THIS IS ONE SMOKING WINE

It takes a lot to get my juices going in wine.  But that was the occasion the other night when my wife and I sipped a 2012 Sea Smoke Blanc de Noir sparkling wine -- a fitting kick-off on the eve of a warm-weather vacation.  Not everyone is familiar with this classy pinot noir producer because it's not easy to find the wines.

Made in the Santa Rita Hills appellation of Santa Barbara County, Sea Smoke has been around only since 1999. It didn't take them long to establish all estate-grown pinot noirs as among the best and most exclusive in California.  I have craved them whenever I travel to the West Coast and occasionally when I find them on a restaurant wine list.  They aren't cheap, but nowadays few quality pinot noirs are.

This sparkling wine, however, was simply incredible. It is proof that to make a good sparkling wine, you need to start with good grapes. Sea Smoke embraces biodynamics and low yields. The grapes are grown in high elevations and face south.  This kind of exposure manages to produce great phenolics.

The Blanc de Noir is heavy on the palate because of the preference for pinot noir grapes. But it's hardly clumsy.  Black cherry flavors and spice dominate the flavor profile, but the complexity of the wine is what makes this so outstanding. I could not put it down.

You may have a hard time finding it locally. But I recommend you get on their mailing list. You can order wines direct from the winery -- if your states allows it -- and there is no commitment on quantity or membership.  

MISSING WINE FOUND -- IN GREENSBORO

Many of the 76 wines stolen in the Christmas Day heist at the French Laundry were recovered -- in Greensboor, NC, of all places.

Greensboro police have confirmed that it recovered some of Romanee-Conti and Screaming Eagle wines in presumably a wine collector's cellar. No details were provided, so I don't know how the wine ended up in North Carolina or whether the collector has been charged. However, California police and the French Laundry's owner believe it was in inside job. There was a small window of opportunity when employees weren't in the restaurant. And, the thieves were very selective in what they included in the $300,000 heist. 

The French Laundry, located in Yo untville, Calif, is one of the most exclusive restaurants in wine country. Reservations take months to get.  Some of the wines stolen had values up to $15,000.

I'm dying to hear the details.

LOUIS MARTINI -- A VENERABLE NAME IN CABERNET SAUVIGNON

I found an orphaned bottle of 2008 Louis Martini Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon in the cellar.  The 7-year-old wine had endured its hibernation, I'm happy to report. Of course, the Martini name exudes respect even though it has been owned by E&J Gallo since 2002.  Established in 1933, the  once family-owned winery became synonymous with quality cabernet sauvignon.  It even has a pinot noir clone named after Martini.  It fell on hard times and then fell behind the pack as new labels emerged.  However, the 2008 shows that it still has good sources for Napa and Sonoma county grapes.

The wine had a soft texture, its tannins a faint memory.  But the fruit was exquisite: black cherries, plum, olives, cinnamon and cloves.  It required contemplation and left me pleasant surprised even when the tasted it on the second day.

I paid $25 for the 2008 five or so years ago. Today the Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon retails for about $34.  In the wide world of California cabernet, this is still the steal it was in 2008.  If you are cellaring wine on a modest budget, this is a winner.

 

CONSUMPTION RECORDS SHIFTING

A recent market report unveiled at Vin Expo predicts that in the next four years Germany will overtake Italy as the third largest wine consuming nation.  Don't worry, though, the United States will remain numero uno.

The report by market researchers The IWSR shows the shifting sands in the world wine trade that is at least a decade old. For a long time, Italy and France held the top two positions in wine consumption. Italy still holds the lead in per capita consumption -- Italians drink more per person than anyone else -- but as a nation they drink less.  For many older generations, wine at the table was more popular than water -- no matter the persron's age. However, water improved over time and younger generations failed to embrace the wine tradition.  Predictions are that Italy's wine consumption will sink 5 percent over the next four years.

On the other hand, Germany -- more of a beer-drinking nation -- will experience growth. Experts attribute that to their thirst for champagne. Now, there's a twist. Local sekt, the German name for sparkling wine, is popular in a ciountry that has produced more sweet riesling than any other European country.

According to the report, the U.S. will strengthen its lead over France. Consumption here is expected to rise by 5.5 percent in the next four years. In recent years U.S. consumers have shown a keen interest in trying different wines. And, wines have gained strength over other alcoholic beverages.

I'm not sure what all of this means to us, but it's nice to know the U.S. is number one .

