It’s Red Wine and Chocolate Season!

Many wineries and even a few craft breweries up and down the coast are putting on the Red Wine (or brew) and Decadent Chocolate Show.

Like a good red wine, dark chocolate is a source of antioxidants and minerals, and it generally contains very little sugar. So, to guide you through the myriad of how and perhaps when to pair chocolate with your favorite flavor of beverage, remember the cardinal rule: The drink must be sweeter than the chocolate. This is especially applicable when enjoying a rich, dry red wine.

However, there are exceptions to this rule. A mug of dark roasted coffee and a molten chocolate lava cake is a great example. The acidity in the coffee is another factor to consider. It cuts through the chocolate sweetness and makes a beautiful match.

Unless you happen to think that chocolate is overrated like my wine buddy, Brynn Grimley. Long-time readers may remember that she was my counterpart when this column first started. Brynn is rejoining us!

More than a decade ago, Brynn and I had the desire to share our love for wine with the Kitsap Sun community. But in 2013, Brynn’s career took her away, so I continued the column – alone.  After nearly three years of talk about resurrecting our wine writing “dream team”, we elected 2020 as our year to officially reconnect. Expect to hear from her from time-to-time in future columns as we share our wine adventures with you.

But back to chocolate and red wine. Since the Olympic Peninsula Red Wine and Chocolate Tour began this past weekend and continues the hoiday weekend of February 15 – 17th throughout Washington, we thought a reconnaissance mission would be our next wine adventure.

We started at one of Washington’s western most wineries outside of Port Angeles. Harbinger Winery dished up a buttery pan au chocolate with the award-winning Dynamo Red, a sinfully delicious combination. This red is mostly Syrah has a dollop of Cab Franc and Malbec.

Our eyes went wide tasting the Raspberry Bliss packed with 2 ½ tons of freshly picked fruit from Graysmarsh Farm in the Dungeness Valley.  Although dry, it was bright with lots of sweet fruit. This is the one for that triple chocolate brownie.

Savory chocolate dishes are not unheard of. Mexico’s iconic mole, a sauce of chilies, spices, and Mexican chocolate is a savory chicken dish calling for a Zinfandel – red or white. Other savory chocolate dishes could be an arugula, ham, and pear salad tossed with a fruity vinaigrette and garnished with cocoa nibs. Or try my show-stopping recipe for seafood ravioli with a white chocolate-cayenne sauce. Pass the rose’ bubbly, please.

Another Olympic Peninsula Wine, Cider and Chocolate Tour stop was Camaraderie Cellars, tucked into the hills of Port Angeles. Such a welcoming place! The outdoor firepit, sculptures and gardens were warming.

Their 2012 Reserve Cab, from an exceptional vintage, was superb. They also dished up a savory cocoa, spice-rubbed pulled pork. Unsweetened chocolate, such as 95 – 100% cacao, adds smoky and earthy quality to a savory dish.

Brynn writes: if you’re looking for a new wine adventure this year, or maybe you’re like me and aren’t a huge chocolate fan (gasp!), consider venturing to the Monbazillac region of Southwest France. Here you’ll find three white grapes: Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle take center stage in this tropical dessert wine.

This is a sweet wine but it has the balancing acidity to make it a particularly delicious dessert wine. With flavors similar to Bordeaux’s esteemed Sauternes made with the same grapes (but with an affordable price tag) this wine offers a beautiful bouquet of fruit — touches of melon, ripe pineapple, and even notes of citrus linger.

We enjoyed a Chateau Belingard from Monbazillac after a delightful epicurean feast. The wine presented beautifully with notes of ripe pineapple and hints of botrytis (noble rot) on the finish. But what made this wine even better was the dessert we paired with it. A scoop of bourbon ice cream and a peach half dusted with cinnamon that was easy to whip up in the blink of the eye.

The Monbazillac region is France’s largest late-harvest sweet wine district by acreage and production. Situated just 45 miles east of Sauternes, in the small, relatively unknown wine region of Bergerac (where the unrequited romantic, Cyrano de was staged).

Monbazillac is an Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) situated on the banks of the Dordogne River. The chance for noble rot to develop in this maritime climate is very good. Noble rot or botrytis cinerea is a fungus that attaches itself to the skins of the grapes and sucks the moisture out, concentrating the sugars and flavors.

Back to wine and chocolate and another style of wine tasted on the Olympic Peninsula Tour. At Wind Rose Cellars in downtown Sequim, they make an Orange Muscat cold soaked for 6 hours before pressing and then fermented in stainless steel. It has the heady aromas of honeysuckle and candied orange peel. This is another sweet, white dessert wine that is a wonderful partner with chocolate especially a creamy, chocolate heart-shaped mousse.

And a reminder that there are many Red Wine and Chocolate events this sweet weekend. I hope you find yourself at one of them. Bainbridge Island Wine Alliance, Yakima Valley, Lake Chelan, Rattlesnake Hills and even Whidbey-Camano Islands wineries!

We wish you many wonderful wine adventures.

Many Ways to Taste Washington Wines

This has to be my favorite time of year. Perhaps for winemakers too. The rush of harvest is over, the wines are resting in tank, barrel or bottle and the vines are dormant. It’s time for a road trip or two.

On Monday, February 10th, head on over to McCaw Hall at the Seattle Center and connect with over 50 Walla Walla Valley wineries and winemakers. Each winery has two or three wines including new releases they would like you to sample.

Many of these craft wineries have vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley AVA and its sub AVA, The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater. This sub AVA is nestled within the Walla Walla Valley AVA, but its entire footprint resides in Oregon.

