Wednesday, December 25, 2019

The Pleasures of Port

More things happen by accident than we know. Supposedly cheese was discovered when a Roman Legionnaire filled a sack, made from an animal's stomach, with goat's milk and placed it between his leg and the horse's body. During a vigorous ride, the contact heat curdled the milk, helped along by the rennet inside the skin, and fresh cheese was born. 

Port History
True or not, it's a nice story. A more political scenario evolved with the discovery of the fortified Portuguese wine we know today as Port. 

(I pause here, during this holiday season, remembering (vaguely) a time in my boyhood when my mother would take a little port. Mom was an enthusiastic practitioner of folk medicine,
Dining in Portugal
believing, for instance, that port was an elixir that would "build the blood."

Mom and I lived in a small one bedroom unit in the back of a converted tavern. Clara Ellis, her World War II amputee husband, Howard and their young daughter, Corinne, lived in the front unit. We didn't have a car so Mrs. Ellis would occasionally run errands for my mother in her torpedo-back Pontiac. 

One day, Mrs. Ellis stopped by to tell my mother that she was going to the state store and did my mother want anything for the holidays. Mom gave her the money for a bottle of port. 

In the 1940s, the only way to buy a bottle of wine, spirits or beer, in fact anything with alcohol, in Pennsylvania, was to go to a state store. Licensed restaurants also served alcohol, or you could drive across the Delaware River to New Jersey where alcohol sales were more relaxed.

I was outside playing when the Pontiac returned, easing up to the curb in front of the house. On the way back from the state store, Mrs. Ellis must have stopped by the tavern to get here husband, because I saw them arguing about something. The disagreement didn't last long when Mrs. Ellis got out of the car, and leaning over to look across the front seat, snarled: "Well, Howard, you can just stay there!"

And he did, for a while. But eventually, with some effort, Mr. Ellis lifted himself out of the passenger side of the car, struggling to maintain his balance, while holding onto the car with one hand and his artificial leg with the other. 

Then he looked across the street and seeing our nosy neighbor peeking out her window, Howard Ellis waved his artificial leg in the air and yelled, "That's right, you old bat, I'm drunk again!" Howard Ellis never got over the loss of his leg in the war and how that trauma kept him from being the man he wanted to be after the war.

As I stood there watching  this little drama that I didn't really understand, Clara Ellis  came out of the house and helped her husband inside and then brought the bottle of port around, likely from a Finger Lakes winery, for mom, who nursed it through Christmas and New Year.)

But I digress...In the early 1690s, the scenario in Portugal involved a trade war between the French and English. Seems the English were enjoying their French wine until a disagreement occurred prompting harsh tariffs to be imposed, driving English wine merchants to look elsewhere for wine. That place was northern Portugal. 

Image result for free port wine photos
Terraced vines in the Douro River valley
What was available to the merchants was a thin acid white wine (probably Vinho Verde), which the merchants quickly rejected. Instead, they went inland along the Douro River and found a deeply colored, big and lusty red wine. The trick was to get the wine to London in good condition, so the crafty merchants added a little brandy to stabilize the wine for the sea journey. 

Similar scenarios apply to the almost instant popularity of three fortified wines from the Iberian Peninsula: Spanish Sherry and Portuguese Madeira and Port. And it was all because the English and French did not like each other very much.

The evolution of port as we know it today didn't happen overnight. One version of the change holds that the English wine merchants discovered the way to make port when a merchant found monks in a mountain monastery adding brandy during fermentation, killing off active yeasts and producing a sweet red wine. Most of the changes that came after, between the 17th and 19th century, were economical and political. But then the port business took a severe hit when phylloxera (a small root-feeding aphid) swept through the Douro. 

By the 1980s, the port industry slowly clawed its way back with new innovations such as reducing vine density, planting new vineyards on vertical rows rather than horizontal terraces with costly retaining walls.  

