Thursday, February 22, 2024

The Many Kinds of Muscat

One of the oddities of wine culture is that very few wines taste of the grapes they are made from. Noted exceptions are two of the many Muscat varieties: Muscat Hamburg and Muscat of Alexandria.

These versatile Muscats are used to make wine and are good to eat out of hand.  However, the grapes are generally thought to be better as table grapes than wine grapes, although the ancient Muscat of Alexandria has the edge over Muscat of Hamburg as a wine grape. California is one place where Alexandria has long been a popular for wine making.


Muscat varieties are reputed to be among the oldest grapes known. Discoveries in archeology digs along the Mediterranean basin have uncovered evidence of grape residue estimated to be thousands of years old.  The Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder described a wine he had, as being made from uva apiana, or the "grape of the bees."  Pliny likely was musing that the wine he had tasted was honied, one of the common descriptors associated with Muscat wine.

The key sensory component of all Muscat grapes, however, is a strong "musky" perfume that is carried over to the wine. There is no mistaking the smell and taste of a Muscat wine, and once it is imprinted in your wine memory, that singular Muscat character will be immediately recognized.  

The oldest known Muscat grape is Muscat Blanc. That's the short form. The full name is a mouthful: Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains, or the white Muscat with small (round) berries.  Most Muscats, like Alexandria, are oval in shape, but among the unusual characteristics of Muscat Blanc is its round shape. 

Here are a few of the better known Muscat grapes that make acceptable, if not great, wine. 

Muscat Blanc.  Despite its name, this popular Muscat has small, round pink-red berries. Muscat Blanc has more than 60 synonyms, such as Muscat Canelli and Muscat of Frontignan. Wines made from Muscat Blanc include Beaumes-de-Venise, Australia's great Rutherglen (Brown) Liqueur Muscat, the many dry and sweet Moscatos of Italy, and the dry Muscats from Roussillon, in the south of France.

Muscat of Alexandria. Although Muscat of Alexandria has been replaced by Muscat Blanc in many parts of the world, it is still one of the most widely planted Muscats in the world. Wines made from Muscat of Alexandria tend to be sweet and lack finesse, with much of the juice used for other things like the famous Chilean grape distillate, Pisco. Noteworthy wines made from Alexandria: Spain's sweet Moscatel, Moscatel de Setubal and dry Moscatels of Portugal, California's Muscat of Alexandria and Spain's Gordo Blanco, a plump grape, that sounds like a movie bandito, used mostly in blends. 

Muscat of Hamburg.  Despite the family connection to Muscat of Alexandria, this Muscat gets little respect from wine makers.  More common as a table grape, "Black Muscat," the grape's name in California, is enjoyed in eastern European countries, as a sweet grapy wine.

Muscat Ottonel.  The best known wine made from Muscat Ottonel is Muscat d'Alsace, a blend of Ottonel and Muscat Blanc, from the Alsace region of France. Muscat Ottonel is also grown in Austria, Romania and Hungary where the grape is sometimes called misket.

The above list of Muscat grapes and wines could go on and on, but I'll just add two more wines that owe their fame to a Muscat grape. The first is a wildly popular sparkling wine that few consumers know comes from a Muscat grape. Asti Spumante, from the northern Italian province of Piedmont, is made from at least 97% Moscato Bianco (aka Muscat Blanc).

Asti Spumante is sweet and fizzy, with about 9.5% alcohol.  Moscato d'Asti is an upgrade from Asti, and is not as sweet, alcoholic or bubbly.  Better yet is Asti Spumante Metodo Classico, with a minimum alcohol of 10%, better grapes and a second fermentation in the bottle. Fermenting in the bottle is generally superior to  tank fermentation, which is used to make both Asti Spumante and Moscato d'Asti.

                                                      Morris of Rutherglen, Classic Liqueur Rutherglen Muscat

Then, there is the stunning Liqueur Muscat of Rutherglen,Victoria, Australia.  Very sweet and very delicious, these wines are made from a dark-skinned strain of Muscat Blanc, called Brown Muscat and a bit of Muscadelle, the latter unrelated to any member of the Muscat family. You may recognize Muscadelle as the third grape in Sauternes and Barsac, with Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc.

The body and texture of these semi-raisined, fortified sweet wines is not as thick as treacle, but their tongue-coating sensation is similar. Liqueur Muscat flavors are rich and opulent, but not cloying.  Now known by the cumbersome name of Topaque and Muscat, these Australian liquid gems are made in four grades: Rutherglen Muscat, Classic, Grand and Rare. 

No matter which style of Muscat appeals to you, Asti Spumante or Liqueur Muscat,  treat yourself today to the unique taste of Muscat.

Next blog: Alto Adige

Leave a comment at

Thursday, February 15, 2024

New Zealand Pinots


To say that Pinot Noir is not considered a "big" wine, like Syrah, begs a few words of explanation. Describing a red wine as "big," usually means that feeling of weight and texture of the wine on your tongue.

With New Zealand Pinot Noir, it's not the weight of the pinot that impresses wine drinkers, as much as the wine's super-sized reputation and quality.

Developing an appreciation of NZ pinots, starts with the understanding of the country's unique geography.  New Zealand's wine regions are spread over the North Island and the South Island.  And that means there is a wide range of different factors like color, wine weight and flavor profiles. 

There's one more important factor: A large part of New Zealand's reputation for quality Pinot Noir can be found in Central Otago and Martinborough. 

South Island  

In recent years, most of the attention for New Zealand wine has been focused on  Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.  Truly distinctive, in every way, Marborough SBs, are fresh, crisp and layered with passion fruit and lime juice. 

Marlborough also boasts very good Pinot Noir, from the prime vineyard site resting along the northern tier of the South Island. Marlborough pinots have depth of color, are nicely structured with layers of dark cherry and spice flavors. 

However, the best South Island Pinot Noir, some say the best in New Zealand, is made in Central Otago, at the southern tip of the South Island. "Central," as the area is known by locals, is the only wine region in New Zealand with a continental climate and a wide daily temperature swing. 

New Zealand's first Pinot Noir was made in Central Otago in the late 1980s. Because of its location near the Southern Alps, the area is popular with lovers of winter sports, conveniently using the vibrant city of Queenstown as a hub for entertainment and gastronomy.

Sub regions in Central Otago, such as Bannockburn and Gibbston, are noted for rich and intensely fruity Pinot Noir and crisp minerally Pinot Gris and Riesling.  Bannockburn has become one of New Zealand's marquee wine regions.

Central Pinot Noirs, especially from Bannockburn, an area that is one of New Zealand's marquee sub regions, are intense, lush and silky, a style that fans of non-Burgundy Pinot Noir love.  Wines to look for include Chard Farm, Judge Rock, Mt. Rosa, Felton Road, Grey Ridge, Coal Pit, Mount Edward, Thyme Hill Vineyard. 


