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What To Drink In Hawaii

4 February 2016

Hawaii does not immediately spring to mind when one thinks of craft distilling, beer brewing or (for heaven’s sake) winemaking. But this remote little archipelago in the middle of the Pacific can hold its own on all counts, though, admittedly, Maui doesn’t have much chance of becoming the next Napa.

In between snorkeling and hikes in the jungle on my recent Hawaiian sojourn, I managed to find time for a drink or two as well, and I discovered more than one delightful tipple. Here are my favorites:

NV Maui Wine "Maui Blanc" Pineapple Wine

NV Maui Wine “Maui Blanc” Pineapple Wine

I knew I couldn’t leave Hawaii without at least trying some pineapple wine, and when I spotted a bottle on sale for $14 at a shop in Lahaina, I snapped it up. The wine has no vintage because MauiWine crushes Maui Gold pineapples monthly. The fruit varies in ripeness each month, which requires the winemakers to blend juice from different harvests in order to maintain a consistent product.

But consistent or not, is the product worth drinking? The words “pineapple wine” don’t likely inspire confidence in most readers of this blog. I opened the bottle as our little cruise boat floated just off the Maui coast, with the expectation that the wine would be too syrupy-sweet to drink more than a few sips.

The aroma, not surprisingly, was redolent of pineapple, but there was also something a little tart in there, like lime. It tasted, of course, like pineapple, but that wasn’t the end of the story. Some orangey acids lent the wine some balance, and the finish felt dry. At the back of my throat, I could feel some ginger/white-pepper spice. The wine was quite drinkable indeed! I finished my glass with no trouble.

It’s true that the wine does not qualify as “complex,” and I would have preferred some more acidity. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my glass of pineapple wine, and it certainly felt fun to drink it as the moon began to rise over Maui.

Maui Brewing Co. beers on tap

Maui Brewing Co. beers on tap

I don’t usually write about beer, but not because I don’t like it. I love beer, in fact. It almost never appears on this blog because I want at least one beverage in my life that’s always just fun — a beverage which I can drink without worrying about whether I should be taking notes.

And though I didn’t take notes on my Maui Brewing Co. Coconut Porter, I remember it quite clearly. This dark beer tasted rich and meaty, with more coffee flavor than coconut. The coconut appeared just as a whisper at the end.

I felt surprised that coconut didn’t come more to the fore, but I realized that it made perfect sense. Really, I had no interest in a coconut beer. A porter with a reminder of coconut on the finish, however, proved to be quite delicious and more than a gimmick. I wouldn’t hesitate to order it again.

Koloa Kaua'i Dark Hawaiian Rum

Koloa Kaua’i Dark Hawaiian Rum

Koloa Kaua'i Dark RumIt only makes sense for Hawaii to make rum, considering the state’s success growing sugar cane. According to the Koloa distillery’s website, “Koloa Plantation and Mill’s first harvest in 1837 produced two tons of raw sugar. Talking story with old timers reveals that rum production began around this time.” Based on the island of Kaua’i, the distillery started operation in its current incarnation in 2008, bottling its first rum in 2009.

In addition to sugar cane juice, the distillery makes use of “Pure mountain rainwater from Mt. Wai’ale’ale and the nearby mountain peaks,” which is “slowly filtered through volcanic strata before finally reaching vast underground aquifers.”

I certainly liked how the dark rum turned out. I tried it on the rocks with no mixers. It had an aroma of vanilla and molasses, and it felt quite smooth on the palate, with no alcoholic burn. I detected flavors of vanilla, maple and some wood, and underneath it all was an unexpected sense of dryness. Some spice hit the back of my throat at the end.

Hawaiian bars surely use this rum most often in cocktails, but it tasted delightful over ice, and it would make a fine tropical digestif.

Mauna Kea Mule cocktail made with Pau Vodka

Mauna Kea Mule cocktail made with Pau Vodka

The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel’s Copper Bar struck me as the perfect place to try a Mauna Kea Mule, served in a traditional copper mug. Hawaiian Pau Vodka, distilled from Maui pineapples, served as the base of this superlative cocktail, which also included house-made ginger beer, fresh lime juice, soda water and a dash of bitters, garnished with lime wedges and a massive chunk of candied ginger.

It tasted floral, as home-brewed ginger beer often does, and spicy and just a little tart, with the flavors balancing each other admirably. I loved it, and good gracious, the setting — overlooking an unspoiled palm-lined beach on the Big Island — could hardly have been lovelier.

The Best Wines I Drank In 2015: The Reds

26 January 2016

Red wine from the Pfalz at the Schlosshotel im Grunewald's Vivaldi restaurantThis list, especially when taken together with my companion list of whites, illustrates how absolutely delicious wines are being made in all sorts of unexpected places all over the globe. Nowadays, there is simply no reason to confine your drinking to wines from two or three classic regions.

Taking a risk on something lesser-known can reap significant rewards, both in terms of saving money and broadening the palate.

The planet is encircled with tremendous wine-making talent. Fantastic wine makers can be found in just about every wine region on the map, and just as important, insightful wine growers are exploiting vineyard sites to their full potential, finding new terroir for classic grapes as well as resurrecting nearly forgotten ancient varieties rich in character and history.

We wine lovers have never had it better. Cheers to the vintners in far-flung places taking risks on unorthodox wines, hoping that we’ll notice their beauty, and cheers to the importers, restaurants and wine shops courageous enough to work with them. My life is much the richer for it.

The most memorable reds I tasted in 2015, in alphabetical order:

 

August Eser Spatburgunder

August Eser Spätburgunder at the Schlosshotel Burg Schlitz in Mecklenburg, Germany

2010 AUGUST ESER MITTELHEIMER SPÄTBURGUNDER BARRIQUE TROCKEN

First, a quick translation: This dry (trocken) Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder) from the Mittleheim section of the Rheingau is aged in small oak barrels (barriques). It had a surprisingly dark, almost porty aroma, full of red currant fruit. It felt deeply flavored but light-bodied, with some slow-building black-peppercorn spice and a woodsy note on the finish. An excellent pairing with some duck.

 

Alberto Buratto, CEO of Baglio di Pianetto

Alberto Buratto, CEO of Baglio di Pianetto

2007 BAGLIO DI PIANETTO “CEMBALI” NERO D’AVOLA

I’ve long enjoyed Sicilian Nero d’Avola, and this example ranks among the best I’ve tasted. The grapes come from 45-year-old vineyards and the wine sees nine months in barriques and 36 months in the bottle before it’s released. Although 2007 isn’t an especially new vintage, the wine still felt young. I could detect its aroma well beyond the rim of the glass: red fruit, fresh green herbs, spice. It had big, ripe fruit, focused green-peppercorn spice and a finish of wood and leather. Just beautiful.

