Sunday, November 29, 2015

Organic Wines - Boring No More

When you lose someone you love to cancer, you begin asking a lot of questions. You travel down rabbit holes you had never considered and you begin learning about the toxins in our environment. Our food chain is littered with pesticide residues and processed foods on store shelves are loaded with GMO ingredients, sugar and salt. Fluoride in our water is now a known endocrine disruptor. If you live in a rocky area like me, there may be arsenic in your water. It all adds up to an assault on our immune systems. Consumers are more aware than ever and are moving more and more to organics in their food consumption. But what about wine?

As reported by Decanter in February of 2013, a study of French wine found that 90% of the samples contained pesticide and fungicide residues. Yes the levels were below allowable limits but some wines contained several molecules. If this is true of French wines, then it's probably true of wine from the rest of the world, yet wine consumers don't seem to be clamoring for more organic wine. Well, I am, and I'm finding more and more organic and biodynamic wines hidden on the shelves in my local store.

It used to be that the organic section of retail wine stores was a small, lonely place filled with the same old brands. Frey Vineyards of Mendocino in California has been making organic wine since 1980 and Bonterra; another domestic organic brand has been around since 1993. These two producers dominated the organic sections of stores for years. Even now the organic section in the store I frequent is very small. This is a store with over 4,000 wines on hand, yet the organic section has maybe 15 wines. One thing to be aware of is that even organic wines are treated with sulfur dioxide to preserve and stabilize them for shipping. The wine industry would not be able to ship wines around the world without it. It's a fairly benign compound that is problematic only for people with a sensitivity to sulfites.

These are just a few of the organic wines I've found hidden in the large inventory of wines in my local shop beyond the organic section. The Chateau Jarr Bordeaux blanc and The Montinore Willamette Valley Pinot Gris cost $12.99, the Mas de Gourgonnier Provence Rose cost $13.99, the Luzon Verde Spanish Monastrell from Jumilla cost a whopping $7.99 and the De Martino Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from the Maipo Valley in Chile cost $11.99. These are all delicious everyday wines that you can throw down guilt free and know that you are doing something good for yourself and the environment.

More and more wine producers are moving to organic and biodynamic production methods as they have realized that the health of their soils and vines depend on the natural replenishment of friendly compounds and microbes. This blogger, Kenn Pogash, has published a very cool index of organic and biodynamic producers from around the world. I'm not sure how old it is but it is very extensive. Enjoy.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Football and Wine: Sonoma County Petite Sirah - Bringing the Bold

Having noticed that I am an editor with NFL Films, the wonderful folks hit me up for a blog post on wines to drink with football. Yes I know that beer may be the most popular football beverage but I'm good for 1 or 2 of those only. After that I move on to the vino because well, it's less filling and I like it better, with food and without. Super Bowl 50 will be held in the Niners stadium south of San Francisco this February so it's not too early to start planning your Super Bowl party. As you will see, Petite Sirah, a virtually unknown grape to most consumers, makes wine that will pair perfectly with tailgate food - especially items like spicy wings, chili and ribs. So to check out my post for them, and why you should consider Sonoma Petite Sirah, click here peeps!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Ridge Vineyards' Sonoma Winery - Tour and Tasting Excellence

During my recent trip to Napa and Sonoma with my daughter, we stopped for a tour and tasting at Ridge Vineyard's Sonoma outpost. Ridge's home base is on the central coast near Santa Cruz of course but the Sonoma site is where they make most of their Zins. This $30 per person tour and tasting is a great value and a ton of fun to boot. It's 90 minutes long and includes a tour of the vineyards as well as the facility, and a sit down tasting of five wines - including the flagship $145 a bottle Monte Bello Cabernet. Our tour guide Dinora was wonderful and incredibly knowledgeable. She spent a lot of time with us as she drove us around the various vineyard blocks of mostly old vines - some of which go back as far as 1901. Some of these blocks are field blends, meaning they have different varietals planted together. Peter Wellington of Wellington Vineyards once explained to me that this was done in the old days of Cali wine making so that if one varietal for the blend didn't do well in a particular vintage, the others would pick up the slack. It's not a planting practice that is employed any more. We stopped at a certain point so that Dinora could show us the difference between Carignan and Zinfandel foliage and berries.

