Friday, May 22, 2015

(VDNs = Vins Doux Naturels)

I fully admit that until recently, in my tiny Wineau mind, VDNs seemed the poor man's Sauternes or Madeiras—sweet dessert wines with little identifying character, fine in a pinch on a sparse wine list.

And now, my tiny Wineau mind IS BLOWN.

"Aha," you ask, "is this another article about how technology and advances in winemaking techniques have re-shaped a wine region?" Nope. The Roussillon in southern France (where VDNs are made) is a very old, historic region, with little-to-no modern innovation.

"Then is this about the discovery of a 'new' wine variety that truly shines in the locale?" Nope. There are over 20 classic red and white grapes used in making VDN, always have been.

"So what's the big deal?" You ask in exasperation. Calmez-vous, my dear Wineaux, and read on.

Like the Purloined Letter (except without the Poe-ian mystery,) Vins Doux Naturels are kind of hiding in plain sight. These are fortified sweet wines with such complexity of character, acidic balance, and relatively low alcohol that they are a revelation, especially when paired with food. And boy, do they pair with all kinds of food: from ceviche to Beef Bourguignon to a fig and hazelnut poundcake.

At a recent tasting led by Caleb Ganzer, sommelier at Compagnie de Vins Surnaturels in NYC, I got to taste six very different VDNs paired with a range of dishes at Corkbuzz Wine Studio. The entire experience left me gobsmacked, which doesn't happen very often. I rushed home to start writing, for as Caleb said, "No one's probably going to stumble on these by themselves—they need to be introduced to VDNs by someone in the know." So, as someone now in the know, here you go!

2009 AOP VDN Banyuls, Domaine de la Rectoire, Cuvee Léon Parcé: Very dark cherry/ruby color. Crushed raspberries, spice, rose petal perfume on the nose. Very tasty! Black cherry, raspberry, cigar leaf, sage, loooong finish. You sense the elevated alcohol, but it's integrated and smooth. Fresh and cheeky, with good acidity and minerality. 70% Grenache Noir, 20% Grenache Gris, 10% Carignan, from 50+ year old vines. ~$45/500ml

2012 AOP VDN Muscat de Rivesaltes, Château Les Pins: Medium gold color. Nose of litchi, honeysuckle, orange marmalade, and pear; those notes with peach, chamomile, and spice (white pepper, cinnamon,) on the palate. Delish! Noticeable sugar but good acidic balance. Verrrry spicy. 50% Muscat des Petit Grains, 50% Muscat d'Alexandria ~$18

2005 AOP VDN Rivesaltes Ambré, Domaine Singla, Heritage Du Temps: "Ambré" = started as a white wine and allowed to oxidize. Medium marmalade/copper color. Brittle and taffy on the nose, brown butter, liquid caramel, bit of spice, dark honey, carrot cake. Romantic and luxurious. The "sweetest" so far, but again, the acidity elevates it. 100% Macabeu. ~$N/A but around 45-50.

2000 AOP VDN Banyuls Grand Cru, L'Etolie: Medium-plus tawny brick color. Raisin, fig, prune elements, with a smoked meat/iodine savoriness. Pairs incredibly well with savory foods. Great balance of fruit/structure/sweetness. Finessed and complex. A fave. 75% Grenache Noir, 15% Grenache Gris, 10% Carignan, aged 10 years in old oak. ~$45

AOP VDN Maury, Domaine Pouderoux, Hors d'Age: Medium maroon-brown color. Light dried fruit, minerals, florals. Part oxidized, part reduced. Outrageous combination of flavors, smooth, pairs wonderfully with an array of foods, long finish and rich character. 100% Grenache Noir, aged 15 years. ~$40

1974 AOP VDN Rivesaltes Ambré, Constance et Terrassous: Medium brownish dark copper with red highlights. Very sherry-like nose, bit of bourbon, mountain florals, toasted nuts, caramel, toffee, dried fig. Whisky feel. Zingy acidity, but smooth and luxurious. Outrageously long finish. Somewhat Madeira-like. My notes say, "This is my boyfriend. I love him." 50% Grenache Blanc, 50% Grenache Gris. ~$150.

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Pique your interest? I hope so. How amazing to sip wines that are fortified and sweet—but are not necessarily "dessert" wines. They also blend well in a range of cocktails! VDNs will last quite a while after opening, so you can sample them with multiple dishes over time. And considering what you get in return, they are excellent values. So seek out some VDNs, and you will definitely impress your friends.


Saturday, May 2, 2015


Oh these glorious days, when winter's freeze at last releases its grip, the blooms appear in a riot of color, and afternoons seem to laze along under the warm sun. It's Spring! While we are all certainly rejoicing, many Wineaux may stumble over a little tricky problem; what wine goes with Spring?

