Tuesday, September 2, 2014

SCHOLIUM PROJECT: BARREL TASTING 2014

Being a fan of the Scholium Project is a little like being in a quasi-exclusive club run by a mad scientist. I first heard of Abe Schoener and his outside-of-the-box winemaking in a 2013 article in the New York Times Magazine (read it here,) and was instantly intrigued. I got on the mailing list and tasted Scholium wines for myself four months later. Were these wines unconventional? Absolutely. Interesting? Yup. Fascinating, even? You bet.

I ordered a mixed case immediately, have added periodically to my Scholium stash, and believe me when I say it is a tough challenge to NOT open a new bottle every day, especially when fighting the fatigue of "oh, another Pinot, oh, another Chard, oh, another Cab."

Ferry view of lower Manhattan.
Members of the Scholium "fan club" will do almost anything to get a taste of what Abe has been working on, including trek out to Red Hook, Brooklyn, in a locale far—so very far—from public transportation. I myself took the Ikea ferry from lower Manhattan on a recent beautiful Sunday to participate in the latest "sneak peek" of Scholium Project wines.

The first wine was a 100% Verdelho 2013 Gemella Lost Slough Vineyard. There was only one barrel made (= 24 cases.) A lovely wine. Nose of soapstone, white flowers, a little merde-y, very perfumey aromatics. Spicy in the mouth with a lot of minerality and a long finish, yet not overly acidic. "This is made from grapes that have had the $h!t stomped out of them," said Abe. $45.

A bittersweet moment comes with the 2013 Glos McDowell Vineyards (Sauvignon Blanc.) This vintage was the final harvest from this parcel, unfortunately, as the owners of the land then ripped up the Sauv Blanc vines to plant more popular/profitable Cabernet Sauvignon. Fans of Glos quickly snapped up all of the individual bottles, regular and large-format. With a very pale gold color and a fresh, clean nose of green grass and lime zest, it showed loads of floral perfume with a little gooseberry, and a long charming, elegant finish. "It has the promise of nobility," said Abe, as he spoke bittersweetly about this last-ever bottling. $70

In case you haven't caught whiff of it, Abe's organization is somewhat akin to a pop-up shop. He doesn't own the vineyards he farms, and has a very small, hands-on production operation without a formal tasting room/sales area/oeno-tourism bent. The wines are not always labeled varietally, and there are layers of proprietary names, pulled from colleagues and/or ancient history. He gets fans from word-of-mouth; you have to find him. Production is very low, and loyal followers pounce on each new release, so one must act quickly. Occasionally he will offer single bottles, but usually the only way to ensure snagging these wines is to purchase a mixed-case offering via the website here.

Luckily there is available stock of the 2013 Dulcissima Camilla Farina Vineyards (barrel fermented Sauvignon Blanc,) because I just loved it. My notes say, "Ooooh! nose" of bruised yellow apple, overripe melon and a whiff of sherry-like oxidation. Incredibly complex in the mouth, with ripe fruit, spice, a dried nuttiness, and a looooooong finish. It felt "hot" (high in alcohol) to me, but Abe said the alcohol was relatively low, and that its zingy acidity might be contributing to the presence in the mouth. "This wine is... well, still fermenting," says Abe, explaining that it may not taste the same after bottling! But it's definitely worth a gamble, in my opinion. $45

Rather intriguing was the 2012 Michael Faraday Michael Mara Vineyard 100% Chardonnay. Nose of honeysuckle, Asian spice and pear. Bit cheeky-oddball in the mouth with yellow apple and very spry acidity. Doesn't exhibit "traditional" CA Chard notes at all, and is also slightly tannic. $80

Another fave was the 2013 The Prince in His Caves, made from barrel-fermented whole-cluster fermented Sauvignon Blanc. The color was noticeably darker, a coppery-gold. Nose of ripe apricot, melon, gardenia (notes say, "all ripe & bruised!") Each sniff results in another layer of elements, like a bit of dusty earth, then orange marmalade, then ginger. Very dry/acidic and tannins are present. "This is the wine the Scholium Project is best known for," said Abe, noting they've made this since 2006. You Wineaux know I love "strange" wines, and this is an iconic weirdo-wine; the nose is atypical Sauv Blanc and the mouth experience is very different. I am hooked. $45

The nose of the 2013 FTPZ Kirschenmann Ranch (100% Old Vine Zinfandel) was intoxicating; high tone blueberry, violets, sweet licorice, grounded by a bit o' something funky and meaty. Black cherry liqueur in the mouth. High but appropriate acidity, nice and bright, spicy, lovely, long finish, dried leaf-y element. Whole-cluster fermentation (like The Prince above.) $50

I would probably never have correctly blind-tasted the 2013 Poloupous Antle Vineyard as old-vine Pinot Noir, but that's what it is! Violet, blackberry, bit of funk, bit of rosemary and herbs. It was kind of similar in style to the FTPZ, actually, although more tannic, smoother, and less bright fruit. I look forward to seeing how this evolves and integrates over time. The prominent tannins were what threw me, but Abe said, "That is a very tannic vineyard. And whole-cluster fermentation... I hope to be making 'Priorat' Pinot Noir!" $50

A perennial favorite is the 1MN and the 2013 1MN Bechtold Ranch was no exception. Named after the Malvaisa Nera grape, this is actually 100% Cinsault from a 140-year old vineyard. It had an amazing, super smooth nose of blackberry jam, cherry/berry fruit, and rose petals, and in the mouth added chocolate-covered cherries, pepper, spice box, with loads of perfume and integrated tannins. Just lovely. "This seems, to me, the acme of deliciousness," said Abe, and I had to agree. $50

