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"Wine Etc." is a weekly syndicated column that appears in newspapers and on newspaper websites around the country. Its home newspaper group is Capital Gazette Communications/Tribune Media at capitalgazette.com.

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.

Great wines, no tie, for dad

(June 11, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

We suspect that many of you are wracking your brains for a brilliant idea for a Father's Day gift. Before you go out and buy the classic necktie or suspenders for the old man, we have an alternative suggestion that is obviously biased. Yep, it's wine.

Think about it: a good tie costs a ridiculous $80. How many does he have in his closet and does he really want another one? On the other hand, if he likes wine, imagine the appreciation for something ridiculously expensive that he wouldn't buy for himself but would appreciate getting. The response will be something like, "You shouldn't have..." But he's going to love the wine.

Yes, we know these 15 wines are expensive but we're hoping you have some siblings who can chip in. And don't expect him to share the wine with you. You wouldn't wear his tie, would you? 

·         Beaulieu Vineyard Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($42). A complex blend of cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, petit sirah and merlot, this balanced wine from some of Napa's top vineyards is an iron fist in a velvet glove. Delicious now, it offers great cellaring potential. Floral and dark berry aromas, layered blackberry and black cherry flavors with hints of vanilla, "Rutherford dust," mocha, cedar and spice.  

·         Ladera Reserve Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($100). Although most producers of mountain-grown grapes make their cabs big and tannic, Ladera throttles it back a bit with a more balanced, finessed wine that still has layers of rich fruit and is still big and complex. Generous blackberry and black currant notes with hints of dried herbs and chocolate. 

·         Chimney Rock Napa Valley Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($99). Recent fires came very close to destroying this property, but good fortune allowed Chimney Rock to continue producing full-bodied cabernets in the Stags Leap District.  The cabernet sauvignon -- blended with merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot -- has generous aromatics and dark berry flavors. The supple tannins make it approachable for current drinking. 

·         J. Lohr Cuvee PAU 2014 ($50). J. Lohr's Bordeaux-style cuvees are eminently drinkable upon release. If your father doesn't want to wait several years to enjoy his gift, these wines are sure to please with his next grilled steak. The PAU – symbolic of the Paulliac region -- from Paso Robles is a blend of cabernet sauvignon and malbec. Blueberry and plum notes. 

·         Concannon Vineyards Clone 7 Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($90). This sturdy wine made entirely from cabernet sauvignon grapes grown in Chalk Hill vineyards is rich and complex – like dad! Let him grill a steak, though, to complement this wine. Big tannins need beef. Dark cherry and wild blackberry flavors with hints of cigar box and cocoa. 

·         Duckhorn Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($78). Merlot, petit verdot, cabernet franc and malbec are blended in this full-bodied and richly textured cabernet sauvignon. Licorice notes add to the generous cherry and strawberry notes. 

·         Le Serre Nuove Dell’Ornellaia Bolgheri DOC Red 2015 ($70-80). From the Bolgheri region where the Italians are planting French varietals, these grapes are from the younger vines from the Ornellaia Estate. A blend of 64 percent merlot, 17 percent cabernet sauvignon 10 percent cabernet franc and 9 percent petite verdot, this wine combines the best of Bordeaux and Napa California into a berry-and-cassis-flavored wine.  

·         Chappellet Merlot 2015 ($45). About the time we're ready to give up on merlot, we come across a gem like this. Blended with some cabernet sauvignon, malbec and petit verdot, it has substance and depth. Generous cherry and cedar aromas are chased by black cherry, cassis, chocolate flavors with hints of clove and vanilla. Very broad on the palate. We loved this wine. 

·         Cliff Lede Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($78). Winemaker Christopher Tynan shows what Stags Leap vineyards can produce in both power and finesse. Generous red and black fruit character with a bit of cassis, leather and mineral.

·         Migration Dutton Ranch Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2015 ($68).  This delicious pinot noir is a good expression of Russian River Valley.  Winemaker Dana Epperson draws grapes from the cool Green Valley to make a textural, hedonistic blockbuster. Long, long finish and layered complexity.

·         Vinas del Vero Secastsilla Garnacha 2010 ($38). From a forgotten region of Somontano  in Spain, this smooth, unctuous and oak-driven grenache is super delicious. Black cherry and blackberry notes with hints of vanilla and spice. Grapes are grown on 100-year-old vines. 

·         Gamble Family Vineyards Paramount Proprietary Red Blend 2014 ($90). This Oakville producer makes outstanding and memorable wines ranging from sauvignon blanc to this exquisite Bordeaux-style blend. Dense and rich with red berry and tobacco aromas, black cherry and herbal flavors. Big wine with layers of flavors to keep you interested.

·         St. Supery Merlot Napa Valley 2014 ($52). This is merlot at it’s best! Enticing raspberry nose with a hint of oak. Bright cherry/berry fruit flavors in a full-bodied package with long length in the mouth.   

·         Chappellet Cabernet Franc 2015 ($85). Not many producers can make a cabernet franc with this kind of depth and dimension.  Although blended with cabernet sauvignon, malbec and petit verdot, it is the cabernet franc character that comes through. Made from mountain-grown grapes, it has great concentration with varietal blueberry, cassis and blackberry flavors. The 22 months it spends in French oak barrels adds smoke, vanilla and clove to the profile. Wow, quite a wine. 

·         Acumen Mountainside Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($60). This Napa producer makes a series of stunning, colossal cabernet sauvignons from vineyards on Atlas Peak. Founded by Eric Yuan only a couple of years ago, Acumen is showing great potential with mountain-grown grapes.

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.

Fire up the grill: wines and BBQ

(May 21, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

Those who bask in the sun year-round are fortunate to be able to grill in comfort all of the time, but for most northerners grilling is a seasonal thing. It isn't as if people set their calendars accordingly, but for whatever reason Memorial Day is a summons for barbecue chefs to fire up the outdoor grill. Party on.

We like to slow smoke ribs and pork butts because a conventional gas grill or an indoor oven cannot recreate the flavors that come from smoking wood chips. Whether your choice is a Weber grill or a Big Green Egg, a slow-cooked pork butt is a great way to spend a holiday with friends. It's relatively inexpensive and can easily serve a crowd.

Smoked barbecue fare such as pulled pork, ribs and burgers calls for fruity wines to match the sweet, ketchup- based sauces that are slathered on the meat during and after it is cooked.  Merlot, malbec and syrah will work well, but we prefer zinfandel because it is bold, ripe and an all-American grape variety – perfect for a day that memorializes those who have paid the ultimate price for serving their country.

Although zinfandel has its origins in Croatia, it is a grape variety that is not grown elsewhere as "zinfandel."  The vines are often old because of their home-winemaking appeal during Prohibition and their survival from the 1980s devastation caused by widespread phylloxera disease. 

Zinfandel ines traditionally struggle to reach water and their gnarly, twisted appearance adds to their brazen image. Zinfandel also is one of the few grapes that loves heat, which can produce wines with alcohol levels several percentage points higher than other wines. Beware! Alcohol gives wine more body, a perfect foil to smoked food. And its raisin flavors marry well with sweet, tomato-based barbecue sauces.

Fire up the grill and try some of these zinfandels:

·         Dry Creek Heritage Vines Zinfandel Sonoma County 2106 ($36). The blend is 79 percent zinfandel with a bit of petite sirah and primitivo. This is a very balanced, food-friendly zinfandel presenting a berry-driven wine with a hint of oak. Smooth tannins. 

·         Ravenswood Belloni Zinfandel 2015 ($39). Ravenswood is serious about zinfandel. Its founder, Joel Peterson, sold the brand to Constellation in 2001, but his legacy for "no wimpy wines" lives on. The Belloni has been one of our favorites year to year. It's blended with 25 percent "mixed black grapes," but the Belloni fruit from the cool Russian River Valley provides depth of dark fruit flavor, a floral nose and a dash of spice.  We also love the Old Hill Zinfandel ($60) for its immense structure.

·         Sidebar Russian River Valley Old Vine Zinfandel 2016 ($28). Fourteen other varieties – mostly alicante and petite sirah -- are blended with zinfandel in this exotic melangé of flavors.  Rich, lush mouthfeel with copious dark red fruit flavors.

·         Chateau Montelena Calistoga Zinfandel 2015 ($39). Brambly in personality, this dense and balanced zinfandel has notes of ripe blackberries, chocolate, pepper and tobacco.

·         Artezin Zinfandel Mendocino County 2016 ($18). This is a well-priced zinfandel that exhibits exuberant briary, berry flavors with subtle spice elements. The content is 85 percent zinfandel with a dash of petite sirah and carignan.   

