The Wines of Piedmont Italy

Piedmont, located in northwest Italy, is the home of more DOCG wines than any other Italian region. (For explanation see my post on Italian Quality Standards, August 31, 2019.)  Among them are such well-known and respected names such as Barolo, Barbaresco, and Barbera d’Asti. Although famous for tannic and floral red wines made from the Nebbiolo grape, Piedmont’s greatest recent success has been sweet, white sparkling Moscato d’Asti.

Piedmont, which literally means ‘at the foot of the mountains’, is situated at the foot of the western Alps.  The mountains are credited for the region’s favorable climate.

Foreign winemaking technologies have been a great contributor to Piedmont being viticulturally advanced compared to other Italian regions. The region’s proximity to France also plays a part in this.

Piedmont has been referred to as the “Burgundy” of Italy, as a result of its many small-scale, family wineries and a focus on quality that has sometimes been known to border on obsession. What Burgundy does with Pinot Noir, Piedmont does with Nebbiolo, the grape that has made the largest contribution to the quality and reputation of Piedmont’s wine. Nebbiolo is the varietal used to produce four of Piedmont’s DOCGs – Barolo and Barbaresco (two of Italy’s finest reds), Gattinara and the red wine from Roero (minimum 95 percent Nebbiolo).

Wines produced from Nebbiolo grapes are known for their “tar and roses” bouquet, and the pronounced tannins that can make them undesired as a young wine but an excellent wine for cellaring. The grape is known as Spanna in the north and east of Piedmont, and is used in at least 10 local DOCs including Carema, Fara and Nebbiolo d’Alba.

Barbera, a dark-skinned variety, is Piedmont’s workhorse grape and the region’s most widely planted variety. It is long been used to make everyday wines under a number of DOC titles, but is now behind a growing number of superlative wines in a range of styles and approaches of oak maturation.

Piedmont’s best Barberas are sold under the Barbera del Monferrato, Barbera d’Asti or Barbera d’Alba titles. These are classically Italian in style: tangy, sour cherry-scented reds with good acidity and moderate complexity. Less astringently tannic than their Nebbiolo-based counterparts, Barbera wines are enjoyably drinkable within just a year or two of vintage, giving them a competitive edge in today’s fast-paced, impatient wine market.

Dolcetto is the third red grape of Piedmont. It has one DOCG (Dogliani), and several DOCs devoted exclusively to it; the top three being Dolcettos d’Alba, d’Acqui and di Ovada. Dolcetto is usually used to make dry red wines.

The Brachetto grape is used in the production of the sweet, sparkling reds of the Brachetto d’Acqui DOCG. So, too is Freisa, with its broad portfolio of sweet, dry, still and sparkling red wines made in Asti and Chieri.

Although Piedmont is known mainly as a red-wine region, it produces several well regarded white wine styles. The most prominent is Moscato d’Asti and to a lesser extent the Asti Spumante. Both of these are made from Moscato grapes grown around the town of Asti.  The former is sweeter, more lightly sparkling and generally of higher quality.

The Piedmont white of the connoisseur is made from the Cortese grape; a variety which struggles to produce wines of any aromatic complexity anywhere else.  It now faces serious competition from the aromatic Arneis varietal. Although not as prestigious, the Arneis is increasingly popular for its delicate, exotic perfume. A final white worthy of mention is Erbaluce, which has benefitted from the 300 percent increase in Piedmont’s white wine production over the past thirty or so years.

With more DOCGs and DOCs than any other Italian region, and about 40 percent of its wine produced at DOC/G level, Piedmont is challenged only by Veneto and Tuscany for the top spot among Italian wine regions. Overall, Barolo is my personal favourite Italian wine.  Though it tends to be sold at a higher price point than other types of Italian wine, I find that it is cost justified.

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The South African Wine Industry

The South African wine industry has faced many challenges throughout the 20th Century.  The South African Co-Operative Wine Growers Association (KWV) restricted the production of wines in such a way that innovation was near impossible and quantity was prioritized over quality. Yields were restricted and minimum prices set at a level which encouraged production of brandy and fortified wine. KWV’s control over the South African wine sector lasted until the 1990s, and still today the country’s industry is unusual for its high number of co-operatives.

South African wine fell out of international favour during the 20th Century.  It reached an all-time low when trade sanctions were placed on the country in the 1980s due to its apartheid policies. Nelson Mandela’s freedom in 1990 and his subsequent election as President reinvigorated the wine industry.

Up until the last 15 to 20 years most South African wines went directly to be distilled into brandy. However, today South African wines have emerged as both some of the best valued red and white wines and of the highest quality.

In 2016, South Africa had grown to be the world’s seventh largest producer of wine in terms of overall volume.  It accounted for 3.9 percent of global wine output. More than 300,000 people are employed in the industry.

South African Red Wines

Cabernet Sauvignon

There is a savory complexity to South African Cab, which makes it a delightful alternative to the more fruit-forward California Cabernets. The character of South African Cabernet Sauvignon is somewhere between the ‘new world’ and the ‘old world’.

