Trader Joe’s Wines: Combining Great and Value

November 15, 2019 1 comment

I travel for business (let’s get it straight – I actually like it). One of my small personal pleasures in such travel is exploring the local wine scene if time allows. I always check for the wineries close to my location (if I have a car, sometimes, those wineries don’t even have to be close). If I can’t find wineries, I’m happy to visit local stores, especially when they come with recommendations, as during my recent visit to Texas and discovering the Spec’s wine store.

When it comes to the wine stores, I have one which stands aside. It is not really a wine store, it is a grocery store that also sells wine. I’m not trying to be mysterious here, you already saw it in the title – yes, I’m talking about Trader Joe’s stores. Trader Joe’s stores can be found pretty much everywhere in the USA, and the store which is less than a mile from my house is considered best on the East Coast (you should see the line of cars trying to enter the parking lot Saturday morning, ohh). But – Trader Joe’s in Connecticut only sell beer, so I have to look for Trader Joe’s wines elsewhere, and this is where the travel comes handy.

What so special about Trader Joe’s wines? Glad you asked, as the answer is very simple – QPR, which stands for Quality Price Ratio. While Trader Joe’s sells some wines from the producers you would easily recognize, the absolute majority of the Trader Joe’s wines are so-called “private labels”. Trader Joe’s is working with producers all around the world to find very inexpensive wines, which also happen to be really tasty. I don’t know how it is possible to have consistently good tasting wines in the $4.99 – $9.99 range, but they actually manage to do it. Those wines might not blow your socks off (some might), but the wines are solid, well made, and yes, tasty. Here you can find an account of some of my past Trader Joe’s visits to check it for yourself. – the question “how do they do it” is always paramount in these explorations.

My visit to Trader Joe’s in Reno, Nevada gave me another round of excitement and envy. Magnums of French Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine and Prosecco for … wait for it … $12.99? How do they do it? No, I didn’t taste these two but based on my prior experience with Trader Joe’s wines, I can imagine that these will be decent  wines. I can continue this “how do they do it” theme for a long time, as the prices for most of the wines are just mind-boggling. Here is a glimpse of the shelves, see it for yourself:

Obvously there is a limit to how many wines I can taste during a short trip, so here is what I do. I set myself a limit, which is practically always at $20, to get as many wines as will attract my attention. I don’t believe I was ever been able to stay within this exact range, but I usually cut it pretty close. First of all, I select the wines by the label, but then I think if I want to try a Portuguese wine or a California wine more. There is no science to my decision process, it is more of a spur of the moment – but having a price limit set helps to make it more organized.

My selection this time consisted of 2 wines from France and 2 wines from Califonia – without having any intent for it to happen this way. I saw two very attractive labels for the California wines, and then Cote du Rhone white wine for $5.99 and French Rosé for $4.99 – there is absolutely no chance those would be good, right? Yes, I blew my budget by $4 to the grand total of $24 for 4 wines – do you expect any of those wines to be any good?

Here is a graphical account of my loot:

And here are the tasting notes:

2017 Phigment Red Wine Blend California (13.5% ABV, $5.99)
Concentrated Ruby
Dark fruit, mint, coffee, a touch of cassis
Fresh crunchy berries, sweet tobacco, baking spices, soft texture, good acidity. Characteristic Lodi touch of cinnamon. Long, pleasant finish.
7+, excellent QPR.

2018 Cellier des Vignes Prestige Côtes DI Rhône AOC (13% ABV, $5.99)
Light golden
Whitestone fruit, a touch of smoke, a hint of pineapple
Clean, fresh, good acidity, a touch of golden delicious apples and white plums, medium finish
8-, excellent, good by itself, should be even better with food

2018 Fleur de Treille Rosé Vin de France (12% ABV, $4.99, 55% Cinsault, 45% Grenache)
Onion peel pink
Strawberries on the nose, nice, clean
Strawberries on the palate, good concentration, good acidity, a nice presence of fruit, nice lemon notes on the finish
8-/8, outstanding QPR, an excellent wine. Really impressive.

NV Gambler’s Flash Red Table Wine Paso Robles ( 13.9% ABV, $6.99, a blend of grapes from 2 vintages)
Dark Garnet, practically black
Serious gunflint, a touch of funk, tart cherries, sage, pleasant
Wow, dark fruit, smoke, touch of coffee, medium-plus body, sweet cherries undertones, perfect balance
8-/8, this is a lot of wine for the money! Great QPR, easy to drink, lots of pleasure, just wow
Definitely an 8 on the second day.

I don’t know how it is possible. 4 out 4 are nicely drinking wines. I would buy either one of them again in the instant – it would be perfect with or without a meal, with a friend and without a friend, these are just good wines at good prices.

Three out of four are a bit of a mystery in terms of grape composition. I would only take a guess on Gambler’s Flash to say that in my opinion, Grenache or Malbec should be a part of the blend – just a guess, don’t think I will ever know if this was correct.

But what I know for sure is that Trader Joe’s did it again – 4 wines, 4 outstanding values, and one happy wine lover.

Have you recently discovered any Trader Joe’s gems on your own? Cheers!

It Might Be Gone Already

November 13, 2019 8 comments

Oenophiles are strange creatures. We love wine and derive out of it a tremendous amount of happiness, joy, and pleasure. We are also somewhat of a masochistic type. We like to torture ourselves around our beloved beverage. We can spend a lot of time trying to select a bottle of wine for a Monday night – multiply that by 10 if we are talking even about a casual Friday night. We need to take into account everything – the mood, the weather, who are we sharing the wine with, and on, and on.

One of the biggest problems we are always trying to solve is called “is it the time”. Yes, we know that it is a gamble. There is no science to know when the wine is ready to drink. And as we always like to enjoy the wine at its peak, we can take forever to decide on that right moment. And this is where the danger lurks – instead of getting the wine at its peak, we might be facing the wine which is … gone.

There are two types of special bottles we, oenophiles, get nervous around. There are those which we are trying to age to precisely hit the bullseye, the “oh my god” moment when tasting wine at its peak. The second type are those wines which we call “special”. “Special” is personal – a single bottle which reminds us of a wonderful trip or a moment in life, a special present from a dear friend, a super-rare or a super-expensive bottle we want to hold on to for as long as possible. Sometimes, this can be one and the same bottle which hits both characteristics. For the second type of “special” bottles there is the OTBN – ”Open That Bottle Night”, an event celebrated on the last Saturday in February, invented to help people to part with those special bottles. For the bottles we are waiting to become perfect… well, it might be the same OTBN, or maybe we just need to convince ourselves that “the time is now”.

