All posts by Mary Earl

What Makes a Great Wine?

Terrior. A thoroughly French concept that envelopes soil, topography, sunlight,

Ggrich Hills
Ggrich Hills vines

rainfall, diurnal temperature variations and hydrology. The holistic combination of these components gives wines their unique sense of place. In the Old World.

In the New World, we are more inclined toward grape varieties than geography. But not all grape varieties. There are around 1000 vinifera grape varieties. The more obscure have magical names like, Falanghina, Assyrtiko, Touriga Francesca, Ortega, Norton, Petit Mansang, Muscat Frontignan, and Uva Rara.

The sciences of land, water, air as it relates to plants are important factors to consider when you find that wine you love. Even more important than vintage, in my opinion.

While vintage does make a difference if you’re intending to age a wine, most wines are consumed within a year of being purchased. Fluctuations from vintage to vintage are not as dramatic as it had been in the past. Especially in Washington State.

Modern technology gives the viticulturalist the advantage despite what Mother Nature may throw their way.  The biggest risk is a freeze that kills the vines. Something that has happened in 2006 and in 2016. Recovery is slow and yields are low.

Another recent difficult vintage was 2011 because it was a particularly wet year at the wrong time – harvest. Rain at harvest will plump up the grapes with water and the resulting wine will not be as concentrated as in other, warmer years.

Another small menace for vineyards in a low lying pocket is a spring frost that can interrupt bud break and reduce the crop size. Today, this condition is carefully monitored with sensors in the vineyards talking to computers in the lab. This allows immediate action with water and/or smudge pots so that Mother Nature rarely gets away with very many bunches.

Temperature and diurnal swings are another big factor. Some vinifera grapes like it hot. This is ok if there are the accompanied cool evenings and/or morning fog that are responsible for those balancing acids.

Heat seeking grapes soak up all that warmth from the sun and the soil and that produces fruit sugars. Warm to hot climate grapes such as Cabernet, Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Viognier, and Zinfandel are the heat lovers with lots of fruit sugars.

Eastern Washington, the vast vineyards of California’s valleys, France’s Rhone and Provence regions, Italy and Sunny Spain are examples of warm areas that these grapes perform well in. However, these regions have another important factor; the nighttime temperatures and cool morning fog allow the acidity in the grapes to flourish.

Acidity is that refreshing taste that balances the sweetness of a wine.  Acidity is also responsible for preserving color, keeping those red wines red and white wines yellow. There are several types of acidity, all playing their key function.  The most significant are the tartaric and malic acids, with a minor role by citric acid.

Acidity, as any home canner knows, also plays an essential role in preventing bacteria from forming. One exception to this rule is lactic bacteria. Most wineries will inoculate their wines with this bacterium to change the sharper malic acids to rounder lactic acids. This gives a wine, both red and white, a fuller, creamier mouthfeel and is responsible for the buttery flavors in a Chardonnay.  As always, balance is needed otherwise without the refreshing malic acids; your wine will be flabby.

One other significant factor regarding acidity. It is essential for wine and food pairing that the acidity be present to contrast, compliment and cut the fatty proteins in foods like cheese, meats and fish. Just try a bite of seafood without a squeeze of lemon and you’ll know what I mean.

Cool climate grapes are slower in the production of sugars, develop acids more readily and mature at a more leisurely pace. Cool regions have the morning fog hangs over the vineyards; cool evenings and north facing sites that shield the grapes from the hot sun.

Oregon’s Willamette Valley, home of David Lett aka Papa Pinot, is renowned for their Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Riesling. All cool climate grapes. Named for the river that flows through it, the Willamette Valley has over 200 wineries and 15,000 acres of vineyards growing grapes in the valley that has those fog covered mornings.  Most of this foggy region is about 100 feet above sea level with the highest point in the sub-AVA of Chehalem Mountains, around 1,633 feet above sea level.

France’s cooler Burgundy, Chablis, Champagne and Alsace regions are also produce very fine wines from their more northerly vineyards with much the same grapes listed above. Even further north are the chilly vineyards of Germany, growing mostly Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Müller-Thurgau and Dornfelder and a smattering of Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir) here and there.

This weekend, there is a wine tour much closer to home in the Puget Sound American Viticultural Area, a uniquely sunny area surrounded by a rain forest, farmlands in the valleys and Puget Sound.

The Olympic Peninsula Wineries are hosting their annual Wine, Cider & Chocolate Tour, February 18th, 19th, and 20th from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.  Enjoy the scenic peninsula towns of Port Angeles, Sequim, Port Townsend, Chimacum, and Nordland (Marrowstone Island) and the wineries and cideries that produce some award winning products.

Tickets will get you to a special commemorative wine glass, complimentary wine tasting and chocolate samples at Alpenfire Cider, Camaraderie Cellars, Eaglemount Wine & Cider, FairWinds Winery, Finnriver Farm & Cidery, Harbinger Winery, Marrowstone Vineyards, Olympic Cellars, and Wind Rose Cellars.

Online tickets are $40, and $45 day of at participating wineries. Visit www.olympicpeninsulawineries.org for further information. Participants who have their ticket stamped at all 9 of our wineries will be entered into a drawing for an elegant wine themed gift basket.

Hope to see you in our own unique terroir this weekend!

February for Flowers, Wine and Chocolate

Did you know that $1.9 billion is spent on flowers for Valentine’s Day? Another mind blowing fact is the average American consumes more than 10 pounds of chocolate and 2.8 gallons of wine annually. And for those of us doing our part in this endeavor, February offers many events that even combine wine and chocolate.

