Monday, July 25, 2016

Yay Sudtirol!

Sudtirolean wines are no strangers to this site.  Delivering equal parts value, consistency, and excitement, there's an involuntary "buy" reaction every time I see that capsule logo. Another installment of these come with strong recommendations for hot weather porch drinking.  For more, read here.)

2015 Kelerei Kaltern Cantina Pinot Grigio Alto Adige $17
Light, clean, and almost austere in the glass and nose. But all that changes at the first sip. Prominent honeysuckle framed by bracing minerality and delicate acidity unfold quickly. Delightfully balanced and with a clean finish, it's tough not to reach for the bottle and pour yourself another glass.  Again and again and again.

2015 Erste+Neue Pinot Bianco Weiss Burgunder $16.50
Crackling with crystaline energy. Pure, clean, and delicately honeyed. Acids are soft but enough to provide a hint of structure. Perhaps a little too easy to drink. Very satisfying on its own, but will complement summer fare quite well indeed

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Wine Of The Week

2012 Primus Red Blend Colchagua Valley Chile $9
What a sensational valued this is! A soft, round blend of satisfying rich, dark flavors. It's even got a touch of oak and some structure to hold it all together. If this were from California, it would cost $25. Don't look for earth-shattering complexity, but this value is worth buying by the case. Perfect for summertime barbecue fare. 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Wines Of Altitude

Before we get to each of these wines, a quick comment regarding where they are grown. If you look carefully in the picture above, you can see that they indicate that they all come from high-altitude Vineyards in the Salta (spanish for "jump") region. Well, that is an understatement.  The first Malbec reviewed below is from vineyards at 5900 feet above sea level.  Whaaa???? For comparison, the Val d,Aosta region of Italy is home to Europe's highest altitude vineyards which are shy of 4000 feet above sea level.

What changes the higher you go? As it turns out, quite a bit. The air gets thinner, the sunshine more plentiful, and days get longer. It also tends to be a drier and more austere environment all around. This means that, in addition to forcing the routes to go deeper for sustenance and creating more opportunity for phenolic development, it's also a less hospitable place for pests. These all translate into not so subtle differences in the wines. Read on for details. 

Another quick disclaimer: malbecs and torrontes have never been my favorites. In fact, I've deliberately steered clear of them because my experiences have been lackluster. These may change things, though.

2015 Colome Torrontes Valle Calchaqui $12
Seductive, high-energy aromatics of sweet honeysuckle over wet slate beckon. Very alluring. Light bodied and bracing on the attack, the soft, pretty fruit gets a bite of acidity to offset the nectar-like flavor and keep the finish clean. 

2015 Amalaya Torrontes Salta Argentina $12
A disco ball on Friday night. The addition of 15% riesling is a simple stroke of brilliance. Softening torrontes' bite while enhancing the blossoming aromatics, these unexpected bedfellows help elevate the package to another level. As an added bonus, the profile of the resulting wine makes it a companionable addition to a huge spectrum of cuisines - especially summer dishes. Great value. 

2015 Colome Malbec Estate Salta Argentina $25
Very deep in color and density in the glass. Mysterious looking. Aromatics channel a refined elegance with a preview of the mouth-coating tannins to come. (And do they ever.) Tight and potent, there's blue-green vegetal character at the edges and a finish that tempts. Delivers a lot without getting anywhere yet close to overblown or extracted . Those with patience to lay a few of these bottles down should be rewarded in 3-5 years. 

2015 Amalaya Malbec Salta Argentina $16
While I will confess to not being a big Malbec fan, all of my complaints for the way the wine is typically bottled don't apply to this one. Absent is the harsh, garish nature often present. Instead, this is a fresh, feminine red wine that bears a close resemblance to many from southern France. It's got tight fruit framed by proportional acidity, a combination that makes for terrific versatility, especially around summertime menus. Easy drinking and chewy tannins to boot. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Wine of the Week

2014 Pedres Cannonau di Sardegna "Sulitai" $11
Cannonau is vastly underrated.  Unfortunately, it's also not exactly plentiful.  That's beginning to change as consumers catch on to this delightful value red.  Made from grenache on the island of Sardinia, cannonau can take on many different faces, from Barbaresco-like acidity (Sella y Mosca) to smoky, seductive intensity (Nuraghe-Craboni), to simple, fun-drinking whimsy like the one below.  So far, I have yet to be disappointed by any of them.  Pedres makes a couple of different cannonaus, the less expensive of which is the Sulitai bottling.  Loaded with lip-smacking flavor, this is a terrific summertime wine that will go with anything from lemony pasta to grilled fish.  Stick it in the fridge for 20 minutes before pouring.  YUM.  Added bonus: cannonau is said to have triple the normal levels of life-extending polyphenols.  Who said wine can't be good for you?


