The Grape & Food
The human palate is capable of discerning four tastes: Salty, Sweet, Sour and Bitter.
Only sweet and sour (or acid) are especially applicable to wine. Some wines may display some bitterness on the finish. Almost no wine is salty except for Fino or Manzanilla sherry, whose saltiness derives from the proximity of the production facilities to the sea. In addition, some vines that have been irrigated with brackish water, may produce wines with higher than normal salt levels.
Some of what we perceive as TASTE is actually SENSATION. There are three main sensations that contribute to the texture of a wine:
- Tannin: a tealeaf like astringency on the top of the tongue and roof of the mouth. This can derive from the skin, seeds and stems of the grape, or from oak in which the wine has aged.
- Alcohol: often perceived as sweet, it also adds to the “weight” or “body” of the wine on the palate. It can also be perceived as a burning sensation in the bridge of the nose (when inhaled) or at the back of the throat (when swallowed).
- Extract: this is the dry extract of wine that gives its thickness and intensity. Extract derives from the grape.
Most of what we perceive as FLAVOR is really an extension of AROMA. This is easily demonstrated by pinching your nose when tasting wine. The flavor disappears, leaving only the essential tastes and sensations. Regardless of a wine’s flavor, the two basic tastes (sweet & sour) in combination with the sensations/textures mentioned above are often more than adequate for the accurate identification and assessment of a wine.
When tasting wine, one is always looking for harmony. A wine that is balanced in its youth will generally be balanced in older age. A wine that is imbalanced when young may “come around”, however, this is not always guaranteed. If a wine is especially over-ripe, and therefore overly alcoholic, it will generally age poorly, and will tend to turn pruny and stewed-tasting after a relatively short period of aging.
Food Pairing: This wine needs big flavors. grilled red meat (Ribeye, NY Strip), bacon, blue cheese, portobello mushrooms, squash, mustard, black pepper.
Avoid: Almost all flakey light seafood, shellfish, citrus, vinegar based sauces or dressings.
Cabernet Sauvignon makes the most dependable candidate for aging, more often improving into a truly great wine than any other single varietal. With age, its distinctive black currant/blackberry aroma can develop into soft complex flavors of cedar, violets with a unique rich quality and its typically tannic edge may soften and smooth considerably.
It is the most widely planted and significant among the five dominant varieties in the Medoc district of France’s Bordeaux region, as well as the most successful red wine produced in California. Napa Valley became famous for its ability to make a deep complex Cabernet that had ability to age. In the last several decades Cabernet continues to expand around the world and is now planted and bottled in almost every wine growing country worth noting.
Long thought to be an ancient variety, recent genetic studies at U.C. Davis have determined that Cabernet Sauvignon is actually the hybrid offspring of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc.
Food Pairing: We love these wines with comfort foods. Beef or lamb stew, French Onion soup, goat cheese or Brie.
Avoid: Citrus fruits, Mozzarella cheese, shellfish and chicken or turkey.
Grenache noir is the world’s most widely planted red grape, sometimes made into a stand-alone varietal, frequently used as a rosé, but most often as the backbone of red blends.
Used as a component in some Northern Rhône reds, nearly exclusively for Rhône rosés and as the primary component in nearly all Southern Rhône red blends, Grenache is probably most notable as the base varietal for Chateauneuf du Pape, Cotes du Rhône and Gigondas. In spite of its fame coming from French wines, Spain is most likely this grape’s origin.
Grenache is known by local names (alicante, carignane rousse) in the Mediterranean regions of France. Particularly important in the areas of the Languedoc and Rousillon, there are also variants with different colored berries: white Grenache Blanc, and pink Grenache Rose or Grenache Gris. Nearly three times as much Grenache is planted in Spain as in France. The Spanish know this grape and wine as Garnacha orwhere it is the dominant red wine variety in Catalonia and prominent in Rioja. The grape is known in Italy as Cannonau.
