Thursday, August 25, 2022

Portugal's Fortified Duo

Portugal, the narrow western part of the Iberian Peninsula, is the source of two of the most distinctive fortified wines in the world.  Port and Madeira, however, could not be more different. 

Madeira comes from an island that is closer to Africa than Portugal.  Port is made in the wildly beautiful Douro river valley. 

Terrace Stock Photo
Terraced vineyards along the Douro River

Both wines are steeped in history.  Port became associated with the English wine trade long ago, while Madeira was used to celebrate the independence of colonial America from the British crown. 

Port takes its name from Oporto, the port city in northern Portugal, from where all Port, red and white, is shipped worldwide. The name Madeira applies to both the fortified wine and the island that is 625 miles off the Portuguese mainland and 466 miles from North Africa.

Madeira is made from a diverse variety of eight grapes, including traditional varieties such as Sercial, Verdelho, Tinta Negra, as well as American hybrids. More than 80 different grapes are authorized in Port, but research conducted in the 1970s, identified Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca (formerly Touriga Francesa), Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz and Tinto Cao as the best varieties. 

Traditionally, grapes for both Madeira and Port, were trod by foot in granite troughs, known as lagares. Today, most Madeira producers buy grapes and use tank fermentation, while Port houses have gone to autovinification, a tank process, using pump-over to extract maximum color from red grapes.   

Lagares are still used by some Port houses in the production of vintage and specialty Ports.  By 2010, there were just six exporters on the island of Madeira, down from a high of 30, and few of those remaining use the lagare.

Production of Madeira is centered around the estufa system, a method used to heat the wine, to develop an aged character.  A large estufa, used for bulk Madeira circulates heated water through pipes in stainless steel tanks.  A more traditional type of estufa employs wooden casks or lodge pipes (a Portuguese barrel, measuring approximately 115 gals.) stored in warm rooms and is considered a gentler method of aging the wine from six months to a year.  Select vinhos de canteiro are aged in estufa rooms for 20 to 100 years.  

Both wines are fortified with grape brandy, bringing the alcohol for Madeira to a alcohol strength of between 17 and 18% and for Port the strength is 19% or 20%.

Port wines are divided into cask aged and bottle aged.  Wood Ports (Ruby and Tawny) are intended for immediate drinking, after aging in oak casks, then filtered and bottled.  Vintage Port is aged for a short time in oak and then matured in bottle for 30 years or more.  Madeira is aged in a estufa for various lengths of time, up to a century.


Cape Girao, Madeira Aerial view from the highest Cabo Girao, Madeira island, Portugal madeira island stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images
Utilizing ever suitable spot for a vineyard on Madeira

The types of Madeira are named after the principal grapes grown on the island and range from dry to sweet. Sercial is the driest followed by Verdelho, made in a medium-dry style with a smoky character.  Sweeter yet is raisiny Bual and Malmsey, made from the Malvasia grape.  

Due to the many types of both Port and Madeira, describing the flavors of the wines is difficult.  However, in general, young Port like Ruby is fruity/grapy with a pleasant sweetness, good acidity and soft tannins.  With age, Port is more complex, showing ripe plums and roasted nuts. Tawny Port is light brown in color, with a subtle fruitiness and touch of roasted nuts. Madeira is nutty with a blended fruit base and a hint of burnt caramel.  The sweeter types of Madeira are rich and treacly, yet possessing impeccable balance.

Both Port and Madeira have met modern consumer demand for different products by adding "specialty" wines to their inventories.  Both have vintage wines, but while Vintage Port is bottled after spending a maximum of three years in wood, Frasqueira (Vintage) Madeira must age in cask for a minimum of 20 years. 

Additionally, a few exporters on the island of Madeira release a wine matured in a solera, similar to Sherry and sold as Solera Madeira.  Port has no equivalent of "solera" but a number of Port lodges make a Single Quinta (vineyard or winery),Vintage and Garrafeira Port, comparable to a reserve wine.

Approximately half of the output from the Douro river valley is fortified.  The other half is red table wine, many made by Port houses, such as Duas Quintas from Ramos-Pinto.  North of the Douro valley is the emerging wine region known as Tras-os-Montes ("behind the mountains").  Only fortified wine is made on the island of Madeira, except for a little table wine made for local consumption.

Both wines have devoted collectors who value the wine's complexity and longevity. Madeira may hold the record for aging and is considered the longest-lived of all wine. Vintage Ports have been known to age for 30 years or more. 

Try these Ports: Quinta do Noval, Ramos Pinto, Warre's, Graham's, Sandeman, Taylor, Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca, Cockburn's, Dow's.  And these Madeuiras: Blandy's Henriques & Henriques, Madeira Wine Company.

