Thursday, February 22, 2024

The Many Kinds of Muscat

One of the oddities of wine culture is that very few wines taste of the grapes they are made from. Noted exceptions are two of the many Muscat varieties: Muscat Hamburg and Muscat of Alexandria.

These versatile Muscats are used to make wine and are good to eat out of hand.  However, the grapes are generally thought to be better as table grapes than wine grapes, although the ancient Muscat of Alexandria has the edge over Muscat of Hamburg as a wine grape. California is one place where Alexandria has long been a popular for wine making.


Muscat varieties are reputed to be among the oldest grapes known. Discoveries in archeology digs along the Mediterranean basin have uncovered evidence of grape residue estimated to be thousands of years old.  The Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder described a wine he had, as being made from uva apiana, or the "grape of the bees."  Pliny likely was musing that the wine he had tasted was honied, one of the common descriptors associated with Muscat wine.

The key sensory component of all Muscat grapes, however, is a strong "musky" perfume that is carried over to the wine. There is no mistaking the smell and taste of a Muscat wine, and once it is imprinted in your wine memory, that singular Muscat character will be immediately recognized.  

The oldest known Muscat grape is Muscat Blanc. That's the short form. The full name is a mouthful: Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains, or the white Muscat with small (round) berries.  Most Muscats, like Alexandria, are oval in shape, but among the unusual characteristics of Muscat Blanc is its round shape. 

Here are a few of the better known Muscat grapes that make acceptable, if not great, wine. 

Muscat Blanc.  Despite its name, this popular Muscat has small, round pink-red berries. Muscat Blanc has more than 60 synonyms, such as Muscat Canelli and Muscat of Frontignan. Wines made from Muscat Blanc include Beaumes-de-Venise, Australia's great Rutherglen (Brown) Liqueur Muscat, the many dry and sweet Moscatos of Italy, and the dry Muscats from Roussillon, in the south of France.

Muscat of Alexandria. Although Muscat of Alexandria has been replaced by Muscat Blanc in many parts of the world, it is still one of the most widely planted Muscats in the world. Wines made from Muscat of Alexandria tend to be sweet and lack finesse, with much of the juice used for other things like the famous Chilean grape distillate, Pisco. Noteworthy wines made from Alexandria: Spain's sweet Moscatel, Moscatel de Setubal and dry Moscatels of Portugal, California's Muscat of Alexandria and Spain's Gordo Blanco, a plump grape, that sounds like a movie bandito, used mostly in blends. 

Muscat of Hamburg.  Despite the family connection to Muscat of Alexandria, this Muscat gets little respect from wine makers.  More common as a table grape, "Black Muscat," the grape's name in California, is enjoyed in eastern European countries, as a sweet grapy wine.

Muscat Ottonel.  The best known wine made from Muscat Ottonel is Muscat d'Alsace, a blend of Ottonel and Muscat Blanc, from the Alsace region of France. Muscat Ottonel is also grown in Austria, Romania and Hungary where the grape is sometimes called misket.

The above list of Muscat grapes and wines could go on and on, but I'll just add two more wines that owe their fame to a Muscat grape. The first is a wildly popular sparkling wine that few consumers know comes from a Muscat grape. Asti Spumante, from the northern Italian province of Piedmont, is made from at least 97% Moscato Bianco (aka Muscat Blanc).

Asti Spumante is sweet and fizzy, with about 9.5% alcohol.  Moscato d'Asti is an upgrade from Asti, and is not as sweet, alcoholic or bubbly.  Better yet is Asti Spumante Metodo Classico, with a minimum alcohol of 10%, better grapes and a second fermentation in the bottle. Fermenting in the bottle is generally superior to  tank fermentation, which is used to make both Asti Spumante and Moscato d'Asti.

                                                      Morris of Rutherglen, Classic Liqueur Rutherglen Muscat

Then, there is the stunning Liqueur Muscat of Rutherglen,Victoria, Australia.  Very sweet and very delicious, these wines are made from a dark-skinned strain of Muscat Blanc, called Brown Muscat and a bit of Muscadelle, the latter unrelated to any member of the Muscat family. You may recognize Muscadelle as the third grape in Sauternes and Barsac, with Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc.

