Pecorino – a Restored Piece of Italian Wine History

Unless you are a cognoscenti of Italian wine you probably haven’t heard of Pecorino, at least not as something packaged in a bottle. Just like the cheese, the name comes from the Italian word for sheep, pecora. No, the wine isn’t made from sheep’s milk—in this case the connection is that sheep are said to have been fond of nibbling the super-sweet Pecorino grapes off the vines as they passed through the vineyards.

Pecorino is one of the many hundreds of grape varieties indigenous to Italy. It is naturally low producing, an attribute that promotes rich flavor development with a minimum of vineyard management. However, for much of the 20th century economic forces led Italian grape growers to emphasize quantity over quality, replacing lower yielding classic varieties with much higher yield strains, and Pecorino was one of many varieties that gradually disappeared.

Guido Cocci Grifoni, a grape grower and winemaker in the province of Marche in Italy, is credited with Pecorino’s re-discovery in the 1980s. Disappointed with the wines coming from the popular varieties planted in his vineyards, he researched native grapes of the region that had fallen out of favor to find new alternatives. One of the grapes that attracted his interest was Pecorino.

No producers were actively working with this variety any longer, but he was able to track down a few remaining vines in a small nearly abandoned vineyard. He brought cuttings back to his property and grafted them onto rootstock in his vineyards. After tasting the first vintage, he was sure that he had found his new grape.

Pecorino wines tend to have tropical fruit or citrus flavors supported by minerality that can run to saltiness. The sweetness of the grape means higher alcohol levels (for a white), which is well balanced by the Pecorino’s natural acidity. The wine’s structure and acidity also mean that it is one of the few white wines able to improve with age.

It’s a combination that has been successful. Pecorino from the Offida area was granted DOC status in 2001, followed by DOCG status in 2011. During that same period, the acreage planted to the grape quadrupled, making it one of the fastest growing grapes in Italy.

When you taste it, you’ll find out why. Pecorino is typically a medium bodied white wine that is an excellent match for things like pasta with vegetables, seafood, chicken, and even pork. For a classic regional treat, try Olive Ascolana (stuffed and fried olives).

And, yes, Pecorino wine can go with Pecorino cheese as well.

Grand Vin et Second Vin
Walla Walla Style

The tasting room at Pepper Bridge Winery in Walla Walla

Two of the producers I visited during my recent trip to Walla Walla were Pepper Bridge Winery and Amavi Cellars. At a first glance these two brands are not recognizably related to each other, but look a little more closely and you’ll find a business structure that traces its history back to 18th century France.

Leading châteaux in Bordeaux often have a second brand (and sometimes even a third and a fourth beyond that). The practice originated as a way to get more value out of batches of wine deemed unsuitable for use in le grand vin, such as, for example, wine coming from a recently replanted section of a vineyard. Over time, however, le second vin has become an integral part of French wine marketing strategy.

Second label wines are generally not advertised or promoted alongside the first label, though some producers do market their second label as an earlier drinking version of the senior wine. On the other hand, the wineries make no attempt to hide the connection between the two– indeed, they intentionally choose second label names that are recognizable variants of the primary brand so they can discreetly leverage the cachet of their name.

Le second vin provides advantages to both wine producers and wine lovers. Wine brought to market under a second label earns much more money for the vineyard than any sold as bulk wine. Consumers get a wine made by a leading winemaker using grapes from one or more of the world’s most famous vineyards, typically for a price well below that of the top brand.

They may not share a name (after all, neither has centuries of fame to build on), but look at the Amavi and Pepper Bridge websites and you’ll find entire sections that are word-for-word identical. You will also find that both are owned by the same people, their grapes come from the same vineyards, and their wines are made by the same winemaker. One brand focuses on wines built for aging which are marketed at a higher price point, the other makes wines “to be enjoyed in a relatively short time period (in wine terms) following purchase.”

That fits the Bordeaux model pretty closely, and would seem to have the potential to yield similar benefits for both the public and the wineries. Of course, emulating French marketing practice does not lead directly to the production of quality wine but, as I discovered, Pepper Bridge and Amavi are also able to deliver the goods.

Pepper Bridge Winery 

In this pairing, Pepper Bridge Winery takes the role of le grand vin. They make a variety of blends, which feature different combinations of the five red Bordeaux varieties. All these wines are meant to age for a bit before drinking and to last even longer.

2013 Merlot, $50

Pepper Bridge calls it “Merlot”, but you can think of it as “Right Bank Blend” as that’s clearly the target winemaker Jean-François Pellet is aiming at. This 2013 is a medium ruby color with purple glints that signal its youth. Aromas of plum and baking spices are followed by plum flavors with moderate tannins, a silky mouthfeel, and a lingering finish. Still tight, this is a wine that will benefit from a few years of bottle aging to allow the flavors to emerge more fully. 78% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Franc, 9% Malbec. 1,306 cases made.

