Thursday, December 29, 2022

South Africa


In 1990, two momentous events changed South Africa in ways that are still being felt today: Nelson Mandela was released from his prison on Robben Island, setting a new course for the beleaguered nation and Apartheid was abolished, freeing the people from its grip and opening the country's economy. 

Less known, but important to wine drinkers around the world, was the lifting of  international sanctions, allowing the struggling South Africa (SA) wine industry to recover its potential. Outdated vineyard and winery equipment were replaced, winemakers began traveling again to learn the latest innovations in wine making and the opportunity to rejoin the international wine fraternity.  The worldwide  wine community took notice that the nearly South Africa moribund export wine market began to show new life. 

Great Britain had long been South Africa's major export market.  Before the early 1990s, if you wanted to see what SA's small wineries had to offer, London was the place to go.  Except for the odd bottle of Steen (the local name for Chenin Blanc) and an odd red called Pinotage, there were few SA wines in American wine shops. 

Aside:  Perhaps no other wine, that I can think of,  was met with such negativism outside its country of origin, than South Africa's Pinotage.  Developed in 1924 at Stellenbosch University as a cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault, the first rustic reds were slightly bitter and smelled and tasted of acetate. 

For years, Pinotage was controversial and a hard sell outside South Africa, but with advances in grape growing and wine making, the rough edges were smoothed out and many Pinotages, such as those from Kanonkop, began to show clean fruit flavors, no bitterness, a little refinement and the ability to age.  

For some wine drinkers, mainly those who remember the old style Pinotage, the signature South Africa red is not yet out of the woods, but many SA wineries are working on it.

My first trip to South Africa was in 1995, when the SA wine industry was working hard to get back in the game.  Some vineyards I saw looked ragged and didn't have the orderly well-tended appearance of vineyards in California, Australia and Europe. Wineries were suffering as well, lacking the funds to buy the latest stainless steel tanks, pneumatic presses and Italian bottling lines.  

Wherever I went, the winery owner tried to impress me with a re-styled Pinotage when it was Pinot Noir I was after. It was like being handed a glass of Carignane in California when all I wanted was to taste their Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.  




Regions, Grapes and Winemaking

Cape Winelands major wine zones are roughly divided into four major regions: South Coast; Coastal Region, the core of Cape wine making; Klein Karoo, Northern Cape and the Breede River Valley. 

The focus of this overview of Cape wines will be the districts within the Coastal Region, home to South Africa's most recognizable wine districts: Stellenbosch, Paarl, Constantia and Franschhoek.  

In SA wine terminology, the breakout is Region, District and Ward.  This bit of seeming trivia can be useful when shopping for SA wines, much the same way as reading a California wine label showing region, winery and vineyard: Napa Valley, Acme Winery, Paramount Vineyard.

Stylistically, South African wines have been described as between European and California or Australian. To my taste, the wines are less ripe than California and some Australian and earthier than many European wines.

Franschhoek (Frans-huk) is a major area and home to some of SA's oldest wineries. The area was settled by French Huguenots in the 17th century; the name means "French Corner."  An early name for the area is "Oliphants hoek" (elephants corner) for the large herds of elephants that once roamed the valley.

Franschhoek is one of the loveliest spots in the Western Cape, with the valley nestled between the Drakenstein and Franschhoek Mountains. 

Major varieties: Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, plus some Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc. 

Franschhoek wineries: La Motte, Boschendal, Franschhoek Vineyards.


Cape architecture


Stellenbosch is a university town, along the Eerste River.  The large district has more than 80 wineries, the most by far in the Western Cape.

Stellenbosch wineries make a wide range of wines, including the sparkling Cap Classique. More than any variety, Stellenbosch is identified with Chenin Blanc and there is far more planted in South Africa than in France's Loire Valley.  Called "Steen" by the first settlers, the wine became popular, thanks in large part to Stellenbosch Farmers Winery, for its sweet Steen.

Stellenbosch winemakers were at the forefront of those making Shiraz, often grown as a bush vine and aged both in American oak and French oak. Those opting for French oak, prefer the marriage of Pinotage sweet fruit and spice of French oak.

Major Varieties: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinotage, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz. 

Stellenbosch wineries: Neal Ellis, Kanonkop, La Bonheur, Meerlust, Rustenberg, Mulderbosch.

Paarl Wine Region | Wine region, Natural landmarks, Landmarks
Paarl wine region in shadow of Drakenstein mountains

Paarl is an important inland district, mainly for its growing number of wineries, but also for its dependence on grapes from other districts like Stellenbosch.  KWV is the biggest winery in Paarl, and maybe in all of South Africa.  Paarl is a warm area, with the best wines coming from vineyards at higher altitudes, thus the reputation that Paarl has for fortified wines, like port-style wines made from the Souzao grape.  In recent years, Paarl has transitioned from mainly white to mainly red wine.

Major varieties: Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Merlot, Pinotage

Paarl wineries: Glen Carlou, KWV, Fairview, Simonsvlei

Constantia has a colorful history stretching back to the 17th century when the Constantia estate was established. Today, three wineries carry the Constantia name. In the early years, the Constantia wines was made from Muscat de Frontignan, Muscadel and Chenin Blanc

Major varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon

Constantia wineries: Constantia Ultsig, Groot Constantia, Klein Constantia

South African wines may require a search, but it's worth the effort for their unique styles, high quality and good value.            


Next blog: Sonoma Series: Carneros & Other Appellations

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Thursday, December 22, 2022


The holiday countdown has begun and that usually means folks are beginning to think about what to eat and drink on festive occasions. Year-end musings also mean it's time for the annual treatise on Champagne, sparkling wine, bubbles, or whatever name suits your fancy. 

I'm not sure of how many articles I've written on the enjoyment of sparkling wine, but it's probably been hundreds. One thing I always make sure to include in these articles is to mention the folks who put the bubbles in wine.  Throughout the year, they faithfully remind us that bubbly is not just a wine for celebration, but a pleasure to be enjoyed year round. 

Well, when I think of opening one of my dwindling number of sparkling wines, it's usually to toast a holiday or celebrate a special milestone of a friend or loved one or to toast a holiday, like Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Years...or even Boxing Day. 


