California

Burgundy Versus California: Two Contrasting Pinot Noirs

11 April 2016
Aloxe-Corton, in the heart of the Cote d'Or

Aloxe-Corton, in the heart of the Côte d’Or

Tasting Pinot Noirs side by side never fails to be revealing. That’s why when my friend Liz told me she planned on bringing a California Pinot to the BYOB restaurant where we were meeting, I knew exactly which wine I wanted to taste next to it. The last bottle of Burgundy on my wine rack.

I’ve had the fortune to visit Burgundy three times now, and though I’ve toured numerous other top wine regions in both Europe and the Americas, Burgundy remains my favorite. It combines picturesque vineyards and exquisite architecture with a grace found in only a handful of places around the globe. And despite its fame, it doesn’t feel especially touristy, especially if you get a bit off the beaten track. There’s more to Burgundy than just the three- and four-figure Grands Crus of the Côte d’Or.

Marche aux Vins

Marché aux Vins

On my last visit, which took place far too long ago in 2008, a colleague and I found ourselves in Rully, the northernmost village of the Côte Chalonnaise. The dollar was quite weak then, and Chinese demand had already begun to drive the price of famous Burgundy names through the roof. But in the Côte Chalonnaise, just south of the Côte d’Or, regular folks like us could still afford to buy a bottle of wine or two.

As The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia notes, “Despite the fact that many [Côte Chalonnaise] wines are little known, their quality in all appellations is very good, and the value for money even better.” I’ve always had good luck with this region. In fact, it was a Pinot Noir from Givry that first clarified my understanding of structure in a wine. When I tasted it, I could feel the layers of flavor building themselves on my palate, as sure as if they were being assembled by a construction crew. I remember when my father took a sip, he let out a laugh because it was so good. Not bad for an $18 bottle I found in Beaune’s Marché aux Vins!

We paid a visit to the Marché in 2008 — it is, after all, perhaps my favorite place to taste wine in the world — but it was our visit to Rully that I most remember from that trip. The words “Wine Tasting in Burgundy” likely conjure images of palatial tasting rooms presided over by some comte or other, and I’m sure you can find that. But we found the thoroughly unpretentious Domaine Michel Briday, a winery Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia cites as one of Rully’s best.

Stephane Briday at Domaine Michel BridayThe tasting room was little more than a cozy dining room in an old house, as you can see from the photo on the right. Pictured is Stéphan Briday, who looks less like a Burgundian scion and more like a farmer in his torn jeans and t-shirt. It was clear he knew his way around a vineyard, which, in Burgundy of all places, is of paramount importance. He is a winemaker connected to the land. His passion for the wine was obvious and his hospitality was gracious, even though it was equally obvious that my colleague and I didn’t exactly qualify as wine experts. But I knew exciting wine when I tasted it.

I came home with two bottles of 2006 Domaine Michel Briday Rully Premier Cru Les Pierres, one of which collected dust on my wine rack until Thursday night. It aged surprisingly well, considering the many temperature swings the bottle had endured. Liz took a sniff and remarked, “It’s temptation in a glass.” I agreed, loving the aroma of dusky red fruit and old wood.

Michel Briday Rully 1er Cru Les PierresAfter a splash of dark fruit, the wine moved to white pepper spice, some serious earthiness and some surprisingly hefty tannins. Wood dominated the almost rasping finish. It was a bit of a wild thing, this wine! Paired with some beef, it felt suddenly in perfect balance. As Liz noted, “That bitch was tamed by the steak.” The tannins of the wine and fat of the steak were an equal and powerful match.

The Pinot Noir Liz brought came not from Sonoma, where so many fashionable Pinots originate these days, but the Santa Cruz Mountains just south of San Francisco. Despite its proximity to the city, the area is still apparently quite rugged. “No one told me I would be driving 2,600 feet up into the Santa Cruz Mountains,” Liz exclaimed, relating her drive to the David Bruce Winery. “And those falling rock signs? They weren’t kidding.”

David Bruce was an early pioneer of Pinot Noir in the region, and he merits praise in all three of my major wine reference books, The World Atlas of Wine, The Oxford Companion to Wine and The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. And a Chardonnay of his competed in the famed “Judgment of Paris” in 1976.

