Grape Varieties

The Dark Horse Of Italy’s Cowboy Country

9 February 2016
Andrea Cecchi holding his Morellino di Scansano Riserva

Andrea Cecchi holding his Morellino di Scansano Riserva

I recently returned from a trip blessedly free from internet access to discover an aging invitation to have dinner and taste wines with Andrea Cecchi. My recent lack of connectivity suddenly seemed more like a curse. I scrambled to arrange a meeting, because Mr. Cecchi makes highly regarded wines in an obscure but very exciting region of Italy: Maremma.

Until the mid-20th century, Tuscany’s coast was better known for malaria and buttero (cowboys) than fine wine. But Mussolini drained the swamps, the cattle herds dwindled and the Marchese Mario Incisa della Rochetta planted Cabernet Sauvignon vines in Bolgheri. Now, Bolgheri is its own DOC and the home of Sassicaia, one of Italy’s most coveted wines.

But I don’t have $200 to spend on a bottle of Sassicaia. Instead, I focus instead on what ranks as one of Italy’s best red-wine values: Morellino di Scansano. The hill town of Scansano sits on high ground in Maremma, and the vineyards of Morellino (the local synonym for Sangiovese) reach as high as 1,500 feet above the nearby sea. “This is the Maremma’s classic Sangiovese zone,” according to The World Atlas of Wine, and Italy seems to agree. In 2009, Morellino di Scansano was elevated from its DOC classification to DOCG, the most most restrictive and (theoretically) highest-quality designation in Italy’s wine classification system.

Cecchi La Mora Morellino di Scansano RiservaIn 1996, Andrea Cecchi’s father bought 360 acres of Maremma vineyards, expanding his wine company out of Chianti Classico, its home base since the late 19th century. He called his new wines “La Mora,” in honor of the black-skinned horses for which Maremma was once famous, Andrea explained, indicating the horse-head silhouettes on the labels.

We talked about measures the winery takes to improve sustainability and how they continue to innovate, working to make even the most incremental of improvements, knowing that enough small steps forward eventually lead to great leaps in quality. In the not-so-distant past, the fashion was to amp up the extraction and oak flavors. Now, the pendulum has swung the other direction, and Andrea, like many other top winemakers these days, seeks to emphasize the quality and purity of the fruit. It all sounded good, but did it translate into delicious wine?

I smelled the 2013 “La Mora” Morellino di Scansano. It had a lovely rich aroma of red cherry fruit and violets. This wine sees no oak. “I want it to be very perfect, clean, into the bottle,” Andrea explained, and he succeeded in that effort. The wine started with ample dark cherry fruit before moving to a brief perk of white-pepper spice, admirably round tannins and a clean, dry finish. It worked well with some tomato and basil bruschetta, becoming a bit bigger and spicier. A very good value for $23 a bottle.

Cecchi La Mora Maremma VermentinoWe also tried the 2011 “La Mora” Morellino di Scansano Riserva, aged 12 to 14 months in French oak barriques composed of 40% new wood (older barrels impart less oak flavor). I felt especially excited to try this wine, because only 10% of Morellino di Scansano is riserva. I loved its rich dark-chocolate and cherry aroma overlaid with a note of black licorice. On my palate, the cherry fruit felt cool and ripe, undergirded by mocha notes and well-integrated tannins. Like with the first Morellino, this example exhibited a general undertone of dryness — the wine didn’t feel juicy or jammy. This wine is pricier at $40 a bottle, but if you have that money to spend, you won’t regret spending it on this absolutely delightful riserva.

Maremma can produce notable whites as well, as demonstrated by the 2014 “La Mora” Maremma Vermentino Andrea presented. Demand for wines made from this indigenous grape far outstrips supply, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, and I can understand why. This Vermentino smelled fresh and green, with just a touch of creaminess to it. A lengthy amount of time in contact with the yeast gave this wine a wonderfully even keel and elegant mouthfeel. Ripe fruit expanded on the palate, but taut acids underneath buoyed it up without becoming intrusive or overly tart. I also liked the dry, mineral finish. Many Italian whites require food to really appreciate them, but this wine worked just as beautifully all on its own. Very classy, and very well-priced at $20 a bottle.

