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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.

Rodney Strong's star still sparkles

(August 20, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

It is not uncommon to see people leaving the entertainment or sports world to pursue wine. What else are they going to do with all that money? Brad Pitt, Bon Jovi, Madonna, Zac Brown, Johnny Depp, Dave Mathews, David Beckman are just some of the more well-known people who have put their names behind new wines. But few of these new legacy wines, as they are called, last very long and rarely do entertainers actually get involved in wine making.

One that has lasted, however, is Rodney Strong Vineyards. Did you know Rodney Strong was a professional Broadway dancer? Dancing in Paris for four years, he fell in love with wine. When he founded the winery that bears his name in 1959, he was one of the first to plant vineyards in prime Sonoma locations, such as Chalk Hill and the Russian River Valley.

 After a tumultuous series of owners, longtime family farmer Tom Klein purchased the operation in 1989 and he currently farms about 1,250 acres of vines in Sonoma County.  Strong died in 2006.

For the last 39 years Rick Sayres has crafted the wines for Rodney Strong Vineyards, producing award-winning wines that we have often reviewed favorably.  However, last May winemaking veteran Justin Seidenfeld, who has been with Rodney Strong for 8 years, took over his duties.

In a recent interview, Seidenfeld said new technology allows him to remotely monitor the winery's annual production of 850,000 cases. An app on his smartphone allows him to control tank fermentation temperatures and pump-overs. This intense attention to detail is critical when each fermentation tank can contain $1 million worth of wine.

Seidenfeld will be traveling to France to supervise the purchase of barrel  lumber from 250-year-old oak trees. He will then oversee the seasoning of the wood for 2-5 years, and their transformation into wine barrels.

Justin also supervises “Innovation Kitchen” at Rodney Strong where staff is constantly experimenting with various elements of the wine making process. Testing with different fermentation vessels, fermentation protocols, yeast and cooperage trials are all part of the process at Rodney Strong to live up to Justin’s credo that “passion plus practice equals progress.”

Among the four wines we tasted with Seidenfeld was the debut of a rosé worth seeking. The Rodney Strong Vineyards Rosé of Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Sonoma County 2017 ($22) is light in color and, according to Seidenfeld, is modeled after the iconic French rosé Domaine Ott, which he believes is the best in the world.

The aromas and flavors are strawberry and watermelon. The wine was made as a rosé and not the result of saignee, or the bleeding off of red wine, like many rosés.

Seidenfeld prefers to pick the grapes for his rosé at a lower brix than the results from a typical saignee. His pinot noir is picked at 20-21 brix versus typical Russian River Valley pinot noir at 24-25 brix. The result is more strawberry and watermelon flavors and brighter acidity.

One of our perennial favorites is the Rodney Strong Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2015 ($25). Always dependable and fairly priced, this wine, made from a blend of new and old-world clones, displays black cherry and integrated oak notes with a hint of spice.

            We especially liked the new 2015 Upshot Red Wine Blend Sonoma County  ($28). Old vine zinfandel dominates the blend with help from merlot, malbec, petite verdot and riesling. Very smooth with bright cherry and berry elements. Drink now.

On a more premium priced note, we tasted the Rowen Red Wine Sonoma County 2014 ($56) made from grapes grown on the high elevation Cooley Ranch. This is a blend dominated by cabernet sauvignon (57 percent) that includes malbec, syrah and a dash of viognier and petite verdot. Very elegant with soft berry and cassis elements plus a whiff of violets. Although this wine is accessible now, it should evolve nicely over the next 10-15 years.

Rioja's Pomal wines

(August 13, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

Interest in Spain’s Rioja region continues to grow as we have noted in past columns. In 2017 Rioja wines enjoyed a worldwide 4 percent growth rate with almost a 6 percent increase in sales in the U.S. Reasonable prices, a tilt to less oak, and more fruit driven, clean, well-made wines are fueling this merited increase in interest.

