Wine Geo: Pass, Gap, and Gorge

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I checked the ever-expanding list of American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) the other day, and for some reason my attention was drawn (once again) to the various geological formations that are mentioned in the titles. These include ridge, slope, plateau, sound, highlands, peak, ledge, and delta.  Fascinating! But…what do they all mean?

Let’s consider these for now: pass, gap, and gorge—as in Pacheco Pass, Templeton Gap, and Columbia Gorge.

What is a pass? Geomorphologically speaking, a pass (often referred to as a mountain pass) is a low-lying, somewhat flat area surrounded by much higher and more rugged terrain. A pass forms when a glacier or stream erodes away between two mountains or a series of mountains. Passes are typically the easiest route for people to travel across mountain ranges and many of the best-known passes in the world—such as the Great St. Bernard Pass in Switzerland and the Khyber Pass between Afghanistan and Pakistan—have served this purpose for millennia.

The Pacheco Pass AVA is located in north/central California, straddling the borders of San Benito and Santa Clara counties.  Casa de Fruta, part of a large fruit orchard and fruit stand complex catering to thirsty tourists on the road to Gilroy and Santa Cruz, is the only winery within the AVA. The area was awarded an AVA in 1984 after a petition was filed by the Zanger family (the owners of Casa de Fruta), who produce fruit wine under the Casa de Fruta label and vinifera-based wines under the Zanger Vineyards label.

Highway 152 along the Pacheco Pass. Photo by Chevy111 via Wikimedia Commons

The Pacheco Pass itself is a 15-mile long corridor that crosses the Diablo Range (part of the California Coast Mountain Ranges) along what is now State Highway 52. The Pass was named for Francisco Perez Pacheco who owned the land in the mid-1800s, back when the area was still a part of Mexico known as Alta California. For a time in the 1880s, the pass was known as Robber’s Pass due to two highwaymen that robbed (and sometimes murdered) travelers along the route. Even today, the stretch of the Highway 152 from Los Banos to Gilroy is quite dangerous, as witnessed by the high number of traffic accidents. There are even rumors that the pass is haunted (best not to pick up any hitch-hikers).

What is a gap? A gap is also a low area between two mountains; however, gaps are smaller than passes, and therefore more rugged and difficult to navigate.  Gaps (sometimes referred to as water gaps) are often created through the twin forces of water erosion and tectonic plate uplift.

A wind gap is a former water gap that no longer has any water due to stream capture (the diversion of a stream from its bed into a neighboring stream). The narrow valleys that remain behind after the stream has diverted allow rain, fog, and other climate features to penetrate beyond the point where the mountains would typically halt their progress.

The Templeton Gap District AVA is one of the 11 sub-appellations of Paso Robles. Surrounding the town on Templeton, it is one of the four sub-appellations hugging the western edge of the Paso Robles AVA and is the coolest of them all. The area benefits from a series of water and wind gaps carved through the California Coast Mountain Ranges by some long-forgotten water ways in addition to the Paso Robles Creek and the Salinas River. These gaps draw cool, moist air from the Pacific Ocean inland towards Paso Robles.

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What is a gorge? A gorge is deeper than a pass or a gap, and is better described as a narrow valley with steep, rocky walls and an often-tumultuous river running through the bottom. The term comes from the French word gorge, which means throat or neck.

Wine students will easily recognize the name of the Columbia Gorge AVA, which straddles the borders of Washington State and Oregon.  The gorge itself is a deep canyon—up to 4,000 feet deep—of the Columbia River that stretches on for over 80 twisty, turn-y miles following the river as it flows west through the Cascade Mountains.  (The AVA covers about 40 of those 80 miles.) The Columbia Gorge (also technically a “water gap”) is the only water route from the Columbia River Plateau to the Pacific Ocean, and was used in 1806 by the Lewis and Clark Expedition (the first U.S. Army expedition to cross what is now the western portion of the United States) to reach the Pacific Coast.

