Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Ultimate Wine & Cookie Pairing Guide

My latest contribution to Snooth's Wine Writers Round-Up Series is live now.

This month, we're focusing on wine and cookie pairings. Spoiler alert: my pick involves Girl Scout Samoas and 10-Year Blandy's Bual Madeira.

But there are a bunch of great recommendations in here for anyone with a sweet tooth.


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Well, Shit. These Canned Lila Wines are Pretty Good

I'm clearly not the target market, but these wines are still quite tasty and inexpensive. Credit: Lila Wines.

Reviewing wines is a lot of fun. It's also a lot of work. Sometimes (I recently joked with friends after receiving several boxes of canned wines) I wonder: What did I ever do to deserve this punishment? 

Well, here I am to admit it: these canned wines... they are actually decent.

Plenty of crummy wine comes in bottles, while plenty of good vino is packaged in boxes, kegs, and even cans. Like these new Lila Wines

Yoga pants, toned toosh not included. Credit: Lila Wines.
This marketing concept comes from the Massachusetts-based Latitude Beverage Company, the same folks behind 90+ Cellars and Iron Side Cellars. This summer, they're pitching three types of wine, and each one is a well-established style that has broad market appeal. Lila is launching a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region, an Italian Pinot Grigio from the Veneto region, and a rosé from Provence. The wines should be available in most states this summer. 

The cans themselves are a bit thicker than soda cans, and I can attest that they don't impart any sort of metallic or strange aromas or flavor elements to the wine. And if you do the math, these cans get you good bang for your buck. Each can contains 8.4 ounces of wine, and a four-pack of cans sells for about $13. This means you get about 1/3 more vino than a standard-size bottle of wine. And these wines are, in my opinion, just as good if not better than a random bottle of $13 Pinot Grigio or Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc you'll find at your supermarket. They're also notably dry and contain no added sugar. (Bonus: these cans are easier to smuggle into a movie theater, and you don't need a corkscrew.)

I don't have much experience with canned wines, and that's because they're not a large portion of the current market offerings. A friend of mine once bought some canned wines on a summer afternoon as we floated down a river in rafts. Bottles were prohibited (makes sense, because broken glass and rocky rivers are a terrible pairing), so she brought canned vino. And these Lila wines would be damned near perfect for a hot summer day floating down the river. 

Do you even Lila, bro? Credit: Lila Wines
In case you're daft and haven't yet picked up on it, the target market for these wines is abundantly clear: millenial women. Apparently, these wines are best paired with long legs, wind in your hair and sunglasses on your head. After reviewing the PR materials, I doubt they sent these wines to the correct recipient. Although the Lila sunglasses, inflatable beach ball and SPF lip balm were quite nice, thank you!

A note for the dudes out there: Dudes, we can hang out at the Lila parties if we're invited. But we're supposed to drink manly beverages out of Solo cups while the ladies sip the Lila. (See photo, right.)

Oops. I actually sipped these wines.

I will say, dudes, I felt no significant drop in testosterone or noticeable testicular shrinkage after tasting these wines. So, I think they're safe, bros. 

I must confess: if the choice is a) a light beer brand; b) Yellow Tail or some similar critter wine; or c) one of these Lila wines, it's not even close. Lila, bitches. Hands down.

I tasted these wines by cracking the can and pouring the wine into a proper-ass glass. Wine glasses do serve a purpose, and one of them is ensuring you get the full range of aromas. Most of what we sense about a wine comes from our nose, and you can't get much from a can. But if the sun is hot and the can is cold, fuck it. Wine is about pleasure. Do what gives you pleasure. 

(New Zealand, South Island, Marlborough)
SRP: $13 per 4-pack (8.4 oz cans)
Pale straw color. Smells of grapefruit, lemon pith, honeysuckle and green bell pepper. Light, tart and crunchy on the palate with green apple and ruby red grapefruit flavors, backed up by nettle, white pepper and floral perfume. Even with a lot of entry-level Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs in the $12 range, but these cans offer more value

Credit: Lila Wines
(Italy, Venezie IGT)
SRP: $13 per 4-pack (8.4 oz cans)
Pale straw color. Aromas of white peaches, nectarines and fresh flowers. Refreshing acidity on the palate, medium-light-bodied. Flavors of white peach, pineapple, orange peel, this is a ripe, tropical-themed wine but it’s still bright, floral, even slightly chalky. Impressive for a moderately gimmicky canned wine! 

(France, Provence) 
SRP: $13 per 4-pack (8.4 oz cans)
Very pale copper color. Smells of roses, baby’s breath, strawberries and white cherries, along with hints of peppery spice. Crisp and crunchy on the palate, light-bodied with fresh acidity. I get flavors of white peach, pineapple and orange, ripe fruit but not sweet. Some cut flower stems and chalky notes. I actually dig this. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Autobiography of a California Wine Icon - Mike Grgich's "A Glass Full of Miracles"

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

Today is the 40th anniversary of the world’s most famous wine tasting. The Judgment of Paris pitted the best wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy against some underdog Cabernets and Chardonnays from California.