I did peg correctly the grape of the 2012 Golgotha Reserve Hudson Vineyards. With a dense and rich nose of cherry pie, warm berry compote and spices, I wrote, "Syrah??" And when it was confirmed, I scrawled, "Yessss!!!!" Bright and macerated red fruits rounded out the palate, and yet it's so dense, I can't wait to see what it does over time. "This, for me, is the peak of luxury. I don't think it's the most noble wine, or delicious, but it has the best claim of opulence," said Abe. Abso-friggin-lutely. $180


Another check mark of liking went next to the 2012 Anastasis red; while almost completely Cabernet, there is some Merlot, Syrah, and Sangiovese in the blend. It had staggeringly bright fruit and perfume on a very sexy nose. Perhaps a bit of VA (whiff of nail polish remover) but worked with the major lush fruit on the palate, super smooth finish, and notes of cocoa powder and lavender. This wine originally fell victim to a stuck fermentation, but they were able to restart it, so it was named after the Greek word for "resurrection." $45

Interestingly, the most traditional "Napa Cab"-style in the Scholium Project is the above Golgotha Syrah—the 2012 Wolfskill Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is decidedly old-school. "We're trying to make Cabernet that is from a certain time and place," says Abe, meaning stylistically closer to 30-40 years ago than today. Intense anise jumped from the nose, along with rosemary, rose petal potpourri and violets. Bright, relatively light, red fruit, bit of cedar and spice box. Yummy. $120

Finally, we were treated to the 2010 Babylon Tenbrink Vineyards. 100% Petite Sirah, 3 years in barrel. Nose: "HUH...!" Asian spice liqueur, melted black licorice, a meatiness like a "blond" German sausage (what is the name for that?!) In the mouth, it was red licorice at the forefront, mace and coriander spices, with dried fruits. "Feels a bit passito?" I wrote, citing the Italian process of drying grapes before pressing. Once again, I was right; "I want this to be like a California Amarone," said Abe, and two tasters immediately chimed in with "It is!" and "That's what you got!" Crazy elements yet still superbly structured and quaffable. $80

Sunset from Red Hook Winery, BK
So, Wineaux, there you have it—the current Scholium release, "The Complete Summer Selection," which will be ready for delivery in October. I look forward to the wines I have coming, and hope to hear from you if you too are are a fan of the Scholium Project. And as always, I continue to support inventive and daring winemakers around the globe, so hurry back soon Abe, and bring more wines for us "crazy-man-wine-club" members to try!

Cheers.



(ADDENDUM: As I was working on this article, news filtered in about the earthquake in Napa—with many winemaker friends in the area, I reached out with concern. While all people I know are fine, one winemaker lost her total inventory save for what she could salvage from a few broken barrels. Another winery I know suffered catastrophic damage to its historic tasting room. Maybe it's not pouring ice water over your head, but please help support the cleanup and rebuilding of one of our nation's most iconic wine regions by drinking Napa wine, tweeting with #NapaStrong, and supporting these winemakers by buying more Napa wine, like Scholium.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

CHIANTI'S NEW TITLE: GRAN SELEZIONE

Did you know there is more Chianti Classico in the U.S. than there is in Italy? America is such an important market for Chianti Classico, they came here first to unveil their newest, highest designation of quality: GRAN SELEZIONE.

On the ground level of the quality pyramid, there is "regular" Chianti, like the old-school straw-wrapped bottles. Then there is Chianti Classico, and next highest is Riserva, both of which must adhere to rising levels of regulations. This past January, the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico (the oldest Consorzio—group of wine producers—in Italy) enacted the new Gran Selezione category at the top of the quality pyramid. This designation is self-regulated, which caused me to raise an eyebrow, but the standards are similar to other regions' high levels—in this case: more aging time, regulated grape varietals (minimum of 80% Sangiovese, 100% is allowed, with international varieties acceptable in the blend,) and 13% minimum alcohol.

Italians are extremely proud of their winemaking history. But, as was expressed in the introductory speeches at the U.S. Premiere recently in New York, the proliferation of quality wine around the globe and the growth in "new" winemaking areas mean that regions even with a storied history like Chianti Classico have to keep up.

As I moved around the room tasting the freshly minted Gran Seleziones, I wasn't initially overwhelmed by the obviousness of the apparent elevated quality. Some wines suffered perhaps from their new power, needing more time in bottle to smooth out the edges. Others showed incredible promise on the nose, but fell short of expectation in the mouth. But some were very intriguing and highly satisfying wines.

2010 Castelli del Grevepesa Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione Lamole (100% Sangiovese) had nice cherries and florals on the nose but was a bit acidic in the mouth, with a nice note of earth. ~$35. Their 2010 Grevepesa Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione Castello di Bibbione—from a single estate—fared better, with a pleasant brightness, and softer finish of berries and a green stemminess. ~$35.

The 2009 Marchesi Antinori Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione Badia a Passignano (100% Sangiovese) was very good, with a nose of earth, spice, and coffee, and a zingy mouthfeel with red fruits on the palate. ~$50.

I quite enjoyed the 2009 Casaloste Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione Don Vincenzo (100% Sangiovese); great nose of cocoa powder, violets, and dried earth, with an excellent but not overbearing tannic structure. ~$45.

Maybe a "more typical" expression of CC was the 2011 Castello di Verrazzano Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione Vigneto Querciolina - Sassello (100% Sangiovese) with its nose of earth and rose petals and savory notes in the mouth. Needs time. ~$60.

