Thursday, January 26, 2023

France Series: Bordeaux



The region of Bordeaux kicks off this new series, with a focus on the diverse wines of France.  Spread over the next two months will be overviews of seven of the main wine regions in France. 

Along France's western edge, slightly inland from the Atlantic Ocean, the large region of Bordeaux is fed by two rivers that flow into an estuary and finally the ocean. 

Nowhere in all of the expanding world of wine is the maxim more evident that wine grapes grow best near a body of water then it is in Bordeaux. The rivers Dordogne and Garonne empty into the Gironde estuary after passing through a number of Bordeaux appellations.

Although there are 50 Appellations d'Origine Controlle (AOC) in Bordeaux, most wine drinkers think of Bordeaux as just the Medoc, Graves and Sauternes/Barsac on the left bank, Pomerol and St. Emilion on the right bank, with Entre-Deux-Mers as, well, in the middle between the two. 

Fortunately, for the curious wine consumer there are not 50 grapes to be known about in Bordeaux.  The left bank and right bank communes have five red grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot.  Carmenere is also grown but not used in the Medoc.

White varieties include Semillon and Sauvignon, used in the Graves and Sauternes/Barsac. Muscadelle is also allowed by appellation law, as is Sauvignon Gris.

Here's a brief look at the most important left bank and right bank regions and their communes.

Medoc is a sprawling, mostly flatfeatureless wine region between the ocean and the estuary. The most northern wine area is the Bas-Medoc, known simply as the Medoc. This area is known for well-made simple red wines that do not quite reach the heights of the reds from the Haut-Medoc. 

With pine forest on one side and the Gironde estuary on the other side, the Haut-Medoc, a narrow strip of land, approximately 8 miles wide and 50 miles long, is the site of six famous communes -- Listrac, Margaux, Moulis, Pauillac, St. Estephe, St. Julien.  Although the Haut-Medoc lacks scenic interest, the red wines are world class. 

Graves/Pessac-Leognon is a large region extending south of the city of Bordeaux along the left banks of the river Garonne.  It is the only Bordeaux region famous for both red and white wines, made from the standard Bordeaux varieties. Pessac-Leognon is a section carved out of the northern part of Graves including the suburbs of Bordeaux city.  All of the famous chateaux, such as Pape-Clement, Haut-Brion, Smith Haut-Lafitte, that were once a part of the Graves, are now under the Pessac-Leognon appellation.

Sauternes/Barsac is all white and mainly sweet.  The blend is dominated by Semillon, with Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle that are affected by botrytis. Rich and complex with excellent balancing acidity, Sauternes is thought by many to be the creme of sweet wines. Most of the producers make a dry white wine, such as Chateau Y from Ch. d' Yquem, from the three varieties.

Barsac is sandwiched between Cerons/Graves and Sauternes, on the climatically important cool Ciron river, a contributing factor to the development of the all-important botrytis.  Barsac wines are thought to be lighter than Sauternes, although that depends on the producer.   

St. Emilion is, in terms of output, the largest right bank region.  It is also the place where you will find many high-priced "garage wines."  The region takes it name from a picturesque town set in a hilly surrounding landscape. Merlot and Cabernet Franc are the main grapes of St. Emilion, with a few estates, like Chateau Figeac, favoring Cabernet Sauvignon.  St. Emilion, like the Medoc, has a classification system and there are four sub-regions, or "satellites," producing wines from the same grapes, that are a relative bargain.

Pomerol is a small region next to St. Emilion and the merchant city of Libourne.  The Moueix family, owners of various properties in Pomerol, including the famous Ch. Petrus, is Libourne's most successful wine merchant.  About 80% of the plantings in Pomerol are Merlot and in the best years, Pomerol is plump and rich. 


Entre-Deux-Mers is a large region that lies between the Rivers Garonne and Dordogne, even though the name of the region means "between two seas."  Merlot and Cabernet Franc are the main red grapes, with Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon accounting for the whites.  The wines of Entre-Deux-Mers share many of the same features as their better known neighbors, but are less expensive and worth a search.

An aside.  How times have changed in Bordeaux.  Early in my career as a wine writer, I thought it important to visit Bordeaux.  I believed then that Bordeaux was the center of the wine universe.  Not any more, but that's a story for another time.

When I was planning my trip, email had yet to take over personal and business communications, so I wrote letters requesting interviews and tastings to a handful of chateaux, mainly in the Medoc.  Wokeness hadn't been invented yet either, but if it had, the term would have negatively applied to my plan.

