Category Archives: French Wine

A Passion for Pink

What’s a rosé, anyway? Generally, it’s a category of wine – just like white, red, sparkling and dessert. It takes its name from the French word for pink and because the “e” has that little swoosh over it, it rhymes with Jose.

Most rosés are made from red grapes. The aroma, color and tannic structure of a wine is in the grape skins. As a result, the color, flavor, and style of the rosé depends on three winemaking practices: the temperature throughout the winemaking process,  the length of time the grape juice is in contact with the skins and how much residual sugar is in the finished wine.

Rosé can be any shade of pink from barely perceptible to pale red. When using just red grapes, how long the grape juice macerates with the skins determines what shade of pink the finished wine will be.

It’s similar to making a cup of tea, do you take the tea bag out after a brief dunk or do you dunk the tea bag, over and over and over? That continual dunking, whether tea bag or grape skins, extracts darker colors, more aromas, darker fruit flavor profiles and more acidity.

Like Riesling, rosé wines can be made anywhere on the residual sugar spectrum. Fermentation happens when the yeast gorges itself on the grape sugars and burps up alcohol. Residual sugar is what the little yeasties haven’t eaten because, in the case of rosé, the winemaker stops the fermentation anywhere between 9% (sweet) and 13% (definitely drier) alcohol.

Winemaking styles and consumer palates have changed since the heyday of Lancers and Mateus. Not all rosés are sweet. Just look to the center of the world’s rosé production, Provence, where they’ve been making dry rosés since Hector was a pup.

Dry rosé is a staple in France. It’s consumed with lunch, brunch and dinner, on the patio, and decks, at the seaside, in the gardens, and practically every other occasion. As a matter of fact, French rosé outsells white wine in France.

Long before most Americans became acquainted with rosés, there was white Zinfandel and pink Chablis.  In the seventies, sweet fruity whites were the wine of choice. And then it happened, a tank of Zinfandel at Sutter Home got mixed up with a tank of white. White Zinfandel was a sweet pink mistake.

In the USA, however, some still equate pink with sweet, possibly based on past encounters with blush wines from a jug with a handle on it. But those wines are behind us, dry rosé production is on the rise in France, Italy, USA and Spain.  American wine drinkers are dumping the misconception that crisp, bright, and dry rosés are the same as sweet blush wines.

There’s several ways to achieve that pretty pink color.  Everyday patio pinks are typically a blend of white wine with enough red wine in it to make it “blush.” Per bottle, this style of wine would contain five times as much residual sugar as a Provençal rosé.

Another pink winemaking process is called, saingnée (sahng nee), another French term that translates to bleed. With this winemaking technique, the winemaker “bleeds” off the free-run juice from just barely crushed red grapes after momentary maceration.  (No continual dunking!) The goal of saingnée is to produce a light pink wine with aromas and flavors similar to a red wine.

A few of my favorites include:

Barnard Griffin’s Rosé of Sangiovese. Not too sweet, not too dry. A deeper colored wine with a lot of aroma, juicy acidity and flavors. A perfect patio wine.  Others agree with me. Barnard Griffin Rosés have won eleven Best of Class and gold at prestigious wine competitions since its debut in 2002.

Maryhill’s Columbia Valley Rosé Zinfandel is sourced from the award-winning Tudor Hills Vineyards.  Grapes were hand-harvested during the cool hours of the morning to preserve the bright fruit notes and left on the skins overnight to extract color and then gently pressed. The free run juice was slowly fermented at 50ºF for a month. This wine is a crowd-pleaser and gold medal winner.

Gerard Bertrand’s Rosé from the Languedoc DOC is a traditional Mediterranean blend of red grapes, Grenache, Cinsault and Syrah. It’s a beautiful pale pink and perfectly balanced with a dry, medium-bodied and yet fruity freshness. Its beauty extends to the bottle, designed by an art student. The old fashioned bottle shape has an artfully embossed rose where the punt is usually found and a glass stopper in place of the traditional cork.

One winemaker I’ve been following for some time is Victor Palencia. His Vino la Monarcha Pinot Noir Rosé from the Ancient Lakes AVA is delicious. Yep, Pinot Noir from Quincy, Washington. Its floral aromas and flavors of citrus and minerality makes this one a refreshing patio pink.

Stoller Family Estate Dundee Hills Pinot Noir Rosé is another winner. This wine is whole cluster pressed and fermented in stainless steel all at cool temperatures to preserve the aromatics and fresh red fruit flavors and mouthwatering acidity. The LEED gold certified winery has catacombs that draw in nighttime air, a natural cooling system!

A favorite Spanish rosé from 40 year old vines in Campo de Borja is ZaZa made from Garnacha by Norrel Robertson, a Master of Wine.  The must remained in contact with the skins for 24 to 48 hours, then free-run juice was bled, barrel fermented and aged sur lie for a month to integrate flavors, build mouthfeel, length and complexity. And it worked! The bright raspberry color and aroma give way to crisp raspberry and vanilla flavors and well-balanced acidity. It’s made for tapas, barbeque, salads, seafood and the patio.