The Rocks AVA stands out among all American AVAs. Approved in 2015, this AVA gets its name from the extremely rocky basalt. It is the only AVA in the U.S. whose boundaries have been fixed by virtue of a single soil series – the Freewater Series.

According to the USDA, the “Freewater series consists of deep, somewhat excessively drained soils formed in gravelly alluvium mixed with loess in the upper part. Freewater soils are on high stream terraces and have slopes of 0 to 3 percent. The mean annual precipitation is about 14 inches and the mean annual temperature is about 52 degrees F.”

By contrast, the Walla Walla Valley AVA has four distinct soil series. On valley floor, Ellisforde silt loam; in the foothills, Walla Walla silt loam; in the floodplains, Freewater covered with basalt rocks; and on the steep slopes of the foothills and canyons, Lickskillet, a very stony loam.

The Rocks District Winegrowers organization has 30 members, both producers and winegrowers. This 3,767 acre AVA is planted to almost 350 acres of grapes with over 200 acres in development. To learn more, get your tickets here.

During the long Valentine/President Day weekend, Red Wine and Chocolate occurs from the Olympics to eastern Washington and beyond.

At the annual Olympic Peninsula Red Wine, Cider and Chocolate Tour, eight Olympic Peninsula wineries welcome you with wine, cider and sensational chocolate bites. And you don’t have to do all eight in one day or even one weekend. This event encompasses two weekends, February 8th and 9th and the long holiday weekend February 15th through 17th. Tickets can be purchased at OlympicPeninsulaWineries.com

Some highlights that may tantalize your taste buds: Camaraderie Cellars 2014 Sangiovese, 2012 Reserve Cab and newly released 2016 Cabernet Franc are featured with the ever-popular Cocoa-Spiced Pulled Pork.

At Eaglemount Winery & Cidery, Chocolate Serenade caramels are paired with new releases of ciders and wines. Fairwinds Winery has a chocolate fountain to pair with their outstanding Port of Call.

Harbinger Winery features a carnival of culinary delights beginning with a white chocolate apple bread pudding paired with the crisp La Petite Fleur; pan au chocolate with the award-winning Dynamo Red; devil’s food mini-cupcakes crowned with a spiced chocolate butter cream is sinfully delicious when paired with the newly released 2014 Bolero.

If this isn’t enough, Harbinger will have one more behind the velvet curtain of the VIP room, the reserve wine with Theo’s Chocolates.

Wind Rose Cellars is hosting chocolatier Yvonne Yokota from Yvonne’s Chocolates. Each weekend will feature a different lineup of their wines. I tasted the 2014 Bravo Rosso at the Kitsap Wine Festival this past August. It’s a 3 out of 3-star wine for me.

You could also spend your Valentine’s Day weekend on Bainbridge Island during their annual Wine on the Rock: Wine & Chocolate event. It highlights the wines of the Winery Alliance of Bainbridge Island’s award-winning producers paired with local chocolates. Each of the five participating wineries (Amelia Wynn, Eagle Harbor, Eleven, Fletcher Bay, Rolling Bay) will be pouring four specially selected wines into very cool wine glasses that you get to keep.

After purchasing tickets online, you pick up your wine glass and other goodies at any winery you choose and start tasting. With the exception of Amelia Wynn Winery, the event will take place at the wineries. Amelia Wynn will pour at their downtown Winslow Way tasting room.

And right around the corner on March 19 through the 22nd, is the granddaddy of all delicious Washington wine and food tastings – the 23rd annual Taste Washington. This year, there are exciting changes with the addition of evening events on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Pacific Standard is a nautically inclined, wine-imbued, mountain-framed, pier-stacked, stuff-your-face with delicious food kind of Friday night commemorating Washington’s most inspiring places. The Saturday night marquee event, The New Vintage, showcases culinary legends: past, present and future with outstanding Washington wines.

The Grand Tasting is the main event, a two-day wine and food celebration with more than 200 of Washington’s award-winning wineries, 60 Seattle restaurants and so much more.

Whether you’re a full-fledged wine geek or burgeoning aficionado, Taste Washington has great seminars. These taste-while-you-learn sessions are hosted by leading experts, including top winemakers, Master Sommeliers and academics. Learn about what makes the terroir of Washington’s vineyards stand apart, the future appellations coming to Washington state, dive headlong into the latest wine science and, of course, taste a lot of fantastic wine.

Tickets are on sale now (a wonderful Valentine gift) both individually and package deals. Go to TasteWashington.com.  Cheers!

The Many Wines from Italy’s Boot

Italy is big into wine. And the numbers testify to that: somewhere around 900 Italian grape varieties are grown in 1,949,000 acres of vineyards in the 20 wine regions. In 2018, 1,447,663 gallons of wine were produced or approximately 7,306,666 bottles.

They also have the biggest classification system with each regions’ own rules about which grapes can used, how much alcohol, how long it must be aged, what place name can be on the label and much more.

The first Italian system of classification was launched in 1963. Since then, modifications were made and grapes were added. The last modification in 2010 conforms with European Union wine regulations.

Many Italian wines are blends of three or more grape varieties and this is strictly regulated for IGP, DOC or DOCG wine. Traditionally, Chianti, a DOC or DOCG wine, from the Tuscany region was a blend of Sangiovese with a small percentage of Canaiolo Nero, Mammolo and Colorino and white grapes Trebbiano Toscano and Malvasia.

That has been updated. Chianti no longer has to add white grapes and now are able to grow and add – in small percentages – non-traditional grapes such as Cabernet and Merlot.

