Thursday, February 15, 2024

5 Big Differences: Ribera Del Duero v. Rioja

                 Although both districts are Tempranillo-centric, the wines of the Ribera del Duero                                                                      are very different from the Rioja 

Spain’s Rioja wine area was discussed in the last Blog.  Today, we’ll focus on the neighboring Ribera Del Duero (RdD) district.  The RdD, like the Rioja, produces high quality, complex wines that have great aging potential.  While both of the wine regions are located at approximately the same latitude and only a few hours drive from one another, they are distinctly different.   Below are five significant differences between the two rock-star districts.

    The Duero River (Douro across the border in Portugal) exerts a huge influence on the RdD's terroir

1.     Terroir

Both the RdD & Rioja have major rivers that moderate their climates.  The RdD, traversed for 70 miles by the Duero River, is a 3,000 foot high plateau with baking hot summers and freezing cold winters which are tamed by this river.   Unlike the Rioja, there is no maritime influence from the Atlantic.  Furthermore, in contrast to the Rioja, the RdD’s soil is clay, silt & limestone.

                     RdD wines are more masculine than the Rioja's softer style wines

          2. Wine Characteristics

The extreme climatic conditions coupled with the heartier soils of the RdD translate to wines that tend to be more muscular than those of the Rioja.  RdD wines are typically from riper grapes of darker fruit with higher alcohol potential.  Due to its terroir, the RdD also has more assertive flavors (think black cherry & blackberry), while the Rioja offers softer red fruit flavors such as strawberry.

3.     Grapes

 Tempranillo is King in both the RdD and the Rioja.  In the RdD, however,         Tempranillo is called Tinto Fino (an actual local varietal of Tempranillo that has   adapted to the harsh terroir).  In contrast to the Rioja, the RdD also uses Cabernet   Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec for blending.

The official seal guarantees authenticity for the consumer that wine is from the RdD wine region

4.     Wine Laws

     The RdD is a wine infant in comparison to the Rioja.   The Rioja’s wine laws were established in 1925 while the RdD did not launch its regional rules until 1982.  While the Rioja is entrenched with nearly a century of laws, the new kid on the block is thinking out of the box and pushing the envelope for new ideas such as single vineyard wines.  

5.     Amounts & Types of Wine Produced

The RdD produces 98M bottles annually, however, the Rioja produces a whopping 350M bottles.  While both wine districts are red-centric producers, the RdD’s production of red wine accounts for 97% of its total.  In contrast, the 86% of the Rioja’s wines are red.   

Stay tuned for the next Blog which will showcase the wines of the Toro region that Wine-Knows' travelers will also be visiting on the October tour of Northern Spain.

Monday, February 5, 2024

5 Facts You Should Know about the Rioja

Whether you're coming with Wine-Knows on their sold-out tour to Spain this autumn or not, here's a quick summary of the top things for wine-lovers to know about the Rioja wine district.

1.  The Rioja is Spain’s most famous wine district. 

The Rioja is arguably Spain’s top wine region and certainly the most famous wine area with the exception of Jerez (Sherry) in southern Spain.  Internationally renowned, the Rioja’s prestigious wines often receive top-ratings by critics and connoisseurs.   This being said, the Rioja has increasingly had to fight off competition from the nearby Ribera Del Duero region.   Nonetheless, the Rioja is still considered Spain’s most important and finest producer of premium red wines.

                             Tempranillo, the Rioja's most famous grape, is a major part of red blends

         2.  Wines are often blended in the Rioja.

Red wines in the Rioja are traditionally a blend of traditional Spanish red grape varieties.  The base of the blend is Tempranillo, however, Garnacha (aka Grenache), Graciano and Mazuelo (aka Carignan) are also used in the blends. 


                             The Rioja is also one of Spain's most beautiful wine regions

       3.  The Rioja also produces terrific white, rose & sparkling wines.

Although the Rioja is associated mainly with red wines, the region also makes some stunning whites and rose (rosado) wines.  White Rioja (Rioja Blanco), is quite rare making up only 5-10% of the region’s wines.  Viura is the main grape of these white wines, however,  Rioja Blancos are a blend of other grapes like Garnacha Blanca, Tempranillo Blanco, Malvasia, and even Chardonnay.  Sparkling wine is also made and has been included in the Rioja's latest wine classification.

