What do you do when you get an invitation to a grand tasting of wines from France’s Bordeaux region? What we did – we leaped at the chance. Being a blog, we got in for free, but that only made it sweeter.
The tasting was put on by the Union Des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, basically, their winemakers’ marketing cooperative. You’d think Bordeaux pretty much sells itself, but it doesn’t entirely. Aside from the few premiers crus (the really, really expensive and legendary wines like Chateau Margaux), there are a lot of lesser-known wineries in the area. Not to mention that since wine in Europe is named by where it comes from, a lot of people here in the States don’t necessarily realize that Graves and St. Emilion, among others, are part of Bordeaux.
The region is in the southwest of France, not far from the Pyrannees and the English Channel. The growing days are warm and the nights fairly cool. Cabernet Sauvignon is the grape variety most commonly associated with the region, but merlot, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot are the other grapes that generally make up the blends produced in the area. Oh, and sauvignon blanc and semillion for the whites – and, yes, there are some glorious whites made there, too.
The funny thing is, Michael noted that the wines all pretty much tasted alike. This is not to say they weren’t fabulous. They were utterly delicious. Some were more fabulous than the others, but they were all terrific, and rich, and lush, and subtle, and everything you expect from a good Bordeaux.
The big takeaway is that it’s hard to go wrong when you see Bordeaux on the bottle. Or St. Emillion, or Graves, or Pomerol, or St. Julien, or Medoc, or Haut-Medoc, or… You get the picture.
One other caveat, however, these wines are made to go with food. Drinking them in isolation, they will taste good, but a little flat. Pair the reds with a nice bit of dried sausage or a bit of meat, and they spring to life in your mouth.
You can check out the individual wineries and chateaux here. It’s the English version of the site. Oh, and forget about what you’ve heard about snobby French people. Those are the Parisians. The people in Bordeaux are very nice, and back in 1990, when Anne visited on a tour, when they heard she was from California, several actually said, “California? They make good wine there.” Which we do. But so do the nice people in Bordeaux.
What a great opportunity! While we were at the Wine Bloggers Conference last fall, we were part of a group that got to go to dinner at Martin Ray Vineyards and Winery. We got off the bus and were handed a glass of their signature dryé rosé, and, even better, ran across their winemaker Lindsey Haughton.
What deep frustration when we realized our photos didn’t come out. We blame our lousy mobile phones and the utterly delicious rosé. Sometimes you just have to go with what you’ve got.
“You’re not supposed to have a favorite child,” Haughton said about the rosé we were all sipping. “But that’s my favorite child.”
It was a rosé made from pinot noir grapes (clone 828, if you care about that sort of thing). Haughton said that shortly after she joined the winery, rosé, particularly dry rosé, was becoming popular. As happens when something gets popular, there was a lot of rosé out there that was off dry – Haughton called it Kool-Aid. Most of the rest of us call it white zinfandel.
That being said, Anne couldn’t resist asking if Haughton thought it would be possible to make a good, dry rosé from zinfandel grapes.
“Absolutely,” Haughton said.
Making the dry rosé
Haughton explained that she uses both of the most common processes to make her rosé. About 30 percent of hers is made by saignée, or bleeding off some of the juice from grapes being used to make regular red pinot noir. The other 70 percent is made from grapes that are picked and pressed right away, or dedicated to the rosé.
“A lot of it is just familiarity with the vineyards,” she said about which grapes go to the dedicated part of the rosé and which she bleeds from.
She likes using dedicated grapes rather than all saignée because she likes what gets extracted when the grapes are pressed.
“It’s got a lot more of the character of the skins,” she said. She does not like ultra-pale rosés that look more like the almost orange wines from Provence, France. “I want my rosé to look like rosé. I just feel like California should stop trying to mimic it. We’re not French. It should be a California wine.”
As in more fruit-driven than the dryer European style.
