Golden Bordeaux, Wine of Royalty (and me)

This Thanksgiving weekend, half the country is snowed in while the lucky eastern states, where I’m gobble-gobbling, are draped in sunshine. In any weather extreme, serving Golden Bordeaux is an elegant way to end a meal–but they’re a great deal more.

GoldenBordeaux

Considered a delicacy, these wines were favorites of Europe’s elite for centuries. They’re called “Golden Bordeaux” because…well, look at them. Produced along the Garonne River near the city of Bordeaux, their colors range from pale corn-silk yellow to deep amber. They’re made from white grapes–think Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle, Sauvignon Gris–and always at least slightly sweet.

That’s because they’re made under conditions that encourage Botrytis cinerea, often called “noble rot.” Botrytis is a “benevolent mold,” actually a gray fungus which, like a typical mold, thrives on moist air. The most famous example of botrytis wine is Sauternes, also from France; others include Tokaji Aszu (Hungary) and Spätlese (a German Riesling).

The misty mornings along the banks of the Garonne allow the fungus to grow. If the air were to stay moist all day, the grapes would simply rot–but in Bordeaux (and select other wine regions), the mist “burns off” with the sun. In the meantime, the fungus bores tiny holes in the skin and, during the growing season, the juice inside the grapes evaporates. The grapes shrivel up, concentrating the aromas and flavors inside the skins. Not all botrytis-affected grapes in a vineyard are ready at the same time; in some vineyards it can take three hand-harvestings before the picking is done.

I’ve written about Golden Bordeaux before, and thanks to the good folks at Smooth.com,  I get to explore them again. Last time, I didn’t say much about what to do with these wines. They’re affordable (typically $15-25 for a split, or half-bottle) so you can pick up a bottle for the cook. Here are a few ideas:

  • Roast vegetables–carrots, yams–or glaze your ham with Golden Bordeaux instead of honey.
  • Go herbal: pour several ounces in a glass and garnish with a sprig of rosemary or basil leaf. Go crazy and let some herbs de Provence dance on the surface.
  • Make a wine cocktail! Keep it simple; pour some Golden Bordeaux in a martini glass, add a splash of Prosecco or other sparkling wine, and toss in a piece or two of dried, frozen fruit: pieces of Mandarin orange, perhaps, or unsweetened mango.
  • Mix it with a still white wine. Try half Gewürztraminer, half Golden Bordeaux. To make it less sweet, use a dry white (Pinot Gris or white Burgundy/French Chardonnay would work) and less sweet wine.
  • If you’re serving a cheese plate (before or after dinner–it doesn’t matter; cheese works anytime nowadays), dessert wines pair well with Gorgonzola or stinky blue cheese. Golden Bordeaux also calms down spicy foods such as Thai or Indian cuisine, and pairs well with preserved meats and briny shellfish.
  • I haven’t tried this, and I’m not sure I want to, but a colleague suggested a cocktail with Golden Bordeaux and brown spirits. It seems an unkind thing to do to a glass of great bourbon or rye, but it could work.

Serve dessert wines icy cold. I know, you’re not supposed to serve white wines too cold because then you miss the subtle tastes and aromas–but there’s nothing subtle about tasting and smelling Golden Bordeaux. Unless they’re served cold, these dessert wines can seem syrupy.

Serve them in a regular wine glass. Once you open a bottle, keep it in the fridge and it will be good for a month (or six). And if someone gifts you a bottle and you aren’t ready to open it, no worries–these wines can last a decade or more and still give you plenty of fruit.

Wine Lingo:  Meniscus = the wine’s rim inside the glass. Experts can tell you a wine’s age and other characteristics simply by looking at the rim.

Loupiac small

Vino ‘View: Chateau Dauphine Rondillon Loupiac 2009, 375 ml (13 percent alcohol, $28) is everything I look for in a dessert wine–floral, tropical, somewhat intense. The honey and apricot aromas come through in tasting, along with some hazelnut, coconut and a dash of white pepper, and the finish is long and fruity with a subtle, pleasant bitterness, like a melon peel. Loupiac is a small region north of the Garonne where vines grow on slopes of clay and limestone, giving the wine a slightly mineral undertone. 

[Chateau Dauphine Rondillon Loupiac 2009 was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary

Dessert Wine? Sure, But Let’s Skip the Dessert

You’ve heard the so-called cardinal rule about dessert wine: “The wine should be sweeter than the dessert.”

That’s fine, but do we always have to pair sweet wine with sweet food?

