Grand Cru Chablis: The Finer Side of Chardonnay

Les Bougros, Les Preuses, Vaudésir, Les Grenouilles, Valmur, Les Clos, Blanchot: these are the seven Grand Crus of Chablis. Adjacent to one another, covering about 250 acres, these vineyards of northern most Burgundy represent the pinnacle of quality that can be achieved with Chardonnay in this northern wine region of France.


Domaine Laroche Grand Cru

I recently went to a tasting sponsored by the L’Union des Grand Crus de Chablis to taste the 2012 vintage (mostly tank samples). A particularly hair-raising vintage due to a long frosty winter, I can only imagine how winemakers must have paced back and forth at night supplicating to St. Vincent, the venerable patron saint of winemakers, for sun and warmth. Midnight scampers into the vineyard in a vain attempt to keep the smudge pots emanating their smoldering heat so as to prevent the onset of frost. The cold dragged on with brief, hopeful hints that Spring might come after all (does this seem familiar??). In the end, even with approximately 30% of the crop lost, 2012 produced good age worthy wines with their characteristic minerality and mouthwatering freshness.

Chablis has a terroir all its own. The soil is classified as kimmeridgian, a gray-colored limestone found also in Champagne and the Loire, made up of tiny fossilized oyster shells formed over millions of years. It is this soil, along with the climate, that marries so well with the Chardonnay vine that gives us the steely, firm and complex whites that beg sip after sip.

The tasting covered wines from all seven GC sites. I began with Les Grenouilles (frogs), the smallest of the Cru, and couldn’t resist asking how the name came about. Not surprisingly, the vineyard site, or climat en francais, is located close to the river Serein, which was home to a large congregation of frogs. The number of frogs have dwindled, but Chateau Grenouilles continues produce low yield, high quality wines fermented in both stainless steel and oak barrels aged slowly on the lees “…parce que élèvage donne la personalité..” (because ageing gives personality…) according to the winery rep. I found the 2012 vintage to be refreshing and youthful, but, comparing it with the 2010 after that, I could begin to see the promise of the texture, structure and polish the wine was beginning to take on. It will be a fine day in 10 years when I pop the cork on another bottle of 2012 (or even 2010, for that matter!).

I could easily continue on describing all the wines and how I anticipated each sip of a new bottle, but, in the interests of space and time, I will end with the wine of the day, the 2006 Chablis Gran Cru Moutonne, produced by Domaine Long-Depaquit. Here, the winemaker has a “non interventionist” approach, a philosophy of sustainable farming that encompasses the environment. A beautiful golden color, it had a dominant earthy, mushroom aroma described as “mousseron”. A warm vintage producing wines with slightly less acid, this wine was worth the wait as the persistent finish carried me off to visions of fresh oysters on the half shell.


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A Note on Zinfandel

zinfandel photo: Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel 2003 ridgelyttonspringszinfandel2003.jpgWhen we hear someone ordering Zinfandel we thing “ah, another California wine lover”. Prevalent in California’s Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties, Zinfandel has been growing in our country for hundreds of years.

When the Italians immigrated to America, they tended the vine in Northern California and many thought that “Primitivo”, grown in Puglia (the heel of Italy), was Zinfandel’s original home.  Thanks to DNA testing, we find that Zinfandel is also known as “Crjlenak Kastelanski”, a red variety grown even today in the small country of Croatia just East of Italy.

Notorious for uneven ripening and rather thin-skinned, Zinfandel is California’s little darling. Making robust, fruit-forward, and full-bodied wines, Zinfandel can reach alcohol levels of over 16% due to the warm and sunny climate of California. Most Zins are at their best in 6-8 years, but producers such as Ridge and Storybook are raising the bar.  More care is taken with the handling of the grapes, triage (selective harvesting) is practiced, and, once oak barrel ageing was introduced, the love affair began adding complexity to the aromas, flavors and textures.

