The Wines of Alsace

As spring turns to summer I begin thinking more about white wines and the pleasure of a chilled glass in my hand. So let’s dial in to the wines of Alsace. It’s a wine region that seems a little out of place in the whole scheme of French wine country. It’s unique because there is a distinct geographic, cultural and wine making connection to Germany, which lies just across the Rhine River.

Alsace is narrow wine region running north to south from near Strasbourg for about 60 miles and is plunked right between the Vosges Mountains on the west and the Rhine on the east. Like its German wine neighbors it is a cold climate region, but the mountains ensure that it is also a dry and sunny one, which helps the grapes reach maturity before the chill sets in. That’s why Alsace is a terrific place to find refreshing, fruit forward, dry Gewurtztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Muscat.  And the good news is that Alsace, unlike other French wine regions, labels the bottle with the grape variety.  At the store you’ll see those tall green bottles that look German, with German domaine names too, but the wine will be pure French and easy to identify.

What’s the Alsatian style?  Well I mentioned fruit forward and that’s for sure, but the other thing to know is that they really don’t use any oak and generally what is says on the label is 100% in the bottle so you get a full expression of that grape.

  • The Riesling will have the classic flavors of stone fruits like peaches and won’t be as sweet or acidic like most of its German counterparts (read more about Riesling here). It’s a delightful sipping wine, especially to begin an evening or a meal since it’s traditionally lighter in alcohol.
  • The Gewurtztraminer is a favorite of mine. Gewrurtz may seem sweet when you take the first sip but that’s its profound fruity character. Usually tropical flavors of lychee, jasmine, pineapple and honeysuckle lead the way with spiciness underneath. These are floral and aromatic wines.  Gewurtztraminer is awesome with Asian foods and just plain terrific with smokey ones. And this is my wine choice with Indian food – Vindaloo chicken anyone?
  • Pinot Blanc is like a more delicate version of Pinot Gris (FYI –  I think the Alsace Pinot Gris is richer in style than Italian Pinot Grigio) and they’re both easy drinking. I like them best simply to sip or to share with some seafood.
  • Then there is Muscat. Muscat is an ancient grape found in many wine regions where it is often made into sweet dessert wines, but in Alsace this is a dry and lively wine with notes of orange blossom.

The grape types I mentioned above are known as the “noble” grapes of Alsace (except Pinot Blanc) and the local rules permit some blending of them. In a blend when at least half of the wine is from these grapes you will see the word “Gentil” on the label. I have to say, this is a pleasant and typically inexpensive white wine to have around for simple sipping times.

There is also sparkling wine made in the Alsace region.  It’s called Cremant d’Alsace which is made in the traditional Champagne method and may even contain a little chardonnay.  It is a lively sparkler that features delicate bubbles, some toasty flavor and lighter alcohol that makes it fun and simple if you have a taste for a little tingle.

In case you’re keeping track (like I am!) this post is part of the continuing fulfillment of my New Year Resolution!  For those of you playing along at home: “April – makes me think of the song “April in Paris” so let’s head to France. Hmmm, how about some of the lovely whites of Alsace?”

So now that we know a bit about those lovely white wines I think it’s time to sip!

Every Day Sip
2015 Hugel Gentil $12

2014 Domaines Schlumberger Pinot Blanc Les Princes Abbes $15

2014 Emile Beyer Gewurztraminer Tradition $18

Lucien Albrecht Blancs de Blanc Cremant d’Alsace $18

2012 Trimbach Pinot Gris Reserve $22

2013 Trimbach Riesling $20

Guest Sip
2013 Zind Humbrecht Muscat $25

2014 Domaine Weinbach Gewurztraminer Cuvee Theo $30

2013 Ostertag Riesling Clos Mathis $40

Splurge Sip
2012 Zind Humbrecht Gewurztraminer Herrenweg de Turckheim $50

Sparkling Shiraz

It’s February and that means planning something for my Valentine, and this year we’ll celebrate with Sparkling Shiraz from Australia.  That was my resolution a month ago and I’m sticking with it.

