Understanding Napa Cabernet

By learning more about Napa’s great Cabernet wines, we can better understand what makes this varietal exceptional and learn to spot Napa Valley and California wines with great promise and potential.

It all started with a little too much ambition…

Had it not been for the overambitious visions of just a few individuals, Napa Valley might have never become one of the most important wine regions in the world. When Napa Valley was only just getting started, America’s passion for Bordeaux wines was feverishly high, so much so that even the first lady at the time, Jackie O., was known to sip Château Haut-Brion Blanc in the White House. Napa’s vintners no doubt observed Bordeaux’s success and looked to the region for inspiration.

 

Napa Valley Sign World Famous Napa
In June 1950 the Napa Valley Vintners Association dedicated the now world-famous Napa Valley sign to the region. Photo Napa Valley Vintners.

 

Since Napa Valley winemakers couldn’t simply make a wine with the Bordeaux name on the label, they did the next best thing: they imported Bordeaux grapes (including Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) and learned French winemaking techniques. You have to remember, that back then, most California wines were sold in jugs (or worse, tanks!) and aged in large redwood vats–a very different scene than the production process that takes place today.

 

napa-cabernet-historic-wines-folly
Stag’s Leap 1973 was the leading Napa Cabernet in the 1976 Judgement of Paris and Groth 1985 was the first 100-point wine.

 

It wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that Napa Valley showed the world they meant business with Cabernet Sauvignon. In 1976, a private wine competition in Paris judged by several top French trades compared current releases of Bordeaux and Napa wines (often thought to be inferior to their European counterparts). Later dubbed as the “Judgement of Paris,” the tasting results showed that American Cabernet wines could stand toe-to-toe with the most important Bordeaux wines of the time. Then, a decade later, the well-known Bordeaux wine critic, Robert Parker, awarded the 1985 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon a perfect 100-point score.

 

Understanding Napa Cabernet

assessing-napa-cabernet
There are essentially 7 aspects to consider when assessing quality in Cabernet Sauvignon.

When a wine critic assesses Napa Cabernet Sauvignon there are several features and characteristics they look for:

Fruit Quality
The best Napa Cabernet wines consistently exhibit flavors of black currant, ripe (not baked) plum, subtle licorice, black cherry, raspberry, as well as blueberry and/or blackberry. All of these tasting notes associated with Cabernet indicate the grapes were perfectly ripe when picked.
Depth of Flavor
Having depth means that wines reveal layers of flavors that evolve over the duration of the tasting experience, which can sometimes be more than a minute long. For example, flavors may start out as fruity and then become more minerally (pencil lead or “dusty”) or floral (violets or sage) and then finish with oak-aged notes (such as cedar, mocha, espresso and tobacco) and textured with tannin.
Freshness (Acidity)
Floral notes and terms like “elegance” or “grace” indicate that the wine has good acidity–an age-worthy trait.
Structure (Tannin)
Tannins can range from fine-grained to firm, but what’s important is that they are well-integrated, meaning they match the intensity of the other components in the wine (fruit flavors, acidity, and alcohol).
Oak
The use of oak is always present in the best Napa Cabernet wines, the question isn’t how much oak is used specifically (because it varies), but rather how that oak comes across in the taste. When used well, oak acts like seasoning that brings out the other flavors in the wine.
Overall Balance
The highest-quality wines all have intense flavor (and a high level of color extraction) but all the components in the wine are perfectly balanced with one another.
Age-Worthiness
While the late 1990s and early 2000s had several top Napa Cabernets with estimated aging periods of just 10-12 years, the more modern wines appear to age longer, starting at 15 or more years.

 

Here’s an Example of a Critical Review

2008 Araujo Cabernet Sauvignon from Eisele Vineyard in Oakville AVA, Napa Valley
Dense, rich, and enormously concentrated, mixing power with finesse. Pure, ripe, riveting aromas of blackberry, blueberry, currant, sage, cedar, espresso, and mocha lead to a full-bodied palate, firming beautifully on the finish, where the flavors glide along and gain traction. Drink now through 2028. James Laube, Wine Spectator


napa-valley-fog-balloons-gunther-hagleitner
The morning fog layer plays a crucial role in how the grapes ripen in different spots in Napa Valley. Photo by Gunther Hagleitner.

 

What Makes Napa Valley Ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon?

For one, you’ve got to have the right climate…

When it comes to producing great wine, it starts with growing great grapes. In the case of Cabernet Sauvignon vines, they have been shown to be best suited for a sunny, warm (and not too hot) climate so that the grapes ripen slowly. While many places in California are quite hot indeed (and increasingly so), Napa Valley’s location on the San Pablo Bay causes an induction effect at night that delivers morning cloud cover. The morning fog slows certain aspects of ripening. Additionally, the AVAs within Napa Valley that are above the clouds (Howell Mountain, Atlas Peak, etc.) have higher elevation to use to their advantage. Higher temperature shifts between night and day in the hills slow certain aspects of ripening (e.g. by maintaining acidity).

Expect to spend: These days it’s hard to spend less than $50 for a good bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

The quality of Napa’s soils…

There are many different soil types that are well-suited for Cabernet Sauvignon and ultimately what’s important is good drainage and not too much soil fertility. The low fertility puts the vines in a state of stress earlier in the growing season, which shifts the vine’s focus from growing leaves to ripening grapes. What makes Napa Valley special (especially as a New World region) is a prevalence of volcanic soils which unexplainably add an earthy, “dusty” taste to Napa’s best wines. Since earthiness and minerality are not common in New World wine regions, this “dustiness” adds complexity to Napa wines.

Where there’s great Cabernet, there’s great Merlot: If you’re a Cabernet fanatic, Napa Valley’s Merlot offers incredible density that’s on par with other Cabernet wines. Surprisingly, it’s shockingly affordable compared to the cost of an average bottle of Napa Cabernet.


napa-valley-volcanic-soils
The rusty red soils on the Continuum estate vineyards on Pritchard Hill (the un-AVA of Napa). Photo by Madeline.

