White Wine Varietals

Test your wine knowledge! Answer this week's question: What is the second most planted white wine grape in California? (answer at end
Versatile and responsive to the winemaker's touch, the Chardonnay grape is the most planted world-wide, as it is easier to grow than most and can tolerate a wide range of soils and climates. Chardonnay wines range from agreeable jug wines produced from abundant vines to the finest wines brought to perfection by careful hand-thinning and labor intensive vinification. Three of the subregions in France's famed Burgundy AOC produce extraordinary wines from the grape: Côte de Beaune, Chablis and Mâconnais. But, Chardonnay from California has been steadily gaining world-wide acclaim and for good reason. The grape was our focus this week in class and our tasting was especially interesting because we had four wines to compare, instead of the usual two: a value Chardonnay from the Central Valley, two French white Burgundies, and a Sonoma Coast AVA Chardonnay.
  • 2008 Fevre Estate from Chablis is made by Bouchard Père et Fils with hand-harvested grapes. Wine Spectator gave this wine 90 points. It had the hallmark acidity and green apple flavor of French Chablis with minerality and a taste of wet stone. 
  • The 2008 Christophe Cordier Macon-Charnay "Vieilles Vignes" from Mâconnais was also brightly acidic with a strong vanilla oaked flavor, plus peachy fruit. 
  • The 2009 McManis Chardonnay is a $10 bottle of wine with "California" rather than vineyard-designated grapes, and without the intensity of the other more expensive wines, but a reasonable expression of the varietal, creamy from maloactic fermentation. Made by a family owned winery. 
  • The class loved the 2008 Fog Dog that I brought for us to try, from the Touring and Tasting's cellar. (Insider note: Touring and Tasting has a "secret cellar" of wines not in the online store plus can often procure a wine you request. So call Shannon at (800) 850-4370 ext. 100 if you're interested!) The Fog Dog displayed everything that makes (in my mind) California wine so superior. It's not just patriotism--grapes find their fullest ripeness under the California sun.  The resulting fruit balances the acidity that develops from coastal fogs. The Fog Dog Chardonnay is from artisanal, biodynamically farmed Freestone Winery in the Sonoma Coast AVA, on the border of the Russian River. The wine was big, buttery and perfectly balanced with a long silken finish and aroma of honeysuckle.
The Sauvignon Blanc grape is "green": flavors of green apple, green herbs, bell pepper and green fruit like lime, kiwi and honeydew melon are characteristics, with tropical fruit flavors developing in California wines. It thrives in France's Loire Valley and in Bordeaux, where it is often blended with Sémillon, and sometimes intentionally infected with "noble rot": the mold botrytis cinerea to make very sweet, extracted wines. In California, Sauvignon Blanc loves the cool north coast of Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino County which produce refreshing, crisp wine that pairs well with spicy foods. It's a great choice for one of California's favorite cuisines--Mexican! Robert Mondavi coined the term "Fumé blanc" in the 1960s for his bottling of the varietal. You can sample two Napa Valley Sauvignon Blancs in this week's Online Grapevine special.

Similar in DNA profile to Pinot Noir, the Pinot Gris grape is called Pinot Grigio in Italy and California, and can range in style from the big, full-flavored, full bodied wines from Alsace, France to the lighter bodied, crisp wines from coastal California, often redolent with citrus. Pinot Gris can be vinified, bottled and on the shelf ready to drink in just a month to 3 months.
Answer to our wine question: According to the latest USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service report, in 2009 90,434 acres of California farmland was planted to Chardonnay for winemaking, 24,772 to Colombard, 14,670 to Sauvignon Blanc, 8,676 to Pinot Gris.
What is Colombard? It is an easy-to-grow grape, mostly impervious to problems like rot. It develops fruit in abundance, producing up to 10 tons an acre (compared to some grapes that are kept below 1 ton per acre to maximize quality and flavor). It is used to give structure and a citrus flavor and aroma to "jug wines": simple, inexpensive wines often sold in boxes or large bottles.