Before leaving, checking on proper protocol at Bordeaux chateaux would have helped immeasurably.  I would have known that in those days, not being punctual was a social no-no for which you would be turned away, appointment or not.  

And I would have known in advance not to ask to talk to the winemaker.  "You understand, Monsieur Boyd, we have an oenologue and a maitre de chai, but no winemaker." 

Another important thing not ask then was about alcohol.  It was a given in Bordeaux in those days that there is alcohol in wine and a chateau-bottled wine would always measure out at about 12.5% abv, so asking about the percentage of alcohol in a wine was a nonsense question to a Frenchman.

Anyway, I arrived at my first appointment (the chateau will remain unnamed), carrying my bottle of California Zinfandel as a thank you for seeing me.  I was greeted by a young man who, while eyeing the unfamiliar wine I was holding, promptly informed me that he wasn't the person I was supposed to see and excused himself, leaving me shifting from one foot to the other in the entrance hall. 

I didn't have time to get nervous, though, as the young man returned accompanied by an elderly man in a suit and tie. 

We exchanged greetings and my host paused, then quietly said, "Ah, yes, Mister Boyd."  We both smiled and I thanked him for seeing me, and then not knowing what else to say, I  handed him the bottle of Zinfandel. 

It was an awkward exchange and I wasn't sure if my host knew what to say either, but he grasped the bottle, smiled politely and said, "Ah, yes, Mister Boyd, we heard they were doing something with grapes in California," and then delicately handed off the bottle to his man as though it were a dead rat.

I got my interview, was granted a taste of the current vintage wine and we said our goodbyes.


Next blog: Understanding Wine Sweetness

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Friday, January 20, 2023


In every region of the wine world, there are one or two grapes that define the local wine culture. Germany is known for Riesling. Sauvignon Blanc brought New Zealand onto the world stage. Northern California identifies with Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay; Bordeaux and Cabernet, Italy and Sangiovese,  Australia re-defined Syrah as Shiraz and so on.  

What red wine grape best identifies with Spain?  Could it be Garnacha, or maybe  Carinena?  Neither.  The number one Spanish red grape is Tempranillo.

Known by different names throughout the country, Tempranillo is Cencibel in southern Spain, Ull de Libre in Catalonia and in the Old Castile region of Toro, it is known as Tinta de Toro, while in Castile's Ribera del Duero, Tempranillo is called Tinto Fino.

No matter the local name, Tempranillo makes robust red wines that are treasured throughout the wine world.  On its own, Tempranillo is reminescent of fresh strawberries. But where Tempranillo shines is with other grapes. 

Tempranillo has a relatively neutral aroma and low acidity, so its best blended with complimentary grapes, like Garnacha (Grenache) or Carignan. Tempranillo is a major contributor to a Rioja blend with Graciano and Mazuelo, developing cinnamon and raisin notes supported by a velvety richness.  Extended barrel aging is another way to bring out Tempranillo's character.

Old vine Tempranillo

Tempranillo provides backbone to Rioja and Ribera del Duero, two of Spain's most respected reds.  It is the principal grape in Ribera, but sometimes combines with French varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, as in the highly vaunted Vega Sicilia. The same blending preferences apply in Navarra and La Mancha, where Tempranillo is complimentary to Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot.  

An aside.  A number of years ago, on my first trip to Rioja, I had an appointment at a small family-owned winery in Laguardia.  The name of the winery escapes me now, but the experience of approaching Laguardia late in the afternoon has stayed with me to this day. 

The road leading to Laguardia meanders across a flat plain. That day, low black clouds, pierced by rays of late sunlight, framed the town of Laguardia laying across the crest of a high swelling in the landscape, with dramatic mountains as a backdrop.  It was a stunning sight, especially to my tired jet-lagged eyes. 

Laguardia is a small walled town of about 1,500, in the Rioja Alavesa.  My destination was down one of the narrow cobbled streets where a challenging tasting of straight Tempranillo and Rioja blends with Tempranillo the lead component. 

The winemaker was an older man with the hands of someone who made wine without the help of modern technology or the need to learn English. 

Tasting red wine in the chill of an old cellar with dirt floors was enlightening.  We communicated by nods and little smiles.  The Tempranillo was young and fresh and loaded with fruit, not unlike a nouveau Beaujolais.  The blend was immediately more complex, with deep fruit and firm tannins.  There was a depth to the wine that I discovered was from the addition of Graciano. The wine was pure Spanish and true Rioja Alavesa.

