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Discover Wines of South Africa

December 1, 2017 8 comments

South African white winesLet me start with a question: when was the last time you had South African wine? You can take a few minutes to ponder at it – but I would bet that if you are a wine consumer in the USA, there is a very good chance that the answer will be “hmmm, never”. But if “never” or “many years ago” is your answer, we need to change that.

The winemaking history in South Africa goes back to the 17th century, when immigrants from Europe brought the vine cuttings with them, as they’ve done in all other places. South African wine story somewhat resembles most of the Europe, as it also includes the phylloxera epidemic and replanting of the vineyards. Unfortunately for South African winemakers and the rest of us, the wine story of South Africa also had heavy political influence, with apartheid, KWV monopoly, and resulting boycott from most of the countries for the majority of the 20th century (here is an article on Wikipedia if you want to learn more). The new chapter for South African wines opened up in the 1990s, with the end of apartheid and subsequent changes in all areas of life, winemaking included.

In the past, South Africa was best known for its Chenin Blanc wines, which was also called Steen. Another grape South Africa was famous for was Pinotage – dinking of the Pinotage wines was likened by some wine critics to the drinking of the “liquified rusty nails”. On much brighter note, while talking about the past, I want to mention Klein Constantia Vin de Constance – the nectar of gods (don’t take my word for it  – find it and try it), made from Muscat de Frontignan grapes and favorite wine of the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who was buying it by the barrel (legend has it that it was Napoleon’s deathbed wish wine).

Today South Africa offers lots more than a typical wine consumer would expect. The South African wines are often described as “old world wines masquerading as new world wines”, and this is perfectly showing in the wide range of the wines. You really need to try for yourself South African Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, and don’t skip the Chenin Blanc, especially if it is an FMC by Ken Forrester. You shouldn’t skip even Pinotage, as it dramatically evolved compared to the old days.  The old world winemaking foundation really shows through many of the South African wines today, and they are always ready to surprise a curious wine drinker.

Case in point – our recent virtual tasting on Snooth. We had an opportunity to taste 6 white wines, well representing South African grapes, styles and regions. The tasting included 3 out of the 4 most popular white grapes in South Africa (Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc) – the second most planted grape, Colombard, is used primarily in the brandy production. Another interesting fact for you  – until 1981, there was no Chardonnay planted in South Africa, which makes it all more impressive (read my notes below). Two of the Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blanc from the tasting were simply stunning, and the rest of the wines were perfectly suitable for the everyday drinking. What is even better is that you don’t need to rely on my notes if you want to discover what South Africa is capable of – Snooth offers that exact set of 6 wines for purchase, at a very reasonable price of $79.99 for the whole set.

Here are my notes from the tasting:

2016 Glenelly Glass Collection Unoaked Chardonnay WO Stellenbosch (13.5% ABV, $20, 100% Chardonnay)
C: straw pale
N: Beautiful, vanilla, touch of guava, fresh, medium+
P: good acidity, granny smith apple, crisp, maybe a bit too restrained now, lemony acidity on the finish
V: 8, excellent now, but I definitely want to see it evolve.

2016 De Wetshof Estate Limestone Hill Chardonnay WO Robertson (14% ABV, $16, 100% Chardonnay)
C: light golden
N: complex, vanilla, popcorn, medium intensity. Nose clears up as the wine breathes. Golden delicious and honeysuckle appeared. Delicious nose.
P: quite restrained, touch of Granny Smith apples as opposed to the golden delicious. Perfect acidity, vanilla, fresh.
V: 8, will evolve. Definitely an interesting wine.

2016 Badenhorst Family Wines Secateurs Chenin Blanc Swartland WO Steen (12.5% ABV, $15, Chenin Blanc with a sprinkling of Palomino and another secret grape)
C: straw pale
N: interesting, yeast, touch of white stone fruit
P: crisp, restrained, mostly lemony, acidic notes
V: 7, too simple and single-dimensional

2016 Raats Original Chenin Blanc Unwooded WO Stellenbosch (12.5% ABV, $16, 100% Chenin Blanc)
C: straw pale+
N: inviting, medium plus, minerality, hint of peach
P: clean acidity, interesting touch of pear and white plum with acidic finish
V: 7+, interesting wine, by itself and with food.

2014 Thelema Sutherland Sauvignon Blanc WO Elgin (13% ABV, $20)
C: light golden
N: lots of minerality, touch of gunflint, touch of grass (distant hint), white stone fruit as the wine is opening up – doesn’t resemble SB at all
P: crisp, clean, lemon acidity, very restrained, mineral-driven, limestone. Almost astringent. Needs food.
V: rated it first 7+/8-, noting “will be interesting to see how the wine will open up”. More playful after 30 min in the open bottle. Interesting. After two days, this clearly became 8/8+ wine

2016 The Wolftrap White WO Western Cape (13.5% ABV, $12, Viognier 42%; Chenin Blanc 37%; Grenache Blanc 21%)
C: light golden
N: lemony notes, grass
P: a little too simplistic, mostly lemony notes. Drinkable, not great
V: 7, too simple, might work better with food

South African wines are definitely here, at the world-class level. If you pride yourself as a wine lover, they are all ready for your undivided attention.

Sauternes – Sweet, Versatile, Delicious, And Perfect for Every Day

November 20, 2017 7 comments

Sauternes - corksToday we are going to talk about sweet and delicious wines, but I feel compelled to start with a little rant.

What is wrong with you, people?

No, I’m not trying to better humankind with this pathetic opening, but nevertheless, I would like to repeat my question – what is wrong with you, people, when you proudly state “hmm, you said sweet? I don’t drink sweet wines!!” (add proud grin and posture to this statement). Sweet or dry, when it comes to wine, there is only one quality worth inquiring about – balance. “Is this wine balanced?” is a perfect question to ask, but sweet, dry, semi-sweet, semi-dry – those are all relative characteristics which often mean different things to different people.

Deep inside, we like sweet. We don’t always admit it as our well established societal shaming machine works perfectly, it creates an absolute truth like “sweet = bad”. Sweet is one of the easiest flavors to recognize, and we usually start our acquaintance with taste with sweet, later discovering sour, salty and bitter. Growing up, we learn that “sugar is bad for you” – which is true for anything taken out of moderation – and then we subconsciously extend “sugar = bad” rule to the most of the things we do, or rather, eat.

Now, I’m asking you to put these extreme views of sweet aside, at least for the next few minutes you will spend reading this post. I know, you can do it for me. Let’s go, let’s talk about it – yes, sweet wines.

Sauternes Selection

Historically, sweet wines had been around for as long as humans known to make wine. Sweet wines are typically easier for our palate to fall in love with, but keep that love going strong might be a challenge, as people change their taste quite often. Today, sweet wines are made everywhere – but in most of the cases, sweet wines are an addition to the winery’s repertoire, to all those white, Rosé and red which winery is generally producing – and not The Wine. Except in few places, it really is The Wine. One such place is located in the world’s capital of red wines – Bordeaux, and yes, it is called Sauternes.

Sauternes region is located about 40 miles south of the city of Bordeaux, and predominantly produces sweet wines (there are some notable exceptions like d’Yquem Y, which is a dry wine, but those are truly the exceptions). History of Sauternes goes back to the beginning of 17th century, but it is hard to tell what led to the appearance of the Sauternes wines as we know them.

You see, Sauternes wines are made with some special assistance from mother nature. This appearance comes in somewhat of a strange form – a fungus. The climate conditions in Sauternes are favorable for the specific form of mildew to set on the grapes, so the grapes essentially rot on the vine. It is manifested with the grapes starting to shrivel while they are still hanging in the cluster – however, outside of visually unappealing sight (for the rest of us, not for the vintners in Sauternes), that also leads to the shriveled grapes greatly increasing concentration of the sugar, which perfectly lends itself to creating some of the very best sweet wines in the world – yes, the Sauternes.

The fungus, which has a scientific name of Botrytis cinerea, is also called a Noble Rot, just to stress that unlike any other rot, which is generally bad, the Noble Rot is good and useful, and thus has such a distinguished name. The legend has it that monks who were the first to produce sweet Sauternes, were keeping information about the rot outside of the public knowledge, as whether you will call it Noble or not, it is not easy to explain to people that wine is delicious because the grapes had time to rot before been made into the wine.

