How It Is To Be A Wine Lover in Finland

September 29, 2019 4 comments

How it is to be a wine lover in Finland? I have to honestly tell you – I have no idea.

Okay, I have a very limited idea, based on my first trip to Finland and about a week spent in Helsinki and Kuopio.

So yes, keep that in mind – as I don’t live here, my whole claim for expertise is simply a fresh eye of a passionate wine lover, who treats wines stores as toy (candy) stores – one of my indulgences when traveling solo – I can spend an unlimited amount of time in the wine store, slowly walking from the shelf to a shelf.

As I spent half a day in Helsinki, staying in the downtown area, the small-ish wine store was my first find. At first sight, I thought that the prices in Helsinki were higher than in Kuopio, but I’m not sure this is correct as alcohol sales in Finland are government-controlled. I saw beer and a few types of wine in the supermarkets, but if you want to buy wine or liquor, you have to head over to Alko, state-owned stores.

In the downtown Helsinki store, French Champagne seemed to be quite expensive – at least 1.5 times or some even double of what you would typically pay in the USA. However, Spanish, Italian, Californian, and even Australian wines were priced rather reasonably, especially taking into account the current exchange rate for euro. That ’06 Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Reserva at €37 looked like a steal to me:

Somehow, the Australian wines attracted my attention first (maybe it is my subconscious trying to compensate for the years of neglect, or maybe it is related to happily drinking Shiraz just a few weeks ago). It was not easy to make a choice – but I settled for the 2015 Jim Barry The Lodge Hill Shiraz Clare Valley. One of the reason was that Jim Barry McRae Wood is one of my most favorite Shiraz wines of all times. I like the wines from the Clare Valley, they are usually lean and focused – and 2015 was giving at least some age for it.

The wine didn’t disappoint at all. Dark fruit, blackberries and a touch of blueberry, subtle pepper note, perfectly firm texture – delicious wine all in all. And let’s not forget the view…

The next morning I flew to Kuopio, a small town up north from Helsinki. Before we talk about wine, we need to talk about a beer. We had a bit of free time on Sunday after arrival to Kuopio, and we took a nice hike to the observation tower. There, in addition to the beautiful nature views, I also found a delicious local beer. I generally prefer dark beers, such as stouts and porters, so I just pointed to the darkest bottle I saw on the display. That was a lucky strike, as Iso-Kalan Mestari Stout from Kuopio (we could see from the top the brewery buildings where it was produced) was just superb – yes, don’t forget that it is a wine drinker talking about beer – but this beer had a perfect balance of malt, dark chocolate, and coffee – had to slow myself down not to gulp it all in an instance.

As a small town (118,000 people live there), Kuopio probably serves as the best proof that Finns love the wines. The wine store which I found in the mall at the market square, was a complete standout. Just gobs and gobs of a great finds, with Champagne section, almost pushing me to ask if this house is for rent 🙂 I was happy to see Rosé, Bordeaux selection looked simply excellent, and some of the unique finds, such as Chinese Changyu looked ultra attractive too – if I would’ve stayed there for longer, that bottle wouldn’t escape my attention.

Once again, the Australian section looked mysteriously attractive. First, I saw the words “second pass” on the label of Australian Shiraz. Reading the back label confirmed that yes, it is by design similar to Valpolicella Ripasso, and that there is also a Shiraz made in Amarone style. Looking up one shelf, I was happy to see the words “Dried Grape Shiraz” – here we go, the Amarone-style Shiraz itself. Of course, I had to buy it.

The 2015 Alfredo Dried Grape Shiraz Nugan Estate South Australia was delicious from the get-go. The wine is made in Amarone style, with the grapes drying out for a few months before they are pressed into the wine. The wine opened up with a touch of the dried fruit on the nose, dense and powerful on the palate, with the dark fruit medley and again a touch of dried fruit, full-bodied and smooth, with a long playful finish. In a blind tasting, Amarone would be definitely one of my strong guessing options. While it was good on the first day, it became literally amazing on the 3rd day with the last sip of blueberries, blueberry compote, sweet oak, and long finish.

Right next to the Australian wine section in the store there were Austrian wines. The label with octopus instantly attracted my attention. The wine name was also intriguing – Beck Ink. Back label was suggesting that this is a “natural” wine – of course, this was the next wine I had to try.

2017 Beck Ink Austria (12% ABV, 80% Zweigelt, 20% St. Laurent) opened up with the punch of acidity. The first sip literally had the level of acidity which can make you cringe. There was a hint of underripe raspberries coming with it as well. As the wine was opening up, a little gaminess showed up, the acidity softened, letting more of dark berries to come into a play. The wine had a medium body and smooth, playful texture – if anything, it was really reminiscent of a very good Beaujolais Cru. While craving food, I kept adding from the bottle into the glass until I realized that it was already late – and I almost finished the bottle.

There you go, my friends. Based on what I saw, the wine is well regarded in Finland, and the wine lovers there have a very reasonable choice at very reasonable prices. Have fun peering through those pictures 🙂 Cheers!

Shiraz, Shiraz, Cabernet

September 27, 2019 3 comments

Shiraz, Shiraz, Cabernet.

If it is Shiraz, it is from …

Most likely, Australia. South Africa often uses the same name, and sometimes you can find it in the USA and Israel, but my first reaction would still be Australia.

Cabernet Sauvignon can be from …

Anywhere. Really. The most planted grape in the world. From China to Australia to Lebanon and Israel, France, Italy, South Africa, USA, and everywhere in between.

But today we will be talking about Australian wines, so our Cabernet Sauvignon has to come from Australia.

I have to say that I don’t drink a lot of Australian wines – can’t tell you why. Maybe because they are typically located on the back shelves at most of the wine stores. Maybe because they are rarely featured on the flash sale sites, such as WTSO and Last Bottle Wines. Or maybe because I’m still burned from the years of over-extracted, overdone, heavy wines (I called my impression of those wines “burnt fruit”) supported by overinflated Robert Parker ratings – this stuff gets stuck in your head, even though these are 15-20 years old impressions – preconceived notions, here we go. No matter. This is just a fact.

But then I’m always open to taste the new wines – how else can you learn – especially if those are offered as a sample.

