I am horrified by myself. How is it possible that in a year of blogging, I haven't reviewed wine from a beloved region that I recommend to everyone? I should fire myself for this gross oversight!
When I first discovered Alsace in the Boston Center for Adult Education wine class that started my love of wine, it opened the world of white wine to me. Drinking wines from Alsace for the first time was like discovering an unexpected waterfall in the middle of a forest. It was like seeing Michelangelo's David. I swear if I close my eyes when I drink this stuff I'm transported to a sensory paradise. For me, the wine of Alsace is a pinnacle of whites.
Ah, Alsace. If there was a contest to find a wine region of maximum bloodshed and conflict in Europe, this tiniest of all French wine regions would be a top contender. It's a good thing so many people appreciate it because the region has been through hell and back and it deserves recognition! Germany and France have been fighting over this wine gem for centuries. I'd love to tell you that it was because of the vineyards, but that would kind of violate my overly honest nature so I can't. It's just old-fashioned imperialism and land grab.
Why? Location, location, location. You see, poor Alsace is nestled between the Vosges Mountains on the French side and the Rhine River, Germany's pride and joy. The folks there have been part of a ping-pong match for centuries and most speak 3 languages -- German, French, and their own dialect Alsacien. You never know who may be ruling you next, so you better cover all the bases, I guess.
Taken by the Germans in both World Wars, vineyard sites were decimated and the best vines uprooted so that the luscious Riesling of the area wouldn't compete with Germany's wine crown jewel. It wasn't until Nazi Germany fell that Alsace was able to replant its best grapes on the premium, steep hillsides. And for the last 65 years things have been getting better and better. Alsace seems firmly part of France now, and Strasbourg is the seat of the EU Parliament and a very strategic, important center for European political life. It's a calmer, gentler place.
Still, I've never been there (it's high on the list), but apparently history is preserved. Dotted with tiny villages with castles and fortresses from pre-Roman days forth, wine is big business here. There are 2000 growers in the area and 90% of the wine is white. The Vosges block the rain and storms from continental France, so Alsace has a long, cool, dry growing season. The vineyards are high on hills and the whites grown here have time to ripen but not bake in the sun. The result is a style that's fat and oily (I'm not making this up), with juicy flavor but still a great dose of mineral and acid texture. It is nirvana for white.
Part of the reason I love Europe is because most of the wines are blends. That means that you get the best of all worlds because the flavors of each grape can complement the others. That said, every rule does have an exception, and Alsace is it. The Germans like to keep things very cut and dried and their influence on wine is certainly felt -- nearly all wines are labeled with the grape name, making those who are uncomfortable with European regions feel right at home.
There are a bunch of different grapes grown in Alsace, but only 8 are considered high class. Riesling (the most widely planted), Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Muscat, Pinot Blanc, Sylvaner, Chasselas and Pinot Noir are the main grapes of the region. To be honest, you really won't see any Sylvaner, Chasselas, or Pinot Noir en masse at the wine shop or on menus. These are more for domestic consumption and are secondary to the first 5 on the list. You will see Muscat, and although Pinot Blanc is bottled alone, it is also made into Cremant d'Alsace -- an amazing alternative to Champagne for a much more attractive price.
The real gems of Alsace are dry yet fantastic Riesling and Gewurztraminer (if you think of this wine as sweet, you need to seek out a dry one from Alsace. It has all of the teashop flavors with none of cloying sweetness), and unbelievable Pinot Gris. Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are the same grape, but are worlds apart in style. Where Pinot Grigio is acidic and tart with a zippy, acidic finish, Pinot Gris is...well, let me show by example and talk about Jean Albrecht.
To quote my sister, for this winery "this ain't their first rodeo." Romanus Albrecht started his vineyard in Alsace in 1425. Jean Albrecht is an 18th generation winemaker. Let that sit for a second. EIGHTEEN centuries. These folks were pioneers in the region and they have stuck it out through thick and thin to make great wine. Jean Albrecht has it in his blood and when he says his philosophy is to "respect the grape," I believe him. Here's what I think of his Pinot Gris...
The Wine: Jean Albrecht Pinot Gris Reserve
Where It's From: Alsace, France
The Grapes: 100% Pinot Gris
Color: Seriously, this wine was the color of a saxophone. Golden and brassy and shining in my glass. I hoped this rich color (not from oak since they don't oak wines in this part of the world) meant that the wine would be rich and ripe.