 Dinora talking about Carignan

Ridge's Sonoma winery is notable for it's very sustainable practices. The vineyards are organic and irrigated when necessary via a drip system with water recycled from the winery. The winery itself is made of rice straw bales covered with a stucco-like base that keeps moisture off the bales. These three-foot thick walls provide excellent insulation and help keep the facility cool. Electricity is generated by solar panels on the roof. 

 Some of the very old, bush trained vines

Ridge's Sonoma Winery

I loved Zinfandels when I first started on my wine journey and Ridge's bottlings were and still are amongst the very best. Lots of folks love Zin for it's up front, brash fruit and peppery side notes. They are easy drinking wines that are fun and easy to like. Ridge's bottlings, like most of the good Cali wines have gotten kind of expensive so I hadn't tried one in many years. The lineup for the tasting included the Carignan, the Lytton Estate Grenache-Mourvedre blend, the Lytton Springs Zin, the Hooker Creek Zin and the Monte Bello. The Grenache-Mourvedre blend was a project of a winery intern that Ridge liked enough to make 24 barrels of. That wine, the Carignan and the Lytton Springs Zin were all delicious and notable for their up front fruit, spice notes and beautiful balance. The only one I didn't love was the Hooker Creek Zin, which smelled and tasted a bit over ripe to me.

The Lineup
The Monte Bello on the other hand is incredible. It's not often that a regular working stiff gets to try one of California's most important and historic wines so I was pumped. It did not disappoint. Now the current bottling is a 2011 - a cooler year and the predecessor to California's very hot and very dry years that would follow. Many of the winery folks we talked to on this trip told us that 2015 would be their earliest harvest ever. The Monte Bello had very expressive aromatics of bright fruit, cedar, minerals and earth. In the mouth it's big but not overdone with plenty of fruit and subtle oak spice notes. The minerality comes through on the long finish and there's plenty of tannic grip. This wine should age really well.

I highly recommend a visit to Ridge's Sonoma outpost if you make a wine country trip. It's literally three miles from Healdsburg, the beautiful northern Sonoma town with great restaurants. And as is the case with most Napa and Sonoma restaurants, you can bring in a bottle you've purchased at a winery and drink it with your meal - usually for a very nominal corkage fee. Cheers!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Tasca d'Almerita Nero d'Avola Regaleali 2012

Italian wines usually make up the majority of the inventory both in my cellar, and my everyday kitchen rack. For me, no other country offers so much wine diversity in both reds and whites. Sicily has been at the forefront of the wine geek consciousness for awhile now and more and more excellent wines from one of the oldest wine producing regions in the world are finding their way on to retailer's shelves. Sicily is the third largest wine-producing region in Italy and its warm, dry climate is particularly suited to producing wine grapes. The lack of humidity means that there is very little fungal disease pressure on growers, enabling them to produce with little use of sulfur or fungicide sprays. The consistency of the Sicilian weather means you really don't have to pay too much attention to vintage when purchasing these wines.

Nero d'Avola is Sicily's most important red grape and according to Ian d'Agata and his exhaustive encyclopedia "Native Wine Grapes of Italy", it is Italy's 7th most planted grape variety in general. Furthermore, there are apparently many sub-types of Nero d'Avola which my explain why some examples of these wines are heavier and more extracted with lower acidity while some others can be quite delicate, even Pinot Noir like in their color and texture.

