Writing from the edge of the Russian River in Sonoma County
While the recent rains have dampened the fire danger they arrived too late to have any effect on the 2021 grape harvest in Sonoma or Napa, yet the overall measure of the harvest is positive and frankly a bit giddy as every other aspect of the growing season was rather perfect.
For a firsthand perspective I am fortunate to be able to reach out to three wine makers whom I have befriended in our brief time here. They come from slightly different perspectives but in the end all agree that while crop size is down, which may not be such a bad thing, the quality of the harvest may turn out to be notable.
Craig McAllister – La Crema
“Overall it was a good harvest; most definitely an interesting harvest and we were so happy to get through it in the absence of fires, smoke and evacuations”. So begins Craig McAllister the winemaker for the nationally known La Crema Winery. Craig and I met several years ago at a mutual friend’s birthday party and he’s been a “WW” featured interview. La Crema harvests grapes for their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from seven regions in cooler climates along the Pacific coast from Oregon to Monterey.
“The Pinot noir harvest was compressed as heat spikes in mid to late August really gave us a hurry up”, McAllister explained. “We saw very light crops in some vineyards and average sized in others, but the fruit condition was really good and we are seeing some lovely Chardonnays finish fermentation”.
“The good news is that the wines are fantastic; there is great concentration of flavor and really nice juicy acidity that hints at wonderful balance once wines are though secondary (malolactic) fermentation and while it’s a bit early to make even an educated guess, we are hopeful for outstanding quality in our 2021 Pinot Noirs”, he ventured.
Montse Reece – Pedroncelli
Ms. Reece has been the head wine maker at Pedroncelli Winery up in Dry Creek for six years but has been making wine there for nearly 20. I am fortunate to have met and interviewed her not long after we settled in Santa Rosa and she has been generous with her time and knowledge whenever I reach out so when I asked her about the 2021 harvest she gladly offered her thoughts.
“I can say that it was a surprisingly good harvest and vintage even in a draught year”, she begins. “We didn’t have any rain during the growing season which resulted in a smaller crop and smaller berries by about ten percent.”
With less clusters per vine and way smaller berries than normal the chemistry of the juice changes; she offered this not so technical explanation – “It messes with the chemistry of the grapes – but results in more concentrated deeper color in the reds with aromatics for all the varieties off the charts!” she exclaimed. The lack of moisture and smaller berries also means higher sugars resulting in a “big” vintage, i.e. higher alcohol.
As to fruit and flavors Montse was quick to say, “The wines all have good acid, the whites are very interesting with strong tropical flavors, the Chardonnay is very fruity and the reds also are showing huge flavors.” She summed it up on a positive note, “For all these reasons I see this vintage as actually excellent and is one to follow”.
David Cohen – Moondance Cellars
We met David and his wife Priscilla three or so years ago at their small winery (1,200 cases) in rural Sebastopol west of Santa Rosa. They were both featured in a WW just as Covid was shutting everything down. David’s reaction to a draught year harvest was brief and mirrored more of the mid-sized Pedroncelli rather than the much larger La Crema winery.
“All in all production was down as the berries are smaller and concentrated and the sugars are higher with the alcohol in the Pinot Noir running up to 15% which is not normal” Cohen offered, “But the Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are looking really good, it’s hard to predict at the moment what to put into bottles. It’s going to be a really good year!”
Why People Say One Thing about Chardonnay and Drink Another
As wine drinkers go they are often mistaken as to what they think they like to drink and what they do drink, for instance we claim we like to drink dry wines but wines considered sweet are the largest sellers.
Eric Asimov writes a wine column for the New York Times and recently related his experiences when it comes to how people perceive their choice of Chardonnay. I have edited his remarks and added some of my own.
Once, years ago, when I was in a restaurant on the Mendocino Coast on a work trip, I overheard an English guy asking the bartender whether she had a white wine with a “butt’ry flavor.”
I never forgot moment because she poured him a California chardonnay that I knew well, one that wasn’t remotely buttery. And he loved it.
I took two lessons from this incident: First, people are not always able to describe precisely what it is they like or don’t like in a wine, and second, what they want is not necessarily restricted to what they think they want”.
Eric runs a monthly reader survey and the current one was considering (French) Chablis from the 2019 vintage.
As usual, I suggested three bottles for readers to try and, if they chose, to offer their thoughts about the wines. In addition to sharing a lot of love for Chablis, readers used this opportunity to express a general distaste for chardonnay, which happens to be the grape of Chablis and one of the most widely planted white grapes in the world.
Most of the reaction centered on two issues readers associated with chardonnay: oak and butter. Many readers linked the buttery flavor they detested (or in one case loved) to the use of oak barrels. In addition, many implied that this oaky, buttery quality was a common characteristic of chardonnay in general and of California chardonnay in particular. (Can you hear your thoughts here?)
We have spoken often about the tenacious grasp of conventional wisdom in all areas of wine. The butter-and-oak connection to chardonnay is a prime example of how a thought that once had an element of truth evolves into a widely held perception that often is demonstrably wrong”. (Sounds like our current political world)
Many readers, while standing up for Chablis, denounced chardonnay in general. They described it as buttery or tasting like butterscotch or even buttered popcorn. Many blamed oak for producing these flavors and centered the problem in California.
I want to make three points: First, flamboyant, buttery, oaky California chardonnays became popular in the 1980s and ’90s, popular enough that producers around the world emulated the style.
