Wednesday, February 27, 2008

To Blend, Or Not To Blend; That Is the Question

Shakespeare aside, a very real question for the wine maker is whether ‘tis nobler in mind to persevere against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take grapes from a single vineyard against a sea of troubles to make a perfect wine. But if that isn’t a consummation devoutly to be wished then they must select from different vineyards the right qualities of the grapes to make the perfect wine. I just hope the bard isn’t rolling over in his grave for the grievous liberties I’ve taken.

Generally, a wine created from a single vineyard is owned by the winery, and can be used to make a wine if it has all the qualities they are seeking. Alternately, that vineyard can be the basis of a blend by selecting grapes from other vineyards the winery owns, or out-sourcing for the qualities that are lacking in their own grapes.

If the vineyard is truly unique, the wine maker can use it for a single vineyard wine alone, or as part of a blend, with the balance used for a limited production or reserve selection. In that way they can offer a more expensive version to please the connoisseur and extend its availability in a blend that preserves its best qualities. More bang for the buck to unearth a vulgar phrase.

Even after that decision is made the alchemical talents of the wine maker are truly tested to select and blend the right crops of grapes in the correct ratios to produce a unique blend. Done right, the blend can be more expensive than a single vineyard wine, and it may be the standard the winery chooses year after year. This, of course, is the route taken by many French wine makers, who very seldom rely on one grape to represent their signature wines.

The classic example of a domestic blend is a Meritage wine. These blends will typically include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, but may also include Petite Verdot and Malbec, two grapes now experiencing popularity through their separate bottling. Of course Argentina’s Malbecs have been popular for some time.

The other form of blending uses the same grape, such as a Zinfandel, but sources them from different lots, or different vineyards. Typically these are all within a particular viticultural region, but not always. However, in most European countries, the regulatory bodies require the grapes to come from a particular area. Even blends there often have to follow general guidelines before they can put their name on the wine. In the U.S., there are less restrictions and experimentation much more widespread.

One exception is that to qualify a wine as Zinfandel, for example, a certain minimum of that grape must be present. Otherwise it must be identified as a blend, and the name accepted by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Considering some of the names I’ve seen used, the group must be pretty liberal.

Large production wine producers often blend each year to produce a wine with their own “signature taste”. For example Kendal-Jackson has produced their Chardonnays with similar oak contact and maloactic fermentation to produce their signature oaky, buttery Chardonnays. Since many consumers look for K-J wines for that reason they can sell a lot of wine. An economic as well as ascetic choice.

In California, the Merlot grape for many years was grown only to blend it with Cabernet Sauvignon to soften the sometimes harsh tannins of a 100% Cabernet. Clos du Bois decided to give their Merlot grape its own bottling many years ago, and sold out each year. Other wineries took note and now Merlot is a standard offering of most red wine producers. Ironically, some Cabernet Sauvignon is often added to give the Merlot more structure. This, of course, came as no surprise to Bordeaux wine makers who have produced great wines from the Merlot grape for centuries, Sideways not withstanding.

The Semillon grape is another example of a blended grape, often added to Sauvignon Blanc to produce a fuller, richer wine. On its own, this grape is the basis for the great Sauternes of France, but it does not often possess all those qualities in domestic wines unless they are crafted as late harvest. There are exceptions to this; the Alhgren 2004 100% Semillon is a very versatile food wine. It paired perfectly with Thanksgiving turkey, and I’ve found few whites that matched so well.

So to blend is the choice of most wine makers, either with the same grapes at different locations, or with the addition of different grapes to improve and add complexity to the principle grape, and there are some classical blends, such as in Bordeaux, that many wine makers produce. And with any luck you won’t have to endure any more of my Shakespearean analogies. Salut!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Wining and Dining in Kauai

In the past, restaurants offering fine wines in Hawaii were few and far between, not to mention expensive. Overly warm red wines of dubious lineage were the norm at many mid-range eateries. That has changed. The choices of both red and white wines are more plentiful, and the prices are close to what we would expect on the mainland.

Many of the supermarkets now carry a good representation of California wines at near-California prices. California being the nearest cousin in temperament and culture has provided the islands with a rich harvest of fine wines to choose from. Australian wines are also plentiful and at good prices. French and Italian wines also make their appearance, but due to higher transportation fees are more costly.

High-end restaurants do make the biggest splash in terms of cuisine and wine cellar-listings, but many mid-list restaurants are now following suit. It is also possible to enjoy excellent food at even the most pre-possessing cafes. At the Hanapepe Café in the artistic village of Hanapepe, an outstanding vegetarian meal can be had for only a few dollars. Since they allow you to bring your own wine, nay – encourage it, an exquisite lunch of curried cauliflower soup and some of the best fish sandwiches on the island can be had to complement a tart, acidic Sauvignon Blanc for a fraction of the price almost anywhere else. That can be followed by a tour of the many art galleries along the main road for a mini-Canyon road experience, and you’re on the Garden Isle of Kauai!

In short, paradise has gotten more toney without getting too pricey. Even when price is no object, it is hard to beat Roy’s restaurant – renowned throughout the Hawaii islands – for that special occasion. We recently celebrated our 25th anniversary there by sitting at a table festooned with streamers of ribbon to document the event, and gobs of personal attention. The islands it should be mentioned take honeymoons, anniversaries, and birthdays as the main events they should be in our lives.

Kauai’s North shore is dotted with fine eateries that range from casual island cuisine to elaborate restaurants offering heart-stopping views and alas, sometimes heart-stopping prices. On a budget your best bet would be looking for restaurants that allow you to bring your own wine, of which there are several, or cooking your own in room meals.

Look for accommodations that provide a kitchen, but ask about how well appointed they are if you love to cook. Since many visitors to the islands hate to cook on vacation, some of the kitchens offer little more than a place to mix your rum and fruit drinks and store your wine and liquor.

Both North and South shore have excellent fish markets where Ahi, Ono, and other island delicacies can be had for a fraction of restaurant prices. And now that a wide range of fine wines are available virtually everywhere on the island, the perfect accompaniment to island fare can be had at a reasonable price.

Sauvignon Blancs from California and Australia are readily available and better compliment the island fare, although Chardonnays are plentiful. I have not seen an infusion of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs as yet, but they should soon make their appearance. Pinot Grigio is another good choice for many of the delicately flavored fishes including Wamoo, a buttery fish that, grill-cooked, will have you scrambling for more.

Red wines require a bit more caution. Many red meats are available at a modest premium, and most resorts offer barbeque grills. However, due to the constant high temperatures and humidity – you remember humidity, that’s the thing most locations outside New Mexico offer – it does not take much exposure to ruin a good Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel. In other words, chose your wine store carefully, and if in doubt use one of the major supermarkets. Most have a good selection, good prices, and are air-conditioned.

That caution also applies to restaurants. We went to one Koloa café on the South Shore that provides good island fare and an extensive wine list, but the first red I selected had gone bad from the high heat of its naturally-cooled interior. All the reds they served were at least 10 degrees too warm. Nothing blunts the flavor a red wine like serving it much above 65 degrees, like the ones we sent back.

That being said, most experiences on Kauai and the other islands of the Hawaiian chain are greatly enhanced by the inclusion of wine with your meal, and often at reasonable prices. Of course the best deals are those rum-inspired concoctions with the umbrellas and pineapple slices sticking out the top of every imaginably-shaped glass. Just remember they sneak up on you a lot quicker than a glass of vino. Salut!