Tag Archives: Washington wine

The Sleeping Giant of Italian Wine

A couple of days ago, Harper’s UK posted an article about the dominance of Old World wine in the Chinese on-trade sector (restaurants, bars, etc.). While New World regions like Australia are making an active play, France still rules the roost with a 36.7% market share.

Mauro Sebaste Roero Arneis

But the French have been focusing on China for a few decades now–starting not long after France and China formally established diplomatic relations in 1974. Interest was strongly led by Bordeaux estates, which still make up a sizable chunk of the French-Chinese market today.

However, the most eye-raising stat from Harper’s report was the very solid share of Italian wines at 17.9%. Though, as the article noted, Italian wines still only account for 6.3% of total Chinese imports–which includes grocery and retail sales.

But considering that you don’t hear much about marketing Italian wines in China, there is plenty of room for optimism if I’m an Italian wine producer.

And it’s not just China that is seeing growth in Italian wine sales.

Italian wine sales in the US have been steadily growing as well–and, no, it’s not your grandma’s straw basket Chianti or cheap Pinot grigio that’s fueling that growth.

Luigi Pira's Dolcetto d'Alba

Luigi Pira’s Dolcetto d’Alba is a screaming good deal in the $12-16 range retail and is rarely seen above $35-40 at restaurants.

Instead, backed by a huge marketing push, Americans are discovering the vast diversity of Italian wines. With its bounty of unique and exciting grape varieties, as well as thousands of small producers, Italian wines are particularly enticing to Millennials who desperately seek something different from the same ole, same ole.

Even better, because Italian wines are still lingering in the straw basket shadow of fiascos past, many of these wines are crazily underpriced. Especially in the $10-20 range, you can often find bottles that way overdeliver on the price. Simply put, Italian wines are nailing the Millennial Math.

In the race to capture the hearts of the elusive Millennial market, Italian wine producers have a great head start. Wineries across the globe are well advised to pay attention to a sleeping giant that is poised to take more of their market share.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Go check out your local wine shop and meander over to the Italian section.  Look for examples of these grapes below and see for yourself what the hype is all about.

Seven exciting Italian wine grapes to try.

Below are varieties that most good wine shops should carry at least one, if not multiple, examples of. All of the pictured and referenced wines are ones that I’ve personally found in the United States, though a few of them I did first try on producer visits to Italy. But, while they were all excellent, you don’t need to look for these particular producers. It’s more about just trying the grape.

BTW, if you want to geek out more about Italian grapes, I very highly recommend getting Ian d’Agata’s Native Wine Grapes of Italy as well as Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch’s Vino Italiano: The Regional Wines of Italy. That last recommendation currently has many used paperback options available on Amazon for less than $10 bucks. Great buy for wine students.

Aleatico

Fubbiano Aleatico

This Aleatico with dark chocolate covered raspberries was a heavenly pairing.

One of the oldest grapes in Italy, Aleatico can be found as far north as Elba and Tuscany and as far south as Sicily and Puglia. DNA evidence has shown that it has some parent-offspring relationship with Moscato bianco, but it is not yet known which grape is the parent and which is the child. Still, a good comparison of Aleatico is to think of a black Muscat with more racy acidity and spicy aromas of cinnamon.

Made in the passito style (with dried grape), this Fattoria di Fubbiano Aleatico reminded me of a richer and spicer ruby port. This wine was beautifully balanced with sweetness and deep dark fruit but still lively and fresh tasting. For around $25-30 for a 500ml bottle, it’s an excellent choice for that bedeviling pairing of red wine and chocolate.

A great choice for: Wine drinkers who want balance and complexity in their sweet dessert wines.

One of the biggest things that separate wine geeks from wine snobs is that geeks can appreciate good sweet wines. After dinner, many sweet wines are perfect as dessert themselves or as pairing partners. If you have a snob friend who always turns their nose up at sweet wine or who thinks Port is too alcoholic, challenge them with a great bottle of Aleatico.

Arneis

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

The same fog conditions that are so valuable for maintaining freshness in Nebbiolo can help Arneis retain its acidity in the right locations.

In the 1980s, Arneis was one of Italy’s most popular white wines, but this Piemontese grape eventually took a back seat to the global thirst for Italian Pinot grigio (and later Moscato). Still, quality minded producers like Mauro Sebaste never lost faith in this fresh and aromatically floral grape.

In the Piemontese dialect, the name “Arneis” is derived from the word for “rascally individuals,” and the grape can be a bit of a rascal in the vineyard. Producers have to pay attention to the vine throughout the growing season and make sure that it is planted in the right locations to thrive. The sandy, chalky soils of the Roero on the left bank of the Tanaro has shown itself to be particularly well-suited for Arneis.

Before DOC/G laws were tightened, the low acid Arneis was often blended into the higher acid Barbera and even Nebbiolo of Barolo to help soften those wines and add aromatic lift. It was a practice not that dissimilar to the co-fermenting of Viognier with Syrah in Cote Rotie. The best examples of varietal Arneis attest to the wisdom of that old practice with gorgeous white floral notes, subtle herbalness and creamy mouthfeel.

A great choice for: Fans of white Rhones like Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne.

But also red Rhone drinkers for that matter too. The combination of lovely floral notes with a mouth-filling body makes this another great white wine option for red wine drinkers.

Barbera

Mauro Veglio Barbera d'Alba

Pro tip: Producers who make really good Barolo and Barbaresco (like Mauro Veglio) will usually make a very kickass Barbera.
If you’re at a restaurant and don’t want to pay a fortune, compare the Barbera and Barolo/Barbaresco sections for producers.
I can guarantee that the Barbera will be a great buy.

One of the biggest surprises for me in visiting Piedmont was how much Barbera dominates the wine lists of local Piemontese restaurants. While Barolo and Barbaresco are the region’s pride and joy, Barbera is what they drink most regularly. And it makes sense because the grape produces immensely delicious wines that are very approachable young.

It’s also no shocker that Barbera is one of top 5 most planted grapes in Italy.  What is a little more surprising is that it is one of the 15 most widely planted red grapes in the world.

Unoaked examples are going to show lively acidity and be redolent of red fruits. Meanwhile, some oak will introduce more vibrant chocolate notes. In general, the wines from Barbara d’Alba tend to be more full-bodied with more prominent tannins.  While I find those from Barbara d’Asti to be more floral and velvety.

A great choice for: Folks getting knee deep and geeky into the Cru Beaujolais trend.

There are rocking bottles coming out of Beaujolais, but people are catching on and the prices are starting to rise. I actually find Barbera to be a little more consistent than Gamay. Plus, with it still being under the radar, amazing bottles can be easily found for less than $20.

