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.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

New Wine for an Old Dog - Prunotto Barbera d'Asti "Fiulot" 2011

I've never been a huge Barbera fan. Even though my all time favorite grape Nebbiolo hails from the same region of Italy, Barbera has just never thrilled me. It's an acidic grape that frequently makes very high-toned, acidic wines that really need food - especially something like pizza, where the acidity of the tomato sauce lends itself to a wine made from Barbera as a companion. There are a lot of single vineyard Barberas nowadays that sell for $25 or so, but good entry level, everyday versions are especially hard to find. Well, not any more I guess.

Barbera is the third most widely planted grape in Italy, coming in behind Sangiovese and Montepulciano. The most common bottlings bear the Barbera d'Asti and the Barbera d'Alba designations with the versions from Asti usually being lighter and more delicate than the bolder Alba versions. Prunotto is one of the great names of Piedmont, having produced top bottlings in the region since 1905. Their sought after Barolos fetch high prices all over the world and it is a winery that always seems to produce quality product.

Such is the case with this wonderful $11.99 version. It's got all the dark plummy fruit aromas you expect from this grape, along with complex supporting notes of black pepper and earth. This really is a very aromatic wine. In the mouth it's got plenty of plum and dark berry flavors to balance out that typical Barbera acidity. Make no mistake, this is a food wine but I''m having no trouble sipping this beauty while I'm sitting here logging this post. It's absolutely the best everyday Barbera I've ever had.
Imported by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Cheers.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Spanish Value Again! Los Dos 2012

I don't know how they do it, but there is something amazing about the level of quality coming out of Spain. When you can find a $6.99 wine like Los Dos you begin to realize that you can drink more wine without your finances taking a major hit. So what if it's Monday, we'll open a bottle anyway! Another great find of one of the best importers we have here in the States, Winebow, Los Dos is a sure everyday winner.

This blend of 85% Grenache and 15% Syrah is produced for Winebow by the Bodegas Aragonesas, a co-op in the Campo de Borja DO of northeastern Spain. Grenache is common here but Syrah is not, so this blend is a bit unusual for the region. This is high altitude fruit as the 35 - 50 year old vines sit at around 2000 ft. in rocky soils that are rich in clay and iron. Campo de Borja is a very hot and dry region, but night time cooling breezes from the Mediterranean slow down the ripening and keep the acidity of the grapes from dropping to low. There's no wood on this wine. It's fermented entirely in stainless steel and bottled quickly to maintain it's aromatic freshness.

As the wine consultant for the popular and wonderful Nomad Pizza in Philadelphia, I can't tell how thrilled I was to find Los Dos. Pennsylvania has a state controlled liquor system and restaurants have to buy their product from the state at full retail markup. It's quite a challenge finding wines that are both cheap enough and good enough to pour by the glass.

Los Dos features forthcoming aromas of blueberry, blackberry and a bit of Grenache peppery spice. It's fruit forward, offering up soft, mouth filling dark berry and plum flavors while retaining enough acidity to keep it fresh and lively tasting. It finishes long, with coffee and a roasted fruit note on the back end. This is absolutely one of the best bargains I've come across this year and may just be the perfect pizza wine. Cheers everyone!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Underrated Southern Italian White - Donnachiara Fiano di Avellino 2011

Southern Italian white wines are vastly underrated and under appreciated wines, especially the ones from Campania, which takes in the area around Naples, Salerno and the countryside to the east. Yes it's hot, but varietals like Falanghina, Fiano and Greco thrive in the heat, giving good fruit while retaining vibrant acidity for balance. Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo are the most well known commercially, while Falanghina is still a hard sell of sorts for American retailers. Fiano is an interesting grape and one I might dub - if I were prone to sloganeering - the "Chardonnay of the South". There's similarities that I can't help but notice. Fiano is the varietal that gives the most body and texture of the three, and clearly has a similar flavor profile to the world's most popular white grape.