In the New World, Australia has extensive plantings of Grenache and has been very successful making full-bodied Grenache-dominated red blends (Most often labeled GSM for Grenache Syrah and Mouvedre). Until surpassed by plantings of merlot in the past decade, Grenache was the third most planted red variety in California after Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. Most of this acreage is in the Central Valley and used to produce bulk rather than premium wine.
Food Pairings: It amazes us every time we eat with Argentines how much meat they can consume. Any red meat on the grill, mushrooms, heavy cheese, brats.
Avoid: Pasta with cream sauce, poultry, light vegetables.
One of the traditional “Bordeaux varietals”, Malbec has characteristics that fall somewhere between Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. At its best it can bring very deep color, ample tannin, and a particular plum-like flavor component to add complexity to blends.
Outside Bordeaux it is known as Côt and, in Cahors, also as Auxerrois. There are in fact hundreds of local synonyms, since Malbec at one time was widely planted in nearly every area of France. Sensitivity to frost is the main reason that Malbec has become a decreasing factor in most of France. Although plantings in the Medoc have decreased by over two-thirds since the mid-twentieth century, Malbec is now the dominant red varietal in the Cahors area.
However, it has been in Argentina where the Malbec grape has really come into its own, where it is the major red varietal planted. Much of the Malbec vines there were transplanted from Europe prior to the outbreak of phylloxeraand most is therefore ungrafted, planted on their own roots. Sadly, over the years, phylloxera has infested Argentina as well and vineyards are now being replanted on resistant rootstock.
Argentines often spell it “Malbeck” and make wines from it that are similar in flavor to those made in Europe, but with softer, lusher structure, more like New World Merlot. Another difference: where French examples are usually considered short-lived, Argentine Malbecs seem to age fairly well. Successful Argentine Malbec growers claim that, in order to develop full maturity and distinction, Malbec needs “hang time” even after sugar levels indicate ripeness. Otherwise, immature Malbec can be very “green” tasting, without its characteristic notes of plum and anise.
Food Pairings: Seared tuna, filet, mushrooms, eggplant, baked Brie with raspberry and blackberry.
Avoid: Pork, heavy cream, butter sauces.
“The bride of Cabernet”, Merlot did not appear as a California varietal label until the end of the decade and was not a big seller until the end of the ’80s. Less than 2,000 acres existed in California in 1985; there are over 58,000 acres in 2009.
Merlot is by far the most widely planted grape of the entire Bordeaux region and is the third most planted red variety in France. However, it has a starring role in only one region, north of Bordeaux’s Gironde River, where it is the basis of the wines of St. Emilion and Pomerol. South of the Gironde, however, merlot usually plays a supporting role in typical Medocblends with cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc.
While its flavor profile is similar to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot tends to be less distinctive and slightly more herbaceous overall in both aroma and taste. Ripeness seems critical; both under ripe and overripe grapes lean away from fruit and towards a green pepper vegetal sensation. Merlot has slightly lower natural acidity than Cabernet and generally less astringency, therefore usually a lusher mouth-feel.
On our recent trip to Washington state wine country, we were amazed at the quality and value that is offered in Merlot. We highly recommend that you explore this varietal from that region.
Food Pairings: Venison, pork tenderloin/chops, tomatoes, burgers.
Avoid: Lemon, curry or red pepper flake, vinegar based dressing, any white fish.
Mourvèdre as a cultivated wine variety originated in Spain, where it is also called Mataro or Monastrell. It is the principal red grape of the five appellations that cluster on Spain’s Southeastern Mediterranean Coast, Almansa, Valencia, Alicante, Jumilla, and Yecla. Prior to the late Nineteenth Century phyloxera devastation, Mourvédre was also widely planted in Southern France.
Phylloxera nearly drove Mourvèdre to extinction; because the vines took so poorly to grafting that most vineyard managers deemed the results not worth the effort. Replanting did not begin seriously until after World War II, 60 years following the devastation, when sufficient vine stock was developed that had both adapted to grafting and had consistent production history.
Until the late 1960s, however, the main French plantings of Mourvèdre were in Provence, where it is the dominant grape in Bandol.
Mourvèdre is a slow-ripening variety that develops tight bunches of grapes that need good ventilation to avoid rot. It seems to do best in windy climates like Southern France, in parts of Spain and in Australia.