Honestly, I had expected to end my writing about Andrea Cecchi’s wines here, because though he planned on presenting some Chiantis, they hardly qualified as obscure. But these Chiantis did turn out to be unusual, and well-deserving of an upcoming post all their own.

Note: The tastes of these wines were provided free of charge.

Franciacorta: Italy’s Answer To Champagne

28 December 2015

Barone Pizzini Saten and La Valle NaturalisAs we approach New Year’s Eve, thoughts turn inevitably to sparkling wine. The holiday is practically synonymous with Champagne, and it’s the only holiday, alas, during which you’re virtually guaranteed to have plenty of bubbly with which to celebrate. (If you’re looking for a good New Year’s Resolution, I suggest vowing to celebrate every holiday with sparkling wine. Those who truly care about the environment, for example, would surely agree that Arbor Day merits a glass of Champagne as much as New Year’s Eve.)

Recently I was offered a sample of high-end Franciacorta, Italy’s best sparkling wine, crafted in a method similar to Champagne. I hesitated at first, since I had written a post about Franciacorta not so long ago. But I reconsidered and accepted the samples, because the offer came to me just after one of my favorite wine-tasting friends shared a beautiful bottle of Piper-Heidsieck Brut. This Champagne activated all my sparkling-wine pleasure centers: It had a wonderfully yeasty aroma with some underlying freshness, rich flavors of toast and almond balanced by bright acids, and, of course, exquisitely fine bubbles.

Piper-Heidsieck BrutI loved this wine, which can be had for $40 a bottle (it’s a far better value than the ubiquitous and rather underwhelming Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label at $37 a bottle). After feeling so thoroughly seduced by the Piper-Heidsieck, I wondered if these Franciacorta sparklers, which ranged from $45 to $55 a bottle, would compete in the same league. At that price point, they should display sharp focus, perfect balance, notable character and elegant bubbles. I invited five friends over, whipped up some Käsespätzle with melted leeks, and got to the happy work of tasting the wines.

1) 2011 Barone Pizzini Satèn: Franciacorta reserves the “Satèn” designation  for 100% Chardonnay wines (blanc de blancs) that have spent a minimum of 24 months aging on the lees (dead yeast cells, grape skin fragments and other solid bits left over from winemaking). Barone Pizzini aged this Satèn between 30 and 40 months, theoretically developing even more complexity. This organic wine proved very popular with the group. “This is delicious and very easy to drink,” remarked Adam, who also liked its crispness. Patti astutely noted, “It’s like when you bite into a granny smith apple.” I also got some green apple on the nose, along with vanilla and a bit of toast. I loved the very classy bubbles, lemony acids and juicy, appley fruit. ($45)

La Valle Brut Rose2) 2011 La Valle Rosé Brut: The vintage on this bottle inexplicably appears only in small font on the back label. If I had a vintage sparkling rosé, I’d want to shout it from the rooftops. This very pretty wine also delighted the group, including me. In order to preserve the character of the grapes as much as possible, this blend of 55% Chardonnay and 45% Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir) fermented in stainless steel and again in the bottle, without spending any time in oak. Like the Barone Pizzini Satèn, this wine spent a significant time aging on the lees, a minimum of 24 months in this case. It had a fresh and light (some in the group argued “undetectable”) strawberry aroma. It had ample watermelony fruit but it felt dry, with rich orangey acids and some chalk on the finish. The bubbles were tiny but forceful, with a “more celebratory feel” according to one fellow taster. A very romantic sparkling rosé that paired deliciously with some asparagus wrapped in crisped prosciutto. ($55)

