Thursday, December 5, 2019

Sherry for the Holidays

It won't be long (I know, I know) before we begin thinking of which wines to have for the holidays. Even though there are many choices, most of us will stick with the tried and true. I'd like to suggest that this year you think outside the box and consider Sherry. 

Throughout this article, all references to the fortified wine from Spain will be "Sherry," while those wines from other places will be noted as "sherry."

Interest in Sherry has never been better, but sales are still slow and the reason may be that Americans don't understand the value of Sherry. Before the wine boom in the early 1970s, the image of Sherry in this country often meant wines called "sherry" made in large quantities by big New York wineries, like Taylor, Great Western and Gold Seal. I remember my mother drinking New York sherry then, probably thinking she was enjoying the real thing. 
The list of reasons for declining Sherry sales in late 1990s and early 2000s is long, with some industry observers pointing to the sale of Sherry houses and their stocks to multi national companies in the 1980s. Advertising stopped and investments dried up as multinationals had no interest beyond quarterly profits. Fortunately, things began to slowly turn around as wine consumers developed an interest in all things Spanish.

While sales of Sherry may be creeping along, the good news is that new interest in Spanish red wines and Spanish cuisine has been a bright spot. And the taste for Sherry appears to be moving toward drier styles like Fino, Manzanilla and dry Amontillado, rather than the sweeter styles like Cream Sherries.

The Jerez region, centered around the city of Jerez de la Frontera, is in Andalucia, in southwest Spain. The production of Sherry lies in a triangle of land defined by three cities: Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria and Sanlucar de Barrameda. The English word Sherry is from the Spanish word Jerez.  

Image result for free photos of Sherry wine
Jerez de la Frontera
The two main types of Sherry are fino and oloroso and you might palo cortado, a special rare Sherry. The time-worn trope that wine is made in the vineyard is certainly true in Jerez where a first selection of grapes is made to determine if the wine will be a fino or an oloroso. The second selection is made at the end of fermentation, with the addition of grape spirit, raising the alcohol level from 12% to a minimum of 15%. At this stage, a spongy yeast known as flor, resembling cottage cheese with a dusting of dirt, develops mainly on those wines destined to be finos. Olorosos do not mature under flor.

At one time, it was believed that the thin layer of flor somehow appeared on its own. However, the growth of flor is determined by the amount of fortification: finos are fortified to 15% and olorosos are fortified to 16% or more.

Three general types of Sherry: Fino: These dry Sherries are both a class and an individual wine. Finos are pale colored, with a crisp, delicate bouquet often described as almond-like, dry crisp flavors with good acidity. The Fino class includes Manzanilla, a pale dry wine, with a "briny" character, possibly from the aging bodegas near the sea in San Lucar de Barrameda; and Amontillado, an amber-colored Sherry with a nutty (hazelnut) aroma and flavor. 
Oloroso: Sherry with a dark brown color, full-bodied nutty flavor and a smooth texture.  Sweeter than Oloroso are the Cream Sherries, made by blending Oloroso and sweet wines made from Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez grapes.  
Palo Cortado: The style of this special Sherry offers the bouquet of an Amontillado and the taste of an Oloroso.

The driest Sherries, fino and manzanilla, are made solely from the Palomino grape, and are sometimes referred to as "flor Sherries." Flor blocks oxygen from the maturing fino allowing the wine to develop a pale color and light texture and flavor. Palomino makes very good fino but very ordinary, even bland wine, not unlike the relationship of Folle Blanche to Cognac, odd but fortuitous quirks for those of us who love Sherry and Cognac.

True finos vary in taste and character depending on where they are from: Jerez Fino, Puerto Fino or Sanlucar Manzanilla. Manzanillas are finos aged in bodegas in Sanlucar de Barrameda. Some Sherry aficionados attribute the “briny” character of manzanilla to the bodega's location near the sea. Supposedly, a butt (500 liter oak cask) of fino taken from a Jerez bodega to a bodega in Sanlucar will become a manzanilla, but no such transformation takes place when a butt of manzanilla is taken from Sanlucar to a bodega in Jerez.  

A second factor that is crucial to the character and consistent style of Sherry is the solera, a fractional blending system that is used most commonly in Jerez. The object of solera blending is to smooth out the differences in vintages, resulting in a consistent style. Soleras are not commonly used for amontillado and oloroso, as they vary less from year to year.

Image result for free photos of Sherry wine
Sherry solera
Basically, a solera consists of three tiers (known as scales) of barrels, with the barrels closest to the floor, containing the  oldest wine, called the solera, and those above called criadera. Thus, the oldest wine is drawn from the solera for bottling. A like amount is then taken from the 1st criadera and put into the solera barrels. The 2nd criadera then replenishes the 1st. criadera, and so on up the scales. In a three tier solera, new wine goes in to the top scale.

True Amontillado is a fino that has lost its flor, allowing the wine to come in contact with oxygen, causing the color to darken from a pale gold to light brown and the aromatics to take on a nutty character. To keep the cost down, many commercial amontillados are blends of fino and oloroso, sometimes even with a little sweet wine made from the Pedro-Ximenez (PX) grape, resulting in a medium-dry amontillado finished at about 16.5% alcohol.  If the alcohol rises above 15% alcohol, flor will disappear, so amontillados have no flor character.  

