Alright, here’s the low-down on Sangiovese (san-joe-vase-eigh), Italy’s most widely planted varietal, especially in the center portion of the boot.  Sangio has been around for a long, long time.  In fact, it is thought to be ancient with some records from way back when using names similar like “sangiogheto” or using one of the many, many synonyms to Sangio like Morellino, Nielluccio, Prugnolo Gentile, Brunello and more.  Also, the meaning of the word is “the blood of Jove,” so yeah probably quite old.

It is most popularly recognized as being the principle variety of Chianti.  Chianti covers a huge portion of central Italy, more land than all of Bordeaux in fact.  It is nearly 100 miles from north to south, but it was not always this way.  In 1716, Chianti was delimited.  It was one of the first wine regions in the world to be specified in this nature.  That original geographical location is now known as Chianti Classico produces mighty fine wines.  There are now several other “Chianti’s” that I describe below.  First, some otherness on Sangiovese…

In 2004 researchers in Alto Adige discovered that the parents (they must be so proud) of Sangio are Ciliegiolo and Calabrese Montennovo therefore Sangio is one half Tuscan and one half Southern Italian.  So if my experience of living in Florence as a blonde American taught me anything, it taught me about Italian men.  Those from Tuscany wear shiny belt buckles and love vodka (and blondes).  The ones from the south eat pasta for breakfast because they’re workhorses, know how to farm but know how to eat well too.  This makes sense… Sangio as a wine is lively, bright, and fashionable, but has some innate wildness and strength to it.  Anyway, Sangiovese is a slow and late ripening grape that is often not harvested until after September 29.  In hot years is produces rich and sometimes too alcoholic wines that can live for a long time.  In cool years, it has very high acidity and hard tannins.  If overproduced, the color is terribly light and brown easily; does not age well.  It sounds like I’m dissing Sangio which I don’t mean to do; let me tell you the good stuff:

Sangiovese is fantastic.  It’s high in acid making it perfect for Italian food and lots of dishes with similar weight and acidity.  If you have never had pizza and Chianti, please do.  Immediately.  It’s got a lot of tannin too which makes it intriguing, full of character and strong.  The combination of these factors grants it great ageing capability.  The flavor profile is incredibly diverse and can range from bright fruit to earthy funk.  There is something about Italian terroir that is exceptionally unique.  Sometimes I smell a wine, even a Cab from Italy and it just smells… Italian… Here are some aromas and tastes from past tasting notes: under ripe cherry, candied cherry, strawberry, campfire, cigarette smoke, tart cherry, grass, wet hay, green pepper, stones, barn, red apple, bing cherries, sugar cookie, leather, smoke, tobacco, tea, dates, cinnamon, vanilla.

Now for some specifics about what’s on the table for tasting group (because there’s other options for Italian Sangio, but I didn’t want to introduce them all.)

Chianti Classico: Sangiovese was always part of the blend with other varietals like Canaiolo, Mammolo, Malvasia (white), Trebbiano (white) and others. Today, it is the principle varietal.  As of 1984 Sangiovese must account for at least 80% of the final wine thought some producers go for single varietal.  Other grapes including the non-traditional Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot & Syrah are permitted up to 20%.  The area stretches from just outside Florence to Siena in the south.  The soil types and aspect varies significantly from north to south leading to suggestions that sub-regions be created.  A producer I like from here: Felsina

Chianti Rufina: Just northeast of Chianti Classico.  The altitude here is a bit lower than that in Classico but there is a pass in the Apennine Mountains to the north that introduces a cool breeze.  Slightly lighter is style and often lower in price.  A producer I like from here: Selvapiana

Morellino de Scansano: Southwest of Chianti Classico not far from the coast in an are loosely defined as Maremma.  These wines are 100% Sangiovese and grown in hillside vineyards ranging from the sea up the village of Scansano.  Wines from here are muscular.  And usually inexpensive.  A producer I like from here: Fattoria Le Pupille

Vino Nobile di Monepulciano: This region is east of Chianti Classico.  These wines used to be a blend with Sangio as the principle but now, it is solely Sangiovese.  They call Sangio “Prugnolo Gentile” here.  The wines are big and often have more alcohol than Chianti Classico.

