Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Livermore Valley’s Murrieta’s Well Quenching Thirst With Quality

Murrieta's Well RoséWe had only one regret during last summer’s trip to central California. We missed a side trip to Livermore Valley. We made up for that misstep with a recent tasting of wines from Murrieta’s Well.

A Livermore Valley Legacy

Livermore Valley is one of California’s oldest wine regions, located in Alameda County, about 50 miles southeast of San Francisco.Pioneer winemakers C. H. Wente, James Concannon, and Charles Wetmore recognized the area’s winegrowing potential and founded their wineries in the early 1880s. International recognition followed when Livermore Valley captured America’s first international gold medal for wine in 1889 at the Paris Exposition, putting California on the world wine map.

Murrieta’s Well is one of California’s original wine estates and has been growing grapes since the 1880s. The vineyard was planted with cuttings from the famed Chateau d’Yquem and Chateau Margaux vineyards in France. The winery was founded in 1884 and was sold to Ernest Wente in 1933. In 1990 the winery was revived and renamed Murrieta’s Well.

We had the opportunity recently to sample six of their Small Lot blends. Green Dragon rose to the occasion with a special dish prepared for each.

Murrieta's Well Warm Weather ChoicesThe Lighter Side Of Livermore

We broke our tasting into two nights, enjoying a pair of whites and a rosé outside on the patio the first evening. The spring breeze rustled the nearby lilac bushes, releasing a delightful aroma.

We started with the 2016 Dry Rosé paired with prosciutto-wrapped garlic breadsticks and strawberries. The rosé is a blend of 55% Grenache and 45% Counoise.  Counoise is a Rhone grape that imparts a nice acidity. This is a startlingly good rosé!

There is a lovely mix of berry flavors with melon. A slight pop of welcome sweetness highlights the finish. You can spend many happy afternoons and evenings sipping this wine!

In 2010, Murrieta's Well launched their Whip (white) and Spur (red) blends. If you have heard of Murrieta’s Well, chances are these are the wines with which you are familiar. In our tasting, the Whip was next featured with Crab Rangoon and a spicy sauce.

The 2015 Whip was incredibly enjoyable – and that’s not a line from from a popular movie. It is a blend of 30% each of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Chardonnay. It also includes 7% Viognier and 3% Muscat Canelli.

The Whip and Crab RangoonThis is a crisp wine with floral notes and flavors of apricot and honeysuckle. It paired famously with the Crab Rangoon – but it could easily pair with a multitude of dishes or even stand alone. I attribute some of this to the fermentation and aging process. A small amount of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc were fermented for two weeks in small oak barrels. The remainder were cold fermented in stainless steel tanks. After blending, a third was stored in used French oak and the remainder in stainless steel tanks. Handling in this was preserves the acidity and fresh flavors.

This is a wine I can confidently recommend for a case purchase. At an SRP of $24, it’s affordable too.

Anchoring this leg of the tasting was the 2016 Muscat Canelli. First of all, it is a treat to taste wine from this hard-tp-find grape. Murrieta’s Well only produced 100 cases.

It was paired with Chicken Florentine – although in retrospect, this was probably a better match with the crab dish and its spicy sauce.

The grapes come from the winery’s Hayes vineyard, which has an array of soils, aspects and slopes. The 2016 vintage is the fourth drought vintage in a row for California, which has resulted in expressive and concentrated wines.

The Muscat Canelli has “Gewürztraminer tendencies” in our opinion. That is to say, it is floral with a touch of spiciness. Over the next two years, the wine will develop even more complex aromas.

Murrieta's Well Superb Cab FrancSpurring On The Reds

The next night we were able to taste the reds during a virtual tasting with Murrieta’s Well winemaker Robbie Meyer. The tasting was hosted by Snooth (and we also revisited some of the whites from the night before). We were joined by tasting team member, the Cabernetor.

The red wine counterpart of The Whip is The Spur, which is a Bordeaux style blend of 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Petite Sirah, 14% Petit Verdot, 10% Merlot and 9% Cabernet Franc. We paired this with a braised pork dish.

The Spur is a winner with rich flavors of dark cherry and vanilla. It undergoes oak aging for 24 months, half in new barrels – but has no harsh edges. It is supple and elegant. This is another wine which I could heartily recommend a case purchase. It is $30, but drinks like a wine at a much higher price point.

