Ürzig’s Spice Garden & Die Riesling Manufaktur

Ξ July 31st, 2011 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Tasting Notes, Wineries |

Greybeard writes…
Johannes Schmitz isn’t your typical Moselian, his Rebenhof winery on the southern edge of Ürzig is testimony to that. In contrast to an otherwise traditional Mosel village his glass, steel and concrete monument to the 21st Century proudly pronounces the establishment as a “Riesling Manufaktur”.

As a self-confessed Riesling lover I’ve known about Ürzig and its Würzgarten (Spice Garden) vineyard for many years, so I was thrilled when I saw the name appear on the Sat-Nav screen as I drove up the Mosel, heading for the town of Bernkastel-Keus. The scenery matches much of the region – slopes with impossible angles rising from the riverside, carpeted with vines – but stands out more than most with gashes of red on the cliff-face as the river loops past the village of Erden, on the opposite bank (famous for its Prälat and Treppchen vineyards).
It’s the rock colour that helps make Ürzig wines distinctive from the neighbours; the Würzgarten grows on Permian (299 to 251Mya) sandstone, volcanic rhyolite and red Slate, contrasting the primarily Devonian (416 to 359Mya) blue-grey slate that much of the Mosel (-Saar-Ruwer) sits atop. The dark, iron-rich soil retains heat well and affects Riesling’s flavour profile, giving an earthy spiciness that explains the vineyard name.
A short walk around the village initially didn’t throw any surprises;
Steep Riesling vineyards … check
Quaint, old-style houses, narrow streets and alleyways … check
Traditional, Gothic script “Weingut” frontage signs … check
Everything looking shut even though it’s Saturday afternoon … check!
After a good hour wandering we ended up on Hüwel street, on the southern edge of the village, and the last building suddenly came into view with banner-flags flying, a patio-style seating area out front and framed by vines on the slopes behind. Intrigued by this sharp contrast of modernity plus the fact that it was clearly open for business (people visible at the tasting bar confirmed this, a bonus of glass fronted buildings!) I walked in and let the tasting begin.
A charming woman obligingly poured a first glass and we exchanged pleasantries in her broken English and my broken German, but when I started asking some more involved questions she hesitated, clearly not completely comfortable with the language, and called over a man to take her place at the bar. This turned out to be Johannes Schmitz, the owner and winemaker of Rebenhof (the woman was Doris Schmitz, his wife) who was more confident with English and we quickly got talking about each of the wines he poured, as well as the winery and winemaking.
Rebenhof (literal translation, Vineyard) was founded in 1875 or 1884 (depending where you read) but it wasn’t until 1990 that its current incarnation began when Johannes took over from his father, Paul. There are 4.4 hectares producing 35-40,000 bottles of Riesling with an average vine age of 60 years, although some are over a century old. 80% of the plantings are on original, ungrafted rootstock with average yields of 65hl/ha – the Kabinett often comes in at 80hl/ha while the Alte Reben (Old Vine, from 80+ y.o. plants) is less than 40hl/ha.
Normal harvest time is late October, however, in line with other European wine regions, the 2011 harvest is likely to be early with the Riesling grapes already 4-5 weeks ahead of normal development, as discussed in my last Greybeard’s Corner post.
I asked about the new building we were standing in, only opened last year, and the obvious difference to the rest of the village. Johannes is happy to admit he is not enough of a romantic to blindly follow tradition and practicality won out when expanding from the old building just down the street (which now doubles as a guesthouse). This modern business attitude is carried through into the winemaking and general running of the winery as well with the use of Stelvin closures and a high export rate of wines outside Germany. Unfortunately things like this haven’t made him too popular amongst his Ürzig peers – one can almost imagine the older generation gathering behind closed curtains complaining of this “upstart” and his new fangled ideas!
Unsurprisingly Johannes doesn’t shirk away from media attention either. Along with the likes of Ernst Loosen, Markus Molitor and others he is an outspoken critic of the controversial Hochmoselübergang bridge which will be painfully visible as it crosses the river just upstream from Ürzig. German speakers can read more of Schmitz in this anti-bridge article from the Stuttgarter Zeitung and see him talking about Rebenhof on a YouTube clip from earlier this year.
As for the wines, we tasted our way through a dozen different styles and vintages of Riesling starting with a dry Kabinett, the 2010 Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Kabinett Trocken, Von wurzelechten Reben (from ungrafted vines, 12% abv). This was the only reference in print to the 80% of all the Rebenhof vines being on original rootstock, a key marketing point for some other wineries but not for Schmitz who lets the wine quality speak for itself.
This had a creamy nose with a little perfume, a rich texture, a dry mid-palate with a little spice and a strong honey finish – a solid 3 star wine.
The 2009 Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese Trocken (12.5%) had a similar nose to the Kabinett with more concentration and a richer texture, a spritz at the front, more minerality and a long finish with a touch of honey at the end.
The 2010 Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese Trocken Alte Reben (13.5%) had a deep, dark nose with dense flavours and an earthy rawness to it – a truly delicious 4 star wine. At 13.5%, it was a full percentage point higher partly due to the old vine grapes but also the 2010 vintage itself, something of an aberration in the region producing ultra low-yield wines compared to previous vintages. This was recently highlighted by Jon Bonné in his SFGate post “Germany’s Bizarro 2010 vintage” (memorable for the line “a vintage that wants to Taser me into appreciation”).
Next we moved up in residual sugar to the 2009 Vom Roten Schiefer Riesling Kabinett Feinherb (11%). Without the Würzgarten provenance Schmitz identifies the soil type as the wine’s selling point, Roten Schiefer being the famous red slate of the area. The wine had a clean yet creamy nose with good acidity to balance the increased sugar and a marked minerality.
Feinherb is simply a term used to denote wines of approximately 9 to 18g/l of residual sugar, replacing the less fashionable Halbtrocken (half-dry) in today’s marketing conscious world.
We stayed with that style with the 2009 Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese Feinherb Alte Reben (11.5%) which had a warm, buttery nose with a sweet lemon & lime spritz at the front. This was a well balanced 3+ star wine with restrained sugar, a dry mid-palate, classic minerality and a grapefruit finish.
The vintage contrast became apparent with its younger sibling, the 2010 Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese Feinherb Alte Reben (13%). This was golden in the glass with a honey and candied tropical fruit nose, a big wine with more noticeable sugar to go along with the hike in alcohol. Unfortunately it didn’t have the elegance of the ’09 with the fuller flavours not marrying together, give it a few more years though and this could be superb.
We moved away from Ürzig as Johannes poured a taste of 2010 Grauer Schiefer Riesling, grown on the grey slate of the Lösnicher Försterlay vineyard further downstream. This was intended to contrast the Würzgarten and indeed showed a different fruit profile, sweeter and in a more easy drinking style, almost a palate cleanser for the high sugar wines about to follow, starting with
the 2009 Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese Alte Reben (9%).
This was much richer with a smoky nose and a pleasant fresh apple aspect along with its delicate sweetness.
Delicate was not an apt descriptor for the 2010 Ürziger Würzgarten Spätlese Alte Reben (8%) which continued the theme of this vintage having extra depth. It was beautifully complex with a perfumed nose and a honeyed richness – another 4 star wine.
Then came the 2008 Ürziger Würzgarten Auslese (9%), although, as the grapes were picked at -10ºC on 30th December, it met all the criteria for an Eiswein (but Schmitz didn’t want to label it as such, only putting “Kleine Eiswein” on the back label). This was a very dense wine with a sweet baked honey nose and a very long finish, another 4 stars.
The 2010 Ürziger Würzgarten Auslese, Fass Nr. 12 (7.5%) was a more traditional Auselese with a tropical fruit nose. It was good, but I felt it suffered in comparison to the little Eiswein as it had a simpler sweetness.
Following the principle of saving the best until the end the final wine poured was simply superb, as long as you don’t mind a bit of sugar! The 4 star 2009 Ürziger Würzgarten Beerenauslese showed candied fruit on the nose, deeply sweet but beautifully balanced with gentle elegance and preserved fruit flavours on a long finish. The wine had a long life ahead of it where it would develop greater complexity, but for now it coated the mouth with rich, sweet fruit.
  Unfortunately for €45 a half-bottle this was too rich for my budget, almost twice the price of the ’08 Auslese (€24.50) and over three times as much as the various Alte Reben bottles (€13.50). Still, I happily put together a mixed 6 bottle case from these as I finished off interrogating Herr Schmitz for a few last facts.
I mentioned earlier that Rebenhof is unusual for many Mosel wineries as it exports the majority of its wines, 65% to be precise as far afield as Beijing and Shanghai. Schmitz shows common sense here as well as he keeps each individual allocation small and spread over many countries to shield against the normal market fluctuations. It’s a principle that has saved him a lot of pain as, in 2002 & ’03, his US importer (based in Chicago) offered to take the entire production but Schmitz declined, which was just as well as the same importer hardly ordered a case in ’07 and ’08.
I finally closed my notebook, paid for my wine and left Johannes and Doris preparing for the arrival 100 guests that evening for a wine & dine party, another good use of that polished new building on the edge of Ürzig.


Tasting To Kalon Soil With Mondavi’s Genevieve Janssens

Ξ September 30th, 2010 | → 4 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Tasting Notes, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |

In one of the most interesting wine events I’ve yet attended, local Bay Area artist Laura Parker teamed up with Robert Mondavi Winery and the elegant Genevieve Janssens, Director of Winemaking, for what was billed A Taste of Place Tuesday night at Saison Restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District. Not since the Wine As Liquid Music event has my brain been so engaged by a tasting. It began with the innovative invitation I received in the mail, a boxed soil sample from Mondavi’s famed To Kalon Vineyard (ancient Greek for the highest beauty), and this mysterious phrase, “Please join us for an interactive soil ‘tasting’”…. Interactive soil tasting? What could this possibly mean? Well, it turns out to mean quite a lot, especially for those of us interested in deepening our understanding of terroir. For conceptual artist Laura Parker, I believe, is really on to something. I shall begin with her.
Laura Parker “It started out when I used to do really large-scale drawings of food, and people would say, ‘That’s a beautiful peach.’ And I would say, ‘Yes, it was’, meaning that I had eaten that very piece of fruit. So I began bringing the farm into the gallery. I didn’t want them to only see what I do, but also how beautiful I think the food is. Because I believe that what the farmers do is as much art as what I do, if not more. I wanted to see that recognized. Further along, when looking at soils, we came up with these crazy tasting notes for those we were collecting; they were just kind of tongue in cheek, like wine tasting notes. That’s when we came up with the idea, well, why not do a soil tasting? We then figured out how to do just that without having to actually taste the soil. The idea was to smell the soil and then eat the food from that exact soil. So far we’ve done 65 farms, and we’re not going to stop!”
Having collecting dozens of soil samples solely from organically certified farms, most certified for well over ten years, Ms. Parker’s many public presentations involve placing about an ounce of dirt by volume into a wine glass and add sufficient purified water, (filtered water was used at our dinner) to create a mud; disarmingly simple, something all children are familiar with! She then swirls the concoction vigorously. First noted is the muds’ glass-coating characteristics, its color, the rate of water absorption, organic, vegetative matter content, and the ratio of rock to clay, silt etc. (Traditionally, a farmer might add a bicarbonate solution etc. to induce a diagnostic reaction.) The ‘tasting’ begins with a few deep whiffs followed immediately by eating produce generated directly from the soil source. The idea she is attempting to get across is twofold: on a cultural level, it is to remind and deepen a participant’s appreciation of the origins of their foods and, more to my interests, to seriously explore the possibility of a connection between a soil’s multiple traits, most importantly aroma, with the produce itself.
Ms. Parker has collected soils from all over California, mostly coastal regions. Santa Cruz and Watsonville farm dirt is particularly well represented. At the Mondavi event three soils were ‘tasted’, all from well-established California agricultural lands: topsoil from J.E. Perry Farms in Fremont; a pasturage sample from Bodega Artisan Cheese; and the To Kalon Vineyard from Oakville. From the first farm we tasted peas grown in the very row from which the soil was sourced. The second product, a goat cheese, was from the animal’s Bodega pasturage; the third, Cabernet raisins from To Kalon.
Whether peas, goat cheese or grapes, I worked diligently to locate some gustatory connection. (Having been an organic gardener for years, I have a special, desperate affection for my small plot of soil, its fragility, how easy it is to lose it to erosion and airborne contaminants.) And I can report that it is difficult! The power of suggestion is strong. However, I cannot discount the possibility that something is going on. After all, it is well established that the surrounding environs, the biodiversity within a farm, can and does impart detectable flavors to fruits and vegetables when eaten raw. This is true of pine and eucalyptus trees, sage, thyme, even the creosote bush. There are dozens of examples, some negative, such as car exhaust, fire smoke and pesticides and fungicides. Quite recently I tasted wine grapes approaching harvest, and the Bordeaux Mixture, a fungicide I have worked with in the past, was particularly evident on the palate. Needless to say, I stopped at a single grape!
The soils showcased Tuesday evening were themselves extraordinarily distinct. Perry Farms’ soil was bright, the clay clearly evident, with few deeper humus notes. A very light brown, the uniform sheeting along the sides of the wine glass clearly evidenced clay owing to its microscopic platy character. (Think of the rainbow of colors from spilled gasoline. This effect is due to its molecular structure, the sheeting of which results in differences in refracted light visible to the naked eye. Hence, the rainbow.) Bodega’s was very earthy and dark, with plainly visible plant material and finely ground rocks. Unlike the Perry soil, Bodega’s hardly coated the glass at all, leaving clumps, an irregular pattern of mud around vegetative nucleating sites. The To Kalon soil (pictured with the ‘07 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon) was darker than the Perry, but with an equally uniform glass coating, though a much heavier layer was deposited. The result was a completely opaque glass. The aroma was heady, richly humid, almost as though freshly tilled. Puzzled by To Kalon’s aroma profile, Ms. Parker informed me that the sample was actually taken from a deeper horizon, from lower in the soil’s profile. This made sense. Clearly, sample depth has a significant olfactory impact. Samples from Perry and Bodega farms were taken nearer or at the surface.
Ms. Parker’s brief tasting notes:
Laura Parker “With the peas, I can almost taste, just at the end, the minerally clay… And this one with the goat cheese is really direct for me. It is all her own milk. She has twenty-five goats. The land has not been tilled for over 20 years. We chose this feta because it is a very fresh, young cheese. So it will have the most immediate flavor of the pasture and goat’s milk. For the To Kalon I dehydrated the grapes because of their otherwise overpowering sweetness. But this soil is musty.”
I asked whether she has ever done blind soil tastings. She said that was the next step.
Laura Parker “Usually the people I’m doing this with are not wine people. So you don’t really know where people are coming in with their palate. Its just to have a place to stop for five minutes and think about different places having a different taste. That itself is extraordinary for people because they are so far away from that. I would actually love to do carrots; they are amazingly articulate. And beet greens. And do them from very different soils, like maybe something coastal; something in the Central Valley and maybe Healdsburg. But you’d have to have a pretty sophisticated palate.
“Sometimes at a gallery opening we’ll have anywhere from 100 to 300 people come to the bar. All of a sudden my little heart starts going crazy! I have a 100 people standing around smelling dirt. It’s just the best!”

