Friday, December 15, 2017

Argentine Wine: Norton Malbec Reserva

The Malbec grape grows all over the world, but nowhere as in Argentina.  They grow about three-quarters of the world's Malbec grapes.  If Cab is king in the U.S., Malbec is monarch in Argentina.  Poorer wine producers in the country sometimes can't afford enough French oak barrels to go around for all their wines.  If a wine has to go naked, or unoaked, to stretch the peso, it'll be Cabernet Sauvignon that does without, not Malbec. 

Often relegated to the status of "blending grape" in France, Malbec is revered in Argentina and used most often in varietal wines.  The Argentines sometimes mix it with Bonarda, a South American treasure that has yet to break out globally, but watch out when it does.  It's a beautiful grape, too.  Malbec grows better and maintains its acidity in higher elevations, so you find it often in mountainous regions.

Bodega Norton sits in the foothills of the Andes in Mendoza's Lujan de Cuyo region, a place known for its Malbec plantings.  Their five vineyards in the First Zone of quality are planted with vines that average 30 years old, but some are as old as 80 years.  They were reportedly the first winery in the area some 120 years ago.  Norton is possibly the most familiar Argentine label for American wine lovers. 

The 100% Malbec wine is aged 12 months in French oak, then more in the bottle.  Alcohol is restrained, at 13.5% abv.  It retails for $19.  The Reserva Malbec consistently gets high ratings from those who attach numbers to wines and made a leading "Best Of" list last year.  It's one of Norton's new line of signature wines, and they also are unveiling a Privada Family Blend line which reportedly were once reserved for their private cellars.

This Norton is pitch-dark with a red rim and carries dark aromas on its nose.  Blackberry, blueberry and currant are predominant, with smoke and a rack full of holiday spices completing the scene.  On the palate, rich bold fruit comes forward on a wave of pepper and minerals.  The acidity is bright and the tannins are perfect, enough for a meat feast but not too much for sipping.  It’s a delightfully smooth quaff.  The savory aspect lingers medium-long on the finish.  It drinks like a youthful wine that is beginning to take on the character of its few years.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Santa Belly

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Holiday Wine: Sweet Wine From Bordeaux

France's Bordeaux region is more than just Cabernet and Merlot.  It is also features sweet, golden dessert wines made largely from Sémillon grapes.  Sweet white wine is not everyone's cup, but sweet Bordeaux wines are for more than dessert.  Start a meal with them, an aperitif, or pair them with your main courses.  Try to pair sweet wines with something salty or savory for a great balance.  Have it with the pumpkin pie, sure, but try it with the ham and turkey, too.  You'll be surprised at the pairing.

Sweet Bordeaux US and Snooth recently put on a virtual tasting of a nice selection of such wines, and I was lucky enough to be included.

Chateau du Cros Loupiac  2014

The Chateau du Cros has been in the Guyenne province since the 12th century in the high ground of Loupiac, overlooking the Garonne Valley.  The oldest vines on the property date back to 1907, which their website says is a rarity.  With vineyards also in Cadillac and Graves, the grapes for this wine were grown in Loupiac.

Loupiac is a region in Bordeaux that is known for its sweet wines.  It's close to Sauternes and right between Cadillac and Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, if you’ve been there.  If you’ve never had a sweet wine graced with the mineral effect of limestone soil, you’re in for a treat.

Those grapes are 90% Semillon, with 5% each Sauvignon and Muscadelle rounding out the blend.  The roots reportedly reach down through nearly two feet of limestone clay to get water.  The Loupiac terroir of this vineyard is prized by the Michel Boyer family who have run the chateau in modern times, and it is revered in the region.  Aging took place in oak barrels for a full 12 months, something I understand is a fairly recent adaptation.  The sweet wine hits just 13% abv in alcohol content and retails for about $15.

This sweet Bordeaux pushes all the right buttons for a wine style that wants to be known as "more than dessert."  The rich golden hue beckons, while the nose of candied fruit is draped in a cloak of minerality.  The palate certainly wants to be more than an after-dinner afterthought.  The viscous mouthfeel, bracing acidity and mineral-driven flavor profile form a trio unlikely to be caught traveling together in most sweet wines.  They have been doing it in Bordeaux for centuries.

