Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Wine of the Week

2015 Palacio de Fefiñanes Albariño de Fefiñanes Rías Baixas $19
This is an exciting wine. From the 2015 vintage, this brilliant albariño so vibrates with energy that the texture suggests a hint of effervescence. Its appeal is not in complexity. Rather, its simple honesty and focused delivery of mineral vigor really makes it irresistible. The fruit is pure, if quiet, but unobstructed by modest alcohol (12.5%).  Reminds me of some of the better whites in Portugal. Reaffirming and worth seeking out.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016


At first glance, Gallica could be mistaken for yet another ego wine project; a small portfolio of limited production wines, the flagship of which is an organically-farmed, estate-bottled Napa Valley cabernet. We've heard this story many times before.

Or have we?

A closer look shows that these bottles are not typical at all. For starters, only the cabernet is from Napa. The others are from far-flung reaches of northern and central California. The syrah is from the Santa Lucia Highlands, mostly known for pinot noir. The Rhône blend is from Amador, a lesser-known growing region about 40 miles east of Sacramento - if known for anything, it's zinfandel. And Calaveras county, where the albariño is sourced?  It's deep in the Sierra Foothills; gold rush country, people!

As a champion for underdogs and the overlooked - and having had some very positive experience with wines from each of these regions - these off-the-beaten path sources piqued my interest. Eschewing the traditional Napa Valley passion project quiver (cab, merlot, chard, and sauv blanc - all from Napa) suggests a winemaker with both the gumption to color outside the lines and a commitment to an alternative philosophy.

Even without having popped a cork, I want to know more. Who is this Rosemary Cakebread? What is she after? More to the point, why?

The samples of her wines, descriptions of which follow, help inform some of the answers.  For more of the picture, I had the chance to ask her via Google Hangout during a virtual tasting. 

While firmly planted in the heart of Napa Valley history and plenty experienced (Spottswoode, Mumm, etc.) Rosemary is not the establishment. In fact, she's a bit of a self-described rebel.  Yet she doesn't need to take the easy route or demand attention through excess. Addressing her winemaking through the dual lenses of consumer and creator, she is committed to both adventure and moderation. Contemplation and surprise are what she seeks in her wines. These subtle tensions echo in her craft.

Yes, these wines are expensive.  But in acquiring them, you're not just getting a beverage, you're participating in a journey.  A journey that's part discipline, part rebellion, and all delicious.  Is it what you want for Christmas?  Silly question - Christmas is about giving, not getting. (But in case you're looking for ideas for me, here you go.)


2015 Gallica Albariño Calaveras County $36
An extrovert, this curvy, come-hither white flaunts its plump, honeyed fruit outlined by a subtly steely trim.  On more intent examination, there's more than just a fun-loving quaffer here.  The slight viscosity is accompanied by a soft mineral clang on the mid-palate. As it warms in the glass, suggestions of savory intrigue add to the complexity on the persistent finish. Oiy.

2014 Gallica Red Blend Amador County $50
Open, accessible, even gregarious. Light-hearted, but well-made.  And damn hard to put down. Rhone blend (GSM with a dash of viognier).  Better than good.

2014 Gallica Syrah Santa Lucia Highlands $60
Good syrah - great syrah, even - can often be found growing in the background where pinot noir enjoys the limelight.  The Santa Lucia Highlands, where this syrah is grown, is one such place.  As discovered some years back, winemakers still eek out a few cases of this inky bliss each year.  Gallica's version delivers strong blue fruit framed by black pepper on a silky texture that makes it quite enchanting.  More than just pretty, this wine exudes elegance without a need to boast.  Hits the northern Rhone target squarely with coy meatiness.

2013 Gallica Cabernet Napa Valley $160
Uncorking a wine in its infancy presents some jarring contrasts, making patience an essential component of evaluation.  On opening, this a tight, unyielding ball of cabernet potential.  Sticking your nose in the glass is like poking your head into a toasted barrel.  Aromatics are dominated by vanilla-lined oak and the attack is an impenetrable wall of tannic energy.  Thankfully, I decanted this eight full hours before really returning to it.  After this period of extended relaxation, the wall came down and puddled like an expensive negligee.  Balancing magnificent intensity and serenity all in one seamless package, this incredibly perfumed experience encapsulates why drinking great wines is such a thrill.  Rosemary's target is a cab that will be great in 20 years without hitting anyone over the head - and on this she nailed it.

Monday, November 21, 2016

What To Drink This Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving this year finds us in the swirling of a turbulent time. Regardless of political leanings, most people I've spoken to appear to be stumbling around somewhere between the stupor of despair and a state of anxious apprehension. Even the most hopeful among us seem to be managing down their expectations to levels better characterized by caution than optimism.

