Saturday, December 31, 2022

The Water of Life Named Marc

I recently had my first taste of a Marc de Bourgogne, thanks to an old friend. Not just any marc, but one that is made from the pomace of the elusive, exclusive Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (affectionately known as DRC and definitely a bucket list wine). While I am not a connoisseur of fine spirits, this marc was aromatic, luscious, smooth, and without the slightest bit of burn.

Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Marc de Bourgogne

Fascinated, I decided to dig a little deeper - What is marc? Is it different from brandy or grappa? What makes it special?

Marc vs. Brandy

Marc (pronounced “mahr”) is short for eau de vie de marc, which literally translates to water of life of the grape pomace. It is more commonly known as pomace brandy. The term “brandy” is generally used to describe a spirit that is distilled from wine. If a fruit wine is used for distillation, then the distillate will be referred to as that particular fruit brandy; such as plum brandy or pear brandy. Marc however is distilled from grape pomace rather than wine. So what is grape pomace? 

Grape pomace by Olivier Colas
In winemaking and especially for red wine, crushed grapes (including pulp, skin, seeds, and stems) are fermented with the juice. When the fermentation is done, the wine is pressed to extract the juice from the solid grape debris. What is then left on the press is alcoholic grape pomace that can be distilled into marc. 

The general opinion of experts in fine spirits is that wine brandy is more refined, aromatic, and complex than pomace brandy. However, Marc de Bourgogne breaks the rustic spirit stereotype. It is multi-dimensional, smooth, and velvety. A vintage DRC marc further brings it up several notches and is definitely la crème de la crème.

Marc vs. Grappa

For the longest time, I had always associated brandy with distillate from wine and grappa with distillate from pomace. Beyond my over-simplified paradigm of grape spirits, the world of brandies spans countries, terroirs, grape varieties as well as distillation and aging methods. Now let’s delve into the difference between marc and grappa.

Grappa by Joel & Jasmin Førestbird on Unsplash

The obvious difference is that marc is French and grappa is Italian and consequently the different grape varieties used. For instance, Marc de Bourgogne is made from one or several of the Burgundian grapes such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Aligoté. While grappa may be made from the respective regional grapes, a special category known as aromatic grappa is made from the more “fragrant” grape varieties, such as Moscato, Gewürztraminer, Müller-Thurgau, and Riesling.

Marc and grappa also have different aging requirements. According to French regulations, Marc de Bourgogne has to age at least two years uninterrupted in an oak barrel. It is not uncommon however for aging to go on for 10 to 20 years. Grappa, on the other hand, is only required to rest for 6 months after distillation and does not have to age in oak. As a result, grappa tends to be a clear spirit while marc is darker with a caramel tinge.

Still intrigued? Check out this educational comparative tasting of Marc de Bourgogne and grappa by YouTube reviewer, Scott of Different Spirits. 

My Verdict: I am so blessed to be able to try a very special Marc de Bourgogne. While you can get a bottle of Marc de Bourgogne for under $100, marcs from many reputable Burgundian wineries run in the hundreds and one from DRC may run in the thousands, that is if you can get your hands on a bottle. If you find marc in a restaurant digestif menu, you should try it. I’d love to know what you think.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Wine Gift Ideas

Even though Black Friday and Cyber Monday are behind us, it is still a while before Christmas. Are you looking for some gift ideas for the oenophile on your nice list? Or are you the oenophile on your nice list? Let me share some of my favorite wine things. Hopefully they will inspire more ideas, whether you are going for the style, the sparkle, the splurge, or something else.

The Style

Be it going to a restaurant or to a party, every wine lover needs a good tote to carry that special bottle for the occasion. I have owned and lost several single-bottle wine totes over the years. Then my friend gifted me with this stylish two-bottle insulated wine cooler bag made by Legacy. I love the the elegant design of earth-toned cotton canvas and faux leather as well as the luxurious feel to it.

Legacy Two-Bottle Wine Tote

This tote must be bound to me by some magic spell because I have not lost it. Truthfully, it could simply be the fact that it is bigger compared to the single-bottle collapsible totes I used to own. I often carry my water bottle in the second compartment so that I can stay hydrated at any time. You will find many cute wine totes in the market. Select the size and style that fit your favorite oenophile and your budget.

The Sparkle

I love the sparkle of wine glasses and own a modest collection. For dessert wine or just little taste, I have small Waterford Lismore lookalikes and straight narrow bowl stemwares. For Champagne and other bubblies, there are flutes, coupes, and tulip wine glasses. Last but not least, I own stem and stemless glasses of various sizes for red, white, and rosé.

My wine glass collection
Does the shape or size of the wine glass matter? I think it does to some extent. For example, stemware lets you to hold the glass in a way that does not impart body heat to the wine. The bigger bowl in red wine glasses allows the wine to swirl and breathe, and the narrower rim directs the aroma to your nose as you sip the wine. As for sparkling wine, you get to admire the strings of bubbles traveling the length of the flute or spreading out in tiny bursts on the surface of a coupe. Pick something from the vast selection and enhance your oenophile’s wine sipping experience.

