Thursday, May 25, 2023

How Popular is Chardonnay?


Chardonnay has famously been described as the 800-pound gorilla of wine. That dominance (some would say arrogance) has even encouraged some wag to pronounce:  "Anything but Chardonnay."

Is it fair to tag a wine with such negativity?  Well, when you're leading the competition, those lagging behind believe anything is fair game. 

Look around, Chardonnay is everywhere! There was a time (hopefully not anymore) when you would order white wine in your favorite trendy bar and Chardonnay would appear in your glass. 

As of this writing, Chardonnay is the most popular white wine in the world. In terms of plantings worldwide, Chardonnay comes after Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo and Airen. Chardonnay is the most planted white wine grape in California and Washington state.  California acreage in order: Monterey, Sonoma, San Joaquin, Napa and Yolo counties.

One more gee-whiz statistic: The average price per ton of Chardonnay in California is $3,000, while a ton of premium Chardonnay will cost you $1,500 in Washington state.  Those amounts might be minimums since Chardonnay from the most prized vineyards is going to fetch even higher prices.

Years ago, in California, some wineries listed the variety as "Pinot Chardonnay" on the front label. Purists objected claiming there was no such grape as "Pinot Chardonnay."  Then, along came genetic testing (aka DNA) that showed the parents of Chardonnay are Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc, an obscure grape from central and northeast France. So, there is a pinot, after all, somewhere on the Chardonnay family tree.

Chardonnay Styles

Modern Chardonnay, no matter where in the world it is made, comes in two popular styles: oaked and unoaked.  For years, the oaked version was the only style available.  Fortunately, winemakers have backed off on the oak and there has been a resurgence in unoaked Chardonnay, mostly in reaction to claims that the true fruit character of Chardonnay is difficult to taste under all that oak. 

Ironically, on its own, Chardonnay can be a simple, even bland wine, so maybe a little oak seasoning will pep up the flavors. The answer to the blandness, of course, is to pick Chardonnay riper and be more selective with the grapes in the vineyard. 

Proper Chardonnay, sans oak, is ripe pears and apples that have ripened past the green stage, with traces of citrus and honey. Other descriptors include acacia, but not everyone knows what that smells like.  Burgundy has a noticeable mineral note. Add oak into the equation and everything changes.


White Burgundy, made exclusively from Chardonnay, was once the only benchmark for style.  Those wines from the Cote d'Or were more minerally with a seamless meeting of oak and fruit.  As Chardonnay from California, the Pacific Northwest and Australia, to name just a few New World regions, grew in popularity, a new benchmark was added with the minerality giving way to more fruit notes like ripe pears.

French oak seasons a wine with a spicy note, but the process of toasting (or charring) the interior of the barrel can change the character and degree of the seasoning.  Even, the forest where the oak is taken (Nevers, Troncais, Limousin) will influence the "oakiness" of the aging wine. Other influencing factors include  toasting levels (light, medium, heavy) and how the cooperage defines those levels. 

Warmer growing conditions will, of course, yield riper grapes and lower acidity, while cool areas produce lower sugar levels and higher natural acidity, so the grower and winemaker have to find the right balance.

This contrast marks the basic difference between Chardonnays from northern California and Burgundy, two places where the Chardonnay grape is the leading white variety.  

Worldwide, the local style of Chardonnay depends on such factors as where the variety is grown and how it is handled in the winery.  By and large, though, Chardonnay is either oaked or not oaked.  Italian Chardonnay is a good example. Gaja Chardonnay, made by the noted red wine producer from Barbaresco is unmistakably oaked.  Not far away, in another part of northern Italy, Chardonnay is more commonly made in the unoaked style. 

All of this begs the question: What is the best style of Chardonnay? Depends on if you like oak in your wine.  There was a quote about oak and wine circulating for years, attributed to a few people.  Louis Martini was the Napa winery owner I heard who was supposed to have said: "If I want to taste oak, I'll chew on a piece of oak wood."   

Chardonnay has a lot going for it, with oak or without.  The danger is getting in a rut, ignoring the many other white wines like Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Arneis, Chenin Blanc, Albarino, Riesling and Gewurztraminer (even if you can't pronounce it), while knowing, that in the back of your mind, you can always come back to Chardonnay.


Next blog: Kiwi Reds

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Thursday, May 18, 2023

Oak Seasonings

There is an analogy in wine making that goes something like this: aging wine in an oak barrel, is like seasoning stew in a pot.