Dolcetto

Photo taken by self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as user:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The “red stemmed” version of the Dolcetto has even made its way to the US. This cluster pic was taken at a vineyard in the Puget Sound AVA of Washington in mid-October just before harvest.

The “little sweet one” that is never sweet and rarely a little, light bodied wine. The name likely came from Dolcetto’s favoring as a table grape. I haven’t had the privilege of trying Dolcetto grapes off the vine. But I’ve heard from producers that they are quite a treat. Apparently, you can taste the bright red berry and plum flavors of Dolcetto as well as a subtle saline note that the best Piemontese examples exhibit.

While we don’t talk about clones as much for Dolcetto as we do for Sangiovese or Pinot noir, Dolcetto has quite a bit of clonal variation. In the vineyard, these can be readily apparent by looking at the cluster stalk. Most have a greenish stem, but one particular clone (or biotype as Ian d’Agata prefers) known as Dolcetto dal Peduncolo Rosso has a fiery red colored stem. It is a specialty of the Tassarolo area near Alessandria. However, it can be found in many vineyards in the Dolcetto d’Alba zone as well.

The Dolcetto d’Alba area tends to produce the biggest, most full-bodied Dolcettos with a mix of red and dark fruit. While not as tannic as the Nebbiolo of great Barolo and Barbaresco, these wines will have some heft. In the Dolcetto di Dogliani area, the wines tend to exhibit more floral notes. This is also the area where I pick up that saline minerality the most.

A great choice for: Wine drinkers wanting something between a Pinot noir and a Merlot.

While, undoubtedly, more tannic and bigger bodied, I get a lot of Pinot quality in some Dolcetto. Particularly with the floral and minerally nature of Dolcetto di Dogliani. However, those from the Dolcetto d’Alba area can have more opulent dark fruit. With oak influence, even some chocolate notes can come out. You wouldn’t ever confuse a Dolcetto for a plush, hedonistic Napa Merlot. However, the lively acidity and freshness can hit a lot of pleasure spots for Washington Merlot fans.

Falanghina

Donnachaira Falanghina

A great white wine option in the $14-16 range for pairing with medium to heavy body food dishes.

This is another ancient Italian wine grape with likely Roman origins. However, the association of Falanghina with the famous Roman wine Falernian is probably misplaced.

Part of this is because there are so many different types of Falanghinas out there. Ampelographers are not yet sure how many are different clones/biotypes or if they’re distinct grape varieties. For the most part, what you’ll see in the US is Falanghina from the Benevento IGP in Campania.

In the rich clay and volcanic tufa soils of Campania, Falanghina produces heady, full-bodied wines with tree fruits and floral notes. Some examples can also have a subtle leafy greenness. It’s not quite New Zealand Sauvignon blanc green but more reminiscent of an excellent white Bordeaux.

A great choice for: White Bordeaux fans!

But as with the Arneis above, I can also see Falanghina capturing the attention of white Rhone drinkers as well. It definitely has the body and structure to appeal to many wine lovers. Likewise, drinkers of unoaked or lightly oaked (but not buttery) Chards can find this wine to be a charming change of pace as well. It will pair with many of the same food dishes.

Friulano

Schioppettino Friulano

I had to hunt for online retailers that offered this Schioppettino Friulano but, even paying a premium, this was still an absolute steal of a wine for under $25.

When I had my big cellar-clean out parties before moving to France, this Schioppettino Friulano rocked my world. I was pretty much dragging this bottle to everyone at the tasting and telling them that they had to try this wine. If you ever wanted a textbook example of minerality, this was it.

Formerly known as Tocai Friulano, legend has it that Italians shared this grapevine with the 13th century Hungarian King Bela IV where it was once used for that country’s famous Tokay wines. Ampelographers and wine historians now believe that there is little truth to those tales. But the racy acidity, green apples, nutty almonds notes and flinty minerality of Friulano is not that far off from a dry Hungarian Furmint.

A great choice for: Fans of exciting, minerally whites.

Dry Riesling, Chablis, Sancerre. You’re probably not going to confuse Friulano with any of those. However, there is a kinship in the electric way that all these wines dance on your tongue. There’s a nerviness about them that is just absolutely intoxicating once you find a great example.

Another tell-tale distinction between wine geeks and wine snobs is the cyclic journey that geeks take in appreciation of great whites. Both snobs and geeks often start out drinking white wines. Maybe sweet Rieslings before moving on to the Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Pinot grigios of the world. Then comes the dabbling in red wines. Here most snobs get stuck with the occasional allowance for the “appetizer” white wines of Great Burgundies and what not. All before you get down to the seriousness of red wines, of course.

But wine geeks eventually circle back to the wonderful world of whites. They can appreciate the seriousness and winemaking skill that making great white wines entails. Without a doubt, Friulano is a wine geek’s wine.

Dry Lambrusco

Dry Lambrusco

While it’s great with my wife’s homemade Margherita pizza, dry Lambrusco would elevate even Totino’s Party Pizza.

Yes, dry Lambrusco. We’re not talking about the Riunite or Cella Lambruscos that your Aunt has hidden under the cupboard. If you want the surest sign that you’re shopping in a good wine shop, it will most definitely be the presence of dry or Secco Lambrusco. Often with a slight effervescence, this is one of the most perfect pizza wines that you can find.

June’s #ItalianFWT Twitter chat–which I recently profiled– focused on Lambrusco with a lot of great write-ups and reviews of different wines (almost all of which can be found in the US). I highly recommend checking out the #ItalianFWT hashtag which featured links to many great blog posts. A few of my favs were:

The Wine Predator’s Bugno Martino’s Organic Lambrusco Defy Expectations.

The Asian Test Kitchen’s TOP 5 FAST FOODS PAIRINGS WITH LAMBRUSCO.

Linda Whipple’s SIPPING LAMBRUSCO IN STRAWBERRY SEASON

A great choice for: Pizza lovers.

While the blogs listed above gave other great pairing ideas, my heart still goes to pairing dry Lambrusco with pizza. The tang and sweetness of the tomato sauce pairs gorgeously with the bite and rambunctious berry fruitiness of Lambrusco. Plus the saltiness of the cheese and toppings is the perfect foil for the tannins and subtle earthiness.

This really is one of those magical pairings that everyone should try. You can see how vividly the wine and food change when you have them separate compared to having them together.

Want more? Check out these 60 Second Reviews of a few more Italian wine favorites

60 Second Wine Review — Lanzavecchia Essentia . A crazy delicious Nebbiolo, Barbera and Merlot blend that I’m still smarting over not buying more bottles of.

