The first wine country travel blog I started was California Wine Tasting Adventures which I later renamed The California Winery Review. I also created a You Tube site to post videos and slide shows. I later started The Oregon Winery Review. I haven’t post anything on it in a while but I hope to do so again in 2014. I then started Erik Wait’s Wine Country Photography to just share the beauty of the wine country. Finally, I created The World of Wine Review with the intent of writing about wines from around the world, excluding California and Oregon.
Since then I have been journaling my way through the Intensive Sommelier Training at the International Culinary Center as part of my studying The World of Wine.
In Unit 1 we had eight 4-hour lessons in which we covered the basics of viticulture, viniculture, still and sparkling wine service, decanting service and tasted numerous wines while learning the wine grid. We then had a summary overview of the entire world of wine. At the end of Unit 1 we had an exam which consisted of 27 questions and a blind tasting of 2 wines, one red and one white.
In Unit 2 we studied France for 10 lessons, 4 hours per lesson at the end of which we had another exam which consisted of 40 questions and a blind tasting of 2 wines, one red and one white.
In Unit 3 we will study New World Wines for 6 lessons and cover Northern California, Southern California, North America, South America, Australia and New Zealand. Needless to say, I am already very familiar Northern and Southern California and have written about and photographed wineries in every wine region within the state in The California Winery Review. But, for the sake of continuity I’ll cover the course material for California in this blog.
Venues, Varietals and Vintages
In the text books and in the course lecture we briefly covered the history of California winemaking. But, what I think is more important to remember and understand is how American wines are regulated and labeled differently than European wines in that they specify the wine’s venue of origin, the grape varietal and the vintage of the wine.
The American Viticultural Area (AVA) system was established in 1978 which they defined as a “delimited grape growing area” which refers only to geographical boundaries with no quality regulations or tasting panels involved. The AVA system is regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) and it differs from the French AOC system and other similar Old World classification systems.
The primary difference between the AOC system of France and AVA system of the United States is that the AVA only stipulates where the grapes are from and the only way that designation can convey quality is if the wineries in the region make the effort to establish a reputation for themselves. To put “Napa Valley” on a label is no guarantee of quality, but the Napa Valley AVA certainly has a higher reputation for quality Cabernet Sauvignon than Livermore, Lodi, or the Sierra Foothills. This is why Napa Valley wineries want to protect the Napa Valley designation and prohibit non-Napa Valley wineries from using the name anywhere on their label.
In theory, an AVA is determined and defined by certain unique geographic, geological and climatic characteristics that distinguish it from other regions. For example, the Los Carneros AVA (which is in both Napa and Sonoma County) is defined by the cooling influence of the San Pablo Bay and the clay soils. The recently designated Coombsville AVA is adjacent to the Carneros AVA and has the same cooling influence from the bay, but it has different soils. However, not all AVAs have such unique identifying characteristics and the geographical lines that define them can at times be determined more by local political interest, such as when they are merely named after the nearest town.
American AVA designations can be very broad only indicating that their wine is from the USA, to more specific narrowing it down to the specific state (such as California), county (such as Santa Barbara), designated region (Napa Valley), or sub-AVA (Oakville). In order to specify these designations a certain percentage of the grapes must come from the stated venue - Country: 75%, State: 75%, County: 75%, AVA: 85%.
Although they are never spoken of in this manner, AOCs and AVAs are essentially a way of controlling an enological brand. In branding you are seeking to establish a standard for quality for the region (or company, winery, etc.) so that people will purchase the product or service even if it is unknown simply because the name of the designation has a reputation for excellence. AOCs and AVAs then establish a list of stipulations that must be met in order for the product to bear the AOC or AVA designation. In the French AOC system the grapes that may be grown in the designated region, the yields, and the production method may all be regulated by the INAO. In contrast, the AVA system is solely based upon geographic boundaries and those wineries within the AVA seek to establish a reputation of quality that is unique for that AVA. Yet at times there may be wineries that are just outside their legal border who have the same geographic and climatic distinctives but they are on the “out” because they failed to have themselves included when the borders of the AVA were drawn. What tends to follow then are legal battles as the wineries on the outlying area wish to be included in the AVA while those who want to maintain exclusivity for the AVA brand seek to maintain the original geographic boundaries.
Another means of conveying quality of a wine is by having a Vineyard Designation on the label which more narrowly defines the source from which the grapes are sourced by indicating the vineyard. This has been a common practice in France for quite some time, especially in Burgundy. One of the first vineyard designated premium wines in California was the 1966 vintage Heitz Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Later examples include the 1975 Robert Young Vineyard Chardonnay from the Sonoma wine estate of Chateau St. Jean. Under U.S. wine laws, if the name of vineyard appears on the label at least 95% of the grapes used to make the wine must come from that vineyard.
