Articles in Wine

Spanish cava for toasting the new year. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Nochevieja, or old night,” as New Year’s Eve is known in Spain, is a celebration that comes with a bit of insurance. All across the country, welcoming the New Year includes 12 grapes and a glass of first-class cava.

On Dec. 31, when the clock signals the midnight hour, people eat one grape for every toll of the bell. The traditional grapes are known as las doce uvas de la suerte, or “the 12 grapes of luck,” and no one would want to start the New Year without them. But Spaniards like to wash down these grapes with the best bubbly they can find. And with every new year, their choices for first-class cava, the Spanish sparkling wine, get better and better.

While most people consider Champagne the New Year’s drink of choice, there are many options from around the world for sparkling wine that rival the best from that French region. Prosecco and Moscato d’Asti from Italy, Sekt from Austria and even Crémant from elsewhere in France. But in Spain, most Cava comes from the Penedés DO near Barcelona in the Catalan region and is one of the few sparkling wines that mimics Champagne’s production called méthode champenoise or método tradicional as it is known in Spain.

The approach is straightforward enough, but requires a laborious multi-step process. It begins by creating a low-alcohol still wine, then adding a mixture of yeasts and sugar known as licor de tirajo to initiate a second fermentation in the bottle, resulting in the wonderfully tiny bubbles for which sparkling wine is known. The final step is to slowly invert the bottle over a few weeks (riddling) to allow the yeast to accumulate in the neck, freeze the neck, remove the temporary crown cap and a small plug of ice and replace it with the cork that makes the quintessential “pop” when you are ready to start celebrating.

Catalan cava has true regional flavor

Like French producers who use three traditional local varietals — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier — to make the blend known as Champagne, Spain’s cava producers rely on their own regional grapes: Xarel·lo, Macabeo (known as Viura in Spain’s Rioja region) and Parellada. Other varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are permitted for use in the Penedés region of Catalonia, but the best Catalan winemakers are increasingly using grapes emblematic of the area to showcase the unique style of their sparkling wine.

With a strong regional pride typical of the highly independent Catalan region, these top producers represent the best that Spain has to offer in today’s vintages. The result is a dry, crisp quaff redolent of apples, lemons and almonds, a little less sweet than Italy’s Prosecco and not quite as nutty as France’s Champagne.

Yet like many other Spanish wines coming out from under a long-standing reputation for middling quality, prices still trail far behind the improvements in taste. Some vintages, like Agustí Torelló Mata’s Kripta Gran Reserva Brut Nature, rival the cost of high-end French Champagne, yet most contemporary cava options represent wonderfully priced, first-class quality.

Many of these producers export great vintages to the United States, and their prices reflect some of the best bubbly bargains around. So this New Year’s eve, start celebrating with 12 grapes and some Spanish cava. The first will bring you luck, the second will bring you happiness.

Cava producers and labels worth celebrating 

Agustí Torelló Kripta Gan Reserva Brut Nature Sparkling

Castellroig Sabaté I Coca Reserva Familiar Xarel·lo

Gramona III Lustros Gran Reserva Sparkling

Juvé y Camps Gran Reserva Brut Sparkling

Llopart Leopardi Brut Nature Sparkling

Raventós Blanc de Nit Sparkling (which incorporates a bit of my favorite regional varietal, Monastrell to create the perfect pink sparkling wine)

Recaredo Brut de Brut Gran Reserva Brut Nature

Main photo: Spanish cava for toasting the new year. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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Pouring out the Champagne. Credit: iStock

Corks are popping all over the place this month. More bottles of Champagne and other sparkling wines are sold during the holidays than at any other time of the year. With an elegance that eludes eggnog, bubbly is definitely a December favorite.

For many consumers, this is just about the only time that they buy and drink this particular type of wine. Not surprisingly, they often find themselves confused. Sparkling wines come in a wide array of styles and an even wider range of prices. Is the more expensive one inevitably best? Is Champagne always better than bubbly made elsewhere? And what do all those words on the label — “brut,” “extra dry,” “demi-sec” — really mean?

Here’s a primer, with answers to these and some other frequently asked questions.

Is Champagne really the best sparkling wine?

In a word, yes. Real Champagne comes from a relatively small region in northern France, where the cool climate and chalky soil combine to produce sparkling wines of remarkable grace and finesse. That’s why good Champagne remains the benchmark for anyone producing bubbly just about anywhere else.

What makes Champagne so distinct? Many things, but the most important factor is that the area is too cold for wine grapes to ripen fully. They retain lots of acidity, and while too tart for still wine, are perfect for bubbly.

That Champagne remains best doesn’t mean, however, that other sparkling wines are bad. Vintners all over the world make bubbly following the time-honored Champagne method, a laborious process in which a second fermentation in the bottle produces a stream of tiny, delicate bubbles. Their wines can be delicious. Look for an indication of this “classic” or “traditional” method on the label.

