California

The German Side Of Lodi

14 September 2016
Dornfelder growing in Lodi's Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

Dornfelder growing in Lodi’s Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

After visiting Lodi, California, about a month ago, I can confirm that it’s hot. Hot, sunny, dry and flat. The soils range from sandy loam to loamy sand, and both types feel, more or less, like glorified dust. Zinfandel, famous (infamous?) for producing jammy fruit bombs, is the signature grape.

I’ve also had the fortune to visit German wine regions such as the Rhein and Mosel valleys, and I can confirm that they are cool, wet and frequently quite steep. Slate permeates the Mosel’s soil and some of the Rheingau’s vineyards, with loess and marl also appearing in the latter. Riesling, the best examples of which display steely nerve and focused acids, is the signature grape.

In short, the terroirs of Lodi and Germany have about as much in common as avocados and schnitzel. Lodi is one of the last wine regions on Earth I would expect to find German grapes.

And yet, there they were in the Mokelumne Glen Vineyards, growing in tidy, defiant rows. The appeared to be flourishing, in fact, like German tourists on a permanent holiday in Mallorca. Even I, someone who regularly seeks out the unusual wines, felt flabbergasted at the sight of Dornfelder grapes ripening happily in Lodi’s semi-desert.

Vineyard co-owner Bob Koth, a former winemaker and paratrooper, explained how he grew to love German wines while visiting his daughter, who lived there for a time as a Fulbright Scholar. He came back wanting to grow German grapes, and that’s exactly what he did, sun and loamy sand be damned. He and vineyard co-owner May Lou Koth eventually converted a pear orchard into Mokelumne Glen Vineyards, where they now grow some 48 different German and Austrian grapes.

Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

Most of the varieties, including true oddities such as Oraniensteiner and Affenthaler, are grown on an experimental basis. So far, nine grapes — Bacchus, Gewürztraminer, Kerner, Rieslaner, Riesling, Weissburgunder, Blaufränkisch, Dornfelder and Zweigelt — have done well enough to justify larger plantings.

Unlike in Germany, ripening the grapes is never a concern. The trick is to pick them after they fully ripen but before the juice turns flabby.

Still, the whole idea struck me as frankly insane. Could wines from these grapes possibly be any good? I sat down in a shady glen near the vineyards with a dozen fellow wine bloggers for a tasting. Winemakers from four different wineries poured (Mokelumne doesn’t produce its own wine).

German varietal wines of Lodi2015 Sidebar Cellers Kerner Mokelumne River: As we tasted this wine, Bob exclaimed, “This is the only place west of Michigan that grows Kerner!” I believe it. The Oxford Companion to Wine mentions plantings outside of Germany in England, Japan and South Africa, but says nothing about Kerner in the U.S. (you can read more about Kerner in this post). This example had a green, spicy aroma. There was a sense of richness, with its ripe fruit balanced by grapefruity acids and plenty of spice. Delightful, and priced well at $25.

2015 Holman Cellars “Uncharted” Bacchus:  I started this blog in 2011, and yet this was my first time tasting its namesake grape, Bacchus! This cross of Müller-Thurgau with a cross of Silvaner and Riesling doesn’t often appear as a varietal. According to The Oxford Companion, “Unlike the more aristocratic and more popular crossing Kerner, however, the wine produced lacks acidity and is not even useful for blending…in poor years since it needs to be fully ripe before it can express its own exuberant flavors.” The Companion also notes that warm-climate examples can be “flabby.”

Lodi Bacchus should by all rights be a real Jabba the Hutt of a wine, but this example had ample lemon/orange acids to balance the rich fruit. I got notes of fresh herbs, like bay and sage, and even some minerality on the finish, both of which also contributed to the balance. Against all odds, I really liked this wine. It offers a lot of flavor for its $25 price tag.

Winemaker Markus Riggli

Winemaker Markus Riggli

2013 Borra Winery Markus “Nuvola” Gewürztraminer: The name of this wine comes from its winemaker, Swiss expat Markus Niggli, and the Italian word for “cloud.” A warm-climate Gewürz sounds like a terrible idea. As The Oxford Companion notes, “Many wine regions are simply too warm to produce wine with sufficient acidity, unless the grapes are picked so early… that they have developed little Gewürztraminer character.” That character is unmistakable — perfumed and spicy, commonly with a strong note of lychee.

