Category Archives: Wine grapes

Getting Geeky with Domaine de Couron Marselan

Going to need more than 60 seconds to geek out about the 2014 Domaine de Couron Marselan from the Ardèche region.

The Grape

According to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, Marselan is a crossing of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache that was created by Paul Truel in 1961 at the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA). The grape was named after the town of Marseillan where cultivars produced by the INRA’s breeding estate of Domaine de Vassel are stored.

Marselan wasn’t officially added to the register of varieties till 1990 when growers began to plant it in the Languedoc and Southern Rhone. By 2009, there were almost 6000 acres planted with Robinson noting that the most successful producers of the variety have been Domaine de Couron, Chateau Camplazens, Domaine de la Camarette, Paul Mas, Mas de Ray and the Châteauneuf-du-Pape estate of Domaine de la Mordorée which does a Marselan, Merlot and Grenache blend.

In the Côtes du Rhône AOC, Marselan is only permitted up to a maximum of 10% so Rhône producers wishing to make a varietal examples have to produce it as a Vin de France or under one of the regional Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP) like Pays d’Oc, Mediterranee, Bouches-du-Rhone, Aude, Cotes de Thau, Coteaux d’Enserune, Cotes de Gascogne, Comtes Rhodaniens, Cotes Catalanes and, in the case of this bottle of Domaine de Couron, from the Ardeche.

Photo by Vbecart. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons and released under  CC-BY-SA-3.0,

Marselan grapes


Outside of France, Marselan was first planted in the Penedès region of Spain in the mid-1990s with some growers in the Terra Alta region of Catalunya also experimenting with the variety. In Argentina, around 195 acres of the grape was planted as of 2008 and around 59 acres in Brazil. In Uruguay, Bodega Garzón blends Marselan with Tannat and makes a varietal example as well.

In China, the Sino-French Demonstration Vineyard located in Hebei province in the shadow of the Great Wall in Hulai county includes plantings of Marselan that winemaker Li Demei produces a varietal wine from. The 2015 Marselan from Grace Vineyard in the Shanxi province won the top prize at the 2017 Decanter Asia Wine Awards.

The Winery

Located in the village of Saint Marcel d’Ardeche, Jean-Luc and Marie-Lise Dorthe are 9th generation vignerons farming their vineyards in this area of the Rhône valley northwest of Avignon. All their parcels are farmed sustainably and organically.

The area used to be a Roman settlement with many ruins and archaeological sites. The Roman coin featured on the Domaine de Couron label was uncovered in one of their vineyards.

Domaine de Couron farms .72 acres of Marselan planted in granite and limestone soils. The grapes are completely destemed after harvest and fermented in concrete tanks. The wine doesn’t see any oak during aging so as to better convey the typicity of the grape and terroir of the vineyard. Around 1000 cases are produced each year.

The Wine

Mid intensity nose. A mix of black fruit like cherries and currants as well as some herbal notes like mint and tomato leaf. With some air, a little Grenache-like smokiness emerges.

Photo by McEC16. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

The mix of juicy cherries and currants give this Domaine du Couron Marselan a lot of charm and adds to its food pairing potential.


On the palate, the black fruit carries through but the medium plus acidity also adds some red fruit like juicy cranberries to the mix. The herbal and smoke notes are still present but much more muted on the palate than on the nose. In their place is an intriguing tobacco note that I usually associate with Cabernet Sauvignon that has seen some time in oak. Medium tannins and medium body give good balance and structure.

The Verdict

What was most charming about this bottle of Domaine du Couron Marselan was that you could pick up some of the Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon characteristics of its parent varieties in this wine. In a blind tasting, I would probably peg it as a moderate weight Côtes du Rhône or perhaps even an earthier Spanish Garnacha.

For a BBQ wine or if you are just in the mood to try something different, it is well worth the $13-16 for a bottle of this geeky grape.

Cab is King but for how long?

Photo from Wikimedia Commons from George Cattermole and the  Gallery of Shakespeare illustrations, from celebrated works of art (1909). At a 2018 Unified Wine & Grape Symposium panel on Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the directors of winemaking for E. & J. Gallo Winery, Chris Munsell, shared a bit of advice that he learned from a marketing executive.

…for any wine to be successful, it need[s] to be of good quality, known by consumers and profitable for everyone involved. — Wines & Vines, Jan 29th, 2018.

Following that line of thought, it’s easy to see how Cabernet Sauvignon ticks off each box.

Cab’s ability to make high quality and age-worthy wines is legendary. It is relatively easy to grow in the vineyard and is very adaptable to a wide range of winemaking techniques. This adaptability increases the profitability of the grape as winemakers can make virtually any style of Cab to fit consumers’ tastes at prices that still meet desired profit margins.

At the Unified panel mentioned above, Evan Schiff, the winemaker for Francis Ford Coppola Presents’ Diamond line, describes how Coppola can make consistent under $13 Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from vineyards throughout California with the use of enzymes that facilitate quick fermentation, oak barrel alternatives like chips and staves (as opposed to $400-1000 new barrels) and micro-oxygenation.

Meanwhile, in Napa County where a ton of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes can cost anywhere from $6,829 to $59,375, producers seemingly have no problem selling high end Napa Valley Cabernets for several hundreds of dollars.

The reason why Cabernet Sauvignon is a fairly easy sell is because of the second point in Munsell’s advice. For consumers, it is a known quantity.

Photo by self, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as Agne27

One of the oldest plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington State at Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley.

