Sunday, August 12, 2012

Chenin Blanc

Chenin Blanc is an aromatic white variety that produces wines that have a fragrance similar to Sauvignon Blanc, but a flavor similar to Chardonnay.  It is a grape of high extract and higher acidity which can become anything - a still wine, a sweet wine, or a sparkling wine.  Lofty acidity also makes it capable of aging.
Grapes with higher acid levels flourish in a cooler climate.  As you can imagine, such a grape would need to be hardy and tolerant of wind and Chenin Blanc fits the bill.  Another association with cooler climates are limestone or clay soils, other affinities of this varietal. 
The lower temperatures of the Loire Valley in France make a great home for Chenin Blanc.    Areas of particular interest within the valley are Anjou, Saumur, and Savennieres.  Here it may be blended with either Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay, but 80% of the wine must consist of Chenin Blanc.  If it is a “Vouvray,” however, it must be 100% Chenin Blanc.
France is not the only place Chenin Blanc does well.  Known as “Steen” to the locals, it is the most planted grape in South Africa, making up about 20% of their vine acreage.  South African wine laws dictate that a wine labeled by varietal must be made from at least 75 percent of the grape on the label.
Choose still wines for this tasting.  Your first choice should be a Chenin Blanc from the Loire.  Look for Anjou (specifically, Savennieres), Saumur or Vouvray.  If you can, stop by the produce section and pick up an Anjou pear as well.  Although it is now found in other places, this fruit was named after the region where it originated.  You should find similar aroma and flavor in the wines of this region.  Other fruit you will taste will run the gamut from green fruit to tropical fruit, depending on the ripeness level of the grapes at the time of harvest.  What you should also find is a hint of minerality and, if the wine is older, some honey.
Compare the Old World example against a Chenin Blanc from South Africa if you can.  You may also find one from the Central Valley of Chile, the North Island of New Zealand or Australia.
On The Label
Chenin Blanc, Vouvray, Saumur, Savennieres, Anjou Blanc, Steen
In The Bottle
Citrus fruit, tropical fruit, stone fruit, green fruit, mineral, honey
At The Table
Seafood, salads, pork, fowl, creamy soups
Photo Credit:pear-info0.gif

Gruner Veltliner

This white grape, in my opinion, cannot decide if it wants to be a Sauvignon Blanc or a Riesling and, just when you think you've figured it out, it hits you with a white pepper finish to really throw you off.  It is a grape with high acidity, which makes it a choice ingredient for sweet wines as well as still wines.  This also makes them capable of aging.  Because it is a little late to ripen, it is best suited for a moderate climate.
Although not very well known in the New World, Gruner Veltliner is quite popular in Austria where it is the most planted varietal.  It is also grown in Germany, Alsace and Central Otago, New Zealand.  In the United States, Oregon is now showing interest in the grape.  
Austria claims four wine regions - Lower Austria (Niederösterreich), Vienna, Burgenland and Styria.  While Lower Austria (which, oddly, is in the northern part of the country) is where this grape reigns supreme, it is also produced in Vienna.  Vienna is the only major city in the world that can claim a wine region in its own name.  The vast majority of production occurs in Lower Austria and Burgenland.
Austria’s wine laws are quite similar to those of Germany, however minimum must weights are higher so you will see sweeter wines at the levels of the same name.  They also categorize quality into Tafelwein, Qualitatswein and Pradikatswein, but add another two levels.  Ausbruch is a dessert wine whose classification would fall somewhere between Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese.  Strohwein is a production method wherein bunches are laid out on straw mats over the winter to concentrate the sugars and flavors.
You should definitely choose a representative from Austria for your first choice.  As your second choice, pick one from Oregon or New Zealand.  Do you detect any differences in the type of fruit you are smelling/tasting?  Did you detect white pepper?  Gruner Veltliner is much said to be a perfect accompaniment to wiener schnitzel because of the white pepper notes.
If you decide you are a fan of this wine after this tasting experiment, you have earned the right to start calling it by it’s nickname, “Gru Vee!”
On The Label
Gruner Veltliner
In The Bottle
Green fruit, citrus fruit, spice, tropical fruit, vegetal
At The Table
Poultry, schnitzel, vegetables
Photo Credit:GroovyBaby.jpg

Thursday, August 9, 2012


Gamay is the grape of the Beaujolais of the Burgundy region of France.  An exception to the “only Pinot Noir” rule, Beaujolais wines are made nearly exclusively with Gamay, which is quite user-friendly in that it is a very fruit forward varietal.  The grape has low tannins, low pigment levels and its wines are lower in alcohol.  
Greatly influenced by soil, you may detect a minerality in the wines that hint to the region’s granite base.  Gamay is quite easy to grow.  Many vines can be planted close together and the yields they produce can be high, which helps keeps the price down.  The wines of the Beaujolais are meant to be consumed when they are young.  It is suggested that a Beaujolais be cooled, not chilled, before serving, which is unusual in a red wine. 
Perhaps you've seen the signs, "Beaujolais Nouveau is here!".  This wine is released the third Thursday of every November as a celebration of the harvest and was originally meant to be enjoyed in the vineyard.  They are never going to make a Wine Spectator list, but I cannot resist at least one bottle every year.  Please do not allow this wine to affect your judgment on wines from this region, however, as the other wines of Beaujolais are quite different from the Nouveau’s bananas and bubble-gum flavor profile.  
There are three different levels of Beaujolais.  They are Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Villages and Beaujolais Cru, with Cru being the highest in quality.  Cru means growth, which means more about quality level than it does what the name implies.  Cru wines will be named for the producing village and they will be made using traditional methods.  There are ten Cru, and they are Brouilly, Chenas, Chiroubles, Cote de Brouilly, Fleurie, Julienas, Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent, Regnie, and St. Amour.  The three that are easiest to find in the United States are Brouilly, because of its large production, then Morgon and Moulin-a-Vent, as their bigger, bolder styles are more popular here.  
Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages wines are made using a process called carbonic maceration, which converts sugar in uncrushed grapes to alcohol without breaking the skins.  Whole clusters of grapes, along with the stems, are placed in a vat, where oxygen has been replaced by carbon dioxide.  No commercial yeast is added and the fermentation process takes place within the grapes.  The grapes ultimately burst, then they are pressed and the juice is separated from the skins.  This process extracts color, but not tannin.
For this exercise, choose a wine from one of the Beaujolais Crus.  Contrast it against a Gamay of Australia or Oregon, or even Loire or Switzerland.  What differences do you see?  Which do you prefer?  If the time is right and you can still find one, throw in a Beaujolais Nouveau!
On The Label
Gamay, Beaujolais, Beaujolais Nouveau, Brouilly, Chenas, Chiroubles, Cote de Brouilly, Fleurie, Julienas, Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent, Regnie, St. Amour 
In The Bottle
Red fruit, sour cherry, sweet spice
At The Table
Poultry, fowl, pork, mild cheese

