Category Archives: Wine grapes

Geek Notes 7/30/18 — New Wine Books to Geek Out With in August

Photo is from DEM of the New Zealand from GLOBE (topography) and ETOPO2 (bathymetry) datasets, precessed with Arcgis9.1 by jide. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Elevations of New Zealand

A look at some of the some of new releases in the world of wine books.

The Wines of New Zealand by Master of Wine Rebecca Gibb (released July 30th, 2018)

While there has been a few other books written to cover the wines of New Zealand such as Michael Cooper and John McDermott’s Wine Atlas of New Zealand (2002) and Warren Moran’s New Zealand Wine: The Land, The Vines, The People (2017), as far as I can tell this 356 page book is the first in-depth and exclusive look into the wines of New Zealand that has been written by a Master of Wine.

While previous books were written by New Zealand insiders, I’m intrigued at the perspective that UK-based Gibb may add to the story–especially in light of the global worldview of wine that is required to attain MW certification.

This intrigues me because it seems like in many ways that the NZ wine industry has been suffocating under the weight of success for their Sauvignon blancs with the grape still representing a staggering 72% of New Zealand wine production (2016).

Now with producers in other regions of the world breaking down the science of thiols and their precursors as well as the role of methoxypyrazines to tweak their own approach to Sauvignon blanc, wine shelves are awashed in pink grapefruit and gooseberries.

Suddenly New Zealand’s “distinctive style” doesn’t seem so distinctive anymore.

Photo by B.muirhead. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

View towards the Southern Alps but it honestly wouldn’t be out of place in the Malbec country of Mendoza, Argentina.

Yet for a country that spans over 10 degrees of latitude from the Northland region of the North Island down to Dunedin south of the Central Otago district on the South Island (more than the latitude difference between Champagne, France and Naples, Italy), it feels like there has to be more to the New Zealand wine story that just their ubiquitous Sauvignon blanc.

I mean, come on, this is a land that was able to bring to life on screen the diverse terrains Tolkien’s imagination in the Lord of the Rings series. Certainly there has to be a treasure trove of unique terroir that can be married to different varieties in magical ways.

As a wine geek and consumer, I would love to learn more about some of the 50+ other grape varieties grown in New Zealand.

What about Albariño in Gisborne? Syrah from Hawke’s Bay? Pinot blanc from Central Otago? Petit Verdot from Waiheke Island?

I know those varieties probably won’t excite the patio pounders and cafe sippers who guzzle down Kim Crawford, Oyster Bay and Nobilo by the caseful but it is certainly an answer for the legions of drinkers who’ve grown fatigued of Sauvignon blanc as is the inevitable fate for every fashionable variety.

Perhaps Gibb’s book would not only answer that fatigue but maybe also give a reason to give New Zealand’s old standby of Sauvignon blanc a fresh look with new eyes?

How to Import Wine: An Insider’s Guide (2nd Edition) by Deborah M. Gray. (To be released August 13th, 2018)

Gray’s first edition of How to Import Wine from 2011 was an extremely valuable resource for me in studying for the business unit of the WSET diploma.

It laid out clearly a lot of the complexities behind finding clients, building brands as well as the licensing, regulations and expenses that go into importing wine and finding distribution for those wines. It’s a far less romantic reality than you would imagine after reading Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route.

And then there is the reality of a rapidly changing market–driven particularly by Millennials and our wanderlust tastes. The second edition of Gray’s book looks to tackle some of those changes along with new laws and regulation that have emerged since the previous edition.

In Vino Duplicitas: The Rise and Fall of a Wine Forger Extraordinaire (paperback) by Peter Hellman. (To be released August 21st, 2018)

Seems like folks love reading (and writing) about rich folks getting snookered on wine.

Similar to how Benjamin Wallace’s The Billionaire’s Vinegar chronicled Hardy Rodenstock’s forgeries and scandals, Hellman takes a look at the build up and fall out of Rudy Kurniawan’s nearly 10 year con of infiltrating the big spenders clubs of the wine world and then blending his own fake bottles of legendary wines to sell to his buddies.

Hellman’s book was originally released in hardcover and audio book back in July 2017 and is a great read for folks who like historical non-fiction along with a peak into the gaudy wine drinking lifestyles of people who pop Petrus and DRC like a Sunday brunch wine.

Photo by Camw. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Why have mimosas when you can have La Tache? Assuming it’s real of course.

I also recommend checking out the 2016 documentary Sour Grapes which covers the Rudy Kurniawan from the perspective of those who knew Rudy as well as his victims and the people who brought him down.

That film also introduced me to the awesome work of Maureen Downey (aka ‘The Sherlock Holmes of Wine’) who was at the forefront in exposing Kurniawan. The day she releases a book on wine forgery, you better believe I will be snapping that sucker up on preorder.

The Wines of Eastern Europe by John Hudelson PhD. (To be released August 1st, 2018)

Photo by David Boyle. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Seriously, Pošip is a fantastic white wine! Kind of like a less green and pungent New Zealand Sauvignon blanc.

Admittedly the wines of Bulgaria, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, Georgia, Croatia and the like are a bit of a blind spot for me. Sure I’ve had Tokaji before (including a huge jackpot score with The Somm Game on my last trip to Vegas) and my mind was blown away on my trip to Croatia with how incredibly delicious their whites made from Pošip, Grk and Maraština were.

I’ve also had an oddball Bulgarian, Georgian and Romanian wine but outside of flashcard WSET knowledge about Bull’s Blood, Fetească Regală, Saperavi and the like I don’t really have much in-depth knowledge about the wines and culture of this part of the world. And I doubt that I’m alone in sharing this blind spot.

But exciting things are happening in the wine industries of Central and Eastern Europe with new winemakers taking fresh approaches to their bevy of unique indigenous varieties–to say nothing of the Natural Wine Movement that seems to have its spiritual home here.

With 386 pages written by John Hudelson, the author of Wine Faults: Causes, Effects, Cures (which was super valuable to me during my winemaking studies), I can see The Wines of Eastern Europe going a long way towards filling in that gaping blind spot.

Though giving Hudelson’s previous work on wine faults, I’ll be really curious to see how he approaches the topic of sulfite use and natural wines.

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Geeking Out About Grape Variety Clones

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Mike and Jonathan Sauer of Red Willow Vineyard

As part of the Wine Production Program at South Seattle College our instructor, Peter Bos, arranged for a private tour of the famed Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley with Mike and Jonathan Sauer back in 2012.

In Washington State, few vineyards are as legendary and influential in charting the future growth of the state’s industry as Red Willow. Working with both Dr. Walter Clore and Master of Wine David Lake at Columbia Winery, the Sauers and Red Willow helped pioneer the commercial plantings of numerous grape varieties in the state like Viognier, Malbec, Mourvedre, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Syrah.

So it was very interesting when the question was posed to Mike Sauer about what the future focus should be for the wine industry–not just in Washington, but globally.

Without missing a beat he replied with one word–Clones.

What The Heck Are Clones?

Essentially clones are examples of grape varieties with a slight genetic mutation. These mutation could allow the vine to ripen a tad earlier, bloom a bit later, have tinier berries or thicker skin, absorb nutrients better, etc.

To best understand this, let’s take a step back to look at how grapevines are propagated in the nursery and vineyard.