In 2017, while off-premise sales of wine only grew by 3%, Cabernet Sauvignon out-paced that trend with 5% growth. This growth was seen across a variety of price points ranging from a 21% increase in sales of $4.50 (per 750ml) boxed wine to a 15% increase in sales of Cabernet Sauvignon over $25.

Cab is clearly King but even the reigns of Sobhuza II and Louis XIV eventually came to an end. Looking to the horizon, it is not hard to find trends that, like Macbeth’s witches, whisper of toil and trouble in store for the monarch.

Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair: Who seeks something unique and rare?

If you want to bet on the dethronement of Cab, you only need to look towards the first, second and third murderers of all things–Millennials. With over 75 million members (surpassing now the Baby Boomers), industries ignore this powerful demographic at their peril.

While it’s a mistake to overly generalize with such a large cohort, one consistent theme that has emerged is that Millennials tend to value experiences over material goods. In the wine industry, we are seeing this play out in Millennial wine drinkers’ “curiosity” about unique grape varieties and unheralded regions. Instead of seeking out the high scoring Cult Cabs and status symbols that beckoned previous generations, Millennials often thirst for something different, something interesting.

A report by Master of Wine Matt Deller notes that 65% of Millennial drinkers in his Wine Access study actively sought out “unusual wines and vintages”. And while the buying power for Millennials currently lags behind Generation X and Baby Boomers, Millennials have a desire to spend more.

With this context in mind, some interesting trends stand out when you look at the acreage reports of vineyard plantings in California.

Of course Cabernet Sauvignon still commands a significant chunk of acreage with 90,782 acres of vines in 2016. That is around a 26% increase from 2008 and is a testament to the healthy market that exists for Cabernet. But looking a little deeper we see that savvy vineyard owners and wineries are anticipating the adventurous appetites of Millennial drinkers.

How does Teroldego pair with newt eyes and frog toes?
From the California Department of Food and Agriculture and USDA 2016 acreage report

During that same 2008-2016 period, we can see impressive growth in Italian grape varieties in California like Aglianico (≈ 63% growth), Montepulciano (≈ 77%) and Primitivo (≈ 233%). Even the obscure northeastern Italian grape of Teroldego from Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol is getting in on the action with an astounding growth of nearly 731%.

The vast majority of these new Teroldego plantings occurred in 2014 & 2016 with huge producers like Bogle Vineyards, Constellation Brands, E & J Gallo Winery and Trinchero Family Estates behind most of the plantings in the Central Valley of California. It looks like the grape is being groomed to be the “new Petite Sirah” as a key component in mass-produced red blends (or a Pinot noir-enhancer) but varietal examples from producers in Clarksburg, Lodi, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara could offer consumers intriguing and characterful wines.

Beyond the second wave of Cal-Ital varieties, Cabernet is seeing growing competition from its Bordeaux stable-mates of Malbec (≈ 130% growth) and Petit Verdot (≈ 62%) as well as the Uruguayan favorite Tannat (≈ 132%).

Among white wines, we see a similar pattern even though Chardonnay still accounts for over 94,000 acres in California–an increase of around 13% from 2008.

If she was around today, it’s likely that Lady Macbeth would be drinking Moscato… or Rombauer Chard
From the California Department of Food and Agriculture and USDA 2016 acreage report

While Chardonnay still rules by Cabernet Sauvignon’s side, we have upstarts like the Spanish variety Albariño (≈ 107% growth) and Portuguese grape Verdelho (≈ 75%) seeing significant increase in plantings. As with the reds, the interest in Italian white varieties is growing with Vermentino seeing around a 287% growth in plantings and the combine stable of Muscat grapes (led by Moscato bianco) more than doubling their acreage in 8 years.

There is no question that Cabernet Sauvignon bears a charmed life. It makes delicious wines that delight both wine drinkers’ palates and wineries’ bottom lines. But the fickle and ever-changing tastes of the wine world means that even the greatest of kings have reigns that are just brief candles.

While Cab’s light is not likely to go out anytime soon, perhaps the king should watch out for his shadows.

In a rut? Try these new grapes!

CC BY-SA 3.0, on Wikimedia Commons

We all get into ruts sometimes, especially during the heart of the January-February “Winter Blues” season. But ruts can be the perfect time to shake things up!

So how about trading out and swapping some of your same ole, same ole for something new? Here are 5 recommendations of geeky new grape varieties that are worth trying.

Do you like Sauvignon blanc and unoaked Chardonnay?

Try Pecorino!

According to Ian d’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy, Pecorino likely originated in the Marche region of eastern Italy where it is the dominant white grape of the Offida DOCG. The name comes from the Italian pecora for ‘sheep’ and is derived from anecdotal stories of sheepherders snacking on the grapes as they tended to their flocks. Other stores involve the sheep, themselves, breaking into vineyards to snack on the ripe grapes near harvest time.

Pecorino produces fragrant wines with citrus, apple and mineral notes that go fantastic with seafood (much like Sauvignon blanc and unoaked Chardonnay!). The wines are often light to medium body and can sometimes have delicate herbal notes (like the grassiness in a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc). Usually produced in stainless steel, some examples can see brief time in neutral oak that will add a little weight to the wine (like many Sauvignon blanc-based white Bordeauxs).

Do you like Pinot gris and dry Gewürztraminers?

Try Grüner Veltliner!

Photo taken by self as Agne27, on Wikimedia Commons

An Oregon Gruner Veltliner from the Willamette Valley.


We can also add fans of aged white Burgundies to the list too.

According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, Grüner Veltliner is the most widely planted grape variety in Austria, representing more than a third of all vineyard plantings. Here is used to produce everything from light cafe wine, to weighty ageworthy whites to sparkling Sekt.

