Pétillant naturel from Natalie Albertson

We first met Natalie Albertson at the Women Winemakers Celebration earlier this spring. She makes an amazing pétillant naturel, or pét nat, under her Wildflower Winery label, a very small production winery in Ventura County.

Natalie Albertson, of Wildflower Winery, explains pétillant naturel.
Natalie Albertson

The fun thing is Albertson and Michael both buy albariño grapes from Riverbench Vineyards and Winery, in the Santa Ynez Valley. Albertson also buys chardonnay from Riverbench, which becomes her pétillant naturel. So, when we met up with Albertson again at a winemaker dinner put on by the Riverbench folks for the people who buy their grapes, we couldn’t resist asking her about pét nat.

“It means a wine that was bottled before fermentation completely finished,” Albertson explained. “We did at about one point eight brix or one point five, six and it put a crown cap on it and it finished fermenting inside the bottle and creates those lovely bubbles that we all love.”

Brix being the unit that measures how much sugar there is in a liquid. Zero brix means there is no sugar present. Most grape juice starts fermenting at 20-24 brix, depending on the variety and the planned end result. One point five brix means that fermentation has almost completely finished. Most still wines are aged a little bit in vats or barrels before being bottled so that you don’t get bubbles.

Pét nat is a different process than the famed Methode Champenoise, in which wines that have been completely fermented and somewhat aged get a second bit of sugar and yeast, then are fermented again with caps, which create the bubbles.

What to expect inside the bottle

So, when you see pétillant naturel on a label, Albertson said that you can expect to see some yeast, or lees, the remains of the fermenting process.

“Some fine lees, you know, not not too much. That’s why we decided to disgorge our chardonnay this year. There was just too much, it wouldn’t be enjoyable,” she said. “Sometimes they can be a little little active, a little excited. So carefully, open them in your backyard. There are some that you… have to open in your backyard or your shower because they’re just going everywhere.”

In fact, she has opened, or disgorged, some of her pét nats to release some of the pressure so that when people open them, they don’t lose half the bottle.

She chose to make pétillant naturel for one simple reason.

“I love bubbles. Yeah, it’s just so fun. My first wine was bubbles. It was a champagne or sparkling wine at Christmas,” she said. “You know that it’s for celebration. It’s celebrating a new job. It’s for holiday. It’s gathering with people. It’s lively, you know?”

And that’s pétillant naturel.

July in the Home Winery – Time to Label the Bottles

July in the home winery is normally the month when winemakers prepare for the next harvest, which is typically late August to early September typically, but can differ if you’re making sparkling wine or live near the High Desert AVA in Southern California. That’s when we do our last-minute orders of chemicals, cleaners, supplies. We inspect and clean our tools, and sharpen the one we use in the vineyard. We get the equipment out of storage, cleaned and tested. You notice the pattern that involves cleanliness, I assume? Garbage in, garbage out, as they say.

Labeling equipment for labeling the bottles

Last month, we showed you bottling. But once the botting is finished, labeling is an optional step. This can happen at any time, not just in July. We know winemakers who use a variety of media for identifying their wines: green painter’s tape; blue painter’s tape, duct tape, metallic markers or just little stickers that may only say “99 PN”. Some of our winemaker friends specialize in a few varieties where this works.

Michael’s labels

Michael’s labels tend to be full-blown to satisfy his own ego, he says. He has no natural skill in graphics but does believe in “faking it until you make it.” So all labeling of wine is purely decorative unless you are a professional and then all the fun is taken away. Yet another reason to avoid the urge to go pro.

Finished labeled bottle

The outsides of the reused bottles sometimes have some glue residue from the previous commercial label. A spray of Goo Gone and a paint scraper takes care of that. A glue stick applied to the back of the regular paper label and applying it as straight as possible. Being hand crafted, variation is always possible and two bottles are rarely side by side anyway.

So labels really only serve the winemaker’s ego and sense of craftsmanship. No wrong answers in this exercise. And that’s July in the winery.

Riedel’s Variety-Specific Glasses? Busted, Baby!

