Thursday, April 11, 2024

Nero and Nerello

This is not a post about a fiddle-playing Roman or the antics of two Italian cinema adventurers.  Nero and Nerello are the names of two grapes responsible for some of Sicily's best red wines.

A closer look at the grapes full names - Nero d'Avola and Nerello Mascalese - gets us closer to why Sicilians like these two varieties for their red wine. Growers in southern Sicily prefer to keep things localized, such as using the name Calabrese when referring to Nero d'Avola.  

Nero d'Avola

Nero d'Avola or "Black of Avola" is the most widely planted grape on the island, yielding deeply colored red wines with bright blackberry and cherry flavors, high tannins and medium acidity, just the wine to compliment the island's hearty cuisine.

The popular variety (and wine) gets its name from the town of Avola in the southern province of Siracusa.  Avola is one of the main growing areas, along with Noto and Pachino.

Nero is commonly made as a varietal or used in blends, such as the noted Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG, a blend of Nero d'Avola and Frappato, a red grape probably related to Sangiovese.

                                   Nero d’ Avola

There are numerous Nero d'Avolas in the market, widely priced from $12 for Tenuta Fenice, to $62 for Duca di Salaparuta. Others include Donnafugata $22, Feudo Montoni $55, Caruso Minini $19, Firriato $40, Stemmari $11, Cusumano $29, Tenuta Rapitala $14, Mazzei $20. 

Nerello Mascalese

Nerello Mascalese and its cousin, Nerello Cappucio, are essential components in Faro DOC, a popular red wine from around Messina, in the far northeastern part of the island.  The vineyards are on the Mascali plain, between Mt. Etna and the Mediterranean. 

Nerello is a late-ripening variety, commonly trained on bush vines. Nerello Mascalese is more widely planted than Nerello Cappucio and is related to Sangiovese, producing red and rose wines that are deeply colored, with good texture, medium acidity and cherry flavors. 

                                  Nerello Mascalese | Wine and Grape Guide |

Nerello Mascalese is also a permitted grape in Calabria, across the narrow Messina Strait.  The Calabrian wines are usually a blend of Mascalese and Cappucio.  Blending of the two grapes is common in both Sicily and Calabria.

Sicilian red wines, and the occasional rose, are gaining attention.  Here are ten Sicilian Nerello Mascalese wineries worth the search: Planeta, Gracia, Sciara, Donnafugata, Tasca d'Alamerita, Passopisciaro, Giovanni, Frank Cornelissen, Idda, Podere Giodo. 

An aside.  Over the years, I've collected a lot of wine books, old and relatively new. My small library includes a half-dozen books on Italian wine, the oldest is "The Wines of Italy," 1966, by the noted English writer, Cyril Ray, and the newest, "Vino Italiano," 2002, by Joseph Bastianich & David Lynch.  Bastianich's mother is chef and restaurateur, Lidia Bastianich. 

Despite the history of these two grapes in Sicily and their popularity, there is little mention of southeastern Sicilian wineries working with either of these grapes, in any of the four books. 

Ray's book has a single entry about Nero, referring to the grape as "Negra" d'Avola. "Italian Wine," 1982, by Victor Hazan does not mention Nero d'Avola but notes briefly that Nerello Mascalese is a part of Faro.  "Vino," 1980, by Burton Anderson,  the book on Italian wine that American wine collectors know best, has numerous listings of Nero and both Mascalese and Cappuccio, but only as components of certain wines.   

Lynch and Bastianich discuss Nerello Mascalese and give Nero d'Avola its due, probably because they talked to so many vintners who believe Nero is Sicily's grape of the present and future.  Though, Diego Planeta doesn't agree, telling the authors, that, in his opinion, Syrah is Sicily's great red hope. "It's just like Nero d'Avola: it loves the heat." 

Why have I gone on at length about the meager treatment of Nero and Nerello in older wine books? Researching, writing, editing and publishing a wine reference book takes a year, at least, making books outdated before they are released.

So, if you're looking for wine information, use reference books for the basics, but for current specifics, consult dedicated on-line providers like Wine-searcher, Wine Folly, The Gray Report, Wine Review Online, The WineKnowLog  and, of course, Gerald D Boyd On Wine.  