The absence of flor and higher alcohol (up to 18%) are the main characteristics of oloroso. Without the flor contact, an oloroso ages in contact with oxygen. Olorosos are sold dry or sweet, with sweet-style olorosos far more popular among American Sherry drinkers than Oloroso Seco.
Sweeter yet are Cream Sherries, a blend of oloroso and concentrated, raisiny PX an unctuous treacle-like sweet Sherry made from the Moscatel grape. 

Palo Cortado, a rare Sherry that falls between amontillado and oloroso, are expensive but a complex treat that should be a must-try for anyone starting a Sherry exploration. 

Other sherries outside the regular fino-oloroso offerings include vintage-dated Palo Cortado and unfiltered finos out of cask. Before the latter part of the 19th century, and the introduction of the solera system, all Sherry was vintage dated.

Select Sherry Producers: Gonzalez Byass, Pedro Domecq, Emilio Lustau, Valdespino, Emilio Hidalgo.  You'll find popular brands like Tio Pepe and Bristol Cream in most stores, but talk to your local merchant about Valdespino Inocente Fino and Deliciousa Manzanilla, Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla, Lustau Los Arcos dry Amontillado, Domecq La Ina Fino, Gonzalez Byass Alfonso Oloroso Seco and Matusalem Oloroso Dulce

  Image result for free photos of Sherry wine
Sherry and tapas
Sherry with Food: In Spain, rules for pairing Sherry with food are simple. Tapas, small bite-size foods like olives, cheese tarts and marcona almonds can be found in every bar in Jerez. Dry Sherry such as Fino and Manzanilla are the perfect aperitif wine with salted nuts, olives and other salty holiday snacks, including popcorn. A lightly chilled glass of fino, manzanilla or dry amontillado is a good match with oysters and clams or lightly cooked shrimp. Sweeter olorosos and cream Sherry are best with a simple cake or fresh fruit. The rule here is the dessert should not be sweeter than the wine.

George Saintsbury, the early 20th century English gourmand regretted in his famous diary, “Notes on a Cellar Book,” that his fellow countrymen paid little attention to the lighter sherries such as Manzanilla. “It goes with anything from oysters (with which Chablis, though orthodox, does not please me, while Champagne, though it has Thackeray’s sanction, seems to me a sin without solace) to anything short of ‘sweets.’”  Wise words from a man who knew his wine, to which I would add a glass of fino and a salute! 

Next Blog: Holiday Bubbly

Comments? Suggestions? Write me at 

Monday, November 25, 2019

The Zinfandel Primer

Zinfandel is America's wine. Although American wine drinkers often pass up Zin in favor of higher profile reds like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, the future is looking very good for Zinfandel.

Increase interest in Zinfandel is due in large part to the tireless work and promotion of Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP), one of the more active wine promotion organizations in California. ZAP advocates for American Zinfandel from California  because the vast majority of Zinfandel producers in the United States are from the Golden State. 

In the early 1970s, when I first learned a few things about California wine, Zinfandel caught my attention, mainly for its bright berry flavors, but also the history behind the grape's uncertain journey to California. When I went to Bordeaux for the first time as a wine writer, it was California Zinfandel that went with me, not Cabernet Sauvignon. 

("We understand they are doing something with grapes in California." While preparing for the trip, I was given some advice from a seasoned wine traveler. "Make sure that you do three things before you leave: make an appointment, be punctual, bring a gift. Of the six to eight letters I sent, I ended up with four firm appointments. In those days, I had to make my appointments by mail, as email was not yet available. 

Then, what to bring as a gift for my hosts?  Something that said California wine would be the appropriate choice. A bottle of Zinfandel was just the thing. 

I showed up on time to my first visit, at a famous chateau that will remain unnamed, in jacket and tie (it was, after all, the early 1970s) with a bottle of Zinfandel in hand. After exchanging the usual greeting pleasantries, I smiled and handed my host the bottle of Zinfandel. He glanced at the bottle and then holding it by the top of the bottle, as though it were a dead rat, he swiveled a half turn depositing the well-traveled bottle of Zinfandel on a small entry table. 

Then, turning back to me, with the smallest of smiles, he said: "Ah, we understand  they are doing something with grapes in California."  And with that, my first visit to Bordeaux began.) 

A Long Complicated History
Things have changed a great deal in Bordeaux since my first visit, partly because of the increased interest in wine that started in America in the 1970s, but also due to the vast number of wine articles and books that have been written about Bordeaux and indeed all wine. Part of that are the books about Zinfandel and how it was brought to California.  What follows then is a brief summary of that journey. 

The route taken by Zinfandel from Europe to the United States was not direct and, in fact, included a few blind alleys. For years, it was believed that the Hungarian count, Agoston Harazthy, considered to be the "Father of California Viticulture," brought Zinfandel with him from his home country. A more recent examination of the records showed that Zinfandel likely was brought from Austria by a Long Island nurseryman.

In the move west, many grape vines including Zinfandel, were carried by settlers hoping to strike it rich in California's gold country. After the Gold Rush of 1849 played out, many of the unsuccessful miners turned to agriculture, using plant material from eastern nurseries, including Zinfandel. In time, Zinfandel became part of field blends that included red grapes like Carignane (Carignan in France) and Alicante Bouschet.

Zinfandel, along with other red grapes like Merlot and Pinot Noir, is one of the vine species, Vitis vinifera. However, there is an important distinction that kept Zinfandel from full membership: Zinfandel has no French connection. This meant that in the late 19th century, French grape scientists omitted Zinfandel from their studies. Ampelography is the science of vine and grape identification and description. An ampelographer is otherwise known as a grape scientist.  