Some Gewürztraminers are too perfumed for my taste, in fact, and if you agree, this is the Gewürz for you. The aroma had more of an undertone of flowers — lily of the valley, to my nose — along with notes of dried herbs. The fruit tasted quite peachy, and it even veered into caramel territory, but balance was restored by a shaft of ginger/white pepper spice. The finish felt sweetly chalky. I’m not sure this qualifies as a classic Gewürztraminer, but I liked that the perfume didn’t slap me in the face. A good value for $19.

We also tasted two blends of Kerner, Bacchus, Riesling and Gewürztraminer by Borra Winery, the 2015 Markus Nativo, which tasted delightfully cool and clean, and the 2014 Markus Nimmo, which included a higher proportion of Gewürztraminer. It tasted creamier — almost buttery — but refined spice and a long mineral finish kept it balanced. $19 and $22, respectively.

Hatton Daniels Zweigelt2015 Hatton Daniels Zweigelt: You may not have heard of this dark-skinned grape, but as The Oxford Companion explains, “It is widely grown throughout all Austrian wine regions and can increasingly make a serious, age-worthy wine, even though most examples are best drunk young.” This Lodi example had a classic Zweigelt aroma of ripe red fruit and earth. I wouldn’t call this light-bodied wine “age-worthy,” necessarily, but I liked its cherry fruit, notes of leather and meat, and the quick burst of acids. Some tannins on the finish kept things grounded. $25

I suppose that 50 years ago, it would have seemed crazy to the people of Cahors, France, that their Malbec would grow exceedingly well — dare I say even better — in Mendoza. Now Argentine Malbec is in every corner liquor store. So perhaps we shouldn’t be shocked to discover perfectly lovely examples of Kerner and Gewürztraminer in the wilds of central California. The grapes behave differently there, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make tasty wine.

I’m sure people thought Bob Koth was crazy when he said he wanted to grow German grape varieties in Lodi. Some people probably still do. But the proof is in the pudding.

These tastes were provided free of charge as part of the 2016 Wine Bloggers Conference.

13 Notable Quotes From Lodi’s Wine Bloggers Conference

20 August 2016
Wine bloggers at work in Lodi

Wine bloggers at work in Lodi

I just returned from 2016’s Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi, California, and as you might expect, people had all sorts of insightful things to say about wine, food and life in general. I gathered up my favorite gems, so that you, too, might learn from our collective wisdom.

The most important 13 quotes of the conference, in no particular order:

1. “This is your wine now. You know, you can come and stroke it or whatever you have to do.”

2. “They love the winemaker. I’m crap, but they love the winemaker.”

3. “Gewürztraminer is the Pamela Anderson of grapes.”

Vino Noire and Josh Likes Wine talking about either goat ragù or waterboarding (I can't remember which)

Vino Noire and Josh Likes Wine talking about either goat ragù or waterboarding (I can’t remember which)

4. “Riesling is not Kleenex.”

5. “Can you waterboard someone if they’re OK with it?”

6. “It tastes good for Chardonnay.”

7. “I’m going to extend my arm.”

8. “This would go great with some goat ragù.”

9. “After six minutes, [this aerator] took all the gravel and dirt and ugliness out of a Bordeaux.”

10. “Do you have your syringe?”

11. “Gary [Indiana] has that drive-by feng shui.”

12. “Lisa is our tasting room entertainer. …Man, she is really good.”

13. “I think it’s fundamental to remember that we all love alcohol.”

Amen.

If you were there in Lodi and have a quote or two of your own to share, feel free to do so in the comments section!

Red Wines Of Lodi: Speed Blogging Part 2

14 August 2016
Wine photographed not during speed blogging.

Wine photographed not during speed blogging

In one of the Wine Bloggers Conference seminars, a presenter admonished the audience about the previous day’s speed blogging performance. “I saw a lot of you taking random photos during speed blogging,” she observed, during her talk about Instagram. “Make sure you have a nice background.”

I took an instant dislike to this woman, who, though she had attended the speed blogging session, had clearly not experienced it. Speed blogging is always one of my favorite parts of the Wine Bloggers Conference, because it’s such a challenge. The seven or eight bloggers at each table are trying to get as much information out of the wine presenters as possible, while simultaneously assessing each wine and writing something intelligent about it, all within each five-minute wine speed date. Composing fluffy bottle shots with flowers and candles and such is not within the remotest realm of possibility.

And it’s no picnic for the presenters, either. They’re faced with a table of stressed bloggers who don’t make eye contact (we’re buried in our laptops and phones). We shout a barrage of questions ranging from the simple (Vintage?!) to the irritating (What’s your Twitter handle? Wait — what’s your Twitter handle?) to the borderline rude (Who are you? Who? Oh, the owner?). Meanwhile they’re trying to pour the wine, explain the wine, pass out information sheets about the wine, and give us each a chance to photograph the wine, ideally with a nice background, of course.

