Monday, July 29, 2013

Mas La Plana: Six Vintages of a Storied Spanish Cabernet

Miguel Torres Maczassek is a focused man, sniffing and sipping his wine like a scientist at work. Now CEO of the Torres Group, Miguel gives the impression that he would’ve excelled in pretty much any profession. (Indeed, he did well for himself in the perfume business before becoming marketing director for Torres). But Miguel is truly in his element as he discusses his family’s top wine, Mas La Plana

Mas La Plana and delicious small plates from Jaleo... what a pairing!
I recently had the pleasure of tasting six vintages of Mas La Plana with Miguel and some others at Jaleo restaurant in Washington, DC. We tasted the 1977, 1983, 1996, 2003, 2007 and 2009 vintages. We then moved on to a variety of delicious small plates, continuing to sip and discuss the six different wines.

A single estate 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Penedès appellation of eastern Spain, the Torres family has been producing this wine since 1970. In 1966, at a time when Spanish Cabernet was practically unheard of, Miguel’s father planted Cabernet vines in the gravel and limestone soils of Mas La Plana. At a Paris Wine Olympiad blind tasting in 1979 this inaugural vintage of Mas La Plana bested some of Bordeaux’s biggest names. Torres had its foot in the door of world-class Cabernet.

The Torres family has been making wine in Penedès for almost 150 years. If you’ve ever been in a liquor store, you recognize their Sangre de Toro wines, complete with a little plastic bull adorned to the neck. While large-scale Catalunya blends may have been Torres’ bread and butter for decades, Mas La Plana is a whole different deal.

As evidenced by this tasting, Mas La Plana has evolved quite a bit over the decades, following a common storyline of creeping alcohol content and increased time in new French oak. Miguel admits Mas La Plana has taken on a more polished and approachable style over the years, achieved by longer skin contact and more new oak. While I was smitten with the elegance and bright acidity of the older vintages, I found a lot to love in the more recent vintages, all of which maintain pure fruit and the earthy essence of their region.

My notes are below the fold…

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Chilean Wines: Good Stuff for $15 or Less

When you hear the phrase “Chilean wine,” what words come to mind? Carménère? Don Melchor? For me, Chilean wine is synonymous with value. Chilean wines frequently have a high quality-to-price-ratio, and the level of diversity is impressive.
I recently tasted through a few Chilean wines and found a few more reasons why I associate Chile with value-driven wines. I didn’t realize it at the time — I was tasting blind — but all of the bottles in this group generally retail for $15 or less, making them good choices for summertime sipping or parties.
A quick note on the “Gran Reserva” designation that appears on several of these wines. While Old World reserve designations indicate the wine was aged for a certain number of years, the requirements for Gran Reserva designation in Chile are less strict. The designation simply means the wine must have at least 12.5% alcohol and receive at least some oak treatment.
All these wines were received as trade samples and tasted blind.

SRP: $15
Very light straw-yellow color. Ripe and fresh on the nose, with pineapple and mango backed up by a note of green pepper and rosemary. On the palate, the oily mouthfeel is matched by medium acid. The fruit is ripe but also a bit pungent, like tangerine rind and the outer parts of a pineapple. The fruit flavors work well with notes of sweet honeysuckle, green pepper and sage. Bright and tangy on the finish. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a Chilean Gewürz, but this is solid stuff. (87 points)

SRP: $12
Light and clear yellow color. Smells really fresh, green apples, green melon, honeysuckle, but there’s also a distinct herbal note that reminds me of jalapeno and chives. Tart acid kicks off the palate, followed up by crisp green apple and pear skin flavors. That jalapeno and chive note mixes in with the fruit. It’s actually quite light in its approach, perhaps a little mild. The acid lingers with lemon zest on the finish. (85 points)

SRP: $13
Aromas of melon, green pear, honey and a note that reminds me of almond butter. Plump and ripe on the palate. The yellow apple and pear flavors mix with butter, honey, melon rind and almond. Creamy, but not overblown. This chardonnay doesn’t see any oak, and it’s blended with a “dash” of Moscatel. (84 points)

