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Syrah or Shiraz?

In Australia (and sometimes in South Africa), the grape syrah is known as shiraz. Why so? In the 17th century, French Huguenots (many of whom were religious refugees) brought syrah from France to South Africa, and from there it was brought to Australia.  By the 1830s, Australian explorers were also bringing syrah in directly from France. In France, syrah is known by a number of colloquial names (serine, serinne, sira, etc.).  Most scholars think the name shiraz is a corruption of one of these aliases. Frustratingly, many wine articles continue to reproduce the erroneous legends that syrah/shiraz somehow came from the Iranian city of Shiraz, the Greek island of Syra, or the city of Syracuse in Sicily. All false. Today, of course, shiraz is Australia’s most famous red wine, and it can be a spellbinding rich blockbuster of a wine, although rarely as gamey as syrahs from Washington State or from the northern Rhône.

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The Curious Red White Conundrum

As you probably know, virtually all red wine grapes have white juice. One day, I found myself wondering why? I asked Carole Meredith PhD, the leading grapevine geneticist in the U.S. She explained: “The red grapes that have white juice are all varieties of Vitis vinifera, the European wine grape.  These red grapes have color pigment in the berry skin, but not in the berry pulp. As to why, one can only speculate. The skin color of the fruit presumably helps to attract birds or other fruit-eating animals, which will then disperse the seeds. There would be no adaptive advantage to also having pigment in the pulp, which is not visible. Red apple varieties, for example, have pigment in the skin but not in the pulp.” I thought: So that’s it. But Meredith went on, “Then again, look at plums – some have color inside and some don’t.” Hmmm.

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Banished Then Reborn

The idea that we all have wine preferences is axiomatic and indisputable. You may prefer, say, cabernet sauvignon over zinfandel. But what if someone were to designate themselves as a sort of grape police? What if someone could unilaterally decide which grape varieties were acceptable? Someone did. That person was Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, who in 1395 set forth an edict to: “rip out and never again plant the ‘vile and noxious’ gamay plant.” Philip, who imposed punitive fines on noncompliant growers, designated pinot noir as gamay’s replacement.  But of course, fragile pinot noir is not easy to grow. A shortage of wine ensued—and at the worst possible time. With the plague known as the Black Death in full force and water supplies greatly polluted, wine was the safest drink in 14th century France. That reality led to a new acceptance of gamay, which was eventually replanted with enthusiasm in Burgundy’s southernmost region—Beaujolais.

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Ex-Husbandry

AxR1 was the notorious rootstock that lead to financial disaster in Napa and Sonoma, California, in modern times. The rootstock’s name is an abbreviation of “Aramon crossed with Rupestris Ganzin No. 1.” Aramon is a grape that belongs to the European species Vitis vinifera and rupestris is a reference to the American species Vitis rupestris. (As an aside, rupestris is also known as St. George after a town in the south of France where it was popular).  Ganzin was the man who crossed the two and created the rootstock. Although it was widely recommended in California in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, AxR1 proved to be susceptible to phylloxera, ushering in a devastating second wave of the disease in the state in the 1980s.  Today, virtually all California vines are planted on rootstock that is truly phylloxera-resistant.

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The Other Side of Champagne

It’s National Champagne Day, and while good cheer is in order, it’s perhaps important to remember that the Champagne region has had a difficult past. Located in northeastern France, Champagne lies directly along the route from Germany to Paris. During both World Wars, the vineyards here were a battlefield furrowed with trenches and gutted with shell holes. Many vines were uprooted, shrouded in poison gas, or killed by disease and neglect. With most men at war, women and children were left to harvest whatever grapes remained and make what wine they could. By the end of World War I alone, 40% of Champagne’s vines had disappeared, and in the main village of Reims, only a handful of Champagne firms remained intact.

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Wine’s Other Self

Wine’s “other self” is vinegar. One of the two best vinegars in the world is Italy’s traditional balsamic vinegar (the other is Spain’s solera-aged Sherry vinegar). Needless to say, the inexpensive “balsamic vinegar” you find in a supermarket is decidedly not great. It’s just ordinary red wine vinegar that’s been sweetened and colored with caramel. Real balsamic vinegar is made only in Emilia-Romagna, just north of Tuscany, around the towns of Modena and Reggio. It’s labeled aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena or di Reggio, and the Italian government grants it a DOP, Denomination of Protected Origin, equivalent to DOC status for wines. Price is always a tip-off: A small 3-ounce vial of balsamico tradizionale can be $100 or more. For many Italians, the most godly of all culinary combinations is a chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese moistened with a few drops of an especially lush, old, traditional balsamic vinegar.

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The Birthday Present You Always Wanted

It is an old tradition among the wealthy British upper classes to give a newborn child a “pipe” (about sixty-one cases!) of Port from the newborn’s birth year. In the past, vintage Port and single quinta vintage Port would generally be given. These would be shipped in cask to a British wine merchant who would bottle the Port, after which it would be stored in the parents’ cellar. By the time the child was old enough to drink, he or she would have a lifetime supply of perfectly matured Port ready to drink. Today Port is bottled in Portugal, not Britain, but (for the U.K.’s aristocratic classes) the tradition remains essentially the same.

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The Birthday Present You Always Wanted

It is an old tradition among the wealthy British upper classes to give a newborn child a “pipe” (about sixty-one cases!) of Port from the newborn’s birth year. In the past, vintage Port and single quinta vintage Port would generally be given. These would be shipped in cask to a British wine merchant who would bottle the Port, after which it would be stored in the parents’ cellar. By the time the child was old enough to drink, he or she would have a lifetime supply of perfectly matured Port. Today Port is bottled in Portugal, not Britain, but (for the U.K.’s aristocratic classes) the tradition remains essentially the same.

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Cheese Wiz

Despite the rather common assumption that all red wines taste good with cheese, many cheeses can strip the core out of red wine and make it taste flat and hollow. One exception is amarone—which stands up to even the most microbial and salty cheeses.  At 15 to 16 percent alcohol and with a Portlike body, amarone is a powerhouse of deep bitter chocolate, mocha, dried fig, and earthy flavors. The late Italian wine expert Victor Hazan once told me that he considered amarone is the perfect wine to drink with a roast, being careful to save the last glasses to sip during the finale: a plate of walnuts and bite-size chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

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Ruby Fizz

Historically, Italy’s brilliant ruby-colored sparkling wine, Brachetto, was thought to be an aphrodisiac. (At least that’s what Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony thought, but maybe  Cleopatra should be the judge). Anyway, it’s true that Brachetto has undeniable charm. Beautifully floral and fruity with just the right grown-up bitter edge, Brachetto is made from brachetto grapes in the Acqui region of Piedmont, hence its full name: Brachetto d’Acqui.  The wine is frizzante (lightly sparkling), low in alcohol, fresh, and loaded with  raspberry and black cherry flavors. Chilled cold, it’s terrific with a plate of charcuterie some Saturday night before dinner. (I know people who swear it’s molto bene with dark chocolate, but I’ll let you decide on that one). Banfi is the main importer of Brachetto in the U.S. and theirs is a very good one.