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Fall Wines: What to Pour through Harvest Season

Glasses of red wine for a chilly fall day.

As summer draws to a close, my feelings are bittersweet. As in years past, I’ve begun to reflect on all that I’ve done for the past few months, all of the fresh produce that I’ve had on the dinner table and of course, all of the delightful, refreshing wine that I’ve consumed.  There was no shortage of rosé this summer and I’ve added some newly discovered pink wines to my repertoire that are sure to be go-tos for years to come. Bieler Père et Fils Sabine Rosé from Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence, Mulderbosch Vineyards Rosé from Stellenbosch, and Prieuré de Montezargues Rosé of Tavel AC, just to name a few.  I always have a hard time parting with the summer, yet my sentiments are sweetened by the prospect of a new season and all that it holds in store.

The daylight hours are gradually growing shorter and the nights cooler.  The first hints of fall can be detected in the air and my taste is slowly beginning to favor red wines over whites and rosés.  As autumn approaches, I’ve begun to formulate my list of favorite wines for fall, choices which are influenced partially by the cooling weather and largely by the produce that appears at this time of year, the bounty of the harvest.  Rich butternut squash soups, savory mushroom ragùs and apple desserts are the first dishes that come to mind, along with hearty stews, roasted vegetables and pumpkin breads.  So, what will I be drinking this fall?

Syrahs for Sweater Weather

On chilly autumn nights, I tend to crave a rich, robust red wine with spicy, earthy qualities…bring on the Syrah!  The red wines of the Northern Rhône Valley certainly fit the bill here, embodying the full-bodied, warming spicy character that takes the chill off.  The wines of Crozes Hermitage offer some of the best values from the region, especially those from renowned producers such as Paul Jaboulet, E. Guigal and Maison Chapoutier.

A few to try include 2007 Paul Jaboulet Aine Crozes Hermitage Domaine de Thalabert ($50, IWC – 92 pts), 2007 E. Guigal Crozes Hermitage Rouge ($22, WA – 88 pts) and 2007 Maison Chapoutier Crozes Hermitage Les Varonnieres ($48, IWC – 90-93 pts).

For a special occasion, an early fall harvest celebration or, dare I say it, for your Thanksgiving wine (it will be here before we know it!), try a Syrah from Côte Rôtie or Hermitage.  The 2003 Domaine Delas Freres Côte Rôtie la Landonne ($167, WA – 96 pts) and 2004 Maison Chapoutier Ermitage Le Meal ($99, WA – 90+) are excellent choices in the splurge category.

Fall Wines from the Rhône Valley

Grenache-Syrah blends from the Southern Rhône Valley, with their irresistible lushness and jammy quality, are ideal for taking the chill off of autumn evenings.  Wines that catch my fancy at this time of year come from the appellations of Châteauneuf du Pape, Vacqueyras and Gigondas, and reputable producers such as Chateau de Beaucastel, Domaine du Pégau and Clos des Papes.  This fall, cozy up with the 1998 Chateau de Beaucastel Châteauneuf du Pape ($125), the 2000 Domaine du Pégau Châteauneuf du Pape Cuvée Reservée ($85) or the 2004 Clos des Papes Châteauneuf du Pape ($75).

Rhône Rangers

Don’t forget the Rhône Rangers when making your fall wine selections!  Producers in California’s Central Coast have been key advocates of Rhône grape varietals outside of the Rhône Valley.  “Rhône Rangers” is not just a cute moniker, this is an actual non-profit organization that promotes Rhône style wines in the Golden State.  We are big fans of their efforts and would drink these yummy single-varietal wines and blends ‘til the cows come home (if it weren’t for certain other responsibilities).  Our favorite Rhône Ranger wines include the 2009 Jaffurs Syrah Santa Barbara ($30, WA – 92 pts) and the 2008 Tablas Creek Vineyard Esprit de Beaucastel Rouge Paso Robles ($43).

Italian Wines for Fall

Each fall, I find my mind drifts toward Italian wines, especially those of Northern Italy.  Many of Piedmont’s wines, whether from Nebbiolo, Barbera or Dolcetto grapes, tend to possess an appealing layer of earthiness, reminiscent of a berry patch or the forest floor.  Italian cuisine from this region offers that same earthy quality, pronounced by the use of wild mushrooms and game meats.  Italy works magic with foods of the fall forage!  These Northern Italian foods and wines are a match made in heaven and it’s no wonder that they have such an appeal during the autumn season, when we start to crave heartier fare and more robust wines.

