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Of Hydrangeas, Ocean, Sunsets, and Wine

July 13, 2021 7 comments

I’m sure this cryptic title leaves you wondering what are we going to talk about in this post, right?

Yeah, a lame attempt at self-humor.

And as you can see I want to talk about some of my most favorite things – flowers, waves and sand, sunsets, and, of course, wine. Mostly in pictures – except the wine part.

We just came home after a weekend in Cape Cod, and if you ever visited The Cape as it is typically called, I’m sure you noticed the abundance of hydrangeas. There is rarely a house that doesn’t sport a beautiful hydrangeas display.

Hydrangeas come in many colors, which can be also influenced by what you feed the flowers. They typically bloom the whole summer and deliver non-stop pleasure – at least in my world. Let me share some of my favorites with you:

Our next subject is the ocean. Cape Cod is a special place, where you can find huge swathes of water only a few inches deep, or simply a wet send that goes for miles and miles during low tide. The water and the sky magically connect, creating an ultimate rhapsody in blue – see for yourself:

The sunsets were challenging this time around. Two days out of three that we spent on The Cape, the weather was not good at all – rain, wind, and more of the rain and wind. Nevertheless, the weather was taking a break in the evening to present a beautiful sun setting imagery, which we enjoyed from the comfort of the deck – with a glass of wine in hand:

And this brings us to the last subject of today’s post – the wine. This was a vacation, and I was absolutely not interested in taking any sort of formal notes. But somehow, the majority of the wines we had were so good (with the exception of some sort of homemade wine from Moldova, which we had to pour out) that I can’t help it not to share the pleasure. Here are my brief notes.

We started with 2020 Hugues de Beauvignac Picpoul de Pinet AOP (14.1% ABV) – fresh, clean, well balanced. The wine offered a touch of the whitestone fruit and was a perfect welcome drink after 4 hours of driving. It is also very well priced at about $12 at Total Wines in Boston, which is almost a steal at that level of quality.

2019 Golan Heights Winery Yarden Sauvignon Blanc Galilee (13.5% ABV) offered a beautiful Sauvignon Blanc rendition with a hint of freshly cut grass and beautiful creaminess. This wine was more reminiscent of Sancerre than anything else – an excellent effort out of Israel.

2016 Sonoma Mountain Steiner Vineyard Grüner Veltliner (14.1% ABV) – one of the perennial favorites (I’m very disappointed when my Carlisle allocation doesn’t include Gruner Veltliner). Beautiful fresh Meyer lemon, grass, clean acidity – in a word, delicious.

The last white wine we had was 2016 Château de Tracy Pouilly-Fumé AOP (13% ABV). Another Sauvignon Blanc – plump, creamy, delicious. Nicely restrained and round. It is definitely a fun wine as long as the price is not taken into the consideration – otherwise, at about $40, both Yarden (under $20) and Picpoul wines would give it a great run for the money.

Our Rosé was fun 2020 Samuel Robert Winery Pinot Noir Rosé Vineyard Reserve Willamette Valley (13% ABV) – the Oregon Rosé is just not very common. This wine had nice strawberries all around – on the nose and on the palate. I would probably want it to be a tiny bit less sweet, but the wine was still quite enjoyable.

2017 Campochiarenti San Nicola Chianti Colli Senesi (14.5% ABV) is one of my favorite wines to surprise friends and even myself with. It starts as a solid Chianti would – cherries, tobacco, leather, iodine. But in a few minutes of breathing, it magically evolves to add sandalwood, nutmeg, and exotic spices. An incredibly heart-welcoming sip.

And to top of everything else, the 1997 Chappellet Pritchard Hill Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valey (87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Petite Sirah, 4% Cabernet Franc) was thrown into the mix by my brother-in-law. This wine was a testament to California Cabernet Sauvignon; a simple proof that well made California Cab might be the best wine on Earth. This wine had no – none – signs of aging. Fresh, young, concentrated, cassis and cherries with a touch of mint and coffee, beautifully layered and well structured. This wine was not yet at its peak – I wonder how many more years it would require to reach the top…

And now, an absolute surprise – 2000 EOS Tears of Dew Late Harvest Moscato Paso Robles (10.5% ABV) – a late harvest wine from Paso. Beautiful orange color, and nose and palate loaded with ripe apricots – a hedonistic pleasure on multiple levels.

Now that is the whole story I wanted to share. What is your favorite flower? Have you tasted any amazing wines lately? Cheers!

 

 

Made With Organic Grapes: Find Your Ritual

June 9, 2021 Leave a comment

The world of wine is full of eternal questions. Here is one of the most prolific ones: where is the wine made – in the vineyard or at the winery?

Many would argue that, of course, the wine is made in the vineyard. To make good wine you have to start with good grapes. You need good, healthy, properly ripened grapes to make good wine. “Good grapes” might seem obvious as a concept, but it actually entails a lot of hard work, love, and care, from the moment the first bud will appear on the vine (and even before that) until the moment when harvested grapes are reaching the winery. “Good grapes” are not defined by the taste alone – it is important how the grapes were growing, were any pesticides used, were all the methods organic, or better yet, sustainable? “Good grapes” for sure means a lot of work.

Then some might argue that no matter how good the grapes are if the winemaker will not take good care of the grapes from the moment grapes arrived at the winery, the good grapes will not result in good wine. How the grapes were manipulated from the very beginning – sorting, cleaning, de-stemming, pressing, fermenting, aging, storing – each of these steps has to be performed properly, as even the very best grapes will not convert themselves into the good wine.

Source: Ritual Winery

Source: Ritual Winery

The folks at Ritual winery in Chile clearly don’t want to answer this eternal question. Or rather their answer is “both”. Estate vineyards in the eastern part of the Casablanca Valley in close proximity to the Pacific Ocean are surrounded by 6,000 acres of the native forest, creating a unique biome. All the vineyards are certified organic. Estate uses its own compost, made out of the pomace and manure of the local animals. Sheep help mow the grass and fertilize the vines.

