Friday, February 12, 2016

The Historic Madeira Wines of D'Oliveiras

During a recent epic trip to the island of Madeira earlier this month, I tasted a whole lot of wines. This small island (falling under Portuguese authority but located closer to Morocco) is home to just eight producers, and I visited six.

And the best was saved for last: Pereira D'Olveiras.

Formed in 1850, D'Oliveiras was a family firm that bought out six producers and exporters of Madeira and placed them under one umbrella. With 170 years as a company, D'Oliveiras has a large stock of very old and very rare wines (Bastardo from the 1920s, Verdelho and Moscatel from the 1800s). These wines are loved by collectors and respected by Madeira cognoscenti. But while the ancient wines deservedly cost a lot of money, D’Oliveiras produces stellar wines at all price points. They have a complex, nuanced approach to each classic style of Madeira.  

Unlike a lot of other producers on the island that bottle several different brands under labels for specific markets, D’Oliveiras is just D’Oliveiras. They stand by their name alone (with classic, old-school labels), producing some of the most profound fortified wines on the island, nay, the world.  

After a week of tasting Madeira, to be honest, I had to gather up my palate strength for this tasting. But once I set foot in this old warehouse in downtown Funchal, any fatigue dissipated. An aura of important history swept over me, and I felt energized, even honored, to be tasting such a stellar lineup of wines.

The tasting was absurd in the amount of phenomenal wines tasted in one sitting, which included a few of the best wines I've ever tasted in my life. My only problem was with the stemware. The glasses provided were those tiny tasting glasses with tapered rims, which makes it really hard to get your nose in there, and it accentuates the alcohol on fortified wines. I would've loved to taste these wines in proper stemware so I could really swirl and get the full tasting experience. Still - what a treat to taste these beauties.

Here are my notes from an epic tasting…

Light gold/orange color. Floral aromas with yellow apples. Fresh and vibrant, pleasantly salty, lovely dried fruits. A sense of honeyed and nutty richness but stays pure. Not the most complex wine but very nice stuff. (88 points)

1989 D'Oliveiras Madeira Sercial - Portugal, Madeira
Smells of cognac, caramel and orange peel. Silky but so bright and alive. Wow, this has insane acidity but it's also plush and smooth. Full of zesty citrus fruit and salty complexity. (93 points)

1977 D'Oliveiras Madeira Sercial - Portugal, Madeira
Light brown color. Gorgeous aromas of sea spray, almond, bitter lemon, orange peel, slight cheese rind. So bright and ripping, the acidity goes to 11 on this one. Flavors of orange peel, preserved lemon, dried honey, salted nuts, honeyed and spiced tea. Wow, this is gorgeous in its complexity. Very tart but balanced a bit by the weight and richness of the wine. Classic stuff. (95 points)

Casks of Madeira age and tower over the tasting room at D'Oliveiras.
1937 D'Oliveiras Madeira Sercial - Portugal, Madeira
Deep orange/tawny color. Smells of dried flowers, orange peels and honeycomb, along with grapefruit and tobacco — unique aromas. Such penetrating acidity on the palate, it's extreme. A total freak of a wine, perhaps the most crazily acidic wine I've ever tasted. The flavors are so cool and strange: old cigar, crusty sea salt, jetty rocks. I can't call this balanced, and I don't know what arbitrary number to throw at it. It was definitely a unique experience, although I could not drink a full glass of this.

2000 D'Oliveiras Madeira Verdelho - Portugal, Madeira
Smells of yellow apples and floral perfume. On the palate this is pretty and elegant with complex fruit flavors (peach nectar, juicy yellow apples, apricot jam), along with a host of non fruit elements: tropical flowers, almonds, sea salt and white tea. Complex, beautiful stuff. at 30 Euros, I had to buy a bottle for the cellar. (93 points)

1988 D'Oliveiras Madeira Verdelho - Portugal, Madeira
Aromas of floral perfume, Cognac, dried pineapples and apricots. Creamy palate, well-rounded and integrated with tartness from the acid. Yellow apples and apricot jam with notes of spice and sea spray. (91 points)

1971 D'Oliveiras Madeira Terrantez Colheita - Portugal, Madeira
Rocking aromas here: yellow apples, dried apricots, peach nectar, Cognac, salted almond and sea spray. Tart and bright on the palate, so tangy yet chewy, with rich orange peel and apricot. I also get cigar smoke, clover and wildflowers. A beautiful wine. (94 points)

Ridiculously good stuff. Holy shit.
1927 D'Oliveiras Madeira Bastardo - Portugal, Madeira
I am so blown away by this wine. It's not just intellectually and historically fascinating, it has amazing and haunting aromas and flavors, and the complexity is ridiculous. On the nose, I get dried fruits, nuts, surprisingly fresh flowers, salt air, white pepper, all of it nuanced and gorgeous. The palate is silky but tart, and I can't believe the liveliness, purity and vibrancy on this wine. The fruit is not just kicking, it comes out swinging with oranges, sliced pears and dried mango. The complex elements of smoke, nuts, spice and earth are profound. SO balanced and elegant, so long and pure. Unbelievable stuff. (98

1912D'Oliveiras Madeira Verdelho - Portugal, Madeira
There aromas are so cool: cigar smoke, old leather, savory spices, musk. Round and full but really zesty. Still vibrant, although not much fruit. This wine is all about the dried flower, nuts, leather jacket, cigar lounge and musk elements. The acid is keeps it lively. Wow. (95 points)

