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

What is a “Single Vineyard” Wine?

There certainly is a lot of information on wine labels and you will frequently see the name of a specific vineyard.Nunes Vineyard on harvest day 2006 This means the wine is a single vineyard or vineyard designated wine and, along with featuring the name on the label, there are other considerations that go along with it. If there is a vineyard name on the label then 95% of the grapes that made that wine have to be from that vineyard

To me that’s important because it means the grapes that make up the wine in the bottle have come from one clearly identifiable location.  And when it comes to wine this tells us that there has been more consistent soil, climate, vineyard management and all of the other things that go into growing grapes and producing good wine.  The French term this terroir – and for more about that you can read this previous post.

I know this gets a little geeky so why should it matter to you?  Well, the rule of thumb is that the more tightly defined and controlled the growing environment, the greater the opportunity to make the best wine from the grapes.  If you buy into the idea that great wine begins in the vineyard, which I do, then it’s something to know and care about as you get further into wine.

And it can make you a smart wine buyer.  Makes sense to me.

There are many single vineyard wines on the shelves – it’s become a common practice to isolate the source of the grapes in order to highlight greater potential quality. But some growers and winemakers go even further and designate down to the specific block of vines within the vineyard or even the specific clone of vine that is being used, and there are more of those appearing on the shelves too.

What does that mean in practice? It’s what Fred Nunes does with his Pinot Noir at St. Rose Winery and Nunes Vineyards in Sonoma.  Fred not only makes his wine under the St. Rose label, designated as “Nunes Vineyard” but further identifies “Ten Block” and “777” to show the Pinot Noir comes from a selection of the ten different blocks of Pinot vines within the vineyard or exclusively from the vines of the 777 clone of Pinot Noir.  nunes-10

Both are terrific and you can taste a difference.

His vineyard is also the source of high quality fruit for other winemakers, so it’s possible to find “Nunes Vineyard” wines not made by Fred – like the Matrix Pinot Noir pictured here.10_29681-36062_F

One final point: not all single vineyard wines are “Estate” wines. If it says “Estate” on the label it means the producer/winery must own or lease the vineyards providing the grapes. So, while all of the St. Rose wines are Estate wines, you don’t see the word “estate” on the Matrix label.

It’s easy to get caught up in the jargon of wine, but there are some basic things that will help you become a smarter buyer and add confidence to the wine selection decisions you make at the retailer or when you’re at the dinner table.  Knowing what’s behind the info on the label is one of those basic things.

Our thanks to Fred and Wendy at Nunes Vineyards and St. Rose Winery for providing the photo of Fred checking his Pinot Noir!

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

Perfect New Year Resolution

This is not about working out.  And it’s not about doing the “cleanse” that is so popular or paying for a membership at the Bikram yoga studio.  My Perfect New Year Resolution is this: I resolve to experience a new wine every month.  I am up for the challenge (and the rules are pretty loose) – this can mean a varietal I’m not really familiar with, or a wine from a region from which I don’t normally buy the wines, or a particular style or approach to winemaking that is new to me, or a wine that is just different, or maybe something from off the beaten track.  I think this is a heck of a way to end up with a mixed case of new wine experiences.

This is one resolution that I know I can keep – how about you?

Over the years I’ve tried to be open to finding as many different wine experiences as I can.  And one of the things that enamors me most about wine is its almost infinite variety.  So here are my resolution sips and each month I’ll share them with you:

  • January – starting the year off with a journey south and an exploration of Carmenere from Chile
  • February – means something for my Valentine and this year we’ll celebrate with Sparkling Shiraz from Australia
  • March – as we look forward to spring in the northern hemisphere they are picking grapes in New Zealand so I think we’ll try some of the Cabernet and Merlot from the North Island
  • 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?
  • 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
  • June – let’s stay in the Mediterranean and sail on to Greece.  They’ve only been making wine there since Homer was a boy!
  • July – time for the 4th of July and some wine from Jefferson’s home state, Virginia
  • August – did you know that Spain is the 3rd largest wine producing country in the world with more wine than the US and Australia combined? That’s a lot of wine to experience so we’d better get on it. Hint: following the footsteps of Don Quixote
  • September – crush time begins in California and what better time to step off the beaten path and take in some wine from places outside of Napa and Sonoma
  • October – the Danube flows through and separates the cities of Buda and Pest – but not the amazing wines of Hungary
  • November – when I visit Mexico I drink local.  Not tequila, but tasty wines from the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja.
  • December – down at the tip of South Africa there’s a wine with a unique heritage to uncover

Stay tuned and keep sipping!

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Labor in the Vineyard

It’s happening right now – the harvest of the 2016 vintage in California.  And since this is Labor Day weekend I thought it a good time to pay homage to the people who work the vineyards.  Picking grapes is not easy work and from now into October throughout the wine country there will be men and women working long hours to start the grapes on their journey to us the liquid delight known as wine.

