Monday, March 28, 2016

Franciacorta: Fine Italian Bubbles

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

When it comes to en vogue bubbles, a lot of attention has turned to Prosecco. It seems to be a big hit with the kids these days. As I’ve reported on before, there are some damn good Proseccos, especially from Cartizze.

But for my palate, if it’s Italian bubbles I’m after, Franciacorta is the place. Made with some classic Champagne grapes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir/Pinot Nero (although Pinot Blanc/Pinot Bianco can account for up to 50% of the blend) these Lombardia wines were elevated to DOCG status in 1995.

This is one hell of a bottle of bubbles.
These are Champagne method bubbles with at least 18 months on the lees. The vines grown in sandy, silty soils near Lake Iseo, which has moderating influences in both winter and summer. There is clearly no substitute for Champagne. But, buck for buck, these Franciacorta wines offer a ton of sparkling excitement.

I recently tasted through some Franciacorta from two producers, Barone Pizzini and La Valle, and found a whole lot to like.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

N.V. Barone Pizzini Franciacorta Animante Brut - Italy, Lombardia, Franciacorta DOCG
SRP: $35
Light gold color. Generous aromas of green apple, sliced pears, along with sea breeze and toasted baguette. Crisp and clean on the palate, this is bright and tangy wine but shows plenty of juicy fruit: green apples and pears, papaya drizzled with lime. I get some notes of chalk, toasted bread crumbs and white flowers as well. Lots of fun for a moderate price tag. Chardonnay, Pinot Nero and Pinot Bianco. (87 points)

2011 Barone Pizzini Franciacorta Satén - Italy, Lombardia, Franciacorta DOCG
SRP: $45
Light gold color. Smells very floral and perfumed, along with sea breeze, lemon peel and sliced green apples. Bright, clean, tart and pithy on the palate. I get notes of lemon and lime slices and green apples, topped with crushed chalk, floral perfume and some notes of toasted biscuit. Not too deep, but an elegant, smooth wine that begs for fish and cured meats. All Chardonnay made in Saten style, which has silky, less intense bubbles. (88 points)

2011 Barone Pizzini Franciacorta Rosé - Italy, Lombardia, Franciacorta DOCG
SRP: $45
Vibrant rose petal and salmon color. Smells fresh and inviting, with white cherry, strawberry and McIntosh apple peel, along with notes of baby’s breath, crushed chalk and toasted biscuit. Creamy texture but also crisp and lively. Dry but ripe and juicy, the bright cherries and watermelon flavors are topped with chalk, salt and toasted biscuit notes. Not the deepest or most complex wine, but it’s crisp, clean and vibrant. All Pinot Noir. (87 points)

2008 Barone Pizzini Franciacorta Brut Bagnadore - Italy, Lombardia, Franciacorta DOCG
SRP: $60
Gorgeous golden color. Aromas of apricots, yellow apples, honeysuckle, lots of bright and chalky notes along with sea salt and fresh baked biscuits – a deep and complex aromatic display. Intense acidity on the palate, very focused and nervy. Chalky, salty, a crunchy mineral kick pervades this wine. I get flavors of green apple, lime, grapefruit along with richer elements of baked pear, cinnamon, honey, biscuits and toasted baguettes. Long, brisk finish. Very impressive stuff – I’d love to bury a few bottles of this. 50/50, Pinot/Chardonnay (91 points)

N.V. La Valle Franciacorta Franciacorta Brut Rosé Italy, Lombardia, Franciacorta DOCG
SRP: $55
Pale salmon color. Bright and breezy on the nose, with white and red flowers and chalk dust on top of wild strawberries and notes of fresh biscuits. Tart on the palate yet shows some richness to the body. Flavors of red apple peel, white cherries, the fruit is crisp and vibrant with a crunchy appeal. Chalk dust, seashell, floral potpourri notes. Precise yet delicious. 100% Pinot Noir. (89 points)

N.V. La Valle Franciacorta Franciacorta Brut Primum Italy, Lombardia, Franciacorta DOCG
SRP: $40
Pale gold color. Smells nice and toasty with biscuits and toasted coconut on top of yellow apple and apricots. Tart but toasty on the palate, a rich presence but bright and tingly throughout. Toasted biscuit and coconut mix with green apple, yellow apple, apricot – along with a solid blend of bright chalk, crushed shell, mineral and tonic notes. Bright, complex, deep, bold, this has a lot going on here. Chardonnay with 25% Pinot Noir and 10% Pinot Bianco. (89 points)

SRP: $55
Light gold color. Gorgeous nose of toasted bread, fresh biscuits, almond and sea salt on top of golden apples and pears. Bright and tangy on the palate but a rich presence on the palate, this wine rides that line very well. Golden apples, apricot, orange peel, topped with sea salt, crushed shells, bread crumbs, fresh dough and a linger sense of minerals and talc. Finishes tart and pithy. A beautiful blend of Chardonnay with 25% Pinot Noir and 10% Pinot Blanc. (90 points)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Mixed Bag of Colorado Wine

Best known for a dizzying array of craft breweries, Colorado also produces more and more wine. And if a recent tasting is any indication, some of these wines are quite good.  

