Articles in Wine
In the world of craft beer and spirits, imagination and product innovation are never in short supply. Persimmon ale? Check. Smoked bourbon? Yep. Oyster stout? You betcha. But when it comes to wine, experimentation is usually limited to combining grape varieties that don’t traditionally go together. (Tempranillo with Merlot? Crazy!)
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The U.S. wine industry racks its collective brain about how to capture some of the magic of other craft beverages, but at the same time, many vintners are reluctant to try something different in the cellar. Years of tradition, combined with the lingering feeling that U.S. wines still need to prove their worth on the world stage, have led to instinctive eye rolling at the mention of any wine that dares to venture beyond the use of lesser-known grape varieties.
Would it be so unthinkable for a vintner to produce a wine infused with locally grown berries, or partner with a craft distiller to age a wine in used bourbon barrels?
It’s already starting to happen.
“At the start of my wine-making career, almost everything I made was unconventional,” Prairie Berry winemaker Sandi Vojta said. “I made wild fruit wines from South Dakota! I was by nature never a follower of traditions, and learning to make wine with unconventional fruit reinforced that in me. I have had the opportunity to wear traditional wine-making shoes as well, and doing so has taught me to respect and embrace all wine styles.”
Even mainstream wineries are starting to branch out. In late 2014, Fetzer released its “1000 Stories” Bourbon Barrel Aged Zinfandel, and in January, Robert Mondavi Private Selection launched a limited edition Cabernet Sauvignon aged in bourbon barrels.
According to Robert Mondavi Private Select winemaker Jason Dodge, aging in bourbon barrels is “ideal for use in Cabernet, because Cabernet has such an intensely rich fruit character. Instead of overwhelming the wine it actually integrates with (the barrels) very well.” The most exciting thing about the project, he said, is being able to combine the art of wine making with the craft of bourbon production.
And why not? There’s no reason craft distillers and brewers should have all the fun.
Adventures in wine drinking
Tired of the same old Cab? Check out these boldly unconventional wines:
Prairie Berry Blue Suede Shoes, South Dakota ($40): This fruit-infused wine is made with Zinfandel grapes and blueberries. It has a light ruby color, aromas and flavors of ripe blueberries and a pleasant sweetness balanced with acidity. Try it with blueberry pie or pungent blue cheese.
Baker-Bird Kentucky Black Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon ($49.99): This Kentucky winery ages its Cabernet for one year in used, heavy-charred bourbon barrels. The resulting wine has a spicy aroma with underlying herbal notes. It has red fruit flavors and lively acidity, along with notes of toasted oak and vanilla.
Blanc de Bleu Cuvée Mousseux Brut, California ($24.95): Packaged in a crystal-clear bottle to show off the wine’s Tiffany-blue color, this is a grape-based sparkler with blueberry extract added. While you might expect it to be sweet, the wine is technically dry. It’s light and fruity on the palate, with subtle blueberry and green apple notes.
Spicy Vines Original Blend Signature Spiced Wine, California ($23): Inspired by German glühwein, this is a blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Syrah and Grenache, infused with cinnamon, cardamom, clove and allspice. The wine has chai-like aromas, and flavors of spiced red fruit. The wine is slightly sweet and can be served at room temperature, warm (think mulled wine), chilled or mixed into cocktails.
Main photo: Creative wines such as Blanc de Bleu are shaking up the traditional wine world. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo
Vineyard tours were once reserved for people in the industry along with members of the media and wine clubs. Now, though, a handful of wineries in Paso Robles on California’s Central Coast are redefining the wine-tasting experience and making such tours available to visitors by appointment. Among them, Adelaida Cellars, Halter Ranch, Alta Colina and Steinbeck Vineyards will immerse visitors in the region’s terroir and wines.
Visiting the vineyards in spring catches bud break on vines, signaling the end of winter dormancy. The fields are a riot of color, with mustard flower, lupine and cover crops such as clover and barley planted between vine rows, creating a picture-perfect vineyardscape.
An opportunity to showcase the vineyards
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At Steinbeck Vineyards, tours were initiated by fifth-generation farmer Cindy Steinbeck in 2003 to showcase the family’s ranch.
Since the 1880s and for seven generations, the Steinbeck family has been the steward of a 600-acre property, 520 acres of which are planted with 13 grape varieties sourced by such noted wineries as Eberle, Justin and J. Lohr. The Steinbecks started bottling their wine in 2006 with a small production focusing on Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah and Viognier.
