Tuesday, April 15, 2014


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.


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


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


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!


[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.]

Monday, March 10, 2014


Wineaux, were you aware that lil' ol' ARIZONA is manufacturing some really phenomenal juice?!

Yes, land of the saguaro cacti and desert sun, Arizona has three main wine regions and is home to around eighty-three licensed and bonded wineries. I recently visited the Sonoita AVA (located about an hour south of Tucson) to meet some winemakers and sample their wares. [Sonoita is currently the only AZ region granted an American Viticultural Area designation.]

I've tasted wines from less-familiar winemaking states in the past, noting varying degrees of success. Many states, like CT and IN, are often forced to use hybrid grapes to combat the challenges in climate and terroir they face. Others, like MI and NM, find pockets of land where decent vitis vinifera wine can be made. In Arizona, the potential is huge... but there's a reason you may not yet be on the AZ wine bandwagon: availability. Each winery I visited had an incredibly small production, yet most spoke of exponential growth in the near future.

Historically, 16th-century Spanish Jesuit missionaries planted vines in Arizona to make sacramental wine. But strict laws from Prohibition and other legislation put a stop to AZ winemaking until the 1970s when the soil scientist Dr. Gordon Dutt noticed that the red clay Arizona soil was similar to that of Burgundy. He was involved in other agricultural projects around the Southwest, but when he got the AZ wine ball rolling, it quickly gathered momentum.  

Now there are around fourteen wineries in the Sonoita area, and on a recent overcast Sunday, I stopped by four of them to see what this little "secret" AVA was about. I was joined by my friend Aaron—a Tucson resident, editor, photographer, and budding Wineau.

Flying Leap Vineyards front porch.
First stop was FLYING LEAP VINEYARDS, INC. Marc Moeller, the co-founder and winemaker, described how he and his partner Mark Beres took over the former Canelo Hills property a few years ago. They absorbed some Canelo inventory, but quickly set to planting vines of their own. Now they have 6.5 acres of vines in Sonoita and about 20 acres in Willcox, another AZ wine region. Flying Leap has the feel of a real working winery, and while Marc wants to double in size over the next six to seven years, he still struggles with juggling the output he has now in his small space, likening it to an ongoing game of Tetris.

As AZ winemakers expand in their booming industry, there are a handful of wines still being made with grapes or juice from other regions—some quite lovely, but I'm going to focus on the unique terroir of AZ fruit, like the 2009 Canelo Hills Zinfandel. Very pale garnet color, lots of black pepper spice and dark fruit. Light but quite spicy with a bit of acidity. Nice pizza-sauce-y character (you know: oregano, tomato stem, that kind of thing.) $22.50

I quite enjoyed the 2011 Flying Leap Graciano. Graciano is more well known in Spain, but is well served here: light ruby color, rich notes of blackberry, black currant, violets, licorice, spice, and a bit of barnyard earthiness on the nose and palate. $29.11

The 2010 Canelo Hills Cabernet Sauvignon was a medium garnet color with an intriguing note of cumin in the nose, and cedar and bright red fruit. Nice balance through the finish, and although it was light in style, it could age well for about five years. $32.96

Aaron's favorite of the tasting was the 2011 Flying Leap Head Over Heels, which was a blend of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Mourvèdre, and Merlot. Medium garnet color, heady nose of mesquite, smoke, black fruits, and charcoal. Well blended, and the integrated tannins helped add a solid structure. $30.85

Tempranillo had its own showcase with the 2012 Flying Leap Estate Tempranillo—a medium garnet, very earthy/merde-y character, with fragrant eucalyptus and a nice light but long finish that was smoooooth. $38.33

Marc pulled out his 2009 Flying Leap Sangiovese to share with us: very, very pale garnet with a nose of forest floor, dried spice and caramel, and with those elements on the palate, notes of figs, anise, and dry Madeira. Aaron chimed in that he was getting "butterscotch... and actual Scotch." (Yes!) Very elegant and rich, rich, rich. $31.95

Marc and his tasting room manager Rolf were so approachable, and took pride in greeting every person who came through the door while we were there. Their customer interaction was an early hint that these AZ wineries would be absolutely defined by their proprietors. As we talked more about the wines and their plans for the future, Marc excitedly brought out two bottles of barrel samples for us to try:

The 2012 Flying Leap Grenache was a pale ruby, with smoke and cherry liqueur on the nose, and a mouth of peppery spice, cherry, and a bit of caramel, and the 2010 Flying Leap Graciano was a medium ruby, with violet florals, forward berry salad, quite perfume-y with sweet oak and black fruits and a long, smooth finish.