And while you're looking up information on Sicilian wines, have a glass of Nero d'Avola or Nerello Mascalese.


Next post: Spanish Whites

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Thursday, April 4, 2024

Spicy Traminer


The other day, I was sitting at my computer, staring at the screen, hoping for the inspiration I needed to start this post about Gewürztraminer.  But the only thing  happening was my memory kept slipping back to the Stone Age, when I was struggling through high school, in Folsom, Pennsylvania.

At my school, in the early 1950s, you had to "take a language" to graduate. So, for some reason that I still don't understand, I signed up for German, in my junior year. 

After graduating, I promised myself no more school, yet here I was fresh out of a U.S. Air Force tech school as a radio repairman, with an assignment to Germany for three years. 

But there was a problem. I didn't understand the ground-to-air receivers and transmitters I was asked to repair, so it didn't take long for me to realize that radio repairing wasn't for me. 

I did quickly realize that I was in a different culture, with a proud German people trying to recover from a war pressed on them by a crazed dictator. 

As a young American guy, life in a recovering Germany was exciting but challenging, although I did manage to discover "real" beer, and was fortuitously introduced to wine. 

What I didn't realize then was that life can give you unexpected gifts. For me, it was the two years of high-school German that helped me to better understand German wine.

My high school German teacher, Miss Stoner, had drilled into us that German is a building block language. Connect two words like, gewürz (spice) and traminer (grape), and you have one word: Gewürztraminer, a spicy traminer. 

I never became fluent in German, but I did learn the language of wine in German and French and Italian and Spanish. Listen to something long enough and eventually it becomes ingrained. The time I spent in German class proved valuable and today I can mostly follow an explanation in a vineyard or cellar when the language is not American English. 

What I learned about Gewüztraminer is that regardless of the grape's German heritage, it amounts to little more than 1% of vineyard acreage in Germany. The undisputed variety is Riesling, followed by Müller-Thurgau, Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) and Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc).  Loosely translated, the two grapes mean "grey (grape) from Burgundy" and "white (grape) from Burgundy."  

What's more, Gewürztraminer's glory days were not in the vineyards of Germany. Truth is, in the 1980s, German wineries dropped the dry-white ball and Alsatian winemakers recovered. German Gewürztraminers were getting sweeter while Alsace Gewurz was moving toward dry.  

Some German vintners reacted to this shift with trocken (dry) and halbtrocken (half-dry) wines, while others remained committed to sweeter wines.  But the move to drier wine applied mainly to Riesling. And the damage was already done as Germany lost the edge with dry Gewürz, to Alsace.

But not for long. The acceptance by winemakers worldwide that consumers wanted sweeter white wine, even while they talked dry, prompted Alsace wineries to move away from dry to perceptibly sweet whites, including Gewürztraminer. 

Predictably, wine drinkers complained that now Alsace white wine was becoming too sweet, so Alsatian and German winemakers swung the pendulum back to somewhere between dry and sweet. And, in America, the reaction was to describe this "new" wine style with the vague term,"off dry."

Today, Gewüztraminer has its devoted fans, but the highly aromatic wine is not near top of many white wine lists. Although Gewurztraminer's perfumed aroma is not quite in your face, you know a Gewürz when you smell it: citrus peel, bergamot, exotic spices, lychee, and a whole host of other things.

Gewurztraminer is a great choice just for casual sipping or with light meals. The exotic flavors are good with Indian and Chinese cuisine, ripe and pungent cheeses, caramelized onion quiche, smoked fish and roast chicken.

While Alsace and Germany are still making the best expressions of Gewürztraminer, it also can be found in cool regions like Austria, northern Italy, New Zealand, South Africa and cooler areas of California, such as Monterey and Mendocino.  


Next post: Nero and Nerello

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Thursday, March 28, 2024

Pride of Piemonte

Few Italian wines attract the acclaim given to Barolo and Barbaresco, arguably Italy's greatest red wines and the pride of Piemonte.  Credit Nebbiolo, the most important red grape of Piemonte, as the source for all the praise.  

Piemonte (Piedmont), as the northern district is known in Italy, has a number of noteworthy wines, but none as valued as the Nebbiolo-based Barolo and Barbaresco.