And so we will be talking today about the wines produced by the Two Hands Wines, the Australian winery celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

This is not the first time Two Hands Wines make an appearance on these blog pages – here you will find tasting notes for the same three wines as we will discuss today, only from the 2014/2015 vintage, and here you will find a few more posts covering one of the Shiraz wines). But I can tell you that my impressions are consistently improving, which is either a good sign or a sign of degradation of my palate – I would rather go with the first option.

Two Hands Wines was born in 1999, a product of imagination and conviction of two friends – you can find the full story here. The goal of Two Hands Wines was to showcase different regions in Australia, and of course, make good wines. They succeeded with the flying colors, becoming the only Australian winery (or maybe even the only winery in the world) featured for 10 years in the row in the Wine Spectator Top 100 Wines list. From the beginning, the winery set out to showcase Australian Shiraz. Out of 21 wines produced today under Two Hands label, 14 are Shiraz wines. While the first wines represented the different regions – Barossa, McLaren Vale, Padthaway, Clare Valley, Heathcote, Two Hands also added single-vineyard wines to its repertoire, highlighting best capabilities of each region.

The three wines I had an opportunity to taste belong to so-called Picture Series, as each bottle label features a picture related to the name of the wine. As promised, these are two Shiraz wines and one Cabernet Sauvignon, representing some of the best-known regions in Australia – Barossa and McLaren Vale. Above you can see the labels, and below you can find my notes:

2018 Two Hands Angel’s Share Shiraz McLaren Vale (14.2% ABV, $33, 14 months in 12% new American oak hogsheads)
Dark purple
Dark fruit, tar, eucalyptus, blackberries
Blackberries, good mid-palate weight, well present, velvety texture, good acidity, good balance.
8, lots of pleasure, better on a second day.

2018 Two Hands Gnarly Dudes Shiraz McLaren Vale (13.8% ABV, $33, 12 months in French oak, 13% new)
Dark garnet
Eucalyptus, sweet tobacco, anise, blackberry jam
Silky smooth, blackberries, raspberries, rhubarb, bright acidity, medium-long finish
8/8+, excellent. Smooth and delicious. Definitely 8+ on a second day, delicious, complex wine with a perfect balance

2018 Two Hands Sexy Beast Cabernet Sauvignon McLaren Vale (14.2% ABV, $33)
Dark garnet, practically black
Black currant, a touch of coffee
More black currant on the palate on the second day, a touch of cherries, a touch of pepper, clean acidity, fresh and vibrant. Dark fruit-driven finish, with a touch of coffee.
8-, even a bit better on the second day – black currant more pronounced.

As you can tell, I liked the wines quite a bit, with Gnarly Dudes been a favorite. But I have to add a bit to these notes. It is so happened, that I tasted the wines over two days, with some slight evolution on the second day. Then I simply had to put these wines aside – and these are the screwtop wines, so I didn’t even pump the air out – then we left the house for the 4 days. After coming back, I decided to try the wines before simply pouring them out – and the wines were perfectly drinkable! I wouldn’t say that they evolved, but still, they were perfectly good to continue drinking them instead of becoming an undrinkable plonk. Screwtop wines remaining drinkable for a week. Not one, but three different wines. I don’t know what to think of it, as I’m merely reporting on my experience. If this is something you ever experienced, please comment.

So, my friends, how often do you drink Australian wines? I guess the time has come to do it more often? Cheers!

Stories of Passion and Pinot: Le Cadeau Vineyard

September 26, 2019 5 comments
Tom and Deb Mortimer. Source: Le Cadeau Vineyard

Tom and Deb Mortimer. Source: Le Cadeau Vineyard

Hello, wine lovers.

I’m going to ask you for something very valuable – your time. About 20 minutes of it, as this is how long it should take you to read this post, one of the longest posts I ever published. But I’m not asking for your time for free – in return, I’m offering you one of the very best interviews ever published in the Stories of Passion and Pinot series,  as well as the overarching One on One With Winemaker conversations.

Winemaking usually starts with passion, courage, and conviction – a belief that “you can”. Really. It is not always a degree in oenology (don’t get me wrong – of course that helps!), but the resolve to get going, as you have a burning desire to make world-class wine no matter what – this might be your main ingredient of success.

Tom and Deb Mortimer had such a resolve to make great Oregon Pinot Noir. After searching for a year, they found an uncultivated parcel of land on the south slope of Parrett Mountain in the Chehalem Mountains AVA, and the hard work began. Planting grapes, understanding your land, learning the soils and microclimates. All with the resolve to produce the best possible Pinot Noir. This is how the story of Le Cadeau Vineyard started (wonder if “Le Cadeau” means something? Keep on reading).

After tasting the wines of Le Cadeau, I was convinced that I want to learn more – which turned into a very enjoyable [virtual] conversation with Tom Mortimer, who generously offered his time to answer all of my questions. And this is what I want to share with you with a full conviction that it is well worth your time.

Here we go:

[TaV]: The story of Le Cadeau Vineyard started in 1996, when you purchased the 28 acres parcel in Chehalem Mountains AVA. When did you come up with the name Le Cadeau? What is the meaning behind this name?

[TM]: Le Cadeau (is French for “the gift”):  We like to say that “the wine is not ‘the gift’; rather, “the wine is the excuse”—the true gift is the land and friendships.”  When we first saw the Le Cadeau / BHV site, there was no view; it was obscured by scrub-oaks, blackberry bushes, and a lot of brush.  Clearing the land was a bit like unwrapping a present, and ultimately a gorgeous view emerged.  More significantly, rocky soils are coveted for top-tier vineyard sites.  As we cleared the site, the broken volcanic basalt cobbles were revealed; rock in Oregon is rare, so we were very fortunate to find a rocky site.  Lastly, wine is inherently relational.  Enthusiasts get-into wine for the product, but ultimately, they stay in wine for the people; when the glass is empty, the relationships remain.  So “the gift” has multiple manifestations.

[TaV]: When you found the parcel which became the future home for Le Cadeau, you said “For some reason, the property “felt right”. I don’t really know why”. So this was the love at first sight, right? Now, 23 years later, can you maybe better explain that feeling?