Sunday, August 5, 2012


Chardonnay is a non-aromatic grape varietal.  What this means to you is that most of what you pick up on the nose is more like to come from choices of the winemaker during the wine-making process rather than particular qualities of the grape itself.  These choices may surround the blending grape, the type of yeast used, the type of oak used, the age of the barrels, etc.  It is also a grape that is lower in acid, but it makes up for the low acid and aromatics in high extract and alcohol.  It produces still wines in all body styles and is a popular ingredient in sparkling wines.
A rather unique quality about Chardonnay is that it can perform well in any climate.  What you will notice when comparing wines across climate zones is that the fruit you taste will differ.  While the aromas from the grape may not be intense, the flavors will be.  A good way to predict what you are going to pick up in the wines is to think about what fruits are grown in each of these regions.  Green fruits thrive in cooler climates; stone fruits come from warmer, more moderate, climates; and tropical fruits immediately bring visions of island music, beaches and a hot climate.
Now we know the effects of climate on the flavor of Chardonnay, but where do the butter or cream flavors that are common in these wines come from?  Malolactic fermentation is an additional fermentation process carried out by bacteria that some wines go through that converts tart acid (malic) into softer acid (lactic), resulting in a more palatable finished product.  This secondary fermentation produces a chemical called diacetyl (also present in butter) which, in turn, presents itself in the wine.  
Another way creamy aromas and flavors are imputed into wine involves the yeast in winemaking, in both the choice of yeast and what may be done with them.  Lees are the cells that remain after alcohol kills the yeasts during fermentation.  If these are stirred within the wines rather than merely leaving them to settle on the bottom, a creamy flavor and texture develop.
Where Pinot Noir has the exclusive on red wines from Burgundy, Chardonnay holds the exclusive on the whites.  The names to look for in the region are Chablis, Macon, Pouilly-Fuisse, and - for a worthwhile splurge - Meursault.  Chablis will show more of a mineral character where citrus and green apple tend to dominate in the wines of Macon.  Pouilly-Fuisse will be the fullest, with higher alcohol levels and will have more of a stone fruit character.  You will also see oak influence.  Wines of Puligny-Montrachet are held in great esteem, but the wines of nearby Meursault are also quite good.  While still on the high side, they are a value in the $40 range.  In my opinion, they take all of the best characteristics of the white Burgundies above, then add some almond or hazelnut to the party.
Moving north, Chardonnay also holds a monopoly as the only white grape that can go into the production of Champagne.  Its high acid and citrus fruit character make some of the world’s best.
Other good examples of still wine Chardonnay can be found in California, specifically Carneros and the Russian River Valley, and in Australia, in Adelaide Hills and Hunter Valley.  They can also be found in Chile and New Zealand.
For many years I would have pleaded with you not to buy your wine from a box.  However, there is a company called “Black Box Wines” which is now defying the boxed wine reputation with a pretty tasty Chardonnay.  
Before shopping for this exercise, go back to your notes on "Tasting for Oak.”  Which did you prefer - unoaked, French oak or American oak?  It may be a good idea to choose your wines from the same category so that you are comparing regional differences, rather than differences in manufacture.  If you can, choose one wine from each of the three climate zones.  Take note of the differences in flavor and in color.  
If you can afford to splurge a bit or are splitting the investment for these tastings, choose a Mersault as your cool climate example.  You will not be disappointed. 
On The Label
Chardonnay, Pouilly-Fuisse, Mersault, Chablis, Macon, Puligny-Montrachet
In The Bottle
Green fruit, stone fruit, citrus fruit, tropical fruit, mineral, butter, cream
At The Table
Creamy sauces, shellfish, chicken, risotto

