Articles in Drinking

A tasting of Blandy's Madeira wines. Note the difference in colors, depending on the grape variety used and the age of the wine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

“Where are the vineyards?” I wondered aloud on a recent visit to Madeira, the small volcanic island belonging to Portugal, perched out in the Atlantic, about 400 miles off the coast of Morocco.

Wine has been the principal product of the island for more than 400 years. Its fame is such that you might reasonably expect on arrival to be greeted with wave upon wave of vitis vinifera, rather as you do when traveling through France’s Champagne region. On the contrary, what you mostly see planted on poios, centuries-old terraces stacked steeply up from the island’s coastal fringe, are verdant banana palms, their floppy green leaves rattled by the frequent winds that gust in off the Atlantic.

Hidden vineyards

Terraces planted with banana palms -- and a few vines -- above Camara de Lobos, Madeira. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Terraces planted with banana palms — and a few vines — above Camara de Lobos, Madeira. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

I did eventually spot some vines. The holdings are tiny and widely scattered, hanging on for dear life and threatened both by the bananas and the newly built houses and apartments that increasingly encroach on the available space. Trained in the traditional manner over wooden pergolas, the vines often have a crop of potatoes, cabbages, zucchini and beans planted at their feet to make full use of the scarce — and exceedingly fertile — ground.

Despite the near invisibility of its vineyards, Madeira’s wine remains one of the world’s leading fortified wines. Once highly fashionable and sought after, it was reputed to be George Washington’s favored tipple and was served at his presidential inauguration. The term “fortified” means the wine is bolstered by adding grape spirit, which raises its alcohol content (typically to 19% in the case of Madeira, as opposed to the usual 12% to 14% range for table wines), as well as giving it a longer life. Port, that other celebrated Portuguese fortified wine, gets a shot of grape spirit too, but there the similarity ends, because the grape varieties involved and — above all — the process employed in making Madeira differ in significant ways from those used in Port production.

A happy accident

Bottles of 1966 Madeira wine in Blandy's cellars. The grape variety (Bual), date of vintage and winemaker are stenciled in traditional style directly onto the bottles. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Bottles of 1966 Madeira wine in Blandy’s cellars. The grape variety (Bual), date of vintage and winemaker are stenciled in traditional style directly onto the bottles. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

The wine starts out life in the usual way, with the grapes picked in late summer, then crushed and fermented, and grape spirit added to arrest fermentation — so far, so familiar. From here, things start to get interesting. During its long journey to maturity, Madeira is exposed to the unlikely twin enemies of heat and air, to emerge not only unspoiled but with extraordinary added layers of flavor and complexity. As Richard Mayson puts it in his recently published book “Madeira: the Islands and Their Wines,” “Heat and air, both the sworn enemies of most wines and winemakers, conspire to turn madeira into one of the most enthralling of the world’s wines, as well as one of its most resilient.”

The discovery that wine could be heated and come to no harm — and even improved by it — was a happy accident. The island has always been strategically important for trans-Atlantic shipping, and over the centuries, countless vessels have paused here to restock with provisions before the long sea journey from Europe across the Atlantic to the Americas and beyond. Provisions always included casks of wine, which by the nature of things were exposed on board to great heat. When the ships berthed and the wine was found to be perfectly good — even better than when it departed — the shippers set about reproducing the same conditions in their cellars back home, placing the huge, wooden wine casks on the upper floors of their wineries to bask in the summer heat.

Worth the expense

Casks of Madeira wine maturing in the cellars of Blandy's, a leading Madeira producer. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Casks of Madeira wine maturing in the cellars of Blandy’s, a leading Madeira producer. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

Nowadays, a faster (and cheaper) way to reproduce this step is to heat the wine artificially in large containers called estufas, but the finest Madeiras are still aged in wooden casks, heated only by the island’s year-round sunshine. This process, called the canteiro method, is lengthier and more gentle and gives the wines their characteristic, slightly caramelized, faintly smoky aromas with exotic hints of honey and dried fruits.

A premium bottle of Madeira is always expensive, because of the time and skill needed to nurse it to perfection. One consolation — and a considerable selling point — is that once the wines have survived the rigors of heating and oxidation, they are good to go for up to 100 years. Blandy’s, one of the top Madeira producers based in the capital, Funchal, still has a barrel of 1920 wine stored in its cellar, awaiting its moment.

Once bottled, Madeira can be opened and sampled, the cork replaced and the bottle stored upright in a dark place for weeks or months without the contents coming to any harm. “If ever there was a wine to take away with you to a desert island,” comments Mayson, “this is it.”

Today, the chief market for Madeira is France, followed by the island of Madeira itself. Portugal, surprisingly, consumes little Madeira, but the UK remains a big fan, with Japan, Germany and the U.S. not far behind. Check www.winesearcher.com for your nearest supplier.

Top Madeira producers (commonly known as “shippers”) include Blandy’s, Henriques & Henriques, Barbeito and H.M. Borges.

Main photo: A tasting of Blandy’s Madeira wines. Note the difference in colors, depending on the grape variety used and the age of the wine. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style

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Main photo: Joanne Weir serves up fresh, seasonal food at Copita Tequileria y Comida in Sausalito, California. Credit: Credit: Copyright Chuck Miller

It all began (or shall I say culminated?) on a boat with a friendly competition between friends. We were cruising along the coast of southern Mexico on the Mindy, Larry Mindel’s beautiful yacht, when my friend and famed restaurateur challenged me to a margarita competition.

kitchengypsy

"Kitchen Gypsy: Recipes and Stories from a Lifelong Romance with Food"

By Joanne Weir,

Oxmoor House, 2015 288 pages

» Click here to buy the book

I measured my ingredients carefully into a cocktail shaker and loaded it with ice. After shaking so vigorously my hands turned numb and frost coated the metal cup, I strained the magical elixir into a chilled glass garnished with a lime wheel and handed it to Larry. In my clear-as-day memory, he took one sip and declared, “This is the best margarita I’ve ever had.” Larry tells a different tale, one in which his cocktail was the victor, but we all know tequila has a tendency to do that to people.

