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This Thanksgiving, serve pinot noir AND chardonnay

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

Next week families from around the country will be gathering around the table for a tradition that we hope never dies. An activity we joined as children is now an activity we lead as adults – and it never stales. However easy it would be to contract the work to a third party, doing so would rob us of the joy we take in cooking for family and friends.

For more than 30 years we have been advising readers what to drink on Thanksgiving. While our cohorts come up with new twists that involve unusual grape varieties, we stick to the advice that always works for us. Other than cabernet sauvignon, almost any wine marries well with the traditional turkey dinner. And, to satisfy all palates, we put red and white wine on the table.

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Thanksgiving is a special occasion because it is all-American and it draws family together around a festive table laboriously created by the host and hostess.  Given that we are just off contentious mid-term elections, we suspect some family gatherings could be unnecessarily tense. Don’t let it be. Start your guests with some sparkling wine and find something agreeable to celebrate. Moet & Chandon makes a brut for $40 that is a good deal. Another reasonably priced French champagne is Jacquart Burt Mosaique ($45).  If it’s American you want to pour, Gruet Brut from New Mexico is a steal at $15 a bottle.

Moderate the alcohol you serve. Don’t keep replacing those empty wine bottles and make sure everyone has water. Guests will stay as long as there is alcohol yet to consume.

With that, here are some guidelines in choosing the wine.

First, focus on the entrée. It’s pretty tough finding a wine that perfectly matches everything from candied sweet potatoes to cranberry sauce. If it’s turkey that is your centerpiece, you can serve a light red wine (pinot noir, grenache, Beaujolais) or a white wine (chardonnay, pinot grigio, dry riesling). These wines will not interfere with the subtle flavors of a relatively neutral meat.

If you intend to serve lamb or beef, go bold. Your best cabernet sauvignons, blends and merlots with good body are appropriate.

Second, think of your guests. Not everyone likes red wine, so give them an alternative.

Finally, think cost. If you have a small gathering, open some nice wine if you can afford it. But If you have a crowd spread around the house for dinner, it is foolish to pour $50 wine that no one will recognize or appreciate. We have found that on occasions like the holidays, guests are more interested in conversation than they are the wine.

By the time the meal winds down, put away the wine and offer coffee. It’s a waste of money to serve sweet wine with dessert when most palates are fatigued.

Our final advice: if you are a guest, bring the hostess a nice bottle of wine to be opened later – don’t expect it to be poured at dinner that the cook has meticulously planned.  A gift wine doesn’t have to be expensive, but try to find something unique – a wine from an area you or they recently visited, for instance, or a wine from an unusual grape variety.

Here, then, are some chardonnays and pinot noirs we recently tasted that would do well with the Thanksgiving turkey:

·       Qupé Y Block Chardonnay 2016 ($22).  Now under new ownership, this producer specializes in Rhone-style varieties. But we liked the balance fresh fruit character of this medium-body chardonnay that thankfully is not over-oaked. It has ample pear and apple flavors.

·       River Road Mills Cuvee Chardonnay 2016 ($30). From the Green Valley of Russian River Valley this complex chardonnay has elegance and richness with stone fruit flavors and a creamy, oaky finish.

·       Flora Springs Family Select Chardonnay 2017 ($35).  This is an excellent Napa Valley wine for the price. Medium in body, it has apple and ripe melon flavors with hints of vanilla and cinnamon spice. Velvet mouthfeel and a long finish.

·       Fetzer Sundial Chardonnay 2017 ($10). Tropical fruit aromas and pear, pineapple flavors abound in this inexpensive chardonnay.

·       Bonterra Organic Vineyards Chardonnay 2016 ($14). A great chardonnay for the price – honey and tropical fruit aromas followed by rich, pineapple and citrus flavors.

·       Gehricke Russian River Chardonnay 2016 ($32). Great balance and layered tropical fruit flavors highlighted by pineapple and mango. Citrus aromas and soft finish.

·       Steele Parmalee Hill Chardonnay 2017 ($30). We liked the price of this generous chardonnay with tropical fruit flavors, bright acidity and concentration.

·       Ramey Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2016 ($50). Fresh, red berry fruit with an austere character reminiscent of Burgundian pinot noirs.  Silky tannins and long finish.

·       Imagery California Pinot Noir 2016 ($20). It isn’t easy finding a good pinot noir for under $50, which makes this a good value. Winemaker Jamie Benziger has created a simple yet tasty wine with bright cherry fruit flavors.

·       J. Lohr Falcon’s Perch Pinot Noir 2017 ($17). Always symbolizing value, J. Lohr’s Monterey pinot noir has generous strawberry flavors and soft tannins.

·       Noble Vines 667 Pinot Noir 2016 ($15).  The finesse and balance of this Monterey County pinot noir make it an ideal match to turkey. Unlike the heavily extracted pinot noirs, this one exhibits a medium body with ripe plum and cherry notes with soft tannins.

·       Landmark Hop Kiln Estate Pinot Noir 2016 ($40). From great vineyards in the Russian River Valley, this luxurious and opulent pinot noir emits floral and dark fruit aromas with lively raspberry flavors with a dose of spice. Long in the finish.

·       Sokol Blosser Dundee Hills Estate Pinot Gris 2017 ($22).  We liked the dry quality of this balanced pinot gris, a perfect and different match to turkey.  Pure apple and citrus flavors with floral aromas and bright acidity with a dash of mineral.

·       FEL Savoy Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($70). FEL purchased this vineyard in 2011 and everything has been golden since then. This Anderson Valley vineyard produces silky, medium-body pinot noirs with black cherry flavors, generous aromas and silky mouthfeel.

·       Kendall-Jackson Jackson Estate Outland Ridge Pinot Noir Anderson Valley 2014 ($35). This is a very pleasing, easy to grasp, pinot noir from a cool region of Mendocino County. A whole range of berry flavors are expressed in this complex mélange of scents and flavors. Ready to drink now.                 

 

Bellacosa on a dream and lots of espresso

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

Daniel Cohn was on his second espresso at 9 a.m., his legs restlessly bouncing like an anxious teen on his first date. He will drink six more before noon just to sustain a boundless energy that will get him through a grueling schedule of 14 account visits before sundown.

 “I try to keep it under 20 espressos a day,” he quips. He’s not joking.

Cohn is the genius behind Bellacosa, perhaps the best $25 cabernet sauvignon on the market today and one that has sparked a wave of reviews, awards and magazine splashes in just a couple of years. His first vintage of 25,000 cases sold out in 10 months.

 Dan Cohn, winemaker

Dan Cohn, winemaker

Cohn’s success is due in part to a business-based model: “the wine has to look like it is in a $100 bottle, it has to drink like a $50 bottle and it has to sell at $25.” But the success is also due to an engaging personality -- he could convince a priest to buy a case of his wine for Sunday communion.

Cohn grew up working for his father, Bruce Cohn, at the family winery in Sonoma County. B.R. Cohn Winery made iconic cabernet sauvignons and olive oil for decades. His dad also launched bands, such as Bruce Hornsby, and managed the Doobie Brothers for more than 40 years.

His father sold the winery in 2015, leaving Dan to choose music or wine as a career path.

“I managed a reggae band in Hawaii for a while, but that didn’t work,” he laughs.

He leveraged $1.7 million and launched Bellacosa, drawing grapes from long-time friendships he made with his father. Then he assembled more friends – legendary names from California’s most prestigious wines – for a blind tasting.

“I gave them 10 cabernets of the same price and six that cost twice as much,” he says. His wine excelled and the elite panel of advisers affirmed he had a winning recipe.

“I will not deter from balance,” he says in defiance of a popular trend to make sweet, extracted fruit bombs.

He says his debt put him on the edge of a cliff, but it also propelled him to work all that much harder to persuade people to buy his wine in a market overloaded with competition. Since 2016 he visits about 250 cities a year, hand-selling his only wine like he was Willy Loman peddling shoes in “Death of a Salesman.” He stayed in cheap hotels or with friends and ate at Taco Bell to cut expenses.

“I knew I had to sell Bellacosa one person, one bottle at a time,” he says.

He became so familiar with restaurants around the country that on several occasions he identified them by the background in cellphone photos shared by sales reps.

 “I pride myself in being accessible,” he says.

When he approaches a doubtful restaurant manager who has pricey cabernet sauvignons on the wine list, he lays down the “Bellacosa Bet.”  If his wine wins a blind tasting of cabernets selling for as much as $30 a glass, the restaurant promises to put Bellacosa on the wine list. He hasn’t lost yet.

When we met with Cohn for breakfast, the Boca Raton resident was “lapping the state” with a four-day binge tour of five Florida cities.

The hand-selling, personal touch has paid off. He has added a $100 reserve cabernet sauvignon and its 500 cases sell out too. It is an extraordinary wine with depth, character and, of course, balance. It tastes like $100, but the regular cab tastes like $50 and sells for $24.

“What’s cool is that this is a brand that didn’t exist three years ago,” he says.

There have been many instant successes in wine, but few of them have had staying power in a competitive, fickle market. Bellacosa seems to be different. In 2016 Wine Business named Bellacosa one of the top 10 wine brands. Last year Cohn formed a joint venture with Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits to give him distribution help, but he hasn’t stopped his espresso-fueled, cross-country marketing blitz.

We want to root for Cohn and Bellacosa, because they represent honest wine. While so many other producers are blending whatever grape varieties they have on hand, adding cups of sugar, and slapping on the bottle some cute label, Cohn is making a balanced cabernet sauvignon that reminds us of what has made cabernet sauvignon so great but not so gimmicky.

Don’t be surprised to see Bellacosa by the glass in your favorite restaurants – Cohn was probably there – and if you don’t find it, ask why. This is the best $25 cabernet sauvignon we’ve tasted this year.

WINE PICKS

·         Steele Bien Nacido Block N Pinot Noir 2015 ($36).  This was a favorite in a flight of California pinot noirs we recently tasted. Well balanced and richly textured, it has generous strawberry and clove aromas with cherry, spice, tobacco and earthy flavors.

·         The Butler Butler Ranch Vineyards 2013 ($50). Made by Bontara Organic Vineyards, this rich and harmonious gem blends syrah, mourvedre, grenache and zinfandel. Generous blackberry and plum aromas with a dash of espresso. Black fruit, licorice and spice flavors with dense tannins.

·         Left Coast “The Orchard” Pinot Gris Estate 2017 ($18). This is one of the better pinot gris from Oregon that we have tasted recently. It has a bold style with delicious green apple and citrus nose and flavors with a slight hint of floral notes. Try this beauty with bold fish and poultry recipes.

·         Feudi Di Sa Gregorio Rubrato Aglianico Campania 2015 ($20). From the Irpina region in Campania hard hit by Mt. Vesuvius, this delicious red wine is made from the widely planted aglianico grape. Berries, licorice and strawberries dominate this wine that is aged in only stainless steel. Good by itself but really comes alive with southern Italian tomato sauce dishes, and cheese.

Exploring those fascinating amarones

(October 22, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

As if wine isn’t confusing enough, along comes the mysterious amarones from Italy to tax the brain. While most wines are simply made – pick the grapes, let them ferment and then bottle – amarones add a twist.

We’ll try to demystify the process.

An ancient process unique to the Valpolicella region of Veneto, amarone’s late-harvested grapes are dried by autumn breezes on straw mats in large, open-sided lodges until they shrivel to a raisin-like composition. The process, which takes roughly 120 days, results in 40-50 percent less juice but the grapes have a higher concentration of flavors and more sugar. The sugar is vinified to make a dry wine, although with alcohol levels of 15 percent or more. Higher concentration also means deeper color, body and balanced tannins and acidity.  The flavors are ripe and raisin-like, but complemented by soft tannins and length.

Amarone was given DOC status in 1990 and then promoted to the highest category of DOCG in 2009. The designation came with elevated standards, which in turn resulted in a higher quality of wine. Although several grape varieties are allowed, the majority of the wine is made from corvina. Other grape varieties include corvinone, rondinella and molinara.

 drying racks

drying racks

With less water in the dried grapes, fermentation is retarded. The process of turning sugar to alcohol can  take as long as 50 days, and that increases the risk of volatile acidity. Alas, some of these mouth-puckering wines make it to market, which makes quality inconsistent.

Following fermentation, amarones are aged in French or Slovenian barriques for as long as 3 years.

The process used for these wines is generally called “ripasso,” but the ripasso that includes amarone pomace is often made in the spring following harvest and is much more tannic than amarone.

Alas, amarone’s labor-intensive and lengthy process drives prices beyond $50 a bottle. However, ripasso  – often called “baby amarone” – can be found for $20. Although medium in body, the leftover grape skins of the amarones give ripasso big fruit flavors.  While amarone is a special-occasion wine to serve with beef or wild game, ripasso is delightful with tomato-sauced pasta, pizza and grilled meats.

Here are several amarones and other wines from this region we recommend:

·         Masi Riserva di Costasera Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Riserva 2011 ($50). A cru version of Masi’s Costasera, this huge blend is composed of corvina, rondinella, oseleta and moliara grapes. It has generous aromas of plums and roasted coffee beans and soft, elegant cherry flavors. This wine can age for several decades but is enjoyable now.

·         Tommasi Amarone della Valpolicella Classico 2013 ($40). A blend of corvina, corvinone, rondeilla and oseleta, this wine made in a challenging vintage shows good balance of acidity and tannin. Effusive aromas of spice, licorice and black pepper and intense, defined cherry and plum flavors.

·         Tenuta Sant’Antonio Amarone della Valpolicella ”Selezione Antonio Castagnedi” 2015 ($45).  Ripe cherry and strawberry notes with a spicy aroma and hints of chocolate. Elegant in style, it is aged 2 years in new French oak. The grapes consist of corvina (70 percent), rondinella, croatina and oseleta.

·         Bertani Amarone della Valpolicella 2008 ($99). The additional bottle age of this wine gives lucky consumers a hint of what time does to amarone. Mature, rich red fruit flavors with hints of mocha and hazelnuts.

·         Zenato Amarone della Valpolicella 2013 ($63). Generous herbal and mineral aromas, medium body and ripe red fruit flavors with a dash of spice.

·         Tenuta Sant’Antonio Valpolicella Ripasso Superiore “Monti Garbi” DOC 2015 ($20). Red fruit flavors with a bit of residual sugar, medium body and soft on the palate. Delicious.

·         Tenuta Sant’Antonio Valpolicella Superiore “Nanfre” DOC 2016 ($14). Simple in design and medium in body, this is an easy drink to enjoy with light fare. Fragrant with cherry flavors and light tannins.

WINE PICKS

·         Dutton Estate Winery Pinot Noir Karmen Isabella 2015 ($46). A wonderfully complex pinot noir from the Russian River Valley that displays cherry and red currant notes with enticing spice. A balance of tart and ripe cherry fruit makes this wine interesting.

·         Reata Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2016 ($20). You get a lot of bang for your buck with this reasonable priced and rich chardonnay. Apple and oak flavors.

·         Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG 2013 ($35). This Italian producer makes a series of great chiantis from estate vineyards.  We liked the density and structure of this delicious and multi-layered version. The sangiovese is blended with canaiolo, ciliegiolo and colorino grapes. For a step up, the 2013 Badia a Coltibuono Montebello Toscana IGT ($60) is even more dense with a long finish and age-worthy tannins.

Wines from Israel

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

Israel is certainly not high on the minds of most U.S. wine consumers. Although ancient wine production in Israel is documented through archeological evidence and chronicled frequently in the Bible, wine production and world attention has lagged among wine producing countries.

According to a 2014 ranking of wine production by country, Israel ranked 58th behind wine “powerhouse” Cuba (48th), and Madagascar (53rd).  However insignficant the volume and notoriety, a recent tasting showed that quality is not is not relevant to rankings.

Israel has the same latitude as San Diego and features hot and rain-free summers and wet winters -- ideal for vinifera grape production.

The modern era for Israeli wine production began in the late 1800s with the establishment of Carmel Winery that had the support of Baron Edmund de Rothschild, owner of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. Carmel Winery also led the development in the 1960s from sweet sacramental wines to modern, dry table wines. The modern Israeli wine industry is only a few decades old, however.