Nebbiolo takes its name from the Italian word nebbia, a natural phenomenon that loosely means the "fog or mist" covering the rolling Piedmontese hills. The nebbia is a symbiosis that occurs in autumn, with the ripening of Nebbiolo and the formation of fog in the district.

Nebbiolo on the vine

Once known as Spanna, mainly in the upper Piemonte, Nebbiolo is the grape of lesser known Piemontese reds, Gattinara and Gemme, as well as red wines in neighboring Lombardy and Val d'Aosta. The four Piemonte reds are all DOCG wines, although the international reputation of Barolo and Barbaresco is paramount.

Barolo, and to a lesser degree Barbaresco, reach a drinkable point only after many years of aging.  Nebbiolo is a tannic grape with lots of acidity, and that  combination means wines such as Barolo need extended bottle time before the classic tar and rose petals are evident.  

I will say, that whatever magic is at work in the cellars of Barolo and Barbaresco, to me, aged Nebbiolo has the scent of freshly spread road tar, although the perfume of rose petals has never been as noticeable.  

Before getting to specifics for Barolo and Barbaresco, here's a quick review of the Italian wine classification system.  In 1963, Italy created the DOC (Denomazione di Origine Controllata) to bring order to its wines while emulating the French AOC system. At the same time, DOCG (...Garantita) was added to recognize the country's highest quality wines. 

Barbaresco was first to get DOCG in 1966, then Barolo in 1980, Gemme in 1997 and Gattinara in 1990.  I've always wondered why, if Barolo is often rated higher than Barbaresco, why the fourteen year wait before approving DOCG for Barolo?  I should add that opinions differ about the quality differences and if Barbaresco is a "baby" Barolo.


Progress in glass bottle manufacturing signaled the first major move in the establishment of Barolo.  About 1850, the name Barolo first appeared on wine labels, coinciding with the use of glass bottles in Italian wineries.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Barolo producers had divided the core of wine production into five districts: Castigione Falletto, Barolo, Serralonga d'Alba, La Morra and Monforte d'Alba.  The official naming of these areas as the authentic zones of Barolo was not without controversy, as arguments persisted about which area was the authentic Barolo.

Nebbiolo in Barolo

The next big change took place in the 1960s when winemakers realized that how they were making Barolo was outdated and modernization was needed. Old-style Barolo, favored by traditionalists, did not use temperature controlled fermentation and many of the wines were over extracted due to lengthy macerations. The so-called "modernists" wanted a more international style of Barolo, with shorter and faster fermentations, shorter aging periods in barrel and the use of French oak.

Most of today's Barolo reflect the changes made since the 1960s by such noted producers as Renato Ratti, Paolo Cordero di Montezemolo, Pio Cesare and the Conternos. Barolo is noted for foward bright fruit, without being jammy. Barolo ages well, integrating the spice of French oak nicely with Nebbiolo.


Many of the same wine making practices for modern Barolo apply to Barbaresco. But it is also accurate and fair to say that Barbaresco is its own wine and not a junior Barolo.

Barbareso is one-third the size of Barolo and did not get name recognition until about 15 years after Barolo.  The production zone is in the districts of Treiso, Neive and Barbaresco, plus a small vineyard area near the town of Alba. 

Nebbiolo in Barbaresco

Another factor that separates Barbaresco from Barolo is Nebbiolo ripens earlier in parts of Barbaresco, giving the wine more finese and less tannin. There is a difference in aging requirements as well: 26 months with 9 in oak for Barbaresco, compared to Barolo's 38 and 18. Riserva wines age even longer. 

Barbaresco vintners like Angelo Gaja, Prunotto, Bruno Giacosa and Vietti are leading the movement to modern wine making, while staying within DOC rules and maintaining traditions. The character of Barbaresco today is the taste of Nebbiolo: black cherry, tar with floral notes and full tannins. Like Barolo, Barbaresco requires aging.

Still, determined wine drinkers ask: "Besides price and location, what's the difference between Barolo and Barbaresco?"  Locals in both places say it's the soil, others claim different local terroir, while others maintain that wine making techniques make the difference.  

The sure way to see if there is a difference is to pour a glass of Barolo and Barbaresco, from the same vintage, side by side, and taste.


