Thursday, December 22, 2011

Terrasses du Larzac: The Best Appellation You've Never Heard Of

It’s hard to sell people on wines from the Languedoc. For so long this area has been known for high-production, low-quality wines mostly made by cooperatives, and most discerning consumers have no interest in these creations. And with the exception of Mas de Daumas Gassac and a couple other luminary wineries the area has been devoid of quality winemakers and lacking any real attention from consumers. But things have changed recently, and the creation of the Terrasses du Larzac appellation is the confirmation of that change. I know it’s a funky name, but the Terrasses du Larzac appellation is probably making the best red wines you’ve never heard of.

The Terrasses du Larzac appellation, once simply known as a “terroir” within the massive and heterogeneous Coteaux du Languedoc appellation, was created in 2005 for red wines mostly made with Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache - the holy trinity of red Rhône valley varietals. Like so many other favored appellations of the wine world, Terrasses du Larzac is blessed with several naturally positive climatic characteristics that make it exceptional. The appellation is at a relatively high altitude for the area, it’s well sheltered, and it enjoys proximity to the temperature-moderating influence of the sea. These factors often create a recipe for long growing seasons and balanced acidity that make for both intensity and length in the finished wines from the region.

Many wines from this area show the intensity and depth that can be matched by reds from other appellations of the wine world, but few other regions can pack such a level of refinement, persistence and refreshment into their wines. That's right, refreshment. For instance, Mas Jullien’s (http://www.madrose.com/masjullienprint.html) flagship Terrasses du Larzac bottling is an outrageous and delicious bargain vis-à-vis other flagship wines of the appellation. The counterpoint displayed between rich flavors of cassis and tart/savory flavors of cranberries and herbs is amazing. The intensity is all there, along with the refreshment that makes you long for another sip. Producers in the area like La Peira, Chateau de Jonquieres, Les Clos du Serres and many others are making inspired wines from the region, as well.

Do yourself a favor and treat yourself to a bottle from the appellation sometime soon. By putting a glass of red from Terrasses du Larzac under your nose you’ll be discovering anew a great appellation that’s been under your nose the whole time...so to speak.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Cornas: Big and Beautiful

Article first published as Cornas: Big and Beautiful on Technorati.

Last week I decided to commit what I thought would be hollow vinous infanticide and crack open a bottle of 2009 Cornas from an up-and-coming producer, Domaine du Coulet. The bottle hadn’t been in our wine shop for more than two hours before I took the leap and pulled the cork. As the cork was finally released from its station in the neck of the bottle I thought to myself “this thing is going to be burly and undrinkable. What have I done?”

After all, this was a bottle of Cornas! Though the 2009 vintage in the northern Rhône was a warm one, allowing winemakers the option of crafting opulent styles wines, the Syrah-based wines of the Cornas appellation always demand bottle age and are rarely described as opulent. What kind of fool would crack a bottle of the latest vintage of Cornas, the burly appellation of the northern Rhône? My kind of fool, as it turned out.

Once the wine was poured into the glass and spun around for a minute numerous layers of aromas and flavors began to emerge. Everything from violets to leather, dark plum to cedar, black licorice to burnt tobacco, and iron to charcoal flooded the senses as this painfully young and promising wine coated the palate and lingered forever on the finish. My co-worker Justin exclaimed that it was the best Syrah he’d ever had, and I could understand his enthusiasm…the stuff was truly awesome, in the real sense of the word.

Though the 2009 vintage was a warm one in the northern Rhône, and in Cornas in particular, this wine boasted a spine of acidity that lent freshness and balance to an impossibly large frame. Further, and most importantly for me, the wine wasn’t marred by the exaggerated use of new oak that chokes the beauty out of so many young wines throughout the world. This syrah was densely packed and exuberant, but it was all there in balance. As I sipped and chewed on this beauty of a wine it took me back to my 2003 tour through French wine country; the wine had me thinking about my day spent in Cornas and about what makes the appellation special.

The granite soils and continental climate of the amphitheatre-like Cornas appellation, named for the sun-baked village of Cornas, make for some powerful wines. Much of the area’s vineyards are terraced and sun-drenched, and there is a wide range of winemaking styles and techniques. Though the rough and rustic reputation of the appellation’s wines is based on the creations of traditional winemakers of forty years ago (Clape, Verset, etc.), today there are several producers making more approachable expressions (Allemand, Colombo, etc.) of the Syrah grape in Cornas. But regardless of whether the grapes of Cornas are being manipulated by traditionalists or modernists the power of the black wines of the appellation is always in evidence.