[TM]: Part of it was the location—the vineyard is only 35-minutes from downtown Portland, yet it was very serene countryside.  We came from suburban Minneapolis to start this project; 22-years ago the Willamette Valley was much less developed, so this location was perfect for us.  My wife (and I) didn’t want an isolated, rustic, farm experience.  But other than the location, it was a beautiful site—south slope, about the right grade, I was fairly certain the view existed.  It just had a different / better feeling than many of the other places we looked at.

At another level, I think I Iiked the fact that it was never-before-cultivated land.  There was something about “starting a vineyard from scratch” that was appealing… of course, at the time, I had no idea what I was getting us into… which is actually a good thing.  There are plenty of reasons to not take on a project like this.  Sometimes it is better to not know what lies ahead.

Source: Le Cadeau Vineyard

[TaV]: I really like the name “Black Hole Vineyard”, even though it has not necessarily a positive connotation about it. Have you ever bottled any wine which says “Black Hole Vineyard” on the label? What happened to that name? Is the Black Hole Vineyard simply became Le Cadeau Vineyard, or is it still exists under its own name?

[TM]: There was one “Black Hole” wine made by a fruit client.  It was small production, and was only released to his wine club.

Our business is corporately divided into two companies:  A farming company (the vineyard), and the wine biz.  Most of the fruit from the vineyard is sold to the wine biz, but some is sold to notable clients.  The farming company is named Black Hole Vineyard, LLC (or BHV, LLC), while the wine company is Le Cadeau.  So in that regard, the name lives on.  We also continue to personally refer to it as Black Hole among ourselves, and generally the winemakers like to call it Black Hole, vs. Le Cadeau.  But at some point you need to make a brand decision, and focus your time and energy on that brand.  We chose Le Cadeau vs. Black Hole.  Obviously, it is a much more positive message, though perhaps not as amusing.

[TaV]: What made you believe that you can conquer the rocky soil? What was the drive behind your passion, developing your vineyard against the difficult terrain and the cash flow?

[TM]: As noted above, a good part of my confidence was rooted in ignorance.  But as a wine collector I knew that many of the great wines of the world were grown in rocky soils.  I figured, “if they can do it, so can I”.

Over the years I have come to discover that there is one tool that is central and more important than any other in developing and farming a rocky site.  You might think that the tool is a chisel plow, or a big tractor, or whatever.  But the reality is that the single-most-important tool is a checkbook.  Unfortunately, unlike many of the folks that get into this business, my checkbook was about the size of a hand-held garden tool.  With a vineyard that is raw ground and solid rock, it is better to start with a checkbook that is the size of a bulldozer… and a D8 at that.  Fortunately, I kept my day-job.

[TaV]: How many Pinot Noir clones have you planted so far? Why so many?

[TM]: We’re up to about 16-Pinot Noir clones and 6-Chardonnay clones (the first Chardonnay, 2017, to be released in a couple months).  Why so many?—there are a handful of reasons:

  1. a) I cannot recall ever having a single clone wine that I felt was as complete and interesting as a multi-clone wine. We don’t put them all in a single wine; our cuvees result from different combinations of clones, soils, and aspect (climate). Most of the cuvees have 3 to 5 clones, Diversité has the most with 7 that make up the majority of the wine, and another 2 or 3 that are there in small quantities.
  2. b) Curiosity and experimentation. Quite simply, clones are exciting. You wait for 3-years wondering what the fruit will look like and taste like.  Often it takes several more years before you learn about the flavors, texture, physical characteristics of the fruit and how it affects the wine.  So there is always a sense of anticipation.  I liken clones to colors on an artist’s palette; they add “color” to wine—not in a literal sense, but in terms of variance, nuance, and complexity.
  3. c) Differentiation. I don’t want to make wine that is like everyone else’s.
  4. d) Optimization. Folks (i.e., typically winemakers) have varying views of how important clones are in the overall mix of variables. Most agree that the dirt / site are the most important elements, and I’d agree with that.  But for many, “clones” would be further down the list.  For me, the plant material is very central to extraordinary wine.  Great wines only happen when there is great dirt, perfect climate, excellent farming / viticulture, the very best and site-matched plant material, and of course great winemaking.  Like many things in life, something can only be as good as its weakest link.

[TaV]: Is there an Oregon (or maybe Burgundian) winery(ies) which were instrumental in the development of your own winemaking style?

[TM]: We have always wanted to make wines that are true to the estate site.  In this regard, Le Cadeau is more of a European model, in that the “rock star” is the vineyard, not the winemaker.  The wide range of cuvees exist to showcase the range of “faces” of the vineyard.  But more recently we’ve been searching for more freshness and aromatic excitement.  This is why I engaged our French consultant, Pierre Millemann several years ago.  Not surprisingly, this has led us to produce higher acid / lower alcohol wines.

It would be difficult to pick a particular winery to reference against; again, our dirt / site is very unique.  There are many wineries, both in Oregon, Europe, (and California) that we respect, but I think it would wrong to say that we try to emulate any of them.

[TaV]: Do you still have any bottles from the 2002 vintage? If you do, how do they hold?

[TM]: I have a few bottles of 2002.  The last one I had was about 2-years ago.  It was doing well, but I think it was past its prime.  Keep in mind that the vines from that vintage were only 4-years old.  I recently had an ’05 Diversité from magnum; it is going strong and will continue to last for a long time.

[TaV]: According to what I see on your website, you produce [at least] 7 Pinot Noir wines. Is there an idea behind such a range of Pinot wines? What are you trying to showcase?

[TM]: As noted above, the majority of the cuvees showcase various attributes of the vineyard:  Rocky soils (Rocheux); the cooler East-side (Cote Est); clonal diversity (Diversité); heritage clones (Merci Reserve).  More recently, we’ve added two cuvees that are more inclusive of winemaking technique—Trajet Reserve is 100% whole cluster; and “Pierre” has considerable input from our consultant, Pierre.  It is about “freshness” and higher acidity.

[TaV]: Going back to the Pinot Noir clones – considering the sheer number of them, you must be blending your wines. What is your approach to blending? Do you have any Estate Pinot Noir wines where you trying to maintain consistency throughout the different vintages?