The Columbia Gorge AVA is known for having a remarkable diversity of specific microclimates within its relatively small boundaries—so much so that the Columbia Gorge Winegrowers invite you to experience their “world of wine in 40 miles.” The soils of the Columbia Gorge AVA include alluvial soils from the river beds, colluvial soils from landslides, and soils from volcanic activity (hello, Mount Hood and Mount Adams). The elevation of the vineyards ranges from just above sea level to 2,000 feet high. The cool, moist air coming from the west turns warmer and drier as it travels inland, even losing an inch of rain a mile from west to east. That’s what we call diversity.

The Columbia Gorge

Geo notes: In addition to pass, gap, and gorge, other terms may be used to describe the breaks in mountain ridges: notch, saddle, and col, for example. These terms are not too sharply defined; overlaps exist, and usage may vary from place to place. No one ever said wine (or geology) was easy!

Geomorphology is the study of the origin and evolution of physical features of the surface of the earth (and other planets if you care to venture forth).

References/for more information:

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

The Outer Limits: the Châtillonnais

Map via http://www.bourgogne-wines.com (click to enlarge)

If you look at a detailed wine map of Burgundy, you’ll notice that Chablis is way off to the northwest—about 80 miles from the tip of the Côte de Nuits at Dijon, and completely located within the Yonne department.

If you keep looking, you’ll see that there is another batch of vineyards up there to the north, but this group is about 40 miles west of Chablis, and therefore a bit closer to Dijon. This is the Châtillonnais (not to be confused with the Chalonnaise, which is at the other end of Burgundy). The Châtillonnais is a group of vineyards clustered around the town of Châtillon-sur-Seine, located within the Côte-d’Or department, and very close to the Aube department (and the southern boundary of the Champagne region).

The Châtillonnais does not have its own AOC, but the vineyards here produce wine under the regional AOCs of Burgundy.

The area is particularly well-known for its Crémant de Bourgogne AOC. There are about 250 hectares (600 acres) of vines, mostly planted on limestone soils along south/southeast facing slopes, with many facing the Seine and Ource Rivers.  The area is mostly planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with a small amount of Gamay and Aligoté as well. All of these grapes might make their way into the wines of the Crémant de Bourgogne or Bourgogne AOCs.

The area has a long history of wine production—at least 2,000 years. If you visit the area, you need to stop into the Museum of Pays Châtillonnais – Trésor de Vix. Here you’ll find what some people refer to as “the world’s largest tastevin,” however, take a deep breath because that description is not really giving the museum its due.

Remember, this vessel is over five feet tall!      Photo by Peter Northover (Oxford) via Wikimedia Commons

What you can actually find here—of great interest to wine lovers, I would think—is an artifact from 500 BC known as the Vix Krater. The Vix Krater, found in the town of Vix (about 6 km north of Châtillon-sur-Seine), is the largest known metal vessel from Western classical antiquity, at over 5 feet in height. It is believed that the vessel was used to mix water and wine which was then served to guests.

The Vix Krater is part of the burial mound of the Lady of Vix and was found alongside a great deal of jewelry and—amazingly—a large complex of two or three buildings now referred to as “the Palace of the Lady of Vix”.  The famous site was excavated beginning in 1953 by the French archaeologist René Joffroy.

Upon unearthing what is most definitely one of the world’s oldest and largest wine vessels, I certainly hope the team celebrated with several glasses of wine—perhaps even some of that delicious, locally-produced Crémant de Bourgogne!

References/for more information:

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

 

Rah-Rah Rías!

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As a wine lover, you must surely have a place in your heart for Rías Baixas, the lovely, Albariño-based white wine from Northern Spain.* Crisp and floral, fruity and refreshing, the wines of Rías Baixas are a white wine lovers dream.

However…do you know what a ría is? The word itself sounds a lot like “río,” so you might just assume that it is a local term for “river.” In which case, you would be just a little bit correct.