Next post: Getting Down with Gewurz 

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Thursday, March 21, 2024

Tokaj & Hungarian Wine

Few wines are weighted down with more romantic legend than the great Hungarian Tokaj. Made first in the 13th century, Tokaj is an extraordinary sweet wine that is little known or appreciated by today's wine drinkers. 

The number of truely great sweet wines can be counted on one hand: Sauternes, German beerenauslese, Portuguese Port, Alsace Selection de Grains Nobles and Tokaj.  There are other very good to great sweet wines, like  Madeira and Australia's Liqueur Muscat, but they don't quite measure up to the top six. 

It's one thing to say that Tokaj is extraordinary, but to become a true believer, you need to taste an entry level Tokaj Szamorodni alongside a top-end Tokaj Aszu. The difference is like putting Ch. Pontet-Canet, Fifth Growth Pauillac/Bordeaux against Ch. Latour, First Growth Pauillac/Bordeaux. 

Hand-hewn Tokaj cave

The differences between Tokaj Szamorodni and Aszu, price aside, may be subtle, but the discerning taster will notice a depth of aromatics, more concentration, layered flavors, added complexity and above all, a definable elegance in the Aszu  that is absent in the Szamorodni.  

Just what is this wine called Tokaj and why is it so special?  Here's a brief synopsis of Tokaj, followed by a few words on Hungarian wine, including a look back at my first taste of a Hungarian red wine, with a name that should have scared me away, but didn't.

Hungarian Tokaj

The first thing you should know about Tokaj is that it is not the same as a California wine called Tokay or the French Tokay d' Alsace.  Interestingly, the original name for the Hungarian wine was "Tokay."  And the Alsatian wine is now called Alsace Pinot Gris; a righteous move as Tokay d' Alsace never had anything to do with Tokay or Tokaj.

One more technical point: Tokaj is a town in Hungary, near a volcano named Mount Tokaj.  Locals prefer to call the wine Tokaji -- the "i" denoting from, but universally it is known as Tokaj. 

Tokaj is made from two indigenous grapes: Furmint, a high-acidity grape susceptible to essential botrytis and Hárslevelű, genetically related to Furmint, this hard-to-pronounce native grape makes wines with spicy flavors and good aging potential.  Tokaj is a botrytised wine but, contrary to common belief, it is NOT a fortified wine. 

Historically, there are both dry and sweet Tokaj, with the sweet wines better known in export than the dry wines. Sweet Szamorodni is made from select botized grapes, while the dry style can be a blend of botrytized and non-botrytized grapes. Some wineries are exporting a Dry Furmint.

Aszu Tokaj is the classic sweet wine, made only from botrytized grapes that have been soaked for hours in new wine, before fermentation. The old way of classifying the style or sweetness levels, was by puttonyos (loosely translated as a picking basket). The highest was 6 puttonyos or about 18% residual sweetness. Today, all Aszu most have a minimum of 12% RS.


Eszencia, the fabled upper end of Tokaj Aszu is sweeter and rarer than 6 puttonyos Aszu.  It is not unheard of to find older Eszencia today at 45% RS and sweeter.  Rarely available commercially, Eszencia is usually used for blending.

The Royal Tokaji Wine Company is the major exporter of Tokaj wine to the United States, although a few other firms are making inroads.  Look for 6 puttonyos Aszu  from RTWC, Kvaszinger, Samuel Tinon and Disznoko. Price range is $65 to $75 for a 500 ml bottle.   

Hungary's Other Wines

In 2009, Hungarian wine fell into compliance with EU regulations and the designation of 36 official appellations that fall into three geographical groups: Transdanubia, The Great Plain and The Northern Massif. 

The wines of Transdanubia, in western Hungary, are strongly influenced by the Danube river and Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Central Europe. A variety of grapes include native varieties Furmint and Hárslevelű, along with Traminer, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Merlot, Muscat and Olaszrizling, a variety also known as Welschriesling, although it has nothing to do with the noble Riesling.  

Red wines, mostly from the native Kadarka, Merlot and Syrah, are important in the southern districts of Villany and Szekszard. Perhaps Hungary's best known red wine, Bikaver, or "Bull's Blood" is made in Szekszard and the Northern Massif district of Eger.  More on Bikaver wines below. 

The Great Plain lies between the Danube and Tisza rivers, in south-central Hungary. About half of the country's vineyards are planted here, ranging from Chardonnay to Kadarka and Olaszrizling. 

