Thursday, March 30, 2023

France Series: Champagne & Alsace

Think of two wine regions in France that differ in location, atmosphere, history and wine styles and you might settle on Champagne and Alsace.

Champagne spreads across a broad plain,northeast of Paris; Alsace is on the eastern edge of the country, at the base of a mountain range and not far from Germany. The atmosphere in Champagne is organized and businesslike, while the atmosphere in Alsace is that of small towns with small wineries.  Alsace's history is one of back and forth, between France and Germany and Champagne can trace it's history back to the Romans. 

The wines of both regions are unique and reflect their environment. Alsace is known for a range of still and sparkling wines that have a close affinity with the local cuisine, while Champagne makes the country's premier sparkling wine and a small amount of still wine, mainly for local consumption. 


American humorist, Dorothy Parker, a writer with a wry sense of humor. had this to say about her favorite tipple: "Three be the things I shall never attain: envy, content and sufficient Champagne." 


Parker's vinous passion has become an anthem for those who believe that no wine has built an image of desire, class and sophistication more than Champagne. And while the French bubbly savors its place as the world's premier sparkling wine, the high-end success has had its down side. 

Champagne has not always been sparkling. But in the late 17th century, it was discovered that cold winters stopped fermentation. As it began to warm, fermentation started back releasing carbon dioxide, forming bubbles in the wine. Then, with some assist, say some sources, from a Benedictine monk, the world had Champagne.  British society loved the new sparkling wine and the rest is, well, history. 

An aside.  Father Pierre Perignon, the Benedictine monk, often called the "man who invented Champagne," was, in fact, tasked at the Abbey of Hautvillers, with improving still wines for sale by the abbey. His skill was blending and creating new wines, based on black varieties which he found did not re-ferment as easily as wines made from white grapes.  Ironically, re-fermentation was to eventually be used to create the style of wine that Dom Perignon tried to avoid. 

Champagne's three grapes -- Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier -- are grown in a wide area along the Valley of the Marne, around the cities of Eperney and Rheims.  There are 17 Grand Cru communes.

The essence of Champagne is blending to form the various styles. Basic Champagne is non-vintage brut.  Additionally, most houses make a single vintage Champagne, Blanc de Blancs from Chardonnay, Blanc de Noirs from Pinot Noir, Rose Champagne and a luxury Champagne such as Roederer Cristal, that shows the house style at its best.

Champagne, as we now know it today, thanks to the innovative thinking of Madame Cliquot, became the favorite celebratory wine in the early 19th century, much to the chagrin of Champagne producers who felt their wines should be enjoyed at all occasions and meals.  

Despite the pleas of the Champenois, however, the drinking public continues to  buy a bottle of Champagne to celebrate a birthday, wedding or for a holiday toast, but rarely thinks of Champagne to have for dinner that night.


Alsace is that odd region in the French regional mix: it's bi-lingual (French and German) and Alsace wines are bottled as varietals and not the traditional place names.                       

A casual drive through Alsace is like a trip back to the Middle Ages with walled towns, half-timbered buildings and quaint shops.  Alsatians have found a way to successfully combine history with modernity.

Along the Alsace Wine Route

Alsatian winemakers have a reputation for stylish Riesling and Gewurztraminer.  The wines are drier than the German styles, although in recent years, Alsace Riesling has dabbled with a little sweetness, but most of the wines have returned to the traditional dry style.  

Riesling can be charming and refreshing with just the right amount of residual sweetness to lift the fruit.  Finding the balance takes skill, something that's not always found in Rieslings from both Alsace and Germany. German trocken wines are a case in point.  They can be so dry that the acidity hurts your teeth. 

Gewuztraminer has done exceeding well in Alsace, both as a dry and sweet late-harvest wine.  The grape's aromatic lychee flavors with a hint of sweet spices and natural high alcohol, make up for low acidity.  

