An attractively priced, screw-topped proprietary red from one of New Zealand’s top producers, the 2009 Craggy Range Te Kahu hits all the right notes. Bright and balanced, with mouthfilling black fruit flavors, yet lively acidity, it’s an extremely versatile food wine. As you might expect from a merlot-dominant bordeaux-style blend, ripe plumpness comes wrapped in soft, textured tannins that check the fattiness of meat dishes, but its tartness complements those with a tomato base too. Additional spicy nuances — cedar and smoke — emerged when I sipped the final glass with a plate of hard cheeses: gruyere, Canadian cheddar, Wensleydale.
Elin McCoy's Wine of the Week
2009 Craggy Range Te Kahu
Region: Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand
Grape: 80 percent merlot, 12 percent cabernet franc, 5 percent cabernet sauvignon, 3 percent malbec
Too often, producers of high-end, pricey wines adopt a heavy hand with their modest wines. The results can be crude, overweight cousins to their better bottles. Craggy Range specializes in expensive single vineyard vino, but this wine shows they know how to make a solid-value example too. The beauty of the Te Kahu is that it’s not overdone — just done right.
To most wine lovers, New Zealand is best known for its fresh, zingy sauvignon blancs. But the country also produces a range of stylish reds. Craggy Range, founded in 1997, sources grapes from a variety of key regions, including the Gimblett Gravels area in Hawkes Bay. This grape-growing valley, with its distinctive soil types and warm, sunny conditions tempered by cloudy mists, is known for plantings of bordeaux varieties and syrah. Craggy Range has 100 hectares (247 acres) in the region, much of it merlot.
Te Kahu means ‘the cloak’ in Te Reo Maori, a reference to the mist used to protect a mythical Maori maiden from the sun as she visited her lover. It’s hard to know what the actual mists in the valley do for the grapes. The winery thinks this wine could age for 10 years, but I’d enjoy it in its lusty prime.
Zester Daily contributor Elin McCoy is a wine and spirits columnist and author of “The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste.”
In the world of craft beer and spirits, imagination and product innovation are never in short supply. Persimmon ale? Check. Smoked bourbon? Yep. Oyster stout? You betcha. But when it comes to wine, experimentation is usually limited to combining grape varieties that don’t traditionally go together. (Tempranillo with Merlot? Crazy!)
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The U.S. wine industry racks its collective brain about how to capture some of the magic of other craft beverages, but at the same time, many vintners are reluctant to try something different in the cellar. Years of tradition, combined with the lingering feeling that U.S. wines still need to prove their worth on the world stage, have led to instinctive eye rolling at the mention of any wine that dares to venture beyond the use of lesser-known grape varieties.
Would it be so unthinkable for a vintner to produce a wine infused with locally grown berries, or partner with a craft distiller to age a wine in used bourbon barrels?
It’s already starting to happen.
“At the start of my wine-making career, almost everything I made was unconventional,” Prairie Berry winemaker Sandi Vojta said. “I made wild fruit wines from South Dakota! I was by nature never a follower of traditions, and learning to make wine with unconventional fruit reinforced that in me. I have had the opportunity to wear traditional wine-making shoes as well, and doing so has taught me to respect and embrace all wine styles.”
Even mainstream wineries are starting to branch out. In late 2014, Fetzer released its “1000 Stories” Bourbon Barrel Aged Zinfandel, and in January, Robert Mondavi Private Selection launched a limited edition Cabernet Sauvignon aged in bourbon barrels.
According to Robert Mondavi Private Select winemaker Jason Dodge, aging in bourbon barrels is “ideal for use in Cabernet, because Cabernet has such an intensely rich fruit character. Instead of overwhelming the wine it actually integrates with (the barrels) very well.” The most exciting thing about the project, he said, is being able to combine the art of wine making with the craft of bourbon production.
And why not? There’s no reason craft distillers and brewers should have all the fun.
Adventures in wine drinking
Tired of the same old Cab? Check out these boldly unconventional wines:
Prairie Berry Blue Suede Shoes, South Dakota ($40): This fruit-infused wine is made with Zinfandel grapes and blueberries. It has a light ruby color, aromas and flavors of ripe blueberries and a pleasant sweetness balanced with acidity. Try it with blueberry pie or pungent blue cheese.
Baker-Bird Kentucky Black Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon ($49.99): This Kentucky winery ages its Cabernet for one year in used, heavy-charred bourbon barrels. The resulting wine has a spicy aroma with underlying herbal notes. It has red fruit flavors and lively acidity, along with notes of toasted oak and vanilla.
Blanc de Bleu Cuvée Mousseux Brut, California ($24.95): Packaged in a crystal-clear bottle to show off the wine’s Tiffany-blue color, this is a grape-based sparkler with blueberry extract added. While you might expect it to be sweet, the wine is technically dry. It’s light and fruity on the palate, with subtle blueberry and green apple notes.
Spicy Vines Original Blend Signature Spiced Wine, California ($23): Inspired by German glühwein, this is a blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Syrah and Grenache, infused with cinnamon, cardamom, clove and allspice. The wine has chai-like aromas, and flavors of spiced red fruit. The wine is slightly sweet and can be served at room temperature, warm (think mulled wine), chilled or mixed into cocktails.
