Tag Archives: cool climate wines

A Tale of Two Red Cities

In the USA, Walla Walla Valley AVA is fast approaching premier status as a red wine producing region. The highest accolades are coming from Merlots and Syrahs, but the area produces well-made Bordeaux Blends too. From a critic’s perspective, this area is a serious alternative to the Napa Valley region… especially, if you prefer the Napa wines produced before the mid 90’s. Now, there is a choice between two premium “red” producing cities in the U.S.

The over-arching theme in Walla Walla is the pursuit of Old World styles of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. If you enjoy the popular New World style of heavily-oaked, fruity Cabs coming from Napa (like Caymus and Silver Oak) very few of these Walla Walla wines will find their way into your cellar. Syrah aside, I have chosen three of the oldest producers in Walla Walla as effective examples of the diverse styles of Bordeaux Blends that represent this growing region: Walla Walla Vintners, Seven Hills Winery and L’Ecole #41. I visited all three last month and was fortunate enough to do a deep-dive with each.

WWV Pic

Walla Walla Vintners

The flavor profile across all releases at Walla Walla Vintners (WWV) had the most dissimilar flavor profile in the area. I met with Bill Von Metzger the winemaker and we discussed the winery founded in 1995 in depth.  Their vineyards (and immediate neighboring sites) located at the Eastern edge of the valley contain the only dry-farmed vineyards I was able to find in this AVA. They originally prepared these estate vineyards for irrigation, but have yet to experience a growing season requiring the additional water. Although, if the Washington drought continues, they expect this may change next year. The WWV 2015 vintage validated once again the impact of dry-farming on my palate. All wines tasted tended to be more concentrated and textured, perhaps squeezing more out of the terroir.

Bill is a locally educated and trained winemaker. In my experience, this can be an impediment to good winemaking. Exposure to a broad sampling of world winemaking styles tends to develop better winemakers. Although in this case, Bill transcends his background… I think, primarily due to his keen curiosity and desire to experiment. I thought Bill showed a deft hand at pursuing the Napa Valley style… at half the price. Of my twenty (or so) tasting appointments in the area, this was the only winery embracing the challenge and successfully producing this style in a cooler Walla Walla climate.

If you enjoy Napa Cabs, try these wines. They may not quite reach the level of the premium Napa producers, but my goodness, not at $75+/btl either. The quality is good and the value is undeniable.

SHW pic

Seven Hills Winery

Seven Hills is the preeminent Old World French Bordeaux style producer in Walla Walla and one of the first wineries founded in the area in 1988. I met with Erik McLaughlin, an executive and manager at the winery. Erik and I discussed the history of wine growing in the region, their philosophy and the resulting growth. Seven Hills produces wines that compare very favorably to Bordeaux labels. All their wines have a lighter, sometimes silky texture with a good acidic and tannic backbone. Refined, balanced and built for aging, but approachable enough when young to be an excellent companion to a steak dinner. The tasting room is in a very urban setting at the winery, with the atmosphere from the 100+ year old building enhancing the tasting experience.

I talked briefly to Casey McLellan the winemaker and founder and I heard from both of them their total commitment to this wine style, regardless of the popularity of New World style California wines over the last decade. A great story and I believe a good business decision. These wines are some of the best of what I call “restaurant style” wines, made to accompany food and at the right price to be fairly affordable after the three tier distribution system delivers it.

If you enjoy red wines originating in Bordeaux France, try these wines. Again, these do not quite reach the level of premium Bordeaux producers, but comparable quality is sold at half the price (or less) of their Old World competitors.

Schoolhouse photo

L’Ecole #41

L’Ecole is the most notable example of a winery in the region that best walks the fence between New & Old World styles. Founded in 1983 in an abandoned school house, they have grown substantially into a large commercial winery. I have been drinking their wines since the early 2000’s and do miss the hometown, small business atmosphere from those early days. Is it OK to be nostalgic for the old building facade, before the face lift? Then again, I also preferred the previous cute label too. Yes, (begrudgingly) I understand the idea – “Time and Tide stops for no man”. I met with Ben Dimitri the tasting room manager and we talked about L’Ecole history and past vintages.

It was interesting to discuss the story of the 2004 vintage in Walla Walla. It was the coldest growing season in memory for the area and few local vineyards were able to produce ripe fruit at harvest. 10+ years ago, Washington State was still a fledgling wine region and the largest producer in the state (Chateau St. Michelle) offered the early Walla Walla producers the opportunity to source fruit from their warmer Columbia Valley vineyard locations. What a generous and smart move…  missing a vintage in those early years would have seriously hurt the local industry and slowed their momentum in the market. The topic arose, because I mentioned enjoying a bottle of 2004 Ferguson (lost in my cellar somehow) last year. The bottle handled the 10 years of age well, but was at the outside edge of its drinking window.

If you enjoy red wines originating in Bordeaux France, but would prefer an easier drinking more approachable style… L’Ecole is your ticket. Once again, think half the price.

Diversity and Value

If you notice, there are two common themes here: diversity and value. Try these Walla Walla wines. If you are more than an occasional, casual wine drinker in particular, seek them out. These can easily become your choice for the value section of your cellar.

