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.]

 

 

The Art of Wine Tasting

If you’re going to learn about wine, you have to know how to taste it. That doesn’t mean tossing back a big gulp of vino and deciding whether you like it; there are steps and dimensions to tasting, and they get pretty involved. Tasting correctly has nothing to do with whether you enjoy a particular wine; it’s your vehicle for describing the wine to others – and one of the best places to appreciate that process is The Winemakers Studio in Livermore Valley, California, part of the iconic Wente Vineyards.

I was there with other bloggers attending the Wine Bloggers Conference in August, and we got an up-close look at “all the critical decision points a winemaker goes through every day,” our guide told us.

One of the most important aspects of tasting wine is detecting its various smells. Our first session was the Wine Aroma Experience, pictured above, where we took whiffs of pure essences that could have been any fruit, bark, seed, nut, vegetable or spice, and tried to match them with the actual samples on the table. The idea was to “reach back into our memories and bring back experiences” we associate with those smells. Fruits and spices are easiest for me, but spices always trip me up.

Our next stop was Wine & Food Pairing, with a twist: instead of pairing foods with two different wines, we sipped two vintages of the same wine – a 2014 and 2015 Semillon by Cuda Ridge Wines. I’d never tried pairing foods with different vintages of the same wine before, and was surprised at how they influenced the foods differently.

Pairing photo

For starters, the wines looked different – the 2014 was watery-white, while the 2015 had more of a corn-silk hue. Tasting both with crab salad, the 2015’s minerality came through much more than the older wine, which was more mellow with a strong pear taste. With the brie, the 2014 was predictably richer and “bigger” than the 2015, which was noticeably more tart, cutting into the creamy brie taste.

We went on to “Size & Shape Matters,” a session showing how a glass can influence the aroma and taste of the wine. I’ve written on this (and probably will do a blog post on glasses at some point), so I knew the wine in the crystal Riedel glass would taste much smoother and more expensive than the same wine in what the instructor called the “Outback Steakhouse glass.”

Our last class was a blind tasting. Wine was poured into two black glasses – one white wine, one red – and we had to guess which of four varietals each wine was. The answers were Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon; I missed both because I didn’t think they would give us such obvious choices. I was wrong!

Classes at The Winemakers Studio are open to the public, but you have to book in advance at 925-456-2385. You can take one class or all four, or a special wine blending workshop. Our sessions were abbreviated; plan on one to two hours per class, and have fun with it!

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Fruit-forward = A wine is said to be fruit-forward when tastes of fruit dominate over all other tastes, such as oak, spices or smoke. Some use the term “fruit-driven.” The fruity taste will be most noticeable towards the front of your mouth.

Mark West Black, small

Vino ‘View: As summer ends, I’m not quite ready for the bold Cabs and Zins that I love, but I get a hankering for something red. The perfect compromise is 2014 Mark West Black Pinot Noir (13.5% alcohol, $13.99). The color is a dark wine-red – I once had a skirt that color; we called it “burgundy.” The wine is full-bodied for a Pinot, and I feel some heat as it goes down, though the alcohol level isn’t high. Aromas of smoke, dry leaves and blackberries remind me that fall is almost here, and the taste has a lot of layers – it’s fruit-forward with black raspberry flavor, then dark chocolate, black walnuts, black olives, smoke, and a slight peppery note emerge. There is, as they say, a lot going on in that glass.

Enjoy your holiday!

Mary

[Bottle shot courtesy of Mark West Wines. This bottle was sent by the producer to be reviewed.]

 

 

 

When Wine Bloggers Meet: 8 Takeaways

As soon as I heard about the annual Wine Bloggers Conference, I knew I had to be there – and what a spectacle it was! With about 300 of my new best friends, I swirled, sipped and spit my way through the Livermore Valley and Lodi, California wine country. Here’s a bit of what I learned:

1) Yes, you can appreciate good wine at 8:15 a.m.

image

The good folks at Murrieta’s Well Estate Vineyard prepared a lavish breakfast for us one morning, paired with three of their tastiest wines. “Best of show” for me was The Spur, their primo red blend, which sells for $30/bottle.

2) Those aren’t grapevines, they’re windmills.

