Flavor! Napa Valleyis just six weeks away, March 22 through 26! Make sure to get your tickets for my seminars now. Many are already SOLD OUT, so get them while you can! To get both your palate and cerebellum ready, enjoy this article I wrote about Napa Valley below for BuyWine.com.
Napa Valley, California
Mention Napa Valley, and most people have a story to tell about a memorable wine they’ve had from the region. It’s an interesting point when you consider that the valley is only 30 miles long, a few miles wide, and represents roughly 4% of the amount of grapes picked in California. But despite being a relatively small area, the big reputation is built on making world-class wines with fruit grown on family-owned vineyards.
Squeezed between the Mayacamas and Vaca Mountain ranges, 45 minutes north of San Francisco, Napa Valley was the first American Viticultural Area or AVA to be designated in California in 1981. Back then, there was only a handful of wineries in the region. But today, there are 500-plus wineries and a shared dedication to growing premiere vineyards in diverse soils and warm, arid climate conditions that are similar to those found in the famous winegrowing regions along the Mediterranean. The end result is an elaborate matrix of vineyards varying in elevation from sea-level to 2,600 feet that produce low yields and high-quality fruit used to make some of the most prolific wines enjoyed in America and around the globe.
Whites: Sauvignon Blanc is the dominant white grape planted in the gravelly soils on the valley floor, particularly in the warmer segments in the northern part of the valley. Whereas, ….In the more clay and sandy-based soils stretching from Yountville to San Pablo Bay at the southern end of the valley, Chardonnay is the most widely planted white grape at the southern end of the valley. Smaller offerings to look for include: Semillon, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Riesling.
Reds: For red grapes, Napa Valley is best known for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Bordeaux-style blends made with smaller portions of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. Other specialty plantings in the region include: Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Grenache, and Pinot Noir.
White Wines: The diverse styles of Sauvignon Blanc vary in style from racy and tangy to elegant and complex. Some are aged entirely in stainless steel tanks to preserve the purity of the grape; some have a portion of the blend aged in egg-shaped concrete fermenters; and others have a touch of neutral or new oak. The Chardonnays tend to be riper and more full-bodied than those from the more coastal regions of California. And in addition to being blended with Sauvignon Blanc to make a more complex, Bordeaux-style white wine; Semillon is also used to make aromatic sweet wines with flavors of ripe tropical fruits.
Red Wines: There’s no denying that Cabernet Sauvignon is the king of Napa Valley. The styles of the region range from earthy, tangy and spicy with emphasis on red fruits; to bolder styles with notes of dark berries, cherry, chocolate and varying levels of oak; to the more full-bodied opulent flavors, and the potential to age for decades in the cellar. Most of the Merlots are medium to full-bodied with emphasis on ripe red fruits, milk chocolate, and spice. The Zinfandels and Petite Sirahs are mainly from old vines—many of which are still farmed by the families who planted these vineyards before the focus of the valley shifted towards Bordeaux varietals. For that reason, many of the wines made with these grapes have distinctive fruit flavors and layers of spice.
As a rule, many of the Sauvignon Blancs from Napa Valley match perfectly with a wide range of cuisine, including oysters on the half-shell, goat cheese, gourmet salads, sushi and lighter meats on the grill, to spicier dishes that fall under the categories of Mexican, Vietnamese and Thai cuisine. For Chardonnay, the lighter styles pair nicely with appetizers and starting courses; while the more full-bodied offerings are fantastic to pair with seafood, poultry, pork, pasta, and white sauces.
In the red wine category, the more elegant styles of Cabernet Sauvignon are very compatible with daintier dishes like grilled vegetables, seared Ahi tuna, roasted chicken and Asian cuisine with plum sauce. For the bolder and more complex styles, rib-eye steak, lamb and blue cheese are great choices. For Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Bordeaux-style blends; think wild mushrooms, quinoa, salmon, quail, and meats seasoned with herb-based rubs. While Zinfandels and Petite Sirahs are sassy, savory, and ideal for pairing with grilled red meats, veggies, and elaborate pizza.
Time to get your tickets, while they last, to these two exclusive events at Flavor! Napa Valley.
From Vineyard to Bottle: Exploring Napa Valley with Iconic Winemaker Heidi Barrett Moderated by wine, food and television star Leslie Hartley-Sbrocco of KQED’s “Check, Please!”, this exclusive seminar and tasting is focused on Heidi’s secrets behind the way she captures the deep, rich and complex flavors of the fruit she works with from premier vineyards in the wines she makes for her La Sirena and Barrett & Barrett labels, as well as other special selections from the highly-touted Napa Valley brands Paradigm, Fantesca, Kenzo Estate and Lamborn Family Vineyards. Thursday, March 23, 2017 2:30 PM – 4:00 PM
Icons Dinner honoring legendary winemaker Heidi Barrett
Celebrate some of our favorite food and wine icons at this exclusive dinner at the Silverado Resort and Spa: A multi-course dinner will be paired with outstanding, rare Napa wines.
