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.]






Monday, March 10, 2014

HOT (LITERALLY) WINE DESTINATION: ARIZONA!

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.]