Rather than plant seeds (which will produce a completely different grape variety), new vines of particular grape varieties like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc are most often propagated via cuttings from an original mother vine. Here a branch with fruiting buds is removed from an active vine and then either planted to develop its own roots or, more commonly, grafted onto phylloxera resistant rootstock and planted. In theory, this new cutting is genetically identical to its mother vine.

Photo by scrumpyboy (Mark Shirley). Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Grapevine cuttings

But sometimes differences are observed in the vineyard or the nursery among these seemingly identical vines. These are the clonal mutations with the most beneficial ones being selected for future propagation and eventual commercial use.

What Does This Mean For Winemakers?

Clones add another shade of color to the winemaker’s palette. Instead of just having one shade of blue (Syrah), you can plant multiple clones of Syrahs in similar terroir and end up with a multitude of shades like Cerulean, Azure, Cobalt, Zaffre, etc that help you paint a deeper picture and potentially make a more complex wine.

They also allow viticulturists and winemakers to narrow in on exactly which clones perform best on different kinds of terrior, essentially following the path of the natural self-selection that we’ve seen in varieties like Sangiovese. Over centuries of time, this grape has adapted and developed its own unique clones in the galestro clay soils of the Chianti Classico region (Sangioveto), the more limestone and schist based soils mixed with galestro in Brunello di Montalcino (Sangiovese Grosso) and the Pliocene-era sand and clay based soils of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (Prugnolo Gentile).

Take one of these unique clones and plant them in a different soil type and you will end up with a different wine. Such is the magic and possibilities of clones.

A Few of My Favorite Resources On Clones

Photo by Stephan Ridgway. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Syrah grapes growing in the Hunter Valley of Australia.

*Pl@ntGrape Project (yes, it is spelled with that silly ‘@’) — a joint project between several French agencies to catalog all the different grape varieties and their clones in France. When you search for a particular grape variety, you can scroll down to the bottom of the page to see a listing of several of the popular clones, where they originated and characteristics.

For example, Syrah has over 600 clones studied with 12 approved for commercial propagation–clones 100, 174, 300, 470, 471, 524, 525, 747, 877, 1140, 1141 and 1188

Chenin blanc has over 200 clones studied with 8 approved for commercial propagation–clones 220, 278, 416, 417, 624, 880, 982 and 1018.

Riesling has nearly 190 clones that have been studied with 8 approved for commercial propagation–clones 49, 1089, 1090, 1091, 1092, 1094, 1096 and 1097.

Malbec (Cot) has around 220 clones that have been studied with 16 approved for commercial propagation–clones 42, 46, 180, 279, 353, 419, 592, 593, 594, 595, 596, 597, 598, 1061, 1127 and 1128.

*UC Davis Foundation Plant Services page on Pinot noir probably has the most extensive listing (in English) and description of Pinot noir clones I’ve found. Pretty impressive since Pinot noir is known to have over a 1000 different clones.

*The Science of Grapevines: Anatomy and Physiology by Markus Keller. Hardcore geeking here with this viticulture textbook that not only covers clones but also the science behind how the mutations happened as well as the broad spectrum of grapevine anatomy and physiology (disease resistance, nutrient utilization, etc) which obviously plays into the decision on how different clones are selected.

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Getting Geeky with Rubus Barossa Shiraz

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2014 Rubus Shiraz from the Barossa.

The Background

Rubus is a negociant label of the importing firm Kysela Pere et Fils that was founded by Master Sommelier Fran Kysela.

Prior to earning his MS in 1989 and starting his firm in 1994, Kysela previously worked for California wineries Fetzer and Gallo as well as importers Kermit Lynch and Weygandt-Metzler. In his more than 40 years in the wine business, Fran Kysela has earned numerous awards including 2013 Importer of the Year from Wine Enthusiast magazine.

His wine import portfolio represents over 200 producers, including notable wineries such as Abeja, Accordini Igino, Alain Jaume, Avennia, Bressia, Bonny Doon, Buty, Betz, Chakana, Cholila Ranch, Clos de Sixte, Domaine Mordoree, Finca Sobreno, Gravas, Hahn, Jip Jip Rocks, La Petite Frog, Levendi, Long Shadows, Loring, Maipe, Marcassin, Mas Sinen, Maysara, Milton Park, Montebuena, Mt. Monster, Pago de Carraovejas, Palacio de Bornos, Paradigm, Patton Valley, Poggio Nardone, Quilceda Creek, Rebuli, Reverdy, Rinaldi, Segries, St. James Winery, Tamarack, Thorn Clarke, Tiza, Tres Ojos, Valminor and Vinsacro among many others.

The first wine released under the Rubus label was in 1997 with 1200 cases of an Amador County Zinfandel. Since then the brand has expanded to include Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, Chardonnay from Colchagua Valley in Chile, Pinot noir from the Waipara Valley in New Zealand, Prieto Picudo from Tierra de León in Spain, a Grenache-based Vin Gris from Corbières in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France as well as a Shiraz from the Barossa of South Australia.

All the wines bottled under the Rubus label are personally selected by Fran Kysela.

Photo by davitydave. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

While the oak used for the Rubus Shiraz was entirely American, for half the barrels the staves were sent to France to be seasoned (air dried) and coopered in the French style.

The 2014 Rubus Shiraz was only the third release of a Shiraz from Kysela. A co-ferment of 98% Shiraz with 2% Viognier, the wine was aged 12 months in 100% American oak with half the barrels being seasoned and coopered in France. Around 2,000 cases were produced.

Instead of being labeled as the Geographical Indication (GI) of Barossa Valley, the 2014 Rubus is labeled as being from simply “Barossa” which Mike Desimone and Jeff Jenssen note in Wines of the Southern Hemisphere: The Complete Guide means that fruit from neighboring Eden Valley could have been blended in. Conversely, if a wine is labeled as being from the “Barossa Valley” then only 100% Barossa Valley fruit could be used.

The Origins of Syrah

In Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, co-authored by Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz, it is noted that the origins of Syrah have been proven to be distinctly French despite myths attributing its origins to the Persian city of Shiraz in modern-day Iran.

Map from Rhône-Alpes map.png on Wikimedia Commons created by Utilisateur:Rinaldum. Derivations done by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

With Mondeuse Blanche native to the Savoie region (#4) and Dureza originating from the Ardèche (#1), it is likely that the cross-pollination that created Syrah happened somewhere in the Isère (#3) where Dureza is known to have reached.
The Drôme department (#2) includes the Northern Rhone wine region of Hermitage where there are written accounts of Syrah being grown here by at least the 1780s.

DNA analysis conducted in 1998 by Dr. Carole Meredith and others at UC-Davis have shown the parents of Syrah to be the Savoie wine grape Mondeuse blanche and the Ardèche variety Dureza. Both grapes were at one time cultivated in the department of Isère, southeast of Lyon, in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region with ampelographers speculating that this was the likely area that Syrah originated in.

Further research by José Vouillamoz has shown a potential parent-offspring relationship between Syrah’s parent Dureza and the Pinot grape meaning that potentially Pinot noir could be a grandparent variety to Syrah.