The Splurge

If you are going for the splurge, the Coravin wine preservation system is an excellent gift for the serious wine collector… if he or she doesn’t own one already. Coravin allows you to extract wine from the bottle without removing the cork. A hollow needle is inserted into the cork and pumps argon into the bottle to draw out the wine. The inert gas then displaces the space left behind. Unlike oxygen that will oxidize and age the wine, argon is non-reactive. The cork then reseals from the needle hole naturally.

My Coravin preservation system

With a three-figure price tag, Coravin is a great accessory for that respectable cellar. A wine connoisseur is often curious about how a special bottle of wine will evolve over time. You can buy several bottles of the same wine and open a bottle every year or you can just buy one bottle and taste it via Coravin over a few years. Or perhaps your wine connoisseur fancies a glass from a particular wine but not the entire bottle. Coravin is perfect for that too. 

My Verdict: Whether you are gifting a casual wine lover or a serious wine connoisseur, I hope this list of my favorite wine things will generate more ideas. But more precious than all these is the gift of friendship and the joy of sharing a treasured bottle together. Cheers to you and yours this holiday season!

Monday, October 31, 2022

Upcycle that Wine!

Do you have a bottle of wine that doesn’t meet your expectation? In my case (pun intended), I have a dozen from my own vintage with high volatile acidity (VA). As you contemplate drinking or draining the wine, may I suggest you upcycle it! Here are a few of my tried and true tricks with upcycling sub-par wine:

1. Cook With It

You hear celebrity chefs telling you to only cook with wine that you will drink. That makes sense if you enjoy drinking the same wine as you are cooking. Personally I keep my cooking wine and drinking wine separated. In fact, I almost always cook with wine that I don’t want to drink. In my experience, cooking with a sub-par wine does not detract from the dish. I'm convinced that no one can tell the difference. 

Bolognese by Jennifer Pallian on Unsplash

The trick is to add it to dishes where wine is used to enhance the flavor but is not the star of the show. Some of my favorites are bolognese, Coq au Vin, and braised briskets/short ribs/fill in the blank meat. I would not, however, use it to make wine poached pears.

2. Whip Up Some Sangria

Originated from Spain and Portugal, sangria is a cocktail of wine and chopped or sliced fruit, oftentimes topped with a liquor. Sangria is especially popular in the summer as it takes advantage of the fruit in season. The flavors of sangria vary widely, ranging from dry to sweet and depending on the fruit of choice. But you can always count on it to be refreshing.

Sangria by Frank Zhang on Unsplash

Sangria can be made with red wine or white wine; the latter is known as Sangria Blanca. In either version, load a flask up with citrus fruit (oranges and lemons), stone fruit (peaches and nectarines), or even berries, apples or pineapples. Pour a bottle of your favorite sub-par wine in and add some liquor. Most people use brandy. I have used Grand Marnier, rum, fruit schnapps or even port. Sweeten it with sugar or syrup to your taste. Top the flask with ice, stir, and refrigerate for a couple of hours for the flavors to meld together before serving.

3. Mull Some Glühwein

As fall turns into winter, nothing warms the body and the soul like a comforting mug of Glühwein or German mulled wine. In fact, I have just made a couple batches of Glühwein for Halloween. Mulled wine is made by steeping spices in a blend of wine, oranges, and sugar over very low heat so as not to burn the alcohol away. Mulling spices may consist of cloves, star anise, cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, mace, or allspice. They are highly aromatic, comforting, and warm.

Glühwein by Hannah Pemberton on Unsplash
While Glühwein is considered German, different versions of mulled wine, known by different names, can be found all over Europe in the winter. If you like an extra punch, add a shot of liquor to your mulled wine. Popular choices include rum, brandy, vodka, and whiskey.

My Verdict: These are three fool-proof ways that I have personally used to upcycle my sub-par wine. One caveat - I would not use wine with cork taint for Sangria and Glühwein. I may cook with it in small amounts. How would you upcycle your wine?

Friday, September 30, 2022

Somm Blinders - Blind Tasting for the Rest of Us

If you are a wine geek, you are probably familiar with the 2012 documentary, Somm. The film follows four individuals as they prepped for the Master Sommelier exam. You were likely awed by the candidates’ impeccable ability to blind taste a wine and guess correctly its vintage, variety, appellation, and sub-region. While you aspire to have that kind of palate, you secretly wonder if you could even tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi, or even Diet Coke.

The good people behind the documentary have since produced sequels, started a streaming service, and even come up with a blind tasting game for the rest of us. The Somm Blinders is a fun card game that anyone who enjoys wine can play. You may even learn a few things along the way. I’m going to share a few tips on how to get the most out of the game.

How to Play

The Somm Blinders now consists of three decks - the original, the red, and the white. Each deck has a list of wines to be included in the blind tasting. Most of the cards in the deck are about that wine (such as its flavor profile, country of origin, and vintage). Each card is also assigned a number of points.

