Thursday, December 28, 2023

Dry Creek Valley & Rockpile

There was a time when I was almost as passionate about baking bread as I am  about tasting wine.  My passion was so strong that I bought a baking stone for my home oven, a baker's peel to move the loaves in and out of the oven, and I made a sourdough starter for that authentic flavor and texture in my breads. 

Then I read an online article about Lou Preston, owner of Sonoma's Preston Farm and Winery, in the Dry Creek Valley, who claimed to be as enthusiastic about bread baking as I had become.  Preston is a winemaker who understands the science behind yeast fermentation in bread and wine, and I wanted to know what he knew about bread baking. 


After a few failed attempts, my starter was bubbling and had multiplied, so I baked two loaves of Rosemary and Sea Salt sourdough bread. Then, with the warm aromas of fresh bread filling the kitchen, I called Lou Preston for an interview about baking bread and making wine.

Preston's hobby had taken on a new dimension when he found the directions for building your own beehive wood-fired oven. Using adobe and willow, Preston fashioned an oven in the yard beside his winery, which he proudly showed to me.  In the winery tasting room, there was a basket of freshly-baked bread pieces, for tasters to cleanse their palates between sips of Preston wines. The Preston touch is unusual as most winery tasting rooms offer store-bought bread or crackers.

Dry Creek Valley

That visit to Preston Vineyard helped me gain confidence as a bread baker, and it  re-acquainted me with the wines of Dry Creek Valley, one of Sonoma County's premier wine regions. 

Dry Creek Valley is wedged between U.S. 101, west of Healdsberg, and the low, rolling north-south hills in west county.  A mere 16 miles long and 2 miles wide, the valley has Warm Springs dam at the north end, holding back Lake Sonoma. 

In the latter part of the 19th century, Zinfandel and a mix of varieties, known as field blends, were common in Dry Creek Valley. Before Prohibition, the valley was mostly pears and prunes.  Today, there are 150 grape growers and 70 wineries. J. Pedroncelli and Frei Bros. (now a Gallo winery) are the only wineries to have survived Prohibition.


After repeal, Zinfandel took on increased importance in Dry Creek Valley, but since 2004, the emphasis on big Zins has moved to Rockpile, a rugged stony tract overlooking the lake and part of the valley.


Rockpile, a patch of rocks and shallow soil at 800 to 1,900 feet above the valley, became an AVA in 2002, about 11 years after the reservoir known as Lake Sonoma submerged some of Dry Creek Valley's best Zin vineyards. 

With cooler daytime temperatures than the valley, Rockpile, a sub region of Dry Creek Valley, became a good spot for red varieties, particularly Zinfandel.  Some Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah are grown, plus small amounts of Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. 

Rockpile vineyard and Lake Sonoma

Zinfandel is considered the best expression of the Rockpile vitisphere. In an earlier piece I wrote about Rockpile, I found this quote by Carol Shelton of Carol Shelton Wines on why she thinks Rockpile is a good place for growing Zinfandel. "The fog begins to burn off earlier on Rockpile than it does further down in Dry Creek Valley...and the view goes on forever."

Rockpile Zins are fleshier than Zins from the valley, with more berry and spice notes, plus black pepper and fine tannin.  Zinfandels with Rockpile on the label include Rosenblum, Carol Shelton Wines, Mauritson, Rockpile Vineyards, Paradise Ridge and St. Francis. Price range: $42 to  $55.  

More Dry Creek Valley...

Other important Dry Creek varietal red wines include Cabernet Sauvignon and a collection of Rhone-style wines such as Syrah and Grenache, two varietals that are growing in popularity. 

While red wines dominate in Dry Creek Valley, there is interest in white wine, mainly Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.  Since David Stare, founder of Dry Creek Vineyard, made his first Fume Blanc in 1972, Sauvignon Blanc has been the valley's leading white wine. 

Today, DCV continues to make Fume Blanc, plus three Sauvignon Blancs, including their flagship DCV3 Sauvignon Blanc and The Mariness Meritage blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle du Bordelais.  DCV also makes a crisp Chenin Blanc, answering the demands of a faithful market for the variety.

