Walla Walla Speed Blogging: The Whites

27 October 2018

Having fun at Speed Blogging.

Complaints about Speed Blogging seem to be more common than usual this year, though it’s always been a bit of a controversial event at the Wine Bloggers Conference. Speed Blogging is, simply put, controlled chaos.

The organizers like to call it “Speed dating for wine,” which is a fairly apt description, except that each winery has a five-minute date with a table of 10 bloggers, not just one. When that five minutes is up, they move on to the next table, and we bloggers receive our next “date,” ready or not.

As I described in my previous post, there tends to be a lot of shouting. “What’s the retail price?” What’s your Twitter handle?” “Who are you? What? The winemaker? Spell your name. I said SPELL YOUR NAME.” This is not the genteel, vaguely aristocratic atmosphere most people picture when they hear the words “wine tasting.”

People complain that this format doesn’t do justice to the wines, that it’s impossible to taste and listen and take notes and take photographs in the allotted time, and basically that this isn’t they way they usually taste wine.

Fiddlesticks. Unless you’re in a seminar setting, most wine tastings are louder and more chaotic than people — even wine professionals — seem to realize. A walk-around tasting, the most common wine-tasting format, tends to be crowded and noisy. Tasters jostle to get to the most popular tables, pourers are trying to talk about the wines — often several at once — and everyone is sharing tasting notes and impressions with each other. Even a very hotsy-totsy “Silent Tasting” I once attended in Bordeaux was surprisingly loud.

It’s far more common to be surrounded by distractions while wine tasting than not, unless you prefer to drink at home alone, of course. Speed Blogging has helped me to focus on a wine and form an impression of it quickly, in spite of what’s happening around me. It’s an important skill that’s served me well over the years.

And so, to the white wines. Whites aren’t nearly as popular to produce in Washington as reds, but the ones they do make tend to be quite good. There was only one wine I really didn’t care for in this round of Speed Tasting, and it came from elsewhere.

2015 Gård Vintners Roussanne: Washington winemaker Aryn Morell told us that this Rhône variety tends to be “oily and full, and there’s no reason to hide that.” And he does not. This Roussanne has heft! I love it. Pear/apple fruit, balanced oak and cream, lightening into acids, white-pepper spice and a touch of eucalyptus freshness… It’s right up my alley. This Norwegian-owned winery made its first vintage just 12 years ago in 2006, but they know what they’re doing. A great deal for $24.

2017 Otis Kenyon Wine Roussanne: Like the Gård, this Roussanne comes from the Lawrence Vineyards, but it’s a very different wine. It has a more savory aroma, rather than fresh and heady. “Our Roussanne is definitely meant to be crisp,” owner Muriel Kenyon explained. It had cool and clean pink-lady apple fruit, and focused acids that, interestingly, had a darker feel than the Gård’s. Excellent balance. This is your summer Roussanne, and the Gård is your winter Roussanne. Another very fine buy at $23.

Consternation is the most common Speed Blogging facial expression.

2016 L’Ecole No. 41 Semillon Columbia Valley: Winemaker Marty Clubb was in the middle of his 36th harvest when he poured this Semillon for us. Talk about dividing your focus! I’m very glad he took time out to present his wine, a Bordeaux-style blend of 76% Semillon and 14% Sauvignon Blanc. It had an unexpected and enjoyable note of rosemary in the aroma, and lightly honeyed fruit followed by white-pepper spice and a dry finish. It was clear how this sort of wine can become Sauternes. Clubb told is that “Semillon is the most underappreciated white grape on the planet,” and I’m inclined to agree (though Furmint is also up there). This is an absolute steal for $15.

2018 Peter Yealands Sauvignon Blanc:  One sniff gave this wine away as a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. “It’s like you’re mowing a lawn in a lime orchard,” exclaimed Aspiring Wino Jeff Colden. I also noticed a little b.o. funk in there as it warmed and opened, adding interest. It’s a very fresh and bright and juicy wine, but it’s a bit of a grass and grapefruit bomb for my taste. You won’t catch me spending $20 on a bottle any time soon, but if you like grassy New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, this wine won’t disappoint.

