Tuesday, July 23, 2019

"Natural" Wines - Fad or Future? (Plus Finger Lakes wine alert!)

There's been a lot of talk about so-called "natural" wines in recent years. Indeed, among the wine cognoscenti, it seems to be all the rage.  The casual wine drinker may wonder what all the fuss is about and just go back to his Barefoot Pinot Grigio.

However, if you are a more serious, discriminating wine consumer with a hankering to educate yourself about this relatively new direction in wine production, may I draw your attention to the attached article which I just recently came across, but was originally published in May 2018 in The Guardian (London).  Well-researched and comprehensive, yet highly readable for the non-professional consumer with a keen interest in learning more about this genre of wine, it provides a fascinating history of the movement, featuring the movers and shakers behind this new, yet ancient, method of producing wines, reaction from critics from across the spectrum and suggestions for where to begin your exploration.

Although there's no official or legal definition of natural wine, it basically comes down to wine produced with minimal intervention, natural yeast and no pesticides or added chemicals.  Not surprisingly, the results can be hit or miss from year to year, but as producers gain more experience, consistency and quality continue to improve.  In the end, as one winemaker is quoted, "it's not for everyone ... but it's totally pure."

If you're just starting out to explore these wines, I highly recommend sampling wines imported by Kermit Lynch, which are often produced in the "natural" way.  I've rarely been disappointed with his selections.  Cheers!


P.S. For those of you who attended my class on Finger Lakes Wines, please note that the winemakers of Ravines will be at Fork this Thursday, and their wines will be featured Wednesday through Friday.  See this link for more info:


Monday, July 8, 2019

Sparkling Wines Down the Shore

At our annual summer wine dinner down the shore in New Jersey, a group of wine aficionados gathered to enjoy an array of sparkling wines from the Old World and the New World.  Now anyone who's shopped for Champagne for a special occasion will know that you typically have to spend Big Bucks for this sparkling beverage - we're talking "French" Champagne which is a kind of oxymoron since by law, Champagne only comes from the Champagne region of France. However, there are many affordable sparkling wines from all parts of the world.  For quality and price, the best deals are "Crémants" from other regions of France, Cava from Spain and Prosecco from Italy.  In addition, many French Champagne producers have collaborated with California wine makers to produce high quality bubblies at reasonable prices.

For this particular tasting and dinner, we sampled sparkling wines from Portugal, Spain, California, New Mexico and Alsace (France).  Hands-down, the Segura Viudas was the top choice among all imbibers, and indeed, it's been one of my favorite since I discovered in many years ago.  Due to its growing popularity, its cost has creeped up over the years and now if you can find it for less than $30, you're getting a good deal.  I paid about $28 at Wine Works in Cherry Hill.  The Cabriz from Portugal was the best bargain at about $12, but it did require a road trip up to the Iron Bound neighborhood in Newark, NJ. It's worth the trip, however, for the excellent deals on all Portuguese wines at Lisbon Wines and Liquors. (See my previous post  https://phillywineguy.blogspot.com/2014/01/ironboud-newarks-destination-for.html)

The Gruet is produced in New Mexico by a French winemaking family who staked out property some years ago in this seemingly unlikely southwestern state to produce good quality sparkling wines at affordable prices.  See more information about this producer at the bottom of this post.

Crémant refers to French sparkling wines produced outside the Champagne region.  The Alsace and the French Loire River valley are especially notable for their Crémants and represent an excellent value as an alternative to the pricey Champagnes.

Finally, Gloria Ferrer, based in Sonoma, is major producer of sparkling as well as still wines.  The Blanc de Noirs we tasted was a disappointment to some people in our group, but this may have been a result of the contrast to the Segura Viudas that came immediately before in our tasting.  The creamy cherry-strawberry style of the Ferrer drew a sharp contrast to the dry, tangy, minerally, muted floral notes of the Segura.