·         Frank Family Vineyards Napa Valley Zinfandel 2014 ($37). Rich Frank was president of Disney Studios for more than a decade, but today his studio is at an historic property in Napa Valley. His zinfandel is consistently good year after year. Layers of fresh fruit, depth and texture.

·         Cline Family Cellars Ancient Vines Zinfandel 2016 ($15). We've been drinking Ancient Vines zin for more than a decade and continue to marvel at the price-to-quality ratio. Made from grapes grown on vines more than 100 years old, this zinfandel is packed with juicy black fruit flavors and a dose of spice and black pepper.

·         Big Smooth Old Vine Zinfandel Lodi 2015 ($22). This wine produced by Don Sebastiani and Sons is a joy to drink for zinfandel lovers. Bright lush plum and berry fruit a little oak and very moth filling.     

·         Shooting Star Zinfandel 2015 ($14). From Mendocino County, this simple but delicious zinfandel from Jed Steele has ripe, raisin-like berry flavors with a hint of chocolate.

OTHER BBQ WINES

If zinfandel isn't your thing, here are a few other red wines that would complement grilled meats and sauces:

·         Purple Heart Red Wine Sonoma County 2015 ($20). A collaboration between C. Mondavi & Family and the Purple Heart Foundation, here is a perfect wine for the decorated veteran in your family. A blend of merlot, zinfandel, petit verdot and cabernet franc, it has ripe plum and currant flavors with a hint of licorice and oak.

·         Rodney Strong Reserve Malbec Sonoma County 2014 ($40). Not many California wineries bottle a varietal malbec, but after tasting this seductive offering from Rodney Strong maybe they should. Very expressive berries, red currant and plum present in the nose and mouth. Rich and smooth and ready to drink.                                                                                                               

·         Kendall-Jackson Reserve Syrah Santa Barbara County 2015 ($17). The coastal vineyards around Santa Barbara are producing some of California’s best syrah. Oodles of fresh boysenberry and plums with a delightful spice element. This is an amazing value for one of the best syrahs we have tasted recently.     

·         Anaba Wines Turbine Red Sonoma Valley 2015 ($35). We loved this delicious Rhone-style blend of grenache, syrah, mourvedre and petit sirah. Plum and blackberry fruit flavors with an earthy feel and lavender aromas.

  • Two Angels Petite Sirah Red Hills Lake County 2015 ($30). This is a real mouthful of spectacular red wine. Classic California petite sirah with blueberry and blackberry elements with a hint of mocha and oak. This wine is terrific by itself or can stand up to any bold flavored foods.               

                                                     

Putting spring into your wine

(May 14, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

With spring at hand, we’ve got some terrific columns coming up to get you in the mood for warmer weather. This week, we give you 10 reasons to celebrate spring. These wines were chosen because they are delicious and different to those of you stuck on pinot grigio and pinot noir. Many of them are great deals too.

·         Michael David Ancient Vine Cinsault 2016 ($25). What a treat. This medium body wine made from Lodi vineyards more than 100 years old sports bright cherry/cranberry flavors and a dash of spice. Very quaffable. 

·         Caleo Nero d'Avola Terre Siciliane 2015 ($10). This is a killer wine for the price. Made entirely of nero d'avola grapes grown on Sicily, it has ripe black cherry and raspberry flavors with hints of lavender and rosemary. It's a great pasta, pizza or hamburger wine. 

·         Steele Shooting Star Blue Franc 2014 ($15). The grape variety in this fun and easy wine is actually blau frankisch ("blue grape from France"), but it's a relative of lemberger, a grape variety common to Austria. Neither grape is anything you want to put on a label, so Jed Steele just calls it "blue franc" and puts a French franc note on the label.  Steele likes to have fun with odd grapes and this one is just a delicious joyride. Simple and spirited cranberry and cherry flavors. 

·         Niro Pecorino Terre di Chieti 2016 ($17). Pecorino isn't just cheese. We just loved this unique and lively wine from the Abruzzo region of Italy. Made entirely from pecorino grapes, it has generous pineapple, acacia and almond aromas, a viscous texture and oodles of pear flavors. Serve it with pecorino cheese. 

·         Beronia Rueda Verdejo 2017 ($13).  We just can't get enough of Spanish verdejos. This is an incredible steal. Lots of herbal aromas with peach and citrus flavors and rich, full mouthfeel. 

·         Luce Della Vite Lucente 2015 ($30). The second wine of the well-known Luce, this super-Tuscan blend of merlot and sangiovese has fresh blackberry and plum fruit flavors with hints of vanilla and coffee. Very soft and rounded in the mouth, it's great drinking by itself. 

·         Pazos de Lusco Albarino 2016 ($25). Herbal and citrus aromas give way to generous, varietal grapefruit and pineapple flavors.  More full-bodied than most albarinos, this is a great wine from Spain to pair with an elegant fish dinner.  

·         Writer's Block Lake County Grenache 2015 ($18). Like most grenaches, this version is relatively light in color and body but provides a refreshing lift of citrus, strawberry and spice character. 

·         Domaine Paul Mas Cote Mas Blanc Mediterranee ($13). A blend of grenache blanc, vermentino, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, this Pay d'Oc from the Languedoc is simple yet delicious. Fresh acidity with citrus, grapefruit and pineapple flavors. 

·         Cusumano Nero d'Avola 2016 ($12). A great buy from Sicily, this smooth nero d'avola has lots of blueberry and plum flavors with a hint of olives. Violet aromas and dark in color, it has a glass closure – odd, but it's easy to remove.  

TOES IN THE WATER 

"Toes in the water, ass in the sand, not a worry in the world, a cold beer in my hand," sings Zac Brown. Now the country singer has put his name behind a new wine label, Z. Alexander Brown. Don't worry: he's not putting his toes in the juice. 

We tasted the 2017 Uncaged Sauvignon Blanc and 2016 Uncaged Chardonnay and found them to be pleasant but not special. Both cost $20 a bottle.  

Country singers are associated more with beer than wine. Maybe he should change the lyrics to "...a chardonnay in my hand." 

Chardonnays for the lady of the house

(May 7, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

With Mother's Day quickly approaching, it is time to focus on the family matriarch. If wine makes for a good gift, put away those masculine zinfandels and Italian barolos. Mom wants chardonnay.

As much as critics and wine snobs scoff at chardonnay, it continues to hold title to the top-selling wine varietal in the U.S.  One out 5 bottles sold is chardonnay. It is also the most widely planted grape in the world. 

Because chardonnay rules, it's as vilified as the champion New England Patriots. Much of this is due to its abundance and commonality, but also to its twisted manipulation by mass producers. Too many chardonnays are over-oaked, too buttery and even sweet.  If you want something more refined, look to France. Chardonnays produced in cooler climates – Chablis and the Maconnais – have higher acidity and restrained fruit flavors.  Those made in the United States tend to be buttery and alcoholic because of excessive malolactic fermentation, warmer climates and generous exposure to oak barrels.

There are a number of West Coast producers we like: Ramey Wine Cellars, Sea Smoke, Chehalem, Calera, Patz & Hall and Au Bon Climat.  We have been particularly impressed recently with the string of chardonnays made by David Ramey of Ramey Wine Cellars in the Russian River Valley. He has eliminated skin contact, adds a bit of oxidized juice, uses only native yeasts, and is experimenting with neutral concrete egg vessels instead of oak.

Happy Mother's Day to all the moms. Now, go buy mom a bottle of expensive chardonnay:

·         Ramey Estate Chardonnay Westside Farms 2015 ($65). Very rich and complex, this big chardonnay would challenge anything Burgundian. Lots of tropical fruit flavor with a heavy dose of oak-infused coconut. We also liked the Woolsey Road chardonnay ($65).

·         Ramey Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2015 ($42). The cooler climate vineyard in this normally warm region provides a more crisp, balanced chardonnay.  Tropical fruit, long finish, complex.

·         Ladera Pillow Road Vineyard Chardonnay 2015 ($50). Now in its 10th vintage, this single-vineyard chardonnay from the Russian River Valley is stunning. Very expressive in the nose with ripe apple and pear notes, bright peach and apricot flavors with a dose of oak-infused vanilla. Long finish.

·         Sea Smoke Chardonnay 2015 ($60).  Winemaker Don Schroeder has reduced the oak exposure to his chardonnay and the result is a more food-friendly, elegant wine. In addition, he doesn't filter this wine so it gains more viscosity and mouthfeel. Peach and tropical fruit flavors with honeysuckle aromas.

