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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.

Exploring Languedo-Roussillon

(April 22, 2019)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

We’ve been on this quest of late to find more wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon. It hasn’t been easy. An ancient but neglected wine growing region of France, the Languedoc-Roussillon has been troubled by producing inferior wines for decades and thus discouraging merchants. But that’s slowly changing and wine enthusiasts would be wise to check out these wines before prices rise.

Now the single biggest wine-producing region of France, Languedoc-Roussillon's more than 600,000 acres of vineyards yield mostly red grapes, such as grenache, syrah, cinsault, mourvedre and carignan. The region has avoided regulation, which makes wine-making a free-for-all. However, in the last decade there has been more attempts to steer winemakers in a unified direction. The appellation d’origine controlee (AOC) was changed from the Coteaux du Languedoc to just Languedoc AOC and expanded to include Roussillon. These changes allowed winemakers to use grapes across the appellation and thus make wines more complex. There are also seven designated crus, such as Chinian and Corbieres, that range in quality from the general Languedoc AOC to Grand Vins.  Most importantly, there has been a distinct improvement in the region’s table wines, called Vin de France.

The lack of regulations, however influential a reduction in quality, has given wine producers a lot of freedom in selecting grape varieties. Similar to what happened in Tuscany, the winemakers are flaunting tradition to create blends that include non-indigenous grape varieties, such as merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Producers such as Mas de Daumas Gassac, Bertrand and Jean-Claude Mas are making some incredibly complex yet non-traditional blends.  Even Michel Chapoutier of the Rhone Valley has launched new ventures in this emerging region.

We like these wines for their rich, garrigue character and intensity. And, they are still decently priced. Here are a few we recently tasted:

·         Domaine de Terrebrune Bandol Rouge 2014 ($40). In 1963 Georges DeLille left his job as a sommelier in Paris to save this domaine. He spent a decade restoring the property, recruited his son Reynald and began releasing some of the most extraordinary and age-worthy wines of the region. Grenache and cinsault join this mourvedre-dominated blend. More forward in style than many mourvedres from the region, it has the classic varietal flavors of wild blackberries and plum with a hint of licorice and mineral. The dusty tannins suggest 6-10 years of aging before the wine reaches its peak.  

·         Chateau La Negly La Brise Marine 2017 ($20). We bought several bottles of this tantalizing white blend of roussanne and bourboulenc. Enveloped by crisp acidity, it shows off exotic fruits -- mango and white peaches – with a dash of almonds.  

·         La Condamine Paulignan Minervois 2013 ($18). This gem uses syrah, grenache, carignan and cinsault grapes to produce a lively, elegant blend. Nicely textured with bright dark berry fruit with hints of lavender and olives. There is no need to cellar this wine, but it will survive at least 5 years.  

·         La Bastside Blanche Bandol 2014 ($35). Bandol is known for its mourvedre, so this grape varietly plays a dominant role in this wine. Grenache rounds off the bright berry flavors but it’s the mourvedre that gives the wine its color and depth. This gem adds a garrigue touch to an otherwise juicy wine with gritty tannins.  

·         Chateau Bouisset “Cuvee Eugenie” La Clape Languedoc 2015 ($20). La Clape is the same AOC that includes Chateau Negly. It is a blend of syrah and grenache grapes grown in limestone and clay soils. Aged mostly in concrete tanks, it retains its fresh and pure fruit character.   

·         Gerard Bertrand Grand Terroir Les Aspres 2014 ($20). Bertrand is making some extraordinary, textured blends in southern France. This beautiful blend of syrah, mourvedre and grenache from the Languedoc-Roussillon region has layers of red berries, a floral nose and long finish. 

·         M. Chapoutier Les Vignes de Bila-Haut Cotes du Roussillon Rouge 2017 ($15).  Half of this blend is grenache with the remainder made up of syrah and carignan from the slopes of the Agly Valley. Aged in concrete tanks and stainless steel, it is void of oak flavors.  Lots of rich black raspberry and black berry flavors.

·         M. Chapoutier Bila-Haut Occultum Lapidem 2016 ($30). Leave it to Chapoutier to use Latin to describe his “hidden gem” from the Languedoc. A well-integrated blend of grenache, syrah and carignan from 60-year-old vines, this wine carries the “Cotes du Roussillon Villages” label which means it’s a step above the generic label. It is a delicious wine with broad aromas of dried herbs, blackberries and violets.  The palate is dense with plum and dark berry flavors with hints of licorice.   

 TALAWIND

 Patrick Melley, co-founder and winemaker for Russian Hill Estate Winery, is applying his knowledge of making great pinot noir to a new project called Talawind Ranch, also in the Russian River Valley. A former horse ranch, the 9 acres of vineyards enjoy a combination of micro climates and soil variation.

At $30 each, these wines represent a great value in the pinot noir category.

We were impressed with three vintages of the Talawind Ranch pinot noir.  The 2014 pinot noir was ripe in style with notes of plums and black cherries. We like the 2015 pinot noir for its generous spice aromas and red berry flavors.  And the 2016 pinot noir was our favorite with a little complexity, more body and fresh strawberry and red cherry fruit.

WINE PICKS

·         MacRostie Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2016 ($34). This medium-body pinot noir has generous red berry aromas and strawberry, cranberry flavors.

·         Jackson Estate Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($40). The warmer temperatures in Alexander Valley produce riper and often more alcoholic cabernets. This version is blended wIth petit verdot, merlot, cabernet franc and malbec. Dark berry and currant flavors with a hint of mocha and vanilla.

·         Pfendler Sonoma Coast Pinot NoiR 2015 ($45). This juicy and delicious pinot noir from Sonoma County has a floral nose and red cherry flavors.

  

From farmer to winemaker: John Balletto

April 15, 2019

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

How wine producers get into the business of making wine has always fascinated us. There are those born into a multi-generational winery and those who abandon a lucrative business career to start a new adventure. There are those who graduate from University of California at Davis to slave at a winery and eventually graduate to a senior winemaker. And, there are those who fell into the business out of desperation.

That was the case with John Balletto, whose transition from a vegetable farmer to a successful wine producer embodies the proverbial Horatio Alger story of perseverance and hard work.

Balletto was raised on a vegetable farm in Sonoma County near Sebastopol.  He worked alongside his father in high school and was planning to move away to pursue his love of football and track at a major university. Then, his life took its first turn for the worse when in 1977 his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer during his senior year of high school.  After his father died, he postponed college, sold his coveted Pontiac GTO, and bought 5 acres surrounding the family home for a small vegetable farm to operate with his mother.

He continued to buy property and in 10 years he became one of the largest vegetable growers in northern California.  Then came a second wave setbacks: a medfly infestation, the 1994 North America Free Trade Agreement, a worker strike, and three El Nino rainstorms. The bank called his loan and instead of going further into debt, they sold the business – but not the land. Down but not out he took the advice of winemaking friends such as Warren Dutton and Cecile DeLoach, and gradually turned vegetable fields into vineyards.  His fortune took a turn for the better, as evidenced by his pinot noirs and chardonnays, made under the guidance of winemaker Anthony Beckman.

Moving from vegetables to grapes wasn’t really out of character, he said. His family was from Genoa and he was tasting wine since he was 8 years old.

 “The vegetable business was the catalyst to get me started in grapes. Hard work works,” he said.

He never lost his appreciation for farming.

“When we were in full production, we had 700 acres and getting three crops of vegetables a year. It got so intense because you can’t make a mistake,” he said. “All of that carried over to the grape business. We went from 16 vegetable varieties to a mono crop. Although that sounds easy, you have certain times of the year that are just as critical as vegetable farming.”

The Russian River Valley rewards Balletto with cooling fogs in the morning and warm afternoons. His property – 800 planted acres – is 10-12 miles from the ocean. He said Sebastopol Hills is one of the top five areas in the world for pinot noir and chardonnay.

Balletto is making nine pinot noir wines, seven of which are vineyard-designated, and five chardonnays. Everything comes from estate-grown grapes. He also makes small amounts of sauvignon blanc, syrah, zinfandel, pinot gris and a rosé of pinot noir.

We liked the 2016 Balletto BCD Vineyard Pinot Noir ($46) for its luxurious texture and structure. It has lots of bright cherry notes and a dash of spice.  Balletto’s rosé of pinot noir is also a delicious wine to ring in spring – lots of cherry and strawberry flavors enveloped by crisp acidity. The Balletto Russian River Valley chardonnay ($28) has good balance and pear, citrus notes. 

Sebastopol Hills, which actually is part of both Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast AVAs, is more remote for tourists on the wine trial, but it is home to some of the top pinot noir and chardonnay producers. Balletto counts as its neighbors Merry Edwards, Martinelli and Patz & Hall.  Other wineries from this region that are producing great pinot noirs and chardonnays include De Loach, Inman Family, Hartford Court, Kosta Brown, La Follette, Littorai and Pali. It is one of the coolest regions in Russian River Valley – great for pinot noir – and has many rolling hills where Balletto’s vineyards are planted.

Balletto said he is happy with the direction his fate took him. “I tell my two daughters what a great business this is to be in touch with the land, sharing friends and traveling the world to meet great people. What other industry can you do that?”

RED BLENDS

The success of The Prisoner has inspired several winemakers to copy its style of a highly extracted, bold and rich blend of red grapes. This style isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but we know it’s popular. The Prisoner, under new ownership and made in massive quantities, is expensive. Here are a couple of similar wines that mimic this wine:

·         Ravage California Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($13). If you like your cabernets extracted and rich rather than complex and layered, this wine is for you.  Inky dark and rich in flavors of dark fruit, it is blended with merlot, petite sirah, zinfandel and other red grape varieties.

·         Three Finger Jack 2016 ($22).  This wine is named after an outlaw who once roamed the Sierra Foothills where this wine is made. The bottle shape is something you would find on the bar top of a saloon. Extracted with rich and dark flavors of blackberries and black cherries with a good dose of chocolate and vanilla.

WINE PICKS

·         Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve California Pinot Noir 2016 ($17). Typical of Kendall-Jackson this is a well-made, balanced wine that is reasonably priced for pinot noir. Bright fruit character with red cherry and strawberry flavors and an underlying earthy note. Hint of vanilla.

·         Gamble Family Vineyards Paramount Red Wine 2015 ($90). Tom Gamble’s flagship wine, this Bordeaux-like blend is dense and delicious with good complexity, black cherry and licorice aromas, dark fruit flavors and a hint of clove. Fine tannins and long finish.

·         Cuvaison Methode Beton Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($35). This may go down as the most unique sauvignon blanc we’ve tasted. Winemaker Steve Rogstad ferments and ages a special lot of estate-grown Carneros grapes in a concrete (Beton) egg. The egg allows the lees to stay suspended to develop a richer texture. Mango and pineapple notes with a dash of thyme.

·         Famille Perrin La Gille Gigondas 2015 ($28).  The producers of Chateau Beaucastel now has a gigondas. A blend of 80 percent grenache and 20 percent syrah, the 2015 is soft, approachable and luxurious with opulent raspberry and anise flavors, rosemary herb aromas and soft tannins. It may not be chateauneuf du pape, but it’s a lot less money and delicious to drink now.

Moving from winter to spring

April 8, 2019

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

April is a transition month for many people If you’re in a northern state, you start to see robins and green grass. But for those of us in southern states, such as Florida and Texas, April is the last month for brisk mornings and low humidity.

You can have your wines both ways – port to ward off the cooler nights and white wine to cool off the warmer days. This week, we explore both.

PORT

Port has a fascinating history. It was created in the 18th century when the Brits were warring with the French and turned to Portugal for wine. Alas, the Portuguese wine had a hard time surviving the voyage to Great Britain, so some brandy was added to fortify it.  The brandy increased the alcohol content of the wine but it also halted its fermentation. The sugar that was left made the wine significantly sweeter. No one, particularly the Brits, seemed to mind a sweeter, alcoholic wine, so port found a permanent niche in a world wine market.

Named after the coastal city of Porto, port uses indigenous grape varieties, such as touriga nacional, touriga franca and tinta roriz.  It comes in different styles that relate to the time the port spends in oak and how many vintages from which it draws.