 

Tasting straight from the barrel in Catena Zapata's experimental winery

Tasting straight from the barrel in Catena Zapata’s experimental winery

2013 CATENA ZAPATA ADRIANNA VINEYARD MALBEC PASSITO

I tasted this remarkable wine, made from partially dried grapes in the Italian passito method, right from the barrel in the experimental section of Catena Zapata’s pyramid-shaped winery. The Adrianna Vineyard ranks among the very best in all of Argentina, and after sampling this Malbec, I could see why. The wine exhibited gorgeously rich, jammy fruit, with lots of plum and raisin flavors. Bright spice, which built to a blast at the finish, kept things well in balance. Sensational.

 

Oscar Ruiz, export manager of Cellers Unió

Oscar Ruiz, export manager of Cellers Unió

2013 CELLERS UNIÓ “PERLAT”

Catalonia has more to offer than just Cava — the Spanish region’s red wines can compete with the best Rioja has to offer. I felt particularly impressed at a recent tasting by the 2013 Cellers Unió “Perlat,” a blend of Garnacha (Grenache), Carignan and Syrah from Montsant. The wine exuded elegance with its well-integrated and notably supple tannins, and it had a striking purity of fruit. Its red fruit aroma was clean and clear, and the dark cherry flavor rang like a bell.

 

My wine flight at Bocanáriz in Santiago, Chile, with the Cono Sur Ocio at right

My wine flight at Bocanáriz in Santiago, Chile, with the Cono Sur “Ocio” at right

2012 CONO SUR “OCIO” PINOT NOIR

If this wine is any indication, Pinot Noir apparently grows exceedingly well in Chile’s cool-climate Casablanca Valley, just off the coast. Cono Sur (note the pun) made Chile’s first premium Pinot Noir, according to its website, and the Ocio certainly lives up to the “premium” designation. It had a rich aroma of deep red fruit along with a surprising mocha note. When I tasted the wine, ripe black-cherry fruit was quickly shoved aside by forceful spice, followed by some earth and a softly tannic finish. I loved it.

 

Element's oversize bottles were quite the hit at the Wine Bloggers Conference

Element’s oversize bottles were wine blogger catnip at this year’s Finger Lakes conference

2013 ELEMENT LEMBERGER

Sommelier and winemaker Christopher Bates gave an excellent presentation at this year’s Wine Blogger’s Conference in New York’s Finger Lakes region, and his winery’s Lemberger (Blaufränkisch) proved just as memorable, if not more so. It had a seductive aroma of dark fruit and violets, and though it was light-bodied, it displayed big dark fruit offset by ample and refined spice. Riesling gets all the press in the Finger Lakes, but Lemberger is equally at home there.

 

Fred Merwath holding Hermann J Wiemer Cabernet Franc

Fred Merwath pouring his Cabernet Franc

2012 HERMANN J. WIEMER VINEYARDS CABERNET FRANC

Wiemer winemaker and co-owner Fred Merwath also knew how to impress a table of wine bloggers, pouring his Finger Lakes wine from a magnum. This Cabernet Franc has a sultry aroma of dark fruit, dark chocolate, violets and spice, and oo, what a lovely flavor. Lots of dark fruit, big white-pepper spice, mocha-inflected tannins… It had power, but it remained cheerful and light on its feet.

 

Rodney Strong Malbec2011 QUINTA DA LAPA TINTO RESERVA

From Portugal’s Tejo region, this blend of Touriga Nacional, Aragónez, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah was an absolute joy. It had a wonderfully dark plummy aroma and it tasted big and full. I loved the journey from rich fruit to big spice to some mocha on the finish. This was a wine with some depth, and it paired perfectly with some pork cheeks. The price of about $25 is higher than many Portuguese reds on the shelf, but considering the very high quality, it’s still an excellent value.

 

2012 RODNEY STRONG ALEXANDER VALLEY MALBEC

“Oh my lord,” my tasting companion remarked about this wine. “That is sexy.” It really was. Rodney Strong’s first Malbec varietal (usually the grape appears in Bordeaux-style blends) had an aroma of old wood, vanilla and dark fruit, and it felt rich and voluptuous on the tongue. Ample, ripe fruit mixed with oak and vanilla, which could have been a rather flabby combination in lesser hands. But in spite of its lush richness, this wine kept itself together, with a shaft of focused spice. Indeed, it felt almost taut, and it had no trouble standing up to some pork loin. Sonoma isn’t known for its Malbec, but maybe it should be.

 

Pouring Salton wines at last year's Wine Blogger Conference

Pouring Salton wines at last year’s Wine Blogger Conference

2012 SALTON “INTENSO” TANNAT

The wine representative who poured this Brazilian wine promised me that it would be “light and elegant.” A light and elegant Tannat seemed about as likely as a light and elegant Arnold Schwarzenegger. I nearly spit this wine out in shock before I managed to spit it out with composure into the spit bucket. Where were the overpowering tannins? This Tannat tasted fruity and well-balanced, with some restrained spice and supple — supple! — tannins. Uruguay has got some Tannat competition.

 

Stella Bella Tempranillo at Jonah's restaurant in Whale Beach, Australia

Stella Bella Tempranillo at Jonah’s restaurant in Whale Beach, Australia

2012 STELLA BELLA MARGARET RIVER VALLEY TEMPRANILLO

I mentioned to the sommelier how much I enjoyed this wine, and he nodded, saying, “It’s really hard to make bad wine in the Margaret River Valley,” a distant wine region set on the coast in the far southwestern corner of Australia. The aroma of this Tempranillo sold me right away, with its notes of dark fruit, earth, vanilla and violets. Powerful but classy, the wine moved from plummy fruit to big white-pepper spice to supple tannins to a savory finish. Some lamb made for a superb pairing.

 

Viña Vik's red blend

2010 VIK

A hotel’s “house red” doesn’t usually quicken the pulse, but Viña Vik, standing like an alien space base on a Chilean hilltop, is not your usual hotel. Its onsite winery makes just one wine, and it’s a doozy. I could tell from its enticing aroma of dark, rich fruit mixed with some meatiness and some vanilla that the wine was going to be memorable. It had notable structure, with dark fruit and big spice, which changed from green peppercorn to red paprika. Something fresh underneath kept the wine from being heavy, and the tannins were big enough to make me want to lay a bottle down for another few years. The finish went on and on.

 

Viña Peñalolén Cabernet Sauvignon at Casa Lastarria in Santiago, Chile

Viña Peñalolén Cabernet Sauvignon at Casa Lastarria in Santiago, Chile

2012 VIÑA PEÑALOLÉN CABERNET SAUVIGNON

This elegant and complex Chilean Cabernet impressed me most with the finesse with which it shifted gears from ripe red fruit to focused white-pepper spice to velvety tannins. It’s yet another illustration of Chile’s great success in developing its fine-wine industry.

You might also enjoy reading about my favorite whites and spirits from 2015. And you can see past red winners from 2014, 2013 and 2012

The Best Wines I Drank In 2015: White & Sparkling

14 January 2016

Barone Pizzini Saten and La Valle NaturalisFor this idiosyncratic list, I chose whites that surprised me one way or another, and whites that exhibited impressive balance. When a wine’s fruit, acids and other flavors are tautly in sync, it can be an absolutely thrilling experience. Don’t settle for white wines that are simply innocuous and bland. There are too many beautifully lively bottles out there to waste your time with anything that doesn’t make you sit up and take notice.