La Valle Rose and Barone Pizzini Rose3) 2011 Barone Pizzini Rosé: This 100% Pinot Noir comes from organic vineyards abutting a forest, which “maintains cool temperatures throughout hotter days of the growing season,” according to the distributor’s fact sheet. It, too, spends 30 to 40 months aging on the lees, but the character of its bubbles made it feel less serious and more fun than La Valle’s rosé. “It’s so bubbly that it melts in my mouth,” Scott reported. “It turns to air!” He was right — on the finish, the ethereal bubbles frothed and evaporated, leaving the palate clean for the next sip. It was a surprising end for a wine that started with ripe berry flavors and dusky orange acids. “I feel like #3 is more extroverted,” Cornelia noted, “but it’s kind of garrulous.” I found this wine to be charming, but then I have no shortage of garrulous friends. ($45)

4) 2009 La Valle “Naturalis” Extra Brut: I saved the most sophisticated wine for last, which was perhaps an error, since the other wines had more residual sugar. La Valle gives this blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir nowhere to hide, aging it in stainless steel (wood can smooth over certain problems) and adding minimal sugar in the dosage (sweetness also helps cover flaws). The winemaking has to be just about perfect if you’re going to attempt a wine like “Naturalis.” And such a wine won’t be popular with everyone; one taster complained of a slight bitter undertone, and she wasn’t wrong. I found this wine exciting to drink, with its zesty acids, pin-prick bubbles and flavors of tart apple and unripe pear. It mellowed when paired with the Käsespätzle, becoming rounder and less austere. If you’re meeting up with some wine geeks and need something to pair with dinner, this is your bottle. But Cornelia said it best: “This is the wine I should be dating — it’s the most emotionally healthy — but I’ll probably end up with #1.” ($55)

This tasting was a pleasure, to be sure. The rosé Franciacortas both could compete with a fine rosé Champagne, and if you seek a romantic sparkler to impress a date — especially a date who knows something about wine — a rosé Franciacorta would be an excellent choice.

The Satèn impressed me with its beautiful balance and perfect bubbles, and the “Naturalis” excited me in the manner of a tightrope walker performing without a net. If I have $45 to $55 to spend on a sparkler, will I purchase one of them? They’re certainly worth the money. But I’m such a sucker for toasty richness, it’s still the Piper-Heidsieck that has me in its grip.

Note: All the wines described in this post were provided free of charge.

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 Finger Lakes: New York’s Mitteleuropa

4 December 2015
Keuka Lake, New York

Keuka Lake, New York

“You’ll never see big-time production in the Finger Lakes — it’s boutique production,” explained sommelier Christopher Bates at this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference in Corning, New York. “We’re like the Mosel,” he continued, “where there are small spaces where grapes can grow and a lot of spaces where they can’t.”

Reviewing my notes from the conference got me thinking that perhaps Bates’ analogy was just a bit too far to the northwest. Most of the Finger Lakes wines I liked best — Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, and Lemberger (Blaufränkisch) — all grow exceedingly well in Austria. According to The World Atlas of Wine, the Wachau, for example, is “…a rich mosaic of different soils and rocks,” where “There are plots of deep soil and others where a mere scratching finds rock…” The description reminded me of the Finger Lakes soil map Bates displayed, which looked like a pointillist fever dream.

The climates of Austria and the Finger Lakes have something in common as well. In Austria, large rivers and lakes mitigate the otherwise rather tough continental climate, just as in the Finger Lakes, where vineyards cluster along sloping shorelines. There, summer warmth stored in the lakes helps prevent the vines from freezing during the extreme winters.

