Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Piedmont and Italy and Les Alps!

Wednesday the Tour leaves France for a one day incursion into neighboring Italy and the town of Pierolo in the Piedmont. While not running through the main wine growing regions of Barolo or Barbaresco, the race skirts the city of Turin and provides stunning vistas as it winds through Alps just to the west, where fresh snowfall has actually caused some concern for the route. The route on Wednesday climbs the Sestrieres, home of several Olympic events when they were held in Turin. Thursday promises to be an epic and decisive stage as the route climbs up some of the legendary steeps of the tour on Thursday, with three HC climbs up the Col Angel, the Col d'Izoard and a finish atop the Galibier Serre-Chevalier, and Friday with the mighty Alp d'Huez.

Piedmont: Located in the Northwest of Italy,  the Piedmont region is the home of two of the most renowned red wines in the world, Barolo and Barbaresco. Sought after by connoisseurs and collectors, these magnificent wines are fairly expensive and can need years of bottle age before they are ready to drink. Yet what really puts Piedmont on the map for the majority of wine lovers is that it also produces a wide range of wines that are affordable, ready to drink, food friendly, and perfect for everyday enjoyment.

Like all great wine regions, the style and quality of Piedmontese wines is the result of millions of years of geologic evolution combined with the influences of climate (Mediterranean meets Alps), the grape varieties grown, and the traditions and wine making methods used to craft them. Piedmont, which means "foothills" in Italian, lies at the intersection of two great geological forces where the African and European continents collide. This massive force not only created the Alps, which are visible on a clear day from much of the region, but also pushed up an ancient seafloor to the surface creating a jumbled series of steep hills with a mix of different soils, slopes, altitudes and exposures that are perfect for growing grapes. 

The subtle differences between vineyard sites favor grapes with different ripening requirements, and a host of grape varieties are planted in the region depending on the specific microclimate where they are planted. While Piedmont is best known for its reds, there are also delicious white, rosè, sparkling, and sweet wines too. 

Piedmontese whites are typically crisp, clean and on the light, refreshing side. Some of the best known are made from local varieties such as Arneis, Cortese (the grape in Gavi), and a few lesser known indigenous grapes including Erbaluce and Favorita. There are some international varieties including Riesling, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc too. Moscato is widely planted and is mainly used in the production of sparkling sweet wine called Moscato d'Asti. Red grapes include Grignolino, Brachetto, Grachetto, Friesa, Croatina, and Vespolina to name a few obscure local varieties, plus Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Pinot Noir as the international representatives. But the bulk of red wine is made from Barbera, Dolcetto and Nebbiolo.

Both Dolcetto and Barbera are fairly early ripeners, making lovely fresh,   lively wines that have the dual benefit that wine makers can sell them a year or so after harvest (and get paid sooner) and that wine lovers can drink them pretty much when they are released. Since they ripen earlier, they can be grown in vineyards in cooler sites and are a little less demanding than Nebbiolo. Dolcetto has a dark, edgy cherry character with moderate tannins and modest acidity. It can be made in a slightly rustic style with more structure, or in a more modern style that is juicier and more fruit driven. Either way it can be drunk young and fresh within a few years of the vintage. Barbera is typically a bit higher in acid and slightly lower in tannins than Dolcetto. Most Barbera is pretty simple and straight forward yet deliciously juicy wine with bright red fruits and cherry notes. When it is planted in top vineyard sites it can morph into a wine with much more stature, depth and power. Barbera can be vinified in a more traditional style in large neutral barrels or concrete, or in a modern style and aged in barrique, and the best can age and improve for 8-10 years.

Nebbiolo, the sole grape in Barolo and Barbaresco, is a late ripening varietal. It is widely believed that it took its name from the mist and fog (Nebbia in Italian) that is typical in the late fall when the grape finally ripens. While Dolcetto and Barbera can thrive in cooler sites, Nebbiolo destined Barolo and Barbaresco needs the best of the warm, sunny, south facing vineyards to capture the heat and fully mature. It produces wines that can range in style from fresh and lively and ready to drink  (Langhe Nebbiolo for example), to solid, tensely structured and firmly tannic wines that need a decade or two to reach their peak when planted in the Barberesco and Barolo DOCGs. The main determining factors in the quality and style of Nebbiolo are vintage conditions, vine age, vinification method, and perhaps most importantly, vineyard location.

