Thursday, July 18, 2024

White Wines of Sicily

When someone mentions "Sicilian wine," do you think red or white?  Or maybe fortified, like  iconic Marsala, the "Sticky from Sicily."  

For most people, the sensory image of Sicily is a romantic bucolic setting, with rustic food and jugs of local wine.  Sicily is a major island in the Mediterranean, floating off the southern tip of the Italian peninsula, not far from Tunisia, North Africa.  

Geography has a way of influencing life, like the cultural mashup that's common throughout Sicily, but especially in cities like Palermo, Catania  and Messina, where you can hear Arabic and Italian spoken in street markets.

American actor Al Pacino sits with Italian actor Franco Citti holding a rifle at an outdoor table in director Francis Ford Coppola's film, 'The...
                                            Michael Corleone in Sicily                                               

It's not practical for some people to travel to Sicily, so they turn to pop culture as a way to experience life in another country.  In 1974,  fictional life in one rural Sicilian village became part of American pop culture, when a young Michael Corleone danced with his new bride, in "Godfather II," whirling past tables laden with platters of food and jugs of wine.

Popularity of Sicilian white wine was still decades in the future, so the wine at the wedding reception was likely red, although probably not Sicily's popular red wine, Nero d'Avola. 

Today, in traditional rural areas of Sicily, a glass of wine may  be vino bianco, from Grillo, Catarratto, Carricante and Inzolia.  In fact, Sicily produces more white wine than red, with Cataratto the most planted wine grape.  Not only that, but the four major white grapes are very adaptable, appearing together, or in various pairs, in most of Sicily's white wines.

Sicilian wine culture is spread across the island, with a lot of it in the shadow of Mt. Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe.   Throughout the millennia, eruptions of Etna have enriched vineyard soils with deposits of volcanic ash, no where more than in Catania.  On the slopes of Etna, Sicily's two exciting reds -- Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio, thrive.  (See "Nero and Nerello," April 11, 2024) 

Sicilia DOC is an island-wide appellation, encompassing more than 20 DOCs.  Cerasuolo di Vittoria, a red blend from the south coast is Sicily's only DOCG wine.  A handful of DOCs have applied for DOCG, but so far none have succeeded 

Among the hopefuls is Etna DOC, one of Italy's earliest DOC wines, approved in 1968.  Etna Bianco, a dry, mineral-laced blend of Carricante, Cataratto and small amounts of Trebbiano and/or Minella Bianca.  The rule for Carricante is 60% to 100%, but how much is up to the winemaker.  The aim, with Carricante, is to extract attractive flavors that suggest ripe pears and apples, with hints of citrus.   

Grillo is an indigenous white grape that has shown promise in Sicily, but is no longer allowed in non-DOC wines.  Grillo is thought to either be native to Sicily or from Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot.  Once used as a base for Marsala, Grillo is high in sugars but it lost out to Cataratto because of its low-level aromatic intensity.   A dry Grillo is light, lemon-scented and nutty with plenty of up-front stone fruit. Fruitier versions remind me of Viognier and Albarino.

Catarratto Grape Variety: Rediscovering Sicily's White Wine

Cataratto is the most planted grape, white or red, in Sicily, but comes second to Trebbiano throughout Italy.  The wide availability makes Cataratto a popular component in blends, like Etna Bianco and Marsala, or with Inzolia.   Planted almost exclusively in western Trapani, Cataratto has been shown through DNA testing to be related to Garganega, the main grape in Soave.

Inzolia can be found in western Sicily and Tuscany, where the grape is called Ansonica.  Inzolia (also spelled "Insolia") is valued for its aromatic qualities and is usually paired with Grillo in Marsala, bottled as a varietal or blended with Cataratto.

Sicilian wine, except maybe for Nero d'Avola, may be scarce in your local market, but these wines have good distribution: Donnafugata, Planeta, Idda, Passopisciaro, Tenuta delle Terre Nere,  Tenuta Regaleali.

End Note:  At one time or another, all of these Sicilian white grapes have been used in Marsala, the iconic fortified Sicilian wine.  Traditionally made from Grillo and Inzolia, Marsala now includes high percentages of Cataratto. Modern Marsala comes in three styles: sweet Fine, medium Superiore and drier Vergine.  (A more detailed look at Marsala, Madeira and Malaga, the trio of Mediterranean classic dessert wines, is coming August 23.)