Main photo: Creative wines such as Blanc de Bleu are shaking up the traditional wine world. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo
If you think of Tuscany and its wines, it is the famous names that immediately come to mind: Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Bolgheri. But Tuscany is so much more than those. There are all manner of lesser-known wines off the beaten track.
I recently spent a couple of days in the Orcia valley, an area sandwiched between the vineyards of Montalcino and Montepulciano, with a river that rises at Monte Cetona and flows into the Ombrone. The Orcia DOC was recognized in 2000, and in 2004 the whole valley was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As for most of the red wines of Tuscany, Sangiovese is the dominant variety, often blended with the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. There are now about 40 wine estates in the 13 villages of the Orcia valley, with an impressive level of quality and just waiting to be discovered. Here are five that are well worth the detour.
Fattoria del Colle
This is the property of Donatella Cinelli and Carlo Gardini. Donatella’s family has long been part of the wine scene of Montalcino, with her brother now running Fattoria dei Barbi, but Fattoria del Colle is where Donatella makes her mark outside Montalcino. She has about 81 acres of vines near the village of Trequanda and makes three red wines, not to mention Vin Santo, which is an essential part of every classic Tuscan estate.
Leone Rosso is Sangiovese with 40 percent Merlot, making for riper, fleshier flavors. Cenerentola, or Cinderella, is Sangiovese with 35 percent Foglia Tonda, an old Tuscan grape variety that almost disappeared. Donatella has played a large part in its successful revival. And then there is Il Drago e le Otto Colombe, a blend of Sangiovese with some Merlot, as well as 20 percent of an Umbrian grape variety, Sagrantino. The name of the wine refers to the fact that the estate is run by women, the doves, with just one man, or dragon, Donatella’s husband, Carlo. It makes an amusing aside. But Donatella has a serious focus; a fellow winegrower described her as the anima, or driving force, of the Val d’Orcia.
This is a relatively new estate, in Tuscan terms, for it was created in 1997 by Pasquale Forte, a businessman from Calabria. From one small purchase in 1997, he has developed a 416-acre estate, including 25 acres of vines (in addition, there are olive trees, extensive woodlands and land for rearing animals).
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Sangiovese is the core variety, with some Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot. They aim for self-sufficiency and even have a restaurant, the very stylish Osteria Perillà, in the nearby village of Castiglione d’Orcia, where you can enjoy the produce of the estate. They are moving toward biodynamic principles and paying enormous attention to the condition of the soil, with advice from the leading expert in the field, Claude Bourguignon.
A drive around the vineyards offered breathtaking views of the hilltops of Rocca d’Orcia and Castiglione d’Orcia, with the autumn sunshine reflecting on golden vines. The cellar can only be described as state-of-the-art, with several sorting tables, vats for microvinifications and a serious selection of barrels.
They make three wines. Petruccino, a blend of 70 percent Sangiovese and 30 percent Merlot with 14 months’ oak aging, has a ripe fleshiness from the Merlot, balanced with freshness from the Sangiovese. More serious is Petrucci, a pure Sangiovese, described as their flagship wine, with aging in new oak. The third wine of the range is single-vineyard Guardiavigna, from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The 2010 was drinking particularly well, with elegance and balance.
This estate was developed by Giuseppe Olivi, who produces an eclectic range of wines from an equally eclectic selection of grape varieties, namely Sangiovese, the key Bordeaux varieties, Syrah, and Pugnitello, another Tuscan variety that has been revived in recent years. His flagship wine is I Puri, a varietal wine that changes from year to year, depending on which grape variety is the absolute best in that particular vintage. In 2009 it was Merlot and in 2010 Sangiovese, with a fine expression of the variety. Unusually for the Orcia valley, they also have some white varieties, Verdicchio, Viognier and Sauvignon, making a fragrant white wine with some stony minerality.
This is an enchanting spot, with views of Monte Amiata and the small town of Pienza. The almost abandoned property was bought in 1999 by Ada Becheri and Alberto Turri, and they began planting vines in 2002. Until 2008, they merely sold their grapes and did some experimental microvinifications. The following year, they built a neat compact cellar and now they make a convincing range of wines that amply illustrate the characteristics of the Orcia valley, with Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot in varying proportions. Oak aging is essential to them all.
Citto, from all four varieties, is elegant and cedary; Ciriè is Sangiovese and Merlot, with some fleshy fruit; Tribòlo is a pure Sangiovese, and a riserva, which requires 24 months of aging. In fact, it has spent 30 months in small barrels, with some lovely elegant sour cherry fruit and just the right amount of oak. And finally there is Albiano, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with just a touch of Petit Verdot. This is riper and immediately more international in flavor, while still retaining the benchmark elegance of Podere Abiello.
