Monday, December 15, 2014

It's the Most Bubbly Time of the Year

Ahh, Champagne. Around the holidays Americans always drink more bubbly – it’s a festive time of year, and people view Champagne (or any sparkling wine) as a celebratory drink. Personally, my favorite kind of wine is the kind that bubbles, and I find any excuse I can to drink it.  Mauro Cirilli, instructor for SFWC's recent Holiday Champagne Master Class, said he needs to have a glass of Champagne every day, and he suggests you do too. Don’t need to tell me twice.

Why is Champagne so special? It’s the magical second fermentation in the bottle that produces the bubbles, but it’s also the harsh growing conditions in the region of Champagne, France, that contributes to the high acidity of these wines. Champagne only averages about 1650 hours of sunlight per year, versus over 2000 for Bordeaux. This results in very acidic and unripe grapes. Through the Champagne method of winemaking, that acidity combined with extended aging on the yeast cells and just the right amount of added sugar result in complex, bright, toasty, creamy flavors that delicately dance on the tongue.

The class featured non-vintage (blends from different years to produce a consistent style) and vintage (from a single year) wines from grower houses and well-known luxury brands. Champagne can range in price from $40 to $400, and we tried a full range. Unfortunately, 2 bottles of Dom Perignon were faulty so I can’t say my first Dom experience was life changing. But among the rest there was beauty all around and I had a hard time choosing a favorite. The Gaston Chiquet was gorgeous with creamy almond/marzipan and a jasmine floral quality; I think I have a bottle of this in my cellar so I look forward to opening that in the future. The Sally had lovely lemon curd flavor and a persistent finish - Salon is always/only a vintage wine and needs to age for 10 years before drinking due to its exceptionally high acid profile. I'm a sucker for pink wine so I also enjoyed the Billecart-Salmon Rosé, with it's perfumed floral nose and pretty fruit. 

Champagne List:
  1. Doyard Cuvée Vendémiaire Brut NV ($40)
  2. Vilmart Cuvée Grand Cellier NV ($75)
  3. Larmandier-Bernier Vieilles Vignes de Cramant Grand Cru Extra Brut 2007 ($75)
  4. Gaston Chiquet Brut Cart d'Or 2002 ($70)
  5. Salon Brut Blanc de Blancs Le Mesnil 1999 ($275)
  6. Pol Roger Cuvée Winston Churchhill 1999 ($195)
  7. Dom Perignon 1999 ($165)
  8. Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé NV ($70)

For comparison, we also tried sparkling wines from Spain and California. These were very elegant and enjoyable, and for $20-30 you could easily justify opening one of these any night of the week and any month of the year.

Not Champagne:
  1. Raventos i Blanc de Nit Rosé 2011 ($22)
  2. Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs 2006 ($30)

What kind of bubbly are you drinking this holiday season? Or tonight?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Thanksgiving Wine Recommendations

As we approach the holidays, all this Pinot Noir has primed my palate for turkey and all the fixings. Pinot Noir is a natural choice for red wine at the Thanksgiving table, and in particular I would recommend these wines that I tried recently in wine class at SFWC:

Labyrinth Yarra Valley Viggers Vineyard Pinot Noir 2004 – Australia ($20)

Seresin Marlborough Pinot Noir “Leah” 2009 – New Zealand ($40)
JK Carriere Shea Vineyard 2005 – Willamette Valley, Oregon ($60)

As for white wines, ever since I worked at Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard in the Finger Lakes region of New York, I've given Riesling and Gewurztraminer prominent seats at the table. I am not alone; recently both Food & Wine and Bon Appetit magazines featured Hermann J. Wiemer in their Thanksgiving issues. The bright fruit flavors and wonderful acidity of these wines compliment traditional Thanksgiving dishes as well as vegetarian fare.  So naturally I highly recommend drinking American this holiday with one of Wiemer's many Rieslings or other white wines, including the newly released Gruner Veltliner, which I haven't tried yet but I fondly remember installing the posts in the vineyard that produced that wine. All of these wines are around $20 or under and available in many states around the country:

Hermann J. Wiemer Dry Riesling 2013

Hermann J. Wiemer Gruner Veltliner 2013
Hermann J. Wiemer Gewurztraminer 2013

Happy Thanksgiving!