Before wine is racked into a barrel, it is just wine.  After it has been in oak for a specified time, a new wine is transformed that is no longer just wine, but now something different because of its exposure to the oak. (Throughout this essay, the only wood mentioned will be oak, although there are other woods used in wine making, like chestnut).

There are many different types of oak, but just two botanical geniuses or Quercus: two European and one American that are the overwhelming choices for wine making.  European oaks used mainly in wine making are Quercus robur (aka French oak) and Quercus petraea. 


The majority of American oak used in wine making is Quercus alba.  Oregon winemakers have been experimenting with a white oak, Quercus garryana.

There is no hard and fast rule saying that any type of wine must be fermented or aged in any type of oak.  While there is some general agreement which pairing works best, winemakers are free to experiment.  In the early 1990s, Napa Valley Chardonnay was aged in French oak (and still is), but the folks at ZD Wines thought their Chardonnay tasted better after a period in American oak.

Although there are no records that Bordeaux red and white wine were ever aged in anything but French oak, winemakers in other regions discovered that certain oaks marry better with specific wines. Chardonnay, for instance, is thought to be better with less assertive French oak than more aggressive and tannic American oak.  On the other hand, American oak seems better suited to tame the strong tannins of Zinfandel. 

Another factor in deciding what oak to use was the availability of local wood. For years, some Italian winemakers used locally-grown chestnut, Chilean wines were aged in rauli (a type of evergreen beech) and California wines were matured in redwood tanks.  Local woods were used because that was what grew near the winery and was the most economical.

Of course, there is also the botanical makeup of oak trees to consider in  wine making and the aging of wine in oak.  Mostly it has to do with the physical characteristics, such as tight grain or loose grain, which determine the practical necessity of sawing or splitting the oak into lengths that will become staves.  

The trunk of an oak tree is made up of bundles of tubes, blocked by tyloses. The more tyloses and tubes the more water tight the barrel.  American oak has many tyloses, thus it can be sawn, while French oak is deficient in tyloses, requiring a cooper to split the oak. 

Oak Flavors 

The flavors in wine derived from contact with oak is a complex subject involving a lot of chemical substances.  What follows are general comments describing the three main flavoring compounds in oak. 

Lactones are compounds, higher in American oak than in French oak, that provide a coconut flavor. Toasting, or charring the inside of the barrel brings out earthy and spicy notes. 

Aldehydes provide the vanillan (vanilla) compound, found to be higher in American oak than French oak. 

Phenols provide aromatic elements, from clove to lightly smoky.

Other contributors include terpenes (perfume), carbohydrates and tannins, compounds found in some oaks.  In a broad sense, then, vanilla and coconut are associated more with American oak, while spice is more common in French oak. 

The Rise of American Oak

Years ago, American white oak, grown mainly in the Midwest, was used mostly for whiskey barrels.  Large cooperages turned out thousands of barrels, on a sort of assembly line, that were sold to Bourbon distilleries. American oak for wine use was then mostly unheard of. 

As the demand from wineries, mainly in California, grew for American oak barrels, large cooperages, like Canton, devoted a small part of their vast space to making wine barrels, mainly by hand, a process known as "raising a barrel." Seeing a chance to get into a growing business, French cooperages such as Seguin Moreau established cooperages in California wine country.


There is so much more to be said about the close association of oak and wine, such as how the barrels are made, how the wine is made, how long the wine stays in contact with the oak, the age of the barrel and how many times it has been used and more.  

The bottom line is, like anything else, too much oak can spoil the wine. But careful use with just the right type of oak, and the marriage is harmonious.

Next blog: Chardonnay Styles

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Thursday, May 11, 2023

Napa Series: Mountains & Valleys

Since 1983, when the first official appellations were approved, grape growing and wine making in the Napa Valley have grown to a current total of 16 American Viticultural Areas (AVA). The first six AVAs in this series, from Oak Knoll to Calistoga, were covered in the April 21 blog. 

This second (and final) part of the Napa Series will include a brief look at the remaining 10 AVAs, consisting of a mix of mountain vineyards and lesser known outlying appellations.

Napa Mountain Appellations

The emergence of a vineyard, in often inaccessible mountain locations, happens when land owners, usually looking for a quiet place to live, decide that having a vineyard might be a fun way to raise a little extra cash.  A vineyard consultant is hired, heavy equipment brought in and money starts flowing out. 

Developing vineyards at such storied sites as Howell Mountain, Diamond Mountain, Spring Mountain, Mount Veeder and Atlas Peak, required accessibility.  Constructing vineyards at elevations between 1,300 and 2,600 feet above the valley floor, posed many challenges. 