Century-old Zinfandel vine in Lodi's Rous Vineyard

Century-old Zinfandel vine in Lodi’s Rous Vineyard

In short, it’s barely controlled chaos, and I absolutely love it. In order to successfully speed blog, I have to find a place of serious focus, shutting out all the noise and confusion around me in order to give each wine the attention it deserves. Learning to focus that way has helped me in all sorts of loud, overcrowded tastings (one of the most common kinds).

After having been in Lodi since Wednesday evening and trying dozens of local reds, this speed blogging event was not particularly surprising. But it was particularly delightful. The reds here tend to be richly fruity and concentrated, with enough spice, acids and tannins to balance. It can be a truly gorgeous combination.

2013 Harney Lane Old Vine Zinfandel Lizzy James Vineyard: Lizzy James really is an old-vine vineyard — it was planted in 1904, sixth-generation winery owner Kyle explained. Aged in 100% French oak, this Zin has a gorgeously rich raspberry and vanilla aroma, cool and clear fruit, with forceful white pepper and plenty of heady alcohol. Ah yes — it’s 15.5% alcohol! And yet it’s balanced. It’s a bit of a monster, this wine, and I love it. At $36 it’s not inexpensive, but now I regret not buying a bottle at the winery when I had the chance.

Lange Twins Nero d'Avola2014 LangeTwins Nero d’Avola: Joe Lange himself poured this Italian varietal, and it’s unfortunately the second-to-last vintage. The Lange family had to rip up the vines after the 2015 harvest because of a couple of serious vineyard diseases. What a lovely dark cherry aroma, enhanced with some purple flowers. There’s a nice calm characteristic to the fruit, and classy, restrained spice with enough oomph to balance. It’s a steal at $20, and based on what I’ve tasted at the conference this week, I wouldn’t hesitate to purchase any LangeTwins bottling of any of the 23 or 24 varieties they make.

2013 Prie Winery Cabernet Sauvignon: This Cab comes from the east side of Lodi (they talk a lot about east side and west side here, which have sandy loam and loamy sand, respectively). The aroma smells of pure, clean fruit, and indeed the fruit comes through loud and clear on the palate, but it loses some power after that, fading slowly into spice and surprisingly soft tannins. I haven’t found the Cabs of Lodi especially compelling, I must admit, and this one hasn’t convinced me otherwise. $29

Paul pouring Inkblot

Paul pouring Michael David’s Inkblot

2013 Michael David “Inkblot” Cabernet Franc: The first Cabernet Franc of the conference! Each vintage of Inkblot showcases a different variety that wine drinkers might not expect, such as Petit Verdot or Tannat, or in this case, Cab Franc, as the marketing manager Paul explained. It contains 10% Petit Sirah to round things out, and my goodness, it works. The aroma is heady and dark, the fruit is big and lush on the palate, and it moves to a blast of tannins followed by an elegant shaft of spice on the finish. It’s certainly drinkable now, but I would love to lay a bottle down for five years to see what happens. The $35 price seems perfectly reasonable.

2013 Peirano Estate “The Other” Red Blend: A blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot and 10% Syrah, this wine has an unexpected aroma, with almost jammy dark fruit combined with an underripe green-pepper quality. Though now that it’s been in my glass a few moments, the fruit has started to overpower the vegetable. There’s plenty of rich fruit — even in a $12 wine from Lodi, there better be, followed by black pepper spice and soft tannins. It’s perfectly drinkable, and not at all a bad value for $12.

2014 Klinker Brick Cabernet Sauvignon: Steve Feldman, the winery owner, shared with us Klinker Brick’s first Cabernet Sauvignon vintage, which retails for $19. It has a deliciously rich aroma of dark fruit, a midsection of classy spice and firm but not aggressive tannins on the finish. This is a Cabernet I can really get behind — the first Lodi Cabernet I’ve really loved. It coats the mouth with ripe, chewy fruit, and it’s a superlative value.

Now that's what I call a background. The OZV red blend and the inimitable Glynis of Vino Noire

Now that’s what I call a background: the inimitable Glynis of Vino Noire

2013 Cultivar Cabernet Sauvignon: I don’t usually write about Napa Cabernets, because they are exactly the opposite of unusual and obscure, so it’s a nice change of pace. I like its heady dark fruit aroma and up-front fruit on the palate. It makes a quick pass through some spice in the midsection before giving me a slap of tannins, followed by some slow-developing black pepper spice. I suspect it needs another year or two to round and soften. I quite like it, but I would much rather spend $19 on the Klinker Brick than $29 on this one.