The wine regions producing great Cabernet Sauvignon include:

  • Paarl & Stellenbosch
  • Franschhoek

Syrah

Syrah from South Africa is becoming popular due to its dark spiced fruit flavors with a chocolate like richness.  Syrah grows throughout South Africa, and therefore has a wide range of styles. You will find more savory wines from cooler regions such as Paarl and Stellenbosch and more richly intense wines from dry areas such as Robertson and Swartland.

The wine regions most noted for producing great Syrah include:

  • Paarl & Stellenbosch
  • Robertson
  • Swartland

Pinotage

Pinotage is unique to South Africa.  It is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault.  Pinotage offers juicy raspberry to blueberry fruit flavors with spiced chocolate and tobacco. The wines are much denser, higher in alcohol and typically more savory than Pinot Noir. Pinotage often gets blended with Syrah.

The wine regions most noted for producing Pinotage include:

  • Diemersfontein
  • Southern Right
  • Kanonkop

Merlot

Merlot is widely used as a blending grape with Cabernet Sauvignon. Still you can find several single-variety Merlots from the Coastal Region.

Other South African Reds

Several other red wine varietals are growing in South Africa, including Malbec, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Cinsault (spelled ‘Cinsaut’ in SA). While most of these varietals are blended, South Africa’s cooler climate regions  are making single variety Pinot Noir.

Other less known red varietals that are now being produced, but in small quantities include Hanepoot, Cornifesto, and Roobernet.

South African White Wines

Chenin Blanc

Most of the Chenin Blanc produced goes into brandy production but there is an increasing market for South African Chenin Blanc. It is a peachy and floral grape variety not unlike Alsatian Pinot Gris and Viognier.

The vintners and wine regions most noted for producing Chenin Blanc include:

  • Ken Forrester in Stellenbosch
  • MAN vintners in Coastal Region
  • Badenhorst in Swartland

Colombard

Known in South Africa as ‘Colombar’ this less used white wine grape from the central France is commonly used to add Sauvignon Blanc-like zestiness to Chenin Blanc based white wine blends. Still, a large chunk of the wine production goes towards brandy making.

Sauvignon Blanc

The flavors of Sauvignon Blanc in South Africa have a lot of similarities to those of New Zealand.  They are zesty, grapefruity and grassy and usually very inexpensive.

Chardonnay

As a cool climate variety, a lot of South Africa’s regions aren’t particularly well suited for Chardonnay. However, the coastline along the South stays cool. Look for Chardonnay from Walker Bay.

Other South African Whites

Other white varietals include Semillon, Riesling, and Viognier which are often used for blending, but are increasingly found in single-varietal boutique bottlings.

Generally speaking, South African wines provide good value at a competitive price.  I was introduced to these wines several years ago by a friend who had spent a good portion of his working life in South Africa.   There are red and white options available to satisfy any palate.

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Day Trip to The County

On the first anniversary of my hemorrhagic stroke I wanted to get away from the ‘scene of the crime’ so my wife suggested taking a day excursion to Prince Edward County.  The County is often compared to France’s Burgundy region in both climate and the grape varietals grown.

The County was officially designated as a VQA appellation in 2007.  It is separated from the mainland by the Bay of Quinte at Belleville and is completely surrounded by Lake Ontario.  The soils and microclimates of the County, coupled with a limestone base, provide an ideal growing environment for cool-climate grapes such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  This island setting is now home to over 40 wineries, a dozen craft breweries, fine restaurants, cheese producers, farmers’ markets and other local food purveyors.

I hadn’t visited the county for a few years and had lost touch with what is going on there.  So to prepare for our journey I checked out the latest reviews of the County wineries, which I combined with some curiosities of my own and developed a list of destinations.  My list consisted of 7 wineries, 6 of which were considered as the County’s movers and shakers of 2020 and the 7th was one that I had an interest in.  The wineries included Closson Chase, Devil’s Wishbone, The Grange, Hinterland, The Old Third, Rosehall Run and Waupoos.

The day didn’t exactly play out as I had planned, at least partially due to COVID-19.  Both Devil’s Wishbone and the Old Third were closed and a number of the others had a very limited wine supply.   For example, at the Grange, in order to purchase the only red they had in stock, I had to buy two 375 ml bottles of their Merrill House 2016 Pinot Noir as they had no 750 ml bottles left.  However, having now drank one of the bottles, my wife and I agree it was a good purchase at the equivalent price of $37 for a 750 ml. bottle.

However, as it happened, our last stop made the day worthwhile.  At the very end of Greer Rd. lies Rosehall Run, one of the original wineries established in the County.   Among our finds there was their 2018 JCR Pinot Noir, which in August was awarded the ‘Red Wine of the Year’ at the Ontario Wine Awards.  This wine has the potential of being one of the greatest and longest-lived Pinot Noir they have produced. Even though the wine may be enjoyed now it can be laid down for the next 5 to 7 years to reveal the purity that will evolve with time.  With a price point of $42, it is good value.

Our second find was a 2016 Merlot which was the result of them being able to secure a couple of tonnes of Merlot planted at Prince Edward County’s Huff Estates which resulted in Rosehall Run creating their first and only County Merlot.  The wine was barreled down in their underground cellar for 18 months. New French oak was utilized in preparing this small lot.  There is only a small quantity left and with its price of $35 a bottle, it will be gone soon.