Of course, Haughton also puts out some very lovely pinot noirs and the dinner was quite tasty. But if they have to have a favorite child, we’re glad it’s the rosé. That was really good.
When we were invited to do a tasting of New Zealand wines and interview with winemaker Peter Jackson, we were expecting to be part of a much larger group. Instead, it was just the two of us, Jackson and his publicist at a bar in Downtown Los Angeles.
By the way, this Peter Jackson is not the film director. He’s pretty good-natured about sharing his name.
“I grew up in Australia,” where, he added, there was a menswear company known as Peter Jackson. “I’ve just been cursed my whole life.”
When it comes to New Zealand wines, most people immediately think of sauvignon blanc, and there’s a good reason for that. The variety accounts for around 80 percent of all grapes grown in New Zealand, although Jackson added that there is a growing demand for pinot gris and pinot noir, as well as chardonnay. Almost all of the grape growing is done in the state of Marlborough, which is at the southern tip of the island country.
Jackson, himself, grew up in Queensland, Australia, went to school in France, then ended up working for Crowded House and Catalina Sounds, which are two labels produced by the company.
What makes New Zealand wines distinctive
What makes a New Zealand sauv blanc so distinctive, according to Jackson, in the bright acidity and citrus.
“There’s a raciness and freshness that’s pretty hard to replicate,” he said. “You know you’ve got a wine that’s packed with flavor.”
Jackson recommends Asian noodles, fresh seafood, salads, and salty cheeses.
“There’s nothing better than fresh mussels,” he said. “It will hold up well with delicate white meat.”
We tasted the 2016 Crowded House sauvignon blanc, and Michael noted cut grass and some gooseberry on the nose. It had a dry finish and citrus flavors, minerals and acids. The 2017 Catalina Sounds sauv blanc had a more delicate nose and a quieter profile. There was, of course, citrus and some gooseberry, too.
Jackson said that pinot noir is getting to be an up and coming grape in New Zealand. It hadn’t done well until recently.
“They were planting the wrong clones,” Jackson said.
But nowadays, growers seem to have found the right clones, and are planting it more on the hillsides. Jackson makes his with native ferments.
“I can’t remember the last time I used yeast on a red,” he said.
We tried two Catalina Sounds pinot noirs. Michael noted that the 2015 was a slightly savory wine, with dry red and black fruit. The 2016 was very similar, but with a hint of spice.
Jackson said that he’s become very fond of his adopted country, where the people are quite humble and friendly.
“It’s absolutely one thing I love about New Zealand,” he said. “We realize that we’re all in it together. What’s good for you is going to be good for me.”
So, if you can’t find Crowded House or Catalina Sounds at your local wine store, try looking for a New Zealand wine, in general. They’re pretty tasty.
We met Leslie Sisneros at the 2016 Family Winemakers of California Grand Tasting (in the interests of full disclosure, we got into this paid event for free in the hopes that we’d get around to writing something about it or the presenting winemakers sooner than we did). Then we saw her again at this year’s Family Winemaker’s event and thought why not run this post from last year again?
Leslie Sisneros, of Murder Ridge Winery, has been making wine for over 20 years, but actually fell into making pinot noir.
“It wasn’t my choice,” she explained. “Because I started out at Kendall Jackson and I was assigned the variety. Actually, zin’s pretty hard, too. I guess it’s good when you start out with the hardest wine to make. But I’m always up for a challenge, so I just took it in stride.”
Pinot noir is a notoriously finicky grape and can be very hard to make well.
“There’s all kinds of different pinots,” Sisneros said. “It can go from the lowest priced ones to the premium ones. You’re looking for something that’s fruity and not overly tannic.”
But when you hear people wax eloquent about pinot noir, you’ll often hear them going on about the clone of the grape.
“There’s more people who talk about pinot in terms of clones than any other variety,” Sisneros said. Many grape varieties have their own specific clones, but it’s more of an issue with pinot noir. “It really does make a difference in what clones you plant and where you plant them. It determines the winemaker’s fingerprint.”