Additional research into the origins of Viognier has shown a parent-offspring relationship with Syrah’s other parent, Mondeuse blanche, and Viognier though it is not yet clear which variety is the parent and which is the offspring–partly because the other potential parent of Viognier hasn’t been identified yet. This means that Viognier could be either a half-sibling or a grandparent to Syrah.

Aussie Shiraz vs French Syrah

Syrah was first brought to Australia in 1832 by viticulturalist and “father of Australian wine” James Busby as part of a collection of 75 different grapevine varieties from Europe. Known initially as Hermitage and then Scyras it was first planted in New South Wales before spreading westward.

Today it is the most widely planted variety in Australia, accounting for around 45% of the yearly harvest. It is planted across the country with the Barossa Valley known for having some of the oldest vineyards of Shiraz in the world–including many pre-phylloxera plantings on their own rootstock.

Photo by Louis Roving. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The Barossa Valley

Among these old vine Shiraz plantings include Langmeil’s 1843 vineyard in Tanunda and Turkey Flat’s 1847 parcel planted by Johann August Frederick Fiedler. In neighboring Eden Valley, Henschke’s Hill of Grace has Shiraz plantings dating back to the 1860s.

Pioneered by German Lutheran settlers from Prussia and Silesia (in modern-day Poland), the Barossa Valley is home to numerous 6th generation family wine growers. Often traditionally aged in American oak, the style of Shiraz here is characterized by James Halliday in his Wine Atlas of Australia as “…lush, velvety and mouthfilling with flavors in the black cherry to blackberry spectrum, the tannins ripe and soft.”

The soils in the Barossa are mostly sandy and clay loam which will have varying water-retaining abilities in the hot Australian sun depending on the percentage and type of clay. This tends to produce concentrated wines with lower acidity and higher pH that contributes to the powerful and lush dark fruit typical of Aussie Shiraz.

In contrast, the mainly granite and schist-based soils of the Northern Rhone (particularly in Côte-Rôtie) produces wines that John Livingstone-Learmonth notes in The Wines of the Northern Rhône tend to be “… less intensely coloured–red rather than black–and much more sinewed. Their fruit is more stone and pebbly in texture, their tannins more upright and raw at the outset. Pepper tones are drier and more evident…”

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity. Noticeable oak with coconut and cinnamon. Certainly dark fruit like black cherries but there also seems to be some faint red fruit like red plums on the edges. Red flowers like dahlias add some intrigue.

Photo by Dinkum. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

While the oak and dark fruits certainly play a prominent role in this wine, I was very intrigued by some of the layers of potential complexity suggested by the red floral notes like dahlias on the nose.

On the palate the oak is still quite pronounced with creamy vanilla mouthfeel and dark chocolate joining the party. However, medium-plus acidity does add enough freshness and a mouthwatering component to keep this from being jammy. The ripe medium-plus tannins are soft but well structured holding up the full-bodied fruit. On the moderate-length finish there is a subtle herbal note (maybe eucalyptus) that isn’t quite defined but does add some complexity.

The Verdict

Overall, I wouldn’t describe this as a stereotypical “Big, bombastic Aussie Shiraz” that seems to dominant the shelves of the American market. No one would ever confuse this for something from Mollydooker or Glaetzer.

While definitely oaky and fruit-forward, this is a little more in the Penfolds style with an element of elegance and additional layers that I suspect could become even more complex with a few more years of bottle age. With its juicy acidity and structured tannins, I can easily see this going another 3 to 4 years in delivering ample pleasure.

At $20-25, this is a well-made Shiraz that would certainly appeal to many New World drinkers who like their wines fruity and ripe but not sweet or jammy.

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Hey Mama, Hey Mama, Hey Mamamango

While the history of the Muscat family of grapes dates back thousands of years, wine drinkers can be forgiven for thinking of “Moscato” as a relatively new wine.

With over 200 members, Jancis Robinson and her co-authors note in Wine Grapes that the Persians and ancient Egyptians may have been cultivating some Muscat varieties as early as 3000 BC.

Greek and later Roman writers such as Pliny the Elder and Columella described vines (Anathelicon Moschaton and Apianae) that could have been Muscat varieties which naturally ripen to such high levels of sugars that they attracted bees (apis) into the vineyard. According to legend, Cleopatra’s favorite wine was the Muscat of Alexandria grape variety from Greece.

Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains is likely the oldest known variety of Muscat. Over the course of the Middle Ages it spread from the Greek islands throughout Europe where it picked up numerous synonyms such as Muscatel (Spain), Muscateller (Germany), Sárga Muskotály (Hungary) and Moscato Bianco (Italy). In the New World, it was responsible for the legendary 18th and 19th century dessert wines of Constantia in South Africa while Italian immigrants brought Muscat Canelli from Piedmont to the United States sometime in the 19th century.

Yet despite this long history, not many people outside of the cafes of Europe paid much attention to the variety until the early 21st century when rappers and hip-hop artists embraced the sweet, easy drinking style of low alcohol Moscato. By 2017, more than 27 million bottles of Moscato were being cranked out of Italy with 80% of it sent to the United States to be consumed by mostly millennial wine drinkers.

In the US, growers rushed to increase their own plantings of Muscat Canelli/Moscato to compete with the Italian wave as new brands constantly hit the market.

What’s old was new again.

Oh but could Cleopatra have ever imagined anything like Mamamango?

Photo by Megan Mallen. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Mamamango is made up of 95% Moscato Bianco grapes.


The Geekery

Made by Arione Vini, Mamamango is a non-vintage blend of 95% Moscato Bianco grapes sourced from the communes of Castiglione Tinella in the province of Cuneo and Canelli in the province of Asti in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy. However, the wine does not qualify for any DOC or DOCG designation like other Moscato wines because of the addition of 5% mango puree of unknown origin.

For fruit-based wines like Sangria from Spain and Portugal, European laws mandate that both the wine and fruit additives must be from the same country of origin. However, it is not clear if other “aromatized wine-based drinks” like Mamamango need to follow the same guidelines. Mangoes do grow in Sicily and southern Italy, but most European mangoes are sourced from Spain. Unfortunately the Mamamango website is very vague on details–in contrast to Canella which makes a Bellini sparkling cocktail from peach juice that they note is source from the Veneto and Romagna.

At around 65 grams of sugar per bottle, it certainly has a fair amount of sweetness and calories though it is only 6% alcohol. However, from the mango puree, one 5oz serving will give you nearly a third of your daily vitamin C requirements.

According to the website Barnivore, Mamamango uses animal based gelatins in the winemaking as a filtering agent to make the wine stable so Mamamango is not “vegan-friendly”.

Instead of a cork with a cage used in high pressure spumante-style sparkling wines like Cava, Prosecco and Champagne, the frizzante-style Mamamango is sealed with twist off closure.


Like many Moscatos, the wine is lightly sparkling in a frizzante-style and while, again, Arione is vague on details it is likely the wine is produced via tank fermentation with the natural carbon dioxide produced during the wine’s brief fermentation being trapped and bottled with the wine.

While more fully sparkling spumante-style wines like Prosecco will have over 3 atmospheres of pressure (a little more than a typical car tire) and can get up to 5-6 atmospheres in Champagne, frizzante wines like Mamamango have only slight effervesce and pressure in the 1 to 2 atmosphere range.

