Monday, September 27, 2010

Top Ten Value Packed Wine Regions

With more producers, more grapes, and more wines available than ever before, consumers find the hunt for a great bargain both easier and more time consuming. There is plenty of good juice on the market, much of it for less than $20, but some wine-producing regions are difficult to find value in.

Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa, Sonoma, Barolo, Amarone, Rioja, Ribera del Duero and many others have created a name for themselves by making benchmark examples of a particular wine style. Because they are the standard that many compare their wines to it's often difficult to get wines from these regions for under $20. But fear not, I've put together a list of the best value wine regions around the world. These regions certainly put out a few expensive bottles, but for the most part they are regularly producing quality wine for under $20.

1. Paarl, South Africa
When it comes to South African wine regions Paarl is queen to king Stellenbosch. And while Stellenbosch produces some amazing values they are more consistently producing wines at a higher price point than Paarl. One of the reasons for this is that the Paarl region has ideal climactic conditions to produce quality juice year after year, with very little variation. Vintage (the year's weather conditions in the region) isn't a given all over the world. Regions like Burgundy in France can have terrifying weather patterns that change drastically each year resulting in a huge range in consistency from vintage to vintage (yet the price never goes down!).

Vintage variation isn't a big problem in Paarl, the region is close enough to the sea that it has the advantage of ocean breezes and rainfall, but is still tucked inland enough that they are not victim to some of the severe weather elements that can effect Stellenbosch. In addition, the soil in the region, granite, is ideal for growing high-quality grapes because it provides great drainage and makes the vines struggle, forcing them to dig deep into the soil for nutrition. Some quality-concious producers in Paarl include Glen Carlou, Fairview, Plaiser del Merle, and Graham Beck. These producers are some of the best from the region and still produce wines for under $20 a bottle.

2. Clare Valley, Australia
This next region , the Clare Valley, is the most northerly vine growing district in South Australia. Inland from the western Spencer Gulf and the southern Gulf of Saint Vincent, this region is hot - Australia hot. Usually in hot regions producers irrigate, or spray water, to keep the vines producing lots of fruit, but not in the Clare Valley. Here producers take a hands-off approach that results is a low-yielding crop (less grapes per vine) and ultimately better quality fruit because the vine doesn't get overworked. Think of the Octomom versus a mom with only one child. But just because the vine isn't overworked doesn't necessarily mean the wine is going to be good. It takes skilled winemakers to bring out the full potential of the fruit.

The winemakers in the Clare Valley are some of the most innovative and creative in the world. The Clare Valley was the first region in Australia to mandate that all of the wines produced there must be bottled and closed with a screw top, or Stelvin closure. The region makes reds, but is best known for their outstanding dry whites made from the Riesling grape. Most of the wineries here produce clean, refreshing, food-friendly whites that have a profile closer to Sauvignon Blanc than what many believe Riesling to be. You haven't lived until you have tried a dry Riesling from the Clare Valley. Some quality-conscious producers include Leasingham, Pikes, Cardinham Estate, Eldridge, and Knappstein.

3. Languedoc-Roussillion, France
France can be a daunting country for consumers. With a huge range in consistency and price, many steer clear and stick with wines with a furry creature on the label. But the Langeudoc-Roussillion region produces surprisingly consistent, high-quality wines for the price. Much of that quality has come within the last 20 years and is a result of skilled Australian "flying winemakers." Land was inexpensive in the region, and many motivated Aussie winemakers would travel to the South of France in the off-season to lend a hand. You see, the northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere are on opposite growing season schedules. So while vines are budding in the north, they are going dormant in the south.

The Languedoc-Roussillion region of France has a Mediterranean-influenced climate providing warm days often cooled off by the cold, sometimes violent, Mistral wind. The soils are alluvial-rich, providing producers the ability to grow almost any grape variety. From big, rich Chards to fruity Pinot Noirs, the region makes a lot of juice, usually for less than $20. Some producers to look out for are Tortoise Creek (PGI d'OC), Penedesses, and Gaillard just to name a few. PGI d'Oc (Protected Geographical Indication) in particular, formerly Vin de Pays d'Oc, can produce some remarkable wines for under $20.

4. La Mancha, Spain
I highlighted the La Manch region of Spain in La Mancha, No More Stinky Shoe! Since the post readers have sent in dozens of wine suggestions and continue to rave about the region's quality for the price. The La Mancha region is found in the heart of Spain, which means it's hot. Heat usually means ripe fruit. Ripe fruit results in big wines that are full of bold fruit flavors and aromas. Since this is a market preference in the US, the big, bold wines, of La Mancha make for a good fit stateside. Prices stay low because the area is so large (La Mancha produces over 40% of Spain's total wine production), producers don't use much oak, and they aren't as well-known. In fact, much of the juice from the region costs consumers less than $10 a bottle. But beware, not all producers from La Mancha make high-quality wines. Look for producers like Opera Prima, Julian Santos, Torres Filoso, and El Vinculo.

