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Grenache Blanc’s time to shine

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I’ve been reviewing some really good Grenache Blancs lately that me me wonder if this isn’t the up and coming white variety in California.

Other critics, it seems to me, give more emphasis to Roussanne and Marsanne than they do to GB. But good as those wines can be, they’re sometimes too oaky or heavy in some way. GB on the other hand is usually unoaked or just neutrally oaked, and so pure and bright in fruit and acidity, it offers something for everyone.

For example, the Jaffurs Vineyard 2011 Grenache Blanc, from the Thompson Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley, is one of the best I’ve reviewed this year. It was 35% stainless steel fermented and 65% fermented in neutral oak, which must be responsible for the creamy, smoky notes. But you’d never say this wine is oaky because it isn’t. Also typical of the successful GBs, the wine did not complete the malolactic fermentation, which is the secret behind the bite of green apple acidity that is so cool and refreshing.

I always get orange and tangerine fruit in GBs, although judging by winemakers’ notes, others find everything from melons (cantaloupe and honeydew) to peaches and citron. I can’t imagine a Chardonnay lover not enjoying the richness of a good GB, but I also can’t imagine someone who likes a crisp Pinot Gris or Sauvignon Blanc turning it away. It’s right in that middle of the spectrum, light-bodied, light-hearted and low in alcohol. Makes you think of a summer day in a garden (which is how Hugh Johnson used to describe Rieslings, but it applies equally to GB).

Other fine producers include Zaca Mesa, Tangent, Coghlan, Stark, Tres Hermanos and Tercero. Note the prevalence of Santa Ynez Valley origins. There’s no question that this wonderful, warmish inland valley, in the heart of Santa Barbara’s wine country, has established itself as the capital of Rhône varieties, red and white, in California. The Thompson Vineyard, by the way, is from the Los Alamos Valley, which, I understand, will be an official appellation sooner or later. It’s a very interesting part of the greater Santa Ynez Valley. I think of it as wedged between the warmer, more famous stretches around Los Olivos, Santa Ynez town and Ballard, and the cooler Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills to the west. Los Alamos Valley, then, sits at the balancing point where the valley goes from cool to warm, which is always a nice place for a wine region to be. I suspect somebody could grow a nice Merlot down there, but I don’t know anyone who does, because it would be a hard sell.

If you’re ever down that way, make a quick visit to the funky little town of Los Alamos, which is on the west side of the Freeway. It has some  big antique shops to browse. Eat at Full of Life Flatbread Restaurant, which makes pizzas to dream about. All the local winemakers hang out there. They have a great local wine list. If I lived in the area, I’d be at Flatbread all the time.


Aromatic whites, including Albariño, come of age

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Albarino is one of those grape varieties nobody in California thought too much of, like Pinot Gris and Gruner Veltliner, until comparatively recently.

Why should they have? California vintners fell into two categories in the modern era: those who wanted to sell commodity wines to lots of average consumers, and those who wanted to create prestige brands along the lines of Bordeaux chateaux or Burgundy domains. Either way, that meant producing those old familiar varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. If variety for variety’s sake was desired, the vintner could always throw in a little Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel or something Rhônish.

But something in the California psyche started shifting around the year 2000. I haven’t read much about what instigated this shift, which saw the beginnings of the emergence of what are usually called aromatic whites. There had long been plantings of Riesling and Gewurztraminer in California, but suddenly, one started hearing about Pinot Gris/Grigio, Viognier, Albarino, Gruner, Torrontes and others. Whaf the wines had in common were low to moderate alcohol, keen acidity, bright floral, citrus or green notes and, perhaps most importantly, little or no oak influence to mask the fruit.

What instigated this shift is hard to tell. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. Grape growers are very conservative when it comes to planting; they’re not going to stick anything in the ground they don’t think they can sell. So it didn’t come from the growers. But growers are sensitive to signs around them, and the more acute of them, who have their fingers in the wind all the time to detect changing consumer preferences, know what’s happening before most of the rest of us. Maybe they have a good network of restaurateurs and distributors to keep them abreast of what’s happening out there. Maybe they watch the critics, to see what new variety is being touted. Maybe the appeal for fresh, vibrant white wines really did start among consumers, and then traveled from the ground up. Who knows?

