Wednesday, January 20, 2021

My Life in Wine Episode 10

"The more I see of other countries the more I love my own."  Mme Germaine de Stael, 18th century French-Swiss author


 In Episode 9, my Copy Editor and I had rounded out a pleasant visit to Alsace in 1979, then drove to Frankfurt, Germany for the flight back to Colorado.  After three weeks of driving, eating and wining in Europe, we arrived back at our home in Aurora, to an urgent phone call with surprising news that held the prospect of changing our lives. 

We were hardly through the front door when my mother-in-law anxiously told me of several phone calls from someone in California.  There was some confusion about the caller, but the message was clear: Call as soon as you get home!

There were very few wine publications in the late 1970s.  I was writing a weekly wine column then for the "Rocky Mountain News" and had heard of a new wine newspaper called "The Wine Spectator."  The founder and editor was a retired Marine Corps journalist named Bob Morrissey.

In the early days of the Spectator, Bob and his wife Mary Jane published the  Spectator in tabloid newspaper format (TWS became a magazine a few years later), out of their home in La Jolla, California.  

I quickly realized that the area code from the mysterious phone message and the code for the San Diego area were the same and that area code and the one I had for Bob were the same.  

Could Bob be calling about an article I had submitted just before going to Europe?  So, I put down my bags and picked up the phone.

When it came to business, Bob Morrissey wasn't fond of small talk. "Marvin Shanken and I would like you to join 'The Wine Spectator' as managing editor," Bob announced. 

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Farewell to the Rockies...

Marvin Shanken, the founder of the Spectator, was an investment banker in New York City, when he decided to get into wine and spirits publishing.  Bob told me later that he didn't have the money to grow the Spectator and Marvin had contacted him with an offer to sell and, as they say, the rest is history. 

Bob and I chatted about specifics for a few more minutes, all the time I'm thinking, we're both former military journalists, but Bob was a Marine major and I was an Air Force NCO ... could that cross rank/cross service gap work?  

There's still plenty of inter-service rivalry and I'm thinking, there's a big difference between the Marine Corps and the Air Forcelong and a major and a sergeant.

"I'm flattered, Bob, but I need to talk with Janet," I answered, hoping he didn't pick up on the nervousness in my voice.  When I hung up the phone, Janet (who much later became my Copy Editor), noticed the look on my face, asked if everything was okay.  

"That was Bob Morrissey. He offered me a job with "The Wine Spectator," I said, still a little shocked.   

Utah National Park FREE Days |
...onward through Utah...

After moving numerous times while in the Air Force, Janet and I decided that we liked Colorado and Aurora was going to be our permanent home. And one of our sons was still in school; Sean is now a winery owner and winemaker in Washington state. 

But Bob had said that Marvin Shanken was prepared to establish the Spectator as the top wine publication in the country and to sweeten the deal, I would go from being a modestly paid free lancer to the highest paid wine writer in the country.  That distinction was short-lived, of course, as Robert Parker would soon surpass me by a mile. 

My wheels then was a 1972 V-W Beetle.  I had just bought the car from a friend, so I decided to drive it to San Diego.  My wine collection in those day was modest, but I wanted to take every bottle with me.  The question was how to safely move the wines?  

People I spoke with claimed that moving vans were hell on wine, so I decided to wrap each bottle in insulation and pack the bottles securely in boxes, drop the back of the rear seat in the V-W, strap it down as level as possible, then fit the boxes in and cover them with blankets and insulation. 

With my bags stowed in the front "trunk" of the V-W, I said good bye to my family and headed west over the Rockies, southwest through Utah, through a tip of northern of Arizona, then southeast Nevada and Las Vegas, and into southern California, skirting Los Angeles and finally reaching San Diego. 

San Diego EAC – CEAC beautiful San Diego!


 Next blog:  While your attention was elsewhere...

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Sunday, January 10, 2021

King Nebbiolo

 "Wine is like the incarnation and it is both divine and human."  Paul Tillich, existentialist philosopher


Recent Barolo Vintages - 2014, 2015 And The Promise Of A Memorable 2016
In the Piedmont hils

For as long as I have been writing about wine, more than 50 years, Barolo has been proclaimed the "king" of Piedmont red wines.

