Monday, December 31, 2012

Wine Critics' Heads Elsewhere

Two long-time writers for Wine Spectator seemed to fall into a bit of a rut.
It must be hard to write about wines from the same region, and often the same vintage, without using the sams words over and over again.  Repeating some descriptors may be unavoidable, but using "roasted marshmallow" when describing red wine seemed an odd reoccurrence.  Four of fourteen reviews for a region contained that descriptor.  Since the wines cost $60, $54, $50 and $32, I'll just roast a marshmallow.  Thanks anyway.
One reviewer seemed to have sailing on his mind as he penned the following notes in July, August and September.  One wine was said to "ride aristocratically over a layer of refined tannins."  Another offered to "sail smoothly and serenely over refined tannins."  And the third "glides smoothly over refined tannins."  I think his boat might be named Refined Tannins...

See you in 2013!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Preposterous Pundit Pontifications for 2012 Part One

These reviews were actually published in 2011 by Wine Spectator but I found some notes the other day and it seemed appropriate to share them.  I remain amazed by the choices some critics make when they describe wines.  More amazing sometimes is the score associated with the words.
A wine described as "reticent in aroma" and as having "a stiff chorus of tannins" nonetheless rated 91 points.  At $66 I expect something better than those words imply.
88 points is not quite so impressive, but listen to this description: "medicinal herb notes...lacks a bit of focus with a lean, dry finish."  Oh, and MSRP is $48!
"Assertive, sandpaper tannins," does not signify a 92 point wine to me, especially if I just spent $80.  Likewise, "gritty tannins" seems like a serious flaw to me, especially at $45 and $55, but Wine Spectator rated two wines 92 points with that characteristic.
Bestowing 91 points on a $44 dollar beauty, JL raved that it possessed "a touch of mulch and celery."  My palate and wallet revolted at the concept of "notes of campfire and patchouli" for $42, despite a 93 point score.
Tomorrow another bit of amusement, courtesy of wine writers, to wrap up the year.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Napa Dominates California and the U.S.

According to Shanken News Daily, "In 2011, Napa County produced around 20% of all California wines, and accounted for 16%-17.5% of all wines produced in the U.S."  Wow.  They say Napa County, not Napa Valley so there are some producers included who might otherwise not be when most of us think of Napa, but according to Wikipedia, the difference in acreage between the two is only 2,275 in favor of Napa County.  That equates to just over 5% of Napa Valley's planted acres, not a huge amount.
Napa Valley arrives with a sense of exclusivity but those numbers make it sound less boutique and more shopping mall.
It's possible some games with numbers are being played, otherwise why not report Napa Valley alone.  Do wineries in NapaValley producing wine from other regions of California count in the Napa County numbers?
At any rate, the mot important thing for me to remember about production size and an air of exclusivity is that Bordeaux boasts three and a half times the planted acreage of Napa Valley!  Is that a bubble I hear bursting?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Champagne: Specific or General

I saw an ad the other day that featured Veuve Cliquot "Yellow" Label for just under $50 a bottle.  I will avoid my temptation to bash that ubiquitous product while lamenting how good it was a decade and a half ago.
My dollars rarely go to Champagne anymore, the prices have simply gotten out of hand at the same time producers from around the world have improved their sparkling wines.  This is before the coming increases (See 2012 Harvest Post).
So, if you are wandering through the world of Champagne you better know what you want, which is exactly why the standard labels sell so well.  Thinking about my predilection for individual grower offerings, led me to claim them to be the real Champagne.  But are they?
Grower Champagnes come from vignerons tending a specific plot of land and bottling their own estate product.  Large houses, like Veuve Cliquot and Moet and Chandon, etc., buy from multiple growers to make their house style.  "Moet [and] Chandon sources grapes from 234 villages in the Champagne region." (Wine Spectator Nov. 30, 2011).  That's a lot of different sources, and, to my mind, a more generic product.  Reliable, consistent but lacking character.
However, if you source grapes from all over the region is that not, perhaps, a more representative example of the style of Champagne than one vineyard, one grower?  To put it another way, is a Napa cabernet from St. Helena a better example of California cabernet than one sourced from Napa, Paso Robles and Central Coast?  Not a better wine, just a better example...

Monday, December 10, 2012

More Indiana: Chateau de Pique and Madison Vineyards

My touring of Indiana's wineries continues and there is good news and bad news.
Chateau de Pique provided the good news.  The setting is mostly idyllic.  That they hosted many weddings came as no surprise.
They grow their own cabernet franc (pictured above) although it turned out that the current offerings still came from the Finger Lakes region of New York.  The vines above should allow estate bottling starting with the 2012 vintage.
We tasted with the winemaker, the very engaging John McMahan (spelling?):
2009 chambourcin: I found it a bit tart, with a high-toned profile, featuring strawberry and light, red raspberry.  Although the tannin overwhelmed the fruit a bit on the finish, I liked the wine - it was tasty and the tannic bite could easily be handled with some food.
2009 cabernet franc: This was smoky and intense with deep, red fruit, darker than the chambourcin.  Apparently it ages for more than a year (two?) in bourbon barrels, which must be in good supply here in Kentuckiana.  I found that aspect of the wine a bit odd but it was certainly drinkable.  A spicy quality highlighted the finish.
2010 cabernet franc: Also from the Finger Lakes.  This was much more to my liking and had a classic cab franc nose.  The palate was simple and even a bit grapey but had elegance the 2009 lacked.  I thought this was delicious with real varietal character and plenty of the acidity that makes the wine so food friendly.
Then we headed to Madison Vineyards.  The visit was odd, right from the start.  The gentleman behind the counter seemed ill-at-ease with the entire situation, although he was certainly engaging and meant well.  The order of wines presented made no sense and he talked us out of tasting a prticular white wine (perhaps to his credit).
They claim all estate wines but the first one poured had about twenty percent Washington State fruit.  This was the Dimensions 2007, made from estate cabernet sauvignon and some cabernet franc mentioned above.  It was intensely purple in color with a meaty and minerally palate.  The minerality bordered on chalky and left me underwhelmed.
We also tasted a Ba Da Bing red and white.  Blend information was not provided but a handful of people arrived at this point, distracting our tour guide.  My tasting partner said the Rosso smelled of urine but I found it light, juicy, simple and drinkable.  The Bianco was dry and pinot grigio-esque, but it was awkward and inelegant.  We left here empty-handed.

For more posts on Indiana just use the search box and enjoy the read.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Nothing Up Their Sleeve?

Sometimes making wine should be like sausages and politics.  You are better off not knowing what goes on behind the scenes.
Although this technique has been around a while, I had not heard the term until recently.  Flash Détente.  Sounds more like a French superhero or some negotiation where one party simply walked away from the bargaining table.
As I understand it, grapes are added to a very warm silo-like device and the heat evaporates some water from the grapes.  They become more concentrated, the must is a deeper color and it can even remove some of the green, bell pepper notes from under-ripe grapes.  No one does this with healthy, ripe grapes but it apparently corrects in cool/wet vintages.
One can not help but wonder what the exposure to 180+ degree heat does to the grapes in the longer term but since most people age their wine less than a day after purchase, I guess we may never know.  
The process differs from the vacuum concentrator which allows a similar result to be achieved at a lower temperature.  I have tasted wines made using this technology and it seems to be a gentle enough method.  I have to assume it is more expensive than Flash Détente or else why would you choose heat?
I wish there was some labeling required for wines handled with this sort of manipulation.  Not so much so people could avoid them entirely but so they would be aware and could make an informed choice.  One might wish to know the added expense involved or simply to know that the grapes had been manipulated more than other wines.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Henschke Henry's Seven

In a similar theme to the previous post about Patz & Hall, I often roll my eyes about Australian wines, especially from Barossa.  However, some producers excel and Henschke is usually one of them, albeit for a price.  They produce wines from the higher altitude areas closer to Mount Lofty and the wines retain a fresher, brighter style because of it.
Henry's Seven is a shiraz-based Rhone-style blend from Barossa and usually receives rave reviews.  I like the wine and snagged a bottle of the 2004 and 2005 when I was wholesaling them in Oregon.  Sunday night with friends seemed a good time to open them and I was shocked by the difference between the two.  The 2005 was flat and dull.  It had little nose, only hinted at flavor and finished like a wine somehow magically muted by an unseen remote.  The wine is finished with a screwcap, so perhaps it needed time to breathe.  Nope.  Even the next night it was the same.
The 2004 shone.  Some meaty aromas mingled with juicy red fruit on the palate and the wine finished with enough complexity.  This was why I bought them both, unfortunately the 2005 was a total dud.
I have no more of the wine to try the 2005 again but it seemed to just be a weird wine, not an "off" bottle.  The point, like the Patz & Hall, is that these wines reminded me how much variety there can be in regions we assume to offer a nearly indistinguishable product from vintage to vintage.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Patz & Hall Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

While I am not a huge fan of California chardonnay in general, there are notable exceptions.  Patz & Hall is one of them, especially this one.  The sprawling Sonoma Coast AVA encompasses too much geography to consistently produce a hallmark style but diligent producers like Patz & Hall showcase the region properly.
Intense, ripe, tropical citrus fruit springs forward like many other California chards but the Sonoma Coast maintains a fresh, creamy, lemony acidity that keeps the wine lively and lip-smacking.  My palate craves more of the rich wine rather than becoming tired or bored like it does with so many other California chardonnays.
I had the luxury of being able to enjoy a glass of the 2009 and 2010 versions of Patz & Hall Sonoma Coast yesterday.  The 2010 was bigger, fuller and more exotic while the 2009 showed a leaner, racier style.  The winery and AVA styles expressed themselves clearly yet the wines showed much more variety than I would have guessed.
This was a good reminder of maintaining an open mind and willing palate.  It was also a good sign from California that vintages do matter and perhaps even jaded wine geeks should pay closer attention.

