Fall 2011 Ridge Wine Blogger Tasting – Lytton Estate Rhones And A Surprise!

Last Sunday Christopher Watkins, Tasting Room Manager for Ridge Vineyards hosted the Fall 2011 Wine Bloggers Tasting at Ridge, Lytton Springs in Healdsburg.  An intimate group of wine bloggers, many of whom I followed and am a fan of, met in the barrel room.  It was great to put faces with names.  That made the experience that much more enjoyable!

We had the good fortune to sit down for the tasting at the same time as Zinfandel grapes were arriving, so Christopher lead on an impromptu tour of the crush pad, and winemaking facility.  The highlight of the tour for me was watching fruit being emptied from their bins, and being de-stemmed.  It was my first time seeing a de-stemmer in action – amazing!

Truck bed full of grape stems after going through the de-stemming machine...

We didn’t know what we were going to be tasting before we arrived.  The wines Christopher selected were small production library wines produced from Lytton Estate fruit.  And courtesy of my Wine Tasting Hero - Richard Jennings, there was also Ridge mystery wine!

To wet our whistles, and prepare our palates for a slice of Ridge library goodness to come, we were served a Chard.

  • 2008 Ridge Chardonnay Monte Bello - USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Light golden-yellow color with tropical fruit, pear, and hint of mineral aromas. On the palate medium bodied, creamy with well-integrated oak, and pear, pineapple, baking spice flavors. Medium finish. (89 pts.)
Our first flight of wines were a Grenache and a 50/50 Syrah-Grenache blend.
  • 2002 Ridge Grenache Lytton Estate - USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Ruby color. Tight nose with dark cherry, and earthy aromas. On the palate medium bodied, concentrated, with firm tannins, and good acidity with dark cherry, and spice flavors. Medium long finish 78% Grenache/13% Petite Sirah/9% Zinfandel (89 pts.)
  • 2003 Ridge Syrah/Grenache Lytton Estate - USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Light-medium ruby color with dark fruit, smoke, and spice aromas. On the palate approaching full-bodied, with ripe fruit, grippy tannins with blackberry, vanilla and spice flavors. Medium finish. 50% Syrah/50% Grenache (88 pts.)
Thereafter we were served (blind) the mystery wine brought by Richard Jennings of RJonWine.  The only hint we received was that it was a varietal Ridge no longer produces.  We were all asked to guess the varietal, and the vintage before the wine was unveiled. I actually guessed the varietal correctly initially, but over-thought it and changed my answer.  Doh!  I was way off on the vintage.  Double Doh!
  • 1990 Ridge Barbera Rancho Pequeno - USA, California, Sonoma County
    Light-medium ruby color some bricking with cherry, roasted meat, and earthy aromas. On the palate light bodied, balanced, and complex with cherry, cocoa, and vanilla flavors. Amazing fruit for 20+ year old Barbera. Medium finish (88 pts.)
After the lighter Grenache based wines and the Barbera,it was on to three flights of Syrah(wine blogging ain’t easy…but somebody’s gotta do it!;-)  The first flight was Syrah co-fermented with Viognier from the western parcel of the Lytton Vineyard.
  • 2003 Ridge Syrah Lytton West Vineyard - USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Deep garnet color with dark cherry, pepper, smoke and floral aromas. On the palate approaching full-bodied, with good balance, and vivid fruit with blackberry, pepper and vanilla flavors. Medium long finish. Co-fermented with 9% Viognier. (91 pts.)
  • 2005 Ridge Syrah Lytton West Vineyard - USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Deep garnet color, and somewhat tight nose of dark fruit, dust, and toasty spices. On the palate medium + bodied, and well-integrated fine tannins with blackberry/plum, cocoa, and vanilla flavors. Medium long finish. 6% Viognier (90 pts.)
The next flight included Syrahs from 2000, 2001, and 2002 vintages.  The 2002 labeled “Syrah II” has an interesting story behind it.  There were two lots of Syrah that included Grenache in the assemblage.  Neither of the lots was deemed satisfactory, so it was decided to add Carignane to one lot, and Viognier to the other.  The lot with the Viognier was labeled Syrah II.  It would have been interesting to taste the two side by side, but I’ve noticed I prefer Syrah with Viognier blended in, so I didn’t miss it. Beside that enable us to stay with the Syrah/Viognier theme.


  • 2002 Ridge Syrah II Lytton Estate - USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Carmine color with dark fruit, black cherry, and floral aromas. On the palate medium bodied, moderately complex, and supple with black cherry, pepper and a bit of spice flavors. Medium long finish. 76% Syrah/22% Grenache/2% Viognier (90 pts.)
  • 2001 Ridge Syrah Lytton Estate - USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Dark garnet color with smoked bacon, dark fruit aromas. On the palate medium bodied, with vibrant fruit and blackberry, cocoa, vanilla, and spice flavors. Medium finish. 1% Viognier (91 pts.)
  • 2000 Ridge Syrah Lytton Estate - USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Carmine color with dark fruit, pepper, and leather aromas. On the palate approaching full-bodied, smooth, ample, and round with black cherry, cocoa, and touch of spice flavors. Long finish. 1% Viognier (92 pts.)
Christopher saved the best for last.  My wine of the day was the 1997 Lytton Estate Syrah.  Wow. As I write this, days later, I’m still reminiscing about the great aromatics of the ’97 (courtesy of the Viognier).  It’s a wine that revealed more nuances of aromas, and flavors as it had time to unfold in the glass.  I wish I could have spent more time with it . And for that matter, all the wines we tasted.