The wines below represent a tiny taste of what’s out there beyond the giant industrial-sized brands found in every grocery store. These are wines with heart. They have to be, since most of the companies making these wines have minimal marketing budgets.

You won’t find all of these particular wines with ease, but if you see one that sounds particularly enticing, bring the description to your local wine shop and ask for something similar. A good wine clerk will send you in the right direction.

And now, in alphabetical order, the 13 most memorable white wines I tried in 2015:

 

2011 BARONE PIZZINI SATÈN FRANCIACORTA

Franciacorta reserves the “Satèn” designation  for 100% Chardonnay wines (blanc de blancs) that have spent a minimum of 24 months aging on the lees. Barone Pizzini aged this Satèn between 30 and 40 months, giving this organic wine time to develop additional complexity. It had a nose of green apple and vanilla with a bit of toast, and I loved its classy bubbles, lemony acids and juicy, appley fruit.

 

Crociani Vin Santo di Montepulciano

2009 CROCIANI VIN SANTO DI MONTEPULCIANO

The World Atlas of Wine calls Vin Santo “the forgotten luxury of many parts of Italy, Tuscany above all,” and with good reason. This example had an enticing aroma of taut, dark honey and wonderfully complex flavors: dates, figs, orange peel, walnuts. It had evident concentration, feeling rich until the finish, which took a wonderfully surprising turn towards dry, bright freshness.

 

2011 DOMAINE CHRISTIAN MOREAU PÈRE ET FILS VALMUR GRAND CRU

TheWorld Atlas of Wine also has high praise for Chablis from the Valmur vineyard, calling it “some critics’ ideal: rich and fragrant.” I’m certainly not one to disagree with the Atlas — this wine was an absolute joy. It had a spicy aroma marked by notes of popcorn. Some Chablis can be almost austere, but this Grand Cru had real richness. With sublime balance, it started ripe and round and then focused into taut laser beam of white-pepper spice.

 

The personable Steven Fulkerson, holding a bottle of his bright and fruity Pinot Noir/Dornfelder rosé

The personable Steven Fulkerson, holding a bottle of his bright and fruity Pinot Noir/Dornfelder rosé

2013 FULKERSON ESTATE SEMI-DRY RIESLING

The words “semi-dry” strike fear into the hearts of many a sugar-phobic wine drinker, but there’s nothing to be afraid of in this case. An attractive green-gold color, this Finger Lakes Riesling had a ripe and full aroma, and lush fruit perfectly balanced by orangey acids and gingery spice. Languid and very pretty.

 

2012 MITCHELTON CENTRAL VICTORIA MARSANNE

Marsanne, a traditional Rhône white grape variety, doesn’t ordinarily spring to mind when one thinks of Australian wine. But perhaps it should — this example from Central Victoria, Australia’s southeasternmost state aside from Tasmania, had a delightfully fresh aroma of pear, and it tasted rather sexy, I must say. Delicious roasted peach fruit moved to a little wood and some dusky spice, and the finish lasted quite some time. A most pleasant surprise.

 

NV PIPER HEIDSIECK BRUT

Piper-Heidsieck BrutThis Champagne activated all my sparkling-wine pleasure centers: It had a wonderfully yeasty aroma with some underlying freshness, rich flavors of toast and almond balanced by bright acids, and, of course, exquisitely fine bubbles. You may not feel very surprised to learn that a Champagne is delicious, especially one coming from a relatively well-known brand. What is surprising is the huge disparity between this richly flavorful Champagne (priced at about $40 a bottle) and the underwhelming but nevertheless ubiquitous Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label (priced at about $37  bottle). Those three extra dollars buy you a giant leap in character.

 

2013 PODERE CANNETA VERNACCIA DI SAN GIMIGNANO RISERVA “LA LUNA E LE TORRE”

Most Vernaccia di San Gimignano (a Tuscan white) doesn’t see any time in oak, resulting in cheerful, fruity and spicy wines that tend to go well with food. But the “riserva” wines, which age for a spell in new oak barrels, achieve another level entirely. This example, a blend of 85% Vernaccia di San Gimignano and 15% Sauvignon Blanc, spent a year in used oak barrels aging on the lees, adding to its complexity. It had an appealing aroma of lime and popcorn, and flavors of creamy white fruit and pie crust. It felt beautifully balanced, with supple acids and a bit of minerality.

 

2014 QUINTA DO CASAL MONTEIRO “MARGARIDE’S”

This blend of 50% Chardonnay and 50% Arinto from Portugal’s Tejo region paired wonderfully with some savory Parmesan crisps. I enjoyed its rich, dusky aroma marked by a touch of creaminess, and its focused peachy fruit and orange-peel acids. A fellow taster also detected “almost a lychee note.” Unique and delicious, and it’s a sensational value at $12.

 

The author and Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe in the Schloss Proschwitz vineyards overlooking Meissen

The author and Alexandra Prinzessin zur Lippe in the Schloss Proschwitz vineyards overlooking Meissen

2013 SCHLOSS PROSCHWITZ WEISSBURGUNDER GROSSES GEWÄCHS

I had already tasted a number of excellent wines with the Prinzessin zur Lippe, owner of Schloss Proschwitz in Germany’s little-known Sachsen region. But when we reached the 2013 Weissburgunder Grosses Gewächs, the Prinzessin became concerned. When I smelled this Pinot Blanc, I let out a laugh and a whoop and said “Yeah!” just a little too loudly. Her eyes widened, and she asked the woman behind the desk to bring bread.

“We’ll be having lunch soon…” she said, clearly convinced I was drunk (I was not). This wine, quite simply, was great. I would have guessed it was a white Burgundy, not a Pinot Blanc. The aroma had such richness, with ripe fruit and fresh butter and wood. And the flavor! Drinking it was like driving in a car with an expert at manual transmission — it shifted with incredible suppleness from ripe, ripe fruit to classy acids to focused spice. What a gorgeous, elegant wine.

 

Szigeti Gruner Veltliner BrutNV SZIGETI GRÜNER VELTLINER BRUT

I hadn’t planned on taking any tasting notes during the vacation when I tried this sparkling wine from Austria, but it proved to be so delicious I couldn’t resist. I loved its creamy, citrusy aroma, reminiscent of a dreamsicle. The elegantly fine, foamy bubbles were a testament to Szigeti’s successful use of bottle fermentation. It had ample fruit and a pleasant powdered candy note, all balanced by soft limey acids. It stood up well to some turkey, but it also would make a fine aperitif all on its own.