Host Chef Jeffrey Jake (Silverado Resort and Spa), Matthew Accarrino (SPQR), Stuart Brioza & Nicole Krasinski (State Bird Provisions and The Progress), Waldy Malouf (CIA), Ken Frank (La Toque) and Michael Schulson (Schulson Collective) Thursday, March 23, 2017 6:00 PM – 10:00 PM
Hope to see you there to celebrate and imbibe! Cheers, Christopher
Fancy a little get away to the foothills for some amazing food paired with spectacular sparkling wines? This would be the place to go!
Taste Restaurant in Plymouth, CA (Amador County) will have 20 different bubblies from around the world to be paired with a delectable selection of appetizers on Wednesday January 25th, 5:30-8:30pm. This walk around educational event is fifty dollars per person. Attendees will have the opportunity to purchase their favorites at a special discounted rate. Reserve your flute here!
Delicious treats include Prawn and Sausage Skewers
Goat Cheese and Bacon Tartlette
Oysters on the Half Shell
Caviar, Crème Fraiche and Potato
Beef skewers with peanut and red thai curry
Rice Noodle Salad
Roasted Squash Risotto Cups
Smoked Gouda Mac and Cheese
Romesco and Prosciutto Deviled Eggs
Fish Cakes and Siracha Aioli
Meyer lemon tartlette
Hurry to get tickets while you can! Twitter reports January and February are already sold out. So jump on the March and April TICKETS to this delightful epicurean event.
March 11 & April 8
7:00pm to 9:30pm
Jessup Cellars, in partnership with the San Jose Short Film Festival, Napa Valley Film Festival and CellarPass.com, presents the 4th Annual Art House Short Film Series. Each gathering features four award-winning short films paired with a Jessup Cellars wine and Chef MikeC’s Wok-Popped Flavor-Infused Popcorn. The screenings include meet-and-greets with guest filmmakers and the opportunity to purchase wines in support of indie short film projects.
While it’s true that millions of bottles of bubbly from the famous Champagne region of France are popped, sabered and consumed to celebrate New Year, truth is that the flavors of these sparkling gems can easily be celebrated all year long! However, it helps to have a perspective of what to expect, especially when it comes to the higher-priced Champagnes.
With these points in mind, the Sawyer-Casale Wine Education Series invited a group of talented sparkling winemakers, sommeliers, and other wine professionals to taste through some high-end Champagnes and one special selection from Northern California we slipped in for fun! The price of the Champagnes and sparkling gems featured in this blind tasting range from $99 to $199 per bottle.
The special guests participating on the panel included winemakers Steve Urberg of Gloria Ferrer Wine Caves, James Hall of Patz & Hall Winery and Mike Cox of Schug Winery; sommeliers, wine buyers and wine consultants Michele Fano (Cole’s Chop House), Tammi Herron (Court of Master Sommeliers/GuildSomm) and myself (SawyerSomm.com); and wine pros Anne Moses (Patz & Hall), Jennifer Brown (Wilson Daniels), my colleague Keith Casale (3 Badges), and our gracious host Don Sebastiani.
All the wines were tasted blind and ranked on a 1-6 scale. #1 being the highest ranked of the bunch, #6 being the lowest. The five imports from Champagne were purchased from K & L Wine Merchants in San Francisco, www.klwines.com; while the ringer, a high-end domestic sparkling wine from the North Coast appellation, was provided by Jennifer and the good people at Wilson Daniels in St. Helena, www.wilsondaniels.com.
Here are summaries, rankings and notes for each wine in the order we tasted them blind
Bollinger 2005 La Grande Année Brut, Champagne, France Group Ranking: #4 of 6 / Price: $109
Details: Established in 1829, Bollinger was formed from the de Villermont family’s holdings in the charming village of Ay near Rheims in Champagne. After Jacques Bollinger married the de Villermont daughter Louise Charlotte, he became an official French citizen in 1837. Then, after the house started to ship low dosage Champagne to Britain in 1865, Bollinger became the Official Purveyor of Champagne to Queen Victoria in 1884. As the official Champagne of the Parliament, the special sparklers from the brand are preferred by James Bond as well.
The 2005 vintage was complicated by a rather hot summer and rain in the early part September which resulted in some botrytis. Thus, the fruit for this vintage was picked between September 15-27. The Pinot Noir portion of the blend (70%) is from around the winery in Ay and the winery’s holdings in Verzenay and the Chardonnay (30%) is from Avize, Chouilly and Le Mesnil.
Panel descriptors: Warm toasty nose with aromatic notes of fresh framboise, stone fruits, dried flowers, honey, vanilla, roasted hazelnuts, mineral, a slight mustiness, and fino sherry tones. On the palate, hip descriptors included wild berry compote, baked peach, apple pie filling, crème brulée, gingerbread, candied fruit, kaffir lime, dried mango, orange peel, flint, and exotic spices.
