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December 2014

News Highlights

Holiday Specials: Five special gift packages starting at $99 (shipping included).
Harvest 2014: a great vintage albeit dry, early, and compact
2014 Olio Nuovo: Our newest olive oil is available now, while EVOO comes in January
Food Pairing Challenge: the 5th annual event takes place on February 21st
Seasonal Recipe: Chipotle Sweet Potato Gratin has only 3 ingredients, which belies its decadence
Wine Lover's Dilemma: should you drink it now or will it be even better later?

Italians say, “He who has a beautiful wife sings, he who has money, counts”.  In other words, money and material goods aren’t everything in life—which should not be forgotten this time of year!  In our family, we try to focus on "experiential" gifts including food and wine (as opposed to material gifts or possessions) because experiences tend to be appreciated and remembered over a longer period of time.  

To help you share the Montemaggiore experience with your friends and family, we’re offering several special holiday gift packages.  The details are below, but you should know that to ease your gift-giving, we're including shipping to most states.  Also in this newsletter you can learn about the 2014 Harvest, our newest release of Olio Nuovo,  and February's Food Pairing Challenge.  We finish off with a discussion of the classic wine lover's dilemma: should you open the wine now, or wait because it will be better later?

Holiday Specials starting at $99, including shipping

The gift of wine promises a long-term experience: the anticipation of sharing a bottle with friends, delicious aromas wafting from the glass, and of course, the sweet memories of a special evening.  If you would like to spread holiday cheer with Montemaggiore, we have several wine-oriented packages for every person on your list from the chef to the aficionado. All six special gifts include shipping to most states.

If you have a list of corporate clients or colleagues to whom you'd like to send a gift, you might find it easiest to call or email us.  Otherwise all these gifts can be ordered from our website.

Harvest 2014: wonderful, but early and compact

Now that all our wines are safely in barrel, we can take the time to reflect on the 2014 vintage.  Overall it was another great vintage on the north coast of California:  an even, warm growing season yielding exceptional fruit with perfectly ripe skins and seeds.  Mother Nature did challenge us logistically, however, with a season that was quite dry, early and compact!   The wintertime drought with its sunshine and warm temperatures prompted our mountainside vines to break their winter dormancy and bud out two weeks early.  Luckily, we received some rain in March, which gave the vines a good solid boost to start the growing season. 

The months of April through July were fairly warm but not too warm, while August was cool which slowed down ripening to an optimal pace.  Verasion—when the green grapes turn purple, see photo on right—ocurred in our ten acres somewhat simultaneously, whereas typically verasion occurs over several weeks proceeding from the hilltop to the bottommost portion of the vineyard.  This foretold a very compact harvest, when all the grapes would need to be harvested within a short time period.

Our harvest season began with the Hilltop Syrah on September 18th, about 10 days early.  Then we proceeded to harvest over 90% of our Syrah within that single week.  We had a killer day on Sunday, September 21st starting at 5:30am  with the harvesting of Syrah and Viognier, followed by destemmed and sorting the reds, pressing some white (Viognier), and finally pressing of Syrah for rosé.  The day finished at 11:30pm after all the equipment was clean and sparkling. Our harvest season closed on October 10th with Cabernet Sauvignon.  Over those intervening three weeks, the skies spit out a bit of rain but nothing to seriously worry about.

The quality of this year’s grapes is definitely quite high, although only time will tell if the wines will be as spectacular as the 2013 vintage. Our crop level in 2014 was down a little bit from the prior two years (21 tons, as opposed to 22 in 2013 and 27 in 2012), but really normal overall.  We fully expect that 2014 will be a vintage to be proud of!

2014 Olio Nuovo is here!

For those of you who have been patiently waiting, the first of the 2014 olive oils have arrived.  Olio Nuovo represents the newest, freshest olive oil and if you haven’t tried it, you will be pleasantly surprised by its deep, intense flavor. The olive oil goes immediately from the tree to the bottle within days in order to capture its unique, intense, and spicy flavor.  

We picked all 800 of our Tuscan varietal olives trees during the week of November 20th.   Unfortunately, the combination the spring drought, wind at pollination, and an alternate year (olive trees produce a light crop every other year) meant that we only harvested 2,100 pounds of olives.  We’ll be bottling 12 gallons as Olio Nuovo, which we’ll start shipping Monday, December 8th.  Then after several weeks of settling and clarification, we’ll bottle the rest as Extra Virgin Olive Oil in January.

