Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Obscure Varietal Tasting: Torrontes and Alicante Bouschet

OK, this was more weekend sipping than tasting, but I did taste a couple of not so common grapes. And I liked them.

The first obscure varietal came by way of the Crios de Susana Balbo 2008 Torrontes. Torrontes is, as far as I know, essentially indigenous to Argentina. Although European settlers probably brought what is now known as Torrontes to Argentina centuries ago, Argentina is the only place where this varietal is currently grown. As much as Argentina is known for its Malbec, Torrontes may well turn out to be Argentina's signature grape. Torrontes is extremely aromatic, much like Viognier, yet also has a high level of acidity like Sauvignon Blanc. At least this is what the bottle says, though this basic description is repeated in multiple locations on the web. If you're familiar with the floral aromas and tropical fruit a Viognier provides, you'll definitely want to look for some Torrontes.

The Crios 2008 Torrontes is probably a good starting point. I've had a couple of other wines from Susana Balbo and wasn't incredibly excited by them. There were well-made, tasty and easy to drink, but weren't quite as edgy or individualized as I'd hoped. The Torrontes is similarly user friendly and does have a fairly soft borderline sweet peach flavor. But there is also a healthy level of acidity which leads to a decently lingering and refreshing finish. That for me is the key a white wine: ripping acidity. This Torrontes, however, goes above and beyond the call of duty with its bouquet. It's a cross between lemon zest, tropical fruit, jasmin and peaches. It smells damn good, like a true lady wearing an expensive perfume. Although I don't want to anthropomorphise too heavily, the Crios Torrontes is pretty damn seductive. And yet she's also a cheap date at $12!

Score: 88-90
Price: $12 at Costco

Our Saturday night sipper was the Wellington 2006 Noir de Noirs. "Dark from darks" you say? Aren't all red wines from dark grapes? The Noir de Noirs is composed mostly of Alicante Bouschet, a dark, thick skinned grape with dark pulp as well. Nearly all vitis vinifera varietals have lightly colored pulp; red wines typically get their color entirely from their skins. But teinturiers like Alicante Bouschet get their deep color from both the skin and pulp, hence Wellington's Noir de Noirs nomenclature. Plural you say? That's because the Noir de Noirs also has a bit of the teinturiers Lenoir, Grand Noir and Petite Bouschet (which was crossed with Grenache to produce Alicante Bouschet). Pity the fool who picks up a bottle of Noir de Noirs thinking it'll be Pinot Noir! This wine was made entirely from low yielding old vines. Alicante Bouschet was prized during the Great Depression and Prohibition for its hardiness during transportation and the amount of inky juice one could extract. Thus, the few Alicante vines still around are holdovers from a different era.

The bouquet of this wine was nice, but not spectacular. Alicante Bouschet is not known as a noble grape, and the bouquet seemed to reflect its reputation. There's a big dose of primal grapey fruit, some rose and a bit of coffee. However, the taste is another story. The ABV is a moderate 13.8%, yet the wine is concentrated and viscous with a pervasive minerality (aside: I'm not quite sure what minerality means or if you can even taste "minerals," though in the context of wine it generally relates a silky, non-fruit quality). Even better, there's great acidity and mellow tannins to keep everything in balance. This is one of the best tasting wines I've had recently. Best of all, the finish is elegant and seamless. It's a muscular wine with gobs of fruit, but there's also a ton of classiness under the angular exterior. Everything is in place for an interesting sipper: obscure varietals, individual character and general tastiness. A bit pricey, but worth it. Coppola Winery has an Alicante out as well for around $14, and the Wellington easily blows that away. And as you can see from the blurred image of a Blue Ram swimming towards the bottle, even the fish dig it.

Score: 90-92
Price: $25 from Wellington Vineyards (though I paid around $19)

Friday, January 23, 2009

Fun with Numbers: ABV & pH

I'm one of those wine geeks who immediately becomes suspicious of a wine when the labeled ABV creeps up to the 15% or greater range. High alcohol is usually an indicator of a wine that's going to be rich and mouth-filling, largely because the alcohol increases the viscosity of the wine. High alcohol is also synonymous with high sugar levels at harvest, meaning that a wine with 15% ABV will also likely have a very fruit-forward or even raisin-like profile because of hot weather or extended time hanging on the vine in the fall. Though I usually prefer wines that have more to them than big fruit, there are times when a massive wine will do the trick. The problem, though, is that in many cases the ethanol becomes the overwhelming flavor component or the wine tastes more like a port than dry wine.

