Friday, June 17, 2016

Experiencing Bordeaux in Books and Movies

When I travel, I like to learn as much as I can about the place I'm visiting before I go. A fun way to do that is through books and movies. Here's a collection of fiction and non-fiction books and movies I'm interested in reading and watching before I visit Bordeaux in 2017. (I'm assembling a group to go on a tour, and we still have spaces available. Email me if you're interested!)

I've marked the ones I've read or seen (*) and added a personal review, and I'll update this post as I make progress on the list.

Non-fiction books (wine, travel, and history)

Intoxicating Southern France: Bordeaux & Dordogne Spotlight, by PJ Adams
Part travel guide, part history, part memoir.

The Road from the Past, Traveling through History in France, by Ina Caro
A driving tour of France from Provence to the Loire Valley, passing through Bordeaux. Focuses on historical sites.

*The Billionaire’s Vinegar, by Benjamin Wallace
The story of several now-infamous bottles of Bordeaux which may or may not have been owned by Thomas Jefferson.  The investigation uncovers massive levels of wine fraud of old bottles at the highest levels of wine collecting.  Suspenseful, fun to read, and covers many areas of the wine world – from history, to auctions and collecting, to storing and tasting.  I loved reading it, and a film version is in pre-production.

Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure, by Donald Kladstrup
The story of how winemakers partnered with the French Resistance to protect France’s vineyards and wine from pillaging by the Germans. Hailed as a “non-fiction historical thriller” that’s accessible and fun to read while covering lots of information about World War II.

Noble Rot: A Bordeaux Wine Revolution, by William Echikson
The story of the modernization of the production and marketing of Bordeaux wine in the last few decades and the impact of global economics.  (Noble rot refers to a fungus involved in the making of Bordeaux’s finest dessert wines.)

Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life, by Alison Weir
Biography of a woman “renowned in her time for being the most beautiful woman in Europe, the wife of two kings … [and] one of the great heroines of the Middle Ages.” Mother of Richard “the Lion-Hearted,” she was at the center of the battle between England and France for the region of Aquitaine, which includes Bordeaux.


Adventures on the Wine Route, A Wine Buyer's Tour of France, by Kermit Lynch
Described as “colorful” and “irreverent” and recognized for its descriptions of cuisine and countryside.

A Vineyard in the Dordogne: How an English Family Made Their Dream of Wine, Good Food and Sunshine Come True, by Jeremy Josephs
The story of the challenges an English family faces when they buy an old chateau and vineyard outside of Bordeaux and attempt to begin a new life and run a successful winery.

Bordeaux wine reference books

The Essential Guide to Bordeaux Wines, by the Bordeaux Wine School
Covers the essential information about Bordeaux’s history, chateaux, wine trade, grape blends, and food pairings.

*The Finest Wines of Bordeaux, A Regional Guide to the Best Chateaux and Their Wines, by James Lawther
This is a super reference book and overall handbook for Bordeaux. It covers history, winemaking, and vintages, but the bulk of the guide is made up of profiles of Bordeaux producers and descriptions of their wines. It's a great buying guide and includes value-priced recommendations.

Fiction:  Novels

A Bordeaux Dynasty, by Francoise Bourdin
A family saga revolving around the family’s vineyard in Bordeaux.

The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce (aka Bordeaux), by Paul Torday
By the author of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.  Novel about a rich young man who falls in love with Bordeaux and the world of wine.

Fiction:  Mystery/Thriller

*Treachery in Bordeaux, by Jean-Pierre Alaux
A novella, first of the “winemaker detective” book series which inspired a French TV series. I found it thin on mystery, but it includes some good descriptions of Bordeaux and the surrounding countryside, along with plenty of interesting technical information about winemaking. The TV show is better than the book…see Blood of the Vine below.

*The Vintage Caper, by Peter Mayle
By the author of the bestseller A Year in Provence and A Good Year. This wine heist mystery travels from Los Angeles to Bordeaux to Provence. Don't expect a thriller, but do expect a well-written story with good descriptions of French cities, French food, and French wine. This is a quick an enjoyable read.

*Deadly Slipper:  A Novel of Death in the Dordogne, by Michelle Wan
First in a series of mysteries set in the small towns and countryside to the east of Bordeaux. The main characters are an orchidologist and an interior designer who are thrown together to solve the mystery of a missing sister, and orchids are a clue. This novel has an intriguing mystery and well-drawn characters. It also gives you a feeling for the landscape, food, and communities in this region. I enjoyed reading it, and I may read the subsequent books in the series (there are 3 more).

Death in Bordeaux, by Allan Massie
Crime novel set in the 1940s, starring a police detective and depicting the impact of World War II on Bordeaux.

The Bordeaux Connection, by John Paul Davis
Modern-day thriller set in the UK and France.

