Thursday, April 23, 2020

Tempranillo and Spanish Reds

Over time, most wine regions settle on a grape that best exemplifies the character and essence of the local wine culture. It's a process of elimination, based mainly on the natural environment of a vineyard site known in viticulture circles as terroir.  

Burgundians consider Pinot Noir the best red grape for their local terroir, while in many parts of Italy, it is Sangiovese. Cabernet Sauvignon is best suited to the Medoc region of Bordeaux and the Napa Valley, and the Argentines found a home for Malbec.

In Spain, the red grape found to be the most adaptable to a variety of terroirs is Tempranillo. Besides being the variety that drives Rioja and Ribera del Duero, Tempranillo can be found throughout Spain in such diverse spots as Toro, Catalonia and Navarra.
                                    How to Pronounce Tempranillo? Best of Spanish Wine Pronunciation ...

Tempranillo ripens early. Its thick-skinned berries yield deeply-colored wines with moderate to high alcohol and slightly low acidity. Tempranillo based wines are often described as smelling and tasting like ripe strawberries, while other complimentary flavor characteristics are more cabernet-like, leaning to tobacco, spice and earthy notes. 

Deep color, firm tannins and robust fruit make Tempranillo an ideal candidate for blending with Garnacha (Grenache) and Monastrell (Mourvedre). Rioja reds are typically blends of Tempranillo and Garnacha. Some winemakers like to add a bit of Monastrell to give a boost to slightly under ripe Tempranillo. Monastrell is a major grape in Murcia, Jumilla and Yecla. 

Rioja and Ribera del Duero are the two regions in Spain where Tempranillo shows its best. Rioja is at the apex of an inverted triangle, with the ocean at the northern end and France not far away to the northeast. Ribera del Duero is southwest of Rioja, along the river Duero. As it moves west into Portugal, the vital river, now called Douro, flows through Port country to the city of Oporto. Although the two regions are not that far apart, their Tempranillo-based wines are quite different.

Tempranillo grapes Stock Photos, Royalty Free Tempranillo grapes ...
Tempranillo in Rioja

In the Rioja Alavesa district, Tempranillo expresses itself as light and fruity, while in the  Rioja Alta, traditionalists prefer a firmer more mature wine. Tempranillo from Ribera del  Duero is crisp and bold with layers of bright fruit. In both regions, the presence of oak, American or French, is a game changer, demanding that the consumer know the winemaker's preferences for oak sources and the length of aging in wood.

American oak has been in Rioja wineries since the late 19th century. Winemakers believe that Tempranillo shows its best when aged in older American oak barrels. Today, however, the trend, especially in Ribera del Duero, is new French oak, forcing Riojans to follow suit. There is also a growing following for unoaked Tempranillo, especially in Joven and some Crianza wines. 

Spain's consejo regulador (regulating counsel) has a system for classifying wines by aging. These are the four classifications and the official aging minimums for red wines (whites and roses are less):
Joven -- light fruity wines, with little or no oak time. Labels may indicate "roble" (oak) for those wines with a touch of oak. 
Crianza -- require a minimum of 24 months aging, with at least six months in wood. Rioja and Ribera del Duero require 12 months in cask. 
Reserva -- must spend a minimum of 36 months aging, with at least 12 in cask and the rest in bottle. 
Gran Reserva -- required to be aged a minimum of 60 months, with at least 18 months in oak and the rest in bottle. Gran Reserva wines are rare and made only in the best vintages.

Winemakers and growers across Spain have traditionally given local names to grapes, often with the same grape having different names. In southern Spain, Tempranillo is called Cencibel, while in Ribera del Duero, the grapes goes by Tinto Fino. In Bierzo, Cigales, and Ruedo, Tempranillo is known as Tinto del Pais and in Catalonia, Tempranillo is called Ull de Liebre. Along the western side of the Iberian Peninsula, in Portugal, Tempranillo is known as Tinta Roriz, an important component of Port wine.

