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Temecula AVA Has Come a Long Way

28 Dec


Wine tasting in the Temecula Valley is a far cry from way back in 1984 when the AVA was established.  After fighting and, for the most part, winning a battle against Pierce’s Disease, wineries have proliferated.  Taking advantage of the cool nights with morning fog and long warm sunny days, local wineries have produced numerous wines with 90+ ratings.   Most of the wines I tasted tended towards old-world style with a bit of restraint, rather than the “fruit and oak bombs” for which many California wines are known.

I think the most surprising aspect of the area were, at least on a beautiful Monday during Christmas break, the crowds of visitors.  With over 30 wineries on the Temecula Valley Wine Area (TVWA) trail, it was rare to see one without a nearly full tasting room.  Many of the wineries, particularly South Coast, Ponte and Avensole, rival the largest and most popular of Napa Valley, with huge open tasting rooms, impressive European architecture and stunning views of the vineyards and surrounding mountains.   A nice contrast to Napa is the great number of wineries with restaurants and cafes.   Convoluted Napa laws prevent most wineries there from serving real food, and it’s nice to be able to enjoy the Temecula scenery and wines with a meal.

After researching the many possibilities on the TVWA trail, I chose Hart and Monte de Oro to visit.  Hart Winery is small and family-run with a reputation for high-quality Mediterranean varietal wines, while Monte de Oro is a much larger operation which attracts vans and buses of groups for tastings.  While Monte de Oro wines were excellent, I found the ratio of tasting room staff to visitors to be too low.  We received little attention and almost no depth of knowledge about the wines or winemaking methods.   On the plus side, the server noted my wine style preferences and helpfully suggested the wines she thought I would most prefer.

First stop was Hart Winery, with my favorites described below:

  • 2016 Arneis.  I was surprised to find this little-known white from Piedmont region of Italy here.   Pale gold in color, with floral and peach aromas,  this was a delicious and refreshing light-bodied wine that bears a strong resemblence to Muscadet from the western Loire Valley.  A great start to the tasting! 8 out of 10
  • 2013 Mouvedre.  A staple of southern Rhone blends, Hart’s version was a light ruby in color, with a nice bouquet of dark berries.  Medium-plus in body, due to the 14.5% ABV.  Angular tannins on the lingering finish.  7.
  • 2014 Tres Hermanos.  A typical Rhone GSM blend (50% Grenache, 33% Syrah, 17% Mouvedre), pale purple in color, a light body and clear taste of fresh cherries.  Very soft tannins.  Delicious!  8.5

At Monte de Oro, after jostling my way through the crowds to a small open spot at the tasting bar, I was served 6 wines, highlighted by two interesting blends and a wonderfully frizzante white :

  • 2012 Congruity.  A deep cranberry in color with aromas of berry jam, this Zin-Syrah blend was fruit-forward with a soft tannin structure and spice on the finish.  Probably the first time I’ve tried a blend of Zinfandel and Syrah, and the fruit of the Zin balanced nicely with the spice and depth of the Syrah. 8.5
  • 2012 Synergy.  This is a blend of the original 5 grapes planted in Temecula – Syrah, Merlot, Cab Sauv, Zinfandel and Cab Franc.  Cassis, dark berries, black pepper and sweet smoke, this complex blend has a long, balanced finish.  9
  • 2014 Bolle de Oro.  Bright silvery straw color. Peach and guava on the nose with flavors of melon and pear, a light acidity and lively effervescence.  Off-off dry and refreshing.  At only ~$20 per bottle, I  rate this 9 out of 10.

Overall, I found a day in Temecula to be delightful, with a bustling and historic downtown, dozens of good restaurant choices, and tastings (and views) that rival the more famous wine country to the north.  Cheers!



What a Great Group of People (@wine_educators)!

17 Aug

I just returned from the Society of Wine Educators’ 38th Annual conference in Seattle.  What a great group of people!  There was a profound difference between this conference, for which nearly all attendees are actively working in the industry, and every other conference I’ve ever attended – which number about two dozen, all in the manufacturing and energy industries.   Attendees were invariably happy, friendly and seemed unstressed.  These folks were laid back and clearly loved their jobs and their industry.  Nothing seemed to bother them, and they laughed.  A lot.  (Hmmm,  how can I get into this industry?!)