We recently met with Alejandro Lopez Winery, director for Bodegas Bilbainas, to get his overview of Rioja and to taste the wines from Vina Pomal, one of Bodegas Bilbainas brands.

Alejandro was a wealth of background information about the Rioja region. The modern style of winemaking in Rioja was the result of two developments in the mid 1800s according to Alejandro. The first was the arrival of French winemakers bringing French winemaking techniques to Rioja. The French influx was the result of a debilitating outbreak of mildew in France and the beginning of phylloxera that decimated their vineyards. The French taught the Spaniards traditional fermentation techniques used today and discouraged more traditional carbonic maceration. The result was sound, longer-lived wines that could stand the rigors of transport.

The second element that brought Rioja into the modern world was the arrival of rail transportation that opened up new markets in the U.K. and South America.      Today, Vina Pomal, located in the town of Haro, is the largest vineyard in Rioja Alta. Producing wine from approximately 600 acres, Vina Pomal dwarfs the average vineyard size of one acre.

Rioja Alta is arguably the most prestigious of the three sub-regions of Rioja.                                  Alejandro said only tempranillo is used in the Crianza and Reserva wines, while 10-15 percent graciano is added to the Gran Reserva. He noted the tempranillo provides “black and red fruit” to each wine and that the graciano adds “acidity, spice, and color” to the Gran Reserva.

We tasted three wines from the current Bodegas Bilbainas Vina Pomal lineup and following are our tasting notes:

·         Vina Pomal Reserva Rioja 2013 ($22). This is a very agreeable wine to drink. Just a bare hint of oak matched with mature ripe cherry and strawberry fruit and a hint of cedar. Very soft and round in the mouth with mild tannins.

·         Vina Pomal Gran Reserva Rioja 2011 (Approx. $50). The result of three years in wood and three years in the bottle has produced a very elegant wine with ripe dried cherry and plum elements with a deft touch of oak, and a hint of licorice. The wine smoothed out further over several hours and the little note of oak receded. A very nice package.

·         Vina Pomal Vinos Singulares Graciano 2012 ($65). This may be a difficult wine to source but is worth the trouble. True to Alejandro’s description, this graciano displays a very deep opaque color and pleasant spice notes. Although 6 years old, it is still a baby that needs time to open. Somewhat reminiscent of a young California syrah with ample berry notes and a broad mouth coating element. Delicious!

GUIGAL WINES

E. Guigal has a series of excellent wines that exemplify the Rhone Valley.  Not only are the 2015s relatively inexpensive for the Rhone, but they come from a vintage with excellent growing conditions.

“In 55 years, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Marcel Guigal, second generation family owner of Rhone Valley winery E. Guigal. "Everything was perfect, it was sunny when it needed to be sunny, it rained when it needed to rain, and it was windy when it needed to be windy."

Our favorite was the E. Guigal Saint-Joseph Rouge 2015($35), a wine that is all syrah. Rich red berry fruit, a dash of spice, floral aromas and long finish.

The E. Guigal Crozes-Hermitage 2015 ($25) has a very earthy character with meaty and dark berry fruit.

The steal is the E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone Rouge 2015 ($15), a simple and pure-fruit wine with red berry and spice flavors.  It is a blend of syrah, grenache and mourvedre. Guigal saves you the wait and ages their wines in bottle for two years before release.

And for a summer treat, there is still time and reason for E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone Blanc 2015 ($15). We have liked this wine year to year. Very aromatic, its bright acidity and effusive stone-fruit flavors make it a nice match to summer seafood dishes.

Sauvignon blancs for summer drinking

(August 6, 2018)

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

Wines from Lioco and more roses

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

(July 25, 2018)

If you are a regular follower of our wine musings you have surely taken notice of a trend among California winemakers to craft table wines with less ripe fruit, tannin and alcohol levels that are more in tune with pre-1980 California wines and modern European wines.  