Israeli wines can be frequently found in better U.S. fine wine stores. Most are reasonably priced, and are made from familiar European grape varieties.

The Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, previously known as the site of a major tank battle between the Israelis and Syrians during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, is the source of some of Israel’s finest wines. The cool Golan Heights has a unique microclimate that is conducive to growing quality wine grapes with vineyards planted 4,000 feet in elevation.

Occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day war, this area is a sub-region of Galilee where 38 percent of Israel’s vineyards are located.

American wine consumers should be comfortable tasting Israeli wines since they place somewhere between California and French wines in style.

We tasted a number of Israeli wines recently and selected four that we highly recommend.

The Gilgal, Mt. Hermon and Yarden wines are part of the Golan Heights Winery family, while the Galil Mountain wine is a partnership with the Golan Heights Winery.

  • Gilgal Syrah Rosé Golan Heights 2016 ($16). This syrah rosé features a dollop of viognier and displays a bold strawberry color. Delicious strawberry, raspberry and cherry notes in a medium bodied frame make this a very easy to drink rosé.

  • Mount Hermon Indigo Galilee 2016 ($14). A pleasant red wine blend of cabernet sauvignon and syrah. Easy drinking with a soft impression in the mouth featuring plum and cherry notes.

  • Galil Mountain ELA Upper Galilee 2014 ($22). A blend of mostly barbera and syrah with a dash of petite verdot, and grenache. Notable acidity from the barbera gives this red blend a nice liveliness that is refreshing. One year of French oak aging. Medium bodied with cherry and raspberry elements. Delicious!

  • Yarden Merlot Galilee Odem Vineyard 2014 ($110). This organic 100 percent merlot spent 14 months in French oak. This is a world-class wine that rivals some of the finest from Napa Valley. Still young even after seven years, this bold wine displayed plum, cherry and cedar notes in a very elegant frame.

 

New wines from Georges Duboeuf

(October 15, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

 It won’t be long before we hear more about beaujolais. November is the time when producers begin to release their nouveau -- wines made from gamay grapes fermented for just a few weeks before they are released. The symbolic race to be the first producer to release the new vintage began in the 1970s. However,  those who ignore the rush to buy the first beaujolais are in store for some magnificent cru wines named after the region’s picturesque villages.

Georges Duboeuf, affectionately known as the “King of Beaujolais,” is credited with establishing the popularity of nouveau beaujolais. He now distributes his wines to more than 80 countries.

These well-priced wines are a delightful transition to cooler weather and have proven to be a great quaffing wine. But their versatility also gives them a wide range of foods to complement -- turkey, chicken, pasta, burgers, pizza and the like.

Historically, Duboeuf is known for his wines from the Maconnais region of Southern Burgundy. A proliferation of attractive flower labels on his bottles has helped to popularize a plethora of moderately priced wines. But i                             n a departure from his focus on the Burgundy region, Duboeuf has expanded a negociant effort in the Pays d’Oc region.

We tasted these new value-priced wines with Romain Teyteau, Duboeuf’s export director in the United States.

We particularly liked two of the varietals that clearly have the American consumer written all over them.

The Georges Duboeuf Chardonnay Pays d’Oc 2017 ($12) displayed ripe peach and citrus fruit, and an eyes-closed experience that shouted California chardonnay.

The Georges Duboeuf Pinot Noir Pays d’Oc 2107 ($12) was a very good pinot noir displaying new world flavors of bright cherry and strawberry notes with a hint of spice.

Duboeuf produces wines from all 10 Beaujolais crus in addition to beaujolais and beaujolais-villages.

Duboeuf tinkers with stylistic blends of their beaujolais-villages to cater to certain markets. According to Teyteau, the U.S. market receives a bolder, more tannic version while the Japanese enjoy a slightly lighter, less aggressive version.

Tasting some of the new crop of recently released Duboeuf wines impressed us with the amazing drinkability of the wines and the subtle but detectable differences between he different appellations.

Duboeuf markets two distinct lines of beaujolais -- the wildly popular “flower label” and several bottlings of estate bottlings from several Beaujolais crus.

Following are our favorites:

·         Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais-Villages Flower Label 2016 ($13). This wine definitely benefits from a slight chill as we found with all of the beaujolais that we tasted. Very refreshing with lively cherry and berry elements good structure and bright acidity. A terrific value!

·         Georges Duboeuf  Saint-Amour Flower Label 2016 ($20). St. Amour is the northern-most appellation in Beaujolais, and this “wine of love” is released earlier than other crus to take advantage of Valentine’s Day. True to St Amour’s reputation for serious wines, this example exhibits ample, ripe cherry fruit and a hint of iron. It could benefit from a few years in the bottle.

·         Georges Duboeuf Morgon Flower Label 2016 ($20). This Morgon is much more approachable than the St. Amour and is showing well now. Morgon, located in the center of Beaujolais, is known for powerful wines but this cherry-driven example shows a gentler side. One of our favorites of this tasting.

·         Jean Ernest Descombes Morgon 2016 ($22). This wine is bottled for Georges Duboeuf. The estate quality of the wine shows through with a mouth-filling mélange of raspberries and cherries with a bit of spice. Strong structure with perfecly balanced acidity to the ripe fruit. Delicious!

·         Chateau des Capitans Julienas 2015 ($22). Fermentation was a mix of traditional carbonic maceration and some classic yeast fermentation. The result is an expression of deep, macerated cherries with some black pepper notes. It is showing well now but could stand several years in the bottle.

MERLOT

October has been declared “international merlot month” for no other reason than to sell more merlot. Drinking it is optional. If you wish to exercise your options, here are a couple to try:

·         Markham Vineyards Merlot 2015 ($27). Bright cherry fruit flavors with a dose of vanilla and long finish. It is blended with cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah.

·         Mt. Brave Mt. Veeder Merlot 2015 ($80). The merlots from mountain-grown grapes are the best, as this one from atop Napa Valley’s Mt. Veeder will attest.  Because of the elevation and rocky slopes, there is a lot of labor and care devoted to this wine. Plum, blueberry and blackberry flavors laced with mocha highlight this outstanding merlot.

·         Duckhorn Three Palms Vineyard Merlot 2015 ($98). One of the most legendary and award-winning merlots from Napa Valley, the Duckhorn is a monster of a wine with fresh cranberry, cedar and blueberry aromas chased by plum, cherry and mineral flavors.  However sturdy its structure, the silky tannins make it a pleasure to drink now.

·         Columbia Winery Columbia Valley Merlot 2015 ($16). From Washington state, this medium-body merlot is blended with a little malbec and syrah to broaden its profile. Dark cherry flavors with hints of spice and vanilla.

·         Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot 2015 ($12). From a producer who is synonymous with value, this wine has copious cherry and dark berry flavors.

·         Franciscan Merlot 2015 ($21).  Blackberry and cherry notes with hints of oak-infused vanilla and spice. Rich texture and forward fruit make it a delicious wine for all occasions.

Sicily turning a corner in wine

(October 8, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

If there ever was an unofficial ambassador for Sicilian wines, he is Corrado Maurigi. Although he is the brand manager of just Tenuta Regaleali, Corrado is a booster for all Sicilian wines. However short in stature, he stands tall in waxing enthusiasm for the underrated wines of this Mediterranean island. He talks about the beautiful hills and mountains, the coast and an island that is more like a mini-continent than an extension of Italy. He inspires you to travel to Sicily and experience the vineyards first-hand.

 Corrado Maurigi

Corrado Maurigi

Since Roman times, vineyards have flourished on Sicily. It has a perfect climate with cooling offshore winds, lots of sun and just the right amount of rain. Its hills and mountains provide a variety of micro-climates and the soil ranges from limestone to clay. The variety of wines has grown as grape growers adjust to changing pockets of terroir and weather.

We met up with Corrado for an Italian lunch where he poured Tenuta Regaleali’s most prestigious wines. Some of them were made from native grapes, but one was made from traditional cabernet sauvignon. The introduction of international grape varieties has brought world attention to this otherwise forgotten region.

Quality-minded winemakers here have been fighting an uphill battle to overcome Sicily’s reputation for marsala and sweet muscats. Up until the late 1980s, most of Sicily’s grape production was sold off as bulk wines. Older generations of winemakers were more interested in quantity than establishing Sicily as a premier wine-growing region.

Not so today. A younger generation of winemakers are leading a new frontier that includes international grape varieties and modern wine-making techniques. Siciily is still digging its way out of a scarred reputation, but clearly the wines we’ve tasted from this property show no convincing is necessary.

Corrado says to build the brand and equate his country’s wines with those of France, “we always need to be honest and go deep in the vineyards to find quality.”

Regaleali is just one of several properties owned by Tasca d’Almerita. While Regaleali is located near the center of the island, there are other family vineyards in Etna and Salina.

Tenuta Regaleali was one of the earliest producers to focus on improvement. It was the first to introduce chardonnay, for instance. It emphasized low yield in the vineyards and paid particular attention to grape variety. Winemakers are still experimenting with different clones and yeasts. Most recently, it is focused on sustainable farming practices.

Regaleali’s grapes benefit from the clay soil and an elevation that ranges between 1,500 feet to 2,600 feet. The white wines, in particular, reveal the freshness and bright acidity that comes from higher elevations. Grapes grown at these heights need longer ripening times and aren’t harvested until October. Day and night temperatures vacillate by 22 degrees, which means the grapes enjoy the blazing sun during the day but cool off at night.  The hot sirocco wind keeps mold-producing moisture off the grapes at the most important times.

The indigenous nero d’avola is Siciily’s most prestigious red grape variety, but not the only one used to make great wines. We have been impressed with many grillos and, most recently, an exuberant perricone made by Regaleali. Those looking for something different in wine need to look no further.

·         Tenuta Regaleali Catarratto 2017 ($20). Corrado says the “strong skin” of catarratto grapes provides good acidity that makes this white wine so refreshing. Made only in stainless-steel tanks, it has grapefruit and citrus flavors.

·         Tenuta Regaleali Vigna San Francesco Chardonnay 2015 ($70). The first to produce chardonnay in Sicily, Regaleali has one of the most unusual chardonnays we’ve tasted. The limestone soil, the climate and the limited exposure to oak provide character and depth, but balance too. But at this price, a Sicilian chardonnay is a hard sell.

·         Tenuta Regaleali Perricone 2016 ($20). An old grape nicknamed “Guarnaccio” in 1735, perricone is just sheer fun to drink. Medium in body, it has deep color, bright red fruit flavors and a dash of spice. It is Sicily’s version of pinot noir – a versatile wine that would do well with pizza or pasta.  Although enjoyable now, this wine could age for 3-5 years.

·         Tenuta Regaleali Vigna San Francesco Cabernet Sauvignon ($70). It would be an understatement to say that we were shocked that a cabernet sauvignon this good could from a country hardly known for its international grape varieties. Corrado attributes its rich, complex quality to the clay soil and the “best vintage in the last 11 years.” The wine spends 18 months in new oak and more than 18 months in the bottle before it is released in small quantities. The first release was in 1989. Made from grapes grown more than 1,500-feet in elevation, this cab doesn’t have the harsh tannins of, say, a mountain-grown wine from California. It is an iron fist in a velvet glove: ripe and hedonistic with soft tannins but hinting of longevity.

·         Tenuta Regaleali Rosso del Conte 2012 ($70).  Made only in good vintages, this revered flagship wine abounds in complexity and depth.  Perricone provides color and structure to the nero d’avola portion that makes up 62 percent of this blend. Like the chardonnay, the wine spends 18 months in large oak barrels and even longer in the bottle before it is released. Blackberries, cherries and herbs mingle with vanilla, tobacco and a dash of licorice.

Jammy wines: hate ‘em or drink ‘em

(October 1, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

Far be it from us to tell you what you should like in wine. We may be able to tell you what is a good wine – but we can’t determine what is a good wine to you. We can tell you, for instance, many cheap, jammy and sweet wines are not good wines. But, if you like them, who are we to say you shouldn’t?

So, call us frustrated that these extracted wines are flooding the market and attracting consumers who haven’t the desire to ponder something more balanced.  While serious winemakers have been refining  their wines for centuries, others have come along to mask defects with a load of sugar.

We get it. There are no rules, right?

"Once you ripen wine to almost a raisin quality, you lose a little varietal character, especially with cabernet sauvignon," said Jay Turnipseed winemaker at the Rutherford Wine Company. 

He said an over-extracted cabernet loses its red currant flavors, picks up more dark cherry and plum character and sheds some the tannins that give it ageability.

He doesn't take issue with producers who make these riper wines if it's appropriate for their business. While some winemakers base their reputation on complex and age-worthy cabernet sauvignon, others look for fast sales from ripe, sweet zinfandel blends.

If you like your red wine fruity and forward, here are some to discover:

·         Apothic Brew ($16).  Millennials apparently love cold coffee, so here comes E&J Gallo to combine two passions with their latest member of the popular Apothic wines. A variety of red grape varieties are infused with cold brew coffee to make up a sweet, ripe blend that has chocolate and coffee flavors. Do you drink it for breakfast? Robert Mondavi was known to add wine to his morning joe.

·         Gnarly Head 1924 Double Black Cabernet Sauvignon ($15). Ripe, copious blackberry jam flavors. Gnarly Head's Old Vine Zinfandel ($15) is similarly jammy, although the producer likes to call the flavors "bold." It's over the top but perfect with sauce-ladened ribs and chicken.

·         Big Smooth Old Vine Zinfandel 2015 ($15).  It's smooth all right. The Lodi fruit provides plenty of sugar, some of which has been fermented into alcohol, and oodles of lush plum flavors.

FLORA SPRINGS

Family owned Flora Springs in Napa Valley is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and two new releases that we recently tasted are a fine tribute to this first-rate Napa winery.

The Flora Springs Merlot Napa Valley 2015 ($30) combines the elegance of a well-made merlot with the bold fruit and style that is typical of Napa Valley wines. This 100 percent merlot offers a classic merlot cherry nose and a hint of mocha. Ready to drink tonight and offered at a great price.

Since October is Merlot Month, give Flora Springs a try.

We also enjoyed the Flora Springs Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2015 ($50). 100 percent cabernet sauvignon this well-built cabernet sauvignon is a bold mélange of black cherry and cassis in an elegant oak frame. Very well balanced and accessible now this wine is made to match with grilled steak.

Enough with the rules

(September 17, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR            

Look at any wine book and you’re likely to find more rules there than you did in grade school. No running in the hallways, white wine with fish, no chewing gum in class, don’t open that bottle for 10 years. Blah, blah, blah…

Rules are made to be broken.

We laugh whenever we find a recommendation beneath a recipe. Suggesting a chardonnay is appreciated, but really do we need to scour stores for a 2016 Far Niente chardonnay? OK, may an oaky chardonnay would be appreciated advice too, but for heaven’s sake there is more than one chardonnay that would work well with your Dover sole.

As our education into wine expanded over the years, we developed a common-sense approach to applying well-document rules etched in scholarly wine tomes. We don’t put ice cubes in our white wines because they dilute the flavors, but we’ll chill red wine. If you think of rules as guidelines, they make more sense. A complex, full-body red wine is great with beef, but that doesn’t mean you can’t serve an oaky chardonnay to complement the bearnaise sauce or a zinfandel to accompany a tomato sauce. 

We’ve assembled six rules we love to break:

·         MEAT/RED WINE and FISH/WHITE WINE. Arghhhh, nothing annoys us more than this ridiculous axiom. Texture is the most critical element to consider when matching food and wine. Tuna is a dense fish that does well with a Cotes-du-Rhone or a Spanish garnacha. Salmon? Serve us pinot noir any day. Again, match texture and body of wine to the food and the sauce.  Or just drink whatever you like.

·         LET AN OLD WINE BREATHE. Yeah, well sometimes we just didn’t think about this far enough in advance. Someone shows up for dinner and we’re gong to say, hold on, we need to wait two hours for the wine to breathe? Truth be told, many older wines will lose all their character and flavor after being exposed to air for 30 minutes. If anything, decant young wines. But this sounds like a rule. You do the breathing.

