The Vintner Project Article – Vincent Carême: A Champion for Chenin

I recently had the opportunity to write another piece for The Vintner Project – a collaborative effort of wine writers from around the world who focus on the stories of wineries, and the people behind them.

As mentioned in my previous post about Chenin Blanc, winemakers Vincent and Tania Carême are incredibly passionate about this grape – splitting time between their estates in the Loire Valley and South Africa . . . which basically means working year-round!

Vincent Carême: A Champion for Chenin

Please click through the link above to read the article at The Vintner Project and learn more about the Carêmes as well as the many differences between their two chosen growing regions.  Hopefully, some of their enthusiasm for Chenin Blanc will rub off on you . . . I know it did for me!

Tania and Vincent

Chenin Blanc: Overlooked and Underappreciated in the Wine World

There are several significant milestones in a wine blogger’s early life:  The first time you hit the “publish” button and put your thoughts – and yourself – out there to the world.  The day you get a follower who isn’t a personal friend, or someone you’re related to. And then there’s the day you receive your first wine samples to review.  One year into my blogging adventure I have officially hit this particular milestone – and let me just say, it was worth the wait.

Tania and Vincent
Tania & Vincent Carême (photo credit: Cape Classics)

As one of their contributors, I’d been asked by The Vintner Project to write a piece on Vincent Carême and his wife, Tania – winemakers in both the Loire Valley and South Africa.  So, while I require a nap on most days, these two are busily making wine in two different hemispheres!  The primary focus of  their production in both regions is Chenin Blanc.  Now, I’m not overly familiar with Chenin Blanc – and while I don’t actively avoid it, I also don’t necessarily seek it out either.  Unfortunately, the majority of what I have had has been either underwhelming as a whole, or overwhelmingly full of that classic wet wool aroma that you can get in Loire Chenin Blancs.  (Which isn’t an altogether unpleasant aroma – but one that I’d usually prefer in my winter sweaters as opposed to my wine glass.)

So before I cracked open my samples, I did a little background research on Chenin Blanc with the hopes that I could understand (and appreciate) more of what I was tasting.

Chenin Blanc – The Grape.

Chenin Blanc originated in the Anjou region of France – which is located in the central portion of the Loire Valley.  The grape might have been cultivated as early as 845 A.D. – although the words “Chenin Blanc” don’t appear in print until 1534.  Today, France has just under 25,000 acres devoted to the grape.  And down in South Africa – it’s THE most planted variety at 46,000 acres. Chenin is also grown in Argentina, my beloved Washington state, as well as California.

Chenin Blanc is incredibly versatile and used to produce a wide range of wines from still, to sparkling (i.e. Crémant de Loire), to lusciously sweet wines (i.e. Quarts de Chaume) and even some fortified wines, particularly in South Africa.  As a still wine, Chenin is often quite high in acidity with aromas and flavors of citrus (tangerines, lemons), green or golden apples and honeysuckle . . . which is right in my wheelhouse of wines.  So, I have to ask myself: why aren’t I drinking more of this stuff??!  Chenin Blanc Unit 2

Unlike ubiquitous Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, Chenin Blanc isn’t very prevalent on restaurant wines lists or on wine store shelves.  It also isn’t a trendy grape like Assyrtiko or Grüner Veltliner (although it IS a helluva lot easier to pronounce!)  I mean – my WSET Unit 2 textbook even specifies that one of Chenin Blanc’s negative attributes is that it’s unfashionable! The fact is – I don’t drink a lot of Chenin Blanc because I don’t THINK about it.  It’s out of sight out of mind.  But a good producer can change all that . . .

Chenin Blanc – The Wines.

Onto the samples . . . and as always, all opinions and thoughts are my own…

Terre Brûlée 2017 ‘Le Blanc’ Chenin Blanc, Swartland, South Africa. (13% abv)

  • Color: Pale lemon-gold
  • Aromas: Yellow apple, Meyer Lemon, faint honeysuckle, minerality (wet stone), there’s some herbal notes in here too
  • Palate: Medium- body, high acidity.  More tart on the palate than expected with additional flavors of green apple and unripe pear.
  • My Thoughts: Super-refreshing, crisp wine.  The acid is definitely at the forefront and while I like (and actually gravitate towards) acid bombs, it might be a wee bit much for some people.  If that’s the case – I’d recommend balancing it out by pairing with a light salad dressed with a snappy vinaigrette.
  • Technical Bits: The Terre Brûlée estate was established by Vincent and Tania in 2013.  Located about an hour north of Cape Town, the soils here are mostly shale and granite.  Grapes are hand harvested and whole bunch pressed.  Only natural, wild yeasts were used for fermentation.

