Wednesday, November 15, 2017

What's In Your Cellar?

The other night some of our favorite neighbors stopped over for an impromptu pre-dinner drink. Suggesting their preference for red wine, I invited the husband to the basement to peruse options in our makeshift cellar (a not so glorified closet that used to house half empty cans of paint). When asked if there was anything in particular they like, his unsurprising response was, “California?”

It didn’t occur to me until much later how different the selection is down there than it was even just five years ago. As it turned out that night, we only had a couple of bottles of California red to choose from. Not that ours is a particularly large selection, but that definitely wasn’t the case (pardon the pun) for most of my wine drinking years. 

So, (for the voyeuristically inclined) what is down there? More to the point, why?   Because it is loosely organized by region, and easiest to see which shelves have the most bottles, the following are arranged more or less by decreasing quantity:

Without a doubt, the bottles we have the most of are also the ones that have been down there the longest. Ironically, while these wines are perhaps the most loved, they are the ones I have the least opportunity to enjoy. Mostly vintage ports dating back to the mid 1980s, there are also a few oddballs, like a 93 Hungarian Tokaji, an Australian Muscat, and a couple of mediocre bottles of mid-90s Sauternes.  Few wines are as rewarding - and forgiving - when aged.  I look forward to enjoying these over the coming decades.

Next, it’s probably a tie between France and Italy. The French wines are more or less evenly split between Bordeaux and Rhône/southern France. The longevity of Bordeaux makes it easy to hold onto bottles and revisit them over the years. The freshness and energy (not to mention price tags!) of the southern French wines make them irresistible for the short term, particularly given the back to back fantastic vantages of 2014/15. More than any other region, the Rhône Valley is my go to source these days.

The Italian bottlings are, by number, focused on Piedmont. Nothing outrageous here, just some Nebbiolos, Barbarescos, and a few Barolos waiting for the right time. The others are a random smattering of Montalcinos, Sangioveses, and other blends. As we head into colder months and menus change toward more braised and savory foods, the acidity of these Italian wines are very much prized at our dinner table.

Noticeably absent is Spain.  There are a couple of old school Riojas biding their time, but the overpowering oak regimen currently in vogue on the Iberian peninsula is off-putting to me.  Which is too bad. 

All but forgotten and sitting in a corner collecting dust is an unopened case of Columbia Crest Gold, a big cabernet franc-based blend that packs a wallop, but will be a magnificent wine in a few more years. At $8.99, I could not help myself from stocking up on this perennial favorite.  I've also got a half case of a California cabernet that I regret buying - it serves as a reminder to enjoy a wine at least twice before stocking up.

That's it for the US?  Pretty much.  What does that tell you about my preferences for domestic wines these days?  They're too much, that's what.

There’s a separate shelf for whites randomly filled with some French burgundy bargains, a few South African selections, and one or two bright Italian varieties.   There are a few other odds and ends here and there, including a vertical of Ridge Syrah Lytton Estate running from 1997 to 2002. Why I am still holding onto these I do not know as they are likely well past their prime now. A few bottles of bubbly that have been hanging around waiting for an occasion are getting dustier every month.

I am proud to say that with very few exceptions (such as the ports) the ceiling on what I paid for these wines is $20.  What does your cellar look like?

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Happiness Is $13 Wines

Every now and again I get to enjoy the generous enthusiasm of other wine lovers.  Being a guest for these experiences has afforded me access to an echelon of wines I never would otherwise be able to taste.  I'm grateful for this, but I'm also glad my daily bread is exploring the universe of more moderately priced offerings.

Having recently drunk through a quiver of (someone else's) expensive wines, I'm reminded of something from this blog six or so years ago.  Following is a repurposing of that article.

David Brooks of the NY Times wrote an op ed piece about the Haimish line. According to Brooks, Haimish is "...a Yiddish word that suggests warmth, domesticity and unpretentious conviviality."

I can't do his piece justice without committing aggravated plagiarism (really, it's worth a read), but in it Brooks argues that when choosing nicer, more luxurious options over the simple, less expensive, you distance yourself from the discovery more plentiful in spontaneous, communal experiences.  He also draws a loose, but compelling connection between living below the Haimish Line and being happy.