We have vintage ports in our cellar dating back to 1977, but the ones we enjoy drinking now are the tawny ports. These ports are blends from different vintages. For example, a 20-year-old tawny indicates that the average age of the wines used in the bottle is 20 years.  Until the wine goes into the bottle, it rests in oak barrels – this extended aging gives the wine its tawny color. Because of this aging process, the port is ready to drink.

You also can find some single-harvest tawny ports that will cost you a lot of money. Graham’s 1994 Single Harvest Tawny Port, for instance is $145, a “steal” compared to a 1940 version for $1,200. These wines have been set aside for long-term aging in oak casks.

Because tawny ports are sweet, it is a challenge to match them to food. The best approach is to serve them after dinner with chocolate, sharp cheese, walnuts or apple pie.  Usually a small glass is enough for most people. You’ll need a crowd to open a full bottle, although an opened bottle of port can last a week or more.

Here are tawny ports we have recently tried:

·         Dow’s 10-year Tawny Port ($37).  Bright red cherry and walnut aromas with ripe red berry flavors, and hints of vanilla and black pepper.

·         Dow’s 20-year Tawny Port ($65).  Showing some brown color on the rim, this exquisite port has good concentration with notes of red cherries and raspberries. Hint of tobacco and toffee. Dry finish.

·         Graham’s 40-year Tawny Port ($180). At this age, the port shows a more amber color and greater richness. It is very intense and concentrated with raisin and fig notes, toffee, and a hint of orange marmalade.

SPRING WHITES

Just because it is still chilly doesn’t mean you have to avoid white wines. Although the likes of sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio are associated with spring, all white wine is still the ideal match to seafood. And you don’t avoid seafood in cool weather, do you?

We’ve assembled 10 white wines that will perk up your attitude and make it seem like it’s spring.

·         Panthera Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2016 ($45).  From the Hess Collection, this lush and complex chardonnay begs for a second glass. Forward pear and peach fruit notes with toasty oak, butterscotch and crème brulee influences.

·         Ramey Wine Cellars Woolsey Vineyard Chardonnay ($65).  Using grapes from a vineyard owned by the Martinelli family and planted to Ramey’s specifications in 2007, this beautiful chardonnay has a luxurious mouthfeel but balanced with good acidity.  Nicely textured and with rich tropical fruit and apple flavors.

·         Brooks Willamette Valley Riesling 2016 ($20). Oregon’s rieslings are yet to be fully appreciated. This one is dry yet offers forward mango and grapefruit flavors. Refreshing acidity and broad aromas make it a great sipping wine or a paring with fish.

·         Domaine Zinck Pinot Gris Alsace 2016 ($21). A very nice organic selection from Alsace. Pear, peaches, and mineral notes dominate this delicious white wine with a long satisfying finish. Pair with fish and poultry dishes.                                               

·         Tenuta Tascante Carricante “Buonora” Etna Bianco 2017 ($21). We were stunned  by this refreshing white wine made near Sicily’s Mount Etna. Made from the ancient grape variety carricante, it has a perfumy, herbal nose with lime and tangerine flavors with a good dose of mineral.

·         Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2018 ($18). One of the more popular sauvignon blancs from New Zealand, this ubiquitous icon has a bit of residual sugar to round off the natural, citrus tartness. Juicy pineapple, grapefruit and lemon notes.

·         Michael David Winery Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($16). While most sauvignon blancs favor grapefruit flavors, this one is refreshing for its apple and citrus notes. From the Lodi region of California, it is crisp yet unctuous.

·         Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($42). Spottswoode is committed to making exceptional wine and that applies to sauvignon blanc just as well as it applies to cabernet sauvignon. This richly textured wine takes the grape variety to a new level. Several clones and the use of oak makes it more complex and layered. Expressive citrus aromas abound and is followed by peach flavors with a dash of vanilla.

·         Terlato Friuli Pinot Grigio 2017 ($24). More complex than most pinot grigios, this premium gem from Terlato has a floral nose and ripe stone fruit, pear and lime flavors.

·         Stonestreet Estate Chardonnay 2016 ($45). This beautiful chardonnay has excellent structure, balance, soft texture and melon flavors.

Another look at pinotage

March 25, 2019

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

Maybe it’s time to stop the snickering when the topic of South African pinotage wine comes up. Sometimes associated with off-putting burnt tire aromas and flavors, pinotage can be a delicious wine when properly made. Simonsig red wines proved that maybe the burnt rubber boogeyman is on the run.  

Fashioned in 1925 as a cross between cinsault and pinot noir in an attempt to create a hardier grape variety, the red pinotage grape became synonymous with South Africa. Today, pinotage represents about 8 percent of South Africa’s total vineyard area, but is still the grape variety most associated with the country.  

The burnt rubber flaw is attributed to various smoking guns ranging from viruses plaguing vines in vineyards to unclean and unsanitary winemaking procedures. In any event, researchers point to sulphur compounds in some wines as the culprit, and the offensive smell is not limited exclusively to South Africa. Occasionally it also shows up in some German rieslings and Northern Rhone syrahs. 

We’ve tasted Simonsig wines in the past and offered positive comments on their efforts. A sampling of recent releases revealed four current releases as South African red wines worth our reader’s consideration. 

The Simonsig Pinotage Stellenbosch South Africa 2016 ($18) is a good start for those wanting to experience a South African wine at a reasonable price.  Made entirely from pinotage with pleasant berry fruit and a hint of integrated oak, this entry-level pinotage a good value.  

A major step up is the Simonsig Redhill Pinotage Stellenbosch 2016 ($38). If you’ve tried an entry-level pinotage and yearn to experience what pinotage has under the hood, try this full throttle sports car of a wine. Somewhere in style between a well-made red wine from Napa Valley of a Grand Cru Bordeaux, this beauty is a sleek 100 percent pinotage that expresses plum, berry, and cedar notes in an elegant package. Definitely worth the financial outlay.  

We have previously commented on our impression of the potential of the syrah grape in South Africa and the Simonsig Merindol Syrah Stellenbosch 2014 ($44) once again reinforces or view. All syrah, this elegant red wine is velvety smooth in the mouth with cherry and plum notes and a hint of vanilla. Very complete and pleasing. 

The Simonsig version in the red blend category is the Simonsig Tiara Stellenbosch  2014 ($39) composed of 79 percent cabernet sauvignon, 22 percent merlot, 4 percent petite verdot, 4 percent malbec, and 2 percent cabernet franc. The result is a very complex and satisfying, perfectly balanced Bordeaux style wine that presents blueberry, cherry and cedar elements with a hint of chocolate. If you want to see the potential of South African red wines try this beauty. 

SHRUB COCKTAILS 

The phrase “everything old is new again” was never more appropriate than referring to contemporary interest in a cocktail that hasn’t been seen the light of day since the advent of refrigeration at the end of the 19th century 

A shrub is a cocktail crafted from fruit or spice flavoring, sugar, and vinegar as well as the addition of an alcoholic spirit. They are making a comeback in the current cocktail scene.   

Most shrub bases were homemade in the 18th and 19th century when they were popular. Today a goodly number of producers make flavored shrub bases that only need the addition of an alcoholic spirit and simple syrup or sugar to produce a fashionable and tasty cocktail.  

Shrubs originally were created to preserve fresh fruit by adding sugar and vinegar to extend their shelf life. The shrub could be drunk without alcohol but more famously they included a dose of distilled spirit. Today premixed bottled shrubs are gracing the shelves of liquor and wine specialty shops in a bewildering display of variations and flavors. Rosemary/basil, strawberry/rhubarb and cranberry/hibiscus are just a few of the rainbow of flavors available.   

We recently tasted a number of shrub iterations and for the most part enjoyed the tasty cocktails. Our experience, however, proved that some shrub mixes can over prescribe the amount of the vinegar base with a predictable face-scrunching outcome. The vinegar component in a cocktail should be treated as a spice not a main ingredient.  

When tasting a shrub, the vinegar element should fall somewhere in between what is an interesting flavor and a secondary, supporting flavor in the drink. A ratio of three- or four-to-one spirit mixed with the shrub base and simple syrup seemed about right. We came across one cocktail recipe that called for equal parts shrub base to alcoholic spirit and simple syrup and can attest it didn’t work, except maybe as salad dressing.  

Our limited sampling of shrubs left us with a favorite recipe, introduced to us by a neighbor Bob Billy. The following shrub, which is based on a Shrub and Company spicy ginger shrub mix, reinforced our inclination to use brown spirits when making a shrub cocktail. The bold pronounced flavor of brown whiskeys seems to stand up to and complement the vinegar-dominant shrub mixes better than clear spirits.  

The recipe: 3 parts Bourbon, 1 part Shrub and Co. spicy ginger shrub, 1 part simple syrup, lime juice, and a topping of ginger beer.  

WINE PICKS 

  • Ancient Peaks Zinfandel Paso Robles Santa Margarita Ranch 2016 ($20). This zinfandel from Ancient Peaks is a big rich full throttle fruit bomb (in a good way). 15.5 percent alcohol blends seamlessly with ripe cherry and black raspberry notes and a bit of mocha in the finish. Try with full flavored barbeque.               

  • Alpha Estate Axia Red PGI Fiorina 2015 ($21). A well-priced, even blend of xinomavro and syrah. Bright berry fruit notes with enticing spice elements lead to a long smooth finish. 

  • Cantine-Feudi di San Marzano Sessantanni Primitvo Di Manduria DOP Old Vines Puglia 2015 ($39). A bold muscular wine crafted from 60-year-old bush vines. Primitivo and zinfandel are very closely related clones of their parent crljenak kastelanski from Croatia. This primitivo is a monster (in a good way) and reminded us a full throttle California petite sirah. Blueberry and cedar.

The ranging styles of chardonnay

(march 18, 2019)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

Consumers often say one thing and do another. For instance, they say they like their dry wines but they are drinking them sweet. They just don’t know it. The same goes for chardonnay. They say they prefer something else, but they are drinking chardonnay. Either that or a few people are drinking a lot of chardonnay.

Chardonnay is the top selling varietal wine in the United States and sales are rising every year. In fact, one out of 5 bottles of wine purchased in 2016 was chardonnay.  Admit it, you like chardonnay.

We do. There is no better wine to complement fish and it goes with chicken, white-sauced pasta, soups, and more. It’s one of three grape varietals that go into champagne. It is the varietal that brings us those minerally wines of Chablis. And, it’s the varietal that is used exclusively in expensive French burgundies. There is no other white grape that can claim this global recognition.

Unfortunately, chardonnay has been twisted by fads and adventurous winemakers looking for distinction. Instead of using burgundies as a model, they have corrupted the variety by making it sweet, extracted or over-oaked.  Its distortion in California has sent consumers to safer varietals.

In California, chardonnay varies from appellation to appellation. In Carneros, for instance, chardonnay is lighter in body with strong acidity and apple and pear notes. The chardonnays of the vast Central Coast take on tropical fruit flavors, such as pineapple, mango and banana.  The Russian River Valley produces chardonnays with a flinty characteristic. These variations in climate and soil and not experiments in wine-making is what should distinguish good chardonnay.

In this country, the pioneer of chardonnay was Ernest Wente who in 1912 persuaded his father to import chardonnay cuttings from Burgundy to plant in Livermore Valley. Today, 80 percent of California’s chardonnays stem from the Wente clone.  Its wines, now being made by a 5th generation Wente, are still some of the best values in chardonnay.

Chardonnay’s texture is most influenced by something called “malolactic fermentation” where a winemaker converts tart malo acid to softer lactic acid.  The degree to which MLF is used dictates the creaminess of the wine. Similarly, an oak barrel can add a ton of flavors – vanilla, clove, cinnamon, spice, and coconut – to chardonnay. Like MLF, winemakers used a varying degree of oak fermentation to create the styles they want. This is where the craziness happens.

We’ve noticed more restraint in oak exposure in today’s chardonnays. Instead of those lush, flabby chardonnays of the 1990s, current chardonnays are more balanced and some have no oak exposure. These wines are much more food friendly.

Cupcake Vineyards makes two chardonnays to help consumers decide which style they like. The 2017 Cupcake Monterey County Chardonnay ($13) is more restrained with brighter acidity than the rich and lush Butterkissed Chardonnay ($13).

One particular producer who is making premium-level chardonnay is Stonestreet Estate.  It’s two vineyard-designated chardonnays from Bear Point Vineyard and Upper Barn Vineyard are world-class wines. Stonestreet sources its estate grapes from Black Mountain where vineyards range from 400 to 2,400 feet in elevation and contain 20 distinct soil types.

