Thursday, April 27, 2023

Benchmark Roses

In the wide world of wine, a crowded field of thousands of different types, there is no wine that has had more ups and downs than rose.

Perhaps it's because people can't get their heads around pink wines. Are they lightly tinted white wines, weak reds, or a refreshing fruity wine?

The confusion is understandable, because the market keeps shifting for pink wines. Roses are in and before you know it, they're out. And then the cycle begins again. 


Pink wines are made in just about every place where wine is made, from Austria to New Zealand, Argentina to Italy and from California to South Africa. And while all  of these places have a well-defined style of rose, based on a specific grape or grapes, the benchmark for them all lies in the warmer southern part of France. 

Estimates are that about 30% of world pink wine production comes from France.  Specifically, age-worthy Cabernet Rose d'Anjou from the Loire Valley, full-bodied blends from Aix-en-Provence and fruit-sweet dry Tavel from the southern Rhone Valley. 

Elsewhere in the wine world, pink wines are often an after thought.  What to do with a red variety in its third or fourth leaf that is still not mature enough for a saleable red wine?  Maybe squeeze a little profit out of the grapes by making a rose.  Or, take some of your Grenache or Gamay and make a rose to round out the line and provide an alternative for those visitors in the tasting room that cannot decide on white or red. 

No matter how it works out, few wine regions, except for France, dedicate all or most of their harvest to rose wines.

Cabernet Rose d'Anjou is the preferred style of pink wine today in Anjou, replacing a sweet rose, called Rose d'Anjou, made from the undistinguished Grolleau grape. Improved vineyard practices for the Grolleau have given Rose d'Anjou wines new life.

Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon build Anjou roses structure, complexity and the ability to age and mature, not usually a characteristic of pink wines. Cabernet Rose d'Anjou are deeply colored, with a subtle herbaceousness and good balancing acidity. 

Aix-en-Provence Rose can be made from a blend of a wide range of red grapes, including Grenache, Cinsaut, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.  Provence roses are lightly colored, simple and fruity and ready to drink. A huge amount of pink wine comes out of this large Mediterranean region.

Tavel, is the noted all-rose appellation in the southern Rhone Valley, across the river from Chateauneuf-du-Pape. A blend of Grenache and Cinsaut grapes, gives Tavel roses a pleasant sweet impression, though the wine is always dry.  Tavels are light in color, fruity, with a good acid/fruit balance. 

Roses' Best Grape

There is a case to be made that there is really just one grape for pink wine and that would be Grenache (technically Grenache Noir since there is a white Grenache.) In Spain Garnacha (Grenache) is the grape of delightful Garnacha Rosado.

Grenache ready to pick

 One taste of a pink wine made from Grenache and you're hooked on the bright strawberry flavors, accented with earthy notes, sometimes with a subtle leathery note. Braced with good acidity, Grenache/Garnacha roses are great summer wines, especially with light foods, like cold ham off the bone and chicken salad. 

Of course, you can make a pink wine from any red variety.  In France, Cinsaut is a popular add-in, as is Merlot and occasionally Pinot Noir, although pinot is a challenge to get varietal character in a pink wine.  Zinfandel roses have had mixed success, with some tasting more like light red wines than pink wines.  Same is true for those pink wines made from other deeply colored grapes like Mourvedre, Malbec and Carignan.

Making Rose 

Today, there are two popular ways to make a rose wine: macerating dark-skin grapes, like Grenache, for 8 to 12 hours, and by blending red wine with white wine.  Maceration is the most common and generally makes the best wine.  Blending finished wines is usually preferred for basic pink wines, except for Rose Champagne, perhaps the best-known blended pink wine. 

And then there is a technique known as saignee, or "bleeding," where a small amount of juice is run off from crushed dark-skinned grapes. Co-fermenting red and white grapes is another method used to make pink wines.  Lastly, there is Vin Gris, that despite its gray name is a rose fermented like a white wine, except that the juice is not macerated.

Enjoying Rose

Roses are a good alternative wherever the call is for a white or light red wine. Grilled fish or vegetables, pork, chicken or turkey white meat are good choices as is any vegetarian dish.  The idea is to not get stuck in rules, but find what you like and then enjoy the combination. 


