Saturday, November 24, 2012


Carmenere is one of the truly ancient grapes of Europe.  It may have originated in Bordeaux where it was well documented in the nineteenth century or it could have originated in Spain or Portugal where so many took root from the earliest migrations north.  It could also very well be that Carmenere is the ancestor grape of all five of the current Red Bordeaux varieties; Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec.  There is also a distinct possibility that the Bordeaux blend of a thousand years ago was just Carmenere, previously called Grand Vidure, and Cabernet Franc, one of the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon. 

In any event it is well documented that the Phylloxera epidemic of the late 1800s (blog 6/11/11) meant the demise of Carmenere in Europe due to the difficulties of grafting that vine onto disease resistant American rootstocks.  Records show sales of vinifera grapevines to emigres to Chile in the 1850s and later, when Phylloxera was at its worst, French winemakers took uninfected vines with them as they exited Europe for greener pastures in South America and elsewhere. 

Because the wine industry is such a commercial effort, grape types are at the mercy of the wine buying public and in the late 1800s Carmenere was fading in popularity in Europe.  Merlot, by contrast, has always been popular and some specific sales records of vines destined for Chile mention Merlot by name.  Since the Carmenere vine resembles Merlot, many of those vines labelled Merlot were actually Carmenere.  Only in autumn when its foliage turns crimson or carmine, the color from whence it gets its name, does the difference become known.  So the hundred year odyssey of the incognito Carmenere in Chile ran its course through the twentieth century with the acclaimed Chilean Merlot garnering the accolades while Carmenere was largely forgotten.  Merlot, as we said above, sells well everywhere and Carmenere struggles which could be an obvious commercial reason for the misidentification.

In 1994 French ampelographers in Montpellier using new DNA technology determined that Carmenere was indeed the "Merlot" of Chile and four years later in 1998, the Chilean government recognized Carmenere for what it was.  Since some of the greatest of twentieth century Chilean reds have been shown to be Carmenere based all along,  the grape's bonafides were assured and sales of  newly labelled varietal Carmenere have been solid.

This store is offering two exceptional Carmeneres at this time.  The rich yet austere 2009 Toro de Piedra red blend is 60% Carmenere and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon and retails for $15/btl.  The 2006 Surazo Reserva Especial Carmenere is a fully mature example that sell here for just $10/btl.  Both would show well with a steak.  One spice that is enigmatic for wine pairing is curry and Carmenere is thought by some to be the solution for that difficult problem.

Join us Friday November 30th from 5 to 7pm for our regular weekly tasting.  There will be no Carmeneres but the tasting will be a cut above average with a Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Riesling, Malbec, and Merlot.  Please join us. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Beaujolais Nouveau

For a change this time I know what to write about with no frustrating deliberative process to work through first.  On Thursday the 15th of November this store will receive about fifteen cases of Nouveau Beaujolais with about fifteen more on tap for a week lets get started selling the stuff!

Being a history buff, Nouveau snags me right away but there is a problem lying in its pre-history in that there has always been a "nouveau" release in France and probably elsewhere.  Wine producers have historically released a quickly made teaser of a wine in hopes of whetting the appetite of locals who may then be enticed to patronize the regular vintage offerings to follow.  This pre-history of Nouveau existed until 1937 when the Beaujolais AOC was codified in France and the floodgates were then opened internationally for Nouveau Beaujolais.

By law Nouveau must be sourced from the AOC environs but outside of the ten grand cru vineyards, which is opportune to say the least, since those superior vineyards command a premium price compared to basic Beaujolais.  Through the marketing genius of Georges DuBoeuf, half of all Beaujolais production is now sold as Nouveau and that half is all from the "common" lots.  Moreover it is sold quickly before the regular vintage is ready when cash flow is really needed.  It is almost like the industry wrote the law!

Getting back to history prior to DuBoeuf, in the effort to create demand, races were held in France to get the teaser to as many markets as possible culminating with Paris being the then ultimate destination.  DuBoeuf entered the Beaujolais business in 1964 and quickly extended the racing of wine across Europe and then to America and elsewhere, thereby creating the proverbial marketing monster.  At this writing, Germany, Japan, and America are one, two, and three in world Nouveau markets with smaller markets existing everywhere wine lovers congregate.