When made in the lighter style it undergoes shorter fermentation and maceration in order to keep its red fruit and freshness. Nebbiolo destined for Barolo and Barbaresco undergo much longer fermentation and maturation, with several years of barrel and bottle aging required by law before they can be sold, and only the best Nebbiolo grapes are used.

Most of the wine made in Piedmont is in the vineyards around the towns of Asti, Alba and Alessandria, but there are five main regions: Canavese (including Carema and Caluso), Colline Novarese, Coste della Sesia in the north, Langhe - including the hill country around the city of Alba and the Roero, and Monferrato which includes the areas around Asti and Alessandria. The region has 45 Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) and 12 Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG).  The DOCG wines are: Asti, Barbaresco, Barbera d'Asti, Barbera del Monferrato Superiore, Barolo, Acqui, Dogliani, Ovada, Gattinara, Gavi, Ghemme and Roero.

The Barolo DOCG has several sub zones - Castiglione Falletto, La Morra, Monforte d'Alba and Serralunga d'Alba - and each has its own unique terrior and style. Barbaresco also has several sub zones - Barbaresco, Treiso, and Neive - again with subtle influences on the style of wines produced. In both Barolo and Barbaresco, producer is important as styles can range from very traditional, austere and almost rustic to much more extracted, riper and more modern styles. The grape, with its firm tannins, good acidity and relatively low color component makes wines that are rarely inky dark purple, rather they have a little more garnet and lighter hues, almost brick hints at the edges. Barolo and Barbaresco are often described as  "big wines" but to me, while definitely intense, they are more nervy, racy and highly strung, less generous and more reserved and tight especially when young, and with more dried fruits, earth and leather notes than sheer power and opulence. In this sense they can be a bit stand-offish at first for lovers of riper, oakier, more fruit oriented wines.

The wines of Piedmont are fantastic partners at the table. From light fresh whites that are perfect as an aperitif, with fish, appetizers, risotto or pasta with seafood, to medium bodied reds like Barbera or Dolcetto which are great with light meats, pasta with red sauce or pizza, and Barolo and Barbaresco with griiled lamb, veal chops or beef, they are well worth getting to know. For after dinner there are sweetly sparkling Moscato d'Asti with its peachy pear notes, or Brachetto d'Aqui, a sweet sparkling red that us like liquid raspberries. A series of great vintages has made a wealth of wine available for affordable everyday drinking as well as for the collector looking to stock the cellar with age worthy gems making this a great time to explore this excellent wine region. For a listing of our wines from Piedmont click the links below.

To Italy and the Alps

Today the Tour begins its alpine swing traveling from Gap in the Hautes Alpes to Pinerolo on the Italian side with a few category 2 & 3 climbs and a category 1 over the Sestrieres at 2035 meters. Over the next several days the Tour will be decided in the Alps, with Alberto Contador flexing some muscle and giving the Schleck brothers, Claudel Evans and the other GC contenders something to worry about before a time trial in Grenoble and the final day in Paris on the Champs Elysee on Sunday.

The route runs a little south of the Alpine growing areas of the Savoie and Jura, but close enough to include a perfect tour sipper Cerdon de Bougey. Located in the foothills of the Alps about halfway between Lyon and Geneva, the vineyards are a patchwork of parcels facing southeast or southwest, interspersed with fields, pastures, grazing cattle and patches of forest. The wines of Bugey were produced as VDQS since 1958 and received full Appellation status in 2009.

Father and son team Alain and Elie Renardat-Fachet employ a technique called "ancestral method" for this incredible pink sparkler. Harvest is by hand, then the grapes are pressed and fermented in cold vats until the alcohol reaches about 6 degrees. The wine is lightly filtered with most of the active yeast left in the unfinished wine, it is then bottled and ferments in the bottle to about 7.5 or 8 degrees of alcohol, and a good amount of its original sugar. Fresh, fruity and sparkling, loaded with raspberry and strawberry notes, it is sweet but not cloying so. Perfect aperitif or after dinner, its natural low alcohol means you can have another glass on a warm summer day!

