Friday, May 31, 2013

Veuve Clicquot Takes Champagne Marketing On the Road

You know the bright orange label with the black text. You recognize it. If I came up and asked you to visualize a specific bottle of Champagne, I bet many of you would picture this very label. I’m going to claim this as fact: Veuve Clicquot’s non-vintage Champagne is one of the most well-known wine brands in the world.

This recognition is partly due to the fact that Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin produces around 7 million bottles of Champagne every year. Their non-vintage brut Champagne (a blend of 50-55% Pinot Noir, 15-20% Pinot Meunier and 28-33% Chardonnay) tastes consistently toasty, zippy and delicious, and it retails for around $40-$50, making it one of the most easily obtainable Champagnes on the market.

But, mostly, you know about Veuve Clicquot because they’re damn good at marketing.

I’m no Champagne marketing insider. I can’t afford the cover charge to that club and I don’t possess the appropriate attire. But I’ve always been fascinated by how the massive Champagne houses market their bottles. The schwag, the glitz, the color, the clothes, the sexy people, they’re selling a glamorous façade as much as they’re selling sparkling grape juice. And when it comes to selling opulence, Veuve Clicquot reigns supreme. (By the way, it’s pronounced voov klee-koh.)

Part of the luxury behemoth Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, Veuve’s marketing tentacles stretch far and wide: polo classics in New York, Ferrari Formula 1 Grand Prix events in China and Barcelona, golf invitationals in Italy, beach resorts in Brazil, and a host of other “lifestyle events.” Clicquot Insight, an iPhone and iPad app, has a Vogue-like aura of glam, focusing on fashion, food, design, travel and (sometimes) wine.

Another new tool in that big marketing box is the Veuve Clicquot Airstream, a sleek, aerodynamic bullet of a minibus. This week, the silver and orange bus cut through the 92-degree Washington, D.C. heat and stopped outside two hotels, the Dupont Circle Hotel and the W Washington D.C. Part of a two-month tour of the U.S., the goal of the Veuve Clicquot bus is to get people partying with the orange label.

And it seems to be working.

On a sweaty Thursday in Dupont Circle, the minibus was crowded with curious spectators. Instead of immediately packing into the Metro, people getting off work stopped by, checked out the bus, chatted with brand reps, and ordered overpriced ($15) flutes of Veuve bubbly on the Dupont Circle Hotel patio.
Inside, the bus was packed with orange label knick-knacks and goodies. It boasts a few HD TVs, a cooking stove and plenty of booth-style seating. I didn’t stick around long because the bus didn’t have the air conditioning on, which, given the no-expense-spared pitch of the brand, was ridiculous. What was sold as a great way to cool down turned out to be a great way to sweat your ass off. 

But, despite the heat, it was clear from the growing crowd and the chorus of clinking glasses that Veuve Clicquot’s bus tour was a hit. With events like this, Veuve Clicquot cements their customer base and attracts a younger generation of drinkers. They work hard to ensure the orange label is synonymous with class and good times. With these kinds of gimmicks, it’s no wonder Veuve Clicquot is so internationally renowned.

And, hey, the juice is pretty good stuff, too. At a recent blind tasting of non-vintage Champagnes, I rated Veuve’s orange label brut 88 points, and the rest of the tasting panel enjoyed it as well. Here are my notes from that tasting…

Aromas of chalk, limestone and white flowers, mixed in with freshly toasted bread. The palate is creamy and tangy, with dominant flavors of fresh apple juice, toasted baguette and lots of lemon peel. The palate shows a lot of cut and a mineral-driven finish. Rich yet lean. (88 points)

For more information on orange label parties, check out Veuve’s schnazzy website.


Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Wowed By Walla Walla Syrah

In the past decade, Walla Walla syrah has skyrocketed in fame and cost. And when you taste syrah from this appellation, you can understand why. Syrah grown in this area (which encompasses the southeastern part of Washington State and part of northern Oregon) shows incredible purity and density of fruit flavors, and the wines frequently display classic syrah themes of bacon, olive, charcoal and rich earth.

But, like every great wine region, the producer is key. At a friend’s birthday wine tasting earlier this month, I tried three Walla Walla syrahs from some of my favorite producers: Gramercy Cellars, Reynvaan and Cayuse. While all could be considering “cult” wineries in one way or another, it’s fair to credit Cayuse with much of the hype and fanfare surrounding Walla Walla syrah. Focused on dense, complex, long-lived syrahs from single vineyards, Cayuse has raked up all sorts of massive scores from the big critics. But Gramercy and Reynvaan are masters of syrah in their own right, and both produced stellar wine in the 2010 vintage. 

