Blood and Wine…Sangre and Sangria

SangriaSomewhere near the very beginning of every wine class, an eager student asks about Sangria.  They seem to think it is a type of wine, most likely because they have seen bottles of it alongside the wine selection at their local supermarket.

Now, before I go any further, let me assure you: I love Sangria. I’ve served many a punch bowl of it, and often order it a restaurant where the wine-by-the-glass selection looks otherwise questionable.

However, I want to get the point across to my students and fast…Sangria is not a type of wine, despite the bottles you see at the grocery store.  While we’re at it, I remind them that a Mimosa is not wine and a Kalimotxo is not wine.  What all three are, however, are popular cocktails, and in the case of Sangria, a type of punch made out of wine. The tradition of making punch from wine, such as Claret punch in Bordeaux and Gluhwein in Germany, is widespread.

Sangria actually has an interesting history, as should be expected for a drink whose name is based on “Sangre,” the Spanish word for “blood.”  If we go back to 200 BC, we arrive at the days when the Romans were conquering the Iberian Peninsula. The Romans, of course, brought their tradition of wine and viticulture everywhere they went, and planted some of the first vineyards in Spain.

The locals, looking for refreshment, made fruit-infused, watered-down drinks from the hefty red wines of the region. We know that the tradition of wine consumption at the time was to dilute wine with water, so this makes sense. One theory states that the drink was simply called “sangria” after the color of blood.

Another theory on the name Sangria is based on the “four humors,” or bodily fluids (blood and three others too gross to mention). In the days of Ancient Rome, it was thought that varying levels of the four humors were present in a person based on their diet and activity. Personality characteristics and temperament were also based on humors.  A person who aligned with the blood humor was said to be sanguine and considered to be courageous, hopeful and amorous.  It doesn’t take much imagination to see how these traits can also be the result of daily dose of wine punch!

Sangria and TapasAt the 1964 World’s Fair, held in New York, the Spanish “world area” served its traditional fruity red wine punch to the crowds, and the people loved it! Sangria became popular in the United States, and started its inevitable march towards American commercialization and bottles of Arbor Mist Zinfandel “Sangria” in the ensuing years.

In case you are now dying to try a glass of refreshing Sangria, or think it would be a hit at your next Tapas or Paella party, here’s my recipe.  From what my fuzzy memory can recall, this recipe grew out of a version that I copied down from a library copy of Time Life’s “Food of the World – Spain” book back in the 1980’s. I’ve revised it constantly over the years so that it doesn’t much resemble that original, but I would love to see the original, if anyone still has a copy of those books!

Sanguine Sangria:

  • 1 Bottle Red Rioja Crianza Wine (sure, you can substitute any red wine, or even white wine, but we are trying to keep it real here)
  • ½ Cup Spanish Brandy (again with the keeping it real)
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 orange, seeded and cut into thin rounds
  • 2 lemons, seeded and cut into thin rounds
  • 1 red apple, cored and cut into thin slices
  • 1 bottle (750 ml) sparkling water

Method:

  • Place the prepared fruit, sugar, and brandy in the bottom of a large pitcher or other container.  Stir around a bit until well mixed, and place in the refrigerator for at least one hour.  If you need to prepare ahead, you can do this step the night before, and leave it in the refrigerator overnight.
  • When ready to serve, add the wine and stir well.  Add the sparkling water and give another stir.
  • Serve over ice in a tumbler or wine glass.  Make sure everyone gets a few pieces of fruit.

Be careful with this…its goes down easily and is thirst-quenchingly refreshing.  However…it packs a punch.  You’d best know what you are doing.

Post authored by Jane A. Nickles, your SWE Blog Administrator…bevspecialist@societyofwineeducators.org

 

Pineau de Charentes…Extreme Fortification?

Vieux Pineau“Fortified Wine Day” in my professional wine studies class is one of my favorite classes to teach.  The incredible array of colors, aromas, and flavors offered by fortified wines amazes the students, and the rich histories of Port, Madeira, and Sherry are full of tales ripe for the telling.

It’s a favorite day for the students as well, although that could be due to the 20% alcohol content of some of the wines.

Yesterday, after tasting Ruby Port, one of my students asked, “dude, what would happen if you just added brandy to grape juice…would it be like extreme fortification?” At least that’s what I think he said.

