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 Provence.  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!