While not Proust’s madeline, one is immediately transported back to the smells of sliding into second base, the odor of a grandmother’s gardening gloves, the rainstorms and forest explores of youth. Ms. Parker has hit upon what I hope will become a popular public activity. Leave it to the artist to breathe new life into so overlooked and common a material, soil. And, yes, it is amusing her name is Parker. I can well imagine her publishing the Soil Advocate periodical!
Once seated in the dining room, Ms. Janssens introduced herself to the learnéd crowd, which included Steve Heimoff, Charlie Oiken, W. Blake Gray, Patty Burness, among many others. In her charming accent, an expression of her terroir she insisted, her sense of place, she declared her love of the soil, spoke passionately of living the life of the vineyard since 1978 when her participation with Mondavi began. She recounted the pleasure of walking the vineyards before phylloxera, the pain felt during phylloxera, and the joys of replanting. Now entering a new era, her love is undiminished. With her toast to humble dirt, the meal began.
The dinner itself was very pleasing in the main, each course paired with a Mondavi wine. The menu in italics:
Garden beans in various forms, river vegetables. This was paired with a 2008 Fumé Blanc about which Mondavi’s Director of Winemaking, Genevieve Janssens, a tall, elegant woman with all the French affectations I find absolutely beguiling, said this:
“We bring the fruit in very cold, in the morning. Direct press, no skin contact; and then in barrels it is fermented very slowly. We use all French oak, 35 to 45 percent new. We do battonage to give that richness to the mouthfeel, depending on the year. Every year we taste and then decide; if it is a year with a lot of acidity then we will do battonage much more. If it is a year which is balanced, we will do less so it is not too fat. When finished it is bottled in August. That’s it. We don’t rack. It’s on lees for the entire nine months.”
Chicken liver mousseline, shinli pear, huckleberry and rosebud. This was paired with a well-made, balanced 2008 Pinot Noir.
Sonoma lamb roasted with vadouvan spices, wild greens. Two wines came along, the 2007 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and a very lovely, bright 1996 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. About the 2007 Ms. Janssens said,
“This is 90 percent Cabernet Sauvignon into which we have blended 7 percent of Cabernet Franc and 3 percent Petit Verdot. Again, here is very traditional winemaking. We bring the fruit to the winery for fermentation in our oak tanks. We remodeled the winery in 2000, extended it to support mainly the Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. Our best blocks are fermented in oak tanks. The fruit is brought to the first level, at the top of the tanks, and then by gravity, when we de-stem and crush, the juice goes directly into the tanks. We try not to brutalize the grapes. Fermentation is for 10 days, not too warm, 30-31 celsius. And then we do our pump-over. We extract as much as we can depending on the potential of the fruit. The winemakers are very close to each tank, detail oriented. Brix is usually around 26; in the wine, maybe 14.8. We cannot be lower than that. It’s the nature of Napa Valley. At To Kalon the vines are quite old, some planted in 1975. Phylloxera came in 1989… so 20 years. And we also have younger, 10 year-old plantings.”
Summer berries in their consummé, yuzu ice cream. The 2009 Moscato D’Oro was paired. The combination was far too sweet for my liking. I kept thinking of trying another soil sample, so hooked was I on Ms. Parker’s concept!
Evening brought a cooling breeze. The animated voices of the crowd began to lessen. Talk at many tables was punctuated by laughter, now more personal to fewer ears. The energetic waitstaff could take a breather from their prompt, efficient service. I had to return to Santa Cruz, an 80 mile drive, or I surely would have closed the place. A lovely night.
For those interested in Laura Parker’s project, please visit the Laura Parker Studio at 1890 Bryant Street, 206 San Francisco, at the corner of Mariposa & Bryant Streets.
Great thanks to Laura Shear of Folsom & Associates for inviting this writer to so fine an event.


Jack Keller On America’s Indigenous Grape And Fruit Wines

Ξ July 18th, 2010 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Tasting Notes, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Wine News, Winemakers |