Wine makers frequently use Mourvédre’s dark, thick-skinned berries in blends to boost color and tannin, but often bemoan its absence of distinct flavors. Beginning in the early 1980s, several Australian wineries popularized various blends of Grenache, Shiraz, and Mataro as “GSM” wines; the combination has also become common in California.
Food Pairing: One of our favorite wines to pair as it is meant to be with food. Rich lamb and beef dishes, stews, any mushrooms or root vegetables, veal, aged cheeses.
Avoid: Not meant for anything light. Seafood, poultry or summer vegetables.
Nebbiolo is considered one of the great wine varieties, bigger, darker with more tannins than most varietals; it is consequently long-lived and prized by collectors. Jealously guarded in its native Italian home and most famous appellation of Piedmont, very few Nebbiolo cuttings and clones have been exported to other countries.
Cultivated since the 14th Century in Valtellina, an east-west valley in the Lombardy region at the foot of the Alps, north of Lake Como, this is the only region where Nebbiolo is grown in Italy outside Piedmont. The grape is most famous for producing wines like Barolo, Barbaresco and Gattinara, the reality is that this variety makes barely 3% of all the wines produced in Piedmont. There are twice as many acres planted with Dolcetto and ten times as many planted with Barbera.
Part of the reason for this, in spite of its lofty reputation, is that Nebbiolo is one of the more problematic grapes for both vineyard managers and winemakers. It is very sensitive to both soil and geography and can yield wines that vary widely in body, tannin and acidity, as well as aroma and flavor complexity, when grown in only slightly different locales. A very late-season ripener, the vines need the best exposures, especially in cooler climates, in order to reach maturity
Food Pairings: These wines are usually bursting with tannin and flavor and need to be matched accordingly. Ribeye, blue and goat cheese, burgers and brats, pepper, short ribs.
Avoid: Any citrus fruits, light cheeses, no seafood, turkey or chicken.
Petite Syrah is a variety that enjoys many fans among consumers. Originally cultivated and labeled as Petite Syrah only in California, its origin was unknown and identification uncertain and could only be speculated upon, until late in 2003.
Historically, the majority of vineyards plantings identified as Petite Syrah were actually mixed varieties of a dozen or more distinct types, but often including grapes with confusingly similar characteristics, such as Durif, Peloursin, and Syrah.
Just over 3,200 acres of grapes identified as Petite Syrah were planted in California as of year 2000. Although only a portion of these vineyards have been surveyed, recent DNA evidence from research led by Dr. Carole Meredith at the University of California at Davis has confirmed most plantings to be the same grape as Durif. About 10% however, is Peloursin, which, observed in the field, is practically indistinguishable from Durif, even by experts.
It was long theorized this was the case, that Petite Sirah was the same as the lackluster French variety known as Durif, a cross of Peloursin, yet another unremarkable variety, with the true Syrah. A French nurseryman, Dr. François Durif, propagated the grape trying for resistance to powdery mildew and named it after himself, in the 1870s. The inability of Durif to produce distinguished, high quality wines in France effectively nullified the value of its mildew-free attribute, especially since the grape’s compact clusters left this variety particularly susceptible to bunch rot.
Food Pairings: This grape offers tremendous versatility. Salmon or tuna and meaty white fish, lean red meats, duck, turkey, fresh herbs like rosemary and thyme. A great choice for the Thanksgiving table.
Avoid: Items with a great deal of fat, such as marbled red meat.
Pinot Noir is often described as being a “difficult” grape, to grow, to deal with in the winery, and to find truly great examples of, but fans are passionate about this varietal, as expressed by the dialogue between Miles and Maya in the 2004 movie “Sideways.”
Pinot Noir is one of the oldest grape varieties to be cultivated for the purpose of making wine. Ancient Romans knew this grape as Helvenacia Minor and vinified it as early as the first century AD. Recognized as a great varietal worldwide, the reputation that gets pinot noir so much attention is owed to the wines of Burgundy (Bourgogne), France. For most of wine history, this two-mile-wide, thirty-mile-long stretch of hills, called the Côte d’Or (“Slope of Gold”), is the only region to achieve consistent success from the pinot noir vine.
