The Outer Limits: The Dordogne before Bordeaux

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The Dordogne River is well known as one of the three main waterways that flow through and handily divide the Bordeaux AOC into the areas of the Right Bank, Left Bank, and Entre-Deux-Mers. However, Bordeaux is only part of the story of the Dordogne River.

The sources of the Dordogne is found almost in the center of France—it’s just a bit too far south to call it the true center. In the mountains of the Massif Central, two small streams—the Dore and the Dogne—arise on the side of Puy de Sancy (Mount of the Cross), which at 6,184 feet (1,885 m) high is the highest mountain in the range. After a bit of meandering around, these two streams flow together and form the Dordogne River.

The upper valley of the Dordogne River is a series of deep gorges, cliffs, and lakes. The river then flows through the neighboring countryside, occasionally meeting small towns such as Lanobre (where you can visit the Château de Val [not a wine-producing Château but a well-preserved Gothic Castle]) and Bort-les-Orgues, where you can view the “Les Orgues” volcanic rock formation—which stretches over half a mile and resembles a series of 300 foot-high organ pipes, the result of cracks formed in cooling, prehistoric lava flows.

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About 50 miles later the river flows through the city of Argentat, a lovely town where medieval houses line the streets along the river. From Argentat, the river twists and turns for about another 100 miles, and just before the town of Lalinde, the Dordogne flows into the Bergerac/Cotes de Bergerac AOC.

The Bergerac AOC produces red, white, and rosé wines. Bergerac reds and rosés center on Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Merlot; also allowing for small amounts of Fer Servadou and Mérille. White wines are based on Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, and Muscadelle; varying small amounts of Ugni Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Ondenc are also allowed. The Cotes de Bergerac AOC occupies the same area as the Bergerac AOC, and produces the same range of wines but with stricter standards for yield and must weight at harvest. The Cotes de Bergerac AOC also allows for a sweet white wine; whites in the Bergerac AOC must be dry.

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Tucked into the Bergerac AOC, and surrounding the actual town of Bergerac (and its famous statue of Cyrano), we find the Pécharmant AOC. The Pécharmant AOC produces dry red wines only, based on Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Malbec. Pécharmant is required to contain at least three varieties, and no one variety can exceed 65% of the blend.

Following the river just to the west of the Pécharmant AOC, we find two wine regions: Rosette to the north of the river, and Monbazillac to the south—both produce off-dry and sweet white wines. Rosette AOC must contain 2.5%–5.1% residual sugar and is a blend of at least two of the following grapes: Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Sémillon, and Muscadelle.

The Monbazillac AOC is famous for its sweet white wines that are often touted as something of a less expensive “version” of Sauternes. The grapes of the Monbazillac AOC include the principal varieties Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Sémillon, and Muscadelle; other allowed varieties include Chenin Blanc, Ondenc, and Ugni Blanc. There are few restrictions on the content of the blend, provided that at least 80% of the contents consist of the principal varieties. Monbazillac blanc must contain at least 4.5% residual sugar, and the most famous wine of the appellation—Monbazillac Sélection de Grains Nobles—must contain at least 8.5% residual sugar. Grapes used in Monbazillac AOC wines must be selectively hand-harvested and may be affected by botrytis, but this is not required.  While in Monbazillac, be sure and visit the Château Monbazillac which is a historic castle, a modern winery, and a contemporary arts center!

Map of the Dordogne River by Boerkevitz, via Wikimedia Commons

Map of the Dordogne River by Boerkevitz, via Wikimedia Commons

To the north of the Dordogne, about 15 miles west of the Rosette AOC (and onward through the surrounding Bergerac AOC), we find the Montravel AOC. The Montravel AOC produces both red and white wines that closely mirror the wines of nearby Bordeaux. White wines are based on a minimum of 25% Sémillon plus a minimum of 25% (combined) Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris; other allowed varieties include Muscadelle and Ondenc. The Haut-Montravel AOC produces sweet white wines (minimum 8.5% residual sugar) from the same blend. Red Montravel AOC is based on a required minimum of 50% Merlot and must include at least one other grape variety; allowed red grapes include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec.

