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Friday, November 17, 2017

Giving Thanks...

This upcoming week reminds us to give thanks for our blessings.   I have many, most of them big blessings like great health and wonderful family/friends. On a less serious note, here’s my list of wines for which I am thankful.

Tropical Sauvignon Blancs
I love Sauv Blancs that offer a tropical profile (usually from in warmer climates).   I don’t find cool climate Sauv Blancs with their green, grassy, herbal notes particularly appealing (but many do).   Merry Edwards is my current fave Cali rendition.

Buttery Chardonnays
Yes, I’m going to buck the trend of those shying away from these wines and put in a plug for a well-crafted Char with a voluptuous, velvety texture and other subtle nuances that stem from Malo-Lactic fermentation.  

Wines with a great finish
While many concentrate on a big fruit forward wine that offers enticing aromas and a great palate, one of the most important things for me is a lengthy finish.

Wines that offer a great bang-for-the-buck
I don’t mind paying some serious money for a killer wine.   That being said, my faves are those that provide killer price/quality ratios.  One of the best producers for quality/price is Joel Gott (Napa Valley) who sources all of his grapes.  His wines are in the 20 bucks range.   Another great producer is Barrel 27 (Paso Robles) which offers off-the-chart-values for their well-crafted wine in the same price range.

Wines with fruits and minerals
I’m falling in love with subtle mineral nuances, especially if they are layered with fruits.  Suggestions:  Assyrtiko (a wine from the Greek island of Santorini), or Nero di Avola (from the Mount Etna region of Sicily).

Obscure varietals
I am so excited to learn about new varietals, especially indigenous varieties that aren’t available anywhere else.  Look for the Torrontes (a white fruit-bomb) from Argentina, or Bierzo (a heavenly red) from Northern Spain.  Be adventurous!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 10, 2017

Red Burgundy in Your Glass

                  Burgundy is all about Old World winemaking where“less is more”

Before we delve into how wines of France’s northeast Burgundy translate into what one experiences in the glass, let’s start with other differences in Burgundian reds.  Before one even opens the bottle there are differences to note.  First, notice that the Burgundian bottle is distinct with feminine, sloping shoulders.  In contrast, the Bordeaux bottles have harder edged, masculine shoulders.

Bordeaux (L), Burgundy (R)

Next, we need a glass.  A Burgundy glass.  The Burgundian glass has a large bowl which tapers in at the top, designed to enhance Pinot's delicate aromas.

Bordeaux (L), Burgundy (R)

Now, pour the Burgundy.  Reds in Burgundy are made from Pinot Noir, one of the lightest colored wines.  (Burgundian Pinots are generally lighter in color than their American counterparts).  That being said, Pinots as a group are pale raspberry or cranberry shades, and are transparent.   Bordeaux, on the other hand, is composed of dark grapes such as Cabernet and Merlot.  Syrah (Shiraz), from the Rhone Valley is the darkest of all wine grapes in the glass.  Bordeaux and Rhone wines also differ from Burgundy in that they are opaque.

                                                  Pinot Noir is the lightest red wine

Before we move on to aromas and taste profiles, let’s first discuss the differences in Old World vs. New World techniques in producing Pinot Noir.  Burgundy (Old World) is all about “less is more.”  Less manipulation in the wine-making process.  Less extraction of fruit.  Less oak.  Wild yeasts vs. cultured yeasts.

Aromas and flavors in Burgundian wines are very influenced by this less is more philosophy.  The area’s terroir also plays a huge role.   Unlike California or Chile  where sunshine is abundant, grapes in Burgundy are typically less ripe because of the weather.  This means Burgundian reds are not jammy like their super ripe New World counterparts.  Since high sugar levels also translate to high alcohol, this means that Burgundian wines have traditionally lower alcohol levels and therefore pair better with most foods.   It also means that Burgundy’s Pinots are less fruit-forward, and instead are more about earth profiles (think the scent of the forest), as well minerals (think the smell of wet stones).

Red Burgundy, in general, is quite expensive due to the phenomena of supply and demand.  There are, however, some good buys regarding price/quality to be found.  Try Jadot's Marsannay ($40), or Latour's Santenay ($30).  Both are excellent and readily available in the US.

Wine-Knows will be visiting the creme de la creme producers of Burgundy on their 2019 tour.  There are 4-5 spaces remaining.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Amarone---from Obscurity to Stardom

     The historic estate of Dante Alighieri's has been leased for Wine-Knows' 2018 harvest tour

Pick up a wine magazine published in the last few years and chances are there will be an article about these rich, dark, voluptuous reds from northeast Italy.   Amarone has moved from relative anonymity to more front and center stage.  This is even more impressive in an era when lighter style wines are in vogue and consumers are shying away from higher alcohol wines.  Amarone is big, bold, and complex with alcohol levels that can vary between 14-17%.

