Let Your Palate Lead The Way

October 19, 2020 1 comment

Wine can be intimidating.

Scrap that.

Wine is intimidating.

I’m always the first to disagree with the exact words I just wrote, but go watch the movie Somm, and tell me if you agree. Don’t have time to watch the movie? Go read about the German wine quality system, and then try to explain it to someone. Yes, wine is intimidating.

And no, it is really not.

If you are on a quest for the world’s most coveted wine expert title, such as the Master Sommelier – thinking of wine will keep you up at night. But if you want to casually enjoy a glass of wine, there is nothing intimidating about it.

Wine is simple. Wine is binary. You either like it or not. There is nothing else to it.

All you need to learn about the wine is to … trust your palate. Let your palate lead the way. It can be unnecessarily difficult, as humans generally are easily intimidated and influenced – “everyone likes it!”, “I paid $100 for this bottle”, “the experts said it was the vintage of the century”, “there were only 500 bottles produced”, yada, yada, yada. And nevertheless, the wine is personable, the wine is individual, it is only you who can tell if you like the wine or not – no matter what anyone else thinks or says. If you will learn to trust your palate, the intimidation will be gone out of wine at that very moment.

The best (and possibly the only) way to deal with this intimidation is through the blind tasting. When you are presented with a random glass of wine, you have no options but just to form your own opinion – swirl, sniff, sip, spit, repeat – say whatever you want, but all the external influences are out. It will be your own palate which will tell you “yeah, can I have more, please”, or “never again”. The value of the blind tasting goes even further than just conquering the wine intimidation – it also helps to deal with preconceived notions. Do you have a friend who keeps saying at every occasion “boy, I hate Chardonnay, how much I hate it”? Now imagine that person praising the delicious wine in their glass, only to find out that that was that exact Chardonnay they thought is the worst wine ever? In the wine world, blind tasting is the ultimate judge and jury, and your palate is all you got to rely on – and thus you have to simply trust it, as you are you.

Learning with and about your palate is not necessarily simple. Yes, you can go to the store, get a bunch of wine and create your own blind tasting – but it might be difficult not to cheat, right? How about leaving that arrangement to the professionals? Cue in the Palate Club.

Palate Club offers an opportunity to learn about your palate through the blind tasting – and then use that knowledge to find the wines which might better match your preferences. The way it works is this. You start by ordering a tasting kit. You can start with the red or white wines, and the cost of the kit at the moment of this writing is $49. The kit arrives neatly packed in the box, with 4 half-size bottles (375 ml) wrapped and numbered.

The next thing to do is to download the Palate Club app on your phone, install it, and create your profile. Once you have done that, you are ready to discover your palate’s wine preference. After you taste the bottle, you need to rate it using the app. The process is very simple as you have to rate the wine between the 1 and 5 stars. Once you rate the wine, you get a page with all the information about that particular wine. Once you will rate all four wines in your set, you will get your initial wine palate profile.

In your palate profile, you will find characteristics such as oak, fruitiness, acidity, and other – along with explanations for the numbers in your palate profile. Every time you will rate another bottle, the values in your profile will change accordingly – what you see below in the picture, are the new values after I rated the wine number 5. Right on your profile page, you will also receive recommendations for the wines to try. As palate Club is a wine club, you can also sign up for the regular wine deliveries which will be based on your preferences.

Blind tastings are always fun – and I never do too well in them. For what it worth, below are my notes and the names of actual wines – you can see that I got ways to go to work on my blind tasting skill:

#1: California Pinot? Plums, smoke, medium to light body. Touch of an alcohol burn (wine: 2014 Pinot Noir Carneros)

#2: Not sure. syrah? Clean acidity, nice round fruit, Rutherford dust, good power. California Cab? (wine: 2015 Côtes du Rhône Réserve)

#3: Chianti? Nice cherries, needs a bit more body. I would rate it 3.5… why is that never a thing? (wine: 2014 Chianti Classico)

#4: California Cab or Cab blend? Dark fruit, baking spices, good acidity, round tannins. A touch of the alcohol burn, similar to the first wine (wine: 2015 Mendocino Zinfandel)

Now, let’s go back to the major point of this post – trusting your own palate to avoid intimidation by the bottle of wine. Would the Palate Club help you reach this goal? In my honest opinion – yes. Of course, the profile which you create has limited value outside of the Palate Club, as outside of the Palate Club nobody rates fruitiness and tannins of the wine on the 100 points scale. However, the fact that you can get your friends together and play with your wines and learn your wine liking and not liking is really something to appreciate and enjoy. Blind tasting holds the ultimate wine truth, and with the palate Club’s help, you can uncover it – and learn a thing or two about your own palate. I think this is a win-win. What do you think?