Regardless of the details, my way with tequila inspired Larry to propose opening a restaurant together. Though I’d never told anyone, opening my own restaurant had always topped my bucket list, but only if I had the right partner. With a résumé as long as my arm, including nearly 100 successful restaurants like Chianti in Los Angeles, Prego in San Francisco and the Il Fornaio restaurants all over the West Coast, Larry Mindel was certainly the perfect partner. He was also smart, worldly and dashingly handsome. I was thrilled and terrified, but mainly I was worried it was just the tequila talking. I desperately hoped something would actually come of Larry’s proposal.

A culinary journey

Joanne Weir's new cookbook features a rhubarb crostata with chestnut honey ice cream. Credit: Copyright 2015 Thomas J. Story

Joanne Weir’s new cookbook features a rhubarb crostata with chestnut honey ice cream. Credit: Copyright 2015 Thomas J. Story

My lifelong love affair with food began on my grandparents’ farms (yes, plural — both my maternal and paternal grandparents ran farms in New England), infusing me with a passion for seasonal, homemade, homegrown and artisanal food. I had forged a successful career in the food industry without working in a restaurant since my days as a cook at Chez Panisse in the mid-1980s. And yet I always suspected owning a restaurant was something I was destined to do.

Each step in my winding culinary journey through the world laid the foundation for restaurant ownership. During a rigorous year with Madeleine Kamman earning my Master Chef degree, I learned that loving food meant knowing it inside and out: the origin, history and science behind a dish. Madeleine taught me to sample and truly taste the nuances of individual ingredients and dishes as a whole. She was tough and didn’t take any crap, another lesson that’s served me well in the food world, and life in general.

I followed up my studies with Madeleine at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, my culinary mecca. At the time, Chez Panisse was at the epicenter of the California food revolution, and I was lucky enough to experience everything firsthand. Committed to serving seasonal, local, organic and sustainable food, the restaurant let California’s abundant ingredients speak for themselves without masking their flavor, a philosophy that inspires my cooking to this day. Chez Panisse confirmed what I’d intuited on the farm: highest-quality, fresh ingredients are paramount to good cuisine.

Inspired by seasonal ingredients

Goat Cheese Salad

Copita’s menu is seasonal, changing regularly based on inspiration and availability of fresh ingredients. Here, goat cheese tops a salad. Credit: Copyright 2015 Thomas J. Story

As I’ve traveled the world teaching cooking classes in some of the most picturesque locations, I continue to reaffirm that the quality of your ingredients will make or break a meal. Many of my favorite travel memories include trips to the local market — whether shopping the Rialto in Venice, the souk in Marrakech, or the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in my adopted hometown of San Francisco, the market truly is my happy place.

Surrounded by beautiful, fresh, seasonal ingredients, I am inspired. I always take ideas home with me from my journeys — from markets, local restaurants, purveyors and friends I encounter along the way. I am literally bursting with ideas … ideas that desperately need a restaurant menu as an outlet. I’d done everything else, and the idea of a restaurant was still gnawing at my heart. I wanted to put everything I’d learned along the way from my grandfather, my mother and my travels to work all in one place and see a restaurant come to fruition. It would be fun, creative and truly the challenge I was looking for.

So when, a few months after that fated cruise and margarita competition, I found myself looking at restaurant spaces with Larry, I decided it was finally time to reach my destiny. Thirty years after my first stint in the kitchens of Chez Panisse, I’m back in the exhilarating environment of a restaurant, this time at the helm of Copita Tequileria y Comida in beautiful Sausalito, California. Our menu is seasonal, changing regularly based on inspiration and availability of fresh ingredients. I know for a fact my grandparents would be proud.

It feels like this kitchen gypsy’s culinary journey has finally landed her home. Thank goodness for friends. With boats. And margaritas.

Copita Margarita

The Copita Margarita which began Joanne Weir's path to restaurant owning. Credit: Courtesy of Copita

The Copita Margarita, which began Joanne Weir’s path to restaurant ownership. Credit: Copyright 2015 Thomas J. Story

Yield: Serves 1

Ingredients

2 ounces blanco tequila, 100% agave

1/2 ounce agave nectar

3/4 ounce water

1 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice

1 ice cube, 1 3/4-inch square

1 lime wheel, thinly sliced

Directions

Place the tequila, agave nectar, water, lime juice and plenty of ice in a cocktail shaker.  Shake vigorously for 5 seconds or until you see the frost on the outside of the shaker.  Place 1 ice cube in a glass. Strain the margarita into the glass and garnish with a lime wheel.

Main photo: Joanne Weir serves up fresh, seasonal food at Copita Tequileria y Comida in Sausalito, California. Credit: Copyright Chuck Miller

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A wine lover snaps a photo of a Cinder wine, one of Idaho's new offerings. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matt Green

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

Idaho is said to be at a turning point, as far as size and quality of wine. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matt Green

Idaho is said to be at a turning point, as far as size and quality of wine. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matt Green

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.

The University of California, Davis-trained enologist concocted a plan: Truck Idaho grapes to Napa, where she’d make the wine. That raised eyebrows among Napa winemakers. Their reaction, when her truck of Idaho grapes rumbled into Napa: “OK, here comes the spud wine.”

