Thursday, July 19, 2018

A Sip From Livermore Valley’s Murrieta’s Well Is Deep And Refreshing

Livermore Valley is gaining fans among California visitors. Quality wineries like Murrieta’s Well are one reason why.


Lineup of Murrieta's Well winesA Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Napa…

Livermore Valley is less than an hour east of San Francisco. It is one of California’s oldest winegrowing regions with the first commercial vineyards being planted in the 1840s.

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The region boasts some wine heavyweights with high outputs as well as wineries like Murrieta’s Well, that focus on limited production wines. Increasingly, wine lovers are deciding to skip the crowds and high prices of Napa and Sonoma and visit Livermore Valley.

Through a virtual tasting hosted by Snooth we were able to taste a quintet of Murrieta’s Well wines with commentary by winemaker Robbie Meyer. It gave an insight into why wines from this region are garnering increased attention.

Murrieta's Well 2017 Dry Rosé A California Original

Murrieta’s Well is one of California’s original wine estates, growing grapes since the 1800s. The winery also comes with an impressive pedigree. The vineyard was started with cuttings from the prized Chateau d’Yquem and Chateau Margaux vineyards in France.

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We started our tasting a bit early, taking the 2017 Dry Rosé with us on a trip Wrightsville Beach, NC. After a day of fun in the sun, we uncorked the chilled bottle while watching the surf roll in on our balcony.

The rosé is 42% Grenache, 39% Counoise and 19% Mourvedre. It’s a Rhone-style wine and the addition of Counoise adds great acidity. It is a peach color with strawberry notes. No flimsy summer sipper here: It’s a serious rosé that would pair beautifully with salmon. SRP is $30.

The virtual tasting kicked off with a pair of whites. The 2017  Small Lot Sauvignon Blanc is made in the French style. It is fermented in French oak barrels to breath and mature, but is removed after early aging so heavy oak qualities are not imparted to the wine. It is aged sur lie for four months in neutral oak barrels to add texture. It has soft grapefruit notes and a wonderful acidity. The grapes are descendants of the original Chateau d’Yquem cuttings. It retails for $35.

Murrieta's Well "The Whip" and Lump Crab CakeBrilliant Blends Bottled

Two wines that have brought Murrieta’s Well to the forefront are beautifully crafted blends. The 2016 “The Whip” White Blend is 33% Sauvignon Blanc, 24% Semillon, 21% Chardonnay, 12% Orange Muscat and 10% Viognier. The wine is dark straw in color and provides a carnival ride of flavors and aromas. The Orange Muscat and Viognier amp up the aromatics with funky floral notes.To add to the complexity, some components of the blend are aged in small oak barrels while others are aged in stainless steel tanks.

This is a lively wine with white peach flavor notes and a crisp finish. We paired it with lump North Carolina crab cake, snow peas and hush puppies. It would also work well with Thai food, too. It’s one of our favorite white wines and has a very approachable cost of $26.

Counterpoint to the Whip on the red side is the 2015 “The Spur” Red Blend. The wine is a mix of 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Petite Sirah, 18% Merlot, 8% Petit Verdot and 6% Cabernet Franc. Each variety was fermented individually then blended together and aged for 24 months in a combination of new and neutral French oak. This wine is easily the equal of others costing twice the price. It exudes ripe blackberry, vanilla and spice notes. Layer upon layer of flavor create an inviting complexity. It is one of our top wine picks.

Preparations ready for Murrieta's Well virtual tasting!

The Well Is Not Dry

Murrieta’s Well had not yet run dry. The crowning wine in our tasting was the 2015 Small Lot Cabernet Sauvignon. The Cab has 11% Petit Verdot and 2% Malbec. All the grapes come from the Murrieta's Well estate vineyard and the grapes are hand sorted. The 2015 harvest was the fourth drought vintage in a row, but contributed to flavor-concentrated grapes and expressive wines.

The wine has earthy notes with luscious black fruit and cocoa. It’s an impressive wine that can be aged now through 2025. The Small Lot Cab is scheduled to be released in September (we got a sneak peak!). It retails for $58.

Murrieta's Well Small Lot Sauvignon BlancIn case it isn’t apparent, we really like Murrieta’s Well wine. This iconic Livermore Valley winery has a great lineup of wines and the quintet we tasted is representative of the quality of the entire range. They aren’t producing “entry level” or “lifestyle” wines. Instead, Murrieta’s Well focuses on finely crafted, limited production wines. We are particularly enamored of their “The Whip” and “The Spur” blends. A good host could keep a case of each on hand and be very nicely provisioned for any occasion.

We’re glad that California’s drought hasn’t dried up this well of amazing wine.

Full disclosure: We received this wine as marketing samples.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Montefioralle Producing Chianti Classico Gems For 50 Harvests

Montefioralle Chianti ClassicoFor more than 50 years the Sieni family has been making limited production wine in the Medieval hamlet of Montefioralle. One of the smallest Chianti Classico wineries, their wine continues to attract new fans.

