French Wines: A Long History of Excellence

frenchredsTerroir is important when talking about the wines of France, and so are vintages.

Perhaps more than in any other winemaking country, vintages matter in France because an important part of terroir — the climate — can vary widely from year to year.

All of which makes me wonder what the early French vintages were like. And when I say early, I mean early.

As we noted in a 2007 blog, Roman ruins found in southern France were declared remnants of the country’s earliest known winery.

The large site, built around 10 A.D., was still surrounded by vines on the outskirts of Clermont l’Herault, in the heart of Languedoc wine country.

“It’s really exceptional, and very elaborate,” Stephane Maune, head of the site and archaeologist with France’s CNRS research institute, told Decanter.com at the time.

Mini craters that once formed the bases of huge pottery wine vessels sat in neat rows where the old winery building stood. Each one held up to 1,800 liters, while irrigation channels showed how winemakers used water to maintain a constant temperature.

A villa, complete with 200-meter swimming pool, was attached to the building.

Maune said inscriptions named the founder as Quintus Iulius Primus, who probably came from southern Italy to invest in the region’s burgeoning wine industry.

Romans arrived in Languedoc-Roussillon via Narbonne around 118 B.C. Historians know that after subduing local tribes, the Romans cultivated vines to send wine back to Italy.

“There was lots of economic development in this area. You have good access into ancient Gaul, and there were ports close by,” Maune said.

Winemaking has come a long way in France since then, of course. Today, modern technology in the cellars can help vintners overcome some of Mother Nature’s wrath during challenging harvest seasons, while enhancing her gifts in trouble-free vintages.

When it all comes together — terroir, vintage, wine estate and winemaker — the wines of France are among the best in the world.

Click here for a few tasty examples.

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Posted in Wine in the Glass

The Best Winemakers Are Control Freaks

iStock_000017467842SmallIf we were talking about any other profession, you might think of them as “control freaks.” But winemakers have valid reasons for wanting to make as many decisions as they can.

In point of fact, the more control the vintner has in every step of the process — beginning in the vineyard — the better the wine he or she is going to make. (“Better,” of course, is in the eye of the beholder; a more accurate way of putting it might be to say that greater control equates with being able to make wine in the vintner’s preferred style.)

Few winemakers begin their careers with such control. Typically, they’ll earn a degree in viticulture, then land a job as an assistant winemaker. Depending on the winery and the circumstances, it could take years — even a decade — to move up in the ranks. Sometimes it’s as much about luck as skill: being in the right place at the right time when a veteran vintner decides to retire.

But even head winemakers are at the mercy of others, at least to some degree. They may work for a winery that has purchase agreements with any number of vineyards, but they’re not likely to have much say in how those vineyards are farmed.

And even if they do have a say, they’ll still be dealing with clones of varieties that were selected when the vines were planted. Farming methods may influence how flavorful that fruit is in a given vintage, but the aroma and flavor spectrum will always be limited by the clonal selection.

All of this came to mind when a press release from Duckhorn Wine Company arrived in my “in” box. Duckhorn made my “epiphany wine,” a Merlot crafted from grapes grown in a vineyard that the winery did not own — Napa Valley’s Three Palms Vineyard.

Here is the text of that release:

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Duckhorn Wine Company is gratified to announce that, after 37 years of making wines from its coveted fruit, the company has acquired Napa Valley’s legendary Three Palms Vineyard. Widely recognized as North America’s greatest Merlot vineyard, Duckhorn Vineyards made its inaugural Three Palms Vineyard Merlot in 1978. This iconic wine helped to pioneer luxury Merlot in California, and played a pivotal role in establishing it as one of North America’s great premium varietals. Three Palms was acquired from Sloan and John Upton for an undisclosed price. Duckhorn Wine Company has been purchasing all of the grapes from the 83-acre Three Palms Vineyard since 2011. Fruit from Three Palms will continue to be used exclusively in Duckhorn Vineyards wines.

“This is a very special day for us,” says Duckhorn Wine Company Founder and Chairman Dan Duckhorn. “We have championed the remarkable character and quality of Merlot from Three Palms Vineyard since our debut vintage. We released that inaugural vintage at the then-high price of $12.50, because we wanted people to understand that it was a Merlot of exceptional quality. This message connected with people. Not only has the Duckhorn Vineyards story always been tied to the story of Three Palms, our long friendship with Sloan and John has been one of the wine industry’s most successful and enduring partnerships. We are honored that they are entrusting us to carry on their life’s work, and to carry their great legacy forward.”

