Tag Archives | current release wines

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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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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CA Grenache

Great fruit clearly announces CA, and the wine is magic when paired with crispy, roasted version of CA’s State Bird.

Wine Education

     There isn’t a huge amount of Grenache planted in California: about 7,000 acres in 2008 (down from nearly 11,000 acres in 1998), and 85% of those acres reside in the Central Valley (predominantly Fresno and Madera Counties). Hence the image, which artistic CA Grenache will eventually have to overcome, of sickly sweet swill labeled Grenache Rosé which was sold in bowling-ball-shaped jugs much prized by ‘60s-era hippies for making terrariums. Still, the enduring legacy of the Rhône Rangers in California has begat some new, green buds on the gnarly, weathered Grenache grapevine.
     Napa has less than 35 acres of bearing Grenache vines. Which may help explain why in 2009 those grapes sold for $3,520 per ton on average. That’s 50% more per ton than Napa Merlot in 2009. It would also predict a $35 per bottle retail price tag on those wines. In Sonoma County, which had 160 acres of Grenache in 2009, the average price per ton was $2,660, about 20% more than the average price per ton of Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon.

Wine Background

     Grenache (technically Grenache Noir) is really quite a fascinating grape variety. Sardinia, where it is called Cannonau, and Spain argue like cats and dogs over where it originated, and thus which direction it migrated during the 400+ years (from about 1300 to around 1700) that Sardinia was part of the Aragon kingdom. Either way, the sturdy Grenache vine has competed for several hundred years to be the most widely planted premium red grape in the world.

Matching Food to Grenache

     To read this post in its entirety, including specific wine recommendations, bargain examples, and suggested food – wine pairings, please visit the Stanford University Wine Blog.

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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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Inexpensive Chardonnay

2008 Fess Parker: intense fruit, conc in mouth, honey-butter overtones, AND under $20. Fried chicken w/ yams.

Wine Market Background

     In class I often extol the virtues of Sauvignon Blanc by pointing out there are several world-class examples priced between $15 and $19. I then exclaim, “There’s no such thing as world-class Chardonnay under $20!” And I do believe that statement to be true. At least it used to be. Which is not to say there haven’t always been a handful of eminently pleasing Chardonnays priced under $20. It is just that competition amongst Chardonnays has always been so much more intense than it is in other white wine varieties. In America, Chardonnay outsells both Pinot Gris (Grigio) and Sauvignon Blanc individually by a factor of four or five. Good Chardonnay can easily command $20 to $40 a bottle, and great Chardonnay commands $50 to $100. The only reason for a winery to price a very fine Chardonnay under $20 would have been when they needed to sell 50,000 cases of it, or if they had very limited confidence in their sales and marketing capacity. Of course, this Recession economy is creating many unusual, and enjoyable surprises for buyers.

Wine Education

     There are several justifications for the expense of a good bottle of Chardonnay. First, the grape itself is not particularly distinctive. It doesn’t have the unique aromatic signature of (say) Gewürztraminer. Nor does it have the strong flavor of (say) Sauvignon Blanc. That means concentration is doubly important and, in Chardonnay, that translates to lower yield. Lower yield means higher price per ton. Whether one gets three tons per acre in Sauvignon Blanc, or five tons per acre, the distinctive flavor is still going to be fairly obvious. Not so with Chardonnay. Taking a Chardonnay vineyard from three tons/acre to five tons/acre would have an effect Continue Reading →

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