2017 Desert Wind “Heritage Series” Chardonnay:  Desert Wind purchased a vineyard parcel on a south-facing hillside of Washington’s famous Wahluke Slope in the 1990s, and I guess the 1990s means “heritage” nowadays? Yikes. In any case, this wine kept me in suspense. It started very creamy, and it felt at first like it was totally unbalanced. But then, just before all was lost, some focused acids and a perk of white pepper kicked in, followed by a touch of tannin on the finish, drying the tongue. Would I buy it for $28? I just might.

Go Uruguay!

2017 Bodega Bouza Albariño: An Albariño from Uruguay! Now we’re talking. “I think this is one of the whites with the best potential in Uruguay,” the presenter said as she poured. The family of the winery’s owner was from Galicia in Spain, the original home of Albariño. They brought back cuttings and planted them in Uruguay 18 years ago. The wine had dry herbs on nose, with straw and something surprisingly dark underneath. A very appealing and unusual aroma! But when you drink it, it’s bright, with broad granny smith apple acids, some serious freshness, and a delightful mineral note on the finish. An excellent value at $20!

2017 Hard Roe to Hoe Dry Riesling: Who would have guessed that the innocent-looking rowboat depicted on the label of this wine was a Lake Chelan shuttle service from Lucerne to a brothel? The winery tasting room has a bordello theme, “so keep in mind, it’s not kid friendly,” we were warned. I quite liked the unexpected note of butterscotch in this Washington Riesling’s aroma, with some freshness giving it a lift. It tasted of ripe appley fruit, balanced with lots of sharp, focused spice and prickly acids. If you think all Riesling is sweet, try this one — there is nothing sweet about it, except perhaps for a whisper of a butterscotch deep in the finish. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy a bottle for $19.

2016 Rodney Strong Vineyards Chalk Hill Chardonnay: This California Chardonnay comes from Chalk Hill, part of the larger Russian River Valley AVA (Chalk Hill has volcanic ash soils distinct from rest of the AVA). It moved from lush fruit — creamy pear and peach — to ample spice and a lift of freshness. And did I mention oak? OAK. There’s a bunch of it. That won’t please everyone, but since the wine ends spicy and fresh, it felt balanced, and I quite enjoyed it. I would love to try it with food. The price tag of $22 seems about right.

2016 Cadaretta SBS: Oak-phobes should try this wine instead, aged entirely in stainless steel. A blend of 67% Sauvignon Blanc and 33% Semillon, it also has no malolactic fermentation, which means you also won’t find much creaminess. This wine is the only white this Washington winery makes, so it had better be good, right? And it was. It had a fresh, warmly spicy aroma, along with an ample citrus note. The wine was delicate and perfumed, with a grounding savory note and a lift of bright, focused acids at the end. Wow, it’s a real value at $23! I would have guessed it was some sort of Alsatian something or other.

2016 Frank Family Vineyards Carneros Chardonnay: Made from Napa’s Lewis Vineyard, this Chardonnay presented lots of fresh hay and straw in the aroma, along with some overripe apple. Big ripe apple flavors moved gracefully to acids to oak to white pepper spice, to some freshness and minerality on the ringing finish. It’s pricey at $38, but it’s still a real value. A great finish to Speed Blogging!

For more Speed Blogging action, check out this post about the reds!

Walla Walla Speed Blogging: The Reds

12 October 2018

Amie Brittle of Maryhill Winery, and Liz Barrett, cohost of Name That Wine and writer of What’s in That Bottle, at her first Speed Blogging event

People don’t have shorter attention spans nowadays, according to the Wine Blogger Conference‘s keynote speaker, Lewis Perdue. They’re just more impatient. That’s good news for those of us who write overlong blog posts about wine minutiae. Ahem. And it’s good news for my favorite event at the Wine Bloggers Conference: Speed Blogging.

The conference organizers like to call it “speed dating for wine.” In case you’re too young to remember what speed dating was — does anyone still speed date? — speed dating involved spending a few minutes per person with several different potential matches. I can speak from experience when I say that “eight-minute dating” was about five minutes too long. Nevertheless, I met my husband at a speed dating event, so obviously the format has some merit.