Port Varieties & Winemaking
Since the 1970s, most port wine has been made from just five grapes -- Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cao and Tinta Roriz. Touriga Franca was formerly known as Touriga Francesa and Tinta Roriz is the same as Spain's Tempranilllo.  Following extensive research and experimenting in the vineyards by the port houses of Cockburn and Ramos Pinto, a selection of 80 authorized grapes was narrowed down to five. Some growers also prefer traditional varieties like Sousao and Tinta Amarela.  

In the process of making red wine, the extraction of color and tannin happens over an extended period. Not so with port, where the aim is to get as much color and tannin as possible before adding grape spirit, stopping the fermentation. 

Traditionally, grapes for port wine were crushed by foot in low granite troughs or lagares. Pairs of men, thigh-high in grape skins, seeds and juice, would trod the mass for up to three hours. The combination of increasing heat caused by the trodding and body warmth, starts a fermentation. Eventually the juice is run off the lagar into a vat partly filled with grape spirit, killing the yeasts, stopping fermentation. 

Today, stone lagares have mostly been replaced by automation. Faced with a shortage of labor and the fact that many quintas, a farm or wine estate, in the Douro valley did not have electricity, port producers turned to autovinification tanks which do not require power. As the fermentation begins in the tank, carbon dioxide causes pressure to build up, forcing an automatic pump over, extracting color and tannins. 

Some port producers still use the lagar for the processing of premium ports, while others employ automated treading machines known as "robotic lagares." These automated innovations,however, are too expensive for the production of large volumes of port.

Port Styles
The style of a port wine is determined by two broad categories. Ruby is the most common and least expensive. Aged in wood, and sometimes cement, for up to three years, a ruby port is filtered and then bottled. A premium ruby carries the designation Reserve.

Tawny is a port aged for much longer than a ruby, changing the color from ruby red to an amber brown. An Aged Tawny has been in wood for six years or more. Tawnies with age indications of 10, 20, 30 or 40 years are approximations since tawny ports are blends. 

Colheita ports are tawnies from a single year, with the date of harvest on the label. Colheitas are aged in wood for seven years or longer. 

Vintage Port represents about 1% of the total port production, is the most expensive, yet is the most popular of all the styles. Vintage port, from a declared vintage, is aged for up to three years in wood and is then bottled. The consumer ages the wine further in bottle, sometimes for up to 40 years if the wine is from a declared vintage. Single-Quinta Vintage is usually from a undeclared vintage and bottled unfiltered.

Other port styles: Garrafeira, meaning "private cellar," a term more often associated with Portuguese table wines; Late Bottled Vintage, a port from a single vintage, bottled between the fourth and sixth years after harvest; Crusted Port, a wine bottled unfiltered so that it throws sediment requiring decanting.

At the western end of the Douro river, are the cities of Porto and Vila nova de Gaia where port houses have their aging lodges. Today, port authorities use the term "Porto" on port labels, both as a reference to the city and to identify the wine as the authentic product of Portugal. 

Porto, Portugal, City, Tiles, Building
Porto river walk on the Douro
Port and Food
There are traditional foods such as walnuts and Stilton cheese that marry nicely with port, but in general port is a fortified wine enjoyed by itself with savory bites or after a meal. As with sweet dessert wines, the rule to remember is balance the sweetness between the food and the wine. 

Port is one of the world's great wines an deserves to be a part of everyone's collection and on everyone's table.

Next Blog: Gerald D Boyd On Wine will kick off 2020 with an Italian Wine Tour.

Happy New Year!

Questions? Comments: Email me at

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Holiday Bubbly

For almost as long as I can remember, the good folks that represent (French) Champagne have worked diligently to persuade sparkling wine makers from throughout the world to stop misusing the word Champagne.  At times, their efforts must have seemed futile.    
Open Champagne Bottle Near Two Cocktail Glasses As a prelude to the holiday season, then, as well as an homage to one of the world's great wines, here are some tips on enjoying Champagne during the holidays and throughout the year. 