The body and texture of these semi-raisined, fortified sweet wines is not as thick as treacle, but their tongue-coating sensation is similar. Liqueur Muscat flavors are rich and opulent, but not cloying.  Now known by the cumbersome name of Topaque and Muscat, these Australian liquid gems are made in four grades: Rutherglen Muscat, Classic, Grand and Rare. 

No matter which style of Muscat appeals to you, Asti Spumante or Liqueur Muscat,  treat yourself today to the unique taste of Muscat.

Next blog: Alto Adige

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Thursday, February 15, 2024

New Zealand Pinots


To say that Pinot Noir is not considered a "big" wine, like Syrah, begs a few words of explanation. Describing a red wine as "big," usually means that feeling of weight and texture of the wine on your tongue.

With New Zealand Pinot Noir, it's not the weight of the pinot that impresses wine drinkers, as much as the wine's super-sized reputation and quality.

Developing an appreciation of NZ pinots, starts with the understanding of the country's unique geography.  New Zealand's wine regions are spread over the North Island and the South Island.  And that means there is a wide range of different factors like color, wine weight and flavor profiles. 

There's one more important factor: A large part of New Zealand's reputation for quality Pinot Noir can be found in Central Otago and Martinborough. 

South Island  

In recent years, most of the attention for New Zealand wine has been focused on  Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.  Truly distinctive, in every way, Marborough SBs, are fresh, crisp and layered with passion fruit and lime juice. 

Marlborough also boasts very good Pinot Noir, from the prime vineyard site resting along the northern tier of the South Island. Marlborough pinots have depth of color, are nicely structured with layers of dark cherry and spice flavors. 

However, the best South Island Pinot Noir, some say the best in New Zealand, is made in Central Otago, at the southern tip of the South Island. "Central," as the area is known by locals, is the only wine region in New Zealand with a continental climate and a wide daily temperature swing. 

New Zealand's first Pinot Noir was made in Central Otago in the late 1980s. Because of its location near the Southern Alps, the area is popular with lovers of winter sports, conveniently using the vibrant city of Queenstown as a hub for entertainment and gastronomy.

Sub regions in Central Otago, such as Bannockburn and Gibbston, are noted for rich and intensely fruity Pinot Noir and crisp minerally Pinot Gris and Riesling.  Bannockburn has become one of New Zealand's marquee wine regions.

Central Pinot Noirs, especially from Bannockburn, an area that is one of New Zealand's marquee sub regions, are intense, lush and silky, a style that fans of non-Burgundy Pinot Noir love.  Wines to look for include Chard Farm, Judge Rock, Mt. Rosa, Felton Road, Grey Ridge, Coal Pit, Mount Edward, Thyme Hill Vineyard. 


North Island/Waiarapa

In the southern hemisphere, the more northerly climes tend to be warmer. At the southern tip of the North Island, the region of Wairarapa, one of New Zealand's ten Geographic Indicators, is in a rain shadow, cool enough for some of the country's  top Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Waiarapa is about an hours drive from Wellington, the nation's capital. There are a handful of sub regions in Waiarapa. Martinborough, a name easier for non-Kiwis to pronounce than Waiarapa, has established a solid reputation as New Zealand's foremost Pinot Noir, although it represents only 3% of the country's vineyard land. The reason being the area's cool climate, gravelly alluvial soils and the Ruamahunga River.  

In the 1970s, wine growers, looking for a site for wine grapes, settled on Martinborough, a place they reckoned had conditions similar to Burgundy. The prime vineyard location became known as the Martinborough Terrace, an alluvial plateau with a maritime climate. 

Martinborough Pinot Noir is more complex than those from Central Otago, but with the same dark fruitiness.  Representative wines include Ata Rangi, Craggy Range, TeMuna Road, Dry River, Palliser Estate, Martinborough Vineyard, Escarpment, Schubert Winery, TeKeiranga, Luna Estate. 


When you're thinking about what Pinot Noir to have tonight with a piece of grilled salmon, a juicy spit-roasted chicken from the supermarket, or a vegetable stir-fry, pull out that bottle of New Zealand Pinot Noir you've been saving.  You won't be disappointed. 


Next blog: The Many Kinds of Muscat

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Thursday, February 8, 2024

Look to Lake County

Stand anywhere in the Napa Valley, face to the northeast and in the distance is a line of low hills, known as the Vaca Mountains.  The hills are dotted with wineries and huge homes, while beyond is Lake County, the lesser known wine region in the quartet of Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake. 