David Bruce Pinot NoirIn a rather passive-aggressive entry, Sotheby’s says that “Having gone through a learning curve, David Bruce now produces far more elegant wines than he used to.” I can’t speak about any previous vintages, but the 2008 David Bruce Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir that Liz shared with me positively exuded elegance. It had a gorgeously rich aroma — Liz noted chocolate-covered blueberries — and a sensationally seamless mouthfeel. The wine moved with impressive grace from ripe dark-red and purple fruits to some focused spice, overtones of vanilla and violets, and a finish of plush tannins. What a delight.

The two wines tasted completely different from one another: hearty and earthy versus rich and graceful. It still amazes me how much Pinot Noir absorbs the influence of its terroir and the hand of its winemaker.

I love that a grape can do that.

The Central Coast’s Italian Side

6 March 2016

Mosby WinesI recently mentioned to a Los Angeles resident that I write a wine blog, to which she responded, “Oh, you must get out to California all the time!” But I don’t. The state produces no shortage of beautiful wines, but bottlings that qualify as unusual or obscure are a little harder to find.

That’s why it was with some excitement that I read an email from a wine marketer offering to send some samples from Mosby Winery, set in the Central Coast’s Santa Ynez Valley, not far from Santa Barbara. Many wineries in the area concentrate on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the latter made famous by the film “Sideways.” But Mosby, which The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia describes as “interesting” and “sometimes provocative,” focuses instead on a range of Italian grape varieties.

You might well wonder how grapes from sunny Italy could successfully grow near cool-climate Burgundian varieties, but Italy has its share of cool wine regions, too. Some of the country’s greatest wines come from northern areas like Piedmont and Alto Adige. Nor is the Santa Inez Valley a cool-climate monolith. In fact, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, “Although far from being the only schizophrenic AVA in California, the Santa Ynez Valley comes close to being the extreme case.” Parts of it grow Pinot Noir well, but other warmer sections, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are perfectly at home.

I had planned on cooking some sort of Italian feast to accompany the six wines I received, but I must admit my grand visions of fresh-made tagliatelle with porcini and osso buco with polenta never quite came to fruition. Instead, one of my tasting crew offered to bring a salad, and I ordered pizza. The food may have been simple, but the wines, by and large, proved delightful.

Mosby Cortese and Traminer2013 Mosby Cortese: According to the Oxford Companion, wine made from Cortese — most commonly Gavi from Piedmont — is, at its best, “clean and fresh.” This example had a heady, rather sweet nose of honeycrisp apple, but it tasted quite dry, its ripe fruit quickly overtaken by tight acids and a hint of something smoky or even burnt. Two friends immediately dismissed the wine, but a third taster defended it. “I like it,” he said, “but then, I like funky, Old World-style wines.” I rather do too. In any case, this wine needs food — I wouldn’t drink it on its own. With the salad of fennel, grapefruit, beets and goat cheese, it felt crisp, clean and balanced. $19

2014 Mosby Traminer: Many wine drinkers are familiar with Gewürztraminer, grown with particular success in the Alsace. Traminer is a clone of this famous variety, which quite possibly originated in the village of Tramin in Italy’s Südtirol/Alto Adige region. The Oxford Companion calls it “non-aromatic,” but this wine certainly couldn’t be classified as such. It smelled of white flowers, like lily of the valley or jasmine. The fruit felt lush on the tongue, but the wine was essentially dry, and it finished with a pop of spice. Dry, floral wines aren’t for everyone though, even when well-balanced, and the Traminer, like the Cortese, proved controversial among my tasting group. $20

2012 Mosby Dolcetto: This grape, which tends to produce relatively soft and fruity wines (“dolce” means “sweet” in Italian), grows most commonly in Piedmont. Dolcetto ripens early, and most Italians plant it in vineyards where other grapes don’t tend to reach maturity. But I have a feeling that Mosby’s Dolcetto grapes receive plenty of sun, because the red fruit flavors in this wine were delightfully rich, balanced by plenty of black pepper spice. Another taster exclaimed, “Asian salted plum!” and indeed, this wine had a pleasant saline note in its finish. The sausage-topped pizza tamed the black pepper notes, which had at first been too prominent for my taste. $28

2011 Mosby Teroldego: Unfamous Teroldego grows mostly in Trentino, a region in Italy’s far northeast near Slovenia. The Oxford Companion makes it sound like an Astor or Rockefeller of the wine world, describing it as an “old, well-connected grape variety.” In the hands of Mosby, it produced a wine universally popular with the group. “Teroldego is the winner so far,” one taster remarked, and I can’t deny that I loved this wine. It had an inviting aroma of dusky, dark cherries. The dark red and purple fruit flavors were very ripe and round, shot through with focused white pepper spice. Soft tannins gave the wine an elegant finish. Superb. $32

