Versatile Bubbles – Make Any Day Sparkle

July 8, 2020 2 comments

Here is the question, wine lovers: what is your attitude towards sparkling wines? I’m not looking for a “politically correct” answer – “Champagne is for every day”, “bubbles every day” and so on. Yes – in theory, you can drink Champagne or any other sparkling wine for that matter (is there still a winery left which doesn’t make bubbles in some form?) – Champagne, Cremant, Cava, Prosecco, Sekt, Sparkling Shiraz or any other bubbles from anywhere else in the world – every day. Yes, you can – but do you?

No matter how much you love wine, I can bet that bubbles are not your average daily choice of beverage. There are many reasons for this. Of course, the price is one issue. Most of the typical Champagne today is pushing $40 per bottle, and this classifies as a “special occasion” type of beverage. This goes well beyond Champagne – all the random sparkling wines nowadays made literally everywhere, will set you back even further. Another reason – once opened, Champagne doesn’t last very long – two days in the fridge is probably okay, but the longer the bottle is open, the fewer bubbles are left. I’m sure there are many other reasons, some more personal than the others – for example, my wife loves red wine, but she would only have half a sip of Champagne if I will force her, so it is obvious that bubbles are not our daily beverage of choice.

It is hard to solve the personal issues, but if we will look at the price as the major issue, we can find some solutions to that. For example, how about some Prosecco? Yes, Prosecco is very different from Champagne – it is made from different grape; it comes from a different place  – the Veneto region in Italy; it is made using a different process. But Prosecco is still a sparkling wine, usually costing about a third of the price of the typical Champagne bottle – and if you are looking to brighten up any day, Prosecco will do the trick (and the day will be even brighter knowing the amount of money you save).

Don’t take Prosecco for granted- it is a number one selling sparkling wine in the world today in terms of volume. Champagne roots can be traced back to the 15th/16th century, and Prosecco origins can also be traced to almost the same time. However, the production method for Champagne, called méthode champenoise was first described in the 1660s, while the production method used for most of Prosecco, Charmat-Marinotti, was invented in 1895. But these are minor technical details. The major difference is that while Champagne was craved by royalties and wannabes around the world for a few centuries, Prosecco first commercially appeared outside of Italy, in the UK, in 1989. And now, mere 30 years later, Champagne has to chase Prosecco’s success.

Okay, let’s stop talking and start drinking. Back in April, I attended a virtual tasting of 5 different Prosecco wines. It was done over Zoom, with 5 winemakers presenting their wines from their homes – but while tasting was virtual, the wines were not. For what it worth, here are my notes on the wines we tasted.

Villa Sandi takes its name from the historical villa, built in 1622. Villa Sandi produces a wide range of still and sparkling wines, including Prosecco from Cartizze, the most prestigious Prosecco vineyard.

NV Villa Sandi il Fresco Prosecco DOC Treviso (11% ABV, $15)
Pale green, fine mousse
Lemon, lemon zest, minerality
Fine bubbles, generous, crisp, fresh, Meyer lemon, pleasant and easy to drink
8-, a perfect summer quaffer or everyday bubbles

History of Bottega goes back to 1635 when Andrea Bottega started cultivating the grapes. Until 1992, Bottega was best known for its Grappa, and then in 1992, Il Vino dei Poeti Prosecco Spumante was created. Today, Bottega produces a large number of spirits, as well as wines. The range of Prosecco and sparkling wines includes more than 20 different bottlings.

NV Bottega IL Vino dei Poeti Gold Prosecco DOC Treviso (11% ABV, $29.99)
Straw pale, fine bubbles
A hint of apple, tropical fruit
Clean and refreshing mouthfeel, good acidity, lemon, a touch of Granny Smith apples, distant hint of nutmeg.
8-/8, restrained and elegant rendition.

The story of Mionetto started in 1887 when Francesco Mionetto opened the winery in Valdobbiadene, which is now known as the epicenter of Prosecco production. In 1982, Mionetto adopted the Charmat method for productions of the sparkling wines and introduced temperature-controlled fermentation. Mionetto had been leading the way in Prosecco production since then.

NV Mionetto Brut Prosecco DOC Treviso (11% ABV, $12.99)
Straw pale
Hint on peach and apple on the nose
Fine bubbles, crisp, fresh, touch of peach, fresh acidity of Granny Smith apples
8-, perfect everyday bubbles

Well, there is not a lot I can tell you about La Marca, as the winery website is excellent for marketing purposes, but doesn’t talk much about history. If anything, lots of cocktail ideas can be found there – see for yourself.

NV La Marca Prosecco DOC (11% ABV, $14)
Straw pale, large bubbles
Ripe peach, guava, pear, nose intense and inviting
Surprising contrast on the palate, dry, crisp, nice textural presence, tart lemon notes, good balance
8-, again- perfect everyday bubbles.

Valdo was founded in 1926 to produce sparkling wines in the areas of Valdobbiadene and Cartizze. Valdo was quickly acquired by the Bolla family and continued producing a wide range of sparkling wines. Right now, Valdo offers 29 (!) different sparkling wine bottlings, including some made using méthode classico and one organic Prosecco. This wine was also happened to be my favorite in this tasting.

NV Valdo Marca Oro Prosecco DOC (11% ABV, $13)
Straw pale, fine bubbles
Touch of yeast, toasted bread, and apples.
Fresh, crisp, cut through acidity, lemon, good minerality
8/8+, might be my favorite in the tasting, very reminiscent of champagne.

Here you are, my friends. Summer is here, and Prosecco’s refreshing qualities can brighten up anyone’s day. I’m off to pour another glass. Cheers!

