Tuesday, April 23, 2013

South African Wines—Too Funky or Worth Exploring?

Viticultural history in South Africa is a roller coaster of success vs. disaster. The signature grape, Pinotage, is about as controversial a grape as ever.

South Africa’s history of wine production began in 1659, when the Dutch East India Company ordered the founder of Cape town, Jan van Riebeck,to make wine to help fight scurvy among the sailors during their voyages along the Spice Route. In 1685, the Constantia Estate was founded for that purpose. The estate fell into disrepair in the early 1700s but was rebuilt in 1778 when Hendrik Cloete purchased it. Soon this estate’s wines were famous throughout the world and coveted by the likes of Napolean Boneparte, King Louis Phillipe of France, and Frederick the Great of Prussia. The rest of the country’s wine production was largely unsuccessful, however. High-yielding inferior grapes such as Cinsault were planted in huge numbers, and by the early 1900s, some producers were dumping unsold insipid wine into rivers and fields. Apartheid and the resulting worldwide boycott of South African goods didn’t help the situation. The country’s wines were basically nonexistent in the foreign marketplace.

When apartheid was lifted in the 1980s, South African wines expressed a renaissance. Many producers adopted new technologies and planted well known varietals such as Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chenin Blanc (called Steen). This replaced Cinsault, which now comprises less than two percent of total plantings. Red varietals have exploded. In the late 1990s, less than eighteen percent of the grapes produced were red; now about half are.

The red wines from South Africa have had a reputation for being very rustic and course. New techniques have resulted in a more international fleshy style. However a certain earthiness remains that signifies a South African Cabernet or Syrah. This is not at all unpleasant, in fact I really like some of them, but if you’re new to South African wine you may find them a bit unusual. American consumers will frequently come across wines called “Cape Cross” or “Cape Blend.” These are usually blends of Syrah or Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinotage, and they are often really good wines.

As for the white wines, Sauvignon Blanc does very well here, with a flavor profile roughly between a California and New Zealand expression of the grape. Wines made from Chenin Blanc, known as “Steen,”  rival the Vouvrays of the Loire Valley.

Now, for the controversial “love it or hate it” grape—Pinotage. In 1925, Abaraham Izak Perold crossed the very robust Cinsault (known as Hermitage in South Africa) with Pinot Noir, a grape that produces great wines but is very difficult to grow. He planted four seeds in the residential garden and promptly forgot about them. The plants were rediscovered several years later. The first wine was made in 1941 and Pinotage was born. After a Pinotage wine won the Capetown Wine Show’s championship in 1959, the first label with the word “Pinotage appeared in 1961.

Pinotage typically has a characteristic flavor profile of smoky bramble, dark fruit, and earth. Aromatics of banana and tropical fruit are common. However, the acetone aromas turn some people off. This can result in very unusual descriptions. My colleague Jessica once said a badly made Pinotage smells like “Beaujolais Nouveau and a tire got together and had a baby.” I would add that the baby is lying in a manure pile.

I’ve got you all wanting to run out and get a Pinotage, right? Before I start a war with South Africa, let me say that if you choose carefully, Pinotage can be a really neat, funky, geeky wine that I enjoy a great deal. Pinotage adds a smoky earthiness to Cape Crosses that makes these wines very interesting.

Anyone with an interest in wine should experience a good Pinotage. Barista 2011 is just such a wine. Rich aromas of chocolate, coffee, plum, and mulberry with a hint of Maraschino cherry carry through to the flavor profile, with the addition of a bit of vanilla and butterscotch. The smoky earthiness reminds you that this is a Pinotage (a very good one.) This wine is a bargain at $17.99. Another good Pinotage to try is Painted Wolf Guillermo 2010, with lots of ripe blueberry and mulberry, spice, and bramble. The tannins are ripe and the finish quite lingering for a Pinotage. Again at $17.99.

Stellekaya is a great producer in Stellenbosch. I especially like their blends. The Cape Cross (fifty percent Merlot, thirty percent Pinotage, and twenty percent Cabernet) is aged in French oak for twenty months. With wonderful aromas and flavors of mint, fresh and stewed fruits, and mulberries, it’s done in a fleshy new world style but still funky because of the Pinotage in the blend. They also do a blend called Hercules (fifty percent Sangiovese, twenty-five percent Merlot, twenty-five percent Cabernet Sauvignon) which is like something out of Tuscany except the Sangiovese component is a bit fleshier and rounder. Earth, red berry, and supple tannins make this full flavored wine worth trying. Both are $21.99. 