Three Palms Vineyard has long been recognized for its unique history and its benchmark Merlots. In the late 1800s, the property was owned by San Francisco socialite Lillie Coit (for whom Coit Tower is named), who planted the site’s three landmark palm trees. In 1967, the rocky alluvial fan was acquired by the Uptons, who planted it the following year. The vineyard has sparse, bale loam soils. In many spots the vines’ roots dig as deep as 18 feet in search of nutrients. Because of the challenging soils, the vineyard is planted to only 545 vines per acre.

Three Palms is also covered by volcanic stones, which absorb the sun’s heat during the day and radiate the heat back to the vines at night, protecting against frost and helping to ripen the fruit. In addition, the vineyard’s warm up-valley location contributes to a shorter season with exceptional ripening. Of Three Palms’ 83 total acres, 73 are under vine, with approximately 50 acres planted to Merlot, and the rest planted to smaller amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec.

With the acquisition of Three Palms Vineyard, Duckhorn Wine Company’s Napa Valley estate program now includes seven vineyards. These vineyards include both mountain and valley floor sites, for a total of 223 planted acres.

“Three Palms is the crown jewel of our estate program,” says Duckhorn Wine Company President and CEO Alex Ryan. “Not only does Three Palms represent the pinnacle for New World Merlot, it is one of a handful of Napa Valley’s greatest vineyards. When the history of Napa Valley is written years from now, Three Palms, and the relationship between the Duckhorns and the Uptons, will be an important part of the story.”

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Ultimately, the only way a winemaker can truly have full control is to be involved in the site selection, clonal selection and planting of a vineyard… to oversee how it is farmed… and to make the decision regarding when to harvest the grapes.

Three Palms Vineyard may already be planted, but how it’s farmed and when it’s harvested each year will henceforth be decided entirely by the Duckhorn team. And that can mean only good things for the already iconic Duckhorn Three Palms Merlot.

Sometimes in life, being a “control freak” is a good thing.

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The Wit, Wisdom and Wine of David Letterman

lettermanI don’t now anybody with an ambivalent attitude about David Letterman, who is retiring from a three-decade career in light-night television following tonight’s “Late Show” broadcast on CBS.

You either love him and his brand of comedy, or you don’t. I happen to be a fan — even if there haven’t been very many “wine moments” on either his original NBC program or his current CBS program.

There’s a reason for that, as Letterman told Jane Pauley on this week’s edition of “Sunday Morning” on CBS. He began drinking as a youngster when his father offered him sips of the stiff stuff, and he liked it. The habit continued through high school and escalated in college.

But one day, in his mid-thirties, Letterman had a revelation. He suddenly came to realize that not very many people are given the opportunity to host a network talk show, and if he kept behaving in the way he was behaving, it could all go away. So he quit drinking. Cold turkey.

He may have banned alcohol from his body, but he didn’t ban it from his show. I recall one appearance by Martha Stewart in which she was cooking with wine, and Letterman actually took a swig from the bottle — only to spit it out a moment later. Then there was the time a bowling lane was set up outside the Ed Sullivan Theater, and bowling legend Dick Weber knocked over all kinds of things with a bowling ball — including champagne glasses with set-ablaze Sherry in them.

In October of 1996, just after the New York Yankees had won the World Series, several members of the team appeared on the set and sprayed Letterman with Champagne — a reenactment of their locker room celebration, more or less. You can see a picture of that foamy image here.

Much more recently, actor Kurt Russell appeared on the program, and promoted the wine he makes under the GoGi label. It’s a Pinot Noir from the Sta. Rita Hills appellation of California’s Central Coast.

Letterman asked Russell what the alcohol level was, and Russell replied, “About 14.1.” That’s pretty standard for a lot of California red wines these days.

Letterman, still ever quick with a rejoinder, deadpanned, “Call me when you get it up to 20.”

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Raising a Glass of Garnacha to B.B. King and the Blues

guitar and Wine on a wooden tableI like to think I know a thing or two about music, but I really didn’t have much knowledge about — or an ear for — blues until I spent 13 years in Chicago beginning in 2000.

There, a friend introduced me to a club called Buddy Guy’s Legends, and that began a monthly ritual of walking several blocks after work — even in the dead of winter — to hear nationally touring artists and local mainstays perform. And a few times each year, Buddy Guy himself would be on stage — often during the early evening hours, before the “headliner” would take the stage.

It was through those performances that I learned about the blues, and came to respect a true giant of the genre: B.B. King. As you no doubt know by now, the music world lost King on May 14. He was still performing as recently as a few weeks ago even as the complications of life with diabetes took their toll.