Garnacha and Monastrell are two grapes that blend nicely with Tempranillo, making a strong case for blends rather than a straight varietal.  Least I leave you with the idea that all Spanish reds are based on those three grapes, here's a quick look at two other important Spanish red varieties. Carinena, also known in Rioja as Mazuelo, produces robust wines, especially from old vines in Priorat and Montsant. Carinena is known in France as Carignan. Mencia is a red grape with great potential, producing fresh drinkable wines, supported by refined tannins and crisp acidity. Good Mencia is being made in Bierzo and Valdeorras. 

The majority of Tempranillo based wines are best enjoyed with food, the same dishes you'd match up with other robust red wines. Some of the lighter, juicier, unoaked  Tempranillos are pleasureable as an aperitif, same as a white wine. Tempranillo is good with hearty casseroles, grilled meats, especially lamb. A favorite with Ribera del Duero are grilled sausages.  


Next Blog: "My Life in Wine," Episode 2

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                  Learn About Tempranillo: Grapes, Wine, Region, and Pairings - 2020 ...

Monday, April 13, 2020

The Germanic Wines of French Alsace

the misunderstood grape ripe riesling white vine grape - riesling ...

Commonsense tells us that the horrors of war should never affect a peaceful undertaking such as wine making. And yet history has provided numerous instances where wine has co-existed with conflict.

Ancient traders of Phoenicia, Greece and Rome considered wine more valuable and potable than water. In modern times, the French and Italians valued their local wine enough to devise elaborate schemes to hide their cellars from the Nazis (see the entertaining film, "The Secret of Santa Vittoria"). 

Some years ago, Serge Hochar, the owner/winemaker of Chateau Musar in Lebanon, until his death in 2014, told me that he will never forget being in the winery in the Bekaa Valley, tending to the Musar red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Cinsault, while artillery shells whistled overhead.  

In Israel's Golan Heights, I remember standing with Shimshon Wollner, then manager/winemaker of Golan Heights Winery, on a hardscrabble view point, looking down across El Rom, into Syria. El Rom was the site of a fierce tank battle in the Six-Day War in 1967and Wollner was right in the middle of the conflict. He said that it took months to clear the battlefield of un-exploded shells and derelict tanks, before it was safe enough to plant a vineyard.  

Examples of making wine amidst armed conflict are numerous, but no wine region in modern times has been in the cross hairs of warring nations more than Alsace. Located in eastern France, Alsace lies between the western Vosges mountains and the Rhine river in the east, which separates the unique French wine region from Germany.   

In the 17th century, following years of German control, Alsace was annexed by France, then in 1871, the region went back under German control. The status remained that way until after WWI when Alsace returned to French rule. Some advances were made in Alsatian vineyards but a setback occurred when the Nazis overran Alsace during the second world war. Finally, after WWII, Alsace became a permanent part of France.

(And that reminds me...Wine alone is a good reason to visit Alsace. If you are a wanderer, though, and would like to see a bit of France as it once was, get yourself to Alsace. My wife and I did that and had a marvelous time wandering the narrow streets, lined with half-timbered houses. The heart of the region is just north and south of Colmar, with the small villages of Ribeauville, Hunawihr and Riquewihr, major wine towns.

At the crest of a hill In Hunawihr, surrounded by vineyards, is the historic Eglise Saint-Jacques le Majeur. Behind the church is a peaceful cemetery lined with burial plots predating WWI. Many are reflections of history, small personal stories of the village men who fought in both world wars. A number of granite stones held small enameled medallions with images of the interred, the inscriptions in French or German. It was a moving experience that I often think of when I think of Alsace.)

With the historic influences of France and Germany, it is not surprising that Alsace wines reflect the personality of both countries. Outwardly, Alsace wines look Germanic: tall slender flute bottles; areas of production that sound German; varietal names that are more associated with Germany than France, such as Gewurztraminer and Riesling.

The wines, however, show their Frenchness: reflections of terroir; dry or medium-dry styles; and the occasional wine fermented in oak, such as Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. The latter, with its wood-aging, may taste remarkably like oaked Chardonnay.

More than 90% of all Alsace wine is white and most of that is made from Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris. Because of Alsace's northern location, the use of malolactic conversion (ML) is usually avoided, preferring instead the region's crisp natural acidity and fresh fruit flavors. Occasionally, a wine will accidentally go through malo.