The only place in France where it the wine is designated by the grape varietal is Alsace. In the United States the most common designation of a wine is by the grape varietal (Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay etc.) of which it must contain at least 75% of that grape. So, a wine labeled Zinfandel may only contain 76% of the grape and the remaining portion may be Petite Sirah, Carignan or any other grape. If not designated by the grape varietal the wine may be a blend with a proprietary brand name (such as Opus One) or they may be simply be labeled as “Red Table Wine”.
It is very common for a wine labeled as Cabernet Sauvignon to contain only 75% of the grape with the other 25% consisting of Merlot, Petite Verdot, or Malbec making it more of a Bordeaux-style blend. Such blends may also labeled as Meritage (an invented term that rhymes with “Heritage”) if they contain all Bordeaux varietals and meet the criteria of the Meritage Alliance.
If the wine specifies the vintage, 95% of the grapes must have come from the designated year’s harvest. If the wine is labeled “Estate” 100% of the grapes must be from a vineyard either owned or leased by the producer. The winery and the vineyards must be located in the same AVA and the winery must crush, ferment, finish, age and bottle wine in a continuous process.
Unlike Italy’s Reserva wines, the designation “Reserve” in the U.S.A. has no legal requirements. But, generally they tend to be wines from what the producer considers to be the winery’s best vineyards or barrels of wine.
These are the general required standards that must be met to have these designations, but individual states and AVAs can be even more restrictive. For example, if the label claims or implies “Oregon,” an Oregon county, or an AVA wholly within Oregon 100% of the grapes must be from Oregon and 95% from that appellation of origin.
Learning Objectives of Unit 3 – Day 1: Northern California White Wines
At the beginning of class lectures a list of learning objectives is provided to the students. By the end of the class, the students should have a certain degree of understanding from their own reading and the lectures and be able to provide the answers to list of questions. The Learning Objectives for Unit 3 - Day 1 along with the answers are as follows.
By the end of class, students should be able to:
(1) Name the major wine regions of California
Answer: North Coast AVA (Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino etc.), Central Coast AVA (Monterey, SLO, Santa Barbara etc.), South Coast AVA (San Bernadino), Central Valley (Lodi, not an AVA), Sierra Foothills (Amador, El Dorado, etc.)
(2) State what agency regulates the U.S. wine industry.
Answer: TBB, formerly known as the BATF
(3) State the USA required % for varietal and AVA labeling
Answer: Varietal Content 75%, Vintage 95%, Origin of Grapes: County 75%, State 75%, County 75%, AVA 85%, 95% Vineyard.
(4) Name the AVAs in the Napa Valley
Answer: Calistoga, St. Helena, Oakville, Rutherford, Staggs Leap, Oak Knoll, Yountville, Wild Horse Valley, Chiles Valley, Coombsville, Carneros, Diamond Mountain, Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain, Atlas Peak, Mount Veeder,
(5) Name the AVAs in Sonoma County
Answer: Sonoma Coast AVA, Northern Sonoma AVA, Dry Creek AVA, Rockpile AVA, Alexander Valley AVA, Knights Valley AVA, Chalk Hills AVA, Russian River Valley AVA, Green Valley AVA, Bennet Valley AVA, Sonoma Mountain AVA, Los Carneros AVA, Fort Ross- Seaview AVA, Pine Mountain – Cloverdale Peak AVA
(6) Name the AVAs in Mendocino County.
Answer: Anderson Valley AVA, Cole Ranch AVA, Dos Rios AVA, McDowell Valley AVA, Mendocino Ridge AVA, Potter Valley AVA, Redwood Valley AVA, Yorkville Highlands AVA.
(7) Name 5 California sparkling wine producers and their parent company
Answer: Domaine Chandon (Moet et Chandon), Mumm Napa (GH Mumm), Roederer Estate (Louis Roederer), Domaine Carneros (Taittinger), Gloria Ferrer (Freixenet)
(8) Describe the attributes of any wines tasted today
Answer: See below
On the first day of Unit 3 we tasted the following 8 white wines:
1. NV Roederer Estate, Brut, Anderson Valley
This wine is clear, pale-hay in color, with obvious gas bubbles. On the nose it is fruit forward with crisp apples, pears, a hint of cherry and underlying bready and yeast notes. On the palate it is clean, crisp and very fresh with medium+ acidity, medium- body, a medium length finish with moderate complexity. In my last review of Unit 2 Day 10 we learned about Champagne and I reviewed 9 wines. Although I have been to at least a half-dozen wineries that produce sparking wine in California, I have never reviewed any sparking wines for one reason – I’m just not a fan of sparkling wine. If I want bubbles in my beverage I’ll drink a soda pop. The primary difference between those French sparkling wines and this one is the freshness of the fruit and the lack of minerality in this California wine. Champagne is a cold-continental climate with chalky or a clay-chalk soil and they harvest the grapes at what would be considered under-ripe in other regions. The result is they have very high acidity and high minerality in the wines with the fruit more in the background with the yeasty-bready notes being a major player. This wine sells for about $20.
