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Wine: Reviews, Thoughts & Culture

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Gabe's 2014 Holiday Gift Guide

GiftGuideCover_AmandaJeanBlackIf you’re not sure what to get someone as a gift this year, consider a good bottle of wine or spirits —‚ always in season. Anyone who drinks alcohol will certainly appreciate a well-chosen bottle to enjoy, be it alone or with friends (my hope is that it’s with you). Throughout the year, I’ve tasted a number of the best bottles in both the wine and spirit categories and compiled a list of my 24 favorites — any of which would make excellent gifts for a variety of budgets. A few of the bottles are particularly great values, while others are luxury beverages that will really impress the lucky person who receives them; no matter the price, every selection in this guide is delicious and well made. Head over to The Daily Meal to read the rest.

6 Budget Friendly Wines for Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is less than a week away! That means we all need some wine to serve our guests or ourselves, preferably both. Spending top dollar to get good wines is fairly simple. Finding value driven offerings that get the job done is a bit more challenging. Here are some delicious selections that will work well for your Thanksgiving meal. With one exception they all clock in under $25. Even at lower price points it’s nice to have one splurge wine to consider. Espirit du Rhone 2013 Cotes du Rhone AOC ($11.99)

This wine blends together Grenache (60%), Syrah 30%), Carignan (5%), and Cinsault (5%). 1,000 cases of this wine have been imported to the US. Hints of anise and rhubarb aromas present on the nose here. The palate is studded with purple fruits, dry currants and Montmorency cherry. Bits of finely ground espresso join nutmeg and cinnamon on the finish. Medium tannins soften with a little bit of air. This acid rich, food friendly wine will pair with everything on your Thanksgiving table.

Decopas 2013 Malbec ($12)

All of the fruit for this wine comes from the Mendoza region of Argentina. It’s comprised entirely of estate bottled Malbec. This deeply colored hue of this wine is striking in the glass. Plum, violet, and a little hint of vanilla bean wafts from the appealing nose. The palate is loaded with sumptuous and juicy black fruit flavors such as blackberry and raspberry. Bay leaf characteristics, sour black cherry and a hint of dark chocolate mark the lip smacking finish. Decopas Malbec will pair well hard cheeses, meat based stuffing, ham and the bird itself. Decant this one for an hour and it’ll really pop.

Esporão Verdelho ($12.99)

The fruit for this wine was sourced from vines with an average age of 10 years on them. It’s composed entirely of Verdelho. It was fermented in a temperature controlled environment, stabilized, filtered and bottled without any oak influence. Hints of lemon and lots of fleshy yellow melon jump from the nose here. The palate has loads of green apple flavors, more citrus and lemon characteristics, as well as a dollop of white pepper. Grapefruit and lemon zest light up the crisp and refreshing finish. Hand your guests a glass of this when they walk through the door on Thanksgiving, they may drink it all day and never switch to red.

Georges Dubeouf Chateau les Capitans Julienas 2011 ($18.99)

All of the fruit for this wine was picked by hand. It’s composed entirely of Gamay. It was fermented in a temperature controlled environment using native yeast. Red cherry and cranberry fill the nose along with hints of toast. A cornucopia of dried red fruits and savory spices fill the flavorful, medium bodied palate. The finish lingers with continued red fruits, black tea, minerals and warming spices. This wine is tasty on it’s own but really shines with food.

Esporão Reserva Red ($24.99)

This offering blends together Aragonês, Trincaeira, Cabernet Sauvignon and Alicante Bouschet. Each grape was harvested and vinified separately. Barrel aging occurred over 12 months in American (70%), and French (30%) oak; 12 months of bottle aging followed prior to release. This red blend has a beautiful deep, dark purple color. Red and black fruits mix with copious spices on the welcoming and heady nose. There’s an inherent earthiness that leads the palate. Red and black fruits join in along with lots of spices. Cherry, strawberry, and black pepper are all joined by bits of roasted coffee bean on the above average finish. This wine has medium tannins and terrific acidity. Esporão Reserva Red is just begging to be paired with food. It’ll excel with just about anything you throw at it, making it a natural for the day of the bird.

Flora Springs 2012 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($40)

All of the fruit for this wine came from Napa Valley. In addition to Cabernet Sauvignon (95%), small amounts of Malbec (3%), and Petit Verdot (2%) were also blended in. It was aged over 22 months in a combination of French (71%), and American oak (29%). Black Currant, cherry and Mexican Vanilla bean aromas are omnipresent on the nose. Black cherry with a splash of a liqueur dominates the palate which is plush and lush in its easy drinking, smooth nature. Crushed velvet, continued black and red cherry, earth, espresso and chicory are all present on the finish along with a hint of bitter chocolate. This is a fine example of Napa Valley Cabernet that drinks impeccably right out of the bottle. It does down easy and also has good depth and complexity.

Eleven Wines You Should Be Drinking Now

Wine shelves all over the country are jammed with countless selections and choices are so varied it can be dizzying. With that in mind, I’m here to help you work your way through the haze of bottles. I tasted through more than three dozen wines across all price ranges and stylistic tiers, and here are my 11 favorites from the bunch. Hugel et Fils 2012 Gentil ($15)

This vintage of “Gentil” blends together pinot gris (23 percent), pinot blanc (21 percent), riesling (20 percent), sylvaner (20 percent), gewurztraminer (14 percent), and muscat (2 percent). Fermentation took place in temperature-controlled vats. It was gently fined and filtered prior to bottling. Lychee fruit aromas dominate the inviting nose of this French blend. “Gentil” has a palate stuffed with white and yellow melon, peach, and apricot flavors. Head over to The Daily Meal to read the rest.

Ironstone Vineyards - A Wine for Every Taste Bud

My Latest Story for Bullz-eye.com:

The Kautz family has been farming grapes in California for more than 65 years. With more than 5,000 acres under vine, they’re one of the largest growers in the state. In addition to selling fruit, for more than 25 of those years they have also been making their own wine. Ironstone Vineyards is located in the Sierra Foothills. They farm their property sustainably as shepherds of the land they inhabit. Their portfolio features a wide range of wines, many available nationally, as well as a few limited releases found in their tasting room. Here’s a look at four of my favorites among their current offerings.