The grapes are hand-harvested early in the cool morning at the first sunlight. After sorting, the grapes are fermented in the open-top tanks, using basket press and native yeast. To achieve desired characteristics, 4 different vessels are used for the aging of the wines: Oak Barrels to enhance the structure, Concrete eggs for the texture, Stainless steel Drums elevate freshness, and Stainless steel Tanks help with aromatics.

Below are my tasting notes, where you can also see all the different vessels used to produce particular wines:

2018 Ritual Sauvignon Blanc Casablanca Valley (14% ABV, $19.99, organic grapes, 8 months in stainless steel, concrete eggs and neutral barrels)
Light golden
Very complex, white stone fruit, good minerality, fresh herbs
Round and velvety, creamy texture, a hint of vanilla, even butter, nice lemon core, clean and crisp finish
8+/9-, outstanding. A different and delicious Sauvignon Blanc. Borderline a Chardonnay experience.

2019 Ritual Sauvignon Blanc Casablanca Valley (13.5% ABV, $19.99, organic grapes, fermented and aged for 8 months in concrete eggs, neutral oak, and stainless steel)
Light golden color
The nose is not very expressive, minerality, a hint of whitestone fruit
On the palate, a full spectrum, changing as the wine warms up – starting from steely Muscadet-like acidity, adding a bit of the creaminess after a few minutes in the glass, and then showing Chardonnay-like fuller-bodied notes and expressive minerality.
8/8+, Delicious

2018 Ritual Chardonnay Casablanca Valley (13.5% ABV, $20.99, aged in concrete eggs and French oak barrels)
Light Golden
Characteristic touch of vanilla and apple on the palate, a whiff of honey
Vanilla, apple, a hint of butter in the palate, perfect balance, crisp acidity, wow, a superb rendition of Chardonnay. Give it 5–10 years, and it will rival the white burgundy.
8, Outstanding

2017 Ritual Pinot Noir Casablanca Valley (13.5% ABV, $21.99, aged 11 months in French oak barrels)
Dark Ruby
The dusty nose of fresh plums with a touch of vanilla
Plums, violets, a touch of mocha, good acidity, fresh, excellent balance
8+, delicious from the get-go

Tasting Ritual wines will not help us to find an answer to our eternal question – these wines are clearly made both in the vineyard and at the winery. Have you tried any of these wines? If you did, I guess you already found your Ritual, if not – well, here is your chance.

Seeking Cabernet

June 1, 2021 2 comments

Now, this is frustrating.

At the recent dinner with friends at Knife Pleat restaurant (amazing food!), I assumed my role of designated Wine Guy and was going through 20+ pages of the wine list. 1970 Solar di Samaniego Rioja Gran Reserva caught my eye – at $200, it represented an amazing value for a 51-year-old wine. After confirming with the Somm that the wine is still well drinkable, only more delicate than powerful, I had to wriggle an approval for spending $200 on a bottle (I was not paying).

After the wine made it into the glasses, it appeared that everyone was really enjoying the nose, which was complex and spectacular. The first sip of the wine, served at the cellar temperature, was met with more than subdued enthusiasm – let’s be honest here, it was rather a sigh of disappointment. There was nothing wrong with the wine, but it was well closed and at least needed the time to open up.

After a few attempts to enjoy the wine, my friend asked “can you recommend any big, round, smooth, and velvety wines”? It turns out a few years back when she just arrived in Irvine, she got a bottle of wine at the local store. The wine was on sale for about $20 a bottle, and all she remembers was Cabernet Sauvignon and that she really enjoyed the wine – but she has no idea about the producer, the vintage, or any other essential elements.

Have you been in a situation where a simple question can lead to literally complete paralysis while trying to answer it? This might be a situation where your knowledge becomes your big handicap, as you try to hastily dissect the complexity of such a simple question.

Basically, the question asks “can I recommend an amazingly good California Cabernet Sauvignon at a reasonable price to someone who is not a wine aficionado, but just want to occasionally enjoy a good glass of wine?” – how easy this should be to answer for the Wine Guy? For yours truly Wine Guy, not so easy.

Good California Cabernet Sauvignon might be one of the best pleasures on Earth. I’m talking about the wine which unequivocally extorts “oh my god” from the red wine lover after the first sip. Of course, this is a simple idea – but not so simple to provide a recommendation. We need to take into account price, availability, and readiness to drink. BV Georges de Latour Private Reserve might be amazing with proper age, but with the price of $100+ per bottle and pretty much undrinkable upon release, this is not the wine I can recommend. The same story would be with Kamen, one of the most amazing Cabernet Sauvignon wines I ever tasted. Textbook, Turley, or Waterstone would offer more reasonably priced options (under $50), but still, I don’t know how amazing these wines are upon release. Suggesting non-winos to decant will not work. Asking them to keep the wine in the cellar until it reaches perfection will not be received very well. That leaves us with only one option – we need to find a Cabernet Sauvignon which is delicious upon release.

In an attempt to rehabilitate me after (almost) an epic failure at the restaurant, I decided to look for the simplest solution – the wines from Trader Joe’s. Trader Joe’s wines rarely disappoint; they are light on the wallet and don’t require cellaring or decanting to be enjoyed.

Trader Joe’s offers a good selection of Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Choosing the wines was a combination of prior experience and just good-looking labels – Justin makes outstanding wines in Paso Robles; you can’t go wrong with or beat the prices of the Bogle wines);  I had MOONX wines before, and have good memories of them.

Here are the Cabernet Sauvignon wines from Trader Joe’s I offered to my friend to taste (notes are mine, of course):

2018 Paso Dragon Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles (13.5% ABV, $6.99)
Garnet
sage, blackberries, red and black fruit
Blackberries, herbs, medium body, clean acidity, nice finish with a touch of pepper
7+, a bit too weak for the Cab, but easy to drink wine. Can’t really identify as Cabernet Sauvignon.