Cheese plate

No way, say a growing number of dessert-wine producers–who, by the way, have convinced me that a plate of lip-smackin’ salty cheeses and cured meats can be a terrific light dinner, especially paired with a fine Sauternes from the Graves region of Bordeaux.

So, the question for wine lovers is, do we want our pairings to match or contrast? For eons, it seems, dessert wines have been served with dessert so they could match the food. But the new thinking is, if we plan our wine pairing to contrast with the food, the wine can fill in and enhance flavors we can’t taste in the dish. Instead of pairing our chocolate mousse with Madeira, let’s try some spicy salami with Sauternes.

I did just that, and was surprised at how the meat tamed the sweetness of the wine, and the Sauternes gave the salami a depth and richness it didn’t have otherwise. So I conducted further research (i.e., eating savory foods and drinking dessert wines, guided by the experts at Snooth.com) and came up with five sweet-and-savory points for your next dinner party:

  • “Dessert wines are not meant to be paired with desserts,” one expert wrote on Wine-logic.com. “They are meant to be desserts all on their own.” On my palate, sweet anything goes down better after the meal is finished and the dishes have been cleared away. I like to serve dessert wine after dinner, with a cheese course.
  • Unlike most fortified wines (think Port or Sherry), white dessert wines, such as Sauternes, are relatively low-alcohol. Still, their intense flavors and aromas might surprise you. Serve them in small glasses and take small sips.
  • Experiment before you serve dessert wines to your guests, because they won’t expect the savory pairing. Order some spicy takeout, maybe Thai or curry, and try a few dessert wines with the food. Go creamy, briny, fried, salty, hot, sour. Try any savory cheeses, deli meats or even spiced nuts that you think might work. If you don’t like it, don’t serve it.
  • Salty foods can make a sweet wine taste sweeter, but they might clash with high-alcohol fortified wine, giving it a bitter taste. But don’t take my word for it; try it for yourself. The taste might appeal to you.
  • If you choose a Sauternes, which is my favorite dessert wine, try pairing it with foie gras. The wine will taste less sweet and the foie gras will seem less fatty.

If “dessert wine” to you means Port, here’s a tip for pairing it with cheeses: Port is actually a “fortified” wine. Brandy is added during fermentation to boost its alcohol level, and styles of Port can range from slightly sweet to cloying. Keep that in mind for serving it with a cheese course, and try the various styles–ruby, LBV, Vintage, tawny–with different cheeses. The Ports won’t all taste the same, just as some of the cheeses will taste smokier, saltier, or richer than others.

The only rule is, don’t be intimidated by pairing dessert wines with savory foods. There’s no wrong way to do it! Have fun, take some notes, and surprise your guests with a new taste adventure!

Wine Lingo:  Botrytis (“bot-try-tis”) cinerea, or “noble rot” = what happens to grapes when morning mists are followed by warm, dry afternoons. These are perfect conditions for a fungus to flourish, but then the vines dry out in the afternoon, preventing the fruit from totally rotting. Over the summer, the grapes dry even more, reducing their water content as the sugars and flavors become concentrated in the shriveled-up grape. The grapes look spoiled, but in fact they are golden for producers of quality dessert wines; that’s how the wines get their intense flavors and sweetness.

Sauternes med

Vino ‘View:  Castelnau du Suduiraut Sauternes 2006, 375ml/half bottle (14 percent alcohol, $20). I tasted this wine with several friends, and one declared before the glass reached her nose, “Wow–the apple aroma knocks you over!” This light-bodied Sauternes is as fruit-forward as wine gets, with strong banana and apricot aromas, followed by cantaloupe, pears and peach brandy tastes and medium acidity. As the wine sat on my tongue, I also detected green tea, cinnamon, white grapes and a hint of licorice. This is really a delightfully complex sipper, not terribly sweet, a great way to end a meal. Sauternes, by the way, is usually a blend of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscatel.

Cheers!

Mary

Think Pink for Beaujolais Nouveau Day!

If it’s snowing outside your window, join the club – but tonight, instead of warming up with a glass of BigSexyRed, I’m switching gears and pouring some refreshing rosé. It’s light and floral, the low alcohol level won’t make me drowsy, and the sunshine-rosy-pink tone tells me spring is right around the corner. (It is, right?)

