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Tannat Finds a Toehold in California

Several grape varieties have raised their hands to be recognized in California’s trendy marketplace, only to be tried and then seemingly forgotten two years later when the fashion wheel just keeps rolling on. Could be Tannat’s (pronounced tuh NOT) turn on California’s big stage is just around the corner. Tannat is not new in the wine world. In fact it is even famous for a couple reasons. And Tannat vines have existed in California for well over a hundred years. They just never had their day in the spotlight. That’s not unusual. Dr. Eugene Hilgard brought hundreds of grape varieties to the University of California Ag school (then at Berkeley) in the 1880’s. Tannat was one of them. It joined the others in a research plot. As recently as 1960 there were 50,000 acres of Zinfandel vines planted in California, and less than 800 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon. Zinfandel was your grandfather’s wine. Today there are 80,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in California, and 400 acres of Tannat. Cabernet is the wine of your successful business contemporaries. Perhaps Tannat will be the wine of the Millennial Generation.

Iroulegay in the French Pyrenees on theSpanish border. (GI)

Iroulegay in the French Pyrenees on the Spanish border. (GI)

Tannat comes from a region in southwest France traditionally known as Gascony. The region is bounded on the west by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the south by the Pyrenees Mts. It is historically considered bounded on the north and east by the river system (Dordogne and Garonne) flowing out of the Pyrenees to form the Gironde estuary at Bordeaux. The region has a rich history, including Basque language antecedents from way before the Roman Empire, and 200 years of English rule (after Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152).  The climate is variable because the topography ranges from coastal plains to 10,000-ft peaks in the southern mountains. In plantable districts, soils often have high clay content from eroded glacial till. Two districts in the region are well-known for their unique grape varieties: Cahors for Malbec; and Madiran for Tannat.

Uruguay LabelIn 2007 Madiran wine was singled out by Dr. Roger Corder in his book, The Red Wine Diet, as the world champion for its procyanidin production in Tannat’s thick skins. Corder’s research indicates procyanidins are particularly useful at maintaining healthy arteries, and thus conferring longevity. Did I just hear everyone sit up a little straighter? Tannat grows well in clay soils, and resists the late Spring frost of mountain districts. It shrugs off mildew, and produces bigger crops than other varieties do in the mountains. Hmmm? You say Tannat wines are really good for you?

Would Tannat fit well in California’s Sierra Foothills? Did Rose Kennedy own a black dress?

Deeply colored Tannat berries.  (GI)

Deeply colored Tannat berries. (GI)

In the 1870s Basque emigrants arrived in Uruguay along with their Tannat vines. Today Uruguay has over 21,000 acres in wine grape production, with about a third of those being Tannat. Uruguay refers to Tannat as its national grape. Makes a lot of sense. Like Argentines just across the River Plate, Uruguayan restaurant diners love a big grill filled with grass-fed beef and sausages ~ pasta on the side. Tannats cost anywhere from $5 to $75, with tannin management playing a huge role in defining quality. The technique of micro-oxygenation was developed in Madiran in the early 1990’s specifically to hold down the abrasiveness of tannins in Tannat.

Blending with other grape varieties is the most common technique for arresting tannins in France. Madiran producers traditionally use an obscure grape called Fer.  Basque producers in a district on the Spanish border called Iroulegay routinely use 25% Cabernet Franc. In Cahors some producers blend 15% Tannat into their Malbec as a stiffener. Those are the wines they tend to age for the longest periods.

Uruguay has several high-quality producers. Montes Toscanini won a top medal at the London Intl. Wine Fair for their 2002 vintage. Fernando Carrau is also an Enology Professor at the Urugayan state university. H. Stagnari makes great wine, especially their Viejo Vinedes range for under $20. Bouza is run by a math professor whose top Tannats sell for $50-60 in the US.

In California Tannat has been pioneered by Tablas Creek Winery in Paso Robles. They are a cooperative venture between the family of importer Robert Haas (Vineyard Brands) and the Perrin family who own Ch. Beaucastel in the southern Rhône Valley of France. When they started in Paso, they operated as a nursery. Their nurseryman in France sent the original Tannat cuttings on his own saying, “Tannat should do well in the steep coastal hills.” The cuttings came out of mandatory US quarantine in Geneva, NY in 2002. The 2011 Tablas Creek wine is extremely dark, but fruity and plush in the mouth. It has lots of extract, but less grittiness than many Madiran or Uruguayan examples. The fruitiness has a character not unlike dried cranberries and fully ripe Santa Rosa plums (thank you Luther Burbank).