LIke you perhaps, we occasionally enjoy some of the bold and critically acclaimed wines that emanated from California in the late 1990s. However, for everyday wine we tend to appreciate a more balanced approach to winemaking.  

So, we were pleased to taste the wines of Lioco Wine Co. with representative Sarah Harshaw. The producer uses grapes from Sonoma County, Santa Cruz Mountains and Mendocino County.  Lioco was founded in 2005 by Kevin O’Connor and Matt Licklider with a goal of producing wines that countered the prevailing California mantra that bigger is better. A more European model was pursued with Lioco sourcing fruit from cooler climate, older, family-owned vineyards with a “organic mind set," according to Harshaw. Pinot noir and chardonnay would be the primary focus with occasional forays into some esoteric grapes that came their way. 

The wines confirmed Lioco’s stated goal of producing well-balanced, medium-bodied table wines that don’t assault the senses.  

We especially enjoyed the two chardonnay offerings. The Lioco Chardonnay Sonoma County 2016 ($25) presented a lean citrus profile with zippy acidity that was a dead ringer for a well-made Macon from Burgundy. This chardonnay is their largest seller, fully 5,000 cases out of a total production of 15,000 cases.  

The Lioco Chardonnay “Estero” Russian River Valley 2015 ($33) offered a citrusy, richer, rounder, tighter presence with bright acidity and a touch of toast in the nose. Perhaps this Russian River Valley product needs a few years to open up?  

Lioco also produces two interesting pinot noirs that we tasted. The Lioco Pinot Noir “Laguna” Sonoma Coast 2015 ($43) was our favorite of the two. Showing a spicy black cherry nose with a lean Burgundy profile minus the funk, this wine can be drunk now or cellared.  

The Lioco Pinot Noir Anderson Valley Cerise Vineyard 2015 ($60) is another Burgundy-like pinot noir with bright cherry elements that remind those old enough of Luden’s cherry cough drops. Amazingly, with all of the expository ripe fruit this wine is only 12 percent alcohol. 

Lioco also makes two unique wines from the carignan grape. The Lioco Carignan Rose “Indicia” Mendocino County 2017 ($23) is a very intriguing rose featuring bright, slightly under-ripe strawberry fruit with a bit of an herbal undercurrent that sets itself apart from the current rose crop.  

The Lioco Carignan “Sativa” Mendocino County 2016 ($33) is a dense carignan sourced from a 2,400-foot-high rocky vineyard dry farmed by an 83-year-old man who planted the vineyard 70 years ago. Essence of cranberry and rhubarb dominate the sensory experience of this expansive and rich red wine. 

MORE ROSES 

  • Beronia Rioja Rose 2017 ($13). Floral aromas and bright strawberry, peach flavors abound in this blend of garnacha, tempranillo and viura. More creamy in texture than most roses. 

  • Stoller Willamette Valley Pinot Noir Rose 2017 ($25). This Oregon producer does a good job with just about every wine, but we love the rose for its fresh and lively fruit. Watermelon and strawberry notes mingle with bright acidity. 

  • Gran Moraine Yamhill-Carlton Rose of Pinot Noir 2017 ($28). If there is one pinot noir to discover this year, it's the Gran Moraine. Delightfully eloquent with a Provence-like appeal, it has a delicate coral color, exquisite cherry, watermelon and tangerine flavors and balanced acidity.  A very nice package. 

  • Protea South Africa Rose 2017 ($18).  An excellent Provence-esque rose from the coastal region of South African, this unique wine is a blend of mourvedre, syrah, cinsault and grenache. Bright cherry and strawberry flavors with a dash of citrus. 

  • Julia's Dazzle Rosé of Pinot Gris 2017 ($20). This is the first rosé made from pinot gris grapes that we've tasted. Surprisingly, it's good. The bottle is worth the price of the wine itself. From the Horse Heaven Hills AVA in Washington state, it has strawberry and melon notes. 