This momentous blind tasting was chronicled in the 2008 Hollywood film “Bottle Shock”, and the far more historically accurate book, “The Judgment of Paris” by George Taber, the only reporter present at the event. This tasting brought together wine experts from France and the United States to blind taste a wide range of wines. White Burgundies competed against California Chardonnays, while Bordeaux reds were pitted against some of California’s best Cabernet Sauvignons. In 1976, when the tasting took place, California wines were already rocking, but they were relatively unknown to the wine cognoscenti.

That all changed when the wines were unveiled. The French loved the Stag’s Leap Napa Cabernet more than First Growth Bordeaux, and they chose the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay over Grand Cru white Burgundies. The floodgates burst. The world wanted California wine.

That 1973 Chardonnay was crafted by none other than Miljenko (a.k.a. “Mike”) Grgich, a Croatian immigrant who had worked his way up in the Napa winemaking ranks. From refugee to respected winemaker.

Perhaps more than any other individual, Mike Grgich was on the front lines of the Napa Valley wine revolution. When he first game to California in 1958, Mike was hired by Brother Timothy Diener of Christian Brothers Winery, which was the largest winery in Napa Valley at the time. He then took a position with legendary winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyards. From there, he bounced over to Robert Mondavi at the point when his winery was really taking off. Then, with Jim Barrett, Mike became a partner and integral part of the newly revitalized Chateau Montelena in 1972. It’s incredible to think that, in just a year’s time, Mike would craft a Chardonnay that blind tasters deemed higher quality than the best white Burgundies.

However, Mike didn’t even know the tasting was taking place. He figured something was up when Chateau Montelena received a telegram saying: “We won in Paris,” followed by a call from a New York Times reporter.

It was a miracle, Mike said. He recounts this event in his new autobiography “A Glass Full of Miracles,” which the 93-year-old published last month. It’s a beautiful and awe-filled foray into the life of a true California wine icon.

“The Judgment of Paris energized the wine world. Not only in California but around the globe, winemakers realized that they too might have the terroir to produce premium wines,” Mike writes. The 1973 Montelena Chardonnay was honored in a Smithsonian book titled History of American in 101 Objects. “It is amazing to me that as an immigrant to this country, I would live to see my Chardonnay considered an ‘American object.’”

This success gave him the last jolt he needed to kick off his own winery, Grgich Hills, which broke ground in 1977. It remains an exceptional source of Napa Chardonnay, Cabernet, Zinfandel, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. 

Grgich’s prose, like his wines, is delightful and lively. Unlike his wines, the prose is simple and uncomplicated, but I mean those words as praise, not criticism. Reading this book, I felt like I was sitting on a couch listening to Mike spin tales of the old days.

Grgich was born in Croatia and raised by a winemaking family. His memories of his pastoral upbringing are wonderful to read. From a very young age, he was drawn to wine’s ability to bring people together. “People like to celebrate with wine in good times, but it also helps them forget in bad times,” he writes. “In fact, it adds pleasure to any day.”

But World War II ushered in a brutal fascist occupation, which also disrupted and destroyed the winemaking cultures of coastal Croatian communities. When the partisans drove out the fascists, Croatia quickly transitioned to a Communist dictatorship. After years of such chaos and destabilization, Grgich had to leave. With no freedom to move about or move ahead with his aspirations, Grgich fled the country. He had heard that California was paradise, and he knew he had to get there. Somehow.

I’ll leave the story of his escape and travels to Mike, who tells it beautifully, but suffice it to say: his is an exceptional and inspiring story of a poor immigrant who refuses to let his dreams go unfulfilled.

If you’re at all interested in those thrilling years of Napa Valley’s evolution, this book is full of great stories and history. Also, for the Zinfandel lovers out there, Mike tells of his role in tracking down the mysterious origins of Zinfandel to its birthplace in Croatia, which is my vote for the coolest and most fascinating stories of a researching a grape’s heritage.

The book is essentially self-published by Grgich’s daughter, Violet, but it’s put together very well and includes a host of great color pictures. The hardcover sells for $40 from Violetta Press, the Grgich Cellars’ website (with a discount for club members), and Amazon.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

New Essay on Losing My Faith on the Mission Field

I have a new essay up on The Good Men Project about coming of age on the mission field.

It was while my parents were on missionary duty in Europe that I began to embrace my skepticism and disbelief.

I tell the full story here. Thanks for reading!

Monday, May 16, 2016

How to Choose the California Chardonnay Right for You

A version of this post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

For the California Chardonnay newcomers, or those looking to expand their palates and try different kinds of Chardonnay, welcome to the club. There are more diverse California Chardonnays today than ever before, and no matter what kind of style you like, there is a Cali Chard out there for you.

I love exploring lesser-known varieties and interesting blends from all over California, but there’s something about these wines that never gets old for me. Are some of them bland or over-oaked? Sure. But, for me, those well-priced delicious bottles and the more expensive gems I come across are worth the effort of exploring some of the less exciting wines. A lot of my wine friends have moved on from Cali Chard, as if it were a gateway drug one consumes before moving onto the hardcore stuff from Chablis and the Cote de Beaune. But I never outgrew the stuff, partly because California Chardonnay is a constantly evolving field, reinventing itself over and over again, interpreting incredibly diverse sites into unique and compelling wines.