2018 Justin Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles (14.5% ABV, $24.95)
Ruby
A touch of eucalyptus and mint, blackberries; second day – earthy and complex, a hint of gunflint.
A distant hint of cassis and tobacco
Second day: Classic cab is coming through, cassis and mint, clean acidity, crisp tannins.
8/8+, this wine needs at least 5, better yet 10+ years in the cellar to shine.

2018 Boggle Cabernet Sauvignon California (14.5% ABV, $7.99)
Light garnet
Bell peppers, a hint of cassis
Blackberry preserve with tobacco and a touch of coffee. More herbaceous than anything else.
7+, it is a drinkable wine, but might be the least Cabernet of the group.

2019 Moonx Cabernet Sauvignon California (13% ABV, $6.99)
Garnet
A touch of cassis, berries compote, a hint of bell pepper
Lodi fruit presentation, a hint of cinnamon, warm spices, sweet tobacco, berries preserve, a touch of fresh tannins, medium finish.
8-, easy to drink, good balance, pleasant, great QPR.

My friend’s favorite on the first day was Paso Dragon. MOONX was a favorite on the second day. She declared Justin “not bad” on the second day. And she was unmoved by Bogle on either day.

From my point of view, only Justin was worthy of Cabernet Sauvignon designation – give it time, and it will be a spectacular one. MOONX was very good too, but it didn’t necessarily scream Cabernet Sauvignon. We need to remember though that my friend’s love and desire for Cabernet is simply based on the good prior experience with the wine named Cabernet Sauvignon, but was that a classic Cab nobody would ever know.

There you go, my friends. Let’s go on the quest to find the best, varietally correct Cabernet Sauvignon, perfectly drinkable upon release, at a price that leaves 401k intact. Ready to offer recommendations? Be my guest…

Discovering Armenian Wine

May 17, 2021 2 comments

I love wine.

I’m a collector.

Based on these two statements, how easy it is to assume that I’m a wine collector? No brainer, right?

And nevertheless, I don’t see myself as a wine collector. The only reason I have a wine cellar (a bunch of wine fridges, rather) is that I like to drink aged wines – not for any bragging or financial reasons.

So what am I collecting then?

Experiences. I love to collect experiences. Tasting the wines I didn’t taste before (an easy one – every year, I should have what, 500,000 options?) Tasting the wines made from the grapes I never tasted before. Tasting the wines from the new places.

Growing up in the 80s in the USSR, I knew about Georgian wines – those were the most famous (Georgia was one of the 15 republics in the former Soviet Union). I also knew about Georgian cognac (yeah, should be called brandy, but do you think anyone cared there about the trademarks?) – but those were not the best. The best cognacs (okay, okay, brandies) were coming from Armenia (another republic then) though. Not being really into wines and grape growing, I never thought of a possible connection between the wine and cognac (both are made from grapes), thus I never thought that it is entirely possible that Armenia might be also making wines if they already got the grapes.

Turns out that it would be an excellent guess to connect the dots err, grapes, as it appears that wine had been made in Armenia for the past 6,000 years or so. I’m not here to debate the crowning of the “cradle of winemaking” title – whether it is Armenia, Georgia, or Turkey is all fine by me, please accept my sincere gratitude for bringing wine into this world.

Armenian Wine Regions. Source: Storica Wines

As we said, Armenia is one of the oldest wine-producing countries in the world, which had been shown through the archaeological excavations, discovering the wine production facility located in Areni cave complex and dating back to around 4000 BC. Considering such a long history, it is safe to say that wine is an indelible part of the Armenian lifestyle.

In more recent days, during the Soviet rule, Armenia was producing wine and brandy, but the majority of the wine was produced in the Sherry style (it is interesting to note that similar to the wines of the Sherry region in Spain, Armenian “Sherry” wines can also develop a thin protective layer (flor) on the surface. Needless to say that production of fine wines was never encouraged during the soviet era.

Armenia’s terroir is conducive for the production of fine wine – predominantly volcanic soils, rich in nutrients, and high vineyard elevation (2,000 – 5,000+ feet above sea level) help to produce good quality grapes. About 30 indigenous grape varieties also help to produce wines of unique flavor profile and character.

I had an opportunity to sample two of the Armenian wines, courtesy of Storica wines, an importer and online retailer of Armenian wines in the USA.

The first wine I tried was traditional method sparkling wine produced by Keush. Keush winery was established in 2013, however, they use 100–120 years old vines, growing at the 5,200 feet elevation above sea level, some of the highest vineyards in Armenia. This classic method sparkling wine was produced from the indigenous grape varieties, and I have to honestly admit that the wine greatly exceeded my expectations.

The second wine I tasted was produced by one of the youngest wineries in Armenia, Zulal (the word means “pure” in Armenian). The winery produces about 10,000 cases per year, focusing on Areni and Voskehat grapes sourced from about 40 villages from Aghavnadzor, Rind, Arpa Valley, and Vayots Dzor regions.

NV Keush Origins Brut Methode Traditionelle Armenia (12% ABV, $25.99, 60% Voskehat, 40% Khatouni, at least 22 months on the lees, Lot 08.15)
Light golden color
Beautiful nose of toasted bread, a touch of yeast, clean, inviting, classic
Beautiful minerality, fresh, toasted notes, vibrant, clean acidity, fine creamy bubbles coating your mouth.
Outstanding, 8+

2018 Zulal Areni Reserve Vayots Dzor, Armenia (13% ABV, $32.99, 100% Areni, 12 months in Caucasian and French oak barrels)
Dark garnet
Not an expressive nose, underbrush, herbal undertones, a touch of fresh berries
Black pepper, wild berries, dried herbs, soft, clean, easy to drink
8, simple, quaffable, easy to drink, perfect for the conversation

As a wine drinker, I’m very happy with my discovery. Keush sparkling was outstanding, both delicious and a great QPR. Zulal Areni was also quite delightful. As a collector, I’m also very happy, as I get to add 3 new grapes, plus a checkmark to the list of the winemaking countries I had an opportunity to taste the wines from. Most importantly, I had an experience of drinking the wines made in the country which is an indelible part of the world’s winemaking history.  All in all, a good day.

