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Wine: Reviews, Thoughts & Culture

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First Day in Chile: Lunch at Miguel Torres Restaurante De Vinos

A couple of hours after arriving in Chile I found myself in the lobby of our hotel meeting up with my travelling companions for the next week. We were heading to lunch. The first meal together with a bunch of folks you don’t know can be telling. This particular lunch screamed, fun week ahead. I’m lucky to be travelling and learning about Chile with a friendly, diverse group that’s as thirsty for knowledge and well wine as I am. We proceeded to walk a few blocks to Miguel Torres Restaurante De Vinos the sight of our first meal together and, as it turned out later, a nightcap. What we experienced was a wonderful meal accompanied by some terrific wines. And speaking of wine the first sip I took on Chilean soil was a marvelous welcome. One of the folks on the trip noticed a sparkling wine she’d tasted prior and loved so we all decided to give it a shot. The wine was the Miguel Torres Santa Digna Estelado Rosé. This wine was produced from the grape Pais which played a large role in Chile prior to the influx of Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varietals. I can’t speak to other examples as to the best of my knowledge I’d not tasted the grape prior. One thing is certain I’m curious to taste some additional ones now. This was a really lovely Rosé, perfectly dry with persistent red fruits, spice and a more than reasonably long finish.

The food at Miguel Torres was as delicious as the wine. A feast of appetizers laid out in front of us disappeared quickly as did the first wine. Chickpea Fritters and a traditional omelet with potato and Piquillo peppers were my favorite bites amongst the appetizers. Both worked really well with the Rosé as well as the next wine, the Miguel Torres 2008 Cordillera Carmenère. The Miguel Torres portfolio has several tiers of wines and Cordillera is one of them; it represents smaller craftsman productions. This wine blends Carmenère with small amounts of Merlot and Petit Verdot. Delicious off the bat and featuring appealing black fruits, it really came into its own after getting a little bit of air. Carmenère promises to become a bigger and more widely known varietal for Chile, perhaps a calling card of sorts as Malbec is for neighboring Argentina. This example from Miguel Torres only strengthens that notion for me. We followed that wine up with the Miguel Torres 2008 Cordillera Carignan. One of my hopes for this visit to Chile is to taste many examples of things like Carignan, varietals that aren’t getting as much attention yet as they perhaps deserve. That said this wine was a good place to start that journey for me. It was interesting to compare to the Carmenère we’d just finished, particularly as it was not just from the same producer but also in the same tier. Sometimes producers fall into the trap of each tier being overworked by a house style that overwhelms the grapes characteristics. This was happily not the case here. Each wine stood out on it’s own with varietal character to spare. The Carignan was a bit more reserved and slightly austere where the Carmenère was juicier and more giving up front. It would depend on my mood and what I was eating on any given day but as it developed in the glass my preference shifted to the Carignan. It played hard to get a little and perhaps that was part of it. In any case I’d happily drink either one. And if they were paired with the wonderful foods we enjoyed at Miguel Torres, all the better.

Our meal ended with a selection of desserts accompanied by the Miguel Torres Vendimia Tardía Reserva Privada, a Late Harvest Wine made from Riesling. This was a sweet and lovely ending to the meal. As delicious as it was I’d bet this particular dessert wine would be even better served paired with a cheese course.

I mentioned a nightcap earlier and it took place in the same spot. After lunch we were given a tour of downtown Santiago. This afforded us the opportunity to see quite a few sections of the city; both the newer financial district where we’re currently staying as well as older areas that feature distinct architecture dating back to about 1910. After the tour was over we went back to the hotel for some downtime followed by dinner. After dinner our party was split into two, three of us chose well needed rest and the remainder of us chose more wine. We decided to go back to Miguel Torres and once there the obvious choice to drink became the Miguel Torres 2008 Cordillera Syrah. We’d had and loved the other red selections in this tier earlier so it seemed natural to close the day out with this offering. In addition to Syrah some Cabernet Sauvignon and Viognier were blended in. Red cherry fruits filled the nose along with some darker berry components. They all carried through the palate along with spices and bits of chocolate. The finish which had a touch of smoke and green herb also showed nice length. In short this wine was what I expected after tasting the other two in the tier; a well made Syrah that showed off the varietal. It was delicious by itself but will sing with its supper.

That last bottle of wine was a wonderful way to cap my first day in Chile. The wines, food and people I spent the day with all came together and formed a harbinger of what promises to be a brilliant week, tasting and exploring what Chile has to offer.

Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery - 2009 Chardonnay / 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon

Sometimes wine lovers bemoan the state of Napa Valley. People are heard to complain about the number of ostentatious wineries and tasting room that have taken hold of the Valley and along with that they talk about how it was in the old days when Napa had a small number of producers and a visit meant tasting with the owner who was often also the winemaker. The trouble with that line of thought is that there are still many family owned Wineries in Napa Valley that belie the image of Napa as only lavish tasting rooms and over the top facilities. Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery is a shining example of a small family owned and run Winery. A visit there is in some ways a visit to a simpler time in Napa Valley. They’re a boutique producer that focuses on Estate grown Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Riesling. When you visit you’ll see their property with either Stu or Charles Smith or if you’re really lucky both of them. They grow the grapes, make the wine and do pretty much everything from soup to nuts that’s involved in bringing their wines to your table. That’s the way it’s been since they were founded in the very early 70’s. Their location up on Spring Mountain is a bit removed from the hustle and bustle of the valley floor, but it’s not a far ride. Once you’re up there though you’ll feel like you’ve traveled to a magical land where all that matters is the way the grapes are grown, picked and vinified to make offerings that represent the location they came from.