Here are my notes…

2010 Gramercy Cellars Syrah “John Lewis Reserve” - Washington, Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley ($55)
This is a beautiful Walla Walla syrah, but it needs a long decant or a good five years in the cellar because it’s so young and compact. With swirling, the smoke, earth and black olive aromas started emerging from the depths of the blackberry jam. Full and velvety on the palate, with grippy tannins and enough acid to hold up against the density of the blackberry and fig fruit. The coffee bean, iron, corned beef and pepper flavors are just lovely.
This syrah is just so young, though, and it needs a lot of time to develop. The syrah grapes (which make up 100% of the blend) are grown in the Les Collines Vineyard. They are fermented with their stems and aged in neutral oak. Only 13.9% alcohol. (93 points)

2010 Reynvaan Family Vineyards Syrah “In the Rocks” - Washington, Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley ($55)
Another great example of Reynvaan Family kicking ass with syrah. This smells of rich, dark, Walla Walla fruit (sweet black cherries, fig, hints of red plum), but also some lavender and cinnamon. On the palate, this is so juicy and rich, with pure black and blue fruits that last. The tannins have serious structure, and the acid is lively enough to balance out against the richness of the fruit. Secondary flavors of smoke, loam and dark chocolate, and I’m loving them. Another great bottle, but of course all of this producer’s wines, from all vintages, are sold out. Damn! If you’re lucky enough to have some of this, put it sideways for a few years, because it’s got a lot of stuffing for the ages. Some viognier is co-fermented with this single-vineyard syrah. (92 points)

2001 Cayuse Syrah “Bionic Frog” - Washington, Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley
A simply sublime syrah. Complex and profound aromas of black plum, dried blueberry, campfire smoke, rhubarb, grilled steak and charred earth. Brisk acid on the palate, with fine-grained tannins, very elegant at 12 years of age. The blackberry and plum fruit is still rich and opulent, but the non-fruit flavors steal the show: bacon, charcoal, grilled herbs, olive brine. Always expressive, but never overbearing, and a lot of this is credit to the wonderful acid. This wine is incredibly complex and has a near endless finish. It’s such an expensive and hyped wine, but like many Cayuse syrahs, I love it despite myself. I think this bottle lives up to its reputation, and it’s one of the best Washington syrahs I’ve tasted. Thanks a ton to my friend Brett for opening this gem! The cheapest I can find this wine is $275 at auction, which is half the cost of my first car. But I’d take two bottles of this over a used Geo Metro any day. (96 points)

While these wines are pricey and hard to find, they’re incredible interpretations of the syrah grape. If you’ve recently had some Walla Walla syrah, I’d love to hear about it. Cheers!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Tasting Report: Petite Sirah & Blends

Petite sirah is one of my go-to wines for this time of year, especially when I’m entertaining or hosting casual wine drinkers. Nerds and newbs alike love petite sirah’s chewy texture, the bold dark fruit, the earthy and peppery notes. It’s no wonder wine writers love talking about pairing petite sirah and summer grill-outs. Serve me a petite sirah with anything that bleeds and was cooked over fire, and odds are I’ll be happy.  

All these petite sirahs were received as trade samples and tasted blind.

2009 Concannon Vineyard Petite Sirah Conservancy - California, San Francisco Bay, Livermore Valley ($15)
Gobs of blackberries on the nose, red licorice, purple Gushers candy, along with mocha and toasted coconut. Juicy and full of red and black berry fruit, this wine is jammy and thick. High alcohol is evident over the creamy-smooth tannins. Inky, but not much in the way of secondary flavors. (85 points)

2010 Concannon Vineyard Conservancy Crimson & Clover - California, San Francisco Bay, Livermore Valley ($15)
Aromas of purple taffy, raspberry jam, rose petals and toast. Soft tannins, medium acid, this wine takes a jammy, easy-drinking approach with flavors of raspberry, cherry, vanilla, mocha and toasted oak. 50% Petite Sirah, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Syrah and 10% Zinfandel. (86 points)

2010 Mettler Family Wines Petite Sirah - California, Central Valley, Lodi ($25)
Almost like paint on the nose, with these deep, brooding aromas of blackberry, plum and charcoal, along with notes of vanilla and toast. The tannins are firm but rounded, and the wine is really inky, like gobs of ink and crushed berries. The acid is a bit low for my palate, but the blackberry and plum fruit is beautifully concentrated and sweet. The charcoal note really comes into play on the palate, and the wine finishes with notes of coffee and caramel. A wine with no shame, but it’s got the depth and complexity to pull it off. This Petite Sirah includes 8% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Cabernet Franc, aged 21 months in French oak. (88 points)