Bordeaux: The Bitter Finish, by Janet Hubbard
Second in the series, the first being Champagne: The Farewell. Mystery starring a female bodyguard who is protecting a famous wine critic. Depicts Bordeaux society and has lots of discussions of fine wine. (I read Champagne and found it to have a serviceable mystery plot, but it was not particularly well written. I'm still planning to read Bordeaux though.)

Fiction:  Mythology

Huon of the Horn, by Andre Norton
A 1950s adaptation of a very old Charlemagne legend, originally translated into English in 1534. It has been described as a lesser medieval adventure in the vein of the Arthurian legends or the Song of Roland. "A tale of that Duke of Bordeaux who came to sorrow at the hands of Charlemagne and yet won the favor of Oberon, the elf king, to his lasting fame and great glory."

Fiction:  Historical Romance

Practical Widow to Passionate Mistress, by Louise Allen
Historical romance set in the 1820s(-ish) in Bordeaux.

Documentary Films

*Red Obsession (2013)
Examines the Chinese love for Bordeaux wine, which has had a huge impact on the global wine market. I really enjoyed the film and wrote a full review here. It's currently available to stream on Netflix.

Movies about or set in Bordeaux

You Will Be My Son (Tu seras mon fils) (2011)
Set and filmed at an actual working chateau in St. Emilion (right bank of Bordeaux), this drama is about a chateau owner who decides his son should not succeed him in running the business. The actual vineyard workers appear in the film. This article has more information about the filming. Available to stream on Netflix.

*Blood of the Vine (2013)
French TV series based on the "Winemaker Detective" series of books mentioned above. In French with English subtitles. I've only seen the first episode so far, but I really liked it. The oenologist uses clues in the wine to help the police solve the case, and you get to see quite a bit of the city of Bordeaux and the surrounding countryside and vineyards. I will watch more of this! It's currently available to stream on Amazon.

*He Loves Me…He Loves Me Not (2002)
A dark romantic comedy starring Audrey Tautou. In French with English subtitles. I don't want to talk abut the plot because of possible spoilers, so I'll just say that this film has an intriguing twist that makes it unpredictable, and I liked it. It is set and shot in Bordeaux, but it doesn't showcase the area aside from a few street scenes.

Goya in Bordeaux (1999)
A biopic of the artist Goya told from the perspective of his last years when he lived in Bordeaux.

*The Lion in Winter (1968)
King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn), "engage in a battle of royal wits that pits elder son Richard (Anthony Hopkins) against his brothers, while the cunning King Philip of France (Timothy Dalton) takes advantage of the internal fracturing in his bid to destroy their kingdom." Set in 12th century Britain, a key point of negotiation is Eleanor’s land holdings in Aquitaine, the French province that includes Bordeaux. The film won an Oscar for Hepburn's performance and for the screenplay.

I really enjoyed watching this. It gives you a snapshot of history from the personal perspective of the characters. It's based on a play, which you can tell from the verbal sparring. And if you like verbal sparring and wit, you will love this, because sharp dialogue is the defining feature of the film. It is dizzying. Of course the acting is also superb.

Movies set elsewhere, but filmed in Bordeaux

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)
Most of the film was shot in Germany, but Bordeaux was used for some of the city scenes of early 19th century Europe.

*Queen Margot (1994)
"The film’s famous St. Bartholomew Day massacre scene was filmed in Saint Michel and Saint Pierre, the city’s oldest districts, whose narrow, winding streets and medieval buildings are perfectly reminiscent of 16th century Paris, where the real massacre occurred."

Vidocq (2001)
An action/crime/fantasy film where Bordeaux stands in for early 19th century Paris.

*Valmont (1989)
Bordeaux also stands in for Paris in this romantic drama directed by Milos Forman and based on the same novel that inspired Dangerous Liaisons and Cruel Intentions. Features a young Colin Firth!

Second Chances (Nos Retrouvailles) (2012)
Uses Bordeaux in a contemporary setting. (I can't find any region 1 DVDs or streaming sources for this one...)

Thérèse (2012)
A drama starring Audrey Tautou which was filmed almost entirely in the Gironde region of France, near Bordeaux. Tells the story of a provincial housewife in the 1920s who wants to escape her marriage.

La Révolution Française (1989)
A 2-part history of the French Revolution filmed in Bordeaux.

*Highlander (1992-1998)
In this TV series, Bordeaux stands in for Paris, where Duncan MacLeod lives on a houseboat in the Seine.

This article adds some perspective to Bordeaux as a filming location.

You may also be interested in:
Tour Bordeaux with a French Wine Scholar
Sorting Out the Names: A Brief History of Bordeaux
Wine Infographic: French Wine Cheat Sheet

Friday, June 3, 2016

Visit Granbury, taste great Texas wine.