Next post: Pacific Northwest Wine: An Overview

 Contact me at

Thursday, July 11, 2024

French or American Oak? Part 2

                                       Wine Barrel Sketch Images – Browse 6,221 Stock Photos ...

"French or American Oak?" (June 20) drew a number of responses, from winemakers and wine consumers. The replies indicated a desire by winemakers to clarify the issue, while also showing that consumers want to know more about the relationship between wine and oak.

Kimberlee Nicholls, winemaker for Markham Vineyard, in the Napa Valley, reminded me of an important difference between French and American oaks, that I didn't mention.  Paul Vandenberg, winemaker and winery owner for Paradisos del Sol Winery, in Washington's Yakima Valley, made a pitch for older barrels in lieu of trendy concrete eggs.  And Marvin Mai, an avid wine consumer from Santa Rosa, California, wants to know about sustainable forestry and if oak chips, used in a concrete egg, have the same impact on wine as does wine aging in an oak barrel. 

Knowing more about the wine you drink can help in making wine buys.  So, here's a follow-up to the June post on French or American oak, with more information...  

On sustainability: The entire process, from the forest to the cellar, has been a personal interest, since I sipped my first wine.  Thus, I believe one way to answer Marvin Mai's question about sustainability, is to first think of how long it takes for an oak tree to grow.  In France, as trees transition for decades through the growth process, the government monitors  the cycle from planting a new sapling to harvesting a mature tree.  In the United States, a sustainable forest growth plan, follows a similar plan, insuring there will always be trees to harvest.  

On the benefits to wine of oak contact: Kimberlee Nicholls explains that oak aging allows the introduction of oxygen into wine, softening tannin and mouthfeel.  "When not using barrels, the introduction of oak is possible through the use of oak chips or oak stave inserts in tanks, to create a softening of the flavor profile," she explains. 

Paul Vandenberg  believes there is a more practical benefit.  "Barrels replaced ceramics as storage and transportation vessels because they are much lighter and more durable when moved. Until recently, new barrels were not used for the highest quality wines. When  American winemakers realized that barrel fermentation and aging were key to white Burgundy (Chardonnay), we started importing barrels."

On the use of concrete eggs:  Vandenberg had this to say: "The use of 'eggs' is stupid and an expensive return to the technology of a time before the use of barrels, and is a response to immature barrels." Then, he adds this about wine held in concrete eggs, "My limited tasting experience suggests to me that stupid, expensive, heavy, space hog ceramic vessels offer no advantage, except, of course, the 'cool' factor, which is strictly PR."

Nicholls does not use concrete eggs at Markham, but she has a couple of concrete tanks, that she uses "only for white wine to enhance the wine's minerality."

There is, however, an "armored" egg in use at Rodney Strong Vineyards.  On "Wine Industry Network," Justin Seidenfeld, reports the fermentation egg in the Rodney Strong cellar is half stainless steel and half French oak, which he says "creates natural mixing and cooling, for a "fuller, richer wine." 

On the advantage of older barrels and barrel neutrality:  Vandenberg prefers barrels that are more than 10 years old, preferably 20-plus.  "A barrel is not neutral until it is well past 10 years old."  In a lighter vein, he reflects, "for a barrel at least 30 years old, the difference between French oak and American oak is weight of the barrel.  As I get older, I prefer Quercus Europe because they are lighter."  He is in agreement with California winemaker Clark Smith, who addresses the subject of using older barrels in his book, "Post Modern Winemaking." 

On the milling of oak for wine barrels: Nicholls points out that the big difference between French and American oak is the way the barrels are milled. "Due to its cell structure, French oak must be cut with the grain, while American oak is typically quarter sawed.  This means less waste on the (American oak) log itself, which probably speaks to the cost difference between the two oaks." 

On the use of oak alternatives:  "I'm not a fan of oak chips," says Nicholls,"because  they have so much oxygen that you need to counteract with more SO2."  Vandenberg, also not a fan of oak adjuncts, as he calls them, says, "They are primarily about aromatic extract; I gave them up years ago."    