Total count of wines tasted was 99 by the end of the conference, from pretty much every significant wine producing region in the world.  Some general conclusions I came away with:

I definitely prefer New World wines.   Some of my new favorites are:

  • Barbera, particularly from Lodi,  a brightly acidic red with medium tannins and fruity berry and cherry notes (rich flavor from Lodi, more delicate from Piedmont.)
  • Carménère, from Chile’s Central Valley.  Lush and balanced, with dark berries and a hint of black pepper.  My sample was a RP 96 point wine, so it may not be representative of others, but it was amazing!
  • Tempranillo, from (believe it or not) Amador County CA.  A low acidity grape with medium tannins.  No strong fruit notes, but nice spice and tobacco on a core of dark plum.  This is the primary grape of the Rioja region, but the California sierra foothills produce a beautiful version.
  • Of course, my perennial favorite of Sonoma Coast/Russian River Valley Pinot was my favorite of the Pinot tasting session, where we sampled and learned about 8 regions known (or emerging) as good Pinot producers.

Barolos (well-aged) were stunning examples of the Piedmont’s Nebbiolo Grape, and I found almost every Barolo better than any of the Barbarescos – the other famous Nebbiolo-based Italian red.   Nebbiolo is quite tannic with characteristic notes of tar and roses, and needs lots of aging.  I found that I also liked the big Barolos better than the Sangiovese-based Brunellos of Tuscany.

Maybe not surprisingly given my California-honed palate, the Burgundies and Bordeaux were some of my least favorite wines.  Although there was one Grand Cru Classé (Saint Julien) from 1996 that was truly exceptional (but then, who can afford to regularly consume Grand Cru Classé Bordeaux??).  The 1st and 2nd growths were fine, but again, expensive.  Of the seven non-classified “Cru Bourgeois” (roughly translated as growths for the masses) from Bordeaux’ left bank which I sampled, none were above average.  I guess there is a reason these chateaux didn’t make the 1855 cut for one of the five classed Crus.

Speaking of Old World, the recent Rhone vintages are all great!  The Syrahs of northern Rhone have an ideal balance of structure and fruit – and all that I tried had interesting complexity – attained by selection and blending ratio of Syrah grapes from various terroirs.  The Southern Rhone has more stylistic flexibility of course, selecting (primarily) from Grenache and Mourvèdre as well as Syrah varietals.  The Director-General of Vidal Fleury brought 7 of their best for sampling, including a Chateauneuf-du-Pape GSM that was wonderfully delicate and complex.  Bottom line here, any 2009 – 2012 Rhone – northern (Syrah) or southern (GSM) is likely an excellent wine, and priced reasonably.

As one of my favorite varietals, I’ll talk a bit about Pinot Noir.   Almost every cool-climate grape growing region in the world has at least experimented with Pinot because Pinot clones are able to ripen and thrive in these climates – producing medium-alcohol, low-tannin fruity and approachable wines.  However, depending on the specific Pinot clone and the terroir of the vineyard, there are great variations in style, taste, acidity and mouthfeel.  Here’s what I found:

  • Burgundy is of course the standard for Pinot, and the Cote de Nuits that I tried had the characteristic cherry and berry muted fruit flavors with a touch of spice or tea.  The nose was characteristically multilayered and muted. The price was characteristically high.
  • Northern Italy produces flavors and body similar to Burgundy, but more aromatic and with perhaps brighter fruit.
  • Willamette Valley has a fuller body than the above, with similar “forest floor” aroma notes and ripe strawberry flavors and a nice touch of oak.
  • Patagonia Pinot has an unequaled aromatic intensity with soft fresh fruit and a long finish.  Supposedly these Argentinian Pinot’s can have a sugar beet flavor note, but I did not get that.
  • New Zealand is gaining fame for their sparklers, almost all of which are based at least partially on Pinot Noir, so it was not surprising that the two samples (Wairapa and Martinborough) I tried were pretty good,  a bit higher in acid than the other new world Pinots, they were lean yet with a dark rich color attributed to the high UV rays that hit the island.
  • Germany, the 3rd highest producer of Pinot (after France and the U.S.), produces lighter, leaner Pinots which have a green wood note and I found to have a bit of cocoa end note.
  • Again, my favorite was the Russian River Valley Pinot, with lush, rich dark fruit.  Lactic, with velvety tannins and a hint of cigar box spice, it was full bodied and wonderful.

The last interesting fact I’ll mention is the rapid growth to prominence of Chilean and Argentinian wines.  Chilean reds, primarily Cab, Merlot and Carménère (the “lost” grape of Bordeaux), are exceptional.  Chile is almost 3000 miles long, with the cooling effect of the Pacific Ocean and excellent diurnal variation, resulting in ripe wines with bright acidity and soft lush tannins.  Prices are currently rising, and many of the best wines I sampled are in the $80 – $120 range.  I mentioned Carménère earlier as one of my favorites, and these have come into prominence relatively recently.  For decades, this grape was thought to be a Merlot clone, and was thus harvested with the Merlot clusters (well, they LOOKED ripe!)  Actually the Carménère grape requires an additional 3 – 4 weeks to ripen, and now that they are harvested at the correct time, they have the right Brix and the seeds are no longer green.  The result is a wine with the structure of a Cabernet and the softness of a Merlot.

For anyone who wants to learn more and enhance their enjoyment of wine, the Society of Wine Educators offers a plethora of fun and interesting educational products. And, as a veteran conference-attendee, I can tell you that their conferences are truly unbeatable!

Wine and Food

10 Sep


Beringer Winery

The enjoyment of wine can be wonderfully improved when appropriately paired with food. A pretty obvious statement, right? Most wine drinkers have for years enjoyed a glass of wine or two with dinner and many of those people don’t give a second thought to how the wine improves the food while the food improves the wine. But that magic synergy really does (or can, depending on the pairing) occur!

Recently I took the “Taste of Beringer” tour at Napa’s oldest continuously operating winery. Beringer has been making wines since 1876, and is one of the most awarded wineries in Napa. Sampling the ’09 Knights Valley Reserve Cab and the ’10 Modern Heritage Chardonnay was a treat, particularly after experiencing a barrel tasting in the wine caves and tunnels. As good as the samples were, when paired with small food bites, the wines really came alive.

Have you wondered why Cabs…

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Mumm’s the Word

20 May

Mumm Napa terrace

I have a confession: I used to be a red wine snob.   Many years ago, after “graduating” from cheap rosé’s and sweet german whites, I discovered the interesting complexity of reds, and for years would drink a Cabernet Sauvignon with every type of food.   Fortunately, in recent years I’ve found how much more enjoyable wine can be when paired appropriately with food.  Still, I was never drawn to sparkling wines.  Until now.

Most of the wineries my wife, Arla, and I have explored in Napa and Sonoma produce big, tannic reds.  Traditionally, my kind of wines.    Our recent trip to Mumm Napa, in Rutherford, was (I thought) more for Arla than for me.  I was surprised  and delighted;  the afternoon we spent there tasting nicely aged sparkling wines (many of which are only available for purchase from the winery), browsing through the art galleries, and enjoying the amazing views of Napa Valley from the terrace, was one of the most enjoyable afternoons I’ve spent in wine country.

In 1979, the legendary French Champagne house of G.H. Mumm began a quest to find the ideal wine growing area in the U.S. for creating wine from traditional Champagne grapes – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – and using the traditional méthode champenoise.  After several years of searching, that ideal  terroir was found and Mumm Napa was established.  Mumm Napa sources Chardonnay grapes from the cool southern Carneros region and Pinot Noir grapes along the Napa River in the middle valley.   The cool nights and hot days result in lush and tropical Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir with bright berry concentrations.

On the terrace overlooking Napa valley, Arla and I sat down to sample some wines after touring the art galleries featuring photography by Ansel Adams.  Arla selected the tasting flight of Mumm Napa Classics for $18, including Brut Prestige, Brut Rose (A 90+ rated bubbly) and Cuvee M.  These were beautiful, light and fruity wines with a light creaminess that balanced the natural acidity.

I chose the Staff Favorites (Winery Exclusives) flight for $22, which comprised the Devaux Ranch 2008, Brut Reserve and DVX 2005.  As a bonus, our server provided us a glass of their exclusive sparkling Pinot Noir.  These selections were fantastic!  The DVX 2005 had a fruit-forward nose with a subtle biscuit flavor that was unlike any sparkling wine I’ve had.  The sparkling Pinot was even better.  This wine , like a traditional Pinot Noir, is fermented with the skins before it is then processed in the traditional method for sparkling wine.   The wine was a refreshing combination of a fruity pinot noir and a sparkling rose.  I now have a new favorite for summer afternoons and barbecue!