One limitation still held onto is grape names on the label. When a grape name is listed on the label, it is followed by a “di” or “della” and then the place name. For instance, Barbera d’Asti, Brunello di Montalcino, Fiano di Avellino, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Morellino di Scansano.

To further complicate matters, blends of grapes are also listed with a place name. That’s because everyone in Italy knows what grapes are allowed to grow in a particular region. Amarone (a style) della Valpolicella (an appellation) is probably the most famous blend made with the dried grapes of Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella.

There is also Ripasso (style) della Valpolicella which is a fermentation process that passes the wine over the pomace of Recioto (style) della Valpolicella. The Recioto is a sweet, unctuous dessert wine made from very ripe and then dried grapes.

I’m telling you this because I needed to refresh my memory about Italian wines and share some recently great, affordable Italian wines I’ve enjoyed. The one that began this quest was new to me – Otto Bucce, a DOC Rosso from Piedmonte.

In the Piedmonte, in northwestern Italy, Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Dolcetto are the notable red grapes. Less well known and very unique grape varieties are Brachetto, Bonarda Piemontese, Freisa and Albarossa.

The label of this rosso intrigued me with its bunch of red grapes and eight grape names – Dolcetto, Barbera, Bonarda Piedmonte, Merlot, Cabernet, Fresia, Albarossa and Syrah.

This name Otto (eight) Bucce (skins) underscores the unique blend of eight indigenous Piemontese and international grapes which all contribute to this brilliant ruby red with structure, character and a huge amount of fragrance. The wine spends 12 months in the traditional large barrels and ends in neutral French barrique for a smooth, balanced quaff to pair with your next plate of spaghetti.

One of my all-time favorite Italian grapes is Barbera. Barbera d’Asti is a DOCG that lies in the heart of Italy’s Piedmont region. The Lavignone Barbera d’Asti is a classic example. The wine is macerated for a week and then vinified entirely in stainless steel. This would account for the heavenly aromatics and bright flavors of cherries, violets and herbs. Soft tannins and a nice dose of acidity make this wine a favorite with any meal except breakfast.

The Apulia region is in southern Italy, the heel of the boot, and known for producing big reds from Primitivo, Negroamaro, Nero di Troia and Malvasia Nera grapes. Salice Salentino is a DOC of Puglia created in 1976. The area centers on the town of Salice on the Salento Peninsula.

The Marchese di Borgosole Salice Salentino Riserva DOC has a strong, dark, ruby ​​red color. The bouquet is of delicious, fruity berries with a fine nuance of tobacco and chocolate. On the palate it is smooth. A perfect and harmonious drinking pleasure with a crisp bite and a hint of bitterness for a long-lasting finish.

May your wine adventures lead to many bottles of Italian wine in your cellar.

Taste Belgian-style Craft Beer at Belgian Fest

In Belgium, craft brewing was probably launched in the 13th century with the emergence of guilds and regulations.

Belgian beers have a wide range of flavors, from sour to fresh and fruity to big malty flavors and high octane. Many Belgian-style beers are bottle-conditioned or re-fermented in the bottle. Herbs such as coriander and licorice, spices such as pepper and ginger and apples, cherries and raspberries are de rigueur in the north and south regions of Belgium.

This wide range of beer styles includes abbey beers, an array of wheat beers and pilsners, brown ales, red beers, strong golden and brown ales, saisons and other regional specialties such as Karmeliet and Cantillon. Most unique are the austere, wild yeast Lambics, a relic from the time before yeast was cultivated.

Fast forward to today or this Saturday to be exact.  The Washington Beer Commission’s 11th Annual Belgian Fest will take place at Seattle Center’s Fisher Pavilion. Belgian-style beers crafted by 25 Washington breweries will feature Tripels, Dubbels, Saisons, Wits, Abbeys, Sours and Lambics. In keeping with this unique style, all of the beers are brewed with Belgian yeast. You’ll be like a kid in the candy shop with this line-up.

Saturday, January 25th, 2020
Fisher Pavilion at Seattle Center
305 Harrison St
Seattle, WA 98109
Session 1: 1:00-4:30pm  sold out
Session 2: 6:30-10:00 pm

Tickets are $40 online. $45 at the door.
Limited tickets at the door.  Admission includes a tasting glass and 10 tasting tokens. Each taste is 4 oz.  Additional tokens available to purchase.
$5 designated driver admission is available at the door. Designated driver includes soda and/or water.  21+ only. No refunds. No dogs. Registered service dogs ok.

A Taste of Woodinville Wine Country

My holiday shopping began on Black Friday this year. Normally, I wouldn’t be caught near a cash register on that particular day. But an invitation to De Lille Cellars’ Grand Taste and Tour in Woodinville was an offer I didn’t want to refuse.

The invitation promised DeLille wines and cheese pairings while getting a first look at the new tasting rooms, library room, third-story rooftop deck with views of Mount Rainier and mezzanine overlooking the winemaking facility and impressive barrel room.

This celebratory occasion was the completion of its new tasting rooms and winery at Hollywood Station. DeLille Cellars CEO Tom Dugan said “This will mark the first time since 1998 that we’ve had our winery and retail operations under one roof.”

The “new roof” is the old Redhook Brewery site in Woodinville. The 20-acre site is now known as Hollywood Station. This location features DeLille Cellars, Sparkman Cellars and Teatro ZinZanni, which moved into the complex in 2018.

DeLille Cellars has been around for over 25 years. Over the years, the winery has garnered hundreds of 90-plus ratings and a bunch of winery of the year awards. Its wines are inspired by Bordeaux, one of my favorite regions, but it also has wines in the style of Rhone and Aix, two other much loved French wine regions.