Why is Champagne so expensive?

Two reasons, really. First comes supply and demand. Though people clamor for Champagne all over the world, the region itself is relatively small. Second, because demand is so strong, vineyard land in Champagne is expensive. Growers need to charge a fair amount for their grapes to cover their costs. Couple the high price of the raw material with the expensive production method, and the wine simply can’t come cheap.

Speaking of cheap, you still can find some bottles of American bubbly for under $10 labeled as “Champagne.” Though regulations now restrict the use of the term, producers who labeled their wines with it in the past are allowed to continue to do so. These wines, however, are not made with the traditional method. They bear virtually no resemblance to true Champagne.

Are there any good, affordable Champagnes?

Absolutely, and this is definitely the time of year to buy them. Most shops put bubbly on sale during the holidays, and you can find some excellent Champagnes for under $30 a bottle. Look for the bruts from Henri Abelé, Piper Heidsieck, and Mumm (Cordon Rouge), all of which have impressed me recently.

What does ‘brut’ mean?

It means dry, and “ultra-brut” (Laurent-Perrier makes an excellent one) means very dry. Champagne nomenclature, however, gets confusing. You’d think “extra dry” would mean very dry. It doesn’t. Instead, a wine labeled “extra dry” will be slightly sweet, though not quite as sweet as one labeled “demi-sec,” a term that literally means half-dry. There’s absolutely no logic to it.

Incidentally, rosé Champagnes, which many people assume will taste sweet, are usually quite dry.

What about sparklers from elsewhere in Europe?

Spanish cava is always a popular alternative to Champagne, particularly since it carries a lower price tag. Made by the traditional method, but with different grape varieties, good cavas taste nutty rather than toasty, and rarely cost more than $15. Cristalino, Mont Marcal, and Segura Viudas are reliable producers.

Bubbly from the Loire Valley in France, though inevitably coarser in texture than Champagne, can be another option. For around $12, look for the bruts from Bouvet and Marquis de la Tour.

Prosecco from northeastern Italy is surging in popularity these days. Rarely made by the traditional method, the wines usually taste somewhat sweet. More like Champagne in style are brut Italian sparklers from Trentino and Franciacorta. Popular with the chic set in Milan, they are priced in the same league as the French originals.

Are there any good American sparkling wines?

Yes, and more and more all the time. Let’s start in California, where the Champagne-styled sparklers tend to taste fruity and frothy, the wines being made from riper grapes than in Champagne. Names to look for include Domaine Carneros, Gloria Ferrer, Roederer Estate, and Schramsberg. Expect to pay about $25 for a basic brut, and more for a vintage or prestige bottling.

Many other places in the United States also produce good bubbly. Westport Rivers in Massachusetts, L. Mawby in Michigan, Gruet in New Mexico, Chateau Frank in New York, Argyle in Oregon and Thibaut-Jannison in Virginia are examples of wineries whose wines have won numerous medals and awards at international competitions and are well worth trying.

What foods go best with ‘brut’ bubblies?

Wherever it comes from, brut sparkling wine pairs best with savory fare. It’s a remarkably versatile food wine, and can complement almost anything on your holiday buffet. I’m especially partial to it with seafood, notably shellfish and sushi.

But what about dessert?

Brut bubbly is simply too dry to complement desserts, as sugar or pastry cream makes the wine seem thin and metallic. Serve extra-dry or demi-sec wine instead. Veuve Clicquot makes an excellent non-vintage demi-sec that costs about $45. If that’s too much money, try Freixenet’s extra-dry cava for about $10.

Incidentally, virtually no sparkling wine matches well with chocolate, as the dark cocoa flavors invariably make the wine taste bitter.

What if I buy more wine than I end up opening over the holidays?

Good bubbly will improve noticeably with some time spent in the bottle, becoming more complex, nuanced and intriguing. You do need good storage conditions — a place that is relatively cool, with little direct light. Whether you use a closet or a basement, don’t worry about leftover bottles. Given all the sales during the holidays, this is definitely the season to stock up!

Main photo: Pouring out the champagne. Credit: iStock

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Martin Donatsch

There is one big problem with Swiss wines: There is not enough to go around. There are just 15,000 hectares (about 37,000 acres) of vineyards spread over the whole country, and the Swiss drink most of their wines themselves, so that barely 1 percent of the country’s entire production reaches the export market. This means that the only way to really enjoy Swiss wine is to go there — but that is no hardship, as it is a breathtakingly beautiful country.

