Monday, July 15, 2019

Chardonnay Showcase Reveals Winners From Oregon, California, North Carolina And Italy

Chardonnay Showcase

During our recent tasting event, the Chardonnay showcase attracted attention to some tasty new Chardonnay releases.

California And Then Some

Chardonnay is the most popular white wine in the world. It’s by far and away the most popular wine in the US, continuing a decade of supremacy that has featured sales increases every year. While California is the acknowledged Chardonnay leader, we made some tasty discoveries from other regions during a recent tasting.

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Due to my wife’s involvement in a local women’s group, we ended up hosting a Sip, Sup and Support tasting for a local school clothing and supplies drive. With nearly 40 in attendance, we had some enthusiastic supporters of this charity work. Having an assortment of amazing wines didn’t hurt either.

We decided to showcase five outstanding Chardonnay releases. Four are domestic, from California, Oregon and North Carolina. For kicks we added an Italian Chardonnay.

Swordplay To Start

This will come as no surprise to anyone who has been in or around North Carolina these past couple weeks: It is sweltering hot. It was so hot, I saw a squirrel picking up nuts with a potholder in the backyard.

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You get the picture. Thankfully, I had our Chardonnay chilled in ice for more than four hours before our guests arrived.

After successfully sabering a bottle of French sparkling wine with a US Coast Guard officer sword and enjoying some sparkling wine, it was time to move to the Chardonnay showcase.

We had a pair of entries from Oregon. I’ve visited Oregon twice this year and one of the hot – or should I say cool? – trends is Chardonnay. Growers there have planted clones that thrive in cool climates and the results are delicious.

Our Chardonnay Showcase

Here’s a capsule look at our five Chardonnay wines featured in our showcase:

Regina di Cipro ChardonnayCameron Hughes 2017 Lot 672 Chardonnay, Rogue Valley, OR - A delightful surprise, this wine is on the Chablis side of the Chardonnay spectrum. Light with bright citrus fruit, mouthwatering pear flavor and plentiful acidity. If you don’t know Rogue Valley, Oregon’s southernmost wine region, this is a good reason to explore it. Cameron Hughes is a négociant and doesn’t own vineyards or a winery. Instead they specialize in locating superior quality at palatable prices under their own label. A steal at only $14 SRP with a value two or three times that.

Marshall Davis 2017 Chardonnay, Yamhill-Carlton, OR -- Chardonnay is a rising star in Willamette Valley. This micro-production (150 cases) wine is barrel fermented and aged 16 months in mostly neutral oak. Grown on gently sloping hills and planted in shallow volcanic topsoil, this Chard delivers flowing minerality, pear notes, tropical fruit and perfect balance. An example of the new winning style of Oregon Chardonnay. SRP $39.

Dry Creek Vineyards 2917 DCV Estate Block 10 Chardonnay, Russian River Valley -- Luxurious, handcrafted wine from one of America’s top Chardonnay regions. The balance is impeccable with the perfect touch of oak rounding out a rich glass of roasted pear, lime, and apricot flavors. Grapes are whole cluster pressed to extract complex flavors. A smooth and limited-production success at SRP $34.

Surry Cellars 2015 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay, Yadkin Valley, NC – Yes, America, high-quality wine is being produced in North Carolina. This wine is made by students at Surry Community College studying at the Shelton-Badgett NC Center for Viticulture and Enology, a winery and teaching facility. Oaky Chardonnay fans in our group loved this wine, which has lush flavors with deep oak notes. It was barrel-aged for two years and underwent battonage to develop a deep golden hue and full-bodied flavors. It looks like the future of wine in North Carolina is in good hands.

Peri Bigogno Regina Di Cipro 2016 Chardonnay Montenetto di Brescia IGP – The “Queen of Cyprus” is a light and breezy Chardonnay from the Old World. In addition to pineapple and apricot flavors, there is a distinct savory aspect to this medium-bodied wine. This Chardonnay is aged in stainless steel to maintain the fresh, crisp flavors. It’s also the lowest ABV of the group at 12.5%. SRP is $22.

There’s no better time to pop open a nicely chilled bottle of Chardonnay. Whether you like deeply oaked Chardonnay, more balance, or a stainless steel finish there is a bottle for you at a price that’s easy to swallow.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Old Westminster Winery & Vineyard Shines Spotlight on Maryland Wine

Old Westminster Cab FrancHaven’t sipped any wine from the Old Line State? These three wines changed our outlook.

Seeking To Redefine American Wine

It’s been called the most dynamic winery in Maryland. At Old Westminster Winery, every step from vineyard to cellar is done by hand. With a focus on sustainable farming, the winery is creating exciting wines that are flattening any negative preconceptions about wines from the Mid-Atlantic region.

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Winegrowers on the East Coast face conditions that make viticulture much more daunting than their counterparts on the West Coast. Warm, humid air and warm waters of the Gulf Steam circulate northward, creating ideal conditions for plant disease and fungi to develop. What might seem effortless in California or Oregon, requires deft skill and supreme attention to detail in the vineyard.

During a recent Wine Studio educational program, we had a chance to taste three Old Westminster wines and hear from vigneron Drew Baker.