Jump forward to the 1990s when the use of DNA showed conclusively that Zinfandel was the same as the variety Primitivo, grown in the southern Italy province of Puglia. Before the DNA findings, the feds tried to stop the import of an Italian wine labeled as Zinfandel, maintaining that it was, in fact, Primitivo. Today, you'll find both California Zinfandel and Primitivo, often from the same winery, on store shelves.  

Today, the major California regions for Zinfandel include: Dry Creek Valley, Lodi, Mendocino, Monterey, Napa Valley, Paso Robles, Sierra Foothills. 

Here are more things you should know about Zinfandel:
* Zinfandel is primarily a red wine, although there are pink and "white" versions.
* Red Zinfandel is made mainly in two styles: a fruity, jammy style and one that is more like Cabernet Sauvignon, sometimes referred to as the Bordeaux style.

* In terms of planted acreage in California, Zinfandel (44,000 acres) lags behind Cabernet Sauvignon (90,000 acres).
* By its very nature, Zinfandel is higher in alcohol than other red wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon. Although some Zins manage to stay under 15%, many are as high as 16%.
* Besides its popularity in California, limited plantings can also be found in Western Australia, South Africa and the southern France region of Languedoc. 
* According to the recent Full Glass Research study, there are 1,750 red Zinfandels on the market, 460 are vineyard-designated and 274 are labeled old vine.
* Sales of Zinfandel over $20 are up, while top names like Turley, Ridge, Shelton and Biale are in the $35 to $60 price range.
                                    Old Vine Zinfandel                                        

The Old Vine Factor 
The use of old vine grapes concentrates the fruit component in the wine, bringing out many of the grape's essential flavors, including raspberry and blackberry, spice, mocha and any component derived from oak aging in either American or French oak barrels. Traditionally, Zinfandel was aged in American oak, but ultimately French oak prevailed, adding a measure of sweet spice.

So, what does the "old vine" designation mean on a red wine? Legally, not much.The feds have declined to define the term, leaving it to the wine industry. Generally, old vine is any vine that is more than 50 years old and produces less than 3 tons per acre, but in practice, the age of the vine could be 25 to over 100 years. In a recent ZAP survey of member wineries, it was revealed that 60% of purchased Zinfandel grapes came from old vine vineyards.

These are my notes on seven California Zinfandels that I tasted recently:
Artezin 2017 Mendocino County Old Vine Zinfandel, 14.8% alc., $18. Winemaker Randle Johnson added 15% Petite Sirah, giving the wine a red-purple hue. The fruit is bright with spice and raspberry and cocoa notes, supported by smooth tannins. A good value.
Pedroncelli 2017 Dry Creek Valley Mother Clone Zinfandel, 15% alc., $19. A bigger Zin than the Artezin, it has a deep red-purple color, oak and berry nose, complex spice, cedar, mocha and toasted oak flavors. Originally planted in 1904 and replanted in the 1980s. Blended with 19% Petite Sirah. A good value.
Rodney Strong Vineyards 2016 Northern Sonoma Old Vines Zinfandel, 15% alc., $25. Medium-deep ruby-red nose with a sweet spicy French oak nose, bright, ripe berry flavors, soft tannins, good acidity and length. Blended with 2% Syrah.
Dry Creek Vineyard 2016 Dry Creek Valley Old Vine Zinfandel, 14.5% alc., $38. Deep ruby color, low intensity spice and vanilla scents, rich berry flavors, smooth good oak integration, medium length with lots of ripe berry fruit. Made from 95-year-old vines, this Zin was aged in French, American and Hungarian oaks and blended with 19% Petite Sirah and 3% Carignane.
Rombauer Vineyards 2017 El Dorado Twin Rivers Vineyard Zinfandel, 15.9% alc., $42. 
Deep purple-red color, pepper and vanilla and raspberry aromas, ripe berry flavors, big tannins, some heat, dense finish. Blended with 15% Petite Sirah and aged in French and American oaks.
Quivira Vineyards 2017 Dry Creek Valley Black Boar Zinfandel, 14.9% alc., $50.Bright red-purple color, attractive berry and spice with oak back notes, smooth ripe berry flavors, firm tannins, finishes with rich texture and fruit. Blended with 21% Petite Sirah and aged in French and American oak. 
First Grade (Robert Biale Vineyards) Napa Valley Zinfandel, 14.8% alc., $100. Biale has a solid reputation as a Zin man among his many admirers. This wine shows his style with a bright red-purple color, slightly closed French oak spice and lush berry, smooth balanced, it finishes with plenty of Zin fruit. An unusual blend of Zinfandel, Tempranillo, Petite Sirah, Syrah and Early Burgundy, aged in French oak Burgundy barrels.

Summary: These seven Zins represent a range of the styles and prices available in today's Zinfandel market. Of note is the contrast between the Artezin and Pedroncelli, aged in different oaks but basically the same price, and how these two wines compared in quality and price against the three higher priced wines. I am impressed with how the quality of Zinfandel has improved, but surprised at the rising prices. Today, the average price of red Zinfandel is about $25, with a handful priced at $100.

Next Blog: Sherry for the Holidays 

Comments? Suggestions?  Email me at

Friday, November 15, 2019

Beaujolais Nouveau

 The first edition of "Gerald D Boyd On Wine" (posted July 12, 2019), was about the "Pleasures of Beaujolais."  There was only a passing mention in that blog of the unique style of Nouveau Beaujolais. 
So come with me now as we venture from the Beaujolais vineyards in east central France to the wine bars and dining rooms where the new wine of Beaujolais is enjoyed this month, and while it lasts, well into the new year.