I believe this to be true.  Not that happiness is unattainable above the Haimish Line (hell, 600 thread count sheets make me happy), but in focusing less on trappings we avail ourselves more to immersion and, well, laughter.

This got me to wondering: Is there a Haimish line for wine?

There is.  It's a wandering, blurry line connecting data points as slippery as one's ideologies, but it's a line all the same. Wine's Haimish line is the price, story, lineage, brand, etc. above which lie your expectations and below which resides your appetite for adventure and exploration.  Tough elements to quantify, but in actively seeking out experiences under the Haimish line, you open your mind and senses with purpose while suspending prejudices.  This sense of wonder is not only essential to connecting with the soul of your surroundings, but is a gift on parallel with contentment. 

If that resonates even a little, how can it be anything but great?

So, which wines are below the Haimish line?  Eveyone's line is informed by his and her own experiences, circumstances, hopes, and dreams, so it's impossible to predict which will fall where for you.  But chances are that merely knowing about the line, you'll find more wine lying beneath it.

Anecdotally, Matt Kramer, longtime columnist for Wine Spectator lamented the predictability of great wines in his article 'Why I No Longer Buy Expensive Wine'.  In it he confesses an overpowering desire to pursue surprise over security.  I'm guessing Kramer got the memo about the Haimish line a while ago.

Happy hunting.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Hugel: Tradition & Value in Alsace

Though completely unfamiliar with this producer and only having a passing acquaintance with the wines of Alsace, I was eager to taste through these wines and learn a thing or two. That said, almost without exception and despite limited exposure, this region has been a consistent source of terrific quality at value prices for white wines.  When the email arrived asking if I'd be interested in reviewing some samples in honor of National Hugel Day on November 4 (wait, a winery has it's own day?!), I jumped at the chance.

What do we know about the Hugels?  Well, they are not the new kids on the block, that's for sure.  Currently in its thirteenth generation of operation, the family combines over 350 years of winemaking experience with modern approaches to marketing.  Check out those labels!  Old school!

Anyway, these were a treat to taste through as they're a departure from what is typically promoted in domestic markets.  They're also very versatile wines that would complement your Thanksgiving table nicely.  Enjoy.

2016 Hugel 'Gentil' Alsace $15
Platinum blonde in the glass with a clean nose.  The mouth delivers honeysuckle, steel, wet rocks, and white flowers with seamlessly-integrated acidity. Fruity in the middle, and otherwise dry with a medium long finish. this kitchen sink blend of noble grapes is not too serious, nor is it trying to be, either. Very versatile profile that make this ideal for a wide range of cuisine and conversation. Think anything from Thai to Thanksgiving.

2015 Hugel Pinot Blanc 'Cuvee les Amours' Alsace $17
The similarities between this and a young cava go well beyond the slight shade - aromas border on austere (relenting a bit as it warms) and lead into a decidedly disciplined structure that brings orderliness to the tension and grip. A damn fine ride for the money. 

2014 Hugel Gewertztraminer Classic Alsace $27
Pretty pale straw in the glass, but appearances are the only restrained aspect of this wine. Powerful aromatics channel strong wet flowers, talcum powder, and industrial lubricant. These carry through to the palate where a wine nerd’s paradise of juxtapositions awaits. Metallic framework holds the ample, soft fruit and acidity in check while your mouth delights in attempting to decipher myriad flavors. An important note: revisited after a few days, the harder edged elements had softened considerably and merged beautifully into the remainder of the wine's fabric. I take this as a positive sign for its longevity and improvement therein. 

Monday, October 30, 2017

Bonus Offers

WTSO (Wines 'Til Sold Out) is one of the original flash sites set up to help liquidate the glut of surplus higher-end wine that flooded the market back in the Great Recession.  Unlike so many others that have folded, WTSO has managed to cultivate a loyal following of enthusiastic customers who enjoy the big discounts - and free shipping options.

In the spirit of keeping things interesting, WTSO recently introduced Bonus Offers, a way to offer buyers more choices than the single bottle being offered for sale.  To help draw attention to this new feature (and probably dispel concerns that "bonus" could mean plonk), their people sent a sample of one of their bonus wines.

