Tag Archives | Aromatic Whites

Vin de Constance

Historic dessert wine from Constantia in South Africa. Brilliant!

Wine Description

Muscat highlights in a nose balanced between floral and ripe white peach. Yellow green color with no browning whatsoever. Dense flavors with refreshing acid finish. Perfect for a lemon custard cake. Tasted in Fine Wines of the Southern Hemisphere class at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Southern Hemisphere class will next be offered as a Weekender in August 2011.

Wine Education

Even with the attention lavished on South Africa by the World Cup soccer matches, few people realize how accomplished the South African wine producers are. Founded at a time when New York City was still called New Amsterdam, the wine industry at the Cape of Good Hope flourished while Californios were still fermenting in cowhide bags. Sweet wines from Constantia were the toast of the Russian court during the late 1800’s, where they competed quite favorably with France’s Ch. d’Yquem and with the best Rieslings of Germany. Burgundy? At the time it was considered a backwater. Its wines couldn’t command one-twentieth the price of Vin de Constance, the luxurious dessert wine from South Africa’s premier winery, Groot Constantia, which had been founded on the estate of the Capes’ first Dutch governor, Simon Van der Stel.
     After Van der Stel’s death in the early 1800’s, Groot Constantia was split into three parcels and sold. Hendrik Cloete bought the homestead piece, and with his offspring raised the quality and recognition of Vin de Constance to worldwide acclaim. Cloete called his winery Klein Constantia. In Afrikaans groot means ‘great,’ while klein means ‘small.’ Phylloxera dealt a crushing blow to the South African wine industry, and by the end of the 1800’s Klein Constantia was in the hands of Abraham de Villiers and his American heiress wife Clara. They created an elegant party venue out of the estate, and even sent their nephew to U.C. Berkeley to study viticulture, but they did not resurrect the extraordinary reputation of Vin de Constance. That was left to the Jooste family, which purchased the property in 1980. Their U.C. Davis-experienced winemaker, Ross Gower, began the wine’s resurgence with his first release in 1986. Today son Lowell Jooste is in charge of the property, and Adam Mason has taken over as winemaker. Vin de Constance is reaching new heights every year.

Regional Description

As a wine producing district Constantia has three distinct characteristics, two of them related: (1) It is basically a suburb of Capetown, with correspondingly fine exposure to the marketplace (both domestic and international); (2) it is a very up-market piece of real estate, with sumptuous houses and beautiful landscaping; and (3) it is perhaps South Africa’s coolest (using the temperature sense of the word) growing region, no small factor when the tip of the continent is at 33º of latitude. Constantia is on the eastern side of a ridge running 20 miles south from Capetown along the peninsula which comprises the Cape of Good Hope. Constantia looks out to the east across False Bay (where the English landed to begin the Boer War). Technically I suppose Cape Agulhas (the southern tip of Africa) is the terminous of the Indian Ocean, but one could certainly argue (after swimming in it) that False Bay is the westernmost vestige of the warm Indian Ocean. The cold Bengula Current runs up the western side of the Good Hope peninsula, i.e. the Atlantic Ocean. The Atlantic side is not only colder, it carries much less moisture (cf: the Kalahari desert in Namibia further north). Constantia stands astride this divide, protected by its western ridge tops.

Food and Wine Pairing

Klein Constantia makes Vin de Constance from Muscat de Frontignan grapes (cf: Liqueur Muscat from Australia). They are picked very ripe, but not excessively dehydrated. Then they are matured over a four-year period in changing combinations of stainless steel and 120-gallon oak puncheons. The wine has more the 15% residual sugar, but also has very high acid for balance. In the 2005 vintage the pH is 3.45 with 8.75 g/l of total acid. Alcohol is less than Sauternes at a little over 12%, but considerably more than botrytized German Rieslings.
     On a one-dimensional scale of dessert wines, Vin de Constance falls somewhere between Canadian Icewine and Sauternes. It is not as honeyed, nor as volatile, as Sauternes. Which means milk chocolate and nut tarts are probably not going to be preferred matches. At the other extreme, fruit aromatics are a feature of Vin de Constance, but they are far from the only arrow in its quiver. Moreover the aromatics have a distinctly floral component. In the mouth the wine is an extraordinary balance of Vin Santo-like, dried fruit concentration, and refreshingly acidic length. A simple fruit dish, such as peaches with crème fraiche, would not do justice to this complexity.
     I believe the right answer is a custard cake. Decorate each plate with jasmine flowers. Buy or make a pound cake. Slice it horizontally into three levels. On top of level one put a layer of Meyer lemon custard. If you don’t want to make it yourself, you can buy a packaged product from the Jello Company, and tart it up with a real Meyer lemon or two. Include some zest from the lemon. On top of layer two put a layer of light caramel custard. Again, if you don’t want to make your own, use crème fraiche with some brown sugar stirred in. Layer three of the pound cake goes on top. I’d be delighted to eat the dessert this way, but purists will probably want to frost the cake. Once more, packaged frosting will suffice. Vanilla or butter crème would be my choice, but apply it sparingly. You don’t want any wine to have to fight its way through legions of butter and sugar. This dessert should be 75% cake, no less. And serve it in small portions. Things always work out better if the wine is slightly sweeter than the dessert.