Wine Quiz #126: Which One Does Not Belong

October 17, 2020 5 comments

The Wine Quiz series is not meant to intimidate. The whole idea here is to have fun and learn something new. When answering the questions, it is fully encouraged to use all available sources of information, including Google or any other search engine. There are no embarrassing answers – the most embarrassing thing is not giving it a try…

Welcome to the weekend and your new wine quiz!

Our last quiz was about numbers in wine. What I asked you to do is to figure out the logic (numbers) behind the items listed in the question, where each item has some sort of number associated with it, and then sort those numbers in the required order. Below are the questions, now with the answers:

Q1: Sort the following in the ascending order:

Arbois, Augusta, Douro, Rioja, Vernaccia di San Gimignano

Answer: the above list represents the very first appellations designated in the respective countries. The right order is:

Douro (1756), Rioja (1925), Arbois (1935), Vernaccia di San Gimignano (1966), Augusta (1980)

Q2: Sort the following in the ascending order:

Balthazar, Goliath, Jeroboam, Magnum, Marie Jeanne, Melchizedek, Methuselah, Nebuchadnezzar, Rehoboam, Salmanazar, Solomon, Sovereign

Answer: These are bottle sizes, so the right order is (with the link to the source):

Magnum (1.5L), Marie Jeanne (2.25L), Jeroboam (3L), Rehoboam (4.5L), Methuselah (6L), Salmanazar (9L), Balthazar (12L), Nebuchadnezzar (15L), Solomon (18L), Sovereign (26.25L), Goliath (27L), Melchizedek (40L)

Q3: From January to June 2020, Italy exported the highest amount of wine among all major wine-producing countries, at 577M liters (769M bottles). Sort this list of wine exports per country for the same period of time in descending order:

Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, USA

Answer: As you know these are the wine exports, all you needed to do is to find the right source of data. In today’s world, absolute truth doesn’t exist, so my source of information is the Italian online publication called Wine by Numbers, freely available for download. Here is the answer:

Italy 577M
France 455.7M
Spain 345M
Chile 225M
Australia 154.3M
Germany 120M
Argentina 84M
New Zealand 78.3M
South Africa 55.7M
USA 54M

I’m happy to report that we had one player who decided to take this quiz – Jason Brandt Lewis. He correctly answered question #2, so he definitely gets an honorable mention!

Okay, for today’s quiz, let’s play another wine game – what doesn’t belong? Below are three questions. In each question, you will see a list of items that all have a common thread – only one or two (not more than 2) of those items simply don’t belong there. Can you identify what the lists are and what item(s) don’t belong and why? Here you go:

Question 1:

Cork taint
Maderization
Mercaptan
Oxidation
Sapidity

Question 2:

Salta
Patagonia
Jujuy
La Rioja
Atacama
Catamarca

Question 3:

Madeira
Marsala
Banyuls
Port
Sherry
Sauternes

I think today’s quiz is the easiest so far, so I’m looking forward to congratulating many winners!

Good luck, enjoy the quiz and your weekend! Cheers!

Procrastination and Carménère

October 16, 2020 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wine Under Lockdown

October 15, 2020 Leave a comment

It feels strange to admit that our invisible enemy still holding most of the world hostage. When all of the lockdowns started in Europe at the beginning of March, I was still holding on to our airline tickets and hotel reservations for the long-anticipated, lovingly-planned family trip to Italy at the beginning of July, thinking (not hoping!) that the world will get back to normal in the mere 4 months. The depth of my shortsightedness might be staggering, but let’s leave that discussion for another time.

The House of Townend is one of the oldest wine stores in the UK, tracing its history since 1906. As the wine sellers, the folks at the House of Townend know very well what is hot and what is not during the pandemic, in the UK and in Europe overall. Their recent press release from about a month ago offers the following tidbit:

“In the 2019 March-June period, the most popular drinks sold by the wine merchant were Prosecco and white wines. The spring period normally brings a taste for fizzy, lighter wines. This was also reflected in 2018.

In the same period in 2020, lockdown caused a considerable shift in drinking habits. House of Townend’s top 10 wines included 6 red wines – the top products being Pinot Noir and Malbec.  Malbec, in particular, has been popular in both Google Search history and House of Townend’s sales data, rising over 2570% in unique sale purchases in the lockdown period (23rd March-July 5th 2020) in comparison to the same time last year. ”

Two thousand five hundred seventy percent increase in sales of Malbec during the lockdown – how about that? I wonder if this phenomenon has an explanation (specifically such an increased interest to Malbec) – for sure I can’t offer you one.

As controlling spending during lockdown is also essential, House of Townend came up with interesting infographics, showing how much wine £10 can buy:

As you can see, the same £10 would allow you to drink in Portugal twice as much red wine as in Sweden.

I saw a fun poster somewhere on social media, saying that “wine is the glue which holds this sh!tshow together” – that might well be the case?

Cheers, my friends!

