Thursday, September 16, 2021

Classy Grenache

  Grenache | Wine Varietals | Gold Medal Wine Club

Grenache is a class act. Its bright berry flavors and sassy spiciness have made Grenache a favorite in the southern Rhone Valley, Spain, California, Washington state and Australia.

The rule drink-or-wait for most red wine is wait a few years, or longer in some cases, before you pull the cork.  Not so with Grenache, an inviting red that shuns aging in favor of drink while still relatively young, for full enjoyment.

In its youth, Cabernet Sauvignon is raw and disjointed, young Pinot Noir tends to be grapy and lacks definition, and the same holds for Syrah.  But, with one or two exceptions, Grenache is ready to enjoy right out of the bottle.

In Spain it's Garnacha

Same grape, different name. Garnacha probably was first planted in the northern region of Aragon, then spread throughout Spain.  In one of those odd occurrences where a grape is not exported from France, Garnacha eventually made its way to Roussillon, in the south of France. 

Fans of Spanish red wines understand that the best expression of Garnacha comes from Priorat (Priorato in Spanish), where it is bottled both as a varietal or popularly blended with a handful of other red grapes. 

Priorat is a hilly enclave in Catalonia, producing concentrated reds based on Garnacha, sometimes blended with Carignan, or Merlot and occasionally Syrah. Priorat has become the darling of Spanish reds, thanks to pioneers Alvaro Palacios and Rene Barbier.  Priorat wines are expensive and sought after by those who like their reds powerful and richly textured.

The popularity of Garnacha as a blending grape is also important in Rioja where the traditional blend, based on Tempranillo, can include up to 30% Garnacha.  In neighboring Navarra, Garnacha is valued as a blending grape.  

And, Garnacha is the favorite grape for Spanish rose wines, that draw a lot of snarky comments from people who turn up their nose at pink wines.  Garnacha rose are the Spanish equivalent of French Grenache Rose.

Grenache and Chateauneuf-du-Pape 

Grenache Noir can be found across southern France where it is bottled as a red varietal and is the main grape for the oceans of pink wine, with the best roses coming from Tavel and Provence.  These two wines are the benchmarks for roses made from Grenache. 

The majority of Grenache, however, is planted  in the southern Rhone valley, with Chateauneuf-du-Pape (Pope's new castle) the grape's finest expression.  Fact is, the best use of Grenache in France is for Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Vineyards Near Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Provence, France Stock Photo, Picture  And Royalty Free Image. Image 99605100.
Old vine Grenache, near Chateauneuf-du-Pape

Originally, Chateauneuf-du-Pape was a blend of 10 grapes.  In 1936, three more grapes were added. Today, 18 grapes are authorized.  At the top of the list is Grenache, considered the essential core of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.  Mourvedre and Counoise are the next important red grapes.  

Few producers use all 18 grapes, concentrating on less complicated blends based on Grenache.  There is also a Chateauneuf-du-Pape blanc, made mainly from Grenache blanc  and the northern Rhone white grape, Roussanne.   

Grenache's Worldwide Outposts 

Grenache has had a varied history in Australia.  Vastly popular in the 1960s, it began to lose interest and was eclipsed first by Shiraz (Syrah) and then Cabernet Sauvignon.  

Best Australian GSM wines - panel tasting results - Decanter
Aussie GSM wines

Today, the must popular use of Grenache by Aussie wineries is in GSM blends.  The popular blend of Grenache/Shiraz/Mourvedre was also of interest for a while in California and Washington.

At one time, Grenache was one of the most widely planted old vines in California, alongside Zinfandel and Carignane.  A lot of rose was made from Grenache, likely trading off the popularity of Tavel and Provence roses. 

Fortunately for California grown Grenache (and wine drinkers), a group of interested winemakers and consumers called the Rhone Rangers, got wine consumers interested in Grenache again. 

The rising popularity of GSM blends sparked an interest by Washington wineries in Grenache, though eventually the focus turned to varietal,Grenache, showcasing the grape's bright fruit and Washington's signature zingy acidity. 

Its been a struggle getting Grenache through the winters of eastern Washington and today there's maybe a dozen wineries in Woodinville and the Columbia Valley making varietal Grenache.

