Sunday, December 21, 2014

Where's the Beef? Foxglove Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles 2012

I wrote up the Varner Winery's wonderful unoaked entry level Foxglove Chardonnay a couple of years ago in part because of an encounter with a customer over the 2010. I was moonlighting at my local discount store when this customer asked if there any '09 Foxglove Chards left. The '09 had been given a 90 point score by Robert Parker but the '10s were the current vintage. The '10s were were just as good as the 09's, they just hadn't been reviewed yet. No matter how hard I tried to convince this guy that the '10s were delish, he wouldn't bite. It's laughable. Do you really need to buy by the numbers when we're talking about a $15 wine? Plus you have to have some trust that a good producer like Varner is going to produce a quality wine every year, especially in California where extreme vintage variation is rare.

Well when I scored some local grass fed short ribs of beef from our friends the Hubners at Beechtree Farm, I went looking for a everyday Cabernet Sauvignon to pair with them. Cali Cabs in the 7-15 dollar range can often have very little in the way of classic Cabernet flavor. They are often overly soft fruit bombs that taste more like Zinfandel than Cab. Sometimes the Cabernet characteristics are lost because of too much hang time in the vineyard or too much wood in the cellar. When I spied the Foxglove on the shelf for $12.99 I figured it was time to revisit the Varner Winery's entry level offerings.

The Paso Robles AVA is a fairly southern viticultural zone only about 3 hours north of Los Angeles. Vineyards range in altitude from 700 to 2400 ft. and temperatures can get pretty high in the summer, though some areas benefit from cooling ocean breezes at night that slow ripening. The Foxglove Cabernet comes in at very balanced 13.7% alcohol and has all the aromas and flavors you expect from quality cab. It's produced with 94% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Petit Verdot and 2% Cabernet Franc. The nose has lots of black raspberry and plummy fruit with typical Cabernet supporting notes of cedar, graphite and herbs. It's fairly full bodied and juicy in the mouth with bold fruit, brown spices and lingering graphite notes. It finishes long and lightly tannic. This beauty is an excellent value and it stood up to the short ribs easily for a wonderful Saturday night meal.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sicily Rising - Firriato Etna Rosso 2011

There's a lot of awareness about Sicilian wines these days, as evidenced by the publication of a big feature in the Spectator recently. In addition, I'm seeing more and more entries from the island on my retailer's shelves as consumers expand their search for good quality everyday wines. There's a lot to like in this region's wines as they usually represent excellent values - from the more fruit forward bottlings from the warmer areas to the more complex and minerally examples from the slopes of Mt. Etna. I've been buying wines from Tasca d'Almerita, di Giovanna, Planeta and Tenuta delle Terre Nere for a long time, the latter of which is owned by the influential importer Marc de Grazia. But when I spotted for the first time the Firriato Etna Rosso in my local shop, I eagerly grabbed one to sample.

Firriato's website touts that all of it's vineyard holdings are now certified organic yet for some reason, this basic bottling isn't listed anywhere. It's possible that this wine is bottled exclusively for the American importer. No matter, this a good example of what kind of flavor and structure a wine born of Mt. Etna hillside fruit can produce, even at the $15 price point. 2011 was a very good vintage in Sicily and you might expect a fairly lush, fruit forward wine from this generally hot climate zone. However that's generally not the case with wines from the Etna DOC, where vine altitudes can reach 3000 ft. Wines from vines planted up the side of this famous and still active volcano often are leaner in style while bringing more aromatic complexity to the table. Such is the case with this bottling as well.

This wine has beautiful aromatics featuring a distinct stony minerality in the nose with bright cherry fruit and herbal notes. It's got a fairly angular flavor profile with the sour cherry and raspberry fruit supported by earth and spice notes. It finishes long with zingy acidity. This wine is what some might call a "food wine" and in truth, the big fruit crowd might find it a bit too bright. But this wine is right in my wheelhouse and in a certain sense isn't all wine "food wine"? It drinks a little like a good but more structured entry level Burgundy and is produced from 50% Nerello Mascalese and 50% Nerello Cappuccio. Nerello Mascalese, one of the most important Sicilian grapes, is a late ripening varietal that needs hang time for the tannins to mature while the Nerello Cappuccio lends softer tannins and darker, less acidic juice to the blend. This beauty paired perfectly with a locally raised lamb shank with a lemon parsley gremolata. It's imported by Soilair Selections of New York, yet another wonderful small importer we have here on the right coast. On a side note, Ian d'Agata's exhaustive Italian grape encyclopedia called "Native Wine Grapes of Italy", is an amazingly instructive reference tool which will certainly be aiding me in my never ending wine journey, just as it did for this post.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Lost Lands - Barbi Orvieto Classico "Abboccato" 2012

Orvieto is an Italian DOC that I pretty much gave up on years ago. The wines were frequently disappointing, with thin, vapid textures and dull, uninteresting fruit. Then this past May, we spent a week in a beautiful restored farmhouse in the Orvieto zone, about a half hour from the incredible hilltop city of the same name. Our hosts provided us with 6 bottles of the local juice that they had bottled for them by a local winery. Well after almost 24 hours of travel, I can't tell you how good that local white tasted. At first I thought it was the location effect - that being in a special place will make everything taste great. But a couple of days later, that wine tasted just as good as it did that first night.

