The Finger Lakes Region Gets Better and Better

4 Aug

Finger Lakes Wine pic

New York’s Finger Lakes viticulture area has come a long way in recent years.  Home to more than 100 wineries centered around Keuka, Seneca, and Cayuga Lakes, the area has long been a source of excellent cool climate wines, and has recently been bringing home awards and earning some great press.

While commercial wine has been produced here since the mid-1800’s, a major change occurred in the 1960’s when Dr.  Konstantin Frank successfully grew and produced wine from Vitis Vinifera grapes such as Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Gewürztraminer, and Cabernet Sauvignon that had been grafted onto cold-hardy native rootstock.   For years, it was relatively uncommon to find Finger Lakes wines other than Rieslings earning 90+ scores from Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast or Wine Advocate.  That has certainly changed!  Recently, I went to the region and sampled wines from 3 producers who have received some rave write-ups and scores.

Ravines winery

My first stop was Ravines (https://RavinesWine.com) which featured 13 (thirteen!) wines which had received scores from 90 to 94 from Spectator, Advocate and Vinous Media.  Ravines’ Rieslings, both dry and off-dry; Chardonnay; Pinot Noir and Cab Franc were all excellent old-world style offerings.  Prices were also very good, mostly between $17 to $25.   Their 2017 Cab Franc and 2016 Le Petit Caporal (Bordeaux blend) were exceptional.

Next on the tour was Shaw Vineyard (https://shawvineyard.com).  I have blogged about Shaw’s Orange Wine before (https://fumblingviniferist.com/2017/06/19/orange-wine-a-rediscovered-style/) and on this visit tried several of their more traditional offerings.  Steve Shaw ages his wine a good bit longer than most local vignerons, and one of my highlights of the day was a 2011 Merlot Steve had just released.

Finally, and my favorite, was Bellangelo winery (www.bellangelo.com).   Winemaker Chris Missick is exceptionally knowledgeable in all facets of viticulture and enology.  A military veteran and former attorney from Southern California, Chris is publishing a series of books taking the reader deep into Finger Lakes Wines.  The first book in the series, “FLX Wine School, a Crash Course by Bellangelo Book 1”, covers the history of Finger Lakes wines, wine chemistry and basics of wine tasting.  The book is approachable and comprehensively sourced and footnoted.Villa Bellangelo

Bellangelo’s wines were all impressive.  Chris has received a lot of press for Bellangelo’s sparkling wines, including a just-released sparkling Gewurztraminer.  I am not a big fan of that varietal, but this 2017 sparkler is delicious!  In addition, Bellangelo’s single vineyard Rieslings were some of the best I have tasted.  A standout among the reds is the 2017 Cabernet Franc-Lemberger blend which was bright, complex and well-balanced.

Over the past few years I have made it a habit to visit the Finger Lakes every year.  Given the trajectory in quality I have seen, I can’t wait for my next visit.

The Vineyard at Florence

20 Mar

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I always find it interesting to visit wineries that are well outside any established American Viticulture Area yet produce estate wines.  Most wines made this way are, to put it mildly, underwhelming.  The wines of The Vineyard at Florence are a delightful exception to this.

Well outside of any existing AVA, Florence Texas is a beautiful area northeast of the Texas Hill Country.  For the past 11 years, the winery here has been producing award-winning wines made from California grapes, Texas Hill Country and High Plains grapes, and from several varieties grown in the 32 acre estate vineyard.

IMG_7550The winery and vineyards are beautiful and entail beautiful views, outdoor seating and an authentic Italianesque outdoor brick pizza oven.  The tasting room is an enormous hall of Texas stone exterior, wood timber framing and a high wooden ceiling, overlooking the outdoor patio and vineyards.  Tasting room attendant Tijada was knowledgeable and friendly, and provided a wonderful tasting experience.  She started me out with a Pinot Grigio made from California grapes and a Roussanne (a Rhone white variety) from Texas grapes, and then moved on to their excellent estate wines.