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon is arguably the most well-known grape in the world.  It is often associated with wine snobs for a couple of reasons.  The first is that it tends to have fuller body, higher levels of pigment and more intense flavors, which can scare away a wine novice.  The second is that the grape’s higher tannin and acid levels make it a desirable grape for aging.  Aged wines are more costly and only the rich or well-connected can afford them on a regular basis.  The common flavor profile of Cabernet can include black fruit, green bell pepper, cedar and menthol, or eucalyptus.
Cabernet is an offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.  It prefers a moderate to hot climate and sand or gravel soil.  It is thick skinned, as you may guess by the pigmentation.  It buds late and ripens late.  If you will recall, this is the opposite of Merlot.
Cabernet is the other of the two principal grapes of the Bordeaux region.  We have already learned that Merlot is the other.  Remember also that, where Burgundy is more of a purist, requiring their wines to be homogenous, Bordeaux is a hetero.  The wines here are blends that may also include Cabernet Franc, Malbec, or Petit Verdot and will be referred to as “Bordeaux blends,” which we will get to in more detail later.
Bordeaux is divided into the Left Bank and the Right Bank.  To determine which is which, you must stand just beyond where the Gironde River splits, facing Northwest.  To your left will be Cabernet dominated wines (Left Bank) and to your right will be Merlot dominated wines (Right Bank).  Better known Left Bank villages for Cabernets are  Medoc, Haut-Medoc, Graves, Pauillac, Pessac-Leognan and Margaux.  This is the northernmost area where the varietal will ripen.  The bell pepper flavor shows itself here, especially in the young wines.
Another outstanding region for Cabernet is Napa.  If a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is labeled as such, at least 75% of the wine must come from this grape.  Venturesome winemakers here create Bordeaux blends, but you will likely see them labeled as “Meritage.”  There are some excellent examples of these wines.  In the U.S., you are going to experience riper fruit flavors and higher tannin levels that is assisted by American oak.
Cabernet Sauvignon has played a very important role in the history of wine in the United States.  For many years, California struggled to achieve the level of international notoriety that the French have enjoyed for centuries.  After Prohibition, many California Cabernets were seen as excessively tannic or considered too bold for the rest of the world (as is the case with many things American).  Many vineyards and wineries during this time were bought by investors with little to no experience in the industry.  How could they possibly make a product to parallel those made for centuries in the Old World?  
Fortunately, a professor from Chicago, Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap Vineyard, beat out quite a few of the top wines of Bordeaux (along with some other California samples) in a blind tasting held in 1976. This tasting, known as “The Judgment of Paris” is the subject of a delightful and informative book written by George Tabor.  It is also the basis for the movie “Bottle Shock,” although the movie focuses more on the California Chardonnay - Chateau Montelena - that also took the crown, but in the white category.
Cabernet Sauvignon is also making a name for itself in Italy and its “Super Tuscans” and is playing a strong role in Chile’s gain on the marketplace.  Here, Cabernet represents nearly half of the black grapes grown.  Here, the bell pepper you taste is going to remind you more of a red than a green; you may even catch some mint.  Blending partners in Chile include Merlot, but also Carmenere and Syrah.  Central Valley and Maipo are regions to watch.  
Choose one wine from a moderate climate and one from a hot climate.  Look for differences in acidity.  Are there any differences in flavor?  Tannins?  You may also choose to make your own “Judgment” and compare an Old World (Bordeaux) to a New World (Napa).  Are there any similarities in texture, or are these wines distinctive from one another?  If you already know that you enjoy a good Cab, and have the resources to do so, see how many different areas you can sample.
On The Label
Cabernet Sauvignon, Medoc, Haut-Medoc, Pauillac, Margaux, Pessac-Leognan, Graves, St. Estephe, St. Julien
In The Bottle
Dark fruit, red fruit, smoke, sweet spice, herb, dried fruit, cedar
At The Table
Steak, grilled foods, red meat, lamb, aged cheese, smoked foods, black pepper
Photo Credit:winesnob.jpg


We have already learned that Pinot Noir has a monopoly in Burgundy, France.  What grape has the exclusive in Bordeaux?  It would certainly make it easy if there were one but, unfortunately, no grape does.  Merlot has to share the sandbox with a handful of other varieties that include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.
Merlot is the most planted grape in Bordeaux and is most commonly blended with its first mate, Cabernet Sauvignon.  While this may seem a little strange if your experience to date has only involved New World wines, know that many of the wines you drink are blends, even if the bottle is marked with a singular varietal name.  In the United States, at least 75% of the grapes must come from that varietal if the name is to be used on the label.  In Chile and South Africa it is 85%.  In Bordeaux, surprisingly, there are very few rules as to percentage makeup.
I think of Merlot as the middle sister to Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon.  She does not require as much attention in the vineyard as Pinot Noir, but she does not garner the same notoriety that Cabernet has in the marketplace.  However, if not given the right amount of attention, this thinned-skinned grape can get testy.  It buds early and ripens early, as compared to Cabernet Sauvignon, and these traits factor in as to why the two are good partners.  Early bad weather in either the spring or fall, and vice versa, may damage one crop but not the other.  This will still give the overall yield that is needed to meet demand that year.  
Merlot also lies right in the middle on tannin level and on acid level.  While you may occasionally see a fuller one, she makes a wine with medium body as well.
The Bordeaux region of France is divided into two major areas, referred to as the Left Bank and the Right Bank, depending on which side of the Gironde River you fall.  While Merlot grows on both sides, the wines of the Right Bank are predominantly Merlot.  Two principle names to look for in a Bordeaux of the Right Bank are Saint Emilion and Pomerol.  Saint Emilion has a class system of its own that, unlike the Bordeaux Classification of 1855, is evaluated every ten years.  The finest of the region will be labeled “Grand Cru Classe” and “Premier Grand Cru Classe.”
Outside Bordeaux, many countries are making Merlot - Napa and Sonoma in California, Washington State, Mendoza in Argentina and Chile to name a few.  You will find both straight Merlot and blends in these areas.  Italy is also using Merlot as a blending partner for local varieties.
For this exercise, if you are looking to get a true feel for this grape as an individual, compare a wine from a moderate climate to one from a hot climate.  The standard Old World versus New World pair up is going to result in at least one blend.  Pay attention to any differences in the fruit that you are smelling or tasting, as well as differences in acidity or tannin levels.  If you already know that you like Merlot, but have never ventured much outside California, Old World versus New World will be a good experiment for you.  You can also save this experiment for a later chapter on “Bordeaux Blends.”
Merlot is often said to pair well with chocolate.  This may be because chocolate can be an aroma or flavor often detected in these wines.  I have tried both milk and dark chocolate with minimal success.  If you have some extra cash when picking up your wines, pick up a couple chocolate bars yourself and see what you think - fact or fiction.
On The Label
Merlot, Pomerol, St. Emilion
In The Bottle
Dark fruit, dried fruit, graphite, spice, tobacco, cocoa
At The Table
Pork, game birds, roast beef, mushroom, herbs
Photo Credit:51632_fates_md.gif