Rounding out the trio of Alsace's top varietal wines is Pinot Gris, with the spicy flavors of Gewurztraminer and mouth-watering acidity of Riesling. Once known as Tokay Pinot Gris, the name "Tokay" was dropped after Hungary filed a complaint with the EU claiming the name would be confused with Hungarian Tokaji, a classic wine made from the Furmint grape.

Alsace also makes late harvest wines, called Vendange Tardive, from a single vintage, from only Riesling, Gewurz, Pinot Gris and Muscat.  Selection de Grains Nobles is a refinement of Vendange Tardive where the grapes reach higher sugar levels.  In 1975, Grand Cru, or single vineyard, wines were approved and today there are north of 50 Alsace Grand Cru wines, although their presence is the continuing subject of some controversy.

On your next trip to your favorite wine shop, treat yourself to a bottle (or two) of Champagne and an Alsace Riesling or Gewurztraminer, then enjoy both wines tonight with dinner.

Next blog: "Waiter, there's a flaw in my wine!"

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Friday, March 24, 2023

Italy's Northern Whites

Italy's northern tier is home to a wide range of wines, the best known being  Barolo and Barbaresco.  Except for Pinot Grigio, the white wines of this vast area get less attention. And that's a shame because they are among Italy's best values. 

Northeastern Italy is steeped in history, with invaders and tradesmen passing through the region on their way to Rome or Venice.  Venetian merchants controlled commerce, including the movement of wine, through the 14th and 15th centuries. The arrival of French varieties in the region were, no doubt, carried throughout the country by traveling merchants and displaced farmers seeking new land to work. 

Tocai Friulano

Northern White Wines 

Veneto, Fruili and Trentino Alto Adige (VFTAA) are the northern regions with a special affinity for Sauvignon Blanc and aromatic whites like Riesling and Tocai Friulano. The three regions are clustered in the northeastern corner of the country, next to Lombardy, Emilia Romagna and the Adriatic Sea.

The land here is crowded with natural features -- the Alps, Lake Garda, the Adriatic -- each having a strong influence on grape growing.  A continental climate is a stronger influencer in more inland areas like Trentino, while the climate at the southern end of Veneto is more marine, thanks to the Bay of Venice. 

Overall, temperatures are lower and the climate is not as affected by extremes of heat or cold in northeast vineyards. Ideal conditions for white varieties, like Riesling and other grapes that loosely fit in the aromatic white class. 

An aside. Italy has more indigenous grapes than any other country. There are hundreds of them planted from one end of the country to the other, including the islands. The top three most planted are Sardinia's Torbato Bianco, the widespread red Sangiovese and Sicily's white Catarratto. Then, Puglia's Primitivo, Barbera of northwestern Italy and, surprisingly, the non-indigenous Chardonnay.  Other indigenous grapes on the list are Sicily's Nero d'Avola and Pinot Grigio that seems to be planted everywhere.

Expect the white wines from Northern Italy to display clearly defined aromatic varietal character, have crisp natural acidity, ample varietal fruit and a clean finish.


In the mid 1990s, Veneto overtook Puglia and Sicily to become Italy's most productive wine region.  Credit for that advancement is largely due to the impressive success of Pinot Grigio and Prosecco.

By the beginning of the 21st century, the popularity of Pinot Grigio had grown so fast that it knocked Chardonnay out of first place as the world's most favored white wine.  For a while, and this may still be true, my Copy Editor's sister-in-law always had a magnum of Cavit Pinot Grigio close at hand.

Veneto's noted wines Bardolino, Soave, Valpolicella, plus a few others not as known in the United States, account for a healthy 10 percent of the country's total output.  By far, Soave is the leader of that trio, from the hilly area east of Verona.

Pinot Grigio


The region in northeastern Italy, also called as Friuli-Venezia Giulia, is known today for it's fresh, fruity white wines, notably those made from international varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. 

