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Tessa Leung & Söntés wine steward Barbara Pitcher have put together a series of wine classes. The most recent two classes were on the wines of Spain and France, and Barbara has put together a few fun facts gleaned from the class discussions. Read on for some tidbits of wine knowledge; facts like these and more are yet to come in the last two classes of Block II: Italy & sparkling wines.

How can you differentiate one Rioja from another? There are four levels of quality for red rioja wines:

  1. Rioja Tinto – young wine aged in minimal oak for less than 12 months; meant to drink now, equivalent to the French vin de table (table wine).
  2. Rioja Tinto Crianza – young, fruit forward, cannot be released less than 24 months from harvest, must see at least 12 months in barrel, and 12 months in bottle.
  3. Rioja Tinto Reserva – more complex flavors, mature fruits & “breeding,” aged at least 15 months in oak barrels plus 24 months in bottle.
  4. Rioja Gran Reserva – premium harvest, must spend at least 24 months in oak and 36 months in bottle. Premier crafting, age worthy, big, delicious wines.

(During the class, we tasted two makers’ Crianza & Reserva side by side. Both were excellent, but the slight edge went to Conde Valdemar, which makes its wines from its own vineyards, versus Antaño, which purchases its grapes from Conde Valdemar.)

Monastrell (more commonly known by its French name, Mouvedre) was made famous as the principle blending grape in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and as a single varietal in Bandol. It’s 5th most popular grape grown in Spain and primarily comes from hotter more Mediterranean regions such as Jumilla, Yecla, and Bullas. In other areas of Spain, the grape is known as Mataró. Jumilla is the largest, best known region for Monastrell. As much for tradition and economic reasons, grapes in Yecla are organically grown in limestone soils, often at altitudes up to 2250 feet, and then fermented in stainless or concrete tanks.

Jaume Serra Cristalino Cava, with which we started our evening class, was forced to stop using its signature family label by the much younger French vintner Louis Roederer Cristal Champagne. (We all agreed this wine is an outstanding value, a delicious Cava, and its such a travesty of justice that we will all keep some Cristalino on hand at all times!)

What makes Sauvignon Blanc a completely different wine? The terroir of Sancerre! Its limestone soil, chalk subsoil, and cold windy climate all give Sancerre’s expression of Sauvignon Blanc a totally unique and easily recognized palate. (For those who think they don’t care for Sauvignon Blanc, a taste of Sancerre is a must! The minerality along with notes of gooseberry and lemongrass with a light citrus nose is engaging. The slightly salty, totally refreshing taste with hints of green apple and light citrus is amazing. It’s a great wine with shrimp, scallops, and cheeses!)

Vouvray is an elegant expression of the Chenin Blanc grape. Although the nose presents some aromas not usually dubbed inviting, the taste was far more appealing, presenting soft lemon, crème brûlée, sweet peach, and vanilla. Chenin Blanc is thought to be the most widely grown vinifiable grape in the world, as it grows like a weed. (Also, the surest way to go broke as a winemaker is to plant Chenin Blanc on a very expensive vineyard!)

Thanks to our guest presenters for some of these fast facts! Michelle Ripinski, who led the Spanish class, was fun, highly knowledgeable and brought great selection of wines to taste. The French wine class was led by the duo French wine experts Mark Weimer and Frank Kohoutek, who have long guided the old world wines distributed by Wine Merchants, a division of Johnson Brothers Liquor Company in St. Paul.