Sauvignon Blanc

“Sauvignon” comes from the French word savage, which means “wild,” for the way the grapes can grow.  I consider it wild in the sense that it can occasionally be quite headstrong and insistent upon making its presence known in the glass.  Sauvignon Blanc is a tart, crisp white grape with a high acid content that makes still wines of light to medium body, and is also the main ingredient in one of the more famous sweet wines of the world.  An aromatic varietal, it easily evokes aromas and flavors of green fruit and citrus which make it easy to drink and, like lemonade, remind me of hot summer days.  This may also be because it sometimes smells of fresh-cut grass.  
Sauvignon Blanc does well in cool or moderate climates and is a true barometer of the soil type in which it is grown.  You will get some minerality in both the Sauvignon Blancs of the Loire and Bordeaux, for example, but they will be slightly different.  In the Loire, you are going to pick up on more of a chalky flavor; in Bordeaux, it will be more gravel. 
This varietal is quite comfortable in the Loire region of France, where the cooler climate brings out the vegetal notes that distinguish it from its softer sisters.  Good samples from this area are found in the villages of Sancerre or Pouilly-Fume, where the wines with these titles are 100% Sauvignon Blanc.  Sancerre does not further the “in your face” reputation that the grape’s name suggests, as these wines tend to be more subtle and sophisticated.  Pouilly-Fume on the other hand does do its name justice.  Its aromas are more intense and will have a greater presence of citrus fruit than its neighbor.
Sauvignon Blanc is also one of the main white grapes of Bordeaux, where it is often blended with Semillon that adds body and balance.  Watch the labels for the villages of Graves or Pessac-Leognan.  They are a little more weighty on the price scale, but this will be reflective of what you find inside the bottle.  
Across the globe, another area where Sauvignon Blanc does very well is in the South Island of New Zealand - specifically, Marlborough.  Sauvignon Blanc is the most planted white grape in the country and Marlborough is its largest wine region.  Fairly new to the game, the first vineyards were established here less than half a decade ago and Cloudy Bay was the wine that laid the groundwork for the reputation these wines have on the international market today.  It is still readily available and affordable.  In fact, one makes its way to my table at least a couple times a year.
A good thing to note about New Zealand’s wine laws is that, if a wine is labeled as a particular varietal, at least 85% of the wine must be made with that grape.  Another user friendly way they label their wines is that, if they are blends, the grapes must be listed on the label in decreasing order.
Never to be left out, California is also producing Sauvignon Blanc.  Typically grown on sandy soils, you may not see that minerality that you pick up on the French bottlings.  If you come across a Fume Blanc, grab it as it is also Sauvignon Blanc.  It was dubbed this in the 70's by Robert Mondavi in an attempt to give the wines a greater international appeal (see Pouilly-Fume).
Choose a wine from a cool climate to contrast against a wine from a moderate climate for this exercise.  In addition to tasting for differences in aroma and flavor, pay attention to any differences in color or acidity.  You may also choose to compare an Old World to a New World.  If so, note style differences.
I will warn you that you may notice the infamous "cat pee" smell during this exercise.  Do not let this keep you from putting the glass to your lips as this is an instance where the flavor is not going to match the nose.  It is going to manifest itself more in an asparagus flavor, and this is the term I will use when tasting these wines in public.  California tries to mask this trait by blending it with Semillon or with the use of oak. 
On The Label
Sauvignon Blanc, Sancerre, Pouilly Fume, Fume Blanc, Graves, Pessac-Leognan
In The Bottle
Green fruit, citrus fruit, vegetal, herb, mineral, and we cannot leave off cat pee and asparagus
At The Table
Aperitif, Vegetarian, Mexican, salads, salty cheese 

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir is a black grape that makes wines that tend to be paler in color and lighter in body than many other reds.  The wines will be higher in acid with red fruits such as simple cherry, raspberry or plum dominating the palate.  They do have a lower tannin level and I consider Pinot Noir to be a great “starter red” for exactly this reason.  This scarcity of abrasive tannins gives these wines a more velvety texture and, thus, that “sex appeal” you may have heard about.  While it can also be made into sparkling wines, which is a topic for later discussion, I will focus here mainly on the still wines. 
This varietal is notorious for being “high maintenance” and very reflective of variations in vintage and site.  It buds early so it is more susceptible to frost in the spring and it is more prone to mold than other reds.  Thin-skinned as they are, they do not fare well at all in hot climates and, in fact, do their best in cooler climates.  Since their sensitive nature requires more supervision of the vintner, it also drives the cost.  As such, if you can, pay a little extra for your choices here as there are some poor examples out there.  Those exposed to a really good example of Pinot Noir have been known to describe the experience as sensual, which further adds to the allure. 
Pinot Noir has a near exclusive in Burgundy, France, where it is the only grape allowed by law in the higher quality red wines from this region.  As mentioned, It is a grape that is going to prominently display the personality of the terroir it calls home, which is very important to the French.  If you are like most people, you may think that terroir is synonymous with soil.  It is not.  It is much more.  Oxford defines terroir as "the total natural environment of any viticulture site.” It is a French term with no English equivalent. It includes climate (and microclimates), sun, wind, temperature, water and soil.
The very best - and most expensive - Burgundy Pinot Noir are labeled as “Grand Cru.”  As indicated, where the grapes are grown are of utmost importance, even down to where in the vineyard they are found.  For example, Grand Cru wines will be made with grapes found “mid-slope,” where they are not as affected by either too much or too little irrigation.  As such, a Grand Cru wine will be labeled by particular vineyard, not by village or commune, so you will need to become familiar with them if you find that this is a wine you enjoy and can afford.  Chambertin, Charlemagne, Corton, Montrachet, and Musigny are some names to look for.  These wines should be aged five to seven years.
The second best (at least in theory) are “Premier Cru.”  At this level and the next, the wines are labeled by village or commune, so you should familiarize yourself with them if you find this is a varietal you enjoy and they are closer to your pricepoint.  Some names to look for are Aloxe-Corton, Gevrey-Chambertin, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Pommard, Volnay and Vosne-Romanee.  Premier Cru wines can come from a single vineyard or a combination of vineyards within a commune.  If they come from a single vineyard, you will see a hyphen.  These wines should be aged three to five years.
At the next level are the Village wines and we have already gone over the names to be familiar with.  We will also add Cote de Nuits Villages and Cote de Beaune Villages, which are larger areas of the North and South, respectively.  They are going to be made from blends of different vineyards or lesser spots within a single vineyard.  The aging on these wines should be two to four years.
The everyday table wines, or regional wines, as they are called will be labeled “Bourgogne” or “Bourgogne Rouge.”  They can come from anywhere within the region and you will want to consume them within three years of their vintage date.
In the United States, you will find really good examples of Pinot Noir coming from the Russian River Valley or Carneros in California or Willamette Valley in Oregon.  Wine laws in Oregon dictate the wine must be 90% of the varietal for its name to appear on the label.  New Zealand, particularly Marlborough and Central Otago, are also making some really great Pinot Noir.  Here you will see a greater concentration of fruit accompanied by higher alcohol levels.
For this exercise, you may contrast an Old World against a New World or you may choose a wine from a cool climate (Burgundy, Oregon or New Zealand) to compare to a wine from a moderate climate (California, or even Chile).  In addition to differences in aroma and flavor, look for any differences in color, acidity and tannin.  When choosing Old World, don’t feel like you are completely limited to France.  Pinot Noir is the most planted red grape in Germany, where it is known as Spatburgunder.  
If you are doing this tasting at home and would like to keep the theme going, rent the movie "Sideways.”   If you can't fit it in at this time, you can save it for "Merlot" night.  You’ll understand why once you see it.
On The Label
Pinot Noir, Bourgogne, Chambertin, Charlemagne, Corton, Cote de Beaune, Cote de Nuits, Montrachet, Musigny, Nuits St. George, Pommard, Spatburgunder, Volnay, Vosne-Romanee
In The Bottle
Red fruit, spice, dark fruit, earth, mineral
At The Table
Salmon, tuna, roasted meats, vegetables, mushroom, game birds, mild cheese