In Chianti, Small Is Beautiful

It seems not a week goes by without news of a winery or brand being gobbled up by a massive international beverage company. Due to its mountainous terrain and political divides, profusion of different winemaking traditions and native grapes, Italy has avoided this. There are more than 1 million grape growers in Italy and the average holding is less than two-and-a-half acres.

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That suits us fine. To us, small is beautiful. A case in point is Azienda Agricola Montefioralle, a family-run winery in the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany. Through the recent Wine Studio education program, we were able to learn about this Italian gem.

The winery has been run by the Sieni family since 1964, when Renato Sieni took over management of the vineyards that had been cared for by the local priests for centuries. Renato and son Fernando planted new grapevines and started production of a Chianti Classico wine called Santo Stefano a Montefioralle.

Montefioralle C.C. Riserva and seafood pasta When the church administration gave up the vineyard in the 1990s, the Sieni family immediately bought it. Now Fernando’s oldest daughter, Alessia, is the owner of the estate and winery. Together with brother Lorenzo and Fernando, they manage the production of wine and olive oil.

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The first harvest by the Sieni family was 1968. This year marks the 50th harvest for the winery!

The roots of Montefioralle go back to the Romans and the castle dates back to the year 931. The rule of the castle was controlled at different times by Florence and Sienna. The village of Montefioralle currently has about 70 inhabitants and the Sieni vineyard is about five acres.

A “Peculiarity Of The Soil”

Sangiovese is one of our favorite grapes and Chianti Classico is one of the best expressions of it. While Chianti can be produced anywhere in the Chianti zone, Chianti Classico is the historic heart of Chianti and became a separate appellation in 1996. Chianti Classico wines contain 80% to 100% Sangiovese and white grapes are excluded from the mix. Chianti Classico wines are emblazoned with the “black rooster” logo.

Montefioralle Vin Santo is made with dried grapesWine producers in the Montefioralle knew that something was unique about their soil. This microclimate, a peculiarity of the soil, is what gives their Sangiovese a special character. The soil is rich in limestone and good drainage, forcing the roots deep underground. Geologists surmise that a glacier may be the reason  why certain areas in the region have up to 50% rich, fertile loam soil.

We were able to try three Montefioralle wines:

The Vin Santo del C.C. 2014 is a dessert style wine that we paired with assorted fruit mini-cheesecakes. Vin Santo is made with grapes that have been dried to raisins. This concentrates the fruit sugar that will turn into alcohol. The pressed juice is put in small cherry wood barrels and allowed to ferment slowly.

The result is a delectable raisin nectar. At first we served this with a slight chill, but heeding the advice of the winemaker we gave it a more substantially chilling and that made the wine even more enjoyable. The colder temperature lessened the perception of high alcohol and allowed us to focus on the sweet, delicate flavors in this amber colored wine.

The Montefioralle Chianti Classico DOCG 2015 is primarily Sangiovese with small amounts of Canaiolo and Colorino. The wine is aged for a year in oak. It has a smooth body with sour cherry notes.

We enjoyed the Montefioralle Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG 2014 with a seafood cocktail of squid, mussels and shrimp over pasta. The Riserva gets two years of aging and a higher level of alcohol, but the tannins are surprisingly supple. There are delicious red fruit notes wrapped with hints of wood and spice. The finish is velvety. An outstanding wine that didn’t overpower our seafood dish!

The Montefioralle winery is small but mighty. It produces limited run, handcrafted lots of elegant wines. This is an ideal site for a visit – but if not the wines can be purchased online. Cheers!

Saturday, July 14, 2018

SoCa Cocina Latina Restaurant Rocking Raleigh With Eclectic Food And Wine Options

So.Ca offers outdoor diningDrawing its culinary inspiration from the region South of the Tropic of Cancer, Raleigh’s SoCa, offers a delightful mashup of Latin and Caribbean inspired street food paired with an outstanding selection of wine.

Elevated International Cuisine

We’re always up for exploring unique restaurant experiences. Last month was Triangle Restaurant Week, so we headed to SoCa, a Latin-inspired Raleigh restaurant that we viewed through the windshield, but had never visited.

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SoCa has carved out a unique culinary perch, focusing on cuisine from locales south of the Tropic of Cancer, a geographic dividing line that runs just north of the equator. That adds up to an eclectic menu that includes dishes from more than 20 different countries. Dishes include Guatemalan Ceviche de Camaron, Jamaican Lamb Patties, Peruvian Tiradito de Pescado and Brazilian Feijoada, to name just a few.

The restaurant is one of just 11 Wine Spectator Award winners in Raleigh. We were all smiles as we saw the finely crafted wine list featuring a wide array of southern hemisphere wines.

So.Ca caramelized pear empanadas and roséOutstanding Vibe And Vittles

SoCa, located at 2130 Clark Ave, Raleigh, in the Cameron Village area, has an inviting energy. Servers whisk past with trays of food, guests unwind with friendly chatter at the bar, wine bottles are opened and food sizzles as cooks work in view of the customers.