Marco’s first vintage was 2001. He has developed the vineyards of an old family estate to make two wines: Capitoni, which is a blend of 80 percent Sangiovese with some Merlot, and Frasi, which comes from a 3.2-acre vineyard planted in1973 that is mainly Sangiovese, with Canaiolo and Colorino. The three varieties are all mixed up in the vineyard and consequently fermented together, then aged in large wood for two years. A vertical tasting of Le Frasi from 2010 to 2005 illustrated the vintage variations. But the first things you see in Marco’s cellar are two large amphorae, for he is experimenting with Sangiovese in amphora.
The flavors are fresh and perfumed, with elegant red fruit and potential, rather like Val d’Orcia, which is a sleeping giant waiting to be discovered.
Main photo: Podere Forte’s vineyards offer breathtaking views of the hilltops of Rocca d’Orcia and Castiglione d’Orcia. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia
Idaho is famous for potatoes. Now the state’s swelling ranks of winemakers want to put Idaho’s wines on the culinary map. So far, they appear to be making headway.
Just ask Andy Perdue, wine writer for the Seattle Times and editor and publisher of the website Great Northwest Wine. He compares Idaho’s wine making with that of its more famous neighbor, Washington.
“They’re kind of at a place where Washington was in the early to mid-’90s as far as size and quality. That was the turning point for Washington. It’s an interesting time to keep an eye on that industry, because the wines coming out of Idaho are on the rise and getting better and better.”
The rising quality
Perdue links the rising quality of Idaho wine to people such as Leslie Preston. The Idaho native found Idaho’s grapes “so exciting” she decided years ago to make wine using them. Small problem, however: She was living in California’s Napa Valley. “I just wanted to focus on Idaho grapes,” Preston recalls.
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Preston remained a “road warrior” for four years, before she and her family relocated to Boise in 2012. Today, Preston owns Coiled Wines, in the Snake River Valley grape region in southwest Idaho (hence the name “Coiled,” as in snake). And Preston – who trained in California at Clos du Bois, Saintsbury and Stag’s Leap Winery – is among several Idaho winemakers winning awards.
A jump in wineries
“Idaho is more than just potatoes,” Moya Shatz Dolsby, executive director of the Idaho Wine Commission, says. (Full disclosure: The commission was among the Idaho-based sponsors funding my trip.)
Idaho counted 51 wineries at year-end 2015 — versus 11 in 2002. More than 1,300 acres of grapes are planted. The principal whites are Chardonnay, Riesling and Viognier. The chief reds are Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Malbec and Tempranillo. Idaho’s wine production in 2014 ranked 19th nationwide, according to federal data.
“We know we can make world-class wines here,” winemaker Melanie Krause, owner of Cinder Wines, says. “The desert climate grows wonderful grapes.”
Approved in 2007, the Snake River Valley American Viticultural Area was Idaho’s first federally designated wine grape growing region. It’s also Idaho’s main grape region. The Eagle Foothills, within the Snake River Valley AVA, became Idaho’s second AVA in November. The Lewis-Clark Valley, 270 miles north of Boise, near Washington, is expected to win federal designation soon.
Perfect for growing grapes
The Snake River Valley was formed more than 4 million years ago, a product of volcanic activity and floods that left well-draining volcanic soil, industry officials say. The elevation ranges from 1,500 to 3,000 feet.
Summer temperatures hit the 90s during the day and plunge to the 50s at night. That cold-hot combination helps balance the grape sugars and acids, industry officials say. They liken the Snake River Valley AVA to Washington’s famed Columbia Valley.
“You’re going to find wines here that are incredibly balanced and very drinkable,” Krause, an Idaho native, says.
Idaho’s wine industry dates to the 1860s, when grapes were planted in north central Idaho. They were among the first planted in the Pacific Northwest. Idaho’s pioneer winemakers were two Frenchmen and a German. Their wines garnered awards around the country.
But Prohibition halted wine making. While states such as California and Washington resumed production after Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, Idaho’s wine business was morbid. Religious conservatives put a damper on alcohol consumption.
An ‘influx of talent’
Wine making didn’t revive until the 1970s, when growers planted grapes in the Snake River Valley. Ste. Chapelle, Idaho’s oldest and largest winery, was founded in 1975 and produced wines from there.
An influx of winemakers who learned their trade elsewhere — like Preston of Coiled and Krause of Cinder, a former assistant winemaker at Washington’s Chateau Ste. Michelle — helped the industry. “That’s really what the industry needed – an influx of talent,” Perdue, the wine writer, says.
But for now you must visit Idaho to sample its wines, or order them online. A limited number are at restaurants and on store shelves outside Idaho. Most wineries are small. Growers are planting grapes.
Perdue recommends several wineries:
- Coiled Wines in Garden City, outside Boise/Dry and sparkling Riesling
- Cinder Wines, in Garden City/Tempranillo and Syrah
- Sawtooth, in Nampa, about 20 miles west of Boise/Petit Syrah and Rosé
- Koenig Distillery & Winery, in Caldwell, about 25 miles west of Boise/Ice wine
- Fujishin Family Cellars, in Caldwell/Mouvedre
- Clearwater Canyon Cellars, in Lewiston, in northern Idaho/Merlot
He’s bullish on the future: “I could see the industry doubling again in the next five to 10 years.” That could mean more wine for oenophiles who don’t live in Idaho.