Wine Tourism

This area has a long way to go as a wine destination, but it was significantly more welcoming than my last visit seven years ago. Premier sous chefs around the country looking to venture out and start a premium cuisine restaurant, please consider Walla Walla. A well-run, properly promoted gourmet restaurant will succeed here, without the competition you would find in other top wine regions. Currently, the food is only slightly better than average, even at expensive establishments. With all the fresh fruit and veggies grown locally, this would be a perfect location for a farm-to-table concept. Producing world-class wines right in their backyard, Walla Walla has to be the next wine destination to hit the foodie scene. I look forward to my next visit and enjoying a much more vibrant restaurant scene.

Walla Walla Premium Bordeaux Style Producers

Leonetti Cellars and Woodward Canyon Winery are the two oldest wineries in the Walla Walla AVA. I have tasted their wines and they are excellent, but priced to match, or exceed their Bordeaux and Napa competitors. These wines are every bit as good, but I find it hard to see the value. Frankly, I would rather drink the established producers I know from Bordeaux and Napa, with much larger production and greater availability. This post was meant to highlight the value in Walla Walla. These producers do not fit into that category.

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Filed under Bordeaux/Meritage Blend, Cool Climate Wine, U.S. Wines by Region, Walla Walla Valley, Wine by Varietal, Wine Tasting, Wine Travel

Why Do Wines Taste Different? – Part 2b: Vineyard Location

Vineyard Influence on Wine Flavors and Structure

As I dive deeper into this, the rabbit hole takes me deeper and deeper… I must apologize again. Location is too big a topic to include a discussion of soil types in the same piece… So, it appears I will have a part 2a, 2b and 2c in this series on “Why Wines Taste Different”. For those of you staying with me on this, thanks for your patience and perseverance.

Vineyard Location

Varietals

This topic has everything to do with the individual varietal. If you want to find the best wines, a big part of the answer is in the vineyard location. Learning to differentiate the common warm climate varietals from the cool climate varietals is important:

Cabernet-Sauvignon-Grapes

(Cabernet Sauvignon Grapes)

Warm Climate Reds 

Grenache, Mourvedre, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Tempranillo, Zinfandel, Malbec, Merlot, Sangiovese

Viognier grapes

(Viognier Grapes)

Warm Climate Whites

Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc

Pinot noir Grapes

(Pinot Noir Grapes)

Cool Climate Reds

Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Nebbiolo, Merlot

riesling-wine-grapes

(Riesling Grapes)

Cool Climate Whites

Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Albarino, Pinot Gris, Glera, Chardonnay, Gewurtztraminer

Climate Affect on Wine Character

There are many more varietals in each category, but these are frequently seen in single varietal formats and are the most common. Notice that Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Syrah are listed as both. These four are the most versatile wine varietals in the world. They can make quality wines in both warm and cool climates, but keep in mind the flavors and textures are totally different when grown in the different locations. Warm climate Merlot has less acidity/tannins and can be beautifully soft, or horribly flabby. Warm climate Chardonnay usually has less acidity and tends towards simple citrus flavors. Most warm climate Sauv Blanc tastes like fresh mown grass mixed with lemonade to me, but others enjoy it. Warm climate Syrah is another story… warm climate locations are better when moderated by a Mediterranean climate, but these areas can produce killer wines. Cool Climate locations can produce exceptionally complex Syrah, but sometimes are a little weak on fruit flavors, so are often mixed with Viognier to enhance approachability. I enjoy these wines tremendously.

What to Look For?

Spring Mtn Vineyard

(Spring Mountain Vineyard)

Inland Locations at Higher Elevation

(roughly 2,000-4,000 feet)

For example, try the top of Spring Mountain AVA and Howell Mountain AVA in Napa Valley. You will find bold wines with a pleasant blend of acidity, tannins and alcohol there. In the hands of an expert winemaker, these vineyards can produce a wonderful, fully developed mid-palate. Haven’t heard the terms “attack”, “mid-palate”, or “finish”? Drop me a line and I will write a piece explaining these wine characteristics!

Mosel Vineyard

(Mosel Vineyard)

Steep Vineyard Sites

These sites stress the vines and drain them very effectively. The berries are usually smaller and the fruit (and resulting wines) always have more intense flavors. These vineyards are everywhere, just keep an eye out. The opposite holds true, be careful with wines made from valley floor fruit. If not managed carefully, these vineyards can become bulk wine territory! The most extreme examples lie in the Mosel Region in Germany.

Langhe_vineyard

(Langhe Vineyard)

Inland Foggy Locations

Remember those Cool Climate varietals… if there is enough sunshine to fully ripen the berries at these sites, WATCH OUT! These wines are amazingly good. These vineyards can produce complex, fruit forward wines with high acidity. Watch your vintages with these producers. In cooler years, these wines can be very rustic, and/or thin. U.S. Examples: Santa Rita / Santa Maria AVA, or Russian River AVA.