  • 1999 Ridge Syrah Lytton Estate - USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Dark garnet color. Tight nose with dark fruit, earth, and spice aromas. On the palate, bold with good structure and black cherry, anise, earth, and touch of mineral flavors. Medium + finish. 92% Syrah/7% Grenache/1% Viognier
    (90 pts.)
  • 1997 Ridge Syrah Lytton Estate - USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Dark garnet color. Aromatic with dark fruit, asian spice, cigar box, and floral aromas. On the palate, ample, refined, and smooth with black cherry, black plum, spice and vanilla flavors. Medium long finish. My favorite of the day! 88% Syrah/12% Viognier (93 pts.)
It amazes me how long-lived Ridge wines are.  Then again, their wines are seemingly built to last.  The 1990 Barbera is Exhibit A was the 21-year-old Barbera, which is beyond my realm of experience.  For one, I can’t seem to hold on to wines I enjoy for that long and secondly, I don’t associate Barbera and long-term aging, as I would the other varietals we tasted, particularly Syrah.  I think it reflects great fruit in the hands of great winemakers committed to excellence.  And that, in a nutshell, is Ridge!  After my recent #Cabernet Day Monte Bello Tasting at Ridge, I must confess I’m getting a bit spoiled on fine wine!
A ginormous thanks  to Christopher, and Brandy Alexander for hosting and doing the stuff that made for a great tasting!

“May your glass always be filled with warm memories, and the taste of a life well lived linger on your tongue” - Unknown

What I’ve learned tasting 30 Sparkling Wines In 30 Weeks..

Murganheira Bottle of sparkling wine.

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been drinking sparkling wine on a weekly basis since February, and blogging about it in my “T.G.I.F. Champagne and the like…” series.  During that time, I’ve tasted sparkling wines from not only the usual suspects, France, California, Spain, and Italy, but also countries that aren’t “top of mind” when it comes to bubbly like Argentina, Austria, Australia, Portugal, and South Africa.  I’ve had more bubbly since February than I’ve had the last 10 years!

I’ve learned a handful of things about sparkling wine as I’ve worked on perfecting my palate for bubbly.  What do I mean by perfecting my palate?  It has nothing to do with developing greater tasting acuity.  Rather, it’s about “living” with a particular wine, learning everything you can about it, and buying as much of that wine as you can.   It’s been an immensely pleasurable pursuit, which has turned me into a bubbles fiend!  Here’s what I’ve learned…

Sparklers are wines with bubbles

Duh! Here’s what I mean.  Like still wines, sparkling wines are made from a variety of grapes.  They are easy, complex, and everything in between.  They are light, medium, or full-bodied. They can be bone dry, or sweet. They are made in white, pink (Rosé), and red styles. Some are made to drink now, others can be aged for many years.  And most importantly, just like still wine, sparkling wine is an every day wine.  It’s so much more than a beverage for celebration.  Yet, those bubbles seem to add a dash of magic to any occasion.  I can’t resist sharing this quote that sums it up for me…

When Lily Bollinger was asked “When do you drink champagne?”, she replied:
“I only drink champagne when I’m happy, and when I’m sad.
Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory.
I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.”

It’s great with a wide variety of foods

On a recent Saturday night at Chez Redmond, we had a diverse assortment of leftovers for dinner, including, steak, chile rellano, salad topped with tomato, and avocado salsa, and chicken apple sausage.  We enjoyed this diverse range of food with a sparkling Rosé that paired nicely with the leftovers.  Put simply, sparkling wines are food wines.  Of course, like still wines, I recommend pairing light-bodied sparklers (most Cavas, Prosecco, and other light-bodied sparklers) with lighter fare.  At the other end of the spectrum, I’d pair a steak with a fuller-bodied sparkler, especially a Rosé.

You don’t have to spend a bunch to drink it all the time

The average price of the sparklers I’ve tasted over the last 30 weeks was $17.  The most expensive was $33.  I’ve discovered an everyday Cava that’s less than $10 that has a good quality-price ratio.  And, many good sparklers can be found for under $20 (Look for my Top 10 Sparklers Under $20…Coming soon!)  At the same time, I’ve come to realize that I’m willing to spend more for sparklers that I enjoy.  Like most folks, I used to think sparklers were limited to being consumed as apéritifs, or for celebrations.  Consequently, I wouldn’t spend as much for “better” sparklers.  Yet, I’d spend $30-$50 for a “better” bottle of still wine. Ironically, now that I’ve come to realize sparklers can be consumed throughout a meal, I’m willing to pay more for the pleasure.

