Friday, November 30, 2012

Stepping Stone By Cornerstone Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

You’d think Cornerstone Cellars winemaker Jeff Keene would have his hands full - and stained permanently purple - with the highly regarded Cabernet Sauvingon he makes for the label.  He does find the time, though, to have a little fun.

It must surely be fun for him to play around with the fantastic fruit at his disposal, fruit he uses to make wines for their Stepping Stone line.  Stepping Stone by Cornerstone has some interesting blends, lively whites, and Cabernet Sauvignon that is good enough to resent its place in a “value” line.

The grapes for Stepping Stone's 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon are sourced from four different vineyards.  The website describes the sources and their purposes like this: “The muscular, dense and concentrated fruit of Howell Mountain, the refined clarity and elegance of Rutherford to the lively aromatics and lush, vibrant sophistication of Oak Knoll, which are all balanced with a little lift and mid palate richness from our Carneros and Oakville Merlots, bring a unique harmony to this wine.”  It’s not a headbanger, with an alcohol content of only 13.9% abv.  This clocks in at the top-end of the range of Cornerstone’s line of value-priced wines, at $35 retail.  Cornerstone provided a sample for the purpose of this article.

The wine is medium dark in the glass, with a nose that pleases right away.  Big notes of blackberry mix with raspberry and black cherry while the oak spices roll in underneath.  Clove, vanilla and anise change places with each swirl.  It’s really nice on the palate, almost silky smooth with a tannic structure that does not overwhelm.  The oak definitely plays a part on the palate, but it, too, is used in good measure.  Blackberries and black cherry have some cola-like fun, and the freshness of the wine makes it oh-so-easy to drink.

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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Longoria Syrah Santa Barbara County, Alisos Vineyard 2008

Rick Longoria bailed on law school to spend his time in a wine cellar.  When his first winemaking gig didn’t allow him to produce Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, he struck out on his own to scratch that itch.  Longoria was the first winemaker to base his operation in the industrial park which has become fondly known as the Lompoc Wine Ghetto.  He goes for balance in his wines, and designs them to accompany food, to be a part of a meal.

The Longoria Alisos Vineyard Syrah was purchased at the Longoria tasting room in Los Olivos.  It goes for $34 retail.  At 15.2% abv, this Syrah packs some power.  It aged in French oak - one-third of it new - for 22 months.  The winery produced only 98 cases.

On his website, Longoria reveals the source of his grapes.  He writes, "I first began working with Rhone varietals in 1998. Since then I have narrowed down our vineyard sources to just two local vineyards, Alisos in the Los Alamos Valley and Clover Creek in the Santa Ynez Valley.  Each is bottled separately and each provides us with a different interpretation of the Syrah grape, due to the unique qualities of the two sites."

The wine is very dark, an inky, purple color.  The bouquet is readily available long before my nose gets into the glass.  Dark aromas of blackberry and tar waft up, smelling very much like the northern Rhône.  The flavors come from that area, too, with back fruit leading the way for savory notes of bacon and anise.  Cola and tea notes remind me of Pinot Noir - a pretty stout Pinot, to be sure.  What really grabs me is the acidity, that mouthwatering tingle that means the wine is destined to go with food.  It's a fairly amazing quality in this juicy Syrah, so much so that it competes with the flavors.  That’s a competition in which there are no losers.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How Barefoot Wine Beat The Odds To Succeed

Michael Houlihan has an interesting story to tell.  It’s the story of how he and partner Bonnie Harvey built the Barefoot Wine brand into such a formidable power on the supermarket shelf that Gallo opened up the big corporate checkbook and bought the company.

Now, it may be that people who read wine blogs don’t buy their wine in the supermarket;  and it may be that the phrase “supermarket wine” is a turnoff to people who describe themselves as “wine lovers.”  Nevertheless, a whole lot of wine crosses the checkout scanner in supermarkets - 10% of it White Zinfandel - so somebody should be interested in what Houlihan has to say.

Houlihan’s story started in Healdsburg, California, where he tried to collect a debt.  Other creditors got in line first at the bankruptcy hearing, so there was no cash to be had.  Thinking on his feet, Houlihan agreed to take wine and bottling services instead of money.  With the hard part out of the way, all he had to do was come up with a brand and learn about distribution from the ground up.  Simple, huh?

He started asking grocery stores what they wanted in a wine.  This took the grocery stores by surprise, says Houlihan.  “Nobody had ever asked the supermarkets what they wanted on the shelf.”  Well, since no one had ever asked, they told him.  They wanted a 1.5 liter bottle, a red and a white, with a name that’s an English word, and a logo that’s the same as the name.

The Barefoot brand came from Barefoot Bynum, a long-gone wine Houlihan remembered, that he thought would fit the bill for an easy word and a simple image.  His partner conceptualized the logo, and one large inkpad later they had a brand.  That's Harvey's foot on the label.

All this was happening in the mid-1980s, when Houlihan says “wine was considered pretty snooty.”  Houlihan and crew went the other way with it, designing and marketing a wine for what is generally referred to as “average taste.”  It worked.  Barefoot was selling a half-million cases of wine a year when Gallo stepped in.

Houlihan’s take on wine ratings: “If you have a number on your wine that’s in the mid to high 80s or better, you have a better chance of getting on the shelf.  However, we found what was even better was winning a contest, or getting a medal at a state fair.  We’d go out the next day in that city and put the prize or medal right on the store shelves.”

The Barefoot brand was built into a huge bestseller without advertising.  “Worthy cause marketing helped make the wine a success while assisting charities at the same time,” says Houlihan.  “We didn’t just sell wine, we tried to make the world a better place through wine.”

The early road was pitted with land mines that might have stopped a less intrepid businessman.  “A lot of people get into the wine business, and after they’ve been in it for a while they discover that they’re in the distribution business,” he says.  “You have to get through 50 states of regulations - every one of them different - supermarkets requirements, distributors who are selling hundreds of brands besides yours.”  You very quickly ask yourself, ‘Whatever happened to the romance of the wine business?’”

Although not involved with Barefoot Wine and Bubbly anymore, Houlihan says he still drinks Barefoot wine and he’s proud of it.  His career has now moved into helping other small business people with their careers.

“Now I help small businesses by passing along things I learned in the wine industry.  We made Barefoot an international bestseller and then sold it to the biggest winemaker in the world.  We can help people achieve what we’ve achieved.  We’re not selling wine anymore, we’re selling ideas.”

Houlihan makes himself available to teach people how to succeed by having goals more important than just the products they’re selling - the “worthy cause marketing” that helped launch Barefoot to such heights.  Houlihan says his book, The Barefoot Spirit, will “for the first time give the public a behind-the-scenes view of how the wine gets to you,” through the stories he and Harvey accumulated through nearly 20 years of building the Barefoot brand.

Houlihan’s conversation with me was mostly about the business of wine, but he eagerly told me that Jennifer Wall was Barefoot’s first winemaker, and she is still the winemaker for Barefoot.  “She had the ability to understand what the average person wanted,” he said, “fruit-forward, easy-drinking, palatable wine that was consistent from year to year.”  He says that’s why Barefoot wines are non-vintage - the supermarket shoppers told them they were more interested in consistency than in vintage variation at that price point.  That’s what the people wanted, so that’s what they delivered.

Much of Houlihan's success, it seems, came from listening to what people told him, and responding with his product.

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Monday, November 26, 2012

Wine Country: Arizona - Arizona Stronghold Vineyards

Arizona’s wine history dates back to 16th-century Spanish missionaries who planted grapes to make wine for religious purposes.  While not exactly a religious mission, Arizona’s wine industry has grown rapidly in recent years.  Six years ago there were less than a dozen wineries in the Grand Canyon State, a number that has grown to over 60 today.