A ría is actually a type of estuary. There are several types of estuaries, all of which abide by a definition such as the following:

  • Estuary: A partially-enclosed body of water, located on the coast, formed where one or more streams or rivers flow into the ocean. An estuary contains a body of brackish water (a combination of salt water and fresh water) and has an open connection to the sea.

The Cies Islands

A ría is therefore a type of estuary, also known as a drowned river valley or a coastal plain estuary. Rías were formed at the end of last ice age at places where the level of the sea rose in proportion to the coast, and sea water seeped inland into the river valleys. Rías retain the original shape of the river and are usually quite shallow. Rías typically have very rugged, jagged outlines and often include islands as well.

In the United States, Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay, and Galveston Bay are all rías. Well-known rías in other parts of the world include Marlborough Sounds (on the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island), Sydney Harbor in Australia, and the Fiordo di Furore in Campania, Italy (which is technically a ría despite its name).

The coast of Galicia is lined with rías. Those in the north are referred to as the “Rías Altas” (Upper Rías) and are aligned along the “Coast of Death.” Well, the area is not technically referred to as the Coast of Death, but the Galician “Costa da Morte” is a nickname for the region, so-called for the turbulent nature of the waters that in the past led to many shipwrecks.

Diagram of the Lower Rías by Hidrogalicia_ES, via Wikimedia Commons

The sea around the Rías Baixas, (the “Lower Rías”) is calmer, due in part to the presence of islands. The DO itself in comprised of five discontinuous areas, located close to four rías. These are, from north to south:

  • The Ría de Muros e Noia; formed where the Tambre River meets the sea. This is the smallest of the four rías and the only one not to have an island near the mouth.
  • The Ría de Arousa; formed where the Ulla River meets the sea. This is the largest of the five rías. The Ría de Arousa has two lagoons, as well as a large area of sand dunes known as the Dunas de Corrubedo.
  • The Ría de Pontevedra, located around the delightful, vacation-worthy town of the same name, is located where the Lerez River meets the sea. This ría contains a small inlet known as the Ría de Aldan.  Two small islands, Isla Ons and Isla Onza, are situated at the mouth of the ría. The islands are part of the Parque Nacional Marítimo-Terrestre de las Islas Atlánticas de Galicia.
  • The Ría de Vigo, the southernmost, is formed where the Verdugo River meets the sea. The Cíes islands, located at the mouth of the ría, make the area a safe port, and many beautiful marinas are located here.

*Technically, the white wines of the Rías Baixas DO may be produced using Albariño, Loureira, Treixadura, and Caiña Blanca grapes, along with small amounts of Torrontés or Godello—in various proportions depending on label terminology and the sub-region. The DO is also approved for the production of red wines based on Caiño Tinto, Espadeiro, Loureira Tinta, Mencía, Brancellao or Sousón.

The Rande Bridge over the Ría de Vigo

Click here to download a full-size map of the Rías Baixas DO, with good designations of the rías, the rivers, and the sub-regions.

For the geo-curious: other types of estuaries include the following:

  • Fjords: Fjords are deep, steep-sided estuaries formed by glaciers. As the glaciers advanced, they would deepen and widen the original river valleys; at the end of the ice age as the glaciers retreated, they left behind the fjords. Fjords can reach depths of up to 1,000 feet (300 m). The coast of Norway is well-known for its numerous fjords; fjords also make up portions of Puget Sound (Washington State), Glacier Bay (Alaska), and Milford Sound (New Zealand).
  • Lagoons: Common in tropical areas, lagoons are formed in areas where sediment is deposited at the same rate as the sea level rises to form a body of brackish water separated from the sea by a sand spit or barrier islands. Lagoons are typically quite shallow and parallel to the shoreline, as seen in New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay and Italy’s Venetian Lagoon.
  • Freshwater Estuaries: Freshwater estuaries occur where rivers flow into fresh-water lakes. The Great Lakes, located in the United States and Canada, contain many freshwater estuaries.

