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ZAP – Cheese – Rhone – Syrah – Easter and Passover

The Incredible Expanding Tasting: The View from ZAP

A recurring pattern characterizes the annual ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) tasting in San Francisco. Every year the “people’s grape” (aka “mystery grape” and “California grape”) becomes more popular, and the tasting boasts more producers and consumers than ever before. The number of wines being poured, and the number of people waving glasses, seems to reach critical mass, swelling with such huge and boisterous crowds that it can’t possibly get any bigger.

The following year it increases by 50 percent.

This was what happened again on the Saturday before the Super Bowl, the customary date of the tasting. A year ago, 6,000 tasters had flooded the Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason Center; this January (ZAP’s 10th anniversary), the number was 9,200. For the first time ever, the event required two different buildings, where a total of 500 wines were poured by 255 wineries.

Where will it all end? Well, it finished off the 1990s by showcasing what many were calling the best Zinfandel wines of the decade — a “spectacular” vintage in the words of Ravenswood’s Joel Peterson, who went on to call it “the best-balanced, most complex vintage we’ve had. The wines have some of the fruit complexity of ’91 and some of the strength and power of ’95; they’re aren’t over-the-top killers in terms of alcohol, but they have stuffing underneath.”

Michael Dashe of Dashe Cellars agreed that ’99 constitutes “manna from heaven. The wines are lush, concentrated, and intense, but balanced.” Donn Reisen of Ridge Vineyards called them “awesome — full of rich, ripe, beautiful fruit.” Bill Easton, whose ’98 Easton Estate was one of the best Zinfandels of that year, felt that the ’99s have “a better fruit-tannin relationship,” while David Noyes of Kunde Estate found them “surprisingly ready to drink — I mean, they’re big wines.”

Of course winemakers are going to say things like that — but the tasting seemed to bear out their claims. In terms of quality, the 1999 Zinfandel vintage surpasses even the vaunted 1997, delivering a panoply of balanced wines with full, approachable flavors that don’t taste particularly alcoholic despite their ripeness. To Reisen this is evidence that “Zinfandel winemaking is improving along with the quality of the fruit. Obviously, people are respecting the grape.”

Perhaps too much so abroad, if you paid attention to some of the backstage scuttlebutt. Other than the beauty of ’99, the talk among insiders at the tasting concerned a recent decision by the European Union (and expected agreement by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) to allow Italian winemakers to label wines made from the Primitivo grape as Zinfandel. ZAP has supported research into Zinfandel’s European origins, resulting (among other things) in the scientific conclusion that it and the Primitivo di Puglia are the same grape. “The Italians called it Primitivo for a hundred years,” noted Reisen. “But now that Zinfandel is so popular, they’re trying to steal the brand.”

“All [the research] really means is that Primitivo is a clone of Zinfandel,” said Ridge’s president and winemaker, Paul Draper. “The Italian move is purely commercial. It’s like what happened in the old days with Champagne and Burgundy and Chablis — Americans tried to capitalize on names that the French had taken years to build. ZAP was created to promote Zinfandel, not Primitivo — but when you get down to it, who really cares? If, with its climate and soil, Puglia thinks it can compete with the best Zinfandel in the world, more power to them.”

Leon Sobon of Sobon Estates is going the opposite way. In Amador County in the Sierra Nevada foothills, he’s making “Primitivo” from a clone imported from Italy. Sobon reported that Primitivo is easier to grow than Zinfandel, resulting in “more of a claret wine with less berry character.” If you want to find out for yourself, try the Sobon Estates Primitivo.

In any case, ZAP is going on the offensive — not with legal action against the Italians, but with “EuroZAP,” its first international tour. As you read this, a series of dinners, tastings, workshops, and seminars featuring Zinfandel wines and winemakers is now taking place in England, Germany, and other European countries. The aim, explained ZAP Executive Director Rebecca Robinson, is “to educate the world that Zinfandel is grown in California and that it’s America’s Heritage Wine.”

Wine and Cheese: A Match Made in Biochemistry

While it’s a rule of civilized and culinary thumb that wine and cheese go together, there are more reasons for it than meet the eye. Both, for example, are products of fermentation — wine is fermented grape juice and cheese is made from fermented milk. Both can express terroir, or the taste of the place from which they come — wine through the roots of grapevines, cheese through the milk of animals (cows, goats, sheep, water buffalo, even horses and camels) that feed on local plants. Add their shared ease of preparation, and wine and cheese indeed go hand in hand — glass in the right, cheese in the left, grateful mouth in the middle.