They say that more than any other musicians, blues players can “feel” their music, and in his final performances, there was no doubt King was feeling his — lending even more soul to his playing, if that’s possible.

I had already left Chicago when a line of wines bearing B.B. King’s name began appearing in his blues clubs around the country. (Like Guy, King was an entrepreneur in addition to a musician.) King collaborated with Bodega Santa Cruz in southeastern Spain to produce two wines under the B.B. King Signature Collection label — one red and one white.

The red is a blend of Garnacha, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, made in the Crianza style (meaning it spent at least a year in oak casks prior to bottling). The white is made entirely from Verdejo grapes.

I had an opportunity to taste the 2010 Red when it was released, and it was quite good. In fact, it seemed like the perfect wine for one to sip while listening to the blues — dark, brooding and seductive, yet quite accessible… just like the music.

Selfishly, I now wish I’d had an opportunity to have Mr. King sign my bottle of B.B. King Signature Collection Red. As one who loves music — including the blues — and wine almost equally, that would have been a real keepsake.

A memorial service is planned for this coming Saturday in Las Vegas, and you can get more information here. Saturday evening, I plan to load “B.B. King Live” in my CD player, open a bottle of red wine from Spain, and pay silent homage to a true legend of the blues.

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Sparkling Wine: The ‘Default’ Pairing Partner

duvalFor whatever reason, we don’t typically think of sparkling wine when it comes to pairing wine with food.

We tend to gravitate toward rich red wines to serve with beef… rich white wines to serve with fowl… and various other red, white and rosé-style wines to serve with other types of main courses, sauces and side dishes. No wonder our “Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes” archives are so packed!

But when it seems as if a dish won’t match well with any type of wine — whether because of the dish’s saltiness, its spiciness or its heat — sparkling wine makes an excellent “default” choice.

And to the ever-growing list of things that you can eat with Champagne or other sparkling wine, add raclette.

As Robert Reid described it in National Geographic Traveler, raclette is “basically gourmet nachos: cow’s milk heated open-air and served with potatoes, onions, cornichons and dried ham.”

He noted that Chateau de Villa, a castle built in the 1500s in Sierre, Switzerland, was one place to taste the melted morsels.

Because of the complexity of the flavors complementing the saltiness of the ham, sparkling wine would be an ideal libation to pour with raclette.

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You can read more about raclette in Robert Reid’s story here. And you can check out some sublime sparkling wine pairing partners here.

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A Rosé by Any Other Name…

roseTrends come and go in the wine world, sometimes for reasons that make no sense whatsoever.

In 1975, Bob Trinchero of Napa Valley’s Sutter Home Winery invented a new type of wine: White Zinfandel. Actually, it sort of invented itself, a happy accident of a stuck fermentation that you can read about here.

Before long, White Zin was being produced by the millions of cases by Sutter Home, Beringer and other wineries. It simultaneously delighted a new generation of drinkers, who preferred sweetness in their wine, and horrified wine connoisseurs, some of whom seem to live by the mantra, “Dry or die.”

But White Zin’s ascent, inexplicably, caused many people to “un-think pink” altogether. Wonderful — and fully dry — rosé-style wines were mentally lumped into the same category as White Zin, and their stature (as well as their sales) fell. It seemed as if the only Americans drinking rosé were those who had experienced the wonderful Provencal versions first-hand.

We rosé lovers owe a great debt to Tony Soter of Napa’s Etude winery. In 1992, some 17 years after the introduction of White Zin, he crafted a dry rosé from Pinot Noir grapes. Based on Etude’s success with that bottling, other California vintners followed suit. Even imports of Provencal rosé grew 25-fold over a 10-year period beginning in 2003.

Today, you may find rosé bottled under any number of designations, including Rosado, Rosato, Vin Gris and blush.

Regardless of the verbiage, rosé-style wines offer an abundance of drinking pleasure, especially during the warmer months, not to mention great food affinity. Their popularity is a trend that we’d like to see continue for a long, long time.

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Check out some thirst-quenching, delicious, rosé-style wines that happen to be on sale for a limited time here.

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75th Anniversary: Wines for McDonald’s Menu Items

Fotolia_64561302_XSMcDonald’s conducts regional test marketing all the time. There also are regional menu variations, although not as many as there used to be.

I can tell you this from personal experience — a lot of traveling around the country, and way too many meals under the golden arches.