Summer is easy: something light and refreshing, like a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, a Muscadet from the Loire, or a lightly spritzy Txakoli from NW Spain. Dead of winter? An inky Tannat from France, a Spanish Monastrell, or a Portuguese red blend will warm you up. But for Spring, you seek a middle ground—maybe a red that's not too overpowering, with good acidity to lift it, and elegant floral aromatics and fresh berries... LIKE CHIANTI!

Sure, Chianti makes a lot of us think of Hannibal Lecter and fava beans, or cheapo straw-wrapped bottles of yore, but this Sangiovese-based red from Tuscany can be delicious, food-friendly, and a perfect sipper during the Spring.

At a recent tasting sponsored by the Consorzio Vino Chianti, I had to wade through some head-scratchers and a couple of underwhelming offerings, but it was totally worth it to find a few real gems that were intoxicating, delicate, and delicious.

From Azienda Agricola Lanciola, the 2013 Az. Agr. Lanciola Chianti DOCG had a mild nose, but it had varied elements of florals and merde (or whatever "merde" is in Italian,) and was tasty and very quaffable. ~$15. The 2012 Az. Agr. Lanciola Chianti Colli Florentini DOCG had an exuberant nose of floral perfume and loads of blueberry, and was interesting on the palate, light but complex, with black fruits. ~$15. And the 2011 Az. Agr. Chianti Colli Florentini DOCG Riserva had another great nose of overripe berry salad and an appealing funk, still brightly acidic but balanced. ~$25.

I also enjoyed the 2010 Castello del Trebbio Chianti Rùfina DOCG Riserva "Lastricaro" for its spicy, woodsy notes, and a nice cherry flavor, with good tannins—a solid, well-balanced effort. ~$35. 

The 2011 Colognole Chianti Rùfina DOCG "Colognole" was made from 100% Sangiovese, had a nose of merde-y perfume, with cheeky red fruit on the palate, and had a good balance of flavors and structure. ~$25. And the 2009 Colognole Chianti Rùfina DOCG Riserva "Riserva del Don" was also 100% Sangiovese and had an incredible nose—so perfumey! ~$35.

I've long been a fan of the Pieve De' Pitti wines, and Caterina Gargari was on hand to share some fantastic offerings: the 2011 Pieve De' Pitti Chianti Superiore DOCG "Cerretello" had a luxe warm nose of berry/cherry fruit and spices which blossomed in the mouth, grippy, with good balance. ~$NA. And the 2008 Pieve De' Pitti Chianti Superiore DOCG "Cerretello" that she brought (in magnum—the last one she had!) had a nose of perfume and earth, was rich and voluptuous in the mouth with nice acidity, evolved, yet very quaffable. ~$NA. (Not available yet in the U.S.)

The 2012 Tenuta San Jacopo Chianti DOCG "Poggio ai Grilli" had great rose petals and red fruit on the nose, and was delish and tasty on the palate. ~$17. And the 2011 San Jacopo Chianti DOCG Riserva "Poggio ai Grilli" had amazing florals on the nose, and was full of rich blue and black fruits, violets, and was super smooth on the finish. ~$25.

Out of the 2013s I'd tasted, the one that presented the best was the 2013 Tenuta San Vito Chianti Colli Fiorentini DOCG "Darno," which had a gorgeous nose of berries and rose petals. But like most of the 2013s, it exhibited an unusual errant "spritz," a little secondary fermentation or something, perhaps (see "head-scratchers" above)—one producer speculated that as these were bottled quite recently it was just the nature of the wine settling down. This was not integrated yet by any means, but the nose speaks of potential… ~$NA. (Not available yet in the U.S.)

The Castelvecchio offerings were all solid, but my favorites were the 2011 Castelvecchio Chianti Colli Fiorentini DOCG "Il Castelvecchio," 90% Sangiovese, 10% Merlot, which was very funky with compote fruit, but bright and zingy with good balance ~$15, and the 2010 Castelvecchio Chianti Colli Fiorentini DOCG Riserva "Vigna la Quercia," 90% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, with spice box, good fruit, depth and structure (though I wondered if the Cab overwhelms a bit in the blend.) Still, tasty! ~$20.

Finally, the 2012 Tenute di Fraternita Chianti DOCG "Priore," a blend of 90% Sangiovese and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, was grippy and spicy, with earth and dirt elements, but smooth with good integration ~$17, and the 2012 Tenute di Fraternita Chianti DOCG Riserva "Ser Mariotto" was stunning, very smooth and velvety. Gorgeous notes (like the cassis from the Cab,) balanced the earth and florals, grippy and just plain delicious. ~$NA. (Not available yet in the U.S.)

