Cabernet Sauvginon

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.

Beyond Bourbon: A Kentucky Cabernet

15 January 2014

Capital CellarsIt takes a little doing to find local wine in the heart of bourbon country. I’ve been visiting Louisville and the surrounding area annually for the last seven or eight years, and though I’ve toured a number of distilleries, I only just recently tasted my first Kentucky wine. It took a visit to the pretty state capital, Frankfort, to finally find some.

Wineries in Kentucky have a tough uphill battle to fight, and not just because of bourbon’s overwhelming firepower. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, in Kentucky, “Winter freeze may only be a marginal issue, but the hot, humid summers have so far proved discouraging to efforts with vinifera vines.” Vinifera vines include varieties such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Merlot — really any grape of world-class quality, with the exception of Norton and perhaps one or two others. If you can’t successfully grow vinifera varieties, your winery is unlikely to make much of a splash.

Nowadays, it seems some Kentucky wineries have overcome the sultry summers and are indeed growing vinifera grapes of real quality. Capital Cellars, a shop across the street from Kentucky’s old capitol building, stocks an impressive array of local wines, including many made from tried-and-true grape varieties. The service at this shop isn’t great — I had a great deal of trouble getting the attention of the staff, and when I finally did, the first person I spoke with knew next to nothing about Kentucky wine. I was also disappointed to discover that Capital Cellars’ small wine bar served no Kentucky wines by the glass. Nevertheless, I recommend stopping by if you’re in the area, if only to take advantage of the breadth of Capital Cellars’ selection.

MillaNova Cabernet Sauvignon ReserveOne of the wines which caught my attention was the NV MillaNova Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, clearly labeled as “A Kentucky Cabernet Sauvignon.” (I had no interest in buying a wine made from out-of-state fruit.) Set just south of Louisville on 22 acres near Mt. Washington, the winery produces 18 different wines, some of which with dubious names like “Chardonberry.” But there is no denying the high quality of the Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve.

One of my tasting partners for the evening took a sip and remarked, “It’s a lot better than I thought it would be,” and indeed it was. A dark, opaque red, the MillaNova Cabernet had a rich aroma of jammy fruit and chocolate. I was impressed by the clear, bell-like fruit, redolent of plums. Aged in French and American oak for 18 months, the wine felt full-bodied and well-balanced, with big, bold acids, some white-pepper spice and a smoothly tannic finish. I must admit I felt nervous buying a Kentucky Cabernet for $25, but the MillaNova unquestionably lived up to its price tag.

If you find yourself in Kentucky, there’s no need to limit yourself to just the local spirits. As the MillaNova Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve illustrates, the state is capable of producing perfectly delicious wines as well.

The Curse Of The Autograph

24 March 2012

I routinely fail to take my own advice, and despite my previous exhortations, I still have a number of ancient, moldering bottles of wine and spirits crying out to be drunk. At this point, some bottles have been kept so long, it seems almost inconceivable to actually open them.

In a rare moment of willpower, I overcame my wine hoarding tendencies and brought a 2001 Guy Buffet Cabernet Sauvignon home to drink with my parents. I’d been holding on to this bottle since May of 2004, subjecting it to numerous non-air-conditioned summers. I know the exact month and year of purchase because this bottle was signed by Guy Buffet himself. Hence my inability to open the damn thing until now.

Signed bottles may be charming — even meaningful — but they are a curse as far as I’m concerned. In this case, I didn’t even know Mr. Buffet. He signed the bottle to me, but his message of “Cheers” held little significance. Even so, this signature, a mere scribble with a gold marker, prevented me from opening the bottle. My heavens, what if the bottle was worth something? What if someone out there was dying to get their hands on a poorly stored bottle of Cabernet that said, “To Rob, Cheers, Guy Buffet”? How could I possibly consider opening it and enjoying it? (more…)

A Winning Cabernet From Cheese Country

23 November 2011

Edie explains the bottling machine


Returning to Chicago from a stay in Door County, Wisconsin, my husband and I decided to stop for a couple of nights in Algoma. This lakeside town may not exactly be synonymous with wine, but since activity options are relatively limited, we took a tour of the historic Von Stiehl Winery.

Built in the center of town in 1868 as a brewery, the winery’s main building features an attractive tasting room and atmospheric aging cellars. We ended up enjoying a private tour of the facility with Edie, a memorable guide who used to perform from time to time on Hee Haw.

Back in the tasting room, we selected a range of mostly dry wines to sample. As we tasted, we looked at each other, perplexed, trying to understand the unusual journey of the wines. “Ah,” my husband exclaimed, “the wines come to a point at the end.” He was exactly right — rather than expanding at the rear palate, several of these wines tightened up and focused. Fascinating!

We expressed our thoughts to Edie, who politely nodded in agreement. Noting we hadn’t selected any of the sweeter wines to taste, she insisted we try a little of this and a little of that, and before we knew it, we were stumbling to the cashier with a few bottles of Lakeshore Fumé. I also had the good sense to buy a bottle of the non-vintage Cabernet Sauvignon, made from “California and Washington State’s finest fruits.” That was in 2008, and the bottle has mouldered on my wine rack ever since.

I decided it was high time to open this buckaroo. While making my first-ever batch of homemade tagliatelle, I took  a wine break and poured a glass, expecting something drinkable (perhaps) but past its prime.


(Purple) Porcine Pleasures

19 May 2011

I almost never dine near North Michigan Avenue, that famed Chicago strip so favored by deep dish-seeking tourists and overpriced restaurants. It was therefore with some skepticism that I approached The Purple Pig, a relatively new Spanish/Mediterranean hot spot set right in the heart of the beast: 500 North. But I wanted something a little fancy for my birthday, and I’d heard from a very trusted palate that it was “terrific.” And, well, it was.

Always thinking of my readers, I took copious notes about the experience (though it must be said their legibility and coherence deteriorated with distressing rapidity).