From Vine to Wine – Winemaking!

It’s that time of year, at least if you’re in the Northern hemisphere, the time to harvest the grapes and begin turning them into wine. In fact I just heard from one Napa winemaker that she has three varieties already picked – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. They’re in the winery undergoing the early stages of winemaking. The Cabernet Sauvignon is still hanging on the vines just waiting a bit longer to get to the perfect ripeness for its harvest as well.

Then what happens? At the winery quite a lot!  But for you – Pour a glass of wine, put up your feet and get comfy. Then think about what it is you’re about to sip – and appreciate the magic in your glass.

Getting from vine to wine is where the art and science of winemaking takes over.  And while nothing can substitute for the best grown grapes (remember – great wine begins in the vineyard), it’s also true that the craftsmanship of winemaking can make or break even the best grapes by the time the wine is in the bottle.

So let’s do a some Wine Smarts 101 and go through the steps of winemaking. I find that knowing it makes me even more appreciative of the effort and passion that goes into each Sip I take. Maybe you will too. A quick word – I’ve streamlined the process to give you the best overview without getting too geeky and technical.

Harvest is a terrific time to be in wine country. And if you get the chance, doing some picking –  it’s great fun (and some hard work too).

Crush Camp 001
Ken Picking Grapes

The single biggest determinant about when to pick is the sugar level of the grapes along with a watchful eye on the weather. When the grapes are picked it starts a sequence of activities that happen rather quickly. There is a bit of difference between white and red winemaking but essentially the idea is to get the grape juice fermented and turned into wine. Here’s how that happens.

As the grapes are brought into the winery the first step is typically sorting out damaged and less ripe grapes and bunches and then moving the rest into Step 1. NOTE: There are nuances and additional methods that winemakers can use in each of these steps but we are sticking with the basics.

  1. Step one is the Crusher/Destemmer – a machine that quite literally crushes open the grapes to let the juice out while separating off the stems. This juice is called “Free run” and often it’s captured to keep as the first best start of the wine.
    1. For white wine the crushed grapes are immediately moved to the Press, but not in the case of reds. For whites the Press gently squeezes out all of the juice into a tank to begin Fermentation

      OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
      Antique Wine Press
    2. The reds skip the Press for now and all the crushed goodies go directly into a Fermentation tank to start what is called Maceration. Maceration is letting the juice, skins and seed all stay in contact for a while – this is how the red wine gets red – since all grape juice is basically clear it’s the skins that give the color.
  2. Fermentation is how we get wine from grape juice. Yeast is added to the juice and it gobbles up the sugars and chemically turns it into alcohol.
    1. White wines are fermented cold and it’s best that it happens rather quickly to ensure the delicacy of the fruit flavors aren’t lost. The stainless steel, temp controlled tanks help the winemaker control that speed, and depending on the the wine variety and style, the fermentation can go from about ten days to around a month.IMG_2222.JPG
    2. For reds: Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. Ok – apologies to Shakespeare’s witches, but reds like to seethe and bubble in the tank. Fermentation is hot and slow, keeping those skins in contact with the juice. As the natural CO2 is released the glop of skins and stuff rises up in the tank forming a cap. The winemaker has to regularly recirculate it to keep it all fermenting (called Cap Management) – usually from two to six weeks depending on the variety, e.g. shorter for Pinot Noir; longer for Cabernet.
  3. Not to confuse anyone but there is a secondary process called Malolactic Fermentation where the tart malic acid is converted into smoother lactic acid.
    1. For white the only wine usually undergoing this is Chardonnay. This takes out tartness and often adds that buttery quality you can taste.
    2. For reds it’s normal to do a Malolactic Fermentation
  4. Now we Clarify the wine. There are several methods winemakers use to make the juice clear – like pumping between one tank to another or barrel to barrel, or filtering, or a process called fining which involves adding things like egg whites to capture the sediments, etc. The important thing is to get the wine clear and the sediments out.
  5. Time to settle and Age the wine.IMG_2256
    1. Most whites stay in the stainless steel tanks, however oak can add complexity to wines like Chardonnay and it’s very typical to put it into barrels for some aging.
    2. Most reds go right into barrels to age and come together by softening the tannins in the new wine.
  6. Blending and Bottling. Blending is a part of winemaking. The winemaker can choose to mix different wines sourced from various vineyards, or from different varieties, etc. For more on Blending see this post. But the key is that when the winemaker is ready to present us with the wine then it’s into the bottle it goes. In many cases there is more aging to be done in the bottle, and some countries there are specific rules about this along with definitions about what makes a Reserve wine. Here’s some further info on that.  However, most of the Every Day wine we drink goes from winery to bottle to the shelf – and it’s time to Sip!