Ironstone Vineyards 2012 Ironstone Reserve Chardonnay – The fruit for this wine came from Sierra Foothills vineyards that have been in the family for four generations. This offering is 100 percent Chardonnay. The fruit was hand-selected and gently pressed. Barrel aging occurred entirely in French oak; bottle aging followed prior to release. About 1,000 cases of this wine were produced, and it has a suggested retail price of  of $19.99. Bright apple, white fig and gentle crème brulee aromas are all part of the nose of this Chardonnay. The palate is studded with Asian pear and... read the rest over at Bullz-eye.com

Stickybeak - 2011 Toscana

Stickybeak is a California based winery that sources grapes in a host of regions such as Napa, Sonoma and Monterey. They have now widened their reach by making a wine with fruit sourced in Italy. These particular grapes come from the 40 year old Cerreto Guidi vineyards located in Tuscany. Here’s a look at this Italian blend. The Stickybeak 2011 Toscana was produced from a blend of Sangiovese (85%), Merlot (10%) and Syrah (5%). The Sangiovese and Merlot were both sourced in Tuscany with the Syrah coming from Maremma which is close by. Wild yeasts were used for fermentation which took place over roughly 15 days. Each varietal was aged separately over 18 months in entirely French oak. Blending occurred prior to bottling. This wine is finished in screw cap and has a suggested retail price of $20. Violet and red cherry aromas light up the nose of this Tuscan blend. Strawberry, cherry, spice, and vanilla bean are all in play throughout the palate which has nice depth. Leather, cherry, raspberry and black peppercorn flavors all show up in the finish which has above average length. This wine really shines when paired with food. Anything with red sauce on it will work well. I drank it with homemade pizza and it was memorable and delicious combo.

A lot of wines are looking for your attention and your wine dollars in the $20 or under category. Here’s an example that shines with food. It has excellent Sangiovese character at the forefront with the Merlot providing a bit of structure and the Syrah some pronounced wisps of sweet berry fruit. It’s terrific now and will drink well over the next 5 years. This is a very solid value.

Murphy-Goode - 2011 Homefront Red

In general people love Red Blends. Well when they’re tasty of course. There are all sorts of styles out there but the ones I’m specifically talking about today are the kind that are well priced, made for a wide audience and generally available. These have a found a big following with different kinds of wine lovers. To the novice Red wine drinker they can be easy to drink and appealing. To the seasoned wine drinker they offer something tasty and easy on the budget that will satisfy a lot of different taste buds. Murphy-Goode has a new blend called Homefront Red. For every bottle of this wine sold Murphy-Goode will doncate 50 cents to Operation Homefront, a national nonprofit that provides emergency and financial assiustance to the families of service members and wounded warriors. With that in mind here’s a look at the wine. The Murphy-Goode 2011 Homefront Red was produced from fruit sourced throughout California. This offering blends together Syrah, Merlot, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. This wine was aged in a combination of French and American oak. It was recently released and is available nationally. 50,000 Cases were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $15. Blackberry and raspberry aromas light up the nose of this wine along with a little hint of anise. The palate is loaded with berry fruit flavors such as black raspberry and spices galore. Red Cherry is present as well and leads to the finish which has wisps of sweet chocolate and black pepper. Homefront Red will pair well with a pretty wide array of foods. It will be particularly good with casual grilled foods.

Good cause, good wine, good price, a win all around. Pick up a bottle or two for your next BBQ or casual get together with friends. Homefront Red is sure to please a broad array of palates. And by doing so you’ll also be helping a good cause.

Franciscan Estate - 2012 Equilibrium

I've been enjoying wines from Franciscan Estate since my earliest familiarity with Napa Valley. In that time they've featured a consistently appealing portfolio of wines. Franciscan has also been steady in terms of what they release; their core has remained reliable as well. However every now and then they add something new. This summer it’s a new white blend, focused mostly on two varietals they have worked with for years. Here’s a look at it. The Franciscan Estate 2012 Equilibrium is the inaugural release of this wine. This white blend combines Sauvignon Blanc (72%), Chardonnay (17%), and Muscat (11%). All of the fruit for this wine was sourced in Napa Valley. 83% of the fruit was fermented in stainless steel and the remaining 17% in barrel. Just fewer than 6,000 cases of Equilibrium were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $22.99. This wine leads with a killer nose; tropical and stone fruit aromas simply burst out of the glass invitingly. Equilibrium’s palate is studded with an array of engaging bright fruit flavors; white peach, guava and mango are of particular note here. Lemon curd, white pepper and continued tropical fruit flavors abound on the finish which has nice length. This wine is soft, round, lush and mouth-filling.

The bottom line is that Franciscan Estate’s 2012 Equilibrium is a delightful and refreshing white blend that has arrived on store shelves just in time for the warmest weather of the year. There are many appealing, easy to drink white blends out there. The difference here is this one is 3 dimensional and has depth, length and persistence. It will appeal to those who lean towards porch sippers and keep the more discerning interested as well. Buy a bottle or more of this wine and have a party in your mouth!

Hecht & Bannier - Côtes de Provence 2012 Rosé / 2009 Bandol

Hecht & Bannier was founded in 2002 by Gregory Hecht and Francois Bannier. They set themselves up in the style of traditional French Negociants with a goal of creating reference point releases in each region they produce wines from. The latest additions to their portfolio are a couple of wines from Provence. Here’s a look at them. The Hecht & Bannier Côtes de Provence 2012 Rosé was produced from a blend of Grenache (45%), Cinsault (40%) and Syrah (15%). The grapes utilized were sourced at a variety of vineyards, some in the foothills of Montagne Sainte-Victorie and others high altitude vineyards of Haute-Provence. The fruit was picked overnight during cooler hours to assure the preservation of freshness. This wine has a suggested retail price of $18. The light salmon hue of this offering is both beautiful and immediately striking. Engaging floral characteristics emerge from the nose. The palate is fruity, spice, dry, lithe and absolutely lovely. Cherry, strawberry, bits of orange zest and white pepper are all in play from the first sip through the above average finish. This wine goes down easily and it also has the depth and complexity to keep things interesting. It’s really a super appealing wine that you’re going to want to buy a few bottles of as they disappear quick once they’re open.

