Monday, October 29, 2012

Waiting Out Hurricane Sandy With Pinot Noir and Bordeaux

Hurricane Sandy is releasing its fury on the East Coast. I’m holed up in DC, and I’ve got water, batteries, plenty of food and, of course, wine.

It was also my girlfriend’s birthday Sunday night. We were excited about DC being shut down (no work!) so I took my time and I cooked us up some a nice dinner: a salad with dried cranberries and candied walnuts followed by baked salmon served with cauliflower puree topped with melted parmesan cheese.  

I opened a 2006 pinoit noir from Londer called Paraboll. The grapes are sourced from Ferrington and Valley Foothills vineyards in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley, one of my favorite places for pinot noir in California.  

According to the winery, “The derivation of the name is ‘para’ which is an art classification for a deep cherry-red color and ‘boll’ which is boontling for great.” That’s Mendocino talk I guess. “Wild yeast fermentation, aged 9 months in French oak barrels.”

Color: bright cherry

Aromas: Starts off dark and deep, with cassis, pomegranate seeds, accented by a kiss of cola.

Palate: This pinot noir is rich but pure and pretty. Cranberry and wild strawberry fruit lead the way to flavors of violets and rose petals. Initially, the wine showed grippy tannins, even a bit rough, so I threw the wine into the decanter. The flavors evolved to show fresh cherry and cassis fruit. The tannins smoothed out a bit but the structure of this wine remained firm. Damp earth  and rose petal flavors linger onto the finish, along with a kick of pepper. There’s even a hint of mineral and iron in this wine, which I love.

This is not just a good California pinot noir, it’s a great one. It outperformed some recent Kosta-Browne pinot noirs I’ve had because the Paraboll has a bit more depth and mystique to it. This wine is at an interesting spot in its evolution, but if I had another I’d lay it down for another two-to-four years to see what time will do to this beauty.

93 points. And I’d go 100 points on the food, but I may be biased.  

Monday afternoon I opened a 1998 Château Belle-Vue from the Bordeaux appellation of Haut-Médoc.

Color: prune-purple with tawny rims.

Nose: initially quite dense, and it’s clear from first sniff that this wine is still alive and well. Plums and currant fruit aromas blend with moss and wet leaves. Sweet barbeque and soy sauce aromas came out with time. Basically an awesome aromatic situation. Aromas like this make me realize I'm not drinking Bordeaux frequently enough.

On the palate: coffee grind tannins and medium+ acid. Fig and currant fruit flavors are matched by coffee, potting soil and mineral. Tobacco leaf and soy linger on the finish. Still going strong, and quite balanced. Some olive brine and pickle juice add a tangy finish. This is a really impressive effort from a petite chateau. It has the structure to age for another few years, or at least this bottle did.A blend of 50% cabernet, 40% merlot and 10% petit verdot, aged for 16 months in 80% new Hungarian oak. Time has really mellowed out the oak flavors and I was surprised at the amount of new oak in this wine.

88 points

Wines like these help ease the worry that a tree will come crashing through my front window. I hope all my fellow East Coasters are hunkered down with some good wine on hand. Be safe and drink well!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Blind Tasting of Rhone Varieties

The steep slope of Hermitage in France's Northern Rhone
Valley is the ancestral home of the syrah grape.
Ah, BYOB blind tasting, when everyone brings a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag and we all taste through them. I’m not competitive when it comes to wine, so it’s not like this tasting was a contest. Rather, it was a time to get together with other wine lovers, drink some unknown wines and make some guesses about what’s in the glass.

The theme was Rhone varieties, which, generally speaking, means roussanne, marsanne and viognier for whites and syrah, grenache, mourvedre, cinsault and petite sirah for reds. I tried to make a specific guess for each wine. Sometimes I was way off, sometimes I was close, and sometimes I nailed it. No matter how “good” or “bad” you do in a blind tasting, it’s always an educational and fun experience.

Here are some notes on some blind-tasted Rhone variety wines.
We started off the tasting with four solid white wines, each one better than the last. Sometimes Rhone whites are hard to distinguish, as my blind guesses prove.

2010 Jean-Michel Gerin Viognier Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes - France, Northern Rhône, Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes
Tasted blind. Bright yellow-gold color. Aromas of white peach, flowers, lemon peel, hints of mixed nuts. Bold on the palate with medium acid. Creamy honeysuckle and melon flavors mix with a waxy, almost oily aspect. Overall, quite nice, albeit not the most complex wine. Guess: Chateauneuf du Pape blanc. 87 points

2011 Domaine Daniel et Denis Alary Vin de Pays de la Principauté d'Orange La Grange Daniel - France, Southern Rhône, Vin de Pays de la Principauté d'Orange
Tasted blind. Bright straw color with thick legs. Big-time aromatic profile of green melon, peach and honeycomb. On the palate, the wine is big and full of flavor: honeycomb, circus peanut candy, lemon, backed up by fresh acid. Long finish. Quite nice. Guess: 2009 Northern Rhone roussanne. Turns out it’s a 100% roussanne from the Southern Rhone Valley. 88 points

