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Grigio Style: Pinot Gris Dances with Asian Flavors

Pinot Gris (Grigio)

Pinot Gris (Grigio)

Chardonnay is the king of white wine in America. Sauvignon Blanc used to be a distant second, but it was passed by Pinot Gris in 2002. Popularity is a double-edged sword though. Any grape variety needs to reach a threshold of consumer recognition and interest for wineries to continue putting money and effort into artistic examples. Consumer acclaim, however, breeds high-volume low-cost imitations (cf: Yellowtail Chardonnay, for God’s sake). The recognition trick was accomplished for Pinot Grigio by Tony Terlato from Paterno Imports in Chicago starting in the early 1980’s. His brand is Santa Margherita from northeastern Italy. By 2006 he was selling 165,000 cases per year in America, and commanding a premium retail price as well. Today Pinot Grigio has become the most frequently imported wine in America (white or red), and accounts for 12% of imported wine sales.

Domestically, King Estate, near Eugene at the southern end of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, deserves credit for popularizing Pinot Gris. They currently have 300 acres in production, which is 10% of Oregon’s total PG acreage. King Estate alone has more acres than Napa, and six times what the Sierra Foothills have planted. King Estate makes some really good wine. Santa Margherita is somewhat more controversial. Wine writers tend to be unenthusiastic, while an army of trendy restaurant patrons are big fans of the brand name. The downside of PG’s growing popularity is a lake of non-descript examples currently showing up in the marketplace. California has nearly 14,000 acres of PG grapes today (versus nearly 100,000 acres of Chardonnay), most planted in the last ten years. The problem is 60% of California’s PG grapes have been planted in the Central Valley in counties such as San Joaquin and Fresno. That is not a recipe for impressive quality wines.

THE VARIETY

The Pinot family has a white version (Blanc, i.e. Bianco) and a black version (Noir, i.e. Nero). Despite California labels you might have seen in the 1960’s, Chardonnay is not a member of the Pinot clan. Pinot Gris is the middle of the family tree (a genetic mutation), and it is actually kind of bronze colored; not really gray. In fact, the wine can often be identified (blind) in your glass by noting a very slight hint of red (pinking it’s called) in comparison to other whites. Gewürztraminer is similar, and in both instances it usually implies a brief bit of skin-soak to extract more smell components. The use of ‘gray’ in the PG name probably refers to how the color of the actual grapes is somewhat obscured on the vine by the waxy ‘bloom’ which covers most berries, and to which dust and yeast tend to stick.

Historically the grape is an old one. It has been noted in the literature since around 1300. It was taken from Burgundy to Hungary by Christian monks early on. Which helps explain why, when it came back to Alsace, it was called Tokay d’Alsace or Tokay Pinot Gris until very recently (Tokay being a widely planted Hungarian variety ~ usually called Furmint ~ to which PG is not related). In Germany PG is called Rulander, after the German merchant who discovered it growing wild in the Palatinate around 1700.

PG is an early ripening variety, which is why many cold-climate regions around the world have been experimenting with it over the last 30 years, and why several of them have had noteworthy success. One characteristic it shares with Pinot Blanc is a tendency toward oily texture when over-ripe. Pinot Blancs in that category need several years of bottle-age to resolve that roughness, and it can make Pinot Gris seem cosmetic. At its best, Pinot Gris displays peachy aromatic notes which are never found in Pinot Blanc.

WINE STYLES

The classical style distinction is between Italy (Grigio) and France (Gris), although none of these points are governed by label regulation, so it is often a mistake to make any assumptions based on what the wine is called. Traditionally Italy makes a crisp, dry, light-bodied wine much beloved by diners in seaside osterie. There is a significant difference though between Italian examples from elevation in the Alps along the Adige River (called Alto Adigo, around the town of Trentino), and those grown in the lower elevations between Veneto and the mouth of the Adige on the Adriatic Sea south of Venice (called Venezie on an Italian PG label). Crispness (i.e. acid bite) and clean flavors are the natural provenance of Alto Adige. Volume production, more earthy flavors, and low price point are hallmarks of Venezie. Neither place gets more than the most delicate and glancing forms of fruity aromatics, which could be explained as a clonal feature. Further east, and somewhat north (toward Trieste) the hillsides (labeled as the Collio districts) of the Friuli region do produce Pinot Grigio with slightly more distinct varietal aroma. The German influence (read scrupulously clean and cool fermentations using stainless steel tanks) in both Alto Adige and Friuli is pronounced. Elena Walch and Alois Lageder are top producers in Alto Adige. Mario Schiopetto is a superb example from Friuli.