Friday, November 16, 2012

2012 Harvest

As it is Beaujolais Nouveau season, it seems appropriate to quickly mention the effect the 2012 harvest will have on prices.  France had one of the smallest production years in a half century with some appellations harvesting thirty and even forty percent less than in 2011.  The quality appears good, so no panic needs to begin.
Beaujolais and Champagne were particularly hard hit and you should expect some potentially significant price increases during 2013.  I'm guessing most Champagne houses will try to hold pricing through the holiday season and then make adjustments in January.  You may want to lay in a few extra bottles or consider some great sparkling options from elsewhere: Gruet from New Mexico, Roederer Estate from California and Graham Beck from South Africa to name a few.  There are also some great buys in France outside of Champagne, like Cremant d'Alsace.
After a few short harvests in a row in California, growers finally saw an increase in tonnage, about 12% according to Shanken News Daily.  While that is happy news, don't expect any price decreases since many vintners have not reflected the higher price for grapes due to the continued lackluster economy.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Chateau de Lascaux Rosé, Coteaux du Languedoc 2011

A Kermit Lynch import, this producer has always been acceptable to me but lacked either the guts to be wild or the polish to be suave.  Never wrong but rarely right.  A friend at Martin Wine Cellar had similar reactions to the wine over the years and recommended I try this vintage.
Made from 40% syrah, 30% grenache, 20% cinsault and 10% mourvedre this experiences "traditional vinification" according to Kermit's website.
The color is the classic salmon hue expected from the area.  I will even go so far as to say it is the color of Atlantic salmon, not the richer, darker color of Pacific.  Almost no pink appears at all, it shows more orange.  Fruit skins on the aroma - apricot? - but not the juice, the skin.  A hint of leather, almost an earth hint and perhaps some star anise.  Sorry, I don't usually do that but the nose was so subtle I found myself searching for something to latch onto.
Decent weight, but clipped on the finish.  It is very dry, bordering on austere...even a touch metallic.  A bit of creaminess emerged but overall the wine just sat there.  The first half of the taste is good but the finish lacks.  It went well with roast chicken and is passable at $8 but I paid $13 and feel no need to find another bottle.  Sorry Kermit.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Artadi Vinas de Gain, Rioja 2005

A great vintage, revered producer, favored area...I was excited about this one.  It got off to a bad start though, with a hint of volatile acidity and some brettanomyces - a stinky, animal smell.  I used to love wines with brett but not any more.  Some still view it as a hallmark of certain wineries but I have come to view it as a flaw.  When young, the wine only shows hints of brett but with more time in the bottle the fruit fades and the musty barnyard takes over.

Oddly, it did not appear as strongly on the palate.  The mid-palate was fantastic and mouth filling but the overall impression was disappointment.  Tartness dominated the finish like it might have been the end of a barrel and too much fine sediment got into this bottle.  (It stood up for a day before being opened and I poured carefully, though I did not decant).
Flashes of brilliance with intense red fruit and great balance of tannin showed but only for about 25% of the tasting experience.  The second night was more appealing with the sweet tart acidity gone.  Even the finish came around but having to wait overnight to get a seven year old wine to come around is too much to ask.
Even with the improvement, the finish did not build or last, it remained subtle and quiet.  I neither expect nor desire fireworks in every bottle of wine I taste but I do expect some life, especially from a wine built to age and with great reviews.  Used to be imported by European Cellars.
Anyone have another they'd like to share to prove me wrong?

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Stone Hill Winery Norton - 2005 and 2002

Perched above the Missouri River, further west of St. Louis than Montelle (mentioned in the last post), Stone Hill Winery enjoys a long history and a successfully revitalized present.  Begun in 1847, Stone Hill suffered the fate of countless other wineries during the ill-fated experiment of Prohibition.  Before its untimely demise Stone Hill won gold medals at eight world's fairs and produced over one million gallons of wine per year (that's over half a million standard twelve bottle cases).
In 1965, the Held family bought the property and renovated.  Production remains about a quarter of what it once was but they now have three locations, including a very busy one in Branson.  I visited the original site, located in Hermann, MO, several years ago.

Impressed by their norton wine, I bought not only a current release, 2005, but an older option as well, the 2002.  It seemed time to explore these and see how they developed.  Having never seen an older offering of norton for sale, I knew the winery saw potential for aging.
Stone Hill ( ages the norton "for one year in French, Hungarian & American oak barrels" and says it is "Comparable to a Shiraz."  They also encourage aging the wine, saying, "Enjoyable now, Norton should be at its best from five to ten years from vintage date."
Let's see...
The 2005 exhibited a meaty nose, but one that was a bit subdued, with deep fruit showing as well.  The palate was full and rich with good weight, more of the meaty accent and some inelegant tannin.  Deeply complex, the wine impressed but seemed a little muddied, or at least unfocused...tasty if a little clumsy.  It grew on me.  The tannins made the wine slightly chalky but not in a bad way, just nicely dry.  The wine was tactile and juicy with elegant structure. Overall a solid wine with good depth.
The nose on the 2002 showed more pronounced dirtiness.  It was not the complex earthy quality so often found in old world wines but it was also not unpleasant.  I found it remarkably similar to the 2005.  The palate had weight, the finish was rich and full with less obvious tannins and chalkiness.  This was a real treat though, the subtle fine tuning of the basics resulted in a much more enjoyable wine.  Smooth and delicious, I wonder if others would dismiss it against wines with better known pedigree.
Not being an expert in Missouri vintages, I have to assume them to be similar and, further, that a ten year aging process is preferable.  Perhaps an incorrect conclusion.
Current release is available for $19...$18.99 in retail-speak.  A reasonable price for a wine of this quality.  The expression on wine geek's faces when you tell them it's from Missouri makes this a steal!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Montelle Cynthiana 2005, Missouri

While their slogan is inviting, "Missouri's Most Scenic Winery" did not instill confidence in their wine.  Until I visited.  I went for the same reason I visit other wineries when I travel to lesser known wine regions, the presence of dry wines and those produced locally.  Give me your production, not something grown in California that you approved to be bottled.
The current owner and winemaker, Tony Kooyumjian, bought the place in 1998.  The previous owner started the winery in 1970. The winery is located in August, Missouri west of St. Louis.  The region was designated the first American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1980.  Napa Valley followed about eight months later!
I will not recount my visit, as it was a number of years ago but their cynthiana impressed me enough to buy a bottle and age it.
The back label clearly states, "Also known as Norton," so we know where they stand.  However, they omit a 'd' for their perch (see above), making it "Osage Ride," instead of Ridge, so perhaps the rest should be taken with a grain of salt as well.  The current release still features cynthiana on the label but is listed as "Norton 'Cynthiana'" on their website.
Love the screwcap, thanks!  There is some slight browning on the edge of the wine but nothing to be concerned over.  The core remains a deep ruby, far from opaque but not light either.  Some wood and alcohol on the nose with hints of that older, brickish aroma of slightly dried fruit that older wines exhibit.  Some blueberry, maybe blackberry hints but not as sweet as blackberry can be.  The tartness of blueberry dominates.  Subtle tannins and puckering acidity remains, tingling the tongue before becoming juicy and fragrant again.
Delicate earth aromas emerge and remind me eating blueberries right off the ground hugging vines in Maine.  No noticeable oak influence appears, the wine is very fruit driven and offers a great balance between young juicy fruit and the older, drier style.
With time some smokiness and a woodsy, almost cedar note, appeared.  Great texture in the mouth provided immense pleasure even though the finish proved a bit abbreviated.  A flash of fruit moves back toward the front of the mouth though, keeping me from focusing on the shortish finish.  Blackberry became more and more pronounced.  The wine was at its peak of drinkability for me.  Fantastic balance.  A norton or cynthiana worth discovering.  Current release is $21.51 on Montelle's website.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Norton and Cynthiana - Background