2. 2012 Dry Creek, Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County
This wine is clear, straw in color, star-bright, low concentration and medium+ viscosity. On the nose it is clean with aromas of white grapefruit, juicy green apples, lemon, melon, mango, and white flowers. On the palate it is dry with fresh flavors of tropical fruit, grapefruit pith, lemon-lime with some tartness on the back end. It has medium+ acidity, medium body, medium+ alcohol and a medium length finish. What makes this wine distinctly Californian (or at least New World) are the tropical notes, the lack of minerality and it doesn’t have the intense grassy-herbal notes of New Zealand. This wine sells for about $15, not a bad wine at that price!
3. 2011 Chateau Montelena, Riesling, Potter Valley, Mendocino County
This is a clear yellow-gold wine, star-bright with medium concentration and moderate viscosity. On the nose it is clean with aromas of bruised apples, canned pears, apricots, quince, a touch of honey and petrol. On the palate it is dry with flavors of tangy apricots, lime and green apples. It has medium+ acidity, medium body and a medium+ length finish. Although this wine is only two years old it is already showing signs of aging as this grape tends to do after the first two years. Potter Valley is also a warmer region than Alsace and Germany so the petrol notes tend to be show themselves more readily. This wine sells for about $20.
4. 2012 Melville, Viognier, Central Coast
This is a clear yellow-gold wine with a tinge of green around the edges with low concentration and medium+ viscosity. On the nose it is clean with pronounced aromas of orange blossoms, jasmine, honeydew melon, canned fruit salad, oranges and nectarines. It has flavors of candied quince, vanilla and tropical fruits. On the palate it is dry with some alcohol sweetness, medium+ to full-bodied, medium+ acidity and a medium length finish. I visited Melville Winery in May 2012 and tasted their Chardonnays, Pinots and a Syrah which were impressive. I wasn’t all that impressed with this wine as the alcohol seemed to be a bit out of balance. This wine sells for about $18 - $20.
5. 2011 Joseph Drouhin, Pouillu-Fuisse, France
Obviously this wine is not from California but we tasted it to form a basis of comparison between a French and Californian Chardonnay.
This wine is clear, straw in color, star-bright, low concentration, with minimal rim variation and medium- viscosity. On the nose it is clean with subtle aromas of green apples, pears, white flowers, a hint of green dried herbs, chalk and no obvious signs of any oak. On the palate it has flavors of green apples, stone fruit and chalk. It is dry with a hint of sweetness, medium+ acidity, medium body, medium alcohol and moderate complexity and a medium length finish. What will be an obvious difference between this wine and the Chardonnays that follow is the minerality and the lighter use of oak and restraint on the malolactic fermentation. This wine sells for about $28.
6. 2011 Red Car, Chardonnay, Russian River Valley
This wine is clear, yellow, day-bright with medium concentration, and minimal rim variation. On the nose it is clean with medium+ intense aromas of baked apples, nectarines, toasted marshmallows, butter and popcorn. On the palate it has flavors of apple pie, bananas, vanilla, and roasted nuts. It is dry with medium body, medium+ alcohol and a medium+ length finish. If you like this style of Chardonnay, this wine is well-balanced. This wine sells for about $35.
7. 2009 Thomas Fogarty, Albutom, Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains
This wine is clear, yellow with medium concentration, medium+ to high viscosity. On the nose it is clean with medium+ aromas of quince, baked apples, butterscotch, caramel, vanilla, popcorn and nuts. On the palate it is full-bodied with medium+ acidity, medium+ to high alcohol and a medium+ length finish. It has all the characteristics of a barrel fermented Chardonnay. I reviewed two other Chardonnays in January 2013 from Thomas Fogarty when I visited the winery and the second was similar in its profile, yet I preferred this one. This wine sells for about $46.
8. 2011 Forman, Chardonnay, Napa Valley
This is a clear white wine, straw-yellow in color, day-bright, medium concentration medium+ viscosity. On the nose it is clean with subtle youthful aromas of yellow apples, dried green herbs, thyme, with hints of vanilla, popcorn, and butter. On the palate it has flavors of lemon-lime, green apples and vanilla. It is dry with medium+ acidity, it is full-bodied with medium+ alcohol, moderately complex with a medium length finish. This is a well-balanced California style Chardonnay that shows more restraint than the previous two wines in its use of oak. This wine sells for about $44.
If these wines are fair representatives of the various styles of California white wines the clear indicators of their origin is the effect that a warmer climate has on the fruit and in the case of the Chardonnays, the tendency to go heavier on the malolactic fermentation and their lack of minerality. However, there were some California wines mentioned in class that we did not taste but I have experienced in my travels (such as Stony Hill Chardonnay) which use no or only neutral oak and are not as heavy in their alcohol.