Delicious Wines And Care For The Planet

“The Mid-Atlantic is a land of opportunity without any historical obligations to blind our instincts,” said Baker. “We’re simply trying to make delicious wines and care for our planet.”

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Old Westminster released its first wine in 2013. Today they produce 2,500 cases annually with half coming from their Home Vineyard and the other coming from neighboring vineyards in Maryland. That allows it to reflect the state’s varied geology its wine.

We explored the wines of Old Westminster by tasting their 2017 Home Vineyard Cabernet Franc, 2018 Heirloom and Vin Doux Naturel. Even going in with no preconceptions, we were surprised by the great quality.

Old Westminster lets nature flow through its wines. Wild yeast fermentations, sparing additions and minimal intervention are the rule. We opened the Home Vineyard Cabernet Franc while on a short vacation into the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The Cab Franc was as wild and untamed as the nearby Sharp Top Mountain. Unfiltered and unfined, the wine had added depth and texture with robust flavors of cranberry and herbs.

Emerging Flavors Of Maryland Wine

IMG_20190625_204343Not only is Old Westminster producing outstanding natural wine, but is taking a leadership role as host to the first Burnt Hill Natural Wine Festival, which gathered winemakers from DC, Maryland, Virginia during the summer solstice and featured 100 natural wines from around the world. The hillside land of Burnt Hill was bought by the Bakers in 2016.

Three years later, 30,000 vines of Native American and Old World origin have been planted. The vineyards are being farmed using biodynamic and organic practices.

The 2018 Heirloom is a wild fermentation white blend of 77% Chardonnay, 12% Albariño and 11% Muscat. It’s a flavor explosion of sour lemon, tangerine, riffling acidity and nutmeg. This is an eye-opening white that should wake up the stodgy about the potential of Maryland wine.

Flexing their creativity muscles, Old Westminster also produces a Vin Doux Naturel. A Vin Doux is a fortified wine where the fermentation process is halted by the addition of spirits – in this case, estate brandy. Stopping the fermentation prematurely means less sugar is converted to alcohol, and so you have a nicely sweet wine.

The Vin Doux is a pale yellow in color, but the flavors are anything but weak. A delicious honeycomb flavor prevails with notes of citrus and earth. This oak aged wine is rich and packs a punch with 16.5% ABV. Best savored with a sweet dessert.
Why make the trip to California? Outstanding wine awaits in Maryland.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Left Coast Wines Cool Off Summer Heat


When the heat’s turned up, it’s time to cool down. Here are a pair of fresh wines from Oregon – so chill out!

What To Bring To Dinner

When my wife told me that we were going to visit friends for dinner recently, I knew what my job would be. I was tasked with picking just the right wines to accompany our meal.

The usual – or should I say the easy – way is to bring a bottle of red and a bottle of white. It was just so blasted hot that I couldn’t endure the thought of a drinking heavy red vino.

My solution was right at hand. I grabbed a couple of nicely chilled bottles from Left Coast Estate. Left Coast is a sustainably-farmed, solar-powered winery making award-winning wine in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Oregon Pinot Gris is the perfect antidote for summer, so I selected the 2018 “The Orchard” Pinot Gris. I also was excited to taste a very unusual sparkler, the 2017 Queen Bee Bubbly.

A Left Coast Style Meal

IMG_20190621_181406We arrived at Jim and Caroline’s to enjoy what I’ll call a West Coast style meal – nice, light dishes joined together with wine and great conversation. For starters we had olives, cheese and charcuterie. There is no better beginning to an evening than opening a bottle of sparkling wine. So we did.

The Queen Bee Bubbly is one of the most unique sparkling wines I’ve had. First, it is sealed with a crown cap. Once the top is popped, what’s inside is also very different.

Sparkling wine made in the traditional method gets its fizz from a secondary fermentation in the bottle. In the tirage process sugar, yeast and wine are added into the bottle to start the second fermentation. The bottle is capped to contain all the bubbles that are a byproduct of the fermentation. Except in this case, honey from the Left Coast estate is added.

Also different is the encapsulated yeast that’s visible in the bottom of the bottle, adding some more visual intrigue. But enough science! The wine is fantastic. Out flows a wonderful froth and on the palate there are honey notes and flavors of apple and white blossoms.

The Bubbly is 100% Pinot Noir – it is from Willamette Valley after all. Although fermented in French oak, it is sprightly and light. There is a smidge of sweetness, so I’d call this Extra Dry in the flavor spectrum rather than Brut.

IMG_20190623_162202_395Wine For A Summer Soup

Our next course was gazpacho, a chilled tomato soup, with shrimp. Caroline nailed this and served it in shot glasses. It was time for “The Orchard” Pinot Gris. The wine is so dubbed because the vineyard is planted at the site of a historic apple and pear orchard dating back to pioneer days.

Pinot Gris pairs perfectly with spicy foods and the gazpacho had enough jalapeño added to give it a nice kick. The chilled Pinot Gris has juicy fruit flavors of green apples and tropical fruit.

It is aged primarily in stainless steel (5% in neutral French oak) to keep the pure fresh flavors. The Pinot Gris displayed great versatility, proving a nice pairing with the artichoke soufflé.