·         SMALL GLASSES FOR WHITE WINE. Decades ago Austrian stemware genius Georg Riedel proved to us that the shape of stemware makes a difference in how a wine smells and tastes. However, few hosts can have a set of stemware for every grape variety. Most of us have a set of small, narrow opening glasses for white and big bowls with tapered openings for red. Given such narrow choices, try using the red glass for full-bodied chardonnays. The wider the top, the more air a wine gets – and, more air, more aromas and flavors.

·         ROSÉ IS ONLY A SUMMER WINE. Indeed, the French sip their rosé by the carafe while vacationing along the Mediterranean in August. But, parlez-vous francais? Drink rosé whenever you want is our new motto. It is such a versatile wine that it goes with just about any fish, chicken, pasta,  pork, pizza, shrimp, scallops, cheese, hot dogs – even a bologna sandwich.  We pity the person who disses us for putting rosé on the dinner table.

·         DON’T BUY ANY WINE RATED BELOW 90. Don’t get us started on wine scores.  We admire Robert Parker Jr., who established the 100-point scale that put fear into French winemakers. Anything that he scores less than 90 struggles to sell. But what we all found over time is that Parker has a palate – very refined and very perceptive – that identifies the technical qualities of wine but not necessarily the shameless pleasure shared by commoners who like their sugar. You may like oaky chardonnays (he doesn’t) or medium body pinot noirs (he doesn’t).  However influenced we once were by scores and sommeliers, we now follow our own biases. Follow your palate.

·         ORDERING THE CHEAPEST WINE IN A RESTAURANT MAKES ME LOOK LIKE A SCROOGE. No, it makes you look brilliant, if the wine choice is good! A restaurant marks up a wine by 300 to 400 percent. Expensive wines are marked up less.  Here’s how we size up wine lists: if the best chardonnay available is Sonoma-Cutrer and the best red is Joel Gott merlot, buy just a glass of wine or order beer. We don’t expect a great wine list at a pizza parlor or some burger joint on the beach.  However, when confronted with an extensive wine list, we dig for the best buys. We are delighted when we find a Spanish grillo, a Greek assyrtiko or an understated Italian barbera. Don’t underestimate the value of an inexpensive, novel wine you’ve never tried. And here’s the last bit of advice: be wary of chiantis. There is so much Tuscan dreck on wine lists that we avoid anything we don’t recognize.

Spanish discoveries; sparkling roses

(August 29, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

When it comes to old world countries, Spain is an easy fit. Grapes have been growing on the Iberian Peninsula since 4000 BC. However, Spain’s popularity got a late start in the wine market we know today.  

When Spain was building a reputation for its sherries and to some degree its riojas, France and Italy was focused on traditional grape varieties, such as caberent sauvignon, chardonnay, sangiovese and nebbiolo. But when the root louse phylloxera devastated most of the vineyards in France, Spanish wines – spared from the disease – got a foothold in the European wine market. Eventually, phylloxera spread to Spain in the early 1900s, but by then there were remedies to the disease. 

Couple disease with the domestic turmoil that came with a repressive government, the Spanish Civil War and World War II and the Spanish wine market was virtually frozen. It wasn't until the mid 1980s that domestic stability, economic freedom and government reform kindled the country's export market. 

Today, the shelves are exploding with great values from all over Spain with new regions and producers being discovered by consumers every day. And the Spanish wine market is much more than Rioja, one of the smallest areas by size yet the one most commonly known. Regions like Rias Baixas, Rueda, Priorat, Bierzo, Ribera del Duero, and Galicia are producing refreshing white wines and delicious, approachable reds. 

Eighty percent of Spain's wines come from 20 grape varieties, but these are varieties unique to Spain and not commonly known by most consumers. Tempraillo, garnacha (grenache), monastrell (mourvedre) are perhaps most well recognized. Cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay are becoming more common, but for us it's the indigenous grape varieties that intrigue us the most. 

We get giddy exploring albarino, mencia, verdejo and godello wines. These grapes have great acidity, citrus and stone fruit flavors with a consistent mineral note. They are great aperitifs in warm climates but also match everything from shrimp to curry. 

Several importers have made a name choosing the best wine producers and we have grown to depend on them. Eric Solomon, Jorge Ordonez and Steve Metzler have been amassing envious portfolios that represent the best Spain has to offer. Look for their names on the back of the bottles. 

Here are several recent discoveries: 

·       Burgans Albarino Rias Baixas 2016 ($13). This wine is part of a Martin Codax cooperative, not uncommon in Spain where small growers can't get their wines into the international pipeline without help. The Burgans albarino has ginger and melon aromas with tropical fruit and peach flavors.  

·       Argami Rueda Verdejo 2016 ($15). Medium body with melon aromas and notes of tangerine and citrus. Medium body. 

·       Bodegas Borsao Tres Picos Garnacha 2014 ($16). We've been drinking this wine for years and it never ceases to impress us.  From the Campo di Borja region, this delicious and surprisingly complex grenache has intense red fruit and floral aromas. Plum and blackberry flavors with a heavy dose of oak-infused vanilla and leather. 

·       Melis Priorat 2015 ($90). Priorat has a reputation for making some of the best wines in Spain and this wine shows why. It is a full-body blend of 60 percent grenache, 30 percent carignan and the rest made up of syrah and cabernet savignon. Very textured with layers of fruit ranging from blackberries to black cherries. Very floral aromas and long in the finish. It is a beautiful wine that can be aged for years but enjoyed on release.

·       Matsu El Recio 2015 ($22). Matsu's creative labels are photos of the people who work in the vineyards – very eye-catching. The wines are from the Toro region in western Spain. This El Recio, made entirely of old-vine tinta de toro grapes, has a round character with forward and ripe plum and blackberry fruit. Hints of oak-inspired vanilla and chocolate.

·       Bodega Classica Lopez de Haro Reserva 2013 ($16). Delicious and inexpensive, this Rioja blend of tempranillo, garnacha and graciano has a spicy aromas and dark fruit flavors with a hint of truffles.

SPARKLING ROSÉS

There is nothing like a sparkling rosé   to put some bubbles into your summer dining. Here are a few we recently tried:

·       Gustave Lorentz Cremant D’Alsace Rosé Brut ($33-35). A delightful sparkling wine from the Alsace region in France. Made from the pinot noir grape this wine offers a beautiful salmon color with strawberry and citrus notes and a lovely finishing creaminess. A real winner!   

·       Amelia Brut Rosé ($16). This is a new sparkling wine entry from Bordeaux, of all places. It shows us the growing popularity of everything rosé  . A blend of merlot and cabernet franc, it has strawberry and raspberry notes with a round texture.

·       Champagne Bruno Paillard Extra Brut Rosé ($70). Add some bubbles to rosé   and you've got a marriage made in heaven. Paillard is getting deserved acclaim from critics even though it wasn't founded until 1981 – recent for Champagne standards. This rosé  , a blend of 25 vintages dating back to 1985, is an astounding example of the finesse and elegance that comes from French champagne. Vibrant red berry and nectarine fruit, yeasty and cherry aromas, long finish.  It is mostly pinot noir.

·       J Brut Rosé ($45). The wine spends two years aging en tirage – the time when the yeast adds flavors after bottling but before release.  During this period, this wine developed apple, orange and raspberry notes with hints of almonds.

·       Laurent-Perrier Cuvee Rosé ($100). Laurent-Perrier redefines luxury with this exquisite, rich blend of 12 crus. Entirely from pinot noir grapes, it is left on the skins for 48 to 72 hours and aged in bottle for 5 years before release. Dark in color, it has raspberry aromas and lively red berry flavors.  The shape of the bottle, inspired by those used during the time of Henry IV, is as attractive as the wine.

·       Gloria Ferrer Brut Rosé ($29). With 60 percent of the wine pinot noir and the rest chardonnay, this sparkling rosé   is heavy on the palate.  Strawberry and cherry notes.

·       Moet Imperial Brut Rosé ($40). Seductive, medium body, bright strawberry and raspberry flavors.

Sauvignon blancs for summer drinking

(August 6, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR
With the hottest part of the summer season upon us, we find ourselves reaching for white wines with crisp acidity. Their cooling agreeability and refreshing nature take the sting out of the oppressive heat that drives us indoors.
Sauvignon blanc, in particular, has the acidity and stone-fruit character that marries so well with summer fare. Its herbal and grapefruit character make sauvignon blanc a great wine to serve with vegetable platters, spicy satays and cold pasta. 
Sauvignon blanc varies widely in style, according to the region in which its grapes are grown. Some of you are loyal to New Zealand’s assertive sauvignon blanc while others refuse to drink them. These wines have a pronounced grassy character with loads of grapefruit and acidity. In warmer climates, such as California, sauvignon blancs show more peach and Meyer lemon flavors. In cooler climates, such as Chile and France, the wines show more bell pepper, thyme, grass and mineral notes.
In the United States, the grape is often blended with semillon or a musque clone of sauvignon blanc to give the wine more dimension and smoothness. Rarely is sauvignon blanc fermented in oak barrels – when it is, you hardly recognize its naturally refreshing character.
Here are some of our recently favored sauvignon blancs:
•    Dutton Estate Kylie's Cuvee Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($25). Named after Joe and Tracy Dutton's middle daughter, this round and bold sauvignon blanc is a winner. We liked the balanced acidity that keeps the wine fresh but not tart. This comes as a result of four months of barrel fermentation, whole-cluster pressing and the musque clones that give sauvignon blanc a distinct flavor profile. 
•    Gamble Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($25). One of our perennial favorites, this complex wine utilizes four sauvignon blanc clones, including musque. The result is a broad array of citrus, apple, peach flavors with generous aromas, balanced acidity and a honey-like mouthfeel.
•    Acumen Napa Valley Mountainside Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($30). Acumen was spared from the wires that blazed up Soda Canyon Road. Good thing. This sauvignon blanc, picked before the fires began, blossoms with tangerine and pear aromas that mingle with varietal grapefruit and lemon flavors. Unlike most sauvignon blanc, it spends some time in oak barrels. 
•    Ladera Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($30). You can step up your game in sauvignon blanc with this delightfully complex version. Using grapes from the Oak Knoll district, it is rich with ripe tropical fruit flavors and generous floral and honeysuckle aromas. Sauvignon musque makes up 20 percent of the blend and provides a broader dimension to the wine. 
•    Duckhorn Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($30). Do you want to step up your sauvignon blanc game? This is it.  The 18 percent semillon in this wine provides melon and softness to sauvignon blanc's citrus and grapefruit notes. Complex with nice minerality. 
•    Bonterra Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($14). A great value, this wine made with organic grapes has crisp fruit character with notes of peach and lemongrass.
•    Sidebar Ritchie Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($34). Winemaker David Ramey has a pretty good $22 sauvignon blanc, but we loved the complexity in this single-vineyard version from 44-year-old vines. Using only native yeasts, concrete egg fermenters, and whole-cluster pressing, he is able to extract purity and a rich texture. Classic grapefruit flavors with the addition of mineral, fig and lime. 
•    Robert Mondavi Oakville Sauvignon Blanc 2015 ($40). The addition of semillon to this wine and its barrel aging on the lees for 9 months gives a rich and creamy texture as well as another layer of flavor. It stood out in a flight of California sauvignon blancs as different and wonderful. Peach and apricot flavors abound. 
•    Jayson Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($30). This is Pahlmeyer's first sauvignon blanc and it's a dandy. Varietal flavors of pineapple, grapefruit and white peach with crisp, balanced acidity and a long finish. 
•    Chalk Hill Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($33). Fermented in oak for seven months with no malolatic fermentation, this delicious wine has 11 percent sauvignon gris and 6 percent sauvignon musque to give it a broad character. Grapefruit and melon flavors with hints of apricot and mineral. 
•    Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($20). Another good value from New Zealand’s Marborough region, this wine has a grassy, grapefruit and citrus character.
•    Rutherford Ranch Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($16). We had the pleasure of tasting this wine with winemaker Jay Turnipseed. It is a clean, straight-forward sauvignon blanc with varietal character and no oak fermentation. Great as a summer sipper. 
•    Robert Mondavi Oakville Fume Blanc 2015 ($40). The 14 percent semillon in this sauvignon blanc adds a creamy texture to an otherwise brilliant wine with stone fruit flavors and hints of herbs and lime. 
•    NZ7 ($20). One of Dave Phinney's "Locations" wines, this version is pure New Zealand sauvignon blanc. His other wines – among them E5 (Spain), F5 (France) and WA5 (Washington) -- blend grapes across countries or states. For the price, you get a lot of flavor from the sauvignon blanc. Classic grapefruit and citrus flavors with a nod to the country's grassy and mineral influences. 
•    Catalina Sounds Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($16). Full body for a sauvignon blanc, this New Zealand wine has classic grapefruit and herbal notes with hints of lime and mineral. 
•    Saint Clair Family Estate Origin Series Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($28).  Using the top 10 percent grapes from a vineyard in the Wairau Valley of New Zealand, this family-owned winery has a hit. Crisp with pure fruit character, it has intense grapefruit, passion fruit and herbal flavors.
•    Davis Bynum Virginia’s Block Sauvignon Banc 2017 ($25). From the Russian River Valley, this gem has green apple and pineapple notes with a dash of peach and herbs. It is aged in barrel for 4 months.
•    Cuvaison Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($24). Pineapple, passion fruit and citrus notes make this a delightful quaff in the summer. 

Tyler Florence a non-stop cut-up

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

Tyler Florence faced a conga line of admirers, patiently signing autographs, making small talk and shaking a non-stop parade of sweaty hands. The affable Food Network showman had just finished a two-hour dinner demonstration for a throng of guests at his host’s restaurant, Cooper’s Hawk in Naples, FL.  But he was exhausted, having left his California home at 5 a.m. Two earlier flights were canceled by fog, but the cooking show veteran was determined to make good a promise. 

“In my entire career, I’ve never missed one,” he said proudly. 

Florence, still kicking like the Energizer Bunny, is indefatigable. Not only has he been on television since 1996 – surpassed in time only by Bobby Flay – but he has written 16 cookbooks, opened a bevy of restaurants, partnered with a number of entrepeneurs, and given himself an online presence to pull in younger foodies. And now he’s launching a string of new products from Florence Family Farms. 

At 47, most self-made stars like him would have burned out. Instead, Florence just finds another venture to launch. Tonight, it was a partnership he formed with Coopers Hawk, a string of novel restaurants invented by Tim McEnery, who was in the audience this night. 

Florence’s introduction to restaurants came at age 15 when he was “just a kid scrubbing lobster thermidor off trays” at a restaurant in his home town of Greenville, SC. In 2009, he opened his first restaurant. Today, the only restaurant still operating is Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco. 

But it wasn’t just food that got his interest at an early age. Florence would learn from the winemakers from California and France who would come to the restaurant to sell their wines. It wasn’t long before Florence was hooked. 

“It was time to itch my thing for wine,” he said. 

florence.jpg

As a lark, he blended a barrel of Lake County zinfandel in 2006 and produced 300 bottles that he gave as Christmas presents. He knew a writer at the Wine Spectator and dropped off two bottles just to get a candid opinion. He didn’t know that two bottles meant the wine would be officially judged by the magazine’s staff. It scored a 92. 

He said he knew then that wine would always be something he was doing for the rest of his life. And, it made sense. The sensory skills he gained as a chef applied to winemaking. 

He is not just a pretty face when it comes to wine. So many movie stars and well-heeled investors claim to know winemaking but really don’t. Florence effortlessly fielded questions about residual sugar, sur lies aging and balanced acidity.  

He is driven to make food-friendly wine for the masses – “back porch wines,” he calls them -- no matter what it takes to get there. He eschews boundaries and traditional blending, seeking to unlock the chains that restrict creativity. The Tyler Florence Sauvignon Blanc we tasted was true to the variety but with a smooth finish that contrasted sharply with many acidic sauvignon blancs from New Zealand and California. 