The 2018 Roussanne from Ciel du Cheval Vineyard on Red Mountain was whole-cluster-pressed, which means no destemming before crushing. The result is wine with less bitterness and more clarity. After fermentation, the other process used was sur lie aging. This is an old French winemaking technique that increases the complexity of mouthfeel, body and aromatics.

About 85% of the wine was fermented in stainless steel, which produces a fruitier, crisper wine. There were wonderful aromatics of tart green apple, melon and peaches with a creamy, weighty feel from the lees contact. The balance was impeccable.

The new release of the D2, its traditional Bordeaux red blend, was delicious. But it would benefit from a few years in the cellar. It was so well-balanced that I knew it would make a wonderful gift. Check one off the list.

The pièce de résistance was the 2014 Grand Ciel Cabernet. From its estate vineyard on Red Mountain, it is powerful, structured and integrated with a long, remarkable finish. This, too, could benefit from time in the cellar. Check another off the list.

With over 130 wineries and tasting rooms and three wine districts, Woodinville wine country has a certain allure. It’s close with so many wonderful wines to taste. The Warehouse District has the largest concentration of tasting rooms, followed closely by the Hollywood District and the less-crowded West Valley District.

Many of these tasting rooms have their production facilities in eastern Washington. Many of the wines are sourced from prestigious vineyards in AVAs across the state. All require a tasting fee that is waved when a bottle or two are purchased.

As we made our way home through the West Valley District, we passed tasting room after tasting room. We made a U-turn.

Isenhower Cellars is a Walla Walla winery with a presence on the west side of the mountains. Founded in 1999 by general manager Denise and winemaker Brett Isenhower, the husband and wife team built their Walla Walla winery in 2002. The Woodinville tasting room opened in 2009.

Viognier is from a region in the Rhone Valley. In the 1980s, almost all of the Viognier planted in the world — about 57 acres — was in the Rhone Valley, most in the Condrieu appellation. Today, there are over 11,000 acres worldwide including Walla Walla Valley.

Fermented in French Acacia barrels and aged sur lie for five months, the Isenhower Viognier is very floral and peachy with crisp, mouthwatering acidity. Another gift checked off the list.

Isenhower also makes a bubbly from Marsanne, a grape that is normally blended with Viognier. This 100% Marsanne brut is from the Yakima Valley’s Olsen Ranch Vineyard. This delightful brut has the requisite small bubbles, dryish finish and total elegance.

Next door, Cascade Cliffs Winery from the Columbia Gorge AVA had just celebrated 22 years. It has some unusual grape varieties – Barbera, Symphony and Nebbiolo – planted on its estate.

Symphony is a hybrid grape, a cross of Grenache Gris and Muscat of Alexandria. This wine has that fragrant Muscat nose and the body and crispness of a Grenache Gris. It’s an unusual and delightful wine.

But from the beginning, Cascade Cliffs was known for its Barbera. Barbera is its most popular and sought-after wine. That intensity and richness of this fruit-driven, high-acid wine is the perfect wine for any dish with tomatoes. Be it tomato tart, shakshouka, lasagna, you get the picture.

Cascade Cliffs began planting this Italian varietal in the early ’90s, and over the years it has won numerous awards including the prestigious “Best of the Best in the Northwest.” This buy was my Christmas present.

Wood House Wine Estates is another winery in the West Valley District we stopped at. It’s a family-run winery that opened in 2004. The winemaker, Jean-Claude Beck, is originally from Alsace where his family has been producing wine since 1579.  He joined Woodhouse in 2008.

Its 2015 Yakima Valley Riesling reminded me of the wonderful dry Rieslings of the Alsace appellation in France. It was fermented in stainless steel and aged sur lie. The sur lie aging gives wine a creaminess and weight.

The 2016 Columbia Valley Cab was sourced from Klipsun and Hyatt vineyards. A brilliant ruby red, this wine had intense black fruits, a touch of herbs and a nice long finish. I bagged two more to complete my shopping.

It’s going to be a very happy holiday. Cheers!

Sparkling Wines for the Holidays

There are many occasions that can easily be made more festive with sparkling wine. With the holidays upon us, nothing says celebrate like the pop of a cork on a bottle of bubbly. It’s the universal signal for the beginning of fun.

Sparkling wines — whether from France, Italy or the U.S. — are different from Riesling, Cabernet or Chardonnay because they, like beer and sparkling cider, go through a second fermentation.

In the first fermentation – the one that makes the alcohol – gases produced by the yeast eating the sugars escape, creating alcohol. The second fermentation traps the gases in the bottle, making tiny bubbles.

This type of fermentation occurs in a bottle with a very tight cap. Since the gasses can’t escape the bottle, voila! The wine sparkles. In the Champagne region, this process is known around the world as Méthode Champenoise. The “Champagne Method” involves fermenting, blending, bottling, secondary fermentation, en tirage, riddling and dosage.

Sparkling wine is the perfect wine. Not only does it make the occasion special, it is incredibly versatile with food. Yes, every food you can plate up or even enjoy out of a bag. Fish and chips, check! Oysters, check! French onion soup, check! Popcorn, check! Smoked salmon, check! Mushu Pork, check! Sushi, check! Turkey, check! Eggs Benedict, check!

One reason for this is sparkling wine grapes are typically harvested weeks before still wine grapes. The result of that early harvest is the grape sugars aren’t as high and the acidity level is up there. Typically, wines with high acidity will pair perfectly with more foods than wines that have little acidity.