Tasters Scott, Sonja and Thom

Tasters Scott, Sonja and Thom

2011 Mosby “La Seduzione” Lagrein: Most commonly found in Alto Adige and Trentino, little-known Lagrein has quite the pedigree as well. According to the Oxford Companion, this grape is “a progeny of Teroldego, a grandchild of Pinot, and a cousin of Syrah.” That heritage qualifies as royalty in my vine peerage. The wine smelled of ripe dark fruit and mocha, and it tasted rich and full. Lots of up-front fruit gave way to a chocolate note and slow-building spice, with a finish of supple tannins and a raisin tone. It felt even bigger when paired with some pizza. I certainly was seduced by this thoroughly delicious wine, and I was left wondering why more people outside of northeastern Italy don’t produce it. $32

2011 Mosby Sagrantino: Mosby claims to have produced the first domestic Sagrantino in 2006, and the winery is surely still one of the very few outside of Umbria growing this variety. It appears mostly in wine from Montefalco, where “the overall level of viticultural and oenological sophistication… is not high,” argues the Oxford Companion. But the variety “shows promise,” it says, and Mosby’s version illustrates that fact. The wine had an enticing, rather brooding aroma of dark fruit. It felt beautifully balanced, with ripe blueberry jam notes leavened with sharp, persistent spice, leading to a dry and softly tannic finish. $38

As evidenced by the polarized reactions of my friends, Mosby’s white wines aren’t for everyone. Buy them only if you’re a fan of Old World-style whites. The reds, however, were quite popular with everyone, including me. Mosby may be provocative, but its wines have real substance to back up their novelty.

The Best Wines I Drank In 2015: The Reds

26 January 2016

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

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

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

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

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

 

August Eser Spatburgunder

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

2010 AUGUST ESER MITTELHEIMER SPÄTBURGUNDER BARRIQUE TROCKEN

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

 

Alberto Buratto, CEO of Baglio di Pianetto

Alberto Buratto, CEO of Baglio di Pianetto

2007 BAGLIO DI PIANETTO “CEMBALI” NERO D’AVOLA

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

 

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

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

2013 CATENA ZAPATA ADRIANNA VINEYARD MALBEC PASSITO

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

 

Oscar Ruiz, export manager of Cellers Unió

Oscar Ruiz, export manager of Cellers Unió

2013 CELLERS UNIÓ “PERLAT”

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

 

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

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

2012 CONO SUR “OCIO” PINOT NOIR

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

 

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

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

2013 ELEMENT LEMBERGER

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

 

Fred Merwath holding Hermann J Wiemer Cabernet Franc

Fred Merwath pouring his Cabernet Franc

2012 HERMANN J. WIEMER VINEYARDS CABERNET FRANC

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

 

Rodney Strong Malbec2011 QUINTA DA LAPA TINTO RESERVA

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

 

2012 RODNEY STRONG ALEXANDER VALLEY MALBEC

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

 

Pouring Salton wines at last year's Wine Blogger Conference

Pouring Salton wines at last year’s Wine Blogger Conference

2012 SALTON “INTENSO” TANNAT

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

 

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

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

2012 STELLA BELLA MARGARET RIVER VALLEY TEMPRANILLO

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

 

Viña Vik's red blend

2010 VIK

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

 

Viña Peñalolén Cabernet Sauvignon at Casa Lastarria in Santiago, Chile

Viña Peñalolén Cabernet Sauvignon at Casa Lastarria in Santiago, Chile

2012 VIÑA PEÑALOLÉN CABERNET SAUVIGNON

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

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

Sonoma: A New Home For Malbec?

17 December 2015

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

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

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

HB restaurant in Chicago

HB restaurant in Chicago

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

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

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

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

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

The Potential Of Pinot Meunier

3 November 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Unusual Pinot Clones Of Bouchaine

24 October 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lagman at Jibek Jolu

Lagman at Jibek Jolu

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

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

Note: These wines were provided free of charge.

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.

Top Red Wines Of 2014

9 January 2015
A fun and fruity 2011 Posta Kadarka from Szekszárd, Hungary

A fun and fruity 2011 Posta Kadarka from Szekszárd, Hungary

This list, especially when taken together with my companion list of whites, illustrates how absolutely delicious wines are being made in all sorts of unexpected places all over the globe. Nowadays, there is simply no reason to confine your drinking to wines from two or three classic regions.