I recently had dinner with Stu Smith who started the winery in 1971. It’s been my fortune to spend some time with Stu on a few occasions and I’m always impressed by how unvarnished, real and without pretense he is. The truth is you can discover the very same thing simply by drinking their wines. They make approximately 4,000 cases of wine each year entirely from their own property. Everything about Smith-Madrone comes from the two brothers. They planted the vines and in the 41 years they’ve been in operation have replanted sections of the vineyard in some cases too. They are as truly Napa Valley as any producer on the map. Their wines are made in a genuine style that lends itself to immediate enjoyment upon release as well as age ability. These are not wines that are produced in a vacuum with the idea of trying to gain high scores on someone’s point system. These are wines grown, pressed and aged in the same ecosystem, every vintage, for over 40 years. The Smith-Madrone wines are alive, delicious and most importantly a true representation of the spirit and desire of two brothers to make great wine in their little corner of the world. With that here’s a look at a couple of the wines I tasted over dinner with Stu and then re-tasted a couple of days ago.

First up is the Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery 2009 Chardonnay. All of the fruit for this wine came from their home ranch on Spring Mountain. Their Chardonnay vines have 37 years of age on them. This offering which is entirely Chardonnay was barrel fermented and aged in entirely new French oak over a nine month period. Just over 500 cases were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $35. Apple pie aromas dominate the nose of this Chardonnay and they are underscored by pleasing hints of lemon curd. The palate is marked by the intensity of its Chardonnay character in the form of pure and unadulterated fruit. Apple flavors dominate things here with spice and minerals galore to add to the complexity. Nutmeg, clove and continued mineral characteristics are all in evidence on the finish which has excellent length. Firm, zippy acidity adds to the wonderful structure and balance of this Chardonnay. The Smith-Madrone Chardonnay is nothing short of an absolute joy to drink. It’s also a wine that will age gracefully and be quite enjoyable and drinkable over the next 8 or so years at minimum.

The second wine today is the Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. All of the fruit came from their home ranch in the Spring Mountain area of Napa Valley. In addition to Cabernet Sauvignon (85%), this wine contains Merlot (6%), and Cabernet Franc (9%). The vines had 34 years of age on them at the time of harvest. This Cabernet spent 22 months aging in American oak. The Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon was bottled unfined and unfiltered. Just fewer than 1,500 cases were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $45. Aromas of fresh black fruits such as blackberry, currant, and black cherry fill the inviting nose of this 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. Wisps of toast and herb characteristics are present as well. There is a depth, power and complexity to the palate of this wine that immediately impresses as soon as you take a sip and let it envelop your senses. This wine is intense but precise and measured. As with all of the Smith-Madrone wines it’s balanced and proportionate. Cherry flavors, both black and red dominate the palate along with hints of mushroom and leather as well as black pepper. The finish here is long and lush with the depth that is often associated with great Napa Mountain Cabernet. Earth, baker’s chocolate, black tea and hints of graphite are all present. This Cabernet will certainly age and improve in the bottle over the next 15 or so years. However it’s quite ready to drink now, a benefit of Charles and Stu holding their wines until they are drinkable. If you do drink it now you have the choice of decanting it for an hour or so or watching as it develops in your glass over a leisurely meal. In any case you’ll be drinking one of the very best Cabernet’s from Napa Valley regardless of price point.

If you have yet to taste the wines of Smith-Madrone I urge you to do so at your earliest convenience. In addition to being well made and delicious they are also fairly priced. The Cabernet Sauvignon in particular is a terrific bargain relative to many of the Napa Cabernet’s of similar quality. In addition to drinking these offerings, I urge anyone travelling to Napa Valley to take the time and make an appointment so you can visit the lovely folks at Smith-Madrone; your time there will undoubtedly become a memorable visit you will cherish as you drink the wine you will have brought back home with you. So don’t bemoan the over the top tasting rooms at some Napa Wineries, enjoy them for what they are. But when you want to get to the pulse of Napa Valley, point your car up Spring Mountain either literally or via your local wine shop and enjoy the wines of Smith-Madrone.

Tasting the Wines of Villa Huesgen with Winemaker Adolph Huesgen

Wines originating from some countries have filled our shelves for years, and in the case of other countries we are just starting to see a representative sampling of offerings. Wines from Germany are sort of in a third category; we’ve had wines from there available for many years but often many of the options weren’t as appealing as they could be. For the range of styles and wines that are made there, the majority of releases we saw were a bit limited in diversity. Thankfully that has been changing quite a bit the last few years. We are seeing more well made German wines. Case in point; A couple of days ago I had the opportunity to have lunch with and taste three releases made by Adolph Huesgen. He is the 9th generation owner and winemaker for his family’s Villa Huesgen. The focus at Villa Huesgen is laser like and aimed squarely at Riesling. As Adolph explained their vineyards and microclimate are perfectly suited for Riesling more than any other grape, therefore their aim is to make the best Rieslings they can. In the last few months their wines have entered the US market for the very first time. They are a boutique winery making relatively small quantities of authentic Riesling; in short precisely the sort of producer lovers of German wines will want to embrace. What follows are some details and impressions of the three releases. First up is the Villa Huesgen 2010 Nine Generations Riesling. The fruit is from their home region in the Mosel.  The vines sourced have between 5 and 10 years of age on them. After undergoing soft air pressing the juice is moved to stainless steel where it sits for about 12 hours before moving to tank, 9,000 cases of this release were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $19.99. White and yellow stone fruit aromas fill the nose of this wine. Peach and apricot are of particular note. Those characteristics continue on the palate where they’re joined by mineral notes, racy spices and lemon zest. This wine has a crisp finish that leaves a lasting impression with tingly white pepper providing the final note. Of the trio this is the wine that I enjoyed best as a standalone offering. It will pair with lighter foods as well but it doesn’t need them.