In the end, I loved experiencing the power and impressive balance of that 2009 Cornas. I’m glad I threw caution to the wind and prematurely cracked what I thought could be an undrinkable and rough bottle of wine. Though the bottle was originally earmarked for a decade-plus sojourn through time gaining complexity in my home cellar, I feel the experience of examining a dazzling and monstrous wine in its youth was worth the price of admission…especially considering the wine left in the bottle tasted better and better for each of the next four days. Now that’s some staying power!

What’s the moral of the story? The next time you’re inclined to put a bottle in a cool place for a long time consider popping the cork instead, you may get to enjoy a very pleasant surprise.

Nathan Frye, CWE,CS,CSS
Grapes Wine Market & Spirits

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Saison for Every Season

Article first published as A Saison for Every Season on Technorati.

My cousin is a homebrewer. Not the kind of homebrewer whose products are shots in the dark usually resulting in undrinkable shlock. He is a homebrewer who in two short years is making top-notch renditions of several traditional beers styles on a regular basis.

My cousin and I spent Thanksgiving together tasting through a number of Belgian beers and worthy American riffs on those Belgian styles. For instance, we had sour beers from Belgium and Cali, tripel-style beers from Belgium and Missouri, and several saison-style beers from Belgium, Cali, Colorado and Missouri. It was a good night.

As we tasted through our bounty of beer I couldn't help but notice that the true Belgian saisons in the group were utterly impressive. Even though we were dining at 8,500 in chilly Woodland Park, Colorado, I wasn't compelled to opt for the heavier beers that most might gravitate toward when the leaves have fallen and snow is on the ground. No, I stuck with the saisons after we'd tasted through the entire gamut of beer in front of us.

Saison beers are made with pale malts and usually have a decent dose of Belgian (and sometimes English) hop varieties, but the hoppy influence is far less than what you would find in an American IPA - these hops are for balance and preservation, not for assualt (not to insinuate that I don't love me some American IPA-ness). Traditionally these beers were brewed via fairly warm fermentations in the spring to supply a simple and refreshing beverage for Wallonians sweating in the summer heat. As an aside, Belgium's region of Wallonia (http://www.eurotunnel.com/uk/inspiration/ideas/wallonia/) is an oh-so-enticing short trip away from Paris, so next time you're in the neighborhood...

But I digress. Why were those saison beers we had on Thanksgiving so impressive? Three reasons. First, each had a degree of spicy, even peppery, character that worked to help warm our chilly bones.

Second, the aforementioned spiciness of the saison beers worked in conjunction with their balanced levels of hops to refresh the palate regardless of the fact that a couple of the beers were over 9% abv - this factor of refreshment kept me coming back for another sip, and kept me primed to engaged my next bite of food. Saison is great food beer - remember that, if nothing else.

Third, the Belgian versions of saison that we enjoyed, and we had four of them, had a distinct sense of terroir that we wine nerds spout about when we encounter wines that really have a sense of place. Terroir exists in other products, too - for instance, cheese and beer. Though the American versions of saison were very good, you could tell that they weren't born of the same place that the pack of Belgian saisons hailed from...what can I say?

My cousin has yet to brew a saison, but he said it's next on his docket. I'll keep you in the loop when he opens a commercial brewery, I have a feeling a saison-style beer will be part of his stable of beers. Until then, head out to your local beer store or pub and sip a saison, you'll be glad you did.

Nathan Frye, CWE, CS, CSS
Grapes Wine Market & Spirits

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Gift of Wine - Way Better Than a Gift Card

Article first published as The Gift of Wine – Way Better Than a Gift Card on Technorati.

There are so many opportunities to give gifts this time of year that it boggles the mind, or at least it challenges the average shopper. How many times have you been out and about trying to conceive of what kind of gift to purchase for someone only to balk and go with a gift certificate or something else equally banal? Well, I’m here to tell you that there is an easy remedy for this situation, at least when you’re buying for adults – that remedy is wine.

Think about it, wine is celebratory. It has an affinity for the dinner table, a social lubricant, classy, ubiquitous in our culture and media, and as statistics prove wine consumption in the United States is currently at its highest level ever! Face it, wine makes a great gift these days.

Consider how versatile the world of wine is at this stage in history, and what it can mean to have so many fantastic options available to you. Never before have wine-loving Americans had such a wide and diverse range of vino available to them in the American marketplace. In the wine store I manage, for instance, one can buy everything from a French muscadet to an aglianico from Taurasi; a pinot noir from Central Otago to an amigne from Vetroz; a roussanne from McLaren Vale to a viura from Rioja. The possibilities are endless, which means there are many opportunities for you to dazzle someone with the gift of a bottle of wine made with a fashionable varietal from an interesting new region.

Further, unlike many of today’s anonymous consumables, every quality wine has a place of origin and a story it’s just waiting for someone to discover. Wine geeks like me and my friends can spend hours talking about the climate, soil, vintage conditions, winemaking techniques, etc. that were instrumental in helping to craft a given wine from a given producer in a given year. Uncovering and discussing these details can be half the fun of drinking a bottle of wine, even if the level of geekery is less than full blown.