[TM]: Generally we favor co-fermentation of multiple clones in a single tank.  Most of the cuvees are made of two separate tank fermentations that go to barrel separately, and are then combined to make the final cuvee.  But for the most part, all of the wine from each ferment ultimately goes into the cuvee.

I like to say that the Le Cadeau wines are “made in the vineyard”… I don’t mean that literally, but rather that the specific “Cote Est” fruit is picked separately, and it is made into the Cote Est cuvee.  Same for Rocheux, Diversité, and Merci.  In this regard, there is clonal consistency from year to year, because the wine for each cuvee is consistently made from the same section of the vineyard.  For example, Rocheux is always roughly 45% Dijon 777; 45% Pommard; and 10 % Wadenswil… that is what is planted in the sections where the Rocheux fruit is grown.  … and fortunately, the vines don’t move around at night when we’re not looking… that would be a mess.

Aerial view over Le Cadeau Vineyard, Chehalem Mountain AVA, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Source: Le Cadeau Vineyard

[TaV]: How did you come to the idea of the Sparkling wines? You offer 2011 vintage sparkling wine, so clearly you started making sparkling wines before they became “the thing” in Oregon, so how did you get there?

[TM]: 2011 was a very cool, late, year, and the clusters were uneven.  Some of them were quite large (a fairly rare event, given our rocky soils).  On October 15th, the bigger clusters had only gotten to about 19-Brix—not good for still PN.  I know we wouldn’t/couldn’t pull them all out on the sorting table, so we did a sort in the vineyard.  I told the crew to harvest the three biggest clusters off of each plant in certain sections of the vineyard.  Since these were at a perfect stage for sparkling, and we had them hanging on the vine for a full season at that point, it seems silly to drop that fruit on the ground.  So we took a shot at sparkling—it worked out very well, so now we make it generally every other year.

[TaV]: I’m sure you knew this question is coming J – it seems that you only work with Pinot Noir grapes. Do you grow any other varieties? Do you have any plans for the white wines? If yes, what grapes would you plant?

[TM]: As noted above, we have 6-clones of Chardonnay that are now in production.  The first Chardonnay will be 2017, released in a few months.  We’ll only do Chardonnay at Le Cadeau (other than Pinot Noir).  But under our other brand, Aubichon, we’ve made some wonderful “Alsatian Style” Pinot Gris, as well as a Pinot Gris-based Rosé, and a wine we call “Sur Peaux”, which is an “orange wine” from Pinot Gris.  All the Pinot Gris is sourced from old vine vineyards, about 25-years old.  So it’s nice fruit, and the wines are quite special.

Le Cadeau, Chehalem Mountains AVA, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Source: Le Cadeau Vineyard

[TaV]: And one more common question I like to ask – when you are not drinking your own wines, what are your favorite wines and/or wineries, in Oregon or anywhere in the world?

[TM]: I have a diverse range of preferences:

I’m a huge fan of Weinbach in Alsace; Chave Hermitage is often special, Guigal Condrieu (the good version, not so much the standard one), Huet and Chidane Chenin Blanc; Fevre Chablis; Robert Weil German Reisling (and many others—Keller dry from their rocky vineyard is nice); any good Bonne Mares; love white Bordeaux—Chevalier, Smith H-L, and of course the “big guys”, but they’re too expensive.  Barberescos from Italy—Gaja (also like Gaja Chardonnay), and I think Produtorri does an amazing job for the price, along with Albino Rocca.  I’ve had a Foradori wine that I thought was special, certain Brunellos, but many have become Parker-ized, that’s unfortunate.  I like Ciacci wines though.  … the list goes on…

In Oregon, there are many that I respect, and a small group that I like, but I’d prefer to leave those thoughts anonymous.

[TaV]: What is ahead? Where do you see Le Cadeau in 10-15 years?

[TM]: I think we’re just beginning to make our best wines, and really beginning to understand the vineyard’s nuances.  Some of our more exciting clones are still quite young, so it will be interesting to see what sort of wines we make from the more exciting clones when the vines are older.  The 2018 wines that we have in the barrel are possibly our finest to date.  Very excited about getting them into the bottle and out on the market.

I’m hopeful that our Chardonnay program will be noteworthy.  Pierre’s guidance on Chardonnay has been very helpful.  2018 in barrel looks to be very promising, and I’m excited about the first 2019 fruit from a rocky grafted section of the vineyard.  We have a couple interesting Larry Hyde clones of Chardonnay planted in that area as well.  The fruit looks to be quite different.  I’ll have a better sense of the Chardonnay potential in another year, but I’m hopeful that we can produce “the real deal”.

Le Cadeau Vineyard Pinot Noir wines

Thirsty? Here are my tasting notes for the wines:

2017 Le Cadeau Côte Est Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (13.9% ABV, $50, 145 cases made)
Dark Ruby
Smoke, plum, iodine, medium-plus intensity
Wow. Touch of smoke, Sage, medicinal notes (cough syrup), good acidity, excellent balance
8

2017 Le Cadeau Rocheux Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (13.2% ABV, $50, 174 cases made)
Dark Ruby
Plums, cherries, violets, intense, inviting
Bright, clean, succulent ripe cherries, licorice, great minerality, excellent balance, superb
8+

2017 Le Cadeau Diversité Estate Pinot Noir Willamette Valley (13.9% ABV, $50, 245 cases made)
Ruby
Delicate, lavender, a touch of smoke, perfect
Beautiful, plums, ripe strawberries, great acidity, baking spices, delicious overall
8+/9-

2016 Le Cadeau Merci Pinot Noir Reserve Chehalem Mountains Willamette Valley (14.1% ABV, $80, 143 cases made)
Garnet
Intense, ripe cherries and plums, candied fruit
Wow, great intensity, cherries, cherry compote, ripe plums, minerally notes, good acidity, good balance
8+

As you can tell, I really liked the wines – they were literally one better than another.

Here you go, my friends – yet another story of Passion and Pinot. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it, and I thank you for your time and attention.

Will there be more Passion and Pinot stories? Well, do you think the passion ran out of the Pinot winemakers and aficionados? I will bet my virtual DRC bottle that it did not. So we will continue our conversations as soon as the next opportunity will present itself.

Obey your passion!