Group discussion: From the sommelier’s angle, Herron enjoyed the wine’s medium to medium-plus concentration, round and creamy texture, and balanced acidity. While Sebastiani was more intrigued by the musty character of the wine and liked the long, crisp finish.
Other panelists were disappointed by its lack of effervescence and mousse. Hall, Cox and Casale felt that the wine was oxidative and a little reductive. For those reasons, Hall compared the oxidation to an older “English Style” wine with notes of almonds, toast, honey, and wet towel. And although he felt the wine was resolved, round, smooth and layered; he also felt it was tasting a little too old and oxidized for his taste.
On the flipside, Fano was quick to point out that the oxidation wasn’t offensive to her. Instead, as this wine started to warm up, she felt she got to taste what this wine is all about. Urberg concurred. “When I stuck my nose in the glass, the first thing I got was pickle juice. But that’s not an uncommon character for some of the styles of Champagne,” he said. “From there, it took me a while to get to the pleasant black fruit characteristics that opened up with more air. But along the way, it became quite clear that the flavor profile was really driven by the toasty characteristics that went almost all the way to smoky. In my opinion it doesn’t taste too old, but exactly the way they producer wants it to taste.”
In the end, the panel agreed that this was a wine for people with a much more developed palate instead of those who simply buy a bottle of Veuve-Cliquot Yellow Label on a sale rack for the holidays.
Dom Perignon 2006 Vintage Brut, Champagne, France Group Ranking: #3 of 6 / Price: $169
Details: In 1668 Dom Pierre Perignon became the official treasurer/cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvillers, where he would spend the next 47 years developing practical techniques of farming red and white grapes, making still wines, and through a variety of trials and tribulations created the secondary fermentation process which would eventually become a foundation for the methode champenoise process that is now used to make popular styles of Champagne and sparkling wines around the world. This classic vintage brut from Dom Perignon is a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay Panel descriptors: As a rule, Dom Perignon is relatively reduced and tight when it’s first poured. The 2006 vintage is no exception. For that reason, the aromas were rather funky at first with hints of raw yeast, unbaked sourdough bread, candied fruit, petrol and smoke. But as it opened up, the more attractive sniffs of fresh picked flowers, anise, roasted coffee and sea foam started to emerge. On the palate, the flavors were complex and engaging with dazzling flavors of green apple, yellow pear, smoked nectarine, citrus, candied fruits, dark chocolate, and toasted nuts. Silky smooth, weighty and complex, the flavors are further enhanced with roasty, toasty and smoky notes; tangy acidity; and slight briny taste leading to a long elegant finish.
Group discussion: At first, I thought the wine was a little skunky on the nose, but enjoyed it so much more as the concentrated flavors of ripe fruits, wild mushrooms, lemon meringue, sea smoke, and briny character began to emerge. Cox agreed. He too thought the wine was a bit too much at the beginning, but liked the way it opened up. “On the first few sniffs, it was yeasty, smoky and wild,” he said. “In the end, what saved it was the mouthfeel.”
A devoted Champagne lover and producer of a limited release of sparkling wine under the Patz & Hall label, Hall thought it was Dom Perignon from the beginning. “For the first couple smells, it’s always has that smell of burnt rubber,” he said. “But as it opens, it was cool how the classic reductive character changed to more complex flavors lifted by a relatively high level of dosage. As a contrast, while Moses enjoyed the smoky, lessy and floral accents at the beginning, she felt the smoke killed the purity of the wine.
Louis Roederer 2009 Cristal Brut Millesime, Champagne, France Group Ranking: #1 of 6 / Price: $199
Details: Since the house of Louis Roederer began crafting the first vintage of Cristal for Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1876, this elite Champagne has been made exclusively with estate fruit from old vines grown on limestone soils. For that reason, this famous wine has always been known for conveying a true sense place. Made with 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay, the 2009 Cristal is no exception. Panel descriptors: From the very first sniffs and sips, this wine was fresh, fruity, young and eager to please. Invigorating aromas of honeysuckle, apple, quince, lemon peel, honey and wet stone. On the palate, the dynamic flavors of ripe raspberry, plum, yellow apple, apricot and grapefruit are combined with charming nuances of fresh ginger, marzipan, and roasted hazelnuts. In comparison to the more full-bodied offerings at the table, the wine is relatively lean and delicate but holds its own with layers of complex flavors, fine mousse, and a smooth texture leading to an extended tart, tangy and dry finish. Elegance in motion from start to finish.
Group discussion: The panel was impressed by the way this wine opened up. For starters, it was more fruit-driven than many of the other wines on the table. Steven loved the nose and the balance of the wine. “To me, it suggests that it is higher in acidic to start with or simply has a lower dosage,” he said.