PINOT NOIR A MORE POPULAR THAN CABERNET SAUVIGNON -- FOR ME

When asked to declare our favorite grape variety we are often torn. Cabernet sauvignon occupies more space in our cellar than any other grape. Rhone grape varieties – syrah and grenache – are a close second. However, pinot noir could be our favorite grape variety even though we don’t have a lot of it.

Pinot noir’s struggle to find a spot in wine cellars is due in part to its relatively expensive position in the market. Burgundies as a lot have become more expensive than Bordeaux and it’s hard to find a decent pinot noir from Oregon for under $50. Buying them by the case is a stretch for most pocketbooks and not all of them do well with age.

But if you can pay the price, there is no better time to explore West Coast pinot noir. In recent weeks, we have ploughed through a lot of delicious pinot noir and were truly excited by what we found.Those that sell for $35 are actually a bargain in the pinot noir field.

Here follows a list of stand-outs:

·         Patz & Hall Jenkins Ranch Pinot Noir 2012 ($55). Always a favorite of ours, this pinot noir has the guts to stand up to a lot of different foods. Big tannins give meaning to the fresh strawberry and raspberry flavors.

·         Crossbarn Sonoma County Pinot Noir 2012 ($35).  Made under the direction of Paul Hobbs, this pinot noir – and anything else from Crossbarn – is a big success.  We loved the copious and layered cherry fruit with an earthy personality. Hints of cola and spice make it a delicious drink.

·         MacMurray Estate Vineyards Central Coast Pinot Noir 2012 ($23). Sporting a new label, this venerable producer known for its good values has produced another reliable wine from the broad, almost undistinguished Central Coast. Simple, straight-forward and packed with layered fruit, this is a wine you can serve to a crowd without breaking the bank.

·         Sea Smoke Southing Pinot Noir 2012 ($60). We loved the elegance of this beautiful pinot noir from Santa Rita Hills. Good complexity and balance with bright cherry fruit and forest floor notes.

·         Inman Family Wines Russian River Valley Pinot Noir OGV 2010 ($65). We have loved these wines ever since we visited with Kathleen Inman, the winemaker and head bottle-washer of this small  Sonoma County winery. Truly a family operation, it exudes love and attention from vineyard to bottle. This wine is from its prized Olivet Grange Vineyard (it couldn't use "Grange" on the label because of Penfolds trademark). Its character and brilliance earns the wine the top seed in the Inman family lineup. Light in color, it has elegance and bright raspberry and cranberry flavors. Inman is eco-friendly and even the reserve pinot noir comes with a screw cap.

·         Stoller Dundee Hills Pinot Noir 2012 ($30). Easily one of the best values in Oregon pinot noir, the 2012 Stoller is a killer. At this price you can afford a couple of bottles for the holiday feast and be proud of serving a balanced American pinot noir.  It has a floral nose and ripe raspberry and black cherry flavors and a good dose of cloves.

·         Talbott Diamond T Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012 ($52). Robb Talbott has succeeded in crafting a series of elegant pinot noirs and chardonnays that have identified him as among the best in these categories. This Monterey pinot noir shows off rich cherry and plum flavors with soft tannins and long finish.

·         J. Lohr Falcon's Perch Pinot Noir 2012 ($17).  You'll love the generous aromatics and flavors of this opulent pinot noir from Monterey County.   It shows off a floral and dried herbs aroma with jammy cherry flavors and long finish.

·         Complicated Pinot Noir 2013 ($20). Well, it's not complicated. Simple cherry flavors, good balance and excellent value. It is made by a new venture operated by Carlo Trinchero and Josh Phelps – childhood buddies and off-spring of two respected wine-making families.

·         Niner Wine Estates Edna Valley Pinot Noir 2012 ($35).  Wow, what a mouthful of pure pinot noir.  Very floral with layered, fruit-forward flavors of sweet black cherries, clove, and cranberries.

·         Amici Pinot Noir Sonoma County Russian River Valley 2012 ($35). This complex pinot noir shows an earthy cherry nose with flavors of dried cherries, red raspberries and a hint of cinnamon. Beautifully balanced and is delicious.

·         Migration Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2012 ($38). Another winner from the Duckhorn family of wines. Cherry, strawberry and mocha dominate the nose, and mouth with a delicious spice note on the finish. Try this with chicken, salmon or pork dishes. Mmm.             

·         Byron Julia's Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012 ($45). This Santa Maria Valley producer has been making good pinot noir for decades and the Julia's Vineyard version has been a consistent winner.  Earthy character with generous black cherry fruit and a dash of spice.

 

 

NO HORSING AROUND IN HORSE HEAVEN HILLS

The Horse Heaven Hills appellation is one of the largest grape growing regions in Washington state, y et we doubt many wine enthusiasts are even aware of it. Supplying a quarter of the state’s wine, Horse Heaven Hills has gained a lot of respect for producing some of the Northwest’s best wines.

