Monday, June 24, 2019

Michigan Sauvignon Blanc

Northern Michigan's Black Star Farms sits on the 45th parallel, like some other great wine regions worldwide.  It's on the Leelanau Peninsula, that claw of land which sticks up into Lake Michigan.  Owned by Kerm and Sallie Campbell, with Vladimir Banov as the winemaker, Black Star not only produces wine, but also has an inn, fine dining and stables on the property.  It started as an equestrian facility.  They also make brandies from cherries and other fruit. 

The grapes for their Arcturos Sauvignon Blanc were grown on the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas.  It's possible the name of the wine is derived from the legend of Icarius.  It is said he gave wine to mankind, but was murdered by them.  The story claims the folks weren't accustomed to being drunk, and thought they were poisoned.  Icarius supposedly then became Arcturus, who now resides with those other Greek legends in the night sky.

Late rain during the 2016 vintage necessitated some judicious picking and sorting.  The wine is completely dry, as indicated on the dry/sweet scale on the back label.  Alcohol tips 13% abv and the wine sells for $18.

This pale yellow Sauvignon Blanc shows new world grassiness on the nose, along with lemon, grapefruit and minerals. On the palate there is citrus, intense minerality and great acidity.  The finish bears a clean citrus note.  It's very drinkable, and very pairable. 


Friday, June 21, 2019

RRV Chardonnay

With estates in Argentina and South Africa as well as California, Hess Winery really gets around.  Founder Donald Hess staked out a claim on Napa Valley's Mount Veeder in the 1970s, when there was still room to move around.  He retired in 2011 and passed the torch to the 5th generation of the family to carry on old traditions and forge new ones.  Dave Guffy is only the second person to lead the winemaking team at Hess.

The Hess line includes Panthera Chardonnay, which takes its name from an east Asian word meaning yellowish animal.  The word also describes the genus of the cat family which contains its largest members.

The 2016 Panthera is 100% Chardonnay from the cool-climate Russian River Valley, aged for 15 months in French oak, more than a third of which was new.  Alcohol tips 13.3% abv and the wine sells for $45.

The wine has an intriguing nose which shows apricot, Meyer lemon and tropical fruit.  The palate shows why people like California Chardonnay.  Tropical notes highlight the flavors, with a strong layer of minerals underneath.  The 15 months of oak don't interfere as much as one might think, adding a noticeable - but not dominant - aspect to the profile.  Racy acidity begs for a food pairing, and I'm thinking swordfish.  The finish carries the fruit, not the oak.



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Thursday, June 20, 2019

Los Angeles County Wine

Alonso Family Vineyard
Small-production commercial winemakers are breathing new life into Los Angeles County's wine scene.  The urban sprawl of Southern California makes it hard to imagine that it was once a thriving wine region sporting a hundred vineyards that produced wine for the world.

I received some information about L.A.'s wine region rebirth from Melanie Webber, who works with the Garagiste Festival.  The Garagiste Festival showcases small producers at events all over California, and their Urban Exposure event is slated for June 21-22, 2019 in Glendale.

Webber says the Los Angeles wine industry was born as early as 1784, when Spanish missionaries planted vineyards near Glendale.  It wasn't until 1833 that Frenchman Jean-Louis Vignes put some Bordeaux cuttings in the dirt near what is now Union Station, starting the Southern California commercial wine biz.  He would become one of the world's largest wine producers by 1850.

By the time Prohibition killed off the wine industry in many states, urbanization had already forced most of the vineyards away from L.A.'s downtown area.  Today, small production - garagiste - winemakers are driving a SoCal Renaissance in winemaking, sourcing only from local vineyards, all proudly proclaiming Los Angeles County on their wine labels.  There are vineyards all over Los Angeles - from Malibu to Bel Air to the Antelope Valley to Palos Verdes.

Los Angeles Syrah
Two L.A. winemakers are part of the newly formed LA Vintners Association, and are working to  highlight the true potential of Los Angeles terroir and positioning Los Angeles as a premier wine region.

Angeleno Wine Company is in downtown L.A., its vineyard just an hour north of downtown, in Agua Dulce.  The land is farmed by Juan Alonso, who is referred to by Angeleno's owners as the winery's "real winemaker."  He planted lesser known Spanish grape varieties from his native Galicia.  Alonso's Tannat, Graciano, Godello, Loureiro, and Treixadura make it into Angeleno wines each year.

