Friday, October 30, 2015

Madeira: A Primer on One of the World’s Most Distinctive Wines

“Things need changing everywhere you go,” the wise Johnny Cash once said. On the remote Atlantic island of Madeira, however, things have stayed quite the same. And thats a great thing. Wine producers on this island are rocking the same old gig and preserving the unique viticultural history that won this region global fame.

Madeira is perhaps the most storied wine in the world. Madeira is a volcanic island located off the coast of Morocco, some 250 miles north of the Canary Islands, although the island falls under Portuguese authority. Everything about the island, its history and its wine seems almost too incredible to be true. From the island’s discovery by Portuguese explorers in the early 1400s, to the massive fire that engulfed the island for seven years, to America’s founding fathers toasting to a new nation with glasses of Madeira — the wine is iconic.

To a new generation of wine drinkers, those looking to discover a unique and fascinating wine, Madeira offers an experience like no other.

Terraced vineyards cling to steep slopes on the island of Madeira. 
“This is one of the great stories of wine,” Master Sommelier Andy Myers recently said at a Madeira tasting event. The Madeira Wine Institute (the island’s governing body) sponsored the tasting and lecture in Washington, DC, recently, which was led by Myers and Madeira expert Rui Falcao.

Madeira wines are fortified with neutral spirits distilled from grapes grown elsewhere — anywhere, as Madeira producers are “not going to waste our own grapes,” Falcao said. Then the magic begins: The wines are allowed to age for years, even decades, with exposure to lots of heat and lots of oxygen (wine’s two mortal enemies). Yet this topsy-turvy winemaking has been responsible for centuries of incredible vino. When the wines are released after various periods of aging, they can further age for generations. “We beat it up so much in its infancy,” Falcao said, “that it can take pretty much whatever.”

“If nothing else, there is something that makes Madeira unique, and that is the aging,” Falcao told the room full of tasters. He opined about a beautiful Madeira he tasted from the early 1700s, which was, he said, “still bursting with life.” These wines are big hits with sommeliers because they stay fresh for weeks after being opened, making them perfect by-the-glass list items. And, of course, the wines are absolutely delicious to sip in small amounts.

Nothing seems easy about growing grapes on Madeira. There is almost no flat land, the soils are poor and the climate is nothing like most of the world’s other famous wine regions. The climate is characterized by moderate heat (temperatures frequently hover in the 70s for much of the year), lots of humidity, lots of fog and mist, and very little seasonable variation. This means the grape vines don’t enter a traditional dormant period in the winter, like vines grown in more continental climates. But, Falcao says, this is just another example of how Madeira producers can turn “something that should be awful into something sublime.”

Some 1,300 growers carve out a living by tending 1,200 acres of grapes, meaning the average vineyard holding is miniscule in comparison the great estates of mainland European regions. “Estate” vineyards (those owned by the wine producer) are almost non-existent here. While there were once dozens of Madeira producers, market concentration has whittled them down to eight remaining houses. As such, it’s a relatively small winemaking scene with a comparatively small amount of bottles coming off the island. “This is a nice market wine,” Falcao admits. “This is a geek wine.”

Unlike many Old World wine regions, Madeiras frequently carry the name of the grape on the label. The style of the wine aligns with the name of the grape used, so the conscientious consumer can know what they’re getting into. From dry to richly sweet, the wines are labeled: Sercial, Verdelho, Boal and Malvasia. (You’ll see Boal used interchangeably with Bual, same for Malvasia and Malmsey.) Sercials can have a brightness to them despite the generous texture and alcohol, and they’re great for aperitifs, mixed nuts and lighter cheeses. Go up the sweetness scale to Malvasia, and you’re looking at unctuous, lush wines that can pair with all sorts of deserts — or they make a great desert on their own. Tinta Negra is a red workhorse grape that is vinified like white grapes, so the color looks comparable to white varietal wines. The word Tinta Negra doesn’t frequently appear on the wine label, so a wine without Sercial, Verdelho, Boal or Malvasia on the label can be reasonably assumed to come from Tinta Negra, Falcoa explained.