2010 Denis et Didier Berthollier Vin de Savoie Chignin-Bergeron Un Cru Une Exception - France, Savoie, Vin de Savoie Chignin-Bergeron
Tasted blind. Light gold color with medium legs. Aromas of clover honey, candied nuts, yellow apple and apricot. The aromas are really complex. The palate is packed with plush fruit and balanced with superb acid. Flavors of green pear, lemon and apricot, hints of minerality. Long finish. Guess: 2008 Condrieu (which is made from 100% viognier). Turns out to be a roussanne from the lesser-known region of Savoie. I'm not sure I've ever had a Savoie roussanne, but I was quite impressed with this effort. 89 points

2011 Éric Texier Vin de Pays Opâle - France, Northern Rhône, Vin de Pays
Tasted blind. Very light straw color, almost translucent. The wine smells like Tang mix, bright lemon-lime, then an herbal kick comes out on the end. Upon first taste: WTF? The wine is off-dry and it tastes like lemon zinger tea mixed with honey. Also flavors of crisp green apple, sweet peach and honey. It's almost riesling-like with its white peach and sweet nut flavors. The acid keeps it very fresh. I guessed this as a viognier made with residual sugar. Origin? I had no idea. Turns out these grapes are picked so ripe that they'd qualify for the auslese designation if they were grown in Germany. It's very low in alcohol, incredible easy to sip and not too sweet or cloying. Really nerdy stuff, but a lot of fun. And it gets serious science fair points for weirdness. 90 points

We had an interesting group of reds to taste through, both Old World and New. I was surprised no Chateauneufs were represented, but it was still a good mix of Rhone reds.

2009 Domaine Daniel et Denis Alary Vin de Pays de la Principauté d'Orange La Grange Daniel - France, Southern Rhône, Vin de Pays de la Principauté d'Orange
Tasted blind: Bright ruby-cherry color in the glass. Aromas of broiled meat, smoke, raspberries and plums. The palate shows flavors of smoke, plum skins, blackberries and graphite. Fine-grained tannins, a bit less than medium acid, but it's still balanced. Cranberry, meat and iron flavors linger on the finish. Guess: 2009 Southern Rhone grenache blend. Turns out this wine is a classic Southern Rhone blend of syrah, grenache and cinsault. I've tasted this wine about 18 months ago and didn't like it very much. Maybe it's the age, maybe it's bottle variation, but this wine was very nice. 88 points

2009 Jean-Michel Gerin Vin de Pays La Champine - France, Northern Rhône, Vin de Pays
Tasted blind. Black-purple color in the glass. Aromas of black olive, potpourri, rose petals and cassis. Seductive, complex aromas. Grippy tannins on the palate, showing very young. Flavors of fig paste, charcoal, grilled herbs, olive paste and minerals. Guess: Northern Rhone syrah. I was impressed that this was only a Vin de Pays designation, as it drinks like a good St. Joseph. Jean-Michel Gerin does it again with this 100% syrah. 90 points

1995 Madrigal Petite Sirah - California, Napa Valley
Tasted blind, but I knew immediately that this was the wine I brought to the tasting. Brick red color in the glass. Strange/fun aromas of beef bouillon, pickles, incense and sweet, saucy strawberries and cherries. I was really surprised by the grip of the tannins, considering this petite sirah is 17 years old. Interesting mix of flavors: fig paste, white pepper, wet leaves and an herbal, almost vermouth-like kick on the finish. A few tasters poured this wine out immediately. Oh well, not everyone's as adventurous. Yes it's a weird wine, but I thought it was a lot of fun and a good example of how long well-made petite sirah can age. 87 points

2007 Summerland Grenache - California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
Tasted blind. Clear, bright ruby color in the glass. Aromas of sweet cassis, cola, a hint of herbs, and alcohol lingers on the nose. Silky tannins on the palate and low-to-medium acid. Flavors of strawberries, cherry jam, cola and a hint of fig. Toasty oak is slathered on top of the jammy fruit. This was so sweet, bright and full of alcohol that it just screamed Paso Robles grenache to me, which was my guess. Nailed it, but I'm not the biggest fan of this flavor profile, especially the pronounced oak and alcohol. 83 points

2010 Bricco Dei Tati (Lodali) Cortese del Piemonte - Italy, Piedmont, Asti, Cortese del Piemonte
Tasted blind. Bright cherry color. Aromas of purple Laffy Taffy mixed with herbs... hmmm... strange. Hints of pencil shavings as well. The palate shows lots of cherry jam and some peppery spice. Light tannins provide little backbone for the cranberry and raspberry jam flavors. In a Rhone variety tasting this was the ringer, and it stuck out like crazy. Guess: cheap California pinot. Turns out to be a barbera from Piedmont. 85 points