 Next blog: Bordeaux Blend

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Thursday, April 20, 2023

Napa Series: Oak Knoll to Calistoga


There is a large sign along Highway 29 announcing to all travelers that they are passing through the famous Napa Valley.  The "Welcome to the Napa Valley" greeting, near Oakville, may be the most photographed sign in California, after the famous "Hollywood," sign on the hillside outside Los Angeles. 

By the time you've passed the Napa Valley sign, you are already about mid-way up the valley, past Oak Knoll and Yountville, with Rutherford, St. Helena and Calistoga to come. Geographically, Napa Carneros is separated from the main part of the valley. 

These names (and others) are the source of noted wines with specific pedigrees, identified by wine drinkers everywhere. For some, Napa Valley means California wine. It is hallowed ground for wine fans, wine tourists and day trippers who gladly put up with crowded tasting rooms and long waits at the valley's acclaimed  restaurants. 

What they are coming for is to taste Cabernet Sauvignon, the king of Napa Valley. And some of the anxious and thirsty will be looking for Merlot, Cabernet Franc and a smattering of Petite Verdot, Malbec, Syrah and Zinfandel.  If white wine is what they are after, there's Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, with a small amount of Chenin Blanc. 

There are 16 American Viticultural Areas (AVA) in the Napa Valley, scattered along H-29 on the valley floor, the Silverado Trail and in the mountains.  The following six appellations, from south to north, on both sides of Highway 29 and along the Silverado Trail, are closely associated with Cabernet Sauvignon, the core of Napa red wine.

Oak Knoll District (AVA 2004) is the southern most part of the valley, between Yountville and the city of Napa.  Cool breezes off San Pablo Bay temper the growing conditions, ideal for Merlot, Chardonnay and Zinfandel.  The somewhat cumbersome name for this area is a compromise settlement of a complaint filed with the federal government by Oak Knoll Winery in Oregon. Noted wineries: Voss Vineyards, Hagafen Cellars, Trefethen Vineyards, Black Stallion Winery, Boyd Family Vineyard.

Yountville (AVA 1999) is a name that resonates with foodies hoping to score a reservation at the famous French Laundry, arguably America's best restaurant. Yountville is also the location of Dominus, owned by the proprietor of Ch. Petrus, one of Bordeaux's most celebrated wines, as well as the home of Domaine Chandon, the U.S. outpost of Champagne's Moet & Chandon.  Wineries: Kapcsandy Family Vineyard, Hoopes Family Vineyard, Grgich Hills Estate, Ad Vivum, Monticello Vineyards, Rocca Family Vineyards.

Oakville (AVA 1993) is known for famous vineyards like ToKalon and noted "cult" wines like Harlan and Screaming Eagle. For those who remember back to the original cult cabernets, there's Opus One. A variable wind off the bay keeps Oakville cool, adding a delicate dimension to the wines.  Wineries: Robert Mondavi, Far Niente, Groth, Rudd, Peter Michael, Dalla Valle.

Rutherford (AVA 1993) is on land formerly known as the Rancho Caymus land grant.  The collection of famous Rutherford vineyards lends an authenticity to Napa Valley.  To name just a few, there's Beaulieu 1 and 2, Bella Oaks and Inglenook.  Slightly warmer than Oakville, Rutherford red wines have an attractive ripeness balanced with crisp acidity. More Rutherford wineries: Staglin, Honig, Sequoia Grove, Caymus, Inglenook, Hall Wines.

St. Helena (AVA 1995) is one of the valley's more interesting appellations, since it would seem that people associate the name more with the town than the wines. Yet the areas soil diversity and moderate weather contribute to proper grape ripening in mountain bench and valley floor vineyards.  Wineries: Beringer, Rombauer, Crocker & Starr, Corison. Hall Wines, Spottswoode.

Calistoga (AVA 2009), in the summer, is hotter than just about any place in the Napa Valley.  Fortunately, it cools off at night, thanks to breezes wafting in from Knights Valley.  This diurnal shift makes Calistoga a cool place for Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel.  Noted wineries include Chateau Montelena, Sterling Vineyards, Araujo Estate, Storybook Mountain Vineyards, Ballentine Vineyards. Tom Eddy Wines.

An aside.  One of the most unusual, and for a time controversial, wineries in California, is Sterling Vineyards. Perched atop a hill off Dunaweal Lane, between St. Helena and Calistoga, the Sterling winery reminds one of an orthodox monastery on a Greek isle.  The unusual design and location of the winery came from Peter Newton and Michael Stone, owners of the Sterling Paper Company. A visit to the winery required a ride on a cable car, like those at a ski resort. The fee, to ride the tram, which is partially returned with a wine purchase, was perhaps the first tasting fee by any winery in California. 

