Better Know A Varietal – Merlot

Merlot is a major grape variety though it has been loosing popularity as a single varietal in recent years. It is a large part of the success of the red wines of Bordeaux though often Cabernet Sauvignon gets all the credit. Originating in Bordeaux, there it is a frequent blending partner with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Unlike those two grapes it is also vinified alone in some parts of Bordeaux.

In the 1980’s and 90’s it became a popular varietal wine in California and other new world countries. Even there regulations often allowed other grapes to be blended with what was labeled as Merlot. So frequently you were still getting a Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon blend that was dominated by Merlot.

Merlot makes somewhat softer wines than the Cabernet’s with flavors of red plums and aromas of violets and raspberries. When over ripened it can get flabby loosing needed acidity. When treated with respect it can reward with wonderful full bodied wines bursting with flavor. In addition to the Merlot based wines from Bordeaux, I find Chile makes some fine examples. I enjoy it with lamb.


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Organic, Natural, and Biodynamic – The Good The Bad and The Ugly

Organic, natural, and biodynamic are words you increasingly see used for wines and sometimes see on the labels. They can be confusing and confused with each other. Here is a brief primer and some of my thoughts on the subject.

Organic wines are wines that are raised without the use of petrochemical based fertilizers or pesticides. Any additives used in the wine must be organic. Addition of sulfur is in not allowed however it is allowed to be used in cleaning etc. In the US wines are required to be certified organic to be labeled organic.

So the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good is pretty straightforward. Organic farming and organic wine production put fewer nasty chemicals into the environment and should have less chance of having harmful chemical residues. The bad is a bit trickier. Organic wineries are not allowed to add sulfur and in small quantities sulfur is a safe way of stabilizing wines. Un-sulfured wines are more likely to oxidize and more likely to get bacterial infections. A second bad point is one of reputation. Most of the first organic wines that hit the market in the US where pretty bad. They gave Organic Wines a bad name in the marketplace that they still have not entirely shed even though there are some very good and even great organic wines out there. The ugly is simple. It is expensive and time consuming to get a winery certified organic in the US. This restricts many small producers from using the organic label even when they follow organic methods.

Natural Wines are more philosophical than actual. There are organizations that certify Natural Wines but at this time there are no laws in the US (or anywhere else that I know of) mandating standards for Natural Wines. The philosophy behind natural wines is simple: Wine making is a natural process and the less interference in the process by the wine maker the better. This leaves a pretty broad range for interpretation. In general, most Natural Wines are made without the use of sulfur (see above) and with natural occurring yeast rather than added yeast. The use of temperature controlled fermentation is more controversial but is generally frowned on.

In such a nebulous category the good is hard to pin down. I see the Natural Wine movement as a reaction against factory wines that turn an agricultural product into an industrial one. I too don’t like the idea of factory wines. The bad is simple. First people don’t agree on what a Natural Wine is so you don’t know what you are getting when you have a Natural Wine. Second there is a wide gap between factory wines and the “let all just happen” school of wine making. Most of the best wines in the world live in that area. There is a reason responsible wine makers use sulfur and add yeast and use temperature controlled fermentation. The reason is these are valuable tools to make better wine. The ugly is also simple. Good wines can be made following the Natural Wine philosophy. It requires even more attention to detail and particularly attention cleanliness in the winery. Many of the Natural Wines I have tasted have failed in the regard making some pretty bad wines.

Biodynamic wines are made following a specific set or agricultural practices. Many of the practices are shared with organic methods. There is no legal definition of Biodynamic in the US. There are organizations that certify products as Biodynamic. Biodynamic procedures are much more codified than they are for Natural Wines. The procedures range from normal techniques like growing particular plants between the rows to keep down pests and weeds as well as help naturally fertilize to soil to the somewhat bizarre such as using scoops made from cow horn to spread manure around the vines at certain phases of the moon.