 

2012 TERLANER VORBERG PINOT BIANCO

As I tasted this wine, Casey Squire, division manager of Banville Wine Merchants, told me that “The hallmark of Terlano wines is their ageability,” and went on to relate how he once tried a 1955 Terlaner Pinot Bianco (Pinot Blanc) that still retained some acidity and freshness. I’m not sure I’d hold this wine from the Vorberg section of Italy’s Alto Adige region that long, but who knows? It smelled of subtle spice and herbs and mellow white fruit, and the mouthfeel felt rich and full. Voluptuous fruit quickly gave way to tight, limey acids which moved into paprika-like spice. The wine was big and lively, but it held together firmly and exhibited great balance.

 

The tasting room at Vina Cobos

The tasting room at Viña Cobos

2013 VIÑA COBOS “BRAMARE” MARCHIORI VINEYARD CHARDONNAY

This single-vineyard Chardonnay from Mendoza had a very spicy aroma marked by dried herbs, belying the rich fruit I tasted. I also detected some vanilla and even a note of light caramel, but in spite of all this richness, bright acids kept the wine perfectly in balance. I liked it so much, I ended up buying a bottle for my boss for Christmas.

 

2013 WAGNER VINEYARDS RIESLING ICE WINE

When I tasted this beautiful Finger Lakes wine, I wrote in my notebook, “If you think you don’t like sweet wines, try this!!” I loved it from start to finish. It had an enticingly spicy and rich aroma, and sumptuously rich fruit leavened by surprisingly zesty grapefruity acids and warm cinnamon spice. Sheer delight.

Up Next: My favorite reds of 2015.

Franciacorta: Italy’s Answer To Champagne

28 December 2015

Barone Pizzini Saten and La Valle NaturalisAs we approach New Year’s Eve, thoughts turn inevitably to sparkling wine. The holiday is practically synonymous with Champagne, and it’s the only holiday, alas, during which you’re virtually guaranteed to have plenty of bubbly with which to celebrate. (If you’re looking for a good New Year’s Resolution, I suggest vowing to celebrate every holiday with sparkling wine. Those who truly care about the environment, for example, would surely agree that Arbor Day merits a glass of Champagne as much as New Year’s Eve.)

Recently I was offered a sample of high-end Franciacorta, Italy’s best sparkling wine, crafted in a method similar to Champagne. I hesitated at first, since I had written a post about Franciacorta not so long ago. But I reconsidered and accepted the samples, because the offer came to me just after one of my favorite wine-tasting friends shared a beautiful bottle of Piper-Heidsieck Brut. This Champagne activated all my sparkling-wine pleasure centers: It had a wonderfully yeasty aroma with some underlying freshness, rich flavors of toast and almond balanced by bright acids, and, of course, exquisitely fine bubbles.

Piper-Heidsieck BrutI loved this wine, which can be had for $40 a bottle (it’s a far better value than the ubiquitous and rather underwhelming Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label at $37 a bottle). After feeling so thoroughly seduced by the Piper-Heidsieck, I wondered if these Franciacorta sparklers, which ranged from $45 to $55 a bottle, would compete in the same league. At that price point, they should display sharp focus, perfect balance, notable character and elegant bubbles. I invited five friends over, whipped up some Käsespätzle with melted leeks, and got to the happy work of tasting the wines.

1) 2011 Barone Pizzini Satèn: Franciacorta reserves the “Satèn” designation  for 100% Chardonnay wines (blanc de blancs) that have spent a minimum of 24 months aging on the lees (dead yeast cells, grape skin fragments and other solid bits left over from winemaking). Barone Pizzini aged this Satèn between 30 and 40 months, theoretically developing even more complexity. This organic wine proved very popular with the group. “This is delicious and very easy to drink,” remarked Adam, who also liked its crispness. Patti astutely noted, “It’s like when you bite into a granny smith apple.” I also got some green apple on the nose, along with vanilla and a bit of toast. I loved the very classy bubbles, lemony acids and juicy, appley fruit. ($45)

La Valle Brut Rose2) 2011 La Valle Rosé Brut: The vintage on this bottle inexplicably appears only in small font on the back label. If I had a vintage sparkling rosé, I’d want to shout it from the rooftops. This very pretty wine also delighted the group, including me. In order to preserve the character of the grapes as much as possible, this blend of 55% Chardonnay and 45% Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) fermented in stainless steel and again in the bottle, without spending any time in oak. Like the Barone Pizzini Satèn, this wine spent a significant time aging on the lees, a minimum of 24 months in this case. It had a fresh and light (some in the group argued “undetectable”) strawberry aroma. It had ample watermelony fruit but it felt dry, with rich orangey acids and some chalk on the finish. The bubbles were tiny but forceful, with a “more celebratory feel” according to one fellow taster. A very romantic sparkling rosé that paired deliciously with some asparagus wrapped in crisped prosciutto. ($55)

La Valle Rose and Barone Pizzini Rose3) 2011 Barone Pizzini Rosé: This 100% Pinot Noir comes from organic vineyards abutting a forest, which “maintains cool temperatures throughout hotter days of the growing season,” according to the distributor’s fact sheet. It, too, spends 30 to 40 months aging on the lees, but the character of its bubbles made it feel less serious and more fun than La Valle’s rosé. “It’s so bubbly that it melts in my mouth,” Scott reported. “It turns to air!” He was right — on the finish, the ethereal bubbles frothed and evaporated, leaving the palate clean for the next sip. It was a surprising end for a wine that started with ripe berry flavors and dusky orange acids. “I feel like #3 is more extroverted,” Cornelia noted, “but it’s kind of garrulous.” I found this wine to be charming, but then I have no shortage of garrulous friends. ($45)

4) 2009 La Valle “Naturalis” Extra Brut: I saved the most sophisticated wine for last, which was perhaps an error, since the other wines had more residual sugar. La Valle gives this blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir nowhere to hide, aging it in stainless steel (wood can smooth over certain problems) and adding minimal sugar in the dosage (sweetness also helps cover flaws). The winemaking has to be just about perfect if you’re going to attempt a wine like “Naturalis.” And such a wine won’t be popular with everyone; one taster complained of a slight bitter undertone, and she wasn’t wrong. I found this wine exciting to drink, with its zesty acids, pin-prick bubbles and flavors of tart apple and unripe pear. It mellowed when paired with the Käsespätzle, becoming rounder and less austere. If you’re meeting up with some wine geeks and need something to pair with dinner, this is your bottle. But Cornelia said it best: “This is the wine I should be dating — it’s the most emotionally healthy — but I’ll probably end up with #1.” ($55)

This tasting was a pleasure, to be sure. The rosé Franciacortas both could compete with a fine rosé Champagne, and if you seek a romantic sparkler to impress a date — especially a date who knows something about wine — a rosé Franciacorta would be an excellent choice.

The Satèn impressed me with its beautiful balance and perfect bubbles, and the “Naturalis” excited me in the manner of a tightrope walker performing without a net. If I have $45 to $55 to spend on a sparkler, will I purchase one of them? They’re certainly worth the money. But I’m such a sucker for toasty richness, it’s still the Piper-Heidsieck that has me in its grip.

Note: All the wines described in this post were provided free of charge.

Sonoma: A New Home For Malbec?