2011 Viu Manent Chardonnay Gran Reserva - Chile, Casablanca Valley
SRP: $11
A burst of lemon and kiwi on the nose, there’s also a nutty-rich note, something like honey and hazelnut. Generously textured on the palate, with yellow apple and nectarine fruit that is ripe and plush. Hazelnut and toasted almond accents, a bit of cinnamon baking spice, but the acid offers crispness. Green apple, nutty and toffee notes last onto the finish, reminds me of a candy apple. Solid stuff, especially considering the price. (87 points)

2012 Tabalí Viognier Reserva - Chile, Limarí Valley
SRP: $14
The nose is a citrus explosion: grapefruit, lemon, lime and tangerine, along with a white flower and sea salt note. Creamy on the palate, but the acid zips. The tangerine, apricot and papaya fruit is ripe but tangy. A sense of ocean spray and honey mix together in this wine, and I’m really enjoying it. Ripe but lean, and packed with flavor. If you dislike some of the hot and rich Viogniers, this brisk, stainless steel-fermented wine could be a great summer sipper. (88 points)

2011 Cultivate “Copa Cobana” - Chile, Central Valley
SRP: $13
Rich and smoky on the nose, the sweet mixed berry aromas blend well with the earth and charcoal. On the palate, this is a silky, juicy, easy-drinking red. The berry flavors are ripe and tangy, mixed with red licorice candy and some earthy, smoky, sage-like notes. I like the acid and the light tannins. This blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Carmenere is a perfect summer grilling red, especially at $13. (87 points)

SRP: $15
Clear ruby colored. Pretty aromas of cherries and raspberries, mixed with notes of rhubarb and sweet roses. Juicy cherry fruit leads the palate, with tangy acid and easy-drinking tannins. A bit lighter fresher in its approach, this Pinot Noir also shows some earth and mushroom notes, as well as some cola and cinnamon. Medium-length finish. The elements line up really well. Good stuff for the price. (88 points)

Monday, July 22, 2013

Turmoil in Turkey — On Orhan Pamuk's Novel "Snow"

Kerim Alakysoglu (who goes by Ka), is a poet who was born in the Turkish border town of Kars but moves to Germany for a dozen years. Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow kicks off with Ka returning to his hometown of Kars. It ends several days later, when Ka flees for his life and returns to Frankfurt.

The reasons for his homecoming are complicated. There’s a romantic motivation: He’s in love with a woman named Ipek who lives in Kars, a woman he desperately wants to marry and bring back to Germany. Kars is also experiencing some socio-religious upheaval, and Ka, being a romantic poet, wants to be right in the middle of it. The Turkish government has been trying to force religious women to remove their headscarves, and Kars gains international notoriety when several local Muslim women choose to kill themselves instead of betraying their religious laws and uncovering their heads.

Ka wants to find out more about why these women are killing themselves so he can write about it… at least that’s what he says.  These suicides “would haunt him for the rest of his life. It wasn’t the elements of poverty or helplessness that Ka found so shocking. Neither was it the constant beatings to which these girls were subjected, or the insensitivity of fathers who wouldn’t even let them go outside, or the constant surveillance of jealous husbands. The thing that shocked and frightened Ka was the way these girls had killed themselves: abruptly, without ritual or warning, in the midst of their everyday routines.”

Kars is also stuck in the middle of a blizzard. In this novel, snow functions as both a natural complication to Ka’s trip and a deeper metaphor. The snow theme permeates the entire book. In fact, I bet Pamuk mentions snow more often than Hemingway mentions rain in A Farewell to Arms. Somewhere, a literature post-grad is writing a thesis paper dissecting Pamuk’s use of snow as a metaphor for god, fear, loneliness, alienation, etc., so I’ll move on.  