It is always an honor to be surprised with barrel samples, and Aaron and I headed off to our next appointment wondering if the hospitality was a fluke or would be the norm... and quickly discovered it was the norm.

Entrance at Kief-Joshua Vineyards.
When we arrived at KIEF-JOSHUA VINEYARDS, Kief Manning himself was rushing to find a screwdriver as a klatch of Sunday regulars were having a grand old time in the tasting room. There was an omelet station outside, and a warm, festive atmosphere.

Kief spent some time traveling around Europe as a youngster, and started working at a wine shop at age 15. That led to his experimenting with making wine, which has since snowballed. He wants to stay a relatively small operation, but plans to double in size over the next ten years. When I asked what that would entail, he replied, "Well, we're gonna need employees by that point."

The 2012 Kief-Joshua Cephus (90% Viognier, 10% Chardonnay) was pale with a green tint, lots of tropical fruits on the nose, and tart citrus, pear, and a bit of barnyard as an anchor. $18

I loved the incredible floral tones of the 2011 Kief-Joshua Lacrime Divino (80% Syrah, 20% Viognier) which were enhanced by licorice, a lot of mocha, and light red and black fruits. Soft tannins and a smooth finish. $28

The smooth trend continued with the 2012 Kief-Joshua Magdalena (72% Barbera, 28% Cabernet Franc). Rich, velvety black fruit, notes of graphite and eucalyptus, layers of flavor and mild, integrated tannins. $29. I remarked that his red wines had a nice structure even with the incredibly soft tannins, and Kief said with a shrug, "People don't want to age wine anymore; they want to drink!"

Finally, we sampled the 2012 Kief-Joshua Zinfandel (late harvest). A deep ruby color, loads of fresh rosemary with mesquite and cinnamon on the nose. Very ripe plum and fig in the mouth, this had a somewhat sweet finish, but wasn't at all cloying—my notes say "very interesting,"—while it would pair well with dessert or cheese, I'd be curious to try it with a meaty, flavorful hunk of beef. $32

Already we had tasted single varieties and blends, from international grapes as well as signature grapes from Italy, Spain and the Rhône... yet the wide-ranging potential of Arizona wines seemed barely scratched.

Bocce courts and vines at Lightning Ridge
And the trend of hospitality continued at LIGHTNING RIDGE CELLARS where owner and winemaker Ann Roncone ushered us immediately into her barrel room to taste a number of barrel samples. A former mechanical engineer, Ann began by making garage wine at her home in the Bay Area near San Francisco. Her oenophile interest quickly led her to twenty acres in Sonoita where she took a former grazing property and built a winery from the ground up.

After discovering that "Italian reds like it here," she has focused on red Italian varietals, like the 2013 Lightning Ridge Aglianico, which was a very dark ruby red with a luxe nose of plum and cherry. Some licorice and cherry liqueur came through on the finish, though the wine still seemed a little youthful and green. Ann nodded at her glass and said, "It's like a teenager, being stupid." Guess that teenager will remain confined to his oak "room" for a while!

I really loved the 2011 Lightning Ridge Montepulciano: a heady nose of oregano, with lots of red fruit and spice. Very warm and rich with a long finish of herbs, well-balanced. My notes say, "Fantastic, tasty, slurping," meaning (I think) I wanted to lap this up all day.

As we tasted, Ann clarified the issue behind why Arizona wine was such a mystery to the rest of the country: most estates are so small that they sell almost ALL of their wine on site in the tasting room! Finding a distributor is ultimately not cost-effective. (Perhaps as these wineries grow, they can work together to get more of their wine out to the rest of the country, but for now they are clearly worth a visit if you're in the Tucson area.)

After departing the barrel room, we sampled a few of Ann's current wines, like the 2013 Lightning Ridge Muscat Canelli, with fragrant florals and pear on the nose, a bit of a "grapey" feel, very very light and vinified totally dry. A very pleasant white wine, perfect for an aperitif.

