Thursday, May 23, 2024

Rioja Rojas

       Spain wooden sign — Stock Photo, Image

When I started writing about wine, in the early 1970s, Rioja was already Spain's iconic red wine.  A survey of Denver wine shops then would have disclosed only a few  Rioja red wines, and then from a handful of large traditional vintners such as Federico Paternina, CVNE, Marques de Murrieta, Marques de Riscal and Bodegas Campo Viejo.  

As interest in wine picked up, starting in the early 1970s, more Rioja wines became available. Today, there are hundreds of bodegas  on both sides of the  Autopista A68, from the Rioja wine capital city of Haro, southeast past  Logrono to Alfaro.  It's a scenic highway that passes through sub-zones Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta and Rioja Oriental (formerly Rioja Baja).

The wine, food and culture centers follow the Ebro river through Rioja.  In a distance of only 60 miles, you'll find Logrono and Haro in Rioja Alta, Laguardia at the center of Rioja Alavesa, and Alfaro, Calahora and Arnedo the main cities in the sprawling Rioja Oriental. 

There are more than 600 wineries in Rioja, from small family-owned vintners in Rioja Alavesa to large cooperatives and wine companies in Rioja Oriental.   Grower/winery relationships in Rioja are like those in Champagne, where a large number of independent growers sell grapes to wineries, rather than a winery growing its own grapes.

Technical Rioja

Spanish wine is regulated by  the Denominacion de Origen (DO) system, similar to the French AOC system of rules regulating the growing and production of wine.  It's a lot of acronyms to remember, but a working knowledge will help in making a more informed buying decision.

Although DO is still widely used, the official designation is now DOP, Denominacion de Origen Protegida, (Protected), a mouthful for non-Spanish speakers that falls in line with the EU's Protected Designation of Origin.

Additionally, a change to Spanish wine law has added Vino Municipio (single village) and Vineado Singular (single vineyard), terms that may be used on wine labels.  In 1991 Rioja was the first Spanish region to be awarded DOCa, Denominacion de Origen Calificada, (Qualified) for wines that meet higher standards than are spelled out under DO/DOP.

These are the key points of the three sub regions and the wines:

Rioja Alavesa, the smallest of the three sub-regions. Alavesa and Rioja Alta are thought to make the highest quality red wines.  Vineyards in the northwest of Alavesa are up to 4,000 ft., higher than any in Rioja. The elevation, and being closer to the Mediterranean, brings cool breezes to the vineyards, that are around the towns of Haro and Laguardia.  Red grapes: Tempranillo, Mazuelo, Garnacha, Graciano.  And Viura (Macabeo) for white. Prominent  Alavesa wineries include Marques de Riscal, CVNE, Bodegas Faustino, Bodegas El Coto.

Laguardia, Spain - La Rioja tourist ...
Laguardia, Rioja Alavesa

Rioja Alta is the westernmost of the three sub regions.  The vineyards, mostly south of the Ebro river are lower than in Rioja Alavesa.  Although red wines from both Alta and Alavesa have  their advocates, both produce quality reds, with, arguably, the edge going to Rioja Alavesa.  Generally, Alta wines are lighter in body, with lower acidity. The grape mix is the same as in Alavesa, leaning heavily on Tempranillo.  Rioja Alta wineries: Bodegas Muga, La Rioja Alta, Bodegas Marques de Murrietta, Marques de Caceres.

Rioja Oriental, until 1968 known as Rioja Baja, is  in the eastern broader part of the valley. Oriental is warmer, except for sections around Alfaro.  The climate and fertile soils are right for growing Garnacha.  In recent years, though, Tempranillo began to replace Garnacha, but now, with winemakers finding new potential in Garnacha, the pendulum is swinging back. There's less limestone and more clay than in Alta vineyards.  Rioja Oriental wineries: Bodegas D. Mateos, Bodegas Ontanon, Palacios Remondo, Bodegas Vinicola Real.

Rioja Grapes and Tasting

There are two main grapes in Rioja red wine: Tempranillo and Garnacha.  Tempranillo is native to Spain, while Garnacha (aka, Grenache), is popular in Rioja Oriental and  is equally at home in Priorat, Spain's most distinctive and expensive red wine.  Different expressions of Tempranillo can also be found in Ribera del Duero, Catalonia, Navarra, Costers del Segre and Somontano.