1890 D'Oliveiras Madeira Verdelho - Portugal, Madeira
A real treat to taste. I get some orange peel, honeycomb, caramel and green coffee aromas. So pure and smooth on the palate, I can't believe how balanced and precise this wine is. Filled with tobacco, peppper, floral spice, roasted chestnut and coffee bean. No real fruit here, but the other flavors are rocking and the wine stays bright and tangy. Long finish with notes of mineral and quinine. Wow. (97 points)

N.V. D'Oliveiras Madeira 15 Years Medium Sweet - Portugal, Madeira
Aromas of sweet caramel, apricot jam, pineapple cake and brown sugar. Juicy apple mixed with dried apricot. Spicy, floral notes with brown sugar and a medium-length, nutty finish. Really tasty stuff. (88 points)

1993 D'Oliveiras Madeira Boal - Portugal, Madeira
Smells of dates, figs and caramel. Hmm, on the palate, this is a bit off. It's not corked, but it's strange, funky and dusty. Acerbic , acrid, just strange. Not rated.

1982 D'Oliveiras Madeira Boal - Portugal, Madeira
OK, this one's on point. Rich aromas of trail mix, honey and dried apricots. Bold style but still bright and well-integrated. Dates, figs, caramel, nuts and honey, all of it balanced and smooth. (92 points)

1968 D'Oliveiras Madeira Boal - Portugal, Madeira
Aromas of orange marmalade, dried apricots, sweet caramel, clove and floral potpourri. Tart and zesty on the palate, this is a bold but sharp wine. Flavors of apricot jam, almond, coffee, spiced tea, floral perfume, and a mix of candied and salted nuts. (93 points)

1908 D'Oliveiras Madeira Boal - Portugal, Madeira
I really wanted to freak out about this wine. I mean, I like it a lot, but it's quite austere. Very sharp aromas, some caramel and nuts rise above the volatile acidity. Rich and dense on the palate, it tastes very roasted and baked, like coffee cake, baked figs and hot caramel. The volatile acidity is quite sharp. Interesting stuff, but (for my palate) this isn't a sip-a-whole-glass kind of Madeira. (88 points)

N.V. D'Oliveiras Madeira 15 year old Sweet - Portugal, Madeira
Aromas of brown sugar, apricot jam and caramel. Sweet and plump on the palate, juicy and sugary with sweet dates, fig paste and caramel. A bit simple, but tasty and fun. (87 points)

2002 D'Oliveiras Madeira Malvazia Colheita - Portugal, Madeira
Nose of bright flowers (quite fresh for a Malvasia). Juicy and sweet but not too brown sugary or baked. More nuanced floral and honey flavors. (90 points)

1991 D'Oliveiras Madeira Malvazia - Portugal, Madeira
Gorgeous aromas of dried flowers, spiced tea and clover honey. Sweet, plush, smooth and sexy on the palate. Rich but put together so well. Yeah, this is popping. Finishes with delicious flavors of brown sugar and sticky buns. (93 points)

1901 D'Oliveiras Madeira Malvazia - Portugal, Madeira
Deep gold/light orange color. Smells of sweet caramel, spiced tea, clove and cinnamon. Full and rich but the acidity is precise. Flavors of dates and figs are still going strong. Complex elements of salted almond, wax, wood polish. Long finish. Still going strong but the focus is on point. (94 points)

The 1850 was the best wine I've ever tasted.
1875 D'Oliveiras Madeira Moscatel Reserva (Portugal, Madeira)God, what a cool wine. Smells of dried pineapple, sweet clove, cherry wood, menthol, eucalyptus and leather, all of the aromas of complex, nuanced and exciting. Sweet but balanced on the palate, this is wacky good. Leather, coffee, cherry wood, dusty library, herbal bitters, eucalyptus, vapor rub, these flavors are uniquely and complex. The wine is seamless on the with its richness and acidity. Crazy-long finish. (97 points)

1850 D'Oliveiras Madeira Verdelho - Portugal, Madeira
It's so difficult to wrap my head around an historic wine like this. First of all, it's an intellectually fascinating experience, which evokes dreams of centuries past. I won't claim to be able to separate the historical significance of the wine from the sensory experience of tasting the wine. But, tasting the wine itself is one of the most amazing experiences in my wine lifetime. I'll attempt to describe this thing. First off, it still has fruit on the nose, kind of like quince paste and preserved lemon, but I get complex elements of clove, old furniture shop, cigar smoke and wood varnish. On the palate, this wine shows a pleasant bitterness, while the sweetness balances perfectly with the high acidity. One flavor evolves into another, and into another, and then back again, like a blissful circle. I'll throw some words at a few of these flavors: caramel, varnished wood, cigar box, candle wax, leather, sea salt, yellow raisins, candied lemon peel, old library books, sweet floral potpourri, spiced tea. The complexity is ridiculous. So, this is an incredible intellectual experience in and of itself, but the aromas and flavors of this wine are ethereal. Perhaps the best thing to ever grace my palate. (99 points)

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Galerie Wines: Portraits of Place in Sonoma & Napa

Laura Diaz Munoz. Credit: Galerie Wines
This post first appeared in the daily wine blog Terroirist.

Through her solo project, Galerie Wines, Laura Díaz Muñoz offers up a series of varietal wines, two Sauvignon Blancs and two Cabernets, one apiece from Knights Valley and Napa Valley. The grapes are treated the same way, with the same amount of skin contact, same winemaking methods, same barrel regimen, which allows the wines to speak to their different origins. The Knights Valley wines come from Kellogg Vineyard, while the Napa Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet come from a variety of sites around Napa.