According to the Arizona Wine Growers Association, Arizona wine “enjoys three established grape growing regions - Sonoita/Elgin in Santa Cruz County, the Greater Willcox region in Cochise County, and the Verde Valley in Yavapai County.  There also are vineyards or wineries in Pima, Graham, Mohave, and Gila counties, plus several urban wineries in the Phoenix metropolitan area.  The majority of the vineyard acreage in Arizona is in Cochise County.”  That's where you'll find Arizona Stronghold.

Arizona Stronghold  Vineyards was founded by industrial musician Maynard Keenan and Eric Glomski (former vegetation and landscape ecologist.)  Keenan and Glomski were both producing wines made from California grapes at the time.  They combined their assets to purchase the vineyard near Wilcox, in southeastern Arizona, which became Arizona Stronghold.  Tim White is the winemaker.

Keenan says, "this project is about reconnecting.  It's about rekindling a relationship with the Earth, to our community, to each other.”  On the label, he describes life at his high-elevation vineyards as "hot days, cool nights, harsh winds and bitter, biting cold winters."  No doubt, creating good wine takes the edge off the bad conditions that nature deals out.

"The wines express, first and foremost, Arizona," says Keenan, "and secondarily the grapes and hands of the vignerons involved ... Great wine doesn’t have to be expensive; it doesn’t have to be pretentious; and it shouldn’t be hard to find.  It just has to be great and it has to be made by people that care.”  Keenan promises “minimally mucked-with wines that retain their natural vitality and character."

Arizona Stronghold was kind enough to supply samples of two of their wines. Both are made from Arizona grapes grown in Cochise County - from the Arizona Stronghold Vineyard and Bonita Springs Vineyard - and both are five-variety blends.

Arizona Stronghold Tazi White Table Wine 2011

Their white blend is made of 28% Sauvignon Blanc, 25% Riesling, 18% Malvasia Bianca, 16% Chenin Blanc and 13% Gewürztraminer.  The wine has a 13.4% abv number and comes under under a synthetic closure.  It is aged in stainless steel and neutral oak and retails for $18.

A golden straw color, Tazi is very aromatic with an upfront floral element on the nose, with lemons, minerals and orange peel and a fair amount of oak also appearing.  The palate shows a crisp minerality, medium full mouthfeel and notes of pineapple, lemon, pear juice and minerals.  The wine is extremely fresh-feeling in the mouth despite a hefty oak effect.  The flavors really come through strongly, as does the acidity.  I would love to taste this wine without any barrel aging, but with the oak it’s a force to be reckoned with.  This is not a “salad white” - it would overpower most very light dishes.  Try this with ham or pork chops.  I’m sure you could even wash down a strip steak with it.  White wines aren’t supposed to demand this much attention, are they?

Arizona Stronghold Mangus Red Table Wine 2010

Named for a famous Apache leader, Mangus is a Super Tuscan-style blend of 71% Sangiovese, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Malbec, 3% Petit Verdot and 2% Merlot.  It retails on average for about $22, has a 13.8% alcohol content and is bottled under a synthetic closure.

The wine has a medium-deep ruby color, with a bright cherry nose - courtesy of the Sangiovese - which also sports a fair amount of oak spice and alcohol.  Decant for at least a half hour to minimize the heat.  The palate offers a dusty, earthy cherry flavor with clove and nutmeg in the profile.  The oak is quite apparent in those spices, but the Arizona dust keeps the rope in its leather-gloved hand.  There is a gentle bite of tannins, and the wine’s rustic character is tempered by a little pencil point from the Cab and some floral notes from the Malbec.  On the whole, the wine rather reminds me of a Zinfandel.

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Friday, November 23, 2012

Cornerstone Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2009

Cornerstone Cellars has made its name producing high-end Napa Valley Cabs known as much for their brawn as for their beauty.  I have written about several of their Stepping Stone wines, a label designed to introduce the brand to everyday wine drinkers at an affordable price point, an effort I believe they achieve handily.  Cornerstone has also provided me with a sample of their top-shelf stuff, which is the subject of this article.

The Cornerstone '09 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon marks a departure for the way Cornerstone Cellars makes its Cabernet wines.  As Cornerstone’s Craig Camp puts it, “While you have seen hints of what was to come in our 2010 Stepping Stone releases, the 2009 Cornerstone red wines are the first to preview our vision of the future for our Cabernet Sauvignon.  Our new style is more restrained, more focused on balance and elegance without giving up the authentic power that makes Napa Valley unique.”

One area of departure is the varietal makeup.  While Cornerstone’s Cabs have previously been 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2009 vintage sees a bit of Merlot introduced.  95% of the wine is made from grapes grown in six desirable Cabernet spots of Napa Valley - Ink Grade Vineyard, Howell Mountain, Oakville Station, Oakville, Kairos Vineyard and Oak Knoll District.  The Merlot is taken from Carneros’ Stewart Ranch Vineyard.  Future releases will also see increased use of Merlot, as well as Cabernet Franc.

The winery bottled 842 cases of this Napa Valley Cab.  The wine hits an alcohol number of 14.9% abv and Camp tells me the suggested retail price is $65.  Cornerstone notes that the wine shows "rich layers of complexity and remarkable overall balance.”  Winemaker Jeff Keene and the Cornerstone team spent months working on getting the blend where they want it.

It's a dark looking wine, and a dark smelling one.  Light barely gets through the purple and the nose offers black currant, balck cherry and blackberry.  If that's not dark enough for you, try some black licorice - that's in there, too.  Soft vanilla notes mingle with the opulent fruit.  The palate shows plenty of dark fruit as well, with a lacing of graphite and a touch of baking spices.  The tannins are rather young and brash, but the acidity really dominates the mouthfeel.  This wine is tailor-made to be paired with food, and the richer and meatier, the better.  I sipped it, but wished for a standing rib roast.  It paired with a skirt steak and blue cheese very nicely.

Camp comments on the wine's structure:  “It is always important to remember that acidity is a taste and tannin is a feeling.  It is not a good idea to try to manipulate taste... however, the feeling of a wine on the palate is something you can work with in the cellar without corrupting the nature of the wine.  In the cellar we treat it more like Pinot Noir, with a gentle touch, as extraction of flavor and color are the least of our worries here in the Napa Valley.”

The structure may seem full of youthful exuberance that cries to be paired with food, but it bodes well for aging purposes.  Cornerstone's '09 Napa Valley Cabernet has a rambunctious feel now which will certainly please those who have it on the dinner table.  In the future, it will please those who have it in their cellar.

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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Pinot Days Los Angeles 2012

The annual Pinot Days wine tasting event in Los Angeles was actually the second such event for 2012.  After the January event, the date was bumped up to its new home in November.  The event was held November 11, 2012 at the Shrine Auditorium hall.  Steve and Lisa Rigisich stage this event, and they do a great job of pulling together Pinot Noir producers from California, Oregon and New Zealand - as well as a few from other locales.

