Loire Valley Wines

“When I drink, I think; and when I think, I drink.”  -Francois Rabelais, Loire Valley writer, born 1483

When you think of Loire Valley wines, what comes to mind?  Does your mind go immediately to Chenin Blanc, or Sauvignon Blanc or Gamay or Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier? Are you as surprised as I was to learn that Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are not just blended in Champagne? They’re blended in the Noble Joué region of Touraine along with Pinot Gris to produce gray wine. Does Loire conjure images of rosés or lush sweet wines or sparkling wines or bone dry whites or rich reds? Loire Valley produces all of these wines and more. The one word that can describe the wines of Loire Valley is ‘diverse.’ Along this 300 mile stretch of river, the Loire Valley has over 60 appellations and produces many styles of wine.

Loire can be divided into four distinct sections, each with different climates and soils, and each producing different wines from different grapes. Along the Atlantic Ocean is the Pays Nantais region. Producing wines since Roman times, the main grape of this region is Melon de Bourgogne. No longer aptly named, this ‘Melon of Burgundy’ grape was brought to Pays Nantais in the early part of the 18th century where it flourished in the maritime climate. Melon de Bourgogne has so whole-heartedly been adopted by its new home, it is often called ‘Muscadet,’ the major wine region of Pays Nantais. Light, fruity and crisp, Muscadet wine goes beautifully with light white fish and shellfish.

Central Loire is where the diversity begins. The two major regions, Anjou and Touraine, both have continental climates. Closer to the ocean, Anjou benefits from the fog, allowing for some beautiful botrytised dessert wines, made from the most notable grape of Loire, Chenin Blanc. The region of Savennieres in Anjou makes a stunning dry white from Chenin Blanc. And Saumur is known for its sparkling wines. Anjou, also produces rosé wines from Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Touraine is, also known for Chenin Blanc. Vouvray is the largest white wine producing appellation in the Central Loire. Chinon is famous for its Cabernet Franc. Like Anjou, Touraine, also produces sparkling wines and rosés.

The soils of Central Loire, like the wines, are quite diverse. They range from schist, granite, sand, alluvial, limestone, clay, chalk, and gravel. The Chenin Blanc wines have aromas of apricot, white flowers, mineral and lanolin with a very crisp acidity. They pair well with grilled seafood. The Cabernet Franc wines of Central Loire have aromas of red fruit and violets with soft tannins. They pair well with beef and stuffed mushrooms.

In Upper Loire, the diversity continues. Here is grown Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Gamay all in varying soils from chalk to sand to flint and even Kimmeridgian as is found in Chablis. Upper Loire has been growing grapes for 2000 years and is home to Quincy, the second oldest appellation in France, second only to Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Upper Loire is, also believed to be the original home of Sauvignon Blanc, which is at its most elegant in the region of Sancerre. The Sauvignon Blanc wines of Upper Loire have aromas of citrus fruit, grass and minerals. They pair well with shellfish and goat cheese. The Pinot Noir wines of Upper Loire have soft tannins and aromas of red and bramble fruits. They pair well with Salmon and mushrooms. Upper Loire produces not just dry reds and whites, but, also rosés. Made from Pinot Noir and Gamay, the rosés of Upper Loire have aromas of strawberries and herbs with a bright acidity. They pair well with grilled seafood.

With so much diversity in grapes and wine styles, it is impossible to define the Loire Valley through a single wine or even a single type of wine. But it may be possible to understand this diverse valley a little better through some of its most famous wines. A balanced exploration of Loire Valley wines would have to include Muscadet from Pays Nantais, made from the Melon de Bourgogne. Traveling to Anjou, the most important wines to try would be a botrytised Chenin Blanc, a sparkling Chenin Blanc a dry Chenin Blanc from Savennieres and a rosé made from either Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon or perhaps both. While in Touraine one must try a Vouvray either sec or tendre made from Chenin Blanc, and a Chinon made from Cabernet Franc. The Upper Loire can be studied through a glass of Sancerre, the dry, elegant Sauvignon Blanc and a glass of Pinot Noir from Reuilly.