It’s a deathbed wine for me

Yep…if I had a choice, I’d have a great Rosé Champagne (at least for the first couple of courses) to celebrate going to my Sweet Reward.

Cava – It’s not just for Mimosas anymore

I’m really digging Cava, at least Reserva level Cava.  It hasn’t always been that way.  I pretty much limited my consumption of Cava to using it for Mimosas.  That was before I discovered a couple of Raventós i Blanc Cavas, one a traditional white, the other their outstanding Rosé.  I’m sure there are others awaiting my discovery.

Here’s my hearty recommendation friends.  Go out and buy a bottle of bubbly today, whether it be Champagne, Sparkling Wine, Cava, or Prosecco.  Enjoy it as more than an apéritif.  Wait a day, or a week, or maybe two. Repeat indefinitely!

“May your glass always be filled with warm memories, and the taste of a life well lived linger on your tongue” – Unknown

p.s. To view the sparklers reviewed in the “T.G.I.F. Champagne and the like…” series, just type in T.G.I.F in the Search box above.

T.G.I.F. Champagne and the like…NV Domaine Chandon California Rosé

Domaine Chandon, established in 1973, was the first French-owned sparkling wine venture in the United States.  The winery, and their highly regarded restaurant étoile are co-located in Yountville. Thus creating the only fine dining/restaurant in the Napa Valley.  Chandon makes both sparkling and still wine, but are best known for their sparkling wines which are produced from the traditional Champagne grapes, ChardonnayPinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.  The grapes are sourced from three appellations within Napa Valley Los Carneros AVAMt. Veeder AVA, and Yountville AVA.

In addition to their Blanc de Noirs (see link below for my revieiw), this Rosé, they also produce Brut Classic, Extra-Dry Riche, and a Sparkling Red wine.  All the aforementioned wines retail for between $22-$26.  I’ve been looking to trying the Sparkling Red, which I think would make a great Thanksgiving wine.  In addition to their entry-level sparkling wines they also produce Reserve, Vintage, and three top of the line étoile sparkling wines.


Chandon California Rosé Photo courtesy of Domaine Chandon

NV Domaine Chandon California Rosé

Region: California

Variety – Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir

Residual Sugar – Unknown

Production method: Méthode Champenoise; Aged at least 12 months on less.  Pinot Noir added en tirage

Alcohol by volume: 13%

Cost: $14 (on sale) Retail: $21

My tasting notes follow:

Color: Pink with a coppery tinge

Aromas: Bread dough, and strawberries

Body: Small dispersed bubbles with somewhat creamy mousse.  It went flat relatively quickly.

Taste:  Creamy strawberries, cherries and a touch of spice

Finish: Short

Pair with: The beauty of sparkling wines is their pairing versatility with a variety of foods.  This one would be a good aperitif, and also pair with nicely with wide variety of foods.  The night I had it, I enjoyed it with a wide range of leftovers including steak, chicken apples sausage, chili relleno, and a salad.  It worked well with all the foods!

This is a very good entry level sparkling Rosé.  It was easy, enjoyable, and it’s widely available.  It’d buy again whenever, I find it only sale.  If you’ve not tried a Rosé sparkler, this is a good one try.  (86 pts).

How Port Is Made

From the “A picture (or moving pictures) is worth a thousand words” file, is this short that is the final installment in my dessert wine series.  The video explains how Port wine is made.

This video is a one of the finalists in the Wine Spectator 2011 Video Contest.  Click here to check out the rest!

If you missed any of the previous 4 installments in the series click the links below:

Dessert Wine Primer; Part 1 – Fortified Dessert Wines

Dessert Wine Primer; Part 2 – Late Harvest Dessert Wines

Sweet Sticky Things…Unique Dessert Wines From Around The World Tasting

How to Choose Dessert Wines To Pair With Treats

Sweet Sticky Things…Unique Dessert Wines From Around The World Tasting

In the world of dessert wines (a.k.a. “stickies”) Ports from Portugal, and Sauternes from Bordeaux rule. When I saw that my favorite wine shop, K&L Wine Merchants, was doing a tasting called “Unique Dessert Wines From Around The World“, I was eager to see what other regions of the world have to offer. Not only was the wine geek in me curious, it’s also been my experience that lesser known wine regions often offer outstanding Quality-Price Ratio (“QPR”) wines.

The tasting was not only geographically diverse (Austria, Hungary, Canada, Greece, and lesser known regions of France – Loire, Languedoc, and Alsace), it also offered a variety of both late harvest, and fortified stickies made from both white and red grapes. There was also a variety of treats to pair with the wines including various cheeses from Cowgirl Creamery, and chocolates from The Chocolate Garage.

Unique Dessert Wines From Around The World - The Lineup

My tasting notes follow:

2009 Weiss Grüner Veltliner Fahrenheit 19 Ice Wine - Austria, Burgenland

Light yellow with gold tinged color with pear, brown sugar, and faint floral aromas. On the palate approaching medium bodied with very good acidity, and nectarine, spice flavors. Medium finish. (88 pts).