Recently I wrote about the grapes that are thriving in Texas (Introduction to the Grapes of Texas). Roussanne is one of them. This white grape is native to France and appears in the white wines of France's Rhone Valley. It also appears in the red wines of the region, since it is one of the few white grapes allowed to be blended into Rhone's red wines in small quantities. Roussanne is primarily found in southern France, but its presence is growing in Texas, particularly in the Texas High Plains AVA

Last year I visited Barking Rocks Winery outside of Granbury, Texas and tasted a wonderful Roussanne. It has aromas of citrus, crisp peach, cantaloupe, and floral notes. On the palate it's dry and balances smooth-and-fruity with crisp-tart-refreshing. At Barking Rocks they feel strongly that Roussanne is right for Texas. They put it right on the label:

I have to agree. I liked all the wines at Barking Rocks, and I recommend you visit and taste for yourself.

The Granbury area (southwest of Fort Worth) makes a great weekend getaway from Houston (or Dallas or Austin). You can visit Dinosaur Valley State Park and see the dino tracks, stay at the historic Nutt House, catch a show at the opera house (we saw Spamalot!), shop on the town square, and definitely visit Barking Rocks. If you like beer, check out Revolver Brewing too.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

A Simple Greek Meal with Greek Wine

This week kicked off a project relating to the history of wine, which I’ll be working on for the next year and a half. (More on that soon.) To mark the occasion I decided to drink a wine from one of the oldest winemaking countries in the world. The Greeks have made wine since at least 600 BC or so, and possibly much earlier.

I bought this bottle in the market section of one of my favorite Mediterranean restaurants, and it turns out to be fairly mysterious. In examining the label, you can see many references to specific regions (Macedonia, Mount Athos, etc.), but none of these names correspond to any lists of Greek wine appellations I have found. I've concluded this wine is classified at the "table wine" level, but if you're a Greek wine expert please post in the comments and help me out.

Another confusing thing is the grape. No grape is mentioned on the bottle, but there is an indigenous Greek variety called Agiorgitko, which appears very similar to the wine's name, Agioritikos (adding a "g," losing the "s"). However, the Agiorgitko is mainly grown in the Peloponnese, which is on the other side of Greece from Macedonia, where this wine is from.

When all else fails, consult the winery's web site! Actually I should have started there, but in this case it wouldn't have helped much. The Protopapas winery doesn't list this wine on its site. It does helpfully list all the grapes the estate grows, which include: Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Frank [Franc], Cabernet Sauvignon, Georgina, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Traminer. This rules out Agiorgitiko and suggests that my initial impression of the wine resembling a Cabernet Sauvignon was probably correct. "Agioritkos" is probably just a proprietary name for the wine, unrelated to a grape.


Here's the full tasting note:

  • Appearance:  deep ruby/garnet
  • Aromas:  cherry, blackberry, fresh and dried fruits, mint/menthol, cedar, and it develops a hint of olives as it breathes
  • Palate:  dry, medium acid, medium-to-high tannin, medium-to-high alcohol (14%), flavors of red and black fruits
  • Finish:  short 

The wine has very nice aromas and flavors. At 8 years old I was impressed with how much tannin was still noticeable and how much the wine continued to mellow and improve in the glass. I might even recommend decanting or aerating it. A slight detraction was that the alcohol seemed a bit high to be in perfect balance, but making sure to serve it slightly chilled (~65 degrees) would correct most of that. I paid $17 for the bottle, and I would do it again.

A good rule of thumb for wine pairing is to eat foods that come from the same region or country as the wine, so a Greek dinner was on the menu. Because it was a Tuesday night, I needed it to be fast and easy. I’ve noticed lately that HEB has begun carrying more pre-made Greek/Mediterranean foods in their larger stores. I picked up a container of baba ganoush (eggplant dip) and one of dolmas, both of which were very tasty. I love dipping chunks of red bell pepper in my baba ganoush. There was also tabouli which I’ll try next time. I didn’t see any freshly made pita, but I found naan, which I think is just as good (or better).

Because I expected the wine to be big and flavorful (and it was) I really wanted to serve lamb, but again, it had to be quick and easy. My grocery store stocks lamb scallopini, which is thin slices of lean lamb and is very quick to prepare. Throw the lamb slices in a bowl, sprinkle them liberally with Greek seasoning (I used Penzey’s blend, but whatever combination you like of salt, pepper, spices, and herbs would do fine), and drizzle with olive oil. Use your fingers to evenly distribute and rub in the seasoning, and let the lamb sit while you get everything else ready. I opted to roast some onions, because they sounded really good with the lamb. Just before you’re ready to eat, heat a little olive oil in a non-stick skillet and sauté the lamb for 1-2 minutes per side, which will leave it slightly pink in the center.