Yes, you might be frustrated with the fact that a lot of my favorites are still looking for U.S. distribution, but these relatively young producers are fighting for their representation by showcasing such lovely wines. To contrast, a very widely-distributed producer, Ruffino, was pouring two wines—neither which I found very appealing, to be honest. (See "underwhelming" above.)

You'll probably have to rely on the recommendations of your merchants and sommeliers to find the true gems, but definitly think of a 2009-2012 Chianti the next time you're stymied at what to drink this Spring. Those florals, fruit and earth notes, and pitch-perfect acidity will help you toast the change in season.


Friday, April 24, 2015

ODE TO BUBBLY: The Sparkling Wines of Gruet

If I had my druthers, I'd drink Champagne all day long, every day. Well, druthers AND a large pocketbook, as Champagne can be a very expensive habit. Lucky for me, there are a large number of American producers who make delicious sparkling wine in the Mèthode Traditionelle—aka the Champagne method—and their wares encompass the range of Champagne styles and brilliance quite well while being kinder on the wallet.

A particular personal favorite is Gruet—their NV Brut made one of my very first "Top 20 Under $20" lists. Located in Albuquerque, New Mexico (wait, what, NEW MEXICO?!) this family-run winery has been producing award-winning sparklers since their first release in 1989. You may still be trying to wrap your brain around the concept of quality wine from New Mexico, but the American Southwest has many characteristics of fine-wine growing regions, namely good soils and high-elevation vineyards which cool greatly overnight so the grapes don't ripen too much. (Check out my roundup of nearby Arizona wineries here and you'll get an idea of what the area has to offer.)

While I've found the Gruet Brut and the Gruet Rosé in wine shops all around the country, some of their other offerings are less widely distributed, so when I got an opportunity to purchase a mixed case, I jumped on it. I invited some friends over to taste the array with me, and we had an eye-opening experience getting acquainted with some of the styles of Gruet bubblies.

As kind of a "baseline," we began with the NV Gruet Brut. Everyone agreed it was a solid offering, with notes of green apple, a little yeastiness, and lemon/grapefruit citrus. A blend of 75% Chardonnay and 25% Pinot Noir, it remains a fave go-to sparkler. ~$16.

Next up was the NV Gruet Rosé. 100% Pinot Noir, with a beautiful salmon color. Lots of strawberry on the nose, with raspberry in the mouth, and some herbs and florals to round it out. There is 2% still Pinot Noir added to the bottle, I imagine to add a little depth of flavor… whatever the reason, it works, and suddenly it seemed everyone had a new favorite go-to. A little cheekier, a little sexier, for ~$18.

Our third bottle was the NV Gruet Sauvage, which is 100% Chardonnay, and made in the driest, Brut Nature style. We all agreed there was a kind of dryer sheet/mineral soap-iness character which took some getting used to. Definitely steely and crisp, with mountain florals and lemon peel. Maybe not the universal favorite of the eve, but people kept coming back to it, intrigued. ~$20.

Our first vintage offering was the 2010 Gruet Blanc de Blancs, also 100% Chardonnay ("Blanc de Blancs" basically means "white from whites," so only white grapes are used, i.e., our old friend Chard.) This wine spent three years on the lees, and the subsequent richness and roundness shone through in the notes of Gala apple, toastiness, and its creamy expression. We started to go a little bonkers for this one, no lie. When you realize a vintage Champagne is going to run you generally around $80-100, this baby is even MORE attractive at ~$25. Boo-yah.

Now, the dosage levels of Champagne are varied and confusing, with the wide ranges of allowed residual sugar and the nomenclature, so we'll just leave it that Extra Dry is smack in the middle, with higher residual sugar than a Brut, but not necessarily sweet-tasting. You'll sense the ripeness of the fruit, and a higher viscosity, but as Champagne's acidity is so bright, it can be balanced in a glorious way. And so it follows that a couple of minds were blown by the NV Gruet Extra Dry. Again 100% Chardonnay, and bottle aged a minimum of 18 months, it had notes of marzipan, white peach, rose petals and honeysuckle. ~$16. (I really wish I could've gotten my hands on the Gruet Demi-Sec, which would have had still more residual sugar, but this was certainly an eye-opener for those in the group who would usually shy away from a "sweeter" offering.)

Finally, the Tête de Cuvée, the 2007 Gruet Gilbert Gruet Grand Reserve. Named after the winery's founder, this is a 100% Chardonnay from the property's oldest vines. They use free-run juice, and age the still wine after its first fermentation in French oak barrels. It spent six years aging on the lees, and only 600 cases were made. And it was everything you'd hope from a jewel in the crown: toasty brioche, beautifully yeasty, notes of vanilla, taffy, baked yellow apple, lemon, and mountain florals. Complex and hedonistic. So amazing, I want a whole case all to myself (to drink all day long, every day.) And get this… it's only $43. What the what?!?!