The Wine

Mid-intensity nose. It really does smell like mangoes but you’ll hard pressed to pick up anything else. Maybe a smidgen of pineapple around the edges.

Those strong mango notes carry through to the palate with a smooth and creamy mouthfeel that is surprisingly well-balanced. With more sugar than doux Champagne (and far less bubbles and carbonic acid to balance), I was expecting this to be more noticeably sweeter. I did get a bit of a tangy tickle at the tip of the my tongue which suggests probably a fair amount of tartaric acid was added during winemaking to offset all that sugar.

Photo by Midori. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0-migrated.

You could probably make at least 6 bottles worth of Mamamango with this cup of mango juice.


The short finish ends on the mango fruitiness.

The Verdict

I try my best to approach new wine trends (like aging wine in whiskey barrels or blending with cold brew coffee) with an open mind but I must confess that I was expecting Mamamango to be sickly sweet.

But it honestly wasn’t that bad. While it’s not something that I would buy a bottle of to drink at home, I can see myself enjoying a glass of this at a restaurant for brunch. It struck me essentially as a hipster’s mimosa–or at least the ready made “Hamburger Helper” version of one. You can tell that it needed a fair amount of manipulation and tweaking in the winery to get the recipe right but no one should buy this wine expecting a natural product.

Though tasting this wine made me wonder—why not buy fresh mangoes (or even mango puree and juice from the store) and make your own Mamamango?

Compared to a bottle of Mamamango costing around $12-14, you can could buy a 15 oz bottle of Naked Juice Mighty Mango for around $3 and have enough mango goodness to make 12 bottles worth of Mamamango.

Put a quarter oz splash of the mango juice in the bottom of your glass then pour your favorite sparkler–Moscato, Prosecco, Cava–over it and boom! Homemade Mamamango that is fresher, cheaper, better tasting and with a heck of a lot less sugar and additives.

Now that is something that Cleopatra would’ve Instagram’d.

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Cinsault — The Black Prince of South Africa

As promised in my summary post about the 2018 Hospice du Rhône Weekend, I’ll tackle each of the four seminars with their own posts beginning with the first seminar on Friday — South Africa’s Cinsault Renaissance.

I’m hard-pressed to narrow down which of the four seminars were my absolute favorite but, without a doubt, this seminar was the most eye-opening. In my Quick Take on Day 1, I commented how neither Cinsault nor South Africa tends to be on the radar of most US consumers. The trade organization WOSA (Wines of South Africa) reported in 2016 that the US receives only 3% of the wine exported from South Africa. In 2014, when US sales of wine (both domestic and exported) were around 370 million cases, wines from South Africa accounted for less than 0.33% of those sales.

But after attending this seminar moderated by Lauren Buzzeo of Wine Enthusiast and reading about my friend Adrienne’s wine adventures drinking South African wines in Nambia, it’s clear that South Africa is a wine producer worth paying attention to—not the least of which for the country’s treasure trove of old vine Cinsault.

The seminar featured 9 Cinsaults and Cinsault-dominant blends from 7 producers with winemakers Tremayne Smith (The Blacksmith Wines), Andrea Mullineux (Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines), Danie Steytler (Kaapzicht Wine Estate) and Ryan Mostert (Silwervis) on the panel.

I will get into my tasting notes on the individual wines in the moment but first some geeking about Cinsault.

Cinsault: The Mediterranean “Pinot noir”?

Jancis Robinson notes in Wine Grapes that the earliest recorded mention of Cinsault was under the synonym ‘Marroquin’ in 1600 by the French writer Olivier de Serres. The modern spelling ‘Cinsault’ emerged in the 1880s as a likely derivative from ‘Sinsâou’ that was used in the Hérault department along the Mediterranean coast as early as 1829.

Photo by Varaine. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Cinsault growing in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

DNA analysis suggest this area is the probable birthplace of Cinsault due to its close genetic relationship to the Piquepoul varieties and the potential parent-offspring relationship with Rivairenc (Aspiran), the very old Languedoc grape.

Today some of the oldest vines of Cinsault in the Languedoc date back to 1900. While Cinsault suffered the same post-WW II image problem here it did in South Africa, it is also benefiting from renewed interest in the variety with even acclaimed Burgundian producers like Anne Gros (of the notable Vosne-Romanée family) and her husband Jean-Paul Tollot tending to 50+ year old vines in Minervois.

Outside of France, the grape is found in the Puglia region of Italy where it is known as Ottavianello and must make up a minimum of 85% of the red blends in the Ostuni DOC. In Morocco it is the most widely planted grape variety but that is largely because Cinsault is also a popular table grape variety.

Chateau Musar has long championed the grape variety in Lebanon, frequently blending it with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

In Washington State, Paul Gregutt describes wines made from Cinsault as like a “good Beaujolais” and notes in Washington Wines that it can be found in Walla Walla in the Morrison Lane and Minnick Vineyards as well as in the Horse Heaven Hills at Alder Ridge.

Cinsault in South Africa

Tim James in Wines of the New South Africa notes that Cinsault was introduced to South Africa in the 1880s and quickly became a popular planting. By 1909, it was the most widely planted red grape variety and the third most popular grape after Greengrape (Semillon) and Muscat.

Originally known as “Hermitage” until the mid-1930s, Cinsault would eventually account for as much as a third of all vineyard plantings in South Africa and was used to make everything from dry reds to sweet fortified wines to even brandy. The rise in popularity of Chenin blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon after World War II would eventually signal the grape’s decline throughout rest of the 20th century but even as its popularity wane it was still frequently used as a blending grape to add perfume and acidity to some of the country’s top Cabernet Sauvignon.

By 2008, Cinsault accounted for around a tenth of all vineyards in South Africa with notable plantings in Paarl, Breedekloof and the ward of Malmesbury in Swartland. Roughly translated to “The Black Land” in reference to the renosterbos (“rhino bush”) shrubs that dot the landscape, it is somewhat poetic that old vine vineyards of the Black Prince in Swartland would be the source of some of the most delicious Cinsault at the seminar.

Seminar Wines

Most of these wines are limited releases and hard to find in the United States. But they are well worth the hunt if you can get them.

Color of the The Blacksmith Barebones. Note how you can read through the core to see the text underneath.


2017 The Blacksmith Barebones, W.O. Paarl (Wine Searcher Average $24)
Medium intensity nose with black cherry and fresh uncured tobacco.

On the palate, those black cherry notes come through and are quite juicy and fresh with medium-plus acidity. Medium tannins and medium body contribute to the “Beaujolais” quality of the wine making it very pleasant and enjoyable with a moderate finish.

2017 The Blacksmith Prince of Bones, W.O. Swartland (No WS listing. At the seminar, Lauren Buzzeo priced it at $45)
Medium-plus intensity nose with lots of blue floral notes to go with the black cherry and tobacco notes exhibited by the Barebones.

On the palate, those fresh uncured tobacco notes from the nose change to more cured tobacco spice–not that dissimilar from Bordeaux wines. Medium-plus acidity maintains the juiciness of the cherry fruit with medium-plus tannins contributing to the medium-plus body of the wine. Long finish ends on the spicy note and mouthwatering fruit. Outstanding wine and probably my favorite of the tasting.