This is what we decided to do, setting the theme for our wine dinner as “It might be gone already”. Usually, we set the rules for our tastings – what wines, what regions, what price ranges, etc. But for this dinner there were no rules – whatever anyone wants to have open, whatever the reason is to believe that the wine might be past prime (or not) – everything goes.

We managed to assemble a lot more wines than we were able to drink, so many of the wonderful bottles will have to wait until the next occasion. However, we still did great, finding lots of great surprises and enjoying the program very much. Here is my account of our tasting.

We started from a very simple wine – 2007 Saint-Hilaire Brut Blanquette de Limoux, a sparkling wine from the Languedoc, from the winery which claims that they were the first to make the Methodé Traditionelle wines, before Champagne ever saw a first bubble in the bottle. This is one of my most favorite sparkling wines – it is inexpensive ($12.99 or so), and tasty. But – 12 years old? That sounds like a little much for a wine like that. Nevertheless, it was perfect – still fresh, still a good amount of bubbles, a touch of yeast – a perfect start for our evening.

We continued our bubbly explorations with something of a truly next level – 1990 Dom Ruinart Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Champagne. Another perfect encounter – crisp, focused, a good amount of yeast and toasted bread – an outstanding vintage Champagne without a sign of age.

Italy is better known in the world as the source of great red wines. However, Italian whites shouldn’t be ignored. Jermann makes some of the very best Italian white wines, and these wines are unquestionably a world class. Vintage Tunina is a flagship wine, made out of a field blend of Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia, and a small percentage of a local sweet grape. According to the notes on the Jermann website, Vintage Tunina can age for 7–8 years, 10 in the exceptional vintages. This 2006 Jermann Vintage Tunina Venezia Giulia IGT was 13 years old, and in a word, it was superb. Bright, vibrant, whitestone fruit and a touch of honey, medium+ body – an outstanding wine.

Our next white was 2007 Château St Jean Chardonnay Reserve Sonoma County – it was not as impressive as Vintage Tunina, but still was not over the hill, with a good amount of white apple, a touch of butter, and good acidity. I never had this wine before, and understand from the people who did that the wine was starting its journey down the hill, but it was still quite enjoyable.

I was trying to convince my friends that our next wine was not ready to be opened – 2011 Antica Terra Erratica Rosé from Oregon. I had 2010 last year, and the wine was mind-blowing (ended up being wine #2 on my Top Wines list of 2018). After being ostracized – “what are you talking about, it is 8 years old Rosé ?!?!” – I angrily pulled out the cork. 2011 was equally mind-blowing to the last year’s 2010. Pungent, lip-smacking, full of smoky cranberries and herbs, medium body – delicious. I don’t know for how long this wine can age, but I would definitely love to see it with at least another 5 years of age. Oh well…

Now, we are reaching practically a culmination point of the evening – 1966 Château Leoville Poyferré St. Julien. Well, it was conditionally the culmination point – when I received this bottle 2 years ago, the capsule showed a significant amount of wine stain, which is an indication of the wine potentially slowly sipping through the cork. But – it was 1966, so that alone deserves the utmost respect.

As we expected, the wine was past its prime. It had dark brown color in the glass – a color you expect to see on a well-aged tawny port, but not on Bordeaux at any age. The wine had the tasting profile of a nice hearty stew, but again, not the Bordeaux. To be entirely honest, I enjoyed a few sips of it (my friends refused it almost instantly), but this was definitely not the wine anyone should drink.

I’m not going in the right order, but let’s talk about maybe the biggest disappointment of the evening – 2010 Yves Boyer-Martinot Meursault-Perrier. 9 years old white Burgundy should be way too young to drink. But then the Meursault wines have a known issue – Premature Oxidation, or PremOx as it is often abbreviated. Fear of PremOx was a driving factor behind the decision to open this wine. Unfortunately, the fear was justified – kind of. The wine was not oxidized – but it was literally undrinkable. It showed a little sign of life at first, and we decided to decant it – however, it didn’t help. The wine showed very tired, some stewed plums, no vibrancy of any kind. Definitely not a good surprise.

Let’s get back to the red wines. Our next wine was 1978 Barbera. The label lost practically all of its color, so I don’t know who was the producer. But the bottle had been very important memorabilia – at the age of 9, our friend Stefano was helping to bottle that exact wine, so it clearly had a special meaning. The wine was still drinkable, had good acidity and some dark fruit. Not amazing, but well drinkable.

The next two red wines aptly compensated for all the misgivings of our tasting. 1997 Shafer Firebreak Napa Valley, a blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon, was excellent. The core of the dark fruit and espresso, firm structure, excellent balance, the wine was alive and delicious. It is a pity that this wine is not produced anymore, as Shafer replaced all the plantings of Sangiovese with the other grapes – this was definitely a delicious wine.

And maybe for the biggest surprise of the evening, let me present to you 1995 Navarro Correas Coleccion Privada Cabernet Sauvignon Mendoza. What, you never heard of this wine? Me too! Until our tasting that is. When originally acquired, the wine price was something under $10. So who would expect that 24 years old simple Argentinian Cab would age so beautifully? The wine was fresh, no sign of age, tart cherries on the nose, the same tart cherries, herbs and a touch of sweet oak on the palate – the wine was going and going. A tasty, totally unexpected, surprise.

We had to finish this tasting with a dessert wine, didn’t we? 1988 Franciscan Estate Johannisberg Riesling Napa Valley, as rare and precious as you can find, as this wine is simply not produced anymore. This wine was definitely at its peak – beautiful figs, honey, and a perfect dose of acidity – an excellent finish to our great tasting.

Let’s try to summarize our tasting. Out of 11 wines, 6 can be safely designated as an “amazing experience”. Three wines were “good”. Two wines were a flap. I would take it as a very respectful, and very successful outcome – I’m sure you can think of a lot more tastings with a much lesser degree of success and enjoyment.