Finger-Lakes-vineyard

(Finger Lakes Vineyard)

Inland Locations Adjacent to Large Lakes

Often, cold winter climates can support vineyards in these areas. The lakes moderate the low temps at night during bud-break and harvest (Spring & Fall). Depending on the amount of sun, these vineyards can produce fresh, brisk white wines, or a well-balanced lighter style of red wine. U.S. Examples: Lake County AVA or Finger Lakes AVA.

Sonma coast Vineyard

(Sonoma Coast Vineyard)

Coastal Locations

These sites can produce excellent, or horrible fruit from vineyard to vineyard. The best sites don’t get a lot of rain and are watered by the dew and fog. In addition, higher elevation sites adjacent to the coastline are an advantage. The elevation offers more time above the morning foggy conditions to ripen the fruit and destroy the potential mildew. These vineyards will not produce easy drinking wines, but if you like complex flavors (sometimes unusual) and good structure, try a few of these and find out if they are for you. U.S. Examples – Sonoma Coast AVA.

Conclusion

Valley floor locations almost always produce easier drinking softer wines, especially when located in warmer climates. These are not my kind of wines, but I recognize that many consumers enjoy this style. Each to their own, but at least with this information, you can understand what influences how these wines taste. If you are willing to evaluate your preferences and find the vineyard locations that match your palate for each varietal, it will enrich your wine experience (find my preferences below).

Vineyard Locations I Prefer (a few)

Chardonnay – Burgundy AOC, Champagne AOC, Mendocino AVA, Santa Maria and Santa Rita Hills AVA, Russian River AVA

Sauvignon Blanc – Marlborough Appellation, Sancerre AOC

Chenin Blanc – Vouvray AOC, Stellenbosch and Swartland Appellations

Merlot – Right Bank Bordeaux AOC, Spring Mountain AVA, Walla Walla AVA

Cabernet Sauvignon – Napa Valley AVA, Left Bank Bordeaux AOC, Bolgheri Superiore IGT, Maipo Valley Appellation

Syrah – Southern and Northern Cotes du Rhone AOC, Paso Robles AVA, Walla Walla AVA, Barossa Valley Appellation

Pinot Noir – Burgundy AOC, Willamette Valley AVA, Santa Rita Hills AVA

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Filed under Cool Climate Wine, Wine Education, Wine Industry, Wine Travel

Why Do Wines Taste Different? – Part 2a: Climate

Continuing the two part series, well… I realized this topic was just too much for one additional piece. Don’t forget, I am no industry expert. This piece is only offered from the perspective of the impact on enjoyment of wine flavors and structure. Folks, I have tasted a LOT of wine. Over the years, you ask questions, and you learn which factors affect the wine and how. Now I am sharing that experience with you.

PART 2a – How Terroir Affects the Fruit 

This second part in the series is the most complicated. This installment in the series provides insight into the location factors that influence wine flavors. It is impossible to cover these next topics without technical detail. I apologize in advance for diving into the dryer Somm training. I will try to associate these influencing factors with their specific impact on flavors and structure, so it will offer more interest and meaning…

0601_g1_2_terroir-wheel

Climate is closely related to the idea of “terroir”. I put the term in quotes, because it is a concept more than a word. Terroir impacts both flavors and structure in wine (for example: blackberry and acidity). Here is the Webster Dictionary definition: “The combination of factors including soil, climate, and sunlight that gives wine grapes their distinctive character”. Close, but there is more to it than just that. Some additional ideas would be: proximity to bodies of water (i.e. lake, ocean), heavy winds, or fog during the growing season and the most important – local wine growing traditional practices.

Each of these can have a bigger influence than you would think:

  • Foggy mornings can add a considerable amount of acidity to the fruit and ultimately the wine.
  • Heavy winds have a more basic function – the wind keeps the berries dry, so thinner skinned varieties (Pinot Noir, Merlot) can be grown in humid climates, without mildew and rot.

Wine growing tradition can affect things like:

  • Trellis design – Overhead trellising (called Pergola and common in Italy) makes it impossible to practice canopy management. This can lead to inconsistent vintages from varying weather conditions. Without canopy management, it is difficult to control producing burnt vs. under-ripe fruit from year to year. Italy has been slowly converting their premium vineyards to head-trained trellis and pruning systems for this reason.
  • Yield per acre – Some regions can produce 8 tons of fruit per acre, or more. This is bulk wine territory. You can taste the difference when fruit is pruned from the vines early and the yield is reduced to 2-3 tons per acre, commonly found in the premium wine category. This always develops more concentrated and complex flavors. Ask a winery about the yield per acre for their fruit source. They should be able to tell you immediately. It is a VERY important decision and will separate quality wines from bulk wine. Your dividing line is at about 4 tons per acre.

Terroir can also be a philosophy of sorts. Have you ever considered wine to be a unique indicator of “place”? Wine can and does reflect local cuisine and culture. In many of the Old World wine growing regions, wine is viewed as a definitive indicator for the location where it is made. That is why they have actual government laws regarding how wine must be made in many regions. In this way, Wines from St. Estephe AOC, or Sancerre AOC all have a consistent character. Before my Somm training, I would have told you this was completely crazy. In the U.S., we don’t think of wine in this way, but still… when I drink a Napa Cab Sauv, it does take me back to past visits to Napa Valley.