2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, $60

The 2013 Pepper Bridge Cabernet Sauvignon (“Left Bank Blend”) demonstrates both the richness of the Cabernet grape and the subtle power of blending. Its complex nose features aromas of plum, cinnamon, and nutmeg. An equally intriguing palate includes flavors black cherry, plum, and baking spice. A little rough around the edges now, give it a few years for everything to integrate. The wait should be worth it. 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Merlot, 4% Malbec, 2% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot. 2,097 cases produced.

Pepper Bridge Trine, $65

The Pepper Bridge website explains the name of this wine as follows:

The word “trine” (it rhymes with “wine”) is defined as a close group of three, and this wine pays homage to the families of Pepper Bridge: the McKibbens, Goffs, and Pellets. As with our Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Trine showcases the best of our Walla Walla Valley estate vineyards. However, it allows Winemaker Jean-François Pellet more freedom of expression since it is a creative blend rather than a varietal-based wine. Each vintage will contain a unique combination of Bordeaux’s traditional five red grapes.

I had the opportunity to taste two vintages of this wine, 2012 and 2013, which made for an interesting comparison. The 2012 growing season has been described as a “classic” Washington State season, producing “near-perfect” grapes. By comparison, 2013 was much warmer (one of the warmest on record), though the heat broke in September allowing for additional hang time and flavor development. In general, the 2013s are more approachable now while the 2012s need more time to develop, and that’s what we see here.

Pepper Bridge says that the 2012 Trine is the first in which Cabernet Franc is the dominant varietal. Interesting choice. Dark and earthy with a strong oak note and a savory quality, this is a wine that is tightly wound now, with just a flash of cherry/berry flavor before the tannins hit. While it clearly needs time to develop, I was also left with a sense that there might not be enough fruit to carry it all the way. Time will tell. 37% Cabernet Franc, 27% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23%Merlot, 7% Malbec and 6% Petit Verdot. 711 cases made.

The 2013 Trine opens with enticing aromas of spice and tea that give way to complex dark fruit and spice flavors. Here the Cabernet Franc adds depth and elegance to the other grapes in the blend. Benefitting from the warm 2013 season, this wine is drinking well now but still has plenty of room to grow. 37% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Cabernet Franc, 15% Merlot, 9% Malbec and 5% Petit Verdot. 912 cases made.

Amavi Cellars

Amavi Cellars follows the second vin model in producing earlier drinking wines at a lower price point, putting a Walla Walla spin on the concept in not restricting themselves to Bordeaux varieties or styles.

2015 Semillion, $24

Amavi’s version of a white Bordeaux blend is a pale golden with bright eye-catching glints. It presents a light nose of apricot. Lemon flavors mingle with just a hint of melon with crisp acidity. A nice seafood wine. 88% Sémillon, 12% Sauvignon Blanc. 869 cases produced.

2013 Syrah, $33

The deep ruby color with purple notes of this wine sets expectations of big and young, and that’s just what you get. A tight nose with notes of spices and black currant is followed by flavors of black currant, pepper, and green olive wrapped in moderately strong tannins. It’s an intriguing mix that I’d like to see last just a bit longer in the mouth. Ready now if you like greener flavors in wine, hold for a couple years if you don’t. 98% Syrah, 2% Grenache. 3,080 cases produced.

2013 Cabernet, $33

Another dark ruby beauty with just a touch of purple, Amavi’s Cabernet Sauvignon is a big, rich wine that is ready to rock and roll now. Enticing aromas of plum, cassis, and baking spice. A touch of oak sweetness is followed by lovely plum flavors and well-balanced tannins. 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Cabernet Franc, 8% Merlot, 3% Malbec, 1% Syrah, 1% Petit Verdot. 6,387 cases produced.

The Roots of the Red Mountain AVA

Red MountainAs mountains go, Red Mountain isn’t really that impressive. The Cascade Mountains just a bit to the west are much taller, and the red color only comes out in springtime when the cheatgrass blooms. In truth, the Yakima Indian name for the area, Kiona, a word that translates as “brown hills”, is a whole lot closer to reality.

As a winemaking region, however, the tiny (approximately 6 square miles in area) Red Mountain AVA is spectacular. In just over 40 years it has gone from being almost literally the middle of nowhere to probably the most desirable address in Washington for growing grapes. At the root of this transformation are John Williams and Jim Howard, and the winery they built, Kiona Vineyards.