The personable Steven Fulkerson, holding a bottle of his bright and fruity Pinot Noir/Dornfelder rosé

Steven Fulkerson, holding a bottle of his bright and fruity Pinot Noir/Dornfelder rosé

Lettie Teague’s 2013 Wall Street Journal article about the region bore the subtitle, “Where Riesling Rules.” The spectrum of Rieslings I tasted during the course of the conference gives me no cause to disagree with her. The 2014 Lamoreaux Landing Red Oak Vineyard Riesling, for example, exhibited impressive finesse while shifting from ripe fruit to exotic spice to a dry finish. A languid 2013 Fulkerson Estate Semi-Dry Riesling offered lush fruit balanced perfectly by orangey acids and gingery spice. And in the 2013 Wagner Vineyards Riesling Ice Wine, sumptuously rich, sweet fruit mixed with zesty grapefruity acids and warm cinnamon spice — what a delight.

It’s tempting to go on and on about the beautiful Rieslings I tried. Ravines Wine Cellars, Heron Hill, Barrington Cellars, Keuka Spring Vineyards, Vineyard View and McGregor all make exciting examples marked by ripe fruit, balanced acids and often something exotic, like jasmine, incense and/or ginger. And the prices! Most of these Rieslings cost less than $20 a bottle, a magnificent value for the money.

But Riesling isn’t the whole story in the Finger Lakes. Another one of Austria’s most popular grape varieties grows exceedingly well here: Grüner Veltliner. It does well in Austria but rather less well in Germany, because it ripens too late to be successful in vineyards that far north. But the hot summers of the Finger Lakes seem to agree with Grüner Veltliner. John Mansfield of Three Brothers Wineries and Estates agreed, going so far as to argue that “Grüner — it’s going to take over. Take the best parts of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürztraminer, smash ’em together, and you get Grüner.”

Jon Mansfield of Three Brothers Wineries & Estates

Jon Mansfield of Three Brothers Wineries & Estates

His 2014 Stony Lonesome Estates Grüner Veltliner proved to have great personality, with a rather sultry, humid, greenhouse-like aroma, round fruit, tight acids, orange-peel spice and some minerality on the almost bitter finish. Other Grüners were equally as refreshing and exciting. I especially liked the 2014 Dr. Konstantin Frank Grüner Veltliner, which had an aroma of fresh green hay and dewy fruit undergirded by taut, racy acids. These are wines worth paying attention to.

In addition to fine Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners, Austria also produces a number of delicious red wines, including Blaufränkisch. The Finger Lakes is right on Austria’s heels with this variety, which goes by the synonym of Lemberger in New York (I find “Blaufränkisch” to be a little sexier than “Lemberger,” but I’m a sucker for umlauts). As The Oxford Companion to Wine notes, Lemberger produces “wines of real character, if notably high acidity, when carefully grown.”

I’d argue that Finger Lakes Lemberger is capable of standing toe-to-toe with Austrian Blaufränkisch. The 2012 Goose Watch Lemberger proved particularly striking, with ripe cherry fruit and juicy acids. Its white-pepper spice slowly grew in intensity through to a big finish. It felt light but powerful. Just as memorable was the 2012 Fulkerson Estate Goose Watch LembergerLemberger, with its surprising combination of cheerful freshness, ripe dark fruit and tart acids. And I loved the 2013 Lemberger by Element, the winery owned by Christopher Bates, which had a sexy aroma of dark fruit and violets, a light body, big fruit and big spice.

If Riesling, Grüner Veltliner and Lemberger do so well in the Finger Lakes, I’ve been thinking, why not other noble Austrian varieties? I would be especially excited to try a Finger Lakes St. Laurent. This grape, though still not very well-known, produces velvety, sexy red wines, of which I dearly wish more were imported into the United States. I would love to have a local source.

Austrian wines, especially Grüner Veltliner, have become very popular with sommeliers because of their food-friendly acids. You may have noticed that all the wines above have ample acidity, making any of them a fine addition to a restaurant wine list. Finger Lakes wines can’t be found in every corner wine shop, but if I were a New York sommelier fond of Austrian bottlings, I would be sure to include at least one or two choices from the Finger Lakes on my menu. And if I were a traveler fond of wine, I’d put the more-than-usually picturesque and friendly Finger Lakes region on my bucket list.

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 (which you must be, if you’re still reading), 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.