The 2014 Small Lot Merlot has the most limited production of the three reds we tasted, at 18 barrels. It is 90% Merlot with 7% Cabernet and 3% Petit Verdot.

This is a sophisticated Merlot with great depth. Tannins provide nice structure for this wine’s plum and cocoa flavors. It was a great partner with our meatball dish.

Murrieta's Well CapOn the red side, our closing wine – the 2014 Small Lot Cabernet Franc – was the favorite. It is 88% Cabernet Franc, 6% Cabernet Sauvignon and 6% Petit Verdot. This was a gusher of blueberry, black fruit and herbal flavor notes. The body is medium with a bright finish that has hints of vanilla. This is a smooth ride and differs from Finger Lakes or Ontario Cab Francs since there is no noticeable peppery note.

Our tasting was a revelation on two fronts. First, Murrieta’s Well demonstrated mastery of red, white and rosé with rich and elegant wines at a great price point. Second, Livermore Valley is producing outstanding wine. Wente and Concannon have notoriety, and our introduction to the terroir-driven wines of Murrieta’s well could not have gone better, showing there is more to explore in the valley!

Full disclosure: This wine was received as a marketing sample.

Monday, May 22, 2017

From Corsica To California–Exploring New Locations Wine

Dave Phinney Virtual Tasting

Dave Phinney’s line of Locations wine have a simple concept: to make the best possible wine from a given country or location. We explore two new Locations.

They Both Start With “C”

We’ve become fans of the Locations wine produced by Dave Phinney. He’s taken a gargantuan task – capturing grapes from the best locations across a given country or region – and managed to bottle it. In order to bring his vision into reality, he had to contend with wine regulations which often constrain grape varieties, yields and production methods in order to deliver a wine with a taste specific to that sometimes tiny appellation. His goal was to travel throughout a country like France and find growers with great old vines to create a wine representative of the whole nation.

So, in order to pursue his winemaking freedom, he broke the rules and thousands of years of history and tradition. We’re glad he did.

The wines from Italy, France and Spain were featured in a recent virtual tasting with Phinney. These three blends represent the core of the Locations lines. Each is outstanding – but the Spanish red, a blend of Garnacha, Tempranillo, Monastrell and Cariñena is our favorite by a nose.

We recently popped up a pair of Locations white wines: one from Corsica and the other from California.

Locations Corse Charting A Mediterranean Corse

Locations Corse wine is distinctive in more than one way. It is the only wine in the Locations line that doesn’t feature the oval “bumper sticker” with an abbreviation of the wine region or country. Instead, the arresting label features a high contrast image of the shepherd's knife commonly found around the island of Corsica.

Corsica is a large Mediterranean island southwest of Italy. Vineyards are on steep, hillside slopes comprised of granite and red clay soils. Grapes benefit from the maritime climate and mountain influences. Corse is 100% Vermentino, the main white grape of the island.

This was a winner from the time we popped the cork. Corse is stainless steel fermented, which preserves the fresh, light flavors. This is a lively wine with honeysuckle and lemon notes. Minerality and a hint of acidity make this an ideal white for a hot summer afternoon or to accompany seafood.

We’re constantly on the lookout for interesting white wines and Corse chopped the competition quite nicely. The $18.99 SRP goes down smoothly too.

Locations CAGoing To California In My Mind

This is the inaugural release of the Locations California white. Uncorking it, I wasn’t sure what to expect but we loved the California red. Since the blend is to represent the entire state of California, I expected Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. We were pleased to see CA also includes Viognier and Roussane. The percentages of the different grapes isn’t revealed – and we think those percentages make all the difference.

The grapes are sourced from premier vineyards in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino. If you look at the origins of these four grapes, you’ll find one from Burgundy, one from Bordeaux and two from Rhone. So, these are not natural blending partners. For us, that comes across in the final product.

Independently, we love each of the component grapes. Together they lack harmony in this particular blend. CA has 14.5% alcohol and comes across a bit jarring on the palate. The wine seems brassy and less enjoyable than a single varietal wine – like a Viognier or Chardonnay -- might be.

It might just be a matter of our personal preference, but where Corse struck the bull’s eye, CA white missed the mark. We love the Locations concept and the next vintage of CA white may have us singing its praise. At, $19.99 you can afford to pick up a bottle and judge for yourself.

Full Disclosure – This wine was received as a marketing sample.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Ohio Wineries Launch Pinot Trail Project With Special Event

Sileni Estate WineryFirst there was France, then Oregon, then New Zealand. Is Ohio the next great Pinot Noir region?