 

Where to Find the Best Cabernet Sauvignon Wines in Napa:

There really isn’t a single best spot in Napa for Cabernet Sauvignon, because it’s a matter of taste. That said, we’ve observed two distinct styles of Napa Cab based on where they grow. Each have their own style and unique features so it’s ultimately up to you to decide.

Napa Valley Floor Wines

Lush and refined…

Flavors: Blueberry, Ripe Plum, Black Cherry, Licorice, Mocha, and Violet (or mint). Usually, well-rounded with more refined flavor profiles along with fine integrated tannins.

Features: If you’re into lush, bold, and opulent Cabernet wines with a dominance of fruit (vs. other) flavors then the Napa Valley AVAs are likely to make you very happy. These wines show marvelously in their first decade and then, if you’re lucky, hit another sweet spot at around 15 or so years of age. If you follow ratings, the valley Cabs are generally well-loved by the critics too and garner the highest ratings.

 

Napa Hillside Wines

Dusty and bold…

Flavors: Black Currant, Black Cherry, Wild Berry, Spicebox, Anise, Espresso, Cedar, and Sage. Wines have more rustic flavor profiles with heightened minerality and earthiness, supported by firm tannins.

Features: If you’re into bold, smoky, and mineral driven Cabernet wines with good structure (AKA tannins) then the hillside AVAs of Napa are likely to make you very happy. The more variable temperatures on the hills produce smaller berries which in turn add additional color and tannin to the wines. These wines generally take longer to come around due to the higher tannin (maybe 5–10 years) but when they do, they become more lithe and supple.


Napa Valley Wine Map by Wine Folly copyright 2017
A map of Napa Valley’s wine regions including roads, cities, and landscape features. See more Wine Folly maps.

Famous Vineyards of Napa organized by AVA

If you’re interested in knowing more, here is a list of some of the most prominent vineyards of Napa. You’ll see a prevalence in Oakville, but due to climate change, we’ll expect to see some up-and-coming regions (like Coombsville and Wild Horse Valley) produce the future of quality in Napa.

Coombsville

Farella Vineyard, Coombsville, (producers: Di Costanzo, Farella Vineyard, Realm Cellars, Agharta)
Kenzo Estate Vineyards, Coombsville / Wild Horse Valley (producers: Kenzo Estate)

Atlas Peak

Stagecoach Vineyard (producers: Arrow & Branch, Arkenstone, Caine, Miner, Chappellet, Paul Hobbs, MacLaren)
Pahlmeyer Estate Vineyard (Atlas Peak area) (producers: Pahlmeyer)

Oakville

Beckstoffer To Kalon (producers: Schrader, etc)
Harlan Estate (producers: Harlan)
Screaming Eagle (producers: Screaming Eagle)
Showket (producers: Peter Michael, Showket, Bevan )
Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Oakville (producers: Heitz)
Beckstoffer Missouri-Hopper (producers: Alpha Omega, Bacio Divino, Bure Family, Morlet, Hess Collection, Venge Family)
Dalla Valle (Eastern side of Oakville) (producers: Dalla Valle)

Rutherford

Staglin Vineyards (producers: Staglin Family Vineyard)
Beckstoffer Georges III (producers: Bell Cellars, Bryter Estates, Hunnicutt, Keating, Schrader)

Stag’s Leap District

Fay Vineyard (producers: Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars)

Saint Helena

Spottswoode (producers: Spottswoode)
Capella S (producers: Abreu)
Madrona Ranch (producers: Abreu)
Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Vineyards (producers: Alpha Omega, Realm, B. Cellars, Myriad, Arrow & Branch)
Chappellet (in Prichard Hill Area) (producers: Chappellet)
Bryant Family (in Prichard Hill Area) (producers: Bryant Family)

Calistoga

Eisele Vineyard (producers: Araujo)

Howell Mountain

Thorevilos Vineyards Between Saint Helena and Howell Mountain (producers: Abreu)
Herb Lamb Vineyards Between Saint Helena and Howell Mountain (producers: Colgin, Herb Lamb, Turley, Trujillo)
Beatty Ranch Vineyards (producers: Vie Winery, Far Niente, Howell Mountain Vineyards)

Spring Mountain District

Cain Vineyard (producers: Cain Five)

Diamond Mountain District

Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill (producers: Diamond Creek)

napa-vineyard-spring-tucker-hammerstrom
Mustard grows in the vineyards in February. Photo by Tucker Hammerstrom.

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Beyond Napa: The Lesser Known North Coast Wine Regions

Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley are amazing regions to visit when you want to experience the glitter and glam of California’s wine country. However, if you’re passionate about the grapes, the dirt, and the reality of wine growing, there are a few other places within the North Coast (the AVA–American Viticultural Area–that contains Napa and Sonoma) that you need to have on your radar as well. Not only do these regions have true grit, they also produce incredible wines that can easily rival their star-studded neighbors.

north-coast-ava-appellations-map

Say hello to Mendocino and Lake counties. These two regions produce two very different styles that easily rival the best Napa and Sonoma wines.

  • Mendocino is just north of Sonoma and produces wines in a similar style to Sonoma as well.
  • Lake County is the region just north of Napa and produces wines in a similar style to Napa.

 

North Coast Wine Map (detailed 12x16) by Wine Folly

North Coast Wine Map

This detailed map shows all the AVAs of Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Lake County. This map is available on a 12×16 spill and tear resistant paper in our online store.

Buy Wine Map

 

Mendocino

Mendocino Wine Country Map by Wine Folly

Amazing driving roads, organic vineyards, and elegant wines

Mendocino AVAs: Bottles from this region can be labeled as Mendocino, Anderson Valley, Mendocino Ridge, Yorkville Highlands, Pine Mountain, Redwood Valley, and Potter Valley

Best wines: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sparkling Wine

Special feature: Many 100% organic vineyards

Mendocino County stretches across several narrow valleys and extends out to some of the most rugged, untouched California coastline (awesome for motorcycling adventurers!). The people who’ve made Mendocino their home include early Italian immigrant winemaking families and folks who picked up and left San Francisco for the tranquil life of off-the-grid-living in the countryside. There are just a couple of major towns to hit including Hopland and Philo, with a small selection of B&Bs or cabin/home rentals (we found a bunch on AirBnB).