·         Gran Moraine Yamill-Carlton Chardonnay 2015.  ($45).  This Oregon gem was one of our favorite chardonnays in this lineup.  With character unique to this terroir, the wine has all pistons firing: texture, balance and only a kiss of oak. After the wine gets happy in oak barrels for 16 months, it is transferred to outdoor stainless-steel tanks and left to mature in the cold Northwest winter.

·         FEL Anderson Valley Chardonnay 2016 ($32).  You get a lot of chardonnay for the money here. With grapes coming from the cool Anderson Valley and no malolatic fermentation, the producer is able to keep the acidity fresh and the fruit bright. This is the style of chardonnay you should be serving at the table.

·         Frank Family Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay 2016 ($35). A friend of ours served nothing but Frank Family wine at her daughter's wedding reception and said people were amazed at the quality. So are we. Across the board, Frank's wines are great values. This chardonnay excels: creamy texture but lively acidity, apple and pear flavors with a dash of vanilla and spice. If you like your chardonnay on the oaky side, this is a winner.

·         River Road Un-oaked Sonoma County Chardonnay 2016 ($13). Ron Rubin Winery has an impressive series of inexpensive wines. We liked the price point of this unadorned, unoaked chardonnay. Citrus notes with pineapple and apple flavors and a dash of allspice. 

·         Novellum Chardonnay 2015 ($12). This is one of the best values in chardonnay we have tasted in a long time. A part of the Eric Solomon impressive portfolio, the wine is made in the Cotes Catalanes region of southern France. It reminded us of a Macon Village from Burgundy with clean, pure fruit flavors and no oak. Simple, balanced and loaded with unadulterated tropical and apple fruit flavors.

·         Benziger Sonoma County Chardonnay 2015 ($16). Bright apple and pear notes with a hint of vanilla and balanced acidity.

·         Drouhin Chablis Grand Cru Vaudesir 2015 ($75). It's hard to judge grand cru chablis because it typically needs at least 5-7 years to begin to reveal itself. However, this lovely chablis grants a glimpse of what is to come. Citrus fruit and of honey already show and a beautiful roundness in the mouth hints at future potential. Be patient with this well-crafted wine and you will be rewarded. The producer makes less expensive chablis that requires less aging.

·         Cuvaison Adda Chardonnay 2015 ($50). We loved the complexity and texture of this delicious, single-vineyard chardonnay from the cool Los Carneros AVA. Balanced with good acidity and lively citrus and peach notes.

·         Landmark Vineyards Damaris Reserve Chardonnay 2016 ($35).  Created as an homage to winery founder Damaris Deere-Ford, this opulent and rich chardonnay has tropical fruit and citrus flavors with hints of vanilla and spice.

·         Stags' Leap Napa Valley Chardonnay 2016 ($30). Reasonably priced for what you get here, this big chardonnay has classic tropical fruit and pear flavors with a rich mouthfeel and a kiss of oak.

·         Mi Sueno Winery Los Carneros Chardonnay 2015 ($42). Generous pear aromas give way to grapefruit and lemongrass flavors with oak-inspired butterscotch. Soft mouthfeel.

·         Etude Grace Benoist Ranch Chardonnay 2016 ($32). Made from estate-grown Carneros fruit, this classic chardonnay has pear and apple flavors, balanced acidity and a mineral thread that sets it apart from the pack.

·         Dry Creek Vineyard DCV Estate Block 10 Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2016 ($36). Barrel fermented and aging in French oak barrels produces a luscious elegant tropical fruit driven spicy chardonnay. The ripe fruit and richness coats the tongue for a long lasting sensory experience. 

·         Raeburn Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2016 ($22). This is a well-balanced chardonnay exhibiting medium bodied pear/apple fruit with a hint of citrus. Just a bit of toasty oak completes the package. A real winner from the Russian River Valley.

·         The Provenance Carneros Chardonnay 2015 ($35). With grapes from the well-respected Sangiacomo and Winery Lake vineyards, this chardonnay has stone fruit character, pear and honeysuckle aromas. Good and long finish.

Sonoma-Loeb Envoy Chardonnay 2016 ($38). We liked this wine for its balance, burgundian-feel and moderate oak flavors. Citrus and clove aromas w3ith stone fruit flavors.                 

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.   

New releases from Italy; some good merlots

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

There used to be a time early in our lives when a plate of spaghetti and meatballs were accompanied by chianti in a fiasco basket. That was often the only chianti available. But today consumers have many more Italian choices to complement their pasta: barbera, dolcetto, nebbiolo and, yes, even chianti.

Like the wine, pasta has taken on more variety since the days of Chef Boyardee. Sauces and ingredients are far more creative, so the wine needs to step up to the occasion.

Here are several new wines we recently tasted that are great matches to pasta:

·         Attillio Ghisolfi Langhe Nebbiolo 2015 ($30).  A silky, unpretentious wine with bright red fruit flavors and little tannin to keep it fun and quaffable. Long finish and a good price for what you get.

·         Vietti Dolcetto d’Alba Tre Vigne 2015 ($20). Wow, what a great deal. Very approachable with raspberry and blueberry notes and soft tannins.

·         Ruffino Il Ducale 2014 ($18). This delicious blend of sangiovese, merlot and syrah puts the soft touch on pasta with tomato-based sauces. Flavors include ripe cherries, plum and vanilla.

·         Paolo Manzone Dolcetto d'Alba "Magna" 2015 ($18). We have had plenty of insipid dolcettos from Italy that gave us doubt. But this is not one of them. An extraordinary, intense and rich dolcetto, Manzone has knocked a homerun here. Bright red color, floral aromas and an intense palate of red berries. We're buying more.

·         Frescobaldi Massovivo Ammiraglia Toscana IGT Vermentino 2016 ($17). Although Tuscany is famous for its red wines made primarily from the sangiovese grape, this stunningly delicious white wine made from the vermentino grape is worthy of consideration. All stainless-steel fermentation and aging has created a wine with mouth filling crisp pear and apple elements with a slight floral note. It would be a great accompaniment to pasta with white sauces. 

·         Citra Caroso Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo Reserve 2010 ($33). This is a big style red wine from Caroso. Made from the montepulciano grape, it is deep, rich with ripe berry fruit flavors, some licorice notes, a smooth delivery with soft tannins. Great with red-sauced Italian dishes.

·         Fattoria Selvapiana Chianti Rufina Riserva "Bucerchiale 2013 ($35). With some bottle age on this new release, the reserve Selvapiana has a rustic quality to it. Textured and mature red berry fruit.        

·         Diego Cusumano Nero d’Avola 2016 ($12). Is this really just $12? Your fancy napkins cost more than that. From a family estate in Sicily, the wine is chock full of black berry and plum fruit flavors. It’s simple, pure and quaffable – perfect with pizza.

·         Frescobaldi Mormoreto Toscana IGT 2012 ($87). Although this wine is a blend of French grape varieties it has a distinctive Italianate sense about it.  Mostly cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot with a bit of petite verdot this wine displays medium bodied berry notes with some leather and cedar accents. A baby this wine can go for the long haul.     

NEW MERLOTS

Here are some interesting merlots we've tasted recently:

·         Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve Sonoma County Merlot 2014 ($26).  This has a broad spectrum of flavors, mouth-filling blackberry fruit and a hint of chocolate. Forward in style with soft tannins and long finish. 

·         Bonterra California Merlot 2015 ($16). From one of the oldest and most consistent organically and sustainably farmed vineyards, Bonterra makes a delicious, fruit-forward merlot reminiscent of a cherry orchard.  Blended with a bit of petite sirah and malbec, it has good dimension and richness with hints of vanilla and spice.

·         Chelsea Goldschmidt Alexander Valley Merlot 2015 ($20). This concentrated merlot was new to us, but happily discovered. Good balance with cherry and strawberry notes with a dash of clove and cinnamon.

·         Novelty Hill Merlot 2015 ($23). From Washington's Columbia Valley, this merlot from winemaker Mike Januik has a medium body with generous, jammy raspberry flavors and a hint of mocha.

·         Thorn Napa Valley Merlot 2014. Under new management, The Prisoner has leveraged the success of its title wine to produce the Thorn merlot and Cuttings cabernet sauvignon. Like The Prisoner, these two wines have a hedonistic quality with ripe, rich and sweet fruit character. This merlot, blended with malbec and syrah, is round and fleshy with mouth-filling cherry flavors and huge chocolate and vanilla notes.

·          Grgich Hills Estate Merlot 2013 ($43). This estate takes merlot to a higher level with this complex, layered gem. Strawberry and cherry flavors abound with hints of coffee and herbs.

·         Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Merlot 2014 ($25). Fruit forward in style, this merlot exudes ripe black cherry and plum fruit with a dash of pepper.