Oak is, by far, the worldwide wood of choice for use with wine.  It wasn't always that way. In the 7th century BCE, merchants in Armenia shipped wine in palm wood barrels.  It would be thousands of years before the arrival of oak.  In the intervening years, winemakers  used locally grown woods, including  ash, redwood, acacia, chestnut, cypress, evergreen beech, and pine.  Oak ultimately became the favorite, for its relative ease in forming barrels and, most importantly, the seasoning from oak, is far superior to that of other woods.

The relationship that exists between the contribution of oak to fermenting and maturing wine is complex and extensive. Thus, a detailed coverage of the subject, in two short articles, is impossible.  Hopefully, the information and opinions above and in the June 20, 2024 posting, will help readers of this blog toward a greater enjoyment of wine.

Next posting: Sicilian White Wine

Leave a comment at

Thursday, July 4, 2024

Finger Lakes

             Pleasant Valley Wine Company

Geography influences nearly every wine-buying decision we make. This is especially true for wine shoppers on the West Coast who are hampered by geography when they try to buy wine from the Finger Lakes region of New York state.

Easterners don't have the same problem.  California wine is readily available in most markets in the east and mid-west.  Less so, perhaps, for Pacific Northwest wines.

So, perhaps some information on the Finger Lakes and what wines to look for might generate interest in this historic New York wine region, among Left Coast wine drinkers. 

Thousands of years ago, glaciers formed a series of 11 lakes in central New York state that  became known as the Finger Lakes for their long narrow shapes.  The most prominent are Seneca Lake, Cayuga Lake and Keuka Lake.  In 1982, the Finger Lakes wine region was given an AVA, followed by sub-AVAs for Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake.

According to the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance (FLWA) there are 130 wineries along the Finger Lakes, making a variety of wines from native, hybrid and European vinifera grapes. Riesling, the second most widely planted grape in the lake region, is presently made by 200 Finger Lakes wineries.                

Today, Riesling and other vinifera grapes, are more common in Finger Lakes vineyards.  The FLWA says these are the top-10 grapes in Finger Lakes vineyards: Concord, Riesling, Catawba, Niagara, Aurore, Elvira, Chardonnay, Cayuga White, Cabernet Franc and Baco Noir. (Vinifera grapes are in bold)

At one time, the town of Hammondsport, on Keuka Lake, was considered the wine capitol of the region, partly because it was the site of historic Taylor Winery and Pleasant Valley Wine Company.

Both companies became known for their sparkling wines (then called "champagne"), made from native grapes.  So close was the association with the Champagne region of France, that the rail stop, near the Pleasant Valley Wine Company, was named Rheims, after the famous city in Champagne.               

According to Leon Adams, in his book, "The Wines of America," in the late 19th century, the proprietors of the Pleasant Valley Wine Company, presented a sparkling wine, made from Delaware and Catawba grapes, at a meeting of the local growers association, prompting one attendee to proclaim, "Truly, this will be the great champagne of the West!"  Although the remark was meant to refer to the continent "west" of Europe, it gave Great Western sparkling wine its name, and eventually the New York bubbly went on to win awards in Paris and London.

It must have been a shocking experience for those European tasters.  Eastern grapes, especially Vitis labrusca, but also some hybrids, have what is pejoratively described as a "foxy" character.  Baco Noir and other red hybrids can smell and taste "foxy," while the Seyvals usually are free of that character. 

A foxy smell is organic and wild, like animal fur. Curiously, some compare the foxy scent to that of wild strawberry, or fraise des bois, an aroma most people find pleasant.

Wine drinkers, familiar with the smell and taste of vinifera wines, find wine made from Vitis labrusca and Vitis riparia grapes alien, even off-putting.  It's a major reason eastern wines are scarce and a hard sell in the west.  And it took years for growers in the Finger Lakes, and other states east of the Mississippi, to learn how to bring vinifera grapes through the harder New York winters

An aside.  On my first wine trip to the Finger Lakes, my photographer and I visited a few wineries that were pouring mostly hybrid wines, including Baco Noir and Seyval Blanc.  Coming from California, I was used to drinking vinifera wine, like Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc so, the eastern wines were, at the very least, unusual.  

But something we noticed, in the tasting rooms we visited, was even more unusual. At Great Western, the tasting room staff had Concord grape juice for the visiting children. While the adults were offered samples of hybrid wines and Riesling, the staff understood that to keep dad and mom concentrating on the wines, they had to distract their child from demanding the parent's attention.

