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A Quick Trip To Germany

September 25, 2020 Leave a comment

Germany is one of the oldest wine-producing countries in Europe, tracing its roots to 100 BC. Believe it or not, but at some point, Germany and France were considered as the two best wine-producing countries in the world, with German Rieslings being traded and collected at the same level as Bordeaux and Burgundy. Germany made some strategic mistakes in the middle of the 20th century, producing large quantities of insipid sweet wines, and it is still trying to recover from those losses.

Thinking of German wines, what is the first wine which comes to mind? If you said Riesling, you are absolutely right. Riesling is a megastar, the grape which embodies German wines and maybe even Germany itself to many of the wine lovers. However, even in Germany, there is life after Riesling – for example, in the Pinot family – and these will be the wines which will be our tour guides today.

Let’s start with the white Pinot wine – Pinot Blanc. Pinot Blanc, also known as Weißer Burgunder, Weißburgunder, or Weissburgunder – all of which are different spellings for “White Burgundy”, where the grape presumably originated, is experiencing growing popularity in Germany. Its plantings nearly doubled in the past 10 years, and now Germany has the highest amount of Pinot Blanc plantings in the world.

I recently saw a reference to German Pinot Blanc to be an understudy of the Chardonnay. Based on my experience with 2017 Wittmann 100 Hills Pinot Blanc dry Rheinhessen (12% ABV, $17), I would have to agree with this statement. The wine showed all the traits of the good Chardonnay except a touch of butter – however, vanilla, fresh apples, minerality, and clean acidity were tastefully weaved around the plump, texturally present core. (Drinkability: 8-). To give you a quick reference, the Wittmann family had been growing grapes in Westhofen for more than 350 years and 15 generations. The estate has been certified organic since 1990, and biodynamic since 2004.

Our travel in Germany is half done – and the second part of the journey might really surprise you. Germany is really not known among wine lovers as the land of red wines – and nevertheless, Germany has third in the world amount of plantings of one of the absolute darlings of the wine world. Care to guess what grape it is? Well, as it should be red, and you already know that we are talking about the Pinot family, this should be an easy guess – of course, it is Pinot Noir, better known as Spätburgunder in Germany.

Most of the Pinot Noir plantings in Germany are in the areas of Baden and Ahr, which is interesting as Baden is southernmost, and Ahr is one of the northernmost regions.

The wine we have chosen for our trip is coming from Baden, from the winery called Shelter, produced by husband and wife team, with harvest by hand and no use of herbicides or pesticides.

2016 Shelter Winery Spätburgunder Baden (13% ABV, $28) is unquestionably an old world wine, built with perfect precision. Gunflint, earth, smoke, cranberries, all in the lip-smacking, densely textured, tight package – this wine packs a lot of pleasure. (Drinkability: 8). I have to honestly say that this was my very first German Pinot Noir I was able to enjoy and I would happily recommend it to anyone who needs proof that Germany actually can create a tasty red wine.

There you have it, my friends – our little journey is over, but worry not – we will be traveling again very soon. Cheers!

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!

Playing With Celebrity Wines

July 22, 2020 4 comments

Celebrity wine – is there such a thing?

Of course.

If you will look at this Wikipedia page, you will see the list of 100+ famous people who own vineyards, wineries, or both. Like all of us, some of the celebrities happen to love wine, and they are not shy of associating with what they love.

Every year or so, a new celebrity finds their love of wine and joins the ranks. 2020 had two celebrities (so far) joining the wine club of their own making – singer Post Malone and actress Cameron Diaz brought to the market their wine offerings – which I was eager to try, hence this post.

I’m always curious about celebrity wines. Celebrity status greatly simplifies the marketing of the product, no matter what the celebrity associates with. The celebrity status easily overshadows the product itself – this removes the need for the product to be excellent, as we love our celebrities so much that we are willing to blindly take whatever they are endorsing – and so my inner skeptic always wants to know – how good is the particular product? Is it a real deal or simply a cover up for something mediocre?

I had no idea who Post Malone is until I saw a Netflix movie called Spencer Confidential. Afterward, I learned that Post Malone is actually a popular singer. Then I read an article talking about the upcoming release of Post Malone’s wine, so here it is – a celebrity wine which needs to be tasted. After waiting for almost a month, the wine finally appeared in Connecticut, and I was able to buy my bottle.

