Monday, October 28, 2013

Sipping Carol Shelton's Zinfandels in Santa Rosa

It's not the prettiest location, but they make good Zin.
On a recent trip to the San Francisco Bay Area, I woke up at dawn and drove with a friend to Dillon Beach, a sandy enclave in northern Marin County. We pulled on our wetsuits, booties and caps (the water was a chilly 54 degrees) and paddled out into glassy, three-to-four-foot waves. I surfed for three hours as I took in the gorgeous views of the Tomales Bay to the south and the Marin Hills to the west. When we were thoroughly frozen and exhausted, we snagged some food from a Bodega Bay deli and discussed our options for tasting wine in Sonoma. After all, nothing tops off a cold morning surf session like a visit to a winery.

We opted for Carol Shelton, a producer known for making a wide range of Zinfandels. I’d heard good things about Carol’s wines before, but I’d never had the opportunity to taste one. Considering that I was still trying to build up my core body temperature, tasting a bunch of burly Zinfandels sounded perfect. I don’t collect much Zin, and they’re rarely high on my list of must-drink wines. But I do appreciate them. And tasting a lot of different Zins at the same time can be an educational and delicious experience  that’s what Carol Shelton offers. 

Carol graduated from UC Davis and worked with the likes of Andre Tchelistcheff and Robert Mondavi before kicking off her own label in 2000. Carol Shelton Wines, housed in an industrial park in downtown Santa Rosa, now produces some 5,000 cases per year. If you’re staying in town, or just passing through on the 101, it’s an easy stop. The tasting room is filled with knick-knacks, quirky art and all sorts of media praise for Carol and her wines. The staff was very friendly, doling out decent pours and answering all my questions. If you’re a Zinfandel fan on the Sonoma wine route, I’d definitely recommend this spot.

Here are the notes I took on Carol’s wines…
2011 Carol Shelton Wines Coquille Blanc - California, Central Coast, Paso Robles

The only white in Carol’s line-up, this shows an interesting nose of green pears and wildflowers. Like nectar on the palate, with peach and plump citrus fruit, buttressed by crisp acid. A mix of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Marsanne. Fun stuff. (86 points)

Carol Shelton enjoys some Zin. (c) Carol Shelton
2012 Carol Shelton Wines Rendezvous Rosé - California, North Coast, Mendocino County
A fun rosé with some significant complexity and weight. Aromas of rose hips, wild cherries, strawberries and some lavender. Crisp acid, medium body, some light tannins. Flavors of watermelon, white cherries and rose hips. Full, but elegant, I think this wine would please most palates. A blend of 90% Carignane, mixed with equal parts Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. (87 points)

2011 Carol Shelton Wines Pinot Noir Larson Vineyard - California, Napa/Sonoma, Carneros
Smells really jammy and bold, with black cherries, red currants, some caramel and toast as well. Full-bodied and jammy on the palate, a bit uncharacteristic of 2011 Sonoma Pinots. I do like the velvety texture and the dense black cherry flavors. Some toast and mocha as well. You know that Old World lover who always makes fun of California Pinots by saying they taste like Petite Sirah? Well, this Pinot actually has 5% Petite Sirah and the producer admits it! Even though it’s only 5%, I think it shows. A pinot noir for Zinfandel lovers. (86 points)

2010 Carol Shelton Wines Zinfandel Wild Thing Old Vine - California, North Coast, Mendocino County
Pure blackberries, boysenberries and red licorice on the nose. Big and bold with dark cherries, caramel and sweet flowers. Jammy, jammy, jammy, but tasty stuff. Sure seems like a crowd-pleaser. (86 points) 
2009 Carol Shelton Wines Zinfandel Karma Zin Bastoni Vineyard - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
Candied aromas, with berry compote, caramel and sweet flowers. Dense but silky on the palate with black cherry, cherry liqueur, spice and dark chocolate. Impressive stuff, and highly delicious. A blend of 86% Zinfandel, 10% Alicante Bouschet and 4% Petite Sirah. (90 points)

These tasted damn good after a cold surf session.
2009 Carol Shelton Wines Zinfandel Rocky Reserve Florence Vineyard - California, Sonoma County, Rockpile

What a gorgeous Rockpile Zin. Aromas of boysenberry, plump blackberries, cola and earth. Full on the palate, with firm tannins and fresh acid. Blackberries, boysenberries, vanilla, mocha, earth and nutty flavors. Very complex and pure, this could use a decant or a year or two to show its full potential. A dangerously delicious Zin. (91 points)