Somm Blinders Original Deck
For each bottle round, you will blind taste a wine on the list. But first, every player gets five cards. At each turn, you will pick a new card and then discard one so that you will always have five cards in your hand. As you taste the wine, your goal is to match the cards to the wine. The bottle round ends when someone calls the wine correctly. Each player then gets the total points of the cards that match the wine. For the player who calls the right wine, five extra points will be given.

Not All Rules Are Meant to be Broken 

The game came with quite a bit of rules. Like many drinking games, part of the fun comes from breaking the rules. But to get the most out of the game, I’d suggest that you not break the following rules.

1. Include only wines that are on the list

Do not go rogue, and I don’t mean French red. Do not pick a bottle of wine that is not on the list. The cards are set up to describe the wines on the list and will not work as well if you decide to pick something else.

Five wines from the original deck
2. Use only “typical” wines 

Here’s a wine term for you - typicity or typicality. According to Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine, this refers to the wine’s quality of being typical of its type, geographical provenance, and even its vintage. An often sited example is Chardonnay from California versus one from Chablis. 

Oaked and unoaked Chardonnay
First, the grapes may taste different based on the soil and climate from which they grow; in other words, different terroirs. The winemaking method also differs. Chablis is not typically oaked (with the exception of the Grand Cru) and tends to produce a lean and clean Chardonnay with high acidity. California Chardonnay is often oaked, which produces a richer, buttery wine with spice notes. Watch James Beard Award-winning author and wine communicator, Madeline Puckette of Wine Folly, blind taste both wines.

How do you pick a bottle that is “typical” of the grape variety and region? Ask your wine merchant or wine steward from where you purchase your wine. If there is none around, read the label and go for at least a mid price range bottle. I would avoid bottom shelf wine as they are highly unreliable in terms of typicity or typicality. (That is a blog post in itself for another day.)

3. Swirl, smell, sip, and spit

While spitting is optional, this is a friendly reminder to play the game responsibly. Depending on how many bottles you are blind tasting and how you are getting home after the game, spitting may be the smartest thing you do. Even if you don’t win the game this time (who is really keeping a straight score anyways), you will likely live to play another day.

Blind tasting
My Verdict: I have played Somm Blinders with both serious wine nerds and social wine drinkers. Everyone had a great time! We even made up other rules just to keep things interesting. It presents a level playing field so no one has to worry about how much or how little wine knowledge they bring to the game. I currently own the original deck but will definitely be adding to that. Cheers, and let’s have some fun!

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Wine Flaw - Excessive Volatile Acidity

Ugh! My 2021 vintage has high volatile acidity (VA). It smells of pressed sugarcane juice and nail varnish. While I have made wine with high VA in the past, they were all within the threshold to be bottled and enjoyed. But the prospect for this vintage is dim. Hopefully, the addition of sulfites (sometimes referred to as SO2) will salvage some of it. 

Wait? Is sulfite the good guy now? What about VA? Let’s delve a little into the wine science. 

Nail varnish by Laura Chouette on Unsplash

What is VA?

VA is the measure of the volatile or gaseous acids in wine. The gaseous state of the acids is also the reason why VA can often be detected by smell. The aroma compounds that contribute to high VA in wine are primarily acetic acid (commonly known as vinegar) and secondarily ethyl acetate (associated with the smell of nail varnish). Oftentimes, the presence of VA is noticeable by the smell of nail varnish rather than that of vinegar. 

A certain amount of VA is acceptable and sometimes desirable to add to the character of a wine. Some sweet wines, such as Amarone della Valpolicella and Sauternes, and even dry ones, like Barolo, often accumulate a high level of VA. If you see the descriptor “lifted” in tasting notes or wine reviews, that’s what it means. However, when the level of VA results in an overpowering and off-putting aroma, it becomes unpleasant and can result in wine spoilage.

Acetic acid by CA Creative on Unsplash

VA is created by the activities of acetobacter. Acetobacter is a genus of acetic acid bacteria. It is widespread in nature and is responsible for creating vinegar, intentionally or otherwise. In winemaking, acetobacter can be found in bruised grapes, annoying fruit flies, winemaking equipment or anywhere in the cellar. Good sanitation practices, such as constant wiping down and cleaning with Star San, an acid-based sanitizer, is effective in limiting the presence of acetobacter.

SO2 versus VA

The reality is that it is nearly impossible to keep acetobacter out of the wine. The next layer of defense is to make the wine less conducive for bacterial activity. Acetobacter are aerobic organisms, which means they require oxygen to create havoc in the wine. Sulfite, an antioxidant, is often used to inhibit the microbial activity and growth. Yes, the much maligned sulfites are needed if you don’t want your wine to turn into vinegar.

Side note - How do natural wineries even make wine without adding sulfites? Maybe that is why natural wines often taste “interesting” and unpredictable!

Barrel tasting by Mauro Lima on Unsplash

Thankfully, modern science has crafted a formula to calculate the amount of sulfites needed for wine protection based on a number of parameters - such as pH and alcohol content. This hobby winemaker is just keeping up with it. 