Brunello di Montalcino: The village of Montalcino is south of Chianti Classico.  It enjoys a cool maritime breeze which is good for the thin-skinned varietal. “Brunello” is the name for Sangiovese here.  The wines is made of solely Sangio.  What makes Brunello di Montalcino stand apart from other expressions of the grape is the arid climate, the aforementioned cool breeze, and the ageing process.  Before Brunello di Montalcinos are even released, they are aged in cask for at least two years and at least four months in the bottle with a total of four years.  I haven’t had much Brunello di Montalcino (yet), but one producer I like is Il Poggione

Rosso di Montalcino: Same delimited are as Brunello di Montalcino but may be released after it is one year old.  Interesting tid bit: Wines labeled “Sant’Antimo” are actually of the same delimited area of Brunello & Rosso di Montalcino but use new oak which Brunello and Rosso do not.

Tasting notes to follow shortly….

p.s. for those who are on the edge of your seats about the Riesling tasting, I can’t find my notes.  They’re somewhere… will post when found.


“I like rice-ling.” “No, actually… it’s ‘reece-ling’, like a reeces peanut butter cup.  But better.”  The finest white grape varietal in the world, some say, and I can understand why.  Nothing seems to nakedly express terroir like riesling does. Taste a riesling that comes from a field of stones and you’ll think you have a wet pebbles in your mouth, in the most pleasing way possible.  Try one from say, a southeastern facing slope of reeces pb cups and it’ll taste like chocolate sunshine but still maintain its varietal markers.

So what are the varietal markers, say you?
For starters, naturally high levels of tartaric acid.  Like, lots of it.  Also, powerful, rapier-like (thank you Jancis Robinson, for that description) aromas that can be flowery, lemony-limey, steely, honeyed and of course, whatever mineral it is grown in.  We can’t forget the horisoprenoid hydrocarbon 1, 1, 6-trimethyl-1, 2-dihydronaphthalene…. Petrol.  In small & integrated amounts, it’s delicious and intriguing.  In exorbitant amounts, it’s gross.  I heard Olivier Humbrecht (Master of Wine, oopmteenth generation vigneron in Alsace and world champion for Biodynamics) speak on the topic a couple of weeks ago and his perspective is smart and simple: if it’s there and it’s unpleasant to you, um, don’t drink it.  If it’s there and you want it in your mouth, then it’s good, go for it.  He broke it down further in an interview with Dr. Vino:  The aroma can signal several different things:
1. the grapes were harvested underripe
2. machine-harvesting can cause off-aromas like it
3. reduction (in stainless steel, poor use of sulfur, bad use of time on the lees)
Further, Mr. Humbrecht prefers to describe the aroma as wet stone, sea air or iodine.  Not something you power your lawn mower with.  I also asked importer, Ewald Mosler what the thought and he was in the same boat.  In fact, he was quite put off by my use of the word “petrol” at all.  He said, “It’s not petrol, it’s mineral. “  Oh… okay.  I was very sad to have offended the happiest German on the planet. 😦

We are talking about Riesling here. And Germany, so there’s more.  Much more…

Knowing some German wine terms is essential to even understand what you might be purchasing when buying German Riesling.  Here’s the DL:

Prädikat: literally means distinction.  Rieslings are labelled by distinction of oechsle (ook-shla), another really fun word.  It is the measure of grape ripeness / must weight.  So if grapes are picked really not ripe, then they have a low level of oechsle, if they’re really ripe, then more oechsle.  Got it?  Good… The different prädikats are:

Kabinett: lowest oechsle. What’s with the name?  Sounds like “cabinet.”  It is; previous to German wine laws established in 1971, wines were often labeled with the English word, “cabinet” suggesting that the wine was of high enough quality that it was worthy to be stored in the producer’s cabinet, or cellar.  So some wines could be labeled for instance: Auslese Cabinet = that it was of the Auslese ripeness level and of high quality.  No longer.  Kabinett is now its own thing, the least ripe at harvest, so generally the lightest body but can be vinified totally dry or not.

Spätlese: means “late harvest” but is not like late harvest wines from Washington, for instance.  Heavier must weight than Kabinett, but can be vinified dry or sweetish.

Auslese: sometimes botrytized, usually some RS, requires ageing.

Beerenauslese: beeren means “berries” and the word as a whole usually refers to grapes that have been affected by botrytis.

Eiswein: grapes frozen on the vine which concentrates the sugar and the acidity to make a rockin’ dessert style wine.  They freeze them on the vine though… not in the fridgidaire.

Trockenbeerenauslese: fully “dried” (trocken) on the vine by botrytis.

More terms that may appear on the label:

Landwein: kind of like Vin des Pays.

Feinherb: unofficial term for medium dry.

Halbrocken: medium dry

Erzengerabfüllung or Gutsabfüllung: estate bottled.

Weingut: wine estate.