2008 Union of Winemaking Cooperatives of Samos Muscat Samos Vin Doux, Vin de liqueur - Greece, Aegean, Samos

This is a fortified vin doux Muscat.  Yellow gold color with peach liqueur, apricot, and spice aromas. On the palate medium light bodied with honeyed citrus, spiced apricot jam flavors. Medium-long finish. (88 pts).

2008 Château Pierre-Bise Coteaux du Layon-Beaulieu Les Rouannieres - France, Loire Valley, Anjou-Saumur, Coteaux du Layon-Beaulieu

Minimally  botrytised Chenin Blanc.  Light yellow gold color with muted candied apple,and almond aromas. On the palate medium bodied with tropical, apple, and pear flavors with a hint of nutty savoriness. Long finish (90 pts).

2007 Beck-Hartweg Gewurztraminer Sélection de Grains Nobles - France, Alsace, Dambach-la-Ville, Alsace AOC

Sélection de Grains Nobles (“SGN”) are  botrytised wines from Alsace, France.  Light yellow color with nutty, peach, mineral aromas. On the palate medium bodied, well balanced with very good acidity and peach, spice, and slight mineral flavors. Long finish. (91 pts).

2006 Royal Tokaji Wine Co. Tokaji 5 Puttonyos - Hungary, Hegyalja, Tokaji

Botrytised Furmint Blend.  Golden honey color with aromas of apricot, honey, alcohol. On the palate viscous, with apricot, honey and faint mineral notes. Long finish. (91 pts).

2001 Tokaj Hétszőlő Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos - Hungary, Hegyalja, Tokaji

Botrytised Furmint Blend.  Golden yellow color with vivid aromas of apricot and orange peel. On the palate viscous, balanced with harmonious streak of acidity, and intense apricot and orange flavors with a hint of minerality. Long finish. (94 pts).

2008 Henry of Pelham Cabernet Franc Icewine - Canada, Ontario, Niagara Peninsula, Short Hills Bench VQA

Pretty rosy dark pink color with sweet red fruit aromas. Palate follows with vibrant cherry and raspberry flavors; medium bodied with light tannins and medium-long finish (89 pts).

2007 Domaine Mas de Lavail Maury Expression - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Roussillon, Maury

This is a Vins doux naturels fortified wine from the south of France made from Grenache grapes ; very dark garnet almost inky color with aromas of cherry liquer, sweet tobacco,spice and floral notes. On the palate red fruit, and spice with good acidity and a touch of fine grained tannins. Medium long finish.  (89 pts).

After taking care of business tasting this group of outstanding dessert wines, it was time to enjoy a few different food pairings.  Hands down my favorite pairing was the Henry of Pelham Cabernet Franc Ice Wine and Pralus Madagascar 75% Dark Chocolate. It was simply a sublime pairing!  I also enjoyed the classic Roquefort cheese and Tokaji pairing, though I must confess I’ve never had cheese for my dessert course.

I always look forward to furthering my wine education, and this was a very good opportunity.  I tasted Tokaji for the first time, which I’ve been eager to do, and I now have a better understanding of which types of dessert wines to pair with which types of desserts,  and which might be better on a stand-alone basis for dessert.  All in all, a sweet start to the weekend!

Syrah Smackdown: 7 Contenders, 1Winner, and a Great QPR Pretender!

At the most recent meeting of the Pacific Pointe Wine Tasting Club it was Syrah night.  However, for the first time, we encountered a situation where one of the wines to be tasted was not the selected varietal.  That’s because it didn’t meet the at least 75% threshold for a wine to be labeled a particular grape varietal.  In this case Syrah.  One of the wines was 62% Syrah.  It was inadvertently purchased in the “Syrah/Shiraz” section of a local wine store.

The thing is, we didn’t realize that until we’d tasted through all the wines.  We decided to “disqualify” the Syrah blend from the competition, since it was Syrah Night.  So we ended up with 7 contenders, and 1 pretender!

Before we embarked upon the wine tasting, we had a bite to eat, potluck style.  In addition to the featured dish of the night, Arroz Con Constra Paella, our hosts also provided Prosecco, Rosé, and a Pinot Noir to prepare our palates for tasting.  Aside from the usual assortment of cheese, crackers and a vegetable platter, we enjoyed homemade meatballs, Beef Bourguignon, and a couple of different types of pizza.

Tony's Paella - Arroz Con Constra! Photo Courtesy of Jojo Ong

After a bite to eat, and some wonderful fellowship, it was time for some serious fun tasting the wines.  All the wines were blind tasted.  There were 12 tasters.  The contenders tasted, the order in which they finished, and my corresponding tasting notes follow:

The Winner

2006 Rosenblum Cellars Syrah England-Shaw - USA, California, North Coast, Solano County
Dark garnet color with black fruit, black currant aromas. On the palate fruit forward, medium-bodied with blackberry, black currant, vanilla, and spice flavors. Medium-long finish (Ave. score = 90 pts.)