Malo, as it is commonly called, is a winemaking process that converts sharper malic acid (such as in apples) to softer lactic acid (as in milk). Malo can also slightly lower total acidity, a desired effect by winemakers in cooler climates where acids can be high and sharp. Malo is used mainly with white wines, although Alsace winemakers find that the process works with Pinot Noir, to soften and stabilize the wine. The ML process is sometimes called "malolactic fermentation" although it is not a true fermentation.

Alsatians focus on eight white grapes, one red and a special white blend. Here is a brief look at the top three whites (Muscat is also included as one of the top white wines but is made in small quantities) and the lone red:

the misunderstood grape ripe riesling white vine grape - riesling ...

 Riesling is the king of white grapes in Alsace. Unlike its German cousin, Alsace Riesling is dry and can be compared to German Trocken Riesling. Young Alsace Riesling is floral and fruity, but bottle maturity brings out mineral notes.  Advocates of this austere style have kept the demand for Alsace Riesling going. Detractors, however, say that without a small measure of residual sweetness (such as in German Halbtrocken) Alsace Riesling is too sharp and citrusy. 

Gewurztraminer Wines Origins and Food Pairing Ideas

Gewurztraminer often tastes sweet, but its natural low acidity just gives that impression.  The take away for Gewurtz is its exotic sweet spice, jasmine and lychee aroma and flavor. There's also a tactile mouth feel that gives Gewurztraminer weight not found in other aromatic whites. Alsace Gewurtz is either dry or off-dry. 

Pinot Gris Wine Grapes In The Umpqua Valley Grape Growing Area ...
                                                       Pinot Gris                                                           

Pinot Gris is the bridge between the bracing acidity of Riesling and the exotic spice of Gewurztraminer. Pinot Gris was once labeled as Tokay d'Alsace or Tokay Pinot Gris, but "tokay" was dropped due to objections by Hungary. Alsace Pinot Gris ages well, taking on  a more mellow buttered character, not unlike what happens with Australian Semillon.

Grape Confusion. There is no grape grown in Europe named Tokay.  One of the world's great and storied dessert wines is Tokaji, from the Hungarian region of Tokaj, made primarily from the Furmint grape. Hungarian winemakers, understandably, objected to Alsace co-opting the name Tokay, so an agreement was met and after 2007, the Alsace wine is known as Pinot Gris. The Hungarians also didn't like the Australians calling their sweet wine Tokay, so the Aussies changed the name to Muscat or Topaque, the latter a name that could have come from a California marketer. Finally, until recently, the Italians had a white wine called Tocai Friulano, now renamed simply as Friulano. 

Other Alsace white wines include Auxerrois, Chasselas, Muscat, Pinot Blanc and Sylvaner. There is also a "cheap and cheerful" blend called Edelzwicker, commonly a blend of two grapes such as Auxerrois, Chasselas and Pinot Blanc.  A carafe of Edelzwicker can be found on tables in many Alsace restaurants.

Pinot Noir Grapes Stock Photo, Picture And Royalty Free Image ...
Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir from Alsace was once non-starter. Today, a number of wineries have Pinot Noir in their portfolio. The popularity of Pinot Noir has helped lift the wine in Alsace while giving wineries a wine to sell that isn't white. Climate change has helped Alsatians to produce fuller and warmer pinots, many of them now seeing a measure of oak. 

In 1975, the appellation Alsace Grand Cru was added to designate a Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris or Muscat, coming from a single vineyard and vintage. Presently, there are 51 wines allowed to use this appellation 

Additionally, the four permitted varieties can be produced as Vendange Tardive, or late picked. The production of VT wines is carefully regulated as to sugar concentration and picking date. VT wines do not have to be botrytis affected and they may either be dry or sweet. Selection de Grains Nobles takes the VT concept a step further. SGN wines follow the same rules that govern the production of VT wines but are required to have higher sugar levels and are always sweet. 


Next Blog: Tempranillo and Spanish Reds

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Friday, April 3, 2020

My Life in Wine

When I started this blog, a feature I thought might be of interest was a personal experience or remembrance that related to the topic of the blog. Readers said they enjoyed these vignettes and so they will continue. Additionally, every month, I'll be running a series of observations, experiences and remembrances of my life in wine. Here is the first episode. I hope you enjoy it.