Getting to Lake County is a bit of a driving chore, more so than it is driving to the Napa Valley. The narrow road out of Calistoga, is a series of twists, turns and switchbacks, for 35 miles, until it finally hits a straight stretch outside Middletown.  

Mt. Konocti reflecting off Clear Lake

At the center of wine growing in Lake County are two natural features: Mt. Konocti and Clear Lake. Mt. Konocti, still considered an "active" volcano that last erupted 11,000 years ago, has laid down rich volcanic soil, a proper medium for Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Tempranillo, among other varieties.  

All successful and productive wine regions (Bordeaux, Douro  Valley, Rhine) are near a body of water.  Clear Lake, the largest freshwater lake wholly in California,  tempers Lake County's hot days, while helping to cool the nights in the vineyards around the lake. 

According to the Lake County Winegrowers Association, there are more than 30 wineries and 160 growers in the nine sub-regions, or American Viticultural Appellations (AVA).  The sub-regions encircle Clear Lake or are a short distance away. 

As wine growing grew around Clear Lake, more AVAs were applied for, based on unique vine growing conditions. More than 40 years would pass between the first and the ninth approved appellation.

Vines, lake and volcano

Lake County's first AVA was granted in 1981, for Guenoc Valley, the smallest of the nine appellations. Clear Lake, the largest AVA, was approved three years later. Then, seven years passed until Benmore Valley got its AVA, and another 13 years before Red Hills AVA was approved. High Valley's AVA was granted a year later, then another long wait until Kelsey Bench and Big Valley got their AVAs in 2013. Then nine years more before Upper Lake Valley was approved for an AVA. Finally, the Long Valley AVA was approved in 2023.

Here, then, are brief summaries of the nine sub-appellations, from oldest to newest. Shown are AVA approval dates in parenthesis, planted acreage, and major grapes grown in each sub region. 

Guenoc Valley (1981): Guenoc Valley, with 4,396 acres of vineyards, is one of the Lake County sub appellations that is not along Clear Lake.  A popular spot for growing red grapes, such as Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, Guenoc Valley was the site of California's first partially solar-powered winery. 

Clear Lake (1984): Half of the 168,960 acres of vineyard acreage for this encompassing sub region is the lake, with the remainder on dry land. Clear Lake has a mix of grapes, including Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. 

Benmore Valley (1991): Despite having its own AVA for more than 30 years,  Benmore Valley does not have a winery, but the cool climate vineyards are popular as a source for varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc. 

Red Hills Lake County (2004): At the opposite end of Clear Lake is the Red Hills AVA, with 3,250 acres planted mainly in red grapes, such as Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. 

High Valley (2005):  High Valley comes by its name naturally, with vineyards on 14,000 acres, up to 3,000 feet above the lake. Mostly red varieties are planted on the northeast side of the lake.

Big Valley District (2013): A combined total of 11,000 acres are planted in Big Valley and Kelsey Bench, neighboring vineyards on the lake's southwest shore. Vineyards in Big Valley are planted up to 1,400 feet. 

Kelsey Bench (2013): Adjacent to Big Valley, but higher, the bench sits at 1,600 feet above the lake.  With just over 9,000 acres of vines, the popular white grapes include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier and Riesling.


Upper Lake Valley (2022): Large by most measurements, Upper Lake Valley, on the north side of the lake, has just over 17,000 acres of vineyards, at altitudes up to 1,480 feet. Sauvignon Blanc is the most planted variety.

Long Valley Lake County (2023): This sub region is a narrow valley planted in Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Petite Sirah, in 7,600 acres.  Long Valley is a popular site for wineries.

Although Lake County is inland with a continental climate, most of the vineyards around Clear Lake are cooler, benefiting from a large body of water. These conditions are good for white wines like Sauvignon Blanc, attracting winemakers such as John Parducci and later the winemaking team at Geyser Peak Winery. 

And, select spots along the lake, are warm enough for red wines, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, some at altitude, others closer to Clear Lake.  One of the warmer exceptions is Guenoc Valley. 

Next time you are wine shopping, look to the wines of Lake County.


Next blog: New Zealand Pinot Noir

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Thursday, February 1, 2024


Note: I was one key stroke from finishing a piece on the wines of Lake County, when like a magician's disappearing trick, the words vanished from the screen, presumably into the ether. So, enjoy this essay on Semillon and look for my Lake County posting next week. 