For dessert we had excellent chocolate-peanut butter brownies. Since that’s not a natural fit with white wine, a grabbed a second brownie instead of another glass.

In addition to being perfect summer refreshers (I write this as the heat index is 100+ in North Carolina) they won’t put a bite on your wallet. The Pinot Gris is $18 while the Queen Bee is $36. It’s your opportunity to cool off on the Left Coast this summer.

Full disclosure: These wines were received as a marketing sample.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Michigan Riesling Capturing International Attention

1040788Winemaking has been around in Michigan since the 1600s. Today its Riesling is garnering worldwide acclaim.

Rooted In History

The first record of winemaking in Michigan was in 1679 when French explorers made wine from grapes found along the Detroit River. Two decades later settlers planted a vineyard at Fort Ponchartrain in Detroit.

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Michigan’s romance with Riesling didn’t start until 290 years later. Riesling was first officially planted at southwest Michigan’s Tabor Hill Winery in 1969. In the mid-1970s Riesling was planted at Chateau Grand Traverse in Old Mission Peninsula.

At the time, it was a risky venture as Michigan’s climate was considered too cold to successfully grow commercially viable grapes.

My how times have changed. In October, Black Star Farm’s 2017 Arcturos Dry Riesling was awarded the title of best Riesling in the world at the Canberra International Riesling Challenge. The Black Star Riesling topped 567 Riesling from six countries.

Right For Riesling

Having spent more than two decades in nearby northwest Ohio, the quality of Michigan wine was no surprise to us. Part of Michigan lies near the 45th parallel, just like premium French wine regions Burgundy, Alsace and Bordeaux. In addition, the moderating effect of Lake Michigan and waters around Grand Traverse Bay soften the chilly blasts of winter and translate to ideal conditions for growing Riesling.

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The state now has more than 3,000 acres of vineyards devoted to winemaking with 1.7 million visits to state wineries annually. Results of a recent economic impact study determined Michigan's wine industry to have a $5.4 billion economic impact, including $253 million in tourism spending in Michigan.

We explored the virtues of Michigan Riesling during an online tasting hosted by the Michigan Wine Collaborative. The MWC was formed to support the sustainability and profitability of the Michigan wine industry by supporting wineries, growers and other related businesses.


Swimming In The Harbor

Participants in the tasting had a option to order Riesling from five different wineries with a discount. Participating wineries included: Amoritas Vineyards, St. Julian Winery, Bowers Harbor Vineyards, Chateau Chantal and Fenn Valley Vineyards.

Having tried wine from several of the wineries – and it not being practical to order a bottle from each – I settled on Bowers Harbor. I’ve always wanted to try their wines and now was my chance.

Bowers Harbor Vineyards was founded in 1991 and is located in Old Mission Peninsula overlooking West Grand Traverse Bay. Originally a horse farm, the winery has 20 acres of vines and the tasting room occupies the former stable.

We selected the Bowers Harbor 2017 Block II Riesling, Old Mission Peninsula, for the tasting. To me, there is nothing better than an excellent Riesling – and nothing lamer than a poor one. Inexpensive Riesling from California barely qualifies to carry the name – it’s just too hot there to develop the acidity and nuanced flavors that make Riesling shine. I was delighted to find that the Bowers Harbor Block II was outstanding.

The Spicy Shrimp Test

As you might guess, for tastings like this I do the difficult tasks – like uncorking the bottle. My wife meanwhile had the easy job of whipping up an elaborate gourmet meal to accompany our Riesling. The meal was grilled spicy shrimp with butternut squash sprinkled with cinnamon. Also front and center was an avocado-yogurt dipping sauce.

Riesling pairs fantabulously with seafood. Ditto for spicy food. This is true for Riesling at most sweetness levels. The Block II is a dry Riesling that packs plenty of flavor.

I look for balance in Riesling. The acidity has to mesh with the fruit flavors. If either outweighs the other, the winemaker has missed her or his mark.

The Bowers Harbor Vineyards Block II, which retails for $32, is one of the best Rieslings we’ve had in recent times. The flavors are bright with lemon zest, a popping acidity and light minerality. It was spot on with the shrimp entree. The shrimp was marinated in a sauce that included chili powder, so the heat was cooled by our nicely chilled Block II.

You’re encouraged to check out the fine wines of Michigan and Bowers Harbor Vineyards.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Ramulose Ridge Vineyards: A Virginia Winery Visit

P1040759A trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia provided a great opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors – and Virginia wine!

Time For Hiking – And Drinking

During our recent visit to the Peaks of Otter in Virginia, which is on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Bedford, we hiked. We hiked a lot!

Peaks of OtterWe were staying at the scenic Peaks of Otter Lodge, with beautiful views of Abbott Lake and Sharp Top Mountain, the lodge was a perfect launching spot for great hiking. Green Dragon, my wife, decided we should take an easier hike and so she picked out the Flat Top Mountain trail. It sounded easy enough.