The adventure begins on the third Thursday of November, the official release date of the 2019 Nouveau Beaujolais, a fete that is met every year in France and around the world with a mix of joy and derision. In the 1970s and early 1980s, shippers competed with races to Paris to see who would be first to place their Beaujolais Nouveau in the bistros and restaurants. 

By 1985, the craze had spread to the rest of the world, which meant that the release date of the new wine had to be backed up a few days so the wine would reach foreign markets on the "official" Thursday. The catch was, though, that local distributors had to agree to keep the wine under lock until 12:01 am local time on the third Thursday.

Understanding the Nouveau Style
The stage is set then for nouveau's big day. To understand and fully appreciate the nouveau variation of Beaujolais, it helps to first know a few things about Beaujolais itself.  Beaujolais the region is separated from the Burgundy by the Maconnais and the Cote Chalonnaise and lies just north of the Rhone Valley. Beaujolais rouge is made as Beaujolais Nouveau, Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Villages and the ten cru Beaujolais. 

The nearness of the Beaujolais region to Burgundy allows Beaujolais wines to legally be called either Beaujolais or Burgundy, although it's doubtful whether few proud Beaujolais vintners would opt for the latter appellation. 

Nouveau (new) Beaujolais is the best known in a select group of wines that the French call vin de primeur, or young wine; in all, there are 19 wines in the primeur group. Made from Gamay noir a-jus-blanc, (simply known as Gamay), Nouveau Beaujolais is a deeply tinted grapy wine, with soft tannins, lots of strawberry-like fruit and moderate alcohol. Nouveau is a pleasant gulpable wine that won't age, so drink it now.

Gamay noir a-jus-blanc

A technique known as carbonic maceration is the key to Beaujolais Nouveau. The carbonic maceration process involves placing whole clusters of grapes in a fermenter, as carefully as possible, to avoid breaking the grape skins. Carbon dioxide is then added, thus creating an anaerobic atmosphere, causing the juice inside each grape to ferment without the benefit of yeast. During the process, grape sugars and harsh malic acid are lowered, while alcohol strength and glycerol are increased, all within each mini grape fermenter.

The practice of loading a tank with whole clusters means that 100 percent carbonic maceration is impossible. Dumping the clusters into the tank will break some of the grape skins, then as the mass piles up, the weight of the clusters cause the skins of those grapes on the bottom layers to burst allowing the juice to begin fermenting the normal way. The question is whether to sacrifice some of the juice to make nouveau wine?

Only the upper layer of grapes undergo 100 percent carbonic maceration, while the lower layers mostly ferment naturally. Thus, carbonic maceration is more semi-carbonic maceration. Carbonic maceration is not used with white grapes because it produces off flavors. 

Other regions in France use carbonic maceration with Gamay and other red varieties like Grenache. In Italy, nouveau wines are called vino novello, and in Spain, it's vino joven.  The main export market for Beaujolais Nouveau (40%) is Japan, followed by the United States. 

Select Beaujolais Nouveau producers include Georges Duboeuf, Domaine Rochette and Mommessin. (Check this)

In the 1990s. when Beaujolais Nouveau was all the rage in the United States, a handful of California wineries, like Sebastiani, cashed-in on the craze, but it only lasted a few years. The idea was to make a "new" wine in the style of Beaujolais Nouveau, using Gamay and other varieties. Today, a small number of West Coast wineries are making what they call "Nouveau-style" wines, meaning any red wine, including Cabernet Sauvignon, that is released soon after harvest.

(His socks were white when he left California. Years ago while living in Colorado, I was writing about wine for the "Rocky Mountain News," a newspaper that unfortunately no longer exists. Don Sebastiani, then head of Sebastiani Vineyards, was in town to show Sebastiani Nouveau, a fruity California alternative to French nouveau. 

Don checked into Denver's famous Brown Palace Hotel, then prepared for a tasting that evening. After welcoming the crowd, Don explained what his family's nouveau was all about, then pausing, he stepped to the edge of the riser and pulled up both of his pant legs to reveal a pair of purple-stained white socks. 

As Don told the smiling crowd, before boarding the plane in San Francisco, he discovered there were a few more bottles of wine then would fit into his checked baggage. So now, feeling a bit harried, he quickly stuffed them into his carry-on.  Then, as he entered the Brown, Don tripped, dropping his bag on the marble floor. And to add to his embarassment, he discovered that one of the bottles had broken in his bag, soaking the socks and other items. 

Still holding up his pant legs, Don looked out at the audience and noticed that many of the people were stifling laughter, so he dropped his pant legs, gave a good-humored shrug, then invited everyone to sample Sebastiani Nouveau.) 

Nouveau and Thanksgiving  

Marketing Beaujolais Nouveau in the United States usually means pairing the wine with the traditional Thanksgiving meal. For years, a range of red wines, as well as Chardonnay and dry Riesling, were suggested as a good matches with turkey and the side dishes that graced the Thanksgiving table. Problem is that no matter how good the intention, few of the wines, except maybe some Pinot Noir, worked. 
 Across America there are many variations and interpretations of what makes up a traditional Thanksgiving meal. Start with different wines that marry with white and dark turkey meat. Then there are the sides: mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes or candied yams, stuffing (dressing?) with poultry seasoning, and what do you do with cranberry sauce, whole or jellied?  Well, you get the point.

