Category Archives: Wine Regions

The Blanc Side of Bordeaux

Hailed as one of the top wine producing regions in the world, Bordeaux typically brings to mind bold red wines worthy of the cellar.

But the white wines of Bordeaux are not to be overlooked. These bottles should have a place on your dinner table and at parties all summer long! These wines offer a diverse selection, from bright and easy-drinking to complex, layered, and age-worthy.

If you’re hesitant to try whites from this dominantly red region, you should know that until relatively recently, up to 60% of Bordeaux vineyards were planted to white grapes—reds only came to dominate plantings after a devastating frost in 1956 wiped out most of the white grapevines. While frost destruction was the catalyst for change, the move to more red grape plantings was due to a combination of factors including market demand, better soil-grape matching expertise and the desire to move away form the production of high volume base wines for the spirits industry.

The good news here is that though white wine production may be limited, the attention to detail and dedication to selecting vineyard locations with suitable soil types and mesoclimate make the wines noteworthy. Furthermore, over the past decade or so, producers have been making productive changes to combat issues of oxidation and insufficient aromatics in their white wines. One important change has been improved canopy management, meaning each vine bears the appropriate number of grapes, and these grapes get to see the right amount of sun at the right time. What does that do? It creates healthier grapes, and as well all know, healthier grapes make better wine. Once these healthier grapes enter the cellar, producers focus on keeping fermentation temperatures low, which preserves the fresh aromatics and acidity of the grapes, which is particularly important for Sauvignon Blanc. In summary, the white wines of Bordeaux are thriving due to the use of healthier grapes and better winemaking techniques.

White Bordeaux wines are comprised of three primary grapes: Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. One may occasionally see small quantities of varieties such as Sauvignon Gris among blends, but this is fairly rare. Like the red wines of Bordeaux, many of the best white wines are blends, with a focus on creating a balanced wine with character and complexity. The range of varieties available for blending allows for a diverse selection of wine styles. A few styles and regions to look for include:

Bordeaux – the largest appellation of them all! Some of the prestigious red appellations cannot be used on the labels of white wine, so you may just see “Bordeaux.” Many Bordeaux-appellated whites are simple and easy drinking, while others are more complex and noteworthy. Be sure to read the descriptions for these wines, as they could be light and fresh or more mineral-driven and intense. While both are delicious, the appellation itself is so diverse, it’s important to educate yourself before you buy.

Entre-Deux-Mers – Fresh, easy drinking, and value-oriented, white wines of Entre-Deux-Mers (which means between two seas) are the style you want to sip as an aperitif on a hot summer day or with fresh ceviche. Typically dominated by Sauvignon Blanc, these white wines are all about refreshing acidity and lively fruit flavors.

Graves – Named for the gravelly soils of the region, Graves is ideal for producing complex, often age-worthy white wines. With mineral-tinged notes paired with complex fruit and floral notes, these wines are ideal for accompanying a meal and often benefit from a few years in the bottle so the flavors can integrate.

Pessac-Leognan – The cru-level white wines live here, in a small region within Graves. This is where you see higher prices and higher quality. You may call these cerebral wines—not always easy to define in their levels of nuance, but certainly worth sipping to try to find out! These are perfect for a special meal and can easily enjoy some time in the cellar.

 

 

Riveting Reds from Ribera del Duero

Ribera del Duero – The Place
Image by José I. Berdón

Sitting high on a chalky plateau at 2,500 feet, tucked into northwest Spain, the sultry Spanish wine growing region of Ribera del Duero DO enjoys a heady mix of cool nights and sizzling hot days, showcasing the perfect climate for bringing out the best in the region’s dominant grape variety, Tempranillo.  Ribera del Duero, literally the “bank of the Duero” river, finds firm footing in the extremes of the land. From scorching summers, shielded by rain from two dominant mountain ranges (the Sierra del Guadarrama and Sierra de la Demanda), to harsh, cold continental winters and annual temperature extremes swinging from 0° to 100+°F, Ribera del Duero faces significant threats from both spring and winter frosts. Yet it’s this climate of extremes that also sets the stage for significant temperature shifts during the growing season (often to the tune of 25 degrees or more) between day and night. This diurnal range, or wide temperature variation, allows the grapes to retain high levels of acidity, along with elevated levels of pigmentation in the grape skins while simultaneously preserving the innate fruit-themed aromas and phenolics during the grape’s ripening phase.