Smell: Honey, honey, and more honey! Pooh Bear would be happy. Green apple, which is typical of Pinot Gris and some nuttiness overlaid with melon and jasmine tea had me salivating. MC Ice was looking at me like I was crazy because I just kept "mmmmmmmm...." -ing. A final sniff and the coup d'grace for me -- it smelled like a rocky, freshwater stream. What a contrast of fruit and mineral, and what a stunner. At this point I was so into the nose it was hard to taste the stuff. If I could smell this wine everyday, I would be in heaven. Maybe they'll make a Pinot Gris air freshener someday.
Taste: So I guess I wouldn't mind tasting it everyday either. I kid you not, this wine tastes like a pan of green and red apples, baked, with butter and honey on them and just a touch of almond liqueur. That would be good alone, but then there's this rich texture. Acid and minerals like the stream I smelled were in the backdrop and then this round, full, oily, smoother-than-satin texture just coated my mouth. It didn't hang around or cloy, because the wine is fruity but definitely not sweet (people confuse these two things but if you plug your nose and put your tongue in the wine, you'll find that your tongue senses no sweetness). Everything I'd expect from a Alsace wine and more.
Food: This was heaven with grilled halibut. The richness of the fish and the simplicity of preparation (a touch of too-old-to-drink Sauvignon Blanc, butter, lemon, and herbs with the fish allowed this pairing to shine!) was pure magic. A classic pairing is Alsace Pinot Gris with game and rich autumn stews, but I'm not going to stop drinking it because of the weather, so halibut it is for me! That and mild cheese with crackers -- killer pairings both.
Drink or Down the Sink?: Oh, I'm sure you were guessing on this one. I love it. I'm thrilled to have tried this wine and if you haven't had a wine from this part of France and you like white wines with some oomph, get this or any other from the region ASAP!
I kind of like the blog and I think some of you do too, so I'm not going to fire myself, as I posited at the beginning of this ode to Alsace, but I will make a vow to write more on Alsace. There's so much more to taste, and to share about the producers and the history of this place that I just adore.
Thanks for reading!
June 23, 2010
I am horrified by myself. How is it possible that in a year of blogging, I haven't reviewed wine from a beloved region that I recommend to everyone? I should fire myself for this gross oversight!
June 14, 2010
A few years back when I worked for a monstrously large winery, I refused to live in the factory town in which it was headquartered. Perhaps it was fact that two women from the town were sadly murdered in very public, national incidents, or maybe it was the alarming number of meth addicts, or possibly it was the tallow plant which coughed out the most vomitanous smell in the entire world, but any way you slice it, I wasn't doing it.
What was my other option? Living near the Livermore Valley -- a 55 minute commute and right in the neighborhood of wine country. So when Concannon Winery, one of the oldest wineries in this valley, recently sent me some samples of their new Conservancy Wines, I was happily nostalgic for times that MC Ice and I tasted wines locally and hit some of the 40 or so wineries in Livermore.
Livermore Valley, about 50 minutes east of San Fran, has produced wine since the late 1800s. It's inland, but it still gets coastal fog and cool breezes from the San Fran Bay so although it's hot during the day, the cooler nights allow the fruit to gather up a little acid and actually have something going on besides overripe apples and wood. The valley boasts the distinction of being home to the first California wine to win a French competition, taking the prize at the 1889 Paris Exposition (World Fair).
After effectively being closed down due to Prohibition, Livermore Valley sprang back and had as many vineyards as Napa in the 1960s, but I guess it lacked the moxy or the quality or both to get the street cred it needed to be a "hot" area. It's a relatively small region -- Wente, who I've reviewed before, makes 300,000 cases of wine and is the giant of the area (to put this into perspective, I managed a smaller brand for the monstrous winery and it sold around 300,000 cases per year). Concannon is the second largest, but with just 30,000 cases a year.
Concannon has been around since 1884 and survived prohibition by making wine for the church. Petite Sirah is what it's know for, having introduced the first varietally labeled one to the market in 1961. James Concannon is the fourth generation winemaker, and still works with his father to ensure consistency in the wine.
The wine was sent my way because it's part of a new Conservancy Tier. This means that the winery realized that suburban sprawl was taking over the Livermore Valley, so it set aside some land to protect it from home builders. The fruit for the wine is sourced 100% from Livermore Valley vineyards.