Not to be lost among the big reds are the very well done whites. For a prime example of Sauvignon Blanc, look no further than the original great estate of South Africa, Groot Constantia Langoed Sauvignon Blanc 2011. Wonderful flavors of gooseberries, guava, and green bell pepper follow a typical grassy herbal nose. The background minerality is reminiscent of a cool climate Sauvignon Blanc like a Sancerre from the Loire Valley, but with more fruit. $22.99 may seem a bit steep until you try it and realize it’s worth it.

So don’t forget South Africa. The country is producing better and better wines and the good ones are worth the effort it takes to find them. Ask your local wine guy (or gal) about the best of the bunch.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Southern Rhone—Grenache is the King, but Others Help

We now head south past the city of Montelimar into the Southern Rhone. This region is more spread out than the Northern Rhone, with many small towns nestled in the hills on both sides of the river.  Many of these towns are tiny and beautifully picturesque, with narrow cobblestone streets and quaint names like Segurat and Sablet.

The climate here is more Mediterranean, and the differing terroir combines with the rugged terrain partially protecting the valleys from the mistral to produce varying microclimates. As a result, a diversity of wines are produced. Grenache is the most widely grown grape here. Also found are Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, and Carignan, among others. In fact, the most famous A.O.C. here, Chateauneuf du Pape, allows up to ten different varietals in the red wines and nine in the whites. Gigondas, on the other hand, another well known appellation, only allows Grenache and a few others. The white varietals are primarily Ugni Blanc, Roussanne, Bourboulenc, Picpoul, Viognire and Clairette.

Most of the red wines are pleasant, fruit-driven (primarily dark fruit) earthy wines. Those from Chateauneuf du Pape have power and structure and can rank with Bordeaux and Burgundy as the country’s most respected wines. They are all excellent food wines, are great with pork, game, poultry, sausage, and are as good as it gets with lamb. They are also priced much lower than the Northern Rhones, with very good examples in the $12.00 to $20.00 range. Only the great Chateauneuf du Papes are really expensive.

While the majority of the wines are red, some very nice whites are produced here as well. They are usually blends with a combination of fruit, acidity, and minerality that make them interesting and food friendly. The A.O.C. of Tavel is one of the world’s most famous areas of rosé production. Finally, the appellation of Muscat de Beaumes de Venise produces fortified white wines.

Labels indicate the quality of the wine according to the following classification:

Cotes du Rhone—denotes wines from the entire southern Rhone.

Cotes du Rhone Villages—higher minimum requirements for wine maturation and production.

Cotes du Rhone + village name—Usually the highest standards before Cru status.

Cru—the name of the actual A.O.C. is on the label, best quality of all. These are wonderful wines for the price. They are Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, Lirac, Rasteau, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, Tavel, and Vacqueyras.

The shelves in our store contain dozens of these great wines, but here are a few of my favorites.

Cotes du Rhone: Chave’s Mon Coeur 2010 (Grenache, Syrah) shows kirsch and black currant fruit intermixed with earth and spice. Luscious but has good structure. All this for $19.99. Chapoutier’s Belleruche 2010 (80% Grenache, 20% Syrah), an excellent bargain at $12.99, has wonderful red fruit aromas with dark red fruit and spice flavors. There is surprising structure at this price. At the same price point, Oraison 2009 shows the lush fruit typical of that vintage.

Cotes du Rhone Villages: Domaine Boisson Cairanne 2010 (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Carignan). Prepare yourself for awesome red and dark fruit, great earthy structure. I love this wine at $19.99, and the L’Exigence 2009, its big brother, is ready to knock your socks off after getting an extra year in the bottle.

Cru: Cuvee Prestige Gigondas 2011 (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) is an amazing bargain at  $19.99. The  typical price from this appellation is $30.00-40.00, but this is classic Gigondas with a fleshy and velvety mouth feel. There are lush blackberries, plums, cherries, licorice and spice on the palate, held together by soft but structured tannins with a long spicy finish. This is a lot of wine for $19.99.

My vote for best Chateauneuf du Pape for the money is Bois de Boursan 2009. Classic, old school, full throttle Chateauneuf with rich layers of fresh and stewed fruit, wet earth, spice, juicy tannin… OMG this is good! It’s not cheap at $47.99, but great Chateauneuf is never cheap. Get this for that special occasion or meal. You will not soon forget it.

The Rhone Valley is definitely a wine region to be explored. There are great bargains from the south and great wines from both sub regions, so do yourself a big favor and check them out.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Northern Rhone Valley—Where Syrah is King

The Rhone region of southern France produces marvelous wines and is one of the most beautiful yet least visited areas of that country. The region is divided into two sub regionsthe Northern Rhone and the Southern Rhone. The wines from the two regions are different in composition and in style (and as a rule, in price.)