5. Douro, Portugal
I've said it before and I will say it again, the Douro region of Portugal is producing remarkable wines for under $20. I highlighted the region's new-found quality and value in Top Ten Up & Coming Wine Regions. As I highlighted in that blog, the region is famous for their dessert wines, but the innovative and quality-conscious winemaking techniques being applied to their table wines are landing them in a variety of top ten lists. Producers to look out for include Quinta de Alorna, Bright Brothers, Nieport, and Sogrape.

6. Pfalz, Germany
The Pfalz (pronounced FAHLTS) is Germany's rising star. While it has always been capable of producing world-class wines, the recent trend in quality-conscious producers has resulted in a wave of delicious wine, usually under $20 a bottle. Almost 80% of the wine made in the region is white, and half of that is dry. The best winemakers from the region produce rich, powerful, spicy wines that are closer in style to the wines of Alsace France than Germany. Keep an eye out for producers like Josef Biffar, Reichsrat von Buhl, Darting, and A. Diehl.

7. Sicily, Italy
Our last European top-tenner makes enough wine to fill the Mediterranean. Producing over 210 million gallons, the island of Sicily makes more wine than all of Chile. While plenty of below-average wine exists, there has been a surge of quality in the region. Sicily's newest claim to fame is the Nero d'Avola grape, a red grape variety that produces robust, juicy wines. If you pick up a bottle of Nero d'Avola from a producer like Cusumano, MandraRossa, or Villa Pozzi, you will not be disappointed.

8. Central Valley, Chile
The Central Valley is the oldest, most traditional wine producing region in Chile. Within the delimitation are four wine districts that encompass seven growing regions. The four districts are: Curico Valley, Maipo Valley, Maule,Valley, and the Rapel Valley. In the last decade Chile has become a major player in the value wine market here in the United States, with imports to America accounting for almost $200 million. Water is free, labor is cheap, and the climate conditions are consistently good resulting in value-packed wines year after year. Some producers to check out are Concha Y Toro, Miguel Torres, Montes, and Montgras. The region's flagship varietal is Carmenere, often referred to as the "lost Bordeaux grape," but they are also making some fine examples of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. After the earthquake (click here to learn more) I was a bit wary, but they have rebounded quite nicely and the 2010 vintage should be par for the course.

9. Mendoza, Argentina
Jumping across the Andes, this next wine region is doing EVERYTHING right. Mendoza in Argentina has become widely prized for their high-quality red wines made from the Malbec grape. Malbec, traditionally a blending grape used in the Bordeaux region of France to add color and mid palate texture, has been perfected by the Argentinians. Here the grape produces dark purple wines with structure and balance, perfect for anything off the grill. Mendoza's elevation in the mountains has provided a perfect growing season for ripening this hearty varietal. Some producers to watch out for are Enrique Foster (the IQUE), Dona Paula, Terrazas, and Elsa by Bianchi. These wines costing less than $20 will blow your mind!

10. Columbia Valley, Washington
This last region on the top ten list has been making a bold statement with their quality wines at a remarkable price. When people think Washington state they think rain and clouds, but in the Columbia Valley, this couldn't be further from the truth. The Cascade mountain range in the east blocks the wet weather creating an almost desert-like growing conditions. Within a degree or two, producers can predict the temperature and weather patterns in the region. This consistency in climate makes for high-quality wines year after year. So whether it's and '09 or an '03, you can rest assured the wines of the Columbia Valley are going to be a good bang for the buck. The list of my favorite producers includes Hedges, Dusted Valley Vineyards (Boom Town label), Columbia Crest and Novelty Hill. The dominant grape varietals in the region are Riesling, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon, but a few winemakers are producing some breathtaking Chardonnays.

Well, there you have it, a list of the top ten value wine regions. While there are a few that didn't make the list rest assured they received consideration. There is so much quality juice on the market for less than $20 that consumers can often be fooled by retail end-caps and cute labels. Stick to these quality regions, and I guarantee you won't be disappointed.

I hope you have a chance to try a few wines from these value-packed regions. If there is one you think should be on the top ten list or a wine you tried and liked please feel free to drop me a line via email, facebook, or by posting a comment here on the blog.

Until next time thanks for reading and make sure to check out Cru Wine Online's new member services chock-full of daily wine and recipe pairings complete with entertaining videos.


Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director

Monday, September 20, 2010

Top Ten Examples of Chenin Blanc's Versatility

Chenin Blanc is one of the most versatile white wine producing grapes in the world. From dry and austere to sweet and rich, the grape's high acidity makes it a prime candidate for producing a variety of styles. Virtually anywhere grapes grow in the world, you will find Chenin Blanc. While not all are good, many great values can be found. Here are the top ten examples or wine produced from Chenin Blanc.

1. Domaine des Aubuisieres - 'Cuvee de Silex' - 2008
For this first "top ten-er" we take the grape back to its home in the Loire region of France. From sparkling to dessert, the Chenin Blanc grapes is used to make all styles of wine in the Loire. One of my favorite value producers from the region is Domaine des Aubuisieres owned by Bernard Fouquet. Bernard has 55 acres in the Vouvray sub-region of Touraine in the Loire. He plants just one guessed it, Chenin Blanc. His world-class Chenins have been praised by wine critics across the globe with the Wine Spectator giving the 2008 Cuvee de Silex ($17) an 89-point rating (Very Good) out of 100.