McEnery applauded Tyler Florence Wines’ appeal to the masses, which is quite similar to what his Cooper’s Hawk restaurants are doing. This is Florence’s second year with the restaurant chain. Now with 31 restaurants in the country – including one in Annapolis – and 5 more opening soon, Cooper’s Hawk is a brilliant concept. It owns no vineyards, but instead ships juice from California to Illinois for fermenting and bottling. No other brand is sold in the restaurants. 

Cooper’s Hawk has developed a wine club that now numbers more than 300,000. That makes it the largest wine club in the country – and as such commands a lot of market power that the likes of Florence are eager to tap into. 

McEnery had a devil of a time getting an audience with Frances Ford Coppola, but eventually he signed on to colloborate with Cooper’s Hawk’s winemaker to produce 14,000 cases in a one-time-only production. It sold out in 79 days. By selling directly to Coopers Hawk, a producer can eliminate the wholesaler and retailer, and make a lot of money in very short time.  

Last year Cooper’s Hawk hired Emily Wines, one of only 149 master sommeliers in the Americas.  Although they have a “lux” level of higher-priced wines, they want to move even higher with more expensive wines.  

 

Is Lodi finally getting its break?

(July 9, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

In the three decades of writing about wine, we probably mentioned California's Lodi region maybe a few times and always in context with zinfandel. Although the region has had vineyards since the mid 19th century and has been an American Viticultural Area since 1986, it wallowed in a dismal reputation ascribed to jug wines, Tokay and dessert swill. What quality grapes it produced – and there were a lot – were blended into Napa and Sonoma county wines.

Today, Lodi – a vast region of Central Valley east of San Francisco – is considered an "emerging wine-growing region." It's emerging from a history of making substandard wines – an uphill battle it is still waging.

"I say it's not undiscovered, but unappreciated," said Melissa Phillips, vice-president of sales and marketing of Michael David Winery. She is the sixth generation Phillips involved in wine-making in Lodi. "We're going up against some of our history of producing grapes that have gone into bulk wine. Some of the younger regions don't have that bad rap to go up against."

Michael David produces Freakshow, 7 Deadly Zins, Earthquake and Inkblot. Freakshow and its wild label has been made only a handful of years but already its cabernet sauvignon is number four in national sales in the $15-20 category.

Although Michael David is a family wine, even its annual production of a million cases pales in comparison to wine giants Gallo, Constellation, Trinchero and Delicato who own more than half of Lodi's grape crop.

So, how did Lodi turn a corner?

First, the price of vineyards has driven producers out of prime regions, such as Napa and Sonoma counties.  Instead of paying nearly $200,000 an acre in Napa Valley, Phillips says an acre in Lodi can be bought for $20,000 to $30,000 an acre for bare ground.

Second, some well-respected wine producers have started to make premium wine in Lodi. Wine producers such as Tegan Passalacqua, Morgan Twain-Peterson and Abe Schoener are getting a lot of attention for their exclusive, unique wines. The result is much the same as what happened in Oregon when French burgundy producers moved in.

"In the last 15 years," said Phillips, "Lodi has gone from 7 or 8 wineries to upwards of 70."

Many will argue that Lodi's interior location is too hot to grow cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir.  Indeed, daytime temperatures can reach 100 degrees, but the Mediterranean climate brings cool nights that Phillips said can get down to 60 degrees.  She said the challenge is to manage vigorous growth that comes naturally in warmer climates. "But getting sugars up is not a problem and we have no freezing temperatures. You have to work on it, but still there are a lot of positives," Phillips said.

Strangely, there seems to be tremendous growth in international grape varietals, such as albarino, verdelho, vermentino, cinsault, carignane and grenache.  Perhaps winemakers here are still experimenting to see what grows best here.

Still, Lodi's strength is clearly its zinfandel. Old vines, loam soils, a long history of making this wine and a warm climate has produced some complex zinfandel. Lodi produces more than 40 percent of California's premium zinfandel.

Generally, Lodi red wines are loaded with jammy, extracted fruit character. Here are some interesting Lodi wines to discover:

·         Lorenza Rosé 2017 ($20). The mother-daughter team of Melinda Kearney and Michele Ouellet make nothing but rosé from Rhone-style grape varieties grown on old vines in Lodi. Each of the four grape varieties are picked at different times to ensure proper ripeness. It is as close to perfection that you'll find on the market today. Dry, fresh acidity, floral aromas and peach/citrus flavors with a mineral finish.

·         Four Virtues Bourbon Barrel Zinfandel 2016 ($25). Winemaker Jay Turnipseed toasts his own bourbon barrels to limit exposure to their aggressive influence. Still, this fruit-driven wine has plenty of oak-influenced vanilla and caramel flavors. Rich, red fruit flavors attack the palate.

·         LangeTwins Sangiovese Rosé 2017.  Using a grape indigenous to Tuscany, this producer has developed a round and fruit-forward rosé with watermelon and strawberry notes.

·         The Seven Deadly Zins 2015 ($16). Always a winner year to year, this old-vine zinfandel from Lodi has layered red berry flavors with oak-inspired hints of vanilla, caramel and spice. Smooth and delicious.

·         Gnarly Head Old Vine Zinfandel 2015 ($15). From the hot Lodi region, this wine has jammy blackberry flavors with a hint of chocolate.

·         Freakshow Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($20). A good deal at this price, this cabernet sauvignon has forward and ripe dark fruit flavors, soft tannins and oak-inspired hints of caramel, cinnamon and vanilla.

·         Predator Six Spot Red Blend 2015 ($16). Think raspberry jam and add some oak-inspired caramel and spice. This would make a good wine for the barbecued ribs.

·         Plungerhead Unoaked Chardonnay 2016 ($14). The absence of oak in this wine provides a clean and pure fruit character with tropical fruit aromas and apple, lime flavors.

Evenstads buy Burgundy house

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

Grace Evenstad tells of the time it registered with her that there was more than an ocean separating the Willamette Valley from Burgundy. 

She and her husband, Ken, own and operate Domaine Serene in the Willamette Valley and in 2015 they pursued their dream of making pinot noir in Burgundy by buying a 15th century chateau in Santenay. Grace was showing a French guest around Domaine Serene's vineyards when the guest asked, "Which rows are yours?" 

Inwardly, she laughed. In the U.S. an owner possesses all the vineyards. But in Burgundy a vineyard often has multiple owners, a confusing situation rooted in more than a century of history.  Clos Vougeot's 123 acres, for instance, are divided into 100 plots with 80 owners.  The Evenstads own all of their estate vineyards. In France, their 25 acres are in 20 parcels in 7 villages. 

The Evenstads are realizing greater differences between French and American winemaking as they settle into Chateau de la Crée, an estate once owned by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor to Phillipe the Good and founder of the Hospices de Beaune. One doesn't go into such a hallowed chateau without respect for history – and for the French who are loathe to sell property to Americans. They rejected Robert Mondavi's attempt to plant vineyards in the Languedoc many years ago.  

The Evanstads are the first Oregon wine producers to buy vineyards in Burgundy. Domaine Serene's president Ryan Harris said they made the deal in a few months, thanks to a bond between the Evenstads and the sellers, plus a lot of courting of neighbors and local officials. And, he said, "We threw a lot of parties." 

Domaine Serene produces great pinot noir and chardonnay year after year. But as much as they know how to make world-class wine, they were not prepared for what they found at Chateau de la Crée. 

Grace Evenstad says of the employees, "Everyone is now gone."  

She also said she was surprised by the lack of "science" being used at the winery and in the vineyards.  Although the owners said the vineyards were bio-dynamically farmed, it is unclear what that means in France. She said vineyards lacked adequate spacing between rows; pesticides and other chemicals from neighboring vineyards were wafting onto those of Chateau de la Crée. 

 "Things were being done by tradition," Evenstad said. 

She was quick to distance Domaine Serene from the pinot noirs being poured at a tasting we recently attended. "They aren't ours," she warned, less someone come away with an unfavorable impression of their new venture. "You will see a difference in the 2015s and beyond." 

ndeed, they didn't hold a candle to Domaine Serene's heralded Evenstad reserve pinot noir, although perhaps that was the soil and climate difference between old and new world wines. We actually enjoyed the earthy character of the 2013 Chateau de la Crée Clos de la Confrerie Monopole Santenay and the 2013 Chateau de la Crée Premier Cru Santenay Beaurepaire. There was little price difference between the wines. 

Up until now the ownership exchanges between France and the United States has been pretty much one sided. Moet Chandon was among the first to launch a sparkling wine company in California in 1973. Champagne makers Taittinger and Roederer soon followed. Then came Clos du Val, Dominus, Opus One (a partnership of Mondavi and Baroness Philippine de Rothschild). In Oregon, Robert Drouhin of Burgundy's Maison Joseph Drouhin raised eyebrows -- and the region's prestige -- when he launched Domaine Drouhin in Oregon's Willamette Valley.  

Whether the Evenstads are taking the French too much for granted remains to be seen. The French can be very temperamental and don't readily accept the notion that Americans can make better wine on their turf. Is a better pinot, for instance, defined by American producers as one with more extracted fruit, higher alcohol and a bold style?  

Bon chance, Ken and Grace. 

 

Symington defends image of port

(June 16, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

It appears that good to excellent vintages of wines are coming from the winemaking capitals of the world at a more frequent rate.

According to the Wine Spectator's vintage chart, only two of Left Bank Bordeaux and only one of the Right Bank vintages since 2009 have not earned at least a 90-point score.  In California’s Napa Valley only the rainy 2011 vintage negated a 90-plus winning streak since 2004.

We were eager, then,  to participate in a New York tasting of 2016 vintage ports. The general declaration was the first since the last declared vintage in 2011. What was so special about these ports?

We met with Rupert Symington of Symington family estates at a New York tasting to discuss the general state of the port industry, and more specifically to get his take on the soon-to-be-released 2016 vintage ports.  Symington Family Estates are the leading land owners in the Douro Valley, owners some of the most prestigious port brands including Graham’s, Dow’s Cockburn and Warre’s.

Port's image is often that of a man sitting alone in front of a blazing fire clutching a glass of port. But Symington scoffed at the image. He argued that is not how port in general or Symington in particular portray port's image.

 “A glass of port in company” or "the wine of after-dinner bonding" is Symington’s ideal setting for port consumption, eschewing modern trends such as including port in cocktails.

“We have been accused of not changing, and appearing stodgy, and we do it very well,” Symington said.

Port production remains largely unchanged. However, in a nod to modernity, Graham’s introduced in 2000 robotic lagar-treading machines that are utilized along with traditional foot-treading methods.

One other notable change is a distinct movement to early drinking vintage ports. Symington said “parcel picking” as grapes become fully mature has replaced the past practice of mass picking.                                 

The 2016 vintage will be released in about 6 months. In a departure of past practices 30 percent of the 2016 vintage will be held for later release.

A number of the 2016 vintages are delightful now.                                                                                               Following are our favorites of the ports we tasted. Prices for the 2016 ports were not available.

·         Cockburn’s 2016. Only 5 percent of Cockburn’s production was used in the vintage port. Ripe bing cherry and plum notes with a hint of ginger. Already open for business and drinking well.

·         Croft 2016. Another early drinking candidate harvested from a 90-year-old vineyard planted as a field blend. Ripe berry fruit with a tropical fruit nose of citrus and grapefruit rind.

·         Dow’s 2016. Dominated by the touriga nacional grape, this is a brooding monster that is very dark and dense with some plum notes. Be patient with this classic port.

·         Quinta Do Noval Nacional 2016. A distinctive streak of licorice with ripe plums and cherries define this early drinking port. Only 170 cases were made of this wine which is harvested from a 4-acre vineyard.

·         Quinta Da Romaneira 2016. Owned by Quinta Do Noval, this single-vineyard port offered complex notes of berries, rhubarb and herbs and is open now.

·         Quinta Do Vesuvio 2016. A hint of licorice along with ripe berry and cherry notes define this sweet rich port that is already drinking well.  

·         Taylor Fladgate 2016. Bright raspberry and plum notes are accented with a note of woodsy herbs. Needs a moderate amount of time (at least 5 years) to fully open.

CLIMAX MOONSHINE

If you have ever seen the Discovery Channel’s show "Moonshiners," then you probably have at least a passing image of Tim Smith. Usually clad in denim overalls sans shirt, Tim portrays an illegal moonshiner turned legal, tax-paying moonshine maker often with his friend Tickle.

"Moonshiners" follows a cast of countrified characters, some literally toothless, surreptitiously crafting moonshine in the hills and hollows of Virginia and other states. The show claims nothing illegal was done during the filming of the illegal whiskey-making episodes, so it takes a leap of faith to tune in. The one thing that is definitely real about "Moonshiners" is that Smith really does make a moonshine spirit called Climax Moonshine. It is made at two legal and licensed distilleries in Culpeper, Va., and Ashville, NC.

Smith makes three different spirit products, all named after his hometown of Climax, Va.: Climax Moonshine, Climax Wood-Fired Whiskey, and Climax Fire No.32. All use the original moonshine formula based on a mash bill of corn, barley and rye, and all the grains are grown on his own farm. According to Tim, this is also the original mash bill from his illegal moonshining days of yore.

Smith, an Army veteran and chief of the Climax Volunteer Fire Department, started in the moonshine business with his father and told us that he has been “making moonshine for 5 years legally, and 40 years illegally.” He started the legal moonshine business after his father -- who described legal whiskey making as “sidin' with the law” -- died.

 Smith’s moonshine crushes the image of moonshine being a skull-splitting, fiery potion that can strip paint. The Climax Moonshine Original Recipe ($29-750ml) is 90 proof and drinks very smooth and clean with hints of vanilla on the palate. Tim says the rich smoothness and the vanilla notes come from the corn used in the mash bill.

The Original Recipe drinks well neat or as a substitute in cocktail for rum or vodka.

Tim also makes a wood-aged whiskey, Climax Whiskey Wood Fired ($29-750ml) with an appealing amber hue and interesting woodsy flavor. According to Tim, the whiskey is only aged for 24 hours using a proprietary process involving oak and maple wood chips. The base for this whiskey is the original moonshine recipe. It is great by itself or as a substitute for bourbon or whiskey in cocktails.

Tim’s answer to the popular Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey is Climax Fire No. 32 Cinnamon Spice. Tim said his Climax No. 32 is a full 90 proof compared to Fireball’s 66 proof while both products present a full blast of sweetened cinnamon flavor. Smith uses “Big Red” chewing gum concentrate to flavor his clear sprit, and a $1 donation per case are donated to charitable firefighter causes.

 

Bourbon barrel wines the new rage

(June 4, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

About the time you think you finally grasp how wine is being made, someone nudges aside a tradition to redefine tradition.  In the 1970s Italian wine producers blended indigenous grapes with French varietals. Then, wine guru Dave Phinney blended grapes across an entire country.  Heresy! Other producers oxidized wines or made them orange. Whaaat? Then, someone made their wines blue. Is this the new world of wine?

Wine-making conventions are being destroyed. So maybe it isn't revolutionary that several California producers are making wines in bourbon barrels -- and whiskey barrels and tequila barrels. Are coffee pots next? Oh, wait, that's been done too -- Gallo adds coffee to their Apothic Brew -- do you drink it with your cereal?

Oak aging wine is not new, but charring a bourbon or whiskey barrel takes oak to another level. Many winemakers are using old bourbon barrels and charring them, which means they literally light a fire inside of the barrel. Others are less aggressive and just toast the inside of a new or old barrel. Either way, the winemakers believe a bourbon barrel adds something new.

The first to try bourbon barrels was Bob Blue of Fetzer who in 2014 released his first 1000 Stories Zinfandel. It sold well and other producers followed – Rutherford Wine Company, Stave & Steel, Robert Mondavi and Apothic.

What's the advantage of bourbon barrels?

The cost of a bourbon barrel is significantly less than a $1,200 French oak barrel, for one thing. More than price, a plain-old French oak barrel provides caramel, vanilla and spice to the flavor profile, but bourbon barrels can add maple, marsh mellow and even whisky lactone. Some winemakers also think that bourbon barrels add a rounder texture to red wine.

Generally, wine is put in bourbon barrels for only a few months to limit the vanilla and caramel flavors. Any exposure longer than that creates a Frankenstein wine.