My Life in Wine
Some winemakers and grape growers are born into their fields. Not so with wine writers. Most come to writing about wine through other professions like law, medicine, and journalism. 

Whatever the path, for them, the transition is natural.  Lawyers, doctors and journalists who become wine writers, make the choice because of a love for wine and fine food. Their transition is from an avocation to a vocation. 

But today, it's not a sure thing that the child of a winemaker or grape grower will enter the family business.  It's a problem felt throughout agriculture.

                                       Antique icon characters icon machine icon, Typewriter Icon ... 
My move to wine writing in the early 1970s developed from an unexpected exposure to wine while serving with the U.S. Air Force in France and Germany.     

Following many years of working at something I was only mildly interested in, I began to recognize my latent creativity.  I had always felt that doing something artistic and creative was important to me. I just didn't know how to develop and nurture that feeling. Looking back on those years, it's a wonder that I ever wandered into wine writing at all.

Early Experimenting 

In the early 1950s, my mother and I Iived in Folsom, a small town southwest of Philadelphia and a long way from any winery. Our home was a former tavern that had been converted into two small apartments. Long before I knew of the Green Goose Tavern, it was a road side stop, across from a gas station.

When I was about 12 years old, my brother joined the Navy which meant that one of my jobs then was to tend an old creaky coal furnace and a "bucket-a-day" mini furnace used for heating water. The dark space beneath our apartment, where I dreaded to enter, was a cellar in every sense of the word, cold, damp and dark. In my neighborhood the space under your house was a cellar and I didn’t know that people had finished basements until years later, after I left home. Our cellar was mysterious, scary and forbidding, hardly the ideal place to store wine.

My earliest memory of wine in our house was probably a bottle of New York port, purchased at a Pennsylvania state store. Clara and Howard Ellis, our friendly neighbors, would often run errands for my mother, especially during the holidays.

One Christmas, when I was about 13 years old, Mrs. Ellis came by and told my mother she was going to buy a little "Christmas cheer" at the state store and did mom want a bottle or two? Mom nodded her head yes and then Mrs. Ellis turned to me and said, "Jerry, would you like to come with me?" The unexpected invitation presented a rare opportunity for me to have a new adventure, so I pleaded with my mother until she finally said yes.

In those days, Pennsylvania state stores were the only source, outside of licensed bars, taverns and restaurants, for alcohol of any kind.  Except for the official colors of blue with gold trim, state stores were, by design, plain and very staid.  A pair of identical, completely empty display windows framed the single door into the shop, with a prominent keystone-shaped sign (Pennsylvania is the Keystone State) over the door frame.  

As a minor, I wasn’t allowed inside the store, but that didn't stop me from checking out the interior through the long window in the front door. There was a plain counter that ran from one side wall to the other, with a hinged section that opened for access behind the counter and to the rear of the shop. The counters were bare except for a push-key and crank cash register.  Behind the counter, flanked by two sets of empty shelves, was a curtained doorway.  

When the door opened, a little bell at the top of the door frame jingled softly. Immediately, a man appeared from behind the curtained doorway, as if he were waiting for the bell. Without saying a word, the clerk reached down below the cash register and brought up a loose-leaf binder, placing it on the counter.

Mrs. Ellis silently leafed through the pages, pointing to the spirits she wanted, including a bottle of port for my mother, then closed the binder. The clerk placed it back under the cash register, turned on his heels and disappeared behind the curtain. Mrs, Ellis stood there for a moment then turned to look at me through the door window, smiling reassuringly.

In a few minutes the stone-face clerk reappeared with the three bottles in brown paper bags. He rang up the purchase, Mrs. Ellis gave him the money, slipping the change into her worn black purse, then stepped out through the door to where I was waiting - no sales talk, no marketing - just a wordless transaction.

Side Note: Hindsight is wonderful, but it may not always be as accurate as we remember it. My memory of visiting a state store is now seventy years old and a little ragged around the edges. All these years later, though, it seems odd that I had developed a passion for wine and that a single experience in France, a life-changing epiphany, would change my life. More about my epiphany in the next episode. 

