Lugana, a Lovely White Wine

Near the banks of Lake Garda along the 100 mile coastline in both the Veneto and Lombardy regions of northern Italy grows a grape that is not terribly well-known.  There are so many grapes grown in Italy, they can’t all be famous. Everyone knows Pinot Grigio, the distant relative of Pinot Noir. Many have heard of Trebbiano di Soave of the Veneto region and Verdicchio of the Marche region. But not many have heard of Turbiano. It is related to both Trebbiano di Soave and Verdicchio di Marche and makes up 95% of the vineyards of Lugana along the banks of Lake Garda.

A young Turbiano has a lively acidity with aromas of orange, almond, herbs and spice. The flavors will change as it ages. Yes, it can age. After two years of aging, the Lugana Riserva takes on more pronounced spicy characteristics. The late harvest Lugana has more candied fruit flavors. The sparkling Lugana is very floral.

From the young to the aged to the spumante, Lugana wines are crisp, vibrant and complex; a symphony of citrus with varying degrees of spice, dried fruit and floral notes.


In Defense of Sherry

Founded in 1896, Bodegas Lustau of Jerez de la Frontera Spain is on a mission. That mission is to bring a knowledge and love of Sherry to the world. Part of their mission implementation is a traveling Sherry certification program. From the outset the message was clear; Sherry comes in many styles and is meant to be enjoyed with many types of food.

Sherry can be made from three types of grapes, Palomino, Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez. But 95% of sherry is made from Palomino grapes. All sherry must be produced in the Andalusian region of Spain, specifically in the sherry triangle where it is fractionally blended in a solera system. Because of this, a vintage sherry is very rare. Most sherries are blends of many vintages.

It is really the aging process that gives sherry its character. A sherry wine can be aged biologically or oxidatively. The biologically aged sherries, Fino and Manzanilla, are aged without oxygen under a blanket of a native yeast called flor. The flor yeast consumes oxygen, alcohol, sugar, acid, and glycerin. It eats everything! This is what makes the Fino and Manzanilla sherries so very dry and acidic. And it is the very crisp acidity that makes these wines so food friendly. Fino and Manzanilla will be aged for an average of five years often near the sea, so they will take on salty aromas. That along with the almond flavor that comes from the acetaldehydes that are produced during biological aging give these wines a very distinctive flavor that pairs really well with seafood and cold soups.

Oloroso is aged oxidatively, that is without the flor yeast and with oxygen. These wines will be aged an average of 12 years, long enough to develop rich, nutty flavors that pair well with roasted meats and rich soups.

There are hybrid Sherries, that is Sherries that begin with biological aging and then undergo oxidative aging. They are aged an average of 8 years. These wines, Amontillado and Palo Cortado, are both acidic and rich. They pair well with Asian foods, grilled meats and risottos.

Then there are the sweet Sherries; pale, medium, cream and Pedro Ximenez. Pedro or PX is made from dried grapes, that gives it an extra rich intensity. All these Sherries are blended with sweet wine and are great with desserts, figs, walnuts, ice-cream and chocolate.

It really is quite a range from the very driest to the very sweetest wine; from very acidic to very rich. None of these wines are light. They are all fortified, that is, grape-based spirits are added to the wine. The alcohol by volume level of Sherry ranges from 15% to 22% . Because of fortification, most Sherries will keep in the bottle after it is open. For Oloroso it will last for three months after opening. For Pedro Ximenez, it will still be great one year after opening. Fino and Manzanilla are more delicate and should be consumed within a few days of opening the bottle.

Sherry is not just one wine. It is many wines and many different styles. It is meant to be enjoyed with many different foods and can pair with each course of the meal.

Force Majeure Wines

img_3573Force Majeure, a Washington winery owned by Paul and Susan McBride has 23 planted vineyards in the Red Mountain district. Those vineyards represent nine different soil types, from chalky to sandy to limestone to clay. Many of the vineyards are on steep, south-facing slopes. It is the McBrides’ goal to produce wines that have ‘a personality, a soul and a story to tell.’ To meet that goal they have turned to Todd Alexander, a  winemaker who has worked with Screaming Eagle, Bryant Family and Cade.

Here in the Red Mountain district of Washington, the grapes of the Northern Rhone thrive, especially Syrah and Viognier.

