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Friday, September 15, 2017

The Country that Shaped the Wine World: ENGLAND !

Many of you may be scratching your head regarding how England could have played such an unparalleled role in the historical development of wine.  Indeed, Bordeaux, Champagne, Port, Marsala, and Madeira wines all owe their existence today to the English.  The reasons for this are intriguing and encompass royal kingdoms, dowries, shipping fortunes, and wars. 

Southwest France becomes part of the British Empire

                           Eleanor of Aquataine's dowry gave England control of Bordeaux

Let’s start with how profound the English influence has been in the Bordeaux wine business.  Queen Eleanor (wife of France’s King Louis VII) was one of the most powerful and wealthiest women in Europe during the 12th century.  She later married King Henry II of England.  Her dowry comprised all of Southwestern France, including Bordeaux.  This royal union of France and England produced many things, including one of Europe’s most famous monarchs (Richard the Lion-hearted, Eleanor and Henry’s son), as well as the English love affair with Bordeaux wines.

As the entire region of Bordeaux came under English rule, King Henry extended favorable trade privileges to Bordeaux's merchants to ship their wines to England.  This allowed Britain to receive Bordeaux wines far in advance of other European countries, and at far better rates.  While Bordeaux wine wasn’t cheap, it was the preferred beverage of the English upper class and monarchy.  Profits were massive as volume was extraordinary.  Records from the early 1300’s show that wine shipments between Bordeaux and England accounted for the largest shipping traffic in the world at the time. 

The English birthed the Port wine industry 

            Port was shipped downstream on small boats for loading on England-bound ships

Then, came the Hundred Year War between England and France.  By now the English were smitten with Bordeaux’s red wines which essentially became unavailable during the war.  English importers sailed further south to the northern part of Portugal for their red wines.   As the shipping journey was considerably longer than from Bordeaux, alcohol was added to prevent spoilage during the lengthy journey.  As British demand for Port (fortified wine with alcohol) grew, London merchants and their families moved to Portugal to oversee their empires and control their costs.  Interestingly, many of these original English families still control the Port industry today (e.g. Croft, Dow, Graham, Symington and Taylor).

The Brits put the bubbles in Champagne

                                     2 absolutely profound elements were added by the Brits

Now, let’s fast forward from Portugal to the Champagne district of Northern France.  In the 1600’s the wine produced in the Champagne countryside was “still” wine….there were no bubbles.  An English physician and scientist by the name of Christopher Merret was the first to discover how to make sparkling wine.  (This fact is often incorrectly attributed to the French monk Dom Perignon).   The Brits further played another role in the groundwork for the Champagne industry.  It was England’s Royal Navy that invented the thicker glass bottles to prevent Champagne bottles from exploding under the higher pressures.  Without these two important English contributions, Champagne as we know it today wouldn’t exist.

English merchants promoted Madeira

                                            The Brits had a love affair with Madeira island 

Next, there’s Madeira wine.  Like Bordeaux, Port and Champagne, the English played a pivotal role in the Madeira wine business, especially in the shipping of these wines to the rest of the world.  One of their most popular routes was to the British Colonies in America.  Madeira was considered to be the most important wine of the colonists.   In fact, it was so popular that George Washington used Madeira to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Marsala’s Origin is English

                    While Marsala can be an aperitif or dessert wine, it is also used in cooking

Marsala is another wine that owes its global success to the English.   A fortified wine, like Madeira and Port, Marsala is credited to a British merchant in the mid-1700’s who first added distilled spirits to the local wines surrounding the city of Marsala in Sicily.   This fortification with brandy was used to keep the wines from spoiling during their voyage on the ship back to England.  Marsala became so popular in England that British merchants soon descended on Sicily to increase production and commercialization of the beverage.

The Brits seed the New World

                 The British Empire in the 18th century reached nearly every corner of the globe

In addition to promoting wines in the American colonies, the Brits were also influencing wine habits in their Empire.  Settlers from Britain immigrated to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand and with them they brought vines for making wine. Centuries later, while no longer a part of the British Empire, these countries are known for producing quality wine.  And, their wines are widely exported back to England.