North Island/Waiarapa

In the southern hemisphere, the more northerly climes tend to be warmer. At the southern tip of the North Island, the region of Wairarapa, one of New Zealand's ten Geographic Indicators, is in a rain shadow, cool enough for some of the country's  top Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Waiarapa is about an hours drive from Wellington, the nation's capital. There are a handful of sub regions in Waiarapa. Martinborough, a name easier for non-Kiwis to pronounce than Waiarapa, has established a solid reputation as New Zealand's foremost Pinot Noir, although it represents only 3% of the country's vineyard land. The reason being the area's cool climate, gravelly alluvial soils and the Ruamahunga River.  

In the 1970s, wine growers, looking for a site for wine grapes, settled on Martinborough, a place they reckoned had conditions similar to Burgundy. The prime vineyard location became known as the Martinborough Terrace, an alluvial plateau with a maritime climate. 

Martinborough Pinot Noir is more complex than those from Central Otago, but with the same dark fruitiness.  Representative wines include Ata Rangi, Craggy Range, TeMuna Road, Dry River, Palliser Estate, Martinborough Vineyard, Escarpment, Schubert Winery, TeKeiranga, Luna Estate. 


When you're thinking about what Pinot Noir to have tonight with a piece of grilled salmon, a juicy spit-roasted chicken from the supermarket, or a vegetable stir-fry, pull out that bottle of New Zealand Pinot Noir you've been saving.  You won't be disappointed. 


Next blog: The Many Kinds of Muscat

Leave a ccomment at

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Look to Lake County

Stand anywhere in the Napa Valley, face to the northeast and in the distance is a line of low hills, known as the Vaca Mountains.  The hills are dotted with wineries and huge homes, while beyond is Lake County, the lesser known wine region in the quartet of Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake. 

Getting to Lake County is a bit of a driving chore, more so than it is driving to the Napa Valley. The narrow road out of Calistoga, is a series of twists, turns and switchbacks, for 35 miles, until it finally hits a straight stretch outside Middletown.  

Mt. Konocti reflecting off Clear Lake

At the center of wine growing in Lake County are two natural features: Mt. Konocti and Clear Lake. Mt. Konocti, still considered an "active" volcano that last erupted 11,000 years ago, has laid down rich volcanic soil, a proper medium for Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Tempranillo, among other varieties.  

All successful and productive wine regions (Bordeaux, Douro  Valley, Rhine) are near a body of water.  Clear Lake, the largest freshwater lake wholly in California,  tempers Lake County's hot days, while helping to cool the nights in the vineyards around the lake. 

According to the Lake County Winegrowers Association, there are more than 30 wineries and 160 growers in the nine sub-regions, or American Viticultural Appellations (AVA).  The sub-regions encircle Clear Lake or are a short distance away. 

As wine growing grew around Clear Lake, more AVAs were applied for, based on unique vine growing conditions. More than 40 years would pass between the first and the ninth approved appellation.

Vines, lake and volcano

Lake County's first AVA was granted in 1981, for Guenoc Valley, the smallest of the nine appellations. Clear Lake, the largest AVA, was approved three years later. Then, seven years passed until Benmore Valley got its AVA, and another 13 years before Red Hills AVA was approved. High Valley's AVA was granted a year later, then another long wait until Kelsey Bench and Big Valley got their AVAs in 2013. Then nine years more before Upper Lake Valley was approved for an AVA. Finally, the Long Valley AVA was approved in 2023.

Here, then, are brief summaries of the nine sub-appellations, from oldest to newest. Shown are AVA approval dates in parenthesis, planted acreage, and major grapes grown in each sub region. 

Guenoc Valley (1981): Guenoc Valley, with 4,396 acres of vineyards, is one of the Lake County sub appellations that is not along Clear Lake.  A popular spot for growing red grapes, such as Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, Guenoc Valley was the site of California's first partially solar-powered winery. 

Clear Lake (1984): Half of the 168,960 acres of vineyard acreage for this encompassing sub region is the lake, with the remainder on dry land. Clear Lake has a mix of grapes, including Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. 

Benmore Valley (1991): Despite having its own AVA for more than 30 years,  Benmore Valley does not have a winery, but the cool climate vineyards are popular as a source for varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc. 

Red Hills Lake County (2004): At the opposite end of Clear Lake is the Red Hills AVA, with 3,250 acres planted mainly in red grapes, such as Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. 

High Valley (2005):  High Valley comes by its name naturally, with vineyards on 14,000 acres, up to 3,000 feet above the lake. Mostly red varieties are planted on the northeast side of the lake.

Big Valley District (2013): A combined total of 11,000 acres are planted in Big Valley and Kelsey Bench, neighboring vineyards on the lake's southwest shore. Vineyards in Big Valley are planted up to 1,400 feet. 

Kelsey Bench (2013): Adjacent to Big Valley, but higher, the bench sits at 1,600 feet above the lake.  With just over 9,000 acres of vines, the popular white grapes include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier and Riesling.


Upper Lake Valley (2022): Large by most measurements, Upper Lake Valley, on the north side of the lake, has just over 17,000 acres of vineyards, at altitudes up to 1,480 feet. Sauvignon Blanc is the most planted variety.

Long Valley Lake County (2023): This sub region is a narrow valley planted in Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Petite Sirah, in 7,600 acres.  Long Valley is a popular site for wineries.

Although Lake County is inland with a continental climate, most of the vineyards around Clear Lake are cooler, benefiting from a large body of water. These conditions are good for white wines like Sauvignon Blanc, attracting winemakers such as John Parducci and later the winemaking team at Geyser Peak Winery. 

And, select spots along the lake, are warm enough for red wines, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, some at altitude, others closer to Clear Lake.  One of the warmer exceptions is Guenoc Valley. 

Next time you are wine shopping, look to the wines of Lake County.


Next blog: New Zealand Pinot Noir

Leave a comment at

Thursday, February 1, 2024


Note: I was one key stroke from finishing a piece on the wines of Lake County, when like a magician's disappearing trick, the words vanished from the screen, presumably into the ether. So, enjoy this essay on Semillon and look for my Lake County posting next week. 

One of the many pleasures of Semillon is how time forces you to think the wine has transformed, through aging, into something quite unexpected. The deep golden color and honeyed richness, has you thinking about how nice the new oak has meshed with the ripe fruit. 

But it's all a trick, a kind of trompe l'oeil of taste. 

The transformation is not evident in all varietal Semillons, but it comes through with conviction in aged Semillon from the Hunter Valley of Australia.  I was fooled once when I wrongly described a Hunter Semillon as oak-aged by a challenging Hunter winemaker who delighted in tripping up the eager American wine writer.  

While the test of my tasting ability was a little embarrassing, the afternoon at Rothbury Estate with the estimable Len Evans, was a treasured learning experience that made me want to know more about Semillon.

I'll pause here to tell a short story about the wine savvy Evans, as he was known in Australia by his devoted friends and by those few who thought him just another loud brash ocker, even though he was born in England. Evans was a multi-talented wine expert, known for his impressive wine memory, spitting accuracy and tasting prowess.  

