Frasca Food and Wine Pairing: wineblog #33

Karl and Heather with Bobby Stuckey and Lachland Mackinnon-Patterson of Frasca Food and Wine

Karl and Heather with Bobby Stuckey and Lachland Mackinnon-Patterson of Frasca Food and Wine

You have to be careful about the tannins.  You need some sugar.  That’s the key to a successful pairing. – Bobby Stuckey, Taste of Vail

There is something quite special about a meal where the food and wine are paired well.  The meal by itself may be outstanding, and the wine drunk may be wonderful, but when the two components are expertly paired together the sum becomes much bigger than simply adding up the parts.  My wife, Heather, and I recently had such an experience in Boulder, Colorado at Frasca, one of our favorite restaurants.  Frasca is on the Pearl Street Mall and specializes in north-eastern Italian food, inspired by the cuisine found in the sub-alpine region of Friuli-Venezia, which shares borders with Austria, Slovenia, and the Adriatic Sea.  Enjoyment of wine for us is a fundamental part of living, particularly when it’s part of a unique dining event, and finding a place, like Frasca, which can enhance a dining experience through original, thoughtful and deliberate food and wine pairing by a knowledgeable staff, can craft an evening of memories which linger and is able to move one to expand his or her desire to create similar events at home.

Fasca Food and Wine Restaurant in Boulder, Colorado

Fasca Food and Wine Restaurant in Boulder, Colorado

Frasca’s website describes their food as, “… classically Italian in many respects, but clearly reflect(ing) the international influences of the region, and the culinary sensibilities of the Friulian people– rustic yet sophisticated.”  It goes on to emphasize the importance Frasca places on, “… a harmonious and uncomplicated relationship with wine.”

There are two people responsible for the success of this restaurant concept; the co-owners of Frasca Bobby Stuckey and Lachland Mackinnon-Patterson.  The impressive resumes for both individuals I have abbreviated here inspires much confidence in their abilities.

Master Sommelier and co-owner of Frasca- Bobby Stuckey

Master Sommelier and co-owner of Frasca- Bobby Stuckey

Bobby Stuckey is a celebrated Master of Wine Sommelier, one of only 94 in the USA, and just over 120 worldwide.  He has worked in restaurants in Arizona, Aspen, and most famously at the French Laundry where he received numerous awards, including the James Beard Foundation’s ‘Outstanding Wine Service Award’, ‘Outstanding Restaurant Service Award’, and ‘Wine Director of the Year’.  It was at the French Laundry where he met Lachland, and the two conspired to create Frasca.

Master chef and co-owner of Frasca - Lachland Mackinnon-Patterson

Master chef and co-owner of Frasca – Lachland Mackinnon-Patterson

Chef Lachland Mackinnon-Patterson trained in Paris at the prestigious Ecole Gregoire-Ferrandi.  He then worked at several Michelin rated restaurants in Europe before moving to the Napa Valley to work as Chef de partie, and help develop the diverse menu under Chef Thomas Keller at the French Laundry Restaurant.  After numerous trips across Italy, including the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, Lachland and Bobby were inspired to create a Boulder based restaurant that conjured up the essence of eating and drinking in Friuli, Italy.  Because of his efforts at Frasca, Lachland was named one of Food and Wine’s top ten new chefs in America, and was awarded the James beard Foundation’s ‘Rising Star Chef’.  He was also awarded the James Beard ‘Best Chef in the Southwest Region of the US in 2008’.  The point of describing these accolades is to point out that when it comes to food and wine pairing, these two are uniquely qualified.

My wife and I are repeat customers to Frasca for this very reason, and in fact, we have made Frasca our anniversary restaurant destination, although we often stop by for dinner if we happen to be in town.  Our most recent visit was just such a case, and they had availability on a Saturday night despite short notice and their perpetually booked seating schedule.  We were seated at the kitchen table which actually is within the confines of the kitchen, so you could see the staff preparing meals, but still out of the way so as not to bother the flow.  What an experience!  It felt as if we were in the middle of Iron Chef America.  We immediately were poured a glass of Tocai Friuliano as we sat down.  Bobby Stuckey came to the table and greeted us.  I told him that instead of purchasing a bottle or two of wine, we would love to have our wines paired specifically with each dish.  With a smile he said it would be his pleasure and disappeared.  What followed was a symphony of food and wine pairing that was so memorable, I felt compelled to record it here.

As for the specifics, I have decided to simply list the food and wine pairings my wife and I had in order of the Frasca traditional Quatro Piatti fixed price menu, because the names tend to bog down:

Stuzzichini (Italian correspondent to Amuse-busche):

Zampare”: Acorn pork trotter, Frisee, and stone ground mustard.

Wine:  Bereche & Fils Brut Reserve, (Montagne de Reims, France)

Antipasti:

Karl had: “Polenta con Sugo di Capra”, Four-story Hill Farm kid goat, soft polenta   and  Ricotta salad.

Wine:  2011 Ronco del Gnemiz Schioppettino “Invinidi Jacopo”, (Colli Oriental del Friuli, Italy).

Heather had: “Pesci Crudo”, New Zealand Snapper, Colatum and Puntarelle.

Wine:  2011 Burja Malvazija, Slovenia.

Primi:

Karl had: “Casoncelli”, a traditional Bergamaschi stuffed pasta with multiple types of meat.

Wine: 2010 Vietti Barbera d’Asti, tre Vigne, Piemonte, Italy.

Heather had: “Mezzaluna”, Baby artichoke, Cardoon, and Parmigiano-Reggiano

Wine: 2011 Elio Grasso Dolcetto d’Alba “Dei Grassi”, Piemonte.

Secundi:

Karl had: “Uccello”- a Poularde (milk fed chicken), hedgehog mushroom and Calabrian chili with a butter sauce.

Wine:  2010 Castel Feder Pinot Nero Glener, Alto-Aldige, Italy.

Heather chose a second primi dish: “Fagotelli”, Fontina Val d’Aosta and wild mushroom.

Wine: 2010 Castel Feder Pinot Nero, Alto-Aldige, Italy.

Dolci:

Crostada di Pompelmo”, Coconut, almond, grapefruit, pastry cream and yogurt gelato.

Wine: 2011 La Spinetta Moscato d’Asti “Bricco”, Quaglia, Piemonte, Italy.

The “Casoncelli”, was one of the most memorable pasta dishes I have ever had.  It was important for the wine to complement, and not overshadow the delicate pasta dish.  The Elio Grasso Dolcetto d’Alba, which had no oak, was the best wine I had ever tasted with an artichoke dish.  For both of us, our favorite wine of the night on its own merits was the Castel Feder Pinot Nero.  Low in oak, and bursting with cherry and strawberry notes, this versatile wine paired well with both my Uccello and Heather’s “Fagotelli”. In many ways the wines chosen to complement each dish was not a wine I would seek out individually to add to my cellar on its own merit.  However, the way each glass of wine complemented the food it was served with was so exact, that I could imagine no better pairing.  In a high caliber restaurant such as Frasca, the “wines by the glass” section of the wine menu are not cheaper, inferior wines, but are actually chosen by the wine staff to match the offerings on the menu by way of geographic provenance, and flavor profiles.

