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Californian Stars, Italian Flair

January 10, 2022 1 comment

Californian stars.

Of course, we are talking about wines and grapes. What would those be?

I recently called California Cabernet Sauvignon a king. We can safely designate Chardonnay as a queen. But who would you call a prince? Capricious, spiky, moody royalty? Whatever grape you think of, the correct answer is Pinot Noir, because this is the grape I mostly would like to talk about today. And tell me if you think Pinot Noir is not qualified for the role of the royal prince – finicky, demanding, and unpredictable.

Okay, we got our stars for the day. Now, the Italian flair. How would you add the Italian flair to the Californian grapes?

There are a few options. For example, you can call your sparkling wine a Spumante. Or you can call your winery Castello, and build it in the form of a medieval Italian castle. You can also make wines out of Sangiovese – but this we will discuss later. Anyway, as you can see, you got options.

Vittorio Sattui, an Italian immigrant, founded St. Helena Wine Cellars in 1885. The business had to be closed due to the prohibition in 1920, but the Sattui family continued living at the winery. In 1975, Dario Sattui, great-grandson of Vittorio, restarted the family business by opening V. Sattui winery in St. Helena.

After finishing college, Dario traveled around Europe and became obsessed with medieval castles, monasteries, farmhouses. In 1993, Dario found the next home for his future winery – 171 acres parcel near Calistoga. In 1994, the construction began initially for the 8,500 sq. ft building without cellars. That slowly morphed into a 121,000 sq. ft. 13th-century Tuscan castle with 107 rooms, drawbridge, five towers, high defensive ramparts, courtyards and loggias, a chapel, stables, an armory, and even a torture chamber. Lots of bricks and artifacts were delivered directly from Europe to ensure the full authenticity of the castle. Castello de Amorosa (Castle of Love) opened its doors to visitors in 2007 after 15 years of construction.

I was fortunate enough to visit the Castello di Amorosa in 2017 as part of the Wine Bloggers Conference 2017 in Santa Rosa, so I can share (inundate is a better word, of course) my first-hand impressions:

 

 

Thinking about misbehaving? Might not be recommended:

Touring the cellars:

The ceiling of the room where we had our tasting in 2017:

A bit of education – Napa Valley Regions:

Castello di Amorosa works with 14 vineyards, most of them in Napa and Sonoma, out of which 6 are estate vineyards. The focus of winemaking is on showcasing each individual terroir and on the small-batch production.

I had an opportunity to taste a range of Pinot Noir expressions from Castello di Amorosa, and I have to honestly say that I was very much impressed with what I found in my glass.

First, two sparkling wines, both produced using the classic method.

2017 Castello di Amorosa Spumante del Castello Brut Napa Valley (12.5% ABV, $39, 73% Chardonnay, 27% Pinot Noir)
Light Golden, fine bubbles
Toasted bread, apples, gunflint
Toasted bread, Granny Smith apples, more gunflint, great minerality, a touch of sweetness, bigger body than typical champagne.
8, excellent,

2017 Castello di Amorosa Spumante del Castello Brut Rosé Napa Valley (12.5% ABV, $49, 100% Pinot Noir)
Salmon pink, fine mousse
Steely strawberries, a hint of toast
Dry, crisp, strawberries, clean acidity, good minerality
8, excellent

Next up, Rosé. The grapes for this wine come from the Green Valley area in the Russian River Valley AVA, and the wine is partially aged in concrete egg. I had an opportunity to taste both 2019 and 2020 vintages over a few months timeframe, and you can see that my tasting notes are almost identical for both wines. Somehow I missed including this wine into my 2021 top wines list, which makes me upset – this was one of the best Rosé wines and wines overall that I tasted during 2021.

2019 Castello di Amorosa Rosato Cresta d’Oro Vineyard Green Valley of Russian River Valley (13.6% ABV, $39, 100% Pinot Noir)
Light bright pink
Fresh ripe sweet strawberries, good intensity, inviting
Beautiful ripe strawberries, a touch of lemon, clean acidity, impeccable balance. Wow.
9-/9, one of the best Rosé I ever had. Just wow.

2020 Castello di Amorosa Rosato Cresta d’Oro Vineyard Green Valley of Russian River Valley (12.5% ABV, $39, 100% Pinot Noir)
Light bright pink
Fresh strawberries, a touch of herbs, crisp, inviting, and invigorating
Beautiful ripe strawberries, a touch of lemon, clean acidity, impeccable balance. Wow.
9, one of the best Rosé I ever had. Just wow. Superb.

Last up – Pinot Noir from Morning Dew Ranch in Anderson Valley. This vineyard was purchased in 2015 from Burt Williams, founder of the iconic William Selyem Winery. The 12-acre vineyard is in a very cool microclimate and divided into 9 blocks of Pinot Noir planted with DRC, 115, 777, Rochioli, 23, and 828 clones. All the blocks and clones give quite a bit of room to experiment to the winemaking team.

2018 Castello di Amorosa Morning Dew Ranch Pinot Noir Anderson Valley (13.1% ABV, $75, 11 months in Burgundian oak barrels)
Dark ruby
Somewhat unexpressive on the first day, a hint of fruit
Closed up, concentrated, dark fruit, not amazing
Classic Pinot on the second day – iodine, violets, underbrush
Beautifully elegant on the palate – good acidity, smoke, tobacco, fresh berries, cherries, firm structure combined with medium body, medium-long finish.
8+ second day, super-enjoyable.