The web site boasts that the winery is sustainable and part of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, which, although I respect Concannon, I have to say is a bunch of hooey made up by big wine companies so they can get a marketing bounce for using the word "sustainable" but do very little for the environment (let's just say that the world's 2 biggest wineries are on the board of this organization and criteria like shutting off lights when you leave a room count towards your score, and I don't think there are consequences for dumping in the rivers or polluting streams). I'm not impressed, but I'm also kind of a green advocate, so take it as you will.
Regardless of this last comment, I do love the Concannon story and I like the winery, but I'm kind of lukewarm on the wines I received, as you'll see. Here's the skinny on both:
Wine 1: Concannon Conservancy Chardonnay
Where It's From: Livermore Valley
The Grapes: 100% Chardonnay
Color: California Chardonnay rarely strays from form on the color -- it's golden yellow and shiny and bright. Why? Because the oak tannins darken up the color of the juice from straw-colored to that rich yellow. You just know you're going to be plucking a proverbial splinter or two from your gums from all the oak.
Smell: This wine was very typical of Cali Chardonnay -- bright red and green apple and ripe, juicy, dripping pear nectar oozed from the glass. A second sniff and we're in some Caribbean town, smelling a guava, papaya, and pineapple fruit salad. And then the two by four -- big oak, chemical and paint, mineral, and caramel smells abounded. Not unpleasant, but not surprising either. It's what I find kind of typical of a wine from this area.
Taste: Interestingly, the wine tasted a lot more like lemon and lime than the tropical fruit that it smelled of. It was pretty fresh-tasting and seemed like it had high acid (although the wine note shows that it's moderate acid, so I'm not sure why it was so clean). But there was literally an oak tree and stick of butter living together in this bottle, waiting to be uncorked. That said, the wine wasn't that heavy -- it's an interesting one for sure.
Food: Some sort of light meat in an herb sauce or heavy fish, or heavy vegetarian dish with a cream sauce, or potatoes or cheese is the way to go with this. Because the wine is pretty flavorful, I'd say your best pairing is complementary, not contrasting -- this would drown out a light acidic sauce in a heartbeat.
Drink or Down the Sink?: I don't usually prefer big, oaky wines, but this was ok. I liked the lemony, herby qualities of the wine and found they offset the overt creamy, oakiness. Would it be my first choice in Chardonnay? Probably not, but it's certainly at the top of the list when it comes to $15 California Chardonnay because it's not the typical profile.
Wine 2: Concannon Conservancy Petite Sirah
If you're not familiar with Petite Sirah, generally it's a dark, acidic, full, and tannic grape that's fruit forward. It’s related to true Syrah from the Rhône Valley of Southern France, and is the love child of this grape and another more obscure variety (Peloursin). Although originally from France, it's frowned on there (where it's called Durif) and it really has found a home in Cali, where it smells and tastes like fresh herbs, black pepper, plum, and blueberry. Compared to Syrah, it is less complex, and fruitier.
Where It's From: Livermore Valley
The Grapes: 97% Petite Sirah, 3% Petit Verdot
Color: This is a dark daddy of a wine. It was almost opaque in color -- a deep, dark ruby -- inky. There were heavy, stained tears running down the glass showing that this was a wine of high alcohol (13.5% is pretty high). I expected big things -- when a wine has that much pigment, flavor usually follows. Optimism for good tastes by the looks of it.
Smell: A pretty complex smell wafted out of this glass -- black pepper, wet earth, mocha, and vanilla came first. Then there were some sweet smells of black plum, blackberry, cinnamon, and tobacco leaves. It was a nice nose, but a little bit of a cilia singer -- the alcohol went right up my snout and nearly made me sneeze (or maybe that was the black pepper? I kid, it's the alcohol).
Taste: Urgh. I had such high hopes. Why didn't this deliver? Orange sherbet came to mind first, them plum, dark flowers/rose petal, black tea, and a little bit of clove. The wine was creamy and had moderate tannins. It all sounds great, but there was just something missing: POWER. I expect Petite Sirah to have a certain brawn, and this one was watered down. There wasn't the brash, unapologetic flavors I want out of this wine. Even if I suspended what I knew about Petite Sirah, I would still find this wine slightly flat. I've had Concannon's Petite Sirah (not the Conservancy line, obviously, since this is new) and it's got might behind it. This one -- just too light bodied and not enough gusto to make the cut for me.