Some specifics on German regions where Rieslings are produced:

Mosel-Saar-Ruwer (or just Mosel): The largest and most renowned.  Really, really steep cliffs that are famous for astounding vineyards.  Some fabulous producers here include but are not limited to Dr. Loosen, Selbach-Oster, J.J. Prüm & J.J. Christoffel

Rheingau: Slightly warmer than the Mosel producers great richness but dry styles can be found here also.  Some producers to know: Schloss Johannisberg, Johannes Leitz & Robert Weil.

Nahe: Again, you may find a variety of styles here but generally, wines from here are kind of between the highly aromatic Mosels and the rounder Rheingaus.  A producer to know: Dönnhoff.

So that’s about, mmmm, 1% of what there is to know about German Riesling.

My tasting notes, guesses & the results.

1. color has definite magenta, especially in the rim. extracted, stains the class. low-med viscosity. on the nose, earth first, actually.  then sweet, wet fruit. a little dead animal. raspberry popsicle. medium+ acidity. very fresh & bright, yummy fruit. blackberry. plum. medium tannin. My guess: Cote de Brouilly Answer: Chateau Thivin Cote de Brouilly

2. very similar color to number one. a touch more transparent. low-medium viscosity. nose: bright, piercing. so similar to number one. stony. strawberry preserve. beets, pencil lead.  palate: medium tannin, 13%abv. grape tannin is prominate. plum. even feels like plum skin. kind of hot. My guess: Cote de Brouilly or Julienas. (is this the same wine??) Answer: Chateau Thivin Cote de Brouilly. I was too chicken to guess aloud that it was the same.

3. similar appearance. not as vibrant on the rim. medium+ viscosity. more fruit, warmer nose. tootsie pop. something savory too. tannin is much gentler, acid is lower. My guess: Regnie Answer: Domaine des Braves Regnie

4. bright purple red core to vibrant, magenta rime. medium viscosity. nose: intense. a touch of ea. so rich and powerful. arugula. smells a touch hot. jolly rancher. popsicle. round, luscious, beautiful. some oak. medium acid, medium tannin. penetrating, dark fruit but lasting, sweet acidity. My guess: Foillard Morgon Answer: Jean Foillard Morgon “Cote du Py”

5. visual: same. nose: totally different. stones. wet cement. beach. beets. cheddar cheese. palate: medium+ tannin. very drying. medium acid. oak. grape skin. skinny mouthfeel. flavors dissipate. My guess: Chenas Answer: didn’t write the answer in my notes…

6. visual: same, a little lighter. medium viscosity. nose: mostly fruit. cough drop. raspberries. plums. thyme. palate: a little chewy. mostly fruit. oak. plum. medium acid, a little astringent. My guess: St. Amour Answer: clearly I was fatigued & probably just way wrong therefore unmotivated to write the answer to this one either.

Afterthoughts: The reason I wanted to do all Beaujolais is because I have numerously times, called a quality Beaujolais a red Burgundy in blind tastings. I denied the fruit factor. This was good practice.

Every Tuesday evening I get together with fellow wine industry folks, wine lovers, etc to learn and blind taste together.  I have gotten in the habit of creating and sharing notes on our tasting theme.  They insisted that I post them somewhere. Where better than my blog that is all together lacking my attention…

A couple of weeks ago we focused on the 10 Villages of Beaujolais strictly from 2009.  Here’s the scoop:

Beaujolais… Fun to say, even more fun to drink.  Beaujolais Nouveau is the region’s young wine released every November, fresh off the press, literally. It’s known for its bubble gummy-ness, banana and artificial aromas, lots of ethyl acetate, and vibrant magenta color.  Often described as kool-aid wine, it’s the region’s very successful cash cow.  While Beaujolais Nouveau is of the Gamay grape, it is a whole other world from the fine wines of the ten “Cru” villages that make high quality wine of Gamay.  If you’ve never had it, try it come November.  Throw some ice cubes in it and sip it with a straw. Then go back to Fleurie or Moulin-a-Vent…

Now, onto some specs regarding Cru Beauj and the 2009 vintage…

The ten villages are located in the northern part of the Beaujolais region that stretches 34 miles north to south, the northern part very close to Macon, the southern portion very close to Lyon.  The southern portion of the region is quite flat with limestone soils; lesser quality wines come from there.  There are a variety of soil types around the area vary greatly but a significant characteristic is the underlying granite left from ancient volcanoes in the north.  The styles of wine from the 10 villages definitely vary, but there are some similar vini techniques that are common throughout, number one being semi-carbonic maceration.  This is a winemaking process which involves a short carbonic maceration phase followed by a normal alcoholic fermentation.  Not familiar with carbonic?  Also known as intercellular fermentation, whole grapes are thrown into a big, air tight vat.  Co2 is pumped in, just to displace any O2.  The weight of the grapes on top slowly crush the grapes at the bottom, there is some ambient yeast in there too, so fermentation gets a-going, natural co2 is created and the atmosphere is just right for the unbroken grapes on to but begin fermenting inside of themselves without added yeast.  CRAZY!  This process results in wines that are more bright and fruit-forward than they would be had they undergone “regular” fermentation.  Also – more villages are utilizing barrel maturation = there can be lots of similarities to red Burgundy.  Fun for blind tasting, ay?