The Friuli-Venenzia-Giuli region of Northeastern Italy

The Friuli-Venenzia-Giuli region of Northeastern Italy

In a recent interview with “eatocracy” (06/14/2011), Bobby related some basic principles with pairing wine with Italian food.  Drink Local:  It goes without saying that regional wines and food click together.  Tangular:  Tangy and angular is the way to describe many of the red wines from Piemonte, and their flavors work well with foods from northern Italy, like Friuli.  The heavy tannic Piemonte wines pair better with proteins that have some fat in it.  Full white wines, like those from Friuli-Venezia-Giuli (Friuliano, Malvasia, Ribolla, Pinot Blanco), carry more heft and richness than many other white wines.  In addition, they are super food friendly.  They are balanced, have bright acidity, and possess flavors laced with pure varietal character.  Bobby loves drinking indigenous wines, because, “Italy is where it’s at for an obscure native drinking experience.  You can drink something that’s both delicious and an enological living artifact.”  Finally, Bobby says, “Remember, our palates are only used to the thresholds that we get them used to.  If you don’t eat spicy dishes, then a plate of Mexican food seems a lot hotter for you than to someone who grew up in Arizona.”  In other words, if all you ever drink are California Cabs, then everything else will seem less “wine-like”, if it doesn’t taste like a California Cab.  The best way to get better at pairing Italian food with wine is to drink more Italian wine with Italian food.

My wife and I love going out to eat.  In most restaurants, especially the restaurant chains, the wine selections are limited to a few white and a few red wine choices.  When that is the case, the diner is pretty much limited on the food and wine pairings to simple, generic white with chicken or fish, and red with steak or pork.  It is easier to accomplish effective combinations at home with a group of wine savvy friends where each person or couple is responsible for one dish and one bottle of wine to pair with it.  This can be extremely satisfying, especially when creativity on the part of both the dish and the wine are present.  Every memorable dinner party I have been too has been one where the host or participants have made an extra effort to properly pair both food and beverage.  In most large cities around the world there are restaurants like Frasca, where the food and wine interaction becomes almost an art form, and the pairings are expertly accomplished, because the knowledge base of why certain flavors accentuate each other so well is emphasized.  So pick a major event, be it a birthday, anniversary, Valentine’s Day, or whatever else that might have significance to you, and treat yourself and your loved one to an explosion of the senses, whose memory will linger – both on the palate and in your reminiscence.  That’s all for now.

Cheers,

Karl

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Indian Wine: wineblog #32

The author enjoying a glass of wine on top of an elephant outside of Jaipur, India

The author enjoying a glass of wine on top of an elephant outside of Jaipur, India

You mark my words. We’ll be drinking wines from… well, South America, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, India, China… This is just the beginning.  Steven Spurrier from the movie Bottle Shock

A woman in a Sari picking wine is a common site

A woman in a Sari picking wine is a common site

India is the land of enchantment.  Home of the Taj Mahal, Hindu temples, spices and curries, Moghuls and Maharajas, and… wine!?  That’s right.  During a recent trip to India to visit my daughter who was studying in a city south of Mumbai, my wife and I were able to experience an unexpected pleasure, Indian wine.  In a country that places so much importance on ethnic cuisine, it makes sense that indigenous winemaking would also be found in India. I am happy to report that the wine industry in India is booming.  The quality is great and the future is very bright.

Winemaking in India can be traced back to at least the fourth century BC, probably coming from Persian traders.  There are actually writings from the fourth millennium BC where Aryan tribes were known for their intoxicating drink, which most likely was wine.  Wine was known as a drink for the privileged caste (or noble class), while the lower castes would drink alcohol made from grain.

When the Portuguese began trading and colonizing the west coast around Goa, they began to heavily cultivate grains for wine, and fortified wines in particular.  Western influences prevailed as the British presence increased in India, culminating during the Victorian era British East India Company, based in Bombay, which significantly encouraged viticulture as a source for local wine.  It was during this era that vineyards were planted extensively throughout the Maharashtra, Baramati, Kashmir and Surat regions in the western parts of the country.  There is at least one description, in 1883 at the “Calcutta International Exhibition” where Indian wines were showcased and received high praise.

Painting of Jahangir holding a cup of wine

Painting of Jahangir holding a cup of wine

Alcohol was prohibited under Islamic law during the Muslim Mughal era; however these laws were not always strictly followed.  The 4th Mughal Emperor, Jahangir (1569-1627) was the son of Akbar the Great, and father of Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal.  Jahangir is considered by scholars to be one of the greatest rulers of the Mughal dynasty because of the relative political stability and cultural achievements that were characterized by his reign.  He was fascinated with the arts, science and architecture.  He also was a lover of wine.  His father Akbar was a very powerful ruler and had conquered all foes in the area, and consequently there was not much for Jahangir to do except to quell a few rebellions, build palaces and drink a lot of wine.  This Muslim ruler, despite the abstinence teachings found in Islamic dietary laws, loved wine so much that this passion would find its way into some of his architectural achievements.  For example, his palace at Fatehpur Sikri in Uttar Pradesh, is full of mosaics made of inlaid precious and semiprecious stones, and arranged in wine related motifs on the walls and entryways of several of the court buildings.

A pillar with a grapevine motif at Fahtepur Sikri

A pillar with a grapevine motif at Fahtepur Sikri

India did not escape the worldwide phylloxera epidemic, and in the 1880s the vineyards of India were devastated.  The road to recovery was very long (100 years) due to religious and social prohibition towards alcohol at the time in India.  This suppression lasted in various forms until the 1980s, when French influences founded new wineries in

Hillside vineyards in Maharashtra on the Deccan Plateau

Hillside vineyards in Maharashtra on the Deccan Plateau

Maharashtra in the middle-western part of the country.  Maharashtra’s climate ranges from semi-arid to tropical, and there are regions in some of the higher elevations of the Deccan Plateau with terroir suitable for grapevines.  These vineyards are planted up to 1,000 ft in elevation in soils that consist of volcanic basalt, granite and igneous rock.  Vineyards can also be found in the more temperate northern Punjab state, and down to the southern state of Tamil Nadu.  Most of the typical grape varietals are planted in India, although a few indigenous varietals, including Anabeshahi, Arkavati, and the Turkish Sultana are also widely grown.

moti majal restaurantToday India makes more than 13.5 million liters of wine each year, and is beginning to make headlines in some of the European wine competitions.  Sula Vineyards in Maharashtra produces a Sauvignon Blanc which received a silver medal at the prestigious Decanter World Wine awards in 2011.  Zoltan Kore, sommelier at London’s Moti Mahal Indian Restaurant, who serves Indian wines at his restaurant says, “The feedback I get from our guests shows that these are impressive wines.  They are entry level in terms of price, but in terms of quality, they are untouchable.”  He goes on to say, “… the wines are not overpowered by the spices in the Indian food, and are easily matched with a host of curries and Tandori marinades which offer a challenge to any of the French or Italian wines.”

We enjoyed many wines from Sula Vineyards while in India

We enjoyed many wines from Sula Vineyards while in India

Sula Vineyards in Maharashtra is one of India’s most popular wineries.  It is very accessible, just outside of Mumbai, and offers wine pairings, classes, and tours of its modern winery.  The winery of course also offers a variety of premium wines including a Dindori Reserve Shiraz, a Cabernet Shiraz blend, a Reserve Vionier, and a Late Harvest Chenin Blanc.