Photo Credits:boop-wine6.png

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The 26th Annual International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC)

Pinot fans at the al fresco tasting

Each year hundreds of Pinot Noir fans gather in McMinnville, Oregon for a weekend-long gala celebrating one of the world’s most appreciated grape varieties.  2012 marked the 26th annual International Pinot Noir Celebration, otherwise known to the fans and attendees as “IPNC.”  The three days at Linfield College are designed to be spent eating, drinking and learning, but the friends that you make there are the top take-aways.
The program divides attendees into two groups for the featured events.  Each day begins with a breakfast on the lawn.  They call it continental breakfast but it is much, much more.  After that, Group A will spend a day visiting a local winery in the Willamette Valley while Group B spends a day at the “University of Pinot” attending a Grand Seminar in the morning and an “elective” in the afternoon.  There are also late afternoon activities that include local food and beer tastings, book signings and music.  On Day 2, the groups switch itineraries, thus rounding out a complete Pinot package.  Each evening begins with an al fresco tasting of half of the attending winemakers products, which is followed immediately by dinner. Day 3 ends with a champagne/sparkling wine brunch.  
Victoria Perez of Genevieve Wines at Adelsheim
This year I was in Group A and day one was spent at a winery.  The winery chosen for each subset group is not made known to anyone until your bus arrives.  We were quite lucky to have hopped on the bus headed to Adelsheim Vineyard.  Our arrival was met with a glass of their 2010 Pinot Noir, which we carried into the vineyard for a tour by winemaker Dave Paige and a mini seminar on the grape and its challenges in the field.  We then went inside for a tour of the facilities and a presentation on Pinot production in the Willamette Valley.  As an added bonus, we got to “speed date” with five other winemakers from various regions and ask whatever questions we liked.  Our visit ended with a scrumptious catered lunch on their patio.
Friday night hosts the formal dinner, which is an experience not to be missed.  A different secret winemaker is assigned to each table so that attendees get to visit with them and learn more about Pinot, their region or wineries, or simply make new friends.  The food is prepared by local chefs and the wine is served in a seemingly unending manner by impeccably dressed local young sommeliers.
The following morning we are back on campus for breakfast, which is followed up by the Grand Seminar.  This year’s topic is “Study Abroad in Burgundy,” hosted by Allen Meadows, writer of “Burghound.”  The seminar begins with a brief tutorial on Burgundy, then switches to a forum in which producers from the region discuss their chateaus and their wines, focusing on what is special about their appellation.  Attendees are already set up with two samples from each. The panel consisted of Philippe & Vincent Lechenaut of Domaine Lechenaut, Gregory Gouges of Domaine Henri Gouges, Bertrand Ambroise of Maison Ambroise and Jacques Lardiere of Maison Louis Jadot.
The Burgundy Panel
My afternoon elective was “The Cube Project,” an experiment in which three winemakers from three regions share a third of their vintage with each other to make nine wines; a fascinating exercise since Pinot Noir is a variety touted as a true expresser of its terroir, or place.  After hearing about the project and its challenges from participants Leslie Renaud of Lincourt in Santa Rita Hills, Andrew Brooks from Bouchaine Vineyards in Carneros and Thomas Houseman from Anne Amie Vineyards in Willamette Valley, we tasted all the wines in two distinct ways - first across the vineyard, then across the winemaker.  I was happy to see that the best expression of each vineyard was prepared by the winemaker most familiar with the lot, but I was most fascinated to taste a distinct style coming thru in each of the wines prepared by the same winemaker.  My conclusion - you can never take the winemaker, and their individual expression, out of the equation, even when discussing an expressive grape like Pinot Noir.
Salmon Bake
The highlight of the weekend is Saturday’s Salmon Bake.  Since the general public is also sold tickets to the event, I strongly suggest you get in line early to enter.  I also suggest that immediately upon entering you find and save yourself a seat as they fill up very quickly.  There are no winemaker assignments here.  You then get in line for a staggering amount of local sides and, of course, the salmon.  Don’t worry if you don’t like fish, as beef and pork are also served.  Once you’ve eaten, get up and mingle.  Many people bring their own wines and are happy to share.  There is also a dance floor for working off some of the extra baggage you may be carrying from the collective feasts of the weekend.
The remarkable food at the Sunday brunch served as a balance to the melancholy I felt knowing I had to say goodbye to the IPNC and all my new friends.  My favorite tables were the Benedict bar - mushroom, crab and traditional - as well as the local produce.  The berries here are amazing! Our trusty servers were also there - donned in the less formal toga - to fill our glasses one last time.  
If you haven’t been to IPNC, I highly recommend you start planning for next July’s soiree.  It is one “all inclusive” weekend I hope to return to year after year after year.  The education is not to be missed and I know of no other wine event that gets you this close to the winemakers.
Michael McNeill of Hanzell Wines
My favorite wines of the weekend (in order of the way they appear in my tasting notes):
2010 Clos Marion, Domaine Fougeray de Beauclair, Burgundy
2008 Domaine Lecheneaut, Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru
2010 Maison Ambroise, Echezeaux Grand Cru
2006 Maison Louis Jadot, Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru, “Clos St-Jacques”
2009 Te Muna Road Vineyard, Craggy Range, NZ
2010 En Route “Les Pommiers”, En Route, Russian River Valley
2009 Akiko’s Cuvee, Freeman Vineyard & Winery, Russian River Valley
2009 Hanzell Vineyards, Sonoma
2009 “Nicole’s Vineyard”, J Vineyards & Winery, Russian River Valley
2010 La Crema, Russian River Valley
2010 Peay Promarium Estate, Peay Vineyards, Sonoma
2009 Four Vineyards, Robert Sinskey Vineyards, Napa
2009 Cherry Grove Vineyard, Adea Wine Company, Willamette Valley
2009 Revana Vineyard, Alexana Winery, Willamette Valley
2009 Casteel Reserve, Bethel Heights Vineyard, Willamette Valley
2009 Ribbon Ridge Reserve, Chehalem, Willamette Valley
2009 Jessie Vineyard, Cristom Vineyards, Willamette Valley
2009 Kalita Vineyard, Et Fille Wines, Willamette Valley
2009 Estate, Hyland Estates, Willamette Valley
2009 Reserve, Illahe Vineyards, Willamette Valley
2010 Estate Old Vine, Patricia Green Cellars, Willamette Valley

