A summer wine to enjoy!

I miss the ‘walk around’ consumer and industry tastings!

In Covid-19 times, wineries are selling you an abbreviated selection of their collection, complete with a login so you can taste along with the winemaker via Zoom.  It is fantastic that some methodology exists where at least we can taste; however, two to six wines from the same producer (and possibly the same vintage) with the winemaker extolling the virtues of his or her wines simply leaves me wanting more.  I want to taste other wines alongside so I can sense and taste the different expressions of a grape crafted by different producers.  I want to feel the wine on my palate and sense the acid, alcohol, and fruit elements.  I want to compare the wine with bottles from various regions.  I want to discover the gem. I want to be the judge and jury.

I sat out on our back patio last night and tasted three different white wines with a friend.  (I am studying for the WSET Level 4 Diploma and she is working on her CMS Certified.) We were tasting to cement in our minds what these wines present and to determine if they were good representations of the varietals and place.  I will admit that I drink a lot more red than white, but I have been looking for white wines for warm days (coming soon) that are light but flavorful enough to begin the evening.  Not to disparage any wine, I am searching for something other than a California Chardonnay or a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, wines that seem to be at every party.  I want low alcohol and subtle flavors of fruit without the phenolic bitterness some white wines can present.

Our favorite of the night was the 2018 Trimbach Pinot Blanc from Alsace ($17.00).  The wine was pale lemon in color and, as I brought the glass to my nose, I was pleasantly surprised at the unexpected intensity of aromas.  Fresh lemon, subtle character of lemon pith, lime blossom, pear, a sense of ripe, juicy white peach with a hint of white pepper and wet stones.  The alcohol was medium (13%) and the acid subtle but tightly woven with the fruit elements, presenting a wine with pleasant and lingering aromas and flavors. 

Pinot Blanc hails from many regions but its best examples are from France’s Alsace, Germany’s Pfalz and Baden, Austria’s Wachau and in Italy’s Trentino-Alto Adige, Veneto, Friuli, and Lombardy winegrowing regions. It produces full-bodied whites with relatively high acidity, yeasty citrus and appley aromas and flavors and hints of spice. When aged, it can present lovely, honeyed tones. 

I really enjoyed this Pinot Blanc from Alsace, France, and will have fun crafting appetizers and light meals to enjoy with this gem.  Think soft cheeses with fresh, crusty bread, summer salads with creamy dressings (use some of the Pinot Blanc to make your own special dressing), and flaky fish dishes.  Who needs a ‘walk-around’ tasting?  Plan your own tasting so you and your guests can be the judge and jury!

For the love of (ruby) Port…

During these damp and chilly winter months, Port is a good beverage to enjoy while sitting in front of a roaring fire or to pair with a course of Stilton Cheese and almonds after dinner or ‘just because.’  It is one of my favorite fortified wines and crafted in varying styles and quality.  

The grapes are grown in steep vineyards that wind along the Douro River in Northern Portugal all the way East toward the Spanish border.  The soils are stony shist that split vertically (rather than the typical horizontal orientation) which enable the roots to reach deep in search of water (irrigation is only allowed in exceptional circumstances).   The slopes are incredibly steep (more than 30 per cent), which makes vineyard layout challenging, and are further limited by granite bedrock which is impenetrable. Granite surrounds the vineyards planted in the stony soil creating a natural barrier and preventing expansion.

Traditionally, the vines were grown on narrow terraces held in place by walls of dry rock.  Much labor is needed to maintain these walls and hand harvesting is necessary and expensive.  Most are now protected by UNESCO and cannot be converted to other layouts.  It is a beautiful sight to gaze upon these terraced vineyards from a patio along the Douro.  In the right light, the view is absolutely stunning with the reflections from the river.

3,423 Douro Valley Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images - iStock

There are also terraces supported by steep earthen ramps that allow for small tractors, but erosion and growth of weeds on the ramps is problematic.  As these ramps are narrow and follow the contour of the hillsides along the winding Douro, a change in direction or dip in the hillside, can create different microclimates resulting in uneven ripening.

Vines can also be planted in vertical rows up the hillsides but are limited as hillsides above a 40% incline cannot support mechanization.  In Portugal today, it is difficult to find labor to be able to maintain the vineyards and for harvest.

While there are more than 100 grape varietals permitted in the production of Port, the focus is generally on five main grapes:

  • Touriga Franca – the most grown varietal
  • Touriga National – used for premium, long aged wines
  • Tinta Roriz – the Tempranillo grape in Spain (think Rioja)
  • Tinta Barroca – high yielding and earthy
  • Tinto Cao – high acidity and ability to age

Port is made by blending different varieties, vineyards, and field blends (vines of different varieties planted in a vineyard and fermented together).  Fruit from old vines is used in premium wines but some can be crafted from all old vine grapes.

Once the grapes are harvested, they are taken to the winery, placed in Lagares (large, shallow tanks generally made of granite) for fermenting and extraction.  The process of extraction is accomplished by various methods including:

  • Traditional foot treading (preferred as human feet do not split the seeds allowing bitter phenolics into the must)
  • Mechanical Lagares with silicon ‘feet’
  • Pumping over (a method to keep the ‘cap’ wet but not as effective at extraction as foot treading – human or mechanical)
  • Punching down the ‘cap’ with stainless steel pistons
  • Auto vinification in stainless steel (like pumping over mechanically but electricity not required; less effective and generally used for lighter color and lighter bodied wines)

The wine is then drained off the skins and fortified to 19 – 22% abv which stops fermentation (yeast cannot live above 16.5% alcohol).  The spirit used for fortification is aguardente which can add character and flavor to the wine.