2009 Domaine La Bastide Syrah Vin de Pays d'Hauterive - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Vin de Pays d'Hauterive
Tasted blind: Dark ruby color. Aromas of red and black plums, pepper and anise. Medium tannins on the palate, with a kiss of oak to round out the raspberry and plum flavors. Mocha lingers on the finish. I guessed this as a Sonoma syrah based on its dark fruit profile and the use of oak, but was happy to see it was Domaine La Bastide. I've had this wine before and enjoyed it, especially for $12. Great bargain. 86 points

2010 Fausse Piste Syrah Garde Manger - USA, Oregon/Washington
Tasted blind. Medium purple color. Aromas of brambly fruit, plums, raspberries and violets. With time, some real meaty aromas came out. On the palate, this wine is full of grippy tannins, pure berry fruit and lots of spices. With time, some more meaty characteristics came out, like sweet barbequed pork or something. Quite delicious. Pure and vibrant cassis and raspberry fruit, along with graphite and earth. Very nice syrah. Long finish. Guess: Mendocino syrah.
This 100% syrah is a blend from the following vineyards in Washington and Oregon: Outlook (Rattlesnake Hills, WA), Ambassador (Red Mountain, WA), Marcoux (Red Willow/Yakima), Elephant Mountain (Yakima) and Riverrock (Walla Walla, OR). 91 points

Palate Cleanser
After all those big reds, we opened a palate-cleansing muscadet. I never get tired of well-aged, classic-style muscadet, and this is one of the best muscadets I've had all year.

1999 Chereau-Gunther Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine Comte de St. Hubert Château du Coing de St. Fiacre - France, Loire Valley, Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine
Wow, what an incredible muscadet. This was aged on the yeasts for a decade, and this wine has the depth and complexity to prove it. Aromas of lemon cake, orange rind, minerals, sea shells and peanut shell. The palate is creamy and deep, but incredibly fresh at the same time. I love the tangerine-lemon flavors, and limestone, crushed sea shells and slate rock add all sorts of complexity. Like an aged Chablis, this wine is pure, delicious and full of sea flavors. Delicious now, but this could age for another five-to-ten years, easily. Very impressive. Tasted non-blind. 91 points

Donelan Wines from Sonoma
After the brown-bagged wines were revealed, I tasted some samples that the owner of Donelan had left behind. This was my first time tasting wine from this producer. Overall, they're a little too pricey for the quality, but they seem to be decent wines. The Cuvee Moriah is really nice.

2011 Donelan Chardonnay Nancie - California, Sonoma Coast
Big-time aromatics of butter, oak, yellow apple and apricot. The palate is really rich, with flavors of lemon peel, butternut squash and toasted oak. It's got enough acid to keep it balanced, and a rounded mouthfeel from the oak. For me, the oak is too much, and it hinders this wine because there's just not enough fruit to balance out the oak. Still, enjoyable to sip, and it's got some very likeable elements. 84 points

2010 Donelan Cuvée Moriah - California, Sonoma County
I wasn't too enthralled by Donelan's other wines, but this one stood tall and demanded respect. Sweet cherries, incense, smoke and roasted meat on the nose. The palate is full of sweet cherries, cassis, but it's balanced by grilled herb, pepper and smoke. Seriously grippy tannins. This could use four or five years in the cellar, but it's an excellent example of Sonoma red Rhone blends.
54% grenache, 26% syrah and 20% mourvedre, half of which was whole-cluster fermented. 90 points

2009 Donelan Syrah Cuvée Christine - California, Sonoma County
Aromas of plums, blackberries and BBQ sauce. The palate is dense and full, with massive fruit and tannins. I like the smoke, tar and meaty aspects that add complexity to the rich dark fruit. Wow, the tannins are really dense. This needs some time, but it's a fun wine. 88 points

2009 Donelan Syrah Walker Vine Hill - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
I like this wine but I'm not swooning over it. This syrah is just too primal for me right now. Maybe in a few years it'll show better. Aromas of figs and raisins. The palate is like blackberry sauce and coffee grinds. A bit of sweetness to the black fruit. Saucy. Too much exctracted fruit and chocolate to be really exquisite. The density of the finish makes me think this wine will benefit from at least three-to-five years in the cellar, maybe even ten. Good stuff, but it needs to show more to justify its $40+ price point. 87 points 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Grab Bag Whites with Good Friends

When drinking wine with good friends, German riesling is always a wise choice.
My friend Tooch and I have been drinking wine together for five years. We’ve shared hundreds of bottles from practically every premium wine region in the world. Last year he moved from DC to Chicago, and Friday was his first day back in town for 11 months. Naturally, our tight-knit wine crew threw a tasting at our favorite wine shop, Weygandt Wines in Cleveland Park. We didn't plan ahead for a theme, and  everyone just bought a bottle they wanted to share with good friends. Based on the wines people brought, the tasting took on several themes of its own: Burgudy, the Jura, the Loire Valley, German riesling. There were a lot of people and even more bottles. (I believe the final body count was 30-something.) There was no way I could make it through all the wines on the table, so I had to prioritize.

