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A Weekend Of Wine Experiences

August 11, 2020 2 comments

What makes the wine experience for you?

If you drink wine pretty much every day, is that every glass an experience? Is that even possible?

The experience should be something memorable, something you can bring up in your thoughts on the moment’s notice. The experience is not always positive – I well remember some bottles I had to pour down the drain – luckily, it doesn’t happen all that often. The experience triggers the emotion – pain or pleasure – and this is what makes us remember.

During our recent Cape Cod visit with the family, in addition to the ocean, flowers, and sunsets, we also had lots of wine. While some wines were good and simple – and not necessarily memorable – some were just at the level of creating a lasting memory. Let me present my case.

I try not to associate the color of the wine with the weather, but fresh and crisp white wine always brightens up a hot summer day better than a big red. Both wines we had were somewhat of an experience. 2018 Hanna Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley (13.2% ABV) was a reminder for how much I love this wine, which I consider one of the best California Sauvignon Blancs in general – fresh, citrusy, with plenty of the freshly cut grass and vibrant acidity. A sip of such wine makes you say “ahhh”, and immediately go for another.

The second wine was rather an unexpected disappointment – it had nothing really to do with the wine itself, I guess it was a self-inflicted disappointment, but this is how it will be remembered. 2016 Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley (13.5% ABV) didn’t offer much anything in the glass. It was a white wine without a sense of place or much in terms of the expected taste profile. It had no obvious faults, just the taste of “some white wine”. Maybe it was supposed to be consumed two years ago (my wife got it as a present from a coworker and then it was forgotten on the bottom shelf of the cellar). Maybe it was in a “sleeper mode” at the moment. No idea, but this was definitely not something I expected from the Duckhorn.

I continue to surprise myself with an inability to find a bad tasting Rosé nowadays. Either something is wrong with my palate, or I don’t drink enough, or everybody simply mastered the art of Rosé to its fullest, but I like every Rosé I have an opportunity to taste. 2018 Etude Rosé Santa Barbara County (13.2% ABV) was excellent, strawberries all the way, both on the nose and the palate, very elegant and round. Etude is a Pinot Noir specialist, so this was a Pinot Noir Rosé. Santa Barbara designation also brought back lots of happy memories of my first Wine Bloggers conference in 2014. The second Rosé, 2017 Baron de Fumes Rosé Garnacha Cariñena DO (13.5% ABV) was a bit lighter but sharing mostly the same strawberry profile with a bit more acidity – still every drop delicious. This was also a great value at $8.99 at my local wine store – I now have a few bottles in the fridge ready to be open on any hot day.

Time to move to reds – and to elevate the experience.

Everyone’s cellar has bottles that appeared out of nowhere. You know how this works – you host a party, someone walks through the door with a bottle. You say thank you, hastily put a bottle aside as you are rushing to meet another guest. The bottle is never opened as you had enough wine prepared, and after the party, it is just put away and you have no memory you ever saw it. This was my story with the bottle of 2008 Cantine Lonardo Coste Taurasi DOCG (14.5% ABV, 100% Aglianico). I have no memory of how the bottle made it into the wine fridge. I saw this bottle many times looking for the wine to open – as I’m not familiar with this wine and never bothered to research, I would always skip opening it just on the basis of the vintage – too young, next time, too young, next time. This time around, as our family on The Cape loves the Italian wines, I decided that the time has come to open it.

As we arrived Thursday evening, this was the first bottle we opened. Oh my… As soon as the wine made it to the glasses, the aromatics stopped everyone in their tracks. I can’t even describe it. Mature Italian wine at its peak literally gives me shivers. You can’t put down the glass, you don’t want a sip – you just want another smell, and then another one. Succulent cherries, eucalyptus, tobacco, iodine, ocean breeze – the bouquet delivered such an interplay of flavors that you simply forget the time. When you finally decide to take a sip, you are blown away anew – juicy cherries with herbs, sweet oak, silky smooth tannins, and impeccable balance – just a divine experience (am I going to far? Can’t tell you. Wish you were there…). Hands down, this wine is an excellent contender for the top wine of 2020, rivaling Soldera experience (Drinkability: 9/9+).

As I had no idea about Coste, I decided to bring a couple of big guns – two of the Christophe Baron wines – No Girls and Cayuse. I knew that I’m committing a crime by opening 3 years old Cayuse – but this was my very first taste of Cayuse wine, after finally making it on the mailing list, so I decided to take my chances. 2010 No Girls Syrah La Paciencia Vineyard Walla Walla Valley (14.8% ABV) was as good as I expected it to be – a little bit of funk, black fruit, black pepper, full body, good structure and concentration, excellent balance – definitely a very enjoyable wine. 2017 Cayuse Syrah Cailloux Vineyard Walla Walla Valley (13.8% ABV), however, was a disappointment. I knew I’m opening the wine prematurely (the one can only hope. I wonder how Sassicaia does it, making their wines perfectly drinkable upon release), but I still expected the wine to come to its senses at least on the second day, and especially with the help of decanter.