Domain Vincent Carême 2017 ‘Spring’ Vouvray, Loire Valley, France. (13% abv)

  • Color: Pale lemon-gold
  • Aromas: Slightly riper yellow fruits on the nose with this one – apples and pears, white flowers, hints of cheese and white mushrooms
  • Palate: Medium body, medium+ acidity. Picked up flavors of honeysuckle and chamomile.  Riper palate and creamier texture than the ‘Le Blanc.’
  • My Thoughts: This wine was a little more complex to me than the first.  The acidity was less linear/searing, making the wine feel more in balance.
  • Technical Bits: Chenin grapes for ‘Spring’ are outsourced from growers who have worked with Vincent for years and who allow him to provide input and assistance throughout the year.  Soils from these vineyards range from clay to flint to limestone.  Like his South African Chenin, grapes are hand harvested and whole bunch pressed – and native yeast fermentation is used here as well.

Domaine Vincent Carême 2015 ‘Le Clos’ Vouvray, Loire Valley, France. (13.5% abv)

  • Color: Medium- lemon-gold
  • Aromas: Yellow apple (yet again!), honeysuckle, soft cheese, white mushroom and a slightly nutty quality
  • Palate: Medium body, medium+ acidity.  Long-ass finish.  Creamy texture here as well.  Flavors all over the board here with some tangerine, orange blossom, apricot and the beginnings of something marmalade-like.
  • My Thoughts: This wine is freakin’ delicious.  I love a wine that I can keep going back to and find something different on the nose or a different flavor.  The first night I had this wine without food, the second I paired with a chicken/mozzarella pasta – it was awesome both times.
  • Technical Bits: ‘Le Clos’ is a single vineyard wine from 50-70 year old bush trellised vines.  ‘Le Clos’ translates to “enclosed vineyard” and this six acre property is indeed enclosed by an ancient stone wall.  Soil here is the famous tuffeau – a chalky, fine grained type of limestone found only in the Loire Valley.  As with the other Chenins, the grapes here were also hand harvested and whole bunch pressed.  Native yeast fermentation was carried out partially in clay amphora followed by 12 months lees aging.

Careme wines

Overall, I was incredibly impressed with these samples and will seek out more Chenin Blanc at my favorite local wine store.  If any of these wines sound interesting to you – please visit Cape Classics for information on distribution in your area.  (And that’s not a paid advertisement – I just really liked their wines!) 🙂

My article on Tania and Vincent for The Vintner Project is forthcoming and I will have a link HERE when it’s up and running! In the meantime, if you’d like more information – here’s my outline on Chenin Blanc.

 

Drinking Outside the Box: 5 Northern Italian Wines to Check Out

In life, most of us tend to stick to our comfort zone.  The same route home.  Our favorite coffee mug in the morning.  Cozy sweats and re-runs of a show we’ve already binge watched a few times (I’m certain that I’ve seen every episode of Sex & the City at least four times).  And the same varietals in our glass of wine.  Even when ordering at a restaurant we’ve never been to before, or visiting a new wine store with endless options, we’ll probably choose something we know – rather than something we don’t.

Since I started studying for the Italian Wine Scholar exam a few months ago, I’ve come to realize how many grape varieties there are that I’ve never even heard of – let alone tried.  (Italy itself has at least 350 different native grapes!)  Hubs and I have gradually started working through some of these grapes – mostly to positive results!  Proving that when I allow myself to branch out beyond what I’m comfortable with – my frequent Pinot Noir or Washington state Syrah – I expand my palate and my mind, but also my wine cellar. 😉