Here you are, my friends. Feel free to copy the idea – if you have anything reminiscent of a cellar, I’m sure you got the bottles that might benefit from being open. Open now, before it is too late. Cheers!

Want To Learn More About German Wines? Join Snooth Virtual Tasting Tonight

November 13, 2019 1 comment

Ripe Riesling Grapes, as captured in Wikipedia

Do you like German wines? I’m sure you do, even if secretly or unbeknownst to oneself, as Germany is one of the oldest producers of some of the most delicious wines in the world.

Tonight, November 13, 2019, at 8:30 PM US Eastern time, you have an opportunity to learn about or expand your wine knowledge by joining virtual tasting on Snooth, called German Wines To Be Thankful For:

http://www.snooth.com/virtual-tasting/video/german-wines-to-be-thankful-for/

You can also follow German Wines USA on Twitter and Instagram:

 

You can use the #ThankfulForGermanWines hashtag to talk about the tasting.

 

There is a lot more to German wines than just Riesling – in the tasting tonight, you will be discussing Sekt, Sylvaner, Riesling, and Spätburgunder, which is a German name for the Pinot Noir.

 

Don’t miss it!

Let’s Talk Wine Labels

November 11, 2019 Leave a comment

How are you with the wine labels?

Speaking for myself, I love wine labels a lot more that I would even admit. Everybody knows that we eat with our eyes first – this is why good restaurants go out of their way to present their food in the best possible way.

The same is true for the wines – and I’m not talking about the wine in the glass. Let’s leave aside the situation when we are looking for a specific wine. You walk into the wine store and first and foremost you notice the wine labels. I don’t know how this works for you, but speaking strictly for myself, I can’t figure out what makes wine label attractive for me. It is more of magic. Some labels have an elaborate design, and my eye simply skips them. And then there are simple, very simple labels which solicit instant reaction “oh, this is so cool”. Magic.

It appears that the effect of the wine label goes much further than an instant determination of cool/not cool and the desire to quickly grab the bottle. The wine label design also creates expectations about taste, price, quality, and lots more. Don’t take this from me. Folks at Iron Design create product labels for living. They conducted market research, which you can read about here – and summarized all the results in the form of an infographic, one of my favorite ways of presenting the information. Bunch of numbers, facts, and pictures in compact and concise form – isn’t it fun?

For what it worth, the Iron Design team was very kind letting me share the infographic in this blog, which I’m happily presenting below. And for all of you, my friends, what do you think of the impact of the wine labels on your choices and expectations?

American Pleasures

November 7, 2019 Leave a comment

Yes, you read it right – we will be talking about American pleasures.

But don’t worry – this is still a wine blog. Yes, we will be talking about wine. And as the title suggests, we will be talking about wines made in the USA. As for the pleasures – this is what the wine is for. The wine should give you pleasure. If it does not, I don’t know what is the point of drinking it. For sure I don’t see it for myself – if I’m not enjoying the glass of wine, I’m not drinking it. It is the pleasure we, wine lovers, are after.

Lately, I had a number of samples of American wines sent to me. Mostly California wines, to be precise. And to my big surprise, I enjoyed all of them. I’m not implying that the wines I tasted were better than I expected, hence the surprise. While I pride myself with the willingness to try any and every wine, it doesn’t mean that I equally like any and every wine – I’m rather a picky (read: snobby?) wine taster. At a typical trade tasting, my “likeness” factor is about 1 out of 10 or so. And here, wine after wine, I kept telling myself “this is good!”, and then “wow, this is good too!”. Is my palate getting cursed or just old and tired? Maybe. But, as I still trust it and as I derived pleasure from every sip of these wines, I would like to share my excitement with you, hence this post, or rather, a series of posts. Let’s go.

First, let’s talk about the old. “Old” is a very respectful word here, as we will be talking about the winery which had been around for more than 40 years in Napa Valley. Back in 1976, Ron and Diane Miller purchased 105 acres vines on in Yountville, which is now known as Miller Ranch. Two years later, they acquired 226 acres in Stags Leap District, which was the vineyard called Silverado. Initially, the grapes were sold to the other wineries, until in 1981 the winery was built and the first harvest was crushed – the was the beginning of Silverado Vineyards as we know it. Today, Silverado Vineyards comprise 6 vineyards throughout Napa Valley, all Napa Green certified, which is an established standard for sustainable farming. Silverado Vineyards wines are exported to 25 countries and have won numerous accolades at a variety of competitions – and Silverado Vineyards garnered quite a few “winery of the year” titles along the years.

Two wines I tasted from Silverado Vineyards were Sauvignon Blanc and Rosé. I like California Sauvignon Blanc with a little restraint, not overly fruity, and with a good amount of grass and acidity – Honig Sauvignon Blanc and Mara White Grass would be two of my favorite examples. California Rosé is somewhat of a new category, still scarcely available in the stores on the East Coast – this is mostly wine club or winery tasting room category at the moment. Again, for the Rosé, restraint is a key – nobody needs to replicate Provençal Rosé in California, but the wine still should be light and balanced.

Silverado Vineyards perfectly delivered on both – here are my notes:

2018 Silverado Miller Ranch Sauvignon Blanc Yountville Napa Valley (13.9% ABV, $25)
Straw pale
Beautiful, classic CA Sauvignon Blanc – freshly cut grass, a touch of lemon, all nicely restrained. Nice minerality.
An interesting note of salinity, lemon, lemon zest, a touch of pink grapefruit, just an undertone with some bitterness. This is a multidimensional wine, with a good amount of complexity.
8-/8, a thought-provoking wine. Great with manchego cheese and Hungarian salami.

2018 Silverado Vineyards Sangiovese Rosato Napa Valley (14.5% ABV, $25, 100% Sangiovese)
Light Pink
A touch of strawberries, light and elegant
Strawberries and lemon on the palate, elegant, balanced, good textural presence, very refreshing.
8, and excellent Rosé overall, with its own character. And I have to tell you – I’m duly impressed with Californian Sangiovese, for sure when it is made into a Rosé – seems to be a complete winner here.

Another wine I want to talk about here, is definitely from the “new” camp – only 5 years ago, Oceano winery was not even an idea. The winery has a great story, which you better read on the winery website. The story has everything – the love at first sight, the encounter with the seahorse, a wine label drawn on the napkin.

