Thursday, April 25, 2024

When Merlot Went "Sideways"

In case you missed it, the 20th anniversary of the Merlot-bashing movie "Sideways" just passed.  No one could have predicted that when Miles angrily yelled, "I am NOT drinking any f@%#&$g Merlot," that people would swear off Merlot and sales would fall off a cliff.

But when the dust settled, wine industry watchers noticed that did not exactly happen.   Miles, a dedicated Pinot Noir fan, did let everyone in the room know of his dislike for Merlot, and new plantings and sales of Merlot dropped off, but not for long.  

Following the release of the movie in 2004, plantings of Merlot decreased statewide, while Pinot Noir increased.  Opinions differ on why, but a common complaint about California Merlot in 2004 was that a lot of it was too vegetative and green.  

Today, there is four times as much Merlot in the state and the varietal's soft berry-rich flavors make it a popular seller at retail and on restaurant wine lists.

Winery Signs, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa ...
Ah, let's see...

The setting for one of the most successful wine movies ever was the Santa Ynez Valley, in Santa Barbara County, a premier spot for California Pinot Noir.  Miles (Paul Giamatti) told his friend, Jack (Thomas Haden-Church), "We're gonna drink a lot of good wine.  We're gonna play some golf.  We're gonna eat some great food and enjoy the scenery and we're gonna send you off in style, mon frere."

As it turns out, the eager pair meet up with Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie  (Sandra Oh). In the 20 years since, Giamatti has gone on to stardom in films and television, Oh has made her mark in television, while Haden-Church and Madsen seem to have disappeared.

That's show biz; you can be a star one day and out of work the next. But here's the crazy thing: Miles' angry snarl had a measurable impact on the sales of California Merlot.  And, when he confessed his devotion for Pinot Noir, by indulging his passion with a pilgrimage to the Santa Ynez Valley, the Central Coast wine region took on new interest for wine day trippers as the place to visit.

Miles was demonstrating his self-proclaimed reputation as an authority on Santa Ynez Pinot Noir and food, and he and Jack, Maya and Stephanie visited some of the valley's popular watering spots, like the Fess Parker Winery, Andrew Murray and Firestone Vineyard for Pinot Noir, and Los Olivos Wine Merchant & Cafe and the Hitching Post 2, in Buellton.

                                                                                                                 The Best Wine Glasses For Pinot Noir ...

The original Hitching Post is in Casmalia, in the shadow of Vandenberg Air Force Base and the West Coast launch pad for NASA heavy lift rockets.  Hitching Post has long been known for barbecue steaks and grilled artichokes. Local legend claims  that the grilled steaks glow in the dark because of the Hitching Post being near  Vandenberg and its rocket activity.  

One of the natural features that allows California wineries to grow so many different wine grapes, is a series of mesoclimates, a common term today that defines a vineyard or a potential site for a vineyard.  A mesoclimate falls between a macroclimate and a microclimate. 

There are seven sub regions in the Santa Ynez Valley, each with a different mesoclimate, supporting a diverse range of varieties.  Pinot Noir and Chardonnay find the right conditions in the western Santa Rita Hills, that open directly to the cooling breezes of the Pacific Ocean. Syrah and other Rhone varieties grow better in the inland area of Ballard Canyon.  Further east, in warmer sites like Happy Canyon, Bordeaux varieties thrive. 

Miles was looking for Pinot Noir, a variety he believed is the Holy Grail of red wine.  Jack tagged along, but to Miles' irritation was more interested in the pursuit of women than wine.  Undaunted, Miles was looking to the  Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noirs for seductive black cherry flavors, exotic spices and firm tannins, the ingredients, the combination he was sure he and Jack would find from  Sea Smoke Cellars, Babcock Winery, Sanford Winery, Sanford & Benedict Vineyard and Lafond Winery.

Merlot and Pinot Noir; you'll find both in the Santa Ynez Valley.  And, you just might spy Miles Raymond on his quest to find the Holy Grail.


Next post:  Defining Steen and Pinotage

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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Spanish White Wines

For years, the mere mention of Spanish wine to an American wine drinker meant  red wine, and maybe a little pink. Foremost, were the big reds, Rioja, Navarra and Ribera del Duero, all made from Tempranillo. 