North of the Great Plain, on the border of Slovakia, is The Northern Massif.  Among the handful of small districts are Tokaj and Eger, one of two areas making Bikaver red wines. 


Personal note: One of the first European wines I tried was from Hungary.  The  black and red label had an angry snorting bull under the words "Egri Bikaver."  I was intrigued, so I turned the bottle to read the back label. 

A short description of the wine included the meaning of Egri Bikaver as "Bulls Blood," an appropriate name for the wine's blood-red color. The rustic fruity wine   was likely made then from the native grape, Kadarka, while today's Egri Bikaver has gone the way of many other wines, using international varieties like Merlot, to supplement a pair of other indigenous grapes.

The volcanic soils of this mountainous region yield white and red wine, with a recent influx of young winemakers experimenting with international varieties like Pinot Noir. Although there is some interest in Chardonnay and Riesling, native grapes are still the most popular for white wines.

In the late 1980s, Hungary became a post-communism free-market economy, linked with the European Union.  Although interest in Tokaj wine outside Hungary is small, wine drinkers curious about new and different wines, are looking to Hungary for different wines made from local varieties.

Next post: Nebbiolo Reds

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Thursday, March 14, 2024

Sonoma & Napa Chardonnay

Lately, I've had the feeling that Chardonnay has eased into complacency. Twenty years ago, Chardonnay was a major item of discussion in wine circles (dare I say on everyone's lips). Now, it seems as though Chardonnay has settled in as the self-assured dominant white wine, in most of the world's wine regions. 

There was a time when Chardonnay was synonymous with white wine. This was a  common scenario: Three young women are catching up at a bar in Los Angeles and the bartender asks for their order. "I'll have white wine," they all say.  The wines are set in front of the friends, they clink glasses, take a sip and immediately admonish the bartender for not serving them Chardonnay. 

A cliche, perhaps, but the tale demonstrates the enduring popularity of Chardonnay. 


Which brings me to Sonoma and Napa, two California regions responsible for most of California's Chardonnay.  Sauvignon Blanc may have found a comfortable spot in both places but it's not threatening to dethrone Chardonnay.

Fact is, Chardonnay is not an original New World wine. Chardonnay can trace its roots back to the Middle Ages, to a part of France we know today as Burgundy.  DNA analysis claims that Chardonnay is the offspring of Pinot Noir and an old variety called Gouais Blanc.  Ancient ancestry aside, Chardonnay is a modern global  traveler, the most popular white wine on every continent where wine is made. 

The popularity of Chardonnay in Sonoma and Napa took off in the 1970s and early 1980s.  Hanzell likely made the first Sonoma Chardonnay in 1956 and about 15 years later, Bob Travers was making Chardonnay at Mayacamas on Mt. Veeder.

Tasting the Difference

Is it possible to taste the difference between a Napa and a Sonoma Chardonnay?  Anything is possible, but it would be difficult and here's why.  

There's geography and its connection to terroir. The Napa Valley is a smaller place than Sonoma, with 16 clearly defined areas, or AVAs. Sonoma is much larger and spread out, with 19 AVAs. Each of these AVAs has a different terroir. 

Although it's not easy to clearly define what is the terroir of any area, the simple explanation is such factors as climate, soils, vineyard location, plus a host of other things combine to form a grape growing environment. 

The sum of all those factors means that Chardonnay is happiest when it has lots of time to ripen evenly, in a cooler environment, like that for Pinot Noir. Wherever you find Pinot Noir, you will also likely find Chardonnay: Burgundy, Carneros, Champagne, Russian River.

Consider the growing conditions for Chardonnay in the Napa Valley. They are thought to be ideal at the cool end of the valley in Los Carneros and Wild Horse Valley, but less so in warmer northern Calistoga. 

Thus, the taste of a Carneros Chardonnay is more Granny Smith apple and its  brisk mouth-watering acidity. Move up valley to warmer spots, like Calistoga, and Chardonnay takes on a softer acidity and tropical fruit flavors.


The same differences are present in Sonoma, where a local terroir makes it more suitable to grow Chardonnay in cooler west county, closer to the ocean or the Russian River Valley.  Move further inland to the Alexander Valley and conditions warm a little and get warmer yet near Geyserville. 