2013 Oak Ridge Winery “Moss Roxx” Ancient Vine Zinfandel: Steve, the international marketing manager, poured some the OZV red blend before this, which I unfortunately didn’t have time to taste. I can barely handle one wine per speed taste in this event. Two, for me, is an impossibility. I skipped the OZV in order to move right to this Zin from vines which average 105 years in age. I love the rich red-fruit jam aroma, cool ripe fruit on the palate, classy white pepper spice and notable tannins on the finish. A delight for $22.

2013 Ehlers Estate “1886” Cabernet Sauvignon: This is the flagship Cabernet of this Napa winery, with fruit from St. Helena. It’s actually 85% Cabernet with 5% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot. I loved the perfumed dark red fruit aroma, ample but classy white pepper spice in the middle and clear but supple tannins on the finish. It’s beautifully made, and if I were rich, I might even consider buying it for $110.

2014 Troon Vineyard Blue Label Malbec, Rogue Valley: Troon Vineyard is not located in Argentina, as you might have guessed, but in southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley. Oregon gained fame for its Pinot Noir, but those grow mostly in the Willamette Valley — the Rogue and Applegate valleys are near the California border in a relatively dry area at 1,600 feet of altitude. The wine certainly smells ripe, with ample dark fruit and a touch of vanilla, and it tastes rather delicious,with ripe dark fruit, plenty of spice, notable tannins and some underlying freshness. I would never have guessed that a Malbec could work in Oregon, but Troon Vineyard has proved, without a doubt, that it can. $29

Read about Speed Blogging session #1 — Lodi whites, rosés and bubblies — here, or for more red wine Speed Blogging action, read last year’s red report here.

These wine tastes were provided free of charge.

White Wines Of Lodi: Speed Blogging Part 1

13 August 2016
Viognier grapes in Lodi

Viognier grapes in Lodi

“Where are you off to now?” a car valet in Napa Valley asked. I told him. “Lodi? Ah yes,” he said. “They have the quantity, but we have the quality,” he replied, with palpable hauteur. Ever since a Napa wine won the Judgment of Paris in 1976, Napites have just been insufferable.

I jest. Sort of. And, unfortunately, the valet has a point: Lodi is the biggest grape-growing region in the U.S., with some 100,000 acres of vineyards. That’s more than Washington and Oregon combined. And, unfortunately, the valet is also correct that much of that production does not go into fine wine.

That does not mean, however, that fine wine is absent in Lodi. I’ve been here just a couple of days, and already it couldn’t be clearer that Lodi has immense potential. Indeed, numerous wineries here are already fully exploiting that potential, producing richly ripe, balanced bottlings with real class.

If you have had a fine wine from Lodi, there’s a good chance it was a red Zinfandel, the grape for which the region is most famous. I like to think of myself as a very in-the-know, anti-Parker kind of guy, who prefers earthy, austere Old World wines. But in those rare moments I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I’m a sucker for rich fruit. The Zinfandels here have that in spades.

Lodi vineyardBut they’re not the only wines that do. The whites have been a revelation. The best have ripe and lush fruit, elegant acids and spice, and a mineral finish, which sometimes feels like dustiness (which makes sense — after walking through the vineyards, I practically needed a vacuum to clean myself up).

The recent speed blogging event hosted by this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference confirmed that Lodi is capable of producing truly world-class white wines, not just Zinfandel fruit bombs. Speed blogging is always one of my favorite conference activities. Here’s how it works: Winery representatives move from table to table around the room, spending five minutes at each pouring and describing their wines.

It’s wild and wooly, and I always discover some fascinating stuff:

2015 Klinker Brick Rosé: According to pourer Farah, this Rhône-style blend of Carignane, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre — only Klinker’s third rosé vintage — is vinified in a more “French” style with plenty of acids. It’s a lovely pale peach, and indeed, the acids are there. It’s not just strawberry candy. There’s light strawberry fruit, some juicy and tart orangey acids, and a bit of minerality and spice on a finish. A very fine deal for $15.

2015 Oak Ridge “Old Soul” Chardonnay: The oldest operating winery in Lodi, with Tasting Permit #1, touches this Chardonnay “lightly with French and American oak.” There’s plenty of stone fruit like apricot in the nose, with a hint of cream from that oak, I dare say. It starts well, with some ripe apple and peach fruit, with almost enough orangey acids to balance, and some vanilla and just a bit of wood on the finish. Not my ideal Chardonnay, but at $12, it feels churlish to complain too much.