Monday, December 11, 2017

A Zinfandel Fail

Reid Klei is the winemaker for the new Motto wines, owned by Ste. Michele Wine Estates.  He makes wines that carry the "California" appellation, a ridiculously large and over-reaching tag.  It could mean that the grapes came from more than one great appellation, but more often it means that several lesser appellations are being disguised.

The 2015 Motto Unabashed Zinfandel is made from grapes grown in "vineyards across California"s sun drenched valleys," as their website states.  In fact, this wine tastes like the grapes were grown in a cool climate, as tartness is the word.  It's mostly Zin, with some Cabernet Sauvignon thrown in for good measure.  Alcohol stands at 13.9% abv and it sells for $15.

This wine is medium-dark ruby and smells of cherry and smoky oak spice.  There's a lot of oak spice here, and it follows the same way on the palate.  The fruit is in the forefront, but it seems that it doesn't want to stay there.  Or someone, should I say, didn't want it to stay there.  It's a bit tart, which is unusual for a Zinfandel.  Even so, the effect of the oak aging takes this wine in its grip and delivers a chokehold.  The fruit, however good or bad it may be, is masked by a massive cedar plank note and a rack of spices that don't really seem to fit.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Tam O'Shanter's Dickens Dinner

The Tam O'Shanter bills itself as Los Angeles' oldest restaurant operated by the same family in the same location.  It's a member of the Lawry's family of restaurants and a mainstay on Los Feliz Boulevard.  If you have some Scottish ancestry, you may find your family tartan among the extensive collection that decorate the walls.  I know a guy who likes the Welsh rarebit there, and my wife loves the Scotch whisky display case.

The Tam once again provided a holiday feast filled with special menus and Dickens-style entertainment.  The legendary Dickens Dinner experience just wrapped up its 33rd year.  The three-hour experience books only 60 people per performance, so you don't feel crowded while enjoying the live, interactive dinner theatre that features an acting troupe performing a consolidation of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol."

To go along with the show, the Tam's Executive Chef offered the following menu items:

Holiday salad with mixed market greens, candied walnuts, blue cheese, cranberry vinaigrette.
Roasted Prime Ribs of Beef 6oz. cut, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, Yorkshire pudding, horseradish; 
English-Style Goose mashed potatoes, traditional stuffing, sautéed vegetables, sage gravy; 
Pan Roasted Scottish Salmon parsnip puree, fennel, kale, pearl onions, pomegranate seeds; 
Vegetarian Entrée.
Sticky Toffee Pudding
Seasonal Cocktails
Maple Old Fashion
Elijah Craig, Whistle Pig bourbon barrel maple syrup, black walnut bitters
Scotch Lodge 
Highland Park, Cynar, cherry herring, orange bitters
Irish Goodbye 
Irish whisky, amaro, Lillet blanc
Tam's Toddy 
Applejack, chamomile liquor, demerra, bitters
Autumn Negroni 
gin, Cynar, sweet vermouth

The show is fantastic and the actors are very involved with the audience.  The food service is even incorporated as part of the act.  They've been putting on this show at the Tam O'Shanter for longer than I've been living in Los Angeles, and I couldn’t believe I had never experienced it.  It will be a part of my future holiday plans each year.

Tam O'Shanter General Manager John Lindquist says the Dickens Dinner is like "travelling through time," and he’s right.  It's a truly unique experience in a city that sometimes seems to be bursting at the seams with uniqueness.  L.A. as a Victorian holiday wonderland?  Please, suh, may I have anuthah?

By the way, Scotch lovers may want to look at Tam O'Shanter's unique "Scotch Passport," which gives "explorers" access to one of the most extensive Scotch collections in the U.S.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Beekeeper Zinfandel

From the vaults, 2012.  Ian Blackburn talks about his winemaking effort, Beekeeper  Zinfandel. It's one of the most amazing Zins I've ever tasted.  It could knock a Cab off a steakhouse wine list.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Arroyo Seco Sauvignon Blanc

In the same way that rosé gets a seasonal shun when the weather turns brisk, wine lovers sometimes forget about Sauvignon Blanc over the fall and winter.  I admit I'm guilty of letting Sauvignon Blanc fall into that "harbinger of spring" category.  It performs extremely well there, but Sauvignon Blanc also has a place at the holiday table, not just the picnic table.  In the coming weeks we'll be covering some nice choices from the Arroyo Seco AVA of California's Monterey County.