You can’t miss the massive wind farm on the fringe of the valley; the freeway cuts right through it. You’ll be surrounded by nearly 5,000 small-ish wind turbines, but they’re gradually being replaced by bigger turbines – it turns out the smaller version kills some 4,700 birds each year, 1,300 of them raptors. The new turbines sit higher and turn more slowly, so they’ll be less dangerous to animals.

3) If you want a career in wine, volunteer at a winery and learn the basics.

Sounds simple enough, but not all would-be winemakers get it. “We get kids coming to us all the time, wanting a job,” Stuart Spencer, program manager at the Lodi Grape Commission, told his audience. “They have oenology degrees, but they don’t know how to hook up a pump.”

4) There’s a “trail” for everything, even plants that don’t get thirsty.

Livermore Valley has a “drought-resistant trail,” showcasing drought-resistant gardens or plants at wineries. California is in its 5th year of drought with no relief in sight (something to keep in mind if you dream of owning a vineyard on the West Coast), and this trail is popular among visitors who garden.

5) “Old vine” in these parts means really old.

It’s a little comical, here in the Midwest, when wineries label their 30-year-old wines “old vine.” In Lodi and Livermore, it’s not uncommon to find century-old vineyards, some dating back to the early 1880s. Now, that is wine with character.

6) No, you’re not in Greece, but go ahead and pretend.

Those tall, skinny, pointy trees dotting the landscape are Cypress trees, a familiar sight in Greece and other Mediterranean countries. It makes sense; Livermore has a Mediterranean climate. At least five species of Cypress grow here, some reaching a height of 65 feet, and they’re gorgeous juxtaposed against palm trees and oaks.

7) Some of the finest spirits around are crafted by artisans.

image

I learned that at the after-hours Spirits Lounge, organized by “whiskyologist” Justin Koury. Two standouts: Few Rye Whiskey, produced by Few Spirits in Evanston, Illinois, and Willie’s Coffee Cream Liqueur by Willie’s Distillery in Ennis, Montana, possibly the best-tasting drink in the history of drinking.

8) Winemakers are generous souls.

This was evident when so many hosted us, led workshops and spent hours talking with us – even though they were in the middle of their grape harvest. They also shared their finest top-shelf wines, most notably Ehlers Estate’s 2013 “1886” Cabernet Sauvignon ($110/bottle) and Livermore Valley’s Lineage ($165/bottle).

I have much more to share about the Wine Bloggers Conference, but I’ll save it for next week.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Tears = These used to be called “legs,” but if you use that term in front of wine people they’ll think you’re old-fashioned. You can see tears on the inside of your wineglass after you swirl your wine. They’ll be more evident with higher-alcohol wines (say, above 13 percent) and, of course, easier to see with reds. There may also be a relationship between tears and the wine’s age; that’s one of those geeky points experts like to debate. The scientific explanation of tears involves molecules and something called “interfacial tension,” but if I talk about that my brain will hurt and I’ll need someone to bring me alcohol.

Vino ‘Views:  It would make sense to review a California red today, especially since August 28 is  Red Wine Day, but I have Abruzzo on my mind. An earthquake devastated much of central Italy this week. I can’t do much to support the region, but I can pour their wine and send good thoughts for their quick recovery. I’ve chosen a bottle of delicious Borgo Thaulero Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (13% alcohol), a dark ruby-colored wine that leaves thicker, creamier tears than you’d expect for a wine of this alcohol level. The smoky, dark-grape aroma prepares you for smoke and a little leather in your mouth, mixed with ripe plums and a long blackberry finish. The body is medium-light, so in spite of the bold tastes I wouldn’t drink this with anything heavy like steak or sausage. This is more a chicken sausage-with-pasta wine, with lots of Parmesan on top. 

Salute!

Mary

 

The Great Chocolate-and-Wine Myth

If you’ve ever felt like devouring a giant wedge of chocolate cake for dinner, today you have an excuse: it’s World Chocolate Day, and according to Wikipedia, “celebration of the day includes the consumption of chocolate.” Duh.

Choc.cake

My mom baked the most decadent chocolate cake; she added mayonnaise for extra moistness. When she cooked a pot of chili, she included a square of dark chocolate to make it richer. From Oreos to truffles, brownies, fudge, hot chocolate or Trader Joe’s dark chocolate-covered coffee beans, we all know some form of chocolate that makes us swoon.