However, February does start off in a different direction with one colossal beer event. It’s That Sunday, when millions watch the big game while drinking large quantities of an American lager. But if you’re living an alternative high life, perhaps a six pack of Sam Adams, Deschutes, Lagunitas, New Belgium or Sierra Nevada will fill the bill.

In fact, more than 325 million gallons of beer will be consumed that day. It’s also a day when chips, wings, guacamole, chili, pizza and burgers make it the second biggest spread laid out just behind Thanksgiving. Amazing.

Nine days after the Super Bowl, is Valentine’s Day, so if you’re inclined more to craft beer, pair a dark chocolate with a Belgian dubbel, milk stout or Lambic. They cozy up together right nice.

Romance and Valentine’s Day just naturally go together like spaghetti and meatballs. There are a number of events leading up to That big day.

Hopefully, you’ve made plans for dinner whether reservations or a romantic dinner at home – complete with a beautiful bottle of wine – or beer – and a heart-shaped box of chocolates.

Local events leading up to Valentine’s Day include Burrata Bistro’s February Wine Social on Monday, February 6th at 5:00pm.  Six wonderful Italian wines will be opened and available to sip, savor and purchase. An Acinum Prosecco Extra Dry, Pallavicini Frascati, Colosi Nero D’Avola, Cantele Salice Salentino Reserva 2012, Pecchenino San Luigi Dolcetto 2015 and Argiano Non Confunditur Rosso 2014.  The Wine Social is $32 per person. For more info: 360.930.8446

The JW Restaurant in Gig Harbor kicks things off on Wednesday, February 8th with the highly acclaimed Napa winery, Chappellet. Chappellet first crafted wine in 1967 from their Pritchard Hill Vineyards. Pritchard Hill is a 600 acre estate located east of Rutherford about 1,400 feet above Napa Valley. Through the years, some famous winemakers such as Philip Togni, Tony Soter and Cathy Corison have fashioned award winning Chappellet wines.

This memorable evening with Amy and Dominic Chappellet begins at 6pm with Seared Sea Scallops alongside the 2014 Chardonnay; followed by a Filet with Wild Mushroom Bordelaise and the 2012 Merlot; the 2014 Mountain Cuvee is paired Lamb Lollipops drizzled with Blackberry Demi-Glace made with the Mountain Cuvee and for dessert, you’ll savor the Dark Chocolate Trio with the 2014 Signature Cabernet. Seating is limited. For reservations, (253)858-3529

The weekend of February 11 and 12th, all seven Bainbridge Island Wineries are opened for Wine on the Rock – Wine and Chocolate. Each will be pouring their wines paired with wonderful chocolates. A weekend pass is $40 with an option to be shuttled to the wineries for an extra $20 (good for both days). Sit back, relax, enjoy some wonderful wines and leave the driving to a professional. What could be lovelier than that?

The Winery Alliance of Bainbridge Island has partnered with the Bainbridge Island Lodging Association to offer a special overnight package which includes a bottle of local wine, invite to a private winemaker’s event February 10th, free shuttle passes and more.  Rooms can be reserved at www.bainbridgelodging.com Sweet!

Recently, Eleven Winery’s 2014 Syrah from Elephant Mountain Vineyard took Double Gold and 2014 Malbec took Silver at the 2017 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Other medal winning wines can be tasted at Eagle Harbor, Amelia Wynn, Bainbridge Vineyards, Fletcher Bay, Rolling Bay and Perennial Vineyards.

Interestingly after Valentine’s Day is National Drink Wine Day on February 18th – as if we needed another reason. We celebrate wine all year long, right? Wine does have many benefits.  Moderate wine drinkers have more friends, lower risks of liver disease, type II diabetes, certain kinds of cancers, heart attack and stroke.  The resveratrol in red wine can reduce the bad cholesterol (LDL) and increase the good (HDL). Not bad for a little glass of pleasure.

Since February 18th is also National Crab-Stuffed Flounder Day, may we suggest a crisp, citrusy white wine to pair the two celebrations together? Viognier, Albariño or Grenache Blanc could be your new grape adventure.

Wine Yakima Valley is inviting wine and chocolate enthusiasts to its annual Red Wine & Chocolate event weekend, February 18 – 20th. As the oldest wine growing region in Washington State, wineries from Yakima, Zillah, Prosser and Red Mountain will be offering a weekend of divine decadence with a Premier Pass, the best way to experience the depth of the Yakima Valley.

By purchasing a Premier Pass, holders will be able to experience a variety of specialty food pairings, library tastings, and tours. Premier Passes are available for $35 at the door at select wineries during the event weekend.

That about takes care of February wine events. Looking ahead to March, which is Washington Wine Month, you’ll want to gear up for the 20th annual Taste Washington.

You and your wine buddies can explore each of Washington’s 14 AVAs, their wineries and vineyards, taste culinary treats from great restaurants and meet some hardworking winemakers and farmers – all during Taste Washington’s 20th Anniversary, March 23-26th.

For a complete Taste Washington experience, you’ll need four full days to try everything this region has to offer – it’s a mini wine vacation! Tickets are on sale now.  TasteWashington.org

For reduced ticket prices to the Grand Tasting, volunteer to set up or clean up. Details here:  http://tastewashington.org/volunteers-2017

 

Discover the Endless Ways to Taste Washington

Washington is overflowing with incredible wine! You and your best friends can explore each AVA’s wineries, taste culinary treats from great restaurants and meet some hardworking winemakers and farmers – all during Taste Washington’s 20th Anniversary, March 23-26.

