Samples Galore: Few Wines For The Fall

November 8, 2017 4 comments

Are there different wines for the different seasons? In general, the answer is no. And for sure, in theory, the answer is no. The wines should be paired with food, with mood, with the company, and the actual season should have no effect on your desire to drink Champagne, or Rosé, or ice cold, acidic white or a full-bodied, massive red. Nevertheless, as the temperatures are sliding down, our desire to drink bigger wines proportionally increases. Thus, instead of fighting the trend let’s talk about few wines which would perfectly embellish any cooler autumn night.

So you think we will be only talking about red wines? Nope, we are going to start with the white. Cune Rioja Monopole requires no introduction to the wine lovers – one of the pioneering white Riojas, produced in 1914 for the first time. If you tasted Cune Monopole recently, I’m sure you found it fresh and crips. Turns out, this was not always the style. The traditional, “old school” Monopole was produced as a blend of white grapes (not just 100% Viura), with the addition of a dollop of Sherry (yep, you read it right), and was aged in the oak (read more here). To commemorate 100 years since the inaugural release, Cune produced 2014 Cune Monopole Clásico Blanco Seco (13.2% ABV, $20 ) which is a blend of Viura and other white grapes. After fermentation, a small amount of Manzanilla Sherry from the Hidalgo Sanlúcar de Barrameda was added, and the wine aged in the used Sherry casks for about 8 months. This wine had a great added complexity while remaining fresh and vibrant. Drinkability: 8. You should definitely try it for yourself – if you can find it.

Let’s stay in Spain now for the red. What do you think of the wines from Castilla y León? Castilla y León region is home to some of best of the best in Spain, such as Vega Sicilia and Pingus, both located in Ribera del Duero sub-region. But there are plenty of outstanding wines which are simply designated as Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León. Vino de la Tierra is considered a lower quality tier than DO or DOC – but some of the winemakers prefer VdT designation as it gives them a lot more freedom to experiment with the wines.

Case in point – Abadia Retuerta winery. Historical roots of Abadia Retuerta go back almost thousand years when Santa María de Retuerta monastery was built on the banks of Duero River, and the first vines were planted. Today, Abadia Retuerta exercises modern approach to winemaking, which they call “plot by plot” – the winery identifies 54 unique parcels of land, each one with its own terroir – no wonder they find DO rules too limiting for the wines they are creating. Here are my [more formal] notes for 2013 Abadia Retuerta Sardon De Duero Selección Especial Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León – Sardon De Duero (13.5% ABV, $30, 75% Tempranillo, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Syrah and other red varieties such as Merlot and Petit Verdot):
C: dark garnet
N: inviting, bright, ripe cherries, mint, roasted meat, very promising, cedar box
P: wow, smooth, layered, luscious, fresh fruit, ripe, cherries, sweet oak, excellent balance
V: 8, lots of pleasure

Now, let’s quickly jump to the other side of the Earth – to Australia, it is. If we are talking about Australia, you probably expect the subject of the discussion will be Shiraz – and this is a perfect guess. The story of Two Hands winery started in 1999 when two friends decided to start making world-class wines showcasing capabilities of different Australian regions, starting with Barossa. Gnarly Dude is one of the wines made by Two Hands, and the name here comes from the way the old Shiraz vines look like. Here are my notes for the 2016 Two Hands Gnarly Dudes Shiraz Barossa Valley (13.8% ABV, $35, 100% Shiraz)
C: dark ruby
N: fresh blackberries, baking spice, tobacco
P: more blackberries, pepper, save, savory notes, medium to full body, good acidity, good balance
V: 7+, very nice overall

Let’s go back to Europe – to Italy to be more precise. Italy is home to lots and lots of world-famous producers, but there are still a few which have more of a “legend” status. One of such producers is Gaja – anyone who is into the wine would immediately jump off the chair at the slightest opportunity to drink Gaja wines.

Gaja Pieve Santa Restituta Brunello di Montalcino (1)Gaja is most famous for their Piedmont reds – Barolo and Barbaresco. It appears that in addition to the first two Bs (Barolo and Barbaresco), the third “B” group of wines is not foreign to Gaja – if you thought “Brunello”, you were right. Gaja acquired Pieve Santa Restituta estate in Montalcino in 1994, its first venture outside of Piedmont. A “Pieve” is a parish church, and the estate was named after the church which is still present on site – the winemaking history of the estate can be traced all the way back to the 12th century.

In 2005, Gaja produced the first vintage of non-vineyard designated Brunello di Montalcino wine from Pieve Santa Restituta estate – the wine is a blend of Sangiovese Grosso grapes from 4 different vineyards. I had an opportunity to taste 2012 Gaja Pieve Santa Restituta Brunello di Montalcino DOCG (15% ABV, $75, 100% Sangiovese Grosso, 12 months in barrel, 12 months in Botti). I have one single word which would be enough to describe the experience – and the word is “Superb”. The wine had an intense welcoming nose which was unmistakably Italian – ripe cherries and leather. The palate? Where do I start… velvety, perfectly extracted, dense, firmly structured, ripe cherries, lavender, sweet oak, impeccable balance. And dangerous, very dangerous – once you start, you can’t stop (nevermind the 15% ABV). Drinkability: 9

What are your favorite wines to enjoy in the Fall? Cheers!

 

Stories of Passion and Pinot: Knudsen Vineyards

November 6, 2017 8 comments

It takes courage to be a pioneer. It takes vision, belief, perseverance and lots and lots of hard work to convert the dream into reality – but this is how many great wine stories start.

Nobody questions “World Class” status of Oregon wines today.  But back in 1971, this was really not the story. One had to see the potential and believe that Oregon is meant to produce the world-class wines. Cal and Julia Lee Knudsen did when they purchased the remnants of the walnut orchard in 1971 and established Knudsen Vineyards. The whole family – Cal, Julia Lee and four of their children worked hard to clean up the land and plant the vines. In 1972, they established a 30 acres vineyard, which was the largest in the  Willamette Valley. By 1976, they had 60 acres planted, which made them the biggest in Oregon (as a matter of fact, Knudsen Vineyards still have some of the 1974 vines which produce fruit). Today, Knudsen Vineyards plantings span 130 acres, which is certainly one of the largest in the state where the typical vineyard size is 35 acres. And in 1975, in partnership with Oregon winemaking legend, Dick Erath, Knudsen Erath Winery became first commercial winery in the Dundee Hills appellation.