Ribera del Duero – The Grape
Copyright: José I. Berdón

Ribera del Duero is red wine country, with a splash of rosé thrown in to lighten things up. Hands-down the region’s shining star is the Tempranillo grape, known locally as Tinto Fino. In fact, Ribera del Duero must contain at least 75% Tempranillo to fulfill the DO requirements in every bottle. Garnacha is a key component of the regional rosé, while Malbec and the international superstars of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot also find their way into many of the regional blends. Not surprisingly, the clone of Tempranillo that thrives in this rugged region typically sports a thicker skin which expresses itself in wines that often carry more color pigmentation and higher-powered tannin profiles than their nearby Rioja-based cousins. The wines of Ribera del Duero show an alluring mix of supple intensity, ready to rumble with an impressive array of foodie favorites and quite capable of standing solo.

Ribera del Duero – The Reputation
Courtesy of Tempos Vega Sicilia

Established in 1860, the outstanding Spanish producer Vega Sicilia single-handedly catapulted the region of Ribera del Duero and the Spanish the wine industry at large onto the international wine stage. Unico, Vega Sicilia’s ultra age-worthy and highly collectible cuvee is built on Tempranillo with enthusiastic support from a handful of Bordeaux varieties, adding to the mystique is its decade long aging prior to release. Happily, Unico’s sister label, Valbuena, carries a somewhat lower price point and enjoys considerable accessibility. For decades Ribera del Duero has maintained a sturdy reputation for powerfully built wines with extensive aging potential.

Today, the region offers buyers a full spectrum of wines. From youthful, fresh, fruit-forward delights that spotlight more elegance and enduring finesse to the full-throttle, high tannin, high acid wines that beg for a bit of cellar time, the variety of styles, palate profiles and price points coming out of Ribera del Duero welcomes a broad range of wine enthusiasts from seasoned collectors to curious consumers. Food-friendly, rich and distinct, the most affordable styles represent excellent quality to price ratios, while higher-end bottles are built to get better with time and are intended to showcase specific aspects of regional terroir, often estate grown fruit and an impressive aging structure.

Ribera del Duero – The Wines
CRDO RIbera del Duero

With such a dramatic range of styles and pricing available in today’s Ribera del Duero market, this is a tremendous time to get to know the regional red wine offerings from one of Spain’s most distinguished wine producing regions. Expect dark fruit namely blackberry, black cherry, blueberry, and sometimes a swirl of strawberry laced with a dash of espresso, dark chocolate and earth-driven components. In terms of texture and mouthfeel, Ribera del Duero reds range from round and silky to quite soft and velvety with a fuller-bodied profile and exceptional pairing potential with a variety of red meat options, aged cheese, pork and lamb chops.

Ribera del Duero Wines to Try: 
  • Finca Villacreces Pruno 2014  – An easy entry-point into the world of Ribera del Duero, this bottle shows exceptional quality at a budget-friendly price. Ripe blackberry and juicy raspberry fruit mingles with black licorice and a decent dose of earth.
  • Emilio Moro Ribera del Duero 2014 – Fresh, lively and filled with a snappy balance of well-formed tannins and zesty acidity, this bottle shows some serious cherry and black plum aromas on the nose with the warm tones of vanilla and a dash of mocha singing backup.
  • Hacienda Monasterio Ribera del Duero 2012  – A high-octane wine that is versatile and well-managed, ready to roll now or just as happy cellaring for another 5-7 years. Expect a feisty balance between earth, fruit and sleek, malleable tannins ending with enduring concentration and clarity.
  • Bodegas Vega Sicilia Valbuena 2009 For those that want to live the legend, but don’t necessarily want to spend the extra cash, you might opt to sip the sister label of Unico, Valbuena. Accessible and sophisticated, Valbuena carries a consistent mix of Tempranillo, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon giving it a bold, age-worthy profile wrapped up in oak-induced spice and rich, black fettered fruit.
  • Dominio de Pingus Psi 2014The pet project of Danish winemaker Peter Sisseck, Pingus Psi is cultivated using biodynamic techniques to give greater voice to the 70-year-old vines. Distinctly dominated by Tempranillo with 10% Garnacha in the blend, this bottle delivers an unexpected “fresh factor” that wows with bright cherry and end-of-summer raspberry in an ongoing, elegant medley of fruit meets oak.
Photos courtesy of CRDO Ribera del Duero and Tempos Vega Sicilia

The Albariños of Rias Baixas

Many regions throughout the world are known for a particular specialty—gastronomic or otherwise—but some more than others have the ability to conjure up vivid sensory memories. One such region is northwestern Spain’s Rías Baixas. To the uninitiated, this may just look like a confusingly-spelled set of words. But to those who have visited or tasted the wines and cuisine of this region, the phrase “Rías Baixas” is enough to make the mouth water, evoking the sensation of salinity in many different forms: a refreshing glass of white wine, a briny seafood meal, or the crisp, fresh air of a picturesque oceanside vista.