Here are several chardonnays that demonstrate the range of styles California has to offer:

·         Long Meadow Ranch Winery Anderson Valley Chardonnay 2016 ($40). Neutral French oak is used to mature most of this balanced chardonnay. Floral and citrus aromas with pear flavors and long finish.

·         Ponzi Vineyard Chardonnay Reserve 2014 ($42). The Dijon clones and the Laurelwood soil must have an influence on one of the most unique chardonnays we’ve tasted in a long time. We loved the complexity and apple/citrus flavors of this delicious and well-balanced chardonnay.

·         Mi Sueno Winery Los Carneros Chardonnay 2016 ($42). This is one of the most unique chardonnays we’ve tasted in a long time. Reflective of its soil and climate, it shows off exotic citrus aromas and follows up with lush pineapple, tangerine and lemon custard flavors with a good dose of oak and coconut. Full bodied and long in the finish. Delicious.

·         Stonestreet Estate Bear Point Vineyard Chardonnay 2016 ($60). With grapes grown 1,000 feet high, this single-vineyard chardonnay has a broad, rich palate with tropical fruit and lemon flavors, spice, oak-infused butterscotch and a long, supple finish.

·         Raeburn Winery Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2017 ($20). The daily fog off the Pacific Ocean cools grapes in this valley every evening. About 75 percent of this wine undergoes malolactic fermentation and about half goes into new French and Hungarian oak barrels.  Vanilla, toasted and crème brulee are the results in this otherwise pear and apple dominated palate.

·         Four Vines “The Form” Edna Valley Chardonnay 2017 ($18). About half of the wine is fermented in French oak barrels and that portion is stirred twice a month to create more complexity and lush mouthfeel.

·         Sea Smoke Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay 2016 ($48). “Sea smoke” is the fog that cools the grapes in this chardonnay from Santa Barbara County. The 2016 is very elegant, much like a burgundy, with purity and tropical fruit, citrus flavors. Excellent.

·         Chalk Hill Chardonnay 2016 ($45). We love the rich texture and complexity of this delicious and well-balanced chardonnay made from estate-grown grapes. Citrus and almond aromas with apple flavors and soft mouthfeel.

·         Patz and Hall Chardonnay Dutton Ranch Russian River Valley 2016 ($49).  Patz and Hall produce a number of single vineyard chardonnay’s and pinot noir that almost never disappoint. This is another winner that reflects the pedigree of the Dutton Ranch vineyard with peach and melon elements wrapped in a creamy oak vanillin robe.

·         Steele Durell Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay 2017 ($36). Using grapes from the northern end of Carneros, Steele has a terrific, well balanced chardonnay with orange zest aromas. Pear and tropical fruit flavors. Aged 12 months in oak barrels, it has hints of vanilla and caramel.

·         Amici Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2015 ($21). The quality of this wine exceeds its price point. Very textured with layers of apple and pear notes, a dash of citrus and oak. Good balance.

·         Ryder Estate Chardonnay Central Coast 2016 ($15). This pleasant chardonnay is produced in a very easy to drink consumer friendly style. Tropical fruit and citrus notes dominate this quaffable wine.

Carmel Road Unoaked Chardonnay 2017 ($22). Unoaked chardonnays are being found in greater numbers because enough consumers have been turned off by the vanilla and butterscotch flavors that come from oak barrels. Like similar unoaked wines, this Carmel Road is a better

The small chateaus of Bordeaux

(March 11, 2019)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

Surely you have an image of Bordeaux. Stately and historic chateaus with massive iron gates, sweeping graveled and tree-lined drives, a formal staff to greet you as you get out of your Bentley, foie gras at a long oak table and decanters of first-growths served on trays a manicured staff.

You may be right if you envision the chateaus of Lafite-Rothschild, Margaux, Haut-Brion, Latour or Mouton-Rothschild. But there’s this other Bordeaux. It’s a place where you enjoy the special wines of this historic region without shelling out gobs of money for tightly allocated and expensive wines from these iconic chateaus.  It’s the unheralded Bordeaux where new generations are making wine just as their forefathers did -- with humility, pride and low expectations. It is wine for the masses – their families, neighbors and, of course, themselves.

In the many times we have visited Bordeaux, we are awed not by the premier or first-growth chateaus but by the unpretentious, down-to-earth producers who crank out simple wines at reasonable prices. These are places run by men and women who run the business, help harvest and strap on boots to crush the grapes. Alas, many of these wines never make it to our shores because to their producers the idea of international distribution is as foreign as a seat on a shuttle to the moon.

These wines are unclassified and that means they don’t make the grade of a classified growth – first, second, third, et al – that was established in 1855. They do not have the premier vineyards of, say, Lafite-Rothschild, but they use the same grape varieties and wine-making techniques.

There are more than 6,500 wine estates in Bordeaux’s 60 appellations and most of them are unclassified. Wines from the Left Bank’s Medoc are customarily expensive, but bargains can be found in subregions, such as Cotes de Bourg. Two other things to look for are Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur AOCs. More than half of the wines produced in Bordeaux fall under these labels and most of them are from the Right Bank’s Entre-Deux-Mers region.

Another label to look for is “crus bourgeois.” This title has gone in an out of favor with French regulators and today it is not a recognized classification. But some producers still use it.

These wines are sold in small quantities, so they may be hard to find. Consider internet services, ask your local wine maven, or best, fly to Bordeaux.

·         Chateau Moulin de Tricot Haut-Medoc 2014 ($30). This splendid wine has developed a cult following.  The family has been making wine from cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes grown in a tiny 7-acre plot for three centuries. How could you not love it? It has huge tannins, an earthy personality and classic Margaux flavors.

·         Chateau Sociando-Mallet Haut-Medoc 2015 ($30). We have several vintages of this gem starting with 2000. Part of our love of this cru-bourgeois wine was inspired by Jean Gautreau, the winemaker and owner who resurrected this historic property in the late 1960s. We have visited with him and appreciate his insistence that it’s okay to get high yields from vineyards. His wine has been criticized for its green bell pepper flavors, but patient collectors are rewarded if they decant this wine for more than an hour and let it age for at least 10 years.

·         Chateau Aney Haut-Medoc 2014 ($30).  This historic estate fell into disrepair years ago, but new owners restored its justly earned cru bourgeois status in 1978. Ever since then it has been cranking out reliable and value-priced bordeaux. The vineyards are planted with mostly cabernet sauvignon but also merlot, petit verdot and cabernet franc.

·         Légende Bordeaux Rouge 2016 ($18).  This is a wine created by Domaines Baron de Rothschild, makers of Lafite-Rothschild. It is a blend of 60 percent cabernet sauvignon and 40 percent merlot. Simple yet nicely representative of Bordeaux, it is medium in body with raspberry and currant notes. Round and youthful.

·         Légende Paulliac 2015 ($50).  A blend of 70 percent cabernet sauvignon and 30 percent merlot, this wine is more structured than the generic Bordeaux blend. More tannin, more layered with dark fruit character and a hint of pepper and licorice.

·         Chateau Bibian Haut-Medoc Cru Bourgeois 2015 ($20).  Very aromatic with ripe red fruit flavors and a mineral, vanilla nuances. It is largely merlot with the remainder made up of cabernet sauvignon, petit Verdot and cabernet franc. The estate is near Listrac.

·         Chateau Puygueraud Francs-Cotes De Bordeaux 2015 ($25). This well-priced red Bordeaux from a great vintage is often found discounted. A blend of 80 percent merlot, 15 percent cabernet franc and 5 percent malbec, this ripe fruit-driven wine features elements of plum and cherry, with some spice notes. Full bodied but balanced. 

WINE PICKS

·         Cambria Estate Winery Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 ($25). It’s hard to find a decent pinot noir at this price, but every year Cambria manages to do make one.  Simple, ripe blackberry and cherry fruit flavors with a dash of spice.

·         The Prisoner Napa Valley Red Wine 2017 ($47).  Even though production of this wine has ramped up under the ownership of (Const ellaton), it continues to sell well. A blend of zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah, syrah and charbono, it has very ripe and juicy black fruit flavors with evident oak-infused hints of chocolate and vanilla.

·         Kim Crawford New Zealand Chardonnay 2017 ($17). New Zealand isn’t known for its chrdonnay, but we occasionally come across one that stands out. The climate and soil here create a unique flavor profile that includes stone fruit and butterscotch with a hint of herbs and lemon.

·         Cuvaison Brut Rose Methode Champenoise 2015 ($50). We loved the vibrant, bold fruit flavors of this blend of chardonnay and pinot noir. It is aged for two years on the lees. Strawberry and cherry notes.

·         Domaine Bousquet Ameri 2015 ($36). This is a delicious, well-structured blend of malbec, cabenet sauvignon, syrah and merlot. Floral, plum aromas with ripe, raisiny dark fruit flavors and a hint of black pepper. Only 500 cases made of this wine.

·         Gehricke Los Carneros Pinot Noir 2015 ($32). A good value for a pinot noir, this wine has ripe and luscious cherry flavors a dash of plum and cloves.

Knudsens strike out on their own; Girasole soars

(March 3, 2019)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

When you think of winemaking pioneers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, a handful of names come to mind: David Lett, Dick Erath and Dick Ponzi, all of whom were growing grapes and making wine by the early 1980s. However, a name that escapes more memories is Cal Knudsen, a Weyerhaeuser executive who became Oregon’s largest vineyard owner in 1975 when he expanded his 30-acre block in Dundee Hills to 60 acres.

Knudsen didn’t make wine exclusively under his name, but he partnered with Dick Erath to form Knudsen-Erath Winery. When that partnership ended, he sold his grapes to Argyle for its well-respected sparkling wine program.

Knudsen died in 2009 and his four children — none involved in the wine business then — decided to continue the family legacy and launched Knudsen Vineyards in 2012, first with a pinot noir and then with a chardonnay. Because they had established lives and businesses well outside the wine world, the family turned to its long-time partner — Argyle — to help.

Page Knudsen Cowles

Page Knudsen Cowles

We recently had dinner with Page Knudsen Cowles, managing partner of Knudsen Vineyards, who said it was important to the family to keep their father’s legacy going for future generations. Knudsen continues to sell grapes to Argyle and buys back about 20 tons for its own wine. Argyle’s winemaker Nate Klosterman is making the wine.

The Knudsens couldn’t have made a better business decision. They can ease into the unfamiliar business of making wine with professionals at the helm. The two pinot noirs and one chardonnay we tasted were well made — good balance and pure expression of the Dundee Hills fruit character.

We really liked the 2016 chardonnay because it had just a kiss of oak and an austere but intense profile. The estate pinot noir blends into the Willamette herd at $55; the reserve showed more distinction at $70 but the wines tasted like a product still being developed. Given the quality of the vineyards, we would like to see Knudsen make a single-vineyard pinot noir to show off its special vineyards.

Argyle makes a pinot noir under its own name but made entirely from Knudsen grapes. We wonder how and why winemaker Klosterman separates the Argyle and Knudsen pinot noirs if he’s using the same grapes.

These wines are on the right track, but clearly the Knudsens have an uphill climb in a competitive market. The wines are distributed in only a handful of states and the burden has fallen to Page to hand-sell the wines city to city. She lives in Minnesota.

Page admits that distribution is a challenge in the early stages. Even though the family has been growing grapes for decades for renown producers like Erath and Argyle, retailers and restaurant owners don’t recognize the Knudsen name.

She agrees that a tasting room will make her job much easier, especially if that can drive direct-to-consumer sales. Oregon has seen tremendous growth in this sector. More than 70 percent of Oregon wine producers make less than 5,000 cases a year and depend almost entirely on direct-to-consumer sales.

GIRASOLE VINEYARDS

We last bumped into the Barra family in 2010 while tasting their Mendocino County Girasole wines with family patriarch Charlie Barra and his wife. Charlie founded the vineyard operation in 1955 first by selling grapes to winemaking giants Wente, Fetzer and Mondavi. In 1997 they began making their own wine and sold it under the Girasole label.

Girasole -- which means sunflower in Italian -- sports a double sunflower label on their organically labeled and produced wine.

Fast forward to last fall when we met with Charlie’s daughter Shelley Maly, Girasole’s national sales manager, to taste their current offerings. Our favorites from the tasting were the not so easy to find, but worth seeking out.

