When most of us think of the most planted grapes (in terms of acreage) we tend to think chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. It makes sense considering our local retail shelves are lined with these well-known grape varietals.
So it may surprise you to learn some of the top grapes grown in the world are some you may not have even heard of.
Cabernet sauvignon, as expected, tops the list with about 710,000 acres and merlot a close second with 660,000 acres worldwide. These grape varietals are the backbone of blends around the world and stars in their own right.
It’s the unsuspected Airen grape with around 620,000 acres that most are not familiar with. Many wine drinkers find this an interesting statistic considering many have not ever had a glass of this grape or even heard its mention. It’s almost an unknown grape varietal outside of its home in Spain. The vines are planted at very low density and resistant to long stretches of drought making it ideal in the vast hot areas of Spain.
Airen is not the winemaker’s ideal grape with its many seeds and other undesirable traits but it serves a purpose in other ways than your next glass of wine. The juice of the grape is mostly fermented and distilled for brandy and fortified wines. The seeds are pressed for grapeseed oil. There has been a decline in the planting of this grape (at one time holding the prestigious first place in world plantings) to the more globally popular tempranillo grape. With its generally straightforward simple profile wines from this grape are uncommon outside Spain, where you’re most likely to encounter it as a refreshing white wine in local restaurants.
Tempranillo, with around 570,000 acres, is another unexpected grape at the top of the most-planted list. Its origins are also in Spain, but this grape can be found elsewhere including South America and Texas. When this grape is young it has a fresh fruity profile unique to most red wines. But as it ages with oak influence it takes on a tobacco, dusty leather flavor serious wine lovers seek out.
- 2019 Toro Loco Tempranillo, Spain (about $11 retail)
- 2018 Volver La Mancha Tempranillo, Spain (about $20 retail)
I am among the first to stand up for a grape for not getting the attention it deserves as well as for those grapes assigned an undeserved reputation.
It seems it is time for me to speak up for chardonnay.
Chardonnay continues to receive mixed reviews from those loving this enduring grape and from those self-professed ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) members.
Chardonnay is one of the most versatile grapes planted in the world. Growers love chardonnay’s easy-going ability to be grown in almost any conditions while marketers love this familiar grape’s almost universal appeal to consumers.
But not all chardonnay is alike.
Chardonnay grown in cool climates tend to be dry with a range of green fruits, citrus and refreshing bright acidity. Warmer regions produce richer wines that taste of peach, melon, tropical fruit. And there is a noticeable difference in higher alcohol styles. Aging in oak can impart a vanilla, toasty flavor while malolactic fermentation is used to soften the wine’s acidity and can result in flavors reminiscent of movie theater popcorn.
Now is a good time to re-group, re-taste and understand this grape has a world of styles to explore and savor.
France offers numerous styles of chardonnay usually identified by geography and not grape. Some of the most perfect expressions of chardonnay can be found in Chablis, Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, Macon and Pouilly-Fuisse.
California chardonnays are perhaps the most confusing. The range swings immensely depending on the location and winemaker style. Chardonnay from Sonoma, Napa, Russian River and Carneros can range from full bodied buttery bombs to lean, crisp savory styles depending on the producer.
Most Chilean chardonnays will taste of melon and banana with an added zest of acidity. Regions to explore are Central and Casablanca valleys.
- 2018 Cono Sur Chardonnay, Chile (about $13 retail)
- 2018 Louis Jadot Macon, France (about $17 retail)
Rot is not something most of us associate with sought-after wine. But some of the world’s most desired wines are the result of rot. This rot is botrytis or “noble rot.” It’s a fungus that causes grapes to decay and shrivel.
Noble rot is a type of Ascomycota in the Fungi kingdom. As odd as it may seem this is the same Ascomycota associated with blue cheeses, the antibiotic penicillin and even athlete’s foot. It’s also the same rot that spoils strawberries and soft fruit with its grayish fuzz.
Winemakers have struggled for centuries to control mold (fungus) growth in vineyards and cellars. Powdery mildew, cork taint and the dark mold seen on some cellar walls are just a few of the fungal nemesis winemakers face.
