Arizona

Top 10 Wines Of 2012

22 December 2012

It's raining wine (glasses)!As when I wrote the previous Top 10 post about spirits and cocktails, compiling this list filled me with a sense of gratitude. What fortune, to have tasted so many fascinating and unusual wines this past year!

The title of this post is a bit misleading, however. I certainly won’t pretend to claim to know what the “best” wines of the year were. Instead, this rather idiosyncratic list highlights the wines I thought were the most exciting, whether it was because of superlative quality, unusual grape variety or off-the-beaten-track vineyard sites.

If this list demonstrates one thing, it’s that there’s a whole world of delicious unusual wine out there, and it’s bigger than even I imagined. There’s never been a better time to take a risk on something off the wall.

Links lead to the original posts about the wines:

10. MEXICAN WINE — Perhaps the most surprising discovery of the year, the Mexican wines I tasted proved to be refined and satisfying. There wasn’t a stinker in the bunch! One representative wine is the 2011 Monte Xanic Chenin Colombard, a blend of 98% Chenin Blanc and 2% Colombard. This wine from Baja started with lush, white, almost tropical fruit. It had a spicy midsection with some grapefruity acids and a slightly chalky finish. Quite delicious, and excellent with some duck carnitas tacos.

9. 2010 PAGE SPRINGS CELLARS “LA SERRANA” — Wine from Arizona surprised me as much as that from Mexico. But the Mediterranean terroir there seems to work quite well for certain varieties, especially those usually associated with the Rhône. This blend of 50% Viognier and 50% Rousanne had a nutty, almost buttery aroma, and it certainly tasted rich and creamy. But it was fruity as well, and ample acids kept the wine light on its feet.

8. AUSTRIAN ST. LAURENT — It can be hard to find, but this sexy, earthy red will reward the hunt. The single-vineyard 2007 Johanneshof Reinisch ”Holzspur” Grand Reserve St. Laurent is a fine example. A brick red, the Holzspur sucked me in with a dusky nose of very dark fruit. It had a medium body, powerful spice, big fruit and a long finish. It’s Eartha Kitt in a bottle.

7. PESSAC-LÉOGNAN — A mere 650 acres are devoted to white grapes in this highly regarded but little-known corner of Bordeaux, producing some positively sumptuous wines. My favorite was the 2005 Château Malartic-Lagravière “Le Sillage de Malartic”, a 100% Sauvignon Blanc. On the nose were voluptuously ripe peaches, and tropical fruit worked its way into the palate. Some minerals kept things grounded, as did a rather woody finish. A joy to drink.

6. NV MICHEL TURGY RÉSERVE-SÉLECTION BLANC-DE-BLANC BRUT CHAMPAGNE — Champagne can hardly be classified as an obscure beverage, but it is all too unusual in my household. I had been saving this bottle of grower Champagne (made by the same person/company which owns the vineyards, in contrast to the vast majority of Champagnes on the market) for a special occasion, and it rose to the moment. The elegantly tiny bubbles felt delicate on the tongue, and the lively acids hinted at by the appley nose balanced the rich flavors of caramel corn and a bit of toast. And the finish! Nearly endless.

Brian at Keswick Vineyards5. 2010 KESWICK VINEYARDS MERLOT — Virginia boasts an array of fine wineries these days, and Keswick Vineyards is one of the very best. Most of Keswick’s production gets sucked up by its wine club, meaning that you either have to join the club or visit the winery. It’s worth the effort. The Merlot had a beautiful nose that reminded me of when I used to spread raspberry jam and Nutella on toasted rolls. On the palate, it was voluptuous but well-structured — like a 40-something Sophia Loren.

4. 2004 CHÂTEAU FLUTEAU CUVÉE PRESTIGE BLANC DE BLANCS — The only thing more unusual than a grower Champagne is a vintage grower Champagne. This example, made in part by a Chicago native, had nose-catching aromas of lime, peach and yeast . On the palate, it moved from popcorn to tart apple to a whisper of limestone on the finish. The ample bubbles felt very fine, delicate and elegant, and there was some real depth there as well. As it breathed, the Fluteau mellowed, becoming even richer.

3. RARE WINE COMPANY “MALMSEY” SPECIAL RESERVE MADEIRA — Madeira, a fortified wine produced on the tiny Atlantic island of the same name, tends to appear with dessert, if at all. But at Stella! in New Orleans, the creative sommelier paired it with some crispy veal sweetbreads with andouille sausage, turnips and egg yolk. Good heavens, what a marvelous pairing! The Madeira smelled rich and woodsy, with some wheat toast in there as well. It tasted predictably sweet and caramelly, but startlingly bright acids kicked in on the finish, ensuring that it would be food friendly. It complemented the delicate sweetbreads but stood up to the andouille and turnips as well. Quite the balancing act! I don’t often write “Wow!” in my notebook, but write it I did.