Main photo: A wine lover snaps a photo of a Cinder wine, from one of Idaho’s well regarded wineries. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matt Green
Whenever I mention Swiss wine — which I do at every possible opportunity — most people get a glazed look in their eyes. Some folks are unaware that wine is even grown in this tiny, mountainous, landlocked country. Those lucky few who have had the chance to taste a delicate Chasselas from Lake Geneva, say, or a smooth, plummy Merlot from Lake Lugano tend to get distracted by their high price and lament the fact that the wines are hard to find outside the country.
Besides, they may add, there are so many interesting — and more accessible — bottles out there waiting to be sampled, and the time and effort required to track down these expensive, elusive Swiss drops is just too much of a stretch.
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Bear with me: There are treasures in them there hills (make that mountains), and now is the moment to start discovering them. Why now, all of a sudden? Wine has been made in Switzerland — as in the rest of Europe — for at least 2,000 years, but it’s in the past 20 that there have been huge changes. Swiss winemakers have access to all the same kinds of recent technical advances that have benefited wine making all over the world. But a hugely significant — and specifically Swiss — development came in the 1990s, when restrictions on the import of foreign wines were lifted. At a stroke, that oh-so-comforting protectionist cushion was removed and winemakers were faced with serious international competition and forced to raise their game.
An introduction to Swiss wines
For Paolo Basso, Best Sommelier of the World in 2013 and a Swiss national, the key players in this story are the new generation of wine growers. “They are much more dynamic (than earlier generations),” he explained in a recent email. “They have studied viticulture and enology not just in Switzerland but also abroad, they travel widely and they enjoy discovering wines from other countries.” While they remain hugely proud of their deeply rooted wine making traditions and culture, this does not stop them from constantly striving for innovation and improvement.
Swiss vineyards are a magnificent patchwork of different climates and terroirs, which means there are always exciting discoveries to be made. At a time when more and more of us are interested in sampling curiosities and hunting down original wines that stand out from the crowd, these Alpine beauties press plenty of buttons. Basso concludes, with complete impartiality: “If the Best Sommelier of the World is Swiss, it’s because Switzerland has some of the best wines in the world!”
Here’s a selection of Swiss wines to put on your bucket list. The country’s calling cards, which together account for the majority of plantings, are Chasselas and Pinot Noir, but some of the most exciting finds come from grapes that are indigenous to Switzerland and seldom (if ever) found outside.
Chasselas (aka Fendant)
Switzerland’s signature white grape, known in the Valais as Fendant and in all other Swiss regions as Chasselas, gives delicately fragrant, low-acid, low-alcohol wines with a slight prickle. When made from the best genetic variants, planted in prime sites (such as Lavaux, recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, whose impossibly beautiful vineyards climb steeply up from the shores of Lake Geneva), and its vigorous growth carefully controlled, Chasselas can give wines of distinction and subtle depth. Most examples are floral, fresh and highly quaffable, making them the perfect aperitif wine.
Petite Arvine is one of Switzerland’s most thrilling white varieties, indigenous to the Valais region and to neighboring Valle d’Aosta (Italy), which has recently shot to stardom. It makes wines that vary from lip-smackingly dry with gorgeous grapefruit tones and a characteristic salty finish to luscious, highly concentrated, sweet wines from late-harvested grapes. Some of the most expressive come from the village of Fully near Martigny, whose biennial event, Arvines en Capitale, celebrates this unique variety. This distinctive white wine is perfect with raclette, preferably made using an aged alp cheese from the Valais.
Heida (aka Païen)
This is none other than the Savagnin grape of the Jura region (where it gives the famous Vin Jaune), which is now firmly anchored in the Valais region. When the wine is made in the upper part of the Valais region, where German is spoken, its name is Heida; further down the valley toward Lake Geneva, where French is spoken, its name is Païen. Grown in tiny — but steadily increasing — quantities, it gives full-bodied, spicy white wines of enormous distinction. The excellent Provins cooperative, which makes this bottle, recommends Heida with assertively spiced and seasoned dishes such as scallop carpaccio or fish tartare with coconut milk.
Another grape indigenous to the Valais, this ancient white variety is extremely rare: worldwide there are only 40 hectares (98 acres) grown, of which 35 hectares (86 acres) are found in the village of Vétroz, its spiritual home. The small-berried, late-ripening grapes give luscious, deep golden, honeyed wines of varying sweetness. In Amignes from Vétroz, the degree of sweetness is helpfully indicated on the label by a bee motif: one bee indicates an off-dry wine, two is sweeter and three bees is fully sweet. In August 2015 the winegrowers of Vétroz introduced a festival dedicated to “their” grape titled Amigne on the Road, with food and wine trucks serving local specialties and wines from 15 of the village’s wineries. Amigne is a delight served with a buttery, caramelized tarte tatin or enjoyed on its own, just for the pleasure of it.