Have you ever had Armenian wines? If you had, what do you think of them? If you didn’t, are you ready to rectify things? Cheers!

 

Beautiful Simplicity

April 12, 2021 3 comments

Is there a such thing as simple wine?

I really despise controversy. In a world where every word is twisted, turned, analyzed, over-analyzed, then twisted and turned, again and again, I don’t want to be the one to start a new controversy around wine (clean or natural, anyone?).

But really, is “simple” an applicable descriptor for the wine? If I say “simple wine”, can you relate to this as easily as to “tannic”, “acidic”, or “sweet”?

Everything in the wine world is personable. No two palates are the same, no two glasses of wine are the same. And so will be the concept of simple wine – it is highly personal.

There are thought-provoking wines – you take a sip, which triggers an instant process in your brain – analyzing flavors, looking for patterns, digging into memory looking for comparisons. Not every thought-provoking wine equates with pleasure – if we call the wine thought-provoking, it doesn’t always mean that we are craving a second glass. Need an example? How about Frank Cornelissen wines? Nevertheless, we all can relate to the wine we designate as thought-provoking.

Then there are complex wines. The wine presents itself in layers. You don’t need to over-analyze anything, and yet every sip keeps changing, offers you new depth and new impressions every passing moment. Complex is beautiful, wine aficionados love drinking complex wines.

So what is then a simple wine? A lot of people would equate the definition of “simple” with the price. We are trained not to refer to the $10 bottle as “amazing” – even if we enjoy it immensely, we would rather say “it’s just a simple wine”. Leaving the price aside, a simple wine has a very simple effect – take a sip, and your only reaction is “ahh, that’s good”. Simplicity doesn’t affect the enjoyment of the wine – the wine should still give you pleasure, and you should still want a second glass.

Every time you think you know a lot a good bit about your favorite subject, wine, life quickly humbles you, just so you know your place. Ever heard of Mack and Schuhle? I also never have. Meanwhile, they had been in the winemaking and wine distribution business since 1939, and currently have a portfolio of 25 wine brands from around the world – from New Zealand to Italy, Spain, and France to the USA.

When I was offered to review 2 of their wines, Montepulciano and Malbec, I agreed to do that because I was intrigued by the names – Art of Earth and El Tractor. Would you instantly agree to drink something called Art of Earth? For a wine geek like myself, such a name makes the wine simply irresistible. And tasting these wines, which are also very inexpensive, resulted in the diatribe about simple wines. For what it worth, here are my tasting notes:

2019 Art of Earth Montepulciano D’Abruzzo DOC (13.5% ABV, $12, made with organic grapes)
Dark garnet with beautiful ruby hues
Touch of cherries, a hint of funk,
Bright, pure, beautiful, succulent, tart cherries – fresh of the tree.
8+, delicious. This wine doesn’t have the complexity of Masciarelli, and I don’t believe it will age very well – but it is absolutely enjoyable right now.

2017 El Tractor Malbec Reserve Mendoza Argentina (13% ABV, $14, 12 months in French oak)
Dark garnet
Blackberries, cherries, sweet tobacco
Dark fruit, tobacco, cherries, a hint of smoke, nicely restrained, good acidity, good balance.
8, excellent. This wine is not going to rival Catena, but it is perfectly an old-world style, quaffable, and enjoyable Malbec.

Here you are – two simple wines, good for every and any day – or at least I would be happy to drink them any day. What is your definition of simple wine?

Chasing DRC

March 11, 2021 Leave a comment

Only yesterday I told you about some of the unicorns I’m chasing (the special breed, those made out of wine). And now I want to talk about the ultimate unicorn, the unicorn of unicorns if you will – Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, usually called by its abbreviated name – DRC.

Life is a series of random events. Sometimes we think we are in control, and sometimes we really are – but more often than not, things are just happening, and they are happening whether we are there to observe, learn, and experience, or not. While the events might be random, it is up to us to look for the patterns or the objects we desire. Once we know what we want, our subconscious is programmed to look for it any time all the time.

I had been following The Wellesley Wine Press blog for a very long time. Robert Dwyer, who is writing it, not only shares his opinion about wines but also has a great talent for finding amazing wine deals, all sorts of special discounts and promotions by credit cards, wineries, and wine merchants. When I got an email about Robert’s new post, “Domaine Romanée Conti meets Sonoma Coast: 2018 Vivier Pinot Noir [$37]”, my fingers were clicking the link even before I finished reading the title of the post, literally a reflexive reaction to detecting the words “Domaine Romanée Conti”.

You see, DRC might be the most coveted wine in the world. If it is not the one, maybe it is one of three or five of the most sought-after wines in the world. It is produced in minuscule amounts, and it is prohibitively, really prohibitively expensive for most of the mere mortals. DRC produces a number of wines, so to give you an example, there were a bit more than 2,000 cases produced of DRC La Tâche 2017, each bottle priced at $4,000+. And I honestly don’t care about owning a bottle, I just want to experience such wine at least once in a lifetime – so yes, the unicorn of unicorns.

You can imagine that opportunity to taste something even remotely related to DRC would trigger an immediate reaction. Skimming through Robert’s article, I learned that Vivier Pinot Noir is produced by Stephane Vivier, who was the winemaker for Hyde de Villaine, DRC’s joint venture in California, who started producing his own wines under the Vivier label. And at $37, this is the closest I can get to DRC without second-mortgaging the house. The same post also explained that the wine is available at Wine Access, the site I already had a good experience with – the rest was a no-brainer.