17 December 2015

Rodney Strong MalbecOn the last evening of the annual Wine Bloggers Conference, it’s not uncommon to encounter winery representatives lightening their luggage loads by giving away their last remaining sample bottles of wine. I always pack extra socks in the hope that I’ll benefit from their generosity (I’ve never lost a bottle packed in three or four medium-thick socks, knock on wood). And so it was that I happened to be chatting with Robert Larsen, Director of Communications of Rodney Strong, who offered me a bottle of a very unusual Malbec from the Alexander Valley in Sonoma.

As we parted to attend different after-parties, he asked me to share the bottle with other bloggers at the conference. I declined his request, much to his surprise. But selfishness was only one part of the reason. I knew that if I opened the bottle then, it would end up like so many other fine wines that evening: probably served in a cheap plastic cup, briefly enjoyed by semi-intoxicated conference attendees, and, after perhaps a tweet or two, promptly forgotten. A wine like this deserved a better fate.

And so it was that I slipped the Sonoma Malbec into some socks, let it rest a while in my wine rack and finally took it to dinner at HB, a cozy BYOB restaurant in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood. I met up with one of my favorite wine-tasting friends, Liz Barrett of Terlato Wines, and over plates of pork loin with mustard sauce and lamb tagine, we tasted the 2012 Rodney Strong Alexander Valley Malbec.

HB restaurant in Chicago

HB restaurant in Chicago

“Oh my lord,” Liz exclaimed. “That is sexy.” It really was. It had an aroma of old wood, vanilla and dark fruit, and it felt rich and voluptuous on the tongue. Ample, ripe fruit mixed with oak and vanilla, which could have been a rather flabby combination in lesser hands. But in spite of its lush richness, this wine kept itself together, with a shaft of focused spice. Indeed, it felt almost taut, and it had no trouble standing up to the pork loin.

This Malbec was an absolute delight, but what on earth was it doing in Sonoma? According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, Malbec’s “usual fate in California” is to appear as an ingredient in Bordeaux-style blends (sometimes called Meritage, which rhymes with “heritage”). Since at least 1996, Rodney Strong has been doing exactly that, incorporating Malbec into its “Symmetry” Meritage blend. The winery released Malbec as a varietal wine for the first time because “…the exceptional quality of the 2012 vintage provided [it] with an amount of Malbec suited for this special bottling,” according to its website.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Malbec does well in the Alexander Valley, which lies not far from the Pacific coast. In France, the Companion explains, Malbec “is rarely found… far from Atlantic influence.” Although Malbec may have originated in Burgundy, it made its first mark on the wine world in Bordeaux, known for its Cabernet, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. Sonoma, on the other hand, tends to be associated with cool-climate grapes like Pinot Noir. Malbec likely works in the Alexander Valley because the region ranks as one of Sonoma’s warmest AVAs, “thanks to some low hills that shelter it,” according to The World Atlas of Wine. It also helps that the valley is in the north of Sonoma, which becomes paradoxically cooler as you move south.

Whatever the reason, Malbec works beautifully in the Alexander Valley, if the 2012 vintage is any evidence, and I’m glad to read that Rodney Strong has planted an additional 60 acres of the variety over the last four years. I’d love to try this wine again; it strikes me as an excellent value for $35. Sonoma wines of this quality often fetch far more.

If you are still looking for a gift for that insufferable wine snob on your list, or if you’re in search of a high-quality crowd-pleasing red to serve over the holidays, Rodney Strong’s Malbec would be an excellent choice.

The Finger Lakes: New York’s Mitteleuropa

4 December 2015
Keuka Lake, New York

Keuka Lake, New York

“You’ll never see big-time production in the Finger Lakes — it’s boutique production,” explained sommelier Christopher Bates at this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference in Corning, New York. “We’re like the Mosel,” he continued, “where there are small spaces where grapes can grow and a lot of spaces where they can’t.”

Reviewing my notes from the conference got me thinking that perhaps Bates’ analogy was just a bit too far to the northwest. Most of the Finger Lakes wines I liked best — Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, and Lemberger (Blaufränkisch) — all grow exceedingly well in Austria. According to The World Atlas of Wine, the Wachau, for example, is “…a rich mosaic of different soils and rocks,” where “There are plots of deep soil and others where a mere scratching finds rock…” The description reminded me of the Finger Lakes soil map Bates displayed, which looked like a pointillist fever dream.

The climates of Austria and the Finger Lakes have something in common as well. In Austria, large rivers and lakes mitigate the otherwise rather tough continental climate, just as in the Finger Lakes, where vineyards cluster along sloping shorelines. There, summer warmth stored in the lakes helps prevent the vines from freezing during the extreme winters.

The personable Steven Fulkerson, holding a bottle of his bright and fruity Pinot Noir/Dornfelder rosé

Steven Fulkerson, holding a bottle of his bright and fruity Pinot Noir/Dornfelder rosé

Lettie Teague’s 2013 Wall Street Journal article about the region bore the subtitle, “Where Riesling Rules.” The spectrum of Rieslings I tasted during the course of the conference gives me no cause to disagree with her. The 2014 Lamoreaux Landing Red Oak Vineyard Riesling, for example, exhibited impressive finesse while shifting from ripe fruit to exotic spice to a dry finish. A languid 2013 Fulkerson Estate Semi-Dry Riesling offered lush fruit balanced perfectly by orangey acids and gingery spice. And in the 2013 Wagner Vineyards Riesling Ice Wine, sumptuously rich, sweet fruit mixed with zesty grapefruity acids and warm cinnamon spice — what a delight.

It’s tempting to go on and on about the beautiful Rieslings I tried. Ravines Wine Cellars, Heron Hill, Barrington Cellars, Keuka Spring Vineyards, Vineyard View and McGregor all make exciting examples marked by ripe fruit, balanced acids and often something exotic, like jasmine, incense and/or ginger. And the prices! Most of these Rieslings cost less than $20 a bottle, a magnificent value for the money.

But Riesling isn’t the whole story in the Finger Lakes. Another one of Austria’s most popular grape varieties grows exceedingly well here: Grüner Veltliner. It does well in Austria but rather less well in Germany, because it ripens too late to be successful in vineyards that far north. But the hot summers of the Finger Lakes seem to agree with Grüner Veltliner. John Mansfield of Three Brothers Wineries and Estates agreed, going so far as to argue that “Grüner — it’s going to take over. Take the best parts of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürztraminer, smash ’em together, and you get Grüner.”

Jon Mansfield of Three Brothers Wineries & Estates

Jon Mansfield of Three Brothers Wineries & Estates

His 2014 Stony Lonesome Estates Grüner Veltliner proved to have great personality, with a rather sultry, humid, greenhouse-like aroma, round fruit, tight acids, orange-peel spice and some minerality on the almost bitter finish. Other Grüners were equally as refreshing and exciting. I especially liked the 2014 Dr. Konstantin Frank Grüner Veltliner, which had an aroma of fresh green hay and dewy fruit undergirded by taut, racy acids. These are wines worth paying attention to.

