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Versatile Bubbles – Make Any Day Sparkle

July 8, 2020 3 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.

Wine Lover’s Guide To Lesser Known Wine Regions – Vinho Verde

January 11, 2020 4 comments

Vinho Verde.

Let me ask you, wine lovers – when you hear the words “Vinho Verde”, what are the two things which are instantly come to mind? Let me guess – it should be “green” and “summer” – am I correct?

Let’s leave “green” aside for a minute and let’s talk about “summer”. Do you insist on pairing wine with the season? Of course, rich and opulent California Cabernet Sauvignon or tantalizing Barolo might not be the ideal choice of beverage for the pool party in the middle of summer. But then would you say that white wines should be only drunk when it is hot outside? Even if you will insist, I would have to disagree – the white is simply a color, and white wine can be equally enjoyed during any season. And to prove my point, let’s talk about Vinho Verde.

Oh, and let’s address the “green” thing – there nothing green about Vinho Verde. “Verde” here refers to the young wines – Vinho Verde wines are typically released 3-6 months after the harvest.

Here are some interesting facts about Vinho Verde. Vinho Verde is one of the oldest winemaking regions in Portugal, producing wine for the past 2,000 years. It is also the most northern wine region in Portugal, and the largest, with 51,000 acres planted. There are 19,000 grape growers and 600 wine producers, making over 85 million liters of wine, out of which 86% are white wines, and the rest is divided between Rosé, red and sparkling wines.

45 indigenous grape varieties are growing in Vinho Verde, out of which 9 are recommended – Alvarinho, Avesso, Azal, Arinto, Loureiro, and Trajadura for the whites, and Espadeira, Padeira, and Vinhão for the reds. Vinho Verde region subdivided into the 9 sub-regions named after rivers or towns – Monção, Melgaço, Lima, Basto, Cávado, Ave, Amarante, Baião, Sousa, and Paiva. It is also interesting to note that while Vinho Verde is identified as a DOC (top quality designation, similar to French AOC/AOP), the region called Minho Vinho Regional, completely overlaps Vinho Verde territory, however, its designation is similar to French Vin de Pays (lesser quality requirements).

Vinho Verde wines are typically low in alcohol and pair well with a wide variety of food. Quite often, Vinho Verde whites are also exhibiting very light fizz, this is really a hallmark of the region.

I had an opportunity to taste (samples) 3 whites and one Rosé from the region, here are my notes:

2018 Encosta do XISTO Vinho Verde DOC (12.5% ABV)
Straw pale with greenish hue
Vegetative nose, a touch of grass, sweet basil, restrained
A touch of fizz, lime, a hint of grapefruit, lots of minerality, fresh
8-

2018 Vercoope Pavāo Alvarinho Vinho Regional Minho  (12% ABV, $8)
Light golden
Tropical fruit, candied lemon, sage, tobacco
Guava, a touch of honey, candied fruit, a touch of pink grapefruit. Good acidity.
7+/8-

2017 Seaside Cellars Rosé Vinho Verse DOC (11% ABV, $8, 40% Vinhão, 30% Borraçal, 30% Espadeiro)
Wild salmon pink
Nice minerality, whitestone fruit, a typical nose of white wine if there is such a thing
Underripe strawberries, good minerality, a distant hint of fizz, mostly on the finish.
7+/8-, fuller body than most of Rosé, not sweet at all despite low ABV. It also gives me two new rare grapes (Vinhão and Borraçal), which is always a nice bonus.

2018 Quinta da Calçada Alvarinho Vinho Regional Minho (13% ABV)
Light golden
Intense fresh lemon, a touch of grapefruit, noticeable minerality
Tart lemon, a touch of grapefruit, dry, intense, medium to full body, good minerality, good textural presence.
8, perfect any time you want a glass of dry white.

As you can tell, I liked all the wines. No, these wines are not mind-blowing, of course not. But considering the price, often less than $10, these wines offer an excellent, hard to beat QPR.

Here you go, my friends. No need to wait for the hot summer days. Just pick up a bottle of Vinho Verde, and enjoy it by itself, or pair it with good food and good company. You can thank me later. Cheers!