Wine is likely not the first (or second, or fifth) thing you think of when you hear Colorado, but winemakers in this state are hoping to change that. Colorado definitely has some quality ingredients for winegrowing: 300+ days of sun per year, low humidity, cool mountain breezes, high elevation sites (with vineyards planted between 4,000 and 7,000 feet).

More than 125 wineries crush grapes from more than 1,000 acres of grapes. And the state's wine industry is growing. In 2009, Colorado wineries sold about 100,000 cases. By 2015, that number had jumped to almost 150,000 cases, according to Colorado Wine. Riesling is the state's top wine grape, accounting for almost a quarter of Colorado wine. Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Merlot round out the top five.

Most vineyard views are quite impressive, but this seems excessively beautiful. Credit: Colorado Wine.

But despite the size of the state, wine production is relatively small. Colorado's wine acreage is a tiny drop in a big bucket when you consider that California totaled more than 600,000 acres in 2014, according to the USDA. Colorado doesn't scratch the top ten states in terms of wine production. For example, Pennsylvania, the 10th largest wine-producing state, churns out about 800,000 cases of wine per year, according to Wine Vines Analytics.

Still, I love the idea of exploring wine from new regions and different states. And considering the incredible natural beauty and tourist attractions the state has to offer, I'd love to taste some local vino while taking in the mountain views. 

Like Virginia's renowned Governor's Cup, the Colorado Wine Industry Development Board kicked off a similar program in 2011. The Colorado Governor's Cup Wine Competition saw 241 entries from 37 wineries in 2015. The Governor's Case, which includes the top 12 wines, is a snapshot of the cream of the crop from that competition.

To be honest, I found some of the wines a bit strange. It took a lot of swirling, spitting and head-scratching to figure some of them out. Some wines were too heavily oaked (I found a similar trend in tasting through a case of Idaho wines last year). But the adventurous palate has a whole lot to explore in Colorado. And if your palate is anything like mine, you're bound to find some wines that get you excited.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

SRP: $16
Slight spritz in the glass with a light golden color. Smells like sliced white peaches and canned peaches, along with honeysuckle, but I also get this slightly strange goat cheese note (seriously, it’s like a goat farm). On the palate this wine tastes like sweet tarts, lime peel and canned peaches, along with notes of honeysuckle and quinine. A hint of that funkiness from the nose, but not too much. Sweet but the acidity is bright. Overall, it’s not bad, but it’s a bit odd. (78 points)

SRP: $16
Medium yellow color. Jumps out of the glass with aromas of white peaches, juicy cantaloupe, kiwi, topped with floral perfume and honey. On the palate, this is full-bodied and waxy, the acid fails to keep the wine fresh in the face of gobs of tropical fruit (pineapple, papaya, juicy white peaches). Notes of yellow flowers, honeycomb, a real sense of creamy lees and nougat as well. Fun flavors, very tasty, but it’s a bit hot and unbalanced. (83 points)

SRP: $25
Medium ruby colored. Smells of spicy red cherries and currants, topped with a significant dose of pepper, celery seed, leather and roasted coffee. Full-bodied, silky-smooth tannins, some moderate acid holds it up. Juicy red and black cherries on the palate, the fruit is plenty ripe but shows some crunchy freshness. The fruit’s laced with black pepper, sage, leather and clove. Medium-length finish with a kiss of vanilla and oak. Well-done. (86 points)

2013 Turquoise Mesa Winery Syrah - Colorado, Grand Valley
SRP: $35
Vibrant ruby color. Interesting aromas of red apple peel, tart black currant fruit, mixed in with wet leaves, soy sauce and green peppercorn notes, a note that reminds me of a sour red ale. Medium-bodied, silky tannins, moderate acid, this is a bright wine with tart but approachable fruit (black cherry, tart blueberry, red apple peel, a unique blend of fruit elements), but also some roasted chestnut, green pepper, black tea and an herbal cough drop note. A tart and spicy wine that requires an adventurous palate. A bit strange, a unique approach, but I find it fun. (83 points)

SRP: $25
Vibrant purple color. Smells of bright plums, blackberries, violets and some light roast coffee. Full-bodied but marked by refreshing acidity and moderately fleshy tannin structure. A tart black cherry and currant jam fruit signature, underlined by cola, coffee, black pepper and loamy earth. Rich but stays fresh, this is put together quite well. (87 points)

The label looks like a strip club ad, but the Syrah in the bottle was so well done and delicious.
2013 Anemoi Syrah Lips - Colorado, Grand Valley
SRP: $35
Deep ruby color. Smells of rich blackberries and blueberries, with lots of smoke, pepper and a spicy meat note that reminds me of really good chorizo (seriously). Full-bodied, such a chewy texture, with some fleshy tannins and light acid that helps hold it together. The black cherry, blackberry and blueberry fruit is rich and mouth-filling but it’s not too extracted or roasted. Flavors of black pepper glaze, campfire smoke, rich loam, graphite, vanilla, roasted coffee, some grilled herbs and violet notes come out with air. Big and burly but shows some serious complexity, depth, and it’s actually quite balanced and finishes fresh. My favorite wine of the tasting — and a wine that really got me excited about Syrah in Colorado. (90 points)