Burgundy: Gevrey-Chambertin and Nuits-Saint-Georges

Gevrey-Chambertin and Nuits-Saint-Georges are two of the most famous and well-regarded communes in Burgundy for Pinot Noir. As part of the Cote de Nuits wine region in the Northern part of the Cote d’Or, limestone and clay soils create the perfect environment for complex Pinot Noir. Of course, Burgundy is known for its varied and coveted terroir within each sub-region’s individual vineyards, so full-bodied Gevrey-Chambertin wines are often designated Grand Cru, while many wines from Nuits-Saint-Georges receive Premier Cru distinction. During a recent class at SFWC, James Beard award-winning author and resident Pinot Noir expert, Jordan Mackay, took us through a flight of beautiful red Burgundy from these two regions.

The first four wines came from Nuits-Saint-Georges; three of these were Premier Cru. I particularly enjoyed the 1995 Robert Chevillon, with its floral but rustic perfumed nose that smelled like autumn in a glass. Super smooth on the palate, the velvety body was balanced by a nice acid profile.  The 2001 Dominique Laurent smelled like pickles at first, which I didn’t mind, but as it opened up I enjoyed the violets and roses on the nose and the lingering finish.

The next four wines from Gevrey-Chambertin were a bit more complex and earthy. My favorite, the 1998 Domaine des Chezeaux Grand Cru, had a funky, earthy nose with spice, fruit and flower on the elegant palate; this wine had great texture.

Many of the wines kept changing in the glasses as we tasted them, reminding us that wine is a living thing that constantly evolves in its various environments.

Jordan had some suggestions for wine touring in Burgundy, which is a great way to learn about the terroir. From CDG in Paris it’s about a 3-hour train ride into Beaune, the town he recommended staying in; from there you can drive around the region or bike around the vineyards. This trip may be next on my travel wishlist.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Pinot Noir Around the World

The world of Pinot Noir stretches way beyond Burgundy – though each new world version is compared to the French mother lode. Known the world over as a finicky grape, Pinot Noir is difficult to maintain since it ripens so early and is prone to rot due to its thin skin. Genetically unstable, many different clones exist and can have marked differences. In this wine class at SFWC, Master Sommelier Gillian Ballance described Pinot Noir as “charming – exhibiting grace as well as power.” She took us through a varied flight of Pinot Noir from places like Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, in addition to Burgundy, Oregon and California.

First, a well-aged Pinot from Central Coast: Calera Mt Harlan Jensen Vineyard 1999, grown on one of the few limestone vineyards in California, which was planted in 1974. It was very much alive, with balsamic, stewed fruit and good tannin. Further north in Willamette Valley, Oregon, J.K. Carriere held the crowd favorite with the 2005 Shea Vineyard – a little funky on the nose but very Burgundian, with nice spice and good acidity. 

Over on the other side of the world, South African Pinot from Hamilton Russell showed its funky side with some rubber, pine and earthiness that was quite interesting and unique. Gillian explained that South Africa's wine areas lack certain minerals in the soil, so the addition of these minerals contributes to their "rubbery" quality.

Finally, we went down under to Australia’s Yarra Yarra valley in the Victoria district, a cooler area on the southern coast of the country. This wine is beautiful with pomegranate, cranberry and great acidity. It brought me back to a trip I took to this area in 2009, when I sampled my first Aussie Pinot and took a $25 bottle back home with me, halfway around the world to New York, where I lived at the time. This 2004 from Labyrinth is a steal at $20! Then, from neighboring New Zealand, a 2009 Marlborough Pinot from Seresin also showed really well, with pretty fruit, leather, good acidity and a long finish. While I’m partial to Burgundy, I found these two wines to be the most exciting of the night (and the most affordable). 