The villages from north to south and some details:

St.-Amour: more famous for its Macon wines than for its Cru Beajolais wines. The village derives its name from St.-Amateur – a Roman soldier who was converted to Christianity and founded a monastery and then made wine. These wines are very fragrant, very fruity.

Juliénas: named after Julius Caesar, so they say.  Likely the first village to have vineyards planted.  The wines are spicy rich, chunky in their youth, but become satin-smooth with age.

Chénas: This is the smallest village of the 10.  It is located in the slopes above Moulin-a-Vent and used to be covered in oak trees, so the name is derived from “chene” meaning oak.

Moulin-a-Vent: Said to be the King of Beauj by some.  These wines are big and have great longevity.  It is in part due to the high manganese content in the soil.  When these wines age, they can be easily confused with red Burgundy.

Fleurie: The quintessential Beauj.  These wines are fresh, floral & fragrant.  The aromas are strong, the palate is silky.

Chiroubles: located high in the hills.  This is the most fragrant of the bunch but the wines are delicate.  It is the prettiest village and produces the prettiest wines.

Régnié: Some claim that this was the first planted in Beaj.  There are two distinct styles from here (grrrreat): light and fragrant vs. full and meaty.  The top soil here is sandy, so the wines are a bit softer than other villages.

Morgon: These wines rank right there with Moulin-a-Vent (but isn’t there usually just one king??).  These wines are more sturdy though.  The fruit is very compact, the bouquet is penetrating.  There is a high content of manganese in the soil here too, so that’s where some of the similarity comes from.

Côte de Brouilly: These wines are full, rich and flavorsome, vivid and intense. More fruit, less earth.

Brouilly: To contrast, these wines have a bit of earthiness but the quality and style is a bit variable.

2009 in general: (I got this info from the best vintage resource out there:

Overall, a fine and warm summer with lots of sunlight allowing the grown to warm significantly.  2009 is a good vintage, maybe great and is comparable to 1999, 1990, but most of all, 1959.  It is perceived as superior to 2007 and 2008 because temperatures were too inconsistent for the ground to warm fully in those years.  This pleasing season resulted in grapes that were fully ripe, but had ripened rather slowly so maintained a balanced acidity which is crucial to developing into rich yet fresh wines.  It was very popular to vinify whole clusters and to include the stems.

My generalities on Gamay: small – medium sized berries that are very purple. They are relatively hardy in the vineyard. Thrives in granite, sand and clay. Wines from gamay are medium garnet to bright fuchsia. On the nose you will find aromas of flowers, candy, red fruit, earth, stone, cranberry, beets, rhubarb, did I say candy?  On the palate it is medium – high in acidity, the tannins are low, sometimes medium, the body is light and there is a medium amount of alcohol.

There are several ways to go about becoming well-versed in the world of wine. The most effective is time, truly.  No matter how well-studied one is, it is obvious to me that those who get wine best are the individuals who have been tasting it, loving and experiencing it for years.  Certification can jump-start that a bit and lay a quality foundation of wine knowledge, hence my journey to gaining certification as a Somm.

There are a couple of different programs that offer Sommelier certification.  I have opted to go through the International Sommelier Guild (ISG) which requires about one year of classroom time all-together and a rigorous set of exams at the end of the course.  I faced my first day of final testing about two weeks ago.

It was, um interesting.  Read on.

At 11am I introduced my acting self as Sommelier to a table of two distinguished judges (current Somms in Seattle.) They had in hand, a copy of my made-up restaurant’s food menu and wine list that I had created over the previous eight months of class.  I set about serving them in traditional, fancy Russian service method.  I was prepared to discuss and decide upon a bottle of bubbly, then open and serve the bottle.  Then to discuss and decide upon a bottle of red, to open, decant and serve properly, meeting all sorts of criteria such as examining the foils for flaws, never touching the mirror of the cork, priming the decanter, confirming the quality of each wine, offering tastes to confirm soundness, never dripping, never pointing the bottle of sparkling even slightly in the direction of anyone so as to not injure them, should the cork come flying out unexpectedly, oh! – and do all this with calm and grace… Ok!