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 now has 51 wineries, versus 11 in 2003. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matt Green

Idaho now has 51 wineries, versus 11 in 2003. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matt Green

“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

Idaho's Snake River Valley, with well-draining soil and good temperatures, is perfect for vineyards. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matt Green

The Snake River Valley, with well-draining soil and good temperatures, is perfect for vineyards. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matt Green

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’

Ste. Chapelle, Idaho's oldest and largest winery, was founded in 1975. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matt Green

Ste. Chapelle, Idaho’s oldest and largest winery, was founded in 1975. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matt Green

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

 

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Roussillon is well worth a visit, not only for the quality of its wines, but also for the breathtaking scenery. Credit: Courtesy of the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon

The extraordinary diversity of France never ceases to amaze me. Each region, even the most established, offers a note of originality, but the farther you go off the beaten path, the greater the surprises.

Roussillon, in the deep south, nestling at the foot of the Pyrenees, is quite distinct from the rest of France, for it is part of Catalonia and has more in common with Barcelona, with the Pyrenees unifying Spanish and French Catalonia. This is the region that developed the fabulous vins doux naturels, the fortified wines made from Grenache and aged for years in old barrels. Think port, fine ruby and old tawny, but with a French touch. However, these days table wines, which they call vins secs, are more important. The red wines from appellations such as Côtes du Roussillon Villages, Collioure and Maury are based on Grenache Noir, with Carignan, Syrah and Mourvèdre, and offer rich spicy flavors.

And the real surprise of my last visit to Roussillon was the stunning quality of the white wines, from Grenache Blanc and even better Grenache Gris, as well as Roussanne, Marsanne Vermentino and other local varieties. And Roussillon is well worth a visit, not only for the quality of its wines, but also for the breathtaking scenery, with wild hillsides inland and steep terraced vineyards close to the coast.

What follows are five of my favorite wine growers, but I could easily have chosen yet another five.

Domaine Cazes

In the 1980s, Domaine Cazes was a pioneer of table wine in Roussillon. Credit: Courtesy of the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon

In the 1980s, Domaine Cazes was a pioneer of table wine in Roussillon. Credit: Courtesy of the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon

The Cazes family has been making wine in Rivesaltes for several generations. While now part of the large group Advini, Cazes is still independently run. They have extensive vineyards in Collioure, an estate called les Clos de Paulilles, as well in Rivesaltes and a smaller plot in Maury.

In the 1980s, they were pioneers of table wine in Roussillon, planting Cabernet Sauvignon as well as the more conventional grape varieties of the south. Their vineyards are organic and they concentrate on southern grape varieties, producing a range of table wines and a delicious selection of vin doux. The star of these is undoubtedly their Cuvée Aimé Cazes (Aimé Cazes did much to develop the family estate and he died in 2000, a few days short of his 100th birthday). The wine is a blend of 80 percent Grenache Blanc and 20 percent Grenache Noir, which has been aged in old foudres for 22 years. Grenache Blanc turns amber in color after 22 years in wood, and the evaporation is such that 26 gallons reduce to about 8 gallons. This is fabulous, with an elegantly dry walnut nose, and long-lingering nutty flavors on the palate. As Bernard Cazes, Aimé’s son, observed: “It’s the wine to drink by the fireside, with your favorite music and a purring cat.”

Domaine Vaquer

Frédérique Vaquer runs the Domaine Vaquer estate, making an elegant range of wines. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary George

Frédérique Vaquer runs the Domaine Vaquer estate, making an elegant range of wines. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary George

I first visited this estate in the mid-1980s when Fernand Vaquer was the winemaker. He is now 85 and these days it is his daughter-in-law, Frédérique, who runs the estate. She comes from Burgundy, where she met her husband, Bernard, at wine school, and then went on to make her first wines in Roussillon in 1991. Very sadly, Bernard died soon afterward, but the reputation of Domaine Vaquer is brilliantly maintained by Frédérique.

She makes an elegant range of wines, with a delicate feminine touch. Esquisse Blanc is a blend of Roussanne and Macabeo with some Grenache Blanc, with some lovely texture and white blossom on the palate, and a defining freshness. The classic Côtes du Roussillon is a blend of Carignan, Grenache and Syrah. Best of all is Expression, a pure Carignan, and a vin de pays, Côtes Catalanes. Frédérique is lucky enough to have eight and a half acres of Carignan, planted in 1936. The palate is beautifully nuanced with red fruit, elegant tannins and wonderful freshness on the finish, making an excellent example of this often decried grape variety.

Mas Amiel

Mas Amiel makes a Grenache that spends a year outside in large glass jars and then another 39 years in large oak casks. Credit: Courtesy of the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon

Mas Amiel makes a Grenache that spends a year outside in large glass jars and then another 39 years in large oak casks. Credit: Courtesy of the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon

This is another estate that I first visited in the 1980s, when it was owned by Charles Dupuy. At the time, he was almost the only independent wine grower of the village of Maury. Now, there is a village cooperative and 30 other wine estates.

These days, Mas Amiel is the property of Oliver Ducelle, who has invested hugely in his estate; you will see one of the best-equipped cellars of the entire region, run by a talented winemaker, Nicolas Raffy. They still have the enormous old foudres for aging the fortified vin doux, but there are also amphora, concrete eggs and barrels of different shapes and sizes. Maury Sec is a new appellation; the village was dominated by vin doux, but Mas Amiel’s Vers le Nord is a lovely example of the new appellation. The blend is mainly Grenache Noir with a splash of Syrah and the wine is redolent of ripe red fruit with elegance and spice on the finish.

Even more memorable is their 40-year-old Maury, a pure Grenache that spent one year outside in large glass jars, subject to all the climatic vagaries of the changing seasons, and then another 39 years in large oak casks. It has the most extraordinary length with long nutty fruit.

