Saturday, June 25, 2016

Clarksburg, Part 1

Clarksburg is a 128 square mile AVA (American Viticultural Area) five miles south of the capitol city of Sacramento.  The California capitol lies eighty miles northeast of San Francisco in the northern extremes of the Central Valley.  This area would little interest me if it were not for the convergence of natural phenomena that results in a very counter-intuitive wine-friendly terroir.  If I was a landscape designer I would say the place has "bones"; you just have to dig a bit to find them.

The Clarksburg AVA was established in 1984 and today has 10,000 acres in vines.  Since ninety percent of the wine production is made outside of the region, the Clarksburg Wine Growers Association was established in 1987 to recognize and protect those growers.  Later when wineries actually started making wine there, "and Vintners" was added to the name.  While the area was first settled in the 1850's, grape growing and wine production started about eighty years later, long after the area became known for its fruit and vegetable agriculture.

Clarksburg is located in the California River Delta formed by the convergence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers.  What was swampland a hundred years ago, has gradually been reclaimed as farmland and now, as vineyards.  Most of Clarksburg lies ten feet above sea level.  French drains in the vineyards facilitate the redirection of waters.  It has a maritime climate courtesy of both the river influence and the breezes and fog from San Francisco Bay.  Clarksburg is cooler than Napa and has the much desired diurnal effect of cool nights to complement warm day times.

The soils of Clarksburg are an alluvial mixture of clay and sand transferred there by the Sacramento River from the Sierra Mountains gold mining of a hundred fifty years earlier.

Historic vineyards and wineries of the region include Bogle and Wilson Vineyards, but as we said above, most of the wine production of the region is done elsewhere.  Pine Ridge and Dry Creek Vineyards were in the vanguard of pedigreed northern California wineries to take advantage of Clarksburg fruit when they marketed Chenin Blanc and Viognier thirty years ago.  To their credit they put Clarksburg on the wine map by putting the place name on their labels.

Clarksburg, Part 2

Viognier (VEE-ohn-yay) is one of the handful of grapes worldwide that may be considered to be noble.  When grown in the right terroir with the right winemaking talent, Viognier can be about as good as any white wine, period.  The finest Viognier comes from Condrieu and Chateau Grillet in the northern Cotes du Rhone and there will be no threat to that title since the old vine/older strains of Viognier there don't exist elsewhere.  Notoriously difficult to grow, Viognier is now being attempted everywhere around the world.  We shall await the results.

Chenin Blanc (she-NEEN blahn) is very much the opposite of Viognier.  It is the most ordinary of grapes everywhere but reaches its epitome in Vouvray in the Loire Valley of France.  Since this is a commercial industry, Chenin Blanc plantings are in decline everywhere just as Viognier is on the rise except in Clarksburg where both do remarkably well.  With soils similar to Vouvray, Chenin Blanc has become the signature white grape of the region.

Wilson Vineyards of Clarksburg is in all likelihood the source of most of the Chenin Blanc and Viognier being bottled by wineries outside of Clarksburg.  Started in 1920, Wilson has the industry relationships in place and the mature vines to produce serious fruit.  Our Terre d'Oro white blend is definitely Wilson product as is our White Knight Viognier.  The Pine Ridge and Dry Creek whites are probably from them also.

The premier red grape of Clarksburg is Petite Sirah and the current examples in the store include Handcraft and The Crusher.

Just as a disclaimer, our promotion of the wines of Clarksburg is not to say they are world class.  They're just better than you would think they should be.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Norton, Part 1

Last week we brought in a red and white blend from Morrisette of Virginia, prompting me to reflect upon the historic Norton wine making grape of that state.  Thirty years ago Norton was promoted as the signature wine of Virginia.  It seemed to be the counterpart to what Zinfandel is to California and to my tastes it seemed better than Zinfandel.  Remembering the prominence of Norton in Virginia, I assumed it must be a big part of the Morrisette red blend.