  1. Pinot Grigio, CA. Very pale yellow with light flavors of white peaches and citrus.  88 points.
  2. Roussanne, Texas High Plains Region. Yellow gold hue.  Nice bouquet of tropical fruit and a touch of floral.  On the palate, medium body with stone fruit and melon.  89
  3. Cielo, Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon. 1% alcohol, and a bit lighter than most California Cabs, perhaps from grapes harvested at lower brix? A good Tuesday-night wine.  87
  4. Inferno, Estate Grown blend of Cab Sauv and Norton. Norton is the oldest native grape to the US (and the cornerstone of the Missouri wine industry), and is not a Vitis Vinifera variety, which comprise all old-world wine varietals.  Most non-Vitis Vinifera grapes in the United States have an upleasant “foxy” flavor, which fortunately Norton lacks.  While Inferno uses this non-traditional grape, it is surprisingly good.  A bigger wine than Cielo, well balanced, with nice dark fruit and touch of spice and smoke.  89
  5. Bella Donna, a desert wine made with estate grown Blanc du Bois. This white grape is a hybrid of Muscat Vitus Vinifera and native Florida varieties.  Blanc du Bois is one of many American hybrid grapes which cross VV with native varieties to withstand Pierce’s disease, which infects nearly all Vitus Vinifera grapes in the southern US. This lightly sweet wine has aromas and flavors of tropical fruit and is a delicious sipping wine.  89

The wine here is well-worth the drive, and the setting and view make for one of the best wine-tasting experiences you could hope for.  Next time, I’m going to visit during lunch and try their amazing brick-oven pizza!

Mount Majura Vineyard – Capital Wines from Australia’s Capital District

28 Dec

Mount Majura Vineyards, CanberraAustralia is a prolific wine producer and exporter, shipping over 1 billion bottles per year to the international market.  Most wine-lovers are familiar with the Barossa Valley, Australia’s best-known wine region, with world renown wineries such as Penfolds and Jacob’s Creek.  Beyond Barossa, other broadly popular wines include the Rieslings of Clare Valley and the bold reds of McLaren Vale.  But perhaps one of the least familiar wine regions of Australia is the Canberra region.  This region within the Australian Capital District (analogous to our Washington DC) has been creating distinct Australian wines for over 160 years, receiving numerous accolades for high-quality value-priced wines, but attracting little notice in the United States.

The region’s vineyards cover a large range of altitudes, averaging from 1000 to 2700 feet. The extremely varied temperatures, vineyard elevations and soil types create a diverse palette of characteristically distinct vineyards and even sub-plots within vineyards.  Varietals such as Sangiovese, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Shiraz and (especially) Tempranillo all thrive here and exhibit a strong sense of terroir.

I spent a lovely afternoon at Mount Majura Vineyard, which lies near the top of the Majura Valley just north of the city of Canberra. The valley floor here is too frost-prone in Spring for winegrapes, but on the sun-facing slopes of the valley the cold air drains away, with a wide diurnal temperature range allowing for ripe, fruity grapes that retain vibrant acidity: perfect for wine.

Mount Majura’s vineyard totals just 9.3 Hectares (about 23 acres) which was originally planted with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and a field-blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot.  More recently, grapes of Spanish origin have been proven to thrive and produce wines of great character.  These newer, Iberian varieties including Graciano, Touriga Nacional and Tempranillo.  The flagship grape here is Tempranillo, which makes sense considering the similarities in elevation and climate here to the Rioja Alta region of Spain.

Winemaker Dr. Frank van de Loo has managed the vineyard since 1998 and is producing some of the most terroir-driven and complex wines in the region.  All the wines I tasted were very good to excellent, and all are quite affordably priced:

The Silurian 2017.  Made in the traditional Champagnoise method, this sparkling blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir is delicious.  Fresh acidity, light and refreshing.  90

Riesling 2018.  Crisp and pure, a floral and lemon zest bouquet with a long finish.  90

Lime Kiln Red 2017.  A blend of Shiraz, Mondeuse and Touriga, lighter than might be expected but juicy with a light spiciness and short to medium finish.  88

Shiraz 2016.  Dark and rich fruit, soft tannins and a touch of sweet smokiness with an underlying zing of acidity.  89

TSG 2016.  Tempranillo, Shiraz and Graciano. Delicious!  Dark fruit and black pepper on the nose, complex flavors (including a touch of Eucalyptus) with a medium-long finish.  91

These wines underscore the reputation for which Australia is famous: great wines at very affordable prices!

The Beautiful Umpqua Valley AVA and its Shining Star Winery – Abacela

18 Jun

Abacela

The Umpqua Valley of Oregon is one of the most interesting American Viticulture Areas in the Pacific Northwest.  Winegrowing began here in the 1880’s, and the region became one of the first AVA’s in Oregon.  Of the 23 wineries in the region, several have produced internationally acclaimed wines and, of those wineries, Abacela shines brightest.  With numerous accolades from wine experts (Jancis Robinson, Mario Batali, Wine Enthusiast, etc) and probably the most impressive collection of 90+ wine ratings in Southern Oregon, Abacela is my number one pick of wineries to visit in the Southern Oregon AVA’s.