Local topography, of course, can make a difference, with cooler pockets where Chardonnay does well.

These generalizations are for Chardonnay that hasn't been fermented in oak, or seen oak during barrel aging. Chardonnay is a malleable grape to work with, allowing a winemaker enough room to ferment in oak or just age in oak and to calculate how much time in barrel is just right. Plus, there's the wine making choice of malolactic conversion or not. 

With Chardonnay, there are many variables for a winemaker to work with, starting in the vineyard, providing an unlimited number of styles. You'll find most of the styles in Napa and Sonoma Chardonnays. 

What follows then is a list of a few select wines with prices. The list does not reflect the highest or lowest prices in either Napa or Sonoma:

Napa Chardonnays range from $17 for Napa Cellars to $929 for Kongsgarrd The Judge. If that's too much strain on your wine budget, there's Mondavi, Duckhorn, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and Grgich Hills, all for less than $50.  Far Niente is $70, Ch. Montelena, $75 and Kongsgarrd, $150. 

Sonoma Chardonnays are priced from $19 for La Crema to $684 for Marcassin Estate. Others include Sonoma Cutrer, $25; Jordan Vineyard and Winery, $42; Flowers, $48; Paul Hobbs, $65; Peter Michael "Belle Cote," $138 and Kistler, $146.


Next post: Tokaj & Hungarian Wine 

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Thursday, March 7, 2024

The Temptation of Tempranillo

What would you say is Spain's most dominant red wine grape...Garnacha? Good guess, but the grape planted in more places is Tempranillo; a favorite for its lush texture, ripe aromas and flavors of blackberry and black cherry. 


Not for nothing is Tempranillo the most popular red wine grape in Spain. It's also the country's answer to Cabernet Sauvignon. Tempranillo is an alternative choice for folks who favor Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. 

Popular wine areas, like Rioja and Ribera del Duero, prefer Tempranillo as the base for their red wines. Tempranillo is also the main red grape in many other regions of Spain, like Toro, Catalonia, Navarra, La Mancha, Costers del Segre and Somantano.  

Throughout Spain, growers and winemakers identify Tempranillo by different names.  In Ribera del Duero, it's called Tinto Fino; in La Mancha, Cencibel; Tinto Toro in Toro; and in Catalonia, Tempranillo is known as Ull del Liebre. Neighboring Portugal has yet another name for Tempranillo: Tinta Roriz, a main component of  Port. 

I digress briefly to bring back Garnacha (Grenache), a red wine grape whose popularity has skyrocketed in recent years, although not so much in Spain, due to a government mandated vine pull.  

Long known as the variety that adds the oomph to Cotes du Rhone and Chateauneuf-du-Pape in France; in Spain, Garnacha shares a lot of the same aromatics and flavors found in Tempranillo: deep color, bright strawberry/cherry flavors, moderate tannin, good acidity.  

By 2021 Tempranillo had secured its dominance over Garnacha, due mainly to the grape's thick skin, dark color and the promise of longevity. In recent years, that promise has been realized in the long lived wines of Ribera del Duero, Toro, Navarra and in the best Rioja, like Muga, Martinez Bujanda and Campo Viejo.


 Ribera del Duero

For years, Rioja was the standard bearer for Spanish red wines. Then, in the late 1980s, the striking red wines of Ribera del Duero hit U.S. markets with a loud bang. Ribera Tempranillos offered more than Rioja: bigger and riper, but with finesse and the potential for longer aging. Wineries in Ribera had been making this style of Tempranillo for years, but it was new to American fans of Spanish red wine.

The region lies along the Duero river in central Spain. Originating in Spain, the Duero flows downhill, entering Portugal through the narrow Douro valley, site of Port production, eventually emptying into the Atlantic, just past Oporto. Along its way, the Duero/Douro, flows past many wine regions, including Ribera del Duero.

Well-heeled, in-the-know collectors, were already familiar with Vega Sicilia, the iconic Ribera wine first made in the 1860s, and then refined in 1927 to the wine we know today, made in three styles from Tinta del Pais (aka Tinto Fino), a strain of Tempranillo. 

More than 130 years ago (yes, you read that right), Vega Sicilia introduced Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Merlot to the region, to provide support for Tinta del Pais. For years, Vega Sicilia held its lofty place as the top Ribera wine.