After my visit, I wondered why it was suggested that I visit a small winery that didn't export to the United States.  My contact at Wines of Spain explained that the Tempranillos I tasted that afternoon in that chilly cellar in Laguardia were what traditional Rioja was all about.

There was no Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon in the Laguardia winery, but the simpatico relationship of those two varieties may have given rise to the expression, in Rioja and Ribera, that "Tempranillo is Spain's answer to Cabernet Sauvignon."  Perhaps, but some of the leading Ribera challengers to Vega Sicilia, like Dominio de Pingus and Hacienda Monasterio, believe that in Ribera, Tempranillo holds sway over Cabernet Sauvignon.

In Rioja and Ribera, the trend with Tempranillo is to make big rich wines, but to back off on oak aging.  In the past, extended aging for these two wines was the norm, especially in American oak.  Today, winemakers are moving more to French oak and being more selective with new or used barrels and aging regimens.

This lighter touch results in wines with more fruit and a softer mouth-feel. The benefit to the consumer is that the wines are ready to drink sooner, requiring less cellaring. Some Riberas buck the trend of shorter barrel aging, in favor of fuller oak tannins, probably from American oak, or longer barrel aging, or both.  

Harvesting Tempranillo

In neighboring Portugal, Tempranilo is known as Tinta Roriz, an essential component in the production of Port and still red blends. Modern wine making in the Douro and further south in Alentejo, where Tempranillo is called Aragonez, has managed to smooth the rough edges that Tinta Roriz sometimes gets, while highlighting its bright raspberry and mocha flavors.

Beyond Spain and Portugal, Tempranillo's struggles for recognition are pitted against local varieties and popular French grapes.  There are a few places of encouragement.  Argentina's Mendoza Valley is experiencing a growth spurt in Tempranillo plantings, competing with Malbec.  California and Australia have seen interest in Tempranillo increase in recent years. 

Prices for Tempranillo are all over the place, but mostly break out by place of production.  Ribera del Duero is generally the most expensive, with the majority of Riojas a little less. I found the range is about $13 to $55, with a few wines, like Vega Sicilia (Ribera) 2011 "Unico," $395 and Lopez Heredia 2001 Rioja Reserva, $100. The current vintage of the highly regarded Hacienda Monasterio Rioja tops the price range at $55, while a Crianza Rioja is priced at $15 and a Crianza Ribera $22.  

Prices for Tempranillo, whether varietal, Rioja, Ribera, are wide enough to fit any wine budget.  Pick up a bottle or two at your local wine shop, or better yet, go to Rioja this summer and drive out to Laguardia in laet afternoon when the clouds are gathering over the little town.


Next blog: France Series: Bordeaux

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Thursday, January 12, 2023

Sauvignon Styles

Sauvignon Blanc is an important variety, widely planted in every major wine region, with the possible exception of Germany.  Chardonnay may be the most ubiquitous premium white wine grape in the world, but Sauvignon Blanc is a close second.

According to various reports on world grape plantings, Sauvignon Blanc was the 11th most planted wine grape in 2021, while Chardonnay was 7th.  The same year, the California Department of Food and Agriculture recorded there were 16,000 planted acres of Sauvignon Blanc in the state, compared to 90,000 for Chardonnay.  Sauvignon Blanc had come a long way, in the United States, since its humble beginnings.

Records suggest that Sauvignon Blanc had its origins, perhaps in the 18th century, in the Loire Valley of France.  By 1997, DNA studies showed that, along with Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc was a parent of Cabernet Sauvignon.  It was an aha! moment for many wine drinkers. 


Why?  The herbaceousness found in Sauvignon Blanc was similar to the herbal flavors found in Cabernet Sauvignon.  Some tasters described the flinty character of Pouilly Fume as slightly herbal, while the same grassy notes were noted in Sancerre.  Early on, California Sauvignon Blancs were thought to be grassy and herbal, a style that gave way to one closer to New Zealand than Bordeaux. But  the occasional New Zealand "sauvy," famous for tropical fruit flavors, can also have an underlying herbal note. 

Over the years, as the popularity of Sauvignon Blanc spread around the world, various styles developed based on local terroir.  What follows is a brief look at the most popular of these styles. 

Upper Loire, to most wine fans, means Sancerre and Pouilly Fume. There is a difference between the two wines, with the fruitier Sancerre attracting more wine drinkers. 

Across the river, near the small town of Pouilly-sur-Loire, the Sauvignons of Pouilly-Fume are earthier with a trace of flint, thought to be from a mineral called silex. Both wines have lively acidity, sometimes too much for some tastes, found more in Pouilly-Fume than Sancerre. 