P.S. Here are the links to the posts profiling wineries in this Passion and Pinot series, in alphabetical order:

Alloro Vineyard, Bells Up Winery, Ghost Hill Cellars, Iris Vineyards, Ken Wright Cellars, Knudsen Vineyards, Lenné Estate, Tendril Cellars, Youngberg Hill Vineyards, Vidon Vineyard

Why You Don’t Want To Miss Chowdafest 2019

September 25, 2019 Leave a comment

Really, why would you want to miss the Chowdafest 2019? If you like chowder or any form of nice, hearty soup – and note, it can be vegetarian soup as well – you can’t have an excuse good enough to miss the 12th annual Chowdafest festivities on October 6, 2019, taking place at the usual place – Sherwood Island State Park in Westport, Connecticut, from 11 AM until 3 PM.

I attended Chowdafest for the past 5 years, and when I’m suggesting that attending the event is well worth the effort of rearranging your Sunday around it, I’m simply speaking from experience (take a look my reports from past Chowdafests here). Chowdafest is a lot of fun – it is not only soups and chowders but lots of samples of cheese, bread, sauces, juices, tea, coffee, ice cream, and more. It is literally fun for all ages (yes, you want to teach your kids what tasty food is from an early age).

Chowdafest 2017

One of my very favorite creative chowders – and a winning one!

At the Chowdafest 2019, 30 restaurants will be competing for the titles in the 4 categories – New England Clam Chowder, Creative Chowder, Soup/Bisque, and Vegetarian. Half of the 30 competing restaurants will be participating for the first time, and I’m definitely looking forward to trying new soups such as Mexican style Shrimp Posole Soup, or Buffalo Chicken Noodle Soup. But probably the main question is – will Pike’s Place out of Seattle, Washington, win the classic New England Clam Chowder category for the 5th year in the row? Well, you will need to be there to see it and be a part of it.

I hope I solved for you the problem “What to do on Sunday, October 6th”. See you at the Chowdafest!

 

Judging Wine

September 22, 2019 Leave a comment

Let’s do some math. There are about 8,700 wineries in the USA. Some wineries make only 2–3 wines, but this is quite rare. Some wineries make 10, 15 or more, especially if you will take into account all the “winery-only” specials. Let’s average, say, at 10 (I’m sure I’m reasonably conservative here). In this case, we are talking about roughly 87,000 different wines. Produced every year. In the USA alone.

How do we choose the wines? Presented with an average selection of at least a few hundred bottles even at a small wine store, we need all the help we can get to select that one bottle we want to drink tonight. One of such “helpers” is so-called ratings. Ratings are professional wine critics’ opinions, generally expressed in the form of the numbers (points), from 50 to a 100 – 89 points, 95 points, 100 points. Those ratings are produced by several wine publications (magazines and newsletters), such as Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, and a few others. Let’s say there are about 4 main publications in the USA (there are lots more, of course, if you will attempt a full count, but let’s just stay with the major ones). Now, to produce the ratings for all 87,000 wines among 4 publications, working 365 days a year (no breaks!), it will be necessary to evaluate about 60 wines per day, every day – and these are just wines from the USA, based on our rough assumption of 10 wines per winery. Mission impossible – and mission unnecessary.

What else is there besides ratings, to help our poor, indecisive selves? Well, how about some awards? If you ever visited some lesser-known wineries – maybe on Long Island, or in Finger Lakes, upstate New York, Pennsylvania, etc – have you noticed a display of the bottles wearing straps with various medals around the neck? Those are the exact awards we are talking about. How the wineries get those? By participation (and winning) at the various wine competitions, in the USA or even in the world.

There are about 70 of major (or better known) wine competitions in the USA, plus probably hundreds of lesser-known, more regional wine competitions. Wineries submit their wines for the competitions. The wines are grouped into the categories (white, blend, Chardonnay, Merlot, Dessert, etc), and get rated in a blind tasting within those categories by the wine judges. The best wines in the categories can subsequently compete for the “best in show”, “best red”, “best dessert” and so on. And then wineries get to brag about their awards and to display the medals, sometimes at the winery, and sometimes even on the labels – I’m sure you’ve seen those.

Wondering how the wine judging is done? Let me give you a first-hand account, as I just attended my second wine competition as a judge – at the Hudson Valley Wine Festival – obviously focused on the wines of Hudson Valley.

As we mentioned, the wines are judged blind, with only a variety (or blend composition) and vintage known for every wine. The wines are split into the categories such as white and Rosé, red, dessert, fruit, and can be split into varieties within the categories, each category presented as a separate flight – for example, Merlot and Cabernet Franc for reds, or Chardonnay and Riesling for the whites. The wines are assessed at the Hudson Valley Wine Festival according to the American Wine Society wine evaluation chart, which you can find in its entirety here. According to that chart, the wine can get the maximum of 20 points comprising of the following categories

  • Wine color – up to 3 points. This is an easy one – as long as your 1-year-old dry Riesling is not a deep golden, or not hazy/cloudy, it is 3 points.
  • Aroma and bouquet – up to 6 points. The 6 points are awarded if the wine is absolutely on point for the varietal expression.
  • Taste and texture – again, up to 6 points. To get 6 points the wine should be varietally perfect.
  • Finish – up to 3 points. Here the long and enjoyable is what is required to qualify for 3.
  • Overall impression – up to 2 points. Here is an opportunity for a judge to express his or her personal opinion about the wine – nah, okay, or wow.

The assessment of the wines done in the flights, where each wine is individually labeled with a code. The judges are working in the groups of 3, with each group having a captain who manages the group’s work and fills up all of the final decision forms. While the wines in the flight had been assessed, all judges keep it quiet and filling up the form. Once the flight’s assessment is finished, the wines are been discussed one by one, to arrive at a final score for the wine. Based on the score and opinion, the recommendations can be made for double gold, gold, silver, and bronze, as well as for the inclusion into the best of show tasting.

Once all the flights are done by all the judges at all tables, the results are processed, which takes about 30 minutes. During this 30 minutes break, it is a perfect opportunity for judges to walk around and see a bit of the show floor before it gets ultra-crowded. Here are some of the pictures of what you can find on the show floor of the Hudson Valley Wine and Food Festival. These are the things which attracted my attention, and I can tell you that the bacon salsa you see below was superb. Both single malt and rye whiskey which you can see below were good, but not $100 good as it was the show’s asking price. And how about those cans and wine labels!