When I’m faced with celebrity wine, the celebrity factor goes aside. I’m happy to know that somewhere there is a famous name associated with the wine – but the only thing I care about is the wine itself. Where was it made, what grapes it is made out of, terroir, winemaking, smell, taste, and pleasure – this is what is important. Knowing I’m drinking the wine associated with a famous person doesn’t give me pleasure – tasty, delicious wine does. I always say that the proof is in the glass – that is the only thing that matters. So celebrity wine or not, I treat it exactly like any other bottle.

Avaline and Maison No 9

From that point of view, Maison No 9 represents a mixed bag. When it comes to the wine – it is superb. 2019 Maison No 9 Rosé Méditerranée IGT (12.5% ABV, $24, blend of Grenache, Merlot, Cinsault, Syrah) has a beautiful light pink color, has a nose of fresh strawberries with a touch of lemon, and bursts in your mouth with fresh strawberries and lemon, perfect minerality and raw, vibrant energy – all scrumptiously balanced (Drinkability: 8+). I love the bottle, it definitely stands out with an engraved front label depicting the sword and the rose. However, the problems start as soon as you try to dig deeper.

The website of Maison No 9 has no information about the wine, the vineyards, or the winemaker. All pictures on the web site feature Post Malone, and the only purpose of the website is to make sure you will buy something – either merchandise (T-shirt? Would it make wine taste better?), or the wine. This is in stark contrast with Miraval website, for example – Miraval is clearly a celebrity wine project (Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt) – where it is all about the land, terroir, and wine. Website or not, but my problem is that the only place with any information about the Maison No 9 wine was this Forbes article. That is where I learned the story behind this wine, or that the wine was made by a well known French winemaker Alexis Cornu, or that the “new wine is named Maison No. 9, a reference to the Nine of Swords tarot card” (by the way, I searched the meaning of Nine of Swords tarot card and seems to be nothing good, but I’m not going to talk about things I have no idea about). So the bottom line here is that the wine is good, but the whole story is lacking. Does it worth $24? If this is your budget for Rosé, yes, but if not – you got options.

The Maison No 9 story, while almost non-existent, is still perfect compared to our next two wines, Avaline, which come with quite a story – and not really a good one. Avaline, which I believe means “bird” in Latin, is a product of the imagination of two long time friends, Cameron Diaz, a famous actress, and Katherine Power, a well-known entrepreneur. The duo decided to come up with a concept of a “clean wine” to advertise their creation, and this was a grave mistake, as it made the professional wine world fuming.

I’m not going to regurgitate any of the articles – just go search “clean wine Avaline”, you will find plenty of “critical acclaim”. The problem with using terms such as “clean wine” is that as soon as you designate your wine to be “clean”, you automatically imply that all other wines are “dirty” because no other wines advertise themselves as “clean”. When someone says on the label “Free from added sugars, artificial colors, concentrates”, I can’t keep my eyebrow from going up as my immediate reaction is “huh”? Really? I can’t speak with confidence about Two Buck Chuck, but I have serious doubts that they use any of these said additives. I don’t know who was advising Avaline on the wine marketing, but to me, this is a complete failure. Forget “clean wine” – another serious problem I have with these wines is that there is no information whatsoever about the wines – who made them, where the wines were made, from what grapes… yes, Wine.com, which sells both wines, has information on the grape composition. But then the white wine is designated as “Product of Spain” – another “huh?” from me as I never saw another wine with such designation, and the Rosé is identified as Vin de France. Another interesting element here (strategy????) is that both wines don’t list the vintage. So when you come to buy the wine in the store, you have no idea for how long the wine was sitting on that shelf… Nice…

So how were the wines? Both wines were actually quite tasty: NV Avaline White Wine Spain (11.5% ABV, $24, blend of Xarel·lo, Macabeo, Malvasia) – white stone fruit on the nose, nicely restrained, fresh flowers, a touch of minerality. Fresh ripe plums, sage, Meyer lemon, clean acidity, medium-long finish (Drinkability: 8, nicely done). NV Avaline Rosé Vin de France (13% ABV, $24, blend of Cinsault, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Caladoc) – gentle pink color, a hint of sweet ripe strawberries, nicely restrained, candied strawberries and strawberry jam on the palate, good acidity, good balance, not over the top. Short finish, easy to drink (Drinkability: 8-).

While the Avaline are tasty wines, I see a serious problem here, outside of any “clean/dirty” concepts. You are asked to pay $24 for the wines of unknown pedigree, unknown vintage, made by someone somewhere, with a clean (pun intended), but a seriously unattractive label. I can splurge $5 on such a wine if I will get a recommendation – I guarantee you I will pass a wine like that if I will just see it on the shelf.