I approach the table with confidence and ease, “Hello, welcome to Yoke, we are honored to have–,” “Soooo we’re here for the first time, please explain the inspiration and theme of your restaurant; the goals and organization of your wine program.”  “Oh, uh, I, uh… (breathe…) Yes, certainly.”  It takes me a moment, but I get on track and describe the inspiration and goals of my food and wine program.  I have described things more acutely before, but it could’ve been worse.  It takes some back and forth before deciding upon a bottle of sparkling wine, I am relieved to escape table side for a moment to retrieve it.  I take several deep breaths while I prepare the gueridon (table on wheels, more or less) for service.

I return ready to pop open the bubbles without so much as a sigh of a noise. Little did I know that in the midst of following my finely tuned steps of service would I be bombarded with endless inquires about EVERYTHING  that I mentioned in my menu.  “Oh, though you are just now preparing our first course bubbles so carefully, I want to know about the winemaking process of each dessert style wine you have listed on your menu, can you tell me about them?  Also, what countries are all of the listed cheeses from?”  In my head: “Oh good gawd….”  I manage to pour the bubbles in seamless stream, decant and pour the red with ease but it is all-together difficult to answer the unrealistic continuum of specific questions throughout.  I now know that Halloumi cheese (which I included on my cheese list) is indeed a mix of goat’s and sheep’s milk, and yes sometimes cow’s milk…  All I knew when she asked me is that is that it’s originally from Cyprus.  I got the impression that THAT was NOT good enough!  Did I say “whew” already?  I shall say it again… “WHEW!”  At another point in service, I recommended a wine that I didn’t have on my list, I mis-spoke about the vintage of the red they had ordered, and at the end, I began walking away, gueridon and all, with their wine.  Luckily, I managed to keep the smile on my face, laugh at myself and return it with a tiny bit of grace.  My instructor for class had told us that the service portion would be tough and that there would be questions, but it wasn’t until being tested myself that I really understood what he meant.

I think that was all a bit much.  But it’s the way of the game, so be it.

The day was all but over after the service portion.  My classmates and I downed a glass of sparkling wine, took a breather, then reconvened for the food and wine pairing challenge and essay questions.  Those aren’t near as entertaining to read about as the service, so I’ll spare you.

That pretty much sums up day one of exams.  Tomorrow?  Day two: three hours and 22 wines to taste blind followed by multiple choice questions.  Here goes nothin’!

In college, my obsession was the history of art.  The study of art history requires a very broad range of focus — history, culture, religion, symbolism, concrete and abstract artistic understanding (interest, really), and the relevancy of it to today + what’s happening now.  I often get asked how I ended up with such interest in wine and I find it of no coincidence that one obsession led me to another and that the two: art history and wine, are very similar in nature.  The world of wine requires a very broad range of interests and therefore, supplies a virtually limitless sea of options in terms of career and specialization.  To know wine, one has to grasp the full picture.  This is never possible because there is so much… but you know what I mean.  You can’t just love French wine and know its ins and outs… Nor can you solely appreciate California wine and actually know what’s up with wine.  Like art history, it requires reaching way back into the past, to everywhere, studying the web of progress and change, and yes, tasting, to understand what’s goin’ on.  Do I claim to get it?  Hell no.  Does anyone?  I dunno, but I always like to find out about how people go about their wine journey.  Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting someone in the industry who has a pretty rad story, Kermit Lynch.  He is the guy, according to my boss, that “we all were (or are) all trying to be.”

In the ’70s, Kermit Lynch was a musician with a sickness for wine.  With a $5,000 loan from his girlfriend, he opened a wine shop in California in 1972.  He put his music on the back burner and went for it.  Time and good business sense led him to the capability to travel and find really good wine, mostly in France and Italy.  His book Adventures on the Wine Route tells all: fantastic encounters with winemakers from the Loire to Chablis…. tasting barrel samples for the first time, seeing winemaking head south fast to appease the “international market” and his tries and successes at convincing them to not… It’s pretty cool stuff.  It is an entertaining read and I learned a lot along the way.