For a complete Taste Washington experience, you’ll need four full days to try everything this region has to offer – a mini wine vacation! Tickets are on sale now.  http://tastewashington.org

For reduced ticket prices to the Grand Tasting, volunteer to set up or clean up. Details here:  http://tastewashington.org/volunteers-2017/

 

 

 

Bainbridge Island Wine & Chocolate

Grab your sweetheart (or friend) and visit all seven Bainbridge Island wineries to celebrate Valentine’s Day with wine and chocolate.

Wine on the Rock: Wine and Chocolate will be an unforgettable Valentine’s wine tasting event. Saturday, February 11 and Sunday, February 12, 12-5pm.

The event will include a shuttle option with quicker drop off times between each winery.   $40 ticket purchase ($60 with shuttle) is good for both days (one visit at each winery) and includes:

  • Special event wine glass
  • Wine tasting at each of the seven wineries or tasting rooms
  • Local chocolates to complement the wine tasting
  • 6 bottle wine tote

The Winery Alliance of Bainbridge Island has partnered with the Bainbridge Island Lodging Association to offer a special overnight package which includes a bottle of local wine, invite to a private winemaker’s event February 10th, free shuttle passes and more.  Rooms can be reserved at www.bainbridgelodging.com

Happy New Year! Again!

It’s almost lunar New Year, which finds revelers around the world ushering in the Year of the Rooster.  And with any cultural celebration of this kind, you will need friends and family, food and wine.

My favorite rooster is pictured on a bottle of Chianti Classico, the gallo nero or black rooster. The black rooster on that bottle of Chianti Classico is one of the most widely recognized emblems of a quality wine. But that wasn’t always the case.

Back a century or two, winemaking in Chianti was pretty much a free for all.  Canaiolo was the main grape variety with lesser amounts of Sangiovese, Mammolo and Marzimino in a supporting role.  Somewhere along the way, Malvasia and Trebbiano, both white grapes, were added to the mix to soften the wine and make it more drinkable.

The region really didn’t have any guidelines for the “recipe,” so in the early 1900s, the government stepped in to help by classifying the area to decrease the huge amounts of faux Chianti produced.

They did this by acknowledging Chianti as both a wine region and a “recipe”.  Then as all governments are wont to do, they passed many laws requiring winemakers to meet certain criteria if they want to put the name Chianti, Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) or Denominazione di Origine Controllata  e Garantita (DOCG) on the label.

In 1996, another major regulation modification brought about colossal change to the grape varieties permitted. The minimum percentage of Sangiovese increased from 75% to 80% and could be as much as 100%.  In addition, the other twenty percent could be other native red grapes, such as Canaiolo, Mammolo, Colorino or even non-native varieties, such as Cabernet, Syrah or Merlot.  As of 2006, white grapes are no longer permitted in a Chianti Classico.

Those stringent regulations included minimum alcohol levels, any new vineyard may only be used after its fourth year, yields must be less than 3.34 tons per acre, production is limited to 6.6 pounds per vine , seven months minimum barrel aging, for Riservas, 24 months minimum maturation with at least three months bottle aging and the most interesting and perhaps comforting, before bottling, the wine has to pass a chemical exam and approval by a tasting panel. Makes one kind of feel like royalty.

A few years ago, the Consorzio Gallo Nero organized the Chianti Classico 2000 Project to modernize viticulture and improve quality. This was sorely needed because during the 20th century, clones of Sangiovese, of which there are a boatload, were planted more for quantity than quality.  When replanting, many growers planted whatever was available not taking into account the extreme soil and climatic differences around the region.

The project took 16 years to complete, 16 experimental vineyards, five research cellars; ten meteorological stations installed to track micro- and macro-climate patterns.

Hundreds of clones were identified. A few Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Colorino clones were chosen because they were less susceptible common viral diseases, had smaller berries, thicker skins, and more open bunches.

Those clones are now producing some delicious Chianti Classicos. Look for the 2013 vintage to accompany your next plate of pasta. Or Sausage Pizza, or Spaghetti and Meatballs, or Rigatoni with Bolognese Sauce, or Wild Mushroom Risotto or Potato Gnocchi with Gorgonzola Sauce.

Chianti Classico refers to the oldest area, the classic region. It’s located between Florence and Siena and is the hub of the Chianti region within the larger Tuscan region.

Like spokes surrounding the hub, are seven other Chianti zones, each with its own particular soil, climate, and regulations. They are Colli Aretini, Colli Forentini, Colli Senesi, Colline Pisane, Montalbano, Montespertoli and Rufina. On their labels are their Chianti names such as Chianti Colli Senesi (the hills of Siena) or Chianti Colli Forentini (the hills of Florence).

But enough of Italy, let’s talk about Washington State. There were about 400 tons of Sangiovese harvested in 2004. It’s a prolific but difficult vine, likened to Pinot Noir.  Through the years planting increased and by 2015 tonnage was up to 1, 300.

It’s planted in some of the best vineyards in the Wahluke AVA, Red Mountain AVA and scattered around the Columbia Valley AVA.