Anyway, Nero d'Avolas in the everyday category can be quite good and Tasca d'Almerita's Regaleali bottling is always one of the sure bets year in and year out. Winebow is the importer and the 2012 bottling cost me a wallet loving $11.99. Winebow is a national company so it should be available in lots of places. This delicious wine has prominent aromas of ripe, sweet cherries and raspberry along with very minerally, stony notes and brown spices. There's a lush fruity mid-palate and a velvety texture, but excellent acidity and cut. The vines that produce the grapes for this bottling live between 1,500 and 2,500 ft of altitude which partially explains the stony elements in the nose. In addition, prior to bottling, 50% of the wine is aged in stainless and 50% is aged in Slavonian oak. Cheers!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

All Hail Chardonnay - Domaine des Vercheres Macon Villages 2013

When it comes to white wine, Chardonnay is still King (or Queen if you will) in my book and sales figures will back me up on that. According to the Wine Institute, Chardonnay still has the largest US market share of all the varietals with a 21% share. That's as of 2013. Now I'm in love with Italian whites like Soave and Fiano di Avellino or Northern Spain's Albarino, but good Chard can hit all the right notes, pairing orchard fruit flavors with good body and acidity. I've been critical of domestic Chard in the past. I think too many are too ripe and sweet with accompanying high alcohol levels. These versions are usually lacking in acidity and end up tasting flabby and dull.

For me there's no better everyday Chard than what one can find from the Macon region of France's Burgundy. It's a huge appellation with over 9,000 acres under vine. Most wine drinkers know Pouilly-Fuisse, the most famous appellation within the Macon, and St. Veran is another Macon appellation that is known for quality Chardonnay. The entry level Macon designation has a three-tier hierarchy - plain old Macon, Macon-Villages and Macon plus a village name like Macon-Pierreclos for instance.

Domaine des Vercheres is a small family run operation in the northern end of the Macon. The Chardonnay vines average 30 years of age and grow at an altitude of 800 ft or so. This delicious little wine is fermented partially in French oak barrels and partially in stainless. Partial malolactic and stirring of the lees add richness and depth. It's got subtle aromas of pear and green apple with almond and citrus notes. The wood is not heavy handed here and the orchard fruit flavors dominate the medium bodied palate. This tasty little wine has good acidity, an attractive texture and it finishes bright and long with lime and mint notes. Imported by Martin Scott, this lovely everyday Chardonnay cost me $11.99.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Portugal Rising Casa de Santar 2010 - Dao

It's been quite awhile since my last post as family health problems will always take precedence over blogging, but it's time to get back to what I  love - seeking out outstanding wine quality at affordable prices. Portugal is a country whose wines have virtually leaped onto the world stage in dramatic fashion in the last 10 years or so. For decades, the only Portuguese wine that was respected by wine buffs was Port, the fortified sweet red from the Douro Valley. These wines are famous and long-aging but are really best suited to sipping alone, or with a cheese plate or dessert. It's not as if Portugal didn't produce table wine - the country has been a major producer for a long time. But despite the centuries old pedigree, the table wines haven't been very good.

The three most famous wine producing regions in Portugal are Vinho Verde, Douro and Dao. Vinho Verde is know for it's whites, although plenty of red is produced there as well. Douro is know for the aforementioned Port, and nowadays, for world class red table wines as well. In Dao, the wine quality suffered from stagnation for 40 years due to government established co-ops that dominated production and destroyed competition and innovation. Once they were abolished when Portugal applied to join the European Union, quality wine became more common in the region.

There are dozens of indigenous varietals grown in Dao but the most common are Touriga Nacional, Tinto Roriz (Tempranillo), Alfrocheiro and Jaen. The Delicious $9.99 Casa de Santar is a blend of the first three of those grapes and delivers all kinds of pleasure at a bargain price. There's black raspberry and cherry on the nose with supporting notes of leather and damp earth. The palate is medium bodied with good dark berry flavors and supporting acidity that gives this wine shape. It's rare to find complexity like this at this price point. It went perfectly with some grass fed sirloins and polenta with a porcini mushroom sauce. I wish more consumers would take a chance on wines like this - in most cases they won't be disappointed. Casa de Santar is a product of Global Wines. Cheers.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Rascal Redux - Rascal Oregon Pinot Noir Non-Vintage

I've written up this incredible little bargain in the past and thought it might be a good time to taste the current release. Pinot Noir is still selling briskly in general and at Nomad Pizza in Philly, where I consult. Our customers love Pinot Noir, even if it isn't the best match for Tom and Stalin's incredible Calabrian pizza. Well, everyone gets to drink what they like I guess.