Keep in mind that wines from the slow-ripening Nebbiolo varietal, renowned for its extremely powerful tannins, can age for decades, so best to go for one that has had some time in the cellar.  Both Barolo and Barbaresco, Piedmont’s most prestigious appellations, are made from 100% Nebbiolo.  Signature qualities of Barolo wines include red fruit character, floral aromas of rose or violet, and hints of tar, mushrooms and leather.  Barbaresco is the not as powerful and concentrated as Barolo, but shares many of the same enchanting characteristics.

Many Barberas offer a great value from the region, typically showcasing lively cherry flavors, wonderful, food-friendly acidity and the underlying earthiness that I’m after in the fall.  Dolcetto, the “little sweet one”, is another great value from Northern Italy.  In general, Dolcettos are supple, fruit-forward wines with sweet plum aromas and flavors, delicate tannins and soft acidity.  Barbera and Dolcetto are both easy to drink, palate pleasers in a nutshell!

Here are some of Northern Italy’s finest from renowned producers:

2005 Azelia Barolo Bricco Fiasco ($62)

2004 Domenico Clerico Barolo Pajana ($87)

2006 Elio Grasso Barolo Gavarini Vigna Chiniera ($75)

2004 Alfredo Prunotto Barolo Bussia ($70)

2007 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Asili ($149)

2008 Ca Rome Barbaresco Chiaramanti ($69)

2007 La Spinetta Barbera d’Asti Ca’ di Pian ($24)

2009 Moccagatta Barbera d’Alba ($19)

Cabernets for Coat Season

As temperatures continue to drop and we start donning our jackets more frequently, rich, full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignons have a definite appeal.  The Cabernet Sauvignon grape has a far-reaching reputation and is widely planted throughout the world’s wine regions from Bordeaux to Australia.  Well-loved by grape growers, for its resistance to disease, and wine lovers, for its satisfying richness and tannic structure, Cabernet Sauvignon is just the thing for a chilly late-fall evening.

When it comes to Cabernet Sauvignons for the fall and winter season, California is often my go-to region.  Stellar California producers that are sure to quench my thirst this fall include Ramey Wine Cellars and Altamura Vineyards.

Founded by David and Carla Ramey, Ramey Wine Cellars is located in the charming town of Healdsburg, in the heart of Sonoma County.  David Ramey is one of California’s leading winemakers, recognized for contributing innovative techniques to New World winemaking, while staying true to Old World traditions.  David has a graduate degree in winemaking from the University of California at Davis and began his career working at the legendary Chateau Pétrus in Bordeaux, where he was exposed to the great French winemaking traditions.  Back home in California, he went on to make wine at Chalk Hill, Matanzas Creek, Dominus Estate and Rudd Estate, helping to establish these well known wineries.  David’s work, pioneering the use of native yeasts, as well as malolactic and barrel fermentation, has successfully created a luxuriant wine style that has garnered acclaim the world over.

Ramey Wine Cellars specializes in Cabernet blends, Chardonnay and Syrah, and crafts both a single-vineyard series, as well as an appellation series.  Ramey’s Cabernets are spectacular expressions of Napa terrior.  The 2006 Ramey Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($40) and single-vineyard 2008 Ramey Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Pedregal Vineyard ($149) are both excellent and fitting choices for the fall season.

Well off the beaten path in Napa Valley, Altamura Vineyards and Winery is the only winery located in Wooden Valley, situated high amidst pastoral, rolling hills. Frank and Karen Altamura established the winery in 1985 and practice a careful, hands-on approach to grape growing and winemaking. Frank’s passion for winemaking is clear in each bottle of the winery’s highly collectible wines.  The 2007 Altamura Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($99) is highly rated by both the Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator and one need only have a sip to become a devotee of this exceptional winery.

Finally, the 2007 Faust Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($42) is a wine of outstanding quality and value.  This decadent wine, offering lavish layers of black currant and dark chocolate, is the archetypal Napa Valley Cabernet, with all of its seductive charm and power.  There is no doubt that it will keep you warm and fuzzy as the temperatures drop this fall and winter.