Of course, Zin’s sister wine, White Zinfandel, must be given the credit it is due.  Made from the same grape but lighter in color and body, not to mention sweeter, it was this wine that clinched Zinfandel’s rise to fame and its success in becoming a household name selling many times over its higher quality more expensive sibling. 

Pass the Ridge, please.

It was once said: In victory you deserve Champagne, in defeat you need it - Napoleon Bonaparte


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Appreciating Italy’s Tirolian Gold

Endrizzi’s Teroldegos

When I heard about the Simply Italian US Wine Tour, I geared up for tasting the many interesting indigenous varietals.  Alas, while  there were quite a few varietal wines, many were the ubiquitous cabernet sauvignon and pinot grigio.  While perusing the tables, a friend happened to mention that way in the back corner of the room was a wonderful little wine from the Teroldego grape.  Having made  wine from this grape gathered from research plots in Mendocino County during my stint as a Viticulture Research Assistant, I weaved my way through the throngs with outstretched wine glass.

Teroldego (ter-OHL-de-go) is a red grape variety from the Trentino-Alto-Adige region. The name derives from a system of wire trellises known as “tirelle” which is a much less romantic, but more plausible explanation for its origin than “Tiroler”, or “gold of Tirol”, as it was known.

A uniquely Italian varietal, thanks to DNA research, we now know that it is related to Syrah.  Perhaps that would explain, in part, the rich ruby often purple-hued color of its wines.  When young, Teroldego exhibits a lively, fruity character with approachable tannins and a refreshing acidity.  Add a little oak and you have complemented the rich black fruits of blackberry and black cherry with attractive spices.

All of these characteristics were evident as I tasted my way through the three wines from producer Endrizzi, a winery celebrating its 125th anniversary in a region that proudly displays its region’s appellation on the labels.  The Teroldego Rotaliano DOC Tradizione delighted my senses with its immediately appealing fruity aromas of ripe raspberries and blackberries and a fresh spiciness.  Fifty percent of the wine was aged in 7,000-8,000-liter casks called Boti.  Forty-year old vines went into the Teroldego Rotaliano DOC Riserva which were planted at 600 m (1,800 ft).  Aged for one year in 2-3 year-old barriques, the wine’s appearance displayed a deep ruby color.  The fruit aromas of plum and blackberry were enticingly intertwined with a spiciness that added to its complexity. Flavorful, mouthwatering with rounded tannins, I could eat this with my osso bucco!

Finally, the Gran Masetto, Vigneti delle Dolomiti IGT.  Similar to an Amarone, grapes used in this wine were dried for 1-2 months; specifically, the top third of the bunches were used in the drying process while the bottom third were vinified as usual.  The remaining portion was late harvested.  Noticeably more extracted than her siblings, the Gran Massetto’s aromas had the distinctive sweet raisin quality along with spicy cherries.  Again, smooth and attractive tannins, medium + acidity, well-balanced.  This is what I love about the quality-minded producers, the presence but balanced approach to oak.  In this case, 2-3 year-old, lightly-toasted barrels from Alliers.


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Make Way for Sake

Chicago welcomed several Japanese organizations which hosted a Sake tasting and pairing event.  Two consummate professionals spearheaded the lively seminar, John Gauntner, the world’s leading non-Japanese sake expert also known as Sake Dendhoshi or “The Sake Evangelist” and Takashi Yagihashi, Owner/Chef of his recently awarded one star restaurant, Takashi Restaurant.

While Chef Takashi prepared a delicious Sashimi of Hamachi with Prosciutto & Buffalo Mozzarella,  a lively discussion ensued.

Sake, while incorporating some elements of beer as well as wine making, is, nevertheless, a unique beverage in a class all by itself.  There are few westerners who truly understand this refined drink, but the interest was clear from the well attended event by industry professionals.

Here are some of the basics you might be interested in knowing:

Sake has been around in some form for the last 2000 years with the premium “ginjo” style for only about 40.  It is brewed, not distilled or simply fermented, from only rice. Other elements included in the production process include water and koji (moldy rice).