The famous red grape of Burgundy, this is Switzerland’s most widely planted vine. In the French-speaking cantons it goes by its French name, while in the German-speaking regions it may be labelled Pinot Noir or Blauburgunder (“blue Burgundy”). It is grown in almost all regions, with cantons Graubünden in the east and Neuchâtel in the west both acknowledged centers of excellence. Today, thanks to the effects of climate change, ever finer, fully ripe examples are emerging from the more northerly cantons of Zurich and neighboring Aargau. At the Gasthaus Zum Sternen in Würenlingen, where this one comes from, they pair it with Suure Mocke, a fine dish of beef braised in red wine.
This is another characterful variety that came from the Valle d’Aosta region of northern Italy (where it is known as Cornalin). Arriving in the Valais via the Grand Saint Bernard pass during the 19th century, it made a niche for itself, while always remaining a bit of a rarity. In the past 20 years it has enjoyed a renaissance, joining the Valais’ other highly sought-after specialty grapes. It can be a bit of a country cousin, with a rustic character and pronounced tannins, but in the right hands and with careful vinification (including some barrel-ageing) it gives scented, cherry-red wines that can age with elegance. Try it with richly sauced game dishes (venison or wild boar) or roast lamb, or with a soft, washed-rind cheese such as Vacherin Mont d’Or.
The world-famous red grape arrived in Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, from Bordeaux, France, in 1906 and now occupies almost 90 percent of the region’s vineyard surface area. You can find it both as a single varietal and in a blend with other red grapes. Wine maker Ivo Monti of Cantina Monti (whose wines regularly sweep the board in the annual Grand Prix du Vin Suisse) comments that “Merlot is a great soloist, but if you add other varieties, you get the whole orchestra.” Tiny quantities are also vinified as white wine (the Merlot grape has red skins but white juice), labeled Merlot Bianco. Merlot pairs well with richly sauced meats, porcini mushrooms or — for a typically Ticinese match — a bowl of roasted chestnuts.
This relatively new variety, a Gamay Noir x Reichensteiner cross, was developed in the 1970s by Switzerland’s viticultural research station. It has been particularly successful in the Geneva vineyards where it is made as a single varietal, as here, or blended with its sibling grape Garanoir. Its early ripening, bluish-black grapes give deeply colored, supple, spicy wines, which would match well with pinkly roasted duck breast or beef in a red wine butter sauce.
Sourcing Swiss wines
In the United States (Madison, Wisconsin): Swiss Cellars.
In the United Kingdom: Alpine Wines.
In Canada: Swiss Wine Imports.
Alternatively, consult www.winesearcher.com for your nearest local supplier. Better still, visit Switzerland and explore the vineyards yourself, using the free app supplied by Swiss Wine Promotion body, Vinea.
Main photo: A patchwork of Swiss vineyards in the Valais, near Chamoson. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style
Grenache is in the midst of a renaissance in California, proving that decades of abuse can’t keep a great wine grape down. Two decades ago, it was being pulled out of California vineyards at an alarming rate. An increasingly sophisticated American wine-drinking public was giving up the simple, fruity jug wines into which most California Grenache had gone in favor of darker, more robust red grapes. Between 1994 and 2004, Grenache acreage declined from 12,107 to 7,762, and to 5,909 in 2014.
A tale of two Grenaches
At the same time, Grenache has never received so much buzz. Writers with such diverse tastes as Wine Spectator’s James Laube (“Grenache … is proving to be one of the most exciting and enticing wines to emerge in California in the past decade, capable of stardom”) and the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonné (“The hopes for Grenache ascendent have come to pass”) have championed the grape in recent years. And wineries are betting on Grenache’s future. A search in Wine Spectator’s California ratings database for Grenache from the 1994 vintage returns 11 matches, just two of which were red wines labeled Grenache (an additional three were Grenache rosés, and the other six blends that included the grape). By 2004, the same search returns 30 matches, 13 of which were labeled Grenache. From 2012 (the most recent vintage for which most reds have been submitted for review), the search returns 130 matches, 45 of which were labeled Grenache.
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Both the decline and the renaissance can be understood by looking at where Grenache was and is being planted. In 1994, just 256 acres, less than 2 percent of the total, was found in the coastal or mountain counties that make California’s best wines. The rest was found in the deep, fertile soils of the Central Valley, where it was a key component of the field blends that went unacknowledged into jug wines (think “Hearty Burgundy” and the like). As those wines lost popularity in the American market, so too did the demand for the simple, fruity juice that Grenache produced in its Central Valley home.
But all locations are not the same for California Grenache. Over the same two decades that overall acreage has declined by more than half, the acreage in the high-quality coastal and mountain areas increased 437 percent, to 1,376 acres. Even so, in premium areas, Grenache has become downright scarce, even though it is productive and easy to grow. In the Central Coast, Grenache is now one of the most in-demand grapes and commands a premium price, averaging $1,797 per ton in 2014, higher than Merlot ($1,056 a ton), Syrah ($1,357 a ton), Zinfandel ($1,407 a ton) and even Cabernet Sauvignon ($1,464 a ton).