Is Ashtabula The New Burgundy?

Great wine regions around the world are typically renowned for a single (or perhaps two) famous grapes or for their strictly controlled blends: Napa, California: Cabernet, Bordeaux district in France: great reds; Australia: Syrah; Argentina: Malbec; Champagne district in France: sparkling whites; Washington State: Rieslings and great reds, Long Island, New York: Merlot, Finger Lakes, New York and Traverse City, Michigan: Riesling, Austria: Gruner Veltliner, Oregon: Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. 

Why is that significant for northeast Ohio?

The answer: Take a minute and Google "Pinot Belt Map." 
The amazing fact is that there are two narrow strips of geography in the northern and southern hemispheres, which provide optimal climactic conditions to grow great Pinots. In the northern hemisphere, Burgundy, parts of Italy, Slovenia, part of northern California and Oregon are included in the northern band, but so is the south shore of Lake Erie including Ashtabula, Lake and Geauga counties in Ohio.

Many of the wineries in the region are producing award winning Pinots (along with a myriad of other varieties) and while they will continue to produce and promote a wide spectrum of other wines, they hope to make these grapes the "signature" varieties in the Tri-County region. 

14 Wineries Unite To Promote Pinot

Fourteen wineries in the area have formed a partnership, led by the Tri County Grape Growers Association to promote the great Pinots (Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir) that now growing there.  Their goals are several:  share with the wine world that they are doing some exceptional Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir wines, encourage more plantings of these varieties and drive consumers out to their doors to explore and enjoy all that they have to offer.

They have created a brochure sharing information about Pinots which features a lovely, but somewhat mysterious lady on the cover (reflecting Pinots' reputation as the "Femme Fatale of Wines" ). Beginning June 1 through July 15 the group will host a Pinot Trail special event where by consumers can visit any or all of the 13 including Debonné, Ferrante, Grand River, Harpersfield, Kosicek, LaLeure, Laurello, Laurentia, M, Maple Ridge, Markko, St. Joseph, and South River (the 14th is Silver Crest which will not be open for the trail event, but will be welcoming guests sometime in the fall).

Cost for the special trail event will be $15 per person and will entitle visitors to sample a Pinot complemented by an appetizer at each of the wineries any time during the six weeks. Following the conclusion of the trail, for those who visit all 13 currently open, prizes including crystal wine glasses, Vintage Ohio Wine Festival tickets and wine cork cages will be awarded via a drawing from all those Pinot lovers who visit those participating wineries.

As part of a special promotion, one lucky couple will win an overnight stay in the Pinot Gris Suite at the spectacular, new Vineyard Woods resort in the heart of the Grand River Valley with 25 wineries just a short drive, bicycle ride or walk away.    

Participation cards will be available at each winery beginning May 18 or can be ordered through the Ohio Wine Producers web site: , or at their offices at 1 South Broadway, Geneva, all beginning May 18th.

In addition to the special trail event, new brochures touting the story of the Pinots grown in the region and upcoming events will be widely distributed around the Tri County area throughout the year.

Photo Credit: Norio.NAKAYAMA Flickr via Compfight cc

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Rolling Into Raleigh, NC, With a Knife And Fork

aloft RaleighAfter a couple of decades in Ohio, we are making the move to North Carolina. We decided to check out the culinary scene in Raleigh. Here are a few great finds.

Going Aloft In Raleigh

After 22 years in the Toledo, Ohio, area we are on the move to North Carolina – the Raleigh area to be more specific. Before this can all come to pass, we need to have a new world headquarters building for Vino-Sphere (or, as my wife would put it, we have to buy a new house).

Recently we flew into Raleigh to meet with a Realtor and tour a few homes. Green Dragon (my wife) gave me two options for our hotel stay – an econo-budget hotel or aloft Raleigh for just a few dollars more. As much as I love drying off with towels that feel like sandpaper to save a few cents, we decided to stay in aloft instead.

Aloft is part of the Starwood family of hotels, which includes Sheraton and Westin, among others. Aloft brings a funky, eclectic style to its hotels that is refreshing. You have to love a chain that has a pool table in every hotel. It also offers bicycles for use by guests. Bright colors are splashed throughout the sleekly stylish property. The WXYZ bar was hopping on Saturday night  and their Refuel area (a food station open 24/7) also offers made to order breakfasts.