In addition to Tempranillo and Garnacha, there are four other authorized grapes: Mazuelo, Graciano, Viura and Macabeo, the latter two grapes are white.  Cabernet Sauvignon is also allowed, but only with special permission.  Rioja winemakers have found that blending works better with native varieties.  Perhaps the practice is a holdover from the late 19th century, when French winemakers settled in Rioja following the destruction of vineyards by phylloxera in Bordeaux. 

The following rules apply to Rioja red wines:  Crianza, a minimum of 18 months, 12 of which in oak barrels;  Reserva, 3 years, 12 months in barrel; Gran Reserva, 3 years ,minimum, 2 in oak and the wine cannot be moved from the winery until the 6th year after the vintage.

The quality of Rioja red wines has come a long way, spurred on by the challenge from Ribera del Duero wines. Rioja Crianza wines are good value choices for summer enjoyment.

Next post: This and That

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Thursday, May 16, 2024

Feret & Alan Spencer

In 1982, the 13th edition of  "Bordeaux and Its Wines," popularly known as the "Feret," was published in Bordeaux, along with an English translation.

No other wine book has had such an impressive track record, yet the Feret is a reference  few American wine consumers know about, even though it's now in the 17th edition. 

Remarkably, the first edition was published in 1850!  Subsequent editions of the hardcover reference boast 1,867 pages, references to 1,700 Bordeaux estates, and weighs a hefty 13 pounds.  Much lighter, but no less impressive, is the included large fold-out Carte Vinicole de la Gironde.  The price in 1982, for what then was likely the world's most expensive wine book, was $82, not including shipping.

My friend, the late Alan Spencer, was the translator of the 13th English edition.  Alan was an ex-pat Englishman, a man of many interests and passions, who spoke five languages and who tried tirelessly to play Bach piano pieces, traveled and wrote about wine and, according to his French son, Christophe, spoke very good French with a slight accent. The Spencer's lived in Castillon la Bataille, along the Dordogne  river.

There's more about how Alan Spencer, the Wine Spectator, Bordeaux wine, the Feret and I met and interacted, but first more on what the impressive Feret has meant to Bordeaux and its wines. 

Feret's "Bordeaux and Its Wines"

In the Preface, Hugh Johnson, the eminent English wine writer, briefly spells out the background and genesis  of the reference book. "It first sprang from the mind of an Englishman...Charles Cocks.  Not very much is known of him, besides what can be gleaned from his highly influential work."  Johnson notes that the first edition was titled "Cocks et Feret," a partnership Cocks had with Edouard Feret.

The name Charles Cocks rarely comes up in discussions of wine lore, yet his memorable contribution to wine,  besides the Feret, is the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855, a ranking of Bordeaux wines that remains relevant today.  About ten years earlier, Cocks had published his own classification of Bordeaux wines, which led to the famous 1855 classification. 

The massive Feret, recognized by wine book collectors as the indispensable reference for Bordeaux wines, is in the 17th English edition and is now up to 2,336 pages.  Besides entries for all Bordeaux chateaux, with engravings of each property, the Feret contains chapters on Bordeaux Viticulture, Harvesting and Winemaking, Wine Production, the art of choosing and drinking Bordeaux wines, a comprehensive Bordeaux Glossary and more.  

Each entry contains basic information about the estate, including a brief history, and an engraving of each chateau; the engravings were first introduced in the 1881 edition. There's also a brief description of the wine, such as this over-wrought one for Ch. Lafite-Rothschild: "The bouquet of Lafite wines is very suave, and of incomparable delicacy; its savor brings together, at the same time, the taste of almonds and the scent of violets, without it being possible to distinguish whether one dominates the other."

Alan Spencer and the Feret

Unless you were reading the Wine Spectator or Decanter in the early 1980s, the name Alan Spencer won't be familiar to you.  Alan was living in Bordeaux then and traveling for Kalamazoo, a French computer software company, named for the Michigan city where it started, when he came across a copy of the Wine Spectator.  I was editor then of the Wine Spectator and we were looking for more coverage of French wines. 

Alan wrote to me saying he was interested in writing about wine.  Over the next few years, Alan wrote about all aspects of Bordeaux wine, from his home not far from St. Emilion.  And from his exposure in the Wine Spectator, he began to get assignments in Decanter, a British wine magazine that was looking for a different voice on French wine.

Word circulated around the tightly knit Bordeaux wine trade about Alan Spencer's knowledge of Bordeaux wines and his fluency with the French language.  Claude Feret, editor and and publisher of the Feret, offered Alan the huge task of translating the Feret from French to English.  There was an earlier English edition, but it needed a complete update, an undertaking that  Alan eventually discovered would last from 1983 into 1984.