Plonk it is not.  I'll be checking into this more in the coming days/weeks.

2011 Sojourn Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Wholer Vineyard $47
From the lackluster 2011 vintage comes this overlooked pinot from a pedigreed vineyard in the Russian River Valley. According to Sojourn’s website, the current vintage of this wine (2015) retails for $48 a bottle, so it's not really a bargain unless you're willing to risk the vintage/age six years old, you'd be smart to wonder if a domestic pinot noir could be over the hill, but you'd be wrong in this case.  The nose is full of lively, sophisticated varietal character. Soft and round, the mouth is expansive in its range of spice-framed tea-tinged flavors. This wine is terrifically true to both variety and place as it straddles the vulnerability of pinot’s lightness with the powerful cola and sun-baked influences of the Russian River Valley. Not even close to over the hill. Really enjoyable.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Recycling Words: Mercer Estates

My introduction to Mercer's wines first came six plus years ago.  The wines, reds in particular, were impressive.  (Take a walk down memory lane here.)  In the years since, I've had the opportunity to revisit their portfolio a number of times.  Their line up has evolved into different levels, but the core offerings remain intact with most of the grapes coming from the under appreciated Horse Heaven Hills AVA.

A sampling of three Mercer reds arrived a couple of weeks ago.  Tasting through them, I found myself stymied to come up with fresh words to describe them - that's how blessedly unchanged they are.  And as impressive as the consistency of these wines is, that they have remained largely price-stable is a gift to the consuming public. 

As we head into full-bodied wine season (and the holidays), wise wine lovers will accept this gift without hesitation.  Once again, these wines punch well above their weight, delivering terrific drinking pleasure for the money.

2015 Mercer Estates Sharp Sisters Red Blend Horse Heaven Hills $20
Wonderfully inviting aromatics, laced with cedar spice give way to an exciting palate packed with energy and rich flavor. The relaxed, approachable texture sits in juxtaposition to the tightly wound fruit. Coiled and poised, this wine is striking now, but will evolve handsomely as the next five or so years unfold. Yet another in a string of Mercer winners. 

2015 Mercer Estates Malbec Horse Heaven Hills $20
Rich and opaque in the glass and bursting with black fruit and oak spice aromas, first impressions of this imposing wine carry through to the palate where that attack echoes the nose. Chewy and with a good grip, this is high potency stuff that begs for air - and a hearty steak. Classy, thanks to a good dollop of cabernet in the blend, even if it is gargantuan. 

2014 Mercer Estates Merlot Horse Heaven Hills $20
Same as it ever was, which is to say, fantastically reliable. Inviting with its vanilla-tinged nose, this statuesque, masculine-yet-refined wine exemplifies why Washington state - and Mercer in particular - is at the epicenter of merlot‘s redemption. Highly deserving of your hard earned dollars. Run, don’t walk.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Cline Cashmere - Never Judge A Book By Its Cover

Regular readers know my position on the Twinkiefication of American palates and how many producers are catering to it.  In true cranky old man fashion, I've lamented everything from the schmaltzy branding of these products to the heavy-handed manipulation required to turn grape juice into liquid adult candy.  (Kids these days!)  So, no surprise that I was prepared to dislike this pair of samples that arrived recently.  After all, one is named Cashmere and the other Cashmere Black Magic. 

The regular bottling is labeled "exquisite", the other "alluring" and "dark" (Halloween gimmickry?),  reaffirming the suggestion that these wines are among the aforementioned high sugar, high alcohol ordnance. But what does closer examination reveal?

 For starters, the regular Cashmere wine is mostly mourvèdre, the other primarily petite sirah. Wait, what?! I was expecting overripe zinfandel and Mega Purple as the primary blending elements. The back label also surprises another way - proprietors Fred and Nancy Cline use proceeds from these wines to fund breast cancer research and Alzheimer's patient care. What a bonus. Who doesn't want to support that kind of advocacy?  Besides, read on for my impressions of the caliber and value of these wines...

Bottom line: I'll be making it a point to seek out these - and other Cline wines - soon.