The Cuvee de Silex is a dry style Chenin, showing stone fruit like peaches and tree fruit like pears with a refreshing minerality. The wine has depth, complexity and structure as a result of the soil and conditions (terroir) of the land where the grapes grow. Fouquet's Cuvee de Silex comes from vineyards made up of clay and silex (flint). The soil imparts a distinct flintyness (minerality) similar to Sauvignon Blanc produced in the Pouilly Fume and Sancerre sub-regions just east of Vouvray in the Loire. This wine may not cost $100 or be a top 100 wine in the world, but it is an incredible find for $17.

2. Nicholas Joly - 'Coulee de Serrant' - 2007
With this next wine we stay in the Loire, but head west to the Anjou sub-region. Within Anjou lies Savennieres, a white wine producing region that makes less than 30,000 cases a year. The Savennieres sub-region is home to Coulee de Serrant, a 17 acre monopole (winery and land is owned by one person). Coulee de Serrant is owned by biodynamic wine icon Nicholas (also spelled Nicolas) Joly. Joly is a pioneer in the eco-friendly biodynamic winemaking practice, producing distinctive, world-class wines from the Chenin Blanc grape.

The 2007 Coulee de Serrant received 92 points (outstanding) from the Wine Spectator. Year after year Joly gets international attention for his concentrated Chenins that display nerve and longevity. The 2007 showed beautifully with characteristics of peach, apricot and quince. The Savennieres sub-region produces wines high, high, high in acidity that are often described as austere in their youth. Because of this the Chenins from Savennieres can age for the better part of a decade, pretty remarkable for a dry white.

3. Domaine des Baumard - 'Carte Turquoise' - NV
With this next Chenin we're in the Loire one more time to showcase the remarkable versatility of this grape. The Domaine des Baumard Cremant de Loire is a sparkling wine made using Chenin Blanc with a dash of Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay blended in. Domaine des Baumard's Carte Turquoise, like the Coulee de Serrant, comes from the Anjou sub-region within the Loire. Just south of Coulee de Serrant in Anjou is another sub-region called Coteaux du Layon, where Baumard's vineyards lie.

Cremant de Loire is made using the traditional method - the same process used to make the sparkling wines from the infamous Champagne region of France. With the traditional method, the second fermentation is performed in the bottle, and the wine is left to rest with its sediment, a process known as sur lie in France. The end result is a wine that smells of fresh bread dough or biscuits. The Carte de Turquoise by Baumard is a style known as Brut (one of the driest). This wine displays the typical biscuity aroma followed by citrus fruit like limes and tree fruit like apples. This one's a great value-packed alternative to Champagne coming in at just under $20.

4. Mulderbosch - Chenin Blanc - 2007
For this next wine, we say goodbye to France and hello to South Africa. For years in South Africa Chenin Blanc went by the name Steen. However today most producers just use the Chenin name. Like in France, South African's use the grape to make a wide variety of styles, with many wineries having two or three in their portfolio. Mulderbosch is regarded as one of the highest quality wine producers in the area, and most of their wines retailing for under $20.

Stellenbosch is the highest quality wine producing region in the country, making wines from a variety of grapes. Stellenbosch's success can be linked to both its growing conditions and Stellenbosch University, which offers an accredited degree in oenology. The university is an incredible resource for winemakers and producers, and was the driving force behind the wine laws governing the country. The Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc from Stellenbosch is a still white wine showing flavors and aromas of green apple and quince with refreshing acidity. Mulderbosch frequently does well in trade mags, and the 2007 Chenin Blanc scored an 89 in Wine Spectator. A great find for $14.

5. Cave Extreme - South Extreme - NV
For years many South African wine producers used Chenin Blanc to make their sparkling wines. Today most producers use a combination of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for their bubblies (called Cap Classique). So to experience quality Chenin sparkling wines we must leave South Africa and head to South America, specifically Argentina. Chenin Blanc is used in the production of many Argentinian sparkling wines, and for under $10 there are few better than the South Extreme by Cave Extreme.

Argentina has been perfecting international grape varieties as of late. From France's Malbec to Italy's Bondarda, there's no shortage of cool wine being produced in Argentina, and many from lesser-known grape varieties. This wine is one of three sparkling wines Cave Extreme makes, the others consisting of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This wine is very refreshing showing beautifully with round, soft characteristics of tree fruit like pear and green apple. For only $9, this non-vintage extra brut (dry) bubbly is a real treat.

6. Pacific Rim - Chenin Blanc - 2007
Sticking with the new world wine producing countries theme, we head north to Washington state. Washington has been producing some amazing wine from grapes like Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah in the last decade. Chenin Blanc, however, has caught the attention of one wacky winemaker, Randall Grahm. Grahm started his illustrious career by opening Bonny Doon winery in central California. Known for his oddities and uniqueness, he has brought attention to grapes like Albarino and Chenin Blanc in the states.