Dry, pale pink to a ravishing raspberry, they all have one thing in common. They are enormously refreshing, very hip and on the rise.

The Wines of the Loire Valley

Much like Bordeaux, the Loire Valley was part of the dowry the beautiful, talented and very rich Eleanor of Acquitaine brought to England when she married Henry Plantagenet in the 12th century. She was responsible for jump starting the French wine trade in England and spent a number of her sunset years in a nearby nunnery, Fauntevraud, seeing that young women were taught to read and write. One of her five sons, Richard the Lion-hearted was buried there rather than a cathedral in England. But that’s an interesting tale for another time.

The Loire River is the country’s longest river, running from the middle of France west to the Atlantic Ocean. Along the river and its four tributaries are captivating castles once majestic and sumptuous, which former French and English kings, queens, mistresses, dukes and cardinals had built and called home.

In these castles, historic Treaties and Edicts were written and signed. At Chinon, Charles VII and fourteen year old Joan of Arc met and discussed the state of the nation, Ussé Castle was the inspiration for the fairytale of Sleeping Beauty and Villandry and Azay-le-Rideau have the most stunning formal gardens with the requisite attending army of gardeners.  The area is a must for your bucket list.

This beautiful rolling river valley in northwest France is also home to some of the world’s most famous white wines.  Vineyards are planted near villages with enchanting names like Manetou-Salon, Pouilly Fumé, Anjou, Coteaux de Layon, Bonnezeaux, Sancerre and Vouvray.  And none of these famous vineyards are planted to Chardonnay.

With the east west orientation of the river, the Atlantic Ocean clearly has an effect on the quality of the region’s wines—more so than Bordeaux, located just south of the Loire Valley. In cool vintages, it takes longer to develop the grape sugars needed to balance the naturally high acidity in these grapes.

The Loire Valley has three distinct wine regions, the Pays Nantais on the western end, the middle Loire and the upper Loire. The upper Loire is also known as the Central Vineyards because they’re centrally located in France.

Allowed white grapes in this valley are Melon de Bourgogne (Muscadet), Chenin Blanc, and Sauvignon Blanc, which account for more than half of the wine from this region. Approved red grapes are the native Grolleau, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Gamay.

Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc are the two most widely planted grapes. Sauvignon Blanc is grown in the Central Vineyards from around the villages of Pouilly Fumé, Quincy, Menetou-Salon and Sancerre. Chenin Blanc is grown in the middle Loire’s Touraine and Anjou-Saumur regions around the villages of Vouvray, Montlouis sur Loire, Saumur and Coteaux de Layon.

Winemaking in the valley is generally done without barrel ageing or malolactic fermentation. The wines have enough natural acidity to be great food wines. Chaptalization is permitted here. This winemaking technique of adding sugar to the fermenting wine helps compensate for the lack of grape sugars that balance the high acidity in difficult years.

For red wines, there’s other techniques used such as extended skin maceration for more color, flavor and tannins.  Pinot Noir both in a red and rosé styles are lighter in color and flavor than found in other parts of the wine world. Cabernet Franc is also lighter in color with more herbaceous aromas and flavors. In riper vintages, Loire reds will develop more fruit aromas and flavors and lose that herby component.

Once considered the quintessential white restaurant wine, Sancerre is considered among the finest location in the world to grow Sauvignon Blanc. Here the soil plays a big part in flavor development. It’s limestone with oyster traces and siliceous soil accounts for the wonderful flinty aromas and flavors.

During cool vintages, Sauvignon Blanc wines are lighter in color, less fruity and have a more pronounced herbaceous component. This style makes the wine the perfect companion to salads especially with goat cheese, salmon pate, poached white fish with buerré blanc, Oysters Rockefeller and other delectable shellfish recipes whether steamed, fried, grilled, stewed or raw.

Sancerre reds and rosés are made from the Pinot Noir grape. These wines are lighter in style than other regions where Pinot Noir is made. Lighter fare such as salads with smoked trout, chicken or aged goat cheese would make a perfect pairing.

Oddly enough, New Zealand is the only other wine region to produce Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc in the same region.

Chenin Blanc with its crisp acidity, is easily one of the most food-friendly wines of the world. It’s the classic brunch wine in that it pairs well with everything on the buffet. The range is similar to Riesling; it can be dry and austere to rich and sweet as well as everything in between. It can be still and it can be sparkling.

Chenin Blanc reaches its most characteristic expression in the Anjou-Saumur and Touraine regions in the middle Loire Valley. Vouvray is the world’s most popular Chenin Blanc but Anjou, Saumur and Savenniéres produce great ones too.

Quarts de Chaume, Bonnezeaux and Coteaux du Layon all produce stunning desert wines from the Chenin Blanc grape. Saumur’s most important wine is Saumur Mousseux, a well-priced sparkling made from Chenin Blanc.