Cavatappi’s with its red wine stained label, to the best of my recollection has been around the longest, some 30 years. Leonetti, Walla Walla Vintners, Five Star, Tagaris, and Kiona have also been producing for some time with at least 75% being Sangiovese and perhaps a touch of Cabernet in there as is done with the Super Tuscans.
Smaller, newer wineries fermenting Sangiovese in no particular order are Sequim’s Wind Rose Cellars, Vino la Monarcha from Victor Palencia who also fashions Jones of Washington’s Sangiovese, Latah Creek out of Spokane, Brian Carter’s has a little Cab and Syrah added to his Sangiovese, Helix by Reininger, Maryhill Winery along the Columbia River sources Sangiovese from Elephant Mountain Vineyards in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA, and Walla Walla’s Five Star Quinque Astrum, which is Italian for five star.
The Rosé of Sangiovese by Barnard Griffin has won gold numerous times and Waterbrook makes a pretty rose colored tasty one too.

Interesting note, the origin of the word Sangiovese is Latin for the blood of Jove. Jove or Jupiter, the king of the Roman gods, is best remembered for the exclamation of “By Jove! I think I‘ve got it!”

Annual Top Wine Lists

This is the time of year when wine journalists put together lists of “top” wines of the past year. To quote a few:

  • We rated no less than 20 perfect wines after tasting more than 10,000 bottles …
  • Perhaps this column should more accurately be titled the twelve most enjoyable wines of 2016…
  • Here’s our definitive 2016 list of the top 50 bottles …
  • As the year winds down, we can’t help but reflect on our favorite wines of 2016 …
  • After tasting nearly 4,000 bottles in the past 12 months, our wine critic pays tribute …

It’s a tradition and, unfortunately, most wines aren’t available. Unless the wine critic is familiar to you, use their ratings as a guideline. Know and trust your own palate.

Top wines from small production wineries rarely make it to the grocery store shelves. They just don’t make enough product to keep a shelf presence year round. So, traveling to Woodinville, Eastern Washington, Willamette Valley or California may be an option.

For unavailable wines, put them on your watch list and see what the next vintage brings. Lists of high scoring wines can be instructional about good vintages, cool climates and emerging regions.

One last thought when perusing annual wine lists. If a critic tastes 10,000 wines a year, that’s an average of 27 bottles per day. That critic needs help, so it may be a “collective palate” judging that $45 bottle of wine. And that collective palate, made up of several tasters, could change over the year.

And now at last, my 2016 list …

It’s a list heavy with sunny Spain’s top grape varieties, Garnacha and Tempranillo. Spanish wines are perfect for great wines at a small price. Even Gran Riserva Riojas are only about $40.

Borsao Tres Picos Garnacha 2014 is made from old vines; it’s my unfailing favorite. This purple red Grenache from the Campo de Borja region has a gorgeous aroma and flavors of raspberries and spice. It’s imported by consultant Jorge Ordonez who seeks out old vines and well made Spanish wines.

Solnia Tempranillo 2015 is crafted in the land of Don Quixote, La Mancha. The old vine Tempranillo grapes are hand harvested. From the deep color of the wine, you can tell it went through a long ferment and maceration. Aged for six months to give it further complexity, the wine is balanced and very drinkable at $10. Also imported by Jorge Ordonez.

From the Toro region, Enebral Tinta de Toro 2009 is made by the Well Oiled Wine Company.  Tinta de Toro is a clone of Tempranillo. Enebral’s vineyards are old and yield very low production. Also harvested by hand, the wine sees French oak for 11 months, then matured in bottle for six months before release. You can tell Toro is a warm region with an alcohol content of 14.5% and you’ll be amazed at the color and balance of this wine – for only $12.

Tinto Pesquera Crianza Ribera del Duero 1999 is another all-time favorite andtinto pesquera one I had been hoarding for some time. Crianza is a term used to describe the style of Spanish wine. It’s an aging regimen and describes the youngest category of a wine that has been matured in wood.  A crianza may not be sold until its third year from harvest and spends a minimum of six months in barrique.

Gotin del Risc Mencia 2012 hails from the Bierzio region. Mencia is a red grape variety widely grown in Northwest Spain. It’s a very fragrant grape with glass staining capabilities. It’s rich but not overpowering. Think paella partner for $15.

Atlas Peak Renegade 2013 is amazing. Atlas Peak is also an American Viticultural Area located within the Napa Valley AVA. It’s one of the higher elevations in Napa. The westward orientation also extends the amount of direct sunlight to ripen grape sugars. The soil is volcanic and very porous which means cool evenings for perfect pH. The 2013 Renegade is composed of 93% Syrah, 4% Malbec and 3% Petit Verdot. This wine is loaded with aromas of dark berries, violets, and tobacco leaf. Aged for 22 months in French and American oak barrels, the flavors are lush with dark fruits, leather and spice.

The Stoller Reserve Pinot Noir 2013 is one of the best Oregon Pinots and reasonably priced. From the best vineyard blocks and French barrels (30% new) in the cellar, it’s aged ten months and then blended prior to bottling. What comes out of the bottle is an marvelous balance of cherries and baking spices with a long, long finish.

Bill Stoller worked on the family farm as a child but as an adult he knew that the rocky terrain that broke discs and plows when tilled, the southern-sloped hills that made growing wheat difficult and the low-yielding Jory soils were all the ingredients of a successful vineyard. Today, the family vineyards are planted with Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Tempranillo, Syrah, and Pinot Blanc.