Taken by a couple of articles that have recently appeared in the Palate Press on both the history and the commercial potential for American indigenous grape varieties, I did what anyone would do: I turned to Jack Keller, author of the site Winemaking, and perhaps the net’s first fermented beverages blog, Jack Keller’s WineBlog. Though humility forbids him from saying it, I have no problem calling him one of America’s leading voices on all things fermentable. And as an accomplished, award-winning home winemaker, he brings to the discussion his considerable experience with the making of fruit, grape, dandelion, even grass wines! He is a terrific resource for information and knowledge, both the arcane and the indispensable. The Michael Broadbent, if you will, of our indigenous and fruit wines. For our purposes here, he sheds significant light upon the questions I put to him.
In addition to visiting his websites, for more information please see my interview with the gentleman from the Fall of 2008.
1) Would you say a bit about the historical eclipse of America’s indigenous grape varieties by Vitis vinifera?
Jack Keller Ken, from the earliest days, I think every generation of Europeans who came to America brought with them a memory of wine that was formed almost exclusively around their homeland’s varieties of V. vinifera. It was and still is, after all, the overwhelmingly dominant grape on the western half of the Eurasian landmass and by import throughout North and South Africa, Australia, South America, and the Golden State. Sure, the more common among the immigrants possibly also had experience with elderberry, greengage, apple, blackberry and other homemade country wines, but there wasn’t really anything in Europe equivalent to the vast numbers of American native grapes.
With a V. vinifera memory, immigrants were of course disappointed in the very different flavors obtained from wild American grapes. However, the old expression “any port is welcome in a storm” also applies to wine. Oddly flavored wine was vastly preferred to no wine at all. Besides, for those who were born in American or came here very young, they had no memory of V. vinifera, American grapes made perfectly acceptable wine. Until, that is, the second half of the twentieth century, when Madison Avenue began to tell us what was and what wasn’t acceptable.
The wild grape of Europe, V. sylvestris, is somewhat analogous to American grapes in that both are dioecious, bearing male and female flowers on separate plants. If you walk through the forests of America where grapes grow, you see many vines that are male and devoid of fruit. V. vinifera, with hermaphroditic flowers, clearly would be favored in the garden or on the farm for that reason alone. But that is but a bonus. The real draw to V. vinifera is the generally superior flavors of the juice and it’s fermented byproduct over any other grape species on the planet. Even an inferior V. vinifera variety is unquestionably superior to the best V. monticola, V. mustangensis, V. acerifolia, V. arizonica, V. girdiana, V. vulpina, V. cinerea, etc. While one can get used to wines from these grapes, they are certainly not the best of the American native species.
The better American indigenous species, V. labrusca, V. aestivalis, V. riparia, and even V. rotundifolia have all produced some outstanding varieties. But, with the exception of V. rotundifolia (muscadine), the vast majority of the commercially successful “American” grapes all seem to have a little V. vinifera in their genes. Concord, Catawba, Alexander, Niagara, Delaware, Norton (or Cynthiana, if you prefer), and Ives are but a few that have had long lasting commercial success, and all but one of those had a European pollinator in its distant past. And then there are the muscadines — Scuppernong, Noble, Scarlett, Nesbitt, Summit, Carlos, Ison, Magnolia, Tara, and so on.
Certainly you can say these wines have been eclipsed by V. vinifera wines, but they were never in the same league at all. Even so, they have their place. Personally, I would prefer a good Ives Noir to an average V. vinifera, and there are a lot of average V. vinifera wines out there.
2) Tell us something of the quality of wines the home winemaker can achieve with both vinifera and native grapes, but also of various fruits.
JK I have been judging home wine competitions for a long time. I distinctly remember the first homemade wine I ever scored a perfect 20 (out of 20 possible). It was a black raspberry with a little elderberry in it, and it was superb. The beauty of that wine was that had I not known I was drinking a black rasp with elder, I’d have thought I was drinking a very well made Zinfandel.
The best wines I have personally ever made were almost all non-grape wines — dandelion, Marion blackberry, Key lime, Loganberry, black currant, pomegranate, mangosteen, black raspberry, Boysenberry, cherry, and (you’re not going to believe this…) beet. Oh, I’ve made more than a few unforgettable grape wines too, but I like to field blend indigenous grapes and produce something no one has ever tasted before. Probably my very best was a blend of V. mustangensis, V. cinerea var. helleri, V. monticola, and V. vulpina, and it was smooth but crisp and utterly delicious. I could never make it again because I just filled the press with what I had, but of course I’ll try.
Having said all of that, I am not the best home winemaker I know. I think I am pretty good, but I know people who make wines that put mine to shame. I consider it an achievement when I can steal a Best of Show or Grand Champion from them.
I think some of the best wines and worse wines I have ever tasted were made from the same fruit or berries. You can make an absolutely delightful wine from peaches, for example, but if your method is inappropriate or you use under-ripe fruit or simply not enough fruit it can be worse than bad. The best eating plums you can find might make pitiful wine, but a bucket full of small, tart, wild sand plums can be transformed into the most delicious wine you have tasted. The same can be said of grapes. The best table grapes generally make poor wine. Have you ever eaten a bunch of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes? Not very appealing, but oh, what wine!
Native grapes present similar challenges. Many have unusual aromas or flavors associated with their species. These are not necessarily disagreeable, although they might be, but they certainly are unusual. Every winemaker knows that the wine almost certainly will not taste like the fruit from which it was made, but it will carry certain characteristics of the fruit into the wine. Learning what will and what will not be carried into the wine is one of the skills that separate really good winemakers from the rest. Put another way, knowing what the ingredients will taste like when combined and then baked or cooked is what separates chefs from mere cooks.
V. vinifera varieties present the same problem, but we have tens of thousands of examples of finished product from which to learn. With most native grapes and a lot of different fruit, you have to make the wines to learn what is possible and what is not. Learning how to manipulate what nature offers so as to bring out desirables while shedding, masking or neutralizing undesirables is what turns the average chef into the master craftsman.
I guess what I am trying to say is that the potential quality of native grape wines is really dependent on the winemaker’s skills. The same can be said of V. vinifera wines, but most viniferas are much more forgiving than are the natives. You have to be a pretty bad winemaker to screw up a batch of Merlot, but you have to be a pretty good winemaker to coax a good wine out of V. mustangensis or V. rupestris.
Country wines present different challenges, but these are basically challenges of ingredient selection and chemistry, solved by a combination of knowledge and good winemaking techniques. Just as tart plums make better wine than most table plum cultivars, tart cider apples make far superior wine than do sweet eating apples. You have to select the right ingredients and then work with the chemistry that comes with them. The results can be both surprising and delightful.
If you’ve ever eaten raw cranberries, the idea of making wine from them might seem like a waste of time and effort. But the truth is that cranberry wine served in a blind tasting will be mistaken for grape wine — usually white Zinfandel — almost every time. Few other fruit or berry wines will do this, but the beauty is what each actually tastes like once fermented. Banana wine will not taste like banana unless the winemaker adds banana extract, in which case it will taste like adulterated banana wine.
The things to remember with country wines is that they are not grape wines, should never be compared to grape wines, and should be judged by what they present — not what you expect. My wife and I were in a little winery outside of Kalamazoo and we were luxuriating in the enjoyment of one of the best cherry wines we’d ever tasted when a woman complained in a very loud, shrill voice, “This doesn’t taste like any wine I’VE ever tasted!” You can go through life complaining and being unhappy or you can just relax and enjoy the moment.
What I love about home winemakers is that they experiment. It doesn’t always work out for the better, and folks with good manners will never let their failures cross the lips of a guest. But those successes, those are where the next greatest thing might be found. My wife’s favorite wine is a wine I learned how to make from Martin Benke called Key Lime-A-Rita, which is basically fermented Key Limeade and Triple Sec, and yes, it tastes more like a Margarita than a wine. Some winemaker down in Florida is going to read my blog one day, give Key Lime-A-Rita a try, and sell a thousand cases.
3) What are the indigenous varieties which show the greatest promise for commercial success?
JK Down here in Texas we have a native grape called mustang that is probably the worst tasting grape you’d never want to try, but good winemakers have been making some terrific wines from that sucker for generations. Mustang is a real challenge, but if you can make good wines from that grape you can probably make exceptional wines out of anything else. I’m not saying mustang has great commercial promise, but at least two wineries in Texas sell an awful lot of it.
The reason I mentioned mustang first off is to make clear that a good winemaker can make good wine out of any grape. The problem with many indigenous grapes is that they bear too little fruit to be commercially viable or are too vigorous to be controlled in a vineyard setting. Those that bear well and can be managed on the trellis have largely been exploited in breeding programs or in niche markets.
There are a lot of old grapes — heirloom varieties, if you will — that were once popular but would now be extinct if not for a few breeders, memorial vineyards, enthusiasts, and the clonal germplasm repositories at Geneva, NY and Davis, CA. The ones I am referring to are mostly hybrids of the native species, but some do indeed have at least some V. vinifera genes. From this vast storehouse are some exceptional grapes that make exceptional wines, but would you plant a few acres of Herbemont, Lenoir, Hidalgo, Ives, Brilliant, Lindley, Elvira, Blondin, Clinton, Elvicand, Valhallah, Hopkins, Bailey, Husmann, Munson, or XLNTA when customers are still asking for Merlot? It would take a gutsy person to do so, but there are some such folks out there. I have tasted commercial wines of most of these grapes (still looking for Elvicand and Hopkins). Most of these grapes will grow fine down here in the Pierces Disease belt (PD), where V. vinifera bears two crops before dying.
The oldest continuously operated winery in Texas is Val Verde Winery in Del Rio. Their flagship grape is Lenoir, a.k.a. Black Spanish, and they make a darned good table wine and a highly respected (and a bit pricey) port from this grape. They also make a half-dozen V. vinifera wines, but I would bet my soul that they buy that juice from some place where those grapes will grow. And that’s okay. They have to compete, and even though Robert Parker is never going to mention Val Verde Winery (they grow that Lenoir grape!), he does seem to mention all the other wines they sell and that works in their favor.
The truth is that I don’t really know which indigenous species or varieties show the greatest promise for commercialization, but there is some good potential out there. I prefer the blends to the varietals in both vinifera and indigenous wines, so I am only limited by what I can find out there.
4) I believe the time is ripe for the expansion of fruit wines into the market, still and sparkling. As with crafted beers, there is a commercial niche high quality fruit wines can create. Your thoughts?
JK Ken, I think the expansion is well under way. In certain portions of Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, every other winery offers a stable of fruit and berry wines, both still and sparkling. I was amazed how good sparkling cherry and raspberry can be. It had simply never occurred to me to make these wines.
Throughout the South you will find many, many commercial wineries offering wines from every fruit grown regionally, including pawpaw, mayhaw, huckleberry, blueberry, elderberry, all varieties of blackberry, currants, star fruit, Clementines, and so on.
Just recently a friend of mine living in the Sierras above Oroville commented on a winery in Chico that makes blackberry, cherry, cranberry, and elderberry wines, as well as a dry mead he likes.
When I lived in San Francisco, on my jaunts down home to San Bernardino I always stopped at a place in Pacheco Valley called Casa de Fruta and picked up a few bottles of pomegranate, raspberry and apricot wines. When down your way, I always tried to stop at Chaucer’s Winery in Soquel, CA, and pick up a bottle of Olallieberry wine, arguably the best blackberry that ever grew, and a bottle of raspberry mead.
I think the wines have been here for a long time. What has happened, though, is that the commercial wine world, especially in California, is 99.9% invested in V. vinifera and that is what rules the roost. Wine writers perpetuate the “If it isn’t vinifera, it isn’t wine” mantra by completely ignoring non-vinifera and non-grape wines. In the PD belt of the South, where V. vinifera vines only survive for 3-5 years, non-vinifera grapes are widely grown and their wines widely consumed. Indeed, muscadine is the grape of the South, and people who drink muscadine have no problem with fruit wines.
5) What are the cultural, practical and gustatory obstacles to the commercial success of fruit and non-vinifera wines?
JK I think there are few gustatory obstacles. Yes, cherry wines will never taste like any wine that rude woman in Kalamazoo has ever drank, but every good cherry wines tastes, well, good. And if truth be told, I have never met a person that didn’t like blackberry wine. But, if you don’t like fruit, well, then you might want to stick to beer.
On a practical level, the shelf life of fruit wines is comparatively short. If they don’t sell quickly, they probably won’t sell. But fruit wines are almost always shoved into the corner with the lowest traffic in the store because the big money controls the high traffic areas. You have to go looking for fruit wines to even find them, and you won’t go looking if you don’t know they are there. When is the last time you saw an ad or commercial — or just a mention in a movie or TV series — for a fruit or berry wine?
So that brings us to the cultural obstacles. I think most of the above is relevant here, from Robert Parker and all the Parker-wannabes, to the farmer who isn’t going to take a chance on a vine that will grow but which almost no one still living has ever heard of. The truth is that it is a V. vinifera wine world and in America it is all influenced by two or three small valleys in northern California.
I talked to a grower 12-14 years ago who was losing all his vines to Pierces Disease. He asked the agricultural extension agent, who was there at that moment, when was someone going to put some real money into solving the PD problem. The agent said, “When PD reaches California the money will flow.” He was right. PD has reached California and there are big bucks flowing into PD research. But that too is part of the cultural obstacle. PD wasn’t a problem as long as it was just wiping out mom and pop vineyards in the South. But when it threatens Big Wine’s vineyards, then it becomes worthy of notice.
Now, it may just turn out that there isn’t a solution to PD. If that comes to past (and I sincerely hope that it doesn’t), then all those native hybrids I mentioned earlier will start looking really good because many of them are PD tolerant and some are outright resistant. Andy Walker and many others at UC-Davis and elsewhere are looking into that resistance and the genes that may be responsible for it. Until the actual genes responsible are identified and spliced, the next best approach is to cross-breed resistance from the natives into V. vinifera. Once you do that, you then cross back to vinifera repeatedly until you have just enough residual resistance to protect the vinifera without messing up the flavor too much with that pesky American muck. It’s a perfectly understandable approach. Another approach would be to simply plant Lenoir, or Herbemont, or Bailey, or….
Having spent megatons of money convincing Americans that they are mere commoners if they don’t drink toasted oaked Chardonnay, it would be, well, insincere — would it not? — to retrain the palate to like something less noble. God forbid we should stoop to anything so low as Carlos muscadine, persimmon wine or — dare I say it? — Key Lime-A-Rita.
So, bottom line, my interest is in the clear-headed promotion of commercial alternatives to Vitis vinifera. I have enjoyed a number of pear and apple-based wines recently, and was blown away by the quality. It seems to me that the success of off-dry Rieslings, for example, the dumbing down, the homogenization of vinifera wines, especially at lower price points (the Two Buck Chuck Effect!), combined with new marketing niches now possible because of the revolution of crafted beers, all dovetail into new opportunities for non-vinifera expressions.
JK Ken, I couldn’t agree more with your last opinion. Despite the best efforts of Big Wine to dictate what we should like, the truth is that not all people are sheep. You can burn out on any taste after a while. The success of all those soft drinks on the cola aisle is based on the fact that people get tired of Coke or Pepsi or 7-Up all the time. The same is true of wines. But I fear Big Wine is trying to control that desire for diversity.
Take, for example, Arbor Mist’s fruit flavored vinifera wines. I counted 11 different flavors the other day at the market, and their success validates your instincts. There is a niche out there for fruit wines and Arbor Mist is jumping in to fill it. But why not sell the real fruit wine? Why flavor Merlot with blackberry when you could sell blackberry wine? The truth probably has something to do with a glut of grapes on the market. Merlot is cheap. If it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be a Two-Buck Chuck Merlot.
Now, I do understand why there is at least some grape in most fruit wines. Having made the real McCoy of every wine Arbor Mist offers, I will be the first to point out that most fruit wines are light in body. I myself usually add about 12-20% grape juice by volume to my fruit musts to thicken that lightness. But the difference between adding fruit flavors to vinifera wines or vinifera to fruit wines actually is significant. Arbor Mist Peach Chardonnay tastes too peachy, like that banana wine adulterated with banana extract. The consumer who tastes it and then tastes an excellent, real peach wine may well be disappointed in the real thing. Arbor Mist is tricking the consumer into tasting what he or she expects peach wine to taste like rather than presenting the real flavor of peach wine. This, in the long run, may well work against the real fruit wine producers.
You mentioned the Two-Buck Chuck Effect on pricing; let’s call this the Arbor Mist Effect on flavor expectations. The former has been positive for the consumer. The latter is just deception. Deception may be profitable and it may taste good, but it’s still deception. It is important to remember that whenever deception is practiced, someone gets hurt. In this case, it is probably the real fruit winemakers who suffer. The niche they belong in is being largely filled by Big Wine (Arbor Mist is owned by Constellation Brands, the largest wine company in the world) and manipulated so that many consumers will reject real fruit wines as “lacking flavor.”
I’d love to be wrong. I don’t think Arbor Mist will steal established customers away from fruit wine producers unless it is on the pricing level, but it probably will absorb the bulk of new customers turning to — what did you call it? — “non-vinifera expressions”? But of course they satisfy the change with more vinifera. The fruit wine producers may not lose customers, but they certainly won’t gain the many new customers they might have.
I really don’t know where all of this is going, but it worries me. If there were suddenly a demand for Norton, would Big Wine plant Norton, buy established wineries producing Norton, or follow the Arbor Mist model and sell Merlot with Norton flavoring added? It’s anyone’s guess.
Great thanks for your reflections on what promises to be a lively cultural conversation in the coming years.