2006 Rosenblum Cellars England-Shaw Syrah. Photo courtesy of Jojo Ong

  • 2007 Everett Ridge Syrah Estate - USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Dark garnet color with dark red fruit, currant, and a hint of baking spice aromas. On the palate approaching medium-bodied with firm tannins, and somewhat candied dark red fruit, vanilla, and black currant flavors. Medium finish (Ave. score = 86.6 pts.)
  • 2008 Jim Barry Shiraz The Lodge Hill - Australia, South Australia, Mount Lofty Ranges, Clare Valley
    Deep violet color with dark red fruit, and a hint of bittersweet chocolate aromas. A bit warm upon opening. On the palate, medium bodied with nicely integrated tannins with blackberry, and vanilla flavors. Medium long finish (Ave. score = 86 pts.)
  • 2002 Robert Hall Syrah - USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Garnet color with black fruit, herbs, and cigar box aromas. On the palate, fruity, but balanced with black currant, vanilla, and spice flavors. Medium-long finish (Ave. score = 85.1 pts.)
  • 2008 Astrale e Terra Syrah - USA, California, Napa Valley
    Violet color with dark red fruit, oak aromas. Warm nose. On the palate thin, light-bodied, with black cherry, and vanilla flavors. Short-medium finish. (Ave. score = 84.5 pts.)
  • 2007 Charles Cimicky Shiraz Trumps - Australia, South Australia, Barossa, Barossa Valley
    Dark garnet color with black cherry, earth and clove aromas. Medium bodied with black cherry, vanilla, and spice flavors. Medium long finish. (Ave. score = 84.5 pts.)
  • 2007 Alexander Valley Vineyards Syrah - USA, California, Sonoma County, Alexander Valley
    Garnet color with black fruit and tar aromas. On the palate medium-bodied, and smooth with cherry, vanilla, and mineral flavors. Medium finish (Ave. score 80.5 pts.)
As for the pretender?  It was the highest scoring wine of the night with an average score of 91 points!  It’s a great value at less than $15.  

2007 Marquis Phillips - Sarah's Blend. Photo courtesy of Jojo Ong

  • 2007 Marquis Philips Sarah’s Blend - Australia, South Eastern
    Blend of 62% Shiraz, 25% Cab, 10% Merlot, and 3% Cab Franc. Opaque violet color dark cherry, spice and hint of floral aromas. On the palate creamy, and smooth the black currant, plum, spice and vanilla flavors. Medium-long finish.
It was another great night of wine tasting fun and learning about wine.  I think we’ll do Syrah blends at one of our future meetings!

T.G.I.F. Champagne and the like – NV Domaine Ste Michelle Brut

For this week’s “T.G.I.F. Champagne and the like” tasting, it’s my first sparkler from the state of Washington.  Domaine Ste. Michelle (“DSM”) is one of the largest sparkling wine houses in the U.S. producing more than 300,000 cases of value sparkling wines annually.  In addition to the Brut tasted here, they also produce Blanc de Noirs, Blanc de Blanc, and Extra Dry sparkling wines.  All are produced from Columbia Valley fruit in Washington.

Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut


NV Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut

Region: Washington>Columbia Valley

Variety - 88% Chardonnay, 12% Pinot Noir

Residual Sugar – 1.19%

Production method: Méthode Champenoise;

Alcohol by volume: 12.1%

Cost: $9 (on sale) Retail: $11

My tasting notes follow:

Appearance: Light straw color

Aromas: Sweet bread dough, apples and a touch of citrus

Body: Small dispersed bubbles with somewhat creamy mousse.  Light-bodied.  Dry on the front and mid-palate, but closer to extra-dry on the back palate with a cloying after taste 

Taste:  Fuji apples

Finish: Short

Pair with: The beauty of sparkling wines is their pairing versatility with a variety of foods.  This one would be a good aperitif, and also pair with fried calamari, Sushi, or bagel and lox for brunch.

While this won’t be confused with more expensive, complex sparklers, it’s easy, enjoyable, and a good value at $8.50. The price was certainly right!  And it’s widely available.  This a sparkler I’d buy again whenever I find it on sale (85 pts).

Dessert Wine Primer – Part 2; Late Harvest Dessert Wines

Late harvest is a term applied to wines that are made from grapes left on the vine longer than usual.  Allowing the grapes to “hang” longer (to the point where the grapes may be similar to raisins) increases their sugar levels, making a sweeter wine.  How long the grapes are left on the vine determines the type of late harvest wine produced.  To my mind, there are three types of late harvest wines; 1) Late Harvest, 2) Noble Rot, and 3) Ice Wines.

Producing any type of late harvest wine involves more risk (i.e. animals eating the sweet grapes, adverse weather, etc.) and expense, because picking the grapes later than usual is a more labor-intensive process.  Thus sweet wines, like their fortified cousins, tend to be made in smaller quantities and are more expensive.