The Hecht & Bannier 2009 Bandol was produced from a blend of Mourvèdre (80%), Grenache (10%) and Cinsault (10%). After harvesting and fermentation the wine spent 20 months aging in large oak foudre; an additional six months in cement vats followed prior to bottling. This red blend has a suggested retail price of $38. Blackberry, toast and vanilla bean aromas fill the nose of this 2009 red blend. The palate is big and burly, loaded with brawny red and black fruit flavors like blueberry and rhubarb. Spices such as nutmeg and black pepper are present as well as an undercurrent of minerals. Espresso notes and bits of baker’s chocolate emerge on the finish which has excellent length. Leathery tannins and firm acidity are part of this wine’s solid structure. This will pair well with full flavored foods. For best results decent this offering for about 90 minutes so it can express all of its charms.

These wines from Hecht & Bannier represent both solid values which provide plenty of drinking pleasure. Equally as important they’re also fine and genuine representatives of Provence.

Achaval-Ferrer - 2010 Quimera

Many wine making regions produce Bordeaux inspired blends and the results vary greatly. In my mind the downfall often comes when trying to mimic the great wines of Bordeaux to the point of not focusing on what does best in the region in question. Argentina of course is best known for Malbec which thrives there in a variety of styles. The latest release from Bodega Achaval-Ferrer is a Bordeaux inspired blend and it’s also a wine with a relatively large percentage of Malbec in it. So here’s a release where Bordeaux inspiration and local rock-star grape meet. Here are my thoughts on the results. The Achaval-Ferrer 2010 Quimera was produced from fruit sourced in three appellations: Lujan de Cuyo, Medrano, and Tupungato. This offering is a blend of Malbec (31%), Merlot (20%), Cabernet Sauvignon (27%), Cabernet Franc (18%) and Petit Verdot (4%). Each varietal underwent primary fermentation separately in small tanks; Malolactic fermentation followed after the wine was blended. Barrel aging took place over 12 months in entirely French oak; 40% of the barrels utilized were new and the balance had been used once prior. Just more than 3,000 cases of this wine were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $56.

Ripe, red and black fruit aromas fill the heady nose of this 2010 blend from Argentina. The palate is studded with tons of fresh and exuberant fruit flavors; plum, blueberry and blackberry are of particular note. There is depth to spare here, all of the ripe and ready fruit flavors are joined by a notable spice component. The finish is velvety and lingering with pepper, bits of chicory and a dusting of sweet dark chocolate to close things out. The tannins are smooth and lush, pulling you in for sip after mouthwatering sip. There is a load of engaging and eager fruit here that is ready to please now, but there is also structure in place that will allow the 2010 Quimera to age well for a dozen years or more under proper storage conditions.

The goal of great blended wine is to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. The 2010 Quimera is a seamless mélange of varietals that comes together deliciously to achieve that very goal. And yes while this wine draws some inspiration from Bordeaux it gains as much from the fact that it focuses on what does well in Argentina both in terms of specific grapes and stylistically. This is a wonderful wine that should be on the short list of anyone who loves excellent red blends.

Ravenswood Winery - 2008 Pickberry Red

ravenswood_logoRavenswood Winery under the direction of Joel Peterson became known for Zinfandel. Whether it’s cuvee style offerings from different appellations or single vineyard wines, to this day Ravenswood has a Zinfandel for just about every budget and palate. And in addition to Zinfandel they make some other wines of note too. Most of these are small production offerings that are found in better wine shops and some restaurant wine lists. One of these is Pickberry Red; I’ll look at the current release today. The Ravenswood 2008 Pickberry Red is a single vineyard effort. All of the fruit was sourced at the namesake vineyard which is located on Sonoma Mountain. This offering is a blend of Merlot (59%), Cabernet Sauvignon (39%), Malbec (1%) and Petit Verdot (1%). This wine was aged over 22 months in entirely French oak; 22% of the barrels utilized were new. 600 cases were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $50.

Dark fruits such as black cherry and plum fill the nose of Pickberry Red. The palate is also loaded with deep, inky fruit flavors which are simultaneously intense, layered and proportionate. Black cherry characteristics lead the way along with black raspberry and blueberry playing roles as well. Minerals and spice offer a nice counterpoint. Earth, violets and black pepper are all part of the finish which has terrific persistence. This wine has chewy tannins that soften with some air and firm acidity at its backbone. While the 2008 Pickberry Red is delicious today it’s built for the long haul. If you have the patience to lay this down for 8-12 years you’ll be justly rewarded. This is a new world wine that brings to mind old world flavors and style. Pair it with a delicious meal for best results.

California Meritage and Franciscan's Magnificat Turn Twenty Five

Last week Franciscan Estate threw what amounted to a birthday party, for Magnificat their flagship wine, in Manhattan at Calliope Restaurant. I was glad to be in attendance at this event which showcased the Franciscan Bordeaux blend. Bordeaux blends have been made all over the world for many years, including in Napa. However, it has now been 25 years since the term Meritage was introduced and along with it Franciscan’s first vintage of Magnificat. As such it was a noteworthy milestone to mark, and an excellent reason to take a look at Magnificat alongside some of its peers. Franciscan Winemaker Jay Turnipseed was on hand to speak about his wines as well as to offer some insight in a general sense about all of the Bordeaux inspired wines. Those peers helped make the event particularly interesting. They were part of a blind tasting of six wines composed of Bordeaux varietals from around the world; Magnificat was of course amongst their number. Tasting them blind was a fine exercise in testing each of our abilities to nail regional characteristics and styles. The sense I got was that most of us gathered had about 2/3 of the regions picked out correctly. All of the blends tasted were from the 2009 vintage. The regions in play were New Zealend, Bordeaux (Left and Right Banks), Walla Walla Washington, South Africa and of course Napa Valley. I was pretty happy getting 4 out of 6 regions correct. The Magnificat stood out to me immediately probably for a few reasons, not the least of which being I’ve been drinking it consistently since the 90’s.

