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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 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.


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.


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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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, 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 ( 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 ~ 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 ( 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 (

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 (, 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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Roussanne ~ My Quaker Moment in the Rhône



Twenty-plus years ago I was traveling with a bunch of friends in the southern Rhône Valley. We went to visit an art academy in a tributary valley called the Luberon ~ a district subsequently given a big dose of notoriety by Peter Mayle. We stayed in the little village of Gordes, a couple thousand feet above the valley floor with a magnificent view, and an even more magnificent restaurant called La Bastide ( Surely, one of the top five meals of my life. None of us spoke much French, and the sommelier spoke very little English. Didn’t matter. We let him know we loved wine, and that we wanted to place ourselves in his hands for the evening. There were eight or nine of us. He must have brought fifteen dishes, each matched to a different wine. Took about five hours. All the wines were from the Rhône Valley, and half of them were white. Three or four of those were seven to fifteen years old. Each successive pairing was more stunning than the one before. There were bean dishes, followed by parsnip dishes, followed by mushroom dishes. I was transfixed. You had to be there. It was like a Quaker moment: so impressive, and yet so plain.

Prominent among the grape varieties on display was Roussanne. I’d barely heard of it before. But the style was very attractive. It had the weight and length of good Chardonnay. By which I mean serious flavor and complexity in the mouth. It had the ability to age well in bottle. By which I mean the ability to develop enjoyable smells and flavors beyond those that could be found in the wine when it was young. And it had nuanced fruit and floral aromas to which no Chardonnay has ever laid claim. Finally, there was this utilitarian, root vegetable patina to the wine which spoke of noble yeomen, honest labor, and good health.

Roussanne is often blended with other grapes: Marsanne in the northern Rhône; Grenache Blanc in the south. This trick is not to demean Roussanne wine quality, it is a relatively difficult grape to grow, subject to mildew in moist summers and not very productive. The blending grapes add some complexity, but mostly they are used because they are reliable producers, and there are lots of them planted. Assume what you may as to implications for the quality of white wines from the Rhône in the future. My advice: taste each vintage before you buy any quantity to cellar.

In California it is much more common to see wines labeled as Roussanne. That means they are at least 75% Roussanne by regulation. The grape variety is fairly new to California, and its first importation at the end of the 1980’s was a bit of slapstick comedy ( Today there are still only 350 acres of Roussanne in CA. Twelve of those acres are in Napa, where the grapes sell for over $7,000 per ton ~ 50% more than the average price for Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. Thirty-five acres of Roussanne grow in Monterey, where the price per ton is a still outrageous $3,765. That is four times what Monterey growers get for Cabernet, and almost four times what they get for Chardonnay. Rarity begats its own privileges. There are 130 acres of Roussanne combined in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, where the grapes sell for half the price they do in Monterey. Go figure. I guess there aren’t enough transactions to really have a marketplace.

Is it any wonder I chose Roussanne as my focus during last week’s Rhone Rangers Show at San Francisco’s Fort Mason?

There were 500 to 600 wines on offer at Rhône Rangers ( Twenty of them were Roussannes according to the catalog. Four of those producers failed to show up. Roussanne is still in an adolescent stage in CA. There is no standard against which to compare examples. Prices ranged from $15 per bottle to $35. Some of the wines were simply not well made. Nothing unusual there. Common problems were oxidation and overly acidulated, tasteless wines (perhaps unripe). A couple of the wines, from well-known producers, had extremely distinctive characteristics. The Qupé, for instance, had lots of toasty oak, overshadowing ghost-like flavor notes. The Terre Rouge was earthy, with a citrus rind nose, much in the genre of the ‘herb tea’ descriptor used by Jancis Robinson, and duplicated by several commentators who appear to have borrowed from the Oxford Companion to Wine. To me the Terre Rouge spoke of aging potential. The Tablas Creek was fruity in the nose, but nicely restrained at the same time. I was remarking to myself, while smelling it, how finely tuned it seemed. Then I put it in my mouth. Talk about shocking minerality! It was as if my glass had just deployed a steel pike. I’m not entirely sure where I come down on the minerality concept for Roussanne, but I know this one is working outside the box.