Right now, as an example, you can’t get a regular chicken sandwich on the Value Menu in Las Vegas. That city’s McDonald’s restaurants have switched over to spicy chicken sandwiches — too spicy for my palate. Meanwhile, in Southern California (and perhaps the whole state), the iconic fried apple pie is back (for a limited time, according to signs in the windows).

No matter where one may visit a McDonald’s, the menu is vastly different than it was 75 years ago tomorrow when brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald opened the first restaurant to bear their name in San Bernardino, California. And thanks to the efforts of the late Ray Kroc and management teams that have followed, there are more than 35,000 places worldwide to chow down on McDonald’s food.

Unfortunately, for those of us who love wine, the beverage choices at McDonald’s (at least here in the States) are restricted to sodas, shakes, smoothies, tea, coffee and coffee drinks, and water. If you want to experiment with wine pairing and the Mickey D’s menu, you’ll have to do it at home.

As is the case with virtually all food-and-wine combinations, the key is to focus on the dominant flavor of the food. That’s why some of the suggestions that follow may surprise you — and why Chicken McNuggets may be enjoyed with either white wine or red wine, depending on the sauce.

  • Cheeseburger, Double Cheeseburger, McDouble or Quarter Pounder With Cheese — Perhaps the easiest of all McDonald’s menu items to pair with wine, these are four burgers with the same basic ingredients, although the onions are chopped larger on the Quarter Pounder. Pinot Noir, known for its earthy tannins, is a solid wine choice as those tannins stand up nicely to the charred meat. Suggestion: Remove the pickles from the burgers and nosh on them separately, before or after eating the burger.
  • Bacon Clubhouse Burger, Bacon McDouble or Premium Grilled Chicken Bacon Clubhouse Sandwich — Although the condiments vary on these sandwiches, each is defined by its bacon component. This calls for a wine with a similarly smoky quality, such as Syrah. Perhaps surprisingly, Riesling also can make an excellent pairing partner — not just with the chicken sandwich, but also with the burgers.
  • McChicken — We’re talking about the “traditional” Value Menu rendition, not the spicy one. Ask them to go easy on the mayo (or scrape it off yourself), and eat it with Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio.
  • Chicken McNuggets — Nobody (except perhaps my grandson, who is an extremely picky eater) eats McNuggets without some kind of sauce. So you’re not really pairing wine with chicken; you’re pairing it with the dipping sauce. With honey-mustard sauce, pour a glass of off-dry Riesling (because the sauce will make the wine seem drier than it is). Pair barbecue sauce with (red) Zinfandel. And with sweet-and-sour sauce, Riesling or Gewurztraminer are solid wine choices.
  • Filet-O-Fish — This sandwich is all about the tartar sauce that’s slathered between the buns. The perfect pairing partner: a medium-bodied white blend.
  • French Fries — McDonald’s gets a lot of grief from consumer groups, in part because of its menu and in part because of its size. Any company as big as McDonald’s is an easy target. But I think there’s one thing we all can agree on: It makes darn good fries. So even if you don’t care to purchase one of their sandwiches, pick up an order of fries, take it home, and open a bottle of sparkling wine — either Brut or Rosé. Sparkling wine is a solid choice with most salty, otherwise-challenging-to-pair food.

Happy Birthday, McDonald’s! You sure don’t look 75.

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Posted in Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes

A Good Excuse to Open a Bottle of Sauvignon Blanc

White_Wine_PouredIt’s May, which means fresh vegetables are in greater abundance.

Try this delicious, flavor-packed salad with Sauvignon Blanc. This recipe yields 12 servings.

VEGETABLE SORBET SALAD

Ingredients

  • 2 bunches of carrots
  • 4 bunches of red and yellow beets
  • 2 bunches of celery
  • Pinch of thyme
  • 1 tsp. orange zest
  • 12 cups mesclun

Preparation

  1. Peel and dice carrots and celery.
  1. Boil beets until just tender, then peel and dice.
  1. Puree each vegetable separately in a food processor until it becomes liquid. Strain the liquid and season with salt.
  1. To the carrot juice, add thyme.
  1. To the beet juice, add orange zest.
  1. Process each batch of juice in an ice cream freezer according to manufacturer’s instructions.
  1. When freezing is complete, form each sorbet into quenelles. Store in freezer until ready to serve.

Vinaigrette Ingredients

  • 2 Tbs. balsamic vinegar
  • 1 Tbs. sherry vinegar
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 Tbs. fresh orange juice
  • Salt and pepper

Final Preparation

  1. Whisk all vinaigrette ingredients together and set aside.
  1. Toss mesclun with vinaigrette dressing.
  1. Arrange 1 cup per serving on individual plates.
  1. Place one quenelle of each vegetable sorbet in center of greens.
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Fondues and Don’ts With Wine

FoodWinePairingFondue is as much a social occasion as it is a dining experience. In fact, it may be even more so.

