More Wine Labels Demystified

Europeans love to baffle us, especially when it comes to their wines. Half of my wine-loving friends think Burgundy is a grape, like Malbec or Chardonnay. Unless you’ve studied wine regions, you may not know what’s really in that place-name bottle either, so you might leave the bottle on the shelf – and that’s sad, because you’re missing out on some great wine!

When you’re sipping that nice Chianti Classico this weekend, think of this Italian vineyard in Tuscany – specifically in the Chianti region – where they grow Sangiovese, the primary grape (sometimes the only grape) – used in making Chianti.

Tuscany vineyard

[“Vineyard in Tuscany,” courtesy of Jason Parrish via Flickr]

In the Old World, which mostly means Europe, wines usually are identified not by their grapes but by their appellation, a legal term that defines the geographic boundaries of a wine district, the grape varieties permitted there, and the growing and winemaking practices allowed.

Here in America, and in other upstart wine-producing countries such as Australia, we identify wines by grape varieties. You don’t walk into a wine shop and say, “I’d like a bottle of Finger Lakes, please,” or “How ’bout some Clare Valley.” But Europeans, especially the French, expect you to know which grapes grow in which region, so they don’t see the need to elaborate further.

That’s changing ver-r-r-r-y slowly, but in the meantime, let’s eliminate some of the mystery. Here are more European wines I’m sure you’ve seen, but might be reluctant to buy just because you aren’t sure what you’re getting. Feel free to carry this list along the next time you go wine-shopping:

  • Bordeaux – this is a region in France most known for its red blends; Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carmenére are all permitted in a Bordeaux blend. And while 89 percent of grapes grown in the region are red, you’ll also see white blends of Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and possibly a touch of floral Muscadelle.
  • Burgundy – if it’s red, it’s probably Pinot Noir. A white Burgundy is likely to be Chardonnay. Other grapes are permitted in small quantities, but most wines produced here are 100 percent of either PN or Chardonnay.
  • Champagne – I’ve mentioned it earlier, but it bears repeating: if the label says it’s “Champagne,” the grapes were grown in the Champagne region of France. Note that even though most Champagne is white, the grapes used are generally Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. If it’s pink, the fruit stayed in contact with the red skins for a short time. Other grapes permitted are Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Petit Meslier and Arbane. Some Champagne houses never use the last four varieties, but one, Le Nombre d’Or (“Golden Number”) uses all four.
  • Chablis – a small wine region northwest of Burgundy. The grape is Chardonnay, but it’s more crisp and acidic than the big-body Chardonnays made in the U.S., with lots of minerality.
  • Sauternes – a city in the Graves region of Bordeaux where they produce some of the priciest, most delicious dessert wines anywhere. It’s made mostly of Sémillon, sometimes with a bit of Sauvignon Blanc added.
  • Côtes du Rhône – divided into Northern and Southern Rhône, this reason produces mostly reds. In the North the grape is Syrah, and in the South it can by Syrah, Carignan, Mourvèdre or Cinsaut. If the wine is white, it’s likely to be Grenache Blanc. The Rhône is especially known for its rosé – heartier and deeper in color than many rosés – though it only accounts for 9 percent of the region’s production.
  • Beaujolais – this is the fruity, strawberry-red wine made from Gamay grapes, that someone inevitably brings to Thanksgiving dinner. You remember, it’s the one that tastes like Uncle Ned just made it in the basement. Released on the third Thursday each November, Beaujolais, named for its own small region inside Burgundy, is intended to be consumed immediately. Don’t keep it; in six months (or less) it will be nasty.
  • Rioja – one of the few Spanish wines sometimes identified by its geographic home, Rioja is Tempranillo. It may contain some Garnacha and Cariñera, too.
  • Madeira – an island about 400 miles off the coast of Morocco where they produce – guess what – Madeira. It’s known as sweet wine, but you can find dry versions as well. The grapes are relatively obscure varieties: Servial, Verdelho, Boal and Malvasia.

Wine Lingo of the Day: AOC = “appellation d’origins contrôlée,” or “name of controlled origin,” now called AOP – these are the top-quality French wines. An AOC might be the name of a town or collection of villages designated as a regulated wine region, such as Mâcon-Villages, or even a single domaine (winery or producer), such as Château Margaux.