I also love Speed Blogging because, in this era of supposed shorter attention spans, it demands total focus for the hour of its duration. We bloggers, sitting at tables in a big ballroom, have only five minutes each with 12 different wine presenters. They’re trying to tell us about the wine, we’re shouting questions at them, they’re trying to give us carefully produced press kits, we’re tossing them on the floor because we don’t have time to read them… And, through it all, we’re trying to pay attention to the wine so that we can say something intelligent about it. It’s mass chaos, and it’s a joy.

You might reasonably think that we have no business evaluating wines in such a setting. But it’s precisely because of the noise and the speed that Speed Blogging works. I focus intensely on my first impression of the wine, often more intensely than when I’m sitting in my silent living room with no distractions. It’s a challenge to assess wine in these circumstances, and like a vine under stress, the fruit of it can be richer and more concentrated.

On to the reds, mostly from Washington, in the order in which they were presented!

Sager Small of Woodward Canyon

2014 Woodward Canyon “Artist Series #23” Cabernet Sauvignon: The vineyard producing this Cabernet dates back to 1976, making it “old” by Washington State standards. Each label of the Artist Series wines, started in 1992, features a different Pacific Northwest artist’s work (rather like Mouton Rothschild). Composed of 92% Cabernet 6% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot, this wine had a rich, dark fruit aroma with cassis and some vanilla. Very enticing! My mouth filled with fruit, followed by white pepper spice and supple mocha tannins. Oo, that’s a big boy, but with plenty of grace as well — not an easy balance to strike. It’s $59 at retail, and in this case, definitely worth it. “I kind of wish one of you had a steak in your pocket right now,” friend and fellow blogger Liz Barrett told Sager Small, the son of the winery’s owners and its viticulture and production assistant. Alas, he did not.

2015 Mullan Road Cellars Red Wine Blend: Founded by Dennis Cakebread, Washington-based Mullan Road is the “family’s first foray outside of California.”  This blend of 49% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot and 17% Cabernet Franc had a very appealing aroma of ripe dark cherry, with a bit of chocolate and a touch of green peppercorn spice. Another rich beauty, with full fruit, focused acids and well-integrated, big mocha tannins. Through it all, a shaft of white-pepper spice held everything together. I would pay the $45 retail price for this wine, no question.

2014 Maryhill Winery Malbec: This wine wasn’t the only Washington Malbec that caught my attention at the conference. “We like to consider ourselves representative of the potential of the Columbia Valley; we work with 35 different varieties, and make 50 different wines,” according to Cassie Courtney, marketing director. That’s a lot of wines to keep track of, but certainly they didn’t give the Malbec short shrift. It had delightful fresh plum and prune fruit aromas. Flavors of deep, dark fruit were buoyed by a shaft of green peppercorn spice. Nice, even development, with focused acids and spice — what a deal at $26!

2015 Columbia Winery Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon: Columbia was the first to produce Syrah and Pinot Gris in Washington, but today, they poured their Cab. I liked its plummy aroma, with more of that deep, dark, ripe fruit so many Washington reds seem to have! It developed with grace on the palate, moving from fruit to focused acids and spice to tannins, which get bigger and bigger. The tannins get pretty darn serious by the end, so I would love to try this wine again in a few years. This wine is available only in the tasting room, “So come and see us in Woodinville.” Not at all a bad value at $38.

2015 Domaines Barons de Rothschild “Légend” Pauillac: “I’m in,” as my neighbor said when she saw this wine, and who could disagree? “A wine for every day” produced by the same winery that makes Lafite Rothschild, Légend is intended to make Bordeaux accessible to consumers. This blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot had a fresh plum aroma with some blueberries, and even a touch of cinnamon in the nose. It felt light on its feet, with bright, ripe cherries, some eucalyptus freshness and rather rough-and-ready tannins. They weren’t yet as well-integrated, or as graceful on the finish as I might have hoped for the $50 price. And though I realize that $50 is crazy cheap when compared to Lafite Rothschild, I’m not convinced that price is what most of us are looking to pay for an “every day” wine!