This tasting only confirmed what I'd long thought about Gruet: very high quality across the board, a consistent Brut "house style," and vintage offerings that were elevated and nuanced. Kinda like a good Champagne… at a fraction of the price. As I said, the Brut and the Rosé have wide availability, and stores that carry them may be able to get you some of the rest of the portfolio. But you can also purchase through the winery's website here. I hope to get the chance to visit New Mexico in the near future and see the Gruet operations first-hand, but until then I remain very, very thankful that I still have a few bottles left in my case!


Monday, March 30, 2015

GRANDES PAGOS de España ~ Spain's Single Estates

It might seem obvious that, in general, the smaller the parcel of land from which a wine is sourced, the higher the quality. Wines labeled with a large region tend to be entry-level, and then the more telescopic you go—from large region to mid-size region to small region to sub-region to single vineyards—the quality expands exponentially.

In Spain, for many years, large conglomerate companies oversaw wine production, sourcing grapes from areas all over the country. It wasn't until 2000 when a small group of producers stood up for their single vineyard/single estates (called "pagos") and founded what has become the Grandes Pagos de España. This is not a commercial group—they have different importers, for example—but they do share technical expertise, winemaking knowledge, and they've banded together to promote premium, quality wine from all over Spain.

During a recent tasting sponsored by the group, I got to sample some old favorites and meet some new ones. The wide range of styles, sub-regions, and grapes was a little muddying perhaps, but the fact remains that most of these wines were fantastic examples of craft and terroir.

2007 Cava Gramona III Lustros: medium-minus gold color. Warm, toasty almond. Lemon zest. Very bright, lots of minerality. Reflects its gravelly/sandy soils. Zippy acidity on the light yet long finish, gets creamier. ~$45.

2012 Chivite Colleción Blanco: bright medium gold color. Great nose—taffy, oak, baking spices, baked yellow apple. Viscous, good balancing acidity, long finish. Not terribly complex, but overall nice structure and flavors. Bit of tropical fruits come in at finish. 100% Chardonnay, 11 mo. in French oak. ~$50.

2013 La Miranda de Secastilla Blanca: green melon, lemon, celery, interesting. Very tart, green and clean, bit of ripeness at the finish. I like. ~$20.

2013 Cérvoles Blanc: funky nose, overripe honeydew melon. Nice tang, quaffable, balanced, VERY spicy on the finish! ~$30.

2012 Belondrade y Lurton Bianco: love the nose. Taffy. Viscous, lots of flavor, long length, minerals on the finish. 100% Verdejo. ~$40.

2007 Gran Calzadilla: blend of Tempranillo and Cab. Sauv. Nearly opaque ruby color. Floral aromas, rose petals, bit of smoke and cigar box, blue fruits. Bright acidity, ripe blue fruits, subtle tannins. Bit velvety, solid, and pleasant. ~$75.

2011 Enrique Mendoza Santa Rosa: medium-plus ruby. Cedar, rosemary, cassis, violets on the very aromatic nose. Tangy red fruits, brick dust, cherry. Bit tart, but warmth of cherry rounds out the end, accompanied by some savory notes. ~$35.

2008 Finca Valpiedra Reserva: opaque ruby. Great, rich nose. Lavender, graphite, blackberry. Seems a bit tight. Really dense! Blueberry/blackberry, gravel soil, seems high acid. ~$35.

2008 Cérvoles: medium-plus garnet. Cassis, overripe red fruits, dried herbs, woodsy. Smooth, rich and integrated, cedar, dark fruits, yet bright. Very solid, though perhaps not terribly memorable. ~$40.

2012 AALTO: 100% Tempranillo from very old vines. Medium-plus ruby. Purple floral aromatics, licorice, cola, some coconut (from the American oak.) Very young. Cola, tight purpleness, big and bruise. Violets. Intense, dense, shows lots of potential. Yowzers! ~$43.

2011 AALTO PS: Super aromatic, blue and purple fruits, lavender and violet. Wow, that's sexy. S&M sexy, though—too young still, knocks you around a bit. ~$105.

2011 Abadia Retuerta Pago Negralada: opaque purpley/ruby. Very tight nose, elusive, some red fruits and a grape juice element. Tight. Dusty, purple fruit, bit of meatiness. Subtle tannins. "Packed & Purple." Would love to see it open up more. ~$100.

2010 Abadia Retuerta Selección Especial: Super earthy, tobacco, cedar, green pepper. Highly structured and intense. Cassis comes in at finish, young but pedigreed. ~$25.

2011 Palacio Quemado Los Acilates: cured meats, rose potpourri, absolutely intriguing! Tobacco, well-structured, long-lived. Yes. ~$15.