Sparkling Shiraz may not be the most elegant and expensive fizzy – but it is certainly fun and interesting to drink.  sparkling-shirazAnd I like to keep things fun and interesting with the wines I pick for different occasions. Valentine’s Day seems like the perfect time to bring out a new sip experience, especially one that is deeply red, almost purple, from the wonderful foaming bubbles that rise in the glass to the rich dark berry flavors that will delight you as you toast the one who is most special to you.

Most folks aren’t familiar with this kind of wine – unless you’re an Aussie that is!  But it’s a style that has become much more respected and refined, especially as Shiraz from Down Under has increased in popularity.  This is not some syrupy, cloyingly sweet fizzy like “cold duck” or some of those 70’s wines many of us may have slurped in our younger days. Sparkling Shiraz is seriously good to drink.  Here’s why: the ones we now have available to us are made in the traditional method, which means that they are made the same way as fine Champagne and other world class sparkling wines. If you want to read more about that process just click on this earlier post. 

Let’s get to the taste – and the taste begins with the sight and smell of this wine when you pour it in a glass.  So start with what we like about Shiraz and then think of this as a Shiraz that has been sprinkled with stardust.  It’s densely purple color is classy and rich, to me it’s like an amethyst hanging on a pendant or set in a ring (not that I am suggesting what you give your Valentine!).  Shiraz gives us inky dark wines so expect it to be almost opaque.  Yet the magic is in those lively bubbles rising in the glass which add the special tingle of sparkling wine.  I prefer to drink it from a tall Champagne flute especially to enjoy those bubbles.  And inside that glass you’ll get the blackberry and peppery flavor of Shiraz.  What a nice combination!

You can enjoy this wine all by itself as an aperitif but it really is a good food wine too:

  • Sip it with cheese like aged gouda or manchego.
  • It’s wine for tapas and tasty morsels like bacon wrapped dates, grilled octopus or stuffed mushrooms.
  • And for entrees you can’t miss with most grilled red meats right off of the barbie Mate!

Serve Sparkling Shiraz well chilled like Champagne, but not ice cold. If it’s too cold you’ll miss out on some of those dark berry flavors.

I don’t think I can wait until Valentine’s Day so I’m off to pick up some Sparkling Shiraz right now!

Let’s Sip!

EveryDay Sips
Paringa Sparkling Shiraz $16

The Chook Sparkling Shiraz $18

Bleasdale Sparkling Shiraz, The Red Brute $20

Guest Sips
Molly Dooker Miss Molly Sparkling Shiraz $25

Black Bubbles by Shingleback $28

Twelve Wines for Holiday Times

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring… except me – the wine cellar mouse! Yes it’s that time of year and I thought I’d share some thoughts for a Christmas case of wine with some rhyme. So here is my own version of the twelve days of Christmas!

Try one from the Left Bank meant to rest and to age (1)
and one from the West with notes of berry and sage (2).

Then pick a wine from new lands (3)
and one from the boot of old (4);
While making another choice from the hands of Oz (5)
and a bright green bottle from out of the cold (6).

Now you need some sparkle that glints, shines and dances in the light (7)
and a glass filled with ruby red to savor late into the night (8).

No holiday is complete unless there is fame (9) and a jaunty sipper to enjoy with the game (10).
And we’ll end with a bottle of artful delight (11) and one to celebrate the gift of this night (12).

This is a case for all to enjoy any day of the year
but especially now at this time of friends and good cheer!

Merry Christmas to all and Happy Hanukkah too – these are my sips of best wishes for you!
And if you’re still following here are some wines to fill your wishes too.

1 – 2010 Chateau d’Issan Margaux $80 “A complete, medium to full-bodied, exquisite Margaux from this medieval, moat-encircled, compellingly beautiful estate in the southern Medoc, D’Issan’s 2010 is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot – a dense, purple-colored wine with beautiful aromatics of spring flowers, blueberries and black raspberries as well as hints of cassis, tar and charcoal. The wine is gorgeously pure, well-balanced, and soft enough to be approached in 4-5 years or cellared for 25-30.” -Robert Parker Reviewed by: The Wine Advocate – 95 pts

2 – 2012 Chateau Ste Michelle Cabernet Sauvignon Canoe Ridge $28 “This wine is aromatically reserved with notes of milk chocolate, char, berry, barrel spices and high-toned herbs. It’s silky and polished in feel, with richness and elegance to the coffee flavors.” – Sean Sullivan, 11/1/2015  Reviewed by: The Wine Enthusiast – 90 pts