Fiano shows best from the hilly area around Avellino, where the volcanic soils can lend minerality to the juice, and it's got a history in Campania that goes back centuries. The Donnachiara winery is located in Montefalcione on a ridge between two rivers. The vineyards, as well as olive and fruit trees, sit on the ridge, parts of which rise to 1500 ft. of altitude. It's a very new winery, having been established in 2005. But the cultivation of grapes on this property goes back 150 years or so, and it's been owned by the same family for the duration.

The Donnachiara Fiano di Avellino, which cost me $11.99, is a delicious example of the varietal. If I had tasted this blind, I might have guessed it was a good everyday chardonnay from the Macon sub-region of Burgundy. It's got beautiful aromas of pear, yellow peach and almonds. It's beautiful texture is very Chardonnay like, and it's medium-bodied orchard fruit flavors are balanced by zingy acidity. Retaining acidity is so critical to hot climate whites such as this, as too much ripeness can drop the acidity too low, leaving you with a flabby, dull wine.

This wonderful entry level Fiano di Avellino went beautifully with a clam zuppa that my wife made us last night, the firm acidity balancing the shellfish quite nicely. It's imported by Michelangelo Selections of Manhasset, NY. Cheers.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Utter Joy of Rose´ Season - Dinastia Vivanco Rioja Rose´ 2012

Nothing makes me happier in the hot weather than a nice cool Rose´. I like the the chill, the sometimes bold fruit flavors and the ability to pair them with - well - just about anything. In this case it was a Father's Day feast prepared by my lovely wife featuring cornmeal, cumin and coriander crusted soft shell crabs with red chile rice. Soft shell crabs are such a treat and when they go on sale, even a bit late in their season, it's tough not to pounce. So she pounced.

Rose´s can run the gamut in styles from light and delicate Gamay rose´s from the Loire Valley or Pinot Noir rose´s from Germany to darker, bolder styles from the warmer climates like Southern France, Italy and Spain. I like both styles of course but there's something I really like about the latter style. Yes in your face reds can sometimes turn me off but there's something I like about a rose´ that gets in your glass and screams, "Here I am!" The Dinastia Vivanco Rioja Rose´ 2012 did just that.

Dinastia Vivanco has been around since 1915, though in a commercial sense the winery is younger than that. The family was really only making wine on a very small scale early on. This wonderful wine is a blend comprised of 85% Tempranillo and 15% Grenache. The skin contact is limited to 12-24 hours to achieve the translucent pink color and then fermented at cool temperatures to maintain aromatic complexity. It's got big aromas of strawberry, raspberry, rose petal and minty nuances, large scaled red berry flavors and a finishing note of sweet cream. It went perfectly with the soft shell crabs and enhanced a great dinner outdoors on a beautiful day. Imported by Opici Imports, this is one fantastic $11.99 rose´ you should seek out. Cheers.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Update - Bodegas Atalaya "Laya" 2012

Because I've had so many hits on my write up of the 2010 version of this wonderful everyday red, I thought it fitting that I take a taste of the current 2012 vintage as well. If I wanted to keep it brief, I'd just say, "buy it", you can't do any better for $7.99. But we'll delve a little deeper anyway. And deeper might refer to the color of this wine as well as everything else. The 2010 was listed on the Orowines website (Orowines and the Juan Gil Estates are partners in this and several other Spanish wine projects) as being being 70% Garnacha Tintorera which is also known as Alicante Bouschet. The 2012 however is listed as being 70% Garnacha (Grenache). These are 2 different varietals with the former being a cross of Grenache and Petit Bouschet. There's a big difference between the two and I'd be surprised if there was that big a change in the blend between 2010 and 2012. An email to Orowines and the Gil Estates regarding the blend cleared up the Mystery. The blend is in fact 70% Garnacha Tintorera and 30% Monastrell - except for the Swedish market where for some reason they reverse it to 70% Monastrell and 30% Garnacha Tintorera. Go figure.

Peter Wellington, whose Chardonnay I wrote up in my last post, gave me some great information on Alicante Bouschet when my wife and I visited the winery last year. Wellington has some very old Alicante Bouschet vines on his property dating back to early last century. He told us that it was favored by many California winemakers for not only the big color it gave wine, but for it's very tough skin. He said that you could literally drop an Alicante Bouschet grape on the floor and it would bounce. This made it a very easy grape to transport all over the valley without damaging the fruit.