2013 Palacio Quemado La Zarcita: funky Tempranillo blend with Trincadeira, super crunchy red fruit, smoke. Spicy in mouth, zingy, fresh, tasty. ~$20.

2010 Doix (Mas Doix): medium ruby color. Dusty bouquet, berry salad, bright and minerally, really nice. Powerful but good acidity. Tasty. ~$35.

2010 Numanthia: dusty, cocoa, black fruits. Dark, intense, well-textured, aging well but tannins still pretty big. ~$55.

2011 Termanthia (Numanthia): cherry pie, baked bread, brick dust, really tight and dense, lots of structure, BIG but elegant. ~$180.

(While I was researching prices, I realized that not many of these wines have wide distribution in the States. As the Grandes Pagos movement grows, I expect that will change. For now, the Mas Doix, Numanthia and Termanthia, Abadia Retuertas, and AALTOs have a bit more widespread availability.)

Definitely keep the concept of Spain's Single Estates on your radar—the wines are diverse, delicious, and truly reflect the range of terroir and grapes in Spain. Maravilloso vino!


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Wonderful Wines Of Washington! (WWOW!)

With the rise in popularity of quality wine from less-than-usual locales, we're forgetting about one right here in the U.S.: Washington State. WA is actually the second largest producer of American wine (behind California) but it's hardly forefront in the mind of consumers looking for wonderful wines.

Time to change that, and how! First of all, let's do some edifying: A) don't equate rainy Seattle with your concept of WA wine—most of the state's wine regions lie to the east of the Cascade Mountains, which act as a rain shadow, in the dry Columbia Valley AVA. B) the area's latitude is the same as between Bordeaux and Burgundy (fairly well-regarded regions, eh?), there is an unusually long length of day, which equals over a hundred more hours of glorious daylight during the growing season—and WA's wide daily temperature fluctuations are great for ripening. C) there is NO phylloxera in the state, so the vines are grown on their own rootstock. D) for you soil nerds: there is volcanic bedrock layered under glacial deposits and soil from multiple ice age floods, with a windblown loess dusting on top—a trifecta of loveliness. E) there are over FORTY varietals planted, with subregions showcasing an incredible array of grapes; Riesling and Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah… rarely at home in the same region.
There's so much more, but let's get to the juice!

I recently spent a day walla-walla-wallowing in the bounty of WA state wines at a trade event sponsored by the Washington State Wine Commission, and found some truly wonderful wines during two seminars and a walk-around tasting.

I was first knocked out by the 2013 àMaurice Cellars Sparrow Viognier, Walla Walla Valley AVA. Nose of straw, lemon, white florals, very viscous, and tangy lemon zest with lots of minerality on the palate. Florals emerge on the super long finish. Winemaker Anna Schafer spoke of her passion in cultivating this gem: "I absolutely love making white wine—you're not making white wine for the scores!" ~$35.

At the walk-around, I beelined to her table to taste more of her offerings: the 2011 àMaurice Cellars Night Owl Estate Red Blend was light but complex, with a super elegant, smoky nose, a bit of earth and charming, well-balanced fruit. ~$48. 2011 àMaurice Cellars Fred Estate Syrah had lots of perfume, spice, and herbs, with lavender sachet in the mouth. Not a hot-n-ripe overblown Syrah, rather an elegant, integrated example. ~$42. And the 2011 àMaurice Cellars Anderson Red Blend showed a great perfumey nose! Sweet plums, rose petals… wowzers! Love this. Elegant, and very flavorful. ~$40.

Another standout was the 2012 Januik Klipsun Vineyard Merlot, Red Mountain AVA. Complex, forward nose of blueberry, blackberry, lavender pastilles, and mocha, in the mouth it had compact, elegant fruit, with good balancing acidity and soft tannins, with a long finish of blackberry pie. ~$30

Almost presented as an answer to the question, "But how will WA wines age?", the 1994 Woodward Canyon Winery Merlot, Columbia Valley AVA had an amazing "whoa!" nose of intense spice box, sweet cedar, and tobacco leaf. It was still very present in the mouth, with flavors of dried herbs and mesquite, with good acidity. Just lovely. (The fruit was actually sourced from the Wahluke Slope AVA, but at the time, it hadn't been granted an AVA designation yet.) Not too shabby for a 20-year-old Merlot from lil' ol' Washington! ~$NA.