Winemaking: A Step by Step Guide

June 29, 2020 Leave a comment

Today I would like to offer you a guest post by William Reed, who is a passionate winemaker that continues his family’s the age-old tradition of producing quality homemade wine. With respect to
heritage and classic concepts as well as a zesty touch of the modern, William continues to explore the vast world of winemaking all while sharing his thoughts, ideas, and processes on his own personal website at myhomewine.com.

Winemaking or vinification is the process of making wine, from start to finish, which ends up having a lot of detailed steps you should know, so are you ready to begin this long but incredibly rewarding journey?

Some people say it’s easy to make wine but making good and fruity ones is only for the experts – well that’s not entirely true as we’ll see below. Summed up, the major steps on how to make wine are the selection of grapes, their fermentation to alcohol, and, lastly, the bottling. You can make all types of wine but the most common ones are red wine, white wine, or rosé, and even though they are pretty different between, their process is very similar.

Wine has been produced for thousands of years, being almost considered as an art, having an important role in religion and there is even a science that studies wine and winemaking, called oenology. Generally speaking, wine is an alcoholic drink made from fermented grapes with 5.5 – 15.5% alcohol and is a cultural symbol of the European life, changing from a nutritional supplement to a food complimentary beverage, compatible with a good lifestyle. Drinking isn’t safe for everyone and doing it more than moderate amounts can lead to health problems, however, a study from 2018 proved that wine can have great benefits because it contains antioxidants and it promotes anti-inflammatory and lipid-improving effects.

The classification of this beverage can be done according to its origin, methods, vintage, or variety used. Practices can be different in each country and have varied over time to achieve progress. Wine-growing regions all over the world have been improving their conditions with technological innovations to have better hygiene and control over the production process, contributing to the creation of wines suited to the taste of consumers. In fact, global wine consumption has risen with the purpose to enjoy in moderation, as part of a modern, sustainable, and healthy lifestyle. You can also take a look at the following guide in case you want to learn how to make wine at home.

With that said, I will now present you with the process of winemaking, in a thorough but also easy to understand step by step manner:

1 – Choosing the Perfect Grapes

The first step of all is harvesting! It’s one of the crucial stages in this operation, and it’s really easy to understand why – the better grapes you have, the better the product will be!

The moment the grapes are picked from the vineyard will determine their sweetness, flavour, and acidic and tannin levels – now we know why it’s called science. Some of the tracked conditions are the weather, the time of harvest and even the way you pick them – hand picking or mechanical harvesting. Even though there is a lot to consider and to control when it comes to reaching a nice final product, don’t get too scared, as you’ll only reach perfection through trial and error.

2 – Crush!

Once you have the grapes picked up from the vineyard, it’s time to de-stem them and gently squeeze them to liberate their content. This process, in the past or in traditional smaller scale farms, is done by foot. Nowadays, and in bigger wineries, mechanical presses are used to turn grapes into must (pulp) in a much faster and efficient way. Some say this can affect grapes negatively but it’s a more sanitary crushing step and also helps the quality of the final result. Personally, I’d prefer the machines rather than drinking wine crushed by some random farmer’s feet!

What is tapped from the must depends on the type of wine you are making. If white wine is what you want, then the seeds, solids and skins are removed from the grape juice. On the other hand, if red wine is what you prefer, the seeds, solids and skins should stay along with grape juice to offer it more flavour and that beautiful red colour.

3 – Sugar into Alcohol: Fermentation

It’s true, the third step is fermentation and is quickly defined as a transformation from sugar into alcohol – it seems like magic, am I right? It only seems like it, because here is where this process is the longest and most complicated, as it determines the quality of the final result.

As you already know, the product obtained from crushing will ferment because of the present yeasts that transform the sugar, as an energy source, producing ethanol and carbon dioxide. This explains the primary fermentation, which is called alcoholic fermentation, and will last from 5 to 14 days, requiring a lot of careful control (if the goal is a high premium luxurious wine). The second one is called malolactic fermentation, lasts another 5 to 10 days and it characterizes the pH 3,8 of red wines and 3,55 of white wines. Pure science! Temperature, speed and level of oxygen are also extremely important considerations and must be optimized. This whole process can take weeks or even months.

4 – Clarification and Stabilization

After fermentation, it’s time for clarification! This is where pulp, proteins, dead yeast, and other unwanted residues, created during the chemical reactions, are removed from the juice that you can almost call wine at this point. Particles that are insoluble and float, can be filtered and the ones that are soluble but still undesirable, can be centrifuged. Both of these methods need to be optimized to obtain a clear, healthy and appropriate wine. Some natural winemakers don’t clarify because they believe that it diminishes the aroma, texture, and color, so they leave the particles and compounds in red wines for aging – I follow this school of thought.

At this point, you already know that wine can be claimed as a complex mixture built upon microorganisms, and that it can be unstable and reactive depending on the environment and the condition submitted. One of the techniques to stabilize it is cold stabilization and it consists of exposing the wine to low temperatures, close to freezing, for two weeks. The complexity of this whole step is amazing because it enables winemakers to deliver their individual appeal to each wine.

5 – Aging and Bottling

This is the final step but one that is very important in winemaking, because it’s the relocation of the wine into oak barrels (my preferred vessel), stainless steel tanks or bottles.

Wine aging can be defined as a group of reactions that changes the properties of wine and allows it to develop unique flavors over time. Premium wines need to pass through this maturation step to acquire some amazing characteristics like aroma, color, flavour, texture and mouthfeel. Other light and fruity wines don’t need aging and reach their quality peak in a shorter time.

The major considerations in bottling are what kind of bottle to use, type of closure (sealing), (maybe cork), and if you want to add gas or not (not recommended at all for beginners). There are also a lot of kits available for you if you want to experiment making wine at home in a small but very educational manner.

Enjoy it – with Moderation!