One of the many pleasures of Semillon is how time forces you to think the wine has transformed, through aging, into something quite unexpected. The deep golden color and honeyed richness, has you thinking about how nice the new oak has meshed with the ripe fruit. 

But it's all a trick, a kind of trompe l'oeil of taste. 

The transformation is not evident in all varietal Semillons, but it comes through with conviction in aged Semillon from the Hunter Valley of Australia.  I was fooled once when I wrongly described a Hunter Semillon as oak-aged by a challenging Hunter winemaker who delighted in tripping up the eager American wine writer.  

While the test of my tasting ability was a little embarrassing, the afternoon at Rothbury Estate with the estimable Len Evans, was a treasured learning experience that made me want to know more about Semillon.

I'll pause here to tell a short story about the wine savvy Evans, as he was known in Australia by his devoted friends and by those few who thought him just another loud brash ocker, even though he was born in England. Evans was a multi-talented wine expert, known for his impressive wine memory, spitting accuracy and tasting prowess.  

He loved to play Options, a challenging wine tasting test. The idea is to start with a group of tasters and an unidentified wine. Each taster asks a question about the wine, such as general origin (Spain, Chile). As the rounds continue, the questions become more specific. Ask the right question and you stay in the game. Slip up and you're out. 

My first experience with Options was at the end of a welcome dinner for the Sydney Royal Wine Show (Competition). After just a few rounds, I was out and the field of my fellow judges had been deftly whittled down to just one grinning taster. The truly impressive thing was not that Evans had won, but that he unerringly guessed the wine was a red Burgundy, but also the vintage and commune.  

Semillon and the Hunter

Grape vines were first planted in 1788 in Sydney Cove, making New South Wales, the oldest wine region in the country.  In time, the settlers moved inland to what today is the Hunter Valley, 80 miles north of Sydney.  

Local wine folk call the historic area,"The Hunter," and divide it into Lower Hunter and Upper Hunter. Though, legally, the region is Hunter and Upper Hunter.


The Hunter is not an ideal place to grow wine grapes, with its subtropical humidity, high temperatures, winter drought and rainfall before and during harvest. Yet, somehow, Semillon manages to develop great complexity, deep golden color, and a toasty, honeyed bouquet, without oak contact. The complexity is developed through bottle age, some wines reaching 25 years, and still not over the hill. 

More than 60 wineries fill the Hunter Valley, with most of them making a Semillon.  Here are a few of the better ones: Brokenwood, Tyrrell's, Lindemans, Allandale, Rothbury Estate, McGuigan, Mount Pleasant, McWilliams.

Semillon is the hands down star of the Lower Hunter, but there's also richly textured, buttery Chardonnay.  Hunter Shiraz can be hard and astringent in youth, but like Semillon, bottle age transforms Shiraz into a complex wine, with forward varietal fruit and smooth tannin.

Semillon and Sauternes

When most people think of Semillon, the wine that usually comes to mind is Sauternes, from the legendary region of the same name at the southern edge of Bordeaux in western France. There are less than a handful of truly great sweet wines and Sauternes is one of them. 


To arrive with a fully realized Sauternes (or Barsac) takes an artful blending of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle, working together, with the help of botrytis, to form a wine of depth, complexity and fruit/acid balance, rivaled, perhaps, only by botrytised German Rieslings and Hungarian Tokaji.

Barsac is a sweet wine similar to Sauternes, though lighter. Legally, Barsac can be called Sauternes, but the reverse is not permitted.

Semillon is the major component of the three-grape blend in Sauternes and Barsac. Semillon adds aroma and complexity, Sauvignon Blanc provides acidity to balance the sweetness and Muscadelle (when used) gives the blend a complimentary fruit note. Botrytis, or "noble rot," forms a concentrated, honeyed note that I describe as the scent of bees wax.

Sauternes is unlike any other wine made. Take the same three grapes, add botrytis, use the same wine making techniques, and you have a nice sweet wine, but it's not Sauternes, no more than the many sparkling wines made worldwide are Champagne.

There was a time when devotees were saying that Semillon would be the next great white wine. Although, today, Semillon is still held in high esteem in Sauternes and the Hunter, it never became as great as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.  Ironically, Sauternes wouldn't be the great wine it is without Sauvignon Blanc or Semillon. 