Grahm's new adventure has been the Pacific Rim wine project located in Washington. With a heavy emphasis on Riesling, the winery also produces wines from Gewurztraminer, Sangiovese, Barbera, and of course Chenin Blanc. The Pacific Rim NV Chenin received high accolades from the press including an 88-point rating from the Wine Spectator. This rating secured the Pacific Rim winery a spot in the magazine's Best Value wines. Today the winery produces a vintage version that shows flavors and aromas of grapefruit, green apple and lush peaches. The winery preserves the grapes natural acidity by fermenting and aging in stainless steel and making sure the wine doesn't undergo Malolactic Fermentation (MLF). For $10 this screw topped, off dry Chenin is a steal.

7. Pine Ridge - Chenin Blanc/Viognier - 2008
Number 7 on this top ten list is Pine Ridge's Chenin/Viognier. Before you start thinking, "That's not Chenin" know that this wine is made from 80% Chenin Blanc. In the US a wine only needs to be made up of 75% of the grape stated on the bottle. Viognier is added to the label mainly for marketing purposes. This wine has always had a soft spot in my heart. High-acid Chenin compliments lush Viognier wonderfully.

This odd blend was was a product of experimentation. It was "discovered" in the early 1990's by Pine Ridge, and has become a staple in their portfolio. The main grape, Chenin Blanc, comes from the Clarksburg appellation in California. Year after year this wine has earned numerous accolades from Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate, who put the 2008 in his top 50 Super Domestic Value Wines. The wine displays green apple and pear, with a distinct honeydew melon compliments of Viognier. The wine has just a kiss of sweetness making it a perfect pairing to spicy seafood dishes. At $14, its a real find.

8. Paumanok - 'Dry' Chenin Blanc - 2009
In the past 5 years, New York wines have exploded. While they are sometimes hard to find, they are often crowd pleasers. The growing conditions in New York are ideal for grapes like Riesling and Gewurztraminer, but look out America, Chenin Blanc from the area is killer. Paumanok only makes about 500 cases of their North Fork of Long Island Chenin, so availability is tough. The wine recently received an 88-point rating from Wine Spectator, making it even more difficult to find.

This family-owned and operated winery produces less than 9,000 cases of wine each year. The vineyards are all estate-owned and operated, so production methods are monitored by the owners from bud break to bottling. This "dry" Chenin displays aromas and flavors of pineapple and melon with a nice racy acidity. Its light touch of sweetness is the wonderful cherry on top. This wine is a little more than some of the other domestic Chenins highlighted, but for $28 it's well worth it if you can find it.

9. Rudera - 'Noble Late Harvest' Chenin Blanc - 2005
For number 9, we head back to South Africa. We have showcased the grape as sparkling, still, blended, dry, and off-dry. But here we go all the way to sweet, even dessert-like. The grapes used in the production of this wine are sweet. They become sweet because they are affected by botrytis cinerea, aka the noble rot. This is the same fungus that grows on Semillion and Sauvignon Blanc in the famous Sauternes region of France. The fungus attacks the grapes and concentrates the sugars, making them ultra-sweet. This fungus does not occur everywhere or every year, which is why the Rudera Noble Late Harvest Chenin is made only in exceptional years - years where the sun can meet moisture at the perfect time to create the perfect type of mold.

Rudera is moderately expensive ($30 for a half bottle). It's made in very limited quantities (under 200 cases). And it's most commonly sold at auctions. This rich, sweet Chenin displays lush apricot and honey, a great pairing for dessert and rich foods like Foie Gras. If you find a bottle...BUY IT! Like the others, this wine has received its fair share of international attention, including a rating of 91 points by Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar for their 2005 vintage.

10. Domaine du Petit Metris - Quarts de Chaume - 2007
For last wine on the top ten list we go back to where it all began, the Loire in France. This particular Chenin Blanc showcases the variety of styles produced not just in France, but around the world. Quarts de Chaume, a sub region inside the greater Anjou region, sits inside the Coteaux du Layon sub-region just like Baumard's vineyard south of Coulee de Serrant. Wines from Quarts de Chaume are world-class, and the best from the region are made using botrytis-infected grapes, just like the Rudera.

Domaine du Petit Metris earned a 94-point rating from the Wine Spectator for their 2007 vintage, and you have to pay for it. A 500ml bottle of this wine, if you can find it, goes for about $60. Only 75 cases were imported into the US, most of it picked up by wine wholesalers, retailers and restaurateurs to share with their friends. This rich, sweet, succulent wine displays layers of creme, honey, marmalade, peach, pears, apricots, and so on, and so on, and so on. While not as accessible as some of the others, it's certainly a fantastic example of Chenin Blanc made sweet.

Well, there you have it, a list of the top ten examples of Chenin Blanc's versatility. I hope you got a feel for how diverse the grape truly is. With styles ranging from sweet to dry and still to sparkling the grape has become a bit of a traveler making its way to almost any place that grows grapes. While there are thousands I didn't mention, I wanted to highlight some of the cooler stuff out there, both accessible and...well...not. If you haven't had a Chenin lately, pick one up. They can be incredibly food-friendly, and often a great value find.

If there is a winery or style I missed or one you really like, please feel free to email me, send me a message on facebook, or leave a comment here on the blog. Also make sure to check out Cru Wine Online's hot new website for the latest in food and wine pairing.

