Saturday, July 21, 2018


As some of you know, I've been in this business a l-o-n-g time.  Priorats probably didn't cross my radar screen until the late 80's or so and then they were viewed as exotic "can't get" wines.  The advance word was that these big powerful reds were actually the finest wines of Spain, better than the more Bordeaux-like Riojas.  And then they arrived...sort of.  For years I would have one example of a Priorat wine on the shelf like that was my allocation for the year.  Now it seems like they're coming out of the woodwork.  Without walking across the store I know of four off the top of my head.

So what's going on?  Let's go back to the beginning.  Written references to Priorat wines go back to the twelfth century.  Those references were made by the monks who planted the vineyards.  (Don't you love the monks.)  The name, Priorat, actually comes from the monk title, Prior.

Today Priorat is a Denominacio d'Origen Qualifada (DOQ) government de-limited premier wine region in the Tarragona province in the Catalonia region.  It is encircled by the Montsant DO which should clue you into its stature having been carved out of a larger entity and then given a higher rating than the surrounding area.

The wine making history of Spain for the past hundred fifty years or so has been difficult, to say the least.  Priorat had 12,000 acres in vines before the devastating Phylloxera epidemic of the late 1800's.  All of those would be destroyed by the bug and before they could be replanted, the European wars, including the Spanish Civil War, would set the industry back for another fifty years.  Finally in the 1950's the re-planting of Priorat was begun but because of economic circumstances, that reset was on a much smaller scale than what was there pre-Phylloxera.

As California wine makers upgraded their vineyards and wineries in the early 1980's preparing for the anticipated wine boom to follow, something similar started happening in Priorat.  Knowing the potential of their collective land holdings, five insightful growers banded together to form a cooperative venture.  Priorat, which had always been planted in common jug wine grapes, was now primed for replanting and re-branding.  Garnacha Tinto now became the premier varietal supported by Carignon and other reputable vinifera types.  The co-op's initial wine offerings consisted of making one common wine which each participant labeled with his brand.  As the new Priorat wines began to make a name for themselves, investments poured in. By the year 2000 2,500 acres were in vines.  In ten years that number doubled and today 48,000 acres are now in vineyards.

Priorat vineyards are diverse in elevations and microclimates but they share a continental climate and rocky soils which mean low yields and intense wines.  96% of the production there is red wine and because of the sales potential internationally, the international varieties (Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah) are increasingly being planted.  Also the traditional Spanish labeling of Crianza, Reserva, Gran Reserva is now being amended or even disregarded.

Please join us here at the store next Thursday the 16th of August after 5pm when Atlanta importer Ted Fields presents a tasting of Italian wines from his fine portfolio.  Fittingly the cutting table will feature complementary Italian cheeses like Piave Vecchio.


Beverage Dynamics is a trade paper that reports sales numbers for mass marketed alcoholic beverage brands.  Since I'm not a mass marketer my interest in tracking such things is similar to my interest in the grocery store wars in the business news.  Having been both a mass marketer and a grocery store guy in the past I voyeuristically remain interested in who's winning those competitions.

Occasionally Beverage Dynamics does offer up something relevant to what we're doing here and in the May/June edition of this year in an article called "Salt is Wine's Best Friend," Marnie Old reports on the contrasting effects of salt and sugar in combination with dry red wine.  Old is a wine educator and former director of wine studies for Manhattan's French Culinary Institute.

When pairing wine with food, most of us defer to the traditional model of pairing red wine with red meat and white wine with chicken and fish.  Others might look to the relative lightness/heaviness of the meal and select a complementary wine based on those terms.  Soups, sauces, and gravies and the busy-ness entailed in those types lead sommeliers and other wine geeks to go further and check out the spices involved before selecting a wine go-to.  That is the stepping off point for Old's article.

Knowing the place of salt in cooking everywhere, she selects Italian cuisine as a case study asserting that the dryness of Italian red wine works with pasta sauce because salt blocks the wine's acidity thereby revealing the inherent fruitiness of the wine.  Therefore...this is why European wines are so dry and acidic.  They are so designed to complement foods.