Here are some notes on some of the white wines in the tasting. You know, when I'm drinking such good wine and hanging out with good friends, I can’t help but think: I'm a blessed guy.

2009 Rudi Pichler Grüner Veltliner Federspiel - Austria, Wachau
Not a bad way to start off the tasting. Initially a bit closed, but with some air and time the wine opened up to show slate, lemon and white pepper. Very bold palate, with delicious acid, and gummy white peach fruit. Finish is laced with minerals. Classic Rudi Pichler. 88 points

2008 Domaine de Montbourgeau L'Etoile - France, Jura, L'Etoile
This is an extreme wine, even for Jura chardonnay. Seriously, it smells like my wetsuit after surfing for hours on end, complete with hints of seaweed, brine and sea salt. Hints of lemon and sherry round out the nose. Massive acid on the palate, along with clean flavors of lemon, quince, almonds and sea salt. This wine is quite young, and I imagine it would show better in a few years. This chardonnay is powerful enough to stand up to pretty much any sharp cheese. 88 points

2010 Domaine Servin Chablis 1er Cru Montée de Tonnerre - France, Burgundy, Chablis
I pretty much knew this wine was going to be awesome, but it still surprised me. Very young, but stunning. Aromas of lemons, limes, limestone, salt and crushed rocks. High acid from start to finish, buttressed by green pears and apples, bright minerals, seaweed and salty air. Long, crisp finish. Bring on the oysters because this stuff is simply beautiful. The Montée de Tonnerre vineyard is one of my favorite places for chardonnay, and in 2010 Domaine Servin really nails it. 93 points

2002 Joh. Jos. Christoffel Erben Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Spätlese - Germany, Mosel
I always welcome a Christoffel Erben riesling to a tasting, and this 2002 showed quite well. Vibrant peach on the nose, hints of petrol and honey as well. Still smells youthful. The palate shows nice balance between fruit and acid. Lovely white peach and lychee flavors, along with minerals the first signs of petrol. More of a boisterous wine than an elegant one, but it's delicious. 90 points

1990 Von Schubert Maximin Grünhauser Abtsberg Riesling Kabinett - Germany, Mosel
An absolutely beautiful aged riesling. Gorgeous aromas of petrol, orange peel, marmalade and a hint of white flower. Huge acid on the palate provides freshness and elegance, supporting the rich flavors of dried pineapple, mango and apricot. Fleshed out with nougat and bracing minerals. This is everything I love about Mosel riesling, and Maximin Grünhauser in particular. I'd love to taste this again in five years. There was a lot of discussion amongst the older folks at the tasting that 1990 was their favorite vintage. With a wine like this, it's understandable. 93 points

2005 Koehler-Ruprecht Kallstadter Saumagen Riesling Spätlese - Germany, Pfalz
Hmmm... strange wine. First of all, it's only seven years old but it's got the orange color of a 20-year-old riesling. Aged aromas of peach juice, honeycomb and dried mango. The palate has a lot of honey, dried apricot and even caramel flavors. I can't believe this is only a spätlese, as the sweetness is reminiscent of an auslese. Lower acid than the other rieslings in the tasting, but low acid for 2005 in general. I don't know how this wine got so old so quickly, but it's a riesling to drink in the near term. 84 points

2010 Patz & Hall Chardonnay Sonoma Coast - California, Sonoma Coast
Aromas of peanut shell, buttered popcorn and green apple. Actually some solid acid on the palate, nice bit of kick. Flavors of lemonhead candy, buttered cookies and green apple. I like the cut to this wine. I’m a fan of this producer’s pinots, and I was expecting a bit more from their chardonnay. 86 points

Friday, October 19, 2012

Syrah from Sonoma and Humboldt Counties

Ridge is one of my favorite California producers. Cabot is new to me, but I'm impressed.
Syrah is one of my favorite grapes and, along with pinot noir, it’s my go-to red. While Northern Rhone syrah will always be my zenith, I actually drink more Northern California syrah. Why? Well, there are more of them for one. Sonoma and Mendocino Counties comprise a huge amount of land. The regions within vary drastically, as do the styles of their syrah. Sure, winiemakers produce some good syrah in places like Paso Robles and other Central Coast appellations, but I tend to favor the flavor profiles of wines from Sonoma and Mendocino.

At a recent tasting that including mostly Old World reds, I had the opportunity to taste three wonderful California syrahs that demonstrate the diversity of Northern California. Two were from Sonoma and one was from Northern-Northern California’s Humboldt County. I’ve checked my tasting history and it appears this was the first time I’ve tasted a Humboldt County wine, period. It surely won’t be my last.