So before you concede to apathy and go reaching for that lame gift certificate think about buying a bottle of wine for that special someone. Each bottle has a lot to offer its recipient besides just a fine beverage, and the recipient will remember who brought them such a unique and satisfying gift…and that can’t hurt. Do your friends and family really need another gift card anyway?

Nathan Frye, CWE, CS, CSS
Grapes Wine Market & Spirits

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Just One Look - The Appearance of Wine

Article first published as Just One Look - The Colors of Wine on Technorati.

Most people don’t realize that one can glean a great deal of information about a wine before one ever smells or tastes it…but it’s true. Once a wine has been poured into your glass, a visual observation of that vinous beverage can relate to you many things about what you’ll soon be imbibing if you keep in mind the information in this blog post.

Clarity of a wine is the first visual consideration. Most “sound” still wines will be clear, in that they don’t have any haze or flocculation (things floating in the wine). However, there are sound still wines that can have a slight haze, these are wines that have been bottled unfiltered, and sometimes the fact that the wine is unfiltered will appear on the bottle’s label to remove any doubt. Wines that have considerable haze can often be relating to you that they contain a fault – wine casse, for instance, will display itself as a discoloration or turbidity in a wine that indicates high levels of copper or iron, though instances of this fault are extremely rare in the vast majority of commercial wines. Wine casse is only one of dozens of potential faults in a wine (http://www.bcawa.ca/winemaking/flaws.htm).

Intensity of color can indicate a couple of important things to the wine enthusiast, both of which are intertwined – extraction and vintage characteristics. Low intensity of color in a red wine, for instance, can indicate that extraction of color from the grape skins was not vigorous during the winemaking process and/or that the grapes used to make the wine were from a cool vintage that didn’t allow for typical levels of color development in the grapes.

The actual color of a wine can be an indicator of the varietal used to make a wine and the age of a wine. Petit Verdot, for instance, is essentially always very dark purple/black in color, where it would take a miracle to make a deep and dark Gamay. The more wines you blind taste and the more you study the color tendencies of varietals, the more the color of a wine will impart to you. Also, as red wines age they drop their coloring material (anthocyanins and other compounds) which become bottle deposit. This constant and gradual sloughing of coloring material forces red wines to grow lighter in color as they age. White wines are just the opposite, as they become darker in color as they age.

There are other visual factors to consider, too. The older a wine becomes the more gradation there will be from the center of the wine toward the rim of the wine – hold the wine at a 45 degree angle in front of a white surface to best examine this phenomenon. Once you take this factor to heart, if someone hands you what they say is a 50-year old Pauillac and it is one solid color from the core of the wine to the rim of the wine, you can call them a liar. Also, a slight ‘spritz’ in a still wine can indicate excess carbon dioxide, usually due to an early bottling, which is not considered a fault. Finally, ‘legs’ or ‘tears’ can be meaningful in assessing the relative sweetness or alcohol level of a wine, but in no way at all indicate the quality level of a wine…and you can take that fact to your next dinner party.

Just think about all that we’ve learned on how to evaluate a wine, and we haven’t even smelled it yet!


Nathan Frye, CWE, CS, CSS
Grapes Wine Market & Spirits

Friday, November 4, 2011

Mendoza Wine Touring Tips

Living as a wine expert, educator and writer in Mendoza, Argentina for the better part of year I was able to tour numerous wineries. There are now dozens of wineries in and around the city of Mendoza making great wines and upping the bar of quality every year, and I was able to enjoy the fruits of their labor on several occasions. There are a handful of quality touring companies, my favorite being http://www.mendozawinetours.com, though there are others. But almost all of the time I went on tours of my own construction and did pretty well on my own. Throughout the period of time I lived in Argentina I gleaned a few worthwhile tips about touring Mendoza’s wineries and I figure it’s time to pass those along to you.

First, don’t drive. Mendocinos drive like crazy people, so conducting an automobile around town is challenging enough. But if there is potential for you to cop a buzz tasting wine, it’s smart to leave the driving to a local with experience – that’s where remises come in. A remise is similar to a taxi, but can be thought of as a private car for hire. There are hundreds of them in Mendoza and most are willing to book an entire day to cart you and up to three other people around to Mendocino wineries, and the rates are amazingly affordable these days. For under $200, including tip, you can spend the whole day with what is essentially your own private winery chauffer! That’s as low as $50 per person for a full day of worry-free winery fun! You plan the route and they do the driving; they’ll even pick you up and drop you off at home.