Abacela’s owners, Earl and Hilda Jones, are as impressive as their wines.  Wine has always been an important part of their lives and the driving force behind many of their travels.  An MD and former Chair of the Dermatology Department at Emory University, Earl applied his prodigious research skills to the subject of wine and specifically Spain’s celebrated red grape of Tempranillo.  With the help of their son who holds a PhD in Atmospheric Science, the Jones made an in-depth analysis of why Tempranillos from the Rioja and Ribera appellations of Spain are markedly superior to any other Tempranillos in the world.  They learned that it primarily boils down to climate and, to make a long story short, discovered that the Southern Umpqua Valley has an almost identical climate to those famed Spanish appellations.

The Jones’ then studied the Valley and narrowed down the best vineyard locations which, for Tempranillo, meant sunny hillsides with rocky soils.  They settled on their current location in the Southern Umpqua Valley and named their new project Abacela, which in old Spanish means “They plant a grape vine”.  (It’s surprising that no other Spanish wine producers had already thought of that!)

When I arrived at Abacela, I was charmed by the beautiful views, the spacious tasting room and the knowledge and friendliness of the tasting staff.  From my prior research, I knew I wanted to try the Tempranillo.  What I was not expecting was the quality of all their other offerings.   Their Albariños, Rosés and several varieties of reds are all excellent and affordable, with collectively the highest QPR’s (Quality to Price Ratio) you are likely to encounter in any one winery.  Some of my favorites:

2017 Albariño.   A Gold medal winner with bracing acidity, floral aromas and a palate of crisp green apples, zesty citrus and a trace of almonds.  9/10, $21

2017 Grenache Rosé. Double Gold winner.  Light berry, watermelon and citrus on the nose and the palate.  Perfect balance between acidity and fruitiness.  9/10, $18

2014 Barrel Select Tempranillo.  Rich dark fruit, with a wonderful background of mocha, spice and smoke.  Velvety tannins and a beautiful finish.  9.5/10, $33

2015 Garnacha.  A bright medium-ruby in the glass, with a light fruity bouquet.  Light and refreshing but complex, with flavors of plum, berry and a touch of sweet spice.  A delicious summer red with light tannins and nice acidity.  9.2/10, $29

2015 Tannat.  This is not a wine seen often in the US, coming primarily from Madiran France and Uruguay.  This version is more fruit-forward than the old-world versions and the tannins are softer, making this wine very drinkable while young (not generally the case for Madiran bottles).  Not only is this varietal delicious, it is one of the healthiest wines out there thanks to very high levels of anti-oxidants!  I tasted dark fruits with hints of pepper and sweet tobacco (one of my favorite red wine flavor notes) backed by a structure of rounded tannins.  9.2/10, $30

The Texas Hill Country Revisited

25 May

Texas hill Country

True to Texan tradition, the Texas Hill Country AVA (American Viticulture Area) is the second largest certified Viticultural Area in America.  It has been named one of the top 10 wine destinations by Wine Enthusiast Magazine, and is replete with beautiful limestone hills, pristine creeks and hillside vineyards.

There are currently over 60 wineries in the region, which earlier this year collectively earned an impressive 204 medals, including 18 Double Golds, in the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle International Wine Competition.  As I observed last year, it was just 6 years ago that wine from the Hill Country earned their first Gold medal at this competition.  I am fortunate to spend a couple of weeks in the Hill Country each year to personally experience the continual increase in both quantity and quality of the area’s wineries.  Below are summarized a few of my favorite wineries and wines from this visit.

Perissos Vineyard and Winery

Perissos

Perissos is a Greek word found in the Bible (Ephesians 3:20) meaning “exceeding abundantly, beyond what is expected, imagined, or hoped for.”   A boutique winery set in a beautiful valley near Longhorn Caverns, Perissos creates handcrafted wines from 100% Texas sources, the vast majority from their own estate vineyards.  The venue boasts beautiful views, a lovely spacious tasting room, and knowledgeable servers. (Tasting Room Manager Amy was great!)  They have won multiple medals in the San Francisco Chronical International Wine Competition.