American Pleasures, Part 3 – Murrieta’s Well

January 3, 2020 3 comments

How often do you drink wines from Livermore Valley? Not trying to offend, but do you even know where the Livermore valley is?

If you guessed that Livermore Valley is an area in California, or if you simply knew it, yes, of course – Livermore Valley is located a bit north and west of San Francisco and can be considered one of the little wine world secrets for the people in the know. While Napa and Sonoma are the regions everyone is looking up to, Livermore Valley is located a stone throw from both, and in most cases offers a lot more fun in the tasting room for much less money.

Murrieta’s Well Estate Vineyard is located in this exact Livermore Valley and yes, we can consider it as one of the hidden gems. The estate has a rich history, going back to 1884. This is not the first time Murrieta’s Well wines are making an appearance in this blog, so instead of repeating all the historical references, I would like to direct you to my previous post on the subject. Same as the last time, the wines were provided as a courtesy of Snooth, for the virtual tasting – you can find the video recording of that tasting here.

This series is not called American Pleasures for nothing. This is the third post in the series, following the posts about Silverado and Oceano wines and Peju. As I explained in the introduction to the series, I simply had a great number of wines which were surprisingly consistent – wine after wine, they delivered a great deal of pleasure. You can expect to equally enjoy two wines from a good producer; 4 wines in the row is not typical; 6 wines is seriously unexpected. The 4 wines I tasted from the Murrieta’s Well were perfectly consistent and unquestionably enjoyable, offering loads of pleasure. Yes, all four. And what is even more interesting, if you will compare my ratings from 2017 tasting versus 2019, you will see that I rated all the wines higher. It appears that the process is going in the right direction, to the joy of all of us, oenophiles.

Let me share my notes:

2018 Murrieta’s Well Small Lot Dry Orange Muscat Livermore Valley (14.6% ABV, $38, 100% Orange Muscat)
Light golden color
Plums, guava, tropical fruit
Bright acidity, an undertone of sweet tobacco, bright acidity on the finish
8, fresh, excellent

2018 Murrieta’s Well Dry Rosé Livermore Valley (13.5% ABV, $32, 42% Counoise, 33% Grenache, 25% Mourvèdre)
Medium intensity pink color
Underripe strawberries
Tart fresh strawberries, good acidity, clean, vibrant, perfect balance, long finish
8, an excellent wine.

2016 Murrieta’s Well Small Lot Merlot Livermore Valley (14.1% ABV, $48, 95% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon)
Dark garnet
Touch of cassis, eucalyptus
Cassis, blackberries, nicely tart, a touch of coffee, good acidity, good structure
8+, excellent.

2017 Murietta’s Well The Spur Livermore Valley (14.5% ABV, $35, 64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Petite Sirah, 13% Merlot, 9% Petit Verdot)
Dark Garnet
Smoke, tar, roasted meat, blackberries
Succulent blackberries, tobacco undertones, good acidity, medium to full body, good balance
8-, excellent

Here you go – 4 excellent wines, 4 sources of the great American [wine] pleasure. Have you had any of these wines? Have you had wines from the Livermore Valley? Cheers!

American Pleasures – Part 2, Peju Napa Valley

December 9, 2019 2 comments

A few weeks ago I shared with you my view on [strictly wine] American pleasures – some of the wine samples which I had a pleasure to taste recently. Yes, it is the pure hedonistic pleasure we are talking about here – the wines which have a magical power of making you want another glass even before the first one is empty. Today I want to continue that conversation and talk about Peju Province Winery in Napa Valley.

The story of Peju Province Winery is simple and similar to many others – it started from a dream. Tony Peju had a drawing of the winery with the tower two years prior to the first Peju grape been harvested. Tony found early success in Los Angeles as a horticulturist, using his landscaping skills in the real estate, improving and reselling the houses. But his dream was to own the farm.