Next blog: Look to Lake County

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Thursday, January 25, 2024

Pinot Blanc


What do Pinot Blanc and Rodney Dangerfield have in common?  Neither one gets any respect. 

Okay, so you don't remember Rodney Dangerfield, the standup comedian.  He had great timing, especially when uttered the line, "I tell you, I don't get any respect." 

Well, I tell you, neither does Pinot Blanc.  

More than once, Pinot Blanc has been mistaken for Chardonnay. In northeastern Italy, where Pinot Bianco does pretty good, wineries thought they were growing Pinot Bianco until it was pointed out to them that it was Chardonnay. The two varieties look that similar.    

And they can taste similar.  Confident tasters have been fooled thinking they were tasting Chardonnay when the wine was Pinot Blanc. Newly fermented, before oak has had added its unique seasoning, both varieties taste slightly green with faint spice, and decent acidity. And while the wines carry a subtle minerality, Pinot Blanc has the creamier texture. 

But then, put a little French oak on Pinot Blanc and the differences become more difficult to define.  The higher resinous profile of American oak is too strong for either Pinot Blanc or Chardonnay, but the subtle spiciness of French oak is more complimentary.

Perhaps, because of Chardonnay's dominance, Pinot Blanc is not respected by the wine community, in general, except for a few places in Europe and North America.

Pinot Blanc in Europe

When asked about Pinot Blanc, the English wine writer, Oz Clarke, said that he didn't know of any Pinot Blancs that were "star quality," like Chardonnay.  Talk about lacking respect!

Perhaps Clarke was thinking of where in the world you might find Pinot Blanc. Top of list are the Alsace region of France and Italy's northern tiers like Alto Adige.  Elsewhere, California, Oregon, Germany and Austria have respectable acreage of Pinot Blanc. 

Pinot Blanc

Pinot Blanc was originally found in Burgundy as a mutation of Pinot Noir. But the Burgundians eventually dropped Pinot Blanc as an AOC variety and the variety found a home in Alsace. Still, wine laws can be retrogressive, and Pinot Blanc was allowed to hang on in Burgundy but only as Bourgogne Blanc.

Alsace growers consider Pinot Blanc good enough to rank among the best varieties, such as Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris. In Alsace, Pinot Blanc is often blended with Auxerrois, a widely planted variety in Alsace, although it's not valued enough to stand on its own as a varietal.  

And, Cremant d'Alsace, an AOC wine since the late 1970s, is made mainly from Pinot Blanc, often with Auxerrois, although other varieties are favored in this popular Alsace fizz.

Across the Rhine river from Alsace, German winegrowers have Weissburgunder (aka Pinot Blanc) in fifth place, surging ahead of Müller-Thurgau, once considered a serious threat to Riesling, Germany's premier white wine. Oak is rarely seen in Weissburgunder, but many of the wines are finished with a little sweetness, in a style the Germans call halbtrocken, that literally means "half dry."

Pinot Blanc is also popular in Italy's northeast, mainly Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli and Veneto where Pinot Blanc is called Pinot Bianco. Tank fermentation and no wood is common with Pinot Bianco in the Italian style. The wines have a fresh fruitiness, crisp acidity and a moderate clean finish.  

Pinot Blanc in America

With all of the attention lavished on Chardonnay in California, it's little wonder that Pinot Blanc languished in the Golden State for years. Lately, though, a growing list of wineries, up and down the state, have taken a second look at Pinot Blanc. 

The preferred style is tank fermentation with a short time in new or used oak barrels, or the full-blown Chardonnay treatment of French oak barrel fermentation and aging in new French oak.  Which begs the question: Is the wine still Pinot Blanc or an ersatz Chardonnay?


Most of California Pinot Blanc is fermented in Monterey County and the Napa Valley. Noteworthy wineries include Robert Sinskey, J. Wilkes, Au Bon Climat, Chalone, Rams Gate, Chateau St. Jean, Valley of the Moon Winery, Steele and Saddleback Cellars.

Further north in Oregon's Willamette Valley, there was a time when a small band of winemakers struggled to define Oregon Chardonnay, with some deciding that  Pinot Blanc or Pinot Gris could be Oregon's best white wine companion for its world famous Pinot Noirs. Oregon Pinot Blancs to look for include those from Elk Cove and WillaKenzie.