The decanter didn’t help, even on the second day. The wine had some amount of fresh crunchy cherries in it, but that was the maximum excitement. The wine never demonstrated the body I would expect from the Washington Syrah, nor the depth of flavor and the textural experience on the palate. Again, this was not a bad wine, just not enjoyable for me. As this was my very first experience with Cayuse, I don’t want to jump to any conclusions – maybe the wine will completely change in a few years, or maybe the wine is just meant to be like this – I anticipate that the wine will need at least another 7-10 years before it will become fully enjoyable, but we will see. And if it just supposed to taste like that, this will be a serious disappointment, especially considering the price of this wine (around $100).

One more wine I want to mention here – 2017 Domaine La Font de Notre Dame Lirac AOC (14.5% ABV, 70% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 5% Mourvèdre). This wine was opened to compensate for the Cayuse not being very drinkable – and this GSM blend didn’t disappoint – perfectly drinkable and enjoyable from the moment the cork was pulled out. Bright fruit, medium to full body, good minerality, and perfect balance. The wine has limited availability, unfortunately, but if you can find it, it should set you back for less than $20 and this can be your perfect every day red for any time of the year.

There you go, my friends. This is how experiences form into the memories. The pleasure of drinking Coste will stay long in the memory – this was one of the most exciting wines this year. The absence of pleasure in my first sip of Cayuse will also become a long-lasting phenomenon. What are your strongest memories associated with wine?

A Quick Trip To Spain

July 28, 2020 2 comments

Hey friends!

Who else is feeling travel-deprived? Who else is dreaming of the airline food and 2-hours long passport control line after 12 hours flight?

I know it is not only me. I know we all do. But we still have to wait until any of that is a reality. For now, travel is just virtual.

Virtual travel has many ways. You can go back to the pictures you took while vacationing. You can go on Instagram or Pinterest, type in “Italy”, “Amalfi Coast”, “Maldives”, “Everest”, or “Machu Pichu”, and get lost for hours, exploring every little angle of the paradise through the eyes of others. You can find plenty to read, from blogs to books to everything in between, making it easy to imagine yourself in a French cafe, on the beach in Goa, or looking at the world while standing on the Great Wall.

Then, of course, there is food. There are many cuisines available within anyone’s reach today, no matter where you live. You can have paella at the Spanish restaurant, Mexican street corn at the Mexican place, black truffle risotto at Italian, or cassoulet at the French restaurant. Will that be an authentic experience that will bring back happy memories? That depends. The food might be amazing, but if you will not get the exact match to your expectations, to what you experienced during the travel, that might end up being a great meal, but not memory-inducing at all. For sure my own experience with paella or cassoulet is always hit and miss.

And then there is wine – of, course, you knew that it will all end up at “have wine, will travel”, right? Remember that proverbial “sense of place”? The sense of place is an indelible part of the wine. Even more importantly, wine can trigger an outpour of memories even before it will be opened and poured. One quick glance at the label is often enough to start the emotions going, to recall, to remember, to re-live. Of course, you can find authentic dishes in restaurants and market places. There are tons of original and authentic foods imported and readily available. It still doesn’t mean that on the moment’s notice you can retrieve that aged Swiss Gruyère, French Raclette, or a Spanish Jamón and have a smile from ear to ear. However, take out that bottle of Brunello, Australian Shiraz, Provençal Rosé, or Spanish Rioja – and watch out for that smile.

Ahh, I just said “Rioja” – remember I promised you a quick trip to Spain? Instead of musing on the subject, how about we will actually take this trip – and we don’t even need to pack a suitcase or wait for a taxi – get a bottle of Rioja, and you can instantly imagine yourself strolling the streets of Barcelona, or maybe admiring the old train station in Haro. Have wine, will travel – who is with me?

The Rioja I would like to bring to your attention today is as classic as it gets – coming from CVNE (Compañía Vinícola del Norte del España), one of the oldest producers in Rioja, who celebrated it’s 140th anniversary last year. CVNE produces a number of distinct lines of Rioja wines, under Cune, Imperial, Viña Real, and Contino labels, but the company is also expanding into areas such as Ribera Del Duero, Valdeorras, and others.

I recently had two delicious samples of the latest offerings from CVNE – you really can’t go wrong with either one of them, and the QPR is absolutely unbeatable:

2019 Cune Rosado Rioja DO (14.5% ABV, $13, 100% Tempranillo)
Cranberry juice color
Fresh cranberries, herbal notes, sage and violets
Fresh, crunchy cranberries, with characteristic acidity and tiny bitter undertones. Bone dry and very present. Balanced and elegant. Un-Provence and proud.
8/8+. If you are looking for Rosé with an umpf, this is your wine.