Oceano wines are made from the fruit coming from Spanish Springs Vineyard in San Luis Obispo – the vineyard which is closest to the Pacific Ocean not only in the Central Coast appellation but in entire California. Cool climate helps Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes to mature slowly and to accumulate great flavor. Not only Spanish Springs Vineyard provides ideal conditions for the grapes, but it is also SIP (Sustainable in Practice) Certified vineyard, which is considered a higher status than Organic due to the stringent requirements throughout the whole process of winemaking up to the point of bottling of the wine.

I had an opportunity to taste the second release of Oceano Chardonnay, and was simply blown away:

2017 Oceano Chardonnay Spanish Springs Vineyard San Luis Obispo County (13.6% ABV, $38)
Light golden
Vanilla, a hint of honey
Vanilla, a touch of butter, hint of almonds, nice golden apple and brioche, let’s not forget the delicious, freshly baked brioche – with tons of acidity on the long finish, tons and tons of acidity.
9-, outstanding rendition of the Chardonnay, worked perfectly well with a variety of foods – beef roast from Trader Joe’s, Brie, Spanish Cheeses (Manchego and San Simone) – this was totally an unexpected surprise. If you are looking for a delicious and versatile Chardonnay, this might be the wine you are looking for. It might easily be a star of your Thanksgiving wine program.

Here you are, my friends. These wines delivered lots and lots of pleasure, and these are the wines worth seeking. We are done for today, but we are very far from done seeking more wine pleasures. To be continued…

Spanish Wines: Beyond The Reds

November 3, 2019 3 comments

Let me ask you something: if you hear the words “Spanish wine”, what is the first type of wine which comes to mind – red, white or Rosé? I’m a self-admitted Spanish wine aficionado, and I can honestly tell you that my first association will be “red”, then probably Rosé, and only then white (when it comes to Spain, your wine type choices are quite wide, as you got also Cava, Jerez, Málaga – but let’s not make it too complicated).

There is a good chance that your associations were the same – Spanish wine equals Red. I certainly started my Spanish wine love embrace from the Rioja, best known for its reds with Lopez de Heredia Viña Gravonia, one of the best white wines made in Spain, being rather a curiosity than a norm. It took me several years until I heard the name Albariño and tasted what is today probably best known Spanish white wine. And then, of course, let’s not forget about the Rosé revolution which took place around the world over the last 5 years or so – Spain gladly joined the movement with wonderful Rosé, or rather, Rosado renditions of Grenache and Tempranillo rapidly showing up over the Spanish wine map.

Let’s explore a bit a Spanish non-red wine scenery – as I like to say, have wine – will travel. First stop – Rueda, the wine region located almost in the middle of the country.

Rueda is a part of the Castilla y León region in Central Spain. History of winemaking in Castilla y León goes back to the 10th/11th centuries and closely associated with the arrival of Catholic monks, who started vine cultivation and winemaking. We can say that the modern part of winemaking history in Castilla y León started in 1980 with Rueda becoming the first local winemaking region to receive the status of D.O. which stands for Designation of Origin, the quality designation in Spanish wine.

The majority of Rueda vineyards are located at an altitude of 800m (2400 FT) and higher. Rueda is known for its extreme climate conditions, where diurnal temperature shift can reach 50 degrees during the day – which is actually good for the grapes, as it helps to concentrate flavors, sugars and acidity. White grape called Verdejo is typically associated with Rueda wines, even though Sauvignon Blanc wines can also be found coming out of Rueda.

I thought it would be appropriate to give you some fun facts about Rueda, taken from Ribera and Rueda wine website: ”

  • There are 32,500 acres of vineyards in Rueda, of which 28,800 acres are Verdejo.
  • The area has 69 wineries and is cultivated by over 1,500 growers.
  • To be “Rueda Verdejo”, wines must contain at least 85 percent Verdejo.
  • Verdejo is harvested at night to allow the grapes to cool from the scorching summer heat.
  • Verdejo was almost wiped out by Phylloxera in the late 19th century, but it was revived in the 1970s.”

A few weeks ago I had an opportunity to taste a few of the Rueda wines offered as part of virtual tasting at Snooth (here is the link to the video recording of this session if you are interested in learning more). The tasting covered wines of Rueda and Ribera del Duero (I only tasted wines from Rueda), and Snooth had a great wine deal offering related to the tasting, which is, unfortunately, already sold out.

We had three of the Rueda Verdejo wines in the tasting, all three were 100% Verdejo, 100% delicious, and 100% great value.

Just to give you a brief summary: Marqués de Riscal is better known as one of the oldest wineries in Rioja. However, they were also one of the first commercial wineries in Rueda, opening the winery in 1972 and being a driving force behind 1980 DO Rueda designation. While Bodegas Menade might be a new kid on the block, with winery established in 2005, the family had been in grape growing business in Rueda for 6 generations, going back to 1820. The grapes used for the Menade Verdejo come from the organically farmed vines which are 80 to 100 years old. The last Verdejo comes from one of the personal favorites – Bodegas Shaya. Shaya Habis, an oaked rendition of the Verdejo, had been my favorite Verdejo wine for a long time. While working on this post it was fascinating (or shameful, depending on your take – I had been writing about Shaya wines for many years, only now finally doing some research) to learn that Bodegas Shaya was a project of Gil family, whose El Nido (predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon with the addition of Monastrell) is one of the “cult”, sought-after Spanish wines. Bodegas Shaya project was started by Gil family in 2008, with the wines produced from old, low-yielding Verdejo vines.

Here are my notes for the wines we tasted:

2018 Marqués de Riscal Rueda Verdejo Rueda DO (13.5% ABV, $13)
Light golden
Touch of fresh grass, lemon, lemon zest, sage, rocks
Crisp, vibrant, lemon, a touch of gunflint, excellent minerality, medium-plus finish
8/8+, Delicious white wine – by itself or with food.