The one-hour “Crash Course” tour (named after the B26 aircraft that crashed on the property in 1956) with Steinbeck and her 3-year-old Yorkie, Cri-Cri, is a roller-coaster journey through the vineyards. Tours change with the seasons.
“In fall we encourage visitors to walk around the vineyards, give them clippers to taste the fruit,” Steinbeck said.
The winery from top to bottom, inside and out
Bob Tillman’s two-hour Top-to-Bottom tour of Alta Colina starts in the hillside vineyards and works its way down to the tasting room, where the groups savor the Rhône blends. “This is not a produced tour, no tours are the same,” he said of the exploration of the 130-acre ranch, which has 31 acres planted with Rhône grape varieties.
Heading up to 500 feet elevation, tour groups see the exposed calcareous-rich hillside and learn about different types of trellising in the vineyards while trekking knee-deep in wildflowers dotting the organic Grenache vineyard.
“This gives you a vague idea of behind the scene of what goes in the bottle,” Tillman said.
Under an old oak tree, Tillman poured the 2012 Baja Colina, a white Rhône blend of Marsanne, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc. “We are actually tasting wines in an environment where they are grown,” he said. The wine tastes delicious, laced with aromatics filling the air — and some debris from the nearby oak tree.
It’s a heady experience tasting Adelaida Cellars’s silky Pinot Noir standing amid the legendary HMR Pinot Noir vineyard. Or the minerality of Zinfandel at the foot of Michael’s Zinfandel Vineyard planted at 1,800 feet elevation, rich with rocky limestone soil.
Adelaida Cellars’ Tour, Taste & Tailgate (TT&T) takes visitors through such iconic vineyards as Viking, Anna’s and HMR. (Planted in 1964 by Beverly Hills cardiologist Stanley Hoffman, HMR is regarded as the oldest Pinot Noir-producing vineyard on the Central Coast).
Glenn Mitton, the winery’s ambassador, begins the tour at the newly remodeled winery and hospitality center, where visitors taste a white and red Rhône blend from Anna’s vineyard and the inky Syrah Reserve, among others.
Rising to 2,300 feet, the vast 1,900-acre estate is planted with 700-plus acres of organic walnut orchards and 157 acres of vineyards.
Mitton pointed to owl boxes and raptor perches used for pest control and rows of neatly tucked netting under the vines. “We pull up the net over the vines like panty hose,” Mitton said of the bird-control practice used in the summer.
Dating back to the 1880s, the 2,000-acre Halter Ranch Vineyard is nature’s haven, with a mere 280 acres planted to Bordeaux and Rhône varieties. The rest of the ranch is dotted with redwood and oak trees and home to some 52 species of birds. The ranch is lush with gardens, a 5-acre holding pond and the seasonal Las Tablas Creek, which also functions as a wildlife corridor.
At Lion’s Point, the tour includes a taste of the refreshing 2015 Rosé of red Rhône varieties and, further up the hill, the 2013 Ancestor, a rich blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot. A gentle breeze blew in some debris from a massive, ancestral oak estimated to be 500 years old and known as the largest coast live oak in California.
Upon returning to the winery and its 20,000-square-foot caves, visitors finish with a tasting of Rhône and Bordeaux blends that reflect the history and terroir of the ranch.
Trekking through Paso Robles’ scenic hillside vineyards offers a wine experience well beyond the swirl-sniff-sip scene of the tasting room.
Main photo: At Alta Colina, a tasting on the vineyard tour is under an old oak tree. Credit: Copyright 2016 Mira Honeycutt
2014 is a great vintage in Chablis. Although June was hot and sunny, July and August were cooler than usual. As in so many years, things were not looking great at the beginning of September in this region of France, but once again the vintage was saved by a dry, sunny September, ensuring perfect conditions for the harvest. And the result is wine — now just being released — that has the razor-sharp acidity and flinty minerality that is the benchmark of all good Chablis, wines with a purity of fruit that will develop in bottle over a number of years.
What follows could be described as my shopping list. The premiers and grands crus of Chablis offer great value, compared to some of the more prestigious names of the Côte d’Or.
Chablis, Cuvée Chatillon, Domaine des Hâtes
This is a relatively new estate, with a first vintage in 2010, when Pierrick Laroche took the family vines out of the cooperative. Chatillon is a new cuvée, just 2.4 acres of 45-year-old vines in the village of Maligny, with more depth and weight than his basic Chablis, with a small percentage of wine fermented in oak, and given 15 months élevage.
