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 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.


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.

The Not Very Odd Wines Of Chris Hanna

12 September 2015
Chris Hanna

Chris Hanna

I’m going to take a post and write about some wines that are neither obscure nor especially unusual, and it’s for a very important reason. In fact, it’s for the most important reason to drink a wine. More on that in a moment.

Chris Hanna, the engaging president of Hanna Winery & Vineyards, recently hosted a wine tasting and dinner at Ravinia, one of Chicagoland’s loveliest outdoor concert venues. The torrential downpour we suffered throughout the event must have come as a bit of a shock to this Sonoma winemaker and cookbook author accustomed to drought conditions in California.

The worrisome drought was the topic of the audience’s first question for Hanna. Fortunately, the dry conditions haven’t caused her vineyards to shrivel. “The premium wine grape crop is of such value,” she explained, “they’re not going to cut off our water. Yet. If we have one more year [of drought], we may have to meter,” she added in a slightly more ominous tone. But at least for this vintage, Napa and Sonoma wine lovers have no need to panic, she reassured us.

Hanna made her first vintage of wine “at the tender age of 12,” when her family had 12 acres of vines in the Russian River Valley, which, at the time, “were in the middle of nowhere.” She expanded Hanna Winery’s holdings to 600 acres today, split among vineyards in the Russian River Valley, the warmer Alexander Valley farther to the north and farther from the cooling influence of the Pacific, and the high-elevation Mayacamas Mountains yet farther inland.

Hanna Winery wines at RaviniaHanna’s early winemaking start now pays hefty dividends. Her 2014 Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc, for example, gets everything right. Hanna notes that in Sonoma, “high-tone flavors don’t get baked out by the sun,” and she maximizes the Sauvignon Blanc’s inherent freshness by picking the grapes at night and fermenting in stainless steel. The wine had that zesty, grassy, minerally aroma I love in a Sauvignon Blanc. It tasted focused and bright, with lively grapefruity acids and edges rounded by a bit of malolactic fermentation. It sliced through some rich Boucheron cheese like a knife. An excellent value for $19 a bottle.

The 2013 Russian River Valley Chardonnay displayed similar attention to balance. I’ve frequently hear from people scarred by butter bombs that they don’t care for California Chardonnay, or even any Chardonnay at all. I can empathize — I once had a harrowing experience with some Toasted Head. And indeed, this Chardonnay has some wood and butter to it, imparted by aging in French oak barrels and malolactic fermentation. But this wine exhibited beautiful balance, with ripely peachy fruit and broad, lively acids. The Chardonnay felt fresh in spite of its oak and butter notes, and I loved it. A fine splurge for $29.

The finesse of the 2013 Alexander Cabernet Sauvignon impressed me, too. Actually a Bordeaux-style blend of 77% Cabernet, 17% Malbec and 6% Merlot, this wine undergoes a hot and fast fermentation (slow and cool is more common) to avoid harsh, dry tannins. And indeed those tannins were supple, especially considering the wine’s youth. It had a delightfully rich, jammy aroma; big, cool fruit and a shot of black pepper spice. It’s not inexpensive at $42, but this wine has the power and grace to back up that price tag.

Unexpectedly, my favorite of the evening was the 2013 Bismark Mountain Vineyard Zinfandel. Hanna “challenged [herself] to become a Zin believer” and worked hard to create a Zinfandel vineyard on a steep and rocky slope of the Mayacamas Mountains. Although a pain for humans to work, such terrain tends to work beautifully for wine. Grape clusters in this vineyard are tiny, Hanna explained, which means she can get “so much extraction that you Chris Hanna at dinner in Ravinianever get on flat ground.” Indeed, the wine was dark, and it smelled of dusky dried black fruit. Zinfandels can all too easily become overly jammy and ponderous, but this one started cool and clean, moving from big fruit to big spice to some refined tannins on the finish. Something savory underneath added complexity. I don’t drink much Zinfandel, I must admit, but if I could spend $64 on a bottle, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose this one.

It was a delight to taste these wines both alone and with a delicious al fresco dinner, during which their acids helped them work well with a range of different foods.

Which brings me to why, as Odd Bacchus, I would write about these wines at all. To be honest, it’s because I wanted to. I love drinking the unusual and obscure, obviously, but it seemed unnecessarily doctrinaire to deny myself the pleasure of these expertly crafted Sonoma wines.