2017 Sadie Family Pofadder, W.O. Swartland (WS Average for 2016 vintage $42)
Medium-minus intensity nose. Light raspberry and some herbal notes. With some air a slight watermelon note (both flesh and rind) come out which is intriguing.

On the palate, the fruit flavors are similarly light. High acidity and chalky medium-plus tannins contribute to a thin and skeletal feel of the wine. Very short finish brings an earthy element that is hard to make out.

2017 Craven Wines Cinsault, W.O. Stellenbosch (WS Average $14 but I’m skeptical as Buzzeo listed the price at $55)
Medium intensity nose with red cherry, rose petals and fresh forest earthiness.

On the palate, the earthy element becomes a little more herbal but also brings a savory black pepper spice note. High acidity and medium-plus tannins are balanced a bit better with the fruit than the Sadie Pofadder so the wine feels more firm and structured rather than thin and skeletal. Seems young but promising.

The Badenhorst Ramnasgras from Swartland was fantastic.


2016 A.A. Badenhorst Cinsault Ramnasgras, W.O. Swartland (WS Average $38)
Medium-plus intensity with black cherry notes and lots of spice and meatiness. A mix of Burgundian and Rhone notes on the nose that had my mouth watering before even taking a sip.

On the palate, the cherry and spice carries through with the mouthwatering continuing with the medium-plus acidity. High tannins hold up the full-bodied fruit of the wine really well and contribute to this wine feeling like a meal in itself. Another favorite.

2016 Kaapzicht Cinsault 1952, W.O. Stellenbosch (NO WS listing though one merchant offering it for $31)
Medium intensity nose with an intriguing mix of cherry pie spices and leather.

The Kaapzicht 1952. Note how much darker this wine is in the core.


On the palate, those cherry pie notes come through with a toasty graham cracker crust character as well. Juicy medium-plus and ripe medium-plus tannins gives the wine great structure and mouthfeel. Long finish keeps with the cherry pie note with some cured tobacco spice joining the party. Very delicious.

2015 Kaapzicht Cinsault Skuinberg, W.O. Stellenbosch (NO WS listing though one merchant offering it for $79)
Medium-minus intensity nose. A mix of minty menthol and coffee espresso with some undefined red fruits.

On the palate, the red fruits become more defined as cherry and raspberry but the menthol and espresso dominant. Like the 1952, the medium-plus acidity and tannins give the wine exceptional balance and structure. I just don’t know if I’m a fan of this flavor profile as much.

2015 Leeu Passant Old Vine Cinsault, W.O. Franschhoek (NO WS listing though one merchant offering it for $103)
Medium-plus intensity nose with black raspberry and blackberry notes. There is also a minty element here but it smells more like fresh mint leaves rather than menthol.

The black fruits carry through on the palate with the minty notes being more subdued. In their place some of that Bordeaux-style tobacco spice emerges which gives the wine a savory element with the medium-plus acidity. Medium-plus tannins balances out the full bodied weight of the fruit. Long finish lingers on the spice. Really well made wine.

2015 Silwervis Cinsault, W.O. Swartland (WS Average $26 but I’m skeptical as Buzzeo listed the price at $50)
Medium intensity nose with coffee and cherry notes. With some air, a little floral mint and fresh tobacco leaf comes out.

On the palate, the coffee notes dominant with fruit present but struggling to emerge. Medium acidity and medium-plus tannins have firm edges to them. Even though this one of the oldest wines at the tastings, it felt really young. Intriguing though.

Takeaways

Cinsault’s diversity is a joy for food pairing but a nightmare for blind tasting.

As I reviewed my notes I saw some patterns emerging (cherry and tobacco) but many of those notes overlap with styles familiar to Burgundy, Beaujolais and lighter Bordeaux. A few examples even hit some of those savory meaty notes of a Rhone. Still, this diversity is exciting because here we have a wine that can be anything from a great picnic & BBQ sipper to something savory and complex that can hold up to robust dishes.

While two of my favorites (The Blacksmith’s Prince of Bones and A.A. Badenhorst’s Ramnagras) were from the Swartland–along with the intriguing but young tasting Silwervis–it was hard to pinpoint terroir characteristics. Considering how much I’ve liked other wines from these producers, I wonder how much of it is more producer style verses the region?

But a big takeaway, and one that the moderator and panelists frequently referred to, was the importance of older vines for Cinsault. The vine lends itself easily to overproduction and with its thin skins can be prone to producing thin flavors. While that may work for bulk rosé, it’s not ideal for making character driven wines.

With over 1600 acres of Cinsault vines over 20 years old (and many of the wines featured in this tasting coming from 40+ year old vineyards), South Africa does have a good bounty of older vines to work with. The really lovely Leeu Passant Old Vine Cinsault from Franschhoek was sourced from South Africa’s 2nd oldest red wine vineyard from vines that are 91+ years old. You can taste the added complexity and concentration from these older vines.

Remarkable stuff that is, again, well worth the hunt to find.

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Getting Geeky about Malbec

Photo by Marianne Casamance. Released on Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-4.0Continuing our celebration of the oddly named Malbec World Day we’re going to get geeky here at Spitbucket about the Malbec grape.

What’s In a Name?

In Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, the entry for Malbec is under Cot (or Côt) because of the association with grape’s likely birthplace in the region of Cahors in the historical province of Quercy in southwest France. Ampelographers note that like Côt many of the other early names for the grape such as Cos, Cau, Cor and Cors all seem to be contractions of Cahors.

However, the first written account of Malbec was actually in the Bordaux region of Pomerol in 1761 when the grape was called Noir de Pressac (black of Pressac), likely referring to the individual who first cultivated the grape. From Pomerol, the grape made its way to the Left Bank region of the Medoc where it was called Èstranger (stranger) or Estrangey.

The name Malbec came from a grower named Malbeck who propagated the grape in what is now known as Sainte-Eulalie in the Premières Côtes de Bordeaux AOC of the Entre-Deux-Mers region.

When a Mommy Grape and a Daddy Grape Cross-Polinate…

In 2009, DNA analysis discoevered that Magdeleine Noire des Charentes–the mother grape of Merlot (Check out the Academic Wino’s Who’s Your Daddy? series on Merlot)– and an obscure grape from the Tarn department called Prunelard were the parent varieties of Malbec.

In addition to being a half-sibling of Merlot, Malbec has done a bit of its own “cross-pollinating” being a parent grape to Jurançon noir (with Folle blanche) and Caladoc (with Grenache).

Malbec in Bordeaux

Photo by   Ian L. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Malbec used to be far more prevalent in the Bordeaux region. In fact, Stephen Brook noted in The Complete Bordeaux that it was the most widely planted grape in the vineyards of Lafite in the 18th century. Many of the estates that were classified in 1855 had Malbec account for as much as 50% of their blends in the early 19th century.

However, the later half of the 19th century would usher in the decline of the variety due to its sensitivity to coulure and mildew. Following the devastation of phylloxera, many growers who did replant choose to replace Malbec in their vineyards with the more popular and easier to grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Into the 20th century, Malbec still maintain a presence, particularly in the Right Bank, but the devastating frost of 1956 killed off a significant number of plantings and practically signal the death kneel for the grape in Bordeaux.