It’s a good question, albeit in need of some editing. What if we asked it question a bit more properly, as in: “What would happen if a winemaker added grape spirits to wine must, before it even begins to ferment?”

The answer would be “Vin de Liqueur!” Vin de Liqueur is a unique type of fortified wine that is fortified just before or just after fermentation begins, creating a strong, sweet liquid.  Vin de Liqueur is very close in style to Vin Doux Naturel; the main difference being that Vin Doux Naturel is allowed to ferment until the residual sugar reaches around 10%.

Vins de Liqueur are made in many places throughout Europe. They are often referred to as “Mistelle” or “Mistela,” and the style has been copied in the new world as well.  The Italians make good use of the technique, producing a blend of unfermented grape juice and brandy called “Sifone” that is often used, in turn, as a sweetening agent in Marsala.

CharentesThe most famous French Vin de Liqueur is Pineau des Charentes, made in the départements of Charente and Charente-Maritime in Southwestern France.  The region of origin is technically the same as the region of origin for Cognac.  Pineau de Charentes is produced by combining Cognac with freshly pressed grape juice, in a ratio of approximately one part Cognac to three parts must.  The Cognac must be at least one year old, and the mixture is aged for at least 18 months in oak.

Two older varieties are also made, including Vieux Pineau, which is at least 5 years old, and Tres Vieux Pineau, (“Very Old Pineau,” if my high school French hasn’t failed me), which is at least 10 years old. These older versions are rich, complex works of art as compared to the fruity, floral, and crisply acidic young version.

Many of the large Cognac houses make Pineau, and there are several small, artisan producers that focus on Pineau exclusively.  The Cognac house of Normandin-Mercier makes several versions, including white, rosé and “Tres Vieux.”  Almost 90% of the Pineau de Charentes that is produced is consumed locally, with another large percentage going to Belgium.  However, it is available in the United States and seems to have been discovered by the “Craft Cocktail Movement,” so it should be easy to find…just ask your local celebrity mixologist.

Cognac and Pineau de CharentesAs with many fortified wines, Pineau de Charentes has a good back story. This one tells of a wine and brandy making Monk who, in 1589, filled a barrel with freshly pressed grape must, not knowing that the barrel was already partially full of aging Cognac.  Five years later, a bumper crop had him emptying out a series of barrels to use for new wine, and he discovered what he had done five years earlier.  By this time, of course, his Cognac and grape juice “mistake” had evolved into a rich, thick, sweet liquid…and, as they say, the rest is history.

Pineau de Charentes from Nonmandin-Mercier:  http://cognacnm.fr/products-page/pineau-des-charentes/pineau-des-charentes-tres-vieux-blanc-75-cl-17-vol

 

 

 

 

 

Lillet. Kina Lillet.

Vespter MartiniFrom the book Casino Royale (Chapter 7), by Ian Fleming:

“A dry martini,” (Bond) said. “One.  In a deep champagne goblet.”

“Oui, monsieur.”

“Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

“Certainly, monsieur.” The barman seemed pleased with the idea.

“Gosh, that’s certainly a drink,” said Leiter.

Bond laughed. “When I’m…er…concentrating,” he explained, “I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I can think of a good name.”

A few chapters later, Bond names the drink the Vesper Martini, in honor of Vesper Lynd, a Special Agent at M-16, who of course turns into a love interest, at least until it is revealed that she is a double agent.

While James Bond, double-agents, and strong cocktails might seem to be the key points of this story, as a true student of spirits, I am even more intrigued by the mention of Kina Lillet…so I decided to do a bit of detective work myself.

Lillet BlancLillet is a French aperitif that has been produced since 1872 in the town of Podensac, France, just south of Bordeaux. Lillet is based on Bordeaux wine that has been both aromatized (flavored with herbs) and fortified (strengthened with distilled spirits).  Lillet is made with the typical grape varieties of the region: Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle for the Blanc; Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon for the Rouge and Rosé.

Lillet is approximately 85% wine, sweetened and fortified with various citrus liqueurs, flavored with orange peel, and aged in French oak barrels. Lillet also includes Cinchona bark from Peru, the “secret ingredient” that contains quinine, as is used in tonic water, thus making Lillet a “cousin” of Vermouth and technically an aperitif known as a quinquina.  Lillet actually contains very little quinine, and no other botanical flavorings besides citrus fruit, making it one of the mildest quinquinas in terms of both botanicals and flavor. Other brands of quinquina include Dubonnet, Cocchi Americano, and St. Raphaël.