The 2010 Lightning Ridge Montepulciano was also wonderful, with a pizza-dough-y spice, a hint of barnyard, and lovely development, with jammy black cherry fruit, and a well-balanced finish with good acidity.

Although Ann advocates educating consumers about varietals that may be new to them, she does make the fine 2011 Lightning Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon. With a nose of eucalyptus and cedar, and soft cassis and red cherry in the mouth, this very light Cab has an easy, pleasant finish.  (While all prices were not available, most of the Lightning Ridge wines sell in the $22-29 range.)

Front stoop at Callaghan Vineyards
We bid goodbye to Ann to head to our last stop of the day, CALLAGHAN VINEYARDS. Kent Callaghan is one of the pioneers of modern Sonoita winemaking, and Ann herself singled him out as a "standard-bearer" for the region. The tasting room ambiance was convivial, and it was evident that the production area that spread out into the room beyond was an exercise in organization.

In fact, Kent routinely pulls out and replants vines to experiment with many different varieties, and his tasting sheet reads like an encyclopedia of grapes.

We started with his only estate white, the 2012 Callaghan Lisa's: a field blend of Viognier, Roussanne, and Malvasia Bianca. It had a very aromatic nose, with peach and apricot notes, and a long, fresh finish with integrated acidity. $28

Another white from 100% Arizona fruit was the 2010 Callaghan Ann's, a blend of Grenache Blanc, Verdelho, and Symphony (Muscat crossed with Grenache Blanc.) A soapy, lemon nose, with nice mountain florals, soft melon, a bit of pear, and a soft, balanced finish. $25

I quite enjoyed the 2012 Callaghan Mourvedre, with a nose of crunchy red fruit and earth, and notes of pepper and cherry, very juicy and quaffable, nice and bright but with a smooth finish. $28

The 2012 Callaghan Graciano had a dusty, floral nose with a bit of mossy tang. Lots of herbs on the palate, pepper, and a bright note of grapefruit pith. $28

We tasted two vintages of the Callaghan Padres: the 2009 is a blend of Tempranillo, Gernache and Syrah, with a sexy nose of velvety red fruit, good acidity, and raspberry and mocha notes. $35. The 2007 is a blend of Tempranillo, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. Plush nose of blue and black fruits, and cigar leaf, a little merde, nice acidity and apparent tannins. $NA

When I asked Kent about his winery's potential growth, he inferred that he was almost a bigger operation than he wanted to be, and I got the feeling that he'd rather jog right back into the vineyard or the blending room instead of answering any more questions. He did jog to a case in the back of the room and pulled out a few single varietals he wanted us to try: the 2012 Callaghan Petit Verdot, which had strong notes of blackberry, Asian spices and a woodsy quality. Nice density and sexiness in the mouth, with a long finish. $NA. And the 2012 Callaghan Tannat, of which he only made two barrels. I loved the big notes of berry salad and cassis on the nose, with pencil shavings. It's a pretty huge wine, with a bit of grapefruit citrus that keeps it light. Excellent richness and complexity. $NA.

Aaron and I headed back to Tucson with a few of our favorite bottles in the back seat, and I pondered the future of Arizona winemaking. Considering the difficulty in distribution of such small quantities, I wondered how AZ wine would ever claim its deserved place on the U.S. wine map. However, the near-exponential growth of their industry over the past five years does hint to unlimited potential in the future. Unless these wines stay where they are: born, raised and consumed in the neighborhood.

It could go either way, and is up to the winemakers themselves; for as Kent said, "These are people who like what they do—out working in the vineyard, not jetting around, trying to sell wine."

All I can say is that amazing wines are being made in Arizona, and it's worth a trip, if that's the only way you may get to sample them. Cheers!

[All photographs by Aaron Downey ©2014 All rights reserved.]

Sunday, February 16, 2014

José Maria da Fonseca

When I travel in a foreign country, getting off the beaten (touristy) path is a must. There's a real sense of adventure in boarding a local bus with no forehand knowledge of precise stops and distances, available maps, or a strong command of the language. During my recent trip to Lisbon, Portugal I did exactly that for a day trip to Azeitão, a small town located southeast of Lisbon in the northern part of the Setúbal peninsula. 

I had appointments that day at two very different wineries and my first stop was at José Maria da Fonseca. Historically recognized as a dependable Port producer, Fonseca's southern outpost concentrates on their table wines and the dessert gem Moscatel.