  1. 2016 Viognier. A medium body, estate grown Viognier with a beautiful nose of Lavender and Honeysuckle.  On the palate, BIG peach notes tempered by zesty lemon peel and with a long finish of melon.  Benefitting from warm, sunny days, this is the best Viognier I have tasted in the Hill Country.
  2. 2015 Malbec. Red fruit and sweet tobacco backed by very soft tannins and a surprising (for this varietal) acidity.  A bit lighter in body than a typical Argentinian Malbec and a bit fruitier than those from Cahors France.
  3. 2015 Rackers Blend. A brilliant cherry color, this complex red is a blend of Aglianico, Tempranillo, Petite Sirah, Syrah and Malbec.  Strong tannic foundation with medium acidity and full body.  On the nose ripe cherries, pepper and, on the second swirl, a touch of leather.  A delicious red-fruit palate with a touch of spice and long finish.

Becker Vineyards

Located on the Hwy 290 wine trail halfway between Fredericksburg and Johnson City, Becker Vineyards began with an 1890’s era  log cabin and 46 acres of raw land about 1500 feet above sea level.  Now producing over 100,000 cases per year, their first harvest was in 1995, making Becker one of the original Hill Country wine pioneers.  This year the team at Becker won an impressive four Double Gold medals in the 2018 San Francisco Chronicle International Wine Competition.

Becker

  1. 2015 White Wing. A traditional Bordeaux white blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.  This is a tasty white with old-world restraint.  Medium acidity and complex layers of stone fruit and citrus softened by light toasty oak.
  2. 2015 Tempranillo. This varietal thrives in the Hill Country, and Becker’s is delicious.  Over 14% alcohol, but the depth of dark fruit and sweet tobacco flavors camouflages the heat.  A refreshing acidity balances all of that and makes this a very food-friendly wine.

Zero 815

Of the many new wineries dotting the Texas Hill Country landscape, this is one to watch!  Founded by the late Karl Hogsett and his wife Laura, Zero 815 Winery is the culmination of their lifelong passions. The name “Zero 815” was inspired by Karl and Laura’s wedding anniversary, August 8, 2015.

Laura’s love for wine and her biochemistry background synergistically inform her ability to create truly exceptional craft wines.  The tasting room is cozy, set in the middle of a beautiful plot of land just off Highway 290 near the town of Hye.  Warm, friendly hospitality and fresh-grilled food is offered, and it’s fun to learn about Texas terroir and wines from Laura.  I tasted 6 wines here – all excellent.  My favorites:

  1. 2016 Hyeland White Blend holds its own against the big names in Napa: combining French, Italian and Spanish varietals (all grown in Texas of course) into a beautifully refreshing white with strawberry and peach notes and a tart citric acidity.
  2. 2014 Mourvedre is also wonderful: very light but with full red fruit on the palate and a long finish. A delightful winery to which I look forward to returning!

Willcox – Arizona’s Wild-West AVA

27 Jan

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Arizona has over 80 bonded wineries and is gaining fame for its earthy red Rhone varieties.  Willcox is the newest American Viticultural Area (AVA) in the state, and the town of Willcox is one of the most rustic western towns you are likely to run across.  Willcox has begun to blossom into a major wine tourism region, already growing nearly three quarters of all Arizona winegrapes.  During tastings at three of the leading local wineries, I ran into quite a few customers from around the country who had heard of Arizona’s winemaking progress and wanted to experience the state’s great wines for themselves.

Some experts say that the best Arizona wines do not come from Willcox – they instead point to wines made in northern Arizona’s Verde Valley, such as those from Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards, made by wine expert and rock star Maynard James Keenan (frontman and founder of Tool, Puscifer and A Perfect Circle, and my son’s favorite musician).  Interestingly, many of the grapes used by Maynard’s wines actually come from the Willcox area.

Willcox boasts several of its own wineries that make award-winning wine which can hold its own against even some of the better wines of northern California.  The tasting rooms I visited all fall into this category, and are summarized below with my assessment of some of their offerings.

Keeling Schaefer Vineyards.  At 5000’ elevation, these vineyards enjoy cool nights that help maintain acidity even as the hot Arizona sun fully ripens the grapes.  Having honed their craft here for almost 20 years, Keeling Schaefer wines have been written up in the Wall Street Journal and have earned high scores from the big-name wine raters.

  1. 2016 Puzzle Vine PicPoul Blanc. Light, vibrantly refreshing, with apple and citrus fruit on the palate.  At less than 13% alcohol and substantial acidity this is a great summer refresher, and at $12 per bottle it is a real bargain.  8.5 out of 10 points.
  2. 2013 Partners Rhone Blend. This GSM (59% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 11% Mourvedre) is as nuanced and balanced as offerings from the southern Rhone Valley, but with the riper fruit-forward taste of the new world.  A pale clear garnet in the glass with complex fruit aromatics.  A sip reveals tons of dark fruit, fig and spice backed by soft tannins.  $18, 9/10.  I bought a bottle of this one.
  3. 2014 Keeling Brothers Shiraz. Deep ruby, medium-full body.  Like their lower price-point Syrah, this is a lush wine with dark berry and cocoa, but in this reserve offering the fruit is slightly overpowered by the American Oak in which it was aged.  $34, 7.5/10

Aridus Wine Company. One of the largest winemaking facilities in the state, Aridus brings in grapes from high-quality vineyards from Arizona, New Mexico and California.

  1. 2015 Aridus Tempranillo. Light, clear ruby, decidedly less opaque than a Spanish Tempranillo, but the taste is classic Rioja.  Medium-bodied with raspberry and tart cherry, with a touch of spice and cocoa.  $39.90, 8/10
  2. 2015 Aridus Malbec. Medium ruby, wonderful bouquet of red fruit and a touch of leather.  Smoooooth fruit and spice on the palate.  $36.75, 9/10

Carlson Creek Vineyards. I am impressed with a winery that uses estate grapes (grapes grown on vineyards which are on the winery’s property) rather than searching out grapes from other regions.  Every one of the Carlson Creek wines I sampled was made from Arizona grapes, with the vast majority coming from the Carlson property vineyards.  In fact, Carlson sells many grapes to other Arizona wineries as well.  They understand Arizona climate and terroir, and it shows.

  1. 2012 Chenin Blanc. First of all, kudos to Carlson Creek for holding on to this beautiful white until it was so nicely aged.  I selected this wine to sample rather than the Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc because some of the best whites I have had are Chenin Blanc’s from Vouvray in the Loire Valley.  This is a well-crafted warm-climate high-alcohol (14.8%) version of a Loire Valley Chenin Blanc.  A surprisingly refreshing acidity with a full palate of stone fruit and citrus and a long honey-tinged finish.  8.5/10
  2. 2012 Sangiovese. This one was awarded a Bronze Medal in San Francisco last year.  A light ruby with amber-tinged meniscus, this light-bodied Chianti Riserva style red shows lots of cherry and red berry flavors with a hint of spice and soft, smooth tannins.  $24, 9/10
  3. 2013 Rule of Three. A typical southern-Rhone style GSM (40% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 30% Mouvredre), done superbly well.  An immediate aromatic rush of plum and dark berry with the same on the palate.  What is surprising is the loooong finish on this one.  At $29, this oak-aged blend is a bargain.  9/10.
  4. 2014 Malbec. A dense ruby – more opaque than any of the other offerings. Moderate alcohol (13.5%) is perfectly balanced with loads of blackberry and plum with drifting smoky tobacco through the mid-palate. I liked this better than many Argentinian offerings.  $40, 9.5/10
  5. 2014 Syrah. Medium ruby in the glass, with beautiful dark berry on the nose and the palate.  This is a LUSH wine.  The fruit is ripe and packs every sip, with notes of leather and a backbone of round tannins.  $32, 9/10

D’Autrefois 2016 Pinot Noir

9 Jan

A Pinot Noir from the South of France?  Yes, and it is excellent.

Oenophiles unnamedknow that the birthplace of Pinot Noir is the Burgundy region of France.  All red Burgundies are Pinot Noirs, and they can command some of the highest prices in the wine world.  But the Southern France region of Languedoc-Roussillon is better known for bolder, fruit-forward reds and world-class rosés.

D’Autrefois Pinot Noir is an IGP wine (Indication Géographique Protégée), which means that it was grown and produced with fewer requirements and restrictions than wines from an AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée).  The label on the D’Autrefois bottle says Pays D’Oc.  What does this mean? Well, France has six regions of IGP wines, each covering large areas of the country. The largest of these in terms of wine production is Vin de Pays d’Oc.  This designation covers IGP wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon area in Mediterranean France.

One might expect a Pays d’Oc Pinot Noir to have a riper, more fruit-centric profile than than a Burgundian Pinot.  This is typically true because the Pays d’Oc region has a Mediterranean climate which is warmer with less rainfall than the Burgundian continental climate.  Wines from these warm-climate vineyards (also seen in California and the rest of the New World) tend to have higher alcohol levels, a more opaque color and riper fruit on the palate than a wine from Burgundy made from the same grape variety.

The D’Autrefois Pinot defies these expectations.  Clear, pale ruby in color with a light mouthfeel, classic notes of cherry and red berries and thanks to oak-aging, undertones of vanilla and spice.  Lower alcohol (12.5%) and higher acidity than California Pinots (think Meiomi) with a nice long fruit & spice finish.

Total Wine & More, less than $15.  9/10