Monday, January 23, 2012

WINE STUDY: Grape Characteristics (2)

Winter pruning in the Loire
Assessment of any wine(s) appearance(sight), aromas(smell) and taste(flavor) are the foundation for varietal and quality recognition in what sommelier's call the 'tasting grid'.  Years of practice and discipline are usually required to train the palate and our olfactory memories to the typical characteristics of growing environments, production treatments, relative wine age and its grape variety. Plus, there are a multitude of wine 'styles' and literally thousands of Vitis Vinifera grape varieties or blends in today's global production. As I continue to prepare for the next part of the Wine Educators Certification exam(by drinking, of course), a continued review of the world's most popular wine grape varieties will, I hope, prove to be the foundation of success in this effort. 

Loire Valley Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc(Steen, Pinot de la Loire), is a bit of a workhorse white grape variety, being produced in dry, sweet and even sparkling stylings in its native Loire. These wines of bright acidity with typical stone fruits, quince or apple personalities are capable of luxurious aging, versatile food pairings and rich, viscous texture. It is among the most widely planted varieties in South Africa, where it is known as Steen.
Gewurztraminer, born in the Italian Tyrol, can offer rich aromas of lychee nut, citrus, and spice like ginger or nutmeg.  In fact, 'gewurz' means spice in its native dialect. With a propensity for quick ripening, low yields and low acids within its high extract, this aromatic grape balances what can be high alcohol with rich floral and spice notes.  In its best examples, however, like the Alsace AOC Grand Cru's, this spicy variety balances its rich exotic perfume with the same power on the palate.

Muscat(Moscato), which may be the ancestor from which all other wine grapes descended, is all about rich qualities that could only be described as 'grapey'. With a very high concentration of 'flavonoids', like those found in red grapes, high-extract Muscat has become a workhorse, producing just about all wine styles imaginable. Within this widely grown and very large family are popular global varieties such as Muscat Blanc a' Petits Grains(Asti DOC), Moscatel de Setubal, and ancient Muscat of Alexandria, among others. Sometimes its aromatics are quite earthy, but generally, a pungent, almost floral aroma is one of its signatures. 
Viognier, an ancient grape, is the only grape variety allowed in Condrieu AOC wines from the Northern Rhone. The grapes origins and even its name are a bit of a mystery, but it remains popular in spite of the challenges in growing a low acid, high extract grape that is prone to the malady powdery mildew.  The reward if found when it is fully ripe and becomes profoundly aromatic with notes of yellow stone fruits, tropical fruits, citrus or ginger, and echos the same personality on a richly textured, or fat palate.

Cote Rotie Syrah terraces
Malbec(Auxerrois, Cot) is one of only six(6) varieties allowed in red Bordeaux wines, in-spite of Argentina growing more of it than the rest of the world combined! Its inky dark color and robust black plum flavors have made it a suitable blending partner over the centuries. But it is in the South West, and Cahors where it can produce an aggressive, youthfully tannic wine that's dark and juicy. In the New World, it tends to be softer in character, yet displaying juicy black fruit and plum notes with under currents of violets and tobacco.
Sangiovese, the backbone of Italy's Tuscan wines, has very often been the base of a blend. Not a heavily pigmented grape, it is low in extract and high in acid with aromas of dried cherries, sour strawberry, toast and sometimes even licorice.  Flavor notes here can be distinctive, offering sour cherry, dried orange peel and spice flavors. Due in part to its site adaptability, Sangiovese clones, like Brunello di Montalcino, are prominent throughout Central Italy, but the backbone of its character remains. 

Syrah(Hermitage, Shiraz) is an Old World dark-skinned grape of powerful, concentrated flavors and a high tannin content that needs late season sunlight to ripen. Inky dark, its herb, spice and tertiary aromas richly mix with black fruits and even smoke in this heavy tannic grape. In the extremes of the Rhone's Cote Rotie, a 100% Syrah appellation, the grape can offer floral aromas dancing with black fruits, dried game and bacon fat. Yum!
Zinfandel(Crljenak Ka┼ítelanski, Primitivo(?)) may have its origins in Croatia, but it is California where today we can find its greatest expression. Moderate in its tannic structure, but with higher acids, this grape can be densely pigmented, but prone to uneven ripening with its thin skins. When ripe, it can be an exotic walk through a berry bramble, almost savory and sweet at the same time. Aromas of ripe berries and spice are common, along with that brambly undercurrent of flavors that offers hints of herb and pepper spice. Sometimes, Zinfandel's physiological & physical ripeness come at the cost of producing a higher alcohol that is out of balance.  When under-ripe, the grape can produce herbaceous and thinly disguised wines that are also unbalanced. As a result, this dark skinned grape is very much subject to the generosity of Mother Nature and the gifts of its winemaker.
Old Vine Zinfandel
Just five weeks remain until the tasting exam in Napa, and there are so many more grape international varieties to have a memory recognition of.  I guess I'll just have to open another bottle and begin working on the next post!  Cheers!