The 'control' is on the left, the bottle on the right made the trip!
The winery buildings are full of commemorations and historical items, including a bottling machine from the 1800s and two racks of Moscatel, one with bottles wrapped in red and green tissue, and one in blue and white - which celebrates the fact that they've been making wine for so long they've survived two regimes and therefore two differently-colored flags.

There are also barrels of Fonseca's special "Torna Viagem" Moscatel: way back in the day, when sent by ship to other countries, the conditions in the hold of the ship - heat, rocking - resulted in an accidental but wonderfully beneficial accelerated aging of the wine. In 2000, Fonseca replicated the trip, keeping a control sample at home - after six months, they saw a difference in the traveling wine which amounted to twenty-five years of aging! They repeated these trips in 2007 and 2010, the latter lasting a whole year on the seas, and that Moscatel was found to have aged the equivalent of thirty-five beautiful years.
Private collection room.

Although Fonseca makes very fine table wines, the Moscatel is the pride of the family; every year they take one barrel and fifty bottles of the current vintage and place it in their own private collection. It is not being saved to be consumed (perhaps if the Pope and ten or twelve heads of state arrived on the same day, they might crack open a bottle,) but is kept as part of the incredible legacy of the family and that wine.

I was joined by António Maria Soares Franco, a seventh-generation member of the family, to taste through some of their wines and we began with the Periquita line. In the mid-1800s, José Maria da Fonseca himself purchased a plot of land with that name and planted grapes to make table wine. In 1941 the company trademarked the name, and it is believed to be the oldest brand of Portuguese table wines, known for its consistent quality.

2012 Fonseca Periquita Branco (which made my list of Top Wines Under $20 of 2013!) It had a pale gold color, with straw and light tropical fruits on the nose. Nice fruit expression with citrus on the finish but not overly acidic. Great on its own or with appetizers or shellfish. Blend of Verdelho, Moscatel de Setúbal, Viosinho and Viognier.  ~ $10

The 2012 Fonseca Periquita Tinto (original) was a very quaffable table red; a medium-plus ruby color, it had a bit of a dusty nose with cranberry and florals with good fruit expression, nice balancing acidity and subtle tannins. A blend of Castelão, Trincadeira and Aragonez, it was a great food wine for ~$10.

There was a little more structure in the 2011 Fonseca Periquita Tinto Riserva. (Often, 'riserva' means wines that were aged longer or were selectively designated so by the producer - in this case it is a quality term bestowed by an independent commission.) This was a quite dark ruby red, with blueberry and blackberry on the nose, following through on the palate. Its soft tannins gave it more structure, but it was still easy to drink. Aged for 8 months in oak, a blend of Castelão, Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca. Very good, especially at ~$15.

Grapes for Portugal's most famous dessert wine, Port, are sourced from the Douro Valley region much farther to the north. Fonseca uses some of their Douro grapes for their Domini series of table wines - which is a pretty big sacrifice considering the business and esteem of Port! The 2010 Fonseca Domini was medium plus ruby, with a lovely nose of red fruit, gravel and earth. In the mouth it had much more gripping tannins, but was elegant with violet florals and a little licorice. Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, ~$15.

I have often crowed about the amazing quality for the value wines coming out of Portugal, and all of what we'd tasted so far absolutely fit the bill. But often if you take even a tiny jump in price, the rewards are magnificent.

To wit: the 2008 Fonseca Domini Plus is a field blend (meaning no one is truly sure how much of which kinds of grapes are in it) from a 60-year old vineyard. The grapes were handpicked and foot-trodden in the old style in large stone trenches, or lagares. It then spent 12 months in new French oak. The Plus was an opaque, teeth-staining ruby. It had a nose of blackberry liqueur, licorice, violets, lavender, mocha and graphite. In the mouth, there was an incredible density of flavor, with all of those notes washing over the palate in waves. It was highly tannic, but appropriate for its style. My notes say, "Wow.  Just amazing." While tasting this, António nodded at his glass and said, "Pure Douro;" the expression of fruit showed the sacrifice of Port grapes was completely justified. And even though it is a higher price point, this wonderfulness still costs only around ~$35-40.