Domaine la Rectorie

Domaine la Rectorie's vineyards are on steep hillsides with fabulous views over the Mediterranean. Credit: Courtesy of the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon

Domaine la Rectorie’s vineyards are on steep hillsides with fabulous views over the Mediterranean. Credit: Courtesy of the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon

The Parcé family have long been wine growers in Collioure and Banyuls. There are two strands to the family, with Domaine du Mas Blanc and Domaine de la Rectorie. They both make wonderful vins doux, but for me Domaine de la Rectorie has the edge with its white wine, Cuvée Argile. But first, you have to admire the vineyards — they are on steep hillsides lined with little walls, or murets, making small terraces, with fabulous views over the Mediterranean. There are apparently more than 3,700 miles of murets in the area. Cuvée Argile comes from a plot where the soil is mainly clay (argile in French), planted with Grenache Gris and just a little Grenache Blanc.

For the Parcé family, the character and quality of white Collioure depends upon Grenache Gris; they call it the pillar of the appellation. Some of the vines are centenarian; others are a mere 50 to 80 years old. Both grape varieties are fermented together in old oak barrels; the oak is very discreet but gives the wine some structure with some firm minerality and saline notes from the proximity of the vineyard to the sea. The white appellation of Collioure is relatively recent and Cuvée Argile show just why it should be an appellation.

Roc des Anges

Stéphane Gallet, with his wife Marjorie, runs one of the newer estates of Roussillon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary George

Stéphane Gallet, with his wife Marjorie, runs one of the newer estates of Roussillon. Credit: Copyright 2015 Rosemary George

This is one of the newer estates of Roussillon, created by Marjorie and Stéphane Gallet, who met while studying oenology at Montpellier. Stéphane then went to work for Mas Amiel, so it was logical to look for vineyards close by. Marjorie comes from the northern Rhone, but land in Côte Rôtie would have been much more expensive.

Besides, everything is possible here in Roussillon, without the constraints of a more established appellation. Altogether, they have about 100 different plots in just 86 acres and since 2011 a smart streamed-lined cellar with an underground barrel hall. They make a range of different table wines, classic Côtes du Roussillon Villages, a pure Carignan Côtes Catalanes and a delicious white wine, Llum, from old vines of Grenache Gris, Grenache Blanc and Macabeo. And then there is Maury, both dry and sweet.

The hallmark of their wines is indisputably elegance, and I find difficult to chose a favorite, but if pressed I will opt for Carignan 1903, so called for that was the year the vines were planted. It is a lovely combination of richness and power, but not at all heavy, with a fresh finish and a firm streak of minerality; in short, it illustrates the classic flavors of Roussillon at their finest.

Main photo: Roussillon is well worth a visit, not only for the quality of its wines, but also for the breathtaking scenery. Credit: Courtesy of the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon

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A patchwork of Swiss vineyards in the Valais, near Chamoson. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

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.

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

Steep vineyards above Fully, Valais, Switzerland. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Steep vineyards above Fully, Valais, Switzerland. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

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)

Ripening Chasselas grapes in the vineyards of Cave Alain Emery, Aigle, Switzerland. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Ripening Chasselas grapes in the vineyards of Cave Alain Emery, Aigle, Switzerland. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

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

Petite Arvine from Les Fils Maye, Valais, Switzerland. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Petite Arvine from Les Fils Maye, Valais, Switzerland. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

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)

Heida from the Provins cooperative, Valais, Switzerland. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Heida from the Provins cooperative, Valais, Switzerland. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

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.

Amigne

Amigne by André Fontannaz, Vétroz, Valais, partially aged in an amphora. Note the bee on the left of the label, indicating the sweetness level of the wine. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Amigne by André Fontannaz, Vétroz, Valais, partially aged in an amphora. Note the bee on the left of the label, indicating the sweetness level of the wine. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

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.

Pinot Noir

The Weingut zum Sternen's award-winning Pinot Noir from Würenlingen, Aargau, Switzerland. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

The Weingut zum Sternen’s award-winning Pinot Noir from Würenlingen, Aargau, Switzerland. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

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.

Humagne Rouge

An elegant Humagne Rouge from Simon Maye & Fils, St-Pierre-de-Clages, Valais, Switzerland. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

An elegant Humagne Rouge from Simon Maye & Fils, St-Pierre-de-Clages, Valais, Switzerland. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

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.

Merlot

Merlot from one of Agriloro's prime vineyard sites, La Prella (pictured on the label). Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Merlot from one of Agriloro’s prime vineyard sites, La Prella (pictured on the label).
Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

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.

Gamaret

Gamaret, a Gamay Noir x Reichensteiner cross that excels in the Geneva vineyards, from Dupraz et fils, Lully, Geneva. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

Gamaret, a Gamay Noir x Reichensteiner cross that excels in the Geneva vineyards, from Dupraz et fils, Lully, Geneva. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style

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

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Now run by the second generation of the Sokol Blosser family, the winery of the same name produces exceptional Pinot Noir. Credit: Copyright Andrea Johnson

Fifty years ago this year, David Lett, of Eyrie Vineyards, noticing the Willamette Valley’s similarity to France’s Burgundy region, planted the first Pinot Noir grapes in the Oregon valley. A half a century later, Oregon is home to 1,027 vineyards and 676 wineries, and 15,356 acres of the noble varietal.

A group of pioneering Pinot producers gives a strong picture of just how much it has changed and just how diverse it is.

Adelsheim Vineyard

Vineyard Manager Chad Vargas, co-founder and president David Adelsheim and winemaker Dave Paige meet in the vineyard. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Adelsheim

Vineyard Manager Chad Vargas, co-founder and President David Adelsheim and winemaker Dave Paige meet in the vineyard. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Adelsheim Vineyard

Though it has made many varietals throughout its 44-year history, Adelsheim Vineyard, one of the oldest in the Valley, has focused on its true love of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. A leader in the Chehalem Mountains American Viticultural Area, the winery was one of the first to designate a full-time export manager to send Oregon wine out into the world. “We really want the world to know about the high quality of our winemaking and our potential,” said Diana Szymaczak, marketing and communications manager. The winery’s 2012 Adelsheim Elizabeth’s Reserve Pinot Noir builds on what winemakers have learned through 29 vintages to create a wine both elegant and intense, with layered aromas of red fruit, brown spice and cedar.