2016 Viña Real Crianza Rioja DOC (14.5% ABV, $17, 90% Tempranillo, 10% Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo)
Intense garnet
Eucalyptus, sage, crunchy berries, tobacco
Fresh red fruit, elegant, medium body, good acidity, a touch of sapidity, excellent balance
8, fresh and delightful. Daughter said it was good with an ice cream cake (surprise!)

Where would you like to go next? Cheers!

Mystique of Mythic Malbec

July 15, 2020 4 comments

A long, long time ago, in a place far, far away, lived a dragon. That dragon was known for the love of all things green. The vast land he called his home was all covered in luscious flowers, bushes, and trees, always perfect and beautiful. He would use his huge wings to keep the plants cool during the hot days, and he would plan his gardens in the most meticulous ways, to make sure all the plants were happy together.

There was one plant that he loved above all, and it was the grapevine. His vineyards always looked amazing, and his hard work was handsomely rewarded by the most perfect grapes you can imagine anywhere. He loved Malbec above all other grapes, as those gapes made him happy. Sometimes, he would make wine out of them, and sometimes, he would just eat them fresh and delicious.

One day, the dragon was just gone. The plants didn’t feel the air moving with the flaps of his giant, powerful wings. But his presence still was felt in a magical way, as all the plants continued to happily grow, and the grapes were always delicious.

The legend has it that this far, far away magical place was in Mendoza, Argentina, and when people discovered it, they could still feel something magical, something mythical while standing between magnificent grapevine rows. So when they decided to create the winery and call it MYTHIC, that felt the most appropriate.

The MYTHIC winery is rather young, formed in 2014, but ambitious. The winery was founded by the same team which is behind the Casarena wines with the idea to showcase the best wines Argentina can produce – but also by going beyond the tradition. You know how you can taste a well made Bordeaux blend from Napa or Washington and be completely sure you are drinking the old world wine? This is what the MYTHIC winemaking team was trying to achieve – make the world-class wines, whether they appear to be Argentinian or not – and judging by my tasting experience, the mission was accomplished with flying colors.

Continuing what the dragon started, MYTHIC farms about 400 acres of the vineyards in Luján De Cuyo area in Mendoza, which is often regarded as the Napa Valley of Argentina. Some of the vineyards are 90 years old, and most of them are located at about 3000 feet elevation. These high altitude vineyards are protected by the Andes, its snow-covered tops being the best source of water for the sustainably growing vines.

Malbec is the star at MYTHIC, used in the majority of wines – there are also multiple levels of wines, from the general to the vineyard, block, and even barrel-specific. The mystique of MYTHIC lies in the ability to show so many different expressions of Malbec, using seemingly negligible variations in the levels of fruit and oak regiment – but the diversity and the range are mind-boggling – or, rather, mythical. Take a look at my notes and see for yourself:

2019 Mythic Mountain Malbec Rosé Mendoza Argentina (12.5% ABV, $11.99)
Light pink
Fresh strawberries, good minerality, a touch of gunflint
Crisp, fresh, underripe strawberries, vibrant acidity, fresh lemon.
8+, perfect heat quencher – and a great value. This wine would successfully compete with any Provencal Rosé in the blind tasting.

2019 Mythic Mountain Malbec Mendoza Argentina (13.9% ABV, $11.99, 70% stainless steel, 30% 3nd/3rd use French oak)
Dark garnet
Freshly crushed berries, pencil shavings, tobacco, sweet sage
A touch of vanilla, tart cherries, soft, round, good acidity.
8-/8, easy to drink, perfectly representative of the “soft” Argentinian Malbec qualities.

2019 Mythic Estate Malbec Mendoza Argentina (13.9% ABV, $15.99, 4 months in French oak)
Dark garnet
Fresh berries, raspberries, blackberries, beets undertone (yeah, I know it sounds strange)
Fresh, open, ripe raspberries, hint of espresso, firm structure, well balanced.
8/8+, delicious on its own, but will be outstanding with the food. The wine clearly presents itself as an old-world wine – I would bet it is Cahors from France in the blind tasting.

2017 Mythic Block Malbec Mendoza Argentina (14.5% ABV, $34.99, 10 months in French oak)
Dark garnet
Cherries, herbs, clean, soft. More complex on the second day, a touch of roasted meat, funk, and chocolate
Succulent fruit, clean acidity, crunchy blackberries, earthy notes, perfect balance, silky smooth.
8+, outstanding, delicious wine. This wine is very international – a delicious wine which can be from anywhere.

Four wines made out of Malbec. Four totally different expressions of the grapes, some of them I didn’t know where even possible, such as Provence-style supremely elegant Malbec Rosé, also priced as a borderline steal – an outstanding QPR. Also, having the full old-world impression with the Estate Malbec? Not an easy feat, not for the New World wines.

Was our dragon real? I don’t know. I’m the one who is happy to believe in dragons and sorcerers. But the dragon made it on the labels, and the wines are as real as they can be, also great values in their own categories. The only thing left is for you to find these wines and judge them for yourself. The “thank you” notes can be left in the comments section with no limitations whatsoever.