So, if you happen to be in a Paris bistro on November 21, or around a Thanksgiving table somewhere in America, make at least one of the wine choices Beaujolais Nouveau. 

Next Blog: A Zin Primer 

Comments?  Suggestions?  Write me at

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Sauvignon Blanc Styles: New World

NOTE: For some reason, did not send the Nov 6 blog, "New World Sauvignon Blanc" to all subscribers. If you are one of those folks, here is the blog. If not, please disregard.

For years, the wine community has been preoccupied with Chardonnay, almost to the point that little was written about any other white wine, including Sauvignon Blanc. A report that I read not long ago talked about market performance of Chardonnay and a little about Riesling, but never mentioned Sauvignon Blanc. So I thought "Gerald D Boyd On Wine" would alter that algorithm with a two-part series.

In the first part of "Sauvignon Styles," posted October 27, we examined Old World sauvignon, mainly in the French style of Bordeaux blanc and the twin Loire sauvignons, Sancerre and Pouilly Fume. 

This second part takes a closer look at the phenomenon of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and how it changed the wine drinking public's perception of what Sauvignon Blanc should smell and taste like. And, we'll review California Sauvignon Blanc and the smaller but noteworthy sauvignons from Washington state.

A lot has been written and discussed about Sauvignon Blanc, but the most unexpected thing about the grape is that it is a parent, along with Cabernet Franc, of Cabernet Sauvignon. Good old DNA profiling brought that fact home to wine drinkers in 1997. So maybe "unexpected" is pushing it a little, since it has been 22 years since the announcement. 

There is a saying among growers that bears repeating: "The quality of any wine begins in the vineyard." Sauvignon Blanc grows best when planted in light soils. If vine production is not closely controlled, the wine will have a certain aggressive herbaceous aroma and flavor that some have described as "cat pee," or to put it in the more charming French idiom, pipi du chat.

Over the years, the treatment of Sauvignon Blanc in the winery has changed. Although traditional fermentation methods in stainless steel tanks and oak barrels are still favored by many winemakers, the more modern approach involves a range of techniques, including the use of cement eggs and even a retro move to bring back lined concrete tanks.

New World Sauvignon Blanc

Just what is the New Zealand (or New World) style? The French model was known for a minerality with a citrus back note and occasionally a touch of oak. The terroir in New Zealand's Marlborough region redefined that, with a striking green fruit (read gooseberry) aroma, tropical notes, brisk acidity and no oak. 
aerial photography of Seattle skyline
Seattle and Mt. Rainer

(American wine drinkers introduction to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. At the third biannual in 1993, Seattle hosted the World Vinifera Conference, an ambitious program designed to examine and celebrate one specific variety. Sauvignon Blanc was the focus in '93, covering the variety from the vineyard to the winery to the marketplace. At the time little was known in this country about the wines of Marlborough, a scenic region spread across the top of New Zealand's south island.
Things moved along in the usual sequence with panels and speakers on growing Sauvignon Blanc, making Sauvignon Blanc and enjoying Sauvignon Blanc. Cloudy Bay had sent a quiet spokesman named Kevin Judd who, as it turns out, knew as much about photography as he did about making wine in New Zealand. 

Judd was on a panel with winemakers from other regions and in his quiet laid back manner, he let the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc speak for itself. And it was an eye-opener. Few of the attendees had tasted New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc before. That first sniff of the wine revealed a pungent aroma of tropical passion fruit and lime juice that nearly jumped out of the glass.  

The green fruit descriptor soon became associated with gooseberry, a small sour berry used in making preserves and pies, known more east of the Mississippi than elsewhere in the United States. Curiously, I asked a few winemakers about gooseberry on a later trip to New Zealand and was told that Kiwis do not use that descriptor with Sauvignon Blanc and they thought the term came from an English wine writer.)

Select Producers. It wasn't long before a rush of other New Zealand wineries flooded the U.S. market with Sauvignon Blanc, most notably Kim Crawford, but also Villa Maria, Greywacke, Craggy Range, Astrolabe and Dog Point, to name just a few. The word spread, folks discovered Kiwi "sauvy," and it soon become their go-to white wine. 

California Sauvignon Blanc 

Meanwhile, the California approach to making Sauvignon Blanc was two prong: those labeled Sauvignon Blanc were oak free, while those labeled Fume Blanc might have been aged in oak barrels. In time the distinctions became blurred so that the consumer had no idea which was which.

In the early 1960s, Robert Mondavi and his younger brother Peter disagreed about the future of the family-owned Charles Krug Winery. Robert left in 1966 and opened the Robert Mondavi Winery. Although the move was successful, Mondavi was not happy with slow sales of his Sauvignon Blanc, so in one of the best examples of creative marketing in California wine, he changed the name of the wine to Fume Blanc, a variation on the French Pouilly-Fume. 

Mondavi also added oak aging and finished the wine in a dark green bottle, both moves that bore no relationship to the Loire wine called Pouilly-Fume. The "new" reconfigured sauvignon was a resounding success.

Later, however, those California winemakers who had been making varietal Sauvignon Blanc began to notice the market moving in the direction of New Zealand. Today, many California Sauvignon Blancs, while not as aggressive as some Kiwi sauvignons, have shifted toward a clean, fresh varietal with subtle passion fruit and citrus notes. 