2010 Fields Family Wines Petite Sirah Estate - California, Central Valley, Lodi ($28)
A really exciting petite sirah with lots of unique characteristics. Lots of red and black cherries on the nose, with green coffee and a smell that reminds me of a greenhouse full of flowers. On the palate, chewy tannins provide structure for the saucy cherry and blackberry fruit. There’s a very distinct flavor of sweet teryaki marinade, and I get a real kick out of it. Earthy and peppery notes linger onto the finish. (89 points)

2011 Concannon Vineyard Petite Sirah Selected Vineyards - California, Central Coast ($10)
Medium purple color. Aromas of plum cake, caramel and green peppercorns. The palate shows fine tannins and juicy raspberry and plum fruit. Creamy and jammy with a solid dose of oak. There’s bitterness to this wine, like the skins and pips of the berries or something, and the finish is short. For $10, you can’t really expect much more. (80 points)

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Four Solid Wines From Virginia's Linden

I’m a big fan of (some) Virginia wines. The state’s growing wine industry is so diverse, and new players are popping up so frequently, that it’s almost nonsensical to discuss “Virginia wines” as some sort of collective concept. Instead, I try to focus on specific wineries that farm specific plots and make quality, hand-crafted wines.

I recently attended a tasting in honor of a long-time wine buddy’s birthday. He’s long been a supporter of the Virginia winery Linden, located about 65 miles west of the nation’s capitol. The tasting was packed with amazing wines from Washington State, Oregon, Lebanon and France, but even among this esteemed company, the four Linden wines at the tasting showed well.

Here are my notes…

2011 Linden Sauvignon Blanc Avenius ($24)
I get lemon and orange peel on the nose, but the chive and jalapeno notes really come out and demand attention. Super tangy on the palate, those jalapeno and chive notes accent the green melon and tangerine flavors. For a Virginia sauvignon blanc, I’m impressed. (85 points)

2002 Linden Chardonnay Avenius ($?)
Wow, even at 11 years old, this Linden chardonnay is still going. Aromas of dried pineapple, honeycomb and something that reminds me of brie rind. Light and smooth on the palate, this is a very soft chardonnay with an unassuming presence on the palate (12.8% alcohol). Dried pineapple fruit, lemon peel and a nice sense of chalk and minerals on the finish. This is consistently one of my favorite Virginia chardonnays, and it’s nice to see an older vintage showing well. (88 points)

Rich nose of bruised apple, honey, peanut shell and cotton candy. Medium acid, the palate is full of juiy peach and pineapple fruit, lemon creme and peanut shell. Sweet honey and pineapple linger on the finish. A bit of a better showing than the last bottle I tasted earlier this year. (87 points)

2009 Linden Hardscrabble Red ($50)
Linden nails it with this wine. The nose shows smoke, sweet red plum, milk chocolate and dried herbs. Plump and juicy on the palate, with fresh acid and fine tannins to support the juicy red fruit. Notes of granite, loam and mocha last on the finish. I’m enjoying the whole approach of this wine, but I think a few years in the cellar could do some good. A blend of 64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot and 7% Cabernet Franc, aged 21 months in 50% new French oak. (88 points) 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Three Kick-Ass Wines From South Africa's Stellenbosch Region

I still haven’t made it to South Africa. It’s a travesty, considering the country offers opportunities to do some of my favorite things in life: surf awesome waves, tour wineries (and drink!), watch wildlife.

But until I make an epic pilgrimage to South Africa, I’ll have to settle for sipping on the country’s great wines. Here are three such wines from the Stellenbosch region that recently wowed me. All three of these wines were received as trade samples and tasted blind.