Next up is the Villa Huesgen 2010 Schiefer Riesling. The grapes for this wine are from the Mosel; the vines sourced have 3o to 35 years of age on them. Fruit was soft air pressed and transferred into stainless steel tanks for 12 hours before being moved to tank for the fermentation process. 4,000 cases of this release were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $34.99. Apricot, Lychee fruit and yellow cling peach aromas burst forth from the glass of the Schiefer Riesling. The palate is rich and concentrated with powerful (relatively speaking as these are wines of finesse) Riesling character. Peaches and apricot are joined by a subtle hint of hazelnut and a touch of lemon crème. The finish of this wine is above average in length and the layered, complex and concentrated flavors continue. Lingering apricot notes tinged with spice provide a lasting impression. This wine paired wonderfully with both a rice-flour battered chicken dish and an artichoke risotto. It would work equally well with pungent cheeses and other dishes of some substance. The Schiefer Riesling wine was enjoyable  on it’s own and it also worked phenomenally paired with food.

Finally we come to the Villa Huesgen 2010 Kabinett Riesling. Fruit for this wine was sourced in theMosel. The vines utilized have an average of 30 to 35 years of age on them. The soft air pressing, fermentation, and aging process is the same as the two prior wines. 2,000 cases of this offering were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $39.99. From the first whiff of this wine its semi-dry nature is apparent. The aromas of apricot, mango, nectarine and lemon zest come together and form a lovely nose that immediately inspires you to take a sip. The palate is quite a bit more mellifluous in nature than the other two wines with there being both more actual sweetness as well as a greater impression of sweetness simultaneously. Each of the fruits apparent in the nose has corresponding flavor components in evidence here as well. The finish has good length and leaves a lasting kiss of sweetness on the tongue and back of the throat. This wine will pair fabulously with spicy Indian cuisine as well as well selected desserts. That said it will work just as well all by itself.

This is an impressive trio of Rieslings from Villa Huesgen. Alcohol content for all 3 is well under 12% making them wines which you can easily enjoy several glasses of without your palate tiring. Tasting them side by side is a nice window into several sides of one grape. Each of these wines is distinct, well made and quite importantly worth your money. My personal favorite is the Schiefer, however I’d gladly enjoy any of these on a given day. These are proportionate wines which are delicious today but they will each drink well for a number of years. I highly recommend heading to your local wine shop and welcoming Villa Huesgen to the states by purchasing and enjoying one of their very fine Rieslings.

Reconsiderng a Napa Valley Legend; Robert Mondavi Winery

As we’ve grown precipitously as a wine drinking nation over the last couple of decades our choices have also increased. The number of outlets selling wine is way up and the options we have once we go there are in sharp contrast to what was available a number of years ago. The temptation in our culture is also to chase the new hot thing. Sometimes that leaves little room to reconsider or reconnect with something we already love. In this case that something is the Robert Mondavi Winery. There was no greater ambassador for both California wines and the importance of wine on our tables in this country than Robert Mondavi. Napa Valley and perhaps the entire US wine industry would look radically different today if not for the chances he took and the advances, in quality and more, that he championed. In the sea of wine that’s out there it’s easy to forget that. Recently I had the opportunity to taste through some current and older releases with winemaker Genevieve Janssens.

Tasting both new offerings and an older Cabernet Sauvignon really showed off the quality of winemaking that is still going on at this venerable Napa Valley house. A particular standout was the 2007 I Block Fume Blanc. This wine is made in tiny quantities (207 cases) and sourced from a specific block of the To Kalon vineyard. It was one of the more impressive Sauvignon Blancs I’ve tasted in quite awhile. At three plus years old it’s fresh and vibrant and still has plenty of life ahead of it. It’s only available through the winery (SRP $75) and well worth the extra effort to get it.

The event took place at Hearth Restaurant in New York and this allowed us to taste these wines as they are meant to be consumed; side by side with food. I sampled the 2008 Napa Valley Chardonnay with a rotating cast of different appetizers. This wine was produced with fruit sourced in Carneros (58%), East Napa foothills (29%), Sonoma County (10%), other Napa vineyards (3%). 69% of the juice was fermented in barrel; 13% of them were new. The balance was fermented in stainless steel. This Chardonnay which is widely available has a suggested retail price of $20. Orchard fruit aromas fill the nose of this wine along with a hint of spice. Golden delicious apple, pear, pineapple and guava all make their presence know through the palate. Minerals, apple pie crust and baker’s spice are each part of the finish which has impressive length for a Chardonnay in this price category. The use of oak here was judicious and it adds to the complexity, as opposed to some Chardonnays where it becomes a distraction. The bottom line is that this wine pairs well with a wide array of different foods and also drinks beautifully on its own. It’s one of the work horses in the Mondavi portfolio and it’s well worth trying if you haven’t had it in awhile.

Two vintages of the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon were impressive for different reasons. The 1996 Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve is an excellent example of the age worthiness of good Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon. Most (79%) of the fruit for it came from Oakville; much of it from To Kalon. When Robert Mondavi spoke of comparing Napa wines to his French counterparts it was wines like the reserve Cabernet that I bet he had in mind. This wine still has plenty of fruit on it, but it’s also become earthier and softer. It’s a pleasure to drink both with food and without.

