Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Preface by Skipstone

Short of tasting a wine and knowing its quality, a wines label is as good of a selling point as any.  If that wine has a good reputation, then your expectations reflect the promise the label represents.  Vineyard terroir and viticulture along with hands-on quality control at the winery are what ensures that quality reputation.

Second label wines were started in the 1800's in Bordeaux, France to utilize juice from younger vines in prominant vineyards, vines that weren't quite ready for prime time; so a second label was created to get that juice out to market.  It made sense for both the winery and for wine lovers of that product.  Wineries could profitably market this extra juice and their customers could claim a certain brush with fame, even if it was just the second best wine from an illustrious property.

Flash forward: Wineries in California and elsewhere see this phenomenon and decide to cash in.  New World second labels, while often very good quality wines in themselves, weren't necessarily from the same vineyards as their namesakes.  (If the truth be known, some of the namesakes marketed as the primary labels weren't exactly what they were advertised as either...but that's a different subject.)  Then, in time, as the second label gains repute and market share, it is usually spun off; that is, it's sold, usually to an industry giant and whatever juice had previously gone into the bottle would be completely different henceforth.

Preface by Skipstone is different.  It is an authentic second label.  As a matter of fact, as its name implies, Preface may more accurately be called an introductory wine to Skipstone's better wines.  But that declaration may even understate things.  According to one reviewer, Preface is already of similar quality to Skipstone's more pricey offerings.  In other words, Preface is a fine red wine appreciably ranked with its peers in the Skipstone stable.

Preface is a Bordeaux blend of 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Merlot, 9% Malbec and 6% Cabernet Franc.  The cool 2018 vintage meant a longer hangtime for the grapes resulting in "full flavored ripenesss and enhanced aromatics."  Skipstone's organic estate fruit is harvested at night to retain freshness.

Philippe Melka is Skipstone's consulting winemaker.  His record for scoring 100 point critically acclaimed wines is second only to Thomas Rivers Brown in California.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

The North Coast AVA

As often happens in the blogging business, you start out with one topic in mind only to be overtaken by something else that commands your attention.  This time we started with Dough Wines of St. Helena, California which have been a popular item here at the store.  The variety currently in stock is their North Coast Sauvignon Blanc which, if you go to, they advertise on the same page as their Napa Sauv Blanc at twice the price.  So the question looms - Is the Napa appellation wine really twice as good as the North Coast?

Before moving on from Dough, since we are so critical of winery websites, we should commend them for a wonderful site.  Without romanticizing or fictionalizing their story like so many sites, they just say what they are about and it seems to be as much about food as about wine.  The site is tastefully done if that doesn't sound too punny.  

The Dough winemaker says the juice for their North Coast Sauv Blanc comes from two vineyards; one a warmer locale, the other, distinctly cooler.  The fruit from the warmer is more tropical; the cooler one, crisper with an acidic structure.  Blending them together results in a "lively and refreshing, gooseberry/tropical" quaff.  

And that brings us more to the point - North Coast appellation wines are often blends from disparate places created by big business wineries requiring huge volumes to maintain their mass market shelf space.  Such wines are not vying for best-of-kind status.  They are making a commodity for the marketplace, wine that meets a respectable quality standard for the North Coast appellation.

The North Coast AVA (American Viticultural Area) is in three million acres huge!  It includes all of Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake Counties and parts of Solano and Marin Counties. It's shape is a diagonal rectangle measuring a hundred twenty miles north to south and fifty miles inland.  Any further into the interior and the climate is considerably hotter.  Its proximity to the ocean provides the cooling fog and breezes that define its existence.

More than half of all California wineries are located in the North Coast AVA.  Half of all functioning organic wineries are located there.  Fifty-four smaller AVAs are located within the North Coast AVA.  The Russian River Valley, Oakville, Alexander Valley are brand names in themselves but they could just identify themselves by the North Coast appellation.  But it is always an indicator of quality for a wine label to narrow down their location.  We know the three AVAs above are Napa/Sonoma locales.  Benmore Valley, Yorkville Highlands and Suisun Valley are three from elsewhere in North Coast.  Could they be comparable to Napa/Sonoma?

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Gros Manseng

Gros Manseng is one of three grapes in the Manseng family.  Both Gros and Petit Manseng are white grapes; Manseng Noir is the red variety.  Petit Manseng is the most covetted of the three.  It obviously makes some fine white wine.  Manseng Noir has fallen out of favor and is consequently rarely planted nowadays. 

We're writing about Gros Manseng now because we got in a pretty good example of the type courtesy of Boutinot USA, one of the really neat importers providing us with good quality, everyday-priced wines.  UVA Non Grata means "unwanted grape" and it's the name attached to our Gros Manseng wine. It's a 100% varietal example, which is rare for this usual blending grape.  In case you are wondering, Gros Manseng is a Rodney Dangerfield type, it gets little respect in the business, hence, the Non Grata name.