For Moses and I, what set this wine apart was the structure, balance, and the unique burst of natural minerality towards the end. On top of that, we loved the acid-driven flavors and subtle nuances of red fruits, crisp apple, Meyer lemon peel, ginger, almond paste, and elegant toasty notes on the tart and cleansing finish. Michelle also enjoyed the Chardonnay-based flavors enhanced with supple notes of lime zest, chalk, toasted brioche, smoke, and the sour tart note leading to the long cleansing finish. Youthful, very pronounced, dry and dazzling on all levels. Drink now or age for 20 years.
Billecart-Salmon 1999 “Cuvée Nicolas Francois Billecart” Brut, Champagne, France Group Ranking: #2 of 6 / Price: $99
Details: Although Billecart-Salmon is best known for producing one of the world’s finest versions of Brut Rosé, they also accel at crafting more dynamic, refined and ageworthy cuvée styles of brut. This latest offering from the 1999 vintage is 60% Pinot Noir from montage de Reims and 40% Chardonnay from the Cote des Blancs. Panel descriptors: Lovely floral-citrus aromas with inviting notes ripe peach, fresh lychee, honey, forest, and flan custard characteristics. Bright, clean and crisp Pinot Noir flavors of wild strawberry, plum, blueberry, red apple skin, ruby grapefruit and spice; coupled with classic Chardonnay notes of stone fruits, poached pear, dried apricot, Hand of Buddha and honey; and creamy texture with fine-grained mousse and active layers of tiny bubbles. Rich, round, stimulating and rewarding.
Group discussion: Although this was the oldest and most inexpensive wine on the table ($99), the elegant, complex and refined traits of this wine made it one of the panel’s favorite picks in this blind tasting.
Despite the slight oxidation from the age of the wine, the group loved the way the flavors popped open up in the glass. For example, I was fascinated by the way the ripe red fruits were lifted by the racy acidity and texture. Cox agreed, and noted that the fruit tannins caused by the Pinot Noir added a new layer of power and sophistication that separated this wine from the others samples we tasted. Sebastiani also liked the delicate toast, pleasant flavors and creamy mouthfeel. And we all agreed that the crisp, clean, tart and expressive flavors made it a contender to pair with a complex surf and turf dish served on New Year’s Eve.
Schramsberg 2007 Reserve Brut, North Coast, California Group Ranking: #5 of 6 / Price: $119
Details: As the secret brown-bag special for this round, Jennifer Brown of Wilson Daniels was nice enough to supply this lovely gem from St.Helena-based Schramsberg Vineyards. The complex blend for the 2007 vintage features 76% Pinot Noir which comes from specialty vineyards that includes Staltonstall (Petaluma Gap/Sonoma Coast), Stevens (Marin County) and Juster (Mendocino). Whereas, most of the 24% Chardonnay comes from the Carneros District of Napa Valley. The finished wine is produced in the historic caves at Schramsberg on Diamond Mountain. Panel descriptors: With a more pronounced style that suggests new world, the wine starts with perfumed aromas of mixed fruits, raw honey, fig, Meyer lemon, orange peel, vanilla, lanolin and toasty brioche. On the palate, bright flavors of fresh berry compote, peach, exotic melon, tangerine and roasted nuts are further enhanced with hints of toffee, caramel and crystalized ginger.
Group discussion: Although Casale thought it started off tasting oxidated, smoky and leesy; he loved the full-bodied flavors of the wine as it opened up. Whereas, Brown was fascinated by the classic brut nose and the flavors of red berries, lemon chiffon, the tart “Sour Patch Kids” burst and stony notes that lead to a lingering dry finish.
Favo and Moses liked the mixture of ripe fruit flavors mixed with notes of orange peel, Grand Marnier, smoky notes and the touch of sweetness on the finish. “It was very showy,” said Moses. “I liked how the fruit character came across in so many different ways as the wine opened up in the glass.” And I enjoyed the balance of the wine, the way it filled the entire mouth and the subtle hint of white truffle as the wine opened up.
The winemakers enjoyed the wine too. For example, Urberg immediately detected the more mature character of this 2007 vintage, as well as the concentrated flavors, moderate acidity and soft texture. James was fascinated by the balance of the acid and the brilliant level of dosage. For that reason, he thought it was the freshest wine of the day. “Order another bottle and let’s go!”
Krug NV Grand Cuvée Brut, Champagne, France Group Ranking: #6 of 6 / Price: $149
Details: One of the classic brands of Rheims, this winery was founded by German-born winemaker Johann Joseph Krug in 1843. Unlike the other Champagne producers featured in our tasting, which tend to put more emphasis on crafting vintage wines; Krug is much better known prestige cuvees, including their flagship Grand Cuvée, and using barrel fermentation of a percentage of the base wines to create complex flavors with subtle nuances of oak. Panel descriptors: Fragrant aromas of dried flowers, lemon oil, mustard seed, pastry, hay, fennel, yeast, and a hint of smoke. Bright acidity opens up the palate to flavors of pear, green apple, wild berry, bergamot, and toasted almonds. Full-bodied with big tannic structure, rich texture, creamy mousse, a lively mineral burst at the midpalate, and warm and toasty accents leading to a long finish.