Geek alert - As a rule of thumb, I have always targeted 50 ppm of FSO2 (parts per million of free sulfur dioxide) in the absence of a lab test. When sulfites are added to the wine, some will bind to the chemicals in the wine and some will dissipate. FSO2 refers to the remaining sulfur dioxide that is “free” or available to protect the wine. 

FSO2 need by pH level (Credits:

As a hobby winemaker, I don’t perform multiple tests on my wine, unlike a commercial winery that would test throughout fermentation and aging. Instead, I tend to do a single broad spectrum test closer to bottling. Well, that did not work very well when the final test results indicated that the wine was not stable nor stabilizing.

My wine pH was >4.0, a first for me. Based on the chart above, I would have needed more than twice the regular SO2 dose to protect the wine. Even though I was dosing to achieve 50ppm FSO2, the test results showed that my FSO2 level was only at 4ppm. No wonder my wine is suffering from high VA. Recovery from high VA this late in the game is incredibly challenging. So lessons learned!

My Verdict: Rules of thumb are great until they don’t work. Learning from my own mistakes, albeit painful, sticks better. The good thing about winemaking is that if one vintage fails, you get to do it all over again the next year. You bet I’m going to do things differently, like doing focused tests on the wine and paying more attention to pH. I plan to kick VA in the butt for this next vintage. Wish me luck!

Sunday, July 31, 2022

My Go-To “Grocery Store” Wines

Summer! It’s time for road trips, hikes, and picnics. For such moments, you want a wine that is made for easy drinking and maybe fits into a CamelBak®. Here are my three go-to “grocery store” wines that are widely available and eager to please - a white, a pink, and a bubbly.

Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region is an easy choice for the summer. Kim Crawford ensures consistency of quality for US$10-$18. Pale yellow in the glass, the Sauvignon Blanc has the distinct Marlborough perfume of green apple and fresh herbs. On the palate, it is vibrant with plenty of acidity, tropical fruit, and a tinge of grassy field. Kim Crawford pairs really well with fresh oysters and seafood. It also works with corn dogs and coleslaw.

Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc
Fun Facts: Founded by the namesake winemaker and his wife, Kim Crawford Wines started in 1996 as a “virtual” winery. The couple ran the business from their home and used leased facilities to keep operating costs low. In 1998, the wines were exported to the United States and were highly successful. By 2003, Vincor International, a Canadian company, bought the the winery for US$8.6 million plus an incremental amount based on the growth in profit for the next five years. In 2008, Vincor was purchased by global beverage giant, Constellation Brands. Since then, Kim Crawford has been part of the Constellation wine portfolio, which ensures its availability throughout the country.

AIX Rosé

If your favorite wine color is pink, I recommend a nice Provençal rosé. And if you’d like a label that you can remember, it doesn’t get easier than AIX. From Maison Saint Aix, AIX Rosé is a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Cinsault. Salmon pink in color, the rosé is aromatic with floral and herbal notes. On the palate, it is dry, medium-bodied, and zesty with tropical fruit and briny minerality. AIX Rosé pairs well with poached lobster and roast chicken. Or enjoy it with ham sandwiches and potato salad. You can find AIX Rosé in the range of US$16-19 at major grocery stores.

AIX Rosé
Fun Facts: Despite being named after the celebrated appellation of Coteaux d’Aix en Provence, AIX is a young winery owned by a Dutchman. Looking for a life change in his mid-forties, owner and winemaker Eric Kruger left his advertising career and moved to France with his family. He eventually decided to follow his passion in wine, something he nurtured since his high school days working in a wine shop. The first vintage of AIX was produced in 2009 and won the Medaille d’Or in Paris. Leveraging his marketing expertise, Kruger was able to catapult AIX into the US market, and we can now find it in our grocery stores. 

Flama D’Or Brut Cava

Perhaps you are looking for a little sparkler this summer without breaking the bank. At US$6-9, the Flama D’Or Brut Cava is an excellent deal. Cava is Spain’s affordable answer to Champagne. It is made in the traditional or Champagne method. This means that the second fermentation of the wine takes place in the bottle (as opposed to a tank like a Prosecco). Flama D’Or is made with three Spanish grapes - Macabeo, Xarel.lo, and Parellada. Straw yellow in color, persistent bubbles from the wine help deliver floral and fruity aroma. On the palate, it is vibrant, fizzy, and citrusy. Flama D’Or Brut Cava is perfect with tapas. It is also yummy with fried chicken or creamy mac and cheese.
Flama D’Or Brut Cava
Fun Facts: Flama D’Or Brut Cava is made by Castell D’Or, founded by a group of 13 Catalan cooperative wineries in 2006. These wineries span the areas of El Penedès, La Conca de Barberà, Priorat, Tarragona and Montsant. In Spain, cooperativism dates back to the second half of the 19th century. The member wineries of Castell D’Or pull together their generations of winemaking knowledge to create a wide range of cavas and a few still wines. Besides being found in grocery stores, Flama D’Or Brut Cava has also gained popularity in restaurants for being food-friendly at a great price point.