A favorite was the 2010 Castello Vicchiomaggio Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione Vigna La Prima (100% Sangiovese) with an intoxicating aromatic nose full of purple flowers. Nice fruit expression, tea leaves, long finish, well-balanced, very structured, excellent character. ~$48.

I also was a fan of the 2010 Fontodi Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione Vigna del Sorbo. (95% Sangiovese, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon.) Lovely perfumey nose of ripe cherry-berry fruit, smooth and velvety, bright fruit in the mouth, light but well-structured. ~$77

I'd give more time to the 2010 Il Molino di Grace Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione Il Margone (100% Sangiovese)—it had an herby, merde-y nose, and it was very tannic—hopefully it will open up in the future. ~$45.

Another favorite was the 2010 Castello di Fonterutoli Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione Castello Fonterutoli (92% Sangiovese, 8% Malvasia and Colorino.) With its cherries and tea leaves on the nose, it was pleasant and smooth yet still well-structured. Pretty quaffable; I'd say the best value of the day.  ~$30.

The 2010 Ruffino Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione Riserva Ducale Oro (80% Sangiovese, 10% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon) was a real powerhouse, surely boosted by that Cabernet in the blend. Lots of dried tea leaves, tart cherry, and tons of structure. ~$33.

I loved the nose of the 2009 Fèlsina Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione Colonia. It showed dusty earth, florals, and blackberry. It was a little closed on the palate, with tea and herb notes, but showed potential; I wrote, "give it time/air/food??" ~$150

I was intrigued by the 2010 Barone Ricasoli Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione Colledilà (100% Sangiovese) with its prominent note of grape soda. Maybe an unusual descriptor, but apt! And it was balanced by rich lilac florals and light, fresh red fruit. ~$60.

The Ricasoli 2010 Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione Castello di Brolio (80% Sangiovese, 15% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon) teemed with earth and minerals—another to hold on to for a while as the flavors develop. ~$45

The best way to describe the 2011 Tenuta San Vincenti Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione (85% Sangiovese, 15% Merlot) was "tricky," as the Merlot in the blend added softness and round fruits, but seemed to mask the inherent Sangiovese character. It was merde-y and earthy, deeply fruity, with bright acidity, and while it was not textbook Chianti Classico, I enjoyed it. ~$23.

Another interesting blend was the 2010 San Felice Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione Il Grigio da San Felice (80% Sangiovese, 7% Abrusco, 5% [the nearly extinct] Pugnitello, 4% Malvasia Nera, 2% Ciligiolo, 2% Mazzese.) Barnyard, sweet earth, berry salad—lots of fruit, chewy and interesting, big and bold, smooth finish. Although the indigenous grapes again seemed to mute the traditional character of Sangiovese, I was continuously drawn back to this wine. ~$40.

Perhaps my ultimate wine of the day was the 2010 Castello di Volpaia Chianti Classico DOCG Gran Selezione Il Puro - Vigneto Casanova (100% Sangiovese). I wrote, "love love love the nose," with its opulent red and purple fruit. "Something very flirty here," a note of blueberry (unusual for Sangiovese,) bit of herbs, bit of earth, good acid, lots of structure, "yummmmmmy." ~$130

At the end of the day, I was left with some questions and not a lot of answers. Was this new designation merely an opportunity to justify incredibly high prices in some cases? I mean, really—is anyone actually going to pay over a hundred bucks for a bottle of Chianti? (I did not know price points at the time of the tasting, so I was disappointed to discover that my favorite wine was one of the most expensive, because I doubt I will ever get to try it again.)

Perhaps more importantly, is the quality level of Gran Selezione that much higher than mere "Riserva?" Wineaux, I honestly can't say. But at the end of the day, I suppose what matters most is that these producers are stretching out their techniques and styles in pursuit of even greater wines. And there are excellent offerings in the $30-50 range, making Gran Selezione wines accessible to consumers. Perhaps you should seek out some Gran Selezione Chianti Classico and see for yourself!

Cheers.

Monday, June 23, 2014

A PROMINADE IN PORTO

I recently wrote about my visit to Lisbon, Portugal, and some wineries I visited in its nearby wine regions of Colares and Setúbal. (< Follow the links to the articles.) Chronologically, my visit to Bacalhôa in Setúbal should have been written up next, but I couldn't wait any longer to share with you lovely Wineaux my adventure in the land of the world-renowned dessert wine, port.

I didn't have enough time to go to the Douro Valley, where the grapes for port are grown and vinified (for that matter, I didn't have enough time to visit most of the other fine winegrowing regions in the country,) but I squeezed in a day trip up to Porto and Villa Nova di Gaia where the port lodges are located. (Gaia is actually a separate town across the river from Porto where the lodges are, however most people simply use "Porto" to describe the area of both towns.)

View of Porto from the porch at Taylor's.
In keeping with my historical adventures while traveling solo, I boarded a train before dawn in Lisbon, and a few hours later, disembarked where I thought I'd have a five-minute walk to my first stop, Taylor's. Nope! Luckily my facility with languages gave me enough rudimentary Portuguese to sort out that I'd have to take a different tram two stops and walk a somewhat bizarre route from there. Eventually I found the place, and while I thought I was very late for my ten am appointment, I discovered I was actually early for my eleven am appointment! Time to celebrate with a glass of port.

I met with Robert Bower, who gave me a tour of what is the area's oldest port lodge (Taylor's moved to that facility in 1692, so yeah, I guess that's kind of old...) and he mentioned that their location on top of the hill was prime as to avoid flooding, although back in the day it was treacherous to bring barrels of port all the way down the steep incline to the river for transportation. As I had already teetered down some angled cobblestones to get there, I had to imagine so.