Whew – So that’s how we go from vine to wine.  I hope you’re not worn out by all of this Wine Smarts 101 – I never am!

And that means it’s time to Sip!

Knowing Bordeaux Part 3 – The Right Bank

Let’s venture to the wine region where Merlot is the most respected and regarded grape. It’s back to Bordeaux.  In Part 1 we went over the basic geography of Bordeaux and in Part 2 we focused on the Medoc and the Cabernet driven wines produced there. You may recall that the wine growing area to the east of the Dordogne and Gironde is known as the Right Bank. fotoBORDELAIS-mapa-post-sobre-cata-Bordeaux-1140x904It’s here that Merlot is the star and the wines are among the finest anywhere in the world.  If that’s surprising to you because you think Merlot is just a simple, easy-drinking every day wine perhaps it’s because Merlot has gotten a bad rap in the US. For a while Merlot was the go-to bar pour and a lot of it was simple and flabby, reinforced by the movie Sideways, from which the reputation of Merlot has had difficulty recovering.

Thankfully we have the wines of Bordeaux to celebrate this grape. Recall that in Bordeaux we don’t typically find single variety wines. The noble grapes of Bordeaux are blended together in the wine. So in the Right Bank, which is also known as the Libournais, Merlot is usually the predominant grape in the blend, with some Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec varying in the mix. What this gives us is Bordeaux that is more approachable than their cousins on the Left Bank, those dominated by Cabernet. But they are also decidedly French.  By that I mean that the wine is less fruit forward than most American and other new world offerings. They might seem a bit leaner to your taste if you’re used to big juicy wines from California. But just wait – they have nuance and texture that make them awesome food wines.

When shopping for Right Bank wines you’ll be looking for the appellation names based on the villages in the region and the specific producing chateau. I know that can get confusing, especially since St. Emilion is the only area with a distinction between Premier Grand Cru and Grand Cru. Frankly I don’t worry too much about that. I like to drink wines from all throughout the Right Bank – from St. Emilion, Pomerol, Lalande de Pomerol, Lussac, Fronsac, Cotes du Borg and so on.  Like any wine choice I look for quality and value and try to do a bit of homework, relying on friends, retailers and my own sip experiences.

There are some very famous, and pricey wines from the Right Bank. Chateau Petrus of Pomerol is one of the most highly regarded and expensive wines in the world – and it is all Merlot. If you have an extra $3,800 lying around you can pick up a bottle of the 2010 at wine.com! The Wine Advocate gave it a 100 rating.

Chateau Cheval Blanc, Chateau Pavie, Chateau Angelus and Chateau Ansone are right up there in price and prestige with the best of the Medoc First Growths. It has been a rare treat when I have had a taste of any of these! Mostly I try to stay in the Every Day or perhaps the Guest Sip price range.

So if you are looking to expand your wine horizons, and capture some of what Merlot is really all about, head for the Right Bank of Bordeaux. Here are some Sips to point the way.

Every Day Sip
2013 Chateau Cap de Faugeres Castillon Cotes de Bordeaux $16
2012 Chateau Garraud Lalande de Pomerol, 2014 $25
2012 Chateau d’Aiguilhe Castillon Cotes de Bordeaux $25

Guest Sip
2014 Chateau Sansonnet Saint Emilion $30
2012 Chateau Barde Haut Saint Emilion $30
2014 Chateau Berliquet Saint Emilion $35

Splurge Sip
Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere St. Emilion, 2014 $60

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

Spirit of Independence – Virginia Wine

I love Independence Day – Backyard cookouts, flag waving parades, the fireworks and, of course, the celebration of our history at the heart of it.  And it also reminds me that wine is as American as apple pie and baseball. Why? Because none other than Thomas Jefferson himself was infatuated with wine. Jefferson developed his love for wine during the many years he spent in France serving the cause of our new nation and was convinced that his native Virginia, and his own estate at Monticello, was perfect for grape growing and winemaking.  03_thomas_jeffersonUnfortunately, while he continued to be a major supporter and promoter of wine, he was never able to bring “fruit” to his labors to be a grape grower.  But he did stock the first wine cellar in the virtually brand new White House when he became our 3rd President in 1801.

Now we approach another Independence Day and Mr. Jefferson would be delighted by the vibrancy of the US wine industry, and particularly thrilled that his home state of Virginia, including his estate grounds at Monticello, are now producing wines of which he would be proud. Winemakers in Virginia have mastered the respected grape varieties of the world (with Viognier gaining a nice foothold) as well as some American varieties that aren’t as familiar to us, like Norton and Chambourcin.