Overall I have always found the offerings of Prince Edward County to be on the expensive side compared to similar offerings in Niagara and especially at the LCBO.  For a big part it is a factor of demand and supply.  The County VQA region is much smaller than Niagara and thus the quantity of grapes available is less and this is reflected in the prices.  There are some good value wines to be found for sure but you just need to be prepared to make the effort to search them out.   There are a couple of wineries, such as Sandbanks, where you can always count on finding a good selection and good value.

Given the climate of the region it is important to keep in mind that the mainstay varietals are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Baco Noir.  To expect to find a lot of other locally grown varietals, such as Cabernet, is not realistic. 

Given that the County has so much more to offer besides wine, a trip there is well worth the time.         

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France’s Champagne Wine Region

The Champagne region is located 145 kilometres northeast of Paris and is one of the world’s most northerly fine-wine regions. It is generally divided into three parts – the Montagne de Reims, the Vallée de la Marne and the Côte des Blancs.

The region contains 75,000 acres of vineyards. It’s interesting to note that most and the greatest vineyards of Champagne are not owned by great landowners but by thousands of growers, often working part-time.

The vineyards are situated on deep chalk soils, part of the same great basin that forms the famous white cliffs of Dover in southern England. The chalk serves as a natural moisture regulator, providing good drainage and reflects the sunlight and its heat.

Regulations dictate which of the three permitted grapes may be planted where.

The slopes of the Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Blancs provide the best vineyards. The greatest concentration of villages designated as Grand and Premier Cru are found in these two areas.

The Montagne de Reims is planted mainly with Pinot Noir. The Montagne is a forested plateau south of Reims. Its wines give the great champagnes their backbone – their weight and richness.

Along both banks of the River Marne is the Vallée de la Marne. This zone produces the fullest, ripest wines, predominately from Pinot Meunier, and to a lesser extent Pinot Noir grapes.

Extending south from Epernay for about 21 km. is the Côte des Blancs. This area produces fine Chardonnay that give freshness to the blend and provides the sparkle to the wine.

The Côte de Sézanne is a relatively new region. It is planted almost exclusively with Chardonnay.

The classification system in Champagne is based by vineyard and is established by the Comité Interprofessional du Vin de Champagne (C.I.V.C.). The land is given a grade based on its suitability for growing white grapes or black grapes. A grade of 100% percent has been given to the 17 Grand Cru villages. The 38 Premier Cru villages have grades from 90 to 99%. The rest have a grade ranging from 80 to 89%. Champagne houses use the average percentage rating of the grapes used in their blends to establish the quality of their raw materials.

The Wine

The richness of champagne wines is largely due to the cold climate of northern France. The bubbles in champagne are a natural phenomenon.

Three grape varieties are used to make Champagne — Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Pinot Meunier is the most prevalent, making up about 40% of grape production.  It is easier to grow and is less prone to frost damage. Pinot Meunier makes up the base wine for all but the very finest champagnes.

Pinot Noir makes up about 35% of the blend. It is responsible for the depth of fruit and longevity of the wine.

Chardonnay accounts for the remaining 25% and adds lightness and elegance to the blend.

The lack color in most champagne is the result of a gentle pressing, so as to extract the juice but not the color of the dark grape skins.

The main difference between the various Champagne brands or houses, is in the making of the cuvéee, or the blend. A house builds a reputation based on the particular style of blend of its non-vintage wines. So each year the wine must be consistent. The large houses store millions of gallons of wine from various vineyards and grapes for blending purposes. As a result, once you find a house style you like, it will be available year after year as long as that house exists.

In especially good years, some vintage champagne is produced. Some feel that the extra depth in taste is well worth the extra cost of these wines. Eighty percent of the contents of vintage champagne must contain grapes from the declared year.

Champagnes are labeled based on their sugar content; Extra Brut, Brut Sauvage, Ultra Brut, Brut Intégral or Brut Zéro.  These wines are bone dry with less than 0.6% of residual sugar per litre. This wine is rarely made.

Brut

This is the most popular style of champagne. The best blends are always reserved for the brut and is the mainstay of the business. It has less than 1.5% residual sugar and is very dry.

Extra Dry, Extra Sec

Sweetened with 1.2 to 2% residual sugar per litre, it is still dry and goes well with desserts .

Sec

Although it means “dry” in French, it means “moderately dry” or “slightly sweet” as it pertains to champagne. It has 1.7 to 3.5% residual sugar per litre.

Demi-Sec

This style is distinctly sweet or medium. It contains between 3.3 to 5% residual sugar per litre.

Doux

This is the sweetest style of champagne. It is very sweet and is more of a dessert-style wine. It has a minimum of 5% residual sugar per litre.

Blanc de Noirs

Occasionally you will find Blanc de Noirs. This style is made entirely from black grapes but is white. It offers a wine that is fuller than those with Chardonnay in the blend.

Blanc de Blancs

This wine is made exclusively from the Chardonnay grape and is the most delicate of champagnes. Since only 25% of Champagne is planted with Chardonnay grapes, it is generally a more expensive option.

