Friday, August 28, 2015

Spain’s Rising-Star Wine Region

Let’s just say that I have a grande amor for the wines of Bierzo.  This small, historic area sits smack on the Camino Santiago---the most famous Christian pilgrimage route in Europe.  I walked part of this illustrious Camino last year, however, my love affair with Bierzo began <10 years ago when this obscure wine region's wines came on the world wine scene like gangbusters.  Many of these wines were extremely well-crafted and their quality/price ratio was superb.   Unfortunately, their rise to fame was halted with the global recession.  While Spain's economy is still struggling, Bierzo continues to turn out some terrific wine values.  Unfortunately, relatively few wine lovers still do not know these wines.  It's time to change that.
Bierzo is major red wine country.  Nearly 70% of the grapes are from a vine that only grows in this tiny corner of Northwest Spain.  The varietal is Mencia (pronounced men thee ah).  While tannic Tempranillo can be bold and brash, delicate Mencia is a red that offers finesse and style.  At one time Mencia was thought to be a clone of Cabernet Franc brought with Camino Santiago travelers centuries ago, however, DNA testing has disproved this.  When looking at Mencia's qualities it is easy to see why the two were thought to be related: both are aromatic with raspberry and cherry flavors. Mencia, on the other hand, offers beguiling mineral notes such as mint and sage. Because of its acidity, Mencia is a food-friendly wine.

Rural and remote, Bierzo is the kind of region wine lovers dream of discovering.  The vineyards in Bierzo are some of the most beautiful in Spain.  Many are planted in post-card perfect terraces on the steep slopes of a river valley, sometimes climbing up to elevations of >3,000 feet.   The Camino Santiago further adds to the charm.  Picturesque villages, undisturbed by time, dot Bierzo's landscape along with medieval monasteries and convents---all of which sprung up to support the pilgrims who were walking to Santiago de Compostela.   Bierzo also offers a UNESCO World Heritage site located in an ancient Roman gold mine.

Bierzo should float to the top of your list for new wines to try.  Two seats have just become available on the 2016 tour to Spain and Portugal that will visit this area.  Come join us for a trek to this exciting rising-star.  For more info on next year's harvest trip, check out

Friday, August 21, 2015

Life is a Cabernet----Franc!

  Wine-Knows at Chateau Latour surrounded by Cab Franc
I’m Francophile…in this case, I’m referring to my love of Cabernet Franc, not my love of France.  One of the five grapes allowed in Bordeaux’s world-class reds, this close relative of Cabernet Sauvignon adds rich notes of raspberries, black currants and violets to this benchmark area’s blended wines.  Cabernet Franc is also less tannic and produces a smoother mouth-feel than Sauvignon---both of these essential to the complex red wines of Bordeaux.  Cabernet Franc, on the other hand, is not just a Bordeaux grape.  The varietal truly takes on rock-star status in another area of France, the Loire Valley.  Here it is vinified as a 100% varietal wine and is known as Chinon, Saumur or Bourgueil.

Cabernet Franc, however, is not just the step-sister of Cabernet Sauvignon.  It may surprise many of you to learn that Cabernet Franc is actually one of the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon.  DNA analysis shows that Cabernet Franc crossed in the vineyard with a neighboring Sauvignon Blanc plant and produced the off-spring we now call Cabernet Sauvignon.  This cross is thought to have taken place in France.
Now one of the world’s 20 most planted grapes, Cabernet Franc is grown outside of France in many wine districts around the globe.  In addition to Europe, Cabernet Franc is grown in the USA, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.  When I was last in South America, both Chile and Argentina were growing the grape.  A young, cutting-edge Chilean producer (Maquis) was working closely with one of Bordeaux’s premier wine consultants and producing a killer 100% Cabernet Franc he aptly named “Franco.”  Argentine winemakers are also working with the grape but mainly as a blending variety.
What I love most about Cabernet Franc is its approachability at a young age.  Because of its lower tannin structure, it can be drunk much earlier than a Cabernet Sauvignon.  Moreover, I love its structure---especially this time of year when a lighter-weight (but equally compelling) red works better with the summer heat.  Last but not least, I’m a fan both of the grape’s flavor profile and texture.

Cheval Blanc, one of Bordeaux’s most highly esteemed estates, produces one of the world’s most expensive wines----it is 100% Cabernet Franc.  Need I say more? If you don’t know Cabernet Franc you should make it a point to exercise this  muscle.  Recommended producers, listed in order of price, include:
  • Bernard Baudry La Croix Bausee Chinon (Loire)  $35
  • Spring Valley Winery (Washington) “Katherine”  $50
  • Pride Mountain (California)  $50
  • Los Maquis’ Franco (Chile)  $60

Coming to Bordeaux with us for the 2016 Harvest tour?  You will learn a lot about what Cabernet Franc adds to the area's hallmark wines.   There is only one spot remaining for some lucky oenophile.  For more about this trip, check out

Friday, August 14, 2015

Flavor Ripe vs. Sugar Ripe ?