South America In The Ascendance

Ξ June 28th, 2010 | → 2 Comments | ∇ International Terroirs, Tasting Notes |

Greybeard writes…
As South America is currently dominating the World Cup being played in South Africa (with all their teams clearing the group stages and Argentina looking good for the title) it is perfect timing to write up a recent tasting of Chilean and Argentinean wines I attended and highlight some of the excellent wines the region is producing in general.
As you may know I am a member of the North East Wine Tasting Society, or NEWTS as it is colloquially known. The format is simple; each month we sit down to critique 8-10 wines, typically following a theme and usually sourced and presented by one of the society members. Occasionally we have a trade presentation from one of the local retailers and this month it was from the UK national wine chain Oddbins on South America, given by Laura from the Newcastle branch. At the start Laura admitted she had been apprehensive about the wines to bring for the evening and had called in a few favours from other Oddbins stores around the country to pull together a selection of bottles not readily available in Newcastle, including one which only just arrived on the morning of the tasting.
The first wine was the 2009 Garuma single vineyard Sauvignon Blanc by Viña Leyda in the relatively new winemaking region of Leyda Valley, only 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Chile is starting to make a reputation for itself with good Sauvignon Blanc in a richer, smoother style compared to New Zealand – one of my favourites is the Terrunyo single vineyard by Concha y Toro – and the Garuma was in that vein. It had a smooth, rich nose with aspects of Sauvignon typicity (but not over the top) while in the mouth it had a very pleasant texture; dry, fruity with a lemon zing – although there was a touch of heat at the end from the 14% abv. For £9 a bottle this was a very well made wine, good value for money and didn’t change my opinion that Chile is worth looking at if you’re tired of all those carbon copy Marlborough Sauvignons.
The next white was from Argentina, although surprisingly not a Torrontes, which is fast becoming as synonymous with that nation as the Malbec grape is for its reds. Instead we were given Dona Paula’s “Naked Pulp” Viognier, made from the free-run juice – the grapes then used to co-ferment with the wineries “Olives road” Syrah-Viognier.
After 10 months in new French barrels the Viognier had an overtly oaked nose which masked any fruit, but an enjoyable texture and viscosity in the mouth, along with a touch of sweetness, brought out pineapple flavours. The viscosity, oak, alcohol (14.5%) and £14 price are likely to put off some but many more would enjoy this full bodied white.
The reds started with a confused offering from Italian producer Masi, taking some of their home-grown ideas into Mendoza’s Tupungato Valley to produce the 2008 Paso Doble. Malbec grapes were fermented first and then a second fermentation was started after the addition of 30% of semi-dried Corvina grapes, in the Passito style more commonly seen in Valpolicella. Considering the large Malbec component, the wine was relatively thin, with a menthol component on the nose but a green aspect I didn’t appreciate. Although smooth in the mouth it was dry with a short finish, a simple wine for its price (£13) and winemaking technique.
Thin and simple couldn’t be applied to the next wine, Norton’s 2006 Privada blend of Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Norton is rightly known as a consistent producer of quality wines and the Privada is made from old vines with very low yields of 4 tonnes per hectare (ton/ha) to justify the £20 price tag. This was a big, dense wine with a massive nose of black fruits and spice and an almost syrupy texture with tannins throughout, rich and fruity from the mid-palate but a disjointed herbal bitterness to the finish detracted a little.
After 2 Argentinean reds it was time to cross over the Andes into Chile and Cono Sur. The winery was founded as a subsidiary of Chilean giant Concha y Toro in 1993 and has developed a reputation for environmentally friendly winemaking under Chief winemaker Adolfo Hurtado (Tim Atkin has a good interview from last year on his site).
Initially building its reputation on reliable low to mid-priced wines it moved into the premium sector in 2003 with the launch of the “Ocio” Pinot Noir and it was the 2007 vintage that was next on the tasting list.
Some questioned tasting a Pinot Noir after a big Malbec blend but it soon became clear that this was no ordinary Pinot! Also produced from yields of 4ton/ha, mostly from the El Triangulo Estate in Casablanca, the concentration could be seen as the bottle was poured. There was some mushroom on the nose behind plenty of fruit and some cigar-box, while the taste was clean with overt acidity, but a savoury sort which carried a host of subtle flavours into a moderate finish. I can appreciate that the acidity would be seen as too much by many palates, but for me it made the wine with a sharp savouriness that I had not come across in a Pinot before, although at £32 a bottle the price is outside of my typical purchasing range so that may not be surprising!
We stayed on the Pacific side of the mountains with Neyen de Apalta in the Apalta Valley, part of the larger Colchagua region. This small winery only produces one label and the 2004 vintage was a blend of Chile’s signature red grape, Carmenère, with 30% Cabernet Sauvignon at 14% abv and £28 a bottle. The two grapes came together in a very dark wine with a thick, concentrated nose of liquorice and smoky fruit. This was extremely smooth and seamlessly integrated; fine grain tannins and subtle complexities resounded around the mouth with a strong chocolate component.
Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon went solo next for the 2005 Viñedo Chadwick, a wine with an impressive pedigree as part of Eduardo Chadwick’s blind-tasting roadshow first brought to the attention of the world after the 2004 “Judgement of Berlin”, when the Viñedo Chadwick and the Viña Errázuriz Seña were ranked ahead of Château Margaux, Château Lafite, Château Latour, Sassicaia and Tignanello. Tom Cannavan did a tongue in cheek re-enactment (The Judgement of Glasgow!) on his UK Wine Pages last year which included the 2006 Chadwick.
As for the 2005, this had an ethereal nose with little cherry wood, was also very smooth (more so than the Neyen) and was fresh with a touch of mint. Tannins came in on the mid-palate and carried on through the very long finish. I am not going to try and describe the various secondary flavours of this wine as I would undoubtedly fail to do it justice, but when someone shouted out “bargain” at its £35 bottle price (on Bin End at Oddbins) I had to agree – this was as close to a 5 star wine as I have come across, not trying to be anything else other than stunningly good.
A final hop back over the Andes for the last wine, the 2005 Finca Pedregal single vineyard Malbec (70%), Cabernet Sauvignon (30%) blend by Pascual Toso.
This had a strong savoury nose with some tar and maybe a little volatility and there were big tannins and a lot of blackberry in the mouth. I used the word seamless for the Neyen, but this was more so with a long plateau of flavour from start, thought the mid-palate and into the sweet and fruity finish. with. At £38.50 I wouldn’t put it ahead of the Chadwick, Neyen or even Ocio, but like the others this was an exceptional wine which gave a lot of enjoyment for a price far lower than some of the more established Old World equivalents.
I left the room at the end of the evening with a strong feeling of being privileged to have tasted some beautiful wines all on the same day. Of course the tasting was more of a Chile and Argentina tag team match – Brazil and Uruguay still have some way to go before they can lay claim to the same accolades – but if there’s anyone left who thinks South America is only for Supermarket wines then they need to think again.


Tasting Dão Wines at Paço dos Cunhas de Santar

Ξ February 24th, 2010 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, PORTUGAL, Tasting Notes, Wine History, Wine News, Wineries |

It rarely happens in life that one enjoys a perfect day, a day of balance, when both the intellect and body are equally engaged, happiness and sadness, noise and silence in equilibrium; when one is free to reflect on past and present; a day one briefly glimpses what it might mean to be immortal; when one’s body is lightly transported between ancient and thoroughly modern frames of mind, all bracketed by a sun that rises and sets over a green world. Such was my first day in the Dåo, a wine region in the north-central of Portugal.
From a stay at the Pousada in Ourém, we three lucid dreamers, the brilliant Virgilio Loureiro, cinematographer Nuno Sá Pessoa Sequeira and yours truly, set out to visit the varied typologies of rock presses in Parada de Gonta, Prazias, Paraduço and Vale do Salqueiro (among others), some used until the 1950s. I shall save those extraordinary visions, there is no other word, for another post.
On this occasion I mean to parse the day into discreet, manageable episodes. The first shall be the lunch and wine tasting enjoyed at the solid tourist destination, Paço dos Cunhas de Santar, just outside of Viseu. From Casa de Santar’s Alminhas (little souls) vineyard, the site of the Vale do Salgueiro rock press, a portion of which had been broken to provide a foundation stone for a recent outbuilding, we drove to the estate, our group including our guide, Alberto Sampaio, winemakers Carlos Silva and Mario Rui Ferreira (a very interesting and energetic individual), among others.
Leaving recent political history aside, the provided literature describes Paço dos Cunhas de Santar like this:
Paço de Santar was built by order of D. Pedro da Cunha in 1609. A large ancient farmhouse has stood on this site for hundreds of years. It’s sole purpose was to produce olive oil, fruits and wine for the grand and prestigious Oporto markets. Today, Paço de Santar has 32 hectares of traditional Dão varieties and 5 z (sic) of olive trees.
It was opened to wine tourism in 2008. And its restaurant, open everyday, provided us a spectacular meal. Indeed, our elegant host, son of the Comte de Santar, winemaker Pedro Vasconcelos e Sousa, sat us down to the following menu.
To Start
Bread Toast of Mushrooms, Emulsion of Tomatoes and Cardamon
Main Course
Codfish in Maize Bread, Potatoes and “Migas da Beira”
Second Course
Roasted Goat, Rice of Mushrooms and Spinaches
Cheese Serra da Estrela, “Requeijão” and Sweet Pumpkin
During this beautiful repast we tasted and discussed many of the wines of the Dão. Below is the list, largely in the order sipped, and my brief thoughts, if warranted, about each.
2008 Cabriz Bruto, Quinta de Cabriz, a blend of Malvasia Fino and Cercial. Refreshing and light. My understanding is that this sparkler makes up 10% of their sales.
2008 Comdessa, Casa de Santar, 14% alc. This white wine had a full mouthfeel, a little heat, lightly acidic; its all new French oak was reserved. Almost a Viognier character.
2008 Paço dos Cunhas de Santar ‘Nature’. A ‘biologique’ wine -moving toward Biodynamic certification- it had soft, rounded tannins. Vanished in the back palate; a light oak influence.
2007 UDACA (União das Adegas Cooperativa da Região Demarcada do Dão) Touriga Nacional, 13% alc. Twelve months aging in mixed oak barrels. Light, fragrant bouquet, simple body, sweet, smoky, but short finish.
2007 Vinha Paz Reserva (Antonio Canto Moniz), Touriga Nacional; American and French oak. Sweet, full body, masive mid-palate, round tannins, very long finish- oak present.
2007 Quinta da Falorca, T-nac, Touriga Nacional, 14% alc. Gorgeous nose, full body, beautifully structured; no oak. Brilliant expression of Touriga. A truly world-class effort. (As a side note, after I had made my feelings about the wine known, I was approached by folks associated with the parent quinta. They explained that a certain Mark Squires, Robert Parker’s hit man inexplicably assigned to Portugal, gave T-nac an ‘89′. As silly as that is in itself, Mr. Squires also recommended that they grub up all their Touriga Nacional and replant with Cabernet Sauvignon. Truly terrible advice, a disservice to the grape and to the Dão patrimony.)

2003 Quinta das Roques. 13.5%. Touriga Nacional. Just a baby. Needs time. Very well structured.
2004 Quinta de Cabriz (Dão Sul), Escolha. 14% alc.
2004 Quinta da Falorca, Garrefeira, Old Vines 14.5% alc, Touriga Nacional, Alfrocheiro Preto and Tinta Roriz. Full mouthfeel, very firm tannins, rich mid-palate. Oak present, a little unbalanced, hot on the finish. Thoughtful wine.
Also served was the 2003 Quinta das Roques Reserve Blend. From the Pessegueiro (peach) vineyard. 13.5% alc. A seamless wine. From mid-palate to finish, a beautiful elaboration. Quite elegant.
2004 Conde, Casa de Santar 14% alc. Very elegant, balanced. Holds the alcohol well, rounded tannins. Good quality, if not particularly memorable.
1994 UDACA 12.5% alc. Touriga Nacional and other, unspecified grape varieties. Extremely satisfying. Very deep, rich and mysterious. I will be fortunate to taste this wine again someday.
I should also mention a 2009 Quinta da Falorca, Rosé of Touriga Nacional (not pictured). 13.5% alc. A little candified, but with good acid. I am especially fond of Tavel rosés. I have had quite a few. So, my palate would need to taste many more Portuguese examples of rosé before I could even hazard an opinion as to the quality. I will say that I did not find Quinta da Falorca’s effort compelling, mindful of the caveat above.
Lastly, we tried to enjoy a magnum of 1970 Dão Garrafeira out of Viseu. Produced by the Federacão dos Viticultores por Dão with the greatest hopes, sadly the wine was quite medicinal. Its day has passed.
We finished the lunch in very good spirits. Thanking our gracious host, we departed light-headed, with much work still remaining this day, about which more later. Resting with the setting sun, we would find our way to the restored 17th century Pousada Santa Marinha in Guimarães.
Update It has come to my attention that a couple of the wines mentioned above also made the reputable Sarah Ahmed’s list of Top 50 Wines of Portugal.


Temecula Wine Country: Ponte Family Estate

Ξ January 20th, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Tasting Notes, Technology, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |

This post comes under the heading of ‘unfinished business’. Some months ago I wrote a piece that caught the attention of Robert Cartwright, the winemaker at Ponte Family Estate. I thanked him for his comment and asked after his work. He generously offered to send me some samples. I received the wines a couple of months later, but owing to the hustle and bustle of my schedule, they were set aside and forgotten. Entirely my fault! Recently rediscovered, I thought it best to revisit the conversation, the well-designed Ponte Family Estate website and, of course, the wines.
Now, I don’t usually write tasting notes, a detail I made clear to Mr. Cartwright; but it became clear from reading the excellent Environment portion of their winery blog that I had to respond in some way. Truth is, they are doing a commendable job on the ‘green’ front. From using light weight bottles, to sourcing locally produced ingredients in their restaurant, from using 100% CFL light bulbs, to the elimination of plastic bottles from their facilities, they are making an effort. And ‘green’ extends to home life. Even the winery owner, Claudio Ponte, had turned in his SUV for a Prius; he advocates replacing lawns with drought tolerant plants and planting a vegetable garden. Small steps, to be sure. Of course, no mention is made of solar power or water recycling. And some ‘innovations’ are just plain silly, such as this one: “Our winemaker and his team are harvesting at night whenever possible. This effort allows the must to be chilled without using much energy.” But by and large, the greenwash is kept to a minimum.
The Wines
2008 California Chardonnay 13.6% alc ($23.95)
I tasted this wine at room temperature on a stormy afternoon. The nose is very tropical, with peaches, bananas and a strong coconut. It tastes very similar. The coconut is much stronger. A bit too much sulphur for having been open for half an hour. A hint of sourness that someone else described as green apple, but it’s more like a green apple Jolly Rancher candy to my taste. Very unctuous, thick mouth feel. It is not my style or to my liking, but I can taste no obvious faults. I know many wine drinkers who would like this wine.
2006 Temecula Valley Meritage 13.5% alc ($34.95)
This wine is a blend, naturally, of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec. The bottle notes list the varieties in that order. No percentages are given. The nose is very sweet, with bacon fat (yes, though a vegetarian I can still remember the smell and taste of bacon fat) and bright fruit. A bit of sourness on the nose as well. Quite nice. Good acid, smoky body (oak), I would guess the Cabernet Franc percentage to be quite high. An entirely agreeable wine. Perfumey after taste. Long finish. Good, solid bottle of wine.
2007 Temecula Valley Holiday Reserve Zinfandel 15.1% alc (2006 sold for $26.95)
One of the most unusual Zinfandel noses I’ve ever smelled. Very curious. Sweet, baked trout? Almost an ocean spray and very ripe fig. Baffling. Medium bodied, sweet and sour cherry. A bit green, perhaps. Uneven ripeness from a multiple vineyard blend, I’d guess. Hot. Acidified. For a California Zinfandel collector this wine should definitely be added to the cellar. I’ve had a hundred Zins from throughout California and this one is a puzzle. Warming in the glass, the wine has taken on more of a Zin character. A bit of cinnamon candy now. Oak. Very unusual. Weird, but I like it for that reason. Take it to a blind tasting and no one would easily identify it! I don’t detect any microbial mayhem, by the way.
Very high quality corks were used for each wine.
Great thanks to Ponte Family Estate and Robert Cartwright for their generosity.