Madeira and Port are two of winedom's greatest wines, yet they are known and appreciated by few. Show your appreciation today.  

Next blog: Australia Series: Western Australia

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Thursday, August 18, 2022

Marvelous Mendocino

(Handley Cellars image)

In the early days of the California wine ascendancy, Napa and Sonoma were going full throttle while Mendocino lagged a little behind.  The rising popularity of California wine was spurred on by the famous Judgement at Paris, but Mendocino didn't have a skin in that game. 

That didn't bother winemakers like John Parducci, who told anyone who would listen that Mendocino wines, especially those from the area around Ukiah, were as good as any Napa wine, just different.  Soft approachable Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots, such as Parducci Mendocino and Fetzer Redwood Valley, were benchmark Mendocino wines. 

The diversity of Mendocino, however, wasn't limited to Cabernet. On the west side of the county, smaller Anderson Valley, along Highway 128, between Boonville and Navarro, had been quietly establishing itself as the go-to place for cool climate wines like Pinot Noir, Riesling and Gewurztraminer.

There's something to admire in a wine region that, in the face of consumers being Napaized, slowly and quietly were building a reputation for Pinot Noir and Germanic-style whites. 

Back in the 1990s, the odd Pinot from the likes of Navarro Vineyards, Handley Cellars, Husch Vineyards and Greenwood Ridge, came to the attention of Pinot lovers and the rush was on. 

While Anderson Valley was eager to show its Pinot Noir to the wine world, the attraction for consumers was to the north in Oregon's Willamette Valley. There was a handful of California Pinot Noirs, outside Anderson Valley, such as Hanzell, Saintsbury and Acacia, but the focus of the market for U.S. Pinot Noir then was  Willamette Valley.

Anderson Valley 

Early on, Ted Bennett and Tony Husch recognized the potential for great wines in Anderson Valley.  In the early 1970s, they left the hectic life of an urbanite and settled in rural isolated Anderson Valley, planted grapes and eventually opened wineries. 

In those days, California Gewurztraminer lacked the dry and clearly distinctive character of German and Alsatian Gewurz. So, Bennett's Navarro Vineyard and Husch's eponymous winery began making impeccably balanced Riesling and Gewurztraminer, emphasizing fruit sweetness that didn't hide the distinctive varietal character of the grapes. 

Before long, Lazy Creek Vineyards, joined the rising Gewurz movement, followed by Handley Cellars, Claudia Springs Winery, Greenwood Ridge and Christine Woods, all mid-valley near Philo. 

Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were doing so well in the Anderson Valley, that the  obvious next step was sparkling wine.  In 1983, John Scharffenberger opened Scharffenberger Cellars and the French Champagne producer Roederer purchased land near Philo for Roederer Estate sparkling wines that soon earned wide acclaim and, according to some, even bested Roederer's French wines.

Today, Scharffenberger is part of the Roederer Collection. I haven't tasted Scharffenberger bubbly lately, but I can report that Roederer Estate NV Brut is a nicely balanced satisfying sparkling wine and the Roederer Estate l'Ermitage Brut  is a complex richly textured California sparkler, the equal of Champagne.

The Rest of Mendocino

The rest of Mendocino covers a lot of land, with the largest concentration of wineries between Ukiah and Hopland.  

In 1968, Barney Fetzer built a wine dynasty, with the help of his 11 children, in Redwood Valley, north of Ukiah. Today, Fetzer Vineyards, under different ownership, has a major operation outside the small town of Hopland, once the center of hop yards for local brewing.  

North of Ukiah, Parducci Vineyards operates a busy tasting room, featuring Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The tasting room was once a shady nook under Parducci's house, but a new tasting room was built to show the wide range of Parducci wines. 

Gnarly vines

East of Hopland is McDowell Valley with its single winery, on sloped bench land. In the early 1980s, the Keehn family opened McDowell Vineyards.  And while they worked to establish a reputation for Rhone-style wines, mainly Syrah and Grenache, the Keehn's also helped secure the McDowell Valley American Viticultural Appellation (AVA), establishing it as the smallest AVA in California. McDowell Valley Vineyards was one of the first wineries in California to be partially powered by solar.

Northeast of Redwood Valley is Potter Valley, a cooler area due to its slightly higher elevation.  Sparkling wine makers, such as Scharffenberger, like the grapes from Potter Valley.  The region is also known for its Sauvignon Blanc. 

Summer is now in full swing and the warmer weather is a good time to think about the lightly chilled fruity whites and structured reds of Mendocino County. 

