Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Get to Know a Grape: Chenin Blanc

This week, we're looking at a grape that's maintained popularity in Old-World France while also becoming a major player in New-World South Africa: Chenin Blanc! 

We've used the word 'workhorse' to describe grape varietals in the past (our article on Grenache comes to mind), but it's hard to find a better contender to the title than Chenin blanc. Used in making some of the longest-aging sweet wines as well as dry whites in France, table wines in South Africa, sparkling wines in various regions around the world, and even in fortified wines and spirits, Chenin Blanc is one hardworking grape!

So, where do we start? Well, how about Chenin Blanc's homeland: France's Loire valley? Here, Chenin blanc is made in a few different varieties. The first, and perhaps most approachable, is in dry, crisp white wines, particularly from the appellation of Anjou. These are usually vinified as 100% Chenin blanc, although occasionally blended with another white grape, such as Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, to add structure. These wines tend to be crisp, light, and refreshing, with notes of honey and flowers on the nose. Slightly to the South-East of Anjou, we find Vouvray, where Chenin Blanc is often used to make slightly sweet (or off-dry) white wines. In addition to making dry and off-dry wines, Chenin Blanc is also used in making sparkling wines (crémants) and dessert wines throughout the Loire valley.

Leaving the Loire Valley (and France) behind, there is no shortage of regions where we can find Chenin Blanc. It is often used in inexpensive white wine blends in Argentina to make wines that are refreshing and easy-to-drink. Califronia used to have more Chenin Blanc than France in the 1980s, and, although the state's white wines have since become dominated by Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc is still used in various parts of Califronia's central valley to make ripe, ready-to-drink white blends, as well as some noteworthy single-varietal wines that often display melon aromas.

Finally, we arrive in South Africa, perhaps the region most strongly associated with Chenin Blanc today. South African chenin blancs can range in flavours from fruity (such as the melon notes noted earlier) to floral and even herbal. Many South African producers are now also oak-aging their Chenin blancs, causing them to develop butfoie gras, salmon with dill sauce, or quiche. Non-oaked, dry Chenin blanc is great on its own, or paired with a Greek salad or cold cuts. Off-dry Chenin blanc is best paired with slightly spicy dishes, such as mild curries, or a rich dish, such as carrot risotto. 
tery flavours and textures. These pair particularly well with rich dishes, such as

Wherever it is planted, Chenin blanc often produces high yields, but ripens late, which can be problematic in cooler climates where snap frosts or (as has happened recently) hailstorms can hit towards the end of summer. Winemakers must also control yields to avoid producing 'watery' or 'bland' wines. So, this 'workhorse' grape does require quite a bit of work! Because of its popularity around the world, Chenin blanc is an excellent grape for exploring a previously unfamiliar region. So the next time you're shopping for wine, why not take a look at what sort of Chenin blancs are on offer?

The Short Version
Names: Chenin Blanc, Pineau (Loire), Steen (South Africa)
Flavour Profile (Dry, Unoaked): Aromas ranging from floral to herbal on the nose, sometimes with notes of honey. Nice crisp acidity.
Flavour Profile (Dry, Oaked): Fruity and spicy notes on the nose, with buttery aromas and flavours.
Flavour Profile (Off-dry, Unoaked): Aromas of peaches or acacia on the nose, with nice acidity and sweetness on the finish.
Food Paring (Dry, Unoaked): Greek salad, cold cuts, bruschetta.
Food Pairing (Dry, Oaked): Quiche, salmon with heavy sauce
Food Pairing (Off-dry): Mild-to-medium curry, carrot risotto
Best-Known Regions: France (Loire), South Africa, California, Argentina
Price Range: $10-$30

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Get to Know a Grape: Counoise

This week, we're in the Rhone Valley, looking at a lesser-known, 'peppery' grape: Counoise!

The Rhone Valley is home to some of France's best red blended wines. From the Cotes du Rhone Villages, to the appellations of Ventoux and Gigondas, up to the prestigious plantings of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape, this French region produces world-class Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre blends.  But Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre (or 'GSM' for short) aren't the only wines grown in this beautiful region. Indeed, the region also grows some fantastic, if lesser-known grape varietals, such as the soft, 'peppery' Counoise.

Counoise (pronounced "Coohn-waaz") is a red grape varietal that has traditionally been used mostly in blends in Cotes du Rhone's most prestigious appellation: the Chateauneuf du Pape. Although not as well-known as Shiraz, Grenache, or even Mourvedre, it is prized by many winemakers for its ability to 'soften' the tannins produced by other red grapes, which makes the wine more approachable and easier to drink. Counoise also adds a trademark 'peppery' or spicy note to blended reds, as well as having flavours of plum or wild raspberries.

In addition to its use in the Chateauneuf du Pape, it is also sometimes used to produce red wines in southerly Languedoc and it makes for some interesting rosé wines in Provence. Outside of France, Counoise has recently gained popularity in Washington State and California, where it is often made without blending and bottled as a varietal wine. As with blends that use Counoise, these 100% Counoise wines tend to have spicy, peppery notes as well as hints of vanilla and raspberries on the nose and deep, earthy flavours. The best food pairings for Counoise wines tend to be dishes that compliment its peppery notes, such as Peppercorn New York stirploin stake, sausage jambalaya, or rosemary chicken w
ith red potatoes. 