Late Harvest

The most basic type of late harvest wines are made from grapes picked after the regular harvest when their sugar content, referred to as brix is very high.   Once the sweet juice is rendered, as with all wines the fermentation process is started, and yeast does its thing converting the sugars to alcohol.  However once the alcohol level reaches 16% , the yeast can no longer survive, and whatever natural sugar is left remains resulting in a sweet dessert wine.  The most popular grape types for making late harvest wines are Riesling and Gewürztraminer and believe it or not, Zinfandel and Cabernet Franc.

Noble Rot

If the grapes are left on the vine long enough, they become infected with the benevolent fungus Botrytis cinerea, roughly translated as “noble rot”.  The noble rot fungus eats its way below the skin, attacking the fruit inside, turning it into horrible looking, moldy clusters, but also concentrating the sugars, acids, and flavors by dehydrating the grapes.  The noble rotted grapes are picked and pressed.  The mold isn’t washed off, or otherwise removed.  Since molded grapes are pressed one might ask, “Can you taste the botrytis in the wine?”  An experienced taster may be able to.  Besides, the mold contributes both flavor (reputed to be a bit like sweet corn), and complexity to the wine.

For the botrytis fungus to take hold of healthy, ripe grapes a singular set of climatic conditions, with just the right amount of humidity, and warmth must be present.

The most famous botrytised dessert wines are Sauternes, and Tokaji.

Sauternesthese wines hail from Bordeaux, France and are one of the most famous dessert wines in the world.  The most legendary of these wines is produced by Château d’Yquem (a 200 year old bottle recently sold $117k!).  Sauternes are made from SémillonSauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle grapes.   The region is located near a river, thus providing the requisite humidity to insure the onset of noble rot frequently.  Nevertheless, there can be production can be a hit-or-miss proposition from vintage to vintage.  For that reason vintage matters with Sauternes more than other types of wines.

Château d'Yquem - 1973. With age the wine gets darker and darker...

The balance of sweetness, and acidity characterizes Sauternes.  Typical flavors include apricots, honey, and peaches.   Sauternes are some of longest-lived wines because the residual sugar and acids in the wine act as natural preservatives.  The wines typically start out with a golden, yellow color that becomes progressively darker as it ages.  Sauternes should be served chilled between 50-55°F.  Because of their acidity, they can be served with a variety of food.  A classic pairings for Sauternes are foie gras, and blue-veined cheeses because it provides a counter balance to the richness and saltiness of these foods.

I’ve not tried Sauternes yet, but it’s definitely on my Wines To-Do list!

Tokaji (for pronunciation click here) has been a legendary wine for 400 years.  In fact, Tokaji wine became the world’s first appellation control region in 1730.   It was established several decades before Port wine, and over 120 years before the classification of Bordeaux, which includes the aforementioned legendary Château d’Yquem Sauternes.  Since all the wine from the region, dry and sweet, are referred to as Tokaji, it should be noted that I’m focused on Tokaji Aszú, which are made from noble rotted grapes.

Tokaji Aszú is made from a blend of FurmintHárslevelű, and Yellow Muscat.  While both Sauternes and Tokaji Aszú are made from noble rotted grapes, the process is a little different in Tokaji.  Rather than pressing the juice from the grapes, as in Sauternes, shriveled aszú grapes are picked one by one from botrytis affected bunches. The grapes are then brought to the winery where they are lightly crushed into a paste. Concurrent with that process, non-botrytised grapes are picked separately and made into a base wine.  The aszú paste is added in various proportions to the base wine.  The proportion of aszú added is measured in puttonyos (see below).  The ratio of puttonyos to the base wine determines how sweet the wine will be.  The paste will then steep in the based wine for as little as 8 hours, or as many as 2, or 3 days.  At this point the sweetened wine is drawn off the aszú paste and allowed to ferment again in large wooden casks or barrels.  The second fermentation can take months, or even years because of both the high sugar content of the wine, and the cold temperature in cellars dug centuries ago.   By law Tokaji Aszú must be aged at least 2 years in oak barrels and one year in the bottle before it can be sold.

Additionally, a little headspace may be left in the barrel, and yeast and bacteria present in the cold, damp, dark tunnels feed on the oxygen in the wine, much as flor does in certain types of Sherry.  This process also adds to the unique character of Tokaji Aszú.

Tokaji wine cellars

The sweetness level of Tokaji is measured in Puttonyos as follows (1):

  • 3 Puttonyos – Sweet: 6-9% residual sugar
  • 4 Puttonyos – Quite sweet: 9-12% residual sugar
  • 5 Puttonyos – Very pronounced sweetness: 12-15% residual sugar
  • 6 Puttonyos – Dramatically sweet: 15-18% residual sugar
  • Tokay Aszú Eszencia – Outrageously sweet: more than 18% residual sugar
  • Tokay Eszencia – Off the charts: 40-70% residual sugar

Tokaji Aszú should be served chilled between 50-55°F.  Like Sauternes, it can be paired with foie gras, and blue-veined cheeses. They also pair well with custard style desserts such as creme brulee, as well as combined fruit and caramel desserts.