The Arroyo Seco AVA is centered around the Arroyo Seco River.  It's described as a seasonal waterway that brings rain and snowmelt from the Santa Lucia Mountains to the Salinas River.  Commercial grape growing started in 1961 and has grown to some 7,000 acres under vine.  The region is about 40 miles away from the deep waters of Monterey Bay and parts of it get direct exposure to the Pacific Ocean through the Salinas Valley. 

Luli 2016 Sauvignon Blanc, Arroyo Seco

Sara Floyd partnered with the Pisoni family to create her line of Luli wines.  The Sauvignon Blanc grapes were grown in Griva Vineyard, a cold, windy, ancient riverbed with soil full of shale.  Winemaker Jeff Pisoni fermented the wine in neutral barrels, not stainless steel, so the mouthfeel is a little weightier than one might expect from a Sauvigon Blanc.  It was selling for about $18, but the winery lists it as "sold out."  That's no surprise.  Alcohol is a middling 14.2% abv.

This wine's nose offers up more of that wonderful grassy aroma than I usually find in California SauvBlancs.  There's a touch of orange peel and lemon zest in there, too.  The mouthfeel is medium full and graced with a zippy acidity.  There is a rich minerality here, as expected, with tropical fruit flavors trying their best to overshadow the stark rocks.  The rocks win.  Lay out an olive and cheese plate if you don't have any shellfish lying about.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Wine For "Bell, Book and Candle"

An encore presentation.  From the "Blood of the Vines" series I did a while back with

Monday, December 4, 2017

Cabernet From The Warm Heart Of Calistoga

The wines of Cornerstone Cellars have been around for nearly three decades, and the company has seen its share of change through the years.  One thing that appears to have stayed the same is their commitment to crafting excellent Cabernet Sauvignon wines in Napa Valley.  The recently added winemakers in Yountville, Charles Thomas and Kari Auringer, are guiding the good ship Cabernet now at Cornerstone.  Thomas has a 30 year track record in the Napa Valley, and Auringer is in her second go-round with the winery.

The Cornerstone 2014 Calistoga Cab shows off what it's all about in Calistoga - ripe fruit and a whole bunch of it.  Calistoga is the warmest place in the Napa Valley appellation, so there’s enough opportunity for the grapes to become sweet and juicy.  The 100% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are fermented and aged in French oak, 70% of which was new.  Despite all that new wood, the fruit controls this wine from sniff to sip.  The wine hits an alcohol mark of 14.5% abv and sells for $75.

This wine is dark and deep, and smells that way.  Blackberry, black cherry and plum dominate the nose.  There's only a hint of wood influence - unusual for Napa Cabs - with barely noticeable traces of cedar and spice, almost no graphite.  On the palate, it's a smooth ride with gently firm tannins, if that makes any sense.  The flavors are as fruity as the nose, but they are just as dark.  The wine finishes long and leaves dark fruit and licorice as a calling card.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Holiday Wine: Sweet Bordeaux Sainte Croix du Mont

What are the holidays without some sweet wine?  Well, they'd still be pretty great, but they'd be short on sweet wine, which would be a bad thing.  The lovely Bordeaux region of Sainte Croix du Mont sits right across the Garonne River from Sauternes, which produces probably the most famous French sweet wine.  In Sainte Croix du Mont, however, they also work wonders with Sémillon grapes.  Sweet white wine is not everyone's cup, but anyone who likes a good dessert and a good glass of wine should not object to having them in the same serving.  However, sweet Bordeaux wines are for more than dessert. Start a meal with them, an aperitif, or pair them with your main courses. Try to pair sweet wines with something salty or savory for a great balance.  Have it with your holiday pie, sure, but try it with the turkey, too.  You might be surprised at the pairing.

Sweet Bordeaux US and Snooth recently put on a virtual tasting of a nice selection of Sauternes wines, and I was lucky enough to be included.  Hosted by Snooth's co-founder and chief taster Mark Angelillo and wine educator Fred Swan, the event drew raves from those who participated in it.  Swan, especially, won kudos all around for his vast knowledge.

 The sweet wine of Chateau La Rame comes from the vineyard in Sainte Croix du Mont.  The vines average 50 years of age and the Sémillon grapes are hand harvested with successive pass-throughs.  The soil contains fossilized oyster beds which seem to impart a distinct minerality to the wine.  It's aged mainly in stainless steel tanks, with a little less than a third aged in French oak barrels. It retails for $20.