Before my next group of posts about these grapes, a bit of background may be needed.  I know, it sounds like work.  All the heavy lifting is over though, you just have to read.
Jancis Robinson's brilliant Vines, Grapes and Wines proclaims them the same grape.  The Oxford Companion to Wine lets on that they are essentially identical but leaves a little wiggle room.  At the most extreme, cynthiana appears to be a mutation of norton.
The major difference appears to be local names for them.  Dr. Norton cultivated the grape in Virginia where it remains best known as norton.  Arkansas and Missouri also have significant plantings and pay homage to it as their state grape.  Missouri as norton/cynthiana and Arkansas as cynthiana. At one time, according to Leon Adams' The Wines of America, it was called "Virginia Seedling" in Missouri.  Clearly that moniker had to change.
The grapes make a serious wine that some describe as resembling zinfandel and others called claret, after the British term for Bordeaux.  They are dry and do not exhibit the "foxy" aroma associated with many other native varieties.  No, not like sexy, slinky or "She/he is foxy," this term refers to the aroma of a wine and likens it to an animal mustiness.  Not appealing.
A norton wine from Missouri won a gold medal in Vienna in 1873.  Of course, winning medals at wine competitions does not mean you have actually produced a great wine, just that you produced one better than the other dreck being judged.
Then Prohibition came along and essentially wiped out production.  Since then a revival has occurred and more and more impressive versions continue to emerge.  Riedel has even designed a glass specifically for norton wines.  Norton glass  Reidel is completely out of control about the variety of glassware offered in their catalog, so wild excitement about the recognition should be tempered.
I enjoy the grape a lot and need to read The Wild Vine by Todd Kliman, which tells the story of Dr. Norton and his grape from the early days until the recent resurrection.  My next couple of posts will focus on this/these grape(s).
If you want to read more history, explanation, etc. this is a great spot to continue.
More on norton and Missouri

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Vincent Sauvestre, Sainte Victoire, Cotes de Provence Rosé, 2011

Again, a Keife and Co. wine find!  Had some with them at the shop before walking home in the dank darkness left behind by Isaac.  They could have charged me for the forty minutes of air conditioning I enjoyed while hanging out during my fruitless exploration for ice.
Mount Sainte Victoire is located in Cotes de Provence, close to Aix-en-Provence, near Marseille.  The region of Sainte Victoire was awarded its own AOC in 2005.  This wine is made from 50% grenache, 30% syrah and 20% cinsault.
The expected Provencal salmon hue is there, pink is present but it mixes with orange.  This is a tactile wine, there is a presence here that many other rosés can only hope to attain.  Richness, intensity, juiciness and focus are the hallmarks here.  Unlike many of the other Cotes de Provence rosés which almost come off as light red wines with a chill, this has some subtle power to it.
I found it lacked a bit of aroma, but then a good portion of the wine was swigged right out of the bottle on the way home.  There is a delicate waft of peach as if an orchard was just out of view but the wind was blowing the right direction.  The subtle aroma is not a flaw, the wine is just not exuberant.  By the time this bottle was finished, it was no longer chilled (I was out of ice) but still tasted great...a truly impressive feat.  Some stoniness on the nose hinted at minerality I often expect from the region but that can also make the wines more challenging for many people.
This wine is easily accessible without losing its identity.  If you expect a good regional example you will be happy.  The price is reasonable, $17 if I recall correctly.  Imported by Fran Kysela Pere et Fils.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Marques de Caceres Rosé, Rioja 2011

This is a radical departure from the wine I sold for more than a decade...and I dig it.
Marques de Caceres is a leading Rioja producer for good reason.  Their reds have always been the calling card and the inexpensive white has really come on the last ten years or so but the the rosé has always lacked something.  That's not quite right, it actually had something extra I did not care for...sweetness.  Not sugary but not dry enough for my palate.  A simple, throw-away style but inexpensive enough to get away with it.
The 2011 has a much deeper color, I wondered if they perhaps blended red and white wine to get that rich a hue but the website says the same thing it has always said.  They macerate with the skins for color and then keep it in stainless steel.  The blend varies a little from year to year, this one is 85% tempranillo and 15% garnacha (grenache), but not enough to explain the excitement this bottling created in my mouth.
Strawberry leaps from the glass with some floral notes, perhaps violet, and it is intense.  Some alcohol made my nostrils flare but it was not out of line.  The palate is big and rich, for rosé, and while strawberry continues here, darker fruits appear as well.  The other fruit is not quite blackberry but deeper than raspberry.  There is tannin here, it made my mouth water, which would be expected with the deeper color.  Acidity still tingles the roof of the mouth but the action is all on the tongue, the rich weight of this wine perches there happily.
Although it stops short about two-thirds of the way through the mouth, the flavor washes forward again so I didn't feel shorted at all.  It is front loaded in the mouth, often meaning simplicity and disappointment for me.  While it does lack some complexity, for $7 or $8 it makes a great porch or pool-side sipper and can stand up to a wide variety of food.  Excellent value!  Imported by Vineyard Brands. Find it at Martin Wine Cellar and some Rouse's locations.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Belle Pente Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley 2009

I am a sucker for Oregon pinot noir.  A friend who just opened a new wine shop in town (Keife and Co. Wine Merchants) let me know they found some of this gem.  The 2009 vintage in Oregon was an exciting one with good balance and richness too!  The winery's name, pronounced bell pont - though I like the gauche 'bell pentay' pronunciation, translates as 'beautiful slope' for their hillside location nearly midway between Carlton and Dundee.  They have some impressive neighbors, Soter, Scott Paul, Lemelson and Stag Hollow.  If those names are not familiar, you don't live in Oregon.  Locals love 'em.
Brian and Jill O'Donnell first planted in 1994, he made wine as a hobby starting in 1986.  I like their reds a lot but have little experience with their whites.
This vintage sits in the shadow of the 2008s but delivers in the glass.  The color is neither dark nor light and offers a floral, forest floor aroma.  That sounds counterintuitive but it's a lifted, pretty, dusty forest floor with fruit in the air.  It is not musty or earthy but it is clearly of the earth.  The palate is delicate on the entry with plenty of juicy red fruit, juicier than cranberry...perhaps tart raspberry(?), and it is expansive on the finish, a rare thing for young pinot noir.  It opens up and shows off before locking down a bit with a wash of acidity.  The fruit is short of jammy and snappy acidity keeps it fresh and makes it scream out for food.  This is not back porch wine but it is not hard or backward at all.  Roast a chicken and enjoy.  This is a wine that made me happy, especially for the price at Keife and Co. - $25? - a fantastic bargain for pinot noir.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

New Zealand Part VIII Wairarapa and Martinborough

We now journey to the southern end of the North Island to the region of Wairarapa and the town, and sub-region, of Martinborough.  Martinborough is what you will see more often on labels in the U.S., but Wairarapa is coming on.  I profess to knowing little about the latter and have only tasted a few wines labeled as such.  There are two other sub-regions, Masterton and Gladstone.  We will focus on Martinborough exclusively since, as far as America is concerned, Martinborough is all there is.
The soils are deep and made up of silt and stone over gravel.  The summers are warm to hot and the autumns are generally dry and long.  While sauvignon blanc has been a calling card internationally, pinot noir gets more lip service.  Sauvignon blanc has over 14,000 acres planted while pinot noir tips the scales next at just over 1,800 making it a distant second but an important marketing point.
Martinborough makes good pinot noir, although I still tip my cap to Central Otago as the best New Zealand has to offer.  For a long time, this was a region of small production, low-yield wineries.  Quality appears to still be the focus but numbers have increased.
As a general rule, I find the sauvignon blancs less exotic than Marlborough but also less complete.  They still offer vibrant fruit but it's a bit tarter without offering much more complexity.  Some have impressed, but mostly I view this as pinot noir country.  That being said, I stop short of endorsing the region wholeheartedly.  I have found way too many of the light, cranberry fruited wines that appear almost more like white wine on the palate.  For comparison, this is a complaint I have about many Carneros pinot noirs as well.  They have the tart acids of white wine and lack the body or structure to draw the taster in further.  There are exceptions...
Ata Rangi pinot noirs are outstanding, and expensive.  I have not had the pleasure of exploring the rest of their portfolio as I have never sold the wines and have only seen pinot noir available.  They are rich, fairly extracted and impressive, but they better be for the price.
Palliser Estate impressed me with their riesling and sauvignon blanc.  The former offered deep flavors and a dry palate with lip-smacking, soft lemon acidity.  The sauvignon blanc serves as my hallmark for the style from Martinborough - balanced but exhuberant and more food friendly than their neighbors on the northern part of South Island.  Their pinot noir served as a great example of what I dislike about the reds from this region.
Te Kairanga's pinot left me in a similar state but I liked their sauvignon blanc.  The chardonnay from this winery impressed me the most with a delicate approach, but not shy, with some true intrigue on the finish.
That wraps up New Zealand, feel free to place requests for the next destination...

Monday, September 3, 2012

New Zealand Part VII Gisborne and Hawke's Bay

Isaac has distracted me from this for a while, expect some more frequent posts to take us through New Zealand and then to some wines consumed during the storm...