Evidence for India’s recent wine emergence comes in the form of joint ventures.  Many of the premier French and California wineries have partnered with South American wineries to produce excellent wines.  A few examples of existing top shelf joint venture wineries include Dominus, Domaine Chandon, Seña, Concha y Toro, and Opus One.  This trend of Joint venture wineries has now been announced to continue in India.  The Indage group has announced plans to form joint ventures with wineries in France and Germany.  There have been at least ten established wineries in the US and Europe that have announced intentions to partner with wineries in India.  Industry experts agree that the increasing presence of foreign wineries will increase the quality and presence of Indian wine on the world stage

The point of this blog is not that I think India is currently making the most desirable or the most cellar worthy wine in the world.  My point is this:  The world of winemaking has expanded greatly over the past generation or two, and the traditional places for finding the best wines have not moved, they have simply expanded to include New World regions such as those found in North America, South America, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Asia, India and many others.  India has a long, rich history of winemaking.  In fact, its heritage goes back as long as some of the greatest storied Old World regions.  But it may be that the wines of India are only now coming into their own on the world stage.  It has been said, “There are no bad winemaking regions, only bad winemakers.”  I am not quite sure if I believe this, but whether this is true or not, we do live in a global village, and the best winemaker’s skill and technology is rapidly transferable from one area to another.  Even vineyards with the most humble terroir and pedigree can be made to produce drinkable, if not excellent wines.  It is also true that a term like vintage is becoming less important with today’s winemaking abilities.  It is a brave new world out there with respect to where the best wines are coming from.  And while I can’t imagine the grand wineries of the Old World ceasing to produce classically excellent wine, the near future may show us something new and wonderful, with exceptionally quaffable wines from places like India and others.  Enjoy the variety!  That is all for now.

Cheers,

Karl

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Beaujolais wine: wineblog #31

Vins Du Beaujolais

“Beaujolais is the only white wine that happens to be red” – Karen MacNeil

“Beaujolais is the one night stand of wines”- Kermit Lynch

There is a great tradition every year that always happens on the third Thursday of November.  It is a great time to get together with family and friends, gather a bounty of food and open some great wine.  That celebration is, of course, no not Thanksgiving, it is Beaujolais Nouveau Day!  This is the day when the first of the French wines are released each year.  This wine is not meant to be cellared, but to be drunk as young as possible when it is at its freshest and fruitiest, and it is a great reason to get together for a time of great cheer and drink a fun wine that pairs well with food.   Why is a blog, whose theme is wine that ages well, addressing such a short lived wine?  Well, by the time we are done, hopefully a few surprises about Beaujolais will be revealed that will show why this topic is right at home with all the Old World and New World greats.

Gamay grape

The principle grape is the Gamay grape, which has been known for more than nine centuries.  The region itself is known to have been one of the first regions in ancient Gaul (France) to be cultivated for wine by the ancient Romans.  Gamay is thin skinned and ripens earlier than most all other red grape varietals.  It has signature raspberry, banana, and some strawberry notes in its flavor profile with aromas of fresh pepper, and seems to grow best in acidic soils.  The reason most Americans know about Gamay is because it is the grape of Beaujolais Nouveau.  The Beaujolais province in France is responsible for producing the immensely popular, light bodied Beaujolais Nouveau, and is located south of Beaune in Burgundy and north of the town of Lyon at the top of the Rhone valley, along the Saône River.  At its peak in the 1990s, more than 65% of all Gamay went to Beaujolais Nouveau.  The trend is actually quite young (begun in the early 1980s) and the man greatly responsible is the Negociant Georges Duboeuf.  Duboeuf made Beaujolais Nouveau a worldwide phenomenon with clever marketing.  At its peak, Duboeuf was single handedly producing more than 2.5 million cases of Beaujolais Nouveau annually.  The part most interesting for me is Beaujolais Nouveau’s unique winemaking technique of carbonic maceration.

Carbonic maceration is the secret winemaking technique behind Beaujolais’ fruit forward style.  In most red grape traditional winemaking styles, the grapes are crushed and fermented for ten to twenty days, then pressed and aged for six months to two years in wood before bottling.  The bottles then sometimes also are aged for months to years before being released. 

carbonic maceration

In carbonic maceration, the grapes are placed as whole clusters into 8,000 gallon steel or concrete containers, which are then sealed and pumped full of carbon dioxide.  The bottom one-third of the grape clusters are crushed by the sheer weight of the grape mass, and these undergo traditional fermentation by way of the natural yeasts that exist on the skins of the grapes which convert the grape sugars into alcohol.  The overlying two thirds of the grape clusters are converted into alcohol by way of carbonic maceration.  The carbon dioxide in the containers creates an anaerobic environment which then allows the carbon dioxide to permeate the intact grape skins.  This in turn causes fermentation to occur within the intact berries at an intracellular level.  The entire process is shorter than conventional fermentation (it usually takes four to five days). 

Steel tanks used in carbonic maceration

The result is wine with an extra-fruity, slightly sweet, raspberry flavor with very low tannin.  The entire process from harvest to bottling is less than six weeks.  Beaujolais Nouveau is released and ready to drink by the third Thursday in November.  These wines are simple, light bodied, and lack the structure for long term aging.  That’s alright, however, because they are meant to be drunk young and fresh.  The Nouveau trend’s popularity peaked in 1992, in terms of numbers of millions of cases produced and exported to Europe and the United States, but has declined slowly ever since.  The reason for this is multifactorial, but certainly part of the reason is the gradual sophistication of the American palate for fine wines.  Thankfully, this is not the end of the story for the Gamay grape.

Cru Beaujolais vineyards

The more refined big brother of Beaujolais Nouveau is Cru Beaujolais.   Just north of the city of Lyon are granite based soils which make the best Cru Beaujolais.  These fantastic wines are going through a sort of revival with wine lovers.  Celebrated Master Sommeliers like Rajat Parr, Sarah Goddard, Rachel Ryan, and Fred Dexheimer, regularly sing their praises, and stock their restaurant’s wine menus with these food friendly wines.  

Rajat Parr

Parr states, “Cru Beaujolais offers some of the best value in red wine.  It is seriously well made, balanced, food friendly, delicious, evocative of place, and way under priced.  It is the most delicious wine in the world.”  These wines go great with most anything grilled.   In Cru Beaujolais, the Gamay varietal is treated to a more traditional fermentation, and barrel aged so that more tannin from contact with grape skins and barrel staves are imparted to the wine.  The tannins are usually not harsh, but as some have said, “…are more like a caress”.  The winemaker usually doesn’t put the name “Beaujolais” on the label so as to separate their product from Beaujolais Nouveau.  There are ten Crus that produce Cru Beaujolais, and there are marked differences from Cru to Cru.

Cote de Brouilly

Brouilly, Chirables, and Régnié are the lightest bodied wines, and are meant to be consumed relatively quickly.  These wines are currently all the rage in Bistros all throughout Paris.  These wines are fragrantly perfumed, silky and earthy/ herbal in character.  They are unpretentious and very easy to drink with a meal.

Fleurie Cru Beaujolais

Fleurie, Côte de Brouilly, and Saint Amour are the medium bodied Cru, and need to bottle age for at least a year.  They are best consumed within four years.  Fleurie is the most widely exported, and can be found in most fine wine stores.  The wines are super fine in texture, and very aromatic.  Parr states, “Fleurie is the most feminine and delicate version of Gamay.”  The medium bodied Crus are also the style where Vin de Garde appears.  Vin de Garde wines are those from vintage years that are the most terroir driven, and balanced example of Gamay at its best.

