The Loire Valley and Its Wines

It’s hard to generalize about the Loire Valley and its wine – the Loire River flows for about 300 miles from its inland reaches near Sancerre to the Atlantic west of Nantes.  And all along that beautiful geography are glorious chateaux, a mass of French history, and vineyards.  The vineyards follow along the river and are classified within wine growing regions. Each of these regions are distinct in terroir and viticulture, and each tend to feature a particular grape variety.  But you won’t find the variety on the label so I’ll highlight what to look for in each region by the best known places within them.

Lets do our tour starting with the most inland region which is called the Upper Loire.  This is home to perhaps the best known of the Loire wines, Sancerre and its neighbor, Pouilly-Fume. These are the star Sauvignon Blanc of France and among my own favorite expressions of that grape. (FYI – don’t confuse Pouilly-Fume with Pouilly Fuisse from Burgundy which is Chardonnay). On the spectrum of Sauvignon Blanc taste these are smack in the middle between the fruit forward wines of California and the grassy, new mown hay style of New Zealand – and I love it.  They are crispy but without a bite, pale green with a hint of grapefruit, melon and herb along with mineralty from the limestone based soils.

From Sancerre head west through Orleans and into the region known as Touraine and it’s here we find the next most well known wines of the Loire.  Vouvray is all Chenin Blanc.  Chenin Blanc is lovely wine with tastes of green apple and honeydew melon. It can also be a little hard-edged due to its acidity so often you’ll find just a hint of sweetness left to ease the way. It offers great versatility with foods that are cured or salty as well as with Asian dishes the have some heat or spice to them. The other significant wine from Touraine to look for is the red wine, Chinon. Chinon is Cabernet Franc.  Unlike in Bordeaux, in Chinon Cabernet Franc is a standalone wine, not just a part of the blend, and it deserves our attention. To me there is usually a dark raspberry flavor along with notes of green bell pepper. It’s softer than Cabernet Sauvignon and mellower too. I like it a lot with roasted chicken or grilled pork chops.

Working our way to the Atlantic we now come to Anjou-Samur. The red of this region is generally Cabernet Franc but the most highly regarded wines are the Chenin Blanc of Savennieres, the sweet desert wines of Bonnezeaux and Quarts-de-Chaume and lovely sparkling wines known as Cremant de Loire.  The desert wines are made from Chenin Blanc that has been subject to  botrytis.  Geek Alert: Botrytis is the fungus known as the “Noble Rot” that pierces the grape skin which leads to water evaporation and the concentration of sugars.  Sounds bad but tastes great when the wines are made. Similar wines are the spectacular wines of Sauternes.  The Cremant is traditional method sparkling wine but made mostly with Chenin Blanc grapes.

At last we approach the coast and the region named for the largest city there, Nantes. There are several varieties of wine made in the Pays Nantes but the most fun to learn about is Muscadet.  Don’t confuse this with the grape Muscat because it’s not!  The grape is Melon de Bourgogne and the winemakers have a special approach to making the wine Muscadet. You see, Melon tends to be a lean and acidic wine if it’s just fermented and bottled. So the winemakers take an additional step and age the wine on the lees. Another Geek Alert: Lees are the sediments left over from fermentation, mostly the dead yeast cells.  This aging process is call sur lie in the French and it results in creating a fuller bodied and nicely drinking wine. I truly enjoy Muscadet.  Its appley tartness along with a little chalkiness makes it great with fresh seafood, especially oysters.

There’s even more to the Loire than we can cover in just one post, including delightful Rose’ and even other wines including some Pinot Noir, but I like to narrow the focus and concentrate on the best of any one given place.  I know I’ve thrown a lot at you about Loire Valley wines and it can get a bit confusing.  Here’s a quick summary so you can be ready to Sip!