The rooms have high ceilings befitting their “loft” status and are done in cool gray tones with upgraded finishes throughout. We had a nice perch located across the from NC State campus and the iconic Memorial Bell Tower. When we tired of the view, we could pull down shades decorated with colorful, modern art graphics.

A nice feature of aloft Raleigh is the outdoor terrace on the fifth floor on the front of the hotel that extends the bar seating area over Hillsborough Street. We enjoyed a nice glass of wine while observing the comings and goings on one of Raleigh’s main avenues.

Raleigh RestaurantsHitting Downtown Raleigh

After a long day visiting houses on the market, we finally were ready for some dinner. Raleigh is a city of about 450,000 people and is part of the Research Triangle, which has a population of about 2 million. Raleigh has a vibrant foodie scene.

We had gotten a tip that Gravy was a “do not miss” restaurant experience. When we arrived downtown, we discovered that it was swarming with people out on the town during this pleasant weekend night. We also would have had a two-hour wait to get into Gravy.

No problemo. We noticed an appealing restaurant next door, Sitti, an upscale Lebanese restaurant and slipped inside. We had about a half hour wait, but the time was passed pleasantly with some newly-made friends who just recently went through the house hunting process.

Having a comfortable house is critical when making a move, but so is having a city with a good vibe. We got that in plentitude at Sitti – the restaurant was buzzing with an energetic crowd enjoying the evening and some very tasty food. We enjoyed an appetizer of kibbee mikli – ground beef and lamb with pine nuts fried in cracked wheat with a labneh yogurt sauce. My entree was the kafta kabob, a lamb dish served with their delicious rice which had vermicelli noodles and roasted almonds.

The service was excellent and the quality of food superb. To accompany our dish we ordered two Lebanese wines, mine from Chateau Ksara. Sitti is a sure thing when you are looking for a great dining experience in Raleigh.

A Hunger For More

The next morning we decided to take a stroll and go out for breakfast. About four blocks away we strolled into the Flying Biscuit. This is a fun environment with bright artwork and funky Americana strewn throughout the restaurant. It was clear that this was the place for a Sunday brunch or a lingering weekday breakfast.

I’ve had a lot of biscuits in my day, but these surely rank with the best. They were served with cinnamon apple butter and I would have been content to eat a half dozen. I restrained myself and instead saved room for my short stack of buttermilk pancakes and applewood smoked bacon – now that’s great down home cooking (with a side order of funk!).

After another grueling real estate marathon, we regrouped at aloft and prepared for dinner. This time I had prepared ahead and made reservations at Gravy. Of course, since this was Sunday night, the crowds were much diminished. So there is no misunderstanding, Gravy is an Italian restaurant, not a good-old-boy home-style buffet. Gravy, to an Italian-American is the pasta sauce that their mother and grandmother would cook fresh every night.

Gravy is a boutique style fine dining establishment. It has an intimate dining room with the focus on local ingredients. I selected the lasagna after an online tip that this was their best dish.

For the wine we went by the glass, not wanting to navigate an unknown city with numerous traffic circles in a rental car. I ordered the Terradoro di Paolo Anglianico and the Green Dragon had the Massa Fuso Reserve Barbera from Piedmont. The Sunday crowd in Gravy was a little more subdued that the one we saw through the window pane the night before – but the service and food was exceptional. Each bite was a luxury – and the portions were perfect in size.

We’re looking forward to exploring the culinary haunts of Raleigh. At some point, we’ll need a house – but in the meanwhile, we’ll be well-fed.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Parducci 2014 Small Lot Pinot Noir, Mendocino County

20170502_214452Parducci is no newcomer to the California wine scene. This year marks the winery’s 85th anniversary. It is known for value and sustainable farming.

Tradition and Family Values

Parducci Winery was founded by John Parducci and his family in 1932. He got off to an early start by traveling alone at age 14 with 40 rail cars of the family grapes to sell to home winemakers during Prohibition. He championed the Northern California wine region and Mendocino County in particular and served as Parducci winemaker for 50 years.

This year Parducci celebrates its 85th anniversary. The winery continues to be a family operation, under the guidance of Tim Thornhill, along with his brother and father. Tim is an arborist and horticultural expert and is known worldwide for his work with heritage trees.

That love the the earth is very much in tune with the Parducci legacy and is visible throughout the 100% green-powered winery operation. The vineyards feature bio-diesel powered tractors and an award-winning reclamation and conservation program. It is the first winery in the US to achieve carbon-neutral status.