The train ride from Geneva airport to Montreux sets the scene. The track follows the edge of Lake Geneva, and on the other side there are steep terraced vineyards, tiny plots with stone walls that form the myriad appellations of the Vaud (one of the Swiss cantons, or states). The whole area is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From Montreux, I ventured into the German-speaking part of Switzerland, with vineyards scattered all over the northeastern part of the country.  They account for just 17 percent of the entire production of Switzerland. Visiting a small handful of wine growers, various themes become apparent. Not only is production tiny — the average wine grower can easily earn a living from 4 or 5 hectares (10 to 12 acres) — but it is also fragmented. Martin Donatsch, in the area of the Graubünden Herrschaft, is not unusual in making 14 different wines from 6 hectares (15 acres). While it is true that some of the wines are variations of the same grape variety, nonetheless the attention to detail is breathtaking.

Burgundy-style winemaking

Donatsch’s neighbor, Georg Fromm, in the village of Malans, follows the Burgundian pattern, making a village Pinot Noir that is a blend of grapes from different vineyards as well as four Pinot Noirs that draw from four distinct vineyards. And he has only 4.5 hectares. The differences were subtle but apparent, as there are slight variations in the soil as well as the vinification. (Fromm is also known for superlative Pinot Noir in New Zealand.)

Donatsch, whose father was the first to plant Chardonnay in the area and the first to age his Pinot Noir in barrels — he was given two Burgundian barrels by André Noblet of Domaine de la Romanée Conti — also follows the Burgundian pattern with the equivalent of a village, premier cru and grand cru wine. These indicate, in rising order, the quality of the terroir and thus the potential of the wine. In Donatsch’s case, the wines are called Tradition, Passion and Unique. Their style was understated, delicious and age-worthy.

Winemaking at Domaine Donatsch. Credit: Nicola Pitaro

Winemaking at Domaine Donatsch. Credit: Nicola Pitaro

With such tiny amounts, production costs are high — we were given a figure of 30,000 Swiss francs (about U.S. $31,000) per hectare, which could rise to as much as 50,000 francs (about $52,000) in particularly challenging hillside conditions, and so inevitably prices are high, but no higher than for a grand cru Burgundy. Donatsch’s wines range from about U.S. $21 for a bottle of Tradition to $57 for the Unique.

Although all the wine growers that we met grew a diverse range of local and international grapes, most agreed that Pinot Noir is the most successful grape variety of the region. For my taste buds, it really came into its own in the Graubünden Herrschaft, the four villages of which Malans in the center, where the warm prevailing wind, the föhn, helps ripen the grapes. The soil is mainly limestone, like Burgundy, and the grapes enjoy the large difference between day and nighttime temperatures, which makes for slower ripening and fresher flavors.

Local varietals at risk

In addition to the more international varieties, Switzerland is also home to a number of endangered varieties, which could be at risk of disappearing. Erich Meier at Uetikon, near Lake Zurich, is a keen exponent of Rauschling. There are 9 hectares (22 acres) of Rauschling in the area, 23 hectares (57 acres) altogether in the whole of Switzerland; Erich has just 40 ares (1 acre). He ferments half the grapes in oak and half in tank to make a rounded, fruity white wine with well-integrated oak and a lightly salty finish with good acidity.

Completer was another grape variety that I had never heard of, let alone tasted. This might be explained by the fact that 10 producers have just 3 hectares of it. Happily, the Donatsch family is planning to extend its vineyards of Completer so that its future can be more assured. Martin Donatsch explained how it has a very high acidity and that in the past it used to be aged for several years in wood to soften the acidity, thus making for a very oxidative style. He has opted for a fresher style, a late harvest wine, in which he leaves a little residual sugar. Again the föhn helps the ripening process, by shriveling the grapes, and for Donatsch it has everything that you want in a white wine, minerality, fruitiness, elegance and alcohol. I found it very intriguing, with dry honey and good acidity and again, well-integrated oak.

At lunchtime in the Donatsch family’s wine bar, Winzerstube zum Ochsen, we enjoyed the 2009 vintage of Completer from a magnum. It was simply delicious, and yet another example of the extraordinary diversity and originality of Switzerland.

Main photo: Martin Donatsch stirs the grapes at his family’s winery. Credit: Domaine Donatsch

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Vin d'Orange, a French aperitif made by infusing sweetened wine with a trio of citrus peels - orange, lemon and lime - brings a sunny brightness to wintry holiday gatherings. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

As I watch the sun, feeble in the morning skies at this time of the year, I think of the sunshine-yellow oranges my parents always brought to me from their little citrus grove in central Florida. Even though I live in the American South, cold weather and thick quilts lull me to sleep many nights. What on earth could I do to preserve a bit of sunshine as the shadows close in, foretelling the shortest day and longest night of the year?

Why, I could make vin d’orange, a French apéritif, perfect for the holiday season.