When the alcohol is poorly balanced, the wine smells like "jungle juice" and often the finish is cut short by alcohol burn. Too much oak, too much bell pepper (methoxypyrazines), or too much barnyard (Brettanomyces) can also unbalance a wine. But nothing is quite as obnoxious to me as sipping a wine while relaxing and feeling like I'm drinking a cocktail that's too strong.

The funny thing, though, is that ABV is not a great predictor of how much of the alcohol you'll smell. Some wines labeled as 13% ABV reek of ethanol, while others at 15% ABV don't. Part of this may be related to labeling. For wines under 14%, producers are allowed to be off by as much as 1.5%. 12.5% ABV really means a wine falls between 11% and 14%, which conveniently is the legal designation of "table wine." Wines at 14.1% and above can differ from the labeled value by as much as 1%.

But another part of the equation is the "stuffing" of the wine. And while it's pretty silly to reduce a biologically complex stew to a few numbers, the pH is a quantifiable that says a fair amount about a wine. I do like some of the powerful "linebacker" wines out there. But others comes across more like a desert. The dividing line between the two for me is the acidity. Orange juice is filled with sugar, but doesn't taste sweet like Kool Aid because of the high quantities of citric acid. Similarly, the presence of a suitable level of acid in a wine makes it a bit mouth watering and refreshing with a lingering finish instead of syrupy with no lasting flavor.

Of course it's a bit more complicated since there are two common measures of acidity: the pH and titratable acidity (TA), most of which is tartaric acid. The same quantity of different acids like hydrochloric and citric acid dissolved in water will have a different pH because the solutions will have a different concentration of hydrogen cations. Although this is again a reductionist oversimplification, I tend to associate TA (mainly tartaric acid) with how sour a wine tastes while I suspect pH is more important in terms of the chemistry of the wine. In particular, wines with lower pHs require less sulfur dioxide as a preservative and are more stable for aging.

At any rate, pH is a figure of merit that may be as important as the ABV. And because pH and TA are somewhat correlated, pH by itself offers useful information on the overall acidic profile of a wine. For example, even if a higher alcohol wine doesn't smell of ethanol, it can still feel sweet because of the alcohol itself and unfermented sugars. Acidity help to balance out the perception of sweetness.

I've looked up the pH of as many of the red wines as I could that I've tasted recently with alcohol around 15% listed in order of their pH:

Longoria 2005 Clover Creek Syrah, 15.3% ABV, 3.27 pH
Iron Horse 2005 Cab Franc, 14.5% ABV, 3.30 pH
Iron Horse 2005 Bdx-3, 14.8% ABV, 3.48 pH
Wellington 2006 Syrah, 14.3% ABV, 3.5 pH
Maquis Lien 2004, 14.5% ABV, 3.5 pH
Mill Creek 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, 15.0% ABV, 3.54 pH
Stryker 2005 Rockpile Petite Verdot, 14.5% ABV, 3.57 pH
Stryker 2004 Speedy Creek Cabernet Sauvignon, 15.0% ABV, 3.58 pH
Dierberg 2006 Pinot Noir, 14.9% ABV, 3.68 pH
Papapietro Perry 2006 Leras Family Vineyards Pinot Noir, 14.5% ABV, 3.81 pH
Dierberg 2006 Merlot, 15.1% ABV, 3.81 pH
Dierberg 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, 15.1% ABV, 3.85 pH
Dierberg 2005 Syrah, 15.1% ABV, 3.98 pH

I'll be the first to admit this list is unscientific and limited by which producers list the pH on their fact sheets. But what I can say is that, without prior knowledge of the pH, only the 2004 Maquis Lien was outwardly alcoholic among those wines under 3.6 pH. The other wines in this pH range generally had a slightly mouth-puckering quality without tasting sour. Of the wines over 3.6 pH, I only enjoyed the Dierberg and Papapietro Perry Pinot Noirs. The last three wines on the list all seemed very soft and almost syrupy. So there does seem to be a correlation between pH and how I perceive a wine.