Small Lot Wines

Parducci produces three main lines of wines: True Grit Reserve, Reserve and Small Lot. The Small Lot range focuses on value-priced varietally correct wines. This year the line got a make-over with a new label that features an illustration of the wine estate.

We recently uncorked the 2014 Small Lot Mendocino County Pinot Noir. The aroma is a lovely mix of berries. On the palate the body is light to medium and fruit forward. There are flavor notes for strawberry and an undertone of smoke.

The wine is aged for one year in 20% new French oak barrels and 80% neutral barrels. This ensures that the delicate flavors come ringing through. It is 100% Pinot Noir with 13.5% alcohol.

The Parducci Small Lot Pinot retails for $14.99, a great price for a satisfying, sustainably-farmed wine.

Full disclosure: This wine was received as a marketing sample.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Okanagan Crush Pad Delivers Cool Climate Chardonnay Goodness

Lake Okanagan, British Columbia

Cool climate Chardonnay is gaining momentum and nowhere is it “cooler” than from the state-of-the-art Okanagan Crush Pad in British Columbia.

Intriguing Wine North Of The Border

Some people only think of Canada this time of year – when the Stanley Cup playoffs capture their attention. Not us. We’ve been fans of Canadian wine for decades. We’ve travelled far and wide visiting wineries and tasting their goods – but perhaps our favorite location is Okanagan Valley, British Columbia.

Okanagan Valley is a land of mountains and sunshine that is unknown to many in the US. It features more than 120 wineries, has 8,000 acres of vineyards and 60 different varieties of grapes. What more can a wine lover ask? The scenery is spectacular and the people amazingly friendly.

Our visit to Penticton, BC, for the Wine Bloggers Conference in 2013 opened our eyes to the great wine being produced there. Most of it doesn’t make it to other Canadian provinces – let alone across the border to the US. One wine brand that impressed us was Haywire – in particular their Gamay Noir.

Chardonnay from Haywire and Cool ShanaghGoing Haywire

There’s more to the story of Haywire than that tasty bottle of Gamay Noir. Haywire, named for the wire used to bale hay that’s often tangled and unpredictable, was founded in 2006 by Christine Coletta and Steve Lornie. In addition to the Gamay Noir we so enjoyed, they produce Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and traditional sparkling wine – each playing up the unique cool climate terroir.

But Haywire wine is just a fragment of the story. In 2011, Christine and Steve launched Okanagan Crush Pad, a state-of-the-art 40,000 case winery with 320-acres of vineyard and farmland and a focus on creating natural wines exclusively from organic grapes. Okanagan Crush Pad is literally “crushing it” with amazing wines that capture the magic of the Okanagan Valley. Through our Canadian connection (Leeann Froese of Town Hall Brands) we were able to review a pair of OCP-produced Chardonnay.

Free Form And Cool Chardonnay

During a recent wine tasting at Vino-Sphere world headquarters, we were joined by the Cabernetor (who was also on the trip to Penticton). The duo from Okanagan Crush pad are great examples of way cool climate wines are rapidly gaining fans. Lower acidity, lighter body and crisp flavors are part of the attraction.

We first sampled the Haywire 2013 Free Form which is a Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc blend – a natural and unfiltered wine. During the winemaking process a bit of sediment can accumulate from dead yeast cells and the like. Many wineries use a process called fining, where they put gelatin or egg white into the wine which binds with the unwanted particles which are then removed.

Free Form dispenses with that and goes natural. It displayed a healthy collection of sediment in the bottom of the bottle. The wine has a beautiful yellow golden glow. On the palate, it has peach and minerality. The wine has a brassy, aggressive opening that warms and mellows at the finish. The acidity keeps it crisp and light.

We next explored the 2014 Coolshanagh Chardonnay. Coolshanagh Vineyard is in the Naramanta Bench between what was the ancient west coast of North America and Okanagan Mountain. The calcium carbonate-loaded soil is made up of fractured glacial bedrock.

Vineyard owners Skip and Judy Stothert originally sold their grapes to other winemakers – but in 2012, they decided to make their own. They produce “small batch” Chardonnay – about 270 cases annually. Matt Dumayne, winemaker at Okanagan Crush Pad, helps them craft Chardonnay using large oak barriques, concrete “eggs” and lees aging.