SRP: $28
Vibrant ruby color. More candied berry and jammy aromas than the Syrah, still some underlying green and black pepper, violets, herbal liqueur and menthol. Medium-bodied, some dusty tannic structured, medium acid. Juicy and tart black and red fruits, this wine has a significant amount of violets, potting soil, black pepper and campfire elements. Tart and a bit weird, but an interesting blend of 53% Syrah, 30% Mourvedre and 17% Viognier. (81 points)

SRP: $35
Medium purple color. Wonderful aromas here, I’m actually quite surprised at all the nuance I get: black and red currant, black cherries, sweet coffee, violets, pipe tobacco and cola. Bold structure with seriously firm tannic grip, medium acid helps keep it fresh, this is a dense wine but opens up a bit with air (and will much more so with time in the cellar). The fruit is compact but tart as well (black currant and cherries), and slathered in coffee, sweet vanilla coffee and toasty oak, perhaps a bit too much of the latter, but it’s got quite a lot going for it. Freshness and nuances of spice and tobacco on the finish. So, yeah, I dig this. I’d love to retaste in two or three years to see what else emerges. Nice but so damn tannic. (87 points) 

2012 Creekside Cellars Petit Verdot - Colorado, Grand Valley
SRP: $30
Rich purple color. A bit closed down at first, but it opens up and shows some tart red currant and blueberry, along with campfire smoke, violets and black licorice candy. Medium-to-full-bodied with a grippy tannic structure, but smooth around the edges, some moderately tart acid. I get black cherries, currants and blueberries, the fruit is juicy and ripe but doused with heavy vanilla and roasted coffee. Some underlying floral and earthy tones try to peek out. Finishes with some anise and oak. 13.8% alcohol. (84 points)

2013 Canyon Wind Petit Verdot - Colorado, Grand Valley
SRP: $35
Light purple color. Rich and saucy on the nose, like blueberry pie and black currant jam, also some coffee, loamy soil, vanilla and cola. Full-bodied and full-throttled, the tannins are quite strong here, the acid a bit low. But I really like the quality of the fruit (blueberries, black currants, blackberry), which is rich but not overdone. Significant coffee, dark chocolate, vanilla and toasted oak, but also some leafy, peppery, loamy notes. Structured very well for the cellar. I’m really impressed by this wine and would love to retaste it in four or five years. 15% alcohol. (88 points)

2014 Whitewater Hill Sweetheart Red - Colorado, Grand Valley
SRP: $13
Light purple color. Smells like currant, raspberry and strawberry jams, very confectionary with sweet purple candies and some cough drop notes. Light tannins, medium-low acidity, moderate sweetness, the balance isn’t great but it’s not terrible. Flavors of raspberry and strawberry jams along with caramel apple and some cough drop flavors. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this, but it’s better than I thought. Still not something I’d like to drink. (80 points)

Saturday, March 19, 2016

New Essay: I Pray My Daughter Never Believes in Sin

I have a new essay up on The Good Men Project today called "I Pray My Daughter Never Believes in Sin."

I mean no offense to anyone of any religious persuasion, but I've been thinking a lot about what kind of values I want to teach my daughter, and what kind of ideas I hope she rejects. In this piece, I try to explain my hopes of raising my daughter with a morality based in empathy and human dignity.

Thanks for stopping by this blog, and I hope you'll check out the piece. Cheers!

Friday, March 18, 2016

2013 Bordeaux - Rough Year, But Some Good Wines Survive

Heard about the 2013 vintage in Bordeaux? Heard anything good about the 2013 vintage in Bordeaux?

The region struggled with a cool start, and rain and cool weather was a theme throughout the growing season. But the season ended with rain and warm weather, which meant rot was a problem. Yields were way down, hail smashed grapes in the summer, Merlot got its ass kicked (especially on the Left Bank) and winemakers struggled to sort out the good grapes.

Some producers didn't even release a 2013 wine, and some Left Bank chateaux sold off wine to be bottled by others under different brands. Twenty or 30 years ago, this vintage may have been a disaster.  But with modern technology, many winemakers were able to pull a rabbit out of a very wet hat. Diligent vineyard work early on, intense grape sorting after harvest, and flexibility in the vinification process led to some fun and impressive results.

My favorite wine hailed from Chateau Montrose. Credit: Chateau Montrose.
I recently tasted through a bunch of 2013 Bordeaux wines at the Heart's DelightWine Tasting & Auction. Reps from several heralded Bordeaux houses met with sommeliers and trade folks at the Sofitel in Washington, DC, to take a look at these new wines.

First of all: the wines I tasted were by no means bad. Indeed, I found most of them fresh, vibrant and very enjoyable to drink young. Tasting young Bordeaux can be taxing on the palate, leaving mine feeling dried out, beat up and tired. Plus, it can be extremely difficult to gauge the quality of a brutishly tannic young Bordeaux blend. But in 2013, the tannins, while quite structured in some wines, are smoother than usual, and the acidity has a crisp edge to it. The fruit maintains a leaner, more tart profile. Basically, these are wines to drink while the sturdier 2012s sleep in the cellar.