We move from the Bay of Plenty to the southeast and the Bay of Poverty.  Gisborne sits on this bay while Hawke's Bay, both a region and body of water, is located to the south.  Gisborne is best known for chardonnay while Hawke's Bay focuses on red Bordeaux grapes and syrah.
Gisborne has more clouds and rain than Hawke's Bay and white grapes are the focus.  More than half of the plantings are chardonnay.  As an interesting aside, Gisborne, located close to the International Date Line, has the easternmost vines, which get to be the first on the earth to bask in each day's sunlight.  The fruit, or juice, has been used as an addition to many region's local production but I am unfamiliar with wines carrying a Gisborne designation.  Chardonnay is a very competitive category and New Zealand has been stuck on one grape name recognition (sauvignon blanc), preventing easy diversification in the U.S.
Hawke's Bay stands the best chance of changing the paradigm of public perception about New Zealand wines.  Yes, they make some sauvignon blanc there but the style is much riper and more tropical, sometimes even barrel fermented.  However, their calling card is red.  Cabernet sauvignon has been planted here since the late 1800s along with its Bordeaux companions merlot and cabernet franc.  Syrah has blazed a trail but remains a small portion of plantings.  Chardonnay and merlot dominate the acreage totals.
What makes this area so different?  Although a wide variety of soils and subsoils exist in the region, the main ingredient for success is gravel, more specifically, Gimblett Gravels.  The stones retain heat from sun, and this region enjoys more sunshine than any other wine region in New Zealand, then radiates that heat out over night.  This allows full maturation of the red grapes and explains why they thrive here and not elsewhere.  Many have compared the look of the area to that of Chateauneuf-du-Pape with many vineyards absent any visible dirt.  More Rhone varieties may be seen in the future.
Many wineries produce Hawke's Bay designated wines but are not located in the area.  I find the style of reds here Bordeaux-like, meaning they are structured, not generally opulent but usually pleasantly ripe.  I have found numerous lean examples and even some I would describe as under-ripe.  I view the region as having huge potential but with lots of learning still needed.
I mentioned Mills Reef before and will do so again here, but with the warning that they produce a lot of  different wines and have never blown me away.  Villa Maria's reds fall under the same general description, but some of them have been the under-ripe, disappointing offerings I mentioned above.  Overall, I recommend a sample when available to decide if the style is right for you.  To my palate, there is little consistency but the wines may merit more focused attention in the near future.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

New Zealand Part VI Northland, Aukland, Waikato and Bay of Plenty

Now we move to North Island and the longest history of winemaking in the country.  Here is a link to an excellent map.  New Zealand Wine Regions
The Northland region was the site of the first vineyards in New Zealand.  However, both it and Aukland are small and fly below our radar.  Interestingly, one of the better known wineries from New Zealand, Kumeu River, is located in Aukland but labels their wines Kumeu, New Zealand.  It is just this sort of lack of specificity that helps brand a producer but fails to develop a region.
Speaking only of this particular winery, their chardonnays are outstanding.  Offering minerality and depth, the wines have consistently been lauded by the press...and deservedly so.  Clay and sandstone help retain enough water to avoid irrigation but allow for sufficient drainage.
Next come Waikato and Bay of Plenty.  Often they are used interchangeably but the latter is coastal and perhaps better known for beaches than wine.  Production here runs the gamut from sparkling wine to dessert with many varieties of red and white in between.  Some of the juice is bottled under other regions' names and this helps to leave the area under-represented in America.
The best known producer is Mills Reef.  I have thought well of their wines in the past but they have never blown me away.  Although they are located in the Bay of Plenty, the wines mostly come from Hawke's Bay to the south.
The next post will address this area and Gisborne.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

New Zealand Part V Central Otago

Not quite all the way to the end of South Island, this region features the world's most southern vineyards.  More dramatic temperature swings and extremes mark the area and pinot noir dominates the plantings by nearly ten times over the nearest competitor (pinot gris).  They are also the highest vineyards in New Zealand (600-1,000 feet) and the furthest inland.
The vineyards can see snow before the end of harvest and hillside plantings are the norm, both increasing exposure to sunlight and minimizing the risk of frost damage.  Overall the soil is loam and silt with pockets of schists adding minerality and complexity to the wines.
The pinot noirs show a deeper color than anywhere else in New Zealand and exhibit darker fruit aromas and flavors as well.
Overall, I have been very impressed with pinot noirs from Central Otago and remain optimistic about what's to come.  My experience with other grapes from the area is limited to Felton Road's riesling which I enjoyed immensely.  More delicate and round than some of my favorite Aussie (some recommendations ) offerings but not so soft as to be flabby.  Their pinots are worth seeking out as well. Gerry Rowland, of Rowland Cellars, makes my favorite pinot but he only distributes in a few states and I'm not even sure he produces it any longer.
Again, this is a region a little below the radar in the States, with lots of competition from domestic pinot noir, so the available options are slim.
Next up, we go to North Island.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

New Zealand Part IV Nelson and Canterbury

Canterbury stretches along the east coast of South Island from Marlborough to Central Otago (Part V) and includes Christchurch, which serves as the focal point of the vineyards.  Some loamy soils with clay and pockets of limestone dominate this large, flat expanse.  Pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling, sauvignon blanc and even pinot gris are planted.  The hype focuses on things other than sauvignon blanc, perhaps because that's what they do well and perhaps to avoid trying to compete with Marlborough.  I have not tried a single wine from this region, in fact I have not even seen a single one, but I am intrigued.  Wish I had more to report.  It appears to be an up and coming region, so expect to see some in the next few years.
Waipara is essentially a sub-region of Canterbury, but recognized as distinct, and has perhaps the strongest potential for bringing the area more attention.
Nelson has more name recognition but that may be due, confusingly, to Mount Nelson, a Marlborough sauvignon blanc.  The region is unique due to its northwestern location on South Island, facing the Tasman Sea.  More rain falls here and the focus in discussion tends toward chardonnay and pinot noir, though sauvignon blanc dominates plantings (more acreage than the other two combined).  However, producers are small and I can not recall having seen one yet.
One of the great frustrations about finding up and coming wines that are made so far away is that most of the smaller producers have no incentive to go through the cost of distributing their wines in the U.S.  When I moved to Oregon I was amazed by the depth and breadth of high quality wine being produced that simply never left the state, or at least the west coast.  I feel much of the same is happening in New Zealand.  There also may be a lot of sub-par wines, just like in Oregon, that get snatched up just because they're local.
Next will be Central Otago, then we'll move to North Island.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

New Zealand Part III Marlborough

This region on the north end of South Island deserves its own section because if you mention New Zealand to even casual wine drinkers this is the region they know.  Its has become the standard bearer for New Zealand wines.  Strangely, the first commercial vineyards on South Island were not planted until 1973 when Montana Wines established vines in Marlborough.
The soil is not uniform, and some dramatic differences can exist even within vineyards, but overall silty, alluvial soils dominate with plenty of gravel and even some stony areas.  These stones radiate heat and help ripen grapes in a cool climate.
The exuberant and intense style of sauvignon blanc reaches out and grabs people.  Like a cornucopia of sweet and tart fruit any glass with Marlborough sauvignon blanc in it commands attention.  The spell they cast is riveting, with pineapple, lemon/lime, kiwi and especially grapefruit.  I am resisting employing two descriptors others use often: passionfruit, since I've never had any, and gooseberry since I've never even seen one.  Grapefruit leaps at me nearly every time and I enjoy the pungent wildness but find it a bit overwhelming after a glass.
For similar reasons, I find Marlborough sauvignon blancs challenging to match with food.  Scallops in a grapefruit beurre blanc work wonders but how often do you see that on a menu?  Delicate fish, oysters, crabmeat and even chicken and pork can get overpowered.  Salads, especially those with grapefruit (notice a theme?) or citrus vinaigrette, handle the exotic nature of Marlborough sauvignon blanc wonderfully.  My favorite way to enjoy these vivacious wines is as an aperitif.  I need no food with them and the juicy nature coupled with brisk acidity makes my mouth water, creating anticipation for the meal to come.
Marlborough also makes some lovely riesling and chardonnay.  Pinot gris has begun to arrive from many producers but I have yet to find one that would cause me to pass on a good example from Oregon.  People continue to talk about the potential for sparkling wine but I've never had one.  Reds exist, mostly pinot noir, but the few that have crossed my palate have not impressed me.
Sub-regions have begun to get attention and the one that most fascinates me is Awatere.  Located in the southern part of Marlborough, this region was not commercially planted until the mid 1980s.  Limestone and some clay appear here and change the character of the sauvignon blanc dramatically.  The lively, juicy nature remains as does the boisterous nature of the fruit but the grapefruit that so dominates the rest of Marlborough sauvignon blancs makes only a cameo, if you notice it at all, meaning these wines are much more food friendly.
Look for the following wineries (all wines are sauvignon blanc unless otherwise noted):
From Awatere - The Crossings led the charge in the area and I find their wines solid if rarely exciting. Arona has been available in the U.S. for a few years and is still priced right, offering an excellent example of Awatere style.
No doubt there are others using some fruit from this region for blending purposes.
From the rest of Marlborough - Allan Scott produces perhaps the best examples of balanced yet typical Marlborough sauvignon blanc.  The estate makes a delicious, clean, dry riesling and the best Marlborough pinot noir I have tried, with rich, voluptuous fruit and surprising weight compared to other examples.  Brancott produces completely serviceable sauvignon blanc at a reasonable price.  Cloudy Bay has simply become so expensive I no longer care.  Even Dog Point, from the man who brought us the initial fever pitch for Cloudy Bay has crept up out of the range I'm willing to pay for sauvignon blanc.  They're good though.  Saint Clair produces some brilliant examples and some strange ones.  Find a tasting where they're featuring the wines and you decide.  I have always found the Vicar's Choice sauvignon blanc to be a good and consistent value.  Seresin is worth a look, but is often too pricy for me.  Their pinot noir is well made and more classic Marlborough than Allan Scott's - i.e. it has lighter cherry fruit and more elegance.  Spy Valley receives many accolades but my experience has been underwhelming.  Finally, Villa Maria is a big player.  I like their riesling a lot and their upper end pinot noirs if someone else is buying but the signature grape leaves me mostly cold.  For a while the wine was such a good value that it sold like crazy but eventually the price eclipsed the value.  My experience with their upper end sauvignon blancs is not good and I would avoid them, despite some rave reviews in big publications, unless someone is willing to let you taste before you buy.
More on South Island is next: Nelson and Canterbury.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