There is no "Dry Creek wine character," but plenty of winery tasting rooms up and down the valley are available for the taster to sip and decide for themselves.  Here are a dozen Dry Creek wineries that can be counted on for consistent quality and value: Dry Creek Vineyard, Preston Farm & Winery, Sbragia, Ferrari-Carano, Wilson, Ridge, J. Pedroncelli, Mauritson, Seghesio, Nalle, Mazzocco, Michel-Schlumberger. 

Combined, Dry Creek Valley and Rockpile, offer a diversity of wine styles, one for every taste and budget.  Discover for yourself by visiting DCV today or stop at your local wine shop to see what is so special about Dry Creek wines.


Next blog: Oz Shiraz

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The perfect meal: A hunk of freshly baked sourdough bread and a glass of wine.


Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Past and Future

Dear Readers,

Do you remember, in the last weeks of 1999, when excitement was palpable about Y2K and the coming of the new century?  Worriers swore that when the final second of the departing year ticked off, we would be doomed. But the new year began, like every other year, and now here we are nearly a quarter of the way into the 21st century. 

When this blog debuted in 2019, my mission statement was to stay away from wine business politics, wine gossip, and wine trade news, although I did stray a few times, when I felt the need to say something. 

In 2023, I wrote 52 weekly posts about a wide variety of wine topics, including   basic useful wine information, bits and pieces of background, designed to help you, the reader, be more informed about the wines you buy, store and drink. 

Specifically, the blogs covered wine from five different countries, 11 regions, and 13 different varietals, from Chenin Blanc to Cabernet Franc.  There was a series of blogs on my adventures in California wine, plus posts on wine flaws, rose wines, the pros and cons of wine competitions, Bordeaux blends and more. 

Looking Ahead 

Now, with the beginning of 2024 only days ahead, I'm thinking of making some major changes in the format of the blog and the service that brings Gerald D Boyd On Wine from my computer to yours.

The content won't change, just the way it will look, with a new design and the addition of social media, and a way to answer your comments.  I welcome any comments and suggestions you may have. 

I hope to have the first blog of 2024 in place by January 12, or earlier. 


Happy New Year,

Gerald D. Boyd



Thursday, December 21, 2023

See how they sparkle!

Every year, at this time, wine writers struggle to think of different ways to write about Champagne and other sparkling wines.  So, this post is intended as a basic buying guide to Champagne, Cava, California sparkling wine and Prosecco, the four most popular bubblies. 

As reported in the e-zine "Seven Fifty Daily," the growth in sparkling wine, across all categories, continues to go up, in contrast to that for still wines. Champagne leads the pack, followed by Prosecco, then Cava.  In terms of the number of bottles sold in 2022, Prosecco outpaces Champagne, then German Sekt, Cava, Italian Franciacorta and California Sparkling wine.


Perhaps it's the centuries spent making the same wine in the same place, using the same grapes to cause the wine to sparkle in the same labor-intensive way, that makes Champagne the epitome of sparkling wine. 

Or, is Champagne the top sparkling wine because we've been told for decades by Champagne marketing that it is?


Whatever, sparkling wine makers worldwide probably agree that the champenois make the best Champagne. But there is equally good bubbly made outside the delimited region of Champagne in northeastern France. 

Champagne is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and occasionally a little Pinot Meunier.  The chef de cave makes the blend, sometimes adding in reserve wines from earlier vintages, plus a dose of wine and sugar, called liqueur de tirage to form the bubbles.  A crown cap (like those on beer bottles) is affixed, the bottles are stacked (tirage) in a cave or cellar, where they develop complex flavors. 

A second fermentation is achieved en tirage, producing the famous pin-point bubbles.  The bottles are shaken and rotated by hand or machine to settle the yeast sediment in the neck of the bottle and are then taken from tirage. The crown cap is removed, a finishing dosage added for style and the final cork rammed home and held in place by the wire net. Finally, the bottle is dressed with the foil capsule. 

These are the broadest styles of Champagne: Blanc de Blancs, made only from Chardonnay; Blanc de Noirs, made from Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier; Rose Champagne and Vintage Champagne. Each house usually has a Prestige Cuvee, a luxury wine such as Cristal and Dom Perignon.  

Within these broad styles, the dosage levels, dry to sweet, are:  Brut Nature or Zero Dosage, under .3% residual sugar; Extra Brut, less than .6%; Brut, 1.2%; Sec, 1.7-3.2% ; Demi-Sec, 3.2-5% ; Doux, 5% plus. Prestige Cuvees are usually made only in the Brut style.