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!

 

Celebrate Sauvignon Blanc!

May 1, 2020 Leave a comment

Here we go again – another grape holiday is upon us – Sauvignon Blanc Day it is.

I’m sure most of you don’t need a reason to open a bottle of wine. And the grape holiday doesn’t mean that one must drink wine made out of celebratory grape on that holiday. However, it is a good reason to talk about the grape we are celebrating.

Sauvignon Blanc is unquestionably one of the best known and most widely used white grape. While many of the red grapes can be included in the battle for supremacy, when it comes to whites, there are only 3 top contenders – Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling.

Sauvignon Blanc is growing everywhere – and while some of the traits, such as freshly cut grass undertones can be generally common, it demonstrates a wide range of expression depending on where the wine was made. The birthplace of Sauvignon Blanc is generally considered to be in Sancerre which is situated in Loire Valley. Sancerre might be a birthplace, but boy, did Sauvignon Blanc spread around nicely – it is used all over the Loire Valley, it is a very important grape in Bordeaux, especially in Entre-Deux-Mers; it plays a supporting role in Sauternes and Barsac. It is one of the best-kept secrets in Italy. Sauvignon Blanc is often part of the blend in Rueda in Spain, and it can shine on its own in Catalonia and La Mancha. Then, of course, let’s not forget the winemaking region which literally took the Sauvignon Blanc world domination crown away from Sancerre – venerable New Zealand, home to in-your-face delicious Sauvignon Blanc wines. Moving along, we cannot forget the USA where Sauvignon Blanc wines are made everywhere, from California to Washington to Long Island and many other states. Oh wait, South Africa makes some sublime Sauvignon Blanc renditions, not to be outdone by Chile, Argentina, Israel, and every other winemaking country.

Sauvignon Blanc Collage

No matter what tickles your Sauvignon Blanc fancy – cat pee in Sancerre, unidentifiable aromatics of the Cloudy Bay, succulent lemons in Honig or Hanna, or sublime complexity of Ornellaia and Gaja – there is a Sauvignon Blanc wine out there for everyone.

Pour yourself a glass of whatever, and enjoy your quiet moment of reflection. Cheers!

Have Grenache, Will Travel

April 24, 2020 Leave a comment

“Have wine, will travel” is one of my favorite openings for a post about wine because this is exactly what wine does – even before you take a sip, just a glance at the label is often sufficient to let your imagination run wild and yes, imagine yourself instantly somewhere 5,000 miles away from where you are now. But never in my scariest, horror-filled dreams, I would imagine that wine, along with pictures, might become the only way for us to travel, even for a day. Sigh.

So today I want to offer you a quick trip with the help of one of the most versatile, most widely planted grape in the world – Grenache, also known as Garnacha.

Grenache is a versatile grape on many different levels. First, it is widely planted. While supremacy of Grenache can be debated between France and Spain, literally every other winemaking country – Australia, Argentina, Chile, Israel, Italy, South Africa, USA, New Zealand – all have significant plantings of Grenache. Next, when we say Grenache, we typically assume red grape and red wine, of course – but Grenache family also includes Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris. Grenache is capable of an ultra-wide range of expressions – from light and simple, such as Borsao Tres Picos or Delas Côtes du Rhône to bombastic, tremendously concentrated expressions, such as Clos Erasmus, Horsepower and Sine Qua Non. Last but not least is pricing versatility. It wouldn’t surprise anyone that $100 bottle of wine drinks well – any grape can do this. But in under $10 range, very few grapes can excel – but Grenache is one of them, for example, in the form of Honoro Vera.

Today our journey will not be too long, but we are going to make two stops in the countries which can be designated as “classic” Grenache – France and Spain. To help with our travel we can even enlist the help of the website put together to promote European Grenache and Garnacha – you can find the link here.

Our first stop is in the south of France, in the small region called Maury, which in turn is a part of the Roussillon wine region. Winemaking in that area goes back a few thousand years. Maury located on the border with Spain, and it became a part of France only after 1659, so even today there is a lot of Spanish influence in the region. Grenache is the main grape used in the production of Maury wines, and it is considered to be one of the best in France. Maury is best known for its fortified wines, produced in the style similar to port, with the addition of the spirits in the middle of fermentation, which kills the yeast and leaves the sugar level high in the resulting wine. However, it is not the Maury AOC wine I want to offer to you today, but Maury Sec, which is a designation for the dry wines produced in the same region. Our first wine is produced by Jeff Carrel, and it is predominantly Grenache with the addition of Syrah:

2016 Jeff Carrel Le Grenache dans la Peau Maury Sec AOP (15.5% ABV, 80% Grenache / 20% Syrah)
Dark ruby
High Intensity, sweet cherries, cherry compote, tobacco, sweet basil
Sweet cherries, unexpected astringency, good acidity. High alcohol is surprisingly unnoticeable.
7/7+ on the first day, 5 minutes after opening.
8-/8 second day, much more balanced and round, adds a touch of pepper, astringency is gone, excellent.