Cerdon de Bugey, Renardat-Fache - Click to purchase at 56 Degree Wine

Region: Bugey, France
Grapes: Gamay, Poulsard
Drink: Now and within first year of release
Cuisine: Apertif or Desserts with berries or chocolate

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Tour de France - Le Sudouest de France

On Tuesday and Wednesday Stages 10 and 11 take a relatively gentle route with just a few small category 3 and 4 climbs as the riders travel through the heart of southwest France before the first real test in the mountains on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The  route passes near Marcillac on Tuesday and includes a sprint through the village of Gaillac on Wednesday - villages that are home to two of my favorite country French red wines. Well off the beaten track and definately off the radar of most wine drinkers, I absolutely love the wines from this region for their unabashed individualistic character. Located along the river Tarn (a tributary of the Garonne, the river that eventually winds its way through the Graves and Sauternes and combines with the Dordogne at the Gironde estuary in Bordeaux), they are both some of the oldest wine regions in France. 

Marcillac is located about an hour drive north and east of Gaillac along the Tarn River. It is made mainly from Mansois, the local name for Fers Servadou, and the grape accounts for about 90% of all plantings. My favorites here are Domaine Laurens, whose red and lovely crisp rose we have stocked, and Domaine du Cros, a beautiful, juicy if slightly rustic red with crushed red fruits and hints of game and earth. This small grower had only one hectare in 1982 and made a mere 4,000 bottles per year. Today they have expanded by buying and renting vineyards with 22 hectares in production out of a total of 25ha.  

Gaillac claims to be the oldest wine region in France, with origins dating to the first century and records of Romans shipping wine down the Tarn to Bordeaux and northern Europe. The white wines are made from Mauzac, Sauvignon Blanc, Loin de L'Oeil, Muscadet and Ondenc, and are crisp, light and refreshing with floral notes. The reds are made from  local grapes Duras and Fers Servadou, but can also have Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Domaine Sarrabella is a producer seeking out both for their delicious, floral and fresh white and their deliciously rustic red.

The reds from both of these regions are the perfect "Bistro Wines" in my opinion - mid weight, slightly old world and earthy, with moderate grip and sour cherry fruit tones. They are perfect with light meat - pork, roasted chicken, duck breast "magret de canard" or classic steak and frites. Tomorrow and over the next three days the Tour heads to the mountains of the Pyrenees and some of the toughest climbs in the world - don't miss it!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Tour de France - Through the Loire!

Today the Tour winds its way down from Normandy and the coast and passes very near the heart of the Loire Valley. This noble river winds its way over a thousand kilometers from its beginnings in the Ardeche at about 4430 feet near Mont Gerbier de Jonc. It flows to the north and then makes a hard turn towards the west near Orleans and finally to the Bay of Biscay at Saint Nazaire. It spans such a wide range of climates and soils that the types of grapes grown vary as you travel along its course, and the wine style also vary dramatically response to local conditions or "terroir". It is really best to think of the Loire as four major regions, the eastern Loire, followed as you head downstream to the west by the Touraine, Anjou-Saumur, and the Region Ouest, each of which is comprised of multiple small AOC's.

Along the route it passes though some of my favorite wine regions, the first and easternmost of the better known wine regions are Sancerre and Pouilly Fume. These are located are well inland, just north of Nevers and are known for crisp, racy, mineral Sauvignon Blanc and a tiny amount of red and rose from Pinot Noir that can be quite enjoyable, all grown in the semi continental climate and flinty limestone soils of the Kimmeridgean belt. Reuilly,  Menetou Salon and Quincy are nearby and offer similar wines at at lower price than the more famous Sancerre and Pouilly Fume.

Just after it passes these famous villages, the Loire bends to the west, sweeping in an arc through Orleans and into the Touraine. Inexpensive Sauvignon from the Touraine can be found here, good summery and inexpensive. But the best known wines are the superb dry and sweet white wines made from the Chenin Blanc grape grown on chalky soils in vineyards surrounding the villages of Vouvray and Mont Louis, and terrific reds from Cabernet Franc in Chinon, Bourgueil, and Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil.  Olga Raffualt is one of my favorite reds, delicious and fresh when young and able age for years in the best vintages.

Anjou - Saumur is next, with Cabernet Franc from Saumur Champigny and Saumur the top reds, and a dozen small AOC's making dry and/or sweet styles of Chenin that are among the best in  the world with Quarts de Chaume, Coteaux de Layon, Savennieres and Bonnezueax among the tops.

Finally in the east is Muscadet, just to the north and east of the start of this years Tour in the Vendee. Its crisp, racy high acid whites perfect with the seafood and shellfish of this region by the sea.