Chablis Vieilles Vignes, Domaine Gilbert Picq
A wine of great concentration with balancing minerality coming from vines that are more than 60 years old. They adjoin the premier cru vineyard of Vaucoupin and the difference between the two is pretty imperceptible. This is family estate, with a first bottling by Gilbert Picq in 1981. These days, it is his son, Didier, who makes the wine, representing a shift in two generations from polyculture to viticulture and from selling wine in bulk to bottle.
Chablis 1er cru, Côte de Léchet, Domaine des Malandes
Lyne Marchive is a member of an old Chablis family, the Tremblays, and she has firm ideas about how Chablis should taste. It must have a purity of fruit, with stony minerality. And her Côte de Léchet, from the left bank of the river Serein, above the village of Milly, is just that, steely and flinty, with enough structure to sustain 5 or 10 years aging in bottle.
Chablis 1er cru l’Homme Mort, Domaine Adhémar et Francis Boudin
Adhémar Boudin is now 95 and one of the venerable wine growers of Chablis — I always think his name befits that of a crusading knight. These days it is his son, Francis, who makes the wine, and they were the first to separate their vines of l’Homme Mort from the much larger cru of Fourchaume. Compare the two and l’Homme Mort is firmer and flintier, and almost austere, while Fourchaume is a little richer and fuller on the palate.
Chablis 1er cru Vaillons, Domaine William Fèvre
William Fèvre played an important part in the expansion of the vineyards of Chablis, and his estate boasts vines from virtually all the grand crus. In 1998 he sold to the champagne house of Henriot, who also own Bouchard Père et Fils, and the estate has gone on to even greater things with the talented winemaker Didier Seguier. I could have chosen virtually any of Didier’s wines in 2014, even his Petit Chablis, but have opted for the firm, flinty Vaillons with its elegant lift on the finish. Although a small proportion of the wine is fermented in old barrels, you are simply not aware of the oak impact on the palate, other than the addition of a little more weight and body.
Chablis grand cru les Clos Domaine Jean-Paul Droin
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This is another old family estate, going back to the beginning of the 19th century. These days it is Benoit, Jean-Paul’s son, who makes the wine, and on a visit to Chablis a couple of years ago, I was introduced to the 16th generation, Louis, in a stroller. Jean-Paul was enthusiastic about aging Chablis in new oak, whereas Benoit exercises a more restrained and subtle hand in the cellar, to very good effect. As for Benoit’s 2014s, I find it difficult to choose between Grenouilles, the smallest of the grands crus, with its elegant stylish fruit, and les Clos, the largest and generally richer and more powerful. Both have an underlying elegance, but Grenouilles is more ethereal, while les Clos is more substantial. Both will be delicious in about 10 years’ time.
The 2014 vintage is so good, that I could effortlessly select another six wines.
Main photo: The Chablis vineyards of 2014 have produced a wonderful vintage. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jon Wyand. See more of Jon Wyand’s photographs in his latest book, “Corton.”
Every year since 1997, a merry band of winemakers and faithful volunteers have staged a Bacchanalian winter wine festival in the heart of France’s Jura region. Known as La Percée du Vin Jaune, it’s the moment when the new vintage of the Jura’s famous Vin Jaune (literally “yellow wine”) is unveiled.
Made from the distinctive Savagnin grape using a process akin to that used for making sherry, protected from spoilage by a shroud of yeast and tucked away in cellar corners throughout the Jura, the wine slumbers in its barrel for more than six years. When ready to be bottled, the precious wine is drawn off from beneath its yeasty layer, transferred into stout little bottles called clavelins, labeled and released onto the market. At the opening of La Percée, a barrel full of wine is hoisted onto the shoulders of strapping young vignerons and carried through the streets. After a series of florid speeches in honor of the famous wine, the barrel is ceremonially broached, the golden liquid bursts forth, glasses are waved wildly in the air and the festival is declared open.
Better with age
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Some of the year’s Vin Jaune will be squirreled away in cellars where it will live to a grand old age. A 1928 bottle went under the hammer at $800 (€720) at last year’s traditional auction of old bottles. Much, though, will be uncorked as soon as released. The best and most typical way to enjoy this distinctive wine is alongside a pungent hunk of aged, salt-speckled Comté. In the Jura, they splash it liberally into the legendary dish Poulet au Vin Jaune et aux Morilles, a triumph of local cuisine in which a Bresse chicken is bathed in a delectable creamy, mushroomy sauce, which is enlivened with the famous yellow wine.