After the blind tasting we sat down to dinner where we were poured several Franciscan wines. This included the current vintage of Magnificat again, side by side with the 2003. The older vintage was actually darker in color that the 2009. Often at about 10 years old the color starts to morph a bit, but this wine was vibrant in color and flavors. While it certainly has a number of years of enjoyable drinking to come, The 2003 Magnificat is in a really lovely place right now. Secondary characteristics have started to kick in and the fruit flavors are ever so slightly tamed. Earth and espresso bean were prominent on the finish.

The current release is the Franciscan Estate 2009 Magnificat. This vintage is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignn (64%), Merlot (26%), Petit Verdot (5%), Cabernet Franc (3%), and Malbec (2%).It was fermented and macerated over a 22 day period. Barrel aging followed over 20 months in French oak; 70% of the barrels were new. Just over 6,000 cases of this wine were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $50. Booming, black fruit aromas emerge from the nose of this wine. The flavors are ripe and eager. Blackberry, raspberry and cherry flavors are all in evidence. There’s dark chocolate and chicory on the lengthy finish along with black pepper and a hint of nutmeg and vanilla bean. The 2009 Magnificat does an excellent job of threading the needle. It’s powerful and elegant at the same time. The flavors are big but never over the top and the tannins firm but not overpowering. In short this is an excellent vintage of Magnificat a wine that is one of the standard bearers of Meritage. It’s delicious today but there’s no need to rush, it will certainly drink well for the next 15 years if stored properly.

Tasting the current vintage of Magnificat alongside counterpart wines from around the world, another vintage of Magnificat and several other Franciscan wines throughout the night really helped showcase its beauty. Happy Birthday Magnificat!

Franciscan Estate Winery - 2011 Chardonnay / 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon / 2008 Magnificat

I’ve personally been drinking wines from Napa Valley’s Franciscan Estate Winery since the early 1990’s. In that time they’ve remained a solid player that offers appealing wines sold at consumer friendly prices. Their portfolio has occasionally expanded a bit but they have mostly remained focused on their core offerings. Here’s a look at three current releases that make up a large portion of the backbone of their operation. The Franciscan Estate 2011 Napa Valley Chardonnay is a 100% varietal wine. All of the fruit comes from the winery’s home appellation of Napa Valley. Barrel aging occurred over 7 months in a combination of French and American oak; 20% of the barrels utilized were new. 74,000 cases of this widely available offering were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $18. Golden Delicious apple and vanilla bean aromas emerge from the nose of this Chardonnay Orchard fruit and apple pie spice are in abundance throughout the even keeled palate. A bit of crème fraiche leads the crisp finish along with cloves, white pepper and an undercurrent of lemon zest. This is an easy to find Chardonnay that is well made vintage after vintage. If you’re looking for a New World Chardonnay that showcases its appealing fruit flavors this is one to consider.

The Franciscan Estate 2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was produced from Napa Valley Fruit. In addition to Cabernet Sauvignon (85%), small amounts of Merlot (11%), Syrah (3%), and Malbec (1%) were also blended in. Barrel aging took place over a period of 20 months; 25% of the barrels utilized were new. 117,000 cases of this wine were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $28. Blackberry and blueberry aromas star on the nose of this 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon. Loads of dark berry flavors dominate the palate, interspersed with bits of red fruit throughout. Copious spices are present as well and add to the depth and complexity of this eager and appealing Cabernet. Minerals and earth are prominent components of the finish which shows good length for its category. Medium tannins yield with some air. This is a textbook example of a Napa Valley Cabernet that is meant for relatively short term consumption. It’ll hold up over the next 5 or 6 years, but it’s appealing, well priced and perfect to drink now, no reason to wait.

The Franciscan Estate 2008 Magnificat is a Napa Valley Meritage wine. This Bordeaux inspired blend has been produced since the 1985 vintage. The 2008 version blends together Cabernet Sauvignon (69%), Merlot (23%), Petit Verdot (6%), and Malbec (2%). This wine spent 20 months aging in oak; 70% of the barrels utilized were new. Just over 7,000 cases of the 2008 Magnificat were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $50. Bramble, red and black raspberry, as well as bits of vanilla bean are present on the nose of this 2008 Meritage. The palate here is studded with sumptuous black fruit flavors, lead by blackberry as well plum and accompanied by a vigorous spice component. Dark chocolate, espresso, earth and black pepper are all in strong evidence on the lengthy and persistent finish of the 2008 Magnificat. This is one of the longest standing and also most consistently excellent Meritage wines coming out of Napa Valley. At $50 a bottle it offers a combination of quality level and relative bang for the buck that is hard to beat. There are similar style blends selling for more than twice the price that can’t touch Magnificat. Whether you purchase it to drink today, or you want to lay it down for a special occasion a decade or so from now, you’re going to get a terrific bottle of wine at a very good price.

The Franciscan wines are standard bearers in Napa Valley. This is producer that makes fairly large quantities of wine that are easy to find all over the country. Their wines also represent a consistent level of quality and offerings that are fairly priced. These wines are well worth your time and money.