Some of the picking is done at night when the weather is cool and the grapes are too.  It helps transporting them without the need to cool them down and to get them right into fermentation.  The cool weather certainly is beneficial for the folks in the fields too.  Crush Camp 001I had the opportunity to pick some grapes once during harvest and know first hand that this work is much easier without the hot sun beating down.

The workers are amazing to watch as they clear rows of vines.  Using a flat, curved bladed knife or some snips in one hand and cradling the grape bunch in the other they use one quick cut at the stem and gently lower the fruit into a bin.  As each bin is filled they are brought to a larger one and the worker is typically given a token which will later be redeemed for the day’s pay based on how much they have picked.  Not an easy way to earn a living.

Note: Some producers and those in areas with labor challenges do machine harvesting but I prefer the human touch and think it’s better for the grapes and the wine that gets produced.  It’s cheaper to use machines and we will likely see more and more mechanized harvesting, but I hope not too soon!

This is the most active time in the wineries too and it’s a terrific time to pay a visit to see all the action.  The harvest starts with white varietals like sauvignon blanc, semillon and then a little later, chardonnay.  Red varietals typically start with pinot noir and then progress to the longer hang time, slower ripening cabernet sauvignon.

Large bins of just picked grapes are trucked into the winery and the first stop is usually the sorting table where winery workers literally pull out bad bunches, twigs, leaves and wastes. How much attention is given to sorting is one of those things that impacts the ultimate price of the wine – minimal sorting means lower labor costs and faster processing while greater attention is just the opposite.  CrushCamp-005Without getting into all the detail the next phases are crushing/de-stemming (although some wineries go for what is called whole cluster pressing for white grapes and skip this step) which opens the berries and lets some of the first grape juice out.  This is called free run juice and is sweeter and generally regarded as the highest quality juice.  I can attest to just how tasty this fresh grape juice is!  Then for white wines the grapes are pressed to push all the juice out, skins are discarded and it is then moved to the fermentation tanks where the chemical transformation takes place to turn the juice into wine.  For red wines the pressing doesn’t happen until after fermentation since the color comes from the contact with the grape skins.

There are obviously lots of nuances and processes that go into making wine but I try to remember that very first step – the person working the vineyard under floodlights or in the cool fog of early morning, moving down row after row after row of vines, cutting then gently lowering each bunch into a waiting bin.  Each wine I sip started the journey with the touch of human hands and as I pop the cork I like to think that it is a thank you for the gift of their labor and that of all the people who planted, nurtured, sorted, monitored, moved barrels, cleaned tanks, blended, bottled and packaged that wine on its way to me.

So this weekend let’s sip to them.

Italy Part 3 – The Veneto

I just returned from Italy and the last stop on the itinerary was Venice. And while I didn’t have time to go wandering through the vineyards of the Veneto that didn’t stop me from enjoying some of the local wines!  If you’re not familiar with the wines get ready for some really tasty every day reds, whites that are crispy and refreshingly perfect for summer, some bubbly to tickle your fancy and that big bomb of intense and chewy wine called Amarone.  So let’s get started.

The Veneto is the major Italian wine region of the Northeast of Italy.  The most significant areas within it cluster near Verona and are influenced by Lake Garda to the west with the sparkling wine, Prosecco, from the growing areas north of Venice.  One of the unique things about the region is the ancient process called appassimento used to create the signature red wine of the Veneto – Amarone della Valpolicella.  But more on that in a bit.

Prosecco is a delightful sparkling wine that is just plain fun to sip.  Its lower alcohol makes it the perfect aperitif and many of the little restaurants you’ll encounter in Venice, Verona and throughout the region will greet you with a glass as you settle in. It’s made from a grape called Glera, but is also known as Prosecco. The light bubbles carry aromas of citrus and fresh flowers and the taste often reminds me of green apples.  It’s a terrific sparkler to use for those mimosas at brunch, a refreshing Bellini in the afternoon or all by itself.  And here’s the best part – you’ll find it for less that $15 a bottle so stock up.

Soave is the most well known white wine of the area and I think it is often overlooked, especially during the warmer months. Pear, citrus, stony mineralty with refreshingly crisp acidity – this is a wonderful salad wine and a nice match with fish dishes.  The classic grilled Bronzino (sea bass) of Venice paired with soave will transport you to dining next to a canal with gondolas passing by if you close your eyes!

Let’s get to the reds.

Valpolicella and Bardolino are the everyday choices and they are blends primarily of Covina and Rondinella.  These are really pretty simple wines – that’s not meant as criticism but just that they can fit a lot of sipping occasions, are rBertanieady to drink when you buy them and are every day priced.  You’ll taste bright red fruit like cherry with soft tannins.  These are pizza and lighter  pasta dish wines. For a more layered and deeper flavor experience look for Valpolicella Ripasso.  Ripasso  literally means “repassed.”  The winemaker takes the fermented Valpolicella then puts it with the skins and leftovers from the production of Amarone so the wine is re-passed and there is a second fermentation -which adds depth of flavor along with higher alcohol.  Many folks call the Ripasso wines “baby Amarone.”  But you wont’ pay an Amarone price!