Grapes have been grown in this area since about 600 B.C.E. Various theories give credit to the Greeks, Persians, and Romans for initiating viniculture here, but all agree that genetic studies prove the Syrah grape indeed originated in the Rhone.

The Northern Rhone, where the vineyards are often on incredibly steep hillsides overlooking the river, has a continental climate influenced by mistral winds which bring in cool air. Winters are harsh and summers are warm. Syrah is the only red grape allowed in A.O.C. wines here. For Cornas A.O.C. designation, the wine must be one hundred percent Syrah. The other appellations allow addition of white varietals such as Viognier, Roussanne, and Marsanne, although only Cote Rotie widely does this. Some white wines are produced. Viognier is produced in the northernmost part, and blends are made from Marsanne and Roussanne in some other areas.

The Syrahs from this region are earthy, meaty, and structured on a tannic backbone. They are very different from the much more fruit-forward versions from California and Australia (where the grape is known as Shiraz.) Aromatics of smoky bacon and green olives are classic. Northern Rhone and lamb are a match made in heaven.

The appellations are as follows, as you drive north to south:

Cote RotieSyrah with up to twenty percent Viognier. Wines are elegant and layered. They tend to be very expensive and are produced in small amounts. Guigal’s single vineyard Cote Roties cost almost $300.00 per bottle at release

CondrieuProduces white wines only of Viognier. The varietal reaches its greatest heights—incredibly aromatic and floralin this regionThe climate in Condrieu is difficult. Fierce cold winds during winter sometimes cause havoc during budding and flowering. The clone of Viognier grown in Condrieu produces lower yields and smaller berries than other clones grown in France or elsewhere. As a result, Condrieus are very pricey and are difficult to find under $50.00.

Chateau GrilletThis appellation consists of only one estate (called a monopole) comprising a little over three hectares and producing whites from Viognier. The Viognier from this estate is unusual in that it is meant to age up to ten years before reaching its full maturity. The wine is hard to find and expensive, but is a rare experience.

St JosephRed wines of Syrah and up to ten percent Marsanne and Rossanne. These wines are earthy, structured, and a beautiful expression of the Syrah grape. They are also a relatively good value for the Northern Rhone. Offerus, from Chave, one of the Rhone’s great producers, is a wonderful wine for $29.99. It shows meaty black cherry and black currant notes intermixed with damp earth and forest floor. It is an excellent introduction to the northern Rhone.

Croze-HermitageRed wines of Syrah with up to fifteen percent Marsanne and Roussanne. This is the other appellation to shop for in looking for affordable northern Rhone wines. Chave also has a great offering here at 27.99. The wine is stuffed with dark raspberry, plum, and licorice, with graphite and smoke on the finish. Jean-Luc Colombo does a nice one too. Finally, Chapoutier, another of the Rhone’s great sources, makes a nice white Croze-Hermitage, Meysonniers, that is delicious.

HermitageRed wines of Syrah and up to fifteen percent Roussanne and Marsanne. According to legend, a knight named Gaspard de Sterimberg returned wounded from the Crusades. The Queen of France permitted him to build a small refuge on a hilltop in which to recover, and he lived there as a hermit. The hill is now owned by one of the great negociants of the region, Paul Jaboulet Aine. These wines were favored by royalty, and in the nineteenth century, some Bordeaux wines were “hermitaged” by blending in wine from this appellation to fetch higher prices. These are huge, powerful, age-worthy wines that are very expensive. They have aromas and flavors of leather, red berries, earth, and coffee. Many are over $100.00 at release.

CornasRed wines from one hundred percent Syrah. This is one of the smallest appellations. It is on lower hillsides and is partially protected from the mistral winds, hence its climate is a bit warmer. The fruit ripens well and harvest tends to occur the earliest of the northern appellations These are dark, inky, very powerful renditions of the Syrah grape. Domaine Courbis Cornas Champlerose is insanely good at $47.99. Robert Parker, giving this wine 94+ points, says, “This wine shows terrific full-bodied texture with gorgeous ripeness, purity, and expansiveness.” It will drink beautifully for decades.

The wines from the Northern Rhone are very special. Viognier and Syrah reach heights here to which all other examples of these varietals are compared. To try them is to truly experience what these two grapes are meant to be.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Pinot Noir
The World’s Most Difficult Grape—But Worth It!

Pinot Noir is one of the oldest grape varietals in the world. Originating in Burgundy, France, where it is the source of some of the world’s best wines, the grape is now grown in California and Oregon in the U.S., as well as in Chile and New Zealand.