2016 Bodegas Menade Rueda Verdejo Rueda DO (13% ABV, $18)
Golden color
Great complexity, Whitestone fruit, a touch of honey, honeysuckle, interesting undertones of sapidity
Savory and sweet, minerally-forward, Whitestone fruit, crisp acidity, vibrant, fresh, medium+ finish
8-/8, should be good with food

2016 Bodegas Shaya Rueda DO (13.5% ABV, $13, 20%-30% of grapes fermented in barrels with 500 – 600 liters capacity)
Straw pale
Very unusual, dusty nose, a hint of grass and white flowers
High viscosity, roll of your tongue wine, restrained white fruit, Granny Smith apples, buttery impressions of a good balanced Chardonnay.
8+, my favorite of the 3, especially after being open for a few days.

How do you like the trip so far? Now it is time to move east to the region called Cariñena.

Winemaking in Cariñena goes back to Roman times. History of Cariñena wines includes Royal proclamations of “Cariñena wines above all”, and even the quality control instituted at the end of the 17th century, monitoring yield levels and production areas. Cariñena also managed to escape the Phylloxera epidemic of the 19th century. In 1932, Cariñena became the second D.O. in Spain (after Rioja). Here is the link for you if you want to learn more about the region.

Cariñena is best known and typically associated with Garnacha (Grenache for all outside of Spain), and it is also often considered to be the birthplace of that grape. Some of the Garnacha plantings in Cariñena exceed 100 years of age. The second important red grape in Cariñena actually shares its name with the region – it is called Cariñena, and also known locally as Mazuelo, and outside of Spain as Carignan. Other red grapes can also be found in the region – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Monastrell, Syrah, Tempranillo, Vidadillo. White wine production in Cariñena is much less than red; you can find Chardonnay, Garnacha Blanca, Macabeo (Viura), Moscatel, and Parellada growing there.

At the beginning of the post, we mentioned the “Rosé revolution”. So very appropriately, I had an opportunity to taste two Cariñena Rosado wines, made out of Garnacha, and the Chardonnay coming from one of the favorite producers, Bodegas San Valero. Here are my notes:

2018 Bodegas Paniza Fábula de Paniza Garnacha Rosé Cariñena DOP (13.5% ABV)
Beautiful salmon pink
Delicate nose of tart strawberries with a touch of lemon
Crisp, clean, refreshing, tart strawberries, good minerality, a hint of cranberries
8, excellent Rosé, a perfect wine for a summer day, but will work well with food at any time.

2018 El Circo Payaso Garnacha Rosé Cariñena DOP (13% ABV, $10)
Intense pink
Wild ripe strawberries
Ripe Strawberries all the way, good acidity, lemon, medium body
7+/8-, craves food

2017 Bodegas San Valero Particular Chardonnay Cariñena DOP (12.5% ABV)
Light golden
Touch of vanilla and apple, a hint of white flowers
Crisp, clean, fresh lemon, a touch of white pepper, vanilla, a round finish.
7+/8-, definitely a delightful wine

Here you are, my friends – Spain makes delicious wines, and not all of those wines are red. And let’s not forget that those wines represent an amazing value. Do you have any favorite Spanish white wines? Cheers!

 

What Do I Need To Know To Enjoy A Glass Of Wine

October 26, 2019 2 comments

Glass and the candleSo you are wondering what do you need to know to enjoy a glass of wine.

This is actually a very simple question. Let me give you a very simple answer.

Nothing.

Nothing at all. You need to know nothing about the wine.

You don’t need to know who made it, where was it made, how was it made, what grapes were used, how much it costs. None of this matters.

The wine in your glass is binary. You either like it or not. If you are not sure if you like it, then ask yourself another simple question: “do I want a second glass, or not?” If you want a second glass, then it goes into the “I like it category”. If you don’t – well, you got my point.

I’ve not been fictitious or sarcastic here. I’m very serious. Wine is food. No, it is not a necessity, it is rather a luxury, it is a food you can live without. But still, wine is food, with about 100 calories in a standard size glass of dry red wine. When you take a bite of steak, your impression is binary – you either like it or not. The same is with wine – when you take a sip, you either like it or not. End of story.

Now, let’s get things straight. I’m not trying to invalidate here the whole wine ecosystem, where millions of people are studying and make their living around the oldest continuously produced beverage in the world. I’m not saying that wine is a simple subject. Depending on one’s life outlook, nothing is simple in this world, and the wine has unlimited levels of complexity (simple fact – at the moment of this writing, there are only 269 (!) Master Sommeliers (highest distinction of wine knowledge) in the world). Nevertheless, for a casual encounter with a glass of red, white, or pink liquid in the tulip-shaped glass, there are only two possible outcomes – “I like it” and “I don’t like it”.

Yesterday during the wine dinner I asked my neighbor at the table if she enjoys the wine we were drinking. “Well, I don’t know enough about wine”, she started, instead of simply answering the simple question – “yes, I do”, or “no, I don’t”. I heard this answer many times, and I find it instantly annoying. There is nothing you need to know to enjoy the wine in your glass. You don’t have to be a chef or a food critic to say if the omelet in front of you is tasty or not. The same is with wine – it either tastes good to you or not.

There is definitely a lot of intimidation around the wine. There are wine magazines that tell you what you should be drinking today. There are wine ratings – “here is an excellent wine for you – it got 95 points from Robert Parker”. You have no idea who Robert Parker is, but you would never admit it, “ahh, of course”. There are knowledgeable friends who tell you “try this – you are going to love this”. There are sommeliers and wine stewards at the restaurants who tell you that this is the best wine for your dinner tonight (nevermind that this is one of the most expensive wines on the list). All these things are part of the intimidation around the wine, and yes, it is very hard to say “hmmm, I don’t like it” if Robert Parker said that he did. But – you really have to learn to trust yourself. Everyone’s palate is different. There are only 4 basic tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter – we can skip the umami for this conversation) – but everyone perceives those tastes differently, has different sensitivity to each one of those (if you ever had to reduce salt consumption, you know that after a month or so of such a low-sodium diet, any restaurant dish comes as oversalted). And so what you taste is completely unique to you, and it is only you who is entitled to state “I like it” or “I don’t like it”, without any regard to any professional opinion in the world.