Of particular note is the difference between Dierberg and Stryker's wines. Dierberg's I generally did not like. Stryker's I did. Both wineries pursue the big, fruity style of wine. But Stryker's wines consistently have pHs in the 3.5 to 3.6 range, while Dierberg's are typically in the 3.8 to 3.9 range for the vintages I tasted. Since pH is a logarithmic scale, a 3.5 pH wine has double the amount of hydrogen cations in solution as a 3.8 pH wine. A difference of .3 in pH is actually indicates a very significant difference in the chemistry of a wine.

Unfortunately, you typically won't know the pH of a wine when shopping. If you are ordering over the internet, you might be able to find that bit of info. But generally you're out of luck. If you do have access to the pH, though, it will help in determining the style of a wine. A pH under 3.5 suggests a wine with a little more mouth watering bite which can help to balance out the richness of high alcohol, residual sugar or big gobs of fruit. Lower pH might also indicate a longer, lingering finish in a wine that is well balanced overall. A pH over 3.7 or 3.8, though, suggests a very soft potentially desert-like profile, especially when the wine is high in fruit and alcohol content.

Similarly, alcohol levels can help judge style. Under 13% will likely mean a lighter bodied wine, probably with more noticeable acidity. The 14% range is a little more voluptuous, but not necessarily syrupy. Usually the fruit is prominent, but leaves room for secondary characteristics. Over 15% is where a wine acquires a mouth-filling, rich quality and typically the wine will be oozing jammy fruit.

Unfortunately, I don't think the question of which wines will taste like alcohol can be answered numerically. Wines with more tannins and acidity do seem to be able to handle the heat better. But it looks like the only way to find out the whole story is just to taste and see if you like it!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Foster's, Australian for Wine

When you walk into a grocery store with an aisle of wines, picking one bottle out from the dozens of similarly priced brands appears to be a daunting task. But unless your local grocery store consciously stocks wine from smaller or local producers, this seeming preponderance of variety is largely an illusion. Foster's, for example, markets its beer as THE beer that Australians drink to give it a unique niche in the US market. But in reality it's less popular in Australia than Milwaukee's Best is in the US. Foster's is just cheap beer in a different colored can.

The same can likely be said for many of Foster's wines. Among the brands that Fosters lists in its portfolio are premium brands of outstanding heritage such as Penfolds, Stags' Leap and Beringer. For these wineries, that likely means wider distribution for their top-end wines while making a few cheaper options in large quantities taking advantage of their well-known name. Also under the Foster's umbrella are more pedestrian but widely available labels like Meridian, the Little Penguin, and Cellar No. 8. Rosemount, which is known as much for its square-based bottle as its wine, also belongs to Foster's.

I don't intend to imply these wines are swill like Foster's beer. Quite to the contrary, many of these brands put good stuff in the bottle. But because they are ultimately looking to maximize profit, a lot of these wines are products manufactured to suit the prevailing tastes of the market. Uniformity and consistency become more important than individuality. The upside is that you know what to expect. There won't be spoiled bottles with weird aromas or unpleasant microbes. But the downside is a lack of differentiation across different labels and varietals.

Foster's is not the only large beverage corporation in the wine business. E&J Gallo owns, among others, Australian labels Black Swan, McWilliams and Mattie's Perch (the one with a koala), American labels Dancing Bull, Turning Leaf and Barefoot, French label Red Bicyclette, Italian label Ecco Domani, and South African label Sebeka (the one with a cheetah). Big boys Constellation Brands includes several lines of Mondavi wines, Rex Goliath (the one with the giant fighting chicken), Ravenswood (as expected, there's a raven on the label), Blackstone, Wild Horse and Arbor Mist under its umbrella. Meanwhile, beverage giant Diageo owns not only Smirnoff, Baileys, Johnnie Walker, Crown Royal and Captain Morgan, but also Beaulieu Vineyards (or BV for short) and Sterling Vineyards. Pernod Ricard has Campo Viejo, Mumm Napa and Jacob's Creek nestled among its collection of hard liquor like Wild Turkey and Absolut.

