California

A Sensible Napa Red

28 June 2014
Horror Show 3

Label photo courtesy of Vending Machine Winery

Readers of this blog could be forgiven for feeling at times frustrated, because after I extol the virtues of Somló Juhfark or Slovak Furmint, I frequently write something like, “You’ll have trouble finding this anywhere other than Bratislava.” And let’s face it, Bratislava is just not at the top of everyone’s travel bucket list. So let’s break from obscure Eastern European wines for a moment, and consider a nice red from a winery in Napa.

Napa does not figure prominently in this blog — Arizona has more entries — but that’s not to say there aren’t enticingly unusual cuvées coming from America’s most famous wine region. As a gift for watching their cats, some thoughtful friends recently brought over a Napa red (or more accurately, a Lodi/Sierra Nevada Foothills red) which turned out to be one of the most unusual blends I’ve ever encountered.

The label (right) already indicates that this wine won’t be your usual Cabernet. The 2011 Vending Machine Winery “Horror Show” is in fact an absolutely insane-sounding blend of Sousão, a red Portuguese grape figuring prominently in Port; Montepulciano, an Italian variety planted mostly in central Italy; and Tannat, which originated in southwest France but is more well-known as the national grape of Uruguay. How on earth did these three disparate varieties come to live in the same bottle? I telephoned the winery to find out.

Neil Gernon, who owns the winery with his wife, Monica Bourgeois, answered my call. He explained that “Horror Show” is a slang term used in the film A Clockwork Orange to indicate “dark, brooding fun.” And who wouldn’t enjoy a wine that tasted like that? So Gernon and Bourgeois got to work, thinking about dark grapes to include in a potential Horror Show blend. They hit right away on Sousão, because it “makes Petit Sirah look light,” according to Gernon. And Petit Sirah seemed a little too obvious in any case.

IMG_6778Building from brooding Sousão, they hit on Montepulciano, which is “dark in color but with bright, red-berry fruit,” Gernon explained. But the blend still needed something else, some undergirding of earth. Bourgeois and Gernon settled on Tannat, which adds “earthy, funky” notes and some tannic power. So there’s the initial fun fruit of the Montepulciano, the brooding mid-palate of the Sousão and the dark, powerful finish of the Tannat. After Gernon explained it, this extremely unorthodox blend sounded like the most sensible thing in the world. 

And it works! I recently brought the bottle to my parents’ house for a stir-fry dinner on a cool evening, and the wine’s dark, meaty fruit and rowdy acids paired deliciously with the beef. The wine had rustic red fruit, notes of iron and earth and a lovely aromatic quality on top balancing its sense of thickness. The wine wasn’t fussy, as you might gather from the description of its finish on the website: “Just when you feel safe, the thrill ramps up like a graveyard shovel hit to the mouth.” 

I wouldn’t describe this wine as refined, but I certainly enjoyed it in any case. If you’re in the mood for something big, bold and rustic, with lots of fruit, lots of acids and lots of earth, Horror Show is an ideal choice. And its beautiful but distressing label, which changes every year, makes this wine perfect for Halloween. Dark, brooding fun indeed.

You can find Horror Show and other Vending Machine Winery bottlings at the stores and restaurants listed here. Horror Show retails for about $28; not inexpensive, but a reasonable price for the flavor it delivers.

Top Red Wines Of 2013

30 December 2013

August Kesseler SpätburgunderThis 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.

You’ll note that nary a wine from France made the list below, for example. Everyone knows top Bordeaux and Burgundy taste great, and the prices reflect that fame. 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, whether we’re in California, Italy, Uruguay or British Columbia.  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 2013, in alphabetical order:

 

ART+FARM “THE MESSENGER” RED WINE NUMBER ONE (LOT #612):

This is one complicated blend. No fewer than 11 different Californian wines made their way into the mix, including Cabernets from Lake County and Napa, Merlots from Napa and Sonoma, Malbecs from Napa and Dry Creek, Cabernet Franc from Napa and Montepulciano from the Shenandoah Valley.

After reading the list above, you might be wondering what a Montepulciano is doing in a blend that’s otherwise all standard Bordeaux varieties. According to winemaker Kat McDonald, just 12% of Montepulciano “completely changes the texture and color of this wine. As one of my fellow tasters astutely noted, “It’s dark, but not heavy.” I loved the aromas of mocha and dark fruit, and indeed, it tasted dark and dusky but lively as well, with well-balanced black-pepper spice. Paired with some dried blueberries, additional floral notes came to the fore, and the tannins became even more pronounced. This is one sexy blend, and a fantastic value at $18.

 

Cantele2009 CANTELE SALICE SALENTINO RISERVA:

According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, the best wines in Italy’s Salice Salentino DOC are its Negroamaro-based reds, and the Cantele certainly did not disappoint. This 100% Negroamaro had tight, powdery red-fruit aroma and ample fruit on the palate. I got a blast of cherries, and others in the group also tasted currants and raisins. Rich but bright, this full-bodied wine had well-balanced, rustic acids and some serious tannins on the finish. Binny’s sells this red beauty for $11,  which is a steal.