Moraga Estate
Byron Blatty Wines sources its wines only from vineyards in Los Angeles and runs a pop-up tasting room in Silver Lake. 

L.A.'s oldest winemaking operation is San Antonio Winery, but they source grapes from other parts of California and the world.

Moraga Estate makes wine from grapes grown amid the mansions of Bel Air.  Owned by Rupert Murdoch, they've been at it - small but steady - at about a thousand cases per year for nearly three decades.  Most of their production is dedicated to a club and a mailing list.

Malibu Wines and Rosenthal also make wine from grapes grown on their respective estates in the Santa Monica Mountains.


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Wednesday, June 19, 2019

South African Wine: More Than You Think

A cadre of winemakers from South Africa are trying to put a face on a region that is completely foreign to many U.S. consumers.  South African wines are somewhat hard to find, at least in Los Angeles, unless one shops specialty stores or huge wine inventories.  The region is not likely to be found on the supermarket shelf or very many restaurant wine lists.

Capensis winemaker Graham Weerts organized the tour, in which he and five friends are talking up South Africa, where a big shift in winemaking has taken place over the past 10 to 15 years.  Weerts and his pals say they are representing the country's 750 producers and putting their best wines forward.  I was invited to attend their event at the Los Angeles restaurant Republique.

Weerts, standing, his colleagues lined against the wall.
Weerts outlined some of the difficulties South Africa's winemakers have faced.  The embargo during apartheid prevented the export of red wines, causing many vines to be ripped up. However, plenty of old-vine white grapes remain.  That's because the white grapes were used for distilling at the time.

Weerts bristled as he spoke of big U.S. producers which have gone to South Africa in the past, telling winemakers to "make a funny little wine and put a funny little cat on the label" - failing in the process.  Now the focus is on quality, and Weerts says South African winemakers won't be told how to live their own lives, "won't be told what to do."

Considering the effort involved in bringing their story to California, it's no surprise that the eleven wines showcased during the masterclass were of the highest imaginable quality.  The reds all had the mark of minerals on them and the whites were among the most elegant sips I've ever had.

Reds

A.A. Badenhorst Ramnasgras 2017 - Adi Badenhorst was reportedly fired from a previous job for having a bad attitude.  He says he has "shed his German heritage and habits of punctuality and precision" in favor a more free-form method of making wine.  He claims that his Swartland region is "a very free place to make wine."  His Ramnasgras is 100% Cinsault from vines planted in 1963, aged for one year in a large wooden vat.  Alcohol tips 13% abv and the wine retails for $45.  It has a floral nose with minerals on the palate, almost a rusty quality.  Great acidity.

Sadie Family Wines Soldaat 2017 - Eben Sadie says says "modern winemaking is like instant coffee, safe and secure," while real winemakers take chances.  He walks the walk, with one of the more varied plantings outside of a laboratory.  Sadie's Swartland Mountain Areas vineyards are full of grapes like Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault and Chenin Blanc, while experimenting with fruit such as Verdelho, Palomino, Xinomavro, Assyrtiko, Pontac, Alicante Bouchet and more.  His Soldaat is made from 100% Grenache Noir grown in Piekenierskloof, north of Swartland, in 48-year-old vineyards.  He says the high altitude gives Grenache the sun radiation it needs without the high temperatures.  The wine was aged in concrete vessels, carries alcohol at 13.5% abv and sells for $75.  It has an awfully pretty nose and a very savory palate with good fruit showing.

Storm Vrede 2016 - This wine is 100% Pinot Noir grown in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, an hour and a half east of Capetown.  The wine was aged over eleven months in French oak barrels, 25% of which were new.  13.9% abv, $55.  A sharp nose, mineral-laden and peppery is a bit of a surprise.  The palate is tart and savory, with a tea note.

Beeslaar Pinotage 2016 - Abrie Beeslaar is billed as the "king of pinotage," a dubious honor considering the low regard the South African grape has found in the U.S. due to subpar efforts in previous times.  His wine is 100% Stellenbosch Pinotage grown in shale soil, aged 19 months in French and American oak.  14.4% abv, $55.  A perfumed nose of dark fruit and soy sauce, opens up to a palate that’s chalky with minerals and drenched in savory cherry flavors.  Needless to say, it's markedly nicer than the Pinotage wines I've had before.