Vin d’orange is easy to make, requiring just a few minutes and some basic ingredients from the grocery store. Essentially, it just requires adding orange peel and sugar to dry white wine. It is especially delightful when combined with the 13 Desserts of Provence that are traditionally served at the end of Christmas Eve dinner.

Vin d’orange is also an example of interconnecting links so rampant in the world of food.

First, let’s look at a bit of the history that comes along with this aperitif.

Flavoring wines a centuries-old practice

The practice of infusing wine with herbs, fruits, and nuts is an old one, dating back for centuries. Most infused wine began as medicine, either to prevent or to cure illness. For example, the Egyptians flavored their wines with celery, juniper, or frankincense. The Romans added herbs to their wine, also for medical reasons. And the Father of Medicine, Hippocrates, created ”hippocras,” a bitter digestive, useful (he thought) for settling stomach upsets. And medieval monks are well known for the aperitifs they created, such as Benedictine and Chartreuse.

Georgeanne Brennan’s book, ”Apéritif: Recipes for Simple Pleasures in the French Style,” (1997), hints at the wide variety of flavorings that cooks used to pep up their wine: yellow-flowered gentian, cherries, green walnuts, peach leaves.

So vin d’orange is likely the result of this long history. Seville oranges (bigarades) define the wine’s basic character, since originally people used these bitter oranges brought to Spain by the Arabs. Variations of vin d’orange appeared in southern Italy, France, and Spain, where citrus fruits flourished. And as Europeans left their homelands and settled the New World, they brought these ancient techniques, most of which reflected the seasons of the year. There, as in Europe, cordials resulted from that age-old meeting between herbs, fruits, nuts and wine.

Vintage cookbooks offer hints of these ancient practices, as do modern ones.

Consider M. F. K. Fisher’s ”A Cordiall Water” (1961). She touts the virtues of something called Arquebuse, made in a remote area of France with 33 different herbs. The best part about this concoction, it seems to me, is Fisher’s comment that it soothes nervous travelers “before embarking, especially for a plane trip.”

Southern chef Bill Neal writes of cordials in “Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking” (1985), pointing out that oranges grew in Louisiana and South Carolina long before Florida became the hot spot for citrus. He includes a recipe for orange cordial very similar in construction to the recipe that follows here, except that bourbon takes the place of wine. Very likely, Sarah Rutledge inspired him with her recipe for orange cordial in “The Carolina Housewife (1847).

French influence on Southern cordials

Considering that many French Huguenots settled in South Carolina, the existence of such cordials is not at all surprising. In fact, at one point, Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana supplied the Memphis-based Robilio liquor brokerage company with orange wine. Robilio’s son figures some homesick Frenchmen rustled up batches of this sunny wine and bottled it.

The following simple recipe requires a clean glass quart-size bottle. Note you can use the same wine bottle, preferably one with a screw-on lid. If you find Seville oranges in your market, by all means use them. The addition of lemon and lime zest attempts to mimic the flavor of those sour oranges. If you want to get fancy, add some coriander seeds or maybe a stick of cinnamon or a vanilla bean.

But remember one thing: Just be sure that you drink about a half cup of the wine before proceeding, so as to fit all the ingredients into the wine bottle.

Vin d’Orange (Orange-Flavored Wine)

The trio of citrus peels that are used to infuse the wine give the vin d'orange a sunny flavor. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

The trio of citrus peels that are used to infuse the wine give the vin d’orange a sunny flavor. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

Prep time: 20 minutes, plus one week for wine to macerate in the refrigerator, so plan ahead.

Yield: Makes about 1 quart

Ingredients

Peel/zest of 1 large sweet orange (preferably organic), in strips

Peel/zest of 1 lemon (preferably organic), in strips

Peel/zest of 1 lime (preferably organic), in strips

1 (750 millileters) bottle of dry rosé or dry white wine

1/3 cup cognac

1 1/4 cups sugar

1/3 cup sparkling water (sodium-free)

Directions

1. Use only the skins of the fruits, making sure to exclude the pith (white part), as it will make your vin d’orange exceedingly bitter if you don’t.

2. Mix all ingredients together. Push the citrus peels into a quart-size glass jar or bottle, and then use a funnel to add the wine, cognac, sugar and sparkling water. Cover tightly, and refrigerate for one week or longer.

3. When ready to serve, strain wine through a sieve and serve with some (or all!) of the 13 Desserts of Provence. Or just serve the wine with any other sweets. Try vin d’orange with sharp cheeses and different dried sausages for something different.

Main photo: Vin d’Orange, a French aperitif made by infusing sweetened wine with a trio of citrus peels — orange, lemon and lime — brings a sunny brightness to wintry holiday gatherings. Credit: Cynthia Bertelsen

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Loire Valley landscape. Credit: Tim Teichgraeber

Chenin Blanc is like the name of a woman you met at a club a couple of years ago: It rings a bell, but you can’t remember much else. That’s been a problem for wine producers around the world for most of the past century. The white grape delivers a big crop but usually makes for a pretty average wine, be it from California’s Central Valley or South Africa.