Here you go, my friends – 3 celebrity wine for your attention. All three are well drinkable, but you seek them at your own peril. 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.

Versatile Bubbles – Make Any Day Sparkle

July 8, 2020 5 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 25, 2020 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

Now, let’s continue to finding.

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Chemistry of Wine

April 6, 2020 Leave a comment

I don’t want to mislead you – if you are expecting to see any scientific chemical analysis and/or formulae of the wines – you came fo the wrong place. The chemistry I’m talking about here is the one which usually sparkles between the people, creating instant attraction and inability to let go. You know how it is – you meet a person for the first time, and after two sentences, you feel that you knew the person forever and you can now talk endlessly, for hours and hours, and still wanting to talk more. “It’s chemistry” we often say in such cases – and it is the chemistry we want to talk about here, only not between the two persons, but rather a person and the wine.

This chemistry is something hard to explain. It is unexpected. It is a mystery. You don’t know when the chemistry will engage. You meet a person for the first time. You never met the person before. You have no idea as to what to expect. You are careful and reserved. But some words are exchanged, body movements are observed, and the next thing the conversation flowing and 3 hours later you think it was only 15 minutes which have passed, and you want to spend just another 15 minutes with your new friends.

It works exactly the same with the wine. You open a bottle. You pour, swirl, sniff, and sip. You take another sip, murmur something to yourself, and sip again. Next thing you are looking at the two fingers worth of wine left in the bottle and you ask yourself “what just have happened? Was someone else here drinking the wine with me?”. We can call it chemistry. I also like to call this a “dangerous wine” – this is the wine you casually enjoy so much that you lose the sense of time – and measure, of course.

I recently encountered such chemistry with not one, but 3 wines. All three were Italian. All three were dangerously delicious. It was hard to stop replenishing the glass, one sip after another. Do I have a special chemistry with Italian wines? I don’t think so. This has happened in the past, with wines from many regions. But the point of the matter stands – this was an encounter with three delicious wines, which happened to be made in Italy. So let’s talk about them.

Before we talk about individual wines, let’s touch on the common theme which ties them all together – Frescobaldi family. There are more than 700 years of Tuscan wines connected to the Frescobaldi family, Today, Frescobaldi family holdings are spread through the 7 estates in Tuscany (Ammiraglia, Castelgiocondo, Castiglioni, Nipozzano, Perano, Pomino, Remole), plus some of the best of the best in Italian wines – Ornellaia, Masseto, and a few others.

Attems‘ name is associated with winemaking in the Friuli Venezia Giulia for almost a thousand years. Since 2000, Attems is the part of Frescobaldi family holdings. I had Attems wines in the past, such as Attems Ramato, an “orange” wine made out of Pinot Grigio, and I really enjoyed that wine. This time around, I was able to try Attems Pinot Grigio, and I was really happy with what I discovered:

2018 Attems Pinot Grigio Friuli DOC (12.5% ABV, $20)
Straw pale
Lemon, herbs, earthy profile, welcoming
Soft white fruit profile, plums, some tropical fruit, good acidity, nicely present.
8-/8, dangerous, so easy to drink.

Tenuta Castiglioni had been at the center of the Frescobaldi wine story from the very beginning. Owned by the family since the 11th century, the estate takes its history from the Romans who built it along the strategic path connecting northern Tuscany with the city of Rome. I don’t believe I had Tenuta Castiglioni wines before, so this was my first and delicious encounter:

2017 Frescobaldi Castiglioni Chianti DOCG (13% ABV, $16)
Dark garnet
Plums, cherries, vanilla
Soft, round, tobacco, succulent cherries, layered, inviting.
8+, delicious, outstanding, dangerous. Really, really easy to drink.

Tenuta Luce (“luce” means “light” in Italian) is a unique product of the imagination of two of the wine world’s greatest – Vittorio Frescobaldi and Robert Mondavi. After meeting in the nineties, the two men decided to build a new estate in one of the most coveted areas in Tuscany – Montalcino, home to Brunello di Montalcino wines. What makes Tenuta Luce unique is not just the partnership between Frescobaldi and Mondavi, but surely a bold move of planting the Merlot grapes in the land of Sangiovese Grosso. While Tenuta Luce produces Brunello, the flagship wine is called Luce and it is a Merlot/Sangiovese blend. I tasted Luce before and really enjoyed it. This time around, I had an opportunity to try Tenuta Luce second wine, again a Merlot/Sangiovese blend called Lucente – yet another delicious wine:

2017 Tenuta Luce Lucente Toscana IGT (14% ABV, $30, Sangiovese/Merlot blend, 12 months in old and new barriques)
Dark garnet, practically black
Dark cherries, fennel, violets
Cherries, coffee, leather, perfectly structured, crisp acidity, perfectly integrated and balanced tannins.
8, delicious, and hard to stop.

