About The Author:

"Roger, The Wine Guy" is Roger Yazell, CWS. He is a member of the International Wine Guild and has had a long time admiration of wine. After careers in broadcasting, advertising and marketing account management, he explored his love of wine in hospitality, wholesale and retail sales. The intent of Roger's Grapevine is to share stories, history and information that will add to the reader's love, enjoyment and appreciation of wine and sake'.

Questions, requests for topics and comments are always welcome via email: rogerthewineguy@gmail.com.

(Note: The Wine Guy is currently undergoing chemotherapy and this blog will be on hiatus for the duration and into a recovery period. The Wine Guy is planning to celebrate his recovery with a trip to the two wine producing regions in Argentina and that should provide for some interesting new blogs. Meanwhile please enjoy the archives and feel free to email in the interim.)

Monday, February 28, 2011

Jurancon: Great White Wines with a great history!

image from winery website
Located in the southwest corner of France near the Spanish border and close to the Pyrenees Mountains is a French wine appellation with a storied history. Jurancon is home to some of France’s best tasting white wines and is also rich in wine history.  The first written references to organized viniculture in the area date back to 998 AD.
image from winery website

While Jurancon became a French A.O.C. (Appellation d’Origine Controlee’) officially in 1936, it’s first government recognition as a designated wine growing and production region occurred in the 14th century under the reign of the Princes of Bern and Navarre.  It was in this area of France that the French term “cru” (“growth place”) was first applied on wine labels to designate wines reflecting a specific terroir.  This easily makes Jurancon the oldest of the French wine appellations.  Adding to that history is the established legend that Jurancon wine was used for the baptism of the renowned French king Henri IV.

The three principal grapes utilized in the wines of Jurancon are Petit Manseng, Gros Manseng and sometimes Courbu. These grapes, in varying combinations, offer the fruit tastes of apricot, mango, pear, pineapple and quince, often laced with honey, particularly in the sweet versions.  While it was the silky elegance of the sweet dessert wine produced there that first brought international attention to Jurancon, the region also produces superb dry white wines.  In fact the drier style of Jurancon account today for about three-quarters of the regions wine production.  The Wine Guy’s first exposure was to the sweet style in a wine from Chamarre, a modern day consortium founded in 2005.  This group gave great exposure to the region before entering into receivership in early 2010.  Fortunately they were bailed out in the fall of last year by the noted designer and entrepreneur Alain Dominique Perrin.

Here are two recommendations from The Wine Guy if you want to experience the unique quality and palatability of this region’s wonderful white wines:

Dry:   Chateau Jolys Jurancon Sec

Sweet:   Chamarre Jurancon Tradition

Try a Jurancon soon.  As you savor the aroma and taste, reflect upon the storied history of this wonderful wine region in south-west France.  Enjoy!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Kudo's to Kabuki

My wife and some of her former co-workers occasionally get together for lunch at a Japanese restaurant called Kabuki located here in Arizona.  Having enjoyed the food at their Tempe Marketplace location, it was she who first suggested I try this establishment. Always up for an “eating-out-date” with the fetching Mrs. Wine Guy, I, of course, took her up on the suggestion.

Kabuki is a regional chain with locations in California, Nevada and Arizona.  It derives its name from a form of traveling Japanese theater that developed during the 17th century Edo period (Edo was the name then of the Japanese capitol).  Kabuki was performed essentially for villagers and commoners as opposed to the ruling class.  Given the restaurant’s goal of providing quality food in a family-friendly and value-oriented atmosphere, I can understand and applaud the choice of name.

Kabuki Drink Menu
Worthy of applause, as well, is the manner in which they handled their selections of Sake and Shochu on their drink menu.  It is one of the better list presentations I’ve seen and goes a long way to ease the trepidation that I’m sure many feel when trying to order these beverages at a restaurant.

A quick recap of these two beverages for readers who may not be familiar with them:

 Sake is a double fermented rice beverage where the starch in the rice is fermented into sugar and the sugar is fermented into alcohol.  It is often referred to as “rice-wine” but it is not a wine despite the fact that sake, not unlike wine, can present many subtle nuances of flavor. Its alcohol content approximates that of wine and that may further contribute to the misnomer.   Shochu is a distilled beverage common to both Korea and Japan.  It is most often made from grain, including rice, buckwheat and barley. It can also be made with sweet potatoes and even chestnuts.  As a distilled beverage, it’s alcoholic content can run from 25 to 40%.  If Sake can be mis-characterized as the “wine” of Japan, then Shochu would be mis-characterized as the “scotch” of Japan. It is sometimes even aged in wood similar to Scotch.