Second, call ahead to the wineries you intend to visit. Sometimes people forget that the whole world does not operate like America. Things are slowly changing in Mendoza, in Argentina and in South American wine regions in general as more wineries are creating public tasting rooms that are open on a regular basis. However, this change is slow and even non-existent in some areas. A smart wine tourist will map out the following day’s adventure and call ahead to the wineries to make sure they will be open and that someone will be there to host them; whether that means a tasting, a tour and tasting, or something even more detailed or special. Arriving at a highly-anticipated winery only to find that its employees are on holiday, closed for siesta or closed just because they feel like it (and that does happen) will quickly bring major disappointment to what could have been a great day of wine touring.

Third, be familiar with the wineries and their products - this goes for wine touring in any area. Most wineries receive tourists and the majority of them have a person or persons to act as a liaison between winery and wine tourist. These liaisons, or tour guides, spend most of their days offering their services to people who have interest in wine, though most of these wine tourists have little knowledge of wine in general or of the products made by a given winery. It’s easy for a tour guide to get jaded going through the same speech about the same things and being asked the same stupid questions. But, the glaze on that tour guide’s eyes will quickly disappear when they get an informed question or two about specific products, vineyards, varietals, etc. that their winery deals with, and you can be the person to pose those questions. You’d be surprised at the extra pour, free schwag or friendly smile you’ll receive from your tour guide when you show that you really took the time to learn a thing or two about the winery they represent. 

Take these tips to heart when you tour Mendoza wine country and you’ll be a happy camper…er, wine tourist. 

Nathan Frye, CWE, CS, FWS
Grapes Wine Market

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Wineries and Vanity - Could I Be Wrong?

Article first published as Wineries and Vanity - Could I Be Wrong? on Technorati.

I buy wine for a specialty wine retailer, and I’ve been buying wine for one establishment or another for over 17 years. I’ve purchased a lot of wine during that time, and during that time I’ve built up quite a bit of curiosity and resentment toward the advantaged pricing structure and preferential treatment that wine wholesalers show restaurant wine buyers. Why on earth should restaurateurs pay less than retailers for the same bottle purchased from the same wine wholesaler? In trying to answer that question let’s consider a few things.

First, consider that wine retailers sell one hell of a lot more wine than restaurants do. Many more people will shop in a wine store on a given day than will consume wine at lunch or dinner, so the rate of purchase/consumption in restaurants can safely be described as very low versus that same rate among those visiting wine shops to buy their bottles. Obviously, wine wholesalers end up making much more money doing business with retail shops than restaurants…so why do they give restaurant wine buyers preferential treatment?

Second, the profit margins that restaurants build into wine are tantamount to highway robbery, to put it nicely. Much of a restaurant’s profit, at least in Colorado, is derived from beverage mark-ups because mark-ups on food are less easily disguised. The mark-up on a single bottle of wine can be anywhere from two to five times as much as the wholesale price that the restaurant paid the wholesaler for the bottle - ridiculous.

Not only is a wine lover held hostage by a restaurant’s wine pricing as they dine, but those who go ahead and spring for a grossly overpriced bottle of wine to pair with their meal end up paying at least double what they would for that exact same bottle had they purchased it from a wine retailer. What’s more, in the majority of cases the wine on the restaurant’s list is the same vintage that is currently available on retailer’s shelves; rarely can an argument be made that the higher price of a restaurant’s bottle is to compensate for the cellaring equity the bottle represents.

The fact is, for the average customer, buying wine ‘A’ in a restaurant is much more financially prohibitive than buying wine ‘A’ in a retail shop, proving that retail stores offer preferable access to wine from a customer’s financial point of view. These things would suggest that retail shops would have a higher level of importance to wholesalers than restaurants do, but this is not borne out in reality…so, again, why do they give restaurant wine buyers preferential treatment?

Third, the diner-sommelier relationship can be a difficult one. Sometimes diners end up swallowing (pun intended) the wine recommendation given by a sommelier, but a diner’s feelings of ignorance surrounding the subject of wine, the diner’s need to avoid feeling taken advantage of, or even the diner’s skepticism surrounding the sommelier’s abilities can be at the root of unease between the diner and the sommelier.

A friend of mine, a well-educated wine person who used to work as a sommelier and currently works for a wine wholesaler explained the diner-sommelier relationship to me like this, “a lot of diners are intimidated, or figure that they’re getting screwed or being up-sold by sommeliers, so diners often end up ordering a name on the wine list that they recognize in order to avoid the sommelier or the sommelier’s suggestions.” Now, I’m not claiming that things always go this way in a restaurant, but a meal-long relationship with a sommelier is more enduring and potentially challenging than a short exchange with a wine specialist at a retail wine shop.