The original Lillet, once known as Kina Lillet, was re-formulated in 1986 to make it a bit less bitter and a bit less sweet, is now known as “Lillet Blanc.” Lillet Blanc is a light, refreshing, fruity drink that is crisp, sweet, and somewhat floral. Lillet Blanc is popular as an aperitif in France, served chilled or on ice with a garnish of lemon, lime or orange.

Maison du Lillet now produces four versions of its product, including Lillet Blanc. Lillet Rouge, released in 1962, might remind you of the sweet, fruity red wine flavors of James BondLambrusco.  Lillet Rosé, released in 2012, has a grapefruit-edged bitterness and is the sweetest of the four products. Reserve Jean De Lillet 2009, vintage-dated and based on Sauternes, is the newest (and most expensive) product, released in 2013.

Aspiring mixologists who want to make an authentic Vesper Martini may want to use Cocchi Americano instead of Lillet Blanc in the recipe, as purists insist that Cocchi Americano is closer in taste and flavor to the original Kina Lillet, being stronger in quinine and therefore more bitter than today’s version of Lillet Blanc.  After all, you wouldn’t want to disappoint Mr. Bond.

Maison du Lillet – http://www.lillet.com/

 

Neither Petite nor Syrah…Petite Sirah

Petite SirahZinfandel and Malbec, take a seat…the big dog has arrived.  I hold in my hand a glass of Michael-David Vineyards “Earthquake” Petite Sirah.  This wine looks like red crude oil, weighs as much as a linebacker, blasts flavors like a blow torch and leaves some cotton on the roof of your mouth.  Despite the name, there is nothing petite about Petite Sirah. It’s not a small version of the grape known as Syrah.  And, for the record, the “i” in “Sirah” isn’t a typo – but if you spell it with a “y” that’s ok as well.

So, if Petite Sirah is not petite and not syrah, what is it?  The grape is one of those vinous mysteries, solved CSI-style with the miracle of modern DNA testing in the U.C. Davis laboratory of Dr. Carole Meredith.

What we call Petite Sirah, it turns out, is a very old variety born and bred in the 1870’s by a French Nurseryman named Dr. Francois Durif.  It seems that the good doctor wanted to create a grape that had the flavor components of Syrah and the resistance to powdery PS on the vinemildew of a grape known as Peloursin. He crossed Peloursin and Syrah and named the resulting grape, like any proud father, after himself.  Durif became a minor success, was planted in quite a few vineyards, and was used as a blending grape in Rhône Reds.  But, alas, Durif never really became a major French variety as it failed to produce high-quality, distinguished wines in the South of France.

Durif migrated to the United  States in the 1890’s, where it fared somewhat better.  Durif thrived in the California sun, was easy to grow, and produced a high yield of  four to eight tons per acre in the Sierra Foothills and Central Valley of California.  In those days, Durif was a major player in the red blends of the Golden State.  If we could go back in time to the days of Gallo Hearty Burgundy, we’d be able to detect a bit of the deep, dark red fruit and dusty cinnamon flavors of Petite Sirah in there…maybe even dominating the blend.

However, in the early days of California wine making, many vineyards were field blends – a variety of grapes grown together in one vineyard with little regard to varietal pedigree and the name “Durif” got lost along the way, much like what happened to Carmenère in Chile.  Later, when someone needed a name for the variety, the grape was named “Petite Sirah.” We can only assume this was due to its Syrah-like flavor and the small size of the grape – the only possible explanation for the moniker “petite”.

Those small grapes grow in big clusters with very thick skins and high tannins.  A good Petite Sirah has a deep red color, a hefty, somewhat “rustic” feel and substantial but ripe Earthquake Petite Sirahtannins. Walk carefully around this wine…it can pack quite an alcoholic punch, sometimes reaching as high as 15%.  In the bottom of the glass you will find rich fruity aromas including of sweet plum, blackberry, cherry, currant and cassis.  Take a sip and you’ll notice the rich fruit flavors…I think this wine defines the term “jammy”. Go ahead and take another sip…look for the flavors of black licorice, chocolate, coffee, black pepper, vanilla, and cedar.  This wine can be quite complex…you might also find aromas and flavors of herbs, violets, brown sugar, orange peel, clove, and cinnamon.  It’s got a lot going on.