             Rioja Alavesa lies at the foot of the mountains separating the Rioja from the Atlantic

        4.  The Terroir of the Rioja is Diverse.

The Rioja wine region is about 210 square miles.  The mountains on its northern border help moderate the climate by protecting the region from the strong influences of the Atlantic.  The River Ebro flows through the region also moderates the climate, protecting it in winter from freezing temperatures and cooling it in the scalding summers.   In general, the Rioja’s soil is limestone and iron.

The Rioja is divided into 3 sub-districts based upon terroir.

~ Rioja Alavesa is the most northern of the 3 sub-regions.  It is closest to the Atlantic so the area is colder.  Soil here is limestone and clay.

~ Rioja Alta comprises the higher altitudes vineyards in the western section of the Rioja.  Soil is iron rich and clay.

 ~ Rioja Oriental (formerly called Rioja Baja) is located in the eastern section of the district and accounts for 40% of the region’s wine.  This area is composed of lower altitude vineyards.  Unlike the other two sub-districts, it is warm and dry.  Soil, washed down from higher altitudes, is high in iron.


    5.  The Rioja’s wine classification system was changed in 2018.

While aging requirements have always been present in the Rioja's wine system (Crianza 2 year minimum, Reserva 3 year minimum & Gran Reserva 5 year minimum), the biggest change in the new rules is the addition of the sparkling wine category, Gran Anada, and the allowance of single vineyard wines echoing the importance of terroir.

Stay tuned for the next article on the Ribera del Duero wine district that Wine-Knows travelers will also be visiting this October.

Monday, January 22, 2024

Champagne's Unusual Way of Pricing Grapes

                                 Champagne's grape pricing system began in the early 1900's

Did you know that the cost of grapes in the Champagne district is totally dependent upon a quality rating system based upon the village in which they are grown?  Let me explain this fascinating system used in the Champagne appellation to determine how much certain grapes are worth.

Overview of Champagne Region

The Champagne region actually begins about 75 miles east of Paris.  It is quite a large geographic area (90 miles north - south, by 70 miles east - west).  Moreover, the Champagne appellation has 318 different villages that grow grapes for the world’s most coveted bubbly.  Each village has been given a quality rating and the price of the village’s grapes are dependent upon this.

           The mountain of Reims has several villages classified as either Grand Cru or Premier Cru

Quality $ystem

Think of the Champagne vineyard rating like a ladder with 3 rungs.   The top rung composes grapes from the 17 Grand Cru designated villages.   The middle rung includes grapes from the 44 Premier Cru villages.  On the bottom rung are the grapes of the remaining 257 villages.  

Each year the price of grapes is determined by the CIVC (Comite Interprofessioanl de Vins de Champagne), a joint trade association representing both the grape growers and Champagne makers.  Once the annual price is established here’s how the three parts of the ladder are paid:

~  Grand Cru villages are paid 100% of the price

~ Premier Cru villages are paid 90-99% of the price

~ The remaining villages are paid 80-89% of the price

                          Wine-Knows' Champagne, Burgundy & the Rhone trip is sold out

If you’re one of the fortunate participants of this September’s trip, you will actually be hosted by the CIVC trade organization for a private seminar and tasting.  Additionally, you will be visiting Champagne makers with Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards.

Toasting all a healthy 2024! 


Friday, January 12, 2024

What is GSM?

                      France's Rhone River Valley is ground zero for the GSM blend

Over the past twenty years the phrase GSM has become quite popular among serious wine lovers.  Sommeliers are using the term to discuss their wine list, and tasting room personnel in California’s Central Coast wineries toss it to and fro like it was commonplace.  For those of you who are coming on our September trip to the Rhone Valley and don’t know the term, you need to know it.  GSM is code for the immensely popular Rhone blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre.  

                          GSM appears in both the north & south Rhone but in differing proportions 

The Rhone Valley is the second largest wine growing region in France.  GSM is dominant throughout both of its two sub regions, the northern & southern Rhone. Here’s a recap of these three varieties that comprise GSM.