Both Sauvignon Blancs were handled the same way in the cellar. Half whole-cluster pressed, the juice was then racked into a mix of concrete eggs, stainless steel and new and used French oak. The wine was then aged on the lees for six months, with lees stirring done twice a week. Both Cabernets are 100% Cab are aged 19 months in 55% new French oak.

Laura is no newb to these grape varieties. After studying food science as an undergraduate and receiving a graduate degree in enology from Polytechnic University in Madrid, she worked in Sauvignon Blanc hotbeds of New Zealand and Chile. Laura then joined up with Chris Carpenter, (who produces some incredible Napa Cabernets under the Cardinale, La Jota and Mt. Brave labels) and became the assistant winemaker.

At a dinner with Laura last year, she told me she’d never been to California before accepting the gig with Chris. But she fell in love with Napa, and stuck around, though she travels back to Spain frequently to visit her family.

After working with Chris, Laura said she wanted a project that was fully her own, a wine label that would bare her unique signature. Laura says she and Chris share a similar winemaking philosophy. They both use wild fermentation and Galerie uses the same coopers as Chris, but Laura says she prefers a bit less oak and brighter red fruits in her wines (a preference that rings true in Laura’s Cabernet).

While Galerie’s focus is on Cab Sauv and Sauv Blanc, in 2014 Laura crafted one heck of a Riesling. The Spring Mountain Riesling was the first time she’s worked with this grape, but said she was thrilled about the prospect. Spring Mountain seems to produce some really high quality Riesling, and this one stunned me. (Smith-Madrone comes to mind as another example). The fruit comes from a very small plot (less than two acres), so there’s not much to go around. The wine is slightly off-dry, but the intense acid needs a slight bit of sweetness to tame it (and Laura maintains it helps lift the aromatics as well).

Taken together, these five wines comprise quite a portfolio. These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

2014 Galerie Sauvignon Blanc Equitem - California, Sonoma County, Knights Valley
SRP: $30
A bright, crisp appeal on the nose, with complex floral perfume and white pepper on top of sliced green apples and tangerines. Crisp and crunchy palate but some creaminess adds texture and depth to the wine. Orange peel, green apples, green pears, the fruit is crisp but ripe, and matched with hints of chalk, crushed rocks, sea spray, raw almond and a hint of white pepper. Long, lingering finish with a sense of pure minerality, this is a vibrant and exciting Sauvignon Blanc. (91 points)

2014 Galerie Sauvignon Blanc Naissance - California, Napa Valley
SRP: $30
Lovely floral, green apple, lime and sea salt notes on the nose. On the palate, this has a creamy presence but precision comes from pure, clean acidity. Fresh green apples and limes mix with papaya, and the fruit is laced with notes of sea salt, river rocks, minerals, dried white flowers. Hints of waxy, honeyed notes, but this is a bright and refreshing wine with a lot of complexity. Lots of seemingly contradictory elements to ponder, but the whole is so balanced and integrated. (90 points)

2014 Galerie Riesling Terracea - California, Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District
SRP: $30
Aromatically firing, this is bold but elegant with bright honeysuckle, lilies, salty air and cucumber water on top of sliced limes and nectarines. Crisp and edgy on the palate but some very moderate sweetness to balance out the bright acid. This is a precise but exuberant Riesling with complex flavors of crunchy green apples, nectarine, pears and peaches. I also get crusty sea salt, honeysuckle, sliced cucumber and minerals, there is a whole lot going on with this Riesling. I'm very interested to see how this wine will age, but this is beautiful right out of the bottle. (91 points)

2012 Galerie Cabernet Sauvignon Latro - California, Sonoma County, Knights Valley
SRP: $50
Deep purple color. Nose of tart blueberries and rich currants, the fruit is smooth and ripe but bright at the same time, and laced with sweet spice, pepper, loamy soil, coffee and cola. This is a young, bold wine with sturdy but velvety tannins, some moderate acid keeps if refreshing, though. Blackberries, blueberries, black currants, a rich wine but it maintains a slice of tartness. Mixed in with complex elements of graphite, mocha, loam, roasted chestnut, black licorice and charcoal. Complex, young, needs time but this is gorgeous even at this young age. All Cabernet, aged 19 months in 55% new French oak. Great stuff. One of the best Cali Cabs I can remember in this price range. (92+ points)

2012 Galerie Cabernet Sauvignon Pleinair - California, Napa Valley
SRP: $50
Rich purple color. Dark and saucy on the nose, the blackberry and currant fruit is rich but suave, and I get complex elements of violets, sarsaparilla, birch bark and rocky soil. A whole lot to unwrap on the nose. Bold presence on the palate but also quite silky; the tannins are smooth and fine and the medium acid keeps it all moving forward. Fresh currant, black cherry and plum skin mixes with violets, loamy soil, fallen leaves, eucalyptus, cedar, hints of peppery spice. A lot going on here, but the wine stays open and inviting in spite of its richness and youthful complexity. I’d love to lay this down for five to eight years, but it’s a beauty. (92 points)

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Six Things You Must Taste in Madeira

If you’re visiting Madeira, get ready for a dizzying amount of sensory input. Visually, this volcanic island located between Portugal and Morocco is one of the most striking and extreme places I’ve seen. The water stays warm all year round, and it feels refreshing and crystal clean on the skin. The scent of sea salt pervades the island, and everywhere you go you can smell someone cooking something delicious. Walking around the main city of Funchal, you’ll hear fast-paced Portuguese interspersed with the Queen’s English from well-off British tourists.