For about 15 miles, the Dordogne River forms the border between the wine regions of Bergerac and Montravel (on the north bank of the river) and Saint-Foy-de-Bordeaux (on the south bank). Just past Saint-Foy-de-Bordeaux, the Dordogne dips inside the Bordeaux AOC and creates the boundary line between Bordeaux’s Right Bank and Entre-Deux-Mers. Somewhere between the AOCs of Fronsac and Margaux, the Dordogne River joins the Garonne and together, as the Gironde Estuary, they make their way into the Atlantic Ocean.

Map credit: Cyril555, via Wikimedia Commons

Map credit: Cyril555, via Wikimedia Commons

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

The Outer Limits: The Garonne before Bordeaux

The beginnings of the Garonne in Spain's Aran Valley

The beginnings of the Garonne in Spain’s Aran Valley

The Garonne River is well-known to wine lovers as one of the three major waterways of Bordeaux—as well it should be. But The Garonne’s journey through Bordeaux and into the Atlantic Ocean is just a part of the full story of the river, which actually flows for over 370 miles beginning in Spain. From its source in the Pyrenees Mountains of Spain, the river flows through the fourth largest city in France and touches the wine regions of Fronton, Saint-Sardos, Brulhois, Buzet, Côtes de Marmandais, and Bordeaux (among others). It’s quite the river.

The actual source of the Garonne is somewhat up for debate—depending upon how one defines the actual source of a river and even upon the season of the year. However, experts can agree that the source of the Garonne can be found in the Aran Valley (Val d’Aran) of Spain. The Aran Valley is located in the corner of Catalonia that borders Aragon. The source of the Garonne is located on the northern side of the Pyrenees, about 25 miles from the border of France.

As we follow the Garonne from its source in the Spanish Pyrenees Mountains, after about 125 miles it flows into Toulouse—famed for its unique architecture of pinkish terracotta buildings, earning it the nickname of la Ville Rose (“the Pink City”), as well as being the fourth-largest city in France (after Paris, Lyon, and Marseille). Toulouse might well be worth a stop. For those interested in science and industry, Toulouse is the center of the European aerospace industry, the headquarters of Airbus, and the home of the Galileo positioning system. Those more interested in tourism can visit two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Canal du Midi and the Basilica of St. Sernin—the latter being the largest remaining Romanesque building in Europe, and a historic stop on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route.

View of the Church of Gesu in Toulouse

View of the Church of Gesu in Toulouse

Following the river for about 20 more miles, we arrive at the Fronton AOC. Fronton is one of the oldest wine-producing regions in France; vines were first planted here by the Romans. However, for a good part of modern history the wines of Fronton were at a distinct disadvantage when it came to trade; as they were heavily taxed as they passed through the port of Bordeaux. These days, the Fronton AOC produces hearty and rustic reds and rosés based on the Négrette grape variety. In both styles of wine, Négrette must be at least 40% of the blend (and is permitted to be the sole grape variety); the remainder of the blend may be made up of various red grapes allowed in various proportions, including Syrah, Malbec, Gamay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Cinsault and an interesting little red grape known as Fer. Fer, according to Jancis Robinson, is a somewhat “untamed” grape native to Southwest France that was domesticated from locally-growing wild vines. It is known as a highly tannic red grape, richly hued and aromatic that is widely grown throughout Southwest France. (Side note: the grape was likely named from the Latin word ferus meaning “wild” or “savage.”)

If we drive (or swim) across the Garonne River starting in Fronton, we will end up in the Saint-Sardos AOC. The Garonne skirts the eastern section of the boundaries of the AOC, and the sunny terraces along the river are rich in alluvial soil. The AOC produces reds and rosés. Both styles of wine must contain a minimum of 40% Syrah and 20% Tannat. Other allowed grapes include Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

Map of the Garonne by Boerkevit, via Wikimedia Commons

Map of the Garonne by Boerkevit, via Wikimedia Commons

If we follow the Garonne another 42 miles of so, we will arrive at the Brulhois AOC. Brulhois, whose name is derived from an old Gascon word meaning “wooded slopes,” is home to many types of agriculture and is thus a very small producer of wine (despite the excellent quality of the land). The Brulhois AOC produces both red and rosé wines based on red grape blends. Principal varieties are Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Tannat and must make up a (combined) minimum of 70% of the blend. Other allowed varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Fer-Servadou (the local name for Fer). Red wines must contain at least two varieties; rosé must contain at least three.