September is California Wine Month

Forty years ago the world looked down its nose at American wine; today we have equalled or surpassed, in quality and reputation, countries with thousands of years of wine-making history. Americans are amazing! California has been at the forefront of this meteoric rise, ever since California wines stunned the world by beating French wines in the famous 1976 Paris Tasting. Sample a selection of red wine from the best of California and SAVE 50% with this week's Online Grapevine

 The first wine in California was produced in the chain of Spanish missions, initiated in 1769 by Father Junipero Serra, that extended 650 miles along the length of of the state. Later, as European immigrants, used to drinking wine with daily meals, came to the New World, many small home vineyards were established. Winemaking flourished during the Gold Rush, then was nearly eliminated between 1919 and 1933 with Prohibition. The years immediately after Prohibition saw the growth of cheap jug wine, but fine winemaking techniques and careful vineyard practices began to take place at wineries like BV, Souverain, Heitz and Mondavi, among many others. Choice soils, climates, and viticultural practices in California led to their domination in the 1976 Paris Tasting where the 1973 Stag Leap Cabernet Sauvignon won in a blind tasting over the 1970 Château Mouton Rothschild Pauillac Bordeaux, considered France's best red wine. The 1973 Château Montelena Chardonnay from CALIFORNIA won over the 1973 Domaine Roulot Mersault-Charmes Premier Cru. Investment and talent poured in, with the resulting explosion of great wine from Napa cult Cabs, to world-class Santa Barbara and Sonoma Pinot Noir, to award-winning Zinfandel (which many consider the quintessential American varietal) to...well, I think you get the point. American hard-work and innovation transformed our wine industry, so pour yourself a glass of California wine and toast to our success!
I missed wine class, but had the chance to try some hand-crafted wine in Santa Cruz. We had a lovely dinner at Christopher's on Lincoln in Carmel. The restaurant is casually elegant, with lovely food--nicely plated and delicious. The owner/chef came around to every table to chat with the diners, the waiter was not only humorous and affable, but very accommodating to my many culinary preferences. We had a crispy chili relleno stuffed with goat cheese, a marvelously light wild mushroom soup, freshly made pasta with seafood and a delicate tomato sauce, and my boyfriend had Muscovy duck with raspberry sauce. We tried the Cima Collina Hilltop Ranch Pinot Noir--made in Monterey by winemaker Annette Hoff--with rich flavors of berries and a bit of smoke and spice. We had a gourmet meal at a very reasonable price--I highly recommend Christopher's!
At Hoffman's Bistro and Patisserie in Santa Cruz, we had a salmon salad with a glass of the 2008 Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel--bold enough to match blackened salmon. Ridge Winery is in the Dry Creek AVA of Sonoma County, which has the cool mornings and hot afternoons to grow amazing Zinfandel redolent of cherries, berries and spice. Hoffman's was having a 50% off special that night, so we were able to taste the marvelous Lytton Springs Zin for just $18 for the half bottle!

From Shannon Ridge Vineyards and Winery, a recipe to pair with their 2007 Shannon Ridge Ranch Collection Zinfandel. Country-style ribs are slow cooked on the grill, then slathered with a spicy, sweet, citrusy BBQ sauce for a mouthwatering meal to complement their full-bodied Zin.
Pairs well with: Shannon Ridge Zinfandel
4 pounds pork country style ribs, individually cut
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup frozen orange juice concentrate, thawed
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon mustard
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon pepper
Combine everything except the ribs in a bowl and mix. Prepare grill for indirect grilling. Place ribs on grill and cook for about 60 minutes [turning occasionally to cook evenly]. Brush with sauce. Continue grilling until done. A couple of minutes before you remove the ribs from the grill brush on a heavy coating of the sauce. Watch ribs carefully to avoid burning.

  • If California was a country, it would be the fourth largest producer of wine in the world
  • Over half the AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) in the U.S. are in California (107 out of 199)
  • Napa Valley was NOT the first AVA; the first was Augusta, Missouri. Napa was the second designated AVA, in 1983.
  • Sales of Pinot Noir jumped 45% during the year after the movie "Sideways", set in Santa Barbara County, was released.
  • The vast majority of California's 4,600 vineyards and 3,000 wineries are family-owned and operated.
  • More than 110 varieties of wine grapes are grown in California.
  • The California wine industry generates 820,000 U.S. jobs.