Holidays are, after all, about tradition and Champagne is the traditional choice of a wide range of wines with bubbles. 

Most of the best bubbly from France is made by the traditional methode champenoise or classic method. And the classic method is universal when making top-end sparkling wine.  Winemakers around the world accept the French right to use the word Champagne; the Spanish call their sparkling wine Cava and the South Africans use Cap Classique.

All references in this overview will be sparkling wine unless, or course, I mention Champagne. 

Tom Stevenson, the British Master of Wine, is a Champagne and sparkling wine specialist who also is author of the "World Encyclopedia of Champagne sparkling wine," generally thought to be the best reference on the subject in the English language.  

The use of the name Champagne has been  controversial for years, with Champagne producers being very protective of the name and others claiming the name Champagne has become generic, like aspirin. In Stevenson's book, there's a short sidebar in the section on California sparkling wine where he accuses the champenois for being hard-headed and then scolds them for their rigid position on the use of the name Champagne. 

Stevenson recalls Jack Davies, owner of Schramsberg, in the Napa Valley, offering to swap the name "Champagne" for "Champagne style" on all Schramsberg labels and the champenois flatly refused. Stevenson then offers this bit of irony: " they abuse their own appellation in South America, where companies such as Moet, Mumm and Piper sell domestic fizz as Champana (the Spanish for Champagne)." 

I sampled Moet & Chandon's Argentina Champana, in Buena Aires and thought it not as good as Moet's sparkling wines in the Napa Valley and Australia's Yarra Valley, where the name Champagne is not miss used.  The Moet rep in BA didn't see (or wouldn't admit to) the irony. 

Methode Champenoise

What's so special about the classic method?  You can get bubbles in wine a lot faster and cheaper using Charmat or tank method.  Use of the classic method, however, requires hundreds of manual steps, from base wine to driving home the mushroom cork. 


Methode champenois means that each bottle is an individual fermenter. Bottles are filled with a base wine, a small amount of yeast is added, the bottles are sealed with a crown cap (think soda bottles) and left to ferment and slowly develop the pin-point bubbles, that foam and effervesce when the wine is poured. 

There's much more to the process and you can find plenty of information on Champagne and sparkling wines in the  introductory sections of Stevenson's book, or any of the many other books that have been written on Champagne and other sparkling wine.

Sparkling wines made by the classic method, of course, are not limited to Champagne. Production of traditional method California sparkling wine was more or less static until the early seventies. In 1973, the Champagne house of Moet & Chandon opened Domaine Chandon in the Napa Valley, followed soon by Domaine Carneros by Taittinger and Mumm, Roederer in Mendocino and J in Sonoma.

Before the French invasion, Schramsberg and Kornell in Napa, and Korbel in neighboring Sonoma County, dominated the market for classic method sparklers. Today, California's best bubblies are getting better and more refined with every vintage.  

Elsewhere, Spain's Cava is made using the traditional method and despite the huge quantities coming out of Penedes, such producers as Codorniu, Freixenet, Juve y Camps, Segura Viudas, Castellblanch, consistently maintain high quality.  Another good bet are Australian sparkling wines, like Chandon's Green Point from Victoria.

Enjoying Sparkling Wine

The best way to open a bottle of fizz is to ease out the cork with a quiet release of  pressure, more a light snap than a loud pop, accompanied by a faint cloud of effervescence that quickly disappears.  Shaking the bottle, shooting the cork out with a loud bang and an exploding fountain of wine, is best left to the celebration at a Formula One race win.                           


Surprisingly, salty foods are good matches with sparkling wine. Mixed salted nuts, popcorn or even unflavored chips are nice when bubbly is served as an appetizer wine.  Savory dishes, like lightly salted ham, work best with sparkling wines and the main course.  For mains that lean more to sweet (including dessert) then savory, try sparkling wines marked Sec, Demi-Sec or Doux.

A final word on the sweetness of Champagne: The most common style is Brut, finished at about 1.2% residual sweetness, just enough to balance out the acidity. Sec is medium dry with a maximum sweetness of 3.5%, Demi-Sec maxes out at 5% and the rarely seen Doux is 5% or higher...enough to make your teeth ache.

Have a vinous holiday.

Next blog: Cape Winelands

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Thursday, December 15, 2022

Sonoma Series: Sonoma Valley & Sonoma Mountain


Jack London, the activist American writer, felt comfortable in the Valley of the Moon, a name he gave to the part of Sonoma Valley he called home. Running southeast from Santa Rosa to the town of Sonoma, the valley includes the sub-region of Sonoma Mountain, with the Jack London Ranch and vineyard.

Fame as a wine region was never quite achieved by Sonoma Valley in the same way as other Sonoma wine areas like Alexander Valley and Sonoma Carneros.  Yet the valley offered a promising climate that attracted wineries such as Chateau St. Jean, Hanzell, Kenwood Vineyards, Ravenswood, St. Francis, Benziger, Arrowood and Buena Vista. And there was space for lots of vineyards on the narrow valley floor and on the hillsides. 

About midway down the valley, west of the small village of Glen Ellen, is Sonoma Mountain.  Rising above the fog, a narrow belt on the mountain is an ideal place  for Cabernet Sauvignon to thrive in a good growing environment. There are a few other grapes, such as Chardonnay, but on Sonoma Mountain Cabernet is king.

Sonoma Valley 

At midday, if you happen to be on the Sonoma Highway, the main road that bisects Sonoma Valley, as you pass Ledson winery, listen closely for the bell at St. Francis winery announcing the noon hour.  The bell was cast in the same foundry that forged the bells in the main cathedral of Assisi, Italy. 

A scattering of vineyards break up the heavily forested west slopes of the low mountains that divide Sonoma from Napa.  At the southern end of the valley, outside the town of Sonoma, the landscape flattens and the vineyards change as you enter Sonoma Carneros.  Varieties that do well on hillsides at higher elevations, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, give way in Carneros, primarily to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. 

Unlike Napa Valley, where wineries line highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, the bulk of the wineries in Sonoma Valley are along Sonoma Highway, especially around Kenwood.  And there are small clusters of wineries on side roads, including the road leading off Sonoma Highway, to the village of Glen Ellen.