It’s full name is Amarone della Valpolicella, but it is usually referred to simply by Amarone.   The wine is named after the district in which the grapes are grown, Valpolicella (which means the “area of many wineries”).  Located just north of Romeo and Juliette’s city of Verona and only 70 miles from Venice, Valpolicella has been producing wines since the Romans arrived a few millenniums ago.  Amarone was given its own special DOCG status by the Italian government in 2010.

                    Amarone's grapes are dried for months prior to being made into wine

Amarone is like no other wine in that it is made by an ancient technique called appassimento.   The appassimento process involves laborious air drying of the grapes on wooden racks for more nearly four months, carefully turning the dehydrating fruit regularly to check for rot.  It involves a special building designed for ultimate ventilation.  The wine also relies on a lot of help from Mother Nature.  Winds from the nearby Alps are essential; however, moisture (which promotes mold) is a big problem.  Grapes (all local varietals unknown to Americans) typically lose 30-40% of their moisture before they are vinified.

The final product is a full-bodied, high-powered wine.  Raisin-like grapes have concentrated sugars which ultimately convert to alcohol.  In spite of its strength, if Amarone's alcohol is in balance with the other elements, the wine can be seductive with an enticing nose of black cherries, figs and spices such as cloves.  Its taste yields beguiling rich, dense, and velvet textures.  To appreciate its charm, however, it must be served with the right food.  Full-bodied foods, such as hearty meat dishes, are a great pairing.   Fish or chicken generally won’t work.  Amarone can pair with strong cheeses such as Stilton, or other big-flavored, aged cheeses.

                  Braised short ribs and a glass of Amarone are a marriage made in heaven

Amarone production has risen to 15 million bottles per year, a staggering increase of nearly 700% in the last 20 years.   Again, considering the trend is moving away from high alcohol wines, this ought to tell you something about how special Amarone is.   Why not try an Amarone during the upcoming holiday season?  Masi, an outstanding producer, is readily available in the US.   BTW: Wine-Knows’ 2018 harvest tour to Valpolicella and Piedmont will be staying on the historic Masi estate which was once owned by Renaissance personality Dante Alighieri.   Join us!

Friday, October 27, 2017

How Rotten Luck Created an Amazing Wine

                  Botrytis Cinera causes chemical changes which enhance aromas & flavors

The year was 1847.  California was not even a state yet and the Mexican-American War was full throttle.  Across the Atlantic in France, however, the Bordeaux region was enduring its own battle against a horrible fungus that had destroyed their production of Sauternes wines.  Vineyards lay in decay, a huge disaster of rotting fruit covered with an invading army of organisms which had attacked the grapes’ skins and caused them to dry and shrivel like raisins.  Many chateaux didn’t even bother to pick their fruit.  

                  Chateau Yquem's location near the convergence of 2 rivers is perfect for Botrytis

Chateau Yquem, one of the top wineries of the time and the most prestigious producer of Sauternes today, decided to pick some of its fruit, however, the quality was so bad that Yquem decided not to release the wine for sale.  Their entire 1847 vintage remained in Yquem’s cellar until 1859 when the brother of Russia’s Czar visited the esteemed chateau.   This visit changed the course of history for Bordeaux’s sweet wine industry.

The Russian monarchy and aristocracy of the 1800’s had long been great admirers of Hungary’s sweet wines, Tokaj (Tokay).   These very special sweet wines were like no other sweet wines.   While Hungary had been producing these unique wines for 200 years, their production was limited.  The wines were not produced every year as their production was entirely weather dependent.  As the demand of Russia’s royalty was high, these special sweet wines commanded regal prices.  When the Russian Grand Duke visited Bordeaux in 1859 he heard the story of the grey fungus invasion of 1847.  A light bulb went off in his head.

                                     Liquid gold from Bordeaux's Chateau Yquem

The Grand Duke knew that the limited Hungarian sweet wine of Tokaj was made only during the years of the Tokaj’s grey fungus.  He asked to try Chateau Yquem’s 1847.  The owner did not want to offend him with this swill, but who could say no to the Czar’s brother?  The rest is history.  The Russian monarchy bought every single bottle of Yquem’s 1847 vintage. 

                           Wine-Knows enjoys a private tour & tasting at Chateau Yquem

The grey fungus responsible for all of this is now referred to as the “Noble Rot.”  Its technical name is Botrytis Cinerea.   Known simply as Botrytis, this organism which has always been part of Hungary’s Tokaj region, has become a welcome visitor to Bordeaux for the last 150 years.  Modern science now knows that Botrytis creates very unique sweet wines.  The Noble Rot not only dehydrates the grapes into nearly raisins, but it actually changes the chemical composition of the grape adding new enticing flavors and aromas.  