 

2008 D.H. LESCOMBES CABERNET FRANC:

This wine was crafted by viticulturalist Emmanuel Lescombes and winemakers Florent and Herve Lescombes under the umbrella of St. Clair Winery, New Mexico’s largest. I sampled their Cabernet Franc in St. Clair’s Albuquerque tasting room and bistro, but the grapes were grown near Deming along the border with Mexico, at an elevation of about 4,500 feet. What a delight — it had an aroma of rich raspberry jam, and dark fruit balanced by bright, broad acids. The wine resolved into some tannins and focused spice on the finish, without a hint of anything vegetal. This wine has the richness and power to justify its rather steep $36 price tag.

 

Lake Okanagan, British Columbia, Canada

Lake Okanagan, British Columbia, Canada

2007 D’ANGELO SETTE COPPA:

This British Columbian blend contains all five of the classic Bordeaux varieties, grown on just eight acres of vineyards. It smells red and surprisingly minerally, and wow, that flavor. It has bright red fruit, focused acids, well-finessed tannins and some metallic earth on the finish. It’s a delight to drink, and a very fine value for $25.

 

2012 DOMAINE TERLATO & CHAPOUTIER SHIRAZ-VIOGNIER:

An appellation of the northern Rhône which never fails to quicken my heart is Côte Rôtie, which produces some of the world’s most coveted Syrah-based wines. These generally unaffordable wines were the inspiration for this Australian collaboration between Anthony Terlato and Rhône-based winemaker Michel Chapoutier. Together, they purchased some land north of Melbourne in the Pyrenees Hills, which is about as far from the Rhône as you can get. Nevertheless, the terroir must be similar, because this Côte Rôtie-style blend of 95% Shiraz (Syrah) and 5% Viognier is an absolute delight to drink. Shiraz, of course, is known to do very well in Australia, and it only makes sense that aromatic Viognier, another variety from the Rhône, would also flourish.

This wine had a startlingly beautiful aroma — jammy and redolent of violets. I loved its rich texture, extravagant fruit, and perfectly balanced spice and tannins. Gorgeously lush, without becoming overblown. Averaging about $17 according to Wine Searcher, this is one of the best red-wine values I’ve tasted all year.

 

2007 GEISEL WEINBAU BRENTANO “R” MARKELSHEIMER PROBSTBERG MERLOT TROCKEN:

I had a devil of a time finding a website for this single-vineyard Merlot (Markelsheimer Probstberg is the vineyard name), but I have a sneaking suspicion it’s produced by the same Geisel family which owns the hotel where I tried it, the Königshof in Munich. The restaurant’s adventurous sommelier, Stephane Thuriot, selected this wine from northern Württemberg in Germany to pair with a main course of rabbit with artichokes, spinach and saffron, and it was startlingly delicious. I knew I was in for a treat when I gave the wine a first sniff, enjoying the aroma of ripe red fruit and earth. It had a velvety texture, rich fruit and big but firmly controlled spice. Absolutely excellent.

 

2009 PALUMBO FAMILY VINEYARDS SANGIOVESE “DUE FIGLI” VINEYARD:

Matt and Joe at Palumbo

Matt and Joe at Palumbo

On a quiet side road away from the big wineries in Temecula, this winery was recommended by almost every local I spoke with. All the fruit for its wines comes from Palumbo’s 13 acres of vineyards, because owner Nicholas Palumbo “believes in producing only what he grows himself,” according to the winery website.

This single-vineyard Sangiovese was brick-red, with an earthy, jammy nose that had me itching to give this wine a taste. I was not disappointed. It was wonderfully lush, with jammy fruit, a luxurious mouthfeel and a tannic finish. Temecula is on few people’s fine-wine radar, but if it can produce wines like this Sangiovese, it’s a region worth keeping an eye on.

 

2005 PISANO “ETXE ONEKO” LICOR DE TANNAT:

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

 

2010 RUST EN VREDE ESTATE:

Three South African Bordeaux BlendsThis Stellenbosch estate in the shadow of the Helderberg has produced wine off and on for three centuries, though it took its present form only after 1977, when the Engelbrecht family purchased and restored it. The Rust en Vrede Estate wine blends Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot in a “hermitaged” style of wine popular in Bordeaux in the 19th century, when producers would sometimes beef up their blends with Syrah from the Rhône’s Hermitage region.

The deep red-fruit aroma was very enticing, marked by additional meaty and floral notes (a fellow taster at the table also detected “man musk,” which led Jean Engelbrecht to half-joke that she was forbidden from sampling any more of his wines). I loved the wine’s silky texture, rich red fruit, firmly controlled white-pepper spice and raisiny finish. The Estate felt very supple, yet it still cut right through the richness of my beef filet. I lamented that I hadn’t tried it with my appetizer of mussels, but Engelbrecht assured me I hadn’t missed anything: “I’m more of a main course kind of wine,” he quipped. But I was rather startled to discover that the Estate also paired well with a side of roasted asparagus, a notoriously difficult vegetable to match.

 

2007 SKOURAS GRAND CUVÉE NEMEA:

The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia calls Greece’s Nemea appellation “relatively reliable,” and the Skouros Agiorgitiko I tasted at the Wine Bloggers Conference more than supports that rather tepid assertion. It was memorably delicious, with a beautiful aroma of tobacco and cherries, plenty of bright acids, ample fruit and luscious notes of mocha. Anyone who still thinks Greece is nothing but a sea of Retsina should taste this.