One more general observation on sparkling wines:   although they can be great food wines, and I always encourage wine aficionados to break out the bubbly at any time - as opposed to just special occasions - it was the general consensus of our group that a sparkling wine for each of 4-5 courses was perhaps overly effervescent.  To highlight the special features of a bubbly, it may be wise to pop the cork for just one or two courses.  In any case, do not be shy about making a little splash the next time you're asked to bring a bottle to a friend's dinner party.  It's always a good time for bubbly!  Salud!

Cabriz Brut 2013

Classification:  Denominação de Origem Controlada  (DoC)  Dao, Portugal

Varietals: 40% Encruzado, 40% Bical, 20% Malvasia-Fina

Production/Tasting Notes:  At least 12 months in wine cellar and 2 months in bottle after degorgement; aromas of white pulp fruits jelly, citrus, toasted cereal and biscuit; fruity, fresh, harmonious with a crunchy finish and a captivating mousse.

Food Pairing: As an aperitif or with mildly spiced dishes based on fish and white meats and desserts. Drink at 8ºC

Alcohol: 12.5%

Francois Baur Crémant d'Alsace Brut Reserve

Classification: Appellation Crémant d'Alsace Contrôlée

Varietals: Riesling, Pinot Blanc

Production/Tasting Notes:  Biodynamic/organic; dry but not bracingly so; tangy, creamy mousse with floral aromas, rounded pear/peach fruits, fine bubbles and along rich finish

Food Pairingscheese, pâté , ham quiche, halibut in butter sauce

Alcohol: 12.5%

Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Heredad

Classification: Cava Denominacion de Origen (DO), Spain

Varietals: 67% Macabeo and 33% Parellada

Production/Tasting Notes: 100% hand harvested; traditional method (secondary fermentation in bottle); opening aromas are yeasty from aging on its lees, smoky, with hints of brioche, followed by touches of honey, apple, pear, lemon and flower petals (88 points, Wine Enthusiast)

Alcohol: 12%

Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs  NV

Region: Carneros, Sonoma

Varietal: 91.6% Pinot Noir; 8.4% Chardonnay

Tasting Notes: Bright strawberry and black cherry aromas with subtle vanilla highlights. Creamy cherry, lemon and cola flavors combine with a lush palate, lively bubbles and a persistent finish.  (90 points, Wine Enthusiast)

Food Pairings: crab, Thai cuisine, roast pork, quail, foie gras or semisweet desserts; Seasoning affinities include star anise, plum sauce and tarragon; triple aged gouda or hard aged cheeses with persimmons and hazelnuts for the cheese course

Alcohol: 12.5%

Gruet Brut Rosé NV

Origin: New Mexico

Varietal: 100% Pinot Noir

Production/Tasting Notes:  Méthode champenoise; aged en tirage for a minimum of 24 months; wild strawberry, plum and floral aromatics and flavors; zesty acidity; delicate mineral finish. (88 points, Best Buy, Wine Spectator)

Food Pairings:

Alcohol: 12%

Notes on Producers

Francois Baur

The Baur family has lived in Turckheim since 1741 and today it is the 9th generation of Baur family members to produce wine in the great region of Alsace. Pierre Baur is the son of Francois Baur, and the Domaine Baur comprises 27 acres of vines. Half of these are within the famous Grand Cru vineyard of Brand, making the Baur family one of the largest landowners in Brand (which has other serious growers such as Boxler, Josmeyer and Zind-Humbrecht as neighbors). Baur also owns vines along the plateau Herrenweg, whose heavier soils provide the wines with exceptional richness.

Today Thomas Baur, son of Pierre, takes care of the vineyards and winemaking; since 2001 the family has been fully biodynamic in the vineyards--a totally natural approach to the cultivation of vines that makes every attempt to respect the plants, the soil and the environment. Work is scheduled according to the phases of the moon, often at night while the vines are resting and not fatigued by the sun. Studying in the same biodynamics class as Jean-Michel Deiss, one notes the fervor with which Baur now addresses his work; it has become a religion to him and he trusts nature in his vineyards. Harvest is done manually, vinification takes place with natural yeasts in large foudres.

