Sunday, November 18, 2018

Thanksgiving 2018

Turkey Day is coming, people.  You're looking for wine recommendations, aren't you?  Well, you're in luck!  (The sappy gratitude piece will come later.)

Note that some of these wines may be tough to find on your favorite retailer's shelves, so I've added notes for on guidance for suitable substitutes.

Gobble gobble!

2016 Black Star Farms Arcturos Sauvignon Blanc Leelanau (Michigan) $17
Boy, I’d like to have this again! Is it a coincidence that such a versatile wine would arrive just a few weeks before Thanksgiving/the Ohio State-Michigan football game?! Either way, credit is due for what is an impressive, brilliant white full of exciting character, multi-dimensional fruit, and a gracious, dry finish. Drinks more like an enigmatic Alsatian or exuberant, floral Italian. Alas, it is from the old Mission Peninsula in Michigan. Darn good! Really.  (I think this is a sauv blanc, but it came as a sample with no front label.) Substitute: Any pinot blanc from Alsace.

2017 Chateau Grand Traverse Dry Riesling Old Mission Peninsula (Michigan) $13    
I really like this wine. A lot. Nothing showy here, just focused riesling that remains true to the variety while exhibiting skill in the cellar. The dry finish is polite and clean, and is followed by an enlivening little surprise kick at the end. Thanksgiving meals offer such a hodgepodge of different flavors requiring versatility for pairing, but if any wine has a chance at tickling all the right spots, this is it.  And a banging deal to boot! Substitute:Washington state dry riesling.

2017 Left Coast Cellars Chardonnay Truffle Hill Willamette Valley $24
Lightly-hued in the glass, but that’s where the subtleties end. This concentrated white strikes a deft balance of power and precision. It’s all here - intense chardonnay flavor, creaminess, even bright acidity - without being overblown or distorted. Can hold its own against Northern California chards a twice the price.  Substitute: Shea Wine Cellars chard.

2015 Beronia Crianza $14
Textbook Rioja. A clean, well-made crianza offering balanced proportions of honest tempranillo character, broad-framed structure, and food-friendly acidity. Old school style and thankfully devoid of the heavy-handed oak regimen plaguing so many Riojas. Could go some years in the bottle, too. Darn good, especially for the money. Nice.  Substitute: Ask your retailer for a fresh, uncomplicated Spanish red fermented in tank (not oak.)

2013 Beronia Rioja Reserva $20
2010 was the first time I had this one and it was in Barcelona. The concierge at our hotel recommended a place on our last night where we could get a decent paella. With our squirmy 18 -month-old in tow, we piled into a cab for what turned out to be a surreal journey. The nondescript façade where the taxi deposited us gave no hint that the maître d’ would be a stiff, mustachioed, tuxedo-clad Spaniard. Completely unprepared for the opulent surroundings, we sat down and began to order/plea for toddler-friendly food ASAP. The people watching was amazing. Among the beautiful clientele: titans of industry, politicians, actors, and even the FC Barcelona soccer player who scored the winning goal that night. It remains the most brief and expensive meal I’ve ever paid for, but the bottle of Beronia Riserva smoothed over a lot of the awkwardness of the evening. Substitute:Go to Barcelona without your toddler.

Monday, November 12, 2018

I'll Buy This Again

My chief complaint of domestic whites these days is over-saturation.  This applies as equally to flavor intensity and residual sugar as it does to oak regimens.  So, it was a pleasant surprise to discover this PG, particularly at such an attractive price point.

2016 Chateau Ste Michelle Pinot Gris Columbus Valley $9
Full-flavored and crisp with round fruit and a clean, dry finish, this is a wonderful alternative to overbearing chardonnays and wince-inducing sauvignon blancs currently cluttering shelves.  Enjoy as a pre-dinner sipper or as a versatile companion to many cuisines.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Elegance From The Other Down Under

2014 Ventisquero Grey Carmenere Trinidad Vineyard Maipo Valley $20
Green vegetable characteristics tend to be unwelcome flavors in red wine to the domestic US palate. We have grown so accustomed to soft, unctuous flavors that anything straying outside the norm seems like an aberration. I’ve noticed this in my own response to many South Americans reds. This carmenere is an exception. Everything appears to be in place in this refined, poised red that is neither unctuous nor rich, but undeniably alluring in a savory way. On top of being a tremendous value, my suspicion is that it is also ageworthy. Definitely keep an eye out for this one. Terrific.