The wine quickly arrived, and I had to literally hold myself from opening the bottle while the UPS truck barely left the driveway. While I was admiring the simple design of the label, I really liked the description I found there: “Stéphane Vivier is a lazy winemaker. He watches. He waits. He plans. All the while letting the vineyards, the fruit, and “le climat” do the heavy lifting. So when you taste his wine, you taste what created it, not who“. That prompted me to take a look at the Vivier Wines website, where I learned that Stéphane Vivier was born and raised in Burgundy, where he also obtained a degree in viticulture and enology. He started working as a winemaker for Hyde de Villaine in 2002, and in 2009 he started making wines under the Vivier label with his wife Dana.

So how was the 2018 Vivier Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast (12.8% ABV)? Upon pouring into the glass, the first thing to notice was the beautiful, perfumy nose – fresh berries, violets, a touch of strawberries. On the palate, the wine was a typical, well-made Californian Pinot Noir, round, elegant, and polished – but unmistakably Californian, with a good amount of sweetness coming through. I can’t tell you what I was looking for, but I wanted to find something unique, something I didn’t experience in Californian Pinot Noir yet – but that didn’t happen.

On the second day, the wine changed its appearance. Both the nose and the palate pointed directly to Oregon. the nose became more earthy and less perfumy, and on the palate the wine was significantly more restrained, with iodine and earthy notes coming through a lot more noticeably. While the wine on the first day was good, I much more preferred how it was showing on the second day (Drinkability: 8-/8).

There you have it, my friends. Did I find DRC in California? Even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to tell, as I have no frame of reference. Did I discover a tasty Californian Pinot Noir? Absolutely. In 5, or maybe 10 years, it might become even amazing. Chase your dreams, my friends. Cheers!

 

Daily Glass: Vinous Vino

January 31, 2021 2 comments

This post could’ve been filed under lots of different titles – “confusion of the oenophile”, “beautiful labels”, “how mistakes are made”, “one has to pay attention”, and I’m sure many others.

The story here is rather simple. I saw the wine on the Last Bottle offered at $26. If you ever saw the Last Bottle offer descriptions, it is full of exclamation marks, explanations that they never had the wine like that before and their collective socks were blown away the second they smelled the wine, and the wine will be gone before anyone can even say the name of the wine which is offered. I really can’t pay attention to the text like that, so with a quick glance, I established that this was a Tempranillo wine from Spain, and it was produced by Elias Mora. When reading every other word or less, mistakes are bound to happen. Somehow, my brain transformed Elias Mora into Emilio Moro, one of the very best producers in the Ribera Del Duero region, and at $26 with 4 bottles to buy to get free shipping and $30 of available credit, that sounded like a great deal, so I quickly completed the purchase.

When the wine arrived, first I admired a beautiful label. I don’t know what you think, but to me, this is one of the most beautiful and creative labels I ever saw. Then I noticed the word Toro on the label, which made me instantly question what I have done, as Emilio Moro doesn’t produce wines in Toro. I quickly realized that while the label is beautiful, I have no way to relate to the content of the bottle, except knowing that it is a Tempranillo from the Toro region.

Tempranillo is one of the most popular red grapes in Spain, and while Tempranillo wines are produced absolutely everywhere, it is Rioja and Ribera Del Duero which make Spanish Tempranillo famous. In addition to Rioja and Ribera Del Duero, Toro is the third Tempranillo-focused region. Tempranillo is often called Ink of Toro in the Toro region, and it might be slightly a different clonal variation of Tempranillo, similar to Sangiovese in Chianti and Sangiovese Grosso in Brunello. Compared to a typical Rioja or Ribera del Duero renditions, Toro always packs a lot more power into that same Tempranillo-based wine and typically needs time to mellow out.

I tried to find out if Elias Mora and Emilio Moro might be related in any way, but the Elias Mora website offers little to no information about the history of the estate, primarily focusing on just selling the wine. I also tried to no avail learn the idea behind the unique and creative label – the wine description provides technical details but no explanation whatsoever why the bottle is decorated with an elaborate image of playing cards – of course, it matches the name “Descarte”, but I’m sure there should be something deeper there (if you know the story, I would greatly appreciate a comment).

Now, most importantly – how was the 2015 Elias Mora Descarte Toro DO (14.5% ABV, 12 months in French oak, comes from the plot of 50 years old vines)? It was a typical Toro wine. On the first day after opening, I had nothing but regrets about buying this wine. Freshly opened Toro is just too much for my palate. It is literally an espresso, made from the darkest roast and in the tiniest amount – if you enjoy that powerful punch, you should try a young Toro wine. If you don’t, and you are opening a bottle of Toro, decanter might be of help. On the third day, however, my first sip instantly generated the “vinous vino” words in my mind, so I needed not to worry about the title of this post. The wine transformed into the medley of the dark fruit, perfect aromatics of the wine cellar, cedar, eucalyptus, now just a touch of espresso instead of the whole ristretto shot, clean acidity, and delicious, perfectly balanced, finish. (Drinkability: 8)

There you are, my friends. If you will see this wine, you can definitely buy a few bottles, preferably to forget them in your cellar for the next 5-10 years. And take your time to read wine descriptions – or not, as life might be more fun if you don’t. Cheers!

Alit Wines – Follow The Flow. Lava Flow

December 9, 2020 2 comments

Here is a question which can never be answered: where the wine is made, in the vineyard or in the cellar?

There are many arguments towards the vineyard being The Place where the wine is made. Mother Nature offerings are everchanging – they change every year, never repeating themselves. But it is not only the climate that never repeats itself – the land which seems to present itself as chunks of sameness is very far from it. Only identifying different pieces is the work of art – the mastery of the winemaker.