But speaking of Burgundy, a 2008 Premier Cru from Patrice Rion Chambolle-Musigny Les Charmes in Cote de Nuits showed refined fruit, floral and herbal qualities with elegant structure and a long finish. I can’t help it – Burgundy is always my favorite.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Indigenous Italy

Italy is one of the most varied wine countries in the world, particularly because they have so many indigenous varietals – over 6000! There are no generalizations to be made, especially in a country whose climates and soil are so varied from one section to another. Italian wine labeling doesn't necessarily makes thing any clearer, since sometimes the name of the grape is used and sometimes it is not. Personally, I’m always trying to learn more about Italian wines, since there are so many wines to try and many are good values. Mauro Cirilli, native of Venice and current Wine Director at Press Club in San Francisco, helped us break it down in Wine School at SFWC. We started with Prosecco, the refreshing bubbly wine of the Veneto region in northern Italy. Formerly named for both the grape and the region, things got confusing when Prosecco achieved DOCG status, the highest quality designation for Italian wine, so they since went back to using the name Glera for the grape. Prosecco is not "Italian Champagne" – it’s a completely different style of bubbly wine that is meant to be light, fruity and refreshing.

Further south and off the coast of the “boot,” the Mt Etna wine region of Sicily surrounds the tallest active volcano in Europe and one of the most active in the world, with vineyards planted on volcanic soil. Mt Etna white wines are made from the grapes Carricante and Catarratto; the version we tried was dry, austere and a little bit funky.

Image of Mt Etna looming over vineyards

Vermentino, a white wine usually varietally labeled, is an expressive grape that grows in Liguria, Tuscany and Sardinia; we tried a Sardinian version grown on minerally soil, with a rich creamy palate of chamomile. Cannonau is a red Sardinian varietal that we sampled, which is their local name for Grenache or Garnacha. I love Sardinian Cannonau for its earthy and funky qualities; this one didn’t disappoint me with its barnyard, herbs, mushrooms and long finish. 

Back in the Veneto, Valpolicella is a red wine typically made from 3 grapes – Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara – each contributing important characteristics to the wine including color, tannin, spice and body. The one we tried was earthy and spicy with dried fruit character.  Refosco, a wine made from grapes with red stems, also comes from the north, in Fruili-Venezia. This wine had bright fruit and flowers with a good texture. 

Finally, on the sweeter side of things, we sampled Lambrusco, the slightly “frizzante” red wine from Emilia-Romagna, and Moscato, the floral dessert wine from Piedmont. A wide variety of wines, quite representative of Italy.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Top 100 Represent

Last week I helped my friend Oskar pour Hermann J. Wiemer wines at the Wine & Spirits Magazine Top 100 Wineries Grand Tasting at the City View Metreon in San Francisco. For the 6th year in a row, Wiemer was among this elite group of wineries around the world that included Ridge and Williams Selyem here in California, CVNE in Spain, and Krug and Dom Ruinart Champagnes from France. I really enjoyed Wiemer's newly-released 2013 Riesling Reserve, a wine that is made from the best blend of their 3 Riesling vineyards. 2013 was a slightly challenging vintage for the Finger Lakes, but I'm convinced the Wiemer wines that struggled are always the most complex and rewarding (2009, I'm talking about you). The 2013 Riesling Reserve was bright and citrusy with orange blossom and honey while still being dry and crisp. Perfect for this balmy fall October evening.

I had some time to taste around the other tables, and my favorite wines outside Wiemer were whites from Domaine Marc Morey & Fils, one of the top producers in Chassagne-Montrachet, Burgundy, France. Like Wiemer, this domaine harvests and sorts all their grapes by hand, gently pressing the whole clusters and fermenting the free-run juice on native yeasts. These two wines were amazing: 2010 Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru Vergers Blanc and 2011 Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Pucelles Blanc. Creamy yet crisp, with acidity and balance, these beautiful wines stood out among the crowd. While Chardonnay is not necessarily my favorite white grape varietal, Burgundy just may be my favorite white wine. But at well over $100/bottle, a few sips was all I could afford of these two.