Sparkling wines are made all over the world, normally in the cooler parts of the globe. The most famous is Champagne in northern France, second is Prosecco from a region in northern Italy and third is Cava, from predominantly northern Spain. In the New World, many sparkling wines follow the Méthode Champenoise.

Each Old World region makes its sparkling wines from grapes that are indigenous to the region. In Champagne, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are allowed. In Prosecco, the Glera grape can be blended with only 15% of other white grapes. Cavas are traditionally a blend of Parellada, Macabeo and Xarel-lo grapes. Other grapes allowed are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Garnacha.

Outside of Champagne, other French sparkling wines are called Crémant and made with the grapes of the region. In Limoux, Macabeo, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay grapes; in the Alsace, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc; and in Burgundy, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

When considering your ideal sparkling wine, it helps to understand that sparkling wine is a blended wine. It could be a blend of several years’ harvests, which would make it a non-vintage. Or it could be Méthode Traditionelle, meaning a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Here are some terms you may see on labels:

Blanc de Blancs: White of whites — traditionally all Chardonnay grapes

Blanc de Noir: White of dark — traditionally a white bubbly made from Pinot Noir grapes

Style is determined by the amount of sugar in the dosage. Dosage is the final liquid addition used to top up the Méthode Champenoise bottles and determines how sweet or how dry the contents are.

  • Brut Zero ( 0 – very dry)
  • Extra brut (less than 6 — very dry)
  • Brut (less than 15 — dry)
  • Extra dry (12-20 — not so dry)
  • Sec (17-35 — slightly sweet)
  • Demi-sec (33-50 — rather sweet)
  • Doux (more than 50 – very sweet)

Some favorite sparkling wines for all occasions in the $10-$20 range:

Chateau Ste. Michelle brut Rose’ is a beautiful rose-colored, dry wine with a hint of residual sugar on the finish. The generous fruit and sweet finish would pair well with crab, jalapeño and artichoke dip or General Tso’s chicken.

Founded in 1984, Gruet Winery specializes in Méthode Champenoise sparkling wines in the mountains in New Mexico. The non-vintage Brut, a blend of 75% Chardonnay with the balance in Pinot Noir, is crisp, yeasty and has a long finish. Pair it with popcorn tossed with butter and a hint of truffle oil.

Treveri Cellars Sparkling Gewürztraminer from Yakima Valley is a delightful, aromatic non-vintage wine with a dosage of 35g/L (demi-sec) with a balancing acidity of 7.5g/L. Perfect with fried seafood on a bed of spicy Asian slaw.

Jaume Serra Cristalino brut Cava is a traditional blend of the Spanish grapes — Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel lo. This is mimosa material. Two parts Cristalino one part your juice of choice: orange, pomegranate, blackberry, you get the idea. Then pair it up with a sweeter breakfast of waffles with fresh blueberries or a Dutch baby.

In 1531, Benedictine monks perfected sparkling wine in a little known region called Limoux in southern France. Saint-Hilaire Blanquette de Limoux has delicate apple flavors and tiny bubbles. A blend of Mauzac, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, its creamy texture begs a dish of fettuccini alfredo or a mound of garlic mashed potatoes with lots of butter.

There are many legendary figures surrounding the world’s most glamorous wine. Dom Perignon comes to mind as does Bond, James Bond who enjoyed a tipple of Bollinger when not sipping something shaken, not stirred.

It’s hard not to admire the legendary Madame Lily Bollinger (1899-1997), who would make her daily inspection of her vineyards by bicycle. Her outfit — hat, heels and skirt. In 1955, when asked when she enjoyed a glass of Bollinger, she replied: “I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch the stuff — unless I’m thirsty.”

Bring on the Cider: Apple harvest is second biggest

Washington’s 2019 grape and hop harvests are expected to be a similar yield to last year, 260,000 tons and 100 million pounds respectively. September brought on an early and bountiful mushroom harvest. And it’s shaping up to be the second-biggest apple harvest in Washington history.

Apples harvested from an average tree can fill 20 boxes. According to the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, the 2019 apple crop forecast is projected to be 137 million 40-pound boxes. That’s an increase of more than 17 percent from the 2018 harvest.

And that’s just for Honeycrisp, Gala and other varieties that we put in salads, bake in pies or munch on with a chunk of cheddar cheese.  It doesn’t include apples for juice or hard cider.

This amazing bounty comes from about 175,000 acres of apple orchards, according to the Washington State Department of Agriculture. In comparison, vineyards cover 59,000-plus acres.

Apples are one of Washington state’s top 10 exports: about $760 million dollars’ worth of fruit travels around the world annually. Tony Lynn Adams of the Washington Apple Commission says, “Washington apples represent about 65% of the entire U.S. fresh apple production. We export about a third of our apples to 60 countries.” Surprisingly, Mexico is Washington’s No. 1 export market with 13 million boxes shipped annually.

In recent years, many small family farms are giving way to larger agricultural operations. Some are joining 400+ wine grape growers in the state, uprooting their orchards in favor of vineyards.

Other family orchards have been grafting over to a different kind of apple – the cider apple. Of the 2,500 varieties of apples grown in the United States, there are 40 or so cider apples. These apples are prized for their high acidity and tannins that make delicious hard cider. Some originated from England and France but there are highly regarded American heirlooms, too. Apples were widespread on the American homestead. Thank you, Johnny Appleseed. 

Cider apple cultivars and varieties are categorized as bittersweet, bittersharp, sharp, and sweet. The grading signifies the amount of acid, tannin and sweetness. Some varieties, like the bittersharp, have high acidity and high tannins. The most prized is the flavorful and aromatic Kingston Black. Kingston Black juice would be blended with a sweet, such as Cox’s Orange Pippen, for the sugars needed to ferment.