The Coolshanagh is in stark contrast to the Haywire blend. Where the Haywire is light and minerally, the Coolshanagh has a lush texture. The oak is well integrated and doesn’t dominate. On the palate there is a medium body with notes of lemon, butter and toasted oak. This is an multi-sensory Chardonnay experience!

Okanagan Crush Pad, located in a unique northern desert setting, is a shared workspace for vintners. It also provides access to winemakers and consultants with global experience. We dig this sort of collaboration and the results have been stellar and reflective of the vibrant Okanagan Valley wine scene.

Full disclosure: We received this wine as marketing samples.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Pillitteri 2007 Exclamation Cellar Series Reserve Cabernet Franc, VQA Niagara-on-the-Lake

What lurks behind the unique metallic label from a Canadian winery? Does this reserve Cab Franc still earn an exclamation after 10 years? We are about to uncork and find out.

Pillitteri Exclamation 2007 Reserve Cab Franc

A Friendly Convergence

Serendipity is when a number of seeming coincidences converge and result in a happy outcome. It happens sometimes in the wine world and, in fact, happened just the other day to me.

I was in Corks in Rossford, having dropped in to pick up a bottle of saké for a special “samurai Sunday” event for my tennis group. The Green Dragon had specifically told me not to buy any other wine – we are in the process of “drinking down” the wine cellar in preparation for an upcoming move out of state.

That was a nice idea on her part – but it just wasn’t going to happen. I grabbed my saké and then started rummaging around amongst their clearance bottles. I’ve discovered buried treasure there before.

A glint of silver caught my eye and I pulled out a bottle that seemed to have some sort of steam punk metallic label. Double goodness! It was a Cab Franc from one of the best Cab Franc regions in the world – Ontario. It was also from Pillitteri Estates, a winery we had visited in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Exclamation Indeed!

This is one of the few bottles I would buy for the bottle alone. The metal badge, in the shape of an exclamation point, is a representation of one of the 23 hanging stainless steel chairs in the barrel cellar of the winery. It depicts the original architectural drawing of the ‘King’s Chair,’ the largest of the family chairs hanging in the barrel cellar. Green Dragon and I along with tasting team members Glorious T and Cabernetor wandered down to the barrel cellar during our visit to seek shelter from a busload of tourists that just arrived at the tasting room.

20170414_205057In the barrel room we had the best ice wine tasting ever. We learned the secret of taking “micro-sips” of ice wine to appreciate it’s sweet magic. Pillitteri is a world-class winery with an amazing tasting room.

We uncorked this find at a wine party that featured a number of Cab Franc freaks. When you have a 10-year-old bottle from a region not typically known for long-aging, there is always a little bit of suspense. Once the oohs and aahs from the pretty bottle are over, the wine still needs to deliver. And it did.

The 2007 vintage in Ontario was outstanding for reds and the Pillitteri Exclamation Cab Franc lived up to that hype. The Exclamation series undergoes additional barrel aging and after a decade, the tannins are nicely smoothed into the wine. The Exclamation Cellar Series is made with grapes hand-selected during the best vintage years.

The Exclamation offers fragrant aromas of ripe berries. In the glass there are flavor notes of blackberry and currant. There are nice vanilla notes and a hint of pepper (but of course!).

This is a mountaintop experience for Cab Franc lovers. You’d be lucky to find the 2007, but the 2012 vintage is available for $50 (Canadian). We recommend you visit the winery in beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake – but if you can’t, be sure to pick up the Exclamation Cab Franc.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Argentina’s Achaval-Ferrer Raises The Bar For South American Wine

Finesse and style is propelling Achaval-Ferrer wines to international accolades and a new benchmark for South American wines. And yes, there is more to this winery than Argentinian Malbec.

Achaval-Ferrer 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon

Elevating Wine From Argentina

We love wine from Argentina. To confess, one of the reasons we do is the low price. You get a flavorful glass of grape goodness for just a few dollars. For some, the perception is that wines from Argentina are all just simple, fruit-forward bottles with no real sophistication.

That perception was crushed by our recent tasting of Achaval-Ferrer wines as part of the Wine Studio online education program.

Achaval-Ferrer was founded when friends Santiago Achával, Roberto Cipresso, Manuel Ferrer and Tiziano Siviero came together in the mid-‘90s to map out their plans for a winery. In 1998 the initial vision was realized with the purchase of a vineyard and their first crop.

From that beginning, Achaval-Ferrer has grown to a wine enterprise that spans 65 countries and is present on every continent. Malbec continues to play a leading role in their product mix which features three different lines.