French red "Cabernets" are also popular, but sorting the names can be challenging.  The Italian fashion in the north is to use only "Cabernet" to identify either Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc. Complicating things, Cabernet Franc is sometimes spelled "Frank" in Friuli and the other north-east regions. 

International varieties, such as those mentioned above, as well as Pinot Blanc (Bianco) and Pinot Gris (Grigio) are hugely popular but are now sharing that popularity with indigenous grapes like Picolit, Ribolla and Verduzzo.

Trentino Alto Adige 

Known mostly for high production of Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Merlot, the alpine region, known by its double name of Trentino Alto Adige, is divided into Alto Adige in the north and Trentino in the south.  Both appellations, individually or combined, are used to market the wine of the region.  

The mass-market approach to wine is controlled by small groups of cooperatives and negociants, producing large quantities of wine from international varieties.There are also plenty of small wineries to keep the spirit of local wine alive.

An aside.  Cooperative and negociant are two terms not commonly used in the U.S. wine business.  Cooperatives are collective groups, usually owned by growers, wineries or both, processing grapes and making wine and sometimes marketing wine under a cooperative brand. Negociant is a French term for a merchant who buys grapes and wine and bottles wine under their own label.

Individual efforts using traditional indigenous varieties are yielding wines of high quality, from Lagrein, Schiava and Nosiola.  Keeping these wines in front of the public takes a lot of work and dedication by small wineries like Foradori.

Sparkling wine, carrying the Trento DOC, is made by metodo classico from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  There are many small producers, but the leader is Ferrari. 

Whether you're looking for international wines with an Italian touch, or want to experiment with an indigenous red such as Lagrein, look for wines bearing the appellations Veneto, Friuli and Trentino Alto Adige. 

Next blog: France Series: Champagne & Alsace

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Thursday, March 16, 2023

Paso Robles Reds

Here's a question to test your California wine knowledge: What is the most planted red grape in the Paso Robles AVA?

If you said Zinfandel, you'd be off...way off.  Although Paso Robles has long been linked with Zinfandel, the most planted red grape in "Paso" is Cabernet Sauvignon, followed by Petite Sirah, Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Mourvedre, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Syrah...and then Zinfandel.

One theory behind the Zin link, more fantasy than fact, I suspect, has to do with the Paso climate and a wild west legend.  Paso Robles, an inland part of San Luis Obispo County, is blazing hot in the summer and Paso Robles town once had a reputation as a safe haven for outlaws. So legend has it that the bad guys were looking for a liquid refresher to beat the heat. And that, according to the legend,  is where Zinfandel comes in.

I'd say that tale is as full of holes as the unfortunate bartender of the Paso town saloon who crossed old Bad Bart, an ornery sidewinder with a taste for sin, 'er Zin.


 "Give me a shot of Zinfandel and make it fast," Bart bellows sidling up to the bar.

 "I'm sorry, Mister Bart," squeaks the quaking bartender, "all we have is Red Eye." 

The well ventilated bartender and Bad Bart have passed into history, but the popularity of Paso Robles Zinfandel lingers on.  

Paso Robles Zin continues to make its mark, especially with intriguing names like "Twisted," "Double Black" and "Truth & Valor," but the reality is that in Paso Robles, Cabernet Sauvignon rules. Numbers show that there is more Cabernet Sauvignon (39%) planted in Paso than Zinfandel (8%). Even Merlot (14%) and Syrah (9%) are ahead of Zinfandel in Paso vineyards.  

All of those grapes and more (60 different varieties), are planted in 11 districts, with the largest concentration of wineries and vineyards between Paso Robles town and Templeton. In 1990 there were 20 wineries in Paso Robles. Today, there are more than 200.

Paso History

Grapes were first planted in 1787 by missionaries at Mission San Miguel Archangel, one of the string of Spanish missions that extended from San Diego north to the town of Sonoma. Commercial wine was first made in the 1880s at what is now York Mountain Winery.

Official recognition of Paso Robles had to wait until 1983 when an AVA was granted by the federal government. Then, in 2007 a proposal was submitted to split the area along the Salinas River and form "Paso Robles Westside," but it was turned down.