Clos du Feif Julienas

Chenas, Moulin-á-Vent, Morgon, and Juliènas are the most full bodied Cru.  These wines can be cellared for ten years, and in Vin de Garde years, they can age more than twenty years.  Representatives from these Crus can take on Burgundian complexity and character.  Producer Michel Tete’s Clos du Fief Juliénas 2010is full of massive fruit flavor, backed up by rich mushroomy earth.  The best part is, you can find it for around $22-$30.  Rachel Ryan states, “Morgon, may be the most structured of the crus, with more intensity, concentration and savory flavors… I love giving someone a Morgon and watch their world change as they realize that Beaujolais Nouveau has nothing in common with these rustic, brooding specimens”. 

Teres Dorees Morgon

Again, Jean Paul Brun 2009 Teres Doreés Morgon can be found for under $25.  These wines are rich and age-worthy, some with masculine style, and lingering finish.

It is rare to find a varietal as versatile as Gamay.  On the one hand, Beaujolais Nouveau is the party grape that basically tastes like a Jolly Rancher, exploding with fruit, simple to drink, and is almost like an accessory to the party.  On the other hand, Cru Beaujolais can be a sophisticated and complex, long aging wine, with terroir driven structure and balance that is very similar to Burgundy. 

Kermit Lynch

As Kermit Lynch said, “Beaujolais is the one night stand of wines.”  You can have that affair with it every November.  But you never know, after getting to know Cru Beaujolais, you might just fall in love.  That is all for now.

 

Cheers,

Karl

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South African Wines:Wineblog #30

“Today, God be Praised, wine was pressed at the Cape for the first time”

Jan van Riebeeck, February 2, 1659

“Constantia…has healing powers on a disappointed heart”

– Jane Austin, in Sense and Sensibility

When was the last time you overheard someone talk about, “…that excellent South African wine they had last weekend?” If the answer is “seldom”, or “never”, then you are in good company, because most Americans don’t know much about South African wines. The question then, that follows is, “What reason is there to learn anything about a world wine region that has difficult to access wines, which most people really don’t know much about?” The answer is that not only is there plenty of reason to get to know more about South African wines, but there is a lot of misinformation about this diverse compilation of African wine growing regions, and moreover the wines really aren’t as inaccessible as you might think. In addition, there are really compelling reasons to make the wines of South Africa your go to wines for any occasion. I recently returned from a trip to South Africa and am here to say that these wines deserve your attention. The southern Cape Wine districts are among the most bio-diverse in the world, and the microclimates created by the competing influences from the Atlantic and Indian oceans make for unique growing conditions that balance against the hot African summer sun which tend to ripen the grapes in New World fashion.

South African wine production can trace its history back to 1659 and the Dutch East India Trading Company when the company established a Spice Route supply station at the Cape of Good Hope in the South-Western part of Africa for their ships as they passed around the African Cape on their way to and from India and Asia. A Dutch surgeon, Jan van Riebeeck was given the task of running the supply outpost, and in addition to planting the fruit crops to prevent scurvy for the sailors, van Riebeeck planted the first vineyards in Southern Africa. In 1685, then current Cape governor, Simon van der Stel (whom the town of Stellenbosch was named after), founded the first true wine producing estate–Constantia, which later became the world renowned producer of Constantia dessert wine (now resurrected as Vin de Constance). The South African wine industry flourished in the 1800s under British rule, until the 1860s when France forced tariffs (specifically the Cobden-Chevwith tariff) with England that favored wines from France over South Africa.

Cecil John Rhodes

In the late nineteenth century the wine lands of South Africa were devastated by the Phylloxera epidemic, and it was none other than Cecil John Rhodes, the founder of De Beers Diamond and Consolidated Gold Fields Mining Company, and Prime Minister of South Africa who brought Phylloxera resistant, American rootstocks to South Africa and saved the wine industry. The trouble was that South Africa was replanted and over-production ensued.  The quality of the wine was bland, neutral bulk wine, and lots of it.   In 1918, the Koöperatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging van Zuid-Afrika Bpkt (KWV) was founded by the wine farmers in the region. The KWV controlled the business of wine farming and distribution until the end of Apartheid in the early 1990s.  The trouble was that the policy of producing higher volume, lower quality wine was perpetuated.   It was under the KWV that the Wine of Origin (WO) program was started. The WO is loosely based on the AOC system in France, and its primary function is concerned with accuracy in labeling with respect to geographical regions. The underlying purpose of the WO, however, was to raise the quality of the wine produced and exported.  This scheme is important in its role of protecting both the wine producer and consumer. Production in South Africa over the years has proved that each area of origin lends its own unique character to wine and that certain areas deliver better quality for specific varietal types. Currently in South Africa, single vineyard designated “Estate” wines don’t classify as a designation of geographic origins, but South African wineries can still label wines as “Estate” wines provided that all the grapes were grown and the wine vinified and bottled on the same property.

The wine growing regions of South Africa

The nine South African wine farm geographic regions encompass a wide range of area, ranging from the North and West Cape, but I am going to concentrate on the Southern Cape wine districts of Constantia, Stellenbosch, Paarl and Franschoek. The historic Constantia estate has briefly been previously mentioned, and the Constantia district encompasses five distinct estates: Groot Constantia, Steenberg, Buitenverwachting, Klein Constantia, and Constantia Uitsig.

Groot Constantia Manor House

Constantia is south of Capetown on the Cape Peninsula which juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. Because of its location, the region receives significant oceanic influences which create a cooling effect that causes a long slow summer ripening period. The soils are a combination of sandstone, loam and granite which give a fair amount of drainage for the vines.

Glen Carlou of the Paarl District

Paarl is the home of the KWV, and the valley is dominated by the Paarl Mountain. The region’s fertile soil and Mediterranean climate (hot Italian, and most New World weather as opposed to the cooler Northern French, Spanish and German  climates) has been used for farming by French Huguenots for orchards, vegetables, and of course vineyards since the 17thcentury. Two of my favorite wine farms located here are Fairview and Glenn Carlou (which is one of the six New World wineries owned by the Hess Estate).

Typical wine farm Cape Dutch Architecture in Stellenbosch

The famous Stellenbosch wine district is surrounded by the Drakenstein, Papegaaiberg, Simonsberg and Stellenbosch mountains, and has a temperate Mediterranean climate which is moderated by oceanic influences of the nearby False Bay. The soils found there range from hillside decomposed granite to sandy alluvial loam near the Erste River. The town of Stellenbosch has a unique European feel with its wide avenues and cafes and Cape Dutch architecture. Stellenbosch is home to many world class wineries including Jordan (known as Jardin in the USA), Meerlust, Rust en Vrede, Simonsig and Warwick, Waterford Estate.

Boschendal Estate in Franschoek

Franschoek was founded by French Huguenot settlers. The region includes higher elevation vineyards which contribute to slightly cooler summers that can generate higher acidity in their many notable white wines produced there. The region boasts many fantastic restaurants and bed and breakfasts and celebrates its French heritage with many local festivals. One of the most beautiful wine estates, in terms of its Cape Dutch architecture is Boschendal Estate, at one time owned by Cecil J. Rhodes.