A Blind Tasting With Family and Friends

Ξ January 12th, 2010 | → 10 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Tasting Notes, Wine News |

Coming on the heels of my review of The Wine Trials 2010 by Robin Goldstein and Alexis Herschkowitsch was a blind tasting in the Sierras with family and friends. I had planned a more conventional tasting weeks before. It was to have been with labels exposed and winery back-stories at hand. But after reading The Wine Trials 2010 I thought it would prove much more interesting to my non-expert friends were I rather to explore, unknown to them, some of the questions forcefully asked in the book. Is price correlated to quality? Can an expensive wine be sensed? Knowing only the price range of the wines, can folks ‘ballpark’ a price point? Further, is the evaluation of wine quality made easier or more complicated if the wines may not be discussed during the tasting? And what of defensiveness, intimidation, parroting the critics, post-tasting humiliation, all of the pleasure-robbing pathologies surrounding wine? Should the blind tasting be properly constructed, might this miasma of anxiety be displaced by, well, good, clean fun?
I did not follow the letter but the spirit of The Wine Trials’ Chapter 8 Drinking games for adults, the book’s instruction manual for blind tastings. My method was the following (and nearly all of these details were known to the participants): I purchased all of the wines from one store, Trader Joe’s. The price spread was from a few dollars to around $30. The wines were made of one grape, Cabernet Sauvignon, with one notable exception I’ll explain later. Four wines were domestically produced, in California. One was from Bordeaux.
I placed the bottles, five in all, in identical paper sacks. I then removed all of the tin and plastic on the necks of each bottle and pulled the corks. Only one cork was plastic. I concealed them. The bags were then taped closed at the neck. I left the room and requested that another soul randomly number the bottles which were promptly placed among the participants at the tasting table. I returned to the room and passed out notebook paper and pens.
Though unintentional, it happened that none of the wines I selected appear on the list of 150 recommendations in The Wine Trials 2010, though it may be that they were on the original gathering of 450 wines. I do not know. Neither is it particularly relevant.
Of the five participants (and I will be speaking of myself in the third person from time to time), there were three women, all mothers, and two men, both fathers. They range in age from the late thirties to the early fifties. All are college-educated; they think for themselves. Each soul is independent and will not hesitate to express an opinion. All are good-looking, talented and desirable. They are all middle to upper middle-class. All stick to a budget. None drink to excess unless provoked by the chafing coil of daily responsibilities. Four souls are avid, casual wine-drinkers; only one is an oft-times annoying student of the vine. All of their children were present, and, I should point out, quite amused at their parent’s behavior. Moreover, the secretive character of the wine tasting exercise interested them. Who doesn’t enjoy guessing what’s in the brown paper bag?
A simple series of questions was asked. “Which wine(s) tastes expensive?” “What is the taste of expensive?” “How much would one be willing to pay for a given wine?” Not asked was which wine was a favorite, though all were free to speak of such a thing only after the other questions were answered, or at least an attempt was made. Lastly, each soul was given the option to guess the grape. (It must be said that the questions were so designed as to shift the burden off of private reflection and onto that of a wine’s commercial reception.)
Dinner had already been eaten. The numbered wines were tasted in order. A single 12 oz. crystal glass was used by each taster, and each time the glass was rinsed with the next wine to be tasted. A spit bucket was provided. Its use was encouraged.
The results? The first wine tasted was from the general Napa AVA, a 2008 Spiral cab. This wine tasted ‘expensive’ by two participants. The tannin and acid was compelling. Too much oak (or oak flavoring?) was nevertheless present. Three folks said, rather emphatically, that the wine tasted like ‘just wine’, ’simple’, ‘thin’, ‘little depth, no story; Elmer’s glue’. Of the latter, they would not pay more than $6. This is a good thing because the wine sells for $4.99!
The second wine was a 2006 Napa Valley Robert Mondavi cab. No taster sensed that this wine was ‘expensive’. Indeed, after two folks volunteered that the wine ’smelled like rubbing alcohol’, tasted ‘metallic, like cherry cough drops’, ‘not complex’, no taster, it turned out, would be willing to pay over $10. Three tasters felt the wine worth less than $7! The retail price for this wine is $20.99.
The third wine, a 2001 Chateau de la Riviere Fronsac. The ringer. Mostly Merlot. But inasmuch as it was from Bordeaux I knew it would be a strict, harsh example. One thought it poor, hardly worth more than $3. The high acid and tannin was welcomed by others, though one taster felt it had but one note. Somewhere between $10 and $15 was the general consensus. Retail: $14.99.
One of the strangest wines of the evening, the fourth, was the 2007 California Pétanque by M. Schlumberger, Inc. Perhaps it was that it was tasted after the Fronsac. One felt it was quite cheap. Others detected chalk, roses, said it had a ’story’. The consensus that it was a medium priced wine. Most would pay $14 to $16. The retail? $4.99.
The fifth wine was a surprise. We had a near unanimous agreement that it was an ‘expensive’ wine, the 2004 Mt. Veder, Napa, Chateau Potelle. One taster said, ‘I would pay over $20 for this.’ Another said it was the ‘best of the evening’. ‘Bitter’ intro, but worth $15 at least added a third. A fourth soul agreed. One last voice, a fan of the Fronsac, said this wine tasted ‘powdered’. Like Kool-Aid, simply dump it into a glass of water. Retail: $24.99.
It is clear that a blind tasting exercise like the one described above, or that found in The Wine Trials 2010, ought to be a part of every wine enthusiast’s on-going education. Not only does it interfere with received commercial and critical opinion, but it makes short work of whatever expertise one may have felt they’re owed. What is interesting is the simplicity of the work. One need merely drink from a paper bag. And no one needs to feel disappointed. Tasting at cross purposes, finding mystery with the most modest of wines, it is a minor miracle that the human palate may draw distinctions from so small a sample. Five wines!
How strange is it that family and friends, first drawn together by a common purpose, a blind tasting, should nevertheless find themselves alone.


Greybeard’s Top 10 Wines of 2009

Ξ December 27th, 2009 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Tasting Notes, Wineries |

When I was asked for a list of top wines I’d tried over the year I quickly went through wines that had impressed over the last 12 months and ended up with a shortlist of about 25, but deciding on the final 10 was a lot harder than I expected.
You will not be surprised to see that the list is made up of an eclectic cross-section of the wine world – some drank at home and some tried at various tastings throughout the year. The lack of a single Bordeaux or Burgundy is a testament to my budget and the dearth of good, affordable wines from these regions.
The initial list is in order of style only – each was excellent in its own right and further ranking would be overly subjective.
*Château Montus 2003 Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Sec, France
*Cossetti 2008 Roero Arneis, Italy
*Dr Hermann 2003 Erdener Treppchen Auslese, Germany
*Viña Valoria 2007 Rioja Rosado, Spain
*Château Musar 1999, Lebanon
*Mont Tauch “In Extremis” Durban 2001, France
*Ferngrove 2006 “The King” Malbec, Australia
*Agur Special Reserve 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Israel
*Pertaringa Vineyards Full Fronti, Australia
*Boplass Cape Tawny Port, South Africa
The detailed notes which follow adds some context to each wine; where drank, how much it cost and the flavours which caused them to stand out from the crowd, however, some of the ones that didn’t quite make it were good enough to at least deserve a mention in dispatches, so;
Cascina Ca’ Gialla 2008 Roero Arneis, M&S Ernst Loosen Erdener Treppchen 2007 Kabinett, 2005 FMC Forrester Meinert Chenin, Cline Cashmere 2007 GSM, Quinta da Fronteira 2006 Douro Selecção do Enólogo, Château Pesquie 2006 Quintessence Rouge, Dominio de Ugarte 2004 Reserva, Bodegas Emilio Moro 2006 Ribera del Duero, M&S Bonny Doon 2005 Central Coast Syrah, Reschke “Bull Trader” 2004 Cabernet Merlot, Casella Family Reserve 2007 Tempranillo, Hochar Père et Fils 2002, Royal Tokaji 2000 5 Puttonyos Aszú, Kracher 2006 Beerenauslese, Jackson-Triggs 2006 Proprietors’ reserve Vidal Icewine & Henriques & Henriques 15 Year Old Malvasia Madeira, Ployez-Jacquemart 1999 Champagne…phew!
Château Montus 2003 Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Sec was made by Alain Brumont in Gers and bought from the Wine Society in August 2008 for £10. I drank this in February 2009 as part of a Wine Library TV Forums “Simultasting” (one of my last major contributions to the forums as it turned out).
Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Sec is the Madiran’s white wine, both SW France Appellations sharing the same area, and Montus is made from the Petit Courbu variety.
The 2003 was a pale lemon colour with a creamy, floral aroma. At 14.5% abv the lack of legs was surprising and the nose closed down quickly. Initially the flavour was also closed; sharp at the beginning, bittersweet (more bitter) in the mid-palate and warming peach-stone on the finish. Later it opened up into something richer, a melange of fruit with melon and honey and a long, lingering finish.
Cossetti 2008 Roero Arneis was tasted at the inaugural Newcastle Wine on the Tyne Festival in October. This classic Piemontese white was £14.99 from Castello Italian Food & Wine and showed enough complexity to stand out in a busy tasting; very fruity on the nose this was a stunning wine with dry, honeyed stone-fruit flavours.
Dr Hermann 2003 Erdener Treppchen Auslese was also tried at an October tasting, this time an Alsace & Germany tasting at the Newcastle Wine School. Opened as the last wine of the evening this Mosel Riesling, available from Majestic for £8.99, had a full-on petrol & kerosene nose with a great dry/sweet balance and a taste of lime wrapped in caramel – definitely the star of that night and confirmation of why I like rich Rieslings.
Viña Valoria 2007 Rioja Rosado is the only Rosé in the Top 10 and came from Corkscrew Wines in Carlisle for £5.99. This 100% Tempranillo was bought and consumed in August and was sublime drunk outside with family on the one and only sunny Saturday afternoon that month. It had a gentle nose with some forest fruits and in the mouth was dry, smooth with a savoury watermelon taste – extremely well balanced with a mixed fruit finish.
Château Musar 1999 – Bought in June 2007 from Waitrose for £13.99 and drank with friends at home in June. The ’99 Musar was my first exposure to this cult Lebanese producer and, so far, the best (the ’00 and ’01 vintages haven’t excited me as much). A quick decant and pour released some beautiful aromas including smoke and tobacco with a subtle hint of V.A. and barnyard. Sweet and savoury in the mouth this had a Rhône style and was very, very smooth with fine-grain tannins and a long finish – a sublime wine drinking beautifully.
Agur Special Reserve 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon – I bought the bottle during my visit to this Judean Hills winery in February 2008 for the equivalent of £13.00. This is a last minute entry to the list as I only opened it mid-December to drink with family at home, but as soon as I tasted it I knew it was one of the best wines of the year.
It had a thick, dark purple colour, almost inky while the nose was enticing, smoky with some liquorice, vanilla and a hint (just a hint) of horse-manure. Supremely well balanced in the mouth both acidity and tannins were obvious but in synch. There was some sour cherry in the mid-palate and long chewy finish with some sweet berry fruit, this was an excellent wine, drinking well but probably could have improved with several more years in the bottle.
Mont Tauch “In Extremis” Fitou 2001 – was tasted at the August North East Wine Tasting Society (NEWTS) meeting and was bought for £18 on a visit to the region a few years ago by Harry Rose who gave the presentation on the Western Languedoc. This was my best wine of the night; a blend of 40% Syrah with 60% Carignan & Grenache which had a tarry nose with strong liquorice, a floral twist (maybe violets) with a touch of raisins. It was very smooth in the mouth with gentle tannins showing moderate length and a touch of sweetness.
Ferngrove’s 2006 King Malbec from Western Australia was another wine tasted at the Wine on the Tyne October Festival and cost £13.95 from local retailer The Hop, The Vine. As my first ever Australian Malbec I was impressed by its elegance – it had a spicy, complex nose good grip and subtle flavours. This was much better than the Argentinean and South African Malbecs also at the tasting and was yet another wine I liked that was drinking well but had ageing potential.
Boplass Cape Tawny Port, a 100% Tinta Barocca matured for 12 years in Portuguese oak barrels, was bought in Nov 2007 for the paltry sum of £4.50 from Bootleggers Bottleshop in Johannesburg.
I drank this in August and found it an equal to many a 10-15 year old tawny I’ve had from Portugal, which shouldn’t be surprising as South Africa has a tradition of fortified winemaking stretching back hundreds of years and this was from Calitzdorp in the Klein Karoo, where the Terroir is very similar to the Douro. Note that local producers can still use “Port” for wines sold in South Africa until 2014, but an agreement with the European Union phased out its use for the export market for 2007.
The wine was a burnished, autumnal colour, relatively clear, with a nose of warm raisin, sweet toffee and a tickle of alcohol on the sinuses! Sweet and luscious on the tongue the raisins came to the fore and the alcohol spread out over the palate. There was good acidity into the finish, with a medium length and a touch of heat on the throat.
Pertaringa Vineyards Full Fronti brings my list to a close. This was also tasted at the October Wine on the Tyne Festival and cost £11.50 a bottle from The Hop, The Vine. The Fronti refers to Frontignac, aka Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, named for the Languedoc town of Frontignan which is famous for its fortified Muscat. Australia has taken the variety and style to heart and the Full Fronti from McLaren Vale is a powerful 20 year old wine with a massive attack of raisins on the nose which continues into the thick, sweet taste with toffee and chocolate aspects. It was such a perfect end to a busy tasting that I returned for a couple more refills!
So that’s my modest list, an affordable mix of good New and Old World wine that tasted great on the day – isn’t that what wine drinking is all about?
Merry Christmas & a Happy New Year,