But it all boils down to what you like to drink. For relatively new explorers, there are a few key factors in the winemaking process that will help you hone in on the style of Chardonnay you like, and hopefully keep you away from the kinds of wines you don’t like. Sometimes this information is on the label, but your sommelier or wine store employee should be able to direct you to the style you crave. A basic idea of what you’re looking for will go a long way.

You’ll be set if you keep these two concepts in mind: oak treatment and maloactic fermentation.

Oak treatment

Oak barrels (especially high toast ones like the ones from this Napa cooper) can add overt
flavors of toasted nuts and popcorn to a Chardonnay. It's all about knowing what you like.

Chardonnay and oak have a long and bumpy relationship together. For years, it seemed that every mass-produced and commercially successful Chardonnay from California was so totally slathered with oak that palates struggled to pull out the fruit underneath. This led to a widespread perception by many wine consumers and I personally find the best Chardonnays are fermented or aged in some portion of oak, and I prefer just a bit of new oak. However, there are a lot of Chardonnays aged in all old oak (which imparts less overt flavors) or stainless steel. The stainless steel-fermented wines (sometimes referred to as "unoaked" or "naked") tend to be more steely, crisp and bright in their approach.

The next time you’re tasting a Cali Chard, take notes on what you think about the oak. Is it overbearing or too toasted? Or does it accent the fruit nicely, like a dash of pepper in a sauce? If you find a wine whose oak influences jive with your palate, try to find out what kind of oak treatment the wine went through. If it’s 100% new French oak, congratulations, you’re an oak lover. And there’s nothing wrong with that. If you dislike the sometimes strong vanilla elements from new American oak, that’s something to avoid in the future. If the stainless steel-fermented wine feels a bit too thin, maybe steer clear of unoaked Chardonnays.

Maloactic Fermentation

Reading this word might make your eyes glaze over, but it’s an important factor to consider in wines, and especially white whites like Chardonnay. All wine goes through what’s called primary fermentation, in which the grape’s natural sugars are converted by yeasts into glorious alcohol. However, red wines, and many whites, undergo this secondary process. After alcoholic fermentation, lactic acid bacteria can convert malic acid to lactic acid. Malic acids are sharper and more intense (think lemons and green apples), while lactic acids are less harsh (think yogurt and milk).

If you've tasted a Chardonnay and thought of buttered popcorn of whipped honeybutter, odds are it went through a decent amount of maloactic fermentation. Like oak, maloactic fermentation occurs on a spectrum. Winemakers can inhibit it entirely, or winemakers can allow the process to undergo "full malo," resulting in a wine of significant creaminess. Many wines fall somewhere in the middle, with moderate levels of creaminess but some tart, crunchy aspects from some amount of malic acid. If the buttery and creamy nature of some full malo Chardonnays is too much for you, move on down the spectrum and seek some out that undergo some (or no) maloactic fermentation. If a wine is sharply acidic, like biting into a hard green apple, try one that has undergone maloactic fermentation.

Since my
last report on California Chardonnay, I’ve tasted through a bunch of wines, most from the 2014 vintage, although a few late-released 2013s are still hitting shelves. These wines represent a good example of what’s available on the market. These wines were received as trade samples and tasted single-blind.  

2014 Tom Gore Vineyards Chardonnay - California
SRP: $13
Light gold color. Smells of honey, pear butter, yellow apples, yellow flowers and nougat. But the palate provides refreshing acid to complement the creamy, almost chunky, mouthfeel. Flavors of glazed pears, orange marmalade, bruised apple, along with nougat and honey. Rich and full of forward flavors, but the zesty acid keeps it balanced. 60% barrel-fermented, the rest in stainless steel. (85 points)

2014 Prisoner Wine Company Blindfold - California
SRP: $30
Light gold color. Nose of creamy pears, apples, peaches and kiwi, a fruit salad of goodness, along with some honey salted nuts and toasted coconut. Rich and creamy but moderated by some light acidity. Flavors of baked pears and apple butter, some apricot jam, along with cinnamon, peanut brittle, honeyed green tea. I get hints of chalk underlining the wine as well. Rich flavors but doesn’t get too heavy, as there’s a bit of freshness underneath. A kitchen sink blend of Chardonnay, Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Chenin Blanc from renowned vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, Santa Barbara and Mendocino. Aged mostly in French and Hungarian oak, 25% new. (87 points)

2013 Gainey Chardonnay - California, Central Coast, Sta. Rita Hills
SRP: $22
Light gold color. Such vibrant aromas of lemon curd, lime zest, white floral perfume, sea breeze and chalk dust. So clean and racy on the palate, this is crisp but shows some plumpness as well. Lemons, limes, oranges and yellow apples, the fruit is pure and lively and accented by pretty notes of nut, nougat, chalk and minerals. Aged 10 months in about 25% new oak, mostly French with about 20% American oak. A crazy value at about $20. (90 points)

2013 Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay Highland Estates Camelot Highlands - California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley
SRP: $30
Light gold color. Smells of roasted peanuts, hazelnut spread and bread dough on top of yellow apples and oranges, but I also get some floral perfume notes. Bold and creamy on the palate with a rich presence, but some moderate acid keeps it refreshing. The yellow apple and nectarine fruit is slathered in wood, toasted almond and honeyed tea. I have a high tolerance for oak in Chardonnay, but this is pushing the limit. Some underlying floral perfume and chalky elements try to shine through, but the oak beats them down. Aged nine months on the lees in 40% new French oak. (85 points)