2. 2006 CHÂTEAU CHEVAL BLANC — You could be forgiven for wondering why something from one of the most celebrated wineries on the planet makes an appearance on a blog “dedicated to drinking the unusual and obscure.” Well I don’t know about you, but it’s pretty unusual for me to sample a $1,035 bottle of wine. I tried it in a wine bar in the city of Bordeaux, near where it’s made, and though it’s still very young, it tasted dazzling. It had a chocolatey nose, and a more open character than the other Bordeaux First Growths I sampled. It felt racier — sexier — with voluptuous fruit corseted by strong tannins.

1. 2010 SATTLERHOF TROCKENBEERENAUSLESE — Crafted from Sauvignon Blanc fruit affected by Noble Rot, which concentrates the flavors and sugars, this Austrian beauty blew me away. If you don’t like sweet wines, this one might just change your mind. A deeply golden hue, it had rich fruit and a lush, luxurious sweetness balanced — perfectly, beautifully, improbably — by a veritable kick line of acids. Sheer, unadulterated delight.

A Wine Region On The Cusp: Part 2

27 June 2012

As I mentioned at the end of the previous post, I still hadn’t quite put all the pieces together. How was it that Arizona, of all places, was coming up with these numerous high-quality wines?

In the professional and lively tasting room of Page Springs Cellars, an assistant winemaker named Matt pointed out the obvious: “We have ample water from the creek outside, and there’s an aquifer below.” He continued describing the terroir, how the rocky hillsides were well-drained with poor soil (the soil shouldn’t be too fertile — you want the vines to struggle a bit). The weather was hot during the day, of course, but at night, the high-elevation vineyards stayed nice and cool. Indeed, I had cozied up to my fireplace the evening before.

In short, the Page Springs terroir is pretty darn great. Most of the fruit, however, still seems to come from Arizona’s southeast, which is at a similar elevation.

Matt thought Malvasia might become one of Arizona’s signature varieties, and my tasting at Page Springs Cellars certainly supported that theory. I sampled that along with a number of other excellent wines, mostly Rhône varietals and blends, the quality of which no longer came as a surprise. If you only have time to visit one winery while in the Sedona area, this should be it.

Here’s a rundown of my tasting. Again, all the fruit from these wines comes from southeastern Arizona, not the Page Springs area, unless otherwise noted:

2010 Bonita Springs Malvasia: Like all the other wines I sampled at Page Springs Cellars, this one came with an eye-catching black and white label. The nose had big fruit and a touch of flowers, and juicy acids balanced subtle flavors of peach and pineapple. $28

2010 La Serrana: Try this blend of 50% Viognier from the Arizona Stronghold vineyard and 50% Rousanne from the Colibri vineyard as soon as you can. According to the Page Springs Cellars website, “A portion of the [Colibri] vineyard was burned to the ground. Thirty-foot high flames cooked the vineyard on three sides and damaged many other vines.” The wine had a nutty, almost buttery aroma, and it certainly tasted rich and creamy. But it was fruity as well, and ample acids kept the wine light on its feet. $30

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A Wine Region On The Cusp: Part 1

23 June 2012

When I tell people about the quality of many Arizona wines, most respond by saying something like, “They make wine in Arizona?” Before I visited, I had my doubts as well. Surely it’s too hot and too dry to make serious wine, I thought. The overblown wines I tasted at Tlaquepaque confirmed some of my fears, but a visit to Page Springs restored my confidence in the potential of Arizona to make delicious wine.

My first stop began inauspiciously. I asked to taste the entire range of wines on the menu at Oak Creek Vineyards (except the white zin), and requested a spit bucket. “We don’t have spit buckets,” the friendly but rather taken-aback employee replied. Spitting at the bar was actually expressly forbidden by the health department, because cheeses and charcuterie are served there. After wrapping my head around the idea of a tasting room without spit buckets (you can’t walk to this tasting room, after all), I managed to negotiate a spit-friendly place at a different table.

The wines I tasted were all good, and some were excellent. Priced between $20 and $30, these wines aren’t inexpensive, but if you can find them, they’re worth it. Not only will you get a tasty bottle, you’ll be investing in an up-and-coming wine region I feel is destined for greatness. Many of the wineries are less than 10 years old, but they are already producing impressive stuff.