Alit Wines is a very young winery, by all means – it was founded only about 5 years ago, in 2016. You would not think that once you taste their wines, which come through elegant and mature – but we need to keep in mind that Alit is only one piece to a bigger story.

Oregon is often compared with Burgundy – Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are stars in both regions, and both regions produce well ageable wines of finesse. Burgundy is built on the concepts of terroir and soils – I’m sure you’ve heard the stories of Burgundian vignerons going any distance to protect their soils from erosion and any sort of loss. The whole concept of Crus is based on terroir differentiation, and it took Burgundy centuries to find their best of the best parcels which earned the right to be called Grand Crus.

If you ever listened to the Oregon winemakers, they often talk about soils, first in monolithic terms, in terms of big blocks. But with every subsequent harvest, they start seeing differences between different plots in the vineyards, and those become specific plot-designated wines. This is Oregon’s path towards finding their Grand Crus.

We probably shouldn’t speak for the whole of Oregon, as Alit’s approach to this Grand Cru quest is different. Let’s get back to our “bigger story” around Alit. We usually think that wines are all about grapes, but they are actually all about people – people who stand behind those wines. In the case of Alit, the first person we need to mention is Mark Tarlov. After leaving his first successful wine project, Evening Land (a unique enterprise, if you ask me, making wines under the Evening Land label both in Burgundy and Oregon), Mark continued his wine endeavors with Chapter 24 Vineyards, which he started in 2012. Chapter 24 wines are extremely terroir focused – if you will look at the Chapter 24 Vineyards website, you will see that it produces only two wines –  one called The Fire which comes from the volcanic soils, and The Flood, with the grapes coming from vineyards planted in riverbed soils.

In 2015, Chapter 24 Vineyards opened the “last chapter” as it is called – Rose and Arrow winery, as well as the subsequent (2016) “sister” operation  – Alit. In case you are curious, the “About” page explains the Rose and Arrow name: “The “rose” and “arrow”, innately connected yet conflicting, each defined by the existence (or absence) of the other. Our favorite wines make us appreciate the harmony of opposites: acid/sweet, simple/complex, solid rock/sprouting vine. The latter is where our narrative begins, as every great wine is ignited by unique tensions in the rock of its origin.“. Also in 2015, Mark Tarlov was joined by Chilean winemaker Felipe Ramirez, who became the winemaker for Chapter 24, Rose and Arrow, and Alit wines, working together with consulting winemaker Louis Michel Liger-Belair.

Remember, we need to follow lava flow, as these wines are all about soils, basalt soils, rich in unique nutrients. Enters Dr. Pedro Parra, who wine writer LM Archer called Terroir Whisperer. Dr. Parra is one of the leading soil specialists in the world. Explaining Dr. Parra’s methodology would require a long, very long, and dedicated post, so instead, you should read Lyn’s article where she does a great job explaining what Dr. Parra does – but in essence, he is capable of identifying microsites, some can be 0.5 acres or less, capable of producing wine with very specific characteristics – all of it based on soil and climate analysis before (!) the vineyards are planted. To make it all practical, one of the first projects at Rose and Arrow was the vinification of about 100 wines harvested from such microsites – this is what makes Rose and Arrow wines unique.

When you think of “vineyard plots”, what image comes to mind? My imagination stops at squares or rectangles – but in our case, a correct answer is a polygon. Chapter 24/Rose and Arrow/Alit all operate with polygons, where the shape of microsites can be very complex. Here is the snapshot from our zoom call with folks from Alit where Felipe Ramirez shows the map of one of the sites (sorry that you can’t see Felipe):

How these microsites are identified? Using a method called electrical conductivity. Measuring the electrical conductivity of soil allows to create maps – this is exactly what the folks from Alit and Rose and Arrow are doing. Once you have a map, the rest is easy 🙂 now it is all about mastery of the winemaker – harvest each microsite (polygon) separately, vinify separately – and create the magic.

Now that we understand how the road to the Oregon Grand Crus looks like, let’s discuss the role Alit is playing in this quest.

Talking about Alit wines, we need first mention the Collective. Alit Collective is similar to the wine club, but it is very different from the typical winery club. To become a member of the Collective, you need to pay a $100 annual membership. After that, you can buy Alit wines at a cost – however, it is you who decide what to buy and when. To give an idea of the cost, Alit Pinot Noir (2015) costs $15.10 for Collective members and $27.45 for non-members – this means that once you buy 8 bottles, you will recoup your $100 investment, and every bottle afterward gives you great savings. How does selling at cost makes sense, you probably wonder? It wouldn’t if Alit would be on its own, but in conjunction with Rose and Arrow, it does make sense, as it helps to finance the overall operation.

What else can I tell you? Ahh, the wines, let’s not forget about the wines!

We tasted two of the Alit wines, Rosé (of Pinot Noir, of course), and Pinot Noir.

2019 Alit Rosé Willamette Valley (13% ABV) had a salmon pink color. Gunflint (volcanic soils!), strawberries, and onion peel on the nose. Nice touch of fresh strawberries and lemon, crisp, refreshing, nicely restrained, and well balanced with lemon notes on the finish (Drinkability: 8) – unquestionably delicious any time you want a glass of light, refreshing wine.

2017 Alit Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (13.6% ABV, native yeast fermentation, 10-12 months in oak) – beautiful bright ruby color – it is seldom for me to see a red wine of such a beautiful color. Beautiful nose, herbal, open, inviting, with mint, cherries, and a touch of the barnyard. Now, I have to say that the palate made me work for it. During the tasting, with the freshly opened bottle, the wine showed light, with red and blue fruit, good acidity, fresh, food-friendly, and restrained – we can even say “under-extracted” (Drinkability: 7+/8-). Over the next two days, the wine opened up, it obtained body, became round and supple, and became an object of pleasure (Drinkability: 8+). Definitely needs time, either in the cellar or in the decanter if you are in a hurry.