Carménère – Lost, Found, Evolved, Delightful

October 14, 2020 3 comments

According to the 2012 edition of the famous Wine Grapes book (written by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, and Dr. José Vouillamoz), there are 1368 grapes used in winemaking. It would be a safe bet to say that each one of those grapes has its own story. Of course, not all of those stories would be dramatic and exciting, but I’m sure some would read as a good detective story, probably without much of the shootouts.

Carménère is a perfect candidate for such a story. When Bordeaux ruled the wine world – which would be in the middle of 1800th – Carménère (which translates from French as crimson, identifying a beautiful color of the grapes) was one of the “big six” Bordeaux varieties, comprising all of the Bordeaux wines – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Petite Verdot, and Carménère. Carménère is related to Cabernet grapes, but historically it is not very clear if Carménère was some type of clone of Cabernet, or if it was the other way around.

The phylloxera epidemic of 1867 put a damper on all the wine production in France and forced vignerons to replant all of the vines on the Phylloxera-resistant rootstock. Carménère is not an easy grape to grow in the Bordeaux climate, and it was pretty much abandoned and considered extinct at the beginning of the 20th century.

Meanwhile, in 1850th, immigrants brought many of the French grapes with them to Chile, where the grapes started to strive in the warm and dry climate offered by the Andes mountains. In 1980th, Merlot became a star of Chilean winemaking, abundantly producing inexpensive wines that became well known in the world. It was noticed that the taste of the Chilean Merlot differs from the traditional Merlot and that Merlot was considered to be a Chilean-specific clone. Or at least it was until 1994 when visiting French scientist, Jean Boursiquot noticed that Chilean Merlot has different leaves and grape clusters from the traditional Merlot, and was able to show that this was not the Merlot, but long-extinct Carménère, which successfully made it to Chile in the 1850s with all the Bordeaux grape cuttings.

From that time, Carménère went on to become Chile’s own star grape, and answer to another French variety, Malbec, which Argentina made its own. As Phylloxera never made it to Chile, Chilean Carménère was even brought back to France, but it is not an easy grape to deal with, so it never regained its past glory in Bordeaux.

TerraNoble winery (Terra Noble means “Noble Land”), was founded in 1993 by a group of friends. From the beginning, TerraNoble focus was on producing high-end wines in Maule Valley, and the winery quickly established itself as a boutique producer of Chilean Merlot. After Chilean Merlot was identified as Carménère, TerraNoble continued focusing on the variety.

TerraNoble sustainably (certified sustainable since 2019) farms today about 750 acres, which comprises 4 vineyards in Maule Valley, Colchagua Valley, and Casablanca Valley. The winery produces a full range of wines you would expect a Chilean winery to produce – Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah – but Carménère is unquestionably the darling of TerraNoble, as presented by Marcelo Garcia, TerraNoble’s winemaker, during the virtual tasting a few weeks back.

While browsing Sotheby’s New Wine Encyclopedia by Tom Stevenson, I came across a small insert about Chilean Carménère, where it was mentioned that Carménère is site-specific to the extreme – you need to work hard to find the right location for Carménère to vines to deliver the best result. TerraNoble approach to Carménère is based exactly on this notion – site-specific Carménère wines. As we mentioned before, Carménère is a close relative of the core Bordeaux varieties – Cabernet and Merlot and has a similar taste profile as well. It is similar, but not the same, obviously. A typical Carménère has a much higher concentration of the aroma compound called pyrazines, which is often associated with the pronounced taste of the green bell pepper  – here is a good article that explains pyrazines in depth. Green pepper is good for cooking and the salad, but probably not so much in wine. Also, when left unsupervised, Carménère has a tendency to develop a high concentration of the tannins. While someone might enjoy a big powerful wine with pronounced green bell pepper aromatics and powerful tannin structure, the appeal is not universal and this is what Chilean winemakers had to deal with.

TerraNoble CA project vineyards. Source: TerraNoble

In 1998, TerraNoble released Gran Reserva Carménère to the international markets. The grapes for this wine were coming from the La Higuera Vineyard in Maule Valley, near San Clemente. This wine still remains the winery’s flagship. I had been a fan of TerraNoble wines for a long time, after discovering them back in 2004. To the best of my memory, 2003 TerraNoble Carménère Gran Reserva was quite enjoyable, but I don’t have any detailed notes in that regard.

Following its Carménère calling, TerraNoble planted two new Carménère vineyards in Colchagua Valley – in 2004, Los Cactus Vineyard, about 25 miles from the coast, and in 2005, Los Lingues Vineyard, about 35 miles further inland, on the outskirts of Andes mountains. These two vineyards became a home to the special project called CA – producing two 100% Carménère wines using absolutely identical vinification at the winery, different only in the source of the grapes – CA1 from the Andes, and CA2 from the coast. The first wines in the CA project were released in 2009.