In the Pays Nantais region of the Loire Valley, the city of Nantes is surrounded by vineyards planted to the Melon de Bourgogne grape. Muscadet Sevre et Maine covers the area between the Maine and Sevre rivers, tributaries of the Loire river. Muscadet Sur Lie is produced by aging the wine on the spent yeast cells which adds body and complexity to this light bodied wine whose reputation with oysters is classic.

A little known French gastronome once observed, “Cuisine is best when things taste like themselves. “  That brings Muscadet with oysters, Sancerre with Chevre and Vouvray with scallops to mind. And I know there is no better time to sample the wines of the Loire than when spring and summer cuisines converge. Cheers!

Here’s to You from Yakima Valley

One of the many highlights of a recent trip around Yakima Valley was a wonderful gourmet dinner experience that you should treat your dining partner and yourself to.

The Carousel Restaurant & Bistro is fine dining with French flair. Many of the recipes are from the French chef who originally opened the restaurant. The service was exquisite, the food was fabulous and with Casablanca playing on the wall during dinner, what could be better?  casablanca

The soundless black and white movie created an exotic atmosphere in the middle of this historic farming community.  During dinner, an amazing harp player entertained with familiar tunes.

But the fresh, local food and the wine pairing is the subject of this week’s story.  If it seems like I’m gushing, it’s probably because there’s lots to gush about!

For a dinner such as this, it’s important, almost mandatory, to have a dinner party partner, affectionately known as the DPP.  This ensures that you get to taste twice as much.  I would also like to mention that when in a French restaurant, I like to choose the more adventuresome Chef’s Choice dishes, especially if the DPP chooses the usual dishes.  boar w glasses

The first of five courses was an appetizer of Provence Boar Paté (mine) and crab cakes (the DPP).  I chose the paté made from slow simmered chicken and boar foie gras served with bacon jam. It was perfectly paired with a Domaine Collette Beaujolais Village 2014.

This ruby colored wine has a fruit bowl of flavors that include raspberry, red currant, and strawberry. The tannins were supple and beautifully balanced probably because of the whole bunch fermentation. This wine was a stunning match with the pate. Bravo to Greg, our maître d for the first of many thoughtful and spot on matches.

The DPP went for an appetizer of crab cakes on a  bed of arugula tossed with a lemon vinaigrette and brown butter capers. This too was expertly paired with a Dopff & Irion 2013 Riesling from an often overlooked area of France – Alsace. Here is an old world wine with place names not as prominent on the label as the grape names.

Constructed in 1549, the Chateau was originally owned by the Princes of Wurtemberg, who ruled over the city and its region for almost five centuries. Even a Chateau founded in the 16th century can survive 5 centuries because it embraces new technologies.

This particular bottling was done with screw caps! Gasp! Which surprised me in a pleasant sort of way. We all need to embrace screw caps especially with white wines which are typically enjoyed within a year of being bottled.

Considering a cork tree has to be at least 25 years old before its bark can be harvested, we need to rethink our carbon footprint. Even though its cork can then be stripped every 8 to 14 years after that first harvest, we should adapt as this old chateau has done.

My salad was great but the DPP salad was the show stopper. flambeeingCooked tableside, the salade d’epinards (spinach) flambé was a flaming success. The red wine vinaigrette was reduced and then the cooked bacon was added and flambéed with brandy to produce a two foot high torch.

Salads were served with the Cote de Bonneville DuBrul Vineyard Rosé. This 45 acre site produces small berries, small clusters, and low yields.  DuBrul Vineyard has been recognized as one of the top Washington State vineyards.

french onion soupThe soup course included the ubiquitousasparagus soup but very French, French onion soup and soupe de jour was made with fresh Yakima Valley asparagus. The former was accompanied by one of my all time favorite wines, Owen Roe Abbotts Table which is a blend of Zin, Sangiovese, Blaufrankish and Petite Verdot. The later with a Tour d’Auron 2013, a Bordeaux Supérieur blend of Cabernet, Cab Franc, Merlot and Petite Verdot. Another great match by Greg.

And for the pièce de résistance, the chosen entrées were duck and rabbit. The duck was seared and braised in a house red wine sauce with flambéed green peppercorns served over mushroom risotto.

It was complimented by the 2012 King Estate Oregon Pinot Noir, a very aromatic wine with wonderful cherry flavors with with hints of earthy mushrooms.

I chose another chef’s choice created with seasonal ingredients. When in a French restaurant, there are certain dishes guaranteed to be on the menu that you wouldn’t find on a Kitsap County menu, snails, frog’s legs and rabbit.