2014 Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay Highland Estates Santa Maria Valley - California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley
SRP: $28
Rich gold color. A big and tropical aromatic blend of orange marmalade, baked pear, toasted nuts, pear butter and honeysuckle. Fat texture, creamy but some refreshing acidity. Yellow apples and pear butter topped with toasted nuts and honey. A viscous style but so tasty. Nine months in 36% French oak, 14.5% alcohol. Almost all fruit from the Camelot Vineyard. (85 points)

2014 Cambria Chardonnay Bench Break - California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley
SRP: $22
Medium gold color. Smells of yellow apples, honey butter, toasted nuts and apricot jam. Bright acidity bounces off the plump yellow apple, apricot and lemon fruit. Crisp and clean, which is balanced with nutty and creamy elements. Refreshing, lingering minerality. Very nice for the price. (87 points)

2014 Jordan Vineyard & Winery Chardonnay Russian River Valley - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
SRP: $32
Bright gold color. Aromas of yellow apples, apricot, lemon curd, and well-woven creamy and nutty sense that plays well off bright floral and chalky elements. Medium+ bodied. A lightly creamy presence on the palate is rushed over by refreshing acidity. Flavors of green and yellow apple, lemon curd and crunchy apricot mix with notes of honeyed tea, raw almond, cinnamon and some floral perfume and a hint of chalk. Lots of flavor, but it stays bright and crisp throughout with a long finish. Another solid example of this perennially good Chard. An all-around infielder of a Chardonnay, considering the modest maloactic fermentation (30%) and well-integrated oak (this spends about five months in new French oak.) (89 points)

2012 WindRacer Chardonnay Russian River Valley - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
SRP: $40
Light gold. Bright but rich at the same time, I get plenty of rich yellow apple fruit, along with oranges, baked pear and a mix of honeycomb, white tea and chalk dust. Rich texture, a full wine but showing some vibrancy from the acid. Yellow apples and orange rind, the fruit is juicy and topped with hazelnut, honeycomb, white tea, vanilla and cinnamon. Full and modern, wears its oak proudly, but nuanced and showing some solid complexity. Aged 14 months in about 30% new French oak. (87 points)

2013 Alma Fría Chardonnay Plural - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Coast
SRP: $40
Pale gold color. A beautiful and intoxicating nose of juicy oranges, lemon curd and all sorts of apples, there’s a richness here but it’s also so floral and full of spice and sea breeze. Such vibrant acidity, the wine is totally mouthwatering but packed with flavors. Oranges, apricots, pineapple and lemon curd, such complex but pretty fruit – lots of chalk, crushed shells and white flowers but some richer elements of honey and hazelnut are woven in wonderfully. Wow, such a long and nervy finish with crisp acidity and lingering minerals. A gorgeous Chardonnay that reminds me a bit of Cameron’s Clos Electrique in its insanely bright and delicious quality. (94 points)

2014 Matanzas Creek Winery Chardonnay - California, Sonoma County
SRP: $26
Nose: Creamy yellow apples and apricots, some honey butter, mixed in with bright oceanic breeze and nuts of peanut skin and almond. Palate: The body is creamy and velvety, but the acid is also bright and crisp. Rich with yellow apples, apricot, candied orange, notes of cinnamon, yogurt covered raisins, but also some bright chalky and sea breeze notes. Impressive stuff, it plays a lot of the Chardonnay positions well and provides a lot to like for the price point.- Fermented for eight months in French oak, 39% new. (89 points)

2014 Three Sticks Chardonnay Origin Durell Vineyard - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley
SRP: $48
Pale gold. The aromas entice me with their floral perfume, bright orange, peach and apricot, along with fresh salty breeze. The acidity is racy, which plays off the bold texture and vibrant fruit, but the balance is very impressive. Ripe apple, peach, papaya, drizzled with line, topped with chalk, crushed shell, saline. Contrast those with some almond and honey, which add complexity. This is a deep and lasting wine with an intriguing mineral-driven finish. From two different plots in the Durrell Vineyard, this wine is fermented in concrete eggs and aged in stainless steel with no maloactic fermentation. Wow. Seriously. (92 points)

2014 Three Sticks Chardonnay One Sky - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Mountain
SRP: $50
Medium gold color. Rich and tropical nose with guava, pineapple, honey, roasted nuts, bold but complex in the range of aromas. Bold, creamy texture on the palate, chewy almost but the acidity keeps it fresh and vibrant. Flavors of guava, apricot and limes mixed in there, the fruit is full but nuanced, and I get a range of non-fruit elements that I like: dried yellow flowers, honeycomb, coconut shavings, vanilla, crushed chalk and sea shells, some nettle and white tea. A lot of mountain stream and mineral complexities. Wow. This undergoes full maloactic fermentation in French oak barrels (40% new). It’s a beautiful wine, and an interesting contrast between the Origin Chardonnay. (91 points)