Simply put, Barolo is at the head of the Piedmont realm.  Barolo is considered by many to be the best expression of the Nebbiolo grape.  Barolo and Nebbiolo is the only royal team in Italy to challenge the country's other royalty: Sangiovese and the members of its court, Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

In Italy's northern region of Piedmont, Nebbiolo is the grape, not only for Barolo, but also Barbaresco, a noble red that some say is equal to Barolo.  And it is these two great wines that is the subject of this essay. 

The name Nebbiolo is derived from nebbia, the Italian word for fog.  Before the grape got its present name, it went through many clonal variations. The first written mention of Nebbiolo was in the 13th century and by the 19th century, the grape was widely planted in Piedmont.  

Think of that: Written records showing that the same grape (or close to it) has been planted in the same part of Italy for 600 years!

At first blush, Nebbiolo is not a grape that causes wine drinkers to gush about how great it is.  In the wrong hands, Nebbiolo can make a hard wine that hides its lush fruit behind a wall of tannin.  And the acidity, well, it can make your mouth water!  But then, there is the intriguing scent of roses, mingled with an earthy note of road tar, as improbable as that may sound. 

Although these pluses and minuses are to be found in the best examples of Barolo and Barbaresco, Nebbiolo also shines in Gattinara and Ghemme and the lesser known Roero and Valtellina.  But more latter on Nebbiolo's other faces. 

Barolo --  The modern history of Barolo is, of course, full of Italian drama.  At its core, are five townships, including the area around the village of Barolo.  In 1934, the local commission established a new definition of the zone, dropping the townships of Barolo and Castiglione Falletto.  The error was corrected by DOC decree in 1966, with DOCG status granted latter.

Much has been written about the stylistic differences in Barolos from one township to the other and the two soil types that define these differences. The vineyards of La Morra and Barolo are rich with a calcareous marl, producing a softer more aromatic wine, while the soils in the other three townships -- Montforte d'Alba, Serralunga d'Alba, Castiglione Falletto -- are less fertile with more sandstone, yielding more intense wines that age more slowly. 

1,096 Nebbiolo Grape Photos - Free & Royalty-Free Stock Photos from  Dreamstime
A large cluster of "blue" Nebbiolo grapes

Barolo is 100% Nebbiolo and is required by DOCG rules to be aged a total of 38 months, 18 of which must be in oak.  Until the 1970s, the practice in Barolo was to ferment in large old oak.  Younger winemakers began to look at ways to mitigate Nebbiolo's tannins, adopting the use of small French oak barriques (Bordeaux type 59 gallon barrels).  This change caused many old timers to say that an Italian red wine aged in French oak, is no longer "Italian."

Barbaresco -- For years, this rich and powerful red wine from the Piedmont region of northwest Italy, was not thought to be the equal to Barolo.  That changed in the 1960s as the wine world found Barbaresco, based on Nebbiolo, to be a complex wine of interest and not a "Baby Barolo."

Bruno Giacosa and Giovanni Gaja, and later his son, Angelo, demonstrated the potential of Nebbiolo in Barbaresco.  As in Barolo, soils are important, with calcareous clay soil producing wines with more forward fruit flavors, and marl composed soil yielding more tannic wines. 

Gaia Gaja: I want to play by the rules
Gaia Gaja with her eponymous Chardonnay

Personal aside --  In wine, like any other discipline, change can be difficult to accept, especially when you have made wine under one set of unchanging rules. In the 1980s, I asked Angelo Gaja, at his winery in Barbaresco, about the introduction of his Gaia & Rey Chardonnay.  The French variety is not permitted under DOCG Barbaresco.  Gaja said his father objected to releasing a Chardonnay under the Gaja name, because the grape was not authorized in DOC Barbaresco and, "he wouldn't taste my Chardonnay for a long time."