Another 20 miles upriver we arrive at the Buzet AOC. It is easy to see the influence of Bordeaux in the wines and grapes of Buzet; the area produces white, red, and rosé wines—all based on a range of grapes that include the Bordeaux varieties in with the grapes native to Southwest France. The white wines of the Buzet AOC allow for the use of Muscadelle, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, or Sémillon as principal grapes; the accessory varieties of Colombard, Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng may combine in a maximum of 10% of the blend.  The reds and rosés of the region are based on Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec or Merlot; a maximum of 10% may include Petit Verdot and Abouriou (combined). Abouriou is a red grape native to Southwest France, grown in very small amounts, and which tends to be low in acidity, highly tannic, deeply hued and somewhat spicy in flavor.

Next, after a drive of about 70 miles, we arrive at the city of Marmande and the Côtes de Marmandais AOC. The Côtes du Marmandais AOC, in my opinion, wins the prize as “most obscure” wine region in this trip along the Garonne. The Côtes du Marmandais, like Buzet, shares its palate of grape varieties with both Southwest France and Bordeaux. The AOC produces white, red, and rosé wines. The whites are based on Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris, and may contain a maximum (combined) 30% Sémillon and Muscadelle. Reds and rosés must contain a maximum combined 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot; up to 50% may comprise Abouriou, Malbec, Fer, Gamay, and Syrah.

The Pont de Pierre (Stone Bridge) over the Garonne in the city of Bordeaux

The Pont de Pierre (Stone Bridge) over the Garonne in the city of Bordeaux

About ten miles outside of Marmande, the Garonne crosses into the Gironde department and officially flows into the Bordeaux Wine Region. About 40 miles later, just beyond the city of Bordeaux, the Garonne River meets the Dordogne River at a spot known as the Bec d’Ambès. As most wine lovers know, the Garonne and the Dordogne flow together to the Gironde estuary which separates Bordeaux’s Left Bank from its Right Bank as it flows past some of the most revered vineyards in the world. After transversing about 62 miles of prime vineyard land the Gironde Estuary empties into the Atlantic Ocean at the Bay of Biscay; thus ending the journey of the Garonne.

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

Greywacke (and Greywacke Jones)

Greywacke stones along the Haast River in New Zealand

Greywacke stones along the Haast River in New Zealand

Greywacke (pronounced “grey-wacky”) is a drab, grey stone—technically, a sedimentary rock–made up of layers of very hard, clay-based, muddy grey sandstone criss-crossed through with layers of argillite (a type of mudstone) and grains of quartz, feldspar, and other small rock and mineral fragments. The term Greywacke can refer to the entire rock (or boulder), the sandstone base of the rock, or—especially in the case of wine enthusiasts, a type of soil derived from the stone.

In case you are wondering how such a plain looking rock acquired such a crazy-sounding name, “wacke” is the German word for sandstone, and the term (Grauwacke) was first used to describe rocks located in the Harz Mountains of northern Germany.

Greywacke soils do well with viticulture. The clay-derived portion of the stone weathers into clay-based soil, which is appreciated for its abilities to remain cool, retain vine nutrients, and retain water. The rock and mineral fragments remain behind in Greywacke soil to counter the clay with coarse-grained gravel, providing aeration and drainage. And, of course, some of the rocks stay behind on the top of the soil, absorbing and releasing heat.

Greywacke boulders on Te Mata Peak (Hawke's Bay, New Zealand)

Greywacke boulders on Te Mata Peak (Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand)

This gravelly soil is most notably found in the vineyards of New Zealand; which makes sense as hard greywacke stone makes up a large part of the Southern Alps as well as the smaller mountain ranges of New Zealand’s North Island. The famous “Gimblett’s Gravels” soils of Hawkes Bay, as well as large swaths of Marlborough, Gisborne, Canterbury, and Nelson are all Greywacke-based. Greywacke is almost considered the “national stone” of New Zealand (or would be, if New Zealand ever decided to have a national rock, according to The Encyclopedia of New Zealand.) Click here for a map of Greywacke in New Zealand.