2014 Ghost Pines Chardonnay Winemaker’s Blend - California
SRP: $20
Rich golden color. Smells tropical and rich (pineapple, mango, white peach, honey) but there’s some bright elements of cut flowers and perfume. Creamy, buttery texture but some medium acidity keeps it relatively fresh. Baked pear, rich golden apple, topped with cinnamon, toasted nuts and nougat, some underlying notes of flowers and honey nut oats. Uncomplicated but well-made and very tasty stuff. Mostly from Monterey with some Napa and Sonoma fruit thrown in, this spends time on French and American oak. (85 points)

2013 Artesa Chardonnay Estate Reserve Carneros - California, Napa, Carneros
SRP: $40
Pale gold color. Aromas of yellow apples and pears, the honey and nutty notes bounce off of bright floral and dandelion elements. A gorgeous creamy texture on the palate is balanced by some refreshing acidity. The baked pear and yellow apple fruit is rich but not too much, topped with a mix of hazelnut spread, cinnamon, honey and toasted almond. Smooth, creamy finish. This opens up and shows all sorts of floral and toffee elements, which leads me to believe holding this for a year or two would be a good idea. A rich and creamy style but so delicious and quite complex. (88 points)

2013 Grgich Hills Chardonnay - California, Napa Valley
SRP: $43
Light gold color. Starts subtle on the nose, but time and swirling coaxes out lemon, guava and green apple along with some wildflowers, honey and mountain stream. This really gets going on the palate, though, with bright acid and some velvety texture. The fruit tastes like a mix of juicy orange, apricot and glazed pear. Just under the surface, schools of mixed nuts, dried flowers, honeysuckle and chalk. A moderately forward style but the wine taunts the palate with suaveness and freshness. Lingering finish with elements of mineral and salt. I think this will improve significantly over the next few years. The wine spends 10 months in French oak (40% new). (91 points)

2014 Freemark Abbey Chardonnay - California, Napa Valley
SRP: $30
Aromas of cinnamon, butter cream and toasted nuts underneath green pear and yellow plums. On the palate, this is a rich style with toasty notes but crisp acid and a bright approach. Flavors of baked pears, roasted nuts, nutmeg and toasted almond. Fun stuff. (85 points)

2012 Wind Racer Chardonnay Anderson Valley - California, North Coast, Anderson Valley
SRP: $40
Medium gold color. Aromas of apricot jam, baked pear, yellow apple, the fruit is topped with plenty of cinnamon, crushed peanut shells, some chalk dust and potpourri sneaks out on the back end. A velvety and smooth mouthfeel is balanced by moderate acidity. I get apricots and bruised apple, but also some lime juice drizzled in, which adds some freshness. Oak-influenced flavors of nougat and roasted peanuts are a bit on the heavy-handed side, but they don’t dominate. The wine finishes long and fresh with some notes of chalk and white tea. Bold but pretty. Aged 14 months in 100% new French oak. (88 points)

2014 FEL Chardonnay - California, North Coast, Anderson Valley
SRP: $28
Rich golden color. A ripe and juicy aromatic display of apricots, juicy pears and some, honeyed tea and slight cinnamon spice. A full-bodied, creamy wine, balanced a bit by refreshing acid. Straightforward flavors of baked pears, apple, topped with nuts and nougat flavors, some underlying floral elements. Stays fresh on the finish. (87 points)

2014 Wild Horse Chardonnay - California, Central Coast
SRP: $15
Medium gold color. Nose of rich baked pears, honeybutter, honeysuckle, some nutmeg. Plum and juicy texture, slight acid, a waxy, circus peanut kind of style with baked pears and apricot jam mixed with notes of almond and honey. Fermented in a mix of stainless steel and new and old French oak. Includes a 10% mix of Pinot Gris, Malvasia Bianca and Viognier. (83 points)

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Difference Between Montepulciano & Montepulciano

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano are Sangiovese-based reds that are frequently
delicious, sometimes long-lived, and usually cheaper than wines from nearby regions
When I first began studying central Italian wines, I was confused by these Montepulcianos. One was a grape, and one was a place, but which was which?

If you’re relatively new to Italian wines, here’s the deal. The wine, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, is an appellation in southern Tuscany that is based around the city of Montepulciano. These wines are made from Sangiovese (a local clone called Prugnolo Gentile). 

The grape, Montepulciano, is not from Tuscany, but it is widely planted in its native Abruzzo region, a vast area that spreads from the Adriatic coast to some rugged inland mountains. Wines from this region are bottled under the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo denomination of origin.

I recently spent an afternoon with representatives from two wineries, one from Montepulciano (the place) and one who produces Montepulciano (the grape) d'Abruzzo. Andrea Di Properzio was touring the East Coast to promote his Abruzzo employer, La Valentina, and David Redondi was representing Poliziano, a producer of respected Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. 

I’ve written in the past about the high quality to price ratio of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano wines, and that is certainly the case with Poliziano. This well-known estate dates back to 1961, when Dino Carletti purchased about 50 acres in Montepulciano. Carletti named his winery after the 15th Century humanist poet Angelo Ambrogini, known as Il Poliziano, who was born there. Dino's son Federico now runs the winery, which has expanded and now holds about 300 acres, including some sites further west, toward the coast, in the Maremma and Cortona appellations. 