  • Cashmere California Rosé 2017 ($12). From the Cline Family Cellars, this is an unusual blend of zinfandel and primitivo from Contra Costa. Watermelon aromas and fresh strawberry flavors. 

  • Belleruche Cotes du Rhone Rosé ($15). A deep blend of grenache, syrah and cinsault, this bright and bold rosé has easy strawberry flavors and balanced acidity. 

  • Murietta's Well Dry Rose 2016 ($30). A Provence blend of grenache and counoise grapes, this spirited rose has rich red berry and melon flavors and balanced acidity. 

  • Decoy Rose California 2017 ($20). This interesting blend of syrah, vermentino, carignan and pinot noir has fresh grapefruit and strawberry notes with a hint of mineral. 

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

  • Tres Chic Rosé, Sud de France 2017 ($17). Made predominantly from grenache, this dry version has strawberry and raspberry notes with floral aromas. 

  • Erath Rose of Pinot Noir 2017 ($14). Very fresh with good acidity, nectarine aromas and stone-fruit, berry flavors. 

Tyler Florence never seems to stop

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.

White wines for summer sipping

(July 2, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

There is something about summer that unleashes the fun in us. Even the oldest of us take childish delight in stepping outside to enjoy the outdoors, whether it be on a boat, a beach, a chaise lounge or a picnic blanket.  If this your vision, image it with a glass of white wine.

Red wines like beaujolais and pinot noir are nice to sip, too, but the coolness and fresh acidity of white wine makes for a great foil to warmer temperatures. In today's column, we mostly step aside from the traditional grape varieties – chardonnay, pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc – to offer 15 off-beat suggestions to get you into summer dreaming:

·         Aia Vecchia Vermentino 2016 ($15). We just loved the perfumy, grassy and green apple aromas in this delicious Tuscan vermentino. Blended with a dash of vigonier to enhance the aromas, the wine has grapefruit flavors and a long, refreshing finish.

·         DeLille Chaleur Blanc 2016 ($40). We like a good dose of semillon in our sauvignon blanc. It tames the tartness and high acidity of sauvignon blanc and adds a layer of soft fruit. This blend from Washington's Columbia Valley is especially round with tropical fruit flavors and hints of oak-infused vanilla and caramel.

·         Tasca Regaleali Bianco Sicilia DOC 2017 ($15). We can't rave enough about this richly textured Sicilian blend of inzolia, grecanico, catarratto and chardonnay. It is foremost delicious but also refreshing. A perfect combination of acidity and fruit with notes of apples, pears and peaches.

·         E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone Blanc 2015 ($16). This Rhone producer is known for its red wines, but this white is also a standout. Do not overchill this wine – as we mistakenly did. The flavors blossom at room temperature. It is an exotic blend of viognier (60 percent), roussanne, marsanne, clairette, bourboulenc and grenache blanc.  Very aromatic – thanks to the viognier – with peach and pineapple notes, mineral and crisp acidity.

·         Garofoli Macrina Verdicchio die Castelli di Jesi 2017 ($14).  This is an incredibly delicious, crisp dry wine from the Marche region of Italy. Made entirely of verdicchio grapes, this classico superiore has a perfumy bouquet and ripe peach flavors with a dash of tangerine and mineral. Garofoli also makes an exotic Podium verdicchio ($25) from a special selection of grapes that has more complexity and depth, but for the money we loved the Macrina.

·         Boutari Moschofilero  2017 ($17). We were stunned by this delicious Greek wine made from the obscure moschofilero grape that Boutarin saved from extinction. Generous floral aromas and flavors of citrus, pink grapefruit and melon. It's a perfect sipping wine or one to serve with simple fare.

·         Boutari Santorini Assyrtiko 2016 ($35). From the beautiful Greek island of Santorini, thus luscious, intensely fruity wine made from assyrtiko grapes has plush citrus and stone fruit flavors.