In addition to fine Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners, Austria also produces a number of delicious red wines, including Blaufränkisch. The Finger Lakes is right on Austria’s heels with this variety, which goes by the synonym of Lemberger in New York (I find “Blaufränkisch” to be a little sexier than “Lemberger,” but I’m a sucker for umlauts). As The Oxford Companion to Wine notes, Lemberger produces “wines of real character, if notably high acidity, when carefully grown.”

I’d argue that Finger Lakes Lemberger is capable of standing toe-to-toe with Austrian Blaufränkisch. The 2012 Goose Watch Lemberger proved particularly striking, with ripe cherry fruit and juicy acids. Its white-pepper spice slowly grew in intensity through to a big finish. It felt light but powerful. Just as memorable was the 2012 Fulkerson Estate Goose Watch LembergerLemberger, with its surprising combination of cheerful freshness, ripe dark fruit and tart acids. And I loved the 2013 Lemberger by Element, the winery owned by Christopher Bates, which had a sexy aroma of dark fruit and violets, a light body, big fruit and big spice.

If Riesling, Grüner Veltliner and Lemberger do so well in the Finger Lakes, I’ve been thinking, why not other noble Austrian varieties? I would be especially excited to try a Finger Lakes St. Laurent. This grape, though still not very well-known, produces velvety, sexy red wines, of which I dearly wish more were imported into the United States. I would love to have a local source.

Austrian wines, especially Grüner Veltliner, have become very popular with sommeliers because of their food-friendly acids. You may have noticed that all the wines above have ample acidity, making any of them a fine addition to a restaurant wine list. Finger Lakes wines can’t be found in every corner wine shop, but if I were a New York sommelier fond of Austrian bottlings, I would be sure to include at least one or two choices from the Finger Lakes on my menu. And if I were a traveler fond of wine, I’d put the more-than-usually picturesque and friendly Finger Lakes region on my bucket list.

The Potential Of Pinot Meunier

3 November 2015

Bouchaine Pinot MeunierThe Oxford Companion to Wine feels rather judgmental of those who grow Pinot Meunier outside of continental Europe. “Elsewhere,” it pronounces, “Meunier tends to be grown by those slavishly following the Champagne recipe (as in England and California, for example).” Last I checked, the Champagne recipe seemed to be working just fine. I haven’t had any English sparklers, but Champagne-style wines from California can be delicious. Why shouldn’t they use a recipe with such a successful track record? Perhaps the Oxford Companion would rather that the Californians and English make sparkling wines with indigenous grape varieties? But I digress.

Unfamous Pinot Meunier ranks among the world’s most ubiquitous obscure grapes. According to the Oxford Companion, “…until recently, it was Champagne’s most popular variety by far, but [it] has now been overtaken by Pinot Noir.” (Chardonnay completes the Champagne grape variety trinity.) I’ve twice been to Champagne, and though I sampled many a Blanc de Blanc and Blanc de Noir, not once did I taste a Blanc de Meunier. The grape, a mutation of Pinot Noir, features almost exclusively in Champagne blends.

I did once find a German Pinot Meunier varietal, as I described in this post, and I very much enjoyed its fruity character, focused spice and undertones of earth. But that post dates back to September 2012. It took another three years for me to encounter a second Pinot Meunier varietal wine.

Bouchaine Pinot Meunier at Jibek JoluBouchaine, based on the Napa side of Los Carneros in California, sent me a complimentary bottle of its 2013 Pinot Meunier. According to Emily in the winery’s tasting room, Bouchaine planted the Pinot Meunier with the intention of making still wine — no “slavish” imitation of Champagne was ever planned. It had a lovely dusky red-fruit aroma overlayed with some violet. A light-bodied wine, it’s not for those who gravitate towards Napa Cabernets or Argentine Malbecs. But I immensely enjoyed its ripe red fruit, broad and well-balanced acids, and light but rustic-feeling tannins. It cut right through the creaminess of a cheese blini at Kyrgyz restaurant Jibek Jolu, and it became bigger and spicier paired with a savory carrot salad. It even stood up well to beef pelmeni (tortellini-like dumplings) with sour cream.

Pelmeni dumplings at Jibek JoluThe wine was a delight, but Bouchaine grows only 3.2 acres of Pinot Meunier, planted in the lowest, most frost-susceptible plots on the winery’s estate (Pinot Meunier requires a shorter growing season than Pinot Noir, budding later and ripening earlier). I love that Bouchaine exploited the full potential of this vineyard’s terroir by using this little-known grape, rather than growing a more famous variety not as well.

It’s a shame more wineries don’t follow Bouchaine’s example. I suspect Pinot Meunier’s lack of name recognition is the biggest stumbling block. I’d love to see more wineries take a risk on the variety. I wonder how Pinot Meunier might fare in the cooler vineyards of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, for example, a region already famous for its Pinot Noir. But for now, unfortunately, Pinot Meunier varietal wines remain quite a rarity. Should you encounter one — even though they tend to be rather expensive — I recommend splurging and buying it.

Note: The Bouchaine Pinot Meunier was provided free of charge. The wine usually costs about $40. Read about my side-by-side tasting of two different clones of Pinot Noir by Bouchaine here.

The Unusual Pinot Clones Of Bouchaine

24 October 2015

Bouchaine Pinot Noir and MeunierThese days one hears a great deal about terroir. A single-vineyard wine might be described as “terroir-driven,” meaning that the bottling reflects the characteristics of the vineyard’s geographic location, such as soil composition and rainfall levels. Terroir used to be more of a European obsession, but winemakers the world over now bottle wines illustrating the merits and differences of various vineyard sites. Entire wine collections are devoted to expressing terroir. But when is the last time you had the opportunity to taste the difference between two grape clones?

Like any other living thing, grapevines of the same species and variety still have genetic variation. It’s perhaps no surprise that Germans first developed clonal selection, demonstrating the practice in 1926, according to the Oxford Companion to Wine. The concept is simple: When you find a vine that has especially appealing characteristics, you propagate it by taking cuttings. Each of the resulting vines is genetically identical to the parent, barring the rare mutation.

And, as clearly illustrated by last night’s tasting, different clones can result in big differences in the bottle. Bouchaine, a winery on the Napa side of the Los Carneros AVA, kindly sent me samples of two of its Pinot Noirs made from different Pinot clones.

Los Carneros (or simply Carneros) encompasses southern sections of California’s Napa and Sonoma counties, but breezes off San Pablo Bay make this AVA cooler than AVAs farther north. Pinot Noir, which arguably reaches its apotheosis in the still wines of Burgundy and the sparkling wines of Champagne, grows best in cool-climate wine-growing regions, and it’s long been popular in Carneros. Louis Martini first planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines here in the late 1940s, according to the World Atlas of Wine, and since the 1970s, Carneros has been highly regarded for both its still and sparkling wines. In addition, the World Atlas notes that Carneros vineyards are “regularly plundered by wineries in the warmer country to the north,” which seek cooler-climate fruit to round out their blends.