Gamay is the grape of Beaujolais and Beaujolais is the southern half of Burgundy, France.  Centuries ago Gamay was held to be superior to its cousin, Pinot Noir, but that was a long time ago and today Pinot is held by many of us to be the finest wine grape of all.  The great Gamay wines from the grand cru vineyards when aged four to eight years can give Pinots a good run for their money though.  Nouveau, however, is a different animal and if you want to learn more about the subject, read the two blogs written here on September 15th of this year.  The first blog of that day concerns carbonic maceration, the Beaujolais winemaking process which is called whole berry fermentation in the new world.  "Flash Detente" is the title of the second article and it builds on the first explaining the revolutionary new winemaking technology that seems to take carbonic maceration to a whole new level.  Remember to scroll back since the order is reversed in the blog form.

Next Friday from 5 to 7pm we'll be tasting as usual here at the store.  Two whites that didn't make the cut this week are Chateau de Cray Bourgogne Aligote and Sensi Pinot Grigio, so count on those two and, as seems to be a trend, more Spanish and Italian reds and California Cabernets.  Please join us...and get those holiday gift basket orders in!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Familiarity and Expectation

What do they say about familiarity?  It breeds contempt, right?  Or perhaps more accurately in the wine business, complacency.  Last night at our weekly tasting we had four Cabernets priced from $12.99 to $24.99.  All were good wines and three of the four were brands I have sold for thirty years, so going into the event I assumed that the new highly recommended one would outshow the old standbys.  That was my expectation but you know what they say about assumptions.  That wine turned out to be the least of the four and of the other three, the little $12.99 Wente Southern Hills Cabernet Sauvignon, overperformed its station by far.  Maybe it's not a $30 value, but if you want to taste textbook Cabernet, try this one.

When I think of Cabernet, I think of structure first.  I want a wine with shoulders that tastes like it has intention and demeanor.  This one had fourteen months in oak, imparting both the boldness (shoulders) and earthiness (spice, tobacco) that goes a long way toward conveying the kind of attitude I'm talking about.  Also when talking about Cabernet, complex fruit flavors are prerequisite and this one was brimming with cherries, berries, and plums, and I mean more than one type of each.  This one's fruity nature makes it a nice cocktail for cab lovers but its structure and balance makes it more than just another fruit bomb.  Needless to say, as a red meat accompaniment, it'll do just fine.

Wente, by the way, is the oldest California winery by most acceptable measurements.  Charles Wetmore planted his Bordeaux cuttings in Livermore Valley a hundred thirty years ago.  Today UC Davis calls those cuttings Cabernet Clones #7 and #8 and those berries seem quite content residing in the four hundred acre Wente Cabernet vineyard in Livermore.  Five generations of Wentes have farmed their still family-owned estate elevating it to top thirty American wine company status.  Not bad for a family-owned enterprise.

Familiarity in cheese appreciation can be problematic too.  For the past month we have been selling Austrian Moosbacher Swiss, which when first cut into seemed to be just another Swiss, so lacking in distinction it could even be domestic.  Because the cost was reasonable and the flavors moderate, we served it repeatedly at tastings and I gradually took a liking to the cheese.  When I finally realized that the annoying familiarity I felt with Moosbacher had to do with mediocre Baby Swiss, I was able to get past the bias and give the cheese a real chance.  It doesn't hurt that our cheeses tend to sit out on the cutting table for elongated periods warming to just the right temperature. 

Moosbacher seems to be a combination of Emmentaler and Gouda and to a lesser extent, Appenzeller, and Gruyere.  As a Swiss it is smooth, semi-firm, nutty, sweet and fruity, and creamy in the mouth.  Moosbacher comes in an eighteen pound burlap wrapped wheel.  It is a cow's milk cheese and as I'm writing this, I'm wondering if it may have improved in the deli over the past month.  Stranger things have happened in this strange wine and cheese business and familiarity has a role to play in all of it.  In this case though, my expectations were limited and  it was the cheese that improved on me!

As always Friday is tasting night here at the store so join us on the 9th when we will taste a French Pinot Noir, Italian Montepulciano, more California Cabernets, and I don't know what else but it'll be fun.  Nouveau Beaujolais day is the 15th so get those orders in as well as the holiday gift basket orders and do you want to know who introduced the Chardonnay grape to California?  Wente, naturally.