In 1987, the Australian Brian Croser met Cal, and the new chapter started for Knudsen Vineyards. Cal always had a dream of making sparkling wines, and the Knudsen Vineyards entered into the new partnership, now with the Oregon sparkling wine pioneer, Argyle Winery. Today, many of the Oregon wineries are starting to add Chardonnay to their repertoire – Knudsen Vineyards was growing Chardonnay for the very long time, and Chardonnay is essential for a good sparkling wine. As a matter of fact, Julia Lee’s Block, which you can see designated on one of the top Argyle’s sparkling wines, contains the oldest in the new world plantings of French Chardonnay Dijon clones 76 and 96. Also, while you will not see it widely advertised, Knudsen Vineyards grows 3 acres of Pinot Meunier, used only for the production of Argyle sparklers.

Knudsen Vineyards, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon

Knudsen Vineyards, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon

Ever since Knudsen Vineyards started working with Argyle, all of their fruit was going into Argyle sparkling wines. Five years ago, the four siblings who run the vineyard now, decided to start producing the wine under their own label, which resulted in the 2012 release of Knudsen Vineyards Pinot Noir. The first release of Chardonnay was added a year after, in 2013. This year, Knudsen Vineyards added the new premium bottling – 2015 Pinot Noir Reserve. All of the wines are produced with the help of the winemaking team at Argyle, which vinifies the juice from the different blocks of the Knudsen Vineyards – but the family gets together to decide on the final blend of the wines they later release.

If you followed any of the Passion and Pinot stories, you probably expect that I will have an interview for you – and you are right. Only this time around, it is slightly different – in addition to the virtual part, I also had an opportunity to sit down face to face with Page Knudsen Cowles, managing partner at Knudsen Vineyards, and extend our virtual conversation with the personal one. I learned lots of interesting things which are really impossible to get to in the format of the virtual interview.

For instance, have you ever heard of the “Suitcase clones“? I certainly never had. It appears that it is a common name for the vine cuttings which are smuggled into the country in the suitcases. For the Knudsen family, the “suitcase” was not exactly a choice tool for vine transportation – the ski bag was the one, as every family skiing vacation in Europe saw new cuttings finding its way home.

At some point, Cal started experimenting with the effects of the birds’ chirping on the vines. The birds’ sounds were played between the rows of the vines. The unfortunate part is that the results of this experiment are not known. But when birds became a problem in the vineyards in 2010/2011, the sound of distressed robin came to the rescue – it was played throughout the night and helped to shoo the birds away – however, made the stay at the small cottage the family has right in the vineyard very problematic.

Knudsen Second Generation

Knudsen Second Generation: Page, Colin, Cal Jr, David

Okay, let’s move on. Let me share with you our [now virtual] conversation with Page Knudsen Cowles. Get a glass of wine in hand, and here you go:

[TaV]: The first vines were planted at Knudsen Vineyards in 1971. Are there any of the original vines still around, and if yes, are they still producing fruit?

[PKC]: The oldest currently-producing vines were planted in 1974. They are Pinot Noir vines that produce fruit for sparkling wine.

[TaV]: I understand that back in 1971, Cal and Julia Lee purchased a 200-acre former walnut tree orchard – are there any of those trees still around and producing [commercially}? Was/is Knudsen family ever in walnut business?

[PKC]: No, the Knudsen family was never in the walnut business. The walnut tree orchard was destroyed in the 1962 Columbus Day storm that wrecked havoc through the Willamette Valley at that time.

[TaV]: The first Knudsen wines under Knudsen Erath label were produced in 1975. Are any of those wines still around? Have you ever tasted wines from that inaugural vintage?

[PKC]: I have not had the pleasure of tasting that very first vintage. I have found in the secondary market a stash of Knudsen Erath Winery 1983 Vintage Select Pinot Noir and some bottles of the Knudsen Erath Winery 1985 Vintage Select Pinot noir. Both wines have held up remarkably well and are fun to drink and share with wine aficionados who appreciate the provenance and age of the wine.

[TaV]: Continuing the previous question, what are the oldest vintages which can be found at the Knudsen Vineyards library? What are the oldest Knudsen wines you ever tasted?

[PKC]: The oldest vintages we have in the Knudsen Vineyards library are:

  • 1979 Knudsen Erath Winery Merlot
  • 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987 Knudsen Erath Winery Pinot Noir

The oldest wines I have ever tasted are the 1983 and 1985 Knudsen Erath Winery Vintage Select Pinot Noirs.

[TaV]: Today Knudsen Vineyards has about 130 acres under the vines. What grape varietals do you grow today?

[PKC]: We grow 73% Pinot Noir including a variety of French Dijon Clones 667, 777, 115, and 4407, plus the heritage clone Pommard; 24% Chardonnay including the French Dijon clones 76, 95 and 96; and 3% Pinot Meunier.

[TaV]: Knudsen Vineyards just started producing the wines under its own label, and it is not surprising that the first two wines are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Moving forward, do you have any plans to start producing any other wines, such as Pinot Gris or Riesling?

[PKC]: No, we do not have plans to produce either of these varietals.

[TaV]: Within the 130 acres of vineyards, you probably identified some of the plots which perform better or, at least, different than the others. Do you plan to produce “single-plot” wines?

[PKC]: Our current planning does not include production of “single plot” wines. We have favorite estate grown blocks that we like to blend when we produce our wines.

Aerial View over Knudsen Vineyard, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon

Aerial View over Knudsen Vineyard, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon

[TaV]: Knudsen Vineyards have a strong connection to the production of the sparkling wines through the partnership with Argyle Winery. Nevertheless, do you have any plans to produce sparkling wines under the Knudsen Vineyards label?

[PKC]: Our father, Cal Knudsen, had a love affair with sparkling wines from around the world, though he was most attached to those from the region of Champagne and Oregon sparkling wine. He allied Knudsen Vineyards with Argyle in order to make sparkling wine. Knudsen Vineyards would love to produce a small amount of sparkling wine in the future in honor of our father’s love for that expression of the fruit from our vineyard.

[TaV]: When making wines, do you rely on natural yeast, or do you work with some specific strains of yeast?