Chenin Blanc is native to France’s Loire Valley, where vintners in Anjou and Touraine still regard it with the glowing eye of a proud parent, probably because they understand its heart of gold and true potential. When you raise it in the disciplinary schist and limestone soils of the Loire, you get a respectable wine, something with breeding and class. It can even age extraordinarily well.

What’s more, Chenin Blanc is a remarkably flexible grape that knows how to party. It becomes a great dry or off-dry white in Vouvray, a long-lived dry white in the tough schist soils of Savennières and a dessert wine in Coteaux du Layon. Pick it early, as they do in Saumur as well as Vouvray, and it can make a great sparkling wine, especially when blended with some Cabernet Franc or Chardonnay. Look, for instance, to the superb Domaine Langlois-Château (owned by Champagne house Bollinger) or Bouvet Ladubay, both in Saumur, or Château Montcontour in Vouvray. Priced between $10 and $20 per bottle, Crémant de Loire is an affordable alternative to Champagne for holiday get-togethers.

Tasting at Château Montcontour. Credit: Tim Teichgraeber

Tasting at Château Montcontour. Credit: Tim Teichgraeber

Saumur

Langlois-Château’s wines aren’t the cheapest from this region, but the estate controls the production process from beginning to end. The grapes are crushed at the winery and the pressed juice separated to be vinified and later blended, just as is done in Champagne. Frankly, the quality as compared to that of other Loire bubbly is evident. “It is slightly higher priced, but in the end we propose something different. We try to intend quality from the beginning,” general manager François Regis de Fougeroux said.

Bouvet Ladubay makes some terrific sparkling Chenin Blanc from vineyards situated on top of vast, old limestone quarries. This central part of the Loire Valley is popular with cyclists, and Bouvet offers a 2.5-kilometer (about a mile) bicycle tour of its wine caves. “Chenin Blanc has a very good expression here for sparkling wine,” deputy managing director Juliette Monmousseau said. “It is very minerally and has good acidity, which encapsulates what we need to make good sparkling wine.”

“Historically, the Loire was the highway to transport goods in a fast way from the center of the country to the Atlantic Ocean,” she said. “We really have no major industries other than tourism, wine, cheese and great food.” If you’re looking for some evidence of that great food, you’ll want to check out Juliette’s sister’s restaurant, La Route du Sel in Thoureil, a tiny town overlooking the river. You can’t beat the waterside tables for an outstanding outdoor lunch of local cuisine with wine.

Vouvray

A bikeable distance to the east is Vouvray, where estates such as Château Montcontour make sparkling and still whites from Chenin Blanc. “In France, when people think of Vouvray, they think of sparkling wine,” export manager Thibaud Poisson said. “In the U.S., they think of off-dry wines. But now dry, still white wines from Vouvray are becoming more popular.”

To the west of Saumur is Anjou, where Chenin Blanc remains the lead white grape. Here, however, the soils change to a rocky mix of granite schist and quartz, which naturally limits the productivity of the vines to net concentrated, very minerally and, in some cases, long-lived wines with exotic tropical fruit and citrus flavors.

Winegrower Patrick Baudoin. Credit: Tim Teichgraeber

Winegrower Patrick Baudoin. Credit: Tim Teichgraeber

Anjou

Anjou/Savennières winemaker Patrick Baudoin said that while the Loire Valley east of Saumur features white, limestone-based soils, the parts to the west are known for “Anjou noir” soils, named for their darker schist makeup. That soil difference resonates in the character of the wines. Baudoin’s are more concentrated and taut than those grown in limestone soils, with profound stone-fruit, pear, lemongrass and green-tea notes. And they’re built to last, with vibrant acidity, good body and just enough white grape-skin tannin to give them some longevity.

There are some great examples from California, such as Dry Creek Vineyard’s Dry Chenin Blanc, which displays a certain amount of class. But it’s not the ideal place to raise the grape. If you’re looking for more terroir-driven wines and greater variety, look to the  Loire Valley.

Main photo: The beauty of the Loire Valley landscape. Credit: Tim Teichgraeber

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Monastrell grapes. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

One of Spain’s favorite wines suffers from a case of mistaken identity — and is better known abroad under an alias.

In the Mediterranean coastal regions of Murcia and Valencia, wine made from Monastrell (the fourth-most planted red wine grape in Spain) is a local favorite. With its slightly rugged, fruit-intense profile, it is ideal to pair with hearty winter flavors such as La Mancha’s gazpacho manchego, redolent of rabbit, wild mushrooms and snails, and Valencia’s richly seasoned paellas.

