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Wine, grape and winery reviews and criticism as written by wine veterans

CHILL OUT WITH RED WINE

Visiting an outdoor restaurant is more daring than it needs to be in summer heat. Restaurants are loathed to cool red wines even though their entrees often favor meats. Few have 55-degree storage to preserve their red wines, so they come to the table at room temperature -- sometimes kitchen temperature. I get so frustrated that I often asked the waiter to put the wine on ice for 15 minutes -- confusion and ignorance is often the look I get.

Cooling red wines freshens the fruit. The chilled wines taste better when the temperatures soar into the 80s. Warm red wines accent the ripeness of a wine, so a zinfandel, for instance, will taste more like raisins than fresh raspberries. Red wines need a jolt to taste well.

I can't say this is the time to enjoy Bordeaux, but beaujolais, rioja and simple Italian red wines are perfect to chill.

While at home, I keep my red wine in a chilling jacket from the freezer if I am eating al fresco. With temps in the high 80s, it doesn't take long for an open bottle to warm.

WHAT HAPPENED TO TANNINS?

The other day I enjoyed a glass of Vietti barolo.  It was a delicious representative of the region, but it also had significant tannins. While that may not sound unique for most of you who have a history with this giant wine, tannin has been tamed as barolo winemakers seek to make their wines more immediately enjoyable.

The barolo, though, brought home the point that, generally speaking, tannic wines have all but disappeared. Whether you find that good or bad depends on your tastes.

When I first collected wines in the early 1980s, tannins were seen as a character of quality wines. The wines may not have shown well on release, but you knew by the tannins that the best was yet to come for those patient enough to wait. Although you had to take the word of the winemaker, you were willing to wait.

However, I remember my first case of 1977 Beycheville from Bordeaux that was a disaster. First, it was a terrible vintage; second, the tannins never disappeared. And, I succumbed to the advice of a salesperson who encouraged me to buy an expensive burgundy. The tannins and green fruit never waned even as I dumped the last bottle.

But, generally, the tannic wines I bought in the 1980s and 1990s lived up to their promises.

Today's wines, however, are being made more approachable by reducing the tannins. Grapes are being picked riper and thus made with more alcohol. Lees are being stirred and malolactic fermentation is increasing to reduce acidity. These red fruit bombs, as they have become popularly known, are delicious. But will they age? 

My experience with some of these red wines is that they do not age well. Instead of a balanced with whose fruit has slowly emerged, I'm finding a ripeness that borders on raisins. If If I want raisins, I'll drink zinfandel. This is particularly true with California cabernets, syrahs and even pinot noir.

If this trend continues -- and there are signs it won't -- I won't be buying many wines to cellar. As I get older, maybe that's the good news.

 

A CLOSE LOOK AT PORTUGAL

To most Americans -- at least those who favor wine -- Portugal is the land of sweet, fortified dessert wine that evokes images of formally dressed British gentlemen sipping the potent liquid at a private club.

Reputably, port was invented by either the British or Portuguese (take your pick) to solve a transportation problem. During one of the periodic wars between England and France during the 17th century, the British were cut off from their traditional supplies of French wine, which they had grown to favor. Casting southward, the British sourced Portuguese table wines but they soon learned that the fragile wines deteriorated making the trip to England. Port, then, was fashioned by stopping the fermentation and retaining its sweetness. They added clear, unaged brandy, which stops fermentation by killing the yeast in the fermenting must. The result was a fortified (18-20 percent alcohol) sweet wine.

The addition of the brandy and residual sweetness make for a sturdy wine that could survive the trip to England and slake the thirst of the British citizenry. The British set up shop in Oporto and have dominated the port trade ever since.

Pat recently travelled to Portugal to visit some of the wine growing regions and to learn more about Portuguese wines and the proliferation of high quality red and white table wines.