After tasting a handful of bourbon-barrel wines, we would be hard pressed to pick them out among wines aged in traditional oak barrels. Zinfandel, in particular, is more influenced by the ripeness of the grapes, it's alcohol content, residual sugar and soil. Perhaps the popularity of bourbon-barrel-aged wines is due to good marketing, especially among male bourbon drinkers.

"Our zinfandel has a more intense structure and is more fruit-driven than other wines aged in bourbon barrels," says Jay Turnipseed, winemaker for Rutherford Wine Company's Four Virtues zinfandel. He uses new bourbon barrels for a few months and only for about 40 percent of the wine. By toasting and not charring the barrels he limits the marsh mellow and whisky lactone flavors.

Here are some of wines aged in bourbon and tequila barrels that we have tasted:

·         Four Virtues Bourbon Barrel Zinfandel 2016 ($17). From Lodi, this smooth zinfandel is aged in French oak and finished in aggressively toasted new bourbon barrels. The oak adds a lot of caramel and vanilla notes to ripe raspberry and blackberry flavors.  About 2 percent California port is blended in the wine to add some sweetness and raisin quality. Winemaker Jay Turnipseed feels the use of new bourbon barrels gives him more control of the wood's influences.

·         Stave & Steel Bourbon Barrel Aged Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($21). Using old bourbon barrels that have been toasted, charred and soaked in Kentucky bourbon for four months, this unique cabernet has a heavy dose of vanilla and spicy oak character but is backed by complex Central Coast fruit. Cherry and plum flavors abound.

·         1000 Stories Batch 41 Zinfandel 2016 ($19). Using grapes from Mendocino, Lodi and Lake County, Fetzer winemaker Bob Blue ages the wine in traditional American and French oak barrels before introducing new bourbon barrels.  We picked up a tinge of smoke in the aroma and the classic vanilla and caramel flavors from the oak. Otherwise, the zinfandel is loaded with jammy plum and blackberry fruit and is spiked with spice, black pepper and dried sage. 

·         Cooper & Thief Cellarmasters Sauvignon Blanc ($30). Aged for three months in former tequila barrels, this wine shocks the palate because it is so unique. You will either love it or hate it. There is a heavy dose of vanilla to complement orange, tangerine and melon notes.  It is exceedingly rich in texture, due in part to the barrels but also to the French colombard and semillon grapes that are in the blend.

·         Apothic Inferno 2015 ($17). Aged in charred white oak whisky barrels for two months, this is a blend of grapes that, classic to the brand, is sweet with oak-inspired flavors of maple, caramel and spice.

 

Roses flooding the market

(May 28, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

Rosé has never had much of a chance to gain respect in this country, thanks to its unfair association with the sweet white zinfandels that were all the rage in the 1980s. But today this neglected segment of the wine industry has tremendous respect for what it is – a terrific, unassuming wine for summer sipping and in many cases a versatile wine that goes well with summer food.

Rosé's growing popularity, however, comes with growing pains. Although it has grown 53 percent in sales, it still represents a small portion of total wine sold in the U.S. But it's discovery has encouraged wine producers to get into the market even though for most of them it is an after-thought. Contrarily, in southern France many producers make nothing but rosé – and it's often better and cheaper. Producers late to the game have a hard time getting a foothold in the market.

We have seen more rosés on the market than ever this year. And, they are coming from grape varieties not often associated with rosé. Historically, the grapes used for the best rosé  are grenache, syrah, cinsault and mourvedre. However, rosés made from malbec, tempranillo and pinot noir have proven to be worthy. Not so some of the rosés we have tasted from grapes like pinot gris and cabernet sauvignon.

The array of grape varieties has muddied rosé's definition, but so has the array of processes used to make it.  The most direct way is to allow the juice to remain in contact with the skins of red grapes,  although some producers lengthen the exposure and produce a hideous rosé  that is a much darker red than the visually appealing salmon- or orange-colored French rosés.

An uncommon method is to blend the juice with some red wine. The more popular third method is called saignee, or "bleeding" off some of the red wine after the grapes have been in contact with the skins. This process is superior because it usually produces rosés that are more complex and bolder in style.

So, consumers have much to consider when looking for a rosé: what grape varieties were used? What process was used? Is the producer focused on rosé or is it a marketing whim?

We like many of the rosés from southern France because they have balance and complexity. However, this year we have been flooded with samples of dreadful versions from southern France. On the other hand, we have found many new entries from the West Coast.

Here are our top 10 rosés from each region. We have listed more rosés we like on our web site, MoreAboutWine.com.

FRANCE

·         E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone Rosé  2017 ($15). A perennial favorite of ours, the consistently good Guigal delivers fresh raspberry and citrus notes with balanced acidity and long finish. It is a blend of our favorite rosé grapes: syrah, grenache and cinsault.

·         M Minuty Cotes de Provence 2017 ($18). This blend of cinsault, grenache and syrah rocks. Citrus aromas are followed by easy strawberry, watermelon and red currant flavors.

·         Fleur de Mer Cotes de Provence Rosé 2017 ($40 for 1.5 liters).  Fresh watermelon and cherry flavors with floral aromas reminiscent of Provencal herbs. The larger bottle makes it a great wine to pour at picnics and family gatherings.

·         Ferraton Pere & Fils Samorens Rosé 2017 ($15).  This Cotes du Rhone blend of grenache, syrah and cinsault has bright raspberry and strawberry flavors with a dash of mineral.

·         Prophecy Rosé ($14). This bright rosé bursts with strawberry and raspberry flavors.

·         Chateau de Berne Inspiration Cotes de Provence Rosé 2017 ($20). This historic property is the home of a luxurious inn and restaurant, but its residents will enjoy one of three delicious  rosés made here. This blend of grenache, cinsault and syrah has cherry and pomegranate flavors.

·         M. Chapoutier Les Vignes de Bila-Haut Rosé 2017 ($15). Crisp acidity and fresh strawberry/cherry flavors dominate this grenache-cinsault blend from France's Cotes du Roussillon.

·         Mathilde Chapoutier Grand Ferrage Rosé 2017 ($24). "Mathilde" is the daughter of the talented Michel Chapoutier and is the face behind this luxurious cuvee of grenache, syrah, cinsault and rolle from Provence. Stone fruit flavors.

·         Domaine Paul Mas Cote Mas Rosé  Aurore 2017 ($13). The blend is 50 percent grenache, 30 percent cinsault and 20 percent syrah – lots of layers of bright fruit in a larger, liter bottle. Quite a deal. Cherry and strawberry flavors.

·         Fragile Rosé of Grenache 2017 ($19). From the Maury sub-appellation of Roussillon, this spirited grenache has strawberry and mineral notes with a dash of peach.

WEST COAST

·         Ponzi Pinot Noir Rosé 2017 ($22). This fabulous pinot noir house from Oregon's Willamette Valley has produced an excellent, balanced  rosé  with a beautiful rust/orange color and generous strawberry and citrus aromas. Bright berry fruit flavors with a dose of mineral and ginger.

·         Lorenza Rosé 2017 ($20). The mother-daughter team of Melinda Kearney and Michele Ouellet make nothing but rosé from Rhone-style grape varieties grown on old vines in Lodi. Each of the four grape varieties are picked at different times to ensure proper ripeness. It is as close to perfection that you'll find on the market today. Dry, fresh acidity, floral aromas and peach/citrus flavors with a mineral finish.

·         Steele Cabernet Franc Rosé 2017 ($17). Dark in color, this luscious rosé from cabernet franc has strawberry, watermelon and exotic fruit flavors.

·         Inman Endless Crush Rosé of Pinot Noir 2017 ($38). Instead of using free-run juice from a pinot noir, as most winemakers do, Kathy Inman uses the entire juice from the pinot grapes to get more complexity and structure. One of the most expensive rosés we've tasted, it shows complexity we can't find in the cheaper wines. We love this rosé year after year despite its price. Crisp acidity, watermelon and strawberry flavors with a dash of citrus and mineral.

·         Cline Ancient Vines Mourvedre Rosé 2017 ($17).  Strawberry aromas, plum and cherry flavors dominate this delicious and unique rosé  made from mourvedre grapes grown on old vines. Unique character, crisp acidity, lively fruit.

·         Gran Moraine Yamill-Carlton Rosé of Pinot Noir 2017 ($28).  Made from whole-cluster pressed pinot noir from a great growing region of Oregon, this balanced and fresh rosé  has bright strawberry and watermelon flavors with nice citrus notes.

·         Simi Sonoma County Rosé 2017 ($18). We the coral pink tone of this exquisite rosé from Simi. Watermelon and strawberry flavors dominate the palate with hints of tangerine.

                                                    

Not all pinot noirs are made from 'cocktail' recipes

(April 30, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

Jon Priest, senior winemaker at Etude, said he feared the worst once pinot noir took flight after the hit movie "Sideways." It's hard to even imagine that we're still talking about the impact of a 14-year-old movie, but Priest's prediction that pinot noir was about to enter an enduring phase was prophetic.

Priest, who has been making pinot noir in California most of his career, was worried that the popularity of the wine would lead to new vineyards in substandard regions just to satisfy demand.

 Etude winemaker Jon Priest

Etude winemaker Jon Priest

Pinot noir prefers cooler regions. Etude, for instance, uses estate grapes in Carneros that are cooled by fogs from San Pablo Bay. You won't find pinot noir in Lodi, for instance, or much of the Central Valley. Yet new regions for pinot noir have emerged after traditional sources dried up. The result is the difference between Etude's terrific pinot noirs and the Brand X born overnight.

Additionally, a grape once modeled after burgundies morphed into a Frankenstein that Priest calls the "cocktail style." These are the pinot noirs that are overly ripe, highly alcoholic and sweet.

Etude has the benefit of being owned by Treasury Wine Estates, which not only brings capital to its production but also locks in vineyards. That allows Priest to stay true to his formula for making great pinot noir without sacrifice. The consolidation of wineries dries up sources for fledgling producers and requires them to secure grapes from all the wrong places.

Alas, as the cost for pinot noir grapes rises steadily, the cost to consumers also rises. Some of the best West Coast pinot noir exceeds $50 a bottle, thus pricing out most consumers.  We've tasted some delicious burgundies from regions such as Mercurey that cost less.

Here are some terrific, albeit some are expensive, West Coast pinot noirs:

·         Etude Fiddlestix 2016 ($50). If this is any indication of the vintage, we're in for some great pinot noir from Etude. We were blown away by the generous, perfumy aromas in this well-balanced, elegant pinot noir. Made it small quantities, it may be harder to find that the 2015 Etude Grace Benoist Ranch ($47) we recently tasted. For the price, you get a load of complex black cherry and plum notes and a wallop of spice. Priest avoids American oak -- 'I'm a man of dogma" -- to keep the oak-infused flavors in check. We loved this wine.

·         Lyric by Etude Pinot Noir 2015 ($25). Using grapes from Santa Barbara, this is an entry point for the single-vineyard Etude pinot noirs. Youthful, exuberant character with bright cherry notes and a bit of tannin. Once sold only to restaurants, it is now being distributed to retailers.

·         Goldeneye Gowan Creek Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2015.($84). A powerful wine in body, this blockbuster pinot noir comes with rich texture, blueberry and black cherry flavors and hints of vanilla. Winemaker Michael Accurso calls  his marine-influenced pinot noir "wild rustsicness."

·         Migration Running Creek Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2015 ($68). Effusive strawberry aromas and luscious, ripe raspberry flavors with a dose of spice.

·         Ponzi Classico Pinot Noir 2015 ($43). Reasonably priced for what you get here, the Classico blends grapes grown throughout the Willamette Valley. We enjoyed the fresh raspberry and black cherry flavors, floral and herbal aromas, and balanced acidity.

·         Ponzi Tavola Pinot Noir 2016 ($27). This pinot noir flies off the shelf so fast that winemaker Luisa Ponzi would prefer that its fans step up to one of the other wines in its fabulous portfolio. At $27 it's easy to see why people buy this by the case. Made as an everyday pinot noir, the Tavola has simple and medium body flavors of black cherries. Grapes are sourced from Ponzi's Avellana Vineyard.

·         Benziger Russian River Valley Reserve 2016 ($45). Made from organically grown grapes, we love this balanced pinot for its pure fruit character and its restraint. Black cherries, a dash of spice and vanilla. 

·         Landmark Overlook Pinot Noir 2016 ($25). One of the great values in quality pinot noir, this medium-bodied version sourced from three counties shows nice balance with aromas of raspberries, cinnamon and spice. Flavors are redolent of cherries, raspberries and spice – everything nice.

·         Sea Smoke "Ten" Pinot Noir 2015 ($82). This wine uses all 10 of the clones planted on the producer's organic- and biodynamic-certified estate vineyard. Using the best barrel selection of the vintage, the result is expectedly spectacular. Very concentrated and dark, "Ten" is a big, robust pinot noir for those who are hard to impress. Floral aromas with blueberry and red berry flavors, enduring spice notes, fine tannins and good finish.

·         Left Coast Latitude 45 Estate Pinot Noir 2015 ($38).  We loved this juicy and delicious pinot noir from Oregon's Willamette Valley.  Classic red cherry flavors with hints of vanilla and cocoa.

·         Perfusion Vineyard San Francisco Bay Pinot Noir 2014 ($40). You don't often see a wine from this AVA, located along the western side of Contra Costa County, but this micro-batch producer has a winner. Ripe, forward cherry and raspberry flavors with hints of vanilla and spice.

·         Steele Bien Nacido Block N Pinot Noir 2014 ($36). Jed Steele has produced a series of single-vineyard pinot noirs from Santa Barbera and Carneros that are reasonably priced for what they deliver. We like the Bien Nacido the best. The vineyard is well-known and respected among pinot noir producers and fans. Steele uses grapes from the "N" block because of its intense fruit. Strawberry and cherry flavors abound with hints of spice and vanilla.

·         Ghostwriter Pinot Noir Santa Cruz County 2015 ($30). This outstanding pinot noir stood out at a recent tasting. Already showing well we tasted an expressive tableau of wild cherries, cola with a bare hint of oak that filled the mouth with pleasure. Don’t miss this wonderful pinot noir, if California pinot noir is your passion.

·         Erath Oregon Pinot Noir 2015 ($19). Always a great value in pinot noir, this medium-bodied wine has big, bold aromas and forward black cherry and raspberry flavors.   

 

Augmented wine labels give wine a lift

(April 4, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

Ah, the good old days. Remember when a wine label was pleasantly understated – a time when both the producer and the buyer were focused solely on what was inside the bottle? These dignified labels – often of majestic chateaus – were iconic. Chateau Palmer, Margaux, Chateau Montelena, Far Niente, Louis Jadot, for instance, have used the same classy label year after year. Mouton Rothschild was an exception because it commissioned renown artists—the likes of Chagall, Picasso and Dali -- to draw a new label for each vintage of its first-growth Bordeaux. It isn’t cheap.

But as market competition grew – and continues to grow – start-up wineries are going to new lengths to create eye-catching labels to separate themselves from a pack of trendy laboratory wines packaged by large wine conglomerates. Alas, what is in the bottle has become less important than what is on the bottle and consumers are being easily gulled into equating an eye-popping label with a good wine. Some labels even glow in the dark, presumably an asset if one loses power during a nuclear attack.

Labels have gone high tech, too. Living Wine Labels has created a clever label that through an app uses your device’s camera to actually animate the label. Australia’s 19 Crimes is based loosely on British prisoners who were sent to an undeveloped Australia in the 18th Century for committing one of 19 crimes. The rogues later became colonists of Australia. The labels feature these figures and through the app and your camera they tell their stories. The app has been downloaded more than half a million times. The wine is surprisingly decent.

The Walking Dead, a comic strip and hot cable television series, is also a wine that uses Living Wine Label technology. Its “Blood Red Blend” wine has an image of Sheriff Rick Grimes who through the app fights off the undead in a wine shop. The cabernet sauvignon has zombies breaking out of the label and if you put the two bottles side by side, a fight breaks out.  The wines sell for about $19 a bottle.