I was surprised at how quick and easy it was to assemble a restaurant-quality Greek meal at home, by combining a few pre-made items with a fast lamb sauté. You could easily get fancier and make a quick pan sauce for the lamb if you wanted. And everything paired nicely with the wine. I haven’t explored Greek wine very much, so this will be a good incentive for me to drink more of it and learn more about it.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Sorting Out the Names: A Brief History of Bordeaux

The names of the regions in and around Bordeaux can be confusing. For one thing, Bordeaux is the name of a city, a winemaking region, and a wine. In addition, many names get tossed around in relation to this part of France:  Bordeaux, Aquitaine, Gascony, Gironde, Dordogne. Let’s take a brief trip through history that will help us figure out what everyone is talking about.  Here’s the general area in question:

The city of Bordeaux and surrounding areas.

Pre-History to the Middle Ages

Paleolithic humans lived in this area and created the famous Lascaux cave paintings not far away, which are more than 17,000 years old. In pre-Roman times the area’s settlers were descended from the Iberians and/or Basque people of Spain, rather than the Celts who inhabited most of France at that time. We know these people as the Aquitani. In the 1st century BC the Romans conquered most of France during the Gallic Wars. They understood the region as “Aquitania” and kept the name when they controlled the province.

Roman map of Gaul before the Gallic wars.*

Roman map of Gaul after they conquered it.*

Middle Ages to the Renaissance

In the early Middle Ages the Visigoths took over as Roman rule disintegrated, but were soon defeated by the Franks (c. 500 AD). The area surrounding the present day city of Bordeaux became the Duchy of Aquitaine, and the area to the south became the Duchy of Vasconia or Gascony. These two united under Felix of Aquitaine in 660.

The semi-independent Kingdom of Aquitaine was made up of Gallo-Romans north of the Garonne River and Basques to the south of the river. When the kingdom was threatened by the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate invading from Spain, it submitted to the rule of the Frankish kingdom next door in exchange for help. The Franks won a great battle here at the Battle of Tours in 732, led by Charles Martel (“The Hammer” – he’s the tough, smart general), grandfather of Charlemagne. Without this victory, the expanding Arab empire could have conquered much of Europe.

The (Frankish) Carolingian Empire officially began with Charlemagne’s crowning in 800, though the Franks had ruled France and Germany for a long time already. For the next few centuries the region of Aquitaine was passed around between various other ruling kingdoms, and the title “King of Aquitaine” (“Aquitaine” now including Vasconia/Gascony) was more honorary than literal.

Aquitaine officially joined France in 1137 when Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine married Louis VII King of France, but the marriage was annulled in 1152. In 1154 Eleanor married King Henry II of England, and Aquitaine became part of England. (Eleanor and Henry’s sons include Richard I (the Lionhearted), famed for his military prowess in the Crusades, and John, who sucked his thumb and annoyed Robin Hood. They were both kings of England after Henry II – first Richard, then John.)

Eleanor marries Louis VII.*

King John wants his Mummy (Eleanor).*

The French and English fought over Aquitaine (and other things) for roughly 300 years, but Aquitaine remained English until the end of the Hundred Years’ War in 1453, when the French won it back for good at the Battle of Castillon. (1453 was a big year for important territory changing hands.) During these centuries Aquitaine and England developed close ties, including a booming wine trade. Profits from Aquitaine were a large source of income for England.

Aquitaine’s borders shifted periodically during the Middle Ages, as land was won and lost. It was also commonly known as Guyenne, though the boundaries of Guyenne varied, and the two names were not always synonymous.

French Revolution to Today

Guyenne and Gascony were French provinces until 1790, when the system of Departments was introduced as a result of the French Revolution. The new French leadership figured that a reorganization of the administrative districts would break up old power centers and loyalties and give them better control of the country. 

Today France is divided into 18 administrative regions. Several regions have recently been combined, and have temporary names until a new name is chosen. The region encompassing Bordeaux, previously known as Aquitaine, has merged with the neighboring regions of Limousin and Poitou-Charentes, forming the new region temporarily named Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes. By October 1, 2016 this region will have its new official name. Bordeaux, the capital of the former Aquitaine, will remain the capital of this new region, which will be the largest in France.

The 18 administrative regions contain 101 Departments. Bordeaux is the capital of its Department, Gironde. The Dordogne Department sits immediately to the east (upriver) and is closely associated with the area, particularly as a common tourist destination along with Bordeaux. (The Lascaux Caves are in the Dordogne.) From the time of the earliest kingdoms until now, Bordeaux has always been the largest and most important capital city of this evolving region.

Sorting Out the Names:  Maps are Helpful

Here’s your quick-reference checklist for the nomenclature.

Aquitaine = the name of the region surrounding Bordeaux since pre-Roman times. The name remains part of the French administrative region today (Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes), but could change later this year.