England is finally making its own wines

                    Churchill would be thrilled with England's new-found sparkling wine fame

Today, after more than 900 years of influencing the development of the modern wine business, England is finally producing its own wines.  While production is still relatively small, English wines have captured the attention of the wine world by winning competitions and acing out many of the globe's most prestigious brands. England's sparkling wines have been getting lots of traction, beating out in blind tastings famous Champagne houses such as Veueve Clicquot, Tattinger and even Winston Churchill's favorite Champagne, Pol Roger.

In summary, more than any other nation in the world, England has influenced throughout history the course of wine.  Wine-Knows will be visiting England in June 2019.  Join us to learn about England’s impressive new lineup of wines, in addition to Stilton cheese and Bombay Gin.  The trip is detailed at

Friday, September 8, 2017

Harvest Terms You Need to Know

September in the Northern Hemisphere is a huge month for winemakers.  Wine lovers should be aware of the following vocabulary, especially if you’re visiting a winery:

  • Alcoholic fermentation:   the conversion of grape sugar to alcohol

  • Battonage:  stirring the wine during fermentation so that the liquid has contact with the lees (the solids)

  • Brettanomyces:  bad yeast that causes wines to spoil

  • Brix:  measurement of the amount of sugar in the grape

  • Carbonic maceration: fermenting whole clusters of grapes that have not been crushed

  • Fining:  process used to clarify the wine (egg whites are used by many)

  • Free-run juice:  juice that has not been pressed but obtained simply by the weight of the grapes themselves

  • Malo-lactic Fermention:  Known also as “ML,” this is the conversion of harsh malic acid to softer lactic acid

  • Must:  unfermented grape juice

  • Lees:  sediment that occurs during fermentation (includes spent yeasts, seeds & other solids)

  • Racking:  process of separating the wine from the sediment by moving the liquid to another barrel

  • Saignee:  French term which literally means “to bleed,” this is the process of removing some of the unfermented grape juice to increase the wine/skin ratio

  • Sulfites:  chemicals that prevent spoilage of wine

  • Tannin:  compound found in the seeds, skins and stalks of grapes

  • TCA:  abbreviation for the destructive chemical that causes cork taint

  • Topping-off:  process of filling a wine barrel that has lost wine due to evaporation

Friday, September 1, 2017

Grape Harvest 101

The wine harvest has already begun in many regions in the northern hemisphere.  There is basic vocabulary that any wine lover should know about the harvest.  This week we’ll concentrate on pre-harvest wine terminology and important facts.  Next week, we’ll address the process of actually making wine.

Green Harvest  

                             Extra fruit is pruned from the vine during green harvest

This type of “harvest” actually takes place early in the summer.   Bunches of grapes are removed from the vine, sacrificed in the name of quality (the unripened grapes are literally cut and tossed on the ground).  Fewer grapes on the vine means those that remain receive all of the nutrients, thus producing more concentrated, more complex wines.   It’s the concept that “less is more.”

         While grapes may appear ripe & have sufficient sugar, other elements may not be ripe

This is not as simple as it sounds.  It’s not just about the sugar level of grapes (known as “brix”).  Physiological ripeness, a fairly recent concept, is the key.  This means that all of the chemicals, not just sugar, inside the grape are mature.  These chemicals include components such as acids, tannins, and the phenolic components in the grape’s skins that are responsible for color, aromas and flavors.


                             The change of color, Verasion, signals the approach of the harvest

This is a French word that has become part of the English vocabulary relative to wine-making.  The term is used to describe the actual change of colors in the berry from green immature fruit to their fully ripened color.  While this color change is one element in ripening, there are many other processes occurring inside of the berry to make it physiologically ripe.

Ripening Differences Among Grape Varieties

Different varitetals ripen at different times.   Dry white wine grapes ripen earlier than most reds.  Merlot ripens earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon.  Tempranillo, from the Spanish word temprano which means “early,” is the earliest ripening red grape in Spain.  Sweet wine grapes are the last to be picked so that sugars can be maximized.

