Thursday, June 30, 2022

Provence Roses

lavender meets sunflowers south of france - provence lavender stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images
Sunflowers and lavender

Could it be that the combination of Provence olive oil, garlic and rose wine is what encouraged someone to think up the phrase,"a pair made in Heaven?"  

Maybe. But there are many other French regions with local foods that taste best with local wines, such as red Burgundy with game birds or Sauternes with Roquefort cheese. 

Provence is a region in southeast France, sprawling along the Mediterranean Sea, close to the Italian frontier. In this warm sunny climate, light meals, based on seafood and fresh produce, are a given.

Chic tourists admit that there is something magical about seaside towns like St-Tropez and the countryside with its vast fields of blue-purple lavender.  

Serious wine lovers, who also may be wine tourists, find magic in the vinous treasures of Cote de Provence and the more inland smaller region of Coteaux d'Aix en Provence. There is something about the simple Provence cuisine, of these two places, that goes perfectly with dry, fruity pink wines.

Provence Grapes 

For years, Carignan (Carignane) was the backbone of the industry, but the new generation of winemakers favor Grenache, Cinsaut, Syrah and Mourvedre, for pink and red wine.  Many wine drinkers think Provence roses mean light orange-pink color, fragrant aroma and refreshing fruit of Grenache. 

Winemakers are an observant lot and they see what's working and selling in the all-important international market.  Provence wineries, especially those with coastal vineyards know that growing conditions on Corsica are very similar and that the Vermentino grapes does well there, so why not Provence?  Today, Vermentino, Semillon and the humble Ugni Blanc are responsible for Provence whites. 

Provence Winemaking

The essence of pink wines is freshness, achieved by cold fermentation and no contact with wood.  Traditionally, A common way to achieve freshness is to ferment in stainless steel tanks with a refrigerant jacket.  The process is slow and the cold temperatures maintain fruit freshness and varietal character. 

Alternatively, a red winemaking technique known as saignee (French for "bled") produces a rose wine by "bleeding" a small amount of free-run juice from a red variety such as Syrah.  Saignee is used almost exclusively with red grapes. 

Provence Wines   

Nearly all of the production in Cote de Provence and Coteaux d'Aix en Provence is devoted to making pink wine, usually from Grenache and Cinsaut, an ideal match with local fish and shellfish, seasoned with garlic and fresh herbs and sauteed in olive oil.  Here's what to look for from these two varieties:

                                   Rose Wine on Wood Table Wine glass and bottle with a picnic basket. In the foreground a plate of strawberries and raspberries. provence rose wine stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

Grenache is known in Spain as Garnacha and it is likely that Spain is the grape's original home.  The distinguishing feature of Grenache rose is strawberries, sometimes with a hint of ginger and honey.  I especially GGrenache rose with vegetarian dishes.

Cinsaut is rarely bottled as a varietal, as most of it is used in blends. More cherry fruit than strawberries, Cinsaut goes with Grenache, giving the blend perfume and a pleasing suppleness.

About 15% of the Provence production is now in red wine, mostly from Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre.  These popular red grapes are grown along the French Riviera, from Provence in the east to Roussillon in the west and the border with Spain.  

With summer finally here, stores will be stocked with light, fresh and fruity Provence roses, much of it made by large cooperatives, priced from $14 to $22. 

Here are a half dozen names to look for: Domaine la Colombe, Peyrassol, Les Maitres Vignerons, Chateau les Mesclances, Chateau Miraval, Commanderie de la Bargemone.  Factoid: Ch. Miraval is where Pink Floyd recorded "The Wall" in 1979.

Next blog: Spanish Light Reds

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Thursday, June 23, 2022

Australia Series: South Australia

The series "My Life in Wine," ended with Episode 30, on May 27, 2022.  MLIW was a brief glimpse at the years I spent writing about wine, roughly from the late 1960s to the early 2000s, not including this on going blog.

Starting with this survey of South Australia, I'll post a series of profiles every three weeks.  The remainder of the Australia Series will include the wine regions of Victoria, New South Wales, Western Australia and others. In the future, look for series on Germany, Chile, France, and other countries. 

"May all your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view...where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams awaits you." -- Edward Abbey, American author and environmental activist

South Australia 

I would like to think that Abbey was musing of Australia when he wrote those words about traveling and discovering new vistas and experiences.  Australia is all those things - crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, strange, beautiful and full of wonder. 