60 Second Wine Review — 2008 Ferrari Perlé. A $30-35 traditional method sparkler that blows most mass-produced negociant Champagnes in the $40-50 range out of the water.

60 Second Wine Review — Armani Colle Ara Pinot Grigio. Think all Italian Pinot grigios are cheap and watery? Think again.

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Getting Geeky with Lang & Reed Chenin blanc

This post was inspired by Outwines’ Noelle Harman’s great post on the Loire and South African Chenins made by the husband-wife team of Vincent & Tania Carême. That post and her reviews are well worth a look along with her super geeky and super useful study outline on the Chenin blanc grape (part of a continuing series she does).

With this still being California Wine Month, I’m going to add my advocacy for the overlooked and underappreciated Chenin by highlighting Lang & Reed’s 2015 example from Napa Valley.

The Background

Lang & Reed was founded in 1995 by Tracey & John Skupny. After previous stints at Caymus, Clos Du Val and Niebaum-Coppola, John and his wife Tracey (previously of Spottswoode) wanted to work with their favorite grape varieties from the Loire Valley–Cabernet Franc and Chenin blanc.

Named after their children, Reed & Jerzy Lang, Lang & Reed Wine Company work with fruit primarily from the Anderson Valley of Mendocino and Napa Valley.

The 2015 Chenin blanc is sourced 100% from the cooler Oak Knoll District of the Napa Valley from a vineyard near the Napa River. The grapes were whole cluster pressed with the wine fermented in a combination of stainless steel tanks and French oak barrels. The Chenin was then transferred completely to barrel where it was aged 4 months with weekly batonnage stirring of the lees. Around 185 cases were produced.

The Grape

Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that the first mention of Chenin blanc, under the synonym Plant d’Anjou, dates back to 1496 in the Loire Valley. Here the wine was grown at Chateau Chenonceau owned by Thomas Bohier. It is believed that Bohier then propogated the variety which eventually took on the name Chenin from Chenonceau.

Photo by Simon Bonaventure. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Chenin blanc grapes with botrytis growing in Saint Cyr en Bourg in the Anjou-Saumur region of the Loire Valley.

The name “Chenin” itself first appears in François Rabelais’ 1534 work Gargantua. A native of Touraine, Rabelais describes both a Chenin wine and a Vin Pineau with Gros Pineau being a common synonym of Chenin blanc in Touraine for many centuries.

It is possible that the name Chenin came from the monastery of Montchenin in Touraine. Another theory is that the name is derived from the French word chien, meaning dog, and could refer to the affinity of dogs to eat the the grapes off the vine.

Recent DNA analysis has shown a parent-offspring relationship between Savagnin and Chenin blanc with Savagnin being the likely parent. This would make Chenin blanc a half or full sibling of Sauvignon blanc, Petit Manseng, Gros Manseng, Grüner Veltliner, Verdelho, Siegerrebe and the Trousseau varieties.

Through its relationship with Sauvignon blanc, Chenin is then an aunt/uncle of Cabernet Sauvignon.

At some point, Chenin blanc naturally crossed with Gouais blanc (mother vine of Chardonnay) to produce several varieties like Colombard, Meslier-Saint-François and Balzac.

In South Africa, the grape was crossed with Trebbiano Toscano/Ugni blanc to produce Chenel.

Chenin Blanc Today

Photo by 	JPS68. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Chenin blanc is also grown in the French colony of Réunion off the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Here is a harvest of Chenin blanc grapes in the town of Cilaos.

From a high point of 16,594 ha (41,005 acres) of vines in 1958, plantings of Chenin blanc in France have sharply declined over the years to just 9,828 ha (24,286 acres) in 2008–representing around 1.2% of France’s vineyards.

It is mostly found in the Anjou-Touraine region of the Loire Valley where it is used in the sparkling wines of Cremant de Loire and Vouvray. Also in Vouvray it can be used to produce dry to demi-sec still wines while in the AOC of Bonnezeaux, Montlouis and Quarts de Chaume it is used exclusively for late harvest sweet examples that may have some botrytis influence. In Savennières it is used exclusively for minerally dry wines with notable ageability.

Outside of the Loire it can also be found in the Languedoc where it can make up to 40% of the blend for Cremant de Limoux with Mauzac blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot noir.

Chenin blanc has been historically known as “Steen” in South Africa where it has accounted for as much as a third of all white wine produced in the country. By 2008 there were 18,852 ha (46,584 acres) of the vine representing 18.6% of all South African plantings. It is grown throughout South Africa but is more widely found in Paarl, Malmesbury and Olifants River. In recent years the variety has seen a renaissance of high quality production by producers in the Swartland and Stellenbosch.

From an area so blessed to produce Cabernet Sauvignon, the Chappellet Molly’s Cuvee Chenin blanc from Pritchard Hill is jaw-droppingly good.


In California there is 4,790 acres of Chenin blanc planted throughout the state as of 2017–nearly 2/3 of the acreage that was in production in 2010 (7,223 acres). Notable plantings can be found in the Clarksburg AVA in Sacramento, Solano and Yolo counties, Chappellet Vineyard on Pritchard Hill in Napa, Santa Maria Valley, Lodi, Paso Robles, Alexander Valley and Mendocino County.

Like California, Washington State has also seen a notable drop in plantings of Chenin blanc in recent years going from 600 acres in 1993 to just 67 acres by 2017.

The Wine

High intensity nose–yellow peach and white flowers. There is also some honeycomb and fresh straw notes that come out more as the wine warms in the glass.

On the palate the peach notes come through and adds a spiced pear element. There is noticeable texture and weight on the mouthfeel but I would still place the body as just medium. Medium-plus acidity adds a mouthwatering element and a little saline minerality as well. Long finish still carries the fruit but brings back some of the straw notes from the nose.

The Verdict

The 2015 Lang & Reed Chenin blanc from Napa Valley is, hands down, one of the most delicious domestic Chenin blancs that I’ve had the opportunity to try–second only to Chappellet’s example. While not quite Savennières level, at $25-30 it still delivers plenty of complexity that outshines many California Chardonnays and other white wines in that price range.

At nearly 3 years, it is still quite youthful and I can see this wine continuing to give pleasure for at least another 3-4 years.

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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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Wine Geek Notes 3/13/18 — Domaine Jacques Prieur, Les Forts Latour and Geeky Napa Grapes

Photo by Craig Drollett. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Here is what I’m reading today in the world of wine.