Robert is a member of the 8th generation of his family to be involved in the port industry. Although born in Porto, he was mostly raised and educated in England, and joined Taylor's in 2011. Taylor's is one of the last two British-run port houses (Symington is the other,) and yet they look to modern techniques and sustainability even as they embrace tradition.

We began our tasting with the rubies (ruby port is a younger, fresher style, as opposed to tawny port, which shows evidence of aging and oxidation.)

The NV Taylor's First Estate Reserve is the youngest and most approachable. It showed intense fresh fruit and was luscious and most "wine-like," as the higher alcohol was tempered by the brightness of the fruit. Notes say, "wow." ~$17

The 2008 Taylor's LBV (Late Bottled Vintage) was a style that actually evolved from restaurant demand; people wanted the flavors and personality of a vintage port, but didn't want to pay high prices and have to deal with decanting, etc. This was complex, with great fruit in the mouth, bright acidity, and a lovely note of cocoa powder.  ~$20

The quality of the spirit used in the fortification process is much higher for the 2004 Taylor's vintage port, so the marriage of wine and spirit happens quickly and without a "dumb" period in the bottle. This could now age 120-140 years. It was complex and elegant, with a lovely nose of pine, and eucalyptus on the palate. Notes say, "really fantastic!" ~$30

On to the tawnies! These are labeled by the average barrel age of the grapes used: 10-, 20-, 30-, and 40 years. The Taylor's 10 Year had notes of caramel, cinnamon, and apple pie, with great acidity. ~$22

I absolutely loved the Taylor's 20 Year, which had a sherry/madeira feel, with forward, bright acid, and notes of toffee and gingerbread. It was incredibly smooth; notes say, "goes down easy! V. v. nice." ~$40

The Taylor's 30 Year exhibited its age visually, with a darker hue, and on the nose, with a nuttiness coming in. This was subtle, with floral notes and candied orange peel, and a still-bright acidity. ~$90

Finally, the Taylor's 40 Year was a very dark brown, with heady aromatics. It showed toffee, rose petals, and lemon peel, and was richer in the mouth (longer time in barrel = more evaporation = concentrated flavors in remaining port) with an incredible complexity and still "awesomely bright" acidity. ~$175

The whole experience at Taylor's was magnificent, except for one thing: I had hoped to sample a bit of the 2011 Vintage port, as the wine world is going berserk over the 2011 vintage. Unfortunately for me, Robert informed me they are already out of stock of the 2011! Oh, well. 

(Perhaps to make up for disappointing me, Robert suggested I stop by the Yeatman hotel next door for lunch, as it has an exceedingly well-cultivated wine list. It also is one of the most luxurious hotels I've ever been in, and I relished the comfort and view as I enjoyed my salad and the 2011 Soalheiro Reserva Alvarhino from the Minho region of Portugal. It was a vibrant medium gold, with a nose of mountain florals, ripe melon, peach, and apricot. In the mouth it showed green and herby notes, with overripe honeydew and tangerine. Not overly acidic, and very nice! [€46 bt/ €12 glass. ~$25])

My next appointment was down the hill at Sandeman's. Unfortunately, my experience there wasn't quite as lovely as that at Taylor's—I discovered I was not on a private tour/tasting but rather shuttled into a public group. So I had to endure a litany of information I already knew about the history of port, its vinification, etc., along the guided tour. Our guide was actually very good, in spite of her being dressed in the cape and hat of the Sandeman "Don" figure.

Her outfit was not my first clue that this company definitely knows how to market and brand. (Quite literally—apparently Sandeman himself invented the practice of branding wine barrels.) The little attached museum, all parts of the tour, and the tasting room were modernized and shiny. The whole experience felt very antiseptic and by rote to me, although I will say that the other people in my group were very pleased with the tour. At the end, we were poured two wines: the NV Sandeman's Apitiv (which is more of a sherry) had a medium copper-gold color, and a slightly astringent nose of mountain florals. It was slightly sweet yet steely and a bit salty. Pleasant, though not a ton of character. ~$16. And the NV Sandeman's Founder's Reserve Ruby, which had a nice expression on the nose and lots of acidity, but was generally forgettable. ~$18

I loved meandering the little streets of Gaia and wandering down to the river to look at the replicas of the barcos rabelos, the boats that transported wine from the Douro valley to the port houses. My plan was to cross the bridge to Porto, find the legendary Lello & Irmão bookstore, and have a glass of wine before catching my train back to Lisbon.

But I passed a little storefront outpost of Quinta do Noval so had to try a few more ports first! They had little sample bottles to purchase, so I started with the NV Quinta do Noval Fine White, a white port. It was a very viscous pale gold, and had a gorgeous floral aroma, with florals, melon rind, a pleasant soapiness, and light acidity. €2,50. Then I splurged on the Quinta do Noval 40-Year Tawny, which was a brownish bricky red with caramel, something a bit "horsey," a madeira feel, and nice acidity. €9,50 [US bottle ~$125]

Clergios Tower

Intricate staircase in Lello & Irmao
I finally made it across the river and continued my hill-climbing, enjoying a beautiful afternoon in Porto. While my port-tasting experiences were mixed, it was a wonderful way to cap off an amazing week in Portugal!
Church and fountain in Porto.



Wednesday, June 4, 2014

AN EMBARASSMENT OF (WINE) RICHES

Recently my wine-appraiser father, William H. Edgerton, and I were invited to a cocktail hour hosted by the Napa-based Benchmark Wine Group, an organization we occasionally work with which pairs up buyers and sellers of fine wines. It was an opportunity to meet some people face-to-face for the first time and to sample some outrageously wonderful wines. (I had not originally intended to write about this event, but after tasting a few of the bottles they had open at the bar, I couldn't help but grab my father's phone, snap some photos, and make some mental notes!)