Ka isn’t in town long before he is contacted by a man who goes by “Blue.” This Blue character is a charismatic but hardcore Muslim with his hands in a few schemes. Perhaps it’s because of Ka’s masochistic tendencies, perhaps it’s because he is struggling through his own existential problems, but Ka is drawn to Blue, intrigued by him. And it turns out Blue also has a connection to Ipek, Ka’s true love. The Turkish police want Blue dead, and they want Ka’s help in finding him. It’s all quite complicated, but the author weaves these different storylines together quite well.

Despite being a self-loathing cynic, Ka is an intriguing protagonist. He is constantly wary of peace and happiness, like he sees these positive forces as dangerous to his health. Speaking about the correlation between poetry and happiness, Ka writes: “The issue is the same for all real poets. If you’ve been happy too long, you become banal. By the same token, if you’ve been unhappy for a long time, you lose your poetic powers… Happiness and poetry can only coexist for the briefest time.”

I’m also fascinated by the way Blue and other Muslims constantly accuse Ka of being an atheist. To the rag-tag group of Muslim fanatics in this novel, being an atheist is practically the worst thing a person can be. An atheist is almost subhuman. Is Ka an atheist? I’m not so sure. He’s definitely conflicted about god and the nature of the universe, and sparks fly when Ka’s skepticism crashes up against the hardline Islam portrayed by Blue and his cohorts.

The narrative voice of this novel is a puzzle in itself, and the reader learns about the nature of the narrator bit by bit over the course of the story. The narrator states quite early on: “But I don’t wish to deceive you. I’m an old friend of Ka’s, and I begin this story knowing everything that will happen to him during his time in Kars.” The question then becomes: How does this friend no seemingly everything about Ka? Further on in the story, the narrator admits, “Because he would later describe his boundless ecstasy quite vividly in his notes, I know exactly how he felt at that moment…” Near the end of the book, the narrator’s connection with Ka and Ipek becomes clearer, and the pieces fall into place.

I found Pamuk’s prose overly intellectual and bland at times. He wastes a lot of words telling instead of showing, and I have trouble visualizing characters and places. Of course, it’s impossible to tell how much of this linguistic detachment is the product of the Turkish-to-English translation, or whether Pamuk is just a more reserved, physically distant writer.

But overall, Snow kept me engaged. It kept me up a few nights, too. It’s rare that I find a book like this — one that takes the personal, the romantic, the religious and the political and weaves them together so well. Pamuk pulls it off.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Journeying Through Donelan's Sonoma County Wines

DONELANEach bottle of Donelan wine is adorned with a motto: “Wine is a journey not a destination.” Perhaps it’s a bit corny, but as I sniff and sip Donelan’s reds, I feel like I’m experiencing not a finished product, but a continuing storyline. Yes, the wines possess pure and focused Sonoma County fruit that offers immediate pleasure, but it will take years to fully grasp the depth and complexity buried inside these wines.

Joe Donelan founded Donelan Wines in 2009 after leaving Pax Wine Cellars and parting ways with his former business partner Pax Mahle. Since its inception, winemaker Tyler Thomas has fashioned terroir-driven Rhone varieties under the Donelan label, and the wines have garnered all sorts of praise from the big critics. This praise is well-deserved. Donelan just announced Thomas will be leaving his position as winemaker, although he will continue to consult for the 2012 and 2013 vintages. Assistant winemaker Joe Nielsen, who has worked alongside Thomas for more than four years, will step up and take the reins as head winemaker.

If you’re like me, when you spend $45 on a bottle, you want a wine with the capacity to age and evolve. And the 2010 reds deliver droves of cellar potential. While each wine maintains an individual character, the 2010 reds as a whole display granite-like structure and concentration.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

2010 Donelan Cuvée Moriah - California, Sonoma County ($40)
Smells of figs, sweet cherries, incense and meat — and the combination rocks. Firm tannins provide serious structure for the juicy cherry and plum fruit, and fresh acid makes it easy to drink. The non-fruit flavors of pepper, charcoal, tobacco and rosemary are delicious. This blend of 54% Grenache, 26% Mourvedre and 20% Syrah could develop even more complexity over the next few years in the cellar. About 50% of the wine was whole cluster fermented. Any Châteauneuf-du-Pape comparisons are completely justified. (90 points)