He loved to play Options, a challenging wine tasting test. The idea is to start with a group of tasters and an unidentified wine. Each taster asks a question about the wine, such as general origin (Spain, Chile). As the rounds continue, the questions become more specific. Ask the right question and you stay in the game. Slip up and you're out. 

My first experience with Options was at the end of a welcome dinner for the Sydney Royal Wine Show (Competition). After just a few rounds, I was out and the field of my fellow judges had been deftly whittled down to just one grinning taster. The truly impressive thing was not that Evans had won, but that he unerringly guessed the wine was a red Burgundy, but also the vintage and commune.  

Semillon and the Hunter

Grape vines were first planted in 1788 in Sydney Cove, making New South Wales, the oldest wine region in the country.  In time, the settlers moved inland to what today is the Hunter Valley, 80 miles north of Sydney.  

Local wine folk call the historic area,"The Hunter," and divide it into Lower Hunter and Upper Hunter. Though, legally, the region is Hunter and Upper Hunter.


The Hunter is not an ideal place to grow wine grapes, with its subtropical humidity, high temperatures, winter drought and rainfall before and during harvest. Yet, somehow, Semillon manages to develop great complexity, deep golden color, and a toasty, honeyed bouquet, without oak contact. The complexity is developed through bottle age, some wines reaching 25 years, and still not over the hill. 

More than 60 wineries fill the Hunter Valley, with most of them making a Semillon.  Here are a few of the better ones: Brokenwood, Tyrrell's, Lindemans, Allandale, Rothbury Estate, McGuigan, Mount Pleasant, McWilliams.

Semillon is the hands down star of the Lower Hunter, but there's also richly textured, buttery Chardonnay.  Hunter Shiraz can be hard and astringent in youth, but like Semillon, bottle age transforms Shiraz into a complex wine, with forward varietal fruit and smooth tannin.

Semillon and Sauternes

When most people think of Semillon, the wine that usually comes to mind is Sauternes, from the legendary region of the same name at the southern edge of Bordeaux in western France. There are less than a handful of truly great sweet wines and Sauternes is one of them. 


To arrive with a fully realized Sauternes (or Barsac) takes an artful blending of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle, working together, with the help of botrytis, to form a wine of depth, complexity and fruit/acid balance, rivaled, perhaps, only by botrytised German Rieslings and Hungarian Tokaji.

Barsac is a sweet wine similar to Sauternes, though lighter. Legally, Barsac can be called Sauternes, but the reverse is not permitted.

Semillon is the major component of the three-grape blend in Sauternes and Barsac. Semillon adds aroma and complexity, Sauvignon Blanc provides acidity to balance the sweetness and Muscadelle (when used) gives the blend a complimentary fruit note. Botrytis, or "noble rot," forms a concentrated, honeyed note that I describe as the scent of bees wax.

Sauternes is unlike any other wine made. Take the same three grapes, add botrytis, use the same wine making techniques, and you have a nice sweet wine, but it's not Sauternes, no more than the many sparkling wines made worldwide are Champagne.

There was a time when devotees were saying that Semillon would be the next great white wine. Although, today, Semillon is still held in high esteem in Sauternes and the Hunter, it never became as great as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.  Ironically, Sauternes wouldn't be the great wine it is without Sauvignon Blanc or Semillon. 


Next blog: Look to Lake County

Leave a message or comment at 

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Pinot Blanc


What do Pinot Blanc and Rodney Dangerfield have in common?  Neither one gets any respect. 

Okay, so you don't remember Rodney Dangerfield, the standup comedian.  He had great timing, especially when uttered the line, "I tell you, I don't get any respect." 

Well, I tell you, neither does Pinot Blanc.  

More than once, Pinot Blanc has been mistaken for Chardonnay. In northeastern Italy, where Pinot Bianco does pretty good, wineries thought they were growing Pinot Bianco until it was pointed out to them that it was Chardonnay. The two varieties look that similar.    

And they can taste similar.  Confident tasters have been fooled thinking they were tasting Chardonnay when the wine was Pinot Blanc. Newly fermented, before oak has had added its unique seasoning, both varieties taste slightly green with faint spice, and decent acidity. And while the wines carry a subtle minerality, Pinot Blanc has the creamier texture. 

But then, put a little French oak on Pinot Blanc and the differences become more difficult to define.  The higher resinous profile of American oak is too strong for either Pinot Blanc or Chardonnay, but the subtle spiciness of French oak is more complimentary.

Perhaps, because of Chardonnay's dominance, Pinot Blanc is not respected by the wine community, in general, except for a few places in Europe and North America.

Pinot Blanc in Europe

When asked about Pinot Blanc, the English wine writer, Oz Clarke, said that he didn't know of any Pinot Blancs that were "star quality," like Chardonnay.  Talk about lacking respect!

Perhaps Clarke was thinking of where in the world you might find Pinot Blanc. Top of list are the Alsace region of France and Italy's northern tiers like Alto Adige.  Elsewhere, California, Oregon, Germany and Austria have respectable acreage of Pinot Blanc. 

Pinot Blanc

Pinot Blanc was originally found in Burgundy as a mutation of Pinot Noir. But the Burgundians eventually dropped Pinot Blanc as an AOC variety and the variety found a home in Alsace. Still, wine laws can be retrogressive, and Pinot Blanc was allowed to hang on in Burgundy but only as Bourgogne Blanc.

Alsace growers consider Pinot Blanc good enough to rank among the best varieties, such as Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris. In Alsace, Pinot Blanc is often blended with Auxerrois, a widely planted variety in Alsace, although it's not valued enough to stand on its own as a varietal.  

And, Cremant d'Alsace, an AOC wine since the late 1970s, is made mainly from Pinot Blanc, often with Auxerrois, although other varieties are favored in this popular Alsace fizz.

Across the Rhine river from Alsace, German winegrowers have Weissburgunder (aka Pinot Blanc) in fifth place, surging ahead of Müller-Thurgau, once considered a serious threat to Riesling, Germany's premier white wine. Oak is rarely seen in Weissburgunder, but many of the wines are finished with a little sweetness, in a style the Germans call halbtrocken, that literally means "half dry."

Pinot Blanc is also popular in Italy's northeast, mainly Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli and Veneto where Pinot Blanc is called Pinot Bianco. Tank fermentation and no wood is common with Pinot Bianco in the Italian style. The wines have a fresh fruitiness, crisp acidity and a moderate clean finish.  

Pinot Blanc in America

With all of the attention lavished on Chardonnay in California, it's little wonder that Pinot Blanc languished in the Golden State for years. Lately, though, a growing list of wineries, up and down the state, have taken a second look at Pinot Blanc. 

The preferred style is tank fermentation with a short time in new or used oak barrels, or the full-blown Chardonnay treatment of French oak barrel fermentation and aging in new French oak.  Which begs the question: Is the wine still Pinot Blanc or an ersatz Chardonnay?