Sauvignon Blanc soon began to mount a challenge to the dominance of Chardonnay in California. Noteworthy sauvignons, mostly tank fermented but some with oak, entered the market from Dry Creek Valley and Sonoma Valley, Napa Valley and Livermore Valley.  Select California Sauvignon Blanc Producers: Honig, Quivira, Dry Creek Vineyard, Kunde, Kenwood, Joel Gott, Peter Michael, Ferrari-Carno and Matanzas Creek.


The eastern Columbia Valley in Washington state is known mainly for red wines, although Chardonnay and Riesling also have a history there. On the other hand, Sauvignon Blanc represents more limited plantings, with vineyards in a broad area from Yakima to Benton City, the Horse Heaven Hills and an area between Othello and the Tri-Cities.

Washington Sauvignon Blanc is straightforward varietal, mainly tank fermented, although some wineries employ the use of barrel fermentation and cement eggs. Sensory characteristics include citrus, dried herbs and zesty acidity.

Select Washington Sauvignon Blanc Producers: Barnard Griffin, DeLille, Sightglass Cellars, Woodward Canyon, JM Cellars. 

There is no denying that Sauvignon Blanc is a popular wine. But the question often asked is if Sauvignon Blanc is a great wine? For as long as I can remember, there has been a disagreement about the "best" white wine grape: Chardonnay or Riesling. Attributes can be stacked up under each variety, but the fact remains that no single grape can make the claim to be the best. 

So where does that leave Sauvignon Blanc? Does it share status with the other two and is Sauvignon Blanc a great wine? Those who say no claim that what's keeping Sauvignon Blanc from greatness is that after one glass, the in-your-face aromatics and flavors begin to wear on you. This is especially true, the critics hold, for New World sauvignons made in the New Zealand style. The ultimate judge, of course, is you the consumer.


Next Blog: Nouveau Beaujolais & Carbonic Maceration

Comments? Suggestions?  Write me at

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Sauvignon Styles

What's happening lately with Sauvignon Blanc?  For years, wine press activity has been more about Sauvignon Blanc the wine than Sauvignon Blanc the grape. But that only seems natural, because we wine writers tend to focus more on the liquid that ends up in the consumer's glass. 

Over the next two postings, we'll cover the stylistic versatility of Sauvignon Blanc. In broad general terms, those styles can be divided into Old World (mainly France and Italy)  and New World (primarily New Zealand and the U.S. West Coast). Old World styles are addressed here and New World styles will be covered November 6, 2019.

To help set the stage for the wine styles, here are a few words on the nature and growth character of Sauvignon Blanc the grape and how the grape is handled in the winery. 

Image result for free sauvignon blanc grape photos
Sauvignon Blanc
Sauvignon Blanc in the vineyard can be a challenge. Planting in light soils is preferred, as is keeping the vine's production under control. Vegetation growth can be vigorous and needs to be controlled, or the grapes become aggressively herbaceous, even with a strong smell sometimes referred to as "cat box." Key is to achieve sauvignon's distinctive grassy aroma, coupled with a light herbaceousness and piercing acidity.

In the winery, Sauvignon Blanc can either be fermented in stainless steel, then straight to bottle, with no oak. Or, after the tank fermentation, the wine is racked in to oak barrels  for a short period. There is some barrel fermentation of Sauvignon Blanc, mostly in Bordeaux and the odd Pouilly Fume. After introducing the world to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Cloudy Bay waited a few years and then added Te Koko, a barrel fermented and French oak aged Sauvignon Blanc. 

Advocates of oak-aging Sauvignon Blanc, like the added texture and body-feel and don't mind losing some of grape's fresh, fruity character. Oak aging Sauvignon Blanc moves the style closer to that of Chardonnay and further away from traditionally unoaked white wines like Riesling and Chenin Blanc. It's a personal preference. 

Old World Sauvignon Blanc

The origin of Sauvignon Blanc is undoubtedly France, but where: Bordeaux, Loire, Languedoc-Roussillon in the southwest? There is no agreement, although the favorite choice swings slightly toward Bordeaux. Wherever, Sauvignon Blanc is a valued grape in the Graves area of Bordeaux and in Sauternes and Barsac. And the grape has made a name for itself in the upper Loire River valley regions of Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire. 

Sauvignon Blanc Harvest in the Graves

The Graves district lies immediately south of the city of Bordeaux. Until 1987, dry white wines, made primarily from Sauvignon Blanc, were known variously as Graves, Graves Blanc and Bordeaux Blanc.

In 1987, an appellation with the unwieldy name of Pessac-Leognan, was carved out of the Graves, retaining all of the best chateaux. P-L wines are mainly red, based on Cabernet Sauvignon, with a small percentage of the acreage devoted to white varieties, including Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Sauvignon Gris and Muscadelle. The last two grapes are legally permitted but not widely used.

The most available (and most expensive) examples of Pessac-Leognon white wines include Chx. Haut-Brion Blanc and La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc, plus Chx. Haut-Lafitte and Ch. Pape-Clement. Better value examples include Chx. Couhins and La Louviere. There is a wide range of prices for Pessac-Leognon, $25 to approximately $160.

Graves Blanc wines have a distinct earthiness with citrus notes and mouth-watering acidity. All of this is tempered with the softness of Semillon and hints of French oak. 

Sweet Bordeaux
Further southeast of Bordeaux city, but still in the Graves district, are Sauternes and Barsac, where Sauvignon Blanc takes on a different guise. Semillon is the leading grape, backed up by Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle and Sauvignon Gris. Here, as in Pessac-Leognon, Muscadelle and Sauvignon Gris are not widely used. 