Counoise grapes tend to ripen late and give off only moderate yields, making them poor value-propositions for winemakers looking to get the most for their space and work. However, its versatility in complimenting the biggest red grapes in the world as well as producing interesting and complex single-varietal wines is unmatched. So, the next time you're looking for something different or picking up a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape for a nice dinner, ask if it's made from Counoise -- if it is, you may be in for a treat!

The Short Version: 
Names: Counoise, Counoise noir, Damas noir, Moustardier
Flavour Profile: Peppery and wild raspberry notes on the nose, with earthy flavours on the palate.
Main Regions: Cotes du Rhone, Washington State, California
Price Range: $15-$30

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Get to Know a Grape: Sylvaner

This week, we're exploring Northern France and looking at a unique Alsatian white grape varietal: Sylvaner! 

As with many other grape varietals, Sylvaner is called slightly different things depending on where you are. It is usually spelled 'Silvaner' or titled somewhat more elaborately as 'Grüner Silvaner' in Germany and Austria. Conversely, in France's Alsace region, it is almost always referred to as Sylvaner, and in Croatia, it goes by the name of Silvanac Zeleni. Regardless of its origin (or its spelling), Sylvaner is responsible for some fantastic, full-bodied, and nicely-structured white wines.

Sylvaner tends to ripen early and is a productive grape, meaning that yields can be quite high. However, winemakers must trim their grapes and reduce the yield sizes in order to ensure that the resulting wines are flavorful and distinct, rather than bland and watery. Also, despite its popularity in colder-climate countries such as Germany and Austria, Sylvaner is somewhat sensitive to frost, and snap frosts can be devastating for a harvest. Despite these risks, well-made Sylvaner will usually have a fair amount of freshness and structure on the pallet and a nose ranging from herbal to floral. Some winemakers prefer to leave some residual sugar in their Sylvaner, making it slightly sweet (or demi-sec), but most Sylvaners today are made dry.

If you do have a demi-sec Sylvaner, however, it can make for fantastic paring with spicy Asian cuisines, such  as thai curries, spicy General Tao chicken, or Teriyaki ribs. Dry Sylvaners are best paired with more traditional seafood dishes, such as sole or salmon, cold cuts, or drunk on its own as an aperitif.

The Short Version
Names: Sylvaner, Silvaner, Gruner Silvaner, Silvanac Zeleni
Main Regions: Germany, Austria, Alsace (France), Croatia, Switzerland
Flavour Profile: Most often with herbal and eucalyptus notes as well as floral aromas. Fresh, well-balanced and structured pallet.
Food Pairings (Demi-Sec): Thai curries, Spicy chicken, Sweet and Sour fish or ribs
Food Pairings (Dry): Baked salmon, cold cuts
Price Range: $15-$30

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Get to Know a Grape: Malbec

This week, we're taking a look at an Old World grape that's gained a name in the New World -- Malbec!

Although Malbec is now probably best-known for making affordable and approachable wines in Chile and Argentina, this black grape varietal was once most-planted in France's prestigious Bordeaux region. Indeed, Malbec continues to serve as an important grape in Bordeaux's Cahors appellation, as well as in parts of Burgundy and the Loire Valley. Mostly, though, it can be found on the lush mountains of South America.

South American Malbecs generally exhibit lush, ripe, fruity flavours, with powerful aromas and a smooth, easy-to-drink palate. Conversely, Malbec wines from Cahors (often labelled simply as 'Cahors wine'), traditionally have powerful tannins that require proper aging to soften and 'open up'. Today, however, many Bordeaux winemakers have begun making Cahors wine that is a little bit more approachable, often with notes of plum and chocolate on the nose and a smoother-drinking style. In Cahors, Malbec wines are often grouped into three categories: Tradition, Prestige, and Spéciale, with the complexity, intensity, aging potential, and price increasing as you move across the categories. Outside of Bordeaux, Malbec can also be found in the Loire Valley, where it is known as Cot and is often blended with Cabernet Franc and Gamay to make approachable, inexpensive wines.

Malbec is not easy to grow. Indeed, one of the reasons behind its decline in France is likely its sensitivity to frost, mildew, and rot. In this, it is similar to Merlot, but often produces smaller yields and less complex wines. Perhaps that is why most of Bordeaux has moved to a Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc blends. However, no matter what it's origins, a good Malbec can serve as a great, easy-to-drink wine that pairs very well with a variety of foods. For South American Malbec, open with lamb shanks, pulled pork or BBQ ribs. If you've got a Malbec from Cahors or elsewhere in Bordeaux, try it with beef stew, blue cheese, or a new juicy steak. Better yet, grab a bottle of Malbec from Argentina and one from France and see the variety of wine that this grape can produce! 

The Short Version:
Names: Malbec, Cahors (Bordeaux), Cot (Loire), Auxerrois (Burgundy)
Primary Regions: Argentina, Chile, Bordeaux, Loire
Flavour Profile (New World): Smooth, easy to drink, with notes of ripe red fruits
Flavour Profile (Old World): Intense nose, sometimes of plum or chocolate, with strong tannins and complexity.
Food Pairing (New World): BBQ ribs, pulled pork, lamb
Food Pairing (Old World): Steak, beef stew, blue cheese
Price Range: $15-$30