Annual Food Pairing Challenge on February 21st

Wine Club members who enjoy exploring the intersection of good food and good wine should put Saturday, February 21st in your calendar.  We'll be hosting our 5th Annual Food Pairing Challenge and opening our home to club members who bring a special dish they've created to pair with a particular Montemaggiore wine. Everyone can taste everyone else's dish and rate their favorite pairings. The results will be tallied, and we'll honor the best pairing for each wine (desserts have their own category). For inspiration, here are last year's winners:

This event is simply our excuse to have a lot of fun with friends while tasting good wines and good food. And we hope you go home with new favorites and renewed inspiration, along with recipes to match! If you don't live in the area but would like to host your own Wine Pairing Challenge, drop Lise an email and she'd be happy to help you get started.

Seasonal Recipe: Chipotle Sweet Potato Gratin

Not only are root vegetables in season right now, but their firm texture makes them perfect candidates for the soups, stews, long braises and gratins our family craves during the winter.   We think you'll find that the Chipotle Sweet Potato Gratin is a satisfying cold-weather vegetable dish which pairs perfectly with all Montemaggiore red wines, but especially the Syrafina.  The gratin's spicy-sweet-creamy balance is echoed by the fruit-pepper smoothness of the Syrafina.  Don't be fooled by the ease of preparation and the fact that there are only three ingredients, this dish is both elegant and delectable—and will become one of your favorites.

The Wine Lover's Dilemma: drink now or later?

Have you ever looked through your wine collection searching for the perfect wine to have with a meal, when you come across a special bottle which makes you stop and wonder, "Should I open this bottle now, or wait because it will be better in a few years?" Anyone who thinks seriously about wine faces this dilemma all the time. 

One of wine's most magical properties is its ability to not only survive but actually improve with long-term aging.  At the same time, this is one of its most confounding qualities.  No one wants to drink a wine before its time (“Infanticide!”), but perhaps it's worse to drink a bottle that would have been much better a few years ago.  We’d like to share a few tips and tools for evaluating the ageability of wines, by considering which wines age best, and why.  To make this potentially overwhelming topic more manageable, our discussion will be confined to red wines thus ignoring whites.  And in an upcoming article, we'll discuss the age-worthiness of Montemaggiore wines in particular.

Assessing your preference

Our first step is to understand the properties of a young wine versus an older wine, and assess which end of the scale you prefer. 

  Younger Older
Aroma/Flavor     Fresh Fruit Stewed or dried fruit
  Discrete Flavors     Integrated flavors, more “wine-like”
  Grape Aromas Subtle, nuanced, more complex aromas
    Often more earthy (leather, tar, tobacco)
Texture Bold, Assertive Softer, smoother, mellower, richer
Color Violet-Red Red-orange, especially on the edges
  More Opaque More transparent


Time in the bottle can change a wine's color, aroma, flavor and texture in pretty amazing ways, making the wine far more complex, elegant and desirable than when it was first bottled.  But some people prefer younger wines because they enjoy the bold fruit aromas—and embracing your personal preference is very important.  If you like more fruit-forward wines, you should always err on the side of drinking wines a bit younger.  There’s no use worrying about aging wines if you really prefer younger ones!

Evaluating an unopened bottle

So now that you’ve determined your preferences, let’s get back to the original question as to whether you should open this particular bottle now.  The label on the wine bottle holds three important pieces of information:

Three aspects of your individual wine bottle could also influence its aging potential, but may not apply to a different bottle of that same wine:

Appraising the wine in the glass

Once you’ve opened a bottle, how do you know if it’s still got life left in it?  If you have more of that same wine in your collection, should you drink all those other bottles quickly or should you hang on to them for a few more years?  When assessing the aging potential of a wine in the glass in front of you, you should look for the “fuel” for the aging process (fruit and tannin) and "preservatives" against the aging process (acid). These three core elements provide a wine with what it needs to evolve beautifully, but each also diminishes over time.

Age-worthy wines possess a combination of structure, balance, flavor and intensity. A wine high in tannin with a strong core of fruit will age significantly longer than one with little tannin and lighter fruitiness.  But all the fruit and tannin in the world is no good if the wine has no acidity to keep it fresh tasting over the long haul. Conversely, a combination of high tannin content and high acidity might make the wine live forever but never become drinkable. So don’t be fooled!  If a wine is unbalanced and unappealing when young, it’s never going to magically turn into a balanced and delicious older wine.

A wine can be considered “over the hill” or past its prime when it tastes faded and dried out.  It might be flabby with low acidity—or perhaps it even turned to vinegar.  Those are all signs that you should have drunk the wine earlier.

Tasting an open bottle over a few hours or even a few days can also help you evaluate aging potential.  Most age-worthy wines not only survive overnight without becoming a lesser experience, but may even improve.  This test subjects the wine to oxidative aging whereas in the bottle it would be aged under low-oxygen conditions—but we’ve found it to be a reasonable indication most of the time.