2009 Carol Shelton Wines Zinfandel Treborce - California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
On the nose, smoke, plums and mixed nuts. Silky and plush on the palate, with plums, prunes, smoke and iron. A distinct cocoa powder element, along with some peppery spicy and lavender. Yum. (89 points)

2009 Carol Shelton Wines Petite Sirah Rockpile Reserve Rockpile Vineyard - California, Sonoma County, Rockpile

Inky on the nose with magic marker, deep violets and perfume. Dense and plummy on the palate, with flavors of raisins, figs, smoke, cedar and toasty, vanilla notes. Big and bold, but not quite overdone. A delicious teeth-stainer. (88 points)

N.V. Carol Shelton Wines Zinfandel Black Magic Late Harvest - California, Sonoma County

Not a bad way to end the tasting. Aromas of plum cake and caramel sauce. Sweet raisins on the palate, with caramel, chocolate, plums and mocha. This paired very well with dark chocolate truffles. (87 points) 

Monday, October 21, 2013

Bordeaux on the Cheap: Blanc, Rosé and Rouge for <$20

I enjoy drinking great Bordeaux, but the high demand and high price tags mean I can’t drink them all that often. If you’re new to Bordeaux or, like me, can’t afford the top shelf stuff all that often, you’re in luck — there are some solid bottles of Bordeaux in the $20 or less price range.

I recently tasted through three such wines as part of a Twitter tasting sponsored by Planet Bordeaux. This trade group represents growers and winemakers from the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur appellations. These entry-level bottles are not as complex or ageworthy as a top Pauillac or Margaux, but they don’t cost $100+ either. And these wines can help establish a basic understanding of Bordeaux’s style and the characteristics of different vintages.

The wines were chosen because they won a 2012 video contest called “My Bordeaux Wine Is…” in which producers submitted promotional videos for their wines. Some of the videos are pretty damn good, especially the Bonnet rosé one.

The wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted. My notes…

2012 Château de Bonhoste - France, Bordeaux Contrôlée
SRP: $12
60% Sauvignon Blanc, 30% Semillon and 10% Muscadelle. Clean light gold color. Smells like a whole lot of white and yellow flowers along with some grapefruit and a slight herbal note. Crisp acid on the palate, the Semillon adds a bit of that waxy, creamy feel. On the fruit side, I get some apricot and ruby red grapefruit, a bit of that slight green herbal note. Fresh, fun, easy to drink, but showing some moderate complexity. (86 points)

2012 Château Bonnet Bordeaux Rosé - France, Bordeaux Rosé
SRP: $15
A 50/50 blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. I’m really digging the color, like a neon pink and candy apple red mixed together. Bright on the nose, like McIntosh apple and wild strawberry dashed with some oceanic and salty notes. Rich on the palate but balanced by tangy acid. Strawberry and white cherry fruit with some pepper and slight tobacco thrown in. Crisp throughout, dashed with minerals, but it carries some weight as well. Enjoyable stuff for the price.  (86 points)

2009 Château Majoureau “Hyppos” - France, Bordeaux Supérieur
SRP: $20
A blend of 55% Merlot and 45% Cabernet Franc. Plummy and rich on the nose, the blackberry is mixed with tobacco and loam. Full-bodied, gritty tannins, a bit low on the acid for me. The black cherry and black currant fruit is dense and full and surprisingly good. Secondary flavors of black olive, some chewing tobacco, some braised meat. Some depth and complexity here, this got a lot more exciting with time in the decanter. Long, rich finish with olive and pepper. (87 points)

Saturday, October 19, 2013

In Defense of Australian Wines: d'Arenberg and Wakefield

Australia is an early stop on the wine lover’s journey, a testing ground for the development of the sophomoric palate. It’s a place where the rookie goes to fulfill the baser desires for ripe fruit and alcohol. But, as you grow wiser, you eventually come to your senses. You discover the Northern Rhone and Bordeaux and leave your childish Aussie-loving ways behind.

Of course, this is all a bunch of crap. Australian wines are amazing. Maybe I’m in the minority among nerds, but I’ve never outgrown Australian reds. And with the days getting shorter and the weather getting colder, a burly Shiraz sure hits the spot.

