Unusual Whites At Tangley Oaks

3 August 2013

This is the way to start a Friday afternoon.After a sparkling introduction to the mansion at Tangley Oaks, we moved on to tasting some delicious whites imported and/or distributed by Terlato Wines. I very much enjoyed the grassy but well-balanced Loveblock Sauvignon Blanc, the rich and minerally Chateau de Sancerre Sancerre and the flinty, creamy and spicy Lapostolle “Casa Grand Selection” Chardonnay, but of course what I really want to talk about are odd ducks of the tasting. And there were some mighty tasty odd ducks.

2011 Cuarto Dominio “Tolentino” Pinot Grigio: I tend to avoid Pinot Grigios unless they come from the far northern Italian provinces of Friuli or maybe Trentino-Alto Adige. Too often, Pinot Grigios from elsewhere can be insipid and wan. But how could I resist a Pinot Grigio from the Uco Valley in Argentina? The World Atlas of Wine calls the high-altitude vineyards in this valley “the most exciting part of Mendoza,” and if the Tolentino is any indication, Pinot Grigio does just as well in the Uco Valley as Malbec. It had a rich but very fresh aroma, and a lush texture leavened with focused, almost pointy acids. Fruity, but with a dry finish. Delightfully refreshing.

2012 Protea Chenin Blanc: As Lettie Teague recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, Chenin Blanc “may be the world’s most noble yet most discredited grape.” Chenin Blanc has been “responsible for a great deal of plonk,” she rightly notes, but it also “can produce wines of depth and complexity.” This Chenin Blanc from South Africa certainly fits the latter description — in fact, it’s “made by a genius,” remarked Anthony Terlato during the tasting. Crafted by winemaker Johann Rupert, the Chenin Blanc had an enticingly perfumed aroma with a bit of a grassy note. It tasted full and plump, but a dry backbone and some zesty spice kept it well-balanced and thoroughly charming.

2007 Boutari Kallisti Reserve Assyrtiko: This remarkable wine comes from Santorini, which The World Atlas of Wine calls “the most original and compelling” of the Greek islands. On this unusually scenic speck in the Aegean, most vines are trained in little bushy balls close to the ground, to protect them from the wind. Assyrtiko originated on Santorini, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, which calls it a “top-quality white grape variety” with a “severe mineral profile.” This particular Assyrtiko certainly struck me as top quality. It had a sweet and smokey aroma which reminded fellow taster Liz Barrett (Terlato’s Vice President of Corporate Communications and PR) of toasted oak. It felt rich and almost buttery, but quite taut and fruity as well. There was something exotic about it too — a certain spicy, aromatic quality which I loved. Delicious.

2008 Chimney Rock “Elevage Blanc”: I don’t often write about wines from Napa Valley, but this blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris blew me away. I can’t remember ever tasting a Sauvignon Gris, so I looked it up in my trusty Oxford Companion. This relatively rare variety is a pink-skinned mutation of Sauvignon Blanc, and “it can produce more substantial wines than many a Sauvignon Blanc,” the Companion asserts. Sauvignon Gris has a following in Bordeaux, the Companion goes on to note, which perhaps explains why the Elevage Blanc reminded me a bit of Pessac-Léognan, one of my favorite whites from Bordeaux (or from anywhere, for that matter). This beautiful wine practically glowed with elegance, its creamy fruit focusing into some carefully restrained white-pepper spice. Voluptuous but perfectly balanced — a joy to drink.

Note: These wines were provided free of charge as part of a wine tasting at the Tangley Oaks estate.

Up next: The Reds.

Unusual Italian Sparklers At Tangley Oaks

31 July 2013

When people think of sparkling wine, the first thing that comes to mind is usually Champagne, but the French certainly don’t have a monopoly on delicious bubbly. As noted in The Oxford Companion to Wine, vast numbers of sparkling wines are crafted in Italy “from a bewildering range of grape varieties, in a dazzling array of colors, alcoholic strengths, and residual sugar levels.”

Prosecco, which has taken America by storm, is surely the most well-known, and perhaps rightly so — it usually delivers elegantly small bubbles, fresh fruit and well-balanced acids. It can be an excellent value for the money. But with so many Italian sparklers, why stop there?

The Oxford Companion counts some 30 Italian DOCs which permit sparkling wine, but The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia claims that there are “‘may be spumante’ clauses littering over 100 of [Italy’s] DOCs.” No country in the world makes so many different kinds of sparkling wine. Yet, the Encyclopedia continues, only one of Italy’s appellations insists on metodo classico (using bottle fermentation in the style of Champagne): Franciacorta.