Kiona Change
What Red Mountain used to be (foreground) and a small portion of the acres of green vineyard that it is today.

When John and Jim first scouted the area in the early 1970s, pretty much all that was in the future AVA was sagebrush and cheatgrass. But underneath were rich, fertile soils on south-facing slopes and near-ideal grape growing weather– as long as there was water available for irrigation, which John and Jim’s research indicated would be found about 500 feet down.

They drilled a well, brought in electricity, and planted the initial 12 acres of vineyard in 1975, starting with roughly equal amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, and Chardonnay. The first crop was harvested in 1978 and things went so well that John and Jim opened the Red Mountain’s first winery in 1980. Others followed, and in 2001 the region was granted AVA status.

Today, according to the Red Mountain AVA Alliance, those six square miles contain thirty-five vineyards covering approximately 1,400 acres. The Alliance estimates that another 1,000 acres are currently under development, with maybe a further 300 possible after that. The cachet of Red Mountain is such that every available plot seems destined for development, even the less-desirable locations.

Despite the early prevalence of white wine grapes, what Red Mountian has become known for is red wine. Across the AVA the most frequently planted grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. At Kiona Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon has been the big winner, becoming over 60% of their 230+ acres on Red Mountain (Kiona also owns vineyards in the Columbia Valley AVA), while all white varieties combined are now less than 10% of the total.

Kiona sells a portion of their crop to other winemakers. (It’s a pretty impressive list that includes at least three of the wineries I visited during my trip.) But they also make their own wines, several of which I had a chance to taste….

Estate Red Mountain Gewürztraminer 2014, $17

The Estate Red Mountain Gewürztraminer presents a rich, complex nose containing aromas of peach, melon, and grapefruit. A slightly sweet initial taste is followed by beautiful layers of spice and apricot flavors with a lingering finish. 112 cases produced.

As you might guess from the comments above, the plantings for most white wine grapes at Kiona go back to the early days, before they found out just how good the red wines were. The grapes for this wine are from a section of vineyard developed in 1978. It makes me wish they’d planted more of the stuff.

Estate Red Mountain Sangiovese 2012, $25

With a long growing season and virtually no chance of significant rain at harvest time, eastern Washington could have been purpose made for growing Sangiovese. Add to that near perfect weather in 2012 and you get an example of just how good Washington Sangiovese can be.

Classic aromas of leather and cherry with a hint of tobacco. Layers and layers of flavors that start with a dash of spice and leather and give way to a deep, lingering cherry. Well-balanced tannins and acidity.

Lemberger Estate Red Mountain 2013, $15

Also known as Blaufränkisch, most of the world’s production of this grape is Eastern Europe, notably in Austria where it is the country’s second most popular grape. Kiona claims to have been the first U.S. winery to produce Lemberger in 1980, and they are certainly one of the leading producers in the U.S.

The 2013 edition of Kiona’s Estate Red Mountian Lemberger is a light to medium body red wine with a pleasant raspberry/blackberry nose. It delivers berry flavors with medium tannins and a hint of spice. A simple wine that should go well with charcuterie or herb-roasted pork.

Estate Red Mountain Carmenere 2012, $35

Once widely grown there, Carmenere is sometimes called the lost grape of Bourdeaux. It was ravaged by the phylloxera epidemic of the 19th century and often replaced with other varieties when the vineyards were replanted. Reasons given for the change away from Carmenere include poor results when grafting it onto phylloxera resistant root stock, susceptibility to mildew, and the need for a long growing season. None of these are likely to be a problem in Washington.

Carmenere is known for producing deeply colored wines, and this one delivers a dark ruby color with purple notes. The complex nose contains aromas of herbs, plum, earth, and baking spice. This is a medium body wine with flavors of plum and sour cherry. As a single varietal wine, I think Carmenere benefits from warmer conditions (such as occurred in 2013 or 2014 in Washington), but Kiona’s 2012 edition is an interesting wine that should pair well with many meat dishes.

Old Block Cabernet 2012, $65

One-third of Kiona’s initial 1975 planting was Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine, made entirely using grapes from that block of (in 2012) 37-year-old vines, has an opulent dark ruby color with purple notes. It is one of those wines that is a pleasure just to smell, with seductive aromas of pepper, anise, and raspberry. When you do get around to tasting it, you’ll find lovely red fruit flavors with anise notes, all framed by well-balanced tannins. Kiona’s 2012 Old Block Cabernet is a delicious, elegant wine that is drinking well now and should continue to develop for years.

Estate Red Mountain Reserve 2013, $42

Made from 52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot, 3% Malbec, 2% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Carmenere, the Estate Red Mountian Reserve is Kiona’s version of a Bourdeaux blend. They describe it as their flagship product, the definitive wine of their vineyards, of their viticulture, and of their plantings on Red Mountain.

