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.

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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 Although Muscat of Alexandria has been replaced by Muscat Blanc in many parts of the world, it is still one of the most widely planted Muscats in the world.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

Semillon

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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