Wineries are also in an urban setting, like Carol Shelton and Paradise Ridge in Santa Rosa. In Sonoma, Sebastiani Vineyards is not far from the plaza and Hanzell overlooks the valley from its perch in the hills outside town.

A personal aside: For a wine writer, Sonoma Valley is a great place to live.  My home was less than a mile from a handful of wineries and a short drive from the city of Santa Rosa. The Napa Valley was across low hills to the east and to the west, beyond the coastal mountains was the Pacific Ocean.

The location was ideal...until 2017, when life changed for my wife and me.  Wild fires were racing up the slopes of the hills bordering Sonoma Valley and alerts went out to evacuate. After nine days in a hotel, we returned to find our home tainted by smoke but thankfully intact. 

Could the 2017 fires (and all the subsequent ones) that destroyed hundreds of homes, businesses and vineyards be a one off?  Climate forecasters say no and, in fact, are predicting more dangerous fires in the future.  That prospect was enough to send us packing to Western Washington, where the climate is more benign and the threat of uncontrolled wild fires is far least for now.

Sonoma Mountain 

Although there are few wineries on Sonoma Mountain, three names brought fame to the lofty appellation.  Patrick Campbell founded Laurel Glen Vineyard in 1977, followed by Bruno Benziger's Glen Ellen Vineyards and Winery (later to be known as Benziger Family Winery) and Phil Coturri, along with his brother Tony, started the eponymous family vineyard and winery. 

Phil Coturri
Phil Coturri

Pocket vineyards on the mountain produce a variety of grapes including, but not limited to, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Notable wineries working on Sonoma Mountain include Laurel Glen Vineyard, Coturri Family Wines and Benziger Family Winery.  La Follette Wines sources Pinot Noir from Sonoma Mountain and Paul Hobbes buys mountain-grown Chardonnay. 

Key to the quality of Sonoma Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon is planting vineyards above the fog line.  Laurel Glen and the historic Jack London Vineyard meet these criteria.  The London vineyard is also highly prized for its Zinfandel.

There are a lot of wine regions to choose from for your next bottle of wine, so turn left at Calistoga, drive over the mountain and make that next purchase from Sonoma Valley or Sonoma Mountain.

Next blog: 'Tis the Season for Bubbly

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Thursday, December 8, 2022

The Value of Old Vines

A question that pops up now and then in wine circles is "What is the definition of 'old vines' and how important are they?"  It's not a burning issue, but it is one that has an impact on wine buying decisions. 

When a consumer reads "Old Vines" or "Century Vines" or ""Vielles Vignes," or "Alte Reben," the reaction is to wonder what exactly does it mean?  The easy answer is whatever you want it to mean, since there is no legal definition of the term.

Old Zinfandel vine

Wanting to be different, some winemakers decided on such fanciful names for old vines as "Gnarly Vines" which many of them are and "Ancient Vines" which many of them aren't.

A little history

The history of old vines is extensive, so here are a few highlights.

Most people would agree that the Monte Rosso Vineyard on Moon Mountain, in Sonoma County, is an old vine vineyard, since it was first planted in the 1880s.   And there are dozens of other old-vine vineyards in Sonoma County.

The Historic Vineyard Society (HVS) in California maintains that an old vine is a vine or vineyard at least 50 years old. Further, the society adds that one third of the existing vines must be traceable to the original planting. 

Interesting, as the idea for the society was inspired by the film "Sideways" and its enthusiastic endorsement of Pinot Noir, although there are very few old Pinot Noir vines in California, compared to the numbers for Zinfandel and Syrah. 

Old Vitis vinifera vines go back to the mid-19th century, but there are some surviving Muscadine vines still cultivated in the southern United States. The 400-year-old "Mother Vine" on Roanoke Island, North Carolina, is still producing grapes.  Supposedly, the Muscadine variety, Scuppernong, was the grape in Virginia Dare, a wine of Colonial times.

British wine writer, Jancis Robinson publishes an extensive free worldwide Vineyard Register, at  The register lists a vine at the Hampton Court Palace, planted in 1769 and still producing.

Today, ungrafted drought tolerant vines are being considered in Spain's Ribera del Duero, to replace the traditional Tempranillo, a grapevine that is suffering the ravages of climate change. Many of the existing vines in Ribera are considered old vines.  The proposed vine swap is being prompted by climate change and the desire of a wine region to get ahead of what may be an unknown.

Sonoma Old Vines

Most established vineyard regions worldwide have some vines that qualify as old vines. In California, Sonoma County is home to numerous old vines, especially planted to Zinfandel.

Here are 12 Sonoma County vineyards certified by the HVS that meet their criteria: Jackass Hill (1880s), Saitone (1895), Russi (1900s), Belloni (1900s), Limerick Lane (1910), Puccini (1900s), Hartford (1910), Maffei (1920s), Mancini (1920s), Montafi Ranch (1926), Carlisle (1927), Papera Ranch (1930s).

Sonoma old vine vineyard

Wines made from these old-vine vineyards have a concentration that comes only with age. Although technically not considered old vines, Pinot Noir heritage clones such as Wadenswil, Calera, Pommard, Martini and Swan have that character.  So too does the Mount Eden clone, from a cutting brought to California by Paul Masson as a "suitcase vine."

The value of adding "Old Vine" on the front or back label means the winery can tell the wine buyer that because the grapes used for the wine in the bottle are old, the wine is better than a wine making no such claim.

It is true that a wine made from old vine grapes has more stuff like texture, structure and concentration, but that alone does not make it a better wine.  Vineyard location, grape health and condition and wine making are but a few of the many factors that ultimately determine if one wine is better than another.

Wine consumers can rely on getting clearly defined varietal aroma and taste of specific varieties, when the wine is made from old vines. If the concentrated berry character of Zinfandel or Syrah or Petite Sirah is what you are after, then pull the cork on a bottle from Biale Vineyards, Pedroncelli, Aperture Cellars, Ridge Vineyards, Martinelli, Comstock Wines, Gary Farrell, Ravenswood, Hartford Family Wines, Joseph Swan and Limerick Lane.