Affects of Climate and Location on Wine

So, now let’s pick-up where we left off in Part One and dive into the climate and location factors that influence the flavors in wine:

Where is the vineyard located, in a: Maritime (adjoining ocean), Continental (inland), or Mediterranean (moderate temps & ocean influence) Climate? If you add soil type, these are THE most important factors in vineyard influence on the wine. So, how does this affect the way we experience the wine? Let’s start with climate. The primary impact of climate is on the varietal selection planted. As an example, varietals grown in the Loire are completely different than those grown in Bordeaux and those choices have an obvious impact on flavors in wine from the two regions. Within the same varietal wine, the climate difference impacts structure: Acidity, Tannins, Alcohol, Complexity (especially mid-palate) and Balance. This is the part of the discussion that becomes more variable and interesting.

Winery Provence

Provence Region, France

Maritime Location

In Northern Latitudes, these locations can be cool with fog, but winter temps stay moderate. If the growers can get the grapes fully ripe, watch out – fantastic wine results. Think acidity here. Wonderful climate for growing cool climate red varietals (if the soil is right) like Pinot Noir, Cab Franc and Syrah. This type of climate can also produce interesting cool climate style whites, like Chardonnay, Albarino and Pinot Gris. Think U.S. Sonoma Coast, or Spanish Rias Baixas. In Southern Lattitudes, the hot days and cool nights make killer warm climate reds, like Cab Sauv, or Grenache. Think French Provence, or Italian Tuscan Coast.

Clear Lake Pic

Clear Lake Region, CA

Continental Location

These inland locations do not have the moderating affect of the ocean, so these regions cannot extend too far north, or south for that matter. Wine grapes have very specific climatic needs. A very interesting and different example is the California Clear Lake AVA – an inland location, but at higher elevation with a large adjacent lake. This AVA is starting to produce structured wines and as the local industry comes to understand the vineyard sites better, the wines form this area will continue to improve. The varying Continental climates can produce a wide array of varietals. Burgundy, France is the classic premium appellation. In the U.S., it might be Walla Walla Valley AVA.

northern-rhone-vineyard

Rhone Region, France

Mediterranean Location

These wine growing locations tend to be in southern latitudes, inland along rivers within 50-150 miles (or so) of the coast. The best reds produced in these areas are usually from Syrah and Mourvedre grape varietals. In the whites category, the varietals to look for would be Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. These areas offer some of the most complex wines in the world. You often find wines from these areas with crazy flavors, like: olive tapenade, tar and mint. Sounds unpleasant… but try extending your budget when the opportunity arises and buy a nicely aged bottle of Cote Rotie. Be prepared to have your socks knocked off! The classic premium appellation might be the Rhone Region in France. In the U.S., it would be San Luis Obispo County (Paso Robles AVA).

Conclusion

If you haven’t noticed what these locations have in common, think hot days and cool nights.

Grape vines need enough sunshine to ripen the fruit, but not too much heat… or else the wine tastes too flabby (try bottled grape juice). Cool nights add acidity, without which wines taste flat. It helps if Winter can be a little cold, so the vines can more effectively shut-down, go dormant and rest part of the year. Extremes within any of these factors makes for lousy wine, or dying vines.

This has been a brief review of Climate and its impact on Wine. The next piece will cover our most favorite topic – DIRT and vineyard site selection. I hope this series is offering deeper insight into the factors that affect wine flavors and structure. In particular, if you are interested in Wine Travel, this is the information that will make the experience much richer!

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Filed under Cool Climate Wine, Wine Education, Wine Industry, Wine Travel

Best Value Wine Destination in the U.S.A.?

value pic

I was recently involved in a discussion regarding preferred wine tourism destinations among serious wine drinkers / collectors. Napa Valley is consistently drubbed for its utter lack of value. Average tasting room fees are $25 – $40/pp… to access top quality, it is not uncommon to pay $75/pp. Now granted, these wineries are so gorgeous – Napa Valley itself creates its own ambiance, but let’s move past honeymoons and anniversaries and talk year-in and year-out wine tourism destinations. My wife and I have vacationed in Napa at least 10 times in the last 20 years and while it was previously my favorite location, it is now third on my list behind the California Central Coast and Sonoma County. To make things worse, Napa tasting rooms have steadily become more impersonal, making me feel like one of the massive herd, or a bother, rather than a valued guest.

Yes, my favorite wine destination is the Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties area in California!

Destination Comparison

Cuisine / Restaurant SceneWinner Napa Valley

The Central Coast is improving, but still has catching up to do.

Tasting Rm FeesWinner Central Coast

1/3 to 1/2 the cost of Napa.

Tasting Rm AtmosphereWinner Central Coast

The Central Coast is a big winner here. I have been getting tired of the attitude in Napa. The tasting rooms are so much friendlier almost anywhere else. I miss 10+ years ago when wine tasting was casual and inviting!

Lodging ValueWinner Central Coast

1/2 the cost of Napa with several resort quality properties to choose from.