Region Appellation Grape
Upper Loire Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc
Pouilly-Fume Sauvignon Blanc
Touraine Vouvray Chenin Blanc
Chinon Cabernet Franc
Anjou-Samur Savennieres Sauvignon Blanc
Bonnezeaux Chenin Blanc (dessert)
Quarts-de-Chaume Chenin Blanc (dessert)
Cremant de Loire Chenin Blanc (sparkling)
Pays Nantes Muscadet Melon de Borgogne

Ode to Greek Wines

A few weeks ago I went to a tasting hosted by the Wines of Greece.  It was pretty timely because, if you follow along with me, you know that I have some resolutions that I am keeping up with throughout the year. One of them was to share some info about Greek wine: June – let’s stay in the Mediterranean and sail on to Greece.  They’ve only been making wine there since Homer was a boy! 

I love it when a plan comes together!

The tasting was terrific and the visiting winemakers and other staff from the wineries and distributors couldn’t have been nicer – or more informative about their wines. Too often the wine from Greece is associated with simple Roditis along with shouts of “Opa” at the restaurant or aggressive Retsina, but don’t’ let that fool you into misunderstanding how much quality wine there is to enjoy from Greece.  The Greeks are making wonderful wines from their indigenous grapes, but also from the international varieties too, meaning Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, etc.  And the result is some unique blending which can offer us wines with familiar names on the label alongside grapes new to many of us. In my view that’s the ideal way to introduce us to the wines of Greece.

There are four local varieties I’d like to highlight: The whites are Assyrtiko and Moschofilero.  The reds are Xinomavro and Agiorgitiko.

Assyrtiko. This is the white wine of Santorini and if there is a wine that is the ideal partner for the bounty of the sea, this is it.  santorini_greek_island_greeceAssyrtiko has vivid acidity along with citrusy flavor and telltale mineralty.  Whenever we see the word mineralty Chablis comes to mind, but unlike chardonnay, Assyrtiko leads with a fresh lemon zest quality that seems perfect for sun-drenched sipping. And this grape blends particularly well with Sauvignon Blanc giving us delightful wine that is very food friendly.

Moschofilero.  Tropical flowers and food friendly acidity make Moschofilero a lively choice for everyday white sipping. Much like Pinot Grigio, it’s the kind of wine that is pleasant and refreshing all by itself yet shines when you put some steamed clams on the table. I think it’s a lovely starter wine with salad.

Xinomavro. From the northern part of Greece comes Xinomavro, a red wine that typically is more medium bodied with bright acidity and red berry flavors.  Most often people compare it to Pinot Noir.  In my own tasting I wouldn’t disagree, however I found it to be more like Nebbiolo, the wine of Italy’s Piedmont, that kept coming back at me – a flavor with roses and violets. That said, the Pinot comparison is a great way to quickly shortcut to Xinmavro’s versatility with food.

Agiorgitiko.  This is perhaps the best known of the Greek reds, but you may know it by its English name, St. George. I really like these wines. They have good structure and are tannic enough for meaty dishes.  Mostly I tasted black cherries and dried fruit with a little spicy quality. Well made and aged in oak, these wine have complexity and all of the nuance one would expect from a world class wine.

The one challenge to enjoying Greek wine is finding them. The Wines of Greece hosted a tasting for restauranteurs, retailers and the media – to get the word out that there are terrific wines just waiting to be discovered. The good news is more retailers are carrying them, and we can let our fingers do the walking online.  On your behalf I let my fingers walk so here are some Greek wines for your to explore.

Every Day Sip
Santo Santorini Assyrtiko 2015 $14
Nasiakos Moschofilero 2015 $16
Boutari Moschofilero $18
Skouras St. George, Nemea $18
Gaia Agiorgitiko 2015 $20
Alpha Estate Hedgehog Vineyard Xinomavro 2012 $24

Guest Sip
Domaine Karydas Xinomavro 2012 $28
2015 Tselepos Assyrtiko $30

Wines for Summer

Some things bear repeating – “Don’t forget to brush your teeth!” “Look both ways!” “Buckle your seatbelt!”  We’re never too old, or too young, to be reminded. Okay, it may be a stretch, but I want to remind you “Don’t wait to enjoy the wines of summer!”  And I promise this isn’t a lecture, just a gentle nudge to motivate your Sips.