So, I’m encouraging you to “drink outside the box” and try something new as well.  Next time you’re at a restaurant or wine store with a carefully curated Italian section (particularly from the North!) – nix the Nebbiolos, pass on the Pinot Grigios and Proseccos, and give one of the following wines a shot instead.  You just might be pleasantly surprised at what you discover. 🙂

italianwineregions
Map courtesy of the always awesome Wine Folly

Cortese/Gavi.  Cortese is the grape and Gavi the location in Southeast Piemonte where it’s been grown since at least the early 1600s.  Cortese performs particularly well in Gavi and throughout the 1960s and 1970s enjoyed immense success.  However, in the same manner that other popular things have been WAY overdone – the Real Housewives series (did we really need DC?), the zombie apocalypse, “Keep Calm and [fill in the blank]” – lots of producers jumped on the Gavi bandwagon and tons of meh wines were the result of this massive overproduction.  Thankfully, Gavi has recovered and was elevated to DOCG status in 1998 – Happy 20 year Anniversary Gavi!  Same year as me and Hubs. 🙂

Gavi DOCG wines must be made from 100% Cortese.  These wines are usually crisp and refreshing with minerality and a striking lemon zest character.  And while it’s best known for still wines, Gavi is also produced in a variety of sparkling styles as well.

The Gavi we had recently was from Broglia.  Impressively, the estate has records of its vineyards going back to 972!  The wine was slightly riper on the palate than I expected – with flavors of ripe apple and Meyer lemon along with Cortese’s trademark minerality.  Some wines from this region can be nice little porch pounders for the summertime (or 10 months out of the year down here in SoCal), but this one definitely had more complexity and depth.

Northern whites

Arneis.  This white grape is native to the Roero hills in Piemonte and was saved from near extinction in the 1960s by two prominent producers in the area: Vietti and Bruno Giacosa.  Today, in large part thanks to these two, plantings of Arneis are around 2,400 acres.  Arneis is a challenging grape to grow – it’s prone to poor and irregular yields and tends to drop acidity rapidly when approaching full ripeness – which often isn’t until late September.  So, it’s no surprise that “Arneis” in local dialect translates to “difficult personality.”

When in the right hands, Arneis produces fuller bodied wines that are subtly perfumed and complex with aromas/flavors of white flowers, stone fruit and pear.  The wines are typically fresh and floral and should be consumed within a few years of release.

We had an Arneis produced by one of its rescuers – Bruno Giacosa.  The wine was definitely delicate in the aromatic department, I was getting yellow fruit (apples, pears) and some floral notes.  On the palate it was zesty with a slightly bitter, but not unpleasantly so, finish.  This would pair amazingly with grilled fish or lighter/herbed pasta dishes.  Or a big ol’ pile of prosciutto.

Ruché.  This will undoubtedly be the most challenging of the five wines to find.  Ruché is a rare, aromatic red grape likely native to the town of Castagnole in Piemonte, where it has been grown for centuries.  Today, there are only around 250 total acres planted to this grape in Italy and it is rarely found elsewhere.

In 2010, Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato DOCG became the first (and only!) delimited area dedicated entirely to the Ruché grape.  Wines from this DOCG must be made from at least 90% Ruché (with Barbera or Brachetto making up the balance).  Ruché based wines are typically intensely perfumed with aromas of roses, red fruit and spice.

I recently sampled a Ruché from Montalbera – an Italian producer hugely supportive of and dedicated to the grape.  The wine was one of the most unique wines I’ve ever had.  Incredibly pale in the glass, it looked like it should be delicate and subtle – yet it was anything but.  The wine was full of aromas of cherries, tea leaves, orange peel and spices with very prevalent acidity and tannins and a lengthy, bitter finish.  If you want to try something truly different, Ruché is your wine.

Lagrein.  (rhymes with “wine” – easy to remember!) This red grape is can be found predominantly in the Trentino-Alto Adige region of Northeast Italy.  Lagrein is late ripening and needs significant warmth and sun to ripen fully – so it seems somewhat counterintuitive that it would be grown in an area that’s bumping up against the Italian Alps.  However, this region has 300 days of sunshine per year and a warm growing season, so Lagrein thrives – and it’s delicious!

Lagrein makes up about only 8% of total grape plantings in Alto Adige and around 1,200 total acres.  There are also a few California wineries that produce a Lagrein (although I haven’t run across any of these yet).  Lagrein produces fuller bodied, rich, darkly colored wines with higher tannins and acidity and often a bitter finish. The wines are frequently packed with aromas of berry fruit, violets and a savory/meaty component.

