Category Archives: French Wine

Cheers to the Champagne Season!

The history of Champagne has many, many chapters about a small community of people living in a demanding climate and subjected to centuries of invasions from the Barbarians, Crusaders, Prussians and Germans and the triumph over these adversities to create the most prestigious effervescent wine.

It all began with the Romans who first planted vines around 57BC. But it wasn’t until the eleventh century that Champagne made its first big splash. What happened was a great honor – the son of a vigneron from Chatillion–sur-Marne was elected pope. It was well known to gain audience to his holiness, a case of Champagne would ease the way. Sales of the vins François, a sweet, pale red to pinkish brown still wine increased.

Champagne was first famous for its fine quality wool and being strategically placed, became a commerce center generating trade fairs that attracted merchants from Belgium with lace, Russian furs, Italian leather, Mediterranean oils and wool from France.

But not wine; that was made to accompany the shepherd’s meals. By the 12th century, wool producers who made wine on the side came up with a novel idea. To entice trade fair visitors to buy their wool, they decided to provide free wine.

It was in 1668 that the wine trade started to overtake the wool industry. That’s when Dom Perignon arrived at the Abbey of Hautvillers. Louis XIV was sitting on the throne. The two had little in common other than being born the same year, dying in the same year and their love of Champagne. And both did a great deal to launch Champagne on its path to prominence.

At that time, the wine was pale red, cloudy from the leftover yeast, sweet and still. Due to fermentation with wild yeasts, no knowledge that yeast even existed and with a colder climate  than most wine growing regions, fermentation would go dormant in the winter.

But as temperatures warmed up, fermentation would begin again. Yeasts would consume the unconverted sugars and because there was a cap of sorts, bubbles were trapped until the pressure was great enough to explode. Therefore, bubbles were considered a flaw, the devil’s brew.

As the business manager of the Abbey which included the church, hospital, storehouses and vineyards, Dom Perignon’s goal was to “Aim instead for quality that brings honor and profit.”

And that he did. He set down the golden rules of winemaking: Use only the best grapes, prune vines hard in the early spring to avoid overproduction; harvest in the cool of the morning; press the grapes gently and keep each pressing separate. He was the first to use cork rather than a wooden peg wrapped in an oil soaked rag. It was the finest still wine that Louis XIV drank and what the king drank, his subjects drank.

In the late 1700s, a key Champagne house emerged – Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin was the daughter of an affluent textile businessman who lived next door to Philippe Clicquot who also ran a successful textile business in Reims. Clicquot had a son Francois, so Mr. Ponsardin and Mr. Clicquot did what any shrewd business owner in the 18th century would have done: arranged a merger.

As the newlyweds, Francois’ interest in his family’s wine business grew. All was well until 12 years later, Francois died suddenly and Barbe-Nicole became the veuve (widow) Clicquot. Her father in law allowed her to continue the business perhaps recognizing a woman with business sense. Her small business thrived until the Napoleonic Wars crushed business.

Facing bankruptcy, Veuve Clicquot took a huge gamble. She knew that the Russian market, when the wars ended, would be thirsty. If she could corner that huge market, success would be hers. Despite the naval blockades, she smuggled her wine to Amsterdam, where it waited. As soon as peace was declared, the wines were shipped – ahead of her competitors by weeks.

When sweet Champagne debuted in Russia, Tsar Alexander declared it to be the best. His order was huge – 23,000 bottles. And his subjects followed suit. Veuve Clicquot would need to improve production to keep up with the new demand.

When the yeast digests the sugar, it produces alcohol in the primary fermentation and carbon dioxide, better known as bubbles, in the secondary fermentation. The problem was the sediment – the dead yeast cells in the bottom of the bottle gave the wine its cloudy look. The Champenois removed sediment by pouring the wine from one bottle into another, a time consuming, wasteful process.

Veuve Clicquot developed a better method. Instead of transferring the wine from bottle to bottle to get rid of its yeast, the bottles were turned upside down and twisted, shaking the dead yeast into the neck of the bottle where it could be easily expelled and the bottle topped up. This method, known as riddling, is still used today. It would be a long time before any of the other Champagne houses became wise to the riddling method, giving Veuve Clicquot an advantage.