There are hundreds of Champagne houses, far too many to recommend here, so here is a short list of Champagne, priced at $35 to $250: Louis Roederer, Michel Arnould, Billecart-Salmon, Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Gosset, Pol Roger, Laurent-Perrier, Krug, Taittinger. 

The buzz in Champagne, at least from Bollinger, is that the future of Champagne could be still wine. It's another worry brought on by climate change, but if a changing climate will make it difficult to ripen the three varieties used to make sparkling wine, then switching to still wine may also be problematic.  Besides, there is Coteaux Champenois, a still wine made by a number of Champagne houses. 


Cava is the Catalan word for "cellar," and not a Spanish acronym, as is commonly thought.  The majority of Cava is produced around Sant Sadurni d'Anoia, near Barcelona.  However, Spanish DO regulations allow sparkling wine in five other appellations, including Rioja, to be called Cava.

Prior to 1970, Spanish sparkling wine made using the traditional Champagne method was called "Champana."  The French objected, so the Spanish adopted Cava.  However, the objection didn't deter sparkling wine producers in other parts of the world from continuing to call their bubbly Champagne. 


Today, 95% of all Cava is made in Catalonia from three grapes: Macabeo, Parellada and Xarello. In 1986, in a move away from native Spanish varieties toward more traditional French grapes, Spanish law allowed the addition of Chardonnay, and in 1998, Pinot Noir was allowed. Garnacha (Grenache) and Monastrell are also permitted.

There is some turmoil within the ranks of DO Cava.  In 2019, nine major Cava producers, unhappy with the way the DO was running things, left DO Cava and became part of Corpinnat. Meanwhile, depending on what source you read, sales of DO Cava have been going up.

Cava must be made using the traditional methods, and must spend a minimum nine months on the lees in tirage.  Remuage, the technique of riddling or shaking the bottles, is mostly done today in Spain by a gyropalette, a mechanical devise capable of shaking hundreds of bottles at a time.

Major brands of Cava include Juve y Camps, Roger Goulart, Segura Viudas, Campo Viejo, Jaume Sera, Codorniu, Vilarnau, Freixenet. Price range: $17 to $25.

California Sparkling Wine

Although, in the early years, a few sparkling wine houses in the Napa Valley, Schramsberg, Kornell, plus Korbel and Iron Horse in Sonoma Co., made bubbly using the traditional method.  The number of producers remained static until 1973 when the Champagne house of Moet & Chandon opened Domaine Chandon in Napa.


Before long, other European producers were making sparkling wine in California, including the French houses of G.H. Mumm, Roederer, Piper Heidsieck, Taittinger, Pommery, Champagne Deutz, and the Spanish houses of Codorniu and Freixenet (Gloria Ferrer).  Deutz and Pommery eventually left the state.

Another way to get bubbles into wine is the tank or bulk method, commonly called Charmat, or the French name, cuve close.  Use of the tank method is less expensive, but, say critics, it makes lower quality sparkling wine.

There is a broad range of California sparkling wine, both in quality and price. Here are just a few of the better known ones made by the traditional method: Gloria Ferrer, J Vineyards, Mumm Napa, Domaine Carneros, Ultramarine, Domaine Chandon, Roederer Estate, Iron Horse and Schramsberg. Price range: $18 to $35.


Few sparkling wines have smashed U.S. sales records like Prosecco, the Italian bubbly from the huge DOC zone in the northeast Italian regions of Veneto and Friuli. While there's no denying the popularity of Prosecco, especially in the United States, sorting out the grapes, appellations and production practices, can be confusing.

In 2009, Prosecco was granted DOC status and shortly after, the classic zone was made DOCG.  Prosecco Classico comes from the tongue-twising towns of Coneglino-Valdobbiadene.  The majority of Prosecco lies in the Veneto region, with the balance around the town of Prosecco in Friuli.

Typically, Prosecco is grapy and slightly sweet, the product of the Glera grape.  With international fame came pressure to finish the wines drier.  Today, some producers have backed off the residual sweetness or make both a dry and semi-dry version.  


Since popularity of Prosecco took off, the U.S. market has been flooded with brands, including: Bisol, La Marca, Nino Franco, La Gioiosa et Amorosa, Zonin, Carpene Malvolti, Ruffino, Mionetto.  In fact, nearly every major Italian wine maker now has a Prosecco in their portfolio. Most Prosecco is $20 or under.