By then, the collegial relationship between Alan and me had developed into a friendship.  We shared views on French wines and on one occasion, he told me, by telephone, of his mounting frustration with the translation and that Claude Feret tended to nit pick everything Alan sent him.  There was also the matter that Alan was not credited as the translator of the 13th Edition.  

The update and translation were eventually finished, the new edition published in 1986 and Alan moved on to other writing projects and practicing a Bach partita.

Not long after publication, I got a copy of the 13th Edition, with a red hardcover.  There are numerous  editions,  hardcover and softback, since the first one in 1850.  The 17th Edition, 2004, and others are available from eBay, Amazon, and even Walmart, for prices from $60, plus shipping, from AbeBooks, to the unexplained $394.95 for a 17th Edition in very good condition, from Amazon.

"Bordeaux and its Wines" is an unparalleled and indispensable guide to all Bordeaux wines and belongs in the library of all serious Bordeaux wine lovers as the ultimate Bordeaux reference.

Photos by Janet M. Boyd

Next post:  Rioja Rojas

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Thursday, May 9, 2024

Napa Sauvignon Blanc


Napa valley Stock Photos, Royalty Free Napa valley Images ...

The other day, I was thinking about the Napa Valley's most popular wines (I know, it's the kind of  obsessive thing wine writers think about) and the first not-so obvious thought I had is Cabernet Sauvignon must account for at least half of the vineyard acreage in the Napa Valley.  

Perhaps that's not so surprising.  After all, Cabernet Sauvignon is Napa's best known wine.  What is surprising is that Sauvignon Blanc, a popular white wine, is planted in just a fraction of the valley's vineyards.

According to Napa Vintners, these are the numbers for the planted acreage of the top five Napa Valley grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, 50%; Chardonnay, 14%; Merlot, 10%; Sauvignon Blanc, 6%, Pinot Noir, 6%.

The percentages clearly show that Napa is a red wine valley, with a little acreage devoted to  white varieties.  But it is surprising, considering the market dominance of Chardonnay,  that there is so little Chardonnay in Napa Valley.  And that there is not more Sauvignon Blanc in the valley.  

Also, why is there as much Pinot Noir as Sauvignon Blanc in Napa Valley, when Pinot Noir is mainly grown in Napa-Carneros?  And the majority of Carneros vineyards are in Sonoma, not Napa.  Questions like these can keep you up at night.

The Napa Valley Style

So, let's take a closer look at Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc and what you, the consumer, should expect from the wine.

Napa Valley has around 46,000 acres of vines and it is just about planted out.  A lot of Sauvignon Blanc is rooted mid-valley, especially around Rutherford.  With Cabernet Sauvignon the dominant variety in the valley, wineries wanting to add Sauvignon Blanc to their wine list, will have to look in every open corner where the grape does well.

Sauvignon Blanc buds late and ripens early, so it doesn't need a lot of heat to bring out the best in the grape.  In the warmer north-valley, around Calistoga, the danger for Sauvignon Blanc, is low acidity and a loss of varietal distinction. 

Savvy fans of Sauvignon Blanc will tell you that Sancerre and Pouilly Fume, from the Loire Valley and Bordeaux blanc, are the versions Americans knew best, until New Zealand's Cloudy Bay introduced Americans to a whole new style of Sauvignon Blanc. 

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc took off like a rocket, with it's tropical flavors and tangy citrus acidity.  Stylish and flavorful, the "sauvy" style  soon became the one to emulate.  

Considering the differences in country and terroir, it was understood that you can't make New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in the Napa Valley.  However, a number of Napa winemakers shifted their Sauvignon Blanc style from more like France to New Zealand.  

Unripe Sauvignon Blanc grapes on vine — Stock Photo, Image
Unripe Sauvignon Blanc                   

Flint, or silex, in the soil of Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire gives Sauvignon Blanc a certain gun flint aroma, setting the style more like Loire than Bordeaux, neither of which appealed to some Napa winemakers.  

Fact is, there is no one Napa Sauvignon Blanc style, but it's safe to say that the main  focus is on freshness, leaning toward citrus and tropical fruit, without an herbal note found in some Sauvignons.   The most popular style is Sauvignon Blanc sans oak, although there are some Napa wineries aging their Sauvignons for short periods in French oak. 