I've always liked Oregon Pinot in general. It's a cooler wine climate than Napa, Sonoma or points south, and thus it produces more delicate, balanced versions for the most part. This is a gross generalization of course, but you get the idea. I don't like the sweeter, more extracted versions that are so prevalent in the marketplace. Pinot Noir should be translucent in color with alcohol levels in the moderate range. Once you start getting to 14% and beyond, Pinot ceases being Pinot for me.

This incredible $9.99 bargain has all the good Pinot Noir aromas and flavors you expect - the bright raspberry and cherry, the brown spice notes and some floral nuance as well. This is the most balanced, most pleasing everyday Pinot Noir I've ever had. It's from the Great Oregon Wine Company by way of Stone Wolf Vineyards - who might just have the least informative wine website I've ever seen. An email to the winery seeking some additional info on this wine went unanswered. Oh well, the juice in the Rascal bottle definitely makes up for that. Cheers.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Winter White - Argillae Orvieto 2013

The temperatures may be quite frosty here in the northeast but if I'm eating a pan fried delicate fish like flounder, I'm still gonna want a white wine. I'm big on Italian whites these days. There's such incredible variety and value in Italy's biancos that it's a shame that most consumers won't take a chance with some of the great offerings in the everyday price points. There is so much enjoyment to be had beyond Pinot Grigio.

Our trip to Italy last spring turned me on to the beauty of Orvieto's wines. It's a DOC that is Umbria's biggest yet it used to produce mostly dull, uninteresting juice. But now the so-called world-wide quality revolution has obviously touched this little corner of the the globe also. Argillae is a producer repped by one of my favorite importers, Vias. Vias is one of those companies that seems to have no weak spots in the portfolio. There's quality up and down the line. So when I turn a bottle to the back label and see Vias' name, I have no doubt that the wine will be good.

Grechetto and Trebbiano are the main grapes of Orvieto and must account for at least 60% of the blend. Malvasia and Canaiolo Biano will usually make up the balance but in this case there's Sauvignon Blanc and some Chardonnay in the blend also. Now as an Italy purist, I generally eschew international varietals in my Italian wine, but the Argillae Orvieto is so tasty I had to climb down off of my high horse. This $11.99 beauty, which is fermented in stainless steel, has prominent pear and peach aromas along with floral notes and a nutty nuance that comes from a bit of aging on the lees (dead yeast cells). The orchard fruit flavors repeat boldly on the generous mid-palate, but there's bright, crisp acidity on the back end giving this wine lift. Enjoy.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Zintastic - Rancho Zabaco Sonoma Heritage Vines Zinfandel 2012

When the wife and I were first bitten by the wine bug, Zinfandel was a big part of our wine life. It's that way for a lot of neophytes even now, and back then there weren't a lot of wines that delivered the bold fruit and lush palate that zins did. Robert Parker often spoke of the three R's of Zinfandel - Ridge, Ravenswood and Rosenblum. I bought and cellared bottlings from all three, especially Ridge's Geyserville and Lytton Springs bottlings and Ravenswood's single vineyard bottlings. I also was high on Storybook Mountain, although their wines were leaner and less flattering in their youth.

Then came the 90's. My tastes evolved and my interests went elsewhere at the same time that many Zinfandel's were being bottled with ridiculously high alcohol levels in the 16 -17% range. Those examples drank more like port than a good table wine to be enjoyed with your dinner. It seemed the critics were more enamored of "concentration" than they were of balance, and those thicker zins were born of ever higher scores for highly concentrated wines from the experts.

Zinfandel has always been considered our one uniquely American grape, although in truth it is related to a Croatian varietal called Crijenak Kastelanski and to Italy's Primitivo. Clippings of one or the other were probably brought here in the 19th century.

Luckily, the wine pendulum has begun to swing back toward the production of more balanced wines, Zinfandel included. That excites me, for I still have a soft spot for the grape that was my first love. So, I went looking for one to try in the everyday price point that I inhabit. One thing I hate about everyday wine from California these days is the ever vague "California" designation of origin. California's Wine Institute lists 8 full pages of legal AVA's - or American Viticultural Areas. "California" is not on the list. A wine with the origin "California" tells me practically nothing about its pedigree. In fact, those wines may have been produced partially with grapes from the vast central valley, where the melons and tomatoes come from. No thanks.