Australia is one nation within a continent, composed of the mainland and Tasmania, about the size of the lower 48 U.S. states.  Australia's more temperate coastal areas are where most of the people live and wine grapes grow.  The interior is mostly a barren desert. 

There are six states, two territories (Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory).  Western Australia is the largest state and Tasmania the smallest. Except for Northern Territory, all states and the ACT produce wine.

Road trip through the Gum Trees Gum Trees (Eucalyptus) line both sides of this road in the Barossa Valley. Barossa Valley stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images
The gum tree lined road to South Australia

     South Australia (SA) is the third largest state, located in the central part of the southern coastline, roughly where Texas is located in the United States. SA is sparsely populated with a Mediterranean climate, ideal for wheat and wine. 

Main Grapes/Wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling, Semillon, Shiraz

Main Sub-Regions: Adelaide Hills, Barossa Valley, Claire Valley, Coonawarra, Eden Valley, McLaren Vale, Padthaway, Wrattonbully.  All are gathered in the far south of SA, drawing marine infuence from the Southern Ocean. 

Barossa Valley, often called the "Napa Valley of Australia," is the premier wine region of SA and perhaps of all Australia, noted for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz (Syrah).   The name is pronounced (Ba-ross-ah)...Wineries: Penfolds, St. Hallett, Grant Burge, Rockford, Peter Lehmann, Hill-Smith Estate.

McLaren Vale, located south of Adelaide, may be considered the second most important wine area, although the same argument can be made for Claire and Coonawarra...Wineries: d'Arenberg, Hardy's Chateau Reynella, Geoff Merrill, Wirra Wirra, Andrew Garrett.

Claire Valley, a gently rolling enclave near Adelaide, produces noteworthy Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Steely Claire Riesling is dry, crisp and fresh, with traces of tropical fruit. The Cabernets are full-bodied and dense with concentrated flavors...Wineries: Jim Barry, Jeff Grosset, Knappstein Wines, Leasingham.

Coonawarra is, arguably, Australia's great red wine region.  The famed terra rossa soils of the region, give Cabernet Sauvignion and Shiraz their depth,  concentrated berry flavors and firm tannins...Wineries: Wynns, Penley Estate, Katnook and Rouge Homme.

Adelaide Hills sub-region, as the name implies, is close to Adelaide, the capital and largest city in South Australia. White wine, mainly Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are stand outs.  Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir is on a par with Pinots of Victoria and Tasmania...Wineries: Petaluma, Smith and Shaw, Lenswood, Geoff Weaver.

Padthaway, like Coonawarra, is large vineyard region, on the Limestone Coast, south of Adelaide.  Gentle slopes are planted mainly to Chardonnay, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Wineries: Lindemans, Hardy's, Orlando.

Eden Valley is known for its excellent Riesling, but this hilly country also is reknowned for Henschke's Hill of Grace  and Mount Edelstone Shiraz. Parts of Eden Valley are cooler than the Barossa.  Wineries: Henschke, Pewsey Vale Heggies, Hill-Smith Estate.

Wrattonbully, located north of Coonawarra, is one of the newer wine areas in SA.  Drawing its strength from limestone-based soil, Wrattonbully is good red wine country.  Wineries: Hollick, Pepper Tree, Yalumba, Terre a Terre. 

South Australia hits the mark for Australian wine, in variety and quality, with big hitters like Barossa Shiraz, Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon and Eden Valley and Clare Riesling.  Try one or all today.

Next blog: Provence Roses

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Thursday, June 16, 2022

A Collection of Italian Whites

At one time, the history of Italian wine making recorded white wine as being far different than it is today.  The wines of antiquity, written about in the 1st century BC by Pliny the Elder, were so dark from oxidation that they resembled red wine more than white. 

In Natural History, Pliny described Opimian, a popular white wine of the time, as "reduced to a kind of bitter honey but still recognizably wine."   Opimian was not the only early Italian white wine.  Falernian and Surrentinum were also popular, although the Emperor Tiberius said the latter was merely "high quality vinegar."

Major changes in the Italian appetite for white wine developed over the centuries.  Even so, interest in red wine began to dominate, spurred on by the popularity of grapes like Sangiovese, Barbera and Primitivo and the international interest in Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir.