There are some 60 some cideries in Washington spread from Westport to Spokane, Bellingham to Kennewick.

Curiously, hard cider is kind of in liquor limbo with Washington’s Liquor Control Board. The law says cider can have a beer-like alcohol level of no more than 7%. If it’s over 7%, then it’s considered apple wine and taxed differently. But even at 7%, it’s classified as wine.

Like beer, cider may be bottle-conditioned or hopped. It’s delivered to taprooms in kegs or more often found in 22-ounce bottles.

Like wine grapes, cider apples are harvested in the fall. The juice is then pressed, bottled, and often times made sparkling using the same process used in Champagne. And because that method is so labor intensive, a bottle of sparkling cider may cost upwards of $20, just like a bottle of wine.

Washington’s pioneer cider makers include Spire Mountain, established in 1985 and with bittersweet and bittersharp apples. San Juan Island’s Westcott Bay Cidery first released its cider in 1999.

Just across the bridge in Jefferson County, visit Alpenfire Cidery in Port Townsend. Established in 2008, where the Bishops planted cider apples like the bittersweet Brown Snouts and Dabinetts alongside the heirloom apples in their orchard.

Also just outside of Port Townsend is Eaglemount Wine and Cider. Since 2007 they have been making cider from a historic homestead built in 1883. Some of the heirloom varieties include Gravenstein, Winesap, White Pippin, Roxbury Russet and Twenty Ounce. They also produce a Quince Cider from the organic Willowrose Bay Orchard in the San Juans. Quince is related to apples and pears.

In Chimacum, Finnriver Orchard and Cider Garden has a 10-acre orchard next to its tasting room and Cider Garden at the crossroads of Center Road and Chimacum. Its orchard is planted on dwarf rootstock for easier maintenance and picking. Cider apples like the Yarlington Mill, Brown Snout, and Harry Masters Jersey are just some of the varieties planted.

Finnriver has been crafting ciders both traditional — only apples — and contemporary since 2008. Some of its more adventurous ciders incorporate other ingredients, like black currants, lavender, hops and habaneros.

Closer to home on the Kitsap Peninsula is Bushel & Barrel Ciderhouse in Poulsbo. One of the newest cideries in the state, its sources its apples from Eastern Washington.

Currently, there is no tasting room but you can find these locally made ciders on tap at many of the local brewpubs — Valholl Brewing, Slippery Pig Brewing and Rainy Daze Brewing in Poulsbo. Elsewhere in Kitsap County, check out the taps at Downpour Brewing, Lovecraft Brewing, Dog Days Brewing and Crane’s Castle.

Further south you can cozy up to a glass at the Wigwam Tavern in Gorst, Port Orchard’s Slaughter County Brewing and Belfair’s Bent Bine Brewing.

Pinot Noir and Wild Mushrooms – the Perfect Pair

Pinot Noir and mushrooms were made for each other. The perfect couple, they share an earthy, yet delicate quality. When paired together, they shine. And from all accounts, there is a bumper crop of mushrooms this fall.

Packed with vitamins and minerals, mushrooms are beneficial in so many ways. They are also low-calorie, low-sodium, fat-free and free from cholesterol until you sauté them in butter with a little shallot, garlic and cream for a heavenly sauce to toss with some fettucine.

Wild mushrooms go with the flow. They be grilled, stuffed, sautéed, or roasted. They add a little something to sauces, soups, casseroles, steaks, burgers, pasta dishes, and stews.

Pinot Noir is that finicky red grape that is missing a component in its skin that all other red skinned grapes have. As a result, the finished wine is so much lighter in color than say a Cab, Syrah or Merlot.

But it does make up for it in other ways. Pinot Noir is one of the most wildly fragrant red wines on the planet. And it has an ethereal quality that makes it one of the most expensive wines.

Pinot Noir does not do well everywhere in the world. Where it excels is Burgundy, a cool, foggy region, rich in history and culture.  Once home to the Dukes of Burgundy, the territory stretched across eastern France and into Flanders, where Belgium beers now flourish.

In cooler regions such as its native Burgundy in east central France, Oregon’s Chehalem Mountains and Willamette Valley AVA and New Zealand’s Martinborough and Marlborough areas, it has wonderful acidity that makes it the perfect wine for a wide range of culinary delights.

Other regions of Pinot Noir plantings of note include California’s Santa Rita, Santa Lucia, Santa Barbara, and Santa Maria AVAs, Champagne and Alto Adige and Fruili regions in northeast Italy. And a nod to emerging Pinot Noir producers in Chile, Germany (called Spatburgunder), South Africa, Argentina, and Australia.

Here are some mouthwatering dishes and the proper (IMO) Pinot Noir to pair with them.

Truffle popcorn with Treveri Cellars Brut Blanc de Noirs

This makes movie night special and oh so delicious. To the usual popped corn add half butter and half truffle oil. The aroma alone will make you swoon. Sparkling wines, as I learned years ago at the knee of a sommelier, and potato chips are a perfect match. This match takes salty popcorn and bubbly to a higher level.

Sausage stuffed mushrooms with Karma Vineyards Blanc de Noir

What better way to begin than mushrooms stuffed with pork sausage, thyme and orange zest and paired with this sparkling wine from the Lake Chelan AVA. The balance of red fruits, creamy texture and small bubbles is impressive.