But somewhere around the 16th century, the varietal traveled to France and took on the name Mourvèdre, which stuck for 500 years. Over time, Mourvèdre gained popularity as a perfect partner for Grenache (known as Garnacha in Spain) and Syrah — a blend known as GSM for short. GSM blends from Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Côtes du Rhône are particularly well known. French winemakers also stepped ahead of Spanish vintners to carve out a reputation for the grape as a respectable single varietal. Even Australians and Americans thought well enough of Monastrell to plant vineyards of their own, but gave it yet another name: Mataro.

But recently, Monastrell has moved to center stage, to share the spotlight with garnacha and the Rioja region’s famed Tempranillo. With more producers creating Monastrell wines of what could be called a finessed rustic style, Monastrell has shed its reputation for jammy, high-alcohol vintages and acquired one for its distinctly Spanish, authentic approach to this powerhouse grape. Michelin-starred chef María José San Román showcases the fruit and wine on the menu every night at her restaurant, Monastrell, in the heart of the varietal’s growing region in Alicante.

But Monastrell is not an easy grape to grow; it takes perseverance and dedication. The varietal flourishes on old bush-trained vines, planted in incredibly rocky soil at elevations high enough to be hard on the fruit. In temperatures that are blazing hot in the summer and bitterly cold at night, the grape benefits from being both drought-tolerant and late to harvest, but typically produces in heavy and light volumes on alternate years.

Monastrell grapes in vineyard

Monastrell grapes in Bodega Castaño’s vineyard in Yecla, Spain. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

To the eye, Monastrell’s thick skins contribute to a deep, dark purple color. On the nose, its aroma gives away the earthy, rocky soil it thrives in, but the wine is all about spice and intense, dark fruit such as blackberries, blueberries and plums.

Most quality producers in Spain have tamed its highly tannic, rustic taste with selective oak aging, and the best vintners create wines that balance intense fruitiness with savory undertones. Although there is no getting around the fact that most Monastrell wines are relatively high in alcohol, averaging 12 to 15 percent, there’s a softness to the fruit that makes this wine very approachable, with the right level of acidity.

Experiencing Monastrell at its source

During a recent visit to Bodega Castaño in the Yecla DO (Denominación de Origen) of Murcia, I witnessed the unique growing conditions of this workhorse grape. More important, I tasted Monastrell at its source, perfectly paired with country food and generous Spanish hospitality.

As a guest of Ramón Castaño Santa and two of his three sons, winemaker Ramón and Daniel, I toured an estate that had been maintained by four generations of Castaño vintners. On this day during harvest, the Monastrell grape hung in heavy bunches just inches from ground, so I was able to experience the deep flavor of the fresh fruit before swirling the wine in a glass over lunch.

Monastrell wine. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Bodega Castaño’s flagship Monastrell blend, Casa de la Cera. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Although the hearty country gazpacho prepared over a wood fire was a simple but spectacular main course, the real treat was the collection of six wines that the Castaño family shared with its guests. From the simple, single varietal 2013 Monastrell to the smooth 2011 Casa de la Cera, the family’s flagship example of a perfect Monastrell blend: 50%  Monastrell, 50% combination of Garnacha Tintorera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.

I discovered that afternoon that Monastrell is a friendly wine that’s worth getting to know. There are a host of Spanish vintners from Murcia’s four recognized winemaking regions that are creating great examples of Monastrell vintages, including Bodega Castaño and Castillo del Baron in Yecla and Enrique Mendoza, Volver and Sierra Salinas in Alicante.

Best of all, Monastrell can still be an incredible value because the reputation of the heavy-handed, rough style of the Monastrell of old has not caught up with the new, more refined approaches that vintners are applying to this fruit-forward wine. Sometimes, mistaken identity can work in a wine lover’s favor.

Main photo: Monastrell grapes.  Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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Of his career switch from music to winemaking, Oregon's Scott Wright says,

On a Sunday night in May, Scott Wright arrived at his Carlton, Ore., winery to find flames shooting from the roof and smoke billowing into the sky. “There were 30 to 50 firefighters in full gear scrambling around, working on the blaze,” Wright said. “It was like something you see in the movies, very surreal.”

He tracked down the crew chief to find out whether the fire had been contained. Foremost on his mind was the condition of the 2013 vintage at the other end of the building. He’d sampled the wines only the day before and had marveled over the quality.

“It would be absolutely crippling,” he said. “I can’t imagine anything more damaging than losing an entire vintage.”

David Baker's documentary "American Wine Story" is available on iTunes, cable pay-per-view and other online outlets in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

David Baker’s documentary “American Wine Story” is available on iTunes, cable pay per view and other online outlets in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Wright is one of the winemakers I interviewed for “American Wine Story,” a documentary that explores the drive to start life over in the wine industry. He co-owns Scott Paul Wines, a business he started after leaving behind a successful career in the music industry in Los Angeles.