All references here to wine with bubbles produced in a delimited area in northern France, will be called Champagne. All other wine with bubbles will be known simply as sparkling wine. I make that distinction because there are still wineries in California and South America that abuse the name Champagne. 

For some unexplained reason, the Champagne houses that make sparkling wine in California label their product sparkling wine, while those same Champagne houses that make sparkling wine in South America use Champana, the Spanish word for Champagne. 

The governmental body that looks after such things is the Comite Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC). The CIVC also gets a little annoyed with people who insist that Champagne is just a celebratory wine not to be enjoyed at other times. Although the focus of this blog about Champagne is mainly for holiday sipping and dining, I urge you to enjoy Champagne any time of the year. 

The Region and Grapes
The region of Champagne is a short car ride north east of Paris, in the Valley of the Marne river. The relatively small region, shaped like a mushroom, is composed of just over 85,000 acres of vines mainly in the Montagne de Rheims and the Cote de Blancs, along with three other districts. Epernay and Rheims are the main cities, with the smaller, but important town of Ay, not far from Epernay.

Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier are the three grapes used in making Champagne. Although all three varieties are grown in each of five districts, the bulk of the best Pinot Noir is planted in the Montagne de Reims, Chardonnay mainly in the Cote de Blancs and Meunier in the Vallee de la Marne.  

While the importance of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay cannot be over stated, creating a blend of the two, sometimes with a small amount of Meunier, allows for the seamless consistency of a house style. 

Making Champagne 
The method by which a wine gets its bubbles through a second fermentation in the bottle is called methode champenoise. The process is long and labor intensive, some estimates claim more than 300 steps, from fermentation to finishing the bottle with a protective hood. 

The first fermentation of a non-vintage cuvee (blend) produces a dry, high acid, relatively neutral base wine. High acidity is necessary to keep the wine fresh throughout the long process. Varietal character is not desirable during the first fermentation since the aim is for character and quality to develop during the process. Next is the balancing of the characteristics of the different base wines in a blending process known as assemblage. Assemblage may also include reserve wines from previous vintages. 

(Blending with Richard Geoffroy. On a visit to Moet et Chandon in the mid-1990s, I was given the opportunity to formulate an assemblage with Richard Geoffroy, then the
winemaker for Cuvee Dom Perignon, Moet's prestige Champagne. Geoffroy had a reputation as a brilliant winemaker, so I was thinking to myself that he may have felt obligated to be patient with the American wine writer.

Not to worry. Richard Geoffroy was a friendly, patient teacher as well as a master blender. I had participated in component blending sessions in Cognac and Scotland and was impressed at the blender's skill and knowledge, faced with dozens of samples, and then to quickly smell and sometimes taste each sample, deciding "yes" or "no," whether or not, to add that sample to the final blend. Champagne blenders may taste up to 70 different base wines before making a final decision on the blend.

We were faced with an array of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier base wines from various vineyards owned by Moet or from contract growers. The Champagne blender must know the different soils and micro-climates of each vineyard and the influences each have over the different varieties. And the blender must evaluate base wines that are out of balance and will only attain balance following the second fermentation.

As we tasted through the samples, Geoffroy asked for my impressions and then he would comment on each wine. Knowing that youthful Chardonnay is citrusy and acidic, Pinot Noir has more body and finesse and Meunier offers a floral note, helped me, but more often than not, I miss-identified the varieties, especially the difference between Pinot Noir and Meunier.

It was a humbling experience and I came away from it with aching teeth from the high acid base wines and a new appreciation for blenders who unerringly practice their skill and art so that we can enjoy our favorite fizz vintage after vintage.)