PS I Love You, Tasting Petite Sirah At Concannon

Ξ August 6th, 2009 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Tasting Notes, Wine History, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |

PS I Love You, Petite Sirah’s highly motivated advocacy group, held their 7th Annual Petite Sirah Symposium and tasting at Concannon Vineyard August 4th. I was invited to attend the Media Tasting by the organization’s executive director Jo Diaz (also of Diaz Communications and Juicy Tales). I knew I would be away on vacation in the San Juan Islands of Washington State on that date but the draw of event proved irresistible. That, and the simple fact you don’t turn down an invite from Jo. I cut my vacation short, hopped on a plane, and was at Concannon Vineyard outside of Livermore Tuesday morning, well before the Media Tasting was to begin. As a wine lover with very little understanding of Petite Sirah or of its producers, it was too good an opportunity to ignore. And I am very glad I attended!
I had tried single varietal bottlings of Petite Sirah (or Durif, as it is also now known. Long story! For a good write up please see Dennis Fife’s article) in the past, all of it from the supermarket. Routinely disappointed, I simply didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Often the wines were flabby, big fruit monsters with little finesse or complexity, no acid or vigorous tannin, especially when purchased at a lower price point, and when sourced from larger AVAs, the Central Coast, for example. Long known principally as a grape used to fix or modify other varieties, some larger producers, by blending Petite Sirah fruit harvested from around the state, have done the grape’s reputation no favors as a stand-alone variety. Like much of low-end Pinotage, another little known, easily ruined grape, the drinking experience can be positively awful. But when I took a look at PS I Love You’s impressive membership roster of wineries producing at least one variety bottling, I must say I suspected I was in for a brutally honest reeducation, the kind of comeuppance in which every wine writer ought to delight.
The first question I had, when confronted by this extraordinary member’s list was why were there so few Petite Sirahs in the supermarket? Even in better markets with well-regarded wine selections, I could rarely find more than two or three producers, even then almost always from the usual suspects. And they would be shelved below the Syrahs and at some remove from the monotonous ocean of Cabernet. I can honestly say I am no closer to understanding why after having now been floored by the excellence of the wines I tasted at the Symposium. The experience was not unlike that of opening the door to a long-forgotten room at a museum. Ah! So this is where we put the American Wine History display.
And what a history is enjoyed by this grape. Indeed, one of the finest wines I tasted was from the former site of the PS I Love You Symposium, the venerable Fopianno Vineyards where Petite Sirah has been grown for decades. I was to enjoy their ‘03 Russian River Estate Reserve in the presence of the winemaker, Natalie West. The wine was young, with a bright acidic finish, firm tannins, and just a hint of oak rounding out the finish. Ms. West explained she uses only 20% new oak. For me wine is all about structure. This wine had it.
And this Petite Sirah example was among the last I tasted, over 25 in all, many of them twice. Yet still there was a compelling, obvious distinction from all others I sampled. Indeed, one of the great surprises was the extraordinary plasticity Petite Sirah has to differing terroirs, and equally is it a testament to the respect for the same shown by almost all of the winegrowers. Of course, there were some ‘troubled’ wines, wines lacking in terroir, to say the least. But of all those that brightly shone each was very unlike the other.
Take the Mounts Family ‘07 Dry Creek Estate PS. It was a much lighter style, perhaps the lightest of all PS present. Even at 15.5% alc it was well balanced, very fresh, with almost a rustic finish. A world apart from the Foppiano, but as much a pleasure. (Imagine the difference between Sta. Rita Hills Pinot and that of a Pinot from the westside of the Santa Cruz Mountains, for example.) The wine was poured by the Gary Cooper-like David Mounts, winemaker.
Between each of those expressions, with respect to weight on the palate alone, was the truly outstanding ‘04 York Creek, Dynamite Hill Ridge from the Spring Mountain District. Again, the balance of this wine and the first two was a delight. The ‘04 Ridge had higher acid, was quite lean, tannic, with a long fruit finish. Beautiful wine. It will age well for years. An ‘03 Lytton Estate was also poured by David Gates, Vice President of Vineyard Operations for Ridge. But inasmuch as it is a blend of 77% PS and 23% of Zinfandel, it is outside of consideration for my purposes. (It was very good!) Thank goodness I arrived early. When the membership broke for lunch a bottle of any producer’s already opened wine was taken to one of a dozen random tables. That was the last I saw of the ‘04!
Another expressive terroir wine, this one from the a higher elevation, 2000-2400 feet, is the first release of Fortress Vineyards, an ‘07 Estate Petite Sirah from the Red Hills AVA in Lake County. Owner Barbara Snider (along with her husband, Gary) explained to me that after many years of selling their grapes to wineries they finally decided to begin wine production themselves. Why is it that first time winemakers so very often knock it out of the park? Well, their Petite Sirah is another quite superb expression, this one, as noted, from upper elevations.
And about first time winemakers, I simply must gush a bit about the Aver Family Vineyards’ offering, the ‘06 Blessings. Near the end of the tasting I wandered over to their allotted space in Concannon’s barrel room and was casually poured a taste. My eyes must have bugged out of my head because Carolyn Aver, wife of John Aver who was also present, began laughing at my expression! John Aver in all seriousness said “We get that a lot.” There exists only a few cases left of this wine from an initial production of 25. A fellow blogger next to me was also drawn to the juice. I begged her not to write about it until I could buy some. She said she was just about to Tweet her favorable opinion. Desperate, I asked the Avers if I might buy some then and there. Tomorrow my half-case arrives!
Strictly speaking, the Aver Family wines, though from their estate fruit, are made and finished at CrushPad in San Francisco. The winemaker in charge is the very talented Kian Tavakoli. But the Aver’s involvement is considerable.
There were many other excellent examples. Those mentioned above especially pleased me. Indeed, I’ve had my understanding, such as it was, entirely recast with respect to this variety. Give the grape a try.
A very special thanks goes out to Jo Diaz for inviting me to this embarrassment of riches. And to Concannon Vineyard for their hospitality.


Memorable Wines From The WBC Tastings

Ξ August 2nd, 2009 | → 5 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Tasting Notes, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |

The wines poured freely. Moments after arriving, having checked into my room and taken the wine blogger’s holy sacraments, checking email and stats, I went to ‘Meet the Sponsors’ in the Flamingo Room. Immediately a glass found its way into my hand. I attacked the D.O. Rueda table. The bright fruit and biting acidity of the Verdejos and Sauvignon Blancs was brilliant. My style. Food friendly wines of the first order. It was hardly noon and I had already been to an apex of affordable quality and finesse.
The next inspirational wines came during the Live Wine Blogging fracas. As has been noted, the wi-fi service was down for extended periods of time. The schedule was quickly modified to give the techs time to get things working. We sat through the Wine Blogging Awards’ presentation instead, a ceremony mc’d by the capable Tom Wark. It was during this lull that an enterprising lad brought to our table one of the best domestic Syrahs I have had in recent memory. Alan Baker is his name. And he runs a blog called The Cellar Rat. The Cellar Rat Syrah is his first wine. It is a small miracle, Cornas in character, beautifully balanced, with black pepper and abundant tannin. An extraordinary pleasure. The only other Syrah I very much enjoyed last weekend, and to which Mr. Baker’s favorably compares, is that from Montemaggiore of Dry Creek Valley. But to truth to tell? Mr. Baker’s was the finer wine if only because it is less polished.
The Montemaggiore Syrah, poured later in the day at the Grand Tasting of Sonoma Wines, was as beautiful and balanced, and I’d say as intellectual as the winemaker herself, Lise Ciolino. Trim, fit, and very smart, she makes wines in her own image.
With the wi-fi now hiccuping along, I also enjoyed a Cornerstone Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon. I asked Craig Camp, General Manager, had Alice Feiring tasted their wines? He said Alice hated them! Surprising to me. (Correction. Alice tells me she has never had the opportunity to taste Cornerstone’s wines. Mr. Camp may, in fact, have said Alice wouldn’t like them owing to stylistic differences. And see Mr. Craig’s comment below. Apologies to Mr. Camp and lovely Alice.)
Although many of the wines presented at the Sonoma Grand Tasting were not to my liking (I love high acid, brutal tannins, rustic wines in the main), the Russian River After Hours Party came a bit closer to my palate. I found agreeable the wines of Joseph Swan and a most unusual Pinot from Matrix Winery, their ‘06 Nunes. Garrigue on the nose and palate, curious floral notes, lavender and rose notes in a mid to heavy body. Just fascinating. Unlike anything else I tasted in a California Pinot over the weekend.
Saturday took certain of us to Storybook Wines where I had another ‘intellectual’ wine, their ‘05 Estate Cabernet. Along with the two Syrahs already mentioned, Storybook’s ‘05 was possibly the finest Cabernet of my visit (if I do not include an older vintage wine, a beautiful 1977 Sterling in magnum brought by Doug Cook of the Able Grape for a brilliant, irregular late-night tasting).
Later Saturday afternoon, at the Grand Tasting of Napa Wines held at Quintessa, it was Quintessa’s own offering when we stepped off of our busses that pleased the hell out of me. It was their ‘Illumination’, a minerally, tart Sauvignon Blanc, lighter than air. It took me by surprise, its delicacy, its feminine esprit. Head brimming with information from a Napa Green Presentation, this wine to me was the perfect exclamation point to the day’s education. ‘Green’ in a glass!
Other notable wines from the ViniPortugal tasting included Cortes de Cima’s ‘Incognito’ and the 2003 Mouchao from Vinhos da Cavaca Dourada, a blend of Alicante Bouchet and Trincadera.
All the wines served at the Conference had their raving fans. Nothing went uncelebrated. Though my standouts are few in number, I nevertheless was moved to mention them. Does not often happen in the Golden State!
Quick update. Gary Vaynerchuk informs me he will be attending next year’s WBC in Walla Walla.