Wines aside, perhaps the best part of the evening was getting baby registry advice from Oskar. Apparently, we need this.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Wining and Dining in Paris

Last Spring I took a trip to Paris and I still dream about the wine and food we enjoyed there.

At Clamato, a seafood-based restaurant, we enjoyed razor clams and other maritime delicacies with a lush Vouvray:

In the cute village of Montmarte, we had a decadent lunch of Coq au Vin with a refreshing glass of rose:

In the Saint Germain neighborhood where we stayed, we dined alfresco with leg of lamb and Syrah from Saint Joseph in the Rhone:

Of course, I had to go back to the top of the Eiffel Tower for some Champagne with Jeremy. It seems that no one does this, and I think it's the greatest thing ever! What better way to enjoy the views over Paris and endure the scary height than with a glass of bubbly.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

New World vs. Old World

As the line between new world and old world wines continues to blur, last week at San Francisco Wine Center we found ourselves stumped this evening as we blind-tasted through 6 comparisons of typical varietals made by old world and new world producers. With each pair, the class was literally split every time on which was which. As Mary Burnham, wine writer, explained, when we talk about old world, we mean Europe, while new world encompasses everywhere else. Old world wines are generally more earthy and savory, with marked acidity and minerality and less alcohol. New world wines are typically more fruit-forward, less acidic, and higher in alcohol. Did these generalizations hold up in this group?

In the first pair, wine #1 was fruity and dry, with grassy notes, citrus peel, and marked acidity. Many guessed it was a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc - but it was a white Bordeaux. Wine #2 was creamier, with sweet vanilla oak, lemon merengue, and peach; more complex, silky but still crisp. Were we in Pouilly-Fumé, France? Actually, Washington State. I didn’t even know anyone was making Sauvignon Blanc in Washington – this was actually majority Semillon (61%) with 20% Sauvignon Blanc – but I expect I will be re-visiting this producer, Buty.

In the next pair, many immediately thought #3 was a German Riesling due to its pungent petrol character. I got beyond that and began to think we were in Australia, since theirs take on that character as well but tend to be very lime-y and dry, which was how I would characterize this wine.  Wine #4 was more floral and peachy, like many Rieslings I’ve had from Finger Lakes producer Hermann J. Wiemer that highly mimic a German Mosel style when young.  The big reveal - #3 was from Oregon and #4 was Austrian!

The next two sets were a bit more obvious to me – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. New World chardonnay tends to have more pronounced oak, and I almost always prefer a more refined French style. With Pinot Noir, new world versions tend to be very fruity, whereas French versions are more funky and earthy, which I also prefer. Both sets were more typical expressions of new world and old world, though not obvious to everyone.

The second set of reds was a fun one – meaty, savory and spicy with firm tannin against brambly, sweet spice and soft tannin. We had ourselves a Crozes-Hermitage Syrah against a Barossa Valley Shiraz. We learned that the Barossa Valley does not cool off at night, so the grape skins don’t thicken, contributing to softer tannins in the wine. This was a great pair that solidified my favorite for the night in the Crozes-Hermitage, since I love this style and producer and the price cannot be beat, especially for a wine that will continue to improve with cellar time.
The last set was another tough one, mostly because both these wines were very tight and could use some more aging and air. The first had a eucalyptus nose with black fruit and violets on the nose. The second was a bit more closed on the nose but we could discern some vanilla. With a few bites of cheese, things started to become clearer - these were Cabernet-dominated wines, Bordeaux from Graves against Napa Valley’s Opus One.