So what gives botrytis the prestigious title of “noble” when it comes to grapes?
In order for noble rot to occur there must be a fine balance of moisture, sunlight and temperature. Under ideal conditions, ripe, healthy grapes hang on the vine when fall rolls around. A misty morning provides the moisture the fungi need to thrive. The fungi pierce the grapes and begin feeding on the water in their juices. Next the sun shines upon these grapes just long enough to evaporate the moisture and stop the botrytis from feeding. The following morning the cycle repeats itself. It’s this succession of misty mornings and dry sunny days that provides the perfect conditions for these grapes’ sugars, acids and flavors to concentrate in the grape while the fungi consume the water. The resulting wines are intensely concentrated, sweet and complex.
The process is risky for winemakers. They must choose between harvesting the grapes as soon as they are ripened for a guaranteed, but less prized wine or wait for the precise moment the rot occurs and hope the ideal conditions are met throughout the process. Wait too long and the grapes are no longer viable for winemaking, and too much rain can turn this delicate interaction of nature into a full vineyard rot. Growers can lose their entire crop if this dance is not precise. Complicating things more is the picking of these “rotted” grapes must be done by hand, one grape at a time, sometimes over the course of several days.
So, as you treasure the “liquid gold” of these sweet wines consider the divine process of nature having to occur in order for you to savor your glass of wine.
- 2016 Chateau Hallet Sauternes, France 375 mL (about $21 retail)
- 2016 Chateau Les Justices Sauternes, France 375 mL (about $36 retail)
An interesting topic many readers have asked me about is whether one can follow the “keto” diet and still enjoy drinking wine.
For those not familiar with the term “keto” is short for ketogenic. The ketogenic diet is a high fat, moderate protein, very low carbohydrate diet. The diet forces the body to burn fat for energy rather than relying on carbohydrates. It was developed to help control epilepsy in children and used under supervision of a physician. However, outside the medical community the term is used rather loosely to refer to many low-carbohydrate eating styles along the lines of Atkins, South Beach and Paleo. The ratio of fats and proteins and whether fruits are allowed distinguishes these diets from one another.
The good news is many wines are low in carbohydrates. The bad news is not all wines are “keto-friendly.”
The ideal “keto-friendly” wine is about 13.5% (or less) alcohol with very little to no residual sugar. It is not that difficult to find wines with 13.5% alcohol but it is difficult to find 100% dry wines.
As I’ve written before, residual sugar refers to the amount of sugars in a wine after fermentation. Before grapes are fermented into wines, they contain lots of natural sugar. When the yeasts consume the sugar they produce alcohol. The yeast will continue feeding and converting all of the sugar until it has been consumed or when the winemaker halts fermentation with an additive. When fermentation is stopped before all of the sugars are consumed the amount remaining in the wine is called residual sugar.
This is where it gets tricky. With some wines, even when the wine tastes “dry” it may still have up to 30 grams of residual sugar. More bad news is the residual sugar is not going to be listed on the label. The United States has no labeling requirements for nutrition. But there are a few key things to keep in mind and ways to find out how much residual sugar a wine has.
- Your best option is to go straight to the source. Many wine brands’ websites include “tech sheets.” The technical sheets, or fact sheets, often include information such as the varietal content, varietal origin, alcohol by volume, pH and residual sugar.
- European wineries tend to produce the driest styles.
- Champagnes with “brut” and “extra brut” generally have the lowest residual sugar.
- Value driven wines sometimes contain the highest amount of residual sugars.
- Higher alcohol does not always mean low residual sugar. The highest alcohol wines (such as zinfandel, shriaz, grenache) can sometimes have high levels of residual sugar because these wines start out with a lot of sugar in the grapes.
- Common sense is that most “sweet” tasting wines will have higher RS so avoid moscato, Port and dessert wines.
- 2018 Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio, Italy (about $10 retail)
- 2018 Bonterra Pinot Noir, California (about $22 retail)
I have always imagined the wine choice for the celebratory toast of the signing the Declaration of Independence to be a robust, complex Napa Valley Cabernet sauvignon. Of course, this was not the case, considering Napa Valley’s first commercial vineyards weren’t established until the mid-1800s.
