By Leah McNally, WWS Blogger

Photos by Lynae Anderson, WWS Events Co-Director

I hate to rub it in, but if you missed the last WWS event, “Grapes We Don’t Know,” hosted by Flora Springs Winery in St. Helena, you missed a great one. Barbara Paige, our WWS Sommelier, led the group through a series of wine tastings paired with an inspiring collection of foods skillfully chosen and prepared by Chef Christopher Ludwick of Grapevine Catering. Attendees sipped and snacked their way through the presentation, getting to know new members and sharing impressions of the food and wine.  This whole post can be summed up in one word- Yum!

We also honored our WWS scholarship winners for 2010. Dr. Liz Thach introduced Kristina Werner of UC Davis, Aaron Hoaglund from Santa Rosa Jr. College, Vincent Morrow from Sonoma State University, and Sandy Mays, Napa Valley College.  Three of the four student winners were in attendance and we were delighted to meet them in person and see the results of our group fundraising.  Keep up the good work, we only have a short way to go to meet the goals to fund next year’s scholarship. As a WWS member and fellow student, I’m delighted we are able to reach out to the next generation of wine industry members and help them reach their educational goals.

I’m sharing this blog post with WWS Sommelier Barbara Paige, who was kind enough to give us her pairing notes. The first paring of the evening was a 2009 Arneis from Jacuzzi Family Winery with Grilled Garlic Shrimp on a Rosemary Skewer.  I loved this pairing. Here is what Barbara had to say the combination.

The name Arneis means “little rascal” in Piemontese dialect, because it is difficult to grow. The majority of the vineyards in the region were planted with the more important red nebbiolo grape, leaving the Arneis white grape to the lesser vineyards. Traditionally, the vines were planted in an effort to attract birds and bees away from the red grapes rather than for pressing and drinking. It was also added to the Nebbiolo wines of the region to soften their tannins earning Arneis the nickname Barolo Bianco. Today in Italy there are about 1500 acres planted to Arneis.

The Jacuzzi Family Vineyards Arneis is grown in a hillside vineyard planted in well-drained, heavy limestone soil. Planted in the early 90s in the town of Paicines in San Benito County along with 29 other “experimental” Italian varieties, the Arneis is “deficit irrigated” keeping the vine in a constant state of stress leading to less wood growth and smaller, more concentrated berries.

The bouquet is a mouthful of fruit and floral. Notes of caramel, tangerine, honeysuckle and green apple often give way to subtleties of cotton candy, while on the palate grapefruit, stone fruits and cantaloupe prevail. The wine is refreshing and especially good with seafood and lighter pastas. The delicate and flavorful Arneis, with its lovely acidity cleanses the palate naturally and is easily balanced with the sweetness and lightness of fresh shrimp in our food and wine pairing.

Next on the roster was a 2008 Ballentine Vineyards Chenin Blanc Napa Valley . Thanks to its reputation in the U.S. as a jug wine, I think we tend to overlook this delightful grape from France.  It pairs brilliantly with soft cheeses, as Chef Ludwick demonstrated with his combination of Rosemary Flatbread and Goat Cheese. I was ready to sip and snack on this pairing all night.

Our Sommelier says: Chenin Blanc is a noble grape, traced back to the 9th century in the central valley in the Loire Valley of France, usually used for making Vouvray.  Wines made from this grape tend to be high in acidity and oily in texture.  Vouvray can be dry, medium-dry, or sweet.  Its key flavors are almond/marzipan, lemon, lime, apple, melon, peach, straw, flowers, honey, nuts, wet wool, spice, and beeswax. Chenin Blanc pairs well with mild blues, mild Cheddar, Baby Swiss, Edam, young Gouda, Fontina, fresh goat’s milk cheeses, Gouda, Havarti, Mozzarella, Provolone, Ricotta, and soft sheep’s milk cheeses.

The Ballentine 08 Chenin Blanc is complex with the classic aromatic and flavor profile, full and silky with a crisp finish. Wine Enthusiast ranked the Ballentine 90 points, naming it as one of the Top 100 Best Buys, and was the only white wine to make the list. We paired it with a grilled rosemary flatbread layered with herbed goat cheese.  This provides a textural contrast and complement to the wine, emphasizing the acidity in the wine, reducing any oiliness that is a natural by-product of the grape, while in the final seconds complementing the natural acidity of the goat’s cheese.

Pairing number three was the 2008 Flora Springs Napa Valley Sangiovese and a Meatball spoon with Spicy Tomato Basil Coulis. I’m whipping out that technical term again- yummy! The acidity of the wine was a fantastic balance to the meatball and spicy sauce. Bring me a plate of these with some bread and a glass of Sangiovese and I’d be a happy woman.

Barbara’s notes: Sangiovese , an red Italian wine grape variety translates to the name sanguis Jovis, “the blood of Jove” – the Roman God, Jupiter which led to theories that the grape’s origins dated from Roman Times. It would not be until the 18th century that Sangiovese would gain wide spread attention throughout Tuscany, with Malvasia and Trebianno as the most widely planted grapes in the region. Fourteen clones of Sangiovese exist today.

A glass of Chianti is made primarily from Sangiovese. While Sangiovese plantings are found worldwide, the grape’s homeland is central Italy. In California the grape found a sudden surge of popularity in the late 1980s with the “Cal-Ital” movement of winemakers seeking red wine alternatives to the standard French varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. Tuscan winemakers began a period of innovation in the 1970’s by introducing modern oak barrels (chestnut was historically used), and blending the grape with non-Italian varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon creating the Super Tuscans.