There are still some small plantings of Bordeaux with the Côtes de Bourg and Côtes de Blaye being the most significant strongholds. In St. Emilion, Cheval Blanc and Jean Faure are two notable estates with some plantings of Malbec. In Pomerol, Chateau L’Enclos (owned by the Adams family who also own Chateau Fonplegade in St. Emilion) also maintain some Malbec.

On the Left Bank, a small 1 ha block of old vine Malbec is still producing for 2nd Growth estate of Ch. Gruaud Larose in St. Julien. Fellow 2nd Growth Ch. Brane Cantenac in Margaux grows a few parcels of Malbec (as well as Carmenère). In the Graves region of Pessac-Leognan, Ch. Haut Bailly owns a 4 ha block of 100+ year old vines that includes a field blend of all six Bordeaux varieties–including Malbec and Carmenère.

Malbec in Argentina

Photo by PABLO GONZALEZ. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Malbec vines growing in Argentina.

Michel Pouget is credited with introducing Malbec to Argentina, bringing pre-phylloxera cuttings of the grape from Bordeaux to the country in the 1850s.

Compared to their French counterparts, clusters of Malbec in Argentina are smaller with tighter berries. These smaller grape berries create a skin to juice ratio that tends to produce more deeply colored wines with intense black fruit.

The Bordeaux influence in Argentina is still felt today with producers like like Léoville Poyferré (Cuvelier de Los Andes), Michel Rolland (Clos de los Siete), Cheval Blanc (Cheval des Andes), Hélène Garcin-Lévêque (Poesia) and Lafite-Rothschild (CARO) having projects in Argentina making both varietal Malbec and using it in Bordeaux style blends.

Malbec in the United States

The grape is widely planted throughout the US including in states like Missouri, Idaho, Georgia, Arizona, Virginia, North Carolina, New York, Maryland, Texas and Michigan. Here it is made as both as varietal wine and as a blending component.

In Napa Valley, despite being a regular feature of popular blends like Opus One and Joseph Phelps Insignia, Malbec is sometimes considered the “Gummo Marx” of the Bordeaux varieties. Part of the grape’s low standing in the region was historically due to poor clonal selection but as better clone options from Cahors and Argentina become available, Napa is seeing increased plantings of the variety on Mt. Veeder, Coombsville and Atlas Peak.

Outside of Napa, Malbec is most widely planted in the San Joaquin Valley where it is used for mass produced bulk blends. However, there are quality minded producers making varietal Malbec wines throughout the state, particularly in regions like Paso Robles, Dry Creek Valley, Santa Ynez, Lodi and the Sierra Foothills.

Photo taken by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 and released under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Red Willow Vineyard in Washington State.


In Washington State, Malbec has the curious distinction of being the most expensive grape per ton with the average price for a ton of Malbec in 2016 being $1,587 as opposed to varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon $1,442/ton, Merlot $1,174/ton, Chardonnay $940/ton and Semilion (the most expensive white grape) at $1,054 ton.

While Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley helped pioneer the grape in Washington State, Paul Gregutt in Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide notes that Casey McClellan of Seven Hills Winery was the first to plant the grape in Walla Walla in the early 1990s.

Want More Malbec?

Check out the hashtags #MalbecWorldDay and #WorldMalbecDay on Twitter and the Malbec tag on Instagram for more fun.

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Getting Geeky with Henri Gouges La Perrière White Pinot

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2014 Domaine Henri Gouges Nuits-St.-Georges 1er Cru La Perrière–a white wine made from a unique mutation of Pinot noir.

The Background

Remington Norman and Charles Taylor notes in The Great Domaines of Burgundy that Henri Gouges started his domain in the early 1920s with the purchase of around 22 acres in Nuits-St.-Georges. During the economic slump of the 1920s and 1930s, Gouges continued to take advantage of depressed vineyard prices to add parcels from several esteemed premier crus in the commune.

In the early 1930s, when concerns about rampant fraud and mislabeling was taking a toll on Burgundy prices, Gouges joined the Marquis d’Angerville and Armand Rousseau to rebel against the négociant houses by estate bottling all his domain wines.

Clive Coates described Henri Gouges, in The Wines of Burgundy, as the “Doyen of Nuits-St.-Georges” whose lasting influence in the commune has been far reaching. He was elected mayor several times and in the 1930s when the Institut National d’Appellation d’Origine (INAO) was establishing the classification of Burgundy’s vineyard, Gouges represented the interests of Nuits-St.-Georges on the regulatory committee.

It is believed that because Gouges was a major owner of the famed Les St-Georges vineyard, and would have benefited greatly if that vineyard was classified as a Grand Cru, he wanted to avoid any potential conflicts of interest by advocating against any Nuits-St.-Georges vineyard being singled out as a Grand Cru. Instead, the commune was awarded 41 Premier Crus–one of the highest concentration of premier crus in the Côte d’Or after Beaune’s 42 Premier Crus.

Photo by Leroy remy. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The village of Nuits-Saint-Georges in winter.

The domaine has long been a proponent of “traditional” and “natural viticulture” techniques, preferring to use massale selection of vine cuttings from their vineyards instead of clonal propagation and eschewing the use of chemicals when possible. Gouges’ grandson, Pierre, pioneered the use of ryegrass cover crop in the commune to curb erosion and encourage competition for the vine roots to find resources. Since 2008, all the domain’s vineyards have been farmed organically.

The Grape

The story goes that Henri Gouges was inspecting his Pinot noir vines in Nuits-St.-Georges 1er Cru La Perrière in late summer in the 1940s when he came across a vine that had all white clusters post-veraison. Intrigued, he cut off a branch of the vine and propagated to see if the new “Pinot noir” vine would also produce white clusters. It did so Gouges and his descendants continued to propagate the variety now known as “Pinot Gouges” in not only La Perrière but also in the premier cru vineyard (and Gouges monopole) of Clos de Porrets-Saint-Georges.

Is it a “White” Pinot noir or Pinot blanc?

Photo collage created by self as User:agne27 from photos released under creative commons licenses. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-3.0

Pinot noir, Pinot gris and Pinot blanc are genetically the same grape.

An interesting question and one that I couldn’t find a definitive answer for.

Throughout history, Pinot vines have been observed having clusters with different colored berries on them. Sometimes even different colors on the same berry!

The Pinot grape is notorious for its genetic instability with Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes noting that there are more than a 1000 registered clones. That’s just the number of clones we know of. However, ampelographers believe that the mutation rate for Pinot is actually on par with other varieties and instead attribute the vast number of known mutations and genetic variations to the grape’s longevity and 2000+ year history.

Even with the many mutations, genetically all the various Pinot varieties (noir, blanc, gris, Meunier, Teinturier, etc) are the same–which to some degree makes the argument of what “Pinot Gouges” is moot.

But the concept of “White Pinot noir” does exist with producers pressing the red Pinot noir grapes quickly to produce a white wine. This is the method used in Champagne for centuries to make white sparkling wines from the red Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. When made as still wine, these White Pinot noirs often have a fuller-bodied, weighty fruit with just a tinge of color—traits that bore out in my tasting of the Gouges La Perrière.