[PKC]: I reached out to our winemaker, Nate Klostermann, of Argyle Winery, for the answer to this one. We grow several selected yeast cultures and then inoculate with the one that seems best suited to the vintage.

[TaV]: What kind of oak regimen do you use in the production of your Chardonnay and Pinot Noir?

[PKC]: All of our oak comes from French barrels. Our inaugural 2013 Chardonnay has 35% new oak and was aged over 13 months in barrel; our 2014 Chardonnay had 25% new oak and was aged over 10 months in neutral and new oak barrel; and our 2015 Chardonnay has 27% oak over 10 months in barrel.

For the Pinot Noir, our oak usage is as follows:

Knudsen Vineyards 2014 Pinot Noir 25% new oak barrels; remainder aged in 2 – 4 year old previously used oak barrels; aged for 15 months in barrel, nine months in bottle Knudsen Vineyards 2015 Pinot Noir 20% new oak barrels; remainder aged in 2 – 4 year old previously used oak barrels; aged for 16 months in barrel, nine months in bottle Knudsen Vineyards 2015 Estate Reserve Pinot Noir 35% new oak barrels; remainder aged in 2 – 4 year old previously used oak barrels; aged for 16 months in barrel, nine months in bottle

[TaV]: What is the total production of your Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (how many bottles)? Do you plan to increase the production in the near future or you are happy with the current production?

[PKC]: Currently, we produce between 1,000 and 1,200 cases of our Pinot Noir and Chardonnay combined (between 12,000 and 14,400 bottles). The mix is approximately 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay. We are content at this level of production for a couple of years. In the future, we hope to expand.

[TaV]: Is there a “next big grape” for Knudsen Vineyards?

[PKC]: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are what we intend to grow into the foreseeable future.

[TaV]: What about Willamette valley in general – is it going to stay a Pinot Noir land for the foreseeable future, or would there be a “next big grape”, white or red, for the Willamette Valley?

[PKC]: I believe the North Willamette Valley will stay devoted to Pinot Noir and will increase its production of Chardonnay.

[TaV]: Do you have a dream wine – the wine you always wanted to try, but never have?

[PKC]: I would like to try a bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti from Burgundy and a bottle of any of the Bordeaux First Growth red wines: Château LatourChâteau Lafite RothschildChâteau Margaux and Château Haut-Brion. I also would love to try a bottle of Opus One from California.

Knudsen Vineyards wines

Now for sure it is time to drink the wine. I had an opportunity to try Knudsen Vineyards wines, here are the notes:

2015 Knudsen Vineyards Chardonnay Dundee Hills Willamette Valley (14% ABV, $45)
C: light golden
N: vanilla, touch of toasted oak, medium intensity
P: fresh, crisp, slightly underripe Granny Smith apples, touch of minerality, distant hint of butter and vanilla, quite an acidic finish
V: 8/8+, not bad, but needs time to evolve. Opens in the glass quite elegantly. Second day was outstanding – nice buttery note while fridge cold, and more vanilla-driven as the wine warmed up

2015 Knudsen Vineyards Pinot Noir Dundee Hills Willamette Valley (141% ABV, $55)
C: light bright ruby
N: tart cherries, lavender, hint of smoke
P: cherries, round, good acidity, touch of mushrooms, fresh, Burgundian style
V: 8-, very nice

2015 Knudsen Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve Dundee Hills Willamette Valley (14.1% ABV, $70)
C: dark ruby
N: smoke, mushrooms and forest floor aromatics
P: cherries, good acidity, layers, smooth, lavender-driven on the second day
V: 8/8+, very polished, elegant, will evolve with time.

Thus we conclude another story of Passion and Pinot (and a little bit of Chardonnay). Wine is a family affair, and Knudsen Vineyards shows it very well. Now the third generation of Knudsens is entering the business, and I’m sure there are lots we should expect to see from the Knudsen Vineyards in the future. Cheers!

Art and Science of a Perfect Cup of Coffee

November 3, 2017 4 comments

Shearwater Coffee BarPlease close your eyes. Oops, no, not for real – please keep your eyes open to read, but do it at least in your mind. Imagine the aroma of the freshly brewed coffee – the unique smell in the air which nothing else can compare to. Sometimes that is the smell of a new day. Sometimes, it is a quiet moment in the afternoon. Sometimes, it is winding down the evening. Was this hard to imagine, even if you didn’t close your eyes? If you love coffee, I would bet that was a very easy exercise. And I hope you do love it, as coffee is what I want to talk about today.

I love comparing coffee with wine. Similar to the wine, coffee has a dependency on its area of origin. Kona, Jamaican Blue Mountain, Costa Rica, Ethiopia – each region imparts its own unique tasting profile. Similar to the wine, sustainability, and coffee growing process matter. Similar to the wine grapes, the best coffee is harvested by hand. Similar to the wine grapes, the coffee beans are sorted to achieve the best quality and consistency. Most importantly – similar to the perfect glass of wine, a perfect cup of coffee delivers lots and lots of pleasure.

Notice how I went from coffee bean growing to the coffee cup, skipping a few steps in between? Those few steps are what differentiates coffee from wine, making coffee ultimately a more complicated subject. Before you jump off a chair and click away, as the writer here clearly a lunatic, please allow me to explain.

Once the good quality grapes are obtained, they are pressed, fermented, aged, and finally, bottled. The bottle is the final form in which wine will reach you, the consumer. Now, to enjoy the glass of wine, all you need to do is to pop that cork (twist the screw top, if you insist), pour the liquid into the glass and voilà! Yes, there are few extra steps and hurdles which oenophiles happily enact for themselves to enjoy the wine “more better”, but really – unless someone does something really stupid, like leaving a wine bottle for a day in a hot car, the good wine in the bottle will easily translate to the good wine in the glass.

The things are different when it comes to the coffee. The final product of the coffee grower is dried green beans. Before coffee can be enjoyed, it has to be roasted and brewed. Roasting typically takes about 20 minutes, and those 20 minutes can either create a thing of beauty or an awful, terrible concoction which one can drink, but never able to enjoy. Brewing also offers multiple opportunities to convert those beautifully roasted, full of promise and anticipation beans into a dull or simply bad tasting brown liquid.