Friday, June 17, 2016

Why Did I Feek Like Such Crap This Morning?

A few observations on wine, alcohol, and aging.
The two of us split a bottle of wine last night, so why did I feel like such crap this morning?

Though the process begins at birth and continues throughout life, the last few years of my own aging have manifested in a multitude of ways, some surprisingly pleasant and others less so. Two of those ways relate to wine: taste and how the body processes alcohol. Bitching about getting older is easy fodder for water cooler talk, especially when we feel the cold, hard slap of waning resilience. But that this might be an interesting topic to write about didn't occur to me until I made the connection between the changing contents of our wine cellar and these two aforementioned symptoms.

Five years ago, many, if not most, of the bottles I had put down to age for future special occasions were big, serious reds from Northern California. But on a recent trip downstairs for weekend provisions I only spotted a few left. What dominates now is almost exclusively European, with a strong bias towards Italy. Why this change? Value, certainly, but the rest of the story has more to do with the evolution of aversions rather than wallet-driven intention.

While acknowledging an abundance of ignorance on the complex science of taste, without question my personal preferences have begun a strong gravitational flow from power and heft toward finesse and ease - a journey that applies as much to whites as to reds. Though I still enjoy and respect the winemaking alchemy of a powerhouse vino that manages to keep all its bit in balance, if you strip away density and weight, most average wines are left insipid.  Filling that void is a hankering for artful acidity.

Articulating what that actually means is beyond my skill as a writer. As a proxy, however, I'll offer a few examples which do not require syrupy viscosity to deliver drinking delight:
  • Schiava Vernatsch, a lovely, lilting, and light-bodied red from the Alto Adige region that clocks in at 12.5% and can be had for as little as $12-16. 
  • Macon, the less expensive cousin to Burgundian big boys, is made of chardonnay, and prizes delicate honeysuckle and apricot flavors framed by lacy acids that tickle the tongue. Rarely are these subjected to oak regimens, which not only keeps the bulk in check, but makes them more affordable. You can find many options under $18 in this category. 
  • Finally, Bordeaux. Though we mostly hear murmurs about prodigious reds from chateaux with long histories, there is a vast price spectrum with infinite options coming from this region unified by a shared philosophy to channel place over fruit or winemaking.
With a correction in taste in process, we arrive at the subject of how the body processes alcohol differently as we age.

For the sake of social responsibility, I'll take a moment to state what should be obvious: the cerebral prefrontal cortex does not develop fully until the early to mid 20s. Overindulgence prior to this age has proved to stunt cognitive capacity. Once clear of this developmental stage of life, we reach what we believe to be a never-ending era of invincibility. Then, well, one day we wake up to that hard slap.  Our tolerance drops and we begin to suffer more acutely the effects of booze. That third glass never used to be a problem, but seems to really slow things down the morning after once you hit your mid 40s. Again, my science on this is light, but I imagine it's fairly straightforward: as our stamina diminishes in general, so does our ability to withstand punishing quantities of alcohol.  Quantities that in our thirties we could shrug off like a cold swim.

To complicate matters, this would be an incomplete story without a commentary on the glaring changes wine has gone through in just the last decade. Without question, alcohol levels have risen in step with sugar concentrations, resulting in candy-like beverages. You cannot have a conversation about metabolizing alcohol without recognizing the tremendous role this new world order chemical composition plays in the equation. Though the size of the average bottle remains at the standard 750 mL, what's inside that glass is far more potent and potentially damaging than what our parents generation drank. 

Throw all these variables together and the net result is fairly obvious, as we age we need to take better care of our bodies. Part of that is reducing intake and paying closer attention to what we are drinking. Not exactly glamorous, but neither is feeling like crap in the morning.  And if you happen to still be enjoying your thirties, well, laugh it up while you still can.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Wine Of The Week

2014 Vina Borgia Garnacha Campo de Borja $5-8
No, this is not a soul-stirring, life-affirming experience of a wine. It doesn't even have much in the way of structure or complexity. But whatever it may lack in highbrow qualities it more than makes up for in the value department. This tremendous deal delivers fresh, ripe fruit that is true to the variety. A simple but delicious table wine, this will satisfy many a thirst for a weeknight meal or a mid day nip. What's more is that you can now find this in a 3 liter box for $20. You don't need to be a quant jock to know what that translates to. Stick it in the fridge for 20 minutes before enjoying. 