Another difference in the Barolo/Barbaresco comparison are the required aging times.  Barbaresco is required to age a minimum of 26 months, with at least nine months in oak, compared with 38 and 18 for Barolo.  Barbaresco Riserva is aged a minimum of 50 months. 

Generally speaking, Barbaresco is lighter and ages faster than Barolo, but grape source and wine making styles are the controlling factors. Barbaresco is known for the delicate scent of violets, often with citrus zest and road tar accents.  The presence of these characteristics, of course, can be muted by too much new oak. 

French Oak Barrels | Home beer wine cheese
Branded French oak barrel head

French Oak -- There is a quality to the oaks from a few French forests that is compatible with most wine.  Although oak trees are grown in other places in the world, Quercus robur (and Quercus petraea) oaks from Limousin, Vosges, Never and Allier are used worldwide by winemakers to impart just the right amount of desired seasoning to their wines.  Grain structure is important to the kind and amount of seasoning: Limousin is wide grained and more tannic, usually preferred more for aging brandy, while Never, Allier and Vosges are tight grained and better suited to aging wine.  French oaks are identified by their individual names, although Never and Allier are often combined and identified as "Central France."

Barolo and Barbaresco are the Nebbiolo super stars of Piedmont, but the softer Roero is 100% Nebbiolo as well.  Other Nebbiolo-based Piedmont wines include Ghemme and Gattinara, plus the varietal Nebbiolo and Spanna, the latter a synonym of Nebbiolo. 

Outside Italy, Nebbiolo is grown in small amounts in California, Oregon, Washington state, Australia and South America. 

Next time you're looking for a red wine to have with a red meat meal or just a good crusty bread and cheese, break the cabernet lock step with Barolo or Barbaresco.


Next Blog: My Life in Wine Episode 10

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Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Sparkling Alternatives to Champagne

"I cook with (sparkling) wine; sometimes I even add it to the food." With apologies to W.C. Fields


Note:  This blog on sparkling wine is a few days early, to allow time for a last minute run to the store for a bottle or two of bubbly to bring in the New Year.

                                Queen Elizabeth Wallpapers - Wallpaper Cave

 At the close of 1992, Queen Elizabeth, recalling the failure of three royal marriages that year, among other troublesome things, said the year was an "annus horribilis."  With 2020 finally in the rear view mirror, this may be a good time to say good riddance to that "terrible year" and toast to a sparkling future in 2021. 

Champagne has been the bubbly of choice to help bring in the new year probably as long as the champenois have been making their renown sparkling wine. 

If shopping for your new year bubbly finds you in your local wine shop, with one eye on your favorite Champagne and the other on your shrinking budget, don't lose faith because there are other quality sparkling wines for that special occasion, such as California Sparkling wine, Prosecco and Cava.

Quality and refinement of all sparkling wine depends on many factors, none more important than the process of the second fermentation that puts the bubbles in the bottle.  In Champagne that is accomplished in the same bottle in which the wine will be sold, while in less expensive processes, such as Charmat (or Cuve Close), the second fermentation is in a tank. 

So, let's look at a few select sparkling wines that are not Champagne, but offer good quality for the price.  

California Sparkling Wine -- Champagne producers are very touchy about the use of the name.  A handful of Champagne houses have been making sparkling wine in California for years, but they understandably choose to not use the name Champagne on their wines.  

An aside.  The Champagne name is protected by the European Union and some other countries. The name is used (some would say abused) in other places such as California and South America.  Some years ago, Champagne producers agreed that grandfathered California wineries (think Korbel) could use the name Champagne so long as it included an appellation, such as "Sonoma Champagne." What is puzzling is why the same champenois allow the use of the name Champagne without a local appellation in South America.

 The problem for California wineries is that no one has ever come up with a suitable name, so the wineries rely on the brand or use a term such as "Sonoma Valley Brut."  There are exceptions, such as Korbel and Gallo, that continue to use the Champagne name but with a local appellation like "California Champagne."

That position makes sense only if you think of it as a marketing decision and accept the argument that dropping Champagne from the wine name would cause buyer confusion and cost the winery lots of money.


