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.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Stinker Of The Week

Is it coincidence that I opened this bottle the same day as having read Bianca Bosker's brilliant op ed in the New York Times?  Probably, but every wincing sip I took of this wine made me rethink my agreeing with her piece. 

When Block Nine first came on the market some years ago, this bottling was a welcome addition to the line up.  Reasonably priced and reasonably well made are two unusual things to find in pinot noir anymore, let alone in the same one.  But times they have changed as reflected by this succinct review.

2015 Block Nine Pinot Noir California $15
Strongly reminiscent of Cherry Coca Cola spiked with inexpensive vodka.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Bordeaux Bargain Again

There only exist a handful of widely available wines that consistently stand up to some age in the bottle.  Bordeaux is one and it's always a treat to revisit these reds after they've had some time to mature.  It's even more fun when you can find one on the shelf that doesn't set you back a week's worth of groceries.

2012 Chateau d'Arveyres Bordeaux Superieur $11
Made of 100% merlot and five years old, this red might not be from a celebrated vintage, but it's got plenty of character and the fruit is holding up just fine. Dusty on the nose and with a slightly muted, graphite-lined palate, it is unmistakably Bordelaise.  Restrained and classy, not complex or flashy.  And at this price, it's a steal.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Wine of the Week

2015 Chateau Bassac Bordeaux $7
yes, you readFrom the lauded 2015 vintage comes this extraordinary surprise. Soft, supple, yet full-bodied, this easy drinking red will appeal to a broad range of palates.   Very food friendly and, thanks to moderate alcohol, friendly to the drinker as well. Tasted blind I guessed this to be between $20 and $25. Found it at a local retailer at this screaming bargain price. Stock up!

Monday, February 27, 2017

Walking The Grid: How Sommeliers Do It

It's eleven o'clock on a Sunday morning and the table has been set for 10; three Riedel glasses, water glass, coffee cup, pen and paper, and a shared dump bucket at each setting. We are in a private room at a very well-respected French restaurant to put our palates through the paces.

There's a peculiar set of juxtapositions in the atmosphere: the restaurant is empty and quiet aside from the assembled, and they're shyly shuffling around the lobby mumbling while the first flight is poured out of sight. The scene might give you the impression of a casual, after hours gathering - and the attire of most in attendance reflects that - but the demeanor is decidedly more subdued and formal. There is a ritualistic, respectful silence hanging in the air.  Church? Well, it is Sunday morning.

I'd been invited to observe/join a practice tasting for a group of candidate sommeliers.  They are here to practice blind tasting, something required for each of the certification-level tests administered by the Master Court of Sommeliers. Three whites, three reds, twenty-five intense minutes. The goal is to observe, analyze, describe, and identify the wines to determine the following:
  • what grape(s) they are comprised of
  • where (as specifically as possible) they were grown
  • what vintage the wine was made from
Depending upon the level, this portion of the test is either written (less difficult) or oral (exceedingly difficult).
Think you've got what it takes? Read on to the end for a transcript of an actual tasting from that morning.
In somm parlance, this analysis is referred to as "waking the grid". Deliberately dispassionate, blind tasting is a disciplined breakdown of what's in the glass. Not coincidentally similar to a detective's deductive appraisal, this duly-hyped parlor trick stands in stark contrast to every notion of romance we tend to associate with wine. Having stumbled through this contest over a decade ago, my personal preference is to evaluate wines for emotional impact rather than analyze their impersonal attributes.  No coincidence; I was no good at it then, and even less so now.

The practical value of such an ability will continue to be debated long after the cows come home. But it is what it is and, if nothing else, it serves as some yardstick to separate the boys from the men. And this morning it is all men. (Though changing, the ranks of sommeliers is decidedly male-dominated.) Tasting blind is unbelievably intimidating.  Or, as the taster transcribed below says, terrifying.  Not just because you've got an audience and a stopwatch, but because each sample taunting you could be any of a seemingly infinitesimal number of possibilities.

