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Don't overlook Alsace
(September 20, 2017)
By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR
There is probably no other wine region that suffers as much consumer neglect as Alsace. Located on the banks of the Rhine River in northeastern France, the region was occupied by the Germans on four different occasions. It is no wonder that not only does its unique architecture of stucco and timber reflect Germanic influences, but the names of its wine producers – Zind-Humbrecht, Trimbach, Weinbach, Ostertag -- are more German than France.
Not even the French from Burgundy, Bordeaux and Provence understand Alsatians. Their Alemannian dialect is still spoken in Germany, but nowhere else in France. When the Roman empire fell, the region became part of Germany and wasn't conquered by the French until 1639. The tug-of-war over this region has left Alsace struggling for honor like a litter's runt. Yet to a visitor Alsace is one of France's most beautiful and humble regions.
One would think that its residents would suffer an inferiority complex with such history. But that's hardly the case. They are very proud of their heritage, their endurance and their wines.
Alsace is split into three AOC designations: Alsace, grand cru and cremant de Alsace. About 78 percent is classified "Alsace." Ninety percent of the wine is white -- the red is represented by pinot noir for reasons we will forever struggle to understand. And, only 25 percent of the wine is exported.
Alsace produces some of the best dry rieslings in the world. It's gewurztraminer, despite being a tongue-twister, is so aromatic you could sell it as perfume. And, its muscat, although not for everyone, will shock palates conditioned by oaky chardonnays.
Much of Alsace’s struggle can be attributed to its fickle approach to residual sugar. For years, its most popular wines, including those from Zind-Humbrecht, were ladened with sugar because such wines fared better among American critics. However, this trend has changed in recent years and Alsace wines, in general, are more balanced with good acidity and less residual sugar. Zind-Humbrecht even provides a residual sugar count on its labels.
There are those producers who insist on letting nature takes its course with intervention, so if the sugar doesn’t entirely ferment one year, they don’t add any more yeast to make it happen.
We lament that most stores don't carry many Alsace wines because there is so little demand for them. But you should seek them out. Look for producers Zind-Humbrecht, Trimbach, Hugel, Osterag, Boxler and Weinbach.
A good starter wine is pinot blanc, a great aperitif with deceiving simplicity and fresh acidity. Rieslings are often delicate, but characterized by finesse and finish. They complement fish with simple preparations. Gewurztraminer is hardly delicate and should be paired with heavy sauces; it's even a common foil to spicy foods and sushi.
Here are some recently tasted Alsace wines:
Trimbach Riesling 2014 ($20). Very fresh pear and lemon flavors with tangy acidity, a hint of ginger, rich mouthfeel and long, intense finish. A good value.
Famile Hugel Classic Riesling 2014 ($22). A broad palate of peach and green apple flavors, a dash of minerality and a touch of herbs, this is a dry, delightful representation of Alsace riesling.
Kuentz-Bas Alsace Blanc 2014 ($18). I loved this wine for its refreshing quality. A blend of sylvaner, auxerrois and muscat grapes, it has deceiving depth, bright acidity, floral aromatics, peach flavors and a dash of minerality.
Domaine Albert Boxler Pinot Blanc 2013 ($31). Orange, apricot and petrol notes dominate this high-acidity wine.
Domaine Ostertag "Fronholz" Muscat 2009 ($44). This special treat falls heavy on the palate but the weight is offset by tantalizing honey and stone fruit flavors. Fermented in small barriques.
Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Rieslng Grand Cru Rangen de Thann "Clos St. Urbain" 2005 ($82). Wow, what a mouthful. This small-production riesling is from one of the most reputable grand cru vineyards in Alsace. Bold and dense in structure, it oozes peach and melon flavors, an extraordinarily long finish and a powerful balance of acidity and plumpness.
Wines for last gasp of warm temps
(September 13, 2017)
By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR
September is one of those transitional months when the kids are back in school, the house is your own for a few hours, and you just can't quite decide whether to open a red or white tonight. Mulling over such inconsequential matters is a far cry better than, well, a far cry from the child who fell off the swing.
With the last gasp of summer embracing many of us, here are some unique wines to get you in the mood for the fall.