·          Girasole Pinot Blanc Mendocino 2017 ($15). According to Shelley Maly, only about 425 acres of this varietal are currently grown (down from 2,000 acres 30 years ago) in California and Girasole grows 15 acres of them. All stainless-steel fermentation and no malolactic fermentation combine to create this very clean brightly fruited mélange of pear and peach elements.

·         Girasole Pinot Noir Mendocino 2016 ($16). This is a well-priced crowd pleaser with an appealing cherry and plum nose and flavors with some spice notes in a soft round package.

·         Girasole Cabernet Sauvignon Mendocino 2016 ($15). The hands-down winner of the flight, this cabernet sauvignon drank way above its modest price tag. Bright cherry and berry elements created a very pleasing and satisfying glass of wine, that made us yearn for a barbecued rib eye.

WINE PICKS

·         Paranga Red Kir Yianni Macedonia 2016 ($18). Macedonia is located in Northern Greece where this blend of syrah and merlot meets the indigenous xinomavro. Plum and cherry elements with cinnamon and pepper notes dominate this very good medium bodied red wine.

·         Beronia Crianza 2015 ($15). This Rioja blend of tempranillo, garnacha and mazuelo is a great value. Herbal aromas with cherry and blueberry notes with a hint of vanilla and chocolate from the American oak.

·         Flora Springs Merlot 2016 ($35). Few wineries like Flora Springs have stuck with merlot because of waning sales. Thank heavens, it did.  A perennial success, this merlot offers up generous floral aromas, ripe black cherry and blueberry flavors and oak-inspired hints of spice and chocolate.

·         Skouras Megas Oenos PGI Peloponnese 2013 ($30). This is a big full-throttle, ripe-fruit, and oak-driven red wine. The blend is 80 percent aghiorghitiko (also known as St. George) and 20 percent cabernet sauvignon. Blackberries and cedar notes propel this wine into a mouth filling drinking experience. Pair with a prime barbecued steak to maximize pleasure.

Rodney Strong winery innovates

(Feb. 22, 2019)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR            

Innovation doesn’t always come easy to family-owned wineries. When you – and not some large corporation – holds the purse strings, there is risk involved in deviating from a proven course, buying more vineyards, or investing in new equipment. When such restraint persists, the death spiral begins and the corporations swoop in to pick the bones. Such is not the case at Rodney Strong, an iconic family-owned operation that is on a path to innovation.

Now 55 years old, the Rodney Strong enterprise was named after a well-known American dancer who left the stage to start a second career in winemaking in Sonoma County. For years it hummed along making traditional wine alongside other traditional, family owned wine producers. Large corporations grabbed up many of those wineries, but Rodney Strong remained family owned despite offers to buy it.

Justin Seidenfeld, winemaker at Rodney Strong

Justin Seidenfeld, winemaker at Rodney Strong

We have followed this winery for decades and felt it was always a reliable producer of decent wine but often wine with little distinction. When it began to concentrate on making some brilliant red wines – especially its single-vineyard cabernet sauvignons – we took notice.

Now comes long Justin Seidenfeld who has been given a lot of liberty to bring innovation to a family operation that is five generations deep. And, wow, is he making a difference, as a recent tasting with him demonstrated.

“This is the first major shift in 40 years,” he said.

Seidenfeld, who supervised several wineries in the extensive Constellation portfolio and then at Robert Mondavi before coming to Rodney Strong in 2010, is now director of winemaking and responsible for every operation. With total support of proprietor Tom Klein, he stays focused on getting the most out of a vineyard and winery.

In the vineyard he has shifted philosophy from measuring yield per acre to yield per vine. The new concept accepts that any vineyard has inconsistencies and changing yield according to the particular vigor of a vine will create optimum results, particularly with color and concentration.

More than 600 acres of estate vineyards are being replanted over seven years. 

In the wine-making process, Seidenfeld is concentrating on removing biogenic amines in the fermentation process. We know this sounds like technical gibberish, but it’s those amines and histamines that produce headaches for many people.  If you complain of headaches after drinking wine, try Rodney Strong. You won’t be the first to notice the difference.

Seidenfeld is also concentrating on developing consistent and predictable oak barrels that complement the tannins of the grape. A custom-made barrel that he classifies low in tannin, for instance, can be used for grapes that are naturally high in tannin. That combination moderates those bitter tannins that make your mouth pucker. The wines we tasted were definitely lacking those bitter tannins.

The style of the wines began to change not long after he arrived. There is more acidity, for instance, and the wines aren’t buttery or spicy – once popular byproducts of new oak barrels. In fact, the iconic Rodney Strong Chalk Hill chardonnay we tasted was very burgundian – austere, pure and with good acidity.

“Growth will be through innovation,” Seidenfeld said. A rosé and a red blend, for instance, were recently introduced.

More noteworthy, however, is the introduction of Rowen, a separate label owned by Klein. Three premium Bordeaux-like blends are made from grapes grown in elevated vineyards at Cooley Ranch.  The label’s intentional separation from Rodney Strong avoids the association of a high-quality upstart with a traditional producer of reasonably priced wines. The competitive field for Rowen will be a challenge for Rodney Strong, but the wines are delicious and well-priced at $55.

“Sonoma County is the best place to grow wine anywhere in the world,” Seidenfeld said.  While one region is known for particular grape varieties, Sonoma County does well with a diverse range of grapes, he said.

Here are the red wines we liked a lot:

·         Rodney Strong Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2016 ($25). You’ll be hard pressed to find a better pinot noir at this price. It’s not loaded with forward fruit like you would find in many California and Oregon pinot noirs, but it has an austere, Burgundian-like feel, medium body and reasonable tannins. Seidenfeld uses 11 heritage clones in this wine. We’ve seen this as low as $18.

·         Rodney Strong Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($35). Only in its third vintage, the Knights Valley is an example of Seidenfeld’s philosophy of pairing high-tannin staves with low tannin grapes. The tannins are integrated in a well-balanced, delicious and reasonably priced cabernet sauvignon.

·         Upshot Red Wine Blend 2016 ($28). Seidenfeld said this wine embraces his passion for blending. It is a unique combination of zinfandel, malbec, merlot, petit verdot and riesling. It certainly is delicious with rich and round dark cherry flavors, a hint of chocolate and spice. The label should be a model for all producers – it focuses on function, not design.  It has the blend, time in barrel, harvest date, timeline and more.

·         Rodney Strong Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($75). First produced in 1974, the Alexander’s Crown is the producer’s tiara. Since 2008, Seidenfeld has been mapping the vineyard to determine best harvest dates for specific vines. He can transmit this knowledge via phone to the grower so that the grapes are picked at optimum ripeness. This single-vineyard reserve wine is outstanding: soft but with undeniable tannins, dark fruit flavor, rich texture and a hint of mocha.

·         Rowen Cooley Ranch Vineyard 2015 ($55). Using grapes from a large vineyard that ranges in elevation from 500 to 2,040 feet, Seidenfeld is able to inject diversity into a blend of cabernet sauvignon (55 percent), malbec, syrah and viognier. It has generous aromatics, ripe blackberry and red currant flavors and lush mouthfeel. The wine is deceiving because the tannins aren’t bitter and so obvious.

WINE PICKS

·         Brancott Estate Letter Series T Pinot Noir 2016 ($35).  This Marlborough pinot noir has classic New Zealand character with youthful cherry flavor, medium body and a hint of spice. In the pinot noir category, it’s a good price.

·         FEL Ferrington Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2016 ($65). Vintner Cliff Lede founded FEL Wines in 2014 and his pinot noirs have had his magic dust ever since. This single-vineyard stunner has generous floral aromas and black cherry and spice flavors. Smooth and delicious, it is sold direct-to-consumer from its web site.

·         Calera Central Coast Pinot Noir 2016 ($30). Blending grapes from several Central Coast regions, Calera has created a decently priced pinot noir with good length and simplicity. Pure cherry and strawberry flavors with a hint of pepper.

Oregon’s small producers sell direct

February 17, 2019

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

If there is ever a wine region that embraces a person’s dream of owning a small winery, it is Oregon’s Willamette Valley.  More than 560 family owned wineries are churning out wonderful pinot noirs, chardonnays and other wines every year, and 70 percent of them are making less than 5,000 cases a year. Managing quantities this small has its challenges, but these challenges can be profitably managed if the overhead is low and the sales goals are reasonable.

Tom Fitzpatrick, owner and winemaker of Alloro Vineyard in the Chehalem Mountains AVA said he doesn’t have the luxury of having staff help. “I wear many hats. There is no team of specialists in marketing, sales or production. I have fewer resources and can’t spend the attention” on some aspects of the business.

Tom Fitzpatrick, Alloro Vineyard

Tom Fitzpatrick, Alloro Vineyard

He is not alone. However, small productions allow a winemaker – often the owner – to concentrate on making those special wines we love without fear of having a lot of it to sell. If you’ve been to the Willamette Valley or enjoy its pinot noirs, you understand the thrill of finding a producer who is largely unknown in the wine world.

Said Fitzpatrick, “We’re not a wine factory. We're more like an artist who gives attention to detail. Folks who visit can talk to us and connect with who we are. It’s more than just a beverage.”

If you have visited a Willamette Valley winery you know what he means. Winemakers or a family member are often in the tasting rooms and the wines you taste can’t be bought anywhere else. You feel special and that’s the magic appeal of Willamette Valley wines, particularly its pinot noir.

So, how does a small producer survive in a competitive wine market dominated by large corporations?

Containing cost is imperative to survival, and the primary means to accomplish this task is to eliminate the high costs of distribution by selling directly to the consumer. In 2018 Oregon’s direct to consumer volume rose 19 percent – the second-best growth record in the country. Pinot noir represented more than half of Oregon’s shipments and the average price of a bottle of pinot noir was nearly $49. No state can compete with these numbers.

Steve Lutz, Lenne Estate

Steve Lutz, Lenne Estate

“I think a lot of (the small production) has to deal with pinot noir,” said Steve Lutz, owner and winemaker of Lenné Estate who has a 21-acre site in the Yamill-Carlton AVA. “Pinot noir doesn’t lend itself to mass production because it’s expensive to grow. And, our model is high quality.”

His annual production is less than 2,000 cases.

All but a handful of his cases are sold through his tasting room. He said that he has put more effort into his tasting room -- additional flights of wine, more food, tours of the facility -- to keep up with other wineries competing for the same crowd. Half of his wine is sold in state while the other half is shipped to customers in other states that allow alcohol shipments. He anticipates his wine will be on allocation in the next couple of years.

Fitzpatrick said he has seen tremendous growth in sales from his tasting room since he dropped many of his distributors in 2010. Direct-to-consumer sales in his tasting room rose from $50,000 in 2009 to $700,000 in 2018. 

Large corporations can produce overnight blockbusters because they have massive production facilities, a vast distribution system and a marketing staff. Think of wines like The Prisoner, Apothic Red and Meomi which blossomed in short time. Oregon producers have only themselves to sell their wine, albeit less of it, to customers in faraway states.

Fitzpatrick said, “It takes more time to build recognition. The secret, however, is time. Growing the business organically, boots on the ground, good reviews, referrals. Improving your signage and hosting external events” will draw more customers to tasting rooms.

We can’t get enough of the small-lot pinot noirs from the Willamette. Each one we taste speaks of the unique soils, the appellations and most importantly the winemakers who spend inordinate effort into crafting wine.

Here are some we enjoyed and that can be purchased online through the producer’s web site:

·         Lenné LeNez Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2015 ($30). This is a great value in pinot noir. Lots of forward black cherry flavors and cherry, mocha aromas with a dash of spice. Medium body.

·         Alloro Estate Pinot Noir 2015 ($40). The flagship wine of the estate, this pinot noir has a broad expression of fruit, good acidity and flavors of black cherries and spice.

·         Youngberg Hill Aspen Chardonnay 2016 ($40).  Apple and citrus flavors with a bit of mineral and a rich mouthfeel highlight this incredibly delicious chardonnay from the McMinnville AVA. It was very difficult to put a cork back in the bottle to save a bit for the next night. Hints of vanilla and coconut. If you’re looking for a place to stay, Youngberg Hill has a great inn where we’ve stayed.