Domaine Zind Humbrecht

Domaine Zind Humbrecht

Alsace (in France, but historically back and forth between France and Germany) is an entirely different animal. The clone may be different; the wines surely are. They are riper, higher alcohol, and fruitier. They show much more winemaker influence. They’re more expensive. Sometimes they are even botrytized, which implies concentration into a sweet wine with honeyed overtones. As with all wines in Alsace, Pinot Gris there invariably shows a pronounced gout de terroir: the minerality of schist soils. The most highly regarded vineyard sites show this characteristic most distinctly. For Americans it is a learned preference. Really great Alsatian examples, such as Zind Humbrecht Clos St. Urbain Vyd from the Rangan de Thann district, are transformative for wine aficionados. I was stunned the first time I tasted one. First of all it was eight years old. Second, it cost $85 in a retail store. Third, it was well worth every penny. The wine was deep, and long, and complex, and fruity, and very serious. It was also balanced, exuding both a sense of satisfaction and of refreshment. It grabbed your face and demanded full attention. It stayed in your perception for minutes. It was able to leap, cat-like, onto your lap, and make itself comfortable. Not all Alsatian Pinot Gris is exceptional in this manner, but the ones that are provide a benchmark against which to compare both top Italian examples and the most innovative efforts from America and Australasia.

Lake Okanagan

Lake Okanagan

New World players, such as the south island in New Zealand, are making great headway with PG. I’ve also had several extremely credible wines from mildly surprising areas in the U.S. such as eastern Pennsylvania and the Lake Erie shore of Ohio east and west of Cleveland. However two North American regions have really gotten out ahead of the pack: Oregon; and the Okanagan Valley in Canada’s British Columbia. Both come with credentials. Oregon has an enviable 40-year history with Pinot Noir, and seemed to realize from the beginning that there was considerably more butter on the Pinot Gris side of the bread than on the Chardonnay side. Oregon is not Burgundy. They make great Pinot Noir, but they don’t make Burgundy. Most Oregon winemakers will state that point to you forcefully. The Okanagan Valley is on the inland side of the Cascade Mountains. The Okanagan River flows south across the international border and into the Columbia River of Washington State. The Okanagan Valley was carved by a glacier. At the northern end it is about 52ᵒ of latitude, which makes it just about the northernmost fine wine producing region in the world. Canadian wine commentators in Vancouver have something of a macho streak (think hockey, and outdoorsman skills) which leads them to take offense when Pinot Gris is singled out as Okanagan’s best wine. They scream for recognition of the red varietals. They’re nuts. Okanagan Pinot Gris is consistently, undeniably world-class. Okanagan reds occasionally have their moments, but please… they’re not world beaters. Okanagan Pinot Gris is.

Both Oregon and Okanagan Valley produce Pinot Gris midway between Italy and Alsace in terms of style. They are much more fruity than any Italian example I’ve ever had, but they are not as full-bodied, nor laden with minerality as the Alsatian model. Stated another way, Oregon and Okanagan Valley reliably bring strong fruit and thirst quenching acidity to the table. I’m a big fan. NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) notwithstanding, it isn’t easy to find Okanagan Valley PG in the U.S. Vancouver wine commentators may be very sensitive to any threat from veiled accusations about sissydom, but they also drink a lot of their local Pinot Gris. Look for access to brands such as Mission Hill and Grey Monk. If you are ever in Vancouver, get yourself some Blue Mountain while dining in a restaurant run by a Sikh.

FOOD PAIRING

Pinot Grigio made in the Italian style is traditionally seen as a match for fish. That’s pretty simplistic, although ‘crisp and clean’ is hard to argue against as a palate-cleanser. If you served the fish Caribbean-style with a mango salsa, it would become a boffo match for the best Oregon and/or Okanagan PGs. One of the reasons Pinot Gris became prominent in Oregon in the first place was because it works so well with grilled Salmon, which is line-caught all over the Oregon coast. Salmon is a fatty, strongly flavored fish which stands up really well to cooking over a wood fire. Oregon PG has the acid to cut through the fat, and white peach aromatics to frame the flavor in a complimentary way. It’s a locavore pleasure that travels well. Fried fish, garlic; not so much with PG unless we’re talking about the most unadorned Italian examples. The slight perception of sweetness in shrimp or Dungeness crab works nicely with New World PG, even if there is a little capsaicin heat involved (try it with Camarones Diablo in a good Mexican restaurant).