The length of an exchange at a retail shop is easily dictated by the consumer, it’s usually brief, and often there is plenty of objective information provided right next to a given bottle in the form of ‘shelf talkers’ that list critics’ ratings and reviews. So, the retail wine purchasing environment provides objective and information-rich, short interactions, controlled by the consumer. It’s hard not to think that retail interactions when buying wine are more consumer-friendly than restaurant interactions, which ultimately benefits the wholesaler via the sales of the retailer. So, one more time, why do wine wholesalers give restaurant wine buyers preferential treatment?

In the end, retailers push much more wine, at much lower prices, to many more people, and do not present the encumbrance of the potentially contentious sommelier-customer relationship. Yet wine wholesalers still give preferential treatment and pricing to restaurant wine buyers.


I asked this question to a wine broker not too long ago (wine brokers are those who represent one or more wineries and act as a liaison between the winery and wine wholesaler, often offering sales support and other benefits), and the broker said that it was the wineries themselves who make restaurants a priority. Regardless of the fact that retailers sell the vast majority of most wineries’ products, those who own wineries choose to offer price breaks to their wholesalers to pass along to restaurants. Not to retailers.

Does this make rational business sense? Restaurants sell less wine, sell wine at higher prices with much higher mark-ups, and sell wine to far fewer people than retailers, but wineries direct their wine wholesalers to give restaurants preferred pricing while thumbing their noses at retailers…the same retailers whose wine sales to the consumer are keeping those wineries viable as business entities.
Why would wineries do this, you ask? Vanity, I say. They crave the opportunity to say “our wines are poured at Blah de Blah restaurant, don’t you think we’re the bee’s knees?” and have someone respond “yes…yes, you are.” Vanity. What else could it be? You tell me. 

Nathan Frye, CWE, CS, CSS
Grapes Wine Market & Spirits

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Green Spain and Albarino…viva la diferencia!

Article first published by Nathan Frye as Green Spain and Albarino…Viva la Diferencia! on Technorati.

Few typical tourists visiting Spain make the northwestern portion of the country a priority on their journeys, besides perhaps those on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Wine tourists usually spend their time in and around Barcelona; exploring the Cava country within the region of Penedes to sip sparkling wine, tromping on the grey/blue llicorella soils of the Priorat region, or taking a trip north of Barcelona to flirt with the French border around the region of Ampurdan-Costa Brava.

Other wine explorers visiting Spain will opt for Madrid as a home base; rolling through Toro, Rueda and Ribera del Duero en route to Rioja to take in the most heralded of Spanish wine regions before looping back to the nation’s capital. Few have the time or inclination to make a trip to Spain’s northwestern corner, and even fewer make it to Rias Baixas. Though the Portuguese influence, the Celtic past and the profoundly green surroundings of the region belie one’s typical notion of Spain, those who make their winery touring base in the heart of ‘green’ Spain are able to discover some of the most beautiful and unique wines in the world.

The wine region of Rias Baixas has long been subject to the sea, as it’s the only Spanish wine region which is in part situated smack on the Atlantic. Even the name Rias Baixas, meaning ‘low estuaries’, indicates that the sea’s touch has never been far away from this region’s vineyards.  The sandy, alluvial soils that have been washed to rest over the area’s granite subsoil have become the spiritual home of one of the world’s great white grapes – Albarino.

Wines labeled “Rias Baixas” must contain at least 75% Albarino, while those labels stating the word “Albarino” are always 100% varietal. The heavy rainfall and relatively high humidity of the Rias Baixas region can whip up a nasty mix of viticultural challenges, but amiable vintage conditions can make for sparklingly brilliant expressions of the Albarino grape.

This pseudo-aromatic varietal is rarely effusive enough to be obnoxious, often revealing a delicate floral character that leads to flavors of peach, lime, young apple and citrus. All the while an ineffable, tangy, pleasantly bracing mineral quality is able to drive home the point that the brilliance and versatility of good quality Albarino from Rias Baixas is something to be appreciated. That appreciation can easily be soaked in by those who love wine, and by those who endeavor to enjoy the fine white wine and lighter fare of the area.

Very fortunately, when you visit Rias Baixas the ‘lighter fare’ is right there! Most manners of fish and shellfish find an instant foil in the Albarino grape, and most of the goods captured from the sea are sold directly to the local restaurants or fish market patrons – no one is flying any sushi into this part of the world! 

In truth, there’s an uncanny beauty in the ability of signature varietal wines from a given area to have a sympathy and affinity for the foods of that given area, and the wines and food of Rias Baixas certainly display that harmony. Fresh and authentic are beautiful.

So, don’t think twice if you’re inclined to explore Spain’s Atlantic coast on your next sojourn to Europe. The diversity of Rias Baixas versus the rest of Spain’s warmer frontier is remarkable, and the bounty of Spain’s northwest is undeniable – when a swig of fresh and crisp Albarino meets the brine and texture of a fresh Galician sea scallop, it’s something to behold. 