A wonderful selection of wines with some curveballs…
  1. Chateau Lamothe de Haux White Bordeaux 2011 ($15)
  2. Buty Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc-Muscadelle 2010 – Columbia Valley, WA ($25)
  3. Chehalem Willamette Valley Dry Riesling Reserve 2007 – Oregon ($20)
  4. Hogl Wachau Riesling Smaragd Bruck 2007 – Wachau, Austria ($30)
  5. Domaines Leflaive Macon Verze 2012 – Burgundy, France ($39)
  6. Wente Riva Ranch Estate Chardonnay 2012 – Arroyo Seco, Monterey, CA ($18)
  7. Flowers Van der Kamp Vineyard Pinot Noir 2000 – Sonoma Mountain ($60)
  8. Domaine Trappet Chambertin Grand Cru 2000 – Cote de Nuits, Burgundy, France ($200)
  9. Alain Graillot Crozes Hermitage 2012 – Northern Rhone Valley, France ($30)
  10. Two Hands Gnarly Dudes Shiraz 2011 – Barossa Valley, Southern Australia ($28)
  11. Chateau Smith-Haut Lafite 2006 – Graves, Left Bank, Bordeaux, France ($90)
  12. Opus One 2006 – Napa Valley, CA ($290)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Madeira - The Indestructible Wine

I recently attended a Madeira Master Class at the San Francisco Wine Center, led by professionals from The Madeira Wine Institute - the governing body of winemaking on the island of Madeira, Portugal. Madeira is a fortified wine known for its longevity - but did you know the best Madeira can last 300 years? Rui Falcao, our instructor, told us about the oldest Madeira he’s tried, which was from 1715! It was not only good, but very good – nowhere near tired or gone. How does this tiny, mountainous island whose subtropical climate is always 70 degrees produce one of the world’s most indestructible wines? Acidity! Like Champagne, Madeira’s wine grapes produce extremely acidic wines that are undrinkable in their normal, vinified state. But this acidity provides the backbone of a wine balanced by natural sugar levels and the addition of neutral spirit to raise the alcohol from about 9% to 18%. With the right amount of aging, a beautiful, complex wine emerges.

Madeira is always a single varietal wine. The 5 main permitted varietals vary in natural sweetness, so their wines will usually follow suit. Sercial is a dry wine; Verdelho – medium dry; Boal/Bual – medium sweet; Malvasia/Malmsey – sweet/rich. Tinta Negra is the exception to all of this: the only red varietal, vinified as a white, it can be any level of sweetness. Though it accounts for 82% of Madeira production, it used to not be talked about, but as recently as the day of this class it had been recognized as a Noble grape varietal and will be included on the label going forward.

Madeira has a total of just 900 acres of vines. Vineyards are managed separately from the wineries, and there are only 8 Madeira wineries in existence. One of these opened 3 years ago and it was the first new winery in 60 years. Clearly, Madeira winemaking is a very old tradition. (Fun fact: the fathers of the U.S. Constitution toasted its signing with Madeira!) The Madeira Wine Institute does all of the analytics on each wine and tastes them before bottling to make sure the wine matches its proposed labeling criteria. After a blind tasting, an approval allows the winery to bottle and sell the wine. Madeira wines are either a blended style (meaning a blend of different years, not grapes); a Colheita single harvest – also known as a “baby vintage” that must be aged for a minimum of 5 years to be labeled as such; or a Frasqueira/Vintage – which must be aged for a minimum of 20 years to be labeled with that vintage.

The tasting included a wonderful sampling across these grape varietals and aging categories. We learned that Madeira should be served cold (55 degrees F), and one shouldn’t try to follow it with any other wine – the finish is long and lingering and will overpower any other wine.  Despite the perceived “sweet” character of many Madeiras, the bracing acidity actually balances that sweetness, making it a friendly wine on its own or with food.

Typical Madeira aromas/flavors include toasted almond, caramel, molasses and dried fruit, like fig and raisin. My favorite was the Colheita 1996, with its honey and orange blossom character; the finish went on forever. The Malvasia 1989 was also a treat, with burnt orange peel and caramel.

Wine List:
  1. H&H Sercial 10 Años - toasted almond, lemon peel, caramel, almond skin. Sweeter than expected despite this being the "dry" grape. Great acidity. 
  2. The Rare Wine Co. Savannah Verdelho - cola, caramel and Tootsie roll.
  3. Broadbent Malvasia 10 Años - cola, raisin, dried figs.
  4. Blandy’s Colheita 1996 - honey, orange peel, orange blossom and white flowers. Persistent finish.
  5. D’Oliveiras 1989 Malvasia - burnt orange peel and caramel; wonderful acidity and sweetness. 
Thinking I need to go get some Madeira for my wine collection...

