Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Wines of Vintae

Vintae is a maker and marketer of wines from across Spain, including the masterfully presented Projecto Garnachas (Grenache Project) wines.  A four pack of samples from their portfolio - two reds, two whites - landed in the tasting lab here for consideration recently, and which came with some consternation.

For readers who haven't seen my lamentation of The Spanish Bludgeoning, the overwhelming majority of Spanish reds I've tasted in the last five years have suffered from harsh oak over-treatment.  This has left me skeptical of Spanish wines, which, absent this unnecessary interference, can reach extraordinary heights of quality and experience at reasonable prices.  Nevertheless, remaining open-minded is the key to discovery, as these wines demonstrate.

The two garnachas, whose labels are as emotionally evocative as their names, hail from different regions; Moncayo and Aragon. Similarly, the whites - both a merciful 12.5% ABV - are from distant of northern Spain; Rioja (yes, white wine is made there) and Rias Baixas.  All are reasonably priced and bring a fresh take to well-established traditions.  Keep your eyes open for these wines, especially the whites.

2015 Projecto Garnachas de España Salvaje de Moncayo $12
My (limited) experience with grenache from Moncayo had me expecting an inky, concentrated  fruit
bomb. And then there's the name: Salvaje, which is Spanish for savage. To my surprise, this sample is neither intense or ferocious. Just look at the luminescence in the photo. Blessed by an indelible suppleness, this medium weight red exudes honesty. There's nothing encumbering the fruit at all and, though on the simple end of the spectrum, it is all the easier to appreciate for it. And at this price, you'd be silly not to stock up.   

2015 Projecto Garnachas de España La Garnacha Olvidada de Aragon $17  Like it's sibling, this is a restrained example. But that's not to say it's without personality. Though the density is medium weight, and the color similarly in step, the texture is decidedly dustier, grittier, even. This lends the wine a mystery that is only echoed by its name. Olvidada is Spanish for forgotten. The lingering finish is strung along by tannic energy that is more subtle than gregarious.  

2016 Bodgea Classica Hacienda Lopez de Haro Rioja $10
Steely and clean, the modest alcohol (12.5%) helps make for a reserved delivery of fruit character. The mid palate is also moderate weight and framed by clearly defined acidity. The profile makes it a perfect counterpart to summertime fare.   

2016 Atlantis Rias Baixas Albariño $16
Bright with aromas of white flowers and morning coastal breeze. Textbook Albariño: fresh, zippy, and full of come-back-for-more acidity. The slight bite on the finish blows off after a few minutes leaving a well rounded briney, mineral-infused linger. Should play well on either the porch or dinner table.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Why Is My Wine Yelling At Me?

This Chateau Ste. Michelle chardonnay is yelling at me. And it's not alone. Lately a lot of wines have been screaming from the glass like a drunken frat boy belting out hip hop at 3:00AM. Okay, so the analogy might be flawed, but the sensation of drinking certain wines - almost exclusively domestic - has elicited more wincing than pleasure. Whether the result of a warming planet or a deliberate catering to American, Twinkie-loving palates, wines' alcohol levels, flavor intensities, and manipulation have increased to a roar.



It's not a relaxing-glass-of-wine experience. 

But is that completely fair?  It could be that these wines are no different than they've ever been.  Maybe I'm the one changing.  Perhaps I'm growing cranky and frail as I age, or my palate is just exhausted after years of drinking. Best guess is that, like most root causes in life, the answer likely lies in a confluence of these contributors.  But, still.  It can't just be me. 

Bolstering this theory, a retailer recently made an interesting remark to me about oak.  She said that alcohol levels and oak treatment tend to rise in unison because winemakers use oak to mask the alcohol, resulting in these dizzying, powerful sugar/alcohol/oak bombs.  Here's how that works: 

As grapes grow and gain exposure to higher temperatures, the sugar levels increase.  But that doesn't necessarily mean that they are ripening faster.  Phenolic ripening in particular, happens as the fruit matures somewhat independent of sugars.  So, by the time harvest rolls around (which is dictated by phenolic ripeness) sugar levels can be through the roof.  More sugar = more alcohol.  And, guess what, alcohol does not taste good, which forces winemakers to compensate - or obfuscate - layering vanillin flavors of oak to distract from ethanol's heat.  And all that layering makes for a yeller. 