Then, in the 1980s, the late Alejandro Fermandez released Pesquera to international acclaim. The Ribera juggernaut was loose, with wineries that had been selling mainly to cooperatives, now were marketing Ribera del Duero.  The wine takes its name from the village Pesquera del Duero and is not far from Vega Sicilia.

Noted Ribera wines to consider: Antidoto, Prado Rey, Vega Sicilia, Pesquera, Arzuaga, Dominio de Pingus, Bodegas la Horra, Dominio del Aquila.  Most Ribera wines range in price from $25 to $40, with some reaching $350 and Vega Sicilia Unico, scaling the lofty heights of $1,350.



Before Ribera took off, Tempranillo and Garnacha got together to form the base for Rioja red wines.  The name of Spain's leading wine region is a mash up of Rio (river) and Oja, a tributary of the river Ebro.

The key to understanding Rioja wine is the belief by Riojans that aging in barrel is a stronger indicator of Rioja red wine quality than fermentation -- the reverse of that practice in most other wine regions.  

By regulation, Rioja Crianza and Reserva must spend at least one year in oak, usually American, although interest in French oak is growing. Gran Reserva must age in oak a minimum of two years, plus two more years in bottle. A third category, Joven, is unoaked red.

The best vineyards in La Rioja are in Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Alta, around the villages of Laguardia, Haro, Fuenmayor and San Vicente.  The climate there is continental, without the extremes in other places. Soil composition is mainly clay over limestone, while in Rioja Baja, the broadest place in the valley, there is alluvial soils with river silt and the wines are more common.

Wine making in Rioja follows the traditional methods employed elsewhere. Barrel fermentation for whites was common until the 1970s, then most wineries switched to tank fermentation, but in recent years, some wineries have switched back. Resistance to official requirements about such practices as barrel aging has picked up in Spain, mirroring a mini-trend felt elsewhere in places like Italy. 

Here are some noted Rioja producers: Muga, La Rioja Alta, Miguel Merino, Vine Real, CVNE, Marques de Murrieta, Pedro Martinez, Sierra Cantabria.  Expect to pay $25 to $35 for most Rioja.

Tempranillo is considered a workhorse red grape in many parts of Spain, and this hard working grape produces some of Spain's best red wines.

Next blog: Napa & Sonoma Chardonnay

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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Trentino-Alto Adige


In the late 18th century, the noted English essayist Samuel Johnson wrote these insightful lines: "A man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see." 

Johnson's thoughts were memorable and prescient since he could not have known how many people, over the hundreds of years, would have felt an inferiority at not having seen Italy. The Italy Johnson found so necessary was far different than it is today.  And it is that difference that draws people by the thousands every year. 

For me, the essence of what defines and attracts me to Italy is hard to describe.  And yet, I would like to think, the attraction I find for the country and its people could be similar to that felt by Dr. Johnson.

Whatever it is, that "Italyness," comes through in the country's impressive variety of red, white and sparkling wines.  Nowhere is that more evident than along Italy's northern tier, specifically in Trentino-Alto Adige, a scenic region wedged between Austria and the Italian province of Veneto. 

Trentino-Alto Adige is a beautiful mountainous land, diverse and multi-lingual, with German spoken in northern Alto Adige, and Italian in southern Trentino.


White wine rules in this hilly area, marked by the Adige river that runs through the region. Principal grapes in Trentino are European but with an Italian variation: Chardonnay from France, Müller-Thurgau from Germany and Pinot Gris that started out in France and became Pinot Grigio in Italy.    

This mix of grapes is spread along the foothills of the Dolomites mountains, on both sides of the Adige river, with orchards on the valley floor.  From time to time, attempts have been made to grow grapes in the mountains, but flat land there is in short supply, so the efforts mostly fail.

Pinot Grigio

To define the Italian wine style to be found in Trentino wines, the wine consumer need look no further than the Trentino take on Pinot Gris.  Trentino Pinot Grigio is lighter, less concentrated and complex than an Alsace Pinot Gris. The body and fruit of a Pinot Grigio is leaner, supported by brisk cool climate acidity.

Although cooperatives and volume are important factors in Trentino wine production, there is an active group of small wineries aiming at making distinct varietal wines. At least three-quarters of all production is white. 