The quality of Bourgogne is due to a number of factors. Its vineyards slope gently down toward the East, providing the vines with long sun exposure yet avoiding afternoon heat. The soil there is very calcareous (chalky; containing calcium carbonate), offering good drainage. Well-drained soils have a higher average temperature, which assists ripening. Pinot noir seems to reflect more pronounced Gout de Terroir, or flavor of the soil, than other black grape types, making vineyard site selection a critical factor.
Difficulties plague pinot noir at every step, from propagation to its bottle-aging characteristics. However, even with these natural obstacles it has exploded in recent years and is being grown around the globe. In the U.S, Oregon and certain areas of California are producing world class Pinots.
Food Pairings: The bright acidity in Sangiovese helps it go well with dishes which also include some acidity. This is one reason that it pairs so well with tomato sauce. Lasagna, bell peppers or simple meat dishes like roast beef all work well.
Avoid: Cream sauces and light shellfish such as shrimp and crab.
Sanguis Jovis, the Latin origin for the varietal name, literally means “blood of Jove” and it is likely that Sangiovese (a.k.a. Sangioveto or San Gioveto) was known by early Etruscan winemakers, although the first literary reference to it was in 1722. It is probably indigenous to Tuscany, whose most famous wine is Chianti.
The hot dry climate, such as Tuscany provides, is where Sangiovese is best suited. Because these climatic criteria generally enhance quantity, rather than quality, it takes careful cultivation and winemaking techniques to produce really excellent wine from this grape. The official classification of Chianti itself demonstrates the widely fluctuating range of Sangiovese quality from those identified as ordinary “vino di tavola” to the highest “classico superiore”. Sangiovese is the #1 varietal in Italy with 247,000 acres, 10% of the entire wine grape crop.
The flavor profile of Sangiovese is fruity, with moderate to high natural acidity and generally a medium-body ranging from firm and elegant to assertive and robust and a finish that can tend towards bitterness. The aroma is generally not as assertive and easily identifiable as Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, but can have a strawberry, blueberry, faintly floral, violet or plummy character.
In some ways Sangiovese is to Tuscany as Cabernet is to Bordeaux. Both form the base of wines normally blended with other varietals and both by themselves share a certain distinctive elegance and complexity, when well-made.
Food Pairings: Fantastic with pork products; Ham, bacon, pork roast, root vegetables and earthy spices.
Avoid: Anything very spicy (hot), delicate white fish, avocado.
Tempranillo is a primary red wine grape for much of Spain, especially wines from the Ribera del Duero and the Rioja Alta. It is also a key blending varietal in Port and known by the name of “tinta roriz” in Portugal’s Douro Valley.
It needs only a short growing season and this early ripening tendency is the source of the name Tempranillo, which translates to “little early one”. Tempranillo also has many different regional identities worldwide, including aragon, cencibel, extremadura, valdepeñas and many derivatives of each.
Prominent in world viticulture only in Spain, small amounts of Tempranillo are also grown in Oregon and California, where it was probably first introduced in the late 1890s. Amador, Calaveras and El Dorado counties, Alexander Valley, Lodi, Sonoma, and Paso Robles all are now producing and bottling Tempranillo.
Tempranillo aromas and flavors often combine elements of berryish fruit, herbaceousness, an earthy-leathery character, and good minerality. While its varietal character is distinctive, it is also somewhat vague and easily overpowered by oak. Not often bottled as a stand-alone varietal, but frequently used as the base variety in blends, its most frequent mates are Grenache, (aka garnacha in Spain), Carignan (aka mazuelo in Spain’s Rioja region) and, more recently, Cabernet Sauvignon.
Food Pairing: One of our favorite “fun” pairings is a big spicy zin with BBQ!
Avoid: Because of all the big fruit and spice zin is difficult to pair with seafood and poultry.