The good side of Biodynamic Wines are much the same as they are for Organic Wines with the addition that the procedures require the vineyard to pay a great deal of attention to how the grapes are grown. There is some cost associated with being certified Biodynamic but it is generally less than Organic. Beyond that there isn’t any real bad or ugly side to Biodynamic, just a fair amount of silliness.

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What’s That Stuff On The Cork?

Recently I have talked to a few people who have thought bottles were bad when they found stuff on top of the cork before opening the bottle.

The cover over the cork is called the capsule.  It is typically metal foil or plastic.  If it is metal foil and the bottle is properly stored in a humid environment, you can get some oxidation of the foil that sticks to the cork or the glass lip of the bottle.

In either case if the bottle is properly stored you can get discoloration or even mold on top of the cork.  Believe it or not, there is nothing wrong with this.  You don’t have a bad bottle.  It is an indication the bottle was stored in proper humid conditions.

So just take a clean cloth or paper towel and clean the top of the bottle before removing the cork.  Just to be on the safe side, wipe it down again after you pull the cork and your bottle will be just fine.



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To Cork Or Not To Cork? That Is The Question

Corks have been used to close wine bottles for a long time. They have been pretty much the standard method of closing a bottle since th 18th century. Most wine authorities agree that there are definite benefits to using a cork, particularly when it comes to aging wines. There are some downsides too. Quality corks are more expensive than other stoppers. They require the wine to be stored on its side. Corks can last a very long time but they do degrade over time. Corks can carry bacterial infections that ruin wine.

Alternatives have been developed ranging from composite corks (made up of pieces of cork glued together) to plastic corks, glass stoppers and finally screw tops. Of the alternatives, screw tops are my favorite. Who needs more plastic? Glass is awkward, and the composite corks have all of the negatives and none of the benefits of a real cork. Screw tops are easy to use; are hygienic; and are recyclable. They don’t however allow the very slow exchange of oxygen and the wine that occurs with a cork.

So what’s my call. If you have a wine that should be opened within the first three years after bottling, by all means, please use a screw cap. If you have a wine intended for longer aging, a cork is the way to go.

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Italian Earthquake

Yesterday a powerful earthquake hit the central Italian regions of Umbria and the Marche.  I have had the good fortune to visit these wonderful areas.  It is very sad to think of the devastation that has occurred.  As more information becomes available about how people can help, I will post it here and on our Facebook page.

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Hi folks,

We were briefly hacked but the site is back up and I have upgraded security.  I am looking at options to help keep the spam bots out so we can get conversations going again.


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What has happened to Rosé

In the last few years there has been an explosion in consumption of rosés in the US. As a result there has also been an explosion in the number and variety of rosés available. In general I applaud this. I like rosé and appreciate the availability of a wider range of wines.

I recently attended a tasting of around twenty five rosés. Retail prices ranged from just over $10/bottle to over $50. I enjoyed most of them but was mystified by one aspect. There appeared to be little to no correlation between quality and price. The most expensive wine was a French Provençal wine. They also made a less prestigious line, also from Provence for half the price. Side by side I couldn’t tell them apart. This happened again with a Provençal rosé made by a winery owned by a couple of American celebrities. It was bottled in a fairly distinct bottle. At the tasting was a different wine (once again at about half the price) bottled in the same bottle. Once again, side by side they tasted identical.

One of the wines, Whispering Angel has been touted as the best rosé in the world. It was fine but no better than other wines of that style that cost $10 less. The wines I liked the best retailed for between $14 and $23. Two were made by producers I know and respect. The other two were new to me.

My takeaway was that even more than with other wines, price doesn’t indicate quality in rosés. There are enough inexpensive rosés available for you to try some and drink the ones you like. Don’t be seduced by the prices or the hype unless someone else is paying.


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Better Know A Varietal – Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc has recently become a favorite white wine varietal. Part of that is boredom with yet another Chardonnay but part of it is the general high quality of inexpensive wines made from the grape.