I started with a white Burgundy, the 2006 Bouchard Meursault Perrieres, which had a lovely viscosity and complexity with heady, intoxicating aromatics, and a long finish. (~$100) Right up my alley! I could have indulged in a second pour, but there were many other bottles calling my name.

So I hopped over to Bordeaux for some classic wines from a classic vintage: the 1982 Château Calon-Segur from St. Estèphe showed abundant earthy notes, yet was very elegant and charming. (~$220) The 1982 Château Leoville Barton was aging well, with pleasant floral and mineral notes. (~$175) And the 1982 Château La Mission Haut Brion from the Pessac-Léognan region had nice tertiary aromatics, and yet the fruit was still supple and bright. (~$850)

The only First Growth at the tasting was the 1979 Château Mouton Rothschild. 1979 was not a particularly good vintage, and I had never yet seen a bottle of this wine. The label was beautiful; Mouton has long commissioned label artwork for each vintage, and this was the first label ever commissioned by a Japanese artist, Hisao Domoto. However, the aging of this vintage, even from a top producer, resulted in a wine with an overly meaty nose and a complete lack of fruit in the mouth. My father agreed, saying, "It unfortunately doesn't have the character or pedigree of a First Growth wine." (~$300)

There were some offerings from California as well—a 1987 Dunn Vineyards Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, which had a great deal of personality and still felt quite youthful. (~$70) This was not even the Howell Mountain-designated bottling, which is perhaps more highly esteemed and may be aging even better! I tugged at my father's sleeve to point out the 1986 Dominus Estate, of which we had a few bottles in our cellar. It had incredible aromatics of cedar—just a lovely nose—and there was eucalyptus and light fruit on the palate. We nodded to each other as if to say, "Let's hold on to this baby a bit longer."

There were more bottles clamoring for attention: an Opus One, a Château d'Yquem... but dad was ready to head home for dinner so we began saying our goodbyes. I had to grab one more taste, however, and was soooo glad I did. The 2000 La Spinetta Barolo Vigneto Campe Vürsù had robust red and black fruits with soft oak on the finish. It was a huge yet elegantly crafted wine, and was showing absolutely beautifully. When I jotted down notes on the car ride home, with the flavors still lingering on my palate, I wrote, "Wowee wow wow, I want more!!" (~$150) I don't think I've ever met a La Spinetta offering that didn't impress.

Frankly, it was a joy to taste all of these prestigious wines, as opportunities to do so are few and far-between. Thank you to the folks at Benchmark for trotting out so many exceptional bottles for us to sample! Not only do I look forward to further collaboration, but I hope they may come back to the East Coast again soon... hopefully with some more treasures in hand.

Cheers!

Friday, May 23, 2014

THE NEW CORNERSTONES OF NAPA, DAY ONE:

When I found out the Oakland As baseball team had invited me out to sing the National Anthem recently, my first thought was "Yippee, I booked team #19 on my Quest!" (Click the link for info on that particular pursuit of mine.) My second thought was, "Yippee, an excuse for a trip to NAPA!"

On prior visits to Napa Valley, I had a group of burgeoning oenophiles to shepherd around, so we had to make the usual stops at Robert Mondavi (perhaps the "Disneyland" of Napa, but a great visit,) and other high-profile wineries that catered to groups like ours. This time I was on my own—a Wine Minx on a mission. I had two days; who knew what I could find?

I sought out places that were more "insider"—wineries the sommeliers loved, or that other small winemakers recommended—to learn more about what was going on beyond the large conglomerates and operations that have somewhat taken over Napa's identity.

On a sparkling Sunday morning, my first stop was Hyde de Villaine, a joint venture of Napa's Larry Hyde and Aubert de Villaine of the storied Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy. The two families, related by marriage, developed the idea to collaborate "over the dinner table," said Lawrence "Eddie" Townsend, the HdV sommelier. In an unassuming building on the outskirts of downtown Napa, Eddie and I sat down to taste through four of HdV's current offerings. (HdV offers two options for tasting, the "HdV Flight" of the following four wines' current releases at $45pp, and the "Comandante Flight" which adds two premier wines for $75pp, with fees waved with certain wine purchases. Appointment requests can be made via the above website.)

We began with the 2012 De La Guerra Chardonnay, which had a nose of lemon verbena. On the palate were notes of grass, lemon curd, a whiff of smoke, herbs and a pleasant note of—forgive me, but I really got this—mortadella(!), balanced by a very bright and refreshing acidity. Aged partially in a "concrete egg," there was some resulting autolytic character, which added a bit of weight (and maybe contributed to that mortadella.) $45

Next up, the 2011 HdV Chardonnay, with an incredibly complex nose of aromatic yellow and white flowers, yellow apple, and fresh-cut grass. It was rich but not heavy-handed, with a sublime balanced acidity and a very long finish. Aged 12 months in oak (20% new.) $60

On to the reds! The 2010 HdV Californio Syrah, Hyde Vineyard had a bright, outrageous nose of red fruit, lush herbs, blackberry syrup and was a bit smoky. Its light acidity and integrated but grippy tannins balanced the dark fruit and smoked meat notes on the palate. Long finish. "This is the wine that brought me here," said Eddie, swirling his glass in appreciation. $60