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It was a hot summer day in Raleigh (imagine that!) and so we first wanted a drink to chill down. What better way than a sparkling Brut rosé? We selected the Viña Underagga from Chile’s Central Valley. Not only are South American wines delicious, but they are typically great values as well.

I opted for the three-course Triangle Restaurant Week special and my first dish was Caramelized Pear Empanadas, with savory pastry, Manchego cheese, chorizo and toasted almonds. This dish was not only a sweet and savory explosion of flavors, it was artistically plated. It was a treat for the eye and the palate – something that was true for each dish we had at SoCa.

The evening was a bit toasty outside, but we plan to sit out on the patio during our next visit. It looks like an ideal vantage point to watch the world go by while sipping a glass of wine. SoCa also offers free valet parking, something greatly appreciated by us and certain to remove the “do you see any parking spaces” anxiety from your evening.

So.Ca Adobo Pork Tenderloin and Pinot NoirDone with my ruminations while gazing out the window, I was ready to pick a red wine to go with my entree. We like to try new and different wines (hey, it’s what we do!) but SoCa has you covered even if you don’t. They offer lists of SoCa reds and whites, focusing on countries in their geographic bullseye, but also have lists of global reds and whites featuring outstanding choices from the rest of the world. For example, they feature Cabernet Sauvignon by Sleight of Hand in Washington State and Ty Catton in Moon Mountain, Sonoma, as well as Albariño from Rias Baixas in Spain and a good selection from France.

To accompany my Grilled Adobo Pork Tenderloin I selected the 2015 Alto Limay Pinot Noir from Patagonia. I’ve been wanting to try a Pinot from this up and coming Argentine region. At SoCa I was able to do so by the glass. The pork dish had poblano pepper slaw, charred pineapple, salsa verde and lime. The Pinot had notes of cranberry, minerality and a touch of cocoa. It was a nice pick to go with my entree as well as my wife’s seafood dish.

A Sweet Ending

So.Ca Choco-LatteIt was no contest for the dessert selection. The Restaurant Week menu offered Choco-Latte which, by its description, promised to raise the bar on decadence. Videri dark chocolate cake is topped by whipped mascarpone and Brazilian brigaderos (a chocolate fudge ball!) and accompanied with raspberry purée and chocolate chunk coffee ice cream.

The dessert delivered in spades. Rich chocolate accented with tart berries and creamy coffee goodness – an outstanding way to end our dinner.

So.Ca offers a great vibe and crazy good cuisine.There’s a lot to like about SoCa. The cuisine is at a very high level: well prepared and beautifully presented. The menu is also thoughtfully composed with surprising and inviting dishes, most of which you won’t encounter elsewhere and certainly not all together. The wine list is well designed and contemporary in style. Other restaurants may have more voluminous lists, but they likely don’t have some of the great selections featured at SoCa. It has everything to make a wine lover keep filling glass after glass.

SoCa Cocina Latina gets our highest recommendation. Whether you want to explore the world or just have a great meal, head south of the Tropic of Cancer!

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Rosé Quartet Dazzles With Art And Winemaking

These wines are stylish inside and out. The art outside intrigues while the rosé inside delivers a well-crafted wave of refreshment.

Food and Rosé - some sublime pairings.The “Wow” Factor Of Rosé

Art and wine are a good pairing. Long ago we vowed not to purchase “critter wines” just because of cute animals on the label. We’re focused on the heavenly juice inside the bottle. We’re not immune, though, to an attractively produced bottle. A classy piece of artwork on the label may be a good indication that the people behind the wine have good taste.

That’s certainly the case with four rosé wines we recently sampled as part of the Wine Studio online education program. Each had striking art on the bottle as well as stirring wine inside. Here we unveil the four works of art:

Bedell Cellars 2017 Taste Rosé

Bedell Cellars 2017 Taste Rosé, Long Island, NY $18

This rosé is a blend of 60% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc, 5% Syrah, and 5%Cabernet Sauvignon. If offers strawberry and vibrant acidity with herbal notes. Artwork is by internationally acclaimed conceptual artist Barbara Krueger. She created the image “Taste” for Bedell Cellars, suggesting the notion that taste can influence what we love, how we live, and who we think we are. The art is a good match for the wine. Bedell is considered by many to be the benchmark winery on the East Coast, so if you are not familiar with Long Island wine, this is a great starting point.

Babylonstoren 2016 Mourvedre Rosé

Babylonstoren 2016 Mourvedre Rosé, Simonsberg-Paarl, Western Cape SA $22

Bablyonstoren is a Mourvedre rosé from South Africa. The cryptic label is laser etched. The symbol on this bottle is the Babylonstoren logo, consisting of the pipe (representing the farmer), the flower (representing the garden) and the bird (representing nature). It represents the essence of Babylonstoren – keeping things simple and as true to the earth as possible. South Africa is a wine lover’s dream with epic scenery and magnificent wineries. This wine would be perfect for a special occasion and can pair with a variety of foods. Elegant with floral touches and raspberry notes.