Nowadays, at 69, Mr. Lynch spends much of the year with his cool photographer wife in Berkely and another part of the year in Provence, close to where he has a hand in the wines of Domaine Tempier.  He spends a lot of time “making cd’s”.  Our evening with Mr. Lynch at Soul Wine featured his music which I found to be Dylan-esque, sensuality included.  My evening consisted of bringing Mr. Lynch splashes of Punta Crena Vermentino from Liguria (delicious), snapping pics, tasting his personal recommendations, and having him autograph a bottle of “La Démerrante” by Maxime Magnon: an atypical blend of carignan and cinsault from Corbières – one of my favorite bottles that he imports, at least that I have tasted so far.

A big shout-out to my amazing boss (pictured above with his lovely wife and Mr. Lynch) who made this event happen in the best wine shop of Seattle, WA (well, maybe second best to Pike & Western), Soul Wine.  A great evening that I will not soon forget.

Wow, what an experience.  This is my first Spring in Seattle and today was my first go-round at Taste Washington – an annual trade & public exposition with over 200 participating wineries and lots of Northwest restaurants.  It was vaguely reminiscent of a livestock trade expo in the cornfields of Illinois that I attended as a ten year-old field tripper back in the days of middle school.  Wine trade show?  Way better.

I went to enjoy and mingle, but also with a mission and work responsibility.  To taste, talk, spit, listen, remember, take notes and not spill all at the same time?  Um, challenging…  Life is hard, ya know?

There is so much going on in the Washington wine scene.  I have been so wrapped up in somm classes that I haven’t had time to focus on what’s going on here and now.  I took some time away from the books this week and spent two days in Walla Walla for the first time, and then all afternoon today at Qwest for the Taste.  I had previously tasted and become quite fond of some wines from Walla Walla, but my visit there gave me a better understanding of what’s up and a deeper appreciation for many of the wines.  All in all,  it is a town and wine appellation that has a community of people working together.   Yes, they’re competing for business but even so, it’s got this air of chill cooperation and openness.  They’re like the Richard Blais of the competition; confident and cool enough to tell the opposite team the answers because he knows he can execute better anyway.

The wineries at the Taste today were from all over the state.  A lot of history is in Walla Walla (well, history in terms of Washington state wine; the 1980s aren’t historical in Bordeaux, but ya know, everything is relative).  There is a lot of prime land in Walla Walla and people who have had a relationship with their vineyards for a long time.  The same is true for Red Mountain (sub AVA of Yakima.)  Others were representing what’s hot down in the Columbia Gorge (WA side) – this is an area that I am particularly excited about.  Some wines from the Puget Sound AVA too… no comment on those.  I tasted a lot of wines today that were okay.  And just okay.  Then there were others that were awesome.  Wines that are varietally representative but also show a sense of place, are balanced and exude something special.  I never started writing this blog to start plugging or reviewing; I started it just to make myself write stuff.  I gotta mention some kick-ass WA wines though:  JB Neufeld.  Justin makes awesome Cabernet.  Especially the 2008 Dubrul Vineyard.  Hot damn, it’s good.  Tranche Cellars.  I haven’t had a wine from them that I don’t like.  My favorites today were the newly released Rosé and Cab Franc.  I’m a bad, bad wineragazza and don’t know the vintage of the Cab Franc…  Sean Boyd of Rotie Cellars makes great Rhone style reds.  Domaine Pouillon from the Gorge makes a Gewurz that rocks and Katydid – also a Rhone blend.  I could go on, but I won’t.

Meeting the people and getting involved rocks.  Rajat Parr was there; I admire that guy to no end so chatting him up for a few made my day.  That, on top of tasting a few true gems made for a pretty great first Taste Washington experience.  I said it earlier today and I’ll say it again, you know you’re spoiled when a “long day” consists of tasting wine for five hours…

The worldwide palate has been into Argentinean Malbec & other goodies from South America for a couple of years now.  While I have enjoyed a bottle now and then, I must admit I have been a skeptic about wine from South America in general.  There are several reasons why I have been right but several reasons why I was recently swayed towards optimism.

Some negatives: After the wine vine was introduced to Chile and Argentina in approximately the 16th century by the Spanish, experimentation and figuring out how to best grow tons of grapes for winemaking, the two countries got on a roll and made mass amounts of okay wine that was consumed locally until the market took a downturn in the 1970s.  (Then massive exportation of average wine began.)  One key to producing high quality fruit is to not grow too much in one area, aka – it is better to have a low yield.  This is typically measured through hectolitres per hectare in vineyard sites and is often controlled by the region’s wine regulation system.  For instance, in the Cote d’Or region of Burgundy, the maximum yield allowed for reds is 40 hl/ha (about 2.3 tons / acre) and for whites is 45 hl/ ha.  This is considered quite high for most of France.  Compare this to the average yield in Chile of 70 hl/ ha.  Another negative: it became apparent over the last 20 years or so that bottles from Chile were being mislabeled.  What they thought was Merlot was sometimes Carmenere, what they labeled as Sauvignon Blanc was often the Sauvignonasse or Tocai Friulano grapes.  DNA testing and more quality control is said to fixed this issue but the lesser grapes still take up about 30% of vineyard space, so it’s hard tellin’.  The wine law system in both Argentina and Chile is quite lax too.