While white wines are not what one traditionally associates with Washington state, Red Mountain has a way with whites. The Force Majeure Viognier is 100% Viognier and has undergone no malolactic fermentation. It has stunning fruit and floral aromas with a shy acidity that makes this wine bright, lively and delightful.

The 2016 Force Majeure Parvata is 69% Mouvedre, 21% Syrah and 10% Greache. With 30% new French oak, this wine has a velvety smoothness swirling with juicy black cherries, black pepper and a hint of orange.

Syrah, according to winemaker Todd Alexander is the most ‘terroir-driven red grape.’

The 2016 Estate Syrah from Force Majeur, has had 18 months of extended aging in 30% new French oak. The beautiful Red Mountain fruit is powerful, and lively with dark plum and pepper aromas. As a point of comparison, the Delmas 2016 SJR Vineyard Syrah from the Rocks District is also powerful but with a distinct kalamata olive and smoke aroma. The Red Mountain fruit is concentrated. The Rocks fruit is juicy. Both wines are well-structured and balanced. They both taste like a Syrah should taste.  But their terroirs give them very different personalities.

Standing on the Edge of a Viticultural Frontier

It looked like if I just kept walking, I might come to the edge of this new viticultural frontier. It looked like it might end abruptly, like a cliff. But I walked toward what I thought was the edge, and it slowly sloped downward, pulling me forward and down toward the valley, never ending dramatically, just rolling on softly for as far as I could walk before I had to turn around so as not to miss the ride back to Walla Walla.

During a wonderful wine blogger excursion to Force Majeure, a winery in Walla Walla Washington that sources its grapes from the Red Mountain district of Washington and the Rocks of Milton-Freewater district of Oregon, we were treated to a ride out to what might be the next AVA, North Fork of Walla Walla.

This corner of the Northwest, the area around Walla Walla is a wine region that dips down into Oregon. Walla Walla is an AVA in both states. The Rocks District is in Oregon and North Fork of Walla Walla, when it does become an AVA will be in Oregon. Winemakers in this area are used to sourcing grapes from both states.

The newest AVA in Oregon is the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, created in 2015. It is the only AVA in the US that is predicated on its soil. Rather than having a variety of soil types, this AVA is 96% Freewater soil series, a basalt lava soil. The largest area of basalt lava on earth is right here in the low desert of Northeastern Oregon.

North Fork is at a higher elevation, at almost 2000 feet. It’s in what geologist Kevin Pogue referred to as the ‘brown zone.’ Higher elevations are cooler, but also, lower elevations are cooler. This brown zone is a bit of a Goldilocks, just right in temperature, with nicely sloping hills, and a nice cross-section of soil types.

On the ride back to Walla Walla, Paul McBride, the owner of Force Majeure, which translates to ‘force of nature’ told us a bit about his vision for this frontier vineyard. It’s tied into what brought him to wine. Having previously worked in the tech industry, Paul  became dissatisfied with how quickly things changed. He’d spend a great deal of time mastering something, a language perhaps, and the next thing came along and replaced it. But wine is different. You can ‘put your heart and soul into wine and a vineyard. That’s something that lasts and outlives you.’

It will be at least four years before any wine comes out of North Fork, and more years after that before it gains AVA status. But being on this viticultural frontier is what excites Paul McBride. ‘Nobody quite knows what a North Fork Grenache will be or should be. But we get to be the people who first define it.’

Sherry as it Should Be

Osborne Fino Sherry, Andalucia, SpainWhen you think of sherry, what do you picture? I picture the inexpensive cooking ‘sherry’ one finds on the grocery store shelf, the same bottle tucked away in the back of the cupboard that comes out when making clams, or a melon salad. But the sherry of Andalusia is nothing like that back-of-the-cupboard cooking sherry.

There are nine styles of true sherry. Some are dry and aged biologically, like Fino and Manzanilla. They are light and delicate. Some are dry and aged oxidatively, like Oloroso. It is rich and round. Some are a little of both, like Amontillado, as in ‘The Cask of.’ There are also sweet sherries, dessert sherries such as Pedro Ximenez, a rich, dark sherry full of flavors of dried fruits and chocolate. It’s delicious on vanilla ice-cream or whipped into whipped cream and dolloped on bread pudding or sipped from a glass, a dessert all by itself.

