Archive | Wine RSS feed for this section

Willcox – Arizona’s Wild-West AVA

27 Jan

Related image

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

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!

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

Torr Na Lochs – From Rocks to Wine

22 Mar


A Gaelic Name, A Purely Texan Winery

Torr Na Lochs (, 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


Old World Grapes, Texas Terroir and a Chilean Master Winemaker

26 Feb


Fall Creek Vineyards ( 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