Faust Cabernet Sauvignon is the inspired project of Agustin Huneeus, owner of the renowned fine wine estates Quintessa, in Napa Valley, and Veramonte, in Chile’s Casablanca Valley. Ten years after Quintessa’s first release, temptation knocked on Agustin’s door, luring him to create a wine dedicated not to Napa’s terroir, but to majestic Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa’s reigning grape varietal, and we couldn’t be more grateful!

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Getting Acquainted with Bordeaux

Bordeaux vineyard overlooking the village of Saint-Émilion.

Named for the beautiful port city on the Garonne River, the Bordeaux wine region is the pinnacle of prestige, producing the most celebrated and desired wines in the world.  The region has a long and rich history of vine growing and winemaking, with written record dating back as far as the first century!  From the Atlantic Ocean, the region spreads southeast along the banks of the Gironde Estuary, eventually branching off into the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers with vineyards sprawling from their vital shores.

Situated at 45° latitude, Bordeaux has a temperate, maritime climate, due to the influence of the Gironde Estuary and the region’s close proximity to the Atlantic.  On the coast, giant sand dunes and evergreen forests aid in the moderate climate and protect the vineyards from powerful ocean winds.   All of these environmental factors combine and result in mild weather year-round.  The springs are usually pleasant with plenty of rain, ensuring water supply for the growing season, and summers are generally sunny, hot and humid.  The temperature typically remains warm with nice coastal humidity well into the fall.  This temperate climate, strongly influenced by the ocean and rivers, has the potential to vary greatly from one year to another, which is why knowledge of each vintage is so important when considering the wines of Bordeaux.

The red and white wines of Bordeaux are almost always made from a blend of different grape varietals.  The reason for this is directly related to the variant weather patterns and climatic differences between years.  The various grapes each have a different reaction to the weather, so by planting different grapes and blending their wines, winemakers can make good wine even if the weather was bad during the growing season.  The main grapes used for Bordeaux’s red wines are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot, and for the white wines of the region, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle.

For any wine lover, it is a worthy investment to spend some time getting acquainted with Bordeaux, its various areas and wine styles.  Not only does it produce some of the most exquisite and age-worthy wines, Bordeaux has also had an enormous influence on winemaking styles and techniques throughout the world, most notably in the “New World” regions of California, Chile, Australia and South Africa.

Areas and Appellations

Bordeaux is divided into three main areas: the Left Bank, the Right Bank, and the area between the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers, called Entre-Deux-Mers (meaning ‘between two seas’).  There are three levels of Appellation Contrôlée (AC) status in Bordeaux.  The Generic AC status is at the base of the pyramid and can be given to wines produced anywhere in Bordeaux.  Generic appellations include Bordeaux AC and Bordeaux Supérieur AC.  District AC is the next step up and can sometimes be the highest status possible for certain areas, such as Entre-Deux-Mers.  A District AC can encompass multiple Commune ACs.  For example, the Haut-Médoc is a District ACs, which covers a handful of the most prestigious communes.  Commune AC status is at the top of the pyramid and is the highest designation in Bordeaux.  The only exception is Saint-Émilion Grand Cru AC, which is superior to the commune status of Saint-Émilion AC.

The Left Bank

The Left Bank of Bordeaux hugs the western shores of the Gironde Estuary and the Garonne River.  This area is divided into three main district appellations, from north to south: Médoc, Haut-Médoc and Graves.  The Médoc AC and the Haut-Médoc AC lie west of the Gironde, and the Graves AC is south of the city of Bordeaux and lies west of the Garonne.

The Left Bank is renowned for long-lived, red wine blends in which Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant grape varietal, and Merlot and Cabernet Franc make up a lesser proportion.  Cabernet Sauvignon thrives in the gravel and clay soils of the Left Bank, which support water drainage, and the very best wines come from the vineyards with more gravel content.  Five commune appellations are famous for producing some of the finest Cabernet blends in the world:  Saint-Estèphe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Margaux within Haut-Médoc, and Pessac-Léognan in Graves.

The Left Bank is also home to the infamous white wine appellations, Sauternes and Barsac, known for their sublime botrytis-affected dessert wines.  These luscious, sweet wines are made from a blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc.  The Sémillon grape is thin-skinned and therefore highly susceptible to botrytis mold under the right conditions – misty and humid autumn weather.  These grapes are carefully hand-harvested and produce luxuriant, sweet wines that are high in refreshing acidity.