Kanonkop Estate Paul Sauer 2015 - Beeslaar's Kanonkop Estate is situated on the lower slopes of the Simonsberg Mountain in the Stellenbosch Region of the Cape in a place known as the "red wine bowl" of South Africa.  This Bordeaux blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc was aged for two years in new French oak.  14.5% abv, $60.  It has a big, red fruit nose, a bold palate and an elegant herbal note.

Boekenhoutskloof Syrah 2015 - This is 100% Swartland Syrah, grown in red slate soil and aged for 18 months in big vats and barrels.  13.9% abv, $65.  The nose was rather tight, but pepper shows up after a minute or two.  On the palate are flavors of blueberry, raspberry, and minerals with a fantastic acidity.  The first vintage of this wine was in 1997 and was the last for 20 years.  The story goes that the vineyard was paved over for a golf course parking lot, and it took the winemaker two decades to find suitable replacement grapes.

Whites

Beaumont Family Wines Hope Marguerite 2018 - Sebastian Beaumont focuses largely on Chenin Blanc in the Bot River region.  Hope Marguerite was aged on its lees for ten months.  12.5% abv, $45.  A beautiful nose of stone fruit and citrus leads to a palate which is elegant, gorgeous, full and creamy.  Meyer lemon and tangerine flavors join a great acidity.

Capensis Chardonnay 2015 - Weerts explores Chardonnay on South Africa's Cape of Good Hope, from old vines in old soil.  He says the Western cape is either the "oldest new-world wine region or the youngest of the old-world."  His Capensis is 100% Chardonnay from the Western Cape, tank fermented with nearly a year in French oak.  14% abv, $80.  There is citrus and oak on the nose - almost a smokey, buttery feel.  The palate is possibly too oaky for some tastes, but it hit me just right.  It's the kind of Chardonnay I like to drink at Christmastime.  The fruit shines through.

Sadie Family Wines Palladius 2016 - A blend of eleven different grape varieties from 17 vineyards across Swartland, this wine is aged for two years in amphorae, concrete eggs and oak vats.  13.5% abv, $150.  The nose is tight, but light citrus on the palate adds to an elegant acidity and a savory angle.  Nothing seems to take charge, but everything works together.  Worth $150?  I don't know, but it's built to age for 10-15 years.

Vergelegen Flagship GVB White 2016 - This wine is 80% Semillon, 20% Sauvignon Blanc from Stellenbosch, grown close to the coast, "where the wind blows like a banshee."  It spent nine months in a barrel.  13.9% abv, not available in the U.S.  A big herbal nose, rivals New Zealand for grassiness.  There’s a new world palate, too, with more herbal notes.

Klein Constancia Vin de Constance 2015 - This dessert wine comes from 100% Muscat de Frontignan grapes grown in Constancia.  It was aged in a mix of French and Hungarian oak and French acacia.  13.9% abv, $95.  The wine is very gold in the glass and has a viscous mouthfeel, showing a nose and palate of honeyed apricots, peaches and nectarines.  No botrytis here, the grapes were vine-dried.



Monday, June 17, 2019

Prosecco: Fun, Festive, Fruity

Vino dei Fratelli translates to "wine of the brothers," those bros being Castor and Pollux.  Legend has it that they were made immortal by Zeus and now reside in the night sky as the constellation Gemini.  They appear on an ancient Roman coin which adorns the bottle.

The label covers several winemaking families across Italy, in areas like Collio, Chianti, Abruzzo, Langhe and Venice.

The Vino dei Fratelli "extra dry" Prosecco was made from 100% Glera grapes grown in Italy's Veneto region and harvested in 2016.  Fermentation took place in stainless steels tanks, with no introduction of oak.  Alcohol is predictably low at 11% abv and the wine sells for $18.

The Vino dei Fratelli Prosecco pours up with nice bubbles which quickly dissipate.  The nose is a riot of apples, flowers, lemons and limes.  The palate is fruity and clean with a brisk acidity that lends to the wine's festive nature.  Citrus on the finish leaves a great taste in the mouth.


