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Discover Wines of South Africa

December 1, 2017 8 comments

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

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

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

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

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

Here are my notes from the tasting:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 20, 2017 7 comments

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

What is wrong with you, people?

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

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

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

Sauternes Selection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Without further ado, here are my notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sauternes Selection

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

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

May 11, 2017 3 comments

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

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

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

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

Rias Baixas Wiune Regions Map

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

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

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

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

Here are my notes:

Sub-region: Val do Salnés: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sub-region: O Rosal

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

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

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

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

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

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