Wine, Any Way You Spell It

Today we’re wrapping up Palindrome Week, a 10-day string of dates that read the same forwards and backwards: 9-10-19, 9-11-19, 9-12-19…you get the picture.

Although I couldn’t find any wine grapes whose names are palindromes, the quirky dates got me wondering: how did wine grapes get their names, anyway? Was there once a Frenchie named “Monsieur Sauvignon”? Or an Australian cat named Sherlock Shiraz?

Coronation grapes

[“Coronation Grapes” by Amber Fox, courtesy of Flickr]

The origins of grape names, it turns out, are logical for the most part, though some are more interesting than others. I found the stories behind eight common wine grapes:

  1. Chardonnay actually is a small village in the Mâconnais region of southern Burgundy, a part of France where Chardonnay grapes thrive. (If you weren’t aware, Chardonnay wine from that part of the world is sometimes referred to as “White Burgundy.”) The word means “place of thistles.”
  2. Gewürztraminer translates to “spiced Traminer,” a mutation of the Traminer grape from Tyrol, or northern Italy. We know it as an almost-perfumey star wine of Alsace.
  3. Malbec is mostly known as a red wine grape from the Mendoza region of Argentina, but it was once known as Auxerrois from the Cahors region of France. There, it’s known as Côt, Cor, Cos, or Cau, obviously derivatives of Cahors. It may be called Malbec because it was planted in Bordeaux in the 1780s by a Monsieur Malbeck.
  4. Merlot‘s history is pretty straightforward: the name of the dark, rich grape came from “merle,” the French word for Blackbird.
  5. Pinot Noir means “pine” and “black,” relating to the dark, pine cone-shaped clusters of Pinot Noir grapes on the vine. Pinot lovers refer to Burgundy as the “spiritual home” of Pinot Noir, and when you see a bottle on a wine store shelf that’s simply labeled “Bourgogne” or Burgundy, it’s Pinot Noir.
  6. Riesling references date back to 1477, when some writings in Alsace called it “Rissling.” There’s also a small vineyard and stream in Austria called Ritzling, and some claim that’s the origin of the name. A third possibility: the origin may be traced to durchriesein, a word with many spellings and meanings, including  “inability to flower in cool temperatures.”
  7. Sauvignon boasts a wild history, so it’s appropriate that its name derives from the French word “sauvage,” which translates to “wild.” Cabernet Sauvignon is an accidental cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes.
  8. Shiraz might be known as the signature grape of Australia, but its ancestry spans three continents: the name refers to the wine-producing city of Shiraz in Iran, and the grape originated in southeast France.

Enjoy what’s left of Palindrome Week, because the wacky pattern won’t happen again until 2021–on 12-1-21, to be precise. The 10-day string of palindrome dates happens every century, always in the second decade. And you might want to pour a special glass this evening, Thursday, September 19 at 19 minutes and 19 seconds past 9, when it will be 9-19-19, 9:19:19.

That factoid has nothing to do with wine history, but it’s an excuse to celebrate anyway, just a little.

Wine Lingo: Wine thief = no, it doesn’t mean your cousin Lizzie who “borrows” one of your best bottles and never replaces it. If you haven’t seen a wine thief in person, you’ve seen photos: it’s the long glass or metal tube used by winemakers to draw samples from wine barrels.

Peterson Syrah med

Vino ‘View: 2011 Peterson Syrah, Gravity Flow Block, Dry Creek Valley (13.8 percent alcohol, $48) Get out your decanter, because this full-bodied Sonoma red will need to breathe for an hour or so. It’s not a cheap bottle, so you’ll want to drink it at its best. The aroma is intense, with smoke and black fruit wafting up. After decanting, the wine finds a good balance, with smoke and oak remaining on the palate through the long finish. Dry leaves sneak in–have you tried CBD oil? I detected a bit of the same mushroomy, earthy taste. Not that the fruit is lost; I tasted plum, blackberry and maybe avocado. Drink it now; this wine won’t benefit from any more aging.