Here is every important and crucial step in the winemaking process and you can apply them at your own industry or even at home! Yes, you can make this fruity, incredible juice without leaving your house. If you’re not interested in making your own, you can think about this whole procedure when you’re enjoying it, remembering the magic behind and realizing the work put on it.

Winemaking can be difficult because there are a lot of conditions you need to optimize, starting from picking the grape, to the act of bottling the wine, to the temperature you apply and the cleanliness. Now we can agree that this is almost an art and you have to learn a little bit of science too! Don’t forget that drinking wine in moderation has positive benefits linked to some cardiovascular disease due to the amount of antioxidants, isn’t that great? Thank you for reading and let’s have a glass of wine!

Seeking, Overcoming, and Finding: Amarone for the Father’s Day

June 25, 2020 Leave a comment

Let’s take this step by step, starting with seeking. What am I seeking?

If you read this blog for some time, you know that Amarone is my pet peeve. Ever since falling in love with Le Ragoze Amarone during Kevin Zraly’s Windows on the World Wine School session, Amarone has a special place in this wine lover’s heart. I generally would never admit the existence of the pivotal wine in my wine journey, but if I would really think about it, this will be the one. The combination of the dried fruit on the nose with the firm, powerful, impeccably balanced palate really created an everlasting memory. I had this experience about 17 years ago, in 2003, drinking 5 years old wine (1998 vintage) – and ever since I’m trying to replicate it. Which brings us to the next step: overcoming.

We are talking wine here, so what is there to overcome, you say? Fear. Trepidation. An attempt to avoid disappointment – over and over again. While seeking to replicate the amazing experience, over the years I tried many, many Amarone. A few times I managed to get close to that magical Le Ragoze experience – but the majority was really, really far from it. Why? Lack of balance. Let’s make it more precise: severe lack of balance. Often expressed in the form of the alcohol burn.

In the last 20 years, Amarone’s alcohol level progressed from the typical 14.8% ABV to the typical 16.5% ABV. I get it. What makes Amarone an Amarone is an additional step in the winemaking process, which is rarely used with any other wines – drying of the grapes before they are pressed. After the grapes are harvested, they are placed outside (historically, on the straw mats, but now, on specially arranged shelves) to dry under the sun, to literally shrivel into the raisins before they will be pressed – this process typically takes between 3 and 4 months. Drying concentrates sugars (and dramatically lowers the yield, which explains the high prices), and thus you can expect higher alcohol in the resulting wine. Yes, I get it – but still…

At 16.5% ABV, true mastery is required to achieve balance. True mastery is rare – and the real downside here is personal self-doubt. While tasting yet another hot and biting wine, a tiny voice in your head says “what is wrong with you? You really say you like this type of wine? Are you sure you are even remotely qualified as an oenophile? Maybe water should be your drink of choice?” So yes, tasting yet another Amarone requires overcoming this fear – who wants to prove oneself wrong time and time again?

Now, let’s continue to finding.

When I was offered a sample of Zenato Amarone I said (not without fear) “of course, thank you”. Zenato, which started producing wines about 60 years ago, in the 1960s, initially white wines in Lugano, produced its first Amarone in 1988. The grapes for Zenato Amarone wines come from the Valpolicella Classico area, grown in Sant’Ambrogio township.

So what did I found in that bottle? The first sip instantly quelled all the fears and brought back happy memories. What made that Le Ragoze so memorable was the contrast. I know, I already said it – the wine had an intense nose of the dried fruit. I don’t know about you, but I love dried fruit – especially figs and raisins. But dried fruit is sweet, and this is what I expected from the wine to be – only it was not. The wine was dry, absolutely dry, massive, concentrated, and firmly structured. It was also perfectly balanced.

Those were the memories. And 2015 Zenato Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico DOCG (16.5% ABV, $60, 80% Corvina Veronese, 10% Rondinella, 10% Oseleta and Croatina, 4 months of drying, 36 months in oak) instantly brought them back with the delicate nose of the dried fruit and dry, massive, concentrated, but a perfectly balanced body. Firm structure, a touch of dried cherries, sage – just an excellent wine overall (Drinkability: 8+/9-). Wine is all about the balance. And pleasure. Zenato Amarone delivered both.

As I opened this bottle on Father’s Day, you can see in the picture a dilemma I now will be facing – I got another glass from another kid – now I will be forced to pick and chose the glass and try to avoid playing favorites… Oh well, not the worst problem to have, isn’t it?

Do you have a favorite Amarone that never disappoints? What’s your most memorable wine? Is there a wine out there you always crave?

Wine Opinions, Forming and Changing

June 16, 2020 Leave a comment

Well, this might be a dirty laundry type of post which I might regret later – but sometimes, it is good to look into the mirror, so let’s talk.

How do you form an opinion about the wine? Is it on the first sip? Is it after a glass? Is it based on tasting the wine, let’s say, for an hour or two and slowly deciding if you like the wine or not, sip by sip? Equally important – what other factors contribute to that said opinion? Critic’s 95 rating – would that affect your opinion? Respected friend’s recommendation – how important is that? I’m not even talking about ambiance, mood, food, or any other factors.

Okay, now I have another question.

Your opinion about the wine is formed. What would it take to change it? Is it enough to taste the wine once to change your opinion completely? Or would you need multiple encounters to have your opinion changed completely, doesn’t matter in which direction? Well, actually I think here we need to differentiate here between positive and negative opinions. If your opinion was positive, it will probably take a few unsuccessful encounters with the same wine to decide that you made a mistake the first time. But in case of a negative opinion… it gets more complicated. Would you even be willing to give the wine a second chance in such a case? What would make you pick again the bottle of wine you didn’t appreciate before?

Let’s make it more practical.