Vino ‘View: When tank-top weather leaves, I want to transition with a fruity dry red. I found two Chiantis for perfect shoulder-season drinking: Castello di Albola Chianti Classico 2013 (13 percent alcohol, avg. price $15) and Castello di Albola Chianti Classico Riserva 2012 (13.5 percent alcohol, avg. price $20).

Chianti bottles

[These wines were submitted to BigSexyReds for review.]

The Zonin family have been making wine since 1821, so they know their craft. The 2013 Classico is medium-bodied, silky, smelling of red berries and a touch of spice; I drank it with a dinner of roast chicken and brown rice pasta. The Riserva was even more elegant – no surprise; Sangiovese for this Riserva grows on steep slopes in a small, high-altitude vineyard. It was aged for two years after the harvest – the law for Chianti Classico Riserva – and bottled at .5 percent more alcohol than nonriserva, also a requirement. You can almost taste the warm sun in this bottle; it’s a deeper garnet color, a little earthier than the Classico, with an aroma of violets and fresh strawberries. By my third sip I was tasting a little licorice, a touch of rhubarb and a lot of earth. Both wines should keep until 2020, but I had to have them now.

Happy sipping!

Mary

 

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Vive la Franc!

You’re right, BigSexyReds doesn’t usually work on Sunday. But I couldn’t resist – today, December 4, is Cab Franc Day, and I want to kick up my heels a little and celebrate this rock star of cool-climate reds.

There’s a bit of serendipity at play here. Last week, I spent Thanksgiving with family in northern Virginia. Now, you don’t need me to tell you that Virginia has emerged as a powerhouse of terrific wine. Its “signature” varietal is Viognier, but for my money, that state produces some of the smoothest, most luscious Cabernet Franc on the planet, and we discovered a new favorite at Pearmund Cellars in Broad Run.

pearmund-cellars-fire-pit

Cabernet Franc is one of the three primary grapes in the classic “Bordeaux blend.” (The other two, if you want to sprinkle your next cocktail conversation with a little wine trivia, are Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.) We do our Cab Franc dance on December 4 because  it’s the date when Cardinal Richelieu died in 1642 – and he happens to be the fellow who carried cuttings of the vine from Libournais to the Loire Valley, where the variety thrived. I know, it’s a spotty connection, and I’m sure it’s the only day of the year when anyone gives a thought to poor dead Cardinal Richelieu, but there it is.

Cab Franc has a slightly shorter growing season than its heftier relative, Cabernet Sauvignon; it’s ready to harvest at least a week earlier. That means its skin doesn’t get as thick; it doesn’t need the long weeks of hot sun that thick-skinned Cab Sauv needs, so it does well in cooler wine regions such as Ontario, Ohio and the Finger Lakes. Cab Franc does grow in California, though, where it’s popular as an ingredient in that state’s famous Meritage blends.

Cabernet Franc is an adaptable grape with plenty of backbone, so it’s often used in blends, lending some structure to the mix. Petit Verdot is one popular blending partner. I like Cab Franc best as its own single-variety wine, though – it’s robust but, since it’s thin-skinned, its tannins are tame. I think of it as Cabernet Sauvignon’s more refined kin – softer, slightly more floral, but never wimpy. Cab Franc tastes of dark berries and dry leaves; it can hang with the big guys at dinner, pairing well with pork or, because of its spicy notes, a nice sausage dish. But it also goes down nicely with roasted chicken.

So, which Cab came first – Franc or Sauvignon? According to wine expert Jancis Robinson, DNA research in 1997 found that Cabernet Franc had mated with Sauvignon Blanc; their love child was Cabernet Sauvignon. So, Cab Franc is the older grape.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  “Hectare” = a unit of square-area measurement, equal to 2.471 acres. This is the global term used to convey how much land is “under vine,” or planted with wine grapes. Worldwide, about 54,000 hectares, or 133,437 acres, are devoted to growing Cabernet Franc. Most of that land is in France (about 37,000 hectares, or 91,429 acres). About 7 percent of the world’s Cab Franc is grown in the United States.