The former French administrative region of Aquitaine.*

The new region of Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes.*

Gascony = the region south of old Aquitaine, near the present France/Spain border, which merged with Aquitaine during the Middle Ages. The term is still used in reference to the southern part of this general area. 

Gironde = an administrative Department within the region of Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes, with the city of Bordeaux as its capital. The Gironde Department encompasses the Bordeaux wine region. Gironde is also the name of the estuary formed where the Dordogne and Garonne rivers come together and flow into the Atlantic Ocean (see below). 

Bordeaux, both the city and the wine region, are in the Gironde Department.*
(In green -- click to enlarge.)

Bordeaux = the historic and modern capital city of the Aquitaine region (now Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes) and the capital city of the Gironde Department. It is also the name of the wine region.

The city and the wine region.*

Dordogne = the administrative Department immediately to the east of the Gironde, but the name is often heard in conjunction with these other areas. Also the name of 1 of the 2 rivers flowing through Bordeaux. 

Garonne = the other river that flows through Bordeaux. To the southeast the Lot et Garonne Department bears the river’s name.

The Dordogne River and the Garonne River come together to form the Gironde Estuary.*

*Most of these pictures are stolen shamelessly from Wikipedia. A few of them are stolen shamelessly from other places.

You may also be interested in:

Friday, May 6, 2016

The cheapest, easiest, laziest way to cook with wine.

Okay, I know what I'm about to say sounds bad, and I'm the first one to advocate for drinking good wine and serving it correctly. But when it comes to cooking with wine, I just don't have the time (or the budget) to be a perfectionist. So I've developed some strategies to get the great flavors from cooking with wine without any of the hassle.

The general rule is to not cook with any wine that you wouldn't want to drink. You might open a single bottle to put into the dish you're cooking and to drink while you eat it. Or, if you're cooking with the leftovers from an open bottle from a few days ago, you'll want to make sure you preserved that bottle properly, using a vacuum or gas system and putting the wine in the fridge.

This approach is admittedly not that hard, but I have a few issues with it, because maybe I'm cheap and/or lazy. First, I'll spend about $15 on a bottle of wine to drink with dinner. I won't do it every day, and I'll spend more on special occasions. I'm reluctant to pour a $15-a-bottle wine into spaghetti sauce. If I spent the money and chose the wine, I want to drink it! And if I'm supposed to always cook with wine I would drink, then we have a problem.

Second, I cook dinner for my husband and myself 4 or 5 nights a week. This requires a lot of both planning and improvising. Sometimes I plan a meal and use a recipe; sometimes I make it up as I go along from whatever we happen to have in the house. Sometimes we're drinking wine with dinner, sometimes not. Figuring out which bottle of wine to cook with complicates things, not in an insurmountable way, but in an "I worked all day and need to cook something healthy and fast and I don't want to deal with one more thing" kind of way.

Ideally, it would be nice to have a couple of different types of wine on hand for cooking (red, white, etc.), without having to plan ahead, without having to worry about an open bottle spoiling, without cringing as you pour some of your yummy $15 bottle into the pan.

Here's how you do it!

1)  Buy fortified wine. It lasts a LONG time in the refrigerator, even if you don't mess with the vacuum sealing or gas preservation gadgets. It may oxidize a bit after a while, but who cares? Lots of fortified wine is oxidized on purpose anyway, and even if your particular fortified wine isn't supposed to be oxidized, you're just cooking with it. You'll get some extra nutty/caramel notes. It'll be fine.

I keep 3 bottles in my fridge at all times:  Marsala (a fortified red), Vermouth (a fortified white with citrus and herbal flavors - kind of like an extra strong Sauvignon Blanc), and Sherry (a fortified and often oxidized white). This will cover you in nearly any situation. If you don't want to deal with more than 1 bottle taking up residence in your fridge, get Sherry. It's amazingly versatile, and I wouldn't hesitate to throw it into a dish that called for either red or white wine. Marsala, Vermouth, and Sherry all come in drier and sweeter versions. Go for the drier types.

Fortified wines are higher in alcohol (that's how they last so long) and more strongly flavored. So if you're working from a recipe, you may want to back off on the quantity of wine called for, and replace some of it with another cooking liquid, like water or stock.

2)  Buy cheap. I spend less than $10 per bottle for these wines, and they last a long time. (The 3 pictured above, which currently live in my fridge, run from $6-$8 each.) You wouldn't want to drink them by the glass, but take a few sips just to get to know what you're dealing with. They should taste okay, maybe even nice!

What about box wine? There are several good, perfectly drinkable boxed wines available today, and they make great cooking wines because they're cheap and stay fresh for a long time. However, I don't use them this way, because I'd rather be drinking something more interesting (from the perspective of region or grape) or of better quality. If I kept boxed wine around only for cooking, it would take me forever to go through such a large quantity. It's as much a problem of cabinet space as anything else. If you keep box wine on hand to drink, by all means cook with it!