Most of California Pinot Blanc is fermented in Monterey County and the Napa Valley. Noteworthy wineries include Robert Sinskey, J. Wilkes, Au Bon Climat, Chalone, Rams Gate, Chateau St. Jean, Valley of the Moon Winery, Steele and Saddleback Cellars.

Further north in Oregon's Willamette Valley, there was a time when a small band of winemakers struggled to define Oregon Chardonnay, with some deciding that  Pinot Blanc or Pinot Gris could be Oregon's best white wine companion for its world famous Pinot Noirs. Oregon Pinot Blancs to look for include those from Elk Cove and WillaKenzie.

Wineries in the rest of the country seem to ignore Pinot Blanc and the variety is mostly unknown in South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. 

For many of the same features found in Chardonnay, except the higher prices, show a little respect for Pinot Blanc.

Next post: Look to Lake County

Leave a message or comment at




Thursday, January 18, 2024

The lighter side of wine

One of the knocks you hear about wine from people who don't drink wine (and even a few who do) is wine people are too serious.  They claim there's no humor in wine.   


Hang on!  What about the hilarious jabs taken at the sometimes pretentiousness of wine by the acerbic British cartoonist, Ronald Searles?  Or the funny covers of San Francisco's former Pacific Wine Company. Both are classics now, treasured by wine collectors who appreciate wine humor, no matter how subtle or pointed.

History is replete with scores of humorous wine labels.  No one knows who created the first funny wine label, but it might have been in the 1960s, when Davis Bynum put a wine-stained footprint on the front label and called his wine "Chateau La Feet."  A clever take on the famous Bordeaux wine that later became Barefoot Bynum and then simply, Barefoot. 

About the same time, Almaden Vineyards released a bronze-colored wine called Eye of the Partridge, a California take on the French wine Oeil de Perdrix.  The partridge family of wines spawned Saddleback Cellars Oeil de Tortue, supposedly named in homage to the eye color of winemaker Nils Venge's pet turtle. 


Perhaps the longest string of tongue-in-cheek wine labels came from the creative and zany imagination of Randall Grahm, owner/winemaker of Bonny Doon. Grahm was known for knocking the staid wine industry on its collective ear with such label classics as Le Cigare Volant, showing an airship crashing into a vineyard and Clos de Gilroy, Grahm's Rhone-style blend based on grapes he found "Close to Gilroy." 

Other labels in the Grahm camp, include witty label takeoffs, now a part of wine lore, like Napa's Frog's Leap Winery poke at Napa neighbor Stag's Leap Wine Cellar, Australia's  Kanga Rouge and Wallaby White, Planet of the Grapes from Sonoma, and Jory Winery's funny jab at critic Robert Parker (although, apparently he didn't think so), with a Mourvedre sporting a neck label featuring Bob III, The Emperor Has No Nose.

Humorous Wine Tales

Wine has been associated with human evolution for centuries. So, it figures that there are numerous tales, big and small, true and not, connected with the wines enjoyed by the people who made them. 

Reaching back into the dusty corners of the wine humor cellar, I came across this odd tale of the Italian white wine, Est! Est!! Est!!!  It's a fanciful account, some might say humorous, that tells how a certain Italian wine supposedly got its name.

In the 12th century, a German bishop and his entourage were traveling to Rome and his eminence required his servant to go ahead to find the village with the best wine. Mark "Est!" (Latin for "it is") on the door of every tavern where you find the wine to be especially good, directed the bishop. When the servant got to Montefiascone, in Lazio, he wrote "Est! Est!! Est!!!" on all the tavern doors.  The bishop agreed that the wine was excellent and decided to stay in Montefiascone. The triple-e wine is still made today from Trebbiano and Malvasia. 


Castelli Romani -- Like so many things circulating around Italian wine, the vino of Lazio (Latium in English) requires some explanation, so stay with me.  Lazio is a large central Italy region, home to the capital city of Rome.  Lazio is also the site of a group of wines, known as Castelli Romani, of which Frascati is the best known.  The subtle Muscat notes of Frascati are from a traditional blend of Muscat of Alexandria and Schiava, known in Lazio as Malvasia del Lazio, plus a touch of  Trebbiano.

Falernian and Caecuban -- A strangely off-kilter wine note from the Roman past claims that Falernian was so "strong" that it could be set alight! The contemporary version of Falernian is made from Falanghina. Caecuban was described by Pliny the Elder as "sinewy" and "packing a punch."  

Flog that wine! -- Long ago, when wine was imported from Europe to England in bulk, bottling in local cellars was a common practice.  A device, that sounds a bit like a torture device, was used to ram the cork home in a bottle, called a "Boot and Flogger."  Apparently, the way it works is the operator used his boot to slam a lever striking the cork, ramming it home. Later improvements used power leverage to force the cork into the bottle. 

The monk who (didn't) invent Champagne -- A vigorous telling of the discovery of Champagne supposedly has the Benedictine monk Dom Perignon, exclaiming "Come quickly, I'm drinking stars!" Fact is, re-fermentation occurs naturally in the spring, without the help of man or monk. Ironically, Father Pierre Perignon's experimenting with blending was thwarted by this natural process. 

Fun anecdotes about wine and the people that make it are only one possible scenario.  The real truth about wine is in the drinking. 


End note: The deadline I set for the changeover and re-design has past and I wanted everyone to know that I hope to make the changes soon.


Next blog: Pinot Blanc

Leave a comment at

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Lodi: "There's Something Happening Here"


In the late 1990s, Lodi was not a name high on my list of wine regions to visit. There was a reference to Lodi in a bluesey song that bounced around in my head, but nothing much about Lodi and wine. 

Then, one day, in early 1998, I got a call from Mark Chandler, then executive director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission, asking if I would be interested in serving as chairman of the Wine Industry Integrity Awards, a new program devised by the commission.  The annual program would recognize individuals in the U.S. wine industry who have conducted their careers with integrity, while making significant contributions to the world of wine.

Later renamed the Wine Integrity Award, the program brought me to Lodi for the award presentations, while providing me with an in-depth look at the vineyards, wines and people that make up this dynamic and diverse wine region.  

For me, Lodi was no longer just a name in a song.

The cool end of the Central Valley

California's Central Valley is best known for fruits and vegetables, but not so much for wine grapes.  There is Gallo, of course, but the top Gallo wines come from another part of the state, northwest of the Central Valley. 

Rising in the distant Sierras, the Consumnes and Mokelumne rivers flow through Lodi, on their way to the Pacific Ocean. The river waters are an ample source of irrigation for the grapes, and a recreational diversion on those balmy evenings when a casual float with a glass of wine brings a busy day to a relaxing close.

Drive east from the sprawling San Joaquin Delta and you arrive at Lodi, the cool north end of the Central Valley.  Daily breezes off the delta, give Lodi a tempering boost for the more than 100 wine grapes, in seven sub-AVAs: Alta Mesa, Borden Ranch, Clements Hills, Consumnes River, Jahant, Mokelumne River and Sloughhouse.