Let’s not assume that California chardonnay means big, buttery and oaky, because it’s just as easy to find taut, steely examples.
Second, as I’ve suggested, oak is not the villain. These days, I find many more wines are enhanced by judicious use of oak barrels rather than harmed by overdoing it.
Finally, (and here’s the big truth) the influence of oak has little to do with the perception of a buttery flavor. That quality is a byproduct of malolactic fermentation, in which bacteria transforms sharp malic acid into softer lactic acid, which is found in dairy products like butter, milk and cheese.
Here’s the bottom line: Don’t blame the grape or the container; they are almost never at fault. Most problems in wine can be traced to the producer, whether in the vineyard or in the winemaking.
Pairing Pizza and Wine
Randall Restiano, the beverage director at New York City’s Eataly, says, “Pizza and wine are among my favorite things to pair, but obviously, the toppings make a world of difference.”
He’s right as the same concept applies to a meat or fish or other protein when a sauce is part of the entrée, it alters the flavor profile of the dish and the choice of the wine.
The key; losing the acidity that tomatoes provide changes the pairing equation. The gentle fruitiness and tingly bubbles of sparkling rosé should work perfectly well here.
NV Segura Viudas Cava Brut Rosé
Spanish Cava is superb with a slice of Manchego and bread, and what is a white pizza but bread covered in melted cheese? Segura Viudas’ rosé version is delightful.
NV Billecart-Salmon Champagne Brut Rosé
Had to laugh at this one, Champagne meant for caviar seems a tad pricey for a $15 pizza, but if you’re trying to surprise or impress then why not.
Pepperoni is the most popular pizza style in the U.S. with a very strong flavor made with cured beef and pork mashed together with a variety of spices. Because of the fat content of pepperoni, you’ll need a strong wine with intense flavors to counterbalance “the pepperoni effect”.
2018 Cantina Colosi Nero D’Avola Sicilia ($15)
Sangiovese (the grape of Chianti region) is a classic choice as the most popular red grape of Italy, Barbera and Cabernet Franc also work well here.
Whether it’s a plain cheese from Domino’s or buffalo mozzarella, extra-virgin olive oil, and tomatoes are the key here for is simplicity (and not that much fat). Chianti Classico really does work like a charm, or even Pinot Noir from Oregon.
2018 Badia A Coltibuono Chianti Classico ($22)
Chianti Classico refers to the region itself, not the style, but there’s no question that this is spot-on Chianti Classico.
2018 Oregon Roserock Eola-Amity Hills Pinot Noir ($32)
The fine tannins and savory notes that Pinot grapes attain in Oregon’s Roserock estate make this spicy, medium-bodied wine from Domaine Drouhin’s is a go-to choice.
Note: These wines may be a challenge to find in some areas so as I always suggest take the list to your wine store and ask for something similar.
The Glasses We Drink From
With the holidays in view I thought I’d pass along what I might consider a reasonable suggestion for a gift to your favorite wine drinker or even for yourself – some new wine glasses.
When I hosted wine and food classes back in Chicago I invariably got asked what I did with left over wine???? I was stumped as it was a concept that I wasn’t familiar with…oh and one of the other oft asked questions was what kind of wine glasses I used and that was easier.
Some years ago I had taken the suggestion from a feature writer for the Wine Spectator magazine to try a wine glass from a German company called Schott Zwiesel who offers lead-free wine and cocktail glasses in a wide range of shapes and costs.
We have been using their Tritan Crystal Glass from the Forte Stemware Collection Claret Burgundy Red Wine Glass for probably 20 years and are quite happy with them and at $59.00 for a carton of six glasses I think you will be too.
They are available from many sources but I will suggest checking out pricing from www.bestwineglasses.com that happens to be located in the northwest Chicago suburb of Lake Barrington, IL. 312-981-9127.
As Thanksgiving will be long past the next time we touch base I thought I’d share some holiday food and wine thoughts now. I’ve posted my turkey dressing recipe but if you need turkey cooking or brining recipes or other anything else please reach out via email, woodywine@aol and I’ll be happy to help
As to wine here’s a thought, instead of trying to serve a wine with every course why not put out a selection of wines on a side table and let folks drink what they want, easier on you and you’ll be making them happy to.
NV Roederer Estate Brut Rosé ($25). It’s lovely and works with everything.
2018 Talley “Estate” Arroyo Grande Chardonnay ($29) A Chardonnay with a light amount of oak is perfect for this time of year. The kiss of vanilla on the wine helps it go well with both the meat and the vegetables.
2019 Ridge Three Valleys Red ($30). A field blend of mostly Zinfandel pairs great with cranberry sauce and turkey.
2016 Marqués de Murrieta Reserva Rioja ($25) is soft and easy to drink, and its notes of dried herbs are a perfect complement to the savory herbs you find in a lot of Thanksgiving dishes, such as sage, thyme, and rosemary.
90+ Cellars Lot 75 Pinot Noir ($18.99): Pinot Noir is an ideal companion to Thanksgiving dinner. Its earthy undertones play well with the flavors of turkey, cranberry, and stuffing. This wine from Sonoma’s Russian River Valley showcases black cherry aromas and expressive, bold flavors without feeling hefty on the palate.
That’s my Whine and I could be wrong…
My recipe for Turkey Dressing is just a click away, enjoy!
Woody Mosgers, cooks, caters, writes, drinks and matches wine and food in Santa Rosa Sonoma at www.woodythewineguy.com