The process of coffee brewing is where the aromatics and flavors are transferred from the roasted beans to the water, which results in your final object of desire, a perfect cup. Before brewing, coffee beans have to be ground. The way coffee will be ground depends on what type of coffee would you like to drink – espresso requires the very fine grind, so higher flavor concentration can be achieved. For so-called “drip coffee”, the coffee particles are typically very coarse, as water is not pushed through the coffee with the high pressure, as it is done for the espresso. Now, let’s leave espresso aside and talk about the “drip coffee”, the one which we consume most often.

It turns out that there are many factors which are matter here, on the way to arriving at that perfect cup – temperature of the water (to the single degree of Fahrenheit!), the ratio of water to the coffee and the speed of extraction (how long the water will stay in contact with the coffee grinds). Just for you to understand: the ideal coffee brewing temperature is 201°F – and 203°F will result in the burnt taste! You need to maintain the ratio of water to coffee at 15.5 to 1 (15.5 grams of water per 1 gram of coffee). And you need to spend about 4 minutes making that perfect cup. How about it? Will you ever look at your morning coffee cup the same way again, after I shared with you all this information? Well, didn’t mean to scare you, honestly – all you need to do is just to taste the difference.

A couple of years ago I talked about a visit to the Shearwater Organic Coffee Roasters, the organic coffee artisans in Trumbull, Connecticut, where we learned about intricacies of the proper treatment of the fresh coffee beans from Ed Freedman, the owner of the company (here you can read about that experience). This year, Ed decided to deliver a full [proper] coffee experience to the people by opening Shearwater Coffee Bar in Fairfield in Connecticut. I had an opportunity to visit it few month ago and get exposed to the science and art of a perfect coffee cup.

Shearwater Coffee Bar

Shearwater Coffee Bar

Shearwater Coffee Bar

Shearwater Coffee Bar

Jason The Barista is ready for action

Shearwater Coffee Bar

The choice is yours

If the words “coffee bar” elicit an image of Starbucks in your head, shun that away please, as the Shearwater Coffee Bar is nothing like. Similar to the regular bar we are all used to, you can sit in front of the barista, have a conversation and watch as your beverage of choice is unhurriedly prepared in front of you. Unlike a typical bar, you sit comfortably on the normal height chairs, not on the “bar stools” which are not so much fun to get on and off. But if you ever observed a cocktail master who produced a drink which made you say “wow”, this coffee bar delivers exactly the same experience.

Shearwater Coffee Bar

Shearwater Coffee Bar

Shearwater Coffee Bar

Shearwater Coffee Bar

At Shearwater Coffee Bar, you have a choice of coffee to begin with – different origins, different roasts. Then you can choose your method – Pour Over, Chemex, Siphon – of course,  espresso and cappuccino are available too if that is something you want.

Once you decide on what you want, the magic begins with the grinding of the coffee beans and then putting the glass vessel on the scale. The coffee goes in, the water is dispensed at the exact temperature (201°F, remember?), and then poured over (if you asked for Chemex or Pour Over), while the barista is carefully watching the scale. A few (4!) minutes later, the magic is complete and coffee goes into your cup – can you smell the aroma?

We tried Pour Over and Chemex coffees – the were some slight variations but I wouldn’t dare to try to give you any differentiating descriptors. Jason, our barista, also attempted to make a siphon coffee (this technology actually comes from Japan, where the fine art of coffee is well recognized). In the siphon method, the water is heated from the bottom, and once it reaches a proper boiling point (which is not truly “boiling” temperature), it should slowly percolate up and travel slowly through the coffee to gently extract the flavor. Something went wrong, the water went through too fast, and Jason refused to pour us that “bad” coffee. Well, this is why we are talking about art here – and if the artist is not happy with creation, it goes down the drain.

The creativity at Shearwater Coffee Bar doesn’t stop here. First, you have the cold brew. The cold brew is when coffee is made without heating up the water. It takes about 18 hours to make coffee using cold brew method – but the resulting coffee is much less acidic compared to the standard coffee cup, thus people who can’t drink regular coffee because it is too acidic for them can perfectly enjoy the cup of the cold brew.

Now, let’s add a little bit of nitrogen (yep, you heard me right) to the mix, and you got … the Nitro! Do you like Guinness beer? If you do, then Nitro is your drink, as it is a coffee which looks like beer with a perfect thick foam on top, tastes like beer (yes, it makes you say “ahh” after a sip) – but has no alcohol in it, so you are really not limited in how many Nitro you can consume before driving back home.

So what is your take on a perfect coffee cup? If you are looking beyond just a punch of caffeine and a bite of a pronouncedly bitter taste, then you should really seek the art and indulgence of a delicious drink, taking as much of the pleasure as it can offer. Don’t take my word for it – visit Shearwater Coffee Bar and see taste for yourself. Cheers!

Shearwater Coffee Bar
1215 Post Road
Fairfield, CT 06824
https://www.facebook.com/ShearwaterCoffeeBar

Ph: (203) 955-1098

Daily Glass: An Australian Score

October 29, 2017 3 comments

I pride myself with very wide wine horizon. I scout wines from literally everywhere in the world – China, Japan, Croatia, Bulgaria or Hawaii – bring it on, the more obscure, the better, I will be happy to try them all.

Nevertheless, a majority of my daily drinking evolves around Italy, Spain, and California, with a little injection of France. The rest of the wine regions make a very sporadic appearance at our house – without any prejudice or malicious intent – just stating the fact.

Nevermind China and Japan, which are still going through an adolescence as wine producing countries – let’s talk about Australia instead. About 20 years ago Australia was leading wine imports in the USA. As you would enter a wine store, you were greeted with countless Australian wine selections.

Today, Australian wines are relegated to the back shelves, and they are definitely not on top of the wine consumer’s mind (in the USA for sure). Ups and downs are hard to analyze in the wine world (think of the devastating effect of the movie Sideways on Merlot consumption), and such an analysis is definitely not the point of this post, no matter how interesting such a discussion could’ve been.

As I stated before, Australian wines are rare guests at our table, and this is not deliberate – I enjoyed lots and lots of excellent Australian wines, and have an utmost respect to what this country can deliver. I’m always ready to seize an opportunity to try an Australian wine, especially if it comes with a recommendation.