Lodi has a standing reputation for making distinctive Zinfandel, much of it made from old-vine grapes.  Alluvial loamy and sandy soils from the Sierras form the perfect medium for phylloxera-free grapes grown on un-grafted roots. 

Head pruned old-vine Zinfandel

Many of the Zin vines are 160 years old and still producing clusters of small concentrated berries. And, despite their contemporary standing as viticulture icons, these old gnarly vines continue to yield distinctive concentrated Zinfandel. A few Lodi wineries, drawing from aged vines of other varieties, make Old Vine Carignan and Cinsault.

The most planted wine grape in Lodi, though, is not Zinfandel but Cabernet Sauvignon. And, while other wine regions have pulled Alicante Bouschet and Carignane (Carignan in France), Lodi continues to value both grapes as varietals and components in popular field blends.

An aside: Grape names can be confusing, especially on wine labels. Alicante Bouschet is known variously as Alicante and Alicante Henri.  And Alicante is a synonym for Garnacha Tintoera and even Grenache. What's more, Alicante is both a city in Spain and a Spanish wine appellation.

Other red grapes that help Lodi maintain it's admirable reputation as a grape grower include Dolcetto, Sangiovese, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Nebbiolo, Monastrell, Grenache, Counoise, Tempranillo, the five Bordeaux varieties, Teroldego, Cinsault and Zweigelt, a popular Austrian red grape. All of these are available in wines costing less than $30. Wine drinkers thirsting for a taste of California's past might seek out Monte Rio Cellars Mission wine.

Lodi has a well-deserved reputation for red wine, but there are some unusual whites that should be of interest to the adventurous wine consumer, like Vermentino, Picpoul, Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Albarino, Muscat and the usual Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. 

The main mission of any wine region is to make and sell wine. In 2005, Lodi introduced "Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing," a program that went nationwide and helped Lodi to become recognized for its wine.

"There's something happening here" is the motto of the Lodi wine community.  Try a Lodi wine and discover for yourself what that something is.


Next blog: The lighter side of wine 

Leave a comment at

Thursday, January 4, 2024

Oz Shiraz

In a Cabernet-centric wine world, it may come as a surprise to hear that Australia's premier red wine is Shiraz, aka Syrah. 

Aussies do make Cabernet Sauvignon, but since 1951, Shiraz has captured the attention of Australian wine drinkers, as well as  fans of red wine with personality, everywhere.

There are six states in Australia (Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania), plus Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory. The huge landmass that is the Australian continent/country is about the same size as continental United States. 

Old vine Shiraz

Shiraz is produced in every state and territory and all of them are different, reflecting local terroir. Anyone with a fondness for Oz Shiraz would never mistake a Barossa Shiraz for one made in Margaret River, or the Hunter Valley. They all carry the same varietal name, but they don't taste the same.

The modern story of Shiraz begins with a man named Max Schubert. In the 1950s, Schubert was head winemaker for Penfolds, in the Barossa Valley of South Australia. Following a trip to France where he tasted a number of Bordeaux, Schubert wanted to make a wine at Penfolds like what he tasted in France.

But there was no Cabernet Sauvignon then in the Barossa, although there was plenty of Shiraz, used then to make sweet Australian Port. So, Schubert's boss directed him not to make a dry red from Shiraz.  

Fortunately for wine lovers, Schubert ignored the order and made a Shiraz, aged in American oak, that he named Grange Hermitage.  The French objected to the use of the Hermitage name, since there was already a Hermitage wine in the Rhone Valley.  Penfolds relented and today the famous wine is called simply, Grange.

Numerous Shiraz/Syrahs, made outside the northern Rhone Valley, consider Hermitage and Cote Rotie, as the baseline. Rhone Syrah is deeply colored, with complex aromas of blackberry/raspberry, hints of rosemary and wood smoke.  With age, Syrah becomes more leathery with tobacco leaf notes. Australian Shiraz is riper, more concentrated and fruit-driven.

With that background as a general reference, here are a few characteristics of regional Australian Shiraz. 

Barossa, South Australia: deep ruby color, chocolate-covered cherries, faint herbal note, soft tannins, good acidity. Many Barossa Shiraz have what the Aussies describe as eucalypt, which to me is more menthol than mint.

Hunter Valley, New South Wales: Shiraz does well in the southern part of the Hunter, mainly between the city of Cessnock and the Rothbury area. Young Hunter Shiraz is lean and closed, but like Hunter Semillon, aging in the bottle brings out big berry flavors and smooth tannins.

Yarra Valley

Victoria sub regions: Yarra Valley: very deep inky color, ripe black cherry, peppery back note, crisp acidity, fine tannins.  Geelong: dense color, spicy/peppery aroma, black cherry flavors, good structure and length. Grampians: deep ruby color, richly textured flavors, ripe plums, spice and black pepper, good length. Pyrenees: chocolate cherry and black plum, spicy/peppery, length and structure; Taltarni is the most often seen Pyrenees Shiraz in the U.S. market.  

Tasmania: dense, ripe blackberry, bing cherry, subtle leafy notes. Because of the Tasmania cool climate, similar in some places to Champagne, Tassie is better known for Pinot Noir than Shiraz.

Margaret River, Western Australia: complex bright red fruits, brisk acidity, firm tannins. Structure is more Bordeaux/Cabernet-like than Rhone/Syrah. 

Shiraz also shows up in G-S-M, a blend of Shiraz, Grenache and Mourvedre, with the up-front fruit of Grenache, the structure of Shiraz and the color of Mourvedre.  Aussies also blend Shiraz with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Other noteworthy Shiraz, by state/region: Rothbury Estate, Rosemount Estate (New South Wales); Clonakilla (Canberra); De Bartoli, Yarra Ridge Vineyard (Yarra Valley); Taltarni, Mount Avoca Vineyard (Pyrenees); Chateau Tahbilk (Goulburn Valley); Grant Burge, St. Hallett, Peter Lehman, Yalumba, Wolf Blass, Rockford  (Barossa Valley); Henschke, Hill-Smith Estate (Eden Valley); Jim Barry (Clare Valley); Wynns Coonawarra Estate, Katnook Estate (Coonawarra); d'Arenberg Wines, Normans, Clarendon Hills (McLaren Vale); Vasse Felix, Cape Mentelle (Margaret River).

The name Shiraz comes from the capital of ancient Persia and is the fifth most populous city in present-day Iran. Shiraz is also the name of Australia's most popular red wine, a worthy addition to a wine drinker's collection.

Next blog: Loving Lodi

Leave a comment at

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Dry Creek Valley & Rockpile

There was a time when I was almost as passionate about baking bread as I am  about tasting wine.  My passion was so strong that I bought a baking stone for my home oven, a baker's peel to move the loaves in and out of the oven, and I made a sourdough starter for that authentic flavor and texture in my breads. 

Then I read an online article about Lou Preston, owner of Sonoma's Preston Farm and Winery, in the Dry Creek Valley, who claimed to be as enthusiastic about bread baking as I had become.  Preston is a winemaker who understands the science behind yeast fermentation in bread and wine, and I wanted to know what he knew about bread baking. 