I liked three of the wines more than the others: Stephan Vyds from Paso Robles; Truchard from Napa; and Holly’s Hill from El Dorado County. I think balance is extremely important in a Roussanne. Holly’s Hill ( demonstrates that feature very neatly. It has both pear-like fruit aromatics and some shy florals, but they are all nicely cinched down. The flavors reminded me of one of those fragrant Japanese lemons: Yuzu or Sudachi. Not the juice; the marmalade made from the zest. Best of all the wine is priced at $18. The Stephan Vyds ( is twice as expensive, and mildly simple by comparison. It does have that beguilingly fragrant tea leaf nose though, and lots of mouth-filling body. Truchard ( has a bit of track-record, so I was surprised to note it priced at $22. It has that combination of pith and orange blossom in the nose, without being too loud or effusive. The profile is long, and the flavors are very complex, faceted. Real nice wine, at a price which in Napa is something of a gift.

If there is a classic dish to pair with Roussanne, I’d vote for cassoulet. No question about the dish being a classic anyway. Personally, being a Californian, I’m more likely to have some Thai soup redolent of lemon grass and loaded with coconut milk. Those elements really have got Roussanne’s number. Put a little seafood in a tomato bisque. Add lots of vegetables. Light it up with some hot sauce. Put in the coconut milk, the lemon grass, and some turmeric. Light chill on the Roussanne. Not a first course; serve as a meal with crusty bread.

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Can You Say Gewürztraminer?

I don’t know why Gewürztraminer is not more popular as a grape variety around the world. It is such a beautiful, perfumey wine. Most commentators cite the name [pronounced gay VERTS traw meen her]; claiming it’s long and intimidating to say, especially by beginners in public settings. Perhaps. I’m guessing tequila isn’t any picnic for first time pronouncers either. But the Mexican firewater still gets plenty of action. And people say they’re going to serve hors d’oeuvres (sic) all the time. I’ll bet there aren’t five wine writers in America who can employ the phrase hors d’oeuvre in a column without first looking up the spelling ~ he said, gently replacing his dictionary on the shelf.

Gewürztraminer on the Vine

No, I suspect Gewürztraminer suffers from the same image problem in America that Riesling does: insufficient machismo. People think of it as girly wine. I probably didn’t help much calling it perfumed. How unfortunate. Gewürztraminer really is the ideal wine for so many dining circumstances. If you’re confident enough in your own sexuality to wear pastel colored shirts, you ought to consider adding Gewürz to your repertoire.

‘Traminer’ implies the grape comes from the German town of Tramin. ‘Gewürz’ is usually translated as spicy, although that phrase can use some elaboration. It refers more to the aromatic (perfumed) character than it does to any ginger/nutmeg smell or to any capsaicin pepper-like nuances. The aroma of Gewürztraminer is similar to rose petals, or to several types of melon. Experts call it floral as opposed to fruity in an attempt to differentiate it from the aroma of Riesling. The nose is due in no small part to a terpene called linalool, a compound Gewürz shares with Muscat and with Riesling. In fact difference in varietal aroma between those grapes is largely due to variations in the concentration of linalool. The fragrance of Gewürztraminer comes with a phenolic, slightly oily mouth-feel, which to me elicits the phrase plasticizer. Imagine sucking on a Barbie doll’s toes. Or think of the new car smell.

This plasticizer quality is not one of my personal favorites, but it does deserve deeper examination. Aficionados often conflate that character with minerality. Alsace is considered to be the region most frequently associated with Gewürztraminer, and Alsace is also famous for its mineral gout de terroir (taste of the earth or place). The most prestigious vineyards in Alsace, source of their most expensive wines, seem to produce the most pronounced, most obvious mineral character in those wines. I don’t think minerality and phenolic mouth-feel are the same thing, but I do think many people confuse the two.