Production of Sauternes is labor intense, even today. Not only all the grapes are harvested by hand – they also harvested multiple times. The workers can only pick individual grapes from the vine, those which are ready (read: rotted shriveled enough). Then they have to come back again to pick the new “ready” grapes – and this can repeat 6-7 times. So yes, talk about labor intense process.

All this pain with the harvest is well worth it, as it translates into the delicious wines. What is very interesting about Sauternes, which is typically well underappreciated, is that Sauternes are amazingly versatile when it comes to food. You can pair the whole dinner with Sauternes, but while this might be a bit challenging, they definitely beat most of the wines, maybe with the exception of Champagne/Sparkling, as a perfect accompaniment to any appetizers and cheese course. The Foie Gras and Sauternes is a classic combination, but it pairs spot on with any salumi, prosciutto, Jamon or any other cured meat. Salty, spicy, sour, bitter  – bring it on, all the flavor profiles will find their match with Sauternes.

A few weeks ago we had an opportunity to deep dive into the world of Sauternes with the virtual tasting run on Snooth – if you are interested in following the conversation, you can check out this post on Snooth. To prepare for the discussion, I had a pre-gaming session, pairing our selection of Sauternes with cheeses and Foie Gras, as you can see in the pictures above. I have to honestly say that I liked some wines better than the others, which you will see in the notes – but when it comes to complementing the food, they all performed really well.

There are plenty of sources for you to learn the particular details about the Sauternes wines and the region so I will spare you from my regurgitating of the known facts. Just as a quick reference, I can tell you that Sauternes wines predominantly made from Sémillon grapes, with Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle playing the supporting roles. Our tasting included wines from 2009, 2014 and 2015 vintages, which are all considered excellent.

Without further ado, here are my notes:

2015 Château Manos Cadillac AOC (14% ABV, $12.99, 98% Semillon, 2% Muscadelle, 50% of wine aged in barrels for 6 months)
C: golden
N: apricots, herbs
P: nice sweetness, apricots, touch of peach
V: 7+

2015 Château Haut Charmes Sauternes AOC (14% ABV, $20, 80% Semillon, 20% Sauvignon Blanc, aged in barrels)
C: light golden
N: touch of petrol, apricot, honeysuckle,
P: white fruit, honey, good acidity, appears light
V: 7+

2014 Château Lauvignac Sauternes AOC (% ABV, $18.99/375 ml, 85% Sémillon, 10% Muscadelle, 5% Sauvignon)
C: straw pale
N: Classic bortrized fruit, touch of honeysuckle
P: clean acidity, orange, bitter orange on the finish
V: 7

2014 Château La Rame Sainte Croix du Mont AOC (13.2% ABV, $20, 100% Sémillon, 50 yo vines, 30% aged in oak batrrels)
C: golden
N: rich, opulent, honey, bortrized notes, very inviting, touch of petrol
P: beautiful, round, honey, apricot, peach, intense, perfect acidity
V: 8, best of tasting

2014 Château du Cros Loupiac AOC (14% ABV, $15, 90% Sémillon, 5% Sauvignon, 5% Muscadelle, 12 months in barrique)
C: golden
N: intense honey
P: mostly honey, needs more acidity
V: 7

2014 Château Lapinesse Sauternes AOC (% ABV, $39.99, 100% Sémillon, 12 months in stainless steel)
C: light golden
N: dry, white stone fruit
P: sweet, mostly single note
V: 7

2009 Château FILHOT Sauternes AOC (13.5% ABV, $40, aged for 22 months including 12 months in oak barrels)
C: very light golden
N: honeysuckle, delicious, very promising
P: honey, candied orange, nice, touch more of acidity would be nice
V: 7+

2009 Château Dauphiné Rondillon Loupiac AOC (% ABV, $28, 70% Semillon, 30% Sauvignon Blanc)
C: light golden
N: muted, touch of honeysuckle
P: touch of candied orange, good acidity, but overall is just ok
V: 7

Sauternes Selection

The holiday season is upon us. While I’m not asking you to pair your Thanksgiving turkey with the Sauternes (albeit it might work very well – and I will actually try it), I definitely suggest you will give Sauternes a chance to brighten up your friends and family get together – that “wine and cheese” fun is generally overrated and underestimated at the same time, as majority of the wines don’t pair that easily with the cheese – but try it with Sauternes, and you might discover a new love in your life. Cheers!

WBC17: Speed Tasting, Reds

November 15, 2017 Leave a comment

 

As with any typical wine dinner, you start with the white and continue with the red, right? Well, right or wrong, but this is what we did at the Wine Bloggers Conference 2017. White and Rosé speed tasting was followed by the Reds speed tasting the next day.

Instead of standard 10 wines, we managed to squeeze in 11 – of course, because Table #5 was the most awesome table in the entire room!

Here is what we tasted:

Wine #1: 2013 Acumen Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley (14.1% ABV, $60) – have to say that nose was better than the palate. Too young.

Wine #2: 2010 Rodney Strong Vineyards Upshot Sonoma County (14.5% ABV, $28) – not only this wine has a super-creative label, it also has 5% of the Riesling in the final blend – how about that for creativity? Very tasty wine.

Wine #3: 2015 Pedroncelli Mother Clone Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Sonoma County (14.9% ABV, $19)

Wine #4: 2015 Pedroncelli Bushnell Vineyard Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Sonoma County (15.2% ABV, $30) – this was our bonus wine. I liked it way more than the previous Zinfandel…

Wine #5: 2014 Papapietro Perry Peters Vineyard Pinot Noir Russian River Valley (13.8% ABV, $58) – excellent.

Wine #6: 2015 Naked Winery Oh! Orgasmic Sangiovese Columbia Valley (14.4% ABV, $70)

Wine #7: 2014 NakedWines.com Domaine O’Vineyards Trah Lah Lah Cite de Carcassonne IGP (13% ABV, $11) – nicely restrained. Least expensive in the tasting.

Wine #8: 2015 1000 Stories Zinfandel Bourbon Barrel Aged (15% ABV, $19)

Wine #9: 2015 Paradise Ridge Walter’s Vineyard Pinot Noir Russain River Valley (13.8% ABV, $54) – needs time

Wine #10: 2015 Gracianna Pinot Noir Reserve Russian River Valley (14.8% ABV, $72) – love the label, but the wine needs time.

Wine #11: 2015 Stone Hill Winery Norton Missouri (13.8% ABV, $25) – easily might be my favorite wine from the reds speed tasting. Was also very happy to try a wine from the state I never had the wines from before.

This completes the second WBC17 speed tasting report. More updates to follow. Cheers!

WBC17: Speed Tasting, White and Rosé

November 11, 2017 3 comments

Here we go again – living through the madness of the Wine Bloggers Conference – this is where wine geeks get together, taste incredible amounts of wine (thank you, liver, I hope you can forgive me again), talk about the wine all day (and good portion of the night) long, but above all, share their common passion – the wine.

This is my third conference, and speed tasting is definitely one of my favorite exercises. During an hour-long session, wineries from all over the world line up to present their wines to the bloggers. Each winery gets 5 minutes to present their wine – which includes pouring, talking and answering questions. Bloggers sit in groups of 10 at the tables and each group gets the same 5 minutes to taste the wine, ask questions, take pictures, and share the wines on the social media. Yes, it is very intense.

This is definitely a fun session (fun is not universal here – I know a number of very well respected bloggers who refuse to participate in the speed tasting) – however, it should be well understood that this is really “shoot from the hip” type of tasting – 5 minutes is absolutely not enough to truly understand the wine, and you get the wine in whatever state it is (you can’t let it open in the glass, nope). However, this is how the wines are evaluated at any large trade tasting, sans the social media sharing, so this is all about your first reaction – that’s what is going into your quick notes.

Our session at WBC17 included wines mostly from California, with the addition of some international wines. While the session was called “white and Rosé”, we didn’t get to taste any Rosé – but keep in mind that we only were able to taste 10 out of more than 25 wines. I shared all of my impressions and pictures on twitter – however while working on this post I realized that I forgot to include 2 pictures, and all of my tweets went out as replies. Yeah, live and learn.