Interesting Tweets and Weblinks

Edouard Labruyère’s transformation of Domaine Jacques Prieur by Peter Dean (@TweetaDean) for The Buyer.

Domaine Jacques Prieur is one my favorite Burgundian estates and I was enjoying its sleepy-under-the-radar-status. With as crazy as prices in Burgundy can get, I was selfishly hoping that other wine insiders wouldn’t notice how sneaky good this estate has gotten over the last couple vintages under the winemaking direction of Nadine Gublin. But it looks like the cat is out of the bag.

Still I learn a lot of cool stuff in this article about DJP and its owner Edouard Labruyère–namely the expansion into Santenay (hopefully with affordable bottlings), the family owning Château Rouget in Pomerol, planting Syrah and Pinot noir in Beaujolais and the launch of Labruyère’s Champagne.

Sourcing from Grand Cru vineyards that use to supply Dom Perignon, this Extra Brut style Champagne is partially fermented in old white DJP barrels and spends 5 years aging on the lees. Looks like something to keep an eye out for.

LATOUR TO INCLUDE FORTS 2012 IN NEXT RELEASE by Rupert Millar (@wineguroo) for The Drinks Business (@teamdb)

Since Ch. Latour left the en primeur system in 2012, its been hard keeping track of their releases. While we still don’t know when the 2012 Grand Vin is going to be released, the estate announced that on March 21st, their second wine Les Forts de Latour will be released along with (re-release?) the 2006 Grand Vin.

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

While considered a “second wine”, in many ways Les Forts is really its own entity being sourced from three dedicated plots with only some years having declassified Grand Vin parcels included. That said, these plots are still tended to by the Latour viticulture and winemaking team and is often an outstanding wine.

Back in 2015, I did a side by side tasting of the 2005 Latour and 2005 Les Forts and you could certainly see how the pedigree shined through with the Les Forts. While the 05 Latour was way too young at that point, the Les Forts was raring to go at 10 years with many tasters thinking it was, at that moment, the better wine.

With the 2005 Latour averaging $1119 on Wine Searcher and the Les Forts averaging $263, it was certainly the best value of the night. It remains to be seen what the pricing of the 2012 will be.

14 OF THE MOST UNUSUAL GRAPE VARIETIES IN NAPA VALLEY by Ilona Thompson at Palate Exposure (@PalateXposure)

Ilona at Palate Exposure is quickly becoming one of my favorite content creators in the wine world. Her website is well worth a peak with fabulous original posts about winemakers and wineries with a Napa Valley focus. Of course I geeked out like crazy with this article!

While Grenache and Tempranillo aren’t very surprising and even Pinot Meunier makes sense with sparkling wine producers like Domaine Chandon in Napa, who knew about Lagier-Meredith’s Mondeuse? Heitz Cellars’ Grignolino or even Spiriterra Vineyards’ Scuppernong?

Napa Valley Scuppernong. For realz, y’all. Ilona just gave me my new unicorn-wine list.

Upcoming Posts for Taste Washington Wine Month!

First quick apologies to subscribers as last night we accidentally, kinda, maybe, sorta hit “submit” on an unfinished version of my book review of Paul Gregutt’s Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide. Our bad! All I can say is that the post will be finished properly and published shortly over the next few days.

Other posts in the pipeline for Taste Washington Wine Month include a Geek Out over Washington Cabernet Franc courtesy of Savage Grace Wines, an exploration of the legend of William (W.B.) Bridgman in Washington wine history and his lasting legacy of Harrison Hill and Upland Vineyards as well as a flashback post to last year’s Taste Washington Grand Tasting!

Plus more 60 Second Wine Reviews featuring exclusively Washington wine for the month of March. In April, we’ll get back to our regular peppering of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa and other fun wine reviews.

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Wine Geek Notes 2/28/18 — Interesting Tweets & Burg Vintages

Photo by William Lawrence. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Here’s what I’ve been reading today in the world of wine.

Odds & Ends from Twitter

Some interesting weblinks from Twitter that are worth the read.

Smelling Terroir: A New Study Suggests People Can Smell the Difference Between Wines Solely Based on Terroir (but can we, really?) from the Academic Wino (@TheAcademicWino)
Very cool read about a 2016 study that showed that both experts and non-experts were able to smell the difference between wines grown in two different terroirs. Becca looks a little more in-depth at the study to question if it’s really the terroir differences they are smelling or something else.

new maps & saturday afternoon in the meursault sunshine from Bill Nanson (@billnanson) at the Burgundy Report with the tweet coming across my dash via @RealWineGuru
I’m a bit of a map geek (as evidence by my geek out over this Clos Vougeout map) so I absolutely squealed at the discovery of these incredibly detailed Beaujolais cru maps. Also some lovely pictures of Meursault that had me daydreaming about sipping on a Les Charmes.

So you want to be a wine judge by Master of Wine Sarah Jane Evans (@SJEvansMW) courtesy of @WSETglobal
As noted in yesterday’s Wine Geek Notes, I’ve been doing a lot of research on Wine Competitions and this article from Sarah Jane Evans added another perspective. One of the questions that I’ve been debating in my head is “Who benefits from Wine Competitions–the winery or the consumer?” which Evans answers rather bluntly “Remember that ultimately you are doing the judging for the winemaker and brandowner.”

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

Plant more Chenin!!!! The author screams into the void.


Wine of the Week: Lang & Reed, 2016 Napa Valley Chenin Blanc from Peg Melnik (@pegmelnik) at The Press Democrat with the tweet coming across my dash via @jncorcoran1
The subheader is what hooked me: “What happened to chenin blanc in California?” I have a soft spot for Chenin and have bemoaned the lack of interest of it in Washington State so I was similarly disheartened to read the staggering stat of how 3000 acres of Chenin blanc in Napa in 1980 has shrank down to just 14 acres today.

Burg’in Around

For my 60 Second Review of the 2013 Domaine Coquard Loison Fleurot Chambolle-Musigny I did some background research on the estate and 2013 vintage that had me stumbling across a few nifty links.

Pearl of Burgundy YouTube Channel
Features well produced short 2-4 minute videos from several Burgundian producers. While the Domaine Coquard Loison Fleurot vid is what initially caught me, I also enjoyed the videos from Domaine Henri Gouges, Domaine Lamarche and Domaine Grivot. By this point I was hitting the subscribe button for the channel.

2013 burgundy – the fairy-tale vintage? from Master of Wine Jancis Robinson (@JancisRobinson)
Always some of my favorite vintage write-ups. Great summary at the bottom of the article about the big issues facing 2013 but I also like how she explores the potential similarities (and differences) between 2013 and 1996 that also segue into comparing 2012 to 1998/1988.