Laksa penang in a Singapore restaurant

Laksa penang in a Singapore restaurant

Alsatian-style PG is much more complicated. Think charcuterie and preserved vegetables. That minerality component in the wine does several good tricks, but they are not obvious until someone shows you. It helps to experiment. Something like sauerkraut and sausages would never work with Oregon or Okanagan PG, but can be a real eye-opener with the classic French version of Pinot Gris. Same with east Indian spices. Cut a chicken into about twelve smallish pieces. Put some cumin, a small amount of crushed cloves, some turmeric, and some galangal (a powerful relative of ginger), along with a little salt into a plastic bag. Shake the chicken pieces in the bag. Grill on the BBQ, returning pieces occasionally to the bag to renew your spicing. Be sure to finish on the grill; not in the bag. Serve with rice and a chutney. You can do a lot worse than several bottles of chilled Pinot Gris in any Singapore restaurant.

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Mourvedre’s Dark and Terroir-torial Personality

I took a run at the Rhone Rangers’ Tasting  a couple weekends ago (Sunday, April 6). It has moved from Fort Mason in San Francisco to Craneway Pavillon in Richmond. What a spectacular venue. Wall of windows looking across the Bay right at the Golden Gate Bridge. I was there in the afternoon, but sunset must be spellbinding. As is my habit, I picked one variety on which to concentrate my attention.

Compact cluster with wing, thick skin, and triangular leaf-shape that looks like it was cut out with pinking shears.

Compact cluster with wing, thick skin, and triangular leaf-shape that looks like it was cut out with pinking shears.

HISTORY

Mourvèdre has been around for a long time. It is thought to have been brought to Spain by the Phoenicians two centuries before the Muslims arrived on the Iberian Peninsula, and nearly a century before the Islamic Prophet Mohammad was even born (570 AD). The Spanish name for the grape is Monastrell. The grape moved east, and acquired its French name in the late 17th century, which is about the same time Cabernet Sauvignon was spontaneously hybridized in Bordeaux. While not prominent, the grape also moved to California and Australia (where, for a long time in both places, it was called Mataró). It showed up in Australia in 1823 (in Dr. Busby’s importation), and played a role in the Barossa Valley’s production of Port-substitutes for the London market. In California it was part of the collection brought to Santa Clara by the Pelliers in the 1860’s. It was a popular addition (along with Carignan, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Alicante Bouschet) to the field blend vineyards Italian immigrants liked so much in California.

WORLDWIDE PLAYERS

Since the advent of the Rhone Rangers in the mid-1980’s, Mourvèdre has played a more publicly recognized role in the GSM blends of both California and Australia. Bonny Doon’s Cigare Volant was probably the first example to gain notoriety in the US (1983 initial vintage), and Randle Grahm played a pivotal part in explaining that California’s old Mataro vines were the same grape as Mourvèdre in the southern Rhône Valley. Chateauneuf-du-Pape was, of course, the classic example of this blending genre, and the Perrin family’s Ch. Beaucastel was a particularly well-known example in the US. Beaucastel is usually about a third Mourvèdre. That’s a little unusual; Grenache commonly dominates, followed by Syrah. When the Perrins came to Paso Robles to join their US importer, Robert Haas, in a winery called Tablas Creek, it was only natural they would rigorously evaluate Mourvèdre in California on its own. Moreover, they brought their modern French clones with them.

Mourvèdre as a stand-alone varietal flourishes in the Bandol region of the French Riviera east of Marsailles, but west of Monaco, Cannes, and St. Tropez. As such, it gets a lot of exposure in Europe, both as a hearty red, and as a rosé (made by bleeding off part of the juice just as fermentation starts in order to concentrate the color and tannin in the remaining red wine). At one point Bandol wines represented a great bargain. However Kermit Lynch, an importer from Berkeley, put paid to that situation back in the 1980’s. He imported Bandol’s best wine to the US, Ch. Tempier, and quickly drove the price from $16 to $35. Alice Waters and Chez Panisse were complicit in this aggrandizement of Ch. Tempier. It goes nicely with grilled vegetables.

CENTRAL COAST vs. SIERRA FOOTHILLS TERROIR

Over the last eight years or so Paso Robles and places like El Dorado County in the Sierra Foothills have been waging a relentless campaign to popularize Rhônish wines. I don’t see it as a zero sum game, whereby a bottle purchased from one area means one less bottle purchased from the other area. I see it more as an attempt to release the tide, which will in turn raise all boats. Furthermore these two regions present different growing conditions, which should eventually show us certain terroir characteristics. That’s an insight to which we can look forward, and I was hoping to tease it out of this Rhone Rangers Tasting. El Dorado is colder, with more rain, and a shorter growing season. Soils in Paso Robles have a higher pH, and more carbonates in them. Could I taste these attributes?

First let’s take a cut at the fruity aromas displayed by 100% varietal Mourvèdres. I’m really tempted to say El Dorado produces something akin to cranberries, whereas Paso Robles produces more of a really ripe black cherry note. Would that wine criticism were that straight-forward and organized. It wasn’t a one-to-one correspondence. Let’s call the distinction a tendency.