Anyhow, the 2012 Laya is still one of the best entry level values on the market. Deep, dark and dense purple in color (which is typical of Alicante Bouschet), this great little wine delivers what many wines in the category can't. Beautiful aromas of ripe plum, blueberry, cola, roast coffee and a touch of damp earth lead to large scaled flavors. There's a slight jammy quality to the blueberry and blackberry fruit, though not enough to turn me off. It's not over ripe. It finishes long and lightly tannic with nice balancing acidity. Don't miss it. If you haven't tried the many other everyday Spanish wines the Bodegas Juan Gil produces, you should definitely search them out. Cheers!

Friday, May 24, 2013

California Dreamin' - Wellington Chardonnay Sonoma 2010

I must admit I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to Chardonnay. I've always loved the French styles the most - from the everyday Macon wines to the high end versions from the Cote de Beaune. And though I've never had the good fortune or the dollar fortune to try a Grand Cru, I have tried many a Premier Cru and village wine from Puligny Montrachet, Chassagne Montrachet and Meursault. They are, for my money, the best Chardonnays in the world hands down.

California, and in particular Napa and Sonoma, are warm and getting warmer. Chardonnay is a cool climate grape and the problem with Chardonnay in too warm a climate is that when the ripeness of the grapes goes up too high, the acidity goes down, and you are left with a dull, flabby version of Chardonnay. Combine that lower acid fruit with too much barrel treatment, perhaps including some malolactic fermentation, and you have a wine that easily gets overpowered by whatever dish you're trying to pair it with. Malolactic fermentation is a secondary fermentation that you either let happen or you stop it from happening. Most reds get it and Chardonnays frequently get it to varying degrees. It's what gives some Chardonnays their buttery flavors and textures. When you pick up a Chardonnay in the store, you can't tell how much malo is on it but you can tell something of the ripeness of the grapes from the alcohol level. And when Chardonnay starts getting up to 14.5% or even 15% alcohol, the chances are I'm going to hate it. This Chardonnay though comes in at a balanced 13.8%.

Wellington Vineyards is a small family owned Sonoma winery that produces nicely valued wines. They are only a step shy of certified organic and they are 100% solar powered. A couple of blocks of their vines planted with Zinfandel, Carignan, Grenache, Syrah and Alicante Bouschet date back to 1912 and 1924 while another block dates back to 1895.

The $13.99 2010 Sonoma Chardonnay is made partly with estate fruit and partly with purchased fruit. 25% is fermented in stainless steel and the rest is barrel fermented in 90% French oak - only a small portion of which is new. It's kind of Burgundian in the aromas, with oak spice, poached pear and green apple leading the way. It's got a lovely smooth, medium bodied texture balanced with zingy acidity. The pear and spice notes dominate the flavors and it finishes long, even and bright. This wine is a wonderful value that you should seek out if you like California Chardonnay. Distributed by one of my favorites, Maximum Wine Co. Cheers!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Sacred River, Sacred Wine - Alqueira Ribeira Sacra 2011

If Rioja is Spain's Bordeaux, then this DO in Spain's extreme northwest might be it's Burgundy. With vines planted on impossibly steep hillsides, the wines of Ribeira Sacra can be incredibly complex, offering distinct mineral tones in the aromas and lighter styled flavors in the mouth. A Google images search of this area will give you an idea of the beauty that defines this river valley. It's name comes from the 18 or so monasteries that were built here in the middle ages, and though the Romans first cultivated wine grapes here more than 2,000 years ago, the area fell out of production in the 20th century. Recently though, things have changed. A new breed of young, ambitious winemakers have rebuilt terraces, replanted vines and revitalized the area. Eric Asimov's feature on Ribeira Sacra for the NY Times in 2009 is a great read. The steepness of the hillsides along the river are reminiscent of the hillsides that the best German Reislings come from.