Here you go, my friends – a little Italian oasis – scratch that – a large Italian Castle in the middle of Napa Valley, producing magnificent California wines. Castello di Amorosa is definitely a unique travel destination and a must-visit if you are ever in the area.

Beyond Wine? Before Wine? Instead of Wine?

April 8, 2021 1 comment

Today, class, we are going to talk about grape juice. The real grape juice.

Am I about to descend into the rat hole of “clear and unclear wine” with this “real juice” statement? Nope. Not at all. Today we are talking about pure, unadulterated, varietal grape juice which stayed in the form of juice without becoming the wine.

When I got an offer to receive a sample of the Castello di Amorosa varietal grape juices, my first reaction was “seriously???”. Juice is juice no matter what it is produced from, right? It is usually cloyingly sweet and not something I generally enjoy. I had a great experience tasting the juice of just-harvested Merlot grapes at Paumanok winery on Long Island, and I still remember how incredibly sweet it was, so I don’t really see it as a product on its own. But then curiosity prevailed, and I asked for the sample to be shipped.

I got three juices shipped to me – Muscat Canelli, Gewurztraminer, and a Sparkling Red blend, all beautifully packaged in the Riesling-style bottles and labeled exactly as the wine would. Muscat Canelli and Gewurztraminer are 100% pure varietal, and red blend consists of 90% Gamay, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Grenache. All juices priced at $14 per bottle and available at the winery or online.

When I first tasted the juices, I really didn’t treat them as wines – I didn’t try to analyze the profile and understand individual flavors, the nose, the palate – I looked at them more as binary “like/don’t like” type of experience. I also made the mistake of judging the “wine” by the first taste – thus I declared Muscat, which was open the first, to be “too sweet”. Gewürztraminer was open second and showed nicely (read: surprisingly) balanced. The sparkling red blend was my favorite – it was barely fizzed (”sparkling” is a big word here) and had a nice tangy mid-palate feel, sort of a burst of the wild berries – really, really delicious.

It is interesting to note that these juices not only taste like wines, they also behave like wines. On the second day, the initial sweetness of Muscat subsided – just a little bit, but it was enough to make the juice appear more balanced and the Muscat instantly became my favorite for the evening.

I had been writing about wines for more than 10 years. While writing about the wine, all the little details – technical details, shall I say – summarized in the tasting notes, published by the wineries for all the wines and all the vintages – are quite helpful. This is where you find the details about the vintage, grape composition of the wine, fermentation, and oak regimen. At least, this is what I typically use in my writing. Talking about wine’s technical details, you can also often find there some of the analytical data – namely, pH and amount of residual sugar. And so in my 10+ years of writing, I literally never paid any attention to pH and residual sugar – it took nothing less than unfermented grape juices to make me look at those. Let me share those details with you:

Castello di Amorosa Gewurztraminer Grape Juice – residual sugar: 200.9 g/l, pH: 3.19
Castello di Amorosa Muscat Grape Juice – residual sugar: 18.5 Brix (199.12 g/l), pH: 3.35
Castello di Amorosa Sparkling Grape Juice Red Blend – residual sugar: 18.6 Brix (200.28 g/l), pH: 3.25

As you see, all juices have about 200 grams of sugar per liter – for comparison, there are 113 grams of sugar in one liter of Coke. We can also compare these juices with world-famous dessert wines – Sauternes, which typically sport between 80 and 120 grams of sugar per liter, occasionally reaching 160 or even higher. When it comes to pH values, wines are typically falling in the range between 3 and 4, and the lower the pH value is, the more acidic the wine will be perceived (note that pH is not a direct measure of acidity in wine), so as you can tell the pH values of these juices are quite comparable with the wines.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to balance. Everyone’s palate is different, and your perception of sweetness, acidity, and bitterness can perfectly differ from mine, however, balanced wines exist in each one of our personal worlds. So I have to tell you that each one of these juices was perfectly balanced for me, and therefore, I’m aptly impressed by the mastery of the winemakers here. To make my excitement clear – these are unadulterated beverages. There is nowhere to hide. No flavor-enhancing yeasts, no oak, no blending. Nothing. You need to know when to harvest and when to bottle. Nowhere to hide.

As you can tell, I can wholeheartedly recommend these juices. They are perfect on their own. Perfect any time you desire a little sweet fix after the meal. They will perfectly well support a wide variety of dishes. And I have a number of friends who only drink sweet wines with very little alcohol in them – considering the quality of these juices, I would much rather prefer to serve them these juices instead of Bartenura Moscato di Asti or a similar plonk (my apologies).

You know me well, so I’m sure you understand that it is improbable that I wouldn’t have any gripes – of course, I have them. While winery information on the back label is nice to have, I would like to know when these juices were bottled. How they should be stored. For how long they can be stored. How the opened bottles can be stored (I’m presuming in the refrigerator, but still), and how quickly the opened juices should be consumed.

Nevertheless, this was a great surprise and a delicious discovery. We might be looking at the trend here – hard to tell, but I expect that there will be wineries that will follow Castello di Amorosa’s lead. And I personally would be happy to have a few bottles always on hand to delight oneself or a special guest. Next time someone offers you a glass of varietal grape juice, say “thank you” and enjoy. Cheers!

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