2015 Cline Cashmere Red Blend California $15
Color and density are lighter (much, in fact) than anticipated, showing a medium garnet in the glass - lighter actually than most pinots. Nose is exciting and fast-moving, leading to a mouth full of lovely fruit kaleidoscope characterized by strong spices. Tannins are well integrated into the fine texture. Very accessible and enjoyable. Besides being an abject lesson in not judging a book by its cover, I love this wine and the way it's presented because it is introducing a whole category of drinkers to what is really a traditional Rhone blend. Sneaky and genius.  Bravo.

2015 Cline Cashmere Black Magic Red Blend California $15
Here again expectations have been defied. The syrupy viscosity anticipated in a wine with a name like Black Magic just isn’t there. In its place is an attractive, deep ruby color that moves in the glass like and unadulterated, long-legged cabernet. The nose is active with bright fruit outlined by subtle green vegetable characteristics and the same spicy allure as the regular Cashmere bottling. The palate is what really sets this bottle apart from its sibling thanks to the unapologetic brawn of petite sirah, which shows off its heft and texture with honesty and true varietal character. While definitely a big wine with lots to offer those with big wine appetites, it is not the gloppy monster I’ve come to expect from dark red blends. Well made and composed.

Monday, October 9, 2017

So, Chenin Blanc...

Last week's installment included a strong recommendation for a chenin blanc, a wine that doesn't get much play in the media.  The grape's manifestation is a study in contrasts.  The Loire valley in France is the Old World epicenter of chenin, while Franzia's ubiquitous boxes of ethanol-laced grape juice dominate domestically.  But these days the highest number of chenin bottlings you're likely to find on retailers' shelves are from South Africa where it is that country's most widely planted grape variety.

Though chenin is definitely its own animal, if you were to bookend it between two familiar cultivars, it would reside midway between chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.  When made well, its fruit is round like chardonnay's, but also bright like sauvignon blanc.  At the same time it's doesn't have the staunch backbone chard often has, or the zippy twang of SB.  What makes it unique is its texture and balance.  It somehow manages to strike a chord where fruit is present, but clean and accompanied by flavors of minerals and layers of nuance.  That's a lot for a wine whose price tag is routinely sub-$20.

So, while I'm still smarting from that recommendation I made a while back, this is a wine I've returned to a few times with growing enthusiasm.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I have. 

2016 Babylon's Peak Chenin Blanc Swartland South Africa $12

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

When It Rains, It Pours

There's a seasonality to wine, both in what we consume, as well as what the marketplace makes available.  For the most part the former defines the latter, but there's also another tempo in play that's harder to pin down - the availability of small production wines that seem to go as quickly as they come.

After a long period of wading through the usual stuff on the shelves, something seems to have shaken loose in the past couple of weeks and thank God for that.  The number of exceedingly enjoyable wines in the $10-$16 range I've had recently has more than made up for the preceding doldrums.  Following are a few of these wines.  Whether they're in your local market or not, each of them is a strong reminder that exploration is its own reward.

2016 Babylon's Peak Chenin Blanc Swartland South Africa $12
For a long time South Africa was a terrific place to source inexpensive, weird wines, which is why I steered clear for a long time.  But recent forays into the country's regions have been mostly a pleasant surprise - even if these wines don't really taste like the grapes they're labeled as.  This chenin blanc, which tastes more like a crisp Sancerre (sauvignon blanc), is no exception.  Bright, lively, and layered over a supple texture, it has a delicate acidity and dry finish that are at odds with the typical chenin blanc, but which also show in a lovely way here.  Will definitely be going to back for more soon.

2012 Domus Vitae Rosso di Montalcino $16
The most remarkable thing about this 100% sangiovese from Montalcino is its purity.  This is as textbook as it gets; no more, no less.  The slightly brown-tinged fruit stands unencumbered by fussy winemaking, letting the character of the region shine.  A darn good effort at a bargain price.

2015 Di Majo Norante Sangiovese Molise $9
Full and open, this very approachable red from the mountainous region southeast of Rome is a crowd pleaser.  Easy going enough to not require food, but versatile enough to flex with whatever is on the dinner table, this is a nice weeknight wine that won't disappoint.