The Robert Mondavi Winery 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon was made entirely with fruit from Oakville and 93% of it from To Kalon. This wine is bigger, bolder and a bit brasher today. It has firm tannins that need some time in the bottle or some aeration to soften a bit. The elements which make the 1996 so drinkable today are also there in the 2007. It’s simply loaded with fruit and spice flavors that are accented by the time spent in barrel. Just less than 10,000 cases were produced and it has a suggested retail price of $135. Ultimately, the 2007 has the hallmarks of a wine that promises to be an even more impressive effort than the 1996. The question after purchasing it is if you have patience. It’s very enjoyable now, particularly with full flavored foods. However if you give it 5 or 10 years of proper storage you’ll be rewarded with a slightly mellower, more resolved wine that will just knock your socks off. You really can’t go wrong either way, it depends which experience you prefer.

Tasting these wines and several others with food, over a leisurely evening made a couple of facts crystal clear. Most importantly if you haven’t had wines from the flagship Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley for a while, it’s high time to revisit them. Their releases still showcase some of the best that Napa Valley has to offer. This was apparent both in widely available wines like the Chardonnay and Cabernet as well as small production items like the I Block Fume Blanc. The other point is that as much attention as the To Kalon Vineyard gets, it should probably get more. The wines that were sourced there show off a tremendous sense of place and are simply impressive efforts. Genevieve Janssens who has been making the wines at Robert Mondavi Winery since 1997 (she worked at Opus One previously) is doing an impressive job shepherding the philosophy of Mr. Mondavi into the future. The best way to thank her for that effort is to taste these wines.

Visiting The House of Sandeman in Portugal

One of the many highlights of my recent trip to Portugal was visiting Sandeman Cellars in Porto. Tasting a producers wine is one thing, you can conceivably do that anywhere. But the experience is always heightened for me when I get to do it in the winery itself. When you consider that Sandeman has a history dating all the way back to 1790 it’s immediately obvious that a visit there is at least, partially a step back in time. By the same token the upkeep on the facility is staggeringly on point. The sections that could and should be modernized are, the portions that are best as they were, remain intact with care. Being in close proximity to the water and walking into Sandeman Cellars was breathtaking. The history contained in the city and even in that single facility is stunning. There’s something impressive and regal about Sandeman Cellars as an edifice even as you approach it. Perhaps it’s the Sandeman Don looking down on you, or it’s the stucco and stone work that has weathered beautifully over time. In any case it’s hard not to be swept up in the times gone by. But then you have to consider that this is very much a working facility. In earlier days the Port was vinified on site. Now it’s made elsewhere, up in the Douro, and stored in casks and barrels of varying size in Porto. Walking through the cellar I felt as if the wine angels and ghosts of Ports past were walking alongside me. I practically felt them over my shoulder when I tasted some of the wines too.

George Sandeman, who is a descendent of the founder, guided us through the facility on my visit and he was a wealth of information. The tour included a look at lots of historical Sandeman artifacts encompassing documents, classic artwork and even older bottle styles. Looking at pictures of these sorts of things is one thing, to see them inches away a whole other experience. The all-inclusive tour includes a short film that serves to fill visitors in on the history of Sandeman and their production of Port. Again watching it is one thing but doing it a few feet away from barrels full of port, a very different experience. The same can be said for tasting Port not only in Sandeman, but in the very heart and soul of Porto. This is the mother of fortified wines and to taste it in its true birthplace and natural home felt as right as enjoying a glass of wine can.

The coup de grace for me was something that admittedly not every visitor will get to experience. I want to mention it however as it left a deep impression. The group I was travelling with had the good fortune to enjoy dinner in the Sandeman boardroom. We were graciously hosted by George Sandeman and several other terrific folks who work in a variety of capacities for Sandeman. In addition to the great food, the kicker was tasting several of the ports as well as other Portuguese wines alongside dinner. I’m a firm believe that wine is really an important part of a meal, so that’s my preferred method of enjoying it. Tasting Sandeman Ports alongside Portuguese cuisine is even more effective because you get to taste the wines precisely as the winemaker might when they’re putting together blends and making decisions on what works and what doesn’t.

While I was in Porto I took the time to scope out a number of Port producers. As you’d expect there are a lot of them, many of them well worth your time. However if you only have the time to visit one producer in Porto, I believe Sandeman Cellars is a perfect choice. They have the history that will wow you, the consistency of quality that will keep you coming back vintage after vintage, and the stylistic variety to appease most every palate. Once you sample the Sanedman Ports you’ll want to procure them again back home. So it’s also important to note the wide availability of the lion’s share of their different port wines. If you like Port wine and haven’t had a Sandeman, I’m not sure what you’re waiting for. If you’re new to Port the wide berth of styles and price points available under the umbrella that is their portfolio makes them a natural place to start.

Grape Festival at Ca'Mea in Hudson New York

As you can probably imagine I’ve been to wine tastings of all shapes and sizes, winemaker dinners and the like. Quite frankly I thought I’d experienced every type. That was until I heard about The Grape Festival that was held last week at Ca’Mea Restaurant in Hudson NY. This event was put on by Importer Quintessential Wines in association with the restaurant. Quintessential Wines is an importer of wines that I’ve been familiar with for a number of years. More so I’ve been impressed with their overall portfolio which focuses on family owned and operated wineries the world over. Each of these wineries features not only handcrafted wines, but a good story to boot. So when I heard that they were going to pour 17 of their wines at Ca’Mea in Hudson and pair them with Italian food I was in. Great food and wines with names like La Tunella, New Age, Valentin Bianchi, Simonsig, Two Angels, Koyle, Tinto Figuero, Fratelli, Quinta Do Vallado, and Dead Letter Office? Try to keep me away! This was to be my first trip to Hudson NY and I didn’t know exactly what to expect. What I found was a charming town with a downtown area that brings to mind old time Americana with a hip, modern flair. All located just off the Hudson River in Columbia County NY. Entering the restaurant I was taken by the homey vibe with Tuscan flourishes. Sure I was in NY, but the warmth of the staff, the ambiance, and the smells coming from the kitchen told me I could have just as easily been in a small town in Italy. Ca’Mea has been in operation for about 8 years. It was started by Roy Felcetto and his partner of late has been Max Cenci from Cortona Italy. His restaurant back in the homeland has been in operation for 18 years and is now run by his family. In addition to dining both indoors and in a courtyard garden Ca’Mea offers lodging. They offer two buildings with accommodations, one right next door and another a block away. Both are older buildings that have been lovingly restored and feature all the modern amenities one would expect from fine, country lodging. I stayed overnight myself and was really taken by the feel of the place as well as how it’s both right in the middle of town, but also serene.