2015 Frank Family Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: “I love this wine, with its cassis and black raspberries,” said Marisa McCann, who handles sales and events at the winery. Please don’t give me tasting notes! Now all I’m smelling is cassis. Well, and a touch of mocha. It’s awfully appealing, I must admit. She said something about Disney and Pretty Woman, but I was too distracted by the wine’s opulent fruit leavened by super-sharp acids and spice, followed by plush mocha tannins. I love it. “That’s a quintessential Napa Cab,” a fellow blogger remarked. Yes. $58

Caleb Foster, winemaker of J. Bookwalter

2015 J. Bookwalter “Chapter 8” Cabernet Sauvignon: This Washington wine comes from vines planted in 1988, which apparently counts as an “old” vineyard. Good Lord! Bookwalter restricts the yield for its Chapter 8 to about one bottle per vine, ensuring impressive concentration. Most vines yield two or three bottles of wine. It smelled of mocha and green peppercorn, and tasted of fresh plum with dark chocolate. I loved the wine’s confident, slow development from fruit to green peppercorn spice and mocha tannins. What a joy! Concentrated, yes, but with real freshness to balance. Sensational. If you can spend $100 on a bottle of wine, you’ll get your money’s worth with this one.

2015 J. Christopher Dundee Hills “Volcanique” Pinot Noir: Dr. Loosen is most famous for its fantastic Mosel Rieslings, but it also partners Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington and Dundee Hills in Oregon. And anything the Doctor has his hands on is bound to be good. Clifford Robben, CFO for Dr. Loosen USA poured this Pinot, which had a bright cherry, cough syrup aroma, leavened with a bit of dust and vanilla. (That’s a very enticing aroma, if you’re in doubt.) It’s a cherrypalooza to start with, moving to white pepper spice and some soft, supple tannins on the finish, with no sag in the middle, as sometimes can happen with lighter-bodied wines. Great balance, and I would certainly pay the $30 price.

2013 G. Cuneo Ripasso Red Wine: I had a little trouble hearing owner and winemaker Gino Cuneo, but I believe he said he dries the grapes for three and a half months on mats, before crushing them. Ah yes, he’s pouring a Walla Walla ripasso, similar in style to an Amarone! I am IN. This blend of Barbera, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo was quite a transparent ruby-red, and wow, it’s nimble, with big cherry fruit, bright and juicy sour-cherry acids, and supple tannins. It’s lighter and less raisiny than I would have expected, but nevertheless, it’s beautiful. A very good deal at $45 a bottle.

2016 Artesana Tannat Merlot Zinfandel: This winery is a project of three girlfriends, according to the presenter, who is foolishly trying to present two wines. In speed blogging, that immediately makes me hate you. This blend incorporates the first and only Zinfandel produced in Uruguay. It has a heady, dark red-fruit aroma, and it’s really lovely, but the chatter about the other wine is driving me crazy. It’s a full, ripe, tannic blend, with sparkling spice and acids keeping it balanced. I rather love it, especially at the $20 price — that’s a great deal. They should have just focused on this wine, since it’s so good. I’ve had mixed experiences with Uruguayan wines in the past, but if this bottling is any indication, they’re making some delicious stuff down there these days.

Walla Walla What?

7 October 2018

It was the morning of our Red Mountain AVA excursion, a pre-Wine Bloggers Conference tour of one of Washington’s hottest wine regions. Chomping at the bit to start exploring the delights of Washington wine, Liz Barrett, my cohost of Name That Wine, and I decided that a little breakfast tasting was in order.

Lu Lu Craft Bar + Kitchen, a farm-to-table restaurant overlooking the Columbia River in Richland, about an hour outside Walla Walla, challenged us to blind-taste two wines off their list of some 25 by-the-glass offerings, mostly from Washington. I must admit I’m not as familiar with Washington wine as I’d like to be — and I was certainly much less so when we filmed this, before the start of the conference.

Liz and I dove in nevertheless, discovering two surprising wines that got us really excited about delving deeper in to wines from Walla Walla and Washington in general. If you haven’t tried a Washington wine recently, it’s time to put one in your glass.

If you liked this video, do subscribe to our channel on YouTube, so that you don’t miss a single ridiculous episode of Name That Wine!