Pinotage by Fairview Estate

South African wine farms grow grapes from practically all the internationally known cultivars. All of the five noble grape varietals, in addition to Shiraz, and Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Viognier are grown there. But when I think about South African wines, I think of Pinotage and Chenin Blanc. Pinotage was first bred in South Africa in 1925 as a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut at Stellenbosch University. Cinsaut was known at the time in South Africa as Hermitage, hence the name Pinotage. Pinotage proved to be an easy varietal to cultivate, but it was largely ignored by the rest of the world because of its green vegetal flavors, and susceptibility for developing banana and nail polish-acetone flavors. Isoamyl acetate sometimes develops during the vinification process which can lead to a pungency that smells like paint. However, over the past ten years Pinotage has been reexamined as a serious varietal, and has had proper winemaking techniques applied to it, and with proper oak cooperage. Any Pinotage made after 2003 will confuse one’s palate with its desirable characteristics and depth of flavor. To my palate, they taste more like Rhone wines with an interesting earthiness. In addition, it has been proven that the Pinotage varietal contains the highest concentration of antioxidants out of all wine varietals.  Kevin Zraly, in his Windows on the World Wine Course has some specific thoughts on Pinotage that I happen to agree with.  He states that the best producers of Pinotage, “… have vines that are older than fifteen years and are planted in cooler climates, are green harvested so that the per acre yield is very low; have long skin maceration in open fermentation; is blended with Cabernet Sauvignon (although I have had delicious Pinotage blended with Shiraz); and is aged for at least ten years.”  The Pinotage in this category can be aged more than twenty years, with tremendous fruit extraction and very harmonious balance that does everything one would hope a top quality wine would be.

Chenin Blanc wine made by Jordan in Stellenbosch

Chenin Blanc (or Steen, as it was known in South Africa until the 1960s) is the most widely planted varietal in the entire country of South Africa. It probably either came with the French Huguenots who initially settled in the Franschoek valley or in cuttings sent to Jan van Riebeck by the Dutch East India Company. The Chenin Blanc varietal provides a fairly neutral substrate for uniquely expressing the terroir in which it is grown and the winemaking techniques by which it is vinified. Chenin Blanc yields large crops in the fertile South African soil, and green harvest techniques are frequently employed to remove excess grape clusters. Chenin Blanc can accommodate some skin contact and maceration which will allow extraction of phenolic compounds that add to the complexity of the wine. Additionally, South African winemakers tend to ferment Chenin Blanc at a lower temperature (52-54 degrees F) than their French counterpart in order to maximize the tropical fruit flavors and aromas that naturally and more vividly come out with cooler fermentation temperatures.

On my trip to South Africa, I tasted wines from many Estates, and as it turns out, many of the world class wines actually do have North American importers, it is simply the wine stores who don’t request the wines because there is such a paucity of demand for these unknown gems. John Hartley, of Happy Holiday tours (www.happyholiday.co.za) took us to Fairview Estate in Paarl for a wine and cheese master tasting.

The goat tower at Fairview Estate

Fairview is known for their incredible Shiraz collection, beginning with the Beacon Shiraz, and progressing through the Eenzaamheid Shiraz, and culminating in their top first press Cyril Back Shiraz (The 2007 Cyril Back was a Decanter magazine Gold medalist in the World Wine Awards). All of the Fairview Shiraz wines display a dense garnet color with intense current and minerality and spice, but not too peppery.

The Jem by Waterford Estate in Stellenbosch

The Waterford Estate in Stellenbosch (no relation to Waterford Irish Crystal) has a beautiful wine cellaring / aging room. We had a wonderful wine and chocolate pairing experience there. Waterford produces many excellent wines, but their flagship is “The Jem”, which is a meritage, heavy on Cabernet Sauvignon, but takes a turn away from Bordeaux by adding Shiraz, Mouvedre, Sangiovese and Barbera. The result is an intensely structured wine that has balance and complexity and a New World mouthfeel.

Karl, Heather, sister and brother in law (Kari and Dan), enjoying a magnum of 1997 Meerlust Rubicon

Another wine highlight was a magnum of the 1997 Meerlust Rubicon that we had at Sevruga Restaurant at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront in Capetown. This wine was another Bordeaux blend with excellent structure, integrated tannins, cassis, and hints of cedar wood. The Meerlust Estate in Stellenbosch has been family owned for eight generations, since 1756. The beautiful winery incidentally was declared a National Heritage Monument in 1987.

South Africa has always been known for the quality of its white wines, and one not to miss is Steenberg Magna Carta 2009 from the Constantia district. A blend of 60% Sauvignon Blanc and 40% Semillon, it was a top scoring wine in the Decanter Magazine’s Expert Choice list. The wine displays a multilayered expression of the vineyard’s terroir, and as South Africa’s Platter’s Guide describes, “… it exquisitely balances an oaky richness, sauv’s raciness and sem’s honey-lemon character.” This brilliant offering is truly a benchmark wine for Steenberg.

The Resurrected Vin de Constance in its unusual bottle

One of the most interesting, and celebrated, wines to come from South Africa is Constantia. In 1778, the owner of Constantia Estate, Hendrick Cloete, produced a wine made from a blend of Muscat de Frontigan, Pontac, Muscadel and Chenin Blanc. This wine became a favorite of European kings, such as Frederick the Great, George IV, Louis Philippe, and Napoleon. It also made it into popular culture, being written about in such classic works as Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood. When Phylloxera laid waste to the South African vineyards, Constantia disappeared for almost one hundred years.  It was resurrected in 1980 by Klein Constantia in a dutifully recreated, and delicious, Muscat based version called Vin de Constance.  The 2007 version is arguably the best since its resurrection.  It is copper in color, and exotic in fragrance with notes of citrus, honeysuckle and clove.  It has a strong acid thread with a slight oak backbone, and a fabulously long finish. This wine will age for a generation.  Vin de Constance is widely available in the US and I highly recommend picking some up.

Cape Town under the famous Table Mountain

It is not so easy to travel to South Africa with the purpose of taking in the wine farms of the area. But the wines have a long history that bring forth a little bit of Europe’s complex foray onto the African continent. The specter of Apartheid and subsequent US sanctions against South Africa hid these wines from American consumers for so long, that it is easy to see why they are not on most American wine drinker’s minds. On his deathbed in exile on the island of St. Helena, Napoleon did not ask for Chambertin, or Chateau d’Yquem, he asked for Constantia. Now I can truly see why. Because of the uniqueness of the geography from which they come, the vineyard sustainability practices, and the skill by which the wines are vinified, the wines can compete with any world wine region on their own merits. Couple that with the fact that the US dollar is currently strong against the South African Rand and these very affordable wines are flying under the radar in China and Europe all means that this is a great time to get to know South African wine. That’s all for now.

Cheers,

Karl

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Urban Wineries: wineblog #29

How can you buy a $75 bottle of wine for $25? Just remove the label – Malbec Time Blog

The Napa Valley based magazine Wine Spectator recently named a 2009 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir from the winery Kosta Browne, as their wine of the year for 2011.  Kosta Browne wines are well known for their intensity and bold flavors.  The wine I make in my basement has one very important component that I share with the wines from Kosta Browne; neither of us makes wine from grapes that we grow ourselves.  Kosta Browne outsources all of their grapes from vineyards in the Sonoma Coast and the Russian River Valley.  This situation begs the question, “How can a winery achieve a consistent flavor profile if the winemaker doesn’t oversee every step of the winemaking process from rootstock and vineyard cultivation to fermentation and blending?”  A second question is, “If the winery doesn’t have to be at the vineyard, then why can’t quality wineries crop up anywhere in the United States, or beyond, and simply have the grapes trucked in?”  The answer to these and other similar questions may surprise you.