Charles Heidsieck grew up in Reims and in 1851 at the age of 29, founded his own Champagne house. The house of Charles Heidsieck focused on selecting, blending and ageing wines to produce higher quality champagnes, and buying grapes from individual growers.

He was successful selling to Belgium and England and in 1852 became the first merchant to market his own Champagne in the United States. He became a social sensation with one New York newspaper describing him as “Champagne Charlie”.

He traveled to New York three more times until the Civil War disrupted trade. In 1862, he returned to recover his debt from his New York agent but the agent refused payment on the grounds Congress had passed a law absolving northerners of all debts to southerners.

Desperate, Heidsieck secretly traveled to New Orleans to recover his money directly from the merchants but found them bankrupt. One merchant, however, did have a warehouse full of cotton and Heidsieck accepted that as payment. His use of blockade runners to smuggle the cotton out had him arrested for spying and imprisoned.

At the intercession of President Lincoln, he was released and returned to France very sick and bankrupt. Shortly thereafter, the brother of the agent sent a messenger to Reims with a bundle of papers. He was paying his brother’s debt in the form of land deeds to a small town in Colorado called Denver.

With the money from the land deeds, he was able to pay his debts and purchase several old chalk quarries, called crayères which dated from the Gallo-Roman era. These were used for riddling while the wine matured. Today, all Champagne houses use the crayères to mature their wines. During World War I & II, most Champenois lived for years in the crayères.

Wishing you a very Happy Holiday!

Guidelines and Suggestions for your Thanksgiving Wines

Thanksgiving is my favorite feast. You don’t have to send cards or give gifts. You’re not expected in church, synagogue or mosque. You get to play chef, then dine, drink and be merry.

Turkeys, sides, pies and wines are the focus of this family and friend feast that marks the start of the high holiday season. You eat a little too much, celebrate a little too much. Afterwards, it’s acceptable to stretch out for a nap, occasionally check the score.  And, if all goes well, your team wins; there are lots of leftovers and much to be thankful for.

This year there are only 39 days in the holiday season between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. So be smart, look for wine deals. Buy a case of wine, typically 12 bottles that will save you 10-15 percent off of your case of wine.

Pairing the proper wines is pretty easy. With the traditional table fare of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, roasted root vegetables, sweet potato soufflé, cranberries and stuffed onions, there are myriad of flavors. Go for food-friendly wines. These would be not too oaky, sweet, alcoholic or tannic.

Almost any well balanced wine will complement or contrast with at least most of the meal if you use these simple guidelines:

  1. Generous fruit. Not necessarily sweetness but fruity with balancing acidity with both reds and whites are the key to pairing with most of these dishes.
  2. Modest tannins. Many young red wines have that drying feeling that’s a product of their thick skins and long stays in oak barrels. Some dishes can turn this kind of wine into an unpleasant, astringent tartness.
  3. Welcome guests with something bubbly — sparkling wine, cava or prosecco. It sets the celebratory mood. Bubblies can be crisp, cleansing and slightly sweet for the gathering of guests, a perfect start to the holiday season.
  4. While the turkey is resting, pop the rest of the corks and have the guests take a seat. Let the passing begin. Anyone who prefers fruity sweetness will navigate to a Riesling or Gewurztraminer. For reds, think about the perennial favorite Beaujolais or a fruity, dense Spanish Grenache or California Zinfandel; and others will navigate to the red blends.

Riesling or Gewurztraminer

Both are highly aromatic whites. Riesling greets the big flavors on the table with gobs of fruit and crisp acidity. Gewurz also has loads of juicy fruit with a touch of spice. And both varieties can be fermented to be sweet or dry with the ability to pair up with the turkey, sweet potatoes to the sausage dressing.

Spokane’s Latah Creek Riesling has a medium-sweet appley flavor with a crisp finish, or the best bang for the buck — Riesling from Chateau Ste. Michelle, the superbly crafted Columbia Crest Two Vines — is more on the stone fruit end of the spectrum with balancing acidity, all under $11. Gewürztraminer is becoming a rare commodity. As a result, many are more than modestly priced.