La Valentina is doing some really cool things with the Montepulciano grape in the Adriatic coastal areas of Abruzzo. This winery is located in Spoltore, a village near the central coast of this region. All La Valentina grapes are estate grown, and all the reds are made from Montepulciano. This producer’s lineup is a great window to understanding this grape. They bottle several interpretations, sourced from different vineyards and produced in different ways, from the light and easy-drinking entry-level wine to the massive, heady Binomio. La Valentina really is an ambassador for the Montepulciano grape.

Below, I’ve pasted my notes from a lovely tasting.

La Valentina

2015 Fattoria La Valentina Cerasuolo d'Abruzzo - Italy, Abruzzi, Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo
This rose of Montepulciano has a very floral nose, lots of strawberries and peaches. Pure and vibrant but some impressive body and creamy texture. Bright but plenty fruity, fresh cut peaches and wild strawberries topped with some sea breeze and white flowers. Lovely stuff, especially for the price. (87 points)

2013 Fattoria La Valentina Montepulciano d'Abruzzo - Italy, Abruzzi, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo
Fresh, juicy, pure and berry-driven aromas. Fresh black cherries and raspberries on the nose with a slightly chewy but velvety mouthfeel. Nice spice accents, this is approachable and fresh but not too simple. All estate fruit aged in cement, stainless steel and 20% oak. This is a new release, as the wine is aged 18 months in bottle. (86 points)

2011 Fattoria La Valentina Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Riserva Spelt - Italy, Abruzzi, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo
Much deeper and more concentrated aromas. And the palate sews a similar thread, with concentrated black cherries and blackberries, but the tannins are smooth around the edges while offering plenty of structure. Complex tobacco, sweet spice and graphite elements. The mountain fruit above the Binovio vineyard, this is aged in stainless steel, Slovenian cask and French barriques. Really impressive stuff, especially for $20. (90 points)

2010 Fattoria La Valentina Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Bellovedere - Italy, Abruzzi, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo
Smells dark and saucy but so juicy as well, with elegant fruit topped with violets and hints of sea salt. Great structure and concentration on the palate with deep plums and black cherries. Round but muscular, with intense focus, minerality and freshness. From a single-vineyard site not far from the Adriatic sea, this is fermented in Slovenian oak cones. (91 points)

2011 Binomio Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Riserva - Italy, Abruzzi, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo
Deep, massive aromas but elegant, too, pure, floral. Huge palate (15.5% alcohol) with structured tannins. A bit extracted, with some lower acidity, this is an extremely modern Montepulciano. These descriptions sound over-the-top, and the wine is surely a brooding one, but I find some elegance and velvety aspects to the wine as well. Dark cherry, blackberry, topped in graphite, cocoa, anise, charcoal. Very full and modern, but the quality of the fruit is quite something. A joint venture between La Valentina and Stefano Inama. A single vineyard site at about 1,500 feet, rocky and clay soil, planted in 1971. Aged 15 months in French oak, half new. (91 points)


2014 Poliziano Rosso di Montepulciano - Italy, Tuscany, Montepulciano, Rosso di Montepulciano
Fresh and vibrant aromas, bright roses and cherries. Soft and fleshy on the palate with bright cherries and strawberries. Simple, fresh, a perfect value-driven lunch red. Fermented in stainless steel and aged mostly in cement with 30% French oak. Includes 20% Merlot. (86 points)

2012 Poliziano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano - Italy, Tuscany, Montepulciano, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
Smells rich and velvety with dark cherries, earth and tobacco. Firm but velvety, with rich flavors of black cherry, plum skin. I also get earthy, tobacco, lovely spice flavors. A blend of some 40 different parcels, which are picked and vinified separately. During the 60s and 70s, this was the only wine this house produced. I’m glad they’ve expanded, but, at the same time, I’m glad this classic wine is still so solid. Aged 16 months in French oak. Lovely stuff, but it'll improve a lot with age. (88 points)

Poliziano's crown jewel is the Asinone vineyard. Credit: Poliziano
2011 Poliziano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Vigna Asinone - Italy, Tuscany, Montepulciano, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
Smells of deep currants and dark berries but it’s also suave and elegant; I also get some notes of smoke and violets. On the palate, this is smooth but so structured, grippy but elegant. Dark currants, black cherries, laced with earth, black tea, iron and tobacco. The oak is integrated quite well. Beautiful stuff, but I’d love to bury it for five or six years. From a single-vineyard site first planted in 1963, the wine spends about 18 months in French oak and a year in bottle before release. (91 points)

Monday, May 9, 2016

Lodi: The Big Tent Wine Freak Show of Awesomeness

Credit: Lodi Winegrape Commission
This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

What the hell is going on in Lodi?

This historic region, which stretches between Sacramento and Stockton, is home to more and more thrilling wines, year after year. They keep shocking me with their quality and value. It's getting a bit absurd.

While vineyards were first planted here in the mid-19th Century, the 20th Century saw Lodi develop a reputation as a fruit basket for bulk wines. And, yes, tons of Lodi Zinfandel (and other grapes) were blended into tons of crappy wine. But to dismiss, or simply ignore, the wines of Lodi is to miss out on a whole lot. Today, Lodi is California wine's big tent freak show of awesomeness.

Adventurous consumers and beverage buyers have so much to explore: small producers, incredibly varied grape varieties, old vines, funky blends, organic or “natural” stuff. And, due to a variety of factors (like cheaper vineyard land and decades of indifference from large media outlets), the price to deliciousness ratio is excellent.