Next blog: Portugal's Fortified Duo

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Thursday, August 11, 2022

Australia Series: New South Wales

In 1820, Australian wine making got its start at Farm Cove, in what is today the thriving modern city of Sydney, in the state of New South Wales.

It wasn't long before the center of wine making shifted to the Hunter Valley, where it remains today.  The Hunter is known for fine table wine. Further west, the huge basins of the Riverina, Murrumbidgee and Murray rivers, collectively became the most productive wine regions in the state, thanks to the advent of irrigation.

                                    Australian Vineyard Stamp Cancelled Stamp From Australia Commemorating The Barossa Valley Wine Region In South Australia. barossa valley australia stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

Over time, the importance of wine making in Australia moved west to South Australia and the Barossa Valley, arguably Australia's most important wine region.  Meanwhile, NSW wine making fell behind and today accounts for little more than 20 percent of Australia's total production.

While all this movement was taking place, the Hunter was adding vineyards and wineries, mostly in the Lower Hunter.  And, southeast of the Hunter Valley Zone, three sub-regions were making their marks: Mudgee the largest, then Orange and Cowra, the smallest. 

Hunter Valley is divided into the Lower Hunter and the Upper Hunter. The Lower Hunter, by far, has made the largest number of vineyards and wineries.  There are more than 60 wineries scattered along Broke Road and Allendale Road, outside Cessnock.  Add another 20 wineries a few miles west around the town of Broke. 

Perhaps the one wine that has risen to star status in the Lower Hunter is Semillon.  A little thin and grassy in its youth, Hunter Semillon develops into a rich wine with honey and roasted nuts, after 10 years in bottle.  Look for Semillon from Brokenwood, Tyrrell's, Rothbury Estate and Lindemans. 

Aside: I had a pretty good palate for wine tasting, in my salad days, but I admit that tasting Hunter Semillon fooled me more than once.  Readers of this blog may recall an occasion I wrote about when the late Len Evans of Rothbury Estate showed me some bottle aged unoaked Hunter Semillon that I thought had seen oak. It was a humbling experience, but one that illustrated the caveat that with wine, things are not always as they seem. 

Hunter Shiraz needs the same bottle aging to transform from an angular youth, to a full-bodied red with a velvety texture and layered fruit.  McWilliams, Tyrrells, Rothbury and Brokenwood are the main producers. 

Travel northwest along the Golden Highway to Denman and you are in the Upper Hunter.  Known for Chardonnay and Semillion, the Upper Hunter's most visible brand in the U.S. market is Rosemount Estate. Other Upper Hunter wines to look for include Reynold's, Arrowfield and Inglewood Vineyards.  

Cowra is known more for grazing than grapes. Aussies of a certain age may remember Cowra as the site of Australia's prisoner of war camp for Japanese soldiers and the great escape of some of the POWs. Today, activity in and around Cowra is more benign.

Situated on gentle slopes, the climate is hot and dry, but with good rainfall.  Cowra is best known for Chardonnay and Semillon with sizeable plantings of Shiraz. Brands to consider include Rothbury Estate, Richmond Grove and Cowra Estate.

                            Mudgee vineyards, New South Wales, Australia Scenes from Mud mudgee australia stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

Mudgee is the Aboriginal name for "Nest in the Hills," an apt description of the rolling hills, pocketed with green spots that nestle in the Mudgee countryside.  

Mudgee runs along the western edge of the Great Dividing Range, giving the area a more temperate grape growing climate.  Shiraz, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are the leading varieties.  The reds are deeply colored and usually need bottle aging to show their best qualities. Look for Montrose, Lawson's Hill Estate, Andrew Harris. 

Orange was once known as the Central Highlands.  Today, Orange vineyards are located mainly on Mt. Canobolas, a name you may see on Orange region wines.

Long known for its fruit orchards, since the late 1990s, the region has seen a major expansion in vineyards, with a lot of grapes going to wineries outside the area, such as Rosemount Estate and Rothbury. 

Chardonnay is the leading white grape, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz the most planted red varieties.  Orange wines to seek out include Canobolas-Smith, Bloodwood Estate and Templer's Mill.

Aside: Anyone that has traveled to Australia knows the country's reputation for lethal reptiles and insects. A few years ago, my Copy Editor and I were staying in a homestead outside Orange with some friends.  We went into town for dinner, returning to enjoy the lovely sunset. My CE retired before me and almost as fast as she had gone into the bedroom, she came rushing back out, saying there was something we had to see. 