Other references/for more information:

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

Five Fast Facts about Agave

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Today is Cinco de Mayo, a day to celebrate all things Mexican, and more specifically, a day to commemorate the Mexican Army’s unlikely victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.

Here in the USA, we typically frame our annual celebration of Mexican culture in terms of food and beverage (well, especially the beverages) so it is likely that a great deal of tequila and mezcal will be consumed today and all through the night. As such, I thought I would take this opportunity to write a post all about Agave. Agave is (of course) the amazing plant that gave us tequila and mescal, but there is so much more to know about agave.

#1: Depending on how you break it down, there are somewhere between 130 and 208 species of Agave (it’s an unwieldy family that defies classification in some ways). Agave is a type of monocot (a group of flowering plants whose seeds typically contain only one embryonic leaf). Agave is native to Mexico and some parts of the American southwest, as well as parts of South America. Agave has been successfully introduced to Europe and South Africa.

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#2: Contrary to popular belief, Agave is not a cactus, but rather it is a member of the Agavaceae family and closely related to both the lily family (amaryllis) and asparagus. Agave is, however, a succulent (loosely defined as a group of plants with thick, spongy leaves that store water). So, agave is a succulent, and cactus is a succulent, but agave is not a cactus.

#3: According to William H. Prescott (American historian and botanist, 1796–1859), agave was used by the population of Mexico for more than just beverages. A portion of his book, The History of the Conquest of Mexico, (1843) reads: “Its bruised leaves afforded a paste from which paper was manufactured…its leaves further supplied an impenetrable thatch for the more humble dwellings. Thread, of which coarse stuffs were made, and strong cords were drawn from its tough and twisted fibers; pins and needles were made from the thorns at the extremity of its leaves; and the root, when properly cooked, was converted into a palatable and nutritious food.”

#4: Agave is monocarpic – meaning they die after flowering. So whether the plant is allowed to grow its flower stalk and spread its seeds, or if the flower stalk is removed to allow the stem to swell (as for use in tequila), the plant is still going to die after reaching sexual maturity. Luckily for the agave, most plants take six to eight years to reach this point, and some—such as Agave americana— take much longer. Agave americana is often referred to as the “century plant” because it supposedly takes a century to bloom, but in reality it is closer to 15 to 20 years.

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#5: Agave nectar (more accurately called agave syrup) is a sweetener commercially produced from several species of agave, including Agave tequiliana and Agave salmiana. Agave syrup is sweeter than honey and tends to be less viscous. Most agave syrup comes from Mexico and South Africa. Agave syrup has been marketed as a “healthful” sweetener, but this fact has been the subject of criticism due to its very high fructose content. It is, however, a true vegan alternative to honey, and – because it dissolves quickly and is sweeter than pure sugar – it is useful in (you guessed it) cocktails!

One more note: If you plan on having a wee bit of tequila to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, why not step away from the sweet-and-sour-laced frozen Margarita and try a classy, classic Paloma! Click here for a recipe.

References/for more information:

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

Twenty Feet from Stardom: the Vinous Version

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In 2013, an American documentary film was released by the name of “Twenty Feet from Stardom.” Directed by Morgan Neville, the film is a behind-the-scenes look at backup singers. These talented folks are a big part of the sound—and the success—of many the biggest stars of the music world, and yet most of us will never even know their names.

This post is my vinous version of the concept, meant to be an homage to some of those obscure, unknown wines that occupy the same stage—in terms of time and place—as some of the blockbuster, world-famous wines of the world…and yet they remain just out of the spotlight.