2010 Donelan Syrah Walker Vine Hill - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley ($45)
This Syrah is incredibly young, but with air it begins to show its class and complexity. Aromas of fig and blueberry jam combine with smoke, violets and charcoal. Dark and bold on the palate, with iron-like tannins and medium acid. The blackberry and blueberry fruit is pure and delicious, accented by flavors of coffee, sage and ginger snap cookie. Despite its boldness, this Syrah somehow maintains balance. Clearly a wine for the cellar, I’d lay this down for at least a year, if not two or three. Otherwise, a decanter is highly recommended. I’m very impressed. (91 points)

2010 Donelan Syrah Cuvée Christine - California, Sonoma County ($45)
Dark and deep on the nose, I get blackberry, blueberry, charcoal and sweet violet aromas. With air, the nuances of pepper and spices started coming out. Grippy tannins kickstart the palate, but there’s enough acid for balance. The fig and fresh blackberry fruit is strikingly pure and deep, accented by notes of meat, pepper and charcoal. This Syrah clearly has some complexity packed in, but it’s so young that air alone can’t fully coax out those additional characteristics. I really think this needs to be squirreled away for three-to-five to show its full potential. A blend of Syrah from four different vineyards, 35% of the fruit is whole cluster fermented and 30% new oak used. (90 points)

2010 Donelan Syrah Kobler Family Vineyard - California, Sonoma County, Green Valley ($45)
On the nose, the Kobler Vineyard Syrah is much more floral and red-fruit focused, with bright raspberries and red plum aromas mixing with roses, violets and potting soil. It has the fresh aromatic theme of a flower garden after the rain. Fine tannins, crisp acid and 12.8% alcohol give this wine an elegant feel. The raspberry and plum fruit is fresh but still ripe. Notes of grilled meat, herbs and pepper add complexity. This 97/3 Syrah/Viognier is fermented with 40% whole clusters and aged 24 months in French oak, none of which is new. A real beauty. (92 points)

I don’t want to overlook the 2011 Donelan Chardonnay Nancie, from the Sonoma Coast appellation ($45). It didn’t wow me as much as the reds, but it’s still a quality Sonoma Coast chardonnay. I got aromas of melon, pear and popcorn, mixed with notes of limestone and sea shell. It’s juicy and ripe on the palate, with flavors of melon, honey, almond and butterscotch. Creamy body, but fresh acid keeps it in check.

I’m looking forward to seeing where the Donelan team takes this relatively new endeavor. So far, Donelan Wines offer a journey that I’d recommend to anyone.

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

Kenwood Winery: Rich Cabernets from the Sonoma Valley

I last wrote about sipping Syrah in El Dorado County as an off-the-beaten-path kind of experience. Well, sipping Cabernet at Kenwood in the Sonoma Valley may be the epitome of being on the beaten path.

It was hot and dry at Kenwood, but these old vines seemed to love it. 
Located right off Highway 12 in the town of Kenwood, the winery of the same name is a high-traffic kind of place. On a recent Saturday afternoon, the parking lot was packed with cars baking in the sun and tourists with pleasantly buzzed smiles. The surrounding area is, of course, beautiful: knotted and gnarly old vines clinging to the earth, perfectly cropped rows of as far as you can see, hills rising up on both sides of the long valley.

The Kenwood tasting room is housed in an old barn-like building that’s rustic on the outside and manicured on the inside. The tasting room is loaded with all the usual wine-related knick-knacks for sale (and then some). They sell enough T-shirts and jackets that they could clothe a few Kenwood Winery softball teams. To taste wines, you buy a $5 wooden token from a counter and then cash it in for five sips from the bar at the other end of the building. When I asked for two tokens so I could taste ten wines — I wasn’t driving — the woman behind the counter stared at me like I had an upside-down face.