While at a tasting in the Tudor-style Tangley Oaks mansion which serves as the headquarters for Terlato Wines, I had a chance to sample a sparkling wine from this region in north-central Italy. The very first wine we tasted was a flute of non-vintage Berlucchi “Cuvée 61” Rosé. Terlato chose a wine by one of the most venerable of Franciacorta’s producers — the World Atlas of Wine notes that Franciacorta makes Italy’s best metodo classico wines, and goes on to say that “Italy’s great sparkling success story began in the 1970s on the Berlucchi family estate in direct imitation of Champagne.” The metodo classico wines we enjoy from Italy today all started with Berlucchi.

The Cuvée 61 “celebrates the magical decade of the 60s,” according to the Berlucchi website, “a time of optimism and experimentation.” I suppose in the 1960s, it must have seemed wildly optimistic to think that Franciacorta could produce fine metodo classico wines, and attempting to do so was surely a very experimental undertaking fraught with risk.

We are lucky Berlucchi decided to go for it — the Cuvée 61 Rosé was pretty, fragrant and flavorful. A blend of 50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir (traditional Champagne varieties), this salmon-orange sparkler had aromas of berries and dusky citrus. Zippy, pointy bubbles and juicy, orangey acids kept things very lively through to the finish, which had a touch of aromatic berries and yeast. At about $25 a bottle, it’s less expensive than most Champagnes and deeper than most Proseccos, making it a fine value and a romantic choice for a date night.

For those of us going to parties instead of on dates, non-vintage Fizz56 Brachetto Spumante would be a good alternative. This 100% Brachetto is from Piemonte (Piedmont) in Italy’s northeast, and it is the first DOC Brachetto I’ve ever sampled (as opposed to DOCG Brachetto d’Aqui). Finding information about this wine proved to be rather difficult — the winery’s website is but a single page with a photo — and the fact sheet I received from Terlato was hardly more forthcoming. It says Fizz56 comes from a “small winery nestled in the heart of Piemonte, known for their outstanding Brachetto.” But who are they? Apparently the winemaker is also quite shy — the Terlato website notes only that he or she is “a secret genius.”

Well, whoever made this wine at whichever winery in Piemonte, it’s very fun to drink. A strawberry red, this Brachetto had a candied floral nose, as someone at the lunch table astutely observed, and it tasted pleasantly bright, fruity, juicy and floral. If the idea of a berry-infused Moscato d’Asti sounds appealing, this wine is for you. And with its relatively low alcohol content, it makes an ideal summer aperitif. It’s not inexpensive at about $20, but it’s a fine example of Brachetto, and the beautiful color is sure to enliven a party.

Note: These wines were provided free of charge as part of a complimentary tasting at the Terlato estate.

Up next: A non-Italian Pinot Grigio, an exotic Greek delight, and a Sauvignon what?

Tasting With Tony

27 July 2013
The author and Anthony Terlato (right) at Tangley Oaks

The author and Anthony Terlato (right) at Tangley Oaks

Some people envy wine writers because of all the delicious wines they get to taste, and I certainly love that part of the job. But just as much, if not more, I love the people who I meet along the way. People who love wine, I find, tend to love life, and spending time with them is invariably a pleasure.

I recently made my way to Tangley Oaks, a Tudor-style mansion that serves as the headquarters of Terlato Wines, a major importer and winemaker. According to its website, one in ten bottles of wine over $14 in the U.S. is marketed by Terlato. This company became so influential due in large part to the efforts of Anthony Terlato, who Wine Enthusiast named “Man of the Year” in 2003, noting that he changed the way Americans drink.

And so he did, importing one of the very first Pinot Grigios on the market (Santa Margherita) and introducing American wine drinkers to the joys of Sicilian wines. Now also an owner of wineries, Terlato never compromises on quality, choosing to raise prices when necessary rather than market an inferior product. This philosophy helped increase the sophistication of the American wine palate, which in turn lead to the generally wine-savvy culture we enjoy today.

It was fascinating to meet such an important figure in American wine history, but what made tasting this tasting such a delight was the obvious enthusiasm Terlato had for these wines. Here is a person who has tasted thousands upon thousands of fine wines over the course of his career, and yet each wine we tried excited him. “This is a beautiful wine,” he would say, or “This I love, love, love.” Other bottles brought up memories of the winemakers: “M____ is brilliant, but he’s a brat — he’s an adult delinquent!”

As delicious as the wines we tasted were (more on them in a future post), it was the company that made this tasting truly memorable. The afternoon with Anthony Terlato reminded me of why I love wine in the first place. However many you drink over the years, quality wines don’t become boring. The evocative aromas and flavors of a well-crafted wine somehow never lose the power to stir the emotions.

To Tannat, Or Not To Tannat?