Zinfandel was for many years somewhat of a mystery grape, as far as its origins are concerned. Recently it is believed to have been a clone from Croatia.
Zinfandel came to the United States in 1820, when New York nurseryman George Gibbs carried back various cuttings from the Imperial Austrian plant species collection. Over the next two decades, Zinfandel became a popular table grape in the Northeast U.S.
Nearly as versatile as Chardonnay in the number of different styles of wine produced from it, Zinfandel only achieved widespread popularity in America, starting about 1980, as a pink, slightly sweet wine. In fact, this popularity so outstripped all other forms that many fans think that there is actually a grape called “White Zinfandel” (there isn’t)!
Zinfandel as a red wine can be made light and fruity, much like French Beaujolais, or lively, complex and age worthy, like Cabernet. It can also be made into big, ripe, high alcohol style wines that resemble Port.
Because of its vigor, generosity and resistance to vine disease, many zinfandel vineyards exist that are 75 to 100 or more years old. Zinfandel aficionados believe these “old vines” produce the best wines, because the older vineyards set smaller crops and the grapes tend to ripen more evenly.
Food Pairing: Fantastic with Paella, crab cakes or crab legs dipped in butter, seared tuna, apples and hard aged cheeses, fried foods.
Avoid: Heavy red meats and high acid dishes like pasta with tomato sauce.
Albariño is the primary grape used to make dry white wine in the Rias Baixes (Lower Inlets) section of the Galicia region of Northwestern Spain. Considered by many to be Spain’s premier quality white wine, Albariño is also known in Portugal as Alvarinho and often used as a component of Vinho Verde.
Weather conditions in the Rias Baixes are generally cool, windy and rainy. Vines must be trained high and open to allow winds to dry them out and avoid the ongoing threat of rot, mildew and other fungal diseases. Notably, Albariño grapes develop thick skins, contributing to their intense aromas.
Typically, wines made from Albariño are very aromatic, often described as having scents of almonds or almond paste, apples, peaches, citrus, and flowers. Albariño wines are particularly suited to seafood due to their bracing acidity. This grape’s inherent tartness should be embraced in youth, for wines made from Albariño do not age well, and the vibrant aromas begin to noticeably fade within months of bottling.
Food Pairings: Sea bass, shrimp, chicken alfredo, avocado, spinach, squash, red onion.
Avoid: Heavy flavored fish such as anchovies, gamey meats, peppercorns.
Rich is the word that best both describes Chardonnay and explains its popularity. Its aroma is distinct, yet delicate, difficult to characterize, easier to recognize. It often smells like apples, lemons, peaches or tropical fruits. Its delicacy is such that even a small percentage of another varietal blended into a Chardonnay will often completely dominate its aroma and flavor. Oak commonly takes over Chardonnay if the wine is fermented or aged in new barrels or for too long in seasoned ones.
This delicacy also allows Chardonnay to absorb the influences of both vinification technique and appellation of origin. In the Chablis region of France, it is the only grape permitted and it renders a “crisp, flinty” wine. In the Meursault appellation, chardonnay takes on a lush, ripe, “fleshy”, “buttery” quality. Even in quality sparkling wines and French Champagne, it is the major varietal used. In spite of this variety in style, Chardonnay is unmistakable in the mouth because of its impeccable sugar/acid balance, its full body, and its easy smoothness.
Different wine making techniques also produce wide variances in the Chardonnay flavor profile. Such techniques as barrel fermentation, proportion of new to old cooperage, lees stirring, and partial, complete, or prevention of malolactic fermentation generate controversy and lively discussion among winemakers.
In short, few varietals have the ability to be so great and also so bad!
Food Pairing: When it is an off, dry style wine this can keep up with those spicy Tai and Indian dishes we love so much.
Avoid: Simpler fish like tilapia, high acid sauces like bbq and tomato.
Gewürztraminer is one of the most pungent wine varietals, easy for even the amateur taster to recognize by its heady, aromatic scent. While the French have achieved the greatest success with this grape and its name may be German, the history of Gewürztraminer began in Italy’s Tyrolean Alps, near the village of Termeno (Tramin) in Alto Adige.