And what a concept for a restaurateur: simply chop up ingredients into bite-size pieces, place hot deep-frying vessels on the tables, and have the customers cook their own food — no need for Culinary Institute-trained chefs.

Typical “chunks” of food prepared for fondue frying include various types of cheese, assorted meats and, for a sweet meal-ending treat, chocolate. This “smorgasbord” of flavors calls for some creativity when it comes to wine pairing. We suggest tapping the restaurant’s wine-by-the-glass menu and perhaps sharing three or four different selections.

No fondue meal is complete without chunks of Gruyere cheese, a delicacy that’s made in the Gruyere district of Switzerland. It takes about a hundred gallons of cow’s milk to make a single wheel of Gruyere, which, over time, takes on earthy and nutty notes.

A wonderful wine companion is Riesling, which helps underscore and elevate that nutty quality. Another is Sauvignon Blanc, which has its own herbal quality that melds seamlessly with that of the cheese. If you prefer red wine, opt for Cinsault, another wine with nutty notes and mild tannins that won’t overwhelm the flavors of the cheese. Fuller-bodied reds do not work well with Gruyere or with fondue in general.

When it comes to meat and fish, the “secret” of fondue is that the hot oil sears the outside of the food while sealing in the juices. With beef and most other red meats, a mellow red such as Merlot or Sangiovese is suggested. With fish, Pinot Grigio or Chenin Blanc — white wines that generally do not have assertive flavors — make good pairing partners.

Any number of “side dishes” also can be prepared in that hot oil, including potatoes, mushrooms and sweet onions. For those, or for an all-purpose fondue wine, opt for sparkling wine — a Spanish Cava or an Italian Prosecco.

Chocolate fondue wasn’t introduced until the 1960s, but it has become wildly popular. Opt for dark chocolate, add some toasted hazelnuts, and serve it with Port for a decadent treat.

One final word of wisdom from fondue aficionados: avoid ice water. Combined with the cheese, it can cause indigestion. Opt for room-temperature H2O.

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Wine Cruising: Can’t Make It to Europe? Head for Dana Point!

DanubeBoatWhen my fiancée and I were in Austria last fall, we had the opportunity to take an all-too-short cruise on the Danube as part of an all-day tour that left from our home base in Vienna.

This is a picture of the boat we boarded on that overcast day. Fortunately, there was plenty of behind-glass, interior space to protect us from the constant drizzle. So even though shooting pictures of the hillside vineyards lining the Danube was challenging, at least we managed to stay dry.

We shared a table with another couple from America… sipped some Austrian wine… and just relaxed. No WiFi… no email… no Facebook. Just gorgeous scenery in every direction. It was pure bliss.

Ever since returning from that trip, we’ve been talking about what we’re going to do next. An extended excursion on a riverboat — and there are several that traverse the waterways of Europe — definitely is on the table. Especially, if we can find one that is “wine themed” in some way.

Meanwhile, there is a much closer to home option available — sort of.

It involves 90 minutes rather than several days.

It involves a catamaran rather than a riverboat.

And it involves an ocean rather than a river.

Okay, I guess there really isn’t that much in common, other than an opportunity to drink wine while in a vessel that is floating on water.

The option of which we speak… er, write: the Orange County Wine Cruise, offered on Friday and Sunday evenings by Dana Wharf Whale Watching, based in Southern California’s Dana Point Harbor.

The excursion lasts 90 minutes, and takes place on the 63-foot Ocean Adventures catamaran, which comfortably accommodates 49 passengers. While built primarily for whale watching, it also has a viewing deck that’s ideal for sipping wine.

While on board, passengers get four tastes of wine (two red and two white), the services of a wine host who can answer questions, and a sampler platter of cheese, crackers, dried fruit and nuts.

And then there are the views. Depending on the time of year, passengers will either soak in the sparkling lights of Dana Point Harbor, or spy the sun-kissed south Orange County coast in all its magnificence.

Romantic? You bet.

The cost of the cruise is $49 per person. If you happen to be staying in the area, ask your hotel/motel clerk if they have discount coupons on hand. We saw coupons offering $20 off each ticket, indicating that the code to use when booking online was RETURN20.

You can learn more about the Orange County Wine Cruise here.

It may not be the same as cruising the Danube… but it’s definitely a fun way to spend an evening in “The O.C.”

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Posted in Wine Buzz
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