·         Youngberg Hill Bailey Pinot Noir 2015 ($50). Big strawberry and garrigue aromas hand off to blackberry and black cherry flavors with hints of licorice and tobacco. Soft mouthfeel and elegance.

·         Winderlea Chardonnay 2015 ($48). This chardonnay draws grapes from several AVAs to create a lush, balanced wine with pear, mineral and tropical fruit flavors.

·         Winderlea Meredith Mitchell Vineyards Pinot Noir 2015 ($48). This single-vineyard pinot noir is one of several from this producer. It has black cherry and bay leaf aromas and ample plum, kirsch and blueberry pie flavors. Long in the finish.

·         Dobbes Family Estate Grand Assemblage Pinot Noir 2017 ($28). Simple but elegant, this medium-bodied pinot noir has strawberry and raspberry notes with a floral aroma, a dash of rosemary and purity.

·         Brooks Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2016 ($28). Reasonably priced, this simple pinot noir uses grapes from several regions of the Willamette Valley AVA. Blackberry and earthy aromas are folllowed by plum and red currant flavors.

WINE PICKS

·         Raeburn Winery Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2016 ($25). We are already fans of Raeburn’s chardonnay, so we were pleased to see that their pinot noir matches if not exceeds the chardonnay in quality. Raspberry and cherry notes are pleasantly matched with spice and vanilla notes. Very easy to drink.

·         MacPhail Wines The Flier Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2016 ($50). This is a big style pinot noir that is jumping out of the glass with berry, cherry tastes and smells. Some smoke notes add an element of intrigue to this impressive mouthful of pinot noir.

·         Arrowood Cabernet Sauvignon Knights Valley 2014 ($35). This is a well-priced high quality cabernet sauvignon. Plenty of very expressive cherry/plum notes with a hint of mocha. A great package for the price.

The fallacies of chocolate and wine

(February 10, 2019)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

There are fallacies in wine like there are fallacies in food. Chocolate causes acne; salt raises the blood pressure. Wine is great with chocolate; wine is great with cheese. Maybe there is some grain of truth in all of these, so they are more like exaggerations than myth. And that’s the case with wine and chocolate, an awkward match that surfaces every Valentine’s Day.

If you are planning to embark on this risky path to romantic celebration, think twice about pairing wine with chocolate.  Sometimes it’s better not to share the occasion with wine.  But if you must, we have some recommendations.

Because of the sugar and fat content of chocolate, the palate is jerked in a direction that is totally opposite dry wine. That’s why crackers and bread are served during wine tastings.

Here are five recommendations to make your chocolate-wine pairing a success:

·         Serve good chocolate and try to stay away from those syrupy fillings. Bars of white, milk and dark chocolate from a reputable confectioner are far better than a box of Whitman’s.

·         Match sweetness with sweetness. Ports are decent matches with dark chocolate. Late- harvest riesling, sauterne, tokaji, muscat or moscato  d’asti, are good choices for white chocolate. For milk or dark chocolate, we like late-harvest zinfandel. All of these wines have significant sugar content.

Although you can spend a lot of money on dessert wines, such as ice wine, there are inexpensive alternatives. A ruby port or Graham’s Six Grapes port are easy to find and cost less $20. Moscato is cheap and late-harvest rieslings, like that from Chateau Ste. Michelle, are inexpensive.

·         Serve small proportions if you are having a tasting. Many of these wines come in half-bottles (375ml). Port usually comes in a full, 750ml bottle which can easily serve 12-15 people. If people want to drink more wine, get them off the sweet stuff because an overdose of sweet wine will lead to a nasty headache the next morning.  And, heavens, think of the calories from sweet wine and chocolate.

·         If you don’t want to serve sweet wines, look to zinfandel and syrah/shiraz. You may not realize it, but many red wines have residual sugar – just not as much as the wines listed above. These wines include Meomi, Menage et Trois and Apothic Red. If you want to improve the quality, consider California zinfandel.

·         Don’t serve anything with chocolate. With many of us struggling with diets, a small piece of chocolate can end a perfect evening without the need for wine. Maybe the best combination is to cap the occasion on a sweet note and start with it with bubbles.

Here are some recommendations for sparkling wine and champagne:

·         Champagne Collet Brut ($45). We loved this smooth non-vintage brut on first sip. And, it was very popular when we served it at public tastings. All three champagne grapes – pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier – are used to create a lush, full-bodied champagne with citrus and apple notes.

·         Champagne Bruno Paillard Premiere Cuvee ($55).  Citrus, raspberry and currant flavors dominate this luxurious blend of 25 different vintages since 1985. Generous aromas, full body and length make it a champagne hallmark.

·         Champagne Palmer & Co. Reserve Rosé ($80). This blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier exudes luxury. Unusually enriched with a 40-year-old solera of pinot noir, it has more complexity and depth than most champagnes. Fresh strawberry flavors abound.

·         Champagne Palmer & Co. Brut Reserve ($60). A medium bodied champagne made from 50 percent chardonnay, 40 percent pinot noir and 10 percent pinot meunier. Pleasant yeasty nose with pear and apple elements and a nice creamy texture. The addition of about 30 percent reserve wines and extended lees aging is clearly evident.

·         Champagne Moet & Chandon Rosé Imperial ($55). Beautiful color, fine bubbles and effusive strawberry and red currant notes.

·         J Vineyards & Winery California Cuvee Brut ($27). This is a reliable wine year after year and a good value in the California sparkling wine category. A blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, it has simple pear flavors and generous aromas.

·         Mumm Napa Brut Prestige ($24). This is Mumm Napa’s signature sparkling wine that has been dazzling crowds for years.  Good complexity with bread aromas, apple and citrus flavors and a long, creamy finish.

 

WINE PICKS

·         Eberle Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Vineyard Selection 2016 ($25). We tasted this Paso Robles cab in a flight of considerably more expensive wines and it held its own. A great value, it has a medium body with forward blackberry and black cherry flavors, herbal aromatics, a dash of chocolate and smooth tannins.

·         Prophecy Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($11). This sauvignon blanc is true to its New Zealand profile with grassy, grapefruit flavors, but they are not as aggressive as many sauvignon blancs from this region. Crisp acidity.

·         Klinker Brick 1850 Degrees Red Wine 2015 ($20). From a legendary Lodi producer known for its old-vine zinfandel, this splendid blend of cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah and zinfandel is delicious. Forward, ripe fruit character redolent of raspberry jam and plums, it is dark in color (thanks to petite sirah) and dense. Hints of licorice and cinnamon make it a special quaff.

·         Lük Gamay Noir 2016 ($30).  Known more for its light wines of France’s Beaujolais region, gamay noir (aka gamay) makes for a delicious wine. It’s a lighter version of pinot noir but silkier. This version from the Willamette Valley has incredible purity. Black cherries, long in the finish and impossible to stop at one glass.

·         Sidecar Off the Wagon Claret 2016 ($25). Carmenere, a common grape in Chile, comprises 35 percent of this blend and provides a unique profile to this Oregon wine. Cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and malbec  make up the rest of the blend.  Mouth-filling wine with dark fruit flavors and quaffability.

Valentine’s Day: stay in the red

(February 4, 2019)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

Next week is Valentine’s Day, guys. It’s one of those days that most men dread because the expectation of a romantic gesture is intimidating. A dozen roses? Cha-ching. A dinner at a fancy restaurant with strangers and a fixed menu? Cha-ching. An engagement ring? CHA-CHING.

If both of you are working and having someone else do the cooking and cleaning is more convenient, there is a reservation waiting for you. But if a home-cooked meal is more appealing and you have the time, create your own celebration and save some money.

Except for a few occasions, we traditionally opt for a private dinner at home with our wives where we can escape the throngs of restaurant diners, play a little Frank Sinatra, set an inviting table, grill a couple of steaks or lobster, light candles and open a nice bottle of wine.  Sometimes we have done it all and sometimes our spouses share the fun. The relatively minimal effort is more heart felt than a restaurant experience because we invested the effort.

Of course, for us the wine is the centerpiece of any fancy dinner. We like to start with a glass of champagne – next week’s column – and then follow with a nice cabernet sauvignon.  We spend more for wine on this occasion, justifying the cost by knowing a bottle of wine is still cheaper than a night on the town.  If you have a glass of champagne, you don’t have to finish a bottle of red wine. Good news – it will be there the next day!

Here are some very nice cabernet sauvignon’s we recommend for a dinner at home:

·         Heitz Cellars Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 ($54). As wine producers come and go, it’s nice to see an old friend like Heitz still around. Founded in 1961, the winery turned a corner this year when the family passed on the operation to the Lawrence family. This gem has the quintessential Napa Valley and Heitz character we have grown to love. The acidity and oak are balanced and the dark fruit flavors are joined by fine tannins. Forward yet elegant. 

·         Acumen PEAK Edcora Vineyard 2015 ($150). Denis Malbec joined Henrik Poulsen in making some great wines from mountain-grown grapes on Atlas Peak, but sadly the 2015 are his last. Malbec died in 2016. Acumen’s stellar portfolio of premium red wines reveals the greatness that comes from mountainside grapes. This one – a blend of cabernet sauvignon (90 percent), petite verdot and cabernet franc – is deep, complex and layered with expressive aromas of violets and espresso. Black cherries and wild blackberries are cloaked in promising tannins. Acumen makes a 2015 Mountainside Cabernet Sauvignon ($60) that uses less new oak and more merlot and malbec for a delicious and more approachable blend. 

·         Freemark Abbey Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 ($70).  Drinking this delicious and well-balanced wine reminded us of why Rutherford is not only one of the most historic districts for cabernet sauvignon but also the best. With a legacy dating back to 1886, Freemark Abbey has been producing top cabernets year after year. The 2013 has bottle age (and with some sediment), layered fruit flavors, firm tannins and a bit of that famous “Rutherford dust.” Blackberry notes with a hint of cloves, cedar and olive. 

·         Arrowood Winery Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($35). This is a lot of wine for the money. Bold plum and black cherry flavors with good concentration, texture, and hints of clove and cocoa powder. 

·         Rutherford Ranch Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($32). When we last met with this producer’s new winemaker, Jay Turnipseed, he was talking about wines made by his predecessor. Now he can talk about his wine – the 2016 cabernet sauvignon. Blended with a bit of malbec, merlot, petite sirah and petit verdot, it is full-bodied and fruit-forward. Ripe, dark fruit flavors with a long finish and fine tannins. 

·         Spottswoode Lyndenhurst Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($85).  Cabernet sauvignon from the Napa Valley forms the foundation for this luxurious bordeaux-grape blend. Generous aromas with rich, opulent flavors of plum, black cherries and red currants. Hints of cedar, leather and black pepper.

·         Robert Mondavi Oakville District Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($63). The name of the producer is enough to set the tone for a special Valentine’s Day dinner. One of the most iconic names in Napa Valley, Mondavi continues to make exquisite yet powerful blends like this one. All five noble Bordeaux grape varieties go into this classic Oakville vine. A proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove, it has complexity, balance and layered fruit. Juicy lack cherries, cassis, vanilla dominate the palate. Mondavi also makes a special 2015 cabernet franc ($65) that is very floral and firm.

WINE PICKS

·         Bonterra Organic Vineyards The McNab 2014 ($50). Bonterra is one of the vineyards featured in the now-showig Amazon Prime docu-series, “It Starts with Wine.” Noted for its long-standing commitment to organic farming, Bonterra’s wines are excellent across the board. This blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petite sirah, cabernet franc and malbec is loaded with beguiling aromas and mouth-filling raspberry and cassis flavors. It’s cousin, “The Butler” ($50) is a generous and tasty blend of syrah, petite sirah, grenache and viognier.  Two great wines that can be enjoyed now.

·         Vietti Roero Arneis 2017 ($23).  We were impressed with the delicious qualities of this top-drawer arneis from Italy’s Piedmont region.  This is a grape variety worth exploring from a family producer that is five generations deep. Its producer, Alfredo Currado is credited for bringing back this local varietal in the Roero region. General floral aromas with stainless-steel purity and loads of melon and citrus flavors.

·         Steele Santa Barbara Pinot Blanc 2017 ($20). Peach and melon flavors dominate this delicious pinot blanc that is worthy of a search. It is a good sipper or a wine that can be paired with seafood.