Maturation begins in the Douro where the wine spends its first year.  Historically, the maturing wine was sent to Vila Nova de Gaia across the river from Oporto for further ageing; however, with the increase in tourism, some producers have built well insulated, humidity-controlled lodges in the vineyard areas.

While a ruby port can become a tawny, a tawny port can never be a ruby!  Therefore, we will explore red wine, or unoxidized wine employing protective winemaking practices, on its journey to becoming Port wine. 

Grape growing is just a form of farming and dependent upon the weather during the growing season, the canopy management techniques employed and the final ripeness of the grapes.  The quality of base wine and the form of maturation will ultimately determine the style, quality, and price of the finished wine. 

  • Ruby Port – is produced using protective winemaking techniques to retain the primary fruit flavors in the wine.  It is medium bodied, has medium tannins, red and black fruit characteristics, and is aged for a maximum of three years.   It is a blend of more than one year (non-vintage) and has a consistent taste from year to year.  The wines generally have simple fruits aromas/flavors and may exhibit a slightly harsh alcohol character.  Some examples of ruby ports are Cockburn’s Fine Ruby, Graham’s Fine Ruby Port, Porto Valdouro Ruby Port, and Fonseca Bin 27.
  • Reserve Ruby Port – higher quality than Ruby Port and must be tasted and approved by the IVDP’s tasting panel.  They are generally more concentrated and of higher quality and price than a basic Ruby Port.  Some examples of Reserve Ruby Ports are: Sandeman Founders Reserve Port, Quinta Das Carvalhas Ruby Port Reserva, and Croft Reserve Ruby Port.
  • Crusted Port – this is a non-vintage wine that has been aged in wood for two years before bottling.  The wine is not fined or filtered and thus leaves a ‘crust’ to form in the bottle over time.  This was created to provide a full-bodied, traditional style that emulates vintage port but at a lower price point.  It does need to be decanted before serving.  The bottling date must appear on the label and while it can be released any time after bottling, after three years of bottle age it can include the term ‘bottle matured’ on the label.  Some examples of Crusted Port are Dow’s Crusted Port, Smith Woodhouse Crusted Port and Niepoort Porto Crusted.
  • Late Bottle Vintage (LBV) – produced from a single year which must be bottled between four to six years after harvest.  While a vintage product, it is not the same quality as a Vintage Port.  LBV ports have been aged and bottled ready to drink, are filtered and can be drunk without decanting.  Some examples of LBV ports are Quinta das Carvalhas and Taylor Fladgate.
  • Late Bottle Vintage (LBV) ‘Unfiltered’ – while an extension of the LBV, these wines are not filtered before bottling and tend to be fuller bodied. It will state ‘unfiltered’ on the label.  Additionally, if bottled after four to five years and then held for at least three years in bottle before release, the bottle will be labeled with ‘bottle matured.’ These are a step up from LBV and can taste similar in style to young vintage port.  Some examples are: Warre’s Late Bottled Vintage Port Bottle Matured and Niepoort LBV 2015 Unfiltered.
  • Single Quinta Port – when the weather has not been suitable to produce grapes of sufficient quality, a producer will not make a vintage Port.  Instead, they may choose to produce a Single Quinta Port, which is wine from one vintage, grown on the Port house’s finest single vineyard estate (quinta).  Some examples of Single Quinta Port are: Sandeman Quinta do Seixo Port Cima Corgo 2013 and Symington Family Estates Quinta do Vesuvio Port 2003.
  • Vintage Port – wines from one ‘declared’ vintage where grapes and resulting wine are of exceptional quality.  Producers must register their intention to release a vintage port in the second year after harvest and the wine must be approved by the IVDP tasting panel.   In their youth, they are deep in color and full bodied with high levels of tannins and pronounced intensity of black fruits and floral notes.  Over time, the wines develop flavors of dried fruits, nuts, and the alcohol and tannins integrate.  Some examples of Vintage Port are Quinta do Noval Vintage Port 2014, Ramos Pinto Vintage Port 2017, and Graham’s Stone Terraces Vintage Port 2017.

So many wonderful Port style wines to try!  You can taste the progression of flavors and intensity from Ruby to Vintage, and there is something for everyone to enjoy no matter your style preference or the size of your purse.  Ruby style ports will not last more than a couple of days once opened and a bit longer if you put them into the refrigerator.  While a 750ml bottle may be a bit too much to consume quickly, why not try a ‘split’ (375ml) if you are thinking LBV or Vintage.  It is a great way to enjoy that Port in front of a roaring fire or after dinner.

What sweet, fortified wine are you serving with Christmas dessert?

As I am a first generation American with Hungarian heritage, I generally serve the highly sought after Tokaji wine, famous for its sweet, fruity, and acidic character.  It is such an interesting grape!  It is thick skinned but, as it ripens, the skins stretch and thin allowing the sunlight to penetrate, increasing the concentration of sugar.  The sweetness level can vary depending upon how much residual sugar the winemaker decides to leave in the wine, how botrytized the grapes become and how the wine is ultimately blended.  The sweetness is measured in ‘Puttonyos’ on a scale from 1 to 6 which is noted on the label.  The most common is 5 Puttonyos.