Anyway, there are a small number of French wine producers (Taittinger, Moet, Roederer, Mumm) making bubbly in California that are the equal of most Champagne and cost less than Champagne.  They use the same grapes as Champagne: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier. The wines are fermented in the bottle and otherwise treated the same in the cellar and aged the same. 

The bottom line is that the most important difference between Champagne and other sparkling wine that Champagne producers want you to know, is that the outliers, even ones made by a Champagne house, are not Champagne.

California sparkling wines to consider include Domaine Carneros, Roederer Estate, Mumm Napa Valley, Domaine Chandon, Schramsberg, Iron Horse, J Cuvee,  Gloria Ferrer, Robert Hunter, Wente, Thornton.

Charmat -- The cheapest of the cheap bubbly is one where CO2 is injected into an inexpensive white or red wine and then the bottle is sealed with a plastic cork.  

A better way to make budget sparkling wine is a bulk method called Charmat.   The base wine, often less expensive grapes like French Colombard and Chenin Blanc, are put through a second fermentation, producing the bubbles and some complexity, in a large tank. The wine is then racked under pressure into bottles and sealed with a mushroom cork. 

Cava -- Is the name for Spain's best sparkling wine.  Despite a common belief  that has gotten considerable mileage over the years, Cava is not an acronym, but is the Spanish word for "cellar," as in the cellar for aging sparkling wine.

In 1970, under pressure from Champagne producers not to use the name Champana (Champagne), Spanish wineries, mainly in Penedes, Catalonia, settled on Cava to identify their sparkling wine, which is made by the classic Champagne  method.  It's a genius name, instantly recognizable as Spanish, and far better than just sparkling wine.

The trio of local grapes that form the backbone of Cava include Xarello, Macabeo and Parellada.  Following the success of Cava as a sparkling wine with Champagne overtones but a budget price, Chardonnay was added to the list of permitted grapes. 


 Mass marketing by large producers such as Codorniu and Freixenet, caused some disenchantment with the Cava image among some small producers. In 2014, a number of them left Cava and started using the new Penedes DO.   

Cava producers to look for include Freixenet, Codorniu, Mas Codina, Miguel Pons, Juve y Camps, Segura Viudas, Naveran, Recaredo.

Prosecco -- is the popular off-dry sparkling wine from northeast Italy.  Prosecco's huge international popularity vaulted the wine from IGT status to DOC in a short time, created Italy's largest DOC zone and established two towns within the zone -- Conegliano and Valdobbiane -- as DOCG.  

It was a testament to the power of wine marketing, especially for a humble, lightly sweet and fruity sparkling wine.

Italy's wine classification system, known as "DOC" or Denominazione di Origine Controllata, is often compared to the French AOC, the basis for all wine classification systems.  In 1963, the Italians added "e Garantita" to DOC to signify the countries highest quality wines.  An important distinction is that DOCG does not mean the "best."  Italian IGT, or Indicazione Geografica Tipica is the equivalent of the French vin de pays.

Prosecco is made mainly from Glera, although up to 15% of international grapes such as Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc, are allowed. The wine is tank fermented.  

There is a group of small producers using other local grapes, creating unique blends, bottle fermenting rather than tank fermenting, and releasing the wines with sediment and a crown cap instead of the traditional mushroom cork.

                                                    La Marca Prosecco 750ml

Prosecco producers worth the search: La Marca, Ruffino, Allini, Castello del Poggio, Mionetto, Zonin Cuvee, Da Luca, Bisol.

Whatever your preference for a celebratory sparkling wine, lift your glass high in a toast to a new and safer and more prosperous new year. 


Next Blog: Nebbiolo: Italy's King of Red Wine

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Monday, December 21, 2020

My Life in Wine Episode 9

"It's a naive domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I believe you'll be amused by its presumption."  James Thurber, in The New Yorker

In Episode 8, my Copy Editor and I were nearing the end of our 1979 European trip, with a visit to Barcelona and the Torres winery. We had one more stop, in Alsace, then back to Frankfurt and the long flight to Colorado.

