Thursday, June 11, 2015

Chenin Blanc—It must be Important—There’s a Day Named for It!

Friday, June 12 is Chenin Blanc Day, a day to appreciate and learn more about this remarkable grape. Chenin Blanc, originating in the Anjou region of the Loire Valley in Northwestern France, unfortunately became known as a bland grape used mainly for blending into jug wines in America in the early years of its production here.

Chenin Blanc is well known primarily for its high acidity. It also is notorious for its very high vigor and tendency to overproduce. When this happens, the wine becomes bland, neutral, and uninteresting. Consequently, when its growth is unchecked and the vines are grown on fertile soils, large numbers of grapes are produced. This is what occurred in California, resulting in large amounts of cheap neutral juice to blend with other white varietals to increase the acidity of the resulting wine.

When the soils are less fertile, especially those consisting of limestone and silex, and growth is controlled by grafting vines onto less productive rootstock and/or with generous early pruning, production drops to less than a fifth of what is possible, producing much more concentrated and complex flavors. This is how things are done in the Loire Valley, where excellent winemaking techniques, terroir, and climate come together to produce the world’s most well known, and arguably the best, Chenin Blanc.

Because of the high acidity, Chenin Blanc can be made into a variety of styles, from sparkling to dry, off dry, and even well balanced sweet dessert wines. To get the proper balance of fruit and acidity in the rather unpredictable cool climate of the Loire, the grapes are often harvested in stages with three to six passes made through the vineyards, extending the harvest season to up to a length of four to six weeks.

Chenin Blanc is grown in other regions of the world, but today, major plantings occur mostly in South Africa with some plantings still in California, South America, and a small amount in New Zealand. It is the most planted varietal in South Africa, where it is known as Steen. Like California, original plantings were geared towards high production, mainly to be a cheap source of wine to combat scurvy among sailors rounding the Cape of Good Hope on their way back and forth from Asia. Production has since been controlled, and the wines are now much more complex and interesting.

Chenin Blanc at its best produces wines with aromas of acacia, quince, and honey, with flavors of apple, quince, and pear, a bracing acidity, and wonderful chalky minerality. The Loire Valley seems to do it best with the appellations of Anjou, Vouvray, and especially Savennieres, producing beautiful examples. Winemakers in California have now turned from quantity to quality with some excellent single varietal wines being made from the grape, and good ones are coming from South Africa as well. In New Zealand, where Sauvignon Blanc plantings are very small and dwindling, there are a few producers on the North Island that are making outstanding examples.

There are several great Chenin Blancs to look for when exploring your wine shop aisle. Francois Pinon makes an outstanding Sparkling Vouvray. Made by the methode traditionelle, it rivals any mid level Champagne for half the price at $22.99. From the same producer is Vouvray Les Trois Argilles, at $19.99, a slightly sweet wine with great depth on the palate with honeyed and herbal notes that linger on the finish. There is a perfect underlying acidity to balance the delicate sweetness. Clos Le Vigneau is a dry Vouvray that is delicious at $19.99. Domain du Closel La Jalousie 2013 from Savennieres, is from one of the Loire’s very finest estates with mineral driven aromas and flavors of peach, fresh herbs and citrus. This is an awesome wine that is well worth the $31.99 price tag.

Millton is a producer in New Zealand that makes Chenin Blancs that rival those of the Loire Valley. The entry level Crazy By Nature is a flinty mouthful of rich stone fruit and citrus, with honey and flowers on the nose, and is a steal at $19.99. The Te Arai from the same maker is a single vineyard example that is packed with intense flavors of pear, citrus, and fresh cream and honey wrapped in a full, opulent texture. This is a stunning wine at $30.99.

California chimes in with a couple of good value wines. Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc-Viognier is a blend that is one of my best selling event wines when ABC (anything but Chardonnay) people are looking for medium bodied wines. Beautiful floral aromas and stone fruit on the palate with just the right acidity make this a great value at $10.99. Dry Creek does a great job with Chenin Blanc as a single varietal for only $12.99, showing the world that California CAN do a good job with this grape if it wants to.

We are celebrating Chenin Blanc Day with a tasting at the store including several of the wines mentioned here. So if you are in town from four until six p.m., stop in and see us. If you are not, organize your own tasting…and come to appreciate this great varietal.