Wine should always be a pleasure, and I can’t think of a more valid, compelling reason to choose a particular bottle than simply “because I wanted to.” Maybe you’re drinking Chardonnay when you “should” be drinking Malbec. Or maybe you’re drinking, ahem, Sonoma Zinfandel when you should be drinking Slovak Dunaj. But life is too short to shame yourself about the wine you want to drink. “Because I want to” is all the justification you need.

Note: These wines and the accompanying dinner were provided free of charge.

Overdue For A Brazilian

4 September 2015
Vanessa presenting four wines by Salton

Vanessa presenting four wines by Salton

Until recently, I’d never had a Brazilian — wax or wine. I found the idea of either one more than a little scary, and frankly unnecessary. But when I spied a table of Brazilian wines by Vinícola Salton at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference, I decided it was time to face my fears.

Founded in 1910, Salton is one of Brazil’s oldest wineries, but that’s not necessarily an advantage. According to The World Atlas of Wine, Brazil has long made uninteresting wine “because of where it was made: near centers of population, in areas of high humidity with fertile soils, by small farmers with rudimentary skills.” And indeed, Salton’s beautiful winery is located in the old Serra Gaúcha region, where, as The Oxford Companion to Wine explains, where “Average rainfall… is very high for a wine region,” and soils “have a high proportion of water-retaining clay.” As a result, “fungal diseases are a constant threat,” and wines from here tend to be of “basic quality.”

Fortunately, tradition has not stopped Salton from investing in new vineyards in the drier and less fertile region of Campanha along the northern border of Uruguay. In 2010, Salton purchased 1,100-some acres of vineyards in Campanha, which the World Atlas calls “the focus of fine wine development in Brazil, with particular attention now being paid to matching vine variety and soil type.”

It all sounds promising, but really, Brazilian wine? Even this odd wine drinker felt a little skeptical as I held out my glass for a sample.

NV Salton Intenso Brut: Vanessa (pictured above) told me I was drinking a blend of Chardonnay and Riesling (!) from Campanha, but Salton’s website describes this wine as a blend of Chardonnay, Prosecco and Trebbiano from Serra Gaúcha. In any case, it has a subtle aroma of dried herbs, a fruity attack on the palate and a rather savory finish. I liked the flavor journey, and for $17, you can take it too. Other sparklers might be better values, but this is the obvious choice with which to celebrate Brazilian Independence Day (September 7).

2012 Salton Intenso Cabernet Franc: This restrained but still-powerful wine had a dusky dark-fruit aroma, taut dark-fruit flavors, a perk of white-pepper spice and some balanced tannins on the finish. I liked it, and I wasn’t surprised to find out that it came from Campanha. The next wine, however, was a complete and total astonishment.

2012 Salton Intenso Tannat: “This is a 100% Tannat? That’s brave,” I remarked, trying to sound as positive as possible. I enjoy Tannat in blends, but many of the varietal Tannats I’ve tried tend to be mouthfuls of tannins (see my controversial Tannat post here).

“It’s actually really light and elegant,” Vanessa replied, smiling despite my look of utter disbelief. A light and elegant Tannat seems about as likely as a light and elegant Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I tasted it and nearly spit it out in shock before I managed to spit it out with composure into the spit bucket. Where were the overpowering tannins? This Campanha Tannat tasted fruity and well-balanced, with some restrained spice and supple — supple! — tannins. Uruguay has got some Tannat competition.

2009 Salton Talento: The Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Tannat grapes in this Bordeaux-style blend are hand-harvested, and the quality control shows in the wine. It had a clean red-fruit aroma and it tasted beautifully balanced, with ripe fruit, ample spice, classy tannins on the finish and something earthy and funky underneath it all. The grapes come from both Campanha and Serra Gaúcha, which leads me to wonder if coaxing high-quality fruit from Serra Gaúcha might be possible after all. I wouldn’t hesitate to serve this to guests at a dinner party, ideally with some steak.

Brazil opened its markets to imported wine only in the 1990s, which means local wineries have had only about 20 years of competition. These wines are evidence that they haven’t wasted those two decades. There are some interesting things trickling out of Brazil these days, and should you encounter a Brazilian bottle on a wine list or in a shop, I recommend asking about it. Its quality might surprise you.