There are some alternative techniques some growers and vintners use to avoid this loudness, but at the end of the day, you can't change the weather.  But you can change what you drink.  Which is what I've been doing.

Regular readers may recall the various virtues I've extolled of Sudtirolean wines made in the highlands of northeastern Italy.  Vineyards at higher altitudes enjoy more sunshine (great for phenols) while high temperatures tend to remain more moderate.  As a bonus, these locales also enjoy greater diurnal swings, or temperature variations between daytime highs and nighttime lows.  This boosts those delicious complex acids I've grown so fond of.  Many of the wines coming from this and other similar regions boast terrific flavor and complexity while remaining lower in girth, sugars, and alcohol. 

My current favorite example of this is pretty much any schaiva vernatsch from Alto Adige.  Usually clocking in at 12.5%, these wines are several shades paler than your typical pinot noir, but pack an exciting array of flavors and high-toned sensations thanks to those gorgeous, delicate acids.  And so undersung are these wines that they remain a relative bargain (<$15).  Schiavas are not alone, either.  Reds from Val d'Aosta, Alsatian wines, and even some Spanish whites are easygoing in this regard. 

But the West Coast? It's where look to for power, intensity, and hit-you-over-the-head obviousness.  Which is fine on occasion, but this aging body can't handle being yelled at every day.  Thank goodness the world is a big place.  Wine comes from everywhere.  And, occasionally, it's still fun to walk down the street singing Run DMC.


Friday, June 16, 2017

Why Is My Wine Yelling At Me?

This Chateau Ste. Michelle chardonnay is yelling at me.  And it's not alone.  Lately a lot of wines have been screaming from the glass like a drunken frat boy belting out hip hop at 3:00AM.  Okay, so the analogy might be flawed, but the sensation of drinking certain wines - almost exclusively domestic - has elicited more wincing than pleasure. Whether the result of a warming planet or a deliberate catering to American, Twinkie-loving palates, wines' alcohol levels, flavor intensities, and manipulation have increased to a roar.

It's not a relaxing-glass-of-wine experience.

But is that completely fair?  It could be that these wines are no different than they've ever been.  Maybe I'm the one changing.  Perhaps I'm growing cranky and frail as I age, or my palate is just exhausted after years of drinking. Best guess is that, like most root causes in life, the answer likely lies in a confluence of these contributors.  But, still.  It can't just be me.

Bolstering this theory, a retailer recently made an interesting remark to me about oak.  She said that alcohol levels and oak treatment tend to rise in unison because winemakers use oak to mask the alcohol, resulting in these dizzying, powerful sugar/alcohol/oak bombs.  Here's how that works:

As grapes grow and gain exposure to higher temperatures, the sugar levels increase.  But that doesn't necessarily mean that they are ripening faster.  Phenolic ripening in particular, happens as the fruit matures somewhat independent of sugars.  So, by the time harvest rolls around (which is dictated by phenolic ripeness) sugar levels can be through the roof.  More sugar = more alcohol.  And, guess what, alcohol does not taste good, which forces winemakers to compensate - or obfuscate - layering vanillin flavors of oak to distract from ethanol's heat.  And all that layering makes for a yeller.

There are some alternative techniques some growers and vintners use to avoid this loudness, but at the end of the day, you can't change the weather.  But you can change what you drink.  Which is what I've been doing.

Lovely, full-flavored (but gentle) wine
Regular readers may recall the various virtues I've extolled of Sudtirolean wines made in the highlands of northeastern Italy.  Vineyards at higher altitudes enjoy more sunshine (great for phenols) while high temperatures tend to remain more moderate.  As a bonus, these locales also enjoy greater diurnal swings, or temperature variations between daytime highs and nighttime lows.  This boosts those delicious complex acids I've grown so fond of.  Many of the wines coming from this and other similar regions boast terrific flavor and complexity while remaining lower in girth, sugars, and alcohol.