New Zealand Part II Overview

The north and south islands make up this remote country which contains the southernmost vineyards on Earth.  Despite the lengthy history, vines were planted in 1819, no strong wine-making tradition existed  until relatively recently.  According to Hugh Johnson's World Atlas of Wine, "In 1960 the country had less than 1,000 acres of vines."  As recently as 1992 the most widely planted variety was muller-thurgau, followed by chardonnay.
Karen MacNeil explains a significant reason for the slow development in her book, The Wine Bible.  "New Zealand came under the influence of a relentless temperance movement, which severely handicapped the establishment of any sort of wine culture.  For most of the 1800s wineries could not sell wine to consumers; they could only sell to hotels for banquets."  The Oxford Companion to Wine reveals another telling fact.  "In 1960 restaurants were allowed to sell wine...Supermarkets were granted a license to sell local and imported wine (but not beer or spirits) from 1990."
In addition to this, due to grape growing challenges, including the vine-killing root louse phylloxera, many hybrid grapes were planted resulting in less than impressive wines.  A government sponsored uprooting program due to depressed prices and a wine glut paved the way for more classic grapes and positioned the country for meteoric success.
The country presents a fairly united front, through the Wine Institute of New Zealand.  They have a board that analyzes and approves all wine produced.  They led the charge with screwcaps, I can't even remember the last bottle from New Zealand sealed otherwise.
Just like California, a 75% requirement exists if the wine is labelled as a single variety.  Unlike California, most of the wines I have encountered are 100% of what's on the label.  Just like Australia, our previous educational focus (Part I Australia), if two grapes are blended, they are listed in order of percentage in the blend.  Only 75% of the grapes must come from the region listed on the label, however, I have never seen a wine that low.  Or perhaps I've never encountered a winery that admits it.
So, let's get to it...we'll start with the South Island.

Monday, July 16, 2012

New Zealand Part I

The next educational series has been postponed for too long and it is time to get on with it.  I started with Australia, mostly because I felt it needed defending due to a backlash against cheap plonk which, unfortunately, hurt good producers as well.  The next logical geographical section is New Zealand.
This nation surged to vinous prominence in the late 1990s flying the sauvignon blanc banner.  The meteoric rise in popularity of their unique style eclipsed other varieties that are only now beginning to get attention from casual wine drinkers.
This is an excellent map:
New Zealand Wine Regions
Most Americans only recognize Marlborough, the leading region in New Zealand for sauvignon blanc wines.  We often overlook Gisborne for chardonnay, Central Otago for pinot noir and the unique Hawke's Bay for some Bordeaux varieties and even shiraz.
One of the first wines from New Zealand that truly excited me was a chardonnay from Nautilus.  We also added their sauvignon blanc to the set at Martin Wine Cellar in the mid-90s, since people asking about New Zealand always wanted that grape, but the chardonnay alerted me to other potential.
Some areas have so little representation in the United States that I can offer little or no insight.  Others have awakened my passion and readers will be able to explore areas ignored by many writers.  Of course, my opinion will abound...for better or worse.  So, kia ora and keep reading...

Monday, July 9, 2012

Escape from the Planet of the Apes Amusement

This is silly, but I love silly things.  The Planet of the Apes franchise has always entertained me but I noticed two things overlooked during my youth when viewing Escape from the Planet of the Apes.  It serves as a sign of the times as well...and perhaps a true vision of the future.
Dr. Lewis Dixon offers Zira some wine, calling it "grape juice plus."  He recommended, "only a sip, it is an excellent restorative, I assure you.  Especially in cases of pregnancy."  More recent times saw recommendations to avoid alcohol entirely and the latest word seems to be that occasional sips of wine may indeed be "an excellent restorative."
The film got something else right too.  Dr. Dixon went on to inquire, "Do you mind if I smoke?  Oh no, I shouldn't, in view of your condition."

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Independence Day

I will resist the urge to write about zinfandel, the American success story.  I will even resist proselytizing about the terrific, and overlooked, norton grape.  (Although I promise to pay attention to this wine in the future.  I have two bottles from Missouri I've been waiting to open).
No recommendations for beach whites or reds to match with hamburgers will grace this page this year.  Plenty of other people offer these already.  What I will do is remind you that July 4th is Independence Day!
Celebrate our independence by shopping with a local merchant for your wine.  No better time exists to break the chains of chain stores and spend some money that stays local.  Go actually talk with someone about the wine you want.  Buy a label you don't know from a winery that is not part of some huge conglomerate.  Try something different, don't just follow the crowd.  Be independent.
This post appears in time to act!  Stop buying wines from merchants that can't help you except to point out where the wine is.  Buy from someone who tastes the wines before offering them for sale.  Support your independent wine merchant, I predict you'll be happy you did.
I will be enjoying my freedom and will not have a post on the 4th.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Bordeaux and British Royalty

With all of the attention paid to the Queen's Jubilee recently something clicked for me about the similarity of the Royal Family and First Growth Bordeaux.  While publications remain fixated on both groups they have become essentially irrelevant to nearly everyone.  Image dominates and except for photo-ops and elite tastings most of us would never know they existed.
A certain amount of in-breeding appears reasonable to assume and both groups lead such refined lives they can not possibly have even the slightest grasp on the reality of either shopping at a grocery store nor knowing about the wines on the shelves.
The people behind the top chateaux dress in finery and their wineries are not open to the public.  Mingling with the riff-raff suits neither.  I know no one with First Growth bordeaux on their table regularly and I know no one who has met a member of the Royals.  Having tasted more than a few First Growths in my days I can state unequivocally that once the awe wears off they are not much more than another bottle of wine.
Meeting interesting people with good stories to tell provides much more entertainment for me than being able to brag about meeting famous people.  Similarly, finding amazing bottles of wine for little money provides much more pleasure than buying status in a bottle.
That being said, if the Queen is coming over for a glass of Chateau me.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Dead Or Alive? Old Zinfandel

One of the great arguments in wine centers around zinfandel.  Most view the grape as a boisterous, flash-in-the-pan, meant to be consumed immediately, if not sooner.  Certainly these styles of zinfandel exist but some producers made versions that could stand the test of time.  Ridge Vineyards, with Paul Draper at the helm, perhaps served as official poster-child for the age-worthiness of zinfandel.  They also produce some of my favorite zinfandels...and there are many of them.
I prefer a zin about five years after vintage, as long as it's a more serious bottle.  The extra time allows some of the baby fat to fade but with no significant loss of the exuberant style that makes zin fun.  It also provides more depth and character, things we all should achieve with time.  Confidence abounds at five years but what about doubling that?  Would the wine survive?  Would I regret what it became?
Enter Ridge Zinfandel Paso Robles 2002.  I must admit to a bit of skepticism, but fortunately, the wine seemed not to notice.  Dark berry fruit slowly escaped the glass, reminiscent of blackberry, but not so sweet or intense.  My favorite zinfandel note permeated the wine.  The slightly wild, slightly sauvage note many call brambly.  The easiest way to describe the term is to consider the raspberries of blackberries available at your grocery store.  Now, imagine the same fruit but plucking it off a vine growing wild in a field or on the edge of the woods.  The latter version is brambly.  It means to me, unkempt, untamed and altogether alluring at the same time.  An almost animalistic edge can be there too, as it was with this wine, gently repelling but more strongly beckoning and drawing you in.
The alcohol kept making a stronger statement than I desired but the bottle was a bit too warm which encouraged the hotness on the nose.  The barest edge of orange existed at the edge of the wine and no brown entered the picture at all - amazing for a ten year old wine.  The palate was tactile, almost sappy - not syrupy with implied sweetness - but thick and persistent with great acidity.  A brief, hollow moment occurred in the mid-palate but then everything came together again.  It was more of a comfortable lull in conversation than the premature end of a party.
This wine reminds me of fun friends.  The time you get with them is never enough.  I wish I had access to another bottle.  Salty, aged Reggiano beckons.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Identity Crisis(?)