After his search for the farm land led him up north to the Napa Valley, he was able to find the location of his dreams – a 30 acres Stephanie vineyard in Rutherford, located next to Robert Mondavi, Inglenook and Beaulieu vineyards, growing Cabernet Sauvignon and Colombard vines, some 60 years old or maybe even older. Tony and his wife, Herta, purchased Stephanie vineyard in 1983. At first, Tony and Herta were only selling the grapes, however taking advantage of Tony’s green thumb, improving the vineyard and learning what it is capable of. They identified the section of the vineyard, about 5 acres in size, which produced the best Cabernet Sauvignon fruit. The vineyard, which was renamed into HB in honor of Tony’s wife, Herta Behensky, was replanted using cuttings from that best section grafted on the phylloxera-resistant rootstock. The time has come to start making Peju’s own wine.

Peju Province Winery Grounds. Source: Peju Province Winery

Tony went on to get a degree in enology from UC Davis, and the rest was history. Well, there is one interesting hurdle worth mentioning. If you remember, Tony had a full drawing of the winery done in 1981, two years before HB vineyard was even found and purchased. Once they had the land and were ready to convert dreams into reality, in order to fund the project, Tony and Herta started selling wine out of their garage converted into the wine tasting room. This, however, was against Napa County’s rules, which required all the wine sales to be made from the legitimate winery building. However, California law allowed winegrowers to sell the wines in the place where the grapes were grown, so the issue ended up in the court. The judge sided with Peju, agreeing that if Tony is growing the grapes, he should be allowed to sell the wine. This became a pivotal case that significantly changed the landscape of the Napa Valley.

Peju went on to build the impressive 50-foot tall tower in the French Provencal style, using Brazilian cherry wood, beams from old Midwestern farm buildings and 1906 antique stained glass window. Way before that new winery building was complete, Peju acquired 350 acres of land at the 2000 feet elevation in the nearby Pope Valley section of Napa, which they named Persephone Vineyard, after the goddess of Greek mythology. In 1997, 120 acres of that land was planted to Cabernet Sauvignon (using HB Vineyard clone), as well as Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Zinfandel. In 2007, Rutherford HB vineyard became certified organic, and today all three of Peju vineyards are using sustainable viticultural methods. In 2009, Peju Province Winery was certified as a Napa County Green Winery and Bay Area Green Business. Also in 2006, Peju started installing solar panels on 10,000 square feet of winery roof and generating 35% of all electricity consumed at a winery.

Okay, so now you learned a lot about the winery, so let’s talk about the wines, as a proof is always in the glass. I had an opportunity to try 6 wines from Peju, and I was literally blown away by what I tasted. To be entirely honest, these wines were one of the most inspirational coming up with the title for this series – American Pleasures. 6 out of 6 delicious wines, one better than another – I taste enough wines during the year to tell you that this is not given. Below are my notes:

2018 Peju Province Winery Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley (13.8% ABV, $25)
Straw pale, practically clear
A touch of freshly cut grass, white flowers, maybe a distant hint of cat pee – only because I want to find it there?
Layers of flavors. Crisp lemony acidity first, then a hint of plums and slightly underripe melon, unusual plumpness for the Sauvignon Blanc, the wine rolls off your tongue like a nice Marsanne.
8, excellent, a unique and different Sauvignon Blanc.

2015 Peju Province WineryCabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley (14.8% ABV, $60, 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Petit Verdot, 7% Merlot, 18 months in French and American oak, 45% new)
Dark garnet
Black currant, cherries, eucalyptus, sweet oak
A beautiful mix of black currant and cherries on the palate, a touch of herbal notes, good minerality, firm texture, vibrant acidity, medium+ finish
8/8+, the first sip says “I’m a Napa Cab”. Delicious.

The next wine is one of the few in “Nostalgia Series”, where every label depicts a moment in Peju’s history.

2015 Peju Province Winery Nostalgia Series The Farm Napa Valley (15.2% ABV, $80, 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Sangiovese, 18 months in oak)
Dark garnet, practically black
Dark fruit, eucalyptus, restrained, mineral undertones
Perfectly balanced fresh fruit, soft, luscious, black currant, tar pencil shavings, perfect balance, delicious.
8, delicious wine

2016 Peju Province Winery Merlot Napa Valley (14.8% ABV, $48, 95% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Petit Verdot, 18 months in oak)
Garnet
Sweet licorice, eucalyptus, underbrush
Coffee, tart cherries, cherry pit, minerality
8-, probably need more time. The finish is a bit astringent, however, it plays well with savory food (cheese and crackers)

Cabernet Franc is one of my favorite grapes – this wine was truly a Cabernet Franc experience.