2005 Ridge Syrah Lytton West Vineyard - Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
I drank this wine four years ago and loved it. Still do, maybe more so. Aromas of plums, smoke and dense underbrush. Dark fruit on the palate, but it remains elegant. I love the rose, violet and mulch flavors that accent the deep fruit. There’s still a long life ahead for this wine. It’s made of 94% syrah and 6% viognier, a white grape, which adds freshness and floral tones to the wine.
(91 points)

2007 Cabot Vineyards Syrah Kimberly's - Humboldt County
This wine is a great ambassador for Humboldt County. It’s aromatically powerful, showing blackberries, plum and cocoa powder. On the palate this wine is somehow pure, silky and dense at the same time. Velvety plums, chocolate shavings, hints of leather, tar and pepper. Long finish. Delicious stuff with years left to go. (89 points)

2009 Bedrock Wine Co. Syrah Sonoma Coast - Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
Whoa! This Sonoma Coast syrah came to fight! I love Bedrock, and this is another reason why. Gorgeous aromas of red plums, olives, juicy steak and potpourri. Plush tannins and medium acid on the palate. This wine pays homage to Northern Rhone with its meat and olive flavors, but the blueberry and raspberry flavors are pure Sonoma. So silky and pure. Undeniably yummy, and the Rhone lovers in the crowd really liked it. This wine shows the promise of Sonoma Coast syrah. (92 points)

So there you have it. I’m sure it won’t be long before I’m drinking some more California syrah. If you’ve got a favorite Northern California syrah, I’d love to hear about it. Cheers!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

DC Distillery Brings Spirit Back to the Capital

George Cassiday: my kind of businessman.
In my book George Cassiday is an American icon. Cassiday was a WWI vet who returned to the States and struggled to scrape by during the dark and dry days of Prohibition. But Cassidy figured out where the money was: bootlegging. It wasn’t long before Cassiday had carved out quite a life for himself secretly supplying members of the U.S. House and Senate with homemade spirits.
Cassiday would load up suitcases with liquor from a supplier in New York and smuggle them via train down to DC. A House Member gave Cassiday access to a secure basement office where he set up his spirits shop. His customers were the country’s lawmakers, supporters and opponents of Prohibition alike. The Office of the Clerk of the House quotes Cassiday as saying that Representatives were customers, “nearly every day Congress was in session and [I] had no serious trouble.” For ten years Cassiday supplied bootleg liquor to nearly four out of five lawmakers and “and exposed the hypocrisy of a Congress flaunting the rules it imposed on America.”

When Cassiday was finally arrested the U.S. House’s Sergeant at Arms described the man as wearing “a light green felt hat.” The media loved the story of this industrious bootlegger selling booze to the very people who had outlawed it. “The Man in the Green Hat” made his way into history, the American people made the hypocritical anti-booze lawmakers pay and Prohibition was repealed.
The spirit of bootlegging in DC lives on.
Cassiday’s (distilled) spirit now lives on Washington, DC’s New Columbia Distillery. The family endeavor is owned by Michael Lowe and his wife Melissa Kroning, and husband and wife John Uselton and Elizabeth Lowe. “In 2011 John and Michael were the first to bring craft distilling to DC,”they say on their website. “After a brief apprenticeship with Dry Fly Distillery, they located a home for their distillery in a 90-year-old warehouse near the Art Deco landmark Hecht Co. warehouse on New York Ave. When they learned the history of The Man In The Green Hat, they knew they had a name for DC’s own signature gin.”

And so we have Green Hat Gin.

Ian, my good buddy from high school and Northeast DC's ambassador extraordinaire, brought a bottle of this capital city gin over to my house recently. We watched a kick-ass boxing match and sipped some Green Hat on the rocks. The bottle has an urbage vintage look and a label reminiscent of a 1920s department store advertisement, complete with the batch number and handwritten alcohol content. Maybe it’s my pro-DC bias, maybe it’s my predilection for hand-crafted gin or maybe it’s my fascination with the history behind this label, but I think Green Hat Gin is special stuff.

On the Nose: The first thing I notice is a burst of lemon and Christmas tree. Classic aromas of juniper and tree sap mix with lime peel, grapefruit and a sweetness that reminds me of lavender. Basically, we’re talking about insanely complex aromas that jump out of the glass. 

I had the honor of tasting Green Hat's second batch of gin.
On the Palate: This gin is creamy and balanced, not sharp or biting in any way. It’s packed with lots of grapefruit and lemon-lime flavors, not to mention a solid dose of birch beer and pine snap. A hint of smoke lingers on the finish. The citrus balances the herbal characteristics so that no one flavor overwhelms the others.