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Three Big B's of Italy

Last month in wine school at the San Francisco Wine Center we were educated about the subtle but significant differences between the 3 Big B’s of Italy: Barolo, Brunello & Barbaresco.  Mauro Cirilli, Italy's top Sommelier, returned to SFWC for another round of his Italian wine series.  These 3 wines (named for their regions) are known for their longevity, structure, acidity and food friendliness.
Barolo and Barbaresco wines are both made 100% with the Nebbiolo grape. These northern Italian regions of Piedmont have a cooler climate, and the food of the region tends to be rich, so Nebbiolo pairs well with the cuisine. Minimum aging requirements for Barbaresco include 26 months in oak for regular wines and 50 months for Riserva wines. In Barolo, minimum aging for regular wines if 38 months and 62 months for Riserva. These two regions are a bit like Burgundy in that all wines are single vineyard designated. Despite their proximity, these two regions vary in climate and style due to Barbaresco’s closeness to the Tanaro River, which provides a maritime influence that helps Nebbiolo ripen a bit earlier than in Barolo. This results in earlier fermentation and less maceration, so the tannins in a young Barbaresco are not as tough as in Barolo, hence the reduced aging requirement.  Barbaresco is more approachable than Barolo earlier, but it won’t age as long. Barolo is one of the greatest wines of Italy, with its trademark calcareous soils and vineyard slopes contributing to the complex aromas of tar and roses and extremely long cellar life.

Brunello – short for Brunello di Montalcino - is in the region of Tuscany, known for olive oil and lighter foods, and the 100% Sangiovese wines complement this cuisine perfectly. Montalcino has one of the warmest and driest climates in Tuscany, and this particular clone of Sangiovese is unique to the region – it ripens more fully and consistently here than anywhere else in Tuscany, contributing to the body, color, extract and tannins commonly associated with Brunello di Montalcino. Sangio in Italian means blood, but in contrast to the Sangiovese in Chianti, Brunello is described as “fleshier.” Minimum aging for these wines is 48 months or 60 for Riserva.

Traditional wineries use large oak vats while modern wineries may used smaller French barriques. All 3 of these wines are lightly pigmented and tend to have a garnet color, with high tannin, high acidity, and medium to full body.

We tasted Barbaresco first, enjoying the licorice, spice, dried fruit flavors. My favorite was the 1990 Ceretto, from Bricco Asili. It took a while to open up but once it did I loved the roses and that smooth finish.
2007 Produttori del Barbaresco, Riserva, Montestefano (in Barbaresco)
2007 Gaja (in Barbaresco)
1999 Scarpa, Tettineive (in Neive)
1990 Ceretto, Bricco Asili (in Barbaresco)

Next, the Barolos. Meaty, savory, rich with sweet spices, violets and roses, rhubarb, licorice and fennel. The 2001 even had an interesting combination of mint crème and butter toffee along with tar and dried flowers. It was tough to pick a favorite in this group but all of them could definitely age much longer.
2010 Andrea Oberto, Rocche (in La Morra)
2006 Boroli, Villero (in Castiglione Falletto)
2001 Giuseppe Mascarello, Monprivato (in Castiglione Falletto)

The Brunellos were more approachable, with juicy ripe fruit and savory herbs and earth.  My favorite was the 2004 Casanova di Neri, which also showed dark violet, prune and sweet licorice in beautiful balance.
Brunello di Montalcino:
2006 Gianni Brunelli
2006 Gaja, Pieve di Santa Restituta
2004 Casanova di Neri, Cerretalto

All of these wines had amazing acidity and structure and could age even longer. They would be fabulous with a meal but we did fine with a delicious assortment of Italian cheeses.

Looking forward to Mauro's next class on November 4 - Indigenous Varietals of Italy. I can never be educated enough about this region. I'm hoping for some Lagrein, Teroldego and Frappato.