At any rate, it wasn’t until 2003 that I reviewed my first Albarino for Wine Enthusiast, a late date. It was a 2002 from the Lodi winery, Bokisch. It was pretty good; I scored it 88 points and, at $16 in price, it was worthy of an Editor’s Choice special designation. But I can’t say it knocked my sox off.

The first 90 point Albarino I reviewed was the 2004 Havens. It represented a big step above the Bokisch, in terms of utter dryness, light alcohol and a flintiness that was like a lick of cold stone. It put the idea in my mind that Carneros, and cool climates in general, were what Albarino likes.

Since then, the 90 point or higher Albarinos haven’t exactly flooded my doorstep, but they are coming in with greater frequency. Three producers now stand out as the most dependable: Marimar Torres, Longoria and Tangent. Each takes a different approach, but what all have in common is a cool growing region: respectively, the Green Valley of the Russian River, the Santa Ynez Valley and the Edna Valley. I’ve also been impressed lately by Kenneth Volk’s 2011 Albarino from the Santa Maria Valley, a little more-full-bodied than the others, but still Albarino-ey.

This new penchant among consumers for light, aromatic white wines is a very good thing, and I suspect it’s being driven by younger wine drinkers. It takes a certain amount of courage for a diner to request a wine type he’s unfamiliar with and may not even be able to pronounce, even if the sommelier recommends it. My friends who are floor staff confirm that it is indeed younger people who are drinking these aromatic whites, including Albarino, which pairs so well with today’s fresh, ethnic, pan-Asian fare and tapas-style small plates.

Acreage of Albarino is up sharply, although it’s still miniscule compared to other white varieties: a total of 176 acres in 2011. But 72 acres of that were non-bearing, meaning they’d been planted in 2009 or 2010; and I suspect that when the 2012 Grape Acreage Report comes out, we’ll see even higher numbers. Critics have long lamented that Americans are not drinking adventurously, creatively and experimentally. But I think that trope can now be laid to rest.


White Rhône-style blends on the rise? Yes. And please take my reader survey

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First, huge thanks to all of you who took the time to fill out my reader survey yesterday. It had an unbelievable 117 responses the first day! If you still haven’t done it, you can click here to access it. I sure would appreciate it. In a few weeks, this information will help me figure out what to do with steveheimoff.com to make it better.

* * *

I’m often asked which California wine type do I think has made the best improvement over the years. All of them, I usually say, because I think it’s true: California wine is better than I ever remember it, and I’ve been drinking it seriously (I mean studiously) for nigh on 35 years. (Does anyone under the age of 50 say “nigh on”? It means “almost,” of course, and comes from the old German word “Nahe” for “near.” Nahe” is also the name of the German wine region. Can anyone explain this connection? If you can, you get a free subscription to my blog.)

The problem with comparing wines separated by decades of time is that the comparison can only be done in memory, which is fallible. Did I really think David Arthur 2009 Elevation 1147 (99 points, $150), which I reviewed this summer, was better than a 1978 Clos du Val Cabernet (price and alcohol level unrecorded), which I had when it was a few years old? I didn’t rate the latter wine; why would I, years before I became a wine critic? But, to judge by my notes in my Tasting Diary, I thought it was superb (“Gorgeous, beautiful, tannic, but opulent, full of fruit and glycerine. Wish I had waited another 4-5 years [to open]”).

That I found both of these wines superlative, separated by nearly 30 years, is evident, so how can I say that one was better than the other? After all, if the Clos du Val actually was better–and had I been scoring it–I would have had to give it 100 points! So this illustrates some of the pitfalls in saying “California wines are getting better.”