Group discussion: Straight forward and pleasant, but nothing too jumps out like the y did in the other samples we tasted. And while the flavors were tart and crisp, the texture was rather one-dimensional. On the more extreme end, Casale didn’t like this wine and compared the profile to the classic Rombauer Chardonnay style with notes of vanilla and buttered popcorn. As a group, we agreed that the wine would be best if served with food.
Gosset NV Grand Blanc de Blancs, Champagne, France Not Ranked / Price: $100
Details: To prepare our palates for this special tasting of high-end Bruts, we also sampled a special offering of the Grand Blanc de Blancs from Gosset, the first wine house in the Champagne region, founded by Pierre Gosset near Ay in 1584. The winery has gone on to be family-owned for 17 generations. And the recent release is made with 100% Chardonnay grapes grown in Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards in Avize, Chouilly, Cramant, Villers-Marmery and Trépail.
Panel descriptors: Lofty aromas of fresh citrus blossom, green tea, ginger ale and fresh squeezed lemon. Anchored around moderate weight and a silky mouthfeel, the palate is lifted with fresh notes of crisp apple, kiwi, grapefruit, chalk, mineral and subtle spices. All this is helped along with a nice balanced attack of vibrant acidity, creamy texture, and a generous finish. Group discussion: Overall, the panel liked the acid-driven flavors, particularly the crisp apple and tart lemon notes. And all agreed that the warmer it got, the rounder it became. In the end, this process really helped the complex flavors shine. Brown also liked the clean flavors and how the wines was still light on its feet instead of being cloying. For sommelier pairings, I suggested fresh oysters and crab cakes; while Favo favored a creamy Emmental or Petite Basque cheese. However, she was also quick to point out that the bitter flavors of the wine made her shy away from suggesting goat cheese.
In the end, the panel was impressed when they found out the #1 and #2 ranked wines, the Louis Roederer Cristal and Billecart-Salmon, were the highest and lowest priced wines in the tasting. It was also nice to see that each wine had its own merits and what really set them apart from one another was a difference in style.
While it’s true that everyone has their own personal preference for how they like their Champagne served, here are some helpful hints to consider:
While ice cold temperatures can hide flaws in wines, the judges prefer to have their elite Champagnes served between 49-54 degrees (9-12 Celsius). This slightly warmer temperature gives more room for the flavors to expand as the temperature rises in the glass.
To open up the aromas, many of the judges like to drink high-end Champagne and classy sparkling wines in more elegant styles of Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc-shaped glasses with wider rims instead of flutes, which generally are more closed at the top and harder to sniff.
As a cool trick, Hall says he likes to have only half the regular amount poured in his glass. That way he can have more control over the temperature and the exposure of more oxidative wines.
Here are some more sommelier food pairings ideas:
For the leaner or medium-bodied styles of high-end Champagnes, great options include raw oysters on the half shell, sushi, crab, prawns, goat cheese, caviar, dainty salads, delicate soups, grilled fish, chicken, pork stew.
For Chardonnay-based medium to full-bodied styles; medium cheeses, roasted chestnuts, creamy soups, pasta with white sauce, seafood medley, pan-seared scallops, lobster, halibut, roasted chicken with fresh herbs, slow roasted pork.
For Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier-based bruts; oysters with red onion mignonette, medium bodied cheeses with nuts and dried berries, tangy soups, tuna tartare, spicy sushi, crab cioppino, salmon, trout, artichokes, roasted vegetables, eggplant parmesan, spicy sausage, gamey meats, duck breast, pomegranate chicken, grilled pork chops, lamb sliders, beef stroganoff, prime rib.
For richer, more complex styles of bruts; full-bodied cheeses, mussels, crab cakes with tangy aioli, charcuterie, heavier soups and stews, richer fish dishes with beurre blanc sauces, pasta with truffles, extravagant Indian and Asian cuisine, pork roast, beef bourguignon, juicy steaks, rack of lamb.
Finally, as a little extra insight on high-end Champagne, sommelier Michele Fano says its’s always important to remember that every guest (or, in our case, wine judges) have slightly different palates. For that reason, she compared our blind tasting to ordering ice cream for dessert. “Do you like vanilla? Butter pecan? Chocolate? Or rainbow swirl? The ones you don’t choose aren’t bad. But instead it’s a matter of taste. For that reason, just as ice cream is always fabulous, so is fine Champagne—especially when it’s served to friends, family, and paired with delicious dishes that make your encounter that much more special,” said Fano, with a smile. I couldn’t agree more!