 The view from Orvieto looking northwest

So when we returned home, I went looking for some Orvietos to see if the quality revolution had indeed influenced this Italian region as well. The Orvieto DOC straddles Umbria and Lazio and has a Classico zone centered around the hilltop city and the terrain to the east. The soils that are comprised of compacted volcanic ash and bedrock contribute to the mineral nuances in the aromas and flavors that some of these wines express. The main grapes are Grechetto and Trebbiano, which together must make up at least 60% of the blend.

The Barbi 2012 Abboccato is a blend of 40% Grechetto, 30% Procanico (which is another name for the local Trebbiano), and the rest Drupeggio, Malvasia and Verdello. The "Abbaccato" on the label actually means that this is a demi-sec or off-dry wine with approximately 11 grams of residual sugar per liter. It sure didn't taste that way. It's got beautiful ripe pear and peach aromas, lots of lush, sweet fruit in the middle that feature those same orchard fruits as well as secondary notes of orange peel, almond and minerals. The zingy acidity on the back end enables this great little wine to drink more like a dry white than the off-dry designation would lead you to believe. Fermented entirely in stainless, this surprising little gem cost me a mere $9.99. Imported by Omniwines, NY.

There are some folks out there on the web that claim that there are no wines selling for under $20 that are any good. I couldn't possibly disagree any more and this awesome little wine is just one more piece of evidence to the contrary. Cheers!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Beauty of Carmenere - Casa Silva Cuvee Colchagua 2012

I'm becoming more and more a fan of Carmenere. Every bottle I open seems to up the ante on the amount of complexity that this grape can achieve, even at the everyday price points. Carmenere has a traveler's story of course having been brought to Chile from the vineyards of Bordeaux many moons ago. As it turns out, Carmenere was especially sensitive to Phylloxera when the vine louse destroyed much of the vines in Europe. Add to that the fact that Carmenere doesn't graft easily, so when European wines were grafted to the more Phylloxera resistant American rootstock, Carmenere lost favor with the Bordelais. Chilean vintners had taken Carmenere cuttings back home prior to that 19th century Phylloxera outbreak, so it was there that the grape found it's new, permanent home.

Given that history of the grape, it's no wonder that the family that owns Casa Silva has been around since 1892. Although they have been making wine since then, they only recently launched their own Casa Silva label in 1997. Carmenere is a grape that presents similar aroma and flavor profiles as Cabernet Sauvignon, which would explain why it was once important in Bordeaux. The entry level Carmenere from Casa Silva bears the "Cuvee Colchagua" designation and it cost me a mere $13.99. Like Cab Sauv, you're greeted with very earthy, herbaceous aromas that give way to dark berry fruit. There's a bit of alcoholic heat as well. In the mouth the blackberry and plummy fruit flavors take the lead and are supported by the earthy and mineral notes. It's really a wonderful wine for the price. Most bottles at this price point don't give you anywhere near this amount of complexity. This wine is produced from vineyards at 1,000 ft. of altitude and 50% spends 8 months in barrel prior to bottling. Only 5,000 cases were produced. Imported by South America specialist Vine Connections, this Carmenere is an everyday winner and will go beautifully with burgers or a grilled steak. Bottoms up!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Malbec Musing - Agua de Piedra Malbec Gran Seleccion 2013

At both Nomad Pizzas in Philly, the Malbec we pour by the glass for $8 far outsells all the other pours except for the Montepulciano. People love Malbec for the same reason they love other new world everyday quaffers. It's usually got lots of soft, sweet fruit in the middle and a very smooth finish, unfettered by any noticeable tannic structure. Of course, for the most part there's not much complexity, but most folks don't care about that when they're washing down Nomad's delicious spicy sopressata pizza drizzled with honey.

Well, I decided to put down the Cotes du Rhone and the Montepulcianos, get off my old world soap box, and dive into another Malbec I'd been eyeballing at my local store. The Aqua de Piedra Malbec Gran Seleccion presents itself with an attractive package that features a really heavy bottle-the kind that might normally hold a high end cab. It's a little odd for a $10.99 wine but hey, bottle weight notwithstanding it's what is inside that counts right? Interestingly, a not so scientific study done by a wine shop in England a couple of years ago and reported by the Academic Wino concluded that, among other things, consumers associated bottle weight with quality of wine. I can certainly see that being the case. The Aqua de Piedra bottle comes in at a touch over three pounds while most wine bottles weigh around two pounds.