Grüner Veltliner produces wines that have a mix of citrus and tree fruit notes (like Pinot gris) with a characteristic spicy note of white pepper (like Gewurz but a different spice). With age these wines take on a remarkable transformation with more weight and texture that is not that dissimilar to great white Burgundies.

Outside of it Austrian homeland, American wine lovers can find domestic examples being produced in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, Virginia and Maryland.

Do you like Merlot and Grenache?

Try Mencía!

Actually, you can also tally this one down if you are a fan of Pinot noir and Cabernet Franc or even Gamay because Mencía is a very versatile grape that produces different styles based how it is grown and winemaking choices.

By SanchoPanzaXXI - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, on Wikimedia Commons

Mencía grapes growing in the Ribeira Sacra DO of Spain

According to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, this very aromatic and fruit forward grape was once thought to be related to Grenache, Graciano and Cabernet Franc though DNA analysis has shown that there isn’t any relation.

But the similarities can been seen in Mencía wines that are fresh with ripe tannins and juicy fruit that can carry a tinge of herbal notes (a la Cabernet Franc). Like Gamay, some of these fruity wines are produced via carbonic maceration. However, when yields are kept low and Mencía sees some time in oak it can produce more dense, concentrated examples with ripe dark fruit and chocolate notes like Merlot.

Admittedly it is hard to know what style of Mencía you are getting with a particular bottle but the immense potential of deliciousness makes it worth exploring the whole spectrum!

Do you like Cabernet Sauvignon and spicy Zinfandels?

Try Touriga Nacional!

According to Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible, while Touriga Nacional is most known for being the backbone of Portugal’s famous fortified Port wines, it also produces some of its best table wines that demonstrate great balance and aging ability.

As a dry red varietal Touriga Nacional crafts big full bodied tannic reds with intense color and mouth-filling juicy dark fruits (very much like Cabernet Sauvignon!). Its high aromatics can also bring a variety of spice notes that carry through to the palate, lingering towards a long finish (like your spicy Zins!).

Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Bauer Karl under CC-BY-3.0

Touriga Nacional from Wines of Portugal, i. V. Marie-Luise Bächle


Outside of Portugal, you can find domestic examples of Touriga Nacional from the Zinfandel hot beds of Lodi, Amador County and the Sierra Foothills as well as in Napa Valley, Georgia and Virginia.

Do you like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah?

Try Aglianico!

In their book Vino Italiano, Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch describe young Aglianico wines as “… dark and feral, like the wolves that still roam the hills [in Basilicata].”

By Alexis Kreyder - L'Ampélographie (Viala et Vermorel), reproduced in

Aglianico from L’Ampélographie Viali i Vermorela


This grape produces big tannic wines with savory meatiness that can remind you of aged Cabernets and Rhone-style Syrahs. While it can develop even more layers of complexity with age, in its youth it still has charm and is worth seeking out by any big red wine fan.

Outside of Italy, there are domestic examples of Aglianco being produced in Paso Robles, Napa Valley, the Sierra Foothills and Amador County as well as in Texas and Virginia.

So seek out some of these obscure varieties and try something new! Life is too short to be in a rut of drinking just the same ole, same ole.

Cheers!

Getting Geeky with Cave de Genouilly Aligote

Going to need more than 60 seconds to geek out about the 2015 Cave de Genouilly Bourgogne Aligoté.

The Background

Cave de Genouilly was founded in 1932 as a co-operative of family growers in the Côte Chalonnaise region of southern Burgundy. Today, the co-op includes 90 growers with 180 acres based around the communes of Genouilly, Fley, Bissy-sur-Fley, Saint-Martin-du-Tartre and Saint-Clément-sur-Guye. Many of the growers are second and third generation members of the co-op.

In addition to Bourgogne Aligoté, the co-op also produces Crémant de Bourgogne as well as still wines from the AOCs of Rully, Givry and Montagny–including some premier cru.

The Grape

According to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, Aligoté is an offspring of Pinot and Gouais blanc, making it a full sibling of Chardonnay, Melon de Bourgogne, Gamay and Auxerrois.

Robinson speculates that the name Aligoté is derived from the old synonym for Gouais blanc, Gôt. The grape first appeared in written records in 1780 under the synonym ‘Plant de Trois’ which refers to the tendency of Aligoté to produce three clusters per branch. The name Aligoté, itself, appears in the Côte d’Or for the first time in 1807.

The grape earned some notoriety after World War II when the mayor of Dijon, Félix Kir, created a cocktail that blended Aligoté with Crème de Cassis. Today that cocktail is known as the Kir and, while it has many derivatives, the classic incarnation still features Aligoté.

Photo by Arnaud 25. Released on Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-SA-3.0

The classic Kir cocktail of Aligoté with Crème de Cassis paired with gougères, a savory puff pastry made with cheese.


Today there is around 4800 acres of the variety planted in France–virtually all in Burgundy. Producers tend to plant Aligoté either at the very bottom or very top of the slope, leaving the prime mid-slope section for the more profitable Chardonnay and Pinot noir.

While most plantings are found in the Côte Chalonnaise, particularly in the Bouzeron AOC, the grape was permitted in Meursault throughout the 19th century and is technically still authorized for use in the Grand Cru of Corton-Charlemagne thanks to a 1930s legal judgement. Bonneau du Matray maintained 1 ha of Aligoté in the Grand Cru until the mid-1970s.