Wright’s preoccupation with reinventing himself in wine was so great that it had affected his health. Unable to track the source of the decline, his doctor encouraged him to follow his obsession. “Driving home from that doctor’s appointment was when I had the realization that, yes, I really had to do this,” Wright said.

Shortly after that visit, he founded Scott Paul Wines in 1999 and never looked back. In the settling smoke 15 years later, his future was in question.

Wright’s plunge into the wine business follows a common thread in the industry. During five years of filming, I spoke to dozens of people who left their previous lives behind. Engineers, radio personalities, computer programmers — the dizzying array of former careers was matched only by the unimaginable stress and labor it takes to launch a wine brand.

Despite the inherent risks, the steep learning curve and the long hours, there’s no shortage of born-again oenophiles willing to take a shot at making it in wine. We began filming at the height of the Great Recession. At that time, by official count in our home state of Oregon, there were 275 wineries.

A financial downturn seems hardly the time for people to dive en masse into a capital-intensive business like winemaking, in which it takes years to generate a return. But five years later, just as we’re releasing “American Wine Story,” Oregon wineries now number 545.

Wine pioneer Dick Erath grew his namesake label to 90,000 cases — then retired to make wine in his garage. Credit: David Baker

Wine pioneer Dick Erath grew his namesake label to 90,000 cases, then retired to make wine in his garage. Credit: David Baker

“Most people starting wineries in Oregon come to it as a second or even third career,” said Michelle Kaufmann of the Oregon Wine Board. It’s no easy transition. “Oregon is a challenging place because our yields are small. It takes a lot to produce wine here.”

Given the obstacles, why did the roster continue to expand even during tough economic times?

“When the recession was happening,” Kaufmann speculated, “people were looking for what really makes them happy.”

Wine makes people happy. And obsessive.

Look at the prices on the top shelf of any good wine shop and you’ll know that you have to be a little crazy to spend a small fortune on a bottle of fermented fruit juice. We found clear evidence of that intense ardor for wine as we traveled to six states, talking to the people who make and sell it. Most of them began as consumers.

A leap triggered by an ‘epiphany bottle’

Often it was a single “epiphany bottle” that rocked their concept of what wine could be. A humble beverage suddenly became a captivating elixir that they strove to understand. And the best way to understand wine? Make it.

A pattern began to emerge: desk job, epiphany bottle, wine enthusiast, home winemaker, wine business owner working 16-hour days with a mad glint in the eye and a heck of a story. None of the winemakers we met had regrets. But a few wondered if they’d be able to go through it all again.

The challenges are clear. Yet more and more people are willing to take the risk and jump in. And it’s not just a West Coast phenomenon. It’s happening in every state in the union.

New vineyards like those of Oregon's Airlie Winery are taking root across the country. Credit: David Baker

New vineyards like those of Oregon’s Airlie Winery are taking root across the country. Credit: David Baker

On the opposite coast, Virginia is also striving to stake its claim on wine. The Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office lists 250 “farm wineries” in the state.

Although Virginia may be a lesser-known region in comparison with California’s Napa or Sonoma or even the booming wine town of Walla Walla, Wash., it has some serious wine history. Thomas Jefferson started the Commonwealth’s first commercial vineyard with an Italian neighbor, Filippo Mazzei, in 1776. That project didn’t take off, but the seeds of an idea were sown, and old Long Tom would be proud of what Virginia’s accomplishing today.


You can visit restored vineyards on the slopes of Monticello, where another Italian, Gabriele Rausse, tends the vines and brings them to harvest with more success, doing his part to further Jefferson’s original vision.

“I think that Jefferson was ready, 200 years ago, to sell wine to the French,” Rausse said with a laugh. “We are not there yet. But we are going in that direction.”

We made stops in Arizona and Missouri to learn about some of America’s more challenging growing conditions. We visited large and small producers. We spoke with Oregon wine pioneer Dick Erath, who grew his namesake label to 90,000 cases before retiring to make wine in his garage. We also spoke with Jim Day of Panache Cellars in Philomath, Ore., who commercially produces vins de garage: 250 cases of fine wine emerge each year from his tiny suburban facility.

Despite the myriad challenges and setbacks, tricky weather, fickle markets, entrepreneurial souls continue to plunge headfirst into wine. New labels and entire regions seem to spring up overnight. Both by pluck and luck, Americans are chasing their dreams by the barrelful.

Although the size of the American dream doesn’t matter when it comes to wine, passion does. And a little luck doesn’t hurt, either.

At Wright’s place, the fire hit on a Sunday night, when most of the volunteer firefighters were at home — and thus available — instead of at work. That saved precious minutes, and the fire was kept from spreading to the storage areas. Otherwise, Wright said, “it might not have been a death blow, but it would have been impossible for a new winery to recover.”