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Unfortunately, at 4,004 feet it turned out to be even higher than the towering Sharp Top Mountain, and unlike Sharp Top, there was no shuttle running to the top. While the top might be flat, the way to that Flat Top was definitely steep. The trail was mostly loose gravel, and unlike some of the other hiking in the area, there were no scenic vistas. Just trees to your left and right and an occasional patch of blue to make you think you were nearing the top.

Whether it was three or four hours of hiking, its hard to recall – but after that hot and sweaty episode, I decided we needed to do a non-hiking activity the next day. That meant a visit to a winery.

A Visit To The Ridge

Happily, we were able to visit a scenic ridge the next day and not hike to it. Ramulose Ridge Vineyards is located in Moneta, a short scenic drive from Peaks of Otter. There was a closer winery, but it specialized in sweet fruit wines, which are not in our zone.

Ramulose Ridge

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At the tasting room we met winemaker Sandy Ramaker, who along with husband Jim own the winery. There are five acres planted with nine varieties and all the wine is estate grown. Ramulose has a great line of semi-sweet and sweet wines – and several guests were enjoying them immensely. We decided on the dry tasting for $5 and settled in (including our dog Amber – the tasting room is pet-friendly).

The wines are all non-vintage. We started with an oaked Viognier with floral aroma and crisp finish. French hybrid grapes do well in the changeable Virginia weather and we next enjoyed Chardonel, which is a cross between the French hybrid Seyval and Chardonnay. This was light and oaky.

Traminette is a cross between a a French hybrid and Gewürztraminer. Green Dragon isn’t a Gewürztraminer fan and so she passed while I enjoyed sipping the aromatic wine that has notes of rose water. Vidal Blanc is used to make some good ice wine in colder parts of the country and Ramulose offers a nice off-dry version with a touch of sweetness.

Rambling Reds

Ramulose Ridge has a wonderful deck with outstanding views of the vineyards and the mountains in the distance. This is a timely spot to mention that the winery has suggested cigar pairings for their red and white wines. The deck or pavilion would be outstanding spots to puff on an Azul Cameroon cigar while enjoying Traminette.

Happy wine tasters at Ramulose RidgeFor us, however, we were ready to ramble on to the red wines. The Malbec is a lighter style compared with your typical Argentinian version, but delivers nice tobacco and pepper notes. Also on the lighter side of the spectrum is the Cabernet Franc.

Chambourcin is a French hybrid grape that is one of our favorites. Ramulose does a grand job with the grape, with rich raspberry and soft tannins.

The best was saved for last, with an earthy and spicy Syrah (with a tasty $16 price) and the Robusto blend. Robusto is a blend of 60% Cabernet Franc and 40% Chambourcin. It has tart cherry flavors and is the most complex of the Ramulose Ridge lineup.

The wines we tasted range from $15 to $20. We purchased a bottle of Robusto to enjoy later.

While the dry wines were thoroughly enjoyable, we want to mention the Simply Sweet Sippers. With names like Promiscuous Pineapple, Chocolate Orange Obsession and Ravishing Raspberry, they feature eye-grabbing graphics. The wines are packaged in 375 ML pouches, making it perfect for a picnic or cookout. From the exclamations of joy from the other side of the tasting bar, we know this product is a hit with sweet wine lovers.

Ramulose Ridge is a small winery that offers excellent hospitality, a scenic location and unique estate wines. When you need a break from hiking (insert your own excuse here!) be sure to pay this Virginia winery a visit.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Daring And Diverse Wine Flows From The Columbia Gorge AVA

About 75 miles east of Portland, Oregon, lies the Columbia Gorge – one of the world’s most climatically diverse places.

Article and Photos by Dave Nershi, CSW

Vino-Sphere Publisher

Diversity Makes The Difference

As part of our efforts to cover outstanding wine and wine regions, I’ve travelled frequently to Oregon and Washington State. A recent trip focused on AVAs that straddle the border between the two states and landed me in the Columbia Gorge, a new destination for me.

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Columbia Gorge Mt. Hood Winery - VientoThe base camp for this exploration was Hood River, Oregon. The city is located at the crossroads of the Columbia River Gorge and the Cascade Mountains. Mt. Hood, with its 11,235-foot summit, sits at the southern border of the county. The steep walls of the gorge, coupled with rapid temperature changes, force strong winds to blow through Hood River, giving it claim to the title of Windsurfing Capitol of the World. In addition to windsurfing and kiteboarding, Hood River has some of the best kayaking, mountain biking, downhill and cross-country skiing, and hiking areas anywhere in the country.

Columbia Gorge is 40 miles wide. The western side is cooler and enjoys maritime breezes and transitions to warmer and drier conditions moving east. The region also varies in elevation, ranging from sea level to 2,000 feet. With such diverse conditions, a wide array of grapes from A to Z (Arneis to Zinfandel) thrive.

Soon after checking into the Hood River Hotel in which is located the stellar Broder Øst Nordic restaurant, it was time to drink in the delicious diversity of the Columbia Gorge. Our first stop was the Mt. Hood Winery.

An Introduction To Gorge Wines

Mt. Hood Winery sits on 20 acres of estate vineyards on a century-old farm in the beautiful Hood River Valley. The winery is owned by brothers Steve and Don Bickford. In 1909 their great-grandparents purchased 20 acres of orchard along with the local grocery story, which they ran until 1955.

