Thursday, April 15, 2021

Barbera & Dolcetto

"Barbera is best known outside Italy for being Piedmont's second-best red grape after Nebbiolo ... Dolcetto is not as prestigious as Barbera or Nebbiolo...,"  "Oz Clarke's Encyclopedia of Grapes"

414 Barbera Grapes Photos - Free & Royalty-Free Stock Photos from Dreamstime
Barbera Vineyards

Make no mistake, Nebbiolo is Piedmont's best red grape, hands down.  But Italian red wine drinkers do not, and should not, live on Nebbiolo alone. There is more to Piedmontese wines than Nebbiolo.

There are Barbera and Dolcetto.  The former is a noteworthy red that has struggled for recognition, not because it doesn't deserve it, but because Nebbiolo is such a spotlight hog.  Barbera is berry-rich, with ample body and texture. Add aging in small oak barrels and Barbera takes on layers of dark fruits, plus a hint of exotic spice.  

Dolcetto, on the other hand, tastes more like ripe cherries, with bracing acidity and firm tannins.  Dolcetto has a lighter body and finishes with moderate fruit and a trace of anise.  A plate of pasta with red sauce is the perfect partner with a glass of Dolcetto.

Digression -- Although it may be splitting hairs, there are differences between licorice, anise and fennel.  All three smell and taste similar, but there are nuances that a wine taster should be aware.  Licorice is made from the juice of a root and is usually combined with other ingredients such as molasses.  Anise is a plant with a flavor more like fennel than licorice.  Fennel is also a plant, but in the same group as parsley.  The taste of fennel is more like anise than licorice.  The bottom line, then, is  most red wines smell more like anise than licorice. 

Barbera -- In the Piedmont, Barbera is more important than Dolcetto, for its versatility.  A strong characteristic of Barbera is its high natural acidity, which makes it a valuable red grape, especially in warm areas.  Ironically, the high acidity kept Barbera from being a big seller in American markets, because the wine did not appeal to American wine drinkers who were used to softer reds with ripe fruit flavors and moderate acidity.

Traditionally, Barbera was not oak aged in Piedmont.  Then, in the 1980s, a number of producers, led by Giacomo Bologna, released an oak-aged Barbera and the fight was on. The addition of oak changed the flavor profile of Barbera to more spice and rich dark fruits.  Traditionalists cried that this new wine was not a Piedmont Barbera, but the style stuck and today both oaked and non-oaked Barberas are made. 

The three most important DOCs for Barbera in Piedmont are Asti, Alba and Montferrato.  Vineyards sprawl across the hills in these areas, providing optimum conditions for the best Barbera in the region.

Elsewhere in Italy, Barbera is a popular variety in neighboring Lombardy, mainly in Oltrepo Pavese and can be found in Emilia-Romagna and Campania.  In South America, Barbera's high acidity proved valuable in the warmer parts of Argentina's Mendoza Valley, where growers struggle sometimes to raise acidity before ripeness gets out of hand.

Expect to pay between $20 and $30 a bottle for Italian Barbera, although a few special wines like Giacomo Bologna Bricco del Uccellone sells for $80.  At the other end of the price range is Fontanafredda Barbera, $15.  Other producers offering a Barbera: Bruno Giacosa, Scarpa, Vietti, Pio Cesare and G.D. Vajra.

293 Dolcetto Photos - Free & Royalty-Free Stock Photos from Dreamstime
Dolcetto Vineyard

Dolcetto -- In terms of natural acidity, Dolcetto is the polar opposite of Barbera.  Dolcetto is grown in the northwest part of Piedmont, mainly in  the provinces of Cuneo and Alba.

The flavors of Dolcetto are round and fruity, with relatively low acidity; the ideal foil for Piedmont's bigger reds, like Barbera.  Dolcetto's early-drinking profile allows wineries to offer customers an alternative to Barbera and Nebbiolo.  

In Italian, Dolcetto means "little sweet one," although most Dolcettos are dry, with a sweet fruit impression. Dolcetto is made to be drunk early, but those from the province of Dogliani are considered to be more complex and age worthy. 

Piemontese Dolcetto d'Albas are priced at $20 to $25, with the Mascarello at $51 and Giuseppe Rinaldi Dolcetto, $54. Other Dolcettos: G.D. Vajra, Pio Cesare, Luigi Einaudi, Bruno Giacosa, Vietti, Poderi Oddero and Fontannafedda.  

If variety truly is the spice of life, then next time you're thinking of buying a Nebbiolo-based red, spice up your wine life with a Barbera or Dolcetto.


Next Blog: My Life in Wine Episode 13

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Thursday, April 8, 2021

Deciphering Pinot Gris & Pinot Blanc

It was the Pinot grape that inspired Alexander Dumas to declare that the wines of the Cote d'Or (Burgundy) should be drunk kneeling and bareheaded.