Eric Kent Wine Cellars 2017 Rosé

Eric Kent Wine Cellars 2017 Rosé, Sonoma County, CA $22

This beauty from Eric Kent Wine Cellars is 77% Pinot Noir, 17% Syrah and 8% Grenache. It has a slight cloudiness since it is unfiltered as well as  flavors of tart apple and raspberry. There is nice minerality and the Syrah adds body. The mind boggling artwork is by Yellena James. It is one of the most interesting pieces of label art I’ve seen and elevates the wine drinking experience to a higher level. The art reminds me of “Octopus’ Garden” by the Beatles. We paired it with salmon over a warm broth of kale, bacon and beans. Outstanding!

Domaine Paul Mas 2017 Côté Mas Rosé Aurore

Domaine Paul Mas 2017 Côté Mas Rosé, Aurore Languedoc, France, $12.99

This wine from the south of France has an arresting label in a couple of ways. First, there is a sticker noting 33% more wine – that’s because it is a liter bottle, not 750 ML. The artwork is an eye-catching pastel of the original Domains Paul Mas family estate in the Art Nouveau style. The artwork captures the “luxe rural” vibe of Paul Mas wines, which has a philosophy of enjoying the simple pleasures of life. It has round, juicy flavors of cherry and candied fruit. We paired it with bacon-wrapped turkey tenderloin with fresh chimichurri sauce and roasted corn with Cotji cheese. It was an unexpected and delightful pairing. A great go-to wine for your Bastille Day celebration!

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Wine, Food & Travel News From Vino-Sphere: July 7, 2018

Chinese Crawfish A Hit With Russian Soccer Fans

Songge_Crawfish___Uniquely_Chinese___Distinctly_RussianSongge Crawfish, a Shenzhen-based food and beverage brand has collaborated with dozens of local catering companies in Russia to add a touch of Chinese flavor to fans' palates during the World Cup soccer season.

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The popular Chinese brand sent several of their top chefs to work alongside catering companies to prepare the world-famous Chinese dish for fans. Customers were invited to pair one of the Songge Crawfish signature dishes with their favorite beer or Russian Vodka while cheering on their team.

Processing and preparing the crawfish for hundreds of hungry fans is no easy feat. Songge Crawfish dispatched a special team of quality control experts to Russia to inspect local crawfish farms, where they sourced batches of crawfish in advance to ensure they were fresh and of a high standard.

Antica Terra Adds Champagne And Caviar To Willamette Valley Tasting Room Experience

Antica Terra, named by Food & Wine as a winery to watch, has added an innovative experience to its tasting room. Collective Tastings at Antica Terra now all begin with Royal White Sturgeon Osetra and Champagne followed by house-made hen liver and foie gras terrine, a selection of farmhouse cheeses curated by Steve Jones of Portland’s Cheese Bar, jams by Ayer’s Creek Farm and Alma chocolates.

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All tastings at Antica Terra offer a journey through the senses including a selection of rare and inspiring wines from all over the world thoughtfully compiled and sourced by Winemaker Maggie Harrison. A total of nine wines are poured at each. The Collective Tastings are approximately 90 minutes and $75 per guest. The winery is located at 979 SW Alder Street in Dundee.

ilov305_in_miami_beach

Restaurant And Hotel Openings Slated In Miami Beach

Miami Beach, already rapidly growing as an international destination, is set to celebrate several anticipated hotel and restaurant openings this season including:

The Re-Imagination of the Cadillac Hotel & Beach Club Say hello to vacation with a welcome popsicle from the hotel's signature shaved ice cart on arrival and take in the 70-year old hotel's art deco charm.  The 357-room hotel, set to open this month, will provide unique services and amenities including a signature Cadillac Concierge program, on-site photo booth and a poolside family movie night every Friday.

A Rooftop Glass Bottom Pool at Celino South Beach – Influence from the 1940's meets Latin flair at this new, 132 guest-room hotel, creatively comprised of three historic buildings on Ocean Drive.  Opening later this summer, guests will enjoy custom complimentary bicycles to explore, 24-hour room service, an in-room spa menu and culinary concepts rooted in coastal Mediterranean and Spanish Tapas styles.

Culinary creations and cocktails at iLov305 at the Bel-Air Hotel – American comfort food meets modern Latin cuisine and a 100-drink cocktail menu at Mr. 305's 9,000 square-foot, two-level space, complete with VIP rooms and DJ booth. Guests can head to a first-floor, Havana Club-inspired daiquiri bar or grab a welcome, hand-rolled cigar once this sure-to-be-hot spot opens later this summer season.

Fresh Seafood and Gin at Seawell Fish n' Oyster and Minnow Bar at the Kimpton Angler Hotel South Beach – Seafood and cocktail lovers can go for traditional raw bar items and thoughtfully-prepared dishes paired with herb-infused drinks, the brainchild of Chef Julian Garriga and veteran Bartender, Chris Resnick. The destination Minnow Bar will feature a "clear spirits bar," focusing on varietals of gins, piscos, white rums and cachaças.