Curtefranca DOC: The Curtefanca DOC shares the stage with the sparkling wines of the Franciacorta DOCG. Franciacorta is Italy’s serious, traditional method sparkling wine produced from Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir), Chardonnay, and Pinot Bianco grapes. Starting with the 2017 vintage, you can add the Erbamat grape variety (a white grape) to that list as well. The Franciacorta DOC was originally established allowing for a range of allowed wines, including a sparkling wine known as Pinot di Franciacorta, in 1967. In 1995 the Franciacorta DOCG “broke away” as a sparkling wine-only designation, and at the same time the Terre di Franciacorta DOC was created as a separate classification for non-sparkling wines. Both designations occupy the exact same geographic area.

The Terre di Franciacorta DOC changed its name to the Curtefranca DOC in 2008. The name was changed, not surprisingly, as it was determined that there was too much confusion between the sparkling wines of the Franciacorta PDO and the still wines of the Terre di Franciacorta PDO.

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Here are a few interesting factoids about the wines of the Curtefranca DOC:

  • The appellation allows for both red and white wines.
  • White wines are based on a minimum of 50% Chardonnay, with the remaining allowed to be Pinot Bianco or Pinot Nero (vinified as a white wine).
  • Red wines are blends, requiring a minimum of 25% Merlot, a minimum of 20% Cabernet Franc and/or Carmenère, and a minimum of 10% (up to a maximum of 35%) Cabernet Sauvignon. There’s a slush fund of sorts, allowing for (but not requiring) up to 15% “other aromatic red grapes” suitable for production in Lombardy.

The use of the name “Franzacurta” or “Franzia Curta” in the region can be traced back to 1277, appearing in the municipal statute of the commune of Brescia in reference to an area south of Lake Iseo. The name “Corte Franca” has been used for a commune in the area since 1928.

Collioure AOC: The Collioure AOC, perched high atop the cliffs of France’s Pyrénées-Orientales (Roussillon) region overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, occupies the same geographic area as the Banyuls AOC. The famous wines of the Banyuls AOC are fortified vin doux naturel with a minimum of 4.5% residual sugar. The most famous version of Banyuls are the red wines requiring a minimum of 50% Grenache Noir, but blanc, amber, and rosé versions are produced as well. There is even a separate Banyuls Grand Cru AOC for the highest-quality wines; Banyuls Grand Cru must be made from a minimum of 75% Grenache Noir and requires at least 30 months of barrel aging.

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The Collioure AOC is approved for the non-fortified wines (red, white, and rosé) of the area. Here is some information on the wines:

  • Collioure whites are generally produced using Grenache Blanc or Grenache Gris, but are allowed to be produced using a range of grapes including Macabeu (Macabeo), Marsanne, Roussanne, Vermentino, Carignan Blanc and Malvoisie du Roussillon, as well as 15% (allowed maximum) Muscat.
  • Reds and rosés must include at least two grape varieties, which may include Grenache Noir, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Carignan, Cinsault, and Counoise. Rosé may also include a measure of Grenache Gris.
  • Collioure AOC wines must be dry, and have a maximum allowance of between 3 g/l and 4 g/l of residual sugar.

The Banyuls and Collioure AOCs are named after neighboring communes within the growing region.

There are more vineyards sitting twenty feet from stardom, including the Douro DOC (in the same place as the Porto DOC), the Coteaux Champenois AOC (sharing the stage with Champagne), and Moscadello di Montalcino (occupying the same space as Brunello di Montalcino). What are some of the others?

References/for more information:

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

 

The Outer Limits: The Coteaux du Lyonnais AOC

Beware the style creep

To the south of Beaujolais, and to the north of the Rhône Valley, there’s a wine region. This region hugs the Saône and Rhône Rivers, and extends westward from the city of Lyon into the slopes of the Monts du Lyonnais.

This area, known as the Coteaux du Lyonnais, has been an AOC since 1984, and yet…it’s kind of on its own. The small AOC is not part of the larger Bourgogne AOC (located on its northern edge), nor part of any  of the Rhône Valley AOCs located just to the south. It is quite simply the Coteaux du Lyonnais AOC.