We saw this sensible and impressive marketing idea at other Finger Lakes wineries, and I wondered why this simple tool was not being used in California.

Besides Riesling, Finger Lakes vineyards have other vinifera grapes, like Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc.  And interest in hybrid grapes continues, the most common being American Hybrids (Isabella, Noah) and French Hybrids (Seyvel Blanc, Villard Noir). Hybrids had a growth spurt in the 1990s and continue to be popular with many wine drinkers, where the wines are sold.  And, there still is a demand for native wines like Cayuga White,  Catawba, Niagara and Concord, noted for their "foxy" character.  

Search your local wine shops for hybrid and native wines from the Finger Lakes, or ask your wine merchant to order them.  


Correction: In the June 28 post on Australian Cabernet Sauvignon, I had a lapse of memory.  I've been to Western Australia and should have remembered that Perth, the capital city of WA, is closer to Margaret River than Adelaide, days away to the east, across the Nullarbor Plain.  My thanks to Robin Shaw for pointing out the error and my apologies to the residents of Western Australia for my faulty geography.

Next post: French or American Oak Part 2

Leave a comment at

Thursday, June 27, 2024

Cabernet Down Under

It's safe to say that the Australian red wine industry was built on the iconic Oz Shiraz.  In recent years, though, international preferences haven't been as strong for Syrah as they are for Cabernet Sauvignon. 

The international passion for Cabernet Sauvignon (Cab Sauv) has not been lost on the winemakers of the land down under, affectionately known as "Oz."

Some independent-minded winemakers ignore market demands and continue to make the wines they like, while dismissing critics who say the practice is self-centered wine making, and a refusal to get out of the way of progress.  With the exception of Pinot Noir and a handful of local favorites like Sangiovese and Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon is king in most areas.

                                 119 Crocodile Dundee Royalty-Free Photos and Stock Images ...

In the late 1980s, if you were seduced by the Aussie charm of Paul Hogan introducing Americans to Crocodile Dundee, you likely added a few Aussie phrases like "No worries, mate" and "Put a shrimp on the barbie," to your growing pop vocabulary.

The catch phrases were trending then, urging  Americans to get their head around  the sheer size and scope of the island continent.  

If you were one of those people, or  you didn't get the memo, here are a few general facts.  Australia is about the size of continental United States, excluding Alaska and Hawaii. In all that real estate, there are only six states: Western Australia (the largest), Tasmania (the smallest), Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia; plus the Northern Territory and the Australian Capitol Territory.  Formed in 1915 from parts of New South Wales, the ACT is the seat of the Australian federal government and is similar to Washington D.C.

About Cabernet Sauvignon 

It would be easy to think of Cabernet Sauvignon as just another red wine, except for the need to explain the wine's amazing popularity. 

One historic possibility, requiring a reach back to the 18th century, says that Cab Sauv used to be known as Petite Vidure and that Carmenere, another obscure Bordeaux variety, was once known as Grande Vidure, and that somewhere in all that ancestry, was the birth of Cabernet Sauvignon. 

The less romantic and more clinical reality is that modern DNA reveals the parents of Cab Sauv to be Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc.  And that makes sense.  One sip of a Cab Sauv reveals a little of the herbal/grassiness of Sauv  Blanc and a touch of raspberry,  blackcurrant and minerality found in Cab Franc. 

Blackcurrant is the one descriptor associated with Cab Sauv, more than anything else. Problem is that Americans know the smell and taste of blackberry more than blackcurrant. Other classic Cabernet notes include cedar, pencil shavings, black cherry, mint and eucalyptus, a characteristic found in Aussie Cab Sauv, especially from the Barossa Valley.

Cab Sauv in Oz

Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as most of the other four grapes that are part of the Bordeaux  blend, is grown in all of the states and the ACT, but not the tropical Northern Territory, where it's too hot for anything but salt water crocodiles.  

The most important regions for Cab Sauv are Margaret River and Great Southern in Western Australia; Coonawarra, Barossa Valley, Padthaway and Clare Valley in South Australia and  Hunter Valley and Mudgee in New South Wales.  

Margaret River is a cool climate region, bordering on three oceans, in Western Australia. The thing about  WA is it's a long way from anywhere, with the nearest big city being Adelaide, in South Australia.  Between those two places, there's very little, except desert and big red kangaroos.  

Red Kangaroo" Images – Browse 4,331 Stock Photos, Vectors ...