Greybeard’s Corner May 2009

Ξ June 10th, 2009 | → 3 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Greybeard's Corner, Tasting Notes, Wineries |

I’ve always enjoyed May, if only for the public holidays at either end, and this one was made all the more glorious by clear, sunny skies and rising temperatures hinting that there may be a real summer this year. Supermarkets were the running wine theme throughout the month, possibly not that surprising as, on average, supermarket wine makes up 40% of my purchases.
As I reported in my recent post on the Newcastle Wine Fair this enjoyable event confirmed the strong wine ethic of both Waitrose and Marks & Spencer, and only a week later I found myself in the food-hall of M&S showing just how much I liked their Ernst Loosen 2007 Erdener Treppchen Riesling Kabinett by buying a bottle. I had also intended to buy the Bonny Doon Shiraz that I’d raved about, but instead opted for another of Randall Grahm’s finest, the 2006 Central Coast Sangiovese.
Things then quietened down as far as drinking goes, although this didn’t stop another corked wine appearing (my second this year). This time the offending bottle was one I picked up from Tesco in early 2007, their own-label (Tesco’s Finest) 2004 South African Shiraz by Boschendal Winemaker James Farquharson. Tantalisingly I could tell that behind that undeniable “off” aroma and taste there was a decent hit of fruit hinting at the quality I had been hoping for.
This was bought at a time when Tesco were improving their wine range, unfortunately they look like they’ve reversed this trend in recent months with a noticeable change back to the bad old days of “pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap” – the last few times I’ve been in my local stores (for my sins I have 2 of their “Hypermarkets” near my home town) I struggled to find much to interest me. Their regular Wine-Club magazine has similarly seen a drop in quality as well, the last one was nothing but front-to-back page advertisements without even the pretence of a wine “story” hidden within, and hardly any of the usual vouchers to entice you to buy an extra bottle in store – I guess even this corporate giant is being affected by the recession.
For only the second time this year I opened a bottle of U.S. wine, the 2003 Ravenswood Lodi old vine Zinfandel. Having been patiently waiting in the cellar for two and a half years this was bursting with aromas of dark berry fruit & spice and in the mouth there was a melange of secondary flavours; some tar, chocolate, leather and coffee – an excellent 3+ drink and so enjoyable that, only a few days later, I picked up the 2006 vintage from ASDA (a rare purchase from another supermarket I tend to have difficulty buying from).
Image, US-Can Flags.jpg
As the month progressed an unusually high number of (North) American wines were added to the cellar; joining the Bonny Doon and the Ravenswood were the Brook Ranch 2006 Pinot Noir from the Edna Valley (Marmesa Vineyards) and the Jackson-Triggs 2006 Proprietors’ reserve Vidal Icewine. However to put it in perspective my inventory still only stands at 7 bottles and shows the relative difficulty of buying good quality but affordable American wines here in the U.K.
One of the final purchases was another supermarket own label, but this time it was the Cooperative that caught my eye with their relatively new “Reserve” wines. I picked up the St. Gabriel Vineyard 2007 Viognier made by Jean Claude Mas (of Domaine Paul Mas in the Languedoc), as reviewed by Tim Atkin in The Guardian. It was actually the end of last year the COOP introduced this new line of premium wines in refreshing contrast to the direction Tesco are taking, but I’ve only just seen them in my local store and expect to be trying out more from the range in the future.
Of the wines drank during May a few others seemed worth commenting on. The Château Romer du Hayot 2004, my first bottle of Sauternes, was a fresh, honeyed sweetie – light on the palate in spite of a relatively thick texture. I enjoyed the floral, slightly bitter finish with an undertone of honey, but it will take more interesting Sauternes than this to move me away from Tokaji as my go-to dessert wine.
I’ve already mentioned the Ravenswood Lodi, a solid 3+ wine, as was the Viña Peñalolén 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon – a very drinkable, although slightly over the top, fruit-bomb. Less enjoyable was the Château Ksara 2005 Le Prieuré from Lebanon, light and acidic in the mouth, a little medicinal at first, weak in flavour and concentration and a dull 2 stars – not what I’ve come to expect from this country and my previous outings with Châteaux Musar and Kefraya.
The last wine of the month was a Dutch red, the Domein van Stokkom De Linie 2007 Rode from the Netherlands that I purchased on vacation last year (and wrote about the winery in a previous article). Although no more than 3 stars I was very satisfied drinking this, and not just for summer memories. The nose was full of fresh cherry & berry fruit with creamy aspects, and while the flavour couldn’t match the aroma there was a good balance of acidity and (light) tannins – it went exceptionally well with roast lamb and benefitted from being slightly chilled.
Overall the month started bigger than it finished, which went for the weather as well with June starting with a drop in temperatures and rain clouds on the horizon – maybe summer isn’t here just yet!


Newcastle Spring Wine Fair 2009

Ξ May 26th, 2009 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Tasting Notes, Wine News, Wineries |

A sunny Sunday in early May welcomed the first 2009 outing for the biannual Newcastle Wine fair, one of the premier tasting events for the North East of England. The 6 exhibitors covered the spectrum of wine buying options in the region and a total of 43 wines were on the tables – 44 if you counted the mystery bottle chosen by event organiser Chris Powell of the Newcastle Wine School.
A room half the size of previous years, albeit with a reduced ticket allocation, meant less free space and strangers closer together than maybe they would have chosen – however the net result was positive, with spontaneous conversations starting throughout the room over the course of the afternoon.
Flying the flag for the national wine stores were Oddbins and Majestic with a varied selection from the New and Old-World countries. Majestic had the only Champagne in the room which meant a large crush at their table in the early stages.
For the U.K. supermarkets Waitrose and Marks & Spencer are generally regarded as the best for wine quality, so it was good to see both present. Marks & Spencer (M&S) only sell wine produced and labelled for them, and this year their range includes an Ebenezer Shiraz, a Bonny Doon Syrah and an Ernst Loosen Riesling. Similarly Waitrose were presenting 7 of their “in Partnership” wines made especially for them by well known producers such as New Zealand’s Villa Maria and Spain’s Cune.
Representing the local independent retailers were Spanish Spirit, with a mix of northern Spanish regions, and French specialist Tyne Wines, who had a quartet of bottles from the tiny Côtes du Ventoux producer Château la Croix des Pins. Both of these had a dessert wine on offer, a category that tends to be under-represented at these tasting events but always gives a lot of enjoyment. Spanish Spirit also had a selection of their cheeses and cured meats which were perfect in between glasses, although my palate did not benefit from the spicy Chorizo while I was still on the whites!
Unlike previous events where I selected wines in a relatively haphazard fashion (usually summarized as “whites followed by reds”) this time I decided to be a little more methodical in the tasting and, as much as possible, go through each variety one after the other – comparing and contrasting similarities or differences between producers or regions.
Riesling was first with Oddbin’s Leitz 2007 Ein Zwei from the Rheingau, a very dry, citrusy white – all fruit and zest. In contrast M&S poured the Ernst Loosen Erdener Treppchen 2007 Kabinett from the Mosel – a luxurious, medium sweet wine with texture and elegance and which I would have guessed as an Auslese had the label not been clear enough. A few people noted it was a touch too sweet for their tastes and expectations, although I relished it.
Sauvignon Blanc was the next varietal worthy of comparison, with 3 examples of Marlborough’s 2008 vintage. The Clocktower at M&S (by Wither Hills Vineyards) had a wonderful, layered aroma but was surprisingly light in the mouth and finished quickly. Majestic’s offering of the Composite (Wine Growers of Ara) had more pungency on the nose, and, while it was also light bodied, the finish was long. Both of these were what I’d call typical of a New Zealand Sauvignon, unlike the final bottle at Waitrose, their Villa Maria “in Partnership” which had a strong citrus zest attack on the nose with undertones of gooseberry. In the mouth it was smooth and creamy and very, very easy to drink – maybe too easy but delicious nonetheless.
Several assorted whites passed by with only modest tasting notes, including an uninspiring Zuccardi Pinot Grigio/Torrontes from Mendoza at Oddbins. Chardonnay started badly with two mediocre Chablis on offer at M&S and Waitrose, but finished strong with a Macon Villages from Oddbins – the inexpensive Domaine Martin 2005 at £6.99. This was an enjoyable white Burgundy with lemon citrus aspects, a light wine but with the appearance of richness and still fresh for a 2005, punching well above its weight.
Moving onto the reds and Syrah/Shiraz was in glorious attendance starting with M&S who had two contrasting styles on show. First their Bonny Doon 2005 Central Coast Syrah, Randall Grahm at his finest with liquorice and tar on the nose, good tannins yet very smooth and leaving a touch of pepper on the finish. The other end of the spectrum saw the 2007 Ebenezer & Seppeltsfield (St. Hallett) Barossa Valley Shiraz and its warm, fruity, almost candy style and divine nose. This was delicious and easy to drink, as was the peppery 2006 Barossa Shiraz on the Waitrose stall (also made for them by St. Hallett). For me both of the Australians were unfulfilling so soon after the Bonny Doon, however I recognize that most people would probably prefer this warm, fruity and easy to drink style compared to the Californian’s more complex flavour profile.
The other reds seemed muted after these, with the exception of the gorgeous, vegetal Maipo valley Carmenère Reserva from Perez Cruz on Majestic’s table, so that was my cue to bring the afternoon to a close with something sweet and decadent, and where better than the two local stands and their dessert wines.
Tyne Wines had Domaine Treloar’s Muscat de Rivesaltes 2006 Vin Doux Natural – plenty of sweetness but light and fresh and not too dissimilar to the Uno by Liberalia at the Spanish Spirit table, a Moscatel and Albillo blend which I’ve had before and always enjoyed.
By the end of the afternoon I’d tasted my way through 37 of the 44, including the South African Merlot that was the mystery wine (I guessed Merlot but went for South America instead). Out of them all the best whites were the Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc (Waitrose) and the Dr. Loosen Riesling (M&S), while for reds it had to be the Bonny Doon Syrah (M&S) with the Perez Cruz Carmenere a close second (Majestic). Best value went to the Macon Villages from Oddbins, which outperformed both Chablis on offer for half the price.
The event was a great success, with people still mixing and talking together after the tables had been cleared, helped along by a few of the exhibitors leaving some unfinished bottles to keep the conversations flowing. I was particularly pleased to find M&S had left half a bottle of the Loosen Riesling which I passed around (after taking a decent pour myself first of course!). Thanks to Chris for a fun afternoon and I hope to see it back in the autumn.


Greybeard’s Corner, April 2009

Ξ May 10th, 2009 | → 0 Comments | ∇ Greybeard's Corner, Tasting Notes, Wineries |

April passed through with the early promise of a nice summer, Easter celebrations and a trio of birthdays to toast.
A run of fine, sunny weekends led to the opening of the first Rose of the year, the Château Kefraya 2006 La Rosée du Château, another wine highlighting my fondness for this small country which makes up nearly 10% of my cellar. Kefraya may be less well known than the cult Château Musar or Lebanon’s largest winery, Chateau Ksara, but like both of them it produces well received wines – it’s prestige Comte de M receives good reviews and the affordable Les Bretèches is a personal favourite of mine.
This was the first time I’d tried their rosé, which had a rustic nose, sweet yet earthy. As a descriptor rustic matched its taste as well, dry, somewhat unbalanced in the beginning yet finishing beautifully with some berry fruit, an acceptable 2+ start to the summer drinking season.
April has always been a busy month as it sees three family birthdays in quick succession and as one of them is mine then there is always the hope of wine involved in the presents and in the celebrations. This year the star of the proceedings was a fine old Tokaji, the Chateau Messzelátó 1988 Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos, dark caramel in colour with strong raisin aspects, the sweet and sour, sherry like tang had delightful acidity behind the subtle sweetness. At 3+ this wasn’t a great Tokaji, simply very good and always appreciated by the family, especially my Hungarian father.
The Tokaji was bought earlier in the month from Oddbins, my first visit back to this retailer since its buy-out in August last year by the founders of Ex Cellar Henry Young and Simon Baile (son of Nick Baile who ran Oddbins during its heyday in the 1970s).
I can’t say that I noticed a great deal of difference in the store selection, although it is still early in the process of trying to recover the reputation of this high-street retailer, which suffered under the management of French company Castel. There were a few tempting wines on offer and, as well as the Tokaji, I came away with the Terredora Loggia della Serra single vineyard Greco di Tufo and the Fernand Grandjean 2006 Sancerre Rosé from Domaine Hubert Brochard. Had I not restrained myself I probably would also have bought the Gisselbrecht 2003 Riesling Vendage Tardive as well (and maybe should have!). I plan on re-visiting Oddbins more frequently over the next year to see how the change in management affects its wine selection.
Given the relative purchasing (and drinking) drought over the last couple of months April was far more active. A tasting evening at my local Spanish retailer saw the rosé theme continue with a fine fresh 2008 Rosado from Reinares having just been delivered. The beautifully dry wine, a blend of Tempranillo and Garnacha, had a slight candy fruit nose and was very smooth and creamy with forest fruit flavours, warming as it went down and worth a buy at. The one I brought home ended up being taken to a neighbour by my better half so I didn’t get any of it, but at only £6 a bottle I’ll happily pick up some more soon!
Including those bottles already discussed 13 new wines went into the cellar, a varied selection including the Eos 2004 Reserve Petit Sirah from Paso Robles, a Gigondas and Chateauneuf-du-Pape from the Rhône, my first crusted port from Grahams and the Montes Alpha 2006 Merlot, currently my only single varietal holding of this maligned grape.
13 wines also came out of the darkness and onto the dining table over the course of the month. The best red was a 2006 Douro, made for UK Supermarket Sainsbury’s “Taste the Difference” range by Quinta do Crasto – this full and fruity wine was dark and rich, very smooth with a touch of chocolate, only its lack of a finish stopped it being 4 stars. This meant Tyrrell’s 2006 Old Winery Pinot Noir was pushed into second place but still proved a faithful servant for a cheap but very cheerful Australian Pinot – I’ve yet to have a bad bottle of this wine.
The best white by far was the Kamptaler Terrassen 2005 Grüner Veltliner by the excellent Austrian winemaker Willi Bründlmayer. This crisp 3+ white had a honeyed, floral nose – rich, sweet and fragrant – and honey was also a noticeable presence in the taste with a dry mid-palate and good length.
Finally April 2009, or specifically my birthday, was also an anniversary of sorts, as it’s now 3 years since a present of a wine-tasting ticket sent me spiraling into this wine appreciation obsession that has become such a large part of my life, and a not insignificant drain on my wallet! Although I don’t have any remaining purchases from then I still have a half-dozen wines bought from June and July ’06 which shows I was already thinking about aging wine so soon after my wine epiphany. True, none of the wines were over £10, but I’m still hopeful that they were up to being forgotten about for a time period most UK wine drinkers still wouldn’t consider when they pick up their bottles from the supermarket or high-street wine retailer.
And so onto May….