Travaglino Wine Estate Celebrates 150th Harvest With New Sparkling Wine

Italian winery Tenuta Travaglino is releasing a new label to honor the winery’s 150th anniversary. The sparkling Riserva del Fondatore 150° is made from 95% Pinot Noir and 5% Chardonnay that are grown in the winery’s most historic vineyards. The fifth-generation family winery is the oldest in Oltrepò Pavese, located in the northwest Italian region of Lombardy. Lombardy is acclaimed for its sparkling wine. Since 1868, the winery has been growing and cultivating their own vineyards.

Cruise Destinations Ranked by Month

A new report from InsureMyTrip ranks the most popular cruise destinations for travelers, month by month. The Caribbean is the top choice throughout the year with the Bahamas, Alaska, Mexico, Italy, and Canada also making the list. Results are based on all travel insurance purchases sold for cruise vacations on InsureMyTrip.com between January 2015 and June 2018.

The rankings show:

  • The Caribbean islands (like Grand Cayman, Dominican Republic, and Aruba) remain the top destination for cruisers anytime during the year.
  • Domestic cruises gain popularity during October, November, and December.
  • Travel insurance customers prefer to cruise to the Bahamas during the late fall and winter.
  • April and May are the preferred months to sail through Alaska.

OFFICE_DU_TOURISME_DE_QUEBEC_Tourism___Innovation___Micro_Climat

Summer Heat Got You Down? Try Québec City’s “Cool” New Innovation

The Québec City tourism agency, in collaboration with Ateliers du Carnaval de Québec, has come up with a unique way to let visitors experience winter right in the middle of summer and encourage them to come back and visit in winter. Micro Climat(e) offers a one-of-a-kind break from summer from July 3 to September 3, 2018.

A 26-by-9-foot container, refrigerated to 39 to 46 degrees F and decked out in all the trappings of the snow season, offers tourists a feel for the exotic appeal of Québec winters, with ice sculptures, a mini ice hotel, a ski lift, Québec décor, and videos on popular seasonal activities. 

Québec City Tourism hit on the idea two years ago to let summer visitors in on the magic of Québec City winters. The objective is to increase tourist traffic during that season.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Cool Climate Wines Of Germany An Expressive Pick

German Pinot Noir & Johannisberg Riesling

Where The Wind Blows

Germany is home to some of the world’s coldest-climate vineyards, well north of what is generally considered prime territory for growing grapes. The temperatures are lower during the growing season and the vineyards get less sunshine. The good news is that the cool climate allows the grapes to ripen slowly and retain their hallmark acidity. The resulting wines are crisp and expressive. We found a pair just right for summertime drinking.

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The best vineyards in Germany are on southern-facing slopes on the north side of a river. The orientation allows for more sunlight hours and the river reflects sunshine onto the vines. Rheingau, produces just 2% of Germany’s wines, but has a reputation for producing Riesling that is second to none. The region has the most favored position on the Rhine and benefits from red slate soil. The slate absorbs heat from the sun and radiates it back during the night.

The King Of White Wine

Some consider Riesling the king of white wines. It certainly is the most versatile, with Riesling being produced from bone dry to sweet dessert-style wine. Who ever heard of a late harvest Chardonnay? Riesling also pairs perfectly with a variety of foods. (Can you tell Riesling is my favorite grape?)

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We opened a bottle of Furst von Metternich 2014 Schloss Johannisberger Riesling Feinherb Gelblack from Rheingau. Johannisberg is renowned for producing wonderfully refreshing Riesling, so much so that wineries in the US were producing “Johannisberg” Riesling until international trade agreements put the kibosh on that marketing ploy. Feinherb indicates that the wine is off-dry.

We paired the Riesling with mahi-mahi with peach salsa and tri-colored carrots. This is a classic Riesling with fragrant aroma of white blossoms. On the palate there is fresh apple and pear. There is a subtle fruit sweetness that is balanced with juicy acidity. This is a wine that will appeal to those with a dry palate as well as those who prefer more sugar. It was a nice match with the sweet and spicy salsa and our fish.

You Need To Know Spätburgunder

Spätburgunder is the most widely planted red wine grape in Germany. That makes more sense when you know that Spätburgunder is also known as Pinot Noir. Even so, I was surprised to learn that Germany is the world’s third leading producer of Pinot Noir (behind France and the US).

We enjoyed a meal of mushroom ravioli on the patio while enjoying the Becker Family 2012 Pinot Noir from Pfalz. German Pinot Noir is less tannic than warmer climate Pinot and this bottle offers wonderful fruit flavors of blackberries and strawberry.

Pfalz is a region that in years past was know for producing bulk-style, inexpensive wines. That has changed and no German region has shown a more drastic improvement in quality. The packaging of this bottle is unintimidating to US wine consumers. The grape variety is prominently shown without a confusing (to some) array of German words for villages, vineyards and quality level.