Find your favorite winery, gather a few friends and do a comparative tasting. Select a regular bottling and one made from old vines, from the same winery. It can be fun and informative. 

Late add:  There apparently is enough interest in the value of old vines to warrant a get-together to talk about old vines.  Last month, the first Old Vines Conference was held in Veneto, Italy, sponsored by the InternationalWine & Spirit Competition. The aim of the conference was to show the value of old vines beyond their beauty and longevity.

Next blog: Sonoma Series: Sonoma Valley & Sonoma Mountain

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Thursday, December 1, 2022

A Most Extraordinary Wine Tasting

Writers who claim to know about wine without having tasted the wine they are writing about is a mystery to me. It's like saying you know how to ride a bicycle with never having ridden one.

So, it would seem that a writer must then taste the wine. For a writer, tasting is an ongoing necessity and personal education. In the 50 years that I have been writing about wine, I have tasted thousands of wines from various wine regions around the world. 

None was more memorable and educational for me than "The Rewards of Patience," a comprehensive tasting of Penfolds (Australian) red wines, recorded in a tasting book "to provide a wine-by-wine assessment of drinking and cellaring potential."

The tasting took place over three days in August 1993 at the Penfolds main winery in Nuriootpa, Barossa Valley, South Australia.  On the tasting panel were James Halliday and Huon Hooke, both distinguished Australian wine writers and authors; Robert Joseph, noted British wine writer; John Duval, Penfolds (former) Chief Winemaker and myself.  Also present was Andrew Caillard MW, tasting recorder and composer of notes for the "Rewards of Patience" (RoP) book. 

The RoP tastings are held a minimum of every four years, since 1983. In the forward to the 1993 book, John Duval wrote "Looking at 20 to 30 years of winemaking in a structured and disciplined way is a fascinating and educational exercise." 

I agree and wonder, then and now, why no other winery has held similar retrospective tastings of their wines. To mount such a tasting, a sufficient number of bottles need to be laid down from each vintage, but evaluating the evolution of your wines over time is an invaluable way to know if you are going in the right direction.

The five top Penfolds red wines are Penfolds Grange Bin 95, Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 707, Magill Estate Shiraz, St. Henri Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 407.   The other seven groups of red wines we tasted were various Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, plus Clare Estate Bordeaux-style blend and a Shiraz Mourvedre.

We tasted 140 red wines, aging then in Penfolds cellar, over three days, while standing at a tasting bench,using a similar organization as an Australian wine show (competition. There isn't space enough here to give a comprehensive account of all the wines tasted, so we'll look at what I thought were the highlights of Penfold's two top red wines -- Grange and Bin 707.

Penfolds Grange Bin 95

Penfolds is justifiably proud of Grange, a Shiraz with small percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon, first made by the late Max Schubert from the 1951 vintage.(The wine then was called Grange Hermitage, but the French objected to the use of  "Hermitage," so Penfolds went with Grange). 


Grange is a multi-district blend, predominately from the Barossa Valley. Fermented at both Nuriootpa and Magill, it is aged in new American oak for 18-20 months.

We tasted a remarkable 22 vintages of Grange, from the 1955 to 1990 vintages. With the exception of 1986 and 1990, most of the other wines we thought would peak by 2015. Vintage 1986, a concentrated meaty wine with dark cherry flavors, was pegged to peak in 2020 and the 1990 Grange, an intense plummy wine, was thought by the panel to max out at 2025. 

The 1993 RoP tasting was, of course, a one off, with the evaluations and predictions yet to be proven. In the fifth edition of the Rewards of Patience, published in 2004, the 1986 Grange had been projected out to the year 230+, while the 1990 Grange was moved from 2015 to 2040.  

James Halliday described the 1990 as "Flawlessly supple."  And joined his fellow panelists in proclaiming the 1990 Grange "as extraordinary with incredible power and finesse."

The bottom line for a wine of the high caliber of Grange is that there is no "bad" year, just a range of goodness.  And Grange clearly shows the remarkable ability of a great wine to mature in the bottle for many years and to challenge the best wine tasters to predict with any accuracy when the wine, such as Grange, will begin to fade. 

Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon

Penfolds other super premium red is Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 707, a multi-district blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in American oak for 18 months. Bin 707, which first entered the Penfolds inventory in 1964, is among the finest Cabernets that Australia has to offer. 


The combination of American oak and intense berry flavors for the unique character of Bin 707. The 1990 had high-toned plum and blackberry, concentrated layers of ripe berry and licorice.  My comments about the 707s we tasted included "big berry flavors and dominant sweet fruit character."

At the 1993 Rewards of Patience, we tasted through 16 vintages of Bin 707 and decided that most of the wines would be best cellared further.  Outstanding vintages included a remarkably lively 1976, 1983, 1990, 1991 and the 1986 which the panel projected not to peak until 2020.  

Ten years later and with two diffferent panelists (Hooke and Halliday had returned as tasters), the assesment of the wines we thought were keepers in 1983 had changed but not by much.  The '76, '83, '90 and 1991 Bin 707s were still highly rated, although their peak had retreated by about five years, to2015.

The panelists described the 1990 Bin 707 as "rich and ripe wine with plenty of blackcurrant/plum/mulberry/dark chocolate aromas...A great vintage." lists the 1990 Grange at $400 and the currently available vintage, 2018, is $500.  Current Bin 707s are priced at $375 for the 2019 and $400 for the 1990.

Penfolds Grange and Bin 707 are a testament to long aging and to the careful attention paid selecting the vineyard site and matching the variety to the site. The Rewards of Patience book records these factors and is a valuable account of the wine's life and maturity.  

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of sharing a memorable 1999 Bin 707, with my wife and good friends visiting from out of state. The bottle had traveled a lot but didn't seem to be any worse for wear.  Forecasted in the 2004 RoP book to be at its maximum in 2020, our Bin 707 still needed more time to show its full potential.

This account of Penfolds red wines is presented here as information for the wine buyer and collector.  I was priviledged to have served as an international judge at this exraordinary tasting.  My intent is to show how well some red wines age and not to say to the reader, "too bad you weren't invited to the tasting."