Nevertheless, here is the blog report of the same, with the addition of missing pictures:

Wine #1: 2016 Ledson Winery Viognier Sonoma Coast (13.5% ABV, $32) – I always approach Viognier with trepidation – this is one of the grapes which are easy to screw up. To my delight, this was very well done wine – nose, palate – very enjoyable. Reasonable value at $32.

Wine #2: Naked Wines Naked Cowboy Sauvignon Blanc (13% ABV, $32) – the wine states appellation America on the front label, however, all the grapes come from the vineyards in Washington. This is a good wine – I’m not sold on QPR, though…

Wine #3: 2015 Matthiasson Winery White Blend Napa Valley (12.9% ABV, $40) – a blend of 4 grapes, mostly Italian varietals.

 

Matthiasson White Wine

Wine #4: Jardesca White Aperitiva California (17% ABV, $30) – this is fortified wine with the addition of fruit – just add ice, and you can start entertaining. Love the label.

Wine #5: 2010 Gloria Ferrer Anniversary Cuvée Carneros (12.5% ABV, $40) – love Gloria Ferrer wines. This was big and voluptuous sparkler, slightly bigger than a typical Brut.

Wine #6: 2016 Selva Capuzzo Turbiana Lugana ($18) – not bad, and the least expensive wine in the tasting.

Wine #7: 2015 Mt. Beautiful Chardonnay New Zealand (14.5% ABV, $22) – this was a very good rendition of Chardonnay and an excellent price for the New Zealand Chardonnay overall.

Wine #8: 2015 Antinori Estates Antica Chardonnay Napa Valley (14.5% ABV, $55) – interesting wine. QPR didn’t work for me…

Antica Chardonnay Napa Valley

Wine #9: 2016 Hanna Winery Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley (13.2% ABV, $19) – Hanna is one of my favorite producers, and this Sauvignon Blanc was delicious. Was super-excited to find a classic cat pee on the nose…

Wine #10: 2014 Leto Cellars Chardonnay Napa Valley (14% ABV, $30) – this wine was an enigma. We tasted multiple bottles and still couldn’t figure it out. Oh well, this was the last one anyway.

This completes my first WBC17 speed tasting report. Red wines will be next! Cheers!

Spain’s Great Match – Rare Grapes, Delicious Wines, Great Values

October 13, 2017 6 comments
Spain's wine regions

Source: Wines from Spain USA

I discovered the real greatness of the Spanish wines about 10 years ago, thanks to the wonderful seminar at maybe the best source of the Spanish wines in New York – the PJ Wine store. I had an occasional Rioja here and there before, but tasting through the full line of best of the best in Rioja, starting from the legendary 1964 vintage, was a true eye opener, and ever since, Spanish wines hold a special place in my winelover’s heart. If I need an ultimate solace in the wine glass, yes, 9 out of 10, it will be a Rioja.

Spain has the biggest vineyard area plantings in the world, so no matter how great Rioja is, Spain is so much more than just the Rioja. As I became a big fan of the Spanish wines (search this blog under the “Spanish wine” category), it became truly fascinating to follow all the changes and see the appearance of the totally new regions and reincarnation of the ancient, authentic grapes – Spain is home to about 400 grape varieties, out of which only about 20 can be considered “mainstream”.

What is the better way to learn about new wines if not the [big] wine tasting? Thanks to the Wines from Spain USA, the 24th annual “Spain’s Great Match – Wine, Food, Design” event offered exactly that – a big wine tasting (more than 300 wines), educational wine seminars and authentic Spanish food.

I had a pleasure of attending these events for the last few years, including the special 30th Anniversary of Spanish wines in the USA, where the incredible tasting in the main seminar included once-in-a-lifetime wines such as 2005 Clos Erasmus from Priorat, a Robert Parker 100-points rated wine. Every year’s event offered unique and different educational opportunities as well as the tasting of the latest and greatest wine releases from all major Spanish regions.

The first seminar offered during this year’s event was focused on the Spain’s rare grapes. Ask a winelover to come up with the list of the commonly used Spanish grapes – I’m sure that going beyond Tempranillo, Garnacha (Grenache) and Albariño will be challenging. Some of the adventurous wine geeks might add Graciano, Viura, and Verdejo.  Meanwhile, remember – 400 varieties – versus 6 which we just mentioned. Spanish winemakers definitely got some options.

So the first seminar, led by Doug Frost, one of the only 4 people in the world who are both Master Sommelier and Master of Wine,  Gretchen Thomson, Wine Director for Barteca Restaurant Group, overseeing the largest in the country portfolio of Spanish wines, and Michael Schachner, Spanish and South American Editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine, addressed exactly this issue. We had an opportunity to taste and discuss 10 wines made from the little known Spanish grapes.

rare Grapes seminar led by Doug Frost MS/MW

Spain's Great Match

Spain's Great Match

Gretchen Thomas at the rare grapes seminar Spain's Great MatchAs some of you might know, I’m a grape geek myself. The little box in the upper section of the Talk-a-Vino web page shows a counter for the number of grapes I had an opportunity to taste, so from the 10 grapes we tasted, I found only one I didn’t have before. The wines were interesting, however, I would not necessarily agree with the choice of wines to showcase particular grapes – but I wouldn’t stand a chance against such a distinguished panel of experts, so you can dismiss this statement. 🙂

Anyway, for what it worth, below are my tasting notes. Don’t have any good pictures for you, as I had no opportunity to take pictures of these wines in between the different events. Here we go:

2016 Ameztoi Txakolina D.O. Getariako Txakolina (Grape – Hondarrabi Zuri)
Beautiful nose, fresh, lemon notes, herbs, inviting. Crisp, cut through acidity, touch of fizz, would perfectly match oysters, seafood, most reminiscent of Mucadet.

2014 Bodega Chacón Buelta D.O. Cangas (grape: Albarín Blanco, new grape for me)
Off-putting nose – strong gasoline, aggressive herbal notes. The palate is interesting – lychees, pear, appears almost oxidative/”orange”.

2016 Avancia Cuvée de O D.O. Valdeorras (grape: Godello)
Intense nose, white stone fruit, nicely restrained, peaches undertones with clean acidity on the palate with clean acidity – excellent

2014 Bodegas Maranones Picarana D.O. Viños de Madrid (grape: Albillo Blanco, high altitude vineyards, 2000–2500 feet, barrel fermented)
Open, intense, touch of gunflint, reminiscent of Chardonnay, apples, vanilla – excellent. Plump, Marsanne-like on the palate, touch of tannins, very nice overall

2016 Armas de Guerra Tinta D.O. Bierso (grape: Mencía)
Intense, freshly crushed berries on the nose. Outstanding on the palate, tannins, burst of pepper, crisp, dry, very little fruit, medium body. Very interesting and different expression of Mencía.

2011 Raúl Pérez Prieto Picudo V.T. Castilla y Léon (grape: Prieto Picudo)
Delicious nose, open berries, sweet oak, overall on the nose – classic California. Lots going on on the palate – touch of sweetness, blackberries, nice swing of tannins, medium+ body.

2015 Bermejo Listán Negro D.O. Lanzarote (grape: Listán Negro, 13% ABV)
Smelling a cement truck – just fresh cement, plus intense herbal notes. Chipotle, poblano peppers dominate noticeably dusty palate – unique and different. (Too unique?)

2015 Ànima Negra ÀN V.T. Mallorca (grape: Callet)
Fresh open nose, fresh blueberries, and strawberries. Funky undertones on the palate, aggressive tannins (French oak), limited fruit. Interesting food wine

2014 Mustiguillo Finca Terrerazo Pago El Terrerazo (grape: Bobal)
Closed nose. A tiny hint of fruit, more perceived than real. Tight palate, noticeable oak, touch of cherries, good balance of fruit and acidity. Needs time. Want to try again in 10–15 years.

2013 Torres Cos Perpetual D.O.Ca. Priorat (grape: Cariñena)
Nice nose, cherries, dark chocolate, fresh leaves undertones. Aggressive tannins, green notes (tree branches), initial sweet notes immediately followed by astringent profile.