Alit Wines and Rose and Arrow enterprises are definitely something to watch. Mark Tarlov believes that sometime around 2030, it will be possible to understand if his quest for the Oregonian Grand Cru was successful. As for me, I practically always enjoy the journey more than the destination, so I will be happy to tag along, and yes, actually enjoy the journey with Alit wines – hop on, we can follow the lava flow together.

Celebrate Cabernet Franc!

December 4, 2020 2 comments

What do you think of Cabernet Franc? Is that a grape worthy of its own, special celebration?

If I can take the liberty of answering my own question, it is an enthusiastic “yes” from me.

I don’t know if wine lovers realize the grand standing of Cabernet Franc. The grape is essential as part of the blend, in French Bordeaux and Bordeaux-style blends from anywhere in the world. At the same time, Cabernet Franc is perfect on its own, making delicious single-varietal wines literally everywhere – Argentina, Australia, California, Canada, Chile, France, Israel, Italy, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, South Africa, Washington, and everywhere in between.

While classic Cabernet Franc taste profile evolves around Black Currant ( a.k.a. Cassis), the overall expression varies from lean and dry in the wines coming from Loire Valley in France (Chinon, Saumur) to opulent, bigger-than-life renditions from Argentina and California. Another essential taste element of Cabernet Franc is bell peppers, which are typically most noticeable in the Loire wines but can be completely absent in the Californian wines, where bell peppers flavors often considered highly undesirable.

I talked about the history of Cabernet Franc in some of the older posts, so I’m not going to repeat it here. Instead, we can just get to the subject of today’s celebration and taste some wines.

#CabFrancDay holiday was invented about 5 years ago by Lori Budd of Dracaena Wines, a passionate Cabernet Franc producer out of Paso Robles in California and a tireless champion of her beloved grape. To celebrate the Cabernet Franc, I tasted two samples of the Cabernet Franc wines which I never had before, so let’s talk about them. We can even make a competition out of this tasting, a California versus Washington match.

Let’s start in California, at Vinum Cellars in Napa Valley. As soon as I saw a bottle of 2016 Vinum Cellars The Scrapper Cabernet Franc El Dorado (15.18% ABV, $35, 26 months in 2-year-old French Oak) I realized that I have a lot of questions. Who and why is depicted on the bottle? What the mysterious number on the top of the bottle? Is there any reason to use grapes from El Dorado for the Napa-based winery? To answer these questions, I reached out to Maria Bruno, whose cousin, Richard Bruno, is the co-founder and co-winemaker at Vinum, where Maria helps with the winery’s social media and digital marketing efforts. Here are the answers to my questions which give you an excellent introduction to the winery and the wine:

1. Why the wine is called The Scrapper?
A scrapper is essentially a fighter and we call our wine that because Cabernet Franc is a varietal that has quickly been forgotten in the shadows of the more popular Cabernet Sauvignon. Our wine is made for the open-minded, the adventurous, and those who root for the underdog.

2. What is behind the image on the wine’s label?
The image on the front of the bottle is Gene Tunney. He was the 1926 Heavyweight Champion of the World, however, most modern day people have never even heard of him. But have you heard of Jack Dempsey? I’m sure you have. A little history lesson here: Gene Tunney defeated Jack Dempsey for the 1926 crown, and it was the second time he defeated the more popular fighter (no one else ever did that). So to complete the metaphor, if Gene Tunney is Cab Franc, and Jack Dempsey is Cab Sauv we then ask you, which is the better varietal? Because we know who the better boxer was…

3. On top of the foil capsule it says BW 6334. What is the meaning of that?
That’s our California Bonded Winery number. In 1997 we financed our own winery on credit cards and utilized the custom crush space at Napa Wine Company (they are Bonded Winery number 9! Literally, the 9th bonded winery in the state and currently the only single-digit bonded winery still in existence). We sold our first vintage, all 960 cases, out of the trunks of our cars, and here we are over 20 years later… still going strong!

4. Why El Dorado? What makes Cab Franc from El Dorado a special wine?
We source our Cab Franc from a hillside, red dirt soil single vineyard at an elevation of 1,600 feet within the Sierra Mountains in El Dorado County. The grower, Ron Mansfield, has a degree in renewable agriculture and has organically farmed this vineyard (though not certified) using sustainable practices for over 35 years. Ron also grows tree fruit such as peaches, nectarines, apples, and pears We have produced Cabernet Franc grown by Ron for over 20 years, and the 2016 vintage was our 19th. The entire vineyard only produces about 500 cases a year but it’s worth it (because it’s so good). The vineyard is 25 years old and is head-trained allowing more sunlight into the canopy and therefore a reduction in Pyrazines which are responsible for green and vegetal aromas and flavors.

How was the wine? Please allow me to introduce Damsel Cellars first, and then we will discuss the wines side by side.

Damsel Cellars is located in Woodinville, Washington. Just seeing Woodinville on the wine label puts a huge smile on my face, as it instantly brings back the happiest memories of discovering Woodinville some years back. Walking from one winery door to another, and tasting one delicious wine after another, I was hoping to replicate the experience a few months back as I was supposed to have a business meeting in Seattle, but you know how 2020 travel looks like…

Mari Womack, owner and winemaker of Damsel Cellars, got into the wine only 10 years ago, but tasting her wines you would never think so. After working at a number of Woodinville wineries, she started Damsel Cellars, with the sixth vintage on the way now.

The Grapes for 2017 Damsel Cellars Boushey Vineyard Cabernet Franc Yakima Valley (14.6% ABV, $36) come from the Boushey Vineyard in Yakima Valley, located on the southern slopes of the Rattlesnake Mountains. The first vines were planted there in 1980, and the last plantings took place in 2003. The vineyard is located on slopes from 700 to 1200 feet elevation, so the grapes can enjoy a cooler and drier climate.