In my post Brave New Burgs, I noted that the list of Burgundian producers who seem to have a soft spot for this obscure variety is impressive. Aubert de Villaine (of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti fame), Lalou Bize-Leroy, Marquis d’Angerville and Michel Lafarge, to name a few. Aligoté is even planted in the prime real estate of the Morey-St-Denis Premier Cru Clos des Monts Luisants owned by Domaine Ponsot.

Outside of France, Aligoté can be found in Switzerland (≈ 50 acres) and several eastern European countries such as Bulgaria (≈ 2700 acres), Moldova (≈ 39,000 acres), Romania (≈ 18,000 acres), Russia (≈ 1,000 acres) and Ukarine where the grape accounts for 11% of total vineyard area with ≈ 24,000 acres.

By Ensenator - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, released on Wikimedia commons

Aligoté grapes growing in Romania.


In the US, California winemaker Jed Steele makes an example in Washington State called Shooting Star sourced from 2 acres of Aligoté planted in the Yakima Valley by the Newhouse family in the 1970s. Josh Jensen of Calera has also experimented with the variety in the high-altitude Mt. Harlan AVA in the Gabilan Mountains of San Benito County, California.

The Wine

Medium plus intensity nose with citrus and fresh cut white flowers. A little grassy. Makes me think of a Sauvignon blanc.

The mouthfeel has surprising weight with a medium plus body that helps balance the medium plus acidity. It rounds it out and keeps the wine mouthwatering rather than bitey. Apple flavors appear alongside the citrus (lemon) and fresh floral notes carrying through from the bouquet. The grassiness doesn’t, though, which has my thoughts shifting from comparing it to a Sauvignon blanc to something closer to an unoaked Chardonnay from the Macon-Village.

The Verdict

In Brave New Burgs, I summed up my tasting note on the 2015 Cave de Genouilly Bourgogne Aligoté “As if a Sauvignon blanc and an unoaked Chardonnay had a baby. Great mouthfeel with weight. Smooth but fresh.”

The wine has a lot of character that makes it enjoyable on its own but with its mouthwatering acidity, I thinks it place to shine is with food. At around $15-18, its combination of fruit, acidity and structure gives great flexibility on the table letting it pair with anything from white and shellfish to fatty tuna and salmon as well as vegetarian fare, poultry and pork.

Zin-ful Thoughts

Joseph Swan Zinfandel from the Bastoni Vineyard in the Fountaingrove District of Sonoma County.

Originally planted in 1906, the vineyard was significantly replanted in 2005.

In honor of the upcoming ZAP 2018 Zinfandel Experience in San Francisco, the Lodi Winegrape Commission released a very informative FAQ page on Zinfandel written by sommelier Randy Caparoso.

I must confess that being based in the Pacific Northwest and a bit of a Francophile, my experience with Zinfandel has been limited—mostly the uber jammy and commercialized examples from producers like Rombauer, Michael David and Klinker Brick. We do grow a little bit of the variety here in Washington State (65 acres as of 2017) but many of the examples that I’ve tried have been a bit underwhelming.

A trip last year to Joseph Swan Vineyards in Sonoma started to change my perception of Zinfandel. Here I found examples of this “big bruising grape” that were elegant, spicy and downright mouthwatering. So I was very intrigued to read Caparoso’s post and ended up learning a lot.

Some of the cool things (not all Zin related) I learned from Caparoso’s post:

1.) One of the reasons why Zinfandel likely became such a popular and widely planted grape in California during the 1800s was because of how easy it is to grow, particularly in the goblet “bush vine” style. Growers could just stick cuttings into the ground, without the expense and labor of trellising, and tend to the vine with the relatively low-maintenance spur-pruning system. Add to the fact that Zin produces reliable yields, it makes sense why this was a choice variety for many of the European immigrants who planted the early California vineyards.

2.) Due to the decline in popularity of White Zinfandel, overall plantings of Zinfandel have decreased which means that when the 2017 USDA acreage report comes out, it will likely show Zinfandel as the 4th most widely planted wine grape in California behind Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. I wouldn’t shed a tear for desperate housewives as pink Moscato is there to fill their empty glasses. I’m sure Zinfandel fans are not going to mind.

I appreciated how the Sobon Primitivo was full bodied with rich dark fruit without being overtly jammy.
The Rocky Top was spicier and more my style but the Primitivo had it charms.


3.) While Buena Vista, established in 1857 in Sonoma, is widely credited as being the first commercial winery in California, that honor actually belongs to the Vignes Winery that was established in Los Angeles in 1833 by Jean-Louis Vignes. In the Zin hotbed of Amador County, d’Agostini Winery was founded a year before Buena Vista in 1856 with the cellars and vineyards now owned by Zinfandel specialist Sobon.

4.) While currently terms like “Old Vine” and “Ancient Vine” are unregulated and can apply to anything that a winery’s marketing team wants it to, there is a movement in Lodi and other Zinfandel regions to adopt something similar to the Barossa Old Vine Charter. This charter established designation of 4 tiers of “old vines” covering a span of vine ages. On the LoCA FAQ, Caparoso gives his suggestions on tiers beginning with ‘Old Vines’ denoting vines at least 50 years of age going up to ‘Historic Vines’ that are over a 100 years of age.

5.) It’s hard to define a “Lodi-style” of Zinfandel because many of the region’s largest producers (like Michael David & Klinker Brick) tend to produce a very commercialized style of Zinfandel that often sees a significant portion of Petite Sirah blended in as well as judicious oaking.