Pinot blanc wines tend to be more moderate weight with medium to medium-minus acidity with brilliant clarity and no color–especially when young. While it can often be confused for Chardonnay (like the Gouges wine in my notes below), my experiences with true varietal Pinot blanc vines are just too different from tasting this Pinot Gouges which leads me to considering this a “White Pinot”.

The Vineyard

La Perrière is a climat within the Premier Cru vineyard of Les Perrières located south of the village of Nuits-St.-Georges on the slope above the 1er Cru of Les Poirets (Les Porrets). The vineyard used to be a quarry with the name “Perrière” referencing the French term for quarry-workers. The soil is accordingly stony and pebbly.

Photo derived from map provided for public use by Bourgone Wines.org

The Les Perrières vineyard located south of the village of Nuits-Saint-Georges.

Several producers have bottlings from this vineyard (all of them red) including Meo-Camuzet (Wine Searcher Ave $148), Louis Jadot (Wine Searcher Ave $134) and Domaine Robert Chevillon (Wine Searcher Ave $95)

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. In a blind tasting, I would be thinking Chardonnay with the tree fruits of apples and pears but there is a lot of spice here–not oak spice but rather exotic spices. I can’t quite pinpoint them but it smells like you walked into an Indian restaurant. There is also a white floral element that has me thinking of apple blossoms.

Photo by Joe mon bkk. Released on Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-4.0

Lots of exotic spices and layers in this White Burgundy.


On the palate, there is a lot of weight and texture–things that would indicate new oak except for the complete absence of oak flavors. I also get some roasted hazelnuts which would make me think of an older Burg (like a 5 to 7 year old Meursault) rather than something that is only a little over 3 years old. Medium-plus acidity balances the weight of the fruit well but could be a tad higher. Moderate length finishes ends on the pear and spice notes.

The Verdict

At $90-110, this wine is priced in line with an upper-tier Premier Cru white Burgundy. It’s hard not to compare it to a well-made Meursault Premier Cru like Les Charmes and Les Perrières though I think what ultimately separates this Nuits-St.-Georges White Pinot from those crème de la crème Chardonnays is precision and longevity.

While there are lots of layers in this wine, they don’t have the crystal clarity and precision of flavors that truly highlight great white Burgs. You could say that develops with bottle age but this relatively young wine already tastes far older than what you would expect with its age. While it is giving considerable pleasure now, I can’t see it getting anywhere near the levels of a great Meursault wine from the same vintage 3 years down the road, much less 5 or 15.

Still, this is fascinating and exceedingly character driven wine that is worth seeking out just to experience. From a commune that is 97% red wine (with the entire Côte de Nuits being 95% red), it is truly a unicorn with only around 2000-2500 bottles produced each year.

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Getting Geeky with Whidbey Island Siegerrebe

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2015 Whidbey Island Winery Siegerrebe from the Puget Sound AVA.

The Background

I gave some of the backstory of Whidbey Island Winery in my 60 Second Review of their Pinot noir from Cultus Bay Vineyard. A pioneer on the Puget Sound island, today Whidbey Island Winery is known as the “grande dame” of Whidbey Island vineyards.

In addition to sourcing fruit from Whidbey Island, the winery also works with several vineyards in Eastern Washington including Crawford Vineyards in the Yakima Valley, Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain, Coyote Canyon Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills and Elephant Mountain Vineyard in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA.

The Whidbey Island Siegerrebe comes from the Osenbach’s estate vineyard that was first planted in 1986 along with Madeleine Angevine and Madeleine Sylvaner. The first vintage release of Siegerrebe was in 1991.

The Grape

Heinz Scheu, son of the famous German grape breeder Georg Scheu, claimed that his father discovered Siegerrebe in 1929 from a spontaneous self-pollination of Madeleine Angevine. However, Jancis Robinson notes in Wine Grapes that DNA analysis has definitively shown that the grape is a crossing of Madeleine Angevine and Savagnin rose.

Siegerrebe (whose name roughly translates to “champion vine”) is one of several new grape varieties–along with with Scheurebe, Huxelrebe and Chancellor–that Scheu bred in his nearly 40 year career at the State Institute of Vine Breeding in Alzey, Rheinhessen.

Photo by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 and released under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Siegerrebe grapes.


In 1948, German breeder Hans Breider used Siegerrebe to cross with Müller-Thurgau to create Ortega–named after the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. In 1960, another German breeder, Johannes Zimmermann, used Siegerrebe in a crossing with Villard blanc to create the table grape Rosetta that is also used to produce wine in Iowa.

Today there is only around 255 acres of Siegerrebe in its homeland of Germany–mostly in the Rheinhessen and Palatinate (Pfalz). Outside of Germany, some plantings can be found in Denmark, Switzerland and in the Gloucestershire region of England.

Siegerrebe was brought to the US in the 1980s when Gerard Bentryn of Bainbridge Island Winery became the first American winegrower to plant the variety. It was from these Bainbridge Island cuttings that the Osenbachs of Whidbey Island Winery planted their estate Siegerrebe.

Another Whidbey winery, Comforts of Whidbey, also produce Siegerrebe from cuttings they procured from Whidbey Island Winery. The grape can be found on other islands in the Puget Sound AVA as well–most notably Lopez Island Vineyards and San Juan Vineyards.

The Wine

Medium-plus intensity nose. A mix of orange blossoms and pear drop candy.

Photo by Kate Hopkins. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Just a little too much pear drop candy note in this wine for my taste.


On the palate that pear drop candy note comes through and brings noticeable sweetness. The orange blossoms also carry over but, surprisingly, the flavors get even more floral in the mouth with rose petals and undefined white flowers joining in. This wine feels like you are drinking a glassful of petals.

Medium acidity gives some lift but I find myself wishing that it had just a bit more to help balance the sweetness. Moderate length finish ends with the pear candied note.

The Verdict

While I absolutely adored Whidbey Island’s Pinot noir, this Siegerrebe is a bit too sweet for my personal style. However, it is very character-driven with lovely floral elements that I can see fans of Moscato enjoying as an opportunity to trade out some of their same ole, same ole.

But at around $17-20, I do think wine drinkers are paying a little bit for the novelty of the grape. In the realm of off-dry whites, there are certainly more compelling values out there among Riesling and Gewürztraminer from Washington State and elsewhere.

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Getting Geeky with Gramercy Picpoul

Going to need more than 60 Seconds to geek out about the 2015 Gramercy Picpoul from Walla Walla.

The Background

Gramercy Cellars was founded in 2005 by Master Sommelier Greg Harrington and his wife, Pam. Prior to starting a winery, Harrington managed wine programs for restaurants owned by Joyce Goldstein (Square One in San Francisco), Emeril Lagasse, Stephen Hanson and Wolfgang Puck (Spago). At the time that Harrington passed his MS exam in 1996, he was 26 and the youngest person to have achieved that honor.

According to Paul Gregutt, in Washington Wines, while sommelier-turned-winemaker is somewhat common in California and other parts of the world, Harrington was the first to traverse that path in Washington State.

In 2006, Gramercy started a partnership with Jamie Brown of Waters Winery that eventually led to the development of Wines of Substance (later sold to Charles Smith) and 21 Grams (now owned by Doug Roskelley and Mike Tembreull, owners of TERO Estates and Flying Trout Wines).

In 2008, Harrington was named by Seattle Magazine as “Best New Winemaker in Washington” and followed that up in 2014 as the magazine’s “Winemaker of the Year“.