The Right Bank

The Right Bank of Bordeaux lies east of the Gironde Estuary and the Dordogne River. Here, Merlot and Cabernet Franc are the main grape varieties, with small amounts of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon grown as well.   This area is home to the important commune appellations of Saint-Émilion, Saint-Émilion Grand Cru, Pomerol, Fronsac and Canon-Fronsac.

Saint-Émilion, the namesake of the charming, picturesque town is the most significant of these appellations.  Within Saint-Émilion, the vineyards cover a range of soils and produce a variety of wine styles.  The appellation can be divided into three different areas, each with a special soil type.  To the northwest, the gravel and limestone soils are more conducive to Cabernet Franc vines.  To the southeast, the elevated plateau has high limestone content and produces the finest Merlot dominated blends. Many of the wines classified as prestigious Saint-Émilion Grand Cru come from the limestone rich vineyards of these two areas.  These wines are marked by complex red berry qualities, opulent tannins and cedar notes that develop with age. The third growing area is located at the base of the elevated plateau and is composed of sandy soils.  The wines from this area are lighter-bodied with relatively lower price tags.

The Pomerol appellation lies in close proximity to Saint- Émilion and boasts intriguing, rare wines that come at a higher cost.  These wines offer rich notes of blackberry and a unique spiciness.  The prestigious vineyards of Pomerol include the legendary Pétrus and Le Pin.

Finally, the Right Bank’s greatest value wines come from the appellations of Fronsac and Canon-Fronsac, which are to the west of Pomerol.

Between the Rivers

The Entre-Deux-Mers appellation lies in between the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers and produces Bordeaux’s dry white wines from Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc.  The important commune appellation of Saint-Croix-du-Mont is located here, making divine sweet wines that are similar to Sauternes.

Bordeaux’s Classification System

Bordeaux’s well-known 1855 Classification has remained intact to this day, despite many changes to the individual estates (châteaux) and their properties.  It all came about in the event of the 1855 Exposition Universelle de Paris when Napoleon III requested an official classification of Bordeaux’s best wines.  The wine brokers got together and devised a system, based on their own judgment as well as market values, which organized 61 châteaux into five classes according to importance, first through fifth growths.  Bordeaux’s Chamber of Commerce then presented the 1855 Classification at the exposition and it has been in place ever since.

Under the 1855 Classification, all of the red wines are from the Médoc appellation, with the exception of Château Haut-Brion, from Graves. It is an undertaking to memorize all of the château and their classifications, but the five First Growths (Premiers Crus) are relatively easy to remember:

Château Lafite
Château Latour
Château Margaux
Château Mouton-Rothschild (classified as Second Growth until 1973)
Château Haut-Brion (Graves AC)

The classified white wines were all from the Sauternes appellation, with Château d’Yquem given Premier Grand Cru Classé status, followed by 11 First Growth châteaux and 14 Second Growth châteaux.

Later Classifications

In 1932, the Cru Bourgeois classification was introduced, which includes 200 plus estates and is essentially the status just below Fifth Growth.  The three Cru Bourgeois classes: Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel, Cru Bourgeois Supérieur and Cru Bourgeois, are meant to be updated every ten years or so.  The wines of Graves were classified in 1959, and, unlike the 1855 Classification, each listed wine is simply awarded Cru Classé status.

Saint-Émilion has a unique procedure in which classifications are built into the appellation system.  The Saint-Emilion Grand Cru appellation is divided into the following:  Premier Grand Cru Classé, Grand Cru Classé and Grand Cru.  Every 10 years, the châteaux in the region can submit their wine to be considered for initial Grand Cru classification or for reclassification.

Consumer Tips

As consumers setting out to explore Bordeaux, there is a wealth of knowledge to wrap our heads around.  It is important to have a general understanding of the various areas and wine styles of the region because this will help in choosing bottles that are to your taste.  For those of us who fall in love with Bordeaux, it may be worthwhile to delve a bit deeper into more specific knowledge of the great vintages, the châteaux and the classification system.

If you’re just getting acquainted, start out with a selection of red wines from both the Left Bank and Right Bank.  There are many reasonably priced Bordeaux wines out there that are perfect for exploring and comparing Cabernet Sauvignon-based Left Bank blends and Merlot-based Right Bank blends.  Pop a bottle open with your next meal, or set up a side-by-side tasting comparison of wines from the two areas.  And don’t forget to try the delicious, refreshing, dry white wines from the Entre-Deux-Mers.

CLICK HERE to browse our entire selection of wines from Bordeaux.

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