Again, I want to repeat my statement – you don’t need to know anything about wine to know if you enjoy it or not. But – and it is a major, major, supersized but – you might want to know about the wine as this might simply increase your level of enjoyment of that same wine. But even in this case, you don’t need to become an expert to better enjoy thye wine. You can start simple. When you find the wine you like and enjoy, take notice of the producer and the name of the wine (there are many apps today which can help you simplify this process). This can help you next time at the restaurant, trying to select wine from the list – once you see the wine you already tried and liked, this instantly reduces intimidation. Of course, it will also help you in the wine store, so you will get the wine you know you liked.

vinca minor cabernet sauvignon back label

Maybe once you recognize some producers, you might start taking notice of the regions the wine is coming from. You might find, for example, that you are usually enjoying white wines from Germany and red wines from Piedmont. This knowledge can help you further in your quest for the enjoyable wine, as even when you have your favorite producer and wine, you might not be able to always find that specific wine at a restaurant or in the store. In this case, you can use that knowledge to select the wine from the different producers but still from the same region, as this still increases your chances of liking the wine.

You don’t have to stop at the producer and region, and you can continue your wine knowledge acquisition literally forever, as the subject of the wine is endless. Vintages, vineyards, single vineyards, blocks and plots, grapes, blends, terroir, climate conditions, winemakers, oak regimen, age of the vines, visits to the wine regions, and on, and on, and on – all of this knowledge might help you enjoy the wine more. I can even take it further and tell you that all this knowledge might change the perceived taste of wine, as, for example, trying the wine made at the winery you visited can trigger happy memories, and definitely make the wine to taste even better – to you. Very important – this knowledge will only change the way the wine tastes to you. If the friend you are sharing dinner with never visited the winery, he or she can’t necessarily share your excitement and wholeheartedly say that they enjoy the wine if they don’t. And that’s okay. Everyone’s palate is different, and tasting and liking of the wine are strictly individual.

Remember this next time you are at a restaurant. If you know about the wines, don’t intimidate your friends. they don’t have to like what you like. At the same time, if you know nothing about the wine, don’t get intimidated by anyone or anything. “The truth is in the eye of the beholder” – if you don’t enjoy the wine, it is your truth, and it is nothing to be ashamed of or to worry about. Everyone’s palate is different. End of the story.

I hope you learned today everything you need to know to enjoy a glass of wine. Which is, literally, nothing. And nothing should be standing in your way of enjoying the wine in your glass. Cheers!

 

Spain’s Great Match 2019 – A Mixed Bag?

October 17, 2019 Leave a comment

I love Spanish wines.

Anyone who reads this blog for a while is aware of this. Spanish wines have a special place in my heart, as even today they are some of the best-kept secrets in the wine world, allowing those in the know to enjoy amazing wines still at reasonable prices (some of the best QPRs around).

For many years I had been attending Spanish Wine Tasting in New York, called Spain’s Great Match. I usually attend the early morning seminar, and then go for the walk-around tasting – here you can find my reports from 2014 and 2017 events.

The seminars at Spain’s Great Match are meant to showcase some of the best and interesting Spanish wines. 2014 event was an absolute stand out in this regard, as this was a special event celebrating 30 years of Spanish wines in the USA. The wines served in that seminar were way beyond amazing.

The 2017 seminar was also quite good – maybe not as good as 2014, but still, very, very good. Now, before I will report on the 2019 event, let me talk a bit about the setting.

Mercado Little Spain

The event took place in one of the trendiest New York neighborhoods, Hudson Yards, at the recently opened Mercado Little Spain. Mercado Little Spain is conceptually similar to the Eataly, with the space filled with all possible produce, food and drink options which you would otherwise find…yes, in Spain. So the setting itself was outstanding, creating the right atmosphere to enjoy Spanish wines as they should be.

Now, let’s talk about the seminar, which was called “Vinos de Vanguardia: Wines on the Cutting Edge”.

Vinos de Vanguardia tasting

Vinos de Vanguardia tasting

Vinos de Vanguardia tasting

Vinos de Vanguardia tasting

As you can tell from the name, the idea was to present a unique and different side of Spanish wines. Yes, I get it – Spanish wines might be relegated by “ordinary”, “predictable”, and “same all, same all”, and the seminar was designed to break that myth and to show the forward-thinking of the Spanish winemakers.

I don’t discriminate against any type of wines – natural, low intervention, “orange”, unoaked, unfiltered, canned, boxed, all is good. I’m willing to try absolutely anything – at least one time. When I taste the wine, I trust my palate, and that sip will be simply binary – I will either like the wine, or not. Yes, temperature, air, of course – I’m willing to give literally an unlimited amount of time to the wine to show itself properly – but at some point, the wine has to deliver what it is supposed to deliver – a pleasure. That’s all I’m looking for in wine – pleasure.

I’m sure the wines in the seminar were hand-selected to represent the avant-garde thinking of the Spanish winemakers. However, for me, only 3 wines out of 8 delivered that pleasure, and two out of those leftover 5 were not only boring, but they were also off-putting. I rarely call wines “bad”, I typically say that the wines are “not for me”. So these 2 wines were truly not for me – here are the notes:

2018 Can Sumoi Xarel-lo DO Penedès (100% Xarel-lo)
Golden
Great acidity, sour apples, an unusual ting of a fermenting fruit
Mostly acidity, a bit violent to my taste. Fresh lemon acidity, devoid of any sweetness. The bitter-sour finish lingered. It might be a food wine, but I would definitely prefer a Muscadet if I really look for food-friendly acidity.
Natural wine, the panel was talking about a sense of place and so on, but one can relate to that only if one is visiting, and without that “place” connection the wine was … well, you got my point

2018 Tajinaste Blanco DO Islas Canarias (90% Listán Blanco, 10% Albillo)
Golden color
Fresh grass, underripe white plums, distant hint of a grapefruit
Fresh acidity, Meyer lemon. Unfortunately, boring.

2018 A Coroa Godello DO Valdeorras (100% Godello)
Golden color
Whitestone fruit, a touch of lemon
Good acidity, distant hint of buttery notes, but this was mostly it – the acidity. This wine might well be improved with time, judging by the acidity, but at the moment, boring.

2016 Enrique Mendoza La Tremenda DO Alicante (100% Monastrell)
Garnet
Beautiful intense nose of fresh berries, a touch of iodine
Tannins-forward, tannins mostly take over the wine, some fruit present. Not great.

2018 Bodegas Ponce Clos Lojén DO Manchuria (100% Bobal)
Dark garnet
Touch of roasted meat, violet, very inviting floral aromatics
Beautiful pepper note, fresh berries, medium body, open, inviting, short finish. First good wine in the tasting.

