Thursday, June 28, 2012

L is for Loire

The Loire (pronounced luh-WAHR) Valley wine region is a long, skinny stretch of land that lies along the river of the same name in France. Some of the first evidence of winemaking in France dates to the 1st century A.D. in the evidence of vines planted by the Romans in the Loire. The river meanders north-northwesterly from its head in the Alps in south-central France near Ardèche for a couple hundred miles before taking a hard left turn near Orleans, about 80 miles south of Paris. (This is about where the grape growing begins in earnest.) From there, the river heads almost due west, eventually emptying into the Bay of Biscay on France’s west coast at Saint-Nazaire.
Here be the Loire!

Much of the area surrounding the Loire in northern France is relatively cool. Too cool, ordinarily, to ripen many wine grapes. Luckily, the river exerts influence on the climate, raising the average temperature within a few miles on either side of its banks by a couple of critical degrees. Within this “growing zone” lie some of the most densely planted vineyards in the country. Even so, an extra cool summer can prevent the grapes from ripening fully in some vintages. In those cases, some winemakers add extra sugar to the juice before fermenting. This occasionally-necessary process, called “chapitalization,” is illegal in other parts of Gaul.

The Loire region boasts a broad spectrum of grapes. As with most French wines, the name you see on the label indicates the area in which the grapes are grown. The Upper Loire, which includes subregions such as Sancerre & Pouilly-Fumé), trades heavily in sauvignon blanc with a little pinot noir grown in certain areas. The Middle Loire wines (Vouvray, Chinon, Saumur, and Touraine are the most common regions you’ll see) are predominantly chenin blanc among the whites and cabernet franc among the reds. The Lower Loire (mostly around the town of Muscadet), near the mouth of the river, is best known for white wines made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape.

Loire wines – red, white, and rosé – are known for high acidity and relatively low alcohol content. This combination makes them excellent pairings with broad varieties of dishes and excellent “just for drinking” choices. I think I drink more wines from the Loire than any other French region – partly because of their flexibility, but also because there are some real steals because of the region’s relative anonymity. (Woohoo More for me!) Here are a few offerings from the Loire that I’ve enjoyed recently:

Chateau de Fontaine-Audon 2010 Sancerre –Sancerre is the most prominent region in the Upper Loire, which is the wine growing region just south of Orleans. Most of the whites, as I mentioned before, are largely sauvignon blanc and are considered some of the finest examples of that grape in the world. Unlike many sauvignon blancs with heavy fruit or grass notes, Sancerre is known best for the mineral character of its wines. This particular bottle is a delicious example.  The first sip starts with plenty of pineapple and lemon flavors and a little undertone of flint. The general body is crisp with just a hint of creamy at the end. Poured this with both a goat cheese appetizer and a red snapper ceviche. With the cheese, the “metallic” piece of the mineral taste and the sour of the cheese negated each other, leaving a very nice rich flavor from the cheese, and a peachy flavor from the wine. Lovely. With the ceviche, the acidity of the wine merged with the lime juice in the ceviche. The fish tasted wonderful, as did the wine, which displayed a tasty flavor that reminded me of a melted lemon ice. Excellent. ($18.)

Remy Pannier 2008 Vouvray – Vouvray is a small parcel of land in the Middle-Loire outside of the city of Tours; an area known for growing wonderful chenin blanc. Not the chenin blanc you’ve seen in jugs, mind you. The genuine article, like this bottle. The nose reminds me of Rosh Hashanah: apples and honey – a flavor that translates directly from nose to palate. Unlike many crisp, light Loire whites, this one offers quite a bit of richness. It tastes like there’s a hint of residual sugar, but it’s more of honey flavor than a sugary one. There’s a little bit of acid underneath the richness, but the tartness is well-hidden. The finish has just a twist of crisp at the end. An exceptionally nice wine to just sip on while sitting on the porch one afternoon. It made a lovely food wine. Alongside fish tacos, it managed to stand up to Mexican-style spices without a problem. ($15)

Domaine de Noiré 2010 Chinon – Chinon, in the Middle Loire, is known for reds, particularly Cabernet Franc. Most Chinon reds are 100% cab franc, rather than the blends you’ll commonly find elsewhere in France. Cabernet Franc is the Chardonnay of red wine in that it can grow where many other grapes cannot. It reflects terroir strongly. Much like other Loire wines, cab francs from Chinon are light bodied and highly acidic – rather than strong and tannic as you might find in a California cabernet franc. If you’ve wondered how “pencil lead” in a tasting note translates to actual taste, this bottle is a solid illustration. There’s a “graphite” smell on the nose, which carries through to the palate along with some light blackberry and cherry flavors. The body reminds me of a fat Beaujolais. The finish is tart, minerally, and reasonably soft. One of the classic pairings with Chinon is grilled salmon. I now understand why. The smokiness of the grilling brought out lovely smoke flavors in the wine, while the acidity made a great counter to the oiliness of the fish. Definitely worth a try just to try that pairing. About $15. Let me know what you think…