Lodi wines are getting credit like never before, but this is no accident. The Lodi Winegrape Commission, the region’s trade group, has been preaching the gospel of Lodi wine for about a quarter century, but they’ve really stepped it up in recent years. With their $1.8 million budget, they put together tastings and trade events to showcase the 750 growers they represent. And small producers like St. Amant, Fields Family, m2, Macchia, McCay Cellars and Borra have turned this region’s rich history and diverse grape varieties into a compelling case that Lodi wines can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the big boys.

Take Lodi Native, for example, a cooperative project that brings together a half dozen of the region’s best producers to harness the real treasure of this region — gnarly ancient vine Zinfandel. The wines are made with native yeasts and no new oak, so the unique terroir of these old vineyards (some are a century old) shines through gloriously. I’ve been floored by both the 2012 and 2013 iterations of Lodi Native, and I can’t wait to see what they bring in future vintages.

A lot of the most interesting wines (like the Lodi Natives) hail from the Mokelumne River sub-appellation. This area is home to so many unique and old-school vineyards. Bob Koth planted his Mokelumne Glen Vineyard to a dizzying array of German and Austrian grape varieties in the 1990s, after being blown away by some Riesling on a trip to Germany. He now farms what is surely one of the largest and most diverse collections of Northern European grape varieties in the New World. We’re talking about grapes like Kerner, Bacchus, Dornfelder, Zweigelt, and a bunch of others we native English speakers have trouble pronouncing. The Mokelumne Glen Vineyard produced its own estate wines from 1998 until 2009, but now the fruit is sold to producers like m2, Borra, Ramey and Forlorn Hope.

But Lodi is a very hot place, so the choice to plant cold climate varieties struck me as odd. During a recent online tasting and video chat, I asked Markus Niggli (winemaker at Borra Vineyards and Markus Wine Co.) how these grapes do in Lodi’s climate.

Markus, originally from Switzerland, had worked with a lot of these grapes in his home country, and he said the two climates are obviously and drastically different. But, he added, the reason these grapes work in Mokelumne River is the large diurnal temperature swing, which is especially noticeable in this riverside vineyard. When the temperate drops some 40 degrees overnight, it allows the grapes to cool down, resulting in wines that boast high ripeness while maintaining some refreshing acidity.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve tasted through a bunch of wines from Lodi, including the Mokelumne River Vineyard wines, a few from Ryan Sherman’s awesome project Fields Family, and a trio of reds from Mettler Vineyards.

These wines were all received as trade samples and tasted sighted (except for the Fields wines, which were tasted single-blind along with a bunch of other California reds).

2015 Holman Cellars Bacchus Uncharted - California, Lodi Mokelumne River
SRP: $25
Pale yellow color. Smells of lychee, kiwi, sugar cane and a whole lot of floral notes. Full-bodied with a waxy feel but there's a lot of refreshing acidity for balance. Juicy chunks of tropical fruit salad (kiwi, pineapple, green melon) load up on the palate, but I also get some dried flower, clover, honey and almond mixed in. A bold but refreshing wine with some interesting texture and flavors. Holman Cellars produces just a few barrels each of their small lot wines, which allows them to experiment with some really cool sites and varieties. This 100% Bacchus wine spends three days on the skins and is then fermented in stainless steel. Only 45 cases produced. (87 points)

2014 Borra Vineyards Markus Nimmo - California, Lodi Mokelumne River
SRP: $22
Pale yellow color. Smells a bit like a new can of tennis balls, if you topped them with potpourri and green melon slices. Medium-bodied on the palate with some nice weight and creaminess, which is balanced by crisp, clean acidity. The flavor descriptors I wrote down may sound strange, but this wine's fascinating flavors had my mind searching all over for descriptors. Tastes like new Legos and tennis balls mixed with every kind of citrus peel. I also get waxy, honeyed and slightly nutty flavors. This is a tasty but even more fascinating wine that makes me think. A blend you don't see often: 71% Kerner, 13% Gewurztraminer, 11% Riesling and 5% Bacchus. This wine spends nine months in 60% new French oak, with the lees stirred, giving it some richness and creaminess. (86 points)

2015 Hatton Daniels Zweigelt - California, Lodi Mokelumne River
SRP: $24
Candy purple color. It smells like blackberries and tart blueberries with a lot of spice (pepper, bay leaf) and a note that reminds me of a sour ale. Medium-to-light-bodied on the palate this is a juicy and endlessly fresh wine with mild tannins, but just enough to keep it structured together. The blackberry and blueberry fruit is tart and tangy and laced with notes of violets and white pepper. Lovely and unique, bright and complex, this is equal parts total nerd and insane deliciousness. "11.93% alcohol" (to be precise), these grapes are harvested early (August 7) to make this zingy and fresh wine, which is produced with zero sulfur. (89 points)

2014 M2 Vintners Belle Étoile Blanche - California, Lodi Mokelumne River
SRP: $26/375ml
Light gold color. Lovely aromas of sweet peaches, lychee and guava along with honey and a bright floral tone. Medium-to-full bodied, this wine has a silky and honeyed feel to it with a bit of volatile acidity. Given that frame, this is a rich and nearly cloying wine, but the flavors are delicious: lychee, sliced peaches, guava, honeycomb, candied nuts, floral and spice potpourri. A blend of 35% Rieslaner, 25% Weisburgunder, 20% Riesling and 20% Gewurztraminer. What a cool, site-specific dessert wine. 13.3% alcohol with about 94 g/l residual sugar. (85 points)