We were in a crowd of millennials recently when someone spotted us holding a Walking Dead label. A millennial spotted it and begged us to hand it over. We wouldn’t unless he could tell us what grapes were used to make the wine or where it was made. He failed.

While some producers turn to technology, others stick with creative names – Mommy’s Time Out, Booger Swamp, Cat’s Pee on a Gooseberry Bush, Cheap Wine -- and hokey artwork. The label for Boarding Pass shiraz is a boarding label. Inkblot wine has a Rorschach inkblot test to challenge buyers on what they see -- we see a desperate gimmick. David Phinney uses a simple letter in a circle – a take-off on bumper stickers – to identify a wine’s country of origin. “F” is for France, for instance, and he blends grapes from multiple regions. Sacré bleu, as the French are no doubt saying.

Research shows a wine’s label is a powerful draw for consumers as long as the price is also reasonable. But is the wine any good at $10 a bottle? Rarely.

 

It's all in the blend....

(March 18, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

Given the recent media attention on red blends, one would think that the idea of combining grape varieties into a single wine is a novel concept. Hardly. It's rare to find a Bordeaux made from one grape variety. Rhone Valley producers blend as many as 13 grape varieties into their wines. Italian chianti and Spanish riojas blend noble grape varieties with their native grapes. Blended wine has become as common as tourists. As governing bodies of wine growing regions here and abroad give in to winemakers wanting more freedom, conventional winemaking rules are fading.

In the United States, a wine labeled as a specific grape variety must contain at least 75 percent of that grape. But winemakers are giving up that moniker for the freedom to add more grapes and label their products "red blend." Sales of blended wines grew nearly 8 percent over last year and sell more by volume than pinot noir or merlot, according to Nielsen.

How times have changed. Historically, wine growers have proudly clung to indigenous varieties and denounced any winemaker who dared to introduce another region's grapes. Angelo Gaja was pilloried when he added cabernet and merlot to the native nebbilo in his barbarescos. Yet today his expensive wines are considered among the best in Piedmont.

Gaja had foresight. More varieties give wines more dimension and depth. Some grape varieties simply can't produce complexity – sangiovese can be acidic and one-dimensional in Chianti, but blended with merlot it shows a softer, more fruity character. Long ago, French burgundians secretly blended syrah with their underripe pinot noir. Today, however, Burgundy is one of the few remaining regions that will not allow blends.

Zinfandel, a common base for many inexpensive red blends in California, is often joined by syrah, petite sirah, merlot and other varieties. The insanely popular Apothic Red, a breadwinner for E&J Gallo, is a sweet blend of primarily zinfandel, syrah, merlot and cabernet sauvignon.  Long before zinfandel blends became popular, Marietta Old Vine has produced an extraordinary non-vintage red blend at a reasonable price.

Here are a few blends we recently tasted:

·         Cline Cashmere Red Blend 2015 ($15). Cline is best known for its zinfandel and mourvedre. This truly exquisite blend of mourvedre, syrah and grenache coats the mouth with ripe red berry flavors and chocolate-covered cherries. Good value.

·         Dutcher Crossing Winemaker's Cellar Kupferschmid Red Wine 2014 ($39). From the Dry Creek Valley, this blend of unspecified red grapes offers good depth and complexity with fine tannins and upfront strawberry and cherry fruit with a dash of dried rosemary.

·         Bootleg Prequel Red Blend 2014 ($35). Syrah and petite sirah combine to deliver a fist-load of blackberry and plum fruit flavors with good depth and hints of black pepper. Rich and long in the finish.

·         Paraduxx Candlestick Napa Valley Red Wine 2014 ($58). Duckhorn's Paraduxx lineup is a fashion parade of exotic world blends. This one pairs syrah with grenache to produce a bold dark fruit profile with fine tannins and oak notes of vanilla and spice.  The Paraduxx Atlas Peak Red Wine ($80) marries the famous sangiovese grown on the slopes of Atlas Peak with cabernet sauvignon. Delicious!

·         ONX Reckoning Estate Grown Paso Robles Templeton Gap District 2014 ($58). An enchanting blend of 63 percent syrah, 21 percent malbec, 11 percent grenache, and 5 percent petite sirah. Luscious blackberry and blueberry nose and mouth coating flavors. Smooth with soft tannins, a delight to drink.     

·         Trinity Hill The Trinity 2014 ($17). Merlot, tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, malbec and syrah provide an interesting array of flavors with plum and dark fruit flavors, soft mouthfeel and hedonistic character.

·         Ruca Malen Aime Red Blend Mendoza Argentina 2016 ($9-12). This fantastic blend of malbec, bonarda, cabernet sauvignon and merlot is an amazing value. Beautiful complex berry flavored and scented red wine with interesting mocha and chocolate notes. Round but with enough acidity to accompany food.

·         Leese-Fitch California Firehouse Red 2015 ($12). Just about everything in Leese-Fitch's popular portfolio is a good value. This eclectic blend of petite sirah, syrah, zinfandel, merlot, mourvedre and tempranillo may not have focus, but it is packed with jammy dark berry fruit and endless hints of chocolate, vanilla and espresso.

·         Line 39 Excursion Red Blend 2016 ($15). A wide collection of petit verdot, petite sirah, zinfandel and merlot make a rich and jammy quaff in wine. The variety of grapes offer a variety of flavors ranging from plums to chocolate.

·         Chateau Ste Anne Bandol 2014 ($42).  Mourvedre, cinsault and grenache grapes are blended in this extraordinary, old-world wine from southern France. It bursts from the glass with an aged, floral and earthy bouquet. Black cherry, herbs and savory flavors abound. It is very different.

·         Arinzano La Casona 2010 ($40). More complex with intense floral aromatics, persistent and focused cherry and dark fruit flavors, fine tannins and long finish. The tempranillo (75 percent) is blended with merlot. This wine will age well. 

·         Upshot Sonoma County Red Wine Blend 2015 ($30). Made by Rodney Strong Vineyards, this sumptuous blend includes zinfandel, merlot, malbec, petit verdot and riesling. Good aromatics, soft tannins, and dark fruit flavors.

·         Gabbiano Dark Knight 2016 ($17). This Italian blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and sangiovese captures the best of these grape varieties. Smooth texture with copious notes of oak-inspired mocha and spice to accent the ripe berry flavors.

·         Decoy Sonoma County Red Wine 2015 ($25). Merlot dominates this blend with cabernet sauvignon, syrah, cabernet franc and petit verdot playing the support role. Rich blackberry and cherry fruit flavors with a dash of vanilla and caramel.

 

 

Don't lose your sense of adventure

(March 5, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

While soaring over the beautiful Mid-Atlantic seacoast on a recent flight from Providence to Baltimore, Pat was admiring the view while other passengers had closed their shades, oblivious to the spectacle unfolding five miles below them.  Have Americans, numbed by the cacophony of stimuli that bombard them every day, lost their curiosity and sense of adventure?

Then, he wondered, have we also lost our curiosity in wine? Do we fall back on chardonnay and merlot at the expense of discovering godello, gruner veltliner and the like? 

Out of an estimated 1,200 grape varietals in the world, 65 percent of the wine sold in the United States is limited to seven categories -- chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot grigio, moscato, pinot noir and white zinfandel. Chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon account for 35 percent of total consumption, according to the Wine Institute.

  The numbers are hardly a matter of availability. As we visit wine shops around the country, we have noticed more grape varietals that are new to the marketplace. From Sicily we have enjoyed the inzolia grape, which traditionally was used in fortified marsala wine production, but also makes an inexpensive, refreshing white table wine. Ruche from the Piedmont region makes a medium-bodied, food-friendly red table wine with berry elements and floral notes.

  For years only a sweet version of Hungary's Tokaji was available. Today a dry version of furmint, one of six grapes used in Tokaji, is capturing consumer attention with its crisp acidity and delicious citrus and pear flavors. 

Winemaking in Greece began more than 6,000 years ago, yet only recently could you find something besides the repulsive retsina -- a resin-flavored table wine that was the butt of jokes for its mouth-puckering, acrid flavors. Today it’s hard to find retsina, but in its place are well-crafted, Greek table wines with tongue-twisting names like moschofilero, assyrtiko and agiorgitiko.  

So, with all of this variety, why do we stick with California chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and the other popular wines? Comfort, most likely. We are afraid of investing $15 in a wine we may not like. Maybe we stubbornly cling to the notion that only one wine works for us.  But succumbing to tired conventions denies us the opportunity to rethink our tired positions or discover another wine we may come to call a favorite.

The other day a friend who said she liked nothing but Oregon pinot noir made a new year’s resolution to try new wines. She confessed she once felt the need to identify with one wine just to narrow the choice when she visited a wine shop.  Maybe that’s you too.

With that, we offer you some exciting wines we recently discovered that deliver a lot of unique and delicious flavors from different grapes or at least different regions.

·         Mastroberardino Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Bianco 2016 ($20). The Mastroberardino family revived the wine industry in Campania, Italy, with its indigenous grapes. We have followed them for decades and admire their dedication to the region and its unusual grapes grown in volcanic soil. The Radici is an extraordinary, ageworthy red wine and this white – meaning "tears of Christ" -- has white peach and licorice flavors with crisp acidity and mineral. It is made from coda di volpe grapes.

·         Paolo Manzone Dolcetto d'Alba Magna 2015 ($18). We loved this opulent and fruit forward wine made entirely of dolcetto grapes grown in the Piedmont. With more complexity than we expect from dolcetto, it sports bright raspberry and cherry notes with great palate length.  

·         Cartuxa Evora Tinto Colheita 2013 ($25). We tried this on a group of friends recently and people were taking photos of the label so they could find it later. It was the star of the night. It is a blend of aragonez, alicante bouschet, trincadeira and cabernet sauvignon. Sturdy tannins and packed with dense red fruit, it is a wine to serve with beef or to age for several years. Complex, floral and herb aromas, plum and blackberry flavors. 

·         Passi di Orma Bolgheri Rosso 2013 ($38). Bolgheri has only recently been getting noticed for its wine and this one from the village of Castagneto Carducci is a gem. Blended with merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, it has broad flavors that reflect the unique terroir of this region.

·         Chateau de Caladroy “Cuvee Les Schistes” 2013 ($16). From an historic village atop a knoll in the Roussillon region of southern France, this exotic blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre from low-yielding vines combines structure and finesse. Deeply concentrated dark fruit, cassis and kirsch flavors with floral aromas. Excellent value.

·         Chateau Ollieux Romanis Cuvee Classique Corbieres 2016 ($17).  If you like your French wine with a little garrigue – minty and herbal notes reminscent of the wild plant life along the Med – you'll enjoy this gem from Corbieres. There is a little pungency on the nose and the flavors explode with ripe raspberries and blackberries with a dash of tobacco.  It is a delicious blend of carignan, grenache and syrah. 

·         Hacienda de Arinzano Red 2012 ($20). Located in northeast Spain between Rioja and Bordeaux in Navarra, Hacienda de Arinzano Vinos de Pago is making some excellent blends. This one – full of lush, ripe black cherry flavors – is a blend of tempranillo, merlot, cabernet sauvignon. It is a great value for the depth of character.  

·         Qupé Marsanne 2015 ($20). The 25 percent roussanne in this blend is just enough to give the marsanne more dimension. Qupé's owner and winemaker Bob Lindquist is one of the original Rhone Rangers and has staked his career on Rhone varietals. His wines represent many of the best made with these grape varieties. This bright and racy marsanne from Santa Barbara County shows off peach and lime flavors with a dash of coconut and mineral on the finish. Very refreshing acidity.

·         Feast Red Semeli Winery Agiorgitiko Peloponnese 2015 ($13). If you want to get a sense of the quality and value of some Greek wine, try this excellent example. Made from agiorgitiko grapes -- sometimes referred to as St. George -- this lighter red wine is somewhat reminiscent of a well-crafted pinot noir.  Cherries mixed with herbs and spicy notes make a splendid wine to pair with chicken and salmon.  

·         Abbazia Di Novacella Stiftskellerei Neustift Schiava DOC 2016 ($19). This unusual Italian grape makes a red wine somewhat similar in style to pinot noir but with a little more oomph. Spicy cherry elements with a distinctive whiff of violets, this delightful wine would pair beautifully with tuna or salmon.                

Finding value is the Cotes du Rhone

(February 21, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

No matter how much you enjoy wine and no matter how deep your disposable income, you appreciate a good deal, right? We’re not talking about those unpopular wines that end up in a basket at the checkout counter. We’re talking about discovering reliable wines from reputable producers who deliver good values year after year.

Knowing the wine regions that deliver good value is critical when you are scanning a restaurant wine list of pricey Bordeaux or cult California cabernet sauvignons. With markups as high as 400 percent, you probably cringe at the thought of ordering a wine that cost half as much in a retail store.

That’s why we like the Cotes du Rhone, the second largest AOC in France that delivers values often eclipsing their reasonable prices of $15 to $20.  Even with restaurant markups, Cotes du Rhone represent good values across the board.

Although 22 grapes varieties are allowed in the region’s red, white and rosé wines, most common are the grenache, syrah, cinsault and mourvedre grapes. These grapes are blended in most of Cotes du Rhone’s red wines and provide the dimension and character we like so much. The terroir in this region provide a “garrigue” quality associated with Provencal herbs – lavender, rosemary and bay leaf -- common to more expensive wines from Northern Rhone. Combined with forward raspberry and strawberry flavors and good acidity, these elements make for a dynamic wine at prices hard to beat anywhere else.

Here are several versions we recently discovered:

·       Esprit du Rhone 2015 ($17). Grenache, carignan, syrah and cinsault combine to deliver a dark and rich blend with fresh raspberry aromas and a touch of licorice. Fine tannins and a sweet finish make for an elegant yet pronounced character.

·       Les Dauphins Organic Cotes du Rhone Villages 2015 ($15). Full bodied with concentrated raspberry and strawberry flavors. Grenache dominates the blend, but includes syrah, mourvedre and carignan.

·       Cachette Cotes du Rhone 2015 ($15). Lighter in style, the profile is aromatic and spicy with medium body and fresh red fruit flavors.

·       St. Cosme Cotes du Rhone 2015 ($15). A favorite year to year, this all-syrah delight has a floral bouquet with a dash of licorice, and bright red currant and raspberry flavors.

·       Ferraton Pere & Fils Samorens Cotes du Rhone 2015 ($14). Simple blend of grenache, syrah and cinsault from biodynamic-farmed vineyards, this wine has extracted red fruit character and medium body.

·       E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone Rouge 2013 ($15). Guigal is unique in that it ages its wines two years in bottle before release. This gives the wine a broader, accessible profile. The blend of 50 percent syrah, 45 percent grenache and 5 percent mourvedre is effusive in ripe plum and blackberry fruit with a dash of black olives. This has always been one of our perennial favorites since we started to write this column.

·       E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone Rosé 2016 ($15). One of the best and most consistent rosés on the market, this refreshing wine shows off raspberry and orange peel flavors. Balanced acidity and long finish.

 BLENDS

There are other regions that grow the same grapes that are common to the Cotes du Rhone. Many of these wines are crisp, zesty white wines. Here are some red and white wines using Rhone grape varieties:

·       Cline Roussanne Marsanne North Coast 2016 ($24). Fred Cline is a pioneer in growing Rhone grape varieties in California and year-after-year we have enjoyed his adventuresome red and white blends. This white version – 64 percent roussanne and 36 percent marsanne – is a lively wine with bracing acidity, bright citrus flavors and hints of honey and mineral. Very intense aromas and simple but refreshing flavors.

·       Bonterra The Butler Mendocino County Red Blend 2013  ($50). This complex and ridiculously delicious blend of syrah, mourvedre, grenache and zinfandel knocks it out of the ballpark. Deep inky color, intense blackberry and mocha aromas, with plum and blackberry flavors, aggressive tannins and long finish. The name comes from the organic Butler Ranch Vineyard that supplies the grapes for this colossal wine.

