Sunday, February 23, 2020

West Coast Chardonnay

A few years back, at the height of the wine craze, the antis dreamed up a catchy slogan for those wine drinkers who didn't particularly like a certain white wine. They called it the "ABC's"... Anything But Chardonnay.                                            

The catchphrase has mostly faded from the wine conversation, but demand for Chardonnay has not. In fact, Chardonnay continues to hold the dominant position as these recent numbers of Chardonnay acreage in California, Washington and Oregon, clearly show: California is the leader with 93,000 acres of Chardonnay planted, although the
white grape just edges out Cabernet Sauvignon by a few hundred acres, Pinot Gris, is a distant second with 17,000 acres, then Sauvignon Blanc, 15,200 acres; Washington state has 7,400 acres of Chardonnay, with Riesling second at 6,000 acres; Oregon is the only west coast state where Chardonnay comes in second with 2,000 acres behind Pinot Gris, showing a total of 4,800 acres.

Not long ago, Pinot Grigio from Italy was a trendy white wine, but now, I'm surprised to see that Pinot Gris is so widely planted in Oregon and California.

Even with challengers like Pinot Gris (and Sauvignon Blanc), the sustaining popularity of Chardonnay doesn't wane. Name the major wine region in the world and you'll find Chardonnay. Even in those traditional areas where only native varieties were permitted (and preferred), Chardonnay has made inroads. And that reminds me...

(Before his now famous Gaia & Rey Chardonnay stunned the wine world for its quality
(and price, $193), especially coming from a place where red wine is the tradition, Angelo  Gaja told me about planting the unauthorized Chardonnay in Barbaresco and that his father not only didn't want to hear about his son's non-traditional venture, but it took a long time before the father consented to taste the son's wine.)

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Angelo Gaja and Gaia & Rey Chardonnay

Gaja's father was a man of his generation, a staunch believer of only Nebbiolo and only Barbaresco in his northern Italy wine region. That attitude represents what is accepted as Old World, meaning anywhere in Western Europe. The opposite position is New World or everywhere else. 

Although Chardonnay is grown throughout the Old World, the world market sees the white wine as mostly French white Burgundy. The focus here, though, will be on Chardonnay along the west coast of North America, especially California, Oregon and Washington. There are, of course, other places in the United States where Chardonnay is grown, such as New York state, Virginia, Michigan and some places in New England and Pennsylvania.

California, one might say, is awash in Chardonnay. The variety is planted in every wine region in the state, from Mendocino and Lake counties in the north, Monterey County and  Santa Barbara County in the south. Enterprising growers have found pockets to nurture Chardonnay in the Sierra Foothills, Livermore, San Diego and in the warmer Central Valley, a source of Chardonnay for jug wines. 

The most desirable Chardonnay is grown in coastal areas, where the vines are cooled by fog off the Pacific. This moderating influence allows the grapes to develop flavor ripeness, balanced by good acidity. Sonoma's Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, Sonoma Valley and Carneros, along with Napa Valley, Mendocino, Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County, Santa Maria Valley and Santa Barbara County, are prime spots for this style of crisp focused Chardonnay.

In the 1990s, the main gripe about California Chardonnay was too much oak, too much alcohol and too much over-the-top fruit. "Fruit bomb" was the derogatory term often heard. Winemakers eventually backed away from that style, allowing for more balanced wines, although some say that alcohols are still too high. Today, Chardonnay from the cooler parts of California emphasizes citrus and ripe apples, while warmer areas show more honey and ripe pear. French oak is preferred, for barrel fermentation and aging, with the best wines using oak as a component part and not the dominant flavor. 

Washington Chardonnay is, perhaps, more Burgundian in style, than California. Growers  in the vast Columbia Valley have long experimented with Chardonnay clones, and unlike Oregon where the preference is for French clones such as Dijon, Washington has relied on clonal materials from California's UC-Davis that were developed for Washington's unique growing conditions. Although parts of the Columbia Valley are high desert, there are cooler places, such as the Wahluke Slope, Cold Creek, Canoe Ridge, where Chardonnay fits in. 

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Texture in Washington Chardonnay is defined as leaner, less vanilla cream than California Chardonnay. Fruit notes tend to be green apple and citrus, with mineral accents. Add a touch or two of toasted oak and it becomes a different wine. It's worth noting that a number of Washington wineries make an unoaked Chardonnay, as well as an oaked version. 

Oregon wine has traditionally been known for two things: a marginal growing climate for wine grapes and an affinity with Burgundy. Because growing conditions are more marginal and wetter in Oregon, growers and winemakers have always had to work harder than their colleagues in Washington and California. But they have adapted, producing world famous Pinot Noir and building a reputation for other wines such as Chardonnay. 