Tenuta Sassoregale Vermentino Maremma 2016 ($15). This fragrant vermentino from a rugged part of Tuscany is a perfect sipper. Refreshing acidity, herbal aromas, fresh citrus and stone fruit flavors with a dash of mineral.
Frescobaldi Massovivo AmmiragliaVermentino 2016 ($15). We enjoyed the fresh but balanced acidity of this Tuscan vermentino. It fills the nose with floral character and the mouth with soft and ripe white fruit flavors.
Alpha Estate Malagouzia Turtles Vineyard 2016 ($16). This Greek wine is made entirely of the indigenous malagouzia grapes and shows off round melon and spice notes.
Domaine Raymond Usseglio Cotes du Rhone "Les Claux" Blanc 2015 ($22). Made by respected Chateauneuf-du-Pape winemakers, this seldom seen white Cotes du Rhone is a delight. An equal blend of grenache blanc, clairette and roussanne this amazing wine offers great fruit with accents of white pepper and licorice notes. Very different and delicious.
Canava Chrissou Tselepos Assyrtico Vieilles Vignes Santorini 2016. ($30). Assyrtico is the flagship white grape from Santorini, the Mediterranean Island that is the remnant of an ancient volcano. Very clean and bright with apple and mineral notes this refreshing wine is a great match for virtually any chicken or seafood dishes. Long crisp finish. Delicious!
Le Contrade Puglia Malvasia/Chardonnay 2015 ($10). Very different profile with tropical fruit and citrus flavors, smooth texture and medium body. It's more an appertif than a food wine..
Gascon Reserva Malbec 2015 ($25). This reserve version of the popular Gascon Malbec provides more richness and concentration for a few bucks more. Ripe blackberry and plum notes with a dash of cocoa powder and mint.
DeGrendel Op Die Berg Pinot Noir 2013 ($21). We were stunned by the quality of this South African pinot noir from Cape of Good Hope. It's not a place we think of for pinot noir, but it out-delivers its reasonable price. From one of the highest altitude vineyards in South Africa, it has forward cherry and blackberry flavors.
Domaine de Durban Beaumes-de-Venise 2015 ($22). One of the best values we have found in the southern Rhone Valley, this blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre is extraordinary for its effusive red fruit flavors. Forward in style and long in the finish, it has a beautiful lavender and floral aromas, hints of dried herbs and pepper. This region was just granted a cru status in 2005 and is often overshadowed by the region's famous fortified wine made from muscat grapes.
True Grit Reserve Red 2013 ($20). This Mendocino blend is a motley collection of carignane, zinfandel, grenache, syrah, petite sirah, souzao, tinto cao and touriga nacional. With variety like this, it's hard to define. But we loved it nonetheless. Lots of ripe plum and dark fruit flavors with a hint of spice.
Ridja Bordan Rioja Gran Reserva 2005 ($25-30). A very impressive old style Rioja with ripe aged dried fruit and soft, woodsy nose and flavors. Pair with red meat dishes.
Plungerhead Petite Sirah 2015 ($14). A first for this portfolio of inexpensive wines, the petite sirah is a quaffable blend that includes tempranillo, merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Lots of fruit forward flavors of blueberries and blackberries. Good for ribs and other barbecued food.
Leese-Fitch Firehouse Red Wine 2015 ($12). Lots of grape varieties here: petite sirah, syrah, zinfandel, merlot, mourvedre and – whew – tempranillo. However odd the mix, it delivers the burst of fruit you expect from this popular portfolio of wines. Blackberry flavors with hints of espresso and chocolate.
Pinot gris, pinot blanc, pinot grigio, pinot noir
(September 4, 2017)
By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR
With the proliferation of new wine brands from all over the world, it is not surprising to witness the growing confusion between pinot gris, pinot blanc and pinot grigio. In truth, they all are mutations of pinot noir but different because how they are made and where they are grown.