Sangiovese grapes produce wines that are fruity, medium bodied and have a high natural acidity. They can range from elegant and firm to very robust and assertive. The finish has a tendency to be somewhat on the bitter side. Often the first aromas smelled are earthy, showing themselves as wet dirt, dry leaves, cigar box, forest floor or smoke, followed by cherries and other black and red fruits, finishing with spicy components such as nutmeg, cinnamon and clove and sometimes, violets. The younger the wine, the fruitier the flavor, compared with older, more mature wines that have stronger oak or tarry flavors. The 2008 Flora Springs Sangiovese, grown on the Cypress and Palisades Ranch, located in Pope Valley, is often considered the last frontier of the Napa Valley.

Paired with a meatball with a Spicy Tomato Basil Coulis, the Flora Springs Sangiovese is the perfect complement. It will match in terms of weight and body, while providing the appropriate tannin to cleanse the fat of the meatball from the mouth.

If your mouth isn’t watering yet, just wait, it will be. I haven’t even gotten to the Truffle Macaroni and Cheese or the Chipotle BBQ Sparerib that awaited us.

The gourmet Mac and Cheese had a delightful aroma and a soft, rich béchamel sauce, designed to be paired with wine number four, a 2008 Buoncristiani Docetto di Nonno from Dry Creek. I was busy savoring the incredible flavors so I’m going let Barbara’s notes speak for this one.

Dolcetto is a black wine grape variety widely grown in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy. The Italian word dolcetto means “little sweet one”, but the nickname carries no reference to the grape’s sugar levels. Historically, there is a theory that suggests that the grape originated in France and was brought to the Monferrato some time in the eleventh century, while a competing theory has the grape originating in the Piedmontese villages of Dogliani and Diano d’Alba in the province of Cuneo. The grape was first brought to California by expatriate Italians and is most popular in Mendocino County, Russian River Valley, Napa Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains, Santa Rita Hills and Santa Barbara County.

Dolcetto wines are known for black cherry and licorice flavors with some prunes and a characteristically bitter finish reminiscent of almonds. The wines are normally dry, with the tannin levels contributing to a somewhat bitter finish. Maceration is generally limited because the grapes are almost black in color with high amounts of anthocyanins.

The Buoncristiani brothers’ Nonno, or grandfather came to California from Northern Italy, and the brothers planted the grape in his honor in Yountville on a site warm enough to ensure an ultra ripe wine yet cool enough to mirror the Northwestern Piedmont. They also source from the Unti Vineyard in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley, owned by another Italian family. The typical large crop set is thinned to one cluster per shoot, and the huge clusters are trimmed to half their size to achieve uniformity and concentration. It is aged 16 months in French oak barrels. Only 80 cases are produced.

Dolcetto pairs beautifully with pizza and pasta dishes. We have paired the 2008 Buoncristiani Napa Valley Dolcetto di Nonno with a truffled mac and cheese, with tannin sufficient to embrace the richness of the cheese while cleansing the palate with its acidity. The food should provide multi-layered flavors that will enhance the complexity of the wine, and complement the wine’s flavor components.

Our final paring of the evening came with bonus. A 2007 William Hill Estate Bench Blend Petit Verdot Napa Valley  was on the menu, paired with the delectable Chipotle BBQ Sparerib I mentioned earlier. We were also treated to a walk through the caves for a barrel tasting of a 2009 Flora Springs Petit Verdot. This gave us the opportunity to contrast and compare the two. I’m a huge fan of Petit Verdot (and spareribs) and enjoyed both wines and the food pairing thoroughly.

Barbara says: Petit Verdot is considered the final member of the five red Bordeaux varieties, contributing concentration and color, vibrant flavors and the backbone in the form of firm tannin structure making it a good choice for true red wine drinkers. The name Petit Verdot means “little green”, a reference to growing Petit Verdot in the Bordeaux region, where it was thought to have originated, primarily in the St. Emilion subdistrict where it was once widely included in the wines of the Medoc. Although it ripens late in the season, it holds onto its acidity making it a useful blending component in warmer years. However, this late ripening characteristic and general unpredictability caused it to fall out of favor with many French producers and plantings significantly declined. In recent years, the variety has seen a comeback. Many Bordelaise producers are again embracing Petit Verdot for its unique color, acid and structural characters.

As a varietal wine, Petit Verdot has an interesting flavor profile. It can be incredibly perfumed, having aromas of blueberry and violet. Sometimes it has an attractive herbaceous and spice element, giving the variety complexity. Often notes of cigar box, smoke, minerality and earth are key elements in its aromatic and flavor profile. The acidity is often prominent and due to the thick skins of the grape, the color is very dense and the tannins are firm. Structural wines with intense flavors can age well in the mid term. Due to its strength of character, Petit Verdot can have a significant impact on a blend, even when used in small proportions. Alone, Petit Verdot can age for decades, have a deep purple color and flavors that include violet and leather tones, and is often described as “massive” or “brooding.”

When pairing Petit Verdot with food, keep the acid and tannin level of the variety in mind. Rich and strongly flavored foods are the best accompaniments. Experiment with barbequed lamb chops, pork spare ribs, duck and other rich meats. Hearty casseroles and mature cheeses also work well. We paired the 2007 William Hill Bench Blend Petit Verdot with a rich spicy Chipotle barbequed spare rib which holds its own and Is not overshadowed by the intensity of the food.

See? I told you so- Yum! Thank you to Barbara Paige, our host, Flora Springs Winery,

WWS Sommelier Barbara Paige and WWS President Chris Mueller

Chef Ludwick and Grapevine Catering, and to the volunteers who put the effort into making this event a success, and to our members who contribute to our scholarship fund via raffle sales and silent auctions throughout the year.

We love to hear what you think. Add your comments on the event and be sure to join us at our Holiday Celebration: Dessert and Sparkling Wines on December 2, 2010. Watch this space and your email for more information on ticket sales.