Petite Sirah is still grown in France, although like many a local celebrity, it was never much appreciated in its home town.  Australia has a few vines, as well as Argentina, Chile, Israel, and recently, Washington State. The one region to really take to Petite Sirah is California.  The grape is grown throughout California and does particularly well in the warmer regions of the Golden State such as the Sierra Foothills and Lodi, where, in the words of the back label of Earthquake Petite Sirah, it makes a wine that is “over the top and shattering to the veins!”  I couldn’t agree more.

Land of Two Seasons: The Mediterranean Climate

Olive LeavesThe area around the Mediterranean Sea, home to miles of sun-drenched beaches, mild winters, olive groves and (of course) fabulous wine, has been a cultural crossroads since the dawn of civilization. The beautiful weather, with the four seasons seemingly compressed into two, is surely one of the major reasons why so many people decided to make this region their home.

The comfortable climate typical of the Mediterranean Basin is found in many other areas throughout the world, including California and Baja California, the Central Coast of Chile, Southwest and South Australia, and the Western Cape Region of South Africa.  We serious students of wine will easily recognize these areas as major wine producers, and, of course, areas blessed with a Mediterranean Climate.

The Mediterranean Climate, known as a “dry-summer subtropical” climate under the Köppen climate classification, is generally found between 31 and 40 degrees latitude north and south of the equator, on the western side of continents. The climate can be summarized as “warm, dry summers and mild, rainy winters.” The climate zone can extend Mediterranean Climateeastwards for hundreds of miles if not thwarted by mountains or confronted with moist climates, such as the summer rainfall that occurs in certain regions of Australia and South Africa.  The furthest extension of the Mediterranean Climate inland occurs from the Mediterranean Basin up into western Pakistan.  In contrast, areas of California and Chile are constricted to the east by mountains close to the Pacific Coast.

The oceans and seas bordering the land areas with a Mediterranean climate work their moderating magic and keep the temperatures within a comparatively small range between the winter low and summer high.  Snow is seldom seen and winters are generally frost-free.  In the summer, the temperatures range from mild to very hot, depending on distance from the shore, elevation, and latitude. However, as anyone who has experienced Southern California’s Santa Ana Winds will tell you, strong winds from inland desert regions can bring a burst of dry heat to even the mildest season.

VineyardIn addition to the influence of water, specific atmospheric conditions create the Mediterranean climate. Every area that enjoys a Mediterranean Climate is located near a high pressure cell that hovers over the ocean or sea.  These high pressure cells move towards the poles in summer, pushing storms away from land. In the winter, the Jet Streams shift the cells back towards the equator, drawing stormy weather inland.

The long, dry summers of the Mediterranean Climate zones limit plant growth for much of the year, so the natural vegetation of such areas has adapted into evergreen trees such as Cypress and Oak and shrubs such as Bay Laurel and Sagebrush.  Trees with thick, leathery leaves and protective bark such as olive, walnut, citrus, cork oak and fig are also abundant, and as those early settlers in the Mediterranean Basin figured out – grapevines thrive here as well.

 

 

The Winds of Wine: Le Mistral

Van Gogh's "Starry Night"

Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”

Convinced that it comes in multiples of 3 days, residents of Provence will tell you that the Mistral Wind blows for 3, 6, 9 or 12 days.  Referred to as “Le Sacre Mistral,” it is blamed for headaches, edginess, and the bad behavior of husbands, pets, and children. They swear it is what drove Vincent Van Gogh to chop off his own ear.

The Mistral is a cold, dry, regional wind that occurs each time there is an area of high pressure in the Bay of Biscay accompanied by an area of low pressure around the Gulf of Genoa.  It occurs mainly during the winter and spring, but it can happen at any time during the year. Its cooling effect is perhaps most welcome in the summer, but during the winter it can chill one to the bones.

Roaring in from the north, the strong wind accelerates as it passes through the southern Rhône Valley, funneling between the Ardeche Mountains the low Alps before it heads out to the gulf. Marseilles and St. Tropez often take the full brunt of this cold, strong wind as it finally reaches the Map of the Mistral Windssea and continues its trek to influence the weather in North Africa, Sicily, and all across the Mediterranean.

In the Rhône Valley and Provence, the regularity and force of the mistral causes trees to grow leaning to the south. Vines are often kept low to the ground, their thick and sturdy branches developing a permanent south-facing bow. The rows of Cypress and Poplar trees typical of the region provide shelter from the dry force of the wind.