Finally, the 2009 HdV Belle Cousine: a blend of 52% Merlot and 48% Cabernet Sauvignon. Eddie mentioned that most years there was much less CS in the blend, and when I asked why this vintage was different, he told me that the blend is a group decision—Stéphane Vivier, the winemaker, puts together four different combinations, the six members of the team sit down together and taste them blind, and the group's favorite gets bottled. (Which I thought was very cool.) This had a nose of rosemary, a lot of graphite, pepper, herbs, and some green elements. It was fairly dry and earthy, with integrated tannins, licorice, red cherry, a little cranberry zing, red cassis, and some rose potpourri. $60

HdV also offers a handful of library selections (these wines from older vintages,) and some large-format bottlings, but the wines I tasted are basically the heart of HdV. It is a small operation (as I discovered when I called to make my appointment and Stéphane Vivier himself answered the phone.) But it is an elegant one, and committed to making quality wines, blending the ideology of New World fruit with Old World winemaking. When asked about expansion or notoriety, Eddie said that HdV "probably won't be a rock star," but it didn't seem as if anyone there cared a whit about rock star status; they just cared about making excellent wine.

Very pleased by my first small winery visit, I hopped in my car and tootled up Highway 29 to Yountville for lunch at the French Laundry. If you know about "Laundry" (as the locals call it,) you know that it was a meal of a lifetime, and if I was a food blogger, you'd hear ALL about it! (If you do want to peer over my shoulder at the experience, visit my Wine Minx facebook page and scroll down to May 4, when I posted pictures of much of the lovely food and wine I had there over a four-hour extravaganza.)

Completely sated and in a state of zen-like foodie bliss, I meandered down the street to Ma(i)sonry. Billed as a "winery collective," Ma(i)sonry offers tastings of wines from 23 vintner partners in a gorgeous locale where art is also displayed and sold. The website perhaps describes their mission best: "Pairing artisan wines with exquisite art and furnishings in a historic setting." I was joined by my friends Adam Hersly and Stacy Soberalski of Hersly Wines (more on them and their wines soon!)

Ma(i)sonry's main building
We were greeted by our curator for the afternoon, Bex Bishop, a local winemaker who coincidentally I went to college with and had previously connected with via LinkedIn... this unexpected visit was our first actual meeting. (Alas, none of her wines were on the list for tasting, but you can learn more about BX of Napa < here.) I was suddenly feeling very "insider-y!"

We started with a shared flight of whites; first up, the 2012 Lail Blueprint Sauvignon Blanc. Tart nose of grapefruit, very "cheeky" in the mouth with SweeTarts candy and herbs on the long finish. Pleasant and complex, this really grew on me. $40

We also tried the 2011 Lail Georgia Sauvignon Blanc. With 20 months in new French oak, you definitely felt the oaky toastiness in this heavy-duty, big style white. Lemon-lime citrus on the finish balanced the coconut and grassy notes. Someone said, "Hawaiian Tropic," which was kind of true! $120

A few from the collective itself; the 2012 Ma(i)sonry Sans Chene Sauvignon Blanc Hudson had a brief oak aging, and showed more tropical fruits and grass on the nose. Very bright and zingy acid balanced super-ripe melon and a little gooseberry. $32. And the 2012 Ma(i)sonry Marsanne had a lemon/herby/grassy nose, and was very minerally with warm herbs on the finish. Interesting. $38

Next up: a pair of Pinots. The 2011 Pahlmeyer Pinot Noir, aged two-thirds in new French oak, was lovely. Very floral perfumey nose, tart and tangy fruit, purple flowers and rose petals with light red and black fruits. $75. And the 2009 Tuck Beckstoffer Eagle Vineyard Pinot Noir, aged 14 months in barrel and two years in bottle before release. This had a dark ruby color and a nose of really ripe red fruit. In the mouth, there was cherry jam, herbs, and a tart acidity that left this wine a bit disjointed in the mouth. At 14.9% alcohol, with this kind of character, the group felt this wine resembled a Syrah more than a classic Pinot. $85

On to the Cabs! I really liked the 2009 Casa Piena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon with its nose of cassis, berries, herbs, and flint. It was pretty high-octane, but bright notes of violets and lavender and a fresh acidity gave it lift. Super flirty. $150

Bex said about this next wine, "I call it lush and velvety, my colleague calls it 'slutty.'" And I agree with the colleague—the 2010 Coup de Foudre Cabernet Sauvignon (with some Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc in there,) had a nose of soft red berries, and showed raspberry liqueur on the palate, with herbs and black pepper on the slightly angular finish. My notes say, "Yep, slutty," which is hardly a bad thing. $95

The 2008 Pahlmeyer Proprietary Red is categorized as a "library" wine, as there is very little left in stock. A blend of 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot, and 1% Malbec, this was a lovely and complex wine, with notes of blackberry jam, green pepper, mocha, cinnamon, and bramble fruit with a relatively smooth finish. (No wonder there's not much left!) $125

I was still full from lunch and getting a bit tired from this marathon day of tasting, but we decided to soldier on for one more flight: the excellent 2010 Blackbird Contrarian (43% Cab Franc, the rest Merlot and Cab Sauv,) had aromatic cedar on the nose, with berry salad, "poop & dirt," (again, a good thing,) graphite, licorice, and black fruits on the finish.  $125. And I also liked the 2011 Tor Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, a blend of grapes from three vineyards. At first it was very tart and kind of disjointed, but it opened up and smoothed out a great deal with time in the glass. Blueberries, raspberries, applewood, smoke. Stacy said this would be perfect with braised short ribs, and while still full, I agreed. $80

Finally, the 2011 Lail J. Daniel Cuvee Cabernet Sauvignon. With 100% Howell Mountain fruit, this had a nose of bright red cherries and raspberries, with heady yet soft aromatics. In the mouth it showed herb liqueur and a bit of grape soda, with a slightly awkward, tannic finish. It definitely needs more time to develop but shows good promise. $150

Tasting at Ma(i)sonry is a lovely, unique experience. You can make a reservation for parties of various sizes, and sip away in little sections of a charming courtyard or inside the circa-1904 main building. They are developing a partnership with Restoration Hardware and have bought the lot next door for a themed-kitchen expansion, plus are looking into other locations. However, they state that visiting Ma(i)sonry will remain an intimate experience that is always focused on small vintners.