The Becker Pinot was an inspired pairing with the ravioli dish. The savory mushrooms blended seamlessly with the swirling fruit of the Pinot Noir.

Germany is one of the great wine producing countries of the world. It’s reputation is built on world-class Riesling – but surprises are in store. More than one third of German wines produced today are reds, including delicious Spätburgunder! White or red, Germany wines are a good pick for your summer meal.

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

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Tasting The Past: The Next Must-Read Book For Wine Lovers

Tasting the Past Kevin BegosA sip of a compelling wine in Israel sent journalist Kevin Begos on a 10-year quest to seek the origins of wine. His tale of discovery is the most interesting wine book of the year.

Obscure Wine Launches Quest

Kevin Begos is a former AP correspondent and a journalist whose beat typically includes science and research. While in Jordan, reporting about medicine in the Arabic world, he opened a bottle of Cremisan Winery and Monastery wine from the hotel minibar and his life was about to take a twist.

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Begos is author of Tasting The Past: The Science of Flavor and the Search for the Origins of Wine, which recounts his 10-year journey to dig into the origins of wine and shed light on ancient wine and obscure grapes. He began investigating the mysterious Cremisan vineyard and quickly found himself in a wine-soaked detective story, complete with false leads, DNA evidence and rare grapes hidden in remote plains and valleys across the world. The book was published earlier this month by Algonquin Books and is priced at $26.95 for the hardcover.

The book covers a spectrum of topics interesting to wine lovers such as:

  • How scientists are decoding grape DNA to chart the family tree of wine.
  • How DNA analysis, mass spectrometry, liquid chromatography and other high-tech tools are helping winemakers rediscover rate native grapes and rescue them from the brink of extinction.
  • How archeobiologists in Milan brought Leonardo da Vinci’s lost vineyard back to life.
  • How scientists in Israel are rediscovering native grapes of the Holy Land.

Our Take: A Most Fascinating Wine Book

In short, this is the most fascinating wine book I’ve read in years. I highly recommend it. Vino-Sphere interviewed the author and we share excerpts here.

Red grapes in wine pressVino-Sphere: Why do endangered and ancient grape varieties matter?

Begos:  We’re losing flavors by ignoring the native grapes. There's actually a genetic problem. Basically we’ve been breeding these same few grapes for hundreds or a thousand years and replanting them from cuttings. Scientist have been telling me that the famous grapes are dangerously inbred and are not evolving resistance to disease and pests the way they should. The Irish Potato Famine happened mostly because one variety of potato was being grown. Similarly, there was a global banana variety grown in the 1950s. Pretty much all the plantations around the world got hit with the same disease and they had to scramble to find a new variety. So it’s actually happened to other crops when you have a monoculture.

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Vino-Sphere: How do you feel about the concept of “noble grapes” and that there are a limited number, a dozen or so, grapes that produce really great wine?

Begos: I’ve come to completely disagree. I'll quote the opening passage in my book from my friend Andy Walker, who is a great scientist at the University of California Davis, one of the leading great research schools in the world: “We’re still caught in that trap of saying,  well, there only 10 good grape varieties in the whole world, and that's it. There are wonderful wines to be made everywhere from a huge number of varieties.” He’s someone who's really knowledgeable about wine and genetics and I think he hit the nail on the head.

WWDJD: What Wine Did Jesus Drink?

Vino-Sphere: What did ancient wine taste like? I recently did a class on Italian wines and some say that Primitivo was the wine served at the Last Supper. Could that be right?

Begos: Scientists have actually been able to analyze tiny bits of the stains and remains of ancient wine that exist in tombs and pyramids in Egypt and the Middle East. Wine was often flavored during those times, sometimes with cinnamon or other spices such as myrrh, which is like a pine resin. I really had a revelation during the book. I was talking to an archaeologist at the ancient city of Gott in Israel, which is reputedly where Goliath lived. He pointed out that ancient people in some ways were just like us. There were all different levels of society and different levels of wine. There was one level for the common people. There was even one for slaves.  There was one for very wealthy people, kings, rulers and the pharaohs.  A lot of people have asked what wine would be served at the Last Supper and what would Jesus have drunk in his life. The answer is just like today. It really could vary depending on what was the closest vineyard and it could have been a white wine, a red wine or a very sweet kind of wine. They mixed wine with water back then so we’ll never know exactly which one.  It was interesting to me to make that connection to the past. Just like today people drink all sorts of wines

Vino-Sphere: How has technology changed how we think about grapes and their origins?

Begos: I never imagined that I’d be writing about DNA analysis of grapes 10 years ago. The cost of analysis of personal DNA has come down so much a lot of people are doing it. It’s is the same thing with grapes. We now can do a family tree of grapes and map the migration of grapes.

Vino-Sphere: What have we learned about ancient people and wine?