A few final caveats:

If you've had a open bottle in your fridge for a REALLY long time -- like many months -- give it a little taste before you use it. If it doesn't seem moldy, funky, vinegary, etc., go ahead and use it. These wines should have a long life in the fridge, but check on them every now and then before using them.

This approach is great for upping your game on weeknight dinners. But I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone from planning a special meal, cooked and eaten with just the right wine, particularly if it's a recipe that really showcases the wine. That's a wonderful, delicious, rewarding way to spend an evening...just not one I can make happen every week...

For another contrarian voice on the "cook with wine you'd want to drink" rule, check out this great article from Serious Eats:  "Should You Really Only Cook With Wine You'd Drink? The Truth About Cooking With Wine."

And you may also be interested in:
How to Cook with Leftover Wine
How Much Alcohol Cooks Off?
Boxed Wine? Really?

Friday, April 22, 2016

Introduction to the Grapes of Texas

Now is a great time to get interested in Texas wine. Texas is the 5th largest wine producer in the country with more than 300 wineries and growing fast. Texas has more wine history than most people know -- vines were planted in Texas in the early 1600s, which is earlier than they came to California. In the early 1900s transplanted Texan Thomas Munson played an important role in solving the worldwide phylloxera crisis using rootstock from Texas grapes. The Texas wine industry today is often compared to the California wine industry in the 1970s -- the winemakers are still experimenting to see what works best in the climate, the quality ranges from very high to low-but-improving, and the wine is generally undervalued. Check out the Texas Wine Cheat Sheet for an overview of Texas' wine regions.

Most people think about wine in terms of grape variety. Learning about the grapes of a region is a good beginning for learning about the region's wines, but it's especially important in Texas because winemakers here are still figuring out what grapes grow best. In Burgundy winemakers have spent hundreds of years perfecting the wine identity of the region and the marriage of grape to vineyard site. In Texas these are open questions. So far, wineries and grape growers in Texas have tended to take one (or a combination) of the following approaches to their grape selection.

1.  Plant hybrid or native, non-vinifera varieties.

Vitis vinifera is the species of the most important wine grapes in the world and is native to Europe and Asia. Grapes from indigenous American species, such as V. labrusca and V. aestivalis, are generally looked down upon in terms of quality and are unfamiliar to consumers. However, these native varieties (or crosses of a native variety with V. vinifera) perform well in Texas' challenging climate and have resistance to native grape diseases. Popular non-vinifera or partial-vinifera grapes in Texas include Blanc du Bois (cross between vinifera and a native Florida variety), Lenoir/Black Spanish (cross between vinifera and aestivalis), and Norton (V. aestivalis).

Blanc du Bois is a white grape that can be reminiscent of Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, or even Moscato depending on how it's grown and fermented. Texas produces Blanc du Bois in dry, sweet, sparkling, and fortified styles. Lenoir is a red grape with the unusual characteristic of having red colored flesh (the flesh and juice of most red grapes are actually pale or white). It tends to make richly flavored red wines with herbal qualities and plenty of tannin. Texas produces it in many styles -- rosé, dry, sweet, and fortified -- but might be most successful with Port- and Madeira-style dessert wines. Norton is a red grape that also makes richly flavored red wines and is produced in dry, sweet, and fortified styles.

Texas winemakers are experimenting with ways to make high quality, consumer-friendly wines from these non-standard grapes. Some are very good, and some have a ways to go. Here are some nice examples I've tasted:

Blanc du Bois
Haak, Blanc du Bois, dry
Haak, Blanc du Bois, semi-sweet
Haak, Blanc du Bois, sweet
Messina Hof, Blanc du Bois Private Reserve, dry
Moravia Vineyards, Blanc du Bois, dry
Haak, Blanc du Bois, Port style
Haak, Blanc du Bois, Madeira style

Messina Hof, Sophia Marie, dry rosé
Georgetown Winery, Lenoir, dry
Tara, Stagecoach Red (50% Lenoir), dry
Enoch's Stomp, Ellen's Sweet Song, Port style
Haak, Reserve Tawny, Port style
Haak, Jacquez, Madeira style
Messina Hof, Port (various styles and prices)
Messina Hof, Tawny, Port style
Messina Hof, Ebony Ports of Call, Port style
Messina Hof, Solera, Sherry style

Stone House, Claros, dry red
Stone House, Scheming Beagle, Port style

(sorry for the blurry picture!)

2.  Plant popular, international varieties.

These include V. vinifera grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay. and Sauvignon Blanc, which are household names and make up the vast majority of wine sold in the world. Planting these grapes makes sense for sales, because the wine will be immediately recognizable and familiar to consumers. The drawback is that several of these grapes don't grow well in the Texas climate, so the wines may not compete well with similar wines from other regions where those grapes grow better.