Here's the thing.  Despite the differences that some say they can detect, most tasters find it difficult to decide if the wine is a Pouilly Fume or a Sancerre.

An aside.  The story behind how Pouilly Fume got its name is based on a misunderstanding.  In the early morning hours, the mist that rises from the surface of the Loire river, reminds locals of smoke, slipping and swirling its way over the vineyards.  The French word for "smoke" is fume and somehow the popular meaning of the name became "smoke" instead of "mist." 

Below, under the style of "California Sauvignon Blanc," you'll find a short tale of how one Napa vintner converted the name Pouilly-Fume into a marketing success story.

Bordeaux has a lot of white wine, from the simple whites of Entre-Deux-Mers, mostly from Sauvignon Blanc, to the complex sweet whites of Sauternes, also  from Sauvignon Blanc.  The dry white Sauvignon Blanc, for which the region is justly proud, come from the Graves, an area south of the city of Bordeaux. 


In 1987, a division was made in the Graves district that made a lot of sense to local vintners but created confusion in the wine world.  A section of Graves was carved out and called Pessac-Leognan, taking most of the well-known chateaux with it.  

I have a hunch that Pessac and Leognan, two communes in the Graves, are not even familiar to the French wine drinker, so you can see why there might be confusion for the non-French. However, if you're looking for a Bordeaux-style Sauvignon today, it will likely be from Pessac-Leognon. 

Bordeaux blanc is crisp and lively with a trace of minerals. Most have some oak. And it is that aging in oak that is mainly what separates Bordeaux blanc from Loire Sauvignon Blanc. 

New  Zealand, usually means Marlborough, the renown region at the northern end of the South Island. Lesser known NZ "Sauvys" include those from Nelson, a western neighbor of Marlboro, Canterbury and Hawkes Bay on the North Island.

Before the advent of canopy management in New Zealand, the lush green coverage provided lots of herbaceousness. Once growers adopted canopy management, Sauvignon Blanc escaped the veggies in favor of juicy tropical fruit flavors, popularly described as passion fruit.  Today, although the export market for NZ Sauvignon Blanc has tapered off a little, consumers still buy the number-one wine from New Zealand.

NZSB with screw cap

An aside.  American wine drinkers know about NZ Sauvignon Blanc, but few are aware that the Kiwis were mainly responsible for the push to finish wine bottles with screw caps.  In 2001, a group of young winemakers, created The Screwcap Initiative, hoping to replace the traditional cork with a screw cap.  Today, close to 100% of all New Zealand wine, red and white, are sealed with a screw cap.

California Sauvignon Blanc was just another Sauvignon before Robert Mondavi renamed his wine Fume Blanc, an Americanized play on the Loire Pouilly Blanc Fume.  Not only did Mondavi sales take off, but the name change stimulated a new interest in California to make a white wine that would compete with Chardonnay. 

Chardonnay held on to the number one spot, but California Sauvignon Blanc took off and today, it enjoys healthy sales as an interesting white wine in its own right.

Tank fermented is the method of choice for most Sauvignon Blanc made in California and Washington state, to preserve the fresh fruit flavors and crisp natural acidity.  Some California Sauvignons are barrel fermented and aged for short periods, resulting in what amounts to a "poor man's Chardonnay." 

Nearly every region in California produces Sauvignon Blanc of one style or another. Central Coast regions of Monterey and Santa Ynez Valley and the cooler spots in Sonoma like the Russian River Valley, favor the grassy/herbal style. Ripe melon flavors define Sauvignons from the warmer parts of upper Napa Valley and Sonoma County.  Pick a style and you'll find it somewhere in California. 

The main takeaway with Sauvignon Blanc is that there is a style for every wine fan. The variety's identity is herbal/grassy, but winemakers have learned to tame that character and coax out more fruit.  Whatever your preference, Sauvignon Blanc is a great casual wine, or enjoy it with light meals. 

Next blog: Tempting Tempranillo

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Thursday, January 5, 2023

Sonoma Series: Carneros & Other Appellations

"Series," a continuous feature highlighting the various appellations in major wine regions, began with Alexander Valley and Knights Valley on October 14 and wraps up here with a look at Sonoma Carneros and the remaining Sonoma appellations.

Sonoma County is flush with American Viticultural Areas (AVA), 19 in all, which is to say that 19 may be enough for Sonoma, or that there are still parts of the county waiting for their own AVA.  Sonoma County is a political entity and not itself an AVA, which is defined by history and geographic and climatic boundaries.  