Saturday, May 28, 2016

What To Drink On Memorial Day?

Like Thanksgiving and the 4th of July, Memorial Day is a uniquely American holiday.  Parades, back yard BBQs, and family reunions, we tend to think of this long weekend as the beginning of summer.  And sure feels like it across much of the country this year.

So, what to drink on Memorial Day?  It's a question I'm wresting with more than in years past. 

On Friday evening I trudged down to the basement with domestic wines on my mind (drinking
French or Argentine wine just wouldn't feel right.)  But as I surveyed my options, it hit me that what little US-produced wines are down there - a topic for another time - are wholly inappropriate for this weekend.

It's hot and humid in the Midwest. We'll be eating burgers, dogs, chicken, corn, potato salad, and other goodies done on the grill if we're lucky.  That means sweet sauces, condiments, and lots of napkins.  As it does in other seasons, the weather and the menu drive the wine choice.  Which leads to a bit of a challenge when using the criteria of a) only American wines, and b) crowd-pleasing (code for broadly appealing, but also less expensive.)

On the white side, chardonnay is the default, but they're just too rich and cloying for hot weather. Same goes for moscato, not that you'll find any of it in my hand.  So, we're left with the not-too-shabby sauvignon blanc.  Look for Geyser Peak.  At $10, they've remained true to making this wine with crisp, refreshing flavors of Grannysmith apples and fresh-cut grass. Perfect quaffing for garden gatherings.

On the red front, zin, once the go-to drink for BBQ, has become just too overblown.  Cab's too
serious (and expensive), pinot's too syrupy anymore, and many of the new, trendy blends are as overblown and gloppy as zin has become.  For the same reasons you don't want to drink and imperial IPA in the hot sun, you want to avoid these high brix/high ABV wines. What does that leave us?  Two options: syrah and merlot.  Syrah is too tricky to find consistently, so my #1 recommendation is a Columbia Valley merlot.  Snoqualmie makes one for $9 that is plump enough to stand up to grilled fare, and which novices and snobs alike will appreciate.

Whatever you're drinking, perhaps you'll find a moment of remembrance somewhere along the way for the generous men and women for whom this holiday was intended to honor.  Without them, so many of our freedoms would live only in our imagination.  Including the luxury of wine writing.

Happy Memorial Day.  Please have a safe and relaxing weekend.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Hourglass: Evolving

Hourglass wines are a familiar sight on these pages.  The 2014/15 wines received for sampling are the fourth vintage I've had the opportunity to taste.  These years trend from austerity in 2011, to muscled restraint in 2012, towards balanced richness in 2013, and finally approachable powerhouses in this lineup of 2014s.  Were you to graph the collectively trajectory of these wines (reds in particular), with vintage on the horizontal; and richness, intensity, and bodacity (is that a word?) on the vertical, the line might outline what Wayne and Garth referred to as a "Shwing!"
There's no parsing what the principal reason (climate, winemaking, other) is behind this, but there's no way it's accidental.  And good for them for deliberately steering the style back to eleven.  Sommeliers and wine nerds, set aside your puritanical tendencies for a minute.  These wines epitomize what put Napa on the map: balls.  And if your delicate sensibilities are offended, well, maybe you need to put your big kid pants on.

Following are some impressions from this batch.  Get out Your platinum cards, kiddos1
2015 Sauvignon Blanc $40
The nose has that throwback, fresh-cut-grass style that Northern California Sauvignon blancs used to be known for, with an added dash of stony minerality. The mouth is soft and round, and about as friendly as you could ask for. Acids are delicate, though present, and whatever alcohol is here is hidden well by easy-tempered, classic flavors. 

2014 Merlot $75
Inky and viscous in the glass, the aromatics practically leap at you from considerable distance. The attack introduces rich, black fruit and a (massive) broad-shouldered structure of equal parts tannic grip and toasted oak backbone (which it needs to balance the heady 15.2% octane.) Very friendly upfront and right along the firm, long finish.  Inviting and approachable from the cork's pull, it improves ever more with time decanted. A Merlot many Cabernets aspire to be. 

2014 Malbec $75
The nose on this soars with high reaching, heady frequencies...a harbinger of what's to come for the palate. Bathwater-like texture spreads the blue-green fruit evenly over the tongue and before you know it, every nook and cranny in your mouth is coated with powder-fine tannins, the echoes of which whisper suggestively for a good ten minutes. As for the fruit, it is medium bodied, but at full-throttle intensity and extraction. An enjoyable malbec that rings true to the variety and which will require substantial fare to be tamed.