This question of “Are California wines getting better” also arises during discussions of “score inflation” that pop up from time to time. If my scores are higher than they used to be (and they are a little, as Wine Enthusiast’s database shows), a rational explanation is that the wines have improved. However, an equally rational explanation is that my “palate” has changed in some way that prompts me to rate the wines higher. Or perhaps something in my mind has changed, which then influences my palate. It’s hard to say. To further confuse things, there are plenty of people (the anti-high alcohol crowd) who argue that California wines actually are worse than they used to be. They might accuse my palate (and those of critics like me) of having become jaded by these ultra-rich wines, so that anything with finesse or subtlety doesn’t get noticed.

Let’s take a step back. Strictly objectively, you’d have to say that California wines are better than they used to be because they’re less flawed. Fewer bad corks, cleaner wines due to cleaner wineries, healthier rootstocks and plant material, more grapes organically or sustainably grown, and so on.

So you can see that the simple statement “California wine are better than they used to be” is not so simple after all. It’s rather like asking, “Is America better than it used to be?” People of different ages and backgrounds will have all sorts of opinions, but nothing is provable, the way a mathematical equation (2+2=4) is provable to everyone’s satisfaction.

Still, I’d say California wines are better than they used to be. Can’t prove it. Just my opinion. Sue me if you disagree.

Having said that, it got me thinking about what wine type has improved (or seems to have improved) the most over the years. The answer, obviously, is Pinot Noir, but we all know that. Is there another type that’s less obvious? Yes: white Rhône-style blends. I’ve given more high scores to them in the last several years than ever before. Why this should be so, I think, is due to grapegrowers’ ability to better farm these often difficult varietals, and to winemakers’ increasing understanding of how to properly blend this family of grapes, which includes Roussanne, Marsanne, Picpoul Blanc, Grenache Blanc and Viognier.

A California white Rhône blend should be rich, fruity and balanced, although it will seldom equal the opulence of a great barrel-fermented Chardonnay. But the best of them are able to support some oak. Firmer than Chardonnay, nuttier and more floral, with more backbone, they pair well with a wider range of food than does Chardonnay. Some of the better ones I’ve had lately have been Krupp Brothers 2008 Black Bart’s Bride Marsanne-Viognier, Tablas Creek’s 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc and 2011 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (a nice value), Adelaida 2010 The Glenrose Vineyard “Version,” Calcareous 2009 Viognier-Marsanne, Demetria 2009 Cuvée Papou and Kiamie 2009 White Kuvée. Interesting that so many of them come from Paso Robles. Could a cool vintage in a hot climate be just what a white Rhône blend wants?

There still aren’t many of these wines produced. Statewide acreage of Viognier, the most widely-planted white Rhône variety, in 2011 was only 3,020, barely one-thirtieth that of Chardonnay, so the wines must necessarily be rare. Nor do they command particularly high prices, except for cult examples like Alban and Sanguis.

Still, the winemakers committed to making these wines are passionate. White Rhône-style wines haven’t made much of a dent on the national radar, yet; but sommeliers are well aware of them, and so are critics. They could be the Next Big Thing in white wine.


Somm Scam!

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My digital friend Alfonso Cevola posts on his blog, On the Wine Trail in Italy, about how an Italian culinary and wine education school, the Alma Wine Academy, is selling a “Master Sommelier diploma” for 1,044 Euros (about $1,354). This so-called Master Sommelier certification, it need not be added, has nothing to do with the real Court of Master Sommeliers, the U.K.-based organization whose tough examination parameters entitle 129 North Americans to add the prestigious letters M.S. after their name.

The Court issued a statement denying any link to the Alma Wine Academy and said it is “currently seeking through legal channels to clarify the situation.”

Alfonso learned of this through a post on a blog called Just a Good Little Wine, entitled My Master Sommelier Thesis: Josko Gravner’s Ribolla gialla and the orange wines in the U.S. market. In it, the blogger, Cristina Coari, says she is “proud to announce I’ve recently got my Master Sommelier diploma” on the basis of her thesis on “orange wines…whites so defined by the Americans for their amber and orangish color. Today, this type of wines [sic] are produced all over the world, from France to California, from New York State to Australia, from Georgia to of course Italy.” In her thesis, Cristina writes, she studied the market potential for these wines. Unfortunately, her thesis (available on her blog through a link) is in Italian, of which I speak not a word, except Ciao! and various food terms.