Putting bubbles into wine -- cheaply

(April 18, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

A number of decades ago sparkling wine was either pricey champagne or sweetened, effervescent plonk made by bulk winemakers in California, such as Gallo or Italian Swiss Colony. For those of you old enough to remember, Andre and a sweet sparkling red wine called Cold Duck should bring back a smile or a bad memory.

Today, the sparkling wine opportunities are much broader with availability from most winemaking regions of the world. But the giants of value bubbles come from Italy and Spain.

Although real French champagne still reigns supreme in the premium sparkling wine category, bargain-priced bubbly such as Italian prosecco and Spanish cava in the $10-$20 range dominate imported sparkling wine purchases.  

However, according to the wine trade magazine Shanken News Daily, sparkling wine is less than 7 percent of total U.S. wine consumption. It is projected to grow by 8 percent while total U.S. annual wine consumption is expected to grow only a little more than 1 percent.

A significant portion of this growth comes from prosecco and cava. Prosecco is most commonly a sparkling wine made from at least 85 percent glera grapes grown in the Veneto and Friuli regions of northeastern Italy. Most typically it is fermented in stainless steel tanks utilizing the bulk charmant method. This economical way of making prosecco as opposed to the premium in-bottle fermentation contributes to prosecco’s reasonable price.

Prosecco Valdobbiadene Superiore, made from grapes grown on hillsides in the Treviso district between the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, is generally considered superior to wine simple labeled "prosecco," and is a bit more expensive.

Cava is most commonly made from three indigenous Spanish grapes: macabeu, xarel-lo, and paralleda. Like champagne, it is fermented in the bottle. Cava tends to be drier (with less calories) than prosecco, and also comes in a rosé version created by adding red still wine to the blend.

We recently tasted some reasonably priced sparklers from Italy and Spain as well as two from Argentina and Chile. Following are our impressions.

·         Ca’ Di Rajo Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore Extra Dry Millesima DOCG 2016 ($18). While most prosecco is a blend of several vintages, this sparkling wine is entirely from the 2016 vintage. The wine exhibits a delicate floral nose, medium body and apple and lemon flavors. Very elegant and refined.

·         Tenuta Degli Ultimi Biancariva Rive Di Collato Prosecco  Superiore Brut DOCG ($20-25). Full bodied with yeast elements in the nose and bright orange and tangerine flavors. A very nice package.

·         Masottina Conegliano Valdobiaddene Prosecco Superiore DOCG ($22). A very lighter, elegant style of prosecco with floral and vanilla notes.

·         Ruffino Prosecco DOC Extra Dry ($15). From a wine producer better known for its Tuscan still wines, this affordable and quaffable prosecco is very satisfying. Baked apple and almond elements dominate in a full-bodied sparkler.

·         La Marca Prosecco DOC ($16). This is widely available and wildy popular. A pretty simple style of prosecco with apple and citrus elements. Quaffable and pleasant.

·         Vilarnau Brut Reserva DO Cava ($17). A pretty complex sparkler for the price. Yeast and apples in the nose with crisp lemony citrus flavors. A great introduction to Spanish cava, and a great value.

·         Vilarnau Brut Reserva Rosé ($17). Crafted from the red grape varieties trepat and pinot noir, this pink sparkler is a delight. More body and flavor than its cousin reviewed above, this wine delivers abundantly  bright cherry and strawberry fruit flavors. A delight to drink by itself or to pair with lighter meats, salmon, tuna or chicken. Delicious!

·         Anna de Codornu Blanc De Blanc Brut Reserva ($15). Another amazing cava value. In a departure from traditional grapes, Codornu blends 70 percent chardonnay with the three traditional cava varietals. The result is a full-bodied and rich, tropical-fruit-driven wine that delivers a great deal of pleasure.

·         Toso Brut Mendoza Argentina ($15). From the producers of the very good Argentinean Pascual Toso malbec, this sparkling wine over delivers in the quality department. Elements of elegant toasty oak, ripe fruit and honey dominate. Crafted by legendary American wine maker Paul Hobbs, this 100 percent chardonnay is a winner.

·         Valdivieso Brut Rosé Chile ($15). Although a bit on the sweet side despite the brut designation, this sparkling wine delivers pleasant strawberry and cherry flavors with a nice dose of yeast. Pretty simple, but pleasant.

·         Ruca Malen Argentina Brut ($28).  This 75 percent pinot noir, 25 percent chardonnay bubbly presents lovely pear and apple fruit notes with a bit of a brioche nose and flavor, and a long creamy finish. A world- class sparkling wine.

Ojai making some great juice

(April 11, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

Ojai Vineyards is located in the small city of Ojai, CA, hard against the sprawling Los Padres National Forest and less than 25 miles inland from the coastal city of Santa Barbara.  Adam Tolmach is the founder of Ojai Vineyard and his wine journey began after earning a viticulture and oenology degree in 1976 from University of California at Davis. After graduation and a stint at Zaca Mesa Winery, Tolmach met budding wine entrepreneur Jim Clendenen. Together they founded iconic winery Au Bon Climat in 1982 and worked together until 1991.

After selling his share of Au Bon Climat to Clendenen in 1991, Tolmach concentrated his efforts on making wine from grapes grown in a family vineyard planted in the 1980s.

Recently, we met with Fabien Castel, a native of Paris who is general manager and who has been an apprentice winemaker to Tolmach for the past 13 years. Fabien has no formal training in viticulture or oenology -- he earned a degree in biology and advertising in France. Fabien’s bio describes his relationship to wine as visceral, growing up in an environment where wine was a common experience from a young age.                 

Our past experience with wines from Ojai Vineyard was quite different from the wines that we tasted with Fabien. The Ojai Vineyard wines from the 1990s presented massive, very ripe fruit that wine writers of the time praised. An Ojai Vineyards' grenache from that time is particularly remembered for its singular dedication to hedonism.

Fabien acknowledged the previous style of winemaking and said that today's Ojai Vineyard wine is more refreshing with balanced fruit, acidity and tannin.    

The area around Ojai and Ojai Vineyard were devastated by the December fires,         but according to Fabien, “The fires circled around us but with the amazing help of many firefighters and sheer luck we came out unscathed.”

After tasting a sampling of Ojai Vineyard's 26 current wines, we were impressed with the balance of ripe fruit but a leaner, more European style of acidity and body. Fabien told us that grapes are picked earlier than in the past, harvesting when physiological maturity is achieved instead of maximum brix/sugar.

Following were our favorite wines from the tasting:

·         Ojai Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc “McGinley Vineyard Santa Ynez Valley 2016 ($30). This sauvignon blanc is for wine drinkers who have been put off by the grapefruit and herbal qualities that have dominated a generation of wines from this varietal. Ripe tropical fruit and peach elements along with light citrus notes. Barrel fermentation and aging help provide a very appealing roundness to this wine.

·         Ojai Vineyard Chardonnay Puerta Del Mar Vineyard Santa Barbara County 2016 ($32). Produced from grapes from the coolest Ojai vineyard, this wine is beautifully balanced with pear notes and a creamy, almost buttery mouthfeel.

·         Ojai Vineyards Pinot Noir Santa Barbara County 2015 ($38). An assemblage of four different parcels in Santa Barbara County, this wine is the real deal -- very appealing wild cherry and spice package that we thoroughly enjoyed.

·         Ojai Vineyards Grenache John Sebastiano Vineyard 2014 ($34). Entirely grenache, this wine is still a baby that shows promise. Cherries and plums are just emerging in this ample wine that offers balanced acidity and pretty good tannins. Purchase but wait at least 3-5 years to drink.

·         Ojai Vineyards Syrah Santa Barbara County 2014 ($34). This is a wonderful syrah with intense plum spice notes and a Northern Rhone like gaminess. A lovely creamy mocha finish completes the package. Delicious!

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.

HESS WINES

We have fond memories of a dinner with Donald Hess, founder of The Hess Collection, many years ago. Since then we have enjoyed his wines that continue to impress.

We recently sampled the Hess Collection Allomi Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2015 ($32). A blend of 92 percent cabernet sauvignon with a dash of petite sirah and petite verdot, this classic Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon displays pure cherry and cassis elements. A terrific price for a wine of this pedigree.

A little higher up the quality and price scale is the Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder 2014 ($65). Made from its estate Mt. Veeder vineyard on elevations ranging from 600 to 1,100 feet, the small berries from these steep slopes and poor soils produce an intense wine. Aged in 80 percent new oak barrels, this powerful wine can easily age 5-10 years or be enjoyed now after a 1-2 hour decant. The blend is 81 percent cabernet sauvignon, 16 percent malbec and 3 percent petite verdot.