Chateau Ste. Michelle winemaker Bob Bertheau is an important figure in the growth of the WA wine industry, always looking to innovate and perfect, and his 2010 Ch. Ste. Michelle Artist Series Meritage, Columbia Valley AVA has the highest percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon he's ever put in a Bordeaux-style blend. He said, "The elegance of the Cab this year just sang to me, and I couldn't hold it down." It had blackberry liqueur and floral perfume, with dense and dark purple notes. Suuuuuuper smooth, with pepper and graphite on the finish. A big wine, but it doesn't punch you in the face. Wow. (Bob also said that "Washington tannins are like a thoroughbred—you have to teach it, train it… that's a good problem to have, to have a wild horse." I loved that.) ~$60.

His 2013 Ch. Ste. Michelle Eroica Riesling carries on a solid tradition of dependable Eroicas, with a great nose of florals—massive honeysuckle!—and spice, mandarin orange, and mouthwatering acidity. ~$20. And I also loved the 2011 Ch. Ste. Michelle Cold Creek Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, with its dead-on-Cabernet nose of cassis, cedar, and a little green-ness. It was incredibly smooth and integrated, and had a long finish of cassis and earth. ~$30.

Next stop was the Charles Smith/K Vintners table—I've been a fan of their wines for a long time. (I've gleefully written about the Boom Boom Syrah and the Kung Fu Girl Riesling in the past.) And sure enough, out of the gate, I was incredibly impressed with the 2013 ViNO Pinot Gris. Attractive floral nose, spicy, good acidity, florals carry through—wow! Impressive. And only ~$12! I also went coo-coo for the 2012 Sixto Uncovered Chardonnay, with its smooth presentation, cheeky note of taffy, and loads of minerality. No new oak, 100% native fermentation, sourced from three different high-elevation vineyards—a rival to famed CA chards, at half the price. ~$30. Another incredible value is found in the 2013 Wines of Substance Cabernet Sauvignon, which was "kind of left alone," according to co-winemaker Brennon Leighton. Robust red fruit, good balance and length, complex. ~$15.

I'm also familiar with Andrew Will's wines, and really enjoyed the two vintages I tasted from his Champoux Vineyard (and the little kid in me cracked up every time someone seriously mentioned a "shampoo" vineyard.) The Cab Franc-based 2012 Andrew Will Champoux Vineyard Blend, Horse Heaven Hills AVA was big and extracted, with dense black fruits and florals, ~$65, and the 2011 Andrew Will Champoux Vineyard Blend, Horse Heaven Hills AVA lathered up the palate (see what I did there?) with spiced blackberry jam. ~$74.

If a group of flamingoes is a flamboyance, what do you call a group of Master Sommeliers? (That may be a good question for the twitter.) Three MSs—Shayn Bjornholm MS, Chris Tanghe MS, and one of my former instructors John Ragan MS—led a blind seminar to illuminate WA location, grapes, and blends. (Yes, my palms sweat the minute I realized we'd be tasting blind, but I nailed the three varietals and a couple of sub-regions, so I guess the Minx has some mad skillz after all.)

The quality of the wines in this group was high across the board, but if pressed to name some favorites, I'd include the 2011 DeLille Cellars Harrison Hill Blend Snipes Mountain AVA; cassis, herb liqueur, and sage notes, integrated fruit, elegant and delish! ~$95. Also the 2012 Avennia Justine Columbia Valley AVA, with its red and black berry salad, strong cherry, and florals, was super dense and tasty, and quite grippy. A blend of Mourvedre, Grenache, and Syrah. ~$40. And I loved the 2012 Gramercy Cellars Third Man Columbia Valley AVA, with silky red fruits, it was a bit meaty (genoa salami) and peppery, with alpine notes. Big, but beautifully balanced. Another S. Rhône blend, this time with the emphasis on Grenache. ~$45.

The 2012 Betz Family Winery Bésoleil Columbia Valley AVA was also incredible, with coffee grounds and herbs on the nose, and a luxe, elegant palate of blueberry, a hint of chalk—so tasty. ~$45. I went to their table for more, falling for the 2011 Clos de Betz Red Bordeaux Blend, with an amazing, packed nose of cassis and cedar, and a flinty minerality. ~$55. Also the 2011 Betz Family Winery Père de Famille Cabernet Sauvignon: "ooooh, rich & smooooooth!" say my notes. Violets, delicious fruit, elegant, quaffable yet good with food. 88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Petit Verdot, and 3% Merlot. ~$68.

"Dense" is the word of the day for the 2011 Col Solare Blend Red Mountain AVA, which also drew me in, with its notes of cassis liqueur, brick dust, velvety red fruit, liquid herbs, it was very dense and very ripe. And very sexy. ~$75.