Until next time, thanks for reading.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director

Monday, September 13, 2010

Top Ten Classic Food & Wine Pairings

I always say, "Fear no food and wine pairing!" While there is no such thing as a wrong pairing, certainly some work better than others. Pairing food and wine has come so far from the old school theory of red wine with red meat and white wine with white meat. With the introduction of fusion cooking and the growing wine market, there are so many options it can be overwhelming. This list of food and wine pairings has stood the test of time and always come out on top. Here are the top ten classic food and wine pairings:

1. Champagne & Caviar
Champagne can pair with almost any dish. It's arguably the most food friendly wine under the sun. The wine's low alcohol content, refreshing acidity, and bubbly texture make it a great match for almost any food. But Champagne, specifically Blanc de Blancs and Caviar is a pairing fit for a king, literally. Blanc de Blancs Champagne comes from the Champagne region of France, and is made from 100% Chardonnay, one of the three principal varieties in the region.

Caviar is just a fancy name for the salted eggs of the Sturgeon, a fish commonly found in Russia. The marriage is said to have been discovered as a result of religious practices. In ancient Russia eating meat was forbidden 200 days a year. They supplemented their diet with various types of fish; insert caviar. It's likely that the Czars of Russia were the first to discover this classic pairing since only the wealthy and prestigious imported and drank Champagne. From the first time light, lively Champagne refreshed and cleansed the palate after each bite of salty caviar, this pairing has been a classic. While many use it to ring in the new year, the match makes a great pairing any time of year.

2. Sancerre & Goat Cheese
Sancerre and goat cheese is as much a regional pairing as it is a classic pairing. There is an expression used when pairing, "If it grows together, it goes together." That applies here. Sancerre is a region in France known for producing flinty, crisp, refreshing white wines from the Sauvignon Blanc grape. While the region also makes reds from Pinot Noir, this pairing is about the whites.

In Sancerre, wherever they don't grow grapes, they raise goats. Hence the reason "grows together, goes together" fits here. The salty, chalky goat cheese is enhanced without being overpowered by the refreshing, medium-bodied Sauvignon Blanc from the region. To say this is a classic may be an understatement. This pairing has encouraged many wine novices to become connoisseurs.

3. Bordeaux & Roast Spring Lamb
Staying in France, this next classic is a carnivore's dream. The origin of the expression, "red wine with red meat" exists if not for one reason: tannins. Tannins are found in red wine. They are that mouth drying sensation that can leave you begging for a glass of water to hydrate the palate. Proteins like red meat and Lamb love a little tannin to help cut through them. This is why a red wine producing region like Bordeaux in France makes such a great pairing for meat. Bordeaux is well known for its full-bodied red wines made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. The reds from the region, when done well, are complex mixes of dark fruit and earth notes.

Beyond world-class red wines, the region also raises lamb, making this another "grows together, goes together" pairing. Bordeaux sweet and tender salt marsh lamb roasted with herbs is a perfect pairing for a red from the Medoc (left bank of Bordeaux), especially from sub-regions like Pauillac and St. Julien. These wines, especially when aged, mellow out creating a symphony of flavors that compliment and enhance the dish. This meal is definitely the time to bring out the blue chip (expensive & high-quality) bottle of Bordeaux you have been saving.

4. Sauternes & Foie Gras
With this classic, rich meets even richer. Sauternes is a region in France that produces stunningly sweet white wines from the Semillion and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Sauternes is sweet because the grapes used to produce it are effected by a mold called Botrytis Cinerea, aka the Noble Rot. Botrytis doesn't occur everywhere in the world. It requires an environment where moisture can meet the sun at the perfect time to create just the right mold. The resulting wine is usually expensive, but more importantly sweet and rich, displaying flavors and aromas of peaches, apricots, and honey.

Foie Gras is a delicacy made from duck or goose liver. The birds are force-fed to fatten the liver to the size of one pound to a pound and a half. The enlarged liver is then cooked in its own fat and oils, butter, and a mix of spices to create a rich, succulent dish. While it may sound unappetizing and cruel, the pairing is remarkable. The rich, sweet Sauternes cuts through the rich Foie Gras creating a perfect balance of flavor and texture.

5. Vintage Port & Stilton
With this classic, sweet meets stinky. Stilton cheese is a traditional English blue, or bleu, cheese made from cow's milk. During production, the cheesemaker pierces the wheel with long stainless steel needles to allow the mold to attack the inside. The result is a rich and creamy, not dry and crumbly, cheese that displays aromas and flavors of old leather, dark chocolate and spice. Blue cheese usually inspires a love or hate relationship with most people. But paired with a rich, sweet dessert wine like Vintage Port, all bets are off.

The term port refers to a fortified wine from Portugal. Fortified is just a fancy name for wines that have had a spirit, usually brandy, added to them. With fortified wines the end result is often, but not always, sweet, and this is the case for port. The name port carries a specific meaning and restrictions. Although the name should not be used for fortified wines outside of the region, it often is.