2015 Chateau Blanzac Bordeaux $15
Unexpectedly international in style and accessible at such a young age, this bucks the trend of most value-priced Boardeaux.  From the lauded 2015 vintage, the merlot takes center stage, but doesn't crowd out the other players which provide structure and stuffing.  Oak framing is appreciable without being imposing.  Terrific company to grilled red meat and a wonderful way to introduce California-only drinkers to the wonders of Bordeaux.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Recycle Bin, 'In Search Of Moderation' Edition

Moderatation?  Who needs moderation when you can have extreme? 

Well, everyone needs a break from the norm.  As we prepare for a change of seasons, there's no better time to explore new frontiers for a break from intensity.  All the better that you can do this without compromising on drinking enjoyment.  To that end, here's a little round up of wines that shout less but sing plenty.

2016 Colterenzio Prail Alto Adige Sauvignon $14
A cerebral white that weaves together threads of many filaments. Extremely difficult to deconstruct and describe, but the sensation is one of being led on a brief journey through a kaleidoscope of merging , contrasting colors. Minerality meets fruit meats herbaceousness, stitched together with delicate acidity. Not necessarily a crowd-pleaser, but a wine to impress the thoughtful drinker.

2016 Chateau l'Hermitage Cotes du Rhone Blanc $11
Exactly what it advertises to be.  The seriousness of roussanne with the edge take it off by some grenache and viognier.  Refreshing and lingering.  A wonderful change of pace and a bargain to boot.

2016 Abbazia di Novacella Alto Adige Schiava $17
This is the benchmark for Schiava Why? It's everything of wine should be: full, lively, flavorful, bright, friendly, and relatively inexpensive. Equally important, it's also not what many wines are today: overextracted, dense, one dimensional, expensive, and headache-inducing. Not the best vintage I've had of this wine, so look out for other years for an even greater experience.

2016 Castel Sallegg Bischofsleiten Alto Adige Schiava $14
Quite pale in color but with racy aromatics that excite the news and beckon to the palate where brilliant sun bright flavors glisten with delicate acidity. There's also a distant whiff of brackish salinity to juice the interest factor. Terrific example of how the red wines of this region can deliver a kaleidoscope of flavors without resorting to overbearing density and alcohol.

2015 Matua Pinot Noir Marlborough New Zealand $10
Wait, what? Pinot for $10???  Yes!  And it's well beyond just drinkable.  Bright and juicy with enough nuance to make it interesting.  What a deal!

Friday, September 1, 2017

Just In Time For Labor Day

Looking for a wine that will give you something to smile about?  This robust syrah will not only pair nicely with grilled foods, but is a terrific transition red as the weather cools down a little. That it's just $12 makes it worth seeking out.

Cheers and make it a safe Labor Day weekend.

2014 Powers Syrah Columbia Valley $12
Wow, this is pretty good.  Very enjoyable, in fact.  Does it taste like syrah? Not really, but it sure is tasty.  Must have some cab and merlot in it.  Very pleasant concentrated core with a solid oak framing that doesn't hit you over the head with a 2x4.  Will definitely be buying this bargain again in multiples.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Tale Of A False Positive

A few months ago I was swooning over a wine.  Gushing wouldn't be an overstatement, as I suggested (not yet halfway through the year) that this wine could be the wine of the year.  Imagine my regret when, not once, but twice now I've had a hard time drinking any more of that wine.

Talk about remorse.  For starters, I stocked up on it and have several bottles left of a $20 wine I can't bring myself to drink. Then there's the fact that such a strong recommendation no doubt resulted in others making a similar buy.  (Sorry!)

What happened?

Did the wine change?  Possible, but unlikely - it's a young chardonnay, so I doubt it.  Did I change?  Nah - that infatuation was too recent for me to have suddenly fallen down a curmudgeon hole.  So, what gives?

One of the first wine retailers I ever knew had a saying: you can't separate sensation from experience.  Around the time I recommended that wine so highly, was also in the midst of an ongoing personal rant against wine styles that favor caricature-like distortions over balance or form.  In other words, a lot of wines have the volume turned all the way up (as lamented in this piece titled, Why Is My Wine Yelling At Me?).  So, my state of mind around that time was one of frustration and disappointment at what has seemingly become of the norm in mainstream wine.  What's more is the target of a lot of that sentiment has been domestic chardonnay.