Thoughts on albarino, Legende, syrah

(March 28, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR                                                                                                                                                           

California winemakers and retail data indicate a slight uptick in interest in more balanced, medium-bodied and less oaked white wines. Consumers are starting to figure out that bigger is not necessarily better, and balanced wines accompany food more appropriately -- something the French and Italians figured out generations ago.

A recent tasting of Spanish albarinos and a lone Portuguese alvarinho (Portuguese spelling of the same grape) brought home the potential for this grape to take its place as a go-to wine for Americans averse in over-oak chardonnay. The pleasant citrus and ripe fruit notes with subtle minerality are a delight for pairing with virtually any seafood dishes. It also is the perfect accompaniment to assorted appetizers, especially during the upcoming outdoor grilling season.

Albarino grapes are primarily grown in Galicia in northwestern Spain. Galicia's growing conditions are influenced by the cooler marine climate from the Atlantic Ocean, which produces the characteristic citrus notes and bracing acidity. Albarino grown in more inland areas produces fruit with more stone fruit elements and less acidity.

Rias Baixas is the primary growing region in Galicia for albarino. Alvarinho from Portugal is mainly from the Vinho Verde region north of Oporto, where it is bottled as a varietal and also blended into making vinho verde.                                                                           The albarinos we tasted were from the Rias Baixas region of Spain and all hailed from the 2015 and 2016 vintages.

The 2015 vintage typically offers a bit more acidity and less ripe fruit than the 2016 version. However, both vintages produced agreeable wines that are worth considering. Prices are approximate.        

·       Nora Albarino Rias Baixas DO 2015 ($19). Very quaffable white wine with bright citrus, tropical fruit notes and good acidity.

·       Burgans Albarino Rias Baixas DO 2015 ($13). From the fabulous Eric Solomon portfolio, this brilliant albarino has tropical fruit and peach flavors with a dash of mineral.

·       Pazo Senorans Albarino Rias Baixas DO 2016 ($20). The riper fruit of the 2016 vintage was apparent. Very well balanced and pleasing.

·       Adega Pazos de Lusco “Lusco” Albarino Rias Baixas D.O. 2015 ($25). Very nice thirst quenching albarino, displaying melon, and citrus elements with typical bright acidity.

·       Turonia Albarino Rias Baixas D.O. 2015 ($21). The ripe pear notes pair with a softer very agreeable lighter softer acidity Very drinkable by itself.

·       Quinto da Raza Dom Diogo Alvarinho Minho Portugal 2016 ($16). The lone Portuguese entry in our tasting, this selection presented a nice minerality and riper fruit than the Spanish albarinos and a pleasant creamy finish. Of this group of albarinos, this was our favorite.

SYRAHS

With all the wines from which to choose, we often neglect syrah. Perhaps it’s because we think first of shiraz, those fruit-forward and often insipid knockoffs from Australia. OK, we all know Australia produces some incredibly dense and complicated syrah, but many are way too frivolous and ghastly overripe for us.

We happily reunited with the grape variety in a blind tasting among friends. These versions were from California and demonstrated that the grape can lead to some rich and complex wines.

High on the list was 2014 Ramey Sonoma Coast Syrah ($40). Like its pinot noirs and chardonnays, Ramey’s syrah is made with care and attention to detail. It is balanced and more like a Northern Rhone syrah than an Australian shiraz. More classic in style with earthy, meaty aromas and a flavor profile that strikes the unami element. Dark berry flavors with a dash of olives and pepper. Ver supple and long in the finish.

Two other favorites were the 2014 Dierberg Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara Star Lane Vineyard Syrah ($40) and the 2013 Donelan Sonoma County Cuvee Christine Syrah ($48).

The Dierberg showed off generous and forward red berry aromas, fresh raspberry and plum flavors with fine tannins. This wine will age but shows well know when paired with barbecued meats.

The Donelan syrah was more complex with effusive plum and cassis flavors and a hint of dark chocolate. Balanced but with acidity and balances a lush mouthfeel. Made entirely of syrah, it is a bold version that can be enjoyed now or aged.  Donelan makes an incredible Obsidian Vineyard Syrah that will set you back $105, but as we say, it's incredible.

LEGENDE

The fabled Rothschild family has been an icon in Bordeaux for centuries, but much of its Lafite-Rothschild is out of price range for most consumers. But the family makes more than first-growth bordeaux. Its Barons de Rothschild brand is focused on reasonably priced, accessible French wines. Now comes the Legende label that introduces a line of reserve wines in the Barons de Rothschild portfolio. These wines get less oak exposure and are meant for current consumption or short-term cellaring.

There are reserves in four Bordeaux appellations: Bordeaux, Bordeaux Blanc, Medoc and Paulliac. We liked the Legende Medoc 2015 ($27) and the Legende Paulliac 2014 ($55). Both are blends of cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The latter wine is particularly stunning with spice aromas, generous dark fruit flavors, fine tannins and a hint of licorice.

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.

 

Give this winter a final dose of zinfandel

(March 12, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

We suspect most of you are fed up with the cold weather. As this winter gets in its last gasps, it's a good time to pass the time with zinfandel, an all-American wine.

There have been countless arguments over where zinfandel was born. But the introduction of DNA analysis reveals it is a relative of Croatian grape varieties crljenak kastelanski and tribidrag. It is also related to Italy's primitivo grape. But zinfandel is more common in the United States, where it was brought here by Italian immigrant winemakers. Today it accounts for 10 percent of California vineyards.

Alas, most of the grapes go into sugary white zinfandel. Vinified dry, however, zinfandel can be a heady, full-bodied wine that is a perfect match to ribs, pizza, burgers, pasta and foods with tomato sauces. So, clean off that grill.

Grown in warmer regions, the zinfandel grapes accumulate a lot of sugar and alcohol levels can be as high as 18 percent. Your body will experience a difference, so watch out.

Here are several zinfandels we recently tasted:

·         Michael David The 7 Deadly Zins Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel 2015 ($16).  Aromatic, medium bodied and with fresh cherry and raspberry fruit with a hint of chocolate.

·         Bear Flag Zinfandel 2015 ($25). Blended with petite sirah, teroldego, malbec and other grape varieties, the Bear Flag is a sturdy and jammy zinfandel -- a great match to barbecue. Forward and ripe plum and blackberry flavors with a good dose of chocolate. It is one of our favorite zinfandels this year. 

·         Frank Family Vineyards Napa Valley Zinfandel 2014 ($37). This producer continues to hit homeruns with its zinfandel. Loads of fresh raspberry and vanilla aromas with a smooth finish. Frank's 2014 cabernet sauvignon ($53) is also a stunning wine meant for the long haul. Gorgeous dark fruit flavors with aromas of cassis, cocoa and that eucalyptus hint so common to Rutherford cabs.

·         Artezin Zinfandel 2016 ($18). Blended with some petite sirah and carignan, this full-bodied Mendocino County zinfandel has broad and rich flavors of dark fruit, cassis, clove, cinnamon and pepper with cherry and pomegranate aromas. Very expansive profile.  It's a good example of what petite sirah can bring to a zinfandel.

·         Artezin Mendocino County Old Vine Zinfandel 2016 ($18). This producer makes several excellent zinfandels, but the Mendocino version represents a good value in full-bodied zinfandels. Ripe berry flavors, moderate tannins and nice spice notes.

·         Jessie's Grove Royal Tee Ancient Vine Lodi Zinfandel 2013. ($42).  Generous blackberry aromas are followed by long and ripe blackberry flavors with a hint of licorice and tobacco. Loved it! 

·         Grgich Hills Estate Napa Valley Zinfandel 2013 ($36). The addition of petite sirah gives this zinfandel better structure and color. Expect black cherry and blackberry flavor, lush mouthfeel and a lingering finish.  

·         Cedarville Vineyard Estate Zinfandel El Dorado 2015 ($26). Fresh raspberry aromas are followed by ripe red fruit flavors and a touch of chocolate. 

·         Peachy Canyon Westside Zinfandel Paso Robles 2015 ($26). Peachy Canyon has been making accessible zinfandel in Paso Robles for almost 30 years. Spicy berry fruit nose with distinct raspberry fruit flavors in the mouth with a cloak of balanced oak. Very agreeable and easy to drink.  We also love the Peachy Canyon Clevenger Zinfandel 2014 ($35), an intense yet balanced zinfandel with juicy blueberry and blackberry flavors, and the Peachy Canyon Incredible Zinfandel 2015 ($15), a great value for an everyday wine.

·         Gnarly Head Old Vine Zin 2015 ($15). Using grapes from gnarled 35- to 80-year-old vines, this Lodi producer has crafted a delicious, rich and jammy blackberry flavors with a dash of mocha.