Quality of WineWinner Central Coast

Slight edge, not because any single wine is superior, but because overall – the wines approach Napa in quality and the selection is amazingly diverse. There are top quality producers of Syrah, Cabernet Sauv, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay here… in Southern Rhone, Bordeaux and Burgundy styles. All of this diversity is driven by an area with crazy climate variability.

SceneryWinner Napa Valley

Maybe not as cozy as Napa Valley, but the hill and mountain regions west of Hwy 101 are very picturesque.

BeachWinner Central Coast

No Beaches near Napa. This region has Pismo Beach.

Winery ArchitectureWinner Napa Valley

Napa has a big edge here, but some wineries are starting to spend big money in the Central Coast area.

l'aventure winery

l’aventure winery

A Paso Robles Vineyard & Winery

Morro bay pic

Morro Bay, CA

Central Coast Winery Suggestions

(arranged from South to North)

Santa Barbara County

Carr Vineyards – All wines are good, but their 100% Cab Franc is special and reasonably priced.

Jaffurs Wine Cellars Quality Southern Rhone style wines that offer great value.

Brewer- Clifton Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Their Chardonnay is Burgundy style and fantastic!

Qupe – Beautiful, refined Syrah by a master winemaker.

Andrew Murray Vineyards The best value quality Syrah in the U.S. hands down.

Melville Winery Great values in Burgundy style Pinot Noir.

San Luis Obispo County

Laetitia Vineyard & Winery – Fine quality sparkling wines in a broad selection of styles.

L’Aventure Winery – Balanced Hedonism Incarnate (is that possible?). These wines are massive, powerful… and perfection.

Peachy Canyon Winery No winery makes more different single vineyard Zinfandels. If you are a Zin Master, you must visit Peachy.

Tobin James Cellars Their tasting room is definitely the most fun in the area!

Justin Cellars This is your bastion for Bordeaux style wine in the area. Their Cab Sauv and Merlot blends are very good! These wines are approaching the quality of the best in Napa.

Herman Story Wines THE BEST Southern Rhone Style Wines in the United States at prices that will cause you to do a double-take.

Other Wineries of Note Some of best wineries in the world are making amazing wine here, but are expensive and difficult to arrange access:  Alban Vineyards, Saxum Vineyards and Sea Smoke Estate Vineyards.

New Destinations My wife and I will be traveling to Walla Walla, WA this fall, six years after our last trip. I am hoping this location has much to show! I am looking for my next wine destination to add to our list! I will update our findings on this site after our trip!

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Filed under Wine Industry, Wine Tasting, Wine Travel

Pax Cuvee Keltie Syrah North Coast

22118

 

Pax Wine Cellars

2004 Cuvee Keltie Syrah North Coast

California, North Coast

Wine Tasting Note:

Initially, this was too hot and closed directly out of the bottle. After a one hour decant: blackberry and mint on the nose. The nose had a bit too much alcohol to enjoy. 11 years in the bottle and still plenty of structure with medium-high tannins and acidity. As you would expect, the freshness of the fruit is gone. The palate is of blackberry, black currant and bitter dark chocolate with a short finish. The alcohol is evident, but not over-whelming. The big winner here is the mouth-feel. A beautiful Northern Rhone kind of character that starts a little oily and finishes with mouth-coating, grainy tannins that were a little to the rustic side of velvetty. This wine has the structure to sit in the cellar much longer, but the fruit will not last. Best drinking window is/was probably 2012-2016. I have seen other recent tasting notes that describes a fruit-forward wine with a sweet finish. This bottle was very dry and had a subdued fruit character.

All-in-all a nice effort to produce an age-able, structured Syrah with a Rhone feel. This would have been a 95+ wine, if the alcohol component had been more balanced against the total profile.

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Filed under Cool Climate Wine, North Coast, Syrah/Shiraz, U.S. Wines by Region, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

New Year’s Eve Bubbly – Let’s Have a Party!

If you are looking for a fun idea for a New Year’s Eve Wine Party, think bubbly!  Most people will drink it, even if they are not big wine fans and it adds to the festive atmosphere!  There is a funny beer related surprise at the end too!

'She was a party girl!'

How to Hold a Blind Bubbly Party!

Here is a wine party theme to spark the imagination, satisfy curiosity and add a little adventure from around the world.  Plus, it fits into the spirit of New Years.

Sparkling wines are made in different styles all over the world (not just Champagne, France) and can taste radically different.  So, here is your mission (should you choose to accept it), introduce your friends to the world of sparkling wines.  Most Americans have had some exposure to bubbly wines and the typical experience is with California sparkling, and/or French Champagne.  I hosted this themed party with friends last year and it was a big hit.  Everybody loves bubbly!

Here’s how you do it.  Select one representative bottle of sparking wine from each (or less) region worldwide (see below for help).  Record the regions / styles on a blank sheet of paper and set aside. Line the bottles up on the counter and turn them around so the front labels are not visible, then place them in numbered plain paper bags.  Write the numbers with extra space on several blank sheets of paper and hand out to each party-goer.  When the tasting begins, refer everyone to the sheet with the different regions / styles and have them record their votes and comments regarding each numbered bag relating to their guesses.  When complete, expose the bottles and compare to actual.