My dish turned out to be a delicious casserole of rabbit DSCN4305with house-made noodles, arugula and Asiago.  This dish was accompanied by a Kestral 2012 Cabernet. According to winemaker Flint Nelson, “This expansive wine boasts full body, ripe dense fruit flavors, with supple tannins and a lingering finish.” I would heartily agree.

mousseFor dessert, the choices were obvious. Chocolate mousse cake, pastry chef’s choice and a glass of Treveri Rosé. Chef’s choice was a raspberry tart with basil, lemon peel and an apricot glaze. raspberry tartBoth were pleasing to the eye as well as the palate. But I had to use stealth to get a bite of the cake. The sharing was over as the DPP only likes raspberries in his beer.

Treveri Cellars is a Yakima Valley winery that produces some really great handcrafted sparkling wines. This family operation is led by a husband and wife team, Jürgen Grieb, head winemaker with almost 30 years in the Washington wine industry and Julie Grieb, business manager.treveri rose

Treveri opened its doors just days before the Thanksgiving rush in 2010 with a mission to put Washington sparkling wine on the map.  In almost six years, Treveri has been served three times at White House State Department receptions, the James Beard Foundation in New York,  received a Double Gold at the Seattle Wine Awards, 90+ point scores from national 100 point scorers and voted one of the nation’s Top Ten Hottest Brands of 2014 by Wine Business Monthly. Mission accomplished!

Producing a wide array of sparkling wines, including non-traditional varieties such as Syrah, Riesling and Gewurztraminer, Treveri uses state of the art techniques to produce these beautiful bubblies.

This Rosé, aged an average of 24 months, was a gorgeous rose color with big strawberry flavors and a lingering finish. The wine was a perfect match with both desserts and a beautiful and so very continental way to end the evening.

This is a dining experience you deserve! Carousel Restaurant & Bistro, 25 North Front Street, Yakima. (509) 248-6720

The Color of an Old Sauternes

You may have heard that Clear Creek, which runs from Bangor Base to the estuary at Dyes Inlet, is getting a new bridge this year. That may have been a shocking discovery about three weeks ago when you would have had to find a new way around the Bucklin Hill while PSE put in some poles during the fish window.  do

In preparation for the big change to the biota of the estuary, the Clear Creek Trail has been monitoring water quality. We’ve been at this since last June, and being a recovering Old Town Silverdale Wine Shop Owner, the color of the dissolved oxygen test reminds me of an old Sauternes.

Sauternes is a special region in southern Bordeaux very near the ocean. In other regions, where dessert wines are made, they are more at the whim of Mother Nature from vines that usually produce drier versions of wine. This region is dedicated solely to the production of unfortified, sweet white wine.

Sauternes winemaking regulations are different also. The appellation is reserved for wines from five communes where regulations stipulate minimum levels of alcohol (13%) and the wine to taste sweet.

This very unique microclimate is close to two rivers and the intertidal waters that create a lot of fog in the fall when the grapes are ripening. This moist atmosphere encourages Botrytis Cinerea or Noble Rot.

Three grapes are allowed, Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. Sémillon is the principal grape mainly because it is more susceptible to Noble Rot than the other two. It is typically about 80% of the blend. Sauvignon’s main role is the acidity to the blend to keep it balanced and Muscadelle is for aromatics.

Noble Rot is a fungus prized in the Sauternes region. Basically, it sucks moisture out of individual grapes thus increasing the tartaric acid and sugars, concentrating the flavors. The result is a wine of distinction, lush flavors of honey, tropical fruit, heady aromas and rich, powerful, creamy mouthfeel. Mainly because of the Noble Rot which has an unique aroma similar to a spice cabinet.

Sauternes are some of longest-lived wines; I’ve admired some and have tasted even fewer. I remember getting to look at a bottle of 1929, all coppery in color that a former chef of the Silverdale Beach Hotel had in his cellar.

Sauternes typically start out a gorgeous light gold color that becomes increasingly darker as it ages. Once a tint of orange appears, it has developed complex and mature flavors and aromas.

Yes, Sauternes is a labor intensive, costly wine to make. For example, Chateau d’Yquem makes at least 17 passes through the vineyards, picking only the best grapes. Botrytis does not just swoop down one day and perform its magic. It tends to be very spotty.

A typical harvest might be picking a patch of botrytis affected grapes for a couple of days and then it rains for a few days; this brings a halt to the picking. When the better weather resumes, grapes affected by the undesirable grey rot are removed, then another bout of Noble Rot appears and picking begins again. Hand picking can go on for six weeks. A long period of time for the team of pickers to be kept waiting.

When this style of wine got its start is not certain however, Thomas Jefferson purchased many a bottle of Sauternes’ most famous property, d’Yquem. He even convinced George Washington to purchase 30 bottles of the wine!

As with dry wines, vintage makes a big difference when buying Sauternes. And the 2011s now on the shelf are from a great vintage. Top Sauternes bottlings include the Chateau d’Yquemdyquem at around $400 or so, Chateau Guiraud for about $85 and Chateau Suduiraut for a mere $70.