A few days after the fire, Wright sampled his wines and confirmed that they’d survived the flames unscathed, showing the same promise they had before the fire. “It was a damn good tasting.”

Main photo: Of his career switch from music to winemaking, Oregon’s Scott Wright says, “I really had to do this.” Credit: David Baker

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The hilly terrain of Cain Vineyards in the Napa Valley. Credit: Janis Miglavs

 It is quiet at Cain Vineyards. The hillside estate at the top of Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain is far removed from the hustle of the valley floor. The air is crisp, days are short, winter has arrived and there has been rain. Just enough, says Cain winemaker Chris Howell, to ignite new life in the desiccated vineyards.

Napa Valley winemakers, or at least enough of them to signify the start of a trend, are rethinking the region’s excessive tendencies. Lost for decades in a soulless race to please a handful of critics with dubious taste, these evolving winemakers are trying to reconnect with the soil and climate of America’s most celebrated wine region. While their wines still reflect the strength of the valley’s sunny climate, they are striving for lower alcohol levels and more restrained fruit flavors.

Howell doesn’t have to change. He has been making terroir-driven wines for decades. And paid a price for that unfashionable decision. Overlooked by critics, his wines have been relative bargains, and most bottles are priced $75 or below. Still, you could say that the newly chastened winemakers are playing catch up with him. And none too soon.

California’s drought has Napa Valley on a razor’s edge. Howell says rain is now a “miracle,” a spiritual event. On Spring Mountain where the only water for the vineyards falls from the sky, those two inches will carry the vineyard through to spring.

“It reminds me that wine is about gardening, nature and the earth,” says Howell. “Those of us on Napa’s hillsides and completely disconnected from the water grid think about these things now.”

There was almost no rain in 2013. By the spring of 2014, there had been 14 months with nothing beyond a few sprinkles. “It was a shock, a big wake-up. I didn’t think we would have any grapes. None.” Rain, not much, but enough, came at the perfect time in February and March of 2014 to save the vintage.

The recent rain falls far short of guaranteeing next year’s vintage. “But the vines loved it. The soil came to life.”

Cain’s 90 acres of vineyards are scattered across the estate’s 550 acres of some of the most rugged hillsides in Napa. The winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines have a complex herbal quality that sets them apart from other Napa Cabs. His intense, dark wines have a lightness that allows them a seat at the dinner table. They have always been softer, less tannic and more nuanced, even lilting, than the heavier fruit-forward wines most often associated with Napa.

Cain Vineyard's 90 acres are scattered across some of the most rugged hillsides in the Napa Valley. Credit:  Janis Miglavs

Cain Vineyard’s 90 acres are scattered across some of the most rugged hillsides in the Napa Valley. Credit: Janis Miglavs

His old-school wines are the result of Howell’s belief that the best wines reflect what is happening in the vineyard. Over the decades Howell has managed Cain’s vineyards, he’s dialed back the irrigation, dry farming the plots where the soils are deep enough. He has farmed organically for 15 years and now is bringing biodynamic — an extreme organic, somewhat metaphysical farming discipline advanced by Rudolf Steiner early in the 20th century — to Cain’s vineyards.

“The more people pay attention to the whole ecosystem of the vineyard, the healthier the vineyard. And, in general, biodynamic vineyards are healthier everywhere I’ve visited them around the world,” says Howell.

That’s given Cain a bit of protection against the ravages of the drought. “We live year to year now,” he says. “I always took the winter rains for granted. They always came. I didn’t think about it. Now I know we can take nothing for granted. I feel closer to the reality of nature, to the vineyards.”

Howell delights in making wines that vary year to year. The drought will be but another marker. So soon in the winemaking process for the 2014 vintage, it’s too early to know how it will change the wines.

How the drought affects his wines doesn’t concern Howell. Using only the wild yeast from the vineyard to ferment his grapes, Howell has given control of his wines back to nature. These days, that is an act of supreme faith. “We think about the spiritual part of things more often these days,” he says.

Other Napa winemakers may never catch up with such radical thinking.

Main photo: Cain Vineyards in the Napa Valley. Credit: Janis Miglavs

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 Cain Vineyards makes just three wines:

Cain Five ($125)

Cain Five comes is 100% from the Cain Vineyard, and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot.

Cain Concept ($75)

Cain Concept comes from alluvial soils in the Benchland areas of the Napa Valley. It is a blend of Cab Sauv, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot.

Cain Cuvee ($34)
NV10, is a blend of two vintages (51% 2010 and 49% 2009) and is a blend of Merlot, Cab, Cab Franc and Petite Verdot. Sourced from Rutherford, Yountville, Spring Mountain and Atlas Pea.

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