Greybeard’s Corner, March 2009

Ξ April 7th, 2009 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Greybeard's Corner, Tasting Notes, Wine News |

DecanterAs a regular reader of U.K. wine magazine Decanter I was pleasantly surprised to see a short article by Gary Vaynerchuk in the April ’09 edition (available in mid-March).
I can’t recall ever seeing his name discussed before in this pillar of the British wine establishment but all of a sudden there he is in print with a flattering picture at the top of the column. On the downside they did spell his name wrong (it’s ‘chuk, not ‘chuck) and the article finishes with an editors comment “He also owns a wine shop in New Jersey” which, while factually correct, does tend to make him sound like a small shopkeeper! Still it should be considered a major coup in Gary’s continuing quest for wine media domination!
As for the article, which raised a small discussion on the WLTV forum, it was on the likely outcome of the current financial woes on American wine drinkers.
When it comes to buying wine in the U.K. Gary’s optimistic U.S. predictions may not hold true. The weakening pound (currently €1.1 but recently it went down as low as €1.0) and government tax hikes suggest prices will not fall much, if at all, although retailers struggling to hold onto market share may absorb some of the increases themselves to remain competitive. This was the subject of 2 major pieces in the same Decanter issue by Margaret Rand and Steven Spurrier, subtitled “Surviving the crunch”.
Ramin MerlotI have been lucky enough so far to have been unaffected by any direct effects of the Global financial crisis, other than reading in the news about the latest round of job cuts or seeing another small (sometimes not so small) business closing down on the high street. The company that pays my salary still has money in the bank and products to sell, and one of those saw me fly to Israel at the beginning of the month for a week in the small city of Rehovot, south of Tel Aviv, where I stayed in an excellent guest house called “Casa Vital”.
A bottle of Ramim 2006 Merlot kept me going over 3 evenings there, unfortunately it was corked – not enough to be undrinkable, but sufficient to lessen the enjoyment and really only continuing on with for the alcoholic warming effect. It was down to a bottle of Yarden 2008 Gewürztraminer to provide some home-grown enjoyment during a fantastic meal at Idi Seafood restaurant in Ashdod. I plan on detailing that in a separate restaurant review shortly.
The final night’s stay was with my friend Yaron at his house where we sat down for a Shabbat meal with his family (not the first time I’ve been honoured as a guest at such a personal celebration). I brought a bottle from my cellar for the occasion, a Hautes-Côtes de Nuits, “Les Dames Huguettes” 2002 from Domaine Bertagna. This was a delicate, aged Pinot Noir with plenty of acidity for the hearty food and just holding onto some earthy aspects, nearly at the end of its drinking window but with enough life left to toast a pleasant evening.
At home drinking was minimal, only four bottles were opened, but they were all enjoyable. 3 easy drinkers were a Verdejo from Rueda (the Villa Narcisa 2006 from Javier Sanz), a crisp, dry Alsace Riesling (the Becht 2004 Lieu-dit Stierkopf) and a supermarket favourite, Lindemans 2007 Bin 50 Shiraz (which was better than I’d expected for a “big brand” – I admit I can be too snobby sometimes).
However the best was a 4 star Amarone purchased at the knock-down price of £9.99 from discount supermarket Aldi. The Trave 2001 (I’ve tried to find a producer web-site without success) was bought in March 2006 and I’d drank its sibling the same year, noting its strong tannins & alcohol burn and scoring it an 88 (hereafter referred to as a 3+). The extra years of bottle age worked wonders; it was a dark, brick red on the swirl with liquorice, menthol and cherry wood on the nose, with some mocha. Very smooth in the mouth, its fine tannins moved into a bitter mid-palate with little fruit, but a wonderful mix of secondary flavours including coffee and chocolate. The finish was long, initially a touch unbalanced, but recovering and continuing with a little heat at the end. Apart from that brief moment of imbalance between mid-palate and finish this was a complex and elegant wine at a bargain price, one of the better purchases I’ve made at Aldi.
The monthly purchases were similarly sparse, a new all-time low of 3 bottles (I’m not exactly sure why so few, typically I’d buy 8-10 in the same time period – maybe I am unconsciously responding to the recession?). The sole red was an Israeli bring-home, the Shel Segal 2008 (generic dry red blend, and it was a gift as well, so you could say I only bought 2 last month…. shocking!). For a fast-drinking white it was the Villa Antinori 2007 Toscana IGT, a mongrel blend of 70% Trebbiano & Malvasia / 30% Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco & Pinot Grigio for £8 and bought more for the curiosity of how so many grapes will taste together!
My splash-out purchase for the month sees another Riesling enter the cellar, the Trimbach Cuvée Frederic Emile 2000 Riesling. I’ve read good reviews for both the producer and this vintage in particular, so was happy enough to make this my most expensive white purchase ever – time will tell if it was worth it.
Wrapping up, I did manage to finish Hugh Johnson’s “A Life Uncorked”, so expect a review of that soon. I’m in the process of building a new PC (my current computer never fully recovered from a problem at the end of February) so the writing may take backseat again until that’s finished, but, if nothing else, there’ll be another Greybeard’s Corner in a month covering April. Until then Happy Easter,


Greybeard’s Corner-February

Ξ March 22nd, 2009 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Greybeard's Corner, Restaurant Reviews, Tasting Notes, Wine News |

2009 continues into a wintry February with Ukrainians, going Dutch in Amsterdam and a Spanish regional taste-off.
Winter finally hit the U.K., snow and ice covering the island in a sheet of white. Such inhospitable conditions didn’t deter a visit from my company’s Ukrainian distributor, Ruslan, and as part of social duties I had an evening of entertaining to do. I chose to re-visit Loch Ffyne in Gosforth, which hosted our office Christmas meal (although I wasn’t overly impressed with the wine that night). This time round we both stuck firmly with the seafood that has made the chain popular in the UK and, as I was designated driver, a single glass of wine to wash it down. The kiln-roasted “Bradan Rost” salmon I had was smoky and rich and Ruslan relished his baked sea-bass, the first time he’d had “such a fish as this” – although he didn’t rate the boiled potatoes which were apparently not as good as even the cheapest potatoes back in Kiev! The lone glass was a 2007 Australian Riesling, limey and zesty and very pleasant although I forgot to take its details – suffice to say it was a typical example of a young, easy drinking New World Riesling.
A few days later I was invited to a tasting at my local Spanish retailer, Spanish Spirit. They had received a new delivery of wines from Bodegas Tamaral and had organised a taste-off with the Heredad Ugarte range they got in last year, Ribera del Duero vs Rioja.
Unsurprisingly it was a mostly red affair covering 3 price points. The 2006 Tamaral Roble just edged the Ugarte 2006 in the easy drinking section, the oaked Tamaral showing more depth of flavours than the fruitier, New World style Riojan. Moving up to the next level the 2005 Ugarte Crianza was a little tight at first (it could do with a couple of more years bottle age) but opened up showing excellent balance of tannins and acid with good length. The 2001 Tamaral Crianza made the most of its 4 year advantage with some spice on its smooth nose. This food friendly wine ended with some cherry on a long finish. 2-0 to Tamaral, although in a couple of years the Ugarte Crianza will come into its own.
Moving on and both the Reservas hailed from the hot 2003 vintage. The Tamaral came across as much too young, with a green nose and harsh tannins needing time to integrate. The Ugarte Reserva showed much better, with a fuller nose and lots of fruit, smooth in the mouth and a touch of tar amongst the secondary flavours.
I’d say with both wineries the mid-range Crianzas triumphed over the more expensive Reservas, although in a few years time they should come into their own. The evening was brought to a close with two special bottles from Ribera del Duero, the Tamaral 2003 Finca La Mira, and the hastily opened 2004 Monecastro. The Finca La Mira, aged in new oak, had noticeably more balance than its Reserva sibling and, although still closed, promises much from about 2012. The Montecastro was yet another of the night’s wines that needed decanting just to start exploring its complexities, but for my third tasting of the ’04 it was much more approachable than previously and I can see myself opening one of my stock of these in the near future.
The business trip this month was a short hop across the North Sea to Amsterdam for a couple of days with my colleague Lee. We were staying by the Vondelpark and the first evening walked a few minutes from the hotel to Tapa Feliz on Valeriusstraat. We selected a range of dishes from the menu, Patatas Bravas, juicy Garlic Prawns, Calamari, bread & aioli and a mixed tapas plate including Manchego, Chorizo, Jambon Serrano and anchovies. The dark bread with the aioli was unusual but delicious, very nutty, while the Patatas Bravas were simple roast potatoes in a spicy salsa, but still tasted good.
The 2005 Marius Reserva from D.O. Almansa (just up from Jumilla & Alicante, central east Spain) was perfect with the food. This Monastrell/Garnachia blend, typical of this area, had a sweet cherry nose, tannic up-front and good acidity for the Tapas.
The next night we took a tram into central Amsterdam and then walked back towards the hotel until we hit Restaurant November on Spuistraat. The menu prices were very reasonable (a necessary consideration when on expenses in the current climate) and more importantly there with some nice by-the-glass wine choices.
November RieslingAn excellent meal consisted of crayfish with a Marie-Rose dressing over lettuce and artichoke hearts – an interesting take on the simple Prawn Cocktail with extra texture and flavour. A glass of Riesling, the Fleiner 2006 Trocken from Weingärtner Flein-Talheim in Württemberg was a good accompaniment, served too cold but the aroma was still strong and very floral. The first sip was sumptuous, dry but some residual sugar evident, this had some honey and developed towards the end with some lovely lemon sherbet aspects, bordering on lemon scented cleaning products!
Main course was tender pan-fried duck with Chinese vegetables & rice. A good match on the wine was a Côtes du Rhone 2006, by Cave St. Pierre, fruity on the nose with a little oak, finishing with some liquorice. This was an uncomplicated easy drinker which went well with the Chinese flavours.
Whilst in The Netherlands I took the opportunity to add to my collection of unusual local wines with the Apostelhoeve 2007 Auxerrois from their Maastricht winery. This was my first Auxerrois, but not the first Dutch wine for the cellar, as I wrote about in last year’s article on the De Linie winery.
At home this month (and hot on the heels of my first truly corked wine last month) I had an “off bottle” – not corked, but something definitely wrong since I had its delicious sibling less than 2 months earlier. The wine was the Château Pesquié 2002 Les Terrasses which had a sour/bitter taste. I’m glad I know from experience that this was not typical of the Château or the vintage; however not having that comparison I may have just notched up this one as a very poor offering and not come back again, something that must happen with many wines where people tend to try only the one bottle.
Of the other wines drunk over the month the sweet section consisted of the unusual Hardys Nottage Hill 2007 Dessert Shiraz, a surprisingly pleasant fortified red, comparable to a young fruity Port, while a Rutherglen Estates Muscat was a raisin, caramel and toffee delight.
Best white was the Château Montus 2003 Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh Sec, a Petit Courbu from South West France, the same area as Madiran. This was a simultasting reported on the WLTV Forums.
Best red was one of my few US bottles, the Elk Cove 2004 Pinot Noir, a, light, elegant and enjoyable wine with a rusty garnet colour, clear and light. For me this had a classic smoky Pinot aroma with a slight background of cinnamon, menthol and vanilla.
Least enjoyable, not including the Pesquié, was the Sula Vineyards 2006 Shiraz from Nashik province in India which had an unbalanced green nose, few tannins to speak of and hardly any fruit. It moved into a bitter mid-palate and a slightly sour finish with an aftertaste of ash, like a stale, spent cigarette – not impressive, too little body and no flavour, and hopefully the sub-continent can do better than this as they improve their industry.
Purchases were few and far between, the most interesting being the Arnaud de Villeneuve 1982 Rivesaltes Ambre Hors d’Age, a well-aged dessert wine, to add to my expanding selection of sweet wines from around the world. I’m also looking forward to the Montetoro 1997 Seleccion Reserva from Bodegas Ramon Ramos and purchased from Spanish Spirit – a perfectly mature wine I’ve enjoyed before and bought as they are getting to the end of their stock.
February saw the last of the BBCs 3 Wine programs on television, “The Firm” (Berry Bros & Rudd), “The Faith” (Château Margaux) and “The Future” (a South African start-up winery), some of the best programming on wine for a long time (there’s not much to choose from!). I’m also still working my way through Hugh Johnson’s “A Life Uncorked” – it is an informative read slow progression through the chapters as I only come back to it infrequently,
The American Wine Blog Awards nominations also appeared in February, with the results announced in March. We’d hoped for a placing but unfortunately Reign of Terroir never made it to the short-lists, the conservatives making it for another year. If any readers feel we deserved at least a nomination then help ease our disappointment by placing a vote for us on the Local Wine Events site!
Finally you’ll have noticed that Greybeards corner is late this month. I tend to do most of my writing on weekends and the last three have been interrupted by a crashed computer (very traumatic) and a long business trip. I apologise for the tardiness and my appreciations go out to Ken who has been doing a sterling job of keeping the blog updated with excellent posts.


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