·         Aslina Sauvignon Blanc Stellenbosch South Africa 2015 ($20). Aslina is founded by Ntsiki Biyela, the first black female winemaker from South Africa. A very different take on sauvignon blanc, it is citrus-driven instead of herbal- and grapefruit-driven with some interesting smoke notes. 

·         Ryder Estate Syrah Central Coast 2016 ($15). A terrific syrah at a great price. This very complete wine exhibits ripe blueberry, blackberry and spice notes in an enticing example of the potential of Central Coast syrah.

Petite sirah is more than a blending grape

(January 28, 2019)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

Our dalliance with petite sirah goes far back but rarely has it earned a spot in our cellars.  It’s not that the wine can’t endure time as gracefully as Bordeaux; it’s just that the grape variety isn’t up the priority ladder with cabernet sauvignon. However, we took an opportunity to taste through a bunch of California petite sirahs and decided that these wines deserve more respect.

The grape variety originated in France where durif, a cross between syrah and peloursin, was created to make a new, disease-resistent petite sirah.  It was imported to the United States in the mid-19th century where it became one of the most widely planted grapes.

It fell from favor in California with the growth of the cabernet sauvignon market and because many producers thought petite sirah produced a wine that was too tannic and lacked dimension. The exception was the Lodi region, which has been growing petit sirah for more than 100 years. Lodi’s warm climate and rich, sandy loam soil allow the grape to produce prolifically.

Petit sirah is often used as a blending grape to provide more color – it will literally turn your teeth temporarily blue.  In a way, it is a lot like zinfandel – another American grape variety – that can range in style from an alcoholic, tannic monster to a ripe and juicy quaffer. Not surprisingly, petit sirah and zinfandel often find themselves together in a bottle.

Besides color, petit sirah is known for its blackberry and blueberry flavors with common hints of black pepper and licorice. Made in warmer regions, the flavors tend to be more jammy -- a frequent description is just-baked blueberry pie.

What we like about these wines is that they aren’t superfluous, like many syrahs or zinfandels. These wines have body and depth – qualities that allow them to be matched with serious dishes of beef, wild game, lamb and stews.

If you are serious about petit sirah for your cellar, then we recommend Ridge, Robert Biale and Robert Foley. Otherwise, here are a number of petit sirahs that won’t break the pocketbook.

·         Michael David Winery Lodi Petite Petit 2016 ($18). It’s hard to resist the circus-like label of this exotic blend of petite sirah and petit verdot. The two elephants represent the boldness and immensity of the two grape varieties.  It’s also hard to resist having a second glass. Raspberry and spice aromas with rich black cherry, blueberry a bit of vanilla flavor. 

·         French Bar California Petite Sirah 2015 ($19). Sporting a label that pays homage to the pioneers who pursued adventure into the untamed West, this wine from sustainably grown vineyards in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains is forward and ripe in dark fruit. Hints of cassis and coffee add to the intrigue.

·         Ironstone Lodi Petite Sirah 2016 ($12).  We loved this rich petite sirah from Lodi for its youthful fruit flavors and full body. Raspberry and blueberry flavors abound with hints of oak-inspired chocolate and vanilla. It’s a great value and a delicious drink. 

·         Mettler Family Vineyards Lodi Estate Petite Sirah 2015 ($20).  This petite sirah leans toward the elegant side, which is in sharp contrast to the bold and ripe flavors of most Lodi petite sirahs. Blackberry and raspberry pie flavors with good balance and length. The blend includes a little cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc .

·         Granite Hill Cellars Lodi Petit Sirah 2016 ($20).   Relatively new to the market, this wine shows off generous cherry aromas and plum and jammy berry flavors with a hint of vanilla oak.

·         McManis Family Vineyards California Petite Sirah 2016 ($11). Most of the grapes for this wine come from Lodi. The 14 percent tannat blended in this wine adds significant body. There also is some teroldego, alicante and petit verdot to give some dimension. Rich plum and blackberry fruit with hints of mocha and spice.

·         Peachy Canyon Petite Sirah 2016 ($30).  From the Paso Robles region, this round petite sirah has cherry, plum and blackberry notes, a floral note and a hint of licorice and chocolate.

EMERITUS

We respect a vintner who concentrates solely on one grape variety. By putting every waking minute into one grape variety leads to a higher quality than when that time and effort is spread over a dozen grape varieties, each of which require different approaches.

Emeritus, founded by Brice Cutrer Jones of Sonoma-Cutrer fame, makes only pinot noir and, boy, is it good. Only estate-grown grapes that are dry farmed are used – dry farming is common to pinot noir vineyards in Burgundy. At Emeritus’ Hallberg Ranch in the Russian River Valley, the vines penetrate 20 feet of different soils to reach water – most pinot noir vines are buried only a few feet. These grapes reach physiological ripeness at low sugar levels and are more concentrated.

We were impressed with the purity of two recent releases – the 2015 Emeritus Hallberg Ranch Pinot Noir ($44) and the 2015 Emeritus Pinot Hill Pinot Noir ($67).  Hallberg Ranch is in Green Valley and Pinot Hill is in Sebastopol Hills.

Winemaker David Lattin has nice concentration in the Hallberg Ranch pinot noir, a wine with cranberry and citrus notes with a hint of licorice – a good price for a wine with this concentration. The haymaker is the Pinot Hill pinot noir because of its greater complexity and layered fruit. There is a brambly personality to this dark-fruit wine.

WINE PICKS

·         Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2015 ($30). We were impressed with this New Zealand syrah right out of the glass. Effusive blueberry and licorice aromas with complex and layered fruit flavors of dark berries. Long in the finish and firm tannins. Well worth the price.

·         Dutcher Crossing Chenoweth Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($46). Black cherry notes with a bit of forest floor and spice. Silky tannins and long in the finish.

·         Torbeck Woodcutter’s Shiraz 2017 ($25). We loved the bright and fresh raspberry and black cherry fruit in this impossible-to-put-down shiraz from Down Under.   Soft mouthfeel and medium body make it a versatile match to burgers, ribs, pizza, pasta, chili and other winter fare.

 

Crazy ideas to save a bad wine rarely work

(January 21, 2019)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

It seems like the internet is loaded with crazy ideas of how to make something better. Rub warts with garlic to remove them. Use newspaper to clean your glasses. Put butter on burns. Use hairspray to clean ink stains. Eat chocolate to improve your sex life. You got a problem, there’s a cure in your cupboard.

Wine has its cures too.  We hear them in what we call the “Is-it-true questions.”  Here are a few we recently heard at just one public tasting we moderated:

Is it true that adding a penny to a corked wine will eliminate the offending flavors?

Early in our wine education days we were at a lunch when a winemaker poured a wine that had obvious cork taint – a chemical process that takes place after a bottle is sealed with a bad cork. A distributor wanted to save the wine and his client’s face and dropped a penny from his pocket into the expensive wine. We cringed but humored the desperate man and tried the wine.  It tasted like a dirty penny.

We also have read that a wad of plastic wrap will restore a corked wine. Indeed, polyethylene will remove trichloroanisole (cork taint) from wine but it also removes the aromatics and other positive elements.

Nothing will save a cork-tainted wine -- period. However, a copper penny may eliminate a stinky sulfur component in a wine that suffers from a fermentation flaw called “reduction.” This flaw produces a compound called mercaptans that makes a wine taste sulfuric – think a freshly lit match – or like burnt rubber. Mercaptans won’t harm you, but you’re not going to like a stinky wine.

Copper can absorb mercaptans. However, coins minted after 1982 are mostly zinc. Maybe a piece of copper piping would work better than a coin. But we pity even more the guy walking around with an old penny or a hunk of copper pipe in his glass.

The bottom line: accept that you bought a flawed wine and dump it.

Is it true that whisking a bottle of wine in a blender will save a wine that is over the hill?

Several years ago Modernist Cuisine author Nathan Myhrvold wrote that “hyper-decanting” will aerate a wine in 30 seconds, which easily beats the time it takes to adequate decant a wine naturally. We get it. But it isn’t necessary to spin your wine in the family blender to enjoy it.

Aerating wine is a good practice for almost all red wines. But hyper-decanting a wine won’t restore a wine’s vitality any more than a swig from the Fountain of Youth will make you young again. Over the hill wine, like age, is irreversible.

The thought of putting a great wine in a household blender we’ve used for sauces makes us pause. Will the hyper-decanted wine pick up last night’s tomato sauce that has stuck to the rubber top or worse the soap you used to clean it? This practice is no better than dunking into wine a dirty copper penny plucked from your grandfather’s coin collection.

Swirling a wine in your glass and witnessing its development over an hour is what makes the tasting experience so great. If you want to rush the process, use one of those little aerators that fit into a neck of a bottle. That’s a gadget that actually works.

Bottom line: save the blender for what Cuisinart intended.

Is it true that whirling a wine in the glass, then cupping your hand over the top, captures more aromatics?

The only time we cup our hand over a glass of wine is to protect it from fruit flies. That works pretty good until we just give up. But cupping a swirled glass of wine is more likely to pick up the aftershave you plastered on your face an hour ago or the garlic that was still clinging to the hand you just shook.

Called “orbital shaking” in physics, the swirling motion churns the liquid and draws in oxygen. That combination releases aromatic components such as flowers, herbs and spices. These elements help to offset the tannins and acids that some people find too pungent. But putting your hand over the top probably will abort this magic chemistry.

The bottom line: swirl the wine but save the hands for waving.

Is it true that a raisin will restore the bubbles to a sparkling wine that has gone flat?

The web is loaded with references to this science trick – it was even demonstrated on the “Today” show. But responsible publications have sorted out the truth: raisins, because of their odd and wrinkled shape, can activate what carbon dioxide is left in a glass – but they can’t create more carbon dioxide.

We tried this experiment ourselves. Even CPR couldn’t revive a sparkling wine left open for longer than an hour. Yes, a raisin dropped in a glass an hour after the sparkling wine was poured made the bubbles dance a little, but it was all about the show and not the wine. And, we pity anyone at a party who has to explain why there is a raisin in his glass.

Others say putting a spoon works better than a raisin.

The bottom line: Drink the sparkling wine before it goes flat.

 Spend more time in the cellar and less time on the internet.

WINE PICKS

·         Cooper & Thief Rye Barrel Aged Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($60). It is hard to justify serving expensive wine to a football crowd grazing on junk food, but buy this for the cool factor. This Napa Valley wine spends six months in rye whiskey barrels and it comes in a spirit-shaped bottle. Rich and complex, it is best served alongside grilled and savory meat.

·         Casadei Sogno Toscana IGT 2016 ($20). Imported by Cline Sisters Imports, this blend of syrah, mourvedre and grenache is more like French than Italian. But a winning recipe in one country can be a winning recipe in another country. It has red berry aromas and flavors with hints of dark chocolate and spice.

·         Ramey Wine Cellars Claret 2016 ($42). Syrah – even in small amounts -- seems to be the common trick to give an otherwise Bordeaux blend some softness. We loved this serious, rich blend from David Ramey. Loads of extracted dark berry flavors with hints of vanilla and chocolate.

Warm up to cognac and port

(January 14, 2019)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

 It’s always amazing to us how weather can influence our choice of beverages. Summer heat prompts rosés and sauvignon blancs. Fall calls for zinfandel and Spanish reds. Winter? Big, complex cabernets – or something different, like cognac or port.  Today we offer you a diversion from your usual winter fare.

COGNAC

Cognac, representing less than a percent of the world’s spirits consumption, is an afterthought to many of today’s spirits enthusiasts. Maybe cognac shares the same stuffy, vague image that plagues port. 

Traditionally, cognac was a solo performer, consumed neat in a glass snifter at the end of a sit-down meal. You probably have seen images of this in vintage movies. Millennials, who don’t appear to cling to tradition as much, strive to craft their own path through life by discarding ritual and convention. They renewed interest has driven cognac sales higher. 

Cognac is pretty easy to comprehend. It is essentially made by double distilling a weak, acidic wine (7-9 percent alcohol), made from at least 90 percent ugni blanc (also known as trebbiano), colombard and folle blanche grapes.

The grapes must be sourced from the region surrounding the French village of Cognac. A series of letters codify aging. VS indicates 2 years in wood, VSOP. 4 years in wood and XO signifies 10 years of oak aging. The result when done right is an elegant, smooth spirit with caramel and vanilla scents and flavors with subtle fruit and sometimes-spicy notes that clocks in at about 80 proof.