 

And this concludes my awards for 2013! You can read about my picks for top white wines here, and my favorite spirits and cocktails here. Happy New Year, everyone!

Top White Wines Of 2013

27 December 2013

White WineLast year, I assembled all my favorites into one list, but because 2013 brought so many memorable wines I wanted to highlight, I had to separate them into top whites and top reds. Many of my favorite white wines of 2013 cost less than $20, and one can be had for less than $10 — yet more evidence that taking a risk on an unusual bottle can really pay off.

The 10 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. 

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 balance, it can be an absolutely thrilling experience. Don’t settle for white wines that are simply sweet and innocuous. 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.

You may not find all the wines below 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 shop will send you in the right direction.

And now, in alphabetical order, the most memorable white wines I tried in 2013:

 

Art+Farm's Messenger winesART+FARM “THE MESSENGER” WHITE WINE NUMBER ONE (LOT #412):

I’ve never seen a white blend quite like this one, but when I tasted it, I wondered why on earth no one thought of it before. A blend of 69% Sauvignon Blanc, 18% Muscat Canelli (also known as Muscat Blanc à Petit Grains or simply Muscat) and 13% Riesling, this beauty won over my entire crowd of tasters. One remarked, “I don’t usually like sweet wines, but I like this because it has a bite at the end.” Another more laconic taster just said, “Huge fan.”

I was immediately sucked in by the wine’s heady aroma of perfumed apples, leavened with a little funk. In this wine, it was crystal clear to me what each of the parts — sourced from both the 2010 and 2011 vintages — brought to the blend. It had the acids of a Sauvignon Blanc, the perfume of a Muscat and the lush texture of a Riesling. The wine exhibited both focus and restraint, and for $16 a bottle, it’s a smashing value.

 

2012 BOUZA ALBARINO:

The family-owned Bodega Bouza in Uruguay focuses on small production and low yields, according to its website. The Spanish Albariño grape variety has thick skins which help it withstand rot in humid climates, according to the Oxford Companion, which would seem to make Albariño an ideal choice for Uruguay. And indeed, I very much enjoyed this wine’s fresh and spicy aroma and its sharp, attention-grabbing flavors. After a start of juicy fruit, zesty acids kicked in, followed by a thrust of gingery spice and a finish of aspirin-like minerals. Powerful and exciting.

 

2012 LAPOSTOLLE “CASA GRAND SELECTION” SAUVIGNON BLANC:

The grapes for this wine come from the stony Las Kuras Vineyard in Chile’s Cachapoal Valley (south of Santiago), a former riverbed, and the vineyards are certified as both organic and biodynamic. Winemaker Andrea León Iriarte also noted that the grapes are harvested by hand at night, to help preserve freshness in the fruit.

The aroma was very reassuring, the rich lime and chalk notes already indicating a wine of fine balance. Iriarte and Lapostolle sought a round Sauvignon Blanc, in contrast to the sharp wines this variety sometimes produces. They succeeded. This Sauvignon Blanc had creamy fruit and focused, limey acids kept well in check. After a lift of white-pepper spice, the stone in the vineyards became apparent in the long finish. Complex and delicious.

What leaves me practically cross-eyed with disbelief is that this wine, which exhibits no small amount of finesse, can be had for less than $10 at Binny’s. It could stand toe-to-toe with Sancerres which cost more than twice as much. I can’t think of a better Sauvignon Blanc value to be had anywhere.

 

2008 CHIMNEY ROCK “ELEVAGE BLANC”:

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

 

Hainle Gewurztraminer Ice Wine2010 HAINLE VINEYARDS ESTATE WINERY GEWÜRZTRAMINER ICE WINE

It’s rare to see a Gewürztraminer ice wine, I learned, because the fruit usually falls off the vine before the first frost, or at the very least loses its acidity. Conditions have to be just right, and with this British Columbian ice wine, Hainle hit a smashing home run. It had a rich but fresh honeysuckle aroma, and such verve on the palate! It started lush and sweet, as you might expect, but then startlingly zesty acids kicked in, followed by a pop of white-pepper spice. On the finish, I got a touch of orange along with an aromatic tobacco note. It was sublime. If you can find a way to get your hands on a bottle of this wine, for God’s sake, do it.

 

2011 MAZZONI PINOT GRIGIO:

Mazzoni Pinot GrigioI had never sampled, to my knowledge, a Tuscan Pinot Grigio. All the quality Italian Pinot Grigios I knew of came from the mountainous north, from Alto Adige or Friuli. A Tuscan Pinot Grigio varietal — a white Super Tuscan — is extremely unusual.

Many of us associate Pinot Grigio with light, inoffensive and bland flavors; it’s a wine for a hot summer pool party or a beach picnic. But this golden-hued beauty had some oomph. After pressing, the juice sits for 24 hours on the skins, giving the wine additional body, followed by 25 days of cold fermentation, increasing the wine’s acidity. The craftsmanship is readily apparent in both the aroma and flavor.