Sake quality is divided into several categories known as grades, and the key to understanding this official pecking order is the milling or “polishing” of the rice itself.  In general, the more the rice has been polished, the cleaner, lighter and more fragrant the flavor.  Quality sakes will be milled anywhere from 30-50%.  Some of the “garagistes” producers will  polish away even more.

with John Gauntner

It is interesting to note that whereas wine producers will sometimes add pure alcohol to “beef” up their wines, but are hush-hush when it comes to informing the public, an entire class of premium sakes, Daiginjo-shu, Ginjo-shu and Honjozo-shu, are brewed with small amounts of distilled alcohol.  This is openly acknowledged and viewed by sake professionals as producing a lighter, more fragrant, and hence, high quality product.

Throughout the ages, endless stories and verses tout the amazing ability of wine to age and become an icon of aroma and taste.  Compare that to sake, which, with the exception of very few cases, is meant to be drunk young within a few years.  When drinking premium sake should be drunk slightly chilled though warm sakes becoming popular once again (usually with the more cheap and cheerful versions).

The good news is sake is one of those few items that are almost always priced fairly.  Paying a premium is worth it.  Traditionally, bottle size is 720 ml, slightly less that a bottle of wine.  But, if you are with your friends, the proper way to be social is to order that 1.8L bottle so there is some for everyone around the table (more than once).

I have been privileged to take John’s first level certification course, and for those who are interested, it is worth it.


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Killer Cava from Spain

Marques de Gelida Tasting at The Purple Pig in Chicago

Marques de Gelida from Spain was the focus of a trade tasting at the Purple Pig in Chicago yesterday.  Maite (short for Marie-Theresa) Esteve I Julia, the owner, poured several of her sparkling wines starting off with her 2008 Kila Cava, made from the three traditional varieties: Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Paralleda.  A tasty, refreshing entry wine with a minimum of 12 months ageing, produced from 20 year-old vines. The 2006 Brut Exclusive included 20% Chardonnay in the blend in addition to the local varieties, hand harvested from 40-50 year-old vines and spent 5 years slumbering in bottle before being disgorged and released.   Time’s indelible influence manifested itself on the personality of this as well as the 2007 Brut Exclusive.  Not only did the wines have more color, but also more evidence of secondary aromas including mushrooms, and sweet biscuit. Still fresh and youthful, there was an attractive minerality which became more pronounced with the 2007 vintage.  With only 13,000 bottles made, you’ll want to get your hands on some of these!

My winemaking lesson for the day was from Maite who explained that fermentation temperatures directly affect the size of the bubbles produced.  The lower the temperature, the slower the fermentation and the smaller and finer the bubbles.  The converse is true: the warmer the temperature, fermentation will speed up thereby causing larger bubbles to be produced.  This noted when tasting the mousse on the palate.  As with all good sparkling wine, especially those made in the traditional method with the second fermentation in bottle, it is the goal of every winemaker to make the bubbles as fine as possible.  After all, sparkling wine tasting is all about the texture.

Also interesting was the 2007 Brut Rose made exclusively from a few precious hectares of Pinot Noir.  Dark salmon in color, the nose was on the restrained side, but offered up subtle strawberries a mouth-filling mid-palate and a clean finish.  Plus, it went wonderfully with the tapas-style dishes we were served including Sepia (cuttlefish) with roasted almonds and rosemary and beets with whipped goat cheese and pistachios.  My mouth is watering all over again…..

Let’s hear it for Cava!

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Paso Robles: Making its Way East

w/Stacie Jacobs, Exec. Dir. Paso Robles Wine Alliance

The wine trade was invited  to attend Paso Robles’ Grand Tasting event yesterday at the Gallery in Chicago.  For those of you not familiar with the latest facts, allow me to update you.  The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance is the marketing and promotional arm of the wine region, boasts 500 members which include growers, wineries, and related associate businesses. The economic impact of Pasao Robles and the Greater San Luis Obispo Wine region is calculated at $1,785 billion!