Dr. Daniel Norton, a medical doctor by trade and botanist by avocation, either discovered or created his namesake grape in the early 19th century and sometime around 1830 the wine became commercially viable.  By mid-century the Norton grape was a hit with domestic winemakers and soon thereafter, Europeans recognized its quality.

However, one of the inescapable wine industry truths is that you have to sell it, meaning this is a commercial industry and no matter how good your product may be, the public must respond to it.  Thirty years or so ago, Paul Thomas of Washington State produced lovely dry white wines using fruit other than grapes but if you blinked you may have missed them, they came and went so fast.  In my research I have learned that Norton wines have not sold well compared to the traditional international varieties which have largely replaced it on store shelves.  Now it is predominantly a blender in Virginia where it adds color, fruit, and spice to most any blend.

The good news for Norton though is that it grows well in a lot of other states including Georgia.  In the store right now we have the Tiger Mountain Cynthiana which is genetically identical to Norton but because it develops differently in the vineyard, it may be a clone or mutation of Norton.

Norton vines are very adaptable throughout the American south.  They tolerate low temperatures (to -20) but require a long growing season so the south and southern midwest are where they fair best.  Norton carries the moniker, "Cabernet of the Ozarks", as the premier grape of Missouri, a state that is recognized by the experts for its superior production.  Likewise in neighboring Arkansas the grape thrives but once again it is known as Cynthiana there.

Norton, Part 2

Norton and Cynthiana are identical cultivars, grapevine varieties cultivated for a purpose.  Whether Dr. Norton or some other wine loving adventurer created the type is a moot question at this point.  What is known is that it is a cross of vitis aestivalis with vitis labrusca and then with vitis vinifera vines.  More to the point - Norton is the only non-vinifera grape type that displays the vinifera finesse in flavor profile without new world foxiness.

Norton makes a red wine that is deep in color, rich in body and texture, and characterized by supple spicy/brambly fruit.  Comparisons with Zinfandel abound including coffee, chocolate, and big dark fruity flavors.  Structure is different, however.  Norton has that asset over Zinfandel along with better acidity which means the wine has the potential to age well.

But there's more...Norton grapes are a dark purple in color and contain a high anthocyanin content.  Anthocyanins are the family of compounds called polyphenols which aid the vines in fending off diseases like the fungal problems of the south.  These same qualities translate into health benefits for wine lovers as antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, antimicrobials, and anti-carcinogenics.

So where has Norton been for the last hundred years?  In short, it disappeared for most of it.  Liquor and beer are more profitable for this industry than wine.  When Prohibition ended, the alcoholic beverage industry was slow to develop a wine culture in America.  Moreover, during Prohibition, wine grapes were replaced by Concords and others for juices, jams and jellies.  It was only fifty years after the fact that Norton was remembered and then revived.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Comte Tolosan, Part 1

La Galope is a popular French country wine we have been offering here for the last few years.  It comes in red, white, and rose versions and is value-priced between $10 and $13/btl.  Prior to 2009 the La Galope label would have read Vin du Pays Comte Tolosan as the wine's appellation/quality level.  With the demise of the Vin du Pays category in 2009, Comte Tolosan (COM-tay TOH-luh-zah) alone appears on the front label.

Comte Tolosan is an overlay for the very large southwestern corner of France.  It extends northward to the outskirts of Bordeaux, west to the Atlantic Ocean, south to the Pyranees Mountains and east to the Massif Central Mountains.  It's huge!  And it contains eighteen smaller appellations within it!  So why would the French government create such a large wine appellation?  For the same reason California has the Central Coast with all of its smaller appellations.  In fairness to all who are invested in vineyards outside of the esteemed smaller appellations, the commonality in terroir far outweighs the differences.  So they deserve their branding too.

I suspect there is more though.  The modern wine era is all about international grape varieties made in the modern fresh, fruity, and forward style.  California started it all and now everyone is doing it.  Neighboring Spain's booming new world-style wine industry surely must have influenced the creation of Tolosan.  Let's be honest - this is revenue we're talking about.  Government protection/promotion of their native wine industry by using appellation branding makes sense.