The 2011 Alqueira is a 100% Mencia cuvee, one of three indigenous red varietals permitted in the zone. To me, this $14.99 beauty is exactly what wine exploration is all about. It's soil driven aromas lead with distinct stoniness and brown spices followed by bright red cherry fruit. In the mouth, the flavors reminded me of a good, though more complex Beaujolais Villages, with tangy cherry and raspberry flavors. There's bright acidity, and a long slightly tart finish with black pepper, floral and cranberry notes. It's definitely one of those wines I could sit and ponder for awhile after dinner.

The Alqueira went really well with the shrimp quesadillas with spinach, shitakes and pepper jack that my wonderful wife cooked up for us tonight. It's imported by one of my favorites Polaner Selections. Cheers.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Another Day, Another Nero d'Avola - Tenuta Rapitala Campo Reale 2011

I haven't written this bottling up for awhile but I'm sure glad I picked up the current vintage at my local shop last weekend. I'm not sure why, but entry level Nero d'Avolas can be so elegant and almost burgundy-like, translucent with wonderful secondary aromas and flavors. The more expensive examples that are deep, dark and heavily extracted are, for my money, frequently one dimensional and less interesting.

Tenuta Rapitala's vines for this bottling sit at around 400 meters in altitude and the soil is mostly sand and clay. It's fermented in stainless steel and then 20% of the wine gets four months in used oak - just enough to give it some structure and spice without overshadowing the fruit. This is about as pleasing and flavorful as you can get for $9.99.

Light see-through ruby in color, the aromas yield spicy black cherry and raspberry with supporting elements of leather and iron. With a velvety texture, the medium bodied red berry flavors finish long and pleasant with soft tannins and a note of bitter cherry on the back end. This went great with balsamic glazed chicken wings and pasta with pesto. Imported by one of my faves, Frederick Wildman. Cheers.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

"Love" Sicilian Style - Tasca d'Almerita Lamuri Nero d'Avola 2009

Apparently Lamuri means love in the local Sicilian dialect where this great little wine hails from. Well, a few sips of this $14.99 beauty will have you head over heels as well. It's interesting to me that a wine of such balance and finesse can be produced in such a hot climate. Perhaps the 2500 ft. altitude of the vines and the mere 2.4 tons per acre yield help with the balance before the grapes are even in the fermenter. Clay, limestone and sandy soils also contribute nuance to the flavors. Once fermentation is complete, the Lamuri spends a year in new and used French oak barrels.

Nero d'Avola is the most important grape of Sicily, indigenous and having been grown there for hundreds of years. It thrives in the heat and ripens without losing too much acidity. Tasca d'Almerita is a very large producer with properties all over the island and a couple of dozen or so bottlings. For me, usually smaller is better, but it's hard to quibble with a producer that always seems to make good stuff, despite the 3.3 million bottles or so produced annually.

The Lamuri leads with a translucent ruby color and wonderful bright red cherry and raspberry aromas complicated with smoke and herbal elements. The palate is medium bodied and smooth in texture with the bright red berries dominating and stony elements and a cinnamon note in the background. It finishes a bit short but very smooth with silky tannins. Imported by Winebow, this great little wine will go great with tomato sauces, bolognese or a simple grilled chicken. Cheers!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Cabernet is King - Vega Sindoa Cabernet Sauvignon '09

The everyday category is loaded with Cabs, probably hundreds, from every corner of the globe - the US, Australia, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, and France in the form of low cost Bordeaux. You rarely see them from Spain, which is surprising given that there is Cab in Spain, much of it having been brought there by the French a long time ago. Cab in Spain is most often blended with Tempranillo and other indigenous grapes, imparting it's usual black currant fruit, structure and aromatic complexity to the final product. You don't often see Cabernet from Spain bottled on it's own for $9.99.

Many of the everyday Cabs on the market are bland and uninteresting, very often so ripe and over treated with oak that the Cabernet character has been vinified out of them. What I look for in Cabernet is not only it's dark currant fruit, but those graphite and herbal elements in both the aromas and flavors that are unique to good Cabernet Sauvignon. Vega Sindoa is a brand of Bodegas Nekeas, a winery in the Navarra DO of Northern Spain, not far from Pomplona and the Pyrenees. According to the winery website, wine was produced in this valley as far back as the 17th century before the vines were devastated by phylloxera in the late 19th century.