Bouchaine itself merits its own description in my Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, which deserves quoting in its entirety:

Noticeable by its absence from most American critics’ thoughts, Bouchaine’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are probably too light and elegant to stir up much opinion in the U.S., but have a purity and finesse much appreciated by European palates.

In other words, these aren’t Robert Parker‘s Pinots.

Indeed, the two Pinot Noirs I tried over dinner with a couple of friends struck me as more Old World than New World, with their relatively light bodies and earthy undertones. They were controversial. I really liked them, one dining companion expressed general support, and another, who gravitates towards hefty Malbecs and Cabernets, turned up his nose at them entirely. (We also tried an unusual Pinot Meunier varietal, but that’s for another post.)

So if you prefer jammier wines with lots of richness and heft, don’t fork over the $40 required to try one of these Pinots. But if you’re an Old World kind of wine drinker who ordinarily avoids anything with the word “California” on the label, you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised by Bouchaine’s Pinot Noirs.

The first we tried, the 2013 Swan Pinot Poir, comes from a clone “clouded in mystery,” according to the wine’s tech sheet. It goes on to say that some think it came from the Romanée-Conti vineyard, one of the most famous patches of land in all winedom, but all we know for certain is that Joseph Swan brought the clone to the U.S. and first planted it in the Russian River Valley. It had a subtle and round red-fruit aroma underpinned by earth, and on the palate, it exhibited very taut fruit, ample acids and even some tannins on the finish. This Pinot had some power, but it kept itself firmly together in the center of the mouth.

The 2013 Mariafeld Pinot Noir, by contrast, had a more open nose of dark cherry and a bit of cough syrup. It felt lighter and fruitier, with even a floral quality, but there was still an undertone of earth keeping it grounded and balanced. This clone originated in Switzerland, according to the wine’s tech sheet, and it “produces large, loose clusters which promote airflow and prevent rot in cold, wet weather,” important characteristics in cool, foggy Carneros.

Lagman at Jibek Jolu

Lagman at Jibek Jolu

The Media Relations Consultant who sent me these wines will likely be distressed to learn that I paired them with Kyrgyz cuisine at Jibek Jolu, a friendly hidden gem of a restaurant just north of Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood. I ordered my favorite, lagman, a dish of tender beef, bell peppers and delectable hand-pulled noodles in a savory broth. Both wines paired quite well, standing up admirably to the lagman’s hearty flavors. The Swan became fruitier and more focused, and the Mariafeld grew bigger and more powerful.

It was absolutely fascinating to do a side-by-side tasting of these wines, highlighting their surprisingly distinct characters. They’re not inexpensive at $40 each, but the high level of craftsmanship is clear. And if you’re a wine geek like me (which you must be, if you’re still reading), it’s money well-spent. The wines are delicious, and opened together, they offer the rare opportunity to taste the difference clonal selection can make.

Note: These wines were provided free of charge.

Szigeti’s Unusual Sparkling Grüner Veltliner

12 October 2015

Szigeti Gruner Veltliner BrutThat Austria makes delightful Grüner Veltliner is no secret — Grüner varietals appear on many a wine list these days, because they tend to be not only delicious but food-friendly, with plenty of acid and spice. I love them. Last year when I visited Vienna, I had the fortune to sample a number of Grüner Veltliner Smaragd wines, which blew me away with their rich fruit, focus and power. But until a recent vacation in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, I’d never tasted a Grüner with bubbles.

You don’t have to go to Austria (or Northwoods Wisconsin) to find a sparkling Grüner Veltliner, however. Szigeti may be a family company, but it’s not a small operation. The winery corks 100,000 bottles of non-vintage Grüner Veltliner Brut each year alone, out of a total production of some 600,000 bottles of various sparkling wines, according to U.S. importer Winebow. That means, in contrast to many of the other wines described on this website, you actually have a fighting chance of finding this one.

At first glance, Szigeti’s location near the Neusiedlersee, a shallow lake on the Austrian/Hungarian border surrounded by plains, seems unpromising. The lack of beneficial hills is worrisome, and then there’s the fact that the Neusiedlersee region isn’t one of Austria’s best for Grüner, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine (it argues that Grüner is at its best in the Wachau, Kamptal, Kremstal, Weinviertel and Donauland). The World Atlas of Wine isn’t reassuring either, focusing on how the Neusiedlersee region produces appealing sweet wines, because mists from the lake encourage the growth of botrytis (noble rot). Neither book mentions anything about quality Grüner Veltliner coming out of Neusiedlersee.

But then, you don’t hear anything about quality Chardonnay coming out of Champagne. As the Oxford Companion explains, “Wines that are good raw material for the sparkling wine-making process are not usually much fun to drink in their still state. They are typically high in acidity and unobtrusively flavored.” Still wines made from Neusiedlersee Grüner Veltliner may not be much to talk about, but the grapes work beautifully in bubbly.

I brought a bottle of NV Szigeti Grüner Veltliner Brut up to Boyd’s Mason Lake Resort, where the family gathered to celebrate my father’s 70th birthday. One night, the charmingly old-fashioned resort served a Thanksgiving-style turkey dinner, and it seemed like an ideal moment to try this unusual sparkler. Under the gaze of the fish and deer heads mounted on the lodge’s wall, I popped the cork.

I hadn’t planned on taking any tasting notes — I was on vacation, after all — but the wine proved to be so delicious I couldn’t resist. I loved its creamy, citrusy aroma, reminiscent of a dreamsicle. The elegantly fine, foamy bubbles were a testament to Szigeti’s use of the most time-consuming and expensive means of producing sparkling wine, méthode traditionelle, in which the second fermentation — the fermentation which causes the bubbles — takes place in the bottle as opposed to a large steel tank. It had ample fruit and a pleasant powdered candy note, all balanced by soft limey acids. It stood up well to the turkey, but it also would make a fine aperitif all on its own.

The Szigeti Grüner Veltliner Brut isn’t inexpensive — it costs $17-$20 a bottle — but in this case, that’s money well spent. The obvious quality of the wine along with its unique character and versatility make it a value at that price. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy it again, and I’m going to keep my eye out for other Szigeti sparklers as well.

A Top Wine Value: Tejo

3 October 2015
Wines of Tejo lunch in a private dining room of Chicago's Sepia restaurant

Wines of Tejo lunch in a private dining room of Chicago’s Sepia restaurant

I love having leisurely wanders through wine shops, taking time to ferret out one or two unusual treasures. But then there are the times I just can’t be bothered, because I’ve got people coming over soon, and I don’t want to spend a lot of money on them because they’re friends but not good friends, yet I have to pour something delicious because they know I’m a wine blogger, so I need something unusual but at the same time normal enough to please a varied group of people about whose wine preferences I know very little. That’s when I reach for Portugal.