Fans of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc (which I certainly am) will no doubt recognize the name Greywacke in terms of a New Zealand wine brand, produced by none other than Kevin Judd – the beloved original winemaker at Cloudy Bay. Kevin continues his string of winemaking successes at Greywacke, producing a range of wine including a delicious albeit typical “zesty” Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc as well as a native yeast-fermented, lees-aged, oak-influenced Sauvignon Blanc (“Wild Sauvignon”) that has become a staple at both my Sunday night dinners and my Intro to Wine Classes. Other Greywacke wines include Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Pinot Noir, and even a late-harvest Riesling—all delicious.

Detail of greywacke soil in Algarve, Portugal

Detail of greywacke soil in Algarve, Portugal

Greywacke bedrock and soils are found in many parts of the wine world, including the Algarve region of Portugal; Germany’s Mosel, Ahr, and Mittelrhein; the Western Cape of South Africa; California’s Russian River Valley; and the Barossa. The term “Greywacke” is used often in the context of wines and vineyards from all over the world, as well. Cosa Obra Wines in the Russian River Valley has a “Greywacke Vineyard” located within the Russian River Valley AVA, about where the Russian River makes it westward turn towards the Pacific Ocean. In Australia’s Barossa, Thorn-Clarke Winery, very much into the soils, produces a Shiraz labeled as “Shiraz on Cambrian Greywacke Soil.”

About that subtitle: There is a character named Greywacke Jones in “Slinky Malinki,” a children’s book by New Zealand author Lynley Dodd. Greywacke Jones is a mischievous cat who hangs out with his pals Slinky Malinki, Hairy Maclary, Butterball Brown, and the rest of the gang. So now you know.

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

Lake Garda and her Wines

The waterfront of the town of Torbole

The waterfront of the town of Torbole

It’s the lake of dreams. Lake Garda (Lago di Garda) is the largest lake in Italy, and a popular destination for travelers searching for deep blue transparent waters, wind-in-your-hair yachting, and la dolce vida the area is known for.

The rich and famous may head for the northern resorts towns of Riva del Garda and Torbole, while families and backpackers head for the farmhouses of Bardolino, Castelnuovo del Garda, or the fortified town of Sirmione in the south.

Formed by the movement of glaciers thousands of years ago, Lake Garda is tucked between the regions of Veneto, Trentino, and Lombardy. Its upper half, shaped somewhat like the handle of an axe, reaches into the Italian Alps, while the southern section, shaped like the blade of the axe, stretches down into an undulating plain. Such a shape is typical of a moraine (glacier-formed) valley.

Lake Garda from space - via NASA

Lake Garda from space – via NASA

The lake is 32 miles (51 km) long from north to south, and about 10 miles wide at its widest point.  In addition to lovely towns, ferry boats, orange orchards, and olive groves, the shores of Lake Garda are host to a variety of vineyards, which including several DOCs and one DOCG. These wines of Lake Garda are briefly discussed below, beginning in the northern end of the lake (tucked into Trentino), and following around the lake clockwise through Vento and ending up in Lombardy. These regions are overwhelmingly overlapping, interlocking, discontiguous, and straddling the boundary lines of cities, towns and regions–and this little article is but an overview. It might be a good time to book a trip to any (or all) of these lovely wine regions.

Valdadige DOC: The Valdadige DOC (also known as Etschtaler, particularly among the German-speaking denizens of the area) is the only DOC that stretches across parts of both the Trentino and Alto-Adige provinces. The DOC covers a wide range of wines—including white, red, rosé, still, semi-sparkling, varietal, and blend. A typical Valdadige Bianco DOC will be based on Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio, Riesling Italico, Muller Thurgau, or Chardonnay, with a range of other typical white grapes of the region also allowed. Valdadige Rosso or Rosato DOC is produced using a minimum of 50% Lambrusco a Foglia Frastagliata (Enantio) and/or Schiava (plus a plethora of allowed red varieties). Varietal versions of Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay, and Schiava may also be produced. Frizzante wines may be either dry or semi-sweet, and may be produced from Pinot Bianco or Chardonnay.