Well, maybe.  But there are other grapes that seek your attention and understanding. For example, there's Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, two grapes (and wines) that are in the same large pinot family, but couldn't be more different. 

Pierre Galet, the renown French ampelographer, says the pinot family has more than 1,000 clones, including Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Pinot St. George. And while we can't list all 1,000 here, we can talk about Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. 

Both grapes have a French lineage: gris is French for gray and blanc means white. But here's where it gets fuzzy.  Pinot Gris is more purple than gray and the color of Pinot Blanc is yellow with a green tint, not white.  And, Pinot Blanc is a white mutation of Pinot Gris, which is, in fact, a whiter (or grayer) version of Pinot Noir. 

In France, most of the acreage devoted to Pinot Blanc is in Alsace, which as it happens, also is where you'll find most French Pinot Gris.  Until recently, for some unknown reason, Alsace Pinot Gris was called Tokay d'Alsace.  Problem is, there is a renown fortified wine in Hungary called Tokaj (Tokay in English), so the Hungarians appealed to the EU, forcing the Alsatians to change the name of their wine.                


Pinot Gris PNG and Pinot Gris Transparent Clipart Free Download. - CleanPNG  / KissPNG
Pinot Gris

Alsace Pinot Gris is one of the region's most important grapes, right behind Riesling and Gewurztraminer, while most Pinot Blanc is blended with Auxerrois, replacing Sylvaner, for a popular blend. However, in his reference book "Grape Varieties," Pierre Galet does not include Pinot Blanc or Pinot Gris in the list of 36 "great " wine grapes.  Nor, for that matter does noted English wine writer Jancis Robinson mention either grape under Alsace or Italy, in her book "Vintage Timecharts."                             

Whites Grapes (Pinot Blanc) In The Vineyard, Croatia. Stock Photo, Picture  And Royalty Free Image. Image 62561442.
Pinot Blanc

As for Pinot Blanc, the grape is known by two names in Alsace: Pinot Blanc and Clevner or Klevner.  Alsatian winemakers like Pinot Blanc for sparkling Cremant d'Alsace.  And while Pinot Blanc is at home in Alsace, it is still associated with Burgundy and is allowed in wines labeled Borgogne Blanc and Macon, both more often associated with Chardonnay.                                                           

Unfortunately, that association has caused some confusion.  Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay look similar on the vine and have similar aromatics. Sorting out the two grapes also caused some confusion in northern Italy vineyards, where a lot of Pinot Bianco is grown.            

Digression -- In the late 1990s, one of the most successful importers of Italian wines was native Kiwi Neal Empson, who with his wife, Maria, owned Empson  USA.  I first met Neal in Italy when the northern wines of Friuli-Venezia Giulia were setting sales records in the United States, especially for Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc) and Pinot Grigio (Pinot Gris).  Empson is a charming man with a dry wit and a sly smile. "When I first went to northern Italy to look at vineyards, I noticed that they were growing Pinot Blanc but calling it Chardonnay, the grapes were that close," he said with a sly smile, shaking his head.

The mix up in the vineyard eventually got sorted out, although it still takes a knowledgeable grower to tell the difference. Friuli and the surrounding region now export both a Chardonnay and a Pinot Bianco.

How close are the aromatics and flavors of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris?  Let's take a look.

Appearance -- In the glass, both wines are a golden yellow, with Pinot Blanc the lighter of the two.  Pinot Gris, especially with some bottle age, begins to look and taste like honey.  Depth of color, of course, is also dependent on whether the wine was fermented in oak or aged in oak. 

Aromatics -- Pinot Blanc can be bland, but the best have a subtle spicy note. Pinot Gris is more aggressive and complex on the nose, with honey, spice and traces of musky/funky notes.  Again, oak will make a difference in the aromatics. 

Flavor -- Pinot Blanc has a subtle, non-aggressive flavor with citrus and spicy accents.  Pinot Gris is more exotic and honeyed, with underlying spice. 

These sensory characteristics are for Alsace Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.  The same two varieties grown somewhere else will be different.  New Zealand Pinot Gris is intensely varietal, while California Pinot Blanc, especially oaked, is often mistaken for Chardonnay.

                                              PINOT GRIS

A few words on Oregon Pinot Gris.  In wine terms, Oregon got a bad rap for a long time for being a one-trick pony, that being Pinot Noir and little else.  For years there wasn't much interest in Oregon Chardonnay, although that has changed.  Both Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris seemed to adapt to Oregon's cool climate growing conditions. 

Buying Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris is easier than identifying them in the vineyard.  There are scores of both wines from Alsace wineries like Lucien Albrecht, Hugel, Zind Humbrecht, Dopff au Moulin, FE Trimbach and Schlumberger, priced between $22 and $96, the more expensive ones being special bottlings. 