Intrinsic Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 made two publications’ Top 100 lists. This is the first release from this winery. Part of the wine was aged for a remarkable nine months on the skins, another part in stainless steel and the rest in neutral oak. The label claims, “It dazzles with brooding aromas of herbs and black cherry. The flavors are ripe and balanced with smooth tannins and a long finish.” Dazzles and brooding aside, I’m inclined to agree, found it reasonably priced and still available.

Another gem from the cellar was the Long Shadows Pedestal Columbia Valley Merlot 2004. Long Shadows collaborates with highly regarded winemakers around the world. They use Washington grapes to make wine like they do back home. It’s fascinating to taste a Washington wine next to another country’s wine.

For this wine it’s Michel Rolland, owner of Le Bon Pasteur in Pomerol and consultant to many others. Let me just name drop here – L’Angelus, Clinet, Smith Haut Lafitte, Pavie and Troplong Mondot in Bordeaux; Simi, Newton, Merryvale and Harlan in California. He has even consulted at Ornellaia in Tuscany and Casa Lapostolle in Chile. Pedestal has pedigree.

Bollinger RD (recently disgorged) 1985 was a pretty amazing bottle. Golden, aromatic and full-bodied, it didn’t have a lot of bubbles but I fully expected it to not be sparkling. I love Madame Bollinger, who would make her daily vineyard inspections in the 1950s by bicycle wearing a dress, a flower in her hair and her pearls.

She once quipped of her Champagne, “I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.”  cork wreath

Cheers and All the Best in this New Year!

Wines Under Pressure

Much like a bottle of bubbly, the holiday season contains a lot of pressure.bolly

However, sparkling wine has the kind of pressure I can live with! The result of a process that Dom Perignon spent years working on, bubbles are created by the yeast cozying up to the sugars in a closed environment. After this second fermentation, carbon dioxide is dissolved in the wine and held under pressure until the cork is popped. The wine is converted from still to sparkling and the occasion is transformed from ordinary to special.

Almost all sparkling wines have one thing in common. They go through two fermentations, one to make the alcohol and one to make the bubbles. The significant difference between the two fermentations is the first allows the gas to escape which produces the alcohol and the other traps the gases in the bottle and Voila! tiny bubbles!

Sparkling wines vary significantly. They can be white, pink or red. They can be bone dry (brut), sort of dry (extra brut), off dry (demi sec, semi secco) or sweet (doux or dolce). It can have varying degrees of alcohol (5.5% to 13%). The size and persistency of the bubbles and the foam differ significantly too.

The most famous sparkling wine comes from a region in northeast France called Champagne. Champagne produces about a tenth of the world’s sparkling wines. It’s the gold standard for sparkling wines.

According to the rules, Champagne must be made with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier. With the addition of a little yeast and a little sugar, the second fermentation occurs in the bottle with a crown cap to trap the gases. After remuage, where the dead yeast cells are shaken down into the neck of the bottle that are stored neck down in racks, the plugs of dead yeast cells are quickly expelled in a process called dégorgement. Disgorging involves little more than removing the crown cap and watching the plug fly, propelled by the pressure in the bottle.

The final steps are to top up with wine and a teaspoon to a quarter cup of simple syrup called dosage. The amount of sugar in the dosage determines whether the wine is brut, extra dry, demi sec or doux. The cork, bale and foil are put in place, the label pasted on and it is boxed for shipment.

Other regions in the world also make Champagne-like wines. California is an outpost for Champagne firms who have run out of space in Champagne. You may have seen or sipped Roederer Estate (Roederer), Chandon (Moet & Chandon), Domaine Carneros (Taittinger), Maison Duetz (Duetz), Piper Sonoma (Piper Heidsieck) and/or Mumm Napa (Mumm).

The presence of these French Champagne houses certainly sets a high standard, however, there are challenges. Champagne is a cooler region than many of the California AVAs.  Carneros and Anderson Valley tend to be cooler than say, Napa or the San Joaquin Valley. The French have adapted their methods to produce wonderful sparkling wines that are a quarter of the price of their French cousins.

The trick is to be cool like some parts of Oregon or harvest the grapes earlier than grapes used for a still wine. Oregon’s premier producer is Argyle winery in Dundee. And Soter Vineyards. Argyle has been growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir since 1987 and Soter started in California in the 1990s before moving to Carlton, Oregon. Both make wonderful Blanc de Blancs and Brut Rosé.

Washington has some great premium sparkling wines even without the presence of a “Champagne outpost”. One of my favorites is Treveri made by a couple who have been on the Washington wine scene since the early 80s.

Juergen Grieb was born and raised in Trier, Germany. He perfected his winemaking skills in the Ruwer Valley. After moving to the United States, he made wine for Langguth Winery in the early 80s.

The Juergen and Julie Grieb opened the doors to Treveri in 2010.  All their wines sparkle and are made from traditional French and German grape varietals. The grapes are picked early at around 19 brix, which is fairly typical when making a sparkling wine in a warmer region, any higher will result in too high an alcohol content with two fermentations.

They make a Blanc de Noir, Blanc de Blanc, a Rosé which is aged 24 months, and a Gewurztraminer which has extended tirage. It’s disgorged on demand to keep the product fresh. Like many of the Australian “Black Bubbles” Treveri Cellars’ Syrah is a deep red color from the Syrah.

They have a Bubble Club too. Members get 2 bubblies 3 times a year and complimentary glass of sparkling wine during release parties. This would be a perfect gift for that sparkling wine lover.