Now, when I say ‘sweet’, I do not want you to think of sweet as in cloying, grocery store, birthday cake icing.  It is a sweet wine, for sure, but with a backbone of acidity that makes the wine bright and lively on the palate with a hint of minerality.  The elevated acidity is the key to a wine with great balance.

Stylistically, Tokaji shows apricot, orange zest and honey on a core of earth and minerality. I love to serve this with an Almond Tart topped with Mascarpone.  It is a true gift from the vineyard.  The Royal Tokaji Wine Company makes a splendid product, generally found in 500 ml bottles (vs. the standard 750 ml size), and the price ranges from $45 to $70 depending upon vintage.

Sauternes is another excellent choice.  It too is a sweet wine, rich and honeyed on the palate and shows a bit more fruit than the Tokaji wine. Foggy condition in the region (Sauternes is south of the city of Bordeaux along the Garonne River) can create the perfect conditions for the growth of Botrytis, a mold that pulls water from the grapes, causing them to shrivel on the vine (think raisins) and gives the wine its signature richness.  The grapes have concentrated sugars and flavors which result in sweet, intensely flavored wines.

Stylistically, Sauternes have notes of apricots, honey, and peaches but with a slightly nutty element.  Foie gras is a classic match for these beautiful wines.  While the most famous producer is Chateau Y’quem (price point of $200+ at the least expensive), Chateau Suduiraut is a favorite of mine and more modestly priced (generally in the $50 to $75 range depending upon vintage) and always seem to please.

Port is another all-time favorite and probably better recognized in the mainstream wine drinking community.  It is crafted in varying styles and quality.  The grapes are grown in steep vineyards that wind along the Douro River in Northern Portugal all the way East toward the Spanish border.  Once the grapes are harvested, they are taken to the winery, placed in Lagares (large, shallow tanks made of granite) for fermenting and extraction.   This is accomplished by the traditional process of ‘foot treading’ which extracts color, tannin, and flavors from the grapes.  Using the human foot prevents the breaking of seeds which can impart bitter tannins into the must.  This practice is still used by some premium and super premium port producers, although modern lagares have been created that use silicon feet to replicate the traditional human foot treading.

The wine is fortified which stops fermentation and it spends its first year in the Douro.  The maturing wine is transported (once upon a time in boats on the Douro) to Vila Nova de Gaia across the river from Oporto for further ageing.  Many styles of port are crafted from a simple Ruby or Tawny port (no vintage or age indication on the label) to high quality Vintage/Late Bottled Vintage (LBV) ports to Tawny Ports/Colheita with an indication of age and celebrating their oxidative life in the barrel. 

This year, we will be enjoying a 20 Year Graham’s Tawny Port with our Christmas dessert.  This tawny wine was aged in neutral wooden barrels called ‘pipes’ which allows controlled exposure to oxygen for a period of time so the alcohol integrates. The once fresh fruit aromas and flavors take on dried fruit characteristics and oxidative aromas, bringing enticing aromas and flavors of caramel and nuts to the wine.  

While the bottle is labeled as aged for 20 years, this does not mean the minimum age of the wine in the blend is at least 20 years old.  A 20 Year Tawny Port is made up of wines younger and older than the specified age.  In reality, the wine is tasted by a panel within the IVDP (the governing body that supervises wine producers in the region) and this organization does a taste test to ensure the wine has characteristics indicative of a wine that age to be labeled as such.

Because I could not wait, I decided to taste the wine before serving at Christmas and as anticipated, this is a particularly good wine.  Although port has high alcohol, the generous primary stone fruit aromas/flavors of plum and apricot and the tertiary elements of caramel, raisins, nuts, orange peel with a hint of cinnamon, are expressive and show incredibly good balance and an elevated palate intensity just short of pronounced.  The acidity is juicy and complements the soft tannins ending in a complex ripe/dried fruit and smooth finish.  I know this is going to be a very tasty accompaniment to the homemade Rum Bundt Cake! 

Whatever you choose to serve at your Christmas dinner (and there are Sherry, Madeira, and Vin Doux Natural wines out there that I have not touched upon), have some fun in choosing, be adventuresome, and celebrate good food, family, and friends. 

Here is to a wonderful and COVID-19-free 2021.

Merry Christmas!

Everyone loves a puppy…

It is no secret that charities are hurting in 2020 with no ability to host their typical fundraising events.  Near and dear to my heart is the Humane Society of Truckee Tahoe at https://hstt.org who lovingly care for homeless pets and make finding them forever homes their mission.  The annual Black Tie and Tails gala, their main annual income generating event, had to be cancelled due to Covid-19.  A real blow to an organization that depends upon donation dollars.

Not only do we love supporting this worthwhile organization, but the gala was sorely missed by our ‘bubble’ of friends, so we decided to take matters into our own hands.  Crafting an evening of wine, food and friends, where everyone dressed to the nines, cooked a fabulous dish to share and provided appropriate wines to pair, we celebrated the Humane Society’s efforts with a bit of a catch.  Each attendee was asked to donate a minimum amount per person (in addition to their food and wine contributions for the evening) and some gave much more, sweetening the pot by finding ‘matching’ contributions from their employers. 

