Please pass the Claret Carson!

If you’re a fan of the period piece Downtown Abbey as I am, you are no doubt experiencing withdrawal symptoms now that they are on hiatus for the rest of the year.  Yet, I am always enthralled at the ritual involved when the wine is selected by Carson and Lord Grantham, and the elaborate pouring rituals begin.

This ritual is, of course, part and parcel for the Bordeaux wine trade in years past.  British “Claret” increased in popularity in Britain when Eleanor of Aquitaine married in to the royal family, paving the way for Bordeaux exports.  At that time, most wine was from Graves, and was called “clariet”, which is why the name still sticks today.  Until relatively recently, the English would buy barrels of wine, import them across the channel, and bottle them themselves, translating the somewhat confusing French labeling system in to a more English friendly naming convention.

Today, we don’t have to go to such great lengths to get the delicious wines from the Bordeaux region.  We are able to purchase, and taste, wines of wide variety and price point; In fact, we don’t have to go through quite the elaborate decanting rituals that Carson the Butler does in Downton Abbey, in thanks to modern bottling techniques and cleaner process.

This month, as I study for my CSW, we are meandering through France.  I’ve already talked a bit about the Loire Valley region, but now we are delving in to serious, hard core, confusing, amazing, enthralling, Bordeaux.  Bordeaux is located roughly halfway down the western coast of France, where the Girdone river meets the Atlantic Ocean, and moves inland to the southeast where there Gironde and the Dordogne meet to form the Garrone River.

 

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

 

Bordeaux is a challenge for me, with over 30 distinct subregions, Left Bank, Right Bank, middle bank (Entre-deux-Mars) and the uniqueness that comes with each of these.  After tasting a beautiful array of Bordeaux a the Union des Grand Crus last month, I have come to discover that my heart lies on the Right Bank, with the silken elegance of the Merlot based wines, but there are several areas of the Cabernet driven Left Bank that call to me as well.  The myth of Bordeaux as an old man’s luxury has been dispelled, and today, it is an accessible option to even the most budget friendly wine drinker.

First, some 411 on the basics.  Yes, I know this is overly simplifying the details quite a bit, but going in to detail on the 37 distinct regions is just too overwhelming for most wine lovers, unless you are a Francophile.  For a long time, I didn’t like the tannic, seemingly thin, overly astringent flavors in the Bordeaux that I had experienced.  Fortunately, there is such a wide array of wine available, that there really is a wine for everyone, at every budget.

The primary regions of the Left Bank are Graves, Medoc, and Pauillac, and are Cabernet based blends.  The Right Bank includes my favorite Saint Emilion and Pomerol, which are Merlot based.  Smack dab in the middle of them both is the no man’s land of Entre Deux Mers, the No Man’s Land of Bordeaux.  Thanks to the good folks at Planet Bordeaux, I have some great examples to share with you.

2005 Barons de Rothschild Reserve Special – Pauillac – A Left Bank powerhouse (this beauty was hiding in my cellar.  At the time of purchase, it was $18, current vintage is about $30).  This middle aged gentleman deserves some decanting, as he is a bit rough around the edges.

2010 Chateau de Landiras – Graves another Left Bank powerhouse, Graves.  So named due tot he intensely gravelly soil, this cabernet based wine is minerally with a graphite nose, rose petals, dried flowers, and a kiss of Brett.  This is a wine that needs a steak, and an hour int he decanter but a lovely example of how complex Bordeaux can be, even at the $20 price point.

2010 Chateau La Grangere – Saint Emilion Grand Cru – this plush and velvety Right Bank beauty oozes dark chocolate and espresso, with ripe black plums and tobacco leaf and dried fig.  This blend of 75% Merlot, 20% Cab Sav, and 5% Cab Franc speaks to all those Merlot haters and calls out, drink me!  Love me!  $25

Laffittte de Laujac – Medoc – the Medoc is at the very northern tip of the Left Bank, inching closer to the Atlantic Ocean.  Full of savory herbal notes and stewed fruit, this elegant olive toned wine is bursting with blackberries, currents, and fig.  Reminiscant of a class Napa Cab from teh 70s, there is great potential here for duck, Cassoulet, and other hearty dishes.  $30

I could go on for days at the variety of Bordeaux available, but these are just some value priced examples of what you can find.  There are so many options out there, from so many smaller regions in the Bordeaux area, at all price points.  So what are you waiting for?  Go out and experiment!  And remember, Lefty Loosy (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc), Righty Tighty (Merlot).  I love the velvety softness of the Right Bank, but if you let the Left sit and stew for a while in a decanter, it is the perfect accompaniment for heartier meals.Enjoy!

Special thanks to Planet Bordeaux for sending me these wines to experiement with.