Portugal’s blessing and curse is its array of unique indigenous grape varieties. Grapes like Touriga Nacional and Encruzado make distinctive, potent and exciting wines, but they lack name recognition outside the country. Who wants to risk a lot of money on an unknown? The fact that many Portuguese wines blend several semi-pronounceable grape varieties into a complete mystery bottle only confuses matters further for foreign buyers. That keeps prices, even for high-quality wines, much lower than they might otherwise be.

Casal do Conde

Casal do Conde Alvarinho and two fellow tasters

My impression of Portugal — as a country which produces crowd-pleasingly fruity and balanced wines for excellent price — was only reinforced at a recent lunch I attended showcasing the wines from the Tejo region (formerly Ribatejo), just northeast of Lisbon. The Duoro Valley farther to the north, home of Portugal’s most famous wine, Port, gets all the press, but as this lunch demonstrated, vineyards along the Tejo River (also known as the Tagus) are also producing wines that offer impressive flavor for the money.

In fact, as The Oxford Companion to Wine explains, Tejo “was for many years the anonymous source of some of Portugal’s best red wines, the Garrafeiras… sold under the name of a merchant rather than that of the region.” And since the end of the last millennium, the quality has only improved, according to The World Atlas of Wine, because “EU subsidies persuaded hundreds of growers [in less favorable areas] to uproot their vines.” The remaining vineyards occupy better locations, and just as important, “There has been a move towards the nobler indigenous grapes,” as the Atlas goes on to describe. At the lunch, I also learned that foot-treading grapes is still in use at many wineries!

Even in a large wine shop won’t likely offer too many choices from the Tejo; you’ll be lucky to see two or three. But if this recent lunch and tasting was any indication, you can pick up just about any bottle you find and trust that you’ll get some good bang for your buck. Here is an idea of what to expect:

THE WHITES

The foundation of the zucchini-basil gazpacho

The foundation of the zucchini-basil gazpacho

2014 Quinta da Alorna Arinto: According to both the Wine Atlas and the Oxford Companion, Arinto is a grape prized for its high acidity, a good indication that an Arinto varietal wine will pair well with food. This example had an aroma of dried herbs and fresh, cool white fruit, and it tasted clean, spicy and bright. The lemony acids mellowed with some zucchini-basil gazpacho enriched with creamy burrata cheese. Not too shabby for a $10 wine!

2014 Casaleiro Branco Reserva: I liked this blend of 50% Arinto and 50% Fernão Pires even better, with its fresh swimming-pool aroma and round, spicy character. Its zesty limey acids stood up very well to the soup. Fellow wine blogger Thaddeus Buggs of the Minority Wine Report remarked, “It reminds me of a Sancerre; it’s mineral-driven and has lots of acids.” High praise, especially considering the $11 price tag.

2014 Quinta da Ribeirinha Vale de Lobos Branco: The World Atlas of Wine describes Fernão Pires as “adaptable” and notes that it produces “large volumes of simple, honeyed, and sometimes slightly spicy, dry white wine.” That doesn’t sound especially encouraging for this 100% Fernão Pires from the Valley of the Wolves, but I quite enjoyed its rich fruit, tart orangey acids, ample spice and slightly bitter undertone. It had weight and focus, and I found it quite classy. Of the three whites, it stood up best to the soup. A superlative value for $11.

Ricotta cannelloni

Ricotta cannelloni

2013 Casal do Conde Alvarinho: You might be familiar with this thick-skinned grape variety by its Spanish synonym, Albariño. Casal do Conde, which focuses on varietal wines expressive of their terroir, did a masterful job with this aromatic white. It took me on a real journey, moving from white fruit to wood to focused spice. Another sensational value for $14 a bottle. Casal do Conde is a winery to watch.

2014 Quinta do Casal Monteiro “Margaride’s”: This blend of 50% Chardonnay and 50% Arinto paired beautifully with some ricotta-stuffed cannelloni, or more specifically, with the savory Parmesan crisps atop them. I enjoyed its rich, dusky aroma marked by a touch of creaminess, and its focused peachy fruit and orange-peel acids. Thaddeus also detected “almost a lychee note.” Unique and delicious, and — it can’t be a surprise at this point — it’s a great deal at $12.

THE REDS

2012 Pinhal da Torre Quinta do Alqueve Tradicional Tinto: This winery employs traditional foot treading, which theoretically treats the grapes more gently than a mechanical press. Master Sommelier Eric Entrikin, who presented all the wines at the lunch, met the winemaker on recent trip to Portugal. “Every tenth word out of his mouth was, ‘I suffer,'” Eric related. Perhaps, like grape vines, it’s beneficial for winemakers to suffer as well; this blend of Touriga Nacional, Aragónez, Trincadeira and Castelão had ripe-but-taut fruit, ample acids and a focused, spicy finish. I loved its combination of ripeness and tightness, and it’s a ridiculous value for $12.

Red-wine braised pork cheeks with smoked mushroom escabeche and polenta

Red-wine braised pork cheeks with smoked mushroom escabeche and polenta

2012 Adega Cooperativa do Cartaxo Bridão Classico Tinto: While tasting this wine, Entrikin remarked, “Portuguese wine has a very fruity character in the nose, but when it hits my palate, it dries right out.” A blend similar to the one above, this wine paired especially well with a dish of red wine-braised pork cheeks, becoming even bigger and spicier. It smelled of rich red fruit and vanilla, and though it tasted ripe and a bit sweet, plenty of white-pepper spice kept it balanced. Apparently its standard retail price is $9, which is just insane.

2013 Quinta do Casal Branco Tinto: If you like softer reds, such as Merlot or Grenache, this blend of Castelão, Cabernet Sauvignon, Touriga Nacional and Alicante Bouschet is for you. Made with grapes pressed by foot, this wine had a fresh and clean aroma of ripe red fruit, plenty of fruit on the palate mixed with some vanilla and a touch of white pepper. It had a much more velvety finish than the two reds above, and again, it’s a fine value for $12.

2011 Quinta da Lapa Tinto Reserva: You won’t find foot-treading at this thoroughly modern winery, and I can’t say I missed it. This blend of Touriga Nacional, Aragónez, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah was an absolute delight. It had a wonderfully dark plummy aroma and it tasted big and full. I loved the journey from rich fruit to big spice to some mocha on the finish. This was a wine with some depth, and it paired perfectly with the pork cheeks. The price of $25 may come as a shock, but considering the very high quality, it’s still an excellent value. I would spend my own money on this wine.

2011 Falua Conde de Vimioso Tinto Reserva: At $35, the most expensive wine of the bunch lived up to its relatively lofty price tag. Its rich, raisiny aroma sucked me right in, and again, it had that delightful rich-but-taut character I really enjoy. There was no shortage of fruit in this blend of Touriga Nacional, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Aragónez, but it had an elegant austerity emphasized by focused acids and refined tannins.

After this tasting, I won’t hesitate to snap up a wine from the Tejo when I see one. If I have a choice, I’ll look for a Fernão Pires varietal or a blend of Arinto and Fernão Pires, and red blends based on Touriga Nacional. They’re almost sure to be superlative values for the money.

Note: This lunch and the accompanying wines were provided free of charge.

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