Now, how did the wines compared? Both wines are 100% Cabernet Franc, which I find quite typical for any wines bearing the Cabernet Franc name. Both wines were similar in the pure black currant expression, and both wines didn’t offer any of the bell pepper undertones. Both wines required at least an hour to come to their senses. Vinum Cab Franc stayed perfectly powerful and polished over the course of 4 days, black currant all the way, a touch of dark chocolate, full-body, a roll of your tongue smooth, and perfectly balanced. Damsel Cab Franc’s power on the first day manifested in black currant notes weaved around expressive minerality, which I usually call “liquid rock” (this is one of the common traits I find among many Washington wines), perfectly balanced and delicious. On the second day, however, the ultra-distant touch of the bell pepper appeared, the fruit gently subsided, and the wine magically transposed into the old world – a perfectly balanced old world wine. In a blind tasting, I would put this wine squarely into the Loire Valley and would be very proud of my decision.

The verdict? I don’t have one. Yep, seriously, These are unquestionably Cab Franc wines, unquestionably delicious, and unquestionably different. Oh well. If I would be really hard pressed to chose one, I would go with Damsel Cab Franc – if anything, for the old world nostalgic emotions – I really drink very little of the old world wines, so I’m always excited to experience them again.

That’s all I have for you, my friends. How is your Cabernet Franc celebration going? Let me know what Cab Franc made you excited. Cheers!

Procrastination and Carménère

October 16, 2020 Leave a comment

Let me quickly put you at ease – procrastination has nothing to do with Carménère. Unfortunately, it has to do with yours truly, and this blog been behind on the content for years.

It happens a lot more often than I would even want to admit to myself – I attend a great tasting or an exciting dinner with the winemakers. I would typically leave the event excited and with lots of ideas for the post. I would start writing and envisioning that post in my head for the next day, two, five, ten… One out of five will probably make it onto these pages, and the rest will continue playing in the head until it will convert into permanent guilt. I would look at my blog to-do list and feel that pain of unaccomplished over and over again. Sometimes, I would break through and write that long overdue post – and sometimes, you just accept that guilt, you know…

How far back it would be appropriate to go for some untimely post? If you know, please tell me. This is the wine we are talking about – who knows what vintages people hold? As long as I have the notes, it is all good, right. Feel free to disagree, but I’m going three years back today, to experience again some tasty Carménère…

As I wrote a post about my recent experience with the world-class TerraNoble Carménère line, I recalled the Carménère tasting which was organized three years ago by Snooth (I wrote about many Snooth tastings in the past, but somehow managed to miss this one). In the tasting, we heard from 7 producers and tried their Carménère wines. For what it worth now, three years later, here are my notes:

2015 Viña Casa Silva Cuvee Colchagua Carmenere Colchagua Valley (14% ABV, $15, blend of grapes from Casa Silva’s Los Lingues vineyard in the Andes and the Lolol vineyard in the Costa zone, 8 months in French oak)
Dark garnet color, restrained nose, herbal nose, mineral notes, granite. On the palate, tobacco, nicely restrained, earthy, herbal, good acidity, dark fruit. Overall, nice. Needs time. Pioneer of Carmenere in Colchagua, started in 1892. Carmenere overall started in Colchagua

2015 Siegel Single Vineyard Los Lingues Carmenere Colchagua Valley (14% ABV, $28.99, 8 months in French oak)
dark garnet, inky, color. Herbal in your face on the nose, pure currant, rutherford dust. Very concentrated on the palate, lots of oak, restrained. Needs time.

2014 Viña Carmen Gran Reserva Carmenere Colchagua Valley (14% ABV, $15, 90% Carmenere, 7% Carignan and 3% Petite Verdot, aged 10 months in French oak barrels, 2 months in the bottle)
The oldest winery in Chile, founded in 1850. Practically black in color. Chocolate, coffee on the nose, sage, dark fruit. Open on the palate, sweet cherries, tobacco, perfectly balanced. Round, delicious. Best of tasting so far.

2015 Viña Requingua Toro De Piedra Carmenere Gran Reserva Maule Valley (14% ABV, $15, 12 months in French and American oak barrels)
Dark garnet color, herbal, funky nose, forest underfloor. Round on the palate, fresh herbal notes, sage, sweet cherries, blackberries. Good balance, very approachable.

2012 Valdivieso Single Vineyard Carmenere Valle de Peumo ($23, 12 months in French oak barrels, 35% new)
Almost black in color. Dark concentrated nose, currant leaves, very herbaceous, a touch of pepper. Sweet fruit on the palate. I can’t decide if this wine is corked on not. The nose says corked, palate says not. Need to give it a bit of time.

2014 Viña Ventisquero Grey Single Block Carmenere Trinidad Vineyard Maipo Valley (14% ABV, $22, aged for 18 months in French oak barrels, 34% new and 66% second and third use, 8 months in the bottle)
Practically black in color. Interesting nose, a touch of cabbage stew on the nose (in a good sense), funky nose, meaty. The palate follows on, beautiful pepper, black currant, delicious. Another favorite of the tasting.

2013 Valdivieso Caballo Loco Grand Cru Apalta Colchagua Valley ($35, 55% Carmenere, 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 18 months in 100% French oak casks)
BAB, dark garnet color. Touch of funk on the nose, mocha, dark chocolate, touch of herbal notes. Delicious palate – pepper, tobacco, black currant, herb garden, clean acidity. Best of tasting overall.

I definitely find this interesting how 4 of the TerraNoble Carménère wines were all at the top of the game, and as you can tell from my notes here, many of these Carménère wines still have ways to go. But – unquestionably, Chile takes its star grape seriously, and there is a lot for us, winelovers, to enjoy, now and in the future.

With this post I also get to reduce my feeling of guilt, if at least by a hair – but I’m still happy. I hope I deserve another glass. No matter, I’m going to pour it anyway. Cheers!

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