As you can tell from the notes above, I really liked all three wines. Not just liked – after the first glass, there was an unconscious craving for another. And another. And another. It would be quite safe to call this a chemistry – I don’t know if I have a special bonding towards the Italian wines, but these three wines were drinking more like an obsession rather just some other tasty wines. And as it works in human relationships, chemistry is a good thing between the man and the wine. Have you found yours? Cheers!

Daily Glass: Cab And The Whole Nine Yards

January 24, 2020 1 comment

I’m sure you are well familiar with the phrase “The whole 9 yards” – technically translating into “lots of stuff”. You know what the fun part is? Nobody knows where this expression came from. There is a lot of research, a lot of “true origin” claims and an equal amount of disparaging remarks about the other side not knowing a squat about the subject (which seems to be the sign of times, sigh). We are not here to research or discuss the expression – my intention is to talk about a delicious Cabernet Sauvignon, but I will also give you the whole nine yards of related and unrelated “things”.

Everything started with a simple task – I was in need of the present for a friend’s birthday. My typical present is a bottle of wine of the birth year vintage (1977). However, it is getting more and more difficult to find the wine of such an old vintage at a reasonable price or even at all. After spending some time with Wine-Searcher and Benchmark Wine website, and finding nothing but a few bottles of the vintage Port, I decided that it is the time for the plan B, which means simply finding an interesting bottle of wine.

Next problem – where should I look for an interesting bottle of wine? Online seems to be the most obvious choice – but just to make things more interesting, I have to tell you that my gift recipient owns two liquor stores – yep, surprising him is not a trivial task.

Do you have an American Express credit card? Of course, you are wondering what it has to do with our story? It is most directly related. If you have the American Express credit card (AMEX for short), and if you ever looked at your account online, you probably saw the section called Amex Offers & Benefits. In that section, you can find 100 special offers, allowing you to earn additional points or save money on different items you can buy with the AMEX card. I have a good experience with these offers, these are real savings, so I have a habit of periodically logging into the account and scrolling through the offers. One of the offers I saw quickly attracted my attention – save $50 on a $150 purchase at WineAccess. I don’t know about you, but this sounds like a very good deal for me.

I was not familiar with Wine Access, so I got to the website to see if I can actually put this offer to good use. First thing I saw on the site is that $120 or 6 bottles purchase includes shipping, and if you are buying wine online, you know that shipping cost is one of the most annoying elements of the wine buying experience, so this made deal even sweeter – in case I can find something interesting.

I can’t tell you why and how, I first decided to search for Grosset, one of the very best Australian Riesling producers, and to my surprise and delight, I found Grosset Riesling available. So now I needed to add something else to reach my target number – $150.

I found an interesting Bordeaux, and next, I noticed a red blend from the Three Wine company in Napa, one of my favorite producers. My excitement happened to be premature, as once I started the checkout process, created an account and set my shipping address in Connecticut, I found out that I can’t complete my purchase as Three Wine red blend can’t be shipped to Connecticut (don’t you love US wine laws?).

I had to restart my search, and now I noticed Napa Cabernet Sauvignon called Idiosyncrasy – never heard of it, but Oakville Cab for $25 (this was a 50% discount off a standard price of $50) – why not to try one? I got two bottles, one for me, and one for my friend – done and done.

Once the order was placed I decided to check what exactly I just bought. I did a search for the Idiosyncrasy Cabernet online. I didn’t find too many references, but I did find a post which was very critical of the wine, saying that it was thin, and under-extracted Cabernet Sauvignon, absolutely no worthy of $43 which author paid for the wine. I also learned that this wine was specially produced for the Wine Access wine club by the well-known winemaker.

Truth be told – I don’t like wine clubs. What I learned about the wine, didn’t add confidence to my decision. Oh well – now I just had to wait for the shipment to arrive.

I didn’t have to wait for a long, the box showed up on the doorstep in a few days. Upon opening, I found not only 6 bottles which I ordered, but also neat, well-designed information cards – you can see it here:

Each card offered the story related to the wine, pairing suggestions, ideal drinking window put on the bottle tag which could be easily separated from the page and hang on the bottle in case you store it in the cellar. The back of the info card offered space for personal notes. Again, very well designed – would make any oenophile happy.