Final Thoughts

COVID-19 is having a devastating impact on Champagne’s economy.  With weddings and other celebratory events being cancelled or postponed all around the world there has been a massive reduction in demand for the famous bubbly.

However, keep in mind that Champagne is not just for toasting and celebrations; it is much more versatile.  Brut pairs well with fish and seafood, or moderately spiced Asian cuisine.  The sweeter varieties make an excellent choice to serve with desserts, such as fresh berries.  Champagne can also be served on its own as a pre-dinner drink or for no particular reason at all.

Now may be a good time to discover/rediscover Champagne.  Prices may never be better and you could develop a new appreciation for this magical bubbly.

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Cabernet Sauvignon vs. Sauvignon Blanc

Let’s begin this comparison with the obvious; Cabernet Sauvignon is a red wine grape.  Its success has been celebrated in many parts of the world, most notably in France’s Bordeaux region and California’s Napa Valley, where it is blended with other grapes to make stately red wines. Most Cabernet Sauvignons are full-bodied, bold reds.

Cabernet Sauvignon Sauvignon Blanc

On the other hand, Sauvignon Blanc is a white wine grape used in the production of terrific white wines, particularly from parts of New Zealand, California and parts of France. In France, Sauvignon Blanc regions include the Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre appellations, as well as Bordeaux, where it’s blended with Sémillon to make both elegant dry whites and the region’s revered botrytized dessert wines.

Sauvignon Blancs can be made in many different styles, but tend to stand out for their zingy acidity and mineral or herbal notes.

About 20 years ago a DNA test showed that Cabernet Sauvignon is a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Vine breeding wasn’t well understood or very successful when Cabernet Sauvignon first appeared in the 17 century.  Therefore it is highly unlikely that its development was intentional.

Sauvignon Blanc is a pale lemon colour. It tends to fare better in cooler climates. When fully ripened, it has a fresh, crisp smell, is high in acidity and tends to taste of lemon, lime, peach, gooseberry and/or passion fruit. It tends not to age well so is usually at its best a year or two after bottling. It tends to be fermented and stored in stainless steel, temperature-controlled vats to retain its fruit characteristics, and is best served chilled.

Even though Sauvignon Blanc is a parent grape of Cabernet Sauvignon, they are very different.

Cabernet Sauvignon tends to be full-bodied, with flavours of black fruit, black pepper and sometimes mint andeucalyptus.  The grapes have thick skins so need a warmer climate to ripen fully. The skins make Cabernet Sauvignon wines very high in tannin. Cabernet Sauvignon is also high in acidity but, unlike Sauvignon Blanc, they are fermented and aged in oak barrels, which soften the astringent tannins and give flavours such as toast and vanilla to the wine. They can develop and benefit greatly from ageing. This is why some Cabernet Sauvignons are very expensive, especially if they are from a good vintage. They are best enjoyed slightly cooler than room temperature.

From a food pairing perspective, Cabernet sauvignon goes well with red meats, including game, stews or casseroles, hearty pastas, and strong-flavored cheese. Protein can help soften astringent tannins; fat protects your palate against a too-assertive wine.

Sauvignon Blanc on the other hand pairs well with sushi, goat cheese, spicy Asian food, grilled shrimp, or a fruit salad. A fuller-bodied Sauvignon Blanc will pair well with richer foods, such as chowder and fried calamari.

Both Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc produce excellent wines despite being so totally different.  Both are very enjoyable under different circumstances.

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France’s Loire Wine Region

The Loire Valley is referred to as “the garden of France”.  It is as famous for its castles as it is for its wines. This picturesque place is the home of Sauvignon Blanc, and it’s from here that the grape has spread around the world.

In addition to Sauvignon Blanc there are refreshing rosés, reds that favour fruit over force, and sumptuous sweet and sparkling wines that even rival the neighbouring region of Champagne.  There are a high proportion of small-scale winemakers devoted to farming organically and an expanding list of excellent winemakers.

The Loire Valley begins not too far west of Paris, and extends all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. It is a cool-climate region, which means that the reds tend to be on the lighter side and lower in alcohol. While regions like Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Alsace have long been renowned for their Grand Cru sites, the Loire Valley has been considered to be much more humble. However, in the 1990’s younger producers began stepping up quality, converting their vineyards to organic and devoting themselves to discovering the potential of their land. The result is super-tasty wine that’s far more affordable than France’s more famed regions.

There is a wonderful food food-friendly nature to the wines, as well as a modest price tag on most bottles.

Here is a quick rundown on some of the appellations.

SANCERRE / POUILLY-FUMÉ / MENETOU-SALON / QUINCY

Main grapes: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir

One of the more famous of the Loire appellations is Sancerre, which is known for its elegant and expensive Sauvignon Blanc wines. The neighbouring appellations of Pouilly-Fumé and Menetou-Salon also provide wonderful Sauvignons but often at a much more affordable price.

There is a small amount of Pinot Noir grown in these appellations, and it has a wonderful, light quality with notes of crushed strawberries and soft tannins.

CHEVERNY / COUR-CHEVERNY

Main grapes: Romorantin, Gamay, Sauvignon Blanc

Odds are that none of us will ever come across a bottle of wine from these two small appellations without travelling to the region. But if you do ever have the opportunity to taste a Cour-Cheverny wine, I have heard that it is a wonderful experience.  

