Sunday, April 26, 2009

WN: Lacrima di Morro d'Alba & Valpolicella Classico Superiore

Italy is a country whose wines I'd like to visit more often. No other nation seems to have quite as immense an array of growing regions and varietals as Italy. There are the big names like Amarone, Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello if you are looking for a way to drop $50+ on a bottle of wine. Being the value conscious buyer that I am, I've been looking into the dozens if not hundreds of varietals and regions (Italy has an utterly confusing appellation system based on IGT, DOC and DOCG designations) that aren't as well recognized as the most noble wines of Italy. There's a general perception that Italian wines aren't good values, but that depends on your perception of value. If you're looking for a unique wine that synergizes with food, the lesser-know appellations of Italy have much to offer. A good recent white wine find was the Suavia 2007 Soave Classico, a blend of 95% Garganega and 5% Trebbiano di Soave that's well balanced and slightly reminiscent of green apples. Pictured here are the Caterina Zardini 2005 Valpolicella Classico Superiore and the Luciano Landi 2006 Gavigliano Lacrima di Morro d'Alba. Both are moderately priced and show loads of character.

The Zardini 2005 Valpolicella is a blockbuster styled wine made from 60% Corvina and Corvina Veronese and 40% Rondinella, but a blockbuster that's unique enough to keep it from slipping into an abyss of anonymity. I couldn't help but imagine this wine as anything other than a Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western. Certainly it's a full bodied masculine wine with a smooth round entry, sweet mid-palate and polished, yet tannic finish. I would be surprised if this wine didn't see significant barrel aging; however, the oak is tastefully integrated to provide a crowd-pleasing New World-styled palate. However, the bouquet is a stark departure from the sweetly fruited palate. The Man with No Name was always chomping on a cigar while he glared out over miles of parched brush. Convert that image to a smell and that's the bouquet of this wine. Dusty, dry, vegetative and reminiscent of burnt tobacco (or slightly more pejoratively, an ash tray). One can smell that sweet berry jam a bit, too, but fortunately the scowling bounty hunter aromas win out.

One should expect a Valpolicella to be fairly rich and unctuous. Valpolicella is typically produced like a less-intense Amarone. Amarones are made by drying out grapes on mats to essentially raisin the grapes, which produces a concentrated and powerful wine. While the sweetness of this wine was eventually a little overbearing and it's only built to pair with very rich foods, one must appreciate that it captures an intriguing combination of traditional expression, New World polish, and fascinating (if potentially off-putting) aromatics.

The Landi 2006 Lacrima is a very feminine wine in comparison. Lacrima di Morro is an ancient varietal that is known for its hauntingly floral bouquet. Or at least that's the description that motivated me to order this wine. It didn't disappoint. The bottle lists rosa canina and marasca as the floral aromas it evokes; I have no idea what these blossoms smell like, but the floral 'theme' is right on the mark. The wine smells almost like a fragrance with slightly pungent floral aromas, more fragrant rosy aromas, and a musky slightly spicy cinnamon-like smell as well. I'm tempted to say this is 4 parts perfume, 1 part cologne on the nose. Divide it as you'd like, this is a red wine that compares to even the most flamboyant of white wines in terms of its floral expression, though they are not high-toned like the honeysuckle or jasmin typical of aromatic white wines.

The palate screams 'food wine' with its combination of acidity, linear flavors and minimal oak influence. Light tannins complement flavors primarily of sour cherry. It certainly became more complete on its own over time, but the food-wine combination was greater than the sum of its parts. Whereas the Valpolicella became flabby and ungainly, the Lacrima picked up more weight and enhanced the food as well. Was one of these two wines better than the other? Well, I liked the Lacrima slightly better because I consider floral aromas a rare and highly desirable trait in any wine. A professional reviewer would almost certainly rate the Valpolicella significantly higher based on the strength of its full-bodied palate. But both performed admirably in the appropriate context and absolutely 'oozed character' as I like to say.

Caterina Zardini 2005 Valpolicella Classico Superiore
Score: 87-90
Price: $20 from Winelibrary

Luciano Landi 2006 Gavigliano Lacrima di Morro d'Alba
Score: 89-92
Price: $17 from Wine Exchange

A Few Changes

I've added a couple of new features to the blog:

- There are now ads embedded. Hopefully this will not be too intrusive as the advertisements all are placed at logical points after or between content. Personally, I think they look a bit out of place, especially since tattoo removal seems to come up in every other ad. But it's worth a try.