Now, let’s go to Spain. As we are now in Spain, let’s switch to the proper name for our grape – now it is Garnacha to you. Once here, how about some Garnacha Blanca? The wine had been made in Somontano, an area up north close to the French border for more than 2000 years. Garnacha Blanca is one of the permitted and popular varieties in Somontano. Once in Somontano, we are going to visit Secastillo, the valley which takes its name from the seven castles overlooking it.

Vinas del Vero vineyards in Secastilla. Source: Gonzales Byass

Viñas del Vero produces the wines here, sourcing the grapes from 100 years old Garnacha vines, growing mostly at the elevation of 2,100+ feet.

2017 Secastilla La Miranda Garnacha Blanca Sonomontano DO (14% ABV)
Straw Pale
Lemon, fresh grass, lemon zest
Whitestone fruit, Meyer lemon, clean acidity, nice and refreshing
7+/8-, very good

Let’s continue our trip going a bit more down south. Now we are in Catalonia, in Terra Alto DO (Terra Alta means High land), where Cellers Unió had been producing wine from the beginning of Terra alto DO been formally established in 1982 (Cellers Unió is a conglomeration of cooperatives which operates across 5 DOs, 11,000 acres of vineyards and includes 20,000 families of growers across 186 cooperatives). Now it is time to drink some classic Garnacha:

2016 Cellers Unio Clos Dalian Garnacha Tinta Crianza Terra Alta DO (13.5% ABV)
Dark Garnet
Cherry Coolaid, sweet cherry, candy
Cherries, fresh sour cherries, wow. Touch of tobacco, earthy undertones, perfect balance, soft and round.
8, excellent

Our trip is over, unfortunately – but see how easy it was? I wish you many great journeys, all enabled with the power of wine glass in your hand. Until we travel again – cheers!

High Altitude Malbec for the World Malbec Day Celebration

April 17, 2020 Leave a comment

Cafayate desert. Image by gabrielgcossa from Pixabay

Do you like Malbec? If you do, great – you have a perfect reason to celebrate one of the world’s most popular grape on its holiday, World Malbec Day, always celebrated on April 17th. If you don’t  – great, as you can taste a lot of wines in order to eventually find Malbec which you will enjoy.

Malbec is one of the unique grapes in the wine world, with a long history full of ups and downs. Malbec history can be traced almost a thousand years back. It used to be one of the most popular and most planted grapes in France. Wine from Cahors, a small region just south of Bordeaux, was famous for its dark and brooding qualities and was very much welcomed by the royals as early as the 1200s (well, the grape is not called Malbec in Cahors – it is known as Côt or Auxerrois). However, as Bordeaux started developing its own brand, it started blocking Cahors wines from reaching its intended destination, as most of the trading routes had to pass through Bordeaux before reaching the wine consumers.

Malbec used to be widely planted in Bordeaux, but this thin-skinned and disease-prone grape was difficult to work with, and it became anything but literally extinct today. Of course, Malbec is still the main grape in Cahors, where it is made into delicious, long-living wines – if you can find them in the wines stores, of course. However, the real fame of Malbec is related to its second motherland – Argentina.

Malbec was brought to Argentina in the mid-19th century and higher elevation vineyards with mostly dry climate happened to be a godsend for the moody grape. From there on, Malbec went on the path of becoming the most famous Argentinian grape. I guarantee you if anyone will ask what is in your glass, and you will say “Malbec”, 99% of the people will have no doubts that you are drinking Argentinian wine – yes, this is a good example of fame. Malbec’s success in the new world didn’t stop in Argentina, as it is successfully growing today in Australia, Chile, California, Texas, and many other places. But it is still the Argentina which rules the Malbec world today.

Altura maxima vineyard. Source: Bodegas Colome

Altura maxima Vineyard. Source: Bodegas Colome

When it comes to Argentinian wine, Mendoza is the first area that comes to mind. It is hardly surprising, as 2/3 or Argentinian wine comes from Mendoza. But it is not Mendoza we are talking about today – we are going higher, much higher – to Salta (Mendoza vineyards are typically located at the 1,800 – 3,400 feet altitude, and in Salta altitude ranges from 7,000 to 10,000 feet). Salta is home to the highest vineyard in the world, Altura Maxima (elevation 10,200 feet/3,100 meters). It is also home to one of the oldest wineries in Argentina, Bodegas Colomé, which was founded in 1831.

I already wrote about the wines of Bodegas Colomé in the past (you can find this post here), as well as the wines from Amalaya, a 10 years old project by Bodegas Colomé in Cafayate desert. It was very interesting to try the same wines only from a different vintage. I can say that there is a noticeable improvement in the quality of the Amalaya – 3 additional years make a lot of difference. The Colomé Estate Malbec was more or less on par with its older brethren – but I certainly like the new label design, the bottle looks more elegant.