Franciacorta: A Lesson For The Rest Of Italy

27 September 2018

Like most European countries, Italy has a wine classification system that, in theory, gives the potential drinker a guarantee of quality. But Italians are stereotypically poor at organization, and so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the system doesn’t always work. Hence the rise of “Super Tuscans,” for example, that transcended their essentially worthless (at the time) regional regulations.

Italy has made headway in fixing lax wine rules, but it still has a ways to go. I mean, how many beautiful examples of  Barbera d’Asti have I had, classified as DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), and how many examples of boring Moscato d’Asti, classified in the ostensibly superior DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita)? Yes, they’re completely different wines, but is there some way that Moscato d’Asti is superior to Barbera d’Asti? I don’t know it.

But at least one region of Italy is getting things right. Franciacorta “is an object lesson for the rest of the Italian wine industry,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. The region’s still wines remain classed as DOC, and only the sparkling wines, the region’s true glory, have been elevated to DOCG. Other regions could “restrict production to the original classico area and a reduced yield,” Sotheby’s suggests. “This would result in both a DOC and a DOCG for the same region and… it would ensure that the ‘G’ did guarantee an elevated quality…” Sounds sensible to me.

Windy City Wine Guy Michael Bottigliero

Although the same cannot be said for all Italian wines, at least when you buy a bottle that says Franciacorta DOCG, you know you’re getting something of real quality. Franciacorta produces “Italy’s best metodo classico wine,” according to The World Atlas of Wine, and I’m not one to disagree. Like Champagne, Franciacorta has exacting production requirements, and mostly like Champagne, it’s made with Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir (sorry, Pinot Meunier). Franciacorta is therefore consistently delicious.

But it’s been a while since I’ve indulged in a bottle. A recent Franciacorta-focused dinner reminded me of how exciting the region’s sparklers can be.

The Windy City Wine Guy, Michael Bottigliero, invited me to attend a dinner at a fine Italian restaurant in Chicago called Nonnina, free of charge, in order to show off Franciacorta. We sampled — sampled? We drank four contrasting Franciacortas, and each was delightful in its own way.

The 2013 Ricci Curbastro Satèn Brut felt lean and wonderfully classy, like a slender Italian guy in a perfectly tailored suit. It certainly started the evening off on the right foot. “Satèn” indicates a Franciacorta that’s 100% Chardonnay, a Blanc de Blancs in Champagne terminology, aged on the lees for at least 24 months. Non-vintage Champagne, incidentally, need age only 12 months on the lees before its release, although many are aged much longer.

But the all-around favorite, as indicated by the room’s applause when Michael mentioned the wine’s name, was the Corte Bianca Extra Brut. “Zowie,” I wrote in my little book, taking my customarily thorough tasting notes. I don’t need notes to remember this wine, however. It had palpable richness in addition to lively lemony acids, along with a hint of white flowers. And there was that yeasty, bready note I covet in a sparkling wine. Zowie indeed. It worked wonderfully with some vegetable fritto misto as well as pizza topped with prosciutto and arugula.

I also deeply enjoyed the 2012 Monte Rossa Cabochon Vintage Brut, which smelled of Granny Smith apples and jasmine. Its zesty juiciness and minerality helped it stand up to some decadent bucatini alla carbonara. I could eat that carbonara and drink that Cabochon every day and be very happy.

We finished with a pale Mosnel Rosé, composed of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. It had tight bubbles and plenty of strawberry fruit, but it was the juicy acids that leavened an otherwise bone-dry wine. With the salmon, it was an ideal match.

I’ve praised the virtues of Franciacorta before, here and here, but it never hurts to be reminded just how delicious Franciacorta can be. It’s not necessarily inexpensive, but if you want to celebrate something with someone you want to impress, Franciacorta is a great choice. Champagne is a delight but it’s predictable. Celebrating with Champagne is something of a cliché. But if you open up a bottle of Franciacorta, it shows you’ve got sophistication, as well as the confidence to stand behind something a little out of the ordinary.

I wouldn’t stake your reputation on any old random Italian DOCG, but with Franciacorta, you can feel sure that the “G” in “DOCG” is indeed a guarantee of quality.

Note: The dinner at Nonnina and the glasses of wine that accompanied it were provided free of charge.

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