Sparkling wine — a popular choice surrounding parties, celebrations, and most certainly the holiday season. I use the term “sparkling wine,” because it is frowned upon (no, not illegal) to call a wine Champagne unless it comes from the actual Champagne region in France. But before we pop the cork on a few sparkling wine (and, yes, a few Champagne) reviews, let’s talk about what makes bubbles so special.
It makes sense that Zinfandel has gained a reputation as California’s “heritage grape.” For many years, Zinfandel’s exact origins remained a mystery, or, as Jancis Robinson calls it, “a romantic thriller.” The red grape seemed to have made the trek and set fresh roots in the Golden State in conjunction with the forty-niners seeking their fortune in gold. Here, when the search for treasure proved fruitless, settlers turned to farming — and the Zinfandel grape thrived more than the Gold Rush ever could. Fields of vines flourished throughout the Sierra Foothills, and wine — namely jug wine — became a household staple and a new California industry.
With no known parentage and no knowledge of how the red wine grape arrived in the States in the first place — Zinfandel became California’s “wine child.”
The reputation Miles gave Merlot from his famous line in Sideways is not without merit. Sometime in the mid-1990’s American Merlot plantings boomed: In 1985 there were less than 2,000 acres in California, but by 2003 (just around the time Sideways released), there were over 50,000 acres planted. As a result, Merlot became the go-to red wine of choice or, as WinePros.org says, “the generic red wine flavor of fashion.” Winemakers were virtually mass-producing the varietal to keep up with popular demand. So Merlot became known for its lack of flavor, texture, and structure — an “easy drinker” that didn’t need to be understood. But with Miles’ line, the wine-drinking masses, along with the winemakers, seemed to have woken up. What is this red wine we’ve been drinking without a thought?
Merlot is actually a tricky grape to grow — its nuances so subtle and only noticeable when harvested at the proper time. There are good Merlots in the world — with depth, complexity, and uniqueness. So let’s take a look at what makes Merlot…Merlot.
“Grenache is an unlikely hero of a grape,” says Jancis Robinson. And yet, it is the most planted wine grape in Southern France, (and the second most widely-planted wine grape in the world), is the primary ingredient in the popular Rhône grape trio GSM, and has garnered recent recognition for its contribution in the powerful red wines coming out of the mountainous region of Priorat in Spain. Indeed, it seems that in all cases, Grenache is considered a grape worth blending, playing a supporting role amongst a league of more forceful wines. So, to play on Robinson’s analogy, poor Grenache has both the perceived purpose and popularity as Aquaman among the Justice League.
This need not be the case. Depending on where its grown, how the vineyards are maintained, and the choices made during winemaking, Grenache can actually be quite sneaky-cool. A dedicated Grenache can stand on its own, with the strength and independence of, say, Catwoman.
Considered one of the “noble grapes,” it may come as a bit of a surprise that Cabernet Sauvignon is actually a relatively new variety — born in the 17th century as the child of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc somewhere in the Southwest of France. Cabernet may be considered “popular” amongst grape-growers because of its “ease of cultivation;” indeed, the thick-skinned grape is quiet hardy, naturally low- yielding, a late budder, and resistant to most environmental hazards (such as rot, mildew, and vineyard pests). But the truth is a Cabernet Sauvignon of true elegance and refinement is primarily crafted in the vineyard. It may not be susceptible to environmental hazards, but Cabernet wines are a true expression of terroir.