Gros Manseng wine can be made into two styles depending on the harvest time.  If picked early is makes a crisp, floral, citrussy (lemony) light dry white.  If picked a couple weeks or more later, you can make a richer, more complex wine with a smorgasbord of tropical fruit flavors.  UVA leans more toward the latter.  It's a fruit bomb.

So if this is such an ordinary type, what's the point here?  UVA is for the customer who is curious about different wine types.  It's a good example of Gros Manseng AND it makes a $12.99 retail.  Case closed.  Think of it as a nice picnicky seafood/chicken salad accompaniment.  In a more macro sense, Gros means large and that applies to both the size of the berries AND the bunches, which means economically, this is a winner for the industry.  Not only that, it's an easy grower in the vineyard too!

Gros Manseng finds its French home in the southwestern (Basque) corner of the country where the geneticists think it originated.  It may be related to Spanish Albarino.  The Jurancon district is ground zero for Gros Manseng but most whites labeled IGP Cotes de Gascogne use it to flesh-out out the blend.

Think of it as late-summer porch sitting wine!

Monday, August 29, 2022

Cabernet Franc (Balance & Elegance)

This isn't new territory for us.  Not by a long shot.  With more than forty years in the business, our paths with Cabernet Franc have crossed many times.  This current excursion just adds some new interesting stuff to what we already had.

Such as: Some time ago Cab Franc had a mutative crossing with Sauvignon Blanc in a vineyard somewhere in western France resulting in the birth of the Cabernet Sauvignon varietal.  We now know Cab Franc also parented both Merlot and Carmenere.  What we learned is that Cabernet Franc has an unstable genome; not as unstable as Pinot Noir, but still capable of mutating on occassion.

We have also learned more about the birthplace of Cab Franc.  We always knew it was from somewhere in western France.  We now know the place to be toward the south, perhaps in the Libournais (right bank) region of Bordeaux or further south toward the Basque region.  So we've narrowed it down.  Date of birth?  Written documentation of the type exists in the eighteenth century so it may go back to the seventeenth.

The right bank of Bordeaux is home to the most expensive wine in the world, Chateau Petrus.  Saint Emilion, Pomerol and to a lesser extent, Fronsac, all feature Cabernet Franc as part of a blend that elevates Merlot to its proper place as a fine wine grape.  So is Cabernet Franc just a blending grape?  Well, yes and no.  You can't deny right bank success, so yes, it is a blending grape par excellence!  (BTW: Italy is doing something similar with Cabernet Franc in their Super Tuscan blends.)  Granting that, to fully appreciate any bit player in a blend, you really need to look at the grape as a varietal in itself.  That's where our "balance and elegance" post subtitle comes in.

The finest varietal Cabernet Franc wine in the world comes from the cooler climate Loire Valley to the north where it makes a lighter colored, lighter bodied, higher acid red that features a somewhat bell peppery, tart fruit character.  It's food wine, for sure.   Pair it with steak, sausage, roast bird.  To the south in the warmer climes, a richer bodied wine emerges with cherry and dark berry flavors.  It is those qualities that endear Cab Franc grapes to the wine blenders of the world.  That and the sturdy reliability of the plant.

Cabernet Franc, like Cabernet Sauvignon, is planted everywhere there is a winemaking culture.  Its popularity explains the Cab Sauv plantings; its durability and reliability explain Cab Franc.  Look at it as an insurance policy: If the Cab Sauv crop turns out to be not so good, you can fall back on the earlier harvested Cab Franc.

But there's more: Bell pepper is a wine flavor not everyone appreciates.  Some consider it to be a flaw in the Cab Franc profile.  As it turns out, that flavoring pays dividends for the grape vine.  Methoxypyrazines are aromatic compounds responsible for the bell pepper effect.  They are also reponsible for the durability and reliability of the vine as they repel pests.  So there you have it.  You want healthy productive grape vines?  Accept a little pepper in your wines.

Still want to avoid the bell pepper?  Cellar your Cabernet Franc for five years or so.  That element along with the acidity should diminish.

(Much of the above was taken from which we wholeheartedly recommend.)

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Marcona Almonds

Well, this is a first.  It's always been about wines or cheeses here at the ol' blogspot but since we got in another load of Marcona Almonds, it definitely makes sense to promote them here.

In a way the almond history parallels the wine history we depicted in the recent Phoenicians post.  This time the history starts in the early Bronze Age around 3-4,000bc in Jordan where almond trees were first domesticated.  They were then propagated throughout Iran and the region on the eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea called Levant.  Maybe the Phoenicians, the world's the first wine traders, got in on the ground floor of the almond business too.

There are two types of almond trees.  The older variety produces bitter fruit that actually contains cyanide.  The one that has the sweeter fruit, not surprisingly, is the variety that was propagated.  Almonds are not true nuts, by the way.  They are drupes, seeds within a larger fruit, comparable to a peach pit.  In fact, the almond tree falls into the same classification as peach trees.  