Nathan Frye, CWE, CS, CSS
Grapes Wine Market & Spirits

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A Question of Altitude

Living in Denver we often hear of opposing sports teams having to battle the rigors of high altitude when they come into town to play one of our hometown teams. Our local teams are perceived as having some sort of advantage over teams from lower altitude areas, but it’s hard to say definitively whether our local teams’ familiarity with high altitude living really allows them to put out a higher quality effort. I’ve had positive experiences with many wines made with what vintners call “high altitude grapes”, and so I decided to look at the phenomenon a bit more closely.

As it turns out, many vintners around the world are now investigating the characteristics of grapes grown at high altitude to try and determine if high altitude viticulture and high quality winegrapes are synonymous, even though grapes have no interest in sports, as far as we know.

Mendoza, Argentina and its flagship Malbec grape have become the poster children for high altitude viticulture in the last decade. The most revered of wine producing families, the Catenas, have been researching the benefits of high altitude viticulture for a long time, and they even have a research and development department who focus deeply on high altitude viticulture.

The vineyards researched by Catena range from 2,300 to 4,500 feet – significantly higher than most of the world’s vineyards. However, the concept of high altitude is really a moving target – there are vineyards lying in northern Argentina which are nearing the 10,000 foot level of altitude, while some California winemakers refer to 1,000 foot hillside vineyards as high altitude. The Orange region of Australia has vineyards ranging up to 3,000 feet while vintners in Italy’s Trento province plant on hillsides ranging from 750 to over 2,000 feet…I suppose it’s all relative.

Catena’s research has shown that the sunlight intensity enjoyed by high altitude vineyards works to enhance carotenoids, which are responsible for sweet floral smells, and aromas of black tea and tobacco in Malbec. Also, high altitude grapes tend to develop thicker skins which equal a greater density of tannin in the grapeskin, and potentially higher tannin levels in the wine made from those grapes. Among these increased tannins in high altitude grapes is a higher amount of polymeric tannins, which allows for a highly structured yet refined mouthfeel – and that sounds good to me.

Of course, there are many high altitude advantages besides the impact of heightened sunlight intensity on grapes. Higher altitudes mean lower temperatures which retard sugar ripeness in grapes while allowing the development of complex flavors. In addition, photosynthesis is more efficient, and lower nocturnal temperatures allow less vine respiration which maintains higher acid levels in the grapes, which often translates into a fresher and better-balanced wine.

But it’s not all sunbeams and lollipops, high altitude vintners have to battle a host of potential challenges. The high cost of high altitude vineyards development and management, heavy soil erosion, variable soil fertility, lower overall yields (there is an average crop loss of about 12 ounces per vine for every 300 feet in increased altitude), high frost risk and the higher potential for extreme weather events can all serve to discourage those looking to the hills to plant their vineyards. But even with these challenges more and more people engage in establishing and studying high altitude vineyards every year, and in most cases it’s hard to argue with the results.

Nathan Frye, CWE, CS, FWS
Grapes Wine Market

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Washington Wine Country, So Shiny and New

Washington State’s wine industry has grown in leaps and bounds over the last twenty years, and has exploded over the last decade in particular, making Washington the second most prolific wine producing state in our union. From 1984, Washington’s wine industry had happily chugged along with just three AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) until the funky Puget Sound AVA was established in 1995, for some reason. This odd AVA is home to more winery headquarters than vineyards, and encompasses the entire Puget Sound from the city of Olympia all the way up to the Canadian border.

The Puget Sound AVA is known for producing some pinot noir grapes along with several hybrid varietals that can tolerate the cool climate and unique conditions of the area. Only about 1% of the state’s grapes are grown in this AVA, and frankly, I’d bet that most people would rather enjoy the scenery of the area than the wine made from the grapes grown here. At this point, I do have to give a shout out to FishTalk Vineyard…what a name! Are you serious? Wow. Brave.

It wasn’t until 2001 that forward-thinking members of the Washington wine industry successfully lobbied for and achieved the establishment of the Red Mountain AVA, which is actually situated inside of the Yakima Valley AVA (Yakima Valley is Washington State’s first AVA, established in 1983). Such top wineries as Col Solare, Hedges and Kiona are located in the small Red Mountain AVA known for its Cabernet and Merlot born of the gravelly, calcareous soil of the area.

The birth of the Red Mountain AVA was the beginning of a renaissance of sorts when it came to identifying, developing and establishing the unique and interesting terroirs being discovered and exploited by Washington state winemakers in the new millennium. Since 2001, Columbia Gorge (one of Washington’s AVAs that actually dips into Oregon), Horse Heaven Hills (home to only a few wine producers, one of which is the prolific Columbia Crest winery), Wahluke Slope (there are only 2 wineries established here right now!?) and Rattlesnake Hills have been established, the latter becoming an official AVA in 2006.Of course, Snipes Mountain (over 30 wineries source grapes from this AVA) and Lake Chelan (16 member wineries) were created in 2009, continuing to fuel the movement toward a more diverse set of AVAs in the state.