Popular Mendocino Wine Producers

Mendocino Wine

Elegance and organics are the keywords of Mendocino wine. The region contains one-third of all the organic vineyards in the entire state. This is quite a feat given the dank, cooler climate conditions that produce the valley’s best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines.

  • Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sparkling Wine: The regions of Anderson Valley (north along Hwy 128) and Mendocino Ridge produce some of the most exciting expressions of Pinot, Chardonnay, and Sparkling Wines coming out of Mendocino right now. These 2 cooler growing regions (in and around Philo) offer wines with big fruit but as the acidity levels are high and alcohol levels are lower (usually around 13.5%), you’ll find this area has excellent aging potential.
  • Others While the majority of the region is planted with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Mendocino has several unique wine varieties that include older plantings inspired by its Italian-influenced heritage including Barbera, Carignan, Dolcetto, Arneis, Cortese, and Gewürztraminer.

Lake County

Lake County, CA Wine Country Map by Wine Folly

A gigantic lake, volcanic vineyards, and massive reds

Lake County AVAs: Bottles from this region can be labeled as Lake County, High Valley, Big Valley District, Kelsey Bench, Guenoc Valley, and Red Hills

Best wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Tempranillo, and Petite Sirah

Special feature: Volcanic soils produce “dusty” wines

Unlike most of the lakes in California, Clear Lake is a natural lake (as in, not made by a dam) which has been shown through studies of its sediments to be 480,000 years old. It’s an active ancient lake next to an ancient volcano (Mount Konocti). The region surrounding the lake was once a hotspot hangout for celebrities (look up Hoberg’s Resort) in the late 1800s including socialite and royal mistress, Lillie Langtry, who purchased 4,200 acres in Guenoc to raise racehorses and grow wine grapes. Unfortunately, the region’s fame dissipated (people have blamed everything from the 1906 earthquake to prohibition to lake flies) and ranchers turned to planting pears and walnuts instead of grapes. More recently, investments have led to improvements in the region including the addition of several wine tourist spots that are worth checking out (including Ceago Winery and Biodynamic Farm and Tallman Hotel).

Popular Lake County Wine Producers

Lake County Wine

The region here is a lot drier than Mendocino and due to the high prevalence of volcanic soils and high elevation vineyards, we will see bolder wine varieties do better in Lake County. Keep your eyes peeled for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Tempranillo, and Petite Sirah. There have also been several locally loved Sauvignon Blanc wines which are oak-aged and offer creamy, white peach, and pear notes. The region shows gleaming potential, but it’s still considered the “backwoods” by most wine aficionados. Not to worry, this makes travel and tastings very affordable and the people are generally enthusiastic and generous.

 

Have you been to Clear Lake or Mendocino? Tell us your story!

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Pairing Bold Red Wines With Vegetarian (or Vegan) Food

If you’re a vegetarian (or the person responsible for feeding one), you might be under the impression that wine pairing with vegetarian food is limited. Au contraire, that’s just not true! Contrary to what the carnivores would have you believe, vegetarian food offers equally delightful pairings and can even stand up against bolder red wines than many meat-based dishes. Since this is considered one of the biggest challenges with pairing vegetarian or vegan foods, we’ll tackle this head on and give you some inspiring new ideas for pairing bold red wines with vegetarian or vegan foods.

Pairing Bold Red Wine with a Vegetarian Diet

How to pair wines like Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Nebbiolo with vegan or vegetarian foods.
pairing-wine-vegetarian-food

Start thinking of wine as an ingredient.

When you break down wine into its structural taste components (sweet, sour, bitter, etc.) it’s easier to treat wine as an ingredient that actively interacts with a dish –rather than something you sip on the side. The goal of a great wine pairing is to balance these taste components with a dish so that together the pairing highlights key flavors.

If you need more explanation on flavor pairing watch this super awesome 4-minute video:

 

Deconstructing the Taste Profile of Bold Red Wines

taste-components-in-bold-red-wine
So, since we’re attempting to pair a full-bodied red wine with vegetarian food let’s identify the fundamental taste components of a bold red wine:

Acid: All wines lie on the acid side of the spectrum (with pH levels between ~2.7–4). Full-bodied red wines are typically somewhere around 3.6 pH, so fundamentally speaking, they are sour. You can use this sourness to your advantage by letting the wine act as a balancing force in the food and wine pairing.

Bitterness: The pigment and tannin in red wine add bitterness and astringency to wine, which has been shown to have a palate cleansing effect (it literally “scrapes” proteins off of your tongue, which is why some people describe red wines as having a “drying” sensation). The features of bitterness and astringency are important to note when pairing because you will need to counterbalance to them with the food.

Intensity Level: Yep, full-bodied red wines are bold. In order to compliment bold wines, you’ll need to match them with foods that have the same or similar intensity (this is why roasted meats have been the go-to pairing choice thus far).

Base Flavors: Since wines are made with grapes, they usually have fruity flavors. Bolder reds typically range in the dark fruit side of the spectrum with plum, blackberry, blueberry, and black currant flavors. There are a few exceptions with more red fruit (raspberry, cherry, etc.) flavors, but for the most part, full-bodied red wines deliver dark fruit. These flavors will come in handy later when you’re thinking about flavor pairing with highlight ingredients, spices, and herbs.

Examples:

Not all full-bodied red wines taste the same (um…duh!). Here are a few examples of full-bodied red wines alongside some of their principle aromas and flavors:

  • Syrah: Blackberry, Plum, Black Pepper, Black Olive, Sweet Tobacco, Chocolate
  • Cabernet Sauvignon: Black Currant, Black Cherry, Green Peppercorn, Bell Pepper, Mint
  • Nebbiolo: Cherry, Rose, Licorice, Anise, Tobacco, Cocoa Powder

Wine Pairing Concepts

Now that we understand full-bodied red wines by their fundamental tastes. Let’s identify the core components that a dish must have in order to create balance.

acidity-salt-fat-taste-pairing

Compliment sourness in wine with fat and salt.