We love Riedel glassware. The stuff is gorgeous. It’s light and beautifully crafted. It just feels elegant sipping wine from it.

2013-04-27 21.49.12
The Riedel Burgundy glass (standing) and malbec glass. (The cabernet glass broke before we could get a picture of it.) Yep, busted.

However, we’ve always been rather skeptical about their claim that their variety-specific glasses actually make a significant difference in the flavor of each different wine. So we decided to test the glassware and found out one rather interesting thing, but overall? To quote one of our fave TV shows, Myth busted.

The tasting came about because we were generously included in a special unveiling of the Malbec glass, put on by Argentinian winery Graffigna. Both of the malbecs they served, the Centenario Reserve and the Grand Reserve, were amazing, dry and lush. We couldn’t help but lust after a good steak from the Pampas while drinking them. The wine was served in the new glass, alongside a Burgundy glass and a cabernet sauvignon glass.

The idea, we were told by Riedel’s Regional Sales Manager Melissa Hawkins, is that the shape of the bowl and the opening of the glass direct the wine to the part of your tongue that tastes the wine’s best attributes. In fact, we started with water, and while Anne didn’t think the water tasted all that different or was that much more refreshing out of the Burgundy glass, there were others who did.

Then, of course, we had the tasting with the wine, itself, and sure enough, everyone began remarking on how the malbec really did taste better in the malbec glass. Hmmmm. Well, we wanted to see if we could replicate the results at home, and one of the publicists (whose name we do not want to drop so she doesn’t get into trouble) kindly gave us a Burgundy and a cabernet glass to take with the malbec glasses they’d already given us.

Why were we so skeptical in the first place? Truth be told, we had tried a similar test a few years ago when we found some variety-specific glasses (not Riedel) on sale at World Market. After all, some of our friends had raved about how the wine really did taste different. But something just wasn’t adding up. We certainly didn’t notice any great difference in the wine we tasted in the different glasses we had.

Now, we suspect there may be someone out there reading this and thinking, “Well, obviously, they don’t have very sophisticated palates.” And we say, go put some clothes on, Mr. or Ms. Emperor. Let’s start with the basic mechanics of the bowl shape and opening directing the wine to your tongue. We checked in with Anne’s cousin, Jim Mason, who holds a PhD in mechanical engineering, and while fluid dynamics aren’t his specialty, he knows and understands them. His thought? The whole bowl shape and opening thing doesn’t make sense simply because you can’t control the opening of your mouth each time you drink. In addition, Anne can’t figure out how something is going to direct a fluid to the perfect place on your tongue when everyone’s tongue is a different size – can you say Gene Simmons?

But what the heck, we tested it with the actual Riedel crystal. We used the three wines the glasses were made for. Okay, we used California pinot noirs for the Burgundy glass, but that’s what was available. Michael did the tasting and they were all blind. He could see which glass was which – kind of hard to not notice that. But we did two of the tests in a darkened room so that the lighter color of the pinot noir wouldn’t give it away. We used several different brands of wine, including the Graffigna Centenaro, all of which are widely available.

The first test was several flights, with a different wine in each glass, randomly assigned. The idea was that Michael should have been able to tell the variety each time he got a glass with its matching variety in it. Essentially, did the right glassware make the wine pop? There was only one flight out of six where he was able to guess each variety correctly, and none of them were in the correct glass.

We tried again, this time, making sure that at least one of the glasses held the correct variety, and we invited some friends of ours, Dale LaCasella and Jim Vitale, to try it with us. Again, the theory was if the “right” glass made a difference, they’d be able to find the wine that was in the correct glass because it would taste the best. Not even close. Michael, Dale and Jim did get a taste of each wine in its correct glass as a test flight, so they’d know what they were looking for. Didn’t help. They could neither guess the variety and the wine they liked the best was seldom in the correct glass.

Finally, as Anne’s wonderful daughter pointed out, there should be a test with all the same wine in each flight, making the glass the only variable. Here is where it got interesting. There was one glass that did stand out, but interestingly, it didn’t matter what wine was in it. And when we went over our notes, time and time again (not every time, but at least 75 percent of the time), the wine tasted best in this glass – no matter which wine it was. It was the Burgundy glass, which features a wide, round bowl and a relatively narrow opening.