Other Washington sparklers include Domaine Michelle and Mountain Dome out of Spokane which produces sparkling wines in the “Méthode Champenoise” or the traditional method. Mountain Dome is a family operation in a geodesic dome in the shadow of Mount Spokane. They’ve been making bubbles since 1984.

Other regions to explore are Burgundy, Alsace, Spanish cavas, Prosecco from Italy, New York’s Finger Lakes and don’t forget those black bubbles from Australia.
cork wreath
Share a little sparkle with your family and friends this holiday season! Wishing you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Thanksgiving Wine Pairing Made Easy

The wine-food conundrum for Thanksgiving stems from the plethora of fruits, vegetables, spices and flavors on the plate all at once, rather than a seven-course dinner, right? If you think of Thanksgiving as a wine opportunity rather than a challenge, you have just solved the perennial puzzle.

My wine advice for your Thanksgiving table — whether it is store-bought, traditional, fancy or familial, vegetarian or vegan — is to serve a wide variety of wines. The decision should not be which wine to pour but which wines to pour. With this shotgun wine approach, you’re likely to please a majority of the palates at the table and make some fantastic pairings, too.

This can be an adventure for all. Have your friends and relatives bring their favorite wine or, better yet, an untried but often-heard-of bottle of wine. This approach also ensures quashing any political conversations with an “Oh my gosh! That wine is so great with your Waldorf salad, Aunt Kitty.”

What you learn from this experience is great practice for mastering the magic of food and wine pairing. Remember, it takes, practice, practice, practice.

Be it red, white or rosé, roast turkey, mashed potatoes and giblet gravy pair with most any wine, really. But it’s the relatives and friends and the side dishes that create this myriad of palates and flavors.

The multitude of Thanksgiving flavors is a whole lot of hearty, savory dishes. If the wine is hearty also, then it will work well because the dish and the wine are of similar weight. That’s the key.

So here’s my plan: First and foremost, greet your guests with a sparkling wine. Pour a vintage cuvée that could set you back $30+. You’re worth it.

For diversity, Washington’s Treveri Cellars makes premium sparkling wines from a wide array of grapes, such as the traditional Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to Riesling, Viognier, Gewurztraminer and even Syrah. Aged on average 24 months, these sparkling wines would make this occasion very special.

For a crowd, pour a Prosecco or a Spanish cava, your best bets for a tasty value. And if Gramma likes something sweeter, go for an extra dry sparkling or pour a dollop of OJ or raspberry syrup in her glass along with the bubbly. She’ll love it.

When everyone is seated and it’s time to present Tom Turkey, put a few chilled whites and some fruit-forward, medium-bodied reds on the table and let the pairing begin. You can smile, knowing you have just maneuvered around the age old question of what wine to have with Thanksgiving dinner.

Do you go with the traditional sage, sausage and onion stuffing, whipped potatoes, giblet gravy, candied yams, mashed rutabaga, turnips, glazed onions and cranberry sauce? Or do you put a cultural twist on the table with a chipotle rubbed smoked bird, red chili gravy and cornbread chorizo stuffing?

An off-dry Riesling, aromatic Gewürtztraminer, Oregon Niagara, new world Pinot Noir, full-bodied Spanish Tempranillo, Washington Merlot and a rich, red blend would cover most traditional dishes very nicely. With the spicier twist, bring on the Beaujolais Nouveau with its carbonic macerated fruitiness, a German Auslese, a jammy Zinfandel, Australian Shiraz and a rich, fruity Valpolicella Ripassa.

Or perhaps your family tradition is oyster stuffing, roasted Brussel sprouts and carrots with horseradish sauce, sweet potato soufflé, roasted squash, Waldorf salad, jellied cranberries and that green bean casserole from the soup can recipe.

Well, let me introduce you to Alsatian wines that are the most food-friendly wines on the planet. Choose from Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris or Riesling. Or chill up all four of these medium-bodied, French mountain grown whites and taste them side by side. A bevy of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs would also work very nicely with vegetables of every color and the wide assortment of herbs.

When it comes to food and wine, Italians seemed to have figured it all out a long time ago. Many Italian wines have an incredible ability to combine a medium-bodied wine with a ton of acid, and that translates to refreshing with rich foods.

From the Campania region, try the Falanghina grape, an Umbrian Orvieto and a full-bodied Gavi from Piedmont. For reds, nothing can beat the flavors or price of a Nero d’Avola, a juicy Barbera, or a Tuscan Sangiovese with its flavors of cherries and herbs.

Let’s broach the dilemma of dessert. What the heck does pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and mincemeat pie pair well with for goodness sake?

The dessert wine rule is always serve a wine that is sweeter than the dessert. When was the last time you tried an Oloroso sherry, Malmsey Madeira, Muscat Beaumes de Venise or a Tawny port? Well, it’s time. And be sure to bring out those small dessert glasses for these unctuous treats.

My annual advice remains the same: Open one of everything. Or at least, a wide assortment of wines that will go well with the variety of dishes on your holiday table. Find wines you like at prices you can afford and be sure to raise a glass with your family and friends with each and every glass.

Cheers and a very Happy Thanksgiving.

Zinfandel – California’s Claret

Yes, it’s true, all Zinfandel grapes have red skins. The white Zinfandel grape does not exist – yet.

Zinfandel has been a part of California’s history for around 150 years. It was rumored to have been brought into California in 1862 by Agoston Haraszthy, then owner of Buena Vista Winery. He was a member of the state commission on viticulture who brought back thousands of vine cuttings from a trip to Europe. His account of this trip and his work in the early California wine industry can be read in his book Grape Culture, Wines and Winemaking, published in 1862.