Malbec As It Should Be

Achaval-Ferrer Mendoza MalbecThe Achaval-Ferrer winery is located in Luján de Cuyo, 10 minutes outside of Mendoza. Mendoza is the world epicenter for Malbec. Suitably, we started our exploration with the Achaval-Ferrer 2015 Malbec Uco Valley.

Complexity is the first impression upon sipping the 2015 Malbec. The wine is ruby red in the glass with earthy flavor notes. The tannins are smooth and help provide a nice structure – certainly due in part to the aging in French oak.

The long finish is a key element that elevates this above the commonplace Malbec. This has sophistication that is welcoming to any wine lover.

Cabernet From Argentina?

Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the “most international” grapes. It grows in a multitude of countries and, as a result, there is a broad spectrum of styles. We sampled the Achaval-Ferrer 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon to get a reading.

The beauty of Achaval-Ferrer CabernetGreen Dragon whipped up a suitably sensational meal to pair with the Cab. We had Teriyaki steak with Asiago scalloped potatoes, braised kale and corn on the cob. The meal would have been delicious even without the wine, but with the Achaval-Ferrer, it was over the moon.

The Cabernet offered fresh fruit flavors in a medium body. The tannins are silky and the kaleidoscope of flavors included cherry cola and red licorice. The style is beautiful and flowing – a decided contrast to some tightly wound Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.

A Double Blind Mystery

We wrapped up our tasting of Achaval-Ferrer wines with a blind tasting on World Malbec Day. Silly me – I assumed we would be drinking Malbec. We would, but only in part…

Two smartly wrapped bottles arrived for our tasting. In the kitchen, a thirsty Green Dragon was whipping up another tasty meal. This time she prepared a beef filet with mushroom sauce and Cajun potato wedges. There was black pepper aplenty – always a good match with Malbec.

Quimera is a premier blend by Achaval-FerrerWe had two bottles concealed in tissue paper – one with lines and the other with triangles. As we munched on our dinner we compared the wines and participated in an online chat.

I was convinced that one of the wines was more vibrant than the other. Our host then mentioned that there were two different vintages. I asked Green Dragon to pull the corks, which had the vintages stamped on them, so I could make this a true blind tasting.

The wine was succulent and expressive, with acidity bringing life the the wine. Imagine my surprise when the wrapping was removed.

This was Quimera, Achaval-Ferrer’s premier blend. Not only that – but our host had mistakenly sent two of the same 2013 vintage. We were drinking the exact same wine, but were coming up with a hatful of qualities unique to each bottle. Luckily it was pointed out that each bottle is like a snowflake – just a little different than each other, even if they are the same vintage and blend.

Speaking of which, Achaval-Ferrer calls Quimera their warm-blend. It’s a mix of 50% Malbec, 24% Cabernet Franc, 18% Merlot and 8% Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a soft, nuanced wine that is rich with floral notes. At $35, this is a showstopper!

If you thought that Argentina was simply fruit-forward Malbec, that myth has been busted! Achaval-Ferrer offers thoughtfully made wines that express the region and grapes used in a complex way. These are food friendly wines that pair perfectly with beef dishes or lighter entrees. They also offer a highly praised Cabernet Franc.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Mercer Canyons 2014 Red Blend, Horse Heaven Hills

Mercer Canyons Red BlendWhen the Little Dragon is in town, she demands fruit forward wines. This red blend from Horse Heaven Hills fills the bill – and then some.

Going Up The Canyons

Our daughter is a vegan baker with a heavy dose of wanderlust. If she’s not cooking at a Colorado ski slope, or exploring a Central American country, she’ll pop in for a visit.

She recently did so. While she isn’t as fiery as her mother, the Green Dragon, she can be demanding. She also is developing a love of wine.

Her appreciation of premier cru wines from Bordeaux will come in time. Right now her taste runs toward wines that are easy to drink and to understand.

Recently to pair with an organic, vegan, funky, Bernie Sanders approved meal, that she prepared, she wanted a red wine. I uncorked this bottle of 2014 Mercer Canyons Red Blend.

H3 = Satisfaction

We’re huge fans of Washington State wine. What’s not to like? You can expect bold flavors, innovative winemaking and a great price point. In particular, the Horse Heaven Hills AVA produces some of the state’s most highly rated wines. The area is near the Columbia River and benefits from steep slopes and tempering winds.