Such recommendation can present itself in lots of different ways – a friend, a magazine, an Instagram post, a tweet – or an offer from the Last Bottle Wines, especially during the Last Bottle’s infamous Marathon events. During the Last Bottle Marathon, you can buy the wines in single bottle quantities, which I like the most as you can create your own tasting collection quickly and easily.

If the wine is offered for sale by the Last Bottle, it definitely serves as an endorsement for me. The folks at Last Bottle know the wines – if they offer something, it means the wine really worth trying. During the last Marathon, the 2015 Gemtree Uncut Shiraz McLaren Vale (14.5% ABV) attracted my attention. I don’t know what made me click the “buy” button –  the name “Gemtree” (sounds interesting, isn’t it?), or the word ‘Uncut” (again, this somehow sounds cool to me as well), but I did click that button quickly.  You see, you only have a split second to get the wine – you blink, you lose – and I scored the bottle of this Australian Shiraz.

I pulled the bottle from the wine fridge, twisted the top and poured into the glass. Dark ruby color, a whiff of the blackberries. The palate had a tremendous amount of salinity over the crunchy blackberries – I guess this was an effect of drinking this wine at a cellar temperature. But it was still attractive. While admiring the simple label I saw the word which made me very curious – “Biodynamic”, and then the back label provided lots more information about how this wine was made. To me, “sustainable” is a very important wine keyword, and whatever extras “biodynamic” entails, the biodynamic wine is always a sustainable wine – and it is definitely important for me.

After warming up, the wine became generous, layered, showed soft tannins and perfect crunchy backbone of dark fruit with some dark chocolate notes and touch of a spicy bite – all perfectly balanced and delicious (Drinkability: 8+). The name “Gemtree” kept me intrigued, and the picture on the label was very attractive in its simplicity, so I went to the Gemtree Wines website to learn a bit more. I rarely quote from the winery websites, but I think in this case this is quite appropriate (here is the link to the source):

This is our Gemtree story…

There was once a tree. Not the tallest tree, nor the oldest tree, but a tree that had put its roots in just the right part of the paddock. Here the soil was deep and layered – sometimes hard and rocky, elsewhere soft and sandy – and the wind had just enough room to move, and even the rain – when it was kind enough to visit – would fall evenly and gently.

Because of its favoured position, the grasses grew tall against its trunk, and the wild flowers were easily encouraged to grow closely around it, and the insects and birds that looked to trees for shelter and for vantage, eagerly moved in.

One day a farmer approached the tree and wondered: “You do not grow the strongest, nor the fastest, so why is it that you grow the best fruit?”

The tree let the answer whisper through the wind in its branches: “If I am shown a patient mind and a gentle hand, if I am left to follow the rhythms of my seasons – to rest in Winter; to revive in Spring; to make busy in Summer; and to provide in Fall – then I can offer fruit that tastes not just of the ground upwards, but also of the sky downwards, and of everything around me.”

The farmer thought to himself: “This is truly a Gemtree – it takes only what it can give back to the land, it contributes to its surroundings, and it provides for those that live around it.”

This is the heart of the Gemtree story: growing better wine ~ naturally.

Here you are, my friends. I don’t know how often you drink Australian wines, but Gemtree is definitely the name to keep in mind for your next round of wines from down under – I think you will be happy with your score. Cheers!

Hold The Pizza – I Just Want The Wine: Masciarelli Villa Gemma

October 24, 2017 4 comments

At the age of 20, Gianni Masciarelli was helping with the harvest in Champagne. At the age of 26, in 1981, he started making his own wines in the Italian region called Abruzzo. 1984 was the first release of the Villa Gemma Rosso wine, truly a different take on the Montepulciano wines.

Montepulciano is the main grape of Abruzzo (not to be confused with Montepulciano in Tuscany, which is the name of the village where the wines are made from Sangiovese grape). Late in the 20th century, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo became one of the most exported Italian wines – it was dry, it was simple, it was quaffable and, of course, good for pizza.

Masciarelli Villa Gemma wines

Gianni Masciarelli had his own, pioneer view on how the Montepulciano wines should be made. He introduced Guyot training system for the vines in Abruzzo. He was the first to start using French oak barrels in the production of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, showing the world that Montepulciano can go way beyond just a “pizza wine” qualities. Today, Masciarelli estates are run by Marina Cvetic Masciarelli, late wife of Gianni Masciarelli; the vineyards spawn 350 acres and produce about 1.1M bottles of wine across 5 different lines.

Recently, I had an opportunity to taste few of the wines from the Villa Gemma line, and here are my notes:

2016 Masciarelli Villa Gemma Blanco Colline Teatine IGT (13% ABV, $17.99, 80% Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, 15% Cococciola, 5% Chardonnay)
C: light golden
N: touch of fresh grass, hint of white stone fruit, hint of gunflint, medium intensity
P: crisp, refreshing, crunchy, touch of lemon, slightly underripe peaches, very clean, medium finish
V: 8-, craving food, excellent overall. Trebbiano d’Abruzzo and Cococciola also extended my grape hunting collection

2016 Masciarelli Villa Gemma Cerasuolo D’Abruzzo DOC (13.5% ABV, $14.99, 100% Montepulciano)
C: intense, ripe strawberry pink
N: pure strawberries, fresh, succulent strawberries
P: fresh, tart, restrained, lightweight, clean strawberry profile, good overall balance
V: 8, simply delightful. An excellent Rosé for any time of the year

Masciarelli Villa Gemma wines

2007 Masciarelli Villa Gemma Montepulciano D’Abruzzo DOC (14.5% ABV, $89.99, 100% Montepulciano, aged 18-24 months in oak barriques, total 36 months))
C: Dark garnet
N: fresh cherries, anis, mint, blackberries
P: soft, generous, round, fresh acidity, touch of leather, cherries and cherry pit, generous tannins on the finish.
V: 8, excellent wine, unmistakably Italian, supremely delicious.

These wines were absolutely delicious in their own right. I seriously don’t know about pizza – you can probably pair anything with pizza, from two buck chuck to the Screaming Eagle and Petrus – but you really don’t have to. These three wines from Masciarelli Villa Gemma would perfectly complement any dinner – appetizers, salads, and mains – these wines pack a serious amount of pleasure. Don’t take my word for it – try them for yourself. The pizza is entirely optional. Cheers!