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

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

We wine lovers have never had it better, whether we’re in Chile, California, Colorado or Croatia.  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 2014, in alphabetical order:

 

Ciprian Pinot Noir

Ciprian Pinot Noir in Vienna’s Silvio Nickol restaurant

2009 CIPRIAN BARRIQUE PINOT NOIR, ZIZERS AOC

The adventurous sommelier at Silvio Nickol in Vienna poured me a glass of this extraordinary Swiss Pinot Noir from Zizers, a little-known AOC in Graubünden, set on the Rhein River just south of Liechtenstein. I don’t usually quote directly from the notes I take while tasting, but I’ll make an exception in this case and quote from my notebook at length:

“Gorgeously balanced — exquisite surprise! Great finesse. Earth, deep red fruit, elegant acids, aromatic cherry finish. Light, joyous, refined — how do I get some?? Chills down spine!”

The Swiss export almost none of their wines to the United States, unfortunately.

 

2009 DUXOUP CHARBONO

Only about 89 acres of Charbono vines remain in California, and Duxoup makes one of the best Charbono varietals. The winery sources its fruit from the Frediani Vineyard, comprising 10 acres of old Charbono vines along the Silverado Trail: “The most sought-after Charbono on the planet,” according to The Wine News.

The wine was a pleasure in every respect, with aromas of rich, dark berries and plum. Forceful and big, it tasted of ripe, dark, dusky fruit, and I was impressed by its focused acids and well-balanced tannins. I don’t often spend $20 on a bottle of wine, but for something so rare and well-crafted, $20 seems like a steal. (The current vintage is 2011.)

 

2010 GRAN ENEMIGO GUALTALLARY SINGLE VINEYARD

El Enemigo

A lineup of The Enemy

El Enemigo is a side project of the winemaker of Catena Zapata, one of Argentina’s most highly regarded wineries. Its name refers to “the enemy in ourselves, the one stopping us from trying something different — something extraordinary,” explained Enemigo representative Constanza Hartung. The wines she presented, with one exception, did not rely heavily on Malbec or even Cabernet Sauvignon. Instead, these blends showcased Cabernet Franc.

In this blend of 85% Cabernet Franc and 15% Malbec, there was a freshness to the aroma, but it had notable undertones of earth and dark fruit. When I tasted it, I just thought, “Wow.” It was lush and rich, but simultaneously focused and clean. Quite a balancing act.

 

Katunar "Kurykta Anton" Syrah, with boeuf Bourguignon

Katunar “Kurykta Anton” Syrah, with boeuf Bourguignon

2010 KATUNAR “KURYKTA ANTON”

The Katunar vineyards have an enviable location on the south end of the island of Krk, just southeast of the Istrian peninsula. Father and son Anton and Toni Katunar exploit their fine terroir fully. The 2010 Katunar “Kurykta Anton” was thoroughly delicious.

Referred to as Kurykta Nigra on the Katunar website, this deep magenta-hued Syrah had an instantly appealing aroma of earth, iron and red fruit. It felt very well-balanced, with a rich texture and luscious red-fruit flavors leavened by deep undertones of earth and a bright zing of acids. I also loved the overtones of violets and the tightly focused metallic finish. The rustic acids helped the wine pair beautifully with some traditional boeuf Bourguignon, standing up to the hearty flavors in the dish and clearing the palate for the next bite.

 

2010 LAPOSTOLLE PIRQUE VINEYARD SYRAH

One of six unusual single-vineyard Syrahs that the estimable Chilean winery Lapostolle recently assembled in a special half-case, the Pirque had notes of chocolate and violets in its dark fruit aroma. It felt silky on the tongue and revealed itself slowly, deliberately. There was a freshness underneath its ripe, ripe fruit, like eucalyptus or green peppercorn. Sexy and very classy. (The single-vineyard Carmenères are also excellent.)

The half-case of single-vineyard Syrahs (or Carmenères) would make an excellent gift, should you have a oenophile in your life that you wish to impress. It’s great fun to compare and contrast the wines side-by-side, to see the effects of the different terroirs.

 

Marko Babsek of the Balkan Wine Project, introducing me to Stobi Vranec

Marko Babsek of the Balkan Wine Project, introducing me to Stobi Vranec

2011 STOBI VRANEC

Tiny, landlocked Macedonia lies on the northern border of Greece, making it the southernmost of the former Yugoslav republics. Stobi is one of its largest wineries, and it used to export bulk wine to the Soviet Union before retooling to concentrate on quality instead of just quantity.