She explained that cloning is sort of like taking the natural process of evolution the next few steps further.
“In nature, everything generally mutates so the strongest survive,” Sisneros said. “What the people do is they’ll select a particular plant or several plants in a vineyard. They’ll take a bud culture and they will keep making it genetically the same and it will take generations and generations.”
She said that after individual clone, the other thing that really makes a difference in a pinot noir is where it’s grown.
“You can certainly tell a Russian River pinot noir,” she said. “To me, they’re like night and day. Mendocino pinot is more delicate. Russian River is dark and moody.”
Murder Ridge Winery is in Mendocino County, in a largely wilderness area known as Mendocino Ridge. The winery gets its name from the infamous murder of Joseph Cooper in 1911. Sisneros partnered with wine grower Steve Alden to form the label after having worked with his grapes for several other wineries for whom she’s worked as a consulting winemaker.
Imagine a hotel ballroom filled with tables of wine bloggers. Add a bunch of winery owners, marketing folk, and the occasional winemaker. How many wines can you pour for said wine bloggers in less than an hour? Not too many. But that’s okay because, for us, it turned out to be a good introduction to the El Dorado Wine Country.
It’s basically speed dating for wine at November’s Wine Bloggers Conference. You get about six to eight wine bloggers at a table and the winery person comes around with a bottle or two and has about five to ten minutes to try to be heard over everyone else.
Anne fired questions at whomever was pouring because that’s what Anne does, while Michael took tasting notes because that’s what Michael does. Alas, we only have so many hands, so pictures didn’t get taken.
We tasted wines from four different wineries. However, we’re going to (hopefully) feature one of them sometime later this year, so we’ll focus on the other three.
El Dorado County is just east of Sacramento. Most of the wineries are located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This is the heart of California gold country, so it’s a pretty scenic and interesting area, in general.
Some of the Wines from El Dorado Wine Country
The first folks to visit our table were Lexi and Justin Boeger of Boeger Winery. They’re a brother and sister, with Justin being the winemaker, and their father, who started the enterprise, is the vineyard manager. According to Lexi, their grandfather had a vineyard in Napa, but their father went to El Dorado to start his.
“He just would get interested in unusual stuff,” Lexi said.
Interesting? Oh, yeah. We tasted the 2014 Migliori blend, which was made up of 62 % refosco grapes, 19 % aglianico, and 19% charbono. Michael tasted some light oak, cherry, and red berry. We both really liked the blend.
Next, Eric Hays, owner and winemaker at Chateau Davell, poured his 2014 Marguerite blend made up of 67% syrah and 33% grenache.
“To me, it’s more about the natural process,” he told us.
Michael noted that the wine had a rather light color for something with as much syrah in it as this one did. He also caught some good acidity and decent tannins.
Leanne Davis is the co-owner and vineyard manager for Via Romano Vineyards. Not surprisingly, she and her winemaker husband focus on Italian varieties. Like many of the winemakers we talked to, they want to stay a small boutique winery.
“I don’t want to make twenty-five thousand cases,” Davis told us.
We tried the Papa Roman Red, which is a Super Tuscan-style blend of 38% sangiovese, 38% cabernet sauvignon, 12% cabernet franc, and 12% merlot. Michael liked the “grippy” tannins and also the black fruit and the hint of dirt. It was very drinkable, but still very young.
And that’s a quick look at what was a very quick event.
Deborah Hall has announced her retirement as a winemaker after her most recent vintage is released this Spring. Besides the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay famous throughout the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, Gypsy Canyon Winery also has a historic plot of Mission vines dated 1887 or thereabouts. This is the source of her “Ancient Vines Angelica”.
We at OBG had the pleasure of having lunch and a tour one May afternoon several years ago. Ms. Hall was and is a fine hostess and generous with sharing her knowledge and passion for the wine, the vines and her rescue project of saving dogs destined for the dog meat trade in South Korea. Her Ground Boots label series of wines is her fundraising source for this effort and they are no lesser wines than her Gypsy Canyon label.