Scaliger Castle in the town of Sirmione

Scaliger Castle in the town of Sirmione

Casteller DOC: The Casteller DOC covers a large area across the middle of the Trentino province and overlaps a portion of the larger Valdadige DOC at the north end of Lake Garda. Casteller is a red wine-only region known for soft red wines based on a minimum of 50% Merlot; the remainder may be filled in with Schiava (Grossa or Gentile), Lambrusco a Foglia Frastagliata (Enantio), Lagrein, or Teroldego.

Bardolino DOC (and her sisters): Veneto’s Bardolino is undoubtedly the most famous of the Lake Garda lakeside DOCs (and even includes a DOCG, the Bardolino Superiore DOCG). Bardolino produces mainly red wines and some rosé (a much-beloved Chiaretto) from a blend based on 35–80% Corvina Veronese grapes (a portion of which may be replaced by Corvinone). Small amounts of Rondinella are required, and small amounts of Molinara, Rossignola (Gropello), Barbera, Sangiovese, and Garganega are allowed. The Bardolino DOC allows for the production of many versions. Reds may be produced as a classico, novello, or classico novello in addition to the normale versions, and the chiaretto (rosé) may be released as normale, classico, or sparkling. Bardolino is known to be a medium-bodied, fresh-tasting red wine. The Crovina base lends delightful sour-cherry aromas and flavors in addition to floral, herbal, and ripe berry notes.  Novello versions have been compared to Beaujolais Nouveau and rosé versions are fresh, fruity, crisp and lively. I like to describe Bardolino Chiaretto like “red Bardolino with its shirt off.” I’ve never had the spumante version, but I’m on the lookout now.

Lake Garda and her wines mapsBianco di Custoza DOC: The Bianco di Custoza DOC, tucked below Lake Garda on her southwest side, is located within the Veneto region. The DOC overlaps with the Bardolino DOC quite a bit, but also extends past the boundaries of Bardolino a bit as well. Bianco di Custoza, sometimes simply called “Custoza,” is a white-wine only DOC, but does allow for sparkling wine, sweet wines made via the passito method, and a superiore version, in addition to the normale dry, still wines.

All of these versions of Bianco di Custoza may be made using the same palette of grape varieties–but from there things get a bit complicated. The basis of the wine starts out with at least 20% (and a maximum of 40%) Garganega. Next, it includes a minimum of 10% (and a maximum of 40%) Trebbiano Toscana (otherwise known as Ugni Blanc). Another 5% to 30% is an interesting grape known as Trebbianello, which is a local clone of the grape alternatively known as Tai or Friulano. Other grapes that are allowed in varying amounts include Bianca Fernanda (a local clone of Cortese), Malvasia, Riesling Italico, Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay, and Manzoni Bianco.

The waterfront of Salò, a town on the banks of Lake Garda in Lombardy

The waterfront of Salò, a town on the banks of Lake Garda in Lombardy

Lugana DOC: The Lugana DOC straddles the Lombardy–Veneto border at the southern edge of Lake Garda. The name Lugana is as picturesque as its surroundings; the word is derived from the Latin for “Lake in the Woods,” reflecting the dense woodlands that existed here not-so-long ago.  Lugana is a white wine-only DOC, producing wines in a range of styles from a minimum of 90% Trebbiano di Lugana grapes. The Trebbiano di Lugana variety is also known as Trebbiano di Soave, Turbiana, or Verdicchio Bianco. The DOC produces mainly fragrant, dry white wines (often compared to Soave in style), and also allows for superiore, riserva, late-harvest, and sparling versions.

Valtènesi DOC: Located in Lombardy’s Brescia province, the Valtènesi DOC produces both red and rosé (chiaretto) wines based on a minimum of 50% Groppello (Gentile and/or Mocasina). The remainder of the blend may include any of the red wines approved for use in Lombardy, with Sangiovese, Marzemino, and Barbera most often used. The Groppello grape is native to this area of northern Italy, and is grown in very small amounts, mainly in Lombardy and Veneto (where it may be known as Rossignola).