A bright spot seems to be the whites, many of which were picked before the late September rains, Bruno Laplane of Château Gazin Rocquencourt in Pessac-Léognan, told me. And the botrytis-laden sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac are apparently quite impressive (I only tasted one, but, wow...)

Below are my notes on the 2013 Bordeaux wines I tasted.

2013 Château Gazin Rocquencourt Blanc - France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
Bright aromas of limes and hint of white pepper. Crunchy green apple on the palate, so crisp and nervy. Very nice. (89 points)

2013 Château Malartic-Lagravière Blanc - France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
Refreshing but creamy with green apples, limes and peach. A lingering sense of tea, lemongrass and honeysuckle. Complex, pretty, seems like it will improve with some age. (90 points)

2013 Château Gazin Rocquencourt - France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
Fruit smells juicy, deep and dark but the palate shows lots of refreshing brightness. Tart red currant fruit mixes with earth, tobacco, hints of greenness but not too much. Seems very approachable at this young age. (87 points)

2013 Château Malartic-Lagravière - France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan
Darker berries than the Gazin Rocquencourt, this has juicy dark cherries and blackberries. Some smoke, earth, sage and tobacco add complexity. Juicy and vibrant, showing well. (88 points)

2013 Château Barde-Haut - France, Bordeaux, Libournais, St. Émilion Grand Cru
Vibrant, sweet red fruits on the nose and some vanilla. Juicy but tart on the palate with crunchy red fruits, accented by earth and toast. Moderately firm tannins but still quite fresh. (87 points)

2013 Clos l'Église (Pomerol) - France, Bordeaux, Libournais, Pomerol
Dark and smoky on the nose with rich jammy red fruit. Firm, chewy and toasty with deep berry flavors along with cedar and earth. More concentrated, needs time, but very nice. (89 points)

2013 Château Lagrange (St. Julien) - France, Bordeaux, Médoc, St. Julien
Dark aromas with tart black currant, pencil lead and rich earth. Firm but fleshy, stays vibrant in the face of deep black currant fruit. Pencil lead, mineral, earth, such elegance and beautiful focus. (91 points)

2013 Château Kirwan - France, Bordeaux, Médoc, Margaux
Elegant floral aromas with bright currant fruit. Bold but elegant on the palate with a brightness that makes it so appealing. Tart but juicy red currants, along with fresh violets and roses, earth and mineral tones. Fresh and delicious but time needed to show its best. (91 points)

2013 Château Lascombes - France, Bordeaux, Médoc, Margaux
Gorgeous velvety fruit on the nose with sweet violets as well. Full and chewy on the palate but stays fresh. Currants topped with eucalyptus, cedar, violets. Rich but elegant and polished. (91 points)

2013 Château du Tertre - France, Bordeaux, Médoc, Margaux
Vibrant red fruit on the nose with a fresh floral approach. Fresh and slick on the palate with velvety tannins and pretty red fruit. I get a deep sense of herbs, chestnut, bell pepper and savory spices that I find really attractive. (90 points)

2013 Château Giscours - France, Bordeaux, Médoc, Margaux
Bold, spicy aromatics but elegant fruit. Silky, smooth, very vibrant. Tart but concentrated red fruits, some crunchy blackberries, mixed with tobacco, earth, minerals and shaved pencils. Needs time but some really pretty stuff going on here. (90 points)

2013 Château Phélan Ségur - France, Bordeaux, Médoc, St. Estèphe
Bold, spicy aromatics but elegant fruit. Silky, smooth, very vibrant. Tart but concentrated red fruits, some crunchy blackberries, mixed with tobacco, earth, minerals and shaved pencils. Needs time but some really pretty stuff going on here. (90 points)

2013 Château Lafon-Rochet - France, Bordeaux, Médoc, St. Estèphe
Pretty aromatics of vibrant currant fruit and spice. Smooth despite some solid structure, medium acidity, fresh red and black cherry and currants. Ends with floral tones. Plenty to unpack in the cellar. (88 points)

Nobody told the folks at Lynch Bages that
2013 was supposed to be a stinker vintage.
2013 Château Lynch-Bages - France, Bordeaux, Médoc, Pauillac
Deep and exotic on the nose with black and red currants and cherries, rich earth and sweet spice. Firm but accessible tannins, lots of brightness with tart red and black currants. Notes of violets, graphite, sweet spice, lovely depth and complexity. Long and smooth, with a freshness that keeps the wine vibrant despite its cellar-worthy potential. (91 points)

2013 Château Montrose - France, Bordeaux, Médoc, St. Estèphe
Smells of bright currants, juicy cherries, roses, earth and minerals. I love the structure here, smooth but vibrant but refreshing acidity. Tart yet chewy black cherries, hints of cola, coffee, loam and pencil shavings. Shows strength but elegance, along with violets, pencil lead and lingering minerality. Long and lasting, this needs lots of time but it’s gorgeous at such a young age. Wow. (93 points)

2013 Château Guiraud - France, Bordeaux, Sauternais, Sauternes
Gorgeous golden-orange color. Smells so ripe and juicy with luscious apricot, honey and sweet spice. Creamy and rich but there’s a pervasive sense of freshness in spite of the honeyed mouthfeel. Flavors of almond, honey, spiced tea and white flowers on top of rich apricots and peach tarts. Long, vibrant, rich and pure. Wow, I’d love to see how this ages. (93 points)

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Winter's Gone, but Port is Always in Season

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

Winter is gone, Port is good in all kinds of weather. For me, there are few better post-dinner, late-night beverages than a good ol’ glass of Port.

