Pinot Noir is a variety named after the Pinot family, who lived in France during the Roman era. When the Romans invaded Gaul in the first century A.D., written history records that many fields of Pinot Noir were being cultivated. People became familiar with it because monks used it in their Holy Sacrament of Communion.
The patient monks began experimenting with Pinot, and over time, began improving it. Once they had improved it to a suitable quality, they started shipping barrels of it to the Pope in the Vatican! This practice lasted until 1789, when the lands were taken back from the church and returned to the surviving families.
The largest Pinot plantings in the world have always been found in France. They are found in many other countries as well, and are doing wonderfully in California. Since 1930, the Central Coast of California has produced fabulous Pinot Noir wines. Traveling north to the Napa Valley, Pinot Noir was historically used in sparkling wines, but after 1980, they too shifted to traditional Pinot Noir in the cooler regions. Moving even further north, Pinot Noir is now the most widely planted grape in Oregon. Coastal climates are ideal for growing Pinot Noir because cool ocean breezes are needed to grow really fabulous Pinot fruit.
The most appealing quality of the variety is the smoothly soft and velvety texture. This quality is typical of all styles of Pinot. Even though there is an abundance of styles, the two main categories are a typically French style and a bold California style.
A French style Pinot Noir is picked when the sugars are low and wine-making techniques are very gentle. This creates an enticing aroma on the palate which is heady and seductive, leading to a complexity in the taste, followed by a long lingering finish. The California style is typically rich and full-bodied with higher alcohol and stronger tannins. Both styles are equally popular although the French style is more cosmopolitan, appealing to the more sophisticated connoisseur.
Chardonnay is well on its way to becoming the most popular white wine in the world. Many will argue that its origins lie in France’s famous Burgundy region because it takes its name from a village in Maconnais. However, upon deeper exploration of the “roots” of this clone, one will find that DNA profiling has actually proven Chardonnay to be a member of the Pinot family, and crossed with a variety called Gouais Blanc from Croatia! It is believed that the Romans brought the Gouais Blanc vines to the little village of Chardonnay in France’s Burgundy region.
After the varietal was established in France around 1330, it was further developed by Cisterian monks. They busily began planting it in their vineyards, mass producing, and distributing it throughout France.
Once planted, the ancient vineyards began cross-pollinating and actually produced many other white varieties. No one is certain whether or not the wonderful Chardonnay vine was created by design or not, but there are certainly many dedicated Chardonnay drinkers who are happy that the cross occurred.
The ancient Chardonnay vine is a vigorous one which produces surprisingly consistent characteristics. The medium-sized fruit is tightly packed and is a brilliant golden-yellow color. It has a thin skin and is quite fragile. In this respect, you can clearly see the relation to the Pinot grape. As with Pinot Noir, you must take great care during harvest and winemaking or the delicate fruit will be ruined.
Chardonnay is a variety that is sensitive to the environment. Although it has a distinct taste, the characteristics will greatly vary in complexity depending on location and production style. It will even pick up characteristics of the earth and climate in which it is grown! Warm climate Chardonnay produces honey and buttery flavors, while cooler climates develop many wonderful fruit flavors.
Chardonnay should be fermented in oak barrels in order to develop its complexity. There are many alternate methods on today’s market such as stainless, no oak, and Chardonnay soaked in oak chips. However, in order to illicit as many flavor notes as possible, history has proven that oak barrel fermentation is best.
Merlot is the most popular and widely planted wine grape varietal in France, reaching its true zenith of expression in Bordeaux wine. Around the world, it’s the fifth most planted wine grape. Merlot has also been used to make stunning wines in Tuscany and to a much lesser degree in Switzerland, Australia, Argentina and numerous other countries, as well as in America. Merlot continues to gain in popularity as a grape for wine.
According to studies conducted by the university of California in Davis, the Merlot grape is related to Cabernet Franc and Carménère. Thanks to DNA testing, it is now thought that Merlot is a cross between Cabernet Franc and the obscure grape, Madeleine Noire des Charentes.
The grape earned its moniker “merle” from its eye catching, dark blue color. Merle in French is translated into “blackbird”, which could be taken to reference either the color or the birds fondness for the sweet flavored, thin-skinned grape.
Merlot thrives best in the clay and limestone soils in France. However, aside from France, Merlot is also popular, as well as successful; in Italy, California, Australia, Chile and Argentina. In Italy, the Merlot grape is the heart and soul of many of the best Super Tuscan wines.
Merlot is the ideal blending grape because of its complexity. Merlot, due to its higher sugar levels and perforce, increased percentage of alcohol, is sweeter than Cabernet Sauvignon, and it also ripens earlier. In fact, most of the inexpensive, generic Bordeaux wines are usually dominated by Merlot.
Grenache may be the world’s most popular grape. This is because it is not only a wonderful “stand-alone” wine, but it is also used for blending with many red varieties: especially Syrah. It is the second most planted grape in the world!
Most historians agree that the Grenache vine originated in Spain in the northern region of Aragon. This is based on ampelographical evidence, so it is the theory most commonly accepted. However, others will argue that the origins were on the Italian island of Sardinia. Its beginnings can be traced as far back as the 14th century, so by the 19th century, it was well-established in France. Grenache are some of the oldest vines in Europe.
In Chateauneuf du Pape, numerous growers boast Grenache vines that are over 100 years old. Those gnarled, old vines produce extremely low, yielding fruit that makes rich, concentrated wines with true character.
The grape enjoys worldwide popularity in numerous growing areas. It grows well in Spain, Australia, Languedob-Roussillon, and America. Many winemakers use it as a stand-alone variety, however, it is often blended with other grapes, most notably, Syrah.