Trione Vineyards & Winery: Looking at a Tasty Quartet of Sonoma County Wines

For more than 30 years the Trione Family has been growing and selling grapes in Sonoma County from their own property as well as vineyards they manage. In 2005 they launched Trione Vineyards & Winery to bottle their own wines. They hired Scot Covington as winemaker. He brings both winemaking experience in Sonoma County and elsewhere to the table as well as winery building and design knowledge. Here’s a look at a few of their current releases, all made from fruit sourced in Sonoma County. First up is the Trione 2008 Russian River Valley Syrah. The fruit for this wine was sourced from 2 blocks within their Russian River Ranch. Fermentation took place in small open top tanks. Barrel aging occurred over 18 months in French oak; 40% of the barrels were new. 678 cases of this Syrah were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $32. Black plum, violet, rose petal, and vanilla aromas fill out the nose of this 2008 Syrah. Dried Blackberry, cherry and blueberry fruit characteristics are all in evidence on the palate. Dusty cocoa, earth, chicory and savory herbs all emerge on the finish which has terrific length. This Syrah shows off beautiful structure, firm acidity and medium tannins that yield with some air. This is a new world Syrah that shows off old world inspired style.

The Trione 2009 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir was made utilizing fruit sourced at four blocks within their property. These blocks are planted to clones 115, 667 and 777. The fruit was harvested by hand and fermented in small open top tanks. Barrel aging took place over 15 months in entirely French oak; 45% of them were new. 1,114 cases of the 2009 Trione Pinot Noir were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $32. Cherries, white pepper and wisps of mushroom aromas fill the nose of this 2009 Pinot Noir. Wild strawberries, continued cherries, loads of spice notes and a subtle hint of cola are all in evidence throughout the palate. Black tea, pomegranate and earth characteristics emerge on the finish which has substantial length and persistence. This Pinot was a bit tight on opening but its charms came out in droves after it had a bit of aeration. My recommendation is to decant for an hour or so if you’re going to drink it over the next 2 years. Alternately, lay it down for a few years if you have the patience. In either case this is a fine example of Russian River Pinot Noir.

Trione’s 2008 Alexander Valley Red Wine is a Bordeaux inspired blend. This offering includes Cabernet Sauvignon (53%), Merlot (22%), Petit Verdot (11%), Cabernet Franc (10%), and Malbec (4%). The fruit for this wine came from three properties within Alexander Valley. Each varietal was fermented separately. Barrel aging took place over 18 months in French oak; half of them were new. 2,435, 6-pack cases of this blend were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $48. Fresh red and black berry aromas, vanilla bean and green herbs illuminate the nose of this 2008 blend. The plate is studded with dried red fruit flavors interspersed with black fruits and spice elements such as black pepper and cardamom. Sour cherries, black tea and a host of minerals are in evidence on the finish. This wine has terrific structure and is well proportioned. It will age gracefully for at least a decade.

Last but not least is the Trione 2007 Alexander Valley Block 21 Cabernet Sauvignon. All of the Cabernet comes from the Trione Cloverdale Ranch which is in the northern portion of Alexander Valley. The vines sourced were planted in 2001 to clone 337. In addition to Cabernet (85%) this wine has small amounts of Merlot (10%) from Geyserville as well as Petit Verdot (2.5%) and Malbec (2.5%) from Cloverdale. This wine spent a total of 24 months in barrel, 12 months prior to blending and another 12 after. All of it was French oak and 45% of the barrels were new. 733 cases were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $64. Boisterous dark berry aromas are buoyed by cardamom and hints of toast on the nose of this 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon. The palate is laden with an avalanche of sweet, dark berry flavors laced with just a speckle of green herbs. Minerals, earth, clove, white pepper, black cherries and cinnamon are all in evidence on the finish which has excellent length. What’s most impressive to me about this wine is the depth and purity of fruit favors that just beam forth from the glass from the first impression to the final sip. At 5 years old this Cabernet Sauvignon is at the beginning of its true accessibility. It will drink well over the next 8-12 years. This is a fine example of how good Cabernet from Alexander Valley can be.

This is a diverse and appetizing quartet of wines from Trione Vineyards & Winery. The common threads that run through them are character, balance and elegance. These are all lovely offerings that will drink well for a number of years. This was my first time trying their wines and I look forward to drinking future releases from them to see how they progress as a producer.

Stepping Stone by Cornerstone Cellars - 2010 North Coast Red Rocks

Cornerstone Cellars has been making exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley for just over 20 years. For the last few years they have also been making wine under their Stepping Stone label. These wines are produced from fruit sourced in Napa as well as some other regions in California. Additionally they have a few releases sourced in Oregon. Today I’ll look at the newest vintage of a Stepping Stone release. The Stepping Stone by Cornerstone Cellars 2010 North Coast Red Rocks blends together Zinfandel, Syrah, and Merlot. The lots of fruit for this wine were sourced in Lake County, Sonoma and the Napa side of Carneros respectively. Just more than 1,000 cases of this wine were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $18.

Blackberry and vanilla aromas leap with some intensity from the nose of this 2010 red blend, those aromas are augmented by bits of smoke and bacon. Lots of red and black fruit flavors are in evidence from the first sip to the last one. This is a very tasty, appealing, and easy to drink red wine. Willing and eager fruit flavors complemented by bits of spice continue through the finish which has decent length. This is a terrific little blend for the money and a fine example of a new world wine that is enthusiastic and loaded with fruit flavors but still even keeled.

What I like best about this wine is that it’s a fun, well priced wine that will appeal to large crowds of wine drinkers. It’s also a well made wine that will pair with a wide array of foods. It’s primed for immediate drinking so enjoy this over the next 1-2 years to get the most out of its agreeable, young fruit flavors.

The State of Chilean Wines Today: Quality, Value, and Diversity

The State of Chilean Wines Today: Quality, Value, and Diversity

Cabernet Sauvignon was king when I first started drinking Chilean wines some 20 years ago. And not just Cabernet in general, but specifically bargain priced Cabernet. Most wine drinking folks I know rifled through bottles of $6 or so Cabernet Sauvignon looking for gems; we found quite a few. And for many people that’s the lingering impression of Chilean Wine. The trouble is it’s no longer a valid image. Sure you can still find a bargain and some of them are Cabernet Sauvignon, but there is so much more Chilean wine on U.S. shelves deserving your attention and your dollars that it would be a real shame to limit yourself. I knew this before I went to Chile last week. So one of my goals in visiting was to verify it and see what they had going on that might be less obvious from 5,000 miles away. So I’ve compiled a handful of strong impressions of Chilean Wines gleamed from the trenches.