While our dinner group was small and in a private home, those that could not attend generously donated to sweeten the pot.  In the end, we managed to have a mid-November celebration of food, friends (both furry and human) and were safe inside our ‘social bubble.’   And yes, as a group of wine and food lovers, it was a fabulous night of wonderful food and delicious wines!

I won’t disclose the names of these ‘angels’ or the amounts contributed, but our small gathering provided a nice contribution of $ 6,100 which was then combined with generous corporate matches totaling $ 2,850 for a grand total of $ 8,950.

 I will put out the challenge to have some fun being an organization’s ‘angel’ in these dark times.  While currently we are all under the SIP order once again, Zoom is still out there and we are all looking for some fun and distraction.  Be creative and generous in any way you can.   Merry Christmas and Best Wishes for a return to normal in 2021.


Navigating the World of Bubbles…

Do you feel special when someone hands you a glass of bubbly wine in a pretty flute?  It is festive and fun…and totally confusing when you are tasked with the job of purchasing sparkling wine for a holiday party, dinner or just because.  To make your selection easier, let us look at some sparkling wine basics to enable you to buy with a measure of confidence.

First, you are asked to buy ‘Champagne’ because that term is just like every tissue is called a ‘Kleenex.’ To cull the herd of production styles of wine, we will limit this to sparkling wine crafted by the time honored ‘traditional method’ (there is also sparkling wine made by tank method – Prosecco, for example – and others by infusing with carbonation, but, these, in my opinion, while less expensive, can be less satisfying products).

While still wine is made by vintage (whatever the growing year gives you is what goes into the bottle), sparkling wine is made by formula.  Using the traditional method of production, winemaking begins with just ripe grapes that are fermented and a base wine made from that vintage.  Each sparkling house will have many iterations of base wines (varying vintages, different vineyard sites, high vs. low elevation grown fruit, different blends, etc.) and will use these to craft their house style base wine each year.  This base wine is then put into bottles (the same bottles that the sparkling wine is later sold) along with the tirage (sugar and yeast, yeast nutrients and a clarification agent) for the secondary fermentation.  The amount of sugar added at this step depends upon the degree of effervescence required and is what creates those lovely bubbles in the glass.

The bottles are sealed with crown caps (like beer bottle caps), placed on their sides to wait for fermentation to complete, and then the winemaker chooses if the wines will age on the lees and for what length of time.  If Cava is being produced, a minimum of 9 months is required but more typical is 15 to 18 months at which point the effects of autolysis becomes detectable.  (Autolysis is the enzymatic breakdown of dead yeast cells which adds the yeasty, bread dough, brioche, hazelnut character and a creamy texture.) The length of time depends upon the style of sparkling (fresh fruit vs. lees-aged character) but autolysis can continue for 4 to 5 years and has been known to last for 10 years.  That certainly adds to the cost of that special bottle!

After ageing on the lees, the bottles, stored on their sides, are riddled (turned toward the vertical so that the lees flocculate and eventually end up in a mass in the neck of the bottle), the necks are cooled, crown caps removed and the frozen chunks of yeast are ejected.  Dosage is added (a mixture of wine and sugar) and this step will dictate the sweetness of the final wine.  A cork, wire muzzle and metal capsule are then put in place.

As you can see, a ‘traditional method’ sparkling wine is not like buying a bottle of Pepsi or Coca Cola, products that are the same each production.  The choices made during winemaking such as varietals used, tirage, dosage, lees ageing, and additions have a direct impact on the character of the wine.

If you are looking to purchase a ‘traditional method’ sparkling wine, you might find the following choices (this is not all inclusive but representative of what you might find on your wine shop shelves or local grocer):

  • Champagne – from France and the region of Champagne made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier, the Champagne varietals (Note:  you might also find ‘California Champagne’ but it’s not from France and the allowed usage of the term is the result of an oversight when a treaty was signed years ago)
  • Crémant – French sparkling wine made by the traditional method from varietals typically grown in the region of production (Alsace, Burgundy, Loire, Bordeaux, Jura, Die, Limoux, Savoie).  This can include Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, etc., depending on the area
  • Cava – Spanish sparkling wine made using Macabeo, Parrallada, Xarel-lo and Chardonnay varietals
  • Sparkling Wine from USA – made in many states and from various varietals
  • Franciacorta – Italy – made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir varietals
  • Cap Classique – South Africa – made from Champagne varietals, Chenin Blanc, and Pinotage
  • Sparkling Wine from Tasmania – from Australia using Champagne varietals

If you decide upon the area of Champagne (or the pretty bottle), you need to check the style.  The most notable choices:

  • NV – non vintage which is sparkling made from a few vintages and represents the style of the house
  • Vintage – 100% from the vintage and can be house style or a unique blend
  • Rosé – a blend of red and white grapes
  • Blanc de Blancs – only white grapes used
  • Blanc de Noirs – white sparkling from red fruit with a fuller body

For French Champagne, you may also see:

  • Grand Cru – all grapes are within the vineyards of Grand Cru Villages
  • Premier Cru – all grapes from within Premier Cru Villages
  • Prestige Cuvee – the producer’s top wine which can be NV or Vintage

Note:  be aware that ALL houses within these Cru Villages can call their Champagne a Grand or Premier Cru even if they are not a premium producer.  It is simply a designation which is hooked to the village of production and not a guarantee of quality.