I don’t have extensive experience with Kenwood’s wines, but I’ve enjoyed several vintages of the Jack London Cabernet Sauvignon in the past, and perhaps the fond memory of those bottles is why I chose to visit Kenwood instead of some others nearby (St. Francis, Chateau St. Jean, Ledson). I was also excited to taste several vintages of Kenwood’s Artist Series Cabernet, a wine I’ve never tried before. Turns out, the Artist Series Cabs were definitely the highlights of the tasting. They’re beautiful wines (by far the most expensive), although I think I’d prefer them with some more age.

Here are some thoughts on the wines…

2011 Kenwood Chardonnay Reserve Russian River Valley - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley ($25)
Aromas of buttered pear, hazelnut and toast. On the palate, medium acid combines with lemon zest and rich pear fruit. Notes of hazelnut and toasted almonds. Rich, but also showing some verve. (87 points)

2010 Kenwood Gewürztraminer - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley ($14)
The nose shows lychee, sugar cane and some nice spicy and herbal notes. On the palate, this wine is semi-dry with lots of white peach and nutty flavors. The lower acid and somewhat flat mouthfeel keep me from getting too excited about this wine, but it’s OK. (84 points)

2011 Kenwood Pinot Noir - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley ($20)
Roses, cherry sauce and spice on the nose. Juicy, sweet red fruit on the palate with some serious oak. Medium tannins and acid. Overall, this is pleasant, but not very memorable. (85 points)

2011 Kenwood Pinot Noir Reserve - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley ($25)
On the nose, I get a lot of toast, nuts and rich strawberry jam. On the palate, really jammy, like cherries and raspberries. Easy tannins, a decent amount of toast and hazelnut. Pretty basic stuff but a decent Pinot for $25. (86 points)

2009 Kenwood Syrah Jack London Vineyard - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley ($20)
Aromas of blackberry and raspberries, along with some pepper and savory tones. Medium-bodied and plush on the palate with fine tannins and medium acid. Nice notes of blackberries and plums, along with some meaty, peppery aspects. 95% Syrah and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. (87 points)

2010 Kenwood Cabernet Sauvignon Jack London Vineyard - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley ($35)
A really solid Jack London Cabernet, but I think this needs some time in the cellar before it shows its best. Aromas of berries, currants, roses and green pepper. Firm tannins, medium acid, with lots of currant and black cherry fruit. Savory meat and earth tones provide complexity. Very nice and full, but I’d decant if drinking in the near term. Otherwise, this could reward cellaring for four or five years. But I tend to like the Jack London Cab with some age on it. Includes 3% Merlot. (90 points)

2008 Kenwood Cabernet Sauvignon Artist Series - California, Sonoma County ($75)
Smells jammy and rich on the nose, with sweet raspberries and plums. Lovely nose. Full and packed with plum, cherry compote and fig. Silky tannins along with creamy vanilla and tempered toast. Rich but balanced, all that I love about Sonoma Cabernet. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. (90 points)

2007 Kenwood Cabernet Sauvignon Artist Series - California, Sonoma County ($75)
What a gorgeous nose: sweet blackberry and plum, earth, hazelnut and vanilla bean. Silky and pure on the palate, with fig, raspberry preserves and plums. Notes of vanilla, cedar and tobacco. I’d love to try this again in three or four years. 93% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Malbec and 3% Merlot. (91 points)

2006 Kenwood Cabernet Sauvignon Artist Series - California, Sonoma County ($75)
Another awesome vintage, maybe my favorite between the three I tasted. Nose of cassis, fig and charcoal. Like velvet on the palate, with roasted plums, fig and black cherries. Notes of charcoal, tobacco leaf and mineral match the fruit wonderfully. It seems ready to drink yet capable of more development in the cellar. 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Malbec, 7% Cabernet Franc and 6% Petit Verdot. (91+ points)

I’d recommend this tasting room to wine tourists in the area, although be prepared for a crowd. (Or perhaps try to visit on a weekday?) If you’re hungry afterward, there’s a wonderful Italian restaurant called Café Citti that’s located a minute north on Highway 12. Delicious pasta, a nice mix of salads, reasonably-priced daily specials, a homey atmosphere, Pliny the Elder on tap — what’s not to love?

See you in Sonoma...