In another category all to itself is LVMH. They've managed to consolidate luxury (i.e. outrageously expensive) labels such as Chateau d'Yquem, Dom Perignon and Veuve Cliquot. You won't have to worry about homogeneity here, but it is nonetheless symptomatic that one entity owns so much different stuff that ultra-wealthy people love to buy to show how different they are from other ultra-wealthy people. It turns out if you've brought a $200 half-bottle d'Yquem as the desert wine in an attempt to out-do your Dom Perignon Champagne drinking hosts, your money is all going to the same monolith.

Next time you walk into your grocery store, do not fret over the infinite choices presented to you. First, you'll only find about 5 or 6 different varietals. Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay are about the only choices you'll have. But most of the red wines will taste like generic red wine because they've been manufactured to suppress their individuality in the interest of suiting the tastes of the broadest base of consumers possible. Next, remember that all the labels you see are just marketing angles from a handful of corporations. Animal labels on "critter wines" are sure giveaways that you've found something from a big conglomerate. Kangaroos (YellowTail) are just a way to grab your attention. A corollary is that the consumer ends up paying more for the wine despite its low price because a large chunk of the price goes to marketing and other overhead. You can be pretty sure that whatever you pick out in a grocery store will be similar to 90% of the stuff you didn't pick out and that the critter on the label is not going to make much of a difference on what's inside the bottle.

I'm not arguing against cheap wine, though in many cases you'll get much better value from a small brewer than from a large wine producer for the same price (a bottle of wine gets about the same mileage as a 6 pack of beer). I am suggesting, however, that consumers can make informed choices. There are hundreds if not thousands of cheap wines imported into the US by knowledgeable importers. You won't find these at a grocery store, but often a wine shop will have a selection of these less expensive wines for the everyday shopper. Cheap, interesting wine requires a little research and effort on the consumer's part. After all, you wouldn't go to a grocery store to find a wide selection of micro-brewed ales.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Franc News and Holiday Wrap Up

I came across a couple of recent Cab Franc articles that are worth sharing. The first is simply some nice PR for Cab Franc including a few reviews of French and domestic wines. In another article that hits closer to home, Karen Steinwachs, Buttonwood Farm's winemaker, is quoted in an article about Franc Fest as stating that Cabernet Franc is the "the Pinot Noir of the Bordeaux world." I'm definitely not the first person to make this link, even though I love to repeat it as much as possible, but it's all the better to see it in print from the winemaker at my favorite local winery. It is interesting in reading this article to see different winemakers' perceptions of Cabernet Franc. In France it is perceived as an early ripening grape, and this may well be true for the regions where's its grown. But in Santa Ynez Cab Franc seems to have its share of struggles, though winemakers here are more focused on eliminating herbaceousness from the wine than French vignerons.

Franc Fest, by the way, is a yearly tasting of Cabernet Franc from local producers which was hosted at Buttonwood this year. I was lucky enough to be introduced this year to Longoria Winery (Rick Longoria is quoted as well in the above article), whose representatives were pouring their Blues Cuvee. The backstory of the Blues Cuvee is rather telling. In short, Rick Longoria produced some killer Cab Franc back when I was far too young to be sipping wine. But, since it was Franc instead of Sauvignon, no one wanted it. He rebranded it as as proprietary blend named Blues Cuvee, and suddenly it sold like hotcakes. Apparently it's better to make a terrible wine from a well-known appellation or with a famous varietal than to make an excellent wine without name recognition. That is unless you use some clever sleight of hand to slip your no-name varietal in under the radar.

I'd love to write more about the oenological greatness that is Longoria Wines, but that's a post for another day. Instead I'll wrap up a few post-New Year's tastings.

First up was Alma Rosa Winery. Alma Rosa is run by Richard Sanford, who was the first vintner to plant Pinot Noir in the now-famous Santa Rita Hills appellation. He's since sold his original Sanford brand to his partners due to "philosophical differences," and Alma Rosa is his current endeavor. This is a must-visit if you appreciate wines that express the grapes and their growing environment. Their Chardonnay, for example, has outstanding acidity and actually smells like citrus fruit instead of vanilla because they don't inoculate with malolactic bacteria and use oak lightly. The Pinot Noirs are similarly elegant and balanced. A lot of Santa Barbara wineries look to pump their wines up on steroids with high Brix at harvest, which leads to high alcohol, residual sugar, or both. Alma Rosa achieves a great balance between the California and French styles of wine.