Regardless of whatever baggage the grape has or had, it is clearly capable of producing some stunning Madeira wines.

I tasted the wines sighted and have included my notes below.

Pale butterscotch color. Lovely aromas of almond, peanut brittle, apricot preserves, honeycomb, lemon oil and a faint hint of salty air. The palate is rich but dry and maintains freshness throughout. Creamy peaches and dried apricots play with honey, spiced cider and ginger. There’s a pleasant bitterness and saltiness to this wine that makes me crave all sorts of cheeses, dried fruits and nuts. (91 points)

Dark caramel colored. A bit compact aromatically but swirling coaxes out dried mango, candied orange peel, caramel and bitter chocolate. Unctuous on the palate with gorgeous depth, moderately sweet but still refreshing. I get dried mango, bruised apple, dates, caramel, olive oil and a note that reminds me of sweet pepper jam. Crazy complex and full of life. Made from Tinta Negra. (93 points)

Deep copper color. Rich nose of dried pineapples and mangos, fig paste, spiced tea, almond and peanut oils, dense dried flowers, just a whole range of complex aromas that bounce out of the glass. More citrusy on the palate, like tangerine and orange peels, this seems moderately sweet but is refreshingly bright. I get flavors of baked apple, cinnamon and ginger chews with a long, warm finish. Beautiful stuff. (92 points)

Light copper color. Gorgeous aromas of figs, apricot jam, clover honey, ginger snaps. Full and oh so creamy on the palate, honey, mango nectar, apricot jam and yellow plums comprise a richly harmonious wine. Long and silky with nuances of ginger, spiced tea and honeycomb. A creamy, full and rich Bual with lots to contemplate and enjoy. (92 points)

Dark caramel color. Lovely aromas of dried fruit trail mix, caramel, sweet tea, clove, aloe, all sorts of sweet spice notes. Rich and so silky yet stays forward and fresh, which is quite a thing. I pick up on flavors of apricot jam, dried pineapple, floral perfume, spiced apple cider and a really interesting salty note. Long, smooth, pure and persistent. Enjoy now or bury for your children or grandchildren to enjoy. (94 points)

Monday, October 26, 2015

Wine Reviews: A Trio of Cali Rosés

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

It’s the end of October but it’s still gorgeous outside here in the mid-Atlantic. But regardless of the shorter days and impending cold weather, it’s always rosé season. Here are a trio of reasonably priced California rosé that would suffice for any weather.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

2014 Quivira Grenache Rosé Dry Creek Valley - California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
SRP: $22
Bright salmon color. Fresh aromatic display: crunchy white and red berry fruit, notes of roses, nettles and sea salt. Medium-bodied with tangy acid. Flavors of watermelon, wild strawberry and white cherries mix with notes of white pepper and spicy oregano. Clean and cool but lots to contemplate. 62% Grenache, 15% Syrah, 15% Mourvedre and 8% Counoise. (88 points)

2014 La Pitchoune Pinot Noir Vin Gris - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
SRP: $28
Medium salmon colored. So vibrant and fresh on the nose, with wild strawberries, white cherries and watermelon, mixed in with sea salt, crushed shells and a hint of white pepper. Crisp, clean, racy but attractive in its creaminess as well. I love the watermelon and tangy white cherries, and I get notes of honeysuckle, chalk, sea salt and rosewater. Delicious stuff right here, so vibrant and begging for shellfish and salads. (90 points)

SRP: $15

Strawberry sangria colored. Nose of strawberry shortcake, maraschino cherries and some pepper. Creamy profile, medium acid, lots of strawberry and raspberry jam, add in some watermelon. Hints of pepper, spice and green herbs. A richer style in terms of fruit, but dry and showing some brightness. Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Syrah. (85 points) 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Checking Up on Loire Valley Cabernet Franc

Cab Franc grapes ripening in Chinon. My father
took this picture on a Loire trip a few years ago.
I can’t get enough of Loire Valley Cabernet Franc. When I was first getting into wine in the early 2000s I fell in love with wines from appellations like Chinon, Saumur-Champigny and Bourgueil for a few reasons.