As for the Chateau La Rame Sainte Croix du Mont 2014, this rich, golden, sweet wine smells like honey and dried apricots. There's a layer of earthy minerals, a chalkiness, that beautifully counterpoints the sweetness.  On the palate, a viscous mouthfeel carries marmalade-like fruit flavors along on a subtle wave of acidity.  This is dessert on its own, but why limit such a wonderful wine? Have it with hard cheese, almonds or a lobster roll.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Mulled Wine

From the vaults.  My annual rant about mulled wine.  Please excuse my rancor.  Mulled wine really heats me up.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Old Vine Zinfandel: Like A Holiday Blackberry Fire

Old vines are appreciated the most in Zinfandel vineyards.  California's heritage grape has been growing nonstop in Lodi for more than a century, and the older the vines are, the more character the wine has.  I don’t know about people who stay away from Zinfandel, I don't trust them.  Once you’ve had an old vine Zin, how could you ever go back to Merlot?

A recent virtual tasting of old vine Zinfandel wines from the Lodi region featured three people who are delightfully nerdy (watch) and incredibly passionate about their Zinfandel.  The online session was held on National Zinfandel Day and led by Stuart Spencer, of St. Amant Winery and the Lodi Winegrape Association.  He was joined by Kevin Phillips, of Michael-David Vineyards and Kyle Lerner, Harney Lane Winery.  They focus on Zinfandel with a love not just of the grapes and the wine, but of the character and history of the vineyards and those who planted them so long ago.

The Rous Vineyard dates back more than a century, to 1909.  The ten-acre plot in the Mokelumne River appellation is the source for Ironstone Vineyards' Reserve Old Vine Zinfandel.  Craig Rous bought the vineyard in 1994, when it was contracted to provide grapes for White Zinfandel production.  Thank you, white Zin, for possibly saving this vineyard's ancient vines, preventing them from being ripped out and replaced by some other variety.

This wine is 100% Zinfandel at 15% abv, so you know it’s there.  It aged for ten months in small French oak barrels and I see it selling for around 20 bucks.

This deep ruby wine smells like a blackberry fire, all dark fruit, spice and smoke.  There's a cinnamon aroma that should prove irresistible over the holidays.  The flavors made me sit down the glass and say, "my god, that tastes good."  That doesn't happen often enough.  Black cherry, sage, eucalyptus, cola, coffee grounds - its complex and savory.  Oak is very present, but not a pest.  The tannic structure doesn't go unnoticed, but stays pleasant enough for sipping.  Pair it with pulled pork or a ham sandwich.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Big Box Zinfandel

Southern California local heroes The Hickmen do a song called, "Costco Socks," which decries the big-box life that took over/ruined the Inland Empire and countless other communities across America.  I personally don't have a vehicle large enough to accommodate a Costco shopping trip, nor the home space in which to store all that stuff.  There is, however, a good reason to go to Costco if you're a wine lover.  They put some pretty damn good wine on their shelves.

One of them is the St. Francis "Old Vines" Zinfandel, Sonoma County 2014.  I had this tasty wine at the Chart House restaurant in Redondo Beach, a gift from our table mates.  They know I have more than a passing interest in wine and were almost apologetic when they told me they got it at Costco.  I reassured them that Costco does a very good job of seeking out great wines to lowball on the price tag.  I resisted the urge to admonish them for buying from a big box store instead of a local wine dealer, gift horse in the mouth, and all that.  Maybe I’ll buy them a download of "Costco Socks."

Joe Martin started growing grapes in Sonoma County in 1971, and founded the St. Francis winery eight years later.  Based in Santa Rosa, St. Francis grows certified sustainable grapes.  This wine is labeled as "Sonoma County," although St. Francis produces several single-vineyard Zinfandels as well.  The winery says winemakers Katie Madigan and Chris Louton who make the fruit-driven St. Francis bottlings also have access to "some of the most coveted old vines" in Sonoma.

The grapes that went into the bottle were 83% Zinfandel, 11% Petite Sirah, 5% mixed blacks and 1% Primotivo. Mixed blacks is the term used in old field-blend vineyards which feature different varieties growing together.  Aging was done over 16 months in French oak barrels and the alcohol hits a lofty 15.2% abv.  Retail price is $22, probably cheaper at Costco.