2017 Ventisquero Grey 'Glacier' (GCM) Apalta Vineyard Colchagua Valley $20 
Clean, precise, and balanced. Medium-bodied fruit framed by enough acidity to make this food-friendly. Just a whisper of oak treatment adds to its honesty. Grenache, carinena, and mataro (mourvedre).

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Villa Maria: New Zealand Surprises

Villa Maria is one of those ubiquitous labels that you easily recognize, but maybe haven't actually tried.  The sixer of samples that arrived a couple of weeks ago of course contained their workhorse sauv blanc, but there were some surprises in there, too.  Most notable were the two Taylor's Pass bottlings, which are decidedly more upscale than the Marlborough line.  The bubbly sauv blanc was also a first for me; something of a novelty, but one that could easily become dangerous in warm weather sessions.

Following are reviews of my favorites from the bunch - keep an eye out for these.

2017 Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc Bubbly New Zealand $15
Carbonated sauvignon blanc with all the attendant Kiwi character.  A little shocking at first (bubbles and sauv blanc seem like strange bedfellows), but like grandma used to say, "It's only kinky the first time!" Could be habit forming.

2017 Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough $14
Zing, zip, bop, boo, bang! Energy and assertiveness drive taut fruit and acidity in this value porch quaffer. At the same time, there’s no reason why this couldn’t walk down the aisle with a hearty pasta with scallops and shrimp. This is their workhorse sauv blanc that definitely qualifies as a crowd-pleaser BBQ wine.

2017 Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc Taylor's Pass Vineyard Marlborough $26
A substantial step up in refinement and poise from the regular Sauvignon Blanc and by far my favorite in this lineup. While still honoring the region’s stylistic traits, this bottle is not out to be showy or prove anything. Instead, it confidently expresses elegance and dynamite fruit character in a package that is both inviting and invigorating.

2017 Villa Maria Pinot Noir Taylor's Pass Vineyard Marlborough $42
Restrained, but only at first. Much like it’s vineyard sibling, it’s not out to prove anything, yet still has plenty of stuffing. While the fruit is balanced, round, and beautiful, and the acidity providing framing both structural and delicate, it’s the texture that beguiles. Like warm bath water at the perfect temperature, the supple aspect in the mouth is seductive. Hi tone but airy spices on the periphery add to the complexity in and unobtrusive way. Bravo!

Friday, September 28, 2018

Turning Point? Probably Not, But That's Okay

Back labels are like political ads - they usually just tell you what they think you want to hear.  I've come to expect the silly, borderline vulgar product of writing rooms that also do romance novels. Mass market appeal labels these day read something like,
"We caress each grape into surrendering its deepest sensuality.  The result is a luxurious wine evoking layers of rich chocolate, cedar spice, and Victoria's Secret lingerie."
But this inviting bottle was stacked on an end cap at Whole Foods. The salmon in my basket needed something to swim in, so, what the hell.  Besides, in stark contrast to the above, the back label reads, 
"By hand harvesting at relatively low brix and minimal use of new oak, we seek to produce elegant, balanced wines that convey the soul of each site."
Low brix? Minimal oak? Balance?  Where do these people think they are?  France or something?

Presqu'ile Winery is in the northern reaches of Santa Barbara county.  Like most wineries around there, their pinor noirs are on the pricey side.  But at $21, this 2016 Presqu'ile Winery Pinot Noir Santa Barbara County seems to be trying to draw drinkers into their higher end stuff. It’s a pinot that actually tastes like pinot. It's well made with respectable acidity and enough fruit to stand up to grilled fish.  It’s also under 14% abv.  
Is it a sign of a turning point?  I highly doubt it.  And that's okay because there's more of it out there for those of us who don't need a Danielle Steele wine.


Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Murrieta's Well: Upping Up Their Game

Nestled in the Livermore Valley (southeast of Oakland and northeast of San Jose), Murrieta’s Well has been around for some time, and it’s clear from these bottlings that they have been working on upping their game.  Sourced from sustainably-farmed estate vineyards that have been online for 130 years, these wines show more than heritage - a competent hand in the cellar.  As winemaker Robbie Meyer said of his approach during virtual tasting recently, "Improve, improve, improve."

It shows.

Sometimes reviewing wine samples is not that much fun. Like any other product, there is a lot of mediocre wine out there and finding something nice to say about some of the stuff that hits my doorstep can be a real struggle. Not so here. These were fun to drink and examine.  Savvy drinkers will be rewarded by seeking these out.