Friday, June 14, 2019

Wente: California Chardonnay, American Chardonnay

California Chardonnay is what it is today because of Wente Vineyards.  If you love Chardonnay, you probably love Wente, and you may not know it.  The grape clone which is used to make 80% of American Chardonnay is here thanks to Wente.  In 1912, German immigrant C.H. Wente planted a cutting from from the vine nursery at France's University of Montpellier.  That Chardonnay plant became the Wente clone of the grape.

To get a bit geeky, In viticulture a "clone" refers to vines descended from a single plant by taking a cutting or bud.  Each vine grown on a clone is said to be genetically identical to the original vine.

Wente is the country's oldest continuously operated family-owned winery, now run by the family's 4th and 5th-generations.  A recent virtual tasting event was hosted by the family historian, Phil Wente, and winegrower Niki Wente, who walked participants through five different styles of their line that defined California Chardonnay.

The 2017 Small Lot Eric's Chardonnay comes from Livermore Valley grapes grown near the cooling influence of San Francisco Bay.  Winemaker Karl Wente used no oak in making this wine.  He says he made it to honor his father, Eric.  Dad preferred his Chardonnay unoaked, so that's the way the son made it.  The juice was aged for four months in steel, in contact with the spent yeast for a fuller mouthfeel.  Alcohol is restrained at 13.5% abv and it retails for $30.

This unoaked Chardonnay could be described as "all fruit" if it weren't for the minerals.  Apples and apricots on the nose battle for attention with the smell of a wet driveway.  Big fruit on the palate is met with crisp acidity, and the whole thing finishes long and clean. 



Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Award-Winning Lodi Zinfandel

Lodi's reputation as a worthy California wine region is getting better and better.  Harney Lane Winery and Vineyards has a decade of winemaking behind them and recently snagged the prize as one of USA Today's Ten Best Winery Tours.  Their flagship wine, Lizzy James Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel, captured two Double Gold awards, in addition to other laurels for all of their current vintages. 

The Mettlers and Lerners are a farmers-first family.  They've been growing grapes for more than a century.  A decade ago they started producing small-lot, estate wines from the grapes grown on their Lodi property. 

Harney Lane Old Vine Zinfandel Lizzy James Vineyard 2015

The 2015 vintage saw light rain, a warm spring and a lighter-than-usual crop, on the way to what the winery touts as a bolder vintage Zin.  This bottling spent 20 months in French oak, hits a lofty 15.7% abv alcohol number and retails for $36.

This single-vineyard Zinfandel is very dark in the glass, and its complex nose offers aromas of brambly black fruit, black pepper, anise, allspice, caramel and sweet tobacco.  Yeah, it really puts on a show.  The palate is a wonderful mix of ripe fruit and savory notes, with the latter taking the lead.  Tannins are firm, not toothy, and the finish is long and satisfying.


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Monday, June 10, 2019

Spanish Albriño, Rias Baixas

The folks from the Spanish wine region Rias Baixas have a great product to push.  Albariño is not only a delicious white wine on its own, but it's one of the more food-friendly grapes you'll find.  In fact, Albariño seems to crave a food pairing so it can show its best. 

The Rias Baixas Denomination of Origin in Spain's northwest corner was established in 1980, specifically for the Albariño grape.  Of course they had been making wine in the region for centuries before. 

The bodega Altos de Torona is located in Pontevedra, with grapes growing in a vineyard on a south facing slope between the rivers Bravos and Pego.  The plot gets good sunshine for nice ripening in sandy granitic soil for winemaker Pablo Ibañez.

Listed on the bottle as 100% Albariño, I see in other places that three grape varieties are involved, 85% Albariño, 10% Caíño and 5% Loureira.  Aged for four months sobre lias - on the lees - the wine's alcohol content is 13% abv and it retails for $20.

This Rias Baixas Albariño colors up yellow-gold in the glass and offers a beautiful nose of white flowers and Meyer lemon.  The palate brings citrus, apple and a ton of minerals to the forefront, with a great acidity.