The term vintage port simply means that all of the grapes are from one year's grape harvest. Vintage is usually declared 3 times a decade. The vintage ports of Portugal are rare, accounting for less than 1% of the country's dessert wine output. They are sweet with high alcohol content (which it should be seeing as they add liquor to the juice) and display flavors and aromas of dried fruit, vanilla, and spice. The full-bodied, sweet vintage ports cut through the stinky blue cheese creating a sweet and savory pairing that will shock even the most extreme blue haters.

6. Chablis & Oysters
With this classic, salty meets refreshing. Chablis is a region in Burgundy, France that produces clean, refreshing whites from the Chardonnay grape. The wines produced aren't the buttered popcorn style you may know Chardonnay to be. Instead the Chards from the region are elegant and refined, displaying a wonderful, racy acidity with flavors and aromas of green apple and spice.

This pairing works so well because the salty oysters are tamed by the refreshing acidity in the crisp, white Chablis. Oysters also have a weightier texture, and full-bodied Chablis has the strength to hold up to it without masking the dish. A match made in heaven.

7. California Chardonnay & Lobster
With this pairing, the same grape is used to make the wine, but the style couldn't be any different than that of Chablis. In Chablis, as I mentioned, the style is crisp and refreshing with tree fruit flavors and aromas. California vintners, on the other hand, tend to produce a style that is big and rich with flavors and aromas of butter and tropical fruit. The lush California style Chards make a perfect pairing for a dish like lobster.

Lobster is usually served with butter, a perfect compliment to the buttery style of Chardonnay produced in California. Lobster is also a weightier seafood. It requires a wine that can stand up to that weight while complimenting the flavors. A California Chardonnay does both beautifully. This match isn't as aged as something like caviar and Champagne, but a classic none the less.

8. Muscadet sur Lie & Mussels
This classic pairing is yeast meets west. Muscadet sur Lie is a sub-region in the western part of the Loire in France. The area is close to the sea making this another great "grows together, goes together" pairing. Muscadet sur Lie is a white wine made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape. The term "sur Lie" signifies that the wine was aged with its sediment, or dead yeast cells. The sediment imparts texture, flavor, and aroma. The end result is a wine that is light-bodied, dry, and acidic, with flavors and aromas of yeast and tree fruit.

Muscadet has the characteristics to pair well with a variety of seafood, specifically shellfish, dishes. The reason this particular pairing works so well is because of Muscadet's racy acidity. I sound like a broken record, but salt needs acidity to ready the palate for the next bite. Couple that with the lightweight characteristics of the Muscadet, and you have yourself a classic French pairing that will allow both elements to shine.

9. Cru Beaujolais & Charcuterie
Before you jump to Beaujolais conclusions, let me explain. Beaujolais is a region in France that produces red wines from a grape named Gamay. The Beaujolais region is inside of the greater Burgundy region. Some years, Beaujolais makes more wine than the rest of Burgundy, with nearly half of the wine being sold as Beaujolas Nouveau. You may have seen Beaujolais Nouveau at your local retailer. Lately it has arrived in plastic bottles, very sexy. In short Beaujolais Nouveau is a mass marketing campaign disguised as a celebration of the new harvest. Each year on the third Thursday in November, Beaujolais Nouveau is shipped around the world to be consumed by the masses in “celebration.” I'd almost rather celebrate with ether and koolaid.

Nouveau is consumed very young. The grapes are picked, fermented and aged all within 6-8 weeks. The result is a purply-pink, very light wine that usually tastes like bubble gum. The wines generally lack structure and need to be consumed before the first of the year.

But Beaujolais is so much more than Nouveau. Even the regular wines from the region or the Village show more depth and character than the Nouveau. The real star from the region is Cru Beaujolais.
Within the greater Beaujolais region, there are 10 sub-regions that have superior conditions for growing grapes. These sub-regions are called Crus, which means "growth" in French. While Cru Beaujolas is made from the same grape as Nouveau, gamay, the styles couldn't be more dissimilar. Cru Beaujolais has more structure, depth, and character, and makes a great partner for food. Enter charcuterie.

Charcuterie is a glamorous name for cured meats. A plate of charcuterie usually consist of a variety of pork products including but not limited to: bacon, ham, sausage, galantines, pâtés and/or confit. The plate is usually salty and weighty, a common theme with classic pairings. Cru Beaujolais, as I mentioned, has a remarkable acidity and a touch of tannin to hold up to the plate. This classic is usually a shocker for people who haven't tried Cru Beaujolais.

10. Fino Sherry & Olives
With this classic pairing, salt meets...well...more salt. When pairing food and wine you basically have two options: compliment or contrast. This last pairing is definitely an example of complimenting. Fino Sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes that grow in the Jerez region of Spain. What separates this fortified wine from the vintage port above is timing. With Port wine the spirit is added in the middle of fermentation to kill the yeast, what is left is sugar which results in a sweet wine. With Fino Sherry the spirit is added at the end of fermentation, once all the sugar has been eaten up. The result is a wine that is dry with a high alcohol content.

Like Muscadet sur Lie, Fino Sherry sits with its yeast. But instead of the yeast floating in the wine, it grows on top like a film, protecting it from air exposure. This film, called flor, imparts a distinct salty, nutty component to the wine. Salty olives just love to be complimented by a salty Fino Sherry. While this isn't a main dish pairing, it makes for a classic hors d'oeuvre.