There are so many beautiful and diverse wines to try from this beautiful and diverse region of France. The variety of wines that the Loire Valley produces is what makes this such an interesting area to explore.

To learn more about the wines of the Loire Valley, visit the Loire Valley Wine Bureau website. To taste some of the delicious wines of the Loire Valley, attend our next event, Wines of the Loire Valley, on February 12th from 5:30 to 7:30 at Backroom Wines in Napa.

Wine and Context

Jim Barry Lodge Hill Shiraz,2012Yesterday, I had a conversation with my brother that was both mundane and fantastic. He asked me how the kids are doing. I asked him how his Thanksgiving was. I reminded him that he used to beat me up when we were kids. “That’s what big brothers are for!” he responded. As conversations go this one was quite ordinary, yet, it was the best conversation that I’ve had with him in decades.

There is a lot of talk about wine in context. The theory goes that the whole experience of wine is more than just the elements in the wine. Our perceptions are colored by our environment, the ambiance of the room, the people we are with, our mood at the time, the memories that we will link with that particular wine. All of this will go into our perception and evaluation of the wine. Though I have read this many times, I have been a holdout as believers go. I’d like to believe that there is an objective, factual, perhaps even measurable element to evaluating wine. And there is, yet these outside elements that have nothing to do with the wine itself will color our perception even of the factual and measurable.

Jim Barry Lodge Hill Shiraz is from Clare Valley Australia. The 2012 still has its purple hue, with earthy dark fruit aromas and flavors of black cherry and spice. This is a big bodied wine with a tangy acidity. Well made and delicious by itself, it was even more delicious over the holiday week-end. There were environmental elements that had nothing to do with the wine, but greatly enhanced the experience of the wine. My son was home from college. I spent two days doing nothing but baking, cooking and eating. Those factors made a really good glass of wine truly great and memorable.

It has been over 30 years since the day I drove my brother home from the hospital. We were both still teenagers. He was arguing with me, trying to convince me, but more probably trying to convince himself of all the reasons why he didn’t have to take his medicine. Out of frustration I said without thinking, ‘You are a paranoid schizophrenic. You have to take your medicine!’ What followed was a devastating silence as the thought slowing entered my mind, ‘he hasn’t heard his diagnosis, yet.’ And idiot that I am, I had just blurted it out. Well, there it was. I couldn’t take it back. After a few more moments of neither one of us saying anything my brother turned to me and said, ‘But, I’m a happy paranoid schizophrenic.’

Over the decades my brother has been in some very dark places where he couldn’t be reached. Even the times when he was able to look me in the eyes and talk to me, I could tell part of his mind was somewhere else. I have wondered many times where the personality that was my brother had gone.

Yesterday I spoke to my brother for the first time in decades. He was there in the conversation with me 100%. Maybe he is experiencing a spontaneous recovery as some schizophrenics do in middle age. Maybe he is on the right combination of medicine. Maybe he was just having a good day. I don’t know, and won’t know until sometime in the future. All I know right now is that yesterday I had what would by its elements be evaluated as a very ordinary conversation with my brother. It was the best conversation that we’ve had in over 30 years.

Easy to Like

Seven Falls ChardonnayWaluke Slope is the warmest AVA in Washington State. The warmest AVA in Washington State produces some beautiful, lush fruit, both red and white.

Some wines are very easy to like. In the back of my mind I always think that I’m not supposed to like lush, fruit-forward wines. So, when I have one in front of me, and it completely enthralls me, I feel just a little guilty. That’s what happened today. We were out to lunch with some friends that we don’t get to socialize with very often. Even though we don’t spend a lot of time together, our friends are always so easy to be with. They are both so warm, charming, funny, and such wonderful conversationalists.