With this as an emotional foundation, it's hard to muster much enthusiasm, let alone enough to build a
sense of gratitude. What does that mean for us as we head into our family gatherings to share our thankfulness? I'm not sure.  The outlook feels tenuous and murky.  And it feels like we're grasping for meaning, for stability, for certainty.  And now it's Thanksgiving, a uniquely American tradition of community.  This time of year epitomizes what it means to be American, even if that seems more elusive than ever.  But we can, and ought to do more than flail for a mooring. 

Maybe what we should be grasping for is one another, for our commonalities, for our identities within this one human family.  Instead of rolling up our cuffs with talk of the election, perhaps for a moment we can shine a light on the values we all agree on:  hospitality, generosity, good will, good humor, and, yes, good drink.

Unorthodox as it is to offer this kind of a suggestion, there's never been a more appropriate or timely opportunity.  Larceny Bourbon ($28) from the Old Fitzgerald Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky is a plenty affordable, particularly given the drinking pleasure it yields.  Warming, potent (92 proof), and as friendly as an old, worn sweater, it is my antidote for an unsettled soul this fall. Taken in moderation, you, too, may find that it helps increase your ease of being during the holidays.  And it certainly is in keeping with my tradition of sticking with enjoying American product on this American holiday.

Whatever you choose to drink (or abstain from) this Thanksgiving, please do it safely and with warmth in your heart.  I'm counting on you.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Beaujolais. So Much More Than Noveau!

The Thursday prior to Thanksgiving ushers in the annual spectacle of Beaujolais Nouveau, the annual release made from grapes harvested just a couple of months ago. Typically, these bottlings are like so many media-driven events these days: underwhelming in quality and overblown in hype. However, what only a few consumers know is that Beaujolais comes in many forms, not just the young, mass produced plonk that typifies nouveau.

There are a number of variations, all of which are made from the gamay grape, from different areas of the broad Beaujolais AOC, that merit your attention. For starters, these wines can achieve extraordinary heights of sophistication and pleasure delivery. What's even better is their affordability. Many of these wines can be found for well under $20. Having a chance to taste through these four bottles from George Duboeuf was a treat as they are so, so different from one another and most other wines. (These wines were received as press samples.)

2016 George Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau $12
Oh, the sweet aromatics a fresh crushed violets and sun-baked herbs conjure images of a casual lunch enjoyed al fresco somewhere in a sleepy European hamlet. There is a particular appeal in the direct simplicity of this wine. These same characteristics carry through to the palate where the finish includes a bit of hard-edged finish.  All the same, it's light years ahead of the last nouveau I tasted and a lot cheaper than a flight to have lunch in that hamlet.

2015 George Duboeuf Beaujolais Villages $13
Bright, fresh, and with a nice smack of acidity, this wine sits squarely between the nouveau and the Fleurie (though closer to the nouveau in terms of quality and profile). A simple weeknight table wine that should prove versatile with everything from pizza to light fish.

2015 George Duboeuf Fleurie $20
Brilliantly expressive. Very pretty, red violet floral notes framed by firm, but lithe acidity. Such an attractive wine. Has all the components to suggest some age potential, but who's got the patience when it tastes so fantastic now? This wine helps explain why sommeliers are so smitten with Beaujolais. God damn good.

2015 George Duboeuf Morgon $22
A deep, deep inky purple color coats the inside of the decanter from which spills brooding aromas of dark fruit and baking yeast. After hours of air the nose turns focused, zeroed in on the tight fruit core. On the palate (even after five hours decanted!) its poise remains slightly clenched hinting at longevity- and a need for patience. Regardless, it is a pretty, well-crafted wine that has clean lines and features a seldom-seen side of Beaujolais.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Aged White? Yes, Yes, Yes!

Vermentino was an all but unheard of grape a few years ago, and still remains largely sheltered from the main stream wine drinking community's view.  Indigenous to Saridnia and Tuscany, vermentino makes bright, expressive whites that sing sunshine in an infatuating, lilting accent.  Since first tasting one on a trip to Italy in 2000, I've been drawn-in by its allure. Fruity, yet finishing dry, and with a whisper of acidity, vermentino wins on delicate balance.  If you can conjure an image of a seafood pasta lunch on a wisteria-canopied balcony, then you're more than halfway to imaging what wine made from this grape tastes like.