After the break, the final part of the judging is set up – now the wines are judged for the best in category (best red, best white, etc), and then all of the best in categories are included into the “best in show” tasting. Best in category and best in the show are judged by all the judges at all the tables by the show of hands, and each judge can vote only once.

Best in Show tasting flight

An interesting by-product of all the voting is the title of the “winery of the year” for the region – I don’t know the exact formulae, but it is determined by the number of wines awarded the medals, taking into account how many wines were submitted versus how many wines got awards, and the type of those awards – for example, it is better to submit 2 wines, one of which will take double gold, versus 4 wines, out of which 2 will take silver.

That’s all there is to it – now you know all about the wine judging.

 

Here you can see our list of flights, and some of my notes. I have to honestly tell you that somehow I liked the wines from last year a bit more than the wines from this year – but then last year our red wines flight was Cabernet Franc, and this year it was Merlot – and Hudson Valley produces better Cabernet Franc than Merlot (personal opinion, of course). Also, last year we tasted no DPMs at our table – in case you never heard the term which I learned last year, DPM stands for Don’t Put in your Mouth – and DPM can happen anywhere, it has nothing to do with any particular region.  So last year we got lucky, and this year, we were blessed with two – one wine was completely spoiled (can’t describe it, just terrible, like a spoiled fruit), and the second one tasted like it had cheese blended in the wine – as one of the judges said, “I like cheese with my wine, but not in my wine”. Anyway, bad wines happen anywhere in the world – nothing else there is to it.

Overall, however, I have nothing to complain about, it was fun and successful tasting, and we completed our work with no issues.

Debbie Gioquindo, Chair of the competition, deep at work

I will not be repeating here all the results – you find them all here, on the website of Debbie Gioquindo, Hudson Valley Wine and Spirits Competition Chairwoman for the past 12 years. For my personal favorites, 2017 Millbrook Castle Hill Vinyard Chardonnay Hudson Valley was absolutely spectacular – it is hard to believe the Chardonnay of such a world quality can be produced in Hudson Valley (I mean no disrespect, but you have to taste this wine to believe it) – perfectly Burgundian with a distant hint of vanilla and butter. 2015 Glorie Farm Winery Cabernet Franc was simply perfect – an excellent rendition of the Cabernet Franc, the grape which Hudson Valley mastered to perfection for a while – and it was the Best in Show wine. And the Baldwin Vineyards Spiced Apple, entered in the fruit wine category, simply blew my mind with its perfect expression of a drool-inducing apple pie – the one you eat with the spoon directly from the tray, and you know you are not supposed to do it, but you can’t stop yourself…

In case you want to see it, here is the aftermath of the competition:

After the wine tasting...

That’s all, my friends. This was definitely a fun experience, and I’m already looking forward to the next year’s event. Cheers!

Alie Ammiraglia – The Rosé Experience

September 17, 2019 2 comments
Livia le Divelec

Livia le Divelec introducing Alie Rosé

Rosé Every Day – is that your wine motto?

Okay, that might be a bit much – occasionally, we would like to drink white and red too, don’t we? How about this:

Rosé is For Every Day – would you be able to subscribe to that?

It amazes me that today it still requires courage for an average wine consumer to happily say “I love Rosé” and stop right there without adding any “buts” – “only in the summer”, “only when it is hot outside”.

It is a given for us, wine aficionados and geeks, but an average wine drinker is still afraid that they are simply not supposed to like Rosé, and openly admitting your “Rosé love” in public is akin to loudly proclaiming “ohh, I have no taste in wine, no class”. This is mindboggling as we truly are living through the Rosé wine revolution.

Ten years ago, Rosé was strictly for summer, and the only Rosé you would find available during the winter months was the one from Tavel from the southern Rhône in France – only found in better wine stores or adventurous restaurant wine lists (Rosé is the major, if not the only type of wine produced in Tavel), or whatever ended up in the discount bins as not been sold during the prime season. Today, Rosé can be found at most of the wine stores throughout the whole year, no matter what season it is. It is also not surprising that literally every winery in the world, big and small, added Rosé to their repertoire. Actually, it might be still difficult to find Rosé at the wineries – it is usually produced in the small quantities and thus sold out in no time at all.

As we mentioned before, Rosé often considered an afterthought – while the winery is starting to make the red wine, whatever juice will bleed from the harvested grapes would be good enough to make Rosé – or whatever grapes are not good enough for the main wine still can be used for Rosé.

This, however, was never the case in Provence in France, where Rosé is The Main Product and never an afterthought. In Provence, the grapes were and are purposefully grown for the Rosé, and harvested at its proper ripeness to be made into Rosé – the best possible Rosé. But – “the best Rosé” crown is heavily contested today – literally, the whole wine world is after it.

Let me share with you an encounter with a perfect contender – Alìe Ammiraglia, an Italian Rosé produced by Frescobaldi family in Tuscany.

View from Polynesian Rooftop bar

At the end of July, I attended an event in New York City, where the new vintage of Alìe Rosé (in case you are wondering about the name, Alìe is “a figure from Greek mythology, a sea nymph and a symbol of sensuality and beauty”) was presented in style.

Let’s compact the whole experience into one very long sentence, just for fun: Alìe Rosé, made out of Syrah and Vermentino specifically grown for this Rosé wine, was presented at the event in New York City in the hottest setting of a roof-top bar, poured strictly from magnum and double-magnum bottles into the glasses specifically designed to enhance the qualities of the Alìe Rosé, accompanied by delicious bites of Polynesian cuisine on a hot summer day.

How about this long sentence?

Now, let’s repeat it, but a bit slower.

2018 Tenuta Ammiraglia Alìe Rosé Toscana IGT was introduced by Livia le Divelec, Frescobaldi Brand Ambassador and winemaker. 2018 is the fifth vintage of Alìe Rosé. The wine is made out of Syrah and Vermentino grapes grown at Tenuta Ammiraglia vineyards in Maremma, the region best known for the super-Tuscan wines. Maremma is a coastal region in Tuscany, thus the climate, soil, and terroir overall have a lot of maritime influence, hence the name and various sea-life elements of the design – the label, the glass. The bottles for Alìe Rosé are specifically designed in Mediterranean style, again to stress the origins of the wine.