Broadley Vineyards

Broadley Vineyards’ winemaker Morgan Broadley carries on the tradition his parents began by creating Pinot Noir indicative of place. Credit: Courtesy of Broadley Vineyards

Broadley Vineyards winemaker Morgan Broadley carries on the tradition his parents began by creating Pinot Noir indicative of place. Credit: Courtesy of Broadley Vineyards

The family-run winery Broadley Vineyards, based in Monroe, Oregon, does everything from the philosophy that great land produces great wines. “I love that each year the wines/vintages provide memories for me and my family, like a timeline, both good and bad,” said Morgan Broadley, winemaker and son of the company’s founder. Over the years, the winery has developed a following from wine lovers who enjoy its layered, rich and sometimes decadent Pinot Noir, which once earned as high as a 97 in Wine Spectator. Its 2013 Estate Pinot shows some of the exceptional characteristics of the winery’s site, with red fruit notes and hints of baking spices like cardamom, cinnamon and clove.

Chehalem Wines

Chehalem wines, founded 35 years ago, produce exceptional Pinot Noir and other varietals. Credit: Courtesy of Chehalem Wines

Chehalem Wines, founded 35 years ago, produces exceptional Pinot Noir and other varietals. Credit: Courtesy of Chehalem Wines

Based in Newberg, Oregon, and the first vineyard in the Ribbon Ridge AVA, Chehalem Wines is a pioneer in making changes to adapt to changing climate conditions. Owner Harry Peterson-Nedry and his head winemaker daughter, Wynne, see the winery as being a catalyst in all areas of winemaking, whether it’s dealing with changing conditions or emphasizing new varietals of Riesling and Chardonnay. ” ‘Over time’ is important to us — we view aging as more and more important, since it adds a fourth dimension to the wines we make,” Peterson-Nedry said. Its 2012 Chehalem Pinot Noir Reserve is a top-of-the-line wine from a top-of-the-line vintage, with lots of dark fruit and flavors of rose hips, tamarind, tobacco, blackberry seed, warm oak and Bing cherry.

Cooper Mountain Vineyards

Cooper Mountain Vineyards plants grapes for organic production, avoiding adding sulfites to its wines. Credit: Cooper Mountain Vineyards

Cooper Mountain Vineyards plants grapes for organic production, avoiding adding sulfites to its wines. Credit: Cooper Mountain Vineyards

Cooper Mountain emerged when founder Robert Gross made the transition from conventional farming to organic and biodynamic wine-grape growing in the early 1990s. All of its wines remain certified organic, producing wines free to express the place and time where they were produced. “We farm to increase the natural antioxidant levels of the grapes with the goal of avoiding sulfite additions,” says Barbara Gross, daughter of the vineyard’s founder. Under winemaker Gilles de Domingo, who has been with the Beaverton, Oregon, company since 2004, Cooper Mountain produces its signature wines, including its Life Pinot Noir, with a flavor profile of dark blue fruit, minerals and spices.

Erath Winery

Erath Winery’s new Willakia vineyard, an estate vineyard in the Eola-Amit Hills, has allowed the first release of an Erath Chardonnay in 20 years. Credit: Copyright Andrea Johnson

Erath Winery’s new Willakia vineyard, an estate vineyard in the Eola-Amit Hills, has allowed the first release of an Erath Chardonnay in 20 years. Credit: Copyright Andrea Johnson

Founded by one of the true Oregon Pinot pioneers, Dick Erath, who moved from California to Oregon in 1967, Erath Winery makes the No. 1-selling Pinot Noir in Oregon. “We strive to make pure, clean, fruit-focused wines that showcase the breadth of terroir across Oregon’s many distinct growing regions,” says Ryan Pennington, communications director. Erath’s winemaker Gary Horner, with the company 10 years, shoots for a pure expression of Oregon’s terroir in wines like the winery’s 2012 Prince Hill Pinot Noir Dundee Hills, which has assertive cherry, raspberry, warm vanilla and German chocolate cake notes with just a hint of smoke and is the centerpiece of its founder’s Prince Hill vineyard.

Lange Winery

Lange Winery, in its second generation, produces wine according to traditional techniques. Credit: Copyright Andrea Johnson

Lange Winery, in its second generation, produces wine according to traditional techniques. Credit: Copyright Andrea Johnson

Lange Winery’s winemakers have seen the industry grow from justifying growing grapes in the Willamette Valley to making some of the finest wines in the world. “We craft wines that express terroir, and we do it without the pyrotechnics and heavy-handedness so prevalent in most winemaking these days,” says Jesse Lange, a second-generation family winemaker. Lange has quadrupled its Dundee Hills Estate vineyards over the past decades and its current vintages are beginning to show the fruits of those additions. Its signature wines include its 2014 Pinot Gris Reserve, the first barrel-fermented wine with that varietal, and its 2012 Pinot Noir Lange Estate, its top expression from its Winery Estate property. That wine draws high accolades for its notes of crème brûlée to the plum, and currant.

Ponzi Vineyards

The Ponzi family in a candid moment on the family’s estate winery near Portland.

The Ponzi family in a candid moment on the family’s estate winery near Portland.

Ponzi Vineyards, southwest of Portland, is known as much for its highest quality wines as for the hospitality of its tasting room and estate. “Farming our land with the same families for 45 years, it has been able to bring consistency and complexity to our wines,” said Maria Ponzi. The estate created a new, 30,000-square-foot winery in 2008, and a modern tasting room in 2013 — complete with seated tastings, small plates, bocce ball courts, a covered terrace and fire pit. There, visitors can drink Chardonnay (winemaker Luisa Ponzi is a trailblazer) and its 2012 Ponzi Pinot Noir, a benchmark vintage that sources from the oldest vineyards in the valley.

Rex Hill

Owned by A to Z Wineworks, Rex Hill sources from multiple vineyards to produce superlative Pinot Noir. Credit: Courtesy of A to Z Wineworks

Owned by A to Z Wineworks, Rex Hill sources from multiple vineyards to produce superlative Pinot Noir. Credit: Courtesy of A to Z Wineworks

Rex Hill, located in Newberg, Oregon, doesn’t throw grapes in a vintage just because they own them.

“Everything is done by hand — hand-pruned, handpicked, hand-sorted, and handmade — so we can select from the best of the best of all the vineyards we work with,” says Katie Quinn, marketing manager. “We only make Rex Hill wines in a vintage when we believe they are superlative.” Producers of top-tier Pinot Noir and small quantities of what the company calls “shoot for the moon” Chardonnay, the company believes that sourcing the best grapes from multiple vineyards increases a wine’s complexity and has been pursuing this strategy since 2007.

Under the leadership of executive winemaker Michael Davies, the company, which benefits from its ownership by A to Z Wineworks, has played a considerable role in elevating perception of Willamette Valley wines across the globe. Its 2012 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir carries aromas of blackberries, blueberries, black raspberries, dark cherries, plums, quince and spices, moving toward earthier notes when the nose opens.

Sokol Blosser

Alison and Alex Sokol-Blosser now run the family’s winery. Credit: Sokol-Blosser now run the family’s winery. Credit: Sokol-Blosser now run the family’s winery. Credit: Copyright Caroloyn Wells-Kramer

Alison and Alex Sokol Blosser now run the family’s winery. Credit: Copyright Caroloyn Wells-Kramer

Now in its second generation, Sokol Blosser Winery has brought the industry forward many times in the past half-century, most recently with the addition of its new tasting room, a sustainably built, modern structure envisioned to express the soil its wines are created from. That’s not surprising, considering the family also built the state’s first official tasting room. “We are trying to carry forward the collaborative qualities of the pioneers, with an emphasis on quality, family, and long-term viability and sustainability,” said Alison Sokol Blosser, who is co-president with her brother, Alex Sokol Blosser. Its estate now produces wines from more than 86 certified organic acres, including its 2012 Sokol Blosser Dundee Hills Pinot Noir, which showcases dark fruit flavors of cherry and blueberry with earthy and spicy elements.

Main photo: Now run by the second generation of the Sokol Blosser family, the winery of the same name produces exceptional Pinot Noir. Credit: Copyright Andrea Johnson

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Suddenly, Grenache grown in California is coming back into favor. Credit: Copyright 2013 Tablas Creek Vineyard

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

Once in decline, Grenache is back in production and receiving much buzz. Credit: Copyright Bob Dickey

Once in decline, Grenache is back in production and receiving much buzz. Credit: Copyright Bob Dickey

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.

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

Chateau de Beaucastel, in the south of France, is known for its grenaches. Credit: Copyright 2010 Chateau de Beaucastel

Grenache is grown at Chateau de Beaucastel, in France’s Rhone Valley, known for the wine. Credit: Copyright 2010 Chateau de Beaucastel

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

Tablas Creek is once again nurturing vines for Grenache. Credit: Copyright 2002 Tablas Creek Vineyard

Tablas Creek is once again nurturing vines for Grenache. Credit: Copyright 2002 Tablas Creek Vineyard

 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?

The American wine market's openness to new varieties has helped bring grenache back. Credit: Copyright Cheryl Quist

The American wine market’s openness to new varieties has helped bring Grenache back. Credit: Copyright Cheryl Quist

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, clones from France were brought in as the vineyard started growing grapes for Grenache. Credit: Copyright 2002 Tablas Creek Vineyard

At Tablas Creek, clones from France were brought in as the vineyard started growing grapes for Grenache. Credit: Copyright 2002 Tablas Creek Vineyard

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

Organizations such as Rhone Rangers are championing Grenache. Credit: Copyright Bob Dickey

Organizations such as Rhone Rangers are championing Grenache. Credit: Copyright Bob Dickey

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

A tasting in California of Rhone varieties had a heavy focus on Grenache wines. Credit: Copyright 2014 Jason Haas

A tasting in California of Rhone varieties had a heavy focus on Grenache wines. Credit: Copyright 2014 Jason Haas

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

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Craft brewers are turning to herbs and spices as they look to add exotic ingredients to beers. Credit: Courtesy Deschutes Brewery

Craft brewers increasingly are like chefs. They’re sprinkling herbs and spices into their beers much like a chef who wants to complement a dish. The upshot: Brewers have food in mind when selecting herbs and spices to use, ranging from basil and sage to cardamom and the world’s most expensive spice, saffron.

“The use of spices helps us design beers that are great for pairing with food, as well as just dang tasty,” says Tim Hawn, brewmaster at Dogfish Head Craft Brewery Inc. in Milton, Delaware.

At the annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver in September, the herb and spice category was the seventh most popular. It attracted 142 beers, behind the 149 in the coffee beer category.

What’s the trick to using herbs and spices in craft beers? “Try not to overdo it,” brewer Kevin Haborak, co-owner of Coastal Empire Beer Co. in Savannah, Georgia, advises. “I always start light because you can add more. And you can’t take it back out.”

With fall temperatures cooling, now is a great time to add some herbs and spices to your beer drinking. Below are 13 herb and spice beers worth trying.

Allergeez

Panther Island Brewing uses rose hips and chamomile flowers in its Allergeez beer. Credit: Pixaby 2015 Pixaby 2015 IamColorBlind

Panther Island Brewing uses rose hips and chamomile flowers in its Allergeez beer. Credit: Pixaby 2015 IamColorBlind

Allergeez (ABV: 5.7%), an American wheat beer that won a silver medal at this year’s Great American Beer Festival (GABF), includes Texas honey, chamomile flowers and rose hips. “Rose hips help with a nice and subtle cranberry tart flavor while the chamomile gives a big floral nose,” says Ryan McWhorter, founder of Panther Island Brewing, in Fort Worth, Texas.