All the wines mentioned here are Pinot Noir, unless otherwise noted.  Here are some of the highlights I found - in an event where nearly everything was worthy of note:

Belle Glos Wines, Rutherford, CA
2011 Clark and Telephone - Santa Maria Valley fruit with rich chocolate on the nose and palate;  great for the holidays
2005 Las Alturas - smokey raspberry and tea, from the Santa Lucia Highlands

Bien Nacido Vineyards, Santa Maria, CA
Winemaker Trey Fletcher told me they only make about a thousand cases per year, since their fruit is in such high demand.  They sell around 300 acres of grapes to other vintners.  Fletcher said, "It's a pleasure to work with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay fruit from 40-year-old vines.”
2009 Solomon Hills Vineyard - coffee, tea and minerals
2009 Bien Nacido Vineyard - beautiful earthiness

Cameron Hughes Wine, San Francisco, CA
According to their website, Cameron Hughes is “an American négociant that makes, imports and distributes” wines that often sell for under $20 per bottle, nearly always under $30.  Wines from Cameron Hughes always make me feel like I got a lot for my money.  These are great values.
2009 Russian River Valley - mocha and earth
2009 Santa Maria Valley - cola and earth
2009 Savigny les Beaune - tart and fresh, from a French vineyard
2010 Casablanca Valley - from Chile, cool climate, huge nose, big tea notes
2010 Sonoma County - touch of orange peel
2009 Los Caneros - dark nose, black tea, great acidity.

Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard, Los Olivos, CA
2009 Ashley's Vineyard - big minerals and acidity

La Fenêtre, Santa Maria, CA
Winemaker Joshua Klapper (right) keeps coming forth with terroir-driven Pinots reflective of the choice locations sourced.
2009 A Cote North Coast - black tea, acidity
2010 Santa Maria Valley - dark yet delicate
2010 Le Bon Climat Vineyard - Santa Maria Valley; delightfully funky; good with game
2010 Bien Nacido Vineyard - earth, minerals
2010 Presqu’ile Vineyard - minerals, tea, acidity

Olson Ogden Wines, Santa Rosa, CA
2009 Alder Springs Vineyard - from Mendocino, seven miles from the Pacific; mocha, cola, acidity; feels like the holidays

Pence Ranch, Buellton, CA
Winemaker Jeff Fink did a great job on these, and got quite a bit of chatter at the event.
2010 Estate Sta Rita Hills - big black tea
2010 Uplands - dark and delicious
2010 Westslope - huge minerals

Sanford, Lompoc, CA
2010 Sta Rita Hills - blend of their two estate vineyards; chocolate, mocha, tea; ready for the holidays
2009 La Rinconada - smokey minerals
2009 Sanford and Benedict - dark, smokey fruit

These entries showed admirably, too:

Alma Rosa Winery and Vineyards, Buellton, CA
2008 Sta Rita Hills - raspberry candy on the nose, tea and cranberry on the palate; six different Pinot Noir clones are blended
2010 Sta Rita Hills - two clones; young and fruity

Alta Maria Vineyards, Santa Maria, CA
2009 Santa Maria Valley - several vineyards combine for this darkly perfumed wine
2010 Santa Maria Valley - huge notes of black tea

Ancient Oaks Cellars, Santa Rosa, CA
2010 Russian River Valley - smoke, tea and coffee
2009 Estate - dark cranberry flavors

August West, San Francisco, CA
Winemaker Ed Kurtzman is a Deadhead, and the name August West is a character in the Grateful Dead song, “Wharf Rat.”  Digging a little deeper, the lyrics of the song have August West stating that he loves his Pearly Baker more than he loves his wine.  The Reverend Purley Baker was a prohibition-era anti-alcohol fanatic.  Today, a group of sober Deadheads call themselves Wharf Rats.  Their motto is "One show at a time.”  It’s a shame they can’t enjoy these:
2011 Russian River Valley - candy edge to black tea flavor
2011 Rosella's Vineyard - dark cranberry notes

Benziger Family Wines, Glen Ellen, CA
2010 Signaterra Bella Luna Vineyard - Russian River Valley fruit is biodynamically farmed,,has a barnyard edge
2010 De Cuelo - also very funky, earthy

Blair Vineyards, Salinas, CA
2010 Estate - eastern part of the Arroyo Seco AVA; their first vintage; fresh, clean tasting wine, just a hint of smoke

Cargasacchi Wines, Lompoc, CA
One taster cried, "The Lompoc wine barn!" as he approached the Cargasacchi table, as if he thought he’d never arrive.
2009 Point Conception Salsipuedes - coffee, black tea, fruit, acidity; pretty good for a budget wine
2010 Cargasacchi Jalama Vineyard - great fruit forward presentation

Cornerstone Cellars, Oregon
I usually see Cornerstone’s Craig Camp (left) singing the praises of his Napa Valley fruit, but this time he was touting the Oregon branch office, which produces some very good Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.  He chatted about good grapes, cool climate and tough vintages.
2010 Stepping Stone - tea, acidity
2010 Cornerstone Oregon - nice acidity and tartness from a difficult vintage; classic, floral, delicate

Derby Wine Estates, Paso Robles, CA
2007 San Simeon Reserve - like port on the nose, dark and intense flavors

Domaine Serene, Oregon
2009 Winery Hill - cherry cola
2008 Evenstad Reserve - blend of seven vineyards; earthy, black tea, great acidity

Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard, Los Olivos, CA
2010 Sta Rita Hills - due in Feb. fruit comes first
2010 Sta Rita Hills Clone 115 - acidity
2010 Sta Rita Hills Pommard Clone - dark, coffee and tea

Fort Ross Vineyard and Winery, San Francisco, CA
Fort Ross-Seaview is a new appellation, along the western edge of the Sonoma AVA.
2007 Fort Ross Vineyard - minerals
2009 Fort Ross Vineyard - coffee and tea

Inception Wines, Los Angeles, CA
This SoCal vintner sources grapes from Santa Barbara County.
2010 Central Coast - fruit from Edna Valley, Santa Maria Valley, Los Alamos;  nice black tea notes
2010 Santa Babara County - rich dark fruit
2009 Sta Rita Hills La Encantada - beautiful black tea and acidity

Kendric Vineyards, San Anselmo, CA
2008 Marin County - very floral, holiday spice
2009 Marin County - more minerals

MacRostie Winery, Sonoma, CA
2008 Sonoma Coast - abundant minerals
2008 Wildcat Mountain - big tea notes, acidity
Both are very BIG wines

Pali Wine Company, Lompoc, CA
2010 Bluffs - Russian River Valley fruit;  BIG fruity nose, huge floral and tea aspect on palate;  These guys make enormous wines.

Stoller Vineyards, Dundee Hills, OR
2009 Reserve - very fruity

Thomas Fogarty Winery, Portola Valley, CA
2010 Santa Cruz Mountains - cranberry, earth
2010 Rapley Trail Vineyard - fruity tea
2010 Windy Hill Vineyard - minerals, earth, pomegranate

Thomas George Estates, Healdsburg, CA
2011 Rosé of Pinot Noir - refreshing, dry, mineral laden
2010 Russian River Valley - minerals black tea
2009 Star Ridge - dark and fruity

Witch Creek Winery, Carlsbad, CA
2009 Clarksburg - funky candy

It was Nice bumping into Jeff Zimmitti of Rosso Wine Shop in Glendale.  Jeff told me he has been appearing quite a bit on The Tasting Room with Tom Leykis. Apparently Leykis has broadened his spectrum from cult cabs to European wine of late, particularly Italian varieties, which has to make Zimmitti happy.

It was a big surprise to see Heidi Hamilton, my one-time radio buddy, there.  She is now appearing in the morning show on KLOS/Los Angeles.  She was pouring at the station’s bubbly booth, helping cleanse palates when not darting over to one side of the room or the other for a taste of Pinot.  Hamilton thought I was kidding when I told her I spit out my tastes.  “I’d drink over a gallon of wine if I didn’t,” I explained.  “What am I, in college?”