Next blog: The Reliability of Old Vines  

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Thursday, November 24, 2022

Sonoma Series: Russian River & Green Valley

The Russian River, in northern Sonoma County, is a natural force that brings life to the people, grapes and wineries along it's 115 mile run to the Pacific Ocean. When full and flowing, the river provides water for thirsty vineyards, as well as a place of recreation for locals and tourists.

Russian River Vineyards

Overflowing and raging along its course, the river can do serious damage to vineyards.  One year, heavy rains swelled the river beyond its banks, flooding the vineyards near Korbel on River Road.  Vine roots standing in water for a few days don't worry a vineyard manager as much as the fallen trees that wash down from nearby slopes into the vineyard.  Powerful currents send the logs crashing into vineyard posts and trellises, causing considerable damage. 

Vineyards along the Russian River sport Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, arguably California's best expression of these Burgundian varieties, or at least of Pinot Noir.  In 1973, Joseph Swan made his first Pinot Noir from Russian River grapes, setting the benchmark for the highly regarded Russian River style of Pinot Noir that followed. 

Russian River Valley (AVA 1983)

Cool and often foggy best describes the climatic growing conditions along that section of geography where the Russian River and the Russian River Valley are one and the same. After flowing past Healdsburg, the river moves to the south, then heads west, before emptying into the ocean. 

Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were first planted in the 1970s, and within 10 years became the two varieties that most identified the appellation.  Zinfandel also caught on but mostly at higher elevations such as in Martinelli's Jackass Vineyard. For years, the Russian River had more vineyards than wineries. 

But, by the turn of the century, Russian River Pinot Noir emerged to become the best known from California, from wineries such as Gary Farrell, Williams & Selyem, Merry Edwards, Kosta Browne and Rochioli, to name just a few.  

Either by design or by accident, the Russian River wine appellation became the Burgundy zone of California, countering Napa's reputation for Bordeaux-style wines and the dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon.  Being like Burgundy wasn't intentional, the comparison was just natural to the Old World standard for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. 

Russian River Pinots were darker, richer and more concentrated, while Burgundy was often lighter in color and showed more boiled beets and spice.  Ripe black cherries, the ones my mother used to call Ox Heart, best described a Russian River Pinot Noir.  As for oak, Burgundy always seemed to be more integrated with the fruit, while new French oak usually seemed to stand out more in a Russian River Pinot, or at least until the wine had time to knit together.

Green Valley of Russian River Valley (AVA 1983)

Sitting almost at the center of a triangular patch of land, bordered by the towns of Sebastopol, Forestville and Occidental, Green Valley is the coolest vineyard site in the Russian River Valley. 

The sub-region was initially the Sonoma County-Green Valley AVA but later changed its name to Green Valley of Russian River Valley, still a cumbersome name that doesn't help consumers understand and remember the appellation.

Green Valley's reputation as a wine region got its first boost from the Sterling family, among the first to promote Green Valley as a prime site for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with a line of Iron Horse sparkling wines, that would go on to earn an international reputation. 

Thanks to cool daytime temps and morning fog, Green Valley grapes develop crisp acidity and good structure. Green Valley is one of few sites in California where the climate is similar to Champagne.


Green Valley grapes are mostly sold to wineries outside the AVA, but in recent years the sub region has attracted a growing list of wineries, devoted to making still wines, including Iron Horse, Dutton-Goldfield, Marimar Estate, Littorai, Hartford Family Winery and Orogeny. 

A number of places in the Golden State have laid claim to top Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but the sparkling and still expressions of the two varieties from the Russian River Valley and Green Valley are at the top of the list. 

Next blog: A Most Extraordinary Tasting

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Friday, November 18, 2022


What Italian wine is produced in the millions of bottles annually and is made in the largest DOC in the country?  If you said Pinot Grigio, you're not even close. 

Prosecco, the wildly popular sparkling wine from northeastern Italy, comes from an area that extends from Vicenza to Trieste, a vast region that qualifies it as Italy's largest wine region by far.  

No other Italian wine, since Chianti, has captured the public's interest like Prosecco.  And its popularity continues to climb.

Making Prosecco

Prosecco is a blend of grapes, with Glera, a synonym for Prosecco (the grape not the wine) at least 85% of the blend.  The remaining percentage is other local varieties and international grapes like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio.

Glera cluster

Choosing the name Glera is an example of government bureaucracy that seems to be unique to the Europeans, and especially the Italians who are fond of a special brand of laissez faire government. 

Once known as "the Prosecco grape," the name was changed in 2009 to Glera.  Why?  European appellation rules state that a grape name cannot be an appellation name and Italian law says it cannot become a DOC for the same reason. Prosecco producers needed the name change to obtain expanded status of the area and thus qualify for a DOC. 

An aside:  The system of Italian wine laws, established in 1963, is known as DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata,) popularly called "Doc."  The DOC system is in line with EU regulations and the AOC (Appellation d'Origine Controlee) system of France.  DOCG (Garantia) is for Italy's highest quality wines.  Portugal also uses DOC (Denominacao de Origem Controlada) for their system of wine laws. 

Prosecco Background 

Prosecco is named for a village in Friuli and the wine is made in the regions of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia and Veneto.  Sparkling wine, in one form or another, has been made in the DOC area for more than 400 years. 

The Prosecco classic zone includes smaller areas of higher quality that qualify for DOCG status. These include the areas around the hillside villages of Coneglione and Valdobbiadene. Smaller yet is an appellation near the town of Aslo, producing Prosecco Also Superiore DOCG.

Grapes grown on the hillsides are riper, qualifying for the higher DOCG status. The downside, according to some, is because of the steep slopes, mechanical harvesting is not possible.  The upside, however, is hand-picked grapes are usually healthier and advocates of hand picking say,  make better wine.                                                                    

Champagne, the bubbly generally thought to be the ne plus ultra of sparkling wine, is made by the meticulous traditional or classic method of developing the bubbles in the bottle. Prosecco, is made by a tank method (autoclave in Italian), where bubbles are developed in a closed sealed tank.

Prosecco Style 

The Glera grape makes a wine with medium golden color and a sweet fruity aroma of peach, apple and honeysuckle.  Blending Glera with other varieties, namely Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, tempers the fruity aspects of Glera. Inexpensive Prosecco, made from high-yield grapes, tend to be more neutral requiring a dosage of sweet reserved juice. 