The grape harvest in California is just around the corner.  With the huge amount of sunshine we’ve received this summer, there should be no problem in ripening the fruit.  Most of us would think ripe means sweet….after all, how many times have we heard a winemaker discuss picking grapes at a certain level of “Brix?”  (Brix is a test that measures sugar content.)  This indicator, however, is not the only indicator of what makes a great wine.   As scientists have refined their understanding of the ripening process, winemakers are now steering away from using a single index of grape maturity.

Without going too science-nerd on you, let’s review what happens to grapes during their final stages of ripening. The most noticeable changes occur in their exterior skin colors.  Called “verasion” (when a red wine grape, such as Cabernet, changes from green to red and then to black) color pigments are deposited in the grape’s skin.  Verasion also occurs in white wine grapes when colors change from green to yellow and then to deep golden.  These are just the tip of the iceberg to the unseen chemical transformations occurring inside the grapes.

The interior of the fruit is busy accumulating sugar.  At the same time of increasing sweetness, another important process is occurring:  acid levels are dropping.  But, these are just two of the many complex physiological alterations inside the grape. Tannins also are changing, becoming less aggressive and bitter-tasting.   Other biological are underway making the grape taste less herbaceous.  All of these changes are highly significant to the winemaker.

Today’s winemakers view ripening as two completely different processes.  Sugar ripeness refers to the breakdown of acids and simultaneous accumulation of sugar.  Flavor ripeness (physiological ripeness) encompasses all the other complex chemical changes, such as tannins softening, skin pigments darkening.  In a perfect winemaking world, both of these processes would occur simultaneously.  They do not. 

Sugar and acid balance are instrumental in making wine, but they are not the perfect indicator of a great wine.  Sugar and acid balance cannot predict the ripeness of flavors or aromas.  In spite of a plethora of modern technology, there is no single index for determining flavor ripeness.  In fact, the best determinant for verifying physiological ripeness is very low tech---taste.  In concert, the winemaker must rely on experience and instinct as most of the fruit flavors aren’t released until fermentation.

Next time you’re having a glass of vino, focus on the aromas, flavors and mouth-feel.  These come from flavor ripeness.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Foodie Gifts to Bring Home from Vietnam

Wine-Knows is going to Vietnam for the second time in February 2016.  Several clients have inquired about what kinds of gifts are best to bring back for foodie friends at home.  All require little space and have relatively small weight when compared to other gift items that may tempt you.

                 Coffee is an art-form in Vietnam...they even have their own drip maker.

Some of you may be scratching your head on this one----coffee from Vietnam?   Trust me when I say, "trust me" on this one. Vietnam is one of the world's largest coffee producers (second only to Brazil).   Like French Roast?  You'll enjoy the Vietnamese doubt strongly influenced by the French occupation of the country for nearly 100 years.  And, I know just the place to buy it.

Lotus tea:

                                                         One sip and you'll be hooked!                                               

A dear Vietnamese friend from California  (born in Saigon) came on my last trip to Vietnam.  One of her favorite things as a child was lotus tea.  It was love at first sip for me.  Actually, it was love at first smell.  This tea has an intense but delicate floral aroma and taste.  The petals of the lotus plant are picked in the early morning and dried for this tea.  It's a culinary masterpiece.

5 spice powder:
                      With just a tablespoon or so, these packets are easy for packing.

Some of the dishes prepared in cooking classes on our first trip were made with this intoxicating mixture.  Yes, one can buy 5 spice in the USA, but the Vietnamese version is more aromatic and complex in flavor.  I plan to bring home double the amount I did on the last trip.

Dried strawberries:

                  While there are many dried fruits in Vietnam, the strawberries were special.

Yes, you can occasionally find these in the USA, but they are not as intense as those in Vietnam.  These are a scrumptious delicacy that are sure to please even the most discerning gourmet.

Dried snow mushrooms:
              I rushed to the market to buy these immediately following our cooking class.

I fell in love with these in northern Vietnam's mountains where tea is grown on hillside terraces against a breathtaking backdrop of rural villages and lush landscapes.  These delectable edibles grow on trunks of trees and are used in a variety of salads and main dishes.   I intend to fill my suitcase with bags of them as they are nearly weightless.

We have two spots left in the upcoming trip to Vietnam in February 2016.    The trip is showcased at