Next blog: My Life in Wine Episode 19

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Thursday, September 9, 2021

Albarino & Viognier

 Perhaps you've heard of the bar trick where someone is challenged to tell the difference, while blindfolded, between 7Up and Coca Cola.  Supposedly, without seeing the color of the soft drinks, one can't tell the difference just by taste. 

Some tricksters claim that the same challenge works with aged Cabernet Sauvignon and aged Pinot Noir.  In this vinous comparison, some of the flavor and aromatic components that separate the two wines when young fade away, or become similar, with age. 

Point being, grapes are grapes, and while there are differences, there are also similarities.  A red-on-red challenge is easier than red-on-white, because the chemical makeup of like varieties is more similar.  

Take Albarino and Viognier, both white grapes, native to different European regions: Albarino is most common in Spain's Rias Baixas and the Vinho Verde region of northern Portugal, where it is known as Alvarinho; in France, Viognier is mainly grown in the northern Rhone and southern Languedoc and there is substantial acreage in Australia and California. 

From the 1990s onward, both Albarino and Viognier spread outside of Europe to other worldwide regions, notably Virginia, New Zealand and Argentina.  

Learn about Albarino


For many years Spain was known more for red wines than white.  The aromatic whites of Galacia were known more in Spain than in export markets. Then, in 1988, Galacia's Rias Baixas was awarded a DO (Spain's denomination of origin) and Albarino soon took the world white wine market by storm.

In a relatively short time, Albarino eclipsed Alvarinho (its Portuguese name) in Portugal's Vinho Verde. Today, Albarino is Spain's fashionable white and vineyard acreage is increasing to keep up with the demand. 

Both Albarino and Alvarinho are grown on wire-trained trellises, as well as growing up trees in the fashion that was popular long ago.  Modern vineyards sport large canopies, supported on wires, to promote vigor in the hot humid climate.

What does Albarino taste like?  Forward fruity aromatics, with apricot and peach scents, bright acidity and traces of spice in the finish.  In general, Albarino is lighter with more natural acidity than Viognier.

What tastes good with Albarino?   LIghtly chilled Albarino is a great sipping wine and it goes with just about any light food and grilled fish with a fruit salsa and rich shellfish like lobster with drawn butter or a light cream sauce. 

Albarino may require a search, but look for these popular brands, priced between $16 and $35: Granbazan, Granja Fillaboa, Santiago Ruiz, Morgadio, Bodega Torgo, Monte Pio, La Cana.

Viognier — Aerovina Estate


In 2000, there was a spurt of interest for Viognier in California, but growers struggled to keep alcohols in check, while still getting the level of ripeness needed for the variety to show its character.

Australian winemakers were more successful with Viognier and, indeed, continue to focus on it as a major white variety, especially in South Australia, where Yalumba added a string of Viogniers to their line of white wines, based on different growing areas and vineyards.  Yalumba's top Viognier, Virgilius is richly aromatic with a hint of ginger and Muscat and a finish at 13% alcohol.

To be sure, Viognier is a well-traveled wine grape.  For thousands of years, though, Viognier has been grown in the Rhone Valley of France, the place that most people think of when they think of Viognier. 

Condrieu, Cote Rotie and the tiny Chateau Grillet are are all known for Viognier-based wines.  Actually, Cote Rotie red may legally add up to 20% Viognier with Syrah.  Ch. Grillet, all 7.5 acres of Viognier, is one of France's smallest appellations. 

In the northern Rhone, Condrieu is the major producer of Viognier, from more than 500 acres of vines, except for Ch. Grillet, an enclave in the Condrieu appellation.

Yields are low for Condrieu (thus the high prices) and the use of malolactic conversion and oak aging varies considerably. 

What does Viognier taste like?  Not unlike Albarino, the flavors are peach and apricots with, perhaps, more intensity and depth.  Viognier also can show subtle tropical floral scents like jasmine.  Acidity is usually low in Viognier, more in the California version than the French.

What tastes good with Viognier? Chicken or lobster in a cream sauce, Indian dishes with exotic spices and any dish seasoned with aromatic herbs like rosemary.

Although Ch. Grillet is priced at $150 for a current vintage and the odd Condrieu breaks $100 a bottle, you can find Condrieu for $50 to $70, including Guigal, Domaine Georges Vernay, Delas Freres.  

California Viognier like Pine Ridge, Cline, McManus and Mason Cellars are more modestly priced at about $12.