We have heard that both the Angelica and Ground Boots labels will be continuing into the future. Make the effort to find Gypsy Canyon wine and, if you see Deborah in person, be sure to thank her for her work.
We posted this video of our tour back in 2015….
This is a redux from a post we ran four years ago on méthode champenoise and why you want to look for it on the label of your Valentine’s Day bubbly. And since Valentine’s is (gasp) next week, we thought we’d share it again.
We tasted Breathless Sparkling Wines a couple years ago at the Family Winemakers tasting event and loved them. Turns out there was a good reason why – they’re made by a friend of ours, Penny Gadd-Coster. Penny’s the Executive Director of Winemaking at Rack & Riddle, a winery and custom crush facility in Hopland, California. (A custom crush facility is a place where people with grapes can go to make wine commercially without buying and/or building a whole winery.)
Breathless is owned by Rebecca Faust, co-owner of Rack & Riddle, and her two sisters Sharon Cohn and Cynthia Faust.
So when we wanted to find out how to pick a good bubbly for Valentine’s Day, it only made sense to talk to Penny about Breathless, and other sparklers.
What are the different sparkling wines?
Sparkling wine, of course, is the generic term for wine that has bubbles in it – or intentionally made with bubbles in it. You can sometimes get bubbles in wine that’s not supposed to have them, but that’s a different issue. Champagne is the stuff from the Champagne region of France and you really shouldn’t call wine Champagne unless it’s actually from there. Never mind that darned near everybody does, including us.
Penny explained that there are some differences between Champagne and California sparklers.
“Probably from a California or a Western U.S. standpoint, the difference is fruit,” she said. “You don’t get that out of most French Champagnes, so that makes them a little bit unique. We can ripen the grapes a little bit more and bring out those flavors.”
Like most French wines, Champagne has a little more acid and will often taste a little chalky, unlike sparkling wines from California.
“You compare these to a French Champagne and they’re a lot more fruit forward,” Penny said. “They can have the acidity, but you actually know that there’s chardonnay in there, that there’s pinot noir in there.”
Oh, yeah, French Champagne and most California sparkling wine are made from either chardonnay – called blanc de blanc, or white from white (grapes), or pinot noir – called blanc de noir, or white from black (or red grapes). All grape juice is white, red and pink wines get their color from soaking the juice in the skins before fermenting them.
Look for Méthode champenoise
For that special night out, if you’re not getting an actual Champagne, Penny recommends looking for the words “méthode champenoise” on the label. This means it was made like they make Champagne in Champagne, France. The wine is fermented and bottled, then goes through a second fermentation in the bottle, which produces the bubbles. Other bubblies are made by the charmat process, which means they shot the fermented wine through with carbon dioxide, basically, like they do with sodas.
“The made in the bottle wine is going to be a lot more elegant,” Penny said. “You’re going to have nicer, smaller bubbles. You’re going to feel more elegant.”
She did point out that méthode champenoise tends to be more expensive because it’s a lot more labor intensive. Nor are charmat-style bubblies that bad. They can be perfectly nice. But we are talking special occasion here.
As for what to serve with your bubbly, well, anything your fuzzy little heart desires. That’s the great thing about sparkling wine, it literally goes with just about everything. Penny suggested having a sparkling rosé if you’re serving a heavy meat dinner, such as a standing rib or steak. If you’re doing something a little on the spicy side, then you might want the slightly sweet bubbly labeled “extra dry.” No, it doesn’t make sense, but that’s how it goes sometimes.
In any case, bubbles make it special and that’s what you want for Valentine’s Day – or any other special occasion. Even if it’s just surviving another week.
Less than a month after devastating fires ravaged Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties, the Wine Bloggers Conference was held in Santa Rosa, one of the hardest hit areas in the wine country fires.