Wineries in the rest of the country seem to ignore Pinot Blanc and the variety is mostly unknown in South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. 

For many of the same features found in Chardonnay, except the higher prices, show a little respect for Pinot Blanc.

Next post: Look to Lake County

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Thursday, January 18, 2024

The lighter side of wine

One of the knocks you hear about wine from people who don't drink wine (and even a few who do) is wine people are too serious.  They claim there's no humor in wine.   


Hang on!  What about the hilarious jabs taken at the sometimes pretentiousness of wine by the acerbic British cartoonist, Ronald Searles?  Or the funny covers of San Francisco's former Pacific Wine Company. Both are classics now, treasured by wine collectors who appreciate wine humor, no matter how subtle or pointed.

History is replete with scores of humorous wine labels.  No one knows who created the first funny wine label, but it might have been in the 1960s, when Davis Bynum put a wine-stained footprint on the front label and called his wine "Chateau La Feet."  A clever take on the famous Bordeaux wine that later became Barefoot Bynum and then simply, Barefoot. 

About the same time, Almaden Vineyards released a bronze-colored wine called Eye of the Partridge, a California take on the French wine Oeil de Perdrix.  The partridge family of wines spawned Saddleback Cellars Oeil de Tortue, supposedly named in homage to the eye color of winemaker Nils Venge's pet turtle. 


Perhaps the longest string of tongue-in-cheek wine labels came from the creative and zany imagination of Randall Grahm, owner/winemaker of Bonny Doon. Grahm was known for knocking the staid wine industry on its collective ear with such label classics as Le Cigare Volant, showing an airship crashing into a vineyard and Clos de Gilroy, Grahm's Rhone-style blend based on grapes he found "Close to Gilroy." 

Other labels in the Grahm camp, include witty label takeoffs, now a part of wine lore, like Napa's Frog's Leap Winery poke at Napa neighbor Stag's Leap Wine Cellar, Australia's  Kanga Rouge and Wallaby White, Planet of the Grapes from Sonoma, and Jory Winery's funny jab at critic Robert Parker (although, apparently he didn't think so), with a Mourvedre sporting a neck label featuring Bob III, The Emperor Has No Nose.

Humorous Wine Tales

Wine has been associated with human evolution for centuries. So, it figures that there are numerous tales, big and small, true and not, connected with the wines enjoyed by the people who made them. 

Reaching back into the dusty corners of the wine humor cellar, I came across this odd tale of the Italian white wine, Est! Est!! Est!!!  It's a fanciful account, some might say humorous, that tells how a certain Italian wine supposedly got its name.

In the 12th century, a German bishop and his entourage were traveling to Rome and his eminence required his servant to go ahead to find the village with the best wine. Mark "Est!" (Latin for "it is") on the door of every tavern where you find the wine to be especially good, directed the bishop. When the servant got to Montefiascone, in Lazio, he wrote "Est! Est!! Est!!!" on all the tavern doors.  The bishop agreed that the wine was excellent and decided to stay in Montefiascone. The triple-e wine is still made today from Trebbiano and Malvasia. 


Castelli Romani -- Like so many things circulating around Italian wine, the vino of Lazio (Latium in English) requires some explanation, so stay with me.  Lazio is a large central Italy region, home to the capital city of Rome.  Lazio is also the site of a group of wines, known as Castelli Romani, of which Frascati is the best known.  The subtle Muscat notes of Frascati are from a traditional blend of Muscat of Alexandria and Schiava, known in Lazio as Malvasia del Lazio, plus a touch of  Trebbiano.

Falernian and Caecuban -- A strangely off-kilter wine note from the Roman past claims that Falernian was so "strong" that it could be set alight! The contemporary version of Falernian is made from Falanghina. Caecuban was described by Pliny the Elder as "sinewy" and "packing a punch."  

Flog that wine! -- Long ago, when wine was imported from Europe to England in bulk, bottling in local cellars was a common practice.  A device, that sounds a bit like a torture device, was used to ram the cork home in a bottle, called a "Boot and Flogger."  Apparently, the way it works is the operator used his boot to slam a lever striking the cork, ramming it home. Later improvements used power leverage to force the cork into the bottle. 

