Friday, January 25, 2019

Does Grand Cru Make a Difference?

Many serious wine-lovers feel Bordeaux’s 1855 Classification is way out of whack.  After all, the system was determined over 150 years ago and it was based on what wines were the priciest at that time.   To determine the hierarchy in 1855, the wines were simply grouped in clusters….the top four most expensive wines became Premier Grand Cru, the next price group became the second level Grand Cru, and so on.  Only 61 of Bordeaux’s wineries in 1855 made that list.  Today, Bordeaux has over 10,000 producers and covers an area that stretches for 80 miles.   Bordeaux 2019 is a completely different world.

The Commanderie de Bordeaux, one of the USA’s most prestigious wine groups, had a recent seminar.  I am a member of the Commanderie and made sure I attended this important educational tasting titled, “The 1855 Classification----Is it Still Relevant?”   There were approximately 20 people present.  The format went something like this:

                ~ There were 4 flights of wines
                ~ Each wine flight had two wines from the same appellation
                ~ Prices ranged from $49 to $175 per bottle

This was a completely blind tasting.   The only information given was that each flight contained a chateau in the 1855 Classification, as well as a non-classified wine from the same appellation.  Our charge was twofold:

                        1.  Determine which wine was classified, and which was not.
                        2.  Determine the appellation of the wines.
Many of these serious Bordeaux aficianados were able to determine which wines were from the 1855 Classification...and which were not.  (Keep in mind these classified wines were nearly double the price of the non-classified step-sisters.)   There were, however, some members who could not determine which one was the more costly wine (classified).   Identifying the exact location from where the grapes were grown (appellation) proved to be more more challenging for the group as a whole.  While I nailed which were classified and which were not,  I mixed up some of the appellations (e.g. St Julien with its contiguous Pauillac appellation).  

The final analysis?   There are some non-classified wines today that are better crafted than those from the 1855 Classification.  There are Third and Fourth Growth Grand Cru that outrank some of the First and Second Growths.  Don’t be swayed by designer wine from any part of the world, but especially from Bordeaux where an archaic rating system prevails.  There are superb classified growths, and there are wonderful non-classified growths.   Similarly, there are classified growths that are worthy of their price, and some that are not.  

New Years resolution?   Trust you gut.  Don’t trust an outdated classification.  Perhaps a blind tasting of some of the non-classified growths with a few of the classified mixed in is in order to ring in your 2019 properly?

Friday, January 18, 2019

Ancestry.Com for Wine Grapes

Genetic testing is all the rage these days.  Up until the 1990’s not even the wine experts knew a thing about the wine grape family tree.  Then, a riveting discovery was made by researchers at the University of California’s Davis.  Using DNA technology, scientists discovered the beginning elements of this family tree.  Now for America’s little secret: all of our famous wine grapes (e.g. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir) are immigrants.

The majority of wine grapes have been found to descend from a handful of ancient varieties.  These “founder” ancestors, have cross pollinated in age-old vineyards the to create new varietals.  Their children have then gone on to multiple marriages, and created a web of new grand-children.  Like a human family tree, the grape family tree is complex and filled with lots of stories.  As vineyards centuries ago were planted with a variety of different grapes right up against another, close quarters have created many offspring.

The grape family tree’s secrets are still being investigated by researchers. Here is what is known to date about some of our most common wine grape varieties: 
  • Pinot Noir:   This founding varietal is one of the oldest and one of the primary ancestors for many wine grapes.  In fact, the Pinot family tree has 156 different wine grapes.  Pinot Noir has a high propensity to mutate.  Genetics-wise, Pinot Noir has the same DNA as Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.  Pinot Meunier (used to make Champagne) is another close relative, as is Chardonnay and Gamay.
  • Chardonnay:  This grape’s heritage is also surprising as it, like Cab Sauv, is due to an accidental crossing of a white with a red grape: the country bumpkin Gouais Blanc with the regal Pinot Noir.   DNA experts think the birth of Chardonnay occurred in Burgundy during the Middle Ages.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon:  This one should knock your socks off.  Cab Sauv is a crossing between a white grape and a red grape:  Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc.   Researchers feel the marriage occurred in France during the 17th century.
  • Merlot:  This popular varietal is a cousin of Cab Sauv.  Merlot’s mother was Cabernet Franc and its father was a centuries-old grape by the name of Magdeleine Noire des Charentes. 

DNA fingerprinting is still uncovering many relationships for wine grapes.  Perhaps it’s time for a party with the theme of “Who’s your daddy?”    Might be fun to taste the parts of a certain grape's family’s tree!

Friday, January 11, 2019

Parlez-vous Champagne?

The language of the Champagne-making process is mystifying, especially to those who have never observed it in person.  The purpose of this Blog is to demystify it by breaking it down into three digestible pieces.  First things first, however; only a sparkling wine made in the demarcated area of Champagne, France can legally be called Champagne.  Now, here’s what you need to know about the process.