What’s the big deal about Amarone?  Amarone is one of the unique wines in the world.  Same grape blend as Valpolicella but it’s made in a time-tested distinctive way.  When the grapes are picked at harvest they aren’t pressed right away to make wine – they’re set aside to dry first.  This drying is done in slotted boxes or straw mats, or the bunches are even hung from the ceiling. They’re dried that way for a few months.  The drying evaporates the water in the grapes and concentrates the sugars.  These partially raisined grapes are then pressed and the juice is fermented into a pretty high in alcohol, deeply flavored and intense red wine. This is the appassimento process. As you’d expect, the extra time and care that goes into to making these means it costs more – but I love Amarone!

Dark plum, black cherry, licorice, woody, brambly, coffee, sun dried tomato, and. of course raisiny – these are just some of the descriptors which try to capture the sip.  The bottom line – this is a big wine. It’s also velvety smooth and terrific with hearty meat dishes.  My favorite pairings are osso buco, grilled lamb chops or just about any braised beef dish like short ribs – yum!

Time to Sip the Veneto so here’s a sampler!

Every Day Sips
Zardetto Brut Prosecco $14. Crispy fresh pear.

2014 Gini Soave Classico $14. Lemony and zesty.

2014 Allegrini Valpolicella $15. Classic taste profile

2013 Zenato Valpolicella Superiore $14. Red berries.

2011 Allegrini Palazzo della Torre $18.  This is a go-to wine for me – I love it and buy it frequently. Dried fruit flavor. Really drinkable and versatile .

2013 Bertani Valpolicella Ripasso Villa Novare $18. Had to include this – just had a bottle in Venice! Kind of tough to find at retail.

Guest Sips
Zenato Ripassa Superiore 2012 $26. Rich coffee bean.

2010 Masi Brolo di Campofiorin $28. A lush and big ripassa

2011 Masi Amarone Costasera $50. Bold with dried fruit. Raisiny with coffee along with dark plum.

Splurge Sips

2010 Allegrini Amarone $70. Amarone elegance. Confession: I am partial to Allegrini wines and this wine always says “Amarone” to me.

What is a “Reserve” Wine?

You see it on the label all the time – the word  Reserve, Reserva or Riserva.  At least on the surface that must mean there’s something a bit more special about the wine, right?  And that’s usually reinforced by the price, which is more than a non-reserve wine from the same producer.  The answer is not as simple as it may appear at first glance.

As with many things about wine there is a lot of “it depends” in that answer. In the New World wine countries – the US, Australia/New Zealand and South America, Reserve is not a regulated designation.  In the Old World there is broad European Union regulation of labeling which is then customized in each country. In Italy and Spain there is specific meaning to the term Riserva or Reserva based on the aging of the wine before it is released for sale. It is time focused.  Therefore, here’s a short guided walk through the meaning of those words on the label.

United States:  The term “Reserve” or other iterations of it on the label has no legal or regulatory meaning. It does not automatically mean higher quality. That’s right, it’s a labeling that is completely up to the winery to use in whatever way they chose.  I think that’s called marketing!

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t believe this is meant to be misleading, rather, wineries typically use “reserve” to indicate they have somehow treated the wine with more special care –  and most will also tell you why it’s more special.  They may have made it from selected vineyards or plots or from a blend of specific barrels or types of oak.  Whatever the case, the Reserve is meant to stand out, fill in their brand offering and generate more selective sales – and, according to the winery, give you a more special sip. The key is to know what you’re buying – so read the back label, check the winery website or rely on a good wine store to help you decide.  And here’s an earlier post on reading the label in general that you may find useful too.

Italy: There is no country wide rule for the use of Riserva but it’s definitive within the different Italian appellations.  Wine from the Chianti zone has different requirements than the Piedmont or Montalcino or the Veneto.  However the general rule is that Riserva have to be aged longer before being released. In Chianti that means a Riserva has been aged at least 2 years and has slightly higher alcohol, for a Brunello it’s 5 years with at least 2 in wood and 6 months in the bottle, and for Barolo the minimum aging is 5 years while Barbaresco is 4 years. These are all meant to be higher quality than non-reserve wines and they are “reserved” or held back for you by the winery while they age and develop. Further Italian wine basics can be found here.

Spain: Thankfully Spain is really straight forward and has specific aging designations.  For quality red wines Reserva is 3 years with 1 in the barrel and Gran Reserva means 5 years with 18 months in the barrel. For white and Rose’ it is 2 years/6 months for Reserva and 4 years/6 months for Gran Reserva.  So for Spanish wines it’s very clear that wine has been treated to extended cellaring before it’s ready for you to sip. And here’s a link to more about Spainsh Reds.

You won’t typically see Reserve designations for French wine (although it’s not precluded) since there is defined labeling based on the classification systems within the appellations and these are highly focused on the place and producer.  For more see earlier posts on Bordeaux and Burgundy.

So next time you’re in the wine shop, or looking over the list at the restaurant, and the word Reserve pops out you have this little sip of label knowledge to guide you!

Enjoy your reserved and unreserved sips!