Value: a lot of these wines were (and remain) relatively inexpensive considering the frequency of high quality options. If you’ve ready any listicle about underrated wine regions in the past ten years, I’m willing to bet Loire Valley Cab Franc was on there. Thing is: Even with an increased attention on these wines, many of them still carry attractive price tags.  

Flavor: I love the combination of bright red fruit with earthy, spicy, tobacco and pepper notes that I get from the Cabernet Franc grape, and nowhere are these elements more fully realized than in the Loire Valley.

Freshness: A cooler climate, diverse soils and traditional winemaking make many of these wines vibrant, fresh and so friendly with all sorts of food dishes, especially hearty autumn foods. Sure some of them can age beautifully, there are many immediately pleasurable offerings for very reasonable prices.

Chinon is perhaps the best known appellation for Cabernet Franc, and for a good reason. New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov recently featured three really good Chinons for his monthly “wine school.” I think this is a great idea for those looking to learn more about wine, as Loire Valley Cabernet Franc wines (and specifically those from the Chinon appellation) offer all sorts of lessons in vintage variation, distinctions in terroir, differences in winemaking styles and age-worthiness. 
Chinon, Loire Valley, France. Photo credit: James A. Baker.
I always keep some Chinon around for aging, but I also like to pop some when they’re young to see how they’re structured.

I recently tasted two Loire Valley Cabernet Francs, one Chinon and one unique wine from vines grown outside of traditional Cabernet Franc zones. Both of them were absolutely delicious, food-friendly and full of complex floral, earthy and spice components.

Don't let the funky chicken label fool you. This is
early-drinking but seriously delicious Cab Franc.
Marc Ollivier is best known for his stellar, oceanic, mineral-driven Muscadets. But thank goodness he also works with Cabernet Franc. Vibrant ruby color. Smells of juicy black cherries and red and black currants. Complex notes of smoke, black pepper, mushroom and worn leather. Medium-bodied palate with bright and refreshing acid, lightly dusty tannins. Juicy black cherries, plums, currants, the fruit has a tangy edge. Complex web of smoke, pencil lead, black and green pepper, sweet tobacco mixed in with the fruit. Lovely stuff, so accessible and fun but not simple at all. Some of the best juice I’ve purchased for $14. (89 points)

2012 Domaine Bernard Baudry Chinon Le Clos Guillot - France, Loire Valley, Touraine, Chinon
Ruby-purple color. Smells of rich black cherries and plums, along with a lot of tobacco, bell pepper, black pepper, smoke and some funky mushroom. Medium bodied with a solid but dusty tannic structure, tart acid, all of this combines for a bold yet fleshy appeal. Juicy plums and cherries mix with incense smoke, graphite, bell pepper and mushroom. This wine is surprisingly fresh and evocative, although it clearly has a lot more to show with five-to-ten years of cellaring. Beautiful stuff, as always, from Baudry. For $30 you get a whole lot of world class juice. (92 points)
Have you tasted any good Loire Cab Franc lately?

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Long Island's Lieb Cellars Shines With Refreshing Range of Wines

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

The North Fork of Long Island’s Lieb Cellars was founded in 1992, and judging from a recent tasting of their wines, they have found a healthy rhythm. The wines shared a common thread: they’re bright, clean, refreshing and delicious. Lieb Cellars gets their juice from 11 classic vinifera varieties, which are planted in Tetris-like blocks across four different vineyards. This diversity appears to give Australian-born winemaker Russell Hearn a lot of options for blending.

They have a range of everyday-drinking wines, the Bridge Lane label (a white blend, a red blend and a Chardonnay), which are shockingly tasty and interesting for $15 a bottle. In addition to the typical bottle, these wines come in three-liter boxes and 20-liter plastic kegs. For big get-togethers, I could see a box or keg of Bridge Lane as an inexpensive but crowd-pleasing option, but they offer enough subtlety and complexity for wine lovers to appreciate, especially given the price. The “Reserve” label wines are unique expressions of their grapes and places, but the Cab Franc stole the show for my palate.

This wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted:

2014 Lieb Family Cellars Bridge Lane White Blend - New York
SRP: $15
Bright lemon color. Gorgeous nose: white peach, green pears and limes topped with floral elements (honeysuckle and dandelion), crushed chalk and ocean spray. Fresh and bright but a playful feel on the palate. Flavors of white peaches, green pears and nectarines mix together nicely with flowers, white pepper, sea breeze and chalk. Clean and bright but a lot of complexity in here. Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and some white juice from Pinot Noir as well. Dry, no oak, no maloactic fermentation, 12.9% alcohol. (87 points)

2014 Lieb Family Cellars Chardonnay Bridge Lane - New York
SRP: $15
Pale gold color. Bright and clean on the nose, with plenty of ripe fruit (papaya, yellow apples, nectarine) but also a refreshing sense of sea breeze, shells and honeysuckle. Crisp acid, a refreshing tartness on the palate but some richness as well. Yellow apples, pineapple, juicy nectarine fruit, topped with some sea salt, almond, honeysuckle and potpourri. Juicy, fun, refreshing, balanced, really impressive for the price. All stainless steel, no maloactic fermentation, 12.9% alcohol. (87 points)

Review: 2013 Lieb Family Cellars Bridge Lane Red Blend - New York, Long Island, North Fork
SRP: $15
Deep ruby color. Nose of juicy black cherries, plums, raspberry jam, some violets, sweet red licorice. Medium-bodied, light tannins and moderate acid. Juicy black cherries, dark plums and blueberries, easy-drinking and fresh fruit, dashed with some violets, loamy soil and a kick of black pepper. Not too complex, but I like this open, fresh, easy-drinking approach. 70% Merlot, 15% Malbec, 8% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Petit Verdot. 12.9% alcohol. (86 points)

2013 Lieb Family Cellars Pinot Blanc Reserve - New York, Long Island, North Fork
SRP: $22
Pale straw color. The aromas jump out of the glass with juicy white peaches, kiwi and pear nectar, backed up by some honeysuckle, dandelion and clovers. Light bodied but tangy acid, an unassuming wine but plenty of flavor. White peaches, nectarines, juicy pears, yellow apples, so much fruit and all of it farmer’s market fresh. I love the complex web of white and yellow flowers, some ginger, sea shells and quinine notes. Leaves the palate clean and the lips smacking for more. Very pretty, crowd-pleasing and would pair well with so many foods. Six months in stainless steel, this clocks in at a light and easy 11.9% alcohol. (88 points)

2013 Lieb Family Cellars Sparkling Rosé Reserve - New York, Long Island, North Fork
SRP: $35
Pale copper color. Vibrant and bright aromas of grapefruit, red apples, wild strawberries, added together with sea shells, biscuits and a slight savory hint (mushroom?). Tart acid kicks off the palate and stays sharp throughout, moderate creaminess adds to the texture. McIntosh apple, strawberry and ruby red grapefruit (all of it crunchy and tangy), I like the notes of sea breeze and oyster shell, and I get that same savory kick, like earth and white mushrooms. Long, clean and crisp, there’s a lot to like here. I’d love to taste this with some local oysters. 13.3% alcohol, 16 months on the lees, 2/3 Pinot Noir and 1/3 Chardonnay. (88 points)

2013 Lieb Family Cellars Cabernet Franc Reserve - New York, Long Island, North Fork
SRP: $40
Deep purple-ruby. Needs a bit of air but opens to show deep black cherries and red/black currants. Deeply fruit but laced with smoke, graphite, tobacco, chicory coffee and loamy soil. Medium body (12.8% alcohol). Velvety but dusty tannins and bright acid make for great balance. Fleshy red and black currant fruit, mix in some blueberries, but I also get a complex blend of earth, graphite, chewing tobacco, violets and loam. So pure and vibrant, lots of complexity. Pleasant now but a proper decant is a good idea. Includes 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Merlot and 2% Petit Verdot, aged 10 months in Hungarian oak. (90 points)

