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.]

 

 

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Raise a Glass to Grandma (and Gramps)!

Thanks to President Jimmy Carter, the first Sunday after Labor Day is dedicated to our parents’ parents – National Grandparents Day. The day was created by a West Virginia woman named Marian McQuade who, if you look up her photo online, bears an uncanny resemblance to Betty Crocker.

The poet Ogden Nash wrote, “When grandparents enter the door, discipline flies out the window.” So how will you honor your elders tomorrow, September 11?

One website suggests visiting Grandma in a nursing home – pretty ageist, don’t you think? Most grandparents I know would rather spend the day hiking, or playing a game of softball with the grandkids. Mine weren’t quite that active by the time I came along, but I know they would have wanted the celebration to include alcohol.

chablis

Grandma Mihaly was a whiskey drinker – a shot with every meal. She had low blood sugar and said whiskey was better for her teeth than a candy bar. (Makes sense to me.)

My mom was a grandmother, too. For decades she drank “highballs,” usually Canadian Club and soda. But in the mid-1970s she and my dad visited Paris, their first trip across the pond, and Mom came home from that trip a wine drinker. From then on, she always asked for Chablis.

You don’t often hear people order “Chablis” in restaurants and clubs anymore. It’s more fashionable to ask for Chardonnay, which is the grape that makes Chablis.

It’s not as confusing as it sounds. Chablis is a small region in the northern part of Burgundy, France. If you live in Chablis and want to start a vineyard, the only grape you may grow is Chardonnay. (Yes, the French government tells vineyard owners which grapes  they’re allowed to grow, how many vines they may plant per acre, and a lot of other rules that winegrowers in the U.S. don’t have to follow.) Chablis produces some 32 million bottles a year, and you can expect all of it to be deliciously dry.

So, all “Chablis” from Burgundy is really Chardonnay. It tastes more crisp and light than the full-bodied, creamy Chardonnay from California, partly because the limestone soil in Chablis lends a steely minerality to the grapes. Not all wine labeled “Chablis” is produced in Burgundy, but it’s all Chardonnay, and almost all white wine from Burgundy is Chardonnay. (A small percentage of white from Burgundy is made with Aligoté, a less prominent grape variety.)

I guess that is slightly confusing. So let’s keep it simple: if you’re celebrating Grandparents Day, you might want to take the folks a nice bottle of Chardonnay – or Chablis, if they like their white wines a bit more racy. Pair it with goat cheese, maybe a wheel of goat cheese brie with apple wedges and almonds.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Vitis vinifera = the grapes from which 99.9 percent of all wines in the world are made, according to The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil. Vitis is the genus and vinifera is the species. Chardonnay, Merlot, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and most other familiar grape varieties are vinifera; out of about 60 species of vitis, vinifera is the only one native to Europe.

Vino ‘View:  It was a warm evening this summer when I cracked a bottle of 2013 Broken Dreams  Chardonnay (13.5 percent alcohol, $18.99) from SLO Down Wines in Napa, so I was glad to discover it was a French-style Chard – meaning, it would have that lemony, mineral quality typical 

broken-dreams-chard-small

of French Chardonnays. It’s fruitier and lighter-bodied than most California Chards; aromas of banana and cantaloupe led the way to my tart, lemony first taste. After a few minutes the wine  mellowed to an orange zest taste with the slightest bread undertone, a pleasant surprise alongside the fruit I was tasting. Dinner with my wine was a salad – greens, chicken,  mandarin oranges and sliced almonds – a pairing that worked. Because of the weather, I was glad the wine didn’t have that thick, tongue-coating sensation, nor did it pretend to be a Sauvignon Blanc – but it is citrusy.

Cheers to you and your grandparents!

Mary

[Chablis photo: “Dauvissat” by D. Potera via Flickr; Broken Dreams photo provided by SLO Down Wines.]

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.]

 

 

 

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]

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]

 

Our Pick for National Book Day: The Wine Bible

Karen MacNeil, “America’s missionary of the vine,” (TIME), has done it again with The Wine Bible, 2nd Edition. You wouldn’t think this much wine information even exists, yet she’s managed to pack nearly 1,000 pages with maps, instruction on tasting “with focus,” and every imaginable factor that goes into making great wine – history, geography, grape varieties, soil, weather, and how they all come together for the wine.

Wine Bible_COV 20.indd

And she makes it fun. Not many wine experts are also good writers, but MacNeil knows how to tell a story. In one sidebar, “The Old Man and The Wine,” she relates how Ernest Hemingway made an annual pilgrimage to the same Rioja bodega for 25 years, usually with a bullfighter in tow. In another section she writes of her call from a monk in the Republic of Georgia, inviting her to taste wines from his monastery that had been stored in qvevri (“KEV-ree”), large clay jugs lined with beeswax and buried underground.

MacNeil tasted more than 10,000 wines in researching her new Bible (yes, that’s the correct number of zeroes), and tales of her travels, cultures that inspired her and people who taught her along the way, appear throughout the book.

Some of the info is obscure, but she wants us to know: an Oxford University professor found, for instance, that sound influences how we perceive flavor. Just as we “need” to hear a potato chip crunch between our teeth, our delight in a glass of Champagne is enhanced when we hear its effervescence. It just tastes better once we’ve heard the fizz. Who knew?

The Wine Bible, 2nd Edition is a reference and a good read, covering wine regions from Mendocino to Michigan, Priorat to Pennsylvania. Whether you know a lot about wine or wish you did, you’ll enjoy this book immensely.

[This review, written by Mary Mihaly, is reprinted from TheWineBuzz magazine.]

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Fumé Blanc“Fumé” means “smoked” in French. “Fumé Blanc” is Sauvignon Blanc wine that has been aged in toasted barrels; the term was coined by wine pioneer Robert Mondavi.

Enjoy some time with your favorite wine book today!

Mary