There are two other communes to look for that are not quite as expensive as Sauternes. That would be Barsac and Loupiac. The quality is as good because they live by the same rules of the region but they are lesser known. Cadillac is another commune but is small and rarely seen. They only produce wine there, not cars.

Barsac Chateaux to seek out would be Chateau Doisy Daene, Doisy Vedrine, Nairac, and de Rayne Vigneau. These range in price from $35 to $50.

Sauternes can be had in half bottle sizes (375 ml) and given the richness, much preferred. The wines are served slightly chilled. Sauternes can be paired with a variety of foods but by far, the classic match is seared Foie Gras with fresh berries.

And just like the Champagne, American Champagne and Methode Campainoise agreement, Sauternes made anywhere else in the world is spelled Sauterne – without the S. That’s how you’ll know.

Just a reminder that Taste Washington happens at the end of this month. It’s a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the Washington Wine scene. There are some great seminars to attend also, Washington vs. The World, The Chardonnay Revival and a couple of appellation spotlights. The one that caught my attention was Wine Tasting with the Masters – Master Sommelier and Master of Wine. That should be very interesting. Here’s the link for more info: http://tastewashington.org/seminars-2015/

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! While many will enjoy a special bottle and splendid dinner to ring in the New Year, the pop of a cork and all those delicious tiny bubbles will be part of the celebration too. bubbly

Champagne is an enigma, a white wine made from primarily red grapes. The actual invention of champagne is often attributed to a Benedictine Monk by the name of Dom Pérignon. Which is not exactly accurate, he didn’t invent Champagne, he refined it. Among his many refinements was the perfect stopper for the wine previously known as “devil’s brew” since it kept exploding and sending the rags flying.  You see, before the cork and bale, the monks used rags to stopper the wine, hence the flying rags.

As in most regions in France, the Champagne region was first planted to the vine by the Romans. Later the monks took over the vineyards, the winemaking and nursing the community with wine – a healthier option than water at the time.  Wine and beer for that matter, were drunk by everyone, kings and commoners.

Champagne’s glamorous lifestyle began back in 1429. That’s when the first French king was crowned in Rheims Cathedral. Of course, Champagne was served as part of festivities and for every coronation thereafter. Other rulers saw the stars, Czar Nicholas ordered his Roederer Cristal by the boatload and we all know that Napoleon would arrive at Moet y Chandon for a tipple of Dom Pérignon before riding off to his next military campaign.

Today, there are 86,500 acres of vineyards producing 200 million bottles of Champagne every year. The increased demand for Champagne, combined with the meticulous process of production, from véraison to aging in vast cellars, has resulted in Champagne as a symbol of prestige and celebration all over the world.

It’s the attention to detail that makes Champagne one of the world’s most sought after beverages. That and the soil, the grapes, the climate and the labor intensive winemaking that make this wine so fine.

The method of making Champagne or Méthode Champenoise is complicated and long. And starts with the usual alcoholic fermentation. The wine then undergoes a second fermentation inside the bottle. Making the wine sparkling is the primary reason for this but along the way aromatics develop in concert with those tiny bubbles.

By law, the harvested grapes must have enough sugar to produce 10 to 11 percent alcohol. Champagne is the only region that does not permit mechanical harvesting. Every single grape is picked by hand. Thousands of hands from all over France descend upon Champagne at harvest time. Picking starts at dawn and avoids the excessive sun at midday to avoid spontaneous fermentation.

Then the grapes are brought to the press room which is usually very close to the vineyards. This first pressing is, of course, the best. It’s the cleanest with no color or tannins from the skin or seeds. The statutory level for the first press is 8,800 pounds of grapes, with a maximum 670 gallons collected. A second compression is allowed and provides 130 gallons.

Fermentation vats are predominantly stainless steel with a few oak barrels of various sizes scattered here and there around the region. When the wine has finished the first fermentation, sometime in March or April, the assemblage begins. This is the winemaker’s most challenging task, tasting the blends of the different wines from different vats to find the ones that will make up that final house blend.

To the final blend, a liqueur de tirage is added. The tirage is a blend of carefully constructed wine, sugar and yeast. This is the stuff that will ensure those tiny bubbles. Once the tirage is added, the bottle is capped, and taken to the cellar and placed in pupitres which are wooden racks with holes in them. The bottles are placed at an angle so the top is down and the punt end is up.

Champagne-RemuerA remuer rotates every bottle with a quick one quarter turn at least four times a day to shake the spent yeast down into the neck of the bottle. Remuers are being replaced by machines in the larger cellars but the technique is important to the making of Champagne. This goes on for about 18 months.

The last major step is disgorgement and corking the bottle. To disgorge the dead yeast cells in the bottle, the top of the bottle neck is frozen and the bottle cap removed.  All the pressure that has built up sends the plug of spent yeast cells flying.

The next step, the wine has its final dosage, another sugar and wine solution, and then it is corked. The bale holds the cork in place. The label goes on, it’s boxed up and distributed throughout the world to celebrate births, weddings, birthdays, Mother’s Day, promotions, ship launches, the Seahawks repeating, and ringing in every New Year.

