Tuesday, June 30, 2015

White Wine Grapes, Part 7: Colombard

In the beginning...there was Colombard, or French Colombard as it's known in America.  Before varietals and proprietary blends elevated the stock of the American wine industry, there were just jug wines in this country and in this industry those were indeed the bad old days.  Throughout most of the twentieth century Colombard ruled the Central Valley roost in California providing the bulk and acidic backbone for practically every white jug wine blend.  Before being ousted by Chardonnay around 1990, Colombard had been the most widely planted grape in California.

Ampelographers have determined that Colombard (cole-um-bar) has its roots in southwest France where it excels today.  Because it has been considered vin ordinaire, Colombard has not received the scrutiny the more glamorous wine grapes have received.  It is known to have mutated from an accidental crossing of Gouais Blanc and Chenin Blanc and the grape performs best in warm climates in clay and/or limestone soils.  In the right conditions Colombard vines can be expected to grow vigorously with coorespondingly high yields.

One of the most widely planted grapes of France, the focus for Colombard has historically been on bulk production.  It provides filler for all kinds of white blends from across the southern France vin de pays wine breadbasket.  The grape's only real claim to fame was being part of the blend of distilled wines in Cognac and Armagnac.  Now in the Cotes de Gascogne it provides the bulk of an increasing number of charming IGP (Indication Geographique Protegee) white blends.  The example currently in our store is the fine 2014 Domaine de Joy which blends 50% Colombard with 20% Ugni Blanc, 20% Gros Manseng, and 10% Sauvignon Blanc.

When made right Colombard displays aromas of lime, peach, and nectarine.  Flavor-wise Colombard is capable of peach, melon, tangerine, tropical fruit, apple, citrus, and mineral and spice.  A fine "crispness" is perhaps what the taster notices most in premium Colombard along with the acidity that is its calling card.

This kind of white wine complements goat cheese, veggies (including asparagus and cauliflower), seafoods, soups, and salads.  It also complements the summer season and should be drunk young.

This Friday at the After 5 wine tasting we'll be tasting some combination of 2013 Melini Chianti, 2012 Harlow Ridge Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010 Villa San-Juliette Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon, 2009 Arte Vera Greek Red Blend, 2011 Chapel Hill McLaren Vale Bush Vine Grenache, and the 2013 Chardonnay and Bianco from Ca'Momi of Napa Valley.  Please join us.    

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

White Wine Grapes, Part 6: Riesling

One of the great things about blogging is you can make assertions without having to back them up.    So here goes: Riesling is the finest white wine grape in the world!  There, I've said it.  And I'm not defending a dissertation here so let me just say, that is what I firmly believe.

For any of you who is shocked by that pronouncement, may I clarify by reminding you that my time in this business is getting real close to forty years.  I began in an era when German Rieslings were the most popular whites in America and proceeded through much of my career in an extended era where Germans have become among the least popular of wines in America.

So what happened?  Basically it's the same thing that happened more recently to Australian wines after Yellow Tail.  If Blue Nun and Black Tower became the face of Germany just as Yellow Tail did Australia, then the fine wines from both countries were eclipsed by the mediocrity of the mass marketers.  So what's the average wine customer to do?  Take a chance on the more expensive wines after being less than enthused by the cheap stuff?

What I'm saying is, once the mass marketers inundate a market with plonk masquerading as fine wine, the real stuff can't get any traction.  No one wants to try it because they can't get past the bad impression from the last time.

So what makes the real stuff worthwhile?  First and foremost, Riesling brings a breadth of pretty flavors and especially profound aromatics to the tasting experience.  The wine is almost perfumed displaying nuanced aromas of honey, beeswax, petrol, ginger, flowers, and more.  Flavor components often include lemon/lime, pineapple, nectarine, apricot, apple, pear, and honey; all of which is dependent on the vineyard terroir, especially the soils and climate.  Riesling is actually the most terroir-expressive grape of all.

What Riesling brings to the table actually broadens its food pairing possibilities. The obvious match for us locally would be roast chicken.  Seafood of any kind is Riesling-friendly.  Then taking it a step further, Asian cuisine with sesame, ginger, and/or curry likewise invites Riesling to the meal.  Can Cajun blackened fish with cayenne pepper not be in the mix too?  And what about Thanksgiving dinner and all of the diverse accompaniments with roast Turkey?  It's really the only wine you'll ever need!  Heck, why not crack a bottle with roasted veggies, dried fruits, and mild cheeses?  Are you with me on this so far?

But what if you don't like sweet wine, you say.  That's the beauty of Riesling.  Fine examples can be found anywhere between very dry and the strictly-for-dessert Rieslings and the tasting profile for each will differ for reasons other than sugar!

The finest Rieslings, of course, come from Germany and Alsace.  Historically the Alsatians have been drier but in recent years it seems less dry versions have been on the rise.  Traditionally German Mosels have shown well as cocktail wines with their rounder fleshier style while Riesling from the grape's birthplace in the Rhine have had a leaner, higher acidity that works better with food.  The finest Rieslings, by the way, come from the great estates of the German Rhine.    