While pinot gris is often barrel-aged and thus more round, pinot grigio is usually made in stainless-steel tanks and thus more fresh and fruity. A pinot gris made in Alsace is more likely to be fruity and slightly sweet. That made in its home of northern Italy is dry and minerally. The pinot grigio or pinot gris sold in California, Washington and Oregon seem to have less acidity and more apple and peach fruit flavors. They are drier than that made in Alsace, but heavier on the palate. Of course, these are generalizations but may help you understand why you like Italian pinot grigio but not an Washington pinot gris.
Pinot grigio was actually born in Burgundy where it was known as pinot gris. It made its way to Italy only after passing through Switzerland. Today, it is Italy's highest-sold white wine.
The other generalization we can make about this grape variety is that the cheaper versions – like Cavit sold in large format bottles – are sweet and without a lot of character. They are bulked produce in large stainless-steel tanks and have less natural acidity. Those aged in oak have more complexity and thus more expensive.
If you enjoy this wine, you are better off to stick with bottles that sell for more than $15.
Here are some versions we recently tasted:
Marco Felluga Mongris Pinot Grigio 2014 ($20). Very floral, this full-bodied pinot grigio with apple flavors is a great representation of what kind of quality can come from a real pinot grigio from northern Italy.
Tommasi Le Rosse Pinot Grigio 2015 ($17). This is a terrific wine for pinot grigio devotees who want something different. It's the first pinot grigio rosé we have tasted and it’s a gem. Rich and racy, it struts tropical fruit flavors and reasonable acidity.
Alois Lageder Porer Pinot Grigio 2015 ($25). A solid performer year after year, this generous pinot grigio is a good sipping wine or one to pair with fruit and fowl. Soft mouthfeel with good acidity with stone fruit, spice flavors.
Swanson Vineyards San Benito Pinot Grigio 2016 ($21). This Napa Valley pinot grigio bursts with floral and citrus aromas, followed by stone fruit flavors.
Terlato Fruili Pinot Grigio 2016 ($23). Terlato makes something special out of Italy's prized pinot grigio grape. It is more complex than most other pinot grigios with ripe peach and pear flavors and a crisp acidity.
Nine Hats Pinot Gris 2016 ($15). The pinot gris from Washington's Horse Heaven Hills AVA is well worth your time and dollar. This one is named after the renowned winemaking stars of Long Shadows Winery. It has generous floral aromas and stone fruit flavors.
J Vineyards & Winery Pinot Gris 2016 ($20). The producer has preserved the freshness of this pinot gris with stainless-steel fermentation. Pineapple and peach aromas lead off flavors of ripe pear and lime.
Duckhorn produces a series of extraordinary chardonnays under its Migration label. These wines – all unique to their Napa Valley appellations – demonstrate the significance of terroir in crafting single-vineyard chardonnays.
Frankly, this is a refreshing demonstration in light of a general trend toward generic wine that cross appellations. Chardonnay, in particular, seems to fall victim to winemakers whose indiscriminate blending can strip the wine of traits unique to a single vineyard.
Said Migration winemaker Dana Epperson in a press release, "Every vineyard we work with was selected because it yields distinctive and exciting wines. While there is a stylistic continuity that runs through them all, each vineyard-designate has a personality of its own."
We tasted five Migration chardonnays side-by-side and were awestruck by their differences. For instance, the Running Creek chardonnay from the Russian River Valley was tightly wound, laser focused and fresh while the Dierberg Vineyard chardonnay from Santa Maria Valley was broad on the palate, lush and ripe.
Migration also has chardonnays from a Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley and the Charles Heintz Vineyard in Sonoma Coast. We very much enjoyed the mineral, apple flavors and luxurious feel of the Heintz Vineyard version at $55.
Those of you who have given up on chardonnay need to taste these wines and appreciate what good can be done in the right hands.
Charles Heidsieck Rosé Reserve ($80). What the heck, the summer is coming to an end and why not cap it off with an expensive rosé? You'll feel a lot better about the impending fall if you sip this charming blend of meunier, chardonnay and pinot noir.
Cote Mas Cremant de Limoux Rosé Brut NV St Hilaire ($12). A bargain price for this well-made sparkling wine from the Languedoc region of France. Mostly chardonnay with a bit of chenin blanc and pinot noir, this sparkler is great by itself or an accompaniment with brunch or appetizers. Peach notes with a bit of lemon and orange.