Bobbing On The Surface Of The Finger Lakes

26 August 2015
The terrace of the Manor House overlooking Keuka Lake

The terrace of the Manor House overlooking Keuka Lake

As I departed this year’s Finger Lakes-focused Wine Bloggers Conference, I felt something strange. A lack. This subtle absence might have even gone unnoticed, had I not participated in previous conferences in Virginia and British Columbia. After those two conferences, I felt a strong connection to the wine regions. I can still viscerally feel the rolling vineyards of Virginia, planted along roads where Thomas Jefferson rode in his carriage, and the sweeping vistas of British Columbia, where the vineyards melted into a vast landscape of rugged mountains and lakes. This time, as my plane departed the minuscule Elmira airport in rural New York, my viscera barely twitched. Something was wrong.

Glynis of and Reggie of with the author

Glynis of and Reggie of with the author (center)

I went over the events of the conference in my mind — the tastings, the dinners, the receptions, the after-parties — all of which had been delightful. Nor could it have been the people. I deepened several friendships made at the British Columbia conference, and forged new ones as well. I left feeling more strongly connected to the wine blogger community than ever. And the winery representatives I’d met couldn’t have been more personable. One winemaker even invited me to stay at his house, should I return to the area! Then the problem became clear.

Somehow, over the course of my three nights at the Wine Bloggers Conference in Corning, I had managed to avoid visiting a single winery or vineyard. How was this possible?

I am as much to blame as anyone, since I didn’t make time for either the pre- or post-conference excursion to the Finger Lakes, both of which included multiple winery visits. The town of Corning itself, charming though it may be, with its quaint downtown and impressive museums of glass and American art, is bereft of vineyards. I knew this, and just assumed that an excursion to a winery or two would take place during the conference as had happened in the past.

We did hop on buses at one point to get into the countryside, but we didn’t know where a bus was going until we were already en route. My bus made a perfectly pleasant trip to the Manor House on Keuka Lake, where we tasted an array of delicious Rieslings. The word “exotic” keeps appearing in my notes about these Rieslings, which exhibited aromas like jasmine and incense and flavors of roses, ginger and fleshy peach. These were well-balanced and rather sexy wines, made by the likes of Ravines, Vineyard View, Barrington and McGregor.

The Manor House on Keuka Lake

The Manor House near Keuka Lake

I loved this flavor journey along the Keuka Lake Wine Trail, but it was unfortunately unaccompanied by a physical journey to any wineries or vineyards. The Manor House made for a pretty event venue, with food stations set up inside the house stocked with fluffy gnocchi in Gorgonzola cream sauce and sweet-and-sour glazed pork meatballs which we nibbled on the lake-view terrace. But it could not substitute for a winery.

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit an array of wine regions over the years, and when I drink something from a place I know, the wine transports me there in the manner of Proust’s madeleine. When I drink Tokaji, I find myself back in that 500-year-old cellar caked with mold or on the vine-clad hillside near my hotel, staring aghast at the gash where the communist regime mined a Grand Cru vineyard for clay. When I drink a well-crafted wine from Mendoza, my skin remembers how the breeze felt as it swept down from the distant Andes and across the vineyards surrounding me. I can still physically feel these places in a way that I simply can’t the Finger Lakes.

This lack made something clear to me which, in retrospect, should probably have been obvious. I don’t feel like I know a wine until I’ve actually visited where it’s made. When you stand quietly for a little while in a vineyard, the terroir seeps into you, just a bit, just like it does the wine. Touching and smelling the casks in a cellar — it connects you to the wine, deepening your experience when you taste it. Tasting alone is not enough.

I’m still bobbing on the surface of the Finger Lakes. One day soon I’ll have to fix that.

Finger Lakes Speed Blogging: The Whites

17 August 2015
Peter Weis pouring Dr. Konstantin Frank

Peter Weis pouring Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Grüner Veltliner

Speed blogging at the Wine Bloggers Conference never fails to be wild and woolly, and this year was woollier than most. The WiFi during the first session proved woefully inadequate for a giant conference room full of wine bloggers, which made writing my post as I tasted — my preferred method of speed blogging — impossible. So, alas, this post did not come straight from the glass to my blog, it passed through a paper notebook first.