With several weeks of summer left, I hope you find a “grocery store” wine that beats the heat and also the inflation. And if you happen to try any of the three, let me know what you think. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The Pinot Gris You Never Knew

Pinot Gris is often thought of as the grape next door - commonplace, approachable, and pleasant. Originating from France, Pinot Gris is mostly used to make a dry white wine that is zesty with notes of stone fruit. The grape is also known as Pinot Grigio in Italy, where the style of wine made tends to be lighter and livelier with higher acidity. Either expression of the white wine makes for easy sipping in the summer but not something that wows the palate.

Grayish-pink Pinot Gris by Reinhold Möller

It’s Not Really White

What you may not know is that Pinot Gris is not even a white grape. In fact, it is a mutation of Pinot Noir, where one of the two cell layers responsible for berry color is missing anthocyanins. It is crazy to think that both grapes are genetically identical except that the skin of Pinot Gris is grayish-pink (“gris” is gray in French) while the skin of Pinot Noir is deep dark red (“noir” is black in French).

Anthocyanins by Bruna Branco on Unsplash

Anthocyanins are color pigments found in many blue, red, and purple fruits and vegetables. Although anthocyanins by themselves are odorless and nearly flavorless, they do interact with aroma substances during the vinification process to enhance the flavor of the completed wine. Because of its lower level of anthocyanins, Pinot Gris is seldom made into a red wine. 

You Say Rosato

In recent years, I have seen more Pinot Gris being made into rosé (or rosato in Italy). That was actually how I found out that Pinot Gris is not a white grape. SMAK, a woman-owned winery in Walla Walla that makes rosés exclusively, has a summer blush that is 100% Pinot Gris. Depending on the vintage, the color ranges from light copper to pink hue. But it is always crisp, with notes of peaches and melons as well as delicious minerality. I have since tasted other pink Pinot Gris and generally prefer it to the dry white expression.

SMAK Summer Ro

I Say Ramato

Last year, I had a taste of the 2020 Holocene Pinot Gris that blew my mind away. It had a beautiful deep orange-red hue and the aroma was a juxtaposition of smoke, cigar, and stone fruit all at once. On the palate, it was vibrant yet smoky and complex with notes of whiskey.

Is this a red, pink or orange wine? As I savored the wine, I knew this much - that was not a white wine! I would have pegged it as an orange wine except that it was not made with white grapes. Holocene website describes their Pinot Gris as a “great balance between a ramato-style orange wine and a rosé.” 

2020 Holocene Pinot Gris
So what exactly is ramato? Wine scholar Lynn Gowdy of Savor the Harvest described it best when she wrote “(o)range wines are made from white grapes, rosé from red grapes, and ramato only from Pinot Grigio.” Ramato style of Pinot Grigio originated from the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region of Italy. It was the traditional way of making Pinot Grigio till the 1960s when white Pinot Grigio was popularized and exported.

Because Pinot Gris (or Grigio) is technically a red grape, one could argue that ramato is closer to a rosé or rosato than a traditional orange wine. However, the length of skin contact for a ramato sits somewhere between that of a pink wine and an orange wine. Depending on the winemaker’s style, maceration may last from 24 hours to two weeks and hence the wine develops the kind of complexity that is more commonly found in an orange wine than a pink wine.

My Verdict: Why limit yourself to dry white Pinot Gris? In my opinion, Pinot Gris blush and ramato are far more interesting and delicious. Give it a try this summer and prepare to be wowed. The grape next door does not always have to be plain. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Savennières, the Cerebral Chenin Blanc

For most Americans, Chenin Blanc is a nice nondescript sipper. We may have an opinion on Chardonnay (oak or steel), Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough or Sancerre), and Pinot Gris versus Pinot Grigio. But very few have much to say about Chenin Blanc. In parts of France and in South Africa, however, Chenin Blanc is the talk of the wine town.

2018 Château Pierre-Bise Savennières 
Recently, I broke out a bottle of the 2018 Clos le Grand Beaupréau Savennières from Château Pierre-Bise. Savennières (pronounced sah-ven-yair) is a captivating but underrated wine made from Chenin Blanc. Medium to deep straw in color, the wine started off lightly aromatic. But when it opened up in the glass, I got a tinge of botrytized sweetness, honey, toffee, pear, and quince, all of which balanced with an abundance of acidity. The wine had a full mouthfeel and a very pleasant finish. 

For this month’s post, let’s delve into Savennières, the wine that some wine critics call the cerebral Chenin Blanc.

Where in the World is Savennières?

Lovers of Old World or generally European wines are familiar with the practice of labeling wine by the region names rather than grape varieties. Savennières is an area within the Anjou wine region located in western Loire Valley (the orange area below). Anjou is also believed to be the place of origin for Chenin Blanc, where it is also known as pineau de la loire

Savennières is within Anjou wine region in the Loire Valley
In the Loire Valley, Chenin Blanc is made in a broad range of styles - from sweet to dry, from sparkling to still. In addition to its versatility, the grape also has a lot of natural acidity and holds enough sugar to give the wine a burst of crisp tartness that is rounded and smooth. 