The event took place at The Polynesian, bar and restaurant located at the Pod Times Square hotel and offering a roof-top seating. What can be better than sipping on a glass of beautiful Rosé, overlooking New York’s busy life from above on a warm summer afternoon? Well, let’s cue in delicious appetizers of Polynesian origin, harmoniously supporting the delight of Rosé – and now you got the whole picture.

Oh, wait, let’s not forget about the wine glasses! The wine glasses were specifically designed by German company Rastal for Alìe Rosé to accentuate qualities of the wine, both organoleptic (aroma, taste, …) and visual, with the glasses serving as another reminder of maritime-influenced origins of Alìe.

Well, I guess I still didn’t tell you how was the wine – got carried away with a beautiful setting of the roof-top bar, seductive bottles, and designer wine glass. Never mind all these accents – the wine was a real star, otherwise, I wouldn’t be talking about all this. Beautiful fresh strawberries on the nose, strawberries with a hint of Meyer lemon on the palate, crisp and fresh. Delicious cold, and still delicious even at room temperature – my litmus test for a quality white and Rosé. I would drink that wine any day, and any season. Remember, Rosé all day!

That concludes my brief. What is your Rosé of the Year? Cheers!

 

 

And The Answer Is…

September 4, 2019 3 comments

A few days ago, I had an opportunity to play a little game with you, my readers, which I couldn’t resist. In my post, creatively titled “What Is It?”, I was asking you to guess what might be stored inside of the stainless steel tanks shown in the picture – you can see it here for the reference.

While the internet didn’t break because of all the people rushing in with an answer, I was happy to see some people taking up the challenge. So it is time to provide an answer.

Drumroll, please.

And the answer is …

.

.

Perfume

We grow up surrounded by “perfumes” of many, many kinds. But I always was taking it for granted, meaning that I never thought of how perfume is produced. The only interesting fact I knew was that Lancome was unable to produce their perfume in the USA as the water in the USA was different from the one in France where they make their famous products, and they can’t create the products in the USA which would be identical to the ones made in France.

As I’m in the South of France and I had a bit of free time, a friend suggested that I should go visit the perfume factory located in a small town not far from me – Fragonard in the town of Grasse.

As I walked up the stairs, the very first things I saw was the Still:

Still column at Fragonard

During our factory tour, I finally learned how perfume is made – or at least how it is made for the past 100 years – there are different methods which were used in the past. And this is where I learned about many similarities between the world of our beloved grapes and grains by-products and the perfume.

First, it takes a quality raw product to produce a good perfume. Let’s say, the rose petals. In the first step of the process, this raw product will be converted into the so-called Essential Oil. By the way, here is another mini-quiz for you.

How much (by weight) of the rose petals do you need to produce 1 liter (1 quart) of the essential rose oil?

I will give you a second to think about it.

.

.

I don’t know what you came up with, but the answer is 3.5 tons (~7,700 lbs). 3.5 tons!!

I did a little research and found the report stating that the annual yield of Rose petals is roughly 1 ton per acre. So you need 3.5 acres of Roses to produce 1 liter of essential oil. Wow – color me impressed (yes, it is easy to impress the ignorant, if you feel an urge to comment).

Okay, let’s get back to the process. So the rose petals are assembled and boiled in water, which creates a very aromatic (I think?) steam. At some point, the steam travels through the still, and cools off, resulting in the separation of oil and water. That oil is an essential oil which will be further used in blending to produce perfume. The water is used to produce Eau de Toilette or similar products (also via blending, if desired).

Essential Oils display at Fragonard

Once different essential oils are acquired (lots of fruits, flowers, etc. can be converted into the essential oils – mango, lavender, vanilla, jasmine, coconut, … the sky is the limit), the “master blenders” will assemble (blend) the desired products. Then the neutral alcohol will be added, and the final blend will be stored in the temperature-controlled tanks (and this is what you saw in the picture – subject of this quiz), where it will stay for at least a few months or longer, undergoing periodic stirring and then the quality control before it will be bottled to ensure that the final blend is a quality product.

An interesting takeaway – we all know how expensive the perfume is, but just think of that amount of the raw material required to produce even minuscule amount of the perfume – it will give you a different appreciation for the $100 bottle of perfume.

Here you go, my friends – a perfume 101 session.

I’m glad to say that we have a winner in our quiz – Mika, who should definitely pat himself on a back for a very quick – and correct – answer.

Until next time – cheers!

 

What Is It?

September 1, 2019 15 comments

What is it?

Okay, it is given – these are the stainless steel tanks. So maybe the better question will be: what’s inside?

I’m traveling, and might not have time for a proper post. And it is a long weekend in the USA, so let’s have some fun, shall we?

Here is a picture – and yes, I want you to guess what is inside of those tanks:

I will give you two hints:

  1. There is alcohol inside
  2. I’m in France

The answer is coming on Wednesday.

Have fun, good luck, and enjoy your weekend. Cheers!

When in Texas…

August 29, 2019 7 comments

Travel is a part of my job (the job which pays the bills) – nothing unique here, of course, and when my flights are not delayed for 14 hours or canceled, and I don’t have to sleep on airport terminal’s floor, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

As a wine junky (replace with your favorite epithet – lover, aficionado, geek, snob, …) I’m always on a lookout for two things when I travel.

One would be experiencing new wines – in whatever way possible. It might be a Vino Volo boutique at the airport, offering local wines. It might be a local winery within the driving distance. It might be a store which offers interesting wines (local, unique, inexpensive – whatever can constitute “interesting”).

The other one is meeting with friends. It is amazing how easy it is to become good friends over a glass of wine. The wine offers endless opportunity to talk, learn from each other, learn about each other’s lives, and really, to become friends.

Of course, you can meet your friends face to face only when your travel schedule will allow that. During my last trip to Dallas, Texas, in July, my schedule allowed for such a meeting. After exchanging a few emails with Melanie Ofenloch, a.k.a. Dallas Wine Chick (wine blogger at DallasWineChick – if you are not familiar with Melanie, here is a recent interview with her), she was able to rearrange her schedule and had time to share a couple of drinks – and a conversation.