The three of us entered the bedroom and my CE told us to turn around.  There, above the door frame, was one of the biggest scary-looking spiders I had ever seen.  From where we stood, it looked like a small bird, with long hairy legs.  

Huntsman spider Huntsman spider on ceiling  Huntsman Spider stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

"I'm not sleeping in here with that thing hanging up there," yelled my CE!

Our host came down to the guest cottage, took one look at the spider, shook his head and said, "Ah, that's just a Huntsman; it's harmless."  We didn't agree, so he gathered up the spider in a large cloth and took it outside.  We slept better that night.

There are thousands of types of spiders in Australia, a number of them highly venomous, like the funnel-web spider.  Thankfully, the Huntsman isn't one of them. 

The wines of New South Wales are distinct from other Australian wines.  There's a lot to choose from, but you can't go wrong with Hunter Semillon. 


Next blog:  Marvelous Mendocino

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Thursday, August 4, 2022

The Chardonnay Question

                    ripe chardonnay grapes hanging on vine in vineyard at harvest time with blurred background and copy space closeup of ripe chardonnay grapes hanging on vine in vineyard at harvest time with blurred background and copy space chardonnay grape stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

Are you under the sway of the Chardonnay mystique?   You're not alone and I wonder why.

It's not a secret that Chardonnay continues to dominate the white wine market.   Sauvignon Blanc has been making inroads, thanks in part to New Zealand, but Chardonnay, oaked and unoaked, holds on. 

The question is: Why?

Wine drinkers, in general, like and want flavor, which is the primary reason they reach for Kiwi "Sauvvie," as it is known in the Southern Hemisphere.  Zesty and forward, lime juice and passion fruit are but a few of the ways to describe the wine.  Fans love it and can't wait to open a fresh bottle. 

Others are not as enthusiastic about what they say is the in-your-face New Zealand style, especially when they read this description from one over-heated wine writer: "(the) taste of green peppers sliced with a silver knife."  

And that brings us back to the question of why people like Chardonnay?

An often-heard comment from winemakers is "If you don't have it in the vineyard, you won't have it in the winery."  Which is to say, grapes rule.  You can make poor quality wine from high quality grapes, but not the reverse. 

I once heard a winemaker say that Chardonnay is "a winery wine," meaning that a finished Chardonnay is more a product of wine making than grape growing. 

That's not as obvious as it sounds.  Sample a ripe Cabernet Sauvignon or Gewurztraminer grape in the vineyard and you'll get a mouthful of flavor.  There's more there than there is with freshly picked Chardonnay. 

Fermented Chardonnay that passes through the cellar with little handling tastes of green apples and in some cases a touch of minerals.  Riper Chardonnay offers flavors of ripe pears, honey and maybe roasted nuts.  Extending the apple analogy: Granny Smith and barely ripe Chardonnay; Golden Delicious and ripe Chardonnay.  

Chardonnay and acidity is another factor to consider.  Cool climate Chardonnay tends to show sharper, even mineral, acidity, at least when young.  Warmer climate Chardonnay has softer more tropical fruit, like mango and melon, that is more integrated with the acidity.

And then there's the influence of oak. 

Opinions vary about what oak to use (French, Yugoslavian, American), toasting levels and how long the wine should be in contact with the oak. Some say that without oak aging Chardonnay, you might just as well be drinking Chenin Blanc.  

Today, French oak has become an integral part of the character and taste of most Chardonnay.  Until recently, the smell and taste of new French oak was so strong in most Chardonnay that the wines were undrinkable.  

                    White wine with grapes on a barrel A glass of white wine with grapes on a barrel chardonnay grape stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

The situation got so bad with California and Australian Chardonnay, that a snarky comment sneaked into wine conversations: "Anything But Chardonnay." Needless to say, Chardonnay fans were not too happy.

But sometimes winemakers are slow to react to trends and the over oaked Chardonnay hung around until wineries, one by one, decided that there is such a thing as too much oak, especially new French oak.  

Curiously, while winemakers were trying to decide what is too much oak in Chardonnay, Burgundian wineries were making Chardonnay that was fermented and aged in French oak, without anyone saying the wine was too oaky.

The use of American oak with Chardonnay never took off, with ZD Wines, the Napa producer that stubbornly stayed with American oak when the trend was going French, the possible exception. 

The bottom line is that consumers like the taste of oaked Chardonnay more than straight Chardonnay.  Why?  Because the drinking public only knew Chardonnay with oak.

The good news is that most unoaked Chardonnay is coming on the market and the days of heavily oaked Chardonnay is, thankfully, behind us. 

And, I guess that answers why Chardonnay maintains its popularity. 


Next blog: Australia Series: New South Wales

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