The wine smelled fresh and lively, like a green whiff of spring. On the palate, it exhibited focused and controlled fruit, prickly acids, some aromatic qualities, and a surprisingly lush finish. It was light but complex, and a fine value for the price. Sampled with a white pizza topped with arugula and parmesan, the food-friendly acids kicked into high gear, and the wine became juicier and rounder. A delight.

 

2010 PLANETA CARRICANTE:

Planeta CarricanteThe Carricante variety is “thought to have been growing on the volcanic slopes of Mt. Etna for at least a thousand years,” according to the Wine Searcher website. The Planeta expression of this ancient variety has a wonderfully seductive aroma with notes of honey, cedar and lily of the valley, one of my favorite flowers (a little like jasmine). A fellow taster remarked that “It smells like the best Kasugai gummy ever created.” I loved the lush fruit, flinty minerals and the focused, almost incense-like spice that just kept going and going. Paired with some pasta with orange cherry tomatoes, fresh fava beans, onions, olive oil, garlic and ground pork, the wine’s acids became even juicier and racier.

It was rich, complex, balanced and elegant, but even more impressive, the wine took me right back to Sicily. I could imagine myself at some trattoria in Taormina, sipping a glass at an outdoor table while I took in the view of Mt. Etna and the sea, a little incense wafting out of a nearby church. This was a wine truly expressive of its terroir.

 

2011 SCHNAITMANN “GRAU WEISS”:

A surprising blend of 20% Grauburgunder, 20% Weissburgunder and 60% Chardonnay, the Grau Weiss sounds a little crazy to me, but if anyone could get away with it, it would be a winery in the warm and sunny Baden-Württemberg region of Germany. A green-yellow color, the wine started with tart fruit, giving way to a buttery, sophisticated, almost Burgundian midsection. It sealed the deal by lifting into an aromatic, spicy finish. What a ride!

 

Simonnet-Febvre Saint-Bris2012 SIMONNET-FEBVRE SAINT-BRIS SAUVIGNON BLANC:

On its label, this Sauvignon Blanc declares itself in no uncertain terms to be a “Grand Vin de Bourgogne.” Not quite believing my eyes, I turned to my trusty reference library for some answers as to what a Sauvignon Blanc was doing in Burgundy. According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, little Saint-Bris overcame “Burgundy’s Chardonnay-chauvinism” only in 2003, when it was finally granted full AOC status, a designation retroactively applied to the 2001 and 2002 vintages as well. The AOC has only about 250 acres of vineyards located southwest of the famed wine town of Chablis.

The Simonnet-Febvre Saint-Bris had my undivided attention as soon as I took a sniff. It had the classic Sauvignon Blanc aroma — green and juicy, with an unexpected and very enticing floral note on top. The flavor profile was absolutely fascinating. On one plane flowed the wine’s sweet, floral and elegant fruit, and on a parallel plane ran the very tart, pointy acids. These two planes battled it out for dominance in a most exciting fashion, but they didn’t feel integrated until I tried the wine with some food. Paired with a barley risotto studded with butternut squash, Brussels sprouts and bacon, the Saint-Bris’ two planes came together beautifully, balancing each other and cutting right through the richness of the dish. What an incredible value for $12!

 

2012 WEINGUT DR. VON BASSERMAN-JORDAN ÖLBERG

Weingut Dr. von Basserman-JordanThis single-vineyard Riesling from Germany’s Pfalz region is a Grosses Gewächs, a “Great Growth,” indicated by the “GG” on the label. Find those GGs if you can — they designate a vineyard of top quality, and grapes of at least Spätlese ripeness. “Spätlese” often connotes a sweet wine, but GG wines are classified as “trocken” (dry). This remarkable wine had a green, honeyed aroma, rather like a light Sauternes. I loved the rich, peachy fruit; the dry, white-peppercorn spice; and the forcefully driving acids keeping everything in taught balance.

The Message Is: Drink Blends

4 September 2013

Art+Farm's Messenger winesI’ve written about California wines a number of times on this blog, but the wines I’ve written about tend to come from unusual nooks and crannies such as Temecula and Amador County. But even in famous Napa Valley, it’s possible to find unusual wines. Three came my way recently from Art+Farm Wine, a partnership of two families founded in 2005.

This winery makes a number of varietal wines such as a Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon which are surely very tasty, but they don’t have a place on this blog. I was more interested in Art+Farm’s blends, which fall under its “Messenger” label. In her letter to me, Art+Farm’s vintner, Kat McDonald, described why she finds these blends so exciting:

When the wine industry is all about single vineyard, estate grown — blah, blah, blah. We looked at each other and said, “What if we made killer wines and that be our only goal. We are not going to limit ourselves in any way.”

McDonald has a point. Just because a wine comes from a single vineyard doesn’t necessarily mean it’s superior. The greatest wines of Bordeaux and Châteauneuf-du-Pape are blends, for example. A fine Châteauneuf-du-Pape might contain eight or nine different varieties of grapes from just as many different vineyards. If you have some very soft, supple wine and you have some tightly structured but rather tough and tannic wine, it only makes sense to combine them. The resulting blend will be better than either of its constituent parts alone.