Want to experiment?  Join us here for a Thursday afternoon wine tasting.  Typically we'll taste the wine on its own terms and then walk over to the cheese table for a gnosh.  If it's a European red wine the salty cheese should make the wine turn quite fruity.  If it's new world red wine the change is minimal and sometimes for the worse, making the wine seem heavy and dull.

Sugar is something else entirely.  It blocks the tastebuds that detect sweetness and sensitizes acidity making the wine seem less fruity according to Old.  New world fruitier wines therefore fare better with sweet foods than do the dryer Europeans but any wine with sweet foods must at least be as sweet as the food.  So with that in mind try a noticeably sweeter Riesling with your next honey-baked ham!

Please join us this afternoon for a tasting of Palermo Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and others as we celebrate another summer Saturday afternoon.  Tuesday is National Wine & Cheese Day so after 5pm on that day Nick Simonetti directs us in a tasting of four from Borsao of Spain including the Garnacha, Blanco, Rosato, and Tres Picos.  On Thursday we'll have the regular weekly tasting as usual.  And if your curious about the thesis above, grab a piece of cheese at the next tasting!

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Domaine du Verger

This is neat.  For years we've been waiting for French ciders to reappear in this market and now they're here under the brand name Domaine du Verger.  While the brand names of the past are long gone from memory, the taste of fine French cider is unforgettable.  Hard cider is a far cry from non-alcoholic cider.  In some ways it's similar to a fruity beer but yet not really.  It's most like Champagne but of course, it's not really like Champagne at all.  It is truly its own category.

Domaine du Verger comes in two types.  The Brut is refreshingly light and dry while the Rose is light and a little off-dry.  Rose?  Yes, this one is made from Baya Marisa apples that share the red flesh we remember from the neighborhood crabapple tree, so if you're making cider this one naturally comes out pink!

The ciders we're talking about here come from a co-op called Val de Rance which was begun in 1983 in Brittany, France.  They have been growing and modernizing since then to the point where they now utilize one thousand acres of orchards owned by three hundred growers to produce up to fifteen thousand tons of apples.

All of the apples grown in Brittany are considered to be bittersweet in character.  They are supplemented with bitter apples from Normandy, the appellation best known for cider.  For both ciders produced, the mix is 90% Brittany and 10% Normandy with no other juice of any kind added.

The cider making process is pretty simple and forthright.  The apples are picked, cleaned, crushed, and fermented before CO2 is added for bubbles.  The actual bottles used for these ciders are corked and caged Champagne bottles.  For the Brut version the fermentation time is two months; for the sweeter Rose version it's just five weeks.  Because the fermentation is shorter the Rose ends up being just 2.5% alcohol as compared to the 5% Brut version.

The Brut cider is a pale straw color, light in body, and has aromas of golden apples, peach, and apricot.  On the palate the wine is refreshing.  The rose is a little sweeter with a bit more body and moderately tart with no sourness or bitterness.  The simple flavor profile for the rose includes strawberry, white grape, and pomegranate.  The wine finishes sweet.  No additional sugar is added in the making of either wine.

These ciders are perfect as apertifs, with brunch, mild cheeses, and with summer!  They should be consumed within a year of purchase.

Please join us next Thursday the 19th at 5pm when Cherie Rubio joins us for a tasting of California wines.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Silk & Spice

Silk & Spice is a Portuguese red blend marketed by Sogrape Evaton USA, a wine company that now represents eighteen labels in America, most of which are Portuguese in origin.  Historically Sogrape is perhaps best known for bringing us Mateus Rose, a cultural touchstone on college campuses fifty years ago which was really much better than we gave it credit for at the time.

According to the back label "Silk & Spice" is a metaphor for the wine's smooth juiciness which they claim must ascertain its origins in the indigenous grapes of Portugal.  While I can't exactly validate that pitch, I can appreciate the inference.  The wine is a Touriga Nacional blend that goes through a malolactic fermentation followed by six months in American oak which can kind of account for its description.  I can also report that after tasting it out here the wine has sold very well.  It is noticeably less dry than the Aveleda wines tasted here on Thursday.

Silk & Spice, again according to the back label, honors the brave Portuguese seamen of the fifteenth century who ventured into the unknown to discover new seagoing trade routes to the east, returning with silk from China and spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, and pepper) from the Spice Islands.  The front label, by the way, is a fifteenth century map of the Bay of Bengal, complete with distortions reflecting what the explorers didn't know at the time.