2014 HG III $50
Prominent cedar dust aromatics lead into a warm, full palate. Again, as with the other reds in this lineup, this is one very approachable wine for being so young. Affable and versatile, this will work as easily wearing a tuxedo as with jeans.  Very pleasant, if a little simple in the company of these other power houses.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Gentleman Farmer of Wine Importing

John Bee is sitting in a booth at a Popeyes just off an interstate. There's a half caf/decaf on the table and not much else. He's come here to share his experiences as an importer and distributor of Italian wines. More specifically, John specializes (exclusively) in wines of the Piedmont region. The comical contrast between our surroundings and the subject matter of the conversation we had was not apparent, except in retrospect. (That's right, a Popeyes.)

Of medium height and build, his eyes move around, taking in the surroundings as he speaks. Calm and self-assured, he projects an orderly, disciplined aura, but there is an irreverence here, too. You see, John is something of a gentleman farmer of wine importing. What follows is a summary of our enjoyable visit.  If you've ever wondered what it takes to set up and run a wine import business, read on. 

Many people in the wine business can trace their involvement back to an epiphany moment that triggered their passion. For some, it was an incredible bottle. For others, a moment of crystallization while surrounded by vineyards. But, now in his sixties and with a long career in academia behind him, John has come to the wine game much later in life and by a very different on ramp.

With his wife who is of Italian heritage, John made several trips to northwestern Italy over the years. After a while, it became clear that this area was to be their second home. As he got to know the fabric of surrounding villages, it was almost inevitable that wine came in to focus. So, learning about the wines of the area through the people who farm and make them, John decided to make a hobby business out of bringing some of the Piedmont's bounty back to the American Midwest.

While explaining the process of getting an import and distribution business on its feet, John is quick to point out that this is not an economically-driven enterprise, but a luxury - a pursuit that puts him into contact with many terrific people and an abundance of extraordinary vinous discoveries. Without the economic pressures of putting food on the table and kids through college, he has been able to go about this business in a very different way. The results of that not only affords an uncommon retirement lifestyle, but have exposed a flyover country market to a (small) number of unique gems. 

Based outside Akron, Ohio, John is the John Bee & Famiglia Portfolio of Piedmont Wines. An honest-to-goodness one man show, John explains that he handles everything from making sales calls and deliveries to paperwork and unloading container trucks. But being able to do so on his terms takes the edge off what can often be a brutal business to exist in. 

Having heard countless tales of entrepreneurs in the beverage alcohol business mired in regulatory paperwork, one of my first questions was about the licensing barrier to entry. As John explains it, the process was surprisingly simple. The federal port registration for importing requires that the applicant demonstrate a willing supplier; someone who can attest that they will sell a foreign product into the US for distribution by the applicant. Easy enough. Once that is done, the application to become a distributor is state specific and rather straightforward. Neither permit required a great deal of money or effort. The most cumbersome regulatory aspect of the business is label registrations, which, thanks to government warnings and other ATF requirements, can sometimes feel like more work than it's worth.

Once you are authorized to bring wine into a market, you still have to go about finding customers to buy it, among other financial and logistical hurdles. Almost entirely hidden from public view is the very unglamorous tradition of selling wine to restauranteurs and retailers. "The Schlep", as John calls it, requires a lot of travel and waiting to see buyers whose demeanor is often somewhere between apathetic and disrespectful. He's done the math and, for him, this is an acceptable trade-off of having a lifestyle gig.
Shifting from the business towards his portfolio exposes just what a niche market John has created. Focused exclusively on autochthonous (awesome word) varieties from Piedmont, and even more narrowly on estate-bottled, family-run producers who embrace traditional methods, the universe narrows quickly both in terms of suppliers and potential customers.

"The primary purpose of each of these grapes has always been to make wine in the Piedmont.", he says. "My starting point is with grapes that are grown specific to this place....and if I see barriques in a producer's cellar, well, I just say, 'non me interessa'."  These statements are reinforced by the bottlings in his portfolio. Grapes such as nebbiolo, dolcetto, and barbera are synonymous with the region, but other varieties like favorita, cortese, and erbaluce rarely make it out. Together, these make the cornerstones of the list. 

After filtering for place and philosophy, John lets his taste guide him the rest of the way. By virtue of the limited production of many winemakers in Piedmont, those in John's book tend to be overlooked or disregarded by larger importers who need their producers to meet certain quotas. The small size of his suppliers allows for business to be done based on a foundation of trust and friendship, a romantic notion that is still practiced here. 