24 July 2013

Pisano Licor de TannatSorry, Uruguay, to beat up on your signature grape, but I’ve never been very fond of Tannat. The handful of 100% Tannat varietal wines I tried over the years invariably disappointed, with tough and woolly tannins which other flavors and textures in the wine failed to balance. Now, to be fair, the only Tannats I tried in years past cost $10 or less, which means I’d most likely never sampled a Tannat of serious quality. I looked forward, therefore, to the Wines of Uruguay tasting at this year’s Wine Blogger Conference. Would these Tannats — surely some of the country’s best — change my mind? I felt skeptical.

The Oxford Companion to Wine seems to be of two minds about Tannat. It calls Madiran (a wine of southwestern France) “Tannat’s noblest manifestation,” but later goes on to say that Tannat “seems to thrive better in the warmer climate of its new home in South America than southwest France.” The Companion may hem and haw, but The World Atlas of Wine has no problem being direct, stating that “the Tannat produced in Uruguay is much plumper and more velvety than in its homeland in southwest France, and can often be drunk when only a year or two old — most unlike the prototype Madiran.” (Jancis Robinson wrote/co-wrote both books.)

Unfortunately, “plumper” and “more velvety” are relative terms, and they don’t really help answer the question of whether it’s generally a good idea to buy Uruguayan Tannat or not. My experience with Tannat is still far too meager to offer definitive advice, but I stand behind what I wrote in this blog post about a certain Tannat-based blend: Look for Tannat-based blends. In a blend, Tannat’s tannins are much likelier to be softer and more in balance.

With the additional experience of the Wines of Uruguay tasting, I would lengthen that advice to: Look for Tannat-based blends, or a Tannat varietal from a winery you trust. Which means you need a wine shop you trust, or you can trust this blogger and keep an eye out for one of these:

2011 Don Pascual Reserve Shiraz Tannat: Let’s ease into things with a 70% Shiraz/30% Tannat blend. The Don Pascual label falls under the umbrella of Juanicó, which The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia called “One of Uruguay’s fastest-rising wineries.” This blend had an intriguing aroma of vanilla and black pepper, a velvety start on the tongue, a taut midsection and a tart, irony finish. Fruity, bright and pleasantly restrained, this wine was “not overblown, as I must admit I feared,” according to my (decidedly overblown) tasting notes.

2011 Bouza Tannat Reserva: You might have trouble finding this Tannat — it doesn’t even appear on the winery’s website. But if you do run across it, snap it up. I loved the enticing aroma of creamy raspberries, and the rich, up-front fruit on the palate. It grew into some black pepper spice before significant tannins came to the fore, but they weren’t overwhelming. I wrote that this was “as elegant a Tannat as I’ve ever found.”

2011 Giménez Méndez “Identity” Tannat: The “Identity” brand also doesn’t appear on Giménez Méndez’s website, but I would certainly keep an eye out for it. This Tannat sucked me in with its nose of dark, dusky fruit. Also restrained, this wine had a pleasing aromatic quality in the midsection, and serious but perfectly manageable tannins. Another fine Tannat.

2005 Pisano “Etxe Oneko” Licor de Tannat: The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia also speaks highly of the Pisano winery, noting that Eduardo Pisano “has produced some of Uruguay’s best wines in recent years.” If that weren’t exciting enough, I discovered that this particular Licor de Tannat, a fortified wine made in the manner of Port, merited inclusion in The World Atlas of Wine. The original Tannat vines in Uruguay, called “Harriague” by the Basque settlers who brought them, almost all died off over the years. “However,” the Atlas notes, “Gabriel Pisano, a member of the youngest generation of this winemaking family, has developed a liqueur Tannat of rare intensity from surviving old-vine Harriague.” This wine (the name of which means “from the house of a good family” or “the best of the house,” according to Daniel Pisano in the comments below) blew me away with its richly sweet, jammy fruit and impressively balanced acids. These were followed by, as you might expect, a big bang of tannins. Not only is this wine spectacularly delicious, it’s a taste of history. If you see it on your wine store’s shelf, it’s worth the splurge.

Four winners in a row. I got off to a rocky start with Tannat, there is no question, but these wines have me seriously reconsidering. If you like big reds, and you’re in the mood for something a little different, you could do a lot worse than a well-crafted Uruguayan Tannat. And if you like Port, you could hardly do better than Pisano’s Etxe Oneko.

For some more about Uruguayan wine and reviews of some whites, check out this post.