Still with me?! I know this is a lot, but seriously—each table I visited kept surprising me with such gems, it was truly a bounty. If I didn't have an appointment to get to, this post would have been three times as long, I'm sure. My last stop on the way out was at the Seven Hills table. I'd correctly blind tasted the varietal of the 2012 Seven Hills Vineyard Merlot Walla Walla Valley AVA during the seminar, and still loved its ripe blue and black fruits on the nose, elements of smoke and mocha, and tasty, intense blueberry pie. ~$38. Next was the only rosé I sampled that day, the 2014 Seven Hills Dry Rosé Cabernet Franc—loved the nose, strawberry-lime rickey, clean and crisp watermelon Jolly Rancher, good acidity, super dry finish. ~$18.

 Their hits just kept on coming: the 2012 Seven Hills Ciel du Cheval Blend Red Mountain AVA: "melting" red fruit, big but super integrated, lovely. My friend Mr. Some Damn Good Wine kept crowing over the note of "Maraschino! Maraschino!!" ~$45. The 2012 Seven Hills McClellan Estate Petit Verdot Walla Walla Valley AVA: just loved the nose. Intriguing. Plummy purpleness across the board. Wow! I drew a heart. ~$35. And the 2012 Seven Hills Klipsun Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Red Mountain AVA: spot-on Bordeaux nose—cedar, cassis, eucalyptus. Scrumptious, with high tannins, but very integrated. ~$45.

Wineaux, if you haven't figured it out by now, wines from Washington State are indeed wonderful. This tasting confirmed that they have the ability to rival wines from other great regions around the world, and many are values at every price point. Do yourselves a favor, and start familiarizing yourselves with the wonderful wines from WA.

(Side note: as of this writing, I am very close to finalizing a date to sing this summer for the Seattle Mariners as part of my quest to sing the National Anthem for every Major League Baseball team. Rest assured that I will do my very best to tack on a visit to the Columbia Valley to get up close and personal with more of these gems! I love it so when my worlds collide.

UPDATE: The Seattle date is set, barring any theatrical conflicts: July 28. Very excited, not only to sing, but to stomp around Washington State vineyards for a few days. Keep an eye out for my report.)


Wednesday, February 11, 2015


Every year, the Gambero Rosso organization awards the Tre Bicchieri (or, "three glasses,") to a select number of Italian wines from out of 45,000 sampled. Winners and runners-up are showcased during a world tour, which stopped off in New York early February.

Out of all the industry events I attend every year, the Tre Bicchieri seems to be one of the zaniest. Maybe it's the generally effusive nature of Italians themselves, but I think a lot has to do with the layout: wineries are organized by importer (not region, style, or even alphabetically,) so you're bopping from Franciacorta to Brunello to Amarone to Sicily and back again. Maybe it's also that there are a lot of friends and consumers allowed, so people are drinking more than spitting! Who knows. Just… zany.

As with many industry tastings, it's impossible to sample every single wine. IMPOSSIBLE! (For kicks, you can check out my madcap attempt to hit as many of the 250 wineries at the latest NY Wine Experience as I could.) At this year's Tre Bicchieri, there were 321 wines from 180 producers, so even if you were a speed demon and took only one measly minute to taste each wine, it would still take you almost five and a half hours to hit them all.

So I found a section of the room and just plowed in! ("3B" indicates Tre Bicchieri winners, others received slightly lower rankings.)

As luck would have it, I sampled the Red of the Year first. The 2007 Vietti Barolo Villero Riserva (3B) had great, elegant perfume, was "really delicious," with bright, spicy red cherries and brick dust. Silky tannins, good acidity, looooong length and a chewy finish. ~$300. The 2011 Vietti Barolo Castiglione also had an elegant nose, and was tasty—very floral and very earthy—and integrated. ~$45.

As a bubbly fan, I beelined for the 2009 Il Mosnel Franciacorta Extra Brut EBB (3B). It was very yummy/dirty/funky on the nose, with yellow apple, straw, and a good mousse—warm and rich and oomphy. ~$40. I also was intrigued by the 2013 Adami Valdobbiadene Rive di Farra di Solingo Brut Col Credas (3B). Pear jumped from the nose, with light lemon, minerals, and a bright mousse. Very steely, clean and metallic, cuts like a knife. ~$22.

I also love Amarone (remember when I wondered if it was the Sexiest Wine Ever?) so sampled the 2010 Tenuta Sant'Antonio Amarone della Valpolicella Campo dei Gigli (3B). It had tons of black fruit, was very tasty (though maybe not as velvety as I'd hoped,) with good fruit and cola notes. Still very young—I'm prepared to give it some time! ~$75.

The 2009 Morellino di Scansano Calestaia Reserva (3B) was intoxicating. Lots of floral and red fruit perfume, very tasty, bit of tea, spice, good fruit, flirty, well-structured yet approachable now. 100% Sangiovese from Tuscany. ~$42.