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Little Taste of Spain in Chicago

The Presentation
The Muga family has been making wines for centuries in Rioja, Spain.  Their current facility, in Barrio de La Estacion of Haro, is over two centuries old and houses over 14,000 barrels of French, American, Hungarian, Russian and a small amount of Spanish oak.  Their wines are oak fermented, oak stored and oak aged.  They even do their own cooperage.
The vineyards are located at the foot of Montes Obarenses in Rioja Alta where they enjoy a combination of Mediterranean, Atlantic and Continental climates.  Muga owns 620 acres of vine here, and controls another 370 that are predominantly clay and limestone soils.  The grapes grown are Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo (Carignan), Graciano, Viura (Macabeo) and Malvasia.  
In addition to their renowned reds, they produce a white and a rose.  The May 2009 Wine & Spirits magazine poll voted them the most popular Spanish wine.  Their 2004 Torre Muga was deemed one of the 10 best wines in the world in 2007 according to Wine Spectator.  The 2006 Rosado received 90 Parker points, deeming it the best rose in Spain and one of the top three in the world.
Their current portfolio of wines is just as impressive.  I had the pleasure of meeting Juan Muga in Chicago this week at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel and enjoying some of his wines.  While the majority of information I am passing along comes from either their website or his presentation on Monday, I have included personal comments on the samples I was able to try.
Imbibing with Juan Muga
The Conde de Haro Cava NV is made of 90% Viura and 10% Malvasia.  The grapes grow on North facing slopes to protect them from the heat and are harvested two weeks earlier than the fruit used for their white wine to keep it crisp.  First fermentation occurs in wood; the second occurs for 14 months in the bottle.  Honey on the nose, with a little banana and raisin.
Muga’s white wine uses the same varietal formula as the Cava but the grapes are double-checked and 50% of the harvest is lost in their quality control process.  This wine goes through a slow fermentation in new French oak and spends 3 months on the lees.  Great alternative to Chardonnay with its golden apple meets guava presentation.
The Rosado is 60% Garnacha, 30% Viura and 10% Tempranillo.  It spends 12 hours macerating, 25 days fermenting in small wood vats then spends 2 months aging before bottling.  Beautiful, light salmon colored rose.  Roses and strawberry on the nose and a surprisingly long finish for a rose.
Enea is the first of the still reds, which is made up of 90% Tempranillo and 10% Viura.   The grapes are grown on the South slope of Sierra de Cantabria just before the brush begins on alternating layers of loam and clay.  They are manually selected before going through carbonic maceration and ending in small wooden vats.
The Reserva is 70% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha, and a 10% blend of Mazuelo and Graciano.  The wine spends six months in traditional oak vats before being stored 24 months in small oak barrels.  This is followed by a minimum of 12 months in the bottle.
The makeup of the Seleccion Especial is 70% Tempranillo, 20% Garnacha, 7% Mazuelo and 3% Graciano.  It produced using indigenous yeast in oak vats before spending 28 months in casks made from their own cooperage.  It is then fined with fresh egg whites before rounding off in the bottle for 12 months.  Medium ruby wine bearing violets and back fruits; some earth; soft tannins.
Prado Enea is 80% Tempranillo and a 20% blend of Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano.  The grapes for this wine, as well as those used in Torre Muga, are picked later for ideal ripening.  It ferments naturally in oak vats without the use of temperature control or added yeast.  Maceration time varies, but is up to 20 days before the wine spends 12 month in 16,000 litre oak vats then 36 months in barrel.  After casking, it is fined with egg whites and spends another 36 months (minimum) in the bottle.  More concentrated fruit; bright blackberry turns earth and leather.
The Torre Muga consists of 75% Tempranillo and 30% Graciano.  The regimen here is six months in wood vats, 18 months in new oak and at least 12 months in the bottle.
Aro is 70% Tempranillo and 30% Graciano.  It spends six months in oak vats before spending 18 months in new French oak.  It ends with 12 months, at minimum, in the bottle.  The showcase wine.  Deep purple with some sediment.  Ripe plum, straw, tobacco, leather.  Very pleasing long finish.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