The prevailing wisdom is that Riesling does better in cool climates and that is born out in Washington state where the quality of the light, floral, and fruity Riesling grown there seems to surpass California Riesling in general.  But conversely hot climate Australia produces world class Riesling that is layered with heavy, viscous, honeyed, and toasty fruit.  Because of its versatility, Riesling disproves the generalization that Europe makes food wines while the new world makes cocktail wine.  Riesling works in basically any setting.

Please join us this Friday after 5 when David Rimmer of Lynda Allison Cellar Selections de-mystifies European wines here once again with a stellar lineup of French and Italian reds and whites.  David will be featuring his newer offerings with an emphasis on summer season pairings.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

White Wine Grapes, Part 5: Grechetto

We started this series five weeks ago after tasting a couple of lovely white blends from Montauto of Tuscany.  Now we're returning to Montauto by taking a look at Grechetto which occupied 70% of Montauto's "Arcione" white blend.  According to the encyclopedia, Grechetto adds structure and richness along with herbal and nutty flavors to any white blend and in the case of Arcione, it most definitely did that.

That same encyclopedia says the Grechetto grape comes to Italy, like so many others, from Greece, just as its name intimates.  Other sources, however, maintain that the grape is an autochthonous grape of Umbria where it has a lengthy and successful history in white wine blends.  Whenever uncertainty regarding grape origins occurs it usually means the ampelographers have taken their science back as far as they can and now must guess as to origins.  When the grape is acknowledged to be the best of its region like Grechetto is to Umbria, this in turn, leads to the opportunity for the state to step in and claim the grape as its own as California did for years with Zinfandel.  In 1997 Italy responded to Grechetto's burgeoning popularity by creating the Assisi DOC to market varietal Grechettos out of the eastern Umbrian countryside.

Landlocked Umbria is known as the "the green heart of Italy".  It features a uniquely mineral-rich soil comprised of aquatic fossils betraying its ancient seabed origins.  Grechetto plantings in central Italy extend to the east into Marches, west into Tuscany, and south into Latium.  There are currently twenty-five names for Grechetto reflecting both the territorial breadth and history of plantings.  While the Italian claim on Grechetto is both historically and culturally based, the grape also shares genetic material with other central Italian grapes.

Blending partners with Grechetto include Trebbiano, Malvasia, Verdello, Vermentino, and of course, the international giant, Chardonnay.  By its nature Grechetto is medium to full bodied with good acidity and a strong, dry taste.  Grechetto is best known  as the principal grape of the DOC, Orvieto, in Umbria.  In this incarnation and others Grechetto is rarely oak aged.  More often, malolactic fermentation is the preferred manipulation to soften Grechetto's stronger flavors.  When blended, Grechetto is more likely to see moderate oak exposure.

Viticulturists and winemakers love Grechetto.  In the vineyard it is a thick skinned, disease resistant, low yielding vine and that usually results in concentrated flavors.  As new plantings in select regions in and around Umbria have increased, the potential is seen for a new generation of fine Italian white wines featuring complex aromas and flavors of exotic fruits and mixed nuts.    

Please join us this Friday, the 19th, after 5pm when Ted Fields of Domaine Fine Wines presents an array of Italian reds and whites for us to enjoy.  Ted is a former art history professor who now spends much of his time in Europe in pursuit of liquid art for us to consider here on the home front.  Expect some artful cheeses to be on the table also.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

White Wine Grapes, Part 4: Arneis

This series started out as an examination of some of the more interesting white blending grapes of Europe.  We will have to depart from that theme for this post though because the quality of the 2013 Ceretto Arneis tasted here last week so interrupted our concentration we thought Arneis was worth pursuing here.  Arneis (ahr-NAYZ) is historically a blending grape of sorts though, since it softens Nebbiolo tannins when constituting two or three percent of the great red Barolos of Piedmont.  Otherwise Arneis is the premier stand-alone white grape of Piedmont, the premier wine region of Italy.

Ampelographers believe Arneis is native to Piedmont although its age is unknown.  The problem there is that, like so many others, Arneis has had many names in different places and at different historical times.  The oldest written references to wines thought to be Arneis go back to the 1400's.  Currently there are ten names in use in Italy including the obvious misnomers, "White Nebbiolo" and "White Barolo".

So what makes Arneis special?  If you appreciate a wine description like "crisp, floral, dry, and full-bodied with pears and apricots", then you might like Arneis.  Another source says "rich and viscous", "similar to Viognier and Pinot Blanc" with aromas and flavors of "almonds, peach, vanillin, and flowers".  If you're keeping score, someone else says "highly perfumed with hazelnut, almonds, apricots, peaches, and pears".  So what this should tell you is that even allowing for differences in wine making and terroir, this wine is complex.  The Ceretto I tasted here last week, by the way, was most similar to the middle description and would have been served well with seafood of any kind.

Within the Piedmont appellation, two locations make the best Arneis wines.  Langhe is close to the southwest corner of Piedmont while Roero is about twelve miles to the northwest.  Both locations are hilly but Langhe has clay soils while Roero is chalky and sandy.  In Langhe the wine offers more in the way of perfume while Roero Arneis has heightened acidity.  Both regions were granted DOC status by the Italian government in the 1980's but Roero received its DOCG in 2006.