Many people expect Vin Jaune to be sweet. In fact, it is shockingly dry — think Manzanilla sherry rather than tawny port. Seasoned tasters invoke spicy, nutty flavors and praise its structure, complexity and longevity. Vin Jaune virgins are more likely to pull a funny face, like the apocryphal Yorkshireman on holiday on Spain’s Costa del Sol upon meeting his first olive. They are caught off guard by its dryness and find disconcerting hints of curry, resin or boot polish. It’s definitely an acquired taste.
A festive celebration of Vin Jaune
For stores that stock Vin Jaune in your neighborhood, consult www.winesearcher.com.
While the Percée is a (fairly) serious affair in which the new season’s wine is honored first by the local bishop and then introduced to an expectant audience, this is chiefly a pretext for a joyous winter street party. Throngs of people are bused in from all over the Jura; many more make the trek from Lyon, France, or neighboring Switzerland. There’s even a handful of visitors from the United Kingdom, United States, Japan and China, curious to sample this extraordinary wine.
Because the Percée is held on either the last weekend in January or the first in February, the weather is always freezing, so everyone is swaddled in warm clothes. Some wear full fancy dress, others have mad hats. All are bent on having a good time, sampling and buying wine from the 70 wine growers whose stands are dotted liberally around the town.
A modest entrance fee buys a 4-ounce glass and a booklet of 10 tasting tickets. Thus, it’s quite possible to down an impressive quantity of wine between midday, when the festival opens, and 6 p.m., closing time — and many do. Happily, leaving the event under your own steam is not just discouraged, it’s impossible. Fleets of shuttle buses ferry people in from neighboring villages and towns, a precaution designed partly to keep cars out of the small towns and tiny villages that play host to the festival (the venue changes every year) and partly to keep well-lubricated merrymakers from taking the wheel afterward.
It would be an exaggeration to say sobriety is the order of the day. Yet the Percée is famously good-humored rather than rowdy, a popular festival in every sense (drawing 40,000 visitors this year). After this year’s event, held Feb. 6 and 7, in Lons-le-Saunier, the extraordinary festival that takes months of planning and countless hours of volunteer labor will take a two-year break. This will allow the organizers and winemakers to regroup, take stock and consider whether the festival in its current format best serves the reputation of the unique wines of the Jura region. One thing is for sure: If and when the show returns in 2017, it will be wearing new clothes.
Main photo: A barrel of Vin Jaune is carried through the streets at the opening of La Percée. Credit: Copyright 2016 Sue Style
In the spirit of Oscar season, I asked friends in the wine, food and film businesses a novel question: If you could design the perfect meal around any film and match it with a wine, what would it look like?
Ordinarily I’m no fan of TV trays — nothing can so spoil supper like a flickering rectangle. A carefully crafted meal and your dinner companions deserve your full attention, not a screen on the wall, in the next room or in your pocket. But as a filmmaker and something of a cinema nerd, I’m not entirely opposed to the idea of fine dining in front of a feature film, as long as it’s done with some deliberation.
So, here are eight culinary cinema combinations — give them a try, or let them spark your own concepts for pairing dinner and wine with a movie.
Wine: Sparkling Vouvray
Food: Strawberry tart (tarte aux fraises) and a side of chocolate-covered espresso beans
I thought it best to kick off the exercise with this ridiculously sweet and effervescent French comedy featuring a charming, feisty heroine, an energetic camera style and vibrant colors, all of which require flavors to match.
‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’
Wine: Hill of Grace Shiraz
Food: Slow cooked confit of lamb shoulder with thinly sliced, oven baked, Mediterranean-style potatoes with garlic, rosemary and olive oil
Courtesy of director and winemaker Warwick Ross, this combination combines three Australian originals. Known for his “Red Obsession,” a film that picked up the AACTA prize (Aussie Oscar) for best documentary, Ross is also proprietor of Portsea Estate in Victoria, Australia.
‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’
Wine: Pinot Gris or Riesling
Food: Dubbed Creature from the Black Legume, this pairing calls for frog legs with spicy black bean sauce.