Viognier and Albarino do share some similarities, but the only trickery is the chemical composition of the grapes.  Try the two wines blindfolded and see if you can taste the differences. 


Next blog: Classy Grenache

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Thursday, September 2, 2021

My Life in Wine Episode 18

My departure from the Wine Spectator opened the door to a return to free lance wine writer and a short stint as editor of Wine & Spirits Buying Guide.  Then in 1994, while free lancing for a short time, a surprise offer came from the San Francisco Chronicle. 

FAQ | San Francisco Chronicle Archive | - San Francisco  Chronicle

San Francisco Chronicle

Encouraged by my friend and fellow wine writer, Diane Teitelbaum, I joined the food section of the San Francisco Chronicle as the staff wine writer. Even though I wanted the independence of free lancing, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to be the Chronicle staff wine writer.  Especially since there were no restrictions on outside writing, so long as the pub was not a competing newspaper. 

For me, working at the Chronicle was a learning experience.  My only other newspaper experiences were an Air Force base newspaper and wine contributor to the Rocky Mountain News. 

In those days there were not many staff wine writing jobs with U.S. publications, so the Chronicle was a step up.  But I didn't have a clue about the politics and pecking order of a big city newspaper.  An encounter with a star staff writer gave me a new perspective. 

One day, I entered the busy Chronicle lobby, walked past the Herb Cain "loyal Royal" typewriter, enshrined as a tribute to the famous columnist and stepped into a waiting elevator.  

"Hold the elevator!"  came a voice, more as an order than a request.  As the doors slid closed and we started up, the voice said, without looking at me, "Who are you?"

I turned with a smile, said my name and added that I was the new wine writer in the food department.  The elevator stopped at the second floor, the doors opened, and as he stepped out, the voice yelled over his shoulder, "I didn't know we had a food department."

The Chronicle City Desk was on the second floor, where all the main news writers worked, including my fellow elevator passenger, Phil Matier, veteran political reporter and columnist. Later, I was told by one food staffer that the comment was an example of Matier's abrasive personality, but another person said he was just taking the mickey out of the new guy. 

Whatever.  I thought it interesting that Herb Cain looked down on the hallowed news room from his corner office on the third floor, next to the food department.

There wasn't space in the cramped food department, so the new wine section set up shop on the second floor, along with the test kitchen, of one of the old buildings that the Chronicle owned near the main one on Mission Street.

Schlepping cases of wine up to the tasting area was in a creaking pee-stained freight elevator.  Every trip was an aromatic adventure.  On one occasion, I chased away a drunk sleeping off a bender in the elevator. 

Not long after starting at the Chronicle, I was asked to be on the Chronicle Tasters' Choice Panel, a small group of food professionals that met twice a month to taste and rate common food items -- corn flakes, mayonnaise, vanilla ice cream -- that could be found in any home pantry.  

I was a professional wine taster, so how hard could that be?

Harder than I thought.  The average consumer usually doesn't taste eight different brands of mayonnaise before stocking one in their own kitchen.  Whatever brand condiment your mother bought for the family is generally the one you use.

The range of flavor and quality found in the various products sampled by the panel was surprising.  And tasting and evaluating food products was a lot like tasting different wines.  Corn flakes is corn flakes, right?  Not exactly.  Before tasting a line of corn flakes, the panel had to first decide on what a corn flake should look and taste like. 

Wine evaluation is pretty much the same process.  Tasters first agree on basic standards for, say, Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as geographical growing differences and other factors.  Then, each wine is tasted and scored against these benchmarks.

The differences between brands of corn flakes, and other foods, often sparked vigorous debates with name brands not doing as well as expected. Consistent favorites often turned out to be house brands of major food chains. 

Occasionally, the panel's opinion of a certain product raised the hackles of the producer.  Frozen yogurt was the last item on the list tasted at one session and a popular Bay Area yogurt got a low score.  The company was incensed and immediately shipped boxes of the frozen yogurt we had tasted to the Chronicle and all of the panel members, with a snarky suggestion that the panel didn't know from frozen yogurt and we should re-taste. 

The Chronicle stood by the ratings and eventually the yogurt maker let it go. 

Frozen yogurt aside, the Tasters' Choice Panel became one of the most popular features in the already popular Chronicle Food section of the newspaper.  It made sense, then, to start a Chronicle Wine Tasting Panel.  More on that in the next episode.  


Next blog: Comparing Albarino and Viognier

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