BRETTANOMYCES

What seemed more apparent though, was a distinction between fruity examples, and what the pourers liked to call “earthiness.” One winery even had an example of each. Oz Clarke, the British song-n-dance man turned wine personality, comments that a ‘barnyard’ character serves as signature for Mourvèdre. It is certainly true Ch. Beaucastel was famous for that smell over a great many years. I’m sorry, that’s brettanomyces, a microbiological infection. It comes from winemaking practices; not from a grape varietal. We can argue coherently about whether it adds complexity when present in small amounts, but full-blown examples smell like a day at the racetrack, and that’s a fault. I find the phrase earthiness completely disingenuous. It implies minerality. Brett has nothing to do with minerality; it has more in common with stinky cheeses. One common byproduct of a Brett infection is 4-ethyl-phenol, which you would recognize as the solvent that makes bandages sticky. ‘Adhesive’ and ‘mineral’ may seem like somewhat similar characteristics in wine, but it is wrong to conflate them together.

BIG, HEAVY, DARK RED WINES

A truly distinguishing feature between Mourvèdres is heft: alcohol, body, tannins, pigments, overall mouth-feel. These are all positive contributions Mourvèdre makes to a blend, but they can easily become too extreme in a stand-alone model. They can also seem coarse. Paso appears able to produce these ingredients routinely; El Dorado much more rarely. So one may fairly posit the best Mourvèdre vintages in El Dorado will be warm ones, but wait. Mourvèdre has a thick skin, and relatively small bunches. It shrugs off late season rain. That can be an enormous advantage in the Foothills. Holly’s Hill has their 2011 Mourvedre Classique for sale ($25). It’s excellent. Very fruity, in the cranberry mode, and medium-bodied. 2011 was one tough year for the Foothills: snow on 4 June and four inches of rain on 4 October. But Mourvèdre could be left on the vine to continue ripening after the rain was over. Skinner also has a Foothills Mourvèdre, albeit 2012, and it too is clean, balanced, cranberry fruited, and medium bodied ($24).

Mari Wells Coyne, consultant atDavid Girard Winery in El Dorado County near Coloma

Mari Wells Coyne, consultant at David Girard Winery in El Dorado County near Coloma

Both Holly’s Hill and David Girard are good examples to evaluate. They both make at least two stand-alone Mourvèdres, as well as a blend or two. Mari Wells, winemaking consultant at David Girard, likes Mourvèdre in the Foothills. David Girard Vineyard is only about a mile from Coloma (site of Marshall’s gold discovery on the south fork of the American River), and they make a point about drawing parallels to conditions in France’s Rhône River Valley. The Mourvèdre Girard makes from their head-pruned vines is their most expensive wine (2010 vintage $54). It’s a mouthful, with lots of oak, concentrated flavors, a chewy texture, and good acid balance. No one is going to call this wine flabby.

Paso just starts from a different place. The Tablas Creek ($40), even in 2011, is a big, blowsy wine that smells like Bing cherries harvested for juice after the fresh fruit market is closed. Cypher made a nice Mourvèdre in 2011 ($55). It’s stylish, has an herbaceous thread woven through it, but remains resolutely big-bodied and plush on the palate.

For contrast, consider Cline’s 2012 Ancient Vines ($20) offering sourced from the sandy Delta soils of Oakley. It’s fat, but still possessed of fine complexity. Or Bonny Doon’s 2010 Old Telegraph ($45), a wine simultaneously fresh and fruity in the nose, but dense and brooding on the palate.

MATCHING TO FOOD

Given Mourvèdre’s long association with the east coast of Spain, it makes sense to look to Jumilla, and Valencia, and Penedes for a traditional food match. The easiest one, and a real good one, is Serrano jambon (dry-cured ham), olives, some smoky cheeses, and crusty bread. That’s not exactly opening up new pages, but it works right down to the ground.

Another item is equally traditional, and much less frequently seen in the US. Make a paella with kid goat and escargot. It’s delicious. Plenty of saffron, lots of garlic, some dried ancho chiles, Japanese (narrow) eggplant, handful of golden raisins, and about a pound of pork sausage. Get the goat at a Mexican market. Cut it up into cubes. Clean the snails in hot water (not boiling), and only put them in the dish at the end, like you would with clams. The dish is communal and very hearty. So is the wine. Mourvèdre’s ample extract helps to focus the rich flavors and rounded textures of the food. The density of the wine’s taste is a match for the strength of the food’s impression. Everyone can have a second glass and another scoop of paella. This combination is particularly good when it’s cold outside. I generally use disposable paper bowls, and finish with citrus wedges. Easy peasy, after the shopping is done.

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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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