Saturday, November 21, 2009

Blending Wine at Concannon’s Bordeaux by the Bay Event

I got to play wine maker for a couple of hours at the Bordeaux by the Bay event at Concannon Winery in Livermore. The event that features their Bordeaux blends is a tradition for 35 years, but it had a new twist this time – a blending seminar, open to the public, like me. Becoming a winemaker appeals to many of us, and the room was full.

Concannon is one of the oldest wineries in California established 1883 and is a Registered Historic Landmark. The renovated tasting room is over 100 years old. This year, the winery had its 126th consecutive harvest, as it stayed open even during Prohibition, by producing altar wines for the Catholic Church. We were hosted in a private event room in the new brick event center. Our host was Jim Ryan, the Concannon estate manager and the event featured Julian Halasz, Concannon’s winemaker, originally from Hungary, and previously the wine maker at Garre in Livermore.

We were Julian's assistants today, ready to blend a Bordeaux style creation of our own. Before me was a full bottle of Cabernet and four small bottles of different red wine, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot, the traditional Bordeaux blending varietals, and since this was Concannon, known for their Petite Sirah, we had just a bit of that to add more color if we chose. The only requirement was that we had to use at least 75% Cabernet in our blends, so our wine could be labeled as a Cabernet and not a Meritage or simply a red blend. Cabernet was to be the backbone of our wine. Other varietals were supposed to soften, complement, or intensify the wine to suit our taste.

We had empty glasses and beakers, which we were going to use to make our blend. We had a cheat sheet that showed milliliters in percentages, to aid us in tracking how much of each type we were using. We also had a table full of bread, cold cuts, cheeses, nuts, and dried fruit to go with our wine. I sampled some of the berries and other fruits to compare with the wines to help me identify the flavors and I tried the nuts and cheeses to see how they paired with the wines.

“There are two schools of thought about food and wine pairing,” Jim Ryan shared with us. “Personally, I don’t subscribe to the ‘sweet foods for sweet wine’ notion. It’s just taste matching. I prefer contrasting flavors, like salami, pastrami, and cheeses. Each has a different fat content, and can be perfectly paired with tannic reds.” Jim explained that while nuts have their own tannins, walnuts are the highest in content, cashews the lowest, and pecans in the middle, so they can be paired with different wines for added enjoyment. Dried and fresh berries as well as chocolate/nuts confections provide complementary flavors.

I was seated next to Emma Krasov, a wine writer from Russia who writes for the San Francisco Russian Weekly. For a little history Jim Ryan brought out some bottles from the museum display, one with Russian Cyrillic script. It was a signature wine of Georgia, formerly of the USSR called Rkaziteli and apparently favored in the Dictator Stalin. “They put Cyrillic letters on the label and couldn’t understand why it wouldn’t sell in the middle of Cold War,” Ryan joked with us. He also told us the winery never shied away from experiments. It won its first gold medal at the 1936 California State Fair for Sparkling California Burgundy, which was probably Zinfandel or Petite Sirah. It was certainly a novelty or an perhaps an oddity.

Julian told us about the characteristics that each varietal added. Merlot ripens a bit earlier than Cabernet and softens the wine. Malbec adds dark color and tannins. Petit Verdot ripens later and adds tannins, color and flavor. Cabernet Franc is lighter and adds finesse and peppery spiciness. America’s first Petite Sirah was bottled by Concannon and first released in 1961. Three to seven percent of it adds more intense color, blackberry/blueberry flavor, and earthy quality to Concannon’s famous Cabernets. A little know secret commonly used in California and the reason why Concannon produced so much of it. They sold it to other wineries before finally deciding to bottle it as a single varietal at the suggestion of their grape distributor who liked it so much. There are still some old vine Petite Sirah on the property.

I tasted each wine and did a little blending and tasting. Then I did a little more tasting and blending and a bit more food sampling. After the trial and error session, Julian bottled up our personal blend and we got to take a bottle home. I left feeling just a little bit more informed about this whole processes, but not quite ready to make my own wine release.

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