Matt Bennett, the creative chef-owner of Sybaris Bistro in Albany, Oregon, is known for both classic French dishes and imaginative flights of whimsy. He’s organized food/film pairings with the local, independent Pix Theater on the town’s main strip. Make your wine choice based on the level of heat in your black bean sauce.
‘Silence of the Lambs’
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Wine: Chianti, of course
Food: Veal liver and favas
It might be wrong to categorize a film whose protagonist is a cannibal as one of the greatest food films of all time, but this visceral combo plays on Chef Bennett’s sense of humor and the infamous line delivered by Anthony Hopkins (“A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”)
‘The Lady Vanishes’
Wine: A magnum of Champagne
Food: Roast chicken
Ian Johnson is the proprietor and wine director of Luc, a French bistro in Corvallis, Oregon. Johnson draws on his film school background with this nod to the Hitchcock classic. In the film, Margaret Lockwood has a roast chicken and a magnum of Champagne sent to her hotel room. Johnson’s notes on preparing the chicken: “Don’t bother trussing, rain kosher salt and pepper on it and roast for 50 to 60 minutes at 450°F.”
‘The Cave of Forgotten Dreams’
Wine: Mas de Libian, Khayyam, Cotes du Rhone
Food: Charcuterie! A board of rillette, pate, sliced salami, mustard and pickles with fresh baguette
Jessica Pierce of Brooks Winery in Oregon shows her sommelier chops with this deeply terroir-driven pairing, and recommends Werner Herzog’s haunting and lyrical documentary about ancient cave paintings in the Ardeche region of France. “The wine is a biodynamic producer in that region working with Rhone varietals and treating the wines in the most natural way possible, showing a true sense of the Ardeche terroir,” Pierce says. But lest we forget that food also represents the place just as much as wine: “Charcuterie is an important product from the Rhone, and curing meat is an age-old tradition.”
Wine: Comte Armand Close des Epeneaux
Food: Pigeon en sacrophage (truffled squab in a potato sarcophagus)
It’s no surprise that this classic food film shows up on a number of lists. Chef Matt Bennett recommends the pigeon, and Mike Officer of Carlisle Winery in Sonoma suggests the wine with the precision you’d expect of someone whose old vine Zinfandels have achieved cult status.
Wine: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo
Food: A simple omelet and the crust broken from the end of a fresh ciabatta
Let’s close with the greatest food film ever made: Stanley Tucci’s moving and hilarious tale follows Italian immigrant brothers Primo and Secondo as they wrangle with their New Jersey restaurant, the American Dream, and each other. It’s hard to select a dish from so many options, from the tri-colored risotto to the complicated timballo, but in the end it’s best to settle on a simple omelet as you wipe away a tear during the gorgeous closing scene.
Main photo: Critics call “Amélie” a “sugar-rush of a movie,” so an obvious pairing for this vibrant romantic comedy is strawberry tart, chocolate espresso beans and Champagne. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker
If you think of Tuscany and its wines, it is the famous names that immediately come to mind: Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Bolgheri. But Tuscany is so much more than those. There are all manner of lesser-known wines off the beaten track.
I recently spent a couple of days in the Orcia valley, an area sandwiched between the vineyards of Montalcino and Montepulciano, with a river that rises at Monte Cetona and flows into the Ombrone. The Orcia DOC was recognized in 2000, and in 2004 the whole valley was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As for most of the red wines of Tuscany, Sangiovese is the dominant variety, often blended with the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. There are now about 40 wine estates in the 13 villages of the Orcia valley, with an impressive level of quality and just waiting to be discovered. Here are five that are well worth the detour.
Fattoria del Colle
This is the property of Donatella Cinelli and Carlo Gardini. Donatella’s family has long been part of the wine scene of Montalcino, with her brother now running Fattoria dei Barbi, but Fattoria del Colle is where Donatella makes her mark outside Montalcino. She has about 81 acres of vines near the village of Trequanda and makes three red wines, not to mention Vin Santo, which is an essential part of every classic Tuscan estate.
Leone Rosso is Sangiovese with 40 percent Merlot, making for riper, fleshier flavors. Cenerentola, or Cinderella, is Sangiovese with 35 percent Foglia Tonda, an old Tuscan grape variety that almost disappeared. Donatella has played a large part in its successful revival. And then there is Il Drago e le Otto Colombe, a blend of Sangiovese with some Merlot, as well as 20 percent of an Umbrian grape variety, Sagrantino. The name of the wine refers to the fact that the estate is run by women, the doves, with just one man, or dragon, Donatella’s husband, Carlo. It makes an amusing aside. But Donatella has a serious focus; a fellow winegrower described her as the anima, or driving force, of the Val d’Orcia.