When you make a simple salad dressing, you are essentially adding oil (fat) and salt to vinegar to create balance. This is the concept behind balancing sourness in wine. You need some element of fat in the dish to counteract the acidity of the wine.

TIP: Dishes that are more acidic (sour) than wine will make the wine taste less sour (sometimes even making wines taste flabby). If you try a pairing with a food item that’s more acidic than the wine, just make sure you have enough fat in the dish to counterbalance the sourness of both the dish and the wine (otherwise, the wine will create an unbalanced taste). An example of a sour dish that has enough fat for both the wine and the dish would be lemon risotto.

bitter-umami-fat-protein-pairing-wine

Compliment bitterness in wine with protein, umami, and fat.

The tannins and other polyphenols in red wine act as scrapers on your tongue to proteins and fat, which is why you’ll want a fair amount of proteins and fat in your dish to compliment the wine. Additionally, if you have other bitter components in your dish (such as quinoa, kale, etc.), you might add a little sugar to counteract these tastes so that the primary flavors of your dish are protein, umami, and fat.

A Note About Bitter + Sweet

While sweetness technically reduces our perception of bitterness, it’s usually not advised when flavor pairing with high tannin (bitter) wines. This is because it usually makes the wine come across as bitter and sour! That said, it’s possible to compliment a bitter wine with some sweetness in a dish (for example, tangy BBQ sauce pairs really well with fruit-forward and smoky Lodi Zinfandel).


Choosing Ingredients

Now that we know what bold red wines need for balance, the challenge is finding vegetarian ingredients with enough protein, umami, and fat to create a balanced pairing.

Proteins

The base proteins in vegetarian food are packed with quality proteins but often lack the intensity of flavor for bolder red wines. So, you’ll want to modify these a bit to reach the desired level meatiness.

  • Tofu/Tempeh
  • Quinoa
  • Beans: White Beans, Pinto Beans, Black Beans, etc.
  • Alternative Meats: Soy Curls, TVP, and pre-made brands like Quorn and Gardein
Fat and Umami Ingredients

Once you have your protein figured out, you will need to increase its intensity by adding fat, salt, and umami. Here are some popular vegan ingredients that will do the trick:

  • Mushrooms, Mushroom Broth, or Bouillon
  • Dried Shitake Mushrooms
  • Molasses
  • Soy Sauce / Tamari / Bragg’s
  • Nut butters and creams including Cashew Cream, Peanut Butter, and Coconut Milk
  • Nuts including Pepitas, Pine Nuts, Cashews, Peanuts, Blanched Almonds
  • Oils including Coconut Oil, Canola Oil, Refined Grapeseed Oil
Necessary Seasoning

Finally, in order to get your vegan meal to the same intensity, seasoning is your best friend. Here are some seasonings that will bode well with full-bodied red wines as well as deliver the taste intensity you’ll need:

  • Roasted Shallots or Onion Powder
  • Black Pepper & White Pepper
  • Cumin
  • Mustard seed and powder
  • Fennel seed
  • Vinegar
  • Smoked Paprika
  • Cinnamon or Allspice
  • Brewer’s Yeast (adds umami)

More ideas: By the way, if you’re looking for more inspiration on flavor synergies (or need some help with this), check out IBM Chef Watson

An Example: Napa Cabernet

louis-m-martini-cabernet-madeline-puckette
Who said you can’t pair Napa Cab with vegan food?

Ready for a red wine-vegetarian-dish practice pairing? Let’s say I’m going to make a vegan food and wine pairing specifically for a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. In my made-up example, the Napa Cabernet has high tannin, high intensity, and flavors of black cherry, cocoa powder, red pepper, and cedar.

For pairing this dish, I really want a protein base with enough textural richness to cut through the smokiness in the wine. So to do this, I’d look into creating a BBQ burger patty with pinto beans, crushed dried shitake mushrooms, soy sauce, oil, black pepper, and molasses (and the other ingredients needed to make it stick together). I’d definitely want to get this on the grill and give it some burn marks to give it more roasted notes.

Then, to highlight the red pepper-y spice in the wine, I’d place a roasted red pepper on top of my patty, along with some melted cheddar cheese to give the dish more fat. The vegan version of cheddar looks something like this.

Finally, put the whole thing on a charred bun with a piece of butter lettuce and some ketchup. Take a bite and a sip of wine and go to hedonism heaven…


Last Word: Creating Meatiness Without Meat

One of the biggest complaints to becoming a veg is simply described as a “lack of meatiness” in a vegetarian’s diet. And, if you’re cooking in a traditional manner, this would be quite true. However, if you figure out how to create meatiness in vegetarian foods (both texturally and with umami) you can create some compelling pairings for full-bodied red wines. This is the secret!

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8 Wine Trends to Watch for in 2017

Everyone loves a good fortune teller and there’s no better predictor of what’s to come than two excellent researchers who have sifted through the data. We wanted to know: how are our behaviors as wine drinkers shaping the future of wine? To answer this question, we asked two individuals whose data-driven insights suggest that 2017 is going to introduce some exciting new trends to the world of wine.

Wine Trend Predictions for 2017

Wine Trends 2017

Cannonau will boom.

“Health-miracle” Cannonau di Sardegna [aka Grenache] will renew its growth in demand and availability (Wine-Searcher data shows consistent, stable 50% growth over the past couple of years). Health fashion isn’t going away anytime soon, and wine sure as hell isn’t going to get any less interesting. Cannonau hits the sweet spot at the intersection between the two. It’s like guilt-free wine. Perfect!

Riesling will tank.

Like a surfer in the doldrums, the darling grape has missed its wave. W-S data shows that Riesling has had its chances; several waves of interest between 2011 – 2015. But this has now plateaued, and you only get so many chances. It’s not you Riesling, it’s us.

Donald drives diversity.