Nebbiolo is the reigning black grape of Italy, who overlooks his kingdom daily from his throne in the Piedmont region of Italy.  His two most regal offspring are the wines Barolo and Barbaresco.  These wines are of a fuller body and are loaded with extract, tannin, acidity and alcohol, which combine to make them perfect for aging before they make their regal appearance at your table.
It is a particularly challenging grape to rear.  It is quite particular about its soil and requires exceptional drainage, which is why you often find them growing on south facing slopes.  A moderate climate with cool nights does well by this grape.  It has thin skins and ripens late, which means it needs to have the best exposure to sun.  Nebbiolo’s fussiness has made it difficult for vintners outside Italy to grow with any significance.
The blood line of Nebbiolo runs deep and the Italians fiercely protect the integrity of this varietal.  Attestation that this grape has been responsible for wines of distinction have been found dating back as far as 1235.  Documents found in 1303 dub the “Nubiola” grape as “delightful” and “excellent wine.”  A century later those found cutting down a Nebbiola vine were severely punished with retributions up to and including hanging.
The origins of the name, Nebbiolo, are uncertain, but there are two schools of thought.  The references to royalty illustrate one school of thought and that is that the name derives from the Italian word “nobile,” which means royalty.  The other school of thought is that its name comes from the word “nebbia,” which means fog, which either was attached to the grape because of the frosted appearance of the grape itself or because of the blanket of fog that comes into the region in the fall during harvest.  
Piedmont translates to “foot of the mountain.”  The region is found south of the Alps, predominantly on the steep limestone hills of Langhe.  As stated, the region is perfect for Nebbiolo and it has been difficult for others outside Italy to grow this variety with any success.  Among those who are trying are Argentina, Australia, and California.
The differences between Barbaresco and Barolo have to do with age.  For starters, Barolo is an older wine, historically, than Barbaresco.  The second difference is the time each wine must age.  Barbaresco must spend a minimum of two years aging, one of which much be on oak.  If it is to be labeled “Riserva” it must age four years.  Barolo, on the other hand, must age a minimum of three years, 18 months of which must be on oak, and “Riserva” labeling requires five years of aging.  Both need time in the bottle.  If drunk too early, they taste of bitter chocolate.
Tasting Exercise
Prepare for a night of indulgence and compare a Barolo and a Barbaresco.  As Barolo can be a little pricey, you may try just one.  Either will give you a good taste (literally) of what Nebbiolo has to offer.  You may also find a Nebbiolo d’Alba.  Choose also to contrast one of these wines to one produced in another country.  Do you agree they are just not the same?    
On The Label
Nebbiolo, Barolo, Barbaresco
It The Bottle
Red fruit, black fruit, floral, sweet spice, earth, vegetal, game - “tar and roses” is a term often attached to the aromatic profile
At The Table
Red meat, aged cheese, mushrooms
Photo Credit:

Sunday, February 5, 2012


Port is a fortified wine.  Fortified wines are wines where spirits - usually grape brandy - are incorporated.  This addition of alcohol kills the yeasts and stops fermentation before all the sugars are gone.  The wine then moves to barrels where they are aged up to 40 years.  Port was created so that wine could survive long ocean voyages.  They can be made with either red or white grapes.
Port takes its name from the city, Oporto (Portugal), from where it has been shipped for a few hundred years.  Production occurs over 40 miles downstream from the vineyards in Duoro where there are three subregions.  The vineyards in Baixo Corgo produce the lightest wines, Cima Corgo is where most of the top vineyards are found and Duoro Superior, while planted more sparingly, is also a source of quality Port.  
Each year authorities dictate how many grapes may be used for Port with the remainder being turned into still wines.  Twenty-nine varieties are recommended for use in the production of Port.  The best known reds are Tinta Roriz (which is the local name for Tempranillo), Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Cao and Tina Barroca.  Better known whites are Sercial, Verdelho, Malvasia Fina and Viosinto.
There are four major categories of Port.  Ruby Port is deep in color, fruity and ready to drink.  It may taste similar to some sweet wines you may have had.  They will be labeled "Ruby Port,” "Reserve Ruby Port,” "Late Bottled Vintage(LBV)" or "Traditional Style LBV.”  Reserve Ruby Port is a blend of multiple vintages that is aged in cask up to five years.  A Late Bottled Vintage, or LBV, is made from a specific year’s vintage and is aged four to six years before bottling.
Tawny Port is paler, browner and smoother with complex nutty aromas.  A Tawny with Indication of Age will be labeled either 10, 20, 30 or 40 years.  It is important to know that the age stated is not the actual age, but is an average age of the vintages inside.  These Ports must state the year of bottling.  With age, the palate has changed to walnut, almond, caramel and coffee.  Colheita is a rare, single vintage Port with a minimum of eight years of aging.
Vintage Ports are the longest lived of all of the Port wines and are intended to do most of their aging in the bottle versus the cask.  They are bottled between 18 months and three years.  Any producer can declare a vintage and the wines will be blends of grapes from their finest vineyards.  Single Quinta Vintage Ports are made from a single top quality vineyard and the name of the quinta (estate) appears on the label.  It is tradition with some to gift a newborn with a Vintage Port from his or her birth year to save until adulthood.
White Ports are, of course, made with white grapes.  They are golden in color and will be off-dry to sweet.  They will spend three to four years in cask before bottling.
Tasting Exercise
Choose a Ruby Port to compare with a Tawny Port for this exercise.  This will give you a very good idea of what basic differences there are between the two styles.  If you know you already like Ruby Ports, compare a standard Ruby to a Late Bottled Vintage.  You may also find it interesting to compare a standard Old World from Portugal to a New World port wine.  Australia has some good samples on the market. 
You may wish to invite a friend or two over to help with your experimentation but, if you don’t, it is okay as they will keep awhile.  If you do invite friends, either keep them around for a bit or advise them to bring a designated driver, as the alcohol content in Port ranges between 18 and 20%.
If you find that you are a fan of Port, there is a “Port Appreciation Society” on Facebook where members can share old favorites and new discoveries.
On The Label
Port, Late Bottled Vintage, Colheita
In The Bottle
Ruby:  Red fruit, dark fruit, dried fruit
Tawny:  Caramel, nuts, vanilla, dried fruit, creme brulee
At The Table
Ruby:  Desserts, Chocolate
Tawny:  Hard cheese, dried fruits, nuts (my absolute favorite - almonds), chocolate, nutty desserts
"for a new generation of port drinkers"
Photo credit (Port Wine, above):