So wine and food you ask, what made this tasting so unique. The host for the evening in addition to the owners of Ca’Mea was Al De Winter from Quintessential Wines. Al has been around wine for quite awhile and what he presented was a real eye opener for the eager group in attendance. The seventeen wines he poured and spoke about each represented a specific grape variety. From white through red and from Pinot Grigio through Petite Sirah, Shiraz and a Moscato D’Asti for dessert and a lot of other stops in between Al hit on 17 grapes, and eight different countries. Speaking about the grapes and their style as well as encouraging everyone to pair the wines with the food that was served seemed to open a lot of eyes. I spoke to some folks who weren’t necessarily wine drinkers but were regulars at Ca’Mea and they thought they’d check out the event. It’s fair to say that a number of people have a new appreciation and understanding of wine from the everyday manner in which Al presented good information about wine and why it works with a variety of foods. The bottom line don't be afraid to try slightly unusual sounding pairings. The results might please you a great deal.

And speaking of food; oh what food. The items that Max prepared for the tasting were nothing short of sensational. Some of it was quite traditional like Pasta in Bolognese sauce, other things like a roasted apple topped with Mascarpone cheese, truly palate awakening. Potato Croquettes were delicious and addictive. Roasted pork wrapped in Bacon with an applesauce accompaniment was delectable, seasonal and a killer pairing with at least half of the 17 wines. Bottom Line, I didn’t taste a single thing that didn’t make my mouth water. Later on in the evening I had Gnocchi with fresh tomato and basil. There are many places I simply won’t order them because of the industrial tasting, heavy as marbles things that some restaurants try to pass off as Gnocchi. I was confident this wouldn’t be the case at Ca’Mea and boy was I right. Max makes his pastas in house, by hand. The Gnocchi was airy, fluffy and just imbued with the right amount of potato flavors. The fresh sauce, basil and cheese on top the appropriate accompaniment. Having the opportunity to enjoy this dish with a glass of wine talking about food with Max, Roy and Al made the experience all the better. We sat in the courtyard where heat lamps were ready to keep us warm if there had been a chill, but there wasn’t. It was the perfect Indian Summer evening.

Did I mention how homey and terrific the ambiance and welcome at Ca’ Mea are? It’s as hard for me to overstate that as it is easy to see why this absolutely killer restaurant has a dedicated local clientele of regulars, who have become their friends really, eating there night after night. Let me put it another way, I live 100 miles away from Ca’Mea, making it hard for me to be a regular, but I can tell you I’ll definitely make the drive a couple of times a year, at least. If you’re local or travelling through the area I recommend Ca’Mea heartily. If you’re looking for a place to kick up your boots for a night or two, check into one of their rooms and enjoy their hospitality at the table and the Inn.

The Current Release Wines of Tinto Figuero

The other night I had the chance to taste through the wines of  Tinto Figuero with two of the winery principals. The setting was Solera in Manhattan. Spanish wine and food are enough to get any reasonable person excited; I know I certainly was. Part of the excitement was that I’d never before had the Tinto Figuero wines. As I was explaining to someone at this very dinner, given the choice between a wine I know I love and one I’ve never tasted I’m going to go for the wine I never tasted at least nine out of ten times. Tinto Figuero is a family operation run by three brothers, their brother in law and their father who keeps his hand involved in the winery he started with his wife. Originally grape growers dating back some generations, they eventually turned their attention to starting a winery and producing their own wines. The goals at Tinto Figuero are to make premium wines that are consistent from vintage to vintage, express the sense of place imparted by their spot in the Ribera del Duero, and to make wines that the people who have had them before will know is a Figuero the moment it hits their lips. Those goals are simple, straightforward and lofty all at the same time.

At dinner we tasted through four of their wines. These offerings make up the bulk of their portfolio and are their most widely distributed releases. Each of the wines is 100% Tempranillo, and sourced from their own vineyards in the Ribera del Duero. Grape selection and oak treatment are the major differences in how each wine is produced. My impressions were as follows:

Tinto Figuero – 2007 Roble Four Month In Barrel. Just fewer than 6,000 cases of this selection were produced. As the name indicates, this wine spent 4 months in oak. The suggested retail price is $19.99. Fresh, crushed raspberry aromas mark the nose of this wine. The fresh berry theme continues through the palate and onto the finish which features mineral notes and subtle hints of earth. This is Figuero’s everyday wine. It provides lots of bright, vibrant flavors and will be a good match for casual finger foods such as an assortment of tapas.

Tinto Figuero – 2005 Crianza Twelve Months In Barrel. Just over 20,000 cases of this offering were bottled. Fruit was sourced from vines with 20-20 years (80%) of age and the remainder (20%) over 50 years. Oak aging occurred over 12 months in a combination American (90%) and French (10%) oak. The suggested retail price for this wine is $28.99. Red raspberry aromas billow from the nose of this wine. Wisps of vanilla follow; the palate is a couple of steps up in intensity and complexity from the Four Month, Sour blackberry jam notes emerge on the finish which has good length and excellent acidity. A grilled steak would be an excellent match for this wine.