My Zin-exploration plans for the year

Located across the street from the Mancini Ranch (notably used by Carlisle), the vines here are over 100 years old

I want to explore more terroir driven examples from vineyard designated bottlings of Zinfandel. At Joseph Swan, in addition to trying their Bastoni Vineyard pictured above, I also got a chance to taste a bottling from the Zeigler Vineyard in the Russian River Valley. This one had a intriguing floral smokiness to it that I didn’t find in the more peppery Bastoni. It was almost as if a Pinot noir and Syrah had a baby. It was very fun trying these two Zins side by side. They had a streak of similarity but were very different.

I also want to hunt for this elusive “Lodi-style” that is hiding under the shadows of the area’s big producers. I’ve had the opportunity to try wines from St. Amant Winery that Caparoso highlights as one of Lodi’s Zinfandel specialists. Here, again, trying two different vineyards side by side was incredibly fascinating with the century plus vines of their Marian Vineyard (planted in 1901) showing spicy, dark fruit notes while the Mohr-Fry (planted in 1945) was more more berry fruit and floral.

Some of these differences could be terroir, some could be vine age. I want to learn more about that.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Zinfandel#/media/File:Crljenak_kastelanski.jpg

A Crljenak Kaštelanski vine from the village of Kaštel Novi in Croatia. Read the Wikimedia Commons link for some more fascinating info about this vine from the photographer User:Amatulic!


A holy grail of geekdom for me would be to get my grubby little hands on a Croatian Zinfandel. When I visited Croatia in 2016, I was quite disappointed in that all I could find among reds was Plavac Mali, which was a tasty grape but no Crljenak Kaštelanski.

Finally, I want to keep a more open mind about Washington (and Southern Oregon) Zinfandel. I have a hunch that two factors that have been driving their (in my opinion) underwhelming style has been a combination of very young vines (I couldn’t find any info on what is the oldest planting of Washington Zin but I would be shocked if it was more than 25 years) and that many winemakers here haven’t figured out what they want to do with the grape yet.

We produce so many exceptional red wines from varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah that I feel like producers are throwing the techniques that have made those wines successful against the wall and seeing what sticks. A Zin that taste like an oaky Cab or a more alcoholic version of Syrah is not very appealing. On the flip side, Washington-versions of the jammy commercialized Zins aren’t very exciting either.

The art of winemaking involves a lot of trial and error so this seems like something that will work itself out. There are just too many talented winemakers in the Pacific Northwest to think that someone is not going to hit on something delicious when it comes to Washington Zinfandel.

Till then, I’ll keep my eyes open and drink up where I can.

Getting Geeky with Adelsheim Auxerrois

Going to need more than 60 seconds to geek out with the 2011 Adelsheim Auxerrois.

The Background

Adelsheim Vineyards started in 1971 when David & Ginny Adelsheim purchased land in what is now the Chehalem Mountains AVA. The next year they established their Quarter Mile Lane vineyard, becoming the first to plant in this northern part of the Willamette Valley.

In 1994, Jack and Lynn Loacker joined the Adelsheims as co-owners and began planting their Ribbon Springs Vineyards in the Ribbon Ridge sub-AVA of the Chehalem Mountains. Among the varieties planted in this vineyard are Pinot noir, Pinot gris and a little over 2 acres of the obscure French variety Auxerrois.

Ribbon Springs Vineyard highlighted.
Map courtesy of the Chehalem Mountains Winegrowers

On all the estate vineyards, Adelsheim practices sustainable viticulture and are certified Salmon Safe and LIVE.

It was announced in December 2017 that Adelsheim’s winemaker David Paige was stepping down with associate winemaker Gina Hennen being promoted to replace him. This makes Hennen only the third head winemaker in Adelsheim’s 40+ year history with Paige following founder David Adelsheim in the position in 2001. She joins vineyard manager Kelli Gregory as one of the few all female winemaker/vineyard manager combos at a major winery.

The Grape

By Rosenzweig - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0

Auxerrois grapes in Weinsberg


According to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes , Auxerrois is the second most widely planted white grape variety in Alsace after Riesling.

While it is not permitted in Alsatian Grand Cru or the dessert wine styles of Vendange Tardive or Sélection de Grains Nobles, it is often used in the production of Crémant d’Alsace and Edelzwicker as well as wines labeled as Klevener and Pinot blanc. In fact, it is a quirk of Alsatian wine laws that a wine can be 100% Auxerrois but labeled as Pinot blanc.

The close association with Auxerrois and Pinot blanc is due to the similarities in wine styles produce by both. Typically low in acid but with a rich mouthfeel that has weight and texture. DNA analysis has shown that Auxerrois is a progeny of Pinot and Gouais blanc–making it a sibling of Chardonnay, Aligote, Melon de Bourgogne and Gamay. It is also a half-sibling of Blaufränkisch and Colombard.

Outside of Alsace, Auxerrois can be found in the French Moselle, Côtes de Toul, Luxembourg, England and the Netherlands. The grape can also be found in Germany in the Baden, Nahe, Palatinate and Rheinhessen.

Outside of Europe, Canada has a few plantings of Auxerrois in Ontario as well as the Okanagan Valley and Vancouver Island wine producing regions of British Columbia. The grape was unexpectedly discovered in South Africa in the 1980s when vines that were thought to be Chardonnay turned out to actually be Auxerrois.

This “Chardonnay Scandal” in South African wine history began in the 1970s when growers responding to the rush to plant more Chardonnay tried to get around quarantines and bureaucratic paperwork by turning to smugglers for their vine materials. In addition to getting Auxerrois vines instead of Chardonnay, the smugglers also inadvertently brought in Chenel (a crossing of Chenin blanc and Ugni blanc).

