Saturday, April 5, 2014

First Taste of the 2012 Rhones - Chateau Beauchene Cotes du Rhone

Cotes du Rhones are my favorite everyday reds so I was very excited when the bottlings from the very heralded 2012 vintage starting showing up on retailer's shelves. 2011 wasn't a bad vintage but there were some problems during the growing season that led to some variable quality across the board. Not so with 2012. A more typical growing season has led to wines of consistently higher quality than those from 2011. It's got the fruit and balance you want from a good Southern Rhone vintage.

Chateau Beauchene is run by a family that has been in the region since the 17th century. They call this bottling their "Grande Reserve" though I don't know why you would give that label to your entry level wine. No matter, this is usually a very good everyday wine and it shines brightly in the light of a good vintage like 2012. This lovely blend is made up of 60% Grenache, 27% Syrah, 10% Carignan and 3% Cinsault from de-stemmed fruit. It spends a short 6 to 8 months in oak prior to bottling. This very nice Cotes du Rhone is translucent ruby red in color and has all the bright cherry and peppery aromas you expect from these wines. In the mouth it has smooth cherry and berryish fruit supported by floral and Provencal spice notes. It finishes with very smooth tannins and good supporting acidity, and at $10.99 it's an excellent value. This beauty is imported by Regal, a company with an excellent portfolio of small to medium sized producers. Bottoms up!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Que Syrah - Maison Nicolas Perrin Syrah Viognier Non-Vintage

This is another wonderful Syrah that really gives you an idea of the complexity that this grape can achieve in the soils of Southern France. This everyday winner is a joint venture of two of the most famous families of the region, the Jaboulets of the Northern Rhone and the Perrins of the Southern Rhone and Chateau Beaucastel fame. These are multi-generational wine families who clearly know what they are doing. I wrote up another great everyday Syrah from Domaine de Chateaumar recently. It's a pleasure to have a couple of Syrahs like these to turn to for a Wednesday night bottle. You really get to smell and taste what a $50 Cote Rotie might be like and thus get an inkling as to just how special this grape can be. You very rarely get aromas and flavors like this from new world Syrah. The Viognier, a white grape of course, is a partner to only about 3% and contributes to the aromatics. It's a common blend in Cote Rotie and has been for a long time.

This is a non-vintage bottling which means there is juice from more than one vintage in the blend. Like the Domaine de Chateaumar, this Syrah may be more defined by it's aromas than it's flavors. Those aromas are very soil driven and defined by typical Syrah elements of garrigue (a spice and soil component), black olive, pepper and blackberry fruit. It's got good concentration and medium-bodied dark berry flavors still dominated by the terroir. If anything, this wine could use a bit more fruit on the palate, although more did emerge as it aired. The grapes for this very interesting wine come from the village of St. Joseph, another Northern Rhone appellation where Syrah is the star. This $9.99 everyday winner is imported by Vineyard Brands and will pair nicely with a leg of lamb or burgers on the grill. Cheers.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

California's Greatest Everyday White? Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc/Viognier 2012

Pine Ridge Vineyards is one of those vaunted Napa Wineries that has done so much so right since it's founding in 1978. They're certainly best known for their Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings, which have always been made in a style that chooses elegance and grace over power. I was fortunate to have a few bottles of their 1994 Stag's Leap Cab, the last of which I only recently drank. They were delicious wines.

But the only wine that Pine Ridge produces in the under $15 category is a wonderful little white wine that almost nobody knows about. It's an absolutely delicious blend of 80% Chenin Blanc and 20% Viognier. In retail shops here on the east coast, it sits in the section usually called "other whites". It's a section that sees few visitors as most shoppers head right for the Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc sections. And even the folks that visit this section rarely give this wine a shot. It's a lonely bottle for sure.

I certainly can't claim the discovery either. Major critics like Robert Parker have been trumpeting the virtues of this great little wine for a decade or more - but you always had to pay for his advice.