The wines of Rías Baixas owe much of their personality to the geography and terroir of the lush, verdant region. Situated along the Atlantic Coast, the relatively modern DO (established in the 1980s) is unique within Spain for its focus on white grapes, which thrive in this relatively cool, damp corner of the country. The name “Rías Baixas” (pronounced “re-ass by-shuss”) comes from Galician—”rías” is the word for the sharp estuaries that cut in to the “baixas,” or the lower-altitude region of southern Galicia. These narrow, finger-like bodies of water that stretch inland from the Atlantic Ocean contain a mix of fresh and salt water, making them an ideal home to an incredibly diverse array of delicious maritime creatures that make up the cuisine of the region. Hard granite soils combined with mineral-rich alluvial top soils provide optimal growing conditions for top quality white wine production.

The other key component of this region is its star grape variety: Albariño. While other varieties are permitted, Albariño makes up the vast majority of plantings, and with good reason. It has the ability to produce distinctive wines that maintain their unique varietal character in a wide range of styles, owing both to the diversity of the five different sub-zones and to winemaking decisions such as maceration length,  the use of wild yeast, barrel fermentation and aging, malolactic fermentation, and lees contact.

Texturally, Albariño typically falls somewhere between a Sauvignon Blanc and a Chardonnay, while flavor-wise, floral perfume, zesty citrus, stone fruit, and minerality are ubiquitous. In the warmer sub-regions of Rías Baixas, ripe melon and peach flavors dominate, while bottlings from cooler climes are often marked by lean acidity as well as grapefruit and lemon notes. An undercurrent of salinity runs through most examples, making them an unparalleled pairing with the region’s plentiful seafood offerings. The Albariño grape is so integral to the style of the wine produced in Rías Baixas that the name of the variety is printed on every bottle—a practice rarely seen elsewhere in Spain (or most of Europe, for that matter).

Thanks to the adaptability of Albariño and its friendly, near-universal appeal, the Rías Baixas DO has something to offer just about every white wine drinker. These wines can be enjoyed year-round, but are especially delightful during the spring and summer, when warm, sunny weather calls for a crisp, refreshing beverage. They sing when paired with any kind of marine life—particularly oysters or scallops—but are equally fantastic on their own. If you can’t make it to Spain for a vacation this year, a bottle of Rías Baixas Albariño just might be the next best thing.

Some of our favorites include:

Granbazan Etiqueta Ambar Albariño 2015
Bright yellow stone fruits come to the forefront here in this complex example, with notes of marzipan, rose, spice, and citrus pith. The palate is round and fleshy, but vibrant acidity keeps it light and freshing.

Condes de Albarei Albariño 2015
This is all about the floral side of Albariño, with a lovely perfume and high flavor intensity on the palate. The luscious texture brings to mind peaches and cream.

Martin Codax Albariño 2015
A great entry-level option—the price is right, and the fruit is ripe and mouthfilling. The flavor profile is simple and straightforward, with plenty of fresh apple and pineapple as well as some nutty character.

Valminor Rias Baixas Albariño 2014
Stone fruit and grapefruit shine in this flavorful bottling, with hints of dried herbs and spice on the long finish. Searing acidity means that this one may not be for beginners, but makes it an excellent complement to grilled fish, lobster, or crab.

Pazo de San Mauro Albariño 2015
This is a big Albariño, with a rich creamy texture and notes of baking spice and marzipan alongside yellow peach and nectarine.  If you’re looking to make the transition from red to white wine for summer, this would be a good place to start!

Bordeaux on a Budget

Bordeaux is a classic region, home to classic wines. So often seen as unattainable, or even undrinkable, the wines of Bordeaux are slowly overcoming these misconceptions in the wine world. While serious wine collectors tend to focus on high-priced futures intended to be cellared for decades or on the rich, honeyed sweet wines of Sauternes, it is certainly possible to find both aged Bordeaux and ready-to-drink young Bordeaux at affordable prices—you just need to know what to look for.

Because outdated stereotypes can make these wines seem so intimidating, many casual wine drinkers don’t know enough about affordable Bordeaux to choose one for the dinner table. In reality, there is no need to feel overwhelmed, and the selection process can be simplified with a few easy pro tips: Continue reading Bordeaux on a Budget

Sicily: A food and wine paradise

At the mention of Sicily, hopefully some of the first things to pop into your mind are sunny beaches, Mediterranean air, fresh seafood, and possibly even delicious wine. Two of the coolest things about Sicilian wines are that they are approachable both in style and price. They offer some of the best—and diverse—options for introducing yourself to Old World wines. But unless you actually go there, it can be hard to realize how large, and unlike an island, this island really is. Its surface area is actually three times the size of New Zealand! They produce between 100 and 130 million gallons of wine per year. That is equivalent to about 2 million oak barrels! The region is also number one in Italy for organic wines, boasting 38% of Italy’s total organic wine production. Continue reading Sicily: A food and wine paradise