Roasted pork tenderloin and chanterelles with Ken Wright 2015 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

With this dish, I would like to revisit this wonderful wine from a friend’s cellar. From 3 of their 13 vineyards in the northern Willamette Valley, this four-year old bottle of elegance demonstrates Pinot Noir’s ethereal aromas, balanced fruit and earth notes and smooth tannins.

Oyster mushroom risotto with Knudsen Vineyards 2017 Pinot Noir

Silky oyster mushrooms with a hint of herb pairs well with this classic Dundee Hills blend of two estate vineyards, one over 20-years old the other planted in 2012 to the Dijon clone. The cherry, earthy aromas and flavors have notes of baking spices and a silky finish.

Duck breast with mushrooms, caramelized onions and Chehalem Chehalem Mountains Pinot Noir

Mushrooms with a spicy, earthy flavor, sweet caramelized onions and a sautéed duck breast pairs very nicely with this mountain grown wine of remarkable balance. The red fruits, spice, silky tannins and a crisp finish compliment this dish to the max.

Roast chicken and matsutakes with Lemelson Vineyards Willamette Valley Jerome Reserve Pinot Noir

Matsutake is Japanese for “pine mushroom.” It grows most abundantly in the pine forest of Washington and is highly prized in Japanese cuisine. But here, it’s paired with the American by way of France classic – roast chicken. This mushroom is a fragrant spice bomb with a touch of earth perfect with a roasted chicken and Lemelson’s aromatic Pinot. Sourced from several sustainably farmed Willamette Valley vineyards, this wine shows elegant berry and earthy tones and a long, silky finish.

If foraging for mushrooms is on your list of things to do, the Kitsap Mycological Society is a local non-profit organization that can help beginners. These folks study, collect and cook up mushrooms in the forests of the Kitsap Peninsula and other forests in Washington. They have several opportunities where they share their mushroom knowledge with the community. Check them out at https://kitsapmushrooms.org/

Rhone for Fall Cuisine

Every fall, the grape harvest happens. Around the world vineyards come alive with winemakers racing to and through vineyards, testing for ripeness, watching the weather, scheduling picking, sorting and destemming tons of grapes, assessing the juice, fermenting and punching down grapes to deliver the elixir we crave.

With the cooler weather, we slip on a sweater and begin to move away from those chilled wines of summer to something warmer, more full-bodied that match the heartier fall dishes. Squashes find their way into soups, frittatas and stews. Mushrooms pop up in stews, in risotto, Beef Bourguignon and on top of steak. Apples and pears adorn salads, cheeses and meat dishes. This makes my mouth water and my hand reach for a Rhone.

Rhone varietals would be a good go-to for fuller bodied but not too full-bodied fall wine. Grapes such as Syrah, Viognier Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Roussanne are indigenous to this French region. There are a bunch more indigenous varieties – a few you may have heard of, some are little known and are allowed in this appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) – Picardan, Picpoul, Carignan, Clairette Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc, Cinsault, Marselan and let’s not forget Muscat a Petites Grains!

The Rhone region is divided in half, both with a different set of rules on how to make wine with the same grapes. Northern AOC red wines are Syrah only and typically co-fermented with the light touch of Viognier to bring up the aromatics and to soften the hard edges of Syrah.

Southern Rhone is the Heinz 57 of the wine world. A wine from the Chateauneuf du Pape AOC can be a blend of up to 13 grape varieties! A Cotes du Rhone is typically a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. This is a large area so the wines — both red and white — can be easily found and enjoyed.

Rhone grapes can be found in vineyards around the world. Eastern Washington, Australia, and California all make Rhone-style wines. In fact, Chelan’s Cairdeas Winery has vines from Southern Rhone by way of California.

Other regions of the world may label their Rhone-style wines with the grape name (must be at least 75%) or give it a proprietary name such as GSM, for Grenache Syrah Mourvèdre.

Cairdeas Winery produces traditional blends as well as unique blends, both styles inspired by the Rhone region and grapes. Its delightful wine “Northern White” is a blend of 60% Marsanne and 40% Roussanne. This Rhone-style wine is a perfect dry white for a steaming bowl of mushroom risotto.

Another is the Caisléan an Papa – an Irish way of saying Chateauneuf du Pape. This red blend is made up of 37% Grenache, 26% Mourvèdre, 16% Syrah, 11% Counoise, and 10% Cinsault for a delicious, almost traditional, highly rated wine.

The Guigal family, one of the largest producers in the Rhone Valley, specializes in white Rhone varieties. Most Rhone wines produced are primarily red; white wine production is nominal. In contrast, Guigal’s production of white wine is large, at least a quarter of wines produced.

Its Cotes du Rhone Blanc is a blend of many white grapes: Bourboulenc, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier. It’s a fragrant full-bodied white, and a very good value.

Famille Perrin has, for centuries, made an exquisite Chateauneuf du Pape. Grenache, Cinsault, Mourvedre, Syrah, Muscardin, Vaccarese, Counoise and Picpoul from Château de Beaucastel’s vineyards are fermented separately and later blended before aging in foudres (big oak barrels) and bottle.

Another classic Rhone-style wine is made with the legendary Australian Shiraz grape. Shiraz is Australian for Syrah, the legendary grape of Northern Rhone. Australia is also home to some of the world’s oldest Syrah vineyards.

Shiraz vineyards planted in the mid-1800s produce tiny crops of intensely concentrated grapes from ungrafted, pre-phylloxera vines. Penfolds has been making Rhone-style wines since 1844. Its Bin 138 is the traditional southern Rhone blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mataro (Mourvedre). This classic GSM from Barossa Valley includes grapes from some vines that are over 100 years old. 