2012 De Morgenzon Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé DMZ - South Africa, Coastal Region, Stellenbosch ($15)
Bright salmon-pink color. Wow, smells like strawberry bushes covered with white flowers and cracked pepper. Tangy, spritzy, full of fresh watermelon, tangy cherry, white flowers, red apple peel. Notes of pepper and mineral add complexity. The verve of this wine is awesome. Notes of yellow onion? A great bottle to serve with the salads and seafood of summer. And what a bargain at $15. (88 points)
2009 De Toren Z - South Africa, Coastal Region, Stellenbosch ($26)
Aromas of dark roasted coffee, crushed blackberry, hint of tart cranberry, dried leaves and soil as well. On the palate, firm tannins and wonderfully fresh acid. Interesting mix of fresh blackberries and cranberries, hints of roasted coffee and a hazelnut-toast aspect lingers on the finish. Well-played oak doesn’t overpower the pure fruit flavors. I love the hint of chewing tobacco, smoke and tilled soil on the finish. Very focused, but still very young and capable of cellaring for three-to-five easily. A Bordeaux style blend of 56% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Cabernet Franc, 4% Malbec and a 2% shot of Petit Verdot. (90 points)

2010 De Toren Fusion V - South Africa, Coastal Region, Stellenbosch ($45)
The nose, where to start? Plum cake, fig, currant jam, cedar, pine needles, mocha. Wow. Tart acid on the palate, firm tannins, and generous fruit. Plums and currants mix with earth and cedar and black olive. This is granite-structured, but the acid is wonderful. The notes of bay leaf and potting soil pay homage to the Old World, but the fruit has such richness. Aged 12 months in 50% new oak, but the toast and mocha flavors are extremely well-integrated. This wine is showing wonderfully now, but it’s a big one that will be even more interesting in five or eight years. A blend of 57% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot, 13% Malbec, 11% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot. It’s not necessarily cheap, but well worth the money if you’re looking for something special. (93 points)

These wines were reviewed for

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Rastafarianism Revealed: a Review of Leonard E. Barrett’s Classic Study

“These are the words of the Rastas. A people politically, socially, and historically aware of their reason for being.”

Sure, you could check out Wikipedia’s page on Rastafarianism or search the internet for articles on the history of Rastas. But I doubt there is any other medium that captures the essence of Rastafarianism better than this book. Decades after it hit shelves, Leonard E. Barrett’s book The Rastafarians is still in print. In short, it’s an epic work.

The quality of the historical research is impressive. Barrett has the eye of a journalist and the dedication of an anthropologist. He does a great job explaining the colonial history of Jamaica, the slavery and exploitation of the black population, and the many rebellions and grassroots movements that emerged from this environment.

I had no idea the roots of Rastafarianism went so far back in time, but the messianic-millenarian movements that came to be known as Rastafarianism have a long history. “Today’s Rastafarians have come a long way from their ‘birds of passage’ existence in the 1930s,” writes Barrett. “Rastafarians now occupy enviable positions in Jamaica. There are Rasta physicians, pharmacists, professors, journalists, pilots, teachers, nurses, bus drivers, technicians, mail carriers, photographers, city council members, mechanics, carpenters…”

Part of the joy of reading this book comes from glimpses into Barrett’s research process. Sometimes referring to himself in the third-person (“the author” or “the writer”) and sometimes in the first-person, Barrett inserts himself into the story in various ways. Rather than detracting from his subject, the noticeable presence of the author enriches understanding of the subject. For example, when Barrett is interviewing some remote Rastafarian villagers, he explains the trouble he has getting people to talk. He writes: “There were some objections to taping the interview, but this was finally permitted upon the presentation of a few dollars.”

Barrett is a serious researcher and a serious religious historian, and I appreciate the way he analyzes Rastafarianism as a serious religion. It seems Rastafarianism is frequently portrayed as something of a joke, not a real religion. The dress, the dreadlocks, the use of marijuana, these cultural and religious practices are mocked as somehow not deserving of the same recognized status of other religious sects. I realize that some of the specific religious beliefs of certain Rastafarians are quite ridiculous (for example, the belief that Ethiopian monarch Haile Selassie was god), but they are no more ridiculous than the beliefs of, say, Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists or other religious sects. In all these systems of belief, people ignore reason and science in favor of fanciful claims about god and the nature of the universe.

While keenly focused on the specifics of certain people at certain times, Barrett extrapolates on his findings and attempts to draw larger historical conclusions. His subject is Rastafarianism in Jamaica, but the underlying themes are universal. For example, Barrett analyzes Rastafarian myths in a way that is relevant to other religious myths: “By their very nature, myths remain outside the realm of truth or falsehood, being subject neither to the rules of logic nor to the techniques of scientific investigation. A religious myth such as Rastafarianism, then, claims for itself an immunity from logic not granted to any other kind of knowledge system…”

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Basking in Moët's Champagne Portfolio

Moët Hennessy is a beverage industry behemoth. Besides the luxury brands in its name (Moët & Chandon Champagne, Hennessy Cognac) the company’s brands include the Champagnes of Veuve Clicquot, Ruinart, Dom Pérignon and Krug. Not to mention Grand Marnier, Ardbeg and Glenmorangie Scotch, and a handful of wineries in Spain and Argentina.