After a few failed attempts, my starter was bubbling and had multiplied, so I baked two loaves of Rosemary and Sea Salt sourdough bread. Then, with the warm aromas of fresh bread filling the kitchen, I called Lou Preston for an interview about baking bread and making wine.

Preston's hobby had taken on a new dimension when he found the directions for building your own beehive wood-fired oven. Using adobe and willow, Preston fashioned an oven in the yard beside his winery, which he proudly showed to me.  In the winery tasting room, there was a basket of freshly-baked bread pieces, for tasters to cleanse their palates between sips of Preston wines. The Preston touch is unusual as most winery tasting rooms offer store-bought bread or crackers.

Dry Creek Valley

That visit to Preston Vineyard helped me gain confidence as a bread baker, and it  re-acquainted me with the wines of Dry Creek Valley, one of Sonoma County's premier wine regions. 

Dry Creek Valley is wedged between U.S. 101, west of Healdsberg, and the low, rolling north-south hills in west county.  A mere 16 miles long and 2 miles wide, the valley has Warm Springs dam at the north end, holding back Lake Sonoma. 

In the latter part of the 19th century, Zinfandel and a mix of varieties, known as field blends, were common in Dry Creek Valley. Before Prohibition, the valley was mostly pears and prunes.  Today, there are 150 grape growers and 70 wineries. J. Pedroncelli and Frei Bros. (now a Gallo winery) are the only wineries to have survived Prohibition.


After repeal, Zinfandel took on increased importance in Dry Creek Valley, but since 2004, the emphasis on big Zins has moved to Rockpile, a rugged stony tract overlooking the lake and part of the valley.


Rockpile, a patch of rocks and shallow soil at 800 to 1,900 feet above the valley, became an AVA in 2002, about 11 years after the reservoir known as Lake Sonoma submerged some of Dry Creek Valley's best Zin vineyards. 

With cooler daytime temperatures than the valley, Rockpile, a sub region of Dry Creek Valley, became a good spot for red varieties, particularly Zinfandel.  Some Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah are grown, plus small amounts of Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. 

Rockpile vineyard and Lake Sonoma

Zinfandel is considered the best expression of the Rockpile vitisphere. In an earlier piece I wrote about Rockpile, I found this quote by Carol Shelton of Carol Shelton Wines on why she thinks Rockpile is a good place for growing Zinfandel. "The fog begins to burn off earlier on Rockpile than it does further down in Dry Creek Valley...and the view goes on forever."

Rockpile Zins are fleshier than Zins from the valley, with more berry and spice notes, plus black pepper and fine tannin.  Zinfandels with Rockpile on the label include Rosenblum, Carol Shelton Wines, Mauritson, Rockpile Vineyards, Paradise Ridge and St. Francis. Price range: $42 to  $55.  

More Dry Creek Valley...

Other important Dry Creek varietal red wines include Cabernet Sauvignon and a collection of Rhone-style wines such as Syrah and Grenache, two varietals that are growing in popularity. 

While red wines dominate in Dry Creek Valley, there is interest in white wine, mainly Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.  Since David Stare, founder of Dry Creek Vineyard, made his first Fume Blanc in 1972, Sauvignon Blanc has been the valley's leading white wine. 

Today, DCV continues to make Fume Blanc, plus three Sauvignon Blancs, including their flagship DCV3 Sauvignon Blanc and The Mariness Meritage blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle du Bordelais.  DCV also makes a crisp Chenin Blanc, answering the demands of a faithful market for the variety.

There is no "Dry Creek wine character," but plenty of winery tasting rooms up and down the valley are available for the taster to sip and decide for themselves.  Here are a dozen Dry Creek wineries that can be counted on for consistent quality and value: Dry Creek Vineyard, Preston Farm & Winery, Sbragia, Ferrari-Carano, Wilson, Ridge, J. Pedroncelli, Mauritson, Seghesio, Nalle, Mazzocco, Michel-Schlumberger. 

Combined, Dry Creek Valley and Rockpile, offer a diversity of wine styles, one for every taste and budget.  Discover for yourself by visiting DCV today or stop at your local wine shop to see what is so special about Dry Creek wines.


Next blog: Oz Shiraz

Got a comment or suggestion, write me at





The perfect meal: A hunk of freshly baked sourdough bread and a glass of wine.


Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Past and Future

Dear Readers,

Do you remember, in the last weeks of 1999, when excitement was palpable about Y2K and the coming of the new century?  Worriers swore that when the final second of the departing year ticked off, we would be doomed. But the new year began, like every other year, and now here we are nearly a quarter of the way into the 21st century. 

When this blog debuted in 2019, my mission statement was to stay away from wine business politics, wine gossip, and wine trade news, although I did stray a few times, when I felt the need to say something. 

In 2023, I wrote 52 weekly posts about a wide variety of wine topics, including   basic useful wine information, bits and pieces of background, designed to help you, the reader, be more informed about the wines you buy, store and drink. 

Specifically, the blogs covered wine from five different countries, 11 regions, and 13 different varietals, from Chenin Blanc to Cabernet Franc.  There was a series of blogs on my adventures in California wine, plus posts on wine flaws, rose wines, the pros and cons of wine competitions, Bordeaux blends and more. 

Looking Ahead 

Now, with the beginning of 2024 only days ahead, I'm thinking of making some major changes in the format of the blog and the service that brings Gerald D Boyd On Wine from my computer to yours.

The content won't change, just the way it will look, with a new design and the addition of social media, and a way to answer your comments.  I welcome any comments and suggestions you may have. 

I hope to have the first blog of 2024 in place by January 12, or earlier. 


Happy New Year,

Gerald D. Boyd



Thursday, December 21, 2023

See how they sparkle!

Every year, at this time, wine writers struggle to think of different ways to write about Champagne and other sparkling wines.  So, this post is intended as a basic buying guide to Champagne, Cava, California sparkling wine and Prosecco, the four most popular bubblies. 

As reported in the e-zine "Seven Fifty Daily," the growth in sparkling wine, across all categories, continues to go up, in contrast to that for still wines. Champagne leads the pack, followed by Prosecco, then Cava.  In terms of the number of bottles sold in 2022, Prosecco outpaces Champagne, then German Sekt, Cava, Italian Franciacorta and California Sparkling wine.


Perhaps it's the centuries spent making the same wine in the same place, using the same grapes to cause the wine to sparkle in the same labor-intensive way, that makes Champagne the epitome of sparkling wine. 

Or, is Champagne the top sparkling wine because we've been told for decades by Champagne marketing that it is?


Whatever, sparkling wine makers worldwide probably agree that the champenois make the best Champagne. But there is equally good bubbly made outside the delimited region of Champagne in northeastern France. 

Champagne is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and occasionally a little Pinot Meunier.  The chef de cave makes the blend, sometimes adding in reserve wines from earlier vintages, plus a dose of wine and sugar, called liqueur de tirage to form the bubbles.  A crown cap (like those on beer bottles) is affixed, the bottles are stacked (tirage) in a cave or cellar, where they develop complex flavors. 