The goal of the project was to showcase the capabilities of Carménère grapes. With winemaking techniques identical for both wines, different taste profiles were only influenced by the different growing conditions, the terroir – soil and climate most of anything. How different are the wines? We had an opportunity to taste a few of the CA project wines, and they were demonstrably different. Here are my notes from the tasting.

We started with the tasting of the flagship Carménère

2017 TerraNoble Carmenere Gran Reserva Maule Valley, Chile (14% ABV, $18.99, aged 75% in previously used French oak barrels, 25% in untoasted casks, 6 months in the bottle)
Dark garnet
Currant leaves, blackberries
Bright red fruit, good acidity, soft, easy to drink, medium body, medium finish.
8-, nicely approachable from the get-go. 8 after a few hours.

Then we had an opportunity to compare two of the vintages of CA1 wines (from the Andes), and then CA1 and CA2 from the same vintage – again, you can see how different the wines are:

2016 TerraNoble CA1 Carmenere Andes Valle de Colchagua, Chile (14% ABV, $24.99, aged 85% in new and twice used French oak barrels, 15% in untoasted oak casks for 14 months, 12 months in the bottle)
dark garnet
touch of barnyard, dark fruit
black currant, a touch of bell peppers, noticeable french oak tannins, peppery, chewy tannins, big body
7+/8- initially, 8 after a few hours. Excellent, powerful wine.

2017 TerraNoble CA1 Carmenere Andes Valle de Colchagua, Chile (14% ABV, $24.99, aged 85% in new and twice used French oak barrels, 15% in untoasted oak casks for 14 months, 12 months in the bottle)
dark garnet
tobacco, currant leaves, pepper, dense and concentrated
good acidity, peppery notes, blackberries, concentrated
7+/8- initially, 8 in a few hours. Delicious.

2017 TerraNoble CA2 Carmenere Costa Valle de Colchagua, Chile (14% ABV, $24.99 aged 85% in new and twice used French oak barrels, 15% in untoasted oak casks for 14 months, 12 months in the bottle)
dark garnet
currant more noticeable
softer than the previous wine, but showing more of the green notes. black currant
7+/8- initially, 8 in a few hours.

We finished our tasting with a somewhat unexpected wine – Carignan. Carignan is another ancient French grape, this one coming from Rhône valley. Chile has very old Carignan vineyards (some are 120+ years old), however, for the longest time, Carignan was used by the farmers to make very strong, but not really drinkable alcohol. Carignan’s popularity started increasing around 2000. Another interesting fact about Carignan is that it is mostly growing in the small (and old) vineyards, where the vineyards became a part of a natural biodiverse habitat, which includes other plants and animals.

TerraNoble Carignan grapes were sourced from the vineyard planted in 1958 in Maule Valley close to the ocean, using dry farming. The wine was partially aged in the concrete eggs.

2018 TerraNoble Carignan Gran Reserva Melozal, Maule Valley, Chile (13.5% ABV, $18.99, aged 50% in concrete egg, 50% in untoasted oak casks, 6 months in the bottle)
Dark Ruby
touch of licorice, distant hint of candied fruit
tart fresh cherries, good acidity, medium body, simple, easy, and pleasant. Might be a summer quaffer
7+

Here you are, my friends – TerraNoble tells the story of modern-day Chilean Carménère. The evolution of the Carménère wines is still ongoing, with TerraNoble winemakers starting to experiment with concrete eggs and amphorae, and who knows what else is coming to push the grape which Chile made its own even further. One thing for sure – winelovers are in for lots of pleasure.

Hunting Down The Value

October 5, 2020 2 comments

Wine and value – isn’t that a topic that is near and dear to every wine lover’s heart?

In the world of wine, “value” has lots of meanings – and to make it even more complex it also depends on a personal perspective. In the majority of the cases, value is relative. And while value concept is important and it is something we seek, it is the pleasure we are really after. We want to drink wine which gives us pleasure. Talking about value, we often refer to the concept of QPR  – Quality Price Ratio – instead of just the value, as QPR simply stresses what we are looking for, the pleasure, the best possible experience for the money. In other words, we equate quality and pleasure. Maybe we should introduce a new concept – PPD – as in Pleasure Per Dollar? Hmmm… maybe not.

I was trying to find an example of absolute value in wine, and I don’t believe such a thing exists. Is $4.99 bottle a value? Unless you enjoy that wine, it is really not – if you don’t enjoy that $4.99 bottle, it is wasted $4.99. Is $200 bottle of wine is value? “Are you nuts???” I would expect a typical reaction being to such a price. Well, if this $200 bottle of wine is on the huge sale, and that wine typically sold, let’s say, at $300 – and this is something you will enjoy, and most importantly, can afford? Of course, it is a value. Then if you can easily afford it but don’t enjoy – this is again a waste of money.