·         Kim Crawford Signature Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($25). This New Zealand producer's sauvignon blanc is doing quite well in the U.S., but now comes a reserve sauvignon blanc made from select grapes.  It's a gorgeous wine with big and bold flavors. Effusive, long-lasting flavors of tropical fruit, grapefruit, and citrus abound. More complex than your average sauvignon blanc.

  • Priest Ranch Grenache Blanc 2016 ($22). A grape common to the Rhone Valley, grenache blanc offers a combination of fresh acidity and huge aromatics. Lots of peach, apricot and mineral notes on this exotic, refreshing wine. 

·         Steele Viognier 2016 ($19). Rarely do we find a viognier that has something more than great aromatics. But this one from Lake County, CA, delivers good fruit flavors. Aged in neutral oak for four months rounds off the acidity and opens the palate to apricot and peach flavors. 

·         Imagery Estate Winery Sauvignon Blanc 2017 ($20). Winemaker Jamie Benziger makes this is an intriguing blend of sauvignon blanc and dry muscat.  Varietal citrus and grapefruit flavors abound but the muscat gives the wine a rounder texture.

·         Farmhouse California White Wine 2017 ($13). Five white grape varieties are blended with 41 percent palomino to make this cacophony of rich flavors. Slightly sweet, it has melon and pear flavors. It is a wine made on Cline Family's sustainable Green String Farm in Petaluma County.

·         Writer's Block Roussanne 2016 ($18). Jed Steele's son Quincy is behind this new label that applies old and new world techniques to some Rhone grape varieties. This roussanne seems to have one foot in each world with varietal acidity yet forward flavors and a viscous texture. Classic flavors of apricots and pears. It makes for a great aperitif.

·         Opolo Roussanne 2017 ($18). Made entirely from roussanne grapes grown in the Paso Robles region, this wine has green apple flavors, stone fruit aromas and firm acidity. It will refresh the palate or serve as a foil to chicken and most appetizers.

·         Trimbach Pinot Gris Reserve 2014 ($20). We've been enjoying the wines from this venerable Alsace house for decades. The pinot gris reserve is easy to find and steady year to year. Generous floral aromas with apricot flavors and a dash of almonds.

Evenstads buy Burgundy house

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bon chance, Ken and Grace. 

 

Symington defends image of port

(June 16, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CLIMAX MOONSHINE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bourbon barrel wines the new rage

(June 4, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

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

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

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

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

What's the advantage of bourbon barrels?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Roses flooding the market

(May 28, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FRANCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WEST COAST

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fire up the grill: wines and BBQ

(May 21, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

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

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

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

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

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

Fire up the grill and try some of these zinfandels:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OTHER BBQ WINES

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                    

 

Not all pinot noirs are made from 'cocktail' recipes

(April 30, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

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

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

 Etude winemaker Jon Priest

Etude winemaker Jon Priest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Augmented wine labels give wine a lift

(April 4, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HESS WINES

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

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

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

 

It's all in the blend....

(March 18, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

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

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

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

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

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

Here are a few blends we recently tasted:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Don't lose your sense of adventure

(March 5, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding value is the Cotes du Rhone

(February 21, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

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

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

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

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

Here are several versions we recently discovered:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 BLENDS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old vs. new school Napa cab

(February 19, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Paul Mas wines excel in the Languedoc

(Jan. 31, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

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

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

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

 Jean-Claude Mas talks to his vineyard crew.

Jean-Claude Mas talks to his vineyard crew.

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

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

What is Mas doing differently? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some of the Paul Mas wines we loved: 

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

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

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

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

Tasting the difference between old, new world wines

(January 24, 2018)

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Greg Norman, "The Shark, still hitting them

By TOM MARQUARDT and PATRICK DARR 

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

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

 Greg Norman and daughter, Morgan.

Greg Norman and daughter, Morgan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are our favorite Greg Norman wines: 

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

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

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

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

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

TREATS FROM THE RIBERA DEL DUERO 

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

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

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

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

 

(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.