The most common Prosecco is Extra-Dry, 1.2% to 1.7% residual sugar. A drier Brut style (up to1.2% RS) is gaining in popularity. Also there is a sweet Demi-Sec with sweetness up top 5%.  Prosecco is bottled as Spumante (sparkling) or Frizzante (semi-sparkling).   

If you're thinking of adding a sparkling wine to your holiday wine list, pop a cork on a bottle of Prosecco.    



Next entry: Sonoma Series: Russian River Valley & Green Valley

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Thursday, November 10, 2022

Single Malt & Wine


"Man doth not live by bread only," is an old Biblical saying that aims to teach us that life is about variety. With a little imagination, the same adage might be applied to the variety of drink. 

An article I read recently in the New York Times about Great Britain's fiscal problems battered by the effects of Brexit, the war in Ukraine, an unexpected round of Prime Minister musical chairs, and tanking of the British pound, left me dazed. But amid the turmoil, there was something positive: soaring sales of Scotland's whisky. 

The mixed news from across the pond was, for wine fans, an opportunity to savor the essence of the grain while favoring the substance of the grape.

Wine is enjoyable and nourishing to life, but life would be dull and monotonous if wine were the only drink we had to enjoy.  So at one point in the history of wine, someone decided to add to the enjoyment by distilling wine, making brandy, Cognac, Armagnac, Port and Madeira. 

In Scotland, a northern clime where wine grapes don't grow, man turned to locally grown grains, distilling a clear eau de vie, to fend off the chilly weather, and then later perfected a distillate of malted barley mellowed by time in oak into single malt whisky. 

The Whisky Style

Scotch whisky, such as Dewars and Chivas Regal, is a blend of grain spirits and various styles of single malts: a Highland Bowmore, Lowland Auchentoshian and a peaty island malt like Laphroaig from Islay. 

Pot still and swan neck

A single malt whisky is the product of a single distillation in what is known as a pot still, a copper vessel shaped not unlike a Hershey's chocolate Kiss. The pot still is topped by a long graceful arching pipe known as the swan's neck. Pot stills require recharging after each distillation.

Grain spirits are distilled in a continuous still. The continuous process allows a steady distillation without having to recharge.  Continuous, or Coffey, stills are normally used for bulk spirits.

Pot stills are loaded with a fermented liquid, consisting mainly of malted barley, the term meaning the germination of barley either by mechanical means or manually on a malting floor, a labor intensive process that unfortunately is disappearing.

Once through the still, a high-proof clear liquid is then racked into oak barrels for aging, the length determined by the style of whisky and the evaluation of the master distiller. Traditional single malts are aged in previously used Bourbon casks. A recent innovation has the initial aging in ex-Bourbon barrels with a finishing touch in Bordeaux, Port, Sauternes wood, to name a few.

Single malts fit neatly into three general categories: Highland, the category with the most distilleries and individual styles, such as Speyside and North Highlands; Lowland malts, mainly from the south, are generally considered the lightest; Island malts, a far-reaching category that includes the peaty single malts of Islay and the more subtle but distinctive malts from the northern islands of Orkney and Skye. 

Wine is made by a similar sequence: raw material (grapes) crushed for juice that is then fermented and aged in oak barrels.  The oak comes from forests in France, Slovenia, Russia, Italy, United States and other places. The choice of oak is limited only by the available sources and winemaker preference.   

Whereas wine continues to age in glass, once a single malt whisky is racked from wood to glass, the aging process mostly stops.  The component parts of whisky do, however, blend together in small subtle ways.

 The Whisky Market

In recent years, single malt whisky has gone from a simple distillate of malted barley, aged in oak barrels, to a complex spirit of varying ages, seasoned in barrels that previously held a variety of wines, including red Bordeaux, sweet Sauternes, aged Port and more.  This variety is one of the reasons, whisky exports has grown in the least 12 months by 10.5% over the same period the year before. 

Higher demand in world export markets, including the United States, has spurred a building boom in Scotland with the opening of 20 new distilleries in the past six years, according to the Times article. This surge has brought the total number of distilleries to 141, astonishing growth when I think of the few new distilleries (actually re-opened) in Scotland when I was last there 20 years ago.

Although the Times article didn't mention it, my sense is that a lot of the recent  growth comes from wine drinkers looking for a complimentary drink to wine that has the same variety of styles and flavors.  


If you want to try a single malt, and still enjoy your wine, lift a wee dram of one of these wood-finished (mostly ex-Sherry barrels) single malts:

Highland -- Glenmorangie 18-Year-Old Northern Highland (Sherry), Bowmore 12-Year-Old (Sherry), The Macallan 12-Year-Old (Sherry), The Balvenie (Sherry).

Lowland -- Clydeside Distillery (Bourbon & Oloroso Sherry), Auchentoshan 12 or18-Year-Old (Bourbon),  Rosebank 8-Year-Old (Sherry). 

Island -- Laphroaig 15-Year-Old Islay (Sherry), Ardbeg 10-Year-Old Islay (Sherry), Highland Park 12-Year-Old Orkney/Highlands (Sherry).

Curious readers may have noticed the spelling of the word "whisky."  The convention: Whisky is used for Scottish, Canadian and Japanese grain spirits, while spirits distilled in Ireland and the United States are called Whiskey.

Next entry: The Prosecco Phenomenon

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Thursday, November 3, 2022

Sonoma Series: Dry Creek Valley & Rockpile

In 1983, Dry Creek Valley got its AVA.  It's about time, said some valley winery owners.  After all, Dry Creek Valley has been the go-to spot in Sonoma County for Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel for many years before the 1980s. And Dry Creek old-vine Zinfandel didn't need an American Viticultural Area (AVA) to justify its greatness. 

By the early 2000s, the center for Zinfandel in the Dry Creek Valley had moved up the hill to a spot called Rockpile. The aptly named area is above the morning fog that sometimes creeps into Dry Creek Valley, allowing vineyards in Rockpile to enjoy maximum sun warmth.  