Garda DOC (and the rest of the Garda family): The Garda DOC extends along the western shore of Lake Garda (in Lombardy), and continues on to the Veneto side, overlapping portions of the Lugana, Bardolino, and Bianco di Custoza DOCs along the way. Two small portions on the Lombardy side overlap with smaller Garda DOCs: Garda Colli Mantovani DOC overlaps a small section at the southern end of the lake, and a small section near the northern edge overlaps with the Garda Bresciano DOC. All of these regions produce a wide range of wines, including red, white, rosé, sparkling and novello versions, from a range of grapes representing the typical varieties of the area.

References/for further information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

The Murray, the Darling, and the Alps of Australia

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Murray Darling (as serious wine students certainly will know) is a wine region in Australia. Known primarily for Chardonnay but also widely planted with Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, it is a big region–the second largest (by geographical area) in the country.

The Murray Darling wine region transcends political boundaries to an extent, as it straddles the borders of two states–Victoria and New South Wales. The New South Wales portion of the region is considered to be part of the Big Rivers viticultural zone–which makes total sense as it is named for the longest and the third longest rivers in Australia.

The longer of the two rivers–the Murray–is the longest river in Australia, clocking in at 1,558 miles (2,508 km) long. The source of the Murray is in the Australian Alps, and from there it flows down the western side of the mountains, twisting and turning across the inland plains and forming part of the border between the states of New South Wales and Victoria before it reaches the state of South Australia. From there, the Murray heads southward for almost 200 miles (315 km) before it joins the Southern Ocean (also known as the South Pacific Ocean) at Lake Alexandria.

Kosciuszko National Park, Australia

Kosciuszko National Park, Australia

Wait a minute–did she just say the Australian Alps? Yes, she did–and that’s the thing that led to this post. Before doing a bit of digging into the background of the Murray Darling region I had no idea that Australia had its own Alps.

The Australian Alps, it turns out, are part of the Great Dividing Range (now it starts to make sense). The Alps are the highest mountain range in Australia, and the only place in Australia that receives deep snow fall every year. Mount Kosciuszko, the highest point in Australia (7,310 feet/2,228 meters above sea level) is part of the Alps system. There is even a system of Alpine National Parks, understandably  a center for skiing and other mountain sports in Australia.

So–back to our rivers. The source of the Darling River is also in the Great Dividing Range, yet far to the north of the Murray in the northern portion of New South Wales. The Darling River, the third longest river in Australia, flows south-southwest across New South Wales to the border of the state of Victoria, where it joins the Murray.

The combined Murray-Darling catchment system provides irrigation for one seventh of Australia’s total landmass, including most of Victoria, New South Wales, southern Queensland, and parts of South Australia. This area is of great agricultural significance and has even earned the nickname of the “food bowl” of the nation. The agriculture output of the Murray-Darling Basin includes dairy, citrus, stone fruit, livestock, cotton, almonds, and over half of Australia’s cereal crops.

Of course, of great interest to me are the grapes, as a great majority of the wine regions of New South Wales and Victoria–as well as a portion of South Australia–fall under the water catchment of the Murray-Darling. The importance of these rivers (as well as the other rivers in the basin, which include the Lachlan and the Murrumbidgee) really cannot be overstated. We can thank these rivers for Hunter Valley Semillon, Mudgee Cabernet, Rutherglen Muscat, Heathcote Shiraz, and Murray Darling Chardonnay. Thank you!

References/For more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

 

The Icy Benguela

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I’ve been curious about the Benguela Current for a while. My original curiosity about the Benguela Current was about the name —how did it get that very cool name? It seems it all begins with Portuguese sailors in the 1500s.