I recently tasted through some wines from one of my favorite Aussie producers, d’Arenberg, and another reliable producer, Wakefield. All these wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

2012 Wakefield Riesling - Australia, South Australia, Clare Valley
SRP: $16
Light-straw color with the tinges of sea green. Bursting with aromas: key lime, honeysuckle, white peach and minerals. Tingling acid, lots of lime and white peach fruit. The mineral content here is great, and I get a bit of a sea salt aspect as well. Some creamy feel to the wine, but overall this is a focused and brisk Riesling. 12.8% alcohol and .07 g/L residual sugar. (87 points)

2002 d’Arenberg “The Galvo Garage” - Australia, South Australia, Fleurieu, McLaren Vale
SRP: $29
At 12 years old, this blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Verdot and Cabernet Franc is showing remarkably well. Medium purple color with some slight brick red around the rims. The nose shows smoke and charcoal on top of sweet plum cake and black cherries, notes of beef and tobacco came out with some air. Full and creamy on the palate with finely polished tannins and a solid dose of acid. The cherry and currant fruit is fresh and still going strong, but those aged notes of tobacco, pickle and bay leaf come out in full force. Delicious stuff, and I’m really impressed by how well it’s holding up. (90 points)

2005 d’Arenberg Cabernet Sauvignon “The Coppermine Road” - Australia, South Australia, Fleurieu, McLaren Vale
SRP: $60
A simply gorgeous McLaren Vale Cabernet. The nose is full of cherry, black pepper, red licorice, roasted red peppers, and it gets better and better with air. Juicy berry fruit covers the palate, but tangy acid keeps it balanced. I love the combination of cherry, blueberry, roasted coffee and meaty flavors. Powerfully long finish with menthol and rhubarb. Very complex, this deserves a decant and a good meal of roasted meat. Aged 18 months in new and one-year-old French and American oak. (93 points)

2010 d’Arenberg Cabernet Sauvignon “The High Trellis” - Australia, South Australia, Fleurieu, McLaren Vale
SRP: $20
A blackberry-purple color. Lots going on aromatically, with plums, black cherries, red licorice and violets. The palate is surprisingly fresh and lively, with medium acid, dusty tannins and tangy fruit. Currant, raspberry and blackberry combine with hints of soil and flowers. A fruit-dominated wine, but the fruit tastes quite good, and the complexity is impressive for the price. (88 points)

2010 Wakefield Cabernet Sauvignon “Jaraman” - Australia, South Australia, Mount Lofty Ranges, Clare Valley
SRP: $30
On the nose, juicy blueberry and blackberry mix with aromas of milk chocolate, mint and eucalyptus. On the palate, the blue and black fruit has a nice combination of freshness and sweetness. Flavors of coconut shavings and mint pervade the fruit, and it all works together. Impressive concentration, and full of ripe. Nothing to be ashamed of here, this is serious Aussie Cab. (90 points)

2012 Wakefield Cabernet SauvignonAustralia, South Australia, Mount Clare Valley
SRP: $16
The nose explodes with blackberry, blueberry, milk chocolate and floral notes, so obviously Australian, but enjoyable. Medium tannins, medium acid do a decent job supporting the rich blueberry and blackberry fruit. Notes of toast, mocha and smoke. Despite the richness, it’s still easily drinkable and not overbearing. (86 points)

2009 d’Arenberg “The Laughing Magpie” Shiraz-Viognier - Australia, South Australia, Fleurieu, McLaren Vale
SRP: $29
Juicy plums and blackberries on the nose, along with some coconut, chocolate and rose petals. I like the mouthfeel on this wine a lot, a rich and jammy but really creamy. Polished tannins, noticeable acid. Black cherry, plum, kirsch, it all tastes fresh and juicy. Notes of roasted coffee, braised meat and flower potpourri add complexity. 8% Viognier is co-fermented with the Syrah, and it really adds some freshness and floral tones. (88 points)

2010 d’Arenberg Shiraz “The Blind Tiger” - Australia, South Australia, Fleurieu, McLaren Vale
SRP: $85
Really complex on the nose, with wild blueberries and black cherries accented by caramel, roasted coffee, eucalyptus and sweet flowers. Firm tannins, medium acid, this wine is loaded with flavor. The blueberry and black cherry fruit is pure and delicious, but it’s all backed up by roasted meat, kalamata olive and charcoal. There’s also this wild herb and earthy aspect that I find really attractive. A big wine worthy of a long decant. Very impressive stuff from 87-year-old vines grown in sand and clay soils. (92 points)

2010 Wakefield Shiraz “Jaraman” - Australia, South Australia, Mount Lofty Ranges, Clare Valley
SRP: $30
Plums, currant tea, fig paste and some woody-leafy aromas. Firm tannins, the black currant and plum fruit tastes fleshy and ripe. It’s all about the fruit here, with some black cherry and dried fig flavors, backed up with some earthy, minty notes. Not over-toasted or overblown, this Shiraz maintains freshness. Fruit-dominated, but complex and it seems capable of some cellaring. 60% of the fruit comes from Clare Valley, the rest from McLaren Vale. (89 points)