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Three quarters of the acreage is planted with pear trees. Apples are also grown but are now overshadowed by the acres devoted to wine grapes. Nestled among the vines is a showcase tasting room with soaring ceilings, a 30-foot bar and a custom fireplace.

Rich Cushman is the winemaker for Mt. Hood and, in addition to overseeing that award-winning line, he also shares the winemaking facility for his own line of wine, Viento. Viento Wines has a separate tasting room.

The diversity of wine in the Columbia Gorge is eye-opening. During an enjoyable wine dinner, we sampled the Viento Wines Cuvée Diamante Rosé and Mt. Hood 2016 Gewürztraminer. The sparkling rosé demonstrates the range of Gorge grapes in one glass, with Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, Riesling and Pinot Gris. The Gewürztraminer has an intoxicating bouquet and was a surprising find in the middle of what some undoubtedly think of as Pinot Noir country.

Sunshine MillThe Columbia Gorge is slightly cooler than Willamette Valley and the predominant soils are the results of volcanic activity and glaciers. Vineyards receive alpine influence from the nearby Cascades as well as a maritime influence from ocean breezes from the west. Most of wineries in this dual-state AVA produce less than 5,000 cases per year.

The 2017 Mt. Hood Chardonnay has lush vanilla crème notes along with apple and pear flavors. Another flagship bottle is the 2016 Mt. Hood Pinot Noir, which we enjoyed with Fennel & Herb Stuffed Porchetta with Apple Chutney.

As if to drive home the fresh approach of Gorge wines, we closed the tasting with the 2016 Mt. Hood Barbera, Gunkel Vineyard, and the Viento Wines 2009 Icewine (Riesling and Gewürztraminer).

A Deeper Dive Into The Gorge

Sunshine Mill Artisan Plaza and Winery in The Dalles should be a stop for any visitor to the Columbia Gorge. The Sunshine Mill milled wheat on the property for more than 130 years. It was the first building in The Dalles to have electricity and the original Thomas Edison Motor can still be seen in the mill. The Sunshine Biscuit Company once owned the property and used the flour to make Cheez-Its.

Today the mill houses Quenett, Copa Di Vino and Oregon Mountain Estate Pinot Noir wine brands owned and operated by James and Molli Martin, both from The Dalles. A quirky, whimsical and historic destination, the mill welcomes more than 5,000 persons a month during the summer.

Copa Di Vino entered the national spotlight when James pitched his idea for wine in a glass -- ready to drink without the need for a bottle, corkscrew or glass – on the popular TV program Shark Tank. The Sharks passed on his proposal not once but twice. James and Molli went on to make the dream a reality and today Copa Di Vino is the leading producer of wine by the glass in the US, with total sales in excess of $60 million.

Not only has Copa Di Vino become a wine juggernaut, but its success has meant employment for more than 60 employees. The Martin’s 110-acre Pinot Noir vineyard is the largest single planting vineyard in the Columbia Valley.

While the mill itself is a wine bar and event space, the former warehouse has been transformed to a tasting room. There we tasted a selection of Quenett, Oregon Mountain Estate, and 15 Mile wines. 15 Mile Winery has a large local following and is one of the few that distributes wine in kegs.

Standout wines include: 15 Mile 2017 Rosé of Pinot Noir, Quenett 2014 Quenett du Pape, Oregon Mountain Estate 2015 Natasha Pinot Noir and the 15 Mile High Tension. The Quenett du Pape is a red wine homage to Châteauneuf du Pape and the High Tension is a Syrah, Barbera, and Merlot blend.

Wy'East VineyardsA High Altitude Visit

Perched at 1,600 feet is the Wy’East Vineyard, one of the highest elevation vineyards in the state. With a sweeping vista that included a view of Mt. Hood, this proved to be an ideal site for a Wy’East tasting.

The vineyard includes 10-foot fencing to keep out the elk, cougars and bears. Located above the level of the prehistoric Missoula Flood, the vineyard is primarily Culbertson soil, a volcanic soil that is well drained. It’s unlike other soils in the Gorge. Due to the elevation, the vineyard with its Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay ripens later than others in the area with harvest sometimes as late as November.

More “down to earth” is the Blue Chip Vineyard and tasting room (600 feet). By design, the tasting room resembles a roadside fruit stand from the road. The pet-friendly tasting room features a beautiful patio overlooking a waterfall and pond.

The wines are impressive. The 2016 Pinot Gris is spot on with bracing acidity and refreshing fruit. The 2016 Carménére is sourced from the Echo West Vineyard and dishes up round red fruit and minerality. The best sip was the 2014 Vinette’s Cuvée made with Pinot Noir grapes from the oldest plantings in the high elevation vineyard. It has a distinctive flavor with warming raspberry flavors enhanced by 10 months of aging in French oak.

Columbia Gorge Winemakers Columbia Gorge Winemaker Wrap-Up

At Hood River’s upscale 3 Rivers Grill winemakers from Phelps Creek Vineyards, The Pines, Stave and Stone and Wy’East gathered to share wine and discuss the uncommon qualities of the Columbia Gorge AVA.