It hasn't always been easy for Chardonnay in Oregon, mainly some say, because it was planted in the wrong places. To compensate, wineries began to promote Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. Now, though, crisp, well balanced lightly oaked Chardonnay has come into its own.

If you've been swayed by the "ABCs," it's time to give Chardonnay another look, especially West Coast Chardonnay.


Next Blog: Rediscovering New York wine

Comments?  Suggestions?  Email me at

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Wines of Southern France

The French vintner, Alexis Lichine, was known for skillfully keeping one foot in Bordeaux and the other in the United States. The Bordelaise remember him as the proprietor of Chateau Prieure-Lichine in Margaux, while most Americans knew Lichine as the husband of 1950s film star, Arlene Dahl.  

Born in Russia, Lichine fled with his family to France in 1934 to escape the Russian Revolution, and then on to the United States. He was the consummate wine man,  dabbling in a number of ventures, including developing varietal labeling with Frank Schoonmaker. Lichine moved freely between New York City and Bordeaux, although he spent much of his time at Prieure-Lichine, working on the quality of the wine.

(And that reminds me...After spending many years going to college part time, in many different places, I finally earned my degree in Colorado. As a reward, my wife and I went to Europe for three weeks. I was learning about Bordeaux wines then by tasting and reading "Alexis Lichine's Guide to the Wines and Vineyards of France." So, a visit with Lichine at Prieure-Lichine was a must.

I wrote Lichine asking for an hour or two of his time, not expecting to get a welcoming reply from him personally. Word was, in those days, the Bordelaise were very reserved and chateau visits were rarely granted. If you did get an appointment, punctuality was expected. So, I was surprised that we would be received at Ch. Prieure-Lichine.

Our host was the gracious, showing Janet and I the chateau (including his bedroom) and the chai and inviting us for a lunch of grapevine grilled steaks and, of course, a tutored tasting of Prieure-Lichine. After lunch, Lichine insisted on showing us around the commune of Margaux, with a drive-by of Chateau Boyd-Cantenac. It was a great learning experience, and we were charmed by our host's open hospitality.  As we were driving back to our hotel, Janet said that she thought Alexis Lichine was lonely and enjoyed having someone to talk to. 

Years later, Lichine wrote to tell me that he was coming to Denver to promote his line of French country wines. I was writing for the "Rocky Mountain News" then and arranged to interview him at his hotel. That evening Janet and I attended a tasting of the country wines, sponsored by Lichine's importer, in the hotel. Lichine sat on the stage facing the audience and as the owner of the import company droned on, we all watched as Alexis Lichine slumped in his chair, chin on chest, the casualty of jet lag.)

It was a hard sell in Lichine's day promoting wines to the American wine consumer who knew little about French wines.  Now, some forty years later, American wine drinkers, looking for quality and value, are taking a fresh look at the wines of southern France. 

French country wines is a catch-all term that generally applies to any wine from the wide arc of wine regions along the Mediterranean, from Provence in the east, to Roussillon in the west, on the border with Spain. Between the two is the inland region,Languedoc. Also inland is the southern Rhone Valley wine region, which we will look at in a future essay. 

Roussillon is a sunny corner of France that, owing to its geography, is part French and part Spanish. Spanish Catalonia is just across the Pyrenees, and the people of Roussillon identify closely with Spain and many of them speak Catalan. There is also a strong Spanish influence in the cuisine of Roussillon, much of it based on seafood. 

In recent years, the American wine consumer has connected Roussillon with its neighbor Languedoc, as in Languedoc-Roussillon wines. But the lay of the land in Roussillon is more hilly, even mountainous with vineyards climbing up the lower slopes of the Pyrenees. Languedoc is mostly flat, while Roussillon vineyards and olive groves struggle in narrow rocky valleys.

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Roussillon: Where vineyards meet the sea

The Spanish influence is also seen in the red wines of Roussillon, made from Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Carignan. (Mourvedre is called Mataro in some places and in California Carignan is spelled Carignane). Roussillon reds are deep in color, more robust, with lots of ripe fruit; more Spanish, or Californian, than French.  Look for wines with the appellations Cote du Roussillon and Cote du Roussillon Villages, the latter, according to the rules, are higher in quality.

Roussillon white wines are not as widely seen as reds, an oddity considering the heavy emphasis in the region on seafood. A pair of Muscats and Grenache Blanc are the main white grapes, with Grenache Gris used for most pink wines. 