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Madroña 1996 Riesling

Hi elev. Grt nat acid. Super at age 12. Very long. Honey + Babcock peach. Sushi roll w/ tempura flakes.

California can do world-class Riesling. Not many, and not every year. Still, a handful of producers have proved the potential over decades. The hardship is their best examples are better with six or seven years of bottle age. And consumers just don’t get that concept. The result is a population of soda-like, eminently forgettable, Rieslings from the rest of the CA pack aimed at the mass market. Riesling should not be a mass market wine. Let the masses drink Pepsi. Or Arbor Mist.

Wine Tasting

     The 1996 Madroña Riesling was tasted in a Varietal Series class, which are held the second Friday evening of each month in Nevada City, CA (see Wine Education Vacation). It’s a great way to start off a romantic getaway in the mountains. Nevada City is the cultural centerpiece of the Sierra Foothills ~ live music, good food, palpable history, original art, quaint shopping, wonderful scenery. And several good wineries to discover. Call it The Liquid Gold Country.
     One portion of the class compared this bottle-aged Madroña with two older Rheingaus: a 1992 Robt. Weil Spätlesen and a 1988 Domdechant Hochheimer Hölle Spätlese Halbtrocken. The Weil had the lightest color and the most acid. Its aromatics were all green apple, even at 17-years-old. It continued to develop throughout the weekend, and was even more fragrant on Sunday. The Hochheimer smelled more of caramel, but also had some Pippin apple in the flavor, and it was the least sweet of the group. Neither German wine walked on the Madroña. Both German wines had less than 10% alcohol, while the Madroña had 12%. That’s not a recommendation. But the Madroña also had a lifted fruitiness and a very refreshing acidity. Most importantly the Madroña had completely shed the blocky rough edges of its youth. Once it got a little air, the wine had a burnished luminosity that was just delicious.

Background Wine Education

     As a general proposition California is never going to be a great a producer of Riesling. Washington makes more of them, and quality is usually better in Canada or upstate New York. In the 1960’s there were hundreds of (pretty mediocre) Rieslings made in California. Remember, that era predated White Zinfandel. The number of CA Rieslings dropped to just a dozen or two by the turn of the century. Most of California is just too hot. Riesling here tends toward nicely fruity, but flabby sweet, or else awkwardly alcoholic.
     Nevertheless, California is a really big place. There are lots of extreme climatic and topographical opportunities within CA’s borders. Both the highest point (Mt. Whitney) and the lowest point (Death Valley) in the contiguous U.S. are located in California, and they are not even two hundred miles apart. Two ways to gain more delicate structure, better natural acid, and more pronounced aromatics in CA Riesling are: (1) grow the grapes close to the Pacific Ocean; or (2) grow the grapes at higher elevation. The two best practitioners of these techniques are, respectively: (1) Greenwood Ridge Vyds; and (2) Madroña Vyds.

Winery Descriptions

     Greenwood Ridge is technically in the Anderson Valley AVA of Mendocino County, but the vineyard is actually up on a promontory south of the valley overlooking the coastal village of Elk. Greenwood Ridge gets a lot of rain and fog. It ripens slowly, and retains a lot of acid. Usually finished with around 2% residual sugar, the Greenwood Ridge Riesling always improves over 6-7 years in the bottle. It becomes more aromatic. Madroña can argue its case for highest vineyard in CA at about 3,500 feet of elevation. It is up the hill above Placerville in El Dorado County. They get snow in the vineyard every year, and share the characteristic of high rainfall with Greenwood Ridge. What they don’t share is diurnal fluctuation (difference between low temperature at night and high temperature during the day). Greenwood is cool all the time; Madroña is cold at night and hot in the middle of the day during July and August. Even with a percent or so of residual sugar, Madrona Riesling is a hard wine when it’s young, brusque and unforgiving. It softens with bottle-age, and shows its aromatic features more easily.

Food – Wine Match

     To be impressive in age, Riesling must have strong acid. Some tension between that acid and a bit of residual sugar is nice to give the wine focus. Sushi is a very broad category, but all of it shares an affinity for the cleansing effects of a clean acid bite. I have a local sushi place, in a not-too-distant strip mall, run by a couple young, pierced and goateed Americans, by all appearances under-employed musicians. They’re clearly well traveled. They do a roll with spicy tuna and shrimp tempura inside, wrapped with fresh salmon and avocado. They top it with a sweet mustard, with hot sauce, and with tempura ‘crunchies.’ Traditional? Perhaps not. But a spectacular match with an old Madroña Riesling. As the wine ages, its peachy fruit aromatics take on a noticeable honeyed tone. That character is matched by the tempura. The wine’s slight sweetness modulates the hot sauce, and the acid cuts through the oiliness of the salmon, the tuna, and the avocado. Wonderful match. Rolls are half-price between 2:00 pm and 4:00 on weekdays. For my birthday I plan to eat three of them, with a bottle of wine and a nap.