“It’s different because winemakers can access fruit from both sides (of the Columbia River),” said Bob Morus, winegrower and president at Phelps Creek. “The AVA dramatically changes characteristics from west to east. There’s a lot of diversity.”

Diversity indeed! Wines ranged from Stave & Stone 2018 Terry Lynn Petillant Naturel, a Pinot Noir sparkler made in the ancient style, to The Pines 2017 Old Vines Zinfandel, Columbia Valley. Stave & Stone opened in 2015 and is gaining well-deserved attention. Rich Cushman is the winemaker.

I was surprised to learn Zinfandel is growing in this area, let alone Old Vines Zinfandel. Zinfandel was planted in The Dalles in the 1890s and old vines of Zinfandel are growing in Columbia Valley, according to Lonnie Wright, owner and grower at The Pines. It is rich, smooth and complex.

Chardonnay shines in the Gorge and we enjoyed the 2016 Wy’East Chardonnay and the Phelps Creek 2015 Lynette Chardonnay, made with Dijon clones. This was ideal with the panko crusted Halibut Almandine served with cranberry and citrus butter sauce. A welcome treat was the yet unreleased 2016 Phelps Creek “Old” Lynette Chardonnay, aged for 20 months in oak puncheons.

Lest we forget, Columbia Gorge produces sensational Pinot Noir. We explored a quartet of Pinot Noir: an encore from Wy’East, the 2016 Phelps Creek Cuvée Alexandrine, Stave & Stones acclaimed 2016 Artur Legacy Pinot Noir, and the spectacular 2011 Phelps Creek Regina. The Regina Pinot Noir is made with the Pommard clone as is the Artur.

The Columbia Gorge AVA, merging the best of Washington and Oregon states, is the creative frontier for winemaking in the Pacific Northwest.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Faustino V 2013 Reserva Rioja

Faustino V Rioja

Rioja is Spain’s most famous red wine region. The wines are delicious and the Reserva wines turn things up a notch.

Rioja To The Rescue

The Green Dragon knows her wine. But even a knowledgeable wine lover like my wife can use an occasional assist. While searching for a special bottle for my birthday, she stopped in to Great Grapes in Cary and asked for recommendations.

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That’s one reason we urge people to patronize their local wine shops. If you are purchasing wine at a grocery store or super center, the person answering your wine questions may be the same one stocking bags of Cheese Doodles in Aisle 6. At a wine shop you can expect experience and good guidance on your purchases.

Patio Perfection

The weather here in the Triangle area of North Carolina has been a rollercoaster recently. Intense heat and humidity has alternated with rain and – a week ago – some perfect spring-like weather. We took advantage of the ideal conditions for a cookout with my birthday present wine, the Faustino V 2013 Reserva Rioja.

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The Faustino V is a blend of 90% Tempranillo and 10% Manzuelo. Manzuelo is one of the main blending grapes in Rioja and adds racy acidity, but not much in the way of aroma. Tempranillo, on the other hand, is a signature Spanish grape known for making rich wines with aging potential.

Joining Faustino at our dinner table was a perfectly grilled (in my opinion) filet mignon, baked potato and spinach salad. Rioja wines are known for their aggressive aging in American oak. Faustino V is no exception with 16 months in American white oak from Missouri. Reserva wines in Rioja must be aged a minimum of three years with at least one year in barrel and six months in bottles. With that in mind, we decanted the vino before the meal.

Verdict Of The Glass

Faustino V starts as an intense wine with a power that made us do a doubletake. Even with the decanting, the tannins were muscular. A deep maroon in the glass, as we swirled, conversed and ate our meal, we began to appreciate the rich, deep flavors of plum and the sweet oakiness of the barrel aging. The tannins, at first so uninviting, began to melt away and be integrated. My big bites of juicy steak might have had something to do with it.

Bodegas Faustino has 150 years of family winemaking tradition. That tradition has been bottled and delivered up in an appealing 2013 Faustino V Reserva. We rate this Rioja Reserva highly, especially when accompanying grilled red meats.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Gourmet Lunch Features North Carolina Wines

P1040620Combine a quartet of North Carolina wines with some culinary wizardry and the results are delicious.

Birth of An Idea

I was determined not to miss the North Carolina Wine Bloggers Summit this year. Last year I made a note of the date but somehow it slipped me by. Not this year.

The 2019 North Carolina Wine Bloggers Summit was held in Yadkinville at Hanover Park Vineyard. The event also included an optional tour with visits to Jones Von Drehle and McRitchie wineries. It was there that I became acquainted with Arthur Barham. I noticed that he was bringing wine into the hotel labeled Holly Springs, NC. That’s just a short hop from our hometown of Fuquay-Varina. We struck up a conversation and a friendship. Also taking part in the event were Michele Nidiffer of Wine, Women & Style and Natalie Hampton of Tarheel Taps & Corks.

NC Gourmet Wine LunchIn addition to being a budding winemaker, Arthur has experience in fine dining establishments and is a sensational chef. He conceived the idea of continuing the comradery of the wine summit with a wine get-together in the Raleigh area. Arthur is preparing to launch his blog Merlot2Muscadine, which will feature video profiles of North Carolina wineries.