·       M. Chapoutier Les Vignes de Bila-Haut Blanc Cotes du Roussillon Villages 2016 ($15). This genius from the Rhone Valley has a smashing hit with this wine from the Roussillon region of southern France. Chapoutier bought the property in 1999. It's a scrappy estate close to the Spanish border where the ground seems unsuitable to vineyards. Leave it to Chapoutier to find the spirit to farm this terrain and make a great wine. The white is very unique – a blend of grenache blanc, grenache gris, vermentino and macabeo – with melon, honeysuckle, fresh grapefruit and citrus notes cloaked in crisp acidity.

·       La Grange de Quatre Sous e Jeu du Mail 2014 ($20). This Vin de Pay D'oc from the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France is extraordinary. The 55 percent viognier gives it beautiful aromatics and the marsanne from 18 to 20-year-old vines provides the juicy stone fruit and herbal flavors. It has a lush texture that gives it length on the palate. Other wines from this great producer are equally great in value.

·       Priest Ranch Grenache Blanc 2016 ($22). A pleasant alternative to sauvignon blanc, this spritely white grenache offers crisp acidity and mineral notes with generous white peach aromas and stone fruit, melon flavors.

·       Donelan Cuvee Moriah 2014 ($50). This beautiful, well-integrated blend of grenache (84 percent) and mourvedre makes for a killer wine. The partial carbonic maceration and the good dose of mourvedre enhances the tantalizing floral and cassis aromas. Forward flavors are redolent of pomegranate and blueberries. Soft mouthfeel and long in the finish.

·       Qupé Bien Nacido Hillside Estate Roussanne 2013 ($40).  The malolactic fermentation and sur lies aging rounds off the often bracing acidity of roussanne. Aged 18 months in neutral oak, it has a rich texture and layers of fruit. Pineapple, spice, vanilla aromas are followed by lush apple and citrus flavors. Because these late-ripening grapes are vulnerable to rot, the yield of surviving grapes is low – hence the price.

·       Qupé Sawyer Lindquist Grenache 2014 ($35). From the cool Edna Valley, this killer grenache attacks the palate with juicy strawberry flavors and floral, violet aromas. A very pretty wine with a dash of cloves and a long finish. We loved it.

Old vs. new school Napa cab

(February 19, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

We were recently listening to Ray Coursen of Elyse Winery being interviewed by Levi Dalton on the fabulous podcast, "I'll Drink to That." Coursen, who has been involved in winemaking since the early 1980s, was reminscing about "old school Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon." 

He said growers had to plant cabernet sauvignon vines too far south just to get adequate ripeness. The riper the grape, the more sugar and thus the more alcohol. Today's cabernets – grown farther north, thanks to global warming – are ripening so well that they are producing wines with higher alcohol levels. These are bigger wines, often quite different than the Bordeaux style of wine made with the same grapes. Those made in France come from a cooler climate and thus aren't as ripe or alcoholic.  

Coursen says he has moderated his use of oak to return to this old school cabernet sauvignon and make wines with more pure fruit character.  

In red wine, oak introduces flavors of mocha, caramel, toffee, spice and vanilla.  Coursen wants to ease off on those additional flavors. 

Today he ages only 60 percent of his cabernet sauvignon in new French oak for about 21 months. The rest goes into neutral, used oak barrels. He sometimes returns the wine aged in new oak to used oak. And, he holds the finished product in bottle for an additional 18 months before releasing it. He still gets the complexity and softness without these artificial flavors. 

We just went through a bunch of Napa cabernet sauvignon. Here are some of our favorites. Oak aging is noted when known. 

  • Mount Veeder Winery Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($100).  A blend of cabernet sauvignon, malbec and petit verdot, this big wine from the talented winemaker Janet Myers sets the course for Napa Valley character. Dark in color, it shows off layered aromatics of currants, mineral, herbs and pepper. Flavors are of black cherries, plums, coffee, vanilla and a dash of pepper and licorice. (20 months in small, new oak barrels).  

  • Clos du Val Estate Hirondelle Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($120). This is an enormous wine in both body and flavor.  From the Stag's Leap District – a source for some of Napa Valley's best cabernet sauvignons – it has effusive floral, blueberry and clove aromas followed by dense cherry and blackberry and oak flavors. Long in the finish and well textured.  (New French oak: 60 percent). 

  • Duckhorn Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($98). We just love the old cabernets that have been made in Rutherford for decades – Beaulieu, Inglenook, Freemark Abbey, Caymus, Grgrich Hills. This one from Duckhorn has that classic Rutherford profile: dusty tanins, richness, black fruit flavors, balance and a touch of hint and mineral.  Duckhorn has a string of cabernets that reveal their terroir – Howell Mountain, Patzimaro Vineyard and Three Palms Vineyard. Each of them is unique but all have depth of character, richness and powerful complexity. (18 months in oak). 

  • Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($29). It's always nice to get a reality check after sampling a lot of odd wines. Robert Mondavi Winery has been making cabernet sauvignon for decades and stays the course with this reliable edition. Napa Valley cabernet forms the foundation of a solid performance. Forward in style, its copious fruit flavors and hint of tobacco make it drinkable now. 

  • Gamble Family Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($50). It seems like everything Tom Gamble touches turns to gold. Although made in small quantities, his wines are worth the search. This Napa Valley cab has an earthy feel with forward blackberry flavors, excellent balance and notes of chocolate and coffee. (20 monthns in French, Hungarian and American oak barrels).  

  • Mi Sueno Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 ($75). New to us, this producer impresses with the palate with generous aromas of plums and mocha followed by flavors of ripe black cherries and hints of oak-inspired caramel and vanilla. Good for cellaring.   (New French oak: 55 percent for 24 months). 

  • Spottswoode Lyndenhurst Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($85). Spottswoode puts a lot of effort into this signature Bordeaux blend of fruit from some terrific vineyards in Napa Valley.  Cabernet franc, petit verdot, malbec and merlot team up with cabernet sauvignon to produce a sturdy assembly of alluring aromatics and complex, textured dark fruit flavors. Long finish.  (New French oak: 40 percent for 20 months). 

  • Flora Springs Triology 2015 ($80). Flora Springs was a pioneer in making a Bordeaux blend – its first was in 1984. It's no surprise, then, that experience and good fruit sources makes them a leader in hedonistic blends. Extracted dark fruit flavors with hints of pepper, chocolate and vanilla. Round tannins suggest good things to come. (New French oak: 85 percent; 15 percent American oak for 22 months). 

  • Priest Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($48). This classic cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley boasts generous black cherry notes, fine tannins and full body. Delicious now or can be cellared for several years.  

  • Stags Leap Wine Cellars Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($73). A blend of estate grown and purchased fruit make up this enticing elegant Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. Black cherry fruit notes dominate with ripe velvety soft tannins. Very easy to drink. (New French oak: 33 percent; 10 percent in American oak).  

Paul Mas wines excel in the Languedoc

(Jan. 31, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

As French wine regions go, they don’t get any bigger than Languedoc-Roussillon. Located in the southwest corner of the country, the region once has about 700,000 acres under vine. Not only does it produce more wine than the entire United States, but it is the single largest wine-producing region in the world. It accounts for nearly one-third of the wine produced in France and nearly 40 percent of its exports. 

Yet when was the last time you had a bottle of wine from this region? Big isn’t always better and winemakers in this region have historically produced mediocre wines with an emphasis on quantity. This kind of a business plan is doomed to fail -- and it has. Today there are fewer wineries, less wine produced and less land planted to vineyards. No other wine region in the world to our knowledge has suffered such a steep decline. 

But there are significant signs that the region can regain its luster behind the leadership of a handful of producers determined to put quality first. 

 Jean-Claude Mas talks to his vineyard crew.

Jean-Claude Mas talks to his vineyard crew.

One such producer is Jean-Claude Mas who has adopted a number of domaines in Languedoc since he took over his family 42-acre estate in 1999. He launched Domaine Paul Mas, named after his father, in 2000. 

We were literally awestruck when we tasted his wines because they were so significantly better than what we have tasted in the past from this vast region. Because vineyards are relatively cheap here, Mas is able to keep prices down and deliver a lot of great wine for reasonable prices. Consumers should take advantage of the prices while this region is in its renaissance stage. 

What is Mas doing differently? 

“There are two parts. First, everything is managed by one guy – me – and with one technique and surrounded by people who share my philosophy,” he said via phone while visiting New York City. “Seventy-percent of the wine made in Languedoc is done by co-op and negociant. But I produce everything I sell.  

"Second, you need to have a winery with the best possible conditions – temperature control, control of the use of oxygen, etc. We have to know how the grapes behave," he said. 

Mas said in the old days his father and grandfather, like other winemakers, would work a bit and then relax. 

"They weren't trying hard to make better wines," he said. "You can make a good living without trying too hard." 

Contrarily, Mas is constantly walking through the vineyards, tasting the grapes and paying attention to every aspect of the winemaking. He's not making his fathers' wine. 

The 13 estates he now owns in all of the key areas of the Languedoc cover more than 1,600 acres and he has agreements for grapes from the owners of another 3,200 acres of vineyards. That's a big source of fruit for a winemaker to draw from. 

Although he grows 45 different grape varieties, the primary reds include syrah, grenache, carignan and mourvedre. These grapes, like those used in Rhone wines, make intensive, layered wines. Mas wines, though, add more structure and texture. His mission is to make an every-day wine with every-day luxury. 

"To achieve wine with an enticing character, you have to have nice and noble aromatics – fruits, flowers, spices – good mouthfeel and complexity." 

Generally, his wines are opulent without being over-extracted. 

Mas hopes he is leading the way to redemption, but acknowledges that many fellow winemakers have given up. But he feels he is on a launch pad – getting prepared for the big moment when Languedoc will be held equal to Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley. 

Here are some of the Paul Mas wines we loved: 

  • Chateau Paul Mas Coteaux du Languedoc Clos des Mures 2015 ($20). This is the reason we urge people to look here for wines that overdeliver. This blend of syrah (83 percent), grenache and mourvedre is a prime example of what can come from a talented winemaker. Jean-Claude Mas has crafted a dense, delicious and full-bodied wine when others are often satisfied with something much simpler. It has earthy, cassis, violet and spicy aromas and dark berry, mineral flavors. Soft mouthfeel makes it drinkable now. 

  • Chateau Paul Mas Coteaux du Languedoc Vignes de Nicole L'Assemblage Blanc 2015 ($16). This is an incredible wine for the price.  An eclectic blend of chardonnay, sauvignon, viognier and picpoul, it shows off pear and passion fruit aromas with a creamy, ripe pear flavor and a hint of mineral. Delicious. 

  • Chateau Paul Mas Coteaux du Languedoc Belluguette 2016 ($20). A very interesting blend of vermentino, roussanne, grenache and viognier, this is a spirited and racy white wine that makes for a good aperitif or a complement to oysters and clams.  

  • Domaine Paul Mas Cotes Mas Cremant de Limoux Rosé ($16).  A blend of chardonnay, chenin blanc and pinot noir, this sparkling wine strikes a new pose for those expecting champagne. The chenin blanc gives the wine a soft mouthfeel and peach flavor. Add to that a dose of grapefruit and you have a delicious, well-priced aperitif. 

Tasting the difference between old, new world wines

(January 24, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

Over the years we have often heard a wine described as having an "Old World" style. We had a vague idea what that meant, but until recently we never gave the comparison much thought. As winemakers travel between wine growing regions to learn new and better techniques, one would think that the line between the two worlds has blurred and that any such association today is fraught with generalization.

Not entirely. A recent tasting we put together for a group of wine enthusiasts showed that there are still contrasting styles. At the risk of over-generalizing, we offer an explanation of what is meant by these terms. Understanding the differences can help you determine the style of wines you like and thus make your shopping experience much easier.

Old World wines – principally those from European countries -- tend to be subtle, less alcoholic, higher in acid and more restrained. This is largely a result of cooler climates that don't allow grapes to ripen as well. But, the wines are also a product of tradition. Generations of Old World producers have for centuries made wines exclusively for their villages and to accompany the local cuisine. Unlike New World producers who emphasize the name of the producer and the grape variety on the label, Old World winemakers proudly focus on the name of the village. This speaks volumes about the terroir focus of European producers.

New World producers -- Australia, New Zealand, North and South America, etc. -- have embraced new technology and science to produce consistent wines in much warmer climates.  Whereas Old World producers are more likely to be satisfied with whatever Mother Nature hands them, New World producers are willing to manipulate the juice to achieve certain results. It's what New World entrepeneurs often do.

The differences between the two worlds can be found in the glass, as our tasting vividly revealed. A sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley was clean, simple, medium bodied while a New Zealand sauvignon blanc was bold, stylish and grassy.

The red wines were just as different. We liked the contrast between a Spanish monastrell and a California mourvedre (same grape). The Rioja monastrell was rustic with earthy, barnyard aromas, medium body and subtle spice and oak flavors. The Cline Mourvedre -- a perennial favorite of ours -- was fruit-forward with ripe cherry flavors and more oak influences, such as spice, vanilla and even a dash of chocolate. The first would do better with food than the ripe and jammy Cline.

Two new world cabernet sauvignon blends -- Unanime from Argentina and Columbia Crest H3 from Washington state -- were classic contrasts to a simple Bordeaux blend from Chateau Fonseche.  The Bordeaux, made in a cooler climate, revealed blackberry and currants while the other two had more black cherry flavors that come from a warmer climate. 

The other pairing was a syrah blend from Cotes du Rhone and two shirazes from Australia. The Rhone has a funky, earthy nose while the Australian components had bright, jammy fruit flavors.

Not to be underestimated is the desire of New World producers to finally back off its fruit-forward, highly extracted and alcoholic style and bring their wines more in line with the European model. Alas, American consumers tend to favor ripe, bold wines with a dash of residual sugar, but these are not food-friendly.

At the end of our tasting, one attendee said the comparisons allowed her to better define the kinds of wine she likes. The next time she goes blindly into a wine shop or restaurant she will tell a merchant that she's looking for an Old World wine that is subtle and less ripe. That was music to our ears. It's not that she won't enjoy a New World wine, but she knows what her palate likes and she can intelligently describe it.

Such comparisons are invaluable in understanding that geography and technology between continents have great influence in taste.

 

Greg Norman, "The Shark, still hitting them

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

Australian golf legend Greg Norman is often remembered for blowing a six-stroke lead in the 1996 Masters Tournament, but that’s about his only colassal breakdown. A shrewd businessman, the “great white shark,” as he is known, designed more than 100 golf courses and launched 14 businesses. And, despite missing many notable clutch shots, he has won two British Open Championships and was ranked number one golfer in the world for 331 weeks. 

But it is his wine empire -- launched the same year he infamously lost the Masters Tournament -- that hasn’t missed a beat despite the challenges of a competitive industry. 

 Greg Norman and daughter, Morgan.

Greg Norman and daughter, Morgan.

Norman wines are immensely benefited by instant name recognition. Not only does he have built-in resort markets that sell his wine, but anyone who golfs is more likely to buy a bottle with his iconic shark emblazoned on the label. His daughter, Morgan, who we recently joined to taste through the wines, said her father opens golf courses in attractive markets, builds brand identity, then introduces his wine there. No wonder the wily entrepreneur is called “the shark.” 

Morgan said her father’s goal has always been to make a wine that is affordable and that can be served with dinner any night of the week.  Although his name is associated first with his homeland, he has been making wine in California since 2005 and now makes wine in New Zealand.  He does not own vineyards, but instead draws from the vast vineyard holdings of his partner, Treasury Wine Estates. Indeed, across the board, his wines are simple, unadorned, affordable and easy to drink -- just as he wants. 

What we liked most about these wines is that they are not overblown. The wines – most of which sell for under $15 – are balanced with average alcohol and moderate fruit extraction. They complement food and are more medium-bodied than others at this price range. 

We thought Greg Norman, now 62, would have been lulled into making those over-extracted Australian wines that flooded the market a decade ago, but Morgan said her dad is stubborn. “He doesn’t play into trends,” she said. 

Although most of the wines are incredible values, there is a reserve shiraz that sells for $50. The 1999 version of this wine was rated number 8 in the Wine Spectator's list of Top 100 wines. 

Until then, said Morgan, the brand was known only as a “golfer’s wine.” But the ranking “put us on the wine map,” she said. Even at $50, it’s a good buy. 

