Blends – White

The Message Is: Drink Blends

4 September 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Wine Region On The Cusp: Part 2

27 June 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Obscure Whites Of Orvieto

12 May 2012

Orvieto

The region around the Umbrian hill town of Orvieto produces Italy’s most famous white wine, found on Italian restaurant menus everywhere. What about Orvieto, that ubiquitous, innocuous dry white, possibly be considered unusual or obscure? As is so often the case, we must look back to the 1960s to find the answer.

Before then — indeed, ever since the Etruscans carved wine cellars out of the tufa underneath the city — Orvieto primarily produced sweet wines. These wines were not immune from the tradition-averse 1960s, and as tastes drifted towards dry whites, Orvieto winemakers drifted as well. Today, just 5% of Orvieto’s wine production is sweet.

As their wines became drier, winemakers moved away from the Grechetto variety which had given Orvieto much of its character, using ever more Trebbiano in their blends. And, as The Oxford Companion to Wine notes, “Like most blends with a Trebbiano base produced in substantial quantities…dry Orvieto tends to be a bland, pedestrian product.” Ouch.

But it’s not all bad news. The pendulum has begun to swing the other direction, and in the last 20 years, some Orvieto winemakers have been experimenting with using Grechetto blended with well-respected international varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

On a recent stay in the area, I had the opportunity to taste some of these newer blends. They weren’t your mama’s Orvieto.

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Voluptuous Tropical Suburbs

4 February 2012

The great red wines of Bordeaux arguably set the standard for reds around the world, making it easy to forget that the area produces some excellent whites as well. I’ve written before about the value-priced whites of Entre-Deux-Mers, but on my recent visit to France, I was introduced to a rather more exciting appellation: Pessac-Léognan. Essentially, the suburbs of Bordeaux.

This appellation came into existence just 25 years ago, carved out from the much larger (and less distinguished) Graves. The name may be a little hard to pronounce (peh-sahk lay-oh-nyahn), but it’s worth remembering. Some of Bordeaux’s best wines — red or white — come from this appellation. It used to produce more wine, but suburban sprawl has claimed no fewer than 214 wine châteaux in Graves and Pessac-Léognan in the last century, according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. Even the region’s most famous château, Haut-Brion, is now completely surrounded by housing and commercial developments.

Pessac-Léognan devotes only about 650 acres to the cultivation of white grapes, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, but if what I tasted is any indication, the whites it produces are well worth seeking out. I sampled two Pessac-Léognan wines during my trip:

2005 Château Malartic-Lagravière “Le Sillage de Malartic”: This family-owned property comprises just 50 acres surrounding its château. Sotheby’s notes that it’s hard to believe this wine is 100% Sauvignon Blanc, and I must agree. On the nose were voluptuously ripe peaches, and tropical fruit worked its way into the palate. Some stone kept things grounded, as did a rather woody finish. A joy to drink. The 2009 pre-arrival is about $70 at K&L.

Château La Tour-Martillac: I’m afraid I have no idea what vintage I drank. My photo of the label offers no clue. But I can say that I loved this wine’s rich, green aroma and the rather exotic flavors. There was something mysterious in there — almost an incense quality. The wine had some spiciness, but it was still subtle and juicy. It tasted delicious with an appetizer of foie gras and local lamprey eel (right) at Le Pressoir d’Argent. About $40 at K&L.

Whites from Pessac-Léognan may cost a little more, but these luscious food-friendly wines are worth the hunt and expense.

The Advantages of Wine Tastings – Part 2

14 January 2012

A little while back I wrote a post about a delightful tasting of small-batch wines organized by In Fine Spirits. Events like this can be amazingly helpful; tasting numerous wines in rapid succession can really clarify what it is you like in a wine. Then the next time you go into a wine shop, you can more clearly explain what you’re looking for (assuming you used the spit bucket occasionally, so that you actually remember what you like).

The other major benefit of wine tastings is meeting really fun, interesting people. At the In Fine Spirits tasting, I quite enjoyed the wines Ian of Vinejoy presented, we had a great chat, and he put me on his dinner party list. His wine company hosts periodic pot luck dinners in various atmospheric locations, gathering together wine geeks, chefs, friends and various other assorted folk.

A few weeks later, crock pot in hand, I descended into the old basement of Gentile’s Wine Shop on Taylor Street, where a bricked-up tunnel hinted at the space’s bootlegging past. Platters of delicious-looking food covered multiple tables, illuminated by the glow of Christmas lights hanging from the pipes and ducts.

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Between Two Seas

6 August 2011

I had been mostly avoiding cooking during this recent Chicago heat spell, but as the “spell” turned into a full month, the desire to get back in the kitchen became too great. Despite the 90+ temperatures and a non-air-conditioned kitchen, I decided it was time to get back to the stove.

My thoughts turned to the warm-weather cuisine of Morocco, since we had recently made a batch of preserved lemons. A tagine of slow-cooked chicken thighs, fresh green olives, preserved lemon and caramelized onion seemed just the thing.

But what to pair with this Moroccan stew? It may or may not surprise you to know that I had no Moroccan wine on hand. Instead, I made the most of Morocco’s connection to France and opened a white Bordeaux from Entre-Deux-Mers, which means “between two seas” (in this case, the Dordogne and Garonne Rivers). The name itself already seemed cooling.

Bordeaux may not be especially odd or obscure — indeed, it’s perhaps the world’s most famous wine region. But many people seem to think of Bordeaux as invariably expensive and out of reach, and so almost never drink it. When is the last time someone showed up to a party of yours with a bottle of Bordeaux in tow?  It’s arguably the ultimate snob wine.

Somehow it’s escaped the notice of the general wine-drinking public that Bordeaux can be a staggeringly good value. What many see as a snob wine, oddly enough, is some of the most accessible wine in the world. (more…)

Twilight

16 May 2011

In the last couple of decades, Lebanon has unfortunately been more famous for its wars than its wine. It wasn’t always so. According to André Dominé’s Wine, excavations at Byblos, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, “…have shown that wine must have been made [in Lebanon] more than 5,000 years ago.” The Phoenecians exported wine to Egypt, and the Romans erected a temple to Bacchus in Baalbek, even now the heart of Lebanon’s wine industry.

Despite this illustrious history, Lebanon boasted just five wineries as of 1991 according to The Telegraph, and Dominé’s 2001 edition of Wine also lists only five wineries: Château Musar, Fakra, Ksara, Clos St. Thomas and Château Kefraya. These stalwarts have been joined by at least 25 more wineries in the last ten years, including “boutique” wineries such as Massaya.

This winery was something rather new, a partnership between the Lebanese Ghosn brothers, Dominique Herard (owner of Château Trianon near Saint-Emilion) and the Brunier brothers (owners of Domaine du Vieux Télégraph near Châteauneuf-du-Pape). In addition to producing highly regarded wines, Massaya embraced wine tourism, opening a welcoming tasting room and the idyllic Vineyard Restaurant.

I was fortunate to find a bottle of the Massaya Blanc at In Fine Spirits, my neighborhood wine shop. I secured the last bottle on the shelf, a bottle, the clerk confided to me, that he had intended to take home the night before.

“Massaya” means “twilight” in Lebanese, or in the more extravagant translation of Massaya’s distributor, “the time of day when twilight sets on the vineyard and the sky turns purple as the sun sets behind Mount-Lebanon.” The Massaya Blanc certainly made me want to see that sunset for myself.

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