There is plenty of reason to be excited by the creation of these new AVAs in Washington State. Each new AVA represents an area unique enough to be recognized as distinct from the areas that surround it, and those types of distinctions have been needed in Washington State for a while. For instance, new AVAs that have been established within the gargantuan Columbia Valley AVA, which contains nearly 12 million acres of land, serve to subdivide this laughably expansive and heterogeneous wine growing zone into much smaller zones that now have the opportunity to showcase their true uniqueness vis-à-vis the rest of Columbia Valley.

Fans of American wine have much to look forward to as the producers within these newer AVAs continue to understand the character of their grapes and cultivate the character of their wines. Lovers of tasty wine should keep an eye glued to the most northwesterly of our lower 48 states; the renaissance in Washington wine is starting to shift into high gear. 


Nathan Frye, CWE, CS, FWS
Grapes Wine Market

Friday, September 23, 2011

Belgian Beer and Food: A Brief Exploration

Belgian beer is the real deal. There is such a specialized diversity of brewed products in Belgium that it boggles the mind. Everything from tart fruit-based Lambic styles to heavily malted Trappist brews have centuries of history and throngs of enthusiasts behind them.

It’s clear that Belgian beer is tasty, and can certainly be enjoyed on its own, but what to do when the urge strikes to drink a Belgian beer at mealtime? Let’s explore some of the Belgian beer style categories and some food pairing suggestions so we can deal with the possibility of that striking Belgian beer urge.

We’re nearing the end of the season for drinking White Beer (Blanche), but the seasons alone do not control our beer drinking autonomy. This wheat beer style is light, aromatic and usually spiced to some degree. Rich, nutty cheeses are a great pairing here, and this Blanche/nutty cheese combination can serve as a wonderful appetizer course.

Golden or Blonde ales are a wide stylistic category that tend to be lighter in color than many of their Belgian brethren. However, some styles can be mightily high in alcohol, dry-hopped, and even occasionally oaked, so it’s best to do a bit of research before making your purchase so you know what you’re getting. Mid-weight chicken and pork dishes often match well with this style; throw in some grilled potatoes and root vegetables and you’ll be a happy camper. If you dare to mow your lawn while drinking a Belgian beer this would be a good category to explore while primping the back yard for the last few times this year.

Flanders, one of the three official regions of Belgium, has long been known for its oaked, sour Red Beers that bring a sort of sweet/tart flavor to the palate. These pair extraordinarily well with sharp cheeses, grilled meats and even big salty pretzels! Yum.

Lambic style beer usually shocks, amazes and delights first time tasters. This style is produced by spontaneous fermentation undertaken by ambient yeast that resides southwest of Brussels, the major contributor being a local Belgian strain of Brettanomyces. The liquid resulting from this unusual fermentation is a dry, bracingly sour, almost cider-like beverage that is often flavored with fruit syrups, though the best are flavored with real fruit. These products are magical when paired with fresh fruit which echoes the tartness of the beverage; Lambics also work very well with less-sweet fruit-based desserts.

True trappist beers and abbey ales are made in a wide range of styles, and therefore the category as a whole is difficult to pair with food, but you can count on these types of beers working well with hearty fare. Big, salty, savory dishes will compliment the inherent weight of beers in this category – think about a big hunk of steak with your next Belgian Dubbel.

Now that Fall is here, it’s time to explore the world of bigger Belgian beer styles.

Nathan Frye, CWE, CS, FWS
Grapes Wine Market

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Do You Do Bojo Cru?

Though Beaujolais is a well-known region of the wine world there are few who would say that the vinous products of this region are regularly exciting or thought-provoking. With the world’s finest pinot noir and chardonnay being grown not too far to the north, and the world’s finest syrah and grenache being grown not too far to the south, the gamay grape that dominates the region of Beaujolais is very easy to overlook.

Buuuuut, this is that point in history when you need to stop overlooking the wines of Beaujolais, and the wine from the 10 ‘cru’ of Beaujolais in particular, in order to broaden your exposure to the great wines of the world. The fact is, the 2009 vintage smiled upon Beaujolais  - the Wine Spectator has called the vintage “one of the best vintages on record” in the region and the King of Beaujolais,  mister Georges Dubeouf, was quotes as saying the 2009 Beaujolais vintage was “the best vintage of my lifetime”; these are no small declarations.
Though there was some good Beaujolais Nouveau, Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages produced in 2009, just as a rising sea raises all vessels, the stars of the show in this heralded vintage were certainly the 10 ‘cru’ Beaujolais areas that sit in the northernmost part of the Beaujolais appellation. 