Asked if he was ever concerned that about risking a purchase based on his palate alone, he quipped that his impressions have been validated by his customers. And if what I've tried of his wines so far is any indication, his approach requires no further refinement.  To wit:

The 2011 Reverdito Nebbiolo "Simane" is a mouthful of elegance and a shocking value at $15. The soft and honest 2012 Gabutti Barbera "Boasso" also overdelivers at a very reasonable $16. As both importer and distributor, John is able to pass efficiencies on to the customer, making high caliber wines much more affordable (by a long shot) than comparable alternatives. What's more is his spotlighting of wines like Carema, Roero, and brachetto make accessible an entire category of wines previously thought of as "can't get that here." 

Be on the lookout for more on wines from his portfolio soon.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Deal Alert

2011 Garofoli Rosso Conero "Piancarda" $8
What??? $7.99 for this mountain-grown 100% Montepulciano? Yes indeed. The prior vintage if this wine has enjoyed plenty of much-deserved praise on these pages in years past. So, when I spotted this priced at $7.99, I figured there had to be something wrong with this vintage. Well, I figured incorrectly. While perhaps not as refined and poised as the 2010, this wine oozes likability. Deep red with an unapologetic density, it unwinds easily on the tongue with an appealing casualness. But it is also pretty in an effortless, devil-may-care way. Soft, round, and lush, it finishes with enough tannic grip to keep its structure intact. And at this price, you'd be a fool not to buy it by the case.  In the Columbus, Ohio market, you'll find it at Anderson's.  But hurry.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Restaurant Wine: No More Bottles

$70 worth of buyer's remorse
There's a $70 bottle of syrah sitting on the kitchen counter that you wouldn't have paid $20 for. It wasn't something a dinner guest brought, and it wasn't a silent auction prize from the PTO fundraiser.

I wish. 

Anniversary dinner out at a swank, hip ritrovo nearby and I figured a splurge on the wine would do the evening right. No stranger to Santa Barbara County Rhone varieties, I figured I was in familiar, safe territory ordering this bottle. But mistakes do happen. The wine was absent any overt flaws, but remained flat, unyielding, and obtuse.  Overall, uninspiring. 

Was it a challenging vintage? Was it properly stored? Did it need four hours to deliver the goods?  These are the excuses I've made five of the last five times I've ordered bottles at restaurants - and which underscore the risks of putting too many eggs in one basket.

Halfway through our first glass we cut bait and ordered what turned out to be smashing glass of Sonoma Coast pinot noir from a very highly-regarded producer.  It was everything the syrah wasn't.  And at $13 a glass for the pinot, I felt like a chump for having spent seventy bones on the bottle we were bringing home in a brown paper bag.

By the glass programs (BTG) have improved dramatically in recent years. Gone are the days of one house red and one house white, either of which might have been poured from a jug or box.  Today, diners can enjoy a wide range of quality choices without having to commit to an entire bottle.  Even more hospitable, many restaurants/bars are more than happy to provide samples of any wine they're pouring by the glass. This significantly reduces the risk of even ordering the wrong glass, let alone a mediocre bottle.

So, while fine dining establishments continue to differentiate themselves for their lengthy (and expensive) wine lists, I've come to look at bottles as a negative punctuation mark on dining out.  But there's no bitterness here, just cause for celebrating low risk options.  Looking ahead, the depth and imagination of a restaurant's BTG program will play a far greater role in determining my choice for where to spend dining out dollars. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

Recycle Bin, Weel of April 25

Happy spring time everybody!  It's an all-white Recycle Bin here this week as we head into the heart of porch-drinking season. (Apologies to everyone shoveling snow in the Rockies!) Cheers!

2014 Sterling Chardonnay Central Coast $9
Though reviewed before, a shout out to the little chardonnay that could in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due. This nine dollar (or less) wonder is available pretty much everywhere inexpensive wine is sold. Clean, robust, and universally likeable, it may not exude fitness, but it sure does pack a lot of enjoyment for the dollar. Broadly-appealing, so this is one to stock up on for when the neighbors stop by.

2014 Inama Soave Classico $15
This Soave is not at all dissimilar to others I've had recently: soft, round, and with a delicate creaminess that does not overshadow the middle weight fruit. Flavors prance like a ballerina through the palate in a refreshing ballet. Unlike many other Italian whites, the acidity in this white is so soft and subtle as to be completely unobtrusive.  Close to irresistible.

2014 Shannon Ridge Chardonnay Lake County $10
Textbook California chard with medium-generous fruit with a hint of tropicalia, and corresponding proportions of butter and oak.  If you're into this profile, it's a good value.  Give it up for Lake County!