Hillside fruit is best of course and with vineyard altitudes that range from 1400 to over 2000 ft., it's no wonder that these vineyards in clay and stones produce quality fruit. In fact, the Vega Sindoa Cabernet Sauvignon is absolutely one of the best $10 Cabernets I have ever had. Dark and dense in color, the beautiful primary aromas of black currant and black cherry are complemented by graphite, herbs and earth. The plum and currant flavors are quite large-scaled for a wine at this price point. Mouth filling and long, this beauty finishes with a bit of dusty tannins. It's imported by Tempranillo by way of Jorge Ordonez, whose Spanish portfolio is one of the best in the business. If you like wallet friendly Cabernet, you should really seek this wine out. There's an interesting Q & A with Mr. Ordonez in The Shanken New Daily from 2011. Bottoms up!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Warmer Weather and the Thirst for White - La Val Albarino 2011

It's a fact of wine life that with colder weather people drink more red and with warmer weather people drink more white. Any retailer will back that up. Personally, I've always been equal opportunity with regards to wine as the color I pick is most often related to what food is on the table. You don't really want Cabernet, Pinot Noir or even a Cotes du Rhone with a pasta with clam sauce do you? You want a nice crisp white with good acidity. But yesterday, as the local temps finally hit the 50 degree mark for the first time in awhile, I found myself craving a good, crisp, fruity white wine. And I realized that I had been drinking a lot of red. So even though a leg of lamb was on the menu, the appys of grilled asparagus and portobellos demanded a white and the La Val Albarino fit the bill nicely.

Albarino is a wonderful grape, giving bold fruit flavors with balancing acidity. It's grown in the extreme northwestern Spanish province of Galicia, on the Atlantic coast and the Portugese border. The official DO for these wines is Rias Baixas (ree-ahs-buy-shuss) and the La Val is from the second largest of the region's sub-zones called Condado de Tea. It's the warmest, most inland of the zones and though the average temperature is only 59 degrees, it can still get quite warm in the summer. In addition, there is a lot of granite and slate in the soil which contributes to the wines mineral undertones. Still, this is a fairly damp climate so the thick skin of these small green berries is important for resisting mold.

The La Val Albarino is fermented entirely in stainless steel and though it is aged on it's lees (which are the dead yeast cells) for awhile, there is no oak barrel aging at all. Aromatically, and despite the lack of oak, you're met with toasty/nutty aromas from the aging on the lees, as well as lemon zest and pear.  The medium bodied flavors feature pear and green apple with spice and toast notes and those stony undertones. There's excellent acidity, bringing everything into balance and a long, zingy finish. This $12.99 everyday winner is imported by Polaner Selections, one of my favorites. Bottoms up!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Nose Knows Tuscany - Casamatta Sangiovese 2011

I have always been swayed as much by the aromas of a wine as I have been by the taste. In fact, if the aromas are stunted or even worse, unflattering, then it almost doesn't matter what the flavors are. The aromas convey most of the nuance of wine, the art of it if you will, while the taste and mouth feel frame the picture. There's a posting on Wikipedia that says it very well;

"It is through the aromas of wine that wine is tasted. The human tongue is limited to the primary tastes perceived by taste receptors on the tongue - acidity, bitterness, saltiness, sweetness and savoriness. The wide array of fruit, earthy, floral, herbal, mineral and woodsy flavor perceived in wine are derived from aroma notes interpreted by the olfactory bulb.

In the entry level wine category that I frequent, there are very few examples that really give you that "sense of place". A recent and welcome addition to the inventory of my local joint is a Sangiovese from a producer named Bibi Graetz with the "Toscana" designation - an IGT. IGT stands for Indicazione Geografica Tipica and this designation was created to give credence to "Super Tuscans" that were being made in ways that did not adhere to the lawful requirements of DOCs and DOCGs.
In truth, I never really paid that much attention to those categories, and if you put this lovely $9.99 Sangiovese in a blind tasting with a bunch of entry level Chianti Classicos, it might show better than more than a few. A trained artist, the colorful labels of Mr. Graetz's wines are reproductions of his art.