The monk who (didn't) invent Champagne -- A vigorous telling of the discovery of Champagne supposedly has the Benedictine monk Dom Perignon, exclaiming "Come quickly, I'm drinking stars!" Fact is, re-fermentation occurs naturally in the spring, without the help of man or monk. Ironically, Father Pierre Perignon's experimenting with blending was thwarted by this natural process. 

Fun anecdotes about wine and the people that make it are only one possible scenario.  The real truth about wine is in the drinking. 


End note: The deadline I set for the changeover and re-design has past and I wanted everyone to know that I hope to make the changes soon.


Next blog: Pinot Blanc

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Thursday, January 11, 2024

Lodi: "There's Something Happening Here"


In the late 1990s, Lodi was not a name high on my list of wine regions to visit. There was a reference to Lodi in a bluesey song that bounced around in my head, but nothing much about Lodi and wine. 

Then, one day, in early 1998, I got a call from Mark Chandler, then executive director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission, asking if I would be interested in serving as chairman of the Wine Industry Integrity Awards, a new program devised by the commission.  The annual program would recognize individuals in the U.S. wine industry who have conducted their careers with integrity, while making significant contributions to the world of wine.

Later renamed the Wine Integrity Award, the program brought me to Lodi for the award presentations, while providing me with an in-depth look at the vineyards, wines and people that make up this dynamic and diverse wine region.  

For me, Lodi was no longer just a name in a song.

The cool end of the Central Valley

California's Central Valley is best known for fruits and vegetables, but not so much for wine grapes.  There is Gallo, of course, but the top Gallo wines come from another part of the state, northwest of the Central Valley. 

Rising in the distant Sierras, the Consumnes and Mokelumne rivers flow through Lodi, on their way to the Pacific Ocean. The river waters are an ample source of irrigation for the grapes, and a recreational diversion on those balmy evenings when a casual float with a glass of wine brings a busy day to a relaxing close.

Drive east from the sprawling San Joaquin Delta and you arrive at Lodi, the cool north end of the Central Valley.  Daily breezes off the delta, give Lodi a tempering boost for the more than 100 wine grapes, in seven sub-AVAs: Alta Mesa, Borden Ranch, Clements Hills, Consumnes River, Jahant, Mokelumne River and Sloughhouse.

Lodi has a standing reputation for making distinctive Zinfandel, much of it made from old-vine grapes.  Alluvial loamy and sandy soils from the Sierras form the perfect medium for phylloxera-free grapes grown on un-grafted roots. 

Head pruned old-vine Zinfandel

Many of the Zin vines are 160 years old and still producing clusters of small concentrated berries. And, despite their contemporary standing as viticulture icons, these old gnarly vines continue to yield distinctive concentrated Zinfandel. A few Lodi wineries, drawing from aged vines of other varieties, make Old Vine Carignan and Cinsault.

The most planted wine grape in Lodi, though, is not Zinfandel but Cabernet Sauvignon. And, while other wine regions have pulled Alicante Bouschet and Carignane (Carignan in France), Lodi continues to value both grapes as varietals and components in popular field blends.

An aside: Grape names can be confusing, especially on wine labels. Alicante Bouschet is known variously as Alicante and Alicante Henri.  And Alicante is a synonym for Garnacha Tintoera and even Grenache. What's more, Alicante is both a city in Spain and a Spanish wine appellation.

Other red grapes that help Lodi maintain it's admirable reputation as a grape grower include Dolcetto, Sangiovese, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Nebbiolo, Monastrell, Grenache, Counoise, Tempranillo, the five Bordeaux varieties, Teroldego, Cinsault and Zweigelt, a popular Austrian red grape. All of these are available in wines costing less than $30. Wine drinkers thirsting for a taste of California's past might seek out Monte Rio Cellars Mission wine.

Lodi has a well-deserved reputation for red wine, but there are some unusual whites that should be of interest to the adventurous wine consumer, like Vermentino, Picpoul, Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Albarino, Muscat and the usual Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. 

The main mission of any wine region is to make and sell wine. In 2005, Lodi introduced "Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing," a program that went nationwide and helped Lodi to become recognized for its wine.

"There's something happening here" is the motto of the Lodi wine community.  Try a Lodi wine and discover for yourself what that something is.


Next blog: The lighter side of wine 

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Thursday, January 4, 2024

Oz Shiraz

In a Cabernet-centric wine world, it may come as a surprise to hear that Australia's premier red wine is Shiraz, aka Syrah. 