Some positive points: The glory that is Malbec.  This dark grape’s origins are in Bordeaux and Southwest France.  When phylloxera charged through the country in the 1800s (read a blurb about phylloxera from cellar notes here), the original Malbec vines (along with all the others) were destroyed.  The wine industry was rebuilt, literally, atop American rootstalk.  Malbec, however, does not perform so wonderfully when grafted.  It is still one of the five prime varieties in Bordeaux used for blending, but is not as prevalent as it once was.  Much of South America is resistant to phylloxera – one of the few places in the world that is.  Hence, there are some really old vines that are in their all natural, never cut and grafted state.  Can this effect the character of the grape?  I believe yes.  It can result in a longer vine life, better sap flow, have better resistance to pests and harsh weather & result in better grapes all around.  Other varieties are being produced in Argentina and Chile too: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Torrontes, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Muscat & others but Malbec is what I am excited about today.

More positive stuff: both Chile and Argentina have unique and fantastic grape-growing conditions.  To the west of Chile is a low-ish coastal range and then the Pacific.  To the east are the insanely tall Andes.  Vineyards are primarily located on plateaus at higher and higher altitudes (up to 600m) heading east.  Summers are quite dry but ample water is available from the Andes.  The ripening season is long and steady — a major key in growing grapes suitable for fine wine.  Argentina is on the east side of the Andes where it is sufficiently protected by the mountains’ raindshadow effect = long dry summer and fall + major temperature shift between morning and night.  Plus, the altitude is even higher than that in Chile.  All of this is good good good for grapes.  Why?  At higher altitudes, the atmosphere is thinner and more UV rays hit the vineyards.  The grapes want to protect themselves so they form thicker skins.  There is an increase in color intensity and in soft, round tannin.  Malbec has the same flavor profiles when from South America and France (red fruits, chocolate, forest) but they have very different mouth feels.  High altitude also means cooler temperatures which means that the grapes keep generous amounts of acid.  This is crucial for well-balanced wine.

All of these factors result in a full bodied and intensely colored wine that has layer of flavors.  Two Malbecs that I am all for are Dona Silivana & Tempusalba both from Mendoza, Argentina.  They retail for about $20 and $24 respectively.  Why that much when you can buy Malbecs for $10?  Well, if you want to experience high quality and complexity in your glass, go for it.  There is a reason that you can get cheaper stuff and while that’s all good and I buy those too — it’s a different thing.  The two wines that I mentioned showcase Malbec made with artful expression and focus.

A shopper with a mission wandered in the store the other day looking specifically for an organic wine. Organic and biodynamic (think chemical-free plus a homeopathic cycle in the vineyard, all the while nurturing the natural ecosystem) wines are becoming more and more common. That however, is a whole other topic that maybe I’ll write about another time. In showing this guy to a few organics, I came to find out that he is allergic to sulfites. They give him headaches, so he thinks that organic wine is the way to go. I disagree. This is a topic that has created much confusion for wine consumers, so let me break it down and explain.

The term “sulfite” on a wine bottle is all-encompassing for sulfur dioxide, sulfurous acid, forms of complexed sulfite and a number of different things regarding sulfur. The term “sulfide” with a “d” refers to the natural byproduct of fermentation; these are two different things but both have to do with sulfur and are part of the mix-up of what causes headaches. Sulfur is used in some form in the vineyard to protect against different types of mildew that are common on grape vines. Sulfur is actually a vital part of the life of a vine. Some soil types provide a bit of the sulfur necessary for success, but farmers often add more. It is then used in the winemaking process as a cleansing agent and most importantly, as a preservative. Wine is a fragile product. For it to be made and then shipped across the state or around the world, it needs some protection. In red wine, the tannins supply a great deal of preservation. White wines do not have tannin so they are actually quite a bit higher in sulfur content. While organic and biodynamic wines will probably have less sulfur, there will still be some because of the kind that is naturally created through the process of fermentation.