This lovely white is very aromatic with up front scents of ripe pear, melon and a tropical note of mango. It's got a fairly lush medium-bodied mouth feel with the pear and melon flavors supported by notes of orange peel and lime. It finishes long with zesty acidity that makes it very crisp and refreshing. This fantastic everyday white is vinified in stainless steel and sees no wood whatsoever. And at $10.99, it's an excellent value. I tasted the 2012 but I would not be concerned with vintage - this wine is delicious year after year. We served this wonderful wine with some grilled chicken wings that I marinated in peanut oil, soy sauce, lime juice, Chinese 5 spice powder and chili. Bottoms up!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Classic Tuscany - Rocca di Castagnoli Chianti Classico 2010

It's been a tough slog through winter here in the Northeast. We had 8 or 9 inches of wet, heavy snow last Monday followed by a lovely freezing rain/sleet mix on Tuesday night that transformed the entire area into an icy mess. Power outages and tree limbs down everywhere were part of the equation. The road I live on wasn't plowed when I had to leave for work on Wednesday, so there I was, white knuckling my way down a 16% grade hill in my front wheel drive with 3 inches of sleet on the road! I haven't broken out the chainsaw yet but things are improving here in the ice bowl.

It's been hard to find motivation to write about wine despite having plenty of motivation to drink it. But last week I was perusing the forums and jumped in on a thread on Chianti Classico. Now it seems to me that most consumers don't really have Chianti of any kind on their radar, so it was fun chat with some like-minded wine buffs. The consensus was clear - The '09 and '10 Classicos are wonderful and there are still lots of them left on retailer's shelves. If you want to experience the best that Chianti Classico has to offer, you should seek them out. Now you'll have to throw down a bit more coin than we usually write about here, but I'm really only talking the $15-$20 range for some of them. Producer's such as Felsina, Fonterutoli, Monsanto, Castello di Bosssi, Villa Caffagio, Rocca di Montegrossi, Manucci Droandi and Rocca di Castagnoli are just a few of the great producer's whose '09s and '10s you should seek out.

The best vineyard sites, soils and microclimates make this DOCG what it is - the top dog of the Chianti Regions. Sangiovese is the grape that defines Chianti but you can now blend in non-indigenous varietals such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon up to 20%. Once you do that though, your Chianti Classico starts tasting less Italian and and a little more generic. Sangiovese is a bit delicate in a way that's similar to Pinot Noir, and it's subtleties can easily be overwhelmed by the international grapes. It's a somewhat acidic grape as well, so folks that have been brought along on the wine journey with new world style plush fruit find them a bit austere. I'm telling you though, lay down a few of the '09 and '10 Classicos and in a few years the acids will soften and you'll have marvelously complex wines to drink and ponder.

The Rocca di Castagnoli $12.99 Chianti Classico is a great intro to these wines for a very attractive price. It's produced in a more traditional manner with 90% Sangiovese and 5% each the indigenous Canaiolo and Colorino. There's no Merlot here. It's fermented in stainless steel and then aged for 15 months in small barrels and 900 liter tonneaux. Classic Chianti aromas of smoky cherry are supported with licorice and floral notes. In the mouth, there's the bolder flavors that a good Tuscan vintage has to offer with Red Cherry, licorice and violets. It finishes long and slightly tart with smoke and spice notes and prominent acids. It paired perfectly with a pizza from my hometown favorite, Nomad Pizza. Imported by Montecastelli.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Sun and the Soil - Tessellae Cotes de Roussillon Old Vines 2011

2011 is a better vintage in Southern France than most people thought it would be. But really, on the heels of the stellar '09s and '10s, pretty much any kind of 2011 vintage would suffer in comparison. Despite a very cool summer, the weather turned warmer in September and the change allowed producers to let the fruit hang long enough to ripen fully.

The 2011 Tessellae Old Vines is a joint venture of Domaine Lafage and Eric Solomon's European Cellars, one of my favorite importers. This wonderful Cotes du Roussillon blend consists of 50% Grenache, 40% Syrah and 10% Mourvedre. The Grenache is from 60 year old vines. This rustic, rocky region inhabits the extreme southern end of France, right on the Mediterranean. It's warm here and the soils frequently lend a distinct mineral edge to the wines. My favorite wines from southern France usually have a higher percentage of Grenache in them but this beauty delivers a lot of enjoyment for the $11.99 I paid for it. The Syrah lends this blend a dark, dense color and it's plummy fruit, with supporting notes of black cherry, coffee and spices. There's a definite dusty minerality in the aromas also. It's fairly large scaled in the mouth with the darker fruits dominating. It finishes long with some licorice notes and and some drying tannins. We recently tried a $30 Syrah from one of California's hot young winemakers, and I have to say that it was good but at the same time it was completely underwhelming. I'd much rather drink the Tessellae - especially considering the price. Cheers.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Geographically Speaking - Edna Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Central Coast '11

