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October 2016

Grenache, For My Money, is the World’s Most Versatile Red

chateauneuf-du-papePicture yourself in a party of four at one of your favorite restaurants.  You’re getting a variety of dishes (salmon, lamb, mushroom risotto, and pork), and are trying to find the right wine to go with all these different flavors.  For something unique, Grenache is my recommendation for a versatile red.  When made well, it has the elegance of Pinot Noir, and the depth of Syrah.  The medium body, and vibrant acidity places it in the wheelhouse of food versatile wines.  When I’m teaching at one of my restaurants, I’m always educating the staff about these types of wines, as “go to”, when a group needs a wine to go with everything.

Garnacha (Grenache) originated in northeast Spain around the time of the “Crown of Aragon”, which reached the height of its power between the 14th and 15th centuries.  It ripens late into the season, so hot and dry weather are an absolute necessity.  The key to a well made Garnacha, mostly grown as a single varietal in Navarra, is to pick before it gets too ripe and extracted.  It wants to ripen like a Zinfandel, and get high in brix (measurement of sugar in grapes), sacrificing the lovely acidity, and grace that makes it so food friendly.  My favorite Spanish appellation for Garnacha is Montsant, near Barcelona.  These wines are usually blended with Mazuela (Carignane), and have so much grace and style.  Montsant and neighboring Priorat have the perfect conditions for growing old vines.  The dry weather and sandy soils prevent powdery mildew and disease from setting in, a common affliction for vines with age in wetter climates.

Cannonau di Sardegna (a Grenache synonym), grown on the Italian island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean, might be my favorite expression of Grenache on the planet.  In true European fashion, there seems to be a bit of nationalism around this ancient and important varietal.  A recent study puts the origins of Cannonau around 1200 B.C., yet the Spanish claim to have brought Garnacha over when the Aragonese crown ruled.  Any way you slice it, Cannonau has become its own thing.  Yummy black cherry, and blackberry fruit flavors leave you believing you’re about to feast your lips on a fruit bomb of epic proportions, yet the Italian sottobosco (dried, rotting leaves of the forest), herbs, violets, vibrant acid, and palpable tannins give it the yin/yang you need for food.  

I can’t get away with talking about Grenache without mentioning the French Rhone.  Grenache drives the bus in southern Rhone, in places like Lirac, Vacqueyras, Gigondas, and Tavel.  But, most well known in the region is the appellation of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, made famous by the Avignon Papacy starting in the 14th century.  Although its name did not fully come to be until the 19th century, the Papacy promoted its local wine as an alternative to Burgundy.   It’s almost never packaged as a single varietal, but you can bet it’s the dominant grape of the blend of up to thirteen grapes!  The weather is hot, just as Grenache likes it, and the soil is made of quartzite pebbles that retain the heat at night, retain moisture, and hasten ripening.  These wines are made for the international market, with juicy blueberry-like fruit, garriques (dried lavender and herbs), and a lovely combination of power and grace.

California is starting to excel at producing Grenache, too.  Appellations in the Central Coast (Paso Robles, Edna Valley, Santa Ynez) have very similar terrior to that of the south Rhone.  The largest limestone deposits in California are there, imparting an all-important aspect to wine;  minerality.  The weather can also be hot during the day, with the Pacific Ocean cooling things off at night, to help with balance and elegance.  Check out wineries like Verdad, Tablas Creek, and Andrew Murray for great, well balanced Grenache-based wines that will wow you with quality.  

My favorite Grenache and Grenache-based blends:

  • Republic of Quibia Garnacha 2013, “R-OH”, Montsant, Spain
  • Surrau Cannonau di Sardegna 2013, Italy
  • Saint Préfert -Chateauneuf du Pape 2012, Réserve Auguste Favier, France
  • Verdad Garnacha 2014, Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard, Edna Valley


We can never know everything about wine.  Let’s keep learning.



Austrian White Wines are Perfect for Fall Fare

danube-river-in-fallI love this time of year. I love the smell of fallen leaves, and the crisp evening air on my face.  This is my favorite time of year for food, too.  Pomegranate, persimmon, nutmeg, chestnuts, sage, apples, squash, turkey, cranberry, and hearty dishes like roasted duck and braised pork shoulder.  Sometimes, my palate gets a little tired of one red wine after another, and I need a white wine to help give me some variety.  If you’re like me, Austrian whites are the way to go this fall.   

Austria has a rich history of winemaking, dating back at least 2000 years.  It thrived under (who else!) the Romans, where we first see evidence of Gruner Veltliner, Austria’s national varietal.  In virtually every important winegrowing region of the world, there is a river that is vital to producing quality grapes.  Austria’s key landmark was and still is, the Danube river.  The hillside vineyards along the Danube have poor quality soils, perfect for producing high quality grapes.  These stressed out vines produce less fruit, and spend most of their energy concentrating on the few clusters that remain on the vine.  Very little Mediterranean influence reaches Austria, so the continental climate is reliant upon this mighty river to regulate temperatures, both in the summer and winter.