South Africa’s Top 10 Méthode Cap Classique Wines

October 19, 2017 2 comments

Today I want to bring to your attention a guest post by Brittany Hawkins – for more information about Brittany, please see the bottom of this post.

Source: Wikipedia

Most of us know that real Champagne only comes from Champagne, France.

Some of us also understand that there is a significant difference in the processes used to make Champagne versus many other sparkling wines. But there are other bubbly wines that are made in the tradition of Champagne, which is known as méthode classique.

If you didn’t know this, we will fill you in on the details in a moment, but do know that this little fact is at least one part of the secret behind why South Africa’s MCC (Méthode Cap Classique) wines are so highly sought after?

What Makes MCC So Special?

When you drink a South African MCC, there are at least two key differences between it and the majority of other sparkling wines.

First, as alluded to above, MCCs are made in the traditional Champagne way. This means that the wine is fermented a second time in the bottle (not a tank, like some sparkling wines) using a solution of yeast and sugar. The bottle is left anywhere from 1 ½ to 3 years during the second fermentation. This process is what carbonates the wine.

So, when you open up a bottle of MCC, you are about to enjoy the closest thing on earth to Champagne other than Champagne itself. In fact, South African MCCs are truly rivaling French champagnes due to the quality of their grapes and wine makers.

However, while South African MCC is made méthode classique, it has some unique South African markers. Particularly, as a result of the warmer climate and consistent temperatures of the South African wine country, MCCs tend to be fruitier in character than Champagne and many other sparkling wines, creating unique tasting profile.

Now, let’s give you a run-down of the top 10 MCCs South Africa has to offer.

  1. Simonsig Cuvée Royale Blanc de Blancs 2012

Simonsig Wines in Stellenbosch is home to the very first South Africa Méthode Cap Classique.

It should come as no surprise, then, that we name Simonsig at the top of our list. In the 2017 Cap Classique Challenge, they had two double gold medal winners, as well as other medalists.

We have to agree with the judges of the annual competition in saying that Simonsig’s Cuvée Royale Blanc de Blanc from 2012 is number 1 on the list.

  1. Simonsig Woolworth’s Pinot Noir Rosé 2015

Produced by Simonsig only for Woolworth’s, this MCC Pinot Noir Rosé offers that fruity quality mentioned above, with a crispness sure to deliver a pleasing and refreshing experience.

  1. Domaine des Dieux Claudia Brut 2011

 Tucked away in the foothills of the Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge mountains, Domaine des Dieux is a boutique wine farm with very impressive, award-winning wines. Also a gold medalist in the 2017 Cap Classique, Domaine des Dieux’s Claudia Brut MCC will not disappoint.

Made from a predominantly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir base grown in a cooler climate than average South African wine, this MCC will deliver a bit fuller, more austere flavor.

  1. Boschendal’s Brut Rosé NV

 Boschendal farm, in the heart of the Stellenbosch wine country, is one of the oldest wine farms in the country, founded in 1685. Today, it is committed to biodiversity and sustainability.

Boschendal’s award-winning MCC, the Brute Rosé brings together Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinotage to create a unique, versatile blend that is as tasty to the tongue as it is pleasing to the eye. All the grapes and wine used to produce it come directly from their farm.

  1. Graham Beck Brut Rosé 2012

 The Graham Beck Robertson estate is situated in the cool Breede River Valley. They specialize in Cap Classique wines and have a cellar devoted purely to its making and are known for producing some of the best Méthode Classique in the world.

They have numerous award-winning MCCs, but their Brute Rosé recently won gold for best of 2017.

  1. J.C. Le Roux Scintilla 2011

J.C. Le Roux is considered to be one of the leading producers of MCC in all of South Africa. Located in the Devon Valley of Stellenbosch, they are considered a house of bubbly, producing top brands of Cap Classique – Scintilla and Desiderius Pongracz. While most of their MCCs are exquisite, we highly recommend you try their Scintilla 2011. 

  1. Babylonstoren Sprankel 2012

Babylonstoren is another wine farm committed to biodiversity, sustainability with many ways for guests to interact with their farm and winery.

Their award winning MCC, their 2012 Sprankel, is composed of Chardonnay grapes which are carefully chosen from various different vineyards with ideal altitudes. They bring these grapes together to create an MCC with a vibrant and crisp fruity flavor with hints of citrus and passion fruit. 

  1. Laborie Brut 2011

Established in the 1700’s, Laborie has been operating as a world class wine farm for some decades now.

Their award-winning Laborie Brut was made with tender loving care, allowed to mature on its lees for 24 solid months before it was disgorged and bottled. 

  1. Stellenbosch Infiniti Brut

A name well established as one of the greats of the South African wine estates, it should come as no surprise that Stellenbosch produces a superb MCC. Their Infiniti Brut will give you a unique MCC experience, with warm nutty flavors with a hint of citrus.    

  1. Bon Courage Jacques Buére de Blancs 2010

Located in the cooler region of Robertson valley, Bon Courage Estate is home to both locally and internationally recognized and acclaimed wines.

Their line of MCC’s, the Jacques Bruér line, all undergo at least 36-48 months of yeast contact before disgorgement. The Blanc de Blanc is especially exquisite.

For more information on South African Wine farm tours and how to visit them when in South Africa Explore Sideways has all the information you will ever need.

 

Brittany head shotAbout Brittany Hawkins:

Brittany’s passion for food and wine began in her hometown, Napa Valley, California, where she grew up immersed in the wine industry. After receiving a degree from DePauw University, she began her career in Silicon Valley in the advertising and marketing industries. Brittany moved to Cape Town 3 years ago where she launched Explore Sideways and has since been able to marry her interests in food, wine, travel and tech to create transformative experiences around the world.

Daily Glass: Monday Night Escapades

October 17, 2017 2 comments

Is there a special wine fitting every day of the week? I would guess that for many, Friday and Saturday are considered special nights, as it’s the weekend, and people think of drinking something better (higher end). Sunday is still the weekend, so the higher calling might still be in order.

But what about Monday? Does your choice of wine for Monday depend on your general outlook on life? “I love Mondays” … said not that many people, but isn’t it great that it is the first day of the week and we have the whole new week ahead of us, with lots of things to do, places to visit and people to meet? I guess one’s personal take on Mondays does depend on one’s take on life, so I will leave it for you to ponder at and if you have any words of wisdom to share, please do so after the beep  … err in the comments section below.