Rob Barnett of Vin Village was situated perfectly to catch people as they entered the hall.  We chatted briefly about wines from Clarksburg and Baja, until he was overrun by fans.

Josh Klapper of La Fenêtre kept up his usual fast-paced patter while throwing an aside to me without breaking stride.  “That’s off the record, Randy,” he shot my way.  I wish I’d been paying attention to what he was saying at the time.  I was distracted by his wines.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

V. Sattui Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2008

Founded in 1885 by Vittorio Sattui, this winery knows that wine goes with food.  They have an extensive deli at the Napa Valley tasting room which offers over 200 cheeses from all over the world, and you can have a picnic under the oaks outside.  V. Sattui produces, by my count, eleven different Cabernet Sauvignons.  Their wines are available only from the winery, either at their tasting room or from their website.

V. Sattui’s 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon represents a vintage which experienced a spring frost and a dry growing season, meaning a lower yield and increased intensity in the grapes.  It is a blend of three Cabs from Henry, Preston and Vittorio's vineyards, fermented separately and aged in French oak for 18 months.  There is a 2% blast of Petit Verdot and a 1% hit of Cabernet Franc in the blend.  The retail price is $35.

Looking at it in the glass, it's a very dark wine, inky purple, and the nose gives aromas that are equally dark.  Cassis, plum, blackberry and a faint whiff of tar make a ripe, bold bouquet.  The flavors are fruity as well, with currant and blackberry appearing forcefully, but complexity appears in a savory note of pencil shavings that rides underneath the fruit.  The tannins exert a bit of force - good news if there's a thick, juicy steak in your future - but the silky mouthfeel allows for the wine to be enjoyed all alone as a sipper, if you like.

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Monday, November 19, 2012

Wines Of Spain: Ribera Del Duero

Spanish wine publicists have been beating the streets for the past few years, trying to carve out a bigger piece of the American wine pie.  Spain is trying to claw their way to higher visibility among U.S. wine drinkers.  They are presently fourth on the list of America’s favorite European wine, and struggling to nudge producers like Australia, Argentina, Chile and South Africa out of the way.  Individual wine regions within Spain sometimes seem to be fighting each other for attention, purporting that their taste is the true taste of Spain.  The Taste Ribera wine tasting event, held at The Red O restaurant in Los Angeles on November 8, 2012, had its timing just right for pouring in Tinseltown.  It was International Tempranillo Day.

Tempranillo - or Tinto Fino, as it is locally known - is the main grape variety used for making wines in Ribera del Duero.  The region is located about two hours north of Madrid in Spain's northern plateau, on the Duero River.  Its diverse soil - rocky limestone in the higher elevations and sandy clay near the river - and extreme climate give Ribera a distinctive terroir.  Winemaking dates back two thousand years there, but the region did not achieve Denominación de Origen status until 1982.

There are three main types of wine made from Tempranillo in Ribera.  Crianza is required to age in oak for a year and another year in the bottle.  Reserva wines spend a year in oak and two years in the bottle.  Gran Reserva wines age in oak for two years, then rest for three years in the bottle.  Tempranillo is sometimes blended with Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, but it is most often seen as a 100% varietal wine.

At Taste Ribera, the wines of Tinto Pesquera displayed the highest minerality.  Their '08 Reserva beat out their '09 Crianza for the title.

Convento San Francisco was built on the ruins of a 13th-century convent.  Their '06 Tinto Fino contains 10% Merlot and is aged twelve months in oak.

From Bodegas Felix Callejo, the '10 Flores de Callejo and the '07 Callejo Crianza both show restrained oak with a nice touch of spice.  The Callejo '06 Reserva has loads of fresh fruit despite the extra year in barrels.

With all the rules about oak in the wines of Ribera, it was refreshing to taste a Tempranillo aged in stainless steel tanks.  The Bodegas Valdubón 2010 Consecha was fresh and lively, showing pure fruit flavor unfettered by wood.

The Valduero '09 Crianza and '05 Reserva are both smooth, lush, fruity and floral.

Strong minerals come forth on the Protos '08 Crianza and their '09 Tinto Fino.  The former presents great tannins while the latter has a strong fruit profile.

Besides the wines that are already distributed in the U.S., there were some wineries present which are looking for representation.  One of the notables was Bodegas y Viñedos del Linaje Garsea.  Their 2011 Garsea Roble is an easy drinking and impressive showcase for plum flavors, while their '09 Garsea Crianza is muscular and chewy.  Six months oak for the Roble, 15 months for the Crianza.  Their wines are made using an extended maceration, so you get plenty of color.  The skin contact lasts from eight to ten days.

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Friday, November 16, 2012

Beekeeper Zinfandel Rockpile Appellation 2010

My friend Ian Blackburn is well known to Los Angeles wine lovers as a wine educator.  He throws some of the most extravagant and delightful wine tasting events to be found in Southern California under his Learn About Wine shingle.  He is also a winemaker now.

I caught up with Blackburn at his downtown L.A. event loft, where he treated me to a glass of his Beekeeper Zinfandel, Rockpile Appellation 2010.  The name of the wine has an interesting story.

He borrowed the crest of Blackburn, England, where a lot of honey is made.  This fit well with the fact that his great-great-great grandparents came to America as actors.  Acting wasn’t one of the professions available on the form, so they wrote down “beekeeper.”  When Ian told his father of the name ha had chosen for his wine, Dad told him, “That was my radio handle in the war!”  The name seems to have been destined for his use.

Beekeper is dark purple, with a huge nose featuring floral aromas along with cherry and black cherry.  The palate has a beefy texture, with firm tannins and flavors of dark cherry, spice, minerals and earth.  It has a masculine edge and can definitely take the place of a Cabernet.

The limestone and loam soil in the Rockpile appellation, just northwest of Dry Creek Valley, comes through without a hitch.  The hillside vines in the Madrone Spring Vineyard are all harvested by hand, with those teeny, pea sized berries and small clusters destemmed meticulously.  Rockpile was branded by Robert Parker as one of the best Zinfandel sites in northern California.

Zinfandel makes up 89% of the wine, while 11% is Petite Sirah.  Blackburn is guided in the winemaking process by Dry Creek Valley winemaker Clay Mauritson.  Beekeeper's alcohol content is a big 15.4%, and the wine retails for $60.  Blackburn admits it is a high price point for Zinfandel, but one taste shows that it will step easily into the role of a $100 bottle of Cab.

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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Muga Rosé 2011

A good rosé is an awesome thing.  Bodegas Muga makes an awesome rosé, which is a very good thing.

Many wine novices think that rosé wine is made from mixing red and white grapes.  Actually, rosé is usually made by limiting the skin contact when the grapes are crushed - a grape’s color is in the skin.  In Muga’s case, there is a 12-hour period when the juice is in contact with the skins.

This Spanish wine from Rioja, however, is made with both red and white grapes:  60% Garnacha, 30% Viura and 10% Tempranillo.  The wine is fermented 25 days in American oak and aged two months in same.  It cost $8 by the glass at Tender Greens.

The color is quite pretty, showing a very pale salmon hue.  A whiff of watermelon and cherry is in the forefront, but the oak does not come forward.  On the palate, flavors of melons meet an herbal quality, a sort of greenness.