Tune in next week for a primer on the need-to-know terms associated with the wine-making process.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Italy’s Premier Bubbles

                      Nearby Lake Iseo & the Alps both help moderate the wine district’s climate

Serious lovers of Italian wines know that in addition to Barolo, Barbaresco, and Super-Tuscan, Franciacorta’s sparkling wines ranks among the primo wines produced in all of Italy.  If you have never heard of Franciacorta you’re in store for a magnifico experience, especially if you’re a connoisseur of top of the line French Champagnes. (BTW:  Don’t even think, however, of putting Franciacorta in the same category as Prosecco.  Franciacorta is about complexity, depth, breadth, finesse, and terroir.   Light-hearted Prosecco is about simplicity.)

The Franciacorta wine district is located approximately half way between Venice and Milan.  Although relatively unknown on the world-wide sparkling wine market, it’s well known among knowledgeable European wine consumers that Franciacorta produces Italy’s highest quality bubblies.  But, Franciacorta hasn’t always famous.  While this district had been producing wine for centuries, it was only for local consumption.  In the 1960’s experiments showed that the terroir was perfect for sparkling wines. Franciacorta was officially recognized as a serious sparkling wine district in 1967 when it was awarded a DOC (its own wine appellation).  Over the past 60 years the district’s growth has been impressive and quality has been pushed to the maximum.  Franciacorta is now a coveted DOCG, Italy’s highest honor for a wine district.

Like Champagne, the Franciacorta bubbles are produced with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Both wine areas use the same labor intensive process (Methode  Champenoise) where secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle.  In both wine districts sparkling wine is bottle-aged on its lees (spent yeast cells).   This aging of wine on its lees is a crucial step in the process of creating quality.  Because of E.U. laws protecting the Champagne brand, this method of making sparkling wine in Franciacorta is called Metodo Classico.  

There are two distinct differences between Franciacorta and Champagne---the first being scale, the second being history.  Champagne produces 100 times more bubblies than Franciacorta (in fact, some of the larger Champagne houses actually produce ten times more bottles than all of Franciacorta wineries combined).   While Champagne has been producing sparkling wine for about 350 years, Franciacorta is a bambino at a mere 60 years. 

Pricing?   Like Champagne, Franciacorta is not inexpensive.  Franciacorta sparkling wine begins in the $40 US range and leaps up to nearly $150 for its priciest single-vineyard bottles.   My favorite Franciacorta producers (in alpha order) are:  Bellavista, Ca Del Bosco, and Ferghettina.  

Next Fall (2018) Wine-Knows will visit Franciacorta on its tour through Northern Italy which begins in Venice and ends in the wine area famous for Barolo and Barbaresco (Piedmont).  This trip has been perfectly timed for Italy’s most famous foodie event, Piedmont’s Truffle Festival.  There are only two spaces available on this trip.  For details visit

Friday, August 18, 2017

Summer Reds

                           Pinots, Grenache and Frappoto make for great summer drinking

A light bodied red wine can be the spot-on choice for a hot summer’s day.  Perfect summertime grapes include Pinot Noir, Grenache, and Frappoto.  All of these grape varietals are thin-skinned, therefore, don’t offer a lot of tannin (not the best ingredient during the heat of the summer).

Pinot Noir, grown in cool climate areas (think Sonoma vs. Napa), is a terrific summer wine that can pair both with meats and fish.  Pinot flavor profile includes cherries and strawberries, but interesting spice or floral notes can make this varietal a compelling wine.   Pinot Noir is the hallmark grape of Burgundy, but red Burgundies are usually expensive.  For something more affordable look for great Pinots that are made in the Russian River of California… not far from the cooler Pacific Coast.  Oregon’s Willamette Valley also produces some stunners.  All Pinot Noirs below are highly recommended.

·        Russian River:  I particularly like Dehlinger.
·        Oregon:  Ponzi, Adelsheim, Domaine Droughin or Soter all produce excellent wines.
·        Burgundy:  Jadot produces both high-end, as well as some less costly wines.

Grenache is the world’s most planted red grape.  It is becoming more popular, especially among California vintners.  A Rhone varietal (one of the grapes used in Chateauneuf du Pape), it is also grown in Spain where it is known as Garnacha.  California’s Central Coast is also having very good success with this varietal, but they are using it primarily in blends.  The Grenache grape is full of red fruit flavors (strawberries and raspberries).  While it has good structure, Grenache’s tannins are background notes.  The wine works especially well with grilled chicken, but also can swing to lamb or beef.   My faves include....
  • Spain:  look no further than Arryan’s La Suerte Mentrida. 
  • Central Coast:  Best includes Tablas Creek, Zaca Mesa and Justin.
  • Chateauneuf du Pape:  Beaucastel is the bomb. 