Tinto Figuero – 2004 Reserva Fifteen Months In Barrel. 8,333 six bottle cases of this wine were produced. Fruit was sourced from vines with more than 50 years of age. Barrel aging was achieved over 15 months in a combination of American (95%) and French (5%) oak. The suggested retail price for this wine is $53.99. This 2004 Tempranillo opens with a nose so intense, so inviting, and so appealing that it’s almost absurd to try and describe it. More than one person at the table would have likely jumped into the glass to get closer to this wine if that was possible. Kirsch Liqueur is one of the more prominent components of the nose, but that only begins to describe an aroma that is the very embodiment of the term intoxicating. It took me quite awhile to taste this wine as I couldn’t get past the nose to actually focus on tasting it. Once I did sip it, the wine greeted me with wave after wave of intense berry fruit flavor. And if the flavors weren’t quite as intense as the nose, they were certainly well more than adequate. Hints of vanilla and oak emerged at mid-palate to complement the fruit and lead to the finish which was as impressive as the nose. This wine lingers for a good long while. Everything about this selection is delicious. While it’s excellent now it will certainly improve over time in the bottle.

Tinto Figuero – 2004 Noble. 1,166 six bottle cases of this offering were produced. Fruit for this selection was sourced from vines with more than 70 years of age. Oak aging occurred over a period of 21 months. The first 15 months was spent in American oak followed by 6 months in French oak. An additional 15 months of bottle age was allowed before release. The suggested retail price for this wine is $130.99. First and foremost this wine is still a baby. It was decanted for 3 hours before we started to taste it. While it was certainly opening up this wine was still tight. Fresh cherries, leather and cigar box aromas mark the nose. Raspberry, blackberry and huckleberry flavors are all present in the layered palate. Dusty dark chocolate emerges around mid-palate and continues through the prodigious finish which is also marked by hints of chicory and cedar. This offering features chewy tannins, balanced by fine acidity. This is the epitome of a special occasion wine. Tinto Figuero 2004 Noble is the sort of selection you want to grab a couple of to lay down in your cellar and forget about for 5-10 years. If you have that sort of patience, you will undoubtedly be rewarded. If however you plan to drink this in the short term, decant it for 4-5 hours at minimum. Either way this is a terrific wine.

While this was my first experience tasting the wines of Tinto Figuero it certainly won’t be my last. Each of these releases is impressive in its own right and perhaps more importantly achieves the goal it sets out for. There are both substantial differences in these wines as well as a commonality of both house style and a common thread that ties them all together. In speaking to them and tasting their wines the commitment to sustained quality is evident. It’s going to be interesting to follow them over the years and see it play out.

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Three Wines For Easter Dinner

With Easter a few days away, everyone is probably worried about what to cook. Personally I'm more vested in which wines to serve, to match those foods. So I decided to find a trio of wines I could recommend. Thus I'm presenting a wine for each of three courses; Appetizers, Main Course and Dessert. moscatoFirst up is the Martin & Weyrich Moscato Allegro. This offering is based on the Muscat Canelli grape. The intent with this wine is to make a Moscato in the Italian style. Martin & Weyrich even used the bottle that is traditional for this in Italy. Alcohol is a modest 7.8%. 65,000 cases of this wine were produced and the suggested retail price is $12.

The nose of this wine is loaded with orchard fruits such as white peach and apricot. A touch of spice also makes its presence known. Throughout the palate the Moscato Allegro is incredibly refreshing. White peach notes continue and are joined by some lighter citrus notes. Honey notes emerge on the finish, which is zesty and full of lingering spice notes.

This Moscato will be perfect on Easter served as a welcome wine, or paired with just about any appetizer. It's light bodied with some pleasing sweetness. What I like best about this wine as the starter is that it won't bog anyone down with too much alcohol or sweetness. It has just enough, and that's balanced by excellent acidity. It's likely your Easter guests will be hesitant to move on to the next wine when they get a hold of this one.

The main course wine is from Two Angels, headquartered in Napa. The divinity2006 Divinity is produced from fruit sourced in High valley. This blend is 52% Syrah, 22% Grenache, 20% Mouvedre and 6% Petite Sirah. Grapes were sourced at Shannon Ridge Vineyards. This blend was aged in a combination of French (70%) and American (30%) oak barrels; 35% of them were new. 500 cases of this offering were produced and the suggested retail price is $25.

Blueberry, plum and raspberry aromas are underscored by touches of vanilla and nutmeg in the nose of this wine. The palate is absolutely loaded with rich, dark, explosive fruit notes that envelop the palate and scream out with unadulterated joy. Hints of white pepper, bright red cherry, and toasty oak emerge in the lengthy finish. This wine keeps beckoning you back to the glass for another sip. Divinity has a firm but yielding structure and excellent acidity.

The question is Ham or Lamb? That's what most people will serve on Easter in the United States. Either way Divinity has you covered and will make an excellent accompaniment. If you're Italian like me and your family insists on serving a heavy pasta dish after the antipasto and before the meat course, have no fear, Divinity has your back. This wine will match well with Ravioli, Lasagna or even Angel Hair with Marinara sauce. It's a delicious wine and will impress both the wine geeks in your family and the novices simply looking for a glass of red to pair with their food.

closDessert is important for any Holiday meal and Easter is no exception. My recommendation this holiday is to go with a Late Harvest Zinfandel. Specifically the 2006 from Clos LaChance. This wine is made from 100% Zinfandel. The fruit is sourced from a specific block of Zinfandel that is grown specifically for this wine. Alcohol is 16%, modest for a Late Harvest Zin. A mere 84 cases of this selection were produced and the suggested retail price is $26.00.