And then there’s the food. Holy shit. You must taste Madeira to know Madeira. Luckily, we need food and drink to survive, and Madeira has an absurd amount of delicious options.

I just returned from a trip to Madeira with several wine enthusiasts and a DC-based restaurateur, and we were all consistently impressed with the quality of the food and the innovation of the dishes. Be prepared to eat often and well.

There are, however, several foods and beverages that should not be missed by any traveler. If you’re visiting Madeira, and you’re a human who consumes food and alcohol, here’s your checklist.


Growing up on the sea and exploring lots of sea food all over the world, I thought I knew a whole lot about ocean life. But lapas were new to me. I’m now a huge fan of these crazy sea creatures.

Lapas (or limpets) are a species of mollusc that grow on the deep underwater cliffs of Madeira. They are similar to barnacles, but have a muscular foot on their underside, which make them capable of minor movement. Here, as the volcanic rock drops off to the cold sea floor, lapas have all they need to grow to impressive size. When removed from the rock, the muscle underneath the shell is big enough to turn into food.

They are both completely different from oysters and similar to oysters in some ways. (One Madeira restaurateur told me locals call them Madeira oysters). They can be consumed raw (unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity) or cooked. They only have a shell on one side, and they are eaten by picking up the shell and sucking out the protein, although they need to be chewed when cooked. Their texture reminds me more of little neck clams, although the flavors of lapas are stronger than most clams I’ve tasted.

The lapas are usually put on the grill in their half-shells. They’re cooked with olive oil or butter, usually with garlic and a simple dose of salt and pepper. The olive oil seems to bring out the natural brininess, while the butter adds a perfect amount of richness to the intense oceanic flavor. Taste both types. Then, the next day, repeat.   

Bolo do Caco

From the Portuguese Breads blog, which has a great recipe here.
This is the bread of Madeira. Eat it. And then eat some more of it. It’s absolutely delicious. It’s made with wheat flour and sweet potato, so the bread has a rich texture and a subtle but sweet earthiness.

I ate Bolo do Caco on six or eight different occasions, and each interpretation was different but wonderful. Some bread was crispy on the outside with a slight char but smooth on the inside. Some were more doughy and soft. Some had been drizzled with olive oil, some dusted with oregano or other spices.

The bread is great on its own, dipped in olive oil or whipped butter, but it’s also a great consistency for sopping up the delicious sauces from the main course.

Scabbard Fish

If you get a chance to check out the fish market in Funchal, do it! So cool to see these crazy-ass sea monsters in person.

The scabbard fish is one ugly sonofabitch. I never knew such a bad-ass sea beast existed.

Even though Madeira is an island in the middle of the Atlantic, it has relatively few options when it comes to fish. The waters around the island drop off quickly and deeply — there are not many reefs or shallow waters conducive to diverse fish life. Fisherman venture out for grouper and tuna, but these fish are not nearly as prominent or plentiful as the scabbard.

The people of Madeira are very proud of this fish. Considering it lives in such a unique environment, the fish is something of a Madeira native itself, and the connection between the people and this fish is strong. Madeirans serve scabbard fish in many ways and use all of its parts — the roe is white (and delicious) and the heads are used for a tasty fish soup. The flesh is tender and tastes salty, briny and delicious. Because the fish is so common, most everyone cooks it well. This is not a dish you’re likely to find in many other places, so be sure to check it out.

Passion Fruit

A typical Madeira fruit stand has all sorts of incredible stuff, including several types of passion fruits (right to bottom right).
Eight different varieties grow on the island, and their flavors are as dynamic as their colors and shapes. The lemon passion fruit (as its name may indicate) is the brightest and zestiest of them all (and my favorite), but all types are delicious. Like the grapes and other fruits grown on this island, the fruit boasts bright, lip-smacking acidity, but the sweetness of the passion fruit keeps it balanced.

The market in downtown Funchal is in the heart of the shopping district, and it’s worth checking out for the fruit (and fish). Madeira is home to some incredible tropical fruits, but passion fruits are the most important to the island’s culture and cuisine. I must’ve tasted ten dishes that included passion fruit in some way, and each one was fantastic.


Poncha! Credit: Wikipedia.
Every island has its own rum drink, right? Meet Madeira’s. It’s white rum, fresh squeezed lemons and a bit of honey, but the drink is anything but sweet.

Actually, it’s probably the most acidic, mouth-puckering beverage I’ve ever tasted. And I friggin’ loved it. I sipped a poncho with Joe Roberts (a fellow wine writer who joined me on the trip), at a small bar in the middle of a steep valley in the center of the island. We took turns taking sips and proclaiming the drink the tartest cocktail humans have ever created.

Like seemingly everything on the island, the lemons have a pervasive sense of sea salt — which I love. The drink seriously smells like lemons grown in middle of the ocean, which is pretty much what’s inside the glass. If you’re not as big an acid hound as I am, you may want to order the passion fruit version, which is still tart but shows lots of tropical juiciness. These drinks are served in bars all around the island, but to get the full experience, you should stop at one of the poncha shacks peppered around the island’s interior. Order a poncha. Stare up at the volcanic mountains. You will understand.


Madeira wine is some of the best in the world. (Here’s my primer on Madeira wine, and stay tuned for a series of upcoming posts from extensive wine tastings on the island). But if you’re visiting Madeira, I would recommend tasting as much Sercial wine as possible. 