So how do the experts do it?  Wine critics and winemakers primarily rely on knowing the track record of prior vintages from a particular vineyard (and producer).  They correlate the fruit, tannin, and acid of the wine they are currently tasting with the similar vintages they’ve tasted in the past in order to determine ageability.  This is still a very difficult evaluation—and even “experts” get it wrong sometimes.

Understanding the aging process

No technical analysis can predict how long a wine can age, but understanding what is happening as a wine sits in the bottle can inform your decision to drink or wait. Wine is an extremely complex combination of chemical compounds that change over time as they interact with each other and their environment.  Small amounts of oxygen pass through the natural cork (assuming no synthetic cork or screw cap), which causes subtle reactions in the wine.  These oxidative reactions occur alongside other long-term non-oxidative reactions between the existing compounds in the wine.   As the reactions occur, wine looses its fruit aromas, gains a smoother texture, and changes in color.  We’ll try to explain why, without getting too technical... well, perhaps a little technical.

As wine ages, it’s color changes to a brick red or brown due to oxygen exposure, just like a cut apple will turn brown. Wines with higher acidity tend to turn brown less rapidly, thus are better candidates for aging (just as the higher-acid apples turn brown more slowly). During aging, the chemical compounds in wine change shape thus reflect light differently.  The blue hues are diminished and the yellow hue increases in intensity, which explains the shift in color from violet-red to red-orange.

Wine aroma also changes significantly during aging, primarily due to the esters responsible for fruity aromas. Esters are initially formed during fermentation, but are generally not stable.  During aging, the esters are hydrolyzed and bound up thus the wine’s fresh and fruity aromas are lost.  Although fruit aromas diminish over time, varietal aromas are retained and may even become more prominent.  Meanwhile new esters and aromas are being formed all the time.  Above all, a well aged wine gains a harmonious and pleasing fragrance, with an integration of all aromas and flavors.

With proper aging, a wine’s texture becomes mellower and smoother, giving the wine a much richer mouth feel. The improved texture reflects a reduction of astringency and acidity due to the polymerization of phenolic compounds such as tannins.  Tannins come from the skins, seeds, and stems of the grapes and even from the barrels in which wines are matured.  A young wine with significant tannin can be both bitter (short tannin chains) and astringent (longer tannin chains).  As a wine ages, many phenols polymerize (create longer chains) and some break up.  Many of these changes are permanent, but some are ephemeral.  Some polymerization is aided by oxygen, but others are non-oxidative.  But with further polymerization, the molecules become too large, and finally precipitate out. This leads to a reduction in phenolic compounds and also in astringency resulting in a smoother, mellower, richer texture.

You might find a sediment or precipitate at the bottom of an older bottle of wine.  This harmless precipitate is a combination of pigment, tartrates (including acid), and tannins—which explains why wine changes its color, gains a smoother texture, and looses some acidity.  Is this all making sense now?

Final notes

When in doubt, drink it now! It’s much better to drink wine a bit too early than too late.  The wine probably still tastes great even if it is a bit young, and if you really like it perhaps you can still get more bottles to enjoy in a few years.  If you drink a wine that’s “over the hill” there is little enjoyment to be gained—and what’s really depressing is all those other bottles of that same wine in your collection.

Fancy toys like Coravin (right) allow you to taste wine from a bottle without removing the cork. A special needle goes through the cork, dispenses pressurized argon (an inert gas that doesn’t react with wine), forcing wine back through the needle and into your glass.  We use the Coravin to taste some of the older bottles in our collection and decide whether to drink them now.  Beware that long-term exposure to argon has unknown affects on the wine.

Lastly, if you’d like to learn more about wine aging, the best thing to do is purchase a 12-bottle case of a wine that you like and drink it slowly.  Take 12 little pieces of masking tape, labeling them with successive dates every six months for the next six years.  Store a small spiral bound notebook with the wines in order to record your impressions as you drink each bottle.  Open a bottle on the appropriate date and compare your past impressions of that same wine.   (Pssst:  this also makes a great wedding gift!)

We hope you’ve learned a bit about the age-worthiness of wines in general.  In a future article, we’ll talk specifically about the age-worthiness of Montemaggiore wines and how each vintage is aging.

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Final Note:<span font-family:="" 'lucida="" sans="" unicode',="" grande',="" sans-serif;="" font-size:="" 16px;"=""> As always, we welcome your visit to our mountainside estate vineyards and winery in Sonoma County. Simply request an appointment on-line or give us a call (707.433.9499).

Have a warm and wonderful holiday season!