We think we know why. It’s because smell is such an important part of taste. The round, wide bowl creates a larger surface area of wine exposed to oxygen, which then picks up the aromatic elements in the wine. But because the opening is comparatively small, the aromatics are more or less trapped in the bowl as opposed to being dispersed through the air, and you can get more of them into your nose, which then enhances what your tongue receives.

So why did everyone at the tasting, including Michael, all get so excited and swear that the malbec tasted best in the malbec glass? Simple crowd dynamics. First, we were told it would. Then as the tasting went on, someone agreed out loud, then someone else, and so forth and so on, so eventually even Anne was buying into it. No one was lying or faking it. They’d just bought into what everyone else was saying because that’s what we humans do when we’re in a group.

As for buying Riedel, as we said, we love the stuff, but there are some serious downsides to it. First up, it is insanely fragile. You look at these glasses wrong and they break. In fact, the cabernet glass that we used in our tasting broke before we could get a picture of it. Secondly, it is very expensive. We did find a pair of the stemless glasses for almost $30 at Target – that’s $15 a glass. For something that breaks very easily. Burgundy glasses on the site run as much as $125 a glass. Not in our budget. But if it’s in yours, there’s no reason not to buy it. It is lovely stuff. You just don’t need a different glass for each variety of wine.

Virna Borgogno on the Wines of Barolo

One of several blessings from the COVID pandemic slowing down is that we’ve been able to get back to tasting events (such as this one in 2013). We attended one in March of this year, and in April, went to a tasting of wines from the Barolo region in Northern Italy, and talked to Virna Borgogno, who has her own label.

Virna Borgogno, who makes wine in the Barolo region
Virna Borgogno

“I studied enology,” she said when we asked her how common women winemakers are in her area. “I am the first woman with a degree in enology in Italy.”

She started making wines with her father, first, then eventually took over the family operation, making wine under the Virna label.

“Today, I work with my sister in the winery,” she said. “We are two females. We have 12 hectares and we produce 70,000 bottles.”

Understanding Barolo wines

While the wine she produces are all Barolos, a deep red wine, not every one is the same style. She has a classic style, and two single vineyard wines.

“A classic Barolo is a blend of different vineyards,” Borgogno explained. “We make a separate vinification from different areas, aging in a big casket, and after the two years in evolution, we make our blend between the different terroir… to make Barolo with the balance between the power of the region of the north and the elegance of the other region.”

But while blending from different regions can make some lovely wines, Borgogno said that making a wine from a single vineyard has its virtues, too.

“It’s the character of the terroir of this particluar location,” she said. “In general, we have a few different terroir in the same area.”

It was a theme that was repeated several times throughout the day, but we will be sharing as we feature some of the other women we spoke with.

Is Cork Pops Legacy Worth It?

Anne found out about the Cork Pops Legacy wine opener through a press release from the company. However, we decided that we would buy one for ourselves, which we did at Total Wines.

The idea behind the opener is to use pressurized gas inserted between the cork and the liquid in the wine by a probe to push the cork out of the bottle. It’s the same sort of thing that pops corks out of bubbly bottles. According to the release, the Cork Pops Legacy opener makes it easier for people who have trouble opening bottles with conventional corkscrews thanks to problems with their hands.

We tested the opener both at home and at a party. We kept count of how many opens we got because the cartridge that has the gas will only open so many bottles. The note on the page for the refills says 60 to 80. We did not buy the refills, and at $12.99 for two, that’s not so bad, assuming the refills really do open that many bottles.

The results

Alas, we are skeptical about the open rate. It may have been that the cannister that came with the unit didn’t have the full charge, but we only opened 35 bottles.

While Michael didn’t have any trouble, Anne found it really hard to insert the probe, then press the discharge button. Anne’s hands are in decent shape. Someone with arthritis or another issue will have a lot more trouble.

But the Cork Pops Legacy does open wine bottles. It just doesn’t open them any faster or more easily than the usual methods. Plus, there is the problem with all the refill cannisters creating more waste, and adding an ongoing cost to using it.