Food: Normally, I'd say grilled meats with Petite Sirah, but for this, you may want to do roasted chicken, or salmon, or veggie kabobs.
Drink or Down the Sink?: I didn't pour it down the sink, but I didn't savor this one either. It was a real snoozer.
Although I applaud the efforts of the Concannon family for trying to preserve land and use it for traditional farming (and I appreciate them for sending me the wine), I hope that future vintages have a little more finesse to them. This winery knows Petite Sirah, so there's no reason they won't get it right. But I'll have to wait until the next vintage to see...
June 9, 2010
Nah, I'm not going to tell a bad joke.
But I am writing this post because I get lots of questions from people about closure...and I don't mean about how to separate yourself emotionally from a relationship.
I'm talking screwcaps, corks, synthetic corks, spigots -- you know, wine stuff. So when I was recently sent a few samples of the latest technology in boxed wine from Underdog Wine Merchants (that's my disclosure, but you'll see I'm not biased here even though they were complimentary), I thought I'd use the opportunity to talk about this hot topic.
Before we get started, I guess I should address why wine has to be sealed in the first place. It's not just because the FDA thinks it's a good idea. The reason: you've got to keep oxygen out or the stuff turns to vinegar. This is something that winemakers figured out early on, and since then they've been trying to protect wine with the tightest seal they can. Below are the four main ways they do it today.
Here's a nerdy fact: before cork came into fashion in the 1600s, the French used oil-soaked rags to stop up bottles. That said, cork is really the oldest bottle stopper that we still use. There's some evidence of cork being used by the founders of Western civilization too -- the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans often used cork to stop up hand-blown glass bottles or amphora.
About 60% of all wines today are sealed with cork. Where does it come from? A tree that has bark with a cool cell structure. The bark is squishy and light because it has a honeycomb shape whose little pockets are filled with gas. The elasticity allows it to take the shape of a bottle neck and its relative impermeability means the wine is safe from taking in too much air. Cork's distinct advantage over other closures: it does let a tiny bit of air into the wine so it's great for aging because the juice can take in oxygen and change its structure gradually, developing layers of flavor over time.
An ancillary benefit to cork is that it's a sustainable product -- it's recyclable, biodegradable, and renewable. Cork forests prevent desertification in areas where it's a risk and they give habitat to endangered species. 50% of cork comes from Portugal and the rest is mostly from Spain and North Africa.
The real downside of cork: it can be affected by a chemical compound and skunk your wine really easily. There are tons of studies done on this stuff and somewhere between 2% and 8% of all wines are affected by that nasty wet basement, musty smell associated with the TCA, which is the compound. That said, for aging wines, it's the only way to go and if you're into the environment, this is the best option for being environmentally friendly.
Fake Cork/Plastic Cork/Synthetic Cork/Pain in the Arse to Get Back in the Bottle Cork
The best feature of this closure is that you don't have to worry that your wine will have cork taint. The TCA compound only likes cork, not injection molded synthetic material, so the wine will be sound. Also, the synthetics create such a tight seal that they don't really let any oxygen in, so for wines that are meant to be consumed quickly and don't need aging this can keep them fresher.
To the negative --- the thing is, fake corks are a total pain in the arse to get out of the bottle and even more trouble to get back in. If you don't have a vacu-vin handy (which you should -- they're awesome), trying to shove one of these back in the bottle is like solving a Rubik's cube. I guess on the plus side, it's so frustrating that it will make you want to drink, hence you'll finish the bottle and avoid the issue of recorking, but it's annoying to have to make the attempt. I also think (and so do a lot of other wine dorks) that there is a chemical flavor associated with wines under synthetic cork. Look for it next time - it's kind of plastic-like. Ick.
The final issue with these -- not good for the environment. Although the manufacturers argue that cork is in short supply and that harvesting cork destroys the trees, it's kind of not true. There is enough cork to last for at least a century now and cork manufacturers are working on ways to keep up with demand. Cork trees aren't destroyed when the bark is harvested, so they can be re-harvested about every 9 years or so. As a last ding, plastic corks can't be recycled in a lot of places because of the kind of material used.