2016 Murrieta's Well White Blend 'The Whip' Livermore Valley $26
A lot of players contributing to this bright, taut white blend. Sauvignon blanc provides energy and brilliance, while semillon adds delineation, shape, and acidity. Chardonnay (seemingly an oddball in this blend) amplifies the body, and two other spice rack grapes - orange muscat and viognier - add floral sophistication and subtle fruit character. Complex and evolving as you drink it, yet refreshing and easy to like.  Will please casual quaffers and wine nerds alike.

2017 Murrieta's Well Dry Rose Livermore Valley $30
Made from a curious blend of Rhone varieties - grenache, counoise, and mourvèdre - this clean, spirited refresher packs seriously energetic acidity and finishes dry and clean. Straightforward in a good way.

2016 Murrieta's Well Merlot Livermore Valley 'Small Lot' $46
Deep, elegant opacity in the glass. Gregarious aromas with prominent black fruit and toasted cedar spice. Impossibly seamless texture despite fine grained tannins. Terrifically balanced. Marvelous structure supporting big, sophisticated fruit bracketed by tense vigor. Anyone who thinks merlot is less serious or capable than Cabernet needs to sit down with a bottle of this.  Delicious and expensive tasting.

2016 Murrieta's Well Red Blend Livermore Valley 'The Spur' $35
A classic Bordeaux blend, this dense, rich wine is framed in proud oak and cloaked in velvet.  Each grape brings its A game to the table.  Appealing as it is in its youth, there's a promise that this claret will blossom in a year or few as adolescence emerges into grace.  In the meantime, enjoy this rich fox with any-damn-thing you like.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Pinot Noir In The New Millenium: Oregon Is The New California

Once upon a more innocent time, Oregon vintners fancied themselves descendants of the Burgundians, making cool climate pinot noir that strived to be lean, nuanced, and acidic.  Chardonnay was similarly styled, though the better money was in pinot - especially after Sideways.  On a business trip to Portland around Y2K, I stole a half day to check out the Willamette Valley.  Tucked in between intermittent car dealerships and stretches of dusty hills were tasting rooms and wineries unconvincingly proclaiming those Burgundian roots.

On that same visit, I asked a bartender at a local wine bar what value-priced pinot noir he suggest I try.  Whatever it was left me wanting, but when he told me that it was $67 a bottle, I laughed out loud and promptly exited the building.  There was a pious feel to the place, the wines were nothing special, and the prices were every bit as jaw-dropping as Napa - a strange combination for a place desperately trying to get out of California's shadow.

Meanwhile, California pinot was sort of a rebel's folly.  Not much of it was made, except in Santa Barbara county and the Santa Lucia Highlands, places that were (and to some degree still are) backwater hickvilles.  Pinot was hard to farm, difficult to market, and, itself living in the shadow of merlot.  But it tasted unlike any other grape and a lot of what was being made was good.  I remember wondering not only how Oregon was going to compete with California, but why they'd want to. Then came Sideways.

I haven't been back to the Willamette Valley since that trip, so I can't comment on whether it's a more welcoming vibe, but in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, Oregon winegrowing and winemaking has become more mature and sophisticated, and it shows in the wines.  They're more expressive and appealing, satisfied with their own identity rather than borrowing from European cousins.  The region has earned its success, no longer playing second fiddle to France or California.  If you need proof, just check out how much shelf space is devoted to Oregon pinot vs other places at your local retailer.  It might not be equivalent, but it's probably close.

As the planet warms and tastes evolve, California pinot is now typified by concentrated flavors of candy, cola, and syrup.  Blech!  This is not good, nor is it unique to pinot noir, but at the same time, richness and potency have also moved north into Oregon.  Anymore, Oregon's pinots taste like yesteryear's Californians.  Which make this an interesting time.  At the extreme end of this sits the Wagner family's (Caymus, Belle Glos, and formerly Meiomi) Oregon venture, Elouan, which tastes like a slightly less artifical (but no less antiseptic) version of Meiomi. However, moderacy still exists.

Case in point is the 2014 Iris Pinot Noir Oregon ($20). Iris is over 100 miles south of the Willamette Valley in the foothills of the Oregon Coastal Range. Acidity? Check. Varietal character? Check. Balance? Check, check, and check.  This wine is the whole package without being showy, overt, or expensive. 