Difficulties with Pinot Noir occur at virtually every step of wine production. It is genetically unstable, and the parent vine can produce offspring that bear fruit totally different in size, aromatics, and even flavor. This has resulted in hundreds of inferior clones that need to be sorted from the good ones. Any affliction that can affect vines occurs commonly in Pinot Noir. Because it leaves early, it is susceptible to spring frost. It is a perfect host to the sharpshooter leafhopper, which causes Pierce’s disease and can wipe out a vineyard in three years. Leaf roll, a viral infection, is common. The vine is not very vigorous so there may be not enough leaf cover to protect the fruit from birds. This plus the fact that the grape is very thin skinned means berries can shrivel quickly and dry out if picked too late.

Pinot Noir is even difficult to ferment. It ferments rapidly and violently, sometimes out of control. Color retention is a common problem because of the thin skins. Finally, a process known as acetification can occur, causing aromatics and flavors present during fermentation and aging to disappear when the wine is bottled.

Pinot Noir prefers cool climates and chalky, well-drained soils. If grown in warm weather, the delicate aromas and flavors don’t develop. Burgundy has just such a climate and terroir. Willamette Valley, Oregon is at the same latitude as Burgundy and has a similarly cool climate. Pinot Noir grows best in cooler regions of California such as Carneros and Russian River. Cool climates are the most varied, so different vintages vary greatly.

So why do vintners bother with such a difficult grape? Because it can make incredibly aromatic, flavorful wines with a perfume of strawberry, raspberry, black cherry, tea, mint, violets, and spices. The flavors (similar to the aromatics) are delicate but can be quite intense. Pinot Noir tends to be a medium bodied wine with soft tannins and a balancing acidity. Done right, it can be like liquid silk—a profound experience. Aging in oak enhances these characteristics beautifully. It is a wonderful food wine, matching well with Salmon, fowl, ham, and lamb.

There are differences among Pinot Noir from Burgundy, California, and Oregon. Burgundies tend to be lower in alcohol, more structured, and less fruit juicy than American wines. They have more earthy and herbal notes and tend to age longer. Many critics feel Burgundy is a better food wine—it accepts food without overwhelming it, and its lower alcohol and slightly higher acidity balances and brings out the nuances in the accompanying dishes. California Pinot Noir tends to be softer, more lush, and more fruit forward, has a higher alcohol and usually less structure. It is a better wine for drinking on its own.

Oregon seems to be somewhere in the middle of the two. The climate is more similar to Burgundy, but the soil is richer and more volcanic. Oregon Pinots differ greatly among themselves, but tend to be more earthy than California Pinots with a complexity sometimes rivaling Burgundy. The fruit forwardness, however, more closely mimics California.

Another difference among the wine from Burgundy, California, and Oregon is the price. Burgundy is the most expensive, with almost nothing drinkable below $20.00 and prices from the best growers starting at $100.00. Domain de la Romanee Conti wines are over $1000.00 per bottle at release, are the most expensive wines in the world, and are sold out every year. However, some Burgundies are quite affordable, like Seguin Gevrey Chambertin at $47.99 and Regis Bouvier Bourgogne en Montre Cul at $29.99.

California does some really nice Pinot Noir in the $15.00 to $25.00 range, such as Wyatt, Au Bon Climate, Block Nineteen, and Banshee. There are some pricier ones that are really awesome. Try Melville Estate for $27.99.

Oregon is making a lot of really great Pinot Noirs, and this grape has become the state’s signature red grape. Holloran makes two wines. The entry level offering, at $22.99, is called Stafford Hill and is my choice for the best Pinot Noir in the store at this price point. The upper level one is only $7.00 more and is a beautiful mix of perfume, flowers, fruit, and earth. There is a small producer called Tyee whose barrel select Pinot is wonderful at $28.99.

New Zealand is becoming as well known as much for its earthy, funky Pinot Noirs as it is for its Marlboro Sauvignon Blancs. Sherwood and Allan Scott are good values at under $20.00 and are fairly typical of Pinots from this country.

Finally, some definite bargains are coming out of Chile, which is known best for its Carmenere and Cabernet. Llai Llai is a nice example for $10.00 and Cantaluna and Root One are in the same price range. These wines are good places to start if your wallet is a bit light because they are true Pinot Noir. Be careful of inexpensive California Pinot Noirs. Syrah is often added generously to the blend (in California to be called a specific varietal the wine must contain only 75% of that grape) so you may get a pleasant, quaffable wine, but it tastes nothing like Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir can be amazing and can be a great wine with dinner or by the glass on your patio. As tricky as it is to grow and make into wine, it can also be tricky to shop for. So ask your wine geek for the best….it will be an awesome experience.