Typical Uruguay restaurant grill anticipates Tannat-based wines. (GI)

Typical Uruguay restaurant grill anticipates Tannat-based wines. (GI)

You have to taste any Tannat in order to plan a meal with it. It’s the tannin. A grilled hunk of grass-fed beef is going to work well with the more tannic models because you’re going to need to chew that meat. Grass-fed implies more flavor, and a lot more effort to masticate it. It’s not a bad trade-off. Plan ahead. Producers who have successfully tamed their tannins allow you to go in some wonderfully different directions. Medium rare duck breast with plum sauce was an absolutely inspired choice with my last bottle of the 2002 Toscanini Grand Tannat.

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Barberas Shine in El Dorado Competition

I judged wine at the El Dorado County Fair last month, and was fortunate enough to be placed on the panel evaluating about 30 Barberas. These placements are never an absolute pleasure. If you get a couple great hours, you pay for it with at least an hour from the bottom of the entry barrel. For my sins our panel also got five flavored sparkling wines, which I’ll never understand. How can US Secretary of State John Kerry look his French counterpart in the eye knowing somewhere in California our government is letting some beauzeau label and sell a wine called ‘Almond Champagne?’  That product should be employed for teaching forensic pathologists to recognize arsenic poisoning.

The two Barbera flights, however, were exceptional. El Dorado is a small, one-day competition. They get about 800 entries, which is a third of what the State Fair gets.  But El Dorado focuses on the Sierra Foothills. They will take entries from anywhere, but they only solicit them from Lodi and the Foothills. During their 25-year history, they’ve also done an admirable job championing varietals which seem to perform very well in the region. For the first ten years or so Zinfandel was the major emphasis, and organizers made an effort to recruit Zinfandel entries from Sonoma and Paso Robles to pit against Foothill offerings. Then there was a Rhônish period where Syrahs from France and Australia were introduced along with qualified speakers who taught seminars and served as guest judges. Recently this educational subplot has moved on to Italian varietals. Sangiovese is a big category, and a number of successful Pinot Grigios were entered. It was Amador County Barbera though, which stole the show.

Panel

Judging panel working on a flight of red wines. (GI)

I should also give credit to the Mountain Democrat from Placerville which sponsored the competition this year. I’m sure they paid for my hotel room, and there was an unfortunate misunderstanding at the awards ceremony which I’d like to clear up. Seems I told one of their photographers that the volunteer help at the competition had been unusually young and good looking compared to the standard raft of wine competition volunteers one generally encounters around the world. I pointed out a particularly dazzling example in the audience, and suggested the photographer send me a couple candid images to use in this blog post about the event. Seemed innocent to me at the time. The girl is really pretty, she was wearing a short skirt, and her picture would draw one’s eye to this article involuntarily. Unfortunately, it turns out she is the daughter of the publisher of the Mountain Democrat. So not only have I not received any pictures, but I fear my own mug shot may be appearing soon in the paper captioned “Pervs to avoid in Placerville.” To be fair, I was merely pointing out the publicity value of the photograph. This isn’t exactly an X-rated website. Although, if she is his daughter, then she is probably young enough to be my granddaughter, and I suppose I could have gone about the request in a more decorous manner.

But I digress.

Barbera

Excellent UC Davis photo of Barber cluster illustrates very strong pigmentation

Barbera is a really useful grape, and the 1,500-foot elevation contour through Shenandoah Valley of Amador County seems to be a sweet-spot for it in California. But this is relatively new information. It is in northwestern Italy that Barbera has seen its widest acclaim. Simply put, and very much in the Italian tradition, there Barbera is ‘every day’ wine. For thousands of years Italians have viewed wine, not as art or fashion, concepts with which they are certainly well acquainted, but as food, a staple of the economy like eggs and pasta. And north of the Apennine Mountains, in the upper reaches of the Po River Valley, the beverage you had ‘every day’ at the dinner table was wine made from Barbera grapes. Not a bottle ~ rather carafes filled from barrels, or from 17-gallon demijohns. It is one of very few wines in Italy which carries a grape name ~ Barbera ~ instead of a place name. Moreover, it is extremely unusual for the name of a grape or a wine to be expressed in the feminine gender, again reflecting the ‘every day,’ nutritional role in which this particular grape and wine have historically been viewed.