Along with Harrington, the wines of Gramercy Cellars are made by Brandon Moss who joined the winery in 2009 after stints at King Estate in Oregon, Indevin in New Zealand and Waters in Walla Walla.

Drawing from Ampélographie Viala et Vermorel. Uploaded by JPS68 via photoshop to Wikimedia Commons under PD Old

Picpoul blanc grapes by Viala et Vermorel


Gramercy started making Picpoul in 2013 because the variety was a favorite of Pam Harrington. That first vintage came from Olsen Vineyards in the Yakima Valley from a block that was scheduled to be uprooted and planted over to Grenache. The cuttings were sourced from Tablas Creek Vineyards in Paso Robles from original vines at Château Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Subsequent vintages of Gramercy Picpoul have been sourced from Los Oídos Vineyards located in the Blue Mountains of Walla Walla which are managed by Ken Hart and sustainably farmed. In addition to managing Los Oídos, Hart was also involved in the planting of Ash Hollow, Nicholas Cole, Pepper Bridge and Seven Hills East vineyards and today helps manage the vineyards of Abeja, àMaurice, Dunham and Walla Walla Vintners.

The Grape

According to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, the first mention of Picpoul (or Piquepoul) was of the black skin variant in 1384 near Toulouse in the Occitanie region that borders Spain. The name is believed to have been derived from the Oc dialect words picapol or picpol which loosely translates to a “place with a peak” and may refer to the cliff-side vineyards where the grape was planted.

The first account that explicitly described the white skin mutation of Picpoul was in 1667. There is also a pink-skin Picpoul gris that is nearly extinct. All three color variants are part of the 22 grapes that are authorized to be grown in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

A Picpoul de Pinet from the Languedoc.


In 2009, there was over 3500 acres of Picpoul blanc planted in France–mostly in the Languedoc area where it is the notable variety of Picpoul de Pinet–the largest white wine producing AOC in the Languedoc. The grape is valued in the white wines of the Languedoc and Provence for its high acidity and lemon, floral aromatics.

In the United States, Tablas Creek was the first to plant Picpoul blanc in 2000. In California, Tablas Creek has noted that the variety is early budding but late ripening and tends to produce rich tropical fruits along with its trademark “lip stinging” acidity. Several producers in Paso Robles will occasional produce bottlings of Picpoul blanc including–Adelaida Cellars, Denner Winery, Derby Wine Estates, Halter Ranch, Lone Madrone, Bending Branch Winery and Broc Cellars.

Outside of Paso Robles, the grape can also be found in Calaveras County where Twisted Oak Winery and Forlorn Hope make varietal examples as well as in the Arroyo Seco AVA of Monterrey County which supplies Picpoul for Bonny Doon. In Arizona, Cimarron Vineyard in Cochise County is growing Picpoul blanc for Sand-Reckoner Winery and in the McLaren Vale of Australia, Picpoul blanc has been produced by Coriole Vineyards since 2015.

In Washington, outside of the Los Oídos Vineyards supplying Gramercy, the grape is being grown at Boushey Vineyards, Corliss Estate’s Blue Mountain Vineyard in Walla Walla and at Tanjuli Winery’s estate vineyard in the Rattlesnake Hills AVA.

The Wine

Photo by Vegan Feast Catering. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The lemon custard aromatics and creaminess of this 2015 Gramercy Picpoul is just one of the many complex layers to this wine.

High intensity nose. There is a lot going on here. Initially it starts out very floral and lemony with subtle pastry crust like a lemon custard tart. Underneath the lemon zest is some dusty gravel mineral notes. In a blind tasting, this would have my brain start thinking white Bordeaux. There is also a white floral note in the background that is not very defined.

But on the palate the wine switches gears and starts getting more tree fruit oriented with spicy d’Anjou pears and the floral notes morphing more into lemon verbena. The custard note from the nose carries through adding a richness to the mouthfeel–creamy but not buttery like a California Chardonnay. Even with this weighty creaminess the high acidity is quite present, offering exquisite balance and freshness. The gravel mineral notes come through and have a “crushed rock” element that is almost electric. The long finish brings a subtle hint of hazelnut that would have me wondering in a blind tasting if this was a village level Meursault.

The Verdict

Incredibly complex wine that jumps out of the glass and leaves a lasting impression on the palate. At around $20 bucks this is an absolute steal for all that this wine delivers.

But even if you can’t find a bottle of Gramercy’s Picpoul, do yourself a favor and find any bottle of Picpoul to try. If you are looking to trade out from your same ole, same ole Sauvignon blanc and Pinot gris, this grape is perfect.

Picpoul has the freshness and zip of a great Sauvignon blanc but with some of the spice of Gruner Veltliner and depth of a well made Chardonnay. Examples from Picpoul de Pinet can be had for $10-13 and are often far superior to what you usually find among Sauvignon blanc, Pinot gris/grigio and Chardonnay in the under $15 category.

This is definitely a grape that should be high on any wine geek’s list to try.

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Wine Geek Notes 3/15/18 — New Wine Books to Geek Out Over

Photo by Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Here are a few wine books that I’m highly intrigued by with release dates in March and April.

Wine: A social and cultural history of the drink that changed our lives by Rod Phillips. Released March 13th, 2018.

Along with Huge Johnson’s Vintage, Rod Phillips’ A Short History of Wine is probably one of the best wine history books that I’ve read. He has a very engaging writing style that effortlessly weaves in stories and anecdotes with some hardcore geekdom. It looks like this book explores more of the cultural context behind the role that wine has played in historical events.

As an aside, while researching this I discovered that Phillips also wrote French Wine: A History which I’m adding to my wish list.

Wines of the Loire (Guides to Wines and Top Vineyards) by Benjamin Lewin. Released March 15th, 2018.

I’ve been intrigued by the books of Master of Wine Benjamin Lewin since I reviewed Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan’s Rosé Wine. This looks to be a series that he is doing with editions on Burgundy, Alsace, Champagne and other regions that have been previously released. Since I’ll be visiting Burgundy in May, I went ahead and grabbed that book as well as his book on vintages to see if this is a series I want to invest more into.

Photo by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Bethel Heights has always been one of my favorite Oregon wineries.

Oregon Wine Country Stories: Decoding the Grape by Kenneth Friedenreich. Release date April 9th, 2018.

Similar to the case with Washington that I noted in my review of Paul Gregutt’s Washington Wines, there are not that many resources for learning more about Oregon wine. Could Friedenreich’s book fill in that gap? It sounds promising with 192 pages that will include AVA maps and profiles of wineries like Bethel Heights, Eyrie and Portland’s growing urban winery scene.

Godforsaken Grapes: A Slightly Tipsy Journey through the World of Strange, Obscure, and Underappreciated Wine by Jason Wilson. Release date April 24th, 2018.

This is probably the book that I’m most looking forward to geeking out over. I’ve heard good things about Wilson’s Boozehound and, as frequent readers know, I’m all over anything that involves obscure grapes.

I’ve kind of taken trying the 1,368 grape varieties that Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz have cataloged in Wine Grapes as the ultimate #WineGeekGoal so I’m interested to see how far down the obscure grape rabbit hole that Wilson has traveled.

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