I paired it with the herb-brushed albacore, grilled Brussels sprouts, spinach salad with feta and hazelnuts and mashed potatoes.  The Muga rosé was a worthy match for all the food on the plate.  By the way, a nice, dry rosé is a great thing to have around the house if you are expecting to serve any sandwiches.  Sandwiches made from leftover turkey and ham are what I am thinking about right now.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Tasting Argentine Wine

Tasting Argentina - Game of Grapes - was another great presentation from Learn About Wine.  Ian Blackburn’s group puts on the premier wine events in Southern California, and this one, on October 25, 2012, brought wines from South America to the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills.

There are a number of aspects about the wine industry in Argentina which I find fascinating.  The speed at which the country turned the quality of their wine around 180 degrees was phenomenal.  Their branding of Malbec and Torrontes as "national grapes" has expanded to a global stage.  The limited use of oak in many of their wines would be cutting-edge if it weren't often due simply to the high cost of barrels.

There's a lot about Argentine wine to capture any wine lover's fancy.  Here are a few questions I found myself wondering about after Tasting Argentina.  Prices listed are suggested retail.

What's Up With Argentine Chardonnay?

Chardonnay produced in Argentina can taste wildly different from Californian or French styles, sometimes taking on a characteristic that leaves me wondering if it was, in fact, Chardonnay at all.

Urraca Chardonnay 2009 Mendoza - Organic and aged only 6 months in oak.  It’s unusual for an Argentine white to have any oak at all.  Dark and earthy, this wine has smoke to burn.  I tasted the 2008 vintage a couple of years ago, and it carried a nose like Champagne.  The '09 is so dark and smokey it might fool a lot of tasters into thinking it's something other than Chardonnay.  Extremely intriguing.

Secreto Patagónico Chardonnay 2011 Patagonia - The smokey, mineral-driven palate surprises, since the wine is unoaked.

Telteca Robles Chardonnay 2011 Maipú Mendoza - Beautiful fruit and just a hint of oak. $13

Telteca Anta Chardonnay/Viognier 2011 Maipú Mendoza - A half and half blend of the two grapes, and half of the Chardonay is barrel aged for six months.  Aromatic nose, great oak effect. $18

Why Doesn't Argentina Just Do Away With Oak Altogether?

Many Argentine red wines are treated with minimal - sometimes a complete lack of - oak.  I have been told many small family wineries can't afford barrels for all their varieties, so they save the wood for aging their Malbec.  But even larger production facilities in Argentina will go a little easier on the oak that we might expect in California.  I love this tendency, as the fruit can taste so much brighter and fresher with minimal or no oak effect.  That isn't always the case, though, with unoaked reds in Argentina.

Costaflores MTB Malbec/Petit Verdot Mendoza - Organic, unoaked, single vineyard, earthy minerals, dark fruit. $22  (Check out winemaker Mike Barrow’s underwater wine tasting.)

Pascual Toso Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Barrancas, Maipú District, Mendoza - Only 8 months in oak, earthy notes rule.  $13

Michel Torino Don David Finca La Maravilla #6 Malbec 2010 Salta - A single plot in a single vineyard.  Unoaked, but dark and mineral-driven.  $20

Secreto Patagónico Pinot Noir 2011 Patagonia - Unoaked, showing earthy minerals and a raspberry candy note.

Secreto Patagónico Malbec 2011 Patagonia - No oak and bright red fruit.  Earthy, fresh and lively.

Secreto Patagónico Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 Patagonia - Unoaked, with big bright fruit.  Secreto is seeking an importer, by the way.

Argentine Malbec

When Argentine wines are poured, Malbec is the star of the show.  The Bordeaux castoff has found a comfy home in Argentina, like many other human wine transplants from Europe.  Malbec is the pride of the Argentine wine world, and its leading exported variety.

Achavel Ferrer Malbec Mendoza 2011  Luján de Cuyo, Uco Valley - Lean and earthy, aged in oak nine months.  $25

Uma Coleccion Malbec 2011 Maipú Mendoza - Very smooth, with beautiful fruit and minerals.  Only three months in oak.  $10

Telteca Roble Malbec 2009 Maipú Mendoza - Minerals galore, only six months in oak.  $13

Pascual Toso Malbec Estate 2011 Mendoza - Dark fruit and a very earthy undercurrent.  $13

Dante Robino Gran Dante Malbec 2009 Mendoza - Smokey, earthy, spicy, great grip.  $39

Muñoz De Toro Valle Perdido Patagonia Malbec 2010 Neuquén Patagonia - Extremely dark, huge smoke and earth.  Nine months oak.  $12

Solsticio Malbec Rosé 2011 Uco Valley - The winemaker was throwing away the juice from the bleed off of Malbec production when somebody said, "Hold on a minute! Lets do a rosé!"  Great acidity.

Why isn't Bonarda The National Grape of Argentina?

Not to knock Malbec, but Argentina has another red wine grape that, for my money, is more flavorful and more interesting.  Bonarda is spicy, complex and loaded with character.  The examples on display at this event offered candy-coated complexity and fresh, fruity palates.

Algodon Bonarda 2010 San Rafael, Mendoza - Gorgeous red fruit with minerals, smoke and spice.  Organic.  $21

Dante Robino Bonarda 2010 Mendoza - Spicy raspberry, fresh and bright.  $13

Muñoz De Toro Terra Sacra Reserve Bonarda 2009 La Rioja, Andes Argentina - Beautiful spice and candy notes.  14 months oak.

Ricardo Santos Tercos Bonarda 2009 Mendoza - Beautiful, lean, red fruit.  $13

Don't Forget Torrontés

I was told that Torrontés from the northern part of Argentina had the best aromatics, but that was from someone who was pouring Torrontés from the northern part of Argentina.  I noticed plenty of aromatics in wines from the south as well.

Pascual Toso Torrontés 2010 Barrancas, Maipú District - Beautiful honeysuckle nose, fruity palate and an abundance of minerals.  $13

Uma Coleccion Torrontés 2011 Maipú Mendoza - Huge floral and fruit on the nose and palate.  $10

Familia Schroeder Deseado 2012 Patagonia - Torrontés, sweet with great acidity.  Pair with blue cheese.  $15

Michel Torino Don David Torrontés 2012 Salta - All about the minerals.  High elevation vineyards, three months oak.  $17

Muñoz De Toro 100 x 100 Argentina Vineyard Selection Torrontés 2012 La Rioja - Floral with a green element.  Nice citrus.  Strong finish

Recuerdo Torrontés 2011 Valle de Famatina, La Rioja - High elevation, sandy clay soil.  Sweet floral nose, mineral driven palate.  Only their second vintage.

Ricardo Santos Tercos Torrontés 2011 Salta - Honeysuckle and grapefruit bouquet, with flavors of flowers, nuts and citrus.  $13

Solsticio Torrontés 2011 La Rioja - Honeysuckle nose, mineral-driven, citrus palate.

Other notables

There are many other types of wine in Argentina, of course.  Italian varieties get some vineyard space, and the Patagonia region in southernmost part of the country is coming out with some intense Pinot Noir, although the region's overall quality is still rather varied.

Saurus Barrel Fermented Pinot Noir 2009 Patagonia - Candy and earth.  $25

Familia Schroeder Pinot Noir / Malbec 2007 Patagonia - Earthy, yet bright.  $60

Graffigna Centenario Reserve Pinot Grigio 2011 San Juan - Minerals and peaches.  $13

Michel Torino Cuma Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 Salta - Really smokey, campfire aromas.  Six months in oak.

Muñoz De Toro Pampas Estate Barbera/Merlot 2011 Pampas Buenos Aires - Smokey and supple, with a cherry explosion.  50%Barbera, 50% Merlot.  Hard to believe only 3 months in oak.