Most everyone at the table ordered fish. They asked me to order the wine. “Do you all like white wine?” I asked. Some people don’t. But with salmon and sole being prepared for us, I didn’t think a red, even a rosé would do.

As I quickly read through the wine menu, a Seven Falls Chardonnay from Waluke Slope caught my eye. I thought a warmer region Chardonnay would have both the lushness and the crispness to complement the salmon and the sole, respectively. Yes, yes it did! The aromas were of spiced pear drizzled with caramel, oak, and vanilla all wrapped in a buttery texture with a core of fresh acidity. It was beautiful, a white wine to linger over in pure, albeit, mildly guilty pleasure. This is a wine that is very easy to like.

Grenache, Halloween and Surprises!

The best part of Halloween is seeing the costumes. At a party, you never know what people will dress as. Last week-end I saw a zombie Fred Flintstone, an Oompa Loompa and a Spy vs. Spy.  But the most surprising costumes were the Downton Abbey couple. She was dressed as a chauffeur and he as the maid, the 6′ 5”, full-bearded maid. Part of the fun of costumes parties are the surprises.

Though long disputed by Italy, most would agree that Garnacha/Grenache is originally from Spain, and from there moved to the South of France and to Italy, Sardinia specifically where it is called Cannonau.

Garnacha is not a noble grape mainly because it doesn’t necessarily age well. It has low tannins and often low to medium acidity. It is often used in blends with other more tannic grapes to give the wine structure.

But, just because it is not a noble grape, does not mean that it is not a worthy grape. A typical Grenache, while low in acidity and tannin is high in alcohol and oxidizes quickly. It is a grape that thrives in the heat, thus the high alcohol. Its famous regions are Priorat, Rioja, and Navarra, in Spain, the southern Rhone Valley in France, Sardinia in Italy, and Australia, and California in the new world. Oz Clark points out that the grape can have, ‘wild, unexpected flavors.’ This is what makes the grape so intriguing. You never know quite what you’re going to get. The typical flavor profile of Grenache/Garnacha is red fruit aromas such as strawberry, sour cherry, cranberry with some purple flowers, such as violets and maybe a dash of black pepper or spice.

I tasted through several Grenache recently with my wine group.   The wines were from different regions and each one had something a little different to offer. The Priorat presented a marzipan, almond, almost Amaretto flavor, a flavor most often associated with white wines. But this highly oxidative red that was aged in oak presented the unexpected. The Riaza from Lodi had a strong tea flavor. Our second Spanish wine, Fabla, had a coconut flavor. The Dolia from Sardinia had a strong coffee aroma. The French Chateauneuf du Pape was very earthy. And the Black Hand from Paso Robles had dried fruit aromas. Each wine was a little surprising.

RiazaRiaza, 2011, Lodi Clement Hills 100% Grenache. Sight: Clear, pale, garnet. Aroma: Clean condition, no off odors. Medium intensity with aromas of oak, red fruit, spice and vanilla. Developed. On the palate: dry, medium acidity, no bitterness, medium tannin, medium/high alcohol, medium plus body with medium intensity flavors of red fruit, spice, tea, and vanilla. No off flavors. Medium finish.



Fall 2014 022La Cartuja, 2012, Priorat 70% Grenache, 30% Carinena. Sight: brilliant, medium ruby. Aroma: Condition is clean with no off odors. Intense aromas of spice, black fruit and nuts. Developed. On the palate: dry with medium/high acidity. No bitterness. Medium tannins, medium alcohol. Medium/plus body, medium/plus intensity flavors of black fruit, oak and spice. No off flavors with a medium to long finish.



Fall 2014 023Fabla, 2012, Calatayud. Sight: brilliant, deep, ruby. Clean condition, no off odors. Aromas: medium intensity of black fruit, red fruit, tea, nuts and coconut. Developing. On the palate: dry with medium acidity, no bitterness, medium tannin, medium/high alcohol. The body is medium with medium intensity of red fruit, spice and earth. No off flavors. The finish is medium.