If you are a fan of American whiskeys or un-peated scotch, cognac should be on your must-try list.

Prices vary wildly with tasty mass-market brands Hennessey and Courvoisier offering VS selections in the low to high $30s. On the other hand, Remy Martin King Louis XIII retails for about $3,500 if you can find it.

We recently tasted four cognacs that represent widely available brands and span the spectrum of aging and styles.  

·         Pierre Ferrand Cognac VS 1840 Original Formula 90 proof ($44-$49). This spicy, boldly flavored cognac harkens back to the late 1800s when cognac served as a popular cocktail ingredient. Caramel, fruity (orange marmalade) and a hint of licorice notes highlight with a slight alcoholic burn and points to using it as a cocktail ingredient possibly as a substitute rye. So, try it in manhattans, old fashions, or sidecars for a delicious cocktail experience.

·         Courvoisier VSOP Cognac 80 proof ($35-$50). Very smooth and elegant in the nose and mouth. Grilled nuts, orange zest and vanilla define this extremely smooth and elegant cognac that stands beautifully by itself.

·         Hardy Cognac VSOP Organic 80 proof ($59-$65). A very nice selection for those seeking somewhat rare, organically made spirits. Pear nose and flavors with caramel and a hint of citrus. A bit of a bite in this one.

·         Delamain Cognac XO Pale and Dry ($112-$120) 80 proof. The higher cost of this delicious nectar is a reflection of the extra time spent in old oak barrels. Exquisitely smooth and elegant, this cognac is crafted from blending 20- to 25-year-old cognac with no sugar or caramel added, hence the paler color of the liquid. Dried fruit flavors with a bit of vanilla and the barest whiff of licorice come together to create a truly memorable drink.

PORT

Last spring we traveled to New York to participate in a preview of the acclaimed and widely declared 2016 vintage ports scheduled for release in the fall.  Fast-forward to this winter and the first-declared port vintage since 2011 is now available in stores. Most of the big brand names such as Dow, Graham and Croft are sporting price tags in the $100 range typical for newly released vintage port. In a departure from historical styles, many of these wines are appealing now. That belies the traditional 10- to 20-year wait required by vintages of yore. Still, most will benefit from decades of aging for those so inclined to enjoying aged port.

If these admittedly hefty price tags are outside of your comfort zone -- and you are not inclined to wait 20 years -- alternatives exist.

We recently tasted three ready-to-drink releases from Dow and Graham that are much easier on the pocketbook at $25 and $45 for a 750ml bottle. 

Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve Porto ($25 -$28) is an industry standard bearer and is made from the same vineyards that produce Graham’s vintage ports. It sports fresh bright cherry and plum notes with a whiff of violets.

The newest in a series of special releases is the Graham’s Six Grapes Reserve Special River Quintas Edition ($42). This wine features a bit more structure and tannin than the regular Six Grapes, but only 1,000 cases have been produced. Plum and cassis notes dominate with more tannin than the standard Six Grapes release.

We were impressed with Dow’s 2012 Late Bottled Vintage Port ($24). 2012 was a drier cooler season than normal and followed the widely declared 2011 vintage. Late bottled vintage ports are held in barrel for an extended period of time to hasten the maturing process and are ready to drink upon release. A bit drier than many ports, this delicious wine offers cherry and cassis notes with a hint of licorice. A great value proposition for port lovers or the curious wine lover.

WINE PICKS

·         Thacher Winery Working Holiday Cass Vineyard Paso Robles Genesco District 2016 ($28). A delicious blend of Southern Rhone varietals, it is 47 percent grenache, 30 percent syrah and 23 percent mourvedre. Dominant nose and flavors of ripe opulent strawberry and blackberry create a very pleasing package.

·         Cambria Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley Katherine’s Vineyard 2015 ($22). A textbook ripe chardonnay from a terrific producer, this wine has pineapple and citrus notes with an unctuous round texture in the mouth. Toasty oak is barely discernable. Fantastic!

·         Grandes Vinos y Vinedos 3 C Carinena Carinena 2016 ($10-12). The 3 Cs refer to the carinena grape, Carinena region and Carinena village where this lovely red wine hails from. Carinena is otherwise known as carignan in California and France where it is often seen. Carinena is the oldest established appellation in Spain beginning in 1932. This carinena features delicious appealing strawberry and cherry flavors and scents and is somewhat reminiscent of a well-made grenache.

·         Jason Stephens Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($28). This was a stunning surprise in a flight of prestigious cabernet sauvignons we recently tasted. Stunning because we never heard of the producer – shame on us. The cabernet was dense with youthful dark fruit flavors and a dash of licorice.





Toast the new year with sparkling wine from England

(December 24, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

With many of you heading for the store for some sparkling wine this week, it’s a good occasion for a history lesson.

You probably have heard that Dom Perignon invented Champagne. We all have, but it’s technically false.  The Benedictine monks stumbled upon champagne when their efforts to make still wine were foiled by a secondary fermentation that occurred unexpectedly in the bottle.  But it was nearly a century later when in 1662 English physician Christopher Merret added sugar to finished wine to create the methode champenoise style used to make Champagne today.  And it was the English who developed a bottle that could withstand the pressure created during secondary fermentation.

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Alas, the English were dependent on the French for their Champagne because they couldn’t make it themselves. How times have changed, thanks to global warming that has made England’s cool, rainy climate more hospitable to vineyards. Now there are more than 400 vineyards in southeast England and some of them are growing grapes for English sparkling wine.

Once the primary market for Champagne, England now favors locally made sparkling wine. Sales of Champagne are off 11 percent and British restaurant owners are reporting that English sparkling wines are outselling Champagne.  The French have noticed the trend – Taittinger is first Champagne maker to plant vineyards in Kent.

Besides gaining a more hospitable climate for grapes, England’s Kent region, for instance, is blessed by having the same chalk soil that is ideal to making flinty champagne with balanced acidity. Unlike Spain and Italy which have introduced new grape varieties to sparkling wine, the English wisely rely on Champagne’s exclusive use of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.

We recently tasted two English sparkling wines from East Essex alongside a Champagne and were duly impressed.

Mark and Chris Roberts launched Ridgeview in 1995 when sparkling wine was in its infant stage. They chose a ridge with a view of Southdowns, a string of hills along the southeast coast of England. Its winemaker, Matt Strugnell, was named “Grower of the Year” in 2017.

Although the English sparkling wines compare well to inexpensive Champagne, their subtle differences are due to the variations in climate and terroir.  We loved the French Henriot Brut that we tasted alongside the Ridgeview sparkling wine – it was quintessential Champagne. But it didn’t diminish our appreciation for the two Ridgeview wines. However, since the Henriot was $45 and the Ridgeviews were $55, cost savings is not part of the equation in choosing which to buy.

Most stunning was the Ridgeview Bloomsbury Non-Vintage Brut. Its dominance on chardonnay made it a more elegant wine than the Cavendish Brut which is 70 percent red grape varieties.  Both were good sparkling wines but the citrus, melon and apple notes in the Bloomsbury were really fresh and graceful.

This wine scored more than 90 points in reviews by the Wine Advocate and Wine Enthusiast.

Finding these wines in time for New Year’s Eve may be a challenge. It might be best to grab a plane to London.

Easier to find is the Champagne Henriot Brut Souverain ($45). In a sea of expensive Champagnes, this is actually a great value and one from a reliable house we have respected for decades. It is well-balanced with a subtle floral and almond bouquet and apple, cherry flavors. It is a blend of chardonnay (50 percent), pinot noir and pinot meunier.  Thirty percent come from reserve wines and two-thirds of the composition is represented by grand cru vineyards.

Champagne Henriot’s Blanc de Blancs ($59), made entirely from chardonnay grapes, is more complex with layers of fruit and understated elegance and little price difference.

WINE PICKS

·         Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc Block A 2016 ($33). From the Stellenbosch region of South Africa, this delightful wine has good length and viscosity. Floral aromas and mango, melon flavors.

·         Lasorda Family Wines Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($24). Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda is the latest luminary to put his family’s name on a wine label. The oldest living Hall of Famer, Lasorda probably is not involved in making wine but his family has come up with a decent, medium-body wine for the price.  The beautiful label includes a baseball diamond where Lasorda spent most of his career as a pitcher and manager of the LA Dodgers.

·         Chateau de Saint Cosme “Les Deux Albion” Cotes du Rhone 2016 ($22).  This is one of the best wines we’ve tasted in the last several months. It is a blend of syrah, grenache, carignan, mourvedre and clairette – the usual suspects in most wines from southern Rhone Valley. The producer makes excellent gigondas, but this blend from three communes just blew us away. Dense, dark in color, it sports generous garrigue and floral aromas. The flavors range from black cherry to plum.  For the price, you can sock this away for several years – a good wine to start a cellar.

·         Hanna Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($39).  Blended with a bit of malbec and merlot, this luscious and extracted cabernet is pure pleasure. Blackberry and blueberry notes with dashes of cocoa and vanilla.  A decently priced cabernet that over delivers and would make a good match to a holiday rib roast or lamb.

·         Torbeck Woodcutter’s Shiraz 2017 ($25). Made entirely from shiraz grown in Australia’s rich Barossa Valley, this wine is simply delicious. Medium body with loads of youthful blackberries and raspberries and hints of spice and vanilla.

 

Champagnes to toast the holidays

(December 17, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

We were puzzled when a woman recently asked if a raisin could restore the bubbles to a flat champagne. Her friends were laughing at her – so were we until we found a reference to the odd remedy on a couple of web sites. 

A raisin dropped into a glass of flat champagne will produce bubbles because what little is left of carbon dioxide will bounce off the ridges of a wrinkled raisin. Of course, we tried it ourselves and concluded that once a dead champagne, always a dead champagne. The solution, as we advised the woman and her humored friends, is to drink the champagne before it goes flat. Duh. 

The thought of restoring bubbles in champagne would horrify the Benedictine monks in Champagne who tried to produce a flat wine. Alas, they were thwarted by Champagne’s cold climate. Fermentation requires heat, so the process was halted once fall arrived only to resume in the spring once temperatures warmed. By then the wine was in the bottle – a ticking timebomb.  

The monks shipped off their wines to the British only to hear that the bottles burst as the carbon dioxide built up from the renewed fermentation. While they were apologetic, the Bristish loved the bubbles and invented a stronger bottle. If it weren’t for them, we may not have champagne today. 

If you open champagne, don’t have the raisins standing by. Finish it.  

It’s this time of the year we think most about champagne or sparkling wine. The vast majority of the sparkling wine is sold between Thanksgiving and Christmas when people find reason to celebrate. Unfortunately, raisins won’t help flat sales either. Higher prices from Brexit has flattened sales in Great Britain. French champagne sales have eroded further because of the growing popularity of prosecco. No matter what the competition or the economy, there is nothing like champagne. 

We always feel special when we open real champagne. It’s not just the bubbles that dance from glass to mouth, but it’s the rituals associated with champagne. The pop of the cork, the bubbles and the clinking of glasses set off a series of sensory reasons to celebrate. We don’t know of anyone who pours it at funerals, for instance, or when they lose a job. Champagne is synonymous with happiness. 

Cheer the holidays with champagne or sparkling wine. Here are some we recommend: 

·         Champagne Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve NV ($60-$70). This non-vintage brut Champagne thoroughly impressed us. The 40 percent reserve wines in this cuvee add a depth of flavor. Very ripe apple and pear fruit in a delicious toasty, yeasty robe. Big, bold, and pleasing and clearly one of the best champagnes we have tasted recently. 

·         Champagne Piper-Heidsieck Rosé Sauvage ($60). Meaning “wild rose” in French, this blend of pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay has distinctive black cherry aromas and blackberry, grapefruit flavors with a dash of tea. 

·         Champagne Jacquart Rosé Mosaique ($57). This champagne house, founded in 1964 by a group of winemakers, isn’t as known as many of the historic properties, but it is worthy of trying because of its bold style. Salmon color, lively mousse and strawberry/raspberry flavors. 

·         Bruno Paillard Champagne Premier Cuvee ($50). A perennial favorite of ours, Bruno Paillard’s flagship cuvee continues to rack up the accolades. Reasonably priced, it delivers a lot of champagne finesse – fine bubbles, bread-like aromas and apple, cherry flavors. It is a blend of 30 crus and 25 vintages dating back to 1985. It is a classic blend of pinot noir (45 percent), chardonnay and pinot meunier. For an extra treat, try the elegant, all-chardonnay Paillard blanc-de-blanc grand cru ($70). 