There you have it, a list of the top ten classic food and wine pairings. I think one of the most important ingredients to success when pairing wine with food is to let the dish be the star and the wine the supporting actor. Wine should act like a condiment for food. Imagine the dish is the hot dog and the wine is the ketchup. While that sounds a little crude, it's true. One needs the other to be complete.

As I mentioned before there is no such thing as a wrong food and wine pairing, some just work better than others. If you like Sauvignon Blanc with your meal and you're eating steak, rest assured, there is a better pairing. But it's ultimately your glass, and you have to fill it with what you like. Try to match weight, acidity and flavors, and you will be set. With sugar you always want the glass to be sweeter than the dish, hence the reason Foie Gras and Sauternes works so well - the Foie Gras is not nearly as sweet as the wine.

Thanks to today's fusion cooking craze and the increasing number of wines present every year, you can pair salmon from Washington state seasoned with Indian curry with a Gewurztraminer from Alsace, France. But still, the classics, well...they're classic.

If you have a chance to try some of these pairings or if there is a classic pairing you like, please let me know by
emailing me, posting a comment here on the blog, or contacting me on Facebook. Make sure to check out Cru Wine Online to learn more about food and wine pairing and how to received daily wine & recipe pairings with video.

Until next week, thanks for reading.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director

Monday, September 6, 2010

Top Ten Lesser Known Wine Grapes

Wine consumption has exploded here in the United States over the last decade. In 2009 we became the number one consumer of wine (by volume) consuming more than 750 million gallons of fermented grape juice. But of that astonishing number, almost 90% of the wines consumed were made up of one or more of the following grapes: Riesling, Pinot Gris (Pinot Grigio), Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah (Shiraz). I have deemed these grapes "The Great 8." With some 5000+ grape varieties used in wine production, I wanted to give a shout out to the less common varieties. Here are the top ten lesser-known wine grapes.

1. Aligote
Aligote is a white wine producing grape varietal native to the Burgundy region of France. Often referred to as Burgundy's "other" white grape, it takes a back seat to the greater Chardonnay grape in the region. Aligote is thin-skinned and well known for its apparent, almost tangy acidity. In good vintages, when grown on the best sites in Burgundy, the grape can rival the quality Chardonnays of the region. In Burgundy, Aligote grows in Chablis, the Cote d'Or and the village of Bouzeron within the greater Cote Challonaise region. In Bouzeron, the Aligote variety is king making 100% of the wines produced.

Beyond wine, Aligote is known for its role in the production of Kir, a French liqueur from Burgundy made of white wine (Aligote) and black currants. Outside of Burgundy, the grape is gaining popularity in Eastern Europe and ex-soviet countries with plantings in Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. The grape also grows in the United States. Producer Jed Steele makes a dynamite value white using Aligote from Washinton State under his Shooting Star line. Aligote can make some fun, refreshing wines when done well.

2. Picpoul (blanc)
Picpoul, meaning "lip stinger," is an ancient grape varietal native to the southern French region of Languedoc. After Phylloxera devastated Europe in the 19th century, the grape became almost extinct. It was revived in the 20th century by the then booming Vermouth industry. Today the grape's popularity continues to grow, and when done well makes fabulous crisp whites in the Midi, specifically from the Coteaux du Langeudoc Picpoul de Pinet. The wines from Picpoul de Pinet are dry, medium to full-bodied, and display a refreshing acidity with lemon flavors. A delightful find if you can get your hands on one.

3. Torrontes
Torrontes is native to the northwest Galicia region of Spain. Like many varietals, the grape found its way to South America and has become a staple varietal in Argentina over the last decade. The popularity of Argentinian wines in the new millennium resulted in an ocean of good quality wines from the country. Argentinian producers spent the early part of the 2000's creating a cult-like following for their signature Malbec grape, native to France.

As their portfolios grew many producers looked for a white wine producing varietal to share in the popularity of their famous red. For fear of creating a calling card with a Great 8 grape variety producers from the region found success in the lesser-known Torrontes grape. Today much of the quality Torrontes is grown in the warmer, northern Argentinian region of Salta. Torrontes from Argentina is full-bodied, clean, and refreshing with an incredibly aromatic profile that is almost Muscat-like, displaying aromas of flowers and lush green apples.

4. Verdejo
Verdejo is regarded as one of the highest quality white wine producing varietals in Spain. The grape, native to Spain, shows best in the Rueda region. In Rueda, the grape is often blended with Sauvignon Blanc to make full-bodied, aromatic, herbaceous whites with nutty characteristics, that can age for the better part of a decade. Verdejo continues to gain international attention, with producers like Shaya (Jorge Ordonez) and Paso Y Paso making outstanding examples for under $15. Verdejo should not be confused with Verdelho, the Portuguese grape used in the production of Madeira.

5. Vermentino
Vermentino is a white wine producing grape variety that grows in both Italy and France. In Italy the grape is most popular on the island of Sardinia (Sardegna), most notably in the Vermentino di Gallura DOCG (DOCG is Italy's highest tier of quality wines). The grape also grows on the French island of Corsica, where it is sometimes called Malvoise de Corse because many believe it to be related to the Malvasia grape. The most exciting examples of Vermentino come from the South of France in the Languedoc and Rousillion regions as well as Provence. In Provence the grape is called Rolle. When done well, Vermentino makes white wines that can be described as aromatic and lively.