Star Lane and Dierberg Vineyards unapologetically take the purely California approach to winemaking. The pourers made this clear when they announced their winemaker likes to let the grapes hang and harvest late. I can't quantitatively define where the line between enjoyably decadent and over the top is, but most of the wines I tasted here crossed this line. Their Chardonnay smelled like someone had blasted almonds out of a cannon into the barrel where the wine was aging. I actually liked this bouquet, but found the richness of the taste to be overbearing. The Pinot Noir, while similarly styled, was excellent. Dark and rich, but with a great nose of cloves and red fruit without being excessively jammy. It's quite different in style than Alma Rosa, yet well structured enough to support the riper style. Their Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet, though, did come across as very jammy and somewhat lacking in acidic structure. The stats on the Cab back up my subjective perception: 3.85 pH and 15.1% alcohol. The 2005 Syrah and 2006 Merlot also are 15.1% ABV with 3.98 and 3.81 pH, respectively. The flavor profile is soft and pleasant, for sure. But the focus on big, big fruit at the detriment of other qualities is a style that works for me only in smaller doses. [Edit: I should also add here that this style works for me at smaller prices since I can find enjoyable fruit bomb type wines in the $20 range; in the $30+ range I'd hope that there's more to the wine than just a gregarious fruit profile.] They do pour big which will please the limo and bus crowd that's looking for a buzz.

Our last stop was at Beckmen Vineyards. For whatever reason, all of the wines had a very sweet taste. White wines and red wines both were very saccharine. That suggests perhaps my palate was off because it seems unlikely that every wine would have residual sugar after fermentation. Despite what I perceived to be cloying sweetness across the board, the Estate Syrah did have a great nose of smoked meat and nuts. It sounds weird, of course, but the weirdest wines are often the most rewarding. Definite thumbs up on the Estate Syrah though the overall style differed from my personal tastes.

Note: Dierberg 2005 Syrah and Star Lane 2006 Merlot pH and ABV are cited directly from Dierberg and Star Lane's website. The Star Lane 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon stats are from a 3rd party PDF.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Day 2: Afternoon in Dry Creek

In the afternoon we crossed into Dry Creek and stopped first at Bella. This is definitely the place to go if you want to taste inside a functioning wine cave that's also a bit of a tourist trap. Distracting souvenirs aside, Bella makes some killer Zins that pack a ton of aggressive-berry and even a little spice into an integrated package with mouth-watering acidity and drying tannins. The 2006 Big River Ranch Zin was my favorite of the flight largely because the Petite Sirah in the blend made the wine mouth-puckeringly tannic. In a flight of wines that tackled your mouth like a blitzing strong safety, this was a 250 pound middle linebacker of a wine. If you're gonna go big, you might as well go with a linebacker wine and the Big River Ranch Zin is an All-American linebacker for certain.

Preston of Dry Creek, an organic producer, is right next door to Bella. Having tasted through Burgundian, Bordelais and American varietals, Preston's focus on Rhone blends was a refreshing change from an assault of single varietals produced in the bruising New World style. The white wines were uniformly excellent, with the 2007 Viognier and 2007 Madame Preston, a blend of Roussanne, Viognier, Grenache Blanc and Marsanne, outshining every other white wine tasted on the trip. Viognier is typically very fragrant; the Preston Viognier smelled like honey, pineapple, pear and a hillside of flowers, yet was fully dry with noticeable acidity. Although not as crisp as a good Sauvignon Blanc, the Preston Viognier paired the bouquet of a desert wine with the palate of a refreshing white wine. And as good as the Viognier was, the Madame Preston was even better. There's a bit of creaminess to it and light oak tannins perk up the already lively structure. Meanwhile, the nose is even more seductive as the Viognier is present, yet subdued, while the Roussanne presents a subtle tropical tone. I generally have very little to say about white wines, but Preston Rhone whites are the kind of whites that can soften the tannic heart of even the most ardent red drinker. The red wines at Preston were more earthy and terroir driven than any of the reds tasted up to this point. The L. Preston, a blend of Syrah, Cinsault, Mourvedre and Carignane, has a nice earthiness to it and some complexity percolating just below the surface that would make it interesting to drink over more than one glass.