Howell Mountain (AVA 1983)is a northern district, directly northeast of Calistoga.  Cool daytime temperatures and warm nights encourage Cabernet Sauvignon to ripen with intense berry flavors and full tannins. Wineries on the mountain include O'Shaughnessy and Lamborn, while many others use grapes from Howell Mountain including Dunn, Tom Eddy and Black Stallion.

Diamond Mountain (AVA 2001) is between Calistoga and St. Helena on the west side of the valley. A variety of grapes grow best in vineyards up to 2,600 feet. Schramsberg, Napa Valley's celebrated sparkling wine producer is here as is Castello di Amoroso, with its replica of an Italian castle. Wineries include Diamond Creek Vineyards, von Strasser, Schramsberg and Seaver Vineyards.

Historic Schramsberg cellar

Spring Mountain (AVA 1993), south of Diamond Mountain, is known for its complex red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  Spring Mountain whites include Chardonnay, and distinctive Riesling from Smith-Madrone. Wines to consider include Terra Valentine, Philip Togni, Smith-Madrone.

Mount Veeder (AVA 1993) is at the southern end of the valley and high in the Macacamas range. Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are the main grapes, although there are 25 varieties growing at heights up to 2,500 feet.  Wineries include Hess Collection, Mayacamas, Alpha Omega, Mi Sueno and Mount Veeder Winery.

Atlas Peak (AVA 1992) is known for Cabernet Sauvignon, especially from Stagecoach Vineyard and Sangiovese from Atlas Peak Winery, once owned now managed by the Tuscany house of Marchesi Antinori.  Bordeaux varieties thrive in the rich volcanic red soil.  Among the wineries using grapes from Atlas Peak are Kongsgaard, Rombauer, Michael Mondavi Family and Bialla Vineyards.

Beyond the Valley Floor

In the smaller valleys, running east and west from the floor of the Napa Valley, the story is mostly the same, especially with a focus on Cabernet Sauvignon.  Farmers and orchard owners calculate that if wine grapes will grow in the Napa Valley, dirt is dirt after all, then why not in Coombsville, Wild Horse Valley, Chiles Valley, Stags Leap District and Los Carneros.

Stags Leap District (AVA 1989) lies between Silverado Trail and the eastern foothills. Pioneers in this sub-region, (technically on the valley floor) include Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Clos du Val and Stags' Leap Winery. Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is as important as any in the valley, especially for intense blackberry flavors and supple tannins. 

A brief note on the apostrophe: The district name doesn't use it, Wine Cellars claims a single leaping stag and Winery believes there are (were) more than one stag.

Los Carneros (AVA 1983) is world famous for its distinctive Pinot Noir and Chardonnay while Merlot and Syrah also draw attention.  The sub-region sprawls across Napa and Sonoma counties, at the southern end of the Maycamas range and within sight of San Pablo Bay.  Cool bay breezes set the right conditions for sparkling wines, from Gloria Ferrer, Domaine Carneros and Artesa/Codorniu Napa.

Los Carneros vineyard

Wild Horse Valley (AVA 1988) stretches across Napa and Solano counties in a remote part of Napa Valley.  Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese are prime varieties from Kenzo Estate, owned by Kenzo Tsujimoto, of video game fame. 

Chiles Valley (AVA 1999) is known for Bordeaux varieties and Zinfandel, high in the eastern Vaca Range. Various wineries source grapes including Volker Eisele, Conn Creek and Maroon Wines.

Coombsville (AVA 2011) is a newer Napa sub-appellation, situated east of Napa city. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Chardonnay are the main grapes. Wineries include Palmaz Vineyards, Frazier Winery and Ancien. 

One could argue that all the hype about the Napa Valley borders on the excess, but time has shown that the region is capable of producing red wines worth shouting about, and in that vein, Napa is no different than Bordeaux. 

Next blog: Oak Seasonings

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Friday, May 5, 2023

Bordeaux Blend

Rarely is there a wine made today that does not involve some form of blending. Even single variety wines are often blends of grapes from more than one vineyard, or from different rows within a vineyard. 

It's a skill, learned by practice, harvest after harvest. And some say that bringing that skill to blending is an art; that the sum of the parts, skillfully performed, results in an artwork desired by collectors.  

Skill, art, or a combination of both, the resulting expression is no better displayed than by what today is called "The Bordeaux Blend." 