Domaine du Haut Bourg 2009 Muscadet Cotes de Grandlieu – As I mentioned, “Muscadet” is the area near the mouth of the river where this wine is made. Muscadet is made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape. Melon de Bourgogne is so inextricably linked with this region that the grape is now commonly referred to as Muscadet. On many bottles, you’ll find the words “Sur Lie.” Sur Lie means “on the lees.” Lees are the dead yeast that settles to the bottom of a fermentation tank. Leaving a wine “on the lees” for a time gives a wine some creaminess and additional texture. (Many Muscadet, if not made a little “thicker,” would have an almost watery body.) The du Haut Bourg starts off with a crisp blast of lemons and a flash of honey in the back of the mouth. Like most Muscadet, the wine has a very minerally – almost metallic -- character, but that flintiness bounces effortlessly off any kind of shellfish. For the sake of full disclosure, the flavor of Muscadet is so different from most other wines that we actually recoiled the first time we tried it. It’s got so much mineral that we didn’t know what hit us. Since then, the grape has grown on us – especially once we discovered how well it went with the aforementioned shellfish. I fooled around in the kitchen for a bit and created a delicious brothy stew of bay scallops, calamari, and shrimp with peas and lemon juice, topped with mint and goat cheese. (Seriously, this was one of the best meals I’ve whipped up in awhile.) It’s a magnificent pairing, especially for $10.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Lessons of Pepperwood Grove

On returning from a recent conference, I discovered Wine Fairy had visited. A sample pack of Pepperwood Grove wines, courtesy of our friends at Balzac Communications, had magically appeared.

O Happy Day! Wine Samples!
You’ve undoubtedly seen Pepperwood Grove. It’s an inexpensive wine from Don Sebastiani and Sons. The bottles have a “green wave” pattern on the label, but they’re best known for the “Big Green Box” – a three-liter…well…box of wine. As most of you know, we have no problem with box wine around these parts. As long as you’re not looking for top notch juice, box wine can be a great option for an “I don’t want to think about it” offering. You know, when you’re tired or after a few other bottles you did think about…

According to the release, Pepperwood Grove was the first “established” wine brand to launch a “boxed line extension” -- The Big Green Box. This version of their regular wines first appeared in 2010. Sebastiani and sons sent these samples to announce the launch of Pepperwood Grove’s “Little Green Box” – a 500ml mini-container made from 100% recyclable material. Each container holds about three glasses.  They sent me a Little Green Box of pinot grigio, a Big Green Box of chardonnay, and a “Groovy Green Bottle” of their pinot noir.

I’d not had Pepperwood Grove in quite some time. I see it in most every wine store I walk into. I honestly hadn’t given it much thought, but I’d never tried three wines consecutively from the same producer in different “formats” and the Wine Fairy was being generous…

First up was Pepperwood Grove Pinot Grigio, which turned out to be a very “soft” wine at first sip. By “soft,” I mean that there’s not the acidity I usually expect – especially if something is marketing itself as a “pinot grigio.” Winemakers usually brand their wines either “pinot grigio” or “pinot gris” depending on whether they’re more Italian (more crisp and tart) or French (more mineral and smooth citrus) in style, respectively. Honestly, this California offering was neither. It was lightly peachy on the nose, quite full-bodied for a pinot grigio with plenty of peach. I thought it was inoffensive and flexible enough to be a good picnic wine. This travel-friendly pack would go alongside most food – appetizer to dessert.

We moved on to the Pepperwood Grove Chardonnay – This was the wine they’d sent in the “Big Green Box.” It’s also from California, and is actually a blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Viognier. It’s 77% Chardonnay -- anything over 75% and a winemaker can label it Chardonnay. I’ve had the Big Green Boxes before, and I’d found them to be decent, but I hadn’t tried the chardonnay. Honestly, I wish that were still the case. All due respect -- this wine was simply not good. The major flavor is very ripe apple with some creaminess. That’s the nicest thing I can say. On the downside, there’s what tastes like an attempt to do a chemical approximation of oak that doesn’t quite work, and an unfortunate tartness.

Finally, we ended up with the Pepperwood Grove Pinot Noir – This Groovy Green Bottle’s grapes are sourced from Chile. Basically, I’d consider it a serviceable sluggable wine – but I wouldn’t call on it if I were looking for a pinot noir. I thought it was plummy, medium bodied, and straightforward – it would be a very solid table wine if one wasn’t picky. We rated it clearly the best of the three.

I usually wait until after I’ve tried sample wines to read the tasting notes to see how close my palate discerned what the winemaker was trying to do. My observations were nowhere close to the company tasting notes for the whites. For instance, the pinot grigio was described as “light” and “mineral driven” with “bracing mouthwatering acidity,” which was far from what I got. The chardonnay was allegedly “crisp flavors of green apple and biscotti contrast with hints of grapefruit, toasted marshmallow, and fresh lime on the finish.” No. Just no. All tasting notes are subjective, but there’s a general neighborhood.

Turns out these wines were shipped during one of our first fairly hot bursts of the season. The flavors I found in the pinot grigio and the chardonnay reminded me of wines that had been blasted by heat and gone over. My hypothesis? My package was left out for a little too long on an unexpectedly hot loading dock somewhere. Since the glass bottle provides better insulation, it wouldn’t have been affected as much.

Upon reflection over my career purchases, I’ve had considerably more box wines be spoiled than bottled wines. While I’m certainly not turning against box wine anytime soon – it might be worth asking the folks in your local wine store about how quickly their box wine aisle turns over and how those wines are stored when they arrive at the store.

As it stands, I can’t say whether the Pepperwood Grove wines were exposed to poor treatment in transit that they’re just not as tasty. If you decide to try one, make s