Our last stop was at Papapietro-Perry, who specialize in Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. Proprietor-winemakers Ben Papapietro and Bruce Perry started out making Pinot Noir as a hobby and now make a variety of single vineyard bottlings from grapes they purchase from multiple sources in Sonoma. We added their tasting room to our list of stops as a bit of an afterthought, but this proved to be one of the more interesting tastings of the trip for a variety of reasons.

There were three Pinots from the 2006 vintage on the tasting list which really demostrated what a huge difference terroir makes on a wine. The Pinot from the warmest location, Elsbree Vineyards, where grapes were harvested earliest had the lightest body and color of the three as well as an earthier, herbal quality and lower alcohol. The slightly cooler climate Leras Family Vineyard Pinot was harvested next in mid-September and had a great balance between earthy funkiness, forward fruit and elegant complexity. The richest, most heavily fruited Pinot came from the coolest vineyard, Peters Vineyard, which harvested from late September to mid-October. Three different sites, and three clearly distinguishable wines. Where other wineries impress their style onto pliant fruit, the fruit at Papapietro-Perry simply expresses itself.

Looking at their list of different Pinot bottlings is like looking at a big Pinot experiment. Some wines are bottled by vineyard with a mixture of grape clones, while others are bottled by the clone of Pinot Noir. But the same winemaking methods are employed for every lot of wine. Tasting a entire vintage of their Pinots would be a very educational experience. But this grand experiment extends beyond Pinot to their Zinfandel. In contrast to the linebacker wines most wineries are producing, Papapietro-Perry Zins are lightly extracted and elegant like their Pinot Noir. Although the alcohol was still noticeably high in one of the Zinfandels, they were a refreshing change from the monolithic "bigger is better" style at virtually every other winery. These were Zins that I could imagine expressing their terroir in more terms than just degrees of intensity.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Day 2: Morning in Alexander Valley

Our second day we managed to hit 5 wineries despite a fairly leisurely pace. It was ambitious, but by dumping, spitting or passing off shared tastings to the non-driver and mapping a big loop we pulled it off responsibly and well before sunset.

The first stop was at Stryker Sonoma Winery in Alexander Valley. Despite being relative newcomers to the area, the individuals behind Stryker are clearly aspiring and well-funded. Their winery and tasting room are located in an impressive new building that overlooks their estate vineyards. Their wines mirror what their winery embodies. They're bold, ambitious, and fairly costly. Although not subtle in any way, the wines generally had good structure to prop up the massive California fruit and balanced use of oak.

The tasting room offered a free mixed flight, a Zin flight and a Bordeaux flight. We opted for the free flight and the Bordeaux flight. The Zin and Cab in the initial flight were good but not particularly distinctive and for the $20 to $30 range were not pushing the right buttons. Unfortunately, jammy aggressive-berry alone doesn't quite do it for me. The Semillon, though, provided a minerally respite from the typical Sauvignon Blanc/Chardonnay bottlings that kick off most tastings.

The single vineyard, single varietal Bordeaux flight, however, had significantly more to offer. Stryker caught our attention because they produce all of the classic Bordeaux varietals and source some of their grapes from Rockpile, a rugged, remote appellation in the upper western corner of Dry Creek. The 2004 Alegria Vineyard RRV Cabernet Franc was fruit forward yet retained a dollop of the herbs and tobacco that make Cab Franc such a rewarding varietal. The pourer commented that the '05 vintage was more in keeping with their style (i.e. jammier), but the '04 is exactly what I'd look for from a Cali Cab Franc with its grippy tannins, some oak, and general lushness and bigness that leaves a little room for some semblance of balance. At $34, though, it wasn't screaming "Buy Me!"