The bottle pictured here arrived in a mystery case purchased from Last Bottle.  The offer for a
mixed case ($120, including delivery) scratched my itch for finding new discoveries while fitting into the budget.  But when I saw the vintage, my hopes for brilliance were tempered by the likelihood that now, fully five years old, the wine was skunked.

Thankfully, it was not.  In fact, not only had it survived, but possibly improved.  Honeyed by age to an amber shade of gold, the 2011 Bibi Graetz Casamatta Toscana Bianco ($10) didn't so much retain its exuberance as evolved into something with elegant vigor.  Still in possession of all its attractive qualities and athletic focus, the allure of the wine seems to have deepened and intensified with age. Glorious, irresistible, and, sadly, gone.

Of course, not all wines, whites or reds, have the same capacity to age youthfully, but I'll be slower to make assumptions in the future.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Just In Time For Thanksgiving

Just in time for Thanksgiving comes this four pack of diverse bottles from Terlato Wine's brand quiver.  A pair each from California and Italy, these wines might be on the pricier side of budget drinking, but they don't lack in the quality department.  Note that prices listed are the suggested retail prices that accompanied the samples, so you're likely to find these on the shelf for considerably less.

2015 Hanna Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley $20
Once upon a time, sauvignon blanc from Northern California had a character all its own. Granny Smith apple and fresh cut grass made for a thirst quenching, refreshing, and delicious combination. All this could be had for under $10 a bottle. Ah, the good all days. Then, a newcomer hit the scene: New Zealand sauv blanc. The electrified grapefruit zing delivered in those bottles indoctrinated the American consumer to a new, exciting (if zany) interpretation of the grape. For some years following (and to a large degree this remains true today) California producers began to imitate the Kiwi style. Though not a throwback to the original California style, this example certainly illustrates a compromise between the two - and to great effect. Impeccably made and hard to put down, this one will find a home at the Thanksgiving table without creating any awkward conversation like uncle Merle does.

2014 Alta Mora Rosso Mt Etna $24
A while back a fellow wine writer declared that nerello mascalese is one of the planet's most overlooked great varieties. Indigenous to Sicily, it is at times compared to Barolo and Burgundy. This example, from vineyards at the foot of Mount Etna, where the soils are rich in volcanic minerals, helps explain that declaration. Braced by lean acidity, this exercise in contrasts packs an awful lot of intrigue into a bottle at this price. Translucent in the glass, but dark and brooding in the mouth, mystery unfolds with a chalky, silky texture. A cerebral experience that doesn't demand analysis so much as beckons the inquisitive palate.

2014 Cecchi Chianti Classico $22
If your palate is conditioned to California reds, then it's easy to forget that there are many delicious wines built on a framework of moderation out there. And this one is a terrific example. With a nose that is super-clean, the light-medium bodied fruit comes across as plump and bright red without being jammy or overbearing. No doubt, this is thanks to lacy acidity characteristic of Chianti Classico. These somewhat contrasting qualities make for beautiful complements and a beverage that is as irresistible with hearty fall party fare as with good conversation.

2014 Markham Merlot Napa $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 Thanksgiving to Moroccan.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Two More Winners From Spain

Spanish reds have been making a bit of a comeback in my world lately, not so much as standalone quaffers, but as authentically compatible accompaniments to hearty fall fare.  Though past complaints of over-oaking remain valid, the exceptions to this rule make experimentation worthwhile.  Acidity plays a key role in complementing meals, and the wines of norther Spain in particular have that aplenty.  Two quite different examples follow here with the lithe, but full-flavored Rioja at one end and the dense, full-tilt Sardon de Duero at the other.  Again, though, terrific acids play the same part in both wines.

2012 Bodegas Albanico Hazana Tradicion Rioja $13
At just 12.5% ABV, this is a lovely change of pace from the typical overblown Spanish juggernauts. The dinner table is where this old school red finds its sweet spot. Falls short of mind blowing, but at this price, it's worthy of being a repeat offender.

2010 Abadia Retuerta Sardon de Duero Seleccion Especial $30
Modern, solid, and structured.  Deliberate lines frame the black, hard fruit in this drink-me-with-a-knife-and-fork beast.  On its own, it can be overwhelming and a bit off-putting, but along side a steak and savory vegetables?  Three part harmony.  Tempranillo is noticably buffed up by 15% cab and 10% syrah.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Wine of the Week - Laguna Chardonnay

2012 Laguna Chardonnay Russian River Valley $18
2012 remains a benchmark year in my mind for chardonnay in Northern California. This wine, now solidly four years old, epitomizes why. Refined yet uniquely Californian, this full bodied, statuesque mouthful manages to deliver an elegance unexpected at this price or heft thanks in large part to its defined structure and balanced acidity. The Laguna Ranch vineyard fruit has been used in Gallo's high end chardonnay for years.  Bottled under this label it hasn't suffered at all.  Very good at $35, great at $18. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

A Beguiling Chardonnay

2014 Talmard Chardonnay Macon-Chardonnay $17
This beguiling white is irresistible thanks to its palpable energy and focused minerality. I am as excited about this one as I was for Michel Paquet's 2013 Domaine de Velanges Macon-Prisse.  Outstanding without being extroverted.  Bravo.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Spain? Yep. Spain.