This Late Harvest Zinfandel has a bright nose. Cherries are prominent and are joined by hints of apple that underscore them. Raspberry, strawberry and a host of other berry fruit notes dominate the palate which is full flavored but a touch lighter in body than the average Late Harvest Zinfandel. The finish brings out some chocolate notes, black pepper, lingering light mineral and spice qualities. This Zin can be dessert on it's own or match it with chocolate or berry topped cheesecake. Either way it's a perfect, and slightly decadent way to end a celebratory holiday meal.

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Wine Media Guild of NY - Charbono Tasting

This past Wednesday it was my pleasure to attend a tasting of Charbonos at Felidia in New York hosted by the Wine Media Guild. While Charbono has a long history it currently exists as a cult varietal. No one seems to know exactly how many acres of Charbono are under vine, but everyone agrees it's less than 100.  A large percentage of that 100 is in Napa Valley with the rest spread through other areas of California. Such is the appeal of this grape to believers, that until 1989 there was a Charbono Society, that held annual dinners in the Napa Valley area. My personal introduction to Charbono was an early 1990's visit to Napa Valley and specifically the tasting room of now defunct Bayview Cellars. The luncheon on Wednesday was notable for several reasons. Chief amongst them was the presence of the Charbonos themselves. The 14 wineries that had wines being poured, represent every single current producer of this grape, as well as one who no longer does. In total almost 30 Charbonos were poured.  That in itself is impressive to anyone with a keen interest in wine and a sense of adventure. The presence of several wine makers and folks representing wineries in one form or another was also key to making this a special tasting and luncheon.

PS CharbonoSally Ottoson from Pacific Star Winery was amongst the featured speakers. She's been referred to as the Queen of Charbono. Her winery is located north of Fort Bragg California. In addition to speaking, Sally brought along 6 vintages of her Charbono dating as far back as 1990. Each was interesting in its own way. Her 1997 Venturi Charbono was one of my absolute favorites of the tasting. I found the hallmarks of her Charbono style to be soft, perfumed and well balanced. In many ways her wines put me in the mind of fine Burgundies. This is never a bad thing. In addition to these wines she brought her Charbera. A 50/50 blend of Charbono and Barbera, it was poured with our meal. As with her Charbonos the Charbera was well balanced and food friendly. Sally spoke to us about her Charbono experience and her wine industry history which dates back to the early 70's in Napa Valley. There is no question she's a winemaker passionate about what she does, in general, and specifically driven to help bring Charbono a bit more acclaim.

Coincidentally the other Charbono that really knocked me out the most was the 2005 from On the Edge Winery. I say coincidentally because they were also represented at the luncheon. Paul Smith the owner and Winemaker of On The Edge was one of the other featured speakers. Paul brought 4 vintages of his Charbono with him. His winery is in Calistoga and he sources his Charbono at the Frediani Vineyard. One of the other fascinating aspects of this tasting was the fact that several vineyard sources were represented by more than one winery. Frediani was one of those. Paul Smith's 2005 Charbono was the other favorite I alluded to. His Charbono shows some bright fruit, spiciness and a firm but gentle mouthfeel. While it's drinking well now I imagine it's going to be even better down the road. Paul also spoke for awhile about Charbono, referencing, among other things the DNA research of Dr. Carole Meredith. Once again what came through was not only an intense love of what he does but a passion for Charbono.

Paul handed things over to the next speaker, NFL Legend Dick Vermeil. Dick spoke effusively about his love of wine and the Napa Valley. Specifically he touched on his upbringing in Calistoga and the Italian and French heritage which made wine and the farming of grapes such a part of his upbringing. Listening to Dick speak about wine and the Frediani Vineyard, which he's had various connections with over the years, brought to mind what a uniting force wine can be. Here was a man who made his way in the world via the NFL. Now he's returned to his Calistoga roots to get involved with Paul Smith's On The Edge Winery. His ancestors once owned and farmed the land that One The Edge sources their fruit from.

The final speaker was Geoff Smith the Sun of Oakstone and Obscurity Cellars founders. He represented the winery and read a message his Dad had sent for those of us gathered to taste Charbono. Their winery was represented by 4 Charbono releases including a Rosé.

The other wineries represented included Heitz, Robert Foley, Joseph Laurence, Duxoup, August Briggs, Summers Estate, Turley, Tofanelli, Schrader, Chameleon Cellars, Fortino Vineyard and Boeger Vineayrds.

Turley and Tofanelli were another case of multiple Representatives from 1 vineyard source. The Tofanelli took that battle as far as I was concerned. It was a better balanced, more food friendly wine than either of the Turley's that were poured. The Boeger was fascinating in that it was a port-like blend of Charbono and Refosco which was poured with a cheese course.

This was a tremendous event, highlighting a varietal that more people should be aware of. While it's clear that Charbono can be made in a host of styles, by and large this grape makes wines that you'll want to consume with a meal. In addition to that, Charbono's tend to age well for a long time.