For me the wines of summer occupy a special place in the Sips universe – the whites are fresh and zippy; the reds are punchy and ready for cookouts and al fresco dining; and then there is rose’.  Vive la Rose’ I say!  Just yesterday we sat on the deck with a couple of friends sharing a gorgeous salad with all kinds of mixed greens and goodies like grilled chicken breast and sipped on chilled rose’ from the Cotes du Provence, savoring the warm sunshine and gentle breeze.  How good is that!

So since some things bear repeating I want to get a few earlier posts back on your radar so that you can make the most of summer sipping.

Zippy Summer Whites will give you a good overview of some lighter and refreshing wines from around the world that are picture perfect for summertime.

Then we paid particular attention when It’s It’s Time for Sauvignon Blanc – the sassy Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand to Sancerre to California USA.

And when we wrote about Keeping Your (Wine) Cool we didn’t ignore the lighter styled reds either – wines like Barbera, Chianti and young Rioja that are ideal for the the way we eat during the summer.

But we also went right to the Weber when we Q’d the Zin! and got the fire under some dry-rubbed, slow cooked, sweet and smokey baby back ribs and the jammy yet peppery flavors of Zinfandel.

And before we leave the backyard, don’t forget Burgers and Bordeaux.

My favorite summer wine thing, however, is to be the Preacher in the House and convert you to Rose’.  I love Rose’. Did you get that? I said I LOVE ROSE’!  To quote me “Rose’ is everything that is crisp, lively, summery and tantalizing about wine.”

The beauty and magic of wine is that is brings us a never-ending variety of tasty experiences that can match the meal, the season or the mood.  Frankly, that is the reason I like to write about wine and spread the word about what it can add to our life experiences… even if it means repeating things some times!

If you would like to wander though some of the wines of summer, or any other time of year, then just be a regular visitor to our Sips pages for Every Day, Guest and Splurge choices.

Every Day Sips – Wines Under $25

Guest Sips – Wines to Give or Get from $25

Splurge Sips – Wines Over $50

Many Napa Valleys

When it comes to defining wine in the US most people probably sort right away to Napa Valley.  It was the wines of Napa that really put the US on the world wine map, and Napa seems to serve as the shorthand for our wine in general, California wine more specifically, and all of the images and texture that conjure up “wine country.” And that’s all good for sure.  But there’s a lot more to Napa than those generalities capture.  In fact there are many Napa Valleys. No, not geographically, but within the confines of this amazingly special county there are clusters of growing regions that truly give it more meaning and definition when it comes to the wine.

These are called AVAs – American Viticultural Areas, and within the Napa Valley, which is an appellation all on its own,  there are sixteen sub-regions.  Each exists because there are some shared characteristics of earth and sky, a confluence of soil and climate that lend distinctiveness to the grapes and wines.  When it comes to getting deeper into the bottle and appreciating the magic of wine, the more you know about where and how its grown, and how its made, the more each Sip becomes more than just a taste.  So when you see an AVA on the label it’s your first clue about what’s in the bottle.

Here are the 16 Napa Valley AVAs along with a map from the Napa Valley Vintners.  And if you visit their site here there’s even more detail.  But I’d like hit a few of the highlights from my own, nontechnical perspective.

  • Atlas PeakNapaValley AVA Map
  • Calistoga
  • Chiles Valley
  • Coomsbville
  • Diamond Mountain
  • Howell Mountain
  • Los Carneros
  • Mount Veeder
  • Oak Knoll
  • Oakville
  • Rutherford
  • Spring Mountain
  • St. Helena
  • Stags Leap
  • Wild Horse Valley
  • Yountville