Begos: We have more variety than anyone's ever had, but I was surprised to learn how much transportation took place in the ancient world. Egyptians exported wines all the way to Greece and probably Italy, and the Romans exported wine all through various provinces. So while people certainly didn't ship from Australia to the Mediterranean, wine would go hundreds or perhaps even thousands of miles. It turns out that's how winemaking arrived in France. I grew up thinking the French invented winemaking. I’m not really embarrassed about that because there are so many great winemakers there, but the French didn't start making wine until about 500 BC. That's about 5,000 or 6,000 years after people in the Caucus mountains in the Middle East were making it. So the French were real latecomers. Wine was already being imported from Italy or Greece in clay amphora. It was a massive trade. They actually had manufacturing centers where they made these amphora. Tax officials at the ports would stamp them, inspect them for quality and seal them.  Muscat of Alexandria was famous very early on. Thousands of years ago you had salespeople in all these different ports talking up their inventory just like people do today.

Vino-Sphere: What are your thoughts on hybrid grapes? Some people say hybrids can’t make good wine.

Begos: That’s just nonsense historically, scientifically and viticulturally – the whole notion. All grapes have potential.

Vino-Sphere: Can “American” grapes make great wine?

Begos: Yes. The main thing is you don’t want to take Italian food and try to make it taste like French food. For many years French wine was the thing to be emulated, but every region has its native grapes with their own flavors. There are so many more resources than before. The University of Minnesota is zeroing in the genome to breed unpleasant flavors out. There is a purely psychological barrier, which is important. There’s also the question of whether it is the grape or the winemaker. I’m seeing people take more interest in local grapes.

Vino-Sphere: Anything else we didn’t cover?

Begos: Yeast turns out to be far more interesting than we realized. It’s like the bass player in a rock and roll band. It doesn’t get the publicity, but it contributes flavors to wine. Wild yeast varieties help create strikingly different wines. Packaged wine yeast wasn’t sold until the 1960s.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Mother Rock “Force Celeste” 2016 Chenin Blanc, Swartland

Force Celeste

Is Chenin Blanc an overlooked white? Perhaps, but it is embraced in South Africa. We dive into a bottle from Swartland to learn more.

Famous French Roots

We are fans of Chenin Blanc and lovers of South African wine. I recently purchased a bottle of the 2016 Force Celeste Chenin in the discount room at Great Grapes in Cary. When the International Drink Chenin Day rolled around, it was a perfect time to open this South African bottle.

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Chenin Blanc is a French grape that reaches perhaps its best expression in the Loire Valley of France. It is the grape used in Vouvray, producing refreshing wines ranging from off-dry to sweet. It is also used in sparkling wines in the Loire region of Saumur.

South Africa has been producing Chenin Blanc for centuries, although there it is often called Steen. Unfortunately, only a small trickle of South Africa’s best wines make it to the US. There is a flood, though, of lower priced and lower quality South African Chenin Blanc. These wines are often produced by cooperatives and are non-descript compared to the elegant Chenin Blanc wines made by the top producers.

Celestial Chenin

The Force Celeste pushed three buttons for me: Chenin Blanc, South Africa and Swartland. In the last decade, Swartland has emerged as a fine wine region. As a result, I grabbed it immediately when I spotted it on the store shelf.

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Force Celeste is made from a selection of old dry-farmed bush vines grown on decomposed granite. No enzymes, yeast or acid were added. The bottle is also unfiltered and unfined. The label art is also appealing, showing a trio of lightning bolts racing from an ominous cloud in a bold woodcut style design.

Chenin is a very accessible grape – it’s easy to enjoy. The Force Celeste is primarily aged in steel tanks to retain the fresh flavors with 20% aged in neutral French oak barrels. The wine spent nine months on the lees (the dead yeast cells and sediment) to impart deeper flavors.

We opened this on a day when it was smothering hot. The Celeste Force has nice pineapple notes with a vein of minerality. There is a lilting twist of acidity.

The wine retails for about $21 and I was able to pick it up for $15. That’s a tasty deal. If you haven’t tried Chenin Blanc before, I suggest you give it a swirl. Force Celeste is a nice bottle to begin your exploration.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Muscardini Cellars: Grand Sonoma Reds With Italian Twist

Muscardini SangioveseItalian heritage and Sonoma Valley credentials equal an exceptional experience for our wine tasting team.

Sonoma Road Trip

Sometime the best tasting room visits are the result of serendipity. During our recent trip to Sonoma, we were racing from one compass point to the other due to our schedule and far-flung appointments.

After breaking for lunch in the Kenwood area on the Sonoma Highway, we spied the Muscardini tasting room. I’ve seen Muscardini offered for sale on some of my favorite online wine sites, but always hesitated. Now was my chance!

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Although the first Muscardini vintage was 2005, the story begins with Emilio Alchera who immigrated from Italy’s Piemonte region in 1909. He earned a living running corner grocery stores in California where he sold fine bulk wine. In his spare time he made a red table wine for his family.

His business would eventually become the St. Helena Napa Valley Wine Company. Grandson Michael Muscardini owned and managed a construction company for more than two decades. In 2000 he planted his first Sangiovese grapes and decided to continue and expand his grandfather’s winemaking ways.