[The Peterson Syrah was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary

Healdsburg & Wine: What’s Old is New Again

When I first visited Healdsburg more than 20 years ago, I wasn’t impressed. I’d been told this hub of Sonoma County’s wine country was a darling village to explore, but the deserted town square was ringed with gas stations, overpriced souvenir shops and biker bars. Nothing personal, biker friends, but it was an easy place to drive past.

But on a recent visit, I found a busy town of upscale boutiques, art galleries, James Beard-winning restaurants, and more than 40 wine tasting rooms within a two-block radius of the plaza, now a shaded, beautifully maintained park.

Healdsburg plaza

[Photo credit: Barbara Bourne]

Healdsburg still is little more than a village, with a population that barely topped 12,000 in 2018. That gives it one wine tasting room for every 300 residents–not a bad ratio, is it?

I couldn’t possibly visit all 40, and of course I needed time to stop into a few of the 425-plus wineries in the surrounding Sonoma countryside. But I got to several tasting rooms, and two stand out:

Banshee Wines, who made their wine a hit with young-adult consumers by making one of the finest Pinot Noirs in Sonoma, then pricing it lower than their competitors’ Pinot. The distressed leather seating, vintage record player and walls of reclaimed wood add up to a super-casual, welcoming place to enjoy a flight with savory small bites.

At Portalupi Wines you’ll want to try the Zin or Dolcetto, but leave with a Rosso in a Vaso di Marina–a milk jug of vino di tavola, or table wine. The jugs are named for the family’s Nonna, Marina Portalupi, who used milk jugs in Italy to bottle wine for her neighbors. When she came to America, Marina still served wine in jugs and her grandchildren keep the tradition going.

After all of that tasting, we were hungry and went to Costeaux French Bakery, known for its sourdough and artisan breads. We grabbed a couple of panini and headed to the wineries. First, we visited SIMI Winery–they’re the oldest continuously operating winery in Healdsburg (founded 1876), so we figured they knew a thing or two about winemaking. My favorite there was a Cabernet Sauvignon, dusty and heavy with cocoa and cedar.

The other memorable winery stop was Virginia Dare Winery, named after the first English child born in America in 1587. When the Croatoan tribe massacred the “Lost Colony” on Roanoke Island, legend says the tribe’s chief, Manteo, rescued Virginia and raised her as his own. Why and how a winery in California honors a baby born in the Outer Banks is a very long story, but movie mogul Francis Ford Coppola, the winery’s owner, negotiated a deal with the Pamunkey Tribal Council in Virginia to borrow the name of the Powhatan village, Werowocomoco, for his winery’s restaurant.

Confused? Me, too. Have some wine, it’ll clear your head. But first, if you’re in Healdsburg, be sure to go to SHED Healdsburg, a combination market, café, fermentation bar and community gathering place. The glass-front building won the 2014 James Beard Award for restaurant design, and it’s worth checking out.

Wine Lingo = complexity, referring to the flavors and aromas you might detect in a wine. The more flavors and aromas you can pick out, the more complex the wine. If you buy a cheap wine, chances are you won’t be able to isolate flavors; it’s likely to taste like grape juice that’s been spiked.

Herzog medium

Vino View:  Herzog Lineage Choreograph Red Blend 2016 (14 percent alcohol, $19.99) is definitely a complex wine, with aromas of new leather, red licorice and spice. It’s fruit-forward with tastes of black raspberries and ripe watermelon, then comes creamy brick cheese washing over your tongue with a little caramel, cinnamon and espresso. This is a deeply elegant wine from the Herzog family, who have produced high-quality wines here and in Slovakia for eight generations. Decant this kosher California wine, or use an aerator to enhance the flavors; it’s bold enough to stand up to roasted meat or burgers. 

[The Herzog Lineage Choreograph Red Blend 2016 was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary

 

 

Put a Cork in It! (Your Wine Bottle, That Is.)