All the styles of sherry whether dry or sweet, delicate or rich are fortified, that is, alcohol is added to the base wine. Sherry can be anywhere from 15% to 22% alcohol which is why one should always just sip it. A nip of sherry goes a long way.

By itself, a simple Fino sherry can seem a little dull. It has some crispness, some savoriness and a wee bit of nuttiness even a little saltiness. But alone, it doesn’t really come to life. When paired with garlic shrimp or fresh grilled fish covered in sauteed olives, tomatoes and onion, a glass of Fino will sing. It is perfect, rich and salty just like the food.

There are three foods that are notoriously difficult to pair with wine. Two of them are asparagus and artichokes which both contain a chemical called cynarine. Cynarine causes the wine, any wine, to taste sweet. It throws it out of balance. The third food is salad or more specifically, vinegar, because of the acetic acid. One wine that can pair well with all three of those foods is Fino sherry. Pasta with olive oil, garlic, asparagus and prosciutto is perfectly paired with a Fino or an Oloroso sherry, the latter being a bit richer and rounder.

A dry sherry can add elegance to a meal, especially if the meal contains seafood, salty meats and pasta. A sweet sherry is the perfect finish to any dessert, especially desserts made with nuts and chocolate.

Fool Me Once, Shame on Malbec


Malbec.  It goes by another name in my wine group.  Okay, maybe I’m the one that calls it by that name.  Have you ever blind tasted a Malbec and thought it was a Cabernet Sauvignon, or maybe a Zinfandel, or maybe a Merlot, or maybe a Syrah?  No, when the bag comes off, it turns out to be a f@#%ing Malbec.

Malbec can have all three fruit colors, red, black and blue.  But so can Zinfandel.  Malbec can have a purplish hue, but so can Syrah.  Malbec can have notes of bell pepper, but so can Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  It’s a chameleon that likes to impersonate other wines.  But what are the qualities of Malbec?

Originating in France, Cahors and Bordeaux, most of the Malbecs we see now are from Argentina.  It is a thick skinned grape usually with new oak aromas such as smoke, toast, vanilla and spice.  It can have some bell pepper aroma, but it won’t be as strong as in a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Merlot.  It may have a purple hue and aromas of red, black and blue fruit but it won’t have the black pepper aromas of Zinfandel and Syrah.  The Malbec grape has a phenolic aldehyde called vanillin.  It’s the same vanillin that is found in oak, the phenol that gives wine a vanilla flavor.  Some people, including the wine-whisperer in our group can taste the difference between vanillin from grapes and vanillin from oak.  The vanillin from grapes has a more candied quality to it.

So if it tastes like a Cabernet Sauvignon, but not quite, or tastes like a Syrah, but not quite, or tastes like a Zinfandel, but not quite, or tastes like a Merlot, but not quite…and has a candied vanilla flavor…it’s a f@#%ing Malbec!  It fools me every time.


D7E1D699-35E9-42CB-B6D9-82954496D245“I’m looking for a Bordeaux. It has a white label with cursive writing.” For anyone who has eyeballed any Bordeaux selections lately, you will realize how far short this description falls from identifying the particular Bordeaux for which my customer was looking. “Do you know if it was right bank or left bank?” I asked hoping to help her find the bottle she was seeking. “No,” she said, “but it had a picture of a castle on the front, if that helps.” It really didn’t.

Most Bordeaux bottles have white or cream labels with black, sometimes brown writing and a picture of a castle on the front. There are exceptions, but the colorful Bordeaux labels are few and far between. It’s like Bordeaux’s uniform if Bordeaux were in Catholic school.

At last week’s tasting of rosés I noticed that most of the wines had white labels with black lettering in a block style. The labels were all very neutral as if trying to not be noticed in order to let the beautiful colors of the rosés shine through. One’s eye hardly notices the label, as it is drawn to the many shades of pink and salmon shimmering in the glass bottle.

Many customers tell me that they pick their wines by the label. But when I’ve pulled out our best selling bottles and looked at the labels, they are almost always cream or white with simple lettering, in other words, not eye-catching at all, but fairly nondescript. I like to believe that most people realize it’s not the label, but what’s inside that matters.