Friday, January 13, 2012

WINE STUDY: Grape Characteristics

A tasting rationale, a blind varietals identification, and a wine faults recognition exam now lie ahead in my pursuit of successfully completing the Wine Educators Certification. Knowing the genus Vitis, specifically species Vitis vinifera, the vine which is native to Europe and west Asia, is simply essential. Each vine has innate varietal characteristics which are influence by many factors including environment, climate, also winemaking practices, and even branding. It can be the nature of the vine's fruit to ripen early or late in the season, and to thrive in cool regions while almost becoming unrecognizable in hot or vice versa. Also at its nature can be the regular production of high acid fruit, or the most inky extract due to its dark pigmentation and thick skins.  With these variables and many more, finding a grape's typical characteristics will obviously aid in identification, but also be of benefit to anyone who find enjoyment in raising a glass. Looking at some of the most popular grape varieties, white and red, is a good place to start.
Appearance is a Clue

Chardonnay(Gamay Blanc, Morillon), is a neutral, medium-bodied white wine, where aromas of apple, yellow/orange stone fruits, melon or pear, with notes of honey, butterscotch or vanilla possible. With moderate grape acidity often produced in warmer climates, higher acid Chardonnays are usually offered in most Old World stylings. Additionally, a richly textured mouthfeel which accompanies moderate acidity, like the difference between low fat to whole milk, can heren be enhanced by various oak treatments in the cellar. 
Pinot Grigio(Gris, Rulander) is a high acid grape that is generally brightly mineral driven over a collection of restrained aromas ranging from apple to lemon to honey and even flint. Italian Grigio can be light-bodied and very crisp, whereas noble Alsatian Gris can be produced in richer medium to full-bodied styles within similar fruit profiles. New World examples of this variety can be found in both styles, almost irrespective of the variety named(Grigio or Gris) on the bottle.  It may depend in part on for whom(market) they make the wine.

Riesling(Johannisberg Riesling) is richly aromatic and characteristically a high acid wine of lower alcohol,  offering aromas of citrus, or stone fruits like peach or apricot, with notes of jasmine, flint or minerals. Due to its lower alcohol, in its best expressions it reaches a delicious balance between rich, almost lanolin texture and refreshing acidity. As a result, it is seldom influenced with oak, and it exposes a white variety that is strongly influenced by its growing environment, yet remains fruity. German Rieslings distinctively show their mineral and slate origins, gaining a 'petrol' aroma with aging, and Austrian varieties can be razor sharp. Warmer New World offerings often are challenged to consistently produce the whole balanced package between high acid and rich fruit that this noble grape can produce.
Sauvignon Blanc(Sauvignon Vert) can be aromatic, is generally high in acid and like Riesling, is a chameleon grape which is typically reflective of the site where grown. Aromas can run the table from tropical pineapple, grapefruit and pear, to green bell pepper, gooseberry and asparagus for this early ripening variety.  This world traveler generally offers those riper fruit traits in warmer climates, with green flavor compounds developing in cooler environs.  If labeled as Fume Blanc, this wine should expect to have been influenced by an oak treatment.

Cabernet Sauvignon is a high tannin, high acid, high pigment world traveler which also reflects its growing environment and loses its youthful astringency, thus becoming more supple, as it ages. Typical aromas in fruit driven warm climates can be cherry with eucalyptus or mint overtones, while in cooler regions it becomes more spice driven with red currant and mocha notes. With its firm structure, solid extract and depth of flavors that are enhanced by barrel aging, Cabernet Sauvignon is a variety that shows its noble qualities with a matured harmony that is the result of significant bottle aging.
Granache(Garancha) is widely grown around the globe and very adaptable to warm, dry climates, like Sardinia or South Eastern Australia. As such, it tends to be a low pigment, low tannin, and low acid reliable ripening grape that can be high in wine alcohol. It is as a result very often blended, as it is throughout southwestern Europe, but on its own it usually offers bright red fruits, like strawberry, sour cherry and with some spicy notes.

Merlot is Cabernet's feminine side, with moderate tannins and lower acids, so can becomes easier drinking at an earlier date. Typically it has aromas of plum, of berry, cherries and spice with an aromatic combination that often reminds me of fruitcake. Being a thinned skinned, loosely bunched grape, Merlot tends to have a lighter body than Cabernet, offering a more 'fruity' character and richer balance of flavors earlier in its potentially-long bottle life.  A very adaptable food wine, international Merlot is Bordeaux's most widely planted grape, and has seen significant growth in the vineyards of the New World. Until very recently Merlot was mistaken for Carmenere(a minor Bordeaux varietal) in Chile.
Pinot Noir is a low to moderate tannin noble variety that forms in tight clusters, and is most successfully grown in cool environments. Its thin skins make it susceptible to vineyard maladies such as bunch rot, and typically finds its richest expression in low yields. Having lower pigmented coloring material in its skins than Cabernet or even Merlot, Pinot produces lighter, almost garnet hued wines. At its best, Pinot Noir can have pungent, broad aromas and a bouquet offering earthy flavor notes of red fruits like cherry and plum, often with violets, combined with the complexities of the organic aromas of mushrooms and earth, or exotic spice, flowers and sandalwood. When produced in rich balance, the variety Pinot becomes the epitome of wine's expression for many lovers of fermented fruit.

Pinot Noir in Burgundy

More varieties will be explored in our next installment!