Overall, this is a delicious gin. It’s so pure and focused, making it perfect for sipping on the rocks or using in citrus-driven cocktails. If you love gin’s unique blend of aromas and flavors, you simply have to try this stuff. If you live in or around DC, frankly, you have no excuse. We’re all familiar with the mantra of eating local and reducing our carbon footprint, so why not extend this logic to distilled spirits? I confess: there’s something inexplicably cool about sitting on my porch in DC and drinking a District-made gin, especially when it’s so damned tasty.

And Green Hat can add a new kick to classic cocktails like the gin martini, the rickey, the gimlet or a host of others. Green Hat even provides some classic and signature cocktail recipes on its site.

Apparently New Columbia doesn’t have a tasting permit yet, so they can’t pour samples from visitors. Hopefully that changes soon, because a trip to this distillery is on my DC bucket list.

Cheers to the District, to bootlegging and to gin!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Checking Up on Pacific Northwest Wines

Life is all about friends. And wine, being a microcosm of life, is also all about friends. Luckily I’ve got friends like Brett and Alyssa, a husband and wife duo whose generosity and humor are rivaled only by their encyclopedic knowledge of wines from Oregon and Washington State.

Over the weekend Brett pulled together a bunch of wines from his cellar and invited a group of us over to see how they were progressing in their evolution. Alyssa cooked up some incredible food to go with the wines, and we had ourselves a good ol’ Pacific Northwest throwdown. Bottle variation and faulty wines are a factor in every cellar tasting but each wine in this tasting showed well and not one displayed cork taint, oxidization or any other fault. I guess you could call it luck, but I call it Brett’s awesomeness in tracking down the best wines from the Pacific Northwest.

I’m a huge fan of wines from Oregon and Washington State. Northern California regions like Sonoma and Mendocino are my default for New World wines, and far too often I forget about the Pacific Northwest. I don’t know what the hell is wrong with me, because, as this tasting proves, wines from Oregon and Washington deserve serious respect. Luckily, Brett was around to tell us all about the different vintage characteristics and share stories about his visits with the winemakers or strolls through the vineyard. His knowledge of Oregon and Washington is unrivaled and his love for the region’s wines is contagious.

Quick note: I generally don’t give much thought to the 100-point scoring system. I employ it because it’s useful in placing wines along a continuum of quality, but a score is never the final word on what’s inside the bottle. Having said that, this tasting was one of those rare occasions when I gave every wine a 90+ score. I can get picky about wines, and even bored with wines of a similar style, but I couldn’t find one wine in this tasting to dislike if I tried. In fact, I can’t imagine someone who uses the 100-point system giving any bottle we tasted a score of less than 90 points. They were just that damn good.

I still can’t believe I’ve never visited Oregon or Washington. After this tasting, it’s getting closer and closer to the top of my list.

2001 Argyle Extended Tirage Brut Oregon, Willamette Valley
Argyle, probably one of the most well-known producers in Oregon, has been crafting chardonnay, pinot noir and sparkling wines since 1987. This sparkler is a classic Champagne blend of 52% chardonnay, 45% pinot noir and 3% pinot meunier that spends an additional seven years aging on the lees. Pretty golden color. It’s got heavenly aromas of golden apples, honeycomb and freshly baked rolls. On the palate, this wine is focused and pure with shining acid. All kinds of apples on the palate, along with honey, caramel and potpourri. There’s a great blend of creaminess and freshness in this wine that makes it one of the best domestic sparklers I’ve had in a long time. 92 points

2006 Soter Brut Rosé Oregon, Yamhill County
Soter might not be a household name, but they’ve got to be doing something right when the Wine Advocate says: “It would be a fascinating experiment to place [Soter Brut Rosé] in a blind tasting with Louis Roederer Cristal rosé and Dom Perignon rosé.” I can’t think of a better compliment for a pink sparkler than being compared to the two best rosé Champagnes. This wine is a blend of 60% chardonnay and 40% pinot noir and a bright copper-strawberry color in the glass. Fresh cranberries and strawberries on the nose with hints of toast and peanut shell. It’s big on the palate, almost toasty, like it was barrel-fermented. Flavors of strawberry pie, white pepper and a hint of tobacco. I love the cut of the acid and the fine tingle of the bubbles. Long finish. I’m a little less excited about this wine than the Wine Advocate, but it’s still an excellent rosé sparkler. 90 points

2011 Gramercy Cellars Rosé Olsen Vineyard Washington, Columbia Valley
I tasted this wine in May along with a medley of other rosé wines and it stood head and shoulders above a lot of other high quality wines. Simply put, I didn’t realize a Washington State winemaker could put out such a fantastic pink. Aromas of roses, wild strawberries and Provencal herbs. Tangy acid on the palate leads the way to flavors of strawberry, cherry blossoms and a medley of spices. This wine is so focused and pure, and a great accompaniment to mixed cheeses and charcuterie. Provence, meet Washington State. 90 points

Cameron of the Willamette Valley makes some of my favorite domestic chardonnay.
Willamette Valley Chardonnay
Welcome to the Burgundy of the United States. There are some serious chards coming out of this part of Oregon.