The 2013 Red Burgundies: Fascinating and Challenging (Paywall) by Stephen Tanzer (@StephenTanzer1) on Vinous.
Tanzer takes a slightly more pessimistic outlook on 2013 and goes into more details about the challenges that the Côte de Beaune, in particular, had.

A Vintage Viewpoint…(2013, 2012, 2011…) from Bill Nanson at the Burgundy Report.
A nice little one page summary of the 2013 vintage in comparison to the 2012 and 2011 vintages.

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What’s fine (and not so fine) about Vegan Wines

Photo by www.Pixel.la Free Stock Photos. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

Veganism is described as one of the fastest growing lifestyle movements in the world. Some estimates claim that in the United states alone, there was a 500% increase between 2014 and 2017 in the number of Americans (around 19 million) identifying as vegan.

For the wine industry, that is a sizable demographic that retailers and wineries have value in marketing to.

So what makes a wine “vegan-friendly”?

For the most part, veganism is a code of conduct that avoids using any animal products or by products as well as anything that has been tested on animals. There are various reasons why people adopt veganism but often ethical concerns about the treatment of animals and impact on the environment are cited.

While wine is often assumed to be vegan, the use of animal-based fining agents such as casein (milk protein), albumin (egg whites), isinglass (fish bladders) and gelatin (animal collagen) in winemaking is problematic for many vegans.

Let’s Talk About Fining Agents

As Alison Crowe notes in The Wine Maker’s Answer Book, fining agents are used to help clarify and stabilize wine by binding to molecules such as proteins and excess tannins. These are items that can cause unsightly haze in the bottle, aggressive bitterness on the palate, off odors and flavors. The agent binds to the target molecule to form larger structures that eventually precipitates and settles to the bottom of tank or barrel as sediment.

Bruce W. Zoecklein et. al in Wine Analysis and Production classified the various fining agents into 8 categories based on their nature.

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

Isinglass and bentonite fining trials.

1.) Earths like bentonite and kaolin
2.) Proteins like the animal based ones above
3.) Polysaccharides like gum arabic and Sparkolloid
4.) Carbons like activated carbon
5.) Synthetic polymers like polyvinylpolypyrrolidone (or PVPP)
6.) Silica gels like silicon dioxide or Kieselsol
7.) Tannins often derived from insect galls on oak leaves though oak chip fining can also fall into this category.
8.) Others which includes both enzymatic fining (more fining aids rather than fining agents) and chelators that assist in the removal of metals such as “blue fining” with potassium ferrocyanide (illegal to use in the United States).

The different fining agents work on principles of electrical charge (like positively charged gelatin reacting with negatively charged tannins), bond formation (like the carbonyl group of PVPP bonding with the hydroxyl group of tannins) and by absorption/adsorption (like activated carbon absorbing off odors or bentonite adsorbing proteins).

There are positive and negative attributes to each fining agent with no one fining agent being perfect for every situation.

Animal-based Fining Agents

Egg whites (Albumin)

Used primarily to remove excess tannins. Works by forming hydrogen bonds with the hydroxyl groups of tannins. Compared to other fining agents like gelatin, albumin tends to remove less positive flavor and aroma traits. Egg whites have a long history of use in winemaking in places like Bordeaux and Burgundy. The usual addition is 1 to 3 egg whites per 225L (59 gallon) barrel.

Casein (Milk protein)

Used primarily to remove browning or pink color in white wine. Can also be used to remove some off odors. Works by adsorption and attracting negatively charged particles. Like with egg whites, it has a long history of use in wine production, particularly with the great white wines of Burgundy. It also has the benefit of reducing the concentration of iron and copper in wine. In red wines, it can negatively impact the wine by removing the polyphenol resveratrol that has been associated with various health benefits.

Gelatin (derived from the boiling of animal tissues like bones and tendons)

Used primarily to remove excess tannins. It has a positive charge that reacts to the negative charge of harsh tannins. It can be prone to over-fining that can strip a wine of positive flavors and aromas.

A heat stability trial for rose wines that have been fined with isinglass.

Isinglass (derived from the air bladder of fish like sturgeons)

Used primarily to help clarifying wines, remove excess tannins and to “unmask” or bring out varietal character.

Chitosan (derived from chitin in the exoskeleton of crustaceans)

Used primarily to remove haze causing proteins from white wines. A positively charged agent, it often needs to be paired with a negatively charged fining agent like Kieselsol to be most effective.

Blood Albumen (derived from the blood of ox and cattle)

Historically used but illegal in the United states, France and several other countries.

Vegan-friendly Alternatives

The website Barnivore is a database of wines and other liquors that have been vetted by users to be either “vegan-friendly” or not. In answering queries about their use of animal based fining agents, many wineries share their alternative methods.

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

Letting the wine settle and clarify on its own before racking into another container is one method to avoid using fining agents.

One common method is the use of time and gravity to let the wine settle and clear out on its own. This is the technique used by Baldacci in the Stags Leap District and many other wineries. Depending on several factors like the health of the grapes, method of pressing, pH and temperature, this method could take several months and even then the wine might not be completely stable. Some wineries facilitate this method with the use of mechanical centrifuges and ultra-filtration but these carry the risk of being overly aggressive and potentially stripping the wine of positive flavor and aroma attributes.

Along those lines, many wineries adopt a hands-off method of not fining or filtering their wines at all. This is the method used by many high-end wine producers like Black Cordon and Kapcsandy in Napa Valley. This does carry the risk of haze and sediment developing in the bottle. However, the risk is often presented to consumers as a trade-off for having potentially more complex and flavorful wines.

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

The lees sediment and volume loss from bentonite can be significant (between 5-10%). Using counter-fining agents like isinglass can help with lees compaction but would obviously make the wine not vegan-friendly.

The most used “vegan-friendly” fining agent is bentonite. This is a type of clay that can dramatically swell in size to adsorb protein molecules. This is the method used by wineries like Chinook in Washington State, Ideology in Napa Valley, Spier in South Africa and many others. One big drawback is that it causes significant loss of wine volume due to the heavy sediment it creates. As much as 5-10% of volume could be lost. Roger B. Boulton et al notes in Principles and Practices of Winemaking that these voluminous bentonite lees also create a large amount of solid waste that can have an environmental impact (such as sealing percolation ponds) if not properly disposed. In red wine, there is also a risk of color loss.