The United States uses AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) to define wine regions and while the effort to designate and delineate lagged for many years the process seems to have reached a breakneck speed.  Like hurtling down a mountain on skis or running down a steep hill, one might not fall down but keen observation and absorption of the surroundings is not possible.
Lobbying has always played a part in awarding AVA status.  Those with influence and a loud enough voice eventually get what they want.  The system appears to be out of control.
The attempt to categorize and specify regions should be applauded but the system leads to more confusion than enlightenment as expansion outpaces learning.  Napa County now has over 15 AVAs within it, including Napa Valley.  Sonoma County only lags slightly and includes Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Mountain and Northern Sonoma.  Most wine drinkers would not be able to tell the difference between them, even after tasting examples.
One wonders how a new AVA can possibly be approved with only 37 acres of vineyards planted but I become absolutely stunned when the region includes more than 13,000 acres total.  That's over 350 times as much acreage than is producing grapes.  Someday it might make sense to more than a handful of people but that day may be decades from now.
I do not advocate ceasing the practice by any means.  We need meaningful ways for consumers to quickly know what to expect from wines they are considering purchasing.  However, I find too many of the regions lack defining character.  This means wine drinkers have no incentive to learn about the AVA and will actually ignore them, the opposite of the desired effect.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Happy Father's Day

My family did not have a strong wine tradition when I was growing up, unless the four liter jugs of Almaden Mountain Chablis stockpiled in my grandfather's storeroom counts.  It seemed fancier than a beer can to me even at a young age though.  My father kept a wine cellar in the basement of his house but many of the bottles stored there had simply been forgotten.  The bottle of Blue Nun 1973 still makes me grin, they don't bother vintage dating that wine any longer.  Corks dropped out of the neck of some bottles, swimming in the ever-dwindling wine within, as evaporation took its toll.
Fortunately for me, a few bottles of first-growth Bordeaux from my birth year fared better.  I was lucky enough to partake of a Lafite Rothschild and two bottles of Mouton Rothschild born in the same year I was.  The vintage (1967) was not a good one and the wines were far from impressive but sharing the experience with my Dad proved memorable.  I appreciated his effort and have now extended the concept to my daughter, in hopes of enjoying similar moments with her more than a decade from now.
Her wines may or may not be at their peak when we open them, but I learned from the bottles shared with family and close family friends that simply opening a treasured bottle was cause for celebration.  Memories sprung from the experience of getting together more than the bottle itself, much like baking cookies with your children will mean more than buying the treats, even if the store bought taste much better.
Thanks again Dad, I look forward to sharing some bottles with you and my daughter sometime around 2024.  Happy Father's Day

Monday, June 11, 2012

More Indiana Wine

My fascination with Indiana wines continues, albeit with this exploration involving a mere two wines from one winery.  A friend and I headed to French Lick and got distracted along the way by an important stop at a casino to retrieve a free bottle of champagne and further delayed by milkshakes along the way.  Since we arrived later than planned, we only caught the French Lick Winery on the way out of town.  They serve a decent array of food there and that took priority.  Two glasses of wine served as the only exploration that day since we were late heading to Churchill Downs to bet on the races.  I hope for another trip based on the resort , the wine and the companionship.
Chambourcin 2009 - The wine sprung from the glass with spice and pretty red fruits, displaying its obvious charms for anyone interested.  Lively and bright, this little gem reminded me of playful, sunny afternoons.  With a little cajoling my friend, tongue-in-cheek, said it reminded her of "lollipops and hula hoops" but that worked for me.  It would make a perfect picnic wine and could easily be served in warmer weather with a slight chill.  My chicken salad made a lovely match.
Norton 2007 - This grape deserves much more attention than it receives.  Examples such as this one could help put it into the spotlight.  No rough edges marred the seamless flow of this surprisingly weighty wine from my lips to the lingering finish.  Oak is noticeable here but only as a flavoring accent.  Perhaps the age helped, but I applaud the deft touch.  Roasted meats, red sauces and mushroom dishes happily await the arrival of this wine to make a great match.
I regret not tasting through more of the wines but horse racing beckoned.  I know for next time...

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Cork vs. Screwcap Wrap Up

It was clear to me which closure provided the superior wine and the votes from my family echoed that sentiment, although with less decisiveness.  Admittedly, I knew the wines and which was which so my judgement could not be entirely unbiased.
My biggest concern about screwcaps has always been that they might preserve a wine rather than allow it to mature "properly."  For most wine drinkers that is an irrelevant consideration but I am an unrepentant wine geek and love to experiment.  As the wines continue to age I will revisit them periodically and see how they evolve and develop.
For immediate and short-term consumption, there can be no debate - the screwcap is superior. Environmental issues of recycling screwcaps versus the sustainable cork tree aside, I want my wines sealed with screwcaps because the wine stays fresh and vibrant, the bottle is easy to open (and close) and you know it will be okay to serve.
The next round of this fun tasting will likely take place in the late summer or early fall and I hope to involve wine professionals this time around.  I have enough wine to do this two or three more times depending on the number of people involved, so let me know if you want in...

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Attendee Notes Part Two

For specifics of the tasting and explanations of presentation formats, please see the previous post Attendee Notes Part One.
Yalumba Shiraz/Viognier 'Y' Series, South Australia 2006 - The closest vote of the night, no one abstained and comments explained the neck and neck results.  "Very similar," "really pretty even," and "slight preference" for the screwcap.  Another found appeal in both, with a "better nose" on the screwcap and a "better taste" from the cork bottle.  An echo of predilection for the aroma of the screwcapped wine found it "less musty" with "more fruit."
Votes 4-3 in favor of the cork finish.
d'Arenberg d'Arry's Original Shiraz/Grenache, McLaren Vale 2004 - We find more close calls despite a more decisive vote.  "These are also close," and "can't decide," finally leaned to the screwcap.  One found a "slight preference" for the screwcap and another loved the wines but could hardly tell the difference.  One did not enjoy the wine very much at all, expressing, for both, the appearance of an "unfortunate nose."
Votes 5-2 for the screwcap.
Jim Barry Lodge Hill Shiraz, Clare Valley 2005 - Everyone pretty much agreed that this was their favorite of the night.  Again, I saw "very close" from two tasters and even an amusing, "[screw] you, they're identical. Delicious though, thanks."  With one abstention, this was hardly a landslide.
Votes 4-2, one abstention, in favor of the screwcap.
Jim Barry Cover Drive Cabernet Sauvignon, South Australia 2005 - By this point my family found the exercise a bit overwhelming.  Not so much drinking the wine, but remaining focused and trying to differentiate between the pairs.  Notes became less specific but more amusing.  "Measurably different, but not vast," was the most detailed.  The final one I'll share brought the widest grin, "I'm not smart enough to tell the difference."  This unfortunate sentiment deserves to be addressed again and again, but that's another series of posts.
Votes 6-0, one abstention, for the screwcap.
I will summarize my thoughts in the final post for this fascinating tasting and tease a reprise tasting in New Orleans.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Attendee Notes Part One

As a reminder, wines appeared in pairs and tasters did not know which was which.  I changed the presentation order of cork and screwcap randomly to avoid any trends.  The screwcap was on the right for the first two wines, then on the left for two more.  The final three wines alternated screwcap from right to left and back again.
Members of my family made up the group and they enjoy wine but none are professionals and taste preferences vary widely.
Excelsior Chardonnay, South Africa 2006 - The vote here was nearly unanimous.  One taster preferred the bottle finished with the plastic cork, but I know she used to love apple juice.  "Sauterne-like" was how another described the same wine.  The winning screwcap showed, "more nose, better tang" and was "fruitier and lighter in color."
Votes were 6-1 in favor of the screwcap.
Abel Clement Cotes du Rhone 2005 - Another strong vote, despite one abstainer, who found the tastes "inconclusive."  "Smoother" described the cork while the same taster found the screwcap "more acid/tart."  This taster found the wines exhibited a "similar nose...I liked one then the other."  That vote not withstanding, the rest were fairly strong for the screwcap due to "better body, better aftertaste" and a reaction of "more happening."
Votes 5-1, one abstention, in favor of the screwcap.
Bodegas Castano Monastrell, Yecla, Spain 2006 - Mixed results continued here with another abstention due to lack of preference.  Another admitted the vote was "pretty randomly chosen" while "so far this is the closest," perhaps summed it up best.  The strangeness of this wine nearly split the crowd.  The screwcap wine generated "oddly, a bit juicier," "just flows nicely" and "maybe slightly better in taste."  The plastic cork sealed bottle received "almost better," "great nose" and "a little drier."  One voter for the screwcap found the other had "too much bite on the finish" but a "similar nose."
Votes 4-2, one abstention, in favor of the screwcap.
We'll wrap up the voting in the next post.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Cork vs. Screwcap My Notes Part Two