My current favorite example of this is pretty much any schaiva vernatsch from Alto Adige.  Usually clocking in at 12.5%, these wines are several shades paler than your typical pinot noir, but pack an exciting array of flavors and high-toned sensations thanks to those gorgeous, delicate acids.  And so undersung are these wines that they remain a relative bargain (<$15).  Schiavas are not alone, either.  Reds from Val d'Aosta, Alsatian wines, and even some Spanish whites are easygoing in this regard.

But the West Coast? It's where look to for power, intensity, and hit-you-over-the-head obviousness.  Which is fine on occasion, but this aging body can't handle being yelled at every day.  Thank goodness the world is a big place.  Wine comes from everywhere.  And, occasionally, it's still fun to walk down the street singing Run DMC.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Wine Of The Week

With warm temperatures stretching across the country this week, it's only appropriate to take on some porch quaffers.  And what a great way to start the season:

2016 Rombauer Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley $24 (Sample)
A new offering from one of Napa's stalwarts, this brilliantine white bursts from the glass with energy and vigor. Bottled in clear glass, it is a visual invitation to drinks on the porch. Made in a classic Northern California style (fresh cut grass, Granny Smith apple), it's fresh, clean as a whistle, and well-executed. Yum! Recommended.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Recycle Bin, Week of May 22

It has been a great week for nerdy wine drinking pleasure thanks to a lineup of European values. Dominated by Italy, but punctuated by a French all star, these highly recommended wines signal a strong preference toward the Old World these days. The underlying reasons why will have to wait for another, more comprehensive article, but in the meantime suffice it to say that Europe continues to bring its A game.

Working from left to right in the above photo:  

2014 Mazzi Valpolicella Classico Superiore 'Sanperetto' $19  
Valpolicellas range from simple drink-with-pizza bottlings to mind blowing ripassos that deliver amarone-like substance at a fraction of the price. But they all tend to fall within a fairly predictable flavor spectrum. This example, however, is an oddity of sorts. Funky in the way that natural wines are strange, this one is an exercise in juxtapositions. Very well made and unlike anything else I've had. Slender but flavorful, fruity but savory, sweet but alkaline, acidic but smooth. Above all it's aromatic and herbal. A bit of a sensory whirlwind.

2015 Domaine Cabirau Cotes du Roussillon $15  
The terrific example of why the 2015 vintage in France is not overhyped. Bright and exuberant, this savory, intense red is complex, and cerebral while still being accessible. Laser focused and energetic, the deep core yields to a grippy tannic finish.  The whole package has an allure that'll make you squeeze the bottle for every last drop.   

2013 Tenuta Regaleali Leone Bianco Sicily $10  
On a closeout discount down from $20, this saline-lined, medium bodied white is a reflection more of place than fruit. Works just fine on it's own, but is thought-provoking enough to make you wish for a plate of fresh sardines in olives and capers.  

2010 Domus Vitae Unus Solus IGT $15 
Without a doubt the strongest quality for the dollar I have had in a long time, this resolute and stately red is made in an international style that will turn heads. Thank Napa Valley Cabernet slightly throttled back, with a complement of uniquely Italian acidity, and at 75% off list price. After tasting this at a local restaurant, I found it at a wine shop and promptly cleared the shelf. 50% sangiovese, 25% cabernet, 25% merlot.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Parducci- Current Releases


At 85 years old, Parducci is Mendocino's longest running winery.  And, though ownership has changed hands from the Parducci family, the current owners seem intent on maintaining a tradition of producing reliable, middle-of-the-road wines at value prices.  In fact, you'll be hard-pressed to find many drinkable California wines at these prices anymore.  These samples showcase a region that doesn't get enough exposure, but is deserving of your exploration.


2014 Parducci Pinot Noir Small Lot Mendocino County $15
By far my favorite in this lineup, the pinot noir is blissfully absent the overextracted, cloying cola that typifies much of California's pinot these days. Bright and pleasant with a solid, but not overly-intrusive backbone, this is as good a pinot as you'll find for under $15.  Best of all it actually tastes like pinot noir! 

2014 Parducci Cabernet Sauvignon Small Lot Mendocino County $13
Lighter-bodied than expected, but that works to its benefit as this is much more of a European
style. Supple texture and mild density are framed by grippy acidity, leading to a dry, dry finish. Sound like Bordeaux? Yeah, it sort of tastes that way. Nothing terribly profound, but a respectable facsimile.  