That said, every wine doesn’t go with every cheese. No matter how you slice it, each artisan cheese is unique, and aged Vermont cheddar is as different from fresh French chevre as Zinfandel is from Champagne. Exploring this range of sensations and combinations is more than an excuse to drink wine; it’s a veritable (read: delightful) education for the palate.

Some oenophiles consider Sauvignon Blanc the cheese-friendliest wine of all. Among reds, the easiest wines to pair with cheese are those that are light and fruity. Beyond that, terroir-inspired combinations of wine and cheese from the same region or village are almost always winners.

When matching wine and cheese, keep a few general rules in mind:

-The whiter and fresher the cheese, the crisper and fruitier the wine.

-A smooth, fatty cheese can take on a rich wine, but may also provide a nice backdrop for one that’s light and zesty.

-Sweet wine offers a satisfying counterpoint to tart or salty cheese. (Port and Stilton is a classic). Salty cheeses also sing when partnered with high-acid wines.

-Fruity red wines suit soft cheeses. Try a Beaujolais with your chevre.

-Dry sparkling wine is brilliant with a bloomy white rind. Champagne and brie, anyone?

French Cheese
The Basics of Making Cheese
The Cheese Counter

Steve Edmunds on Rhone Grapes, Climate, and Terroir

This week, www.wine.com profiles Steve Edmunds of the Edmunds St. John winery. Edmunds is a multi-talented vintner-singer-songwriter who recently made his first music CD, Lonesome on the Ground. He’s also a founding member of the Rhone Rangers, a group of California winemakers who have stimulated a surge in the planting of grapes from France’s Rhone Valley.

“People have been planting a ton of Syrah in California for the last 10 or 12 years,” Edmunds acknowledges. “There’s going to be a lot of Syrah on the market. It’s totally serviceable, since the popular preference is for big wines, a la Australia. But I think the finest wines — that is, wines with wonderful aromatics from the grapes — are going to come from the coolest vineyard sites. In warm sites, you burn out some of the aromatic possibilities, particularly when you get heat spikes like we had in ’96 and ’97. Part of the spectrum just doesn’t get filled.”

Edmunds points out that, while Syrah is generally known as a Rhone grape, there’s a big difference between the climates of the Northern and Southern Rhone. “Around Cote Rotie, you start getting into very different influences and vegetation,” he says. “In the South, closer to the Mediterranean, the Mistral is the major climatic feature. But in the North, the Massif Central really changes the weather. It’s much more continental than Mediterranean, so you have poplars instead of plane trees and butter instead of olive oil.”

“Syrah is grown in both the North and South, but the best wines are made from it in the North. Cote Rotie and Hermitage can carry some of the high-toned stuff that you find in Burgundy. The Northern Rhone is like a transition zone between Burgundy and the Mediterranean — Syrah is a kind of bridge between Pinot Noir and Grenache, the dominant variety in Cotes du Rhone.”

“The wonderful thing about the Southern Rhone wines,” says Edmunds, “is their warmth, their vibrancy, their sunny, vivacious quality. Most Chateauneuf du Papes depend on Syrah, Mourvedre, and Cinsault for structure and for the notes that Grenache doesn’t quite hit. But Chateau Rayas is 100 percent Grenache — the only pure Grenache wine in Chateauneuf du Pape.”

What does Edmunds think of California Grenache?

“Since John Alban and Tablas Creek (in San Luis Obispo County) have brought in their own plant material, there’s now some really good Grenache being propagated and grown in California. Until six or seven years ago, all you could get was marginal stuff — even the best of it never produced the kinds of aromatics and flavors and intense color that you find in the Rhone. On the other hand, California Mourvedre has always been pretty good. It’s all there — the array of aromas and flavors seems to be complete. I think Mourvedre can be phenomenally good here, but it has to be grown in the right place. Just like at Rayas, where they happen to have a particularly favored site where the whole Grenache keyboard gets played.”

“That’s why I think terroir is an absolutely irreducible piece of the picture,” says Edmunds. “It means everything.”

That’s a Heap-Big Syrah, Kimosabe

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. Out of the past come the thundering hoof beats of a fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty hi-yo….