Savennières vs. Vouvray

While Vouvray tends to take the center stage for Chenin Blanc in the Loire Valley, Savennières offers a compelling alternate expression of the grape. Savennières is often more interesting and engaging while Vouvray is deemed friendlier and more approachable. While I have yet to taste the two wines side by side, my limited palate memory certainly favors Savennières over Vouvray in general.

Vineyard at Château Pierre-Bise
Both Savennières and Vouvray vineyards are situated in similar latitude with comparable climate. One difference between them is the soil. The soil in Vouvray is mostly clay and limestone while Savennières has hills of schist. Andrew Jefford did a “terroir tasting” for Decanter a few years ago, specifically focusing on wine grown on limestone versus schist. The results were consistent with the flavor profiles of Vouvray and Savennières. Wines grown on limestone are fresher, more vibrant and more ready to enjoy while wines grown on schist are weightier, more intense, and need more time to open up. 

Another difference between the two wines lies in the winemaking approach. Savennières often goes through malolactic fermentation while Vouvray does not, resulting in a buttery and fuller mouthfeel in the former. Savennières also tends to be more oxidative and has a higher alcohol content, giving it a different character from Vouvray.

My Verdict: If Chenin Blanc has not struck your fancy in the past, you may want to try Savennières. You can often find good bottles in the $20-40 price range at your local wine shop. Savennières does take time to open up, sometimes up to 48 hours. I prefer to let it sit in the glass and sip it over a couple of hours to observe its transformation. I hope you give Savennières a go. I would love to hear what you think.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Wine and War in Ukraine

Unless you have been hiding under a rock (and I don’t blame you for that), you have been bombarded with headlines about Ukraine. For over two months, the world has watched in horror as Russia invaded the country and inflicted devastation on its infrastructure and its people.

Unbeknownst to many, myself included, Ukraine has a rich wine history. That is not top of mind as Ukraine vineyards are being pummeled with Russian missiles and artillery. But it does draw a parallel to the resistance of French wine families against the Nazi regime during World War II. While today’s history is still in the making, let’s look back at the origin of wine culture in Ukraine.

Ukraine Wine Regions by WSET

Early Winemaking

Winemaking in Ukraine dates back to the 4th century BC on the south coast of Crimea. There is evidence of wine presses and amphorae from that era. Crimea and the southern Ukraine areas that hug the Black Sea have always been considered the oldest wine regions of the country. Ancient Greeks and later Ancient Romans that settled along the area had found it to be ideal for growing grape varieties for table wine. In addition to Crimea, these would include modern day Odessa, Mykloayviv, and Kherson.

North of the Black Sea regions and on the west side of Ukraine is the Transcarpathia (or Zakarpattya). It is believed that winemaking in the area was started 2,000 years ago by the Celts and Dacians. The first documented mention of Transcarpathian grapes was found in a letter dated 1093. It was written by a Hungarian king to gift the village of Sevlyush (translated as “grape village”) to the monks.

Melitopol vineyard by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

From Russian Royalty to Russian Revolution

In the early 19th century, Crimea thrived as an agricultural area under Russian Prince Mikhail Vorontsov. He also developed vineyards and helped establish Crimea’s first school of winemaking. Upon his death, his estates were sold to the Russian Imperial family and then placed under the charge of Paris-educated Lev Golitsyn. Golitsyn was considered the father of modern winemaking in Crimea and had cultivated 600 grape varieties. Golitsyn also had great success making sparkling wine in Crimea so much so that his sparkler defeated all French entries to claim the Grand Prix de Champagne at the 1900 Paris World Fair.

1952 poster advertising Soviet champagne

Following the Russian Revolution, wineries in Ukraine and other Soviet Union countries were subject to the changing agendas of the Kremlin leadership. During collectivized agriculture in the 1920s, quantity of wine was preferred over quality. In 1936, Stalin decided that sparkling wine should be made available to all people. This led to the introduction of Sovetskoye Shampanskoye (or Soviet champagne). Ukraine, with 250,000 hectors of vineyards, was the largest wine producer to the USSR. In the 1980s, however, a third of its vineyards were destroyed as part Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign.

Post Soviet Era

After the breakup of the Soviet Union and the independence of Ukraine in 1991, many vineyards were pulled and repurposed for other forms of agriculture. As the dust settled, the remaining Ukraine vineyards were generally categorized into four regions, three of which hug the Black Sea:

  • Transcarpathia on the westmost part of Ukraine and within close proximity to the Hungarian Tokaj region
  • Bessarabia between Moldova and the Black Sea
  • Rest of the Black Sea Region
  • Crimea peninsula
Vineyard in Crimea by Alexey Fedenkov on Unsplash
In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and took half of the Ukrainian wine production with it. Most of the wines produced in Crimea were semi-sweet and dessert wines. The Ukrainian wine industry then moved its focus to making Western-style dry wine. Since then, Ukraine’s production of dry wines has grown by seven to nine percent every year. This was further accelerated with the lifting of an archaic law that required a steep registration fee of US$19,000 to bottle wine. This was replaced in 2018 with simpler requirements and an annual fee of US$30. 

What now?