A major change took place in 1861 with the unification of Italy.  Vineyard planting took off as the economy boomed and white wines mounted a comeback. Today, there is hardly a corner of Italy where you won't find at least one white wine. 

There are about 1,000 grapevines recorded in Italy, with maybe half spread out in the 20 regions, from Lombardy to Calabria, plus Sicily and Sardinia.  What follows, then, is a list, in alphabetical order, of 12 white grapes that have been responsible for elevating Italian white wines to where they are today in the international market.  

Fully ripe Cortese grapes

Cortese is a popular white grape grown in southeast Piedmont, known mostly for  Gavi (or Cortese de Gavi).  Aromatic with bright acidity and a hint of mineral, Cortese is a white standout in a region known mainly for red wines.

Falanghina is common in the area around Naples. This aromatic white grape is  featured in the wine of Campania.  Best on its own, without oak, Falanghina is a fragrant white that may have been the base for Falerian, perhaps the best known wine of the Roman era.

Garganega is included on this list because of it's important role in Soave.  Planted widely in Veneto, Garganega may make up to 100% in Soave and does best in the Classico zone where it ripens to show lemon and almond flavors.  Garganega is also grown in Friuli. Umbria and Australia.

Greco: There are at least four varieties grown in Italy called Greco, with the best known one called Greco di Tufo, for the town of Tufo in Campania, which in turn gets its name from tufa, the volanic soil of the area.  Greco owes its heritage to the Greeks and the culture they spread throughout southern Italy.  Greco di Tufo is a potent full-bodied white, however the Greco grape is not the same as Greco Bianco, native to Calabria.

Grechetto, along with Trebbiano Toscano and Verdello, makes up the Umbrian white wine classic Orvieto and is used in the wines of Torgiano. Todi, an Umbrian hillside town, near the touristy Assisi, gives its name to Grechetto di Todi, another name for the ancient Pignoletto grape, widely grown in Umbria.

Aside:  Having trouble keeping up with Italian grape names?  Here's more confusion.  Besides Pignoletto, there are at least three other varieties that start with "pig": Pignatello, a red Sicilian grape; Pignola Valtellinese, a red Grape from Valtellina that may be related to Nebbiolo; Pignolo, a red variety from Friuli. 

Grillo is an important variety in Sicily and was once valued as a base wine for Marsala, the island's noted fortified wine.  Today, Grillo is popular as a stylized full-bodied dry white wine.

Malvasia, the name, has various variations.  Malvasia is used to identify at least 20 different grapes, grown through the length and breadth of Italy. For that reason, I have included Malvasia in my list of important Italian white grapes and the associated wines. 

The Italian dessert wine, Malvasia delle Lipari, is named for an island off the north coast of Sicily.  Malvasia is also used in Orvieto, blended with Trebbiano.  And Madeira Malmsey, one of the world's distinguished dessert wines, is derived from Malvasia.  Originally, Malmsey was made from Malvasia, but today the name just identifies a style.

Moscato Bianco is the Italian name for Muscat, of which, like Malvasia, there are many subvarieties, cultivated throughout Italy.  The best known is Moscato di Canelli, the grape of Asti Spumante sparkling wine, produced in Piedmont.  Another noted Moscato is Moscato di Pantelleria, a small island between Sicily and Tunesia.

Pinot Grigio probably owes its popularity to name recognition more than wine quality.  In the early part of the 21st century, the worldwide wine buying public decided to adopt the name Pinot Grigio over Pinot Gris, the grape's French name.  Made today mostly in Veneto, Pinot Grigio is mainly a neutral white wine.  Of more interest is Oregon Pinot Gris.

Riesling is a grape of different names in northern Italy.  In Alto Adige it is called Riesling while in Friuli the name changes to Riesling Renano.  Italian Riesling has a delicacy and fruitiness not seen in other Italian white wines. Riesling Italico, a grape often confused with Riesling Renano, is not the true Riesling of Germany, but nevertheless produces crisp aromatic wines.