The impressive part of the Kabuki listing is neither the length nor the depth of the listing.  Although a nice selection, there are just 18 Sake and only 2 Shochu available.   What IS impressive is the well written profile descriptions and pairing suggestions that even the most neophyte sake drinker can follow appreciate.  For the better-informed aficionado, the listing also appropriately includes the grade of the sake as well as its prefecture of origin. 

The final piece of information is applicable to all.  It is the Nihonshu-Do number assigned to each Sake.   The menu describes the Nihonshu-Do as a Sweet-Dry scale and although, that is the most practical application of that number, it is not entirely an accurate description of the number’s meaning.  The Nihonshu-Do number is derived from the hygrometer reading of the specific gravity of the beverage.  For those of you who remember high school physics, this compares the viscosity of the beverage to water with a 0 reading meaning the beverage’s density is on a par with pure water.
The practical side of the information, however, does highly relate to sweetness and dryness.  The negative numbers do tend to reflect increasing sweetness as they go higher.  The positive numbers tend to reflect increasing dryness as they go higher.  Some manufacturers have taken to placing these numbers on the bottles and refer to them as Sake-Meter-Value (SMV).  The SMV can serve you well in helping to determine if particular Sake will fit your palate.

More sophisticated Sake drinkers will also understand that acidity, alcohol content and even serving temperature will impact the sweet-dry perception of individual sake but the SMV is certainly a measurable standard reference that serves well as a good taste guideline.

 If you want to learn more about Sake and Shochu, I heartily recommend logging on to John Gauntner’s excellent educational website www.sake-world.com.  I also recommend subscribing to his newsletter. It’s an excellent and informative on-going resource.

Kudos to Kabuki for utilizing these numbers and for making a drink menu that makes it easier to enjoy great sake with your Japanese dinner.  The next time you’re dining oriental, take time to try Sake.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Wine Guy Over A Barrel!

Most of my blogs are about wines, places to drink wine or wineries.  Today, a slight departure is in order as we discuss wine barrels. 

The function of large containers of wine in its early history was principally for storage and transportation.  There was little thought to the utilizing these containers to help age or enhance the flavor of the wine.  It didn’t take long, however, for the effects of containers to be noted on the taste of the wine it carried.  Early Greek earthenware amphorae were sealed with pine tar, which imparted a distinct flavor to the wine.  That flavoring is noted today in Greek Retsina made with a little pine resin added for flavoring.

It’s difficult to fully trace the usage of wooden barrels given wood’s tendency to decay and perish.  However some early historians have noted the usage of palm wood barrels for wine in early Mesopotamia. The first mentioned use of oak barrels was noted about 2,000 years ago and they became widely used during the Roman Empire.  Given the Roman tendency to compare and transport different grapes for their taste characteristics, it’s probable they also noted the tendency of oak barrels to impart flavors and enhance the flavor and ageing ability of wine and made oak barrels their large wine vessel of choice.

Oak works well for wine barrels because it’s a tightly grained wood.  When split along the grain it seals well in holding liquids.  There is some breathability in the wood and this allows a small portion of oxygen into the container as evaporation of some of the liquid to the outside  (In a standard size 56-gallon wine barrel, the wine may evaporate 3 to 10% of its volume for each year spent in the barrel).  This enables the natural tannins in the wine to soften.  Additionally, the wine interacts chemically with the wood in producing other tannins as well as flavor compounds.  Oak produces some of the most compatible flavors and odors for wine of any wood and that is the principal reason for its popularity and widespread usage.

French Oak, because of its extremely tight grain and characteristics is considered today’s most preferable wood to use for wine barrels, but that was not always so.  In fact, early French winemakers much preferred Russian oak.  The bulk of the French oak utilized today comes from five major forests. These were initially planted by Napoleon to insure an adequate supply of wood for shipbuilding for the French Navy.   Italian winemakers rely heavily on Slovenian oak.  

American and recently, Canadian White Oak, are also widely utilized in the world of wine.  This oak has a slightly looser grain and Americans had a tendency to saw the wood across the grain in the early stages of American winemaking.  That and a common failure to “season” or age the wood before use initially made American made wines aged in American oak almost overpowering in the wood influenced flavors.  Adaption of European cooperage methods and careful attention to the importance of either ageing or toasting the wood to achieve proper seasoning has improved the results from using American oak considerably.