All in all, I'd say this is my least favorite closure and arguments for it are jinky at best.
Look, I know that for years only giant, insipid, watery jug wines used screw caps, but that was the 70s and 80s. In the last 10 years or so, screw caps have picked up steam and have lots of believers. I love screw caps, especially for white wines because they let NO air in at all, so the wine is usually very fresh-tasting and clean. Some argue that the seal is too tight and sometimes a sulfur-like chemical smell gets trapped in the bottle, but I haven't found that to be true. For a wine that needs no aging, who could ask for a more convenient solution than a screw cap? It makes the wine last 2 days longer than a cork because it doesn't let air in even after you recap it, and you don't need any gadget to get it open.
If you haven't been drinking wines with screw caps because you think they are of poor quality, give it another look. Super high quality producers use them. Producers in the Clare Valley of Australia make high quality Riesling and in the 2000 vintage they banded together to put everything under screw cap and never looked back. It sparked a revolution in Australian wines, and then their distant neighbors to the south followed with more passion for the idea -- now about 70% of New Zealand's wine is bottled under screw cap. Don't miss out on these because you are wary of the screw. Give it a go.
If these arguments don't fly with you, know that the French came up with the screw cap and if they are willing to use it, you should be too.
Boxed Wine -- a Closure and a Holder
So this really covers the vessel and the closure/dispenser, but I'm going to write about the whole thing because it ties in well.
Australia was the first to think up the idea of a bladder in a box in the 1960s and its been pretty successful at the low end of the wine spectrum. A great blog on the wine industry from a business perspective covers boxed wines really elegantly. Check out The Wine Economist's Post on Box for great info and insights.
To give you my take, when I think boxed wine, I think of the time I was working for a huge winery in CA and went to South Carolina to work with a sales rep. He told me that the new thing on college campuses was the "Tour de Franzia," where kids would remove a bladder of wine from a Franzia box, stick it in a CamelBak holder, attach the CamelBak straw and drink the entire bladder.
College students are nothing if not enterprising. I guess that's one way to make your dollar stretch, since a 5L box of Franzia costs about $10. But, ew.
That said, I do try to keep an open mind and I know, logically and from seminars and reading, that boxed wine bladders do keep it quite fresh for a long time (like 6 weeks long). For summer sipping or a bigger party, this would be ideal. But then the quality issue rears its ugly head. Let's face it -- it's usually cheap plonk that goes in those boxes and nothing you'd want to drink, let alone serve to friends.
With these ideas in mind, it was great that I was given an opportunity to try a boxed wine recently.
I have to give Underdog Wine Merchants credit for going the boxed route and for doing it in a cool way. They sent me an Octavin of Monthaven Chardonnay and one of Big House Red. What's an Octavin? An 8-sided box with a bladder in it and a spigot, of course! It fits in the door of the fridge, holds 3 liters of wine (4 bottles) and it looks cool. Other pluses -- it's only $20, which means each bottle is about $5 and it reduces waste by about 90%, according to them. It's easily recycled and you get about 20 glasses out of it, so theoretically these boxes are great for weeknight wine. What could be easier than putting the box in the fridge and turning a spigot after a hard day?
Great concept but although the quality of these wines is certainly better than Franzia or Carlo Rossi, and although I'm a huge proponent of being more sustainable, these wines just aren't high enough quality for me to buy them on a regular basis. The Monthaven was ok if served ice cold, but the Big House Red didn't cut it for me. I'm not sure if it lost its spunk in the box, but after a glass or two I left it to MC Ice to finish the rest in the coming weeks.
So arises the persistent issue with boxes -- consumers think boxed wines are cheap, so high quality producers won't "go there" and the lower middle range is not good enough for me to want 3 liters of it.
The bottom line -- boxed wines are getting better, but I'd rather pay extra to get something I really enjoy drinking. Screw cap is just as easy to open as a spigot.
So I hope this provided some closure on closures (couldn't resist, sorry). Let me know your thoughts, questions, comments, etc.
I used a few sources for this post:
Cork Facts (biased, but interesting and somewhat substantiated)
Wine Anorak (I love this UK-Based blog and Jamie Goode has done extensive work on closures)
The International Screwcap Initiative (formerly the New Zealand Screwcap Initiative)
The Wine Economist (really interesting stuff on the economics and practicality of the box)