Weather conditions must be perfect for the Noble Rot to attack vineyards.  Like any fungus, Botrytis organisms thrive in damp, warm conditions.  Both Bordeaux and Tokaj vineyards are located alongside rivers.  If there is river fog and sun simultaneously during October-November when the grapes are already super ripe, this creates the perfect storm for the Noble Rot.
                               Hungary's Tokaj wine district has idyllic conditions for Botrytis

If you’re coming with us next year on the Austria-Hungary tour, you’ll experience some of these flavor bombs made from Botyrtis in Hungary’s Tokay region.   If not, you’ll have to wait to 2021 when Wine-Knows conducts its tour to Bordeaux.

Let's hope Botrytis is visiting both Hungary & Bordeaux this Fall!

Friday, October 20, 2017

A Burgundy Primer

                       Burgundy's Cote D'Or is home to some of the priciest cult wines on earth

Many serious wine lovers believe that some of the world’s greatest wines come from Burgundy.   Others would argue that Bordeaux is the pinnacle.  I don’t think you can compare the two.  Burgundy’s production is miniscule;  Bordeaux’s is mammoth.  Burgundy is boutique producers;  Bordeaux is large-scale chateaux.  Burgundy’s wines are quietly elegant;  Bordeaux’s are bold and massively-structured.  

The famous Cluny Abbey played an important role in Burgundy 

The Catholic monks, abbeys, and the monasteries have played an enormous role in shaping Burgundy’s wine history.  From 900 A.D., the clergy were actively involved in not only making and selling wine, but actually developing the notion of terroir (soil, microclimate, slant of the hill, drainage, wind, environmental pests, etc.).  Early on they learned that different plots of earth made consistently different wines.  

    Centuries ago monks surrounded vineyards with special characteristic with walls               

The monks mapped out an intricately complex quilt of vineyards throughout Burgundy which today are the basis for the region's Cru’s.  They built walls around each plot.  Wall in French is “clos,” thus many of Burgundy’s vineyards begin with the word “clos.”


                                           In French Burgundy is known as Bourgogne

Burgundy begins just 120 miles south of Paris.   The actual wine part of the region is a long, narrow area that runs about 150 miles in length.  Burgundy is composed of these five distinct sub-districts (north to south):
1)    Chablis
2)    Cote D’Or
3)    Cote Chalonaise
4)    Maconnaise
5)    Beaujolais

Two Great Grapes of Burgundy

Reds in Burgundy are made from Pinot Noir (the only exception is Beaujolais which uses the Gamay grape).  Difficult to grow, fickle Pinot Noir thrives in a narrow band of soil and climate parameters.  Red Burgundy is mecca for many oenophiles.  In fact, many in-the-know consumers feel that Pinot Noir is at its very best in Burgundy.

White Burgundy is made a 100% from the Chardonnay grape.  The Chardonnay varietal is actually is native to the Burgundian region of France.  While Chardonnay is a now a universal grape, white Burgundies are some of the most divine wines on planet earth---complex layers with a long finish.

Burgundy is Terroir-Driven
Every plot of earth has been painstaking rated for the quality of its terroir

Unlike Bordeaux where the pecking order is established by a chateau’s land holdings, Burgundy’s hierarchy is purely terroir based.   For example, Mouton Rothchild in Bordeaux owns many parcels in different parts of the huge wine region.  All of them may be used in the making Rothschild's wine as Bordeaux wines are all about blending.  In Burgundy, vineyards have been carefully mapped out into very small plots based on their unique terroir.   In contrast to Bordeaux, Burgundy "Cru" cannot be blended as their intent is to showcase the specific single vineyard and its terroir.

Stay tuned for future articles on Burgundy, including Pinots and Chardonnays that won’t break your bank, pairing Burgundy's wine with foods, and many other favorite experiences of mine awaiting you in Burgundy.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Facts Champagne Lovers Should Know

                            A private dinner will be held at the producer of Dom Perignon

Wine-Knows will be taking its last group to Champagne (there are currently 5 spots available on this tour that will also visit Burgundy).  Below is important information that any serious wine lover should know about this oh-so-special bubbly.

  • Only sparkling wine made in the demarcated Champagne region of France can be called Champagne.
  • Wineries are call "houses."  The Veuve Clicquot company is referred to as the House of Veueve Clicquot.
Most Champagnes are a blend of these grapes

  • Champagne may only be made from the above three grapes (from left to right):  (1) Pinot Noir  (2) Pinot Meunier  (3) Chardonnay.
  • If a Champagne is Blanc de Blanc (white Champagne made from white grapes) it is 100% Chardonnay as this is the only white varietal of the three.  The often very slight greenish hue in these Blanc de Blancs is characteristic of Chardonnay wines. 
  • If it's a Rose Champagne, the wine can be made from either or both of the two red grapes allowed.  Rose, however, also can have Chardonnay added.