In the Age of Discovery, Portuguese Sailors—known for skill and courage in ocean navigation —often sailed the long and arduous ocean journey around the continent of Africa to Asia. During such voyages, they had to fight against two mighty ocean currents: the icy Benguela current that flowed northward along the coast of Africa while they were trying to sail south; then, after they rounded the Cape of Good Hope, they sailed north while fighting the warm and southward-flowing Agulhas Current. If the journey was successful, they reached Asia and accessed the famed Indian Spice Routes. Such accomplishments helped the Portuguese form their empire, which at various times included parts of Africa, the Middle East, India, South America, and South Asia.

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The namesake of the Benguela Current (as it is now known) is a city in present-day Angola.  The area surrounding Benguela, due to its location near the coast and a well-traversed deep bay, has been a center of commercial trade since ancient times.  While there is no written record of the history of the area before the arrival of the Portuguese in 1546, it is believed that the area was formerly known as ombaka, which means, literally, “commercial (or ‘market’) port.” When the Portuguese colonized the area, a town was founded and named São Felipe de Benguela (Saint Philip of Benguela) after King Philip II of Spain and Portugal.

So back to ocean current: the icy Benguela Current flows from the Southern Ocean near Antarctica and moves north along the west coast of Africa. It reaches as far north as Angola (close to the city of Benguela, in case you missed that point) before it turns west and heads to South America. The Benguela Current is part of a large circulating ocean current known as the South Atlantic Ocean gyre. The western edge of the gyre is known as the Brazil Current; the Brazil current flows southward down the coast of Brazil, then turns east and flows across the ocean until it reaches Antarctica. From Cape Point in South Africa (at about 33°), the cold portion of the current known as the Benguela current flows northward along the west coast of Africa to the area around Angola/Benguela (about 16°S).

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            Cape Agulhas…pick your ocean!

Near Cape Point, where a portion of the cold Benguela Current of the Atlantic meets the warm south- and west-flowing Agulhas Current of the Southern Pacific Ocean, the waters become wild and turbulent. It’s a common practice while on vacation in Cape Town to journey down to Cape Point, take a short hike, get your picture taken by the sign, and stare out to sea at the “place where two oceans meet.” (Hey, I did it.) However, the truth is that the ocean currents actually intermingle for hundreds of miles in either direction—both east and west of Cape Point—and that the “point where two oceans meet” is likely to be anywhere between Cape Point and about 100 miles west at Cape Agulhas (which is actually the southernmost point on the African continent and worth a visit as well).

From the department of I thought this was a wine blog:  Good point. All I can say is that my curiosity concerning Benguela Current peaked while studying the wines of South Africa. The winelands of South Africa’s Western Cape are cooled by the moist fog and gentle breezes generated by the Benguela Current, which also generates the not-so-gentle south-easterly wind known as the “Cape Doctor.”

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Super-sharp students of wine might also have perked up with the mention of Cape Point, which is the former name of the Cape Peninsula wine district; and Cape Agulhas, a wine district located in the Cape South Coast. Cape Peninsula is a small area located on a narrow, rugged area just south of Cape Town and east of Constantia (both wine regions are easily accessed via taxi or tour bus from Cape Town). Cape Peninsula produces snappy, cool-climate white wines and is particularly adept at Sauvignon Blanc. The terroir of Cape Agulhas, about 100 miles down the coast, is also markedly maritime—distinctly cool and breezy—and known for a crisp, snappy style of Sauvignon Blanc, apricot-and-lemon laced Semillon, and a unique cool-climate style of Shiraz.

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The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

 

 

 

 

 

Roll on, Columbia, Roll on!

Map of the Columbia River watershed, with the Columbia River Highlighted. Map via the USGS, modified by Kmusser, via Wikimedia Commons

Map of the Columbia River watershed, with the Columbia River Highlighted. Map via the USGS, modified by Kmusser, via Wikimedia Commons

The Columbia River is well-known to wine lovers as the namesake of The Columbia Valley AVA. The Columbia Valley AVA is the largest AVA in Washington State, and a portion of the AVA dips down across the Oregon border as well. Another namesake, the Columbia  Gorge AVA – a tiny AVA located just to the east of Mount Hood – is also shared by the two neighboring states.

But the Columbia River extends well above and beyond its namesake wine regions, and is a treasure trove of interesting stories for geography geeks and travel buffs as well as the legions of wine lovers already familiar with the name.