But don’t look at your rosé through rose-colored glasses. Go to a tasting and you’ll see what I mean: not all rosé is a deep pink, or salmon, or whatever color you’re expecting. I took this photo at a tasting recently, and some of the rosés could easily have passed for a Chardonnay or, at the other end of the rosé palette, a Pinot Noir:

Rose colors

That makes sense if you know how winemakers make rosé pink: the color comes from the grape skins. The intensity of the color is the winemaker’s choice: for darker wine, the grapes are gently crushed and the juice sits with the skins, macerating, for three days or more. For a pale wine, the winemaker might drain off the juice after just a few hours, at which point the juice (“must”) will ferment in a separate vat, away from the skins.

If you see the words “carbonic maceration” on the label, that means there is no deliberate crushing of the grapes to extract the juice. The winemaker simply loads whole clusters of grapes into a vat and the weight of the grapes on top slowly crushes those below. Instead of adding yeast to start converting the sugar into alcohol, the grapes themselves produce enzymes that function just as yeast would – they start converting sugar into alcohol. Winemakers in the French village of Tavel use this method to make the rosé that made the region famous.

Some rosé producers take a shortcut: they simply blend finished white wine with a  finished red until the wine is exactly the color and taste they prefer. It sounds like cheating, but some respected French producers use this approach.

The delectable result is a delicate, fruity wine with enough acidity to make it crisp and lively in your mouth. The Guardian in the U.K. calls it, “the booze of choice for millennials.” If your rosé was produced in Europe, chances are it’s on the drier side than if it were from, say, Australia.

Here’s why I’m writing about (and drinking) rosé: yesterday was Beaujolais Nouveau Day, the day winemakers in the French region of Beaujolais traditionally release “the first wine of the harvest.” For the first time, producer Les Vins Georges Duboeuf also released a Beaujolais Nouveau Rosé. Like their Beaujolais Nouveau 2018 (and every vintage), the rosé is made with 100 percent Gamay grapes.

I cracked my bottle and will buy more for Thanksgiving. Beaujolais Nouveau, as you know, doesn’t age well, so we’ll drink it next week. You should be able to find the rosé, reviewed below, at wine shops and supermarkets in time for the holiday. And be sure to read the label – don’t buy a “blush” wine or White Zinfandel unless you like to pair cotton candy with your turkey.

Wine Lingo:  Rosado = in France, the clear, pink color of rosé. Italians use a similar term: rosato.

BN Rose med

[This bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau Rosé was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Vino ‘View: Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau Rosé 2018 (12.5 percent alcohol, $13.99). This affordable, hand-harvested, lipstick-pink wine is as vibrant as the label design implies, and it’s fruit-forward all the way. Stone fruit and strawberry aromas hit you first, quieting down to soft, tangy red raspberries on the palate with a touch of lime. Expect strong acidity. This light wine will pair nicely with your turkey, even better with pumpkin pie. It’s a safe bet with the slight sweetness of jellied cranberry sauce, too.

Cheers!

Mary

It’s Not Thanksgiving Without Beaujolais Nouveau!

It’s the most festive wine ever created, and at 12:01 a.m. on the third Thursday each November, French wineries celebrate the new vintage with the release of their Beaujolais Nouveau. Never mind that it’s also the most blatant marketing ploy in the history of wine, or that it brings in some 20 percent of the Beaujolais district’s entire wine revenues each year. Beaujolais Nouveau in your glass says, let’s get this party started!

Beaujolais mural

[Photo of wall mural in Beaujolais courtesy of Mark Goebel via Flickr.]

It’s the first wine released every season, young and fresh, often as strawberry-red as in the mural above, and can wake up your winter palate with flavors of the tropical fruits you see – pineapple, citrus, banana, melon – unusual tastes for red wine.

But Beaujolais Nouveau isn’t just any red. For starters, it isn’t aged: just six to eight weeks before you pour the wine, the Gamay grapes it’s made from were still hanging on the vine. And all Beaujolais wine, Nouveau or not, is produced in the Beaujolais district of France, north of Lyon and south of Burgundy, and the grapes must be harvested by hand.

Beaujolais Nouveau is produced so quickly, in fact, that WineFolly.com calls it “the world’s fastest wine.” It’s fermented with a technique called carbonic maceration, meaning that the instead of crushing the grapes so the juices will flow, whole grapes are loaded into a massive container full of carbon dioxide and they ferment while most of the juice is still inside the skins. The weight of the grapes on top gently crushes those below, releasing the juice. The container is sealed and more CO² is added, resulting in “anaerobic fermentation” – so called because the fermenting grapes aren’t exposed to oxygen – and winemakers add special yeasts to speed up the fermentation. The outcome is the fresh, fruity taste we look for in Beaujolais Nouveau.