Abbey Ridge is one of the highest vineyards in Oregon’s Dundee Hills (500-700 feet). This wine comes from a single clone of 35-year-old vines, some of the oldest in all of Oregon. The chardonnay vines produce very low yields and the grapes are usually harvested during mid to late October. This is truly a hand-crafted wine, as only a single barrel was produced in 2008. Complex and layered aromas of lemon peel, dried pineapple, hazelnut and a hint of cheese rind. The palate is full of gorgeous acid, equally matched by vibrant melon, white peach, honeysuckle and caramel. It’s creamy but not toasty, and the absence of new oak lets the purity of flavors shine trough. Minerals linger on the long finish. I’d love to try this again in three years. 93 points

This was the first Cameron wine I tasted back in 2010, the wine that made me fall for Cameron. I’m happy to report this wine is still going strong. Aromas of lemon zest, apricot and guava with hints of peanut shell. The palate is rich and pure, with flavors of honey, orange rind and cotton candy. There’s a powerful streak of minerality in this wine which gives it a lot of depth. Delicious stuff, and it could age for another few years easily. 92+ points

I tasted this wine in December of 2011 and loved it. I still love it, but I was a little less excited than last time. Maybe it’s because I drank this wine alongside the Cameron chardonnays, which are much brighter and leaner. Golden yellow color in the glass. Aromas of goldenrod, dandelion, honeydew and apricot. It’s really rich and bold on the palate, with toasted coconut, lemon, marshmallow and buttered pear flavors. Definitely hedonistic, but it maintains a sense of balance. 92 points

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Down, Down Under: Tasmanian Pinot Noir

The east coast of Tasmania, a far-off haven for pinot noir.
Shiraz isn’t the only premium wine coming out of Australia. Regions like Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and Coonwarra may have put Australia on the wine map, but remember that Australia is a huge place, full of incredibly diverse soils and climates capable of producing more than just blueberry jam-flavored red wine.

Today I want to focus on a producer from Tasmania, that lonely island off the continent’s southern coast. The winemakers at Spring Vale have been growing grapes in the unique climate of Tasmania’s Freycinet Coast for almost 25 years. Located on the east coast of the island, this is the driest part of Tasmania, and the vines require drip irrigation to flourish. The Freycinet Coast also gets quite cold, and the Spring Vale crew uses overhead sprinkler systems to fight frost and a wind machine to blow cold air away from the vines when the temperature drops. Spring Vale planted its first vines (two acres of pinot noir) in 1986. In 1996 they planted more pinot noir as well as three different white grape varieties: chardonnay, gewürztraminer and pinot gris.

Spring Vale pays homage to classic French grapes but it is a distinctly Australian endeavor. Their cellar is a stable that was built in 1842 by convict labor. The cellar door is open to the public seven days a week, from 11-4, but closed on Boxing Day. And winemaker Dave Cush loves to use the word “reckon.”

Spring Vale takes pride not only in their wines but in the Freycinet Coast as a serious wine region. They strive to “promote the Freycinet Coast and Tasmania as food and wine destinations” and to “promote the Freycinet Coast and Tasmania as super-premium Pinot Noir regions.” My experience with pinot noir from Tasmania is rather limited, but I think Spring Vale is on to something. And other producers like Pirie and Freycinet Vineyard have tempted my palate to explore more Tasmanian pinot.

This week I had the pleasure of drinking a 2005 Spring Vale Vineyards Pinot Noir. Aromatically, this wine was a bit reticent at first, but it opened up over the course of the evening to show sour cherries, chewing tobacco and an aroma that reminds me of tree bark. On the palate this pinot has a creamy body, fine tannins and tangy acid. Sour cherry and red plum fruit dominate, with secondary flavors of rhubarb, rose petals and a hint of tobacco. The approach is elegant and refined. It has the structure of a well-aged village-level Burgundy, but it lacks some of the earthier characteristics of Burgundy. Flavors of tangy cranberries and pickling spices linger on the finish. This pinot has aged well, but it may be entering it’s twilight. I'd like to try it again in five years and be proved wrong, though. I rated this wine a conservative 88 points.

After drinking Spring Vale’s 2005 pinot noir I realized the winemakers put up a YouTube video on this very wine. It’s fun hearing them discuss the 2005 vintage in “Tazzie” and how their pinot can age. “I hope you learn something drinking the wine,” says the winemaker. Well, I sure did: I need to track down more Tazzie pinot.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Baker Lane Pinot Noir

Sonoma County is one of my favorirte places in the world for exploring pinot noir. There are so many diverse regions, so many small producers and so many different styles, making Sonoma an inexhaustible source of quality pinot noir.

While there are no short supply of good Sonoma County pinot, finding one at a decent price can be a bit difficult. That’s why I always keep my eyes peeled for Sonoma pinot on the interwebs. Sooner or later good ones pop up. I’m not sure if  private collectors sometimes offload their wines or if some of the lesser known wines don’t move off the shelves quickly enough, but whatever the reason, the wines are out there to find.