Finally, how dry, or sweet of a sparkling wine are you looking for?  It seems that a great majority of the offerings are BRUT which means they are anywhere from zero to 12 g/L.  These will taste dry to slightly off dry but not have a lot of sweetness showing, especially if the wine has spent time on the lees.  In my experience, BRUT is what is most often purchased.  If a bit more sweetness and roundness is desired, the EXTRA BRUT category is a step up providing 12 to 17 g/L.

If you decide upon a Crémant, you will definitely reduce the cost of the bottle and open yourself up to an interesting world of sparkling wine made from different varietals, although still French.  Note that Alsace, Loire, and Burgundy are the main and the most famous regions.  I am particularly a fan of Crémant d’Loire as I enjoy the Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc present in the mix of varietals. 

While impossible to sing the virtues of all the many choices, the following are wines I recently used for a sparkling educational tasting along with food pairings:

Campo Viejo Gran Reserva Cava – Spain – Manchego Cheese, Marcona Almonds, Olives and Crusty Bread/Crackers

Champalou Brut Vouvray (Loire) Crémant – France – Gruyere, Salami, French Bread

Mumm Napa Brut Reserve Sparkling – USA – Crab and Shrimp Bisque

Roederer Estate Brut Anderson Valley Sparkling – USA – Lobster Mac ‘n Cheese

Nicolas Feuillatte Reserve Exclusive Brut Champagne – France – Triple Cream Brie with Crostini

Martini & Rossi Asti Sparkling – Italy – Biscotti with Yogurt Covered Almonds

All of these wines are made by the Traditional Method except for the Asti which is made by the Asti Method, a variation of the tank method, which was a fun and surprising way to end the tasting with a bit of sweetness. 

So, if you feel special when someone hands you a glass of bubbly wine in a pretty flute, try exploring the vast world of bubbles.  Unless you are simply looking to add orange juice (think Prosecco) to the glass, get out there and enjoy navigating the world of bubbles! 

Natural and Organic and Clean (Wine), Oh My!

By:  Claire L. Torbeck, Certified Sommelier

Just like Dorothy and her cohorts in the Wizard of Oz, there is a lot of chatter about the virtues of these wine ‘styles.’  Are these just marketing terms to capture our discretionary wine dollars or is there real substance and value?

First, let us look at a bit of history. Once upon a time, vineyards were planted, fertilized, and protected by using manure and other animal by-products. After World War II, the focus was on growing food rather than on the production of munitions. It began the age of science in winemaking which served to give people the illusion that everything could be controlled, and perfect wines could be crafted.  That is, until the realization that using a lot of chemicals for any type of food production was not a good thing, for the health of the people or for the environment.

While the ‘natural wine movement’ began in Beaujolais around the 1950s, it was in the 1970s that the Gang of Four, took up the torch of the natural wine movement where old vines are prized, synthetic herbicides and pesticides are not used, harvest is late, grapes are sorted rigorously to remove all but the healthiest grapes, with minimal additions of sulfur dioxide (or none at all) and disdaining chaptalization.  (While all this sounds fantastic, it was also when the marketing of Nouveau Beaujolais began in an attempt to invigorate wine sales.)

By 2005, consumers’ tastes were changing, and organic products entered the marketplace.  People shopped at farmers’ markets, drank craft beer, ate heirloom tomatoes at farm-to-table restaurants and were concerned with the reports of lab created yeasts, grapes doused in weed killer and huge conglomerates being in charge of the products and produce they were eating.  The natural wine movement fit in with the urban appetite for movements that evoked a slower, more earthbound past.  ‘Natural’ wine is, in fact, very trendy today. 

So, what is natural wine? Natural wine has no ’legal’ definition and the use of the term is not managed by any regulatory body (while France has formally recognized natural wine, it is approved for a three-year trial period and the term ‘natural’ cannot be used).  For natural winemaking, the grapes must be organically or biodynamically farmed which requires following a long list of rules and paying for costly certification.  If lab created chemicals are not utilized, there is an expectation that this is natural, pure and the end-product superior. This vagueness is part of what has allowed natural wine to become a cultural phenomenon. However, the product can be cloudy, fizzy and have VA (volatile acidity) along with other off aromas due to using indigenous yeast for fermentation. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my…that seems to be part of the allure of natural wine!

Organic wine is a bit trickier.  First, farming organically is regulated, there are annual fees to be organically certified, and various regulatory bodies exist around the world.  You can farm organically and not be certified which many growers and wineries choose to do because of costs. I certainly respect those growers that are farming organically as doing so is being kind to our planet which is a noble cause.

To be ‘organic’ is not just a result of vineyard practices.  Once the grapes arrive at the winery, there are a list of accepted practices that must be followed to be considered organic.  These include:

– fermentation with indigenous yeasts as natural yeasts are part of the terroir

– no water additions to dilute the sugars which result in high alcohol wines (Note: the practice is legal in California for commercial production)

– no enzymes (commercial enzymes are commonly used to improve extraction and aromatic profile of a wine while also accelerating the winemaking process

– no additives such as tannin, coloring (Mega Purple), yeast nutrients; sulfur dioxide is not used or is used in moderation

– no filtration or fining

– malolactic fermentation happens naturally rather than the typical practice of added bacteria

 to name some of the practices.  Whew! A lot to keep up with!