2013 Peju Province Winery Petit Trois Cabernet Franc Napa Valley (14.8% ABV, $75, 100% Cabernet Franc, 18 months in oak, 333 cases produced)
Deep Garnet
Cassis, licorice, mocha, a hint of sweet tobacco
Cassis, mint, gently present tannins (after a few hours), firm structure, sweet oak, unmistakably California
9-, wow, tons of pleasure in every sip. Needs decanting. Outstanding on the second day.

This wine has its own story. It is the result of the barrel experiments run by Peju winemaker, Sara Fowler. For the 2017 vintage, she worked with 37 different barrel tasting styles and 22 coopers, then discussed the effects of the oak regimen with the group of the fellow Napa Valley winemakers. To have all new-oak, effectively a young wine, to be ready to drink from the get-go is something really incredible in my opinion.

2017 Peju Province Winery The Experiment Napa Valley (14.5% ABV, $100, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18 months in French, American, and Hungarian oak, 100% new, 1075 cases produced)
Dark garnet
An “Oh my god!” nose – Black currant, eucalyptus, pure, intense
Wow, supple black currant, mint, eucalyptus, silky smooth tannins, good minerality, all delivered in layers. Clean acidity, impeccable balance, and immense pleasure.
9/9+, wow. An exemplary Napa Cab

There you have it, my friends – some incredible wines. Of course, these are not inexpensive wines, but in my opinion, the $100 bottle which gives you lots of pleasure is worth splurging for the right moment. Cheers!

 

The Curse and Mystery Of The Top 100 Wine Lists

December 5, 2019 4 comments

Lists and numbers – who doesn’t like that? We, humans, are all about lists, we like to sort things out – to-do lists, shopping lists, “best” lists, “best of the best ” lists, Top 10 lists, Top 100 lists. No area of people’s interest is immune to the lists – and of course, the world of wine is no exception – come to the end of the year, and you are guaranteed to see lists and lists of the lists, ranking wines, wineries, regions, winemakers, what have you.

I don’t know how much attention you are paying to the top wine lists. Talking about myself, I like to ponder at the Top 100 lists, especially the one produced by Wine Spectator – not because it is any better or different than the others, but simply because I had been a subscriber for a long time, and it formed more into a habit. My main interest is to see what wines can I recognize, and then to play with the data a bit – countries, prices, grapes. I’m a number junkie. It is always fun to organize numbers in a few different ways, no matter if it means anything or not, and so the Top 100 lists present a good opportunity to conduct such a “research”.

Before we delve into the numbers, let’s talk about the Mystery. What is mysterious about the top 100 wine lists? I would say most everything? How the wines are chosen? How wine #1  is decided? According to the information on the James Suckling web site, they select the top 100 wines out of the 25,000 wines tasted throughout the year. How do decide on 100 out of 25,000? Do you run a separate list of potential candidates throughout the year, or do you sit down at the end of the year and try honestly recall the most memorable wines of the year? What role the ratings play?

Here is what Wine Spectator says on the subject: “Each year, Wine Spectator editors survey the wines reviewed over the previous 12 months and select our Top 100, based on quality, value, availability and excitement”. I like the “excitement” part, this is how I decide on my top dozen wine of the year. The other two publications I studied with Top 100 lists don’t talk about their methodology, they just talk about the content of their lists.

So here are some stats we can gain from looking into the details of the Top 100 lists.