Exploring the wines of Santa Barbara County

#QPB members BrixChicks LIza & Dallas Wine Chick Melanie, with BrixChicks Xandria hiding in the center

After our #QPB left Los Olivos and settled back in to WBC mode, we had one more adventure to see too before the official conference began.  Earlier this year, I was thrilled to be a guest of the San Francisco Wine School’s inaugural 3-day intensive California Wine Appellation Specialist (CWAS) program, for which I know hold the credential (97 baby!).

With the NorCal Wine luminary Fred Swan leading the way, SF Wine School and several illustrious Santa Barbara County wineries converged on Dierberg Star Lane Vineyard in Happy Canyon to present a special deep dive class in to the terroir, viticulture, and wines of Santa Barbara County.  This was an amazing way to kick off the weekend in Buellton, and firmly planted Santa Barbara’s diverse growing regions as one of my favorite California wine regions in my personal wine bible.
In the county, there are many well known areas – Sideways made Los Olivos, Buellton, and Solvang famous, along with Santa Ynez.  But there are also many lesser known areas, such as the tiny Happy Canyon or newly AVA’d Ballard Canyon, that produce amazing wines as well.

The view from Star Lane in to Happy Canyon

As with many areas that are now firmly rooted in wine culture, Santa Barbara’s first plantings were by the missionaries; in this case Junipero Serra arrived in 1782, prior to establishing the mission in 1786.  Santa Barbara became the center of the mission winemaking culture, with 45 vineyards, 260 acres and 17 winemakers, but of cousre all of that died when Prohibition came in to place.  Wine stayed dead in Santa Barbara until well in to the 1960s, when the Amerine Winkler Scale identified the region as perfect for viticulture.  Growing slowly but steadily, by the 1980s, there were 13 wineries, and by the 1990s, that number tripled.  Today, there are over 100 wineries, 21,000 planted acres, and 5 AVAs (with more pending).  Today, with so many microclimates, there are diverse varieties, styles, adn philosphies in the region.  There is so much more here than just Pinot Noir Miles!

With it’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara County has a unique terroir, in part due to the transverse range that suddenly hangs a left at Albequerque and heads east, away from the ocean.  With foggy, cool breezes, and coastal influences, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrives on the west end, while Rhone varieties and Cabernet Sauvignon seek sun and warmth on the east end, away from the coastal influence.
While there are too many AVAs within the county to talk about in detail in this post, I will give you more detail on a few.  First, Pinot Powerhouses Santa Maria and Sta. Rita Hills.  Santa Maria Valley is one of the few AVAs that straddles counties.  With it’s cooling breezes and foggy days, Santa Maria is one of the rare AVAs that has dry farmed vineyards, thanks to 14 inches of rain a year (ok not this year but…).    I love the Pinot Noirs from this area because of the high acidity, bright red fruit and cool climate “zing”.  In the Santa Maria Bench, which is a pending sub AVA, the most famous vineyard would be Bien Nacido, producing world class Pinot and Chardonnay.
David Glancy

SF Wine School’s David Glancy

Next up, the Sta. Rita Hills AVA has 2300 acres planted, with over 40 wineries.  Part of the explosion here was the Sideways effect, however, the wines speak for themselves.  Only 12 miles from the ocean, Sta. Rita Hills gets cold, foggy mornings and evenings, with hot days and large diurnal swings.  With packed limestone and ancient seabed soils, the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Sta. Rita Hills has a characteristic minerality and brightness that would make any ABC Card Carrying member quit on the spot.

Two of my favorite regions in Santa Barbara County are Ballard Canyon, and the pending Los Olivos District AVA.  Ballard Canyon, which became an AVA in 2013, is the only AVA dedicated to Syrah, and is located between Solvang and Los Olivos.  While there is some fog in the lower areas of the canyon, it is warmer and has a bigger temperature swing than Sta. Rita, which makes it perfect for Rhone varieties and – syrah.  I’ll get more in to the wines later, since we had a comparative tasting at the conference, but let’s just say YUM!
Finally, Los Olivos.  The pending Los Olivos AVA includes the town of Los Olivos, Ballard, Santa Ynez, and Solvag.  Even warmer than Ballard Canyon, it has a distinctly alluvial soil where both Tuscan and Rhone varieties thrive.
Suffice it to say, you could spend a week in Santa Barbara County and never taste the same thing twice.  It’s well worth investigating, and a very special thanks to Fred Swan, David Glancy, SF Wine School, and all the wineries that participated in this great educational experience!
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 This class was offered gratis to attendees of the Wine Bloggers Conference by invitation only.  All opinions and edumacation are my own.

Pontificate your passion!

Passion for pinot that is.  As a judge for the 8th Annual Pinot Noir Summit, on Feburary 27th, I am able to offer you my dear readers a 20% discount off of the ticket price. click me

I hope you will take advantae of this offer, and join me in San Rafael in two weeks for a day of Pinot Passion!

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