Happy New Yearto all the fans of Champagne, SawyerSomm.com and the Sawyer-Casale Wine Education Series. Look forward to providing you with more fun wine programs in 2017! -CS
Located in the northwest corner of Spain, for centuries the Galicia region has been known for its abundance of fresh seafood, gorgeous beaches, plush landscape, and the visual tapestry created by its classic combination of Gothic and Baroque architecture. But more recently, this magnificent maritime province has started gaining more recognition for another one of its treasures: Albariño, one of the worlds most distinctive and delicious white wine grape varieties.
Known for its thick skin, green hue and relatively high juice level, the Albariño grape is primarily grown in granite and sandy loam soils in the Rias Baixas region, located between the famous monastic city of Santiago de Compostela to the north and the Portuguese border to the south. Due to its close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, rivers and estuaries (rias in Spanish), the climate is typically mild and often quite damp.
To compensate for these wet conditions and the natural vigor of the Albariño vines, most of the vineyards are trained with a traditional parra system, a seven-foot high canopy hoisted by granite posts quarried locally. This arbor-like arrangement is similar to the pergola system in Italy, which helps vineyard owners circulate air to avoid mildew and spread the leaves in order to capture as much sunlight as possible.
Currently, there are five sub zones of within the Rias Baixas denominacion de origen region established in 1988: Val do Salnés, Condado do Tea, O Rosal, Soutomaior, and Riberia do Ulla. Within these boundaries, more than 6,500 farmers have planted over 20,000 individual plots—some as small as only a half an acre.
During harvest in September, each producer is focused on creating their won signature style which showcases a balanced amount of ripe fruit flavors, bracing acidity, texture, and freshness on the finish. Thanks to the integration of new technology in the region over the past two decades, the process has been made much easier and the quality has steadily increased. As a result, the number of fine producers in the region tripled from 60 in 1990 to 192 in 2005.
However, it wasn’t until the past decade that the wines from Galicia became widely available in the New World—particularly in the United States, which has quickly become the region’s largest export market. So much like the great Spanish reds from Rioja, Priorat and Riberia del Duero have gained recognition in the international wine market, the same is true in the white wine category as delectable Albariños from Rias Baixas are now giving the fine Rieslings from Germany or Gruner Veltliners from Australia a run for the money with sommelier and consumers across the America.
Exploring the Rias Baixas Style
With these thoughts in mind, the Sawyer-Casale Wine Education Series invited a group of talented winemakers from Sonoma County and Napa Valley to a special blind tasting focused on a set of the higher-end offerings from the Rias Baixas ranging from $19.99 to $44.99.
The special guests participating on the panel included: winemakers Michael Havens (Cave Dog Wine), Michael Scorsone (Emmitt Scorsone Wines) and Alex Beloz (Tricycle Wine Co); sommeliers, wine buyers and wine consultants Darvarti Ananda (Basalt Restaurant), Brandon McEntire (Morimoto Napa), Sydney Paris (Massale Vintures), Bob Orlandi (Aabalat Fine and Rare Wines) and Mike Short (formerly of Sonoma & Glen Ellen Markets); our gracious host Don Sebastiani, my colleague Keith Casale, and myself.
All the wines were tasted blind and ranked on a 1-6 scale. #1 being the highest ranked of the bunch, #6 being the lowest. The five imports from Rias Baixas were purchased from K & L Wine Merchants in San Francisco, www.klwines.com; while the ringer, a domestic Albarino from the Napa District of Carneros, was provided by Michael Havens, who now makes a similar style under his new label www.cavedogwine.com in Napa.
Clockwise (L to R) To prime our palates before the blind tasting, we sampled a special offering of Albarin from Cangas in the Asturias region of Spain, which is known for its cheeses and cider; Classic #SawyerSelfieDeluxe with fellow Albarino tasters (l to r): Keith Casale, Michael Havens, Sydney Paris, Bob Orlandi, Darvarti Ananda, Mike Short, and me; Seafood extravaganza! At lunch, fabulous Albarino pairings prepared by Sonoma-based Chef Jason Meyer; The magnificent of selection of ultra-premium Albarino wines tasted from premiere producers Adegas Valtra, Pazo de Senoras, Do Ferreiro, Palacio de Fefinanes and Forjas de Salnes from the Rias Baixas region of Spain and a library selection of Abrente from the Carneros District of Napa Valley.
Here are the summaries and rankings of the wines we tasted blind:
Details: On the banks of the Mino River across from Portugal; Adegas Valtra is a cutting-edge winery that specializes in farming and working with special strains of Albarino. The oldest strain on the farm is in the Finca Garbato block, which has its own unique microclimate.