This year the region is celebrating its 10-year anniversary. It was named by cowboy James Kinney for the abundance of grass available to his horses. Don and Linda Mercer were the first to plant grapes in the region. The first winery, opened in 1983, was Columbia Crest, which still today is making excellent, inexpensive wines.

Here are some wines from Horse Heaven Hills that we recommend to get acquainted:

·         Mercer Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($14). From a reputable appellation of the Columbia Valley, this Horse Heaven Hills cabernet is a great value with ripe cherry and blueberry notes. It is blended with merlot, malbec and petit verdot.

·         Mercer Horse Heaven Hills Chardonnay Reserve 2013 ($32). Tropical fruit notes dominate this smooth chardonnay. Notes of vanilla and spice.

·         H3 Horse Heaven Hills Merlot 2012 ($15). Another great value in merlot, this wine offers the aromas and flavors that you expect from the grape variety. Loads of ripe cherry flavors and a soft mouthfeel.

·         Coyote Canyon H/H Estates Michael Andrews Red Reserve 2010 ($38). A blend of tempranillo and graciano, this is quite a delicious treat.  Round black berry fruit with doses of mineral, toffee and tobacco. Full bodied.

·         Alexandria Nicole Cellars Quarry Butte Destiny Ridge Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 ($25).  Other than having to clean up this confusing label, there is nothing wrong with this delightfully ripe and delicious blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, malbec, cabernet franc and petit verdot. Loaded with black cherry flavors, vanilla and cassis.

·         McKinley Springs Malbec ($24). It’s hard not to enjoy this smooth, jammy malbec with blueberry notes and dashes of clove, pepper and cinnamon.

WINES FROM GREYWACKE

Kevin Judd is an interesting fellow. In addition to founding the New Zealand boutique Greywacke (pronounced greywacky) winery in 2009 he is an acclaimed photographer of wine related subjects and landscapes in his adopted country with two published books on the subject.  Born in England he came to New Zealand via Australia where he helped found renowned New Zealand sauvignon banc producer Cloudy Bay in the mid 1980’s. Kevin left Cloudy Bay after 25 years as winemaker                      

We recently met Kevin and had the opportunity to taste his current offerings. Kevin explained that the name greywacke refers to the abundance of rounded bedrock river stones that cover the vineyards that he sources his fruit. Pictures of these rock strewn source vineyards are reminiscent of the vineyards of Chateauneuf–du-Pape in France, and the wine growing area of The Rocks of Milton-Freewater in Walla Walla Washington, that we visited earlier this year.

Although his focus is sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, Greywacke also produces pinot gris and chardonnay for the American market. We found the quality of Kevin’s wines to be quite good but were especially taken by two of his current offerings.

The Greywacke Wild Sauvignon Marlborough 2012 ($29) was exceptional. Kevin commented that this sauvignon blanc is “for people that don’t like sauvignon blanc”, likely the result of ripe fruit and fermentation in old oak barrels to tone down the abundant herbaceousness in some New Zealand sauvignon blanc. The wine displayed a ripe peach and citrus nose and flavors and a very rich and round expression in the mouth. The “wild” in the name refers to utilizing all native yeasts and a distinctive hands off approach to making the wine.                                                                                                                           

We also were very impressed with the Greywacke Pinot Noir Marlborough 2012 ($41), which exhibited a complex mélange of bright intense cherry fruit and an underlying spice element that created a very enticing drinkable package. These wines may be a little hard to find but are worth seeking out. 

GETTING MORE LIFE FROM VINEYARDS

Vineyards don't last forever, but many -- particularly California's zinfandel vines made on pre-phylloxera rootstock -- can survive 30 years or more and still produce wine.

But we recently learned that climate and soil can make a difference. In Burgundy, vines can surviv e 80 years. In Bordeaux, the average is 40 years. But in California and South America, the lifespan is an average of 17 years.

Perhaps in these countries the vines are overstressed with high yields or perhaps viticultural techniques are not friendly to the vines. But producers should take note. It is not cheap to replace a vineyard. And, a vine doesn't produce good grapes for several years. By the time it's 10-15 years old, it is producing its best grapes.

Rodrigo Soto, winemaker for Chile's Vermonte winery, told us recently that he and his colleagues are looking for ways to extend the lives of its vines. With that, he feels he can make better wines from riper and more mature grapes. To that end, he is using organic farming methods to take away chemicals that could be slowly destroying the integrity of vines.

We think he has a point.