·         Dry Creek Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel 2014 ($32). Blended with a good dose of petite sirah and a little carignan, this zinfandel has depth and rich plum and blackberry aromas, cherry and raspberry flavors with a dose of spice and cocoa. 

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).  

Choosing wines for Valentine's Day

(February 5, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

There are many things that can make a man cringe: root canals, colonoscopies, marriage proposals. Then there is Valentine's Day, the occasion when a man really wants to hide but knows someone dear to him is expecting a romantic gesture. This is not a man’s comfort zone. 

Most men will default to the usual gift: an effortless but very expensive, cringe-worthy dinner out. Your restaurant thanks you. But the adventurous will create something more original – maybe a handmade greeting card, a walk in the park, or maybe – egad – an engagement ring.  

Don't do anything rash. Take it from us, keeping Valentine's Day simple has been just as satisfying to our spouses once you get past the courtship.  Some flowers, a card, or a home-cooked dinner at home works fine. But no matter how simple the celebration, we've always have celebrated Valentine's Day with wine -- champagne to start and a nice red over a hearty meal. 

Champagne is a sensory experience. Its effervescence tingles the palate and leaves a notion that you are bathing in luxury. A rosé champagne takes it up a notch. A French rosé champagne puts you on a pedestal. And, you want to be on that pedestal, right? 

Moet & Chandon has a nice package: a full bottle of its Imperial Rosé ($50) in an attractive box designed just for Valentine’s Day. If price is an issue, you can get the same packaging for a split (180ml) for just $15. That would give you each a glass of special wine. 

There are other French rosé champagnes we like: Nicolas Feuillatte, Veuve-Cliquot, Piper-Heidsieck, for example. Or, if you want a still rosé to get things started, here are two we just love: 

  • Kim Crawford New Zealand Rosé 2017 ($17). From one of the best-selling producers of New Zealand wines in the U.S., this juicy rosé shows off watermelon and strawberry notes. An ideal match to Valentine's Day. 

  • Guigal Cotes du Rhone Rosé 2016 ($15). One of our favorite rosés year after year, the Guigal is a blend of grenache, cinsault and syrah. It's big in style with generous raspberry and citrus flavors, refreshing acidity and long finish. You'll love this wine whether it's warm or cold outside. 

If you are making dinner at home, set the mood with champagne or a glass of rosé while you prepare dinner. If the night's theme is French cuisine, here is a red and white wine to complement any luxurious French meal: 

  • Joseph Drouhin Gevrey Chambertain 2014 ($70). A very high quality village Burgundy from the 2014 vintage, which was severely affected by hail in some areas of the region. This Gevrey is already drinking well with medium ripe cherry notes accented by spicy and intriguing earthy elements.            

  • Domaine Vacheron Sancerre 2013 ($35).  Made by one of Sancerre's most respected producers, this sauvignon blanc is simply stunning. The pure fruit character and mineral notes takes what is usually a simple, light-bodied wine to a new stratosphere with intense, rich and long-lasting flavors. The yields from old vines are low and only natural yeast is used. The farming here is resolutely biodynamic. Worth every penny. 

  Are you putting steak on the grill? Here are a few luxurious cabernet sauvignons from California to consider: 

  • Robert Mondavi Winery Napa Valley Maestro 2014 ($50). The late Robert Mondavi made some of the most exceptional cabernet in Napa Valley. His wine today represents the standards he set for Napa Valley a long time ago. This version is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and petit verdot. Winemaker Joe Harden has produced a delicious yet serious wine with dark berry, cassis flavors with hints of mocha and cinnamon. Fine tannins. 

  • St. Supery Napa Valley Dollarhide Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($80). This Napa Valley property has been killing it for the last several years with all of its wines. We like this single-vineyard cab for its depth and character. Ripe blackberry and plum flavors with hints of mocha, vanilla and licorice. Viscous and long in the finish, it's destined to improve with age. We also like the 2014 Elu, a Bordeaux blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec, petit verdot and cabernet franc.  

  • Beaulieu Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($33). We enjoyed this opulent and richly textured cabernet sauvignon from a venerable producer. Expressive dark berry and plum notes are accented by broad nuances of caramel and cinnamon that come from the 15 months the wine spends in oak. Delicious wine now, but one that can age.    

Are you planning a romantic Italian dinner? Nothing says love better than a hearty bowl of pasta, some Frank Sinatra music, candles and a luxurious bottle of Italian wine. Here are some gems guaranteed to impress: 

 

  • Tommasi Casisano Brunello di Montalcino 2012 ($60). If you are planning a dinner of Italian pasta or even a steak, there is nothing more luxurious and romantic than brundello di montalcino. This full-bodied version is aged in Slavonian oak casks for 3 years and thus has a round but complex profile. Crank up the music! 

  • Marchesi di Gresy Martinenga Barbaresco 2013 ($50). Classic in style, this nebbiolo star exhibits aromatic plum and black cherry notes, followed by fresh dark fruit flavors, firm tannins and long finish. The producer's 2015 Martinenga Nebbiolo ($22) is also an enjoyable drink – not as complex but certainly delicious with young fruit character. 

  • Paolo Manzone Barolo Serralunga d'Alba 2013 ($60). Approachable in its youth yet destined for years of greatness, this sturdy barolo has a floral nose, firm yet fine tannins, red cherry flavors with a dash of forest floor.  

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Wine conventions fading; Dashwood wines

(January 15, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

The other day we had a wine epiphany. We were reading a story about the invention of blue wines and laughed at the notion of wine being anything but red, white or pink. As crazy as this trend sounds to most of us, it isn't crazy to new generations of wine drinkers who know no bounds. Should color really matter? Were we just hung up on tradition? 

The towering walls of winemaking we once thought were sacrosanct are coming down. Younger generations of winemakers are challenging practices established by their parents and grandparents. Frustrated winemakers obligated to use certain grapes are contesting government restrictions and labeling. The focus today is not to make the best wine within a region's carefully prescribed formulas, but to make the best wine period. Maybe we're uncomfortable that the rules are changing, but do they really matter if in the end the wine tastes delicious?  

Here's just a smattering of changes in the last decade or so: 

  • Blends. Italian winemaker Angelo Gaja broke Piemonte restrictions on grape varieties in the late 1990s and created some of the first blends that incorporated French grape varieties with the local barbera and barbaresco grapes. Dave Phinney, the wine genius behind The Prisoner, took blending a quantum leap further. He is blending grapes across an entire country or state -- for instance, Piedmonte barbera is blended with sangiovese to make "I" for Italian. In California, syrah is being blended with cabernet sauvingon. Anything goes today. 

  • Colors. People once scoffed at rosés -- are they dry or sweet? -- but today there are orange and blue wines from which to choose. Abe Schroener, who we've met several times at St. John's College, is one of the most unconventional winemakers you'll ever encounter. He makes polarizing orange wines, loves to add sulphur, and most recently takes great wine and carbonates it to come up with a more interesting sparkling wine. Blue wines -- a blend of red and white grapes laced with anthocyanin and indigo pigments and softened with sweeteners -- is a creation of a few enterprising Spaniards.  

  • Oxidation. Once thought to be a flaw that resulted from a wine's exposure to air is now seen as an asset. It creates nutty, fermenting apple flavors like those found in cider. We've tasted it in California marsannes and rousannes and in some Spanish wines. 

  • Containers. Wine once came in glass sealed with a cork. Today, there are several closures ranging from glass stoppers to screwtops. The container can be a box or a can. And, it's not just for cheap wine any more. 

Get used to change. We haven't seen the end of it yet. 

DASHWOOD/GOLDWATER 

Stu Marfell is chief winemaker for Dashwood and Goldwater, two New Zealand wines owned by billionaire investor Bill Foley who also is owner of the new expansion NHL franchise in Las Vegas. Marfell, who slightly resembles a young Jim Carrey, visited with us recently to showcase the Dashwood and Goldwater sauvignon blancs and pinot noirs that are available in the U.S. market.  

Marfell crafts wine from the renowned Marlborough region on the northern section of South Island.  He says Marlborough is surrounded by the cool ocean waters and dominated by warm, dry winds that create ideal growing conditions -- hot days and cool nights.   

Goldwater wines are sourced from the Wairau Valley, one of the two main grape growing valleys in the Marlborough region. According to Marfell, the Wairau Valley has more fertile, alluvial soils and hence produces riper fruit. We found the Goldwater Sauvignon Blanc Wairau Valley 2016 ($19) to present pleasant citrus flavors tempered by tropical fruit notes and refreshing acidity.  