What follows is a capsule look at the Dry Creek Valley AVA followed by the Rockpile AVA and the most significant wines from each area. 


Dry Creek Valley (AVA 1983) 

Dry Creek Valley is slightly north and west of Healdsburg and today has 40 wineries lining Dry Creek Road, which runs from close to H-101 to the Warm Springs Dam that holds back Lake Sonoma.  Normally, full of water, the reservoir is now only about 60% full, the victim of two years of devastating drought. 

Most of the wineries along Dry Creek Road and Westside Road opened their doors starting in the early years of the 1970s. David Stare, founded Dry Creek Vineyard in 1972, the first new winery since the Repeal of Prohibition.  DCV's Sauvignon Blanc and old-vine Zinfandel, set the standard for more wineries to follow. 

More recently, New Zealand native Nick Goldschmidt has been making a line of wines from Dry Creek Valley grapes.  The Goldschmidt Vineyard range of wines is extensive, including from Napa and Sonoma, Argentina and New Zealand. 

Recently tasted were Chelsea 2019 Salmon's Leap Dry Creek Valley Merlot: medium berry nose with notes of vanilla and cedar over spicy oak; medium berry flavors, good acidity, integrated smooth tannins.  A serviceable Merlot at $25. 

Gracepoint 2019 Dry Creek Valley Carignane: deep ruby color, slightly closed in nose, alcohol (15.7% alc.) tingle in the nose, bright mouth-filling cherry-cola flavors, French oak, slight alcohol sensation in back of throat, tactile with good length. This Carignane (U.S. spelling of Carignan), $60, is a taste experience oddity demanding food that will stand up to its big fruit and alcohol.  It reminds me of an early style of Late Harvest California Zinfandel. Get pumped up before carrying this wine home from the store; you'll need the arm strength as this Carignane comes in the dreaded big heavy glass bottle.

A culture of grape growing and wine making have been part of Dry Creek Valley since the 1800s.  Prohibition put a serious dent in the valley's wine making, with the growers pulling out vines to plant wheat and walnuts.  Italian families, like Pedroncelli, that had been in the valley since before Prohibition, survived the lunacy of Prohibition by selling their grapes to home winemakers and making sacramental wine.

Today, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon vie for most planted.  The evolution of Zin style has been up and down. At one time, the Zins were big and alcoholic (reaching above 16%), tasting more like berry jam than wine. Fortunately that style has receded into memory and the wines are better balanced, especially from old vines, more interesting and nuanced and above all, showing lower alcohols. 

Six Dry Creek Valley Zinfandels of note: Ridge Lyttton Springs, Nalle Vineyards, Ravenswood Winery, Dashe Cellars, Dry Creek Vineyard, Pedroncelli Winery.

Rockpile (AVA 2002) 

Northwest of Dry Creek Valley and above Lake Sonoma is Rockpile, a hilly area that specializes in Zinfandel.  The first vines were planted in 1992, so there are no old vines, a marker for intense California Zinfandel.  But Rockpile Zins are plenty big and intense on their own. 

While Zinfandel is the banner grape of Rockpile, the region is also known for Syrah, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Touriga Nacional, a Portuguese grape used in the production of Port wine. 

Like many areas in Northern California, the wine history of Rockpile is divided into two eras of grape growing. In 1884, a Swedish immigrant first planted grapes in the area that would eventually become Rockpile. However, the wines were only available in Sweden, so hard times and transportation time and costs, put a stop to the venture.  

Mauritson Independence-Rockpile vineyard

Today, the Mauritsons, descendants of the enterprising Swede, have taken up the challenge of grape growing on Rockpile. Mauritison, the largest producer of Rockpile wines, has 10 different Rockpile vineyards and produces seven Rockpile Zinfandels, a Malbec and a Cabernet Sauvignon, two red blends and a Rockpile Port.

Although there are no wineries on Rockpile, such noted Zin producers as Seghesio Family Vineyards, Mauritson Family Wines, Jeff Cohn Cellars, Rosenblum Cellars and Carol Shelton Wines purchase Rockpile Zinfandel grapes. Carol Shelton's Rockpile Reserve Zinfandel from the Florence Vineyard is bursting with berry flavors, substantial but soft and integrated tannins and good length. 

What's next?  Single Malt Whisky and Wine 

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Thursday, October 27, 2022

Lake County


Heading north out of Calistoga, along a narrow twisting road that dips across low hills, then dropping down to Middletown, you arrive in Lake County, the smallest wine region in California's North Coast.  

Prohibition dealt a devastating blow to the small wine industry in Lake County. Recovery started back in the 1970s and today 24 wineries are gathered around Clear Lake. Grape growers have carefully selected sites, based on terroir, that are ideal for growing wine grapes. 

The result of this selection are eight Lake County AVAs: Red Hills Lake County, High Valley, Big Valley District, Kelsey Bench, Benmore Valley, Upper Lake Valley, Guenoc Valley and Clear Lake.  All Lake County AVAs are under the broad North Coast AVA. 

An Aside:  One of the major differences between American Viticultural Areas (AVA) and French Appellation Origine Controlee (AOC) is an AOC designated area may plant and use only prescribed varieties, such as Pinot Noir in Burgundy. American wineries have no such restriction and thus may plant and make wine from any grape they think will thrive in their area.  Consider the range of grapes grown in Lake County.  

Such viticultural freedom is not valued by all French winemakers. Some believe it is better to concentrate your talents on perfecting one wine (Pinot Noir in Burgundy) then trying to make a line of wines.  American winemakers who make a excellent variety of white and red wines obviously don't agree.

Lake County is a hidden treasure, like Anderson Valley in neighboring Mendocino County.  Hidden is a fanciful way to describe Lake County, as it actually isn't hidden, but more like off the beaten path and for some people that live in Lake County, that's just the way they like it.

The feeling in Lake is that Napa Valley is too touristy, Sonoma, although more spread out, is still too busy for some.  Lake County, especially around Clear Lake where most of the wine action takes place, is laid back. Lake County winemakers are just as serious about growing grapes and making wine, but at a slower, more thoughtful pace.