California Pinot Gris from McMurray, Folie a Deux, La Crema, Hahn Family, Cline Cellars, Etude and Kendall-Jackson, to name but a few, range in price from $17 to $20. 

In general, Oregon Pinot Gris are priced a few dollars more than those from California.  Look for Elk Cove, King Estate, Montinore Estate,The Eyrie Vineyard, Erath, The Four Graces, Ponzi and Foris.

There is life after Chardonnay and now is the time to live it with a glass of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.

Next Blog:  Barbera & Dolcetto

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Thursday, April 1, 2021

How did you get into wine?

  Gabriel-Glas | Universal Wine Glasses - One Glass For All

"How did you get into wine?" is a question I hear a lot.  The H question fills most wine writers with dread, similar to the way we feel when someone asks, "What's your favorite wine?"

I know, I know, I should be a little more appreciative and a little less cranky, since, after all, I taste wine all day, travel a lot and eat fancy meals.  Well, not exactly, but I get the point.

People are sincere in their curiosity, but the H question begs a response in twenty-five words or less; they want the bottom line, not a long story.  So I thought I would take a stab at explaining how I got into wine without, hopefully, raising the boredom level too much. 

My earliest memory of wine in our house was my mother taking the occasional glass of Port because she thought it would "build my blood."  Mom's tipple was not Port from Portugal, but likely a deep ruby wine from New York's Finger Lakes, made from local grapes and fortified with brandy. 

After dinner, mom would relax a few minutes in her favorite chair, maybe smoke her one cigarette of the day, while savoring a small water glass of Port.  I pestered her for a taste, but she wouldn't allow it,  And she made sure that I understood that if I sneaked a taste while she was at work, she would know. But all was not lost.

In my neighborhood, outside Philadelphia, wine usually came out of a glass demijohn kept in someone's cellar. This all happened only about 10 years after the repeal of Prohibition and people were experimenting with home made wine, usually in the unfinished space under their house, locally referred to as a "cellar."  No one I knew had a "basement" in our neighborhood. 

But like many small provincial neighborhoods, there were secrets. One of those secrets a boyhood friend of mine shared with me was about his father's cache of home made wine in their cellar.  We used to sneak down there to see the bubbling liquid in a couple of large demijohns and the bottles of finished wine his father stacked on their sides in rows on the floor.  We were itching to pinch a  sample of this forbidden mysterious red liquid but had no idea how to get a cork out of the bottle.  And my friend said his father had warned him that the bottles were counted. 

So, even though I didn't know it then, my curiosity was growing about wine.  But I would have to wait for my epiphany to happen at a railroad station cafe in France. 

The French epiphany happened while I was on temporary assignment at an air base near Dijon.  Air Force food, even with French cooks, employed by the USAF, in the chow hall kitchen, lived up to its negative billing, so a colleague and I decided to have dinner in town at the train station cafe, which was reputed to be one of the best around.

It was a fortuitous choice because our waiter spoke English, knew something about wine and was only too happy to educate us in the finer pleasures of haute cuisine and good wine.  

What was the wine of my epiphany?  Well, my memory is a little ragged and it has been 65 years since that evening in France, but I think the wine was a Beaujolais.  Deeply colored and scented, packed with fruit, rich and smooth, the first sip of that wine was a revelation that stayed with me, even to this day. 

Back in Pennsylvania, and out of the Air Force, I thought about the life-lesson I had learned from my time in Europe...that life is so much more enjoyable with wine. 

Circumstances, mostly beyond my control, caused a gap in the advancement to my life in wine. The job market in Philadelphia in the late 1950s was not good, so after marrying, I re-enlisted in the Air Force.  That meant a separation from wine for about five years, but then I was assigned to Northern California and got my first taste of wine from the Santa Cruz Mountains, the South Bay and Santa Clara County. 

California varietal wines tasted different from those I had gotten used to in France and Germany.  It was a mind-expanding experience to discover that the Beaujolais of my epiphany was made from Gamay and the German wines I enjoyed at a Rhine wine festival were made from Sylvaner, or Riesling or maybe Muller-Thurgau.  And were the California Cabernet Sauvignons I tasted the same as Bordeaux?

From then on, my immersion in wine was gradual but steady.  After retiring from the Air Force, I eased into a second career as a wine writer, a job that took me around the world, learning about regional wines and how they are integral to the social and economic health of local communities. 

From about 1993 to the present, my knowledge of wine increased many fold both as a writer and wine judge and educator, as my wine avocation became my vocation. I began writing for magazines and newspapers and did stints as editor of the Wine Spectator and Wine and Spirits magazines. Starting as a rookie wine judge at the Los Angeles County Fair, I continued judging wine throughout the United States, Europe and Australia.  Finally, I taught in the Wine Studies program at Santa Rosa Junior College. 

And that is the not-so-short answer to how I got into wine.  

Next Blog:  Deciphering Pinot Blanc & Pinot Gris

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