Finally we arrived at the 2010 Fonseca Moscatel de Setúbal. Moscatel is produced similarly to Port in that the base wine's fermentation is arrested by the addition of a brandy spirit. That means the yeast gets knocked out by the alcohol and never finishes munching up its food source, sugar, so the resulting wine is sweeter and higher in alcohol - perfect as an accompaniment to dessert (or as a dessert on its own!) A medium caramel-gold, this had a nose of burnt sugar and apricot, with vibrant acidity in the mouth and additional flavors of candied orange peel and a hint of spice. It would stand up beautifully to a crème brulée or some heavenly dark chocolate and fig concoction. A half-bottle is ~$10.

Knowing that Fonseca could easily coast on its reputation both for Port as well as their table wines and Moscatel, I asked António what his vision was for the future. He replied that they wanted to come up with new ideas and new blends, but honor tradition (like the Perequita,) and always continue to improve.

I couldn't have asked for anything more! Except, perhaps, room in my suitcase for some of these bottles.  Luckily, their availability in the States (and elsewhere) is fairly good.  My adventurous day trip to Azeitão was off to an incredible start - stay tuned for the next chapter, Bacalhôa...


Wednesday, February 5, 2014


Pinot Noir is such an interesting wine.  Forget the praise heaped on it by Miles, the persnickety oenophile in Alexander Payne's movie "Sideways" if you can (his monologue about the notoriously difficult-to-grow grape was really about... himself) - with all of the Wineaux out there who love Pinot Noir, I've never heard one wax quite as rhapsodic.

You see, PN can be a bit of a conundrum.  First of all, there are the two main "styles:" Old World, like the Pinots from Burgundy with austere, elegant earthiness, and New World from the US and New Zealand which shower you with bright fruit; it is a grape that is known to reflect its terroir very specifically.  But you also have producers tailoring their wines to mimic different styles, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell a Pinot's precise origin from what is in your glass.

So can one generalize about Pinot?  Perhaps only to say that it is a lighter-bodied red (except when it's not) with a fair amount of acidity (except when it hasn't) that comes in a number of diverse styles but is often pretty darn quaffable.  Pinot is also a born 'food wine' due to its acidity and lighter weight.

At a recent Pinot Days event I sampled a number of wines from California producers of PN.  (The organizers crowed there was an array of Pinots from the Pacific Northwest and New Zealand on hand as well, but the majority were from CA.)  It always makes me laugh when trade event brochures have NO room to write notes, which explains why my following reviews are über concise.  I sought out some of my favorite producers, as well as a few new to me.  (Starred entries are standouts.)

Belle Glos is a perennial favorite - they make PNs from a number of standout sub-regions in California. You can't miss the distinctive wax capsules which actually meander down half of the bottle in a smear of luscious rich red.

*2012 Belle Glos Dairyman Pinot Noir Russian River Valley: lavender florals, strawberry, cherry pie - I wrote, "WOW - YUM."  ~$43

2012 Belle Glos Las Alturas Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands: Herby nose, velvety fruit, very spicy! Long length. ~$40

*2012 Belle Glos Clark & Telephone Pinot Noir Santa Barbara: Dark berry syrup, clove.  Outrageously smooth and elegant, yet rich.  ~$39

It is believed that Buena Vista Winery is the oldest commercial winery in the US.  (At least Wikipedia believes it!)  Located in Sonoma, CA - prime Pinot territory - they make a wide array of wines, from Chardonnay to Zinfandel and much more in-between, including these PNs with great quality at an affordable price.

*2012 Buena Vista Pinot Noir Sonoma: Light cherry berry, bright and pleasant, nice easy finish.  Super choice for those who crave a smooth, delicious wine without too much structure. ~$13

2009 Buena Vista Pinot Noir Carneros: Earth, bramble fruit, zingy acidity, elegant and crisp. ~$20

DeLoach Vineyards is a Russian River Valley producer who zeroes in on the three main grapes that thrive there - Zinfandel, Chardonnay, and our friend Pinot Noir.  

2012 DeLoach Pinot Noir Russian River Valley: Round fruit on the nose, sour fruit, good acidity. ~$19

*2010 DeLoach Pinot Noir Russian River Valley/Green Valley: Expressive fruit, lovely integrated components, good fruit/acid balance and nice weight. ~$39

2010 DeLoach OFS ("Our Finest Selection") Pinot Noir Russian River Valley: great nose, merdy terroir, darker berry fruit, clean, elegant. ~$33

Founded by the namesake Texan who played frontiersmen Davey Crockett and Daniel Boone in the 50s and 60s, Fess Parker has emerged as a pioneering winery in many ways.  Strong family lineage, entrepreneurial drive, and high quality earmark this winery.