The wine consists of the incredible rare, ancestral variety Romorantin grape. Only about 60 hectares are left in France.  Romorantin carries aromas of white peaches and honeysuckle, yet delivers a refreshing tartness. 

There are also great red and white blends and rosés from Cheverny that are affordable and pair well with food.

TOURAINE

Main grapes: Sauvignon Blanc, Gamay, Pineau d’Aunis, Côt, Menu Pineau

Along with Romorantin, the ancestral Pineau d’Aunis grape is one to look for from the Loire Valley.  There are about 400 hectares left in France and it produces light, peppery reds and delicious berry-hued rosés.

Overall, Touraine offers great value.  Its Gamay wines are very good, with just a hint of tannins.

VOUVRAY

Main grape: Chenin Blanc

Vouvray is where Chenin Blanc is grown. Vouvray is perhaps as well-known as Sancerre, although its wines haven’t yet become as expensive. In Vouvray, only Chenin Blanc is produced, and it delivers a special minerality.  There are also some delicious sparkling crémant wines made of Chenin Blanc in Vouvray.

ANJOU

Main grapes: Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grolleau, Pineau d’Aunis

In Anjou, a much larger neighbouring appellation, the Chenin Blanc tend to be smoky and mineral but also somewhat full-bodied. The whites are usually 100 percent Chenin, but some have a small portion of Sauvignon blended in.

Red wines from Anjou are nicely balanced, with just enough roundness to complement the minerality. If you are a fan of sweet wines, the Coteaux du Layon appellation, located within Anjou produces a late-harvest wine made from Chenin.

SAVENNIÈRES

Main grape: Chenin Blanc

This tiny appellation produces only Chenin Blanc grapes. It’s a highly regarded area whose wines tend to age very well.

CHINON / BOURGEUIL / SAUMUR / SAUMUR CHAMPIGNY

Main grapes: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc

Cabernet Franc is a beautiful, elegant, and sometimes powerful red grape that defines these neighboring appellations. The style here is to not let oak overpower the wine.  There are light and fresh Cabernet Franc that’s perfect to toss in the fridge and then sip on the patio or pair with pizza, as well as serious, aged Cabernet Franc that deserves a decanter and contemplation.

MUSCADET

Main grape: Melon de Bourgogne

The unique white variety known as Melon de Bourgogne is mainly found in this coastal region. “Muscadet” is a nickname that developed to refer specifically to this white wine from this region. It is always dry, floral, easy to drink, and well-priced. It pairs well with oysters, seafood, or linguini with clams.

Final Thoughts

Personally, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was investigating opportunities to take a river cruise through the Loire Valley and experience the region firsthand.  Hopefully, once life returns to “normal” I will get to visit one day.

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France’s Rhône Wine Region

Although the Rhône region produces white wines, it is better known for its reds. The wines of the Rhône will satisfy all tastes and budgets, whether you are looking for easy-to-enjoy, immediately accessible wines or cellar worthy, collectible wines.  As I have mentioned in the past, my favourite French wines are produced in the Rhône.

The wines are divided into four levels of quality:

Côtes du Rhône AOC

The Côtes du Rhône appellation was established in 1937, and its wines are among the most popular in all of France.  It accounts for 50% of the valley’s production and is considered as the ‘entry level’ classification. Most are red blends based on Grenache or Syrah and the vineyards are planted on a variety of different soils. Production rules are not as strict as other levels but wines must have a minimum of 11% alcohol and be made from the 21 sanctioned grape varieties.

These wines are easy drinking, and pair well with a variety of different foods so are perfect for every day. The white blends and rosés are equally delicious but may be harder to find.

Côtes du Rhône Villages AOC

The Côtes du Rhône-Villages appellation was created in 1966 and represents the next tier on the quality ladder. Wines from here have more body and a spiced red-fruit character.

The village wines are a bit more complex with lower yields and slightly higher alcohol. These wines are great for aging.

Côtes du Rhône (named) Villages AOC

Twenty-one villages are allowed to indicate their village name on the label.  In order to include the village name, the winery must comply with stricter requirements than for the Côtes du Rhône Villages. Those villages are:

  • Chusclan
  • Gadagne
  • Laudun
  • Massif d’Uchaux
  • Plan de Dieu
  • Puyméras
  • Roaix
  • Rochegude
  • Rousset-les-Vignes
  • Sablet
  • Sainte-Cécile
  • Saint-Gervais
  • Séguret
  • Sinargues
  • St-Maurice-sur-Eygues
  • St-Pantaléon-les-Vignes
  • Suze-la-Rousse
  • Vaison la Romaine
  • Valréas
  • Vinsobres
  • Visan

Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the most famous Rhône region and one of the oldest in France.  It was established in 1936, but its official boundaries were drawn up in 1919.

The wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape display great fruit freshness, black pepper, spice, earth and garrigue (a French term for the wild hillside vegetation of the Mediterranean Coast).

The vineyards are planted with 14 varietals at four levels of altitude as the land rises up from the Rhone River. 

The most plentiful reds include Grenache and Cinsault, with Mourvedre, Syrah and other sanctioned reds producing wines that are full and aromatic with spicy dark fruits balanced with acidity and minerality.