The Greatest Vintage Bordeaux Has Ever Produced

Was the year 2000 "the greatest vintage Bordeaux has ever produced"? According to a CNN report, the critics think so: "Wine critics tend to be a notoriously demanding bunch, but if you read what they're saying about the 2000 vintage in Bordeaux you'd think they'd tasted heaven itself. Wine Spectator's James Suckling claimed that it's "the first exceptional year for a new generation in Bordeaux. Uber-critic Robert Parker has gone so far as to call it "the greatest vintage Bordeaux has ever produced."  The Independent reported that the weather was perfect, with a dry August "Août fait le mout, as they say (August determines the character of the grape juice)", allowing Cab and Petit Verdot in particular to ripen beautifully. Plus, the harvest was dry and the grape pick was nearly perfect with few stems and leaves. Touring and Tasting was asked to help "liquidate" a private wine collection of vintage French wines, including several bottles of Bordeaux from 2000. See the two Bordeaux orders available now--try this acclaimed vintage at an affordable price!
Wine class last week was enlived with Antonio Gardella's poetic passion for wine. A student asked about his experience tasting wine from the venerable Château Pétrus: "It's like a woman in a diaphanous dress with beautiful legs, ample and generous--who says yes." Bordeaux is the source of most of the wine world's most expensive bottles. In fact the highest price ever paid for one bottle was $160,000 for a 1787 bottle from Château Lafitte once owned by Thomas Jefferson, now housed in the Forbes Collection (article in Forbes). Why the acclaim for Bordeaux? Certainly part of it is in the clever marketing of futures that drives the wine prices up, but one has to credit winemaking expertise honed for hundreds of years, the ideal climate moderated by the trio of rivers (Garonne, Dordogne and Gironde), and the remarkable soil--gravel pockets in silt and clay on the Left Bank and marly limestone hills of the Right bank. The gravel of the Left Bank, along with protective pine forest, keeps the temperature warmer, best suited for Cabernet Sauvignon grapes which need the warmth to ripen properly. Faster-ripening Merlot favors the Right Bank soil and climate. All areas of Bordeaux use judicious blending to maintain consistency and optimize their wine despite variance in the quality of the individual grapes. I meet many people in the US who think that wines that are 100% of one varietal are preferable, which I don't understand since great wine has been blended for generations. The only grape varietals allowed in Bordeaux are: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenere. Antonio explained that Carmenere is rarely seen any more since Carmenere didn't take well to grafting to American rootstock after phylloxera decimated European vineyards in the 1860s (read article). Old Carmenere bineyards can be found in Chile because the soil is sandy and dry, conditions unfavorable phylloxera, as well as newer vineyards in Washington State with similar soil.

An interesting bit of wine information pertains to the mold botryitis cinerea or "noble rot" that causes grapes to partially "raisin-ize" meaning the flavors will be stronger--more extracted and the brix or sugar content elevated. It's difficult to control because other molds will cause off-tastes and keeping them out of the vineyard is difficult when spores float through the air. Growing noble rot is very labor intensive. At
Château Pétrus, the grapes are individually picked when the botryitis is optimum. They were also one of the first to practice green harvest or éclaircissage where some unripe grapes are removed to enhance the flavor of the ones that are left to ripen.

Recipe from Williams Sonoma.
4 lb. bone-in beef short ribs
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 cups all-purpose flour
3 Tbsp. olive oil, plus more as needed
2 large yellow onions, chopped
3 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 cup red wine
1 can (6 oz.) tomato paste
3 fresh thyme sprigs
2 fresh rosemary sprigs
1 bay leaf
1 to 2 cups beef stock
Season the short ribs with salt and pepper. Spread the flour out on a rimmed baking sheet. Dredge the ribs in the flour, shaking off the excess. In a Dutch oven over medium-high heat, warm the 3 Tbs. olive oil until nearly smoking. Working in batches, brown the ribs on all sides, about 10 minutes total. Transfer to a slow cooker.