Here are the rest of my tasting notes from the event.  For further explanation see previous two posts.
Yalumba Shiraz/Viognier 'Y' Series, South Australia 2006 - The Hill Smith family has made wine in the area for over 150 years.  Grapes for this wine (92% shiraz and 8% viognier) are co-fermented in the traditional northern Rhone style which results, counter intuitively, in a darker wine.  Viognier also lifts and intensifies the aromatically shy shiraz grapes.
Screwcap came first here and the wine delivered smoky oak and plenty of dark fruit.  It was tasty if a bit less exciting due to the presence of fine, gritty tannins.  The rest of the wines all featured real corks and this bottle was deeper on the nose with more vanilla and red fruits that followed through in the mouth.  However, the finish tailed off too soon and I found more obvious, pronounced tannin here.
d'Arenberg d'Arry's Original Shiraz/Grenache, McLaren Vale 2004 - Made from old vines, some from the 19th Century, and traditionally produced - foot trodden (wearing waders), basket pressed and aged in oak for 18 (or is it 12? - inconsistent information available) months in new and used French and American oaks before being bottled unfined and unfiltered.  For more on McLaren Vale, see earlier Australian education posts, specifically Australian Education Part V .
Real cork helped produce a wine with deep color and a dark nose.  Slight mintiness only appeared on the aroma, for which I was grateful (my flirtation with that flavor profile has soured when it appears in the taste).  The palate was a bit short, even appearing pinched on the finish, like a spigot on full but a hose only letting out a few drips.  Some dirty tannin appeared on the finish but the overall impression of the wine was positive, if not glowing.  The screwcapped bottle exhibited brighter fruit, more red than black and less mint.  Overall the wine was much more solid and harmonious from front to back.
Jim Barry Lodge Hill Shiraz, Clare Valley 2005 - Jim Barry began producing wine in 1959 in the relatively cool Clare Valley, northeast of Barossa.  For more on this region, see Australian Education Part VI.  This property was purchased in 1977 and was planned to be a riesling vineyard, this wine was made from 100% estate-grown shiraz.
Despite my previous dismissal of mint, I liked this wine and it had plenty of it.  I thought the screwcap-finished version was the best of the tasting.  The deep complexity of the wine foretold the structure to come.  Well made, well balanced, the star of the night.  Oddly, sometimes the best wines leave me happy but short on descriptors.  Subtlety marked the cork wine.  It was quiet, reserved and demure the whole way through, simply less showy might have been fine, but it had less happening as well.
Jim Barry Cover Drive Cabernet Sauvignon, South Australia 2005 - Mostly from a 30 acre vineyard that used to be a cricket pitch located in southern Coonawara on the Limestone Coast (for more on this area, see Australian Education Part IV).  Some fruit from estate vineyards in the Clare Valley is also used.  100% cabernet sauvignon and aged for 12 months in oak, half French and half American.
Mint dominated the cork bottle, and bordered on being green in that unripe, cool climate cabernet way. The rest of the wine showed great balance with fruit appropriately overriding the tannin.  The screwcap's tougher tannin made it harder to enjoy but the wine was much more complete.  It just needed food to offset some of the tannic bite.
It's all well and good for me to pronounce my preferences but I knew the wines and knew which was which.  How did the blind presentation go?  Read the next two posts for feedback and insight from the other tasters.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Cork vs Screwcap My Notes Part One

As a reminder, these wines shared a vintage but differed in closures.  Although my storage has not been ideal, it has been consistent.  While it is possible that differences in bottling time (none of these wines appeared simultaneously in the market) could result in perceptible differences in the glass, I firmly believe those will be minor.
At any rate, as I have not encountered a tasting close to this one in twenty plus years in the business, it provides the best information available to consumers.
This post will share my impressions of the first three wines.  The next will complete my notes and then feedback from the participants and their votes will be revealed.  The tasting occurred on the Friday after Thanksgiving, 2011.
Excelsior Chardonnay, South Africa 2006 - The winery is located in pastoral Robertson, east of Stellenbosch and north of Walker Bay.  The De Wet family has owned the winery since 1870.  Made of 100% chardonnay, it is aged half in stainless steel and half in oak.
I can not stand the plastic cork phenomenon.  The seal is sub-par, in my opinion, yet they are hard to remove and nearly impossible to re-insert.  Any other choice would be an improvement.  The wine behind the the plastic cork smelled appley and was significantly darker in the glass than the screwcapped version.  It was tired on the palate but showed some nuttiness and a bit of lively snap on the back end.  Overall, however, it tasted too much like apple juice.  The other showed focus and life and was simple but clearly fresher and tastier.
Granted, it was unfair to age this inexpensive chardonnay as long as I did but the screwcap obviously kept the wine fresher longer.
Abel Clement Cotes du Rhone 2005 - From northeast of Orange, the wine is mostly grenache and syrah with some cinsault and mourvedre.  This winery offered a real cork, so I was eagerly anticipating this round.
The cork-finished wine displayed bright red fruit, some earth, a hint of pepper and lots of fine tannin.  I found the screwcap offering cleaner, more focused, better balanced and much more fun to drink.  This was an interesting pairing because both worked.  The screwcap won me over though.  I would buy more of those bottles.  The cork tasted okay but would not cause me to purchase more.
Bodegas Castano Monastrell, Yecla, Spain 2006 - Monastrell, better known as mourvedre in France is the signature grape of the D.O. (Denomiacion de Origen - their version of appellation) located in southeast Spain.  The heat is mitigated through altitude.  The vineyards are located at 1,500-2,400 feet and are 30-60 years old at this winery.
This is a weird little wine that does not work for everyone and one I explored in an earlier post about corks and screwcaps Worden on Wine June 2011.  The screwcap came first in this pair and displayed expected earthiness, even pungency, with very pronounced acidity.  It almost seemed frozen in time, preserved at some slightly awkward stage of development.  The fruit, however, was brilliant and red and inviting.  The liquid behind the plastic cork was earthier still, more intense and much more tannic than acidic.  Frankly, neither wine did much for me but they both fascinated as the wine appeared to have evolved very little in either bottle except to become wilder.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Cork versus Screwcap Intro

A few years ago I began noticing wines transitioning from cork (real or plastic) to screwcap in the same vintage.  I bought both closures when available and set them aside.  Relocation and place of residence means the wines have not been stored perfectly but they have been stored exactly the same way.
It is possible, indeed perhaps probable, that wineries bottled the two versions at different times leading to some inherent differences before they reached my hands.  However, since no winery has invited me, nor any professional I know, to taste their experiments with closures, this is as close as we mortals can get.
My family gathered for Thanksgiving in North Carolina and we had a big tasting, non-professional opinions being the most important to me.  Seven wines from around the world, one each from South Africa, France, Spain and four from Australia, were opened and tasted blind.  Poured in pairs (one cork, one screwcap) to each participant, seven people, other than myself, tasted the wines.  Since I did not taste blind I did not vote.
After trying, unsuccessfully, for many months to sell this article to various wine magazines it is time to share the results.  The subject deserves exposure and discussion.  Everyone has an opinion about screwcaps but those ardent points of view are often under-informed.
Wineries conduct tastings behind closed doors but do not publish results.  Plumpjack released their cabernet in both versions for a number of years but that is an expensive experiment.  No one showcases wines from around the world with value prices, until now.
Stay tuned for the results and keep watching for an opportunity to join another edition of this tasting in New Orleans.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

A Poor Cork/Screwcap Article

I found an old copy of Quarterly Review of Wines, Winter 2010/2011 recently.  At the end, an article called Cork Screwed appears, written by Al Vuona, Jr.  He has been published in the magazine before and hosts a show on public radio in Massachusetts.  I can not find a copy online and the publication has since gone out of business but the article is a great place to start a series of cork/screwcap posts.
His opinion is stated clearly at the outset, he is against screw caps.  Fine, no problem.  I take issue with his arguments in support of his position.  
Mr. Vuona states that only a small amount of bottles sealed with corks are tainted.  If we take his number of bottles produced each year (20 billion) and even take the very low end of cork taint percentage we're still left with a staggering number, 200 million by my math.  [Cork taint occurs in approximately 2-5% of wines, a recent study puts it as low as 1% so that's what I used].  He writes this huge volume of sullied wine off as "a bad day."  Using this overly conservative number results in enough bottles over the course of one year to nearly equal the entire production of New Zealand !  I view that as significant.  
He laments the loss of tradition and fears obsolescence for his corkscrew.  Understood.  Cork will never go away entirely, certainly not in our lifetimes.  I like it too, except when it ruins a wine.
The loss of popping corks on New Year's Eve also troubles him.  I'll overlook that opening a sparkling wine properly results in no pop and simply mention never seeing serious sparkling wines sealed with screwcaps.  
So far, these are quibbles of approach and agenda.  However, he crosses the line later.  "They [corks] allow oxygen to interact with the wine thus preventing cork taint."
When published wine writers misinform the public, someone needs to step up and point it out. Loudly.  If his premise had any merit whatsoever, we would never have a corked wine.  A man who purports to know something about wine should know better. Shame on QRW for publishing this obviously inaccurate statement.  Perhaps errors like this contributed to their demise.  
As to which is "better" I'll leave that for another day.  A detailed report on a large cork versus screwcap tasting will be reported here next. 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

How Does a Brand Taste?