We had a Lagrein from Castelfeder, which is located in Alto Adige. This wine was somewhat reminiscent of a Northern Rhône Syrah for me – violets, charred black fruits, smoked meat.  This was Hubs favorite of the two reds, probably because he’s obsessed with smoky anything since he recently purchased a new smoker. 🙂

Lambrusco.  Lambrusco hails from the Emilia-Romagna region and is essentially an umbrella term covering several distinct varieties all within the Lambrusco family.  Some of the more common ones you’re likely to see on a wine label are:

  • Lambrusco di Sorbara – produces the lightest version of Lambrusco and is considered to be the benchmark style
  • Lambrusco Salamino – the most widely planted of the Lambrusco varieties
  • Lambrusco Grasparossa – produces fuller bodied and more tannic wines

Unfortunately, most of the Lambrusco that is exported is sweet, characterless and mass-produced (kind of like my old college standby Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill – yes, dear reader, my introductory “wine” was Boone’s, please don’t judge me).  Classic Lambrusco wines are dry (or very slightly off-dry) with refreshing acidity, fizziness and flavors of bright red berries and spice.   To find this style of Lambrusco, your best bet is to look for DOC or DOP on the label – indicating that the wine was made according to stricter production standards and that the grapes come from a specific geographical area.  Other terms to look for include:

  • Secco, Amabile or Dolce – these mean dry, medium-sweet and sweet
  • Frizzante – lightly sparkling
  • Spumante – fully sparkling

LambruscoHubs and I sampled a few different styles of Lambrusco, ranging from a rather flat and nondescript juicy red wine, to a delicately effervescent wine with black cherries and spice, to an incredibly aromatic sparkler full of dried black fruits.  My favorite by far was the 3rd (the Medici Ermete) and it was incredibly delicious with our barbequed burgers!

So, let’s see . . . that’s 5 native Italian grapes down, only around 345 left to go! 😉

Oh – and I purchased the majority of these wines at Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa, CA (which I will be frequenting frequently because it’s the most awesome wine store EVER!!)  But if you’re having problems finding any of these, Hi-Time ships!

What About Bob (Betz)?

When I first sat down to write about Bob Betz, one of the most revered winemakers in Washington state, I knew early on that I would end up writing a lengthy tome about this Pacific Northwest icon. So, in the interest of brevity (somewhat), I’ll narrow it down and give you what I believe to be the 10 Things You Should Know About Bob Betz.

1. He is officially – and unofficially – a Master of Wine. Bob Betz is one of 370 individuals in the world who holds a Master of Wine (MW) degree. Many in the wine industry (myself included) believe that the MW designation is the most respected title in the world of wine. Bob achieved this in 1998 and received two additional awards upon successfully completing the program: the Villa Maria Award for the highest scores on the viticultural exam, and the Robert Mondavi Award for the highest overall score in all theory exams.

2. He helped put Washington wine on the world wine map . . . In 1975 – when there were only eight wineries in Washington (there are now over 900!) – Bob was hired at Chateau Ste. Michelle. He was employed at the winery for 28 years, working in nearly every division of the company, before retiring in 2003 as Vice President of Winemaking Research.  Chateau Ste. Michelle is now the second-largest premium American wine brand sold in the United States, trailing only California’s Kendall Jackson.

3. and conversely helped bring the world of wine to Washington. One of Bob’s many roles while at Chateau Ste. Michelle was Managing Director of Col Solare. Established in 1995, Col Solare is a partnership between Chateau Ste. Michelle and Marchesi Antinori created to “produce a Washington wine with an Italian soul”. While Chateau Ste. Michelle recently turned 50 – a big achievement in the Washington wine world – the Antinori family has been making wine for over 625 years!

Col Solare
View from Col Solare on Red Mountain, Washington

One of the most coveted items at the Auction of Washington Wines – the annual charitable gala recognizing the best and brightest in the industry – is a trip to Italy with Bob and his wife Cathy.  If you guessed that experiencing the Antinori family’s iconic estates firsthand with a Master is on my bucket list, you would be right!