But this is the ongoing reality of such gadgets. Most of them do not come close to doing what they claim, nor do they really help enhance the wine experience.

Summer Time in the Home Winery

By the beginning of summer, the home winery is a bit crowded. The white wines were blended and filtered earlier in the Spring and are waiting to be bottled. Some early red wines are also waiting for their turn to be bottled or spending time in barrels. The most important thing to remember is that all barrels must stay filled at all times. Outside of that, finished wines are ready to be bottled for aging and future enjoyment.

So, knowing that viognier, pinot gris, albariño and sauvignon blanc grapes (we hope) are coming our way in this September’s harvest means that July and August are times to bottle.

We fill one bottle at a time in the one-man winery. That means two or three days consumed by selecting bottles, washing bottles, filling and corking each bottle by hand. Labeling happens later and then storing to age and being ready in the year or two ahead or longer if the wine shows strong potential to improve over time.

Interestingly enough, all this work at the front end seems to have faded away by the time a bottle or two are pulled and shared. Curious how that happens.

Nicole Rolet and the Wines of Ventoux, France

You can find the Ventoux AOC (the French designation for viticultural area) in the southern part of the Rhône valley. Last spring, Anne attended a winemaker dinner featuring several of the AOC’s winemakers and their wines, and talked specifically to Nicole Rolet, of Chêne Bleu.

Photo of Nicole Rolet, representing the wines of Ventoux, France
Nicole Rolet

Rolet was there to represent the region as well as her own winery, which she owns with her husband.

“My husband had just bought the property when we met,” Rolet said. “And I ended up being an accidental winemaker because it’s one of those ‘things you do for love.’ and the original plan was that I was gonna support him and his passion. The plot twist is that I got bitten by his mindbug and ended up with a worse case of it than the one he started with.”

But the whole point of the fabulous dinner, put on by Kali restaurant in Los Angeles, was showing off the wines from the Ventoux region. And they were spectacular. Alas, since Michael could not attend, we did not get tasting notes, but if you see Ventoux on a label, the bottle is likely to be worth grabbing.

What the land is like

It’s a relatively new viticultural region in France.

“It’s the new France. We’re pioneering these very remote areas that were somewhat marginal to the more established ones, like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but they have incredible, biodiversity, amazing forests, you know, it’s a UNESCO biosphere reserve,” she said.

The Ventoux is one of the few places in France where you can buy land cheaply that still has the potential to make great wine, Rolet said. The region sits at the foot of Mount Ventoux, between the Swiss Alps and the Mediterranean ocean. Rolet said that her property, which is at the highest elevation in the region, gets a lot of sunshine, which helps ripen the grapes. However, because of the cool nights, the wines, especially the whites and rosés, are very crisp and fresh. The red grapes (and Rolet principally grows grenache) are also able to develop the kind of finesse that is often lost in hotter growing areas.

“So most winemakers have this Faustian choice. They either get the sunny fruit or the elegant,” Rolet said. “In the Ventoux, you get to have your cake and eat it too.”

The area has been affected by climate change, as is all of Europe. But Rolet said that because their region is so cool that they are hoping to get a bit of reprieve. To that end, they are managing water and what they’re planting . A lot of the vineyards are fairly new, too, which makes that kind of management easier.

Old vines

Rolet, though, has a 79-year-old grenache vines on her property, which produce very interesting characteristics. The disadvantage is that the vines do not produce a lot of fruit.

“The yields are atrocious at our winery,” she said. “This is not a winery for the faint of heart. It’s only for … people who are comfortable with very extreme situations because there’s going to be a definite yield problem.”

The results were still amazing. Rolet’s rosé was fresh and crisp, as advertised, with some vermentino added. She brought two reds, one from 2006 and a second from 2013. Both were rich and very food-friendly.

You can find out more about the wines of Ventoux on the English version of their website, aoc-ventoux.com.

Poison Pen and Petite Sirah

Cover to Sheila Lowe's novel Poison Pen, featuring handwriting anaylyst Claudia Rose

Poison Pen is the first book in the Claudia Rose series by Sheila Lowe. Claudia, a handwriting analyst and forensic examiner just like her creator, keeps getting sucked into chasing down bad guys, starting with the death of the ruthless Lindsey Alexander.