Next blog: Benchmark Roses

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Thursday, April 13, 2023



Some say that understanding the complexities of Chianti is understanding Italian red wine. Chianti is, after all, a complex region with a main geographical area,  multiple sub zones plus a classic zone to consider. 

Tuscany, perhaps Italy's most popular tourist destination, is where to find Chianti, although wine tourists mostly go to Tuscany for the red wine.  The meaning of Tuscany today is not only centered around wine, but also a long history of culture and art that includes the magnificent frescoes of Giotto and the sculptures of Michelangelo.


Tuscany is the most important wine region in central Italy, with a number of famous wines -- Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Bolgheri, Brunello di Montalcino. Grand and noble wines, but Chianti outshines them all in value, variety and according to some discerning palates, quality. 

The Chianti region, located between Florence and Siena, has a colorful history dating back to the 13th century.  Chianti consists of seven sub zones, of which, thanks to  Frescolbaldi, the best known to American wine consumers is Chianti Rufina (not to be confused with the Chianti producer Ruffino).

Sangiovese is the main grape for all Chianti.  Percentages vary, but the requirement calls for 70% in Chianti and 80% in Chianti Classico. That leaves a substantial percentage to be filled with other red grapes like Canaiolo and Colorino.  White varieties Trebbiano and Malvasia are also permitted although they are rarely used in Chianti Classico.

Credit for the allowance of white grapes in the Chianti blend goes to Baron Ricasoli who in 1872 suggested that the blend be based on Sangiovese for bouquet, with a little Canaiolo to soften the wine and Malvasia to lighten the wine for early drinking.  The baron's formula, more or less, is used to this day for standard Chianti.

The taste of Sangiovese is savory with hints of cherry and herbs, braced with good acidity and tannins.  Add any of the other grapes and you have a different wine, one with more structure and texture. Some Chiantis have Cabernet Sauvignon and/or Merlot in the blend and they alter the taste of Sangiovese.

The bottom line is, while there are some good quality Chiantis, most of it is  ordinary fruity red wine, ready to drink.  And that's why the discerning buyer turns to Chianti Classico and Chianti Rufina.

Chianti Classico

At the heart of the Chianti region is the Chianti Classico zone, consisting of wineries grouped under the Chianti Classico Consorzio, identified by the Gallo Nero (black cockerel) neck label.  Since its founding in 1924, the Consorzio has set a standard for its wines that are more particular than standard Chianti. 


Chianti Classico has three levels: Anatta (meaning "vintage" or the base level), Riserva, required by the Consorzio to be aged a minimum of 24 months, and Gran Selezione, aged a minimum of 30 months.  Gran Selezione represents only 5% of Chianti Classico. The classic zone was elevated to DOCG in 1987.

In 2021, the Consorzio approved 11 new UGAs or Additional Geographical Units (Unita Geografiche Aggiuntive).  UGA are sub regions or special growing zones, such as Greve, Castelnuovo and Radda, but they are not a single vineyard designation.  For now, UGAs will be allowed only on Gran Selezione wines.

Chianti Rufina

As far back as the early 18th century, Chianti Rufina was producing quality wine, based on Sangiovese.  The smallest of the seven sub zones, Chianti Rufina is best represented in the export market by Frescobaldi. 

One of the most noteworthy estates in Rufina is Pomino, owned by Frescobaldi.  Pomino is primarily a Chardonnay, with its own DOC, although there is also a Chardonnay/Pinot Blanc blend.  A rarity for Tuscany is Pomino Pinot Nero. 

Prices for a bottle of current vintage Chianti or Chianti Classico range from $20 to $41.  Chianti is the least expensive and Chianti Classico, especially Gran Selezione are generally more expensive and can cost $40 or more. 

Here are a few reliable Chianti producers: Fontodi, Castello di Volpaia, Villa Antinori, Ruffino, Isole e Olena, Frescobaldi, Baron Ricasoli.