·         Lucien Albecht Cremant d’Alsace Brut ($23). Although French, this sparkling wine comes from the Alsace region and cannot be called champagne. Made mostly from pinot blanc grapes, it has fresh apple and peach flavors. 

·         Gloria Ferrer Royal Cuvee ($37). A blend of pinot noir and chardonnay, this California sparkling wine is vibrant with tempting peach and citrus flavors.   

·         Mumm Napa Brut Prestige ($27). This is a good value in the California sparkling wine market. Lots of apple and peach flavors with a dash of ginger and vanilla. A bit of pinot gris is added to the traditional blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. 

·         Gruet Brut ($15). The Gruet family was making champagne in France when a chance visit to New Mexico in 1983 launched its sparkling wine under the same name. Today, it remains one of the best buys in American sparkling wine and one with many awards. This dry blend of chardonnay and pinot noir shows delicate apple and citrus notes. 

How sweet it is

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR            

Sometimes we worry about the wine industry. When we started writing a column in the mid 1980s, there were a lot of family owned wineries – small, dedicated operations that were absorbed by conglomerates such as Gallo, Kendall-Jackson, and Constellation. Exceptional producers who crafted such great wines – Inglenook, Franciscan, Charles Krug – are either gone or shadows of their former selves.

The “so what” of this metamorphosis is a homogenization of wine styles. Chardonnays, merlots, cabernet sauvignons taste the same – well-made but hardly crafted without regard to profit. Worse among the trend is the rapid growth of producers who own no vineyards or wine-making facilities. They buy their grapes, make a trendy wine at crushing facilities and slap on a clever label. David Phinney, for instance, is making millions creating brands like Orin Swift and The Prisoner, then selling them to Gallo and Constellation who double production and rake in millions more.

But what isn’t there to admire about an entrepreneur who creates a popular wine and makes a boatload of money?

Constellation Brands has had hits like Meiomi pinot noir, a wine created by Joe Wagner (son of Caymus’ Chuck Wagner) and sold after about 10 years to Constellation for $315 million. And, don’t get us started on red blends. Gallo has its Apothic Red, a top-selling wine that has gone so far off the grid that there is a hideous spin-off that includes coffee in the blend. As much as these wines deviate from tradition, they are the wines enjoyed by the masses who have quickly adopted their residual sugar. Why wouldn’t producers satisfy the demand?

One recent day we had breakfast with Dan Cohn of Bellacosa and later in the day we had a tasting of Priest Ranch wines with its winemaker Craig Becker.  Both have managed to stay free of this wacky trend of making lots of money from sweet red wines with gimmicky names.

Becker said he thought wine producers were just “casting a wide net to attract customers. I hope they grow out of it. We like to be at ground level.”

Priest Ranch makes a delicious but balanced cabernet sauvignon. But it’s the reserve wines – a Bordeaux blend called Coach Gun, a Somerston merlot and a reserve cabernet sauvignon called XCVI – that define Priest Ranch. They are heady with chewy tannins and power – nothing sissy about these wines. In fact, they are difficult to enjoy now because they are tightly closed and demanding time in the cellar.

Bellacosa’s Cohn said he grew up with cabernet sauvignon in his blood. He worked for years on his father’s winery, B.R. Cohn, before launching Bellacosa after his father sold the property in 2015. B.R. Cohn’s cabernets were traditional, dry and complex. Bellacosa sold out of its first vintage in 10 months. His cabernet sauvignon cost $25; Priest Ranch’s regular cabernet sauvignon sells for $38 – prices that are less attractive than the $8 charged by Apothic Red and Menage e Trois.

Cohn says he tasted Meiomi pinot noir, blended with riesling and perhaps syrah, and says, “That’s not pinot noir.”

“I will not deter from balance,” he says.  His cabernet has had as little as .45 grams of sugar per liter; Meiomi has about 6 grams per liter. Apothic Red has 15 grams per liter.

Don’t get us wrong. We’re not condemning sweet wines, but we like them in the form of sauternes, port, or dessert wines served after a meal. Sweet wines paired with food often perform terribly because they lack the acidity needed to offset seasoned food.

If you like Apothic, Ménage è Trois – the current top selling red wines – then drink on. The price is right and these wines go down like Mountain Dew. We’re happy that you are enjoying wine as much as us and have found wines that fit your budget. For us, though, we prefer the traditional wines that laid the foundation for the industry and hopefully for its future.

WINE PICKS

·         Beronia Crianza 2015 ($15). This Rioja blend of tempranillo, garnacha and mazuelo is a great value. Herbal aromas with cherry and blueberry notes with a hint of vanilla and chocolate from the American oak.

·         Steele Durell Vineyard Chardonnay 2017 ($36). Using grapes from the northern end of Carneros, Steele has a terrific, well balanced chardonnay with orange zest aromas. Pear and tropical fruit flavors. Aged 12 months in oak barrels, it has hints of vanilla and caramel.

·         Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2015 ($30). We were impressed with this New Zealand syrah right out of the glass. Effusive blueberry and licorice aromas with complex and layered fruit flavors of dark berries. Long in the finish and firm tannins. Well worth the price.

Bellacosa on a dream and lots of espresso

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

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

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

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

Dan Cohn, winemaker

Dan Cohn, winemaker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WINE PICKS

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

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

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

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

Exploring those fascinating amarones

(October 22, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

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

We’ll try to demystify the process.

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

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

drying racks

drying racks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WINE PICKS

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

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

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

Sicily turning a corner in wine

(October 8, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

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

Corrado Maurigi

Corrado Maurigi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jammy wines: hate ‘em or drink ‘em

(October 1, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

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

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

We get it. There are no rules, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FLORA SPRINGS

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

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

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

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

Enough with the rules

(September 17, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR            

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

Rules are made to be broken.

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

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

We’ve assembled six rules we love to break:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tyler Florence a non-stop cut-up

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

florence.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Is Lodi finally getting its break?

(July 9, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

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

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

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

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

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

So, how did Lodi turn a corner?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evenstads buy Burgundy house

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bon chance, Ken and Grace. 

 

 

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.

 

                                                    

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.   

 

 

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.

 

 

(February 19, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Mas wines excel in the Languedoc

(Jan. 31, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

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

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

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

Jean-Claude Mas talks to his vineyard crew.

Jean-Claude Mas talks to his vineyard crew.

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

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

What is Mas doing differently? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some of the Paul Mas wines we loved: 

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

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

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

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

Tasting the difference between old, new world wines

(January 24, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Greg Norman, "The Shark, still hitting them

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

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

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

Greg Norman and daughter, Morgan.

Greg Norman and daughter, Morgan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are our favorite Greg Norman wines: 

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

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

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

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

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

TREATS FROM THE RIBERA DEL DUERO 

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

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

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

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

 Costa-Browne pinots too extracted?

(December 27, 2017)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kris Kato, winemaker for Carmel Road

Kris Kato, winemaker for Carmel Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

FRUITCAKE AND WINE 

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

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

HOLIDAY PROSECCOS 

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

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

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

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

 

 

Duboeuf struggles with  beaujolais' image and weather

(December 11, 2017)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

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

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

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

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

Franck and his father, Georges Duboeuf

Franck and his father, Georges Duboeuf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pinot noir: you can taste the soil, say winemakers

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR  

(September 25, 2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

RUSSIAN RIVER VALLEY  

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

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

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

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

ANDERSON VALLEY  

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

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

SANTA LUCIA HIGHLANDS 

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

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

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

STA. RITA HILLS 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Luisa Ponzi returns to her roots

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

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

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

Ponzi winemaker Luisa Ponzi

Ponzi winemaker Luisa Ponzi

Clonal selection has been most popular with pinot noir. Mono clones, such as Dijon 777, Dijon 113 and Pommard,  customarily planted separately in blocks across California and Oregon, have created some extraordinary wines over the last few decades. But the sameness of these cloned grapes has caused many winemakers to wonder if the wines lack the dimension that a random selection would better provide. Maybe, they wondered, earlier generations of grape growers had it right: randomness is good. 

One person who has embraced the old practice of random clonal plantings is Luisa Ponzi, a second-generation winemaker in Oregon’s pinot-noir-rich Willamette Valley.  In 1975, her father Dick Ponzi and fellow winemaker Dick Erath worked with Oregon State University to plant 22 pinot noir clones on a 2-acre plot. Both men were winemaking pioneers in the region, so the trial was a learning experience. 

The idea was simply to tag the vines and observe their development over several years. But it was a blend of these clones from this Abetina Vineyard that created some very interesting wines, Luisa recalls. 

When Luisa returned from her studies in Burgundy in 1993 to become Ponzi's winemaker, she had the opportunity to take the magic she found at Abetina a step further. Over the next two decades she became more familiar with the expression of individual clones, what rootstocks work best in her soils and how vine age was affecting the wines. She developed a planting technique she calls "clonal massale," in which a mix of more than 25 unique clones are planted randomly in a single block. Today, more than 30 acres of Ponzi wines are planted to clonal massale. 

The risk of such an undertaking is that the vines don’t behave the same -- they ripen at different times and with different levels of acidity, flavor, aromas and more. However, Luisa says the grapes complement each other and compensate for vintage variation.  The tradeoff is a pinot noir with more dimension and character than those made from selected clones. 

The clonal massale pinot noirs we tasted during a recent visit to Ponzi Vineyards showed dimension that comes from her innovation.  

The 2014 Ponzi Vineyards Avellana Pinot Noir is from a block of clonal massale planted  to heritage and Dijon clones. The Abetina pinot noir comes from the experimental 1975 Abetina Vineyard of heritage clones and the Ponzi Abetina 2 pinot noir uses fruit from a block that is identical to the original Abetina. The block is preserved on rootstock on the same soil and elevation as the original block. 

Dick and Nancy Ponzi planted their first vineyard in 1970 and their daughters – Luisa and Anna – have been carrying on ground-breaking innovation. All but the origin estate vineyard are planted within 5 miles of each other in the Chehalem Mountains AVA. The area is under review for its own AVA to be named after its soil, Laurelwood. 

One common theme that seems to run through the wines is balance. While some Oregon pinot noirs are thick and jammy, Ponzi wines are elegantly classic with mid-palate depth rather than forward fruit. This was particularly evident in the 2014 Ponzi Classico Pinot Noir ($43) and delivers well beyond its price. 

Here are our tastings notes of more of Ponzi’s incredible wines: 

  • Ponzi Vineyards Avellana Pinot Noir 2014 ($105). Only a couple of hundred cases are made of this exquisite, pretty pinot noir. More tannic than most pinot noirs, it is destined for greatness with concentrated black cherry and plum flavors and spicy aromas. 

  • Ponzi Vineyards Abetina Pinot Noir 2014 ($105).  Generous nutmeg and cinnamon aromas, black cherry flavors, fine tannins and a long finish make this a collectable wine for those with deep pockets. This is truly one of the extraordinary wines made in the Willamette Valley. 

  • Ponzi Vineyard Tavola Pinot Noir 2015 ($27). Using grapes from several appellations, this affordable, popular pinot noir delivers big-time flavors of red cherries, blueberries and a dash of chocolate.  Blended for early release, it has a more fruit-forward style and has become almost too popular to satisfy the demand, Luisa says. 

  • Ponzi Vineyard Pinot Noir Reserve 2014 ($65). Grapes from Ponzi’s Aurora and Avellana vineyards are joined by other sources to create a complex, rich pinot noir that we liked very much. Long finish. 

  • Ponzi Vineyards Pinot Gris 2016 ($19). Oregon is known for its pinot gris, but Ponzi has been making it since 1978. Trust us, this a wine you need to discover. Highly aromatic, it’s melon and stone fruit flavors presented with a touch of sweetness make for a great sipper or a wine to pair with barbecued chicken and fish. Ponzi also makes an old-vine pinot gris do die for, but available only through its club.  

  • Ponzi Vineyards Reserve Chardonnay 2014 ($40). Reasonably priced for a full-bodied chardonnay, this cuvee has a silky texture, balanced acidity, and oodles of tropical fruit and lemon meringue flavors with a hint of mineral.