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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Italian Wine – Splendido Vino!

Ah, primavera – finally it’s spring, the most joyful season. Grapes are starting to emerge from their long slumber and ease into their growing cycle. Here in the Great Lakes region, we get a hint of the Mediterranean with warming sunshine and breezy, cool nights – and to me, nothing says Mediterranean like a BigSexyRed from Italy.

I had a chance to taste plenty of wonderful Italian wines recently at Vinitaly2017, the giant wine expo in New York City staged by Vinitaly, the “strategic arm of Italian wine abroad.” That means they exist to promote Italian wines – an easy job in the US, I think, since we’re consistently one of the top importers worldwide.

Such expos are trade shows: you take a few hundred winemakers; add a swarm of wine writers, buyers, distributors and geeks; put them in a gymnasium and start pouring. Between pours, you visit seminars such as this one on Barolo and Barbaresco, two hearty reds produced in Italy’s Piedmont region, pictured below.

IMG_0438

Trying to cover Italian wines in one blog post would be ridiculous; almost 400 indigenous grapes grow in 20 wine regions throughout the boot. (Yes, I memorized all 20 regions for my CSW certification exam. No, I couldn’t recite them now.) Those grapes, and scores of other varieties that aren’t native to Italy, are blended in thousands of formulas. It’s said that if you sampled one Italian wine each week, it would take you 20 years to taste all Italian wines. You do the math while I sip.

But we can try, right? For a country that’s less than 70 miles wide at its narrowest point, the mélange of grapes, soils and weather conditions of the Italian Peninsula is vast. It’s a rugged, mountainous country: the Apennines run down its spine, while the Alps dominate the northern boundaries, blocking Arctic air that gives most of Europe its cold winters. At the same time, Italy is almost completely surrounded by seas – the Adriatic, Ionian and Tyrrhenian, with the Mediterranean Sea and its hot, dry summers just to the west.

Each wine region celebrates its own specialties. Chianti is the headliner in romantic Tuscany, made primarily from the Sangiovese grape. In the northeast corner, tucked under the Alps, Friuli-Venezia Giulia is known for its crisp whites: Gewürztraminer, Pinot Grigio and Riesling. On the island of Sicily, Nero d’Avola, the “little black grape,” dominates the hilly vineyards. Abruzzo on the Adriatic Sea presents two stars –  Trebbiano, the white grape known in France as Ugni Blanc, and the delicious red Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. And Piedmont produces Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto, the biggest, sexiest reds of all, along with the peachy Moscato, sometimes called Asti.

Every year, Italy competes with France as the world’s biggest wine producer – the ranking depends on whom you ask – but it’s responsible for about one-third of global wine production. Italian wine grapes are typically high in acidity, yet medium-bodied, making them ideal for pairing with – you guessed it – Italian foods.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Super-Tuscans = These wines are born of rebellion (which makes me like them even more!). Back in the 1960s, a small number of winemakers in Tuscany decided the Chianti DOC rules, which regulated the kinds of grapes permitted in quality wines, were too restrictive and limited their potential. Until then, Italian wines that didn’t comply with those rules were viewed as vino da tavola – ordinary table wine. The defiant winemakers fiddled with their blends, many adding “forbidden,” non-indigenous grapes such as Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon. In the 1970s, the wines were tagged “Super-Tuscans” and demand – and prices – quickly skyrocketed. Fortunately, Super-Tuscans are no longer a novelty and have become more affordable.

Montefalco Rosso

 

Vino ‘View:  You may have noticed, this bottle of Arnaldo Caprai Montefalco Rosso DOC 2013 (14% alc., $21) is empty. That’s because I shared it with a neighbor who loves Italian reds and we drank every drop. This wine benefits from decanting; although our first glass smelled strongly of dark berries, we tasted only chocolate and dried tobacco. (Nothing wrong with that; I love a smoky BigSexyRed.) The fruit emerged in our aerated second glass: blackberry jam, some black pepper and fewer tannins. Notice the thick tears staining your glass as you swirl; you’ll feel heat in your throat from all of that alcohol. And in the long finish, a tart surprise – a hint of lemon rind toward the back of my tongue. Bring on the lasagna!

Arrivederci for now,

Mary

[The Montefalco Rosso was sent to BigSexyReds for reviewing purposes.]