As one knows, the modern Ukrainian wine boom was short-lived. Since February, many of the wine regions around the Black Sea were shelled. Russian troops occupied, looted, and destroyed numerous wineries. Russian missiles peppered the vineyards. The fallout from the war also impacted supply chain and wine tourisms in neighboring countries, such as Poland, Georgia, and Hungary. 

The international wine community has been showing support for Ukraine in different ways. Several European wineries got organized to provide accommodation for Ukrainian refugees. Renowned British wine media, Decanter, will be cancelling entries of Russian wineries for the prestigious Decanter World Wine Awards while waiving fees for Ukrainian entrants. 

Quilceda Creek Winery fund raising for Ukraine

Several fine wine auctions are being held to raise funds for emergency relief efforts and humanitarian aid for Ukrainian refugees. One private member club, Crurate, raised US$130,000 that were distributed to the Red Cross, Save the Children, UNHCR, and UNICEF. 

Many wineries are also raising funds for Ukraine. Top Washington winery Quilceda Creek is donating 100% of the gross sales from the release of their first and only planned production of white wines to the José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen to feed Ukrainian refugees. Upon release on April 20, the wines were sold out in under an hour. It was estimated that over US$300,000 would be raised. I was among the several privileged winery members to secure the 2020 Quilceda Creek Horse Heaven Hills Sauvignon Blanc and 2020 Quilceda Blanc Columbia Valley White Wine.

My Verdict: In today’s world, it is hard to comprehend the atrocities that are committed against a sovereign nation. I hope that many will contribute to humanitarian aid for displaced Ukrainians. Check out your local wine shops, wineries, or communities for opportunities to help. Or you can donate to the efforts of José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen. Peace to you.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Behind a Great Winery is a Carrie Alexander

I first met Carrie Alexander of Force Majeure Vineyards three years ago. Carrie was and still is the Director of Sales and Marketing, and I was among a dozen people attending the winemaker dinner. An unforeseen construction delay at the winery’s new facility in Milton-Freewater led to a last-minute change in the dinner venue. Carrie moved the dinner to the lovely home she shared with her husband and winemaker, Todd. 

Force Majeure winemaker dinner at Carrie and Todd's home
That night, from the pre-dinner social to the seated affair, Carrie made sure our wine glasses were never lacking and each course was served and timed flawlessly. Her goal was to showcase the carefully curated wines while crafting a memorable dining experience. She achieved both with the grace and finesse that came from years of experience in fine dining.

Today, Carrie wears many hats. In addition to her work at Force Majeure, she also plays a pivotal role at The Walls Vineyards, Pasxa Wines, and Holocene Wines. I am stoked when Carrie agreed to let me interview her for the blog. Let’s get to know Carrie.

You've been somewhat of a veteran in the wine industry from Napa to Walla Walla. How did you first get into the wine business? 

I got my start in the late 90’s working as a server at the Napa Valley’s Rutherford Grill and Bouchon. I had access to many amazing wines during the weekly staff tastings with winemakers. It was an opportunity you can’t get just anywhere. Later, I became a restaurant manager and wine buyer. During my time at the Arizona Inn in Tucson, I achieved the AAA Four Diamond Award for the restaurants at the Inn, a first in its 70-year history. I also elevated the wine list, which gained recognition from the New York Times.

Carrie in Molly Chappallet’s garden
After many years working in restaurants, and with my children being school-age, I made the transition to the wine industry. I managed the tasting room and marketing for Chappellet Winery. That was life changing.

Molly Chappellet is an unparalleled woman whose attention to detail and creativity had a major influence on me. When my staff think I’m being overly specific about how I want things done at the winery, I have been known to mention that Molly would make us measure all of the edges of a table cloth to ensure they were perfectly even on all sides. 

People tend to romanticize working in a winery, and yet the business part of running a winery is just as important. Tell me how you developed your business skills.

While in the the Napa Valley, I worked for Chef Cindy Pawlcyn of Mustard’s Grill fame. What an amazing business woman she is. Her partner Sean Knight was instrumental in developing my skills as a manager. He took time to train me on financials and really seemed to believe in my potential.

Carrie with Chef Cindy Pawlcyn
What is it like to be a female in the wine industry, and how has it changed over the years?

I think it’s really common for women to deal with gender-related challenges at some point in their career. I have been extremely fortunate because I have worked with, and for, some truly amazing and inspiring women - and men, for that matter.

In recent years, I have observed that “women in wine” is being used more frequently as a marketing angle. It’s certainly a driver for consumers, who are particularly interested in supporting wineries with female winemakers.

In your experience, what has been done to champion women in the wine industry?

There are winery owners out there who really champion women in the wine business. Mike Martin, owner of The Walls, is one of them. Early on in our discussions about my joining The Walls, he expressed an appreciation of my experience and knowledge in the wine industry. He was really the first person in Washington who didn’t see me as Todd Alexander’s wife, but as an individual with her own set of skills and accomplishments. 