Arneis means "little rascal" and refers to a difficult, demanding person which is what Arneis is to the viticulturist.  It is an early ripening grape susceptible to powdery mildew which produces a low acid wine which oxidizes easily.  Even if an Arneis harvest is good, the yield will still be low.  The grape is so difficult to produce well, it was almost allowed to become extinct.

Arneis has a love-hate relationship with Nebbiolo, the crown jewel of Piedmont wines.  Because Nebbiolo is so revered, Arneis and every other grape grown in Piedmont grape suffers.  At its worst, since Arneis was the sweeter grape, it was planted in Nebbiolo vineyards to attract birds away from the Nebbiolo.  Looking at the situation differently, one may conclude that because Nebbiolo is the bread and butter of Piedmont, Arneis never has been afforded optimal vineyard placements further disadvantaging its success and contributing to its "difficult" reputation.

Join us this Friday, June 12th after 5pm, when Rose Adams representing Aveleda of Portugal offers us a tasting of quintessential summer wines.  Along with Aveleda's strong suit in white wine, we will be showing a couple reds and their fine light rose.  Our usual spread of cheeses will also be offered.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

White Wine Grapes, Part 3: Semillon

Parts 1 and 2 dealt with Malvasia and Vermentino respectively and those two grapes were connected through our exploration of the white wines of Montauto from Maremma, Tuscany.  On the same tasting table which featured the Montauto whites, we also had the 2014 White Bordeaux from Chateau Cantelaudet of Graves de Vayres which we learned was a 90% Semillon/10% Sauvignon Blanc blend.  After tasting the wine and before learning the blend, I would have guessed, because the wine was so lean and fine, that the percentages were reversed.

Semillon is one of the giants of white wine blending grapes and it's partner is almost exclusively Sauvignon Blanc.  In cool climates like Bordeaux, Semillon adds body and texture along with citrus fruit and honey flavors to its leaner and more acidic partner, Sauvignon Blanc.  A sometimes third partner in white Bordeaux would be Muscadelle which adds a complementary floral fruit component.

With 28,000 acres in vines, Semillon ranks third in total white wine grape acreage in France behind Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Almost all of those plantings lie in Bordeaux which actually makes Bordeaux the world leader in Semillon plantings.  Australia is second with 15,500 acres.  First planted there in the early nineteenth century, Semillon has had a long and storied historical run.  At times in the 1800's Semillon comprised ninety percent of Australia's entire vineyard acreage.  As recently as the 1950's it occupied seventy-five percent.  Now due to the international juggernaut of Chardonnay and Shiraz popularity, Semillon has settled into a niche status, which to my way of thinking, doesn't do it justice.

While Bordeaux shows Semillon to be a zesty palate cleanser in a cool climate blend, Australia shows what the grape is capable of bringing in a hot climate and it is very different indeed.  The wine is much richer with complex, intensified aromas and flavors of burnt toast and honey, replete with tropical fruit flavors of mango, peach, and papaya.  If this sounds like a centerpiece single varietal and not a blender, it often is and that model also often includes oak aging similar to many Chardonnays.  Such Semillon-based wines as these have been known to improve for thirty years in the cellar!

So why haven't we heard more about Semillon before now?  In short, because it is not universally loved.  Semillon is a heavy, low-acid grape that doesn't automatically produce intensely complex white wines.  A great deal of its acclaim through viticultural history can be attributed to its easy cultivation and prolific output, which brings us back to the subject of white wine blending because that is just the kind of "filler" component a lot of blends need.  Semillon brings more though.  That Semillon texture mentioned above actually is described alternately as "waxy", "oily", or "lanolin" and that's kind of an interesting blending additive.

I suppose a word or two should be said about the most famous Semillon wine of all...Sauternes, the finest dessert wine in the world.  In a Botrytis Cinerea or "noble rot" infection, fungal spores will attach to grape bunches in the vineyard and drain the water from the grape pulp leaving concentrated solids, fruit acids, and minerals in the shriveled berries.  If fair weather prevails, those berries will have heightened sugars and glycerol making an exceedingly rich wine with peach, apricot, nectarine, mango, and citrus fruit flavors complemented by nuts and honey.  Like I said, it's the finest dessert wine in the world.      

Hot climate Semillon is a meaty white wine.  It pairs well with all white meats including pork chops, ham, and duck.  Its fat body allows it to stand up to the stronger spices including Asian ginger and curry.  Cool climate Semillons also pair with spicy foods but might do better with veggies and fish.  Cheese affinities include Swisses and Cheddars

Please join us this Friday after 5pm when Dean Johnston of Eagle Rock leads us in a tasting of the Chilean wines: Indomita Pinot Noir and Valdivieso Chardonnay along with Valdivieso's Single Vineyard Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir.  Also in the mix for Friday will be Sikelia Sicilian Nero d'Avola and Lava Cap El Dorado Cabernet Sauvignon.