This is a relatively new estate, in Tuscan terms, for it was created in 1997 by Pasquale Forte, a businessman from Calabria. From one small purchase in 1997, he has developed a 416-acre estate, including 25 acres of vines (in addition, there are olive trees, extensive woodlands and land for rearing animals).
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Sangiovese is the core variety, with some Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot. They aim for self-sufficiency and even have a restaurant, the very stylish Osteria Perillà, in the nearby village of Castiglione d’Orcia, where you can enjoy the produce of the estate. They are moving toward biodynamic principles and paying enormous attention to the condition of the soil, with advice from the leading expert in the field, Claude Bourguignon.
A drive around the vineyards offered breathtaking views of the hilltops of Rocca d’Orcia and Castiglione d’Orcia, with the autumn sunshine reflecting on golden vines. The cellar can only be described as state-of-the-art, with several sorting tables, vats for microvinifications and a serious selection of barrels.
They make three wines. Petruccino, a blend of 70 percent Sangiovese and 30 percent Merlot with 14 months’ oak aging, has a ripe fleshiness from the Merlot, balanced with freshness from the Sangiovese. More serious is Petrucci, a pure Sangiovese, described as their flagship wine, with aging in new oak. The third wine of the range is single-vineyard Guardiavigna, from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The 2010 was drinking particularly well, with elegance and balance.
This estate was developed by Giuseppe Olivi, who produces an eclectic range of wines from an equally eclectic selection of grape varieties, namely Sangiovese, the key Bordeaux varieties, Syrah, and Pugnitello, another Tuscan variety that has been revived in recent years. His flagship wine is I Puri, a varietal wine that changes from year to year, depending on which grape variety is the absolute best in that particular vintage. In 2009 it was Merlot and in 2010 Sangiovese, with a fine expression of the variety. Unusually for the Orcia valley, they also have some white varieties, Verdicchio, Viognier and Sauvignon, making a fragrant white wine with some stony minerality.
This is an enchanting spot, with views of Monte Amiata and the small town of Pienza. The almost abandoned property was bought in 1999 by Ada Becheri and Alberto Turri, and they began planting vines in 2002. Until 2008, they merely sold their grapes and did some experimental microvinifications. The following year, they built a neat compact cellar and now they make a convincing range of wines that amply illustrate the characteristics of the Orcia valley, with Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot in varying proportions. Oak aging is essential to them all.
Citto, from all four varieties, is elegant and cedary; Ciriè is Sangiovese and Merlot, with some fleshy fruit; Tribòlo is a pure Sangiovese, and a riserva, which requires 24 months of aging. In fact, it has spent 30 months in small barrels, with some lovely elegant sour cherry fruit and just the right amount of oak. And finally there is Albiano, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with just a touch of Petit Verdot. This is riper and immediately more international in flavor, while still retaining the benchmark elegance of Podere Abiello.
Marco’s first vintage was 2001. He has developed the vineyards of an old family estate to make two wines: Capitoni, which is a blend of 80 percent Sangiovese with some Merlot, and Frasi, which comes from a 3.2-acre vineyard planted in1973 that is mainly Sangiovese, with Canaiolo and Colorino. The three varieties are all mixed up in the vineyard and consequently fermented together, then aged in large wood for two years. A vertical tasting of Le Frasi from 2010 to 2005 illustrated the vintage variations. But the first things you see in Marco’s cellar are two large amphorae, for he is experimenting with Sangiovese in amphora.
The flavors are fresh and perfumed, with elegant red fruit and potential, rather like Val d’Orcia, which is a sleeping giant waiting to be discovered.
Main photo: Podere Forte’s vineyards offer breathtaking views of the hilltops of Rocca d’Orcia and Castiglione d’Orcia. Credit: Photo courtesy of Consorzio del Vino Orcia
“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.
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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
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
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.
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
Idaho is famous for potatoes. Now the state’s swelling ranks of winemakers want to put Idaho’s wines on the culinary map. So far, they appear to be making headway.
Just ask Andy Perdue, wine writer for the Seattle Times and editor and publisher of the website Great Northwest Wine. He compares Idaho’s wine making with that of its more famous neighbor, Washington.