The 2014 St. Francis "Old Vines" Zinfandel has a beautiful nose, showing lush raspberry, black cherry and spice all over the place.  The dark palate provides a boatload of black raspberry and blackberry, with a slightly savory spot sneaking its way through the fruit display.  It drinks remarkably easy, considering the alcohol number, but has enough tannins for the swordfish and spaetzle with brown butter and bacon maple.  (I know, right?)  However, I could have gone with the filet and been just fine.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Friday, November 24, 2017

Elegant Anderson Valley Pinot For The Holidays

Four Ferrari-Carano wines were recently featured in an online virtual tasting session, of which I was invited to be a part.  The presentation was hosted by Chelsea Kurnick of McCue Communications and associate winemaker Rebecka Deike. She handles the winery's red wine program.  She started out wanting to be an optometrist, but saw her focus change to a wine career.

The 2014 Ferrari-Carano Anderson Valley Pinot Noir was aged for ten months in French oak and has an alcohol number of 14.5% abv. Online tasters thought the wine would be a natural to pair with salmon, chicken, beef bourguignon and holiday ham. Pinot Noir is often mentioned as a versatile wine that fits nicely on the holiday table, and this one will be quite at home there.

This tasty Pinot surprised me a bit. I approach California versions of the varietal apprehensively, often disappointed with their lack of grace and ham-fisted ways. The Ferrari-Carano 2014 Anderson Valley Pinot gets it right, and it's not the first from the AVA that I have liked. Aromas of black cherry are undercut with a savory cola note. The palate is smooth and elegant, with enough tannin for turkey but not enough to melt the cranberry sauce. The black tea flavor is among the most gorgeous of the kind I've experienced.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Earthshaking Old Vine Lodi Zinfandel

Old vines are appreciated the most in Zinfandel vineyards. California's heritage grape has been growing nonstop in Lodi for more than a century, and the older the vines are, the more character the wine has. I don’t know about people who stay away from Zinfandel, I don’t trust them. Once you've had an old vine Zin, how could you ever go back to Merlot?

A recent virtual tasting of old vine Zinfandel wines from the Lodi region featured three people who are delightfully nerdy (watch) and incredibly passionate about their Zinfandel. The online session was held on National Zinfandel Day and led by Stuart Spencer, of St. Amant Winery and the Lodi Winegrape Association. He was joined by Kevin Phillips, of Michael-David Vineyards and Kyle Lerner, Harney Lane Winery. They focus on Zinfandel with a love not just of the grapes and the wine, but of the character and history of the vineyards and those who planted them so long ago.

The historical angle is right up front in this wine. The vines for Michael-David's Earthquake Zinfandel were planted about the time of the Great Earthquake of 1906 in San Francisco. The winemaker calls this beautiful Zinfandel "intentionally hostile, purposefully bold," so you'd better grab hold of something and hang on.

The grapes are actually mostly Zinfandel with a touch of Petite Sirah. It spent 14 months in oak and shows every second of it beautifully. The wine carries a big alcohol number, as Zinfandel sometimes does, up at 15.5% abv  and sells for about 26 bucks.

This wine is completely dark, in color, aromas and taste. On the nose, loads of big, black, burly, brambly fruit, with a healthy dollop of smoky sage and what I can only call burnt cinnamon. The palate offers brawn and blackberries paving a roadway for licorice and spice. Pair it with anything off the grill, especially tri-tip or rib eye.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Vermont Ice Cider

From a few years back, Eden's ice cider is still one of my favorite holiday sips.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Wake Up And Smell The San Diego Stout

San Diego's Modern Times Beer is an inventive and committed craft brewery. I tried their Orderville IPA a bit ago and loved it. More good news: they make a terrific stout. Black House doesn't knock one over the head, but it sure knocked me out. It's light on its feet and laden with fragrance and taste. Alcohol hits 5.8% abv is this easy-drinking stout. They list the ingredients as kiln coffee malt, oats, pale chocolate malt, black malt, along with roasted barley, biscuit and crystal 60 malts. The coffee used was three-quarters Ethiopian and one-quarter Sumatran.

The Modern Times Black House stout is a must for coffee lovers. This oatmeal-style beer smells like a cup of very strong coffee. It's fairly light-bodied for a stout but carries the heaviest, darkest aromas and flavors. The sip brings not only coffee, but chocolate into the party. The mouthfeel is perfect for food, and it pairs well a fall-influenced roasted butternut squash as well as pan roasted chicken on toasted couscous.