Here’s what I discovered at Oak Creek. All of these wines, unless otherwise noted, are made with fruit from Arizona’s southeast, not Page Springs:

2010 Oak Creek Fumé Blanc: An almost limey aroma, with a little intriguing funk. Bracing, limey acids, and some stone on the finish. Very refreshing. $24

2010 Oak Creek Viognier: I loved this one. It had peaches and pineapples on the nose, but it wasn’t a perfume bomb. I tasted lily of the valley and litchi, followed by some light acids. In spite of how it sounds, this well-made wine was definitely dry. I’m a sucker for these aromatic dry whites, and I wouldn’t hesitate to buy it. $26

2010 Oak Creek Sunflower Chardonnay: This blend combines Chardonnay from the Page Springs estate with Roussane (a Rhône variety) grown in southeast Arizona. It may have been the power of suggestion, but I had to agree that this wine smelled like buttery roasted sunflower seeds. Or perhaps buttermilk? It felt creamy on the palate, but lemony acids kept things alive and balanced. $24

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A Spectacle in Sedona

16 June 2012

At Tlaquepaque, an open-air mall in Sedona, I found a gourmet shop offering tastings of Arizona wines. I couldn’t resist, of course, and ordered four tastes. As I sat outside, sipping a rather odd white and three overheated, overly alcoholic fruit bombs, I noticed people looking at me. One fellow sitting on a bench kept turning my way to see what I was up to, and a whole family turned their heads when they passed.

I wondered what the heck was going on here. Do people not drink wine in Sedona? Or was it that I had a flight of four glasses in front of me? Or maybe I looked like an illegal immigrant?

Finally, one older gentleman wearing a sun visor stopped dead in his tracks, not 15 feet in front of me, and just stared. I looked back at him, confused, but he maintained a steady gaze. “Can I help you?” I asked.

“Oh no, you’re giving me all the help I need, drinking those wines!”

“OK…”

“What are you all drinking there? Merlot? I like Merlot. It’s easy on the throat.”

“Oh yeah, well, these are actually blends of some different varieties. They’re all Arizona wines.”

“Don’t you think it’s sacrilegious to mix wines together?”

“Um?”

“Isn’t it sacrilegious though? I think it’s sacrilegious. But sometimes I like to do it a little bit. Ha!”

“Well, it’s not sacrilegious if you like it. That’s what I say.”

“Ha! That’s right! That’s absolutely right. Well, that makes me feel a lot better! A lot better.”

I’m not sure my definition of “sacrilegious” would pass muster with the Inquisition, but I’m glad I could help. In Sedona, it seems, you can get away with being a little loosey-goosey. Unfortunately, the winemakers of the red-wine floozies I was tasting seemed to feel the same way.

Cochise County Surprise

13 June 2012

I’m currently exploring the Phoenix/Scottsdale area, because, after all, who wouldn’t want to explore the Phoenix/Scottsdale area in the middle of June, just before the summer solstice? As I’ve written before in this blog, there are wineries in all 50 states. But I must admit that I didn’t expect any Arizona wines to stand out. Do vineyards even grow here? Or is there just cactus wine?

Vineyards do grow here, I’ve learned, and quite well in fact. If the wines I’ve tasted so far are any indication, Cochise County in the far southeastern corner of the state (bordering Mexico) has some very fine vineyards indeed, kept cool, I suspect, by their relatively high elevation.

Both the Arizona Biltmore and The Phoenician (two high-end resorts) serve wines crafted by Arizona Stronghold, a newborn of a winery founded in 2007 by Eric Glomski and Maynard Keenan. Together, they revitalized the Dos Cabezas vineyard, tearing up underperforming varieties and planting new vines. The results of their efforts, along with winemaker Tim White and Director of Vineyard Operations Craig Martinsen, are nothing short of remarkable.

At dinner in Frank & Alberts, I drank a 2010 Arizona Stronghold “Tazi” white blend (vintage unknown), and it wowed me. A blend of 38% Malvasia, 21% Sauvignon Blanc, 19% Riesling, 15% Pinot Gris and 7% Chardonnay, the Tazi smells very sweet, like ripe apples and pineapples. But on the palate, it starts quite dry, moving into aromatic/floral flavors before some food-friendly acids kick in. It finishes with a bit of white pepper, which became more pronounced paired with some swordfish. Had I tasted it blind, I would have identified it as a high-quality Viognier.

The 2010 Arizona Stronghold “Mangus” red blend impressed me as well. The Canyon Suites at The Phoenician serves this as well as the Tazi during the daily wine and cheese hour. I love that they went with something local, instead of some anonymous Chardonnay and Merlot. The red blend also combines a wide array of varieties: 71% Sangiovese, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Malbec, 3% Petit Verdot and 2% Merlot. This mutt of a wine smells rather tight, like iron, clay and red fruit. The ripe, rich flavors surprised me. The wine seemed on the verge of overheating, but it kept itself under control. The flavors of blackberry jam, earth and black pepper tasted great on their own or paired with a chunk of morbier cheese.

I’m heading to Sedona tomorrow, and I hear a few wineries huddle together in nearby Page Springs. I hope the Arizona Stronghold blends are a just a taste of more fine wines yet to come!