Spain's Great Match

Spain's Great Match

Spain's Great Match

Spain's Great Match

Spain's Great Match

Our next seminar was dedicated to the wines and culture of the Castilla y León, an administrative region in the Northern part of Spain. Castilla y León includes a number of winemaking regions – some of the best, essentially – Ribera del Duero, Toro, Rueda among others. The seminar was led by charismatic Marnie Old – I have to honestly say that this was one of the very best wine seminars I ever attended – great delivery, lots of energy, excellent presentation.

We had an opportunity to taste 7 different wines and also try some of the Castilla y León authentic foods – a few kinds of cheese (Valdeon, a blue cheese, was my favorite), Jamon (Jamón Guijuelo, to be precise) and more. I really didn’t care for the Rosé, so below you will find the notes for the wines we tasted:

2016 Bodegas Vitulia Albillo Gran Selección Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León ($18, 12.5% ABV, 100% Albillo Mayor)
Simple, crisp, acidic, refreshing. Plus another new grape.

2016 Bodega Castelo de Medina Verdejo Rueda D.O. ($19.95, 13.5% ABV, 100% Verdejo)
White stone fruit, intense, fresh, floral fruit on the nose. Palate is dominated by the herbs, similar to Sancerre, lemon, medium body, very nice

2016 Bodega Javier Sanz V Malcorta Rueda D.O. (13% ABV, $26, 100% Verdejo Malcorta)
Javier Sanz’s effort is dedicated to restoring pre-phylloxera vineyards – this is where the fruit for this wine came from. The nose is a pure wow – intense, camphor oil, sandalwood, rosemary. Palate is delicious, perfectly balanced, candied lemon, nutmeg, medium+ body, clean acidity, an excellent wine. Yes, and another new grape.

2016 Vino Bigardo Tinto Experimental (100% Tinta de Toro) – an interesting wine. Made by a rebel winemaker, who doesn’t want to make the wine according to the appellation laws, so the wine is unclassified. 20–100 years old wine, 45 passes during the harvest, micro-fermentation. Nose has lots of young, bright fruit, freshly crushed berries, reminiscent of Monastrell, unusual. Young fruit on the palate, but with undertones of stewed fruit, hint of the roasted meat. This is experimental wine all right, but this is not a successful wine in my book.

2009 Bodegas Matarredonda Libranza 28 Reserva Especial DO Toro ($45, 100% Tinta de Toro, ungrafted vines, on average 70 years old)
Spicy nose with a whiff of cinnamon, sweet oak, classic Cabernet nose overall. On the palate very tight, the real Toro, powerful, dark fruit, nice – but needs time. Pairs surprisingly outstanding with the local Valdeon Blue Cheese.

2014 Bodegas Balbás Crianza Ribera Del Duero D.O. ($27.99, 90% Tempranillo, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18 months in French oak barrels)
This wine comes from one of the founding estates in the region, established in 1777.
Dusty nose, muted fruit, distant hint of dried cherries. On the palate – cherries, cherry pit, roasted meat, coffee, great concentration, fresh, clean – very good wine overall.

I was registered for two more seminars, but then there were lots of wines to taste, so I decided to proceed with the tasting. Below are mentions of the wines I liked. I have separated the wines into my top choices (both white and red), and then separately sparkling (Cava), white and red wines I feel comfortably happy to recommend. For what it worth, here we go:

Top wines:
2016 Bodega Javier Sanz V Malcorta Rueda DO ($26) – see my notes above, definitely was the star
2014 CVNE Monopole Blanco Seco Rioja ($22) – Monopole is one of my favorite white Rioja in general, but this wine is taken to the next level by spending some time in oak – lots of increased complexity. Delicious.
2013 Bodegas Prineos Garnacha DO Somontano ($12.99) – round and delicious. Great value
2011 Bodegas Beronia III a.C. Beronia DOCa Rioja ($79.99) – 70 years old vines. Unique and beautiful, produced only in exceptional vintages. standout.
2015 Bodegas Garcia Carrión Mayoral Reservado DOP Jumilla ($12.99, Syrah/Cabernet Sauvignon/Petit Verdot) – a standout. Perfectly balanced, great flavor profile and QPR which can’t be beat.
2014 El Coto Crianza DOCa Rioja ($13) – an incredible value, perfectly soft and round
2008 El Coto de Imaz Gran Reserva DOCa Rioja ($44) – perfectly drinkable, but can still age. Delicious and a great value.
2010 Gratavinum GV5 DOCa Priorat ($80) – excellent wine

Also very good:

Cava:
NV Anna de Codorniu Blanc de Blancs Brut Reserva DO Cava ($14.99) – never disappoints. Great value.
NV Anna de Codorniu Brut Rosé DO Cava ($14.99) – one of my perennial favorites.
2010 Parés Baltà Cava Blanca Cusiné DO Cava ($40) – very good quality, comparable to vintage Champagne.
NV Segura Viudos Reserva Heredad DO Cava ($25) – another one of my favorites. Delicious.
2010 Torelló 225 Brut Nature Gran Reserva DO Cava ($35) – very good

White:
2016 Bodegas Sommos Las Bas Gewürztraminer DO Somontano ($25.99) – Gewurtztraminer is a tough grape for making a round, balanced wine – and this one was exactly that.
2015 Baigorri Barrel Fermented White DOCa Rioja ($30) – very nice
2016 Bodegas Beronia Viura DOCa Rioja ($14.99) – clean, refreshing
2016 El Coto Blanco DOCa Rioja ($11) – outstanding and an excellent value
2013 Bodegas Enate “Chardonnay 234” Enate DO Somontano ($12.99) – classic, very good.

Rioja:
2013 Bodegas Muga Reserva DOCa Rioja ($28) – one of the iconic producers, very good wine.
2011 Marqués de Riscal Reserva DOCa Rioja ($18) – excellent value
2005 Marqués de Riscal Gran Reserva DOCa Rioja ($48) – very good
2010 Marqués de Riscal Baron de Chirel Reserva DOCa Rioja ($79) – very good
2011 Bodegas Faustino V Rioja Reserva DOCa Rioja ($15) – very good value
2005 Bodegas Faustino I Rioja Gran Reserva DOCa Rioja ($35) – another very good QPR example
2012 Bodegas Beronia Reserva DOCa Rioja ($19.99) – excellent
2008 Bodegas Beronia Gran Reserva DOCa Rioja ($31.99) – excellent, and great value
2012 El Coto de Imaz Reserva DOCa Rioja ($24)
2008 Viñedos y Bodegas Sierra Cantabria Finca El Bosque DOCa Rioha ($95) – probably the most expensive wine in the tasting, and it is not ready to drink. Needs time, lots of time.
2007 Señorio de San Vicente San Vicente DOCa Rioja ($52, new grape – Tempranillo peluda)

Other red:
2016 Bodegas Sommos Merlot DO Somontano ($25.99)
2012 Bodegas Viñas Del Vero Secastilla DO Somontano ($44.95)
2009 Bodegas Paniza Artigazo Edición Limitada DOP Cariñena ($24..99)
2010 Bodegas Corral Don Jacobo Rioja Reserva DOCa Rioja ($22) – delicious and a great value
2014 Bodegas Volver DO LaMancha ($16) – one of my perennial favorites, big and powerful
2012 Finca Villacreces Ribera del Duero DO ($35) – this wine never disappoints – perfect example of what Ribera del Duero is capable of
2013 Bodegas Hacienda Monasterio, Ribera del Duero DO ($40) – delicious
2015 Bodegas Garcia Carrión Mayoral Chester DOP Jumilla ($12.99, Monastrell/Petite Verdot)
2014 Bodegas Garcia Carrión Pata Negra Apasionado ($12.99, Monastrell/Petit Verdot/Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah)
2014 Torres Salmos DOCa Priorat ($35) – very good
2015 Teso La Monja Almirez DO Toro ($52) – still needs time
2007 Teso La Monja DO Toro ($25) – nice, but definitely needs time

And then, of course, there was food. Cheese and olives were a staple, and many other dishes were carried out all the time. I also discovered my new favorite sparkling mineral water – Vichy Catalan.  It is sold at some of the stores, such as Fairway Market, so if you like sparkling water, you might want to give it a try.