The Unusual Whites Of Uruguay

20 July 2013

Don Pascual ViognierOne could be forgiven for imagining that all South American wine comes from Chile and Argentina, so successful have their export campaigns been. But Uruguay, that diminutive country northeast of Buenos Aires and south of Brazil, has also started to make its mark, producing whites and reds of real quality. Though it’s easier now than ever to find Uruguayan wines, “easier” is a relative term — few American wine shops carry more than one or two examples, if even that. And that’s not the fault of the shops.

The problem is the Uruguayans. They simply love wine, if The Oxford Companion to Wine is to believed. “Domestic wine consumption is high,” according to the Companion, “and rising, currently standing at 32 l/8.45 gal per person per year.” For comparison, in France, domestic wine consumption stands at about 56 liters per person per year, and in the U.S. it’s about 10.5 liters per person per year. Uruguayans may not be total winos like the French, but their consumption is formidable nevertheless, sucking up about 95% of Uruguay’s wine output.

That leaves a scant 5% for export, and 60% of that heads across the border to Brazil (Source: The Oxford Companion to Wine). That doesn’t leave very much for the rest of us. And yet another problem, according to The World Atlas of Wine, is that most of Uruguay’s wineries are small, family-owned ventures, only 10% of which export any wine at all. The rest of Uruguay’s producers simply don’t have either the ability or the need to sell their wines outside of Uruguay.

All of which means that when you do see a wine from Uruguay on the shelf, you’ve discovered something rare, and it’s worth inquiring about. As the Atlas notes, Uruguayan vineyards benefit from cool Antarctic ocean currents, which usually fosters an ideal gradual ripening of the grapes. “The conditions and the will to produce both elegant and characterful wines are evident,” the Atlas goes on to say.

Alas, the Atlas also notes that the humid climate makes organic viticulture “virtually impossible.” Only a handful of winemakers make the effort to do without herbicides and fungicides, which are “generally very widely needed and used to counteract rot and mildew.” This assertion seems to be in direct conflict with a presentation about Uruguayan wines I attended during this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference. There, the presenter cheerfully claimed that “Uruguay has the third purest environment in the world, after Finland and Norway, except [Uruguay has] grapes!” My suspicion is that the environment of Uruguay as a whole may be unsullied, but that the vineyards, most of which are clustered around the capital, are less than chemical-free. (Update: See winemaker Daniel Pisano’s comment about this issue following this post.)

I prefer viticulture to be as organic as possible, but that’s not make-or-break for me when I select a wine. If I had to choose between an organic wine and a higher-quality non-organic wine, all else being equal, I’d buy the better non-organic wine. For those also willing to overlook the organic issue, here are four tasty Uruguayan whites I had the chance to sample during the conference. In the unlikely event you see one of these specific wines, that’s great, but since all of them were enjoyable, I recommend keeping your eye out for any whites from Uruguay.

2011 Don Pascual Viognier Reserve: The Don Pascual label falls under the umbrella of Juanicó, which The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia calls “One of Uruguay’s fastest-rising wineries.” This Viognier had a rather rubbery aroma, a lush texture, tart acids and notes of wood and green herbs. It’s not what I would expect from a Viognier, but then again, Uruguay isn’t the Rhône Valley!

2012 Bouza Albariño: The family-owned Bodega Bouza focuses on small production and low yields, according to its website. The Spanish Albariño grape variety has thick skins which help it withstand rot in humid climates, according to the Oxford Companion, which would seem to make Albariño an ideal choice for Uruguay. And indeed, I very much enjoyed this wine’s fresh and spicy aroma and its sharp, attention-grabbing flavors. After a start of juicy fruit, zesty acids kicked in, followed by a thrust of gingery spice and a finish of aspirin-like minerals. No one could accuse this wine of being wimpy!

2012 Dante Irurtia Km. 0 “Rio de la Plata” Gewürztraminer Reserva: The Irurtia Family winery is one of Uruguay’s oldest; it harvested its first grapes a century ago in 1913. The Km. 0 brand indicates that the grapes were grown near the wide Rio de la Plata estuary, which creates a “unique microclimate,” notes the winery’s website. This wine had exactly the sort of aroma I like from my Gewürztraminers: perfumed, floral and minerally. Fruity and aromatic at the start, this wine desiccated into bone-dry minerals on the finish. Quite an enjoyable expression of the variety.

2013 Castillo Viejo Catamayor Sauvignon Blanc: Founded in 1927, this winery started the “fine wine” Catamayor label only in 1993, hoping to create world-class wines which would break into international markets. Certainly the Catamayor Sauvignon Blanc satisfied this international consumer. It reminded me of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, with a grassy-green aroma, juicy fruit and bright, citrusy acids. This wine was fun, and perfect for a hot summer day. Which rather makes me want to crack open a bottle right now…

Up next: To Tannat? Or not to Tannat?

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