Nebbiolo (which makes Barolo and Barbaresco, two place names) is the artistic grape of Piemonte. There are 15 times as many acres (70,000) of Barbera planted in Piemonte as there are of Nebbiolo. And Barbera isn’t unique to Piemonte. It has been planted in enough other areas to compete for second place among the most widely planted Italian red grapes. Nebbiolo is a special occasion wine, when someone wants to show off. Barbera is what you drink with your family. The style of northern Italian Barbera (say Barbera d’Asti, of which Coppo has a very reliable example called Camp du Rouss) is dark colored, with minimal tannins and pronounced, refreshing acid. Nebbiolo is the opposite: strong tannin, weak color, needs time to resolve the tannins. Barbera is very attractive when young, with food. The acid exaggerates flavors in the food (particularly helpful with tomato sauces), and the color (which will go orange-ish in time) can be vibrantly purple. Flavors are assertive, with a range from cherries to fragrant herbs. Less sunny vineyard locations (say the north side of hills in Piemonte) can often deliver spicy nuances. Italian Barbera is ideal for pasta if you follow the Italian dictum to merely flavor the pasta with sauce; don’t serve a sauce soup with pasta in it.

Leaves

Barbera leaves have a tongue shape, almost reminiscent of an orchid. (GI)

Barbera in California is a somewhat less defined story. It has been here since at least 1880, when it was reported planted in a Cupertino nursery. It was widely planted in the Central Valley as a blending grape, to contribute color and acid. Today there are 6,300 acres in California, and 5,050 of them are in Madera (20%) and Fresno (80%) counties. Sonoma has a paltry 64 acres, and Napa has about ten. Amador County only had 170 bearing acres in 2012, but had planted an additional 17 acres which were as yet unbearing. Of course acreage must be seen as a relative figure. Amador has about the same amount of Barbera as it has Syrah, 50% more than it has Sangiovese, much more than it has Merlot (24 acres), and much less than it has Zinfandel (2,000 acres).

This distribution may help explain the style of wines we encountered at El Dorado Fair. The good ones fell into two categories: (1) leaner, more fragrant, with brighter acid (what I’m inclined to call the Italianate style); and (2) bigger, blacker, more rigidly structured, and more intensely flavored (for the time being let’s call that the Amador style). It is well understood Barbera vines are vigorous. Left to their own devices, they will produce a big crop, with low tannin and mediocre aging prospects. Increased vine age will gradually raise tannin levels, concentrate flavors, and improve aging prospects. It is unclear how reliably these stylistic features can also be achieved by reducing foliage and production through pruning and water denial, but a decade of experience in Amador seems to imply this will be the case.

1 Lamb

Match Amador Barbera with spicy Lamb Merguez. (GI)

The first category, the Italianate style, may well turn out to come from higher elevation (read cooler) vineyards in California. A good example was Gold medal winner Illuminare 2010 ($24) from Camino east of Placerville in El Dorado County. Further evidence was provided by the 2010 Nevada City ($30), which comes from Boa Vista Vineyard, also in Camino. The Illuminare was medium-bodied with spice and florals in the nose. A very nice wine. The Nevada City was more unusual, with a big whack of black pepper in the nose, but still pretty good depth.

Bray

El Dorado Sweepstakes winner!

Much more prevalent were gutsy, Californicated Barberas with very dark purple colors, monster fruit noses, and concentrated flavor profiles. All these winners were from Shenandoah Valley in Amador. Bray Vineyards 2010 ($22) won the Sweepstakes Award with a wine which was simultaneously bold and had a softly persistent finish. Equally high on my score card was a Runquist 2011 ($32), which had a fabulous fruit nose and a nice dollop of vanilla, and the Macchia Righteous 2011 ($22), which was impeccably balanced. Any of these three wines would be a superb match to Moroccan Lamb Merguez or to wild boar sausage. Get the sausage online from D’Artagnan. Make the Merguez yourself with ground lamb and your choice of spices (garlic, paprika, cumin, vinegar, coriander, Tabasco). Serve with couscous and Sultana raisins.