White wine, Vitis, vinifera, Trebbiano Toscano, White wine, Vitis, vinifera, Trebbiano Toscano, trebbiano grape stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images
Trebbiano cluster

Trebbiano holds the title for being one of the most widely planted white wine grapes in Italy. There are at least six different Trebbiano grapes and dozens of other grapes that incorporate Trebbiano as part of the name, such as Trebbiano di Soave.  However, Trebbiano Toscano is the best known and most widely planted throughout Italy, with the exception of the colder north.   Trebbiano Toscano is so popular that it is a part of Soave, Orvieto, Verdicchio and Frascati among other wines.  Trebbiano is known as Ugni Blanc in France.

Vermentino, the name rolls off the tongue...vair-men-tee-no! Fresh, crisp and fruity, Vermentino produces the DOC Cinqueterre wine of Liguria, as well as the pale and crisp Sardinian white.  A little Vermentino is grown in other Mediterranean locations such as Corsica and Malta.

It is estimated that Italy has about 2 million acres of wine grapes, with many hundreds of indigenous varieties, up and down the length of the country, and the islands. Take your pick, but make your next white wine and Italian white.

Next blog: Australia Series: South Australia 

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Thursday, June 9, 2022

Little Wine Tales

Wine has been associated with human evolution for centuries. So, it figures that there are numerous tales, big and small, true and not, connected with the wines enjoyed by the people who made them. 

Historical records show that nobles and clergy, tradesmen and travelers all have a story to tell about their individual adventures with wine. What follows are a few of these tales that stretch reality a tad while retaining a small element of truth. 

Why most of the tales are about Italian wines is beyond my knowing.  Perhaps it's because the rich history of Italy -- Greeks, Etruscans, Romans -- left an indelible mark on this wine saturated country.   

Est! Est!! Est!!! --  This fanciful tale tells how a certain Italian white wine supposedly got its name.  In the 12th century, a German bishop and his entourage were traveling to Rome and his eminence required his servant to go ahead to find the village with the best wine. Mark "Est!" (Latin for "it is") on the door of every tavern where you find the wine to be especially good, directed the bishop. When the servant got to Montefiascone, he wrote "Est! Est!! Est!!!" on all the tavern doors.  The bishop agreed that the wine was excellent and decided to stay in Montefiascone. Est! Est!! Est!!! is still made today from Trebbiano and Malvasia.

"Those Bette Davis eyes are saying, no white wine for me!"

Bette Disagrees -- Bette Davis, opinionated American film actress, probably never sipped Est! Est!! Est!!!, but she regrettably shared a white wine with someone and then breathlessly offered this advice: "Never, never trust anyone who ask for white wine.  It means they're phonies."

Vines of Antiquity -- Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon may be popular today but in the 1st Century AD, the wines fashionable Romans enjoyed, were likely a trio of whites: Falernian, Caecuban and Massic.  A curious wine note from the past claims that Falernian was so "strong" that it could be set alight! The contempory version of Falernian is made from Falanghina.  Caecuban was described by Pliny the Elder as "sinewy" and "packing a punch."  And while Massic was well known in the Roman era, little is known today about the wine. 

Castelli Romani -- Like so many things revolving around Italian wine, the vino of Lazio (Latium in English) requires some explanation, so bear with me.  Lazio is a large central Italy region, home to the capital city of Rome.  Lazio is also the site of a group of wines, known as Castelli Romani, of which Frascati is the best known.  

Frascati  takes its name from a town east of Rome and gets its subtle Muscat note from a traditional blend of Muscat of Alexandria and Schiava, known in Lazio as Malvasia del Lazio.  Since the 1960s, up to 30% Trebbiano has been allowed in the blend.  

The female cochineal

Waiter, there's an insect in my wine! -- Female cochineal insects feed on cactus and are valued for their deep red color, used as dye.  The bodies are liquefied to yield a food grade dye, used in food production and, it is rumored, to have been used at one time to make a rose wine by tinting a white wine with cochineal dye. 

Flog that wine! -- Long ago, when wine was imported from Europe to England in bulk, bottling in local cellars was a common practice.  A device was used to ram the cork home in a bottle, called a "Boot and Flogger."  Supposedly, the operator used his boot to slam a lever striking the cork, but later improvements used leverage to force the cork into the bottle. 

The man who (didn't) invent Champagne -- A vigorous telling of the discovery of Champagne supposedly has the Benedictine monk Dom Perignon, exclaiming "Come quickly, I'm drinking stars!" Fact is, refermentation occurs naturally in thje spring, without the help of man or monk. Ironically, Father Pierre Perignon's experimenting with blending was thwarted by this natural process.  Eventually, the style became popular, taking the name of the region.