As Master of Wine Jancis Robinson puts it, the wines from these 10 areas were long ago considered “so distinctive, and so good, that they have earned their own appellations” apart from the whole of the rest of Beaujolais. Among those ten areas, wines with names like Morgon, Brouilly and Moulin-a-Vent should be on your Bojo cru shopping list. Usually they will not have the word “Beaujolais” along with their cru names on the labels, so it’s good to do a bit of research or to ask a knowledgeable wine person about Bojo cru before you pick up a bottle.

The cru Beaujolais – not grand cru, or premier cru…just cru – of 2009 are richer than in most vintages, but the best still retain a refreshing edge of acidity that cleanses the palate and helps these wines to work well with food. Many cru Beaujolais exhibit flavors of cherry, red currant and raspberry along with light spice and pepper tones, though the aromatic and palate-realized intensity of these components differs from cru to cru, producer to producer. The best producers use very little oak and allow these wines to shine on their own. However, that bold (or crazy) minority of vintners who believe their cru Beaujolais destined to be relatively long-lived will abuse their wines by slathering them with oak…never a good thing in my book.

It could be time to consider picking a bottle up before the sunshine of September gives way to the chill of October…’cause when it’s chilly out a Bojo cru may not do…hey, that rhymed!

Nathan Frye, CWE, CS, FWS
Grapes Wine Market

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Greek Wine Is Strange

Greek wine is strange. Most Americans realize that Greece makes wine, but few Americans have consumed much, and those that have delved into a bottle of Greek wine usually have a war story to tell about being shocked at the flavor of a Retsina (Retsina wines are ‘aromatized’ by pine tar…an acquired taste, to be sure, but I hear that super-fresh Retsina consumed in Greece with strongly-flavored grilled vegetables or used in gin-based drinks can be pleasant).

I’m here to tell you that there is much more to Greek wine than Retsina; there is a world of indigenous Greek varietals that are starting to be truly valued and skillfully spun into excellent wines. The last decade has seen an increase in quality Greek wine production and in American imports of these items, and these days we get to enjoy the best of them. But before running in to Grapes Wine Market to buy a bottle of Greek vino, why don’t we get a handle on the four most important indigenous Greek varietals – Moschofilero, Assyrtiko, Agioritiko and Xinomavro.

Moschofilero (mohs-ko-FEE-lehro) is known mostly because of the wines produced with the grape in the Peloponnesia region in southern Greece. This grape makes an aromatic white that features crisp acidity – a somewhat rare combination in white wines. Many Greek wine experts describe Moschofilero’s aromatics as being somewhat Gewurztraminer-esque without the massive body, high alcohol, and potentially sweet characteristics of the Gewurztraminer grape.

Assyrtiko (uh-SEEHR-tea-ko) is my favorite Greek grape and is often cited as the ‘most noble’ of the indigenous Greek varietals. The term ‘most noble’ is cool and all, but I didn’t hop the Assyrtiko bandwagon to be cool. The best examples are born of the phylloxera-safe volcanic soil (it’s not just phylloxera-free, it’s phylloxera-safe, meaning that the hyper-destructive root louse phylloxera couldn’t exist in these soils even if it could get to them) of Santorini. This grape is known for its high sugar content (which translates to high potential alcohol and full body) and its high acidity. Assyrtiko is not an aromatic varietal like Moschofilero; it has a relatively subdued aroma but gives a mouthful of mineral and citrus-laden flavors that often end with a bit of phenolic grip on the back end. That’s right, wines from this white grape usually have some mild tannin, like many of the best white varietals made in the right places in good vintages. If you have an interest in trying a white that one prominent Master of Wine called “Chablis on steroids”, you should crack a bottle of Assyrtiko.

Agioritiko (ag-ee-or-EE-tea-ko) is best known for producing red wines in the Nemea region of southern Greece. Wines made with this grape often exhibit moderate-to-moderate/high acid, soft tannin and are used as accompaniment to seafood! That’s right - you can give this red a shot with Cioppino or even with more delicate fish-based creations. Think of Agioritiko as a more structured version of your typical Gamay-based red…perhaps like a Beaujolais Cru with a different flavor profile.

Xinomavro, translating to English as “sour black” (which reminds me of the popular southern Italian grape Negroamaro, meaning “black bitter”) is the big boy grapes of Macedonia, Naoussa in particular, in northern Greece. Though styles range from light and quaffable to opaque and massively tannic, the grape always seems to produce wines that have savory, spicy tones often highlighted by dried tomato and red fruit character.

One can think of today’s Greece as part of the “new old world” of wine – Greece has one of the oldest histories of wine production in the old world, but its modern wine industry is just now being rediscovered and therefore comes across as  ‘new’ to many wine lovers.

Nathan Frye, CWE, CS, FWS
Grapes Wine Market