Szigeti’s Unusual Sparkling Grüner Veltliner

12 October 2015

Szigeti Gruner Veltliner BrutThat Austria makes delightful Grüner Veltliner is no secret — Grüner varietals appear on many a wine list these days, because they tend to be not only delicious but food-friendly, with plenty of acid and spice. I love them. Last year when I visited Vienna, I had the fortune to sample a number of Grüner Veltliner Smaragd wines, which blew me away with their rich fruit, focus and power. But until a recent vacation in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, I’d never tasted a Grüner with bubbles.

You don’t have to go to Austria (or Northwoods Wisconsin) to find a sparkling Grüner Veltliner, however. Szigeti may be a family company, but it’s not a small operation. The winery corks 100,000 bottles of non-vintage Grüner Veltliner Brut each year alone, out of a total production of some 600,000 bottles of various sparkling wines, according to U.S. importer Winebow. That means, in contrast to many of the other wines described on this website, you actually have a fighting chance of finding this one.

At first glance, Szigeti’s location near the Neusiedlersee, a shallow lake on the Austrian/Hungarian border surrounded by plains, seems unpromising. The lack of beneficial hills is worrisome, and then there’s the fact that the Neusiedlersee region isn’t one of Austria’s best for Grüner, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine (it argues that Grüner is at its best in the Wachau, Kamptal, Kremstal, Weinviertel and Donauland). The World Atlas of Wine isn’t reassuring either, focusing on how the Neusiedlersee region produces appealing sweet wines, because mists from the lake encourage the growth of botrytis (noble rot). Neither book mentions anything about quality Grüner Veltliner coming out of Neusiedlersee.

But then, you don’t hear anything about quality Chardonnay coming out of Champagne. As the Oxford Companion explains, “Wines that are good raw material for the sparkling wine-making process are not usually much fun to drink in their still state. They are typically high in acidity and unobtrusively flavored.” Still wines made from Neusiedlersee Grüner Veltliner may not be much to talk about, but the grapes work beautifully in bubbly.

I brought a bottle of NV Szigeti Grüner Veltliner Brut up to Boyd’s Mason Lake Resort, where the family gathered to celebrate my father’s 70th birthday. One night, the charmingly old-fashioned resort served a Thanksgiving-style turkey dinner, and it seemed like an ideal moment to try this unusual sparkler. Under the gaze of the fish and deer heads mounted on the lodge’s wall, I popped the cork.

I hadn’t planned on taking any tasting notes — I was on vacation, after all — but the wine proved to be so delicious I couldn’t resist. I loved its creamy, citrusy aroma, reminiscent of a dreamsicle. The elegantly fine, foamy bubbles were a testament to Szigeti’s use of the most time-consuming and expensive means of producing sparkling wine, méthode traditionelle, in which the second fermentation — the fermentation which causes the bubbles — takes place in the bottle as opposed to a large steel tank. It had ample fruit and a pleasant powdered candy note, all balanced by soft limey acids. It stood up well to the turkey, but it also would make a fine aperitif all on its own.

The Szigeti Grüner Veltliner Brut isn’t inexpensive — it costs $17-$20 a bottle — but in this case, that’s money well spent. The obvious quality of the wine along with its unique character and versatility make it a value at that price. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy it again, and I’m going to keep my eye out for other Szigeti sparklers as well.

The Not Very Odd Wines Of Chris Hanna

12 September 2015
Chris Hanna

Chris Hanna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overdue For A Brazilian

4 September 2015
Vanessa presenting four wines by Salton

Vanessa presenting four wines by Salton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bobbing On The Surface Of The Finger Lakes

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

The terrace of the Manor House overlooking Keuka Lake

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

Glynis of Vino-Noire.com and Reggie of WineCasual.com with the author

Glynis of Vino-Noire.com and Reggie of WineCasual.com with the author (center)

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

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

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

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

The Manor House on Keuka Lake

The Manor House near Keuka Lake

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

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

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

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

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