Margaret River Cab Sauv has delicate fruit, good acidity and a pleasant earthiness, but not herbal. Notable Cab Sauvs include Leeuwin Estate, Mosswood, Evans & Tate, Cullen Wines.

Coonawarra, arguably, produces Australia's best Cabernet Sauvignon.  The wines are concentrated, emphasizing dark fruits like blackberry, with the occasional black plum. The wines show ripe tannins, nicely integrated acidity and a long complex finish.  Coonawarra Cab Sauv is the whole package.  

Top  Coonawarra cabs include those from Penley Estate, Wynn's John Riddoch,  Katnook Estate,  Mildara.

Barossa Valley may be Australia's best known wine region, justifiably famous for its Shiraz/Syrah.  Although less known, Barossa Cab Sauv is no less as good.  The wines are known for their concentration, balance and deep fruit flavors. 

Barossa Cab Sauvs to consider:  Penfolds, Rockford, Yalumba, Peter Lehmann, Wolf Blass,  St. Hallett. 

South Australia also boasts concentrated, fruit-forward Clare Valley Cab Sauvs and the more dense Padthaway Cab Sauvs, known for their fine tannins and good structure. 

Mudgee and Hunter Valley, are among Australia's oldest wine regions, with Mudgee making the best and most distinctive Cab Sauv.  The Mudgee wines have a very deep color, firm structure and chocolate and peppermint flavors.   

Hunter Valley has a mixed history with Cabernet Sauvignon, coming back in fashion in the early 1960s. Today, "The Hunter" is better known for stylish Shiraz, with Cab Sauv enjoying its own distinction.

Hunter Valley Cab Sauvs:  Brokenwood, McGuigan Wines, Rothbury Estate, Mount Pleasant,  Rosemount Estate.  Mudgee Cab Sauvs include Montrose, Lawson's Hill Estate.

Australia has a wealth of Cabernet Sauvignons, so many in fact, that it's difficult to put your finger on the "best."  Each region has its own unique and distinctive character, extracted from a local terroir.  Thus, a list of "best" wines would invariably leave out a few unmentioned regions that grow good to excellent Cabernet Sauvignon, such as Northern Victoria, the ACT and Tasmania. 

When shopping for wine, pick one Australian Cabernet Sauvignon area, as you might with California, or better yet, taste two or more side-by-side, and enjoy a Cabernet from Down Under.

Note:  Last week's posting on French and American oak, drew a spirited reader response.  So look for a follow-up, with a few points I missed about the differences between the two and some comments from winemakers. 

Next posting: Finger Lakes Wines

Leave a message at


Thursday, June 20, 2024

French or American Oak?

                                                                                Seguin Moreau photo

Is there a difference between French and American oak, when used in wine making? That's a question asked by winemakers around the world, and it's not an easy one to answer. 

When there's a new blend or varietal that might benefit from fermenting in oak or aging in oak (or both), a winemaker is confronted with the French or American question?  Knowing a few constants helps the search for an answer, while making wine-buying decisions easier.  

Quercus is the genus for oak, of which there are 400-500 species. Genus Quercus is divided into white oak and red oak. Only white oak is used for wine making.  The species of French white oak are Quercus patraea and Quercus rubar.  American white oak is Quercus alba.

White oak of the Quercus genus is chosen for wine barrels because it is watertight and the  grain structure is finer than red oak.  It's more complicated, but generally French oak has a tighter grain than American oak, plus the flavoring derived from French oak contact is more appealing for "seasoning" certain wines.  

As a rule, French oak works well as a seasoning for both red and white wines; pink wines seldom see oak.  Of course, the winemaker may have an iron-clad preference for either French or American oak, no exceptions.  Finally, French oak is usually the default choice for the majority of red wines and most white wines.  

American oak, though, is usually paired up mostly with red wines, like Zinfandel and the occasional Cabernet Sauvignon.  American oak has an aggressiveness, when coupled with a few flavor characteristics, that make it an undesirable choice for most white wine, although there has been the odd California Chardonnay, aged in American oak. 

Before we get to the specific oak types, it should be noted that the objections to American oak with white and light reds, stem from a time when U.S. coopered oak barrels used for wine, were made mainly by whiskey cooperages in non-wine producing states.  The things winemakers objected to did not apply to high-proof spirits like Bourbon, but were noticeable in lower alcohol, more delicate wine. 