How Do You Cook Your Frog Legs?

baked mine tonight...much healthier than frying...and they were awesome! I soaked them in milk for 30 minutes. Then I made a wash of egg, cumin, garlic, onion, tarragon and rosemary...with a little hot sauce, dipped the legs and then dredged them in panko bread crumbs. Baked for an hour and they were delicious and fall off the bone tender. They were great with Runaway Red, a Pinot Noir from Brooks winery in Willamette Valley, Oregon. It was named for a barrel of wine that fell off the wagon and rolled down a hill. It is a delicious Pinot. The label is fun too - it has a picture of another runaway red - Trotsky.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Why Did the Chicken Feet Cross the Road?

To get to my plate, of course!

I wanted to cook something interesting tonight... And it was absolutely delicious. The first course - chicken feet. Fried, and then brined with Xiaoshing wine, star anise, ginger, bay leaf and cloves, and then braised and finished with a sauce of fermented black bean, brown sugar, ginger, garlic and oyster sauce. There is a reason these are popular in Asia and the Caribbean Islands... They are WONDERFUL! Second course was braised and grilled lemon marinated baby octopus on oven roasted potatoes. YUM! It all went great with a wonderful little southern Rhone white, Little James's Basket Press from St Cosme, the oldest estate in the southern Rhone.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

It’s That Pink Time of Year Again

It is once again that time of the year when we must remember those important words from winemakers Charles Smith and Charles Bieler who in unison proclaim, “Yes you can drink rosé and still be a Bad Ass!”

Spring marks the beginning of rosé season, when wineries release those fresh, delicate pink wines, and sadly often in very limited amounts. Rosé wines are made from red grapes. The grape skins have very limited contact with the juice, hence their a pink color. As a rule, the shorter the contact, the lighter the color. While rosé can be sweet, off dry, or bone dry, today I’m talking about the decidedly dry type. The flavors of these wines tend to be subtle versions of their red varietal coun
terparts – strawberry, cherry, watermelon, and raspberry.

These wines are perfect for spring and summer, as they are served chilled and they are probably the most versatile and food friendly wines on the planet. The light body and delicate flavors make them ideal picnic wines that go well with roast beef, chicken or ham sandwiches, egg or potato salad, and even chips and dips. They are great for back yard barbeques, easily handling hamburgers, chicken, and even steaks. If you are looking for a porch pounder, there is nothing better than a glass or two of rosé on the back deck on a sunny day—no food required. They are great values, often being priced in the 10 to 20 dollar range, so you can enjoy them as often as you like.

Rosé got a bad reputation after the winemaker at Sutter Home invented White Zinfandel completely by accident (an arrested fermentation). This initiated a flood of sweet wine cooler-like blush wines from California that many people mistakenly think of when they see the rosé section. When I have a rosé tasting at the store, these same people run the other direction. After I chase them down, tackle them, and force them to taste MY pink wines, they sheepishly admit they were very, very wrong, and often end up taking home a bottle or two.

There are hundreds of rosés on the market, made from a large variety of grapes and from a large number of countries. Rosé was first made in Provence in southern France, and a great many beautiful examples come from this area still. The wines from here tend to be light in color and delicate, elegant examples. Bieler Pere at Fils ($11.99) from Aix-au-Province is one of our best sellers year in and year out. A blend of Grenache, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Rolle, and Cinsault, the wine shows aromas and flavors of strawberries and raspberries with an underlying herbal note and a refreshing acidity. Mas de La Dame from les Baux de Province (Grenache, Syrah. Mourvedre, and Cab) offers up red berry and peach flavors for $15.99. Finally, St. Roche Les Vignes from Cotes de Provence makes a consistently good one from a blend of Grenache and Cinsault with lush berry aromas and flavors.

There are many other countries getting into the production of these pink beauties. Mulderbosche, $11.99, from coastal South Africa is a rosé of 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. There is an initial blast of grapefruit on the nose followed by minerals and strawberries. A sip results in a mouthful of minerally red berries with a perfectly balanced acidity.