We Americans love our varietal wines, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if we turn our nose up at blends, we deny ourselves a huge range of wine expressions. If choosing among blends seems daunting, I recommend starting with a Meritage (rhymes with “heritage”), a domestic Bordeaux-style blend based on Cabernet and/or Merlot. Or if you’re like me, go for a combination you’ve never seen and see what happens. There’s always an element of safety to a blend, because you know the flavor in that bottle is intentional.

Here are my thoughts on Art+Farm’s three Messenger blends, which I received as complimentary samples and tasted with a group of oenophile friends:

Art+Farm “The Messenger” White Wine Number One (Lot #412): I’ve never seen a white blend quite like this one, but when I tasted it, I wondered why on earth no one thought of it before. A blend of 69% Sauvignon Blanc, 18% Muscat Canelli (also known as Muscat Blanc à Petit Grains or simply Muscat) and 13% Riesling, this beauty won over my entire crowd of tasters. One remarked, “I don’t usually like sweet wines, but I like this because it has a bite at the end.” Another more laconic taster just said, “Huge fan.”

I was immediately sucked in by the wine’s heady aroma of perfumed apples, leavened with a little funk. In this wine, it was crystal clear to me what each of the parts — sourced from both the 2010 and 2011 vintages — brought to the blend. It had the acids of a Sauvignon Blanc, the perfume of a Muscat and the lush texture of a Riesling. The wine exhibited both focus and restraint, and for $16 a bottle, it’s a smashing value.

Art+Farm “The Messenger” Red Wine Number One (Lot #612): This is one complicated blend. No fewer than 11 different wines made their way into the mix, which is composed of 31% 2009 Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% 2006 Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% 2008 Dry Creek Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% 2010 Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% 2008 Napa Merlot, 9% 2008 Sonoma Merlot, 1% 2008 Dry Creek Merlot, 4% 2006 Napa Malbec, 4% 2008 Dry Creek Malbec, 3% 2008 Napa Cabernet Franc, and 12% 2009 Shenandoah Valley Montepulciano.

Whew! In the unlikely event you actually read the list above, you might be thinking, “What the heck is Montepulciano doing in a blend that’s otherwise all standard Bordeaux varieties?” According to McDonald, just 12% of Montepulciano “completely changes the texture and color of this wine. As one of my fellow tasters astutely noted, “It’s dark, but not heavy.” I loved the aromas of mocha and dark fruit, and indeed, it tasted dark and dusky but lively as well, with well-balanced black-pepper spice. Paired with some dried blueberries, additional floral notes came to the fore, and the tannins became even more pronounced. This is one sexy blend, and another fantastic value at $18.

Art+Farm “The Messenger” Red Wine Number Two: Bottled in a Rhone-style bottle (as opposed to the Bordeaux-style bottle of Red Wine Number One), this blend contains, as you might expect, a mix of traditional Rhone varieties: 57% Grenache, 38% Syrah, 4% Mourvedre and 1% Viognier. Again, the constituent wines come from an array of vineyards and vintages ranging from 2008 to 2011. It may seem unusual to blend a white wine (Viognier) with reds, but this combination is more traditional than you might think — none other than Côte Rotie blends Syrah and Viognier together.

This blend also had a dusky, dark-fruit aroma, but there was an intriguing note of caramel underneath as well. It proved to be a rustic, forceful wine, with meaty fruit, black-pepper spice, an undertone of iron and an aromatic note of violets. Tasted with some dried cranberries, the wine brightened and “the spices headed to the heavens,” or so my notes say in their typically over-dramatic fashion. This was a popular wine with my group. As one taster remarked, “I would like to enjoy this all by myself.” Again, a startling value for $18.

The French, it seems, aren’t the only ones adept at blending wine. If you see these wines in your local shop, snap them up for date night, or purchase them on the winery’s website.

Note: These wines were provided as complimentary samples by the winery.

Unusual Reds At Tangley Oaks

7 August 2013

Red wines at Tangley OaksOf course, the tasting at Tangley Oaks with Anthony Terlato didn’t stop with the white wines. We tasted quite a few delicious reds as well, including an earthy and richly fruity Rutherford Hill Bordeaux-style blend from Napa, an elegant and forcefully focused Terlato Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley, and a powerful Chimney Rock Cabernet Sauvignon from Stags Leap in Napa.

But you don’t need me to tell you how good a Napa Valley Cabernet can be. If you’re reading this blog, you’re likely looking for some new discoveries, and I certainly made some. These are the reds we tried that were not only delicious but unusual:

2012 Cusumano “Benuara”: This Sicilian blend of 70% Nero d’Avola and 30% Syrah comes from Presti e Pegni, a set of hilly vineyards west of Palermo near the town of Alcamo (see a beautiful photo of the vineyards here). Nero d’Avola is an “increasingly reputable red grape,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, never a book to shy away from a back-handed compliment. This variety indigenous to southern Italy (originating centuries ago in either southeastern Sicily or Calabria — its history is murky) has taken Sicily by storm, and it is now the island’s most widely planted red grape. I love it — I think Nero d’Avola tends to be an excellent value for the money.