Most of the major vineyards in Lake County are within the shadow of Mt. Konocti, a dormant volcano and the source of the distinctive rocky red soil that supplies the nutrients for Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Petite Sirah, Mourvedre and Cabernet Sauvignon.  The other major influence is the tempering effect of Clear Lake, the largest fresh water lake entirely within California.

Nearly every winery in Lake County makes Cabernet Sauvignon, but a lot of the winemaking energy and excitement is going into so-called alternative red wines like Tempranillo and Mourvedre, the latter known sometimes by old-timers as Mataro.

Here's a look at the four most important Lake County AVAs and what wines they have to offer:

Red Hills Lake County AVA (2004) could be the sub-appellation of Lake County with the most promise. It has the soil and southwestern position along Clear Lake.  Cabernet Sauvignon and other red varieties are favored by the growing number of wineries in the Red Hills appellation. 

Red Hills vineyard cloaked in autumn color

Clear Lake AVA (1984) is one of the coolest wine regions in California, cooler even than Carneros and Santa Barbara. Half of the appellation is the lake itself,  a major influence on surrounding grape growing.  Sauvignon Blanc is the major variety. 

Big Valley AVA (2013) has a long viticultural history going back to the 19th century.  Today, there are dozens of vineyards and six wineries in Big Valley, with Sauvignon Blanc the major grape. 

High Valley AVA (2005) has vineyards at 1,600 to 3,000 feet planted in red volcanic soils. Cabernet Sauvignon is the major variety. 

Clear Lake not only benefits vineyards, but it supports a thriving water sports industry, attracting players from Napa and as far away as the Bay Area.  Visiting a wine tasting room is a nice diversion after a day on the water, but if you can't get to Clear Lake, ask your local wine merchant for the refreshing wines of Lake County. 

Next blog: Sonoma Series: Dry Creek Valley & Rockpile

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Thursday, October 20, 2022

The Scent of Cash Flow

Next month an annual wine event, anticipated by some and ignored by others, will take place.  On the third Thursday of November, Beaujolais wineries will release their new wine into Paris bistros and major world markets. 

                                        Beaujolais nouveau Stock Photo

For most Frenchmen and the many wine drinkers around the world anticipating the grapy goodness of Beaujolais Nouveau, November 17 can't come soon enough. But there are those who take a dim view of the Beaujolais Nouveau promotion, reflected in this snarky comment I once heard from a Frenchman: "the scent of cash flow."

Over the years, Nouveau (new) has had its ups and downs.  The popularity Nouveau enjoyed throughout the '80s, waned in the '90s, but has finally stabilized. Today, whether or not you're a fan of Beaujolais Nouveau, it is here to stay.

Americans finding a place for Beaujolais Nouveau or Beaujolais-Villages on the Thanksgiving menu has helped. Beaujolais Nouveau is one of the few wines that can stand up to the array of flavors and textures commonly found on an American Thanksgiving table.  But more on that match later.

The Beaujolais Difference 

The region of Beaujolais is in east-central France, south of the Maconnais region of Burgundy. Administratively, Beaujolais is considered part of Burgundy, but the two regions are quite different in terms of climate and soil types, not to mention grapes.

Beaujolais is a red wine made from the Gamay Noir a Jus Blanc grape, commonly referred to as Gamay.  At one time, Gamay was permitted in Burgundy, often drawing comparisons to Pinot Noir, the red grape of Burgundy. A minuscule amount of Beaujolais Blanc, made from Chardonnay, tastes similar to Macon.

                                                   Signboard with Mont Brouilly in Beaujolais, France Signboard with Mont Brouilly in Beaujolais, France gamay grape stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

Beaujolais-Villages is narrowed further with ten wines known as Beaujolais Crus. In the French system of classifying wines, sites such as villages and specific vineyards, are recognized as being the best of the breed.  For Beaujolais, the best are these Beaujolais cru (vineyard) wines: Moulin-a-Vent, Brouilly, Cote de Brouilly, St- Amour, Chiroubles, Chenas, Julienas, Morgon, Fleurie and Regnie. In 1988, Regnie became the most recently added Beaujolais Cru.  

Today, mature Beaujolais Grand Cru (Gamay), like Moulin-a-Vent, is sometimes favorably compared to a Volnay or Pommard (Pinot Noir) from the Cote de Beaune. A step up are Beaujolais-Villages and Beaujolais-Villages Blanc. The red wine is roughly between Nouveau and the cru wines, in quality and price.

Credit Carbonic Maceration

The very essence of Beaujolais, and in particular Beaujolais Nouveau, is the result of a wine making technique known as carbonic maceration.  Whole clusters of grapes are placed in a tank, carefully so as not to break the skins of any of the grapes, in an oxygen-free atmosphere, usually by using carbon dioxide.  

The use of carbonic maceration allows each berry to become a mini-fermenter.  However, achieving 100% CM is impossible since the grapes at the bottom of the tank are crushed by the weight of the grape clusters at the top of the mass, starting a natural fermentation.

Nearly all Nouveau is made by carbonic maceration, but CM is not used in the production of Beaujolais cru wines.  Carbonic maceration is also not generally used for white grapes.

Expect to pay about $15 or less for Beajolais Nouveau and $14 to $18 for a cru wine.  Here is a half-dozen Beaujolais producers to watch: Domaine Jean-Michel Dupre, Domaine Laurent Gauthier, Chateau de Julienas, Yvon Metras, Antoine Sunier and Georges Duboeuf.

Beaujolais and Food

For Americans, the time to break out a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau or Beaujolais-Villages, is at Thanksgiving or Christmas.  A traditional holiday meal usually consists of turkey and a variety of side dishes with a range of flavors and textures. Some people forgo the bird in favor of baked ham or prime rib.


The choice of meat is easy to match with a wine, but problems arise when choosing a wine that won't battle with cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole and seasoned dressing (stuffing?) to name but a few side dishes. 

And my last piece of advice for holiday wine and food pairing is to save that special bottle for an occasion when the food is more likely to merit it.  

Enjoy the day and the meal and make it easy on yourself by opting for Beaujolais Nouveau. The up-front fruity flavors, soft tannins and moderate acidity go nicely with the cornucopia of flavors of a holiday meal.  

Next blog: Lake County: A Hidden Treasure

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