What was the celebratory drink? A fortified Portuguese wine, Madeira, filled the cups of those attending America’s first celebration of independence in 1776.
Madeira was a popular choice for many early American celebrations: the signing of the Declaration of Independence, George Washington’s first inauguration, the signings of the Louisiana Purchase and the Constitution. But it was also an everyday drinking wine.
The island of Madeira, from which the wine gets its name, was a popular port of call for European ships headed to Asia, Africa and the Americas. While the ships were being loaded with trading goods, the wines soon became part of the cargo. While Americans loved their whiskey, Madeira was a staple. Historians estimate 25%-70% of Madeira’s production during the Colonial era was being exported to the American Colonies and British West Indies.
Madeira was a practical choice for many reasons, one being its ability to travel well. Fortifying the wine with spirits increased the alcohol content to 19%-21%, allowing the wines to survive long journeys at sea. As you can imagine, a cargo hold of an 18th-century ship crossing the Atlantic in the heat of summer would would literally “cook” a normal table wine.
However, because of its fortification, Madeira was not damaged by the heat. In fact, the journey actually improved the wine. Legend says that sailors realized the rolling and pitching of the ship during the journey “stirred” the wine in the large wooden vessels. The longer the journey, the more complex and pungent the wine became.
Today, the wine is aged using either the Estufagem (in heated stainless tanks) or Canteiro (in barrels placed in warm attics or warehouses) process.
Madeira remained a popular wine in the United States until Prohibition in the early 20th century.
This July 4th you will most likely be celebrating with an American wine but if you want to toast as our Founding Fathers did, Madeira should be your wine.
- NV Sandeman Madeira Fine Rich, Portugal (about $22 retail)
- 2000 Henriques & Henriques Madeira, Portugal (about $77 retail)
It’s that time of year again — when I exult the praises of rosé. I have fearlessly taken on this topic for over a decade in hopes that one day the American palate would catch up with the rest of the world. It seems my campaign is working, and I have convinced many readers to step over to the pink side, into this beautiful, elegant world of rosé wines.
Americans are late comers to the pink passion party. But that’s likely because of their association of rosé with the sweet blush of white Zinfandels of the 1980s and ’90s. Today’s rosé is nothing like those white zins of the past.
I scoured my tasting notes to find the top rosé wines from around the world. It may be surprising to to learn not all are from the sacred vineyards France’s Provence region. Some of my favorites, as well as other tasters’ are from California, Oregon and Bordeaux. It is exciting to see this category expand with unique blends.
If you are not a dedicated rosé revivalist it’s my hope this week’s recommendations will help you understand why I continue to champion these wines.
The recommendations were gathered from my tasting notes, other local professionals and I am recommending them based on quality, price and, of course, availability in our market.
- 2018 Bell Rosé, California (about $15 retail)
- 2018 Acrobat Pinot Rosé, Oregon (about $14 retail)
- 2018 Erath Oregon Rosé, Oregon (about $16 retail)
- 2018 Marques De Caceres Rosé Rioja, Spain (about $13 retail)
- 2017 Matua Rosé, New Zealand (about $12 retail)
- 2018 Milou Pay D’Oc Rosé, France (about $12 retail)
- 2018 Charles Smith Vino Rosé, Washington state (about $15 retail)
- 2018 Chateau Bonnet Bordeaux Rosé, France (about $19 retail)
- 2018 Anne Amie Rosé of Pinot Gris, Oregon (about $20 retail)
- 2018 Whispering Angel Provence, France (about $26 retail)
- 2017 Francis Ford Coppola Sofia Monterey County Rosé, California (about $19 retail)
- 2018 Presqu’ile Family Vineyards Pinot Noir Rosé, California (about $25 retail)
- 2018 La Crema Monterey Rosé of Pinot Noir, California (about $19 retail)
- 2018 Gerard Bertrand Cote des Rosés, France (about $21 retail)
- 2017 Chateau D’Astros Provence Rosé, France (about $20 retail)
- 2018 Simi Sonoma County Dry Rosé, California (about $20 retail)
- 2018 Raptor Ridge Rosé of Pinot Noir, Oregon (about $20 retail)