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Clearing out the mailbag, plus how to enjoy red zinfandel
Randall Murray
Randall Murray is a Gainesville-area resident. Have a question about wine? He can be contacted at His column publishes monthly.

Had an email recently from an old friend in south Florida, where I lived for 15 years, writing my column and teaching my university-level wine courses (which I no longer do).

He was reaching out with season’s greetings — and with a wine question. It so interested me I’m using it to start this month’s column.

Also included are questions I’ve received from readers, former students of my Brenau University classes and the occasional urban dweller with a bottle inside a brown paper bag.

I personally answer all questions soon after I get them and ask the questioners if I may include them in a column.

Q: My uncle was a world traveler and would always bring his favorite nephew — me — a gift from his travels. About seven years ago he spent some time in Portugal, including the island of Madeira. He brought back a bottle of wine. The label reads “Blandy’s Malmsey Rich Madeira Aged 5 Years.” He told me to put it away for a few years and serve it with dessert, since it is quite sweet. Sadly he died about a year later so I never got to share it with him. What can you tell me about this wine?

Wine Of The Month

Hess Collection Lion Tamer Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

The wine: Full-bodied, dry red table wine.

The grapes: 81% cabernet sauvignon, 11% petite sirah, 8% malbec.

The source: Napa Valley, California.

The verdict: Dave Guffy is an iconic winemaker in Napa Valley and has created scores of award-winning wines for the family-owned Hess Collection. Lion Tamer, so named because the softer malbec helps crack the whip on the more powerful cabernet, is another beauty from the talented hands of Dave Guffy. And the malbec does the job, rounding off the cab’s big tannins. I get coffee-mocha flavors with some good, sound oakiness. It’s on the youngish side now but in 3-4 years — if you can wait that long — Lion Tamer should truly roar.

The price: About $65.

A: You have a treasure! Malmsey, also called Malvasia, is a sweet, fortified dessert wine made in the traditional “canteiro” method. Wine barrels are stacked in storehouses and the upper levels of barrels receive gentle heating. Over time the wine at the bottom is removed and the upper levels go to the middle and eventually to the bottom of the stacks. Fortification means clear brandy was added prior to completion of fermentation, adding both alcohol and sweetness to the wine. It’s similar to how some of the great sherries of Spain are made, using the solera method. Blandy’s is the only remaining family-owned producer in Madeira and has been making various styles of wines ranging from the dry Sercial to your Malmsey since 1811. It is not vintage dated since it is a blend of wines from different years. You know roughly how old it is, which is a plus. I would recommend drinking it within the next 5-7 years. Don’t expect to make a fortune if you decide to sell it, however. Present value is about $25-$30. Serve it lightly chilled.

By the way, the oldest wine I ever tasted was a Malvasia from 1796. I sampled it in the mid-1980s and it was absolutely stunning.

Q: You mentioned in your January column some fine chardonnays made by David Ramey, including one that was ranked No. 7 in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2019. Years ago I had contact with a master of wine named Bern Ramey. He produced a beautiful ampelography, an illustrated book of grapes and grape leaves. Is David Ramey related to Bern Ramey?

A: Good question. I, too, knew Bern Ramey and had a copy of his gorgeous ampelography. It was part of my library of wine books that I recently donated to the University of California at Davis, known as America’s Wine School. Shortly after I was contacted by the rep from the PR firm handling David Ramey’s wines I asked the same question. She got back to me with the answer that, no, these two wine champions are not related. I did, however, receive a very complimentary email from David Ramey, thanking me for the column. He pointed out that only about 22% of the Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay, not the entire release, was aged in French oak.

Q: I know this is a simple question. Not too simple, I hope, but are white zinfandel and red zinfandel made from the same grape? I like white zinfandel, but not the red, because it’s too dry.

A: Over the years I’ve told students in my wine courses the only dumb question is the one you don’t ask. So there is a simple answer to your question: Yes, these two wines of vastly different styles are made from the same grape. But in making white zin the winemakers allow the juice to ferment in contact with the skins for about 12-14 hours. For red zin, skin contact is 10-14 days. You see, the color of the wine derives from the skin. The juice of virtually all grapes: red or white: is clear. The longer the skin contact, the darker the wine, and the more of all that good stuff in the grapes goes into the wine. I urge you to try a red zin with an appropriate food — such as a juicy steak or a good burger.

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