2011 d’Arenberg Shiraz “The Stump Jump” - Australia, South Australia, Fleurieu, McLaren Vale
SRP: $13
Medium purple color. Lots of fresh plums and blackberries, inky but also very floral. Creamy texture, the plum and black cherry fruit tastes fresh and juicy. Some vanilla and mocha, but also some serious black pepper and sweet barbecue sauce. Not life-changing, but solid stuff for the price. Damn, that black pepper lingers. (86 points)

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Bulgariana: Value-Driven Wines from the Thracian Valley

Robert Hayk is a man on a mission: convincing Americans to give Bulgarian wines a try.

“It’s no longer that crap they used to sell to Russia by the millions,” Hayk said. “Bulgarians have so much passion and potential.” To prove it, Hayk kicked off a new project called Grapes & Barley. He coordinates with growers in Bulgaria’s Thracian Valley and international winemakers to craft inexpensive and accessible wines under the Bulgariana label.

I met with Hayk last week at the Blue Duck Tavern in Washington, DC. We shared stories of travels in Eastern Europe as we tasted Bulgariana’s wines, which were served alongside a menu prepared by Chef Sebastian Archambault.

My experience with Bulgarian wine is limited to a few bottles my father brought back from his European travels. I’ve had some solid Gewürztraminers and some heavily-oaked but delicious Thracian Valley Cabernets that, if served blind, might make an unsuspecting wine drinker shout: “Napa!” But few American consumers have made a connection between Bulgaria and good wine.

Hayk admits it’s not easy getting Americans hooked on Bulgarian wine. But Hayk, who comes from an Armenian family and grew up in Moscow, has some experience with bridging cultures. He’s fluent in five languages and has worked at U.S. embassies in Armenia and Sofia. His love of Bulgaria’s people, history, and wine is addictive.

To gain ground in the American market, Bulgariana aims for value-driven wines. All of Bulgariana’s wines carry suggested price tags of $15 or less. The brand's $10 Cabernet Sauvignon has sold well at Total Wine in Virginia, Calvert-Woodley in DC and a slew of stores in Montgomery County, Maryland, Hayk said. I asked Hayk if Bulgaria’s portfolio would someday feature a Mavrud, an indigenous Bulgarian grape that can produce some spicy and tannic wines. Hayk said he’d like to work more with Mavrud in the future but market research hasn’t turned up much interest in this relatively obscure red grape. Overall, I have to say, it’s rare I find sub-$15 wines that have such character, those distinct little traits that tell the palate: “I come from somewhere special.”

My notes on Bulgariana’s wines...

2011 Bulgariana Thracian White Blend
Bulgaria, Thracian Valley

SRP: $10
Very floral on the nose, like pungent wildflowers and honeysuckle, blended together with yellow apple and pear. Crisp acid kicks off the medium-bodied palate. The green and yellow apple fruit is mixed with white pepper and sage notes. A mineral aspect on the finish. Surprisingly fresh and complex. An all stainless steel blend of 60% Chardonnay, 20% Sauvignon Blanc, 10% Riesling and 10% Gewürztraminer. (87 points)

2011 Bulgariana Sauvignon Blanc
Bulgaria, Thracian Valley

SRP: $11
The green and yellow apple aromas are matched with white pepper, green olive and potpourri. Juicy mango and pineapple fruit blends with honey and herbal tones on the palate. There’s a lot going on here for $11. (86 points)

2011 Bulgariana Cabernet Sauvignon
Bulgaria, Thracian Valley

SRP: $10
Aromas of bright berries and smoke. Juicy plum fruit mixes with tobacco and earth. No toast or cedar flavors in this stainless steel Cab. Medium tannins and acid provide enough structure. A near-term-drinker, but quite nice and crowd-pleasing. (85 points)

2008 Bulgariana Imperial Red Blend
Bulgaria, Thracian Valley

SRP: $14
On the nose, plums and currants, along with interesting notes of red pepper and cocoa powder. Juicy red fruit on the palate with firm tannins and a medium amount of acid. I also get some notes of toast, mocha and spice rub. Bold and rich, but balanced. A blend of 60% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% each of the Bulgarian varieties Mavrud and Rubin. (88 points)

2009 Bulgariana Cabernet Sauvignon & Syrah
Bulgaria, Thracian Valley

SRP: $14
Lots happening aromatically: black currants, plums, black pepper and a shot of olive brine. Juicy black currant and blackberry fruit, held together with grippy tannins and medium acid that combine to form a velvety texture. I really enjoy the herbal, pepper and olive accents. (90 points)

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Beautiful Barolos from Paolo Scavino

Last month I spent an evening chatting with Elisa Scavino, grand-daughter of winemaker Paolo Scavino, and a great ambassador for the family’s Piedmont wines. Like her family’s Barolos, Elisa is down-to-earth and intriguing. I love the Nebbiolo grape and Northern Italian food, but I’m by no means an expert on Barolo. In fact, among world class wine regions, it’s probably the one I have least experience with. So it was very educational to taste the wines and talk with Elisa about her family’s different vineyards.