Carrie showcasing The Walls wine
I can understand why some might see my position in the industry as having to do with being married to a very well-respected winemaker. There are certainly benefits to being so close to someone so talented, creative, and dedicated. But we both work very hard and have our own set of skills contributing to our overall success in this industry. 

To me, feminism is about equality. It may be somewhat controversial, but I actually don’t try to involve myself in groups that are specifically for women. I prefer to be a part of groups that are diverse and then work toward improving women’s recognition within those groups. 

Is there one woman in the industry who has inspired you throughout your career? 

Absolutely. I don’t even have to think for two seconds about who it is. Blakesley Chappellet is someone I admire and whom I consider a mentor. I worked with Blakesley at Chappellet in the Marketing Department. Her uncompromising quest for excellence in experience and aesthetics are an inspiration to me. I will never forget her saying, “Fine is NOT fine.” That is, if it’s “fine,” it is not good enough. 

What is your advice for young women who want to venture into the wine industry? 

Find people who care about purpose-driven businesses. A purpose-driven business is one that cares not just about gender equality, but about equality for all. It cares about economic and environmental sustainability and providing a living wage to all those along the supply chain. Sustainable, purpose-driven businesses are inherently going to care about your future within them. 

Also, try to find people who inspire you and believe in your potential. Those who work with me know that I care about their careers, not just the job they do today and for our winery. I try very hard to nurture their passions and their skills so that they can go on to create a life they love. Sean Knight, Cindy Pawlcyn, Blakesley Chappellet, Molly Chappellet, and Mike Martin have all done that for me, and for that I am eternally grateful.

"Find people who inspire you and believe in your potential" - Carrie
Outside of work, you are also passionate about giving back to the community. Can you tell me about your volunteer work?

I sit on the Executive Board of the Walla Walla Alliance for the Homeless, and that is currently the main focus of my volunteer work. The Alliance is celebrating its 5th anniversary on May 22nd with a fundraiser at The Walls. The goal is to raise money to create fifteen transitional shelters for those who have demonstrated that they are ready to take a step toward housing. It provides an opportunity to practice more independent living before being assisted to move into an apartment or a house.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Pete - A Review on the Wine and the Documentary

I did not make Pete, the wine or the politician.

My friend, Shane, was the winemaker of the 80% Les Collines Merlot and 20% Chandler Reach Cab Franc blend. The grapes were sourced from the same lots that were used to make our 2018 vintage political series - Kamala Walla Walla, Notorious RBG, and AOC Columbia Valley. It seems fitting to add Pete to the mix, especially with the hullabaloo around his wine cave fundraising event. (This wine blogger/winemaker has no objection to wine caves and even wrote a blog post about wine caves and politics.)

Shane and I with our 2018 vintage
Now coming back to the wine. At the time of bottling the 2018 vintage, Pete Buttigieg was gearing up his campaign to seek the Democratic Party nomination for the 2020 presidential race. He was a fresh face, incredibly bright, and exuded an Obama-esque presence.

Fast forward to 2022, Mayor Pete of Sound Bend, Indiana is now Secretary Pete of Transportation. He ended up fifth in the primary among a myriad of candidates seeking to unseat the incumbent at that time. There is even a documentary, Mayor Pete, that followed him through his campaign trail. 

Pete, the wine, has had three years of age on it at the time of this blog post. It seems like the right time to revisit the wine while watching the documentary. (Credits to Alisa Kessel, Political Science Professor at the University of Puget Sound and once my partner-in-wine, for the suggestion.)

Enjoying Mayor Pete with a glass of Pete
Here is my review:

The Wine

Deep ruby and inky, Pete opened up with a burst of dark fruit aroma of blackberry, plum, and fig. The fruit flavors are concentrated on the palate reminiscent of fig jam and stewed plums with a touch of spice and vegetal notes towards the end. The wine is luscious and full-bodied with soft hairy tannins and puckering acidity. The finish is lingering and balanced. 

Compared to the first time I tasted Pete, the wine has developed beautifully and is exhibiting aging potential. Thankfully I have a few bottles left and look forward to revisiting the wine over time.

2018 Pete
The Documentary

The film started with Pete Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten, suggesting a few interview questions that were directed at the young politician’s identity. Buttigieg was after all relatively unknown on the national platform but had enjoyed professional and regional political success while keeping a closeted past. It was not till his early 30’s that Buttigieg came out as a gay person, and that was only seven years ago. The film attempted to unearth who Buttigieg was, not just for the audience but perhaps even for the protagonist himself. As Chasten so eloquently put it, “Don’t bullsh*t us, Peter.”

From the start of the campaign trail to his appointment as Secretary of Transportation, the film chronicled the peaks and valleys of the political journey. Through it, Buttigieg strove to “master the game without it changing (him).” Yet, it is a fine line to not be corrupted by the process but to grow and be better from it. I do see a transformation at the end of the film and would attribute it to the latter.

My Verdict: Pete, the wine, was made with quality ingredients and nurtured in the right conditions. It is developing well and will continue to age beautifully. I certainly have reasons to hope the same for Pete, the politician. Secretary Pete, time is certainly on your side, and many will be keeping their eyes on you. Cheers!