Ricardo Santos Dry Semillon 2011 Mendoza - Honey and grapefruit.  $16

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Monday, November 12, 2012

Weller-Lehnert Spatlese Riesling 1998 at Sausage Palooza

A Los Angeles restaurant named Cook's County has become a favorite place for Mr. and Mrs. Now And Zin to drop in for dinner.  Incredibly fresh, local food plus a lean but extremely interesting wine list keeps us coming back to see what new additions have come to the menu.

They did a series of Oktoberfest Monday dinners, and we managed to snag a reservation for the last one, Sausage Palooza.  You had me at sausage.

The menu - prix fixe at $24, including the glass of wine - featured spretzels with mustard dipping sauce, a sausage platter - veal, lamb mergez and bratwurst - with bacon stuffed dumplings,  brussels sprouts and roasted squash.  It was an autumnal feast.

Sausage and Riesling happens to be one of my favorite food and wine pairings.  Sausage and anything, actually.  Riesling and anything, for that matter.  It's like bacon - and that was on the plate, too.

The wine was a 15-year-old Weller-Lehnert Spätlese Riesling, 1998.  Like many wine lovers, I thoroughly enjoy the aromas and tastes of a Riesling that is showing its years.  Strange things happen in Riesling, I understand, because of acid hydrolysis.  A compound whose name has more letters than the alphabet - which I’ll just call TDN - is credited - or blamed - for those offbeat smells and flavors in aged Riesling.

The rich, golden-orange hue looks exactly like it belongs with a fall meal.  Tons of honey on the nose are joined by apricots and a touch of petrol.  The palate also features flavors of sweet apricot along with a sense of rubber.

The sweetness of the wine was a little distracting for the food pairing, but I just sat back and sipped.

The night's menu closed with a quote from Julia Child:  "Life itself is the proper binge."  Eat more sausage, drink more wine.

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Friday, November 9, 2012

Jeff Gordon Cellars Joie de Vivre Napa Valley 2008

The Twitter Tasting for Jeff Gordon Cellars' Joie de Vivre red wine was as keenly anticipated as some of the NASCAR races in which Gordon has driven.  Leading up to the October 24, 2012 event, participants chimed in with race-themed tweets.

"Waiting at the starting line," "Hope it's great from start to finish," "Buckle up for a great race to the finish" were just a few of the NASCAR-inspired comments beforehand.  "Engines are warmed up... 3, 2, 1, decant!"  One taster tweeted that he didn't have a pit crew to help him refill the glass.

When the green flag finally fell, it was off to the races with a red blend adorned with one of auto racing's most famous names.  Gordon is a four-time series champ, and he takes his wine just as seriously as his driving.  Cross country appeal applies here.  Gordon's wine may be made in Sebastopol, but its business address is in Charlotte.

The Jeff Gordon Joie de Vivre is a mix of separately vinified Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.  The Cab hails from Corbett Vineyard, Spring Mountain, the Merlot comes from Solari Vineyard in Calistoga, while the Syrah is take from Yountville's Page Nord Vineyard.  The mountain Cab and valley-floor Merlot are aged in French and American oak, while the Syrah sees only French.  30% is new oak and 70% is oak that is two or three years old.  The wine ages in barrels for 20 months.

JDV takes the fast track in alcohol, with 14.5% abv number.  Just over 250 cases were made, the usual amount for a Jeff Gordon wine.

The winemaker for the 2008 vintage was August "Joe" Briggs.  His nephew, Jesse, took over the helm in 2011 with his uncle consulting.  The 2012 Indy International Wine Competition made room for NASCAR by awarding Joie de Vivre a gold medal.  The wine retails for $61 per bottle.

Very dark with an extremely aromatic nose, this wine makes its presence known from across the room.  Aromas of blackberries and blueberries have a slight herbal angle underneath and a spicy, brambly scent peeking out.  On the palate, dark fruit and spices dominate.  Despite all the months in oak, there is a very nice freshness to it, and the tannins are adequate without being too forceful.  It's a velvety smooth sip, with a final lap that goes on well past the checkered flag.

Joie de Vivre has a rustic feel, but its elegance ultimately wins out.  Tasters in the Twitter stream (#JeffGordonJDV) all seemed to love the wine, and experienced a variety of flavors as the wine opened up a bit.  One taster found a “sweet tobacco” note appealing, while another got Christmas spice.  Black cherry and leather also appeared.  There were plenty of comments about the “great finish” - another racing metaphor, which is entirely accurate.

Jeff Gordon himself made an appearance under his Twitter handle, @JeffGordonWeb.  Gordon commented the JDV “is my favorite wine that we produce because it’s smooth & balanced. Goes with many foods.”  One taster wanted to know how involved Gordon is in the winemaking process.  “A lot of time talking w/ Joe & Jesse. Regularly communicate. Go 2 CA when we can. Great team.

Will Gordon have a vineyard of his own someday?  “That’s a dream for 1 day but it has it's pros & cons. I’m in 4 long haul, so we'll see.”  On the subject of celebrity branding of wine, Gordon says, “Think u get what u put into it. Dont agree w/ putting a name on a bottle & filling w/ juice.

Another question dealt with whether he gifts his wine at Christmas.  “We absolutely gift @JeffGordonWine to our closest friends. @TeamHendrick employees are big fans of it as well.”  There was no indication as to whether the questioner made it onto Gordon’s Christmas list.

After tasting Jeff Gordon’s JDV, the participants in the Twitter event were in agreement that Gordon made a wise choice when he hired August Briggs as winemaker.  How did that come about?  “Lots of research & word of mouth when looking 4 quality boutique winemaker. His name came up a lot.

The Twitter stream moved at an incredibly fast pace during the tasting - no surprise, I suppose, given Gordon’s main job.  JDV was so well received by the tasters that Gordon should do a donut in the infield grass.

The limited production of Joie de Vivre means it’s not easy to find, at least in brick and mortar fashion.  You can always order from the winery’s website.  It is recommended that you give this wine some time to breathe, so that the aromas and flavors have an opportunity to come forward.  Some of us in the event had the wine open for hours, but it seemed to be the consensus that 20-30 minutes in a decanter would be sufficient.

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Thursday, November 8, 2012

Three Syrah Wines From Bonny Doon Vineyards

Bonny Doon Vineyards’ chief Randall Grahm has made wine from many different grape varieties during his illustrious career, but the ones with which he really resonates are the grapes of the Rhône Valley.  He has been labeled "the original Rhône Ranger" for his pioneering effort of making Rhône-style wines in California.  Grahm supplied me with samples of three of his Syrah wines, which demonstrate his ability to choose vineyards and do the best work possible with the fruit found there.

It is this connection to the sense of place - terroir - offered by different vineyards that has captured Grahm's fascination.  He considers his winemaking efforts now to be vins de terroir - in which the grapes do the work - rather than vins d'effort, in which the winemaker does the work.  Grahm described his laissez faire methods in a recent article, "We spend more time in the vineyard so we don't have to spend so much time in the cellar."

Bonny Doon Le Pousseur Central Coast Syrah 2009

This is the entry-level Syrah from Bonny Doon.  The grapes are 56% Alamo Creek Vineyard, 32% Bien Nacido Vineyard and 12% Chequera Vineyard.  A blurb addressing Grahm's hands-off style of winemaking, with minimal intervention, adorns the label.  The alcohol content is a restrained 13.5% abv and the wine retails for $25.

The wine is inky black, no light gets through.  The bouquet is as dark as the color, showing black fruit and bacon fat.  Plums and blackberries define the palate, but the fruit has to coexist with dark, savory notes.  Everything meshes seamlessly in a wave of minerality.  This is entry-level wine at its highest order.