In the early 1970s, the race to get the wine fermented and bottled became an actual race event: winemakers sprinted to Paris, carrying their first bottles, competing with their rivals to have their Beaujolais Nouveau declared the first wine of the vintage.

Experts have pronounced the 2017 Beaujolais Nouveau better than most, in part because this was the smallest harvest since 1945. Severe hailstorms in July, and unexpected frost, brought a smaller yield, concentrating the flavors. But in most years, production is high: about 28 million bottles are distributed worldwide, including almost 8 million bottles exported to Japan alone (compared to less than 2 million imported by the U.S.). The Japanese even bathe in it: a bathhouse near Tokyo features a hot Beaujolais Nouveau bath. (Actually it’s a small pool and only nine liters of wine are poured into the water, just enough to turn it reddish.)

I wouldn’t recommend bathing in Beaujolais Nouveau, but do buy a bottle this weekend – and enjoy it while it’s young, preferably in the next month. Don’t save this one; come next spring, it will lose its pizzazz. This is a wine that encourages all of us to celebrate the moment!

Wine Lingo:  Primeur = wine that’s young, produced quickly. Beaujolais Nouveau is sometimes referred to as, “vin de primeur.”

Beaujolais Nouveau

Vino ‘View: Duboeuf is the most familiar name in Beaujolais Nouveau sales, and it’s easy to see why. The 2017 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau (13 percent alcohol, $12.99) is not only delicious, it’s an affordable way to toast the holiday season. The initial aroma is strawberry milkshake, but the Duboeuf is a floral wine with almost a perfume taste. That strawberry shake flavor (but no sweetness) persists for about half a glass before it quiets to a soft marmalade. Mostly this wine is about fruit; I got watermelon, cherries and red raspberries with a touch of cinnamon – no pepper and almost no tannins. Artist Ari Azzopardi won a contest to have his flower-petal painting, “Candy Coated,” featured on the label; it appears on about a million bottles sold in the U.S. This wine would pair nicely with turkey and root vegetables, especially if you chill it; 57-59ºF is ideal. If you don’t have a wine cooler, put it in the fridge for half an hour before you serve it – but no longer. You don’t want to miss those satisfying summer fruits.

[The 2017 Beaujolais Nouveau was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Happy Turkey Day!

Mary

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

 

Napa vs Sonoma – Which Sparkling Wine Shall We Pour Tonight?

If you’re a fan of fizzy wines, you already (probably) know that California is not a one-bubbly-fits-all state. If you didn’t know that, we won’t out you! Just get a few basics down and you’ll get more out of your sparklers.

Gloria Ferrer glass

[Photo by Sarah Stierch, “Sparkling Wine at Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards, Sonoma, California” via Flickr.com]

The first sparkling wine in America was a sparkling Catawba, produced in Ohio (we Ohioans like to boast), downstate near Cincinnati, by Nicholas Longworth in the 1830s. It only took another 30 years for Jacob Schram to purchase his vineyard property in Napa Valley and start producing California’s first quality sparkling wines. By 1870, Schram had planted 30,000 vines and was aging his earliest vintages in cool caves.

Napa is a warm, narrow valley, protected from the cold air of the Pacific Ocean by low mountain ranges but still cooled by the waters of San Pablo Bay. Growers there enjoy calcium-rich soil and a Mediterranean climate with a warm, sunny growing season – ideal for growing Chardonnay, one of the prime grapes used in making their sparkling wines. The southern part of Napa, nearer to the bay, is cooler than the rest of the valley.

Schram’s little enterprise didn’t make it past Prohibition, but new owners resurrected Schramsberg Vineyards  in 1965 and still use those caves to store their wines, considered some of the finest in California.

About 20 years later, the Ferrer family from Barcelona discovered the Mediterranean climate and terroir of Sonoma County. Just west of Napa and more diverse in terms of soil and plantings (think: redwood forests), Sonoma has cooler nights, thanks to 60 miles of Pacific coastline and an ocean cool-down. The region reminded José Ferrer of his family home in Catalonia, especially good for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, so it was there he built Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards and named the new winery after his wife.

Only the practiced palate would discern real differences between Schramsberg and Gloria Ferrer sparkling wines. Schramsberg’s might taste a little stonier, slightly bready and creamy, with clear tropical fruit notes. Gloria Ferrer’s sparklers might be fruitier with a little more cinnamon coming through.