Fall 2014 027Dolia, 2012, Sardegna. Sight: brilliant, deep garnet. Aroma: clean, no off odors. Intense aromas of oak, coffee, and black fruit. Developing. On the palate: dry with medium plus acidity. No bitterness. Low/medium tannins. Medium alcohol. Medium body with medium intensity flavors of red fruit, coffee, and oak. No off flavors. Medium finish.



Fall 2014 025Telegramme, 2011, Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Sight: brilliant with medium garnet color. Aroma: clean with no off odors. Medium intensity of red fruit, spice and earth. Developing. On the palate: Dry with medium acidity, no bitterness. Medium tannins, medium alcohol, medium body. Medium plus intensity of flavors of red fruit, spice and earth. No off flavors. Long finish.



Fall 2014 026Black Hand, 2006, Paso Robles. Sight: brilliant with deep garnet color. Aroma: clean, no off odors. Intense aromas of butter, oak and red fruit. Developed. On the palate: Dry with medium high acidity. No bitterness, medium tannins, high alcohol, medium plus body, medium plus intensity with flavors of oak, red fruit and dried fruit. No off flavors. The finish is medium.





Happy Halloween!  Enjoy the surprises.


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Hand or Land?

WineSmallBigSometimes there is nothing better than a big wine, a wine with loads of tannin, loud fruit right up front, and the heat of high alcohol. After a meal, in the dead of winter, when everyone is in for the night, that big, loud, hot wine is a meal in itself. Like a brash guest at a party, it won’t be particularly interesting or intriguing. There will be nothing subtle about it. But sometimes that lack of subtlety can be oddly satisfying. Sometimes we want a wine that doesn’t make us think or work too hard to enjoy it.

Sometimes there is nothing better than a delicate wine, a wine with soft tannins, gentle fruit that whispers quietly mid-palate, and the tang of cold-climate acidity. With a complex meal, this wine comes to life playfully weaving itself into the flavors and textures of the meal. Like the quiet guest at the party who speaks so softly, you can’t quite make out what she’s saying. But the more you catch, the more you want to hear. Sometimes you want a wine with enough complexity that it takes some time to get to know it.

In his book, Essential Wines and Wineries of the Pacific Northwest, Cole Danehower uses the term ‘hand over land’ to describe the first style of wine which he calls ‘plush.’ It is a wine that is made by man, where harvest is delayed for higher alcohol, maceration is prolonged for greater tannins, and more new oak is used for more flavor. The second style is what Danehower describes as ‘poised.’ This is the ‘terroir’ wine, wine that is made by the land. No winemakers here, only grape growers.

The author goes on to point out that one is not better than the other. He is writing specifically about Willamette Pinot Noir when he says, ‘Between poised and plush, neither is considered better than the other; they are both viable and popular wine styles.’

In a recent article about heat in wine, The Rising Tide; Alcohol in Wine Creeps up the Glass, Natalie MacLean writes that too high an alcohol content in a wine can overwhelm the other elements and ruin the wine experience. Her article points out that high alcohol is more likely to occur in new world wines where vineyard temperatures are higher. With global warming we’re likely to see more heat in our wines. Though early harvesting can reduce the alcohol levels.

MacLean does defend higher alcohol levels as an appropriate stylistic choice for many wines, such as Amarone and Chateauneuf du Pape. Certainly grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel have the tannic structure to hold higher alcohol levels. But how big should these wines be?

Simon Burton wrote about this style dichotomy in his article, Marques de Casa Concha; ‘I want to make wines I enjoy. I don’t want to make wines for a market.‘ Through his interview with Marcelo Papa, winemaker for Marques de Casa Concha, it’s clear that this big style in wine, a style that has been trendy for the past several decades in part because, as MacLean points out, we moved from high alcohol cocktails to high alcohol wines, may be on the wane. According to Burton’s article, ‘“super premium” is wine code for “red wine made using very ripe grapes and lots of new oak”, and increasingly winemakers – including, now, Papa – are backing away from that kind of thing.’