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Synapse Winery - Discovering Syrah Gold in California's El Dorado

A cool, dark refuge from the sun. Might make a good wine cellar?
The July sun had warmed up the the hills of El Dorado County, but a hundred feet below the rock the air felt cool and crisp. I was exploring an old gold mine near Placerville, California, with my fiancée and my brother, sister-in-law and their three-week-old boy. I’d never been to this part of Northern California before, and I got a kick out of seeing the carved-up veins and mineral deposits in the rock. Judging from the length and depth of the cave, it was easy to see why so many gold rushers flocked to this spot.

With abundant sunshine, a dry climate and a complex puzzle of rocky soils, it’s also easy to see why grapegrowers and winemakers have picked this area to put down roots. This part of El Dorado County falls within the massive Sierra Foothills appellation, which encompasses the western parts of eight counties from Yuba County in the north to Mariposa County in the south. The El Dorado American Viticultural Area (AVA), a subset of the Sierra Foothills appellation, covers a western portion of the county that sits between 1,200 feet and 3,500 feet above sea level. I’ve long been fascinated by the Zinfandels, Syrahs and other Rhone variety-based wines from this rugged region of California. But exploring the land itself was a rich and memorable experience.

Synapse’s tasting room in Placerville. © Synapse, used with permission.
El Dorado is not Napa. It’s not the Sonoma Valley. There’s not much of a “wine route” and I didn’t see any billboards advertising tasting rooms or posh vineyard tours. This off-the-beaten-track feel was refreshing. But I did get a chance to stroll down Placerville’s Main Street, a quaint strip that houses galleries, old hotels, craft stores, a cheese shop. Placerville’s Main Street is also home to the Synapse Winery tasting room. After hiking around old gold mines, I was looking forward to trying some local wines, so my family and I went in and grabbed a table. We were the only people there on a Tuesday afternoon, so the tasting room attendant gave us the whole treatment. He was generous, knowledgeable and his enthusiasm for Synapse wines seemed genuine. When tasting wines I’ve never heard of, I try to keep my expectations low. So I was even more excited when the wines turned out to be really good.

Synapse is a relatively new project that focuses on El Dorado Syrah, although they make wine from other varieties and source grapes from other Northern California spots. Husband and wife duos Bruce and Alisa Ginier and Randy and Debbi Knutzon comprise the Synapse team. Bruce and Randy, both neuroradiologists, kicked off the project when they bought a spot near Somerset they thought would be perfect for a vineyard. They planted their first vines in 2002 and crushed their first grapes in 2005. Randy’s wife Debbie Knutzon, a molecular biologist, makes the wines, and she seems to bring a sense of scientific rigor to the winemaking. I think it shows in the glass. Deliciousness aside, Synapse Syrahs taste precise and focused, like all chemical processes occurred exactly as they were supposed to. The tight-knit team’s medical background also shows itself in Synapse’s brain-themed label art.

I was less impressed with the wines sourced from outside of the Sierra Foothills. Although I think they’re generally decent, the outside fruit just doesn’t possess that higher level of quality, in my opinion (of course). But as I sipped the El Dorado bottles, two things became clear to me: 1) these Synapse folks grow some solid estate fruit; and 2) Knutzon makes some solid wine. The Hangman and Diffusion Syrahs wowed me most of all with their pure fruit and kicking earth tones. They’re delicious right now, but I would put both the 2007s and the 2008s sideways for two years or so. While they’re drinkable young, these babies are nowhere near full maturity.