Marlborough pinot noir is gaining notice and deserved popularity due to its easy drinkability and consumer-friendly prices. The Goldwater Pinot Noir Wairau Valley 2011 ($24) was Californian in style but was clearly in a good place. Ripe cherry in a medium-bodied, likeable package makes this wine a clear winner. 

Dashwood, on the other hand, is the result of blending fruit from the Wairau and Awatere Valleys. Marfell said the Awatere Valley was created from an ancient seabed and contains less fertile soils than the Wairau Valley. We found the Dashwood Sauvignon Blanc Wairau and Awatere Valleys 2016 ($15) to have abundant herbal notes and rich fruity flavors -- but not an abundance of grapefruit notes that are pronounced in some New Zealand sauvignon blancs.  

The Dashwood Pinot Noir Wairau and Awatere Valleys 2014 ($20) was a leaner more Burgundian style than the Goldwater sample. Aged in 20 percent French oak, it had a lean style with cherry and raspberry notes and a slight smoky edge.  

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. 

Masciarelli: a star in Montepulciano

(January 1, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and the barbera grapes from Piedmont are leaders in the reasonably priced, go-to wine for a casual weekday pizza or spaghetti with red sauce.  Of the two, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo offers a medium body with more moderate acidity than the barbera, as well as ripe fruit that many consumers fine appealing.   

Montepulciano -- the grape -- is not to be confused with Montepulciano -- the home town of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano or Montalcino, home of Brunello di Montalcino.  Both of these Tuscan towns are making heralded wines from the sangiovese grape. 

Recently we met with Francesca PalmitestaPalmitestaMasciarelli from Masciarelli Tenuta Agricole, producers of Masciarelli wines from the Abruzzo region of Italy.idely available, these wines use grapes from about 750 acres, according to Palmitesta. Half of Masciarelli’s production is used to produce their two flagship wines, the Masciarelli Trebbiano d’ Abruzzo 2016 ($12) and the Masciarelli Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo 2015 ($12). Both of these wines offer a simple, quaffable experience with the white trebbiano presenting bright apple and peach flavors with a streak of minerality.  

The montepulciano red wine offers cherry fruit notes with a slightly rustic smoky note that adds nice complexity.  

Although rosé wines are more commonly enjoyed in the warm months, some consumers are rightfully enjoying these wines year around. If you have “rosé flexibility” try the Masciarelli Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo Villa Gemma Rosé 2016 ($18).  This delicious rosé, made from montepuliciano grapes, is one of our favorites from this year's rosé crop. It is fairly dark with richer and fuller cherry notes and a delightfully spicy element.  

We also tasted a Masciarelli Trebbiano d’ Abruzzo Marina Cvetic 2015 ($50). Named after the founder’s wife, this well-crafted white wine is amazing and shows the potential of the trebbiano grape. New French oak aging results in a beautifully expressive, fruit-driven wine that could easily compete in a white Burgundy tasting.  

The Masciarelli Marina Cvetic Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo Riserva 2014 ($30) is also aged in French barriques and produces a very elegant but expressive red wine that with ripe cherry fruit flavors. Both of these wines are outstanding and worth their price.  

Is pinot noir turning a page?

(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. 

Put bubbles into your holiday spirit with champagne

(December 18, 2017)

BY TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

It seems so odd that most consumers drink champagne only at this time of the year when getting lit is less about the tree and more about celebrating the end of a year. No matter how much marketers try, champagne cannot shed its association with weddings, promotions, ship christenings, promotions, awards, success and, yes, New Year's Eve. So, give in and indulge. 

Whether you want to celebrate the holidays with a real champagne – our choice – or a knock-off, such as prosecco, is a matter between you and your pocketbook. Champagne is made only in Champagne; everything else is sparkling wine -- and the differences between the two are often more than just the name.  

Despite its image of being expensive, market competition has driven down champagne prices. It is not uncommon to find the real thing under $50.  

Perhaps the most inexpensive sparkling wine is prosecco, the Italian bubbly that has soared in sales. But the only thing it has in common with champagne are the bubbles. Prosecco, most of which is sweet, is made from the glera grapes unique to Italy while champagne comes from three grapes: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. American sparkling wine producers have adopted the French varieties. 

We hae the Brits to thank for champagne. It started with a botched 17th century attempt to make still wine. French Benedictine monks bottled their wine when the weather cooled in the fall but before fermentation was finished. The bottles exploded when the fermentation resumed in the spring. This stumped the apologetic monks who tried to invent a better stopper. About ready to give up making wine, the monks were saved by the British – who loved what was called "the devil's wine" and who invented a stronger bottle. 

That's just about enough information to get you through a cocktail conversation. Now, let's enjoy some real champagne over the holidays: 

  • Piper-Heidsieck Brut Champagne ($45). You get a lot of bang for your buck with this non-vintage, full-bodied champagne. Modestly priced as champagne goes, this classic example offers a nice yeasty nose with apple and pear flavors and a long pleasing finish. The blend is 60 percent pinot noir, 25 percent pinot meunier and 15 percent chardonnay.                                                               

  • Palmer and Co. Rosé Reserve Champagne ($70). The red wine used to color this delightful rosé comes from a 30-year-old solera. Medium bodied from a blend of 49 percent pinot noir, 42 percent chardonnay, and 9 percent pinot meunier, it has pleasant berry fruit with a hint of spice and lively bubbles.    

  • Champagne Taittinger Brut Millesime 2012 ($97).  The 2012 vintage was challenged by Mother Nature with frost, hail and coulure, but what good emerged in evident in this luxurious blend of chardonnay and pinot noir. Fresh citrus notes abound in the nose and mouth with an intriguing hint of licorice. An astounding luxury wine if you want to spoil yourself. 

  • Champagne Taittinger Brut La Francaise ($62). Using all three grape varieties grown in Champagne, this fine-tuned gem has apple flavors, white peach aromas and elegance. Elegant. 

  • Henriot Brut Souverain ($45). We have such fond memories of this champagne house, now more than 200 years old, and were pleased to see its entry level champagne still offering a lot for the money. Elegant with brioche and almond aromas and sensuous flavors with citrus notes. Henriot's Blanc de Blancs ($60) with its intense nose and long finish is also an extraordinary experience to celebrate anything good in life. 

  • Moet & Chandon Imperial Brut ($40). The house wine for this venerable producer, the Imperial Brut stands the test of time. It is a complex blend of pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay. If you want to give a welcoming message to your guests as they arrive, this is your ticket. 

  • Moet & Chandon Imperial Rosé ($50). With a dash of color, this elegant rosé champagne, blended with all three grape varieties, offers generous berry aromas, peach and apricot flavors with persistent, fine bubbles and a lingering finish.                                               

  • Bruno Paillard Extra Brut Premiere Cuvee ($50). This champagne house is rather unique – it wasn't founded until 1981 and produces even less wine than Krug. But the champagne is nonetheless impressive and comparatively well priced. "Extra brut" is drier than "brut" and often confused with extra dry – which is actually a bit sweet. Confused? Just enjoy the wine. Full-bodied and balanced, it has generous citrus and mineral notes with flavors ranging from pineapple to raspberries. 

  • Champagne Collett Brut Art Deco ($42). Made by the oldest cooperative in Champagne, this brut is a blend of about 20 crus and demonstrates the elegance one seeks from champagne. Fresh, apple and tropical fruit notes. 

SPARKLING WINES 

  • Gran Moraine Brut Rosé ($50). From the Willamette Valley, this vibrant blend of chardonnay and pinot noir has an elegant pale pink color, bright acidity, apple/cherry flavors and a persistent finish. 

  • Cote Mas Cremant de Limoux NV Brut St. Hilaire ($15-18). We’ve become big fans of the value priced sparkling wines from Languedoc produced by Domaines Paul Mas over the past several years. The Cote Mas Brut made from a blend of mostly chardonnay and chenin blanc with a bit of pinot noir and mauzac is a terrific sparkler presenting beautiful pear and lemon fruit elements with balancing acidity, and lovely brioche notes. Great balance and very quaffable.                         

  • Le Grand Courtage Blanc de Blanc Brut ($20). Meaning "the great courtship," Le Grand Courtage is a brand created by Tawnya Falkner to symbolize a blending of American and French culture. It is made in Burgundy, so the grape varieties are different than those of Champagne. The blanc de blanc comes from chardonnay, chenin blanc, colombard and ugni blanc.  Given the price, it's a lot better than many other sparkling wines in this category. Lots of apple and citrus flavors. It also comes in mini bottles (187 ml).  

  • Mumm Napa Brut Prestige ($22). Value priced, this Napa sparkling wine – a blend of chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier and pinot gris -- is simple and refreshing with a yeasty, stone-fruit nose and citrus and apple flavors. 