As California’s fastest growing wine region and largest appellation in San Luis Obispo County, the territory encompasses more than 26,000 vineyard acres and more than 180 wineries.  More than 40 cultivars are grown and the regions claims to have the widest ranging diurnal temperatures in California which translates to optimal growing conditions for vines and the resultant fruit.  Part of this is due to the proximity of some vineyards to the ocean (6 miles in some cases). Just passed the Santa Lucia mountain range,  there is fog which blankets certain areas, but it is not as dense and dissipates much earlier in the day than its neighbors to the north.  Elevations of vineyards range from 700-2,000 feet and due to its unique geological makeup, 45 different soil types have been identified several of which may be found in one vineyard block.  Bedrock primarily derived from weathered granite, older marine sedimentary rocks, and volcanic rocks trace back to the Miocene Age.  Calcareous soils with high soil pH values make some vineyards possible without irrigation.

If you’re in the mood for Bordeaux, Rhone and Zinfandel blends, then Paso wines are a must.  Less attention has been given to the whites, but I was pleasantly surprised by some innovative blends.  Among them was the 2009 Vina Robles WHITE4, Huerhuero Vineyard, a blend of 42% Vermentino, 29% Verdelho, 26% Viognier and 3% Sauvignon Blanc; veritable Spring in a glass.  The delicate white flower aromas from the Viognier were surrounded by the strength of Sauvignon Blanc; a wonderful aromatic, fresh wine with good acid.  The 100% Sauvignon Blanc from Niner Wine Estates (2009) was another pleasurable experience with its refreshing peach and grapefruit aromas, and I especially liked the smooth lushness of its mid-palate.

Joseph Spellman MS, Justin's Midwest Regional Sales Manager

Derby Wine Estates, a winery unknown to me before this tasting, produced some very interesting wines including its 2007 Fifteen 10, a white Rhone blend which was very clean with subtle aromas of white pepper, gardenia and a tangy lemon zest on the finish.  Also noteworthy was the 2006 Fifteen 10, a red Rhone blend and the 2006 Implico, their Bordeaux blend which was fruit forward but well-balanced.

Other wines of note included Stanger Vineyards 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, a fleshy wine dominated by dark fruit aromas and flavors, and my favorite of the day was Justin Vineyards’ 2008 JUSTIFICATION, a blend of 65% Cabernet Franc and 35% Merlot.  A wine with 14.5% alcohol, it was blessed with a rich ruby color, rich dark fruit enveloped with a sultry smokiness that, I confess, kept me coming back for more.  Being a huge fan of Cabernet Franc, I am always on the lookout for this varietal.

Look out Napa, here comes Paso Robles!



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Reconnaissance with Enotria

Aglianico - red grape of the South

Aglianico - red grape of the South

We’re heading south to “Enotria”, or Southern Italy, as it was known by the Greeks, to savor its wines at Dante Pizzeria Napoletana next Sunday afternoon.We’ll start with a white wine made from an ancient varietal called Falanghina. Cantina del Taburno, the producer, is situated north of Naples, in Campania. It is possible this grape was the basis for the Roman wine, Falernum.  Though the Cantina is a co-op, care is taken in making its broad range of wines including hand-harvesting and the minimum use of sulphur. Next, we move on to a unique red sparkler, Grotta del Sole’s 2009 Gragnano, a DOC from Campania made from Aglianico and other indigenous grapes.  This has been a favorite with pizza lovers and a long tradition with the Napoletani.

Following the Gragnano, we will taste a traditional Puglian red, the Leone de Castris’ 2005 Salice Salentino Rosso. A blend of 90% Negroamaro and 10% Malvasia, it is an easy drinking red.

There will be a fifth wine,  a sweet surprise to conclude the event…….

All tickets are $30.00 (no refunds)

Make your Reservations via Event Brite >

See you there!



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