The northern Douro Valley, where the grapes for port are grown, is a very difficult place to grow grapes. The steep valley walls cut by the Douro River are terraced in rocky schist soil of low fertility that in most cases defy the use of any type of mechanical equipment. Transiting the narrow switchback roads carved on the side of the Douro Valley walls can be exhilarating and terrifying all at once. After witnessing the difficult physical growing conditions and low density of vineyard plantings. It’s amazing that the prices for port aren’t in the stratosphere.                                                                                                                           

Pat's tour of the Douro Valley began in the city of Porto where the Douro River meets the Atlantic Ocean. Porto is the home of most of the major port houses, where the wine is aged and stored in casks of various sizes until it is deemed ready for bottling and release. The grapes are harvested and fermented on estates in the Douro Valley, where in many cases the grapes are crushed by foot in large open stone or concrete lagares. This method prevents the grape seeds from fracturing and releasing bitterness into the fermenting must. The finished wines are then brought to Porto.

Some port brands have coalesced under a common ownership. We visited the Sogevinous Group -- owners of the Calem, Kopke, Burmester, and Barros brands -- and had a chance to taste some of their current offerings. Calem began in 1859 shipping its port to Brazil in exchange for exotic woods, some of which was fashioned into wine casks and used for Calem ports. Pat especially enjoyed the Calem 20-year-old Tawny Port ($52) which displayed some nutty chocolate notes a bold and sweeter style.

The Barros Tawny Port is known in port circles for a feminine and delicate style. This tawny port had a beautiful harmonious expression of cherry, caramel, vanilla and nut nose and flavors, and was very complete. Pat also tasted a delicious 1989 Burmester Vintage Port that was remarkably fresh, offering cherry and plum flavors with nice chocolate notes.

 While most port houses make white port, Kopke is unique for making vintage white port. White port is made from white grapes and vinified in the same manner as red port wine. The fruit expression of white port is not as expressive as the red version and can be an appropriate companion to spicy fooD.

The Kopke 10-Year-Old White Port is somewhat similar to dry sherry but exhibits more fruit and complexity. Chilled and paired with dark chocolate and almonds, it was remarkable.

Pat also discovered a delicious summer cocktail made from white port. In a tall glass with ice mix either a 2 to 1 ratio of tonic to white port. Some people prefer an equal blend of port to tonic and add a slice of lemon and sprig of mint. This is a perfect thirst quencher on warm summer evenings.

MORE ON PORTUGAL

As mentioned in last week’s column, the Portuguese are most well known for their production of high quality red and white Port dessert wines. However, the Portuguese have produced red, white and rosé table wines for centuries.

Most of wines were mediocre until the mid-1990s when an infusion of cash from the European Union encouraged winemakers to upgrade viticulture and wine-making. The result was a wide variety of very good table wines available for export to new markets, such as the United States.  Many of these wines are made from indigenous Portuguese grapes and are priced well.                                                    

One of the more widely known Portuguese white wines is vinho verde. Produced from indigenous grapes such as alvarinho, trajadura and loureiro, the name literally means green wines. Their color is not green, but the name refers to the youth of the wines, which typically are meant for consumption within a year of the vintage.

White is the most common vinho verde purchased, although it is made in a red and rosé version too.

Vinho verde consumption in the U.S. is on the rise with typical prices under $15. Light bodied, relatively moderate in alcohol,with a slight fizzm the wines make terrific summer sippers.

The region of Vinho Verde is located northeast of Porto. Pat recently traveled through the region, sampling wines enroute to the port-producing Douro region.                                                                        

Provam is a group of 10 wineries in the very northern part of Vinho Verde near Spain that is dedicated to making white alvarinho and blends of alvarinho/trajadura grapes.

The Portal Do Fidalgo Alvarinho 2014 was the perfect foil for fresh seafood with a crisp light fruitiness and nice touch of acidity. However, the 2007 version of this wine was eye opening with a striking similarity to a well-made, unoaked white Burgundy, proving that at least some vinho verde can age and develop complexity.                            

Quinta Do Bom Retiro is the estate vineyard for Ramos Pinto Ports. Located deep in the Douro, the estate buildings are located two-thirds of the way down a steeply inclined slope. A 15-minute descent through what seemed like a dozen gravel paved switchbacks leads to the winery itself.