That’s all I have for you, my friends. Spain’s Great Match is an annual event, so even if you missed this year, you should definitely plan to attend the next – you can see a full schedule here. Also, if you live in or will visit Chicago, you can still attend it on November 2nd. Either way – drink more Spanish wines, my friends! Cheers!

Exploring Wines Of New Zealand – With Villa Maria on Snooth

July 8, 2017 6 comments

Wines of New Zealand need no introduction – for sure to the oenophiles. Winemaking started in New Zealand in the 1850s, but it really flourished in the second half of the 20th century, when jet travel allowed much easier access to the future winemakers to get educated and experienced in Europe. Since the 1990s, New Zealand greatly embraced sustainability and … screw tops. I’m definitely very happy about the first – sustainable farming always leads to the better wines and happier environment. The screw tops – they are fine, I’m not convinced though that they are the best for aging the wines properly. However, I don’t want to convert this post neither into a rant, nor into a debate, so let’s just move on.

Villa Maria WinesThe story of Villa Maria winery is easily an exemplary story of realizing the “American Dream” – only in this case, it is, of course, have to be called a “New Zealand dream” (I hope such a concept exists).

George Fistonich started in 1961, at the age of 21, with one acre of vines in Auckland. In 1962, he harvested the grapes and produced the wines under the name of Villa Maria. That was the beginning of the journey of one man, who had the passion, vision, perseverance and enough obsession to make it. Villa Maria was a one man operation through the 60s, hiring its first staff in the early 70s, and now employing 250 people and exporting their wines to the 50 countries. As a perfect proof of making it, George Fistonich became Sir George Fistonich, receiving the first knighthood in the country for the services to New Zealand’s wine industry.

Villa Maria today has vineyards located in Auckland, Gisborne, Hawkes Bay and Marlborough regions. The grapes range from the New Zealand’s staples such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir to such an obscure varietals as Arneis and Verdelho. Villa Maria became a cork-free zone in 2001. And I can tell you, they really treat sustainability seriously – the Villa Maria bottles were some of the lightest wine bottles I ever came across, which I’m sure greatly affects the carbon footprint.

A week or so ago, I was a part of the big group of winelovers tasting Villa Maria wines together in the virtual tasting organized by Snooth (no worries, the wines were real). Here are my notes from tasting and also, re-tasting of the wines.

First, two of the Sauvignon Blanc wines. First one was called “bubbly” as it was lightly carbonated – and it was definitely a fun wine, perfect for a summer picnic, fresh and delightful. And the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc was simply a classic New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, done with a perfect restraint:

2016 Villa Maria Bubbly Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough (12.5% ABV, $15)
C: literally non-existent
N: touch of grass and currant, a classic SB, restrained.
P: nice, touch of bubbles, touch of sweetness, black currant, nice and round, refreshing.
V: 8-/8, definitely nice

2016 Villa Maria Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough (12.5% ABV, $13)
C: straw pale
N: pure cassis, beautiful, freshly cut grass, classic
P: excellent balance, acidity, currant and a touch of grass. Nice and pleasant.
V: 8, I can drink this at any time, excellent wine

Now, the Rosé and then Chardonnay. The Villa Maria Rosé is predominantly Merlot. It is light and simple, but it has enough finesse to pass one of my personal tests – I particularly like the white and Rosé wines which are well drinkable when they are a bit warm – it is annoying to maintain the wines at the ice cold level (at home, for sure). The Rosé was delicious and drinkable even at the room temperature, so it definitely passed that test. And as for the Chardonnay – I know that I will be in the tiny minority from our tasting group, but I found it to be just okay. It had all the classic Chardonnay traits, but, somehow, didn’t hit the home run for me…

2016 Villa Maria Private Bin Rosé Hawkes Bay (12.5% ABV, $14)
C: Pink
N: strawberries and strawberry leaves, round and pleasant
P: strawberries, touch of sweetness, could use a touch more acidity, but still, nice and delicate
V: 8-, definitely improved the next day, more delicate, better balance

2015 Villa Maria Single Vineyard Taylors Pass Chardonnay Marlborough (13.5% ABV, $45)
C: straw pale
N: creamy, vanilla, freshly baked brioche buns with a touch of butter on them
P: Granny Smith apples smothered in butter, good acidity, excellent midpalate weight, nicely plump, but clean. Nice cleansing acidity on the finish.
V: 7+, needs food.

Now, the reds. Pinot Noir was unusual compared to what I typically expect from the Marlboro Pinot Noir. It was heavier than I expected, and on the day 3, it became a lot closer to the powerful Oregonian Pinot (which is a good deal at $26, right? ). The Merlot blend was an enigma. It opened up beautifully as I just opened the bottle, but then it went back into its shell and never came out of it, even on the day 3 …

2014 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Pinot Noir Marlborough (13.5% ABV, $26)
C: bright ruby
N: touch of sweet cherries, violet
P: tart cherries, tart acidity, touch of tobacco
V: 7, 7+ on the day 3 – showed a lot more fruit on the palate, Oregonian notes of dark power, espresso, mocha, with sweet core of cherries and plums.

2013 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon Hawkes Bay (13.5% ABV, $20, 70% Merlot, 23% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Malbec)
C: dark garnet, almost black
N: medium intensity, baking powder, vanilla, sweet mocha
P: black currant, ripe and sweet, touch of espresso, tar, dark fruit, dry, tannic finish
V: 7, unusual experience …

Have you had any of these wines? What are your thoughts? Cheers!

Franciacorta: Unique, Different and Authentic

June 14, 2017 9 comments

“Sir, I will be very happy to work with you to improve the quality of your wines, but I have one request”, said young oenologist. “What is it?“ said Guido Berlucchi, the man famously known throughout the whole Franciacorta for his aristocratic, elegant lifestyle. “I would like to make Champagne here, in Franciacorta”.

The year was 1955, and young oenologist’s name was Franco Ziliani. Guido Berlucchi, while may be surprised, was not shy of taking the risk, and Franco Zeliani got to work. First vintages were a total disaster – awfully tasting wines, blown up bottles. But in 1961, the patience and perseverance paid off, and first 3000 bottles of the Franciacorta sparkling wine came into being.

Mr. Berlucchi invited his influential friends from Milan to try the wines, and they all happened to like it. The new chapter in the Franciacorta history was opened.

Map of Franciacorta

Map of Franciacorta region

The wine was produced in Franciacorta literally forever. The land surrounding Lake Iseo from the south was strategically located along the trade path between Turin and Rome. In the 11th century, the monks created a special zone called Curtefranca to encourage land development and commerce – “Curte” in this case represents “land”, and Franca, while sounds related to France, has nothing to do with it – it simply means “free of taxes” in Italian. The primary focus in Curtefranca was agriculture, and can you imagine agriculture in Italy without making the wine?

As the time went on, the Curtefranca became known as Franciacorta – however, the Curtefranca name didn’t disappear and since 2008 it is a designation for Franciacorta still wines.

That first 1961 vintage at Berlucchi became a turning point for the whole region which was before mostly known for its red still wines. Producers started changing their ways and make sparking wines, and Franciacorta DOC was established in 1967 with 11 sparkling wine producers. Franciacorta became first DOC in Italy to require all sparkling wines to be produced by the metodo classico. In 1990, the Consorzio per la tutela del Franciacorta was formed and became a major regulatory body for sparkling wine production; in 1995 Franciacorta was awarded a DOCG status, top level of quality for the Italian wines. Starting from August of 2003, Franciacorta became the only region in Italy where the wines can be labeled only as Franciacorta and not Franciacorta DOCG – similar to the Champagne where the word AOC doesn’t appear on the label.

If you are like me, I’m sure you are dying to hear a few more facts. Today, Franciacorta comprise about 7,500 acres of vineyards and produces about 15,000,000 bottles per year; there are about 200 grape growers in Franciacorta, 116 of them produce their own wines. 65% of all the vineyards are organic, and conversion to organic methods continues.