4. There were a few paths not chosen in his life . . . Bob has a degree in Zoology from the University of Washington. He was also accepted into medical school in 1980, but (thankfully!) had already been bitten by the wine bug by this time and opted to stay on that course. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, he has said that he hopes he’s helped make people “healthy in a different way”. 😉

5. before he forged his own. Betz Family Winery – established in 1997 by Bob and Cathy – was the product of a worldwide expedition that began decades earlier.  In the early 1970’s the two spent a year in Europe visiting the wineries, estates and  vineyards of France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Austria learning the European “culture of wine” . The Betz’s first production yielded 150 cases. Today, the winery produces around 5,250 cases per year.  Over the years with Bob at the helm, Betz Family Winery amassed several awards, to name just a few:

• Betz Family Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 was named Washington’s Number One Wine of the Year by the Seattle Times wine critic, Paul Gregutt
• Bob was named Sunset Magazine’s Winemaker of the Year in 2007
• 2010 Pere de Famille was ranked #6 in the World in Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 Cellar Selections

Additionally, Betz Family Wines have received consistent 90+ Points from Robert Parker and Wine Enthusiast. Betz lineup

6. Bob is particular about where his fruit comes from . . .  Betz Family Winery gets its grapes from the same rows in the same vineyards every year from some of Washington’s top wine growers. Bob believes there’s a huge, fundamental difference between grape growers and wine growers. He says that a grape grower “looks at the grape as the end point in their work.” On the other hand, a wine grower “looks at the grape as a transitional point between the land and the table.”

Some of the wine growers/vineyards Bob works with include: Boushey Vineyard and Red Willow in the Yakima Valley; Ciel du Cheval, Kiona and Klipsun on Red Mountain; and Harrison Hill and Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain.

7. which results in an understated style of winemaking. Bob is big on keeping tannins in check.  Instead of pumping the juice from the grapes like many other Washington wineries, he uses gravity.  He designed a small funnel on top of the fermenter and gravity drops the juice into it. His winery also uses the punch down method during fermentation rather than pump over – a key differentiator that comes across in the bottle.  Additionally, Bob uses mostly French oak barrels for aging (he found the American barrels “too coarse”) and less new oak than he used to in order to diminish the “woody impression” in his wines. His prefers to age his Rhône blends in entirely neutral barrels.

8. He’s leaving his legacy in good hands. When they decided it was time to find a new owner/caretaker for their winery – Bob & Cathy had suitors from around the world for Betz Family Winery. In the final bidding process, they had narrowed it down to two major Napa Valley wineries and one couple. They went with the couple. 🙂 In 2011, Bob & Cathy sold Betz Family Winery to Steve and Bridgit Griessel.  The Griessels are incredibly warm and friendly people – much like Bob & Cathy.  And while they are committed to keeping the Betz heritage alive, they are also taking the winery on some exciting new directions – like a Chenin Blanc from their native South Africa!

Bob remained on as head winemaker until 2016 when he passed that torch to Louis Skinner. He remains involved in his namesake winery as Consulting Winemaker and is still a familiar friendly face at the winery’s semi-annual wine club release events!

9. Bob remains a Washington wine icon and dynamo. Last year, Bob returned to Col Solare as Consulting Winemaker.  He’s also a frequent panelist at Washington wine seminars – most recently “Blind Tasting Bootcamp with the Masters” at this year’s Taste Washington. And he’s on the Board of the Auction of Washington Wines – the fifth largest charity wine auction in the United States.

10. If this wine thing doesn’t work out for him – he has a future in Hollywood. Bob makes an appearance in “Somm: Into the Bottle”, the follow-up documentary to the well known 2012 movie “Somm”. At about the 42 minute mark, he discusses the wide range of grapes grown in Washington – from Cabernet Sauvignon to Riesling.  He asserts that we (I might live in SoCal now, but I can still say “we”!) have challenged the notion that certain varieties have to be grown in only certain places.

I lied. There’s one more thing I think that everyone should know about Bob Betz. I believe it was wine writer Andy Perdue who referred to Bob as “a true gentleman of the wine industry” and I couldn’t agree more. I have never heard a negative or unkind word said about him.  He is incredibly well respected, likable and eager to help others as they forge their own path.  In what can be a competitive industry with bottom line results, he stands out as a winemaker – scratch that, as a person – to aspire to.

 

Bob pic
Photo credit: Great Northwest Wine