The wine is a beautiful dark ruby color. It has a full nose with aromas of green pepper and baking spice and flavors of raspberry and currant supported by well-integrated tannins. Complex and nicely balanced, Kiona’s Estate Red Mountain Reserve is a rich wine that is quite enjoyable now. But do try to save some as it likely to be even better after another three or four years.

“First Crush” Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 2006, $20 (375 ml)

If I heard the story correctly (always a valid question when I am tasting, as hearing is the least engaged of my senses), this wine came about only because another winery was unable to use some grapes they had ordered. I’m also told that in its youth you couldn’t give the stuff away (and, indeed, I’ve seen old listings offering it for $5.99). However, patience can be a virtue with wine, and here is a good example.

Produced from nearly frozen Columbia Valley grapes that measured 37 degrees brix at harvest, this wine has an alluring bright golden color. With 17% residual sugar, it is sweet, but with layers of tropical fruit flavors and a subtle complexity that yields a wine that is rich, beautiful, and not too heavy. Available only at the tasting room, this is a treat for dessert wine fans that get the chance.

A Weekend in Walla Walla

South Walla Walla
A beautiful vineyard view in South Walla Walla.

I have recently returned from a trip to Washington state that included as its centerpiece a weekend in the Walla Walla AVA. Along the way, I also had time for a brief stop in Red Mountain AVA as well as a chance to visit some Seattle area wineries that source their grapes from Red Mountain and Walla Walla. I’ll get into details on wines in future posts, but I thought I would start with some generalities about what I found.

In the past, Washington was known primarily for white wine, particularly Riesling. In 1985, for example, more Riesling was harvested than Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon combined. Today all four grapes are grown in roughly equal amounts and the overall production in the state, which is 13 times larger than it was in 1985, is split pretty much 50-50 between red and white varieties. Red Mountain and Walla Walla have played a big part in this change, and while white wine grapes are grown in both AVAs, make no mistake about it– this is red wine country.

Wheat country
Walla Walla is also wheat country.

Walla Walla and Red Mountain are in the rain shadow of the Cascasde Mountains, making for a semi-arid climate with annual rainfall amounts of between 5 and 20 inches. What makes farming possible in the region is irrigation. One advantage of this is that it gives grape growers the ability to precisely control the amount of water the vines get, letting them direct the growth and development of the grapes. Water control is such a big issue that some vineyards place neutron detectors deeply into the soil to accurately measure the amount of water it contains.

Soils in eastern Washington are usually fine sand on top of basalt and have good drainage. This, coupled with the cold winters the regions gets, makes an environment that is inhospitable to phylloxera and the majority of Washington grapes are planted on their own rootstock. As one winemaker I spoke with put it, “grapes grown on natural rootstock are not necessarily better or worse, but they are different.”

To my taste buds, the best grape in Washington right now is Merlot. (I’m not alone in this.) Many believe that this is related to the use of irrigation which keeps grapes from getting too plump and diluted at harvest time. Others credit the natural rootstock which encourages smaller, more concentrated berries. Whatever the reason, it was frequently the Merlots (or blends with a generous portion of Merlot) that came out on top for me in the tasting rooms (and I tend to be picky about Merlots). Sangiovese also seems to do quite well in the region, and there are some excellent Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah wines.

Most wineries are currently selling 2013 for reds and 2014 for whites. The 2013 growing season was much warmer than 2012, and it shows in the wines. In general, the 2013s are fruitier and more approachable on release than the previous vintage. I believe that the 2012s will reach greater heights, but they need a bit longer to do it. My advice is to drink the 2013s before the 2012s.

2014 was another warm year. The handful of white wines I had from this vintage were generally drinking well. Barrel samples of the 2014 reds indicate that these will also be fuller and more complex than the 2013s but not as deep as the 2012s. I’m looking forward to seeing how these develop.

Goldilocks and the New Wines


Serving temperature can have a profound impact on both the taste and mouthfeel of wine, so part of my getting ready to taste wines with customers is to figure out what temperature I want to serve them at. A consideration of the grape varieties and the wine style usually provides a good starting point, but there can be surprises.

Sometimes many surprises.

Recently, I received several proprietary blends to evaluate from a new producer than I am working with. Because I didn’t know exactly what was in each wine I had to make some guesses about serving temperature and I, er, um, guessed wrong. Multiple times. As I was tasting through the sample bottles, I really started to feel a bit like Goldilocks… “This wine is too warm! This wine is too cold!”