Readers of The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia might shy away from a Nero d’Avola from Alcamo, a region it dismisses as unable to produce wines “of any real quality or character” due to fertile soils and high yields. But the Cusumano “Benuara” blend proves that assertion false. It had a mysterious aroma of dark fruit along with something aromatic — fellow taster Liz Barrett (Terlato’s Vice President of Corporate Communications and PR) detected an underlying salinity in the nose. It tasted big and beefy, with plenty of ripe, dark fruit and big spice, yet it managed to not overheat, avoiding a problem I’ve noticed with the occasional Sicilian. I can see why Mr. Terlato called Cusumano “the most important producer of quality wines of Sicily right now.”

2011 Lapostolle “Canto de Apalta”: Founded in 1994 by the well-funded owners of Grand Marnier, Lapostolle has rapidly become one of Chile’s top wineries. Admirably, all of its vineyards have been certified as organic and biodynamic since 2011, making Lapostolle wines a good choice for eco-conscious drinkers. The Oxford Companion notes that Apalta “has a reputation for fine Merlot, Carmenère and Syrah” due in large part to the efforts of Casa Lapostolle. And wouldn’t you know it, the Canto de Apalta is a blend of all three, with the addition of some Cabernet Sauvignon. As such, this wine resembles the much sought-after “hermitaged” Bordeaux wines of the 19th century, which blended local varieties (such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carmenère) with powerful Syrah from Hermitage in the northern Rhône. It’s still a winning combination. This wine from the Rapel Valley had gorgeous color and a subtle, deep red-fruit aroma. With big fruit, big tannins and spicy acids, it struck me as a fantastic value for a $20 wine.

2012 Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier Shiraz-Viognier: Another appellation of the northern Rhône which quickens my heart is Côte Rôtie, a 555-acre region producing some of the world’s most coveted Syrah-based wines. These generally unaffordable wines were the inspiration for this Australian collaboration between Anthony Terlato and Rhône-based winemaker Michel Chapoutier. Together, they purchased some land north of Melbourne in the Pyrenees Hills, which is about as far from the Rhône as you can get. Nevertheless, the terroir must be similar, because this Côte Rôtie-style blend of 95% Shiraz (Syrah) and 5% Viognier is an absolute delight to drink. Shiraz, of course, is known to do very well in Australia, and it only makes sense that aromatic Viognier, another variety from the Rhône, would also flourish. This wine had a startlingly beautiful aroma — jammy and redolent of violets. I loved its rich texture, extravagant fruit, and perfectly balanced spice and tannins. Gorgeously lush, without becoming overblown. Averaging about $17 according to Wine Searcher, this is one of the best red-wine values I’ve tasted all year.

Goretti Sagrantino di Montefalco2007 Goretti Sagrantino di Montefalco: Indigenous to Umbria, Italy, the Sagrantino variety almost died out at one point, but it’s gained ground in recent years, especially since Sagrantino di Montefalco gained DOCG status in the 1990s (Montefalco is an Umbrian hill town). Now, I wouldn’t buy just any Sagrantino di Montefalco — the Oxford Companion complains that “the overall level of viticultural and oenological sophistication in the production zone is not high…” But the family-owned Goretti winery proves to be a notable exception, if this wine is any indication. It tasted darkly fruity, with a rustic texture, a fun zing of spice and a satisfyingly raisiny finish. It had no trouble standing up to a plate of Piave, English Cheddar and aged Gouda.

2009 GALAXY: At first glance, it doesn’t seem there’s anything all that unusual about this blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Syrah and 15% Merlot from California. But the process used to arrive at this combination is unorthodox indeed. Each component of the blend is produced by a different winemaker (Elizabeth Vianna, Bryan Parker and Marisa Huffaker, respectively). The three of them gather each year in a hotel room, where essentially they’re locked in until they agree on a blend. It would be fun to be a fly on that wall, I have to think! Whatever happened in that hotel room, this year’s blend tastes huge. It’s a big, spicy wine with dark fruit and some meaty notes. Lusty, gutsy, and altogether delicious.

Note: These wines were sampled free of charge as part of a complimentary tasting organized by Terlato Wines.

Unusual Whites At Tangley Oaks

3 August 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

Up next: The Reds.

The World’s Most Unspecial Specialty Drinks

23 February 2013

Westgate Hotel

I’ve never actually written about beer on this blog. It’s not because I don’t drink it, because I do, and it’s not because I have trouble finding unusual beers to try. I live around the corner from Hopleaf, which has some 300 beers on their menu, and just down the street is a wonderful microbrewery called Metropolitan. I don’t write about beer – and I know this sounds like a high-class problem – because it’s refreshing to have a drink that I can imbibe for pure pleasure, without ever having to worry about analyzing its quality or flavor profile.

This brings me to The Westgate Hotel in San Diego (above), the hotel that finally compelled me to break my beer-writing rule. The Westgate is ostensibly a very fancy property, with a lobby decked out to look like an olde time French palace. What a French palace is doing in a converted 1960s office building in downtown San Diego is a question I never did manage to answer satisfactorily.

In a place of such overt luxury, one might expect that ethos to extend into every corner of the operation. And indeed it did, with one glaring exception: the room service menu. Right at the top was this less-than-mouthwatering item:

World's Most Boring Beer Tasting

If someone gave me the task of designing the most boring, insipid, overpriced beer tasting possible, it would turn out pretty much like this. For shame! San Diego is a major microbrewing center! I didn’t have much of a chance to explore that scene, but I did immensely enjoy a Ballast Point Sculpin IPA. Unlike a Bud Light, for example, this beer had some real flavor — it was fruity, bitter and dry, with a grapefruity aroma and aftertaste. Delicious!