Along comes the Limestone Hill chardonnay from De Wetshof.  It tastes nothing like California and, more importantly, tastes nothing like chardonnay from the west coast.  It's new, it's different, and it's dazzling because it's new and different.  But now, with some time and distance from that initial wow, its merits in non-comparative reference, well, pale.  It is neither balanced nor restrained, nor really palatable.

I've learned this lesson before and still can't seem to get it right.  By way of this cautionary tale, let me offer to you the same advice I'm now reminding myself of: make sure you've had a wine at least twice before you go off half cocked and buy a bunch of it.  And don't take some wine blogger's word for it, either!

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Kunde: Changes In Motion & Current Releases

Back in the mid-nineties i made my first pilgrimage to northern California wine country.  It was a whirlwind trip covering hundreds of miles and dozens of wineries in a long weekend.  Kunde Estate was a blur as I sped my way to Kenwood and points beyond.  And, though I knew they had a good reputation for making solid zin and chard, that first blur was sort of the way I continued to experience their brand for many years - from a distance.
Old school Kunde label

Fast forward several years and Kunde has undergone more than just a facelift.  Refocusing on quality over quantify, the family-run winery has replanted, retooled, and rehabilitated everything from vines to trellis systems to winemaking process.  The samples that arrived for review offered a terrific chance to revisit this stalwart Sonoma Valley label and see how the changes they've made are paying off.

Before we look at each of the wines, a few general observations.  First, they've done a great job on packaging - these bottles/labels are quite attractive.  Second, there's not a drop out of place in these wines.  They are categorically true to both place and variety, resulting in wines that value honest expression over showboating.  So, when you read below that the cabernet is "textbook Sonoma Valley cabernet...", that's what that means.  Finally, a word on pricing.  The wines below come from  a mix of their Estate Series (lower priced), Destination Series (mid tier), and Reserve level.  I found plenty to like at the more moderate price levels.

I look forward to revisiting this winery's lineup soon.

2016 Kunde Sauvignon Blanc Sonoma Valley Magnolia Lane $17
Clean, clean, clean. Fresh and fast with classic Northern California sauvignon blanc flavors coming at you in rapidfire sequence, and backed by an invigorating energy that doesn't come across as aggressive. Freshly mowed grass, unripe Granny Smith apple, and a tart citrus kick make for a lively, up-beat companion for porch conversation or even midweight summer fare. A lot to like here.

2015 Kunde Chardonnay Reserve Sonoma Valley $45
With raised gold lettering on a black label and honeyed hue in the glass, this makes a strong first impression. Aromatics are anything but subtle, offering full, round, custard wafts. But in the mouth it is as much about what's absent as present. It certainly has prominent archetypal California chardonnay characteristics on the fruit side of the balance sheet, as well as evidence of competence in the cellar, but it is (mercifully) lacking overbearing oak, high-octane alcohol, and overhandling which, in the case of this sourcing, would be a crime. Call it success through provenance and restraint - something you don't see too often in these parts.  Finishes with a bright, lip smack of acidity that keeps you coming back. Tastes expensive and luxurious.

2015 Kunde Malbec Sonoma Valley $35
Midnight magenta looming in the glass just threatening that white shirt you're wearing. The clean nose hints at freshness and honesty. Beguiling approachability thanks to bathwater-like supple texture and none of the garrish, often off-putting hard edges that many malbecs punch with. There's a super subtle suggestion of distant smoke that adds attractive mystery on the way to becoming that favorite old sweater that just feels so right. While the varietal characteristics don't run deep in this wine, there's zero turbulence from introduction to infatuation, and it's a trip that passes quickly.  Probably my favorite in this quiver.

2013 Kunde Cabernet Sauvignon Conoma Valley Drummond $50
A wine of solid, substantial structure. Beginning to show the earliest signs of having a few years of age on it, but clearly still very early in its arc toward peaking. Lots of high-toned, oak-trimmed fruit, lofty frequency and profound depth of classic cabernet. Made in a textbook Sonoma valley cabernet style. Serious stuff.