What sets Sauvignon Blanc apart in Sauternes from its place in Pessac-Leognon is botrytis. Grandly known as the "Noble Rot," botrytis is a beneficial mold that attacks the berries, reducing the water and concentrating the sugars. Botrytis is one of the odd natural occurrences in grape growing; it looks gross but what it does to the wine is delicious. 

The cool Ciron river flows between Sauternes and Barsac into the warmer Garonne, forming evening mists that linger through the next morning, when they are burnt off by the warming sun. The humid conditions, when they occur, form the botrytis and  the character of Sauternes. 

Botrytis transforms the pungent green fruit character of Sauvignon Blanc and figgy Semillon to a more complex ripe fig/honey and waxy taste. Top tier Sauternes to consider are Chx. d'Yquem, Suduiraut, La Tour Blanche and Rieussec. Chx. D'Arche, Filot and de Malle are good quality at a more affordable price. Barsac producers of note include Chx. Coutet, Climens and Nairac.

One odd example of the sometimes undecipherable French AOC rules is that all wines produced in Barsac may use either the Barsac or Sauternes appellation but not the reverse.  Most Barsac producers say that is a "no brainer." 

A Pair of Loire Sauvignons
About midway between Paris and the northern extreme of Bordeaux lies the Loire Valley, arguably one of the most picturesque spots in France, replete with intricately designed gardens, castles, vineyards and a wide range of still and sparkling wines.  

In the upper reaches of the Loire river are two of the best examples of French Sauvignon Blanc: Sancerre and Fume Blanc. In reality, there are two types of Sancerre; the older grassy style and the "newer" peachy, ripe melon style. This stylistic dichotomy also reflects the older and newer generations of winemakers.

Hilltop Village of Sancerre in the Upper Loire River Valley
The left-bank vineyards of Sancerre sit high above the river, where racy, pungent Sauvignon Blanc is blended with Semillon up to 80% and sometimes a little Muscadelle. Sauvignon Gris is also permitted. The green fruits flavors, with mineral and citrus backnotes, can become too herbaceous in cool years.

Across the river, Pouilly-Fume is said to reflect its rocky terrior, with a certain minerality often described as gun flint. As with Sancerre, the flinty traditions of past Pouilly-Fume  are moving toward the demand for more fruit-forward wines. Sauvignon Blanc is the sole grape and the wines can be perfumed, delicate, with a mineral/flinty back note.

The meaning of fume in the name has two versions. Fume is the French word for "smoke," thus the "smoky/flinty" character.  A slight variation holds that fume means the presence of morning mist (smoke) in the vineyards; same story, different version.

With some exceptions, like Didier Dageneau's eccentric wines, most modern Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume are difficult to tell one from the other by the casual wine drinker. So, if you like French Sauvignon Blanc (Bordeaux or Loire), sample a few different styles to find your favorite. Look for Lucien Crochet, Henri Bourgeois and Vincent Pinard.

In Italy, Sauvignon Blanc is found mainly in the northern districts of Alto Adige, Collio and Friuli. It is made as a varietal and also as part of a blend with various local varieties like Tocai and Vermentino. The style of Italian Sauvignon Blanc is unoaked with mildly herbal and citrus notes, with good acidity.


Next Blog: New World Sauvignon Blanc

Comments, suggestions? Let me know at

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Three Steps to Wine Tasting

Opinions are like noses, everyone has one. And when applied to wine and how to taste it, opinions are plentiful and different. Self-appointed wine experts will tell you that you are entitled to any opinion about a wine you like, so long as it’s theirs. Well, we'll have none of that here.

Then, some people say that all the talk about wine is pretentious and smacks of elitism. Maybe, but people are naturally curious and when they discover something that interests them, they want to learn all there is to know about it. It's like the difference between eating and dining; the former is an opportunity to fuel up while the latter opens up an appreciation for the food, how it was prepared and if the food becomes a natural companion to the wine.
To understand the symbiosis of how food and wine work together, you first need to know how to critically taste the wine. So, here are a few simple steps on tasting wine with the understanding that no two people taste wine the same; one person’s opinion of a wine is no more accurate or better than another person’s. The difference between a professional and an amateur wine taster is experience and knowledge.

Image result for free Burgundy wine photos

To keep it simple, then, divide this approach to wine tasting into three steps: Sight, Smell and Sip. Okay, we’ll add a fourth: Pleasure. Hopefully, pleasure is what we’re aiming for when tasting and drinking wine.  

One of the real pleasures of wine tasting (and drinking) is looking at the wine in a crystal wine glass.  Choose a clear stemmed glass with an 8-10 ounce bowl that tapers in at the top.  Why the taper in a minute.

Pale straw, golden yellow, light ruby, deep garnet, are all colors of white and red wines in various stages of development. The presence of oxidation, where too much air has gotten into the wine, turns these colors brown; think of a slice of apple left on a plate.  California chardonnay usually has a medium to deep golden color, while Cabernet Sauvignon shows deep ruby to opaque garnet. 

Today’s wines have a brilliant appearance with no haze or small suspended particles. Thanks to modern refrigeration, stabilization has eliminated tartrate crystals that stick to the bottoms of corks or collect at the bottom of a bottle of young white wine. In the past, the presence of tartrate crystals would freak out consumers who thought they were ground glass, so to allay this fear, winemakers called the crystals “wine diamonds.”