Writing about size of production recently reminded me of interactions with larger producers compared to smaller operations.  Big is not inherently bad.  Big can streamline and take advantage of economies of scale, therefore bringing incredible value to the market.  Big works beautifully for assembly lines and products that are the same every time.  However, big does not react well to change and big does not equate with uniqueness.
My interactions with wineries producing large volumes has been unimpressive.  New wines are referred to as line extensions and their justification arises from market positioning, not exciting new vineyards or outstanding grapes.
As an example, a Shanken News Daily from March covered the "major overhaul" of an Australian producer "that includes a realignment of its product tiers, new packaging and new wine styles."  Peter Lehmann's GM, Jeff Bond had this to say: "Our first goal was to add new wines and new styles to keep the Peter Lehmann brand relevant."  He goes on to mention "restructur[ing] the brand family into tiers that are more defined by customer and channel" and "enhanc[ing] the packaging to deliver a stronger link."
Notice that no mention of taste appears.  This is why I avoid most wines available in grocery outlets everywhere.  The goal here is not to pick on Peter Lehmann wines but to point out the complete lack of attention paid to the actual wine by too many large-scale producers.  They are enhancing the packaging, not the liquid within.
Perhaps an analogy will help.  When I choose to go see a concert, I do so based on the music of the band performing, not based on how they dress or what merchandise they offer.  I want real music, even if sometimes that means a song that sounds off.  For me, lip-syncing has no place in concerts, no matter the flashy stage show.  You decide where your tastes lie.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Few Thoughts on Size

My last post about Australia reminded me how difficult it is for me to recommend wines readily available in grocery stores around the country.  After reading a couple of Shanken News Daily editions I could actually put it in numbers.  Marvin Shanken runs Wine Spectator, among a number of other publications, and his Shanken News Daily focuses on trade news, generally on the larger, corporate producers/distributors.
Two posts caught my attention.
1) E J Gallo now has long-term contracts covering 90,000 acres of grapes, with 10,000 more coming on board in the next few years.  For comparison, Napa Valley's entire planted acreage (according to is just over 45,000.  One winery, albeit an insanely large one, controls twice the amount of vineyards of Napa Valley. 
Let's put that size in perspective.  Gallo controls 140 square miles(!) of vineyards, and will control 156 once the other 10,000 acres are added.  According to Wikipedia, Philadelphia, PA covers 142.7, Raleigh, NC covers 144, Portland, OR covers 142, Las Vegas covers 136 and Denver 154.
2) Another item from Shanken Announced the release of Yellow Tail's Moscato, perhaps the hottest grape around at the moment.  The article said the  wine "was expected to reach" 800,000 cases which would account for approximately 10% of total brand volume.  10%!?!  That means they produce 8,000,000 cases of wine.  That's 96,000,000 bottles of wine or about 5 million short of being able to provide a bottle to every single person living in the states of Florida, Texas, New York and California.  If we remove underage residents, I'm sure Yellow Tail could cover all those states and then some. 

I was talking with some people last night about why I don't eat at fast food restaurants very often and I realized that while they are convenient I just don't like the food very much.  It tastes processed and fake and leaves me less healthy and unsatisfied - a terrible combination.  Assembly line wines leave me cold as well.  Unique does not guarantee enjoyment but I'm bored by generic, safe choices.  Give me a random roadside diner any day over predictable branded food. 
Can't resist mentioning pink slime too...

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Last Word on Australia

The Aussie education took me much longer than I ever expected...but I will endeavor to continue with other regions in a more timely fashion. As I read back through my perspective on Australia it occurred to me that while I noted some exciting wines, the most important step might be missing for some readers.
Should people make the step up to many of the wines recommended in the series? Absolutely! Will they? Many will but many others have been so turned off by Aussie wines that some middle point must be reached.
With that in mind, here are a few thoughts about reliable wines at very reasonable prices:
Avoid Yellowtail at all costs. If you like that wine, you are unlikely to be reading this but if you are, more power to you. If you can stomach that stuff, do so. Keep your wallet happy. For me it is unpalatable.
Lindeman's makes some solid reds and whites, the Bin 65 chardonnay, Bin 50 shiraz and Bin 55 shiraz/cabernet are the best. Stay away from the merlot - this is generally good advice across Australia. Shiraz functions as their soft, approachable red and performs much better across the board than merlot. Don't eat at American fast food if you're overseas and don't bother with wines made the same way.
Wolf Blass makes some solid value wines, although they have crept up a bit over the years. The ugly yellow label wines offer the best value, especially chardonnay, dry riesling, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz/cabernet.
Penfold's, perhaps the originator of quality Australian wine for export still produces top-notch selections. There are few true bargains though. Reds are better than whites and the upper range items are much better than the less expensive. I recommend the label but can not wholeheartedly endorse the under $15 options. The Bin 389 cabernet/shiraz is outstanding, but also around $25.
To my palate, the offerings from Oxford Landing and Yalumba are not only some of the best values coming out of Australia but also offer balance rarely seen at the value end. Oxford specializes in low-cost wines and their whites are clean and fresh, especially the sauvignon blanc. The chardonnay is well-made and on the lighter side. The viognier is by far the best inexpensive example of the grape I have seen in years. I am much less enamored of their reds.
Yalumba has a similar deft touch with viognier and whites in general. While Yalumba's portfolio can get quite expensive, and sometimes merits the price, the 'Y' Series offers the best value. Try their viognier, riesling and unwooded chardonnay on the white side. The shiraz/viognier red is the only red I can recommend until you reach the Bush Vine Grenache which is outstanding (but closer to $20 than $10).
Enjoy your explorations Down Under!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Australian Education Part VII

Here are some recommended wineries and wines from Barossa, Eden Valley and Clare Valley: [again, remember that many wineries source from different GIs]
Elderton - makes "elegant monsters" - the estate shiraz is a standout as is the "sticky" (dessert wine) semillon.
Peter Lehmann and St Hallett have impressed me in the past with their shiraz but it has been a while.
Torbreck wines get expensive fast and the Woodcutter's Shiraz is no bargain ($20+) but it manages that rare feat for Barossa, hedonism and restraint.
Henschke also can get very expensive but produces some impressive and mostly reasonable options as well. Try Henry's Seven from Eden Valley (a blend of shiraz, grenache, mourvedre and viognier). A note here - I find their whites delicious, nearly across the board, but generally conclude, as I often do in Australia, that I can get more bang for my buck elsewhere for white wine.
Hewitson makes intense reds with firm, but understated, structure, including the brilliant Miss Harry's (grenache, shiraz, etc.), Mad Hatter Shiraz and Old Garden Mourvedre. I want to like Ned & Henry's (shiraz and mourvedre) more than I do.
My experience with Thorn-Clarke wines has been positive but too brief for a full recommendation.
Sit down for this one. A wholehearted Aussie chardonnay recommendation, Heggies from Eden Valley. The wine shows restraint but lacks for nothing and even displays minerality and complexity I rarely find for reasonable prices.
Pewsey Vale Eden Valley Riesling shows what the area can do, plenty of rich, nearly creamy, citrus dominates with good acidity to back it up. Makes me want to eat sushi by the pool.
Pikes entry level riesling might be my favorite ever. The intense lime of the nose and palate can brighten any gloomy day and the subtle minerality makes me salivate for more.
If you like these two, or either one, step up and try a Jeffrey Grosset riesling, especially his Polish Hill (same region as Pikes). It's pricy but well worth it if you love riesling.
Jim Barry also makes a tasty Lodge Hill Riesling, although it is simpler than the ones listed above.
Finally, Mount Horrocks makes some delicious versions as well. The dessert wine, Cordon Cut Rielsing, offers wild concentration yet stays light on its feet. Their Watervalle Riesling (dry) offers a sleek, sexy take on rielsing. I burnt out on their shiraz years ago but remain fascinated with it. Girl Scout cookie season reminds me I should try it again...the vintage I overdid tasted like liquefied thin mints.

Australian Education Part VI

We are still in South Australia, about 50 miles north and east of Adelaide. Barossa and Eden Valey share a border but Eden and Clare have more in common. As is so often the case in wine, altitude plays a major role in wine style.
Most everyone knows Barossa by name if not carnal knowledge. The calling card is shiraz and, more specifically, jammy, rich, exotic shiraz. An argument could be made to change the name to Bareossa since the wines leave little to the imagination...I might make a case for Boorossa since they can become heavy-handed and dull quickly. Eden and Clare Valleys, at higher elevation, produce exceptional whites and livelier reds.
The sheer intensity of Barossa reds commands attention and some wineries produce wines with balance that merit attention and experimentation. However, too many wobble around on structure that can not possibly support the over-amped girth of their flabby frames while simultaneously assaulting senses with unpleasantly high levels of alcohol. Cabernet sauvignon (and merlot for use in blends) enjoys success and a number of lesser known red grapes may give me good things to report in the future but until someone pours me a white that changes my perception I can only recommend avoiding them if labelled Barossa. [Note: a number of wineries that produce Barossa reds produce whites of note from Eden or Clare - always noted on the label]
Eden Valley lies right next door but at altitudes nearly twice that of Barossa, topping out around 1,500 feet. This height mitigates the heat and cooler nights preserve acidity making for better whites and more elegant reds. Best know for it's whites, like Clare Valley, the reds are well worth tasting. Elegant too often is read as light or delicate. The reds, shiraz and cabernet mostly, will reach out and grab you. Even better, they will keep your attention through the bottle...and perhaps the next. Soils change quickly here but there are some stony areas that complement riesling beautifully. If you roll your eyes about riesling, try one or two from Eden or Clare, they're dry, if you still don't like them then move on from the variety. Viognier performs particularly well from this area as well.
Clare Valley, a bit farther removed to the north and west (about 80 miles NNE of Adelaide) makes the best riesling in Australia, and perhaps the world, as far as I am concerned. There is some limestone subsoil that lends itself beautifully to this variety and shiraz and cabernet. Grenache also performs well. Think of this as similar to Eden Valley with the emphasis on white wine and acidity driven reds. For me the difference comes in the underlying minerality I find here that does not show as consistently from Eden. I love that nuance and it makes all the difference for me. If you like a more straightforward, easy drink, then try Eden Valley wines first.

I would just like to sum up, one last time, that if you have had bad experiences with Aussie wines being thick, heavy and boring do not give up on the entire country. You still may not find a soul mate but you'll have a better shot at compatibility if you get out of the tourist traps and explore some local favorites.