However, Zinfandel was never mentioned in Haraszthy’s literature of the time. Instead, there is mention of “Zenfendel” in 1829, by a Mr. George Gibbs of Long Island. Zenfendel resurfaced in Boston a few years later where it was known as “Zinfindal” and grown in greenhouses as a table grape.

After the California Gold Rush, many a forty-niner decided to forsake the gold pan for a plow, sending for plants from the east coast. It’s likely that Zinfindal was included in a shipment around 1852 and by 1859 was documented to be grown in both Napa and Sonoma. In 1862, the same year that Haraszthy’s book was published, the Sonoma Horticultural Society gave a bottle of Zinfindal to a French winemaker at a California winery who proclaimed it “a good French claret.”

Still, Zinfandel was used to make jug wines in the early years and favored by the California winemakers of Italian decent. It reminded them of the wines from Sardinia, Sicily or Puglia. With good reason.

In the early 1990’s, the mysterious Zinfandel was finally DNA fingerprinted. It was found to be the Primitivo grape of southern Italy. But even that was disputed when an ancient Croatian variety, Crljenak Kastelanski, was confirmed to be – through DNA fingerprinting – genetically identical to Zinfandel.

It turns out that Crljenak Kastelanski and Primitivo are related, sort of like twins. Triplets if you count Zinfandel. But differences in vine vigor and cluster size separate Zinfandel from its genetic twins. Other differences such as soil, rainfall and winemaking combine to give Zinfandel its own truly American style.

U.S. regulations stipulate that on wine labels, Zinfandel and Primitivo be identified separately. Thankfully, there is no danger of having to learn how to pronounce Crljenak Kastelanski on an American wine label.

Today, Zinfandel is California’s third most widely planted grape in 45 of the 58 counties. In 2014, total acreage planted to Zinfandel was 47,827 with San Joaquin topping the charts at 18,718. Sonoma had 5,260 acres; Amador brought up third place with 2,055, Mendocino had 1,930 and Napa, a mere 1,497 acres.

Over 100 years later, California Zinfandel has more than 4,800 labels. A majority of the grapes, though, are used to make White Zinfandel. White Zinfandel at 35 million cases continues to outsell red Zinfandel.

Over the past thirty years, it has developed into one of California’s best reds. However, depending on climate and producer, there are so many different styles ranging from big, rich, ripe, high-alcohol, spicy, smoky, concentrated, and intensely flavored to a light, fruity rose.

The best Zinfandel, for my palate, are not the pink ones.  However, a very long time ago, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, with no other wine on the boat, I drank some Sutter Home White Zinfandel. It tasted delicious out there in the middle of the ocean with no store within miles.

But I’ve had many more bottles of the big, full-bodied, robust, rich, intensely flavored Zins that have stained my teeth to look like a geisha’s.

Some of my favorites that come to mind are Cline in southern Sonoma. They have acres of old, Old Vines. Their Oakley vineyards are dry-farmed and head-pruned, as they were a century ago. Hot sun, sandy soil, and cool evening air from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers produce a stunning, concentrated wines.

Also in Sonoma, Dry Creek  Vineyards owns Beeson Ranch, old vineyard dating back to 1896. This head-pruned, dry farmed property produces a very delicious claret style Zinfandel.

Martinelli Winery has been farming the valley since 1880. They specialize in small single lots of great wine. The wines are fermented with naturally occurring yeasts, and kept in barrel for 10 months. They are unfiltered and unfined, and only racked before bottling. This is an intense Zin.

I’ve followed the footsteps of Ridge, who bottle read-ridgevineyard designated Zinfandels. Ridge began in 1886 with 180 acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains. That was done in by prohibition but they reappeared with new ownership and wine in 1962. Winemaker Paul Draper has an unbroken record of hits with his Zinfandels. Look for Geyserville, Lytton Springs, Dusi Ranch, Pagani and Three Valleys. The wine labels are an oenological education for sommelier wannabes.

Rafanelli holds a special placed in my heart. While visiting Sonoma, we popped in on Rafanelli because it was so hard to get in Washington State. It was mid-afternoon and the tasting room was not open yet. We went out front and took pictures of the head pruned vines out front. They had to have been at least 100 years old.

Meanwhile, a school bus stopped in front of the winery and out stepped Shelly Rafanelli. She opened the tasting room door, dropped her books on the table and the tasting commenced. We were treated to some sublime wines.

Other Zin makers to seek out are Ravenswood with a No Wimpy Wine attitude. they have a stable full of intense, rich red Zinfandels. Ravenswood is celebrating 40 years under the leadership of Joel Petersen, who works with over 100 growers.

Another really longtime Sonoma County family is Seghesio Family Vineyards. In 1895, Italian immigrant and winemaker Edoardo Seghesio planted his first Zinfandel vineyard. Seghesio was a key supplier of grapes and bulk wine to California wineries. Around 1983, the fourth generation Seghesios began selling Zin and other varietals under the Seghesio label.

Zinfandel, whether white or red, is a great party wine. Perfect for backyard picnics and family get-togethers. Enjoy these Zins with barbecued meats with sweet barbecue sauces, stewed or roasted beef, strong, rich cheeses like blue or Stilton, duck, hamburgers especially with cheese, lamb, pizza, pork chops, sausage, and it’s also the perfect match with that mother of all family get-togethers – Thanksgiving. Cheers!