Since the 1980s when the first Rhone varieties were planted, Paso Robles has become a leading maker of Rhone-style wines in California. Today, Paso Robles has the largest acreage of Syrah, Viognier and Roussanne in the state.  The growing popularity of Rhone-style wines encouraged a group of Paso wine folks to stage the first Hospice du Rhone gathering. 


Tablas Creek, in the Adelaida District, west of Paso Robles, is one of the top producers of Rhone-style wines in California, if not the country. Tablas Creek is a  collaboration with the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel in the southern Rhone Valley.  

Still, Zinfandel is what many people think when they think of Paso Robles wine. 

Why Zinfandel?

Simply put, the grape likes warmth, Mediterranean heat, Paso Robles heat. And Paso's long growing season is just right for Zinfandel.  

The problem with that combination is it can mean high alcohol wines.  In the late 1970s early '80s, Zinfandel could easily reach a bruising 17%.  These high octane  Zins were delicious, like drinking Port, but they were a challenge to serve with food. 

A high alcohol Zin can still seem soft on the palate, mainly because of the abundance of primary fruit.  Some Paso Zins lack acidity, resulting in a little flabbiness. Paso growers got around that problem by better vineyard practices, while winemakers, working with better grapes, produced more balanced Zins.  

Still, some Zinfandel winemakers believe that Zin, by definition, is a higher alcohol red wine and any attempt in the winery to lower the alcohol will result in just another red wine, but not one that is characteristic Zinfandel.

Why Paso Robles?

You can choose your red wine from anywhere else in California, but Paso Robles reds, especially Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon, are warm, fruity and inviting, the very wines you want at your next dinner. 

Next blog: Northern Italian Whites

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Thursday, March 9, 2023

France Series: Loire Valley & Rhone Valley

There is hardly a spot in France where wine is not made. From the sparkling wines of Champagne in the northernmost region to the wide array of table wines and bubbly along the southern parts of the country; France is awash in wine.

Spanning across the country's midsection, the agriculturally important Loire Valley has earned the reputation as the "Garden of France." The Loire is both an east-west-oriented valley and a river.  And the Loire river supplies irrigation for the valley's many crops and vines and is a means of river transportation. 

Situated in southeastern France, the Rhone Valley has earned its renown as the source of some of the country's most highly regarded red wines, as well as an impressive wine blend with an ecclesiastical history. 

Along the narrow river valley, the Rhone is home to an impressive selection of wines, that in their uniqueness rival any in the world. 

There's a lot more to say about the Rhone Valley and its wines, but first, there's this about the Loire Valley and its wines.

Loire Valley

No fewer than 30 wines are made in the Loire Valley, a verdant corridor that runs west to east across the center of France.  In the tradition of great wine that comes from areas adjacent to a body of water, the Loire river is the climactic tempering force that helps wine grapes to thrive. From the river's source in the eastern Massif Central, the Loire river runs 625 miles before forming a delta and then emptying into the Atlantic ocean. 

Along the way numerous wine districts are woven into the natural fabric of the valley alongside orchards, flower gardens and a seemingly endless variety of grand estates with picturesque castles.  To travel along the Loire is to satisfy all of the senses.

Loire chateau

The most important Loire wines and grapes are Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume (Sauvignon Blanc), Vouvray (Chenin Blanc), Anjou-Saumur (Cabernet Franc), Muscadet (Melon), Quincy and Reuilly (Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris).

One other Loire wine that seems to escape Americans is Saumur Mousseux, a high acid sparkling wine made mostly from Chenin Blanc.  Cabernet Franc is the base for Saumur Rouge, a refreshing light and frothy red bubbly with good fruit.  And then there's the Chenin Blanc-based sparkler Saumur-Champigny. 