Campochirenti Chianti San Nicola and sunset

For a long time, I saw John Fodera, who is an expert in Italian wines, give the highest praise to the wines of Campochiarenti from Tuscany. I had an opportunity to finally taste one of the Campochiarenti wines – 2016 San Nicola Chianti Colli Senesi, one of the most basic wines in the Campochiarenti portfolio. Granted, I tasted this wine during the grand festivities of the open house John hosted during the OTBN Saturday – after tasting a variety of Gran Selezione, Super Tuscans, and a magical 1999 Soldera. And in the middle of all that extravaganza, the Campochiarenti Chianti’s appeal was lost on me. I mentioned in the post that the wine was “classic and simple”, but the major point was the price – it was an okay wine for the expected $12 when the wine will finally make it into the USA. Not that I didn’t like the wine, but I didn’t care much for it either – my palate perceived it as too dry and unidimensional.

Erich Russell, who I wrote recently about, has a business relationship with Daniele Rosti, the winemaker at Campochiarenti (Rabbit Ridge soon will be releasing the wine which will be a blend of Italian and California wines), and Erich happened to import a good number of Campochirenti wines to be able to showcase his future joint releases, which he now has available via his website. A few weeks ago, while I was ordering the birthday present for my sister-in-law in the form of the Rabbit Ridge wines, I recalled that she and her husband love Italian wines, so I decide to include a few bottles of the Campochiarenti wines in my order.

This past weekend we visited my sister-in-law who lives on Cape Cod. While deciding on the wine to take with us to see the sunset, I realized that this was a great opportunity to see what am I missing about this 2016 Campochiarenti San Nicola Chianti Colli Senesi – considering the universal love the wine has, I needed to try it again. It only took me one sniff and sip to have my opinion changed completely. The wine was absolutely mindblowing, in both bouquet and the taste, bursting with succulent cherries and offering velvety mouthfeel and impeccable balance. The picture above perfectly summarizes the way I felt about the wine – a double score, an amazing sunset paired with a superb wine.

After coming back and ordering my own case, I can now offer you another case buy recommendation. Visit Rabbit Ridge wine shopping page here, and look for the wine called Danielle – at $15, this wine is an absolute steal. You can also try Campochiarenti Vernaccia di San Gimignano, which supposed to be on par with the Chianti (when ordering, you can specify how many bottles of white and red you want) – I’m waiting for mine to arrive soon.

That is my story of a changed wine opinion. It was very easy for me, one sip and done. How about you? Have you changed your wine opinions and how? Do tell! Cheers!

CASARENA, The Next Level Of Argentinian Wines

June 9, 2020 Leave a comment

The next level of Argentinian wines – I can literally see a “yeah, come on, really???” reaction from many of you. What does that even mean – the next level?

Okay, no need to get all feisty here – let’s talk about it. Argentinean wines require no introduction to any of the wine lovers today. Argentinian Malbec is practically a mandatory element of any bar or restaurant wine list, on equal footing with Cabernet Sauvignon from California. Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends from Argentina also command topmost respect of wine lovers around the world. If the top-level is already achieved, what is the next level above it?

The “next level” here is my attempt to convey the emotion, the excitement of pleasure of tasting the delicious wines. While Argentinian wines are unquestionably the world-class, many of them are hardly distinguishable. The taste of Argentinian Malbec sometimes gets too predictable, and the wines lose their personality. Thus when you discover the wine which doesn’t conform to the “universal profile”, you feel like you are advancing to the next level of the game. I hope my tasting notes will convey my feeling about these wines, but let’s talk about the region first.

I perfectly remember listening to Kevin Zraly explaining the concept of quality of the wines. Imagine the set of enclosed circles. The biggest circle is equated to the big region – let’s say, California. Wines labeled with California as the region can be made from grapes grown anywhere in the state of California. The next circle is a sub-region – let’s say, Napa Valley. Wines labeled as Napa Valley can be produced only from the grapes grown in Napa Valley. That gives us a higher level of confidence in the quality of the wines, as Napa Valley is well known for the quality of the grapes. We can still narrow our circles, and now we are looking at the sub-region of the Napa Valley itself – Howell Mountain, Rutherford, Spring Mountain – there are many. Now your choice of grapes is restricted only to such a sub-region, which often offers a common taste profile coming from the vineyards in that subregion, such as famous Rutherford dust in the Cabernet Sauvignon wines sourced from the Rutherford appellation. And even now we might not be done with our circles, as we can restrict our source of grapes even further to the individual vineyard, such as Beckstoffer To-Kalon, and then even to the individual blocks and plots within the same vineyard. The smaller the circle is, the higher is the quality of the grapes, and that should translate into the quality of the wines.

Let’s now apply our circles to Argentina. We will start in Mendoza, probably the best-known winemaking area in Argentina – think about all the Argentinian Malbecs you are consuming. Continuing narrowing down, let’s now go to the Luján de Cuyo, the region located just south of Mendoza city. Luján de Cuyo is the first officially recognized appellation in Argentina (established in 1993), and home to some of the best known Argentinian wineries such as Catena Zapata and Cheval des Andes. Continuing narrowing down we now need to go to the town of Agrelo, where  CASARENA Bodega & Viñedos is located.

I don’t like to use cliché in my writing. Nevertheless, if I would try to describe what makes Luján de Cuyo (and Agrelo for that matter) a great winemaking region, I feel that I’m doing exactly that – shamelessly using all available wine cliché all the way. See for yourself: Most of the vineyards in the region are located on a high altitude, which increases the sun exposure during the day and also creates a significant temperature drop in the evening – we are talking about significant diurnal temperature variation which slows down the ripening and helps grapes to retain acidity. Close proximity to the Andes creates a desert-like environment as it significantly reduced the rainfall – now we are talking about dry farming. Many vineyards in the region are also located on the rocky soils, forcing the vines to work hard to reach the nutrients. There is rarely greatness without adversity, and the combination of all the factors mentioned above presents exactly the adversity needed to produce excellent grapes – and yes, this unavoidable wine cliché. 