Ever since I had first tasted an Alsace Gewurztraminer, my wine-travel goal was to one day visit Alsace and taste as many Gewurztraminers as I could.  What I didn't know, as we headed north out of Spain through southern France, was how many   Gewurztraminers were waiting for me.

Gewurztraminer is an intriguing wine that you either like or loath.  The scent is high-tone like a heady perfume: rub some rose petals between your fingers and inhale the spicy notes, noticing the exotic back note of lychee.  One taste and your hooked on the texture and freshness of roses, lychee, spice and citrus. For me, it's hard to deny Gewurztraminer, even if I stumble pronouncing the name. 

In German, Gewurztraminer (Geh-vairtz-tra-mee-ner) translates to "spicy traminer," since Traminer is the grape, although nobody calls it that anymore.  Yet, some studies maintain they are two different grapes, with only slight variations.  

A California aside.  Gewurztraminer was once more popular as a varietal in California than it is today.  A lot of the wines then were ponderous, often with too much residual sweetness. Louis Martini was one believer of the two-grape theory for Gewurztraminer.  In fact, the Napa winery once made both a Traminer and a Gewurztraminer and on the front label of the Gewurztraminer, there was a space between Gewurz and Traminer to signify the difference. Eventually Martini yielded to the popular trend labeling the wine Gewurztraminer. 

The charming region of Alsace is wedged between the Vosges mountains and the Rhine river, in eastern France.  On the opposite side of the Rhine is Germany and the fabled Black Forest. Alsace is one place in France you should visit, especially if you like white wine. 

But there's more to Alsace than wine. To say that Alsace is quaint would be an understatement.  You can wander the cobbled streets of Medieval walled villages, like Riquewihr and the nearby Ribeauville, considered one of the oldest medieval towns in Alsace. The charm of these medieval villages can be seen in the preserved half-timbered houses and wine shops, narrow winding streets and multi-lingual people slipping from French, to German to English when the need arises.  

29,182 Alsace Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images - iStock
Saint James church in Hunawihr

 A short side trip from Ribeauville to the hamlet of Hunawihr is worth a visit to see the fortified church of St. James surrounded by a 13th century wall.  Behind the church is a cemetery with the remains of village residents who fought in both WWI and WWII. When we visited the cemetery in 1979, it was surprising to see enamel medallions marking the graves of men who served in both the German army and the French resistance during World War II.

For a mono-lingual American, watching the Alsatians deftly ease from French to German to accommodate German wine shop customers who cross the Rhine to load the trunks of their Mercedes with drier Rieslings than what they might find at home.  And being multi-lingual helps when dealing with the thousands of tourists who put a strain on the fragile quaintness of Alsace.

A person can only poke around so much before developing a thirst for a glass of cool Alsace wine, like Riesling and Gewurztraminer, the region's leading white wines. And there's Pinot Gris (once known as Tokay Pinot Gris), two kinds of Muscat, Sylvaner and Pinot Blanc (also called Klevner).  

The most common Alsace wine is Edelzwicker (German for "noble mixture"), available in most tasting rooms and restaurants.  Edelzwicker is a pleasant blend of Pinot Blanc, Chasselas and Auxerrois. 

There are scores of wineries to visit in Alsace, but we concentrated on Hugel and Trimbach, the two most widely available then in Colorado and both are major brands today.

Expanding a winery at a site protected as historic means structures cannot be removed or altered without permission from the historic commission.  So creativity and design innovation must be applied to any changes and additions in winery operation.  During our visit to Hugel & Fils, in Riquewihr, Etienne Hugel showed us a few special stainless steel tanks that were designed to tuck into a niche in an ancient wall and a circuitous network of stainless steel pipes, between two buildings, that had to bypass a protected building.  As if wine making doesn't offer enough challenges.

An astonishing remembrance -- Later at lunch, Etienne asked me what I did in my leisure time and I mentioned that I had recently taken up baking bread. To my amazement, he said, "How would you like to be our baker here in Riquewihr? The baker has retired and we need someone to take over." 