The second fermentation is where the wine begins to develop style and quality. Liqueur de tirage, a mixture of still wine, sugar and yeasts are added here. The amount of sugar determines the amount of bubbles: light sparkle (petillant), medium fizz (cremant),
mousseux. Today mousseux is used mainly for other French sparkling wines. In all there are seven sweetness levels, with these four the most commonly seen: Brut Nature, 0 to 0.2%; Brut, 0 to 1.5%; Sec, 1.7 to 3.5%; Doux, 5% plus. 

The wines are then bottled and sealed with a crown cap (like the ones you see on soda bottles) and placed in cellars for aging. Champage aging cellars, known as crayeres hold millions of bottles at various stages of aging.

Depending on the producer, the second fermentation can take up to three months or longer. During this period sediment settles on the inside of the bottle, requiring a riddling (remuage) to shake it loose. Today, remuage is done by placing a large number of bottles in a gyropalette (a sort of mechanical riddler) or by the traditional method of mounting the bottles neck down in a pupitre, an a-frame device with holes for the bottles. Manually turning the bottles in a pupitre takes about eight weeks to complete, while riddling in a gyropalette takes just eight days.

Finally, the bottles are placed neck down in a bath of very cold brine, freezing the sediment that has gathered inside the crown cap in to a solid plug. The crown cap is popped off, the sediment plug dislodged (degorgement), sweetness level adjusted, a cork  pressed in place, topped by a metal cap and the whole thing secured by a wire muzzle, then the package is finished with a hood.

The result of this long process is a bottle of non-vintage Brut Champagne, the most popular style. Also available are Vintage Brut, Brut Rose and a prestige bottling, such as Roederer Cristal and Moet et Chandon Dom Perignon. Prices for non-vintage Brut range from $35 to $70. Prestige Champagne prices: Moet Dom Perignon and Krug, $170, Roederer Cristal, $270. 

By comparison, California's Scramsberg Reserve Brut sells for $120, J Vineyards Brut, $23 and Domaine Chandon California Brut, $24.

Champagne and Holiday Food 
Holiday meals are often a mix of something sweet, something spicy and something vinegary, and that makes finding a Champagne that won't fight with at least one of those dishes a challenge. 

With the exception of Brut Nature which is usually bone dry, all levels of Champagne have some sweetness. The equalizing thing with Champagne is the brisk acidity and the bubbles. This sweet/salty/spritzy combination makes salty foods or snacks like smoked salmon, nuts, potato chips and popcorn good choices as appetizers or starter course. 

Caviar and Champagne is a marriage that appeals to some, while others suggest that caviar goes better with Chablis or a lightly oaked Chardonnay. The same suggestion holds true for clams and oysters.

The natural acidity of Champagne is a good foil for creamy dishes and those with high fat content. Turkey and Virginia ham work, but not cranberry sauce and candied yams. 

Desserts of all kinds are favorites during the holidays and if you fancy a Champagne with your pie or cookie, remember the balanced sweetness rule - the sweetness of one shouldn't overpower the other. 

There is so much more to say about Champagne, but I'll close with this ode to Champagne from Madame Lilly Bollinger:

                     I drink it when I am happy, and when I am sad.
                          Sometimes I drink when I am alone. 
                        When I have company, I consider it obligatory.
              I trifle with it if I am not hungry, and drink it when I am. 
                       Otherwise I never touch it -- unless I am thirsty. 

                                    Image result for champagne line art
                                              A voltre sante!

Next Blog: The Pleasures of Port

Comments? Suggestions? Email me at 

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Sherry for the Holidays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Blog: Holiday Bubbly

Comments? Suggestions? Write me at 

Monday, November 25, 2019

The Zinfandel Primer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Blog: Sherry for the Holidays 

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Friday, November 15, 2019

Beaujolais Nouveau

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gamay noir a-jus-blanc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nouveau and Thanksgiving  

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

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

Next Blog: A Zin Primer 

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Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Sauvignon Blanc Styles: New World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New World Sauvignon Blanc

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

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

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

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

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

California Sauvignon Blanc 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Next Blog: Nouveau Beaujolais & Carbonic Maceration

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