Next up were the 2005 Rockpile Merlot, 2004 Speedy Creek Cabernet Sauvignon and 2003 Reserve Cabernet. These wines would best be described as big, bigger and biggest. Having missed out on the Rockpile Zin at Seghesio, I was pleased to see the Rockpile Merlot was available to taste. This Merlot had serious concentration, yet still has the softness and lushness one would anticipate from Merlot. Still, I had been hoping it would be edgier and more rustic as one might expect from a location named after a pile of rocks. The '04 Speedy Creek Cab from Knights Valley ended up being our favorite Cab and the one we took home. It tended towards dark fruit with maybe a hint of eucalyptus and had sufficient structure to keep the bigness balanced by other types of bigness. I only have one hedonistic Cali Cab in comparison to a dozen or so Cab Francs of various origins, so oddly enough an international styled Cab S likely adds diversity to what I'll be drinking in the next few years. The Reserve Cab brought more of the same though it seemed to have a little more red fruit.

Our pourer was happy to indulge our interest in the 2005 Rockpile Petite Verdot by opening a fresh bottle for us to taste. His description of "dead violets" was dead-on and we left with a bottle of that as well. If you're going to taste big versions of darkly-colored wines from an extreme sub-appellation, you might as well go with the most obscure grape that makes the inkiest, richest and most aromatic wine of the bunch. Stryker is definitely hitting the upper threshold of sensibility with most of their wines. Many are in the 14.5% to 15.0% ABV range with the Zins typically pushing 15.5%. But they do pull off this style without ending up with clumsy, undrinkable cocktail wines. Instead they're just very good New World fruit bombs. I'm particularly impressed that they produce so many different cuvees at such a small winery, though this is in no small part aided by the fact that they have a clearly defined style and fruit suited to this style.

Next up was Mosaic and deLorimier, with deLorimier producing the estate wines and Mosaic producing wines with externally sourced grapes at the same facility. They were clearly looking to move some inventory with big discounts on case purchases and were pouring just about everything. Nearly all the wines were good, but not necessarily distinctive. The only real standouts were the Crazy Creek Cabernet and the 2005 Mosaic Malbec. The Malbec offered the best value as well as some good underbrush and mushroom to complement the dark, lush California fruit. In fairness to Mosaic and deLorimier, most of their wines were priced very reasonably. But I'm typically not looking for a very well-made, generic wine in the $20-$30 range when I'm tasting. That's more for the $15 range in my budget, while the $20-$30 range really needs to have some unique quality to get my attention.

I'll cover our afternoon tastings in my next post.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Boxing Day with an Iron Horse and the Agressive-Berry

After spending Christmas in San Francisco, my girlfriend and I headed north to Healdsburg for some wine tasting and relaxation. Our hotel in San Fran had offered complementary wine during Happy Hour. Unfortunately, they provided Charles Shaw and, despite Chuck's Chard being better than most Chards in the under $10 range, this was not quite what we had in mind as a good way to transition into a trip to wine country.

We selected Healdsburg as our destination because it's pretty much the axle in the appellation wheel formed by the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek and Alexander Valley. It's also somewhat removed from the melange of corporate wineries and ambitious new money that is Napa. I haven't been to Napa or Sonoma Valley, but I can only imagine it as being a sort of wine-themed amusement park complete with kitschy souvenirs and all the standard trappings of a tourist destination. There are a few wineries, particularly those owned by large conglomerates, in nearby Santa Ynez Valley that pile on the t-shirts and vaulted ceilings, and this really detracts from the whole tasting experience for those who don't pull up in a stretch SUV or tour bus.

Our first stop on the way north was Iron Horse Vineyards just outside of Sebastopol in Green Valley. Although their wines easily eclipsed the 2 Buck Chuck, what was most impressive was the atmosphere of the winery. Iron Horse is one of the most respected producers in the US, but unlike most big names, the winery appears to be singularly focused on making great wine the way they like to make it. The winery is located at the end of a single lane road that includes a makeshift bridge over a creek and convex mirrors to help drivers see around blind corners as they work their way up to the hill upon which their winery is perched. The outdoor tasting room attached to the winery overlooks not only their vineyards, but the Russian River Valley as well. The only souvenirs you'll find there are bottles of the wine they're pouring.