Add more oil to the Dutch oven if needed. Reduce the heat to medium, add the onions, carrots and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 10 minutes. Transfer to the slow cooker. Add the wine to the Dutch oven and cook, stirring to scrape up the browned bits. Add the tomato paste, thyme, rosemary and bay leaf, mashing any large chunks of tomato paste with a spoon. Increase the heat to medium-high and cook until thickened and reduced by half, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the wine mixture to the slow cooker along with enough stock to come halfway up the sides of the ribs. Cover and cook on high for 6 hours according to the manufacturer?s instructions, stirring occasionally. Skim the fat off the sauce. Discard the herb sprigs and bay leaf. Transfer the ribs, carrots and sauce to shallow bowls or plates and serve immediately. Serves 6. Pair this recipe with one of our 2000 Bordeaux.
If you didn't take the Test Your Wine Knowledge quiz on Bordeaux, you probably aren't signed up for the free newsletter with wine discounts and recipes that I put out every week for Touring & Tasting--sign up here (no obligation to buy wine). Here's the quiz:
1. Is Bordeaux a type of grape, such as Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon?
2. What is the difference between "Left Bank" and "Right Bank" Bordeaux?
3. What was the highest price ever paid for a bottle of Bordeaux?
  a. $4, 450
  b. $6,000
  c. $25,000
  d. $160,000
4. Does mold on grapes ruin them for winemaking?
5. What vintage of Bordeaux is called "the greatest vintage Bordeaux has ever produced" by famed wine critic Robert Parker, Jr?
You should know the answers from the post above!


Wine Terminology And Why It Matters To You

"Estate-grown", "hand-picked", "bio-dynamic", "new oak"...these are some of the terms you may find in a wine's description. But, do they signify something significant or are they just catchwords for people who enjoy the minutiae of viniculture?  Chef Randy Bublitz explained to our class how these terms make a difference. Our teacher Antonio had an important winery event, so we were fortunate to have the head of the School of Culinary Arts as our substitute. Besides being well-versed in wine knowledge as an experienced chef, he also taught the wine course in the years prior to Antonio.
Green harvest (French: vendange vert): removing some of the immature green grapes during the growing season, to reduce the yield, since smaller yields produce more extracted wine. It is a labor-intensive practice and indicates great care on the part of the vineyard manager/winemaker.
Hand-picked: just like it sounds--the opposite is machine-harvested. Obviously, picking by hand allows judicious choice by the human harvester on which grapes to keep and discard. Machine harvest takes all the grapes--ripe, as well as the odd ones that are unripe and overripe.
Estate-grown: grapes are grown on the winery's acreage. Cheap jug wines use any mixture of cheap grape juice from a number of sources, they ferment it quickly and get it from vine to consumer as quickly (and cheaply) as possible to maximize profits. Estate-grown grapes signify the intention of the winemaker to capture the terroir--the taste of place--of the grape and carefully control the quality of the grape. As the saying says, "wine is made in the vineyard".
Estate-bottled: traditionally synonymous with the above, but technically the two terms are not identical. Nowadays, a winery can grow their own grapes and have an outside winemaking facility make the wine, yet bottle it as "estate-grown". Estate-bottled originally meant grown, vinified and bottled in-house, but now a winery can have a long-standing vineyard supplier for their estate-bottled wine. That being said, most wineries use these terms in their original meanings.
Bio-dynamically farmed: an organic method developed by an Austrian philosopher. There is not a consensus among wine experts on bio-dynamics; proponents believe it excels in bringing out the terroir.
Chapitillization: a French term for adding sugar to the grape juice when the brix (percentage of natural sugar) is not high enough. Illegal in California.
Cold fermentation: takes longer than fermentation at ambient temperatures (so is more expensive) but gives a smoother flavor and less natural sulfites develop.
Free run: the juice or wine that freely runs out of the skin and seeds without pressing. Pressing crushes the seeds and any stems, bringing some bitterness. Most wines are a mixture of free run and first press juice; a wine only from free-run juice would be rare and premium.
Racking and fining: racking is the process of drawing off the wine from the lees (the sediment at the bottom of the barrel consisting of yeast and grape particles); fining is the mixing in an agent such as bentonite or egg white to attract the particles which clump and drop to the bottom to make racking easier. The cheap alternative is to centrifuge the wine as large scale jug wine producers do, centrifuging removes some flavor and aroma.
New oak: most wines are aged in wood barrels; oak imparts a little spice and vanilla to the wine and gives it structure. 80% of the flavor of the oak goes out in the first use, 20% in the second, so by the third year the oak will not be lending much taste to the wine.
Made in California: 100% of the grapes have to be from California, in other states, only 75% must come from that state.
Grape varietal, e.g. "Viognier": in all US states, 75% of the grapes must be of that varietal. So, if the bottle says Merlot, it may be 25% something else. If you want a true single-varietal wine, you need to look for "100% [varietal]" on the back label. However, many high-end cult Cabs have Merlot or other grapes to soften the Cabernet Sauvignon's tannins and acidity. For some odd reason, some people look down on blends, though top Bordeaux costing thousands of dollars is a blend; Bordeaux is a region, not a grape.
AVA, e.g. "Santa Ynez": the AVA (or American Viticultural Areas) is the appellation of origin. 75% of the grapes used must be within the listed AVA.
Why does it matter where the grapes are sourced? To paraphrase the explanation of wine quality from our text from The Culinary Institute: the three objective standards to judge wine are 1) whether the wine has "varietal character" meaning are the flavor and aroma profiles true to the type of grape it contains, 2) does it express the terroir, and 3) there should be no off-flavors or aromas. So, the source of the grape is extremely important. Wine terms can help us determine much about the wine before we even sniff or savor it.