An aside.  There is a trattoria in the Classic Zone (the town escapes) with an unusual "wine list."   In place of a printed list, or a cumbersome book, "Everest" had a side table with a few dozen bottles of Chianti Classico. Select one or more bottles, carry the wine to your table and someone will come by and pull the cork(s).  All wines were the same price and someone on the staff could fill you in on the particulars of your chosen wine.  What could be simpler and less intimidating and why do we not see this kind of non-pretentious wine program at restaurants in this country?

Next blog: Napa Valley Series: Oak Knoll to Calistoga

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Thursday, April 6, 2023

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


The other day, I was sitting at my desk staring out the window, sipping a 1982 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. 

Okay, that's not completely true.  I was staring out the window, but I was day dreaming about sipping an '82 Lafite.  Between imaginary sips, my mind wandered to an odd subject: do most (or many) wine drinkers understand wine flaws? Or do wine drinkers even know what are wine flaws?

I admit, that's an odd combination: Lafite and wine flaws.  Although anything is possible, especially with older wine, it's not likely that you would ever open a bottle of Ch. Lafite-Rothschild and find a flaw.

Still, not long ago, it would not be unusual to find a corked wine, or a wine infected with brettanomyces, or a wine that smelled and tasted more like vinegar than wine. Fortunately, those days are mostly behind us. Technological advances in modern wine making have mostly eliminated flaws.  But flaws still do occur.

So, here are five common flaws you are most likely to encounter (if ever) in today's wines.  In general, the older the wine, the more likely it is to have one or more of these flaws. 

Cork taint -- There was a time, when as much as 10% of the wines tasted at a large wine competition, were corked. 

Let that number sink in.

What other major business would tolerate a 10% failure rate? And yet, the problem with faulty corks continued far too long before the wine cork industry, mainly in Portugal, did something about it. 

The culprit is a chemical called trichloroanisole, or "TCA."  Cork producers believe that corks are infected with TCA during processing.  A faulty cork causes  the wine to smell musty or moldy and TCA mutes the flavor of the wine. 

Today, it is rare to find a corked wine.

Volatile acidity -- This flaw is caused by a bacteria spoilage. VA, or acetic acid, smells like vinegar and it leaves an unpleasant impression in the finish of a wine. The legal accepted level of VA in the United States is 1.4 g/l (grams per liter)in red wine and 1.2 g/l for whites. Europe is 1.2 g/l for still wine and Australia allows for 1.5 g/l. 

That's the regulatory side of wine making. In reality, detectable VA in a wine today, by smell or taste, is rare.

Oxidation -- Too much air mixing with wine causes oxidation, a flaw noticed more in older wines and wine by-the-glass.  An oxidized wine smells musty, like wet cardboard and in older wines that have been exposed to too much air. A clear visual indication of oxidation is  a browning color.  

As a wine ages, some oxidation is acceptable and is considered by some to add complexity to red wine. Sherry is an example of an intentionally oxidized wine.

Hydrogen sulfide -- This flaw, known by it's chemical identifier H2S, is an off smell and taste, like rotten eggs.  All wine contains elemental sulfur, but good wine making will keep it under control.  Still, sulfur dioxide (SO2), may be present in wine and identified as a burnt match smell, while mercaptans, another form of sulfur, smells like burnt rubber or canned asparagus.

There is one more flaw that I've saved until last because not everyone agrees that it is a flaw, or at least they will say that too much brettanomyces is not good but a little is okay.

Brettanomyces -- Few wine flaws cause more controversy than brettanomyces, or "brett," as it is known in wine circles. Brett causes disagreements by those who like a little in their red wine and those who abhor it.  Brett may be present in the winery and is hard to get rid of.  

In wine, brett smells earthy, leathery, metallic.  Brett is historically present in Bordeaux and Rioja red wines.

A final comment about wine flaws.  Not everyone has the same sensitivity to flaws like brett or sulfur.  A well organized wine competition will convene a tasting panel with judge's having different sensitivities.  It's essential to not have all judges on the same panel not be able to detect, or be over-sensitive to a specific flaw. 

Lastly, personal preference is not a wine flaw. Because you don't like the style of wine you just bought or ordered in a restaurant, doesn't mean there is anything technically wrong with the wine. To quote an overused contemporary cliche: you bought the wine, now own it

With a little practice, anyone can learn to identify a flaw in a wine. The trick is to remember what to look for, then store it in your wine memory for future reference. But don't let looking for possible flaws stop you from enjoying the wine experience. 


Next blog: A Chianti for Every Taste

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