Merlot: The “M” Wine

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Don’t look at me like that! Just because there is a big “M” on my chest does not mean that I am bad. I wanted to be pure and chaste and loved from afar, but you brought me to too many parties and there I was on a table. foils cut and uncorked. The servers poured me into big goblets and everyone drank me like I was nothing. Wineries through the decades planted me in low quality, high yielding vineyards just so they could make money of my vines. Can you imagine that? My daddy, Cabernet Franc, and my mother, Magdeleine Noire des Charentes, would never have approved. Or would they? Unfortunately it worked; everyone drank me like water and tossed the empties into the recycle bins.

There are over 600,000 acres of Merlot planted in the world. Most of it in France, a great deal in Italy, some in the United States, Australia, Chile and Argentina – I suppose there are Merlot plantings everywhere. Merlot is an important varietal. The grape provides plenty of soft, succulent red wine  that gives winemakers blending options to make their wines better. On the Left Bank of Bordeaux, a little bit of Merlot goes a long way and on the Right Bank, it is king (especially in Pomerol). Yes, I am proud to be Merlot.

October is Merlot month, and in that spirit I am tasting examples from all over the world. Follow the hashtag, #merlotme, on Twitter, and learn more about the excitement that is now surrounding the varietal. It is time to fill your shopping cart with Merlot, the “M” wine! Three of my favorites are: the 2012 Duckhorn Napa Valley, the 2011 Rodney Strong and the 2010 Twomey by Silver Oak. Now please look at me square in the eyes, I am ready to serve you. Your relationship with me may never be the same again.

From Burgundy with love: Appellation Bourgogne

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To most lonely and dedicated wine souls, Burgundy is the greatest challenge of all. One taste of a Montrachet or Romanée-Conti and one is doomed for a life of endless searching, and the painful reality of never-enough-money to even sniff wine’s Holy Grail. Even village wines cost more money than most mortals can spend. So it comes down to this: rare, ultra-expensive wines are often difficult to pronounce and harder to locate, even if one has reconciled the cost of the wine. It is no wonder that so many consumers have been chilled out of this precious wine region. Yet Burgundy, well aware of this situation, has begun to market wines that we all can afford.

Bourgogne Chardonnay and Bourgogne Pinot Noir is now the ticket back into Burgundy and provide the world with not just delicious and affordable wines, but wines that can be found in the marketplace. Wine experts freely admit that Burgundy is the birthplace of quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. While both varietals (more chard than pinot) are widely grown throughout the world, history and research always begin here. Bourgogne is now the appellation that delivers the flavors of the varietals, as well as the characteristics of Burgundy at an affordable price.

Over the last 20 years, I have been most impressed with Bouchard Père et Fils and how their continued growth to make better and better wines. The current 2012 Bourgogne Chardonnay and 2012 Bourgogne Pinot Noir are excellent representatives of this category and of these varietals. One doesn’t always have to break the bank to enjoy the wines from this land that stretches from Dijon to Lyon. This pair of wines are from Burgundy with love.

Take Me to the River…

Gold Ridge Soil and VinesAnyone who’s lived in the Bay Area for more than a year or two has probably been to the Russian River, and anyone who is from the Bay Area probably has a story of a lost weekend spent there; however, you can easily speed though the valley without giving much thought to wine: if that’s the case, you are doing yourself a disservice. You can’t avoid wine in Napa -drive up highway 29, and the various wineries beckon you inside like a sidewalk sign twirler in a gorilla suit at tax time. The Russian River is more subtle. Whereas Napa has given itself over to development, the Russian River insists on holding on to its wild-west roots. Black Bart robbed stagecoaches here, and supposedly buried the take from a Wells Fargo heist in the hills above Korbel.

Standing on the corner of Occidental Road and the Gravenstein Highway pumping gas and looking across the street at a rental lot for heavy farm equipment, it’s easy to forget that arguably the greatest Pinot Noir in the world is grown right behind the tree line barely 100 feet away. Indeed, you can walk to Dutton-Goldfield, Dehlinger, Lynmar and 10 other wineries from where I am standing.

Much like the whole of France, this area used to be a shallow inland sea. When that sea receded, it left behind a delectable ring of marine sandstone called the Wilson Grove Formation, the jewel of which is the clay and sandstone blend called the Gold Ridge complex. To the west of me is the Green Valley AVA where this combination sits on a bed of fractured rock, and along with the influence of persistent fog accounts for a long ripening process, producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to rival all but the greatest Burgundies. The Pinots are filled with blackberries and violets; the Chardonnays with flavors of tangerine and green apple.

Walking out of the tasting room with six bottles stuffed under our collective arms, now comes the question of where to go and enjoy it! Sebastopol doesn’t offer much, Forestville even less. Finding great places to eat here is more of a treasure hunt; it all depends on what you want. If you want a perfect pairing for that Pinot Noir, you need to sample the menu at Highland Dell in Monte Rio, owned by members of the Bohemian Club; the food belies the quiet image of the town. If you are short of time, and need to head home, then Willi’s Wine Bar where River Road meets 101 had the best food you will find in this part of the county.