Fully satisfied, I called it a day, and headed off into the sunset to rest and recoup my taste buds for Day Two. This foray into discovering the "smaller players" of Napa was illuminating and I couldn't wait to see what the next day had in store. (Spoiler alert: excellence!) Stay tuned...

Cheers!






Tuesday, April 15, 2014

NAVIGATING 2011 BORDEAUX... IS IT WORTH THE EFFORT?

While the title of this post may not suck you in quite like that of a time-wasting buzzfeed quiz, the fact remains that the 2011 vintage in Bordeaux is a bit snarky and is going to require some effort on your part to seek out the best it has to offer. But fear not, there is very good wine to be found!

Coming on the heels of the back-to-back stellar vintages of 2009 and 2010, Bordeaux's 2011 vintage was defined by topsy-turvy weather throughout the growing season which challenged the region's winemakers. However, savvy Wineaux can find some gems that also benefit from a "lesser" vintage's general reduction in price.

Absent a coveted invitation to the "en primeur" tastings in Bordeaux (a sneak-peek for industry professionals,) my first introduction to the new vintage is the Union des Grand Crus de Bordeaux tasting held in New York each January. This year, 99 Châteaux presented offerings in a crowded ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria.

THE WHITES

An early thought was that the 2011 white Bordeaux survived the difficult vintage fairly well. The 2011 Ch. Bouscaut Blanc (Pessac-Léognan) had a nose of light florals and herbs, with a dry, steely finish of bright acidity and refreshing lime notes. ~$32

I also quite enjoyed the 2011 Ch. de Fieuzal Blanc (Pessac-Léognan). Nose of ripe melon and taffy, with a solid, well-balanced finish of balanced fruit and crisp acidity. ~$58

Another favorite was the 2011 Ch. Larrivet Haut-Brion Blanc (Pessac-Léognan), with lush stone fruits and a bit of straw, a rounder expression in the mouth yet still very good acidity. ~$42

THE REDS

On to the reds! First stop was the St.-Emilion sub-region of Bordeaux, on the "Right Bank" of the Dordogne River, where Merlot dominates the blend. The 2011 Ch. Canon (St.-Emilion) showed a nice soft berry nose with cassis, licorice, and violets. In the mouth, the smooth bright red fruit was balanced by good tannins and a little vegetal note on the finish. ~$115

The 2011 Ch. Figeac (St.-Emilion) had lush fruit on the nose, with a bit of earth and sweet oak. The laser-like raspberry in the mouth was balanced by not-overbearing tannins. ~$123

More berries were found in the 2011 Ch. Pavie Macquin (St.-Emilion)—my notes say, "Incredible nose! Berry salad galore!"—and the palate was packed with fruit and some woodsy notes. This has excellent potential to develop, but the nose is already intoxicating. ~$70

Moving a bit west to the tiny region of Pomerol, the blacker fruits of Merlot come forward. One favorite was the 2011 Ch. Beauregard (Pomerol). Complex nose of earth, herbs, chocolate, and blackberry. Velvety mouthfeel, with violets and blackberry liqueur. Very nice! ~$50

The 2011 Ch. Le Bon Pasteur (Pomerol) had a nose of black cherry and blackberry which came through in the mouth, as well as a touch of charcoal; nice weight, very decent. ~$67

And the 2011 Ch. La Conseillante (Pomerol) was solid, with a nose of earth and lavender, integrated tannins and a quite smooth finish. Very nice. ~$125

Coming around to the "Left Bank," where Cabernet Sauvignon is king, a standout for me was the 2011 Ch. Poujeaux (Moulis-en-Médoc) with a kind of flirty nose of red berry and cassis. A very elegant fruit expression rises out of its structure, and it is an incredible value at ~$36

My mother has long been a fan of Château Cantemerle, so I had to try their latest offering: the 2011 Ch. Cantemerle (Haut-Médoc) showed dark fruits, wood, and earth. There was an excellent balance in the mouth although it didn't overpower. I'd say it's quite approachable for drinking earlier (maybe I need to stock some for her birthday!) ~$35

I found the Ch. Citran (Haut-Médoc) very interesting. It had a lovely, intriguing nose (my notes say, "Got a whiff of... CELERY?!") With lots of dark fruit in the mouth, balanced by a nice brightness. ~$24

And the 2011 Ch. La Tour de By (Médoc) had a nose of blackberry pie and earth. It showed a bit lighter in the mouth than I had hoped, but there was a very decent fruit expression and solid balance. ~$25

Arriving at the Margaux tables, I was knocked out by the 2011 Ch. Brane-Cantenac (Margaux)—with a round, very fruity nose, (notes read: "OOOH,") and a palate full of red berry liqueur and terroir, this was exceptionally well-crafted. ~$55

And its next-door neighbor shone as well: the 2011 Ch. Cantenac Brown (Margaux) had a nose of earth and berry syrup, with a nice complexity in the mouth and strong cherry notes—elegant, rich and luxe. ~$52