The Mistral, despite its ferocity, can nevertheless be beneficial to the vineyards in its path. The mistral blows the clouds from the sky and heralds the arrival of sunny weather. When the Mistral blows during the warm parts of the growing season it cools down the vines, helping the grapes to retain acidity through the hot summers. The dryness of the wind keeps the grapes free from humidity and mold, and has earned it the nickname mange-fange, or “mud-eater.”

450px-Bell_Tower_La_Cadiere_d'Azur_Provence_FranceMany wine makers believe that Le Mistral causes substantial evaporation in the grapes, concentrating sugar, acidity, and flavors.  And when the wind finally slows down, it is followed by days of clear, bright sunshine, enabling the grapes to ripen and ripen and ripen….

The name of the Mistral is traced to the Provencal word for “Masterly” and it certainly has had such an effect on life in Provence.  Old farmhouses were built facing south, with sturdy north walls devoid of windows.  The bell towers of the churches in the region are often topped by open iron frameworks, which allow the wind to pass through.

There was even once a law that stated that anyone who claims to have gone mad on account of the Mistral may be pardoned of their crime.  Sacre Mistral!

For more information on “the winds of wine,” see our posts on The Zonda and The Roaring 40’s.

Post written by Jane A. Nickles, CWE (your SWE Blog Administrator) bevspecialist@societyofwineeducators.org

 

 

Coro Mendocino

Point Arena Lighthouse, Mendocino, California

Point Arena Lighthouse, Mendocino, California

Mendocino County is known for many things, including its often mentioned “official #1 cash crop,” the Skunk Train, and the Point Arena Lighthouse. We wine lovers also apprciate its 13 AVAs (two more pending), it sparkling wines, and the Café Beaujolais.

But did you know that Mendocino County is also home to the only “Regional-Identity” wine program in the United States? In an approach somewhat similar to that of many European appellations, any wine producer in Mendocino County can produce the wine, known as “Coro Mendocino,” provided they follow the rules.

According to the Coro Mendocino website, “Coro means ‘chorus’ in Italian and Spanish and is reflective of the collaborative spirit of Mendocino County’s winemakers, our distinctive voices heard together in harmony–in accord.”

The rules – and there are many – include basing the wine on the Zinfandel grape variety.  Zinfandel must be between 40% and 70% of the blend, and no other grape variety can take a dominant role.  The other grapes in the blend can include the following varieties, as long as they do not overpower the Zinfandel:  Syrah, Petite Sirah, Carignane, Sangiovese, Grenache, Dolcetto, Charbono, Barbera, and Primitivo. There is also a 10% “free play” provision that states that 10% of the blend may be from any vinifera variety.

Coro Mendocino LabelsAll grapes in the blend must be 100% Mendocino fruit and the wine must be produced at a bonded Mendocino County Winery.  The wine must be aged for one year in barrel, followed by one year in bottle.  Along with a fairly detailed list of production parameters and labeling requirements, the wine must pass the strict review of the Coro Mendocino selection panel and review process.

Coro Mendocino has been produced every year since 2001. The 2010 version, set to be released on June 22, 2013, has a total of ten producers, including Brutocao, Claudia Springs, Fetzer, Golden, Mendocino Vineyards, McFadden, McNab Ridge, Parducci, Philo Ridge, and Ray’s Station. Tickets to the release party are almost sold out…but if you hurry, you might be able to grab a pair.  There will be a lovely dinner, and you know the wine will be great!

For more information:

 

Gimblett Gravels, via Aerial Topdressing

The Auster Agricola

The Auster Agricola

It’s amazing the things the study of wine can lead you to.  Do you know what “aerial topdressing is?” Neither did I, until I set about to research some of the more unique wines of New Zealand for SWE’s “Wines in the Dessert” event last May. It turns out that aerial topdressing is an agricultural application that uses aircraft to spread fertilizers over farmland.  The practice was developed in New Zealand in the 1940’s. A special plane known as “The Auster Agricola” was designed specifically for the new industry, which was quickly adopted elsewhere, although it remains a New Zealand specialty.

It turns out aerial topdressing is the reason that Gimblett Gravels, one of the most unique wine terroirs in the new world, came to be.  You know there’s a story there!