Of course, you can spend a whole lot of money on Port, especially Vintage Port, especially when the 2011 vintage has been so heralded by many critics. But there are a lot of entry- and medium-level Ports that offer a glance into this historic wine realm without much pain to the wallet.

These wines were received as trade samples and tastes sighted.

N.V. Graham Porto Six Grapes Reserve - Portugal, Douro, Porto
SRP: $22/750ml
Deep purple color. Smells of fig paste, plum cake, molasses, brown sugar and raisins. Full and saucy but accessible tannins. Juicy, dark and rich with plum cake, roasted fig, blueberry jam. I get notes of earth, charcoal, dark chocolate and candied orange peel. Lots of flavor but immediately pleasurable and quite fresh. (87 points)

N.V. Warre Porto Otima 10 Year Old Tawny - Portugal, Douro, Porto
SRP: $26/375ml
Amber and clover honey color. Smells of apricot jam, fig paste, caramel, hot caramel and brown sugar. Full bodied, of course, a rich, chewy feel. The fruit tastes rich but lighter, like baked yellow apples, yellow raisins, apricot glaze and candied orange peel, plenty of caramel, honeycomb, some spice and toasted nut notes. Full and rich but stays relatively light for a Tawny, with some acid and some pleasant approachability. Delicious when served slightly chilled on a cold evening. (88 points)

N.V. Graham Porto 10 Year Old Tawny - Portugal, Douro, Porto
SRP: $36/750ml
Dark amber colored. Warm spices on the nose (clove, cinnamon sticks) along with brown sugar, fig cookie, quince paste and caramel. Smooth and full on the palate but this stays vibrant in spite of the richness. Flavors of apricot jam, dried pineapple, topped in caramel, roasted chestnut, nougat and some brown sugar. Rich but harmonious. (90 points)

2001 Graham Porto Vintage Quinta dos Malvedos - Portugal, Douro, Porto
SRP: $30/375ml
Rich purple color. A warm, inviting aromatic display of roasted figs, baked plum tart, red currant jam, caramel and toasted almonds. Full and rich on the palate, firm tannins but fined down a bit around the edges, moderate acid keeps it vibrant. Rich plum cake and baked fig flavors mix with cocoa, earth, coffee and toasted coconut accents. A chewy, rich wine, shows quite well now with plenty of structure for a long life in the cellar. (91 points IJB)

N.V. Sandeman Porto Founder’s Reserve - Portugal, Douro, Porto
SRP: $19/750ml
Dark violet color. Nose of rich fig past, boysenberry jam, baked plums, some smoky, toasty, sweet coffee notes. Full and chewy on the palate but accessible tannins. Rich flavors of plum sauce, baked brownie, vanilla, along with sweet cocoa, roasted nuts and some underlying earthiness. Great intro to Port but enough to contemplate and savor. (86 points IJB)

Monday, March 14, 2016

Madeira Heaven: Henriques & Henriques

Credit: Henriques & Henriques.
It's been a month since I returned from Madeira, but I'm still reeling. This Portuguese island off the coast of Morocco is one of the most stunning places on earth, and the wines made here are unlike wines made anywhere else. (Click here for my primer on Madeira wine, which discussed how the different styles and the unique production and aging methods.)

While on the island, I visited six of the eight producers. I wrote about
Barbeito, D'Oliveiras and Justino's already. Now, I turn to another great producer, Henriques & Henriques. This renowned firm was founded in 1850 by João Gonçalves Henriques. When he died, his two sons created a partnership, hence the name Henriques & Henriques, or H&H as it's often called.

H&H's headquarters are located west of Funchal in a steely and modern facility. Humberto Jardim, the firm's Managing Director and CEO, showed myself and some other wine lovers around the winery and poured us wine-ranging examples of Madeira wine from their impressive portfolio.

I toured the massive cellars, which are stacked high with barrels undergoing the estufagem process, used for the best wines and allows the barrels to age as they're exposed to heat and oxygen.

The crew (myself with the hat) in H&H's
cellars, Humberto Jardim on the right.

These wines are refreshing and exciting, but, like all Madeira wine, they honor a rich sense of history.

I've pasted my notes on the H&H wines below.