There is another spin in our discussion of relativity of the wine value, where the value is not expressed directly in the money amount, but in comparison to the wines of similar styles. For example, I would say that an Israeli wine, Shiloh Mosaic, an [almost] Bordeaux blend in style, which retails around $60, can be easily compared to the $200+ Bordeaux blend wines from California, such as Vérité. At $60, Shiloh Mosaic is not an inexpensive wine, but nevertheless, if my comparison would hold true for you, it will become a great value in your eyes too.

And yet one more important detail about value – value is often defined in the categories – either price or wine type categories. I’m sure you heard quite often the wine is defined as a “great value under $30”, or a “great value for Pinot Noir under $100”. This simply means that someone who tasted a group of wines priced under $30, found that that particular wine tasted the best in that group. Don’t forget our general relativity of the value though – if you don’t drink Chardonnay, the best value Chardonnay under $30 has no bearing in your world.

We can easily continue our theoretical value escapades, but let me give you an account of my recent encounter with great values, courtesy of Wines Til Sold Out. I’m sure most of you in the US are well familiar with WTSO, possibly the best wine flash sale operator. In addition to the standard offerings which change as soon as the current wine is sold out, WTSO offers so-called last chance wines, premium selection, and occasional offers of the wines at $9.99 – all of which can be acquired in single bottle quantities with free shipping. Two of my last value finds were $9.99 wines, and one of them (Cahors) was from the last chance wines selection, at $13.99.

All three of these wines were simply outstanding, especially considering the price. 2012 Casa Ermelinda Freitas Vinha Do Rosário Reserva Peninsula de Setubal (14% ABV, 70% Castelao, 10% Touriga Nacional, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Syrah, 12 months in French oak) had a core of red fruit, good acidity, dark earthy profile a touch of coffee. Think about it – 8 years old wine, $9.99, delicious – is that a great value or what?

The 2017 Pure Bred Cabernet Sauvignon Mendocino County (14.2% ABV, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon) was an absolute surprise. At first, I got just one bottle, as Cabernet Sauvignon from California for $10 can’t be good apriori. On contrary to my expectations, the wine was generous and balanced, not jammy at all, with good undertones of the classic Cab – cassis and eucalyptus, and a pleasant herbaceous finish. Was if the best California Cabernet Sauvignon in absolute terms? Of course not. But at this price, it would give a perfect run for the money for many California Cabs priced under $30 – $40. I would say taste it for yourself, but WTSO is sold out of this wine at the moment.

Last but not least – 2016 Château Vincens Prestige Cahors (14.5% ABV, 80% Malbec, 20% Merlot, 10-15 months in French and American oak). This was just supremely delicious – earthy, with the core of dark fruit, densely and firmly structured, with a dollop of sweet tobacco on the finish – dark and powerful wine. I don’t know if Cahors wines returned yet to their old glory, but this is the wine I’m willing to enjoy on any day.

Here you have my excursion into the world of wine value, also known as QPR, and maybe in the future, as PPD? Hope I didn’t bore you to death. And by the way, what are your thoughts on wine values? Any great discoveries to brag about?

Wine Quiz #125: More Numbers In Wine

October 3, 2020 4 comments

The Wine Quiz series is not meant to intimidate. The whole idea here is to have fun and learn something new. When answering the questions, it is fully encouraged to use all available sources of information, including Google or any other search engine. There are no embarrassing answers – the most embarrassing thing is not giving it a try…

Welcome to the weekend and your new wine quiz!

Our last quiz was about numbers in wine. You were given a series of numbers and asked to figure out what do they mean. I gave you a few hints in the accompanying text, from which I was hoping that you would be able to figure out that all these numbers are related to appellations. Here is the answer – as numbers, unfortunately, are just numbers, and it all depends on your source, I’m also including links for my sources of information:

  1. 250 – Number of AVAs in the USA – https://www.ttb.gov/wine/established-avas. Interestingly enough, this number is already incorrect – one more new AVA was approved, so the new count stands at 251.
  2. 1908 – The year second oldest appellation in the world, Dão in Portugal, was established – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D%C3%A3o_DOC
  3. 360 – Number of AOCs in France – https://winefolly.com/deep-dive/looking-for-good-wine-start-with-the-appellation/
  4. 1 – the size of the smallest grand cru appellation in France – https://www.winemag.com/gallery/10-small-appellations/#gallery-carousel-2
  5. 1963 – The year DOC system was established in Italy – https://www.wine-searcher.com/wine-label-italy

Sadly, nobody even attempted to solve this quiz, so once again I’m keeping all the lofty prizes to myself.