The Kosta Browne story is very interesting, and is fully described by James Laube in the Wine Spectator article (Dec. 31, 2011).  The summary is that two waiters from Santa Rosa, California (Dan Kosta and Michael Browne) began to make wine in their garage with no formal training in winemaking.  Over ten years of trial and error, their skill in making wine, finding the right vineyards to buy the grapes from, and proper marketing for their product, has earned the duo much critical acclaim. Many of their wines have rated in the 90s by various wine related publications, and their accolades have culminated in being named Wine Spectator’s wine of the year.  They recently sold half the winery to Vincraft for $36 million dollars.  Not bad for two guys who started with $1300, a used barrel, an old stemmer-crusher, and a half ton of purchased grapes.

The concept of one vineyard growing grapes for another winery is not new, and in fact is how many of today’s premier California wineries got their start while their own vineyards matured enough to produce quality grapes.  The practice has been around in France for hundreds of years.  Négociants have traditionally purchased grapes from vignerons in various states of finishing (anywhere from grapes alone, to fermented grape must, to a more finished product) and complete the winemaking tasks; barrel aging, bottling and distribution of the wine.  These days, many of the Négociants have evolved to actually owning the vineyards as well.  Here in the United States, the process of separating grape farming from winemaking has always been less structured.  As previously mentioned, it’s usually the situation that wineries sell their grape crops until they have the money to invest in winemaking equipment and mature enough grapes to make the wine.   Opus One Winery is one example.  They would out source from several Napa Valley vineyards (i.e. Hendry Vineyards produced the Petit Verdotvarietal that went into their Bordeaux blend) for the first almost twenty years of the winery’s existence.  

Mauritson Winery in the Dry Creek appelation of Northern Sonoma County

Mauritson Vineyards, in the Dry Creek appellation of northern Sonoma County, is an example of a vineyard who traditionally sold all of their crops to other wineries.  Mauritson now makes many award winning wines, particularly from the Rockpile region.  It took, however, Clay Mauritson, son of the owner Thom Mauritson, who wanted to make wine under their own name.  The word from the winery’s tasting room states that the father told his son, “that is fine, but where are you going to get the grapes?  All of ours are already spoken for.”  Since then, Mauritson has reclaimed approximately 25% of their own stock for the wine produced through their own label.

The Infinite Monkey Theorem Winery in Denver, Colorado

These days’ vineyardless wineries are beginning to pop up all over the place.  One such example in Denver, Colorado is the Infinite Monkey Theorem Winery.  Located in Denver’s Santa Fe Arts district, this urban winery sources grapes from a variety of vineyards in California and the western slope of Colorado.  The stated purpose from their website is, “…to use the best grapes from the highest quality vineyards to process excellent wines in the heart of the city.”  They also believe that these days, “…it is so easy to move harvested grapes in a climate controlled way, that after the harvest, the vineyard and farm bear no relevance to the winemaking process.”  No doubt this sentiment would be loudly disagreed with by vignerons throughout the Old World and the New.

Los Cabos Winery in Cabos San Lucas, Mexico

A second example of this concept is the Los Cabos Winery in Cabos San Lucas, Mexico.  This urban winery consists of a temperature and humidity controlled barrel aging cave in the center of Cabos San Lucas, where the owner barrel ages, blends, bottles and labels his wines.  The outsourced grapes are grown, harvested, crushed, fermented and barreled prior to being shipped to their winery from Napa Valley, Sonoma, and even Argentina.  One draw for their potential customers is the ability to involve the customers in the steps of the bottling process.

Many Sonoma wineries have embraced the concept of urban winery, or at least access to the winery within an urban setting.  This idea is seen at the local level at the square in the heart of Healdsburg in Northern Sonoma County.  There are more than fifty tasting rooms from numerous wineries from the region.  The tasting rooms bring the wines to the people with a new accessibility.  I can speak with firsthand experience at how nice it is to be able to walk from one winery tasting room to the next, then walk to dinner, and walk home to the bed and breakfast.   Seghesio Winery has taken this concept to the next level.  All of their vineyards are located scattered throughout Sonoma and the winery itself is located within the city limits of Healdsburg.

The virtual winery: 90+ Cellars

Another related concept that has been a smashing success is the internet phenom company “90+ wines. “  It is a well known fact that many of the best wineries produce more wine that they want to sell.  The idea relates to the law of supply and demand.  If the demand is high and the supply is low, then the wines can fetch a premium price.  The internet company 90+ wines capitalizes on this concept, and purchases premium wine direct from the wineries at a huge discount.  The wines they buy are high quality and highly rated finished wines, which must have a rated pedigree of 90 or above by reputable rating groups.  Wineries work with this company because they produce more wine than they need or can sell because of recession related slowing in sales.  90+ wines is a virtual winery that sells these wines on condition of anonymity.  They list the region, the grape, the rating, and put their own label on the bottle.  The wine quote at the beginning of this blog came from their website.  In reality, we all should be more concerned with the product in the bottle than with the label outside the bottle.

The success of Kosta Browne has shown the world that one does not need a single entity to control every aspect of the wine growing / winemaking process in order to achieve a high quality wine.  In fact, it can be seen that the success of Kosta Browne has put pressure on the sourced vineyards to constantly improve growing techniques and practices.  This would not have been achievable in years past, and I believe modern winemaking techniques in the New World have elevated everyone’s ability to bring forth a quality product.  They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, and we are sure to see more vineyardless city wineries cropping up in nontraditional urban sites across the country.  I can even foresee a time when conventional wineries open up tasting rooms in cities all over – from Dallas/Ft. Worth to New York City (anywhere there might be access to a larger direct to consumer market).  That would be a great occurrence, and one that would help to cut out the middle man and keep wine pricing under control and maximize accessibility. That is all for now.

 

Cheers,

Karl

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The Passionate Wine Drinker: wineblog #28

Karl and Heather in Cambodia

For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them- Aristotle

Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand – Confucius

Write drunk, edit sober – Ernest Hemingway

I have been asked before, “Why do I put so much effort in writing these blogs on cellaring and drinking wine?”  It is not my job, and I don’t make any money from writing about the varied aspects of wine culture that interest me.  The answer is that I believe having a passion for something makes me a better person in ways that have nothing to do with drinking wine.  Acting on that passion is what elevates that passion to a higher level.

A wise friend recently asked me if the travel to Asia that I did in college made me a better surgeon today.  I replied at the time something about the study abroad program broadening my horizons, making me a better citizen of the world, and learning and understanding more about the culture that I live in by briefly living outside that culture within a third world structure.  After reflecting on our conversation I realized that these answers were true, but there is a lot more to it, and in fact, it DID make me a better surgeon.   One thing I realized was that the answer can be found in wine.  This friend and his wife are a couple that my wife and I have travelled with several times to the Napa Valley.  That glass of wine we were sharing during that conversation has different meaning to both of us because of our experiences in the area where that wine was created.  One can learn to like wine from drinking it on numerous occasions.  One can also learn all there is to know about the nuts and bolts of winemaking by reading about it in a book. 