Ramos Pinto is pioneering vertical vineyards that run perpendicularly down the steep Douro hills instead of following the contours of the slopes. This new system (at least for the Douro)  allows for more vine density and some mechanization, but only works for slopes less than 30 degrees.

Pat especially enjoyed the Ramos Pinto RP 30 Tawny Port ($114) which exhibited a whiff of cognac in the nose with caramel and dried fruit flavors. Very harmonious and elegant with a long finish. The 1983 Ramos Pinto Vintage Port ($100) was singing with fresh fruit in the nose and mouth.                                                                                                       

Quinta Do Vallado represents mostly table wine of the former Ferreira family winery. Although Quinta Do Vallado makes some port, the estate is primarily dedicated to making table wines. The Ferreira Port brand is now independently owned.

Quinta Do Vallado also operates a “wine hotel” featuring 13 rooms, originally opened in 2005 and expanded and remodeled in 2012. It makes a great base for touring the Douro region.

Pat visited the estate and thoroughly enjoyed the 2012 Quinta Do Vallado Touriga Nacional Douro that offered a complex nose and palate of plums and violets. Very fresh tasting with abundant fruit and balance. Also notable was the Quinta Do Vallado Sousao Douro that is 100 percent sousao grapes that were foot-trod in traditional lagares for six days.                                                                 

The Dao region of Portugal, south of Douro, has been called the Noah’s Ark of grapes with over 100 varieties currently cultivated. Dominated by cooperatives with many small growers tending vineyards of an average of 1 acre in size, the winemakers and grape growers of Dao claim to be the birthplace of touriga nacional and refer to it as the king of wine grapes. Growers in the Douro also make the same claim -- welcome to Portugal.

The white encruzado grape -- the “queen of Dao grapes”-- can make a remarkable wine in the right hands. The Quinta Da Nespereira Encruzado Dao 2013, made from 100 percent encruzado, exhibited bright, balanced fruit and floral scents.

The Quinta Do Ribeiro Santo Vinho Tinto 2012 ($12) is made from 40 percent touriga nacional, 30 percent alfrocheiro, and 30 percent tinto roriz (same as tempranillo) and was very drinkable with soft fruity round berry cherry nose and flavors and is a great value.  

WINE PICKS

·        Louis M. Martini Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($34).  Old family names like Mondavi and Martini should never be forgotten in a sea of young upstarts that often are here today and gone tomorrow. Every year these pioneers stay the course, making consistently good wines at a reasonable price. This version is like the others: balanced, rich in dark fruit, true to the region and delicious.  Boring? Hardly.

·        Inman OGV Pinot Noir 2012 ($65).  Year after year we like this wine. Perhaps it is because we visited this winery or perhaps it’s because we admire the work ethic of winemaker Kathleen Inman. However biased, the quality of this exquisite pinot noir is undeniable. Bright cherry and pomegranate flavors with hints of mushrooms and sage.

·        Patz & Hall Dutton Ranch Chardonnay 2013 ($44). Once again, Patz & Hall has produced a luxuriously rich chardonnay from the Russian River Valley. This gem is big in style with a fruit-forward personality that is hardly shy. Melon and stone-pit fruit flavors with more than a hint of oak, cinnamon and nutmeg.

PINOT GRIGIO SURVIVES ITS CRITICS

With the onset of warm weather, wine enthusiasts gravitate to cool white wines – especially popular pinot grigios.

There was once a time when Santa Margharita ruled the pinot grigio category, but its lofty prices sent consumers scrambling for alternatives. And there are plenty, thanks to that producer’s popularity. Pinot grigios are popular because of their abundant fruit flavors and a ripe profile that can include some residual sugar. Often dominated by a peach or apricot character, these wines make refreshing aperitifs and can be matched with grilled chicken, salads, fruit and a variety of other simple foods.

Pinot grigio, pinot blanc and pinot gris are arguably the same grape variety. Italians are historically wedded to pinot grigio, but the French make pinot gris and pinot blanc. Pinot gris is the variety made in Washington state.