CASARENA Bodega & Viñedos was founded in 2007, with the first officially released vintage being 2009, starting, quite expectedly, with Malbec. After tasting its first commercial success with a slew of good critic ratings, CASARENA continued to narrow down the circles and created 7 single-vineyard wines coming from 4 different vineyards. I had the pleasure of tasting samples of 3 of these single-vineyard wines and was literally blown away by the quality.

Here are my notes:

2017 Casarena Malbec Naoki’s Vineyard Agrelo Luján de Cuyo Mendoza (14.5% ABV)
Dark garnet, very inviting
Dark fruit, cassis, tobacco, pencil shavings, a touch of mint
Medium to full body, succulent red fruit, vanilla, perfect acidity, silky smooth, well-integrated tannins, good minerality
8+, balanced, and delicious. Well refined compared to a typical Argentinian Malbec

2017 Casarena Cabernet Sauvignon Owen’s Vineyard Agrlo Luján de Cuyo Mendoza (14% ABV, 80 years old vines)
Dark garnet, practically black
Day 1:
Nose – dark, funky, concentrated, earth, tobacco
The palate is very contrasting to the nose, classic Cab with Cassis and bell pepper, not very expressive
Day 2:
Nose and palate are similar, more of a Malbec style – vanilla, blue fruit, coffee, dark chocolate.
Day 3:
Nose – Autumn forest, cherries, coffee
Palate – classic Bordeaux, a touch of currant, bell peppers, soft, supple, luscious, the well present core of minerality.
8/8+, excellent. My best analogy for this wine would be Dunn Howell Mountain wines, with the dark power imparted on the wines.

2017 Casarena Cabernet Franc Lauren’s Vineyard Agrelo Luján de Cuyo Mendoza (14.2% ABV, 18 months in new French oak)
Dark garnet, almost black
Coffee, a hint of cherries, minerally-driven
Cassis, cherries, soft, round, goos texture
8+, might be my favorite of the tasting.

These are three wines which would bring any dinner or friends gathering to the next level – I don’t know if you can see my point just by reading, the best way would be to pour a glass of CASARENA wine and take a quick trip to Argentina. Cheers!

Good When Young, Good With Age

June 8, 2020 2 comments

It’s what you crave, people.

And right now, I’m craving Riesling.

Wine cravings are an interesting phenomenon. Or not. I guess food cravings work in exactly the same way. It appears to be all of a sudden, the desire for a certain food – french fries (oh wait, I always crave french fries), fried chicken, steak, scallops, lasagna, broccoli (really, you say? Yep, I can bet someone is craving broccoli right now). Is it really so unprovoked, so out of blue, or is it our subconscious at play here, collecting little cues here and there?

It is getting warm now, but that alone is not the reason to crave Riesling. But what if I read about other people enjoying the Riesling, with food and without – would that count as an invisible cue? I don’t know, but I can clearly imagine myself with a glass of cold Riesling in hand, don’t even need to close my eyes.

In the world of white wine, Riesling is unquestionably a part of “big three” – Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling. At the same time, if you think about typical wine store, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc would take the prime real estate, the most central position on the shelves – and Riesling would be typically relegated to the far-most corner, with a little “Germany” sign next to it, or maybe in the “other whites” section. And it is a pity because scandalously delicious Riesling is produced practically everywhere – Alsace, Australia (Grosset would be an amazing example), New Zealand, Israel, California (how about some Smith-Madrone), Oregon (Brooks Rieslings are sublime), Washington (Chateau Ste. Michelle does an excellent job), and I’m not even talking about New York state or Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada.

It is not only the hedonistic pleasure that the glass of well-made Riesling readily delivers on its own. Riesling is one of the most versatile food wines – it pairs well with a wide range of dishes and cuisines. And then Riesling has an ability to age not just well, but extremely well. Let’s bring back again the big three. Yes, you can age many of the Chardonnay wines, but rarely for 30, 40, 50 years – I’m sure there are some exceptions, probably in Burgundy, but still, this is not common. Sauvignon Blanc would fare even worse than Chardonnay. But well-made Riesling? 30 years will not be even the age – it will be still youthful and vibrant, with ease.

I didn’t have any 30 years old Rieslings recently, but I got two samples with 4 and 8 years of age, and both fared equally well – while even 8 years might be a stretch for many white wines. 2016 Leitz Eins-Zwei-Dry Riesling Trocken Rheingau (12% ABV) was produced by Weingut Leitz, where the family winemaking traditions go back to 1744; 2012 Müller-Catoir Bürgergarten Riesling Spätlese Pfalz (9% ABV) was produced at the Weingut Müller-Catoir which, interestingly enough, was also founded in 1744.

It is interesting that both wines were produced at the wineries with the 9th generation of winemakers (duh – the wineries were founded in the same year, I know). Both wines are pure Riesling wines, both come from the hillside vineyards with some unimaginable slopes. 2016 Riesling is designated as dry, and 2012 is a Spätlese-level, which means that the grapes had a higher sugar content when harvested.

I’m sure you wonder how were the wines? Well, yes, both were delicious. Both were a characteristic Riesling, with honey, honeysuckle, and a touch of lemon on the nose. Of course, Spätlese was sweeter, but not by much. And it is always the acidity which makes or breaks Riesling – both wines showed perfectly balancing, fresh, vibrant acidity. Bottom line – both were equally delicious and ready to be enjoyed on their own or support any food. As for the age… what age? I will be happy to try both in 10 (or 20)  years – and I’m sure I would enjoy them very much.

What is your take on Riesling? Do you have any favorites wines or regions? Do tell! Cheers!