2010 Fess Parker Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills: Robust fruit and flowers, black raspberries, very smooth. ~$22

2011 Fess Parker Pinot Noir Bien Nacido Vineyard: Super perfumey, little spice, juicy, not too long a finish. ~$48

*2010 Fess Parker Pinot Noir Ashley's: Lots of fruit, spice and earth, elegantly integrated, very lovely. ~$40

As a sucker for anything bubbly, I was hoping that I'd find one of their signature sparkling wines at the Gloria Ferrer table, but not this time!  (As you may know, Pinot Noir is one of the red grapes often used in making Champagne, and many US sparkling producers who make wines in the methode champenoise style use it to great success as well.)  However, I was very interested to try some of their varietal Pinots.

2008 Gloria Ferrer Pinot Noir Etesian: Styled for by-the-glass consumption, very earthy, light yet solid. ~$16

*2010 Gloria Ferrer Pinot Noir Carneros: Lots of floral perfume, little bit of earth, tasty in the mouth, nice balance, not too big. ~$20

A colleague insisted I go by the Hilliard Bruce Winery table.  Speaking with winemaker John Hilliard, I was impressed by his dedication to making his winery sustainable.  He mentioned that after transitioning from an Organic production to Certified Sustainable, he has actually reduced his emission numbers, and passionately stated, "Greenhouse gases are the biggest threat to mankind." (He was also a bit of a rebel, pouring a Chardonnay at a Pinot Noir event!)  But it was a great visit:

*2011 Hilliard Bruce Chardonnay Santa Rita Hills: Incredible nose, mountain florals, lemon curd, green apple, wow, very very crisp, low oak, pretty atypical Chard. ~$45

*2010 Hilliard Bruce Sun Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills: Blackberry stem and florals on the nose, lots of raspberry, smooth, elegant and rich but not overpowering. ~$55

Another well-respected winery is Landmark Vineyards, located in Sonoma.  They also have a wonderful Chardonnay and make some wines with Rhône varietals, but their Burgundian-style Pinots are standouts.  The cursive script on the label speaks to the bibliophile in me - I feel like these wines are about to tell me a story.

2012 Landmark Pinot Noir Overlook: Interesting lavender nose, violets too.  Tangy and rich, black fruits and spice.  ~$26

2011 Landmark Pinot Noir Grand Detour: Robust nose, berries and cola.  Lots of acidity.  Little unbalanced finish but lengthy with great acidity - needs food! ~$35

*2011 Landmark Pinot Noir Solomon Hills: Small production - 150 cases.  Noticeable earthy terroir, dense flavors, fruit, floral, cinnamon/clove, but still very very light and elegant.  Mmmm. ~$55

All in all, the variety and quality of PNs coming from California remain pretty consistent.  I find you do have to search around at a higher price point to really get good quality (many sub-$20 CA Pinots are one-dimensional, which is why the Buena Vista Sonoma was a nice surprise.) But if you're ready to browse around at that level, you will certainly find many exciting wines that definitely support Miles' ardor!


Friday, January 24, 2014


Sunset view of Lisbon from the Castelo São Jorge.
In December I took a lovely little trip to Portugal.  I had found an amazing deal for a hotel in Lisbon for a week, though that meant I couldn't hop around to all of the incredible wine regions like the Douro valley, Tejo, Alentejo, Bairrada and Dão, Vinho Verde... well, you get the picture: lots of noteworthy areas to visit in that country!

My home base would be the beautiful city of Lisbon, however, I wasn't flying all the way across an ocean to just walk around and look at pretty buildings (I am a professional Wineau after all) so I figured I'd journey to parts of the nearby Lisboa and Setúbal wine regions, and see what I could find.

Palace of Pena, Sintra
First up, Colares.  Any traveler to Lisbon definitely ought to plan for a day trip northwest to the town of Sintra there; easily accessible by train, this little village is home to a number of fascinating attractions and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  After stopping in at the unbelievable Palace of Pena, I grabbed a taxi for a short gorgeous drive through the trees and hills to the Adega Regional de Colares.  (It is not common for the Adega to receive drop-in visitors, although tours and tastings for larger groups can be arranged in advance.) 