These are but a few of the many Napa Sauvignon Blancs: Cakebread, La Pelle, Taub Family, Oberon, Cliff Lede, Lail, Rombauer, Honig, Twomey, Groth, Mason, St. Supery, Charles Krug, Green & Red, Screaming Eagle.  Most are priced in the mid-$20s. Twomey is $35 and the $3,812/750ml price for  Screaming Eagle Sauvignon, is enough to make a wine lover scream. 

Next Post: Alan Spencer and The Feret

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Thursday, May 2, 2024

Defining Steen and Pinotage

A passage in the Bible, from Ecclesiastes, ends with the words, "there is nothing new under the sun."  In 1924, a Stellenbosch University scientist, laboring under the blazing South African sun, thought otherwise when he crossed Pinot Noir and Cinsault, creating a wholly new wine grape called Pinotage.

Chenin Blanc is another grape that has helped define South African wine.  While not a new variety, its development in Cape vineyards was new.  Probably first grown in the Loire Valley a thousand years ago, Chenin Blanc was brought to South Africa by a Dutch trader in the 17th century.  

Early Boer growers called the grape Steen, vigorously establishing the newcomer as  the country's most widely planted wine grape.  Use of the grape name, Steen, is slowly disappearing, but Chenin Blanc remains a popular white variety throughout the Cape wine lands.

Despite local popularity, Pinotage and Chenin Blanc struggle to remain vital under the stronger consumer demand for Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.  With constantly shifting market demands, the question is can Chenin Blanc and Pinotage survive and compete?  Let's have a closer look at both varieties. 

Stellenbosch Pictures | Download Free Images on Unsplash
                                                                        Stellenbosch vineyard                                                    Credit: Unsplash                  

Chenin Blanc

Of the two wines, Chenin Blanc has the longest track record, is grown in more places and enjoys an acceptance that Pinotage has yet to achieve outside South Africa.  Since the 1800s, South African vintners have relied on Steen to bolster local wine sales while helping promote the image of South African wines in the UK, at the time South Africa's main export market.

But change was inevitable. In the 1990s, the Chenin Blanc Producers Association was set up to seriously promote the grape and get away from the use of Steen.  Vineyard expansion was undertaken in the  sub regions of Paarl and Worchester, as the CBPA began to identify the best vineyards, many with old vines. 

This new effort in the vineyards set a style for SA Chenin Blanc that focused on  tropical flavors of guava and pineapple, supported by crisp natural acidity and a subtle minerality. For fans of Loire Chenins, this new South African wine was a revelation.  Viognier is a popular blending variety in Cape Chenin Blanc.

Chenin Blanc is grown throughout the Cape and is usually priced at $20 and less.  Look for these producers: Ken Forrester, Minimalist Wines, Bill Bosch, Alheit Vineyards, Kumala, Boschendal.  Alheit has a wide range of Chenins, many over $50. 


In the early years of the 20th century, grape growers in South Africa imported Cinsaut, a red grape from southern France, which the growers thought made a wine that reminded them of Hermitage, a Northern Rhone red.

Never mind that Hermitage is made from Syrah and there is no Cinsaut grown in the northern Rhone Valley.  Undaunted, the South Africans called their Cinsaut "Hermitage."  Then in 1924, they introduced Pinotage, by taking parts of  Pinot Noir and Hermitage. 

When the new wine was first labeled as Pinotage, in the early 1960s, some people dismissed this different rustic wine, while others loved it.  Detractors said it was bitter and smelled like paint remover.  A group of Pinotage vintners, notably Kanonkop, felt the wine deserved better, so they began to work with the grape in the vineyard and the winery.

Pinotage Stock Photos, Royalty Free Pinotage Images ...

Still, the controversy continued over Pinotage, until it was discovered that the wine did not need oak maturing to develop aged characteristics. Today's Pinotage is fresh and fruity, with some of the dark fruit flavors of Pinot Noir, soft tannin, but with the structure of a northern Rhone red wine.  Numerous wineries have a varietal Pinotage and a Cape Blend, usually with Syrah.

Pinotage is a wine worth trying, both for its unique characteristics and its value.  Most brands are less than $25, including Tulbagh, Fairhills, Kanonkop, Old Road Wine Co. and Groot Constantia.  Kanonkop has a series of Pinotages.

One of the enduring pleasures of wine is there is always something new, starting with a new vintage every year.  Pinotage and Chenin Blanc are no longer new wines in the South African list, but they can be for you.

Next post: Napa Sauvignon Blanc

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