It seems somehow inappropriate to talk about trends in wine. Unlike in fashion, where trends turn every six to eight weeks, wine trends might take decades to wax and wane. Yet, the wine world does seem to be moving from big wines to cerebral wines, from brash to subtle, from plush to poised. Big wines will always have a place, certainly at my table, but there’s something more interesting about a refined wine. The harder we work to understand it, the more it gives us to think about.

Marques de Casa Concha: ‘I want to make wines I enjoy. I don’t want to make wines for a market’


Another excellent post from the Cellar Fella

Originally posted on :

Marcelo Papa of Marques de Casa Concha

There’s something particularly winning about a winemaker who tells you that he doesn’t like his own wine very much. Ultimately it might not be considered a particularly wise tactic – winemakers, or at least those of them that I come across, are employed with two tasks in mind: to produce wine and then to sell it. Telling people their wine’s not very good suggests a basic failure in task one, and more or less guarantees failure in task two.

And if Marcelo Papa doesn’t like his wine, it’s a serious problem. He is, after all, chief winemaker at Casillero del Diablo, who stick their label on 4 million cases – near enough 50 million bottles of wine – every year, which works out at around 250 million glasses of the stuff or, to put it another way, approximately enough to invite the entire populations of the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal and Italy round for a…

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Jory and Willakenzie

Spindrift Cellars2Who are Jory and Willakenzie? They are in part responsible for the world-renowned quality of Oregon Pinot Noirs. Neither vintners, nor grape growers, Jory and Willakenzie are not people at all. They are two soils found in Willamette. According to Cole Danehower, author of the book, Essential Wines and Wineries of the Pacific Northwest, Jory is a volcanic soil that gives its Pinot Noir red fruit aromas, silky texture and a hint of minerality. It is found mainly in the valley vineyards. Willakenzie is a sedimentary soil made up of marine sandstone and silt. It gives its Pinot Noir dark fruit aromas, along with aromas of earth and herb. This soil is found at higher elevations.

Willamette Valley is where 75% of Oregon’s vineyards are located. It is part of the cool region of Oregon. The grapes for which this region is best known are Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. The warm regions of Oregon are found to the south, in Rogue and Umpqua Valleys as well as to the northeast in Walla Walla. These regions are known for warm climate grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Tempranillo.

Matthew Compton moved from New Jersey to Willamette Valley Oregon, originally to manage vineyards. He moved into wine production a little over 10 years ago. Spindrift Cellars in Philomath Oregon is certified sustainable. Compton’s focus is mainly on Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, though he does produce some Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer and Syrah as well. He sources from both valley and hill vineyards using grapes with both Jory and Willakensie influence.

Spindrift Pinot Gris, 2013 Aromas of apple, citrus, grapefruit with a crisp, refreshing finish.

Spindrift Rosé, 2013 78% Pinot Noir, 22% Pinot Gris Aroma of watermelon with a Southern France minerality on the finish.

Spindrift Pinot Blanc, 2013 Tropical fruit aromas with a hint of oak

Spindrift Pinot Noir Croft Vineyard, 2011 Aromas of spicy cherries, oak and smoke. Light body, organically grown grapes. 12 months in oak, 25% new.

Spindrift Pinot Noir, 2012 Sourced from five different vineyards, all Willamette. Aromas of sweet cherry, almond, tang with some bittters on the finish.

Spindrift Pinot Noir, Lewisburg Vineyard, 2010 Medium bodied. Earthy, dark fruit with spice and minerality.

Spindrift 7 Hills Syrah, 2010 Sourced from Walla Walla in Northeast Oregon. Sustainable. Aromas of bacon, pepper, dark fruit.

Matthew Compton’s wines have garnered high point ratings from both Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, especially his Pinot Noirs often rating in the 90’s. It is the Spindrift Pinot Noirs that so beautifully reflect the soils of Willamette Valley.Spindrift Cellars1