I’ll always have a soft spot for Vranec (also spelled “Vranac”), an ancient red variety native to the Balkans with a parent/offspring relationship to Zinfandel. It was a bottle of velvety Jović Vranac from Serbia which inspired this blog. This Macedonian expression had a ripe and lush dark-fruit aroma with an intriguing saline overtone. Very well-balanced, the wine had plummy fruit, a wonderful dusky quality and a spicy finish. Delightful.

 

2009 SUTCLIFFE FIELD BLEND

Dinner at Dunton Hot Springs paired with Sutcliffe wines

Dinner at Dunton Hot Springs paired with Sutcliffe wines

When I went to Colorado, I had no expectation of finding fine wine. Had I cracked open my Oxford Companion to Wine — always a good idea before heading off on a trip to pretty much anywhere — I would have discovered that “Colorado’s increasing vineyard area (nearly 1,000 acres) and growing number of wineries (over 50) are beginning to provide wines of quality to its major tourist market as well as Denver…” Sutcliffe is among those leading the charge.

Most blends occur in the winery, with a winemaker choosing so much of this and so much of that. A field blend occurs in the vineyard, blending whatever grape varieties happen to be growing together. This wine “gives the true taste of McElmo Canyon,” according to the Sutcliffe website. I loved its rich, dark-fruit aroma, and it had rich, creamy fruit on the palate. It had elegantly soft tannins and a dry finish, and it became even bigger and richer when paired with some “truffle tremor” cheese.

 

What fortune, to have tasted so many beautiful, unusual wines! I can’t wait to see what 2015 has in store.

Ancient, Rare And Californian

11 October 2014

Inglenook and Duxoup CharbonoI only ever kept perhaps three or four bottles of wine in my home at a time, until one day, when I was about 25, my father acquired some cases of 1975 Inglenook Charbono. In an act of great generosity, he gave me one, and quite suddenly and unexpectedly, I had a wine collection. Lacking a cellar, I lovingly stored the bottles in my studio apartment in the cinder blocks forming my bookcase, saving them for special occasions. These old bottles were what started my wine collecting habit, and the thought of Charbono still gives me a tingle.

Charbono also stirs my soul because of its rarity and age. Plantings of Charbono predate Cabernet and Pinot Noir in France, according to Duxoup Wine Works. This ancient variety was once thought to be Dolcetto, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, but DNA profiling “established that it is identical to the virtually extinct Corbeau of the Savoie region in the French Alps.”

Now, the center of Charbono production is California, half a world away. According to this 2004 article in The Wine News, Charbono arrived with immigrants from northern Italy, who thought they were bringing cuttings of Barbera with them. Since Savoie borders northern Italy, it seems some Charbono got mixed in as well, and it ended up in California vineyards.

Inglenook was the first winery to make a varietal Charbono wine, according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, but it no longer continues that great tradition. Francis Ford Coppola bought the winery in 1995, and in an act of supreme anti-romance, he had the old Charbono vines growing in front of the Inglenook chateau torn out and replaced with the more lucrative and popular Cabernet Sauvignon. Inglenook produced its last Charbono vintage in 1998.

Fortunately, other winemakers in California still produce Charbono varietals, and approximately 89 acres of Charbono vineyards remain, according to this 2013 Wine Country Getaways article.

Duxoup makes some of the best. The winery sources its fruit from the Frediani Vineyard, comprising 10 acres of old Charbono vines along the Silverado Trail: “The most sought-after Charbono on the planet,” according to The Wine News. A couple of years ago, I spotted a bottle of 2009 Duxoup Charbono at In Fine Spirits, and despite its price tag of about $20, I couldn’t resist. Here was the first Charbono I’d encountered since I received the case of Inglenook in 2001.

I took the bottle to 42 Grams, an upscale BYOB restaurant tucked away in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. It was a delight, with aromas of rich, dark berries and plum. Forceful and big, it tasted of ripe, dark, dusky fruit, and I was impressed by its focused acids and well-balanced tannins. I don’t often spend $20 on a bottle of wine, but for something so rare, ancient and well-crafted, $20 seems like a steal. You can purchase the 2011 Duxoup Charbono from the winery’s website.

I still have one bottle of the 1975 Inglenook left. I opened my second-to-last bottle last year — I brought it to a beautiful lunch at the Terlato mansion-headquarters in the northern Chicago suburbs. The lunch wasn’t about this wine, so I only took brief notes: “Raisins, iron, earth — a bit of structure left, by God!”

Yes. That’s exactly how I remember it.

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.

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