The quality of Roussillon wines is high, particularly from small producers, such as Domaine Gauby. Varietal wines clearly represent the stated variety, with forward warm fruit, moderate acidity and good length. Use of oak for extended aging, while not the rule, is becoming more common. Value is the key, especially from small wineries. 

For years, the best-known wine of Roussillon was Banyuls, a vin doux naturel wine that loosely translates to "sweet natural wine." Grenache Noir is the primary grape in Banyuls and at one time, the wine was made in an oxidative style and even aged outdoors in a solera, similar in style and aging to Spanish Sherry.  Alcohol is added to the grape juice during fermentation, giving Banyuls (and Banyuls Grand Cru) a high level of concentration. 

A Valentine tip: Fans of Banyuls say it is the perfect red wine with chocolate. Look for Chateau de Jau and Domaine Cazes.

Languedoc vineyards stretch from the Mediterranean beaches across vast flat plains. At the turn of the century, there was a large surplus of wine in the European Union countries, so growers were encouraged to pull vines. The scheme resulted in cutting vineyard acreage from approximately 600,000 acres, to about 470, 000 acres of vineyards. 

Today, the Languedoc is a network of small growers working to keep up with the local wine rules and the overarching EU regulations. The once common Carignan has today given way to Syrah and Grenache Noir. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon fill out the red wine list. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier are the most popular white grapes, for dry and the sparkling wines of Limoux. 

Much of the wine made in the Languedoc is bottled as IGP (Indication Geographique Protegee), the replacement for vin de pays wines. More general yet are VSIG wines, without a geographical indication. Some IGP wines are exported to the United States, but not VSIG wines. 

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Mas de Dumas Gassac, Languedoc
IGP wines are clean, fruity and good values. Careful selection will yield good values. A step up (or two) in quality are Languedoc wines of longevity such as Mas de Daumas Gassac and Domaine de l'Aigueliere.  

Provence has two things in abundance: plenty of sunshine and tourists. The region also has a rich cultural history that has contributed to its food and wines. A total of 13 varieties are allowed in Cotes de Provence wines, with Grenache and Cinsaut the two most planted grapes. Mourvedre and Syrah round out the list of most popular red varieties. Provence is known for rose wines, but the focus today is on reds, mainly from Grenache Noir and Syrah. White wines get less attention, although there is growing interest in Vermentino (an Italian grape from the Italian Riviera) and Semillon in coastal vineyards. 

There are times in every wine drinkers life, or should be, when high-end wines are not the best choices. It could be the meal, maybe the occasion or the wine price. Whenever such a time arises, think of Languedoc, Roussillon or Provence wines. 

Next blog: West Coast Chardonnay.

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Tuesday, February 4, 2020

V is for Viognier

American wine drinkers are fickle. That much we know. Why is another question. In some circles, "natural wine," whatever that means, is the latest shiny wine object. Before natural wine, imbibers were enraptured (and maybe still are) with Prosecco and before that, rose wines.

Prosecco and rose haven't gone away. Sales just started to drop and the luster began to dull, as wine consumers waited impatiently for the next hot wine trend. 

A trend that comes to mind is "V is for Viognier."  In the late 1980s and in to the early 1990s, the fruity white wine was all the buzz in California. Many wineries in California and elsewhere were looking for an alternative to Chardonnay, a search that has never really been successful, although Sauvignon Blanc has shown a lot of promise.

While the exact origin of Viognier (Vee-own-yay) is unknown, it is believed that the grape has been in France for millennia. Viognier's place in the world vineyard is much more recent. Since the 1990s, interest in Viognier, produced in a handful of U.S. states, has picked up and the wine has gained popularity in places like South Africa and Australia.   

If you had to guess what other grape is Viognier related to, would it be Nebbiolo? The results of DNA profiling claim that Viognier and Nebbiolo are distant cousins. Nebbiolo, of course, is one of Italy's noble red grapes, responsible for the Piedmontese wines Barolo and Barbaresco. 

 Vernay Condrieu Vineyards

Viognier in the Rhone  
Viognier is at home in the northern Rhone Valley of France in the small zone of Condrieu. True to French wine fashion the name Condrieu implies both information and confusion: Condrieu is both an appellation and a wine. The appellation lies just south of the red wine Cote Rotie, with a total of less than 500 acres, spread over seven communes. Today, the planted acreage is about half that. The wine is made only from Viognier. 

The steep terraced vineyards, rooted in granite soils, spread along a bend in the Rhone River, are south-facing slopes rising up in stair-step terraces, a practice that maximizes growing conditions, but making vineyard work hard and sometimes dangerous. Viognier  vines are shy bearing and prone to disease, and that translates to high prices for Condrieu: The average is $50, although a few sell for $200.00 a bottle.