There are many ways that temperature affects how we perceive wine. A cooler wine gives off less aroma than a warmer one. Because smell is a big part of taste, this changes both what goes on in your nose and what happens in your mouth. Make a wine too cold, below 40°F or so, and it won’t have much of any flavor at all (which, it should be noted, can sometimes be an advantage with less delicious wines). At the other extreme, as wine gets too warm (above 70° to 75°F), the alcohol starts to take over, masking the taste and giving an unpleasant burning sensation.

A lower serving temperature can give a wine more body and, on warm days, make a wine more refreshing. It also reduces the tongue’s perception of sweetness, which is why ice cream tastes great when cold but overly sweet when melted. On the other hand, acidity, bitterness, and astringency (tannin) are all more noticeable in cool wine than warm.

Commonly given advice is to “serve white wines chilled and red wines at room temperature.” This leads people wrong in a number of ways. All too often “chilled” becomes “straight from the refrigerator”, a temperature that is almost always too cold. Similarly, “room temperature”, especially on a summer day or when the room is the kitchen, is likely to be too warm. Even when it isn’t, many red wines will benefit from being chilled slightly below what most of us would consider a comfortable room.

As with many other things about wine, the right serving temperature depends on which bottle you have in front of you. The chart below gives approximate temperature ranges for serving red, white, and rosé wines. Richer, fuller wines will typically be best in the warmer part of the range. Lighter or sweeter wines towards the cooler part (with the combination of light and sweet served coldest). Sparkling wines also are served at lower temperatures as cold helps keep the carbon dioxide in solution, preserving the bubbles and keeping the wines from becoming too frothy.

Temperature Chart
Typical serving temperature ranges for wine.

When chilling wine, allow about 30 minutes of time in the refrigerator for every five degrees cooler you want to make it. If you’re in a hurry, use an ice bath– then you only need to allow about 2 minutes per five degrees. Wine warms up quickly in the glass, and it is usually a good idea to have the bottle just a little cooler than “perfect” to allow for this. If you need to warm up an entire bottle, plan for about 15 minutes per five degrees in a 70 degree room. (In a warmer room it will take less time.)

Returning to our narrative, the fairy tale solution of opening new bottles until finding one that was just right was unavailable to me, so I was just going to have to work with what I already had. The wines that seemed too thin or sweet I chilled a bit more. The ones that seemed odorless or flavorless I let warm up a bit. And when I went back to re-taste them all, things were much better.

The moral of the story is listen to your taste buds. (Well, that and… the bears should be truly thankful Goldilocks didn’t find the key to the wine cellar!) By taking advantage of the ways the temperature affects the perception of wine you can make it more enjoyable. Besides, your taste buds work differently than everyone else’s– maybe a little experimentation will help you discover why your friends are raving about a wine you think is only so-so. After all, the three bears prove that even in a fairy tale not everyone likes things the same way.

Red Wines From Puglia
Not Just Bulk Juice Anymore

Vines trained in the alberello (“little tree”) method. (Photo from Produttori Vini Manduria.)

Puglia, the boot heel of Italy, hasn’t always had the best reputation for wine-making. For many years, it was known primarily as a source of bulk wines for blending or making vermouth. However, driven by economic forces, this situation is changing and now more than half of the region’s wine is produced under Italian wine quality laws.

The traditional training system used in Puglia is alberello, where vines are grown as low free-standing bushes rather than in neat lines strung out along wires. This style of growing is naturally low yielding and well-suited to the climate in Puglia, but also labor intensive as most of the work needs to be done by hand rather than using tractors. It’s a combination that makes profits difficult when wine prices are low and, in recent years, many bulk producers in the region have opted to accept EU payments to “grub up” their vines and leave the business. Those remaining are increasingly focused on putting wine into bottles instead of tank trucks.

Nearly three-fourths of the quality wine production in Puglia is based on just two grapes: Primitivo and Negroamaro (also written as Negro Amaro). Their dominant position likely comes from the one thing they have in common– an affinity for warm, dry weather.

Negroamaro is a dark, late ripening grape that has been cultivated in Puglia for at least 1,500 years and many people believe even longer, perhaps as long as 2,700 years. One possible origin for its name can be translated as “blackest of the black”, and wines made from it typically exhibit black fruit flavors with savory spice and herb notes. Historically, Negroamaro has been used as a blending grape to add body to other wines (often in other parts of Italy, or even other countries), but it can also make a structured, age-worthy wine by itself. A native Italian variety, nearly all of the world’s production of this grape is grown in Puglia.