2016 Marañones 30.000 Maravedies DO Vinos de Madrid (90% Garnacha, 10% Morate/Syrah)
Ruby
Hay and cherries, light
Tart, tannins forward, mouth-puckering, cherry pits on the back end. Maybe a food wine, and maybe it will improve with time. Ok wine for now.

2015 Alberto Orte Atlántida VT de Cádiz (100% Tintilla)
Dark ruby/garnet
Beautiful open inviting nose – sage, ripe plumes, thyme, lavender – one of the most herbs-driven aromas I ever experienced
Beautiful palate, herbs with a complex interplay, fresh berries, delicious. Second excellent wine in the tasting.

2015 Guímaro Finca Meixeman DO Ribeira Sacra (100% Mencía)
Garnet
Mostly closed, a touch of cherries, hint of currant leaves
The beautiful playful palate, crunchy wild blueberries, lots of herbs, medium body, medium+ finish. Also one of the best in the tasting.

As you can tell, Bobal, Tintilla, and Mencía were excellent wines which I really enjoyed – and all these wines are uniquely Spanish. When it comes to Spanish wines, you don’t need to try too hard – Spain offers lots of unique and delicious wines – but oh well, this was fine anyway.

Right after the seminar, we went back to the main floor, which was all converted into the walk-around wine tasting space. Spanish food was carried around, from famous Jamón to Manchego cheese to Spanish omelet to Potatas Bravas and more. I have to say that Gazpacho was my favorite bite without a doubt, but overall, there was no shortage of food.

Mercado Little Spain

Spanish Cheeses at Mercado Little Spain

Mercado Little Spain

Spain's Great Match 2019

I have to honestly say that in my 5 years of attending these “Spain’s Great Match” events, the “big guns” never showed up in the tasting – I don’t mean Pingus, Clos Mogador or Vega Sicilia, but even more accessible staples such as La Rioja Alta, Lopez de Heredia, Emilio Moro, Alto Moncayo and many others never made an appearance outside of occasional representation in the seminars. This year’s event was not an exception, with really minor representations of the better-known wines. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of excellent wines available, but been a bit spoiled (sorry), I just made a quick round, mostly looking to taste the new vintages of the wines I already knew, so I’m not going to inundate you with a long list of my wine recommendations.

In no particular order, here are the wines I tasted and liked:

Sparkling and white:

2017 Martinsancho Bodegas y Viñedos Martinsancho Rueda DO ($15) – this is one of the best Rueda wines, and it is a lot of wine for the money
2016 CUNE Monopole Classico Rioja DOCa ($27) – deliciously complex, oak-aged white Rioja
NV Anna de Codorníu Brut Rosé Cava DO ($15) – an excellent glass of bubbly for any occasion
NV Segura Viudas Reserva Heredad Penedes DO ($30) – this wine never disappoints, and a beautiful bottle makes it a perfect gift

Red:

2016 Viña Real Crianza Rioja DOCa ($16)
2014 CUNE Reserva Rioja DOCa ($29)
2012 CUNE Gran Reserva Rioja DOCa ($39)
2012 CUNE Imperial Gran Reserva Rioja DOCa ($80)
2016 Teofilo Reyes Crianza Ribera Del Duero DO ($37)
2018 Bodegas Divina Proporcion 24 Mozas Toro DO ($16) – a nice rendition of powerful Toro Tempranillo, good value
2010 Bodegas Martinez Lacuesta Reserva Rioja DOCa ($38)
2014 Bodegas Sonsiera Pagos de la Sonsiera Rioja DOCa ($38)
2016 Bodegas Valderiz Ribera Del Duero DO ($25)
2014 Boada Campo de Bueyes Crianza Ribera Del Duero DO ($15) – might be my favorite wine from the whole tasting. Approachable, round, delicious. Great value.

In terms of price versus quality, or the QPR as we like to call it, Spain still remains unbeatable, and it still remains more of a secret for a casual wine lover. Well, I guess it is all better for us – those who discovered the secret already.

What was your favorite Spanish wine discovery as of late?

For The Love Of Chowder – 2019 Edition

October 15, 2019 2 comments

Last Sunday, purveyors of the humble soup, also known as Chowder, assembled at the Sherwood Island State Park in Westport, Connecticut, for the 12th annual festival, the Chowdafest. 29 restaurants, mostly from New England, with a notable exception of Pike’s Place restaurant out of Seattle, Washington, competed in 4 categories (New England Clam Chowder, Creative Chowder, Soup/Bisque, and Vegetarian) – and a few thousand (“a few” here might be 2, 3, 5 – the last number I heard was 12) of people came to have a good time, and to help to identify the best chowders.

My empty ballot held in place by muffin pans – an essential tool of chowder lover at Chowdafest

Before I will inundate you with pictures, as usual, let me give you my brief personal take on the event.

For the good part, there were plenty of tasty soups to go around, and an absolute majority of the soups I tasted were quite good. There were also lots of tasty giveaways, with Natalie’s All Natural Juices as my personal favorite.

For the not so good part, the event felt really, really crowded. This was my 5th Chowdafest, and all previous years I was able to visit the absolute majority of the stands within about 2 hours. This time around, I simply gave up at some point, as the lines were just unsurmountable. I believe there were two reasons for that – first, the weather was so-so, and people didn’t have much else to do on that Sunday. Second, and more important – there was lesser number of participants in the competition, thus even the same amount of people as usual had to line up to the fewer number of stands – this year, there were 29 restaurants competing versus 37 last year, and 40 in the two years prior. My last gripe would be with scarcely decorated stands – in the prior years, there were a lot more seasonal decorations seen everywhere – this year, the decorations were quite limited.

There was a good number of vegetarian soups presented, such as Gazpacho from Rory’s in Darien. Cast Iron Soup from the Cast Iron House in New Haven rightfully won this category as it was one of the very best soups in the competition.

Shrimp and Corn Chowder from the Ribbon Cafe was one of the most creative at the Chowdafest 2019, served with a cheese wonton:

As always, the Chowdafest went way beyond just the soup – Michelle’s Pies were an excellent addition, and as I mentioned, Natalie’s Natural Juices (Beet Orange was my personal favorite) were an excellent thirst quencher.