Some wineries like Amici use the technique of “yeast fining” for wines like their 2013 Russian River Pinot noir. This involves adding fresh yeast to a wine.  The cell walls of the yeast contain about 30% positively charged proteins. These can then adsorb many polyphenols and compounds which cause off odors. It brings the risk of the yeast breaking down as lees, releasing sulfur compounds and enhancing reductive notes. Also, if not removed by filtration, the yeast in the bottle can start re-fermenting any residual sugars. This would cause spritziness in what is, otherwise, supposed to be a non-sparkling wine.

PVPP and Other Methods

PVPP is a synthetic polymer that can remove bitter tannins and brown discoloration from white wines. Like casein, it can remove the polyphenol resveratrol from red wines. There is also a risk of overfining. This is because the PVPP also binds to desirable tannins and anthocyanins needed for structure and color.

Sparkalloid is a blend of polysaccharides and diatomaceous earth (fossilized algae) that can be used to clarify white wines. It does take significant time to eventually settle. This also creates a fair amount of waste with the DE that requires proper disposal.

Activated Carbon can be used to remove off-odors such as mercaptans (rotten eggs, burnt match). It does have the risk of overly oxidizing wine as well as stripping color and resveratrol from red wines.

New Developments on the Horizon

Ronald S. Jackson notes in Wine Science that fears about the prions potentially in gelatin and “Mad Cow” disease, encouraged studies into the use of plant proteins like wheat gluten as a substitute for gelatin. (Note: most gelatin used in US winemaking is derived from pigs rather than cows) Likewise, a New Jersey company has been experimenting with using pea proteins in conjunction with bentonite and silica as an alternative to gelatin.

Interest in food allergies have also spurned innovations with Scott Labs developing a technique to isolated chitosan from the fungus Aspergillus niger (instead of shellfish and crustaceans) that can be used as a fining agent.

The California based ATP Group has developed a way to extract tannin powder for fining from white wine grapes instead of insect galls to help soften tannins.

In 2016, a Swiss company announced that they were experimenting with the use of UV light to soften tannins in lieu of using animal-based protein fining agents.

The Biodynamic Quandary

Are wines produced from fruit sourced from biodynamic vineyards truly “vegan-friendly”? Several of the “preparations” used in biodynamic viticulture require the use of animal products such as cow horns (BD 500 and 501), stomachs, intestines and bladders.

In an anecdotal account of a visit with the vineyard manager of the biodynamic Pinot noir producer Sea Smoke, Kirsten Georgi (The Armchair Sommelier), describes how the “Biodynamic approach” to removing gophers without the use of poisons or chemicals involves trapping several gophers, killing them, burning their ashes and spreading those ashes over the vineyard during winter solstice as a means to “scare off” the rest of the gophers. This method of “peppering” vineyards with the ashes of pests is not unique to Sea Smoke with recipes on biodynamic websites recommending its use for everything from weeds, snails and insects to mice, rats, rabbits and opossum.

PETA Approved?
Photo by Mark Smith. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Manure composting at a biodynamic vineyard in Tasmania.

Despite these practices, organizations like PETA recommend biodynamic wineries as “vegan friendly”. The UK website Vegan Wines Online notes that while “…natural animal products can however be used in the growing process all the biodynamic wines they sell are somehow suitable for vegans.

Even organic viticulture could be problematic with the use of animal-derived bone and blood meal being used in lieu of chemical fertilizers. There is even debate if manure, as an animal by-product, is acceptable. Like honey and milk, manure doesn’t require killing the animal but still often requires farming to acquire.

What about the presence of insects in healthy and vibrant organic vineyards? Does that makes a wine less “Vegan-friendly”? Eschewing the use of chemicals often means more insects as MOG (material other than grapes). Absent expensive sorting these bugs can get caught up in the harvest. On the Barnivore website, Calcareous Vineyard in Paso Robles expressed this reservation though their wines were still classified as “vegan friendly”.

More Manipulated=More Vegan-friendly?

Are the most “vegan-friendly” vineyards the ones being farmed with heavy saturation of pesticides and chemical fertilizers? It seems like it when you compare it to organic and biodynamic vineyards with high insect MOG and animal-derived fertilizers.

Mass produced wines like the PETA recommended Sutter Home and Moët & Chandon often employ these conventional, chemical dependent styles of viticulture.

While avoiding using animal-based fining agents to remove excess tannins and haze forming proteins, big mega-corps can use other tricks to manipulate the wine with things like lab designed enzymes, oak adjuncts and Mega Purple which will “smooth out” bitter tannins and cover up off-flavors.

Just a single drop of Mega Purple had this white Riesling looking and smelling like a Grenache rose. Crazy stuff.

Sure, Charles Shaw reds (Two Buck Chuck), Sutter Home Cabernet Sauvignon, Meiomi Pinot noir and Yellow Tail reds are made without animal fining agents but should vegans (and really all wine drinkers) be concerned with what other products are being used to make these wines?

And while it can be exciting to see advances in the use of pea proteins and fining agents derived from fungi like Aspergillus niger, its worth asking if these are only adding to the laundry list of the 60+ (and counting) additives that can be used in winemaking–taking it even further away from being just “fermented grapes”?

Now What?

While I’m not vegan myself, I wholeheartedly support anyone that chooses to live their life by convictions. I respect their ethical concerns for the treatment of animals.  I also share their concerns about the environment animal products have. It’s not my wish to stress-out vegans who just want to relax and enjoy a nice bottle of wine.

I do believe it is fair to think about the big picture involved in many seemingly “vegan-friendly” wineries.  Often the viticulture and winemaking practices they use may not align with the ideals of many vegans.

However, it is clear from sites like Barnivore that there are tons of environmentally conscious wineries (many of which are even owned by vegans) that are producing vegan-friendly wines. They may not be the easiest to find at grocery stores or restaurant wine lists that can be dominated by the portfolios of the large mega-corps but these often small family-owned wineries are well worth seeking out and supporting.

And that’s something that I think both vegans and non-vegans can drink to.

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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.

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Beaver State Bubbly

I’m a bit of a bubble fiend. I love drinking sparkling wine. I love talking about it.

Easily at least half of the wine reviews I post here are about bubbles and when I get new sparkling related wine books like Bursting Bubbles, I eagerly devour them.

Living in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve watched with excitement the growth of the Oregon sparkling wine industry that Forbes.com contributor Joseph V. Micallef highlighted in a recent post.

The founding father of Oregon Bubbles is Rollin Soles who started Argyle Winery in Dundee in 1987. His venture had a lot of all-star firepower backing it with Australian winemaking legend Brian Croser (the 2004 Decanter Man of the Year) and Christian Bizot, then owner of the Champagne House Bollinger.