Le Grand Courtage Brut Rosé ($25). From Burgundy, this sparkling wine is an unusual, seductive blend of chardonnay, ugni blanc and gamay. Floral, raspberry aromas and balanced acidity.
Gloria Ferrer Brut Rosé ($29). Pinot noir dominates the profile of this vibrant, strawberry-laced sparkling wine from Sonoma.
Millennials leading the way in wine
(August 29, 2017)
By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR
It was only a matter of time before wine marketing geniuses turned their attention from baby boomers to millennials.
Millennials are broadly defined as those born between 1976 and 1996, and the Pew Research Center puts the number of millennials in the U.S. at about 75 million.
Generally, millennials are characterized as environmentally concerned, socially liberal, technology savvy, balancing workplace and home, and proponents of political correctness. It is thought that the Great Recession greatly impacted many young millenials’ careers and earnings. And the preponderance of student loan debt among this group has hindered wealth accumulation.
However, that hasn't dampened their avid appreciation for wine. In 2015, millennials accounted for 42 percent of all wine sold in the U.S., according to the Wine Market Council. Their annual consumption average was 2 cases a person. Among those who say they drink several times a week, millennials accounted for 30 percent.
Furthermore, millennials are more attracted to cutting-edge graphics and trendy lingo rather than stately labels with French chateaus. Wine producers believe this age group has a more adventurous taste, so blending wines across appellations or violating other long-standing traditions do not bother them.
One example of a producer targeting the millennial crowd is Ziobaffa, a family of eco-friendly and bargain-priced Italian wines. The project was conceived during a Tuscan film-making trip by Californian filmmaker Jason Baffa, eco-surfer Chris Del Morro and their Italian winemaker friend Piergiorgio Castellani.
While many wine producers are migrating to organic grape growing when possible, Ziobaffa has taken environmental sensitivity to the next level. Ziobaffa utilizes the Helix cork, which allows for removal and re-closure multiple times by hand twisting the cork. Both the cork closure and the glass bottles are sustainable and glass is recyclable. All of their grapes are organic, no GMO products are used, and the winemaking process is vegan. FSC certified paper is used for the labels and only non-toxic glue is used to affix the label to the bottle. It is not a wine baby-boomers would enshrine.
In addition to the appeal to eco-conscious millennials, Ziobaffa has priced their wines to appeal to this cash-strapped group. Their 2013 Ziobaffa Toscana IGT red wine and 2016 Ziobaffa IGT pinot grigio sell for about $12 per bottle, planting both of these wines in bargain wine territory.
The pinot grigio is made in the southern Puglia region of Italy and, according to Ziobaffa’s literature, is naturally low in sulfites. The wine offers lovely pear flavors with some floral notes in the nose.
The Ziobaffa Toscana 2013 red wine, however, was our hands-down favorite, drinking way above its price point. Great bright fruit nose with cherry and plum notes. Very rich and round, it is a real crowd pleaser at a great price.
Dolin Bien Nacido Vineyard Chardonnay 2014 ($39). This lush but balanced chardonnay from Santa Maria Valley has beautiful apple and peach notes with a hint of vanilla and spice. Very long and elegant finish.
La Crema Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2014 ($40). La Crema is making a lot of good juice in California and Oregon. This gem has forward plum flavors with a dash of spice and tobacco.
Domaine la Casenove La Garrigue 2009 ($15). This blend of carignane, syrah and grenache is a ridiculously delicious wine for the price. We highly recommend it. From the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France, it shouts ripe black cherry fruit, a splash of licorice and earthy, barnyard garrigue.
La Grange de Quatre Sous Cuvee Garsinde 2014 ($20). We weren't surprised to see this wine imported by Kermit Lynch. You can count on this importer to find interesting producers from France. This Pay D'Oc is a delicious blend of malbec (60 percent), cabernet franc and syrah. Forward, ripe blueberry and strawberry fruit with a velvet mouthfeel.
