Tuesday, January 14, 2020

"Cabernet without the pain"


By now, anyone with even a casual interest in wine has heard the snarky line about Merlot uttered in the 2004 movie "Sideways." When offered a glass of Merlot instead of his favored Pinot Noir, Miles snarled "I'm not drinking any f!*#ing Merlot!"                                                                                                                                  

It was a simple throw-away line, but for some reason, Mile's criticism of Merlot resonated, creating ripples in the California wine industry. The degree of the impact is debatable, but no one could have predicted the sales backlash. Sales of Merlot dropped, at least temporarily, while Pinot Noir sales got a big boost. 

How important was the "Sideways" hullabaloo? Not very, I'd say. After all, it wasn't like Miles was a serious wine guy. He came off as a smug self-important wine drinker on a weekend jaunt, hoping to get lucky and drink some Pinot Noir. 

Maybe the question is does Miles, and by extension some wine consumers, understand Merlot?  At some point during the post-"Sideways" flap, someone said that Merlot is "Cabernet without pain," implying that Merlot has lower and softer tannins than Cabernet. Merlot does give the impression of being softer than Cabernet, but Merlot has more texture and up-front fruit, especially when both wines are young.

So what has happened with Merlot since the movie was released? Well, the California Merlot grape crush has mostly seesawed from one year to the next. The latest numbers I could find are from 2016, showing the total tons of California Merlot crushed in 2005 jumped to 425,000 from 300,000 in 2004. Then, starting in 2006, crush numbers settled down to approximately 325,000 tons until 2014, when the total dropped below 300,000 tons. As of 2016, Merlot was holding a 7% share of the total varietal market.   

Before Merlot stepped on to the world stage, it was valued as the primary grape of St. Emilion and Pomerol, two of the best red wines of Bordeaux. Merlot and Cabernet Franc are the main grapes in St. Emilion and Pomerol. Merlot is also a component part of the great red wines of the Medoc, although it is secondary there to Cabernet Sauvignon.  

(And that reminds me...In the late 1970s, when I was editor of the "Wine Spectator," I got a letter (pre-email days) from Alan Spencer, an Englishman living in Castillon with his French wife Monette, not far from the historic city of St. Emilion.

While traveling for his French computer software company, with the amusing name of "Kalamazo," Alan saw a copy of the "Wine Spectator" in an airport waiting area. 

Being an avid wine drinker, living in a world-famous French wine region, Alan bought a copy of the Spectator and began reading it on the plane. Months later, after we
became friends, he told me that he noticed there was no "correspondent" writing about Bordeaux. "So, I wrote you a letter saying that I had some wine contacts in the region and could send you news and reports on the local wines."  

Even later, on a trip to Bordeaux, Alan told me that he and Monette had become friends with Pascal Delbec, then the manager and winemaker of Chateau Ausone, one of St. Emilion's premier wineries and would I like to meet him and visit the chateau. 

Pascal Delbec is a quiet unassuming man who listens intently to questions and comments then considers his answers carefully before answering. Long story short, my visit to Ausone and conversations then and later with Pascal, introduced me to Merlot and demonstrated how as a single varietal, or even with the addition of a little Cabernet Franc, it shares greatness with the Cabernet Sauvignons of the Medoc.

The Merlot I tasted at Ch. Ausone and at other chateaux in St. Emilion and Pomerol had an earthy, slightly herbal character, just under layers of fruit. I had tasted a number of California Merlots, finding them stylistically split between fruit-forward almost plumy to slightly herbaceous, bumping up against dill in some cases. As the popularity of Merlot grew, that herbal characteristic disappeared from most California Merlot.)

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Merlot cluster
Herbaceousness in wine is usually due to cool growing conditions, often resulting in under  ripe grapes. Merlot, an early-maturing variety, does well in cool soils and moderate temperatures, the sort of growing conditions to be found in eastern Washington, more than the warmer areas of California. 

Washington Merlot is well structured and fruity, but lacks the lush plump flavors of its California cousin, a style closer to St. Emilion than Sonoma and one that has a growing number of admirers. Here are four Washington Merlot producers worth a try: Long Shadows, Leonetti, L'Ecole No. 41, Seven Hills. 