The story begins in 1980, in the Hawke’s Bay Region of New Zealand.  Hawke’s Bay, being at the east end of one of the widest portions of the islands of New Zealand, is one of the warmest sections of the country and for that reason is one of the few places where red grapes (other than Pinot Noir) can fully ripen. Due to its geography, the area gets less rain, and more sun than other areas of the country.

Within the Hawke’s Bay Region, the forgotten area down at the end of Gimblett Road was considered to be the poorest, least productive land in the area; too infertile even to use to graze sheep, so nobody dared plant a thing.  The area instead was given over to warehouses, strip malls, an army firing range, and a concrete company that used the area to mine for gravel.

Gimblett GravelsChris Pask, a local businessman, owned a few vineyards in the Hawke’s Bay Region but often had difficulty getting his Cabernet Sauvignon to fully ripen.  Coincidentally, Chris’ day job, aerial topdressing, had him flying over the area near the end of Gimblett Road every day.  One day, as he looked down on the dry, dusty wasteland, he had a crazy idea that maybe his grapes would have a chance of ripening if planted there.

In 1981, risking ridicule, he bought nearly 100 acres at the end of Gimblett Road and planted Cabernet Sauvignon.  His first wine from these newly planted vines,  produced with the 1985 vintage, was released to wide acclaim.  Assured that he wasn’t crazy, Pask proceeded to buy more vineyard land and plant more grapes, including Malbec, Syrah, Viognier, and Sauvignon Blanc in addition to Cabernet Sauvignon.

Despite Pask’s initial success, it was no easy task getting the region zoned for viticulture and wine making.  As a matter of fact, it was not until 1992 that all the legal battles were won, enabling wine making facilities and full-scale viticulture to come to the area.  As one can well imagine, a land stampede soon followed as companies such as Babich and Villa Maria set up shop.  Malls gave way to Merlot, warehouses became wineries, and the concrete company at the end of Gimblett Road gave up their gravel dreams and sold their land to a winery. The Gimblett Gravels Winegrowing District now has almost 2,000 acres of vineyards.

Gimlett gravels SoilThe Gimblett Gravels region is strictly determined by its soil.  The unique gravelly soils of the region are the result of a huge flood on the Old Ngaruroro River in the 1860’s.  Due to the heat retention of the gravelly soil, Gimblett Gravels is warmer during the day in summer and autumn than the surrounding areas of Hawke’s Bay. The evenings are also warmer due to the heat retention of the stony ground. It is this extra heat that allows red grapes, including Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, to ripen so well here, and puts Gimblett Gravels among the world’s best terroirs for growing fine wine.

For more information:

Post written by Jane A. Nickles, CWE (your SWE Blog Administrator)

Water and Wine: Clear Lake, Lake County

Lake County VineyardsLake County, California, has some mighty impressive wine country neighbors.   The region shares its borders with Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino; collectively the four regions make up the North Coast Regional AVA, a relatively neat  if somewhat irregular “rectangle” north of San Francisco.

Located at the intersection of the Vaca and Mayacamas Mountains, Lake County is only 10 miles from Calistoga, yet the drive along the winding roads takes an hour. The namesake lake of the region, Clear Lake, is the largest freshwater body of water in the state of California. The presence of this lake buffers the temperature and provides great diurnal temperature swings, which promotes good acid retention in the grapes grown in the area.  Surrounded by rollings hills and (hopefully) inactive volcanoes, the diverse volcanic soils provide excellent drainage througout the region.

Before Prohibition, Lake County accounted for more grapes than Napa, but with no rail service, it wasn’t able to recover after repeal the way other areas of California did. Cheap land values sparked resurgence in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and now the area is producing award-winning wines and has nearly 8,500 acres planted with vines, with continued growth anticipated.

The average elevation of Lake County’s vineyards is 1,500 feet, with some reaching up to 3,000 feet above sea level. The high elevation coupled with good air quality (the purest in California, according to the Environmental Protection Agency) maximizes the solar potential, resulting in higher levels of ultraviolet light. Consequently, the grapes develop thick skins, with high levels of anthocyanins, polyphenols, and tannins and low levels of pyrazines. This low-pyrazine producing  attribute made Clear Lake a popular region for growing Sauvignon Blanc, which until the region’s recent resurgence was the most widely grown grape in the region.

