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):

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

2010 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Hits Chicago

Chateauneuf-du-Pape, a Southern Rhone AOC, translates to “new castle of the Pope.”  History tells us that the second Pope to call Avignon home after the Papal Palace was moved from Rome fell in love with the place and built a summer home there.  It is just as easy to fall in love with their wines, and it was no different for me at the tasting of the Alain Junguenet Selection of the 2010 vintage held Monday, January 16, 2012 at Benny’s Chop House in Chicago.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines are authorized to use up to 13 different varieties in production to apply the AOC.  The three dominating names are Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre.  Grenache is used for its berry fruit flavor, Syrah for its color and tannin, and Mourvedre for added tannin (structure) and acidity.  The wines are full bodied and fragrant, with concentrated fruit flavors and characteristically higher alcohol levels.  Winemakers here are creative with their production techniques.  For example, it is not uncommon to see a wine made from a blend of wine fermented in cement or stainless steel tanks with wine that has seen some oak treatment.  Oak used here is largely going to be previously used so as not to mask the fruit flavors of the wines.
While there were many great samples present, the following represent my favorites of the day, by producer.

Chateau-Fortia:  This estate has been making wine since the 17th century.  Lawyer, proprietor and wine grower Baron Le Roy de Boiseaumarie was nominated in 1923 to draw up guidelines all producers in Chateauneuf-du-Pape were to follow.  These guidelines later served as a base on which the AOC system was drawn and Chateauneuf-du-Pape became the first official AOC in France.  With such rich history, you would expect their “Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge ‘Tradition’” would deliver the most expressive sample present.  It did not disappoint.  Medicinal, dark cherry and barnyard aromas were followed with a complex and truly traditional long finish.  The formula here is 60% Grenache / 40% Syrah.  It was difficult to move on....but I had to.  The “Cuvee Du Baron” followed with its barnyard floor meets lavender.  It drank like there was an aromatic white in the blend, but it is 45% Grenache, 40% Syrah and 15% Mourvedre.  We ended with the “Reserve Speciale.”  At 85% Syrah, 15% Grenache there was a great deal of red fruit up front.

Domaine Olivier Hillaire:  Olivier’s winemaking career began nearly 30 years ago and was polished while working for his then father-in-law at Domaine des Relagnes.  When the estate was sold in 2005, Olivier was able to retain control of the best parcels to create wines under his own label.  The grapes from these coveted parcels hit the glass in the 100% Grenache “Les Petits Pieds D’Armand.”  There is a beautiful nose on this wine, with deep notes of violet, dark cherry and plum, ending in another long finish it is hard to walk away from.  His 90% Grenache, 10% Syrah “Cuvee Classique” offers a little softer wine, with delicate violet and the 80% Grenache, 20% Syrah Cotes Du Rhone Rouge“Vielles Vignes” has a lighter body, a little barnyard and all the aromas of the other wines, just not as intense.

Taking a break with Daniel Chaussy

Mas de Boislauzon:  Daniel Chaussy and his sister now represent the fifth generation making wines at this estate.  While not clear knockouts, the four wines presented do pack quite a punch.  The 70% Grenache, 25% Mourvedre, 5% Syrah “Tradition” had a lot on the nose, leading with lavender, and some solid tannin up front.  “Quet,” named after the area’s prior moniker is made from 90 year old vines and consists of 70% Grenache, 30% Mourvedre.  “Tinto” is titled after the area’s old name of Mourvedre and is appropriately composed of 85% Mourvedre, 15% Grenache.    I was so impressed with his Cotes Du Rhone Villages Rouge “Deux Chenes” that I went back for more.  Higher acid and pleasing with violet and raspberry, its recipe is 50% Grenache, 40% Syrah, 5% Carignan and 5% Mourvedre.

My personal favorite wine of the day was the “Feminessance” of Domaine Tour Saint-Michel.  The epithet could not be more appropriate.  Not only is it made by female winemaker, Mireille Porte, but it has a bouquet so amazing I did not want to drink it for fear of ruining the experience.  It did not.  This very expressive example of 65% Grenache, 35% Syrah hails from 70 year old vines and is produced adding another blend to the mix - 50% new oak and 50% year old oak.  Simply beautiful.  