Gloria Ferrer

First sparkling winery in Carneros.

Production notes on the Blanc de Noirs:

Predominantly made from handharvested Pinot Noir grapes, the hallmarks of which are a vibrant red fruit character. The creamy palate and rosy hue are a result of a small addition of Vin Gris, which was blended into the base cuvée. Over forty different clones and selections of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are planted on the 335-acre estate in the Sonoma Carneros district. This allows  to consistently produce cuvées with complexity and clear fruit expression. 

100% whole cluster pressed used to add richness and structure. 5-7% cold-soaked Pinot Noir juice (Vin Gris) is blended into the base wine for color & to establish the creamy notes on its finish. Juice naturally settled overnight (débourbage or "racking") to encourage a clean fermentation. 100% fermented in stainless steel tanks at 55-60° F to retain vibrancy and freshness. Proprietary yeast used for the second fermentation provided a delicate house structure. Cuvée is a blend of 18 different base wines. Wine spent a year and a half aging en tirage (on the yeast) in our caves.


Gilbert Gruet, founder of Gruet Winery, was born in Bethon, France in 1931. He grew up in a poor family, and began working at a young age. In 1952, Gilbert Gruet, along with his wife Danielle, dreamt of producing fine quality Champagne. Gilbert followed his heart and in 1967 created the U.V.C.B. (Union Vinicole des Coteaux de Bethon), a co-op in the village of Bethon.
In 1983, the Gruet Family was traveling through the southwestern part of the US, and while in New Mexico met a group of European winemakers who had successfully planted vineyards in Engle, near the town of Truth or Consequences, 170 miles south of the city of Albuquerque. After hearing of vineyards planted there as early as the 1600s, and learning about the specific climate and soil conditions of the region, the Gruet Family knew they had found what they were looking for. In 1984, Gilbert Gruet – whose Champagne house (Gruet et Fils) has produced fine Champagnes in Bethon, France since 1952 – made the decision to plant an experimental vineyard in Engle, NM. The plantings were exclusively Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. Two of his four children, Laurent and Nathalie Gruet then relocated to New Mexico to begin their American winemaking adventure.
Factoids about Sparkling Wines and Their Productions

  • Méthode Traditionelle (or Méthode Champenoise): refers to secondary fermentation for sparkling wines or champagnes which occurs in the bottle. This usually results in lighter color, and smaller bubbles that retain their effervescence and produces complex bouquets and tastes as well as a long, lingering finish.

  • Liqueur de tirage: mixture of still wine, sugar and selected yeast that triggers second fermentation in the bottle.

  • Remuage (“riddling” in English): method of shaking and twisting each bottle to loosen the sediment left behind following the second fermentation. Originally done by hand with bottles racked in “pupitres” or desks. Process is now automated using gyropallettes or “turnovers”.

  • Dégorgement: process of removing sediment and dead yeast from neck of bottle by plunging it in supercold  liquid nitrogen solution.

  • Dosage: topping off the wine with varied amounts of sugar to determine final level of sweetness.

  • Levels of Sweetness:
Brut: no perceptible sweetness in wine; little, if any, sugar added during dosage. Low sugar and high acidity render it a good food wine.
Extra Dry: slightly sweet; some residual sugar on palate
Sec: relatively sweet wine, more so than Extra Dry
Demi-sec: Sweet sparkling wine often served as dessert or to accompany a dessert

  • Blanc de Blancs: sparkling wine made predominantly from white grapes, typically Chardonnay
  • Blanc de Noirs: sparkling wine made predominantly of black grapes – usually Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier.
  • Rosé: generally fuller bodied wines produced by adding red still wine to the bottle or macerating the juice with red grape skins. Best suited for accompanying meals.
  • Crémant: Sparkling wines from French regions outside Champagne (Burgundy, Alsace, Loire) using the méthode traditionelle.