Whites make up only 6% of production but are worth trying. They speak of the warm southern climate – honeysuckle, stone fruits and melon, backed with refreshing minerality.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines are usually pricier than other Rhône wines, with prices starting in the $50 range.  However, there are some much less expensive Rhône wines that are equally as enjoyable.  But if you are seeking a more collectable or cellarable wine, Châteauneuf-du-Pape provides some great choices.

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France’s Burgundy Wine Region

During the Middle Ages, Benedictine and Cistercian monks, whose responsibility it was to produce wine for the Church, began to recognize subtle variations in the wines from different areas.  They began to map the vineyards in terms of quality and as a result, Burgundy’s famous, complex cru system began to emerge.

Burgundy (aka “Bourgogne”) is small in size but its influence is huge in the world of wine.  It is home to some of the most expensive wines but there are tasty and affordable ones as well.

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the two primary grapes of Bourgogne (Burgundy) white and red wines.  However, Aligoté, Pinot Gris, Gamay, and Sauvignon Blanc are grown as well.

Burgundy has 5 primary wine growing areas:

  • Chablis
  • Côte de Nuits
  • Côte de Beaune
  • Côte Chalonnaise
  • Mâconnais

Chablis

Chablis is the growing region located furthest north and is geographically set apart from the rest of Burgundy. The river Serein (Serene) flows through the area, moderating the climate, and the grapes have been grown here since the Cistercian monks first started the vineyards in the 12th century.

All the wines are white and made with Chardonnay grapes.

Côte de Nuits

The Côte de Nuits  is home to 24 Grand Cru vineyards and some of the world’s most expensive vineyard real estate. The area begins just south of Dijon and ends at the village of Corgoloin. 80% of the wines produced here are Pinot Noir and the remaining 20% are either Chardonnay or Rosé.

Côte de Beaune

The Côte de Beaune is named after the medieval village that is the heart of wine commerce in Burgundy.  The wine from this region is quite different from that of its neighbor to the north. Chardonnay plays a more important role with 7 of the 8 Grand Cru vineyards producing white wine, but there are many amazing red wines produced in this region as well.

Côte Chalonnaise

Côte Chalonnaise is situated between the towns of Chagny and Saint-Vallerin. Here there are no Grand Cru vineyards.

The first village in the northern part of the region is Bouzeron, the only appellation devoted to the white grape, Aligoté. This is a perfect summer sipper or choice for fish and shellfish. Aligoté is floral, with notes of citrus and flint, and perhaps a touch of honey.

Another village that does something a bit different is Rully, a vibrant center of Cremant de Bourgogne production since the 19th century. These white and rosé sparklers are made in the traditional method, just as in Champagne.

The wines from this area are good value. They range from smooth Chardonnays with subtle oak influences and ripe tree fruits to more rustic Pinot Noirs.

Mâconnais

Mâconnais  is the most southerly region, and Burgundy’s largest.  Located between the town of Tournus and St. Veran, it lies at the crossroads between Northern and Southern France.  The warmer climate is evident in the well-structured Chardonnays, with notes of ripe stone fruits, honeysuckle, citrus peel, and wild herbs.

Burgundy Wine Classifications

There are four levels of quality for Burgundy wines:

  • 1% Grand Cru – Wines from Burgundy’s top plots (called climats). There are 33 Grand Crus in the Côte d’Or and about 60% of the production is dedicated to Pinot Noir.
  • 10% Premier Cru – Wines from exceptional climats in Burgundy. There are 640 Premier Cru plots in Burgundy.
  • 37% Village Wines – Wines from a village or commune of Burgundy. There are 44 villages including Chablis, Nuits-St-Georges, and Mâcon-Villages.
  • 52% Regional Wines – Wines from overarching Bourgogne appellations.

Regional Wines

Regional Wines can be made from grapes grown anywhere in Burgundy and tend to be fresh, light, and lively. You will find them labeled “Bourgogne Rouge” (red) or “Bourgogne Blanc (white).

Village Wines

The next step-up is the “Village” wines, named after the towns near to where the grapes are sourced. These wines are still fresh and fruity, with little to no oak.

Premier Cru Burgundy

“Premier Cru” wines are from special vineyard areas within a village. They produce wines that are slightly more intense than the regular old Village wines.  Premier Crus are affordable and make marvelous food wines. The label will say “Premier Cru” or “1er Cru.”

Grand Cru Burgundy

The “Grand Cru” wines account for just over 1% of Burgundy’s annual production. Bold, powerful, complex and made for cellaring, they are the epitome of both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. There are a total of 33 Grand Cru vineyards in Burgundy.

Chablis Classification System

There is a separate ranking system for Chardonnay:

  • Petit Chablis

Petit Chablis is produced from grapes grown surrounding the village, which are higher in acidity and have lots of light citrus character.

  • Chablis

The majority of the wines found on wine store shelves are in this category. These wines are a bit rounder and more minerally with grapes sourced from the limestone slopes near the village of Chablis.

  • Premier Cru Chablis

Premier Cru Chablis make up about 15% of annual production.  These wines are more elegant coming from vineyards filled with Kimmeridgian limestone marl, giving them a distinctive character.