When U.S. wineries began importing European coopered barrels, and French cooperages built facilities in California, things changed.  So, let's look at the characteristics of French and American oak and how both are used today in the U.S. wine industry.

French Oak

The growing and control of oak forests in France, is closely regulated by the French government.  Forest managers stipulate how many trees may be cut down and at what age. A close comparison to this sort of government regulation of a natural resource is the cork-oak forests in Portugal. 

The term "French oak" covers a lot of ground.  Although, today, a lot of French oak used for wine, is generally identified bois de centre, or "Central France." There are five specific forests, in an area, roughly from east of the Cognac region to the mountains west of Alsace. 

The forests: Nevers, central France forest, used mainly for wine; Allier, a small area in central France, adjacent to the Nevers forest, used mainly for wine; Troncais, a small forest within Allier, used for wine; Vosges, a forest in the Vosges mountains, west of Alsace, used for wine; Limousin, near the city of Limoges, east of the Cognac region, used mainly for Cognac and brandy.  

French oak has a tighter grain, and thus, gives less tannin.  French oak is more dense than American oak, with vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg nuances.  These features make French oak very good for red wine and a better choice for white wine.

American Oak

American white oak is grown primarily in Missouri, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas and Kentucky.  The forests are privately owned and not subject to government regulation, like French oak forests, although the USDA does maintain an active inventory.  A large percentage of the harvested oak is used for whiskey barrels. 

The characteristics that make American oak ideal for wine are similar to those of French oak, but American oak is twice as dense as French oak and the structure of American oak is more coarse, thus allowing  oak tannin and flavorings to move more freely into the wine, while affecting the wine's body.  

American oak delivers more spice, with dill and caramel notes and coconut, the latter an aromatic and flavoring  often associated with American oak.

The Bottom Line

The original question, then, can best be answered by recognizing that there are no hard rules saying which oak should be used with which wine. The five French  oaks, and American oak, are interchangeable, depending on the preferences of the user.   French oak is preferred for most uses, although winemakers may choose American oak, Hungarian oak, Slovakian oak, Russian oak and more.  

Ultimately, an endorsement of the winemaker's choice of either French oak or American oak, is validated when the consumer decides to buy a wine, based on taste.


Next post: Cabernets Down Under

Contact me at

Thursday, June 13, 2024

The First Blush of Summer

31,000+ Rose Wine Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free ...
                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Getty Images

 clear long stem wine glass lotAre you anxious for summer to begin?  I ask, because the first day of summer is next week, so I'm not really rushing things with this post.  And you'll excuse me for suggesting in the title, that this piece will be about blush wines.

A blushing person has a red face, caused by embarrassment or shyness, while a white wine takes on a "blush" of red when fermented from black grapes.  Blush is what the folks at Mill Creek Winery had in mind when they named their new lightly tinted wine.  The origin of the name was disputed by a wine writer, claiming he first used the term "blush." 

Truth be told, Mill Creek and the wine writer were never associated with blush wines as much as Sutter Home, the Napa Valley winery that adopted a variation of blush and then sold a gazillion cases of White Zinfandel.

But this piece is about rosé, a wine made from dark-skin grapes that undergoes  a short maceration, resulting in a wine ranging in color, from the pale orange-pink of Oeil-de-Perdrix (Eye of the Partridge) to the darker pink wine known in Spain as clarete.

The French are credited with many things associated with wine, including the development of rosé wines.  Among the most noted French Rosés are Tavel from the Rhone Valley and Rosé d'Anjou and Cabernet d'Anjou from the Loire Valley, and the pink wines from Provence.

Wherever black wine grapes are grown, you're likely to find pink wine:  Weissherbst and Schillerwein, Germany;  Rosato and Chiaretto, Italy; and Rosado and Clarete, Spain.

Making Rosé

Before looking  at the more popular rosés, here are a few words on how rosés are made.

At one time, pink wines were made by a number of different methods, including mixing red and white wines together and by using charcoal to extract the color from a red wine.  Today, the most common ways to make a rosé is by skin contact for a short period, of dark-skin grapes, in a press or tank, or by a maceration until the desired color is achieved.