Flora Springs Family Select Chardonnay 2016 ($35). When we pitted this chardonnay against several others, it stood out for its balance. It has just the right amount of creaminess, oak and acidity. Full bodied, it has tropical fruit flavors and a dose of spice and almonds. We dare you to stop at one glass.
Parducci Small Lot Chardonnay 2015 ($13). Wow, what a deal. Most of this wine is stainless-steel fermented, which preserves the fruit, lightens those heavy oak flavors, and enables the producer to keep down the costs (oak barrels cost more than $1,000 apiece!). Apple and pear flavors dominate the palate.
Vicente Faria Animus Vinho Verde 2015 ($13). Vinho Verde is Portugal's prized region for white wine and this one adds a bit of effervescence and a little sweetness to make it interesting. Citrus and melon notes from this mostly loureiro-grape wine.
Heitz Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2012 ($52). From the legendary winery founded by the late Joe Heitz in 1961, this cabernet sauvignon was a delight to savor. Bright cassis and cherry nose and flavors with a bare hint of oak make this wine one to consider now or in 3 years.
Rutherford Hill Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2013 ($51). This is a very intense Napa cabernet sauvignon with great structure and ripe cassis and plum notes. Beautiful vanilla and cedar complement this very accessible wine.
Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2013 ($50). This is another legendary Napa Valley winery that is still producing outstanding wines. Very accessible now, this wine is 75 percent cabernet sauvignon with the other four classic Bordeaux varietals making up the balance in the blend. Outstanding cherry and berry notes with an appropriate oak frame and spice notes. Delicious!
August 21, 2017
Luisa Ponzi returns to her roots
By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR
No one is going to dispute that modern viticulture developments have led to vast improvements in wine. Whether it how a vine’s canopy is managed or how the soil is treated, breakthroughs in farming generally have provided more consistent, drought- and insect-resistant vines. The result has led to better wines across the board.
One significant breakthrough came in the 1950s when researchers identified clones that could be counted on to grow consistent, disease-free vines. A clone is a cutting or bud of a mother plant and is genetically identical. So, a cutting from an immensely successful vineyard planted in similar soil and climate can be expected to perform equally well. Wine growers, then, would select a particular clone for its flavor profile, grape size, yield or tolerance to weather challenges. Prior to that, vines of various cuttings were indiscriminately planted side by side.
Clonal selection has been most popular with pinot noir. Mono clones, such as Dijon 777, Dijon 113 and Pommard, customarily planted separately in blocks across California and Oregon, have created some extraordinary wines over the last few decades. But the sameness of these cloned grapes has caused many winemakers to wonder if the wines lack the dimension that a random selection would better provide. Maybe, they wondered, earlier generations of grape growers had it right: randomness is good.
One person who has embraced the old practice of random clonal plantings is Luisa Ponzi, a second-generation winemaker in Oregon’s pinot-noir-rich Willamette Valley. In 1975, her father Dick Ponzi and fellow winemaker Dick Erath worked with Oregon State University to plant 22 pinot noir clones on a 2-acre plot. Both men were winemaking pioneers in the region, so the trial was a learning experience.
The idea was simply to tag the vines and observe their development over several years. But it was a blend of these clones from this Abetina Vineyard that created some very interesting wines, Luisa recalls.
When Luisa returned from her studies in Burgundy in 1993 to become Ponzi's winemaker, she had the opportunity to take the magic she found at Abetina a step further. Over the next two decades she became more familiar with the expression of individual clones, what rootstocks work best in her soils and how vine age was affecting the wines. She developed a planting technique she calls "clonal massale," in which a mix of more than 25 unique clones are planted randomly in a single block. Today, more than 30 acres of Ponzi wines are planted to clonal massale.
The risk of such an undertaking is that the vines don’t behave the same -- they ripen at different times and with different levels of acidity, flavor, aromas and more. However, Luisa says the grapes complement each other and compensate for vintage variation. The tradeoff is a pinot noir with more dimension and character than those made from selected clones.
The clonal massale pinot noirs we tasted during a recent visit to Ponzi Vineyards showed dimension that comes from her innovation.