In 2001, Argyle became part of Lion Nathan corporation with their US branch spinning off in 2012 to become Distinguished Vineyards. Now Argyle is part of a portfolio of brands that includes MacRostie, Wither Hills and The Counselor. In 2013, Soles stepped away from the winery to focus on his brand ROCO that he founded with his wife, Corby Stonebraker-Soles.

While I’ve enjoyed Argyle since Soles left, I must confess that I haven’t been as wowed by the winery’s offerings in recent years. Part of it could be the increase in competition as wine shops have been bringing in more sub $25 Crémants from Alsace, Burgundy and the Loire that way over deliver on value. While years ago, Argyle’s basic brut at $20 stood out from the pack, now it is just middle of the road with even sparkling wines from New Mexico like Gruet and Jacqueline Leonne delivering delicious value in the under $15 category. Still, the 1998 Argyle Extended Triage remains one of my all time favorite wines.

But times change and winemakers move on, which is why I was very excited to try Soles’ new ‘RMS’ sparkling wine project at The Herbfarm’s holiday dinner series “The Holly & The Ivy”. While it didn’t reach the level of that 98 Extended Triage, the 2014 RMS Brut did remind me of all the things I missed about Argyle.

Not a bad way to start off a 9 course meal.


Around 66% Pinot noir with the remainder Chardonnay, the wine had high intensity aromatics of spiced pear wrapped in a toasty pastry crust. Those notes carried through to a creamy but powerful mouthfeel not that dissimilar to Charles Heidsieck. It also reminded me of Pol Roger where the weighty flavors are balanced by fresh citrus notes and racy minerality that give lift to the wine. An incredibly well-made sparkler that would probably continue to age even in the bottle under cork. It is certainly well worth the $65 winery price.

What Makes Oregon Bubbles Special?

In his Forbes post, Micallef quotes Tony Soter on how the “sweet spot” of Oregon’s cool-but-not-too-cool climate gives its an advantage over both warmer California and cooler Champagne.

“[In Oregon you have] … a generosity of fruit that is expressive of the grape varieties (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) reaching a high level of maturity while still maintaining an admirable level of acidity, finesse and elegance critical to sparkling wine. [While] … in California, the weather is too warm, forcing a premature picking to minimize excessive alcohol at the expense of the nuance and delicacy of fully developed grapes.” — Tony Soter, as quoted on Forbes.com January 19th, 2018

Far from being an “Oregon-homer”, Soter’s opinion on the differences between Oregon and California’s terroir is backed by his 30 plus years of experience working at some of the best names in California wine like Chappellet, Araujo, Shafer, Spottswoode and Dalle Valle.

The stats on Oregon’s favorable “goldilocks position” also bares out according to Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s Wine Atlas. While Champagne sits along the 49th parallel and averages a daily growing season temperature of 58.4°F, Napa Valley (home of Schramsberg, Domaine Chandon, Mumm Napa, etc) sits on the 38th parallel averaging growing season temperatures of 66.8°F. The Willamette Valley is nestled right in the middle of that on the 45th parallel with average growing season temps of 60.6°F.

Photo by Hahn Family Wines. Released on Wikimedia Commons via Flickr under CC BY 2.0

In addition to losing acidity, if you wait too long to harvest your grapes in warm climates you risk “baking out” the more delicate and complex flavors. This produces over ripe and dried fruit notes that the French call ‘sur maturité’. For many California sparkling wine producers, its a Catch-22.

Harvests in California for sparkling wine regularly taking place in early August while in Oregon it doesn’t start till September. In Champagne, which wine authors like Robert Walters in Bursting Bubbles claim often harvest too early and too unripe, harvest typically begins late August and early September. Many high quality grower producers in Champagne harvest later into September.

The timing of harvest is key because you want ample acidity for sparkling wine production which you can risk losing if the grapes hang too long on the vine. But at the same time unripe grapes can give bland and uninteresting flavors. Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan note in their Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine that having ripe grapes is absolutely essential for high quality sparkling wine.

Photo by Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives. Released on Wikimedia Commons under Oregon Historical County Records Guide public use

In the Willamette Valley, daytime highs in July in the low 80s (°F) can drop to the low 50s (°F) at night.

Like Washington State, Oregon also benefits from having drastic diurnal temperature variations during the growing season where temperatures can drop at night 30-40 degrees from day time highs, letting the vine literally “chill out” and retain fresh acidity.

This extends the growing season, allowing the grapes to hang longer on the vine, developing riper flavors while still maintaining that vital acidity.

Oregon Sparkling Wine Producers to Seek Out

Micallef notes that there is around 40 producers making sparkling wine in Oregon. While most of the production is small and limited to sales at the winery’s tasting room or wine club, there are some producers with ambitious aims.

One that is mentioned in the Forbes article is Radiant Sparkling Wine Company that was founded in McMinnville by Andrew Davis, a protege of Rollin Soles. After 8 years at Argyle, Davis founded his company to serve essentially as a mobile méthode champenoise facility, traveling to wineries with his sparkling wine equipment and technical know-how to help winemakers turn their base wines into bubbles.

Among the wineries that Davis has worked with includes Adelsheim, Anne Amie, Brooks, Ponzi, Raptor Ridge, Sokol Blosser, Stoller, Trisaetum and Willamette Valley Vineyards. In 2017, Davis helped create over 20,000 cases of Oregon sparkling wine to add to the 25,000 cases that Argyle produces yearly.

The Stoller rose sparkler more than held its own in a line-up of impressive bubbles.

One of these wines that I’ve recently had the opportunity to try was the Stoller 2014 Legacy LaRue’s Brut Rosé. The 25% Chardonnay and 75% Pinot noir base saw 10 months aging in neutral French oak before bottling and secondary fermentation. The wine spent 2 years on the lees prior to disgorgement with around 275 cases produced.

The LaRue rosé had a beautiful medium plus intensity nose of fresh cherry and strawberries. But what most intrigued me was the tinge of citrus blood orange that framed the red fruit notes. On the palate, the wine added another depth of flavor with some spicy and mineral notes.

I had this wine only about a couple weeks after I had the Louis Roederer 2011 Brut Rosé that I described in my post Cristal Clarity. We had another bottle of the Roederer rose opened with the Stoller and it was quite impressive how the Stoller showed in comparison. While it was more on the delicate and minerally side versus the fruitier Roederer, the Stoller clearly won out with much more vivid aromatics and longer finish that didn’t fade as fast as the Roederer. Considering that the Stoller LaRue is $65 while the Roederer is around $70 and you have some substantial value.