Other “Old World” rivals to Sauternes, and Tokaji are  Beerenauslese or Trockenbeerenauslese wines from Germany and Austria.

Ice Wines

Grapes for ice wine, still frozen on the vine

In cold climates, grapes can be left on the vine until the temperature falls below 19º.  At that temperature, much of the water freezes out of the grapes, leaving the sugar and other solids behind.  The grapes are then picked one by one, and then gently pressed to yield tiny amounts of super sweet juice concentrated in flavors, acidity and sugars.  The most famous ice wines are German Eiswein and Canadian ice wine, but ice wines are also made in the United States, Australia, France and other countries.  Sometimes, winemakers use a less effective short-cut, and simply freeze grapes in huge industrial freezers.

Ice wines are generally made with Vidal and Riesling grapes.  But they may be made from other grape varietals, such as Gruner Vetliner, Cab Franc, or Chardonnay grapes.

One of my favorite dessert and late harvest dessert wine pairing so far has been Tres Leches Cake with a late harvest German Riesling.

(1) K. MacNeil The Wine Bible

Dessert Wine Primer; Part I – Fortified Dessert Wines

A glass of port wine.

Image via Wikipedia

Dessert wines are sweet wines served with, or instead of dessert.  Dessert wines are also known as “stickies” because picking the grapes makes the workers hands sticky.  The term originated in Australia, but has become ubiquitously synonymous with dessert wines around the world. There are essentially two types of dessert wines, fortified and late harvest.  In Part One of this series, I will introduce you to fortified dessert wines.  In Part Two, I’ll introduce you to late harvest dessert wines. Fortified wines are wines to which a distilled beverage (usually grape brandy) has been added. Adding a distilled beverage does two things to the wine.  First, when a distilled beverage is added to wine before fermentation is complete, the alcohol in the distilled beverage kills the yeast and leaves residual sugar behind which make the wine sweeter.  Secondly, it increases the alcohol content of the wine, which is why dessert wines are served in small quantities (typically a 2 ounce pour).  Dessert wines are typically unctuous, but don’t let the smooth taste fool you, the higher alcohol levels can loosen inhibitions quickly! There are many different styles of fortified wines.  The three major styles are PortSherry, and Madeira.  Other styles include Marsala, which is similar to Port, but made in Italy, and vermouth which is primarily used for cocktails and cooking, and Vins doux naturels, which I will touch on later

Port

Port is the most famous wine of Portugal, where it is known as Porto.  It is widely considered one of the most unique, delicious dessert wines in the world and, as such, it’s the most consumed dessert wine.  I’m surprised I haven’t seen “The Most Interesting Man In The World” sipping Port!  It’s got that kind of swag.  True “Port” is produced exclusively in the Douro Valley in Portugal. However, port-style wines fortified wines are produced in California, Australia, South Africa, Canada, and Argentina.  Ports are typically red wines. There are many styles of Port, which can be divided into two broad categories, barrel-aged Ports, and bottle-aged Ports.  Barrel aged ports are predominately aged in wood, and are ready to drink right after they are bottled and shipped. They should be consumed within a couple of year of bottling.  On the other hand bottle-aged ports start out in wooden barrels for a brief period of time, but are matured in bottles for a much longer period of time. Barrel aged ports include:

  • Ruby Port – Aged in oak 3 years – approachable, vibrant
  • Tawny Port – Basic, easy Port aged 3 years in oak.  Pale onion skin color, usually consumed as an aperitif.
  • Aged Tawny Port – Designated as 10,20, 30,>40 years old. Tawny colored with nutty, brown sugar and vanilla flavors. Soft silky texture.
  • Colheita – An aged tawny port from a single vintage. Minimum of 7 years age. The rarest of all ports.
  • LBV – Late Bottle Vintage – Aged 4-6 years in oak.  Vintage dated. Lack the richness, and complexity of Vintage Ports, but offer good value.
  • Vintage Character – Aged 4-6 years in oak.  Cross-Ruby Blend

Bottle Aged Ports include:

  • Vintage
  • Single Quinta Vintage

Classic pairings with Port are roasted nuts, and Stilton (along with other blue cheeses).   My favorite pairing with Port, so far, is dark chocolate.

Sherry

Sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes that originated in Jerez, Spain.  It is, arguably, Spain’s greatest wine, and certainly its most complex and labor-intensive wine.   That’s because of the way it’s made.  It is progressively blended and aged in a complex network of old barrels, called soleras.  The solera system is comprised of 500 litre casks made of American oak stacked one on top of another.   Periodically the newer wine is moved down to the next barrel containing older wine, some of which has evaporated.  How the wine moves through the solera determines which type/style is of sherry produced.