3 – 2012 Norton Malbec Reserva $16 “Offers a fruity aroma, with red and dark fruit flavors that are complex and woven together with fine tannins. Minerally midpalate, presenting some inviting peppery notes. Finishes with a flush of spice and brambly details. Drink now through 2018.” – Kim Marcus, Dec 31, 2014 Reviewed by: Wine Spectator – 90 pts

4 – 2012 San Felice Chianti Classico Riserva il Grigio $22 “A cool, sleek style of Il Grigio with mint, lavender and black-cherry aromas and flavors. Sweet tobacco as well. Full body with firm, fine tannins and a long, fresh finish. A wine with lovely texture and tension. Drink now.” – October 29th, 2015 Reviewed by: James Suckling – 92 pts

5 – 2014 Two Hands Shiraz Angel’s Share $30 “While there are no half measures with the weight or shape of this wine, it has a touch of elegance running alongside its blackberry, blood plum and dark chocolate fruit; the tannins wait until the last moment to join forces with the oak to speak clearly of the long future ahead. Great value.” -James Halliday – 94 pts

6 – 2012 J J Prum Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett $28 “Prum wines are among the most exciting and delicious Rieslings of the middle Mosel. Slow-to-develop and long-lived, these wines are full of pure stone fruits with a slate-mineral driven finish.”

7 – 2012 Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs $35 “The 2012 Blanc de Noirs expresses generous aromas of yellow peach, fresh orange zest, cantaloupe, and citrus blossom, which gradually layers with fragrances of warm apple dumpling and creme anglaise. Lush flavors coat the palate with tangerine, Santa Rosa plum, candied ginger and a hint of French flan. This sparkling wine delivers a clean, lingering finish with crisp mouthwatering.”

8 – 2009 Graham’s Late Bottled Vintage Port $24 “This is a smooth and rich wine, with generous fruit alongside spice and ripe, black plum fruit accents. Ready to drink, it shows surprising balance between a perfumed character and an unctuous palate.” – Roger Voss, 8/1/2015  Reviewed by: The Wine Enthusiast – 90 pts

9 – 2012 Opus One $235 “Glorious purity of fruit here with black currants, blueberries, dark chocolate, fresh herbs and forest floor. Hints of mint too, plus hazelnut and chocolate. Full body with seamless tannins and balance. Tight and compacted tannins with beautiful fruit and great length. Goes on for minutes. One of the best Opus’ in years. Hard not to drink now but better in 2018. October 2015 release. This is 79% cabernet sauvignon, 7% cabernet franc, 6% merlot, 6% petit verdot and 2% malbec.” – July 28th, 2015  Reviewed by: James Suckling – 97 pts

10 – 2013 Klinker Brick Zinfandel Old Vine $16 “2013 Old Vine Zinfandel is a blend of 16 different vineyard blocks of old vine zinfandel vineyards with an average age of 85 years. With berries and spice on the nose, dark, sweet fruit fills the palate with just a hint of black pepper. This wine has a long, lingering finish.”

11 – 2012 Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon $50 “With 20% Malbec, this wine is layered in refined complexity, swaying from juicy blueberry to herbaceous cherry and currant. Restrained in oak, with the slightest notion of vanilla on the palate, it finishes in mouthwatering dark chocolate, the tannins firm and structured.” – Virginie Boone, 9/1/2015  Reviewed by: The Wine Enthusiast – 93 pts

12 – 2014 St. Rose Pinot Noir Nunes Vineyard 777 $48 “Perfumed aromatics of youthful cherry and dusty tannins mingle with traces of lavender and white  floral notes. A bright entry offers a blend of red fruit— raspberry, cranberry, dark cherry and rhubarb—that is integrated with softening tannins and hints of oak. A ripe blackberry and vanilla essence appears near the  finish, adding another dimension as the  flavors linger on the palate.