I have a problem with the entry level "California" designation that first started appearing on the retail shelves some years back. I guess when fruit from Napa, Sonoma and other small viticultural areas reached a price that made it difficult to sell everyday wine for reasonable prices, producers began to source fruit from areas not known for quality grape growing. That would most likely be the vast central valley of this amazing state. So at that point you now had wine grapes coming from the same agricultural area that produces your melons and artichokes. This vague descriptor is now the most common statement of origin on everyday domestic wine and it is a legal designation. Well for me, the "California" AVA certainly doesn't carry the same cache that a "Napa Valley", "Sonoma Valley" or any of the other 105 California AVA's carry. Even the somewhat vague "North Coast" designation tells you that the grapes didn't come from the central valley.

So when I went looking for a sub $15 bottle of Cali cab the other day, it wasn't easy to find one that didn't have that rather generic sounding geographic origin on the label. Then I spied the 2011 Edna Valley Vineyard Central Coast Cab on sale for $9.99. Eureka! At least now I had a bottle that was from a real wine area - the beautiful Central Coast. California's Central Coast AVA is the 4th largest with an even million acres under vine according to the Wine Institute. Some of California's most amazing wines are produced here from the likes of Ridge, Calera, Qupe, Ojai and Justin to name a mere handful. And I've always loved Bonny Doon whose flagship Le Cigare Volant bottling, a Chateauneuf du Pape look alike, was always one of my faves. Of course, the Central Coast has many official sub-zones but I'll take a "Central Coast" designation on my $10 cab over a "California" one any day.

So I took home the Edna Valley cab at gave it a try. If there's one big pet peeve of mine it's cab that doesn't taste like cab. Sometimes true Cabernet Sauvignon varietal character is vinified right out of the wine, either with too much wood or with too much ripeness on the grapes, leading to very high alcohol levels. That's not the Case with Edna Valley's beautiful entry level cab. It's got beautiful aromas of black cherry, currant and typical cab earthy/herbal qualities. The palate is medium bodied and balanced at 13.8% alcohol, with dark fruit flavors supported by earth and leather notes. It finishes long with good balancing acidity and soft tannins. This wine is an excellent value. Bottoms up!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Italy's East Coast - Saladini Pilastri Rosso Piceno 2011

The everyday Montepulciano we pour at both Nomad Pizzas in Philladelphia is by far our most popular by the glass pour. Yes we have a decent Cab (yawn) and a Pinot Noir (very good but with pizza?). We also have a Malbec (a fave of the customers but not me) and a Nero d'Avola (I like this too). The Montepulciano d'Abruzzo from Masciarelli outsells the others by about 2 to 1 easy. And why not? It's got complex aromatics, good fruit and some terroir to boot - and it goes great with Tom and Stalin's true to type Italian Pizza.

There are a lot of Montepulcianos out there on the retail market but there aren't a lot of great ones in the everyday category. I'm talking $9.99 per bottle, my kind of Tuesday night wine. In my home state of New Jersey we have a ton of choices in every price range, but in Pennsylvania, not so much. The biggest problem is that restaurants in Pennsylvania have to buy from the state at full retail. It's quite a challenge trying to find quality product to pour by the glass that you can make some money off of.

But I didn't start this post to bitch. I started it to turn you on to another great everyday red from the East coast of Italy. The Saladini Pilastri Rosso Piceno wowed me from first sniff to last sip. Rosso Piceno is the largest of the DOCs in the Marche, just north of Abruzzo. Unlike the Masciarelli, which is 100% Montepulciano, this beauty is only 20% Montepulciano and 80% Sangiovese. It's made with organic grapes and spends a short 4 months in French oak prior to bottling. Medium ruby in color, it's got beautiful soil driven aromatics that feature a distinct mineral quality, bright smoky cherry fruit, licorice and leather. In the mouth, there's excellent acidity, with the cherry fruit shining brightly on the medium bodied palate with mineral and brown spice notes on the back end. It finishes long with some drying tannins. Imported by Michelangelo Imports, this is a fantastic $9.99 everyday red. Bottoms up!