Here are my notes for the three of the Malbec wines I was able to taste:

2018 Amalaya Malbec Salta Argentina (13.9% ABV, $16, 85% Malbec, 10% Tannat, 5% Petit Verdot)
Dark garnet
Inviting, eucalyptus, blackberries, crushed berries, baking spices
Fresh berries, coffee, bright, easy to drink, good structure, good acidity, good balance.
8, simple and delicious. Needed a couple of hours to open up.

2017 Colomé Estate Malbec Valle Calchaquí Salta Argentina (14.9% ABV, $25, grapes from vineyards at 7545 to 10,200 feet elevation)
Dark garnet
Vanilla, baking spices, restrained fruit
Vanilla, blueberries, tar, firm structure, very restrained, appears more as an old-world than anything else.
8, excellent.

2018 Colomé Auténtico Malbec Valle Colchaquí Salta Argentina (14.5% ABV, $30, high altitude vineyard ~7000 ft)
Practically black
Vanilla, blueberries, baking spices, inviting
Blueberries, coffee, good acidity, silky smooth, layered, ripe fruit but still balanced.
8, classic and tasty – but needs time. Really opened up only on the day 3

What do you think of Malbec wines? Do you have a favorite producer? How did you celebrate World Malbec Day? Until the next time – cheers!

Stories of Passion and Pinot: Utopia Vineyard

April 11, 2020 2 comments

Pinot Noir excites passion. All grapes do, of course, and good winemakers are always passionate, often to the point of obsession. But some of the most desired wines in the world are made out of Pinot Noir, and Pinot Noir is notoriously finicky, mutation-prone grape, difficult to work with. Hence passion is winemaker’s best helper to work with Pinot Noir and produce the best possible wines.

Yes, I’m sure you figured me by now – I’m introducing a new post in the Passion and Pinot series – you can find all the past posts here. And I’m sure today’s subject resonates perfectly with the world we live in right now (for those who might read this post a few years later, look up “covid-19 pandemic”, and you will understand my point). I’m sure we would all much rather live in utopia compare to the self-quarantine and fear of sneezing – and it is the utopia we will be talking about here (don’t worry, there will be plenty of wine).

According to the dictionary, utopia is defined as “an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect”. I guess Daniel Warnshuis saw this complete perfection in the 17 acres parcel of land he found on the Ribbon Ridge in the heart of Ribbon Ridge Appellation in Yamhill County in Oregon in early 2000, hence the name Utopia Vineyard.

Daniel Warnshuis. Source: Utopia Vineyard

UTOPIA Vineyard had its first commercial vintage in 2006, 413 cases of Pinot Noir. Since then, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay and a number of other wines had been produced at the winery, and numerous accolades were won at multiple competitions. Utopia, which uses dry farming methods, was L.I.V.E. certified in 2008.

I had an opportunity to [virtually] sit down with Daniel Warnshuis and ask him some questions – here is what transpired in our conversation:

[TaV]: First and foremost – why Utopia? Utopia means an unreachable dream, so what is the reason for this name?

[DW] The classic definition of UTOPIA is the perfect and no place. I am trying to make the perfect Pinot-noir but realize that as a human being I will not achieve perfection. It is, therefore, the goal that I constantly strive for without compromise to make the wine better each and every vintage.

[TaV]: You bought the vineyard in 2000, your first vintage was in 2006. How were those years in between? Did you have any major challenges, or did you just have to wait for the vines to mature?

[DW]:  You are correct that I consider 2006 my first commercial vintage (413 cases of Estate Pinot-noir) but I did produce 97 cases of Estate Pinot-noir in 2005. Just to be clear, it was more of an experiment than a vintage. There were a number of challenges in getting the vineyard bootstrapped. First, I had to decide which clones I wanted to plant. I looked around the valley at the time and found that most of the vineyards contained only 2-3 clones and they were mostly the same 2-3 clones, e.g.. Pommard and Dijon 115 or Wadenswil. Or one of the other Dijon clones, mostly 667 and 777. I also detected a certain homogeneity in the wines being produced at that time and I wanted to do something very different. This is what convinced me to plant a total of 12 Pinot-noir clones including several heirloom clones from various existing vineyard sources in CA and OR. Once I settled on the makeup of the vineyard it was mostly a waiting game until the vines began to produce.

[TaV]: You were born and raised on California wines, why build the vineyard in Oregon and not in a Napa or Sonoma?

[DW]: I got exposed to Willamette Valley Pinot-noir early in my wine journey working for Tektronix where my first boss was an avid wine collector and amateur chef who exposed me to Oregon wines. The raw beauty of Oregon and especially Willamette Valley wine country was also a major draw for me along with its nascent state as a wine producing region. It presented a relatively affordable opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the next NAPA. I was a big proponent of Willamette Valley Pinot-noir while still living and running my NAPA wine business at a time when even most savvy wine drinkers were still unaware of what was happening in Oregon.