So, if Oregon is the new California, is California the new Australia?

Monday, August 6, 2018

The Foolhardiness Of Vintages

It was sometime around 1997 or so and a group of us were out for dinner.  St Supery cabernet was on the wine list for a reasonable sum.  "Is it the 94 or 95?", I asked the server.  After a long and justifiable pause/stare, she said that she would check.  Doubling down on embarrassing myself, I declined the 95 and instead ordered a beer, leaving the waitress and my dining companions aghast and bemused.  I like to tell myself that all of us have histories peppered with regrettable moments like this, but maybe mine more so.  Maybe my youth isn't quite behind me yet, either.

I was both a victim and champion of the idea that vintage matters supreme.  And it does.  Sort of.  Sometimes. Well, kind of.  Though less and less the netter I've gotten to know wine. Grapes, like all agricultural products, are susceptible to the vagaries of weather.  The amount and timing of precipitation, hours of sunlight, speed of winds, enduring temperatures and temperature swings all factor into the growing conditions and contribute greatly to what comes off the vine. But that's not the ending, it's just the point when mother nature hands-off the ball to man.  

Yet vintage charts, which score regions' harvests in terms of quality and longevity in the bottle remain a focal point for many collectors.  There is tremendous hazard in this.  Not only does it create a false sense of security, but over-valuates vintage as a driving factor in quality.  Few people (including those who use vintages charts as signposts) realize that many of them are created based on observations of just a couple of handfuls of bottles that have historically been among the best in a given growing area.  To infer any kind of baseline from such an elitist data sample is foolhardy - like saying the new Subarus are great after driving your uncle's Porsche.

This reliance also causes many to overlook an entire production year simply because the chart gave the year a lower number than the prior.  And that's a shame.  Sure, if the weather is absolute crap - hail storms during harvest, for example - there's little remedy to be had in the cellar. But in most years, the weather is neither perfect nor awful in a binary sense.  And in every year, crews have to team up and make the most of what nature hands off.  If experience and sound practice are employed, even so-so years can yield terrific wines.

Case in point is one of my most memorable wines in recent years, the 2013 Domaine de Velanges Macon-Prisse Les Clos.  Though more recent vintages (especially 2014) have received greater acclaim in the Maconnaise region, this wine outshines the 2014, 15, and 16 combined.  What's more is that the vintage ratings have helped propel the price of this wine from $14 to $20.  What I wouldn't do for case of the "difficult" 2013!

The point is, unless you're trying to decide between a 2014 and 2015 first growth Bordeaux to save for your daughter's wedding, skip studying the vintage charts and instead get to know producers.  It'll taste better in the long run.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Oh, Burg!

For many in the US, the term Chablis is synonymous with those honker boxes of Franzia your spinster aunt used to plow through with alarming enthusiasm.  But Chablis is actually a place - the place - where chardonnay first found fame.  Sitting at the north end of Burgundy, the area is cooler, producing wines of greater tension and energy.  There's little flab and plenty of acidity in these whites.  Like much of Burgundy, Chablis is often a label that carries a hefty price tag.  So, it's only at the fringes of the region where I can afford to experiment.

I recently took a flier a marked-down bottle of Chablis.  The producer was not familiar to me, and the quality of 2016 in Burgundy was also an unknown, but the reduced price ($20) seemed like a fun splurge while on vacation.  What the hell, right?

On reflection, it was perhaps the best $20 I've spent on wine in a long time.  Part of the reward was certainly in how unexpectedly delightful the wine was.  And, yes, it was balanced and brilliant and crackling with energy, but what was perhaps most appealing about this wine was the simple way in which it channeled its complexity.  There was no shouting coming from the glass, no show-boating or overt, caricature-like characteristics.  Instead, a poise and self-assured calmness that made it highly companionable. Suddenly that $20 seems like a screaming bargain.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Wine & Aging

This blog has been around for almost a decade. Looking into the archives, there are many favorable reviews for wines that today seem like overblown, uber-concentrated caricatures of themselves. No, this post isn't another lamentation on domestic wines and the Twinkiefication of the American palate.  And, yes, climate change has something to do with wines being different than they were 10 years ago, as do style trends. But if there's any truth to the saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then a decade of aging (my aging, that is, not wines') can't be discounted.

As my personal tastes gravitate away from largess and toward wines of distinctive acidity, I've wondered about the impact years of tasting wine have had on my preferences.  Or maybe it's not the continuous consumption of wine, but just the years of walking the earth. This musing lead me to find two pieces, one academic and the other journalistic. 