Here are some recent discoveries:

·         Bozen Alto Adige Pinot Grigio 2013 ($15). Very p erfumy wine with lots of apple and peach notes and soft, full body.

·         Terlan Alto Adige Pinot Grigio 2013 ($18), Grapefruit aromas and flavors abound in this delicious, medium-bodied Italian wine.

·         Domaines Schlumberger Les Prince Abbes Pinot Blanc 2013. Vinified dry, this refreshing drink from Alsace has excellent balance with citrus flavors, a dash of mineral and good acidity.

·         Columbia Crest Pinot Gris 2013 ($12).  This is a steal – not surprising because it’s from the king of good deals in the state of Washington. Lots of luscious peach and grapefruit notes with a dash of spice and almonds.

·         DaVinci delle Venezie IGT Pinot Grigio 2014 ($15). DaVinci has earned a popular spot in the U.S. wine market. Reasonably priced, it offers a good bang for the buck. The pinot grigio has lively acidity to complement spring fare on the grill. Green apple and lemon notes abound.

·         Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Gris 2014 ($15).  You won’t go wrong with this forward pinot gris from California. Using grapes from several California appellations, it is blended with roussane, gruner veltliner, chardonnay, viognier and albarino. It may not have the classic pinot gris profile with that mélange, but it’s unquestionably delicious – and a tad sweet.

·         Durant Vineyards Southview Pinot Gris 2014 ($18). We can’t disagree with the winemaker’s advice to enjoy this wine on the “patio on a warm summer day.” Oregon pinot gris Is unknown to many consumers, but it is the perfect summer quaff. Made by Jesse Lange, the Durant pinot gris has stone-pit fruit with a hint of lychee and fresh acidity.

·         J. Lohr 40th Anniversary Pinot Blanc 2013. This special bottle pays homage to the producer’s first pinot blanc, which was made in 1975 before a lot of producers were messing with this grape variety.  It sports classic apricot and peach notes cloaked in a creamy texture.

·         Ponzi Vineyards Pinot Gris 2014 ($17). This is a pinot gris with pedigree. From Oregon’s Willamette Valley, it has a very floral nose with hints of citrus, mint and vanilla. Great acidity makes it refreshing and spring-like.

·         Murphy-Goode Pinot Grigio 2013 ($12.50). A good value, this light-bodied wine with citrus notes is an easy quaffer. Round in the mouth with delicious fruit flavors.

·         Kaltern Caldaro Pinot Bianco 2913 ($19). This white wine from the Alto Adige region of Italy provides forward apple and pear notes with a touch of mineral. Very nice for spring sipping.

·         Barrymore Pinot Grigio Monterey 2013 ($15).  Made by the talented folks at Carmel Road this wine exhibits a lovely ripe pear and melon nose. This pinot grigio is very round and smooth in the mouth with pear flavors. A very nice package that would pair well with chicken or fish dishes.

CONSTELLATION SCARFS UP MEIOMI 

It's hard to believe that the giant wine company, Constellation, will get its money's worth out of Meiomi. It just purchased the popular pinot brand from the Wagner family for a shocking $315 million.

Wagner profited handsomely by developing a relatively cheap pinot noir and selling 7 million bottles a year for $20 a bottle. His success was adding some other grape varieties to the wine and vinifying it sweet. "Sweet" is what Trinchero accidently discovered when he released the first white zinfandel.

Meiomi is proof that consumers often pass over what critics tell them to buy and instead stick with a wine that is noticeably sweet and delicious. I find it hard to blame them, but in my mind Meiomi is not pinot noir -- despite what the label says.

Constellation will have to keep the brand fresh if they ever hope to recoup their $315 million. Good luck with that.

FILTERING SULFITES OUT OF WINE

A young Chicago chemist is looking for funding for a filter that removes most sulfites from red and white wines.  Called the Ullo, the $2.50 filter is good for one bottle. 

Inventor James Kornacki has raised $185,000 so far and is looking for another $100.000 on Kickstart.