At first I thought Cristina’s post was a put-on, but then I Googled “orange wines” and got quite a few hits. Here’s one that calls orange wines “a current favorite of hipster sommeliers.” Here’s another, from Imbibe Magazine, that describes orange wine as “White wine that has been left to get chummy with the grape skins and seeds,” a technique uncommon in the vinification of white wines. Its introduction in New York State, by Red Hook Winery, “kicked off a whole new facet of New York winemaking and inspired other New York producers,” according to the author. And here’s one, from 2009, from our own Jon Bonné, at the S.F. Chronicle, that calls orange wines the “ultimate reactionary drink.” Jon said that 2009 “seems to be their breakout year,” but I don’t think it was. I haven’t come across any orange wines in California, haven’t heard of them, and if there’s any breaking out, it’s failed to come to my attention.

Incidentally, I looked up Josco Gravner (the subject of Cristina’s thesis) in Wine Enthusiast’s database and found a 2008 review by our Italian bureau chief, Monica Larner, of his 2003 Anfora Breg ($120), a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Riesling Italico. She loved its “deep golden color and intense aromas of caramel, butterscotch, mature apricot and chewy caramel,” and gave it 92 points.

Have you heard of orange wines? Are you a somm who serves them? Know any Cali winemakers who make them? Let me know.


Playing “what if?” with California wine regions

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It’s really an accident of history that we here in the U.S. and in California decided to name wines by grape variety rather than by region.

We have Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and so on. In Europe, of course, it’s a different story. There (for the most part) they named wines after the regions they came from: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Sancerre, Champagne, Chianti, Barolo, Rheingau, Ribero del Duero, etc.

The reasons why California went the varietal route as opposed to the regional route are many and complex. It made sense to men like Frank Schoonmaker, in the 1930s, following the Repeal of Prohibition, to get away from the false and misleading names of California wines like “Claret,” “Burgundy”, “Port” and “California Champagne”, and take a more honest varietal approach. Their hearts and minds were in the right place: simple, candid truth-telling on the label.

Unfortunately, it seems not to have occurred to them to name California wines after their regions. Think how everything would be so different if we’d chosen names like Oakville, or Glen Ellen [the town, not the wine brand], or Salinas Valley, or Geyserville, or Los Olivos, or Oakley, or Edna Valley.

If that had happened, we might have developed a regional-varietal family coordination like they had in Europe. Instead of having Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs, Petite Sirahs, Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs, Tempranillos, etc. with an Oakley appellation, the pioneers of post-Prohibition viticulture and enology might have figured out that a red blend based on 2, 3 or 4 varieties worked best for their climate and soils. You’d be able to say “Oakley Red Wine” and know exactly what that meant, same as “Pauillac” means a Cabernet Sauvignon blend. As things now stand, however, “Oakley Red Wine” could be anything.

Red blends have become quite the thing lately, with more and more wineries mixing varieties willy-nilly. Some of them aren’t very good, and I get the feeling the wineries do it because they had the grapes or bulk wine available and couldn’t think of anything better to do except to stick them in a big tank and call the resulting wine some wacko name. Marketing departments also get involved, perhaps advising their employers that problems with existing varietals suggest staying out of that game. For example, the market’s already crowded with Cabernet. Syrah doesn’t sell. Nobody wants Zinfandel anymore. No one’s ever heard of Tempranillo. And we can’t call lit Moscato because it’s not. And so on and so forth.

However, there are some really wonderful blends out there. To mention a few, Seghesio San Lorenzo Estate, which is Zinfandel and Petite Sirah; Krupp 2009 The Doctor (Tempranillo, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Cab Franc); Chateau Potelle 2009 Explorer The Illegitimate (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel and Syrah), Shafer 2009 Relentless (Syrah, Petite Sirah).