6. Bonarda
Bonarda is a red wine producing grape varietal native to Northwest Italy. In Italy the grape is best known for its work in the Oltrepo Pavese region of Lombardy, where it is used on its own and in blends. Outside of Italy, the grape flourishes in Argentina, where it's the second most widely planted red variety, shadowed only by Malbec.

In the 19th century Argentina won its independence from Spain. From 1870 to 1960 the country saw a steady flow of Italian migration, and today nearly 60% of the population has some degree of Italian descent. This is why we see such a presence of the Italian Bonarda variety. Because with travelers came culture, cuisine, and wine. In Argentina the grape is made into light, juicy reds. Like the Italians, Argentinian producers also use the grape in blends.

7. Cinsaut
Cinsaut, sometimes written Cinsault, is a red wine producing varietal most commonly found in Southern France. While French producers do make wine using just the Cinsaut grape, it's widely prized for its light, soft, juicy, perfume-like characteristics that make it a perfect grape for blending. In France, the grape can be found in the Languedoc, Provence, Rhone and Corsica regions. In the Rhone the grape is most notably blended in the production of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Outside of France, the varietal has plantings in Africa. In Northern Africa, Cinsaut is used in Algeria and Morocco making both red and rosé wines. In South Africa the grape's popularity stems from a totally different type of blending. The country's calling card is Pinotage. The Pinotage grape, like many of us, gets its name from its parents: Pinot Noir and Cinsaut. In South Africa, Cinsaut goes by the name Hermitage because it grows in the Hermitage region of the Rhone in France, hence the name Pino-tage. Outside of Africa, the grape has plantings in the United States, where California producers are experimenting with both single varietal Cinsault as well as blends.

8. Dolcetto
Dolcetto is a completely underrated red wine producing grape varietal best known for its work in Northwest Italy. The grape thrives in the Italian Piedmont region, where it's used in the production of Dolcetto d'Alba, Dolcetto d'Asti, Dolcetto d'Grinolino, Dolcetto d'Dogliani and Dolcetto d'Ovada to name a few. When produced in a responsible manner, the grape displays delightful low-acid reds, perfect for early drinking. These lively wines show flavors of cherry and almonds and can last for up to five years. This makes them great everyday-drinkers from the Piedmont region, which is best known for producing age-worthy wines like Barolo and Barbaresco from the Nebbiolo grape. Outside of Italy, Dolcetto grows on an extremely limited scale in Argentina.

9. Petit Verdot
Petit Verdot is a thick-skinned red wine producing grape varietal native to Bordeaux, France. In Bordeaux, the grape is planted in small quantities and is mainly used by the most quality-conscious left bank producers in their blends. When used in blending, the grape adds color, depth, structure, and a perfume-like characteristic.

Producers in California also use the grape in blends, but single varietal examples also exist. When made on its own, the wines produced are age-worthy, displaying a big, robust, tannic profile with spicy characteristics. Outside of France and California, the grape also grows in Australia, specifically Riverland. One of the most notable producers of single varietal Petit Verdot is Pirramimma, whose Petit Verdot is considered a benchmark by many wine critics. Small plantings of the grape also exist in Chile.

10. Tannat
Tannat is a red wine producing grape varietal native to Southwest France (Basque). Here the grape thrives in the production of Madiran and Irouleguy. In Madiran the grape is often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc and ages for up to 2 years in oak barrels. The end result is a full-bodied wine with dark fruit characteristics. In Irouleguy the grape is used to make hearty reds and roses. Tannat is also used in blending around the village of Cahors, which is known for its full-bodied reds made from Malbec (called Cot). The wines produced from Tannat are often described as rustic, with firm tannins displaying dark berry fruit.

Outside of France, the grape's home away from home is Uruguay, where it is the country's most famous red varietal. Sometimes called Harriague in Uruguay, the grape seems to fend better in warmer climates. Here it produces softer, riper reds, with raspberry and blackberry characteristics. Small plantings of Tannat also exist in Argentina and the United States.

There you have it, a list of the top ten lesser-known wine grapes. I wanted to put this list together to showcase a few "off the beaten path" varietals. As I mentioned earlier there are thousands of grapes used to make wine, these ten were the ones I felt gave a small taste of what is out there. You may have tasted wines made from these ten varietals before or seen them on shelves, perhaps you didn't even realize it. They are fun finds, and can make for remarkable values in some cases because you don't have to pay for the name. As United States wine consumption continues to grow, so will retail sales. An increase in wine sales will force many overwhelmed retailers to hire wine geeks or pay closer attention to the global market and start looking for interesting wines. I hope this blog will help open the door to a new era of exploratory wine drinking and ultimately fun and enjoyment.

If you have a chance to try some of these wines or if there are any "lesser known" grapes you like, please let me know by emailing me, posting a comment here on the blog, or contacting me on Facebook.

Until next week, thanks for reading.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director