Comte Tolosan is one of six IGP's (Indication Geographique Protege) in France.  IGP's like our La Galope wines, by definition, reflect the character of the region they are from, in this case, southwestern France.  The La Galope white is an aromatic, flavorful, and complex Sauvignon Blanc; consistent with the regional model.  The La Galope red is Malbec and it is light, fruity, and soft; again consistent with the character of neighboring reds.  The rose is typical with refreshing crispness.  And the wines are all made in the modern international style.

(Scroll down for Part 2)

Saturday, June 4, 2016

My Five Senses

"Complex deep black fruits with aromas of black cherry, cassis, black tea, cedar, cigar box, cocoa, and baking spices with gripping tannins for structure and weight."  Or something like that.  So reads the website description of the 2013 Cloisonne Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which is probably the best bottle of its kind in the store right now.  While I haven't actually tasted the wine I will take the word of the young man who sold it to me and I'll assume the verbiage above is at least mostly accurate.

If the truth be known, whenever I read a wine description like that, I'm lucky if I taste half of what they're talking about.  Actually most of the above was about the wine's aroma and I'm even worse in that area than I am with taste.  I take consolation by reminding myself that my tasting odometer has serviced me well for the past thirty-five years, meaning I have tasted so many California Cabs I can probably guess the flavor profile without even tasting the wine, which is what I'm basically doing with Cloisonne.

The 2012 Turris Chianti Classico is different.  I tasted it last week with the importer and couldn't get it into the store quick enough to satisfy my desires.  The wine is per-r-fect.  At their website they are less about the verbiage - "elegant red fruits (dark cherries and plum) dried herbs and spices" - and more about what matters with European wine - "high acidity, balanced tannins, persistent finish", i.e., it's a food wine.  What I lack in taste buds and olfactory acumen I compensate for with appreciation for balance and texture in the mouth, which I guess reflect both my sense of touch and my cognitive faculties.

Have I mentioned my red-green color blindness yet?

What I'm getting at here is that wine appreciation doesn't have to be strictly by the book.  One of my favorite old bumper stickers was "Question Authority" and with regard to wine tasting, to me that means, believe in your own palate.  Inevitably, if there is an opinionated outspoken "expert" at any wine event, that individual can ruin the experience for many of the rest of us who have our own experience.  And as for the wine descriptions in print, I'm not so sure that a lot of that isn't just creative writing.  In my opinion the same goes for jazz music critics, by the way.

My Five Senses is a children's book I read to my preschool grandchildren.  They love it and gobble it up like the little sponges they are.  They have yet to develop inhibitions and fears concerning correctness.  If the truth be known, us old wine guys still get apprehensive when tasting with others.  No one wants to be corrected.  We all want approval.  We just need to take a lesson from the kids and believe in ourselves.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Comte Tolosan, Part 2

The Comte Tolosan region used to go by a different name.  Because of its prevalent thermal springs, rivers, and lakes; Julius Caesar dubbed the region Aquitaine, the land of waters.  In fact, Caesar didn't know the half of it.

The wonderful vineyard soil of the region today was actually made possible by geological processes started hundreds of millions of years ago when Europe was a volcanic mess!  The two mountain ranges on the east and south of the region created the second largest sedimentary basin in France with its middle tilting and forming a funnel toward the Atlantic.   The well-draining rocky soils are perfect for vines and the ocean-fed maritime climate moderates any temperature extremes.

So the basin was created during the Triassic and Permian Ages, 200-300 million years ago.  Since then alluvial soils have filled in the rock bottom to about 11,000 meters and the deepest trench follows the course of the Garonne River northeastward toward Bordeaux.  Not surprisingly most of the Comte Tolosan vineyards are located centrally along the Garonne River over the abyss.

Land of waters indeed, Julius.