The Aqua de Piedra is an import of Monsieur Touton, a very large importer/distributor here on the east coast. It's produced exclusively for them by Mendoza Vineyards of Mendoza, Argentina. The winemaker Richard Bonvin was kind enough to get back to me via twitter on that subject.  Mendoza does not own any vineyards but sources grapes from various different growers. The bottle claims that the grapes for this tasty red comes from very old vines grown at very high altitudes. It also sees about 6 months in oak prior to bottling. For lovers of new world fruit this wine is a winner, and for old world fans, there is some uncommon complexity here. The dark purple color gives way to plummy aromas supported with some appealing spice, earth and mineral notes. It's fairly full in the mouth, with round, supple dark berry and plum flavors, and a very soft pleasing finish. A retailer friend told me that as soon as a container of this comes in, it sells out very quickly. For $10.99, this nice little Malbec is an excellent value. Enjoy!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Pieropan and the Beauty of Soave

It's been awhile since my last post, which I'll gladly blame on circumstances beyond my control. However, we did find the time for a trip to Italy, which as any trip to Italy should, found us taking a few days at some really wonderful wineries. Tom Hyland is one of my favorite wine writers, and his 2011 blog post about the wines of Soave totally turned my head around with regards to these wines. They are not only delicious, even at the entry level, but at the single vineyard level they can be utterly profound, rivaling the great whites of the world. For most American consumers however, Soave is an afterthought, a quaint little white the parents of my generation drank from a bulk producer like Bolla. It gave my generation a lasting impression of Soave that wasn't very positive. And of course a lot of folks just don't know what Soave is. It often takes a trusted retailer or sommelier to get someone to try a wine from outside their comfort zone.

The quiet streets of Soave

Soave is a small, quiet, beautiful town, with the old section comprised of just two main streets. And of course there's a castle overlooking the town and the surrounding, vine covered terrain. The vines on the flats produce grapes for the basic Soave while the vines on the hills just north of town produce the Soave Classicos and the single vineyard bottlings.

Look north from Pieropan's roof, that's the 
Classico hill on the right and the hill where where 
the Calvarino Vineyard is located is 2 over from that

We visited one of the top producers in the zone, Pieropan. They have a couple of fairly new red projects, an Amarone and a Valpolicella, but I was there for the whites - their beautiful Soaves. There's three dry Soave bottlings and one dessert wine. The Classico and the Calvarino Vineyard bottling are fermented in fiberglass lined cement tamks that are built right into the wall. They both spend time in tank and on the lees, the latter for about a year, and are then bottled and aged for a bit prior to release. The La Rocca bottling is fermented in 2500 liter French oak barrels, then racked into a mixture of 2500 liter and 500 liter oak barrels where it remains on the lees for a year before being bottled.

Fermenting Tanks

2500 Liter French Oak barrels

There's a big difference in the soil that the Calvarino and La Rocca bottlings come from as well. The Calvarino Vineyard is volcanic in nature and rich in basalt while the La Rocca vineyard is from clay soils. Both sit on hillsides at 200-300 meters in altitude. According to our hosts, the clay gives the La Rocca a richer profile in general, which in turn lends it to barrel fermentation and aging. So, given the soil differences and the different treatments in the cellar, there were also big differences in the aromas and flavors of the single vineyard wines, with the La Rocca drinking more like a premier cru white Burgundy while the Calvarino was leaner and more minerally.

The lineup of Pieropan's Soaves

Garganega is the most important grape of the Soave zone. Pieropan's Classico is 85% Garganega and 15% Trebbiano di Soave, the Calvarino is 70% Garganega and 30% Trebbiano di Soave, and the La Rocca is 100% Garganega. The entry level Classico can be had for as low as $14.99 and features beautiful aromas of citrus and peach buttressed by a nutty nuance from the aging on the lees. It's juicy and bright tasting with excellent cut and acidity. The Calvarino Vineyard bottling was my favorite, with more mineral notes in the nose, along with lime zest, mint and orchard fruit. It's fruit is long and lean with obvious stoniness from the volcanic soils. This should age beautifully. The La Rocca on the other hand is completely different. The barrel aging is apparent, giving the wine a more rounded texture and more spice notes in the nose and palate. There's plenty of fruit here also but this wine has very different aspirations than the other two. They are all delicious but I definitely prefer the more true to type profile of the Classico and Calvarino bottlings. The single vineyard bottlings will cost you around $25-$30. Neil Empson, who has a wonderful portfolio, imports these amazing wines. Cheers.

Pieropan's cellar - the single vineyard wines age very well

a great day in Soave


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.