Now back to the aroma thing. I could sit and sniff this wine all day. This incredible bargain gives much more complexity than is usual at this price point with classic Sangiovese aromas of red cherry, raspberry, licorice, cinnamon and that wonderful earthy element the Italians call "sottobosco", which means underbrush. It's got almost perfect balance and a soft medium bodied mouth feel with wonderful berry fruit flavors and currant notes. It finishes a bit short but soft and elegant. Imported by Martin Scott and fermented entirely in stainless, this wine sees no wood whatsoever. Cheers.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

More Spain, More Great Value - Honoro Vera Monastrell 2010

It's been awhile since I last checked in. Work, the flu - it can all get in the way of what I really like to do, and that's drink and talk about the world's greatest beverage of course. Yes beer is up there also and some will put that quaff number 1. But for me, the beer just warms up my palate for the wine.

Anyway, while perusing my local joint I came upon another fine Spanish bargain from the Bodegas Juan Gil. This producer seems to make everything well, but when you can put out juice like this for a mere $7.99 then the consumer is the real winner. Honoro Vera is a 100% Monastrell Cuvee from the very warm Jumilla region of Southern Spain. Monastrell, which is called Mourvedre in southern France, has been found in both regions since the 1500s. It's a late ripening grape with thick skins that needs plenty of warmth and hang time to ripen fully. There is an organic version of this bottling as well, though I did not get to try it. The vines for this wine are situated at approximately 2000 ft. in altitude. This brings wide temperature swings from day to night, thus slowing the ripening process and allowing the juice and the skins to ripen in harmony.

This great little weeknight wine presents bold dark berry and plummy aromas with coffee and spice notes that gained in intensity as it aired. In the mouth it's not as concentrated as I thought it might be, but still brings a very nice medium-bodied texture to the glass. The blackberry and blueberry flavors are soft and round but not flabby, with no astringent tannins. It finishes smooth as well with the spice notes and a touch of smoke on the finish. Imported by Opici Imports. Cheers!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Rich, Rustic and Very Italian - Malacari Rosso Conero 2008

I love Italian wines - red, white or rose. It matters not. There's a lot to love in so many wines from this country and the diversity is incredible. From the cool climate whites of the Alto Adige to the big, bold reds of Sicily and everything in between, there's no end to the choices available to consumers. And let's face it, everyone loves Italian food. There's more Italian cook books on my shelves than there are from any other country. The wonderful combinations of 5 or 6 ingredients will usually make something magical and there is always a perfect wine match for what your cooking up.

Montepulciano is the second most widely planted grape in Italy, grown just about everywhere, from Emilia-Romagna in the north all the way to the heel of the country in Puglia. But for me, it's the east coast of Italy that the best Montepulcianos come from, in Abruzzo and the Marche. It's a late ripening varietal that needs plenty of warmth and hang time to really show it's best. The rocky, sandy soils along the coast in this part of Italy lend the wines a distinct mineral component, adding complexity to the bold fruit that is typical of this grape. Rosso Conero is the DOC in this case, where Montepulciano must make up at least 85% of the bottling and Malacari is the producer of this 100% Montepulciano cuvee. Fermented in stainless steel but aged in oak for 12 months prior to an unfiltered bottling, this lovely wine strikes a wonderful balance between fruit and subtle wood flavors.

Dark purple in color, you're greeted with typical smokey cherry and plum aromas with complicating notes of oak spice, coffee and minerals. In the mouth it's rustic but hearty, with large scaled dark fruit flavors and a long spicy, moderately tannic finish. Try this everyday winner with a beef or lamb stew, or a bolognese pasta. Imported by one of my favorites, Polaner Selections, this quaffer set me back a middling $14.99. Cheers.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Flavors of the French Countryside - Pont de Nyons Cotes du Rhone 2010

There are certain kinds of wine that really resonate with consumers. Some folks might be Zinfandel fans. Others might only drink Cabernet Sauvignon - a phenomenon I have witnessed many times in the store I moonlight in. Still others have to have their Malbec and only Malbec. As someone who is equal opportunity and likes to try wines of many different types, varietals and origins, I sometimes find this obsessive loyalty almost comical. I mean really, are you actually going to drink a cab with pasta and clam sauce? The evening's dinner dish should have at least some influence on your wine choice and though I am no food and wine pairing dictator, you should give a modicum of thought to your choices.