Here are my notes on some Synapse wines…

2011 Synapse Sauvignon Blanc - California, North Coast, Mendocino County ($18)
Honey, white peach and a hint of grass on the nose. Really tangy palate, medium-bodied, with creamy white peach and honeysuckle. Slight herbal kick. Simple but good. (86 points)

2012 Synapse Symphony - California, Central Valley, Lodi ($20)
Really fruity and floral on the nose (mango, peach, acacia flowers). Juicy and full on the palate, with fresh peaches, lychee and cantaloupe. A plush patio pounder that would be a hit at summer parties. Symphony is a UC Davis cross between Grenache Gris and Muscat. (82 points)

2010 Synapse Chardonnay - California, North Coast, Mendocino ($24)
Interesting nose of green pear, wildflowers and mint. Fresh and clean on the palate, with crisp acid. A salty note combines with the green melon fruit. A simple, brisk chardonnay. (84 points)

2009 Synapse Zinfandel - California, Sierra Foothills, El Dorado ($19)
An impressive Zinfandel, with aromas of fresh cherries, raspberry candy, sweet roses and vanilla. Firm tannins combine with surprisingly fresh acid. This Zin has tons of bright red fruit and shots of black and green pepper. Endlessly drinkable but held together with solid structure. (89 points)

2009 Synapse Grenache - California, Sierra Foothills, El Dorado ($28)
What an impressive Grenache. Smells of cherries, red plums, BBQ sauce, dried flowers and pepper. Full on the palate with firm tannins. Dense, but the plum fruit tastes cool and clean. Black licorice, cracked pepper and sweet BBQ sauce make this a really complex wine. I bought a bottle and drank it the next day with some barbecued ribs, and the pairing was excellent. (90 points)

2007 Synapse Syrah Diffusion - California, Sierra Foothills, El Dorado ($26)
I wasn’t expecting this Syrah to be so damn good, but the wine persisted and convinced me. Intoxicating aromas of red and black fruit, flowers and rich earth. Firm tannins on the palate, with fleshy plum and cherry fruit, and it all combines to form a mouthfeel of pure silk. Vanilla and earth accent the fruit. Long finish. Really delicious stuff. The Diffusion is made in a Côte-Rôtie style by co-fermenting 90% Syrah with 10% Viognier. (91 points)

2008 Synapse Syrah Diffusion - California, Sierra Foothills, El Dorado ($28)
More Old World aromas than the 2007, showing pepper and beefy notes along with rich blackberry fruit. Firm tannins and fresh acid make way for the pure black cherry and plum fruit. A pretty approach, with notes of cola, pepper and meat. Long and pure, and worthy of a good decant or a year or two in the cellar. (90 points)

2007 Synapse Syrah Hangman’s - California, Sierra Foothills, El Dorado ($30)
Just as good as the Diffusion Syrah, but this 100% Syrah shows darker, richer themes. Aromas of plums, dense blackberries, dark chocolate and molasses. Plush and creamy texture on the palate, but firm tannins solidify the structure. Gobs of rich blueberry and blackberry fruit coat the palate, backed up by pepper, loam and mocha. I was reminded of Walla Walla Syrah while drinking this, because it has that density and purity of fruit. Ridiculously long finish. The 2007 shows a much more bombastic style than the 2008, but I can’t help but love this wine. Long time ahead of it, too. (91 points)

2008 Synapse Syrah Hangman’s - California, Sierra Foothills, El Dorado ($28)
Complex nose of blueberry, peppered steak, charcoal and earth. Pure and silky on the palate with juicy acid and fine-grained tannins. The blueberry fruit mixes with cranberry, making this lighter and fresher than the 2007. Beef broth, pepper and charcoal notes add complexity. Seamless finish with a streak of minerals. Obviously California, but this wine pays homage to the Rhone Valley with its minerality and meaty tones. Loving this stuff. (92 points)

2011 Synapse Syrah CDI - California, Sierra Foothills, El Dorado ($30)
This dessert-style Syrah is a lot of fun. An explosion of sweet, ripe berries on the nose. Juicy on the palate with rich black fruit and lots of molasses and chocolate. Also a flavor that reminds me of those raspberry Haribo candies. Hints of earth make this more than a simple sticky. 4% residual sugar. I can’t remember what “CDI” actually stands for, but the tasting room attendant quipped that it should mean “chicks dig it” because of its easy-drinking, sweet approach. (87 points)