In the United States, beyond the Willamette Valley, there are small plantings of Auxerrois in the Lake Erie region of Ohio and the Leelanau Peninsula AVA of Michigan which Appellation America proclaims is the “best home” for the grape. Here the Bel Lago Vineyards & Winery stakes claim to producing the first American Auxerrois in 1998 with Adelsheim’s first bottling coming in 2004.

Auxerrois photo from Bauer Karl released on Wikimedia Commons under   CC-BY-3.0-AT; Chardonnay photo  from Viala und Vermorel 1901-1910 (Ampélographie. Traité général de viticulture) released under the Public Domain; Pinot blanc photo By Bauer Karl - Own work, CC BY 3.0

Auxerrois grapes comparison to Chardonnay and Pinot blanc


The Wine

The 2011 Adelsheim Auxerrois has medium plus intensity on the nose which is very surprising for a 6 year old white wine. The aromas are a mix of spiced tree fruit (mostly pear) with some floral herbal elements like bay laurel and tarragon.

By Zeynel Cebeci - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

This wine has the floral fragrance of a fresh herb like bay laurel.


The palate has lively medium plus acidity which is, again, surprising for its age and with Auxerrois typically being considered a “low acid” variety.

This fresh acidity brings out citrus notes but for the most part the spiced pear and herbal notes carry through. The medium body has the texture of an unoaked Pinot blanc and Chardonnay which would give me some trouble in a blind tasting. Ultimately it is the floral herbal notes that distinguishes this as a different grape variety. The wine’s age finally catches up to it with the finish that is very short and quickly fades.

Still this is an impressive wine that has held up much better than how many domestic white wines (outside of Riesling) usually do. For the most part I try to open up my domestic whites within 3 years of vintage date and start getting really nervous when they get close to 5 years. But this Adelsheim Auxerrois still has a good story to tell and I would be quite interested in trying a newer release.

At around $20-25, it does command a premium for an obscure white variety but I think that premium is worth it for a very character driven wine that clearly has aging potential.

Brave New Burgs (Part 1)

One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them. — Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Pop quiz, wine geeks.

1.) What is the white grape of Burgundy?

If you know enough to be dangerous with a restaurant wine list or in a wine shop, then you probably didn’t hesitate to answer “Chardonnay”.

And for the most part, you’d be right.

But also a little wrong.

Some of the best “intro to wine” texts around like Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible, Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Wine Course and Madeline Puckette’s Wine Folly will teach you that it is easy to start getting a grasp of Burgundy.

Just remember that there is only two grapes–Pinot noir and Chardonnay.

It’s a reflex condition to think with Burgundy that if its red, it’s Pinot noir. If it’s white, then Chardonnay. Sure, everything else about Burgundy with it’s 100 appellations and intricate classification system of 23 regional AOCs, 44 villages, 33 Grand Crus, 585 Premier Crus and countless named lieu dits is enough to make your head spin—but it’s easy to nail the grape varieties. Right?

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” — Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

A Sauvignon blanc produced less than 20 km from the heart of Chablis’ Grand Cru

I started working on the Wine Scholar Guild‘s Bourgogne Master Level Program lead by Don Kinnan with the desire to get more comfortable with Burgundy. But it wasn’t long before I found myself diving head-first into a rabbit hole that would shake me out of my comfort zone but introduce me to a world far more exciting than the one I began studying.

As Allen Meadows, the Burghound, is fond of saying–Burgundy is “the land of exceptions”.

It wasn’t long before the first exceptions started blowing in like the north wind across the Yonne. Here, in the land of Chablis, we have the Auxerrois where grapes like Sauvignon blanc run wild in Saint-Bris and Melon de Bourgogne (the grape of Muscadet) in Vézelay.

However, the exceptions aren’t limited to obscure villages in the northern backwoods of Burgundy. Instead, in the heart of the Côte-d’Or we have the curious case of Pinot Gouges.

In the 1930s, Henri Gouges was inspecting his vineyards in the Nuits-St-Georges premier cru monopole of Clos des Porrets. He noticed that one of his red Pinot noir vines was producing white grape clusters. Intrigued, Gourge took cuttings from the vine and planted them in the NSG premier cru vineyard of La Perrières. His grandchildren still cultivate this “Pinot blanc” though instead of labeling it as that grape, the Gouges family describe Pinot Gouges as “Pinot noir that lost their color“. Regardless of what the vines are called–the fact still remains that in the middle of Chardonnay land, we have an exciting and distinctively non-Chardonnay white Burgundy being produced from a premier cru vineyard.

My notes on the Pinot Gouges “The color looks like a regular white Burg with some oak influence. On the nose, tree fruits of apples and pears but there is a lot of spice here–not oak spice but rather exotic spices.
On the palate there is a lot of weight and texture–things that would make me think of oak except for the complete absence of oak flavors. There is no vanilla, cinnamon, clove, allspice, etc.”


Now while it is technically illegal to plant Pinot blanc in most of the Côte d’Or (though, again, there are exceptions), several producers still tend to legacy vines. Inspired by bottles of Pinot blanc from the 1960s that aged remarkably well, Domaine Méo-Camuzet sourced Pinot blanc vines from Alsace to plant in their Clos St Philibert vineyard in Flagey-Echézeaux. The wine produced from these vines is blended with Chardonnay and classified under Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Nuits AOC (as opposed to a village level Vosne-Romanée).