I have two wine-related experiences from Monday which I want to share. First, I finally got to open the Field Recording’s Can Club shipment. What’s a big deal, you ask?

Field Recordings is one of the most innovative wineries I know. Small winery in Paso Robles, California, a brainchild of Andrew Jones, a vigneron, who started his career as a grape grower, first and foremost. Ever since I tried his Fiction Red, I became a passionate fan and I’m religiously following everything Filed Recordings does.

A few years ago, Field Recordings started experimenting with the wine in the can. Going beyond just the wine in the can, they also finishing their wines with the beer hops which creates truly a different experience. As soon as the “Can Club” was opened, I joined it. The wines were always good, but the shipments themselves went through a number of changes in the format, and pretty much every shipment had some little (and different) issues associated with them. Until now.

Once I opened the box, my very first reaction was “wow”. In my humble opinion, Field Recordings, under their Alloy Works brand, achieved perfection in the packaging of the canned wine. Simple, elegant, sturdy, economical, easy to handle – unpacking this shipment was absolutely a delightful experience. Ask any oenophile, the first thing which gets everyone excited is the opening of those boxes. With this delivery, Field Recordings Can Club achieved shipping nirvana – I hope they will continue it moving forward.

I can’t tell you much about the wines, as they needed to get chilled and went straight into the fridge;  I can only mention that this shipment included 2 cans each of Weissland, sparkling dry hopped Chardonnay; Martian Galaxy – a dry-hopped, sparkling rose, a blend of Gamay and Mourvedre Martian Vineyard in Los Alamos; and Sangria, a blend of freshest, cold-pressed juice cocktail of cranberry, blood orange and lemon from Yes Cocktail Company mixed with Zinfandel from Old Potrero Vineyard. I don’t know about you, but I’m very excited to try these wines – and will report on the experience afterward.

2011 Turley The Label Cabernet Sauvignon Napa ValleyNow, let’s talk about that Monday night wine. Outside of special events, I never know in advance what am I going to open. Deciding on the bottle of wine is somewhat of a frustrating experience (first world problems, I know). Numerous bottles get touched and looked at, then rejected for a myriad of reasons. Finally, one is pulled out – usually for no other reason than “oh well, maybe this will do”. This time around the bottle happened to be Turley Cabernet Sauvignon called The Label.

Turley is not known as the Cabernet Sauvignon powerhouse – it is a coveted and well sought-after Zinfandel producer for the most. A few years ago, Turley finally got into the Cabernet Sauvignon wines and produced the wine which was called “The Label” – named after the words of Larry Turley, the proprietor at Turley Winery, who always said that Cabernet Sauvignon drinkers simply “drink the label”.

I  don’t know if this should be considered funny or strange, but it appears that 2011 Turley The Label already was my choice of Monday wine – almost 4 years ago, in January of 2014 (here is the post). I really loved the wine then, but it evolved much further this time around. From the get-go, this 2011 Turley The Label Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley (13.4% ABV) showed a beautiful medley of the succulent berries, both on the nose and the palate – blackberries, blueberries, and black currant, tastefully accompanied by mint and eucalyptus and supported by clean acidity (Drinkability: 9-). It was reminiscent of a perfect Turley Zinfandel, fresh and playful – with a character of its own. Last time I said I want to taste this wine in 10 years. After almost four we are going in the right direction – I should have one more bottle somewhere so I will have to be careful to avoid any Monday blues prompts to open this wine until its due time.

What is your perfect Monday wine? Cheers!

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

October 13, 2017 6 comments
Spain's wine regions

Source: Wines from Spain USA

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

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

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

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

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

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

rare Grapes seminar led by Doug Frost MS/MW

Spain's Great Match

Spain's Great Match

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spain's Great Match

Spain's Great Match

Spain's Great Match

Spain's Great Match

Spain's Great Match

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also very good:

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

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

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

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

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

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

For The Love of Chowder – 2017, 10th Anniversary Edition

October 6, 2017 2 comments

Last Sunday, October 1st, we had fun. Too-much-of-a-good-food, coma-inducing fun. The 10th Annual Chowdafest was on – the biggest and the busiest of them all (well, maybe not “all”, as I attended only last 3 – but for sure the busiest of the 3).

When I saw traffic slowing down on I-95 about two miles away from our exit, I jokingly said to my wife “see, they are all coming to the Chowdafest”. As we kept driving slower and slower, eventually pretty much succumbing to a complete halt, the smile disappeared from my face. The joke was on me, as yes, this was the traffic getting into the exit of the Sherwood Island Park, and it was moving really, really slow.

Chowdafest 2017All the fears of looking for parking for a long time quickly disappeared once we managed to actually enter the park, and then to find the parking within a minute. A quick walk, getting your hand stamped and – hello, chowder!

What can I tell you about Chowdafest 2017, outside of the fact that it was a great fun? The format was somewhat the same as the last 2 years I attended – there were again 40 restaurants, competing for the “best” title. In addition to 4 of the staples – Classic New England, Traditional (Rhode Island and Manhattan), Creative and Soup/Bisque, the new category for added for the Vegetarian Chowder. Everybody had a ballot and a pencil and were rating chowders on the scale from 7 to 10.5. The ballots were processed right at the event (I saw that magic for the first time – there are few pictures for you down below), and the winners were announced two days after the event – you can see the names of the winning restaurants here.

Unlike last year, the weather was amazing. And I guess the weather, coupled with a great promotion and the 10th Anniversary nature of the event, really drove a lot of people over. Some of the lines required 10+ minutes waiting, but I really can’t complain, as everything was flowing very efficiently. Here it is, the weather and the people:

Chowdafest 2017

Chowdafest 2017

Chowdafest 2017

Chowdafest 2017

What a day!

Chowdafest 2017

Chowdafest 2017

You can’t ask for a better weather

Chowdafest 2017

Beautiful day, isn’t it?