Heather and George Hendry at Hendry Vineyards

However, it is a completely different type of education all together when you travel to a winery and spend a couple of hours in the vineyard with the winemaker, and he shows you his approach to root grafting, and to actually chew the grape seeds in your mouth to feel the tannins, and understand when to pick the grapes from one varietal versus a later timeframe for another, and to see the process of wine vinification from the winemakers prospective. 

Barrel tasting at the Del Dotto wine caves

Additionally, when you visit the wine caves from another winery, and sample the wine directly from the barrels, and experience the effect of high toast versus medium toast of the barrel staves on the wine, or compare the same wine that has been exposed to the softer tannin influence of French oak with that which has been in the bolder tannin profile of American Missouri oak.  Or even sat through a wine tasting class in the cask room of another winery, and experience the nuances of a glass of wine by tasting the break out components of straight alcohol, tannins, sugar, malic acid and unfermented grape juice. 

My alma mater: Georgetown University School of Medicine

In Medical School, we spend four years learning all there is to know about how to be a doctor, and then spend several more years in residency, effectively in on-the-job training, in order to really learn how to do the job.  In my mind, any time we go to a new place to learn, whether that place is a study abroad program in Asia, or to the California wine country, we are experiencing on the job training for that particular subject.

Who we are is more than what we do for a living.  The way we interact with others, how we think, what we base our moral compass on, how we develop our own character and integrity, and even how we perform our jobs is based upon the sum total of our experiences in our lives.  Having a passion for something, anything, enriches us so that our entire being adds up to more than the sum of the parts.  Visiting the vineyards, travelling to Asia, or encountering first hand, the origin of one’s passion interjects an intangible amount of knowledge gained from experiential learning, the kind of education which is impossible to extract from a textbook. 

The experiential learning cycle

The dimensions of experiential learning are more analytical and abstract, and should be viewed as a vehicle for personal improvement.   To discount this approach to learning is to take a blue collar approach to self edification, and in my opinion, serves to deprive oneself an element which feeds into the very passion he or she is trying to cultivate.  In other words, life is not a trade school, it is more a “liberal arts” laboratory. The education we undertake for our careers is more than those classes that only directly relate to our particular field.  I believe it is the breadth of our interests and extent of our involvement in those interests which promote the health of our minds.  Support of this can be easily found by googling, The impact of physical and mental activity on cognitive aging and deterioration.  The many articles that pop up in the medical literature have contributed to a growing body of knowledge suggesting that social engagement, intellectual stimulation and physical activity play key roles in maintaining cognitive health and preventing mental decline.

This brings me back to wine, and the original question, “Does a passion for wine make me a better doctor?”  Learning about wine and its surrounding culture for me is an experiential, continuous learning process.  The answer to the question is a resounding “Yes” because it is those things we are passionate about which invigorate our quest for knowledge, and stimulate our brains towards productivity.  Perhaps my varied passions serve to give me more in common with the patients I interact with on a daily basis.  As a doctor my opinion is what’s being sought out, and also my ability to remedy the patient’s present situation.  The way I deliver my assessment and opinion has a direct influence on the trust my patient has in what I say.  The manner by which I have fed my passions comes out through my personal approach in conversing with anyone I encounter on a daily basis.  Anything that can block complacency, whether it is learning a new language, attaining a master’s degree in Shakespearean literature, taking flying lessons, travelling to wine regions, both Old World and New, fends off the inevitable cognitive deterioration that originates in apathy and complacency.  To drink a glass of wine can be enjoyable, but to immerse oneself in the culture of wine can potentially make life more enjoyable and even slow the effects of aging on our brains.  That’s all for now.

Cheers,

Karl

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Visiting the Sonoma Wine Road: wineblog #27

Morning fog lifting off the vineyards along the Northern Sonoma County Wine Road

I’m making wine for the consumer, not the wine writers … Americans love fruit forward flavor and a good price. – Jess Jackson

I have some hesitancy towards writing about this area because it is such a great spot to visit, and I almost don’t want to let the secret out.  With the Napa Valley, the cat is already out of the bag.  Napa is wonderful; and those who produce and sell wine there know it, as do the people who live and work in the region.  Some people say that the Northern Sonoma County is like Napa was thirty years ago.  I wouldn’t go that far, because the wineries have taken all the advantages of technical winemaking advances and viticultural practices that winegrowers in Napa have.  They know they make great wine, and for the most part, realize that for all the hype, it is still just fermented grape juice.  They just seem to not be as uptight about it.  In addition, the towns (like Healdsburg and Windsor), are more quaint and fun to be in.  There are still free or nearly free wine tastings, and the close proximity from town to vineyard is such a bonus.  The region is also known for the way big modern wineries are closely intermingled with small artisanal producers and grape farmers.  A great way to tour the region is to follow the Wine Road.

The Northern Sonoma County Wine Road Seal

The Wine Road is an association of wineries and lodgings in Northern Sonoma County (160 wineries and 50 hotels and Bed & Breakfast establishments).  It is not actually one road or single stretch of highway to follow; it is more like following a treasure map throughout the area, which loosely follows the Russian River, and meanders through the different appellations.  It is great to traverse the region and find the great places and “hidden Gems” along the way.  In addition, the Wine Road Association hosts different events and services throughout the year which are very popular.  The largest three events are the “Winter Wineland” in January, the “Barrel tasting” in March, and “A Food and Wine affair” in November.

Map of the Wine Road viticultural areas

The easiest way to understand the northern Sonoma County is through the American Viticultural Areas (AVAs).  The Russian River Valley AVA is the largest in acreage, and most southwestern.  There are around 130 wineries here.  The region for the most part is a low lying plain which extends closest to the Pacific Ocean, and thus receives the most coastal influences like cooler temperatures and morning fog.  This feature makes it ideal for cooler climate grapes such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  The area’s cool climate also tends to make wines with higher acidity and better balance. There are two sub-AVAs within the Russian River Valley.  The first is called Green Valley, and has characteristic Goldrich soils which is the most sought after soil type for growing Pinot Noir.  It is located in the furthest southwest corner of the Russian River Valley.  This is the most coastal area of the northern Sonoma County.  The second is called Chalk Hill, and as its name suggests, consists of chalky volcanic soil.  The AVA can have morning fog which clears to reveal warm afternoons, and is surrounded by cool windy mountain tops.  These geologic features give rise to multiple varied microclimates that create complex mountain Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir with very different structure than those grown in the more coastal regions of the Russian River Valley.

Morning fog in the Dry Creek AVA

The Dry Creek Valley AVA is home to around 81 wineries.  Dry Creek has low rolling hills, foggy mornings and warm days and it is in this AVA where Zinfandel is king.  The region has a patchwork of soil types such as Yolo, Manzanita and Cortina, which are all extremely well drained, and which lends itself to the varied flavor profiles for the Zinfandel grown there.  Dry Creek also has one sub AVA called Rockpile. 