As you’ve read, Champagne is complex and celebratory.  Many books have been written about its deliciousness. My favorite is by Don & Petie Kaldstrup, Champagne, How the world’s most glamorous wine triumphed over war and hard times. It’s highly entertaining and solves the mystery of why there are so many Champagne houses with German and Dutch surnames.

Cheers to you! May your New Year be bright and bubbly!

The Wines Created by Popes

Once upon a time, Mary had a little lamb. This has stuck with me through the years. Much like my favorite Gary Larson cartoon that has the bespectacled shepherdess sitting down to dinner with the drapes closed, her shepherd’s crook propped in the corner and the caption, “Mary had a little lamb, carrots and potatoes.”

One of my top ten matches of all time would be that very dinner with a ch ndpChateauneuf du Pape. Châteauneuf du Pape’s wide array of aromas and flavors could include herbes de Provence, spice box, tobacco, raspberries, olives, blackcurrant, licorice, thyme, plum, coffee, cinnamon, blueberries, lavender, and black cherry. As you can read, there is a lot going on in a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape and here’s why….

With more than 8,000 acres, Châteauneuf du Pape is the largest appellation in the Rhône Valley. This region makes two wines, a red which produces the bulk of the appellation’s production and a white. Eight red grapes are allowed and five whites.

Châteauneuf du Pape AOC permits thirteen different grapes in red wine but the blend must be predominantly Grenache. The other reds permitted are Syrah, Mourvèdre with minute quantities of Cinsault, Muscardin, Counoise, Vaccarèse and Terret Noir. The permitted white varietals include Grenache Blanc, Picpoul, Clarette, Bourboulenc and Roussanne. Chateau Beaucastel is the only one that includes all thirteen, both red and white, in its red wine.

Châteauneuf du Pape is located in southern France, in the southern half of the Rhône, on a hot, alluvial plain that’s covered with round stones. Sitting on the surface of the soil, the stones’ duty is to insulate the vines from both the cold and the heat, and provide drainage for the roots.

The area of the Rhône is in the path of the fierce, cold wind known as Le Mistral. This wind keeps things cool and also stresses the vines in a different way than the hot rocks.

Because of this wind, it’s not unusual to see mature vines untrellissed and low growing. Because of the abundant sunshine and frequent Le Mistral, the use of herbicides or pesticides in the vineyards isn’t needed. The wines benefit from this. They are clean with flavors rarely touched by new oak.

Châteauneuf du Pape takes its name, translated new castle of the pope, from the relocation of the papal court in the 14th century. French Pope Clement V arrived in 1309 and ordered more vines be planted to have more wine on hand for the visitors to court. His successor John XXII is the man who really developed the papal vineyards around Châteauneuf du Pape.

These wines were relatively light in style and unremarkable. After the court moved back to Italy, the bulk of the production was shipped north to cooperatives to be combined into indifferent blends that were sold in bulk.

Modern day Châteauneuf du Pape has its roots in the 1923 precursor appellation system created by Baron Le Roy, proprietor of the renowned Chateau Fortia. Forty years later with the establishment of the AOC, there were only a few making top quality wines.

These would be Chateau de Beaucastel, Clos du Mont-Olivet, Clos des Papes, Mont Redon, Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, and Rayas. Today, there are over 60 estates producing wines that are as good as, if not better than these six top chateaux.

Many of these wines are made by a new generation of winemakers and are near term drinkers – generally to be consumed within five to seven years of the vintage, although a handful can age far longer. The finest are concentrated enough to evolve for 15 to 25 years.

The most celebrated cru of the region is Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe. The Brunier family has been part of the plateau known as “La Crau” for over a hundred years. They began in 1898 with Hippolyte Brunier. His small vineyard was at one of the highest points near town on a stony plateau called “La Crau”. The elevation was the perfect place to construct in the late 18th century to transmit telegraph messages between Marseilles and Paris.

This was unfriendly terrain where only the toughest vigneron planted, although the legendary mistral wind prevented rot. Hippolyte gradually increased his vineyard holdings.

Over the years, the Brunier family weathered many storms including phylloxera. Hippolyte’s grandson, Henri, replanted the vineyards, constructed a new winery designed to better control temperature during fermentation, and launched the Chateau’s first bottling with the Vieux Télégraphe label.

The wines are classic, displaying rustic strength, earthiness, and tremendous longevity. The old vines of La Crau are all used for the final assemblage. The grapes from the newer vines (all over twenty years old) are used for the wines of Télégramme.

Châteauneuf du Pape is a remarkably food-friendly with all kinds of dishes, partly because it suits so much of today’s style of cooking – grilled red meats (like lamb) – with herbs and olive oil. And because of the lack of new oak in many of these wines, they can be enjoyed alongside lighter dishes such as grilled fish and poultry.