N.V. Henriques & Henriques Madeira Monte Seco - Portugal, Madeira
Smells dry and highly oxidized, lots of salted nuts. So tart on the palate with bright lemon, salted lime and some white peach, along with salted nuts. Not very complicated, but fun, innovative stuff. (85 points)

N.V. Henriques & Henriques Madeira Full Rich - Portugal, Madeira
Smells of brown sugar, honey and hot oil. Creamy, sweet and sugary with flavors of caramel and sweet plum cake. A decent entry-level wine. (83 points)

1997 Henriques & Henriques Madeira Tinta Negra Single Harvest Fine Rich Madeira - Portugal, Madeira
Smells of cognac, honey, spiced tea and old wood furniture. Full and smooth on the palate, this is nutty, long and elegant. Aged in Cognac barrels. Very cool stuff. (90 points)

1998 Henriques & Henriques Madeira Tinta Negra Single Harvest Fine Rich Madeira - Portugal, Madeira
More floral than the 97. Smooth and velvety on the palate with orange marmalade, honey, caramel and cigar smoke. Subtle complexity in here. Unlike the 97, this is not aged in Cognac barrels. (89 points)

2001 Henriques & Henriques Madeira Sercial Single Harvest - Portugal, Madeira
Almond, clover and fresh flowers on the nose. Brisk and fresh, salty and briny, a lovely texture but so much brightness and generous acid. Lemon, orange peel, almond, chalky notes. Well done. (89 points)

1971 Henriques & Henriques Madeira Sercial - Portugal, Madeira
Nose: floral perfume, eucalyptus and cigar box. Acid is high but integrated well. Candied lemon, ginger, white tea, crusty sea salt, almond shell. Wow, there is a lot going on here but it’s held together incredibly well. (92 points)

N.V. Henriques & Henriques Madeira Verdelho 15 Years Old - Portugal, Madeira
Smells like tropical, glazed fruits (a whole lot of them). Sweet pineapple, glazed pears, canned peaches, honey. Good stuff, but I was expecting to like this more than I did. (87 points)

N.V. Henriques & Henriques Madeira Verdelho 20 Years Old - Portugal, Madeira
Deep, complex aromas of almond, apricot, honey, candied lemon and sea salt. Juicy on the palate, full of dried, tropical fruits, orange marmalade, honeycomb, spiced tea and dried flowers. Ripping acidity, sea salt, complex nutty elements. Lots going on here. (91 points)

2000 Henriques & Henriques Madeira Boal Single Harvest - Portugal, Madeira
On the nose: sweet honey, dried apricots, spiced tea. Rich and tropical with lots of honey, dates, sweet flowers. Rich but a more reserved style Bual. (88 points)

1957 Henriques & Henriques Madeira Boal - Portugal, Madeira
Smells like an old furniture oiling rag, complete with that lemony, varnish scent but also lots of floral perfume, nougat and honey. Rich texture and sweetness but lovely acid. Smooth, complex, laced with flavors or orange rind, dried wax, lemon oil. So good. (93 points)

N.V. Henriques & Henriques Madeira Malmsey 15 Years Old - Portugal, Madeira
Nose of orange marmalade, brown sugar, Sweet and rich but stays bright and salty. Complexity is quite nice, and there’s a shot of salty, nutty complexity that keeps the wine elegant despite the richness. (90 points)

N.V. Henriques & Henriques Madeira Malvasia 20 Years Old - Portugal, Madeira
Smooth, rich, spicy, velvety, full of complex flavors. Gorgeous stuff. (94 points)

N.V. Henriques & Henriques Madeira Terrantez 20 Years Old - Portugal, Madeira
Aromas of almonds, orange peel and some oily, waxy, polish notes. Complex and spicy with tart acidity. Orange and lemon peel mix with honey, clove and spiced tea. Acid lingers on the tart finish. (90 points)

N.V. Henriques & Henriques Madeira Tinta Negra 50 Year Old - Portugal, Madeira
What a stunner of a wine. Such complexity, such elegance, such depth. The flavors are superb, as is the balance. A real "wow" kind of wine. (96 points)

1894 Henriques & Henriques Madeira "Founder's Solera" - Portugal, Madeira
One of my favorite wines of the trip. What a stunner. Aromatically, I get old leather, cigar lounge, brown sugar, musk, eucalyptus and floral potpourri. Full and so complex but the brightness is incredible. Flavors of musk, leather, library dust, clove, cinnamon and coffee. But it's still so vibrant with these elements of orange marmalade, cocoa and white flowers. So long and pure. Whoa. (97 points)

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

American Wino: Dan Dunn's Wine-Soaked Road Trip

You really don’t want to trade tales with Dan Dunn. His stories will kick your stories’ asses, no problem.

I hung around with Dan for a few days in Napa and Sonoma last year. After sharing some wine and some stories I realized Dan is fucking cool guy, and he can rattle off a hilarious story with ease.

You know Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World? Well, Dan is buddies with the real-life dude. Seriously. I didn’t believe the guy when he told me this, but Dan pulled out his phone and showed me pictures. Oh yeah, then we talked boxing a bit (I’m a huge fan). What picture does Dan show me next? No big deal, just him and Sugar Ray Leonard chilling. And I didn’t even get to ask Dan about his stories from the Playboy mansion.