Bonny Doon Alamo Creek Syrah, San Luis Obispo County, 2008

Grahm calls this one "intensely concentrated and mineral-rich."  The vineyard is located northeast of the town of Santa Maria ("where the wild things roam") and where rock outcroppings of the Alamo Creek Valley indicate the minerals to come.  At 13.5% abv, the wine retails for $35.  Again, decant before enjoying.

The wines of the Santa Maria area are among my favorites in California, mineral-driven and dark, with great complexity.  This wine is dark in appearance, and sports a dark nose of blackberry and black currant.  Gobs of tar aromas make it hard to stop sniffing.  The palate, once decanted, is extremely smooth with fine tannins.  Flavors are dark and rich, with a full ripeness that just explodes on the palate.

Bonny Doon Bien Nacido Syrah, Santa Maria Valley, 2008

Grahm's label notes: "The Syrah from Bien Nacido Vineyard is most evocative of the character of the genuine Northern Rhône article of any Syrah we see, likely owing to the exceptionally cool climate, the age of its (X-block) vines and calcareous soil."  The wine has a 13.9% abv number and retails for $40.  Grahm recommends decanting an hour or two for best effect.

Inky black, the wine is just as dark on the nose.  Minerals come forth strongly, with hints of tobacco under the black plum aromas.  Nice, chewy tannins decorate the palate, with extremely dark and savory fruit flavors.  There is a smattering of pepper and roast beef, with a beautiful minerality.  Pairing with dark chocolate and sea salt is magnificent.  It is quite possibly the best California Syrah I've had, and easily rivals the top French entries.

For something to drink right away, any one of these Syrahs beats the label off a cult Cab on the experience alone, not to mention the lower price points.  All three are the kind of wines you'll want to pop open for special occasions - but life is short.  Don't wait.

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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Liberty School Central Coast Chardonnay 2010

It’s getting to be that time of year - no, it’s already gotten to be that time of year - when we start to think of wines for the holidays.  Port, sherry, dessert wines, lush Cabs - they all get a little higher on my radar as Thanksgiving and Christmas approach.

As for Chardonnay, I generally prefer a leaner, crisper type - unoaked, if possible.  When the holidays roll around, though, I become a sucker for the big, oaky style sometimes called “California Chardonnay.”

Liberty School comes from the Hope Family of wines in Paso Robles, California.  The wines from that line which I have tried are not bad at all, and priced low enough that I’ve seen them as house wines in restaurants and bars.

Their Chardonnay was only $5 at River Rock Lounge in Studio City’s Sportsmen’s Lodge during happy hour.  It retails for about $14 per bottle online

The wine has a brilliant yellow-gold tint, which foretells the significant effect of oak.  On the nose, tropical pineapple aromas are immediately noticeable, but so is the oak spice.  The oakiness in the flavor profile all but obliterates the fruit.

If you want a really big, old-style California Chardonnay, this could be a nice choice.  It’s actually a little oakier than I prefer, even in the holidays.  I’d pay a few dollars more and choose the Hope Family’s Treana White Rhône blend instead.

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Monday, November 5, 2012

Wine Country: New York - Finger Lakes Sparkling And Iced Wine

The fine folks from the Finger Lakes wine region in New York have been staging a series of virtual wine tasting events.  The wine tasters gather on Twitter - channeling the conversation through the hashtag #FLXWineVT - while Finger Lakes winemakers gather in a live UStream broadcast.  A representative from each of the wineries tasted was present on the webcast, so we got to hear a little of each winemaker’s thoughts on the wine of the moment.  We tasted and discussed the sparkling and iced wines of the Finger Lakes on October 17, 2012.

The Finger Lakes Wine Alliance provided samples of the wines to the tasters across the country for this project.  The wines we chatted about this time around were formatted in two flights.

First Flight - Sparkling Wines

Atwater Estate Vineyards Cuvée Brut 2008

On the southeastern slope of Seneca Lake, Atwater’s vineyards are about two-thirds vinifera grapes and one-third hybrids, with a smattering of native varieties.  Almost 3/4 of their inventory is white wine.  On the UStream panel, winemaker Vinny Aliperti talked about his Cuvée, which is made from 66% Pinot Noir and 33% Chardonnay.  The wine stands at 12% abv and is dry as a bone with no residual sugar.

Aliperti called 2008 a "lower brix, moderate acid" vintage, which played right into the making of this wine.  The Cuvée is made every two years, in the méthode champenoise.  The grapes are whole cluster pressed and the two varieties are co-fermented.  Aliperti noted that both grapes conveniently ripened at the same time.  He explained the méthode champenoise very well, showing the labor-intensive process and leaving no doubt as to why wine made in that way is sometimes a little pricey.  His is sold at $30.

The wine has a pale color and big bubbles which quickly retreat to the side of the glass.  A huge, aromatic nose boasts apples and citrus, with the palate quite dry and fresh.  Toasty, nutty flavors are joined by lemon peel and green apples.  They suggest a pairing with seared scallops and arugula salad with goat cheese and prosciutto.

McGregor Vineyard Blanc de Noir 2008

The vineyards of the McGregor estate are on the eastern side of Keuka Lake, 40 acres of vines that are mostly 30 years old.  McGregor’s winemaker Jeff Dencenburg uses the traditional method, too, to make his Blanc de Noir.  That designation means the wine is made entirely from Pinot Noir grapes.  He also makes a Blanc de Blanc, from Chardonnay, and a bubbly Riesling.  The wine has an alcohol content of 13% abv and retails for $30.

Owner John McGregor represented his winery on the webcast panel.   "Our climate is suited to sparkling wines," he said, hitting on how the weather plays into their early harvest, minerality and acidity.

Pale in the glass, the bubble subside almost instantly.  The nose is subdued and toasty while the palate shows pronounced earthiness and almond notes.  I’d love to have this with oysters Rockefeller.

Swedish Hill Winery Riesling Cuvée 

Winemaker Derek Wilber has 25 years experience making wine in the Finger Lakes region.  His Riesling Cuvée stands at about 12% abv and has 3.4% residual sugar.  Owner Dave Peterson explained the fastidious harvesting and sorting that goes on with his Riesling fruit, and noted that  "fresh, clean grapes make for good sparkling Riesling."  Some tasters on the Twitter feed compared the bubbly to Prosecco.

The wine is a pale yellow and very bubbly.  The medium bubbles hang around for a while, too.  The nose shows an earthy floral aspect with plenty of fruit to offer.  Big apple flavors and toasty notes accompany the generous sweetness here.  They suggest a pairing with fresh fruit and light meals, but holiday entertaining would seem to be right in this wine’s wheelhouse.

Second Flight - Iced Wines

Iced wine is the predominant style of Finger Lakes dessert wine, largely because of the cold weather that comes after traditional harvest time. There are very few late harvest wines from this area, according to the panel.  The grapes are pressed while frozen, giving a sweet and concentrated juice.  Frozen grapes make only half the juice of a regular grape harvest - that's one reason iced wines are more expensive than other types of wine

Casa Larga Vineyards and Winery Fiori Vidal Blanc Ice Wine 2008

Winemaker Mark Patterson is Canadian, so iced wine is a sacred thing to him.  This 100% Vidal Blanc effort is only 11.7% abv, but has 18.9% residual sugar.  It retails for $45.

Poured from a beautiful, slender blue bottle, the wine has a rich, golden hue, like whiskey.  Its nose smells of apricots and pineapple upside down cake. There is a sweet floral aroma underneath the fruit.  The wine is quite viscous, with a honeyed apricot flavor that is lip smackingly sweet.