Sunday, January 8, 2012


Tempranillo is a deeply colored wine of low to medium acid and medium tannin.  Although it is non-aromatic, you will still get some ripe fruit on the nose and palate.  Oak treatment will also provide the more complex aromas and flavor Tempranillo wines are known for.
It is a thick-skinned grape that needs a cooling influence and does best on chalky soil.  Its propensity to ripen early is how it got its name.  The Spanish word, “temprano,” means exactly that - early.  It also explains how it gets its somewhat wild flavors.  It is chiefly blended with Grenache or other local varieties, but can also be blended with Cabernet Sauvignon.  It really needs oak to make a quality wine.
I have often heard this varietal referred to as the dirty grape.  It could be because it is less likely to taste first like fruit and more likely to take on more masculine flavors such as game, tobacco and leather.  I suppose we can think of it as the rugged cowboy of Spain's red wines.
Tempranillo is the key ingredient in the wines labeled “Rioja.”  It is the most planted grape in Spain.  Like Syrah in France, Tempranillo is blended mostly with Grenache to add balance.  Where Tempranillo brings the strength, Grenache brings the flavor.  It is also grown in Ribera del Duero, where it is known as “Tinto Fino.”  The wines of Ribera del Duero have even deeper color, higher tannins and more dark fruit flavors than the wines of Rioja.
There are four categories of the wines of Tempranillo here and they are based on aging requirements.  Joven has no minimum aging requirements.  Crianza requires a minimum of 24 months, six of which are on oak.  Reservas age for 36 months, 12 of which are on oak, and Gran Reserva wines age 60 months, 18 of which are on oak.
Outside Spain, this varietal can be found in Duoro, Portugal where it is used in the production of port as well as still wines and goes by the name “Roriz.”  It is also found in Dao, Portugal.  It is found to a small extent in Argentina.  California, Oregon and Australia are also toying with this grape.
Tasting Exercise
Try comparing a Rioja with a Tinto Ribera del Duero.  What differences in style do you notice?  You may choose to compare a Tempranillo of Spain to a Tempranillo of Portugal.  At the risk of sounding redundant or cliche, you may also wish to compare an Old World example to one from the New World.  Maybe even throw in a port.
On The Label
Rioja, Tempranillo, Tinto (if you also see Rioja, Ribera del Duero or Roriz)
In The Bottle
Red fruit, spice, dark fruit, tobacco, game, leather, vegetal
At The Table
Grilled meats, aged cheese

Photo credit:

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


Viognier is an aromatic variety and it is a grape with high extract, so it is packed with wonderful scents and flavors.  What separates Viognier from other aromatic varieties is that Riesling, for example, has high aromatics that show through right away.  Viognier has low, rich aromatics which means you have to work for it a little bit, but they are deep.  
It is a grape of lower acid, but high sugar, which makes for higher alcohol wines.  In addition to floral aromas bringing late Spring bouquets to mind, Viognier is associated with stone fruits, particularly apricot.
Lower acid grapes tend to do well in warm to hot climates and Viognier is no different.  They are low yielding, which only adds to their flavor concentration.  While most grapes are picked based on their sugar level and balance with acid, Viognier is best picked based on flavor.
Most Viognier wines drink young, but they are capable of aging.  The problem is if you treat them like a Chardonnay, which is a non-aromatic variety, and sit them on oak, it will mask their seductive natural flavors, as will exposure to oxygen.  The choice between using stainless steel or barrels for fermentation makes for very different wines.  Viognier can stand alone or it can be blended with Chardonnay, Roussanne and Marsanne.  Interestingly, because of the aromatics it adds, it is also a blending partner of Syrah.
In France, Condrieu is the wine to look for.  Viognier has the exclusive in this small appellation located in the Northern Rhone.  Another place to look is Chateau Grillet, which was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson.  These wines are capable of aging, but are hard to find and pricey.  On the more affordable side, look for Vin de Pays d’Oc of Languedoc.  Elsewhere in France, you are more likely to find it as a blending mate.  Cote-Rotie is where the Syrah/Viognier blends occur.
In the New World, Viognier can be found in Napa or in the Central Coast of California, where the amount of plantings have been increasing at a fairly good clip.  There is also much buzz about the samples coming from Virginia, and they can also be found in Oregon and Washington.  Outside the U.S., they can be found in Australia, Chile or Argentina.
Tasting Exercise
Try to find an Old World Viognier (Condrieu or some Vin de Pays d’Oc of Languedoc) to compare with a New World Viognier.  If you are unable to find one of each, try to at least sample different regions.  In other words, grab a couple bottles and enjoy!
On The Label
Viognier, Condrieu, Chateau Grillet
In The Bottle
Stone fruit, floral, green fruit, citrus fruit
At The Table
Thai, Chinese, Indian, creamy sauce, soft cheese, root vegetables

Photo credit: