Articles in Wine
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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’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, 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, located in Newberg, Oregon, doesn’t throw grapes in a vintage just because they own them.
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“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.
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
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
On a late summer’s weekend in Haro, in the heart of Rioja, northern Spain, a remarkable event took place. La Cata del Barrio de la Estación was an uncommon show of solidarity among seven of Rioja’s leading wineries. The point of the weekend was not simply for the bodegas to show their wines in a spectacular series of tastings (“cata” means wine tasting), but also to shine a spotlight on the famed Barrio de la Estación, the historic area surrounding the town’s railway station where some of the region’s top wineries are clustered.
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The event opened with cava and selected wines served in the impressive cellars of Bodegas Roda, flanked by massive oak casks, one of the defining features of Rioja. Afterward, some of Rioja’s finest wines were showcased at the gala dinner prepared by Michelin-starred chef and local hero Francis Paniego, as well as at the professional tasting staged at Bodegas Bilbainas the following day. Over the course of the weekend, all seven wineries opened their doors and cellars to the public. In brilliant September sunshine, some 5,000 people wandered from winery to winery (all are within walking distance of one another), glass in hand, eager to sample this extraordinary lineup of Rioja wines. The weekend was declared a resounding success by all concerned — the wineries, the local tourist authorities and the general public — and there are rumors (and hopes) that it may become an annual event.
Wines shown at the professional tasting ranged in age from 1981 to 2013, while those tasted in-house were of the latest vintage to be offered on sale. Below is a selection presented by the seven participating estates. Rioja of this quality is widely exported. Check wine-searcher for your nearest supplier.
Bodegas Bilbainas, Viña Pomal Gran Reserva
Bodegas Bilbainas was founded in 1901 and occupies pride of place right beside Haro station. In 1997 the estate was acquired by the Catalan-based Codorniú group, which has invested handsomely in both hardware and oenological expertise. Viña Pomal is its signature brand, made principally from Tempranillo with a little added Graciano for color and aging potential. Gran Reservas are aged at least two years in American oak, a further year in oak casks and three more years in bottle. Garnet-red tinged with russet, richly perfumed, supple and elegant, this is a wine to have and to hold.
López de Heredia, Viña Tondonia Reserva
López de Heredia, just across the tracks from Bodegas Bilbainas, is the station’s oldest winery, established 1877. They make classic, traditional-style Rioja presented in bottles clad in the characteristic gold wire netting that was originally designed to prevent tampering and fraud, now purely decorative. Viña Tondonia is its 100-hectare (250-acre) vineyard, planted in 1914 and responsible for impressive, deep golden white wines, significant reds and some rosé. Red Reservas blend Tempranillo with Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo and are aged six years in American oak. They are vibrant in color, supple and beautifully textured with good acidity and firm tannins auguring long life.
La Rioja Alta, Gran Reserva 904
La Rioja Alta, founded at Haro station in 1890 by five families from Rioja and the Basque Country, is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. Another classic bodega making touchstone Rioja, it is responsible for a range of impressive red wines (no white) destined for long aging. Gran Reserva 904 (Tempranillo and a little Graciano) is fermented in stainless steel and aged four years in small, used barriques, made in-house by the firm’s own cooper from imported, all-American oak staves. With its cherry-red color, intense bouquet and jammy fruit, it’s smooth and powerful — a wine for fall, perfect with lamb braised in red wine or a rich mushroom risotto liberally seasoned with black pepper.
CVNE, Contino Reserva
CVNE, which stands for Compañia Vinícola del Norte de España (usually styled Cune for simplicity), was set up by the Real de Asúa family in 1879. It remains in family ownership, run today by the fifth generation, and is famous for dovetailing the best of ancient and modern Rioja. Contino comes from Tempranillo grapes (plus Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano) grown in a single 62-hectare (150-acre) vineyard situated just outside Haro. Fermented in stainless steel, the wine spends two years in used oak barrels (40 percent American, 60 percent French) and at least a year in bottle before release. Rich ruby and silky-smooth, it’s an intense mouthful of long-lasting pleasure.
Roda, Roda I Reserva
Roda is the new bodega on the block, arriving at Haro station in only 1987. What the estate lacks in antiquity it amply compensates for in terms of excellence, and it has made an immediate impact with its modern Rioja wines, made exclusively from own-grown, indigenous grapes (Tempranillo, Garnacha and Graciano) and given extensive oak aging in a purpose-built, temperature-controlled barrel room, which is carved straight from the rock face. Roda I, closed with a black capsule, is 100 percent Tempranillo, aged 16 months in French oak barriques and given another 20 months in bottle before release. Bright cherry with a lively fruit nose and rich, plummy depths, it’s a wine to curl up with in front of the fire.
Muga, Prado Enea Gran Reserva
Muga joined the other bodegas in the Barrio de la Estación in 1932 and makes super-classic Rioja characterized by long fermentations followed by extensive oak aging and long spells in bottle. Prado Enea, which comes from selected high-altitude plots, is an exemplary Gran Reserva that majors on Tempranillo with 20 percent Garnacha and a smidge of Graciano and Mazuelo and spends three years in oak (French and American) and three more in bottle. Deep ruby in color with a brambly nose (blackberries at end of summer), it has mellow spice flavors and enormous elegance and grace –- a wine to cellar whatever the vintage (it’s not made every year), and to enjoy with favored, wine-loving friends.
Gómez Cruzado, Honorable
Gómez Cruzado was founded by exiled, Mexican-born aristocrat Don Angel Gómez de Arteche, who began making and bottling his own wines here in 1886 (a rarity at the time — most wines were sold in bulk). In 1916 the estate was acquired by a local nobleman, Don Jesús Gómez Cruzado, who gave it its present name. The smallest bodega in the Barrio, it has made giant strides in recent years under the supervision of consultant winemakers David González and Juan Antonio Leza. Honorable comes from one of the estate’s prime parcels of vines, many of them aged more than 50 years, mainly Tempranillo with the other three varieties present in small quantities. Black cherry jam hues with loads of ripe red fruit and good acidity to give it backbone, this is truly an honorable wine from an estate that’s moving up.
Main image: The López de Heredia winery in Rioja, Spain. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style
There’s an old saying in the wine business: It takes a lot of beer to make great wine. The adage is especially appropriate this time of year, when harvest crews work overtime in the late-summer heat to bring in the new crop. But for an adventurous group of American craft brewers, it’s also true that it takes a lot of wine to make great beer.
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No one knows that better than Vinnie Cilurzo, co-owner and brewmaster at Russian River Brewing Co. in Sonoma County, California. A decade ago, when he decided to make an American version of a Belgian lambic ale, he couldn’t resist putting a vinous spin on it. Lambic beers get their distinctive tartness from wild yeast and bacteria, and Cilurzo’s creation was no different in that respect. The twist came when he aged the beer in used Chardonnay barrels sourced from a local winery. The result was a sour beer called Temptation, and it was such a hit that Russian River added two more wine-barrel-aged sours to its lineup.
One of the most interesting examples is Noble Rot, from Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery. “We worked with Alexandria Nicole Cellars winery in Prosser, Washington, and they helped us find all this amazing botrytis-infected Viognier grape must (unfermented juice),” said Sam Calagione, Dogfish Head founder and president. “The botrytis infection is kind of a benevolent fungus that really intensifies the complexity of the grapes. It’s a perfect mix between a Belgian saison, a beautiful white wine and a sour ale.”
Thirsty for more wine-inspired brews? Click on:
Main photo: Dogfish Head Brewery makes this saison-style beer with Viognier grape must infected with a desirable fungus called botrytis that intensifies its sweetness. Credit: Copyright 2015 courtesy of Dogfish Head
Three cheers for the nationwide revival of the all-but-lost American hard cider tradition! This renaissance is an outgrowth of spreading interest in locally sourced products and farm-to-table cuisine. Where there were perhaps a dozen artisanal hard cider makers in 2000, today there are 400, with new farm-to-bottle cideries opening every day.
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Tom Wark, a longtime wine industry publicist, launched “The Cider Journal” last year to track artisanal cideries and give vent to his passion for the movement. “These are complex, interesting drinks that are worlds away from the sweet, artificial tasting stuff I used to think was hard cider,” he says. “There is a growing band of dedicated craft cider producers across the country. Some have been at it for years, others not so long. But all of them are artisans.”
From the vast apple orchards of the Northwest to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, here is Zester’s look at some of our favorites.
Main photo: The Rev. Nat West, right, an ordained minister, preaches the gospel of good cider and is renowned for exploring the boundaries of cider making, starting from his basement and now flowing from 12 taps at his northeast Portland, Oregon, taproom. Credit: Copyright 2015 Zester Media
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
If you’re like me, you love wine but you might not have the benefit of deep pockets or space for a well-stocked cellar. And you’ve probably run into this scenario: It’s a Wednesday night and you’ve just slapped a filet on the grill or tossed some shrimp to sauté and you dash to your diminutive wine fridge to discover that you don’t have anything to pair with the meal.
Your options include settling for a mismatch, a mad dash to the supermarket to buy some mass-produced wine or maybe tapping into that fancy bottle of Barolo you smuggled back from Italy wrapped in your dirty socks and were planning to save for your anniversary. You could always skip the wine for the evening, though that really isn’t any kind of option at all.
If this has happened to you more than once, it’s a pretty good indication that you’re in need of a personal wine program. Restaurants put a lot of thought into making sure they always have the right wine at the right time. And while they manage their wine programs on a whole different level from a cash-strapped wine aficionado, the goals are the same: providing a great experience while keeping an eye on the bottom line.
So here are a few ways you can approach your personal wine supply like a savvy restaurateur.
Tap an expert
Restaurants that are serious about wine hire a sommelier or a wine director to help them make their wine-buying decisions. Private consultants abound, but there’s also a lot free advice out there. Your local wine shop is a great place to start. Jerry Larson, owner of Wineopolis in Corvallis, Oregon, is my go-to expert for quick advice. He is happy to suggest budget buys that still balance quality.
“Go to Europe for the $10 bottles,” says Larson, who carries wines from around the world that express the places where they are grown, rather than those that are blended and crafted to a certain style or taste. While he proudly sports an entire wall of excellent Oregon wines, he’s eager to help you work with your budget goals. “The New World isn’t as good at $10 wines that are vineyard driven.”
Larson offers free tastings every Saturday to help customers tune their palates and test-drive some of the entry-level wines he stocks.
Match your menu
“A wine director should be in constant communication with the chef,” says David Speer, sommelier and owner of Ambonnay, a Champagne bar in Portland. He also consults on establishing wine programs for restaurants and private collectors.
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That communication might seem easy to do at home when the wine director and head chef will probably be the same person. But it’s not as easy to accomplish when storage space is at a premium and wine purchases are made with a different part of the brain from the one that plans the menu.
I’ve tended to collect and save a lot of bigger, age-worthy reds, but when I stopped to look at what we cook and eat week to week, I noticed a disconnect. Our personal menu features lots of Northwest seafood, spicy Asian-influenced dishes and fresh salads and vegetables. Mineral-driven whites with bright acidity fit the bill much better than the epic red wines. Thinking about the menu objectively totally changed my wine-buying habits.
Keeping a close eye on your grocery cart will also allow you to adapt your wine program throughout the year. If you like to cook with local produce and shop at farmers markets, your menu will probably change over time. “Base your wine on what you eat, and think seasonally,” says Larson, whose shop abuts the Saturday market, allowing him a ringside seat to a parade of local produce.
“Remembering that your tastes will most likely change over time, don’t invest too heavily into one grape, region or producer. Spread it out,” says Speer, who suggests buying two to six bottles at a time to keep your supply nimble. “A case can be a bit much.”
The evolution of your tastes and palate is part of the adventure of wine. So saving a few slots for something new is a good idea.
Flexibility could also save you money. The wine market is constantly in flux. A good wine director will always keep an eye on the trends and bargains in case there’s ever a discounted wine that can be substituted for another option on the list.
Stock some exceptions
You don’t have to spend a lot of money to find great wines, but it’s still a good idea to have a few special bottles on hand. I live in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and there are some amazing wines available, especially at higher prices. It would be a shame not to occasionally connect with the best the region has to offer.
Speer often sees restaurants making this very mistake.
Don’t forget the bubbles
Champagnes and sparkling wines aren’t only for weddings and celebrations. For Speer, whose passion for bubbles led him to open Ambonnay, it’s a no-brainer. “Your cellar should be 95 percent Champagne,” he says, only half-joking. “I think people don’t drink enough Champagne, and they forget that it’s really something you can enjoy more often, not just pop open with some friends and then move onto a ‘real’ wine.”
It’s a great time to begin exploring bubbles. There is an exciting movement away from big-production Champagnes to more single-vineyard, small-allotment vintages, and the range of options is growing. And there are sparkling wines from around the world that provide even more choices at great prices.
Speer recommends looking to Spain: “I’m most excited about Cava; there are some really cool, family-run places that are making great bubbles in the $15 to $20 range.”
Delicious, thoughtful wine and meal pairings are what make great restaurant experiences, but there’s no reason you can’t create the same synergy at home. You just need to think about the wines you buy a little more like a sommelier. So fire up the stove, pull a cork and create something special. And if you like what you taste, don’t forget to compliment the chef and tip a little extra for your somm.
Main photo: Sommelier David Speer recommends buying three to six bottles of a wine rather than a case; your tastes and menu will change over time and you want to remain flexible. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Baker