Sercial is the driest style of Madeira and (perhaps with the exception of Verdelho) the most versatile when it comes to pairing with food.  I tasted several Sercials with several fish dishes, and each one was a delicious and intriguing pairing.

Sercial shows bright citrus flavors, sea breeze, sea salt, lemon and orange peels, and floral notes. Sound good? It is. Sercial also ages incredibly well, gaining all sorts of briny, nutty complexity as it evolves over decades. If you can get your palate on some vintages from the 40s-70s, please taste them. They are unparalleled in the world of wine. 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Pre-Madeira Trip Tasting: Blandy's 10-Year

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

Well, I’m headed off to Madeira tomorrow. I’m more than a bit stoked for this trip — this volcanic island jutting out of the Atlantic has been on my bucket list for years. I’ll be there for a week, tasting wine, touring vineyards, taking in the views and taking lots of notes.

When I get back, I'll have a series of posts exploring this storied island and its eponymous wines.

In the meantime, and to get things kicked off, I recently tasted through four Madeiras from renowned producer Blandy's. I previously tasted through Blandy’s 5-Year Madeiras, and I took the excuse of being snowed in by Winter Storm Jonas to taste through the 10-year wines from this producer.

All of these wines are aged 10 years in old American oak. These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted. They all retail for about $35 for a 500ml bottle.

N.V. Blandy's Madeira Sercial 10 Years Old - Portugal, Madeira
Medium gold color. Smells of orange peel, apricot, shaved ginger, almond and a mix of floral and slight herbal notes. Full and rich on the palate, but like a good Sercial the acid cleans it all up and keeps the wine fresh despite the richness. Flavors of baked apple and orange peel, topped with raw almond, ginger, dried white flowers, sea salt. Bold but so refreshing. I love Sercials for the way the bright crunchy aspects are integrated well with the richer flavors. (90 pts.)
Light orange-caramel color. Some bright aromas of orange peel and lemon zinger tea mixed with elements of raw almond, olive oil, honey and caramel candies. Full but juicy on the palate with a bit of tanginess, light sweetness but the wine stays fresh. Orange marmalade, honeyed lemon tea, almond, olive oil, dried flowers – this has a lot of really intriguing flavors. Rich but nicely balanced – what I look for in Verdelho. (90 pts.)

N.V. Blandy's Madeira Bual 10 Years Old - Portugal, Madeira
Light brown/dark orange color. Richer aromas of quince paste, dried apricot, honey, toasted almonds and clove. Rich texture, plenty of sweetness but that’s balanced (at least somewhat) by a bitof acidity. Nutty and honeyed flavor profile with flavors of apricot jam, dried mango, along with toasted almond, white tea, candied pecans, some spicy clove elements. I love the sweet richness, but the wine doesn’t feel overwhelming. A sweet wine that finishes fresh. (89 pts.)

N.V. Blandy's Madeira Malmsey 10 Years Old - Portugal, Madeira
That classic copper brown color. Aromas of dates, fig paste, spiced pumpkin pie, caramel, honey, and a floral note lifting from the richness. Mouth-filling and unctuous on the palate but there’s a hint of freshness. Flavors of dates and figs blend with orange marmalade, molasses, honeycomb, pecan pie, clove and rich nougat. Rich but complex and ultimately damned enjoyable without being too heavy.
(90 pts.)

Friday, January 29, 2016

More California Pinot Noir, Please!

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

California Pinot Noir needs no introduction, so, let’s get down to business. 

Since my last report on California Pinot Noir, I've tasted a bunch of good stuff. A lot of these wines hail from 2013, a warm and dry vintage that seems to have produced some concentrated but smooth Pinots all over. Some age-worthy 2012s found their way into this tasting, and I’m looking for good things in 2014 as well.

The wines were all received as trade samples and tasted single-blind, except for the first two rosés, which were tasted sighted.

2012 Riverbench Vineyard & Winery Cork Jumper Rosé Blanc de Noirs - California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley
SRP: $45
Very pale copper color. Aromas of rich cherries, tart white cherries and raspberry tea mixed with a smoky mineral and talc note, also some mushroom and musk perfume — this has a lot going on for it. Gorgeous texture on the palate with fine bubbles, such refreshing acid. White cherries, wild strawberries, some red currant tea, interesting savory elements (mushroom, black tea, tobacco) mix in with classic biscuit and yeasty notes, some raw almond and crushed nutshells. Deep and complex, this could do some fun things in four or five years. Unique in its non-fruit complexity. 100% Pinot Noir. Tasted sighted. (91 points)

2014 La Voix Pinot Noir Rosé "She's Crafty" - California, Central Coast, Sta. Rita Hills
SRP: $30
Bright strawberry candy colored. Floral and peppery notes add to the rich strawberry, white cherry and red apple aromas. Medium-plus-bodied, bright acid, a rich and velvety presence on the palate. Tangy red and white cherries, raspberry, strawberry, watermelon, the fruit is rich but shows some crunchiness. Notes of pepper and nutshell add complexity. This is not a light-bodied, zesty rose, this is a heartier version with some punch, but it maintains an attractive sense of freshness. Well-done stuff. Who said rosé was just a summer thing? I’d drink this any winter day. Tasted sighted. (88 points)