So when I spied Rancho Zabaco's Sonoma "Heritage Vines" bottling at my local store for $15, I pounced. Most of the grapes for this bottling come from three well known Sonoma vineyards: Frei Ranch, Stefani Ranch and Chiotti Ranch. In truth, this wine is pretty high in alcohol. The winery's website says 14.8% and the bottle says 15.3% so it must be somewhere in that range. But, despite the fairly high alcohol, this wine doesn't smell or taste hot, in fact it's nicely balanced. It's got typical Zinfandel blackberry and blueberry aromas with notes of peppery spice, a lush, velvety mouth feel and bold berryish flavors. There's nothing baked about this wine at all and it finishes long and smooth. This lovely everyday zin is produced from 93% Zinfandel and 7% Petite Sirah. It paired wonderfully with some pasta and a good Bolognese. Cheers.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Animals in the Vineyard - Tablas Creek Patelin de Tablas

Tablas Creek is a winery I have seen much written about in very positive terms over the years but I have never had the opportunity to try any of their wines. They are one of the so-called "Rhone Rangers" of California, producing wines from grapes that are common in the Rhone Valley of southern France. Tablas Creek was started as a joint venture between the Perrin family of Chateauneuf du Pape super star Chateau de Beaucastel and Robert Haas, the owner of Vineyard Brands, which imports the famous winery. Tablas Creek is a winery I don't see much here in New Jersey, probably because most consumers do not step outside of their Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir comfort zone very often - and usually not until someone puts something unusual in their hands. This makes wines like this a tough sell where there isn't knowledgeable staff on hand to promote it.

What led me to Tablas Creek though wasn't the burning desire to sample their wines, for in truth, they've never been at the forefront of my wine consciousness due to their lack of exposure. What got me on this kick was a tweet that someone in my feed put out there with a link to Tablas Creek's blog and a post mentioning Cline Cellars' use of Donkeys in their vineyard. A little investigation revealed that Tablas Creek also had a vineyard herd. We're animal friendly here in the rural western central part of Jersey and in fact we have a few of our own so this was fascinating to me. I emailed one of the viticulturists at Tablas Creek, Levi Glenn, and he was kind enough to answer a few questions for me.

A few years ago Tablas Creek began farming parts of their vineyards biodynamically, which strives to create a balanced farm ecosystem and thus generate health and fertility in the soil. The use of animals in the vineyard is part of that equation. As the herd eats the grass and weeds between the vines they fertilize the soil and help produce a natural balance that let's Tablas Creek keep their vineyards free of herbicides and pesticides. The herd consists of 60 sheep, a ram, 2 donkeys, 4 alpacas, and 1 llama. They also have two mobile chicken coops, each with 15-20 hens. The hens not only fertilize the soil but they eat bugs as well. The donkeys, alpacas and llama are there partly as protection for the sheep and chickens. Because they are an unfamiliar part of the local, natural environment, they keep the coyotes away. The Tablas Creek herd is in the vineyards from November through March and kept out during the growing season. They are outside 95% of the time and only brought in for events or when the ewes have given birth and the weather is foul.

Photograph courtesy of Tablas Creek Winery

I ordered one of each of Tablas Creek's entry level wines from my local store - the Patelin de Tablas 2011 and the Patelin de Tablas Blanc 2012. They are both produced with a blend of Rhone varietals from the Tablas Creek vineyards and from purchased fruit. The red is produced with Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre and the white with Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne. I really wanted to love these wines but I have to be honest, I was a bit disappointed. They're not bad, they're just okay - and I was expecting more. The white's somewhat stunted aromatics offered some white peach notes. There was good texture in the mouth but I kept wishing that there was more fruit. The red was better with nice light red berry aromatics and soft cherry and raspberry flavors but not much in the way of secondary elements. Tablas Creek deserves kudos for their environmentally sound farming practices and I'm sure that their upper echelon wines deserve all the great reviews that they receive. I'd just like to see them do more with their entry level red and white. Cheers.