Sauvignon Blanc probably originated in the Bordeaux region of France were it is most often blended with Semilion. Bordeaux’s based on this blend are most frequently light to medium bodied wines with some mineral notes and frankly not that interesting to me. There are exceptions but they tend to be pricey.

In France’s Louire Valley (which is another contender for where the grape originated) they make much better use of the grape, usually vinifying it alone to make dry, semi dry and sweet wines as well as sparkling wines. Flavors typically have some citrus notes but can also include tropical fruits, melon and honey. Many of the dry ones have nice mineral finishes.

I credit New Zealand with the grapes current popularity. Starting in the 1980’s New Zealand started exporting consistently good, reasonably priced Sauvignon Blanc’s with tropical fruit flavors and nice zesty refreshing qualities. At the time the trend in white wines had been to ever heavier and oakier wines. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc may not have seemed “serious” in comparison but they sure tasted good.

Sauvignon Blanc is now made in just about every country that produce wines and a remarkably high portion of them are pretty good. Warmer climates such as California and South Africa tend to make more full bodied wines that can loose some of the refreshing character that I like but they are usually well made wines.

There is one partial exception to my feeling that Sauvignon Blanc is a safe bet. For many years many vineyards in Chile said they had Sauvignon Blanc planted when they had Semilion. Semilion makes for less characterful wines that can be prone to oxidation. There are many fine Sauvignon Blanc’s from Chile but it helps to know the producer.


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Red Wine and Fish?

One question I get asked is what red wine to serve with fish. There are a lot of variables here. Among them are what kind of fish. The meaty or oily the variety of fish the easier it is. Swordfish can handle anything but the biggest and most tanic wines. It is hard not to overwhelm a light fish like sole. How the fish is prepared is also to be considered. Fried and grilled fish are more friendly to red wine than poached fish. Cream sauces and white wine sauces are difficult. That said my go to red wine for fish is Barbera. It has low tannin levels and goes very nicely with fish as lean as trout. Other lighter low tannin wines such as some pinot noir (not oak aged) and even some tempranillo’s can work. In the end it is what you like that counts.


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Better Know A Varietal – Pinot Noir

This little primer on Pinot Noir is a bit harder for me to write than the others. Pinot Noir is the grape for many of my favorite wines. That said, I am a bit opinionated and keeping my populist hat on here is a bit harder.

Where Pinot Noir originated is not known but it most associated with Burgundy where it has flourished for hundreds of years. There it is made into some of the most sublime red wines in the world. There it is also made into overpriced under flavored crap (oops that populist hat is tilting). Explaining red Burgundy would take a book but here is my very abbreviated take. Getting wines from producers you know to be good and from good years is even more important here than in most other regions.

A good Burgundy is a medium to slightly lighter bodied wines with fruit flavors such as cherry and raspberry and more earthy flavors like cedar and tobacco. They are not sweet and have fairly high acidity making them go well with meat, particularly game.

Pinot Noir is made into red wines in other regions of France where while they can be decent, rarely are as good a a good Burgundy. Other countries such as Italy, Chile, New Zealand, and the US also make red wines from Pinot Noir. I have a some very nice Pinot Noir’s from Chile. My luck in New Zealand has been mixed but I have never had a bad one from there. The Italian ones I have had so far taste like generic Italian reds with little Pinot Noir character. The US is a real mixed bag. California has popularized a style that is very fruit forward and sometimes a bit sweet. It is not for me. Oregon has a climate that is closer to that of Burgundy and makes some very nice wines.

Pinot Noir is not just used for red wine. When it is pressed such that the grape skins are quickly removed from the juice it yields a white juice that is a major component of many Champagnes and other sparkling wines. When some contact is allowed between the juice and the skin a rosé is the result. I love Champagne and appreciate ones that have high Pinot Noir content. The rosés I have had have been pleasant but nothing special.


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