Promoting an area's AVA brings up a thorny question: Who values from an official AVA, the consumer, the local wine industry or both?  And what about cumbersome names (see Pine Mountain-Cloverdale below) that do not fit comfortably on a wine label?  Volumes have been written about the value of the AVA system, probably solving nothing, but that's a subject for another time.

Los Carneros (AVA 1983). This episode will cover Sonoma Carneros and briefly touch on the seven remaining Sonoma AVAs, namely Fort Ross-Seaview, Petaluma Gap, Fountain Grove, Moon Mountain, Northern Sonoma, Pine Mountain-Cloverdale and West Sonoma Coast.

In the early 1980s, the wineries of Carneros, a region that stretches across the top of San Pablo Bay, from Sonoma to Napa, were confronted with the question of best and better, comparing Carneros Pinot Noir with Pinots from Russian River, Santa Barbara and even Burgundy.  

It was time to make an official statement. 

So, in 1983, winery owners and winemakers provided the justification for a Los Carneros AVA.  Two years later, Carneros Wine Alliance was formed to market the growing list of wines produced in the two-county region. 

Carneros has a long history of grape growing on the gently rolling land, within sight of San Francisco Bay, that once was grazing land for sheep; the word Los Carneros means "the rams" in Spanish. Stanly Ranch and vineyard was established in 1880.  

Los Carneros

 In 1942, the ranch was sold to Louis Martini and it was Martini and fellow winemaker, Andre Tchelistcheff, Beaulieu Vineyard, that brought about the rebirth of Carneros as a wine region.  Later, they were joined by Rene di Rosa and Winery Lake Vineyard and the Sangiacomo family.  In 1972, Carneros Creek opened the first winery in Carneros. 

Today, there are 25 wineries in Carneros, making still and sparkling wine. Cool breezes off the bay, help fashion the ideal climate for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Later, a few growers found Merlot and Syrah suitable for Carneros, but the reputation of Carneros rests comfortably on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. 

Fort Ross-Seaview (AVA 2012) is a dramatic sub-region, hanging above the fog on the Sonoma coast.  The marine influence and fog that burns off by midday offers Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah ideal growing conditions.  Wineries to look for include Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery, Flowers Vineyard & Winery. 

Fog bank building over Petaluma Gap


Petaluma Gap (AVA 2017) is a sub-region that spans two counties: the majority is in Sonoma County and the southern end of the AVA is in Marin County.  Fog drawn through the gap in the Coastal Range makes it a cool climate area for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah.  Wineries of note include Kosta Browne, Keller Estate, Adobe Road Winery and Fogline Vineyards.

Fountain Grove (AVA 2015) lies within the Santa Rosa city limits.  Cooler than Alexander Valley, yet warmer than the Russian River Valley, Fountain Grove appears to be just right for Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  For now, Fountain Grove Winery is the only winery within the appellation, however Lambert Bridge, Enkidu and Carol Shelton are among the wineries buying grapes from Fountain Grove vineyards.

Moon Mountain (AVA 2013) is in the Mayacamas mountains, above the Sonoma Valley.  Monte Rosso is the most famous vineyard, for Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  At lower elevations, Hanzell is successful with Pinot Noir.

Northern Sonoma (AVA 1985) is the second largest appellation in the county, spanning across Chalk Hill, Russian River Valley and Knights Valley.  The area is noted for Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc.  Wineries: Gallo Family Vineyards, Rodney Strong, J Vineyards & Winery.

Pine Mountain-Cloverdale (AVA 2011) vineyards are at 2,600 feet above the small northern Sonoma town of Cloverdale.  A mere 230 acres of vineyards is planted mainly in Cabernet Sauvignon, with small parcels of Merlot, Malbec and Sangiovese. Grapes are purchased by Francis Ford Coppola. Imagery, Copain and La Crema.

West Sonoma Coast (AVA 2022) is the newest AVA in Sonoma County.  Stretched along the western edge of the county it has a marginal climate thanks to heavy fog and marine breezes.  Pinot Noir, Syrah and Chardonnay are favored by Paul Hobbs Winery, Littorai Wines, Balletto Vineyards and Black Kite Cellars. 

Sonoma County has an impressive number of official AVAs, led by Alexander Valley and Carneros.  The range of growing conditions and grapes is diverse, allowing for an array of red, white and sparkling wines.

Note: France Series, an on-going feature highlighting regions, grapes and wines,  begins January 27, 2023, with an overview of Bordeaux, perhaps the most celebrated wine region in France, if not the world. 

Next blog: Sauvignon Styles

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