Hopefully this detour did little to dull or dilute my descriptions. Certainly, none of the white Finger Lakes wines we tasted were dull:

2014 Three Brothers Wineries and Estates Grüner Veltliner: “So Grüner — it’s gonna take over,” presenter Jon Mansfield, one of the three brothers of this winery declared. “It has the best parts of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürztraminer smashed together.” I’m not entirely convinced that’s true, but I certainly liked this Grüner. It had a humid green aroma, Jolly Rancher apple fruit, tart and zesty acids and an almost bitter finish. Surely food-friendly, and unquestionably refreshing.

2014 Americana Vineyards “Apparition”: I’m a little confused by this wine; the fact sheet notes that it’s 100% Vidal Blanc, but the winery’s website describes it as “a blend of Cayuga grapes.” The presenter described it as Vidal Blanc, however, so I’m going with that. In any case, this semi-dry wine had a round aroma marked by some orange and peach, and peachy fruit flavors balanced by very tart acids and a texture verging on petillance. Fun and well-crafted. Not too shabby for a hybrid varietal!

2014 Dr. Konstantin Frank Grüner Veltliner: Peter Weis, pictured above, cleverly flattered his audience, explaining to us that he chose the Grüner because he wanted to pour something “unusual and sophisticated.” He chose wisely. It had a fresh, rather herbaceous aroma, and it tasted wonderfully crisp and bright, with notes of fresh hay, ripe fruit, limey acids and a dry-pasta finish. Delightful. And my word, what a steal at $15 a bottle. Maybe Grüner will be taking over after all?

2014 Atwater Estate Vineyards Chardonnay: This wine was, in a word, bonkers. Harvested from 40-year-old vines, the Chardonnay grapes are fermented with skins, seeds and even some stems, and the juice then sits unfiltered for six months in neutral oak barrels. Nor does Atwater filter the wine when it comes time for bottling. It ends up looking quite turbid and bright orange, like a slightly more subdued Tang. “This is a style of wine made since the beginning of time,” the presenter explained, “fermented in open-top wood bins.” It smelled almost perfumed, and it had quite a texture. Citrus, ripe stone fruit, and a tart, dry finish. Fascinating!

2012 Wagner Vineyards Caywood East Vineyard Dry Riesling: Presenter Katie Roller poured Wagner’s first single-vineyard Riesling, which proved to be quite tasty. Aromas of orange and shower curtain, and appley fruit, tart acids and a dry finish. Well-balanced and a good value at $18 a bottle. Another fine effort from Wagner.

2014 Lamoreaux Landing Red Oak Vineyard Riesling: This wine was named by someone important, I didn’t write who, as one of “The World’s Top 20 Single-Vineyard Rieslings.” That’s a lot to live up to — the world has no shortage of superb single-vineyard Rieslings. But I must admit I really liked this wine. It felt classy and refined, and it took me on a nice flavor journey. Ripe fruit, some exotic spice, a pleasantly dry finish… Really lovely, and at $20 a bottle, it’s a deal.

2010 Casa Larga Fiori Delle Stelle Vidal Blanc Ice Wine: “Ice wine — it’s not just for breakfast anymore,” according to Leslie, the vivacious presenter. Made from vines grown on the extreme northwest edge of the Finger Lakes AVA, this Vidal Blanc ice wine takes no shortcuts. The winery lets the grapes hang on the vine until they freeze naturally, rather than harvesting them and freezing them by artificial means. The effort pays off; the wine has a gorgeous rich gold color, a fresh honeyed aroma, and a lush texture balanced by orangey acids. It’s pricey at $40, but making ice wine is risky business.

Whoops! No one presented a wine to us during this five-minute block, despite my increasingly loud pleas for someone to pour us some wine, for heaven’s sake. Our glasses, sadly, remained empty for all five minutes. It doesn’t sound like much, but five minutes without wine at a Wine Bloggers Conference is an eternity.

2014 Boundary Breaks Dry Riesling  #239: “I bet everything on Riesling,” Boundary Breaks owner Bruce Murray confided. “I took my life savings and I put it in the ground.” I’m not one to support gambling, but I can’t deny I’m glad Murray went all-in: #239 tastes fantastic. The number refers to the Riesling clone from which this wine is made, Geisenheim #239, named after the German wine research institute which popularized it (see page 29). It has a really ripe and fruity nose, and plenty of rich tropical fruit on the palate. That moves to some focused spice and some tart acids, keeping everything wonderfully balanced. Well worth the $20 asking price.