Primitivo, on the other hand, is an early ripening red grape that was brought to Italy from Croatia only in the last few hundred years. Its name means something along the lines of “first one”, and it is typically harvested starting in August. (Primitivo is also one of the few grapes that can have a second harvest in the same year, typically 20 to 30 days after the first.)  As discussed in Zinfandel’s Italian Cousin, Primitivo is a close relative of the much more famous Zinfandel, and it exhibits the same flavors in wine- red berries and jam with a touch of pepper.

A third grape worth noting is Malvasia Nera, an aromatic dark-skinned variety that is descended from Negroamaro and Malvasia Bianca Lunga. Like its lighter-skinned relatives, Malvasia Nera is known for enticing aromas and flavors when added into a wine blend. There are 11 classified reds based on a combination of Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera in Puglia, the most famous of which is Salice Salentino.

Examples of what to expect from wines made with these grapes are provided by three products I represent from Consorzio Produttori Vini of Manduria, Italy. Detailed descriptions are provided below.

Consorzio Produttori Vini Memoria Primitivo di Manduria 2013: This unoaked wine preserves the light, bright berry flavors and hint of sweetness that are the hallmarks of Primitivo/Zinfandel grapes. Earth and pepper aromas mingle with scents of blueberries. A medium dark ruby color promises a lot of flavor, and the Memoria delivers with just enough structuring tannins to give the wine focus. An easy-drinking, pleasant wine that is great for cookouts.

Consorzio Produttori Vini Neama Salento Negroamaro 2014: Dark ruby with purple highlights, this wine has savory aromas of black cherry and herbs with flavors of black cherry and black raspberry, a touch of clove, and moderate tannins. Well suited to grilled red meats and vegetables, it matches up nicely with onion and garlic flavors and can also work with savory spicy foods. For something out of the ordinary, try grilled tuna steaks with grilled peppers and grilled eggplant.

Consorzio Produttori Vini Salice Salentino Riserva 2011: This is a versatile wine that can pair with a range of foods from the sublime earthiness of truffles to the simple pleasures of a meat lovers pizza. It has a moderately dark ruby color with enticing aromas of raspberry and plum augmented by hints of allspice and vanilla that come from its time in French oak. Delicious flavors of cooked cherry and raspberry combine with nice structuring tannins and notes of nutmeg and allspice– a complex mingling with a long, pleasant finish.  A local food match for Salice Salentino is Penne alla puttanesca (pasta with anchovies, onion, olives, tomato and capers). Foods with extended cooking times such as stews, roasts, and smoked meats are also good candidates to make the most of the layers of flavor in this wine.

Zinfandel’s Italian Cousin

Memorial Day is fast approaching, and with it, in New England at least, the official opening of barbecue season. Oh, sure, most of us have fired up the grill once or twice already, perhaps even a few times, but this is the weekend that our summer cookouts really get rolling.

Barbecue season is a time for friends and family; a time for the exciting flavors of smoke and spice; and a time for big wines like Zinfandel or… its Italian cousin, Primitivo.

The similarity between Zinfandel and Primitivo came to the attention of UC Davis professor Austin Goheen during a trip to Italy in 1967.  Not long thereafter, ampelographers, experts who classify of grapevines by comparing the shape and color of the leaves and berries, declared the two varieties to be the same. In the early 1990s, the connection was proved beyond a doubt when DNA fingerprinting established that American Zinfandel and Italian Primitivo are in fact clones.*

Recently, I had a chance to perform a less scientific comparison involving two 2013 California Zinfandels and a 2013 Primitivo. The three wines were:

Bedrock “Old Vine” Zinfandel 2013 (Sonoma)
Michael David Winery Earthquake Zinfandel 2013 (Lodi)
Consorzio Produttori Vini Lirica Primitivo di Manduria 2013 (Manduria)

One sip was all it took to recognize the family resemblance. All three glasses were full of ripe berry flavors supported by spice and pepper notes. However, there were also interesting stylistic differences.

The Bedrock Zinfandel has to be considered a bit of a ringer. Containing nearly 23% of grapes other than Zinfandel (Carignane, Mourvedre, Grenache, Petite Sirah, Abouriou, Aubun, and assorted mixed white varieties), it possesses the kind of complexity that only a well-done blend can. Those other grapes may also be a factor in holding the alcohol content down to relatively modest (for Zinfandel) 14.5% while still delivering big time flavor. Bright cherry and raspberry aromas are accented by savory herb notes. Take a sip and you get all that plus blueberry and pepper flavors. This is a wine that will pair well with spicy foods that contain a hint of sweetness such as spicy BBQ pulled pork or coconut curry grilled chicken.