So I was obviously excited when I got invited to a Moët Hennessy USA tasting at the Graham Georgetown Hotel in Washington, DC. The tasting was led by Seth Box, Moët Hennessy USA’s director of education, and a Master of Wine student. Mr. Box’s knowledge of Champagne is extensive, and his passion for wine is addictive. A few dozen people from the DC-area wine community gathered in the cozy bar on the hotel’s ground level as Mr. Box and other Moët reps poured glass after glass of incredible (and justifiably expensive) Champagne. We talked about the masters behind the winemaking, the process of aging Champagne, and why any serious wine collector should consider stashing away some of these beautiful bubbles.

As readers of this blog may know, I taste a lot of wine. However, its a rare event where I consistently freak out over the quality and distinctiveness of this many wines. Here are my notes on a palate-pleasing night.

2004 Moët & Chandon Champagne Grand Vintage Brut - France, Champagne
Floral on the nose, with lots of mixed nuts, lemon cake and yellow apple. Crisp acid, full body, flavors of nougat, lemon, yellow apple. Long finish with notes of honeyed tea. Nice way to start of the evening. A blend of 38% Chardonnay, 33% Pinot Noir and 29% Pinot Meunier. (89 points)

1992 Moët & Chandon Champagne Grand Vintage Brut - France, Champagne
Showing those beautiful aged aromas of hazelnut, boiled peanuts, apricots and yellow flowers. Crisp acid, fine bubbles, this mineral-driven Champagne also shows lots of lemon peel, honeydew melon, sweet tart candies and honeycomb flavors. Very elegant and sleek, with a long, nutty finish. Drinking incredibly well now, but these bubbles arent done evolving yet. (91 points)

2002 Moët & Chandon Champagne Cuvée Dom Pérignon Rosé - France, Champagne
Salmon-pink color. Aromatic bliss: watermelon, juicy strawberries, white cherry, potpourri. The aromas shift and change with every sniff. Intensely young on the palate, with sharp acid. Juicy watermelon and strawberry fruit is accentuated by notes of biscuit, tons of minerals and a flavor that reminds me of sage. This is a stunning rose Champagne, but I got a sense that this has much more to show as it opens up over the next five or ten years. (94 points)
1996 Moët & Chandon Champagne Cuvée Dom Pérignon Oenothèque
- France, Champagne
Intoxicating aromas of lemon cake, buttered croissant, yellow apple, honeydew, dried white flowers... and the aromas just keep going. Rich on the palate, with green apple and melon fruit, buttered toast and dried honey, but this wine maintains so much focus and precision. The minerality in this wine is astounding, same goes for the acid, which never ceases. Such dramatic tension between the lean and rich aspects. Chef de Caves Richard Geoffroy has made a masterpiece with this wine. If I had a bottle of this, I’d put it down with a cellar tag that reads “Do not open until apocalypse.” (96 points)

2000 Krug Champagne Brut - France, Champagne
Years of studying wine, tasting wine, collecting and storing it, sometimes you forget what it is about wine that drives a person to dedicate so much time, money and effort. Then a wine like this comes along and floors you, leaves you in complete awe, and reminds you that life is fucking awesome. This Krug shows a beautiful golden apple color. A collage of rich and intense aromas: fresh biscuits, apricot, hazelnut, honey, caramel, shortbread cookies, the aromas dont quit. Dense and bold on the palate, but balanced by superb acid. Rich themes of apricot, hazelnut, honeycomb, caramel, Fuji apple, but theyre contrasted with intense limestone and quinine flavors. Full and hedonistic, yet sleek and elegant, this Champagne is a beautiful contradiction. 43% Chardonnay, 42% Pinot Noir, 15% Pinot Meunier. Id love to taste another bottle of this again when Im old and crotchety. (98 points)

N.V. Krug Champagne Brut Rosé - France, Champagne
Pretty copper-rose color. Aromas of white cherries, McIntosh apples and lots of seashell, saline and ocean jetty rock aromas. Brisk acid, this wine is both powerful and effortlessly beautiful. The palate is full of juicy watermelon, apple and strawberry, highlighted by peanut shell, sea salt and lemon zest. A stunning rosé Champagne. Go Krug!