I couldn't think of anything to say, so I stupidly blurted out. "Are you serious!"

"Yes, you like to bake bread and we need a bread baker, so the job is yours," he replied without missing a beat. 

It was one of the strangest things that ever happened to me, but obviously I turned him down...I don't even speak French!

Hugel wines are full and flavorful.  The standard Riesling and Gewurztraminer are packed with true varietal flavors, and I was especially impressed with the Hugel Gewurztraminer Vendange Tardive, a supple late harvest wine with just enough natural sweetness to make the wine a treat on its own or with a light dessert.

A few miles to the north we stopped in for a scheduled visit with Hubert Trimbach at his family winery in Ribeauville.  Trimbach wines are known for their pure varietal flavors and impeccable balance.  In the late 1970s and early '80s, Hubert traveled a great deal, especially in the United States, so it was lucky to catch him at home in Alsace.

                           Alsace wine stands apart from the sweet trend | Agweek

We spent a pleasant afternoon at Trimbach, tasting the wines and learning more about the history of Alsace.  But my Copy Editor had a bladder infection and needed to see a doctor.  Hubert put us in touch with a young doctor in Ribeauville and we said our goodbyes.  

It was early evening and the doctor's waiting room was empty except for a nun who sat patiently with her hands crossed in her lap.  Her patience was tested further when the doctor motioned to us to follow him to the treatment room.  He completed his examination, proudly using his limited English, wrote a prescription and we departed without paying a single franc (it was a pre-Euro time).

The medicine helped so the following morning, after breakfast, we climbed in to our rental car and headed back to Germany and the flight home.                                       

In Episode 10, we arrive back in Colorado to a big surprise.  The next couple of months were busy with a flight to San Francisco, resulting in a permanent move to San Diego and the beginning of the next exciting chapter of My Life in Wine.




Next blog: Sparkling options for the New Year

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Friday, December 11, 2020

French grapes head west

"Now wines are wonders; great wines are magical; and winemakers are mad. Like horse fanciers, they are always trying to improve the breed."  William Massee, American wine writer.


Discovering something about the grapes in your wine can be a mundane and disappointing experience, or it could be magical, as William Massee says. 

There likely is no magic involved, but I think it is noteworthy how interest in  Malbec has dropped off in Bordeaux, while finding new interest far from home in South America. 

On the other hand, Tannat, not exactly a well known grape, continues to maintain  strong interest in southwest France, but like Malbec, Tannat has found a second life in South America.

By now most wine consumers know that the traditional Bordeaux blend consists of five grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. And it is generally known that the blend was eventually narrowed down, more or less, to just Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

That leaves these questions: What happened in Bordeaux to Malbec and Petit Verdot; Why have fewer chateaux opted to go with just the three grapes; and why are new plantings of Malbec and Petit Verdot static there?  Historically, there are some chateau that never added Petit Verdot and Malbec.

Before we move on, here are a few words on the status of Petit Verdot. The grape did not disappear bur has lost favor in Bordeaux because it ripens later than Cabernet Sauvignon, a major late ripening variety, and thus is susceptible to frost.  Petit Verdot has seen moderate success in Spain, Italy, the Alentejo region of Portugal and Napa and Sonoma counties. 

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Healthy cluster of Malbec grapes

Malbec -- In 1956 there was a devastating frost in Bordeaux that wiped out vineyards across the region.  Malbec was especially hard hit due to its susceptibility to disease and rot.  When the threat of frost had past and replanting began, many chateaux replaced Malbec with Merlot, a heartier variety that is less problematic in the vineyard.

It was the beginning of the end for Malbec in Bordeaux, although the grape still has a strong presence in Cahors, where Malbec produces a dense wine with deep color, no doubt the reason the English referred to it as the "Black wine of Cahors."

Wine has been made in Cahors since the Middle Ages, where the grape is known as Cot.  Old timers believe that Cot is the true name of the grape rather than Malbec.  