Note two things. First, my impressions come from a blind tasting. All wines arrive in front of judges in glasses with code numbers. We do not even know what wines are entered. We do not get the Key (winery names and code numbers) until ten days after the event. Second, some wineries make several iterations of a grape variety in a particular vintage. Macchia, for instance, makes nine or ten Zinfandels every year. Runquist has three Barberas from 2011. You want to get the right wine! Macchia has a 2011 Barbera called Infamous which is not even close (13.8 pts out of 20) to the quality of their 2011 Righteous (18.5 pts). Runquist is not as critical. Their three Barberas ($32, $26, and $22) got 19.5 pts, 19.0 pts, and 17.8 pts from me.

Pizza

Cool climate style Barberas go well with pepperoni pizza. (GI)

 

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Of what value are wine reviews?

A scandal and an unrelated Wine Spectator article prompt me to raise a question about what role wine reviews play in the marketplace. The scandal involves a prominent Canadian wine writer named Natalie MacLean who is accused by an online Canadian wine site of using wine reviews written by others without providing adequate attribution. She is further accused of demanding wineries subscribe to her newsletter before she will review their wine. Many wine bloggers, some of them rather noteworthy, have become extremely exercised about these matters. The WS piece, written by Matt Kramer, is an extraordinarily perceptive, and articulate opinion that flavor descriptors are of minimal consequence compared to characteristics such as complexity, texture, and balance.

I happen to agree with Matt Kramer, although probably for reasons different than his own. More importantly, I think the low regard in which he and I both hold flavor descriptors logically leads to a general disregard for wine reviews, and in particular for massive database aggregations of wine reviews. To me that’s the nub of the MacLean affair. Seeking to offer sortable databases containing tens of thousands of wine reviews is a priori a bad idea. The logistical difficulties alone lead to very questionable results. Garbage in; garbage out. Legal and ethical questions become almost superfluous. If most consumers shared my skepticism about wine reviews in any quantity over batches of about fifteen, the marketplace itself would sort out issues such as ‘pay for play,’ aggregation of copyrighted material, free samples, junkets for writers, etc. Lawyers would have no role to play (other than drinking wines just like the rest of us).

Perhaps unlike Matt Kramer, my problem with flavor descriptors in wine reviews is I think they are way too subjective and individualistic to be of much practical utility. If adroitly done, they can effectively convey a feeling, a mood about the wine. I think that is useful. It becomes harder and harder as one tries to compose unique moods for each wine when fifty to a hundred of them are included in a single sitting. Every human being has a different body chemistry, different taste experience, and different vocabulary. Expecting one person to accurately convey taste and smell impressions which another person would actually experience, using similes (“smells like Damson plums and Belgian chocolate”), is a very big stretch. Written notes with flavor descriptors are useful to help an individual recall their own organoleptic experience, but trying to get a consensus among a group of untrained tasters is really difficult.

This point is buttressed by experiments done at Stanford University by a linguist named Adrienne Lehrer. She would bring in two volunteers, and put an opaque screen between them. On one side would be five glasses of wine labeled A through E. The other subject would get the same five wines labeled 1 through 5. One subject would be asked to pick a wine, taste it, and describe it out loud. How frequently could the other subject pick out which wine was being described? Barely better than 20% of the time, i.e. about the same frequency as random chance. Now, rigorous training of both subjects can improve results quite a bit (as Ann Noble has shown at UC Davis), but how often are wine reviews read by someone who has received rigorous training (irrespective of whether the writer has)?

So when I’m at some big walk-around tasting, and the person pouring tells me I’m going to notice “cinnamon, mango, and just a hint of hibiscus,” I may subconsciously follow their lead. [I took 15 units of directed study on hypnosis in college. I firmly believe in suggestibility, and I’ve been scientifically measured as fairly high on the Suggestibility Scale.] Usually though, I take offense. “I’ll tell you what I notice, thank ya’ very much.”