Friday, November 29, 2013

An Everyday White Wine Jewel Burgans Albarino 2011 Rias Baixas

Albarinos make some of Spain's most attractive everyday white wines. They generally have everything I want and the 2011 version from Burgans is no exception. This bright, energetic wine is produced by the Bodegas Martin Codax in Rias Baixas, a DO that achieved legal status relatively recently in 1988. Rias Baixas is located in Spain's extreme northwest and is divided into 5 sub-zones: Val do Saines, Condado do Tea, O Rosal, Ribeira do Ulla and Soutomaior. Val do Saines, where the Bodegas Martin Codax is located, is the largest and coolest of the zones with average temperatures of 55 degrees and rocky soils laden with granite. It's this combination that makes for some special wines.

The Burgans Albarino sports prominent, beautiful aromatics dominated by ripe pear and supported with citrus, floral and mineral notes. The rich, medium bodied texture is lush with orchard fruit and lemony flavors. There's also a nutty nuance on the back end, perhaps as a result of this wine resting on it's lees for a brief time prior to bottling. In addition, there's no wood on this wine. The Burgans Albarino is fermented entirely in stainless steel. It finishes bright and long with excellent supporting acidity. This beauty is imported by Eric Solomon Selections. a wonderful, small importer that favors wines that are true to type and express their geographic origins. I've been a fan of their portfolio for a long time. This beauty cost me $12.99. Cheers.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Think Pink - Rosé All Year Long Carpineto "Dogajolo" Rosé 2012

Rosés are my go to wines in the summer. Heck, they go with everything from pork and burgers to sushi and everything in between. They're great as aperitifs, with the meal or as a sipper at a party or event. But why not drink them all year long? I certainly do. For the majority of consumers though, the Rosé choice is made less often when the weather gets colder. According to a large retailer I spoke to, rosé sales drop as much as 50% in the fall and winter months, though that's a better number then they used to have. Not that long ago, rosé sales would drop off a cliff to practically nothing after summer had gone. Now, some folks will continue to drink the pink through the holidays.

Rosés are also looked at as being somewhat fragile, so retailers worry about being stuck with last year's vintage when the new one is released in the spring. However, some rosés like those from Provence or the Languedoc in southern France, or the Nebbiolo rosés from Piedmont in northern Italy, actually benefit from a year in the bottle. The acidity and structure of these wines keep them fresh and lively and they develop more complexity and nuance with a year of age on them.

Last night I pan fried some chili and lime zested pork chops and served them with grilled pineapple. I wanted something cool and lively to drink with them so I turned to the $8.99 2012 Carpineto Sangiovese rosé from Opici imports. Now this is not one of those rosés that you would want to drink past it's year on the shelf, but this lively little wine had just what I was looking for. The color is a beautiful copper-like light pink and it's got delicate aromas of tart cherry, fresh flowers and a note of orange peel. It's got a soft, inviting texture with orange peel and tart cherry flavors supported by firm acidity. It finishes long and dry. This little wine is a good to very good value. Cheers.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Forgotten Grape: Syrah - Domaine de Chateaumar "Cuvee Vincent" Cotes du Rhone

Syrah is a grape that has never really caught on here in the states. Yes there's a fairly broad category of $30 and up bottlings but there's very few in the everyday wine realm. Those that exist are mostly generic tasting, fruit driven examples that don't really give much in the way of complexity. There are Syrah bottlings from Australia of course, where they call it Shiraz. Some of those inexpensive labels are pretty good, like The Jump Stump and Boxhead to name a couple. And there's the ubiquitous factory wine Yellowtail of course. The shelf space allotted to Syrah in stores here in NJ is incredibly small.