Franciacorta vineyards

Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc are the only permitted varieties in production of Franciacorta, with Pinot Blanc being somewhat of a bastard child, as the grape is even more finicky to properly produce than Pinot Noir – while some of the producers phasing it out (e.g. Berlucchi), the others love the perfumy bright character which the grape can impart on the resulting wines.

Franciacorta’s climate is very conducive to getting grapes ripen perfectly. The climate is generally mild, with consistently warm summer days. The Lake Iseo creates a cooling effect during the summer nights, helping grapes to reach the levels of phenolic ripeness which is very difficult to achieve (if not impossible) in the Champagne. During winter, the lake provides a softening effect, protecting vines from the very low temperatures.

Unquestionably Champagne was an inspiration for the ways and means of the Franciacorta sparkling wines – as expected if you use metodo classico production. However, Franciacorta is largely moving past the “Champagne copycat” status and actively seeks and creates its own unique style, not only by stricter aging requirements (both non-vintage and vintage Franciacorta must be aged on the lees for longer than the Champagne in the same category), but by the whole method of production – for instance, by using only stainless steel tanks for the fermentation or relying much less on blending and more on the quality of the grapes from the given vintage.

Franciacorta is obsessed with quality. It starts in the vineyard, where even if not certified, most of the grapes are growing as organic. New vines are often planted at a very high density, to force the roots to go deep down as they have no room to grow to the sides. The yield is well limited to about 4 tons per acre. All the grapes are harvested by hand (this is a requirement of Franciacorta DOCG). The grapes are cooled down before the pressing – and in the case of Ca’del Bosco, one of the premier producers in the region, the grapes are even washed and then dried, using specially created complex of the machines.

Getting the grapes into the winery is only the beginning of the quest for quality. We talked to many winemakers, and they were all repeating the same words – “gentle pressing”. There is a tremendous focus on gentle handling of the grapes, using various types of presses. Arturo Ziliani, the son of Franco Ziliani, who is in charge of winemaking at Berlucchi, gave us the best explanation. “Think about a lemon. Cut it, and right under the skin, you will see the white layer – pith. When you quickly juice the lemon, lots of that pith ends up in the juice, rendering it cloudy – and adding bitterness and extra acidity. If we would juice the lemon slowly without destroying the pith, the resulting juice would be clear – and lemonade would need a lot less sugar to make. While much thinner, grapes also have the layer of pith right under the skin – and when we press the grapes, we want to avoid crushing it as much as possible”.

Even gentle pressing alone is not enough. Franciacorta regulations allow up to 65% of grape mass to be pressed. Most of the winemakers press less, at around 50%, in some cases even limiting only by 30%. At all stages of the process, there is a great effort to protect grapes and wine from oxidation; such focused handling also allows to greatly reduce the levels of added SO2 – while the law allows up to 210 mg/liter, many winemakers limit it at only 50 mg/liter.

Official Franciacorta Glass

Obsession with the quality. Attention to detail. How do you drink your bubbles? The flute, you say? Where you ever able to perceive the full bouquet of your sparkling wine through that small opening on top of the flute? Well, leave the flute for Champagne, but if you want to enjoy Franciacorta, you will have to dump it (whatever way you see fit) and upgrade to something better – an official Franciacorta glass. It is specifically designed to enhance the visual and sensual qualities of your bubbles in the glass. The shape allows concentrating the aromas. And the glass is specifically made with the slight imperfections at the bottom to help form beautiful bubble traces better (perfectly polished glass doesn’t allow bubbles to form).

Glass of Franciacorta

Obsession with quality. Attention to detail. Passion. So what makes Franciacorta unique, different and authentic? It is all of the above. Franciacorta is a unique place, with its own terroir, its own ways of making the wines, and really its own, authentic sparkling wines. Franciacorta shouldn’t be compared to Champagne, for sure not anymore, not based on the tasting of 50 or so wines during our 5 days there. Well, maybe except one thing – similar to Champagne, it should be simply called by the name. You will make all hard working Franciacorta producers very happy next time at a restaurant, when you will have a reason to celebrate (and every new day is enough reason in itself), by simply saying “Waiter, please bring Franciacorta, the best one you got!”

Rosé Showdown – California Versus Spain

May 30, 2017 4 comments

A glass of wine as an “adult beverage of choice” continues its growth in popularity. If we will take a closer look at that world of wine, we will discover that there are two types of wine which are leading that growth pattern – those two types would be Sparkling and Rosé. I’m not talking about the growth in the dollar amounts or number of bottles produced, but rather a growth in attention and demand. Today, you will be pressed hard to find a winery around the world which doesn’t produce at least one type of Rosé and one type of sparkling wine – for sure this is the case with Rosé. The production might be tiny (few hundreds of cases or even less) and far less than the demand is – but it is the wine which commands lots of attention.

Rosé from California and Spain

Another “phenomenon” makes me happy about the Rosé – it is slowly losing its “Rosé is only for a summer” connotation and becomes more and more acceptable and requested as a year-round drink. Rosé is a serious wine, with its own unique taste profile and capability to showcase terroir and grape variety, same as any other red or white, with two additional benefits. For one, I would dare to say that in general terms, Rosé’s versatility around food surpasses the white and the red wines – oh well, this might be only me. And the second one is pure aesthetics – the pink palette of Rosé, with possibly more shades than the proverbial 50, looks gorgeous, sexy and inviting – just take a look above and see if you are agreeing with me.

When I was offered to try two Rosé samples, of course, I couldn’t say no. The first wine was familiar to me, as I had a pleasure of trying 2015 vintage of Hacienda de Arinzano Rosé last year. The second one was the wine which I never saw before – Isabel Rosé from California. Thus it became an interesting experiment to see how the two wines would fare side by side.

If anything, putting Rosé from Spain and California on the “same page” makes sense as Rosé is clearly a “new phenomenon” for both regions, growing to prominence over the last 3-4 years at the most. Of course, Rosé was produced in Spain and California in much earlier days – but it was rather an exception and not the norm – unless we want to count white Zinfandel as a Rosé which I personally refuse to do. Until a few years ago, the only Spanish Rosé I knew about was the one from Lopez de Heredia ( which was outstanding). For the American Rosé, even if they were produced, they were really not that good (take a look at the blog post on Vinography called “Why Does American Rosé Suck” – no further comments needed?). Fast forward to today, and you can find lots of beautiful Rosé wines coming from Spain; American Rosé became a standout, as proven in the virtual tasting last year at the #winestudio.

Our first contender today comes from the first Pago estate in Northern Spain – Pago denomination signifies the highest quality of wines, this coveted level is not easy to achieve. Hacienda de Arinzano Rosé is made out of the 100% Tempranillo, in the “proper” way – by macerating the juice with the skins for 6-8 hours. Don’t you love the color of this wine?

The California’s Isabel Rosé is definitely a formidable opponent, as you can see starting from the bottle itself. Glass enclosure, beautiful shape and painted bottle – really curious how many people dare to discard the bottle once they finish the wine instead of keeping it (all I can tell you that I kept mine). A different but equally beautiful color on the mostly Cabernet Sauvignon wine, again produced in the classic style from one of the very best vintages in California (2016 had almost ideal growing conditions, watch out for those Cab prices) – and at one of the well-respected wineries, Michael Mondavi family estates.

As you can tell, it is definitely a game of equals, and for what it worth, my tasting notes are below:

2016 Hacienda de Arínzano Rosé Tempranillo (14% ABV, $20, 100% Tempranillo)
C: bright concentrated pink
N: onion peel, fresh crunchy berries
P: intense, red fruit, plums, crisp, good acidity, medium body, will stand to wide variety of dishes
V: 8-, excellent

2016 Isabel Rosé by Michael Mondavi Family Estate California (13.5% ABV, $15, 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23.5% Barbera, 1.5% Muscat)
C: light pink
N: intense fresh strawberries, herbal undertones
P: strawberries, good acidity, very dry – not bone dry, but quite dry, refreshing
V: 8-/8, light but affirmative, don’t overchill – needs to warm up a bit to become richer

Well, here we are, my friends. There was only one winner in this competition – me. Yes, I got to enjoy two outstanding wines, which will perfectly fit any table at any occasion,  and at the price, an absolute majority of the budgets. Both will be great on a summer day, a winter day, with food or without it. Grab one or both, chill and enjoy! And if you had any one of these wines, I would be really interested in your opinion. Cheers!