Moreover, there are clear, historical culinary precedents in Alsace which would logically lead to a preference for wines with strong mineral flavors.Alsace(i.e. the French – German border) is a cold, northern European climate. Prior to the late 1800’s food stuffs would need to be preserved from their short Summers for consumption throughout their long Winters. That means charcuterie: salted and smoked meats, vegetables in brine or vinegar. If you were going to design a wine to drink for eight months each year with pickles, patés, sausages and sauerkraut, what would it be? Alsace has a lot of experience, and a worldwide reputation, in precisely this matter.

The Great German Shepherd

The phrase ‘Alsatian-style’ does not mean the way large canines like to make love. It implies Rieslings, Muscats, and/or Gewürztraminers made bone dry ~ all the better to match with food. Most people assume a Gewürztraminer from California will have several percentage points of residual sugar. That doesn’t have to be the case, although it is more likely to be true at giant-sized wineries, like Fetzer. It all has to do with capturing the distinctly Gewürz nose in each bottle. Alsace has a cool climate, especially in the Fall as Winter approaches. Cool weather means the harvest window, during which the distinctive smell is most obvious in the grapes, will be 10-12 days long in Alsace. Hotter weather in California makes the window much narrower, maybe only two to three days. The owners of small CA wineries can walk in their vineyard each morning, and (when the smell is at a peak) call their friends to come pick the next day. Big vineyards can’t do that ~ you don’t find Mexican harvest crews in the Yellow Pages.

So big California wineries often perform some skin-soak, prior to pressing and fermentation, in order to help extract linalool from the mucilaginous layer between the pulp and the skin. Skin-soak can make wine slightly bitter. Leaving a little residual sugar helps hide bitterness. Unbeknownst to most people, Gewürz grapes are not white; they’re slightly red colored. A little bit of ‘pinking’ can be observed in these wines if they are examined closely under good light (not dissimilar to Pinot Gris).

The reason I feel Gewürztraminer is so amazingly useful at the Left Coast dinner table is because it has such an affinity for the spices used extensively in south Asian cooking. It is absolutely essential for the myriad cuisines of India, where serious practitioners will heat their spices before grinding them fresh into each dish. The lifted, flowery aspects of Gewürz are ideal with fragrances such as cloves, cinnamon, mint, or citrus rind. The minerality of dry Gewürz meshes neatly with the earthiness of tumeric, coriander, or galangal. Curry and garam masala are such robust flavors, pungently scented, everyone assumes they need red wines with considerable oomph. A reasonable assumption. Hence a surprise that Gewürztraminer is, many times, the better answer.


Here are some fine examples of wines with which to launch your own investigations


CA Central Coast ~ The cool, maritime climate of California’s coastal valleys from Monterey through Santa Barbara offer excellent opportunities to produce top quality Gewürz. Claiborne & Churchill is a small winery in San Luis Obispo’s Edna Valley run by German professors at Cal Poly (Clay Thompson and Frederika Churchill). They have two decades of strong track record making wonderful Alsatian-style Gewürztraminers and Rieslings. Fogarty is a winery on Skyline Blvd high on the ridge west of Stanford University to which pioneering heart surgeon Thomas Fogarty brings Gewürz grapes from the Ventana Vyd in Monterey County’s Salinas Valley. The wine is technically dry, very impressive, and remarkably consistent from vintage to vintage.

CA Anderson Valley ~ On the ocean side of the coastal ridge in Mendocino County, Anderson Valley has long been known as a centerpiece for CA Gewürz. Navarro Vyd is my nominee for best direct-to-consumer mail marketing program in the American wine industry. They are masters of this varietal. A number of other wineries in Anderson Valley also do well with it ~ Lazy Creek is a particularly reliable example.

British Columbia~ The Okanagan Valley of British Columbia includes some of the northernmost fine wine producing vineyards on the planet. Despite the promises of NAFTA, few of these wines find their way into the USA. A visit to either Okanagan Valley or to Vancouver, however, is well worth anyone’s effort. Look for Quails Gate, Grey Monk, or Kalala Gewürz. A respectable, consistent example made by a large company, thus more likely to be available in the US, is Sumac Ridge.