So Westgate – listen up. I know guests who stay with you probably don’t care all that much about a sense of place (witness the aforementioned Versailles-like decor), but this Beer Taster is a scandal. Some guests won’t want to venture out of their comfort zone, so keep this flaccid selection on the menu if you must, but for the rest of us, how about taking advantage of the many stellar breweries within a 15-minute drive? This is the beer list of a random bar in Anytown, USA, not the “Specialty Drinks” of an expensive hotel in a major city.

Top Temecula Wineries, Part 3: Doffo

20 February 2013

The inimitable Marcelo DoffoThis is my last post about Temecula, I swear on a bottle of Château d’Yquem! But I wouldn’t do justice to this unfamous region without talking about my visit to Doffo Winery.

On the road out of town to Palm Springs, this winery was my last stop in Temecula, California, but certainly not the least. Argentinean Marcelo Doffo founded the winery in 1997, and his family still tends the 15 acres to this day. Indeed, the Doffo Winery has a very hands-on approach — I discovered the lively Mr. Doffo himself pouring wines in the tasting room, which was decorated with part of his motorcycle and scooter collection.

The tasting room was crowded on my Sunday visit, but not with bachelorette parties. A party did enter the room at one point, and Mr. Doffo did not look especially pleased, perhaps because he suspected they were more interested in getting buzzed than really tasting the wine. The bachelorettes must have taken the hint, because they were gone when I turned around a couple of minutes later.

Mr. Doffo is right to expect his patrons to pay at least a little attention to his wines, which are clearly crafted with heart and skill. I enjoyed all the wines I tasted immensely; they had deep fruit that felt immensely satisfying. Here’s a rundown of what I sampled:

2010 Malbec: This unfiltered wine had dark, dusky fruit and a supple mouthfeel, with some tannins and a touch of something herbal at the end.

2010 Grenache: I was surprised by the perfumy aroma of this wine, which tasted very fruity and spicy. It had some of that fun “Temecula raciness” described by winemaker Clark Smith. Mr. Doffo didn’t use his own fruit for this wine, however — his neighbor grew it. When the original buyer fell through, the neighbor offered Mr. Doffo a smokin’ deal, and he bought the grapes. Mr. Doffo noted that he used Syrah skins to “beef the wine up” a bit.

2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve: Composed of 90% Cabernet, this wine is actually a field blend, with the remaining 10% coming from other grape varieties planted in the same vineyard. It had an enticingly jammy aroma, rich fruit and a finish of chocolate and tobacco. Lush and delicious.

2010 Zinfandel Reserve: Very dark in color, with an aroma of overripe plums. This was a big wine, but very smooth and focused as well. But just when you think you’re out of the woods, a pow of spice punches you right in the kisser.

2010 Zinfandel: Mr. Doffo called this wine “The happiest Zinfandel in Temecula,” and while I wouldn’t presume to compare, I will say that it certainly made me happy. It had an exotic, jammy nose and similarly jammy fruit on the palate. Yet there was good focus, and it never became overblown. It started lush and round before expanding into some powerful spiciness.

2008 Syrah Reserve: There again was that jammy aroma, this time mixed with some caramel. Rich fruit tightened into some food-friendly acids and a some tannins; it expanded in the mouth before restraining itself and focusing.

NV Port: A blend of older and younger vintages, this fortified wine had a deep red fruit aroma that sucked me right in. There was that telltale jammy fruit, and a powerful, almost overwhelming cinnamon spiciness. Dusky but very sprightly.

NV Late Harvest Syrah “Los Nietos”: I had great fun tasting with Mr. Doffo, but I’ll always remember this wine, named for his first grandchild who passed away shortly after birth. It smelled of very sweet raspberries, and it had impressively rich, plummy, chocolaty fruit. There was something green in the middle which gave way to a long, luscious finish. Surely excellent with chocolate.

And there you have it! If you go to Temecula, and I hope you do, you can’t go wrong with Doffo. And for that matter, you’ll surely be delighted with Palumbo and Wiens as well. Happy tasting!

Top Temecula Wineries, Part 2: Palumbo

13 February 2013

Who knew I would have so much to say about Temecula? Don’t be fooled by the “Part 2″ in the title. This is actually my fourth post about this unsung wine region north of San Diego, and I saved some of the best for last. Well, almost last. On the advice of the charming and startlingly young sommelier at the Ponte Vineyard Inn (geez, kids are learning about wine early these days!), I visited two of Temecula’s smaller wineries, Palumbo and Doffo. The intimate tasting rooms provided exactly the sort of wine-tasting atmosphere I like most: Casual, friendly and focused on the wine.