Then there is the case of Pinot Beurot (Pinot gris), the sneaky pink-skinned mutation of Pinot noir that can sometimes find itself interspersed among Pinot noir vines. Not content to just be an interloper, the grape plays a starring role in wines like Domaine Comte Senard Aloxe-Corton blanc that is 100% Pinot Beurot as well Domaine Lucien Boillot et Fils Les Grands Poisots sourced from a parcel of Pinot Beurot first planted in the Volnay vineyard in 1958. Not legally permitted to be called a Volnay, the wine is labeled under the basic regional Bourgogne appellation. Likewise, in the famed white wine vineyards of Puligny-Montrachet, Domaine Guillemard-Clerc has a little less than an acre of Pinot Beurot which goes into it regional Bourgogne blanc. In the Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Beaune AOC, Domaine Guillemard-Pothier à Meloisey also produces a Pinot Beurot.

My notes on the Cave de Genouilly Aligote “As if a Sauvignon blanc and an unoaked Chardonnay had a baby. Great mouthfeel with weight. Smooth but fresh.”


And this is not even getting into the more widely known exception of Aligoté which has its own AOC and has earned the affection of a literal “Who’s Who” of legendary Burgundy producers like Aubert de Villaine, Lalou Bize-Leroy, Marquis d’Angerville and Michel Lafarge. Domaine Ponsot takes the love affair a step further to make premier cru level Aligoté in the Morey-St-Denis monopole of Clos des Monts Luisants.

The faith in these producers to devote precious terroir to this obscure grape is a testament that there is something interesting about Aligoté that makes it stand out in the Chardonnay-saturated world of Burgundy. It’s high acidity enchants with racy and mouthwatering appeal that is balanced by a weighty mid-palate that gives a sense of lemon custard richness which can charm even the most traditional white Burgundy lover.

There is no doubt that Burgundy is home to some of the greatest expressions of Chardonnay. However, for the wine geeks conditioned to merely think White Burgundy=Chardonnay, there is brave new world of exciting white Burgs waiting to be discovered.

Feeling low on Merlot

Let’s talk about Merlot. And let’s talk about it with only mentioning the movie Sideways once. There. We’ve got that perfunctory obligation out of the way.

Yes, Merlot has been down for a while though Forbes contributor Thomas Pellechia will tell you that it has had a little bump in popularity lately. However, it is still a far cry from the powerhouse it once was.

As a Washington wine lover, Merlot’s downfall has been disheartening. The grape holds a special place in this state because it help put Washington on the national wine map (far from the Potomac) when wineries such as Leonetti, Andrew Will and L’Ecole earned numerous accolades in the late 1980s and early 1990s for their Merlots.

Mama Bear was very annoyed when Goldi finished off the Otis Kenyon Merlot without saving her a glass.

Mama Bear was very annoyed when Goldi finished off the Otis Kenyon Merlot without saving her a glass.


Washington Merlots are also very distinctive–richly textured with medium plus to high tannins and moderate acidity that sew together dark fruit flavors with floral and spice notes that can not help but capture the attention of both “big red drinkers” and those who adore elegance and subtle complexity in their reds. If Goldilocks was a Napa Cab fan and Bordeaux lover, she would find Washington Merlots to be “Just right”. There are many reasons why wine writer Lettie Teague calls Washington State a missionary for Merlot.

This distinctiveness and incredibly high quality of Washington Merlots help catapult it to the top of the state’s production, leading the way from the mid-1990s till 2006. But then it dropped.

And dropped.

It wasn’t just Washington State that fell out of love with Merlot. It was nationwide with winemakers sensing the changing tide a couple years before you-know-what premiered in 2004. The movement was already afoot with Merlot vines being uprooted in favor of new Rhone varietals like Syrah and Grenache as well as some of its old Bordeaux buddies like Malbec and Cabernet Franc.

Why? It’s easy to blame a movie but I think that overlooks something important.

Merlot is boring.

You weren’t expecting that after the first few paragraphs were you?

By Chilli Tuna - Cropped from El bosque, CC BY 2.0

Plot twist!


Now don’t get me wrong. Merlot wines can be absolutely delicious but be honest with me for a moment. When was the last time you were at a restaurant and your heart soared with intrigue when someone at the table asks for “a bottle of Merlot”? Not a particular producer or a region like Pomerol, just a Merlot. Now think about that same situation if someone asked for a Syrah, a rosé, a Grüner Veltliner, a sparkling wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot noir. I’m willing to bet there would be a bit more arching of the brow and sense of anticipation in wondering what was in store as one of those bottles was brought to the table.

It’s just not the same with Merlot. And to be fair, I think a lot of people have the same reaction with Chardonnay as the ABC Movement (Anything But Chardonnay) is still alive and kicking with nary a film to blame for its strength. Part of it is the ubiquitous nature of both grapes. You see them everywhere. But, as a millennial, I often hear another refrain among my cohorts.

Our parents (and grandparents) drink Merlot.

They drink Cab too and maybe this trickle down apathy will eventually topple that red wine king, but for millennials it’s hard to get excited about something that you strongly associate with older generations. In the tech world, there is similar discussions about why younger users are leaving Facebook for other social media platforms. More and more, Facebook is being associated with mom and dad, aunts and uncles and that weird dude you shared one study group with back in high school. Facebook is becoming boring and that is the realm that Merlot has been in for some time.

What do millennials find exciting?

That’s the million dollar question for wineries and marketers the world over. Many virtual trees have been slaughtered as article, after article, after article, ad infinitum is written about millennials’ influence on the wine industry and how wineries are (or aren’t) adapting. We can nitpick about correlation and causation but its hard not to notice that the growth in the millennial wine market has coincided with the decline in Merlot. It’s also hard not to notice that this has also overlapped with the rise of red blends.

The irony, in a semi-Alanis sort of way, is that many of the most popular red blends in the market today feature Merlot very heavily.