But when you’re staring at that confusing wall of bottles in the store, maybe it’s most important to remember that both wineries produce their sparkling wines using the Methode Champenoise, or “Classic (Traditional) Method.” We’ll save the long version for another day; suffice it to say that sparkling wines displaying any of those phrases on the label, and “Fermented in This Bottle,” have undergone the hands-on, multiple steps necessary to create the finest sparkling wines. It’s the same technique used to produce Champagne (which comes from the Champagne region of France, but you knew that, right?). It will cost a little more than sparkling wine whose label says it was fermented inside the bottle (rather than this), or using the Charmat or “outside the bottle” (i.e., in a tank) method, but it’s worth paying extra for the classic-method wine. That’s a difference you will taste.

Wine Lingo of the Day: Mayacamas and Vaca MountainsWhen you’re looking at wines from regions as popular as Napa Valley and Sonoma County, it helps to orient yourself geographically. Any serious discussion of Napa and Sonoma is likely to mention these important mountain ranges because they affect the grapes and, ultimately, the wine: the Mayacamas Mountains run along the western edge of Napa, protecting it from the cooler Sonoma air, and the Vaca Range forms Napa’s eastern boundary. If you’re contemplating any form of wine certification, memorize these two names – you’ll see them on just about every exam.

Patrick bubbly

Vino ‘View:  With the onset of summer, we wanted a couple of cool sparklers to sip on the porch. We chose two delicious, affordable California bottles: Gloria Ferrer NV Blanc de Blancs and Gloria Ferrer NV Blanc de Noirs (both Methode Champenoise, both 12.5 percent alcohol, both $22). The 100-percent Pinot Noir has a rosy tinge and gave us tiny, assertive bubbles. The aroma was lemon at first, then it melted into a rich pear that changed to apple in our mouths. The all-Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs was a melon-and-banana delight, a super-tropical feel and perfect for our warm-weather neighbor-watching. That handsome fellow in the photo is my nephew, Patrick Straffen – we were celebrating because he and my niece, Emily Straffen, had just passed their Level 2 WSET exams! You go, guys!

Cheers,

Mary

Chardonnay Gets Its Day!

You either love Chardonnay, or you can’t stand it. If you’re a fan, May 21 (or 23, depending on whose calendar you follow) is National Chardonnay Day, and there’s plenty to celebrate about this iconic white.

Chardonnay

The green-skinned grape comes to us from the Burgundy region of France (if you’re drinking “white Burgundy,” you’re drinking Chardonnay). The Wente family brought cuttings to their Livermore Valley vineyards early in the last century, and their 1936 vintage was the first varietal labeled in the US.

Chardonnay is a neutral grape – meaning, it takes on flavors of the terroir where it’s grown and from other influences, such as oak. That makes it adaptable to just about every winegrowing region in the world, with distinctive tastes and aromas no matter where it’s grown: in Burgundy it’s known for its lively minerality, thanks to the abundance of  Kimmeridgian limestone in the soil. In Austria, where recordings of gun blasts are played in the vineyards to scare away the birds, it’s made into sweet wines. In California and Argentina, Chardonnay is likely to be toasty and oaky, often with tropical fruit flavors coming through. Some Spanish winemakers use it in making Cava, Spain’s classic sparkling wine. And if you like your bubbly, you’ll want to know that Chardonnay is one of three grapes (and the only white) used in making Champagne.

In France alone, vineyard owners grow some 34 clonal varieties, all developed at the University of Burgundy in Dijon. Why? So they can plant the specific “Dijon clone” that will perform best in their vineyards, and will produce exactly the traits they want in their wines. It’s a complicated business, and the outcomes range from unoaked, minerality-packed Chablis to full, toasty Montrachet and Pouilly-Fuissé. It’s France’s second-most planted grape, just behind Ugni Blanc (often known as Trebbiano), the key grape in making Cognac, and ahead of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc.

If you want to throw an impromptu Chardonnay Day dinner, have fun with it and buy a variety of bottles from different regions and in different styles (oaked, unoaked). Keep some basic pairing tips in mind: Chardonnay pairs well with roast chicken and other white meats. If one of your bottles is an older, more earthy Chardonnay, pour it with an earthy dish such as mushroom soup or winter squash. A lightly oaked Chardonnay will pair well with grilled trout or Lobster Thermador, but not a delicate fish dish.

And next week, we’ll celebrate Chardonnay’s (and California Cab’s) finest hour, on the anniversary of the Judgement of Paris!

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Blanc de blanc = Champagnes made exclusively with Chardonnay grapes.

Cheers!

Mary

[Photo by Megan Cole, courtesy of Flickr.com]