Map of the Rockpile sub-AVA in Dry Creek

The Rockpile AVA is the northern most region of Dry Creek, and is located just north and above Lake Sonoma.  All of the vineyards are at an elevation between 800 – 2000 feet above sea level.  The lake creates a temperature inversion which keeps fog away from the vineyards, so the grapes bask in warm sun all day.  This region is not a tourist destination, because the landscape is harsh and unrelenting.  The term rockpile describes the soil, which is rocky and well drained, and the effect in the vineyards are Zinfandel berries that are smaller, with thicker skins which enable survival in the rough conditions.  The result is silky wines with powerful flavors and bold tannins that allow long aging.

 

The Alexander Valley AVA

The Alexander Valley AVA contains around 49 wineries.  This is the most western AVA and is known for diverse gravelly soils and hillsides.  The region is sheltered from the influence of the Pacific Ocean by the rolling hills of Dry Creek.  One can find all the Noble grapes grown here.  It is in this region where some of the top award winning Bordeaux blend and Cabernet Sauvignon wines are from.  A characteristic of the wines from this region is a fleshy mouthfeel and a degree of voluptuousness due to the microclimates and its ability to sufficiently ripen the grapes.  “Notes of chocolate” is a descriptor that is often used to describe wines from this region.

Once you visit the Northern Sonoma County you will approach wine from those AVAs differently.  I don’t simply look to see if the grapes were grown in Sonoma.  The AVAs are so diverse in terroirthat I look to see specifically where the grapes came from. 

The world class wines of Verite

For example, as I mentioned, the Alexander Valley AVA is known for big Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends (Meritage).   Proof of this region’s power can be found at Verite, who’s wines have garnered seven perfect 100 scores by Robert Parker over the past decade(and twenty six wines scoring a 95 or above)!  Verite’s Vigneron Pierre Seillan is the one who gives voice to the truth of the soil. He is often quoted on winemaking techniques and the greatness of the region.  A typical Seillan quote is as follows, “Oak in wine should be like a ghost in a Chateau; you sense its presence, but you don’t actually recognize it.”  Some other wineries in Alexander Valley that are good to visit include Lancaster (really high quality estate crafted wines – do the wine tasting in their cave), Stryker Winery(beautiful tasting room), Robert Young Estate Winery (Their benchmark Scion Meritage is a truly complex, outstanding wine) and Garden Creek Winery (a small winery that has beautiful wines.  Reserve the tour and tasting by candlelight). 

We love to visit Silver Oak!

My wife Heather and I have a soft spot for the Alexander Valley Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon.  The winery tour is excellent, and the wine is always delicious and distinctive, and the winery is definitely worth a visit.  Also, they have done a better job than most in holding down their pricing.  Clos Du Bois is one of the mega-wineries of Sonoma (along with Gallo and Kendal – Jackson) that produce over 2 million cases a year.  It is worth stopping by to see how wine is made on a large scale.  They have a Bordeaux blending class where you see the steps that the winemaker goes through when choosing the final blend from the five noble grapes in their meritage.  You also get to blend your own and take home a bottle of your own masterpiece.

Truly exceptional Zinfandel is made in Dry Creek

The iconic American grape is Zinfandel, and for truly exceptional Zins, I look to the valley floor and rolling hills of Dry Creek.  The terroiris ideally suited for growing the varietal. 

A. Raffinelli Winery

The family run A. Raffanelli Winery is nestled in the hills, and is hard to get an appointment, but worth it.  The terraced grounds are beautiful and their Zinfandel is among my very favorite.  Ferrari-Carano Winery also has beautiful gardens, and Michel Schlumberger Winery also has outstanding wines and a great tour and tasting. 

The Rockpile AVA

In terms of the Rockpile AVA, Mauritson Family Winery is the winery with the most acreage of vines planted there.  I love their Rockpile Cemetary Zinfandel. They also have a nice tasting room.  There are several other wineries such as Stryker, Bella Vineyards, Seghesio, Carol Shelton, and JC Cellars that either buy Rockpile grapes from Mauritson, or have vineyards of their own.  The multitude of awards and accolades for the wines from Rockpile speak for themselves.

The Russian River Valley AVA

In general, the Russian River Valley is the region I look to for great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  The coastal influences are unique for allowing the production of a more Burgundy style of Pinot.  Having said that, I must admit that my most favorite Zinfandel comes from the Russian River Valley’s Martinelli Winery.  This is still a family owned winery and they have two flagship wines, the Jackass Hill Zinfandel, and the Giuseppe and Luisa Zinfandel.  These are both powerful, high alcohol fruit forward wines made boldly in the New World style.  Other great smaller scale wineries not to miss include Arista Winery, John Tyler Vineyards, Porter Creek Winery (a great place to try biodynamically grown wines from a Demeter certified facility), and Woodenhead.  J Vineyards, an offshoot from Jordan, also makes great Sparkling wine (they have been voted best tasting room in the west by Sunset Magazine).  The Green Valley AVA is a great place to find truly outstanding Pinot Noir, and a few of the award winning Wineries to visit include Iron Horse Vineyards, DeLoach Winery, and Dutton Estate.  Chalk Hill AVA has seen great success with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot wines and Chardonnay.  The Chalk Hill Chardonnays all have been described as having characteristic notes of tropical fruits.  A few of the wineries not to miss include Chalk Hill Estate, Rodney Strong Vineyards, Chateau Felice, and Albini Family Vineyards.

A wine and music festival at the Healdsburg Plaza

For my wife and me, we like to make Healdsburg home base when we visit, because it is the town at the center of it all.  70 miles straight up Highway 101 from San Francisco, it is easy to get to.  From there, it is quick to get to anywhere along the Wine Road.  Many wineries and winery tasting rooms are actually located in town and are easy to walk to.  This is a departure from the towns in Napa Valley where almost all the wineries are located on vast estates.  There are many Inns and Bed & Breakfasts in Healdsburg and the neighboring town of Windsor; too many to list here. 

Honor Mansion is our favorite place to stay in Northern Sonoma

Our favorite place to stay is at the Honor Mansion in Healdsburg.  It has fantastic amenities, beautiful rooms and gardens, and delicious breakfasts.  Often there is a representative from different wineries (sometimes even the winemaker!) presenting their wines to guests at the Inn each evening.  The central town square is within walking distance, and it is a big place for concerts and festivals.  The plaza is surrounded by over twenty separate tasting rooms, and fabulous restaurants. 

Cyrus Restaurant

A few of the places we have eaten at include Cyrus (a Michelin 2 star place of opulence), Ravenous (very unpretentious, but good food), Baci (also excellent food: family run and always goes the extra mile for customer satisfaction), Dry Creek Kitchen (is a Charlie Palmer Restaurant – no corkage fee if you bring a bottle of Sonoma wine in), Willi’s Seafood (Tapas style seafood menu- fantastic lobster roll), and Scopas (reminds Heather of a Manhattan style Bistro).  Also, if you haven’t drunk enough wine throughout the day, Spoonbar in the eco-sheik h2Hotel is great for after hour’s drinks.

All it takes is one visit to get hooked on the charms of Northern Sonoma County.  World class growing regions run the gamut of Old World style food friendly winemaking to New World explosions of in your face Decanter magazine fruit bombs of Cabernet and Zinfandel.  The sleepy lanes through rolling hills of biodynamically grown grapes and bustling large scale wineries will have something to inspire even the savviest connoisseur.  I would like to thank Heather, Steve, Brian, Patrick, Dan, and Beth for giving me great ideas to include in this wine travel blog.  That’s all for now.

 

Cheers,

Karl

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