I read the story of the Idiosyncrasy Cabernet Sauvignon – it was written from the first person, as winemaker talked about his experience and how he came to the creation of this wine specifically for the Wine Access wine club. While the winemaker mentioned his work at Quintessa, Lail, Dalla Valle, and Purlieu, his latest adventure, his name was not found anywhere on the page. I had to figure out that his name was Julien Fayard by visiting Purlieu website.

Nice paper and story are important, but the truth is in the glass. Remembering the bad review, I poured the glass of 2016 Idiosyncrasy Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville Napa Valley (14.9% ABV), ready to be disappointed. To my delight, I was not. The keyword to describe this wine would be “elegant”. Varietally correct nose with touch cassis and mint. On the palate, the wine was rather of Bordeaux elegance – less ripe but perfectly present fruit, a touch of bell pepper, firm structure, perfect balance (Drinkability: 8/8+). Was this the best Cabernet Sauvignon I ever tasted? It was not. Was it the wine I would want to drink again? Absolutely, any day. Was it a good value at $25? This was a great value at $25, and even at $50, it would still be a good value.

Here you go, my friends – a story of the Cabernet Sauvignon and the whole nine yards. Cheers!

If Grapes Would Fight

January 22, 2020 Leave a comment

The Duel.

How human. Or inhumane. Whatever way we want to spin it.

Yes, duels are the thing of the past. You walk on the street. You lightly bump into someone. You apologize. But the other man says that you didn’t hurt his shoulder. It was his honor which was hurt. And the only way to alleviate that pain is through the duel. Choose the day, the time, and the weapon – pistols are fine, or maybe you prefer the Épée. And be there, or else.

You and your witnesses show up at the agreed time in the agreed place. Your opponent will probably be there already with his suitors. Both of you line up, someone gives the command, you fight. One of you most likely will die. But this was expected. The honor will be cleared and not in pain anymore – for whoever will survive, that is. The end.

Oh, did I mention that those duels were not very legal for the most part even when they were very popular?

Now, imagine if those pistols would shoot grapes instead of bullets, and the only choice of weapon would be the type of grape? Let’s say, you will shoot with Cabernet Sauvignon, and your opponent with Petite Sirah, or maybe you will choose a Zinfandel and your opponent will load up with Syrah? I have no idea how the honor will be defended, but I’m sure nobody would die, and such a duel will be so much fun! I’m sure you have a good imagination – imagine the fully ripened grape hitting one of the opponents on the forehead, and splattering the juice all around, in the slow motion – that would be something to remember!

Okay, so grape shooting pistols are not on the market (yet?), but the grapes can duel all they want – if the winemaker desires.

Cue in Dueling Pistols – the wines weaved around the mystery of two men, raising guns at each other at the dawn. We don’t know how they ended up there, or how shootout ends, but it is not important, as we should rather pay attention to wines.

The two Dueling Pistols wines represent 50/50 blends of the grapes that meet each other only after the fermentation is done separately. In one wine, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah fight for supremacy; in the second wine, Zinfandel battles Syrah.

Never mind all this fight and battle talk. The wine is all about harmony – you want all the elements of the wine to be in full balance, playing together to deliver an amazing experience. So how these two wines did?

2016 Dueling Pistols Red Blend Dry Creek Valley (15% ABV, $49.99, 50% Syrah, 50% Zinfandel, 18 months in French oak, 30% new)
Dark Garnet
Very intense nose, tar, tobacco, roasted meat, mint
Crisp acidity, tart fruit, much lighter on the palate than expected based on the smell, sour cherries, significant herbal component
7+ initially, needs time
8- on the second and third days, the wine is softer and showing more fruit.

2016 Dueling Pistols Red Blend Paso Robles (15.5% ABV, $49.99, 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 50% Petite Sirah, 18 months in French oak, 30% new)
Dark Garnet
Inviting nose of cherries and chocolate, with a hint of vanilla and licorice
The palate is smooth and gentle, well extracted, lip-smacking acidity, layers of flavor, velvety texture which makes you crave another sip even before you finished the first.
8/8+, very enjoyable

Here you are. A duel of grapes and even duel of wines. But – nobody got hurt, which is a great outcome of any duel, right?

Judging this fight, I have to say that Cabernet/Petite Sirah won this fight, at least in my corner. But you know what they say? YMMV, so go ahead, stage your own duel and have fun with it. Cheers!

P.S. These two wines were samples provided by Terlato Wines.

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