Syrah was once hailed as "the next big thing" to come in the US wine world and it was a proclamation that never happened. Eric Asimov's feature on Syrah for the New York Times in 2010 is an interesting read. Most California Syrahs were dark, dense, overly extracted versions that were heavy and dull - and there's still more than a few of those. Many Cali Syrah producers have changed the way they work with the grape and are striving for more balance in their bottles. And there are the "Rhone Rangers",  producers line Bonny Doon, Edmunds St. John and Ojai who have worked with Syrah for a long time, bottling the best examples we have here in the states. Many other expensive Cali Syrahs like to claim all sorts of "terroir" notes in their aromatic and flavor profiles but in reality, there's still no Syrah on the planet like the ones that come from the northern Rhone appellations of Cote Rotie, Hermiatge, Crozes-Hermitage and St. Joseph. In general, you can't really understand what good Syrah is meant to be until you throw down more than a few bucks for one of these wines.

However, every once in a while a good, inexpensive version from the southern Rhone shows up on our shores and when one does I find myself going back for more again and again. Syrah is a grape that needs a lot of sun but not excessive heat. It ripens early so it can lose acidity and character if it's left to hang too long. In the northern Rhone, the steep, rocky hillsides limit yield and preserve the special aromatics and flavors that Syrah can present.

Cotes du Rhones are usually blends based on the Grenache grape of course, but this 2010, 100% Syrah bottling of Domaine de Chateaumar from that southern Rhone appellation is a fantastic example of everything that Syrah can achieve, yet in a $12.99 package. It's got those wonderful, gamey Syrah aromas of black cherry fruit, black olive and spice notes with a distinct minerality. It's one of those wines I could sit and sniff all night, trying to define all the nuances. In the mouth it's got a big, fruity mid-palate supported by the olive and spice notes. It finishes medium in length with soft tannins and that mineral spine giving it shape. The vineyards here are sustainably farmed with no herbicides used at all. This beauty is imported by Bourgeois Family Selections, an importer I know nothing about. I will however be seeking out more of their wines. Cheers.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

South Africa Rising - A.A. Badenhorst Chenin Blanc "Secateurs" 2012

South Africa is not the first country you think of when you're thinking about wine. Apartheid officially fell in 1994 and South African goods finally reentered the marketplace. The Wine Spectator published a major feature on South Africa recently and I found it fascinating. I've read a lot of wine publications on Italy, France, Spain and the US but I had never read a thing about South Africa. According to the Spectator article, once Apartheid fell, wine production jumped into high gear and by 1997 there were 260,000 acres under vine. In addition, since wine has been produced there since the Dutch colonists arrived in the 17th century, there are still some very old vine vineyards. Old vines means less fruit which in turn means more flavorful juice, both in concentration and soil driven elements.

A view of some of A.A. Badenhorsts's old vine Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc, South Africa's most widely planted white grape, is not a grape that is on the radar of most Americans. Vouvray, from the Loire Valley is the best Chenin Blanc in the world - and the most famous. But other than that vaunted region, there are very few that can claim much success with Chenin Blanc. South Africa may change that yet. The A.A. Badenhorst Winery resides to the west of Capetown in Swartland, the fourth largest South African wine region. It's a hot, arid region with soils that contain lots of stone, both shale and granite. This climate is beneficial to Chenin Blanc, an acidic, late ripening varietal that needs hang time but which is also very sensitive to it's terroir.

The $12.99 Secateurs Chenin Blanc is hands down the most incredible entry level example of this grape I have ever had. Beautiful aromas of ripe pear, roasted nuts, honey and stony notes are front and center. There's excellent concentration and a velvety mouth feel with pear and peach flavors accented with citrus notes. There's also plenty of acidity to balance the sweet fruit. This beautiful wine finishes long and dry and I am very much looking forward to getting back to the store to pick up a few more bottles. Imported by Broadbent Selections - Don't miss it!