And if you ever get a chance, there is an award-winning, classic wine made by Penfolds since 1951. Grange (called Grange Hermitage until the 1989 vintage) is made with Shiraz and a small percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon. The term “Hermitage” was dropped from the label since the European Union won’t allow the name of a French wine appellation on a wine that is not from that appellation.

Marsanne, a Rhone white grape, is more likely to be found in Australia than even its native Rhone. Tahbilk Winery, in Central Victoria, has the largest vineyard site of Marsanne in the world. Its Marsanne is fermented in stainless for a crisp, dry white. Like many classic whites, with age it transforms into a full-bodied, aromatic wine. Perfect with a curried pumpkin soup. (Couldn’t go without mentioning the ubiquitous fall vegetable).

Cheers, Mate!

Seeking out Italian Wines and Cuisine

Chicagoland is, in my opinion, a great place for Italian cuisine. And, of course, Italian wine. I enjoyed some wonderful wines on a recent trip, most from the Old World because that’s what I seek out when in the Midwest. Old World wine and Italian beef sandwiches.

A visit with one of my favorite brothers, always involves Italian wines. He dutifully had several bottles of wine waiting when I arrived. We popped the cork on his newest find, Zucardi Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. He loves this full-bodied wine but is dismissive of the little piece of vine attached to the bottles neck. A marketing ploy, he says.

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo comes from the Abruzzi hills above the Adriatic coast. It’s made from the Montepulciano grape from the wine region located along the calf of the boot of Italy.

You may have heard of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano – no relation to Montepulciano the grape – but rather a Sangiovese based wine from vineyards surrounding the town of Montepulciano in Tuscany. Rule of thumb for Italian wines is di, del, or della in between two words on the label means “grape” from “region.”

The Abruzzi region, one of the most widely exported of all Italian wines, is dominated by giant cooperatives that pump out decent every day jug wine with black cherry flavors, soft tannins and made to be consumed that night.

But a few more serious producers are making some mighty fine wine. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo was first classified as Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) in 1968. This DOC is permitted to blend up to 15 per cent Sangiovese with the Montepulciano grape. Wines aged for more than two years are permitted to add Riserva to their labels.

I loved the Zucardi too and found another old favorite from the same region – Barone Cornacchia Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, to see what he thought of another producer of the Montepulciano grape.

Montepulciano’s are full-bodied with good balance which makes them really good food wine. We enjoyed ours with fresh picked tomatoes and cheese, while dining al fresco on the patio.

For our family dinner of roast chicken, garlic mashed potatoes, and carrots, he cracked out a Produttori del Barbaresco. This special wine is from the Piedmonte in northwestern Italy. It’s the little sister of Barolo, a big wine with big tannins and a big personality. Ageing for years is a must, sometimes ten or twenty years depending on vintage.

Both Barbaresco and Barolo are made from the same grape, Nebbiolo. Just different areas near the city of Alba. Barbaresco vineyards are northwest of the city and at lower elevations than their big Barolo brother’s southwest vineyards. One other difference is Barbaresco enjoys a more sheltered position, lying further away from weather systems coming off the Atlantic.

Produttori del Barbaresco, founded in 1958, is actually a cooperative of producers around the town of Barbaresco and managed by Aldo Vacca, former assistant to Angelo Gaja of Barolo fame. Produttori sources fruit from 50 member-growers farming 250 acres of premium Nebbiolo vineyards in the commune of Barbaresco.

Fermented in stainless steel tanks, this wine spends 30 days on the skin with pumping over 2 to 3 times a day. This gives the wine a beautiful dark, rich color. It’s then aged 24 months in big barrels of neutral Slovian oak called grandi botti.

After 30 months, it’s bottled and then about 260,000 bottles are distributed worldwide. So, there’s plenty of this classic, best value Barbaresco to enjoy with lamb chops or roast chicken with chanterelles.

The Veneto area in the northeast also produces classic wines. The unique wines of Valpolicella are made with a blend of Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella grapes and 5 different styles. Basic Valpolicella is a lighter table type wine, Classico is from the original Valpolicella zone, Superiore is aged at least a year, and Ripasso is made with partially dried grapes left over from the Amarone or Recioto fermentation. Reciotos and Amarones are made from dried grapes and downright magnificent.

Valpolicella was awarded DOC status in 1968. Amarone and Recioto received Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) status in 2009.

I enjoyed a couple of unusual bottles of Valpolicella while visiting. Both were labeled Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT), one of four Italian wine classifications. IGT signifies the wine is typical of that geographical region but doesn’t qualify for the DOC or DOCG’s stricter requirements. Maybe the vines weren’t old enough, the alcohol content is not in the range for that particular style, or maybe some of the grapes came from outside that designated region. Any of these reasons would keep the wines from being DOC or DOCG.

One such IGT was made by Natale Verga Antale Veneto. This full-bodied, elegant wine had intense color from the slight drying of the grapes. The blend is mostly Corvina with a little Merlot, hence IGT status since Merlot is not an allowed grape in this DOC or DOCG. This would be my go to wine for my favorite Italian beef and hot giardiniera – Paul’s in Westchester, Illinois.

Another new to me IGT wine was Cecilia Beretta {FREEDA} Rosé. It’s a blend of Corvina, Cabernet and Carménère grapes from the southern area of Lake Garda. After being harvested by hand, the grapes are pressed together with a short maceration to achieve the pale pink color. Each grape adds its own character to the wine – cherries and raspberries from Corvina, green peppercorn from the Cabernet and minerality and body from the Carménère. A must for the next time you have lobster risotto.

Cin Cin!