The police believe it was probably suicide. Alexander’s business partner disagrees. He hires Claudia to determine if the handwriting on the apparent suicide note was, in fact, Alexander’s. Naturally, things get messier and messier. After all, Alexander’s business included some pretty skanky services to some very powerful men.

Label featuring petite sirah wine

Poison Pen is a taut, very tightly written thriller/whodunnit. Given that Claudia’s work is all about pen and ink, one wine is perfect: petite sirah. Inky, dark, deeply fruity, and often very tight and tannic, petite sirah fills the glass with full aromas and a lovely, full finish.

Winemakers frequently use the grape to blend with other wines, to add color and structure, and it can be a little hard to drink without a softer grape to blend with it. Winemaker Theodora Lee, of Theopolis Vineyards, makes a perfectly lovely petite sirah, and also a rosé from the grape.

With Poison Pen being equally bold and tight, you’ll want something with body to drink as you read it.

Samra Morris Talks About Icons and Vineyards

It’s never easy for a winemaker to take over an established label. Samra Morris got to take over for a local legend.

Wineglass held by Samra Morris, Alma Rosa Winery

She’s the winemaker at Alma Rosa, a brand founded by one of the early winemakers in Santa Barbara: Richard Sanford. And, yes, we had to ask her what it’s like taking over for him at his own label.

“I think it’s amazing to be a female winemaker and took over somebody… who is the godfather of our region,” she said. “I get all the support from Richard, which means a lot to me. And it’s amazing to take over this brand.”

Alma Rosa is best known for producing pinot noirs from the Santa Rita Hills region, which is on the west side of the Santa Ynez Valley, north of Santa Barbara County. (Click here for a quick note on how Michael felt about tasting some Alma Rosa Pinot with some salmon.)

“I love Santa Rita Hills region,” Morris said. “I love how our wines are coming, I love the characteristics. So the fun is, I work with five different vineyards. They’re a few miles away between each other, but I’m working with a different soils, different microclimates and different clones. It gives me really opportunity to present each of the vineyards and how unique they are.”

What Vineyards Do

So, we asked, what makes one vineyard different from another.

“There’s a little bunch of different aspects that the affects [the wine],” she said. “It’s definitely the soils and how it’s farmed at vineyard. We have in Santa Rita Hills the wind coming from the ocean and of course all the little microclimates and different clones that give me different and unique characteristics, within each block.”

Morris likes to blend the different clones of pinot noir from the various blocks of vines.

“I definitely love to blend all these different clones,” she said. “Once harvest is over, I go taste all the different blocks and make a decision which block and exactly which clone is gonna go in which of my blends.”

And that’s a quick chat with Samra Morris.

What’s Happening in the Home Winery: May 2022

Michael writing here.

Sometimes I get the Itch – the Itch that says “Make Wine” – even when there are no fresh grapes. There are kit wines, but that’s another post. So, what do I do?

photo of cherries becoming wine
Cherries in process

Find a fruit that will make a tasty wine even in a small batch of a few gallons and are relatively cheap to buy. This year, I am making a batch of cherry wine for the first time in 15 years or so. Why so long? No reason really, except that there is a bit of work involved that I wasn’t interested in pursuing before.

What work? Sorting cherries to get rid of any damaged or moldy fruits. Removing pits. Manually squishing them. Adding enough water to cover them in the clean and sterilized bucket. Measuring sugar, acid and and preparing whatever additions of sugar, acids and nutrients to bring the numbers up to allow the yeast to ferment. Grapes are the only fruit that can produce enough sugar to ferment on their own. All other fruits require some assistance in additives of sugar, acid, and nutrients. Anyone telling you their fruit wines are native ferments are liars. There – I said it.

What kind of wine will this make? Maybe a dessert wine or perhaps a sparkling wine for later summer or fall enjoyment. Right now, I can go either way but that will change with a couple of decisions over the next few days.

I’ll keep you informed as to what I decide.