The second California entry, the Earthquake Zinfandel, starts out tight and herby– not nearly as welcoming as the other wines. However, give it a little time to unwind, about 30 minutes or so, and the wine reveals a rich ripe fruit core and solid structure framed by intriguing herb and spice accents. At 15.5% ABV, this is a powerful wine that can stand up to just about anything- I’d like to try it with BBQ beef ribs or chili rubbed tenderloin tips.

The Lirica Primitivo is a bit more restrained than its California cousins. A nose of spice, plum, and pepper gives way to flavors of pepper and raspberry with a quick touch of mineral on the finish. Lightly oaked (three months in French oak), this wine has a subtle complexity with moderate structuring tannins and nice length. The alcohol level, 14.0% ABV, is also a bit more restrained than the other wines. The laid back character of the Lirica makes it an ideal complement for things like grilled Italian sausages, spice rubbed pork, and grilled bacon wrapped jalapeno shrimp.

While each wine has individual nuances, they all have the signature berry flavors, spice notes, and jamminess that are a great match for everything from burgers and sausages to spicy BBQ sauces. So next time you want to invite Zinfandel over for a barbecue, don’t forget to invite the Italian cousin, Primitivo. You’ll be glad you did.

*John E. Bowers, Elizabeth B. Bandman, Carole P. Meredith, DNA Fingerprint Characterization of Some Wine Grape Cultivars, American Journal of Enology and Viticulture, January 1993 

Note: My business represents the wines of Consorzio Produttori Vini.

They’re More Like Guidelines

CaptainJackIf you have read the About page on Oenophily, you know that I have some issues with wine ratings. Briefly stated, I think that they are both the beginning and end of too many people’s buying decision process. Wine just isn’t that simple and to find the most satisfying ones it’s necessary to look a little more deeply into the bottle.

I’m not the only one who sees this. In A Sauvignon Blanc tasting that raises questions about point scores, Steve Heimoff writes about the shortcomings of wine ratings from the reviewer perspective. During a blind tasting, he finds a wine he really likes. Though the wine achieves a good score, it is still in the bottom half of those reviewed. This result leads him to wonder: does the 100-point scale truly measure what is important in wine?

I like Steve’s post a lot. (If you haven’t already, go read it!) To my thinking, it highlights both the good side and the bad side of ratings. They serve a useful function, providing information about wine quality and similarity to a certain flavor profile. On the other hand, that perfect profile is highly specific and it won’t always match our personal tastes or the food we are eating.

Whether it’s wine ratings, rules about serving temperatures (e.g. reds at room temperature, whites chilled), or pairings (always serve white wines with fish), people are always trying to simplify wine. These things are useful, but they don’t fit every situation. After all, the final arbiter is what’s going on in your mouth. Or, as Elizabeth Swann might say, “Hang the ratings, and hang the rules. They’re more like guidelines anyway.”

Fear of Wine

In writing last week about two new wine gadgets currently under development, I ended up wondering: who do these really help? Though I had some doubts about the usefulness of these products, there was no question in my mind about who their creators thought they were for. Consider, for example, this excerpt from one website:

“The wine aisle is long and scary; the beer and liquor aisles aren’t. Wine is stuck in a 750mL glass bottle that makes its contents inaccessible unless you commit to drinking (or dumping out) the whole thing. It feels like you need to take a class to understand what temperature your wine should be served at or what food it should be paired with.”

Clearly, these people are not buying beer in the same places I am- my local store carries well over 400 different brews! However, dubious shopping comparisons aside, the intended target for these words is plain to see: people who are afraid of wine. Those of us in the industry may like to ponder the demographics behind why two companies believe this is a good time to launch a product targeted at people with oenophobia, but a better question for all of us might be where does the fear come from in the first place?

OK, sure, wine is complicated if you want to get into all the details. However, the same can be said about Game of Thrones, and I don’t see anyone using that as a reason to miss Sunday’s season opener. Of course not. Understanding all that complexity may be fun, but it isn’t really required to enjoy either the wine or the show (and, frankly, it probably matters a whole lot more for the latter).

So… maybe it’s not the complexity, or the wine, that people are afraid of. Perhaps it is their wine loving friends. After all, we can get pretty carried away talking about all those details and nuances, quickly leaving a newcomer, if you will, racked off in the lees.

I was recently guilty of this myself. My brother asked for some advice on wine pairing and I gave him a response that was, um, overly complete. Having found sibling advice unhelpful, he turned to the staff at his preferred store and received a recommendation that was trendy, but one that also changed his original food plan. Because I got bogged down in the details and didn’t help him with what he really wanted to know, I lost an opportunity to introduce him to one of my favorite flavor pairings.