Beyond the clarity of a wine, the thing to look for is color correctness. White wines, of course, are not white, but various shades of yellow, from pale straw to deep golden. But as I mentioned earlier, a white wine with hints of browning should be suspect. Oxidation or browning in red wine is harder to see, so for a good look at the color of a red wine, hold the glass by the stem and carefully tilt it away from you while checking the edge of the wine as it moves up the interior surface of the glass. A thin line of nearly colorless wine should give way to light pink or red, then a deeper ruby or garnet color.

Checking color correctness is also a good way to assess the health of an aged red wine that may have been subject to some oxidation. After checking the color, in preparation for smelling the wine, swirl the wine gently holding the glass by the stem and scribe tight arcs in the air. It takes practice, so if you’re not comfortable with the free-form swirling technique, place the glass on a table top and swirl.

Image result for free Burgundy wine photosSmelling is the most important step of the three because by putting your nose in the glass and taking a good sniff, you can tell just about everything you need to know about the wine. A tapered glass helps concentrate the aromatics. While smelling is primary, tasting will confirm what you smell. Sounds a little wonky, but it’s true. An old bar trick required a blindfolded person to hold his or her nose, then sip a glass of Coca-Cola, a glass of Pepsi-Cola and a glass of 7-Up then identify which is which. Our mind gets confused when we can’t see or smell what we are tasting.

Winemakers and wine professionals use a special vocabulary to describe what they smell and taste in a wine. You can consult a glossary of wine terms in any number of wine books, but for the wine consumer what is important is to use personal terms that you understand, then store them in your wine memory for future use. Common scents such as honey, sweet spice and cedar are recognized by most people. But try not to use esoteric terms that are difficult to put in words. For example, banana and licorice are readily recognized by most people, but coming up with words to describe these foods is difficult if not impossible. Try it. Describe the smell and taste of a banana, without saying that it smells and tastes like a banana.

The sense of smell is powerful and long-lasting. A specific scent we experienced long ago may be stored in our memory only to be brought back with a bang years later when smelling the same scent again in a different setting. When I was a boy my mother used to cook using animal lard that has a distinctive smell almost unknown today. Years later, my wife and I were in Budapest and the moment we entered a restaurant for dinner, that evocative smell immediately took me back in time. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it, but then it came to me that the kitchen was using lard. 

The stimulus of scent is a powerful tool in wine tasting. So, smell the wine, applying words to the smells, then store them in your wine memory. Which brings me to the remembrance of a unique win e experience a few years back...

It's not always what you think. Some wines can play tricks on you, especially when you're familiar with a particular style. On a trip to Australia some years back, I was tripped up by a Hunter Valley Semillon and an Australian wine legend who lured me into his trap.
The legend was Len Evans and the place was Rothbury Estate, then owned by Evans. After a tour of the winery, Evans led me on to the winery floor. I thought we were going to try a few tank samples, but instead he turned to me with a sly grin that said, without his saying, "I've got you now mate!"
On a table were four white wines, two a medium amber color and two just past medium amber. I immediately suspected oxidation...but I didn't want to get ahead of myself, and besides Evans was sitting there grinning, waiting for me to say something learned about the wines. 
Instead, I decided my best tactic was to smell the four wines first, then taste them. They all smelled like rip figs with an underlying scent of what I described as candle wax. To me, that could only mean one wine - Semillon. Still, I wasn't 100% sure. "Were they blended with a little Sauvignon Blanc, or were the wines all 100% Semillon," asked myself. 
I look at Evans but he hadn't changed his expression. 
Then, another possibility occurred to me. "What if they were oak-aged, because of the amber color and slight oxidation?" So, with nothing to lose but my pride as a wine taster, I gave my decision.

"They are all oak-aged Semillons."

A faint smugness crossed Evans' face as he said, "You're half right. The wines are all Semillons (he pronounced it Sem-a-lon), but they have never seen oak. It's the unique character of unoaked Hunter Valley Semillon to mature like an oak aged wine.")

It was a nice trick and one I discovered later that Len Evans was fond of springing on unsuspecting visitors. Len Evans passed away in 2006 and with him all wine lovers lost a unique wine educator.

Australian Semillon aside, let's get back to the three steps to wine tasting. 


After smelling a wine for that first indication of a wine’s health, age, quality and correctness, it’s time to taste. Holding the glass by the stem, swirl the wine again and take a good strong sniff, then a small sip. Roll the wine around in your mouth so that it comes in contact with all of your taste buds, especially the sides of the tongue where detection of acidity is most acute. The idea is to gauge the wine’s acidity, sweetness (if any) and level of tannin. On average, there are between 2,000 and 8,000 taste buds on the tongue. The once-popular “Tongue Map” held that sour or acid was detected on the sides of the tongue behind salt, with sweetness on the tip and bitter (tannin) at the far back of the tongue. The belief now is that we taste all components everywhere on the tongue.  

The ideal wine will present all of these components in perfect balance, with nothing sticking out. But the perfect wine is rare, so look for things that affect the wine's balance, like excessive drying, even bitter tannin, sharp acidity that overrides the fruit and too much sweetness for the wine type, such as can sometimes be found in Cabernet Sauvignon.

Finally, apply these few tips as a general guide, while keeping in mind that wine is meant to be enjoyed in a social setting and not over analyzed, especially at the dinner table. A technical tasting is not meant to impress friends and family, especially in a restaurant or other public place. 

Next Blog: Sauvignon Styles 

Comments?  Suggestions?  Contact me at