Grenache vines should be planted in sandy, stony soil in the hottest and driest areas of the vineyard. The fruit enjoys a long time on the vine and does best when allowed to develop high sugar levels resulting in alcohol levels of around 15%.
Grenache grapes were brought to the United States in the 1860’s and planted in California. Over time, the vines became over planted thus decreasing the quality. When that began to happen, many farmers replaced them with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, so today, the quality has returned.
Syrah originated in the Norther Rhone region of France. Due to DNA typing and ampelographic investigation, there is no longer any doubt regarding its much debated beginnings. They Syrah grape is the result of the combination of the varieties Dueza and Mondeuse Blanche; a dark-skinned and a white grape, respectively. Arguments against this finding are based solely on names and synonyms that were casually used to describe similar grapes to Syrah, but none were an exact match.
Syrah has just recently been rediscovered, and this has led to expanded planting. Just in the last 40 years, popularity began to rise for Syrah both as a stand-alone and a blending wine; especially blending with Grenache. It is believed that the popular Australian Shiraz may have helped raise awareness due to its huge exporting of the varietal. Australia began growing Syrah in 1832, when it was brought over from Europe. In Australia, it is commonly referred to as Shiraz, and it is the second largest growing region in the world, after France.
This first Syrah vineyard in the United States was planted in Washington State in 1986. In the U.S., it is known by its French name, but by law, the name may appear either way, as Syrah or Shiraz, on the label. In California, Syrah first appeared in 1970, where it was used primarily as a blending wine in the Napa Valley. In the coastal regions, however, it is varietal based and known as “cool climate” Syrah.
Syrah wines differ greatly according to location. The grapes are sensitive to soil, slope and weather; and these differing conditions will create very different styles of wine. Australia, California and Washington produce Syrah that is often quite rich with fruit. French Syrah can be a bit more rustic. Whichever style of this grape you prefer, you’re bound to find many complex and enjoyable bottles.
The Petite Sirah grape originated in the 1870’s in France’s Rhône region. It was the result of a cross between Syrah and a less well-known Rhône variety, Peloursin. The cross was created in hopes of giving Syrah a better ability to resist mildew.
The Petite Sirah grape was planted in California for more than a century and is often used in blends, due to its deep color, intense tannins, and un-jammy flavors. It tones down, yet adds complexity, to wines that otherwise are heavily jammy, raisiny, or brown sugary.
Most plantings of Petite Sirah were made before the 1960’s, when vintners were mainly concerned with producing copious amounts of flavorful blends of generic burgundy. During this time, many varieties were often interplanted. As a result, few vineyards identified as Petite Sirah are pure.
Petite Sirah produces dark, inky wines that can stain your wine glass blue. Because the grapes are small, the skin-to-juice ratio is high, which means the wines can be quite tannic. It’s often delicious by itself as a varietal, but we can also fully understand its charm and usefulness in blends.
Petite Sirah has helped raise the reputation and awareness of Syrah by adding the intrigue of its mysterious origins linked to the Rhône and Syrah. Fans of Petite Sirah are the same customers who avidly buy Syrah. Consumers want to taste them side-by-side. They find this educational and fun. They love the idea that America has its own Rhône variety, and they want to see in what way the two varieties taste alike and different. If one is a Petite Sirah fan, it is natural to want to try Syrah and vice versa. In this way, association with Petite Sirah has long attracted consumers to Syrah— and to other Rhône wines as well.
Port is one of the great classic European wines, and its history is a long and fascinating one. Port grapes have been grown in Portugal since antiquity. The great geographers of ancient Greece indicate that inhabitants of the north west of the Iberian Peninsula were already drinking wine two thousand years ago. The Romans, who arrived in Portugal in the second century BC and remained for over five hundred years, grew vines and made wine on the banks of the Douro River were Port is produced today. The period of prosperity which followed the establishment of the Kingdom of Portugal in 1143, saw wine become an important export.
In 1386, the Treaty of Windsor established a close political, military and commercial alliance between England and Portugal. Under the terms of the treaty, each country gave the merchants of the other the right to reside in its territory and trade on equal terms with its own subjects. Strong and active trading links developed between the two countries and many English merchants settled in Portugal. By the second half of the 15th century, a significant amount of Portuguese wine was being exported to England, often in exchange for salt cod known in Portuguese as bacalhau.
Port wine is produced in the mountainous eastern reaches of the Douro Valley in northern Portugal, one of the world’s oldest and most beautiful vineyard areas where wine has been made for at least two thousand years.
The first shipments of wine under the name Port were recorded in 1678. Although the wine is produced inland in the vineyards of the upper Douro Valley, it takes its name from the coastal city of Oporto from which it is traditionally exported. Until well into the 20th century, the wine was carried down the river Douro from the vineyards in special boats. The wine was then unloaded into the ‘lodges’ of the Port houses which line the narrow lanes of Vila Nova de Gaia opposite of the old city centre of Oporto, to be aged, blended, bottled and finally shipped. The emergence of Port wine as we now know it occurred much later. The first wines known by this name were shipped in the second half of the 17th century.
In 1756, the Port wine vineyards of the Douro became the first vineyard area in the world to be legally demarcated. Like other great classic wines, Port owes its distinctive character to a unique association of climate, soil, grape variety and wine making tradition. The unique terroir of the Douro Valley and its remarkable wines cannot be replicated elsewhere.
So what is Port wine?
Port is a fortified wine. Fortified wines are made by adding a portion of grape spirit, or brandy, to the wine at some point during the production process. Port is arguably the greatest of all fortified wines, and its paramount expression, Vintage Port, ranks alongside the finest produced of Bordeaux or Burgundy as one of the great iconic wines of the world. In the case of Port, the addition of the brandy takes place before the wine has finished fermenting. This means that the wine retains some of the natural sweetness of the grape, making it rich, round and smooth on the palate.