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

Bring on the Bubbly

Let the countdowns begin. Yes, it’s the time of year when our attention usually turns to the sound of a popping cork and the froth of bubbles rising in a champagne flute. What is it about Champagne or other sparkling wines that add the dash of specialness to our celebrations whether it’s a marriage, a birth, a New Year, a romance, toastable occasions or, my favorite, just any ol’ time you feel in the mood? A cynic might say “marketing” (not that there’s anything wrong with that) – but I think it’s simply because this kind of wine adds sparkle to life. The monk Dom Perignon is credited with inventing Champagne and supposedly declared, “I am drinking the stars!” I get it. That’s how if feel too when the bubbles reflect the light and tickle my taste buds.

Sparkling wines come in a lot of styles and from all over the world. But let’s dispense with one confusion – Champagne now only comes from the Champagne region of France. The French have adamantly protected the use of the name so effectively that all else from the rest of France and the rest of the world is “sparkling wine.” So when you see a Cava from Spain, a Franciacorta from Italy, a Cremant from France, or any of the better bubbly from the US they’re not “Champagne” – but they can be and are wonderful, festive, fun and tasty wines typically made the same way.

How do the bubbles get in the bottle? There are a handful of methods used to make sparkling wines, but since this is a blog and not a book we’ll hit a couple of highlights. The bubbles come from CO2 (carbon dioxide) that is captured in the wine under pressure. When you pop the cork that gas is released and the cork can fly out like a missile and the CO2 bubbles emerge to delight us. This CO2 got there through a second fermentation of the wine in the bottle caused by adding some sugar to already fermented still wine, then sealing up the the bottle. As the additional fermentation occurs the CO2 has nowhere to go so the pressure inside builds.  That’s why Champagne and sparkling bottles are thicker and have an indentation, called a punt, in the bottom, and why the corks have a metal wire around them – can’t have that burst of gas unintentionally! Doing this in the bottle is called the “traditional method” or “Methode Traditionelle.” It can also be done in a tank that is kept sealed during that second fermentation then bottled, which is the way most Prosecco, German Sekt and some of the more mass produced sparklers are made. Another key part to the traditional method is some amount of time aging on the lees. GEEK ALERT: Lees are the sediment primarily of dead yeast cells along with other bits from the grapes. This sur lie aging adds flavor and character to the wine that often is tasted as toasty, wheaty or creamy when you sip it.

How sweet it is! Or rather, How sweet is it may be something to know when you reach for a bottle of bubbles. The label can help you fit your taste. From sweetest to driest here’s what to look for:

  • Doux: Really, I mean really, sweet. Like a dessert wine.
  • Demi-sec: Sweet and yummy this makes a nice companion to desserts
  • Sec: Same as above but just a bit less sweet.
  • Extra Dry: Tends to be a crowd pleaser since it’s mostly dry tasting (the term is off dry) and less acidic or tart tasting due to the bit of residual sugar as well as a nice match to spicy foods like a California roll with wasabi.
  • Brut: Dry and crispy often with tastes of green apple, citrus and toast. Wonderful acidity delights the taste buds and make it a terrific aperitif and food wine – lobster, smoked salmon, eggs Benedict, food with cream sauces and lots more. My favorite with sashimi.
  • Extra Brut: Tangy and tart but also a delicate tasting experience.
  • Brut Sauvage: Zero sugar. Bone dry and even austere. Not a lot on the shelves.

All this writing is making me thirsty – so let’s get to it and Sip! And while we’re at it – here’s wishing you and yours a very Happy New Year! Let’s pop the corks!

Everyday Sip:
2013 LLopart Leopardi Rose Brut Reserva Cava $20, Spain
Mionetto Prosecco Brut, $12, Italy
Gloria Ferrar Sonoma Brut $20, Sonoma
Freixenet Cordon Negro Extra Dry Cava $10, Spain
Roederer Estate Brut $20, Anderson Valley
Guest Sip:
Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut $43, Champagne
Tattinger Cuvee Prestige Brut $40, Champagne
2012 Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc $33, Napa
2010 Iron Horse Classic Vintage Brut $33, Sonoma
Billecart Salmon Brut Reserve $50. Champagne
Louis Roederer Carte Blanche Extra Dry $45, Champagne

Splurge Sip:
Laurent Perrier Brut Rose $75, Champagne
Ruinart Blanc de Blanc $75, Champagne
Champagne Krug Grande Cuvee Brut $150, Champagne
2006 Dom Perignon $150, Champagne
2006 lotus Rogederer Cristal $200