Elisa Scavino of Paolo Scavino Wines. Photo from Ristorante i Ricchi. 
We met at Ristorante i Ricchi in Washington, DC. The wines were paired with a delicious four-course meal arranged by chef Christianne Ricchi, who maintains a Tuscan-inspired menu and an impressive Italian wine list.  The menu included pappardelle with a Tuscan rabbit ragu and a pepper-crusted prime rib with rosemary potatoes. The food was great, the wines superb, and the conversation enlightening.

If there’s one takeaway from the evening, it’s this: I really need to get off my ass and visit Piemonte already. Nothing helps you get to know and love a wine region like visiting it in person.

Salmon and Langhe Bianco: great pairing. Photo Ristorante i Ricchi.
The Menu:

Salmone Carpacciato: house-cured laced with green peppercorn sauce, black olives and Italian greens

Pappardelle Sul Coniglio: broad pasta ribbons with Tuscan rabbit ragu

Gran Pezzo al Forno: pepper crusted prime rib with rosemary potatoes and sautéed kale, Swiss chard and beet greens with pancetta

Meringata di Ciocolato Amaro Dolce: chocolate meringue tart with whipped chocolate mousse

The Wines:

2011 Paolo Scavino Langhe Bianco - Italy, Piedmont, Langhe
($14) Not your average Piemontese white, not by a long shot. This is a blend of 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Chardonnay, fermented and aged in all stainless steel. Minerals, lime, a slight herbal (sage?) kick on the nose. On the palate, it’s crisp yet full, with tangy acid and persistent minerals. Lemon, peach and apricot mix with some waxy-oily aspects. I’m really surprised at the depth and complexity of this wine, even though, as Elisa Scavino described it, the wine is intended to be a summer sipper. She looked at me like I was lost when I said I’d like to age this wine, but the nerd in me thinks it could do some fun stuff over the next few years. For around $15, this is a screaming value. (90 points) *Note: Starting in the 2010 vintage, the producer plans to introduce some Viognier into this blend.

2009 Paolo Scavino Barolo - Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barolo
($55) Aromas of plums, smoke, violets, subtle olive and mushroom. Dense tannins and gobs of red and black fruit on the palate, and the combination is really velvety. Notes of earth, granite, lavender, a bit of oak. Richly textured and generous, but capable of developing much more nuance with age. Very impressive for a “basic” Barolo. A blend from seven different crus, fermented and aged separately until blended together and aged some more. (89 points)

2007 Paolo Scavino Barolo “Bricco Ambrogio” - Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barolo
($73) Deep aromas of cassis, plum sauce, violets and caramel. Really opened up aromatically over the course of the dinner. Pure and rich on the palate with relatively smoothed-out tannins and medium acid. I get distinct blueberry fruit in this wine, mixed in with the cassis. Notes of earth, soil and crème brulée add complexity. Rich, but showing refinement. (90 points)

2007 Paolo Scavino Barolo “Bric dël Fiasc” - Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barolo
($113) Sweet, dark and bold on the nose, with plums, blueberries, coffee, loam and violets. Rich and velvety on the palate, a bit thick in texture but balanced by the medium acid. The plum and currant fruit is so pure, accented by complex notes of herbs, loam, nutshells and roasted coffee. This delivers all sorts of pleasure. Paired wonderfully with prime rib. (92 points)
2006 Paolo Scavino “Barolo Cannubi” - Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barolo
($123) My wine of the night, the 2006 Cannubi was a few steps ahead with its elegance and complexity. Intricate aromatics of fleshy plums, charcoal, smoke and pencil shavings. The kind of nose you can examine for so long, pulling out all sorts of nuance. Dusty but firm tannins and fresh acid. Plummy, blackberry, the fruit is tossed with all these earth, black olive, mineral, gravel and dried flower aspects. Dense, yet maintains elegance throughout. The last sip was the best, and I’d love to try this again in three to five years. Beautiful stuff. (94 points)