I read recently that a representative of the house of Bollinger said the firms noted Vielles Vignes special cuvee "may disappear."  The reason?  Climate change and phylloxera are destroying the old vines

I want to end this post with two thoughts: There is a sparkling wine for every taste and sparkling wine is not just a wine for special occasions. 

Happy Holidays!


Next blog: Dry Creek Valley

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Thursday, December 14, 2023


In these heady times, when the demand is for more wine, there are still some growers and winemakers who find it difficult not to succumb to the pressure for more Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Among the holdouts is Portugal, an important wine producer that has resisted the international clamor for more of the same. In recent years, however, the Portuguese wine industry has yielded to pressure, adding a few French grapes, like Syrah, for limited use in some areas.

Portuguese winemakers appreciate the differences between, say, a California and a French Chardonnay.  But they want wine drinkers to know that Portugal does not rely on Chardonnay or Cabernet, preferring to focus on a range of unique wines.

Touriga Nacional & Douro Vineyards 

Indigenous grapes take pride of place in Portugal, with Portuguese wineries using  native varieties to make some of the world's best fortified and still wines. Port (Porto) is a world-beating benchmark for fortified wines. And a handful of the same grapes used to make Port also forms the base of an increasing number of excellent Portuguese still wines.

As of 2013, a Portuguese trade association counted 248 indigenous varieties grown throughout the narrow country that shares the Iberian peninsula with Spain. 

That unwieldy number was whittled down in 1986 when Portugal joined the European Union. Today, wineries work with red varieties like Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (the Spanish Tempranillo), Trincadeira, Alicante Bouschet and Baga, the latter grown mainly in Bairrada, a small region near the historic city of Coimbra. 

In 1970, Port producers, Cockburn and Ramos Pinto, narrowed a group of 80 grapes, traditionally used for Port production, to the five best red grapes: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Barroca and Tinto Cao. Since then, a growing number of wineries throughout the country are using the five grapes, especially Touriga Nacional, for still wines.   

Here's a breakout of six of the 17 wine regions in Portugal, including the Azores and Madeira islands; the six are in order of importance to domestic and export wine markets:

Douro: Long known for Port, perhaps the world's best fortified wine, today the Douro River valley in northern Portugal, has built a solid reputation for high quality still wines at reasonable prices.  The same five grapes used to make Port --Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Franca, Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cao -- are also used to make Douro still wines. 

Vinho Verde: Portugal's largest wine region, west of the Douro, is best known for aromatic white wines, based mainly on Alvarinho, the Portuguese version of Spain's Albarino.  Many of the vines in this region are still trained on high pergolas.  There is a sparkling Vinho Verde known as espumante.

Dao: More than 80% of Dao wine is red, made mainly from Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz.  White Dao wine is made from the Encruzado grape. Dao is a large area south of the Douro and Vinho Verde.

Alenjeto:  Red wines from this small region on the border with Spain rely more on Aragonez, Trincadeira and Alicante Bouschet then Touriga Nacional.  Alentejo supplies more than half of all wine corks used worldwide.

Colares: Smaller yet, this coastal region, north of Lisbon, makes small quantities of distinctive fino Sherry-like white wines, from a type of Malvasia grape and a red wine that resembles Pinot Noir.  Colares vines, planted in sandy soils, are scattered in dunes along the coast.

Algarve: Famous more as a tourist mecca than for its wines, this region, along Portugal's southern coast, makes fortified wines from Portuguese and French grapes, including Negromoll, the most planted grape in Madeira.

Traditionally, red wines from areas like Dao, were available in export.  But since the Port house of Ferreira released Barca Velha a Douro red from Port varieties in 1952, the number of Douro still wines has exploded.  

Here are just a few wineries, most using Touriga Nacional as their primary grape.  Prices are about $20-$25, with a few as high as $50.

From the Douro: Delaforce, Ramos Pinto Duas Quintas, Graham's Quinta do Vesuvio, Symington Vinha do Arco, Quinta do Noval, Mary Taylor Wines Felipe Ferreira, Quinta do Roriz, Prats & Symington Chryseia. From Alentejo and Dao: Niepoort Alentejo, Cartuxa Evora Alentejo, Casa de Passarella Dao, Quinta de Saes Dao. 