That being said, I always have 2 or 3 Cotes du Rhones in my kitchen rack. There's no other wine I'd rather drink on an everyday basis. They're good with just about any meat dish and I've had them on numerous occasions with shrimp dishes, grilled or pan fried salmon and grilled tuna as well. The best ones are blends based mostly on the Grenache grape with other Rhone Valley varietals playing smaller but important supporting roles. For me, the common thread that links good Cotes du Rhones from different producers, is the black pepper element in the aromas. As soon as I smell that, I know I have what I like - as long as the fruit is there as well.

The 2010 Pont de Nyons Cotes du Rhone is a private label project of HB Wine Imports and R. Shack Selections, bottled by a friend of theirs in the village of Cairanne. 2009 and '10 were wonderful vintages in this part of the wine world, and this bottling gave me all I could want. The blend in this case consists of 70% Grenache, and 10% each Syrah, Carignan and Cinsault. Forthcoming aromas of black cherry, black pepper and what the French call "garrigues", a blend of local spice elements that may or may not suggest lavender, rosemary or thyme etc., are supported by mineral elements from the old vines that produced this fruit in very stony soils. In the mouth, there's lovely texture to the dark berry flavors, excellent supporting acidity and pepper and mineral elements repeating on the long, lightly tannic finish. This everyday winner cost me a mere $9.99. Cheers.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Rioja on the Brain - Vina Bujanda Crianza 2009

I have to admit that I've been somewhat obsessed with Rioja lately. Not in my posts necessarily, but certainly in my thinking...and drinking. Spain is the country of the big three of Europe (the other being France and Italy) that I am the weakest on in terms of wine geography. I have stated many times that Spain is my go to country for value with more excellent under $10 wines available here than from any other country. There's more fruit and complexity and thus interest for me in the everyday wines of Spain. Jumilla, Navarra, Manchuela, Calatayud, Campo de Borja and Monstant are just a handful of the Spanish DOs that produce great everyday wines.

But you can't really learn about the essence of Spanish wine without eventually delving into Rioja. Wine production in Spain is centuries old, as it is in the rest of Europe, and Rioja is one of the most important Spanish viticultural areas. Tempranillo is the most important grape of the region and can be blended with Garnacha Tinta, Mazuelo, and Graciano. Cabernet Sauvignon is also sometimes used in the blend. World class wines with decades of aging potential have been produced here for a long time. On these pages however, we deal with the wallet friendly versions of the wines we taste.

The Rioja DO is a long valley in north central Spain that is surrounded on three sides by mountains that protect the vines from the wind. There are three sub-regions running northwest to southeast in the valley: Rioja Alta, Rioja Alavesa and Rioja Baja. The highest altitude vines lie in the Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa and produce more wines with more "terroir", or flavor elements that come form the soil. They will in general be less extracted and more complex. The Rioja Baja on the other hand, with it's lower altitude and warmer Mediterranean influenced climate, will generally produce fruitier, larger-scaled but somewhat more monolithic wines.

Last night's Rioja was a Crianza from Vina Bujanda and imported by Winebow, a national company with a great portfolio. The Crianza designation calls for at least two years of aging with at least six months in barrel. This cuvee is a 100% Tempranillo example that saw 70% American oak and 30% French oak, the American oak in general imparting more vanilla and the French oak more subtle spice flavors. With the source of these grapes being the Rioja Alta and Rioja Alavesa, this is a good example of balanced and elegant everyday Rioja. It's translucent ruby in color with red cherry and blueberry fruit supported by oak spice and tobacco notes. In the mouth, it's not too ripe, but juicy and energetic with a wonderful mid-palate of berry fruit with earthy notes and a reprise of the oak spice. It finishes long and soft and is a delicious example of good Rioja for an affordable $11.99. Bottoms up!