The world’s grape
Grenache is long overdue for its California renaissance. Widely planted in France, Spain and Australia, Grenache is the world’s second-most-planted grape by acreage. It makes up some 60 percent of the acreage in the Rhone Valley and 70 percent of the acreage in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Add in significant plantings in Spain and Australia, as well as the thousands of acres in California, and Grenache accounts for the second-greatest worldwide acreage of any wine grape.
It is little surprise why. Grenache is a vigorous grape, relatively easy to grow and productive. It produces fruit with both good sugars (producing full body) and good acids (maintaining freshness). It makes wines that are nearly always cheerful, full of fruit and refreshing. There’s a useful white-skinned variant (Grenache Blanc) and even a pink-skinned one (Grenache Gris).
Whether in a Cotes-du-Rhone or a Rioja, an Australian GSM or a Provence rosé, wines based on Grenache provide enormous pleasure for a typically reasonable price.
So what happened in California?
The bad old days
Grenache in California has had a checkered history. Largely planted in the Central Valley and irrigated extensively because of its ability to produce enormous crops when given enough water, Grenache formed the (unacknowledged) core of many of the jug wines in the 1960s and 1970s. I’ve heard tales of Grenache producing as much as 20 tons per acre in parts of the Central Valley. Even as recently as 2012, California’s Grape Crush Pricing District 13 (including Fresno, Madera and Tulare Counties, which contains most of the Central Valley Grenache acreage) produced 50,029 tons of fruit from 3,640 acres of Grenache: an average of 13.7 tons per acre. For comparison, our highest-ever yield per acre from our vineyard was 3.6 tons per acre, in 2006.
As you might expect, grapes produced at those massive yields are rarely distinguished. And in the rare cases where it was bottled on its own in the 1960s and 1970s, “California Grenache” was simple, light in color, and often sweet. The grape had fallen decisively out of favor by the 1980s, when a new generation of producers, mostly in Napa, focused their attention, and the attention of the American market, on the classic grapes of Bordeaux. Acreage in California declined correspondingly, from a peak near 20,000 acres in the 1980s to 11,000 acres in 2000 and just 5,909 acres today.
And yet, in the reasons for Grenache’s decline lie the seeds of its rebirth.
Why now, for Grenache?
Several factors are driving a new interest in Grenache. First, the whole category of Rhone varieties has a new generation of devotees, both among consumers and among producers. American producers, inspired by the growing availability of high-quality examples from the Rhone Valley and convinced that California’s Mediterranean climate should be a congenial one for the Rhone’s Mediterranean grapes, started making wine in increasing numbers through the 1990s. With critical mass came organizations like Rhone Rangers, Hospice du Rhone and the Grenache Association, all dedicated to providing Rhone lovers a community in which to discover new favorites.
The American wine market’s increasing openness to new varieties, and the growth of the tasting room culture, allowed many of these maverick producers to connect with enthusiastic customers in a way that would have been inconceivable two decades ago. Blends, too, have become a hot category in recent years, and it’s hard to think of a grape that has benefited more than Grenache, whose combination of full body, generous fruit, moderate tannins and refreshing acidity make it an exemplary blending partner.
Grenache can be made in many styles, from robust and high-octane to ethereal and highly spiced, which allows it to appeal to both winemakers looking to make wines to impress with their hedonistic appeal, and those looking to make wines that are more ethereal and intellectual.
And yet, it’s likely that none of this would have happened without new clones.
Clones to the rescue
At Tablas Creek, we brought in clones of all our grapes from our partners at Beaucastel, and Grenache was a major reason why we decided to go through the considerable time and expense of doing so. When we started to research the available clones of Grenache in California, we were not excited by what we found: enormous clusters with massive berries, much larger than we were used to seeing at Beaucastel, with flavors that were fruity and friendly enough but not exciting. Sure, some of that could be attributed to being overirrigated, overcropped and planted in the wrong places, but we thought there was something inherently different about the raw material. It was this conclusion that cemented our decision to bring in our own clones from France rather than make the best of the clones that were available here.
We weren’t the only people to bring in new clones of Grenache, but the net effect of the arrival of new clones in the mid-1990s was dramatic. A new generation of producers started planting Grenache in the high-quality coastal and mountain appellations where its previous footprint had been negligible. Acreage statistics at the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that in coastal and foothills counties its acreage has grown at about 10 percent per year since 1995. The 1,000-plus acres of new plantings in high-quality areas has driven a critical resurgence for Grenache.
Celebrating Grenache’s present
How about the Rhone Rangers? This organization of some 120 wineries, mostly from California but also including producers of Grenache and other Rhone-style grapes from Washington, Oregon, Virginia, Arizona and Michigan, holds two big events each year, in San Francisco (late spring) and in Los Angeles (Nov. 6-7). It also oversees local chapters in Paso Robles, El Dorado, California North Coast, Santa Barbara, and Virginia, and has organized a traveling show that has taken Grenache and its brethren in recent years to Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York and Seattle. For information, visit Rhone Rangers.
Hospice du Rhone has celebrated producers working with Rhone varieties with a four-day blowout of seminars, tastings, lunches, dinners, an auction and a legendary collection of after-hours parties most years since 1991. The 2016 celebration will be held in Paso Robles on April 14-16. For more, visit Hospice du Rhone.