[TaV]: You’ve been a farmer for 20 years now. What are your main takeaways from this experience?

[DW]: Owning the land is the ultimate advantage for a winemaker because the best wines almost always come from the best fruit. 100% control from vine to wine is the maximum level of control and as a small producer here in Willamette Valley I am as close to a small producer (vigneron) in Burgundy that I can be without being in Burgundy. At Utopia I always want to make the best wine possible for any given vintage, again just like in Burgundy the wine should always be a reflection of the growing season and therefore unique each and every year.

 

Source: Utopia Vineyard

[TaV]: Do you have a pivotal wine, the one which clearly made you see the wine world differently?

[DW]: Burgundy wines from any small producer in Volnay, Pommard, Mersault (and Mersault, Chassagne and Puligny Montrachet for whites) were pivotal wines for me. The only thing I have found that compares with them are Willamette Valley Pinot-noir’s and now Chardonnay’s from small producers who are owning the land and making the wines in the same tradition.

[TaV]: Is there one Pinot Noir producer or winery you would consider a hallmark, something you would compare your wines to?

[DW]: Dominique Lafon is someone who I have followed for several decades and admire his approach (biodynamic farming and terroir driven) especially for his White Burgundy which I think is sublime. DRC is always mentioned as the ultimate but I would say that I have always and still do admire the smaller producers who are risking everything to make the best wine. This means organic/biodynamic farming even in a challenging vintage, minimalist approach to winemaking and focus on terroir.

[TaV]: What is the difference between the various Pinot Noir wines you are producing? Is it grape selection, individual plots, different oak regimens?

[DW]:  Yes, it is all those things, in addition, location in the vineyard, clonal selection for the blends, oak regimen (ex: riper fruit deserves more new French oak such as in my Reserve “Eden” bottling).

[TaV]: Any plans for Utopia sparkling wines? You already growing all necessary components, so do you plan to take the next step?

[DW]:  Yes, I would like very much to make sparkling wine. It is challenging as it requires a different setup and 3-4 years to produce the first vintage, but, I have not given up on the concept. I produced my first Port Style wine in 2018 and will bottle it this Fall.

[TaV]: You are now offering Grenache, Mourvedre and GSM wines. For how long you had been producing those? I understand that you source Grenache from Rogue Valley, what about Mourvedre and Syrah? Do you also plan to offer single varietal Syrah?

[DW]: I started producing those varietals in 2009 and actually started with a Syrah and Viognier but switched to Grenache in 2013 and added a GSM in 2014 and a Mourvedre in 2016. As long as I can get quality fruit I will continue to make different varietals. I would like to produce a Cab Franc and maybe even a Bordeaux blend in the future as well. I plan to plant some of these different varieties here on my new property to prepare for the inevitable change in our climate over the next 10 – 20 years.

[TaV]: What are your favorite wines or wine producers in Oregon? In the USA? In the world?

[DW]: In Oregon, Brick House, Beaux Freres, In California, Joseph Phelps, Spottswoode, In the World, anything Burgundy especially any small producers farming organic/biodynamic and terroir driven as well as Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux.

[TaV]: Did your utopia materialize in your vineyard? Did you find everything you were looking for?

[DW]: Yes, I live on my vineyard and work with my family to produce a unique product that we share with the world. We preserve the land for future generations (organic farming), we give back to our communities, we promote culture of all types and we make our living doing what we love the most. I cannot be any happier than I am at UTOPIA.

[TaV]: Where do you see Utopia Vineyard in the next 10-15 years?  

[DW]: More plantings of different varieties especially Rhone and Bordeaux. Possibly produce sparkling wine, continue well managed growth and keep experimenting to make it better each and every time. Create a long lasting legacy and keep it in the family for future generations.

If you are still reading this, I’m sure you are ready for a glass of wine, preferably, an Oregon Pinot Noir. I had an opportunity to taste two of the Utopia Pinot Noir wines, here are the notes:

2014 UTOPIA Pinot Noir Clone 777 Estate Reserve Ribbon Ridge AVA (13.8% ABV, $75)
Dark ruby
Smoke, plums, violets, earthy undertones
Bristling acidity, tart cherries, medium body, minerality, refreshing, inviting, good balance.
8, fresh, clean, easy to drink.

2011 UTOPIA Paradise Pinot Noir Estate Reserve Ribbon Ridge AVA (13% ABV, $85)
Dark garnet
Upon opening, the very extensive barnyard smell was apparent. It disappeared on the second day. Tobacco, earth, tar, and smoke are prevalent on the second day.
The palate is beautifully balanced with tart cherries, plums, violets, a touch of vanilla, baking spices and roasted meat.
8+/9-, delicious, hard-to-stop-drinking wine. Superb.

And we are done here, my friends – one more story of passion, and yes, it involves Pinot Noir.

Obey your passion!