German Rieslings, Pure, Crisp and Sweet

Beer is the national beverage of Germany but that’s due to the fact that grain is better adapted to the cold northern climate than Chardonnay or Cabernet.

Germans have been growing grapes since 1435. Today, they make up 3 percent of the world’s wines.

But how much of that 3 percent is produced is greatly dependent on Mother Nature. That’s because Germany is the world’s northern most wine growing region.

A good 80 percent of the Qualitatwein, is grown on hillsides above the Rhine River. Since most of the 55,000 acres of vineyards are on south-facing hillsides, handpicking is the only way to harvest as machinery on mountain sides is out of the question.

So if you are determined to grow grapes in a cold climate, you better plant grape varieties that  don’t mind it so much. Let me introduce you to the great cold hardy Riesling, Muller-Thurgau and Silvaner varieties.  All white grapes, all well suited to making a wide range of wine styles.

In Germany, there are more than 1,400 wine villages and 3,200 vineyards. In an effort to codify their wines, the German government passed a law – The German Wine Law of 1971.

The new law stated that a vineyard must be at least 12 acres of land. It also divided German wines into two categories, Tafelwien (table wine) and Qualitatwein (quality wine). It regulated must weight and minimum alcohol levels.  Another rule, if Riesling is on the label, at least 85% if not more, will be in the bottle.  And if it shows a vintage on the label, at least 85% of that vintage must be in the bottle.

There are thirteen winemaking regions in Germany, most hugging the shores of the Rhine River and its tributaries. Most of the regions are named for the river that runs through it, like the Rhine, Mosel, Saar, Ruwer, and Nahe. Other region names found in the U.S. will be from the Rheinhessen, Rheingau, or Pfalz.

German wine labels reveal all. From grape variety to ripeness levels, style and quality levels, alcohol and testing batch number, it’s all right recorded on the label in great detail.

First, on a German wine label will be the producer, Dr. Loosen, for instance; dr-loosenthe region, Mosel; the vintage, 2006; the town and the vineyard, for example, Wehlener Sonnenuhr.

The er on the end of the town of Wehlen is their way of saying belonging to that town. On older labels, you would see 1989er, meaning from that vintage. Sonnenuhr is the vineyard name.

Next would be the grape name, Riesling and the style, Trockenbeerenauslese. The quality level of the wine, QmP and its official testing number – proof that the wine was tasted and passed the strict quality measures required. Alcohol and bottle size are also stated on the label.

Ripeness levels mean how ripe the grapes are at harvest. This also, by law, will determine the wine’s quality level and an early indicator of style.  There are six styles are Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein.

Kabinett – These are typically lighter-bodied, medium-dry wines, made from grapes harvested at the peak of the season. Usually the driest of the Qualitatweins.

Spatlese – Translated means “late (spat) picked (lese)” or late harvest, the extra time in the sun allows produces an elevated ripeness level to a fuller bodied wine and increases the intensity of both aroma and flavor.

Auslese – Literally means “out picked” designating ripe grapes picked from a specific cluster of berries harvested later than the first harvest. This medium to fuller-bodied Riesling can be crafted into either a dry or a sweet version. This is the first style that may exhibit true dessert wine status.

Beerenauslese (BA) – A rare treat, this Riesling is made into the luxurious dessert wines that are sought out for their compatibility with a myriad of dessert options. They are only made when the vintage conditions are just right, adding to the cost and taste.

Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) – Translated as “dry berry out picking” and that adds up to outside the regular harvest, with possible botrytis infected, raisined grapes, and concentrated sugars. Each grape is picked individually, months after normal harvest. These labor intensive, concentrated, nectar like dessert wines can claim quite a price.

Eiswein – An even later harvest ice (eis) wines (wein), are left on the vine until frozen, then picked and pressed while frozen, resulting in an exquisite, highly concentrated experience even red wine lovers will appreciate.

These styles refer to sugar levels at harvest, and after fermentation, the wine could range from bone dry to super sweet. But remember, this is a colder than usual climate, there is always going to be that crisp, balancing acidity in all styles.

Other terms to know for determining the sweetness level of wine are trocken which means dry and halbtrocken which is half-dry or off-dry. If this is not on the label, chances are good that it will be on the sweet side.

Keep in mind that sweeter Rieslings can be made in either Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese or Beerenauslese (BA) and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) styles, it just depends on the balance between the acidity, sugar, pH and alcohol.

Some wonderful German producers to look for are from the Mosel: Fritz Haag, J.J. Prum, Dr. Loosen, Selbach Oster and Dr. Thanish. From the Rheingau: Schloss Johannisberg, Shloss Vollrads and Robert Weil.

A large portion of Washington State was once planted to the Riesling grape. We still have a lot of Riesling planted but not as much as 15 years ago. However, Chateau Ste. Michelle does have lots more Riesling planted than anyone else in Washington State.
As a result, Dr. Loosen and Chateau Ste. Michelle partner to produce the Eroica Riesling. This collaboration is a classic that offers lots of citrus, lime and peaches and even a hint of petrol that is frequently found in German Rieslings.

German Rieslings are incredibly versatile on the dinner table. Many will age well for a dozen years or so, for top vintages. For dinner, Rieslings are best enjoyed with Asian cuisine, Dungeness crab, white fish, pasta with cream sauce, fresh fruit, creamy cheeses and smoked fish with horseradish. Probst!