Supposedly, this day marks Europe’s first introduction to chocolate, 466 years ago – but this dark delight has been around a lot longer than that. Ancient Mayans (250-900 A.D.) came upon cacao in the rainforest and taught themselves to roast and grind the seeds into a paste. They mixed it with chile peppers, cornmeal and water to make a spicy drink they later traded to the Aztecs; priests in both societies served it in religious ceremonies. But they didn’t grow sugarcane, so chocolate didn’t sweeten up until the Spaniards conquered the Aztecs in the 1500s. They took it back to Spain where someone thought to add sugar and cinnamon, and dessert was served.

Chocolate was one of George Washington’s favorite beverages. A century later in 1886, Milton Hershey launched his biz, but it wasn’t until 1900, when he began mass-producing milk chocolate, that chocolate became affordable.

And somehow, over the years, people got it into their heads that chocolate should be paired with Cabernet Sauvignon and other BigSexyReds. But they make a terrible pairing, and the fact that this misinformation endures is one of the most annoying myths in the wine world.

You don’t believe me? Ye of little faith. Try this: take a bite of your chocolate cake or brownie. Now sip your Cab. That unpleasant sensation near the back of your tongue? It’s bitterness – not dryness, not citrus tang. Harsh bitterness. Pairing chocolate and Cabernet kills the rich, smooth, delicious tastes of both the wine and chocolate.

Now try this: open a nice bottle of Port – Vintage if you can afford it, but Ruby will do nicely. Match the wine to the chocolate if you can; the darker the chocolate, the darker you want your Port. If you’re eating a lighter milk chocolate, pair it with a light Tawny Port.

Bite the brownie, sip the Port – notice the difference? The alcohol and depth of your slightly sweet Port meet the richness of your chocolate, and they kiss. They’re transformed and elevated; each mellows the other and brings out their more subdued qualities.

Now, go ahead and indulge – once a year you deserve a chocolate dinner!

Vino ‘View:  We’re having a heat wave in Ohio. That means glorious summer, a good time to introduce this sometime-feature because I want a light wine tonight – and if it’s a red, “light” usually means Pinot Noir. 

Mark West PN

I’ve tasted this Mark West 2014 California Pinot Noir, and it’s perfect for dinner on the porch (yep, that’s my front porch). It’s young enough to show plenty of acidity, enhanced by the coastal breezes cooling the vineyards. The flavors are summery, too: strawberries, blueberries, cola, a touch of black pepper – a good, soft vino to drink with a cold chicken salad. Since it’s so warm, I’ll chill the wine for about 15 minutes before I open it. (Alcohol 13.5%, $10.99/750ml)

Wine Lingo of the Day:  CadastroPortugal’s vineyard ranking system. The DOC (the officially sanctioned quality wine region) assesses vineyards on 12 factors that influence the wine, including altitude and yield. Vineyards are ranked on their total scores, A through F; that ranking determines the Beneficio, or the volume of Port the government allows each vineyard to produce that year.

[Photo, “Triple Chocolate Cake,” by Meraj Chhaya via Flickr.]

Cheers!

Mary 

 

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

Cheer Up, Evita – It’s World Malbec Day!

Don’t cry for me, Argentina – there’s Malbec in my glass.

For my money, Malbec is one of the all-time Big Sexy Reds. Full in the mouth and dark as blood-stained soil, it glides down the throat like rich, smooth cocoa. It has fewer tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon, is more suited to prime rib than salami, and sometimes, after a long day at the computer, it triggers the slightest little moan…

You think I exaggerate? Translated from the French mal bouche, “Malbec” means “bad mouth.” This is a wine with attitude.

Catena Malbec

Malbec is the signature grape of Argentina where it flourishes in the high-altitude foothills of the Andes, but it was born in the Cahors region of southwest France. Its official French name is Côt. They also call it Vin Noir – “the black wine” – and in its birthplace it’s harsh, heavily tannic and not very popular.

In the wine’s defense, it’s had a difficult time finding its identity. Malbec is the love-child of two crazily matched, obscure grapes: a maiden with the lyrical name of Magdeleine Noire des Charentes, and the other a blunt bad-boy named Prunelard. (Isn’t that the greatest name? I want to keep saying it – Prunelard, Prunelard…)

Malbec vineyard Argentina

Malbec made its first appearance in Argentina in the 1820s, when immigrants arrived carrying vines from their homelands. There, in those parched, dusty, low-fertility vineyards, Malbec came into its own. With an average of 320 sunny days and less than 10 inches of rain per year, the fruit lost its tannic edge and made elegant wine. In 1885, when the first rail line connected Mendoza, the grape’s prime growing region, with the capital city of Buenos Aires, the “full Malbec” made her grand entrance.