Rhone Valley  

It is hard to overstate the value of Rhone wines to the history of French wine. In the past, when Bordeaux found it difficult to ripen their grapes, robust Rhone wines came to the rescue. Syrah and Grenache, to name a few Rhone varieties, deepened the color and helped build the body of anemic Bordeaux wines. 

The Rhone Valley has a long and storied history. Long before the Christian era, the Gauls were moving wine up river deep into the valley. The Rhone river flows for more than 500 miles, starting at Vienne in the north and flowing south through four distinct wine regions before emptying into the Mediterranean at Arles. Along the way, are were many ports of call.

In terms of quantity, the Southern Rhone is the largest producer with such noted wines as Tavel, Chateauneuf-du-Pape (more than one million bottles annually), Gigondas and Beaumes-de-Venise. Red varieties of the Southern Rhone include Mourvedre and Carignan, with Grenache the dominant red grape.  

Remains of the "chateauneuf"

Chateauneuf-du-Pape takes its name from the summer home of the Avignon popes in the 14th century. The law allows 18 red and white grapes in the blend, although in practice contemporary blends consist of varying amounts of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault.  There is also a white Chateauneuf made mainly of Grenache Blanc.

Southern Rhone is one of the few places in France that makes a vin doux naturel, or natural sweet wine.  Beaumes-de-Venise, made from Muscat, is a fragrant nectar with a lovely golden, slightly pink color.  It's sweet!  But like all great sweet wines, Beaumes-de-Venise is balanced nicely with good acidity.

The wines of the Northern Rhone -- Cote Rotie, Chateau Grillet, St. Joseph, Hermitage, Cornas -- are the most prestigious and longest lived Rhone wines. Amounting to less than 5% of the total Rhone production, Northern Rhone wines are geared to the fine wine collector and not the mass market. 

Syrah is the only grape permitted in Northern Rhone red wines.  At its greatest,  Cote Rotie and Hermitage are at the top of this class, while for value, it's hard to beat St. Joseph and Cornas. Viognier is the grape of Condrieu and the tiny exclusive Ch. Grillet.  Other Northern Rhone white wines are made from Marsanne and Roussanne.

Value seekers are in luck with Cotes du Rhone, the Rhone's other appellation.  Made mainly from Southern Rhone varieties, Cote du Rhone reds are blends, of which Grenache must be 40%, with Syrah and Mourvedre at 15%.  Viognier and Carignan may also be included in the mix.

When you're thinking of trying a French wine, there is a wide variety available.  Dry to sweet, still to sparkling, few regions offer more than the Loire and Rhone.


Next blog: Paso Robles Reds

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Friday, March 3, 2023

Wine from a Narrow Country

Recently, some family members picked up on the "New York Times" online puzzles that include Wordle and the deceptive Worldle. The Worldle puzzle tricks the puzzler into thinking they know more about world geography than they do.  Worldle shows the outline of a country like Italy or Chile and the puzzler is then asked to guess the country. 

Anyone knowing even the basics of geography easily recognizes Italy's boot shape.  But what about trying to guess the many small African countries, or Chile? 

Chile should be easy.  Long and slender, it runs north to south for nearly 4,300 miles along the western coast of South America.  The widest part of Chile is a mere 49 miles, between the snow capped Andes mountains in the east and the Pacific Ocean Pacific Ocean in the west. 

                                            Chile map Vector illustration of the map of Chile chile outline stock illustrations

That doesn't leave much room for wine growing. Yet, the Chileans have skillfully   found the best spots for vineyards, at high altitudes in the northern region of Salta, and the flatter southern expanses of Bio-Bio.   

Standing on the coast, facing east, the Andes seem to be hiding behind the near  horizon of a rising landscape. But the mountains are there forming a barrier, keeping phylloxera, an aphid that has destroyed many vineyards elsewhere and continues to be a problem, from entering Chile. On the plus side, the year round mountain snow fields in the Andes are a continuous source of runoff, supplying water to Chile's extensive system of irrigation canals. 