Other methods for making a pink wine include saignée and vin gris.  Saignée is  the French term for "bled."  After a short maceration, a certain amount of free-run juice is run off during crushing of dark-skin grapes.  Saignée can be tricky, arriving at just right amount of pink color. 

Despite its name, Vin gris is not grey, but a pale pink wine, often made from the dark-skin Grolot, using white wine making techniques. Thus, the grapes are lightly pressed but not macerated; the key difference between vin gris and other pink wines.

The Best Known Rosés

Consumer buying habits for wine are usually based on price and brand familiarity. While the French rosés, Tavel and Rose d'Anjou, may be the most highly rated and considered to be the essence of what a pink wine should be, they are more expensive and less known.  Retail prices for Tavel range from $20 to $25, Rosé d'Anjou is $12 to $20. California roses have a wider price range, $12 to $35. 

                                       Chateau D'Aqueria Tavel Rose 2015

Tavel is an appellation in the southern Rhone Valley.  Tavel has three distinctions that set it apart from other French wines: Tavel was one of the first six wines to be granted an AOC designation in 1936; Tavel is the rare French appellation producing only rosé wine; and Tavelis is dry and long-lived for a rosé.              

The popular pink wine is a blend of Grenache and other grapes, most noteably, Cinsault, which is also a component of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.   Tavel rosés worth trying: Ch. d'Aqueria, Domaine de la Mordoree and Domaine l'Anglore.

The flavor profile of Tavel features strawberries and raspberries, with hints of honey, dark  cherries and black pepper. Grenache rosé has refreshing acidity and the slightest amount of tannin for texture.

Rosé d'Anjou is an unusual pink wine from the Touraine region of the Loire Valley. It is   made from the Grolleau noir grape (better known as Groslot) and blended with Gamay.  The odd thing about Rosé d'Anjou  is while the grape is allowed in Rosé d'Anjou, the variety is not permitted in AOC Touraine red wines, such as Bourgueil. 

Fruit salad, leaning to dark cherries are the main flavor features of Rosé d'Anjou. The color is a deeper red, some even like a light red, and the finish is medium dry to sweet.  The charm for some rosé fans is its fruit-forward sweetish flavors.

Cabernet d'Anjou is the more high-brow of the two Anjou pink wines.  Made from Cabernet Franc in the western Loire valley, this pink wine occasionally is made from Cabernet Sauvignon, or a blend of the two cabernet grapes.  

Cabernet d'Anjou can be very sweet, with brisk acidity and enough tannin to be noticeable.  The fruit sweetness and drying tannin is an odd combination that works, attracting fans looking for a pink wine with substance. 

The Rest of the Pinks

Rosé fans may claim that Grenache makes the best pink wine, but there are plenty of folks who  can rattle off a list of other grapes that make successful rosés.  Zinfandel has its champions, as does Syrah and Petite Sirah.  Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc are three Bordeaux grapes that make respectable pink wines, as does Italian Nebbiolo and Sangiovese and the very popular Spanish Tempranillo.

A special category of pink wine is Rosé Champagne, an expensive bubbly made from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier or a blend of the two.

Matching a pink wine with food depends on the style of the rosé and the primary grape used to make the wine.  Just as Pinot Noir is an excellent match with grilled salmon, ham is very good with rosé, especially one with a little sweetness, like Rosé d'Anjou.  Tavel, Cabernet d'Anjou or a dry California rosé.  Though dry, these wines still have sweet fruit,  a nice match with grilled pork chops or a pork stew.   

The choices are nearly endless, but bold flavors and rosé are not a good match, so whatever you decide, keep the dish simple.

Next post: French or American Oak?

Contact me at

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Alexander Valley Cabernet

In the late 1970s, California wine exploded onto the scene, propelling consumer interest to take off like a sky rocket.  One lasting development of that market expansion is the head-to-head disagreement over which valley makes the best Cabernet Sauvignon: Napa Valley or Alexander Valley.  

Advocates in both camps counter by asking which is better, chicken or turkey?  Most people, surely most omnivores, would agree that it's a matter of personal choice.  Further, the consumer is bombarded by hundreds, if not thousands, of times a day with ads and images, suggesting we make a choice. Chicken or turkey?  Napa Valley or Alexander Valley?

Of course, the astute wine drinker would naturally choose both.  To help inform the conundrum, I offer this examination of  Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and why it has risen to the top of what many critics say is Sonoma County's best.  We'll look at Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon in a future posting.