 

Wednesday Meritage: Where To Get Wine [Values]

June 4, 2020 1 comment

Meritage Time!

This is a bit of an unusual Meritage post, as it is focused on one single subject – how to maximize your hard-earned dollars while continuing to enjoy your beloved beverage. Plus, I want to share with you my case buy recommendation at the end of this post.

The inspiration for this post were the notes I receive via subscription to the blog by Robert Dwyer called Wellesley Wine Press which I had been following for a long time. Robert has a special talent for finding wine deals and discounts, and he shares all that information in his blog, so we can all benefit from that.

In addition to Robert’s finds, I also want to suggest another source of discounts which might or might not work for you – the American Express credit card. If you don’t own the American Express card, you should skip all this Amex talk and advance to the case discount section. For those of you who has the card you can’t leave home without, please continue reading.

When you log into your account at the American Express website, you can find a section of “Amex Offers & Benefits” at the bottom of the page. There are 100 different offers that are available to you on any given day. I believe those offers are targeted, and I’m not sure if everyone will see the exact same set of offers. Today, out of those 100 offers, 12 are wine-related. These are real savings, I used those offers many times in the past and those are real deals, saving you $20, $30, $50. These offers are easy to use – find what you are interested in using, apply the offer to your card, then make a purchase in required amount before the offer expiration date on the American Express card you applied the offer to, and your credit will be posted automatically within a few business days.

Here is the list of the offers which are currently available for my American Express card – I’m also adding the additional discount information which can be found in Robert’s blog:

Wine.com

Spend $100+, get one time $30 credit. Expires 6/30/2020.
You can add to this a $50 off $150 purchase with the code CN50 – see Robert’s post for explanations and additional discount codes. So technically, you can spend $150 on the wine, and with the combination of these two offers, your cost will be only $70. I took this opportunity to get a few bottles of Grosset Riesling from Clare valley – definitely a great deal.

WineaAcess.com/amex

Spend $250+, receive $50 credit. Expires 9/30/2020. Limit of 3 statement credits (total of $150). Wine Access offers many interesting wines – you can read about my experience here.

Parcellewine.com

Spend $100+, get one time $20 back. Expires 9/1/2020

BenchmarkWine.com

Spend $250+, get a one-time $50 credit. Expires 8/22/2020. Benchmark Wine Group is one of my favorite online stores to shop for wine – lots of unique and different finds.

The restaurant at Beringer Vineyards or online at beringer.com

Spend $200, get a one-time $60 credit. Expires 8/28/2020. Beringer Vineyards needs no introduction – and this sounds like a good deal.

Vinfolio.com

Spend $250+, get 5,000 additional Membership Rewards points (one time). Expires 7/31/2020. Considering that American Express points can be valued at about one penny per point, 5,000 membership points would equate $50 – a good deal.

FirstBottleWines.com

Spend $250+, get a one-time $50 credit. Expires 8/23/2020

Benziger.com

Spend $200,  get a one-time $40 credit. Expires 7/20/2020.

Bcellars.com, the restaurant at B Cellars Vineyards and Winery

Spend $300+, get a one-time $90 credit. Expires 8/18/2020.

StagsLeap.com

Spend $200+, get a one-time $60 credit. Expires 7/27/2020. Another coveted winery on the list.

Vinesse.com

Spend $50+, get a one-time $15 credit. Expires 7/3/2020.

WineInsiders.com

Spend $20+, get $20 credit. Expires 10/31/2020. Limit of 3 statement credits (total of $60)

These are all the American Express offers which I found available today for my credit card.

Rabbit Ridge Wines Paso Robles

And now, for the case recommendations.

You see, when I find a good value wine, I’m always a bit hesitant to share that information with the world – what if there will be not enough left for me? Well, yeah, it is really not about me, right? It is all about delicious wine which you can afford to drink any day. What is also unique about these wines is that they don’t come from Spain, Italy, or France, where you can still find great bargains – these wines are made in California – at Rabbit Ridge Winery in Paso Robles.

I recently met winemaker and the owner Erich Russell and his wife Joanne at the virtual event organized by John Fodera. We were going to discuss Rabbit Ridge wines, and I ordered a few bottles for that discussion – 2017 Rabbit Ridge Allure de Robles Paso Robles (15.4% ABV, $10(!), Rhone blend), 2018 Rabbit Ridge Zinfandel Westside Paso Robles (114.9% ABV, $15), and 2013 Rabbit Ridge Petite Sirah Paso Robles (14.8% ABV, $20).

Opening a $10 bottle of California wine is hardly possible without trepidation – finding great wines at that price is really challenging. And nevertheless, Allure de Robles was delicious – soft, supple, well-present, and perfectly balanced. Would it compete head to head with the wines from Saxum or Alban – no, of course not. Yet this is an excellent, delicious everyday wine in its own right.

$15 Zinfandel is also not an easy find. Rabbit Ridge West Side Zinfandel was superb – the core of raspberries with a touch of smoke. Yep, delicious is the right word.

$20 Petite Sirah, drinkable upon the opening of the bottle – this doesn’t happen often, if ever. Petite Sirah is tricky and finding drinkable one at that price is also quite difficult – again, Rabbit Ridge perfectly delivered dark and firmly structured core, with the fruit leisurely weaved around it.

If these wines are not the case buy recommendations then I don’t know what is.

Here you go, my friends. I hope you will be able to take advantage of at least some of the offers and don’t miss on those Rabbit Ridge wines – nothing lasts forever… Cheers!

Daily Glass: Meeting The Expectations

June 2, 2020 3 comments

Expectations are essential in any area of human life. We find great joy when our expectations are exceeded, no matter what those expectations apply to – service, conversation, book, a dish at a restaurant, final grade – truly anything and everything. We are equally disappointed when our expectations are not met – subpar service, empty talk, boring book, bland dish, a B grade instead of an A. Believe me, works every time. Expectations are important, as they function as gates to happiness.

