefully with good acidity and fine tannins, to a lingering finish.


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

PAIRING: Acid is Our Friend!

Uniquely, different wines engage foods distinctly

A Dinner Party Food & Wine Pairing can strike fear into any well intending host. Selecting wines for an engagement containing plates I had not seen before, the August Supper menu of seven(7) courses was going to be a challenge for pairing.  The described food creations were intended to offer a broad range of flavors and textures, and only one of the dishes I was fortunate to have tasted previously, but at a foreign Michelin star restaurant. Knowing that a proper pairing will not only contrast or complement the flavors offered on the dish, it will actually 'enhance', I considered the food and selected a range of fine wines.  Fortunately, those wines with good strength of acid are our friends.

As long as the perceived acid was stronger than what is prominent on the dish, I figured we have a chance to complement or contrast strong flavors.  For a muse of Gazpacho Blanco, I chose a lively, dry Prosecco made from the grape Glera of the Veneto region near Trieste.  With its austere dryness and notes of dried yellow fruits and biscuits, the Adami Garbe'l  had a tart zest that refreshed and seemed to bring out the melon/cucumber flavors of the chilled summer soup. That was followed by the only dish I had previously enjoyed, a Chicken Liver Pate' dusted with Pistachios and dressed with a Cherry-Balsamic smear. Earthy flavors of the livers would dominate, and also coat the tongue, but the smear was a sweet counterpoint. I chose a wonderful red fruit mousse of Cremant Brut Rose' of Pinot Noir from quality producer, Lucien Albrecht of Alsace. Aromas of watermelon and strawberry gave way to a refreshingly tart, bright flavor notes of white strawberry that clensed the palate and danced with the richness of the Pate' while introducing the sweet counterpoint of the smear. It was a very happy time in the mouth!
Both of these bottles of bubbles used their prominent acidity to wash the palate, while they also allowed the fresh flavors of the soup to amplify and its tongue coating richness of the Pate' to be thinned in the mouth.  What followed was also to be mufti-faceted. Seared Sea Scallops(mild) with Green Raisin Salsa nested on Watercress and Pears would introduce a sweet heat to be countered by the bitter-sweet of the greens & fruit nest. A chilled 2011 Rene Mure Pinot Gris Signature presented itself with generous, fresh aromas of acacia and stone fruits, a hint of stony-minerality.  Bone dry, its lively acidic zest was a deliciously refreshing foil to the salsa, and allowed the sweet pear flavors to be perceived more prominently.  The spike of heat was there, but surfaced between sweet impressions in the mouth offered by the pear and then the raisins.
Acid strength varies within the citrus family.

Good acid strength cuts the mouth-coating flavors and texture of fat, as well as refreshing the palate. It can reduce the tart impact of acidic foods, such as vinegars, and soften the cloyingly sweet perceptions of sugars in the mouth. Expecting a rich and earthy profile combined with beefy, mouth-coating sinewy flavors, the entree of Beef Short Ribs with Truffle-Celery Root Puree did not disappoint. It challenged the pairing of a deep, evolving richness of a prized 1980 Chateau Palmer Bordeaux Rouge. This beautiful aged Third Growth wine from prestigious Margaux with its black jam and forest floor nose was terrifically soft and yet complex on the palate; but its declining structure allowed the beef dish to muscle it around the mouth.  Equal to the task was a 2006 La Sirena Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, as its firm structure and bracing acidity were still quite prominent as a framework for its stewed dark fruit and spice.  Both of these beautiful red wines, terrific on their own, engaged the same dish distinctly, each bringing something different to the flavor party.

To finish after a light Butter Lettuce Salade of Seedless Grapes, diced Red Onion & Pepper Goat Cheese, we delighted in a light presentation of Me'Me's Beach Cake with Fresh Strawberries & White Nectarines. The Beach Cake was compact, but featherweight, filled with dried fruits and topped with whipped creme. A smothering of pick of the season fruits and the biscuit qualities of the cake found a wonderful partner in a vintage dated honeysuckled Sauternes from Chateau de La Chartreuse.  It demonstrated easily how good acidity in the wine can keep the cloyingly overly-sweet perceptions for dessert wines in balance, allowing its textured stone fruit flavors to gracefully sail through.

For more food & wine pairing recommendations, visit www.Your-Wine-Guy.net, and as always, we should have fun with food and wine.  It really helps to work with liked wines or foods that you are familiar with, and to remember always that acid is our friend!