California Merlot languished in the backwater of the state's vineyards until about 1970 when a handful of Napa wineries, notably Louis Martini and Duckhorn Vineyards, looked for a grape to soften the harsher tannins of Cabernet Sauvignon, bringing Merlot out of retirement. 

Today's California Merlot emphasizes black fruits, like dark cherries and plums, occasionally with an earthy or herbaceous note. California Merlot worth a try include Whitehall Lane, Duckhorn, Pride Mountain, La Jota, Ch. St. Jean, Markham, Trefethen, Keenan.

Although St. Emilion and Pomerol remain as the benchmarks for Merlot, they are priced well above many wine budgets. Look for better deals from California and Washington state. And forget Miles' dismissive rant; enjoy Merlot. 


Next Blog: Wine and the written word. 

Comments? Suggestions? Email me at boydvino707@gmail.com

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Italian Wine Tour

When I think of Italy, I'm reminded of how full of wine it is. From the top of the boot to the toe, wine is produced in all 20 regions, including Sicily and Sardinia. In fact, Italy produces more wine than Spain, France, United States and China. 

And in case you are still not impressed, here are more gee-whiz facts. Wine was introduced to the Italian peninsula by Greek colonists. By the 2nd century B.C.E., wine began to flourish throughout the country. Italy accounts for an impressive 19 percent of the total world production. 

There are 350 grapes authorized for the production of wine. When most people think of Italian wine, though, red wine gets the nod more often than white wine. Yet, of the hundreds of authorized wine grapes, there are 17 white and 12 red grapes that are the most common and important. 

For a closer look at the presence today of wine in Italy, here's a brief look at key wines, through a region-by-region wine tour, starting in the northwest and zig-zagging south through the country, to the island regions of Sardinia and Sicily.

Italian Wine Map by Wine Folly
Italy 's 20 wine regions

Valle d'Aosta: Italy's smallest wine region, stands at the foot of the Alps, bordering France and Switzerland. Emphasis here is on Nebbiolo, Dolcetto and Pinot Grigio, but indigenous grapes like Petit Rouge are seeing a revival.
Piedmont, one of Italy's most important wine regions. The Piedmontese stars are Barolo, Barbaresco, Dolcetto, Barbera and Asti Spumante. Piemonte is the world-famous home of the Nebbiolo grape and boasts a dozen Nebbiolo-based DOC and DOCG wines. 

The Italian wine classification system, enacted in to law in 1966, is known commonly as "DOC." Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) applies to hundreds of wines throughout the country. DOCG (the "G" for guaranteed) is for a small number of select wines of "particular esteem." DOC also includes Vini da tavola and Vini tipici wines.

Manarola, Italy
Manarola, Cinqueterre
Liguria, the third smallest wine-producing region is known for its near-vertical vineyards, reaching to the Mediterranean and the famous villages of Cinqueterre. The best known white wine is Cinqueterre, made from Vermentino. Reds include Dolcetto.
Lombardy, a large region that includes sparkling Franciacorta, Lugana (dry white) and the ubiquitous Lambrusco, a popular wine it shares with Emilia-Romagna. Lombardy has 22 DOCs, five DOCGs and...the city of Milan.
Trentino-Alto Adige, an alpine region along the Adige River, noted for Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, sparkling wine and the red Lagrein, all in Trentino. Alto-Adige is better known for international varieties such as Pinot Noir, and the local red variety Schiava.
Veneto, a productive region best known for Soave, Amarone, Bardolino, Valpolicella and the wildly successful Prosecco, of which the wines of the twin villages of Coneglino-Valdobbiadene have attained DOCG status.
Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, a northern region bordering Austria and Slovenia, is noted for the white Tocai Friulano and red Refosco, as well as a string of varietals made from international grapes like Merlot and Sauvignon (Blanc).
Emilia-Romagna stretches across north-central Italy and is known primarily for Lambrusco in all its many styles. Pinot Noir and Cabernet blends are also popular.