Another fave was the 2011 Ch. Labégorce (Margaux). Although the nose was light, it had a lovely note of licorice, and then showed extremely dense and velvety in the mouth, with some bright red fruits, blackberry and black cherry, a touch of earth and herbs, and some chocolate. Yum. ~$30


I also was taken with the 2011 Ch. Rauzan-Ségla (Margaux) and its interesting nose of many soft components which exploded into "loads and loads" of lush red and black fruits. Some cherry-berry "sweetness" headed up this fruit-forward wine. (A little more "New World" in style, for those of you who don't love those earthy and tannic elements.) ~$95

The 2011 Ch. Giscours (Margaux) had interesting notes of cola and mesquite on the nose, and was a very solid style, though it definitely needs time to develop. ~$50

I headed next to the St.-Julien section of the ballroom, and was very impressed with the 2011 Ch. Branaire-Ducru (St.-Julien). Lots of cedar and earthy terroir on the nose, "this is amazing," great plum fruit, nice earthy elements, very balanced and a rich mouthfeel. ~$55

Sometimes tasting these pre-release Bordeaux feels like infanticide as they can be so overpoweringly structured in their youth, but in tricky vintages like 2011 you can find wines that are pretty approachable and consumable even now, like the 2011 Ch. Gruaud Larose (St.-Julien). It had a nose of cocoa and cinnamon ("ooh, yeah...") lots of fruit and mesquite, and although relatively light, was well-balanced on the finish. ~$65

I also loved the 2011 Ch. Lagrange (St.-Julien) with its very herby, rosemary, and cherry liqueur nose. With a velvety finish, it was extremely balanced. "Yummy & sexy & I like a LOT." ~$60

I'm typically a fan of the Léovilles, but think they both need much more time to develop: the 2011 Ch. Léoville-Barton (St.-Julien) was a bit fumbly, although its masculine, leather elements were balanced by lots of berry fruit and mint. ~$75  And the 2011 Ch. Léoville-Poyferré (St.-Julien) had a great nose of earth, forest floor, and dark fruits, but was very tart and acidic in the mouth. ~$80  I expect these both to flesh out with time, however.

I did love the 2011 Ch. Talbot (St.-Julien) with its earth, cedar, and pine-y nose. More of an old-world style, it had a long, balanced finish with integrated tannins. Perhaps less fruit expression than many, but very good as it is. ~$50

Just north of St.-Julien lies the commune of Pauillac, which many feel is the premier Left Bank sub-region. And the 2011 Ch. Batailley (Pauillac) was suitably impressive, with its sweet merde-y nose, and elegant, feminine feel in the mouth. With a strong note of lavender, it was very smooth and quaffable. ~$55

The 2011 Ch. Grand-Puy Ducasse (Pauillac) had a great nose of floral perfume and raspberry, but alas was a bit angular and acidic in the mouth. Perhaps some time will bring its fruit to the forefront. ~$48

But I loved the 2011 Ch. Grand-Puy-Lacoste (Pauillac) with its fruity and barnyard-y nose, and elegant, syrupy red fruit. Not a huge wine, but it can age, although it is definitely drinkable now. My notes say, "Fun!" ~$67

My notes also hinted at a bit of a dysfunctional relationship with the 2011 Ch. Lynch-Bages (Pauillac). With its nose of merde, herbs, and some green vegetables, it had good fruit and very well-balanced tannins, and I wrote, "Wow—knocks you down... but you kinda like it. HUGE." ~$100

Another wine I look forward to revisiting is the 2011 Ch. Pichon-Longueville Baron (Pauillac). The nose was toasty and a little meaty, but it needs time to develop although I enjoyed that it had some "...earthy, herby, woodsy goin' on." ~$115

But I loved the 2011 Ch. Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande (Pauillac). The nose was very herbaceous, with lavender, violet, and licorice. There was good red fruit development, wood, and a ton of different little components which kept drawing me back. "Yummmm." ~$115

FOR DESSERT

Back in my younger days, I was a sucker for the sweet dessert wines of Sauternes and Barsac. While these are also wines that benefit from aging, I was curious to see if any I tasted now would knock my socks off... and one absolutely did. However, many were a bit cloying, without strong enough acidity to balance their sweetness.

I did enjoy the 2011 Ch. Guiraud (Sauternes) with its notes of candied pineapple and baking spices. It had decent acidity, and was a little different from the usual suspects but very interesting. ~$64

My second favorite was the 2011 Ch. La Tour Blanche (Sauternes). Very lemon verbena nose, candied lemon peel, well-balanced, nice weight. Good components. ~$63

But the sock-knocker-off-er was the 2011 Ch. Bastor-Lamontagne (Sauternes). Very pale gold in color, with a nose of honey and candied melon. It had a bit of botrytis (the noble rot which looks atrocious but adds a specific, wonderful complexity to these wines.) Lovely orange blossom note, with nice balancing acidity and excellent weight in the mouth. ~$33

It is true that many white, red, and sweet offerings from Bordeaux were unbalanced and/or unimpressive, but I was pleasantly surprised to find so many enjoyable wines—and ones you don't have to wait ten years to drink. It is absolutely worth seeking out some of the above, and the pricing for these wines is fairly affordable (for Bordeaux!)

And since you time-wasted here, I'll just tell you: you are Chandler from "Friends," you would have gone to the "Breakfast Club" high school, you are Wolverine, your aura is yellow, your font is Garamond, and your super power is the power of instant lava. You're welcome.

Now go seek out some 2011 Bordeaux!

Cheers.


[NB: All prices are pre-release estimates. And my camera was about to give up the ghost, so apologies for the lack of clarity in some of the photos.]