The value of wine reviews is to narrow the field for consumers, and to prompt consumer interest in trying certain wines. That’s a good thing. I’m not inclined to bad-mouth the whole concept. I just want to imply that wine reviews need to be viewed with about the same degree of credibility one assigns to the political opinions of one’s in-laws. Don’t argue about them (degustibus non disputatum), but feel free to ignore large portions. And the more reviews written at one sitting, the less attention they deserve. Taste 12 to 20 wines (blind); write up 5 or 6. That’s my recommendation to achieve maximum value.

I’ve never met Natalie MacLean. I have read one of her books and several articles she’s written. I think she’s a damn good writer ~ a lot more talented and entertaining than some of the personalities now screaming for her scalp in Canada. Construction of something as dry and boring as a comprehensive wine review database is a serious misallocation of her abilities. There can be little argument, however, about the fervor of her self-promotion. And I suppose that, along with her success, has created a really severe level of vitriol. Vitriol and self-righteousness.

Alder Yarrow (Vinography) is about the only contributor to the comment thread cited above counseling restraint. And he has taken his share of drive-by abuse for doing so. One could be excused, after reading the comment thread, of assuming very few wine bloggers today accept wine samples, or trips, or meals from producers. Oh please! I went on a junket to Chile and Argentina six years ago put on by an American importer. There were about twenty of us, ostensibly all wine writers of some consequence. At one point I proposed to the group en masse that we purchase 15 bottles of wine at a retail store to do a little comparison tasting back at our Mendoza hotel outside the universe of producers the importer was taking us to see. Cost per person would have been about $25 to have a look at several of the best wines produced in Argentina. ZERO (none!) of these wine writers were interested. Maybe it’s my personality.

I think the place Natalie MacLean went wrong was embarking on a promotional path to offer a mobile app which would deliver wine reviews on 150,000 wines that users could access in stores and restaurants. That’s not a worthwhile product. It’s a software engineer’s wet dream. Consumers shouldn’t want it, and Natalie shouldn’t have agreed to try producing it.

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New World Albariño. Hope You’ve Got a Thick Skin.

Albariño grapes have been written about in Spanish monastery records for 800 years. The name may translate as “White Rhine,” but frequent attempts to stitch together comparisons with Riesling have generally struck me as promotional twaddle ~ fanciful at best. Let’s not forget Semillon was called “Hunter Valley Riesling” in Australia for much of the 20th Century. Actually Albariño is carving out a niche all its own. That process is instructive; no less because it’s happening before our very eyes, with barely twenty years of antecedents. We have the opportunity to play a role in Albariño’s cultural story.

Prior to the mid 1980’s white wines in Spain and Portugal were frequently blended affairs, largely forgettable. Which is not to deny millions of people the memorable experiences they may have had in Spain involving white wine. You must understand there is a difference between the quality of the wine and the poignancy of the memory. The most widely planted white grape in the world is Airen, at around 750,000 acres. That’s more acres than all the wine grapes in California. Almost all the Airen in the world is in Spain. Airen is drought resistant. It makes a reliable foundation for alcoholic, oxidized junk sold cheaply in Spanish bars. Where the situation began to change was in 1986 when the Galician (northwest Atlantic coast of Spain) Province of Rias Baixas (pronounced REE-ahs BUY-schuss) was granted experimental DO status by the Spanish Government. Ninety percent of the grapes grown in Rias Baixas are Albariño.

Rias Baixas

Stylistically and culturally the wines of Rias Baixas bore something of a resemblance to the white Vinho Verdes of northwestern Portugal, from the Duoro River north to the border with Spain at the Minho River. No wonder. Albariño (called Alvarinho in Portugal) is a commonly used grape variety in Vinho Verdes, especially in the Minho district. In most instances the grapes are grown on high trellises (what Italians call a pergola), which help them dry out in the wind after frequent rainstorms coming off the Atlantic. It also allows for cultivation of row crops underneath ~ this lush section of Portugal is densely populated. The wines frequently have startling acidity, because it is hard getting ripe in these wet, maritime vineyards. And the wines are a wonderful match for the dominant cuisine of both regions: seafood.