This week’s quiz will be about … numbers again! I’m asking you to sort some data based on the underlying numbers. You will need to figure out what connects this data, and then sorting will be reasonably easy. Here we go:

Q1: Sort the following in the ascending order:

Arbois, Augusta, Douro, Rioja, Vernaccia di San Gimignano

Q2: Sort the following in the ascending order:

Balthazar, Goliath, Jeroboam, Magnum, Marie Jeanne, Melchizedek, Methuselah, Nebuchadnezzar, Rehoboam, Salmanazar, Solomon, Sovereign

Q3: From January to June 2020, Italy exported the highest amount of wine among all major wine-producing countries, at 577M liters (769M bottles). Sort this list of wine exports per country for the same period of time in descending order:

Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, USA

Good luck, enjoy the quiz and your weekend! Cheers!

Beyond Kosher: Thinking of Israeli Wines

October 1, 2020 4 comments

I love pairing wine and holidays. It is always a fun exercise, as you need to find a way to explain your choices – how given wine enhances or at least relates to a given holiday (good luck with your Thanksgiving wine selections). Jewish holidays, which we are still in the middle of (Jewish New Year just arrived less than 2 weeks ago), are very helpful in that regard, as wine is simply a requirement here – most of the Jewish holidays require a glass of wine to be present and consumed.

When it comes to Jewish holidays, my approach is simple – I prefer to have on the table the wines made in Israel. But when I reach out to get an Israeli wine off the shelf, I can’t help it but think about all of the complexities of the Israeli wine landscape – what we are talking here is above and beyond of intricacies of making any fine wine. Making of the delicious wine is anything but complex – how to protect vines from the disease, when to harvest, what yeast to use, for how long to macerate, what to blend – lots and lots of decisions, each one affecting the end result, often dramatically. Production of Israeli wines deals with all of the same complexities but then adds a cherry on top – concepts of kosher and mevushal.

I remember visiting Israel about 15-17 years ago with a group of co-workers from the USA, at the resort on Mount Carmel. One of my colleagues pointed to a bottle of wine saying “this is amazing”. The wine he was pointing to was an Israeli wine, Yatir Forest, which was at a time a total surprise for me – I knew that this guy was really into wine and he was drinking very serious stuff, more of California cults and Bordeaux first growth, so this was unexpectedly high praise. I was absolutely unfamiliar with Yatir wines at that time (it would make me say “ahh, pretty please” now).

When we asked to open that bottle for us, we were surprised to hear that it will not be possible. Explanation? The food at the resort was kosher, and food includes wines. The resort just got a new person in charge of observing all the kosher laws and requirements in food preparation and service, and Yatir Forest was not kosher enough. That, my friends, is a problem which is unique to the Israeli wine scene – I’m not aware of any other winemaking region in the world where making tasty wine is not enough for that wine to reach the consumer, even the local one – this also complicates the imports quite a bit.

I’m not going to pretend to be an authority on the laws of kosher wines – I’m very far from it. I’m just here for the tasty wine. What I do know is that the kosher laws are quite intense and involved, whether it has to do with the food or the wine. While I understand that there is some rationale when it comes to the food, I don’t believe kosher requirements can materially affect the taste of wine. We also need to keep in mind that there are different levels of kosher types and certifications, and to top it all off, there is the Mevushal. In case you are not familiar, mevushal is somewhat of a process of pasteurization of the wine to allow for it to be served by a non-Jewish people at a restaurant or anywhere else. It appears that according to the kosher wine rules if the kosher wine is served by a non-Jew, it becomes non-kosher. Mevushal treatment solves that problem, allowing for the kosher wine to be served by a non-observing person without losing its kosher qualities.

To be labeled as Mevushal, the wine has to be heated up to 185 degrees Fahrenheit, essentially becoming pasteurized. As you understand, the exposure of the wine to such a high temperature result in the “cooked” wine – and very appropriately, in the old days Meviushal wines were simply undrinkable, at least by anyone who drinks the wine to enjoy it (as a matter of fact, the word “mevushal” means “cooked”). Lately, however, the wineries found new ways of making wine Mevushal without destroying it. One is a flash-pasteurization, where the wine is very quickly heated up to the same 185°F only for a few seconds. According to the Wine Spectator article, another method is even more interesting – it is called flash-détente, where instead of the wine, grapes are heated up to 190°F and then quickly cooled to the 80°F in the special machine. It would be an interesting experiment, but many wineries produce the same wine from the same vintage both as mevushal and non-mevushal – comparing such wines should be a fun project, don’t you think?

Now that we have Mevushal figured out, let’s take another look into the world of Kosher wines. Think about your favorite wine store – note, I’m speaking about the USA, your experience in France will be vastly different. As you walk in, you see the tags which help you find what you are looking for. Most likely, these tags are one of two types – either specifying a grape variety (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir) or the country and maybe a region – France, Italy, Burgundy, Spain, California, etc.. Somewhere in the corner, you will probably find the Kosher section, possibly right next to the Organic display. In that Kosher section, you will find predominantly Israeli wines with some additional bottles from California, France, maybe Australia, and Spain.

