By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR
There once was a time when only a handful of states produced respectable wines. Now, wine is made in all but a couple of states – and a lot of it is respectable.
Although improved winemaking has enabled amateur winemakers to overcome weather obstacles, the opportunities have expanded because of climate change and a better understanding of what grapes perform well in cooler climates.
States like Maryland and Pennsylvania have turned to hybrid grapes that adapt better to their harsh winters and shorter growing seasons. But winemakers also have been able to grow vitis vinifera grapes like chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon because of improved vineyard stock and warmer weather.
American winemakers have also introduced grape varieties that have had a long history of success in European countries. Grapes like lagrein and teroldego, grown in the Trentino-Alto Adige region of northern Italy, have prospered in cooler climates. We’ve also seen the growth of blaufränkisch – a grape popular in Austria, Czech Republic, Germany and Croatia – in the United States and elsewhere. These grape varieties may not be household names, but they produce excellent wines for the advertursome.
Pinot noir – despite its fickleness – is probably the most universal and well-respected grape grown worldwide. It does well in cooler (not cold) climates. Just recently we were stunned by the quality of two pinot noirs from Germany. A decade ago, we scoffed at these wines and wondered why German winemakers even tried to grow red grapes in their cold climate. What pinot noirs we tasted were thin and insipid with color that was closer to rose than pinot noir.
Called spätburgunder, pinot noir is the most widely planted red grape in Germany. And today, Germany itself is the third largest producer of pinot noir (France and the U.S. are one and two respectively). The two examples of spätburgunder we sampled showed evidence of improved winemaking – a result of an exchange of knowledge that came with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Yields have been reduced and smaller oak barrels have been traded for larger barrels. The result is a sweet-fruit wine, soft texture with low tannin levels and much darker color. We can’t say the spätburgunders we tasted had the finesse of a burgundy, but they were unquestionably delicious. Although the fruit is ripe, the wine is dry – or “trocken” as the Germans call it.
The wines had perceptible chaptalization, which means the winemaker added sugar to raises the alcohol levels.
The 2010 Weingut Salwey Spätburgunder ($28) we tasted was simple but delicious with ripe, extracted strawberry and cranberry fruit. We also liked the 2009 Weingut Bernard Huber spätburgunder ($40). Rich, ripe strawberry fruit with perceptible oak. Both wines have the qualitatswein designation, which is one of two categories for quality German wine. The higher level is pradkatswein, which is reserved for the country’s top-level wines.
Both wines are from Baden, the southern-most wine growing region in Germany where pinot noir is predominantly grown.
The best of Germany’s red wines rarely make it to the United States. Consumers here don’t look to Germany for pinot noir. Merchants tell us they are a hard-sell for them.
These pinot noirs will marry well with roasted chicken, trout or halibut, or braised short ribs.
HAPPY HEARTY BURGUNDY
This year Gallo is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its icon brand, Hearty Burgundy.
Although the anniversary may not mean a lot to you, for us it is a fond memory of our early days of wine drinking. Gallo was on the market when few other brands existed. Hearty Burgundy was a go-to wine – we mixed it in sangria and just enjoyed its simple but generous fruit flavors. Then, we got serious about wine and left Hearty Burgundy in our wakes. But even today Gallo is often the label that introduces people to wine.
We had an opportunity to re-taste this wine and found it had not changed. It’s still a good deal for $9 for a 1.5-liter bottle.
Hearty Burgundy was a creation of Ernst and Julio Gallo who wanted to put an affordable wine on a family’s dinner table. Their creation has been a blend of grapes – mostly zinfandel but also petit verdot, petite sirah, alicante bouschet.
Bodegas Garcia Figuero Robles Four Months in Barrel 2010 ($22). This splendid tempranillo from the Ribera del Duero region of Spain has layered black-fruit flavors, soft mouthfeel and hints of coffee and liquorice. Very delicious and well-priced.
Flora Springs Barrel-Fermented Chardonnay 2012 ($35). With a burgundian feel to it, this chardonnay drenches the palate with sweet, exotic fruit and a lush texture with hints of oak and mineral.
Sequoia Grove Napa Valley Chardonnay 2012 ($28). Vanilla and almond aromas hand off to a beautiful palate of apples and citrus with a touch of oak.