For years, Chilean grape growers used the ample Andes runoff to irrigate their vineyards. In the past, grapes were once sold on weight, so growers would flood their vineyards just before harvest, plumping the berries. Stories are told of the resistance from older growers to the introduction of drip irrigation and the efforts to control vineyard flooding.    

The Regions & Wines

Here's a breakout of Chile's top wine regions, north to south:

Aconcagua is the northernmost fine wine region, known mainly for red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  Vina Errazuriz pioneered much of the grape growing in Panquehue and Manzanar sub regions.  Errazuriz's Don Maximiano Bordeaux-style blend is one of Chile's best-known red wines.  Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and a little Pinoir Noir from the cooler coastal Manzanar are among Aconcagua's most successful wines. 

Close to the coast, south of the major port city of Valparaiso, the small region of Casablanca is noted for the bulk of Chile's cool-climate wines such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.  South of Casablanca, the San Antonio valley is one of Chile's newest wine regions, with the same cool-climate varieties as Casablanca.  

An aside. Casablanca and San Antonio valleys are both coastal regions growing the same cool-climate grapes.  Where they differ is that the San Antonio valley runs north to south with all vineyards benefiting from the cool coastal breezes, while Casablanca runs east to west which means it is a transversal valley with warmer zones in the east and cooler zones in the west closer to the ocean.

Another anomaly for those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere is remembering that in the Southern Hemisphere, the further south you go, the cooler it becomes, while a warmer more tropical climate is in the north.  

Beyond the smaller northern zones, most of Chile's wine comes from the Central Valley, a huge area, including the capital city Santiago, stretching north to south from Maipo to the Southern region zones of Bil-Bio and Itata.

Directly east of San Antonio valley is Maipo, the most famous wine region in Chile. Maipo vineyards have a predominance of red varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenere.  Whites are Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.  Top wineries: Concha y' Toro, Carmen, Santa Rita, Cousino Macul, Patrick Valette. 

Rapel is divided into two transversal valleys: Cachapoal and Colchagua, that run from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenere are the most planted varieties.  The potential of Rapel for great wine has attracted foreign investment: Los Vascos (Ch. Lafite-Rothschild)and Casa Lapostolle.  Other wineries: Vina Montes, Undurraga, Santa Emiliana.

Curico has two sub-regions of note: Lontue and Teno. Little was known of Curico outside Chile until 1979 and the arrival of Spanish vintner, Miguel Torres.  Except for Torres, the other Curico wineries of note are Valdivieso and San Pedro, although all the big wineries have extensive vineyards in Curico. 

Maule, one of Chile's cooler regions, has five sub-regions, with Talca and Linares the most important. Many of Maule's western vineyard areas are deficient in nutrients, especially nitrogen, but modern vineyard practices are helping to overcome these problems. Once an area for bulk wine, Maule now grows varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Carignan.

In the Southern region are two relatively new wine regions: Itata and Bio-Bio. Lacking the protection of the Andes, the southern regions experience higher rainfall and cooler temperatures.  Cinsault and Muscat of Alexandria are the most planted varieties by Concha y' To William Fevre.

Chenqueco Village and Ralco Lake, Alto Bío Bío
Alto Bio-Bio


Grapes & Vines

Until the 1990s, the most common grape variety in Chile was the Pais, but in a short time, Cabernet Sauvignon shot into first place as the most planted variety, followed by Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the latter a slow performer in Chile. 

One interesting aspect of Chile's vineyard leap forward in the early 1990s was the discovery that much of what was thought as Sauvignon Blanc was, in fact, Sauvignon Vert and Sauvignon Gris.  And DNA vine identification also showed that a lot of Merlot was Carmenere.  

The bright side is that innovative Chilean marketers turned this confusion around, making Carmenere the Chilean signature wine, the way that Argentina captured Malbec.

Today, Chilean wines are among the world's finest, especially for high quality for the price.  


Next entry: France Series: Loire & Rhone

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