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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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CA Wine Market ~ Past & Future

Sometimes it seems wines just stay the same, as consumer preferences cycle through predictable patterns.

Historical Wine Background

     When one considers something as venerable as wine, two generations seems rather paltry. Forty years isn’t very old for a vine, and it’s nothing but a quick glance compared to the 5,000 years human beings have been seriously turning grapes into commerce. Nevertheless, the knowledge base of humankind has advanced rapidly since 1970, and wine is no different.
     It may be helpful to set the stage. In the early 1960’s there were only a few hundred U.S. troops in Viet Nam, and they were still called “advisors.” At that time nearly half the wine consumed in America was called “Port” and/or “Sherry.” JFK and his dazzling wife were in the White House and setting fashion around the world. Zinfandel was the most widely planted “premium” wine grape in California. The Civil Rights marches in Mississippi and Alabama were just beginning to happening, and 60% of the grapes crushed in CA for white wine were Thompson Seedless. Pills for birth control were about to come on to the market, and Robert Mondavi, although just turning 50, was still employed as a salesman for his family’s winery, Charles Krug. Women still went to college to get an ‘Mrs.’ degree, and you could buy a 1,200 sq. ft. cottage on a half acre in St. Helena for $30,000. Of course if you lived in St. Helena, you’d have to drive to San Francisco to get a good restaurant meal. The 280 freeway down the Peninsula from San Francisco had not been built yet, but South Bay wineries like Paul Masson, Almaden, and Mirassou were prestige players on the national scene. Seven years later, in the late 1960’s, while Jimi Hendricks and Janis Joplin were setting the tone musically, Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy was hailed by the New York Times as particularly noteworthy amongst international wine competitors because it was sound, clean, reliable, and reasonably priced.

Consumer Wine Style Preferences

     Yeah, things have changed.
     But I’ve changed too. Sometimes it is hard to say the wines or the marketplace have really changed more dramatically than my own preferences and opportunities have…

     To read this post in its entirety, including commentary about changing wine styles and the importance of future markets, visit the Stanford Wine Blog.

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MALBEC

Intense color. Middleweight. Tar + plums w/ cocoa + flowers around each corner. Hope popularity doesn’t screw it up.

Malbec Description

     Malbec is au currant. It is selling briskly during a recession when most wines are retrenching. It goes great with a big hunka’ red meat, and confers a gaucho image which understandably appeals to salarymen everywhere. Dr. Roger Corder, a British pharmacology researcher, even says Argentine Malbecs are particularly rich in the polyphenols which help protect against artery disease. Good news when you’re having a big hunka’ red meat. And really good Malbec can be had for less than $25. Sign me up!

Malbec Wine Education

     The success of Argentine Malbec on the U.S. market over the last four years is the envy of wine producing regions all over the world. Wines of Argentina says they sold 628,000 cases of Malbec in America in 2005, and 3.15 million cases in 2009. Particularly jealous is the district of Cahors in southwest France, which specializes in Malbec (traditionally called Cot there), and from whence the Argentine vines are reputed to have come.
     Of course commercial success on our shores usually has more to do with pricing and adroit marketing than it has to do with what is in the bottle. I’d never bet against the physical attractiveness of any Argentine winery’s PR staff. And, until last month, exchange rates did give the Argentine wines an enormous price advantage over their European counterparts.
     By way of incentive, Argentina has 50,000 acres of Malbec planted, which is more than California has planted to Zinfandel. France has less than 15,000 acres, and even that has been steadily declining since 1970. Malbec vines are quite sensitive to mildew. Hence the variety seems logically more applicable to arid climates such as Mendoza (in the rain shadow of the Andes), than it would be in the frequent summer rains of southwest France.
     Nevertheless a battle of sorts has been joined, and vintners in both California and Washington State are paying attention. There are only 1,500 acres of Malbec in California. Which explains why in 2008 Malbec grapes sold for $4,550 a ton in Napa Valley ~ almost the same price as Cabernet Sauvignon, and nearly twice as much money per ton as Merlot. In Sonoma Malbec grapes were 15% more expensive than Cab Sauv. And in the Sierra Foothills Malbec is nearly 50% more expensive than any other grape. Supply and demand. You think Wall Street is a casino? Try farming.

Malbec recommendations

     Read this post in its entirety on the Stanford Wine Blog, including specific wine reviews and suggestions.

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Pisoni Vyd

Expensive viticulture, ribald personality. Can wines truly reflect both? Does PN need to improve over 8 years in btl?

Wine Education Background

     Gary Pisoni is a wonderful incarnation of a colorful, eccentric lineage of wine personalities in California. They go back a long way, and they’re legendary. Agoston Harazthy, who claimed to be a Hungarian Count, and reputedly died in Nicaragua while trying to cross a crocodile-infested stream on a small tree limb. Paul Masson, who delighted in hosting sparkling wine baths for actresses at his Saratoga mountain winery during the waning years of the Victorian age. His successor, Martin Ray, who sold shares in his winery (Mount Eden) to investors, then denied them access to the property, while pricing his wines at three times more than any other examples on the market. Dr. David Bruce, Randall Grahm, Jim Clendenen. Mike Grgich, always ready with a double-entendre, and a staunch claimant to never having owned a pH meter. Or my favorite, Marilyn Otterman (Sarah’s Vyd), who always responded in interviews as two separate people: as herself and as Sarah. Marilyn was such a delight. She always described her wines in the female gender. As in, “My Ventana Chardonnay is always the center of attention at parties. You know, all boobs and hips. Whereas my Estate Chardonnay is more reserved, tall with a Greek nose. She hangs back, and waits for maturity on your part.”
     It’s an extensive thread ~ completely wacked out, and further distinguished by the fact they ALL made (or make) excellent wine. Gary Pisoni fits right in. He reminds me of Mario Batali: tuxedo shirt and madras shorts; catnip for the high-end collector and socialite crowds …

Read this entire post, including information on the World of Pinot Noir festival, descriptions of 6 current-release Pinot Noirs from Pisoni Vyd grapes, and 6 older examples, on the Stanford wine blog.

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