  • Grand Cru Chablis:

These vineyards are located north of the town of Chablis, where the steep slopes face south-southwest. There is technically only one Grand Cru, but there are 7 “climats” inside that Grand Cru, and their names will be on the label: Blanchot, Bougros, Les Clos, Grenouilles, Presuses, Valmur, and Vaudésir. Many of the Grand Cru wines in Chablis are aged in oak.

Final Thoughts

Whatever your pleasure, make a point of trying some of the wines of the Burgundy region.  You can’t go wrong and you don’t need to spend a fortune to find a nice one.

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France’s Bordeaux Wine Region

Bordeaux is one of the most iconic wine regions of not only France, but all of Europe.  The wines produced in Bordeaux have become a benchmark for wine producers all around the world.

Bordeaux was first loved for its sweet white wines from the sub-region of Sauternes. The wine had prestigious clientele during an era when sweet white wines were more popular than dry red ones. There was also a rosé popular in the 1700’s, particularly with the English, who called it “claret” due to the wines translucent red color.

It wasn’t until the mid-1800’s that Bordeaux red wines became more well-known. The dramatic moment of this transformation was an official decree that classified the top producers of the day. The classification, now deemed the “1855 Classification”, identified the best producers in the region and ranked them 1 through 5. The classification basically hasn’t changed even though there are many more producers in the region making outstanding wines.

Bordeaux is one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious wine regions. Bordeaux is synonymous with quality and refinement. While the legendary wines of Château Margaux or Pétrus command prices that place them out of reach of the average consumer, Bordeaux’s true greatness lies in the fact that wines with elegance, sophistication and balance can be found at all price points.

Red wines from Bordeaux are medium to full-bodied with aromas of black currant, plums, and earthy notes. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot vines originated in Bordeaux. The tannins in these wines are often high enough that wines will age for several decades.

One of the most important things to know about Bordeaux wines is that they are a blend of grape varieties. The red Bordeaux Blend is one of the most copied around the world and it includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and a small amount of Carménère.

When serving Red Bordeaux, it should be slightly below room temperature (around 65 °F / 18 °C) and decanted for at least 30 minutes. All red wines should be stored below 65 °F / 18 °C.

You should expect to spend around $25–$30 for a great bottle of Red Bordeaux.

Suitable food pairings for Bordeaux include,

  • Meat
    • Black Pepper Steak
    • Roast Pork
    • Filet Mignon
    • Beef Brisket
    • Buffalo Burgers
    • Chicken Liver
    • Pot Roast
    • Venison
    • Duck
    • Goose
    • Dark Meat Turkey
  • Cheese
    • Ossau Iraty
    • Basque Cheeses
    • Manchego
    • Swiss Cheese
    • Comté
    • White Cheddar
    • Provolone
    • Pepper Jack
  • Herb/Spice
    • Black Pepper
    • White Pepper
    • Oregano
    • Rosemary
    • Mustard Seed
    • Cumin
    • Coriander Seed
    • Anise
  • Vegetable
    • Roast Potatoes
    • Lentils
    • Mushrooms
    • Onion
    • Green Onion
    • Green Bean Casserole

The Bordeaux region is separated into two sub-regions, the “Left Bank”, referred to as Médoc and Graves, and the “Right Bank”, known as Libournais.

The Left Bank (Médoc and Graves)

This area is known for its gravelly soils and graphite-driven red wines with a dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend. The most prestigious sub-regions in the Médoc include Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Saint–Estephe, Margaux and Pessac-Leognan (the areas first classified in 1855). The wines from Médoc are some of the boldest and most tannic of Bordeaux, perfect for aging or matching with red meat.

Left bank Bordeaux blends, in order of proportion are:

  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Merlot
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Malbec
  • Petit Verdot

The Right Bank (Libournais)

This area in Bordeaux is known for its red clay soils that produce bold plummy red wines with a dominance of Merlot. The most well-known and sought after sub-regions including Pomerol and Saint-Emilion. The wines from around Libourne are still moderately bold, but generally have softer, more refined tannins. For this reason, right bank wines are a great way to get introduced to the region. Here is a typical example of a Libournais Bordeaux blend in order of importance:

  • Merlot
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Cabernet Sauvignon

Entre-Deux-Mers “Between 2 Tides”

The area between the 2 major rivers of Bordeaux, the Garonne and the Dordogne, is called Entre-Deux-Mers. This area produces both red (predominantly Merlot) and white wines but is perhaps more well-known for its white wines, which are a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and the rare Muscadelle. Wines have grapefruit and citrus notes with zippy acidity–a perfect wine for summer and fish.

Sauternais Sweet Wines

Sauternes and its surrounding regions of Barsac and Cadillac, are along a particularly dank portion of the Garonne River. Morning fog causes the white grapes growing in the area to develop a certain type of fungus called Botrytis. The fungus causes the grapes to shrivel and sweeten making one of the sweetest white wines in the world.

White Bordeaux

Only a small part of Bordeaux’s wine production is dedicated to white wines. These wines are made with Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon and range from zippy and fresh from places like Entre-Deux-Mers to creamy and lemon curd-like from places like Pessac-Leognan.