So what’s with the allergy? There are some people that yes, truly are allergic to sulfur or some compound (like sulfides) that contain sulfur, but they are few and far between. A good way to find out if you are or not is to eat dried fruit. Dried apricots, craisins, any of those preserved fruits have loads of sulfur in them. So if you have issues with wine and not those food products – than it’s something else that’s bugging you. Very likely, it is the % of alcohol in the wine. It sounds like that is the case for my inquisitive shopper. If you don’t take note already, pay attention to the percentage of alcohol in each bottle you open. New world (meaning the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa) tend to be pretty high in alcohol. Reds generally have more than whites. Old world (France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria and more) tend to be a bit lower. The reason why is something I should write about another day. Regardless of what you’re drinking, check out the percentage of alcohol in that wine and pay attention to how you feel later or in the morning. A wine that is at 11% versus 16% makes a HUGE difference.

So there you have it, that’s the story on sulfur in wine. It is something that anyone in the wine industry really needs to be familiar with. It comes up so frequently with consumers in restaurants or in store. This was just a brief summary, read up in Jancis Robinson’s Oxford for the information, then figure out how to best present it to the consumer. It isn’t easy to say, “well actually, you’re probably wrong” if they are convinced that they have an allergy, but you can present this information and still sell wine without bruising anyone’s ego. My highly-susceptible-to-headaches shopper has come back a couple of times now to buy wines that are low in booze and he is pretty excited that he can drink wine without worry.

Now, onto Amarone (pronounced am-a-ro-nay).  “Amarone” refers to the way in which this wine is made in the Veneto region of Northeastern Italy.  The varietals included in this wine include Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella – all dark grapes.  Amarone reigns primarily sub-region of Valpolicella.  The south tip of Valpolicella borders Romeo & Juliet’s city of Verona.  The word “Amarone” is derived from the Italian word “amaro” which means bitter. Do not let this dissuade you though – the wine is rich and succulent and while it is full of tannin, the bitter quality is not negative and in well-crafted wines consumed in good timing, is well-integrated.  I liken “Amarone” more so to the Italian word “amare” meaning to love because, well… I love Amarone.

The process: when harvest season arrives and the grapes are picked, only the best bunches are selected for use in Amarone.  Rather than being crushed immediately for fermentation as typical red table wine, these grapes are left whole and left to dry for an average of three months.  The traditional method was to put the bunches on straw mats, wicker shelving, or to hang them from the rafters and leave them be.  The grapes would dry and raisin (this is called appassimento).  During this process the grape becomes dehydrated but the skin remains intact and rich in both flavor and color.  The modern method is to leave the grapes to raisin in an interior space on racks with controlled temperature and humidity, fans and dehumidifiers so as to lessen the amount of rot and mold.  Purity and cleanliness both have improved wine in general over the last century and the same is true for Amarone.  While certain types of fungus (ie Botrytis) can be beneficial, the exclusion of most types of fungus, rot or mold has led to a cleaner and more balanced Amarone.

When the drying process is complete, the grapes are crushed and fermentation commences.  During the appassimento, about half of the grape’s liquid has been lost so fermentation can be a challenge.  During fermentation the yeast needs the liquid to eat and metabolize all the while breaking down the large amounts of skins.  This is a lot of work for the yeast so a common problem with Amarone is that the fermentation comes to a halt; this is referred to as stuck fermentation and is very problematic.  The most common side effect of this is high amounts of Volatile Acidity (VA) in the final product.  A small amount of acetic acid is in almost all wine and is a natural by-product of fermentation.  Higher amounts of acetic acid causes unpleasant aromas most notably, a barnyardy-ness.  (Good word, I know.)  Stuck fermentation can be restarted, but that is a whole other topic that I won’t get into in this post.  The rest of the winemaking process of Amarone is the same as for typical red wine.  A notable characteristic is that it is quite high alcohol, but by today’s standards, not that noticeable since most wines are ridiculously high.  Read James Suckling’s recent experience with an old bottle of Amarone here.  Amarone is most often aged in barrique barrels from Bordeaux that are a bit different than the more popular Burgundian barrels.  It is then aged and then bottled.  It almost always needs a good decanting before service – this will remedy the likely present VA also.

Amarone is rich in color with a deep core.  It has aromas of dried cherries, dried prunes, chocolate and coffee beans.  The tannins are plush and powedery.  It is a book on the palate, complex and long with rich coffee, fruit and chocolate flavors and high alcohol.  The production of Amarone has increased dramatically over the last decade, so be careful and do a little research about which producers are quality.  (Jancis Robinson recommends Allegrini, Bussola, Ca’La Bionda, Quintarelli and Dal Forno.)  Then have a bottle with something rich and spicy like spaghetti piccante or flavorful pizza.  And love it.


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