# 1:  Bubbles are created by yeasts

                                           Dead yeast cells are trapped in the bottle
After the wine is finished being made, a small amount of yeast is added to each bottle of wine, as well as a very small amount of sugar.   Bubbles form as a result of the yeast eating the sugar.  These bubbles are actually carbon dioxide which is given off by the yeast (those who have made bread well know the bubbling that occurs during yeast’s activity).  Carbon dioxide becomes trapped inside the bottle.  This process is known as the second fermentation in the bottle.

# 2:  Riddling is the process of how dead yeasts are prepared for extraction

                                          Riddlers turn each bottle daily over months
Once the yeast eats the sugar it lives for a short time and then dies.  These dead yeasts are called "lees."  The lees, like carbon dioxide, are trapped inside the bottle.  Riddling rotates the wine bottles a small amount each day to slowly move the dead yeasts toward the neck of the bottle.  Once the bottle is entirely inverted to a vertical position, it is ready for the next stage.

# 3:  Disgorgement is how dead yeasts are removed from the bottle

                            In a nano-second the frozen cube of dead yeast is removed

The vertical bottle is inserted into a super cold ice bath which essentially freezes the yeast debris trapped in its neck.  In the flicker of an eyelash, the cap of the bottle is removed and the frozen “yeast ice cube” pops out.  A new cork is now applied.  This is the disgorgement process.

Wine-Knows will be visiting Champagne in June of this year.  We’ll be tasting at some of the grandest producers of Champagne.  Currently there are three openings. For more information about this trip (which also visits Burgundy), check our website:

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Top Dozen of 2018

I’ve had some really superb wines during 2018.  Several were simply outrageously divine.  A few were tremendous surprises.  Others represented a terrific quality price ratio.  Here’s the list for what moved me, all of which are currently available in the US.

Outrageously Divine

     ~ NV Ployez Jacquesmart Rosé Champagne.  This producer makes a Blanc de 
        Blanc, but it’s one made from Pinot Noir that sends me to the moon and back.  A 
        steal for $50.

     ~ NV Ferghettina Rosé Franciacorta.  Perhaps it was the enchanting winemaker?  
        Maybe it was the stellar sun-soaked day overlooking Lake Iseo, Italy?  Or, could 
        it be the sexy custom bottle shape?  It doesn’t matter.  This sparkling wine was 
        flat-out gorgeous. ($50)

     ~ 1990 Trimbach Gewurztraminer Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre.  This Grand Cru 
        single vineyard bone dry wine is still rockin’ the wine world nearly 30 years after 
        it was produced.  Thanks to Lynne & John for bringing this stunner to dinner 
        in our home.   ($200 if you can find it)

      ~ 2009 Chateau Beaucastel Blanc.  A blend of four white grapes from 
         Chateauneuf du Pape, this elegant little tropical bomb was ethereal.  I’ve visited 
         Beaucastel  in France several times.  I had this on my recent hallmark 
         birthday trip to the Christmas markets of Europe at a wonderful Michelin star 
         restaurant ($250)

       ~ 2001 Chateau Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape.  OMG.  The Popes would be 
         all over this one.  Powerful…definitely a religious red wine experience, we 
         served this at my recent black tie birthday bash before we left for Europe.  ($100)

       ~2007 Martinelli Zinfandel Jackass Vineyard.   I'm not a big fan of Cali Zins 
         because of their high alcohol but this one had me at hello.  With a gorgeous 
         velvet texture and notes of chocolate with dark berry fruit, the alcohol was 
         beautifully integrated.  ($110 and worth every penny)


       ~ 2015 Ca Rugate Recioto di Soave La Perlara.   I visited Ca Rugate for its dry 
          whites, so this was a big bonus.  This sweet white wine from the wine 
          district outside of Venice was absolutely gorgeous.  Think figs, flowers, apricots 
          and raisins all rolled into a beautiful wine.  ($45-50)

      ~ 2010 Prunotto Barbaresco.  We tasted a lot of Barbaresco on our recent Truffle 
         Tour to Piedmont---some of them older than this one.  Prunotto’s stood out as it 
         was drinkable now.  High Robert Parker score.  High June Dunn score.  ($70-90)

      ~ 2015 Sottimano Basarin Barbaresco.  While this one wasn't quite ready to 
         drink, one could see that if cellared for 5 or 6 years, it was going to be killer.  

Superb Values:

       ~ 2016 Ruche Montalbera Laccent.  This killer red is made from of cousin of the 
          Nebbiolo grape.  Buy a case! ($25 per bottle)

       ~ 2013 Prinsi Barbera.   Made with 50% dried grapes, this elegant, soft tannin 
          wine is ready to drink now.  (Knockout price of $20)

      ~ 2016 Woodwork Cabernet Sauvignon.  We stumbled across this great find in the 
         first class lounge at LAX recently.   I plan to use it primarily as a cooking wine
         for braised short ribs, coq au vin---or for Sangria this summer...but it is very                   drinkable on its own.  Unreal deal.   ($12)