Owner Steve Richards noted that the wine has won numerous awards.  He says he likes it with savory pairings, like cashews and cheese.

Lucas Vineyards Vidal Blanc Iced 2010

Located on the western side of Cayuga Lake, Lucas Vineyards was established in 1980.  That makes it the oldest winery on Cayuga Lake.  The grapes are harvested late in the season and frozen after harvesting.  Winemaker Jeff Houck - who also moderated the webcast - specializes in Riesling and Cabernet Franc.  He talked about freezing the grapes naturally or artificially.  He likes both methods, but opts for a cold storage facility for freezing his fruit.

This Vidal Blanc dessert wine carries a 10% abv number and has a beautiful golden color, like honey.  Aromas of earthy apricot are intriguing, while the palate is loaded with flavors of apricot and pineapple layered with earthy notes.  A wonderfully fresh acidity makes this a natural for pairing with desserts, and they suggest white chocolate covered peaches, dark chocolate or fresh fruit.

Knapp Winery and Vineyard Vidal Ice Wine 2010

The winery is located close to Seneca Falls, with winemaker Steve DiFrancesco and cellar master Rich Iddings working closely.  Houck commented that “when I need to know something, I call Steve.”  DiFrancesco says the Riesling grape is not as sturdy as Vidal, and that "it won't hold up on the vine" for the extended ripening needed for a dessert wine.  He does like Riesling sweeties though.

This 100% Vidal Blanc wine has a low, low alcohol content of 9.3% abv and an enormous 23% residual sugar.  The grapes were picked in the middle of December, when it was a brisk 13 degrees Fahrenheit.  The wine has a greenish-gold color, a nose of honeysuckle and citrus and flavors of oranges that really wow me.  A candy finish leaves no doubt that you’ve just been "desserted."

Standing Stone Vineyards Gewürztraminer Ice 2010

From the east side of Seneca Lake, this is one of four ice wines produced by Standing Stone.  They also make dessert wine from Chardonnay, Riesling and Vidal Blanc.  Tom Macinski watches over the vineyards, while winemaking wife Martha handles the activity in the cellar.  She said the Gewürztraminer grapes grow over a solid bed of slate, so minerality is abundant.  The grapes are picked after the leaves are off the vines, then placed in cold storage, to be pressed while frozen.

Martha said that artificial freezing cuts down on the loss of grapes to animals.  “We got tired of seeing over half our crop go to the birds and coyotes.”  She started making Gewürztraminer ice wine when she had the opposite problem.  Too large a crop and not enough tank space resulted in the decision to freeze some of the grapes and make an iced wine.  She says Vidal Blanc and Gewürztraminer both have the acidity that makes them work well in an iced style.

The sweet Gewürztraminer has a rich, golden hue and is very aromatic, with floral and spice charging forth on the nose.  An earthy palate is laced with the flavor of dark honey, candied peaches and spices.  They suggest pairing this wine with desserts featuring ginger and cinnamon, as the spices will play right into the wine's flavor profile.  The retail price of $25 makes it a great value in this style.

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Friday, November 2, 2012

Wine For The Holidays - Madeira

The holidays are approaching faster than we care to think about, and one bottle I like to have around for the holidays is a nice Madeira.  Get one before Thanksgiving and pop it open with the pecan pie.  The Blandy's Malmsey I'm writing about has been open since last year's holidays, so don't worry if you don't finish the bottle quickly.

The history of Madeira wine is terrifically interesting.  Made in the Madeira Islands - an autonomous region of Portugal, 400 miles off coast of northern Africa - the wine was stocked on ships that used the main island as a port of call.  It was fortified, to help preserve it on the long ocean voyage.

By chance, a cask of the wine was left on board a ship on its return to Madeira.  It was then discovered that the wine underwent a change during the long trip.  Exposure to heat and the motion of the ship resulted in partial oxidation of the wine.

A system of aging was devised that imitated those effects.  The estufagem aging process utilized in the town of Funchal sees the wine placed in casks on the top floor of the facility, where it is warmest.  Through the years, the casks are brought to lower floors until it finally reaches the ground level.

Blandy’s was established in 1811 by John Blandy, and his descendants still own and operate the facility.  Their five-year Malmsey is made from Malvasia grapes and is fortified to a level of 19% abv.  Of the 4 varieties of Madeira, Malmsey is the sweetest, having the most residual sugar.  However, the acidity is so naturally high, there's no cloying sweetness.

This Madeira is extremely dark brown, darker even than whiskey.  Rich aromas of burnt caramel and brown sugar pounce on the olfactory upon sniffing it.  The palate is not overwhelmed by those sweet descriptors, though.  Instead, taut and focused flavors of raisins, coffee and cocoa lead the way, with the caramel making an appearance on the long finish.

Now, where's that pecan pie?

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Thursday, November 1, 2012

Blood Of The Vines: Bride of Frankenstein

Wine Goes to the Movies with 

In "Bride of Frankenstein," the monster speaks.  The monster also eats, drinks and has a smoke afterward.

Presumed consumed by flames in the original movie, the monster survived the windmill fire by getting into the water well underneath the mill.  When he finally comes out after that harrowing experience, he falls in with a blind guy who teaches him to talk.  The first things he wants to talk about are food and wine.  Get that monster a twitter account!

"Bread #good.  Drink #good.  The service in this drafty old castle - #baaaad."  Conversant for ten minutes, and he's already a Yelper.

The monster's conversion from good-natured Halloween trick into snarky micro-blogger is helped along by Dr. Pretorius, or as I like to call him, Dr. Enabler.  Herr Doktor fills him full of rich food and German wine.  For dessert, he satisfies his jones for a fine cigar.  It's a little tough getting him past the lighting of it - "Aaarrgh! #Fire #baaaaad" - but once he gets to puffing, he settles into his new hedonistic lifestyle quickly.

Dr. Enabler also creates some female companionship for him, although she doesn't take well to being pimped out as monster-escort.  "She pretty, but scream #toomuch."

But in the end, when catastrophe surrounds the monster again, not even the promise of alcohol, tobacco and chicks can make him feel that life is worth living.  "Go - you live'" he says to Dr. Frankenstein.  Dr. Enabler is told, "You, stay.  We belong dead."  The bad doctor shouldn't have tried to slip a flagon of Two-Buck Chuck past a monster who knows which end of the bottle has a cork in it.

I wish I could recommend Frankenstein Wine for this movie, since the company - based in Germansville, Pennsylvania - boasts of wine for both the monster and the bride.  However, the website still says it's "coming in 2011."  Hello, Dr. Webmaster.

I've leaned on this trick before, but it's worth a repeat.  Wine made near the site of the actual Frankenstein castle, in the Franken wine region of Pfalz.  The Hans Wirsching 2010 Iphofer Kronsberg Silvaner Trocken comes in a "Mateus"-shaped bottle known as a bocksbeutel.  It's the traditional bottling of the Franken region.  This product of Silvaner grapes is dry and bold, with a crisp minerality.  You may want to try pairing it with torch-toasted marshmallows.  It's only $16 - affordable enough for a little Dr. Frankenstein experimentation.

What's in that bottle, doctor?

Meeker Vineyards Barberian 2007 - This Geyserville product has "big aromas and huge flavors," and it's said to pair well with the monster's favorite dishes.

Frankenstein glass - Drink from it, or put a candle in it.  Maybe both.  There's an endless supply of this sort of thing on Etsy.

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