P.S. Here are the links to the posts profiling wineries in this Passion and Pinot series, in alphabetical order:

Alloro Vineyard, Bells Up Winery, Ghost Hill Cellars, Iris Vineyards, Ken Wright Cellars, Knudsen Vineyards, Le Cadeau Vineyard, Lenné Estate, Tendril Cellars, Youngberg Hill Vineyards, Vidon Vineyard

Daily Glass: Another Day, Another Enigma

March 8, 2020 Leave a comment

It was just another Sunday. It could’ve been any day in the oenophile’s house. You know, when you open a bottle which you think will be enough for the evening, but then people come over, and you open another, and another, and another. Yes, it doesn’t matter if it was Sunday or not. Just another day.

The important point here – wine is an enigma.

e·nig·ma
/iˈniɡmə/

noun

a person or thing that is mysterious, puzzling, or difficult to understand

This is not the first time I have to evoke the enigmatic virtue of wine – I had quite a few puzzling experiences, with the wines going amazing – undrinkable – amazing (here is one example), or with the wines needing 4-5 days to become drinkable after they had been open. The element of mystery of not knowing what you are going to find once the cork is pulled out of the most familiar bottle is definitely a big part of the excitement, but some times it becomes too much excitement, in my opinion. Anyway, let’s talk about that Sunday, shall we?

Guardian Cellars is a small produced in Woodinville, Washington. I visited the winery in 2014, and tasted through a bunch of wines which were one better than another (here is my excited post about that visit). I brought back with me a bottle of 2011 Guardian Cellars The Informant Wahluke Slope – 97% Syrah, 3% Viognier – and every time I would pull it off the shelf, I would put it back – you know how it is with single bottles, it is very hard to find the right moment to pull that cork. By the way, this bottle was simply stored in the wine cage standing in the room with temperature fluctuating around 70F and no direct sunlight – but not in the wine fridge or a cellar. Don’t really know what prompted me to finally get this bottle out, but I did. And it was delicious. Not a hint of age, dark garnet color, intense nose of blackberries, perfectly balanced dark berries, pepper, and crushed rocks on the palate. This was simply an excellent bottle – not the one which prompted my “enigma” outburst. And that note about storage conditions? People, don’t be afraid to keep your wine, even if you don’t have a cellar, wine fridge or a basement. If you do it right, you might be rewarded handsomely – well worth the risk.

I thought we might be able to get by with just one bottle, but then my daughter arrived with her friend who is “in the biz”, so the next bottle had to be special too. Another single bottle found its proper fate – 2006 Sequoia Groove Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley (this one was stored in the wine fridge in case you are wondering). There was nothing enigmatic about this wine – well, except maybe how quickly it disappeared. The wine was an absolutely delicious, succulent example of Napa Valley greatness – still dark garnet, black currant, mint, and eucalyptus on the nose, ripe berries, currant leaves, touch of anise, good acidity, firm structure – a delight all in all.

So the Sequoia Groove was gone, what next? After short deliberations, 2013 Neyers Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley was pulled out. I really like Neyers wines, enjoyed many of them in the past, including the bottles from the same vintage. The bottle was opened with no issues, poured in the glass, and this is where the strange things started. The wine was too sweet. The nose was fine, but on the palate, it was just sugar, sugar, sugar. Okay, let’s decant. 30 minutes later, 1 hour later, 2 hours later, the wine stayed the same – a sugary concoction.

No wine can be wasted in this house, so the content of the decanter went back into the bottle. The next day it was the same. Two days later, the sugar significantly subsided, and the wine started to resemble a lot more a classic Napa Cabernet Sauvignon as one would expect.

So what was that? I know the wine is a living thing and transformation still continues in the bottle. Still, how one can know when the wine is drinkable, and when it is not? Was this a fluke, an issue with a particular bottle? Maybe. Over the years I noticed a significant bottle variation in Neyers wines overall, so this would support a theory of “just a fluke”. Or was it just a state of this 7 years old wine? Maybe. There is no good way to tell. However, I have two more bottles of the same wine, and they are not getting opened for a while.

Going back to our evening, just for the fun of sharing some pictures, our dinner menu included some BBQ chicken skewers – while I don’t have pictures of food, I have a couple pictures of burning charcoal which I’m happy to share 🙂

While Neyers was declared undrinkable, I had to entertain my guests with something else, so I pulled a bottle of 2015 Wind Gap Mi-Pente Pinot Noir Sonoma County, one of my latest Last Bottles finds. Wind Gap is best known as Syrah specialist, so I was surprised to even find Wind Gap Pinot Noir (I’m not even sure Wind Gap brand exists anymore – it used to be run by talented Pax Mahle, who now went back to his own brand Pax – this story definitely deserves its own post). The wine was delicious – crunchy cherries and smoke, firm structure, lots of energy – this was an excellent finish to the good Sunday evening.

Here you are, my friends. Wine is an enigma. Who else thinks that wine is an enigma? Raise your hands glasses.

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