Trump politics will stimulate diversification in U.S. wine production. Wine-loving Americans will remain keen to learn and taste new styles in 2017… Savvy U.S. wine producers won’t miss the opportunity to step in and satisfy this thirst with their own homegrown versions.

Box wine done right.

Someone will really nail box wine in 2017, and not before. The box has proven its worth as a wine container, and innovation is healthy(ish) in the wine trade. We’ll be drinking boxed Cannonau before we know it.

 

jonathan-reeve-wine-searcher

Jonathan Reeve, Wine-Searcher.com

Special thanks to Jonathan who surfed hard data on wine-searcher to find some delightful trends to look forward too in 2017. If you follow specific producers, wine-searcher.com is a great tool to find the best prices.


A strong dollar makes imported wine cheaper.

In the past the biggest impact was felt in bulk wine imports, but with the premiumization trend continuing, more and more foreign wine producers are taking aim at the $10-$15 and $15-$25 wine segments and the dollar’s strength will give them an advantage at these price points and create unwanted competition for U.S. producers.

More French wine!

Sales of French wines have been rising in the U.S. in recent months and the strong dollar will help this trend persist by offsetting somewhat the effects of the poor 2016 harvest in many regions. Portugal and Italy [wine imports] are also well positioned to take advantage of the dollar’s strength.

More Chile, South Africa and NZ wines in the US (aka Brexit fallout!).

The year 2017 is when Britain will formally begin its exit (a.k.a. Brexit) from the European Union, a process that is likely to reduce U.K. wine sales and encourage international producers to shift their export emphasis toward the growing U.S. market. Look for Chile, South Africa, and New Zealand to give U.S. sales increased attention as the year progresses.

The year 2017 will be a good year to be a wine consumer in the U.S.

Imports will provide even more diversity while competition keeps a cap on price increases. What does that mean? Drink up!

 

mike-veseth-illustration

Mike Veseth, WineEconomist.com

Special thanks to Mike Veseth, world-renown wine economist extraordinaire, for donating his predictions! If you love the business behind wine, you’ll enjoy his site WineEconomist.com and his book Wine Wars.

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2017 Wine Buying Guide

This year’s wine guide will come in handy whether you’re just getting into wine or are a seasoned enthusiast looking for tips on what to seek out in 2017. It’s organized by style of wine (from bold reds to light whites) with a focus on which regions, varieties, and vintages to seek out all year long.

Vintage Overview: We compiled vintage ratings and vintage assessments from Berry Bros & Rudd, Wine Advocate, Jancis Robinson, Wine Institute, and other regional sites into one simple, user-friendly chart:

Wine Vintage Chart 2010–2016

The 2017 Wine Buying Guide For Red & White Wines

full-bodied-red-wine-buying-guide-2017-folly

Full-Bodied Red Wines Cabernet, Malbec, Syrah, Etc.

Lovers of full-bodied red wines love wines from regions with tons of sunshine and relative dryness. It’s in these unique conditions that warm climate grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Malbec, Mourvèdre, and Zinfandel achieve their ideal ripeness (and develop sweeter tannins).

Italy
Central and Southern Italy had a string of highly consistent vintages from 2012–2016 so now is a great time to look for Italian Cabernet, Syrah, and Merlot-based wines. You can also do really well with the bolder indigenous reds including Aglianico, Primitivo, Nero d’Avola, Negroamaro, and Montepulciano. Looking for producer recommendations? The annual Tres Bicchieri (Three Glasses) Guide is a great place to start!
California
The continuing drought in California has reduced yields, but the reduction in grape size increased the extraction potential (making for deeper, blacker wines). From north to south, you really can’t go wrong with the full-bodied styles of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Sangiovese, and Petite Sirah. Vintages from 2012–2016 are all good.
Washington
Washington has shown its true potential over the last couple of years and we’ll continue to find great wines from here from the 2012–2016 vintages. Cabernet-Merlot blends, Syrah, Malbec, and Petit Verdot is what you should be seeking out from the region’s high desert climate.
Spain
The central plateau of Spain has been turning out excellent values in the full-bodied wine category year after year including wines of Monastrell (aka Mourvèdre), Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Argentina
There have been several off-vintages in Argentina, so you’ll want to pick your Mendoza Malbec, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon with care. Basically, 2013 was an outstanding vintage and we recommend you stock up on it while you can. Of course, decent producers took extra care being selective with grapes, so if you’re buying fine wines, they will be great regardless.
Australia
The increasing value of the US dollar is likely to give us greater access to some of the best finds in bold reds from Australia. The trend in the last 5 years has been towards more elegance in wine but you’ll still see inky depths from the 2012–2016 vintages in Shiraz, GSM blends, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot from both South Australia and Western Australia.
Portugal
Access to South African beauties including Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinotage will continue to become more widely available in the US in 2017. Keep your eyes peeled for the 2015, 2014, 2012, and 2010 vintages and regions like Stellenbosch, Paarl, and Swartland.
Holy moly. Why we’re not all drinking Touriga Nacional, Castelão and Alicante Bouschet from Portugal is still beyond me. This region has nothing but outstanding potential (and incredible value) to offer. The 2011–2014 vintages all produced great wines. Keep your eyes peeled for reds (usually around $10 a bottle!) from Douro, Alentejo, and Lisboa… and learn more about Portuguese wine.
Southern France
Brexit and a weakening Euro is going to make the bold reds from Southern France delightfully cheaper. We expect to see more wines from the South-West regions including Tannat and Malbec, but also from Languedoc-Roussillon where there are Syrah-heavy wines (including Faugeres and Saint-Chinian). The 2010 and 2015 vintages were the best in recent French wine history (and the ones to covet) but 2014 and 2012 were also quite good.
Greece
Greek reds are showing great potential and the top producers will become more available in the US. The regions to seek are Nemea (Agiorgitiko), Naoussa wine (Xinomavro–super high tannin red), and you’ll also be surprised to find some outstanding Syrah from Greece.

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Medium-Bodied Red Wines Sangiovese, Garnacha, Cabernet Franc, Etc.