A notable exception is that Cabernet generally does well in Texas. And maybe this issue can be overcome for other grapes with the right growing and vinifying techniques. At a recent tasting of Texas wines in Houston, I drank a great Chardonnay, a grape which had been thought unworkable in Texas. Fall Creek's 2014 Vintner’s Selection Chardonnay (unoaked) from the Texas Hill Country costs $21, and I liked it better than the comparably priced Chardonnay from Chablis that we tasted as a comparison. (The Houston Chronicle has a write-up of that tasting here.)

3.  Plant Spanish, Italian, or other Mediterranean varieties.

Much of Texas shares the warm, dry climate of Mediterranean regions, such as southern Spain, southern France, and Italy, so grapes that traditionally thrive in those regions do well in parts of Texas too. Parts of west Texas and the panhandle also share the cold winters of much of Spain. These climate comparisons have led many Texas winemakers to plant grapes from Spain, Italy, and southern France. These red grapes include Tempranillo, Grenache/Garnacha, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Sangiovese, Barbera, and Aglianico. The white grapes include Viognier, Vermentino, Trebbiano, and Roussanne.

Here are some nice examples I've tasted:
McPherson Viognier
McPherson Reserve Roussanne
Barking Rocks Roussanne
Becker Provencal Rosé of Mourvedre
Fall Creek Rosé of Grenache (It outperformed its French counterpart in the tasting I mentioned above.)
Spicewood Mourvedre Rosé (Also performed well against its French comparison.)
Llano Estacado Cellar Reserve Tempranillo
Duchman Aglianico
Flat Creek Sangiovese
Kiepersol Syrah
Spicewood Syrah

I believe all of these cost less than $25.

4.  Buy grapes from somewhere else (aka the Texas Grape Shortage).

The growth of Texas wineries has outpaced the growth of grape production. There are simply not enough Texas grapes to go around, so many Texas wineries buy grapes from other states, often from California. How can you tell if a wine is made from Texas grapes or grapes from somewhere else? The word "Texas" on the front label indicates that at least 75% of the grapes came from Texas. Wine regions within the state, such as "Texas High Plains," may be listed also.

But be careful -- "Texas style" and other variants on "Texas" do not necessarily indicate Texas grapes and can be misleading. Check the back label for the words "for sale in Texas only." This statement legally exempts a producer from putting the origin of the grapes on the bottle, and usually means the grapes were purchased from another state and vinified by a Texas winery. Why would a winery want to omit the origin of the grapes? Because it's marketing the wine as a Texas product. The law is complex, but in a nutshell, if the grapes came from California and the wine was made in Texas, the winery has two options:  1) label it "American" wine, or 2) leave off the statement of origin and sell it in Texas only, because it doesn't meet the labeling standards required for interstate commerce. This is a controversial topic, because many think "for sale in Texas only" intentionally misleads the consumer. I prefer the "American" designation, which you can see on Flat Creek Estate's Viognier below. (More details on the law here. Additional perspectives here, here, and here,) Luckily, more and more grapes are grown in Texas every year, so I hope to see fewer and fewer wineries buying grapes from other states and taking advantage of this loophole.


The next time you're in the wine shop, pick out something from Texas and see what you think. Like everything else Texan, there are many choices, many styles, and many opinions. Texas is making lots of great wine, and there's never been a better time to explore the variety.

You may also be interested in:
Tasting Tannat from Texas
Returning to Messina Hof for my 1st harvest and grape stomp!
Comparing 2 Texas Viogniers
Texas Kneecaps (with Bonus Lesson on Semi-Generic Labeling!)

Friday, April 8, 2016

Wine Infographic: Champagne Cheat Sheet

Next in the wine cheat sheet series:  Champagne!  The most important thing is if it doesn't come from the Champagne region in France, it is not Champagne.  Just call it sparkling wine.

See the full collection of wine cheat sheets here.

To see the Cheat Sheet in full size…
…in Internet Explorer, right click on it and select “open in new tab.”
…in Chrome, right click on it and select “open link in new tab.”
…in Firefox, right click on it and select “view image.”   

You may also be interested in:
Wine Infographic:  French Wine Cheat Sheet (new and improved)
Wine Infographic:  Loire Valley Cheat Sheet
Tour Bordeaux with a French Wine Scholar in 2017

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Top 4 Things to Know About Super Tuscan Wines

If you’ve explored much Italian wine, you’ve heard the term “Super Tuscan,” but you may not have known what it means. It doesn’t mean a really good Tuscan wine, although it might also be a really good Tuscan wine.  

1.  Super Tuscans exist because of Italian wine regulations.

The Italian wine system of “denominations” is similar to the appellation system in France.  Italy names its wines after the region in which they are produced.  The smaller the region, the higher the quality.