*note: my notes from Chef Bublitz lecture are supplemented with information from our excellent Culinary School class text: Steven Kolpan, Brian H. Smith and Michael A. Weiss, "Exploring Wine" Third Edition, (The Culinary Institute of America).

Vegetarians and humanitarians--save the geese and try this mellow spread. Toasted almonds round out the flavors of an herbed mushroom pâté. Pair this recipe with a classic Burgundy, like the earthy, concentrated 2004 Domaine Rossignol-Trapet Gevrey-Chambertain which is wine that is bio-dynamically farmed, hand-picked, hand-sorted, vinified for 14-18 months, then gravity racked. 


1/2 cups raw almonds
4 Tbsp. butter
2 Tbsp. minced garlic
2 cups sliced button mushrooms
2 Tbsp. half and half
2 Tbsp. fresh parsley minced + extra sprig for garnish
2 tsp. thyme
2 tsp. marjoram
1 tsp. oregano
1/8 tsp. white pepper
1 tsp. salt
Roughly chop the almonds and place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Put into the oven on a lower rack and turn on broiler. Toast the almonds, turning to brown them evenly. Toasting your almonds instead of buying pre-roasted almonds yields superior flavor. Put the almonds into your food processor.
Over medium heat, melt the butter in a large frying pan as the width will help the mushrooms cook without becoming juicy. Fry the minced garlic for a minute, then add the mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently until they are cooked through. Add them to the food processor. Add the half and half and herbs (fresh herbs are best) and blend until just mixed and still a tiny bit chunky. Adjust the seasoning if desired. Spoon into a serving dish, using a rubber spatula to smooth the surface. Garnish with a sprig of fresh parsley. Cover and refrigerate until chilled, serve with crackers and a Burgundy, such as the 2004 Domaine Rossignol-Trapet Gevrey-Chambertain, or a Barolo.