Panel descriptors: Slightly green hue with bright and expressive aromas of white spring flowers, tutti fruiti, fresh citrus, mustard seeds and wet stone. Lively flavors of fresh melon, mango, lemon pith, candied pineapple, and hints of raw almonds, dill and white vinegar lead to a long waxy finish. 13%
Group discussion: Overall, the team liked this wine quite a bit, particularly the alluring aromas, fresh fruity flavors, oily texture and vibrant acidity. However, Bob thought the finish was slightly short and not much on the front of the palate. Sydney also thought the wine was slightly astringent. For that reason, he suggested it would be a good pairing with creme fraiche. Keith agreed and made note of the slight hint of residual sugar and petrol he picked up on the mid-palate. The group agreed that it had enough weight to be paired with a fatty fish dish. Group Ranking: #2 of 6 (tied) / Price: $19.99
Pazo de Senorans 2014 Albarino, Rias Baixas
Details: Near the town of Meis in the historic Val do Salnés subzone of Rias Baixas, Pazo de Senorans winery is highlighted by an organically farmed estate vineyard that includes the traditional pergola-style trellis system and granite posts. Many of the grapes they work with are from some of the older vines. As a result, the winery has become one of the most respected Albarino producers in the world.
Panel descriptors: Waxy aromas with notes of ripe stone fruits, anise, wild herbs, smoke, and a drizzle of honey. On the palate, the wine is lean and gritty. Crisp flavors of white peach, pear, lemon, lime, granite, pine, and a delicate finish. 12.5%
Group discussion: For starters, there was a lot going on in this wine. McEntire, for instance, was intrigued by the slight funk factor in the aromas that included decomposing flowers and overripe pineapple and followed through with the slightly tropical notes in the flavor profile. Short felt the nose was faint, he really enjoyed the slightly creamy texture, tart flavors, and crisp finish. While Havens also liked the wine, he detected a high level of SO2, a technique that can hide sweetness. The team agreed that the lean character and burst of bright acidity would make this wine very appealing to people who like the more complex styles of Chablis and Pinot Grigio. Group Ranking: #2 of 6 (tied) / Price: $19.99
Do Ferreiro 2014 Albarino, Rias Baixas
Details: Founded in 1973, Do Ferreiro is one of the older wineries in the Salnés Valley. Along with 10 hectares of organically grown grapes on the estate property, proprietor Gerardo Mendez farms 130 plots in the valley. For the 2014 vintage, the 15-50 year old vines used in this blend are grown on a mixture of sand and granite-based soils. Beyond Albarino, the other specialty of the Do Ferreiro brand is Oruja, a traditional style of brand made with grape pomace. In Spanish, the traditional term aquardiente de oruja means “pomace firewater.”
Panel descriptors: Lovely light emerald hue. Lofty floral aromas of fresh citrus, green apple jolly rancher, fresh herbs, peppercorn, and sea foam. Pronounced flavors of crisp apple, green fig, lime, lemon zest, and fresh pineapple. Full-bodied with round mouthfeel, bright acidity, creamy texture, and touch of sweetness on the finish. 12.5%.
Group discussion: The panel thought this wine was young, generous and sophisticated. Sebastiani liked the floral aromas and racy acidity. Sydney noted the way the flavors integrated with the tension generated by acid and skin contact. Casale thought it was solid, well-balanced, and liked the way it opened up in the glass. The only downside was that it was young and tasted much more complex when we enjoyed the open bottles with lunch. As a group, we agreed it would be fun to taste this wine after a few more years in bottle. Group Ranking: #4 of 6 / Price: $25.99
1583 by Palacio de Fefinanes 2014 Albarino, Rias Baixas
Details: Within the stone walls of a fortress in the coastal resort town of Cambodos, Palacio de Fefinanes was established in 1904. According to proprietor Count Juan Gil Gonzalez de Careaga, who began the commercial venture at the winery in 1985, the key to the Fefinanes brand is purity. To make this happen, the winery procures Albariño grapes from over 50 separate old vine growers. Today, the top fruit is used to make 1583, a very elite high-end offering named after the birth year of the Viscount of Fefinanes, who built the historic Fefinanes castle in 1647. The first vintage of this wine was produced in 1995.
Panel descriptors: Big, weighty, wild, and complex. Deep aromas of butterscotch, fresh citrus, ripe melon, lemon verbena, mint, and mineral. Vibrant fruit flavors of ripe peach, honeydew, cantaloupe, kaffir lime, almonds, and zippy acidity. Silky texture, rich mouthfeel, and lingering notes of roasted nuts, sea salt and enchanting savory notes lead to a long, elegant finish. 12.5%
Group discussion: Beyond the lovely aromas, Scorsone loved the peach and citrus overlay of the flavor profile, as well as the overall balance of the wine. Davarti and Sebastiani both thought it was a great food wine. And McIntire said he’d love to match the complex flavors of the wine with spicy Indian or Vietnamese-style cuisine. Overall, the mastery of this wine is based on how the naturally sweet flavors combined with the high level of crisp acidity and oak aging create a rich and smooth texture. A magnificent wine to drink now or cellar for 5-10 years. Group Ranking: #1 of 6 / Price: $39.99
Details: Of the five subzones of Rias Biaxas, the Salnes Valley is the oldest, largest, and most affected by the cool, wet and damp conditions caused by its close proximity to the ocean. As a result, the wines tend to be soft, round, and often quite salty. Forjas de Salnes is a boutique family-owned winery known for this style. At the high end of their portfolio, the fruit for the Leirana Albarino comes from stately old vines at the Finca Genovera Vineyard, owned by a 90-year old woman and a portion of the vines are 150-200 years old. History in ever sip!