Finger Lakes New York ~ One of several very colorful personalities in the American wine industry in upstate New York was a Russian plant geneticist named Konstantin Frank. He almost single-handedly shoe-horned vinifera (read European) grapes into a region dominated by Labrusca (read Concord) and French-American hybrids. Of course he was a little nutso. Aren’t all the colorful personalities? He used to tell people hybrids were poison. Dr. Frank has been gone many years now, but his heirs make a very nice Gewürz at the family estate. And the Finger Lakes are no backwater. The viticultural research station at Geneva is justifiably world-famous. As is Cornell’s Hotel School at Ithaca.

Oregon~ Pinot Gris gets much more attention from Oregon wineries than Gewürztraminer does: nearly 3,000 acres vs. 200. But occasionally an Oregon winery will distinguish itself from their competitors with a well-made Gewürz. Such is the case with Brandborg from Umpqua Valley in the southern half of the state.

Alsace~ Alsatian Gewürztraminer is the classic, which is not necessarily the same as being the most pleasant. Certainly Alsatian examples demonstrate the minerality concept better than any other region, and that feature alone can have a certain functional utility. Trimbach is a widely distributed, and very reliable, brand that’s not exorbitantly expensive. More money will get you greater concentration of flavor, more intense aroma, and often a little bit of residual sugar. Those features can be very impressive when matched to a particularly robust curry. Try Zind-Humbrecht from their Wintzenheim Vyd.

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Are You Man Enough to Order Chenin Blanc in Public?

There are many grape varieties which have less name recognition than Chenin Blanc, but few which are viewed with as much distain in a producing region like California. The reason is simple. Most California Chenin Blanc sucks! It is grown as a bulk resource for jug wines in hot, fertile Central Valley vineyards where tons per acre almost always run to double figures. There are slightly more than 7,000 acres of Chenin Blanc in California, and 65,000 tons were crushed in 2010. The grape is naturally vigorous, with a tendency to over-crop. If encouraged in that direction, the resulting wine is, at best, non-descript. It does have good acidity though, and that trait makes it a good blending candidate for our 25,000 acres of French Colombard, although both end up together in $9 retail gallons with the varietal aroma of newsprint. It’s a flavorless universe where the phrase “alcoholic” is viewed as a compliment. California is not alone in this shabby treatment of the grape which has made the middle-Loire Valley district of Vouvray famous. Twenty percent of South Africa’s vineyard acreage is devoted to Chenin Blanc, which they call Steen. Much of that gets distilled into brandy.

It doesn’t have to be that way. And there are dramatic exceptions to this broad generalization.

Chenin Blanc is capable of making magnificent wine which pairs wonderfully well with many types of food. Jancis Robinson MW says Chenin Blanc is France’s answer to German Riesling. A handful of the best wines coming out of South Africa are made with Chenin Blanc, and have been since the end of the 1600’s when it probably arrived there in the hands of Protestant Huguenots fleeing Catholic persecution in France.  At its best Chenin Blanc balances a cleansing natural acidity with luxurious honey and almond scents. If allowed to ripen slowly, but fully, it can add guava and quince notes to the aroma. It can fairly be labeled as delicate, without being accused of shyness. There is no better foil for fresh-caught trout. Although finding fresh trout and a pristine bottle of Chenin Blanc in close proximity is a bit of a trick. Hiking the bottle into the cold mountain stream shakes the wine, rendering the aroma mute. While hiking the trout out of the mountains doesn’t do the fish any favors. The answer, of course, is to hike the wine in, cache it in the stream, and come back two weeks later to catch the trout. Believe me; that’s a recipe for intense wine-food appreciation.

Grown at 3 to 4 tons per acre, and fermented cool to retain tropical aromatic properties, Chenin Blanc’s bracing acidity makes a stunning refresher. Maritime districts along California’s coast could be the perfect sites ~ better even than France’s Loire Valley. Chenin Blanc pushes buds early. That makes it subject to Spring frost in high latitudes. Tours, in the middle of the Loire Valley, where Rabelais wrote so glowingly of Chenin Blanc’s restorative properties in the 17th Century, is over 47ᵒ north latitude. They get snow in May. Soledad in California’s Salinas Valley is at about 35ᵒ of latitude.  Soledad never gets snow, and grapes often start to bud in early March. Chenin Blanc also ripens late. Obviously it is a grape built for long hang-time. French growers often remark that their best vintages are the ones in which they have 100 days of sunshine between flowering and harvest. The Salinas Valley routinely gets 180 days. In Monterey they rarely have a compelling reason to pick prematurely, even into November.