Over time, Tempranillo and Garnacha (Grenache), Spain's major red grapes, built   name recognition, while Spanish white wines mostly were an afterthought, except, maybe, for fresh and crisp seafood-friendly Albarino, from coastal Galicia.   

Free photo close up on grapes seasonal fruits for winter

Today, wine drinkers look to such notable Spanish whites as Macabeo (Rioja and Navarra), Parellada (Cava) or Verdejo (Rueda). These indigenous grapes, plus a dozen or so others, are supplemented by Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, adding  international grapes to local blends.

Growing these grapes can be a challenge, as the weather runs hot and cold in much of Spain. Grape growing in Spain is strongly influenced by the region's proximity to large bodies of water.  Galicia, in the northwest, is near the Atlantic Ocean.  Across the country, in the northeast, Catalonia, has a long coastline on the Mediterranean Sea. 

White varieties like Parellada, Godello, Albarino, Loureira and Treixadura are ideally suited for mild climates in these coastal areas. Hardier, thick-skinned grapes, like Verdejo, survive the hot summer days in the interior.

The broad plains and mesas in the center of the country are subject to more climate extremes, with freezing winter temperatures and blazing hot summers in Rioja, Navarra, Rueda and Valdepenas. The same temperature variations are common in southern Andalucia, site of Sherry production, made from white grapes like Palomino and Pedro Ximenez.

Here's a closer look at four of Spain's most popular white wines; Ribera del Duero is primarily a red-wine region:

Catalonia -- This is Spain's region of diversity and it all starts with Barcelona, the great Mediterranean city of architecture, food and, of course, wine. The city's many excellent restaurants and tapas bars serve a wine variety of wine, including CAVA, Spain's celebrated sparkling wine, stoppered with cork from locally grown cork oaks. 

Catalonia, or Catalunya in Catalan, produces a wide range of crisp dry whites, from the same grapes used in CAVA, like Macabeo, all are available from one of Spain's most important wineries, Familia Torres.  And don't miss the opportunity to try the Garnacha-based red wines of Priorat.

Galicia -- Although there are five DO wine regions in the autonomous region of Galicia, the one with the best-known white wine is Rias Baixas, and its famous Albarino. Not long ago, Rias Baixas white wines were like the light and dry Vinho Verde, made not far away, south of the river Mino in Portugal, but Albarino changed things for Rias Baixas wines.  Another rising star pf Spanish white wine is Godello, a major variety in Valdeorras and Riberia Sacra DOs.

Free photo front view fresh mellow grapes green grapes on the dark surface wine fresh grape fruits tree plant ripe

The western terminus of the famed Camino de Santiago (Saint James Way),  stretching from southern France through Spain is in the Galician cathedral city of Santiago de la Compostela.

Rioja -- The history of Rioja white wine is spotty, with a simple local variety wrongly named "Malvasia," once widely planted, until the 1970s, when Riojan winemakers upgraded to Macebeo (known locally as Viura). 

Today, a mutation of Tempranillo, called Tempranillo Blanco, Turruntes (not related to the Argentine Torrontes) and Macebeo are the main Rioja whites, with Verdejo, Garnacha Blanco, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay of lesser interest.

Along with updating the vineyards, Riojans have made big changes in white wine making.  Gone are the over oaked, oxidized wines, replaced by cold-fermented fresh and fruity whites that may be lightly oaked.

Navarra -- East of Rioja, across the Ebro river is Navarra, a region not as well-known to American wine consumers as Rioja, but with a range of white, pink and red wines, worthy of a close look.

Climate plays a role in dividing the region into five sub-regions, with Ribera Baja, historically considered the most important.  Unlike Rioja, Navarra prefers Chardonnay as its primary white grape, backed up by Viura (Macabeo), but goes with Tempranillo as the favorite red grape, supported by Garnacha. 

Macabeo, seasoned by a little oak, can be a wine worth aging.  Add Chardonnay to the mix and you have a unique Navarran blend that competes with international white blends.  Navarra is also known for its rose wines, especially Garnacha rose from Chivite. 

The Navarran city of Pamplona is the site for the annual craziness known as the  Running of the Bulls, immortalized in Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" and "Death in the Afternoon".