2015 Parducci Chardonnay Small Lot Mendocino County $13
Full-bodied and full-flavored with plenty of warming toasted oak and relaxed, plump fruit. Enough structure to hold it together with nary a sharp edge in sight.   

Monday, May 1, 2017

Wine Of The Week = Wine Of The Year?

What makes this wine so impossibly entrancing isn't its atypical profile or its impeccably precise delivery.  Practically crackling in the glass, its energy is what makes it undeniably compelling.  Executed in a style similar to top quality Burgundies but at a fraction of the price, this South African gem was completely unexpected.  Available from several online retailers.


2016 Domaine De Westhoff Chardonnay Limestone Hill South Africa $15
Fresh, young, exuberant, lively, fresh, energetic, brilliant, and vigorous.  Magnificent.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Mercer Estates: Current Releases

In August of 2011 I sat down with Rob Mercer and tasted through the releases that were hitting the market at that time.  Re-reading my notes from that session made me laugh - their marketing guy at the time later emailed me saying that Rob's head had gotten so big he was having a hard time making it through doorways at the office.  But what's remarkable is how similar my impressions are seven vintages later. 

I remain as impressed today as I was back then.  There's also this: in a market inflated by self importance (with pricing to match), Mercer's wines have been fairly steady in their prices, making them even more of a bargain than ever.  If you're looking for a risk free, rock solid brand to seek out  (particularly with the reds), this producer is a no-brainer.  The cabernet gets my strongest recommendation.

NOTE: Prices below are SRP.  There's a good chance you'll find them for less in your market.

2015 Sauvignon Blanc Horse Heaven Hills $15
When you think of the Columbia River Valley, this is perhaps one of the last grape varieties you would think of, but I guess in having it in your portfolio is checking a box of sorts. Anyway, this steely, super light wine gleams in the glass, haloed by a thin green tinted rim. On the palate it is medium bodied and concise with a nice lip-smacking crack of acidity on the finish that suggests compatibility with lighter fare. Not terribly distinctive, but well made.

2015 Chardonnay Horse Heaven Hills $17
Full-bodied, yet clean and with an oak regimen that complements, rather than overwhelms, the fruit. Very enjoyable, particularly at this price point. Lovers of traditional California chardonnay will find a lot to enjoy here, minus what has become typical flab and excess residual sugar. 

2014 Red Blend Horse Heaven Hills $17
The lithe texture comes into focus quickly along with its sultry, voluptuous body. Round and beckoning with undertones of sweet oak and dried berry flavors, the come-hitherness of this crowd pleaser is obvious without being lascivious.  The term "red blend "has been a red herring for overextracted fruit cocktail wines lately, so I tend to avoid them. But I will reach for this one gladly next time there's BBQ to be had.

2014 Cabernet Horse Heaven Hills $17
The first vantage of this wine I tasted was from 2007. At the time I marveled at the quality it delivered at the price point. Several years later, while the packaging may have changed, the experience has not (nor the price!). In the wine world that is nothing short of miraculous. Just as I remembered it, this exuberant red delivers ripe fruit that, while being quite rich, still manages to be elegant. The framework is propped up by firm sweet vanilla oak that keeps you coming back again and again. A marvelous wine with mid term aging potential. Bravo!


Monday, April 24, 2017

Schiava: The Antidote

Dominating, dense wines of unxious extraction have become the norm these days. Certainly they have their place, though, for this aging palate, they are simply too instense as an everyday experience. Behold the antidote.

Schiava (aka vernatsch aka trollinger) is a grape that yields a red wine of uncommon clarity, both in terms of luminescence as well as flavor.  While five shades lighter than Burgundy, the bright fruit shines honestly, thanks in large part to the prominent, clean acidity framing the picture, and a mercifully modest alcohol level. 

Every single example of this wine I've had has been rewarding - and from the Alto Adige region of northern Italy.  That kind of consistency is remarkable. To boot, you'll find it for around $14 a bottle, and not more than $20. So little of it makes its way to the United States, but that matters not a bit. Find a bottle - any bottle will do - and treat yourself to the bracing relief of the antidote: Italian mountain wine.  