2011 Synapse Syrah Indulgence - California, Sierra Foothills, El Dorado ($30)
Normally I’m skeptical of such sticky-sweet California “port” style wines, but this is one hooked me. Aromas of fig, molasses, dark chocolate and nuts. My brother mentioned a chalky aroma, and I think he’s right. Dense on the palate. Rich, but easy to drink, with blackberry and fig combined with pepper and that same chalky aspect I get on the nose. A dessert-style wine with 11% residual sugar and 18% alcohol. (88 points)

The Synapse tasting room is open seven days a week, and the winery provides a coupon for a free tasting flight at this link. If you’re ever in California gold country, it’s definitely worth checking out. If you’re in Sacramento, it’s an easy drive. You may be the only ones there, but the staff is pleasant and helpful, and they should treat you well.

Last note: I can’t find much discussion about Synapse wines on the interwebs, so if anyone reading has some more experience with their wines, please chime in with your thoughts. Cheers!

Monday, July 8, 2013

White Wines to Beat the Heat

I don’t deal well with heat and humidity. I live in Washington, DC, however, which means I’m sweaty and cranky a lot during the summer. So when I come home tired and hot, red wine is the furthest thing from my mind. If it’s not pink in my glass, it’s white. This week I’ve got a few recommended California whites that could make the dog days of summer a little easier.

2011 Gainey Riesling - California, Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley
SRP: $15
Medium lemon color. Expressive nose of guava, lime and banana. There’s also an aroma that reminds me of puffed wheat cereal, as strange as that may sound, but I really like it. Medium-bodied on the palate with a creamy mouthfeel and lip-smacking acid. The green melon, pear and banana flavors are fresh and smooth, only slightly sweet. A kick of minerals and tonic adds to the fruit, and there’s a salty and cereal-like aspect to the palate as well. Long, crisp finish with hints of honeysuckle and melon. A very unique and intriguing Riesling that’s worth checking out.  (89 points)

2012 Castello di Amorosa Pinot Grigio - California, North Coast, Mendocino County
SRP: $21
Pale lemon color. Aromas of lemon, papaya and white flowers. Tart and crisp on the palate, with lots of Granny Smith apple, tangerine and melon fruit. A creamy, fruity, easy-sipping summer wine. I could see this being quite a hit at July 4 parties. (86 points)

SRP: $18
Very fresh and floral on the nose, like orange blossom, lemon tart and salty margarita. A tropical theme takes over on the palate, with all sorts of mixed melon and pineapple and mango. The acid is brisk, though, keeping the wine balanced against the ripe fruit. A saline aspect mixes with just a touch of sweet honey, and the combination is nice. I’d be happy drinking this wine some North Coast abalone. A blend of Chardonnay and Muscat Canneli. (87 points)

2012 Le Pich Sauvignon Blanc - California, Napa Valley
SRP: $24
Pale lemon juice color. Like a tropical farmer’s market on the nose: pineapple, guava, lime and all sorts of floral aromas. On the palate, a thick and creamy mouthfeel mixes with medium acid. The pineapple, white peach and mango fruit is bold, but the mineral and lemongrass flavors add elegance. Crisp finish with citrus and green apple. Includes 2% Semillon. (88 points)

2012 Gracianna Chardonnay Suzanne’s Blend - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
SRP: $34
Medium gold color. White flowers and pineapple explodes from the nose, and I also get some lime and papaya. The freshness continues on the palate, with racy acid. Lime, pineapple, green apple, the fruit is crisp but ripe. The mineral and chalky tones to this wine are Chablis-like in their intensity and freshness. Some creaminess and hazelnut toast add to the body, but this is a leaner style of Russian River chardonnay, and it’s done incredibly well. (89 points)

2012 Gundlach Bundschu Gewürztraminer Estate Vineyard - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
SRP: $22
Aromas of tangerine, lychee and orange blossoms. Tart acid kicks off the palate, almost bracing, but it’s full of lychee, green apple and tangerine rind flavors. There’s some nice creaminess to the body that balances out the acid, and the mineral and limestone notes add a lot of complexity. There’s a peppery kick on the finish that I really like. A bone dry and focused wine that begs for vegetarian dishes. I’m impressed. (89 points)

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.