One of the most versatile red grapes in the world, Grenache thrives in hot, dry climates such as the Rhone Valley, Spain (where it is named Garnacha), and California.  Grenache produces wines that can range from light to full-bodied; from simple inexpensive wines that offer immediate satisfaction to complex ones that are cellar worthy and do not come cheaply.  Grenache is all about fruit…strawberries, blackberries, raspberries.  That being said, the variety’s earth notes can include an interesting layering of spices such as allspice, cinnamon or pepper, as well as subtle nuances of floral notes. 

Grenache is the superstar grape in the wines of the southern Rhone.  Chateauneuf du Pape, for example, is typically a blend of 75% Grenache.  In second and third place in the south’s blend are Sryah and Mourvedre, respectively.  

                  Wine-Knows visit the famous hill of  Hermitage in the Northern Rhone


Unlike the southern Rhone where Grenache rules, Syrah is King in the Northern Rhone dominating the blend in famous wines such as Hermitage and Cote-Rotie.  In fact, DNA testing shows the Syrah grape is indigenous to the Rhone Valley.

Syrah, in contrast to Grenache, contributes not only firm tannins that make for powerfully flavored and full bodied wines, but Syrah’s very dark inky color adds  deep hues to these northern Rhones.    Similar to Grenache, on the other hand, the Syrah grape yields rich fruit flavors in the form of black cherry, blackberry and plum.  Syrah also provides a beguiling spice profile of cloves, licorice, white or black pepper, and even chocolate.  

Wine-Knows will visit the town of Chateauneuf du Pape & its famous wineries


The “M” part of GSM tends to produce deeply-colored and tannic wines that can be high in alcohol.   Mourvedre is mainly used for blending in both the northern & southern Rhone and is rarely vinified as a varietal except in the appellation of Bandol (on the Mediterranean) where the cooling maritime influence can change it into a rockstar.  Mourvedre offers earth flavors such as leather, as well as dark fruit flavors.  There is often even a patina of chocolate.

If you’re joining the Wine-Knows' harvest tour this September in France you’ll have several opportunities to sample GSM in the famous southern Rhone appellation of Chateauneuf du Pape, as well as Hermitage and Cote Rotie of the northern Rhone.  We have remaining 1-2 spaces still available for a lucky GSM lover.  But, since we’ll also be visiting Burgundy and Champagne on this same trip, Pinot Noir & bubble lovers are also welcomed!

Burgundy & Champagne – Wine-Knows Travel (



Monday, January 1, 2024

3 California Wines To Consider

     A built-in-the-round wine cellar was one of our first projects when we moved to San Diego

In 2009 when we moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to San Diego County we moved >2,000 bottles of wine down in a large, refrigerated truck.  Today our cellar has about 50% of what we transported to San Diego, and our wine purchases have slowed to a drip as we add more birthdays.  Five years ago my husband and I went on a moratorium for wine buying….my husband thought this meant “more” wine, however, after a serious talk regarding our ages we agreed that our serious wine buying days were over.   Today we rarely buy cases of wine, however, this article discusses three stellar case exceptions that were added to our cellar in 2023.

      Santa Rita Hills are the only east to west hills in Cali, thus allow the cooling influence of the sea


Santa Barbara County is making some great wines, however, Brewer Clifton (BC) produces some phenomenal wines.  Two of our three cases from 2023 came from BC.  Greg Brewer, named Winemaker of the Year in 2021, is the owner & winemaker and we were fortunate to have him meet us for a tasting.   The first case we purchased was the stunning Perilune Chardonnay sourced from fruit in the coveted Perilune vineyard of the Santa Rita Hills.   This is a limited production wine, but I can say that my love for it was limitless.  $80 bucks a bottle and worth every penny in my opinion, it’s only available at the winery (however, they ship).

The second of our year’s few cases purchased was Brewer Clifton’s Machado Vineyard Pinot Noir.  Our cellar has an enormous amount of Pinot Noir from Burgundy and California so the fact that we walked out with 12 more bottles of this variety is testimony to the quality of this wine.  After the tasting I discovered it had been given a score of 97 by a serious wine critic.  Personally, I would even rate it higher:  $90 per bottle of pure hedonistic pleasure.