2013 Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc: Winemaker Michael Reidy presented this delicious Sauvignon Blanc, of which only 600 cases were produced. “I use as many yeasts as I can to get complexity,” he explained. “because we machine-pick [the grapes].” I rather loved this wine, with its dewy grass/green hay aroma, creamy fruit, supple white-pepper spice and surprising light-caramel finish. A great value for $19, and a thoroughly delightful finish to Speed Blogging, Finger Lakes Whites Edition!

For more speed blogging action, check out this post about Finger Lakes reds.

Finger Lakes Speed Blogging: The Reds

15 August 2015
Speed Blogging - The Reds

Fred Merwath presenting Hermann J. Wiemer’s Cabernet Franc

I currently write from New York’s beautiful Finger Lakes region, where this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference has taken over the town of Corning. We recently finished one of my favorite of the conference’s annual activities: Speed Blogging.

Here’s how it works: Winery representatives move from table to table around the room, spending five minutes at each pouring and describing their wines.

We did the whites first, but because of an internet connection snafu, I had to do my “blogging” in a paper notebook. So we’ll start with rosés and reds:

2011 Ventosa Vineyards Cabernet Franc: Winemaker Jenna LaVita poured our first of 10 tastes. “It’s a trustworthy wine,” she explained, “and it’s the first grape I really worked on. It showed me the ropes. I feel like I have a personal connection to it.” It shows. The wine has big, fruity aroma and it tastes rich and round and full. It has a heft that some of the other Finger Lakes Cabernet Francs have been missing. It’s beautifully balanced, and I would happily pay the the $27 price tag, and then some.

2012 Damiani Wine Cellars Barrel Select Cabernet Franc: Our second Cab Franc had a fruity and spicy aroma, verging on herbaceousness. Owner Lou Damiani explained that this wine is unfined and unfiltered, and it’s his favorite wine. Again, it has some heft to it. It’s a big wine, with serious dark fruit, big but supple tannins, a little underlying funk and plenty of acids for balance, not to mention a significant 14% alcohol. It has a serious price tag, too, costing a cool $43, but I suspect that only seems expensive because I’m sitting here in the Finger Lakes.

2013 Lamoreaux Landing T23 Unoaked Cabernet Franc: Presenter Mario Del Rosso brought over an entirely different but still lovely Cabernet Franc. “Now we’re thinking about Loire Valley style,” he began, “and this [unoaked] style is one that really showcases the grape. It’s a nice choice for white wine drinkers who want to go to red.” After those two hefty Cab Francs in a row, I can’t deny I felt suspicious of this stainless-steel fermented version, but I really enjoyed its ample cherry fruit, focused white pepper spice, hint of violets and generally cheerful character.

NV Hazlitt Vineyards Schooner Red Blend:  Director of Winemaker Tim Benedict “We call this an ‘international blend’ because it includes 64% Malbec from Argentina.” He wanted to see what would happen when they blended the Malbec with local grapes, in this case 28% Cabernet Franc and 8% Merlot. That’s a gutsy move considering the current fashion for wines representative of their terroir. It has a meaty red fruit aroma, plenty of fruit, a big violet note and some white pepper spice. Not a bad deal for $14, though I would probably cough up $10 more and go for the Ventosa…

NV Idol Ridge Winery “Sparkle” Rosé: Made by a family winery (presenter Michaela Martin is third-generation), this unusual pink bubbly made from Noiret has a very herbaceous aroma, and flavors of strawberry cotton candy, as Glynis of Vino Noire beside me astutely noted. Small bubbles and plenty of lemony acids. Is it worth the $19 price tag? I liked it, but I don’t know if I $19 liked it.

2012 Swedish Hill Cabernet Franc Lemberger: According to winemaker Derek Wilbur, the 2012 season allowed the grapes to ripen very well, which is important for both varieties in this blend. This 60% Cab Franc and 40% Lemberger has an enticing aroma of cherry fruit and mocha, a light body, a touch of spice and some tannins on the finish. It feels a little watery in the middle, but by the third taste, it was opening — I wish I had a little more time with this one! Ah, the perils of speed blogging. $16 or $17, and a good value at that.

Americana Vineyards Baco Noire: This pretty magenta French hybrid is “wonderfully hearty and disease-resistant,” according to the presenter, but that’s not going to sell me on a hybrid. I am intrigued by its spicy and herbaceous aroma, but it has a fairly simple light and fruity flavor, and a dry finish marked by soft tannins. It’s fun and fruity, but I can think of a better way to spend $16.