One of the best reasons to take a look at Chenin Blanc is the price. Really good ones can be had for less than $10, and world-class examples with track records going back decades usually come in around $20. The other major reason, at least here on North America’s Left Coast, is that Chenin Blanc frequently surprises as the go- to-match with many ethnic cuisines, especially if the wine has a little residual sugar to balance its sharp acidity (Spätlesen-style), and to simultaneously tame the capsaicin burn of a Thai curry or a Vindaloo chicken dish.  I tried six different wines with a Peruvian ceviche that had been lit up with habanero the other night. Nothing seemed to work. That is until we got to the South African Chenin Blanc. Perfect. And the same wine went well with a roasted pumpkin and rice dish the next night at an Afghan restaurant. I can’t wait to deploy a couple Chenin Blancs in my favorite sushi boite.

Here’s a good line-up of Chenin Blancs. Try a few side-by-side to appreciate the wide range of styles:

blue plate ~ $10 ~ From Clarksburg in the Delta. Something about the terroir in Clarksburg is magic with Chenin Blanc. No less a connoisseur than Gerald Asher wrote in Gourmet magazine many years ago, “Clarksburg is California’s Vouvray.” Full Disclosure: Jeff Anderson, one of the partners in Picnic Wine Company, is also Marketing Director of the new self-guided wine touring smart-phone app on which I am now working. But he’s not the partner who made the wine, and I do like it.

Ventana ~ $14 ~ Doug Meador doesn’t own Ventana Vineyard, near Soledad in the Arroyo Seco AVA, any more. Doug was a great innovator, and remains (I’m sure) a very entertaining personality. He had scores of ground breaking projects. But year-in and year-out, over fifteen vintages, I always thought his best wine was his Chenin Blanc. It was invariably a head-snapping success; miles ahead of the competition.

Husch~ $12 ~ from Anderson Valley on the coastal side of the mountains in Mendocino. Dry. Lovely Juicy Fruit nose, without seeming cosmetic. Good consistency over a couple vintages. Big winner at the CA State Fair.

Pine Ridge ~ $18 ~ Blended with Viognier. Real nice combination. Evidence this Disclosure concept can run amuck ~ Lisa Goff took a couple of my wine classes years ago. That experience, and her Harvard MBA, helped get her a job as VP of marketing for Crimson Wine Group, which owns Pine Ridge.

Domaine des Aubuisieres ~ $16 ~ A classic Vouvray. Usually made with just a little residual sugar to balance the acid. More full-bodied and flavorful than Montlouis, although generally fermented at fairly warm temperatures, which de-emphasizes aromatic properties as the centerpiece.

Francois Chidane ~ $22 ~ Montlouis is on the south side of the Loire, right across the river from Vouvray. As such the vineyards do not get as much direct sun exposure, and the grapes have more trouble ripening. So the natural acidic character of the Chenin Blanc takes center stage. These are usually inexpensive wines paired with oysters or freshwater eels. In a hot vintage they can be very good value.

Indaba~ $10 ~ Fragrant, full-bodied, supple. An excellent representative of what should be a national tradition in South Africa, but isn’t. That could be because Afrikaners don’t see the wine as sufficiently virile. Perhaps if you imagine serving it with mussels you’ve harvested yourself, in shark-infested waters, using only snorkel gear. Serve the mussels in a manner the Dutch-descended Afrikaners brought back from Indonesia: with rice and a selection of sambals or chutneys.

Philippe Delesvaux ~ $70 ~ Coteaux du Layon. Botrytized Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley west of Tours. A dessert wine.  Agreeable. Very honey-like. Serve with an apple Tart Tatin.

NV Louis de Grenelle Saumur Mousseux Chevalier de Grenelle ~ $20 ~ Sparkling Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley west of Tours. Generally not very aromatic, certainly not compared to Asti Spumante, but can be excellent value when compared side-by-side with Champagne.

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