Beaujolais

The third Thursday of November is the official release day for Beaujolais Nouveau. This red wine is the ultimate refreshing Turkey Day wine. It can be served slightly chilled and actually does go well because it’s fruity with low tannins. It’s made from the Gamay grape, harvested in September, and graces your holiday table two months later. Because of the carbonic maceration method of fermentation, this wine is without tannins, full of fruity flavors and red, a perfect beginner red.

Wine aficionados may prefer a Cru Beaujolais with a little more stuffing to it. And you’d get that from a Beaujolais Village, whether Morgon, Fleurie or Brouilly. Classic producers like Lapierre and Duboeuf are lighter-bodied but have brambly red and black fruit character with baking spices and a smooth silkiness.

Grenache

Cherries and spice are often found in Grenache with an acidity level that balances the weight of most Thanksgiving dinners. GSM blends — Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre — have dark plummy, blueberry layers that links with the earthy root vegetables and savory stuffing.

The Spanish and Australians have a wonderful selection to choose from, most in the $10 range – before your six bottle discount. For Spanish, anything imported by Jorge Ordonez is worth every penny. Tres Picos Borsao Garnacha is an award-winning wine and a particular favorite of mine. Garnacha de Fuego Old Vine, Torres Sangre de Toro, Vina Borgia Campo de Borja are all under $10 and delicious.

Zinfandel

Jammy black fruits laced with spices make Zin a juicy red for Thanksgiving as long as the alcohol level is moderate. Some Zinfandel could be as high as 16 percent, which accentuates the hot effect. Bogle, Ravenswood, Cline and Fetzer have been around for the longest time and are modestly priced because they own their vineyards. Old vine Zins that aren’t aged in oak are great wines at great prices.

Red blends

On the other side of the planet, the Australians are the fourth largest exporter of wines with quite a number of fruit forward Shiraz blends that would please the party palates. Look for reasonably priced Lindemans, Jacob’s Creek or Penfolds.

Other reds that would make a terrific holiday wine are a blend from the Delicato family, Hand Craft. Reminiscent of the Italian immigrant practice of field blending, this Zinfandel Merlot is juicy, packed with ripe black fruits and delicioso.

Woodbridge Red Blend is composed of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Syrah that’s rich with jammy blackberry and baking spices. Totally affordable and quaffable.

My annual advice remains the same: buy wines you like at prices you can afford, open a wide assortment of wines and raise a glass with your family and friends with each and every wine.

Cheers and a very Happy Thanksgiving.

 

Grape Harvest Challenges – 2017

An ideal grape growing season would be 7 months long with a frost-free spring for the tender new shoots emerging. A long, mild summer with warm days and cool nights for measured grape maturity, a balance between fruit sugars and acidity.  Harvest at the end of September would be rain free with warm, sunny days and cool nights.

However, hot, dry summers have shortened the grape growing seasons by weeks for several years now. And unseasonable storms brought on by climate change shorten the growing season to the detriment of the wine industry.

Typically, higher, cooler elevations were picked in October, now picking is in September and moving into August. The wine growing season is changing.

Devastating spring frosts, isolated hailstorms and prolonged heatwaves have been presenting more of a challenge. Wine producers around the world debate and plan for the impact of extreme weather – more hardy rootstock and better placement of varietals. Some even plant multiple clones in one vineyard. Some clones may be heat resistant and some may be mildew resistant.

France and Italy are the top wine producing nations in the world often trading first place for tonnage harvested. But for both countries the 2017 grape harvest has been greatly affected by weather extremes. The spring frosts in Bordeaux, Loire and Alsace reduced the crop size.  Then August hailstorms further decimated what survived the frosts. This year’s harvest was reduced to the size of the 1945 harvest.

Bitter cold struck the right bank of Bordeaux twice within a week in April, ravaging the fragile shoots and buds that had emerged prematurely during the mild temperatures in March. To combat the frost, Bordeaux winemakers set fires in oil drums, and then positioned them carefully between the rows of budding grapevines. Giant fans were also deployed to battle the cold to move the cold damp air.