So, to be clear, organic wine is made from grapes which are grown according to the principles of organic farming. Having ‘certified organic’ on a wine label only speaks to the farming.  There is no organization that guarantees or oversees the actual winemaking function (and even the French ‘certification’ only speaks to the amount of Sulphur in the wine).

Finally, the marketing concept of ‘clean’ wine (vs. ‘unclean’ wine?) is the latest addition to this stable of special wine category styles.  To name a few companies touting ‘clean’ wine: Good Clean Wine which ‘pairs with a healthy lifestyle’; the Wonderful Wine Company, which offers ‘wellness without deprivation’; and Scout and Cellar, a multi-level marketing company that boasts ‘clean-crafted wine’ with hopes to ‘disrupt the wine industry and do better for the planet.’  Wineries do not have to list ingredients on their labels. As a result, these opportunists are fearmongering, seeking to make a profit by claiming other wineries are using harmful chemicals in their production.  So why don’t wineries list ingredients?  Because winemaking is not an industrial process with a standard recipe that you can replicate every vintage.  Winemaking decisions change each vintage and it would be costly to make changes to labels every year.

According to Jamie Goode PhD, wine writer and author of wine textbooks, ‘you can’t grow grapes from Vitis vinifera without spraying eight to 14 times a year. The problem is mildew and then, at the end of the growing season, rot. One of wine’s paradoxes is that the most prized, expensive grapes come from regions prone to fungal diseaseswhich can only be treated with commercial pesticides or, for organic growers, applications of copper sulfate. It is all about the concentration,’ says Goode, adding: ‘there are strict regulations concerning their use and concerning residue levels that are permitted. Wine is one of the most regulated and safe products there is.’

‘Natural’ and ‘Organic’ and ‘Clean’ (wine), Oh My!  I am off to see the Wizard to see if he can shed any light on this controversial subject!

Virtual tasting via Zoom….what’s in your glass?

With SIP and not being able to wander the wine aisles, what are you buying and what are you drinking?

Personally, I love strolling the aisles in the ‘candy store’ (AKA wine shop) and touching the merchandise. It’s frustrating not being able to do so as I do a lot of reading and I always feel as if I hit the jackpot when I stumble upon a wine I have been reading about.  It’s the thrill of a treasure hunt with an unexpected silver lining. 

By using Zoom as a way of sharing a glass of wine (or a cocktail), we have been labeling our chats as a ‘virtual wine tasting.’  That puts the pressure on me to try and choose a wine to ‘share’ that will be agreeable to a broad range of palates while not losing sight of the fact that there will not be a meal to accompany the offering.  And, oh by the way, we are really using this time to ‘catch up’ with each other and actually see a human.

I could list many producers that are crafting very nice wines, and can do so over time, but today I want to introduce you to Chateau de Saint Cosme.  This is a winery in the Southern Rhone area of France that makes many different wines from various AOPs.

Imagine…an ancient estate purchased in 1570 with grape vines already on the property.  A chateau is soon constructed over the existing cellars which contained perfectly preserved Gallo-Roman fermentation vats.  The Barruol family and their ancestors have been vignerons at the property for 14 generations.

The actual property is in Gigondas with the beautiful Dentelles de Montmirail as a backdrop.  While the vines from the property surrounding the Chateau are used for their Gigondas wine, the Chateau also produces wines from Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu, St. Joseph and Châteauneuf-Du- Pape, to name just a few of their offerings.

As with many producers, the Barruol family wear many producer hats.  First, as an Estate where they grow the grapes and produce the wine.  However, they also source grapes from other growers and produce wine under the Saint Cosme (vs. the Chateau de Saint Cosme) label. 

The Saint Cosme Cotes du Rhone 2018 is an affordable and accessible offering that hits all the ‘good quality’ targets.  While it is labeled as a Cotes du Rhone wine (which generally would mean it is a GSM blend = Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre), this wine is 100% Syrah.  That is very appealing to me as generally, to get a 100% Syrah wine, you need to move up into the Northern Rhone at a much higher price point.  The grapes for this bottling were sourced from the right bank of the Rhone in the Gard area as well as the left bank in Vinsobres from a higher elevation.

The core of the wine is purple with aromas of violets, black cherry, black pepper and black olives.  It is medium plus in body with well-integrated, silky tannins and a very long finish.  I found it pleasant for quaffing but know how wonderful this wine is with lamb chops with rosemary and garlic mashed potatoes.

For you ‘score hounds’, the critic community agrees.  Robert Parker 90 points, Wine Enthusiast 91 points and James Suckling 91 points.

I purchased for $15 and have seen it priced in the $14 – 20 range.

While I have spotlighted just one offering from this Chateau and at the accessible rung of the marketing ladder, they are producing quality wines in all areas.  The point I am hoping to make = find a quality producer and try various wines across that brand.  Some will be accessible as this Cotes du Rhone, some with be in a stretch category that you might purchase only for special occasions and others you may never buy because of the price point.  However, in a good vintage year, you can often find wines from these producers that over-deliver quality at a reasonable price.  It is also fun to have a story to tell about the wine and winery.