Although he's not a wine enthusiast, he knows how sulfites can ruin the drinking experience for many people. He says Ullo doesn't remove all of the sulfites but restores the wine to the natural level.

If he gets the funding, I suspect this will be the best thing in wine since the aerator. Anyone still using those?

AGING CHABLIS IS A DICEY PROPOSITION

Several years ago I tasted a 10-year old grand cru chablis and was amazed at it's quality. It wasn't maderized at all and instead maintained the same understated elegance this French chardonnay is known for.

So, I cellared a few of them anticipating the same results. Oops, that didn't happen when I popped the cork of a  2002 Faively premier cru. OK, it was asking a lot for a 13-year-old chablis from a marginal vintage to last this long. Then, I opened a 2004 Domaine William Fevre Grand Cru Les Preuses. Wow, what a difference. The 2004 held up quite nicely, but gone was the mineral notes that I enjoy so much from Chablis. 

Chablis is austere and goes so well with oysters and simply prepared fish dishes. I don't think much can be gained by expecting it to become something more.                              

WINE REVIEWS

·         Bila-Haut Occultum Lapidem Cotes Du Roussillon Villages 2013 ($30). The grenache in this powerful punch of 50 percent syrah, 40 percent grenache, and 10 percent carignan really brightens the blend. Made by the famed and reliable producer Michel Chapoutier, this wine offers a raspberry nose and flavors with a hint of black pepper. Very smooth in the mouth.

·         Reata Three County Pinot Noir 2013 ($30). Made from grapes sourced from Monterey, Sonoma and San Benito Counties, this is a nice rich fruity style of California pinot noir. Cherry, sandalwood notes with soft mouthfeel, good tannins and a long finish. A real crowd pleaser.

·         Joseph Drouhin Chorey-Les Beaune 2012 ($29). This is delightful Village Burgundy at a Bourgogne price. The wine displays bright rich cherry aromas and flavors with medium acidity. Just a hint of earthiness offers some complexity and interest. Try with chicken and pork dishes. Good value from a challenging vintage.

·         Columbia Winery Composition Red Blend ($14). Using grapes from multiple vintages, this producer has developed a tasty wine even if it has little pedigree. It’s made of up mostly cabernet sauvignon with some merlot, syrah, malbec, petit verdot and other red grapes. Lots of plum and cherry flavors.

·         Il Founo di Arcanum 2010 ($30). This is an excellent super-Tuscan super-value. A blend of merlot (56 percent), cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot, it surpasses the delicious factor we seek from these wines. Lots of ripe dark berry fruit.

·         Matanzas Creek Winery Bennett Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2013 ($32).  Not all sauvignon blanc is one-dimensional and this Sonoma County producer proves it year after year. You pay more – but you get so much more complexity and depth. The Bennett Valley version has powerful aromas of pear, lychee and basil. There is crisp acidity yet a roundness that comes from dash of musque clone. The producer also makes a Helena Bench sauvignon blanc ($40) that is even more delicious.

HAVE WINES REALLY CHANGED?

Decanter magazine really polled 133 respected winemakers worldwide on a number of subjects. Their answers to two particular questions indicate to me that they don't believe they are making wines to suit critics and the public who are looking for high-alcohol fruit bombs.

Sixty-eight percent of the winemakers said they were not making wines in a style ready to be consumed earlier than in the past. And, only 24 percent of them said their wines are higher in alcohol today -- 54 percent said alcohol levels were about the same.

Finally, only 10 percent of those surveyed admitted to being influenced in their winemaking by critics and their scores. Nearly half said they were somewhat influenced.

This defies the prevailing opinion that winemakers are pursuing higher ratings from the likes of Robert Parker Jr., who prefers red wine with higher alcohol levels and riper, exuberant fruit.  I'm not sure many of them would admit to skewing their wines to achieve high scores from the Wine Advocate, but I am surprised by their insistence they are not making wines differently today.

Perhaps that image is more dominant in Napa Valley than it is abroad. I haven't seen much change in the established Bordeaux wines and certainly not Burgundy that would love to have naturally higher alcohol levels.