  • J Vineyards Russian River Valley Cuvee 20 ($38). A classic blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, this luxurious Sonoma County sparkling wine has almond and apple aromas followed by lemon curd and apple, cranberry flavors.  This is a very classy and elegant sparkling wine. 

 

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. 

 

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Finding aged burgundies at the right price

(November 22, 2017)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

Some readers might consider the phrases “reasonably priced” and "burgundy" an oxymoron. Add “aged burgundy” and “premier cru” to the mix and many of you would melt into laughter.  

We were of the same thought of mind until we came across a Domaine Menand Pere et Fils Mercurey 1er Cru 2005 that was available for $45. The Menard Mercurey exhibited complex, aged burgundy characteristics of ripe cherry, mushrooms and a distinct earthiness. Drinking beautifully now,  this red wine still had plenty of life.  

Presented by Tom Cox of Siema Wines, a wholesaler in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., we were amazed by the availability, price and quality of this 12-year-old burgundy.  

Cox said that this importer, Exclusive Wine Imports of Alexandria, Va., could source other aged burgundy at favorable prices and, oh by the way, would we like to taste them? 

He arranged a tasting with Jim Ungerleider to taste some of the limited production estate wines in their portfolio. Jim and Stephan Murray-Sykes founded Exclusive Wine exports in 2007, with Stephan sourcing the wines in Burgundy where he has lived and served on many professional tasting panels over the past 20 years.  

Exclusive Wine Imports originally sourced wines from Burgundy, and according to Jim, “sourced winemakers who didn’t have a presence in the U.S.” They now import between 6,000 to 8,000 cases per year from all over France.  

Ungerleider said many of their older burgundies are part of the original stocks of Burgundy imported in 2007 immediately before the economic calamity of 2008-2009 when luxury wine-buying ground to a halt. Instead of selling them off at fire-sale prices, they kept them because “they’re only going to get better, and in any event we can drink them." 

Among the white burgundies, we especially enjoyed the Domaine Feuillat-Juillot, Montagny 1er Cru Les Coeres 2010 ($38). This 7-year-old white wine is just beginning to develop the honey and caramel notes of its next stage of development. Nice minerality and good acidity make this wine a very attractive package.  

Two red wines from the somewhat overlooked 2006 vintage proved quite different. The Bertrand Machard de Gramont, Nuit-Saint-Georges Les Vallerots 2006 ($79), is from a 1.2-acre vineyard that yields only two tons per acre. This wine was somewhat reticent with wild cherry notes just beginning to emerge.  

The Bertrand Machard de Gramont, Nuits-Saint-Georges aux Allots ($79) was more evolved, showing well now. Deep ripe cherry notes are readily apparent in this delicious example, but this wine is still in its youth and will do nothing but continue to develop complexity. 

We also tasted two Pommard vintages from Albert Boillot’s 1er Cru En Largilliere vineyard that were a bit more expensive at $82 per bottle. The 2006 was still showing pretty firm tannins and dried cherry fruit notes, and needs a bit more time for this lesser vintage. The 2005, a much riper vintage, exhibited more mature cherry fruit, and blossomed in the glass after 10 minutes. Both of these wines will evolve beneficially for at least 10 more years but we give the edge to the 2005.    

 

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.

Can wines in a can taste good? And, remembering BV

(October 11, 2017)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

Let’s say you’re headed to a tailgating party before the big game and you want to pack some wine to go with the brats and wings. You pile a couple of bottles of cheap pinot grigio and zinfandel in a cooler that is already too heavy for one person to lug into the parking lot. 

Or, let’s just say that you wise up and pack a couple of cans of wine. Now, isn't that easier? But you hesitate: am I going to be embarrass to offer someone a can of chardonnay? 

No, especially if you’re a millennial. Don’t look now, but wine bottles are sharing the shelves with cans and boxes.  U.S. sales of wine from the can doubled in one year and has gone from $2 million in sales in 2012 to $14 million in 2016.  

pams_cuties_enviroment_cropped.sm.jpg

Maybe the experience of pouring wine from a can hasn't quite reached the dinner table or the restaurant, but it has become a convenient alternative to the 750ml bottle at tailgates, boating raft-ups, beaches, picnics, festivals, camping and alongside pools and decks.  

The advantages are numerous: 

  • Like beer, cans are easy to toss into a cooler. And they are lighter. 

  • It forces portion control. A can is about 2 glasses and maybe that’s all you want. There is no urgency to finish a bottle or even recork it. 

  • It can be taken into stadiums or pools where glass is prohibited. 

  • Not being exposed to light, cans can last for up to a year without fear of oxidation. 

But there are disadvantages too: 

  • Cans can be more expensive by the ounce. They need to be lined with polymer to prevent acidic wines from destroying the aluminum from within. 

  • Top producers aren’t using cans. Francis Ford Coppola puts his Sophia wines in cans and they are very good. But you haven’t yet seen other top producers break with tradition and risk their images. 

  • Drinking wine from a can through a straw can be intoxicating. Beer is only 4 percent alcohol and wine is around 13 percent. Drinking wine just as fast as a soda will get you into trouble.  

Canned wines are a good fit for the right occasions, but they can be a bit sweet and ripe. Experiment before you offer them to a crowd. 

Here are some we tasted: 

  • Pam’s Unoaked Chardonnay ($4 for one 187ml can). Made by Ron Rubin of Ron Rubin Winery in Sonoma County,  the unoaked chardonnay is very pleasant with good acidity and varietal apple flavors. There is also a Ron’s Red from this collection that appears to be a varied blend of red grapes. 

  • Tangent Rosé 2016 ($48 for six 375ml cans). If there is ever a perfect wine for a can, it’s rosé. Meant to be an unassuming aperitif, rosé can be easily chilled and sipped. Tangent is from the Edna Valley and is a blend of albarino, viognier, pinot noir, syrah and grenache. 

  • Great Oregon Wine Country Pinot Noir ($13 for four 6.3-oz. cans). These are smaller cans than most others, but maybe that’s good. Light and fruity, it’s a good wine to chill. This company also cans a decent pinot grigio. 

  • Underwood Rosé ($28 for four 375ml cans) The Union Wine Co. has been putting wine in a can for several years and has become easy to find. It’s pinot noir is a hit, but we liked this easy-drinking rosé. 

  • Alloy Wine Works Pinot Noir ($18 for three 375ml cans). Ripe cherry flavors and easy to quaff chilled. 

REVISITING BV 

Wineries often come and go, but there are many who have been with us for generations. One such winery we are happy to see still around is Beaulieu Vineyard.  

We were introduced to this Napa Valley icon when we first started to write our column. Back in the 1980s we were buying its classic Rutherford cabernet sauvignon for about $14 and then swooned over its Georges de Latour reserve cabernet sauvignon and its silky pinot noirs influenced by winemaker and consultant Andre Tchelistcheff. 

BV, as it is more commonly known, has gone through several ownership changes since we first started reviewing these wines. Since 2016 it has been owned by Treasury Wine Estates. 

We revisited two of its signature wines and were pleased to see the quality of the wine match the quality of its vineyard grape source. 

All our fond memories of the Beaulieu Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon burst from the glass with the aromatic 2014. You won't find a better, full-bodied Napa Valley cabernet for $33.  

 Like we remember, this cabernet sauvignon has layers of fruit due in part to the three appellations that supply the grapes: BV Rutherford, Calistoga and St. Helena.  The nose is laced with violets, mocha, plum and blackberry while the palate adds some cherry and allspice notes.  

Although considerably more expensive at $65, the 2013 BV Reserve Tapestry is a dynamite blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, malbec and cabernet franc. Grapes from reserve lots are vinified separately and aged in small oak barrels for 21 months. Fruit forward in style and surprisingly soft in texture, it offers generous plum, cherry and cassis flavors with hints of cedar and tobacco. 

 

 

    August 21, 2017

    Luisa Ponzi returns to her roots

    By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

    No one is going to dispute that modern viticulture developments have led to vast improvements in wine. Whether it how a vine’s canopy is managed or how the soil is treated, breakthroughs in farming generally have provided more consistent, drought- and insect-resistant vines. The result has led to better wines across the board. 

    One significant breakthrough came in the 1950s when researchers identified clones that could be counted on to grow consistent, disease-free vines. A clone is a cutting or bud of a mother plant and is genetically identical. So, a cutting from an immensely successful vineyard planted in similar soil and climate can be expected to perform equally well.  Wine growers, then, would select a particular clone for its flavor profile, grape size, yield or tolerance to weather challenges. Prior to that, vines of various cuttings were indiscriminately planted side by side. 

     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.