By Marcello Casal Jr./ABr; cropped, and resized by Hajor. - Agência Brasil [1], CC BY 3.0 br,

It’s like Cheval Blaaaaaaaaaaanc
in a fast food cup


Apothic Red – Merlot with Zinfandel, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon
Menage a Trois – 35% Merlot with Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon
Cupcake Red Velvet – Merlot with Zinfandel and Petite Sirah
14 Hands Hot to Trot Red Blend – Merlot and Syrah
Radius Red Blend – 57% Merlot with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc and Tempranillo.

On the higher end we have restaurant wine list staples like Duckhorn Decoy Red Blend (52% Merlot), DeLille D2 (57% Merlot) and Chappellet Mountain Cuvee (43% Merlot) leaving Merlot’s mark on consumers’ palates.

This doesn’t even count the huge influence of Merlot in Bordeaux where it is the most widely planted grape in the region. Even in the “Cab-dominated” Left Bank, many top estates of the Medoc feature Merlot quite heavily in their blends. Check out some of the recent blends of Chateau Palmer, such as the 2013 which was 49% Merlot and the incredible 2009 that was majority Merlot!

This all makes perfect sense because Merlot is delicious. The grape’s rich plum and cherry flavors, subtle chocolaty notes, lush tannins, moderate acidity and ability to marry well with the flavors of new oak barrels hit many of the cues that make wine consumers sing with pleasure. People love Merlot. People drink Merlot. It’s just in the form of red blends.

But SSSSHHHHH ….. don’t tell anyone. Especially not Mom and Dad.

Making a Bet on Washington Chenin blanc

Earlier this week the big news in the Washington wine industry was the announcement of a collaboration project between the highly acclaimed Betz Family Winery and the Stellenbosch estate of DeMorgenzon Winery called Quinta Essentia. Sourced from four vineyards of old, head-trained bush vines, this South African Chenin will be produced in a dry style and retail for $40 a bottle.

Like many Washington wine lovers, I was intrigued. This was certainly an interesting spin for the fabled Washington winery which has long been known for its outstanding reds. It also made sense giving the South African heritage of the winery’s new owners, Steve & Bridgit Griessel. However, it also left me a little dishearten in that it looks like Washington Chenin blanc is being left in the dark once more.

There is just not enough sunbreaks (and good Chenin blanc like this example from Convergence Zone Cellars in North Bend) in the Pacifc Northwest.

There is just not enough sunbreaks (and good Chenin blanc like this example from Convergence Zone Cellars in North Bend) in the Pacifc Northwest.

Back in 2011, Sean Sullivan of the Washington Wine Report (and now Washington editor of Wine Enthusiast magazine) wrote a terrific article about why Chenin blanc deserves saving . At the end of the article he makes a recommendation for several Washington Chenin blancs, all of them on the off-dry or sweet side, with the driest being Marty Clubb’s L’Ecole 41 Chenin blanc sourced from 30+ year old vines planted in 1979. At around 4000 cases a year, L’Ecole remains practically the lone champion of the grape in Washington State with a bottling that is likely to be available at retail and restaurants. There are other producers with a passion for Chenin in the state, like Scott Greenberg of Convergence Zone Cellers, but these are usually made in very small quantities that are sold through the wineries tasting rooms and wine clubs. Even still, very few of these Chenin blancs are truly dry.

This is disappointing because in other markets (particularly the East Coast), wine consumers are getting hip to what sommeliers and wine geeks have been crowing about for some time–that Chenin blanc makes some mouth-watering and outrageously delicious dry wines with layers of complexity that can match a vast array of cuisine. In a foodie culture like the Pacific Northwest which embraces the flavors, charms and fusion of Asian, Latin and African dishes with ease, you would think that a grape that embraces the balance of acidity, texture, aromatics and fruit so seamlessly as Chenin blanc would be right on the table.

But its not and I think a big reason for this is that no one, outside of L’Ecole 41, has really made a big bet on Washington Chenin blanc and no one has taken the chance to produce and market some of the electricfyingly dry styles that are capturing people’s attention across the globe. This is why it was so disappointing to see that Betz’s new project was going to focus solely on South African Chenin blanc. It’s clear that the Griessels and Master of Wine Bob Betz know good Chenin. So when they took the bold step of introducing the first white wine to their portfolio, and chose to look beyond Betz Family Winery’s home state, it felt like a damning write-off of the potential of Washington Chenin blanc.

“Quinta Essentia emphatically confirms why Chenin Blanc is one of the world’s great white grape varieties… This is not the overcropped, insipid quaffer that Chenin has most often become in the U.S. This is old vine Chenin Blanc, conscientiously grown in a unique site, crafted by a skilled artisan.” — Betz news release

Betz is both right and wrong here. Yes, for a long time US Chenin blanc has sucked. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Just think of how exciting it would have been if Betz announced their collaboration with DeMorgenzon and took a page out of Allen Shoup’s book with Long Shadows or Chateau Ste. Michelle with Eroica and Col Solare. What if, instead of just doing a single South African bottling, they set out to change wine lover’s impression of American (and by extension, Washington State) Chenin blanc as being an “overcropped, insipid quaffer”. Working hand in hand with their South African partner, Betz could have done something truly unique in creating two companion bottles, one from Washington State and one from Stellenbosch, made with the same skill and care, that demonstrates the terroir and incredible potential of Chenin blanc. A project that would have combined the credibility and renown of Betz with the passion and respect for Chenin blanc of South Africans would have been just the jolt that this little underdog grape needs here in the Pacific Northwest.

If only Betz was willing to take a bet on Washington Chenin blanc.