A second fermentation is achieved en tirage, producing the famous pin-point bubbles.  The bottles are shaken and rotated by hand or machine to settle the yeast sediment in the neck of the bottle and are then taken from tirage. The crown cap is removed, a finishing dosage added for style and the final cork rammed home and held in place by the wire net. Finally, the bottle is dressed with the foil capsule. 

These are the broadest styles of Champagne: Blanc de Blancs, made only from Chardonnay; Blanc de Noirs, made from Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier; Rose Champagne and Vintage Champagne. Each house usually has a Prestige Cuvee, a luxury wine such as Cristal and Dom Perignon.  

Within these broad styles, the dosage levels, dry to sweet, are:  Brut Nature or Zero Dosage, under .3% residual sugar; Extra Brut, less than .6%; Brut, 1.2%; Sec, 1.7-3.2% ; Demi-Sec, 3.2-5% ; Doux, 5% plus. Prestige Cuvees are usually made only in the Brut style.

There are hundreds of Champagne houses, far too many to recommend here, so here is a short list of Champagne, priced at $35 to $250: Louis Roederer, Michel Arnould, Billecart-Salmon, Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Gosset, Pol Roger, Laurent-Perrier, Krug, Taittinger. 

The buzz in Champagne, at least from Bollinger, is that the future of Champagne could be still wine. It's another worry brought on by climate change, but if a changing climate will make it difficult to ripen the three varieties used to make sparkling wine, then switching to still wine may also be problematic.  Besides, there is Coteaux Champenois, a still wine made by a number of Champagne houses. 


Cava is the Catalan word for "cellar," and not a Spanish acronym, as is commonly thought.  The majority of Cava is produced around Sant Sadurni d'Anoia, near Barcelona.  However, Spanish DO regulations allow sparkling wine in five other appellations, including Rioja, to be called Cava.

Prior to 1970, Spanish sparkling wine made using the traditional Champagne method was called "Champana."  The French objected, so the Spanish adopted Cava.  However, the objection didn't deter sparkling wine producers in other parts of the world from continuing to call their bubbly Champagne. 


Today, 95% of all Cava is made in Catalonia from three grapes: Macabeo, Parellada and Xarello. In 1986, in a move away from native Spanish varieties toward more traditional French grapes, Spanish law allowed the addition of Chardonnay, and in 1998, Pinot Noir was allowed. Garnacha (Grenache) and Monastrell are also permitted.

There is some turmoil within the ranks of DO Cava.  In 2019, nine major Cava producers, unhappy with the way the DO was running things, left DO Cava and became part of Corpinnat. Meanwhile, depending on what source you read, sales of DO Cava have been going up.

Cava must be made using the traditional methods, and must spend a minimum nine months on the lees in tirage.  Remuage, the technique of riddling or shaking the bottles, is mostly done today in Spain by a gyropalette, a mechanical devise capable of shaking hundreds of bottles at a time.

Major brands of Cava include Juve y Camps, Roger Goulart, Segura Viudas, Campo Viejo, Jaume Sera, Codorniu, Vilarnau, Freixenet. Price range: $17 to $25.

California Sparkling Wine

Although, in the early years, a few sparkling wine houses in the Napa Valley, Schramsberg, Kornell, plus Korbel and Iron Horse in Sonoma Co., made bubbly using the traditional method.  The number of producers remained static until 1973 when the Champagne house of Moet & Chandon opened Domaine Chandon in Napa.


Before long, other European producers were making sparkling wine in California, including the French houses of G.H. Mumm, Roederer, Piper Heidsieck, Taittinger, Pommery, Champagne Deutz, and the Spanish houses of Codorniu and Freixenet (Gloria Ferrer).  Deutz and Pommery eventually left the state.

Another way to get bubbles into wine is the tank or bulk method, commonly called Charmat, or the French name, cuve close.  Use of the tank method is less expensive, but, say critics, it makes lower quality sparkling wine.

There is a broad range of California sparkling wine, both in quality and price. Here are just a few of the better known ones made by the traditional method: Gloria Ferrer, J Vineyards, Mumm Napa, Domaine Carneros, Ultramarine, Domaine Chandon, Roederer Estate, Iron Horse and Schramsberg. Price range: $18 to $35.


Few sparkling wines have smashed U.S. sales records like Prosecco, the Italian bubbly from the huge DOC zone in the northeast Italian regions of Veneto and Friuli. While there's no denying the popularity of Prosecco, especially in the United States, sorting out the grapes, appellations and production practices, can be confusing.

In 2009, Prosecco was granted DOC status and shortly after, the classic zone was made DOCG.  Prosecco Classico comes from the tongue-twising towns of Coneglino-Valdobbiadene.  The majority of Prosecco lies in the Veneto region, with the balance around the town of Prosecco in Friuli.

Typically, Prosecco is grapy and slightly sweet, the product of the Glera grape.  With international fame came pressure to finish the wines drier.  Today, some producers have backed off the residual sweetness or make both a dry and semi-dry version.  


Since popularity of Prosecco took off, the U.S. market has been flooded with brands, including: Bisol, La Marca, Nino Franco, La Gioiosa et Amorosa, Zonin, Carpene Malvolti, Ruffino, Mionetto.  In fact, nearly every major Italian wine maker now has a Prosecco in their portfolio. Most Prosecco is $20 or under.

I read recently that a representative of the house of Bollinger said the firms noted Vielles Vignes special cuvee "may disappear."  The reason?  Climate change and phylloxera are destroying the old vines

I want to end this post with two thoughts: There is a sparkling wine for every taste and sparkling wine is not just a wine for special occasions. 

Happy Holidays!


Next blog: Dry Creek Valley

Leave a comment at

Thursday, December 14, 2023


In these heady times, when the demand is for more wine, there are still some growers and winemakers who find it difficult not to succumb to the pressure for more Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Among the holdouts is Portugal, an important wine producer that has resisted the international clamor for more of the same. In recent years, however, the Portuguese wine industry has yielded to pressure, adding a few French grapes, like Syrah, for limited use in some areas.

Portuguese winemakers appreciate the differences between, say, a California and a French Chardonnay.  But they want wine drinkers to know that Portugal does not rely on Chardonnay or Cabernet, preferring to focus on a range of unique wines.

Touriga Nacional & Douro Vineyards 

Indigenous grapes take pride of place in Portugal, with Portuguese wineries using  native varieties to make some of the world's best fortified and still wines. Port (Porto) is a world-beating benchmark for fortified wines. And a handful of the same grapes used to make Port also forms the base of an increasing number of excellent Portuguese still wines.

As of 2013, a Portuguese trade association counted 248 indigenous varieties grown throughout the narrow country that shares the Iberian peninsula with Spain. 