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Castles of Tuscany

Tuscany, the most important region in central Italy, counts Sangiovese as its main grape. Brunello di Montalcino, Bolgheri (reds), Chianti Classico and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano are Tuscany's world class red wines. Tuscany boasts 48 DOCs and DOCGs.
Umbria, a landlocked region, Umbriia shares a lot of similarities with neighboring Tuscany. Orvieto is Umbria's most noted (white) wine, with the red Sagrantino gaining interest.
Marche, an east-central region with coastal and mountainous vineyards is best known for the white Verdicchio. Sangiovese is the most widely grown red.
Abruzzo is south of Marche on the Adriatic sea. The best red is Montepulciano d'Abruzzo and top white, Trebbiano d'Abruzzo.
Latium is the site of Rome, Italy's capital, as well as the Castelli Romani wines. Frascati and the modest Est! Est!! Est!!! are the best known white wines. 

Local Lore: Bishop Fugger, a German cleric traveling through Italy, supposedly sent his servant Martin ahead to find an inn serving good wine. When Martin got to Montefiascone, in Latium, he found a white wine he liked so much that he excitedly marked Est! Est!! Est!!! (Here! Here!!  Here!!!) on the inn door.

Molise is Italy's second smallest region. Very little wine is produced in this mountainous area of southern Italy, with the two most prominent being Montepulciano d'Abruzzo and Trebbiano d'Abbruzzo.
Campania is home to the wines of antiquity, championed by a group of wineries, Mastroberardino the most prominent. The region is noted for native wines such as Falanghina and Lacryma Christi. Campania boasts three DOCGs: Taurasi, Greco and Fiano.

More Local Lore: Lacryma Christi ("tears of Christ") is a wine from the volcanic soils of Mt. Vesuvius. There are many fanciful versions of how the wine got its name, but the best known says that when God cast Lucifer from heaven, the fallen saint fell to earth forming the Bay of Naples. Grape vines miraculously sprouted on Vesuvius where God's tears fell. 

Puglia, on the heel of Italy, is known for wine and table grapes. It is the second most productive wine region behind Sicily. Sangiovese is the most planted variety, with Primitivo a leading local grape.
Basilicata is a land-locked region in southern Italy with only four DOC wines and one DOCG, Aglianico del Vulture. Also popular are international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon. Aglianico is the red grape--Vulture is named for the volcano Mount Vulture.
Calabria, the toe of the boot of Italy, is a rugged region, just a short distance from Sicily with wines more of local interest. The DOC wine Ciro is the most important.
Sicily, one of Italy's most dynamic wine regions was settled by Greek colonists in the 8th century B.C.E. Sicily has a thriving wine culture, with a mix of international and local grapes. Popular wines include whites from Cataratto and the red Nero d'Avola.
Sardinia is an island region about 125 miles off the coast of mainland Italy. Spanish Catalans were among the early settlers and today the Spanish grapes Garnacha (Cannonau) and Carignan (Carignano) are the most important Sardinian varieties. 

What is evident from this brief look at the wide range of Italian wine is there is a wine for every taste, from the light and crisp whites of Trentino to the world-class reds of Piedmont and Tuscany, to the modern versions of ancient grapes like Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo.

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Traditional foods of Basilicata
There are as many food choices that marry well with Italian wines as there are Italian wine choices. Just as versatile are the many styles of cuisine. In general, the northern regions feature more rice than pasta, while further south, pasta is more commonly seen gracing the Italian table. Southern regions, Sicily and Sardinia concentrate on seafood and shellfish dishes, while poultry and meat are more often seen further to the north. These, however, are only generalities. No region in Italy is that far from the sea, the wheat fields of the central and southern plains and the rice patties of the north.

Although you will find Italian wines made from international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, the true flavor of Italian wine is best experienced from the many local or indigenous grapes such as Sangiovese, Aglianco, Nebbiolo, Trebbiano and Cortese.

Exploring Italian wine can be a life-long journey. Start anywhere in the country, then proceed as the Italians do, leisurely and with gusto.  Salute! 

Next Blog: Merlot Essentials

Comments? Suggestions? Email me at boydvino707@gmail.com