The wines of France’s Rhone Valley are predominantly Grenache, from humble Cotes du Rhones to the greatest Chateauneuf du Papes. This is also true of most southern French rosés. These are all promoted by Inter-Rhone. For a complete listing of their events and activities, visit Inter-Rhone’s website.
Grenache even has an international day, organized by the Grenache Association each year on the third Friday in September (this year, it was Sept. 18) with tastings organized in Rhone-producing regions from France to Australia to South Africa to California.
A bright future for Grenache
What’s next for Grenache here in America? It seems like it’s poised for a surge, for many reasons. Quality has never been better. In California, the grape is increasingly being planted in the right places, and just as important being pulled out of the wrong places. The clones that are available are better than they’ve ever been before. In general, the producers who are working with Grenache now are Rhone specialists, which suggests it’s in the hands of people who will know what to do with it, unlike, say, Syrah, which was planted speculatively in lots of the wrong locations by growers who were guessing at what California’s next big grape would be. (Syrah is only now recovering after years in the wilderness.)
In the vineyard, Grenache is particularly well suited to dry-farming, ever more important in a future where droughts are likely to become more frequent and more severe. And it has shown around the world it can thrive in many different soils, in a range of moderate to warm climates, and be made, according to a winemaker’s taste, in a variety of styles, from bright and spicy to deeply fruity and luscious.
The wine press and trade seems solidly behind Grenache right now; nearly every writer I’ve spoken with in the last few years has remarked on how they think Grenache is poised for greatness in America. And the market seems increasingly comfortable with blends, where Grenache shines.
Will Grenache be the next big thing in California? I’m not sure I would wish that on it. But will it see success over the coming decades? I think that’s an easy prediction.
Main photo: Suddenly, Grenache grown in California is coming back into favor. Credit: Copyright 2013 Tablas Creek Vineyard
Winemaker Judy Chan can still recall the initial challenges when her father, C.K. Chan, handed her the reins of Grace Vineyard.
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A former human-resources analyst, Judy Chan faced not only tough competition from imported wines and the three giant Chinese labels — Dynasty, Great Wall and Changyu — but being new to the business, she didn’t know how to price, market or package the wine produced from the vineyard.
“The first bottle label looked like a soy sauce bottle,” she said of her early days in the business.
I was introduced to Grace Vineyard wines and Judy Chan three years ago in Hong Kong, where the young vintner is based. I returned home from a recent trip to Hong Kong with two bottles of Grace Vineyard’s wines with the intention of conducting an informal tasting of made-in-China Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay with California wines.
Putting Grace Vineyard wines to the test
I gathered together a few winemaker friends for a casual wine tasting, using brown bags to wrap the selected bottles: the 2011 Grace Vineyard Deep Blue (a Cabernet Sauvignon-driven wine with some Merlot) and the 2010 Babcock Cabernet Sauvignon from Santa Barbara County’s Happy Canyon, both in the $45 price range, as well as two Chardonnays in the $25 price range, Grace Vineyard’s 2011 Tasya’s Reserve and 2011 Saintsbury from Napa Valley’s Carneros district.
In evaluating appearance, aroma, texture, aftertaste and overall impression, Grace’s Deep Blue rated higher than the Babcock. In the white category, Saintsbury topped Grace’s Tasya’s Reserve.
For the group, it was an interesting introduction to the Chinese wine industry, which, although relatively new on the international wine map, is producing noteworthy wines.
Taking over the helm
Judy Chan departed from Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong in 2002, when her father asked her to take over a 296-acre vineyard in Shanxi, China, about 370 miles west of Beijing, and an additional 163-acre property in Ningxia, China, 865 miles west of Beijing.
At the time, she knew nothing about wine making, but her father was introduced to the fine wines as an international dealer, trading raw materials such as coal from Shanxi to France. “People associate Shanxi with coal and pollution, so he wanted to contribute environmentally,” Judy Chan said of her father’s decision to plant vineyards in 1997.
The senior Chan selected Shanxi’s Taigu County, known for deep, sandy loam soil. During summers, the warm days (about 95 F) are followed by cool nights when temperature drops to about 60. White grape varietals are harvested at the end of August, with the red grapes following in the middle of October. Winters in the region are harsh and challenging, so vines have to be buried in the ground, Judy Chan said.
A focus on quality over quantity
With Gerard Colin on board as the winemaker, initial plantings included Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Chardonnay, vines imported from a nursery in Bordeaux, France. The first vintage in 2001 of 1 million bottles has grown to 1.5 million bottles annually. “It’s a decision we made,” Judy Chan said of the annual production figures. “I want to grow in quality not quantity.”
She said the current portfolio for Grace Vineyard includes 16 wines crafted by winemaker Ken Murchison. Varieties planted in Shanxi include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and the new additions of Marselan and Aglianico. In Ningxia, vineyards include the three Bordeaux varieties as well as Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Noir.
How are the flavor profiles different between the two regions?
The Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are dramatically different, Judy Chan said. The Shanxi wines show black fruit character with hints of spice and pepper producing softer wines than those from Ningxia, which are bolder in character with red fruit flavors and higher in alcohol levels.
Identifying a market
Retail prices for Grace Vineyard’s wines range from $9 for the entry-level Vineyard series, a fruit-forward everyday wine, to $76 for the high-end Chairman’s Reserve, a complex Bordeaux-style blend aged in French oak. The cellar-worthy wine garnered an 85-point rating from wine guru Robert Parker. A newer label, the People’s series, serves as a mid-range wine targeted to the young crowd and marketed in Shanghai and Hong Kong’s hip restaurants and hotels.
This year, Grace is set to release some new wines — Shiraz, Aglianico and Marsalen — as well as a sparkling wine.
Grace has come a long way over the past decade, branding itself as a boutique family-run winery with success in local markets as well as export markets including Singapore, Japan and the United Kingdom.
Judy Chan said building a winery from scratch has been an invaluable experience.
“My dream is to build small wineries in different parts of China, each with its own identity,” she said.
Main photo: Grace Vineyard’s Chairman’s Reserve. Credit: Copyright 2015 courtesy of Grace Vineyard
As the 72nd Venice Film Festival opens in September, a platoon of celebrities are gracing the city. Would you fancy a drink with stars such as Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci, Robert Pattinson, famous actresses such as Bérénice Bejo, Jennifer Jason Leigh or the legendary director Brian De Palma? How about a glass of Krug Grand Cuvée with Johnny Depp? That could happen after the premiere of “Black Mass,” the true story of the infamous murderer and mob boss Whitey Bulger.
Where? At the exclusive PG’s Restaurant, the culinary sanctuary belonging to the Design Hotel Palazzina G. It’s Philip Stark’s celebrity-filled — and nearly impossible to find — hotel in Venice.
To get there, reach San Samuele Piazza, then head out on an adventure to a small calle. Your destination is Ramo Grassi 3248, but you won’t find a name or a sign — just look for the bull. He’s fiercely looking at you from above an anonymous door. That’s the entrance.
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The aim of the festival is to raise awareness and promote the various aspects of international cinema as art, entertainment and industry. In the past edition of the festival, 7,300 journalists and critics were accredited. This year more than 100 new films are expected to be screened. There will also be retrospectives and tributes to major figures to pay tribute to and help further an understanding of the history of cinema.
But you don’t have to be a celebrity or critic to experience the creativity of PG’s 28-year-old chef Matteo Panfilio, who was born in the province of Alessandria, where he studied, was nurtured and inspired by his family’s great love for cooking. In 2006, upon completing his studies, he left for London, where he had the opportunity to work with starred chefs such as Alberico Penati, Tristan Mason and Tristan Welch. Back to Alessandria, he opened his own restaurant La Locanda dei Narcisi. Matteo arrived at the PG’s in October 2014.
His style is inspired and guided by great Italian, French and Japanese cuisines, with meticulously prepared dishes and low-temperature, slow cooking methods.
Fish and sweets
Fish reigns here. There is capesante (scallops with beetroot jelly, cream of licorice and coffee powder) baccalà (creamed salt cod, caramelized red onions and polenta chips) Champagne risotto (with sea urchins and prawns tartare) tuna fillet (with pistachio crust, goat cheese and a merlot reduction).
These are just some of the offerings on the young chef’s menu, and that doesn’t even include what Matteo is really passionate about: sweet delights like babà (wild berries, Champagne sabayon) or sorbetto all’albicocca (creamy saffron, anisette and white peach sorbet).
Two ways to learn
Panfilio loves to share his passion by offering two unforgettable cooking lessons: “Eat & Learn” and “Culinary Experience.”
During “Eat & Learn,” Matteo will reveal secrets and provide explanations, putting on a real show of creativity in which you will plunge into the art of Italian cooking by learning and preparing outstanding dishes.
The cooking demonstration and dinner last approximately 2 hours. It costs €100 (approximately $113) and includes a gift: a special book from the chef. (The classes must be paid in euros.)
To market with the chef
If you choose the “Culinary Experience,” you will venture with Matteo in a three-hour morning tour through the aromas of the Mercato di Rialto, the market that has always been the commercial heart of Venice. In its two buildings overlooking the Grand Canal, the Campo de la Pescaria (fish) and the Erberia (fruits and vegetables), you can find the best bargains in action seeing the skilled tradesmen.
Before returning, you will stop at one (or two…) traditional osteria (wine bars) for a typically Venetian ritual: a glass (or two … ) of wine and some traditional small appetizers called cecchetti. In the evening, you are expected at the beautiful 7-meter long kitchen counter for a 3-hour cooking lesson. There you will prepare, under Matteo’s guidance, a four-course tasting dinner using the ingredients bought at the market. The cost is €480 (approximately $546) for two people, €200 (approximately $227) for each additional person.
PG’s Restaurant is definitely a straordinaria life experience.
A culinary sanctuary
Main photo: The “Eat & Learn” experience with Chef Matteo Panfilio. Credit: Copyright 2014 Claudio Sabatino