Colares is at the westernmost tip of continental Europe and is therefore subject to a strong Atlantic influence, and the region is primarily known for the unusual Ramisco (rem-ISH-koo) grape which produces very highly-tannic reds.  It grows well on a 500m strip of sandy soil near the water, and was never attacked by Phylloxera, the root louse that devastated European vineyards in the late 1800s.  Because of that, neighboring wineries at the time started saying their wines came from unblemished Colares, and the Adega co-operative was formed to protect the region's reputation.

Historic quotes about Ramisco on the wall above aging barrels.

Ramisco can be a tough sell, as it is not really grown anywhere else (so not many people have even heard of it,) and its inherent structure can make less-quality offerings overly tannic and astringent.  But those who love Ramisco often refer to it as the "Bordeaux of Portugal" and when finessed, it can be unusual and lovely.

For white grapes, Colares winemakers focus on Malvasia, which is a white grape found throughout the Mediterranean.  However, this one is "its own type," as winemaker Francisco Homem de Figueiredo said; giving it distinction from the other Malvasias out there beyond where they're grown and how they are cultivated.

New and Old style Crush/Destemmers
During my visit, I was treated to a lovely tour and tasting with Francisco.  It was a blend of old and new at the winery; rows of stone lagares where workers would tread on the grapes back in the day - located right next to a gleaming steel modern crusher/destemmer.  I was particularly intrigued by a large wooden anfora fermenting vessel (they are usually clay) which was able to pump juice over the cap of solids naturally without human muscle or electricity. 

Classic stone lagares.
Soon it was time to taste!  We began with the 2010 Malvasia which was grown on sandy soil, 90% Malvaisa and 10% other grapes like Arinto that were part of a field blend (basically when random vines grow haphazardly and no one is really sure exactly what is where!)  It had a light gold color with a nose of grassy herbs and something beautifully pungent I like to call 'dirty sock'.  It was quite dry but very tasty, with lemon tartness and a looooooong finish.  A 500ml bottle retails about €10-11, older vintages retail in the US for $30-40.

Late 19th C aging building.
Next we sampled the 2012 Chão Rijo Branco, mostly Malvasia with Fernão Pires, Arinto and Jampal, grown on more inland clay soil.  This was a pale greenish gold, with lemon/lime fruit on the nose.  It was a little zesty, light and fruity, with good bright acidity.  Very quaffable with a medium long length, simple but good.  €3,50-3,60 (2011 US $13).

To the reds!  The 2001 Ramisco was a light garnet color, with a very dusty/musty nose of dried cherries.  It was fairly light with an "interesting ride:" forward fruit, then tannins came through, then the fruit rose to prominence again.  It was high in acid and had very grippy tannins.  Francisco thought this was almost there, "Fifteen to twenty years after the harvest is when it has its best expression." €13-14 (some US vintages around $40.)

I really loved the 2006 Ramisco.  It was a medium garnet color, with an intriguing nose of iodine and cranberry.  There were herb and floral notes as well, and it showed more fruit expression, with Asian spice and pepper on the finish.  Really lovely.  €10-10,50 (some US vintages around $40.)

Finally, the 2011 Chão Rijo Tinto, which was 80% Castelão and 20% Tinta Roriz.  It was a medium ruby color with a berry salad nose, bright acid in the mouth with lots of fruit and very soft tannins on the finish.  At about €3,50 it was an incredible value!  (US 2009 & 2010 ~ $16.)

Adega Regional de Colares wines ready for sale.

After my tasting, I thanked Francisco, who gave me one more wine as a gift - a 2007 Blend of Arinto and Malvasia commemorative bottling (which I served at my New Year's Eve dinner party alongside a portobello risotto recipe from Lisbon's wonderful Cantinho do Avillez restaurant.  It was gorgeous!)

Palacio Nacional, Sintra
After leaving the Adega Regional de Colares, I wandered around looking for a way back to Sintra and finally used my rudimentary Portuguese in a coffee shop where they called a taxi for me and I felt wonderfully immersed in a non-touristy slice of life!  Back in Sintra, I marveled at the Palacio Nacional and had a lovely lunch at restaurant Tulhas.

All in all, it was a perfect day.  And I had another wine trip coming up the next morning... so stay tuned.