       Beringer Winery, one of Napa Valley's architectural masterpieces, also makes masterful wines

Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay 2021

The last wine we purchased recently we learned of at a private autumn several-course dinner at a restaurant in San Diego where each course was paired with a different wine.   The wine distributor for the portfolio of terrific wines was present and discussed each wine.  Beringer’s Private Reserve Char was the first out of the gate and was paired with crab cakes.  Our table was the first poured of the 50 persons present, so we were able to enjoy the Char both as an aperitif and a small refill with the crab cakes.  There were 4 other great wines presented that evening but I couldn’t keep thinking about the first.  The next day I ordered a case.  I wasn’t surprised to learn that the Wine Spectator’s James Suckling had given it score of 98.  This Char has a great QP/R at $37 per bottle and is available at Total Wine.

Cheers to a healthy 2024 filled with some memorable wines!






Thursday, December 21, 2023

Roll Out the RED Carpet for the Holidays!

                                                       Chambord screams holiday splurge!

This blog's theme for the month of December has been the color red.  The last in the trio of articles is about the scarlet red-colored liqueur Chambord.  Made from a melange of berries (e.g. raspberries, currants and blackberries), Chambord is named after the illustrious Chateau Chambord in France's Loire Valley where a drink using a similar berry liqueur was served to King Louis XIV nearly 400 years ago.

Chambord is a premium liqueur that uses XO French Cognac as its base, along with Madagascar vanilla, Moroccan citrus, and exotic spices such as cinnamon, cloves and ginger.   While the French Chambord brand was birthed in the 1980's in France, in 2006 it was purchased by the American liquor conglomerate Brown-Forman who owns famous brands such as Jack Daniels, Finlandia, and several Scotch companies.   

A Chambord Spritz with a sprig of mint makes for a perfect holiday aperitif

With a bottle that is instantly recognizable behind a bar, Chambord has become a favorite of many mixologists for its flavor profile and intense red color.  Perhaps the most famous aperitif made with Chambord is a deluxe Kir Royale (often called a Kir Imperial), where a couple of teaspoons are added to a flute of Champagne (the non-deluxe version uses Creme de Cassis, a less expensive berry liqueur).   It's not unusual to see such drinks as a Chambord Moscow mule, Chambord gin fizz, or even a Chambord margarita on upmarket bar drink lists.

Chambord is on the pricey side, but remember a little goes a long way.  While the large bottle is beautiful, I suggest you consider a smaller one.  Once opened, the liqueur only lasts about six months.  After that period Chambord oxidizes and turns an orange-brown with an off-putting taste. 

Toasting you Happy Holidaze with a Kir Imperiale!

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

"Seeing Red" for the Holidaze

                      These oven-ready lamb-stuffed piquillos are a stunning holiday show-stopper

"Red" is the theme for December's blog and this will be the second article in a three-part Holiday series.  Today we pay tribute to the neon-red colored piquillo pepper from Spain.  In case you don't know them, piquillos are sweet, smoky flavor-bombs that can be served multiple ways.  Their color and the fact that they can be easily stuffed with a huge variety of scrumptious goodies make them perfect gastronomic treats for yuletide tapas.

                                        Goat cheese & chive-filled piquillos scream holidaze

One of my favorite stuffings is minced lamb mixed with a host of Middle Eastern spices such as tumeric, toasted cumin and fresh mint.  Top them with minced chives and you have Christmas on a plate.  Other faves of mine are a goat cheese-stuffed piquillo, or an earthy wild-mushroom & truffle filling.  But the sky's the limit as piquillos make a wonderful ingredient in a holiday omelet, pasta, risotto, or even blended to make a lip-stick red holiday sauce. 

But, wait!   December is dungeness crab season on the west coast which means piquillos can be filled with crab for a very special holiday appetizer (or first course).  I mix a little binding agent (Greek yogurt is okay if you're watching fat content, or if you're blowing the wad for the season use creme fraiche).   Mince into the crab mixture a little fresh tarragon and you have a decadent, colorful, and absolutely outrageous yuletide dish.

Note:  if you can't find piquillos, they are available online.

Happy holidaze....