Argentina gets the attention but Chile makes some ass kicking Malbec: It’s Argentina’s signature grape so they should be at the forefront. In some ways they are, the general public thinks about Argentina first for Malbec. Some of them are terrific, but unfortunately way too many examples are made in an overtly fruit forward style with a lackluster body and no finish to speak of. I was a little surprised with the number of Malbecs I got to taste in Chile. While I knew it was there, its presence is larger than I would have guessed. More importantly the ones I tasted where almost all uniformly well made. By and large they were elegant, balanced and well proportioned. Often times they were made from old vine fruit. I hope we start seeing Chilean Malbec on our shelves in reasonable numbers soon.

Tiers baby: I’ve often written about wineries like Rodney Strong in Sonoma County whose tiered approach to their portfolio is consumer friendly. This is true in a very large percentage of Chilean Wineries. They often have 3 or 4 tiers of wine. Often the entry-level wines retail for around $10 on our shelves and they have a top-level that might reach into the $30’s and $40’s, as well as occasionally higher. In between are wines in the teens and $20’s. What’s remarkable is that there is more often than not quality, value, and diversity to be had at each tier. In Chile wineries that produce what we view as very large quantities of wine often do so at a high level. One of the main reasons for this is simple: estate fruit. By owning the vineyards outright or having fruit under long-term contract they have a say in precisely how the vineyards are maintained. This can (and often does) lead to high quality in the bottle at each price point. The intent of a producer’s $8 Sauvignon Blanc and their $20 one are often quite different as are their appeals and projected end user. But what's important is getting value regardless of price; in Chile that is often the case.

There are some delicious small production wines being made: Sure there are lots and lots of excellent Sauvignon Blancs coming from Chile and some tasty Pinot Noirs now too, but that’s not all. I had the opportunity to taste a delicious and marvelously dry Gewürztraminer made by Nimbus (part of the Santa Carolina Family of wines), as well as a lovely sparkling wine from Cono Sur to name a couple.  Viognier is making some ripples in Chile too and hopefully before long we’ll see a greater number of them available in the US as well. I've mentioned a few whites but the same can be said for reds. More than one example of varietal Petit Verdot I had was lovely as were a couple of tastes of Carignan. In some cases these wines aren't on our shelves in the US yet, but they’re important to mention for the coming diversity and quality they represent.

Blends will set Chile apart: Almost every winemaking culture has some blends. In places like Bordeaux they’re everything. In a lot of other places, well quite frankly they’re doing their best to mimic Bordeaux. Certainly Chile works to make great wine and learning lessons from places like Bordeaux or Napa to name two examples is part of the equation. But I also got the very strong sense that Chile is happy to be writing their own rule book when it comes to blends. Sure some of them contain the usual suspects of Bordeaux varietals. However grapes like Carménère that have been marginalized or fallen by the wayside in Bordeaux often steal the show in Chile. Additionally with red blends Syrah often makes a mark too as well as some others. Some of the most impressive wines from Chile I’ve tasted over the last 5 years have been blends. This remained constant on my trip last week where I tasted lots of delicious blends. It’s important to note that with blends like with varietal wines there are values at many price levels.

Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon can still be a great value: While there are no longer boatloads of awesome deals on $6 Cabernet Sauvignon there are still many deals to be had. Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile when it’s grown in the right spot and treated properly in the winery can blow away a lot of countries on QPR. What I found on this trip is that the Cabernets in the $15-$25 range were particularly noteworthy in terms of value. These are balanced wines that are often perfect for everyday enjoyment as well as drinking over the next few years. At a higher cost there are some truly age-worthy wines. One example was the Casa Real Cabernet Sauvignon from Santa Rita. We tasted both the current release (2009) and a 15 year old bottle (1997). Jameson Fink, a fellow writer who was on the same trip wrote about this particular experience and it’s well worth a read.

Diversity is King of Chile now: Everywhere we went there was something unique to taste. In some cases it was a Sparkling Rosé made from an almost lost grape. Sometimes it was a Moscato that stunned us all by how lovely and dry it was. On one occasion it was an Old Vine Sauvignon Gris. These are just a couple of examples. Chilean winemakers are experimenting in the vineyards with new farming techniques as well as plantings of new varietals or the reclamation of abandoned old vineyards. In the Winery they’re also experimenting with how they utilize oak, what they blend together and frankly just about every decision they make. What that means to us is we’re going to get to taste a wide swath of different wines from Chile.

In short I was pretty knocked out by what they have going on in Chile. I’ve really enjoyed drinking the wines from there for a long time now. But in 2012 instead of thinking of them for one thing, I think of Chile for an ever widening variety of different varietals, blends and more. Grab some Chilean wines and taste the quality, value and diversity I was lucky enough to witness firsthand.

Visiting Viña Vik in Millahue, Chile

In the late 1970’s when Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild where planning Opus One Winery In Napa Valley they had a singular vision; to create one wine that could stand alongside any other in the world in terms of quality and recognition. That’s a monumental undertaking but they had a bit of a head start. The Mondavi Family for their part chipped in with prime vineyards in the heart of Napa Valley as well as significant experience making wine in that very place. The Rothschild’s brought their experience of many years, and both families invested a lot of capital to achieve execute their plan for one great Bordeaux inspired wine.

Norwegian businessman Alexander Vik has gone to Chile with a similar vision; to make one world class wine. Unlike the Opus One Project he started from scratch assembling a team and providing the financial resources. To start the team he assembled visited more than 50 vineyard sites before settling on the land Mr. Vik eventually purchased. In studying the land they were about to purchase they spent a full year with the soils, pulling 6,000 samples. In short he has invested massive resources into this project, a bet of sorts on his vision for greatness. This week I had the opportunity to visit Viña Vik and meet some of the members of his wine-making team.