Iron Horse is perhaps best known for its sparkling wines. I'm not much of a sparkling wine drinker, though the one real flaw that will destroy any sparkler for me is excessive residual sugar. All of the Iron Horse sparklers, even the Russian Cuvee which by their standards is sweet, come across as dry and wonderfully balanced. Of the five sparklers I tasted, the 2003 Blanc de Blancs was my personal favorite because of the dry finish, mildly nutty, yeasty nose and the harmoniously acidic citrus flavors that one would find in a white still wine from a cooler climate. While doing some "research" for this blog post, I discovered that Wine Enthusiast placed the 2002 Blanc de Blancs very highly in its end of the year rankings. Apparently I'm not the only one enamored with this flavor profile.

Iron Horse's still wines are equally beguiling. Although I wasn't excited by their Chardonnays, all of their red wines showed excellent balance, restraint and elegance. My previous post on the 2005 Cab Franc sums up the flavor profile their Bordeaux blends from T-bar-T offer. The Cabernet Sauvignon heavy blends, however, do offer more cassis and dark berry flavors in addition to the red fruit that's prominent in the Cab Franc. Despite the darker fruit profile, the 2005 Bdx-3 and 2003 Benchmark are elegant wines with moderate alcohol levels, seamless lengthy finishes and bright acidity. There's no jam or fatness here, just silk and balance with a hint of tobacco.

Last, but certainly not least, are their Pinot Noirs. I'm by no means a serious Pinot drinker. However, Pinots that are hot or otherwise clumsy are pretty easy for me to pick out. On the other end of the spectrum nimble, lighter bodied Pinots are also easily discerned. Iron Horse Pinot falls decidedly on the nuanced end of the spectrum. My personal favorite, the 2007 Estate Pinot, was seductively fruity, yet offered a big burst of herbs on the finish. Their more expensive bottlings were darker with more overt fruit and perhaps have more aging potential (these fall in a grey area for me since I can't project how they'll develop), but as a youthful wine with real complexity the Estate Pinot really hits the mark.

We stopped at three other wineries the day after Christmas, but none quite matched Iron Horse's classy wines. Hop Kiln had a fragrant white blend named Thousand Flowers as well as an intriguing Malbec that paired a nose of earth, mocha and coffee with a smooth fruit-forward palate. However, the Estate Pinot Noir they poured came across as hot and disjointed. Maybe it was a bad bottle or hadn't been open long enough, but it was disappointing that their flagship wine did not show well. Mill Creek poured its estate Gewurtzstraminer and a variety a big red wines including Zin, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet. The Gewurtztraminer was extremely aromatic, but was vinified to be semi-sweet. For my palate, fragrant whites work best when fully dry and balanced with acidity. I did enjoy their 2005 Cabernet which had a very prominent jalapeno pepper component to its bouquet, loads of dark fruit, and a big tannic structure. Overall their wines were well-made and fairly priced, but hard to differentiate from other wines produced in this style.

After decompressing a bit, our last stop was Seghesio Family Vineyards in downtown Healdsburg. We had been hoping to taste their Aglianico, Arneis and Fiano, but the limited production of these varietals meant they weren't pouring any of these three. Seghesio did however pour two Sangioveses, several Zins, a Petite Sirah and a port. The Zins, their signature varietal, are best described as big, bigger and gigantic. The important detail, however, is that their old vines produce wine with the structure to support what would ordinarily be palate torching degrees of alcohol. The tannins and acidity are present to balance the intensity of the fruit and viscosity of the alcohol. From the nose, Seghesio Zins conjure up an image of a gigantic blackberry wrapped in barbed wire growing on a thorny vine. The berry is massive and it is aggressive. It is the aggressive-berry. The Seghesio Petite Sirah had slightly lower aggressive-berry content than the Zins, but in its place were oceans of Petite Sirah-fueled tannins and a heart of pure darkness. There's no doubt these wines are balanced with extremes. A 600 pound gorilla of concentrated fruit on one side of the fulcrum is offset by an African lion of tannin. To say that subtlety is lacking in these wines is to entirely miss the point. Seghesio does this style extremely well and, more importantly, expresses exactly what their terroir and ancient vines have to say. I left the tasting room, which offered a great view of the barrel room and kept the extraneous souvenirs to a minimum, empty handed, but now am beginning to understand what a massive Zin can be in the hands of masters.

Having worked our way up through the Russian River Valley to Dry Creek on our first day, I'll cover our stops in Alexander Valley and upper Dry Creek in my next post.