Traditional Cahors is a full bodied, deeply colored red wine with a rustic edge that still has a faithful market. However, the trend is toward lighter wines today, with  the older concentrated style of Cahors still being made, notably by Ch. du Cedre,  Ch. Lagrezette, Georges Vigouroux and Cosse  et Maisonneuve.  

Malbec is widely grown throughout south west France, notably in Bergerac. In the mid Loire, Malbec is commonly blended with Cabernet Franc and Gamay, for a lighter wine with forward fruit flavors. 

Although Malbec has a well-traveled record in France, in 1852 the variety found a new home in Argentina, where conditions were more suited to the grape.  Curiously, the vine cuttings brought to Argentina were from Cahors not Bordeaux, although Argentine Malbec is smoother and not quite as robust as Cahors; more like Bordeaux in flavor but not texture.

Malbec is predominate in Mendoza, especially the southern Uco Valley region and Lujan de Cuyo and Las Compuertas in the north.  Argentina's second biggest wine growing region is San Juan, just north of Mendoza, on the border with Chile. While not as fashionable (yet) as Mendoza, San Juan Malbec is gaining on Syrah the region's best known red variety.

There is an Argentine Malbec priced for all budgets, from $15 to more than $50. Here are just a few of the many currently in the U.S. market: Siete Fincas Mendoza, Luca Uco Valley, Susanna Balbo Mendoza, Catena Lunlunta, Famili Zuccardi Mendoza, Finca Adalgsa Lujan de Cuyo. 

California Malbecs range in price from $16 to $120: Francis Ford Coppola Diamond California, Chappelet Napa Valley, Chateau St. Jean Reserve Sonoma County, Firestone Santa Ynez Valley, Concannon Reserve Livermore Valley.  

Growing Grapes: Varieties, Planting Guide, Care, Diseases, and Harvest |  Grape plant, Grapes, Grape trellis
Tannat grape cluster

Tannat -- Madiran, in south west France, is Gascony's best-known red wine. Made from Tannat, traditionally the wine is rustic, big and astringent, but there is an ongoing effort to make the wine more approachable. 

Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, two red varieties not known for softer tannins, are blended with Tannat. If that wasn't enough tannin, some producers add a little Fer (or Fer Servadou), another tannic red variety grown in Gaillac and Madiran.

Maceration and micro-oxidation are then used to soften Tannat's hard edges, with the wine finally aging for 20 months in small oak barrels.  All of this cellar work in the winery is an effort to bring Madiran into the international market where the demand is for softer, more approachable wines, ready to drink earlier.   

Micro-Oxidation, or commonly "micro-ox," is a complex technique that allows for the delivery of precise and controlled amounts of oxygen to the wine during wine making. Micro-ox also helps to control reduction during aging in the barrel and to moderate greenness in the wine from under ripe grapes. Reduction is the presence of off-elements in a wine near the end of fermentation or in closures sealed with a cork or a screw cap. For more on reduction and micro-oxiddation, Google the terms or consult a wine encyclopedia.

Tannat is probably Basque in origin. In the 19th century, Basque settlers from Spain, took Tannat vine cuttings with them to Uruguay where it is the most important grape for fine wine. 

The Uruguayan government initiated a program in the 1980s to improve the wine industry, which at that time was making wines from hybrids and North American grapes, mainly for local consumption. The nascent fine wine industry moved quickly and smoothly to European varieties and improved wine making.

But wine export in Uruguay has moved slowly, mostly to Brazil. The Uruguayan wine industry is looking at other export markets, promoting fine wines like those made from Tannat, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are the main whites. 

Prices and selection of Uruguay Tannat are limited, with a price range of $13 to $36.  Look for these Tannats: Noble Alianza Tannat-Merlot, Bodega Garzon, Bouza Reserve, Pizzano Family Estates and Deicas.

Malbec and Tannat are presented here as alternatives to other more popular red wines. There are many valid reasons why Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are popular, but I encourage readers to try different wines.  Who knows, you may find a new favorite!


Next Blog: "My Life in Wine" Episode 9

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