I don’t pick favorites (insert the smiley face emoji here!) – but I love

  • The Cabernets from Oakville, Rutherford and Stags Leap. To me these valley floor growing areas are what Napa Cab is all about – ripe and lush, structured and textured with layers of taste and tannin to drink now or park for a while.
  • That Los Carneros is unique and is a shared AVA with Sonoma – and its an area that greets us with the cooler and windy influences of San Pablo Bay, which means Pinot Noir with bright berry fruitiness and tingly acidity and Chardonnays that seem to mimic the mineralty of Chablis
  • The grapes from the mountain ridges where they grow above the fog line, ripening in the sunshine to robust flavors. From Spring Mountain to Mt. Veeder, Howell Mountain to Diamond Mountain the Cabs are powerful and the Merlot are lip-smackers.
  • That the northern part of the valley up by Calistoga and St. Helena is the warmest. I like it for the big tastes of Zin and Syrah and for Cabs that are densely fruity. We paid a visit to Calistoga in an earlier post you can check out.  This is also where I get my favorite Cabernet Franc direct from the winery.

Napa Valley is many wines and many Sips and no single post can possibly capture them all.  But as you dive in a little deeper and choose some wines from the different AVAs you’ll find the diversity and nuance, as well as the variety and vitality, that make the many Napas the quintessential wine country.

Here are some Sips for you to explore – as well as some tips on paying a visit to Napa Valley.

Every Day Sip
2015 Frog’s Leap Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc $12
Cameron Hughes Lot Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford $20
Martin Ray Chardonnay Los Carneros $20

Guest Sip
BV Rutherford Cabernet $28
Steltzner Cabernet Stags Leap District $35
Cuvaison Pinot Noir Carneros $35
Mondavi Oakville Cabernet $40
Ballentine 2014 Cabernet Franc Pocai Vineyard Calistoga $48
Terra Valentine Cabernet Spring Mountain $48
Von Strasser Cabernet Diamond Mountain, 2012 $50

Splurge Sip
Groth Cabernet Oakville $55
Chimney Rock Cabernet Stags Leap $70
2012 Staglin Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford $180

On the Road – In Marlborough Country

Marlborough New Zealand that is.  We just finished a few days in Blenheim and got to immerse ourselves in the winemaking culture and attitude of Marlborough.  An aside – when we disembarked the Interislander Ferry from Wellington at Picton and took the short drive through the hills into the Wairau River Valley I had to pinch myself to realize I was actually in New Zealand, a place I’ve longed to visit (as I wrote about). They take their wine seriously here and, remember, it’s really Marlborough that put New Zealand on the world wine map with lively and zingy Sauvignon Blanc. They still focus on that but Pinot Noir is finding its place along with other varietals like Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer. Notice a theme?  Yep – Marlborough is where you find cool climate varieties.

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Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc on the vine

New Zealand has several wine growing regions, and even though they have not yet adopted an appellation system like the US and other major wine growing countries, each does have unique characteristics. In Marlborough it’s the moderating influence of the rain shadow from the western mountains, the combination of clay and rocky greywacke soils and the ocean breezes from Cloudy Bay that give the wines their signature. The days are long and usually sunny and there are not high heat spikes so there is an extended, cooler growing season. Geek Alert: Greywacke is the mineral rich rock that makes up the mountains of the Southern Alps so its all over South Island New Zealand.

Blenheim is the heart of this wine region and from there it’s very easy to explore the whole area – none of the wineries were more than a 20 minute drive from our base station, the unique Antria Lodge, and owner Phil pointed us in all the right directions!  Most offer open to the public and free tastings at their “cellar door.” So we went off to sip some Marlborough wines.

This was like a Sauvignon Blanc seminar. When you consider that 85% of the wine in Marlborough is Sauvignon Blanc there’s a lot of sipping to cover – but somebody has to do it!

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Tasting 2016 Auntsfield Sauvignon Blanc and the grapes from 2017

What did we find?  We found characteristically grassy and tart wines and we found those with elegance and finesse.  We found wines with fruit forward flavors of gooseberry and herbaceous asparagus and wines with tropical grapefruit tastes.  We found edgy and acidic offerings and some lightly oaked with supple flavors. We found single vineyard wines and the high volume Marlborough wines you see all over the world. We found winemakers who are devoted to the heritage of their land (read the Auntsfield story), those who are experimenting with the nuances of the terroir (visit Clos Henri)and those using native wild yeast to give their wines a specific signature (see Greywacke).  In short we found a vibrant and eclectic wine country experience. There’s a lot more to a sip of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc than you may think. I know it opened me up to new sipping experiences.