·      Frapatto is one of my favorites for summer time.  Hailing from Sicily, Frapotto is a fun summer wine that usually everyone likes.  Relatively unknown in the US until recently, Frapotto is starting to appear on our wine lists.  Often blended with Sicily’s famous Nero d’Avola grape, Frapotto is more and more being vinified as its own varietal.  Think strawberries.   It’s a real hero with fish.  Best producers are Planeta and Orcchipenti.

     Paint the remainder of the summer Red!

Friday, August 11, 2017

Easy Drinking Summer Whites

Viognier and Vermentino are synonymous with summer.  While both of these grapes are popular in Europe, they remain mostly unknown in the US.  (But, they are increasingly popping up on our wine lists).   The two varietals can make for simple poolside drinking, but they both can also be complex, serious wines.   Viognier and Vermentino are versatile in that they can be served as an aperitif, or with a summer meal.  I especially like them with grilled fish, and they’re terrific with shellfish.  A light summer pasta (veggies & pesto, or cherry tomatoes & arugula) also work well.

Viognier hails from the Rhone Valley in France.  It is often used in blending, but in the appellation of Condrieu, it is 100% varietal.  Condrieu is ground zero for lovers of Viognier.  I am a great fan of Viognier’s perfume-like aromas (think summer honeysuckle or fragrant roses), but I also am taken with its exotic fruit profile (mango, or even sweet tangerine).  I highly recommend any of Rhone winemaker Yves Cuilleron’s Viogniers.  One of the best Viognier I’ve had outside of France is Spain’s Vall Loch from the Priorat region. Greece is also knocking it out of the park--- producer Gerovassiliou makes a killer Viognier.  For the US, I’ve not tasted anything that can beat Santa Barbara’s rendition by boutique Jaffurs Winery.  If you can find any of these Viogniers, buy every bottle they have.

Vermentino (known as Rolle in the South of France) is another rock-star summer sipping wine from the Italian Mediterranean.  Like Viognier, it can be highly aromatic.  It is similar to Sauvignon Blanc in weight and shares many of the same citrus-like qualities.  Vermentino, however, often serves up some intriguing minerality as an added bonus.  The best Vermentinos come from the island of Sardenia (Argiolas is a great producer).   Tablas Creek in Paso Robles is one of the few US producers that grows Vermentino.

Enjoy the last weeks of summer, and drink plenty of “Vitamin V.” 

Friday, August 4, 2017

Best Bargain Rosé

                                              Over 50% of Provence's wines are Rosé 

I owe this delightful discovery to a client of ours who telephoned recently about a Rosé tasting he had conducted in the Bay Area with friends. He was calling to tell us that the hands-down favorite was a French one from Trader Joes.  The price?  A whopping $6.99. My husband jumped in the car and dashed out to grab a few bottles. Our client was right.  This one, a wine from Provence, is a real winner that delivers a terrific value.  

If a Rosé could choose its birthplace it might very well choose Porvence.  First, the area is stunning.  Second, it's been making wine for >2,000 years so they've had plenty of time to get it right. Located in southern France not far from the Riviera, Provence specializes in Rosé.   I was in Provence last month at a Wine-Knows sponsored Julia Child cooking event.   Our group tasted a plethora of Rosé most of which were very good.  But, none offered the quality price ratio of the one from TJ's.

Drum roll please!  The terrific seven buck Rosé is produced by J.L. Quinson and its called Cotes de Provence, AOC (which means its from the appellation encompassing the hills of Provence).  The 2016 blend is a equal blend of Carignan and Grenache...both common grapes for the Rhone Valley of which Provence is a part. (Note:  Quinson also makes another Rosé which TJ carries called Coteaux d'Aix en Provence, so pay attention).

We're heading back to TJ's to pick up several cases for summer drinking and reminiscing about our glorious time at the Week in Provence with Julia Child.  Thank you, Marco, for this great tip!

Have a Rosé-all-day kind of weekend!