Choosing Your Bubbly

This is a good spot to throw in a time saver… for those who are not interested in the background explaining the differences in these wines, skip this section and move down to the next – Regional Areas and Recommendations.  For those who would like to impress their guests with your wine knowledge and help you and them understand WHY these wines vary so much in taste, aroma and mouth-feel, please read on… (find an in-depth guide to sparkling wine production – HERE)

Grape Varietals

First, sparkling can be made from many different white and red grapes varieties.  Sparkling grape varieties must produce good acidity in the final product, so cool-climate varieties work best, the most common are:  Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Muenier, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Gamay, Glera, Chenin Blanc, Muscat and Riesling.

Sparkling Styles

1 – The first step in producing sparkling wine is always the making of still wine.  All the factors that make white still wines different, applies here too.  Let’s assume we are starting the discussion at second ferment – the process that adds the bubbles. There is much more to the final production stages, but in an effort to focus on what affects the bubbles most…  There are three typical methods that affect the texture and size of the bubbles in the wine:

  • Methode Champenoise – The second ferment creates the bubbles in each bottle and the wine remains in the bottle for the entire process
  • Methode Traditionelle – Same as above, but (by law) wineries are not allowed to use the term Methode Champenoise outside of the Champagne region
  • Charmat Method – These wines are fermented in large pressurized vats
  • Transfer Method – The second ferment is in the bottle, then the wine is transferred to large pressurized vats (less common)

Suffice it to say, the first method produces much finer bubbles, but can be very expensive, especially bottle-aged Champagne.  Often, the producer will describe the process used to make the wine on the label.  Some regions ONLY make the wine one way, or the other.  Such as, Champagne must be made with the first process, while Cava is made with the second.

2 – Another primary characteristic is the sweetness and amount of residual sugar in the final product. In France, they have a naming convention for this:

  • Extra Brut, Brut – Very little to no sugar
  • Cuvee – This actually denotes a blend of grapes, but usually is more fruity and/or has some residual sugar
  • Extra Dry, or Dry-Sec – Is slightly sweeter than Brut (don’t confuse this with a “dry” red wine)
  • Demi-Sec – Is medium sweet
  • Doux – Is very sweet and can be a touch syrupy

3 – Finally, an additional factor is whether the wine is made from red-skinned, or white skinned grapes.  The French also have terms for this that are used around the world:

  • Blanc-de-Blancs – from white grapes, usually Chardonnay. Can be crisper, lighter and more acidic.  Makes great food wines.
  • Blanc-de-Noirs – from red grapes (but is a white wine – click on link for explanation), usually Pinot Noir.  Can be richer, have more complex flavors, a voluptuous mouth-feel and are usually softer.

'Look at this! France is getting into the wine business, too.'

Sparkling Regions and Regional Styles

These are recommendations (best street prices noted) for selecting a very diverse group of readily available, reasonably priced wines that are sure to have your friends scratching their heads.  One “wine” will be our-ace-in-the-hole stumper… adding a surprise ending.   I will not cover Rose and Red styles, or Vintage sparkling , because the fun of this event is for people to compare similar wines with surprising differences at reasonable prices.  These wines are likely to be NV – Non-Vintage (shown on the label), but if you can find bottles with a date on the label, these can be of better quality (but not always).  You will want to select wines at price-points your guests would buy for themselves.

1. Brut Champagne

The Champagne region of France has been known for making the finest sparkling wine in the world for more than a century.  The best example of these are usually Brut style, with strong bread and/or nut flavors.  This wine is always made via the Methode Champenoise process by French law.  These wines are typically the most expensive sparkling. Try:

  • Charles Heidsieck Brut NV $50/btl, Piper Heidsieck Brut NV $40/btl, Laurent-Perrier Brut NV $35/btl.

2. Cremant de Bourgogne

These sparkling wines are made in the Burgundy region of France and can be excellent too, but are often made by brokers called “negociants“.  Quality control year over year can be an issue.  This category will be at a lower price point and often is made in a fruitier style than Champagne.  Try:

  • Louis Bouillot NV Blanc-de-Blanc, or Blanc-de-Noir $15/btl.

3. American Sparkling

This is a very diverse category with the Northern California region being the big player.  There are many producers making all styles. Quality and price can vary widely.  The well-known, quality California producers are Mumm, Roederer Estate, Schramsberg, Domaine Chandon, Domaine Carneros and Gloria Ferrer.  You could throw your guests a curve and serve good wines from lesser known places like: Gruet from Albuquerque, NM, or Laetitia from San Luis Obispo County, CA.  Try Brut, or Demi-Sec (or Cuvee) styles:

  • Mumm Cuvee “M” NV $15/btl, Schramsberg Blanc-de-Blanc NV $20/btl, Gruet Brut NV $12/btl, Roederer Estate Brut NV $18/btl.