Dan’s a booze and “nightlife” writer and former columnist for Playboy. If the publication has a distilled spirit in its title, Dan’s probably written for it. The titles of his previously published books should give you some idea of his approach to writing: Living Loaded: Tales of Sex, Salvation, and the Pursuit of the Never-Ending Happy Hour and Nobody Likes a Quitter (and Other Reasons to Avoid Rehab: The Loaded Life of an Outlaw Booze Writer.

A lot of wine writing can be either stuffy to the point of suffocation or uninspired to the point of meaninglessness. Dan’s writing avoids both of these pitfalls. He pretty much gets loaded, waits for hilarious shit to happen, and then writes it down.

I just finished reading his new book American Wino: A Tale of Reds, Whites and One Man’s Blues, which is quite a romp. If you’re going to pick up a copy when it comes out in April, I have one suggestion: Don’t read this book sober. It was likely written under the influence of one or more substances and should be read under similar influences. “But I can’t read buzzed,” you say? Yes you can. With this book, you most certainly can.

After a series of unfortunate events including the death of his brother and his girlfriend bailing, Dan sets his sights on a trans-American road trip. The goal? Well, to see new places, get drunk, meet some chicks on Tinder, and, along the way, check out some wineries from lesser-known states. (They make vino in all 50, after all.) Dan is no Master of Wine candidate. Spirits and beer are his main focus. So he decides to become a “wine expert” by meeting up with as many winemakers, and drinking as much wine, as he possibly can.

This book is not a reference guide to American wine. It is not an analysis of current winemaking trends in smaller wine-growing states. It’s a personal travel narrative littered with bottles from Nebraska, New Mexico, New Jersey, Georgia, and many places in between.

Dan keeps an open mind about wineries from all over the country, which is refreshing. As a huge fan of Virginia wine (and wines from places like Arizona, Maryland, Pennsylvania and others), I have no patience for dismissals of entire wine regions from self-absorbed oenophiles.

But Dan doesn’t blow smoke up a state’s ass either. Climate, soil, aspect, winemaking equipment and know-how, there are damn good reasons the best wines in the world come from places that have these elements all lined up. But that’s not to say darn good wine can’t come from unexpected places. The story of most famous wine regions started with someone planting vines in a spot other people thought was crummy.

Dan writes: “most of the learned folks I’ve come across are of the opinion that almost all the great domestic stuff comes from one of three places — California, Oregon, and Washington — with New York and Virginia occasionally fielding a winner now and again. As for the rest of the wine, well, they mostly think it’s shit.”

The critics come at these winemakers like rabid badgers, intent on clawing out their eyes and chomping off their privates. And while these plucky pups harbor no illusions of supplanting Napa, Tuscany, or the Rhone any time soon, they’re every bit as serious, hardworking, and innovative as the industry’s heavy hitters. And after decades of relentless abuse (or utter disregard) they just don’t give a shit what you think about them anymore.”

Like me, Dan has a blue-collar appreciation for the farmer-winemaker-underdog. Even if the wine doesn’t taste great, Dan appreciates the gumption: “That takes grit, a large helping of blind faith, and an unshakable belief in one’s ability to endure in the face of near impossible odds.”

But the book, like wine from Florida, has some serious flaws.

I’m not some pearl-clutcher who gets offended easily. (The last time I felt offended was when another metalhead criticized my love of the Polish black/death metal band Behemoth.) But Dan’s writing is often crass for crassness’ sake. Like an adolescent throwing around the c-word every time he gets a chance, Dan gets mired in his own excess. 

The guy actually writes a multi-page dialogue scene between him and his penis. No kidding. And I was in junior high the last time I heard so many references to ballsacks, nutsacks, dickwads, taints and buttholes. He frequently overplays his hand by using too much hyperbole. He compares himself to Bukowski and Dylan Thomas. Luckily for Dan, a good dose of self-deprecation saves him from coming off as a total prick.

Although this could be called a “wine book,” the wineries Dan visits get little more than a brief overview, and the actual wines get a cursory mention. Much of the time, Dan’s fantasizing about hot waitresses or reliving past jaunts. It’s fun to read, but disappointing if you’re expecting to come away with a lot of knowledge about American wine culture.

The road trip structure of the book is jumbled up by flashbacks to childhood in Philly and internal dialogue about his ex-girlfriend. Jumping back in time can be quite jarring for a reader expecting the story to move forward. For example, the chapter on Texas starts off with four pages set in Texas before shifting to 12 pages of back-story in Philly. By the time we jump back, I forgot we were in the Lone Star State. The flashbacks generally take a similar structure. Dan is driving around somewhere and, all of the sudden, we transition to the past via the “Oh, that reminds of this one time when...” method. The flashbacks are frequently funny and often vulgar, but there are way too many to keep the story moving forward.

Some of the most memorable and endearing back-story deals with Dunn’s family. Like the story about his cousin who steps on a Christmas ornament ball, ignores the wound, gets gangrene, and has to have his leg amputated below the knee. I swear, it’s funny the way Dan tells it. His overdue reunion with his mother in Philly is hilarious, touching and sad, and when Dunn deals honestly with his emotions it comes across as authentic.

The book is also packed with side bars, little diversions about particular grape varieties (not “varietals”) and wine terms. Sometimes he goes off on a completely unrelated topic, like the time he channels his inner Key & Peele and embarks on an epic rant about the awesomeness of Liam Neeson.