Update - I received a very nice email from Helena Sheridan of the A.A. Badenhorst Winery. Some of their Chenin Blanc vines date to the 1960's. As you can see in the picture above, they are what you call bush trained with cover crops in between the rows. These are unirrigated vineyards. The fruit for this bottling was hand picked over 12 days with juice being added to the fermentation tanks each day. This extended the fermentation by about 20 days, which is quite a long time. In addition, a small percentage is fermented in old French oak barrels and left on the lees (dead yeast cells) for 7 months prior to bottling.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Regular Guy's (or Gal's) Wine Cellar - Storage on a Budget

Every so often the Wine Spectator does a feature on somebody's wine cellar and it's usually a really nice one that cost a lot of money to build. The racks are usually a really nice wood like redwood and the rest of the cellar is carefully appointed and features wonderful design elements. It's usually pretty big, with enough storage for 3,000 bottles or so. And of course there is a cooling unit for the air tight space. These are also expensive with "through the wall" units costing anywhere from 700 to 4,000 dollars depending on the size of your cellar. The total build cost for one of these fancy cellars can approach $50,000, well beyond the means of most wine lovers who are contemplating such a move. There's a cellar builder called Vigilant that publishes approximate cellar costs. My cellar is about 150 square feet and you'll see on their chart that their approximate cost for a cellar that size is $54k to $63K. That is a ridiculous amount of scratch. Just in time for my post, the Oct 31st issue of the Spectator has arrived and there is a long feature on "The Contemporary Cellar". It features seven wine storage units or "closets". Now I don't begrudge anyone for what they've been able to earn in their professional life but these folks appear to have figured out how to turn a 500 bottle closet into a $50,000 project. In reality, not one of the closets featured has it's build cost revealed. I guess that in Wine Spectator land, if you have to ask, you can't afford it. I'd give you the link but you can't read anything in the Spectator without a subscription.

Well I'm here to tell you that you can build a wine cellar for way less than that. We built our house in 1993 and once we were moved in and settled, I embarked on a cellar build with the help of my father-in-law, a professional contractor for most of his career. My basement is not quite square and I picked the not square corner to put up two walls with a door. This would give me a L-shaped cellar with room for metal grid racks and shelves in the skinny part of the L. Each shelf was designed to hold 4 cases of Bordeaux in the wooden boxes they ship in. Though there is room for about 2,000 bottles I never approached that number. At it's peak, my cellar had about 700 bottles in it, the vast majority costing me under $30 per bottle. For someone just beginning on their wine journey, there are plenty of 15-20 dollar bottles you can purchase to experiment aging with.

Above is a picture of the interior corner that uses the poured concrete walls of my basement and the skinny part of the L with the case boxes. Now my cellar isn't completely airtight but it's been absolutely perfect for aging bottles. I still have some Italians, Cali cabs and Bordeaux from the late 80's and they are in perfect shape. Because there is some outside influence, my cooling unit doesn't even run in the winter as my cellar temp drops to around 50 degrees.

As for cost, the total cost of my cellar in today's dollars would be about $2,500 in materials - tops. And that includes about $350 for the materials for two walls including two inch thick foam insulation, $600 for 6 black tie grid racks and $1200 for a through the wall cooling unit that I don't even have anymore - and here's why. This past June my through the wall cooling unit died after 10 years or so of dedicated service. When I went looking for a replacement I found that they were now about $1200 for my sized cellar. The sales rep also told me that the shelf life of these units was about 5-7 years. Well with a kid in college and the higher cost of everything nowadays, there's no way I was going to spend that. So I went looking for alternatives. I found a forum thread where the guys were chatting about cooling with off the shelf air conditioners and it made a lot of sense. So off to Sears I went and I bought a 5,000 BTU window air conditioner for $180. We modified the opening in the wall of the cellar and installed it.

I was miffed at first that despite the control being set at 60 degrees, the unit only brought the temperature down to 65 degrees. Then I remembered a post in the thread I had read that said that you could fool the air conditioner into cooling a couple of degrees cooler by pulling the thermostat, which is connected to a wire, out of the unit and letting it dangle in front. It worked! Now the unit cools to 62 degrees, which is plenty cool enough for my purposes. The energy saver mode lets the unit run only when it needs to. In addition, having a more powerful unit than I would normally need for the size of the space I'm cooling keeps the humidity from dropping too low. It's keeping steady at about 50%. Now if you add up my materials cost you're talking about $1,130 in materials for a 2,000 bottle cellar. If your handy with a hammer and the other tools you'll need, it's about 2 or 3 days work. Even if you have to hire someone for the build, you're talking another couple of thousand dollars which is still way less than the fancy cellars. Cheers everyone.