We met at the bar at the restaurant which was conveniently located for both of us. I don’t remember what exactly we were drinking, because that was really not important – the conversation about wine, past wine bloggers conferences, families and life overall was the real value of getting together.

Before we parted, Melanie asked if I ever visited Spec’s, for which I said that I have no idea what that is. She told me “you must”, and put a location into my phone, to make sure I would have no problems finding it.

Spec’s, which is known under its full name as Spec’s Wines, Spirits & Finer Foods, is a chain of wine stores in the Dallas area (don’t know if they have locations throughout Texas). Everything is big in Texas, so the Spec’s I visited was sized appropriately. Rows and rows of wines, mostly sorted by the grape variety. And while everything is big in Texas, cash is also a king – Spec’s offers 10% discount for all cash wine purchases (you can see three prices at most of the wine bottles – standard price, volume discount and cash discount).

It is not a secret anymore that Texas makes excellent wines, which are also not available much anywhere outside of Texas. So when in Texas, one has to use the opportunity to experience local wines (believe me, it is well worth it). Thus Texas wine section was of the most interest to me – and I found it after a few circles.

In that section, I found a number of wines frequented in the Texas wine bloggers’ posts – for example, Becker and McPherson. I also found some wines I was familiar with, such as Duchman, and some wines I knew existed, but I never tried them, such as Infinite Monkey Theorem, produced in Austin (this city winery originated in Denver, Colorado, but they also opened a facility in Austin a while ago). I ended up taking three bottles of the Texas wine to keep me company in the hotel room.

Before I left the store I also stumbled upon a section of the “serious” wines – Bordeaux first growth, Burgundy stars, Italian legends and more. It is always fun to at least find yourself surrounded by so much wine goodness at a given moment – even that I can’t afford any of those bottles.

Back in the room, I decided to start my wine tasting with the 2015 Infinite Monkey Theorem Tempranillo Texas (13.8% ABV). Tempranillo is one of my most favorite grapes, and it is one of the popular varieties in Texas. I also had successful past experience with Infinite Monkey Theorem wine – the Cab Franc rendition I had in Denver a couple of years ago, was absolutely delicious. All together, it made me excited about trying this wine – and it didn’t disappoint. Dark fruit, a touch of roasted meat and tobacco, a hint of anise – an excellent wine.

As I bought 3 bottles at Spec’s, my initial plan was to open all 3 and try them – this is what I typically do with Trader Joe’s wines, even when I stay only for one night. I was staying only for 2 nights, and the wine was so good that I simply decided to finish this bottle and take the other two back home.

Back at home, I was quick to continue my Texas wine deep dive with 2017 McPherson Les Copains Rosé Texas (12.9% ABV, 52% Cinsault, 42% Grenache, 6% Rolle). The wine was a classic Rosé, with a bit bigger body than a typical Provence, but full of ripe strawberries with a touch of lemon, fresh, crisp, and easy to drink. I would love to drink this Rosé any day, any season.

So when in Texas, make sure to drink Texas wines – you really have to do what locals do – I have no doubts you will enjoy it. And if you will be in Dallas, remember that Spec’s might be considered a “Disneyland for Adults”. Well, maybe leave your wallet at home.

Celebrate The End Of BBQ Season with The Federalist, The American Craft Wine

August 26, 2019 3 comments

The Federalist LogoHere you have the title I’m really not sure about.

Let’s see.

The end of the BBQ Season. First, who said that BBQ season is ending? Even on the East Coast of the USA people proudly fire up their grill in January, bragging about battling knee-deep snow. Never mind California, and let me not offend the South. So what’s ending?

What’s BBQ? When I grill the steak on a gas grill, is it classified as BBQ, or is the open fire required? Is charcoal qualified as a source of fire, or do I have to use the actual wood? Food is not as polarizing as politics these days, but it still has its share.

And then even if BBQ season is ending, is that something worth celebrating?

Never mind all this blabbering, as maybe the most important question is: what is The American Craft Wine?

Let’s watch this short clip:

 

If you will search online for the “American Craft Wine”, The Federalist will be the very first link which will come up. The Federalist is the winery in California, which makes a range of traditional American wines, and defines itself as “Born from the virtues of every forward-thinking, hard-working, red-blooded American, this is The Federalist. This Is American Craft Wine.”

Is craft wine an answer to the craft beer, an extremely popular consumer category (if you ever “checked in” on Yelp, “do they serve craft beer” question is one of the most popular ones while filling up a small check-in questionnaire)? Beer is often associated with BBQ, and of course, it is better to be a craft beer. But why not a craft wine? I think we would all agree that wine is the result of winemaker’s craft; good wine requires a good skill, a craft – so maybe The Federalist is paving a way to the new wine category?

I had an opportunity to taste The Federalist wines for the first time 3 years ago, and I liked them. Therefore, when I was offered a sample of The Federalist wines a few days ago, I was really curious to see how they will fair now, as both the style of wine and my tastebuds can easily change.

The Federalist Wines

I’m glad to report that even if my tastebuds changed, I still found the wines delicious:

2016 The Federalist Cabernet Sauvignon Lodi (14% ABV, $17.99, 93% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Zinfandel, 2% Petite Sirah, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc; 15 months in oak, 35% new)
Garnet Color
Coffee, dark fruit, a hint of currant, eucalyptus
Soft, approachable, licorice, sweet cherries, a touch of cinnamon and nutmeg
8-, unmistakably Lodi, generous and easy to drink

2017 The Federalist Honest Red Blend North Coast (15% ABV, $21.99, 45% Zinfandel, 24% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Malbec, 4% Cabernet Franc; grapes sourced from: 42% Mendocino County, 33% Sonoma County, 25% Napa County; 15 months in oak, 35% new)
Dark garnet
Blackberries, sweet oak, cassis, a hint of mocha
Firm, wells structured, blackberries, tobacco, dry tannins, dusty cherries, good acidity, good balance
8, excellent, perfect by itself, will work perfectly with the steak

Is the BBQ season ending? You’ll be the judge of that. But if you have any BBQ plans this weekend, fire up whatever you designate as your BBQ machine, and give a try to The American Craft wine, paired with your own crafted BBQ. There is a good chance you might like it. Cheers!

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