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Lunch with Pieter Malan of Simonsig Family Vineyards

On Wednesday I had the pleasure of spending a few hours having lunch with Pieter Malan. Along with his two brothers he runs Simonsig Famliy Vineyards in South Africa. It was founded by their father in 1968. Pieter Simonsigis a raconteur of the first order. He told the intimate group gathered at King's Carriage House in Manhattan as much about wine in general as he did about his wines specifically. Pieter made an analogy that seemed to get the attention of everyone at the table. Basically he said that wine is like a four legged table. If fruit, acidity, sugar or alcohol is out of whack with the others, the table will not be balanced. It would be the equivalent of one leg being longer or shorter than the rest. As Pieter conversed with us we ate  and tasted through six of his wines. First up was a 2007 Sauvignon Blanc. While this wine definitely leaned toward the grassy style so often associated with New Zealand, I also found it to have some of the citrus associated with French and California Sauvignon Blanc's.

The second wine we tasted was a 2007 Chenin Blanc. This varietal is the signature white grape of South Africa. Depending on the producer one of the big differentials with Chenin Blanc is how sweet a style it's made in. The Simonsig Family Vineyards Chenin Blanc did have some light sweetness but it was never overdone. Rather that sweetness was enough to get the taste-buds primed after the more austere Sauvignon Blanc. The Chenin Blanc has a suggested retail of $10.99. For that price point it certainly would make a lovely aperitif or welcome wine to serve guests as they enter your home, or at the beginning of a long meal.

The next wine, and first red, was the 2004 Labyrinth Cabernet Sauvignon. Pieter revealed a story about the single vineyard (called Labyrinth) that this wine was sourced from. Long discussions with his brothers about planting a spiral vineyard led to planting one that is shaped like a Labyrinth. Pieter further described this wine as the one he finds the most pleasing to take into a corner and drink over a long evening. I found it to be a nice Cabernet Sauvignon for it's $20 retail price. Dark fruit and vanilla notes were the most prominent to me. It's particularly smooth for a Cabernet that's less than 4 full years old.

Next we moved on to two vastly different Pinotage's. While South Africa has more Chenin Blanc under vine than any other grape it's Pinitoage that is it's singularly unique offering. The first one we tasted was the 2004 Simonsig Pinotage. This wine saw no oak treatment at all. The thing that stood out to me about this offering was how much spice character it showed. It had good fruit and a medium body, but the spice is what drew me in for additional sips. For a suggested retail of $13.99 this was the wine that left the biggest impression on me. It struck me as steal. It's a red that has enough complexity to keep you interested, yet is light enough to drink in the summer when bigger reds tend to be a bit too much.

The second Pinotage and fifth wine overall was the 2006 Redhill Pinotage. It would be an understatement to say this was a completely different expression of the same grape. This wine spent 16 months in a combination of French and American Oak, all new. That oak influence added quite a few layers. I found this wine to be enjoyable now, but I'd expect it to better and more resolved a year from now.

The final wine we had was the 2004 Simonsig Merindol Syrah. This Syrah had more in common with old world wines than new world examples. Plenty of rich berry fruit and mocha characteristics where present along with an inherent spiciness. The Syrah retails for $36.99 and also has several years of positive evolution ahead of it.

The wines of Simonsig Family Vineyards were all well balanced, often elegant. Each of them was built with food in mind. When thinking of South Africa this is unquestionably a producer to not only be aware of, but to seek out. Recommended across the board.

Imported by Quintessential Wines.

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Dinner at The Joel Palmer House

Dining at The Joel Palmer House was amongst the highlights of my trip to Oregon. On the first day of my trip I visited a couple of wineries, Yamhill Valley Vineyards amongst them. It was there that I met Woody. He's the Tasting Room Manager, and, as I would come to learn later, all around man about town.

Yamhill Valley Vineyards has some very nice wines. Their reserve Pinot Noir and Pinot Blancs were my favorites. They have the sort of wines and tasting room that you want to hang around and savor. Woody is a part of that too. He's as engaging a person as you're bound to find in a tasting room. After talking for awhile he recommended some other wineries and a few restaurants I might like to try. He named The Joel Palmer House as his favorite Wine Country restaurant.

As it happened I ended up having dinner at The Joel Palmer House with Woody. He brought some tremendous wines along for us to enjoy. That they were able to compete with the food and ambiance is a credit to his willingness to dig deep into the his cellar.

The restaurant has several dining rooms spread through a historic house they restored to create this restaurant. The decor is elegant and charming.

Mushrooms are a huge part of the menu at The Joel Palmer Hosue. Owners Jack & Heidi Czarnecki collect the mushrooms themselves. You are bound to find mushrooms in just about any dish on their menu. Considering how well Pinot Noir does in Oregon and that it pairs incredibly with mushrooms this is a boon for diners.

Everything I consumed at The Joel Palmer House was delicious and clearly prepared with great care.  A Tenderloin of Pork I had was accompanied by a confit of apples, dried cherries, mushrooms, onions and a Port sauce.  I spent a week in Oregon and had several very good dishes, this was easily the best.

As I made my way around Willamette Valley last week I began to suspect that everyone in town knew Woody. His name came up in tasting rooms and restaurants all over the valley. So it shouldn't have been a surprise that he was greeted enthusiastically the moment we walked in to The Joel Palmer House. The reception he received was loud and genuine. Visiting dignitaries should wish to be treated with such fanfare.

I'm sure everyone receives great service as this restaurant, it just seems like that kind of place. But I'm pretty sure that since I was dining with Woody I was afforded an extra special level of service. Meeting Jack, Heidi, Chris & Shaun, the mainstays of the staff, it was clear what effort they put into providing a great meal and overall experience for their diners.

Dining with Woody was a pleasure I am sure to repeat on future trips to Willamette Valley. In addition to his wine knowledge, he spent decades in the music business and is a treasure trove of information and stories about it as well.

It's easy to see why The Joel Palmer House is Woody's favorite Wine Country restaurant. Everything about it is top notch. I only spent a week in Oregon, but I know when I go back, there is one restaurant I will definitely dine at again.