 

Thinking About Albariño, or Notes from Albariño Deep Immersion with Snooth

May 11, 2017 3 comments

For the first time I tried Albariño wine around 12 years ago, during my brief stint as a sommelier at a small restaurant. I remember the producer –  Burgans. I remember liking the wine quite a bit, and since that time, Albariño surely became a part of my regular “wines to drink” list. My longest (and still current) Albariño love is Bodegas La Caña Albariño, which typically has a small amount of wine aged in oak, offering great level of complexity – but this is not what we will be talking about today.

The history of Albariño traces back to the 12th century in the Rias Baixas region in Spain (legend has it that Rias Baixas was a resting place for a brief moment for the God’s hand after the creation – you don’t have to believe it, of course). In 1980, Rias Baixes became a DO named after it’s main grape, Albariño, changing its name to Rias Baixas DO in 1986 (EU laws don’t allow for the Denomination of Origin to be named after a single grape). Over the years, Albariño started finding its way to the consumers around the world, often touted as an alternative to the Chardonnay. Considering the location (Atlantic coast) and cuisine (heavily dominated by shellfish/fish) of Rias Baixes, it is not surprising that Albariño, which typically shows crisp acidity, is perfectly marrying variety of seafood dishes.

If you think about winemaking around the world, there are some common trends no matter where the wines are made. One particular trend I want to mention is better understanding of the local terroir. Every new vintage adds the details to the knowledge of successes and failures – which vineyard produced better fruit, how the fruit was different, how even better fruit can be produced. With this knowledge, winemakers can identify the differences between seemingly close vineyards, understand that those differences are not accidental, and that those differences are worthy to be noted, used and even stressed – now the one, seemingly monolithic “terroir” region can be split into a smaller pieces.

This is what leads to the creation of the new regions and sub-regions, and you can see it around the world. For instance, only a few years ago, practically all Sauvignon Blanc wines from Marlboro in New Zealand were only identified on the labels as Marlboro. Today, Marlboro Sauvignon Blanc wines proudly identify themselves as Wairau Valley or Awatere Valley, and you can find detailed notes stressing their unique characteristics.

Rias Baixas Wiune Regions Map

Rias Baixas Map wine regions map. Source: Rias Baixas Wine

Same processes of creating smaller, more focused viticultural areas is taking place all over the world – and Rias Baixas is not an exception. Today, Rias Baixas DO has 5 defined sub-regions – Val do Salnés, the oldest and best known source of Albariño wines; Soutomaior, Contado do Tea, O Rosal and Ribeira do Ulla. Each sub-region has its own soil and climate conditions, the terroir, which translates into the differences in the wines.

Last week I was lucky to participate in the special virtual tasting organized by Snooth, one of the best online sources of the wine knowledge. In the tasting, we had an opportunity to experience 10 different Albariño wines, representing 3 different sub-regions, and of course to discuss the wines in the rapid-fire chat.

I have to honestly admit – I didn’t wait until the official tasting to taste the wines – as the wines arrived a few weeks before the tasting, I took my time to try them slowly, as 10 wines within one our and engaging conversation using one’s fingers is quite difficult to do. I also didn’t know the order of tasting, so my tasting was done at random, where during our online chat the tasting was going from one sub-region to another – the tasting notes below appear in the tasting order at the event.

Here are my notes:

Sub-region: Val do Salnés: 

2015 Martin Codax Albariño Rias Baixas DO (12.5% ABV, $16.99)
C: light yellow
N: medium intensity, fresh lemon notes
P: lemon and lemon zest, cut through acidity, medium palate, clean
V: 7+, surprisingly nice pairing with a spicy pepper spread

2015 Condes de Albarei Albariño Rias Baixas DO (12.5% ABV, $15)
C: light golden
N: medium intensity, lemon, green apple
P: touch of sweetness, Meyer lemon, good acidity, medium body, clean
V: 7/7+, nice, simple

2015 Vionta Albariño Limited Release Rias Baixas DO (12.5% ABV, $15)
C: light golden
N: medium intensity, grassy, more of a Sancerre style, touch of lemon and hay
P: crispy, fresh, clean acidity, lemon, medium body, good balance overall, round
V: 7+/8-, very well executed.

2016 Pazo Señorans Albariño Rias Baixas DO (13.5% ABV, $25)
C: straw
N: medium intensity, grass, fresh lemons
P: crisp acidity, touch of salinity, lemon, touch of volcanic minerality, interesting complexity
V: 8-, drinkable by itself, but craves food

Sub-region: Contado do Tea:
2015 Pazo de San Mauro Albariño Rias Baixas DO (12.5% ABV, $17)
C: light straw
N: honey, flowers, honeydew, delicious and inviting
P: great complexity, touch of honey without sweetness – you know you have honey in the glass, but no sugar, clean acidic finish, medium body, unusual and interesting
V: 8/8+, most interesting of the group, very unusual

2016 Señorío de Rubiós Robaliño Albariño Rias Baixas DO (12.5% ABV, $18)
C: straw pale, a welcome relief from all the 2015 so far
N: intense, lemon, candied lemon
P: off-dry, bright, crisp, white plums, hint of pineapple
V: 8-, nice and pleasant, easy to drink

Sub-region: O Rosal

2015 Altos de Torona Albariño Sobre Lías Rias Baixas DO (13% ABV, $14)
C: light golden
N: minerality, white stone fruit, medium intensity
P: fresh, crisp, nice lemon notes, craving oysters, cut through acidity
V: 8-/8, nice on its own on a hot summer day, and will be great with seafood, especially shellfish.

2015 Santiago Ruiz O Rosal White Wine Rias Baixas DO (13% ABV, $20, blend of Albariño and Loureiro with small addition of Treixadura)
C: straw
N: medium intensity, nice white fruit (peach) and floral notes, touch of tropical fruit like guava
P: medium body, soft, round, white stone fruit, good acidity, fresh, excellent balance
V: 8-/8, definitely one of my favorites

2015 Valmiñor Albariño Edición Especial 10 Años Rias Baixas DO (12.5% ABV, $18.99)
C: golden
N: intense, white stone fruit, fresh, white plums
P: lip smacking acidity, fresh, open, lemon, herbs, very dry, medium body, medium finish
V: 7+, very pleasant, will be perfect for any summer day, or any day with seafood. Makes you crave oysters.

2015 Bodegas Terras Gauda Abadía de San Compo Albariño Rias Baixas DO (12.5% ABV, $20)
C: golden
N: medium intensity, touch of lemon, white stone fruit
P: clean acidity, slightly off dry, under-ripe yellow plums, medium body
V: 7+, nice and quaffable.

Did I clearly tasted the differences in the wines from the different regions? No, I wouldn’t say so – however, as you can tell from the notes and ratings, I liked the most two Albariño wines from the Contado do Tea region. Will the Albariño get more distinguishable – you bet. Should you go and open a bottle of Albariño right this moment – absolutely, go and do it now.

That’s all I have for you, my friends. Don’t forget that upcoming Sunday is Mother’s Day in the USA – I’m sure Mom would greatly appreciate nice and refreshing glass of Albariño – and note that some of the very cool labels in the wines we tried (wink, wink). Cheers!

Of Cabs and Tomatoes, or Having Fun with a Blind Tasting

November 29, 2016 7 comments

“By the way”, my friend texted me, “your text says “tomato wine” – was that an autocorrect”? My response was “Nope. You’ll see”.

Drinking wine is fun (if you disagree, you shouldn’t read this blog). There are many things which we, oenophiles, self-proclaimed wine aficionados, can do to maximize that fun. We age wines, we decant wines, we use fancy openers and pourers, we play with temperature and glasses of different forms and sizes.