Châteauneuf du Pape would make a wonderful gift this holiday season. Chateau la Nerthe and Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, will be on my wish list.

A Steely Wine for Scallops

For Ann Vogel’s Sea Scallops with Asparagus and Bacon, a Chardonnay is just the ticket. But not your ordinary everyday Chardonnay. You need a cool climate Chardonnay that has a steely purity and a limestoney, mineral quality that pairs with seafood in a beautiful way. You need a Chablis.

True Chablis is from the northern most vineyards of Burgundy, France. Just two hours from Paris, the appellation is actually much closer to Champagne than Burgundy.

Like most of the vineyards in France, it was the Romans who first planted vines in the area. Later under the guidance of the medieval Cistercian monks, winemaking flourished up and down the banks of the Yonne River, conveniently close to the best means of transport to the thirsty Parisians.

With Chablis, you don’t expect something rich, it’s a different kind of complexity. The effects of terroir are clearly demonstrated in Chablis with its cooler climate and limestone soils that contribute significantly to its singular style of Chardonnay.

Chablis is loaded with raciness and minerality that makes it a perfect pair for seafood. The wines can make your mouth water from the acidity and the mineral flavors, which can range from wet stone to flint. The fruit flavors are typically lean and vary on the citrus side with some green apple.

Unlike its Burgundian cousins, Chablis is usually free of oak. Oak is definitely not used in the Petit Chablis and Chablis, resulting in wines that are very clean and straightforward. Upper classification Chablis may see some oak, but the wines would never be oaky. After all, it’s Chablis, not a Chardonnay.

Chablis vineyards are divided into four classifications. The bottom tier, Petit Chablis, is usually found at higher elevations where the soils are considered less than ideal.

Then there is Chablis, which accounts for about two-thirds of the vineyards, Chablis Premier Cru, scattered throughout the area and Chablis Grand Cru with only seven designated vineyards. Wines in the Chablis appellation may claim the classification on their label held by the vineyard where they were grown.

The key difference within the Chablis tiers lies in the soil. Premier Cru and Grand Cru Chablis soils contain greater levels of mineral rich clay, as well as significant lime content; the source of the trademark minerality. In contrast, Petit Chablis soils are not as rich in clay, and produce less complex, slightly fruitier wines with a bit of minerality.

Chablis Premier Cru is not really a distinct appellation like the other three classifications, but rather a subdivision of quality from the standard AOC Chablis title. The cost is around $30-$50.

Chablis Grand Cru is more expensive, with Les Clos, the top Grand Cru vineyard, fetching the highest price. Grand Cru wines are produced from just 250 acres planted on southwest facing slopes. Chablis Grand Cru can be cellared for 10 and 15 years for a wonderfully aromatic wine with lots of complexity.

Many of the wines you’ll see on the market now are from the 2011 and 2012 vintages with a couple of Grand Cru 2009s. Wines from 2009 have good ripeness along with ample acidity. 2011 was more variable. And 2012 and 2013 produced very small crops. After two short years in a row, supplies are a bit tight.

As you can guess, anything with a Premier Cru or Grand Cru on the label are more expensive, but basic Chablis can represent a good value, considering its quality. Most will be in the $20-$30 range. A few producers that have good availability are William Fevre, Jean-Marc Brocard, Domaine Chenevieres and Drouhin.

Tasting Wines Blind

The focus of a blind wine tasting is on the aromas, flavors and colors. Rather than blindfolding everyone, which gets very messy, all the bottles are brown bagged, numbered and corks removed before presenting to the tasting party.brown bags