La vie est trop courte pour boire du mauvais vin

La vie est trop courte pour boire du mauvais vin -- Life is too short to drink bad wine.
In May of 2009, a heat wave dessicated Southern California chaparral. Whether it was an accident caused by "trail gnomes" or arson, a spark in the dry brush, fanned by sundowner winds gusting to 60 mph, created a sinuous dragon of fire that  engulfed the northern hills of Santa Barbara. During the evening of the 8th, the wind turned towards our "gem of the American Riviera" and fiery embers, some as large as softballs, were blown for miles into the heart of the city. For an hour or two, it looked like the town would be lost. But the blessed sea exhaled her humid breath and turned back the dragon. Not only were 80 homes destroyed in the Jesusita fire, but a little bit of Italy was reduced to ashes. The sun-dappled winery where Antonio Gardella and the Companeros made award-winning wine for 25 years was incinerated. Antonio is a rep for the Henry Wine Group, coincidentally one of the suppliers for Touring & Tasting, and is the instructor of wine at the SBCC School of Culinary Arts.
I love his class--he's so eloquent as he rhapsodizes on vitus vinifera: "go out to the vineyards and just BE with the vine...see the sun and the army of vines reaching their arms up to the sky". He exhorted us to volunteer during this harvest season, to "get purple", inhale the aromas, hear the grapes fermenting in the vats, "be one with the vine".  In our first class last week, he went over the basics of vineyard management and gave us an overview of the hundreds of varietals. The best soils are rocky, with limestone, where the vines need to fight to survive. "Vines have to struggle to be great, like a person who has to struggle to make a living has fortitude and a strength of character, vines that struggle are better." The second half of the class is a wine tasting; last week we sampled the Santa Ynez Valley 2006 Andrew Murray Viognier and the French 2006 Domaine Faury Condrieu.

Condrieu is an AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) in the Northern Rhone. It produces Viognier exclusively and once was the name by which Viognier was known for years because it was the only place where the grape was grown in any quantity. As it was, less than 30 acres of Viognier was planted in the 1980s when Fess Parker planted 48 acres, making him the largest producer of Viognier in the world. Condrieu currently has less than 300 acres planted. The grape is difficult to grow, being susceptible to mildew and disease, and it flowers earlier than most grapes, making it vulnerable to spring frost. But the pay-off is a voluptuous white wine, rich in alcohol, round in the mouth, with heady aromatics of apricot, pear and almond. Touring and Tasting has a limited amount of 2008 Challenger Ridge Viognier for sale this week!

Three remarkable French wines are in this week's Online Grapevine special: a sparkling wine, a Rosé, and Rhone blend. This week's wine pairing recipe is a French Tomato Tart: fresh tomatoes, swiss cheese and anchovies beg for a crisp, fruity, delicate wine like the Domaine Sainte Eugénie Corbières Rosé. A perfect end-of-summer wine/food pairing.
1 1/2  cups flour
1/2  cup  butter
1  large egg
4  firm-ripe tomatoes (about 1 1/2 lb.)
2  Tbsp.  Dijon mustard
2  cups  (1/2 lb.) shredded Swiss cheese
3  Tbsp.  olive oil
3  Tbsp.  tomato paste
3  Tbsp.  chopped shallots
1  clove garlic, minced
2  tsp. thyme
2  tsp.  chopped fresh marjoram or 1 tsp. dried marjoram
1  tsp. chopped fresh oregano leaves or 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
8 canned anchovy fillets, drained
6  to 8 Niçoise or Kalamata olives, pitted
Salt and pepper
CRUST: Preheat oven to 325°. In a food processor or bowl, combine flour and butter. Whirl or rub with your fingers until fine crumbs form. Add egg and whirl or stir with a fork until dough just holds together. Pat dough into a ball, then press evenly over bottom and sides of a 10-inch tart pan with removable rim. Bake until crust is pale gold, about 30 minutes (about 25 minutes in a convection oven).
FILLING: Cut tomatoes in half and gently squeeze out seeds. Cut tomatoes crosswise into 1-inch-thick slices, and lay on towels to drain. Save ends. Remove baked crust from oven and turn oven to 400°. Spread mustard over bottom of crust, then sprinkle evenly with 1 1/2 cups of the cheese. Fit largest tomato slices snugly in a single layer on cheese. Cut remaining tomato slices into pieces to fill the gaps; reserve extra tomato pieces for other uses. Sprinkel with salt and pepper. In a small bowl, mix oil to blend with tomato paste, shallots, garlic, thyme, marjoram, and oregano. Spread over tomatoes. Sprinkle with remaining cheese. Arrange anchovies and olives on tomatoes. Bake until cheese is lightly browned, about 25 minutes (about 18 minutes in a convection oven). Remove pan rim and serve while warm.
Life is too short to drink bad wine--and too short not to appreciate our blessings. Surviving the Jesusita fire made Santa Barbarans appreciate our friends and our firefighters!