Lake County Wineries

Lake County has five designated AVAs:

  • Benmore Valley AVA was named for Benjamin Moore, a 19th century cattle rustler.  This area is cooler than the surrounding areas.  As there are currently no wineries located in the Benmore Valley AVA; grapes grown here are sourced by several local wineries.
  • Half of the area in the Clear Lake AVA is taken up by the lake itself.  The lake moderates the temperature of the vineyards in the area, minimizing the diurnal temperature swings as compared to the surrounding regions.
  • The High Valley AVA is located in the eastern part of the county at elevations ranging from 1,600 feet to 3,000 feet above sea level.
  • The rolling hills of the Red Hills Lake Country AVA lie along the southwestern shores of Clear Lake, at the foot of Mount Konocti, an extinct volcano.
  • Established in 1981, the Guenoc Valley AVA was the first AVA granted to an area with just a single winery. Geologically, Guenoc Valley is a small inland valley extending from upper Napa County.

Cabernet Sauvignon is currently the most widely planted grape in Lake County, followed by Merlot at a distant second, as well as Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, and Chardonnay. Petite Sirah, while not being one of the most widely planted grapes in the area, does exceedingly well here…fans of P.S. should keep their eyes open for award-winning wines from Lake County!

To learn more about Lake County Wines:  http://www.lakecountywineries.org/

Lake County Winegrape Growers’ Association:  http://www.lakecountywinegrape.org/lcwc/

Salta: The Highest and the Lowest

Salta VineyardsThe Salta wine region, in the far north of Argentina, is a wine region of extremes.  Starting at around 24°S latitude, the area is the same distance from the equator as Baja California, Key West, and Riyadh.  Viticulture in this low latitude is made possible by another extreme, as Salta is home to the highest altitude vineyards in the world.

Interestingly enough, these two extremes seem to work well together, as the heat that would be expected from the low latitude is balanced by the cool temperatures expected in high altitudes.  The combination makes this region uniquely well suited for producing quality wine. The rain shadow of the Andes keeps the region dry while providing meltwater from the snowy peaks for irrigation. The diurnal temperature swing here is also extreme; in the summer, day time temperatures can soar up to 100°F and down to 55°F that same night.  This wide fluctuation allows the grapes to gain sugar ripeness in the day, while holding onto is acidity at night.

Salta is a small region, with less than 5,000 acres under vine, and accordingly produces just a tiny percentage of Argentina’s wine.  However, the region has an excellent reputation for high quality.  There are two main sub-regions of Salta, each with its own unique terroir and specialty.

Map of SaltaThe largest subregion, Cafayate, is home to over 70% of the vineyards in Salta.  The vineyards here range in altitude from 5,000 to 7,000 feet above sea level.  Cafayate is well-known for high-quality Torrontés as well as Malbec, and is beginning to be planted to Chardonnay, Tannat, and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Cafayate is located within the scenic Colcchaquí Valley (Valles Calchaquíes), a tourist region well-known for its diverse colors, scenic beauty, and wide range of terrain from high mountain dessert to sub-tropical forests.

Starting at an altitude of 7,000 feet and climbing, the region of Molinos surrounds the town of the same name. It is here that you will find the highest altitude vineyards in the world.  Pre-phylloxera Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon were brought here from France in 1854 and some of these vines still thrive.

Bodega Colomé, one of the oldest wineries in Argentina, was founded here in 1831. After searching for years for the perfect spot to produce Argentine wine, Donald and Ursula Hess of the Hess Collection purchased the property in 2001.

colome reservaBodega Colomé has four vineyards, all of them fairly close to the sun.  The La Brava Vineyard, located in Cafayate, sits at 5,741 feet.  The Colomé Vineyard, surrounding the winery in Molinos, begins at 7,545 feet.   The El Arenal vineyard, a relatively young vineyard planted to Malbec, begins at an elevation of 8,858 feet.   The highest vineyard in the world, Altura Maxima, is here in the Molinos subregion, and sits at an altitude of 10,206 feet.

The flagship wine, Colomé Reserva Malbec, is produced from the oldest pre-phylloxera vines on the estate.  These vines range from 60 to 150 years old. If you think you can handle the high altitude, Bodega Colomé welcomes guests to its vineyards at the top of the world, complete with a visitor center, world-class restaurant and art gallery.

Bodega Colomé:   http://www.bodegacolome.com/

Map of Salta via Wines of Argentina:   http://winesofargentina.org/en

To be fair:  Bolivia also claims to have the highest vineyards in the world…rest assured we will investigate soon!