“His heart danced upon her movement like a cork upon a tide.” — James Joyce

We all have such romantic notions about wine, don’t we…I wonder if we’d have felt the same way 300 years ago, when wine bottles were sealed with oil-soaked rags?

Corks

Corks lend a fanciful touch to the ceremony of cracking a special bottle – a sense that we’re about to celebrate something – that screw-on caps just can’t emulate. We sniff our corks, we admire their calligraphy, we hoard them. Have you ever met anyone who hoards screw-on caps? I think not.

Corks (the real kind, not those annoying, synthetic polyethylene things) are made from the light, tough outer layer of bark of the cork oak tree, a.k.a. Quercus suber – not to be confused with the cork tree, which also sports a corky bark but isn’t used for making wine corks. The cork oak is considered sustainable because it can be harvested without cutting down the tree; once the tree reaches 25 to 30 years old the bark is stripped and the tree lives on. Every seven or nine years (depending on whom you ask), the tree is ready to be stripped again; it’s the second stripping that produces the best wine corks.

Cork tree

[A guide explaining the cork oak tree on the grounds of SIMI Winery in Healdsburg, California.]

Cork oaks, which live an average of 200 years, grow in half a dozen countries, but most corks are produced in Portugal  – where the higher-quality corks are sourced – and Spain. And here’s something to remember when you dream of opening your own winery: the finest corks can cost bottlers as much as 1 Euro each, or at today’s conversion rate, about $1.17.

Harvesting cork is a delicate operation. Workers called “extractors” use a sharp axe to make two cuts: one horizontal slice around the tree, called a crown or necklace, and several vertical cuts called rulers or openings. Then they push the axe handle into the ruler – gently, to avoid damaging the tree – and peel off large sections of cork called planks.

Cork is a remarkable substance: its tiny air pockets make it buoyant, about four times lighter than water. It’s fire resistant (which is why it’s used in making home insulation) and forms a watertight seal in the neck of a wine bottle. Yet it permits a tiny bit of oxygen into the bottle, about one milligram of oxygen each year, enabling the wine’s flavor and aroma to evolve over time.

There are advantages to using synthetic corks, of course. They allow a consistent amount of oxygen into the bottle, and they don’t carry “cork taint,” caused by TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole), the chemical compound that can make your wine smell like Grandma’s moldy basement – an affliction found in about 1 percent of wine bottles. And TCA isn’t picky; it’s just as happy spoiling a $100 bottle as that cheap $6 bottle you snuck into your grocery cart.

For you cork hoarders, you can spin your cache into cash: used wine corks sell online to crafters and jewelry artists, about $8 to $10 in batches of 100. You can unload your used synthetic corks, too, for up to 14 cents each. And by the way, don’t bother sniffing the cork when you open a bottle. Flaws are detected more easily by smelling and tasting the wine itself; the cork probably won’t indicate anything important.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  NVnonvintage. When you look at the labels of most wines, you’ll see a year – the year when the grapes were grown and harvested, or the “vintage.” But in wine reviews or restaurant wine lists, you’ll often see the initials “NV.” That indicates the grapes used to produce that wine were harvested in two or more years. Winemakers blend grapes from different vintages if they’re looking for consistent aromas, tastes and other qualities in the wine, year after year.

Caranto PNVino ‘View:  A delicious example of an NV wine is Astoria’s Caranto Pinot Noir (13 percent alcohol, $11). The spicy, cinnamon first taste opens up to plums – maybe prunes – with a smoky, blackberry jam finish. My last glass was especially creamy (think fig newton, blackberry pie crust). This full-bodied wine with medium tannins is a terrific value! We paired it with pasta from Rustichella d/Abruzzo that was gluten-free, made from a red-lentil base, in a cold chicken-cashew salad – a recipe we found online. We chilled the wine slightly for our perfect summer supper.

Cheers!

Mary