Fun anecdotes about wine and the people that make it are only one possible scenario.  The real truth about wine is in the drinking.

Next blog: A Collection of Italian Whites

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Thursday, June 2, 2022

Sparkling Cava

                                      Sparkling wine cork. A sparkling wine cork opened in celebration on a white background stock photo

Champagne is the benchmark for all wines that sparkle.  Anyone with a fondness for Champagne, and they are legion, knows that Methode Champenoise, the French term for the traditional method of making sparkling wine, is considered the most quality oriented way to add bubbles to wine.

There are other methods of getting bubbles into wine, such as Charmat, a process whereby the second fermentation that produces the bubbles, is done in a pressurized tank rather than a bottle.  No longer popular but still used is the transfer method, a sort of hybrid method that employs both a tank and a bottle.

Wineries that are making quality sparkling wines opt for using the classic method, over any other method. The nod is an homage to the Champenois and a way to trade on a prestige term.  

Even before Dorothy Parker said, "Three be the things I shall never attain: envy, content and sufficient champagne," makers of sparkling wine, like the Spanish, had re-worked the word Champagne, much to the displeasure of the Champenois

For years, the Spanish used the term "Champana" to identify their sparkling wines, mainly those made in the region of Catalonia.  The French said the term was misleading and too close to Champagne and eventually the Spanish agreed. 

In 1970, the Spanish adopted the use of the term Cava for all wines made using the traditional method.  Contrary to popular belief, Cava is not an acronym. Cava  means "cellar" in Catalan.  

Aside: Despite the continuing objections by the French over the use of the protected term "Champagne," some countries, most notably the United States, continue to apply the term to their sparkling wines.  Ultimately, an agreement was worked out grandfathering those wineries using the word Champagne so long as it was connected with a local appellation, such as "Napa Champagne."   

Nearly a century earlier, Jose Raventos made the first bottle of Spanish sparkling wine using the traditional method in the cellars of Codorniu in the Catalan town of San Sadurni d'Anoia, not far from Barcelona.  

Cava is not a low-cost alternative to Champagne since they are two different sparkling wines, made under different economic environments. By law, the makeup of Champagne is limited to three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.  Cava, however, is based on three indigenous grapes: Macabeo (also known as Viura), Xarello and Parellada. 

Other permitted varieties include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Garnacha (Grenache) and Monastrell.  The first two, commonly called "international" varieties, are reserved mainly for high-end blends and prestige cuves. 

Sediment in champagne bottle. Close up view of the sediment settling in the neck of champagne bottles in racks stock photography
Riddling rack showing crown caps

Another difference between Champagne and Cava, is the development in Catalonia in the 1970s of the gyropalette, a large metal box holding dozens of inverted bottles that are riddled en masse rather than hand-riddled bottle by bottle.

The gyropalettes I saw in the cellars of Codoniu were constructed like a top - a large box on a point - that was moved manually side-to-side, keeping the sediment in the bottles suspended. This labor-intensive method of riddling was eventually replaced by a computer controlled mechanical riddler, commonly in use today in Catalonia and Champagne. 

Riddling collects the sediment on the bottom of the crown cap (similar to those on soft drink bottles) where it is frozen by plunging the necks of the bottles into a freezing solution. The icy plug is then removed by a stage known as disgorgement or deguelle in Spanish and degorgement in French.  

For the final stage in the Cava process, the bottles are topped with a small amount of wine and sugar, known as the dosage, stoppered with the mushroom cork, held in place by the wire muzzle, covered by the hood and then labeled. 

Depending on the level of mechanization in a cellar, it takes between 200 and 300 steps to finish a bottle of Cava. 

There is a little on-going controversy surrounding the official DO (appellation control) for Catalonia.  Awarded in 1986, the DO for Cava is losing some of the smaller Cava producers, mainly over the organizations inability or hide-bound attitude about change.  Cava's storied Raventos family has been one of the major producers to leave the DO to start their own label. 

With summer just a few weeks away, now is the time to stock up on Cava from these producers: Codorniu, Recacedo, Vivanco, Toca, Conca del Rio Noia (Raventos), Roger Goulart, Alta Alella, Freixenet.

Next blog:  Little Wine Tales

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