I hope you enjoyed this virtual tasting…stay safe out there!



What’s your ‘Wednesday’ wine?

People are always asking me what my favorite wine or grape varietal is.   That is an impossible question to answer when the world offers so many delicious and intriguing wines from incredibly historic places.  I enjoy drinking my way around the globe and, if the wine is sound and of good quality, tastes like the varietal(s) and is a good pairing with the food, I am happy.

However, I know people are looking for wine recommendations not an esoteric comment that makes me sound smug.  So, the following is a picture of the label of the wine we drank last night.  This is one of my favorite ‘Wednesday wines’, affordably priced (around $15), I have tasted many vintages and while I liked some vintages better than others, I have never been disappointed.

2014 Bodegas Ondarre Reserva Rioja

This wine is from the Rioja region of Spain and is a red blend of 85% Tempranillo (pronounced ‘temp-rah-nee-yo’), 10% Garnacha (Grenache) and 5% Mazuelo (Carignan which is generally grown in France).  It was aged in American and French oak barrels and, as it is a Reserva, it was aged for three years (probably in tanks with one of those years in oak).  On the palate, the wine is dry and fresh with ripe red berries, plum, dusty leather and finishes with a bit of soft vanilla spice.  The wine shows a medium to medium plus tannin structure but presents soft on the palate with just enough bright acidity and a long finish (which is surprising considering the price point).

I love Rioja wines and, while I was lucky to spend a few days in the mountain town of Laguardia in the La Rioja region of Spain, my brother-in-law, Tom Vonderbrink is my real Spanish hero.  Tom spent 40+ days on his first pilgrimage walking the Camino de Santiago – the Way of St. James.  The Bodegas Ondarre is located along ‘the way’ he walked, and the winery website pictures a pilgrim with a hiking pole walking through their vineyards.  I thought this would be a good ‘shout out’ to Tom along with a wish and a prayer that we all can get back to an adventurous life in the very near future. 

Tom, in the spirit of giving, family and friendship, I have shipped a bottle of this 2014 Bodegas Ondarre Riserva to you as a wonderful memory of your accomplishment (along with a bottle of 2016 Cune Rioja, just because).  Please enjoy and drink to all of our health and to all ‘essentials’ in this crazy world.



Note:  If this ‘Wednesday wine’ article is of interest to you and you would like to see more of the same, please give a ‘thumbs up’ or comment ‘yes please.’

While ‘sheltering in’, how about cleaning out your wine cellar?

I make the analogy of going to the wine shop like a kid going to a candy store.  I want one of everything and have a habit of buying several bottles of each so I can taste and evaluate them over time.  Now, while the cellar is organized and I use an Excel spreadsheet to categorize my treasures, there are usually some bottles that are overlooked and may still be awesome or may be past their prime.

Earlier this year, in the spirit of cleaning things out, our wine tasting group hosted a ‘Decade Party’ where we tasted all wines from the 2010 vintage.  The selections were from all around the world and ultimately from our cellar(s) so we knew they had been stored properly.  Making a list of the 2010 wines on hand, I then made pairs of similar wines (by varietal, region or by food pairing options).  With a dozen attendees, we split up the list of wines and dishes were prepared to showcase the wine(s).

As with any ‘over the hill’ wine tasting, you end up learning a lot.  Just for fun, here is the list of the wines we enjoyed:

Chateau Saint Cosme Gigondas  $55  WS 95 (corked)

Perrin Les Cornuds Vinsobres  $20  WS 91

Solaria Patrizia Cencioni Brunello di Montalcino  $45  JS 95

Linio Sassetti ‘Pertimali” Brunello di Montalcino $170 JS 100 (exceptional)

Monte Del Fra Valpolicella Classico Ripasso  $24  WS 89 (corked)

McLaren Vale Grenache Australia – Chapel Hill  $28  WS 89

Prado Enea Grand Reserva Muga Rioja  $60  JS 99 (exceptional)

Dogliani Barolo – Axidena Agricola La Fusina  $49  WE 93 (exceptional)

Robert Giraud Chateau Timberlay Bordeaux Superior  $48  WS 87

Saint-Estephe Lafon-Rochet  $69  WS 89

Pine Ridge ‘Tessitura’ Napa Valley Bordeaux Blend  $46  WS 89

Steven Kent  Merlot   $ unknown  Not Rated (corked)

Of the 12 wines, 3 were corked (fault = TCA) which is 25% of the wines tasted.  While professionals vary in opinion as to the percentage of corked bottles normally encountered, it is generally in the 3 – 8% range.  If a wine is defective due to the cork, the problem took place the moment the cork was inserted into the bottle. Our sample size with the large percentage of corked bottles is simply an outlier.  TCA does not happen with time; it immediately affects the wine.  Since the TCA presented itself from slightly corked to awful, it gave the group practice in identifying the TCA flaw and how it can vary.

There were three wines that were still in the ‘hold or ready-to-drink’ category, exhibiting classic markers for the varietal and lovely on the palate.  I have noted ‘exceptional’ by these wines.  Please note that price is not necessarily a factor in determining if a wine will last for an extended period.  The ability of a wine to age is influenced by many factors which include the grape variety, vintage, viticulture practices, acidity, tannins, wine region, winemaking style, etc.  For these 3 wines, Barolo (Italy), Brunello (Italy) and Tempranillo (Rioja, Spain), they all normally exhibit medium plus to high levels of tannins and medium plus to high levels of acidity, which in my opinion, the acidity being the ‘fountain of youth’ of wine.