SRP: $45
Juicy ruby color. Bright and vibrant aromas of juicy black cherries, raspberries, sweet strawberries, along with an attractive mix of richer elements (toast, mocha) and bright notes (rose petals, rhubarb, white pepper). Rich texture, velvety tannins, moderate acid, a forward, chewy wine. Juicy black cherries, raspberries and strawberry jam, laced with rich cola, coffee and sweet toffee notes, but also white pepper, rhubarb, tobacco and mint. Long, creamy finish. A rich wine but lots of fun, it sports significant complexity. Drink-me-now style, but perhaps it would be worth holding onto for a few years. Aged 12 months in 10% new French oak. (88 points)

2014 Inconceivable Wines Pinot Noir “The Fog Prince” - California, Central Coast, Santa Barbara County
SRP: $25
Light ruby color. Smells of sweet raspberries and strawberry jam, some rose petals and red licorice. Full-bodied with chewy tannins, some moderate acid, a rich but juicy appeal. Black cherries, strawberry jam, the fruit is doused with some cedar, cola, red licorice and dusty earth notes. Bold and a bit jammy, but stays fresh and has enough non-fruit elements that it works out quite well for my palate. Ready to go but you could hold onto this for a year or three. Aged 10 months in new and old French oak. (87 points)

2013 Riverbench Vineyard & Winery Pinot Noir Estate Clone 115 - California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley
SRP: $46
Light rose color. Nose of tart red cherries, strawberries, mixed in with tobacco, menthol, rhubarb and white pepper. Medium-to-full bodied, actually quite rich and forward but balanced by refreshing acid and a dusty tannic structure. Tart red apples, strawberries and raspberries, the fruit is plenty ripe but crunchy around the edges. Refreshing and spicy with plenty of rhubarb, tobacco, white pepper, underlying limestone, mineral but richer notes of clove, birch bark and coffee as well. Plenty of structure but elegant and pleasurable at the same time. This Pinot is firing. Sees 60% new French oak but orchestrated well into the overall package. (91 points)

2012 La Voix Pinot Noir “Reflektor” Machado Vineyard - California, Central Coast, Sta. Rita Hills
SRP: $95
Vibrant ruby color. Smells like sweet raspberries, strawberry jam and juicy black cherries, along with roses, cola, root beer candies but also some spicy tobacco and fallen leaves. Full-bodied, a surprising acidic presence weaves it all together, some good grip to the tannins. Darker fruits here (black cherry, crunchy plums, some sweet blueberry and strawberry jam) but also notes of violets, sarsaparilla, coffee grounds, cedar shavings and mint. A more forward style, full of jammy fruit, but plenty of other elements to appreciate, and it stays lively and playful. I’d like to revisit this in a few more years because it seems a bit compact and hesitant. (91 points)

2013 La Voix Pinot Noir “Satisfaction” Kessler-Haak Vineyard - California, Central Coast, Sta. Rita Hills
SRP: $75
Light rose color. Bright and vibrant aromas, like wild strawberries and tart red cherries, this wine also has saucy, floral and earthy aspects that are seriously complex. A full-bodied wine, velvety but full tannins, the wine has a chewy presence but that’s balanced by this underlying freshness from the acidity. Tart red and dark berry fruits abound, but they're backed up by plenty of sweet flowers, perfume, sweet green herbs, along with richer notes of cola, cedar and clove. Lovely stuff, juicy but restrained. Complexity lies within, waiting for a few years in the cellar. (92 points)

2013 La Pitchoune Pinot Noir English Hill Vineyard - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Deep ruby color. Aromas of ripe, juicy black cherries, raspberries, tart strawberries, also some notes of pine sap, tobacco, white pepper, a spicy-herbal kick. Bright approach on the palate with tart raspberries, cherries and red plums, dusty tannins, plenty of structure, a bright acidic backbone that keeps the wine lively and tart. Notes of bay leaf, tobacco, white pepper, mixed in with richer elements of chocolate-covered cherries and cola. Deep underlying sense of earth and minerals. A beauty of a Pinot Noir that should improve for the next three to five years. Aged 11 months in 25% new French oak. (93 points)

2013 La Pitchoune Pinot Noir Holder Vineyard - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
Medium ruby colored. Aromas of jammy raspberries, tart summer plums and red currants, along with some earth and rosemary elements. Medium+ bodied, a velvety appeal with moderate acid, the balance is quite a thing. Tart plums mix with wild raspberries and richer strawberry jam flavors, and I get secondary notes of pine sap, green coffee, black tea. Velvety, smooth but stylish, rounded out with some earthy and saucy aspects that will surely evolve with time. 13.8% alcohol, aged 11 months in 25% new French oak. (92 points)

There are a lot of really solid Pinots coming out of Russian River in the 2013 vitage.
2013 J Vineyards & Winery Pinot Noir Nicole's Vineyard Russian River Valley - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
SRP: $65
Gorgeous ruby color. Vibrant aromatics, we’re talking cherries, raspberries, juicy strawberries, along with lively rose petals, rich earth and some interesting spice components (white pepper, clove?), the whole package is complex. A full-bodied wine with good tannic structure but the acid is refreshing and the wine slides along smoothly. Red plums, raspberry jam, juicy cherries, the fruit is matched with complex notes of roasted chestnut and toasted biscuits savory aspects (mushroom, fallen leaves?), and some baking spices (clove, cinnamon?). A gorgeous, silky finish. This is my favorite Pinot I’ve tasted from J. Aged 13 months in 30% new French oak. (93 points)