The number of non-fortified still wines from Portugal became international best sellers in the 1990s and are still good alternatives, for value and quality, to Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Next blog: Champagne & Sparkling Wine

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Thursday, December 7, 2023

Muscadet & Affordable Wine

In his 1951 book, Wines of France, Alexis Lichine had this brief comment about Muscadet: "Pleasant and dry, the wines are most appealing with oysters and sea food."

Not much there to entice a reader to Muscadet, but then, Lichine added this interesting tid bit: "Prior to the control laws (no doubt, meaning AOC regs.), they (Muscadet) were openly blended with Chablis, to stretch the supply of that scarce and famous wine." Who knew?

Nearly three decades later, Lichine, the eminent wine man, upped his game on Muscadet with two pages in Alexis Lichine's Guide to the Wines and Vineyards of France.  Still not much, but Lichine does give a more thorough explanation of Muscadet, the Loire white wine, produced near Nantes, that's well known to French wine drinkers.  

Muscadet of Nantes 

Nantes is the last major city along the Loire, before the river empties into the Atlantic Ocean.  Closest to the ocean are the sub regions Muscadet Pays Nantais and Muscadet Cotes de Grandieu.  Northeast of Nantes is Muscadet-Coteaux de la Loire. Together, these three small Muscadet zones are known more in local markets than in export.  

Loire River at Nantes

Closer to Nantes is Muscadet Sevre-et-Maine, with 75% of the vineyards, named for the Maine River that flows north past Nantes and the smaller Sevre that connects with the Maine just south of Vallet. The influence of all this water, combined with a variety of soils, makes Muscadet a terroir driven white wine.

Yet in 1979, American wine drinkers were still not that familiar with Muscadet,  despite its popularity in France, and the region being granted AOC status in 1936, as one of France's early approved appellations.  

But Lichine's expanded comments did help popularize the wine in America. Born in Russia, Lichine moved back and forth between France and England, while recognizing the growing potential for wine sales in the United States.

Today, despite Lichine's efforts, Muscadet struggles to stay relevant in an increasingly crowded market.  Blended low-cost whites (and reds) are becoming more common and cheaper, while Chardonnay is still the wine to knock out of first place. 

Muscadet doesn't pretend to be as complex as Chardonnay, although since 1990, some producers add 10% Chardonnay to help Muscadet appeal to more sophisticated consumers. Nor does Muscadet claim to have the flavor profile of Sauvignon Blanc, a wine that's holding its own in the top ranks of white wines.


Although it sounds like Muscadet could be the name of a grape, perhaps part of the Muscat family, Muscadet wine is made from Melon de Bourgogne, a grape of Burgundy origin.                                 

Banned from Burgundy, along with Gamay, in the 17th century, but adopted in the western Loire by Dutch traders, Melon was mainly used by the Dutch to fuel the distillation in Holland of brandewijn (brandy).  The Burgundy connection makes sense since Melon is related to Chardonnay, and shares some of the same aromatics and flavors like ripe apples, pears and citrus.                  

Until ampelographers sorted out the mistake, a lot of California Pinot Blanc was, in fact, made from Melon. Identifying grapes in the vineyard is not always easy, as berries can look similar and a close inspection is needed to determine leaf shape and design. Years ago, growers and winemakers in northern Italy believed that what they thought was Chardonnay turned out to be Pinot Blanc.  

Affordable Wine

One of the positive things about Muscadet is its good value for the price, about $20 or less.  So, a fitting way to close this post is with a few words on affordable wine. 

Andrew Jefford, a columnist for Decanter magazine, had some interesting things to say about price/quality in a recent issue. Jefford maintains that "ultra wines" like red Burgundy and first growth Bordeaux deserve their high prices, but only the wealthy can afford them. So, he said that, maybe, there's another way for the consumer to benefit from the "ultra" connection.

For those who don't have the big bucks to buy a wine like Ch. Lafite, Jefford said they could look to a "Bordeaux first growth, whose owners also sell $10 Chilean wine...and Corbieres." Lafite distributes Los Vascos from Chile and Ch. d'Aussieres, Corbieres, a red blend, from Languedoc, consisting of Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah and Carignan, although the latter is slowly disappearing from Corbieres.

Perhaps there is a winery patron in Burgundy or Bordeaux that would be interested in adding Muscadet to their portfolio.

Next blog: Portugal

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