Mercer Estate Wines produces a range of wines from Horse Heaven Hills. Last year we sampled the Sharp Sisters blend from Mercer Estate Wines and really enjoyed it. That is from the Mercer Estates line, which is in the middle of the top shelf Mercer Reserve line and the entry level Mercer Canyons label.

I don’t like to make blanket statements – but in this case, I will: If you buy a wine from Horse Heaven Hills, you’re going to like it. The fruit is just that good.

The Mercer Canyons Red Blend is no exception to my audacious statement. The grapes come from Mercer’s Spice Cabinet and Dead Canyon vineyards in Horse Heaven Hills. This is rich fruit in the Washington tradition. The dappled sunlight of the site allows the grapes to fully ripen and develop deep flavors.

This is a grab-bag of great grapes: 59% Merlot, 16% Syrah, 10% Grenache, 7% Sangiovese, 6% Petit Verdot and 2% Viognier. Yes, Viognier is a white grape. Adding a dash of Viognier enhances the aromatics and is in the Rhone tradition where it is common to add to their Syrah-based wines.

Little Dragon was pleased with the full flavors of the Canyons Red Blend. For a wine that costs $13.99, there is a lot going on in the glass. Black cherry dominates with spice flavor notes. The wine is aged in a combination of French and American oak for 12 months, adding caramel and smoke complexity. The wine undergoes malolactic fermentation, adding to the full mouth feel.

I sensed a smidge of sweetness to the wine, due I’m sure to the lush fruit flavors. This is a wine that will appeal to a large segment of wine lovers – especially those whose faces begin to shrivel when sipping a bone dry wine with heavy tannins.

This wine is a fine accompaniment to a light meal of pasta, pork or beef. It’s Little Dragon approved for drinking all by itself too.

Full disclosure: This wine was received as a marketing sample.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Blue Rock 1999 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley

Blue Rock 1999

Maybe that’s what Dione Warwick had in mind when she sang the song, “That’s What Friends Are For.” And by “that” we mean incredible wine – like this standout Cabernet from Alexander Valley.

We Get The “Blues”

One of our favorite bottles is Baby Blue, a Bordeaux style blend from Blue Rock Vineyard in Sonoma’s Alexander Valley. I don’t think we have every had a bad wine from Alexander Valley – and Blue Rock keeps some pretty nice company.

Blue Rock’s 100 acre estate is located next door to the iconic Silver Oak winery. Blue Rock is named after the soils found in the vineyard, which contain a high percentage of Serpentine, a blue colored rock high in magnesium. The soil contributes a unique flavor profile to the wine.

Although we love Baby Blue, it is still the “baby” and the big daddy is the Blue Rock Estate Cabernet.

Entering The Way Back Machine

What’s more fun than opening a bottle of great wine? Opening a nicely aged bottle of vintage wine.

We were treated to just that as we paid a visit to tasting team members The Cabernetor and Glorious T. While Glorious T had the food covered with aplomb, The Cabernetor was determined to live up to his name – and he certainly did.

He emerged from the cellar with a 1999 bottle of Blue Rock Cabernet Sauvignon. Although typos are not unknown in the blog – this is not one! This was an 18-year old bottle of premium Sonoma Cabernet.

Napa Cabernets and maybe California Cab in general, are sometimes criticized as being a bad match with food. They can come on way too strong with heavy handed tannins that overpower a meal. Not so with Blue Rock.

Blue Rock is food friendly and a showcase of winemaking artistry. It is one of the most popular wines in Sonoma and has taken home bushels of honors from critics. The aging takes it into a whole different dimension.

It is a blend of several different mature blocks of grapes and may include small amounts of Merlot, Cab Franc, Malbec or, as was the case in 1999, Petit Verdot. With age, the wine is as finely polished like the hood of a car collector’s classic Corvette Stingray. This is smooth sailing with no jarring flavors or high alcohol level – all is harmonious.

The flavors are rich and flowing with red fruit, blackberry and notes of mint. Aging is done in a mix of new and used French oak barrels, so there is structure – but after 18 years, all is integrated into a symphony of flavor.

So, there are a couple take-aways from this experience. First, Alexander Valley and Blue Rock Vineyard in particular, produce smashing Cabernet. Second, your “treasure” bottles of wine only have value when you bring them out and enjoy them. That our friends would do this was as nice a feeling as tasting the incredible ‘99 Blue Rock!

Dust off those bottles and enjoy them with your friends!