An 80 to 100 year old oak tree will typically produce enough wood to create two standard sized barrels. The harvested oak for wine barrel making is typically seasoned at least two years before the barrels are made although charring or toasting the inside of the barrel wood can shorten that process.  After a wine barrel is utilized for five to seven years, it typical becomes “neutral” in its ability to impart flavoring to wine.  This is often why you see tasting notations that refer to the percentage of “new” or “old” oak utilized to age certain wines.  The wine maker is simply adjusting the impact of the wood flavors on his wine.

While it is the most common and most preferable wood for wine barrels, oak is not exclusively used.
Chestnut, pine, acacia and in South America, rauli wood can be found in some winery barrels.  Many of these woods, however, can impart much higher tannin levels, shaper and often off-flavors and odors to the wine.  It is not uncommon to find that these types of wood barrels are often lined with paraffin to reduce this impact.

Being one whose wine preferences trend toward the well-aged, bold, red wines, The Wine Guy fully appreciates the role of wine barrels in the winemaking process.  However, I can also enjoy the wonderfulness of an un-oaked Chardonnay or a Montepulciano that has never seen the inside of an oak barrel.  That’s the wonderful part about the world of wine, there’s a new world of flavor to explore in virtually every new glass you enjoy.

Enjoy a good glass of wine, soon!  Salute!

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Brief Look at Chenin Blanc

Enjoying a Vouvray at Petit Valentin in Santa Barbara
Chenin Blanc, when done well, is a delightful white wine that often doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.  This wine has the ability to be an excellent aperitif, a great summertime sipper and makes an excellent and adaptable food pairing wine, especially with lighter fare.

The history of this grape traces back to the Anjou region of France where its usage was noted as early as the Ninth Century.  It rose to its greatest prominence in nearby Vouvray where some of the best examples of this grape’s diversity are seen.  Chenin Blanc produces a sweet juice with high acidity that lends itself to making wines that range from great sparkling to botryrized dessert wines.  It migrated to South Africa in the mid 1600’s and today is the most widely planted varietal in that country.  In that country, it was commonly known then as “Steen” and that reference is still utilized in many of the wines bottled there today.

Though some consider it fairly neutral to the influence of terroir, different soil conditions do play a very great factor in highlighting its characteristics.  Clay based soil produce grapes with sweeter juice and will enhance the development of noble rot and wines more capable of ageing.  Sandy soils produce lighter wines that mature quickly.  Grapes grown in limestone soils produce wines with accented acidity and stony or rocky soils have enhanced minerality.  Full ripening and controlled yields are generally necessary to get the best expression of flavors from this grape and, as a consequence, the utilization of high volume yields and under ripe grapes can produce some very marginal wines.  Hence the production of good wines from Chenin Blanc has as greater dependency on proper viniculture than many other white varietals.  

Chenin Blanc can be found in many wine growing regions but it is France and South Africa where it is most commonly utilized as a principal varietal in wines.  It was highly popular in California in the 1980’s when it’s plantings there exceeded those in France but it usage has since slipped in favor of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.  British Columbia and the American Northwest produces some appreciable Chenin Blanc but in very limited quantity.  Australia’s usage of the varietal is principally in white blends and the single varietal wines from there tend to be very, very fruity.  Mexico also grows a fair amount of the grape but it is utilized mostly in cheaper, mass-produced white blends.

The best sources tend to be the French and South African producers and a few lingering good producers from California.  Here are a few recommendations from The Wine Guy if you’re considering exploration of Chenin Blanc:

B&G Vouvray Gold Label:
This is an affordable entry into to trying the Loire Valley style of Chenin Blanc.  The French style places an emphasis on a floral nose with delivery of a mixture of white fruit and citrus flavors.  This wine has nice, light hints of melon, peach and pear.

Sebeka Chenin Blanc Steen:
This South African wine has a distinct minerality some pineapple citrus notes and a wonderfully crisp light acidity.  It’s a great pairing with shrimp stir-fry!

Man Vintners Chenin Blanc Steen:
A small portion (15%) is fermented in small oak and the remainder is allowed to develop on the lees which adds some subtle differences to this wine.  It has a nice blend of citrus and melon fruit flavors and the light use of oak adds an interesting hint of butterscotch.