Another Tuscan group showed the 2010 Colle Massari Montecucco Sangiovese Lombrone Riserva (3B) with an attractive nose, delicious and complex fruit, spice, and yet easy-drinking. ~$45. I also enjoyed their "Super Tuscan" blend of Bordeaux-grapes and Sangiovese, the 2011 Colle Massari Bolgheri Rosso Superiore Grattamacco—very spicy, robust, lavender florals, tasty, earthy, good tannic structure. ~$75. And the 2009 Colle Massari Brunello di Montalcino Poggio di Sotto again had a great nose, with violet florals, caramel, herbs, chocolate... just lovely. I'll definitely be looking for more from this producer! ~$240.

Some Chiantis from Tuscany tasted next included the 2011 Barone Ricasoli Chianti Classico Colledilà Gran Selezione (3B) with a most amazing nose! Very unusual: brick dust, crushed lavender, red plum, red currant. Lots of structure and intriguing on the palate, but the nose was the best. ~$55. And the 2011 Brancaia Chianti Classico Riserva (3B) showed ripe red fruit on the nose, with red and black fruits (supported by 20% Merlot in the blend, no doubt,) with herbs and a pizza-spice-y finish. Tasty. ~$30.

At this point in my tasting, I met up with some friends: Mr. Some Damn Good Wine, Mr. Tolerant Taster, and Mr. NJ Wine and Beer (not every Wineau has a catchy name, but I guess the folks who do tend to gravitate to each other. [You can follow all these wacky Wineaux on the twitter, lose the "Mr."s and look them up!]) Our newly-formed Posse bounced around to some more tables, increasing the zany quotient by a factor of ten.

Hopscotching to Friuli Venezia Giulia, I tried the 2013 Ronco dei Tassi Collio Malvasia (3B)—abundant with minerals, pear, peach and straw, light and herby with a nice grip. ~$18. I really do enjoy Collio wines and was intrigued by the 2011 Ronco dei Tassi Fosarin, a white blend, which was very meaty and pungent, feel of warm hay, and viscous. ~$20. I went nutso over the 2008 Cantina Valpolicalla Negrar Amarone della Valpolicella Classico San Rocco Domini Veneti (3B). Graphite, smoky flintiness, violets! Herby perfume, intoxicating nose. Spicy, rich—THIS is sexy. Warm and ripe with subtle tannins, from a single vineyard. More, please! ~$40.

Back up to Lombardy and Franciacorta again, for the amazing 2007 Ferghettina Franciacorta Pas Dosé 33 Riserva (3B). Soapstone, lemon curd, honey and yellow apple on the nose, very crisp and clean, minerally, bit yeasty (72 months on the lees, so!) Very nice, very tasty. ~$48

Alas, when we made it to Tenuta Sette Ponti (the Winery of the Year,) they were out of their famous 2011 Oreno. Sad face. But the 2012 Tenuta Sette Ponti Saia Feudo Maccari (3B) was dense and spicy, with cocoa and earth, and supple tannins, (~$30) and the 2012 Tenuta Sette Ponti Crognolo was earthy, herby and dense with tasty tart fruit. ~$25.

We all enjoyed the 2010 Velenosi Rosso Piceno Superiore Roggio del Filare (3B): macerated berry nose, cherry cola, robust and fruity, VERY structured, super tannic, but very, very tasty. ~$50.

Back to white, back to Collio for the 2013 Ronco Blanchis Collio (3B)—spicy!! A true multitude of spices. Warm, round melon and... spice galore. ~$20. Although familiar with Gavi wines, I hadn't yet tried the 2012 Villa Sparina Gavi del Comune di Gavi Monterotondo (3B) which had delicious melon, litchi, great round fruit, and good minerality. Yum. ~$50.

And far be it from me to leave any Franciacorta unturned, so I sipped on the 2004 Castello Bonomi Franciacorta Extra Brut Lucrezia Etichetta Nera (3B) which was quite perfumey, with florals and sugar cookie (~$150,) and the 2007 Castello Bonomi Franciacorta Extra Brut Lucrezia CruPerdu, with a very soapy nose, great ripe fruit, pear, yeasty, tasty. ~$135.

Mr. NJ Wine and Beer and I accidentally left the other two in the dust zooming to the other side of the room to find an old friend, the 2010 Allegrini Amarone della Valpolicella Classico (3B). With a grappa-ish, herby nose, and "sweet" fruit, it presented a little too baked for me, alas. Maybe next time! ~$42

I had to fly to a meeting with another Wineau, so bid the remainder of my Posse adieu (or, ciao,) and headed out into the cold with a little Italian zaniness in my step. While I felt like I may have missed some real gems in all the chaos, I was thrilled at the numerous wines I did discover. With the incredible range of wines coming out of all corners of Italy, there truly is something for everyone—so grab three glasses of your own, split a bottle with some friends, and dance the zany night away.