4. Cava

Cava is made in the Penedes region in Spain.  The area is the largest volume producer of sparkling wine in the world and specializes in lower cost brands with dependable average quality.  The wines here are always made via some form of the Charmat process.  Try:

  • Segura Viudas Heredad Reserva Brut NV $18, Sumarroca Cava Reserva Brut NV $16, Anna De Codorniu Brut NV $11

5. Cremant d’Alsace

These wines are made in the Alsace region of France.  This is an interesting area producing a wide variety of styles and uses some of the lesser known varietals.  Give the sparkling made from Pinot Blanc a shot to experience a richer, full-bodied sparkling wine.  Try:

  • Hubert Meyer Cremant Brut NV $16, Pierre Spar Cremant Brut Reserve NV $16, Albert Mann Cremant NV $22

6. Cremant de Loire

These wines are produced in the Northern Loire region of France.  They are typically made from Chenin Blanc (my favorite white varietal) grapes, but can also contain Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc.  Very often, these wines are aged extensively on the lees, giving them more body and a richer flavor.  They tend to be fruitier and can be found commonly in all levels of residual sugar (sweetness).  I have a personal soft spot for Chenin Blanc.  When used in wines from Northern France and South Africa, this varietal can be both acidic and crisp, while being fruity and have a great mouth-feel. Look for the better sparkling wines in this region to be made with Methode Traditionelle.  Try:

  • François Pinon Cremant Brut NV $22, Domaine des Baumard Cremant Brut NV $20, Chateau Moncontour Cremant Sec $15

7. Deutscher Sekt

Sekt is made in Germany, typically from the Riesling grape.  The “Deutscher” means it is made from grapes that originate in Germany.  The German palate tends toward sweeter and less alcoholic wines and Sekt is no different.  The characteristics of Riesling that I enjoy, are what makes Sekt interesting:  good minerality and acidity with a “clean”, bright sweetness.  Look for “Trocken” on the label, if you prefer the less sweet version.  Try:

  • Dr. Loosen Sparkling Riesling Sekt NV $13, von Buhl Riesling Sekt Brut $21, Deinhard ‘Lila’ Riesling Sekt NV $14

8. Prosecco

There is more change going on in this region, than the others.  The wine growing areas northwest of Venice, Italy produce this style of wine.  The quality in this region has improved drastically in recent years.  Some of the least expensive sparkling wine in the world is being produced here, but the better producers are beginning to offer quality wines that can stand-up to comparison.  These wines tend to be simpler,  fruitier and are usually a touch sweet.  Almost all Prosecco is made in the Charmat Method.  Look for Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG on the label.  These wines are likely to be of better quality.  Try:

  • La Marca Extra Dry Prosecco NV $14, Nino Franco Rustico Prosecco NV $15, Bisol Crede Brut Prosecco NV

9. Asti Spumante / Moscato d’Asti

If there was ever a cliché for cheap, sweet sparkling, this is it.  Having very inexpensive versions imported into the U.S. for decades, this wine has developed a reputation.  Asti Spumanti is made in the Asti region of Italy from the Muscat grape.  The wine is typically made with the Charmat Method.  This style of sparkling wine is my least favorite, but if you are a sweet wine person and enjoy the richness of Muscat, this wine may be for you.  Try:

  • Casa Sant’Orsola Asti Spumante NV DOCG $12, Mondoro Asti Spumante NV DOCG $12, Gancia Asti Spumante NV DOCG $12

10. Duvel Brand Belgian Golden Ale

This Belgian beer is very light and made with Methode Traditionelle.  It has very fine bubbles and has all the character of fine Champagne, but with a barley aftertaste.  It tastes and feels just enough like sparkling wine that it will stump many of your guests and provide a fun, surprise ending to the tasting.  I enjoyed the surprised remarks at our party…

Conclusion

I hope you have as much fun with this as we did.  The group I hosted had a great time.  If your guests enjoy sparkling, this will open their eyes to a world of different, affordable wines.

Best wishes for a wonderful holiday season for you and your family!

 

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2009 Baldacci Family Vineyards Syrah Allwin

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Baldacci Family Vineyards Syrah Allwin

California, Napa Valley, Carneros

Wine Tasting Note:

A beautiful aged Syrah. Dinrk now… this is smack in the middle of its drinking window. The nose is full of rich plum and blackberry fruit with a woody, creme brulee note. On pop and pour all you get is cashmere in the mouth. What wonderful texture! The wine is initially closed. After a 30 min. decant – the plum and blackberry becomes persistent and in front. The mid-palate is full of oak, rich brown butter and spicy clove with a medium-long dark chocolate finish. The tannins are partially resolved and medium. The acidity is medium-high producing a nice backbone. The alcohol is well integrated. An extremely balanced wine! The richness and smooth texture of this wine will only pair well with the richest foods. Falls a little flat on the finish, but I can forgive… On its own, it is an after-dinner crowd-pleaser that your guests will likely not forget. A cool-climate Carneros Syrah lives up to its potential again!

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Filed under Carneros, Cool Climate Wine, Napa Valley, Syrah/Shiraz, U.S. Wines by Region, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

Ballard Canyon AVA – New World Syrah Country!