For a relatively young sparkling wine industry that just reached 30 years, the future looks exciting for wine geeks wanting to explore Oregon bubbles.

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Zin-ful Thoughts

For a de facto Zin-ful Thoughts Part II see my post Zinfandel — The “Craft Beer” of American Wine

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.

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Wine Clubs Done Right

It all started with a tweet.

Terret noir!?!

I was only familiar with this grape as one of the obscure little brother varieties in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. For some added geekiness, courtesy of Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, the noir is a color mutation of the Terret grape with blanc and gris versions as well. Apparently, in the 1950s, Terret gris was the most widely planted grape variety in the Languedoc with over 20,000 acres!

Who knew? But now there are only around 257 acres of Terret gris left with approximately 3500 and 460 acres of Terret blanc and noir respectively.  I was excited to read about Tablas Creek’s version of this obscure grape. I visited Tablas Creek several years ago where I geeked out over their nursery of Rhone varieties, taking many leaf and vine pictures that I uploaded to Wikipedia (as Agne27). I’ve always been impressed with Tablas Creek’s effort to introduced new varieties to the American consumer.

So I tweeted my enthusiasm and went to Tablas Creek’s website to see what they had available.

Petit Manseng! Clairette blanche! Picardan! and, of course, Terret noir. But there was a catch—beyond many of them being sold out. Most of these uber geeky bottlings were limited to members of Tablas Creek’s wine clubs.

Instead of being bummed, my reaction was to appreciate the brilliance and good business sense. My biggest gripes about wine clubs, and why I join very few of them, is that they rarely offer compelling value.

What makes a wine club appealing to join?

Wine industry folks talk ad infinitum about how to improve wine clubs to encourage more sign-ups. It is no secret that the financial stability of consistent wine club sales is essential to many small wineries’ bottom line. With so many things competing for a consumer’s wallet, how does a winery entice folks to join?

Well for me, my decision to ultimately sign up for the Tablas Creek wine club was driven by three factors.

1.) How easy can I get your wines at home?
Photo taken by myself (as Agne27) on Wikimedia Commons

I live a little closer to Beaucastel in Seattle at around 8600km than Tablas Creek is to their partner estate. But I have no problem finding bottles of Ch. Beaucastel.

This is a big reason why I don’t join the wine clubs of many Washington (especially those in Woodinville) and Oregon wineries. Living in Seattle with an abundance of wine shops and tasting rooms close by, I can get most any wine I want from these local wineries. Yes, getting a 10-25% discount and invitation to “members only” events is nice but what is more appealing is access and exclusivity. This is where I tip my hat to Tablas Creek for their impressive selection of “Members Only” wines.

This created value in my mind because I wanted access to these wines. I want to try a Terret noir. I want a varietal Picardin. Even if I lived right next store to Tablas Creek, I still couldn’t get these wines easily if I wasn’t a member. That’s a strong incentive for a wine consumer like me.

Yes, I know plenty of my local Washington and Oregon wineries have “Members Only” bottlings, but very, very few of those wineries put them front and center on their wine shop page or highlight them as much as they should. And, truthfully, many of these “Members Only” bottlings are not that exciting compared to what the winery is already producing.

More than “Members Only”

A special one barrel “Members Only” blend? Um, okay that could be great but your regular red blend that I can buy is pretty darn good so why should I buy the whole cow and join your club when I’m already happy with the chocolate milk?

Now a three bottle “Members Only” set of the same grape variety but from 3 different clones, three different vineyards or 3 different kinds of oak barrels–THAT’S intriguing. That is not something I can regularly get from yours or any other winery. That’s something with compelling value and exclusivity.

In the case of Tablas Creek, I would have to do a fair amount of hunting on WineSearcher.com to find a bottle of Terret noir. While I can get their Esprit de Tablas and Patelin de Tablas blends at local wine shops, with these obscure varietal bottlings their wine club provides a chance to get something above and beyond their typical retail offering.

That’s intriguing. That’s worth buying the cow.

2.) How many bottles am I committing myself to?

But to be honest, I don’t really want a whole damn cow.

Frankly, I’m a bit of a slutty boozer that likes to play the field with many different types of wines and alcoholic beverages. Just peruse the archives of this “wine blog,” and you will see. For every couple of wine-related posts I do, I’m just as likely to post about a whiskey like the Edradour 10 year or a beer like the Bourbon County series from Goose Island.

I want to commit, but I’m truly only faithful to my wife.

That is why flexibility with wine clubs is so vital. Here, again, I’ll tip my hat to Tablas Creek for offering options of 6, 12 and 24 bottle commitments. Each tier has its ancillary perks, letting consumers pick just how much cow they want to bring home. Starting with a six-bottle a year commitment is not going to tie down my wine racks.

But I decided to go with the 12 bottle VINsider tier because A.) I saw 12 bottles on their shop page alone that I want to drink and B.) It seemed like having “Shipment wines specially selected by our winemakers” increased my odds of getting the geeky bottles I want.

3.) How likely is the style of wine going to change?

Though I do wonder what happened to this potted Grenache blanc vine. Is it still chilling outside the tasting room? Or did it grow up to be a big boy vine in the vineyard?


In our tumultuous era of mergers and winery acquisitions by big mega-corps, there is always a chance that your favorite winery is going to sell out. That potentially could mean a new style of wine driven more by focus groups rather than a focus on terroir. While I know that doesn’t matter to everyone, it matters to me and how I spend my money. Sometimes it is not even an acquisition that changes a style but rather a winemaker moving on with the new winemaker doing things just a little bit too different for your taste.

As a newbie wine lover, I learned this lesson the hard way when I first moved to Washington State in 2004. I fell in love with the wines of David Lake at Columbia Winery and joined their club. Failing health caused Lake to retire in 2006 with him passing away in 2009. Of course, you can’t blame the winery or David for that but the style of the new winemaker, Kerry Norton, just wasn’t to my taste. It took a year’s worth of unexciting wine club shipments for us to finally realize that the style had changed and wasn’t coming back, leading us to quit the club. This was before Gallo later bought Columbia and took it even further away from David Lake’s style.

Change happens. I get it. But if I’m going to invest in a wine club, I want to wager on one that I’m confident that I’ll be liking their wines for a while.

Looking at Tablas Creek’s website, I got a lot of comfort seeing the continuity of their leadership, viticulture and winemaking team. Many of the same people that were making those delicious wines I tried on my visit in 2012 are still there six years later.

That makes Tablas Creek feel like a solid bet of being a winery that I’m going to enjoy being part of their wine club.

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