Each wine has its own personality and dizzying array of attributes. Color, luminosity, meniscus, luminosity, brilliance, gasification, sediment - and that's just what's visible...the tip of the iceberg. Aromatics and olfactory impressions come next, followed by taste and texture elements. Taken together, they represent an impossible puzzle.  This is where the grid comes in.

The grid is a series of questions to evaluate each of those attributes and is there as a tool to assemble a series of signposts. If you call each one correctly - and follow them without psyching yourself out - they will take you to a conclusion.  Will it be successful? Therein lies the difference between art and science - and the difference between being a tourist and having a shitload of experience.

Whether you are a budding oenophile or a seasoned wino, participating in an exercise like this is a strong reminder that, actually, you really don't know jack.  For each wine there is only one right answer from so many possibilities. No matter how knowledgeable a sommelier might be, the inexperienced can't fake their way through the insecurity this challenge imbues. My intimidation that morning came from being surrounded by the grit and proficiency of those sitting at that table.

Remember that James Bond movie when he picks up a wine and calls it a 59 Chateau Lafite? Well, it was just a movie.
Things get underway and the long light streaking across the mullions in the dining room cast a church-like solemnity on the occasion. As each of the candidates worked their way through the wines, the silent formality begins to make perfect sense. They were not here to fuck around. No, no. This is where the real work is done in preparation for the next level. And, lovely wines or not, it is work and discipline.  Makes you want to drop what you're doing and sign up for the next exam, right?

If that isn't impressive enough, consider that the entire (three hour!) affair was organized and led by a mentor who provided feedback and detailed coaching on each participant's performance while simultaneously benchmarking with his own evaluation of the wines. Jesus.  Talk about juggling a lot of balls.

Now, for a taste of what it's like, what follows is the transcript for one of the sommelier's walking of the grid.  Your wine vocabulary is about to expand...

White wine number four is a white wine.

It is of a pale yellow moving out to a thin, watery miniscus.  Little bits, flecks of gold and green.  
Viscocity is a medium plus.  There's no signs of gas or sediment.  I'll call that star bright.

The wine is clean, although I think that there's maybe a little bit of volatile acidity kind of lurking in there, but I think it's kind of pretty.

Primary impressions of citrus, key line, lemon oil, lemon pith, orange, but more like orange blossom.  Then tropical aromas of passion fruit, yellow delicious apples, apple skin.

There's a little bit of lees-iness, a little bit of real sense of oak influence, likely stainless steel.  There's definitely a pronounced minerality. There's floral component like jasmine flowers....maybe like sweet herbs.

This is terrifying.

On the palate the wine is dry.  Acidity medium, alcohol medium plus bordering on high.

So, I'm going to walk back what I was talking about about jasmine flowers.  No, this is more like yellow flowers.  The condition of the fruit is almost a little in the palate bruised, oxidative.  I don't know why it was fresh in the nose.  It was, but then it's got this oxidative thing going on.  This is yellow apples, pears, definitely some lemon, some lemon pith.  It's almost a bitterness in the palate.  Definitely lots of lees going on.  I wasn't getting any oak in the nose, but in the palate to me there's some. I think they're maybe using a little bit of large, neutral barrels.  There's a certain textural component to it.  

Sorry, I realize I also didn't call body or finish.  This is...I'm going to go with full body.  There's high alcohol.  I mean there's lots of extract. The acidity...I'm going to bump it to medium plus.  It's hanging around. 

I do think the fruit goes more tart in the palate, so I'm going to go with Old World, moderate climate with the higher alcohol but some acidity hanging around.  Possible grape varietals...all the yellow flowers and yellow fruits.  I think we're on some sort of roussane/marsanne blend.  

So, final conclusion: this is a 2013 St Joseph blanc.  

How'd he do?  It was a 2014 Bordeaux Blanc. Correct on old world, correct on France, and correct on white blend.