Seeing as the region is located just a stone’s throw away from Beaujolais, it makes sense that the wines of the Coteaux du Lyonnais are similar in style to those of Beaujolais. However, there does not seem to be any “style creep” northward from the also close-by Côte Rôtie. So be it.

The wines of the Coteaux du Lyonnais AOC include red, white, and rosé, all produced in a typical (dry, non-sparkling) style and as nouveau wines, which are allowed to be released on the third Thursday of November.

White wines are produced using Chardonnay, Aligoté, and/or Pinot Blanc, with Chardonnay being the dominant variety. The website of the Coteaux du Lyonnais AOC describes the Chardonnay of the region as producing wines that are rich and complex, with floral aromas and flavors of citrus and tropical fruit, while the Aligoté makes for a wine with citrus and mineral notes. Pinot Blanc, planted in about 30% of the vineyards, might be used in small amounts as a blending partner with either grape.

The Gamay grape is the only red grape allowed in the appellation—although the cahier des charges mentions that the Gamay de Bouze and Gamay de Chaudenay varieties (which are either mutations of or descendants of true Gamay, depending on who you ask) are limited in use to a combined maximum of 10% of the blend. The website of the Coteaux du Lyonnais AOC describes its red wines in this way, “the semi-carbonic vinification expresses its aroma through characteristic notes of red fruits, blackcurrant, strawberry, raspberry with spices, and licorice spikes.”

The Coteaux du Lyonnais AOC might not sound too terribly interesting to the world-weary wine student, and you might not feel immediately inspired to book a trip. But don’t forget that a little day trip out to the vineyards might be just the fresh-air jaunt you need in the middle of a vacation to Lyon, one of the most swoon-worthy of food-and-wine destinations. Lyon has been called “the gastronomic capital of the world,” and it couldn’t hurt to get some exercise, perhaps a little walk in the vineyards, between your late lunch at Bouchon Thomas (where they serve the “les grands classiques of Lyon with a twist of the Ardèche”) and your 9:00 dinner reservation at Paul Bocuse (three Michelin stars).

References/for more information:

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

Chasing Chasselas

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All of the grape varieties in France are chasing Chasselas—or ahead of Chasselas, or running side-by-side with Chasselas.

And you thought Chasselas was just an insignificant little grape that only Switzerland cares about. Think again.

Late last night while I was studying the Bordeaux Wine Guide published by the CIVB (Counseil Interprofessional du Vin de Bordeaux) I saw it right there on page 43: “In France the main families of grapes are defined (by typical time of ripening) according to the usual maturity date of Chasselas (the reference variety).”

I had to read it twice and call four of my wine friends to see if they had ever heard of Chasselas being France’s reference variety. No one had. As such, I did a bit of research.

The quick version is: it’s true.

Back in the 1800s, a French ampelographer named Victor Pulliat (1827-1896) created a classification of grape varieties—The Pulliat Classification—based on their typical ripening date in relation to the Chasselas Doré grape variety

The Pulliat Classification breaks down as follows:

  • Early-ripening grape varieties:  Ripen from eight to ten days ahead of Chasselas Doré
  • First-period grape varieties: Ripen at about the same time as Chasselas Doré
  • Second-period grape varieties: Ripen from 12 to 15 days after Chasselas Doré
  • Third-period grape varieties: Ripen from 16 to 30 days after Chasselas Doré
  • Late-ripening grapes: Typically ripen more than 31 days after Chasselas Doré

Chasselas grapes on day zero (?)

The Pulliat Classification seems like an interesting bit of history in the world of wine, but as I just learned, it is still used. These days, however, the Winkler Scale created by Maynard Amerine and A. J. Winkler of UC Davis—which measures ripening in terms of degree-days or heat summation—is in wider use. The Winkler Scale was designed in 1944 to be used in California but has since been used in many wine growing regions all over the world.

References/for further information:

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