2012 Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyards Cabernet Franc: Presenter Fred Merwath knew how to impress this table of wine bloggers, pouring his 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’s less weighty and more cheerful than the first two Cab Francs above, and I loved it. A fine value at $25 (for the regular bottle, not the magnum, alas).

2011 Wagner Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve: This reserve Pinot is made only in certain years, according to presenter and PR Director Katie Roller, when the vintage proves to be especially high-quality. The aroma of dried herbs, cherries and earth certainly smells encouraging, and yes, it has a delightful quality of restrained power. Bright cherry fruit leads slowly to earth and building white-pepper spice. As is so often the case in the Finger Lakes, it’s a fine value, costing $30 a bottle.

2010 Lucas Vineyards Cabernet Franc Limited Reserve: Winemaker Jeff Houck told us that what makes this wine “Limited Reserve” is the vintage. Like Wagner, he chooses only certain years in which to release these wines. It has a surprisingly bright aroma unlike any other Cab Franc I’ve smelled here in the Finger Lakes: red fruit overlayed with eucalyptus. I immensely enjoyed its big red fruit, sparkly white-pepper spice and underlying freshness, followed by supple tannins. Delightful! And again, it’s a great deal at $20.

Next up: The whites!

Phylloxera And The TSA

13 August 2015

As I write this, I’m awaiting my flight to Corning, New York, where this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference will take place. The wine talk this year started a little early, however.

When I walked through the metal detector in the TSA Precheck line in O’Hare’s Terminal 1, it beeped, most unexpectedly. As a relatively frequent traveler, I’ve perfected a uniform I wear through the detector that I know won’t set it off. But it wasn’t my outfit that caused the beep.

“You’ve been selected for additional screening,” the security guard informed me. Ah well. I alerted him that I preferred to opt out of the backscatter machine and do a pat-down instead. I don’t trust the emphatic government claims of the machine’s safety. It’s only been in operation a few years — not long enough to ascertain any long-term effects — and it’s no secret that the government isn’t always honest with the public.

In any case, I opted out, and a tall gentleman in his late 50s led me to the pat-down mat. “Have you done this before? Good — OK, so you know I’ll be touching inside your collar and brush against some potentially sensitive areas with the back of my hand. OK, please raise your arms.” He felt my sleeves, and asked, “So where are you off to today?”

“I’m headed to Corning, New York, to go to a Wine Blogger Conference. It should be a hoot.”

“Really, so you’re a wine guy,” he asked, feeling the inside of my shirt collar. He started brushing his hand down my back. “You know, I buy wine now and then myself.”

“Oh really? What sort of things have you been drinking?”

“I’ve bought a few bottles of Caymus,” he replied, and he noted a few other brands. “I like to wait until Binny’s [Chicago’s biggest wine store] has a sale, and then I stock up. The good stuff is all sitting in my basement, and when I retire, I’ll start opening it,” he laughed, running his fingers around the inside of my waistband.

“That’s a really good strategy,” I concurred. “Binny’s has some great sales!”

“Absolutely,” he agreed, now standing in front of me and patting my torso. “You know, It’s funny, but I really like Chilean wine, too.”

“Ah, Chilean wines give you a lot of bang for the buck,” I said, because it’s true.

“Right, they’re really good! You know, there was a fungus in the 80s that attacked American vines. Yeah, they had to cut the vines off, and transplant them to different roots.” I realized he was talking about phylloxera, which is an insect, not a fungus. And it caused the most damage in Europe, not the United States, and that was in the late 19th century, not the 1980s.

“Oh right!” I nevertheless replied, not correcting him because doing so would have been inconsiderate, and because he was at that moment running his hands down my legs, starting at a “sensitive area.”

“But in Chile,” he explained, “they never had the fungus [insect]. That’s why I think their wines taste a little better,” he confided in me, giving me a wink as he checked his gloved hands for bomb residue. And he may indeed be right — there are those who say that American rootstocks adversely affected the taste of European wines post-phylloxera, and that Chilean wines may have a slight advantage, growing on their original vinifera roots. “Have fun at your conference!”

I put my belt, shoes and watch back on, wondering how the heck I ended up talking about phylloxera with a security guard’s fingers partially in my pants. I can only imagine that it’s an omen of things to come at the Wine Bloggers Conference!