The 2014 Ponzi Vineyards Avellana Pinot Noir is from a block of clonal massale planted to heritage and Dijon clones. The Abetina pinot noir comes from the experimental 1975 Abetina Vineyard of heritage clones and the Ponzi Abetina 2 pinot noir uses fruit from a block that is identical to the original Abetina. The block is preserved on rootstock on the same soil and elevation as the original block.
Dick and Nancy Ponzi planted their first vineyard in 1970 and their daughters – Luisa and Anna – have been carrying on ground-breaking innovation. All but the origin estate vineyard are planted within 5 miles of each other in the Chehalem Mountains AVA. The area is under review for its own AVA to be named after its soil, Laurelwood.
One common theme that seems to run through the wines is balance. While some Oregon pinot noirs are thick and jammy, Ponzi wines are elegantly classic with mid-palate depth rather than forward fruit. This was particularly evident in the 2014 Ponzi Classico Pinot Noir ($43) and delivers well beyond its price.
Here are our tastings notes of more of Ponzi’s incredible wines:
Ponzi Vineyards Avellana Pinot Noir 2014 ($105). Only a couple of hundred cases are made of this exquisite, pretty pinot noir. More tannic than most pinot noirs, it is destined for greatness with concentrated black cherry and plum flavors and spicy aromas.
Ponzi Vineyards Abetina Pinot Noir 2014 ($105). Generous nutmeg and cinnamon aromas, black cherry flavors, fine tannins and a long finish make this a collectable wine for those with deep pockets. This is truly one of the extraordinary wines made in the Willamette Valley.
Ponzi Vineyard Tavola Pinot Noir 2015 ($27). Using grapes from several appellations, this affordable, popular pinot noir delivers big-time flavors of red cherries, blueberries and a dash of chocolate. Blended for early release, it has a more fruit-forward style and has become almost too popular to satisfy the demand, Luisa says.
Ponzi Vineyard Pinot Noir Reserve 2014 ($65). Grapes from Ponzi’s Aurora and Avellana vineyards are joined by other sources to create a complex, rich pinot noir that we liked very much. Long finish.
Ponzi Vineyards Pinot Gris 2016 ($19). Oregon is known for its pinot gris, but Ponzi has been making it since 1978. Trust us, this a wine you need to discover. Highly aromatic, it’s melon and stone fruit flavors presented with a touch of sweetness make for a great sipper or a wine to pair with barbecued chicken and fish. Ponzi also makes an old-vine pinot gris do die for, but available only through its club.
Ponzi Vineyards Reserve Chardonnay 2014 ($40). Reasonably priced for a full-bodied chardonnay, this cuvee has a silky texture, balanced acidity, and oodles of tropical fruit and lemon meringue flavors with a hint of mineral.
Really cool wines for summer heat
(August 23, 2017)
By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR
August is one of the hottest months, no matter where you live. Whether it's dry heat, high humidity or passing thunderstorms, weather keeps us indoors these days. Sipping on a cabernet sauvignon in such trying times is met with palate resistance even with the AC cranked up. Our palates are thirsting for a cool white wine with refreshing acidity.
You've gone through countless chardonnays, sauvignon blancs and pinot grigios, right? This week, we're tempting you with some unusual wines. We discovered these over the last month or so and we're intrigued by their unusual flavors.
Because these white wines are unusual, they may be hard to find. If you can't these specific producers, ask for a substitute who uses the same grape variety. Have fun!
· Gotin del Risc Godello 2013 ($15). From the Bierzo region of Spain, this luscious godello will remind you of pinot grigo. But it is not. Very broad flavors of pears and apples with aromas of freshly cut flowers. Soft and generous mouthfeel.
· Quinto da Raza Vinho Verde 2016 ($12). This is a terrific, fresh vinho verde made from the indigenous Portuguese grapes arinto, azal and trajadura. Excellent fruit flavors of apple and pear with crisp acidity and a bit of frizzante.
· Vietti Roero Arneis 2016 ($23). Now in its 50th year, this bottling excites the palate with a bit of frizzante, good acidity and lively citrus and melon flavors. Clean and refreshing to the palate, it employs the arneis grape that this producer popularized in the 1960s. Although it dates back to the 1400s, only recently has the grape variety achieved recognition.