Photo courtesy of Muscardini Celalrs

Haven For Artisan Red Wines

If you go to Muscardini expecting to taste through a wide selection of white wine, you’d be mistaken. You’ll find a Pinot Grigio or a rosé, perhaps, but Muscardini is focused on the pleasure of drinking wine – more specifically, really good red wine! For our band of six tasters, there was no better scenario.

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We opened with wine for which Muscardini is most known: Sangiovese. The 2014 Unti Vineyard Sangiovese is lush with bright flavors of red fruit and nutmeg. The 2012 Pauli Ranch Barbera, Redwood Valley, is from Mendocino County and was rated a top notch wine by our group. It has complex flavors of plum, cherry and herbs.

Muscardini CellarsMoving from the classic tasting list to the reserve list, we sipped the 2014 Alice’s Vineyard Sangiovese. This wine is “bigger” than the Unti Vineyard Sangio, with vibrant acidity and beautiful cranberry notes. Muscardini, we decided, is a Sangiovese lover’s dream.

A Real Tesoro

Tesoro means “treasure” in Italian and, we found the 2012 Tesoro to be just that. It is a blend of 50% Sangiovese, 25% Syrah and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a well balanced wine with brambly, dark fruit flavors. This library vintage retails for $85 and the 2015 vintage goes for $52.

The tasting experience finished up with two memorable wines. The 2014 Cassata Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon  is a full-bodied wine with 5% Merlot. The “over the moon” wine for us was the 2013 Rancho Salina, Moon Mountain. It’s a Bordeaux-style blend with 66% Merlot and 34% Cabernet Sauvignon. It is incredibly smooth with notes of cocoa and dark berries. A total winner at $65 SRP.

Muscardini Cellars creates masterworks of wine. For lovers of Sangiovese and bold red blends, this is a supreme stop on the Sonoma wine trail.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Piccione Vineyards: A North Carolina Winery Visit

Piccione Vineyards MonepulcianoPiccione Vineyards in Swan Valley North Carolina has a wine history with roots in Sicily Italy stretching back to the early 1900s. We visited Piccione and found it to be a scenic outpost of wine excellence in North Carolina’s wine country.

Italian Heritage, Blue Ridge Attitude

Bill Piccione never forgot his family heritage. His grandfather and grandmother, Giuseppe and Vita lived in Sicily before immigrating to the US via Ellis Island in 1921. Bill took a different path, becoming a Harvard-trained surgeon, but he never forgot Giuseppe’s homemade winery with a handpress, oak barrels and a manual bottling matching.

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Piccione Tasting RoomIn respect for family tradition, Bill obtained Italian citizenship for himself and his family. He pursued wine studies and earned certification as a sommelier. In 2010, in the picturesque hills of Swan Creek, North Carolina, Piccione Vineyards was founded – continuing Giuseppe’s dream of producing the finest wine possible.

Piccione was one stop during our recent visit to the Swan Creek AVA in North Carolina’s wine country. It combines several winning ingredients. The Piccione hillside location has a commanding view of vineyards and farmland stretching to the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. The tasting room is nicely furnished, but small and intimate. The outdoor patio makes you feel like you’re sitting on top of the world. Of course, there is the wine…


A Red Wine Rendezvous

Piccione SangiovesePiccione grows eight grape varieties with an emphasis on Italian grapes that thrive in the North Carolina climate. For the reds, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Montepulciano, Nero Amaro and Sangiovese are grown. White varieties include Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Vermentino.

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During the day we had visited several wineries and Piccione was our last stop. A tasting of all 10 Piccione wines was not in the cards, so we decided to do the red tasting – which was a more manageable five wines. We are enthusiastic Sangiovese fans and weren’t going to miss out.

It’s hard to find Sangiovese outside of Italy, but it thrives in Swan Creek. The 2014 Piccione Sangiovese has beautiful, red fruit flavors balanced with rounded tannins. There are notes of cherries and cranberry.

We are always up for a Super Tuscan, and the 2014 L’Ottimo is Piccione’s take on this famous style of wine. Grapes include 80% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Merlot and 5% Montepulciano. This is an excellent wine, but we favor the Sangiovese by a nose.

Chosing the next wine at Piccione.The 2014 Montepulciano was outstanding with a sour strawberry flavor with traces of coffee and tart cherry. The 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon was very good. Most North Carolina Cabs can’t go toe to toe with Cabernets from California, but we were pleasantly surprised by the Piccione Cab. It has extracted flavors of cherry and coffee. It has medium body and an engaging complexity.

We wrapped up with the 2014 Merlot. Swan Creek, as well as the Yadkin Valley AVA, has a way with Merlot and this bottle didn’t disappoint. It is light in body with just a touch of sweetness. Berry jam flavors are predominate.

After the tasting, we lingered a while on the patio, chatting with other visitors and soaking in the expansive view. The end to a Piccione Vineyards visit comes far too soon! We encourage you to visit soon – if you are too far away, Piccione ships to 38 states. Cin cin!