One of ultimate fun exercises oenophiles can engage in is a blind tasting. Blind tasting is a “truth serum” for the wine lovers, it levels the playing field for all. Blind tasting eliminates all “external” factors – price (ha, I paid $300 for this bottle, beat that), prestige, winemaker’s pedigree, weight of the terroir (ahh, Bordeaux, it must be amazing), cute and elaborate labels, critics and friends opinion – and leaves your palate one on one with the content of the glass. Don’t say “I hate Chardonnay and I never drink it”, as you don’t know what is in your glass. Don’t say “I don’t like Australian wines”, as you don’t know what is in your glass. Anyone who ever played the game of the blind tasting can surely attest to what I’m saying here. If you never experienced fun and joy of the blind tasting, you are missing and you are missing a lot – but it is easy to fix.

Our tradition of wine dinners goes back more than 5 years, and most of the wine dinners include blind tasting part (here are the posts for some of the past events – Pinot Noir, Champagne, Chardonnay). A few weeks ago, we managed to align everyone’s schedule for a wine dinner and a blind tasting with a simple and non-pretentious subject – Cabernet Sauvignon :).

wine tasting readyRemember the dialog at the beginning of this post? I have friends who know my obsession with the wine, and always try to surprise me with various oddities. One of such oddities was a bottle of tomato wine which they brought from Canada. I didn’t want to drink that wine by myself, so the wine dinner was an excellent opportunity to share it with friends. As guests were arriving, I decided to play a role of the mean host (okay, not too mean). Outside of the friend who knew about the tomato wine, the rest were presented with the pour of the white wine and the request to guess what grape that might be. Literally nobody wanted to believe that this was a tomato wine – I had to show the bottle as a proof.

Have I tasted this wine blind, I’m sure I would be in the same boat as all of  my friends – this 2013 Domaine de la Vallée du Bras OMERTO Vin Apéritif de Tomate Moelleux Québec (16% ABV) was fresh, with good acidity, touch of raisins on the nose, medium to full body and notes of the white stone fruit on the palate – for me, Vouvray (Chenin Blanc from Loire) is the one which comes to mind to give you the best analogy. This wine is produced from the locally grown heirloom tomatoes – and it is also a vintage – I’m seriously impressed (find it and taste it).

And to the blind tasting off we went. 10 wines were wrapped in the paper bags, opened and randomly numbered (my daughter usually does the honors), then poured into the glasses. The only thing we knew that all the wines will be predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon – no price or region limits.

Below are my notes, in our tasting order, both with my initial impressions and some updates over the next few days as I tasted leftover wines. And by the way, don’t think of this tasting of some stuck-up, snotty process – we openly exchange our thoughts, but each person’s individual palate is an ultimate purveyor of truth here:

#1:
C: almost black
N: restrained
P: bright fruit, pronounced tannins, delicious.
P: 2nd day – outstanding, firm structure, eucalyptus, dusty profile, tannins are still fresh.
V: 2013/2014, new world , considerably improved by the end of the tasting!

#2:
N: blueberry pie notes
P: beautiful, bright, cassis, blueberry pie with tobacco undertones on the second day, excellent
V: Lange

#3:
N: savory,
P: crispy, fresh, great fruit
P: 2nd day – firm structure, perfect balance, dark cocoa, cassis. Truly an enjoyable wine
V: nice finish,

#4
N: strange, rotten cabbage, musty cellar
N: 2nd day: an improvement, tobacco with touch of barnyard on top of cassis
P: nice, bright,
P: 2nd day: great improvement, very enjoyable, shouting a bit of mature fruit with bright acidity and touch of fresh plums.
V: India?

#5:
N: coffee, mocca, dust, excellent
N: 2nd day: coffee and roasted meat
P: nice fruit, bright, spicy
P: 2nd day: palate shifted towards savory too much meat. Probably perfect with the steak, but craving more balance on its own.
V: nice, young

#6:
N: blueberry pie, nice
N: 2nd day: pure candy on the nose, more of a lollipop quality, or may be stewed strawberries.
P: sour cherry, wow
P: sour cherries continuing, albeit more muted than yesterday
V: nothing from Cab, but nice. An okay wine.

#7:
N: nice balance, good fruit
P: great, dusty palate, firm structure, excellent, precision
V: outstanding

#8:
N: nice dusty nose,
P: crispy, tart, limited fruit
V: not bad, but not great.
V: day 2 – past prime 😦

#9:
N: nice, classic
N: 2nd day: added perfume and explicit anise notes
P: beautiful, excellent, mint, classic
P: 2nd day: dark, powerful, compressed, espresso, a lot more dense than the day before.
V: excellent
V: 2nd day: less enjoyable than the day before, closed up, lost the finesse.

#10:
N: young berries, same on the day 2 but a bit more composed.
P: young crushed berries
P: 2nd day: a bit more restrained. Young berry notes without supporting structure. Not my wine, but might have its audience.
P: 5th day: the sweetness is gone, and the classic Cab showed up, touch of cassis and mint, excellent
V: 1st day – it’s ok, 5th day – very impressive

During the tasting, we decide on two of our favorite wines. After tasting is done, we take a vote, with each person allowed to vote for two of their favorite wines. These are just two favorites, without prioritizing between the two. Below are the results of the vote for our group of 11 people:

#1 – 1
#2 – 1
#3 – 7
#4 – 1
#5 – 0
#6 – 2
#7 – 4
#8 – 1
#9 – 4
#10 – 1

As you can tell, the most favorite wine was wine #3 (7 votes out of 11), and the second favorite was a tie between wines #7 and #9, each of them getting 4 votes out of 11. Now, drumroll please – and the most favorite wine of the blind Cabernet Sauvignon tasting was … 2006 Staglin family Cabernet Sauvignon! Staglin Family Cab is definitely not a slouch in the world of cult California wines, and the group clearly fell for it. Here is the full lineup, in the order of tasting:

cabernet wines from the blind tastingHere are the details for all the wines:

#1: 2012 KRSMA Estates Cabernet Sauvignon Hampi Hills Vineyard, India (13.5% ABV)
#2: 2013 LangeTwins Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Lodi, California (14.4% ABV)
#3: 2006 Staglin Family Vineyard Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, Napa Valley (14.9% ABV)
#4: 2002 d’Arenberg The Coppermine Road Cabernet Sauvignon McLaren Vale, Australia (14.5% ABV)
#5: 2014 Excelsior Cabernet Sauvignon WO Robertson, South Africa (14% ABV)
#6: 2015 Vinca Minor Cabernet Sauvignon Redwood Valley California (12% ABV, 1 barrel produced)
#7: 1995 Château Clerc Milon Grand Cru Classé Pauillac AOC (12.5% ABV)
#8: 2000 Château Lanessan Delbos-Bouteiller Haut-Médoc AOC (13% ABV)
#9: 2009 Tasca D’Almerita Tenuta Regaleali Cabernet Sauvignon Sicilia IGT (14.5% ABV)
#10: 2014 Crosby Cabernet Sauvignon California (13.5% ABV)

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10 wines, 6 countries, 10 different regions, $7.95 – $150 price range, 1995 – 2015 vintage range – I think we did pretty well in terms of diversity. Staglin Family being the favorite wine is not that surprising (but still interesting, considering that it is the most expensive wine in the lineup at $149). My biggest surprises, though, were super-solid KRSMA Cabernet Sauvignon from India (India? really?), an excellent Cabernet Sauvignon from Sicily (who would’ve thought!), and the cheapest wine in the group, Crosby Cabernet Sauvignon ($7.95), which opened up magnificently 5 days after the bottle was opened – of course, nobody has a desire to wait that long for the wine, but forgetting a few bottles in the cellar might be a right move.

The dinner quickly followed the tasting (after 110 glasses were safely removed from the table). I don’t have much in terms of pictures, but we had Russian Meat Soup (recipe here) and beef roast as the main dish. The deserts were pretty spectacular and paired very well with Cabernet wines:

And that concludes my report about our great fun with Cabernet Sauvignon wines and the blind tasting. Now is your time to share your blind tasting and odd wines stories – and if you had any of the wines I mentioned here, I want to know your opinion about them.

Lastly, if you never experienced the pleasures of the blind tasting, you must fix it as soon as possible. Cheers!