Italy is making some great rosés, with La Spinetta’s spectacular Il Rose di Casanova being one of the best rosés anywhere, period. It is made from a blend of Sangiovese and Prugnolo Gentile. With luscious aromas and flavors of tart cherry, pomegranate, and honeysuckle, this wine shows a remarkable complexity and perfect balance. It is not cheap at $24.99, but if you are a lover of these wines you HAVE to try it.

The U.S. of course has gotten into the act, and showing particularly good success with Pinot Noir. Rosés from this thin-skinned temperamental grape are elegant, harmonious, and well balanced. Copain, Banshee, and Ponzi all make excellent examples, although they are a little pricey at around $19.00. Finally, if you want an elegant rosé wrapped in a beautiful package, look for Birichino Vin Gris. Done in a Provincial style from Grenache, Cinsault, Mourvedre, and Rolle, this brilliantly bright and crisp wine with its flavors of wild berry, citrus, and cherry along with the gorgeous label makes you think spring even if you drink it outside during a blizzard. All for $16.99!

So get in the pink! Get some of these harbingers of warmer days ahead. You will truly enjoy them, and whatever you eat with them will taste better than you can imagine.


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

OREGON – Bringing Together the Best of Two Worlds

Oregon has been producing wine since the mid 1800s. Ceasing during Prohibition and remaining dormant for thirty years after its repeal, winemaking resumed in the 1960s. Production has skyrocketed since, with the number of wineries soaring from five in 1970 to over 450 today, and Oregon ranks third in the U.S. in wine made.

Many varietals are grown, but two together far surpass the total of all the others combined in plantings and wine produced. Those two are Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. The cool wet winters and warm dry climate with few temperature extremes are ideal for Pinot Noir, and interestingly, Oregon is at the same latitude as Burgundy, the world’s greatest Pinot Noir producer.

The most well known and widely planted area is the Willamette Valley just south of Portland, but good wines are coming from farther south in the Rogue and Umpqua valleys.

Since Pinot Noir does so well, one might think that Chardonnay, the grape of white Burgundy, might flourish here, but the terroir seems to favor Pinot Gris, although Chardonnay is third most planted grape.

Pinot Noir is one of the most difficult grapes to grow and one of the most difficult wines to produce, but when done, right this grape can produce some of the most wonderful wines imaginable. It seems to be at its very best in three regions of the world – California, Burgundy, and Oregon.

The Pinot Noirs from Burgundy tend to be elegant, delicate, and complex with flavors of sour cherry and red fruits. There is a generous acidity and minerality – and unfortunately it can come with a high price tag. Some of the most otherworldly wines on earth come from Burgundy but can cost several hundred or even several thousand dollars a bottle. California Pinot Noirs tend to be higher in alcohol, lower in acidity, and much more fruit forward, with dark fruits often joining the flavor profile. While some of the best are quite pricey, they tend to be much more affordable than those from Burgundy.

Oregon Pinot Noirs are a delightful compromise between California and Burgundy. Like Burgundy, they tend to have a bit more acid, are elegant and complex, and can demonstrate a beautiful earthiness that brings out the best in food. The intensity of fruit tends to be somewhere between the wines of the other two regions, with some California-like dark fruits showing through. The wines are lighter bodied than California Pinots but not quite as light bodied as their Burgundian cousins. Even the prices seem to average somewhere between those of Burgundy and California.

Producers in Oregon tend to be smaller, which is probably one of the reasons their wines are costlier than those from California, but they are worth the price. Some of my favorites are Halloran Stafford Hill ($19.49), Sass ($20.99), and Patricia Green (several bottlings from $30-60). Brooks makes a great little wine called Runaway Red, named for a barrel of wine that fell off the wagon and rolled down a hill. It sells for $24.99. Joe Dobbes makes wonderful Pinots, and his entry level Wine by Joe is very good for $19.99. Finally, there is a bargain Pinot that is one of my best selling event wines, Underwood, for only $11.99 that is surprisingly good.