In theory, having low expectations is a perfect path to happiness – a solid guarantee that expectations will be easily exceeded and we will feel happy. Well, it is easier said than done. More often than not, the expectations are set on a subconscious level. When you read the test question, the brain instantly jumps in “I know the answer!” – left unchecked, the test grade might not meet the expectations. Or think about one of my favorite sources of disappointment while visiting the restaurant – the dish description which doesn’t meet your expectations. If the dish described as “spicy” it is better actually be spicy and not dull…

Expectations work exactly like that in the world of wine. One quick glance at the label unleashes a slew of instant impressions – ahh, Turley, yes, had this last year, maybe a different vintage, I think this is a great year, should be delicious, maybe need some time to breathe, ahh, and I remember not liking that wine at first, yeah, I still remember that… can I pull that cork already? Yep – one quick glance is quite enough.

Exceeding expectations is great, but, more often than not, meeting them is quite enough – especially if your expectations are already high enough. Here is my account of two wines perfectly meeting my expectations.

Peter Michael Winery requires no introduction to the wine lovers, producing some of the best Chardonnays, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon wines in California for more than 30 years. Turley Wine Cellars had been around for 27 years, and it is best known as producer of some of the most coveted Zinfandel wines. It is interesting that both wines I’m talking about here are sort of the oddballs for both producers – Peter Michael is not really known for its Sauvignon Blanc, and Larry Turley, the proprietor at Turley wines, was anti-Cabernet Sauvignon for a long time, so I’m not sure if wine lovers are even fully aware that Turley produces Cabernet Sauvignon for the past 5 years.

Both wineries are well known for their quality wines, and when you see their names on the label, you do expect to taste that quality in your glass. 2012 Peter Michael L’Aprés Midi Knights Valley Sonoma County (15.6% ABV) was superb from the get-go – a whiff of the fresh-cut grass, whitestone fruit, round mouthfeel, and clean acidity. The wine was really uncalifornian in its presentation – I would think I’m tasting Sancerre if I would taste this wine blind. The utmost elegance – and 8 years old fresh and vibrant Sauvignon Blanc is not an easy fit.

2012 Turley Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Cellars (14.1% ABV) also tasted as expected. As I opened the bottle, it was not the wine to drink – for sure not for my palate. Big, brooding, jammy, with a lot of semi-sweet dark chocolate and dark fruit. It was quintessential Californian and over the board. I’m sure it doesn’t sound great to many of you, but this is within the expectations, as Californian Cabernet Sauvignon are rarely pop’n’pour wines, and at 8 years of age, they are way too young. However, exactly as expected, the wine became magnificent on the second day. Cassis showed up, smothered with mint, eucalyptus, and a touch of anise. The medley of fruit and herbs was delicious, with perfect balancing acidity and velvety, roll-of-your-tongue, texture. Just the wine I would expect Turley to produce.

How often do you find the wines which meet your expectations? Better yet, how often your wine expectations are exceeded?

An Open Letter To The Wine Lover Visiting Prague

May 24, 2020 Leave a comment

How often do you have regrets in your life? For how long do they last?

Not a simple question to answer, right? When you don’t listen to your wife and don’t wear a scarf on a cold and windy day, this will be a very short-living regret – I’m sure you will happily make the same mistake in a week. If you ignore a friend’s request to join him in the startup, and then 2 years later startup make a $1B exit – this is the regret you might have to live with for the rest of your life.

Once you become a passionate blogger, almost everything you see and experience becomes an opportunity for the new post, especially if the experience is a great one. You quickly start imagining that post in your head, you literally feel the happiness you would feel once the blog post is out. Then life gets the way, and 3 months later, you still remember that you wanted to write this post. 6 months, 10 months, a year – every time you start a new post, the regret of unfinished work gets to you first. Then the feeling becomes numb, and you finally forget.

I was looking for a bottle to open, and you know how it gets – not now, later, not ready, need a company – a ton of decisions to make regarding every single bottle. I finally decided on the bottle of 2013 Salabka Tes Yeux Neronet from the Czech Republic. After the very first sip, the happy smile came. Next came the crushing regret – I never wrote long thought though and thoroughly enjoyed, in the head, post about an amazing time we had at Salabka winery, top-notch dinner, and amazing wines. I was remembering about this for more than a year, and still never wrote it – and one sip of this Neronet wine brought all this back – the happy memory of our time in Prague and the regret of not fulfilling my own plans.

Most of the people would associate Prague and Czech Republic overall with beer. And those people would be right – kind of. Yes, the beer in Prague is an absolute standout. I’m not a beer guy, and yet I would happily drink beer in Prague at any occasion. But wine is a big deal there either. In the Moravia region alone there are more than 1,200 small, artisan, often moms and pops, producers. The wines there are made both from indigenous and international varieties, and the winemaking history goes back thousand years – I wrote about Czech wines in the past, you can find that post here.

In 2017, I was lucky to spend more than 2 weeks in Prague as I had two back to back events there. The city of Prague is absolutely amazing, boasting history on every corner – I shared some of my favorite highlights here. We also had a lot of amazing restaurant experiences, and some of them I shared here – but I let the brightest highlight, the visit to Salabka winery, to become a regret. And one sip of that Neronet wine forced me to say nope, not happening. Of course, it is not the same as writing about the experience while every sensation is fresh and vibrant. But I still have the pictures, so never mind the 3 years – I will still be able to share the experience with you.