High Trellises

DO (Denominación de Origen, Spanish appellation control) status for Rias Baixas put Albariño on the radar for consumers worldwide, goosed exports, and raised prices. Which in turn allowed more careful vineyard practices, and more artistic winemaking techniques. Growers in California and Oregon began to take notice. Which in turn spurred vintners in Galicia to raise their game further. It’s all happened recently. Which brings us to the TAPAS (Tempranillo Advocates Producers and Amigos Society, www.TAPASsociety.org) tasting at Fort Mason in San Francisco last weekend, 9 June 2012. These are American wineries making wine from grapes indigenous to the Iberian Peninsula. They put on a nice spread. I went to focus on Albariño’s future on America’s Left Coast. If it goes with seafood, it ought to play well from Vancouver to Ensenada.

There were some 40 wineries, and about half of them had an Albariño or two on display. I was delighted to have a chance to chat with a couple highly qualified commentators amongst the winemakers. Ken Volk (www.Volkwines.com) is the guy who owned and grew the Wild Horse label in the Central Coast to 150,000 cases by the turn of the millennium. He then sold it. Today he is beginning again, using his family name, and a healthy bit of capital from the Wild Horse sale. His emphasis is on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but he enjoys auditioning lesser known varieties. He is convinced Albariño will show best in California’s cool, coastal vineyards. I asked him, “Is it possible for Albariño to be too fruity?” Ken isn’t the kind of personality to bad mouth other people’s wine at a public promotion, but his answer strongly implied there were areas of California where the grapes would get riper than his personal preference. I’m inclined to go along with him.

Albariño grapes have thick skins, which is important in the wet (read moldy) climate of Spain’s Atlantic coast. Importers of Spanish wine are constantly waxing on about the peach and melon fruitiness of Albariño wines from Rias Baixas. I don’t see it. I’m routinely struck by the earthy brackishness of those wines. Call it minerality if you must. To me it is the intersection of saltiness and acidity. I perceive it as a mildly metallic glint. There may be some crab apple aroma sitting harmoniously on top, but the overall impression to me is built for mussels or grilled sardines; not for peach cobbler or watermelon salad. I also feel Albariño shares a slightly phenolic tendency with white wines from the Rhône Valley, which means winemakers need to manage skin contact very carefully.

But these remarks refer to traditional Albariño from Rias Baixas. Albariño grapes grown in California could be quite a different matter. For comparison take a look at Pinot Grigio from Veneto in Italy side-by-side with Pinot Gris from Alsace. The low elevation Italian Pinot Grigio is classic fish wine: good acid, long finish, not a lot of aromatic high jinx, well-suited to cuisine from the Po River delta. The Alsatian example (I’m partial to Kuentz Bas ~ www.kermitlynch.com) is where you find texture, along with those peach and plum skin smells. Same grape variety, but dramatically different wines. The same thing is going to be true when you compare Albariños from different regions in California. If you want a fruit-forward example, try one of the many grown around Lodi. Priced for everyday consumption, but not my personal cup of tea. Simple, was the descriptor I used several times.

Based on evidence from the TAPAS tasting, I’m drawn to further exploration of Albariño from coastal vineyards in the New World.  Ken Volk’s Albariño was very nice in a restrained style, with hints of both fruit and salt. Think melon wrapped in prosciutto. Bob Lindquist, of Qupé fame and arguably California’s first Rhône Ranger, was there pouring two Albariños (www.verdad.com) made by his wife Louisa. The one from their own vineyard had a bracing acid backbone with hints of caraway in the nose. Perfect for steamed clams. The bargain of the day was a finely honed example from Tangent with big passion fruit and a whack of lemon on the nose. It is sold to restaurants in kegs, and priced at the equivalent of $15 per bottle retail (www.nivenfamilywines.com).

Octopus… YUM.

My favorite Albariño of the day though offered a good lesson in how vintage conditions need to be overlain upon anyone’s concept of terroir. The wine came from Paso Robles, a warm inland location, but was grown during the 2011 vintage, which was exceptionally cold. The winery is called Bodegas Paso Robles (www.bodegaspasorobles.com), and they only made 160 cases. Price is $22 a bottle. The wine had lots of acid and complexity. In the nose there was a bit of that salt and melon trick, but great peachy length in the mouth marshaled between the lines by ropes of minerality. For the first time I could see the comparison to German Spätlesen Riesling. And I liked it. A lot. The perfect match would be that Spanish bar dish of grilled octopus (pulpo a la parilla) with onions and potatoes in a rich, salty fish sauce. Talk about memorable ~ makes my mouth water just to think about it.