I obviously enjoyed the book enough to write 1,400 words about it. Even though I only hung out with Dan for a few days, I would vouch for the guy. If we were drinking and fight broke out, I’d have his back. And Dan doesn’t need anything from this lowly wordslinger, anyway. The book jacket is plastered with praise from people who actually make money from their artistic endeavors. (Ever heard of Maynard James Keenan?)

Dan is pretty damned successful as far as alcoholic beverage writers go. He ends his trip as a keynote speaker at the posh Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival. He’s slated to speak there again this year, celebrating the launch of his book. So he clearly knows what the fuck he’s doing.

The flaws in this book? They’re like moderate doses of volatile acidity and brettanomyces, off-putting to some, but one could argue they add character. The book surely isn’t corked. As I said earlier, you should read it while consuming large quantities of wine. If you take my advice, you’ll enjoy yourself regardless.


Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Head High: Waves and Wine Pair Perfectly

If youve read anything from me, or followed me on social media, you know I am obsessed and in love with two things: wine and waves. 

ve been riding waves since I was three or four, when my Ma put my on her back and rode a bodyboard in the New Jersey shore break. And Ive been tasting and enjoying wine since before I could legally purchase bottles of my own. Over the course of my 20s, and now into my 30s, Ive managed to tie these two loves together quite well. I am drawn to remote coastal areas with diverse wave zones, cold water and great wine. Sonoma Coast, Mendocino, Santa Barbara, South Africas Western Cape, these places call to me to surf their waves and swirl their wines. (Western Oz, Chile, Galicia, you’re all on my list.)

The California coast is one of the most generous and consistent wave zones on the planet. Same goes for its winegrowing regions. (Photo: IJB)

Sam Spencer in his natural habitat. Credit: Head High Wines
Im not the only guy who lives for both of these things. Sam Spencer, partner and winegrowing director at Head High Wines, is a kindred spirit. Born in DC, Sam learned to surf in Rhode Island, whose waters are even colder than my home waves of New Jersey. He studied at UC Davis winemaking program, and worked 20 years as a wine consultant and vineyard developer. Of course, this work kept him relatively close to the coast, which allowed Sam to take frequent surf breaks.

Now Sam has his own venture, Head High Wines, named for the term surfers use when the surf is breaking at about 5-6 feet. He produces three wines, a rosé of Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast, a Sonoma Coast Pinot and a red blend from various vineyards scattered around California’s North Coast appellation.

Sam explained the connection between waves and wine in a manner that mirrored my appreciation for this unique coastal-oenological relationship. Great wine requires a convergence of several different elements: climate, soil, vineyard site, weather conditions. Great surf happens when swell (created by wind over water) aligns with a certain type of shallow underwater surface, and light (preferably off-shore) wind conditions. It only happens at specific spots, at specific times, under these specific circumstances. If one of the elements is missing (in both wine and surf) you get skunked.

Of course, there is the human element — the dynamic interaction between a driven person and the living power of the natural world. Not many people have this insatiable desire to get off their ass and paddle into big, sketchy surf, or trek out to the vineyard to pick the Pinot when the Brix levels are just right. But surfers and winemakers can’t help themselves. Sure we use new technology to aid us in these pursuits (neoprene for cold waves, stainless steel for cold stabilization), but wine and waves are both examples of Mother Nature’s control over the process. 
We humans just show up at the right time and revel in it.

Sam says he doesn’t make wine for surfers, and you don’t need to be a surfer to “get” these wines — you only need a functioning nose and palate. But, that said, there’s an added textural element to these wines you’re a wave-lover.
I recently met up with Sam at one of my favorite DC restaurants, the Red Hen, and we traded surf stories for a few hours. Sam is no kook. The dude surfs California’s North Coast breaks on the regular and has traveled to more than a few of my bucket list surf spots, Fiji, for example.

Head High has also teamed up with Sustainable Surf, an ocean conservation non-profit. One buck from every bottle goes to this charity or the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation. Good on ya, Head High.

What I liked most about Head High, despite the surfing connection, was their accessibility in terms of price and style. The wines run between $25-$35, which is about the cost of a cheap pair of wet suit gloves. Head High juice is bright, fruity, pleasant, but by no means simple.

Below, I’ve pasted my notes on Head High’s current releases.
Credit: Head High Wines

2015 Head High Wines Rosé - California, North Coast
Bright watermelon color. Crisp and juicy with bright acid and fresh strawberry and watermelon flavors. A blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, Grenache and Tempranillo.

2013 Head High Wines Pinot Noir - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast 
Smells smoky and earthy with deep dark fruit. Full and plummy on the palate. Rich but a great juicy texture. Plums and blackberries mixed with cocoa and coffee. Smooth, long finish. Very nice.

2013 Head High Wines Red - California, North Coast


Juicy, fleshy, lovely texture, full with lush berry fruit but shows a nice tart edge along with hints of earth and warm spice. A blend of Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Grenache from Sonoma, Lake and Napa Counties, aged 15 months in 35% new French oak.