Articles in Wine
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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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
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
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
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