Alto Adige

Alto Adige was annexed by Italy after World War I, but the mountainous region still retains its Germanic heritage. Generally cooler than Trentino, Alto Adige reflects a German influence by producing mainly white wine. 

Agriculture in Alto Adige is mixed, with wine grapes planted on valley hillsides, up to more than 3,000 feet, and apple orchards along the valley floor.  Rooting grapevines at such heights means cooler growing conditions, retaining the grapes' natural acidity and clearly defined varietal character.  

For most consumers, German wine usually means Riesling and Müller-Thurgau.  But in Alto Adige and its neighbor, Trentino, the emphasis is more on Pinot Grigio and two indigenous dark-skinned varieties, Lagrein and Schiava (German Trollinger).  

Variety in all things is what makes life interesting.  Unfortunately, in recent years, demand for wine with an international pedigree, like Pinot Noir, has meant that mostly unknown local varieties like Lagrein, are loosing interest. 

Tasting Lagrein for the first time broadened my appreciation for indigenous varieties. Cabernet Sauvignon can be tasted anywhere, but you can only taste Lagrein in northern Italy.


Of the Lagreins I tasted, Lagrein Rosato was the most interesting, with its rose petal and strawberry flavors. I found a trace of bitterness in the red Lagrein, a characteristic that mostly disappeared in blends containing Lagrein.

Schiava is mainly an undistinguished grape, but has its advocates among the German-speaking residents of the area, who prefer to call the grape Vernatsch, which is curious because in the Württemberg region of Germany, where the variety is widely planted, calls the grape Trollinger.

In Alto Adige, Schiava is used mainly in red blends and when made as a varietal wine, is pale in color with non-varietal flavors, more like a light rose than a red wine. The Schiava Gentile clone is generally thought to make better wine then the more common Schiava Grosso.

Gewurztraminer, a white variety with a German background, but probably better known for its association with French Alsace, is the fourth most planted white grape in Alto Adige.  Locals sometimes refer to the grape as Gewurztraminer Aromatico, although the wine is less scented and lacks the finesse of an Alsace Gewurztraminer. 

An aside: The true origin of the Gewurztraminer grape may never be resolved, but for now, the question is what does the grape name mean?  Prior to the late 19th century, the variety was known as "Traminer" or Traminer Musque, a mutant grape that has Muscat properties and a "musky" scent.  After 1973, Traminer was dropped and both the grape and wine were henceforth called Gewurztraminer. Further, the direct translation of the German word gewurz is "spice," but when associated with the grape, gewurz means "perfume."

Another German grape import is Kerner, an aromatic cross of Trollinger (Schiava) and Riesling that has many Riesling characteristics but is easier to grow than Riesling.  While plantable acreage in Alto Adige is small, Kerner has great promise.

There is a lot more to Trentino-Alto Adige than in this brief overview. Here are some wineries offering both international wines and indigenous Lagrein and Sciava: Cantina Terlano, Abbazia di Novacella, Fratelli Lunelli, Foradori Granato, Gonzaga, Cantina Tramin Kellerei. 

Next blog: The Temptation of Tempranillo

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Thursday, February 22, 2024

The Many Kinds of Muscat

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                      Morris of Rutherglen, Classic Liqueur Rutherglen Muscat

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

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

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

Next blog: Alto Adige

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Thursday, February 15, 2024

New Zealand Pinots


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

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

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

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

South Island  

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

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

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

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

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

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


North Island/Waiarapa

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

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

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

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


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


Next blog: The Many Kinds of Muscat

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Thursday, February 8, 2024

Look to Lake County

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

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

Mt. Konocti reflecting off Clear Lake

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

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

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

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

Vines, lake and volcano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Next blog: New Zealand Pinot Noir

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Thursday, February 1, 2024


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Semillon and the Hunter

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

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


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

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

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

Semillon and Sauternes

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


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

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

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

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

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


Next blog: Look to Lake County

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Thursday, January 25, 2024

Pinot Blanc


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

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

Well, I tell you, neither does Pinot Blanc.  

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

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

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

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

Pinot Blanc in Europe

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

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

Pinot Blanc

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

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

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

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

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

Pinot Blanc in America

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

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


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

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

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

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

Next post: Look to Lake County

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