Food Friendly Wines

For Spanish white wine, the traditional choice is fresh fish, grilled or served in a light salsa and shellfish, especially in a paella. Tapas call for a dry fino Sherry, and if foul is more to your liking, then spit-grilled or rotisserie chicken is good with a dry, or maybe a medium-dry, white wine.  

Spanish red wines are meant for red meat, especially asada, hot off the grill, or in a fragrant stew like estofada de carne.

Don't get caught in a food box, though.  Be creative and, most important, go with what you like. 

Next post: When Merlot Went "Sideways"

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Thursday, April 11, 2024

Nero and Nerello

This is not a post about a fiddle-playing Roman or the antics of two Italian cinema adventurers.  Nero and Nerello are the names of two grapes responsible for some of Sicily's best red wines.

A closer look at the grapes full names - Nero d'Avola and Nerello Mascalese - gets us closer to why Sicilians like these two varieties for their red wine. Growers in southern Sicily prefer to keep things localized, such as using the name Calabrese when referring to Nero d'Avola.  

Nero d'Avola

Nero d'Avola or "Black of Avola" is the most widely planted grape on the island, yielding deeply colored red wines with bright blackberry and cherry flavors, high tannins and medium acidity, just the wine to compliment the island's hearty cuisine.

The popular variety (and wine) gets its name from the town of Avola in the southern province of Siracusa.  Avola is one of the main growing areas, along with Noto and Pachino.

Nero is commonly made as a varietal or used in blends, such as the noted Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG, a blend of Nero d'Avola and Frappato, a red grape probably related to Sangiovese.

                                   Nero d’ Avola

There are numerous Nero d'Avolas in the market, widely priced from $12 for Tenuta Fenice, to $62 for Duca di Salaparuta. Others include Donnafugata $22, Feudo Montoni $55, Caruso Minini $19, Firriato $40, Stemmari $11, Cusumano $29, Tenuta Rapitala $14, Mazzei $20. 

Nerello Mascalese

Nerello Mascalese and its cousin, Nerello Cappucio, are essential components in Faro DOC, a popular red wine from around Messina, in the far northeastern part of the island.  The vineyards are on the Mascali plain, between Mt. Etna and the Mediterranean. 

Nerello is a late-ripening variety, commonly trained on bush vines. Nerello Mascalese is more widely planted than Nerello Cappucio and is related to Sangiovese, producing red and rose wines that are deeply colored, with good texture, medium acidity and cherry flavors. 

                                  Nerello Mascalese | Wine and Grape Guide |

Nerello Mascalese is also a permitted grape in Calabria, across the narrow Messina Strait.  The Calabrian wines are usually a blend of Mascalese and Cappucio.  Blending of the two grapes is common in both Sicily and Calabria.

Sicilian red wines, and the occasional rose, are gaining attention.  Here are ten Sicilian Nerello Mascalese wineries worth the search: Planeta, Gracia, Sciara, Donnafugata, Tasca d'Alamerita, Passopisciaro, Giovanni, Frank Cornelissen, Idda, Podere Giodo. 

An aside.  Over the years, I've collected a lot of wine books, old and relatively new. My small library includes a half-dozen books on Italian wine, the oldest is "The Wines of Italy," 1966, by the noted English writer, Cyril Ray, and the newest, "Vino Italiano," 2002, by Joseph Bastianich & David Lynch.  Bastianich's mother is chef and restaurateur, Lidia Bastianich. 

Despite the history of these two grapes in Sicily and their popularity, there is little mention of southeastern Sicilian wineries working with either of these grapes, in any of the four books. 

Ray's book has a single entry about Nero, referring to the grape as "Negra" d'Avola. "Italian Wine," 1982, by Victor Hazan does not mention Nero d'Avola but notes briefly that Nerello Mascalese is a part of Faro.  "Vino," 1980, by Burton Anderson,  the book on Italian wine that American wine collectors know best, has numerous listings of Nero and both Mascalese and Cappuccio, but only as components of certain wines.   

Lynch and Bastianich discuss Nerello Mascalese and give Nero d'Avola its due, probably because they talked to so many vintners who believe Nero is Sicily's grape of the present and future.  Though, Diego Planeta doesn't agree, telling the authors, that, in his opinion, Syrah is Sicily's great red hope. "It's just like Nero d'Avola: it loves the heat." 