Vino ‘Views:  We’re raising a glass of Pearmund Cellars 2014 Cabernet Franc Reserve ($42) tonight. Voted “Best Winery in Virginia” by readers of Virginia Wine Lovers Magazine, Pearmund Cellars got our vote for best Cab Franc of the three wineries we visited. Lush and smooth, the aromas of smoke and black cherries gave way to tastes of tobacco, blackberries and strong tea – but without the tea’s tannins. Don’t let the price tag scare you off; it includes the cost of shipping.

Enjoy your Cab Franc tonight!

Mary

[Photo: Fire pit at Pearmund Cellars, courtesy of Benjamin Snyder.]

 

 

California Wines Leave Frenchies in the Dust

Today’s the 40th anniversary of the Judgment of Paris , the day in 1976 when California wines were declared the finest vino on the planet – better, even, than some of the most exalted Bordeaux.

It all started with a British wine merchant, Steven Spurrier, trying to drum up business for his little wine shop, Caves de la Madeleine, in Paris. Spurrier had visited a few upstart wineries in California and thought what he was tasting was competitive. So he recruited nine of France’s top wine experts as judges and gave them instructions: this is a blind tasting of 20 French and American wines – 10 Cabernet Sauvignons, 10 Chardonnays – and we want you to assign each wine a score of up to 20 points.

The actual scoring was up to the judges; they could rate the wines on aroma, taste, appearance, structure – whatever qualities they cared to measure. Spurrier simply tallied their marks, divided by nine – and the shocking results changed the way we buy and drink wine across the globe.

A little dramatic, you say? Au contraire.

 

Ch.Montelena

[Castle-like Château Montelena, photo by Robert Engberg via Flickr/CreativeCommons]

Several entries were French “first growths” – some of the priciest, most esteemed bottles on the market – including wines by Château Haut-Brion and Château Mouton-Rothschild. But the top-rated Chardonnay (called “white Burgundy” in France, where wines are identified not by grape but by region) was a California wine, a 1973 Château Montelena – only the second vintage crafted for the winery by a young Croatian immigrant and former shepherd boy, winemaker Mike Grgich.

French wines didn’t fare any better in the BigSexyReds category. The winning Cabernet was a 1973 Cab by Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. The French, of course, were humiliated; they didn’t even report it in their newspapers for almost three months! The French wine industry punished Spurrier by banning him from its wine-tasting circuit for a year, and French judge Odette Kahn, editor of La Revue du vin de France, was so angry at the outcome she demanded her ballot be returned to her so she could vote again. (Her hissy fit didn’t work.)

The media hadn’t taken the competition seriously because everyone assumed France would win. In fact, only one reporter showed up at the event – George Taber of TIME magazine. It was his four-paragraph story that made the wine world take notice of California wines for the first time. As he later recounted in his book, Judgment of Paris, Taber held up his glass of Château Montelena Chardonnay, took a sip and said to himself, “Hey. Maybe I’ve got a story here.”

Curiously, Mike Grgich never even knew the contest was happening. But when he received a telegram informing him his wine had won, he writes in his just-released autobiography, A Glass Full of Miracles, “I felt reborn.”

After the French argued that their wines would age better than California’s, the contest was repeated 20 months after the original event. Again, California whites and reds took top honors. A decade later, California reds again won over Bordeaux entries; whites didn’t compete as both sides recognized they would be past their peak. And again in 2006, on the 30th anniversary of the Judgment of Paris, another blind tasting was held – and the top five winners were California Cabs.

This year, for the 40th anniversary, no competition was planned; presumably the French would be happy to forget the whole thing ever happened. Grgich, who left Château Montelena a year after the Judgement to launch Grgich Hills Estate, learned in 2010 that a bottle of 1973 Château Montelena Chardonnay had been auctioned in London for $11,325. Another bottle, along with a 1973 Stag’s Leap Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, is on display in the Smithsonian, along with the little cardboard suitcase Grgich carried when he immigrated from Croatia in 1954.

[As an aside, my apologies for not publishing early enough for friends and followers to enjoy their California Cab and Chardonnay in time to celebrate; WordPress had a bug in their system. But I suspect we can all manage to catch up tomorrow, no problem!]

Wine Lingo of the Day:  First Growths = The “1855 Classification” of chateaux (wine estates) by the French government was based on their reputations. They were listed as First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Growths. The First Growths (Premiers Crus) were Château Haut-Brion, Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Latour, Château Margaux, and Château Mouton-Rothschild.

Cheers!

Mary