In the late 19th century, the Alsatians began calling this vine gewürztraminer, although it wasn’t until 1973 that this name was officially sanctioned. Wine texts often report that “gewürz” translates from German as “spicy”, but considering the list of various synonyms, the more likely contextual meaning is “perfumed.”
The dark pink color of gewürztraminer grapes results in wines colored from light to dark golden yellow with a copper tone, depending upon the fruit ripeness. Many makers finish their Gewürztraminer with a mask of residual sugar. Gewürztraminer can be made into an excellent dessert wine, in fact. Therefore there are varying degrees of sweetness in Gewurztraminer.
Food Pairing: We love Gruner with fresh seafood, shrimp or crab salad, chips & guacamole, seared pepper tuna, zucchini and yellow squash.
Avoid: Heavy red meat, heavy butter and cream dishes, overly fragrant cheeses.
Grüner Veltliner is the most widely planted grape variety in Austria, accounting for 37 percent of the country’s total vineyard area, about 50,875 acres. It also grows in a few other Eastern European countries, such as Slovakia, Yugoslavia and the Czech Republic, but the variety is most closely associated with Austria, where it has been cultivated since Roman times. Simply put, Grüner Veltliner is the indigenous variety of Austria.
Since the early 1980s, when the quality pendulum started swinging back toward the positive side in Austria, Austria’s serious winemakers have discovered that with lower yields and higher ripeness, Grüner Veltliner can produce stunningly intense and concentrated wines. Even the simple wines can have very pleasant citrus and grapefruit aromas, with a hint of the variety’s most distinguishing characteristic: the spicy fragrance of freshly ground white pepper.
Today’s better wines, however, from top sites and lower yields, can be astonishingly complex, full of exotic tropical fruits, white pepper and lentils.
Food Pairings: White meats; chicken, turkey and pork, basil, garlic, saffron and cream.
Avoid: Highly acidic items like lime, overly aggressive cheese, dishes with overly complex spices.
Pinot Blanc is a clone of Pinot Gris, which is in turn, a clone of Pinot Noir. The leaf structure, clusters and berries of this grape so resemble Chardonnay that many vineyards in Europe have intermingled plantings of the two grapes.
Pinot Blanc is allowed in both the Mâconnais and wine labeled “Bourgogne Blanc”, but plantings are nearly phased out of the Burgundy appellation. There are still many Pinot Blanc vineyards in Alsace, where the variety sometimes is called Klevner.
Plantings are extensive in Italy, where the grape is known as Pinot Bianco. Many vintners there make relatively neutral-tasting, crisp, high-acid versions intended for early consumption. Due to its low aroma and high acid, high production clones of Pinot Blanc are also used for blending with Muscat in Spumante.
This grape is an excellent choice for someone looking for an alternative to Chardonnay!
Food Pairing: Light fish, oysters, pasta with olive oil and herbs, antipasti, chicken and veal, fruits.
Avoid: Duck or pheasant, heavily flavored cheeses, heavy cream sauces.
Pinot Gris (or Pinot Grigio, as it is known in Italy) probably is the best-known white wine after Chardonnay. Ripe Pinot Gris grapes may be described as having colors from bluish grey to light pinkish brown.
In Alsace, the Pinot Gris grape is called “Tokay d’Alsace” (no relation to the Hungarian Tokay). The Alsatians value it as a full-bodied wine that can stand up to food without introducing any flavors of its own. In Italy, Pinot Grigio can be quite distinguished, coming from some producers, especially in the Friuli region, who devote attention to growing and vinifying.
There are winemakers in the United States who are putting serious efforts into growing and producing Pinot Gris. Nearly 1,620 acres are planted in California, mostly in the Central and South coastal areas. Many Oregon wineries have had good success and are moving steadily away from making Chardonnay while increasing production of Pinot Gris.
Pinot Gris / Pinot Grigio is usually delicately fragrant and mildly floral with lightly lemon-citrus flavors. Depending upon ripeness at harvest and vinification technique, Pinot Gris can be tangy and light, or quite rich, round and full bodied.