Just as a scriptwriter doesn’t try to put everything about the show into a single episode, we need to remember that we can’t cram all our wine knowledge into the tasting of a single bottle. And while our friends can go binge watch 5 seasons of Game of Thrones to catch up with us concerning the show, the same approach doesn’t work with wine. Not at all. If we can just keep these things in mind as we share our passion, perhaps we can conquer Fear of Wine and recruit new allies in our adventures.

Perhaps Not Such a Great Gift Idea

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Oh, no, not to those of us enjoying the first warm days of spring and looking forward to summer. But for a consumer products company that needs to get something manufactured, boxed, shipped, and in the hands of customers by December 24th, Santa is at the door. Now.

Which explains why pre-order opportunities for pricey new gadgets are showing up on crowd-funding websites. This year, oenophiles (and their friends) are being enticed by not one, but two products promising better wine through technology: Kuvée: The Smart Wine Bottle that Keeps Wine Fresh, and Somm by SYNEK (pronounced “cynic”), A Wine Dispenser That Learns Your Palate.

Of the two, Kuvée has the far more elegant design. It is a wine bottle size device (slightly taller) with a built-in color touchscreen and wifi. The wine comes in 750ml aluminum bottles that are inserted into the bottom of the unit. Kuvée has partnered with several well-known wineries to deliver branded wines in its proprietary format, and they advertise that they will have 48 wines available when the product launches.

The aluminum bottles have RFID chips so when you insert one into Kuvée, it knows what wine it has and can display the wine label on the screen. Touch the screen and you can get more information about the wine. You can also provide feedback and order wines through the touch screen. To pour, just lift and tip Kuvée like you would a wine bottle. There’s a valve system inside that lets the wine out while preventing air from getting it.

Somm is a counter-top appliance with built-in pumping, refrigeration, and aeration systems. On the front, it has a pouring handle, a spout, and a door that provides access for inserting the 2.25 liter wine container called a “Sylo”. The wines have private label names as SYNEK purchases in bulk and fills the Sylos themselves. Somm’s Kickstarter page announces “100’s of wines available” though the small print says they will be launching with just 30.

Like the Kuvée, Somm recognizes which wine has been inserted it. One of the system’s more interesting innovations is that it uses this information to adjust the temperature and aeration settings to match the wine. Instead of a touchscreen, SYNEK provides an app for your smartphone or tablet for interacting with Somm. The apps will display information about the wine in the unit, allow you to rate it, and help you order more wine.

Though at first glance, these appear to be rather different products, both are being sold on the same value propositions:

1) to keep your wine fresh for 30 days after opening
2) to learn your preferences and help you select new wines

I have no doubts they can deliver. The technology to keep oxygen out of wine and extend its life after opening has been around for a quite a while; after all, it’s used inside box wines. (And before complaining about “that swill”, be aware that the Wine Spectator has rated some box wines as high as 89 points). Recommending new wines based on what you’ve liked in the past is equally straight forward.

The big limitation here is the wines themselves. Even if both systems eventually do have hundreds of wines, that’s just a small fraction of the thousands of wines available worldwide. It’s not enough diversity to satisfy the true wine lover or to educate the new aficionado.

They come in proprietary containers, so you can’t just pop into the store to buy some more. You have to order the wines for these things in advance. To support hundreds of wines, each device will need thousands upon thousands of customers. Active customers. If they don’t achieve a large enough user base, there is a chance that each will be stuck with its small starter set of wines. Even worse, perhaps no wine if there aren’t enough sales to support the special containers. A risk that is increased by the fact that there are competing systems.

Finally, while I’m sure either system can deliver a decent glass of wine, I have serious doubts about ever getting a great glass of wine. Too many of those require aging in a container that permits slow aeration, something the anti-oxidation designs of Somm and Kuvée are specifically designed to prevent. (Nor do I see premier providers rushing to embrace these units.)

I think there are really interesting things going on with each of these systems. If they worked with any bottle instead of the proprietary containers available from each supplier (not a simple request, I understand), they would be a lot more exciting. As it is, I see a shortage of utility and a lot of limitations.

So, in the end, we are left with the question: Who do Somm or Kuvée really help? If your primary goal is to be able to have just a glass or two of wine a day without the rest going bad, there are better choices: either find one of the good box wines or invest in one of the wine preservation products that will work with any wine. On the other hand, if the goal is to learn more about wine, you will quickly run up against the limits of either Somm’s or Kuvée’s wine selection. Moreover, with the Somm you won’t even know who produced the wine, a further impediment to learning.

Bottom line? If you’re interested enough in one of these for yourself to plop down $200 (the current going pre-buy price for either) now for delivery in the fall, go for it. Hundreds of other people have. But if you are thinking of getting one as a gift… er… maybe your friend would prefer the equivalent value in wine?