There were also some very creative tasting approaches at the Chowdafest, such as this one:

Here you can see a glimpse of the prizes, all made by the local artist, Wendy Marciano:

Let’s talk about the winners. For the 5th year in the row, Pike’s Place out of Seattle took the 1st place in the New England Clam Chowder category. Also for the 5th year in the row, Our House Bistro from Winooski, VT took the Creative Chowder category with its Drunkin Pumpkin Seafood Chowder. Gates from New Cannan, CT won Soup/Bisque category with its Crab & Roasted Corn Bisque, and Old Post Tavern/Cast Iron Chop House from New Haven, CT won Vegetarian category with its Cast Iron Soup. You can find all the results here.

I have to say that I’m convinced that Pike’s Place wins the competition not just because they make the best soup (in my opinion, they are not), but because they also provide the best service. While this was one of the most coveted participants, Pike’s Place stand was practically the only one without a line – they were very efficient in pouring out and simply carrying around their chowder on the large trays, so it was easy for everyone to try it without the need to stand in the long line.

I guess that’s all I wanted to share with you. Before we part, I will show you my ballot which is shamefully incomplete, but this is the best I could do:

I’m already looking forward to the Chowdafest 2020 – I hope it will be the best and the tastiest and maybe not as crowded as the one this year.

How It Is To Be A Wine Lover in Finland

September 29, 2019 4 comments

How it is to be a wine lover in Finland? I have to honestly tell you – I have no idea.

Okay, I have a very limited idea, based on my first trip to Finland and about a week spent in Helsinki and Kuopio.

So yes, keep that in mind – as I don’t live here, my whole claim for expertise is simply a fresh eye of a passionate wine lover, who treats wines stores as toy (candy) stores – one of my indulgences when traveling solo – I can spend an unlimited amount of time in the wine store, slowly walking from the shelf to a shelf.

As I spent half a day in Helsinki, staying in the downtown area, the small-ish wine store was my first find. At first sight, I thought that the prices in Helsinki were higher than in Kuopio, but I’m not sure this is correct as alcohol sales in Finland are government-controlled. I saw beer and a few types of wine in the supermarkets, but if you want to buy wine or liquor, you have to head over to Alko, state-owned stores.

In the downtown Helsinki store, French Champagne seemed to be quite expensive – at least 1.5 times or some even double of what you would typically pay in the USA. However, Spanish, Italian, Californian, and even Australian wines were priced rather reasonably, especially taking into account the current exchange rate for euro. That ’06 Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Reserva at €37 looked like a steal to me:

Somehow, the Australian wines attracted my attention first (maybe it is my subconscious trying to compensate for the years of neglect, or maybe it is related to happily drinking Shiraz just a few weeks ago). It was not easy to make a choice – but I settled for the 2015 Jim Barry The Lodge Hill Shiraz Clare Valley. One of the reason was that Jim Barry McRae Wood is one of my most favorite Shiraz wines of all times. I like the wines from the Clare Valley, they are usually lean and focused – and 2015 was giving at least some age for it.

The wine didn’t disappoint at all. Dark fruit, blackberries and a touch of blueberry, subtle pepper note, perfectly firm texture – delicious wine all in all. And let’s not forget the view…

The next morning I flew to Kuopio, a small town up north from Helsinki. Before we talk about wine, we need to talk about a beer. We had a bit of free time on Sunday after arrival to Kuopio, and we took a nice hike to the observation tower. There, in addition to the beautiful nature views, I also found a delicious local beer. I generally prefer dark beers, such as stouts and porters, so I just pointed to the darkest bottle I saw on the display. That was a lucky strike, as Iso-Kalan Mestari Stout from Kuopio (we could see from the top the brewery buildings where it was produced) was just superb – yes, don’t forget that it is a wine drinker talking about beer – but this beer had a perfect balance of malt, dark chocolate, and coffee – had to slow myself down not to gulp it all in an instance.

As a small town (118,000 people live there), Kuopio probably serves as the best proof that Finns love the wines. The wine store which I found in the mall at the market square, was a complete standout. Just gobs and gobs of a great finds, with Champagne section, almost pushing me to ask if this house is for rent 🙂 I was happy to see Rosé, Bordeaux selection looked simply excellent, and some of the unique finds, such as Chinese Changyu looked ultra attractive too – if I would’ve stayed there for longer, that bottle wouldn’t escape my attention.

Once again, the Australian section looked mysteriously attractive. First, I saw the words “second pass” on the label of Australian Shiraz. Reading the back label confirmed that yes, it is by design similar to Valpolicella Ripasso, and that there is also a Shiraz made in Amarone style. Looking up one shelf, I was happy to see the words “Dried Grape Shiraz” – here we go, the Amarone-style Shiraz itself. Of course, I had to buy it.

The 2015 Alfredo Dried Grape Shiraz Nugan Estate South Australia was delicious from the get-go. The wine is made in Amarone style, with the grapes drying out for a few months before they are pressed into the wine. The wine opened up with a touch of the dried fruit on the nose, dense and powerful on the palate, with the dark fruit medley and again a touch of dried fruit, full-bodied and smooth, with a long playful finish. In a blind tasting, Amarone would be definitely one of my strong guessing options. While it was good on the first day, it became literally amazing on the 3rd day with the last sip of blueberries, blueberry compote, sweet oak, and long finish.

Right next to the Australian wine section in the store there were Austrian wines. The label with octopus instantly attracted my attention. The wine name was also intriguing – Beck Ink. Back label was suggesting that this is a “natural” wine – of course, this was the next wine I had to try.

2017 Beck Ink Austria (12% ABV, 80% Zweigelt, 20% St. Laurent) opened up with the punch of acidity. The first sip literally had the level of acidity which can make you cringe. There was a hint of underripe raspberries coming with it as well. As the wine was opening up, a little gaminess showed up, the acidity softened, letting more of dark berries to come into a play. The wine had a medium body and smooth, playful texture – if anything, it was really reminiscent of a very good Beaujolais Cru. While craving food, I kept adding from the bottle into the glass until I realized that it was already late – and I almost finished the bottle.

There you go, my friends. Based on what I saw, the wine is well regarded in Finland, and the wine lovers there have a very reasonable choice at very reasonable prices. Have fun peering through those pictures 🙂 Cheers!

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