(95 points)

1989 Krug Champagne Brut Collection - France, Champagne
One of those wines you taste and think, “Man, I am so lucky.” Intriguing apricot-honey color. Smells waxy and honeyed, with orange marmalade, clover honey, dried flowers, bruised apples. The palate loaded with gobs of apricot, brandied pear and blood orange. Crisp acid keeps it lean and balanced, and the aged notes of mixed nuts, rose tea, truffle oil and dried mushrooms. Throughout, this wine maintains an oceanic aura, with seashells and mineral water. So complex, this wines finish is obscenely long. One of the most intellectually stimulating Champagnes Ive ever had the pleasure of drinking.

(97 points)


Moët Hennessy has its fingers in a lot of pies, including wineries in Spain and Argentina that make delicious, boisterous reds.

2007 Terrazas de Los Andes Cheval des Andes - Argentina, Mendoza, Lujan de Cuyo, Vistalba
A joint venture between Chateau Cheval Blanc and Terrazas De Los Andes, this is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Malbec, 4% Merlot and 1% Petit Verdot, aged 18 months in oak. Seductive aromas of plum sauce, black currant jam, sage, pepper and earth. Full and packed with saucy red and black fruit flavors. I like the earth, graphite and loam aspects of this wine. With such purity of flavors, this wine is beautiful now, but I dont doubt this wines ability to age well for five years. (90 points)

2009 Terrazas de Los Andes Malbec Single Vineyard Las Compuertas - Argentina, Mendoza, Lujan de Cuyo
Nose shows figs, blackberries, brown sugar and charcoal. The palate is smooth and silky, with pure blueberry and blackberry fruit. Notes of tilled soil and smoke help out the complexity. Very easy-drinking kind of malbec that would please almost any palate. (88 points)

2008 Bodega Numanthia Termes Toro Numanthia - Spain, Castilla y León, Toro
Smells like magic markers, blackberry jam, plum sauce and a hint of eucalyptus. Bold and brutish on the palate, this wine has a tannic, chewy mouthfeel. Flavors of blueberry and fig and compacted with smoke, earth and a hint of bay leaf. Unapologetic and delicious. (90 points)

2009 Bodega Numanthia Termes Toro Termanthia - Spain, Castilla y León, Toro
Love the aromatic display of fig, blueberry reduction, smoke and violets. Dense tannins lay the groundwork for the copious amounts of fruit: blueberry extract, fig, black currants. These smoke and herbal aspects add complexity and depth. Gorgeous finish. A bold wine, but it maintains some nuance and will surely develop more over time. (91 points)

At the beginning of the night, a bottle of 1997 Chateau d’Yquem rested majestically among the Champagnes. Everyone was under the impression that we would open this Sauternes at the end of the evening for a final toast. However, by the end of the night, the bottle had mysteriously disappeared. None of the tasters knew what happened to it. My guess is that the organizers realized we’d had quite a lot to drink and sneakily shelved the bottle for another occasion. Disappearing d’Yquem bottle aside, the tasting was as good as they get.


Smiles all around from the crew at the daily wine blog Terroirist. Left to right:
Isaac James Baker, David White (founder and editor), Scott Claffee, Sarah Hexter.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Wine Reviews: California Grab Bag

One of my wine matras is: try new things. Today’s reviews focus on California winemakers who are doing just that. Lately I’ve been reviewing a lot of cabernets, pinot noirs and chardonnays from California. While these wines can be spectacular, it’s always fun to highlight winemakers who are working with lesser-known varieties. Some of these grapes you may have heard of, some maybe not. If you haven’t tried a Santa Barbara viognier or some of the unique red varieties coming out of the Sierra Foothills, there has never been a better time than now to experiment.

All wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.  

2010 Curtis Roussanne - California, Central Coast, Santa Barbara County ($29)
Light gold colored. Aromas of yellow apple, green melon, beeswax. Palate shows medium acid, a little lacking in structure. Apple juice, green tea and green melon flavors mix with notes of clover honey and pineapple. Tangy acid and a hint of mineral linger onto the finish. Overall, not very complex, but it’s got enough verve from the acid to keep it going. (86 points)

2011 Curtis Viognier - California, Central Coast, Santa Barbara County ($29)
A tropical mélange of papaya, pineapple and mango on the nose, but it’s not over the top because there are these bright white flower aromas as well. Plump and generously textured with persistent acid. The papaya, green melon and tangerine flavors are laced with limestone and this flavor that reminds me of a mountain stream. Just a hint of honeycomb and lemon crème, probably from the 8 months this wine spends in contact with the lees. Even so, this is more of a sleeker style of viognier. I really appreciate the overall balance and the length of the finish. (89 points)