So grab a glass of wine from the Loire, turn on the Versus network and drink in the beautiful scenery of this spectacular region of France. For a list of wines from the Loire available at 56 Degree Wine - click here and type "Loire" in the search box. See the list below for a couple of favorites. For a truly in depth explaination of the Loire, visit the Wine Doctor website - Cheers!

Claude Lafonde Reuilly 2009

2008 Domaine Damien Lorieux Bourgueil Cucee Graviers

Gasnier Chinon Rose 2010

2009 Domaine Huet Vouvray Clos du Bourg Sec

2009 Domaine de la Potine Sauvignon Blanc Touraine

2009 Domaine Serge Laporte Sancerre Chavignol

Friday, July 1, 2011

Le Tour de France Begins - A Love letter from the French Countryside

Stage One: Passage du Gois to Mont des Alouettes - 191.5 kilometers

Let the race begin! July 2nd marks the beginning of the 2011 Tour de France, one of the greatest sporting specatcles of the year, and a visual love letter from the Versus network to the French countryside. For the next three weeks the Peleton will wind its way through the villages, vineyards and incredible mountain passes that make up this years route, with the riders covering a total of 3430.5 kilometers over 21 stages. Whether a cycling fan or not, the race is worth tuning into from time to time purely for the sheer beauty of the scenery. With cameras filming from practically every angle including helicopters, cars, planes and motorcyles, the perspective ranges from placid and almost hypnotic as the field snakes through a pastoral setting, to vertigo-inducing shots on the descents of the Alps and Pyranees. The race takes me back to the many hours each year I spend driving to visit and taste with winemakers, and offers a view of the unique character of each region of France it passes through. It is also perhaps one of the best covered sporting events, with the Versus network practically become the "Tour Network" for the month of July, providing hours of coverage beginning live in the mornings and repeated several times each day. They also have some of the best qualified commentators in the biz.

To make the viewing a little more enjoyable, for the next three weeks I'll choose a wine or two from a region along the route with a little commentary, beginning with tomorrows wild start on the Passage du Gois in the Vendee. The unofficial start is with a parade lap of the Isle de Noirmoutier, with the official start taking the riders from Noirmoutier to the mainland over the Passage du Gois, a 4.5 kilometer stretch of road that is fully submersed twice a day at high tide. The riders finish 191.5km later at the town of Mont des Alouettes.

This region on the west coast of France is known for oysters and seafood of all sorts, is a hot spot of competitive sailing, a huge sport in France. It is the starting place of the around the world single handed non-stop Vendee Globe, one of a handful of sporting events that makes the Tour look tame. For a taste of the action scroll down to the video below!

On the wine front, the Muscadet region is just to the north and east of the route for the first couple of days, and it is here that the Melon de Bourgogne grape creates incredible, mineral, crisp and intense wines with racy acidity and brillant focus. The region is not without its problems, namely expansion and over production, but there has been a renaissance of small artisan growers who are changing regions image with superb wines based on the unique terroir. For an excellent explanation of the Muscadet region click here to go to The Wine Doctor website.

One of my favorite producers is Marc Olivier of Domaine de La Pepier , who makes a range of fantastic wines from his classic "Sur Lie" to the old vines "Clos Briords" and the lovely Cuvee Eden. His wines are made traditionally, starting with hand harvesting (one of the very few in the region), fermenting with wild yeasts that allow the wine to slowly complete fermentation naturally (instead of innoculating with starter yeasts that are used to rush fermentation to get the wine sold sooner), and bottles with only a very light filtration. Pepier is also one of the few wineries with vineyards entirely of original stock with no clonal selections. The Cuvee Eden 2005 - we have only magnums in stock so buy one and have it Saturday, Sunday and Monday as you watch the race - is racy, loaded with minerals, and has a slightly floral nose with hints of seashell, stoney/briny minerality. Perfect with clams, mussels, cockles or oysters, or mild fish such as dover sole, fluke or flounder. Chill it down, crack it open and enjoy the race! To purchase the Pepiere Muscadet Cuvee Eden Magnum, click here.

The Tour wanders around the Vendee though day three, then out of wine region to Britanny and into the heart of the Loire in Stage 7 on Friday July 8th from Le Mans to Chateauroux. Check back mid week for wine suggestions as the route passes near Vouvray, Montlouis, and Chinon and more!

Vendee Globe 2008 2009 teaser by VendeeGlobe