Jardesca

Marcus pouring Jardesca

Jardesca: This aperitif is a blend of three different white wines, notably Viognier (the founder Marcus wouldn’t name the other two). Then they add alcohol and botanicals like pink grapefruit, pink peppercorns. Served on ice, it has a rather voluptuous flavor with lots of fruit, and the pink peppercorn spiciness comes through loud and clear. Marcus tossed a peach chuck in my glass, which added a lovely aroma to it, and he came around again to clap some mint in as well. Against my better judgement, I kind of like it. But I don’t $30-a-bottle like it.

J Winery Brut Rosé: This peachy-colored sparkler from the Russian River Valley is a traditional Champagne-style blend of 66% Pinot Noir, 33% Chardonnay and 1% Pinot Meunier. I liked the rich aroma of orange peel and strawberries, and it has an interesting savory quality. Prickly, teeny bubbles; bright orangey acids (tangerine, if you’ll allow it), and a surprisingly long finish. Very tasty.

2014 Concannon Vineyard Assemblage Blanc: This Livermore winery made it through the horrors of Prohibition, and I’m glad it did. I had a glass of its ripe Petit Sirah earlier, which I enjoyed, but this wine, a blend of 60% Sauvignon Blanc and 40% Semillon is quite the opposite: the aroma is light and mineral, with a bit of swimming pool to it. It starts a touch flabby, but it tightens up into white pepper spice and some chalk. It’s $22 a bottle, which I don’t think I’ll be paying.

2014 Peirano Estate “The Other” White Blend: The grandfather of Lance, who poured this wine, started the vineyard in 1879, and Lance is a fourth-generation grape grower. He knows what he’s doing — the wine has a pleasant aroma of dried herbs and apple/pear fruit, lush white fruit flavor, just enough acids and spice to keep things balanced, and some appealing oak on the finish. I wish there had been a bit more acid and spice to balance the fruit and oak, but again, at $13, I don’t feel I can complain too vociferously.

Colcannon Assemblage Blanc. We were all a little shell-shocked by this point in the speed blogging event.

Colcannon Assemblage Blanc. We were all a little shell-shocked by this point in the speed blogging event.

2014 Kenefick Ranch Pickett Road White: Chris Kenefick’s father started this vineyard in 1981, and like many grape growers, he sold all his fruit, but they now make their own estate wines. The Pickett Road is another Rhône-style blend, composed of 75% Grenache Blanc, 20% Marsanne and 5% Viognier. It’s a lovely rich green-gold color, and it has a taut, spicy aroma. The fruit is fresh, clear and cool on the palate, followed by some light limey acids and a little honey on the finish. There’s a flabby quality in the midsection, though, so I don’t much feel like paying the $24 price tag.

2015 Left Coast Cellars White Pinot Noir: The ownership is mostly left-handed, which influenced the name, but of course the name also references the politics of this misguided section of the country. The juice sees no skin contact, and because the flesh of the Pinot Noir grape is light in color, the wine has a surprisingly pale straw color. It has a nose of spice and dried herbs, not the usual cherry fruit and earth of a Pinot, and an attack of apple and pear flavors. It moves quickly to some lively spice and a mineral, almost chalky finish. It’s quite delicious, and in an extravagant mood, I might well buy it for $24.

And… Table 1 has no wine. This is, unfortunately, a typical problem of speed blogging in recent years. Whatever is coming next, it better be good. Ah, the pourer, Craig Camp, just found us. Ah, and he’s walking away. And he’s coming back. Slowly. Argh.

2015 Troon Vineyard Blue Label “Longue Carabine” Applegate Valley: This Willamette wine is quite good, with ample fruit and spice, and Craig said something about natural winemaking. It must make a difference — this wine had excellent balance. I wish we’d had more than 30 seconds with it.

2015 Corner 103 Sauvignon Blanc:  Corner 103 has been in business for just 16 months! I’m amazed, considering the quality and finesse of this Sauvignon Blanc. It has a pretty grapefruity aroma with an overtone of grass, and flavors of bright citrus, apple, pear, and a little minerality on the finish. It’s not big, but it’s quite graceful. Its hillside vineyard in the Kenwood section of Sonoma is obviously a great location — I would certainly pay $25 for this one. Good to end on a high note!

Read about the sensational reds I tried in Speed Blogging session #2 here, or if you prefer more whites and rosés, check out last year’s Speed Blogging report here.

These wine tastes were provided free of charge.

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.

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