We watched with the rest of the country as the news of the fires came through our various screens. Needless to say, our first concern was for our friends in the area (they were okay), then the countless others who lost their lives, their homes, and their businesses. But as the flames died down, we began to wonder whether Santa Rosa would still be able to host WBC 2017.
The answer came pretty quickly – not only was the hotel able to host, the surrounding associations and wineries were eager to have us. Even better, while no one wants to diminish just how bad the fires were, the vineyards did what vineyards do. They acted as a firebreak, meaning that the fires could have been even worse.
Yes, there were some wineries that were damaged, including a few, such as Paradise Ridge, that were completely destroyed. But the vast majority of the wineries remain intact and open for business.
But they all say the best way to get the region back on its feet is something we like to do anyway – visit and buy wine. Heck, even Sean, from Paradise Ridge, said that they had some inventory that had been stored elsewhere and they could really use the sales now. The site is fully operational and even has a whole section on the fires and how they’re planning to come back.
Since this is the time of year people like to plan vacations, think about Northern California’s wine country.
The business side of wine is not usually that interesting to consumers. But talking to consultant and author Sandra Taylor, whose latest book is The Business of Sustainable Wine, was a complete blast. We drifted a bit off target, dissed producers who put girly labels on wines to try to sell them to women, talked about climate change in France and Europe, talked about the Wine MBA from the Bordeaux School of Management in France (yeah, it’s for real, and Taylor holds one).
“The industry is doing a really lousy job marketing to women,” Taylor said, adding that women buy more wine than men. Then (very cleverly getting us back on track) she pointed out that women tend to be more sustainably-minded. “They want to know it’s a sustainable wine.”
She spent 22 years working as an executive for Kodak and Starbucks, then became a consultant, specializing in helping wine brands be more sustainable, which means using agricultural practices that are kinder to the planet, conserving resources such as water, behaving in a socially responsible way to their workers.
What is sustainable wine?
Taylor did point out that organic wine, biodynamic wine and natural wine all fall under the heading of sustainable wine. Growing grapes organically or using biodynamic traditions, as well as making natural wine (or wine that happens naturally without the addition of commercial yeast or other cultures) are all practices that are considered sustainable. But sustainable practices can include spraying some non-organic pesticides or other chemicals to protect a grape crop, for example. And there is also the social justice aspect of treating your workers well which is part of sustainability. You can grow perfectly organic grapes, but would not be considered sustainable if you treat your workers badly.
Part of the trend, Taylor says, is that climate change is having a negative effect on a lot of wine growing regions. But a lot of it is that the demand for sustainable wine is growing. Some of it, she explained, happened because the retailers were getting worried.
“Basically, retailers don’t want to be embarrassed,” she said. “They’ve had enough bad experiences.”
But also, the growers and producers, themselves, are seeing the benefits of the practices.
“They are convinced that it’s the right thing to do,” Taylor said. “The energy and the waters costs are lower. My costs can go down. It’s better for the health of my workers.”
Consumers want it
The trick is finding a way to let consumers know that this is a good thing when they see “sustainable” on a label. Taylor says that a lot of millennials are already asking for it, whereas some very high-end wines are made sustainably and don’t have it on the label.
She thinks it’s a bigger draw now than it might be in the future when it becomes more common. South Africa, New Zealand, Italy and even France are starting to be more sustainable. Wineries in California and Oregon are getting more involved, and in the Paso Robles area, the industry has made a major effort to get their wineries and vineyards practicing sustainability.
“They’ve done a really good job,” Taylor said about Paso Robles. “Their goal is to get as many wineries as they can under the tent.”
A lot of this is really insider stuff, but the bottom line is, the industry is going to respond to demand. And if consumers demand sustainable wine, that is, buy it, ask for it and tell their friends about it, then winemakers and growers are going to adopt sustainable practices.
“It’s the consumer who has the most power,” Taylor said.