Friday, June 7, 2019

Single-Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc From Calistoga

The grapes for the Shipwrecked Sauvignon Blanc were grown exclusively in Towners Vineyard in Calistoga.  It's one of five wines produced by Lodi's Stonum Vineyards for a Nashville duo known as LoCash.  Band members Preston Brust and Chris Lucas are wine guys, something I would imagine is a rarity in Nashville.  They say "a good bottle of wine is like a good song," likening the aromas and flavors to words and music that create and emotional experience.

The 2015 Shipwrecked Sauvignon Blanc hits a rather high note with alcohol, topping 15% abv.  The wine sells for just under $30.

This Napa Valley (Calistoga) single-vineyard SauvBlanc has a nose which is dominated by fruit, primarily tropical and citrus.  An apricot note shows early, but is overpowered by the ripeness of the California grapes.  On the palate, there's no grassiness, but there is a slightly tart herbal aspect that shows up most notably on the finish.   Acidity is bright and fresh, perfect for seafood and salads.  It's boozy - 15.3% - but it doesn't come off that way.


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Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Argentine Bubbles Delight, Confound

Recent experiences I have had with bubbles from Mendoza, Argentina have varied widely in quality.  The non-vintage Alma Negra Brut Nature is one of the better ones, if a bit on the unusual side.

The label's U.S. importer, Vineyard Brands, says that Ernesto Catena, the eldest son of Nicolás Catena of Catena Zapata fame, is a fourth generation winemaker.  He is reportedly looked upon as being from the "bohemian" side of the Catena family.  He founded his namesake winery and vineyards in 2002.

Catena produced this sparkling wine, although the translation of Alma Negra, black soul, is a reference to their dark-colored red wines made from Bonarda grapes.

Brut Nature is made from Malbec and Pinot Noir grapes.  I can't remember ever having a sparkling Malbec before.  Now that I think of it, I don't know if I've ever run across a Pinot Noir from Mendoza.  The wine was made in the traditional method for sparklers, spent eight months resting on the lees, has alcohol at 13.0% abv and it retails for about $18.

This NV Argentine sparkler gives an orange tint in the glass.  Fizzy with soapy bubbles, the wine carries almost no toasty notes on the nose and very few on the palate.  Instead, it has an earthy quality, with a lanolin texture on the nose and red fruit on the palate.  The mouthfeel is full and creamy, with an acidity that shows strongest on the swallow.  It's an unusual sparkler which has the complexity of a still wine, but none of the highlights traditionally found in bubblies.  An almost caramel quality makes a fleeting appearance on the finish.


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Monday, June 3, 2019

Portuguese Still Wine: Incredible Douro

Portuguese wine is booming and making a big comeback after a period of decline.  James Halliwell writes on Harper's UK that the growth reported by Wine Intelligence is "driven in part by a rise in tourism and economic recovery after years of financial crisis."  He writes that competition is on the upswing, wine drinkers are moving away from mainstream brands and the up-and-comers are often heavily discounted.

You probably realize that Portugal is known primarily for Port wine, a fortified wonder.  However, you may not be so familiar with the Douro region's still wines, made for the dinner table. 

The Quinta do Vesuvio is one of the great estates of the Douro Superior - the sub-region of the Douro farthest East.  It is home of some of the world's finest Ports, and is one of the region's largest estates, with 336 acres under vine.  It's owned by the Symington family, a fifth-generation Port house.  The pombal, by the way, refers to a pigeon nesting area on the property.

This treasured quinta provides the fruit for the 2015 Pombal do Vesuvio, a blend of three Portuguese grapes: 50% Touriga Nacional, 45% Touriga Franca and 5% Tinta Amarela.  The first two reportedly give backbone and rich structure to the wine, while the latter accounts for acidity and bright fruit aromas.

Winemakers Charles Symington and Pedro Correia describe the 2015 vintage as a troubling, but ultimately satisfying one.  Lots of rain bookended a very dry winter, and the summer was hot.  The vines produced a low yield, good for grape quality.  The wine hits a mere 13.5% in alcohol, was aged ten months in French oak barrels and it sells for $28.

This Douro Valley still red is loaded with character.  The color is so dark I can barely tell it's red.  The nose is full of minerality, earth, cigars and leather.  Oh, yeah, there's a bit of dark, brambly fruit in there, too.  The palate displays the same, with some licorice thrown in as if there wasn't enough happening.  Bracing acidity and firm tannins make for a muscular drink which is begging for a nice, fatty steak.