The Folly of Regulated Alcohol Sales
Such was the highly regulated state of alcohol sales in Pennsylvania in the late 1940s, and that legacy in a less restricted form remains today with 18 states, including Pennsylvania, maintaining a near monopoly on the sales of wine and spirits through state-owned and operated stores. The other 32 states exercise less state control over sales of alcohol, with some states allowing sales of  beverages containing alcohol in privately-owned stores and in stores that sell food, such as super markets.

Even with the bureaucratic nonsense in Pennsylvania, my mother still got her bottle of Christmas port, but it took some effort and patience.

Gold Seal Winery Apr 11.JPG
Gold Seal Winery, Hammondsport, NY
Thinking back on those days, I reckon the port my mother sipped after dinner or when she came home from work was probably made by one of the big Finger Lakes wineries like  Taylor, Gold Seal and Great Western. Then, the base wines for New York ports and sherries were made from native grapes like Catawba, Concord and Delaware, fortified with grape spirits and racked into barrels that were, in some cases, stacked on the roofs of the winery buildings, exposing the wine to the elements throughout the year. This weathering method of aging gave the wines a rustic character, a far cry from Portuguese Port or Spanish Sherry. 

In the years following the repeal of Prohibition, the country was dealing with residual effects. U.S. wineries used every marketing advantage they could, including the use of European terms and place names like Sherry, Port, Champagne and Rhine to sell their wines. Unlike France, Italy and Spain, America never had a wine culture, but Americans suffered from narrow-mindedness, much of it driven by religious orthodoxy, about how the consumption of beverages containing alcohol would lead the country to ruin.

Of course, the restrictions of Prohibition caused problems much worse like rum running, illegal and often poisonous hooch, not to mention the huge losses in taxes because legal  wine companies, breweries and distillers were forced to close their doors, while the illegal racketeers reaped non-taxed profits. 

A wonderful example of how ludicrous the restrictions controlling the production and sales of wine, as spelled out under the Volstead Act, were, not to mention the ingenuity of the American entrepreneur, was a ingenious product called the "Wine Brick." It was illegal during Prohibition to make any beverage with alcohol for commercial sale. But that prohibition only encouraged an enterprising person to sell a block of dried pressed grape concentrate and a packet of yeast, with a label on the wrapping with this warning: "After dissolving the brick and yeast in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in a jug away in the cupboard for twenty days, because then it would turn into wine."

Misguided Youth

My next experience with alcohol happened while I was a senior in high school. Wine was not part of my early years, but beer, or at least the thought of beer, was on my teenage mind.  

My friends, Sonny and Billy and I had heard rumors of a tavern where you could sneak in, slide up on a bar stool at the dark end of the bar and ask for a glass of draft beer in a voice you thought was mature and adult but probably quaked with fear.  It was a gamble, but the lure of the forbidden eventually won out.

So, we headed for the tavern, then nervously paced back and forth in the shadows outside, hoping nobody we knew would see us, which was a crazy thought because why would anyone we knew go so far from our neighborhood for a drink when there were plenty of bars near home.  


At last, we mustered the courage to enter the tavern and strolled to the bar like we came there every night for a cold one and a hard-boiled egg.  A couple of old guys who seemed attached to their bar stools turned to see who just came in, gave us a long stare and a tight smirk, then turned back to their drinks and casual conversation.  We found three empty stools at the end of the bar and ordered three glasses of beer.              

                        Gluten-free Beer: A Practical Guide for your Brewery

Billy noticed the bartender grab a hard cooked egg from a glass bowl on the bar and slam the large end of the egg on the bar top so the egg stood upright.  We huddled and decided that this was what men did in bars, so we ordered three eggs with our beers. The bartender slid the juice-size glasses down the bar then sauntered down to us with three white eggs clutched in his massive fist. Without looking at us or breaking the conversation he was having with the man sitting closest to us, the bartender whacked the eggs down and walked away. 

One glass of beer and a hard cooked egg was enough for us. The experience was nerve-racking! And I was so nervous, I don’t remember us paying. 

Time has a way of distorting memory, so the events of that evening may not have been exactly as I remember them, but that night in a tavern is indelibly etched on my memory.                                                                    


 The second episode of "My Life in Wine: Europe and My Wine Epiphany" will appear in this space May 4, 2020. Future episodes will be published once a month.

 Next Blog: The Germanic Wines of French Alsace

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