Monday, January 30, 2012

Rhone Valley Reds and GSMs

The Rhone Valley is located in Southeast France between Burgundy and Provence, which is on the Mediterranean coast.  There are two distinct areas - the North and the South, which have two distinct climates.  The North has a continental climate enjoying warm summers and cold winters, wherein the South benefits from a Mediterranean climate.  The “Cotes du Rhone” classification of wines encompasses both.
In Northern Rhone, Syrah is the sole red grape with its high pigments, high tannins and cherry and plum flavors.  Three white grapes - Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne - are allowed in the wines of some of the Northern crus to add aromatics.  Cote Rotie allows up to 20% Viognier with its peach, apricot and white flowers to be added to the blend.  Saint Joseph allows up to 10% Marsanne and/or Roussanne, whereas Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage allow up to 15% of these grapes to be added.  Cornas must be 100% Syrah.
Wines from the Southern Rhone are typically going to be blends.  There are 27 varieties in the region, 21 of which can be used in “Cotes du Rhone” wines.  Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre dominate.  Grenache is used for its berry fruit flavor to make it easier on the palate, Syrah for its color and tannin to increase character and help with aging, and Mourvedre for added tannin (structure) and acidity.  The wines may also be blends of different methods of fermentation (oak versus stainless steel or cement) or of fruits of different aged vines.
There are several crus in the Southern Rhone, but none as well revered as Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  The name translates to “new castle of the Pope” because the one of the popes to call Avignon home when the papal palace moved from Rome fell in love with the village and built a summer home there.  Only 13 varieties are allowed in the blends.  Together they produce full bodied and fragrant wines with concentrated fruit flavors and characteristically higher alcohol content.  Winemakers here use mostly large oak containers versus the smaller barrels so that the oak does not overpower the fruit.
A wine dubbed “GSM” is, as you can imagine, a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre.  This acronym originated in Southern Australia as a more user-friendly, and shorter, alternative title to “Southern Rhone Blend.”  California's "Rhone Rangers" are a group of winemakers producing wines with the Rhone varieties and promoting these American versions.
Tasting Exercise
For this tasting exercise, choose a wine from Northern Rhone to compare to a wine from Southern Rhone.  Alternately, you may choose a Rhone Blend (Southern Rhone) to compare to a New World GSM.  Finally, you may choose to compare two or more Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines.
On The Label
Cotes du Rhone, Cote Rotie, Saint Joseph, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Vinsobres, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Rasteau, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Lirac, GSM
In The Bottle
Red fruit, dark fruit, dried fruit, spice, sweet spice, cocoa, tobacco, barnyard
At The Table
Grilled foods, barbecue, game, stews, hard cheese, aged cheese
Photo Credit:

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Ugni Blanc / Trebbiano

Ugni Blanc is a grape that goes by many names, as you will see.  It is a major grape in the production of Cognac and Armagnac in France.  As an ingredient of these spirits, it is called “St. Emilion.”  
It is a vigorous and productive grape of high acid that produces wines with a slightly sour flavor, hinting of citrus and almond.  Besides Cognac, it is a viable ingredient of still wines of the Vin de Pays category. 
As a wine grape, Ugni Blanc makes a presence in Provence and in an area more famous for its reds - the Southern Rhone.  Here you may hear it called “Clairette Ronde.”  It is also allowed as a blending grape in the white wines of Bordeaux, where it has another name - “Muscadet Aigre” - which translates to “sour muscat,” which serves as a reminder of what to expect when tasting these wines.
This variety did not originate in France, however, but in Italy where - you guessed it - it has another name, and that is Trebbiano.  It is even more widely planted there.  Although you may not have heard of it until now, it is responsible for a significant piece of Italy’s white wine production.  
By far, Trebbiano’s biggest home is in Central Italy in the regions of Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio.  It is rarely going to stand-alone here either.  In Tuscany, it is blended with Vernaccia to make dessert wines.  In Umbria, it is a primary grape in Orvieto, where this table wine will be between 40 and 60% Trebbiano.  The white wines you find in Lazio are predominantly blends of Trebbiano with Malvasia, undoubtedly added to increase the alcohol content.  It is also found in Abruzzo.
Within Lazio is a region called - no, I am not kidding - Est!Est!!Est!!!, where Trebbiano wines are also made.  Rumor has it that a German Bishop named Johann Fugger had to go to nearby Rome for his coronation.  He sent an assistant ahead of him to mark “Est!”, which means the wine is good, in chalk on the doors of the inns with the best wines.  Apparently, when he hit Montefiascone, the wines were so good, he wrote, “Est!Est!!Est!!!” on the door.  The name stuck.
 Tasting Exercise
For this exercise, find yourself a Vin de Pays, which should show “Ugni Blanc” on the front or back label.  Chances are very good it will be a blended wine, so try to find one with a high percentage of this grape.  While I don’t normally like to recommend a specific wine for these tasting exercises, Domaine de Pouy makes a great one.  Grab an Orvieto for comparison.  You may also find an Australian Trebbiano or a South African Ugni Blanc to throw in the mix.
On The Label
Ugni Blanc, Trebbiano, Orvieto
In The Bottle
Citrus fruit, green fruit, red apple, wet stone, almond
At The Table
Seafood, shellfish, poultry, pasta

Photo credit (sour grapes):