2013 J Vineyards & Winery Pinot Noir Russian River Valley - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
SRP: $40
Medium ruby color. Elegant aromas of cool red cherries, crisp red apples, juicy-tart strawberries, notes of rose hips, rhubarb, eucalyptus and clove. A fleshy and juicy wine, tart acid provides tang and nerve, velvety tannins for structure and a creamy-rich mouthfeel. The fruit is pure, ripe and crunchy (red currant, strawberry, red apple, raspberry). Bright and floral with waves of rhubarb, white pepper, violets, light roast coffee and eucalyptus, a wide array of non-fruit flavors. A deep sense of rose petals, sage and clay soil pervades this wine, adding nuance and complexity. Less intense than the 2013 Bow Tie, but for my palate I appreciate the tart, cooler approach. Aged 9 months in 30% new French oak. (90 points)

2013 J Vineyards & Winery Pinot Noir Bow Tie Vineyard Russian River Valley - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
SRP: $65
Light ruby color. The aromas are expressive, attractive and plentiful: raspberries, wild strawberries, rhubarb, cola, sweet caramel, clove and cherry wood. A rich and velvety wine on the palate, fleshy tannins and moderate acid, the raspberry, red cherry and strawberry jam flavors are ripe but show a bit of tartness around the edge. Notes of fire pit, roasted nuts, caramel, rose potpourri and cedar. This is a bold and full Pinot but shows a good amount of nuance, too. 14.6% alcohol, aged 13 months in 30% new French oak. (90 points)

2013 FEL Pinot Noir Savoy Vineyard - California, North Coast, Anderson Valley
SRP: $70
Electric ruby color. The cherry, strawberry and red currant aromas are peppered with notes of tobacco, bay leaf, tree bark and notes of mushroom — the aromas shift and evolve in the glass. A rich presence on the palate with medium-fine tannins, moderate acid, the fruit is velvety and rich (black cherry, strawberry, raspberry jam), accented by a nice mix of coffee, clove, tobacco barn, mushroom and sarsaparilla. Lovely rich texture but some sturdy backbone and maintains a fresh edge. Pretty now but I’d like to crack open a bottle in two or three years. 14.4% alcohol, this wine was aged 15 months in 60% new French oak. (91 points)

2014 William Hill Winery Pinot Noir - California, Central Coast
SRP: $18
Vibrant cherry color. Nose of sweet red cherries, sweet roses, ripe and juicy rasphberries with notes of cola and dusty soil. A rich and velvety appeal on the palate but some dusty tannic structure, medium-low acid. Juicy black cherries, raspberries and dark plums, the fruit is rich and a bit candied, tossed with toasted with oak, caramel, red licorice and espresso. A ripe and slightly candied style, but it’s still very attractive, smooth and appealing. From Santa Lucia Highlands and Edna Valley. (86 points)

2013 La Follette Pinot Noir North Coast - California, North Coast
SRP: $20
Medium ruby color. Smells of wild raspberries and cherries, some tartness but sweetness mixed in with notes of roses, cola and fallen leaves. Medium-bodied, medium acid, softer tannins than many of the others but enough to give it a light-silky texture. Juicy raspberry and strawberry fruit mixes with a sense of wet earth, fallen leaves and coffee grounds. Some sweet cola and roses as well. Juicy, fun, not too complex but quite tasty with some unique earthy aspects. (86 points)   

MacMurray's entry-level Pinot is a lot of fun,
but they make some serious juice as well.
2013 MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir Central Coast California, Central Coast
SRP: $23

Light ruby color. Nose of bright red cherries, wild strawberries, raspberry jam, subtle tobacco, rose petals and tilled soil as well. Juicy and full on the palate, full of red berries, cherries and raspberry jam. Some dusty tannic structure, medium acid. An interesting mix of bay leaf, caramel and rhubarb pie. A bit simple perhaps, but put together well and very pleasant. Almost all the fruit comes from Olson Ranch in Santa Lucia Highlands. (86 points)

SRP: $12
Bright ruby color. Weak aromatics, with sour cherries, rosewater and strawberry jam. Strange wine on the palate, the tannins are soft but bitter at the same time, and the acid is out of whack. Sour cherries, strawberry jam, the fruit tastes a bit baked. Notes of oak chips and heavily roasted coffee. Just not very good at all. Mostly Clarksburg fruit with 40% from Monterey. (NR)

SRP: $10

Light ruby colored. Smells of sweet cherries, raspberries, some wild green herbs and dusty earth. Tart on the palate with almost no tannins but some tasty raspberry jam flavors and some tart, Thanksgiving dinner cranberry sauce going on as well. Notes of cola, coffee and a spicy, herbal note that reminds me of baby’s breath. Slight earthiness on the finish. Simple, easy-drinking, I was actually surprised this was only $10 retail, as it drinks as well as a lot of Pinots in the $20 range. Actually includes some Grenache, Gewurztraminer and “10% select red varieties” – hmm. Whatever tricks they’re pulling to make a $10 Pinot not only drinkable but decent, they’re working. (84 points)

Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Few Suggestions for Wine PR & Marketing Pros

Hello wine sales and public relations professionals!

As a group, you are very cordial, helpful and responsive people. You’re very knowledgeable of your portfolios, and just as good at conveying that knowledge to others in the wine industry and the general wine-consuming public. 

Your job isn’t easy: trying to convince people such as myself that a single bottle among the throng of options is delicious, unique and worthy of contemplation. And it’s hard convincing Random Joe McWineConsumer to shell out money for said bottle.