Here are our favorite Greg Norman wines: 

  • Greg Norman Estates Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($14). This sauvignon blanc doesn’t fit nicely with the New Zealand profile because it doesn’t have bracing acidity. The classic pineapple and citrus flavors are simple and enjoyable. 

  • Greg Norman Estates Eden Valley Chardonnay 2016 ($14).  Only a third of the wine sees oak barrels and malolactic fermentation, so it has a clean and refreshing character with tropical fruit and pear flavors and just a dash of coconut and vanilla. Long finish. 

  • Greg Norman Estates Limestone Coast Cabernet-Merlot 2014 ($14). One of the best-selling wines in the portfolio, this iconic Australian blend has copious floral and spice aromas, dark berry flavors and lingering hints of clove and vanillin oak. Merlot comprises only 10 percent of the blend, making the cabernet sauvignon character dominant. 

  • Greg Norman Estates Limestone Coast Shiraz 2014 ($14). Lively and fresh black cherry and red currant flavors with a hint of pepper and spice. Very quaffable.  

  • Greg Norman Estates Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($14). A near even split of the two grape varieties, this blend is dark in color and packed with ripe cherry and cranberry flavors. Smooth mouthfeel and lingering finish make it a great quaff. 

TREATS FROM THE RIBERA DEL DUERO 

Tinto Figuero has released several new vintages of its excellent line of tempranillo from the Ribera del Duero. Three separate bottlings – one aged 15 months in barrel, a second aged for 12 months in barrel and the third from old vines – show the depth and character that comes from this DO region. 

Tinto Figuero's Vinas Viejas (old vines) 2014 ($68) is a special wine with elegance, velvet texture and finish. Intense notes of red currants, raspberries and anise give it a broad palate we couldn't stop enjoying.  

We also enjoyed the Tinto Figuero 15 2013 ($66), with its dense darker fruit flavors and layered flavors of cocoa, spice and black pepper. 

The producer's Tino Figuero 4 2016 ($22) is reasonably priced and gives you an idea of what the producer and region can do. 

 Costa-Browne pinots too extracted?

(December 27, 2017)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

Pinot noir has followed a tortured trail, sometimes uphill but eventually in a direction that gained an audience in this country. Bested by the delicate pinot noirs of Burgundy, American wine producers struck a profile that over time would be unquestionably described as ripe, alcoholic and hedonistic.  Consumers and critic liked the change, even if French producers did not. 

Some California and Oregon pinot noirs became so jammy you could spread them on toast. But it is these pinot noirs that consumers stood in line to purchase at heavenly prices that customarily exceeded $50. Even today it is a challenge to find a good pinot noir for anything less. 

But now comes a shocking announcement from Kosta Browne that its famously extracted pinot noirs – arguably the ones that started the trend – would be replaced by a leaner style. Whether any other producers follow suit remains to be seen, but the shift at this iconic and famous winery is seismic. 

The new philosophy, first reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, coincided with the announcement that Dan Kosta and Michael Browne are stepping down from the company they founded in the late 1990s. Their wines – sold mostly through its club – now cost more than $60 and you have to wait three years to get an allocation.  

Kosta told the Chronicle that he realized that his pinot noirs were being used by new winemakers as an example of what not to do. The robust, very ripe pinot noirs were seen as over the top, especially by wineries that were sensing a change among younger consumers.  

We’re not sure if that reversal is entirely true quite yet when we see the continued success of the extracted, sweet Meiomi pinot noir, but we have to wonder if pinot noir isn’t on the verge of the same trajectory as chardonnay that morphed from buttery, oaky fruit bombs to lean, unoaked and balanced wines. Perhaps in both cases, less is better. 

We put this into perspective while recently tasting a series of single-vineyard pinot noirs made by Carmel Road. These wines benefit from ocean breezes that cool the grapes in Monterey County vineyards. The wines are refreshing: balanced with good acidity and bright fruit character.  

We asked Kris Kato, Carmel Road's winemaker, about how he achieves balance. 

 Kris Kato, winemaker for Carmel Road

Kris Kato, winemaker for Carmel Road

"To me, balance is not just one style of wine. You can have bigger, more powerful wines that still achieve balance, as well as lighter, brighter, more acid-driven wines that are well balanced. Mother Nature obviously has such a big influence, as well as vineyard location, climate, harvest timing, clone, etc. Pretty early on you get a feel for what the wine is giving you, and I like to push it where it wants to go rather than force the wine in a certain direction. To me, and for my Carmel Road wines, balance is having all elements of the wine working in harmony and not having any one aspect dominate." 

The question is whether abandoning the riper, extracted style will disappoint consumers who clearly like these pinot noirs. 

Said Koto, "I believe there are consumers out there for every style of wine, and find some prefer bigger, bolder pinots and some like a lighter and more reserved style. I think consumers newer to wine certainly appreciate an approachable style that's easy to enjoy and pairs well with food. I strive for balance, texture and fruit expression in the wines, and believe Monterey provides those amazing characteristics." 

Here are a couple of Carmel Road pinot noirs we really enjoyed: 

Carmel Road North Coast Monterey Pinot Noir 2014 ($55). This Arroyo Seco producer benefits from the cooling fogs and fierce winds that protect the grapes from ripening too fast. As a result, the North Coast single-vineyard pinot noir is restrained and balanced with bright cherry and strawberry notes. It is very full-bodied. We also liked the South Crest single-vineyard pinot noir ($55) from the same AVA.  

Carmel Road Panorama Pinot Noir 2014 ($35). One of the more reasonably priced pinot noirs, this estate wine out-delivers. More lush than the small-lot pinot noirs reviewed previously, the wine has assertive black cherry and floral aromas with blackberry and spice flavors. 

FRUITCAKE AND WINE 

Unsure what to do with that fruitcake this year other than re-gift it? Eat it – and chase it with wine. 

The sweetness of this dense cake calls for a serious quaff – port, for instance. If you really don't like fruitcake, you'll at least enjoy the port. Graham's 20 Year Old Tawny Port ($65) is a very special drink that shows what age can do for port. Warre's Warrior ($19) may not have the same aged flavors or finesse, but it is a luscious accompaniment to dessert. 

HOLIDAY PROSECCOS 

Looking for an inexpensive sparkling wine to get you through the holidays? Here are a few Italian proseccos to try: 

  • La Marca Prosecco ($19). This easy to find prosecco also comes in cute 187ml bottles, which are perfect for toting to a tailgate or just a party where they can be chilled in a bucket alongside beer. Citrus notes dominate the aromas and are followed by lush peach flavors with the classic dash of prosecco sweetness. 

  • Adami Garbel Brut Prosecco Treviso ($15). Simple but generous in flavors, this sparkling wine offers a broad palate of ripe stone fruit and melon flavors. 

  • Mionetto Prestige Extra Dry Prosecco ($14). Easy to find in most markets, this respectable version is "extra dry," which strangely means "off-dry," which means "slightly sweet," which no one wants to say. But, slightly sweet is what you get in most proseccos. Made from organically grown glera grapes, it has green apple notes. 

 

 

Duboeuf struggles with  beaujolais' image and weather

(December 11, 2017)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

More than 25 years ago we met Georges Duboeuf, the French winemaker who put Beaujolais on the international wine map. He was parading his region’s unique nouveau – released shortly after harvest and well before any other French wine – as a harbinger of what wine was to come from that year's crop. Everyone loves to party, as they say, and the release of this fresh, easy-to-drink gamay gave people a cause to celebrate year after year. 

But it always seemed to be just that – a frivolous reason to party. Getting consumers to think of the wine as something more serious has been a challenge. While Beaujolais nouveau is a hot seller, it also is a mental roadblock to consumers who never move beyond it to the excellent beaujolais crus that offer so much more 

That was Duboeuf’s challenge when we met him the in the 1980s, and it is still his challenge today at age 84. As he was promoting his wine in Japan this year, his son Franck was in New York City preaching the beaujolais gospel. At least Georges has help. 

Our pitch isn't any different than that of the Duboeufs: Beaujolais is worth discovering. It is refreshing, easy to drink, inexpensive and versatile. It may not be a wine to pair with venison, but you won’t find a better wine to go with hamburgers, pizza, pasta, fowl and even salmon. But to appreciate the region, you need to move beyond the nouveau and discover the crus named after one of 10 villages. 

 Franck and his father, Georges Duboeuf

Franck and his father, Georges Duboeuf

In a phone conversation from his New York hotel room, Franck admits the challenge is still introducing gamay Beaujolais to the consumer.  That isn’t his only challenge. In the last several years, hail has destroyed much of the crop across the region. This vintage alone he has lost two-thirds of the grapes to hail and frost. 

“Mother Nature is taking her revenge,” Duboeuf says.  “More and more we have very violent weather patterns.” 

Global warming has even pushed up the harvest date to August. 

“When I was younger, it was common to start picking in mid-September or early-October,” he says. 

He says they can take advantage of the long summer days, but they have to change the picking order and carefully monitor grape maturity. 

“It’s a challenge we have to turn into an opportunity,” he says. 

Just for kicks, we once aged several Beaujolais crus for several years and were astounded by the results. The gamays may have lost their youthful freshness, but what emerged was a mature, silky and viscous fruit bomb. Duboeuf says he has tasted his family wines from 20 years ago and they are “fantastic.” 

With new generations of wine consumers entering the market, Beaujolais is regaining its mojo. Younger generations like to experiment and they don't want to wait a decade for a wine to mature. Beaujolais is perfect for them – and, for that matter, anyone looking for an inexpensive and easy wine to drink now. 

Here are some special cru beaujolais from Duboeuf's extensive portfolio to try: 

  • Domaine de Javerniere Morgon 2015 ($20). Our favorite from Morgon, this stunning, rich wine has beautiful dark color, sweet black cherry and kirsch aromas with dark berry flavors, a long finish and surprising, soft tannins to give it more body.  

  • Georges Duboeuf Flower Label Morgon 2015 ($20). Duboeuf's "Flower Label wines" come from vines that are as old as 50 years. Very seductive yet powerful, it has wild berry and red cherry flavors, long finish and dash of cranberries and plums with an earthy texture. 

  • Domaine des Rosiers Moulin-a-Vent 2015 ($24). Powerful and robust, this full-bodied wine has intensive floral aromas, firm tannins and notes of blackberries, cassis and spice. This one can easily age.  

  • Chateau de Saint-Amour Saint-Amour 2015 ($22). Intense dark fruit aromas with precise and narrowly defined flavors, full body and rich texture. Excellent balance and acidity with silky tannins make it one of our favorites. 

  • Clos des Quatre Vents Fleurie 2015 ($22). We were swept up by the racy and bright-fruit character of this Fleurie, a region we always thought produced lighter wines. This one is bold, however, with black cherry and plum notes and a hint of mineral. 

  • Domaine du Riaz Cote-de-Brouilly 2015 ($20). A wine that can be aged, this Cote-de-Brouilly has good tannins and an intriguing blueberry note that separates it from other cru beaujolais. Luscious fruit with hints of leather and mineral. 

Pinot noir: you can taste the soil, say winemakers

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR  

(September 25, 2017)

There is probably no other grape variety that reflects its terroir more than pinot noir. Winemakers have a lot of tools to use in the winery to extract the most from the juice, but pinot noir is greatly influenced by the soil and weather -- a condition the French call, "gout de terroir" or taste of the earth. 

Pinot noir has more than 800 unique organic compounds, which help define a wine's aroma, color and flavor. Their dominance varies from one growing region to another. Burgundy pinot noir's have high acid but an enviable grace and texture. New Zealand pinot noirs are racy with lean, taut fruit. Oregon pinot noirs have higher alcohol and more extracted fruit. Of course, there are exceptions to every generality, but understanding the influence of soil and weather helps you determine your favorite pinot noir. 

With the growth of nursery-cultivated clones, pinot noir has been able to prosper as growers identify which clone does best in their particular soil and microclimate. But clones create a degree of sameness, which leaves the distinctive qualities of pinot noir to soil and weather. 

"We have some good examples of how site trumps clones," says Steve Fennell, winemaker and general manager of Sanford in Sta. Rita Hills, one of our favorite regions for pinot noir. 

A student of earth sciences, Fennell understands the impact of soil and weather. His two primary vineyards – the historic Sanford & Benedict and La Rinconada – offer the perfect contrast because the soil for the first is primarily clay and for the second it is shale. But both are blessed by cool, marine breezes that arrive at night and stay until mid-morning, then return by mid-afternoon. Cooling breezes are consistent to good pinot noir because they protect the grapes' thin skins from sunburn and allow for slow ripening. 

We asked several winemakers from our four favorite pinot noir AVAs in California to help us identify the unique characteristics that soil and climate bring to their wines.  

RUSSIAN RIVER VALLEY  

David Ramey of Ramey Wine Cellars stresses that Russian River Valley's climate has the most impact on pinot noir. Rising hot air creates a low pressure zone, which draws denser, cool air through the Petaluma Gap.  

"When we wake up during the growing season, it's often to fog at a temperature around 57 degrees. As the sun warms the region, the fog slowly burns off and the temperature rises. It's this daily diurnal temperature fluctuation – say 57 to 87 – that gives the Russian River Valley its unique characteristics – a combination of fresh, juicy acidity coupled with a charming richness." 

He argues pinots from cooler climes don't develop the valley's warm richness and pinots from hotter regions don't retain natural acidity as well. 

  • Ramey Cellars Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2014 ($50). An elegant, pretty wine, the Ramey has bright cherry flavors, long finish and a dash of spice. One of our favorites. 

ANDERSON VALLEY  

The Anderson Valley is California's most northern fine wine-growing region in proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Ryan Hodgins, winemaker for FEL Vineyard says, "One of the outcomes of this is characteristically cold winters that push our growing season quite late and shift prime ripening time towards fall and autumn, as compared to late summer in other Californian regions. As a result, Anderson Valley pinot noir tends to be more acid-driven and lighter-bodied than pinot produced farther south. The fruit profile also tends to be a bit darker.”  

  • FEL Savoy Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2015  ($70). Cliff Lede of Lede Family Wines launched this brand in 2014 and it has been a hit with us ever since. The wine shows good but balanced acidity, black cherry flavors and a dash of spice. 

SANTA LUCIA HIGHLANDS 

James Hall, winemaker for Patz & Hall, says that the Santa Lucia Highlands enjoys the attributes of both the Central and North Coasts because of its location. It's semi-arid climate allows for an early bud break and a late harvest while cooling fog from Monterey Bay slow the ripening. 

"The fruit character is brambly, slightly herbal with penetrating red fruits – a bit like raspberry leaf tea and cherry jam," he says. "There is a scale and density to the wines that is derived from the very cool nights and warm days, which cause thick skins to develop -- the source of rich body and aromatic intensity." 

  • Patz & Hall Pisoni Vineyard Sana Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir 2013 ($90). Super concentrated, full-throttle wine with bing cherry, red currant and cola notes with hints of chocolate and cloves.  

STA. RITA HILLS 

Tyler Thomas, winemaker for Dierberg, says he enjoys the expressive dark fruit profile of this region's pinot noirs.  

"While that in itself may not seem unusual for great wines, it's that the power of those aromatics often creates the expectation of largeness and richness in the palate.  And this is where Sta. Rita Hills shines: it actually delivers freshness, refinement, and precision with its texture. To me, this is the trademark of great pinot noir: large, perfumed aromatics, delivered on a fresh, delicate palate."  

Fennell of Sanford wines finds an earthy, savory profile in this appellation's pinot noirs. 

  •  Dierberg Sta. Rita Hills Drum Canyon Vineyard 2014 ($52).  This is elegant pinot noir with distinct acidity. Perfumy aromas are followed by intense black cherry flavors and a hint of spice and black pepper.  

  • Sanford Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014 ($70). This extraordinary and well-balanced pinot noir has earthy, forest-floor aromas, mature cherry flavors, ripe tannins and a dash of spice. It's colossal in weight.We'll continue the discussion of this extraordinary grape variety next week.

 

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. 

 Ponzi winemaker Luisa Ponzi

Ponzi winemaker Luisa Ponzi

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.