And what a property it is 4,325 hectares of which 382 are currently planted to vine. The plantings are all high density something which is becoming increasingly popular in Chile. That said the average is currently 4,500 per hectare. Our group was given an extensive tour of the property which is breathtaking in its size and scope as well as the attention to detail being paid to each block of fruit. Each one gets its own tank and its about 15 months after vinification that they begin to work on making a final blend of their wine. We were able to taste the 2009 and 2010 vintages of the finished wine as well as components that are under consideration to be used when they assemble the 2011.

The Viña Vik 2010 is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (56%), Carménère (32%), Cabernet Franc (5%), Merlot (4%) and Syrah (3%). It was fermented with native yeasts and spent 23 months in barrel prior to bottling this past April. This wine has a spectacular nose loaded with Cherry and leather characteristics. The palate is layered with depth and complexity to spare. Cherry and hints of black fruits star. This is a juicy and mouth-filling wine with an impressively lengthy finish. It’s a young wine that will benefit from proper cellaring and should have at least 10 years of enjoyable drinking ahead of it. We tasted it several times both by itself in a formal setting and paired with lunch where it had been decanted. When it had the opportunity to showcase itself alongside food it really impressed.

This wine will sell in the U.S. for around $135. There is no question that they have made a wine that should make Chile proud. As the vines gain age, the team learns their property even better, there is a likelihood that future releases will be of even higher quality. Case in point the 2010 vintage was significantly more elegant and noteworthy than the 2009. They are a massive property in the process of building an impressive underground winery and they are making one wine in small boutique quantities. For those willing to spend that sort of cash on a bottle of wine whether it’s to age, drink today or have Chile’s version of a trophy wine in their cellar, there’s no question it’s a very nice wine. I’ll be quite curious to follow their story on a go forward basis to see how they do and how future vintages of this wine turn out. The pieces are in place to win their bet, now we’ll see how the market responds. People love a story and they love to have collectibles, the bet here is that they will be successful.

Franciscan Estate - 2007 Magnificat

Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the wines I first became familiar with in the Franciscan Estate portfolio back in the 90’s. Soon after enjoying those I looked towards their other releases to see what else they were up to. Eventually that led me to their red blend Magnificat, which is their flagship offering. When I’ve gone back to it from time to time over the years I’ve found it to be a consistently well made wine that represents the best of what the folks at Franciscan are up to. Today I’ll look at the 2007 vintage of this wine. The Franciscan Estate 2007 Magnificat is a Bordeaux inspired blend. This wine was produced exclusively from fruit sourced in Napa Valley. The blend consists of Cabernet Sauvignon (71%), Merlot (26%), Petit Verdot (2%) and Malbec (1%). Fermentation and maceration took place over 22 days. Magnificat was aged over 20 months in oak; 89% of the barrels utilized were new and 82% were French. Just fewer than 22,000 cases of this wine were produced in the 2007 vintage. It has a suggested retail price of $50.

Cherry, and Black Raspberry aromas are the most prominent components on the nose of this 2007 Blend. Hints of Eucalyptus chip in as well. Black cherry characteristics carry through the palate along with bits of blackberry, dusty cocoa and copious quantities of spice as well as a gentle kiss of anise. Dark, dusty chocolate notes emerge on the finish along with minerals and continued spice. This is a well structured wine marked by firm acidity and chewy tannins. It’s a bit on the younger side now so I recommend decanting for drinking over the next couple of years. Otherwise hold it for the next decade or so and be prepared to be rewarded for your patience. The bottom line for me is that the 2007 Magnificat is a particularly fine vintage of a wine that is almost always a winner to begin with. It’s well priced for its category and a very solid choice for a special occasion meal.

Benessere Vineyards - 2007 Phenomenon

Benessere Vineyards is a boutique sized winery in Napa Valley that's also a treasure to those lucky enough to discover it. They produce varietally correct wines sourced from their estate vineyards. The fact that they lean towards Italian varietals such as Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio makes them somewhat unique in the valley. Their property is beautiful and the wines are by and large delicious and fairly priced. Today I’ll look at the current release of Phenomenon, their red Super Tuscan inspired blend. The Benessere Vineyards 2007 Phenomenon is a proprietary blend. This Napa Valley wine was made entirely from fruit sourced at their Estate Vineyard in St. Helena. Cabernet Sauvignon (49%), Sangiovese (38%), Merlot (11%), and Syrah (2%) were fermented and barrel aged separately. They were then assembled and barrel aged for two additional years prior to release. Just fewer than 500 cases of this offering were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $50.

The nose of this 2007 blend is loaded with dark fruit aromas and spice. Plum and blueberry characteristics lead the way and they’re accompanied by cardamom, clove, cinnamon, and a hint of eucalyptus. The plate of this wine is impressively loaded with a terrific array of expressive flavors that are lead by deep, dark fruit flavors such as black cherry, and plum. Earth, chicory, black tea and continued waves of spice reverberate on the finish which has terrific length. The 2007 Phenomenon is a great example of what a blend should be; each of the varietals comes together seamlessly to form a cohesive unit. This wine is delicious on its own, but really shines when paired with food. Roasted meats and dishes with red sauce will work well as will medium strength cheeses and charcuterie.

Benessere Vineyards did well to release to release this wine when they did. It’s inviting, engaging and ready to drink now. While it’ll certainly continue to improve for a few years and drink well over the next 6-8, it’s delicious and hard to resist right now. So I vote to pop that cork sooner rather than later. And when your travels take you to Napa Valley, be sure to visit this terrific winery.