Last Word

Bordeaux is a region that has been a source of inspiration to many of today’s most popular wines. If you are a fan of red wine and have never tried a French Bordeaux, I recommend purchasing a bottle.  Better yet, try both a left bank and a right bank wine and see which you prefer.

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Argentina’s Wine Regions

Argentina is one of the most important wine-producing countries in the New World, and though the second largest country in South America, it is the largest wine producer. The high-altitude deserts of the eastern Andes have given rise to a high-quality wine industry and the terroir here is well suited to Argentina’s adopted grape variety, the ubiquitous Malbec. Originally from Bordeaux, this is now responsible for some of Argentina’s most famous wines, which are characteristically bright and intense, with floral notes and flavors of dark fruit.

Wine has been produced in Argentina since the 1500s, initially by Spanish missionaries and later Italian settlers. Argentina only began exporting wines in the 1990’s.  Until then their wines were strictly domestic and based mostly on the high-yielding Criolla Grande and Cereza grape varieties. Over the past 25 years the country’s wine producers have raised quality levels and successfully consolidated an international export market. Argentina has risen to become the fifth-most-prominent wine-producing country in the world, following France, Italy, Spain and the USA.

Most viticulture in Argentina occurs in the foothills of the Andes and most famously in Mendoza, where desert landscapes and high altitudes combine to make a terroir that gives rise to aromatic, intensely flavored red wines. Vineyards in Mendoza reach as high as 5000 ft (1500m) above sea level. Here, increased levels of solar radiation and a high diurnal temperature variation make for a long, slow ripening period, leading to balanced sugars and acidity in the grapes.

Nearly three-quarters of Argentinian wine production takes place in Mendoza, and in addition to Malbec, there are significant amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Bonarda.

Further north, the regions of Salta and Catamarca are at higher elevations. There Argentina’s signature white grape, Torrontes, is grown, making an aromatic, floral white wine.

There is a wine region closer to the Atlantic coast, Rio Negro.  The cooler conditions there suited to creating wines made from Pinot Noir.

Catamarca

Catamarca is a wine-producing region in the north-west of Argentina in the midst of the Andes mountain range. Quality and commercial focus are rapidly increasing here as they are elsewhere in Argentina.  Torrontes, Syrah and Malbec  vines are increasing throughout the region.

Jujuy

Jujuy is the northernmost viticultural area of Argentina. It is a relatively small wine region and is less commercially established than some of the other regions.  Very little of Jujuy’s wine is marketed internationally.  Torrontes is the most successful and best known of Jujuy’s grape varieties.

La Rioja

The La Rioja wine region is located in the foothills of the Andes Mountains in western Argentina, north of Mendoza and San Juan. The mountainous terroir of the region is particularly suited to the white-grape variety Torrontes, which produces crisp, aromatic white wines.

La Rioja was named for the northern Spanish region of the same name by Juan Ramirez de Velasco, a Spaniard from Rioja itself. This has caused some animosity between Argentina and Spain.  The matter was settled, at least in legal terms, in 2011 when the Argentinian province won a court case allowing it to continue to label its wines as ‘La Rioja Argentina’.

La Rioja is best known for its white wines but Bonarda, Syrah and Malbec can also be found growing throughout the region.

Mendoza

Mendoza is by far the largest wine region in Argentina, producing about 70% of the country’s annual wine production. The French grape variety Malbec has its New World home in the vineyards of Mendoza, producing red wines of great concentration and intensity.

While Malbec is undoubtedly the main varietal produced in the region, there are also extensive plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah, Torrontes and Sauvignon Blanc. Mendoza is also becoming a producer of sparkling wine.

Rio Negro

Rio Negro is South America’s southernmost wine-producing region. Despite being one of the world’s least-obvious places for quality viticulture, this desert region produces elegant Pinot Noir and Malbec wines.

While Malbec is a mainstay in Rio Negro wines, Pinot Noir has become the region’s iconic grape variety. However, there are also great Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling wines produced here.

Salta

Salta, in the far north of Argentina, is home to some of the world’s most extreme vineyard sites. Many sit at both lower latitudes and higher altitudes than anywhere else in the world. Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Tannat are the most prominent red-wine varieties in Salta, while Chardonnay and Torrontes are the region’s most respected white wines.

San Juan

San Juan is an important Argentinean wine-producing area, creating wines of increasing quality using traditional European grape varieties. Syrah and the ever-present Malbec are the most important of these.

Bonarda, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Syrah varietals are produced for red wines, and Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Torrontes and Viognier grapes are grown for white wines.  Large quantity of Criolla and Cereza grapes are also produced and used to make cheaper, slightly sweet wines. The region also produces sherry-style wines and provides most of the base for Argentina’s brandy and vermouth.

In Closing

Grape varietals grown in Argentina will often be warmer and spicier than their European counterparts, and very similar in flavour to the wines of neighbouring Chile.   However, I have often found that the price of comparable Argentinian and Chilean wines will be slightly more favourable to Argentina. 

If you have never tried Argentinian wine it is well worth the endeavour.  A good assortment of reds and whites at varying price points should be readily available at your local merchant.

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