More Great Central Coast Rhone Wines: Ballard Canyon Region (AVA)

Panel Tasting at the 2014 U.S. Wine Bloggers Conference

Flowers in Your Syrah?

Floral Syrah usually means added Viognier. This is a traditional practice in Northern Rhone wines. Too much… and the winemaker can create a style that will overpower much of the Syrah character. Several of the wines reviewed here have a very noticeable inclusion of the Viognier flavor profile, for those of you that prefer this style, take note of those mentioned below.

2012 Vintage Wines

2012 Kimsey Syrah

Nose full of floral Viognier. Palate is of bitter chocolate, light black pepper, medium-high tannins with high acidity. Very simple wine profile. The wine is not fruit forward and has a long bitter finish.

2012 Beckmen La Purisima Moutnain Syrah

Nose of butter, black fruits and nail polish. The palate has sweet black plum and blackberry with a mid-palate of dark chocolate. High tannins and medium-high acidity. Good structure. If the idea is to lay this down, there may not be enough fruit to wait out the resolution of the tannins.

2012 Stolpman Vineyards Originals Syrah

Nose is cloyingly sweet, sugary and very floral.  The palate is of violets, black fruit and a sweet syrup. A better balance could have been struck here. I prefer a different style of Syrah and Stolpman usually produces wines with a more balanced style. If you are a fan of the big, extracted Australian Shiraz style, this will be a favorite.

2012 Rusack Reserve Syrah

Nose of strong black fruits. The palate followed the nose with the characteristic plum, blackberry and white pepper. A VERY pure, fresh profile. Quite elegant and balanced. Medium finish of slightly bitter dark chocolate. Medium-high tannins with medium-high acidity. Good balance and structure. Well composed for aging.

2010 Vintage Wines

2010 Harrison Clarke Cuvee Charlotte Syrah

Nose is very chocolate with plum, blackberry and leather. The fruit aromas are strong with some interesting added  forest floor. The palate reflects the fruit on the nose with some added butter and oak. The wine was very thick and extracted, coating your mouth. Specifically, grainy tannins that will need time to soften, but I have seen this kind of character develop into a very velvety mouth-feel over time. I would love to try this wine in another three years! It may be spectacular! The most interesting of the batch with the most promise.

2010 Larner Estate Syrah

Nose is hot with sweet blackberry and plum fruit flavors. The palate was clean and fresh. I enjoyed the purity of the fruit. High tannins and high acidity. The fruit flavors followed the nose. Nice soft texture. The lack of new oak really allowed the wine to express the character of the fruit.

2010 Jonata Sangre de Jonata Syrah

Nose was floral with a bit of grape candy. The wine had a sweet fruit character that was not too overwhelming. The palate was very soft, with a light texture. The blackberry and plum fruit was in front, along with dark chocolate flavors that showed only a little bitterness.  High tannins with high acidity… this will be a beautiful silky wine on maturity. This is refined and elegant today. The most ready to drink now of all the wines tasted.

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Filed under Santa Barbara County, U.S. Wines by Region, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

2007 Inman Family Pinot Noir Olivet Grange Vineyard

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Inman Family Pinot Noir Olivet Grange Vineyard

California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley

Wine Tasting Note:

The 2006 was a prettier vintage. It was a bit more fruit forward and a little more balanced, but this is still a wonderful effort. The nose has aromas of sour black cherries, dark chocolate, minerality and a minor floral note. The color has picked up a brownish tinge showing some age and the freshness is gone, but the palate is still showing strong acidity – making the wine still very lively in the mouth. The tannins are very subdued and the alcohol is very well integrated. The texture is gorgeous – very soft and pleasant. More old world style, focusing on balance and complexity, but not quite hitting the mark. The fruit is in front but subtle, moving to a mid-palate with vanilla, oak, leather and some mineral aspects with a medium-long finish of bitter chocolate. I enjoyed this California Pinot that didn’t follow the crowd.

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2007 Carr Paredon Syrah

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Carr Paredon Syrah

California, Central Coast, Santa Barbara County, Santa Barbara

Wine Tasting Note:

The fruit originated from an estate vineyard south of Santa Barbara (city). One of the few ocean-facing vineyards in the area. Copious amount of fruit on the nose and palate for such a cool, foggy location. I will track future vintages… as the vines age this will become one of the better syrah producing sites on the Central Coast. – Fruit forward nose of thick plum, blackberry and eucalyptus. Fruit forward palate of plum, blackberry and milk chocolate. The mid-palate transitions to loads of sweet vanilla, with a medium-long finish of bitter chocolate. Medium-high acidity and high tannins. The tannins have the good grace to wait and present on the finish. Wonderful thick texture and mouth-feel. Missing some savory aspects of Northern Rhones, but all in all… a nice new world cool-climate syrah. Almost like a black-fruit zin… but more texture. This will improve with some time in the cellar. I enjoyed the wine today, but give it 3-4 more years for the fruit to subside and the tannins to soften and this should become a superior, balanced wine.

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Filed under Cool Climate Wine, Santa Barbara County, Syrah/Shiraz, U.S. Wines by Region, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes