The Story of Carménère and a Perfect Pairing

11 Jan


Having spent the past couple of weeks in Texas, arguably the barbecue capital of the world, I am compelled to share the story of Carménère, considered the national grape of Chile and known throughout the world as an ideal wine to pair with barbecue.  It was a happy surprise to find this bottle of 2012 Los Vascos Grande Reserva Carménère in a small south Texas town near the Rio Grande.

While not widely known in the United States, Carménère is to Chile as Malbec is to Argentina, and is one of the six varieties that are allowed for use in making red Bordeaux wines.  While born on the left bank of Bordeaux, Carménère really came into its own with the climate and terroir of the Chilean wine regions.  The grape is persnickety in the French climate and is rarely seen in Bordeaux wines these days.  A few cuttings were fortuitously imported into Chile in 1850 and, ironically, for a century the variety was mistaken for a late-ripening Merlot (and at times is still seen to be mislabeled as Merlot).  Chile is one of the few areas in the world that have remained free of Phylloxera, which caused The Great French Wine Blight and nearly wiped out the French wine industry in the 1860’s.  Because of this, Carménère from Chile is still grown from old Bordeaux rootstock rather than being grafted and cloned off of American rootstock as are most wines today.

The management of Los Vascos vineyards and winemaking was taken over in 1988 by Domaines Baron de Rothschild (Lafite), one of the four Premier Cru’s named in Napoleon’s 1855 Classification which ranked Bordeaux’ best wines from first to fifth growths (crus).  As one of the top wine producers in France, Lafite Rothschild is an ideal fit to bring about the full expression of this old Bordeaux varietal.  The oversight of Los Vascos’ vineyards and winemaking was not the first time Lafite’s wines crossed paths with the new world:  on the eve of the French revolution when Lafite was at the height of its winemaking legacy, Thomas Jefferson, future President of the United States, waxed poetic about its wines and became a lifelong customer.

The 2012 Los Vascos Grande Reserva Carménère has been aged 12 months in oak, with at least 60% of the barrels being new oak, which has the greatest concentration of oak flavors and tannins.  The vineyard is in the Colchagua Valley, one of Chile’s best known wine appellations and highly regarded for its full-bodied Malbecs, Cabernet Sauvignons and of course Carménères.  This is a rich and full expression of Carmenére, with a deep purple hue and medium body.  Red fruits on the nose, with a smooth palate of plum and blueberry and a long finish of dark chocolate and soft tannins.  I see this as a 90 to 92 rated wine.  There were 13000 cases produced in the 2012 vintage, so should still be widely available.  My recommendation is to grab some mesquite-smoked brisket or beef ribs and a bottle of Los Vascos.  Cheers!


The Fine Wines of Tombstone

2 Jan


Having spent the past 2 weeks in tasting rooms from Napa to Santa Barbara to Temecula to the Sonoita Arizona AVA, I was not expecting to encounter wines of commensurate quality and character in Tombstone…  And then I found Silver Strike Winery!

In the heart of historic Tombstone, Silver Strike is just steps away from the famous OK Corral and maintains an old-west feel and a comfortable ambiance.  And the wine is (really!) outstanding.   The varietals and blends here are mostly made from grapes grown in America’s newest Viticulture Area – the Willcox AVA, which was just certified in October 2016.  As in the Sonoita AVA about 50 miles to the west, the Willcox vineyards produce excellent Mediterranean grape varieties.  Like Sonoita, the vineyards are quite southerly in latitude, but at almost a mile high in elevation they offer a combination of warm, sunny days and very cool nights.  In addition, the arid climate stresses the vines which helps bring about more intensive flavors in the grapes.

Owners and winemakers Jann and Hank Bengel take great pride in their wine making, using biodynamically grown grapes and all natural wine-making processes, with NO added sulfites.  The resulting wines are complex, smooth and balanced.  I would love to see their Cab or Zin-Syrah blend sent in to Robert Parker or Wine Spectator; I bet they would score over 90 points.  Assistant Winemaker Brittany was manning the Tasting Room when I visited, and she was a wealth of knowledge regarding the viticulture and oenology behind the wines.  She finished the tasting session by offering their deep, rich 5 year old Syrah based Port, which is fortified with an Italian brandy and worth every penny of the $100 per bottle cost.  Other wines that stood out:

  • 2013 Big Bore. This Sangiovese is light in body and color, and more complex than many young Sangiovese varietal wines.  Aroma and flavor notes of strawberry and sour cherry, with a touch of pepper on the back pallet.  8.5/10
  • 2013 Deep Core Cab. This was the first wine that really surprised me.  The fresh burst of cassis and dark plum is beautifully balanced with round tannins and low acidity.  Delicious on its own but would pair very well with roast meats.  9/10
  • 2013 Tempest. A Tempranillo in the Rioja style.  Aged in raw French Oak with surprising complexity, there are clear notes of dark berries, plum and white pepper with a medium finish of soft tannins and leather.  9/10
  • Zinful Ways. 78% Zinfandel and 22% Petite Sirah.  This medium bodied ruby wine blew me away with its depth of flavor.  Berry jam on the nose, red and black berries and spice on the palate and a beautiful long finish. 9+

All in all, the Silver Strike tasting room and wines could proudly stand on their own in any winemaking region in California.

The Wines of Arizona’s Original AVA

31 Dec


The popularity of wine in the United States has soared since 1976 when California wines won “the judgment of Paris”.   In this Paris blind tasting some of the best whites and reds of France were pitted against those feisty upstarts in California, and by large margins the U.S. won in both categories – Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay against Burgundy’s best and Stag’s Leap’s Cabernet Sauvignon against some of the best houses of Bordeaux.  Since that momentous (for the wine world) event, vineyards and wineries have proliferated across the United States, and now wine is made in every state in the union.

Of course, many of the wines from states other than California, Oregon, Washington and New York are touristy novelties rather than serious high quality wines: usually sweet and many times made from whatever fruits and berries are indigenous to the winery’s home state.  At one time, Arizona wines were considered by many to be novelty wines.  That all changed when much vaunted wine critic Robert Parker, founder of the Wine Advocate, awarded a 1993 red blend from Sonoita’s Callaghan Vineyards with 92 points – a high honor indeed.

Today, there are over 110 wineries in Arizona, and many have won awards and global recognition.  There are two AVA’s (American Viticulture Area) in Arizona: the Sonoita AVA,  established in 1984 and the origin of 74% of all Arizona grapes and, as of Sept 2016, the brand new Willcox AVA.  During my tour of the Sonoita area I sampled wines from four wineries and found that many of the wines, particularly reds, were outstanding.  Sonoita AVA’s latitude is significantly south of the best new- or old-world vineyards, but at almost 5000′ of elevation the nights here are cool and hang time (length of time before harvest) is longer than at most California vineyards.  This hang time and the warm summer days result in grapes of intense flavor.

Of note were the Rhone-based blends of Sonoita Vineyards and Italian varietals of Lightning Ridge Cellars.  Sonoita Vineyards was the first commercial winery in the region, and currently produces about 4000 cases per year from over 60 acres of vineyards.  Tasting room rep Mercé was knowledgeable and informative, and the room was cozy and inviting, with samples of olive oils and wonderful balsamics as well.  The wines:

  • 2013 Buddy D’s ZinGioVe.  A blend of 60% Sangiovese and 40% Zinfandel.   Light to medium body with red fruit on the palate, good acidity, and touches of pepper and tobacco.  9 out of 10
  • 2013 MeCaSah.  A fruit forward blend of Merlot, Cab Sauv and Syrah, with a light oaky finish.  Very smooth tannins.  8.5
  • 2013 Malbec.  Loads of black fruit with a touch of cigar box on the midpalate.  Delicious!  9
  • 2015 Mission.  Mission grapes were some of the first wine grapes in the new world, brought to us by, you guessed it, missionaries.  Most mission grape vineyards are now long gone, but Sonoita has brought this varietal back, producing a unique semi-sweet red with bright red fruit and cedar spice.  8.5 and very interesting!

Lightning Ridge Cellars was a real treat.  Owners Ann and Ron Roncone established the winery in 2005 and their love for, and dedication to, making fine wines is abundantly evident.  Ron served me some of the best Italian varietal wine I have had in our country.    They do one thing differently than most wineries I have visited:  they sufficiently age the wines before putting them on the tasting menu.  Tasting a red that has seen 3 to 4 years in oak barrels is a much smoother and more balanced experience than is found in most tasting room offerings.   Some highlights:

  • 2011 Dolcetto. This Italian varietal is little known outside of the Piemonte in Northwestern Italy.  Lightning Ridge’s offering is made with grapes sourced from Temecula and is lighter than Italian versions, with smooth tannins (thanks to five years of aging?) and low acidity.  Medium-bodied with plum on the nose and palate, with a light oaky finish.  8.5 out of 10.
  • 2013 Sangiovese.  The classic grape of Tuscany grows well in southern Arizona!  Aged 32 months in oak (50% new), with characteristic notes of sour cherry and dried rose petals.  Medium ruby, very smooth and eminently drinkable.  9.
  • 2012 Montepulciano.  A popular varietal in Tuscany that is rarely grown in the U.S., Sonoita Vineyards brings out the best of the Montepulciano grape.  Probably my favorite of 18 wines tasted so far in Arizona, this 100% estate grown varietal is deep purple with medium to full body and complexity.  Dark fruit, tobacco leaf and a light peppery finish, with a foundation of soft tannins and alcohol level of 15.3%.  A delicious 9.5.

All in all, my impressions of the wines of Sonoita compare quite favorably with those I sampled in Temecula California (described in my post last week) and Santa Barbara.  Next week, I’m off to Arizona’s brand new AVA of Willcox.  Cheers!







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!


Inwood Estates Winery – Texas Hill Country Wine at its Best

14 Nov

The best thing about the Texas Hill Country is probably the beauty of the surroundings.  One of the prettiest areas of Texas, there are rocky hillocks, pretty streams and rivers all amidst a rolling countryside studded with post oak and cedar.   The next best thing about hill country is probably the wine (although the great barbecue joints are, collectively, a strong runner-up)!   

The southernmost AVA (American Viticulture Area) and also one of the largest at over 14,000 square miles, the Texas Hill Country has been growing in popularity as well as in viticulture and oenology skills for almost 30 years.  Many of the wineries in the area also blend grapes from other regions in Texas (most notably the high plains) to attain brighter acidity and increased complexity.  Several wineries in the Fredericksburg area stand out for producing excellent Texas wines, and my favorites of those I have tried, are probably Rancho Ponte, Messina Hof, Grape Creek Vineyards, and Inwood Estates.  One of these, Inwood Estates ( produces wine that is not only excellent by Texas standards, but is truly competitive with California as well as old world wines.  In fact, winemaker Dan Gatlin hosts “super tastings” where Inwood wines are comparatively tasted next to their equivalent old world examples.  Not just any examples, but the good stuff: a Premier Cru Chablis is tasted next to Inwood’s Chardonnay, for example.   

Inwood is somewhat of a pioneer in the area for growing and vinting Tempranillo, and this expertise shows in their Tempranillo varietal and blended wines.   During a tasting there yesterday, the friendly and professional tasting room host, Mary, provided us the 2012 Tempranillo which is an excellent equivalent to a Crianza from Rioja with the classic sour cherry fruit and a touch of spice.  When Mary learned that I was a Certified Specialist of Wine (Society of Wine Educators), she smiled and brought out a 2006 Reserve Tempranillo.  Wow!  I liked the young wine, but the aged (in French Oak) version was outstanding.  Soft tannins, earthiness and leather perfectly balance with the fruit.   Two other highlights of our tasting were a beautiful Margaux-style Bordeaux blend and a red dessert wine.  The Margaux style blend was not as restrained as the left bank examples but just as complex, with nice balance and medium long finish.   The “Rubyna” dessert wine is made in the Oporto style with Tempranillo and Cab Sauv fruit.  We simply had to buy some bottles of this – lush fruit, sweet without being syrupy, with a smooth finish; just a delightful sipping wine.

For anyone curious about new world wines outside of the typical California, South America or Australia standards, I highly recommend heading to the hill country of Texas.   And bring an appetite for barbecue – you won’t be disappointed.

#TexasWine, #TexasHillCountry

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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