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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