Salabka is a city winery, located right in the middle of Prague, on the right bank of Vltava River. The vineyard is about 11 acres, and the winery produces about 10,000 bottles every year, with a full focus on the quality. There are only two red grapes grown at the winery – Pinot Noir and Neronet, local indigenous variety, and quite a few whites (Riesling, Müller Thurgau, Scheurebe, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay). Every bottle of wine produced at Salabka has a picture of the vineyard on the back label, also with an indication of the exact parcel where the particular grapes were growing.

Salabka is more than just a winery – they also have apartments for rent on the property, and most importantly, a restaurant that specializes in modern cuisine – including the molecular gastronomy.

Considering that our visit took place three years ago, I can’t give you a detailed account of the dishes – but I have pictures which clearly show the creative cuisine we were able to experience.

We started with the tour of the vineyards and the cellars, with a glass of delicious Chardonnay in hand, seeing bud breaks on the vines and beautiful views of the red roofs of Prague.

Then we had a tasting dinner, with all dishes paired with different wines, with foam and other molecular gastronomy elements being present almost in every dish. 2007 Salabka Le Diamant Blanc de Blancs was excellent, and I can still remember 2016 Salabka La Coquine Chardonnay with its Chablis-like gunflint and apple flavor (La Coqine Chardonnay was wine number 12 on my 2017 Top Wines list). I liked both wines so much that I even had to bring them back home, together with the red, made out of the Neronet grape.

It was that 2013 Salabka Tes Yeux Neronet wine which prompted this post. One sip of this peppery, acidic, herbs forward wine instantly brought back the memory of that trip. One sip of this wine instantly transports you to the old cellar, where wine was made, spilled, and stored for hundreds year – any oenophile can close their eyes and easily imagine themselves in such a cellar. The time and space travel machine is not invented yet, but properly made wine can easily replace it, and this Neronet certainly did.

So here it is, wine lovers. If you will be visiting Prague, remember that delicious wines are waiting for you. And if you are looking for a pleasure-filled evening, Salabka might be just the place. Cheers!

American Pleasures #4 – Gratus Vineyards

May 22, 2020 Leave a comment

Wine can be many things to many people. Wine can connect people. Wine can bring back memories. Wine can bring back a unique experience, change one’s mood, and help solve a problem.

The wine is also often an expression of gratitude.

Those of us who love wine also love to offer it to others as an expression of our gratitude. We take great care in carefully selecting the wine to express what we feel – it makes us ecstatic when the gift recipient acknowledges our choice.

And then there are those who make wine to express their gratitude – sometimes, they even call their winery to show that, as would be the case for GRATUS Vineyards.

Gratus is Latin for gratitude, and this is exactly what Thomas Wargovich was trying to express by naming his Napa Valley winery GRATUS Vineyards – gratitude to the family, gratitude to his grandparents who came to the USA as millions of others in search of the better life.

Source: GRATUS Vineyards

GRATUS Vineyards is a 27 acres parcel in Pope Valley, the small strip of land adjacent to the famed Howell Mountain. GRATUS Vineyards is not just a winery. While 10 acres are planted with vines, the rest of the parcel constitutes a complex nature habitat, an arboretum with more than 300 rare and endangered species of conifers, trees which bear cones, among other plants. It makes GRATUS Vineyards a unique place with its own soul and personality.

The first vintage at GRATUS Vineyards, 2012, consisted of 75 cases. Current production is about 600 cases, with the wines ranging from the Rhone varietals to the classic California Cabernet Sauvignon and blends. Red wines at GRATUS Vineyards are typically aged for about 22 months in oak.

I had an opportunity to taste GRATUS Vineyards wines and was very much impressed with the consistency of the full range I was able to experience. Here are my notes:

2018 Gratus Vineyards White Blend Napa Valley (14.2% ABV, $39, blend of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, and Picpoul Blanc)
Light golden
Whitestone fruit, plums, a touch of lemon, refreshing and inviting
Round, medium-plus weight, noticeable texture, green apple, lemon, good acidity
8-/8, thought-provoking

2018 Gratus Vineyards L’ovey Rosé Napa Valley (14.2% ABV, $23)
Beautiful salmon pink
Light and refreshing strawberries, very inviting
Tart strawberries and cranberries on the palate, crisp, fresh, definitely a bigger body than Provence, and perfectly balanced.
8+, delicious.

2016 Gratus Vineyards Malbec Napa Valley (14.8% ABV, $70)
Dark garnet, practically black
Dark berries, mint, sweet basil, overripe plum
Dark berries, ripe blueberries, and blackberries, iodine, dark chocolate, medium-plus body, smooth, good acidity, good balance, medium finish
8, tasty now, will evolve.
8+ on the third day. The wine lost sweetness and developed dark magic

2015 Gratus Vineyards Red Blend Napa Valley (14.8% ABV, $90, blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Petite Sirah)
Dark garnet, practically black
Dark chocolate, mocha, cherries, anise
Lip-smacking, cherries, coffee, eucalyptus, full-body, supple, generous.
8, excellent on the 2nd day. It definitely needs time, but has good potential.

2016 Gratus Vineyards Red Blend Napa Valley (14.8% ABV, $80, 80% Cabernet Sauvignon)
Dark garnet, practically black
Black currant, sweet tobacco, a touch of mint
Black currant, cherries, good minerality, fresh, firm structure, good acidity, excellent balance, medium finish.
8/8+, delicious.

2016 Gratus Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Napa Valley (14.8% ABV, $120, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon (clone 15))
Dark garnet, practically black
Day 1: not a lot to report. The wine is massive and closed.
Day 2 notes:
Vanilla, dark chocolate
Dark chocolate, big, brooding, pencil shavings, iodine
8-, an interesting contrast with day 1 – need to wait for the day 3

As you can see, most of the reds are in the “needs time” category, but this is pretty much a signature of the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines. Hopefully, you got the patience, and the space int he cellar. Cheers!

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