2011 Fess Parker Viognier - California, Central Coast, Santa Barbara County ($20)
Like potpourri on the nose, with aromas of lilies, honeysuckle, tangerine. Plump on the palate, but the acid is surprisingly fresh. Usually in Central Coast viognier I get too much thickness and not enough acid, but this is fresh and full of nice tart flavors. There’s some nice rich white peach and pineapple, backed up by some oily-nutty notes. Crisp finish. (88 points)

Semillon is used in the expensive dessert wine Sauternes,
but this dry version from Calaveras County is a bargain.
2011 Chatom Vineyards Sémillon - California, Sierra Foothills, Calaveras County ($16)
Fresh aromas of pineapple, papaya mixed with salted lime and white flowers. Juicy, light and fresh, with creamy peach and white flower flavors. There’s a flavor that reminds me of lime drizzled on papaya — love it. The waxy aspect makes this interesting. I’d be a happy camper drinking this with fried calamari on a sunny afternoon. (87 points)

2011 Castello di Amorosa Sangiovese “Gioia” - California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley ($24)
This rose of Sangiovese shows a pretty cherry-rose color in the glass. Aromas of McIntosh apples, red plums, wild strawberries and a hint of tobacco. Tart acid on the palate, but it’s balanced by fresh apple, strawberry and watermelon fruit. There’s a kick of pepper, lemon rind and mineral that lingers long onto the finish. Such a fresh wine, it begs for grilled seafood and Greek salads. One of the better domestic roses I’ve had in quite a while. (88 points)

California interpretations of Italian grapes can be
hit or miss for my palate. This one's a home run.
2009 Castello di Amorosa Sangiovese - California, Napa Valley, St. Helena ($30)
Bright ruby color. Bright and sweet on the nose: red licorice, red cherries, roses, clove and a note that reminds me of sweet paprika. The palate is full of juicy strawberry fruit and lots of acid. Fine tannins combine for an overall creamy mouthfeel. The important thing to note here is that the oak is used judiciously. Notes of green olive and tobacco accentuate the bright red fruit. This is a Cal-Ital done very well, and I frankly enjoy it more than a lot of Tuscan wines at twice the price. 90% Sangiovese and 10% Merlot. (91 points)

2009 Chatom Vineyards Touriga Nacional - California, Sierra Foothills, Calaveras County ($24)
Dark berries on the nose, fig paste, mocha, these richer aromas play with herbal and broth aromas as well, and it makes for an interesting combo. Dusty tannins on the palate, medium acid and a balanced mix of fruit and non-fruit flavors: cherry, raspberry, olive, smoke, soy and garlic. Really earthy and briny, and coming from California, I'm enjoying it. The fruit is rich enough to indicate California, but the non-fruit flavors are off the charts. Love it. Made from one of the classic Port grapes. (88 points)

2010 Fields Family Wines Tempranillo - California, Central Valley, Lodi ($22)
Smoky on the nose, with aromas of charcoal and mocha over top of blackberries and raspberries. Full of dark fruit on the palate, plums, blackberries and blueberries, slathered with rich mocha and baking spices. Fine tannins, low acid, noticeable alcohol, this is a seriously jammy and dense wine, with an almost bourbon-esque finish of sweet coconut. (87 points)

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Dry German Rieslings, Seductive Without the Sugar

I don’t like German rieslings. They’re too sweet.

I hear this sentiment from people all the time, but it still baffles me. In my mind, sweetness is to riesling what off-shore wind is to a surf break: it takes that which is already good and makes it even better. Sweetness in and of itself doesn’t make a wine great, just as an off-shore breeze does not in and of itself create an awesome wave. Sweetness must also be balanced by other factors, such as acid and minerality, two components that German riesling packs a lot of.

But, hey, if you don’t like the perfect touch of sweetness in a spätlese, you’re not alone. It seems more and more German winemakers are producing wines for the dry-loving palate, or perhaps more are being imported to satisfy the demand. Regardless, German dry riesling can be incredible. Bracing at times, and immensely acidic, but dry as a pile of bones. (If you’re not a fan of residual sugar, look for “trocken” on the label, meaning dry.) And despite my sweet tooth, I still love dry riesling.