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Inniskillin 05 Vidal Icewine

Niagara Peninsula. Class taste. Very intense mango-citrus nose. Sweet but focused. Refreshing. Superb.

Made from grapes frozen on the vine, Canadians have carved a very successful niche for themselves with Icewine because they know they are going to get the appropriate climatic conditions if they just wait patiently. Several of these Canadian Icewines have ruthlessly bitch-slapped top Sauternes in head-to-head competition.

Canadian Icewine

2005 Inniskillin Vidal from the Niagara Peninsula. Tasted at Fundamentals of Taste & Smell class in Palo Alto. Retail store wine cost is around US$20 for 187 ml (a quarter-bottle). This size bottle works well for such a focused dessert wine, because you don’t need much, and it is expensive. Even the little bottles are heavy. They look and feel like a round of artillery ammunition. Very popular for gift giving in Japan.

Background wine education

     Canadians use a voluntary marketing incentive to severely regulate the production of Icewine. In Italy such a mechanism is called a consorzio. In order to get a little neck indicia, producers agree to comply with certain standards. In Canada this group is called VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance). The regulations state grapes can’t be picked if the air temperature is above 17ºF. That means the grapes have frozen and thawed many times before they’re finally picked. Pressed immediately, a large amount of water remains behind in the press trapped as ice. The resultant wine not only has 10-12% residual sugar, but it has elevated acid to balance that sugar.
     Theoretically the mechanics of this process can be duplicated in the winery – chill the juice; filter out the ice. This cryogenic technique is used in the US, much to the Canadians’ chagrin, and the result is often labeled ‘Icewine.’ Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon has the decency to label his example “vin de glacier” (wine of the refrigerator). Tasted separately on successive nights, a VQA Icewine and a cryogenic example can both be quite pleasant. Tasted side-by-side, the VQA wine is clearly superior, albeit four or five times more expensive.

What does Icewine taste like?

Intense, concentrated, tropical fruit. The intensity is the most startling initial impression. One picks it up while the glass is still ten inches away. The second impression is sugar::acid balance. The wine is very sweet, but it also has a long, clean, refreshing aftertaste. That’s rare, and no one misses it.
     Many VQA Icewines are made from Riesling grapes. This one was made with Vidal grapes. Vidal is a French-American hybrid with good winter hardiness and a strong citral aroma. The nose of this wine takes on a soft sweetness which might be illustrated by that which distinguishes a Meyer lemon from a Genoa or Lisbon lemon. Now imagine a slice of Meyer lemon placed on a hot skillet.


Canadian Icewine is a fine illustration, particularly when compared to Sauternes, of how important it is to pair wines to desserts carefully. Crème brulee is the place where VQA Icewine and Sauternes intersect. Sauternes is not very good with fresh fruit; Icewine is. Sauternes is okay with milk chocolate; Icewine is not. So, for this Icewine I might try a crème brulee with a slice of perfectly ripe peach on top. But the best indication of how powerfully this Vidal Icewine comes across would be to serve it with a lemon tart. Believe me, it will pass the test.

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Thanksgiving wine?

Seems a cliché because answer is always consistent, like the meal. May be why we eat it so few times each year.

I understand the historical myth surrounding a traditional Thanksgiving meal. And I like the food. What I don’t like is the imperative that everything needs to appear on the dining table at once. That concept alone drives many hostesses more than a little bit around the bend. Why not have five or six courses, each 45-minutes apart? And in San Francisco, where Dungeness crab season starts right about the same time as Thanksgiving, why not make a crab appetizer part of the ceremony. Few things make me as thankful as the start of Dungeness crab season.

Thanksgiving Food-Wine Pairing?

Turkey may be the centerpiece of the meal, but it is not a strong flavor around which to base any wine selections. Stuffing, cranberry sauce, gravy. These are the traditional flavors that should dictate the best wines to serve. But let’s see if we even get to that bridge before we discuss how to cross it.
     At several of the places I’ve gone over the years for family Thanksgivings, the issue has often been: “How many people will even drink a glass of wine?” My situation can’t be that unusual. One-third of Americans don’t drink any alcohol at all, and another third of Americans don’t drink wine. So, if I want to take three different bottles of wine to Thanksgiving at my stepmother’s relatives’ house, I’d better be prepared to drink them all by myself. Which may or may not be a problem. Good social choice = Continue Reading →

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