Pinot Gris is a white varietal that originated in France, where it is now grown primarily in Alsace. A clone was taken to Italy (and later brought to California) where the grape has flourished under the name Pinot Grigio. Although the grapes are essentially the same, the wines produced in the two regions are very different. Italian Pinot Grigios are light bodied, crisp, and fresh with vibrant stone fruit flavors and floral aromas. The vast majority of California Pinot Grigios are made in this same style. Pinot Gris from Alsace is much more full bodied, richer, spicier, and more viscous than its Italian counterpart. While Pinot Grigios are meant to match with seafood, chicken, and salads, Pinot Gris is best with heartier fare like salmon, pork, and veal.

Once again, Oregon seems to be securely in the middle. Pinot Gris from here has the richness, spice, and texture of those from Alsace, but somehow captures some of the vibrant fruitiness of the Italian style. The best of both worlds. Try King Estate ($17.99), Sass ($13.99), Van Duzer or Elk Cove for $17.99 and Acrobat, a bargain for only $10.99.

Oregon Pinot Gris is a wonderful alternative to other whites and is spectacular with food.

Oregon makes very good and sometimes stunning Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Next time you are contemplating having salmon or pork and are looking for that special wine, talk to your wine guy about this remarkable region.


Thursday, March 5, 2015

Looking for Good Whites? Try Australia!

People who drink wine with me and who buy wine from me know I’m not a huge fan of Australian red wines. It’s not that they are improperly made, but for me they are a little too fruit forward and lacking in complexity at the ten to twenty dollar level, although some of the more expensive examples can be wonderful.

The whites, however, are a different story. Australia has been able to assimilate grapes from other countries and make wines from them that rival the country from which they arrived. Chardonnay arrived in Australia in the 1920s but became popular in the 1970s, and now it is the most widely planted varietal in the country. Those from the warmer parts of the continent show flavors of melon, vanilla, and peach, while those from cooler areas are citrusy with lime and grapefruit. Yalumba’s “Y” Series Unwooded Chardonnay from South Australia is a great bargain at $10.99, letting the vibrant apple and citrus flavors show without any oak to mask them.

More interesting are the Rieslings. Unlike the U.S and Germany, the Aussies make their Riesling in a dry style. People who appreciate the food friendliness, wonderful aromatics, and beautiful balance of bright fruit, minerality, and acidity found in dry Riesling are often astounded when I lead them from Germany to the Australian section, but they are not disappointed. The best come from the Margaret River and Clare Valley regions. Leeuwin Artist Series at $19.99 rivals any German Trocken, and Jim Berry’s Lodge Hill Dry Riesling may be the best $16.99 dry version of this grape that money can buy.

Verdelho (not to be confused with Spain’s Verdejo) is a grape that is grown in Portugal and is one of the grapes used in Madeira. It has been brought to Australia, and some wineries have done amazing things with a grape that it often unexciting and acidic. Molly Dooker (meaning left handed), which is famous for its full throttle reds, makes a highly extracted, mouth filling version called The Violinist, which is awesome at $22.99. Huge flavors of honeyed melons, tropical fruits, and crisp citrus blend together in a wine with a remarkably creamy texture. This is a wine to seek out and buy if you are looking for something quite special.

Those familiar with French Rhone Valley wines know that Viognier, Roussanne, and Marsanne grapes can be made into wonderful wines. Viognier, native to the Northern Rhone Valley, is a member of the aromatic white group of grapes, and the wines are very floral on the nose. The wines are rarely oaked, yet are medium to full bodied with vibrant fresh citrus and tropical fruits. Although tricky to grow, the grape does well in Eden Valley and McLaren Vale areas of South Australia. Yalumba does several versions, with its “Y Series” entry level being very good at $10.99. The bottling from Eden Valley, however is outstanding for $19.99 and is especially good with seafood that has big texture and flavor, like scallops or shrimp.

Marsanne produces wines that have aromatics and flavors of dry honey and stone fruit. The acidity tends to be low, so this grape is often blended with other grapes to give it a little more acidity and backbone. D’Arenberg’s The Hermit Crab, at $16.99, is a blend of Viognier and Marsanne that is reminiscent of the southern Rhone with flowers and stone fruit on the nose and tropical fruit and mineral flavors that make it wonderful both with food and on its own.