The Italian wine regions on the map below are IGTs.  (However, no IGT-level wines are made in Piedmont or Aosta Valley.)  These IGT regions contain DOCs and DOCGs within them.  For example, Tuscany (Toscana IGT) has 33 DOC and 9 DOCG regions within it.

Each level of classification carries requirements for grape variety, winemaking techniques, etc.  The most elite categories (the smallest regions) have the strictest rules.  The goal is to ensure a standard of quality and give consumers confidence that if a wine says “Chianti DOCG” (the most famous DOCG in Tuscany), it meets those high standards and will generally taste like a Chianti.  

But what if a winemaker wants to experiment with a different grape or technique?  If the requirements of the highest quality level (DOCG or DOC) are not met, the wine must be labeled with the larger region, which will have a lower quality classification and fewer restrictions (IGT).  The origins of the name “Super Tuscan” are disputed, but it has been used since at least the 1980s to refer to wines that use unapproved grape varieties in Tuscany.  These are wines that could otherwise be DOCs or DOCGs, except they include the "wrong" grape variety and must be labeled as IGT. Despite the lower classification, Super Tuscans have a reputation for high quality and have often commanded high prices.

2.  They use non-traditional grapes.

While Sangiovese is the traditional Italian grape of the region, the Super Tuscans started by blending in popular international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  Today, a Super Tuscan might be made from 100% Sangiovese, 100% another grape, or a blend of several grapes.  The grape varieties and blends are up to the producers.  The end result tends to be a big, red, powerful wine with rich flavors.  Personally, I love them.

3.  The term may be losing its meaning.

Though Italian wine law must continue to protect its indigenous varieties and traditional wine styles, it must also adapt to modern techniques and improvements in quality.  The great success of the Super Tuscans has driven changes in the law such that some Super Tuscans now qualify as DOC or DOCG wines, because limited amounts of non-Italian grape varieties have been approved.  For example, many Super Tuscans now come from the Bolgheri DOC on the Tuscan coast.  

Winemakers also recognize that as Super Tuscans are produced in a variety of regions, with a variety of grapes, the name and the style begin to lose their identity.  One solution has been to focus on the naming and branding of specific winemaker’s blends.  Many Super Tuscans are labeled this way, with the branded blend in quotation marks, like Castello di Fonterutoli “Siepi” Toscana IGT.  Another solution has been to develop the unique identity of the smaller regions within Tuscany which are producing these wines, such as Bolgheri.  These moves make sense, because these winemakers are not only trying to differentiate their product, but also want their wines to reflect a sense of place.

4.  Beyond Tuscany…

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Attention Clear Lake: We have craft cocktails!

Clear Lake just got its first Prohibition-era, speakeasy-style bar for craft cocktails. Preamble Lounge and Craft House in Webster is open now, with a grand opening celebration planned for April 1. I stopped by this evening for a drink and was very happy with what I found - and even happier that it's 5 minutes from my house.

Located in an unassuming strip center between 2 movie theaters -- the Cinemark on one side and the NASA Dollar Cinema on the other -- Preamble has a classy modern-industrial interior to rival anything inside the loop.

More importantly, the cocktails are really good. I tried the Garden Gimlet (a basil-infused gimlet that was perfectly not-too-sweet) and the Bee's Knees (made with local honey and lavender). Both were delicious, although the gimlet was my favorite. I also got to preview the house red wine, which has a good balance of fruitiness, acidity, and oak, moderate tannins, and should please many palates and complement a variety of foods. Speaking of food, the menu is still in the testing phases, but should be rolled out soon.  The beer taps are stocked with a variety of local craft fare.

Preamble has a dress code on Thursday through Sunday evenings (casual all other times). I think it's cool that they've added this touch to recreate the more glamorous feel of a bygone era. I'll be interested to see how it works for them, since I'm not aware of any other bar that does it. They currently have a well-curated Pandora station playing, but live music of all types is on the agenda.

I'm excited to welcome Preamble to the neighborhood, and excited that our Clear Lake horizons are expanding!

Friday, March 11, 2016

Wine Infographic: French Wine Cheat Sheet - new and improved!

The original French Wine Cheat Sheet was one of the first wine cheat sheets I ever made, more than 3 years ago. I've gotten better at it since then! Here's the new and improved version.

This kicks off a greater focus on French wine in my personal tasting and studying, in preparation for being the wine educator on a river cruise through Bordeaux next year. Want to come along? Find more info here:  Tour Bordeaux with a French Wine Scholar.

The full collection of wine cheat sheets is here.

To see the Cheat Sheet in full size…
…in Internet Explorer, right click on it and select “open in new tab.”
…in Chrome, right click on it and select “open link in new tab.”
…in Firefox, right click on it and select “view image.”