6.14.2012

Wine column no. 34: Wine through the centuries

It can feel like a solitary endeavor, there in your backyard, here in the 21st century. But we promise you: You're not the only one who's brought a cup full of wine to your lips.
Back during the Chinese Bronze Age — think 1700 B.C. — members of the royal court drank wine with their meat, according to Columbia University.
In ancient Greece, the substance was such a key part of life that Greeks said the god Dionysus, a son of Zeus, roamed the land, teaching men how to grow grapes to make wine, the Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th edition, 2011, said.
And ancient Roman scholars took pains to describe wine production and what they felt constituted a quality quaff, according to a website hosted by the University of Chicago.
Yet despite all this research, despite all the years men (and women) have put into studying wine, this substance still manages to confuse many us — and that's even before the cork's been popped.
But here's one way to approach the study of wine: Think of it as something that is about geography, too.
In the past several months, we've had three wines that are made from grapes that are typically grown in the Rhone Valley of France. This wasn't by design, but it worked out that we've tried a red wine made with Grenache and Syrah grapes; a white wine made with Bourboulenc, Grenache Blanc, Ugni Blanc and Vermentino grapes; and a wine that looks like a rose but is actually still considered a white wine, made with Roussanne grapes.
We'll start with the last one since it was new to us and we were pleased to find it at Newt's Liquor Mart in Henderson, Ky., for about $22. The 2004 Zaca Mesa Roussanne from Santa Ynez Valley, Calif., tasted to us like figs and nuts — just as the label promised. Greg and I disagreed on the texture, since he thought it was acidic and I thought it was smooth. But it had a good, full body. This late-ripening, difficult-to-grow grape gave us a 14.5 percent alcohol punch in the mouth, too, so keep that in mind if you're thinking of a summer bottle to pair with chicken.
Zaca Mesa Winery and Vineyards, by the way, is a member of the Rhone Rangers, a nonprofit made up of wineries from California, Washington State, Oregon and Idaho.
The group seeks to promote the 22 grape varieties that are grown in the Rhone Valley.
Vineyards have to pay to be a member, but with that membership comes a consumer's confidence that they are drinking wines that contain at least 75 percent of the 22 Rhone Valley varieties.
For white wines, these include the better-known Roussanne, Viognier and Marsanne and the lesser-known Grenache Blanc and Bourboulenc, among others.
For reds, they include the better-known Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre and the lesser-known Carignan and Picpoul Noir, among others.
To learn more about which American wineries are members of the Rhone Rangers, visit www.rhonerangers.org.
As for a Rhone Valley wine that's actually grown in France, we tried the 2010 Andezon, which is a Cotes-du-Rhone red blend of 90 percent Syrah and 10 percent Grenache coming in at 14.5 percent alcohol. I bought this at Winetree for about $12 and found it to have a good body, with cedar and red fruit notes and an earthy, intense quality.
It's masculine, almost, and it was well matched against grilled chicken breasts seasoned with garlic pepper.
Esteemed wine critic Robert Parker gave this wine a 91 out of 100 rating, noting that the grapes used to make it were plucked from Syrah vines that are more than 40 years old and Grenache vines that are more than 60 years old.
Finally, we tried the 2010 La Vielle Ferme (which translates to "the old farm") white wine from the Luberon hills of France. This is a blend of Bourboulenc, Grenache Blanc, Ugni Blanc and Vermentino grapes.
"It's known for the chicken, and a lot of people, a lot of my friends (are) calling it the chicken wine,' Pierre Perrin, whose family owns La Vielle Ferme, said, referring to the chicken on the wine's label.
This particular wine was made in an unusually elevated portion of the Rhone Valley, in the Cotes du Luberon, which allows the Perrin family to produce its own distinctive style of this particular blend.
But the 2010 vintage, which Greg bought at Vecchio's Italian Market and Delicatessen in Newburgh, Ind., for $9.99, was made differently than previous vintages, Perrin said.
Instead of using 100 percent Ugni Blanc, the Perrin family blended four wines together: Along with Bourboulenc, a white wine variety typically grown in southern France, and Ugni Blanc, "White Grenache is giving the body to the wine, and Vermentino is very nice to give the flavor," Perrin said. "So this wine is always fresh, very aromatic, with a lot of passion fruits — kiwis, lychees, sometimes we have some honey (and cinnamon)."
Vermentino, it should be noted, is not considered a Rhone Valley variety. It's actually an Italian grape that also is cultivated in Sardinia, an island off the coast of Italy, according to The New Frank Schoonmaker Encyclopedia of Wine. But while some Rhone Valley purists might be bothered by this fact, we're not.
Why? Because we now have one more reason to expand our horizons, and to learn more about this complicated substance that is clearly entwined in the history of civilization.
And that means that drinking a glass of wine in your backyard is no longer solitary. Given the long history of others who've done the same, it's in fact quite ordinary.

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