I found one such wine a few months ago, the 2007 Baker Lane Pinot Noir Ramondo Vineyard from the Sonoma Coast appellation. 

This pinot displays a pretty garnet color in the glass. Lush and full aromas of blackberry, cranberry sauce, sweet cherries, cocoa powder and some savory spices. This wine is bright and smooth on the palate, not overbearing in any way. Flavors of cranberry, wild cherry and cola glide over a bed of plush tannins. I could go for a little more acid, but there's just enough for balance. A hint of eucalyptus and cocoa powder lingers on the finish. This stuff is pure silk, and much more restrained than a lot of Sonoma Coast pinot noirs. It got more and more elegant after two hours being open. I rated the wine 90 points. I imagine it could age well for another two or three years, but it is delicious now. My girlfriend, who has more of a new world palate, loved this wine as much as I did. "Can you buy more?" she asked.

The grapes come from a vineyard just a quarter-mile from Baker Lane's Estate vineyard. The owner of the site has allowed the Baker Lane winemaking team oversight over the property, which is planted to 4 acres of pinot noir and a little more than 1 acre to syrah. Before purchasing this bottle I'd never heard of Baker Lane, but this producer is now on my radar, and not just because they share my last name. If this bottle is any indication, they make elegant and delicious pinot.

K & L Wines has the 2007 Ramondo Vineyard on sale for $29, which is a solid buy. I was lucky enough to get it for $22 at auction, but I think I'll be buying some more to drink in the next two or three years.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

On Aleksandar Hemon's Novel "The Lazarus Project"

Aleksandar Hemon’s “The Lazarus Project” is a postmodern novel that lays down two story lines and weaves them together. One is the story of Lazarus Averbuch, a Jewish man who fled the pogroms of Ukraine for Chicago. The novel starts off in Lazarus’ world like so: “The time and place are the only things I am certain of: March 2, 1908, Chicago.” This is the date of Lazarus’ death, the day he is killed by a police officer and painted (falsely?) as an anarchist assassin. The other story line belongs to Brik, a compulsive and overdramatic writer living in post-9/11 Chicago. Brik becomes obsessed with the life and death of this Lazarus Averbuch, so he sets out to trace the dead man’s steps for clues, answers, a story.

Brik is an odd guy, a dissatisfied man who is too busy dreaming about what his life could be that he can’t figure out what his life actually is. “All the lives I could live, all the people I will never know, never will be, they are everywhere,” Brik writes. “That is all that the world is.” Brik says goodbye (temporarily?) to his girlfriend and sets out with a former war photographer to capture the story of Lazarus for his book. The two travel to Bosnia, Moldova and Ukraine. Having lived several years in Ukraine and traveled much around this part of the world, I’m amazed at how well Hemon captures the essence of places and people. Hemon takes me right back to Ukraine when he describes driving through the fertile plains in perfect poetry: “Fields of coy sunflowers, hills reticulated with untended vineyards, hutlike houses huddles in shallow misty valleys – they all passed us as in a dream, accompanied by jumpy Russian disco Seryozha found on his radio.”

It must be nearly impossible for a writer to tell a story based in Bosnia without talking about war. Hemon offers a sober look at what happens in war, how it’s terrible legacy lasts much longer than the fighting itself. “In the beginning, every war has a neat logic: they want to kill us, we want not to die. But with time it becomes something else, the war becomes this space where anybody can kill anybody at any time, where everybody wants everybody dead, because the only way you are sure to stay alive is if everybody else is dead.”

It's tough for a writer to transition back and forth between Eastern Europe in the 2000s to Chicago in the 1900s, but Hemon pulls it off seamlessly. He’s so good at describing people and places that I always felt like I knew where I was in space and time.

I’ve always been fascinated with Chicago around the turn of the 20th Century. (Click here to read “When Justice Kills: Love and Anarchy in 1880s Chicago,” my review of novel about the the Haymarket Square riots and the life and death of anarchist Albert Parsons.) Hemon does a great job describing the counter-revolutionary fervor of the elites in Chicago’s media and political spheres. The newspapers of the time call for the “extermination” of “the anarchist vermin that infest Chicago.” They proclaim: “every loyal citizen will be called up to achieve this job of housecleaning. The authors of seditious utterances will be prosecuted.”

I'm a huge fan of Hemon's short stories (especially his 2001 collection "The Question of Bruno"), and this book has me convinced that he's a writer to watch in the coming years. If you have any experience or interest in Chicago, Ukraine, Bosnia and Serbia, you'll love this book because it will take you to these places. Hemon is an immensely talented writer with a lot of imagination, and he shows the reader all he’s got with this book. 4.5/5 stars? How’s this: If this book were a bottle of wine, I’d give it a solid 90 points.