McWhorter, the head brewer, says Allergeez came about because he had a recipe for an American Wheat Beer — but wanted to add something. His wife brewed him a chamomile flower tea and added honey. “I thought it was delicious and decided to give that a try in the wheat recipe,” McWhorter says. Rose hips were later added.

Zarabanda

Chef José Andrés, left, and Deschutes founder Gary Fish created a beer with lemon verbena and pink peppercorn. Credit: Courtesy Deschutes Brewery

Chef José Andrés, left, and Deschutes founder Gary Fish created a beer with lemon verbena and pink peppercorn. Credit: Courtesy Deschutes Brewery

Zarabanda (ABV: 6.3%) is a Spanish take on the farmhouse-style Saison. Deschutes Brewery, based in Bend, Oregon, crafted the beer in collaboration with famed Spanish chef José Andrés. This brew includes two ingredients Andrés likes to use in his cooking — lemon verbena and pink peppercorn — as well as dried lime and sumac.

Deschutes founder Gary Fish and Andrés began discussing the idea of collaborating on a beer “many years ago,” according to Fish. Zarabanda was introduced last year. Deschutes said the name was inspired by the Spanish saraband dance which, “loosely translated, means popular fun or enjoyment; hubbub; racket; row; party.”

Chai Milk Stout

Adam Draeger, head brewer at Yak & Yeti, created a Chai Milk Stout. Credit: Copyright 2012 Erin Draeger

Adam Draeger, head brewer at Yak & Yeti, created a Chai Milk Stout. Credit: Copyright 2012 Erin Draeger

Yak & Yeti Restaurant & Brewpub’s Chai Milk Stout (5.2% ABV) was a 2013 GABF silver medalist. The chai spices are Yak & Yeti’s proprietary blend. Adam Draeger, head brewer at Yak & Yeti, which operates a brewpub and two restaurants in the Denver area, says the blend uses spices typically used in Nepali spiced tea: whole cloves, cardamom pods and cinnamon.

Chai Milk Stout is a riff on Yak & Yeti’s Milk Stout. “You usually add milk to your chai tea,” Draeger says. He is tight-lipped about the beer’s chai spice blend: “The only bit of info I’ll give you on the spices is that they are mixed and then finely ground and not left cracked or whole.”

Midas Touch

Dogfish Head Craft Brewery adds saffron to the mix. Credit: Courtesy Dogfish Head Craft Brewery

Dogfish Head Craft Brewery adds saffron to the mix. Credit: Courtesy Dogfish Head Craft Brewery

Midas Touch (ABV: 9.0%), by Dogfish Head Craft Brewery Inc., is made with ingredients found in the 2,700-year-old drinking vessels from the tomb of King Midas in central Turkey. The world’s most expensive spice, saffron, gets a starring role. “Saffron is perceived to add a bit of floral sweetness to the beer,” says Tim Hawn, brewmaster at the Milton, Delaware, brewery. He adds that saffron is “known to bring flavors together – in this case the grapes and honey from the base fermentable materials.”

The brewery calls its Midas Touch beer “somewhere between beer, wine and mead.” Dogfish Head, in general, uses many spices in its beers. “What we love about spices is the endless creativity they offer,” Hawn says. “Historically they have been used in the culinary world, but they can also play into beer flavors.”

Heather Ale

Cambridge Brewing's mix of herbs sit on the "brewdeck." Credit: Courtesy Cambridge Brewing Co.

Cambridge Brewing’s mix of herbs sit on the “brewdeck.” Credit: Courtesy Cambridge Brewing Co.

Cambridge Brewing Co.’s Heather Ale (5.0% ABV) snagged a silver medal at the 2012 GABF and a bronze in 2011. Each summer the Cambridge brewery crew picks heather flowers along the Massachusetts coast. “It’s really just a beautiful floral character in terms of flavor and aroma,” brewmaster Will Meyers says of the heather, noting the beer is “all about the heather.” It includes sweet gale, lavender and yarrow.

Heather Ale has roots in Europe and Scandinavia. The brewery says inhabitants of coastal Northern Europe, Scandinavia and the Northern British Isles originally crafted similar beers, adding that “fresh heather flowers and other herbs were used to balance and flavor the rustic yet sweet toasted character of the malted barley.”

Harvest Pumpkin Ale

Boston Beer uses spices found in pumpkin pie for its Harvest Pumpkin Ale. Credit: Courtesy Boston Beer Co.

Boston Beer uses spices found in pumpkin pie for its Harvest Pumpkin Ale. Credit: Courtesy Boston Beer Co.

The spices typically featured in pumpkin pie are featured in Boston Beer Co.’s Harvest Pumpkin Ale (5.7% ABV): cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and allspice. To top it off, the brewery tosses “real pumpkin” into the mix.

The brewery says its Harvest Pumpkin Ale is a modern adaption of a traditional New England pumpkin ale. “Lacking the ability to produce barley, early colonists brewed with pumpkin,” Boston Beer adds, noting the beer delivers “a smooth, rich flavor and unmistakable malty character.”

Utah Sage Saison

Epic Brewing uses sage, rosemary and thyme, steeping them in the wort kettle. Credit: Courtesy Epic Brewing Co.

Epic Brewing uses sage, rosemary and thyme, steeping them in the wort kettle. Credit: Courtesy Epic Brewing Co.

“We wanted to make something that expressed Utah and the high desert. Sage turned out to be the perfect ingredient, but it needed to be rounded out so we added thyme and rosemary,” Matthew Allred, communications director for Salt Lake City-based Epic Brewing, says of his company’s Utah Sage Saison (7.6% ABV). The Belgian-style ale captured a bronze at the 2012 GABF.

Epic uses fresh whole sage, rosemary and thyme for its Utah Sage Saison and steeps them in the wort kettle. “They have a huge impact on the nose, creating a very floral, savory aroma. This is an amazing beer with roast chicken, lamb or other fall seasonal dishes,” Allred says.

Royal Tea Chai Porter

At The Brewer’s Cabinet, a custom chai spice blend is inspected after drying. Credit: Courtesy The Brewer’s Cabinet

At The Brewer’s Cabinet, a custom chai spice blend is inspected after drying. Credit: Courtesy The Brewer’s Cabinet

Charlie Johnson, head brewer for The Brewer’s Cabinet in Reno, Nevada, says the brewery’s Royal Tea Chai Porter (5.4% ABV) was inspired by a dirty chai latte he enjoyed at a local coffee shop and “my love of Indian cuisine.” And the taste: “It’s basically like a spiced chai latte,” Johnson says of the porter.

The brewery uses a house chai spice blend, saying the beer has “a chocolate/roast backbone. The lactose balances the spice notes with a small amount of sweetness and a velvety feel.” Johnson adds: “I’d like to think our beer is made to be paired with food — or replace it as a course.”

Aloha Piña

5 Stones Artisan Brewery's Aloha Piña uses jalapeños and pineapple. Credit: Courtesy 5 Stones Artisan Brewery

5 Stones Artisan Brewery’s Aloha Piña uses jalapeños and pineapple. Credit: Courtesy 5 Stones Artisan Brewery

A “Hawaiian fire” pizza topped with pineapple and jalapeño pepper inspired 5 Stones Artisan Brewery’s Aloha Piña (6.4% ABV). The beer won a silver medal at last year’s GABF in the Herb and Spice Beer Category. (This year, GABF added a Chili Beer category.) The Cibolo, Texas, brewery calls its Aloha Piña an American Golden Ale. The beer is flavored with roasted jalapeño as well as “massive amounts of fresh cut pineapple,” Amarillo hops, and honey.

Dawn Patrol Imperial Molé Stout

Coastal Empire's Dawn Patrol Imperial Molé Stout, with its mix of spices, aims to achieve a Mexican mole sauce flavor profile. Credit: Courtesy Coastal Empire Beer Co.

Coastal Empire’s Dawn Patrol Imperial Molé Stout, with its mix of spices, aims to achieve a Mexican mole sauce flavor profile. Credit: Courtesy Coastal Empire Beer Co.

Coastal Empire Beer Co.’s Dawn Patrol Imperial Molé Stout (10% ABV) — a 2014 GABF bronze medal winner — is a seasonal stout aged four weeks on coffee, raisins, ancho and serrano peppers, cumin, nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon. The aim: achieve a background flavor profile similar to a Mexican mole sauce.

Chris Haborak, co-owner of the Savannah, Georgia, brewery, says the addition of the spices seemed like a good match with the other ingredients. “We figured the spices would pair well with the chocolate backbone of the Imperial Stout.”

Basil Ryeman

 At Tennessee Brew Works, brewers work with local farmers to source their herbs. Credit: Courtesy Tennessee Brew Works

At Tennessee Brew Works, brewers work with local farmers to source their herbs. Credit: Courtesy Tennessee Brew Works

Tennessee Brew Works’ Basil Ryeman (6.25% ABV) combines a Saison-style beer — also known as a classic Belgian Farmhouse Ale — with Thai basil. “We love the anise, fennel and spicy characteristics of Thai basil and the interplay of these flavors with the Belgian Saison yeast,” head brewer Laura Burns says. The Nashville brewery works closely with local farmers to source its herbs.

Burns says the brewery’s Thai basil and rosemary-infused beers are intended to be “very palatable and well suited” for pairing with food. “We use herbs to add distinct flavors that interplay with traditional brewing ingredients,” she notes. “But this also allows our beers to accentuate and help make dishes pop much like an herb does.”

Local Honey

 Woods Beer uses yarrow, eucalyptus and lavender for its Local Honey beer. Credit: Courtesy Woods Beer Co.

Woods Beer uses yarrow, eucalyptus and lavender for its Local Honey beer. Credit: Courtesy Woods Beer Co.

Woods Beer Co.’s Local Honey (6% ABV) combines an American Pale Ale with Bay Area honey and flavors that attract bees: yarrow, eucalyptus and lavender. The Oakland, California, beer is available year-round on tap.

The base beer for Local Honey is an unhopped Pale Ale. The first batch relied on uber-local ingredients. “The herbs and honey were originally locally foraged, by me, from my neighborhood and my own beehives,” brewer William Bostwick, the creator of Local Honey, says. “But now that we brew it on a regular basis and on a larger scale, we can’t pick enough! So we buy our herbs commercially.”

Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Ale

Oatmeal cookies and beer? It goes well at Aftershock Brewing, which created Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Ale. Credit: Copyright 2013 Christian Wicklein

Oatmeal cookies and beer? It goes well at Aftershock Brewing, which created Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Ale. Credit: Copyright 2013 Christian Wicklein

“We wanted the taste and aroma to remind you of oatmeal raisin cookies,” Rebecca Batz, Aftershock Brewing’s tasting room manager, says of the Temecula, California, brewery’s Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Ale (5.5% ABV). “O.R.C.A.” won a bronze at this year’s GABF. The beer initially was intended to be a winter seasonal brew. It became a year-round offering thanks to popular demand.

Owner and brewmaster Marvin Nigh bases the ale on his wife’s oatmeal raisin cookie recipe. (His wife, Karen, is co-owner.) The beer includes oats, raisins and cinnamon. “Most people automatically assume this is a stout. It is not,” Batz says. “It’s just a cookie in the form of a beer.”

Main photo: Craft brewers are turning to herbs and spices as they look to add exotic ingredients to beers. Credit: Courtesy Deschutes Brewery

 

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