I can safely assume that you will be visiting that Kosher section only a few times a year, just around the Jewish holidays – okay, maybe you will make a special trip if you are invited to the Shabbat dinner by the observant family. Should you expect to find Israeli wines anywhere else in the store? Unlike California, France, Australia, and Spain, all of which you will find all around the store in the different varietal sections, Israeli wines will be confined to that specific Kosher section, 99 out of a 100. As Israel truly makes world-class wines, it is definitely a problem, as Israeli wines have a lot to offer. But what if Israeli wine is not Kosher, such as the wines produced by Vortman Winery – what can they do to make themselves found? Who will take a chance on the Israeli wine which can’t be placed in the Kosher section?

About 5 years ago, I had the pleasure of sitting across from Hai Vortman, the owner and winemaker at Vortman Winery. We were sitting in the Vortman winery tasting room, which was adjacent to his home in Haifa, enjoying magnificent views and superb wines. I was listening to Hai talking about the history of winemaking in Israel, particularly around the Carmel Mountain, which is considered one of the very best and oldest winemaking regions in Israel. Depending on the source, winemaking in Israel is from 3,000 to 5,000 years old, but this was not the point of our conversation. I learned that Baron Edmond de Rothschild recognized the viticultural potential of the Carmel Mountain region and founded Carmel Winery there in 1882, investing millions in the development of the vineyards and production of the wine. In 1900, Carmel Winery wine from Richon Le Zion area won the gold medal at the Paris World Fair, competing against classic French Bordeaux.

The first half of the 20th century was a tumultuous period for the Israeli winemaking – it was not until the last quarter of the century that Israeli winemaking started to rebound. Vortman Winery was founded in 2003 in Haifa in the basement of the family house, with the vision of producing organic wines from the grapes growing in the Shfeya Valley region of the Carmel Mountain. The first commercial vintage was in 2007. In 2009, Vortman started planting new vineyards in Shfeya Valley and converting old vineyards to organic viticulture, all based on dry farming, biodiversity, and full respect for the environment. Today, Vortman winery produces around 30,000 bottles a year – of the non-kosher wines.

Vortman wines we tried were delicious. 2014 Vortman Shfeya Valley White, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon from 45 years old vineyard, was delicious, showing minerality, white fruit, crisp, clean, creamy, and refreshing, with a long finish. 2014 Vortman Prime Location Red, a blend of Merlot, Carignan, and Cabernet Franc (mostly stainless steel) was nicely restrained, earthy and fruity on the nose with a firm structure and an excellent balance. 2012 Vortman Shambur, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, and Merlot (9 months in oak barrels) had a classic Bordeaux nose, great restraint on the palate with a nice core of tannins and great acidity. Nothing extra, nothing unnecessary, just a supremely precise wine.  2013 Vortman Carignan from 50 years old vines (7 months in new French oak) offered a burst of dark cherries on the palate and the nose and a perfect balance. Simply beautiful wines, one after another.

Now, the problem is that unless you plan to travel to Israel, you are out of luck with Vortman wines (hey, if any importers read this – do you want to bring some delicious Israeli non-kosher wines into the US?). Don’t despair, as Israel exports lots of tasty wines.

About 2 years ago, I had a sample of Yarden wines I never wrote about (yeah, I know). Yarden might be one of the best known Israeli wineries in the US, largely thanks to the efforts of the head winemaker Victor Schoenfeld, who is relentlessly promoting Yarden wines. Yarden is one of the brands of Golan Heights Winery, along with Gamla, Hermon, and Golan. Golan Heights winery was founded in 1984, and it is considered as one of the quality wine pioneers in Israel. Here are the notes for the wines I had an opportunity to taste:

2014 Galil Mountain ELA Upper Galilee (14% ABV, 61% Barbera, 30% Syrah, 5% Petit Verdot, 4% Grenache, kosher, non-mevushal)
Dark garnet, almost black
A bit of the stewed fruit on the nose, ripe plums
Clean, fresh on the palate, pepper, plums, baking spices, a touch of savory notes, good acidity, medium-plus body
7+/8-, initially the wine showed a touch of cork taint on the palate, some presence of a wet basement, which disappeared on the second day.

2016 Golan Heights Gilgal Rosé (13.5% ABV, 100% Syrah, kosher, non-mevushal)
Dark intense pink color
Touch of gunflint, oregano on the nose
Ripe spicy raspberries on the palate, more gunflint and granite notes, fresh finish of ripe fruit without been overly sweet, excellent concentration and presence, fuller body than most of Rosé. Delicious.
8, very pleasant

2017 Yarden Sauvignon Blanc Galilee (13.5% ABV, 2 months on French oak barrels, kosher, non-mevushal)
Straw pale color
Whitestone fruit and a touch of candied fruit on the nose, not typical for SB
The palate is restrained, with a hint of freshly cut grass, green apples, and some tropical fruit undertones. Good acidity, a hint of fresh-cut grass on the finish
8-, very good and pleasant rendition of SB

2016 Mount Hermon Indigo Galilee (14% ABV, cabernet sauvignon/Syrah blend, kosher, non-mevushal)
Dark garnet, almost black
Bright, inviting, freshly crushed red fruit, eucalyptus, raspberries, and blueberries on the second day, plus some dry fruit notes – figs
Wow. The first day was a little incoherent, but the second day is simply incredible. Beautiful supple blueberries and raspberries, excellent extraction, tobacco, dark chocolate, clean acidity, soft and round on the palate.
8+, excellent. Just let it breathe.