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Greywacke visit

We were very fortunate to be able to wander these wines first hand, but a great way to pay a virtual visit to Marlborough, and help you find some wines near home, is by visiting Wine Marlborough.

Here are some Marlborough sips for you to enjoy from our visit. I tasted them all and they are a nice reflection of being “On the Road – In Marlborough Country.”
Let’s sip!

2016 Omaka Springs Sauvignon Blanc $14

2016 Wairau River Sauvignon Blanc $16

2016 Babich Sauvignon Blanc Black Label $16

Lawson’s Dry Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2015 $16

Auntsfield Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc $18

Zephyr Sauvignon Blanc 2016 $18

Villa Maria 2016 Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanc $18

2016 Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $20

Yealands Estate Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2016 $24

2014 Clos Henri Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $25

Keeping Your (Wine) Cool

Now that we are in the heart and heat of summer I thought it a good time to talk about being cool – with our wine that is.  If there’s one thing that wine really doesn’t like it’s heat! Nothing will destroy a bottle faster. Now is a good time to revisit some basics about storing and serving wine at a good temperature.  Whether you have three bottles or three hundred; whether you’re drinking classic Bordeaux or everyday Malbec; whether you’re a Chardonnay fan or stick to Pinot Grigio, there are some guidelines that are helpful to having the kind of sip experience you want.

Summer Buying
When it’s hot keep it cool. Don’t let the wine sit in your car.  Common sense, right? But it’s easy to be out running errands without realizing how long the wine may be heating up in the trunk. I transport it in the car so at least it’s as comfortable as I am!  Just don’t park and let it simmer. And please, don’t let your wine sit in the garage.

If you buy online be aware of the shipping time.  Many wineries and online sellers will ship refrigerated and with a cooling pack inside the box which is great. And many also do not ship in the heat of summer without letting you know – so if you’re a club member let them know your preference. But it still makes sense to be aware of the weather. If there’s a heat spell simply notify the winery or seller to delay your shipment.  Delivery trucks get hot.

Summer Drinking
During the warmer months I generally prefer lighter styled wines and wines with good acidity. And I drink them cool.  I love Rose’ and to me there’s is nothing more fun than sipping chilled Rose’ on a summer afternoon.  Check here for my evangelizing about this!  But there are whites and reds which also just seem fit for summer sipping.

For whites I move away from Chardonnay, Viognier and fuller bodied styles to Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Albarino among others.  Here are some zippy summer whites to enjoy. One of my favorite summer memories is sitting on a pier eating fresh steamed clams right out of the ocean and sipping a chilled Pinot Grigio – yum! Of course, a tingly Prosecco or Cava sure fit the time too.  Anyway, an easy rule of thumb is think about the origin of the wine – warm climate = good drinking. And drink them nicely chilled. A half an hour in a bucket with 2/3rd ice and 1/3rd water is the ideal cooler.  Also, if you have the wine in the fridge, be aware that most refrigerators are a bit too cold (typically about 38 degrees). Too cold and you’ll miss some of the taste character of the wine so take it out for about 20 minutes before drinking – it’s still chilled and it will be tastier.

For reds I wander to Barbera, Chianti, Valpolicella, Rioja Crianza, and my favorite, Pinot Noir.  And I like to drink them cool.  If you have a temperature controlled cellar or storage unit then the 55 degrees setting is just right.  If you don’t then put the bottle in the fridge for about 30 minutes to cool it down from room temperature.  There’s is nothing “wrong” about enjoying bigger full wines during the summer (serve me that big Zin with some ribs!), but to me the food is the driver and we tend to eat lighter then too.  More chicken and fish on the grill, summer salads and veggies, pasta with fresh tomatoes and herbs from the garden or farmer’s market, chilled soups, and even with more brats and burgers if you’re eating lighter it makes sense to be drinking lighter too.

Okay – I have now written my way to lunch and it’s about 80 degrees out there!  I think I’ll head to the deck, the shade and a chopped salad with glass of chilled Sauvignon Blanc!