Aussies do make Cabernet Sauvignon, but since 1951, Shiraz has captured the attention of Australian wine drinkers, as well as  fans of red wine with personality, everywhere.

There are six states in Australia (Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania), plus Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory. The huge landmass that is the Australian continent/country is about the same size as continental United States. 

Old vine Shiraz

Shiraz is produced in every state and territory and all of them are different, reflecting local terroir. Anyone with a fondness for Oz Shiraz would never mistake a Barossa Shiraz for one made in Margaret River, or the Hunter Valley. They all carry the same varietal name, but they don't taste the same.

The modern story of Shiraz begins with a man named Max Schubert. In the 1950s, Schubert was head winemaker for Penfolds, in the Barossa Valley of South Australia. Following a trip to France where he tasted a number of Bordeaux, Schubert wanted to make a wine at Penfolds like what he tasted in France.

But there was no Cabernet Sauvignon then in the Barossa, although there was plenty of Shiraz, used then to make sweet Australian Port. So, Schubert's boss directed him not to make a dry red from Shiraz.  

Fortunately for wine lovers, Schubert ignored the order and made a Shiraz, aged in American oak, that he named Grange Hermitage.  The French objected to the use of the Hermitage name, since there was already a Hermitage wine in the Rhone Valley.  Penfolds relented and today the famous wine is called simply, Grange.

Numerous Shiraz/Syrahs, made outside the northern Rhone Valley, consider Hermitage and Cote Rotie, as the baseline. Rhone Syrah is deeply colored, with complex aromas of blackberry/raspberry, hints of rosemary and wood smoke.  With age, Syrah becomes more leathery with tobacco leaf notes. Australian Shiraz is riper, more concentrated and fruit-driven.

With that background as a general reference, here are a few characteristics of regional Australian Shiraz. 

Barossa, South Australia: deep ruby color, chocolate-covered cherries, faint herbal note, soft tannins, good acidity. Many Barossa Shiraz have what the Aussies describe as eucalypt, which to me is more menthol than mint.

Hunter Valley, New South Wales: Shiraz does well in the southern part of the Hunter, mainly between the city of Cessnock and the Rothbury area. Young Hunter Shiraz is lean and closed, but like Hunter Semillon, aging in the bottle brings out big berry flavors and smooth tannins.

Yarra Valley

Victoria sub regions: Yarra Valley: very deep inky color, ripe black cherry, peppery back note, crisp acidity, fine tannins.  Geelong: dense color, spicy/peppery aroma, black cherry flavors, good structure and length. Grampians: deep ruby color, richly textured flavors, ripe plums, spice and black pepper, good length. Pyrenees: chocolate cherry and black plum, spicy/peppery, length and structure; Taltarni is the most often seen Pyrenees Shiraz in the U.S. market.  

Tasmania: dense, ripe blackberry, bing cherry, subtle leafy notes. Because of the Tasmania cool climate, similar in some places to Champagne, Tassie is better known for Pinot Noir than Shiraz.

Margaret River, Western Australia: complex bright red fruits, brisk acidity, firm tannins. Structure is more Bordeaux/Cabernet-like than Rhone/Syrah. 

Shiraz also shows up in G-S-M, a blend of Shiraz, Grenache and Mourvedre, with the up-front fruit of Grenache, the structure of Shiraz and the color of Mourvedre.  Aussies also blend Shiraz with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Other noteworthy Shiraz, by state/region: Rothbury Estate, Rosemount Estate (New South Wales); Clonakilla (Canberra); De Bartoli, Yarra Ridge Vineyard (Yarra Valley); Taltarni, Mount Avoca Vineyard (Pyrenees); Chateau Tahbilk (Goulburn Valley); Grant Burge, St. Hallett, Peter Lehman, Yalumba, Wolf Blass, Rockford  (Barossa Valley); Henschke, Hill-Smith Estate (Eden Valley); Jim Barry (Clare Valley); Wynns Coonawarra Estate, Katnook Estate (Coonawarra); d'Arenberg Wines, Normans, Clarendon Hills (McLaren Vale); Vasse Felix, Cape Mentelle (Margaret River).

The name Shiraz comes from the capital of ancient Persia and is the fifth most populous city in present-day Iran. Shiraz is also the name of Australia's most popular red wine, a worthy addition to a wine drinker's collection.

Next blog: Loving Lodi

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