Postcard From Fiji: The Hibiscus Bleach

8 August 2015

Bartender Tila at Nanuku in FijiI asked the Nanuku resort’s bartender, Tila (affectionately known as “Tila Tequila”) to repeat the name of the cocktail she was making for me. “Hibiscus Bleach,” she said again.

Still unwilling to believe I was about to drink a cocktail with the word “bleach” in the name, I ventured, “Hibiscus Beach?”

“Bleach,” she responded, with impeccable diction and infinite patience (she’s Fijian, after all). Hibiscus Bleach it was, and there was no getting around it. I watched intently as she prepared the drink, partially in hopes that it would make for a good blog post and mostly to reassure myself that none of the ingredients could be used as cleaning products.

“Start with four or five hibiscus flowers,” she explained, “and remove the insides.” She plucked out the pistils and stamens, stuffed the remaining petals in a large beaker and poured hot water over them. As the flowers steeped, she squeezed a lime and measured out some honey. It didn’t take long for the water to turn a deep pink.

Hibiscus BleachHere’s where things got interesting. When Tila removed the flowers, they had lost nearly all their color — the petals had turned white with only veins of pink remaining. I relaxed as I finally understood the name of the cocktail. She added the lime juice to the fresh hibiscus tea, and in rather spectacular fashion, it changed from purplish pink to almost fuchsia. I usually resort to flames if I want to dazzle guests with a cocktail, but this presentation felt just as impressive as a flambée.

Mixed with honey, the alcohol-free concoction tasted delightful. It was tart and sweet, with a note of strawberry to it. It’s a delightful mocktail to serve guests who don’t drink. Mixed with two shots of dark Fijian rum, it became a powerful Hurricane-like cocktail with an undeniable sense of place.

I sipped my Hibiscus Bleach in the resort’s open-air bar beneath a cascade of mother-of-pearl shells hanging from the ceiling, accompanied by a guitar-and-ukulele men’s quartet singing in harmony, and in that moment, I couldn’t imagine anything more delicious.


–Five fresh hibiscus flowers (or dried hibiscus tea)

–Hot water

–Juice of one lime (do not use bottled juice)

–1 tablespoon honey

–High-proof dark rum (Fijian Bounty Overproof Rum is 116 proof)

The author with his new favorite bartender, Tila

The author with his new favorite bartender, Tila

Five fresh flowers yield enough for about two cocktails. If you’re not someplace where hibiscus bushes grow like weeds, substitute hibiscus tea instead. Make it strong, using one tea bag per cocktail. Remove the stamens and pistils of the flowers, and pour three cups of hot water over the petals (or tea bags).

Meanwhile, juice one lime. After you’ve let the hibiscus steep for a minute or two, remove the flowers or tea bags and add the lime juice and honey. Mix well. Pour over two lowball glasses filled with ice (use larger cubes for a stronger cocktail), and top with a shot (or two, if you’re on vacation) of high-proof dark rum. Give the drink a brief stir, and garnish if you like with a lime wedge and a hibiscus petal.

It’s Fiji in a glass.

Sweet Fear And Tasmanian Riesling

20 July 2015

Pressing Matters R69 RieslinsWhen I conferred last night with the sommelier of Jonah’s, a fancy restaurant just north of Sydney, Australia, something all-too-familiar occurred. I read over the list of wines by the glass and decided that the 2014 Pressing Matters “R69” Riesling from cool-climate Tasmania sounded like a good pairing for my first course of tagliatelle with spanner crab, lemon and chilies. The sommelier agreed, and as custom dictates, he poured a small sample for me to try before filling my glass.

Now, sommeliers often respond with concern when I test a wine. Perhaps it’s because I take too long to taste it before speaking, or perhaps my face goes all scrunchy when I concentrate on a wine’s progression of flavor. Usually a concerned sommelier just says something like, “What do you think?” But this time, the sommelier went further, asking, “How is it? Is it too much? Is it too much?” It’s like he had “kick me” sign on his chest, and he expected my foot to hit his stomach at any second. Why? Sugar.

The R69 was a rather sweet wine, the name referring to the number of grams of residual sugar, and sugar in wine is not currently fashionable. People who like sweet wines are often apologetic about the fact, believing their palates to be too unsophisticated for dry wines. Insecure wine snobs agree, their refusal to touch sweet wines ostensibly proving the superiority of their taste. Fiddlesticks. If you like sweet wines, good for you! They’re delicious. And if you don’t like sweet wines, that’s a valid preference, but nothing more. It’s not evidence of sophistication.