Of the remaining 6 wines, some presented a bit of an ‘over the hill’ character but most were drinkable, enjoyable and a nice pairing to the accompanying dish.  This is where personal preference comes into the equation and the ability to compare, contrast and evaluate teaches you by experience about the life of a wine.  There are very few wines, in my humble opinion, that are still grand at the end of the extended period some professionals tout wine will last. 

The Perrin Les Cornuds Vinsobres from the Rhone Valley of France was a $20 purchase that still rocked 10 years later.  While the 2010 vintage was an exceptional one, the terroir of Vinsobres is particularly suitable for Syrah as it preserves the finesse which is often lost in more southern, warmer climates. It develops notes of violet, smoked meat and blackberries. Grenache is also suited to this terroir, full bodied and not heavy, with notes of chocolate, cherry and typical Garrigue aromas.  A blend of Syrah and Grenache, this was a lovely wine.

The Sainte-Estephe Lafon-Rochet, a Fourth Growth Bordeaux, at $69 was a bit of a disappointment.  It was very dark and intense in color, exhibited muted fruit, but on the palate, we encountered a gritty, chalky character that felt like the phenolics in the wine precipitating out of solution.  I have other bottles of this wine and will have to re-evaluate at another time.  This wine definitely did not rock my world.

I could continue, but it’s time for you to take a good look at your cellar and pick out wines that you believe you may have held too long.   Make a list of the vintage, country, region, producer and hopefully, that list is not too terribly long.  Make a second list of the remaining wines so you know what you still have and are wines you believe can wait a while to be consumed.  For the ‘over the hill’ wines, place them into groupings.  I would suggest:




You can then approach your tasting a couple of different ways.  Gather all like wines (varietal or country/region or vintage) and begin to taste!  For our tasting, we focused on 4 elements:

Visual – Anything floating, wine cloudy? Color correct for the varietal?

Nose – Fruit present? Fresh? Dried? Dessicated/Moldy?

Wood – Oak? What kind?    Floral – What kind?

Earth – Wet? Dried? None?

Balance – Acid, Sugar, Tannin – balanced or does one overpower?

Finish – how long? For a long finish, usually 20 to 30 seconds.

I know it would be so much more fun to do this with friends; however, take notes, take a wine each night (or every so many nights) and do your evaluation.  Taking notes will help you compare and contrast and figure out which wines you think are still good and which are over the hill.  You will learn a lot about the wines, your particular tastes as you may find you really don’t like wines from certain areas or you no longer like Zinfandel, etc., and the bonus is you will have a cleaned out cellar!  Enjoy the journey…then, on to that coat closet…

If you want to tell us about your experience in cleaning out your cellar, I invite you to share your comments with us or ask questions to help you along on your journey!



Have you heard of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux?

This organization was first conceived by a group of small estate owners in Bordeaux interested in collectively forming promotional initiatives around the world. The idea grew, the Union was formed and today, in cooperation with distributors, brokers and merchants, they host 80 events a year in over a dozen countries.  The focus is to present their latest vintage to some 50,000 or so professionals and wine lovers.  The Union consists of 134 Chateau members.

On January 24, 2020 (in San Francisco) the 2017 vintage was introduced with more than 70 chateau owners and representatives pouring their wines.  There is a ‘trade only’ tasting in the afternoon and K&L Wine Merchants hosts a ‘public tasting’ in the early evening.  This event is listed on their website and sells out each year.

While the Union de Grand Crus does not encompass all Bordeaux area wineries, it is a fantastic representation of the area and the wines produced in the vintage being showcased.  The event is organized by appellation (Graves, Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, Margaux, Saint-Julien, etc.) so comparison tasting is very easy.  The Union produces a comprehensive Bordeaux guide which has commentary about the appellation as well as information on the Chateau represented.  In addition, there is a smaller booklet listing the wineries by appellation for note taking.  If you love Bordeaux or want to learn more about the area, this is the event to attend.

For the 2017 vintage, the Bordeaux area experienced late spring frosts that did much damage to the vineyards as it occurred during bud break and the early growing season.  Some producers lost all crop, some half and some suffered no losses.  Such is life in the world of agriculture but it can be devastating.  2017 was a dry vintage in Bordeaux and, thankfully, 80% of the top 150 Chateau experienced a good harvest.  A number of these Chateau are in Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Saint-Estephe as they border the Gironde Estuary and enjoy its warming influence.  Saint-Emilion and its satellites did not fare as well. 

The following are a few wines that I enjoyed tasting and also talking with the Chateau owners/representatives. This is a very short list and is just meant to be a teaser for the vintage:

2017 Chateau Beychevelle, Saint-Julien

2017 Chateau Giscours, Margaux

2017 Chateau Cantenac Brown, Margaux

2017 Chateau Maucaillou, Moulis

2017 Chateau Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Pauillac

2017 Chateau d/Armailhac, Pauillac

2017 Chateau Phelan Segur, Saint-Estephe

2017 Chateau Citran, Haut Medoc

2017 Chateau Talbot, Saint-Julien