Almond trees require a Mediterranean climate of hot summers and cold wet winters and that has been the historic weather of the Central Valley of California.  California has a million acres planted in almond trees which produce 2.8 billion pounds of almonds annually, that's 80% of the world's almonds.  That production is good for an income of 4.9 billion dollars, making it California's most valuable product...but not for long.  The trees require a lot of rain and, of course, currently the state has little.  Almonds are not sustainable in the current climate so most people think the end is in sight for California almonds. 

But that's not what this post is about.  Marcona Almonds are from Spain and they are different from other types.  They are shorter, rounder, softer, sweeter and moister AND they are nutritionally dense.  They are a superfood that we will spare you chapter and verse about here.  Suffice it to say, they are packed with vitamins and minerals and may reduce heart disease by lowering LDL cholesterol.

Marcona Almonds have a butteriness in texture, aroma and flavor that works well with cheeses.  If you want to pair them with wines, Champagne and Sherries are proven affiliates.  We think white wines in general might be worth a try.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Ventisquero Pinot Noir Reserva

This is one of those everyday-priced wines that shows the quality of a higher priced model, like their twenty-five dollar version.  Since we've tasted the two side by side, we feel we can safely say, it's basically the same stuff.  And by the way, the higher tier pinot is no slouch.

Ventisquero means "glacier" in the local Chilean dialect and it refers to the great glaciers of Patagonia which they feel symbolize character and a perfect balance of movement, energy and force.  Since we're talking Pinot Noir here, let's just stay with character and balance.

Vina Ventisquero was established in 1998 by Gonzalo Vial, CEO of a major fresh foods company.  Their flagship vineyard and winery was constructed in coastal Maipo Valley but in quick order they purchased vineyard land in the Leyda, Casablanca, Colchagua and Huasco Valleys.  Today they have 1500 hectares (3700 acres) in vines.  They export one and a half million cases of wine annually.

Now called Ventisquero Wine Estates, it is one of the five largest in Chile and while their growth has been explosive, it has also been thoughtful.  Felipe Tosso is the head winemaker who has been with the company from the beginning.  Australian winemaker John Duval came along a couple years later.  Both have impeccable resumes reflecting employment with some of the great wineries of the world.  Together they use their own soil-mapping methods to get the right varietals placed in the perfect locales for optimal terroir-driven results.  The vineyards for our Pinot Noir are along the coast of Casablanca where the ocean's cooling Humbolt Current moderates the temperatures for that cool weather grape.

Chile is bordered by the Pacific Ocean on the left and the Andes Mountains to the right.  Because of their unique geography, they never were affected by the phylloxera louse that killed nearly all of the vines of Europe in the late 1800s.  The louse that brought the disease to Europe then proceeded to decimate the rest of the world.  Chile is the only wine producing nation to be unaffected.  They are the only wine producers who have not had to graft their vines onto American disease resistent rootstocks; so the theory goes that the production of Chile is emblematic of what European wine was pre-Phylloxera.

Monday, August 8, 2022


Your new fifty cent word for the day is thermovinification and the process is just what it sounds like, the application of heat to the winemaking process.  Actually heat has always been a part of the process if you consider what happens when you pile up grape bunches and maybe allow a whole bunch fermentation to happen.  Heat is inescapable in this common winemaking practice.  Thermovinification though is the deliberate use of near boiling temperatures to alter grape chemistry before fermentation.

Ten years ago we wrote about Flash Detente, Italian technology that flashed a blast of 185 degree steam heat onto grapes, then immediately cooling them.  It was, more or less, an instantaneous de-contamination.  The process effectively dealt with the problems of Brettanomyces taint and pyrazines in unripe grapes.  At the time there were just two of the contraptions in California.  Now there are much more.  Thermovinification is a little different.  It is often a one hour "pre-fermentation hot maceration."  Though not as hot as Flash Detente, it effectively extracts anthocyanins (red pigments) for enhanced color and phenolic compounds that affect the taste and mouthfeel of a wine.

So why are we writing about the subject now?  We recently met a North Georgia winemaker who educated us a bit about the stuff which, as often happens, lead us to investigate further.

We now have a fifty year window on the wine industry and we've seen huge changes in wine quality and wine business dynamics.  What heat in the winemaking process has done is to clean up ordinary grapes by breaking down cellular walls to release the better qualities in those ordinary grapes.  If the heating is overdone the wines will taste cooked and there are plenty of examples of that on store shelves.  But if done right, the heat bonds red and blue colors into a brighter purple; it boosts the berry fruitiness of the wine and it leaves tannins that are softer and rounder than before.

While all of this seems to be good, wines that are so treated show less complexity over all and a uniformity that may be considered to be the commodification of wines in general.  Wines so treated become the singular "new normal" style.  Distinction goes out the window.  Since heat treatment shows its greatest value in making ordinary grapes palatable, then the great beneficiary of the process on the business side of things is the large wine industry player.  They can profitably over-crop a harvest and then remediate it with thermovinification.