I wouldn’t claim to know how to do your job. I’ve sold wine before, but I’m much better at consuming it. You know your clients, your audience and your sales targets.

But as someone who attends lots of trade tastings, visits a lot of wineries, chats with a lot of wine sales folks, and receives wine samples and promotional materials on a regular basis — I’ve come across a few oddities. A few misused tools. Just like making a fine wine, the little details go a long way.

Here are a few thoughts offered up for general consideration.

Be more efficient when shipping wine

Last year I received a large two-bottle box with double-thick Styrofoam. Inside was one bottle of wine. The next week, I received another over-sized box with one bottle — from the same damn winery! This waste of money, resources and energy makes absolutely no sense to me. Why wouldn’t you ship your wines together, in one box, as opposed to a bottle-by-bottle piecemeal approach? I’m more than likely not going to taste the first wine before receiving the second wine anyway, so why not ship all current releases at once?

Speaking of Styrofoam: It’s terrible. It takes up way too much space, it breaks down into crumbly pieces that cause litter and (worst of all) it goes straight to the landfill. I’m receiving more and more wines padded with recyclable cardboard, which is an excellent trend. I’m not sure of the cost differential, but I’d love to see more and more recyclable shipping containers.

Wasted space and a warm "cold" pack? This makes no damn sense to me.
Don’t ship wine in the summer heat

Why, oh, why do wineries and marketers ship wine during the sweltering heat? I review a lot of wines for the daily blog Terroirist, and on the site we explicitly tell people not to send wine during the dog days of summer. But some insist on wasting time, money, resources and energy to ship wines in the middle of the brutal Mid-Atlantic heat and humidity.

I’ve received way too many leaky bottles of cooked wine. These bottles of wine come from all over the country and they end up going straight down the drain. As a wine-lover, it’s frustrating to think about how much time, money and energy went into making that wine, only to have it cooked and destroyed in transit.

Some shippers think they have found a solution to heat damage: including a frozen cold pack with the wine. I’m not sure what nonsense these companies are telling you, but cold packs are worse than useless. I’ve received lots of packages stuffed with cold packs and every single one of them, without exception, was hot upon delivery. When I’m traveling across the city for a summer wine tasting, I use a cold pack in my wine tote. But this process doesn’t work when shipping wine across the country. The only thing a cold pack does is add to the shipping costs and waste. Please just wait until the heat drops to ensure the wine arrives in good condition.

Tell me about the vintage

In press materials, I appreciate honesty when describing the vintage. Not every vintage is “great.” But very good (even great) wine can be made in difficult vintages. And, of course, whether certain vintage conditions translate into a “great” wine is subjective. (I frequently love wines from cooler, rainier vintages where the grapes struggled to ripen.)

Hail happens. Heat waves happen (more and more frequently). Here on the East Coast, tropical storm remnants can dump tons of rain on vineyards at the worst possible time. But these challenges give a wine its character. They’re what make vertical tastings so much fun for us wine nerds. It sucks to see pictures of hail or storm damage, but when studious vineyard work and attentive winemaking turn a difficult vintage into a delicious and unique wine, this is a cause for celebration.

When were the grapes harvested? How does this line up with the prior vintage or the trend of recent vintages? How much rainfall did the vineyard see and where does that number fall on a spectrum? What steps are the vineyard crew taking to deal with drought, climate change, etc.? These are the types of things I want to hear about the vintage. Piling adjectives and superlatives on top of each other doesn’t help anyone understand the nature of a particular vintage.

This is quite possibly the best opening line of a wine PR letter I've ever received. Quoting insanely talented guitarists is always a good idea. 

Tone down the food pairing talk 

Way too much ink is spilled on wine labels offering up lame suggestions for food pairing. I have often quipped with casual wine-consuming friends that a wine with the word “pasta” on the back label should be avoided. The crummier the wine, it seems, the more exhaustive the list of foods to pair with said wine.  

Lots of press materials and tech sheets contain too many food pairing suggestions. But for the love of Bacchus, please stop saying a wine pairs well with “ethnic food.” Seriously, what the fuck is “ethnic food” anyway? Anything with flavor? Anything that doesn’t come in single-serving plastic containers? And don’t tell me your wine pairs well with chicken dishes, either. A wine could pair well with pretty much any food if you describe that food in the vaguest way possible.

I find it interesting when wine PR materials include a suggested recipe to accompany the wine. This shows some forethought, and at least suggests the person who wrote down the recipe has tried it with the wine in question. I’ve actually tried quite a few of these recipes, and even added some of my favorites to my personal collection.

But when it comes to suggesting food pairings, can we keep it simple? I want to know one thing and one thing only: What does the winemaker eat with this wine? I don’t want to know about some hypothetical pairing that exists only on paper, and I don’t need a chart with cutesy pictures of shrimp and turkey legs. I want to know what the winemaker actually consumes when he/she sits down and pours a glass of this particular wine.

During tastings, many times the winemaker will say something like: “Oh, man, I just had the 2011 with a lemon-rosemary grilled chicken, and the herbal components in both the wine and food really started to sing together.” Or: “This new vintage needs a few years to come around, but a friend and I just tasted the 2005, which is really silky right now and it was beautiful with some slow-cooked lamb shoulder. But if you’re drinking the current vintage now, a peppered T-bone is the way to go.”

This is golden information that only the winemaker possesses. Why not share it with the rest of us?

Well, that's all I have. 

Thanks for reading and thanks for being awesome.