Vineyard orientation and granite soils are key to the success of the Viognier grape in the northern Rhone. (Which reminds me of an odd feature (among others) of the French appellation system, the granting of AOC status to a climat, or estate such as Chateau-Grillet. The single estate is a tiny enclave inside the Condrieu appellation. Chateau-Grillet (AOC 1936) is made solely from Viognier, grown in a bowl-shaped vineyard totaling about 10 acres. Chateau-Grillet is one of the smallest appellations in the French AOC system. Another distinction is Grillet's unusual 750 ml brown bottle, which until recently was still 700 ml. The current vintage for Chateau-Grillet is 2015, selling on Wine Searcher for $300.00.

Chateau Grillet Chateau Grillet Rhone Valley Wine
Chateau-Grillet is what the French call a monopole, or a vineyard owned by one company or family. From the late 18th century to 2011, Chateau-Grillet was owned by the Neyret-Gachet family and is now the property of the owner of Ch. Latour. Other tiny monopoles are Romanee Conti and La Tache, part of the Burgundian estate Domaine de la Romanee-Conti.)

If you've read this far you are probably wondering why when Condrieu and Chateau-Grillet are expensive and in short supply, you should care. Read on.

American Viognier 
Viognier has had a spotty history in the United States, although there has been a mini-resurgence in recent years. California claims the most planted acreage in the country (about 2,600 acres in 2018), with Washington and Oregon showing increased interest, followed by small plantings in Virginia and Colorado.

Viognier is finicky in the vineyard and under the best conditions, not a big producer. So, you have to love Viognier, or believe that Viognier will persuade Chardonnay drinkers to switch sides. Still the number of wineries with an interest in Viognier is going up, albeit slowly. And today, U.S. Viognier sells for about half the price of Condrieu.

Viognier in Australia
Getting Viognier flavor-ripe is a problem in Australia, as it is everywhere. Sugars may be high, but physiological ripeness is lacking. Yet, that hasn't stopped one winery from specializing in Viognier. Yalumba, in the Barossa Valley of South Australia, has no fewer than eight different bottlings of Viognier, with Virgilius the best and most expensive. Yalumba's entry-level Viognier is $20 with Virgilius priced at $50, when you can find it. Winemaker Louisa Rose and her team get all of Viognier's peachy-apricot goodness from the grape into every bottle of Yalumba Viognier.

Tasting Viognier
Viognier, especially as it is expressed in Condrieu, is a perfumed blend of peach, tangerine and honey; not sweet, just very fruity. Chateau-Grillet is less heady, longer aged, but more expensive, than Condrieu. 

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Ripe Viognier
"Sweet" is not a descriptor that is usually associated with smell, but we have come to make that association by smelling such common products as white sugar and honey.  For the uninitiated, the first smell of Viognier means "sweet." Although Viognier is made in a sweet style, such as Yalumba's FSW8B Botrytis Viognier, the best Condrieu and varietal Viogniers are dry.

What strikes me about Viognier is how similar it is to other aromatic whites with similar characteristics, like Spain's Albarino, California Chenin Blanc and a UC-Davis crossing called Symphony: a coupling of Grenache Gris and the aromatic, almost in-your-face, Muscat of Alexandria. Except for Albarino, which is lighter in weight and more delicately flavored than Viognier, the others in this fruity group never achieved success.

Viognier and Food
Young Viognier has an affinity for aromatic herbs like those that coat a disc of fresh goat cheese. Viognier's peachy flavors and lush texture make it a good choice with dishes in a fruit-based sauce, such as Chicken ala Orange, Turkey in a mango sauce, pork with apricots and shrimp. Viognier is also good with Indian dishes, creamy sauces and shellfish, especially lobster.

Buying Viognier 
Viognier is not seen in local wine shops as commonly as say, Sauvignon Blanc. But here are a few Viogniers the adventurous wine shopper should look for.
France: Guigal, Delas Freres, Rostaing, Chapoutier, Jaboulet. And if your budget allows and you can find them, try Georges Vernay and Chateau-Grillet.
California: Kunde, Calera, Alban, Jade Mountain, Arrowood
Washington: Chateau Ste. Michelle, Cayuse, McCrea Cellars, Maryhill
Oregon: Christom, Penner-Ash
Australia: Yalumba, d'Arenberg, Tahbilk, Penfolds, Yeringberg
Virginia: If you happen to be in Virginia or Washington D.C., look for Horton Vineyards Viognier. I haven't tasted it, but the wine gets good reviews.  


Next Blog: Wines of Southern France 

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