Uncork The Bubbly!

The lunch, hosted by Arthur and wife Mary, was a celebration of great food and North Carolina wine. The party included the four social media influencers and our spouses: Natalie and husband Kyle, Michele and husband Jim, Arthur and Mary, wife Kathy (aka Green Dragon) and I rounded out the group. Every delicious bite was prepared by Chef Arthur.

The afternoon soirée started with Arthur uncorking a bottle of sparkling Brut from Biltmore Estate. Biltmore has more than 1 million visitors annually and is the most visited winery in the country. This traditional method bubbly was the perfect start while enjoying an outstanding selection of cheeses.

Chilled Peach Apple Champagne SoupGazpacho is the most well known soup served cold – but with near-summertime heat, Arthur instead prepared Chilled Peach and Apple Champagne Soup. Smooth and refreshing, our gourmet lunch was underway.

The Wine Is Slightly Askew

It was time for more North Carolina wine! The appetizer course was Grilled Marinated Shrimp in Fruit Salsa. The salsa was a mash-up of strawberries, kiwi, onion, cilantro, jalapeño and fresh peach. The wine served was Slightly Askew Penny for Your Thoughts white wine. Slightly Askew is located in Yadkin Valley, but is slightly different from other wineries in that it uses local juice as well as juice from wine regions around the world.

The Penny for Your Thoughts is made with Australian Chardonnay juice and is vinted at the Slightly Askew winery. It is a crisp Chardonnay with just the right kiss of oakiness. An outstanding match for the shrimp.

IMG_20190608_122422~2An amuse bouche is a “mouth amuser” designed as a single bite. It provides a glimpse into the chef’s style and – in our case – the light refreshment before plunging into the main course. Our amuse bouche was a mini Caprese salad consisting of a roasted tomato, burrata, fresh basil with a  balsamic drizzle.


A Jolt Of Jolotage

Arthur’s gastronomic skills went into overdrive for the next course: Bacon Wrapped Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Apple Chutney and Pepper Relish. Michele provided a bottle of wine from her favorite North Carolina winery: JOLO.

The 2018 JOLO Jolotage is a proprietary red blend. The grapes include Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and – what sets it apart from a regular Bordeaux-style blend – Chambourcin. The Chambourcin has vibrant raspberry notes and Jolotage has silky tannins. This was a delightful pick for our pork.

My task for the meal was to pick a North Carolina wine to go with the dessert. Arthur said he wanted to give me the most difficult assignment because he knew I could handle it. Hmmm.

The dessert was Lemon Custard with Whipped Cream and a Lemon Truffle. The original plan was to torch it tableside, but Mary didn’t want Arthur playing with fire (kidding!).

Make Mine Mead

For the wine I decided to bring a North Carolina mead – wine made from honey. I selected bottles from Starrlight Meadery in Pittsboro. Honeyed Peach is a traditional mead. This has nice lush flavors of fruit and honey. However, it isn’t thick and syrupy and wasn’t over-the-top sweet. (I also brought a bottle of Gallberry Honey Mead, but the bottle was off.)

Merlot2Muscadine 2The mead was definitely better when sampled before the dessert. The citrus and sweetness of the dessert negated some of the delicious notes of the mead, but a sip of water allowed the enjoyment of mead to continue. Starrlight has a new tasting room in the Pittsboro Beverage District, a great location to explore this unique artisan beverage. Mead – it’s not just for hobbits!

Great conversation, wizardry in the kitchen and outstanding North Carolina wine – that’s a recipe for an appetizing afternoon. Thanks to our wonderful hosts and guests.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Domaine de Châteaumar 2017 Cuvée Vincent Sélection, Côtes du Rhône

CdR AshevilleDo Tennis And Fine Wine Mix?

My tennis team had a very good run this year. We won all but one match during the USTA season and earned a berth in the North Carolina state championships. That meant not only more tennis, but a trip to one of our favorite cities, Asheville.

Asheville has a wonderful dining scene, spectacular mountain vistas, great live music and just about anything a person could want. In this case, our hungry group of teammates was looking for a place to eat.

From  previous trip, I knew that The Market Place restaurant was a great upscale choice. As we wandered the downtown area I noticed we were not far from the place and suggested we stop there for dinner.

A Reliable French Pick

I had the honor of picking the vino. Most of our group was going for the Wood Grilled Pork Shoulder served with strawberry glaze, Farm & Sparrow faro, spring vegetables and asparagus butter. Scanning the wine list and not wanting to put anyone too deeply in the hole, I settled on the Domaine de Châteaumar 2017 Cuvée Vincent Sélection, Côtes du Rhône.

Central 3.0 Men's TeamCôtes du Rhône is a people pleasing wine with a reasonable price tag. Rhône Valley winemakers rely on Syrah and Grenache grapes to craft easy drinking reds. Upon inquiring, our server said that the wine was primarily Grenache. Since that is a smooth, lighter style I thought it would be a spot-on match for our pork.