Is it good or not so good that California went down the varietal path instead of the regional one? Hard to say. The government developed a system of American Viticultural Areas that kinda sorta looked to the French appellation system as a model, but differs from it in that the Tax and Trade Bureau doesn’t have any quality standards for an AVA. So really, an appellation doesn’t mean very much. Still, it’s fun to play “What if?” And there’s this, too: some of our better appellations have become so varietal- or varietal family-specific that they’re practically synonomous. Say “Napa Valley red wine” and most people will think of Cabernet or a Bordeaux blend. Say “Santa Rita Hills red wine” and most people will think of Pinot Noir. Say “Amador County red wine” and most people will think of Zinfandel. So, in a way, despite the fluctuations and randomness of human decision making, grape variety and region find each other in a most serendipitous way.


The Central Valley’s silver bullet doesn’t exist

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I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there is no “breakthrough variety” of wine that’s going to suddenly make the Central Valley of California the new, umm, hot place to grow grapes.

The Western Farm Press reported yesterday that San Joaquin Valley growers “gathered in Fresno recently” to brainstorm “what the future could hold in terms of new varieties that could be used for blends or could even rival other accepted varietals that include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc.”

(For non-Californians, the term “Central Valley” refers to both the San Joaquin Valley, in the south, and the Sacramento Valley, in the north. Both are the hottest winegrowing regions in California, with temperatures routinely topping 100 degrees in the summer.)

The Press article quoted a Constellation winemaker, Oren Kaye: “We haven’t found that shining star yet,” but winemakers are looking at everything from Durif, Tannat and Fiano to Sagrantino and Marselan Noir, as potential “breakthrough” wines with their “own signature style.”

Central Valley winemakers and business interests have been looking for that “shining star” wine for decades. Twenty years ago I went to a seminar on this very topic at U.C. Davis. They had some pretty good wines, as I recall: the Port varieties, vinified dry, were quite appealing, and there were some Sicilian varieties I liked. But Touriga Nacional or Nero d’Avola haven’t exactly become household names in America.

There are solid reasons why consumers won’t budge beyond the current dozen or so varieties that dominate the market. (The Press article states that “Fewer than 10 wine grape varieties account for 80 percent of the varietal wine grapes grown in the United States.”)

1. Consumers are conservative about the things they buy. Once they come to trust a brand (or service provider or wine type), they tend to stick to it. The nervous uncertainty caused by the economy further exacerbates this cautiousness.

2. The wine industry has proved exceptionally incoherent when it comes to marketing. The article glides over this difficult by merely pointing out that “The challenges for new varieties include difficulty in mass marketing.” That’s putting it mildly. Proctor & Gamble and Apple know how to mass market a new product. The wine industry does not.

3. Consumers are happy with the choices they already have. They’re not looking for anything else (except, maybe, less expensive wines). You can’t sell somebody something she’s not looking for.

I know, I know, you’re asking “What about Moscato?” Yes, it’s true that Moscato came out of nowhere, and I think researchers are going to be studying that phenomenon for a long time. Putting aside the theory (highly debatable) that hip-hop can create a trend (maybe it happened once, but lightning isn’t going to strike twice), I think Moscato’s popularity is because the variations of that variety have long been some of the most popular wines in Europe, providing clean, crisp, refreshing and slightly sweet alternatives to dry white wines. That niche hadn’t been filled in the U.S. Moscato just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

The Central Valley has a role to play in American wine. It can provide inexpensive, high-quality everyday versions of the popular varieties, with California appellations. No shame or guilt in that! Central Valley growers should be proud of the role they play in helping tens of millions of consumers drink good wine everyday.

As for all those researchers looking for “the breakthrough variety,” there’s certainly no harm in what they’re doing, and if they manage to make some pretty good wines along the way, great. The fact that they’re unsellable is unfortunate, but it’s part and parcel of the marketplace. If you ask me, they should get over the concept of a “variety” and experiment with blends, red or white. Give them an appealing name, great packaging, an affordable price and a bit of a story line, and then put the marketing muscle of, say, a Constellation behind them. And when I say an appealing name, I don’t mean something pandering and trendy, like anything with the word “bitch” in it. I mean something tasteful, that’s meant to last.


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