The Bordeaux Blend was first formulated in the chateaux of the Medoc and Graves. Medoc enologists understood that each of the five grapes brought something unique to a blend, making the wine better than it might be from a single variety.  


At the beginning of the modern age of California wine making, the thinking was a single variety and not a blend, varietal wines soon became the standard and blending was usually reserved for jug wines. Today, winemakers see the benefit in blending to make a more interesting wine.

The Bordeaux Blend

What is a Bordeaux blend?  A mix of Cabernet Sauvignon with one or more of the following grapes in order most often preferred today: Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec. The original blend consisted of all five varieties, but today the Bordeaux Blend is likely a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, or some variation on that blend. 

Carmenere is the "sixth" red grape of Bordeaux, used rarely by chateaux.  The grape has had moderate success in Chile, where for a long time, growers wrongly identified Carmenere for Merlot. 

Over time, Merlot (today the most planted variety in Bordeaux) began losing ground to Cabernet Franc while Malbec and Petit Verdot went back and forth until Petit Verdot won favor with most chateaux.  Still, although percentages vary by chateau, a typical blend today in the Medoc is 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 20% Merlot.

Slight differences in the weather and soil composition established Cabernet Sauvignon as the main grape in Medoc and Graves red wines, while Merlot dominates across the river in St. Emilion and Pomerol, where a typical St. Emilion blend may be 70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Franc. 

A close look at the five varieties and what each brings to a blend will provide an insight into why winemakers construct certain blends. 

Cabernet Sauvignon is a widely planted and admired variety that is showing up in more vineyards in the world every year.  "Cab," as it is often known is slow to ripen, a blessing in those places with temperate growing conditions, but a concern in cool climates where it my be under ripe. 

Cabernet Sauvignon brings to the blend, blackberry and black currant when young, and more earthy notes, with cedar and pencil shavings with age. Firm tannins and good acidity round out the positive aspects of Cabernet Sauvignon. Under ripe Cab tends toward a green herbaceousness. 

Cabernet Franc is the ideal companion to Cabernet Sauvignon, perhaps because DNA profiling has shown it to be a parent of Cabernet Sauvignon along with Sauvignon Blanc. It matures earlier and tolerates bad weather better than Cab. 

Cabernet Franc is less tannic, has a softer texture and smells and tastes like ripe raspberries.  Besides partnering with Cab Sauv in Bordeaux, Cab Franc is a major red grape in the Loire Valley and is growing more popular in California and Washington state.

Merlot, once dissed by a casual comment in a film causing a surprising dip in U.S. sales, is now experiencing rising popularity.  Merlot has always been favored over Cab in right bank vineyards and is liked elsewhere as a varietal and blending component as in the Bordeaux Blend. 

Merlot is all ripe plums and black cherry, with a smooth texture and soft fruity finish.  Merlot can seem lower in tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon, but it's just the plummy fruit masking the variety's firm tannin structure. These virtues make  Merlot a favorite varietal wine, especially with a wide range of foods. 

                                                     Wine Folly

Petit Verdot ripens later than Cabernet Sauvignon, thus getting the grape ripe has long been a problem in Bordeaux vineyards. With a warmer summer, like in northern California, New York's Long Island and South Africa, Petit Verdot is capable of spicy flavors and good structure.  Petit Verdot is making a modest comeback in Bordeaux.

Malbec -- This grape nearly disappeared from Bordeaux vineyards, but it found a second life in Argentina's Mendoza Valley. Ironically, because of its success in Mendoza, Malbec is experiencing a mini-renaissance in Bordeaux.  Malbec is the primary grape in the wines of Cahors, where it is known as Cot. 

Malbec is deeply colored and richly flavored with hints of ripe plums and floral notes, plus the occasional tobacco scent.

Together, these five grapes form a harmonious blend, of complexity, depth and length. Age forms a closer bond while not hiding the attributes of each variety. Oak helps this process along, softening the supporting tannins, allowing the fruit to develop and show through.

In addition to Bordeaux, look for variations of the Bordeaux Blend in New World wines from California, Washington state, Texas, New York state, Italy, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Mexico, to name just those places with wines most often seen in U.S. markets.  

Traditionally, at least in the United States, Cabernet-based wines, like those that make up the Bordeaux Blend, have been paired with red meat, such as roasts and grilled steaks. Most of these wines, however, go with lots of different dishes, like pasta with red sauce and vegetarian entrees, especially ones prepared with mushrooms. 

The choices are only limited by your imagination. 

Next blog: Napa Series: Mountains and Valleys

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