That unwieldy number was whittled down in 1986 when Portugal joined the European Union. Today, wineries work with red varieties like Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (the Spanish Tempranillo), Trincadeira, Alicante Bouschet and Baga, the latter grown mainly in Bairrada, a small region near the historic city of Coimbra. 

In 1970, Port producers, Cockburn and Ramos Pinto, narrowed a group of 80 grapes, traditionally used for Port production, to the five best red grapes: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Tinto Cao. Since then, a growing number of wineries throughout the country are using the five grapes, especially Touriga Nacional, for still wines.   

Here's a breakout of six of the 17 wine regions in Portugal, including the Azores and Madeira islands; the six are in order of importance to domestic and export wine markets:

Douro: Long known for Port, perhaps the world's best fortified wine, today the Douro River valley in northern Portugal, has built a solid reputation for high quality still wines at reasonable prices.  The same five grapes used to make Port --Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Franca, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cao -- are also used to make Douro still wines. 

Vinho Verde: Portugal's largest wine region, west of the Douro, is best known for aromatic white wines, based mainly on Alvarinho, the Portuguese version of Spain's Albarino.  Many of the vines in this region are still trained on high pergolas.  There is a sparkling Vinho Verde known as espumante.

Dao: More than 80% of Dao wine is red, made mainly from Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz.  White Dao wine is made from the Encruzado grape. Dao is a large area south of the Douro and Vinho Verde.

Alenjeto:  Red wines from this small region on the border with Spain rely more on Aragonez, Trincadeira and Alicante Bouschet then Touriga Nacional.  Alentejo supplies more than half of all wine corks used worldwide.

Colares: Smaller yet, this coastal region, north of Lisbon, makes small quantities of distinctive fino Sherry-like white wines, from a type of Malvasia grape and a red wine that resembles Pinot Noir.  Colares vines, planted in sandy soils, are scattered in dunes along the coast.

Algarve: Famous more as a tourist mecca than for its wines, this region, along Portugal's southern coast, makes fortified wines from Portuguese and French grapes, including Negromoll, the most planted grape in Madeira.

Traditionally, red wines from areas like Dao, were available in export.  But since the Port house of Ferreira released Barca Velha a Douro red from Port varieties in 1952, the number of Douro still wines has exploded.  

Here are just a few wineries, most using Touriga Nacional as their primary grape.  Prices are about $20-$25, with a few as high as $50.

From the Douro: Delaforce, Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas, Graham's Quinta do Vesuvio, Symington Vinha do Arco, Quinta do Noval, Mary Taylor Wines Felipe Ferreira, Quinta do Roriz, Prats & Symington Chryseia. From Alentejo and Dao: Niepoort Alentejo, Cartuxa Evora Alentejo, Casa de Passarella Dao, Quinta de Saes Dao. 

The number of non-fortified still wines from Portugal became international best sellers in the 1990s and are still good alternatives, for value and quality, to Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Next blog: Champagne & Sparkling Wine

Leave a comment at



Thursday, December 7, 2023

Muscadet & Affordable Wine

In his 1951 book, Wines of France, Alexis Lichine had this brief comment about Muscadet: "Pleasant and dry, the wines are most appealing with oysters and sea food."

Not much there to entice a reader to Muscadet, but then, Lichine added this interesting tid bit: "Prior to the control laws (no doubt, meaning AOC regs.), they (Muscadet) were openly blended with Chablis, to stretch the supply of that scarce and famous wine." Who knew?

Nearly three decades later, Lichine, the eminent wine man, upped his game on Muscadet with two pages in Alexis Lichine's Guide to the Wines and Vineyards of France.  Still not much, but Lichine does give a more thorough explanation of Muscadet, the Loire white wine, produced near Nantes, that's well known to French wine drinkers.  

Muscadet of Nantes 

Nantes is the last major city along the Loire, before the river empties into the Atlantic Ocean.  Closest to the ocean are the sub regions Muscadet Pays Nantais and Muscadet Cotes de Grandieu.  Northeast of Nantes is Muscadet-Coteaux de la Loire. Together, these three small Muscadet zones are known more in local markets than in export.  

Loire River at Nantes

Closer to Nantes is Muscadet Sevre-et-Maine, with 75% of the vineyards, named for the Maine River that flows north past Nantes and the smaller Sevre that connects with the Maine just south of Vallet. The influence of all this water, combined with a variety of soils, makes Muscadet a terroir driven white wine.

Yet in 1979, American wine drinkers were still not that familiar with Muscadet,  despite its popularity in France, and the region being granted AOC status in 1936, as one of France's early approved appellations.  

But Lichine's expanded comments did help popularize the wine in America. Born in Russia, Lichine moved back and forth between France and England, while recognizing the growing potential for wine sales in the United States.

Today, despite Lichine's efforts, Muscadet struggles to stay relevant in an increasingly crowded market.  Blended low-cost whites (and reds) are becoming more common and cheaper, while Chardonnay is still the wine to knock out of first place. 

Muscadet doesn't pretend to be as complex as Chardonnay, although since 1990, some producers add 10% Chardonnay to help Muscadet appeal to more sophisticated consumers. Nor does Muscadet claim to have the flavor profile of Sauvignon Blanc, a wine that's holding its own in the top ranks of white wines.


Although it sounds like Muscadet could be the name of a grape, perhaps part of the Muscat family, Muscadet wine is made from Melon de Bourgogne, a grape of Burgundy origin.                                 

Banned from Burgundy, along with Gamay, in the 17th century, but adopted in the western Loire by Dutch traders, Melon was mainly used by the Dutch to fuel the distillation in Holland of brandewijn (brandy).  The Burgundy connection makes sense since Melon is related to Chardonnay, and shares some of the same aromatics and flavors like ripe apples, pears and citrus.                  

Until ampelographers sorted out the mistake, a lot of California Pinot Blanc was, in fact, made from Melon. Identifying grapes in the vineyard is not always easy, as berries can look similar and a close inspection is needed to determine leaf shape and design. Years ago, growers and winemakers in northern Italy believed that what they thought was Chardonnay turned out to be Pinot Blanc.  

Affordable Wine

One of the positive things about Muscadet is its good value for the price, about $20 or less.  So, a fitting way to close this post is with a few words on affordable wine. 

Andrew Jefford, a columnist for Decanter magazine, had some interesting things to say about price/quality in a recent issue. Jefford maintains that "ultra wines" like red Burgundy and first growth Bordeaux deserve their high prices, but only the wealthy can afford them. So, he said that, maybe, there's another way for the consumer to benefit from the "ultra" connection.

For those who don't have the big bucks to buy a wine like Ch. Lafite, Jefford said they could look to a "Bordeaux first growth, whose owners also sell $10 Chilean wine...and Corbieres." Lafite distributes Los Vascos from Chile and Ch. d'Aussieres, Corbieres, a red blend, from Languedoc, consisting of Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah and Carignan, although the latter is slowly disappearing from Corbieres.

Perhaps there is a winery patron in Burgundy or Bordeaux that would be interested in adding Muscadet to their portfolio.

Next blog: Portugal

Leave a comment at