Medium-bodied red wines feature distinct flavors and heightened acidity, both of which are traits ideal for matching with a wide range of foods. Many of the old world wine regions are famous for this style of wine due to winemaking traditions that limit the use of new oak aging, producing wines with more elegance.

Italy
Northern and Central Italy produce some of the most food-friendly wines and now is the time to get into Italian wine. The last 5 years (2012–2016), as well as 2010, have produced very good to excellent quality. Specifically, aim for the Piemontese wines of Barbera, Dolcetto, and Nebbiolo. Then, you’ll find great red fruit and cocoa flavors from the red wines of Valpolicella, and the Merlot-based blends from Veneto (including Colli Euganei). Finally, Tuscany and Umbria offer the ultimate expressions of Sangiovese which have become noticeably cleaner and more red-fruit driven in the past 5 years. I always like to recommend the annual Tre Bicchieri (Three Glasses) Guide for a great place to start looking for high-quality producers.
France
The French wine varieties of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc had an outstanding vintage in 2015 and this is exactly what to look for. Seek out Loire Valley reds such as Cabernet Franc and the other lessor-known Bordeaux appellations for the best values on Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon blends.
Spain
The 2015, 2012, and 2010 vintages are making out to be Northern Spain’s best vintages in the last 5 years. Tempranillo, Mencía, and Garnacha are the grape varieties that you need to try in this category.
Germany
The 2015 vintage for Dornfelder and Blaufrankisch produced some outstanding mid-weight wines from Germany. These wines have deeper black and blue fruit flavors with heightened acidity.
Chile
The 2011 and 2013 vintages were exceptional vintages in Chile and the region produces some outstanding food-friendly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carménère, and Carignan.
New York
Producers in New York are enthusiastic about the quality of Merlot and Cabernet Franc from the 2015 and 2013 vintages in New York.

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Light-Bodied Red Wines Pinot Noir, Gamay, Etc.

Lovers of light-bodied red wines tend to love wine regions with cooler growing temperatures. It’s in these cooler conditions that grapes like Pinot Noir, Gamay, Schiava, and Cabernet Franc ripen to deliver brilliant red fruit flavors, floral notes, and lower tannin. Here are the highlight wines and regions to seek out for light-bodied red wines:

Oregon
The quality of Pinot Noir continues to improve in Oregon and the vintages seem to be getting better and better every year too, even in the value category. The 2016, 2015, and 2014 vintages were all fantastic years for Oregon Pinot Noir.
California
As California is heating up, we are starting to see the best Pinot Noir regions in California become more reliant than ever thanks to the moderating temperatures of the Pacific Ocean. It makes this an exciting time if you’re a Pinot Noir addict because it means you’re about to find several treasure troves in the Coastal AVAs including Sonoma Coast (including Fort Ross/Seaview), Mendocino (which used to be too cool), Santa Cruz Mountains, and on down the coast to Santa Barbara.
New Zealand
Central Otago produces the richest and most lush style of NZ Pinot Noir whereas, Marlborough makes brighter and lighter Pinot Noir. This is going to be a great place to look for great values in Pinot Noir in the coming year, particularly from the 2015 and 2013 vintages.
Chile
The regions of Casablanca, San Antonio, and Leyda Valleys are becoming renowned for their exceptionally fruit-forward styles of Pinot Noir (imagine an explosion of blueberries, raspberries, and marionberries in your mouth). The 2013 vintage produced the best wines, but we’re hoping to hear great things about 2015 as well.
France
The 2015 and 2010 vintages were 2 of the most outstanding vintages in recent history. Bourgogne Rouge (Pinot Noir) and the 10 Beaujolais Crus (Gamay) offer incredible wines.
Northern Italy
The Oltrepo Pavese region in Lombardy focuses on Pinot Noir as its primary variety and the highly aromatic Schiava from Trentino has been considered a great value alternative to Pinot Noir. The last 5 vintages (2012–2016) have been great, which means now is the time to get into Italian wine!
Austria
The regional specialty, Zweigelt, is a fantastic light-bodied red that flies somewhat under the radar. Seek out 2015 Zweigelt and drink it as soon as possible.
Germany
We’re hoping to see some price drops for German Pinot Noir in the US as the dollar continues to rise. When we do, be sure to pick up some Pfalz, Baden, or Ahr Pinot Noir (aka Spätburgunder) from 2015 and 2012. German Pinot Noir has the earthy qualities of Bourgogne but the spice factor (and ABV) of Santa Barbara Pinot… awesome sauce.

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Full-Bodied White Wines Chardonnay, Viognier, Etc.

Regions with a tradition of oak aging are the ones who produce white wines with creamy and buttery flavors. The star variety in this style of wine is definitely Chardonnay although there are several others to know. While the fashion of oak-aging has seen a downward trend in recent years, there are still several places to look to find outstanding full-bodied whites.

Here’s a run-down on what regions (and vintages) to watch for:

California
Chardonnay is California’s top grape and if you know where to look, you can find some of the best examples in the world. The important thing about finding quality Chardonnay in California is sourcing it from areas close to the Pacific Ocean (or the SF bay) that collect fog. The fog protects white grapes like Chardonnay from too much California sun! Regions like Sonoma Coast, Mendocino, Carneros, Santa Barbara, and Monterey are a few examples that get morning fog and are a great place to look. Besides Chardonnay, look for oaked Sauvignon Blanc wines (from Sonoma/Napa), Viognier, and Grenache Blanc wines (from Paso Robles/Santa Barbara area). The 2012–2016 vintages were all top quality vintages.
Chile
Just like California, Chile’s coastal regions are the places to look for great quality Chardonnay. Casablanca Valley, Leyda Valleys, and San Antonio Valley are the country’s Chardonnay hot spots. The 2016, 2014, and 2013 vintages were actually pretty awesome vintages specifically for whites in Chile, so stock up!
Australia
The Victoria region in Australia has been turning out some exceptionally balanced Chardonnay these days and this is a great place to look. That said, you’ll also find some doozies (massive Chardonnay wines) from Hunter Valley and South Australia (Adelaide Hills) as well. I’d put money on the 2015 vintage (minus Adelaide Hills) based on what Jancis R. has been saying about the last 5 vintages.
New Zealand
A new spot to look for exceptional Chardonnay wines (like, omg I can’t believe this isn’t Beaune!). You’re going to pay a premium for these wines in the US but if you’re a Chard-o-maniac, it still beats the crap out of Côte d’Or prices. We’ve been incredibly impressed by those producers practicing wild yeast fermentations and so far people are saying good things about 2016, 2015, and 2013 vintages.
Spain
The northern parts of Spain have a fair amount of Chardonnay planted that’s usually reserved for Cava. That said, sometimes you’ll see some great values for still, oak-aged Chardonnay that are surprisingly rich, while still conveying classic Spanish “dusty” terroir (making them much more savory in style). Check into the Navarra and Penedes regions for these values. Besides Chardonnay, the grapes of Rueda, including Verdejo and Viura (aka Macabeo), have shown surprising complexity with lemon balm and brûlée-like flavors when aged in oak. For example, the bottle pictured above called “Naia” is a well-distributed example of the baseline quality that Rueda is doing (and it’s great!).
Portugal
One of the biggest potential areas for a new US importers and distributors in the coming years will be to go into Portugal and cherry-pick top producers of Arinto, Encruzado, Chardonnay and Viognier wines. After tasting a 10-year-old Arinto that was replete with brûlée, beeswax, lemon rind, and chalk, it was hard not to fall in love with Portuguese whites, especially those with a touch of oak. We’re super excited about the 2015, 2014, and 2011 vintages and can’t wait to drink more Portugal. #whoswithme
Oregon
After Domaine Serene’s Dundee Hills Chardonnay got #2 wine of the year from Wine Spectator Mag (2016), we need to fully accept that Oregon Chard is no longer our little secret! Oregon’s dank climate and summer sun produce some of the most outstanding Chardonnays in the world that deserve a touch of high-quality French oak to round them out. The 2016, 2015, 2014, and 2012 vintages were all stupendous vintages so go seek them out!
Washington
Forget Chardonnay for a minute and let’s hone in on Washington’s highest potential full-bodied whites: Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, and Viognier. The problem with Chardonnay in Washington is that it’s usually a touch too flabby to get top ratings. That said, there are a few producers who do it well (Ashan, Tenor, etc), but my money is on Washington’s warmer climate white grapes–they have so much potential…

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Light-bodied White Wines Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Etc

Light-bodied white wines are dry and highlight heightened acidity and minerally flavors. They are perfect food pairing white wines. There are several favorite varieties in this category including Sauvignon Blanc, unoaked Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Albariño but there’s more to know beyond these! You can literally spin a globe and land on a region making great minerally white wines (especially if your finger lands in Europe and the Mediterranean).

That said, here are a few highlight regions to check out:

France
People will tell you about how great French red wines are, but keep in mind, France produces some of the best light-bodied white wines in the world–plus, they’re more affordable than the reds! This year, I’d start looking for the 2015 vintage (which was, incredible across Europe) in places like the Loire (Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadet, and Chenin Blanc), South-West France (home of grapes like Gros Manseng and Colombard) and Savoie for incredible values. Then, if you want to bump it up a notch, hit the greats (Bordeaux, Bourgogne, Alsace, and Rhône) for all they have to offer. Whatever you do, do it soon, and get the 2015 vintage.
Italy
The 2015 and 2014 vintages were both awesome for white wines in Italy. Italian whites have a delightful chalky bitterness which works amazingly alongside food. Especially seafood. Here are a few varieties/regions to start drinking your way through Italy: Soave (Garganega), Vermentino from Tuscany or Sardinia (think Sauvignon Blanc inspired), Verdicchio Castelli di Jesi (think floral Pinot Grigio), Pinot Grigio from Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Trentino-Alto Adige… If you need help, check out this great article about the major grape varieties of each region: Italian Wine Exploration Map
Spain
If you haven’t already discovered the Spanish whites of Viura, Verdejo, Albariño, and Godello, this is the year to do so! The 2013–2016 vintages were all great years to explore these wines, so pick one and start tasting. We’ve been quite impressed with Viura from Rioja and Godello from Valdeorras.
Greece
Greece should be on the map for white wines already. The country delivers this fascinating chalky, sappy spice to their white wines that’s really unlike any other. In the North (Thrace and Macedonia) you’ll find the indigenous grapes of Malagousia and Assyrtiko as well as international favorites like Sauvignon Blanc (all delicious!). And of course, Greece’s most famous wine and region (pay attention collectors!) Assyrtiko from Santorini.
Portugal
The summer months will bring Portuguese Vinho Verde and we will all rejoice in this amazing wine that is usually a blend of the indigenous varieties of Albariño (called Alvarinho here) and up-and-coming grape, Loureiro. If you haven’t had Vinho Verde yet, this is a must try.
South Africa
Seek out Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc from South Africa. While in the past, Chenin Blanc was made in a sweet style, today, it’s much drier. These wines are fantastic with Asian food and give off hints of South Africa’s dusty terroir.
New Zealand
We can thank a strong dollar for decreasing prices of New Zealand’s most important wine, Sauvignon Blanc. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is famous for its unafraid flavors of bell pepper and passion fruit. The 2013–2016 vintages were all good vintages to seek great values.

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Aromatic White Wines Riesling, Moscato, Gewürztraminer, Etc.