Taste Profiles
                The entire Champagne region millenniums ago was covered by an inland sea

  • Champagne's limestone is composed of chalky layers, remnants of ancient sea creatures.  These highly porous limestone soils are easily penetrated by root systems of vines heading downward to seek water.  While water is brought up into the plant, so are minerals from the fossilized remains of sea shells.  Due to this, Champagnes offer mineral nuances.
  • Yeasts also play a critical role in the taste profile of Champagne.  Unlike non-sparkling wine, Champagne undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle.  Yeasts and a small amount of sugar to "feed" the yeasts are added after the initial fermentation has been completed and the wine has been placed in bottles.  Carbon dioxide is given off during this process but is trapped by the cork in the bottle, thus creating the wine's famous bubbles.   The spent yeast cells add flavors to the Champagne which are described as "bread dough,"  "freshly baked cake," or "brioche."

Land Ownership

Unlike most wine districts where the land is owned by wineries, 90% of Champagne is owned by grape growers.  Only 10% of the land is controlled by actual wineries.

Best Glass
                  Glasses popular in Champagne have tapered tops to enhance the aromas

In the Champagne region of France you rarely see the typical flute glass.  While flutes do help with the visual effect of the bubbles, its narrow top does not fully allow the aromas of Champagne to be appreciated.  While there are many variations, all  glasses in Champagne have the same tulip shape---wider bowls taper (but not near as narrow as the typical flute), allowing one to both swirl and capture the aromas. 

Changing Climate is Problematic

Temperatures in the Champagne region have risen 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 20 years.  This is especially an issue with fickle Pinot Noir which has a narrow band of cooler temperatures in which it grows.  Moreover, shifting rainfall patterns are posing further problems.

At the same time, England’s climate is also changing, with warmer summer and milder winters.  England is now experiencing a boom in the production of high quality sparkling wine.  More unnerving is the fact that several of France’s famous Champagne houses have purchased land in the south of England.  The country’s southern limestone soil is very similar to that of the Champagne region.

Protecting the Champagne Brand

            Many, from famous perfume producers to lingerie makers, have been successfully sued

An army of attorneys around the globe are employed by the Champagne professional association to protect the Champagne brand.  They’ve done battle with a variety of companies who made the mistake of naming their product Champagne.  A big no-no.

Have a bubbly kind of weekend.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Italy's King of Truffles

 White truffles are the gastronomic world's most decadent ingredient

This weekend Italy begins its official 2017 season for the world’s most expensive culinary item, the illustrious white truffle.  I may be 10,000 miles away, but I can almost feel the excitement beginning to pulsate as the annual festival kicks into gear.  Foodies from all over Europe are preparing to descend upon the town of Alba, home of not only Barolo and Barbaresco, but the epicenter of the White Truffle Festival.  The enchanting town will soon swell to nearly double its size as masses of gastronomic pilgrims pay homage to Italy’s "edible diamonds."

                   Colorful truffle hunters descent upon Alba to sell their products during the festival

Truffles are an exotic fungus, a kind of distant relative of the wild mushroom family.   They come in black and white, but the white version is overwhelmingly the most prized because of its intense aroma.  You can notice the intoxicating smell of a white truffle the minute you walk into a restaurant where even a very small truffle is being served.  The white truffle is also known to have the most intense taste of all of the truffle family. While black truffles are found in Umbria and some parts of France, the white truffle is only found in northern Italy in the district of Piedmont.

                     Wine-Knows forages truffles in the forest with two truffle hunters 

Unlike a mushroom, the tartufo (truffle) grows several inches underground.  This makes finding the hidden treasures challenging.  Truffles are found with the help of special breeds of dog.  The dog spends months at a doggie university (don’t laugh---there is actually such a place in Piedmont!).  The dogs are used for their keen sense of smell.   Due to the current exorbitant price of white tartufi, these specially trained dogs have become equally valuable (in fact, some have actually been stolen and held for a sizable Euro ransom).  No joke.

                                            Dogs are vital to finding the buried truffles

The pleasure of indulging in a white truffle comes at a mammoth price which has escalated dramatically over the last ten years.  In the last few years the prices have ranged between $6,000-10,000 US a pound. Just what the price for this year will not be known until the festival begins tomorrow.  It’s all about supply and demand.  The demand seems to be never-ending.  

Wine-Knows will be attending next year's Truffle Festival in Alba.  There are only two spots remaining in the group.   Come and experience the magic of this special culinary festival with us.