When it arrived, I was surprised to see that the wine was 180 degrees different – instead of 100% Grenache, it was 100% Syrah. No worries – Syrah is one of our favorite grapes and this wine blended nicely with our meal and conversation. The wine has smooth tannins and delightful blackberry and cranberry flavors. It is medium full in body. There’s a little bit of spice to ramp up the complexity.

Fueled by this great French wine, we went on to win three straight matches, win the semi-final and get into the state championship match. Apparently we needed to buy a second bottle, because we lost the championship match 1-2.

This is a sub-$20 bottle that is guaranteed to improve your tennis game – and if perchance it doesn’t, you won’t care as much!

Friday, June 7, 2019

Kiona Vineyards and Hightower Cellars Deliver Excellence In Washington’s Red Mountain AVA

IMG_20190515_105217Red Mountain is the smallest and warmest wine-growing region in Washington State. So why all the excitement?

Red Mountain Rises To New Heights

An excellent starting point to unravel the allure of Washington State’s Red Mountain AVA is Kiona Vineyards. John Williams and Jim Holmes planted the first vineyard on Red Mountain in 1975. At the time Washington State was considered a first class white wine region with little prospect for good reds.

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That all changed with the first vintage from Kiona in 1980, as it foreshadowed the potential for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Kiona Vineyards (1)Today the winery continues under the direction of the Williams family. The 270-acre estate winery produces about 25,000 cases annually, earning the title of a “big little winery,” according to John’s grandson JJ Williams, director of operations. The winery grows grapes for more than 60 other wineries.

Red Mountain receives 16 to 17 hours of sunlight in the summer, thanks to its higher latitude and southwestern-facing slope. That’s about two hours more than Napa Valley during growing season. At 5.8 inches of rain annually, the area receives less rain than Phoenix. The result? Grapes with smaller berries, increased tannins and concentrated flavors.

A Lemberger Superstar

While 60% of Kiona’s vineyards are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain is not a one-trick pony. During a recent tasting, the diversity and brilliance of Red Mountain wines were highlighted.

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Fans of Lemberger will be surprised to learn that Kiona produced the first commercial Lemberger in the US and is the largest producer of Lemberger in the country. The Kiona 2016 Estate Lemberger has deep flavors of earth with minerality. The 2014 Mourvedre from Syncline uses fruit from Kiona’s famed Heart of the Hill Vineyard. It has low-key tannins, pure flavors of blueberry and is a superstar in the tasting room.

Fidelitas is known for artfully crafted Bordeaux-style wines. The 2016 Old Vine Merlot uses grapes from Kiona as well as the Ciel Du Cheval Vineyard. It was a special treat from the two oldest Merlot blocks in Red Mountain.

We sampled the delicious Kiona 2014 Old Block Cabernet Sauvignon and the Betz 2014 Heart of the Hill Cabernet Sauvignon. This shows the refined power of Red Mountain Cabs. The Kiona Cab had flavors of sage and mint while the Betz showed savory notes.

As a surprise we closed with a 2018 Kiona Chenin Blanc Ice Wine. Who knew? It is a true ice wine with bright flavors and acidity. A fitting final taste for a winery that was started with Chenin Blanc and Lemberger.

P1040257The Man – And Woman – In The Hightower

Kelly and Tim Hightower are the dynamic duo. No, they don’t don costumes and fight crime. What they do is equally dramatic -- they produce highly acclaimed wines from their 15-acre Red Mountain estate.

They started Hightower Cellars in 1997 in Woodinville, using grapes primarily from Red Mountain. Their first vintage was 221 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon. Five years later they bought their 15 acres on Red Mountain. Today they grow 10 acres of Bordeaux varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot.

Tim and Kelly are co-winemakers and are involved in every phase of the winemaking process. “We taste the barrels individually and then try different combinations,” said Kelly during a recent visit. “We get to be more like artists.”

There is another key member of the team – Riley the winery dog. Riley is a yellow lab and currently top dog at the winery. Former winery dog Murray is immortalized with his own line of wines.

Small Is Beautiful

Hightower CellarsThe Murray 2017 Rosé is made with Syrah from the J. Hightower Vineyard and delivers crisp strawberry and mineral flavors for a mere $18. The Murray 2017 Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon is an outstanding value at $25. It is lush with cherry and spice notes. The Cabernet Sauvignon is joined by small quantities of Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot.

The 2015 Hightower Merlot is a ringing example of great Red Mountain Merlot. It is eminently drinkable with smooth dark fruit notes, medium body and just a touch of briar.

Half the grapes for the winery’s most acclaimed wine come from the Hightower estate vineyard located at elevations between 750 and 850 feet. The 2015 Red Mountain Reserve is made with the best barrels from the vintage. It is unfiltered and unfined and gets aging in mostly new oak. The Reserve has 14% Malbec, which adds refinement to the concentrated flavors of the Red Mountain Cab. It has swirls of black currant, wild cherry, cocoa and oak. At $55, this was one of the top wines tasted during our recent tour of Washington.

Hightower Cellars is a small production winery, with about 4,000 cases produced annually. That allows Tim and Kelly to personally oversee the winemaking and provide outstanding hospitality at their unique tasting room with a scenic view of Red Mountain Vineyards. Hightower has high standards that demonstrate the magical power of Red Mountain.