2013 Fields Family Wines Tempranillo - California, Lodi
SRP: $25
Deep ruby color. Smells of juicy black cherries, tangy dark plums and tart blackberries, deep violets and rich loamy soil, some roasted nuts, spicy clove and some tobacco. So, yeah, loads of complexity on the nose. The palate is so pure, vibrant and balanced — the tannins provide structure but smoothness, while the acidity keeps the wine brisk and alive. The fruit (black cherry, blackberry, plums) is tart and crunchy but juicy as well. Lots of earthy, spicy, herbal complexity, along with notes of coffee. I’m getting a lingering sense of rocky minerality in this wine. Wow, what a beauty. 14.5% alcohol, this only sees neutral French oak. For $25, are you kidding me? Lay this beauty down for a while or give it a good decant and watch it come alive. (92 points)

2013 Fields Family Wines Syrah Estate - California, Lodi
SRP: $24
Deep ruby color. Aromas of juicy plums, tart raspberries, gushing black cherries, some smoke, black pepper and violets. Fresh acidity on the palate, a real bright appeal, good structure but the tannins aren’t too drying. Tart berries, plums with crunchy skins, bright raspberries mixed in. An elegant and restrained approach but it’s plenty juicy and fruity, with notes of smoke, clay soil, cracked pepper, and an underlying minerality. So bright and sexy. Really interesting to see the differences between this and the 2013 Postage Stamp Vineyard. A crazy good buy at less than $25. (90 points)

2013 Fields Family Wines Shiraz Postage Stamp Vineyard - California, Lodi
SRP: $42
Deep ruby. Smells of juicy black cherries, dark plums, some lovely floral and earthy accents. A bit tight at first but really opens up aromatically. Smooth and silky on the palate with chewy tannins providing structure, but this is such a vibrant wine. Black cherries, dark plums, some raspberry jam. Warm but vibrant, silky but fresh, lovely stuff. I get notes of mesquite cola, violets, loam cedar. Long finish. Looks to improve in the cellar. A bit darker and saucier, than the 2013 Estate, but they share a common thread of freshness and vibrancy. Labeled Shiraz because the grapes come from Barossa Valley cuttings planted in 1968, but this neutral oak, refreshing wine is stylistically more nuanced and refined than lots of South Oz Shiraz. I'd love to see what this does with four or five years in the cellar. (92 points)

2013 Fields Family Wines Zinfandel Old Vines - California, Lodi
SRP: $25
Deep ruby color. Smells bright and vibrant but also showing depth, with a mix of raspberry, red currant and strawberry, slightly jammy but mixed with notes of peppercorns, nettle and mint. Juicy, smooth and chewy but it stays fresh and vibrant with moderate acidity and smooth tannins. The raspberry and strawberry fruit is full but not overwhelming, and it’s full of nuanced spice, clove, herb and cola elements. Lovely, which isn’t a term I throw around for Zinfandel often, but this is just lovely. (90 points)

2013 Mettler Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon - California, Lodi
SRP: $25
Dark ruby color. Black cherries and jammy raspberries on the nose, along with cedar, some sweet coffee and dark chocolate shavings. Big and mouth-filling, the tannins are chewy and velvety, medium-low acidity. The currant and blackberry fruit is dark and saucy, but there’s quite a bit going on underneath (fallen leaves, roasted nuts, coffee, eucalyptus, dark chocolate). A big but delicious wine. The Mettler fruit comes from the Johant, Clements Hills and Mokelumne River areas of Lodi. This wine includes 12% Petite Sirah, and it is aged 18 months in 65% new French oak. (87 points)

2013 Mettler Family Vineyards Zinfandel Old Vine Epicenter - California, Lodi
SRP: $20
Deep ruby color. Smells jammy and explosive, with blackberries mixing with raspberries, and I get cola, sweet tobacco and herbs. Juicy and jammy on the palate with chewy tannins and mild acidity. The black and red berry fruit is jam-packed with flavor. I get sweet cola, coffee and roasted chestnut and vanilla. A massive glycerin-like wine at 15.5% alcohol, but this is fun, crowd-pleasing stuff for sure. Includes some Petite Sirah, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 18 months in used and new American and French oak. (86 points)

2013 Mettler Family Vineyards Petite Sirah - California, Lodi
SRP: $25
Jammy purple color. Smells of black cherry, currant and blackberry jams along with some sweet spice and earth. Dense on the palate, this is dark and chewy with pure, lovely fruit (currant/blueberry/blackberry) and significant tannic structure. Loaded with candied nuts and black pepper, this is a dense but very expressive wine at the same time. It’s delicious now, but very big, and would probably show a lot more in a few years. Includes a combined 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, the blend is aged 16 months in 60% new French oak. (89 points)

If you're a consumer of online wine media (thanks!), you’re going to be hearing a lot about Lodi wines in the next few months — the Wine Bloggers’ Conference is headed there this summer. I won't be attending, but I’m looking forward to hearing which gems other wine writers find during the trip.