If you’re drinking a bottle of wine from Bordeaux, chances are there’s a bit of Malbec in your glass, too – the French grape, not from Argentina. The classic “Bordeaux-style blend” usually is a marriage of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, but the French government also permits Malbec, Carménère and Petit Verdot in the mix, depending on the winemaker’s preferences. The last three grapes are only to fine-tune the wine’s aroma and taste; while Argentinian Malbec is luscious and stands on its own as a single-grape varietal, you won’t find a Bordeaux containing more than 10 percent Malbec, if that much.

A bountiful World Malbec Day to everyone! And if you enjoy reading with your vino, please click on the “Follow” tab at the lower right corner of your screen, and BigSexyReds.com will arrive by email every week.

Wine Lingo of the Day =  La Rioja Argentina. While Mendoza is famous for its Malbec, La Rioja – not to be confused with the Rioja region of Spain – is known for growing Torrontés, the country’s signature white grape, and Moscatel. Wines from here specify “La Rioja Argentina” on the label so consumers will know it’s not Spanish wine.

¡Salud!

Mary

[Photo of the Andes Mountains and a vineyard in the Uca Valley, Mendoza, courtesy of John Floyd. Photo of Catena Malbec courtesy of Bruno Bucci. Both at Flickr.com]

 

 

 

 

Washington Wine Month is Walla-Walla-Wonderful!

Some say the shrubby, scrubby, almost desert-like terrain of eastern Washington is what gives character and backbone to wines from that state. There, in the rain shadow of the Cascades, you’ll find 99 percent of Washington’s vineyards.

Red Willow vineyard, Yakima AVA, Washington

Red Willow vineyard, Yakima AVA, Washington

March is Washington Wine Month and we can all raise our glasses: their wines are sold in all 50 states and about 40 countries.

Big Sexy Reds do well here. A slew of micro-climates are scattered across the state’s 13 AVAs, but typically the vines goes fully dormant in winter, with temps from 28°-45° to keep the roots cozy and growing, and hoarding their carbs until the vines are ready to sprint in the spring. Diurnal (overnight) temperature swings of 40° keep the acid levels up there, and summertime highs of 90° or more make great sugar for the fruit.

Some 25,000 acres are planted with reds – slightly more than half the state’s vines – with about 10,300 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon alone. But it’s all good for red-lovers of every stripe; Washington also produces Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, Malbec and more. For white-wine drinkers they grow Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Viognier – more than 40 wine grapes in all.

Harvest, Figgins Family Wines, Walla Walla, Washington

Harvest, Figgins Family Wines, Walla Walla, Washington

Washington wine has come a long way since the first wine grapes appeared in the Walla Walla Valley around 1860. The state’s oldest living vines are the Muskat of Alexandria vines on Snipes Mountain, reportedly producing fruit since 1917. (Next year, when those vines celebrate their 100th birthday, I think Washington wine lovers should make a pilgrimage to Snipes Mountain and dance naked in the vineyard. Just saying.)  The first commercial-scale plantings – predecessors of today’s Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Winery – came in the 1960s; today Washington wine is a $4.4-billion industry, with a new winery opening almost every 30 days.

Although the biggest tastings happen this month, you have plenty of time to plan a visit during sunny, walking-around weather: it generally stays warm (70°-80°) into the fall, with some wineries able to harvest as late as November.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  AVA = American Viticultural Area, an officially designated wine grape-growing region in the U.S. The gatekeeper for AVAs is the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Currently there are 234 AVAs in the U.S. (138 of them in California), with 10 applications pending for the creation of new AVAs or expansion of existing ones. One day when I’m feeling especially nerdy I’ll write an entire post on AVAs, their regulation and how they differ from wine-region designations in other countries. Sound exciting? Yeah, I thought that’s what you’d say…

Don’t forget to click the “Follow” tab (lower right corner of your screen) to get BigSexyReds.com by email (pretty please!).

Cheers!

Mary

[Photos courtesy of WashingtonWine.org]