Why have I gone on at length about the meager treatment of Nero and Nerello in older wine books? Researching, writing, editing and publishing a wine reference book takes a year, at least, making books outdated before they are released.

So, if you're looking for wine information, use reference books for the basics, but for current specifics, consult dedicated on-line providers like Wine-searcher, Wine Folly, The Gray Report, Wine Review Online, The WineKnowLog  and, of course, Gerald D Boyd On Wine.  

And while you're looking up information on Sicilian wines, have a glass of Nero d'Avola or Nerello Mascalese.


Next post: Spanish Whites

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Thursday, April 4, 2024

Spicy Traminer


The other day, I was sitting at my computer, staring at the screen, hoping for the inspiration I needed to start this post about Gewürztraminer.  But the only thing  happening was my memory kept slipping back to the Stone Age, when I was struggling through high school, in Folsom, Pennsylvania.

At my school, in the early 1950s, you had to "take a language" to graduate. So, for some reason that I still don't understand, I signed up for German, in my junior year. 

After graduating, I promised myself no more school, yet here I was fresh out of a U.S. Air Force tech school as a radio repairman, with an assignment to Germany for three years. 

But there was a problem. I didn't understand the ground-to-air receivers and transmitters I was asked to repair, so it didn't take long for me to realize that radio repairing wasn't for me. 

I did quickly realize that I was in a different culture, with a proud German people trying to recover from a war pressed on them by a crazed dictator. 

As a young American guy, life in a recovering Germany was exciting but challenging, although I did manage to discover "real" beer, and was fortuitously introduced to wine. 

What I didn't realize then was that life can give you unexpected gifts. For me, it was the two years of high-school German that helped me to better understand German wine.

My high school German teacher, Miss Stoner, had drilled into us that German is a building block language. Connect two words like, gewürz (spice) and traminer (grape), and you have one word: Gewürztraminer, a spicy traminer. 

I never became fluent in German, but I did learn the language of wine in German and French and Italian and Spanish. Listen to something long enough and eventually it becomes ingrained. The time I spent in German class proved valuable and today I can mostly follow an explanation in a vineyard or cellar when the language is not American English. 

What I learned about Gewüztraminer is that regardless of the grape's German heritage, it amounts to little more than 1% of vineyard acreage in Germany. The undisputed variety is Riesling, followed by Müller-Thurgau, Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) and Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc).  Loosely translated, the two grapes mean "grey (grape) from Burgundy" and "white (grape) from Burgundy."  

What's more, Gewürztraminer's glory days were not in the vineyards of Germany. Truth is, in the 1980s, German wineries dropped the dry-white ball and Alsatian winemakers recovered. German Gewürztraminers were getting sweeter while Alsace Gewurz was moving toward dry.  

Some German vintners reacted to this shift with trocken (dry) and halbtrocken (half-dry) wines, while others remained committed to sweeter wines.  But the move to drier wine applied mainly to Riesling. And the damage was already done as Germany lost the edge with dry Gewürz, to Alsace.

But not for long. The acceptance by winemakers worldwide that consumers wanted sweeter white wine, even while they talked dry, prompted Alsace wineries to move away from dry to perceptibly sweet whites, including Gewürztraminer. 

Predictably, wine drinkers complained that now Alsace white wine was becoming too sweet, so Alsatian and German winemakers swung the pendulum back to somewhere between dry and sweet. And, in America, the reaction was to describe this "new" wine style with the vague term,"off dry."

Today, Gewüztraminer has its devoted fans, but the highly aromatic wine is not near top of many white wine lists. Although Gewurztraminer's perfumed aroma is not quite in your face, you know a Gewürz when you smell it: citrus peel, bergamot, exotic spices, lychee, and a whole host of other things.

Gewurztraminer is a great choice just for casual sipping or with light meals. The exotic flavors are good with Indian and Chinese cuisine, ripe and pungent cheeses, caramelized onion quiche, smoked fish and roast chicken.

While Alsace and Germany are still making the best expressions of Gewürztraminer, it also can be found in cool regions like Austria, northern Italy, New Zealand, South Africa and cooler areas of California, such as Monterey and Mendocino.  


Next post: Nero and Nerello

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