In Italy, several regions also experienced frost and then a heatwave nicknamed Lucifer, left grapes vulnerable to drought. The brutal summer sun shut down the vines and the crop size was reduced drastically. Vineyards with mature vines that had deep roots were able to tap water with roots that had grown over the years deep into the ground. Younger more shallow roots could not survive as well under these climatic conditions.

California is the third largest wine producing region in the world. That industry also has felt the heat with drought and heatwaves. And then the heartbreaking, devastating wildfires hit Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino wine country during harvest.

In 2008, California wildfires burned 1.3 million acres and the state experienced record levels of air pollution. That year, the wildfires left many California vineyards with smoke-tainted grapes.

Harvest was in full swing when the devastating fires broke out in Napa, Mendocino and Sonoma last Sunday. While 90 percent of the wine grapes have been harvested, there were still grapes in the vineyards to be picked.

With most of the harvest fermenting away, a wildfire roaring close by, closed roads, electricity and cellular service down, winemaking in California faces new challenges. Without access or electricity, fermentation is running rampant. But at least some still have wine fermenting and a building to do it in.

Wineries and vineyards have burned as a result of the fires, including Nicholson Ranch in Sonoma and Frey Vineyards, a pioneer in organic and biodynamic wines, in Mendocino County.

Among other damaged wineries, White Rock Vineyards, established as a winery at the foot of the Stag’s Leap in 1871, burned to the ground; Signorello Estate, a family-owned winery along the Silverado Trail, was also burned to the ground, Santa Rosa winery Paradise Ridge is an ashen pile of rubble on a blackened hillside.

Some wineries were more fortunate, in Santa Rosa, Ancient Oak Cellars reported a house and two outbuildings were destroyed but fortunately the majority of the bottled wines and all of its wine in barrels were safe in other locations.

Many wineries are still standing but have sustained landscaping damage. Kenwood Vineyards, BR Cohn, and Chateau St. Jean reported fires damaging the grounds surrounding the wineries. With power out, the wineries are finding it difficult to take care of the wines fermenting away in stainless steel. With many vineyards on the fire line, assessing crop and vineyards damage is still an unknown.

At least 35,000 acres in Sonoma and 12,000 acres in the Atlas Peak fire has burned, there are no reports yet about the number of vineyard acres that may have burned.  In addition, time will tell if smoke taint will be an issue.

Gallo, who owns the famous Stagecoach Vineyard off of Soda Canyon Road in Napa Valley, has not been able to get updates on the vineyard’s status. Stagecoach Vineyard Cabernet is highly prized by dozens of top Napa wineries.

When the fires broke out, the 2017 grape harvest had been in full swing, somewhat ahead of schedule. Winemakers were rushing to pick during a September heat wave since the sugar levels had spiked and grapes ripened almost overnight.

Now questions remain about the extent of damage the fires will have on California’s wine regions. It appears Cabernet, which was not quite ripe yet, will be in very short supply.  As will Pinot Noir in the Mendocino region, which hadn’t been harvested before the wildfires.

Big and small, top drawer and everyday wines, this is a devastating loss to the area’s residents and businesses.

In our own backyard, a hot summer and the ever present wildfires may have influenced the flavor of the 2017 harvest in ways that we wish it hadn’t. But it seems likely that Washington wines will be in high demand considering the challenges in France, Italy and California.

Washington, second behind California in wine production, has almost 900 wineries that contribute approximately $2.1 billion to the state economy. Last year, 350 growers harvested a record 270,000 tons of grapes and produced 17.5 million cases of wine.

Even with the spikes in temperatures and the threat of wildfire damage, Washington’s harvest began in late August, a bit later than the previous two years.

Production for 2017 is estimated to be less than 2016. For instance, at the sixth week mark, about 40% of the Washington grape harvest is in. Data from the Washington Wine Report regarding tons harvested by Oct. 2nd:

2015 – 540,000 tons   (82% complete)
2016 – 419,000 tons   (67% complete)
2017 – 211,000 tons   (~40% complete)

The waiting game in the vineyards may make harvest a nail biter, but the purple hands at the wineries gives us hope for the coming vintages.

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.