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Tuscan Reds: $15-$35 Selections

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

It’s easy to spend a lot of money on Tuscan reds. On the other hand, it’s equally easy to be disappointed by moderately priced blends. But there are a lot of solid bottles out there in the $15-$35 range. Many of them are ready to drink on release and tend to have a food friendly profile. Although, if you’re sensitive to new oak, shop carefully because many Tuscan reds can have a hefty dose of wood.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

2012 Aia Vecchia Lagone Toscana IGT - Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
SRP: $15
Deep ruby colored. Tart red fruits on the nose, some green herbal kicks, earthy-charcoal notes. Moderately firm tannins, a bit harsh and astringent at first, medium acid. Tart, crunchy red berry fruit mixed with notes of dark roasted coffee, charcoal, mocha and baking spices. It could benefit from a decent decant or a few years sideways. 60% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc. (85 points)
2011 Aia Vecchia Bolgheri Superiore Sor Ugo - Italy, Tuscany, Bolgheri, Bolgheri Superiore
SRP: $35
Deep ruby colored. Nose of violets, cedar, fallen leaves and lots of crushed red and black berries. Firm yet dusty tannins, solid structure, moderate acid. Full of cedar and smoke, the red and black currant fruit is firm and crunchy. The new oak bravado is tempered by layers of roses, anise, clove and pepper. Medium-long finish, this is a bold wine that needs time, but has a lot to show. 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot. Aged in all new French oak for 18 months. (88 points)

2013 Brancaia Tre Toscana IGT - Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
SRP: $23
Medium ruby colored. Dusty and earthy notes on the nose add to the red currants and cherries, some notes of bell pepper and roasted coffee. Medium-light bodied with moderate acid and silky-smooth tannins. Tart currant and cherry fruit bounces off sweet cola, cedar and dark chocolate shavings. Hints of rosemary and sweet on a tangy, fresh finish. Fun, easy-drinking, food-friendly blend of 80% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet and 10% Merlot. For early consumption, but a good value, as is usually the case with this wine. (87 points)

2013 Monteverro Verruzzo Toscana IGT - Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
SRP: $29
Medium ruby color. Nose of juicy black cherries, summer plums, hints of tobacco and basil mxi with coffee and cedar. A fleshy, medium-bodied wine with rounded tannins and moderate acid. The black cherry and currant fruit is chewy yet velvety, backed up by notes of charcoal, tobacco, cedar shavings and light roast coffee. Moderately long finish with notes of clove and green herbs. Approachable now or enjoy after a year or two. 40% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Sangiovese. (87 points)

With an easily recognizable label, wide distribution &
decent value, Ruffino's Modus is usually a solid bet. 
2012 Ruffino Modus Toscana IGT - Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT
SRP: $28
Medium ruby color. Smells of tart red and black currants, summer plums with crunchy skins, some violets, cedar and sweet basil. Medium-bodied, framed with dusty tannins and a nice tang from the acid. Bold black cherry, blackberry and plum fruit but the fruit has a tangy edge. Lots of light roast coffee, cedar shavings but some nice spice and earth elements as well. Ready to drink or age over the next few years. 50% Sangiovese, 25% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon. (87 points)

2012 Castello Banfi Rosso di Montalcino - Italy, Tuscany, Montalcino, Rosso di Montalcino
SRP: $19
Dull ruby color. On the nose, tangy cherries, red currants, mixed in with rose potpourri, rhubarb and cedar. Moderate tannic structure (they’re fined down around the edges), moderate-low acid, tangy fruit (red cherries, red currants), backed up by notes of anise, cedar and clove. A finish of loam and cedar. Not too complicated or thought-provoking, but it has a simple, easy-drinking appeal. (84 points)