The Blind Wine Group hosted a tasting recently of French red wines. Participants each bring a bottle of wine and appetizers for 12. Or in this case, hor d’ouvres for 12. The wines are brown bagged by the host who also buys two of the same wine and puts them into the line up.  The object is to find the duplicate wine in the line up. We have a vote at the end to determine that and our personal favorite.
French red is a broad category. There were 5 regions represented but Bordeaux was the most popular with 4 out of the 9 wines presented.  Bordeaux is a very prolific wine region in south-west France. Anyone with an interest in wine knows this is an influential (think Meritage) and famous (Margaux, Rothschild) wine region.
I love Bordeaux, from the $10 price range to the glad-I-bought-it-when-it-was-affordable variety.  It’s a dry, medium-bodied red that can be a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petite Verdot and Malbec. Each chateau’s vineyard is planted with the permitted varietals they’ll use.
Depending on which side of the Gironde your wine is from, it could be either left bank or right bank. Left bank (Paulliac, Ste Estephe, St. Julien, Margaux, Medoc) is Cabernet dominate and right bank (Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, Cote de Castillion) is a Merlot dominated blend. This fact never makes it on the label, that’s one of those facts you have to memorize.
Cabernet and Merlot vines grow at different times and rates, which spreads the risk posed by poor weather conditions at flowering or harvest. In years when the autumn is wet, the Cabernet Sauvignon harvest suffers from rot and water-logging, but the earlier-ripening Merlot provides a back-up. When the spring is wet, the Merlot flowers poorly, leaving the Cabernet Sauvignon to take up the responsibility of providing a good harvest.
Thousands of producers ferment a vast quantity of wine each year.  Every producer is classified as a First Growth, Second Growth, and so on down to Fifth Growth. If it’s not a classified growth then it would be a Bordeaux AC which produces about 40% of the red wines of Bordeaux.  
Bordeaux prices range from truly affordable to first growth chateaux that produce some of the world’s most expensive wine. Chateau Mouton Rothschild 2010 will set you back about $800 – per bottle. And that is fairly reasonable compared to Chateau Petrus 2010 which sells for around $3,500 per bottle.
The Blind Wine Group’s Bordeaux offering were all Bordeaux AC, the affordable side of the region. Save one, a 1989 Chateau Clerc Milon from Paulliac, a Fifth Growth and property of Mouton Rothschild. Clerc Milon comprises 100 acres of vineyards around the village of  Milon in northeastern Paulliac planted to 60% Cab, 30% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, and  2% Petite Verdot.
It was tasted first as is done with all older wines. The nose was gorgeous with the classic cigar box aroma opening up to leather, dried herbs, and coffee. A mineral quality added more complexity. The flavors were tight at first and then opened to wonderful concentration and balance. The vintage was an excellent one and the reason why this 24 year old wine aged so gracefully. One famous wine writer said “the difference between the Clerc Milon and the Mouton Rothschild is negligible.” Considering the price, that says a lot.
Other wines tasted were 2010 Haut-Sorillon Bordeaux Supérieur, a rich, full bodied wine with dark ruby color. I loved it. It has a wonderful nose, plummy and woodsy, with a bit of the cigar box. Although a Bordeaux AC, the vineyards are only 5 km from Saint-Emilion. This wine received a silver medal from the Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition. $10
The 2009 Chateau Moulin de Mallet also received a medal, a gold one from the 2010 Concourse de Boudreaux.  Also a Bordeaux AC, it probably comes from the right bank with its telltale blend of 80% Merlot and 20% Cab. It had really nice upfront fruit which was surprising for a wine of this age, beautiful weight to the mouthfeel and a long silky finish. $11.
2010 Chateau Haut-Mouleyre Bordeaux AC was another silver medal winner this time from Concourse des Grands Vins de France. With its signature Bordeaux nose, ruby color and aromas of Provence herbs and blackberries, this wine is another everyday wine at $7.
The winner with 6 out of ten votes was the Domaine les Grands Bois 2010 Cote du Rhone Villages with a dense purple robe, grapey, cassis aromas and grapey flavors that were rich and powerful. It’s a good thing it turned up last in the line up or it would have overpowered the other wines. Expect to spend about $14.
Of the eleven tasters, only two found the match, a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre from the Cotes du Rousillon. The Tessellae Old Vines 2010 sells for around $14.
For the appetizers, the grilled lamb with garlic and basil, the strong cheeses and, of course the homemade bread were the best match.

Weekly Wine Defined – Chateauneuf du Pape

This is the most important and well-known appellation of the southern Rhone.

Thirteen different grape varieties are permitted in any southern Rhone wine region whether Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyas, or Cotes de Ventoux. But in practice it will be mostly Grenache with Syrah, Cinsault, Mourvedre and perhaps a touch of Viognier.

The place name literally translates to Pope’s new castle. In the 14th century, Pope Clement, former Archbishop of Bordeaux, relocated the papal court to Avignon, France.

Estate bottled wines are entitled to be marketed in a bottle which is embossed with the papal coat of arms featuring a mitre and crossed keys.

What to Drink – Chateau Lagarosse Premiers Cotes de Bordeaux

Breezy, wet, chilly weather this time of year, dictate a hearty stew, crusty bread and a bottle of red wine.

I have an abundant fondness for Bordeaux, that wine region in western France where Cabernet, Merlot and Cab Franc rule. Bordeaux is the world’s largest producer of quality, age worthy wines, of which about 75% are dry red.

Bordeaux grapes are the Sauvignons, Cabernet and Blanc, and their traditional blending partners, Merlot, Cab Franc, Malbec, Petite Verdot and for the whites, Sémillon and to a lesser degree, Muscadelle.

Bordeaux is part of the 1855 Classification System where Chateaux were categorized as First Growth, Second Growth and so on down to a Fifth Growth.

If a chateau wasn’t selected for one of those growths, they were classified as Bordeaux Appellation Contrôlée or AC. Bordeaux Cotes is the name for appellations on the outer fringes of the region. These wines tend to have more personality than Bordeaux AC and provide some of the best wine values from the region.

Highly recommended – Chateau Lagarosse, Premiers Cotes de Bordeaux 2009. It’s a blend of 80% Merlot, 10 Cab Franc and 10 Cabernet. It sells for under $10 and is imported by Canon Wines, SFO.