I got to taste ten dry rieslings at a recent tasting of the DC-based German Wine Society. Here are my notes…

Dry Rieslings

2007 Weingut Heymann-Löwenstein Riesling Schieferterrassen - Germany, Mosel Saar Ruwer
Aromas of peach, lime, orange blossom and yellow apple, with time faint notes of herbs and spices. Lush apple and pear fruit on the palate with superb acid. Hints of oil and beeswax show the age. This wine is only slightly sweet, but the mineral and acid make it taste bone dry. If I had other bottles, I’d be wary of aging them for more than a year or so. That said, I really liked this, as I do all Heymann-Löwenstein wines. (90 points)

2011 Franzen Riesling Der Sommer war sehr groß - Germany, Mosel Saar Ruwer
Pale lemon color with a slight spritz in the glass. Aromas of sweet peach, honey and white flowers. For a dry riesling tasting, this one showed a bit more richness. High acid on the palate, rushing lime and lemon peel, backed up by bracing minerals and a tart, quinine-laced finish. (87 points)

2009 Bassermann-Jordan Riesling Auf der Mauer - Germany, Pfalz
Bright and lively aromatics: slate, lime, white tea, salt. Very tangy on the palate with lots of minerals. The fruit is lean and tends toward grapefruit rind and green apple peel. Flavors of salt and crushed rocks linger onto the finish. A bold, dry riesling. (88 points)

2008 Koehler-Ruprecht Kallstadter Saumagen Riesling Kabinett trocken - Germany, Pfalz
Very reticent on the nose, and it didn’t open up much with time. Aromas of lemon, lanolin and white tea. The palate is soft, quite weak actually. The green melon flavors taste musky and old. A bit of apricot and nut flavors came out, but there’s also this strange green tree bark flavor. It’s not well-spoken enough to be intellectually stimulating. (83 points)

2011 Dönnhoff Riesling Trocken - Germany, Nahe
Even at the entry level Dönnhoff gets it done. Smoky slate, minerals and grapefruit on the nose. High acid on the palate, a bit of a waxy mouthfeel, with lots of crushed rock dust and smoke. Flavors of bitter lemon and green melon come together on the tart finish. (88 points)

2011 Weingut Fogt Riesling Siefersheimer Goldenes Horn Spätlese Trocken - Germany, Rheinhessen
Like a perfume shop on the nose with white flowers and honeysuckle, also an aroma that reminds me of cucumber water and lemon rind. Purity of acid, minerals and fruit on the palate. The flavors of green apple, white peach and zested lime taste richer than some of the prior wines in the tasting. Finish is both tart and full with a note of grapefruit. Delicious young. (89 points)

2011 Wagner-Stempel Siefersheimer Riesling Vom Porphyr Trocken - Germany, Rheinhessen
Lovely aromatic display of apricot, tart lemon, crushed rock and smoke. The palate is brisk and tart with mouth-puckering acid. Greem melon and pineapple rind flavors mix with dense minerals and the smoke that wafts up when you smash two rocks together. The intensity of the sour apple and lemon is matched only by the minerality, which lingers long onto the finish. Very powerful stuff that might taste better in a year or so, even though I tend to enjoy drinking dry rieslings young. (91 points)

2009 Weingut Seehof Westhofener Steingrube Riesling Trocken - Germany, Rheinhessen
On the nose: yellow apple, lemon zinger tea, lime peel and crushed rocks. Plump on the palate, with high acid. The flavors of peach skin, honey, wax and smoke are complex and focused. I pick up some margarita salt and herb notes on the finish. (89 points)

2006 Weingut Keller Dalsheimer Hubacker Riesling Großes Gewächs - Germany, Rheinhessen
Beautifully aromatic: white flowers, pear blossom, slate, intense minerals, salt and lime. Bracing and intense on the palate, with loads of acid and minerals, but the nutty, orange peel, clove and slate flavors give it enough body and richness to make it balanced. Lanolin and slate linger long on the finish. I’m not a huge fan of Großes Gewächs wines, but this is superb. Even though I like to drink GG wines young, this could last for a very long time. (93 points)

2010 Dönnhoff Niederhäuser Hermannshöhle Riesling Großes Gewächs - Germany, Nahe
Wow, what a treat. Endlessly floral on the nose with grapefruit, minerals and lime. Searing acid, so 2010, but this dry wine maintains enough richness and power to balance out the acidity. Flavors of grapefruit, honeysuckle, green pear, minerals, crushed rocks. So much complexity and a finish that doesn’t quit. One of my favorite Großes Gewächs so far. (95 points)