Zac Brown “Uncaged” – Wine as Fine as His Music.

15 Sep

Z. Alexander Brown UncagedWine (like music) is important to Zac Brown – he likes how it brings people together, and he likes how it connects one to the land.  As the proprietor of Z. Alexander Brown wines, he has found a way to pursue his passion while sharing it with his fans.  Z. Alexander Brown 2015 Uncaged proprietary red blend is a great way to become familiar with Zac’s wines.  His philosophy is to “use the best growing practices with little intervention and a careful touch” to bring out the characteristics of the terroir.  In this wine the terroir of the north coast of Sonoma shines through.  Deep ruby in the glass,  the bouquet overflows with dark fruits – berries and black plum, with a nice touch of tobacco and spice.  On the palate, a perfect balance of fruit, earth and acidity.  While the blend is proprietary, I would guess Zinfandel and Syrah make up good portion of it.  This wine is delicious, and the high alcohol content of 14.5% is deceptive: the deep lingering fruit and light finish belie the high alcohol content.  Best of all is the price.  At less than $15 per bottle this has a killer QPR (quality-price ratio), and is currently featured in Vivino’s “Top 25 Californian Red Blends”.   I recommend pairing this wine with a slab of smoked baby backs while playing Zac Brown’s “The Foundation” album on the stereo!

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Orange Wine – A Rediscovered Style

19 Jun

Orange Wine

Most wine lovers understand that white wines and red wines are fermented differently.  For whites, the grapes are crushed and the clear juice is immediately drained into fermentation tanks.  After red grapes are crushed, the entire mixture of juice, skins and seeds are fermented together.  This is one reason reds have heavier tannins than whites and why whites are lighter and fruitier.

But thousands of years ago, many white wines were fermented just as reds are today.  Long ago this practice fell out of favor, but recently has been making a comeback – particularly in the Finger Lakes wine AVA (American Viticulture Area) of upstate New York.  When white grapes are crushed and allowed to ferment on the skins, the result is a deeper, richer wine that, yes, approaches orange in color.  Greater complexity and a fuller mouthfeel are also common.  Today, orange wines made from common white varieties such as Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling can be found, not only from New York but also Italy, France and Australia, among other regions.

For several years I have seen articles about orange wines and have been intrigued, but never happened across one in a wine store or restaurant.  Last week I was happily surprised to find a 2014 Shaw Vin Rustique orange wine on the list of a restaurant in Utica.  It was a BIG, flavorful wine and absolutely delicious.  Unfiltered and textural, with a slight nuttiness and full fruit flavors of dried apricot and pear which were balanced by a citrus acidity.  (90+, $30).

As more is written about orange-style wines, I believe they will be increasingly seen in neighborhood wine stores and restaurants.  In the meantime, many good ones can be ordered online.   If you are bored with your standard Pinot Grigio’s or Rosés this summer and are intrigued by exploring unfamiliar wines – by all means, give orange wine a try!

An Underrated Wine Region and A Great Value Red

20 May

Recently, the popular social media wine site VinePair reported on their survey of professional sommeliers regarding which wine regions they believe are the most underrated.  Everyone has heard of wine regions such as Napa, Bordeaux and Brunello, which are famous for the high quality, and price, of their wines.   The lesser-known and underrated regions highlighted by the pro’s all have many producers who offer high quality wines at relatively low prices.  One of my favorite appellations in this list of great-value producers is Languedoc (LONG-eh-Dauck).

A fascinating and historic area famous for beautiful French-Roman villages and epic scenic drives, the Languedoc-Roussillon borders the Mediterranean Sea to the east and the Pyrenees Mountains to the south. The region benefits from a very vine-friendly Mediterranean Climate and has a proliferation of old-vines and many wineries that focus on organic and sustainable practices.

Languedoc grows quality varietals from the Rhone Valley (Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, Viognier) as well as Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc) and produces interesting and delicious blends, one of which I report on here.

Mas Belles Eaux, Languedoc 2009

Syrah 60%, Grenache 30%, Mourvedre 10%

This wine is an intense, juicy red blend with a full mouthfeel of ripe red plum and raspberry.  The fruit is smoothly layered and balanced with soft tannins and there is plenty of fresh berry acidity.  The long finish is rich and warm with a hint of spice.  Delicious on its own and stands up well to spicy, smoky barbecue.  As with many reds from Languedoc-Roussillon, this wine at around $20 per bottle is a great value.  92/100

Wine, Words & Wednesday, No. 121

3 May

…And it is great with fish or barbecue – two of my favorite summer meals.

The Armchair Sommelier

Today’s words come to us from Steven Kolpan, Professor and Chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY.  Specifically, the words appear in Kolpan’s consumer guide to wine, Wine Wise.

Here in Virginia, spring has arrived with enthusiasm.  The sun is shining (mostly), the air is warm, everything is blooming (allergy sufferers are suffering), and my lawn looks like it’s been taking anabolic steroids.  Cue the annual spate of posts about the arrival of Rosé Season.

Le Sigh.

Why must rosé be relegated to a season?  I’ll admit I drink more rosé in the spring and summer, but I certainly don’t limit myself to a season.  Rosé tastes just as good in January as it does in July.  Sometimes better.

Rosé is the ultimate compromise wine.  Whenever I can’t decide whether to have red or white wine with dinner (or Tuesday), I reach for rosé.  The…

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Torr Na Lochs – From Rocks to Wine

22 Mar

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A Gaelic Name, A Purely Texan Winery

Torr Na Lochs (www.torrnalochs.com), roughly translated from Gaelic as “hill over lakes” embodies a clear passion for Texas terroir and wine purity, and is arguably the Hill Country winery with the most spectacular view.  The scenery looking out from the tasting room at Tor Na Lochs offers not just the best winery view I have seen in Texas, it is right up there with the most gorgeous settings in Napa or the Sonoma Coast.  Simply stunning.

Relatively new to the wine business, owners Blake and Karen DeBerry produce wine with all-Texas fruit on their 180 acre ranch on a high bluff overlooking the Colorado River valley, Inks Lake and Lake Buchanan.   Wandering the ranch are a couple of very Texas-looking steers (Longhorns of course) and two friendly donkeys.  The soil of the Torr Na Lochs vineyard here is rocky (VERY rocky, much of it solid granite) and is steep enough to provide good drainage.  Through a several year-long labor of love, the DeBerry’s have brought to life their mantra of “From Rocks to Wine”, and vinted their first wines in 2015.   At the same altitude as the Tempranillo vineyards of Rioja Spain and with similar soil characteristics as southern Italy, Torr Na Loch’s Mediterranean varietals and blends are superb.   And, like many of the leading west coast wineries, Torr Na Loch pursues environmentally friendly principles such as using air conditioning condensate for irrigation.

I tasted two whites and 4 reds, all were excellent:

2015 Orange Muscat.  This is a white grape varietal with probable origins in Italy and France.  Torr Na Lochs uses fruit from the Texas High Plains which due to cool nights provides better acidity than Hill Country vineyards.  Aroma of orange blossoms with delicate flavors of orange marmalade and apricot, at 14.9% alcohol provides a medium to heavy body which is balanced with refreshing acidity. 89/100

2014 Fion Gael.  A blend of six different white varieties which together provide a light and delicious wine.   Aromas of peach or nectarine, and tart lemon on the palate.  88

2015 The Mutt. An easy-drinking red blend with smooth tannins, nice red fruit and balanced acidity.  Aged in Hungarian oak.  The best part: for each bottle purchased $5 is donated to the local animal shelter! 90

2015 MADS.   This new release is a startlingly good blend of Montepulciano, Aglianico, Docletto and Sangiovese, all Italian varietals that do well in the Texas climate.  The nose is intoxicating and expressive with dark berries and currants.  I loved this wine and should have bought more bottles to take home! 92

2013 Sangiovese.  With characteristic cherry flavors and a medium light body, this is one of the better Texas Sangioveses I have tried.  Soft tannins, good acidity and a finish of smoky vanilla thanks to 14 months aging in French oak.  90

2015 Estate Syrah.   Their first wine produced with estate grapes is a winner.   A satisfying deep-purple in color, the bouquet includes ripe blackberry and violet .  Dark fruit upfront, soft tannins and a hint of cedar with a long finish.  91

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Old World Grapes, Texas Terroir and a Chilean Master Winemaker

26 Feb

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Fall Creek Vineyards (www.fcv.com) is not an easy place to find – it lies near the far northern end of the popular Texas Wine trail, overlooking the Colorado River in a bucolic Texas-ranch setting.  And for those who are looking for the best Texas wines, it is a not-to-be-missed stop on a tour of Hill Country wineries.

It is not an overstatement to say that Fall Creek Vineyards’ history is synonymous with Texas Hill Country Wine history.  In fact, owners Ed and Susan Auler were instrumental in establishing the Texas Hill Country American Viticulture Area.  The Texas Hill Country AVA, established in 1991, is the second largest of the over 200 AVA’s in the country and arguably the AVA with the most improved wines.  Many wine producers in the hill country do blend the local grapes with those from other areas of Texas (most notably the High Plains Region) or even from other states in order to obtain the complexity, balance and flavor profile they desire.   But one of the most impressive things about Fall Creek Vineyards is that the majority of their wines come exclusively from Hill Country grapes, with the bottles bearing the “Texas Hill Country” appellation.  In recent years many of these wines have competed in national and international competitions and won scores of awards, from Best-in-Class to Double Gold, Gold and Silver medals.

In years past, most wine experts dismissed Texas as a premium wine producer because of the heat.  Certainly the heat profile here is far higher than any areas of California, with summer highs over 100 (for weeks in a row) and nighttime lows not much below 85.  So how do Fall Creek and a few other hill country wineries manage to make world-class wines?  Well, look at where some of the earliest wines were made.  From biblical and other historical accounts, the Middle East made and consumed wine several thousand years ago.  There is significant evidence of winemaking in Shiraz (quite a recognizable name in the wine world!) Iran.  And when the annual heat profile of Shiraz Iran is compared to Llano County in the Texas Hill Country it is seen to be not just similar, but identical.  Same number and magnitude of heat degree days, same diurnal (day to night) variation.  So, historically, many Vitis Vinifera varieties can be and have been grown in this kind of weather.  Also the soil of the best Texas Hill Country AVA vineyards is similar to that in southern France and parts of Spain and Italy: limestone-based with excellent drainage.  And the altitude here, 1300 to 1350 feet, is identical to that of the great Tempranillo vineyards of Rioja Spain.

Without getting much into Biology, suffice it to say that the Vinifera vines have a “heat –protection gene” which is triggered in regions that have not heat spikes (which damage the canopy and negatively impact the fruit), but consistent heat throughout the growing season.  The better viticulturists in Texas know how to manage vine canopies, placement and irrigation to grow many varietals that typically thrive in cooler climates, and make world-class wine with that fruit.  Fall Creek Vineyard’s chief winemaker, Sergio Cuadra, can talk with passion on this subject for hours!  Formerly the principal winemaker at several Conche Y Toro facilities, Sergio is the first internationally-renowned winemaker in the employ of a Texas winery.

At a recent tour and tasting in Fall Creek Vineyard’s barrel-aginimg_2833g facility, Sergio shared four award-winning Texas Hill Country wines and four barrel samples.  Frankly, the top two wines we tasted here represented the only Bordeaux and Burgundy style wines from Texas that I have tasted which are on a par with those from their respective French appellations.

Here is a synopsis:

FCV Vintners Select Sauvignon Blanc, Texas 2016.   Vivid acidity (thanks to a July harvest, 2-3 months before Loire Valley harvests), lime and green apple on the nose and a full-bodied tropical fruit palate.  Very expressive, with expanding complexity as the glass was aerated.  90

FCV Terroir Reflection Chardonnay “Certenberg Vineyards” 2015.   Wow.  This one fooled the blind tasters in Houston, who were convinced it was from Burgundy!  16 months in French Oak, smooth and creamy but not an oaky butter-bomb like many Napa Chard’s.  Aroma and palate of pear and stone fruits, with tropical notes.  A touch of vanilla.  Great balance! 92

FCV Meritus, Texas Hill Country, 2013.  This Right-Bank Bordeaux blend (53% Merlot, 47% Cab Sauv) is a deep, dark ruby in color.  Beautiful aromas of dark berries, currant and vanilla.  Elegant round tannins and a medium-long finish.  This one earned a Gold medal in San Francisco last month against international competition.  92.

FCV Salt Lick Vineyard Tempranillo (2016, still in barrel).  Grown across the street from the famous Salt Lick Barbecue in Driftwood Texas, with a little more time in the barrel this is going to be a great Tempranillo.  Red fruit, tobacco and structured tannins – much like Tempranillo from Rioja.  89

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An Afternoon of Texas Boutique Wines

11 Feb

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In January 2017 Texas appellation wines were awarded 158 medals at the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.  These medals included an unprecedented seven “Best in Class” awards as well as dozens of double-golds, golds, silvers and bronzes.  And it was just five years ago that Texas earned its very first double-gold!  The impressive showing last month did not surprise me – over the past few years I have written a few blog posts on Texas wines, and it seems that every time I return they get better.

This year, with 6 weeks to spend visiting wineries (and barbecue joints!) I am taking my time and delving deep into Texas-style food and wine.  Last week I found two off-the-beaten-track family owned estate wineries.  In both cases the owners are knowledgeable of wine and viticulture and have planted varietals that thrive in the hot, dry terroir of the Hill Country.

Hill Country Cellars Winery, owned by a former Navy aviation tech and his customer-service pro wife, offered a deep plum colored Malbec with layers of red fruit, plum and vanilla oak on a foundation of soft tannins.  Rich and smooth, I would have guessed this was produced in Mendoza.  And the price, less than $20/bottle, was very attractive.  Their Rosé of Shiraz was fruity and silky, but lacked the acidity of a refreshing French rosé.  The Chardonnay was surprisingly good given the warm climate.  Very pale gold in color and made in the Burgundian style, fermented in stainless steel tanks with zero malolactic fermentation, the tropical fruit flavors of a warm-climate Chardonnay are allowed to shine through.  A clean fruit finish.  Again, the price point is surprisingly low, at under $20.

Almost hidden on the scenic Highway 90 just east of Hondo, Vines on the Rocks is a boutique vineyard specializing in Tempranillo and Black Spanish (Lenoir) grapes (perfect fits for the local hot climate and rocky terroir).  Owner Mike Brawley skillfully manages his vineyards which surround the winery, and makes Tempranillo in the style of Rioja, with lush dark fruit and a hint of cigar box.  This year’s vintage (2015) is called Toreador’s Temptress, with beautiful dark plum up-front and hints of chocolate and cedar.  Snacks are offered in the tasting room and selected offerings from other Texas wineries are available as well.  Mike had deep knowledge of the local terroir and vineyard management, and it was a pleasure learning from him while sipping the delicious Toreador’s Temptress.

Over the next couple of weeks I will be visiting many more Texas wineries and am sure to find more delicious bargains!toreadors-temptress