Actually the very idea of labeling a Portuguese product with a map of the Indian Ocean is a little confusing and after hearing more than a few comments on the unusual wine label, I decided to bone up on my fifteenth century history.  Here's what I learned:

Portugal reached the Spice Islands, now the Maluku Islands of Indonesia, in 1512.  A year later in 1513 they reached China.  Spain and Portugal were on the vanguard of ocean seafaring back then with the English, Dutch and others decades behind them.  That alone may justify the label.  They're proud.

Here are a few significant dates: In 1498 Vasco da Gama was the first to round the African Cape and make it to India.  Christopher Columbus was sponsored by Portugal to go exploring in 1492 and ended up somewhere.  I forget what he discovered.  Then in 1522 Magellan circumnavigated the globe.  Unfortunately he didn't personally make it all the way around but he still deserves the credit.

How did Portugal achieve its early seafaring success?  They created the Caravel sailing ships which were smaller, lighter, and better handling than those that were the standard of the time.  How did they do that?  They copied the fishing boats of the time!  Honestly!  Leave it to the working guys to show up the brainiacs!

So was this the beginning of international trade and maybe, globalization?  Not hardly.  Evidence exists of an international spice trade going back to 3,000 BC.  North African Arabs were usually the beneficiaries of the spices then.  Unfortunately, the current religious conflicts between the Muslims and Christians in Indonesia have their origins in the period we're discussing here.

If we have now shed enough light on our made up wine label controversy then let's conclude by saying Silk & Spice shows best on the dinner table with pork chops, beef stew, stroganoff, lasagna, and barbecue. 

Cherie Rubio offers us a tasting of California wines this Thursday after 5pm and Jean Arnold shows us his Oregon wines on Saturday starting at 1pm.  Please join us for these.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Portuguese Preview

This Thursday at 5pm Rose Adams of Aveleda of Portugal leads us in a tasting of four new wines in her portfolio.  Last year Aveleda bought wineries in the Alentejano DOC in southeastern Portugal and in the northern Douro DOC, the finest wine venue in the country.  Those wines are just now making an appearance in our marketplace.  Aveleda, itself, is located in the Minho DOC in the northwestern corner of the country, home to the great seafood wines Vinho Verde and Alvarinho.  Here's a preview of next Thursday's tasting.

The 2017 Assobio Branco is a fresh and aromatic, straw-colored, light dry steel barrel-aged white with citric and tropical fruit flavors.  The indigenous grapes are handpicked from high altitude vineyards in Douro and lend themselves to lighter fare like salads, seafood or tapas.  Assobio means "whistle" and refers to the sound the wind makes through these high altitude north facing vineyards.

The 2016 Esperao Reserva is sourced from select vineyards of indigenous grape varieties in Alentejano.  Vinification includes cold settling with skin maceration in stainless steel tanks before ageing on the lees in new oak barrels.  Yellow fruits, minerality, toast and spices dominate the palate in this fresh aromatic white.  The flavors are long and balanced within a creamy structure.

The 2016 Assobio Red is sourced from the same high altitude vineyards as the companion white listed above.  These indigenous grape varieties produce a fresh versatile summer food-friendly light red wine.  Touriga Nacional is the primary grape in the blend and it is handpicked before a temperature controlled pre-fermentation cold soak followed by pressing and fermentation.  Aging is done in both steel and oak barrels.

The 2014 Esperao Reserve Red is the flagship wine of this Alentejo winery and features handpicked Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and a couple indigenous varieties resulting in a rich ripe spicy, red fruit wine with a subtle oak presence.  Each grape type is fermented separately in temperature controlled steel tanks before a malolactic fermentation which is then followed by a year of oak barrel ageing.  The wine is textured, dense and full-bodied with structured tannins making it a candidate for ageing in the cellar.

Categorically Portuguese wines need to be considered in their own right.  Too often they fall into the "other" category or are seen as "value wines" when actually they should be seen as wonderful dinner wines suitable for a number of occasions.  Rose Adams, by the way, is someone I have known in the trade for at least twenty-five years so please join us for the tasting and expect an education in the process!