Dry Creek Vineyards Clarksburg Chenin Blanc:
Delta grown grapes from this Sonoma County producer offers a nice delicate orange blossom nose accented with mostly citrus fruit, particularly lemon.  This has been California’s most awarded Chenin Blanc over the years, having earned over 30 gold medals.  It was The Wine Guy’s first Chenin Blanc to make a highly favorable impression.  I found it to be a great pairing with baked whitefish.

The dry styles of Chenin Blanc make great pairings with a variety of appetizers, seafood and salads.  A sparkling Cremant d’Loire is a great alternative to Champagne.  Demi-sec and sweeter versions are great sippers and aperitifs.  All lend themselves well to enjoyment in hotter climates.  Go ahead and explore and try a Chenin Blanc soon!

Friday, February 4, 2011

A visit to The Wine Guy's Favorite Mexican Uncle!

Regular readers are aware of The Wine Guy’s fondness for visiting Mexico, the colonial cities of central Mexico in particular. I have often written about the popularity of Italian food and the influence of Italian wine varietals and the Italian style of wine making in Mexico (indeed, through Latin America, as well).  It may come as a surprise, therefore, that my most frequently visited wine and dine restaurant in central Mexico is NOT Italian.

The restaurant is called Tio Lucas (Uncle Luke’s in English) and it’s located just a couple blocks off the main Jardin in San Miguel Allende in central Mexico.  Each and every time I’ve visited this charming World Heritage city in the central highlands, Mrs. Wine Guy and I have dined at least once in this restaurant.  It’s not the most elegant restaurant in town, neither is it the most affordable but we’ve always have a memorable experience there.  

It is among the better places to have good beef in a land where tasty beef often will just mean tasty strips of arrachera, a good tasting cut of beef in its own right. However, it’s usually more well done than our mid-western palates prefer and better suited for a hearty lunch with soup and nopales.  Once in a while we long for thick, juicy, tender beef, done no more than medium-rare accompanied by a good full-bodied red wine.  The fare at Tio Lucas has always fulfilled that need for us.  The service, for some might be a tad slow, but is always adequate and very attentive to our needs.  None of our visits has been without a visit to the table by the owner to check on our enjoyment of the meal.  Incidentally his name isn’t Lucas, it’s Max (see photo).  I haven’t figured out who Lucas is yet. I will have to ask on a future visit!

At our favorite Mexican uncle: Restaurante Tio Lucas with the owner Max

Some of the wine selection
Our favorite meals have included a soup starter (most are excellent including a nice French onion), a rich, creamy, calorie-laded Roquefort salad who dressing is made at the table from freshly cut cheese.  Our beef dish is usually a round and full, almost rare chateaubriand for two carved at the table.  There’s a fairly nice wine selection, all affordably priced.   Good Chilean reds heavily dominate the list.  Wines from Chile are the most popular in Mexico and a mainstay on restaurant wine lists partially because of the long standing trade agreements between Chile and Mexico that make Chilean wines among the most affordably price imports.   Concha y Toro is Mexico’s most popular Chilean brand but having that readily (and affordably) available stateside means our choice at Tio Lucas is typically a Baron Philippe de Rothschild. 

The Rothschild Chilean estate was begun by Philippe’s daughter, Philippine in the late 1900’s to produce a premium red wine AlmaViva in partnership with Concha y Toro (much in the manner her father had partnered with Robert Mondavi on Opus One in California years earlier.  By the early 2000’s, this estate had begun to also produce some brands of its own.  The reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and Reserve Carmenere under the Baron Philippe de Rothschild label are excellent and both available at Tio Lucas at about $30 per bottle.
Mr. & Mrs. Wine Guy @ Tio Lucas

If you’re in to Mexican crafts and pottery, you’ll see some great pieces utilized in the restaurant’s décor.  Some of the Michoacán pottery above the alcove mantle is exquisite!  Also, if you dine later in the week or on the weekend, prepare to enjoy some good jazz, as live music always abounds after 9:00pm.

As I said, by local standards, Tio Lucas is not the most affordable restaurant but you can dine very well, wine included, for under $40 per setting including propina (tip).  That affordability, proximity to the activity of the historico centro, and the memories of former evenings there has made Tio Lucas The Wine Guy’s favorite Mexican uncle!  If you ever get to San Miguel Allende, check it out for yourself.   Salud!