The first is a 1993 publication from the US National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health titled 'Changes in taste and flavor in aging'.  It's full of scientific jargon, as you'd expect from any academic paper, but the layman's gist of it is that people lose their ability to detect levels of salt, sweet, and sour as we age. No big surprise. The other is a 2012 article in the New York Times that goes on to suggest that this explains why, as we age, people compensate for the loss of sensation by seeking out foods higher in salt and sugar.  Anyone who has shared a meal with an octogenarian knows that there are no big revelations here, either.

But neither of these shed any light on why one would begin to wince at wines that have more sugar, more obviousness, or more of the flavors our deteriorating taste buds have trouble identifying.  Nor do they help explain why this aversion have been replaced by a proclivity for brilliance and luminescence.

Maybe I've turned into the crotchety old guy at the end of the block who yells at kids driving past, "Turn that music down!" Or the cardigan-wearing sophisticate who condescendingly rambles on about the loveliness of overlooked nuance.

There's got to be a better explanation for this.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

2 Wines I Didn't Want To Like, But Loved Instead

It's a well-worn trail.  Family-run winery expands beyond their original footprint.  Production increases, geography of sourcing leans towards cheaper grapes, and, regrettably, quality dips.  The expansion is usually preceded by some influx of new cash or outright acquisition.  Brands like William Hill, Edna Valley, and Chateau Souverain come to mind.  Whereas once their wines were risk-free no-brainers, now they are, well, not.

The first time I visited Hess was in the mid-late 90s.  They made a few highly regarded cabs from mostly Mt Veeder fruit, along with a few other mostly-overlooked siblings.  It was a novelty of a stop on the Napa Valley tour, what with its modern art collection in an ivy-covered gallery.  But I put my hands on as much of those bottles as I could afford back then.  Today, Hess is a growing multinational wine company with brands like MacPhail, Amalaya, and Artezin in its portfolio.  And the Hess brand itself has expanded well beyond its original Mt Veeder offering, as many larger wineries do, series levels ranging from specific vineyards to the more general California AVA.

The Hess Select series is at the latter end of the spectrum, but also includes bottlings from the slightly tighter Central Coast and North Coast appellations.  So, when a couple of Hess Select samples arrived, I wondered with a bit of skepticism if they hadn't followed that well-worn path.  Prepared not to like these as I was, I kept a mind as open as my mouth and plunged in.  And am I ever glad.

Would I prefer these wines be priced a few dollars lower? Sure. But that's because I'm a cheapskate.  And that shouldn’t stop anyone from feeling confident in reaching for them.

2015 Hess Select Cabernet Sauvignon North Coast $19
Though labeled as a North Coast AVA, this Cabernet is textbook Napa from a decade or two ago. That is to say, strong backbone, terrific structure, honest fruit, and all around drinking pleasure. The fact that it is available at the grocery store makes this all the more accessible. There are many evenings when I want to reach for a Northern California Cabernet, but so much of it has become overextracted syrup. Not so with this.  Solid and impressive.

2016 Hess Select Pinot Noir North Coast $20
I looked around for cameras to be sure I was not being punked after first tasting this wine.  (I actually did.)  This wine is undeniably California, but equally undeniable is its quality and character. Prominent acidity and high toned notes of burnt orange peel and crushed sun baked flowers flutter behind your eye. Yes, it’s got some body to it, but the balance and tension (yes, tension!) drink like heady coastal vineyard fruit at triple the price. Damn!

Monday, June 25, 2018

Smiles In A Bottle: Smith-Madrone Riesling

2015 Smith-Madrone Riesling Spring Mountain Napa Valley $32

The best rieslings I’ve ever had all share a juxtaposition in common - each of their qualities, when looked examined individually, appear incongruous and disjointed as a collection. Yet in the glass they mysteriously assemble into something irresistible and enjoyable. Such is the case with this bottling made of 100% dry-farmed riesling from Napa (and you thought they just grew cab and chard there!)

This Smith-Madrone is like a bracing dip into a refreshing pool. A steely, slightly funky nose speeds into an iridescent, Granny smith-aromatic palate framed by zingy, bright, electric fruit, and crisp energy.  The acidic vigor and clean finish all add up to smiles followed by refills. Blessedly modest (12.6%) alcohol and dry, dry, dry.  Fun to drink and really darn good.