Monday, September 28, 2015

Exploring Temecula Valley: Southern California’s Wine Country

You mean there is more to the Golden State beyond Napa, Sonoma and Paso? Absolutely. Temecula Valley offers award winning wines, great restaurants and interesting shops.

Temecula Is One Hour From Everywhere

After a recent meeting in Anaheim, Green Dragon and I visited my cousin Mary and her husband Cleve. We wanted to taste some wine and the closest wine region is Temecula. In fact, Temecula Valley is an hour from San Diego, an hour from Orange County and an hour and 20 minutes from Los Angeles. It’s convenient, uncrowded and overflowing with good wine.

Southern California’s Largest Wine Producing Region

Temecula Valley AVA is located on the northern border of San Diego County and is Southern California’s largest wine producing region by volume. It is a sub-region of the larger South Coast AVA. It comprises 33,000 acres, but only 1,300 are planted to wine grapes.

The region is 22 miles from the Pacific and is bordered by inland valleys and coastal mountains. The soils are primarily decomposed granite and vineyards are 1,000 to 1,500 feet above sea level.

In 1820, the first wine grapes were planted in the valley by Mission San Capistrano padres. In 1974 the first winery opened in Temecula Valley. Today there are more than 40 wineries in the area.

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Rumbling Down The Back Wine Country Roads

As we tooled through the region in Mary’s new Volt, I had two impressions – the drought had dried the land to a crisp and also, it was a land of contrast. Despite arid conditions, beautiful homes and ranches sprang from the earth.

Mary had protested before our trip, saying how incredibly hot it would be, especially compared with the sea breezes of her Huntington Beach home. It was hot as advertised. If we were taking a 10-mile hike outside, I would have been concerned, but there were no worries since most of our day would be inside tasting rooms.

Our First Taste Of Temecula

Like Robert Frost, who opted for the road less traveled, we headed to De Portola Road, rather than Rancho California Road, which is the main thoroughfare of the Temecula Valley Wine Trail.

Our first stop was Frangipani Estate Winery, which has a decidedly European approach to winemaking. There are some wineries that cater to large bus tours, but this was an intimate tasting room with a beautiful view of the valley.
Robert, our host, was friendly and knowledgeable. He knows a bit about horseracing, so he and Cleve chatted away while we tasted their lineup.

The 2014 Grenache Rosé was just the chilled refreshment we needed after our drive. The wines range from $16 to $38 and are produced in an Old World style. The standouts of our tasting were the Reserve 2012 Syrah-Cabernet Sauvignon, 2012 Sangiovese and the 2013 Tempranillo.The Tempranillo had beautiful herbal and raspberry flavors that opened us we swirled.

I’d only had one Temecula wine prior to our visit and it was from Cougar Vineyard & Winery. The winery specializes in estate-grown Italian varieties. Unfortunately, they were sold out of their Sangiovese, which I had enjoyed – but there were plenty more selections.

As part of our strategy against the withering heat, we began with a glass of chilled Cougar Bubbly, which was crisp and effervescent. The 2014 Falanghina, a rather rare grape and limited production wine, was my favorite white. It was crisp and dry.
On the red side, we sampled the 2011 Aglianico, which is a robust red wine with plum flavors and healthy tannins. The 2012 Montepulciano was just OK. My favorite red was the 2012 Primitivo. For many years, Primitivo was thought to be a distinct grape variety – but in 1972 it was proved to be identical to Zinfandel. That’s quite alright with us, as Zin is one of our favorites. Cougar offers food at Sangio’s Deli and has a nice patio area for sipping wine.

Spectacular Reds Are Discovered

Our visit to Lorenzi Estate Vineyards and Winery almost didn’t happen. We looked high and low and couldn’t find it and finally set off on a gravel road for the main part of the wine trail. Lo and behold, we spotted Lorenzi and we’re glad we did.

The Lorenzi family planted Zinfandel vines in parts of Riverside and San Bernadino counties in the early 1900s. Owner Don Lorenzi remembers the smell of fermenting grapes at his grandparent’s house. Lorenzi received 20 vines cloned from the original 100-year-old vines. Grapes from these legendary vineyards formed the genesis of the Lorenzi private label.

The Lorenzi tasting room is simple and cozy. It also offers spectacular red wines, perhaps the best in Temecula.

The 2012 Ranch Red is a Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet and Grenache blend. It is a cross between a rosé and a Pinot Noir. It was served chilled and was a good introduction to the Lorenzi wines. We realized the wines were something special with the 2009 Adam and Eve, which is a Cabernet Franc and Merlot blend. The bouquet is powerful and there are flavors of black cherry, spice and coffee. The 2010 Zin City blend has earthiness and concentrated flavors.
Our other sips were simply superb, but the 2009 Reserve Zinfandel and the refined 2010 Cabernet Franc were standouts. Two wines receive our highest recommendations: the 2009 Red Fusion, which is a reserve blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Mourvedre, and the 2009 Catalyst, which is Zin, Syrah, Grenache, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Catalyst is a complex beauty intertwining flavors of rapsberry, fig, spice and mocha.

Our Tasting Team Needs A Break For Lunch

Since Mary and Cleve were hosting a party the next day back in Huntington Beach, we were trying to pack everything into one day. But even a dedicated wine lover needs to take a break for lunch. We found just the spot at the Maurice Car’rie Vineyard and Winery. We found a nice table with a view of the rolling vineyards.

I ordered a glass of Chenin Blanc and a grilled cheese and tomato soup combination. The sandwich came on crisped sourdough bread that was an immaculate combination with the soup. I could have easily had two or three more helpings – but we had one final stop yet to make on our trip.

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Headed To The Hilltop For A Final Tasting

There was so much more to see and do in Temecula, but we just didn’t budget the time. We had one winery scoped out that we wanted to visit, but it was closed for a wedding function. We were not deterred and instead headed for Lumiere Winery.

The tasting room is small but airy with plenty of windows. The Breezeway Grille adjoins the tasting room and provides some outdoor seating.
Owner Martha Kleiner gave us a personalized tasting. We started with the 2006 Daybreak Merlot, which includes 10% Cabernet Franc. The 2006 Black Cab was a blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon with 25% Petite Verdot. This is a stylish and enjoyable wine, but didn’t have as much structure as we would think.

Our favorite Lumiere wine was the 2007 Sofa King, a port-style wine. Green Dragon has started enjoying Port and this blend of Merlot, Petite Verdot, Cab Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon was the perfect way to cap off our tasting trip.

If you are wine adventurers, we suggest Temecula. If you are in LA or San Diego, this is much closer than the more famous wine regions to the north. Some might say that this is what California wine country used to be like – with great wines, friendly faces and first class wineries.

Now that we’ve had a taste, we hope to return soon. If you go, be sure to check out the Temecula Winegrowers Association website. Not only does this offer great information about the wineries, but some great coupons as well. We were able to use several two-for-one tasting coupons.

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