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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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]