For lots of wine choice go to the the Sips pages:

Everyday Sips – Wines under $25

Guest Sips – Wines $25 plus

Splurge Sips – Wines over $50

Knowing Bordeaux – Part 1

Bordeaux.  If there is one word in wine that captures the culture and costliness, savior faire and snobbery, history and histrionics of wine this is it.  There are other parts of the world where wine has been made more anciently but none where wine has come to so be exquisitely defined.  Bordeaux truly has been the ‘pebble in the pond’ from which wine popularity and appreciation have spread outward (largely thanks to the British – but that’s another story).  Yet to many who like to drink and enjoy wine it remains somewhat confusing and inaccessible.  Let’s change that by starting with a little journey through the region.

Reds are the dominant wines in Bordeaux with Cabernet Sauvignon getting most of the attention, but Merlot is actually more widely planted. The red wines are blends of the ‘noble grapes’ of Bordeaux – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot.  Usually two or more of these grapes are in the bottle but you won’t see them listed on the label.  The white wines are Sauvignon Blanc blended with Semillon.  The French don’t label by the grape type so this is why it’s good to know a bit about the region in general and each of the particular areas within it.  You can then know what to look for in the store and how to buy smarter.

Knowing Bordeaux begins with some basic geography.  The geography of Bordeaux directly influences the wine in the bottle.  Bordeaux is located near the Atlantic Ocean in the southwestern corner of France.  The ocean plays a very strong role in the wine of the region because of the cool and chilly dampness and rain that is typical during the growing season.  However, the vines get some moderating protection from a coastal forest so the extremes are not as significant as in other maritime growing environments.

The region is bisected by two major rivers which then join into a large estuary.  The Garonne River meets the Dordogne River near the city of Bordeaux and together they make up the Gironde – the estuary that runs into the Atlantic.  These four bodies of water – ocean and three rivers – are the natural demarcation of the Bordeaux wine country, controlling climate and creating the terroir of the region.  The gravelly soils are ideal for Cabernet and the more fertile areas help Merlot thrive.

The eastern side of the Dordogne and Gironde is known as the “Right Bank.”  It’s here that Merlot based wines are predominant. At the center is the village of St. Emilion and scattered though the broader area are Pomerol, Fronsac and others.  This is the Libournais, so named after the city of Libourne.

fotoBORDELAIS-mapa-post-sobre-cata-Bordeaux-1140x904

To the west of the Garonne and Gironde is the “Left Bank.”  This is home to the most famous wines of Bordeaux from the chateaux of the Medoc north of the town of Bordeaux – St. Estephe, Pauillac, St. Julien, Margaux – and Graves to the south.  The Left Bank wines are driven by Cabernet Sauvignon, which needs to be hardy in that maritime climate and makes wine that is tannic, structured and very age-worthy.  In Graves it is also where the white wines of Bordeaux are prominent. Then tucked away near the banks of the Garonne is Sauternes and the world famous dessert wine of Chateau D’Yquem.

Between the rivers is a fertile triangle of land known as Entre-Deux-Mers, literally ‘between the waters.’  This is the breadbasket of Bordeaux wine where there is big production and a high volume of every day drinking Merlot based wines.  There aren’t a lot of Entre-Deux-Mers wines on our shelves, but they are a staple throughout France.

In future posts I’ll get into more detail on both the Right and Left Bank and the styles and characters of the wines we’ll find there, but here’s a little sampling to wet your tastebuds!

Every Day Sip
2012 Chateau Cap de Faugeres Castillon Cotes de Bordeaux $18

2012 Francois Thienpont Rouge Lalande de Pomerol $18

2012 Chateau Bellevue Peycharneau Bordeaux Superieur $14

Guest Sip
2012 Chateau d’Armailhac Pauillac $50

2012 Chateau Sansonnet Saint Emilion $36

2012 Chateau Cantenac Brown Margaux $48

Splurge Sip
2012 Chateau Pape Clement Pessac Leognan $100

1999 d’Yquem $100 (auction price) for half bottle 375ml