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Betting Your Dessert on California Terroir

The concept of terroir in wine is fascinating; also fairly complicated. The idea is that cuttings from the same grape vine grown in two separate vineyards will produce wines that taste differently. Okay, I’m on-sides so far. But why do they taste differently?

Chardonnay at crusher

Chardonnay at crusher

Thirty-five years ago it was common for sellers of French wine to say the soils in the various vineyards were the primary factor affecting taste characteristics. After all, the common translation of the French word terroir would be ‘earth.’ The French have had hundreds of years [thousands really] of evidence that two vineyards lying virtually side-by-side can often produce wines which consistently over centuries command dramatically different prices. The climate can not possibly be much different over such a small distance. So the difference must lie in the soil. American wine academics never really bought that argument, stating forcefully that top quality wines were produced around the world on a great many different types of soil.

The discussion has shifted somewhat these days. Most Frenchmen now speak of terroir as a concept which embraces everything about a specific vineyard location: soil, climate, viticulture techniques, even cultural tradition. American wine academics are generally inclined to go along with that point of view. Bear in mind though, terroir implies a distinctive, recognizable, predictable, reproducible taste; not necessarily quality.

Wanting to explore this idea re California, I jumped at an opportunity to see three high-end Chardonnays grown in separate districts, but all made in much the same manner by the same winemaker. These are all part of the La Rochelle line from Steven Kent Winery in Livermore Valley. Steve Mirassou (Kent was his grandmother’s surname) met me in their well attended Tasting Lounge to explain how they intend to pursue both Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from prestige growers in at least four coastal districts. The wines are fermented in half-ton bins because they make very small quantities ~ around a hundred cases each in the inaugural 2010 vintage. Should the program prove extremely successful, Steve still doesn’t foresee producing more than about 300 cases from any single vineyard. We had a vigorous discussion about whether the marketplace would demand opportunities to taste the wines side-by-side. In the end we pretty much agreed it wasn’t going to be likely in America these days, at least not outside their Tasting Room.

The current Chardonnay examples are from Ferrington Vyd in Mendocino’s AndersonValley, from Morelli Lane Vyd on the Santa Rosa Plain in Sonoma, and from Rosella’s Vyd in Monterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands. Let’s begin with factors which blur terroir. Each of these vineyards grows a different clone of the Chardonnay grape: the Robert Young clone in Ferrington; the Hyde (Wente 1) clone in Morelli Lane; and the Dijon 76 clone in Rosella’s. There is also the fact that Chardonnay so notoriously reflects the hand of the winemaker. Our taste comparison controlled for that factor, but two winemakers acquiring grapes from the same vineyard might produce significantly different styles simply by picking two weeks apart. My impression of Morgan’s Rosella’s Vyd Chardonnay, and this one from La Rochelle, supports that notion. The Morgan is more fruit forward, less crisply elegant, more indicative of the long hang-time on the Central Coast. Moreover, American winemakers tend to take decisions that guide wines toward an idea in their head about what constitutes quality. Frenchmen would argue that tendency steps all over terroir. Even a terroir supporter like Steve Mirassou says about acidulation, “If a wine needs acid, we’ll acidulate.”

Despite all these factors which might overshadow terroir in California wines, both Steve and I found several characteristics in the three La Rochelle Chardonnays which we chose to attribute to regional terroir. The Morelli Lane had a clear citrus note. Even though reined in, the La Rochelle Rosella’s was more ‘tropical’ than the other two La Rochelle wines. I found the Ferrington less terroir-imprinted than the other two, but Steve picked it out by its green apple aroma. All of them were good wines, with fine aging potential, but they were distinguishable from each other. And they were set apart like night and day from the Chardonnay Steven Kent makes from Livermore fruit. Different strokes for different folks.

Try this little experiment at home. Get a bottle each of Morgan 2010 Rosella’s Chardonnay, the La Rochelle 2010 Rosella’s, and the La Rochelle 2010 Morelli Lane. Invite two couples for dinner. Serve a planked Salmon and potatoes au gratin. Give everybody three glasses. Serve the wines wrapped in tin foil and numbered. Tell everyone what the three wines are, but don’t tell them which bottle is which. Only those guests who correctly identify all three bottles get dessert. I don’t want to see any money changing hands.

 

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