Poggiotondo - 2011 Vermentino IGT / 2010 Rosso IGT

Italy is well represented on the shelves of good US wine shops. Whether you’re looking for a Barolo, Chianti Classico or Amarone you shouldn’t have any trouble finding what you’re in the mood for. Over time the availability of some varietals that are lesser know to us in America are increasing as are the number of blends that utilize both indigenous and international grapes. Here’s a look at a couple of current releases from Poggiotondo that fall into those categories. The Poggiotondo 2011 Vermentino IGT was produced from fruit sourced in the winery’s home region of Tuscany. This offering is 100% Vermentino. Fermentation took place in a combination of stainless steel (85%) and French oak (15%). Their estate which is over 123 acres has both vines and olive trees on it. After fermentation this wine saw two months of contact with the lees during aging. This wine has a suggested retail price of $20. Lemon zest, hazelnut and mango aromas are all prevalent on the nose of this Vermentino. Bartlett pear and yellow delicious apple flavors are on display throughout the palate along with hints of grapefruit. An impressive amount of minerality is in evidence throughout, particularly on the finish which has excellent length. The Poggiotondo Vermentino has lively acidity and nice structure; it's a pleasure to drink on its own but it’s truly made to pair with food. I enjoyed it alongside a roasted beet salad with goat cheese which worked perfectly. This wine is best served a couple of degrees warmer than the average white wine. That really allows it to open up and show its true charms.

The Poggiotondo 2010 Rosso IGT is a blend of Sangiovese (40%), Merlot (30%) and Syrah (30%). The fruit for this wine comes from their home estate in the north-western end of Tuscany. After hand harvesting the grapes underwent a pre-ferment and cold soak. Fermentation followed in stainless steel tanks followed by 8 months of aging. A final two months of time in bottle was allowed prior to release. This wine has a suggested retail price of $11. Red cherry, earth and hints of green herb are prominent on the nose of this Red Tuscan blend. Blueberry, raspberry and cherry flavors (black and red) emerge on the palate of this wine along with bits of leather. Cranberry, rhubarb as well as bits of smoke and spice are part of the finish which has good length. Firm zippy acidity helps make this a nice everyday food wine. This is a good selection for Pizza night or with grilled meats.

These wines from Poggiotondo represent good values for everyday consumption. They each show off good character and are fruit driven wines that will work particularly well with food. Both should be consumed over the next few years for maximum pleasure.

Newton Vineyard - 2008 Unfiltered Chardonnay / 2008 The Puzzle

Recently, I had the opportunity to taste a number of Newton Vineyard’s current releases alongside Chris Millard their winemaker. It was one of the more interesting tastings in recent memory; in addition to the wines themselves there was a special focus on filtration. Newton makes both filtered and unfiltered wines. All of the releases we sampled are well made and eminently drinkable. I for one however leaned towards the unfiltered wines as my preference. There is an inherent weightiness to their palate and a deeper concentration of flavors and aromas that stood out to me as particularly special. To conclude the tasting we also sampled filtered coffee versus unfiltered French Press. This was also a revelation and it’s a somewhat simple experiment that anyone with a French Press as well as a filtered coffee maker can replicate at home. I encourage you to do just that as I believe you might well be amazed. I decided to revisit a couple of my favorites from the Newton Vineyard portfolio and here’s a look at them. First up is the Newton Vineyard 2008 Unfiltered Chardonnay. This wine was produced utilizing fruit sourced from several locations within Napa County including Newton’s 30 year old Carneros vineyard. Newton’s unfiltered Chardonnay is a 100% varietal wine. Fermentation took place with wild yeasts. Barrel aging occurred over 16 months in French oak; 30% of the barrels utilized were new. This offering has a suggested retail price of $60.

This Chardonnay has a deeply perfumed nose loaded with appealing aromatics. Apple, guava and subtle hints of vanilla bean each play a role. Pineapples, oodles of apple, hints of apricot and spices galore are all prominent throughout the palate. An undercurrent of tropical fruit flavors is present as well. There is an amazing depth of palate here and it is simply loaded with controlled intensity and complexity. The finish on the Unfiltered Newton Chardonnay is long, lusty, fruity and engaging. It goes on and on persistently with fruit and spice notes reverberating. A touch of creaminess provides the final, pleasing note. The bottom line for me is that this is one of the small handful of very best and most honest Chardonnays coming out of Napa Valley at any price point.

The second wine is Newton Vineyard’s 2008 The Puzzle. This is a Bordeaux inspired blend that was made from fruit sourced at their home vineyard on Spring Mountain. Their property is broken up into small blocks and each vintage the finest lots are selected to assemble The Puzzle. As such the varietal composition can vary greatly from one year to the next. The current release is a blend of Merlot (42%), Cabernet Sauvignon (36%), Cabernet Franc (14%), Petit Verdot (6%) and Malbec (2%). Aging occurred over 20 months in entirely French oak. This wine has a suggested retail price of $80.

Cabernet Franc lovers will recognize it’s presence in this wine from the first whiff they take. It lifts the nose and provides a lovely gateway with black cherry, dark chocolate and hints of leather leading the way. Plums and blackberry flavors show up on the palate along with continued cherry (both red and black) characteristics. Nutmeg, black pepper and clove spices are present as well. Earth, hints of smoked meats, cardamom and minerals all emerge on the finish which is persistent and impressive in its length. Impeccable structure and acidity are also present, helping to make this an absolutely phenomenal blend. This is classic Napa Valley mountain fruit in all it’s glory with finesse, depth and a rugged backbone. I sampled The Puzzle after it had been open for a full 24 hours and it was drinking even more beautifully.

There’s no two ways about it, these are both stunningly terrific wines. I’m particularly finicky about California Chardonnays in the premium price range. I find way too many of them are over priced wood and butter bombs that taste like almost anything but Chardonnay. The Newton Vineyard Chardonnay flies in the face of that and is loaded with pure Chardonnay fruit that is enhanced by the oak treatment it received. At $60 it’s not a wine aimed at everyday consumption, but it is an impeccable example of how well Chardonnay can do in California when treated appropriately through the entire process. If you love Chardonnay you owe it to yourself to try this wine when you can. The Puzzle is an excellent blended wine that you’ll have fun drinking with a great meal or sitting with some friends and picking apart all the varietal components that shine in their own way as they come together to make a most excellent and well balanced blend. Both of these wines will drink well for a number of years, The Puzzle in particular while delicious now will improve over the next 10-15 years. If you haven’t tried the wines from Newton Vineyard, they are well worth both your time and your money. Their more readily available and lower priced, filtered offerings are also wines you should consider.