                                      Ripe Cabernet grapes on old vine growing in a vineyard Ripe Cabernet grapes on vine growing in a vineyard at sunset time, selective focus, copy space cabernet sauvignon grape stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

About Cabernet Sauvignon

First, a little background about Cabernet Sauvignon (Cab Sauv).  For a grape that is so widely planted throughout the world, Cab Sauv is relatively new, arriving on the Bordeaux wine scene in the late 18th century.  Little is known about how it got there, but thanks to DNA profiling in 1997, we now know that Cab Sauv's parents are Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, both of which appear, fleetingly at times, in the aroma and taste of Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Cab Sauv is a vigorous variety that needs to be restrained to avoid over-cropping.  An advantage for both the grower and winemaker is that Cab Sauv ripens slowly, after Cab Franc and Merlot, the two grapes most often used with Cab Sauv in the Bordeaux blend.  Cab Sauv likes warmth and doesn't ripen as well in cooler climates, tending to develop green, vegetative notes.

At ripeness, the taste of Cab Sauv is black fruits like blackberry and black currant.  Mature Cab Sauv shows more complex fruit and berry with, and this depends on your sensitivities and perception, pencil shavings and/or cigar box.  Alexander Valley Cab Sauv  fruit is sweeter than Bordeaux and the grape's natural acidity is often hidden behind the more forward fruit. 

Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

The history of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Alexander Valley really took off in the years after Prohibition was repealed in 1933.  Prunes and hops were major crops in the early years, but wine grapes eventually took hold, slowly at first. Then new vineyards moved to the bench lands and Cabernet Sauvignon became the leading variety in the valley.

Revolutionary may be too strong a word to describe the comments heard amongst California wine makers when the 1976 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon was released, but they became aware of this new style of California Cabernet Sauvignon. The Jordan release also made it clear that Alexander Valley was now a serious challenge to Napa Valley for the Cabernet crown. 

A lot has changed in the last 50 years with Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.  Planted acreage has increased and there are more wineries now than ever making Cab Sauv.   Throughout the 1970s, Cabernet was planted mainly on flat lands, but as prime land became scarce, new vineyards took root in the low rounded hills surrounding the valley. 

Today, there are 30 wineries in the Alexander Valley, running east of US 101, from just south of Cloverdale to outside Healdsburg.  The valley has the warmest daytime temperatures in Sonoma County, an ideal condition for warmth loving Cabernet Sauvignon.

different older vintages of Jordan Winery Cabernet lined up in the background with a silver tray full of different vintages of Jordan Winery corks on it in the foreground
                                                                                                                               Courtesy Jordan Winery

An aside: Wine fans remember the occasion when their wine knowledge moved up a notch. For me, the date was sometime in the late 1970s.  Exact years are hard to pin down, the older I get.  But I was at the Jordan Winery, in the Alexander Valley, about to have my first taste  of an Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.  

The French inspired Jordan Winery is tucked back out of sight on a hill, off Alexander Valley  Road.  As we drove up the narrow winding lane, Jordan's then director of national sales, Mel Master, explained to me that Tom Jordan is interested in hearing some outside comments about the Jordan 1976 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, before it's released.

Seated at the table in the grand dining room, as the Cabernet was being poured, I remembered Jordan telling me in an interview in his Denver office,  that he and his wife, Sally are Francophiles, with a particular preference for the wines of Bordeaux.  

With the first sip, I was struck with how non-California the wine smelled and tasted.  Being used to the riper, more fruit-forward style of North Coast Cab Sauvs, I was not prepared for the restrained, tightly-packed fruit flavors of the '76 Jordan.  Still, it had everything you'd want in a well-made Cabernet Sauvignon. 

The admiration for things French aside, Jordan wines are distinctly Californian. The Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon is one expression of Alexander Valley and by extension, California.  Jordan Cab Sauv remains one of Alexander Valley's best.  

Here are eight more Alexander Valley wineries making impressive Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley grapes: Stonestreet, Alexander Valley Vineyards, DeLorimier Winery, Soda Creek Winery, Silver Oak Cellars, Francis Ford Coppola Winery, Trentadue Winery, Robert Young Estate Winery.

Next time you're shopping for California Cabernet Sauvignon, remember Alexander Valley.


Next post: The First Blush of Summer

Write me at