Aromatic white wines have higher levels of a compound group called monoterpenes which produce aromas of flowers and sweet stone fruits (apricots, peaches, honey and rose). These wines can be made in both a sweet or dry style, but are often described as sweet due to their intense aromatics. If you’re into this style of wine, you’re in for a treat this year:

Germany
Germany is queen bee in the aromatic wine category since Riesling is the country’s star grape variety. 2015 was a crazy, exceptional year and believe me when I tell you that you want these wines (some for now and others for cellaring). Be sure to learn the classification system, including Pradikat and VDP. We have an article all about it here.
Austria
Austria creates a style of Riesling that’s similar to Germany often with a slightly more linear profile. For this reason, Austrian Rieslings age in a really fascinating and somewhat savory way. Unfortunately, not much of this stuff is imported so you’ll need to dig.
France
Alsace is the most aromatic wine region of France and it happens to be right upstream of the Pfalz region of Germany. The Riesling here is dry, but there are other delicious finds to be had as well, including Muscat (on the Grand Cru level) and Gewürztraminer. Definitely read up on Alsace and seek out something from 2015 and 2014.
Washington
Riesling from Washington is truly starting to hit its stride. There are some especially good AVAs for it within the Columbia Valley including the newly anointed Ancient Lakes and Naches Heights AVA. This is a great place to go for awesome, everyday drinking wines (Thai food anyone?).
New York
With flagship producers including Dr. Konstantin Frank and Ravines in Finger Lakes, we’re starting to see Riesling wines that are proving that New York Riesling is quite serious indeed. The 2013-2015 vintages are all worth investigating.
Hungary
Furmint, the grape traditionally reserved for Tokaji is also being produced in a dry style from the region. The wine is like a fine Riesling with similar levels of acidity, but a bit more structure and body. Additionally, a rare find we just discovered is a variety called Cserszegi Füszeres (chair-seggi fooh-sar-esh) that smells like roses, elderflowers and mint. For Hungarian wine, 2015 is a winner.
California
Long before Cabernet was the most important variety in Napa there was a bastion of sweet varieties growing in the North Coast (Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino) of California including Muscat and Gewürztraminer. The vines are now close to a century old (if they weren’t ripped out) and make some of the most luscious sweets coming out of Napa and Sonoma. For example, we were shocked and delighted by 2 well-known wineries in Sonoma making Gewürztraminer: Alexander Valley Vineyards and Gundlach Bundschu. Be sure to buy these as fresh (youthful) as possible.
Northern Italy
2015 will be another vintage you need to stockpile for Moscato d’Asti. Additionally, we found some producers of Gewürztraminer in Trentino-Alto Adige that make a style strikingly similar to those of Alsace, France (and usually a lot cheaper too).

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How One Red Grape Can Make Red, Rosé, and White Wine

Pinot Noir is often hailed for being utterly delicious, but it also happens to be one of the most versatile wine grapes in the world. This single red grape variety can be transformed to create not just red wine, but white, rosé, and sparkling wine as well. How on earth is this possible? It all comes down to the winemaking methods and the production processes that determine this little grape’s fate.

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White Pinot Noir

If you were to cut open a Pinot Noir grape, you’d see that the flesh (the pulpy part) is actually a pale greenish yellow color. It’s actually the skins of the grapes that dye the juice a beautiful red hue, so if you want to produce a white wine with red grapes – the skins have got to be removed ASAP. This is the secret to white Pinot Noir (aka “Vin Gris”)

Of course, the red skins of grapes start dying the juice really quickly so winemakers work extra fast, usually opting to harvest on a cool morning and get the grapes to the cellar and pressed as fast as possible. The wine press used to make white Pinot Noir is a special pneumatic press (this style of press is used for white wine making) which crushes the grapes but filters off the skins and seeds. The remaining juice typically has a lovely, deep golden color.
 

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How White Wine is Made

See how white wine is made differently than red wine.

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Red Pinot Noir

Red Pinot Noir uses the red winemaking process.

Grapes are collected and put into grape crushers which drop the entire contents of the crusher into a tank (skins, seeds, pulp, and all!). Because Pinot Noir is such a thin-skinned variety, it often gets extended time with its skins (before and after wine making), in order to soak up as much of the red pigment as possible. In case you were wondering, these two processes are cold-soaking (before fermentation) and extended maceration (after fermentation). Some winemakers will even add the Pinot Noir stems into the fermentation to increase color extraction (it adds some bitterness but you get a whole lot more color and age-worthiness too!). After this whole process is done, you have a wine with a pale to medium ruby red color.
 

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How Red Wine is Made

See how red wine is made differently than white wine.

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Rosé Pinot Noir

Making Rosé is all about timing. The longer the skins are in the juice, the darker they dye the wine.

For Pinot Noir, this process looks a little like a combination of red and white winemaking. The grapes get crushed into a tank with the skins and seeds. Then the juice is monitored by the winemaker who takes samples every hour or so to check the color extraction. The moment she thinks the color is perfect, the winemaker strains the juice from the skins into clean tanks where the wine completes its fermentation. I’ve spoken with winemakers in both California and Oregon who say they’ve made rosé wines with less than 7 hours of “skin contact” time!

 

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How Rosé Wine is Made

Learn about the different methods used to create rosé wine.

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Sparkling Pinot Noir aka Blanc de Noirs

Start with white Pinot Noir and then ferment it again to make blanc de noirs.

This is the specialty of Champagne, including Jay-Z’s brand, Armand de Brignac, whose “tete de cuvée” is a special edition bottling of 100% Pinot Noir in a Blanc de Noirs style. To make sparkling wine, you essentially take a specially formulated wine (using perfectly underripe grapes that produce more acidity) and ferment it again in bottles so that the carbon dioxide can’t escape and it pressurizes the bottle, carbonating the wine. You can find Blanc de Noirs made all over the world, and almost always, Pinot Noir is the grape used for this wine (the other is a Pinot variant called Pinot Meunier).

 

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How Sparkling Wine is Made

Learn about the different methods used to create sparkling wine.

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Other Versatile Red Grapes

You might be wondering what other wines can be made in all 4 styles and you might have noticed how I mentioned that Pinot Noir has thin skins. As it happens, some of the best red grapes for producing white, rosé, red, and sparkling styles have thinner skins too. This is because the skins generally have less pigment and thus, take longer to dye the wine. Here are a few other grapes with thin skins that show great potential to be made in all four styles:

  • Gamay
  • Grenache
  • Zinfandel
  • Nebbiolo
  • Mencía
  • Sangiovese

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