What seems totally unique, though, is the influence of the Waldviertel forests in northwest Austria.  It is these nordic breezes, that flow from the northwest that heavily influence the diurnal shift from hot daytime temperatures to cold nighttime temperatures in regions like the Kremstal and Kamptal – two appellations where you get maximum bang for your buck.  A significant contrast in day / night temperatures is needed to regulate sugars in the grapes, and help facilitate the racy acidity and beautiful aromatics that are so important for exceptional whites.  The areas of Kremstal and Kamptal are more influenced by the Waldviertel forest than the Danube.  Both produce fantastic Gruner Veltliner, Riesling, and Chardonnay that have everything I’m looking for in great white wine;  flowery aromatics, silky texture, vibrant acidity, and a finish that lasts for days.

Check out these amazing Austrian whites this fall:

Schloss Gobelsburg Gruner Veltliner 2014, Kamptal

The property has been a monastery since the 12th century, and the current winemaker sees himself as a steward.  Loess and loam soils challenge the vines to put most of their energy into the grapes.  

Buchegger Gruner Veltliner 2013, Vordernberg, Kremstal

The Vordernberg vineyard is prestigious for fabulous gruner.  Whole cluster pressing emphasizes the aromatic, while 4 months on the lees (dead yeast) lends itself to texture.

Geyerhof Gruner Veltliner 2014, Rosensteig vineyard, Kremstal

Organically farmed.  Gravel and crushed rock soils lend a vine to minerally characteristics in the nose.  

Weixelbaum Gruner Veltliner 2014, “Wechselberg”, Kamptal

Organically and biodynamically farmed, the Wechselberg vineyard has partly volcanic soils that are iron-rich.  These soils retain heat longer into the night and hang on the vines longer into the season.  

Hannes Reeh Chardonnay 2013, Burgenland

My sleeper chardonnay of 2016.  Creamy, and super subtle vanilla combine with citrus blossom and a wonderful texture on the palate.  The acidity is perfectly balanced.  

It’s impossible to know everything about wine.  Let’s keep learning.


Cabernet Franc. Seductive and Sexy.

bettie-pageWine can be such a visceral experience. Sometimes I get a little flush in the cheeks, when I’ve had a wine that’s so delicious, it becomes slightly arousing.  I first encountered this at A Cote restaurant in Oakland, where I was introduced to the seductive Brundlmayer sparkling rosé.  Pink complexion, dancing bubbles, attractive yet introverted fruit, and a finish that lasted for days! Cabernet Franc, more often than not has a similar effect on my psyche.  It smells of sophistication with its black cherry fruit, herbal notes, and intermingled roasted pepper earthiness.  Add in a touch of French oak for a subtle baking spice finish, and it may be hard for you to concentrate on dinner conversation.  

So, what kind of terrior brings out the best in Cabernet Franc?  Limestone and gravel are key, like with the “Right Bank” appellations of Saint Emilion and Pomerol in Bordeaux.  These nutrient poor soils prevent vines from focusing energy on canopy and leaves.  Instead, all of the energy is focused on producing fruit. These “Right Bank” appellations usually blend equal amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, so they tend to be richer, and have a weightier mouthfeel.  Bordeaux is no stranger to hot summers, where daytime temperatures in the nineties bring out fruit and depth in wine.  I love these wines with braised lamb shanks.  The earthiness of the lamb really brings out the fruit of the wine in a beautiful way.  Fat in animal protein really goes well with acidity in wine, and “Right Bank” Bordeaux wines are the perfect pairing.

The Loire, perhaps my favorite style, focuses on Cabernet Franc as its sole varietal to create a nose of violets, roses, cranberry, tart cherry-like fruit, and vibrant acidity on the palate.  The appellations of Chinon, and Bourgueil float my boat.  The tuffeau limestone soil in the vineyard brings out a complex minerality on the nose to balance out the fruit.  Loire is where “Cab Franc” first became popular in the 1600’s, probably because it had the finesse of Chopin’s “Nocturnes”, the seductiveness of Bettie Page, and the silky smooth texture of a red velvet dress.  Who doesn’t want to taste that!?  These wines are perfect for the fall, too.  Think Thanksgiving.  Turkey, stuffing, cranberries, roasted root veggies, and a pan gravy.

Of late, California has taken the ball and run with it.  Using “Right Bank” Bordeaux and the Loire as their reference, California winemakers are producing delicious Cabernet Franc wines.  The key is to not overcrop Cabernet Franc, though.  It is especially susceptible to green bell pepper and vegetal flavors, when the vines are allowed to produce too much fruit.  California is still in the infant stages of figuring out how to balance volume (tons per acre) with quality, and Cabernet Franc will certainly let you know about it!  That roasted pepper on the nose and palate needs to be in balance with the fruit, acid, oak, and texture.  When we find that balance, it is pure magic in a glass.

Check these Cabernet Francs out:

  • La Petite Chopinere Cab Franc 2012,  Bourgueil, France
  • Dom Beausejour Cab Franc 2014, Chinon, France
  • Zepaltas Cabernet Franc 2014, Pickberry vineyard, Sonoma Valley
  • Truchard Cabernet Franc 2013, Carneros, Napa Valley
  • Keenan Cabernet Franc 2012, Spring Mountain, Napa Valley
  • Chateau La Croix Chantecaille Cabernet Franc / Merlot 2012, Saint Émilion, Grand Cru, France
  • Overture By Opus One Cabernet Sauvignon / Cabernet Franc / Merlot NV, Oakville, Napa Valley


We can never know everything about wine.  Let’s keep learning.