Wine Spectator:

Wine Spectator offers two lists – the regular Top 100 Wine and Top 100 Value Wines, which includes wines priced under $25 (you can find all the lists here). I didn’t spend time with the top value list, so all the numbers below are related to the Top 100 list:

  • Distribution by country: France – 23, California – 22, Italy – 21, Spain – 7, Australia and Oregon – 5 each, Chile and Portugal – 3 each, Austria, Germany, New Zealand, and Washington – 2each, Argentina, Israel, and South Africa – 1 each
  • Distribution by the wine type – 74 reds, 21 whites, 1 Rosé, and 4 Sparkling.
  • Prices – most expensive – $197, least expensive – $13. 14 wines are priced above $100, 13 wines are in the $75 – $99 range, 11 wines are in the $50 to $74 range, 27 wines are priced in the $25 – $49 range, and 35 wines are in the $13 – $25 range.
  • Ratings: the top score is 98, the lowest is 90. There is only one wine on the list with a rating of 98, 6 wines have a rating of 97. The ratings of 96, 95 and 94 are assigned to 14 wines each. 11 wines have a rating of 93, 10 wines each have ratings of 92 and 91, and 20 wines have a rating of 90.
  • Wine Spectator’s top wine of the year 2019 was 2016 Château Léoville Barton St.-Julien with a rating of 97 and priced at $98.

Wine Enthusiast:

Wine Enthusiast produces not one, but 3 Top Wine lists – Top 100 Wines, Top 100 Best Buys, and Top 100 Cellar Selections – these links will allow you to retrieve PDFs for each list. General notes on Wine Enthusiast site say that more than 24,000 wines are tasted during the year and afterwards condensed into the 3 Top Wine lists. Note that Wine Enthusiast Best Buys list covers only wines under $15. Focusing on the Top 100, I did a limited analysis, using the data already provided in the PDF file:

  • Distribution by country: California – 18, Italy – 17, France – 16, Australia, Oregon and Spain – 5 each, Argentina, Chile, Portugal and Washington – 4 each, Austria and Germany – 3 each, NY State and South Africa – 2 each, Georgia, Greece, Israel, Uruguay and Virginia – 1 each
  • Prices – most expensive – $114, least expensive – $16. Only one wine is priced above $100, the majority of the wines are less than $50 with an average price of $33.
  • Ratings: the top score is 99, the lowest is 90. There is only one wine on the list with a rating of 99, 3 wines are rated at 98, 5 wines have a rating of 97, 8 wines are rated at 96. Most of the rated wines fall in the 91-93 range (55 wines)
  • Wine Enthusiast top wine of the year 2019 was NV Nino Franco Rustico Brut Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore with a rating of 94 and priced at $20.

James Suckling:

This one is the most exclusive Top 100 club in a number of ways. First, you need to be a subscriber to see any wine details. Second, all the wines on the Top 100 list are rated 98-100 points. This is the only stats available from the James Suckling Top 100 Wines website: “We have 41 100-point wines in the list and another 35 with 99 points. The rest of the wines scored 98 points. All the wines were produced in quantities of 300 cases or more.”

Let’s leave James Suckling Top 100 list aside and talk about Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast lists. The makeup of both lists is quite similar when it comes to the countries – California, France, and Italy represent at least half of the Top 100 wines (2/3 in case of Wine Spectator list). Where the list differ quite a bit is in the pricing – 14 $100+ wines on the Wine Spectator list versus only 1 on the Wine Enthusiast. But the biggest difference to me is the Wine #1 – Grand Cru Classé versus Prosecco. Okay, call me a snob or whatever you want, but I’m really missing the point of the Wine Enthusiast choice. To my defense, I can only say one thing – I tasted this wine. Nino Franco Rustico is a nice Prosecco, and but it is really, really far away from the memorable, exciting wine. Here you go – another case of the wine list mystery.

I also wanted to talk about the “curse” of the Top 100 wine list, for sure when it comes to the one from the Wine Spectator. As soon as the wine makes it on that list, it instantly becomes unavailable. Adding to the mystery side, it is a mystery to me why an average wine consumer puts such a value on the Top 100 list nomination. But talking about availability, are we looking at the scalping phenomenon in the works? Buy bulk and resell for a quick buck? This is annoying, and it is a real problem for the wine retailers who can’t find enough of those top wines to offer them to consumers. It also gets worse every year – a friend of mine, who has a wine store in Stamford, was able to assemble about 40 Top 100 wines to offer to his customers last year – this year he will barely make it to 20.

There you have it my friends – a deeper look into the mystery (and curse) of the Top 100 wine lists. Do you pay attention to those? What do you think of this year’s top wines? Do you see any trends? Cheers!

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