Before we are done here, I still need to talk about one more Israeli winery – Shiloh. I had been introduced to the Shiloh wines about 3 years ago, at a dinner in New York City. The wine we had, Shiloh Mosaic, was absolutely mind-blowing, it was #14 on my Top Wines list for 2017. Shiloh is the youngest winery out of the 3 we talked about today, founded in 2005. Shiloh vineyards are located in the area of the Shiloh river and Samarian hills. Based on the limited information available on the website, it seems that Shiloh produces wines from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Barbera, Grenache, Syrah, Petitte Sirah, and Petite Verdot grapes – of course, there might be others.

To celebrate Jewish New Year 5781, we opened two bottles of Shiloh wines. 2018 Shiloh PRIVILEGE Winemakes’s Blend (14% ABV, 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 165 Syrah, 7% Cabernet Franc, 3% Grenache, kosher, mevushal) showed beautifully, offering soft red and black fruit, good minerality, soft tannins, and excellent balance. 2017 Shiloh Secret Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (15% ABV, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18 months in French oak, kosher, mevushal) was even better – a classic old world, rivaling any classic Medoc wine, full of cassis, eucalyptus, a touch of green bell pepper, silky smooth on the palate and extremely satisfying, a pleasure in the glass – this is the wine you need to experience, better yet, compare it against the best of Bordeaux in a blind tasting. It appears that many of the Shiloh wines are produced in both mevushal and non-mevushal styles – something which really calls for a blind tasting side by side.

Israeli wines are world-class, but they still need to be found by the wine consumer. Will you look for them?

Wednesday’s Meritage #148

September 30, 2020 2 comments

Meritage Time!

I have an eclectic mix for you today. How eclectic? You be the judge.

Let’s start with Wine & Spirits Magazine Top 100 list of 2020. Every year, Wine & Spirits magazine comes up with the list of top 100 wineries of the year, which are all celebrated at the grand tasting event in San Francisco. This year the celebration will be virtual, and multi-staged. First, there will be Top 100 Sessions with the winemakers on that Top 100 list, taking place  October 14-23. Then, as Top 100 wineries list of 2020 is already announced, there will be a celebratory event in November. Check any of the links above for more details.

I have to present the next update as oddly peculiar, but hopefully, some of you will find it fun. Do you like Oreos? Yes, the cookies. Well, whether you are a fan or not is not essential, but I’m sure you can appreciate an effort of tasting and rating 119 (yes, one hundred and nineteen) different types of Oreo cookies. Courtesy of my friend Emil, here is your full list. I’m not an Oreo connoisseur, but this was a fun reading nevertheless. Some of the tasting notes are nothing short of hilarious – “I’m not a big matcha guy, but I think these Oreos would be a lot better if they didn’t exist“.

Our next piece is not really the “news”, as this article is 16 years old (again, courtesy of Emil). Nevertheless, I feel compelled to share this article from New Yorker magazine, called The Ketchup Conundrum. This is a long read, so maybe bookmark it for the weekend, but it helps one to appreciate the depth and intricacies of the food marketing, even when you are talking about such basics as mustard and ketchup. Give it a try and tell me if you think it was worth sharing here or not.

Now, let’s move to the subject of sex and garlic. Worrying already? Don’t be! This article from Wine Spectator, “Sex and Garlic: New Weapons Against the Most Notorious Vineyard Diseases?”, talks about new experimental methods of protecting vineyards from powdery and downy mildews, some of the worst enemies of the grapevines. I don’t want to regurgitate the article here (it is also reasonable technical), but it is somewhat of a short read. The interesting part of the story that it took me a while to figure out what the “sex” part had to do with anything, as the word “sex” can be found in this article only once – in the title. Instead of telling you what sex has to do with the protection of the vineyards, I will let you figure it out on your own.

The last piece for today is about wine writing. Jancis Robinson, one of the best and most famous wine writers in the world, hosts an annual wine writing competition. The 2020 theme was “sustainability”. According to this short summary, 85 articles were submitted for the 2020 competition, out of which 75 were good enough to be published on the Jancis Robinson website. 18 articles were selected for the final round, out of which 2, not 1, were declared the winners. You can see all of the published entries here. Happy reading!

That’s all I have for you today. The glass is empty, but the refill is on the way. Cheers!

A Quick Trip To Germany

September 25, 2020 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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