But sugar was not really what the sommelier at Jonah’s feared, of course. He feared I would say something like, “Ugh, oh no, that’s far too sweet for me,” with one eyebrow raised in condemnation of his decision to put the wine on the list. I’ve seen restaurant patrons do it more than once. That kind of response pains me, because the R69, like any high-quality wine that dares to include some sugar, was an absolute delight.

The wine smelled of sweet white flower and white peach, leavened with a bit of (varietally correct) plastic shower curtain. It had lush fruit, zesty orangey acids and some vanilla on the finish. I loved the exciting interplay of the acids and sweet fruit — this wine demanded attention, and it worked beautifully with the tagliatelle. The acids absolutely blossomed with its sweet and savory flavors.

There surely are those who can’t abide any wine containing sugar, whatever its quality. But the rest of us have no reason to deny ourselves the pleasures of wines with a touch of sweetness. When acids and spice balance out the sugar, the results can be nothing short of electrifying (consider Sauternes and Tokaj).

If some wine connoisseur judges you for ordering a sweet wine, they’re no connoisseur. They’re just a snob.

Franciacorta: Prosecco’s Upscale Neighbor

10 July 2015

Cavalleri Franciacorta

I love sparkling wine at any time of year, but it tastes especially good in summer. It’s refreshing, it’s light and it works well with everything from potato salad to ribs. Champagne continues to set the standard for sparkling wine, but because of its price, I more often reach for a nice Prosecco or Cava which can be had for as little as $12 a bottle (I tend to avoid those costing less). When I’m feeling a little fancier — but not quite ready to drop $35 on Champagne — I opt instead for a Franciacorta.

Few people outside Italy had heard of this region bordering Lake Iseo in north-central Italy until the 1970s. That’s when, as The World Atlas of Wine explains, the Berlucchi family started to directly imitate the methods of Champagne, methods “subsequently taken up by farm after farm” in the area. The Berlucchis sparked a sparkling wine revolution, bottle fermentation became the norm, and now, as The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia asserts, “Franciacorta is currently the only Italian dry sparkling-wine appellation that can demand respect from the rest of the world.”

What about Prosecco, you may reasonably wonder. Never one to mince words, Sotheby’s complains that most Prosecco is “boring.” The Oxford Companion to Wine goes even further, arguing that “The finished wines are light and frothing, their neutrality and defects too often masked by over-generous additions of sugar.” Ouch.

Contemplating the CavalleriWell, I have no problem with Prosecco. Its price doesn’t lead me to expect too much of it, and despite its lack of bottle fermentation, it usually has small bubbles and enough flavor to be fun, if not truly interesting. And if you just need something for mimosas, Prosecco won’t let you down.

Franciacorta, on the other hand, aspires to some elegance, as indicated by price tags ranging from about $20 to $40, and occasionally more. Not inexpensive, but certainly not reaching into the lofty heights of Champagne prices, either. That makes it a perfect wine to open over a casual weekend dinner with your loved one. It’s exactly the sort of thing I might bring to my parents’ house to drink at a family barbecue before the rest of the family arrives.

I recently received three free sample bottles of Franciacorta to try, and I managed to twist a few friends’ arms into trying them with me:

La Montina BrutCavalleri Blanc de Blancs: This 100% Chardonnay tasted fine, with notes of wood, round fruit and lemony acids. Unfortunately, the aroma smelled distinctly of varnish (one friend described it as “rancid plastic”). I suspect something happened to this bottle. A notable varnish odor indicates an overabundance of ethyl acetate, which, as Wikipedia describes, can smell sweet in small quantities but like nail polish remover in larger amounts. Average Retail: $20

Ronco Calino Brut: A blend of 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Noir, the Ronco Calino smelled ever so much better than the Cavalleri: like green apples with a touch of minerality. The bubbles felt small, fizzy and very prickly, ensuring that this wine would pair with all sorts of foods. I liked its rather heady flavors of fermented apples and honeysuckle. It would surely be a hit at a party. Average Retail: $27

La Montina Brut: This Franciacorta exuded elegance. It smelled very enticing with notes of red apple and dusky orange, and even a touch of caramel. The tiny bubbles were very classy. It felt fruity, zesty and rich all at once, making for quite a bright and beautiful bubbly, and my favorite Franciacorta of the evening. Average Retail: $25

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