The Rhone Rangers are riding again from 2 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, March 31, when their fourth annual wine tasting takes place in the Festival Pavilion at San Francisco’s Fort Mason.

The Rhone Rangers is a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public about wines made from Rhone grapes grown in the United States. To American wine drinkers, this will largely mean Syrah, but the Rangers recognize a total of 23 grape varieties that are allowed in French Cotes du Rhone, including Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignan, Cinsault, Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier.

Rhone grapes have been grown in the United States for 100 years, but their status has risen dramatically in the last decade. Beginning in the 1980s, a loose-knit group of nonconformist winemakers, apparently bored with Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon (and aware that California has a Mediterranean climate), began experimenting with Rhone varietals, and by 1991 there were 19,000 acres of Roussanne, Viognier, Carignan, Grenache, Mourvedre, and Syrah planted. In 1997, 13 wineries banded together to form the Rhone Rangers, and the following year, 43 producers poured their wines for 1,000 people at the group’s first public tasting.

Today the number of member wineries has increased tenfold, including members from such decidedly non-Mediterranean locales as Washington, Idaho, and Virginia. Meanwhile, the number of attendees at the tasting has tripled.

Wines poured at the event must contain at least 75 percent Rhone varieties, but beyond that regulation, variety rules. Not only is there a choice of white wines (Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier) in addition to reds (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignan, Cinsault), but there’s also a selection of dry rosÈs, a much-loved Rhone staple.

“We suggest that people figure out [beforehand] how they want to approach the tasting,” advises Executive Director John Hardman. “You might just want to taste Syrah, or maybe only Roussanne or Marsanne. You wouldn’t normally go back and forth between red and white, but it’s fairly easy to clear your palate with all the food we have there. And we put out plastic cups so people can spit.”

Admission is $45 in advance and $60 the day of the tasting. For more information, call the Fort Mason box office at (415) 441-3687 or log onto www.RhoneRangers.com.

Peter Granoff on Wines for Easter and Passover

Easter and Passover are just around the corner, raising the question of what wines best accompany these two holidays. Nobody is better qualified to discuss this topic than wine.com founder Peter Granoff. Not only is he a Master Sommelier, he was also raised in a Jewish-Catholic household.

Peter’s earliest experience of wine was Manischewitz and Mogen David, when he was seven or eight years old. “My (Catholic) mother was very active in celebrating Jewish holidays,” he recalls. “We were all given a sip of wine, though it would have been heavily diluted with water.”

Traditionally (or perhaps habitually), kosher wines were simple and sweet — not the sort of beverage that appeals to grownup connoisseurs like Granoff. “When kosher wine was first made in this country, most of it came from the Concord grape, which has a lot of acid and bitter phenolics in the skin,” Peter explains. “It was desirable to preserve some sweetness in the wine in order to make it palatable. Today, though, modern winemaking technology has proven beyond any doubt that kosher wine can pass muster as fine wine in every respect. And I believe that kosher wine should be good before it’s anything else — the fact that it’s kosher should be an added benefit.”

For special mention, he singles out the products of Hagafen, which he describes as “classic Napa Valley wines — a full-bodied Merlot, a bright and elegant Chardonnay, a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, and an off-dry Riesling.”

There’s also the 1996 Barkan Cabernet Sauvignon from the Galil region of Israel — a ripe and concentrated Cabernet that’s beginning to show some bottle age — and some top-of-the-line Laurent Perrier Champagnes, both Brut and RosÈ. Perhaps the ultimate all-around wine for this time of year is the sparkling, slightly sweet, kosher Bartenura Asti Spumante from Piedmont, Italy.

“It’s unusual to find an Italian kosher wine, but they’re out there,” Granoff observes. “Jewish holiday meals often involve an extended family, and with three generations at the table you’re likely to encounter disparate preferences in wine. The older generation might have a bias toward something sweet, but a wonderful wine like the Bartenura will also satisfy wine nuts. Better yet, it’s only 7 percent alcohol, so you can enjoy it without getting hammered.”

For Easter brunch, Peter recommends refreshing white wines like Riesling and young, fruity Beaujolais-style reds. Then again, since sparkling wine is a lovely and customary accompaniment to brunch, why not bring out the Bartenura Asti Spumante here, too?

“A kosher Italian sparkling wine for Easter,” Peter reflects. “I like that idea.”