Finally, Roussanne is a notoriously difficult grape to grow, originating in the Rhone Valley. It does rather well in the Eden Valley, and although it is often blended with Marsanne, it can stand on its own. Yalumba again comes through with a beautiful version, the Roussanne Eden Valley, at $20.99. Full bodied, creamy, and complex with aromas of flowers, blood orange, and biscotti and flavors of pear and citrus with a touch of honey. This wine stands up to food very well and is quite interesting by the glass on the back deck.

If you are making a meal that is calling for white wines, or if you just enjoy a refreshing glass now and then, do not forget Australia. You will definitely be glad you tried them.


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Yes, There ARE great Sparklers that are not French!

After talking about the wonderful sparkling wines from France, it’s important to talk about the great wines from other regions of the world as there are some excellent ones and they are often great value plays.

Spain perhaps offers the best bargains in the wine world and sparkling wines are no exception. These wines are made by the Methode Champenois like their French counterparts (secondary fermentation in the bottle). The grapes are different – Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo being the major varietals. Spanish Cavas are minerally, dry with crisp flavors. The bubbles tend to be a little bigger and more exuberant than the French bubblies, and for this reason, Cavas are one of my two choices when making Mimosas and Bellinis as they stand up to the juice. They are wonderful on their own, though, and the prices are amazing. My favorite is Mercat, which comes as a Brut or a Brut Nature (see last week’s article). There are mineral driven aromas of orchard fruits, with a perfectly balanced acidity. Both are awesome for a mere $13.99. So you can buy it by the case for your New Year’s party and still impress.

Freixenet, in its familiar black bottle, is also a Cava, and is a bargain for making those mimosas at under $10 a bottle. For a mere $22.99 you can get an outstanding Cava, Raventos i Blanc, a beautifully balanced wine with delicate minerally stone fruit aromas and flavors. This will give $40 Champagnes a real run for their money.

There are many fine sparkling wines made in America, especially in California, Washington and..…New Mexico. The Gruet family, owners of a champagne house in France, were vacationing in the American Southwest when they ran into a group of vintners in Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico. They gave it a whirl and now make a wide array of wonderful sparkling wines priced at about $16.99. They are all good, but for those liking sweeter wines, the Demi Sec is one of this country’s best and their Brut Rose is outstanding.

California has many estates that make good sparkling wines in partnership with French houses. Mumm Napa, Domain Carneros (with Tattinger), Chandon, and Piper Sonoma all make good sparkling wines in the $15-20 range. Schramsburg makes beautiful sparklers, and they are vintage wines. The Blanc de Blancs was served at Nixon’s “Toast to Peace” with China’s Premier Zhou Enlai in 1972 and has been served at state functions by just about every administration since. Priced at $29.99, these wines are an excellent alternative to $40 and $50 Champagnes. Roederer Estate makes a great Brut for $20 and a more costly ($50) L’Ermitage Vintage version that is really, REALLY good.

Treveri is a family owned estate in the Columbia Valley in Washington State, and their sparklers are fantastic for the price. They make a Brut and an Extra Brut with zero dosage (meaning very, VERY dry) that drink like they cost $30 or $40 instead of the $13.49 price tag.

All of the above wines are made in the traditional method, but another group of sparkling wines from Italy are made in a different way. The secondary fermentation is done in tanks and then the wine is bottled, the so called Charmat method. This is less expensive, and these wines, called Prosecco, are great values. The grape used is called Glera, and although most are called Brut, there is enough residual sugar to make them somewhere between a Brut and an Extra Dry. The bubbles are big and exuberant, which, along with the low price, make Prosecco ideal for Mimosas and “Champagne cocktails.” La Marca, at $12.49, is a top seller as is Cavit’s Lunetta for the same price. My favorites are Le Coulture Sylvoz, a true Brut at $12.49, and probably the best one made, Alice (pronounced a-LEECH-ae). This estate is owned by a woman, the winemaker is a woman, and the wine is named after the owner’s grandmother. The bubbles are surprisingly fine and there are wonderful flavors of stone fruit and minerals. The label is even elegant in this $22.99 wine.

New Year’s is a time for celebrating what was and what is to be. Hopefully this and my previous installment will help you in your endeavors to do so. I, as well as the staff at Liquor Mart, want to wish you all the happiest holiday season and the happiest of New Years. I am looking forward to another year of writing what I hope are enjoyable and informative articles to help expand your wine knowledge and appreciation.