Today there is wine being made throughout the state.  And this is wine country that is not only incredibly beautiful, but accessible and intimate. It’s intimate because you can get up close and personal at the wineries – they aren’t huge production businesses overrun with tour buses.  It’s accessible because it makes for a delightful side trip from the visit to DC every American should make – as well as easy driving into the history of our country from Monticello to Richmond and Jamestown to Williamsburg, and from the awesome beauty of the Blue Ridge to the shores of Chesapeake Bay.

So this Independence Day let’s take a Sip in honor of America’s Third President, Thomas Jefferson, and discover the heritage of Virginia wine country. After all, how can you not raise a glass to the man who said, “Good wine is a necessity of life for me.”

Here are some Virginia wines for you from online sources – until you get the urge to pay a visit in person! And if you are in the DC area be sure to check the wine lists for local favorites. On my last visit I had some awesome crab cakes with a Virginia Viognier!

Every Day Sip
Williamsburg James River White $8
Horton Norton $12
Barboursville Cabernet $14
Horton Tower Series Viognier $18
Monticello Claret $20
Monticello Chardonnay Reserve $20
Pearmund Ameritage Red $22
Fabbioli Cabernet Franc $24

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

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

Italy’s Sardinia

I admit it – I love all things Italian. From the ancient history to modern dolce vita; from mountaintop perched villages to the bustle of Roma; from sumptuous foods to lip smacking wines, I am completely besotted. And I never tire of sharing that passion so buckle up for more. Let’s venture to a lesser known wine area floating in the blue of the Mediterranean – Sardinia (in the Italian it’s Sardegna). This is a pretty big island, second only to Sicily in the Mediterranean and it’s got an old winemaking culture.

First let me say that there is not a lot wine from Sardinia out there on the retail shelves, but I like to try to be ahead of the game when it comes to sharing the undiscovered wine regions and the unique wines they offer.  The two most popular and available wines from Sardinia are Cannonau di Sardegna and Vermentino, a red and a white respectively.

The interesting thing about Cannonau is that it is the Sardinian name for Grenache or Garnacha, and there remains a debate as to whether it is the place of origin for that grape, as opposed to Spain.  Not that I really care, but if you’re from there you do!  So right away we can expect some old vine Grenache in the bottle.

This is a hot Mediterranean climate so the wines are ripe and offer red berry fruitiness – think raspberry and strawberry, much like Pinot Noir. There’s good acidity and they tend to be medium bodied with just a little kick of white pepper or spice when you sip. Often they’re a bit higher alcohol too. Cannonau is a good food wine because of that acidity. It’s not a very “sophisticated” wine and tends to the simpler side which is why I think it’s just right with a burger on the grill or pizza, or just about anything you might like paired with Pinot Noir. In some ways it is like a more rustic version of Pinot, without the nuance and subtlety of that more finicky and classy grape. But it’s also less expensive when you can find it – I picked up a bottle today for $15 at my local wine store. So let you fingers do the walking online or just ask your retailer to get you some.

Then there is Vermentino. Vermentino is a widely planted white grape in Sardinia.  This is good wine for the warm days of summer. Sardinia is known for great beaches and I can’t think of a nicer afternoon than gazing at the sea under the shade of an umbrella as you lunch on a chilled seafood salad.  Get the picture?  Since it’s not likely we’ll be in Sardinia itself anytime soon, I plan on keeping that picture in mind when I pop one open!  Pale, straw colored, light bodied, soft and fruity, Vermentino has a fragrant nose and often an apple-like flavor. Like many Italian whites this is easy sipping wine, especially since it’s less that $15 a bottle.

Cannonau and Vermentino aren’t the only wines of Sardinia, but it’s likely that they’re the ones you’ll see. The other most produced one is Carignano, which is Carignan. Carignan is found widely in Spain and southern France, so again there is that shared Mediterranean heritage.

This evening I am grilling some chicken kabobs – and I think my wine choice is pretty obvious – I’ll be sipping some Cannonau di Sardegna!

Ciao!

P.S. If you’re following along with my New Year Resolution then we just made good on May – “we drink a lot of Italian wine at our place but there’s still a lot of Italy to sip into.  So let’s hop over to the island of Sardinia and see what we find.”

Ever Day Sip
2012 Sella E Mosca Riserva Cannonau di Sardegna $15
2014 Contini Pariglia Vermentino di Sardegna $14