Spanish wines, reds and Riojas in particular, have been subjected to as much criticism as praise on these pages.  Time and time again I've been lured back to revisit the tempranillo-based wines from northern Spain only to find that the brutal practice of oak-bludgeoning remains widespread.  Well, chalk one up to keeping an open mind.  These two samples - one white, one red - prove that there are always exceptions to the rule.  The albariño is from the Rias Baixas region in northwestern Spain and the crianza is a Rioja.  While very different wines in style and substance, both are admirable for their quality and authenticity.

2015 Granbazan Albariño Rias Baixas 'Etiqueta Verde' $20
If you are in search of an opulent, rich white (like Melania Trump probably is right now), this is probably not what you're looking for. But if you are looking beyond the horizon for something truly stimulating and off the beaten path, you have to check this out. Clean and with steely precision, this fleet-footed porch pleaser delivers minerality and brilliant sunshine, lending it a unique energy (which is surprising given its low alcohol.) Enjoyed with mussels in a Provençal broth, it enhances rather than interferes, but stands quite well on its own, too. Anything else? Yes: sometimes less is more.

2011 Viña Real Rioja Crianza $19
The red is far more serious than I would've expected from a crianza (Rioja's entry level). Stately and dignified, the solid construction shows Moroccan spice under savory fruit that's aging nicely. The oak is present, but thankfully not overt.  Very pure and clean. With food it really comes alive and it's got the guts to hold up nicely to charcoal grilled steak with olives and parsley butter - what a terrific duet. Lots to love here.  A little picey for a crianza, but worth it.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Italian Wine for Bordeaux lovers (And at $10!)

2013 Fattoria San Felo 'Balla la Vecchia' Maremma $10
There's just so much good to say about this one, it's tough to know where to start. The price is an easy one, though. $10 doesn't buy you what it used to, but in this case it buys way, way more. Then there is the substance of the wine itself: supple and with extraordinary grace, the cabernet, merlot, sangiovese blend strikes an incredible balance of poise and flavor at the price. Moderate alcohol also lets the finesse show without interference.  For those who complain that Italian wines are too rustic and acidic, this offers a lovely counterpoint. I poured this at a dinner party recently next to a cabernet from Paso Robles and a pinot from Monterrey. Someone commented that it tasted light.  Maybe they even said that it was watery. Next to those two other wines, who could blame them? But all night long I had that bottle to myself and was damn glad, too!

Monday, September 19, 2016

Supermodel Wine

Most professional wine reviewers, and many well-informed amateurs, too, evaluate the quality of a wine based on its craftsmanship. There's a lot that goes into that word - from the vineyard into the cellar, but there is another aspect that contributes at least as much to the enjoyment of a wine. Some call it the X factor, which is an efficient catchphrase to mean sizzle, excitement, substance, character, sex appeal, and so on. These are attributes that are just too subjective to reasonably be included in the evaluation of the product, particularly if it ultimately results in a standalone number like a score. Still, that doesn't mean that it's any less important than the craftsmanship, or that craftsmanship alone makes a wine worth seeking out. To wit, here's one that is very close to flawless in its production. 
2013 Kaiken Cabernet Sauvignon Mendoza 'Ultra' $18
Perfectly balanced and structured, there isn't a drop out of place in this cabernet. Its proportionality is elegant, and its features are nearly perfect in their refinement. It is a supermodel of a wine. And who would pass up the chance to spend some quality time with a supermodel?  Not me. 

But after the initial dazzle, as the conversation begins in earnest, the beauty of a thing becomes somewhat normalized, and we search for reasons to be compelled. We look for substance and character. To want to maintain the conversation, we look for an X factor. And if the supermodel cannot carry on a conversation, doesn't have a sense of humor, or lacks social engagement, boredom sets in. 

This wine, as nearly perfect as it is in construction, has no X factor. For some, beauty is its own X factor. And I recommend this wine if for no other reason because experiencing this level of perfection is almost impossible at this price. But for me, it's not enough. I'm glad to have had this wine.  It just doesn't compel me to come back for more.