Overall, everything offered was very solid – of course, some were better than the others, but the level was quite high – I only had 4 soups rated at 7, and 3 out of those 4 had a burned flavor. Many soups were really, really delicious. in addition to all the chowders, there were lots of other food offered for tasting – potato chips, cheeses, sodas, iced teas, juices, ice cream – there was definitely something for everyone. Here are my notes – in pictures, of course:

These are some of my favorite decorations:

Chowdafest 2017

Pouring chowder requires focus!

Chowdafest 2017

… and smile

Chowdafest 2017Now, some of my absolute favorites:

Our House Bistro from Winooski, VT – all those condiments, super-tasty:

Truffle mushroom bisque from Old Post Tavern in Fairfield, CT and traditional chowder from Two-fifty Market in Portsmouth, NH:

Here are the winners in the traditional category – Pike’s Place from Seattle, WA:

Last but not least, may be the biggest surprise of the day – vegetarian Smoked Corn & Squash Chowder from Harvest Wine Bar in Westport, CT:

Here you can see all the results getting tallied in the real time by the folks from Blum Shapiro:

Here you can see my vote (yep, with a few stains on it):

Chowdafest 2017 Final VoteComparing my thoughts with public opinion, I’m very happy to see Our House Bistro winning Creative Chowder category with Fried Seafood & Sweet Potato Chowder, and with Old Post Tavern taking top spot in the Vegetarian category with Truffle Mushroom Bisque and Harvest Wine Bar taking second place in the same category with Smoked Corn & Squash Chowder.

I can also get on board with B.R.Y.A.C taking the second spot in Classic New England Chowder category, but Pike’s Place winning that category for the 3rd year in the row simply baffles me – their chowder was overdone – super round and super creamy, it lacked the real burst of flavor of the classic New England clam chowder which both B.R.Y.A.C and Two-Fifty Market had perfectly visible. My only theory is that people get intimidated with all the medals at the Pike’s Place stand, and simply don’t want to be wrong when they think that so many people were right before.

Anyway, this one is done and we can already start thinking (and drooling) about Chowdafest 2018 – I know it is early, but still, mark your calendars for Sunday, September 30th, and see you there!

Behind The Label

September 18, 2017 13 comments

We eat with our eyes first – everybody knows that. We drink in exactly same way. While looking for the wine to buy, we always start from the label. Of course, sometimes we might be looking just for the specific producer’s name – but way more often than not, wine consumer is lured by the appearance of the bottle before anything else. We let the bottle speak to us.

Wine producers always knew the effect of the bottle appearance, and always tried to design attractive and appealing labels – think about Château Mouton Rothschild, for example, which started their “Artist” wine label series back in 1945. 20-25 years ago, the design, and most importantly, production capabilities were limited both in style and the cost. But not today- there are literally no limits to how creative the wine bottle design can get in today’s world. It is hard to tell what exactly makes the wine label instantly attractive, but we all can recognize that special label when we see it. I shared my fascination with the creativity of the wine labels on the multiple occasions in this blog – here is one example for you.

You don’t have to agree with me, but I see creative wine labels as objects of art. Art at large is a form of the human expression. Art takes lots and lots of different forms – beautiful building, successful surgery, a sublime glass of wine, a flower, a painting. I’m sure there are countless studies written on the subject, and I will not even try for the slightest bit to delve into it, but I’m convinced that art as a final expression always has its source, the origin, it is inspired – and this leads to the fundamental question – what inspires the art? I will leave you to ponder at that, and meanwhile, let me turn our conversation towards the … wine, of course.

Vilarnau Barcelona Cava When I saw the label of Vilarnau Brut Reserva Rosé, my first reaction was “wow, this is a beautiful bottle”. The next question was – what does it mean? Yes, I read the description connecting Vilarnau Trencadís Edition cavas to the work of famous architect Antoni Gaudí, but I still wanted to understand the true inspiration behind this label. I reached out to the winery, and asked a few questions – here is our short conversation:

[TaV]: Vilarnau produces Cava since 1949. When Trencadís labels were used on Vilarnau Cava for the first time?
[V]: We launched the Trencadis labels at the end of 2014.

[TaV]: What was the inspiration behind the Trencadís labels?
[V]: This form of mosaic is very famous in Catalunya, Spain. Inspired by the Park Guëll in Barcelona and the famous artist Gaudí. Vilarnau is the “Barcelona Cava” and we felt it was fitting to use such an iconic design to decorate the bottles.
Trencadís’ is a type of mosaic used in Catalan modernism, created from broken tile shards. The technique is also called ‘pique assiette’. The mosaic is done using broken pieces of ceramic, like tiles and dinnerware. The Catalan architects Antoni Gaudí and Josep Maria Pujol used trencadís in many projects, among which Barcelona’s Parc Güell is probably the most famous. Vilarnau being so close to Barcelona (not only geographically, but also with heart and soul), it was natural to pick up this typical artistic theme for our winery.

[TaV]: Are the Trencadís Cava target the specific market, or do they sell equally well world-wide?
[V:]: We are currently exporting this label to almost 30 markets (principle markets being the USA, UK, Germany, and Belgium) and the number is growing as consumers love the design and the wine.

[TaV]: Do you have plans to add any new wines to the Trencadís series?
[V]: When we first launched we only had the Brut Reserva NV in the trencadis design but we have added the Rosado Reserva to the range two years and the Brut Nature Vintage and Demi-Sec last year

[TaV]; Do you have plans for any other “creative label” designs under Vilarnau name?
[V]: Barcelona is a constant inspiration to us and we are full of ideas, however, we have so much to do with the Trencadis design that we probably won’t launch anything new for the next 2 years or so.

Vilarnau Barcelona Cava glasses

The beautiful label is very important, it sets the expectations and makes you anticipate more from the wine. But – the content of the bottle is better to support the beauty of the label, or the joy of wine drinking will quickly dissipate.

I’m happy to say that the NV Vilarnau Brut Reserva Trencadís Edition Rosé D.O. Cava (12% ABV, SRP: $15, 90% Trepat and 10% Pinot Noir, 15+ month in the bottle) didn’t disappoint. Beautiful intense pink color, classic Sparkling nose, with a touch of yeast and toasted bread on the nose, supported by fresh tart strawberries and lemon notes on the palate, crisp, succulent and invigorating. A perfect sparkling wine by itself, and at a price – almost an unbeatable value. (Drinkability: 8-/8).

What do you think of Art of the [wine] Labels? Do you have some favorites? Cheers!