The Columbia River flows for over 1,243 miles, beginning in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia in Canada. From there it flows northwest through a glacial valley between the Canadian Rockies and the Columbia Mountains to a town named Canoe; here the Columbia takes a sharp turn to the south around the northern edge of the Selkirk Mountains and begins its 200-mile trek into eastern Washington State.

Once in Washington, the Columbia River flows south/southwest for about 100 miles to the town of Deer Meadows.  Just after the point of confluence with the Spokane River, the Columbia River takes a sharp turn to the west and forms a huge “C” formation covering much of interior Washington State. This section of the river, known as the “Big Bend” was formed during the Missoula floods. Before the floods, the river took a much straighter path towards the southwest.

Crown Point, Columbia Gorge

Crown Point, Columbia Gorge

To the south of the “Big Bend,” in the wine country of eastern Washington State, the Columbia is joined by the Yakima River as the Yakima flows eastward down from the Cascades. The Yakima River catches the Columbia just after it rounds a small bend hugging the Horse Heaven Hills AVA. From here, the Columbia continues its trek to the Pacific Ocean, forming over 300 miles of the border between the states of Washington and Oregon from the Yakima Delta to the sea.

Near Washington’s Tri-Cities area, the Columbia River is joined by the Walla Walla River. Walla Walla is another name familiar to wine lovers, being the namesake of the Walla Walla River Valley AVA, a sub-region of the Columbia Valley AVA and one of the three AVAs shared between Washington State and Oregon.

The Walla Walla River is short in length – just 61 miles long – but of great importance to the wines of the area. The Walla Walla River begins in as two separate forks in the Blue Mountain range of northeastern Oregon. From there, the two forks run westward to Milton-Freewater, which was built along its banks. The Walla Walla River runs northwest and eventually meets the Columbia River for the journey westward towards the sea, but along the way it deposits the famous basalt stones – the rocks – which gave the newly-anointed “Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA” both its name and its famous terroir.

Shoshone Falls

Shoshone Falls

Another river familiar to wine lovers, the Snake River, joins the Columbia River near Washington State’s Tri-Cities area. The Snake River, at 1,078 miles long, is the Columbia River’s longest tributary. The Snake River actually begins several states over, in Wyoming’s Yellowstone Park. From Wyoming, the Snake flows across the width of Idaho. About mid-way through its trek across Idaho, the Snake River flows over Shoshone Falls – a waterfall that, at 212 feet high, is actually 45 feet higher than Niagara Falls. Shoshone Falls is often called “the Niagara Falls of the west” – although I am sure many citizens of Idaho wonder why Niagara Falls is not known as “The Shoshone Falls of the east.”

About 120 miles west of Shoshone Falls, the Snake River flows past Boise, and not too far after that,  takes a sharp turn north and forms the border between Idaho and Oregon. The Snake River Valley AVA is located along this border. The Snake River Valley is currently Idaho’s only AVA, although a second – Lewis-Clark Valley – has been proposed for northern Idaho/eastern Washington State. After leaving Oregon and forming a small portion of the Idaho/Washington State border, the Snake River turns west and joins the Columbia River.

Map of the Snake River watershed with the Snake River Highlighted. Map via the USGS, modified by Shannon1 via Wikimedia Commons.

Map of the Snake River watershed with the Snake River Highlighted. Map via the USGS, modified by Shannon1 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Columbia River, along with its tributaries the Walla Walla River, the Snake River, and the Yakima River (as well as many others not mentioned here) plays a huge roll in Pacific Northwest viticulture. Through their waters, they provide for the irrigation that makes viticulture even a possibility in much of the region. Over the centuries they have deposited alluvial soils, formed breathtaking waterfalls, sliced gorges through mountains and even delivered the namesake “rocks” to one of the area’s newest AVAs. Roll on, Columbia, Roll on.*

*Roll On, Columbia, Roll On is an American folk song written by Woody Guthrie in 1941. The popular song glamorized the building of a series of dams and the harnessing of hydroelectric power from the Columbia River under the American Public Works program of the New Deal.

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net