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Darn Good Cabernet

2013 Katherine Goldschmidt Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley $20
The Alexander Valley in Sonoma is an undersung source for quality cabernet that's generally a good value.  This bottling reminds me of why: deep, black cabernet fruit framed by chewy tannins make for a wine that tastes far more expensive than it is.  Full of all the things that made you fall in love with wine, but long for in most of what's available today.  A joy to drink.







Thursday, April 6, 2017

Merlot, Merlot: Markham And Why It Matters

Ah, merlot, you much-maligned grape.  Once on the tip of every suburban housewife's tongue, only to be taken down by the rantings of a fictional movie character.  The world can be a cruel place indeed.  But in the immortal words of Big Head Todd and the Monsters, "Rise and fall turn the wheel 'cause all life Is really just a circle."

When Sideways simultaneously catapulted pinot noir's popularity and sullied merlot's reputation, the long term impact seemed bleak.  It's taken much of the thirteen years since the movie's release, but things are coming full circle.  Today, most commonly available California point noirs are like the character who celebrated pinot's transcendentalism: overblown, raging, hot messes.  On the flip side, the intervening years have unceremoniously weeded most of the crappy merlot out of the market, increasing overall quality.

For some years now I've commented that merlot is a largely overlooked wine undeserving of such a long, bad rap.  But until that becomes common knowledge, it's a boon for the open-minded consumer.  Case in point is the sample of Markham merlot sent (along with a cake!) to commemorate Markham's 35th vintage of merlot.


2014 Markham Merlot Napa Valley $26
With enough tannic energy and proud fruit to satisfy even the most staunch of cabernet drinkers, this merlot proves a versatile, pleasing drink.  Characteristically Californian, but without being overbearing, the flavor profile in this wine is a pleasing combination of black, blue, and deep red fruits framed nicely by moderate toasted oak, and finishing long with superfine tannins. Would go well with anything from poultry to Moroccan cuisine.  A real value for a Napa bottling.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Smith-Madrone Current Releases

High above the valley floor west of St Helena sits the Spring Mountain District, one of Napa Valley's sixteen AVAs.  With steep hillside vineyards reaching altitudes upwards of 1500 feet, this is prime cab country.  And at the very end of Spring Mountain Road is Smith-Madrone.

Founded in 1971, Smith-Madrone winery was a pioneer in the practice of dry farming, still a very rare pursuit in California.  That they are able to crank out quality wines - not just cabernet, either - from this location and in this manner is impressive indeed.  Having been up there a couple of times before, a jaunt off the well-trodden route 29 is highly recommended.  Quiet and serene, Spring Mountain feels like the rest of Napa probably did in the seventies.

The three samples they sent are all made with precision and clarity.  Honesty of place shines through in them all.  Lovely wines.


2014 Smith-Madrone Riesling Spring Mountain District $30
Crystaline platinum blonde in the glass offering faint petrol and funk aromatics typical in some rieslings. This gives way to a light bodied and very clean palate.  Low viscosity, and quite dry, but not at all lacking in flavor or character.  The zippy finish has terrific acidic grip with citrus nuances and a nice mineral bump. All this while clocking in at under 13% ABV.  Very Alsatian in style.  Very enjoyable with or without food.

2014 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay Spring Mountain District $32
The few examples I've tasted of Napa Valley Chardonnay grown outside of Carneros have just substantiated why growers like Carneros for chard. Smith-Madrone's proves the notable exception. Its pale straw color and clean nose suggest a lean fleet-footedness.  But one sip disabuses the idea that this is anything less than full tilt archetypal California Chardonnay. Big and full of mouth-filling texture, this flavor monster manages to walk a fine line. Well-made without being overblown, it is awfully hard to put down despite its heft. 

2013 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain District $50
Very floral upon initial decanting. Inviting.  Tight, concentrated, and without an ounce of flab as a first impression.  Structured and finely spun tannins are center stage. Its formality softens considerably and yields to comforting cedar and vanilla-laced fruit that starts deep and dark, then evolves toward a more bright, vibrant energy. The perfume aspect persists throughout, singing in the company of food. On day two oak emerges in earnest, overshadowing the fruit. Though this wine will go some distance, impatient drinkers won't be disappointed, either.