Panel descriptors: Full-body with a pale yellow hue. This expressive wine features sexy aromas of spring flowers, pie crust, stone fruit, citrus, honeycomb, mineral, and sea smoke. On the palate, the flavors are layered with ripe apple, Asian pear, quince, grapefruit pith, nougat, cinnamon, and a harmony of sweet, sour and salty notes on the finish. 12.5%
Group discussion: While the wood influence was more pronounced than the other examples in this flight, the salty character and style of winemaking helped showcase the crisp and clean attributes of this wine. But in the end, everyone had a different view of this high-end offering. Casale and Sebastiani, for instance, used terms like “yeasty,” “earthy” and “salty” in their descriptors. Others felt it was slightly sour and bitter. And while Short liked the well-rounded mouthfeel, he felt the wine needed more acidity to support its weight, especially on the finish. Group Ranking: #5 of 6 / Price: $44.99
Abrente 2012 Albarino, Napa District, Carneros
Thanks to his travels as a young man, Napa Valley-based winemaker Michael Havens has been in love with Albarino long before wines from Rias Baixas hit the US market on a large scale. As a result, he was one of the first winemakers to start working with the grape in the new world. For that reason, he was generous enough to slip a library selection of the Abrente 2012 Albarino, which he made with fruit grown in Carneros, into our blind tasting. Today, Havens bottles his annual releases of Albarino under his Dog Wine Cave label.
Panel descriptors: This special cellar selection has a light hay color with green edges. In the glass, the aromatic notes are bursting at the seams with ripe melon, apricot, lime oil, candied pineapple, petrol, savory herbs, and stones. On the palate, vivacious flavors of ripe peach, golden delicious apple and pineapple combine with hints of yellow heirloom tomatoes, white pepper, and roasted nuts.13%.
Group discussion: After the wines were revealed at the end, Havens said the wine was made in 100% stainless steel tanks with whole clusters that went direct to press and spent three months on the lees (with skins). Despite being a year or two older than the other wines in the blind tasting, the purity of the fruit showed. As a result, the panel was impressed by the wine’s mouthwatering character, generous flavors, vibrant acidity, and the long follow-through on the finish. Overall, a very lovely fruit-forward style of Albarino from America. Group Ranking: #6 of 6 / Price: $24.99
Bodega Vidas 2013 Siete Vidas Albarino, Cangas
Details: Outside of the Rias Baixas region, Albarino is also a popular grape to grow in Cangas, where the grape variety is called Albarin. So to prime our palates, prior to tasting the grouping our team ranked, we sampled this delicious release from Bodega Vidas.
Panel descriptors: Very floral with notes of lavender honey, light mineral, butterscotch, pineapple, and vanillin. Lively flavors of slate, almond, pineapple, white peach and apple. Medium-bodied wine with layers of fruity flavors and lavish texture 12.5%.
Group discussion: Overall, the wine was very well received. Havens liked the complex nose, nice phenolics, and firm structure. The team also liked the wine’s combination of minerality and grainy texture, neutral oak, medium to high acidity, and round mouthfeel. Not ranked / Price: $27.99
On the gastronomical side, Albariños pair nicely with spices, salsas, olives, shellfish, grilled fish, white meats, classic Spanish ham and medium-bodied cheeses. They also work great served chilled as aperitifs or by themselves in the afternoon or evening during the warmer months. For more information about the Rias Baixas region, the producers, finished wines and more food pairings, visit www.riasbaixaswines.com.
Also, stay tuned for our new reports on high-end Champagne and Super Tuscan-style wines coming up in late December and early January. In the meantime, holidays cheers to our great followers and the fabulous winemakers, wine buyers, and sommeliers that have participated on the panels for the Sawyer-Casale Series in 2016. More to come in 2017!
Figs & Prosciutto! How can two such succulent flavors not be fabulous together? Here is a recipe from Trombetta Family Wines to share at those upcoming holiday events. Your guests will thank you for it! Pair, of course, with some fabulous wines.
Figs & Prosciutto
Wash figs and pat dry
Cut in halves from the stem to the bottom
Rub 2-3 drops of Balsamic vinegar on the exposed inside of the fig
Cut prosciutto into long thin strips, 1/2 inch wide by about 3 inches long
Wrap the prosciutto around the middle of the fig
Cut Fontina cheese into small 1/4 inch thick by 1/2 inch long pieces
Place the cheese on top of the fig
Place figs on cookie sheet and place under the broiler until the cheese melts (a couple of minutes)