Sherry Solera

The styles range from bone-dry to super sweet.  There are two broad categories of Sherry, finos and olorosos.  I’ll focus on the olorosos, which may be produced into dessert wines. Unlike finos which are aged under what is called a “flor”, which is a complex strain of yeast that blooms spontaneously in Jerez’ humid air, olorosos are fortified such that a flor does not form.  Because a flor doesn’t form, olorosos are exposed to oxygen, and its oxidizing effects, which results in making the sherry darker fuller textured than finos with a deep, caramel-toffee richness. The other difference between oloroso, and finos is that olorosos are moved more slowly through the solera system.  Sherry is aged in the solera for a minimum of 3 years.

Once the oloroso is removed from the solera it is ready to be bottled as dry wine.  Or it may be sweetened with the ultra-sweet juice of Pedro Ximénez (“PX”) grapes. Depending on how much PX is added the sherry may be medium sweet, or if PX makes up about 15% of the final blend, the oloroso is deemed to be a cream Sherry.  Finally, PX is also made into a rare Sherry of its own.  PX’s are nearly black in color and have a very thick texture.  It’s so sweet, it IS the dessert, or, as in Spain, it may be used to top ice cream.

My favorite dessert and wine pairing with Sherry, so far, was a Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Bean Chantilly with NV Gonzales Byass, Solera 1847 Oloroso Dulce Sherry.

Madeira

Madeira is a fortified wine made on the island of the same name off the coast of Portugal. As with Sherry there are sweet and dry style Madeira.  It is believed to be the wine used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

To make Madeira, clear Brandy is added to wine before it has completed fermentation.  Unlike Port or Sherry, Madeira is essentially baked naturally by the hot Madeiran sun in huge casks in the attics via a process called estufagem, or by heating it to 120 degrees for at least 3 months.  After the heating process is complete, the wine is carefully cooled and allowed to rest for at least a year to recover from the shock.  After that, depending on the style and quality level, it is further aged.  Like Sherry, Madeira may be made using the solera system.

The two styles of Madeira considered to be dessert wines are Bual, which is a dark amber color and medium-sweet, and Malmsey which is also a dark amber color, but sweeter.  Both are made from white grapes.  Like Port, Madeira is made at various quality levels ranging from 3 years to 20, or more years.  The highest quality is labeled Vintage and must be from a single year, or a single grape variety and aged at least twenty years.

My favorite Madeira dessert wine pairing, so far, was Triple Bittersweet Chocolate Ice Cream, Hot Fudge, Caramel Cream, Pecan Praline & Caramel Brownies with a 1997 Cossart Gordon Madeira Bual Colheita.

Vin Doux Naturel

Vin Doux Naturels (“VDN”) are sweet dessert wines from France that are made in a similar process to Port. Like Port, extremely ripe grapes are fermented to a point where the residual sugar level is approximately 10%, before fermentation is halted through the addition of neutral grape spirit, fortifying the wine to 18% to 21% alcohol by volume.  VDN are made from both red and white grapes, primarily in the South of France.  The white versions are typically made from the Muscat grape, while the red versions are typically made from Grenache.

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T.G.I.F. Champagne and the like – 2008 Korbel Natural

For this week’s “T.G.I.F. Champagne and the like” tasting, “I’m going back to Cali”.

Korbel, was founded in 1882.  They are one of the few US producers that include “Champagne” in the name of their products, rather than sparkling wine.  That’s because of a loophole in US laws that allows “semi-generic” products such as sparkling wine to be referred to as “Champagne” as long it’s labeled such that the name of the appellation of the place of origin is on the label.  Thus, you’ll find Korbel refers to its sparkling wines as “California Champagne”, ostensibly to prevent consumer confusion, in this case, with “Champagne” produced in France in the region with the same name.

They sell over 1 million cases of “California Champagne” produced using the Méthode Champenois, so they can rightfully claim to be America’s most popular Champagne.  I found the following factoid from Korbel to be interesting:

Korbel Natural has been served exclusively at the last five presidential inaugurations and is one of the few things both political parties agree on.

Korbel may need to revise their marketing collateral, because nowadays, I doubt it ;-)

Korbel Natural


2008 Korbel Natural Champagne

Region: California>Sonoma>Russian River Valley

Variety - 65% Pinot Noir; 35% Chardonnay

Dosage – 0.75%

Production method: Méthode Champenoise;

Alcohol by volume: 12.5%

Cost:$14

My tasting notes follow:

Appearance: Pale golden yellow

Aromas: Yeast ,red fruit, and apples

Body: Light bodied, crisp, between dry and off-dry.  Straight-forward with somewhat large bubbles.

Taste:  Cherry, apples, minerals, and a touch of honey

Finish: Short-medium

Pair with: The beauty of sparkling wines is their pairing versatility with a variety of foods.  This one would be a good aperitif, and also pair with light fare such as grilled shrimp, poached seafood, or salads.

I enjoyed this more than I have most Korbel sparklers.  But, there’s a lot of competition in the under $15 sparkling wine space.  I can think of a few Cavas I’ve enjoyed just as much, if not more, that cost less.  On the other hand, they’re not as widely available, and that’s a distinct advantage for Korbel.  (86 pts)