“They’re kind of at a place where Washington was in the early to mid-’90s as far as size and quality. That was the turning point for Washington. It’s an interesting time to keep an eye on that industry, because the wines coming out of Idaho are on the rise and getting better and better.”
The rising quality
Perdue links the rising quality of Idaho wine to people such as Leslie Preston. The Idaho native found Idaho’s grapes “so exciting” she decided years ago to make wine using them. Small problem, however: She was living in California’s Napa Valley. “I just wanted to focus on Idaho grapes,” Preston recalls.
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Preston remained a “road warrior” for four years, before she and her family relocated to Boise in 2012. Today, Preston owns Coiled Wines, in the Snake River Valley grape region in southwest Idaho (hence the name “Coiled,” as in snake). And Preston – who trained in California at Clos du Bois, Saintsbury and Stag’s Leap Winery – is among several Idaho winemakers winning awards.
A jump in wineries
“Idaho is more than just potatoes,” Moya Shatz Dolsby, executive director of the Idaho Wine Commission, says. (Full disclosure: The commission was among the Idaho-based sponsors funding my trip.)
Idaho counted 51 wineries at year-end 2015 — versus 11 in 2002. More than 1,300 acres of grapes are planted. The principal whites are Chardonnay, Riesling and Viognier. The chief reds are Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Malbec and Tempranillo. Idaho’s wine production in 2014 ranked 19th nationwide, according to federal data.
“We know we can make world-class wines here,” winemaker Melanie Krause, owner of Cinder Wines, says. “The desert climate grows wonderful grapes.”
Approved in 2007, the Snake River Valley American Viticultural Area was Idaho’s first federally designated wine grape growing region. It’s also Idaho’s main grape region. The Eagle Foothills, within the Snake River Valley AVA, became Idaho’s second AVA in November. The Lewis-Clark Valley, 270 miles north of Boise, near Washington, is expected to win federal designation soon.
Perfect for growing grapes
The Snake River Valley was formed more than 4 million years ago, a product of volcanic activity and floods that left well-draining volcanic soil, industry officials say. The elevation ranges from 1,500 to 3,000 feet.
Summer temperatures hit the 90s during the day and plunge to the 50s at night. That cold-hot combination helps balance the grape sugars and acids, industry officials say. They liken the Snake River Valley AVA to Washington’s famed Columbia Valley.
“You’re going to find wines here that are incredibly balanced and very drinkable,” Krause, an Idaho native, says.
Idaho’s wine industry dates to the 1860s, when grapes were planted in north central Idaho. They were among the first planted in the Pacific Northwest. Idaho’s pioneer winemakers were two Frenchmen and a German. Their wines garnered awards around the country.
But Prohibition halted wine making. While states such as California and Washington resumed production after Prohibition’s repeal in 1933, Idaho’s wine business was morbid. Religious conservatives put a damper on alcohol consumption.
An ‘influx of talent’
Wine making didn’t revive until the 1970s, when growers planted grapes in the Snake River Valley. Ste. Chapelle, Idaho’s oldest and largest winery, was founded in 1975 and produced wines from there.
An influx of winemakers who learned their trade elsewhere — like Preston of Coiled and Krause of Cinder, a former assistant winemaker at Washington’s Chateau Ste. Michelle — helped the industry. “That’s really what the industry needed – an influx of talent,” Perdue, the wine writer, says.
But for now you must visit Idaho to sample its wines, or order them online. A limited number are at restaurants and on store shelves outside Idaho. Most wineries are small. Growers are planting grapes.
Perdue recommends several wineries:
- Coiled Wines in Garden City, outside Boise/Dry and sparkling Riesling
- Cinder Wines, in Garden City/Tempranillo and Syrah
- Sawtooth, in Nampa, about 20 miles west of Boise/Petit Syrah and Rosé
- Koenig Distillery & Winery, in Caldwell, about 25 miles west of Boise/Ice wine
- Fujishin Family Cellars, in Caldwell/Mouvedre
- Clearwater Canyon Cellars, in Lewiston, in northern Idaho/Merlot
He’s bullish on the future: “I could see the industry doubling again in the next five to 10 years.” That could mean more wine for oenophiles who don’t live in Idaho.
Main photo: A wine lover snaps a photo of a Cinder wine, from one of Idaho’s well regarded wineries. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matt Green