And here’s the secret that every local knows: the best time to visit is between now and the end of October; the weather is mild, but sunny and the tourists have gone home. So if you have time in the next few weeks, then head north. You won’t be disappointed.

Food & Wine Fridays: Wine & The Late Night Supper

PastaStop! Put down that Cap’n Crunch! Yes, it’s tempting to just make a bowl of cereal when you get home late from work or the movies or when you want a midnight snack. For just a few minutes more, you can whip up a terrific (and even romantic) little meal and serve it with a glass of easy-drinking wine for a satisfying supper. Here are some recipe ideas and wines to go with!

The “Anything Out if the Fridge” Omelette
Omelettes are a very satisfying meal at any time of day and can be great with many wines. The keys to making a good omelette are a splash of water to keep the eggs loose, keeping the pan at a moderate temperature, and always using butter. For my omelette, I used 4 eggs since we were 2, and I found left over grilled chicken breast, an avocado, and some Havarti cheese. Total meal prep time (including opening bottle of wine) was 10 minutes. I had the Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Blanc 2011 with mine, but the WillaKenzie Estate Pinot Gris 2012 or the Cave de Lugny Macon Lugny Les Charmes Chardonnay 2013.

The “Dagwood” sandwich
How can anyone forget the image of Dagwood standing in the kitchen with a sandwich stacked a mile high? After rummaging through the fridge, I created a turkey breast, prosciutto, provolone, lettuce, and tomato, topped with a fried egg and served on sliced sourdough. Total meal prep time was 12 minutes, and the wine of the night was the Henry Fessy Morgon 2010. The Commanderie de la Bargemone Rose Coteaux d’Aix en Provence 2013 or the Bouchard Aine & Fils Pinot Noir 2012 would have been equally tasty.

Caccio e pepe   
This classic Roman pasta dish can be made even when there is next to nothing in the fridge. The name translates to “cheese and pepper” which are the only condiments adorning the pasta. To begin, make enough spaghetti for 2 (buccatini also works, too). In a saute pan, melt a hunk of butter and add a couple of tablespoons of fresh ground black pepper. Toast for a bit until the butter turns a light hazelnut brown. Add a ladle of the pasta cooking water to the saute pan, a pich of salt, and then the cooked pasta. Toss to coat and remove from heat. Finish the pasta with another hunk of butter and 2 big handfuls of grated cheese. The traditional cheese to use is pecorino romano, but in a pinch I have used grana padano and parmigiana. Toss the pasta again and top with some more cheese and a grind or 2 of pepper. Total meal prep (including pasta cooking time, grabbing 2 forks and hunting for a bottle of wine) was 15 minutes. We had the Felsina Berardenga Chianti Classico 2011, and it was awesome.  Monte Antico Rosso 2009 and Hauner Salina Hiera 2012 would also be great!

Buon appetito!!

Savoring Champagne

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In the 1965 musical, The Sound of Music, a smiling Captain Georg von Trapp tells his 16 year-old daughter Liesl, “No,” when she sheepishly asks him “I’d like to stay and have my first taste of Champagne.” I was barely a teenager when I saw the blue-eyed Liesl posing this question to her father, but this scene has always stayed with me. This was about the first time I had my first sip of Champagne as I stole a glass that my parents had poured. All I can remember is they smiled and toasted a lot when they drank it. What is it about Champagne? Its magic and allure, what does it mean to different people? Whether it merely tickles your nose or tantalizes the palate, everyone has a slightly different spin on one of the most iconic beverages in the world.

When I started as a young wine professional, I had heard so much about Dom Pérignon that I could not wait to try it. As my career grew, I went onto Krug Grande Cuvée, Bollinger Grande Année, Louis Roederer Cristal, Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame and the like, but only as a member of the trade. My realistic budget keeps me at the non-vintage level.

The story of Champagne is enormous and complex. Long-time wine writer Ed McCarthy writes, “All great Prestige Cuveés demand 15 to 20 years of aging. Drink them young and you’re wasting your money.” While Mr. McCarthy can savor his old cellar treasures, we normal folks must make do with the beauty of non-vintage bruts and perhaps once in a while trek into the land of the sublime.

Non-vintage brut Champagne runs the show and defines each house’s style. I drink them fresh and zingy. If I am certain that the wine has just arrived then I may give it two to three years of bottle age. While I enjoy my red wines (cabernets, pinot noirs, zinfandels, red blends, etc.), I never get bored with a glass of Champagne. The aforementioned special offerings are wines that one must age. Over time, they will lose their vitality and gain incredible complexity that one can only experience from the terroir of Champagne, about an hour’s drive from Paris.

When Dom Pérignon is in its youth, it is elegant and refined. Generally not overtly yeasty, it is always enjoyable. As it ages, it changes and often becomes wonderfully complex and the rules of engagement change. Instead of merely toasting a great moment, the Champagne becomes a spectacular foil for the most imaginative chefs around the world. The 2004 Dom Pérignon is really fine and already shows core fruit, sweet earth and wild mushrooms in its flavors. Time will make this wine even better. I recommend patience of at least 10 years. When I was a teenager, I drank my first Champagne. Now as an old wine guy, I savor an old bottle just as I would aged Bordeaux, Burgundy or other classic still wines.

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