Food Pairing: Dry Riesling is one of the better choices for spicy fair. Also very good with sushi.
Avoid: Heavy rich food, butter based sauces, cream.
Riesling’s homeland is Germany, where it has been cultivated since the 1400s or earlier, and where it is made into wines that run the gamut from bone dry to incredibly sweet. In Germany, there are more than 60 selected Riesling clones available to meet various flavor and growing condition criteria.
Hillside microclimates which provide cool tempretures and at the same time plenty of sun exposure, yet protection from the winds are of paramount importance to quality Riesling. The best German vineyards with these conditions on the Mosel River produce wines that are unique in their low alcohol, powerful aroma, and high extract. This grape also is very successful in Alsace, France. Cooler climates in California have had success while Washington and Oregon also have also done well. Other countries which grow Riesling with much dedication, albeit generally lesser results, are Australia, South Africa, Chile, Austria, Switzerland, Russia, Yugoslavia, and Italy.
Riesling has a powerful and distinctive floral and apple-like aroma that frequently mixes in mineral elements from its vineyard source and is often described as “racy.” Its high natural level of Tartaric acid enables it to balance even high levels of residual sugar.
Food Pairing: Crab, raw oysters, citrus, shrimp scampi, smoked salmon.
Avoid: Gamey meats, overly aggressive cheese.
The varietal identity of Sauvignon Blanc is typically similar to grass, straw, or grapefruit in nature. New Zealanders liken it to “gooseberry”, but that is not a familiar smell or flavor to most Americans. The level of pyrazine, a compound naturally-occuring in Sauvignon Blanc, influences whether its varietal character is mild or intense.
Blending Sauvignon Blanc with Semillon is a common practice that can add richness and an extra element of figs to the aroma, softening the sometimes abrasive Sauvignon Blanc character. This blending is widespread in the Graves district of France’s Bordeaux region (normally 75-85% Sauvignon Blanc to 15-25% Semillon). In the communes of Sauternes and Barsac, a blend of 60-70% Semillon with 30-40% Sauvignon Blanc is more typical. When allowed to hang, past the normal ripeness point for dry table wine, the grape flavors may be concentrated by the influence of a naturally-occurring mold known as “Noble Rot” (Botrytis cinerea), to make the area’s famous dessert wines.
Loire Valley wines made from Sauvignon Blanc, such as Pouilly Fumé and Sancerre, are most often 100% Sauvignon Blanc, unblended and usually made without the use of oak.
Besides France and California, Sauvignon Blanc also is produced successfully by New Zealand where it has a distinct tropical fruit style.
Food Pairing: Crab, lobster or shrimp in rich sauces, avocado, poultry.
Avoid: Heavily marbled red meat, spicy foods, and citrus.
Viognier seemed literally an endangered variety only a few years ago, but seems to be recovering worldwide in both popularity and acreage. Less than 35 acres remained planted in all of France, its homeland, in the late 1960s. Its newest realm, California, over 2,000 acres are planted.
The major drawback of the Viognier grape is that it is a very shy producer and somewhat difficult to grow. Although drought tolerant, it is easily infected with powdery mildew in damp conditions or humid climates. Like many other varietals, Viognier must be harvested at its peak of maturity in order to display its unique aroma and flavor character. These cultivation problems and producer desires to capitalize on the grape’s somewhat rarity combine to make many Viognier wines relatively expensive.
Viognier is the only grape used for the Northern Rhône appellations Condrieuand Viognier is also sometimes used to add fragrance and to soften and lighten the syrah in Côte Rotie. Plantings of Viognier in France have expanded in recent years and the varietal can now also be found in the Languedoc and Provence regions.
Probably the main attraction of Viognier is its potentially powerful, rich, and complex aroma that often seems like overripe apricots mixed with orange blossoms or acacia. With as distinctive and sweet an aroma-flavor profile as Gewürztraminer, Viognier is nevertheless usually made in a dry style and seems to appeal more to the typical Chardonnay drinker. The distinctive Viognier perfume holds up even when blended with a large portion of other grapes.