Should you find yourself in Temecula at some point, don’t miss these guys. First, Palumbo:

PALUMBO FAMILY VINEYARDS & WINERY

Matt and Joe at PalumboOn a quiet side road away from the big wineries along Rancho California, this winery was recommended by almost every Temeculan I spoke with. All the fruit for its wines comes from Palumbo’s 13 acres of vineyards, because owner Nicholas Palumbo “believes in producing only what he grows himself,” according to the winery website. And good for him. I don’t know much about viticulture, but it makes sense to me that if you’re not controlling what happens in the vineyard, you’re not controlling what happens in the bottle.

Here are some of the excellent and very focused wines I tasted in the congenial Palumbo tasting room:

2011 Viognier: Fresh, tropical nose. Focused, surprisingly tight fruit followed by tart acids and some exotic spice on the finish. Viogniers can get a little overblown sometimes, but Palumbo kept a tight corset on this one!

2009 Syrah Clone 877: You know it’s serious when clone numbers start appearing. This wine had a meaty, earthy aroma, and again, it showed impressive focus and restraint. A supple mouthfeel gives way to zingy spice, some tannins and a bit of tobacco. Marlene Dietrich with a cigarette.

2009 Shiraz/Cabernet “60/40″: If you hadn’t guessed, this is a blend of 60% Shiraz and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon. It had a soft and jammy nose, rich but tightly wound red fruit, something herbaceous in the middle and a bit of spice at the end.

2008 Cabernet Franc “Catfish Vineyard”: Made from grapes grown on 21-year-old vines, this wine had aromas of iron and earth. It tasted earthy and tight, with focused red fruit flavors, a bit of sweetness, medium tannins, and a finish reminiscent of the aroma.

2009 Tre Fratelli “Meritage”: This Bordeaux-style blend had a marvelously rich and fruity aroma, with some violets in there as well. Woo! A very elegant wine, with impressive focus and non-trivial finesse. Ample fruit was tempered by silky tannins and some acids. Fine balance.

2009 Sangiovese “Due Figli Vineyard”: Brick red, with an earthy, jammy nose that had me itching to give this wine a taste. I was not disappointed. It tasted wonderfully lush, with jammy fruit, a luxurious mouthfeel and a tannic finish. Way to end the tasting with a bang!

Up Next: Tasting amid the motorcycles at Doffo.

Top Temecula Wineries, Part 1: Wiens

6 February 2013

Should you decide to visit the picturesque wine country of Temecula, California, there are three wineries you simply shouldn’t miss, on any account. All three serve excellent wines which showcase some of Temecula’s true potential.

WIENS FAMILY CELLARS

Blair in the Cellar Room at WiensThis winery has a large tasting room on the main road through the region, and this tasting room no doubt draws the buzz-seeking groups so prevalent at Ponte.

In a very smart move, this winery allows people really interested in the wine to make reservations for a $30 reserve tasting, held at formally set tables in a separate room on the property. I reserved a space for the 10:30 a.m. tasting on a Sunday, and it turned out to be a private reserve tasting — not a single other person had signed up! It was a grand experience, and the wines were, without exception, positively delightful.

2010 Reserve Chardonnay: A pretty gold color, this wine smelled of ripe pears. It had a lush texture and a woodsy start, but limey acids and even some minerals ensured that this was no butter bomb.

2008 Reserve Cabernet Franc: The fruit for this wine came from Paso Robles, but Wiens just sold this vineyard, and so the 2008 will be the last vintage of its Paso Robles Cabernet Franc. It had a sexy aroma of rich plums, a little black pepper and some chocolate. Woo! True to the variety, the wine moved from plummy fruit to something herbaceous to a tannic finish. A pairing of Havarti tamed the tannins, and some olives cured with rosemary and red wine made for a wonderfully bright and briny match.

2009 Chateau Grand Rouge: An unusual Cabernet Franc-heavy blend of 45% Cabernet Franc, 34% Cabernet Sauvignon and 11% Malbec. With a lovely dark red hue, this Bordeaux-style blend had an alluring aroma of chocolatey raspberries. Beautifully balanced, with plummy fruit, soft balancing acids, some rather hefty tannins and a bit of wood. It has some finesse but also a spicy zing — it’s an elegant young thing with a bit of a wild streak.

2008 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon: This blend of 90% Cabernet and 10% Merlot had a darkly fruity nose mixed with something herbal. It exhibited restrained power, with hearty, meaty fruit and a tannic finish. It would surely be magnificent with a good steak, but it also worked marvelously with some goat milk gouda, becoming bigger and spicier.

2007 Reserve Syrah: The aroma of dark plums, chocolate and tobacco had me at first sniff. I also loved the supple mouthfeel and dusky fruit, followed by some acids, white-pepper spice and a touch of tobacco at the end. It tasted even zestier when paired with some smoked gouda.

2009 Reserve Petit Sirah: It’s rather unusual to see this variety as a varietal, but it really worked. Clocking in at a substantial 15.3% alcohol level, this wine had a deep aroma of raspberry jam. Another sexy wine with ample, rich fruit, a spicy finish, and some not insignificant finesse. Some salami-wrapped mozzarella brought out some additional meaty notes in the wine.

None of these wines is inexpensive, but hey, if you’ve got the money, you’ll surely be pleased with any of the above.

Ah crap. I got so excited about these wines, I didn’t leave much room for Doffo and Palumbo. Well, those wineries deserve their own blog posts in any case. The Temecula journey continues!

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