- There are now links on the sidebar to Cabernet Franc Websites. I can only scratch the surface of all things Cabernet Franc, especially when there are so many fascinating non-Cab Franc based wines around. So now there's a small but hopefully growing resource here to connect readers to additional Cab Franc info. Thanks to Lowell Jacobson/Loweeel/PetiteSirah for the Israeli Cab Franc link.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

WN: Huber Cellars 2005 Dornfelder

What do you get when you cross Helfensteiner and Heroldrebe? Dornfelder, of course! If this reads like a German joke that doesn't quite come through in translation, you are definitely on the right track. Dornfelder is a hybrid varietal native to Germany known for its dark, inky color and its ability to produce a hefty, masculine wine even in cooler growing regions. Southern California might not seem like the ideal location for such a grape since there's no shortage of warm weather or varietals that can produce powerful wines. However, the Huber family grows Pinot Noir in the Santa Rita Hills appellation, which is rather foggy, windy and even chilly by California standards. The Hubers are of German ancestry, and when German friends presented them with Dornfelder vine stock, they decided to give it a shot.

Based on the Huber 2005 Dornfelder, I'd say this was a well-gauged risk. The Santa Rita Hills AVA will ultimately be known for its Pinot and Chardonnay, but Dornfelder seems to be as well matched as Syrah, which produces very profound wines when grown in cool regions, to the area. The first thing you'd notice about this wine is that it has a proclivity to stain anything that comes in contact with it. Even the green glass of its bottle is dyed an eerie deep maroon below the neck. A little sediment caked on the bottle is fairly common, but this was a staining deposit of pigment. A similar effect could be seen in the decanter and glass, though fortunately the effect was not permanent. This Dornfelder is not so much a red wine as a black wine, and it coats everything in its path with an ominous, dark veil. The effect is similar to that of a teinturier like Alicante Bouschet, though as far as I know Dornfelder does not have dark pulp and all the pigment comes from its skins.

The impression the flavors and bouquet offered is also similar to that of Alicante Bouschet. The bouquet is very primal and grapey, with some gamey, mushroomy and floral notes present as well. The seeming viscosity of the wine in the glass is also evident on the palate; it's concentrated and thick. However, the acidity is also fairly pronounced, which prevents the wine from becoming a circus of exaggerated features. The presence of soft tannins rounds everything out, giving an integrated impression of a balanced wine. Indeed, it's delicious, though the acidity suggests it's better paired with food than without. Right now it's a mouthful of red (well, black) wine and might have a more elegant disposition in a few years. Despite its rambunctiousness, you do get a wine brimming with character and a ton of stuffing for a very reasonable price of $20, especially when 'average' Pinot Noir from Santa Rita Hills often runs about $40 (average relative to its SRH peers, though the average quality is outstanding).

Score: 87-90
Price: $20 from Huber Cellars

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

One to avoid?

I always give the benefit of the doubt to wineries when I don't like their wine, especially when wine is not manufactured but hand-crafted by smaller producers. Who am I to judge someone else's work, even if I do wield very little influence, especially when so much effort goes into it and it's how some people earn their living?

One local winery, Rancho Sisquoc, however, has consistently been poorly aligned with my taste. Maybe I'm missing something, but I just haven't liked their wines at all with the exception of their inky, rich, blueberry jam-like '05 Syrah (a 3.4 pH, .77 TA and 14.7 % ABV tell the story of a BIG wine with high acidity present to maintain balance). At their tasting room, most of their wines gave the impression of being very acidic, which perhaps shouldn't be surprising since they generally produce wines with a low pH. Quick tastings tend to favor softer, high pH wines, while acidity tends to be refreshing over a longer time period, especially with food. But even in a fairer context, the wines have come across as clumsy, disjointed and hot. My most recent notes indicate the '06 Cabernet Sauvignon (tasted blind) simply tasted and smelled like alcohol, while the '05 Merlot (not blind, but tasted over several glasses) was pretty much identically hot and astringent.

On one hand, these wines are designed for someone with a vastly different palate. They impress with high octane power and intensity. They're also not all that expensive by boutique winery standards. But alco-burn is a flaw. And the wines are pretty much one-note. Alas, I shall be diplomatic. These are not wines for a Cab Francophile, but if you like turbo-wine for about $20, go for it.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Trip Through Santa Barbara County: Day 2

Our second day of tasting in Santa Barbara brought us to the Santa Rita Hills and Lompoc. Descriptions and notes follow.

Our initial stop was at Melville Winery. Melville primarily produces big Pinot Noirs (power-Pinot) with varying levels of earthy-funk. In particular, they produce multiple bottlings focused upon terroir and clone specific expression, several of which I have noted below. However, the tasting room experience was one of the worst we've had. Although it wasn't busy since we were there in the late morning, the pourer ignored us and instead discussed the wine with other customers. What separates a $50 Pinot Noir from a $30 Pinot Noir is typically that it is produced from a specific vineyard site and expresses some unique characteristics. Thus, it is important to connect the source of the grapes to the wine in a customer's glass. The server, unfortunately, was inattentive to the point of rudeness. I contacted the tasting room manager afterward; she was apologetic and wanted to ensure future visits were more enjoyable. Nonetheless, it's still hard to recommend a tasting room with one of the highest tasting fees in the area that did not engage all of its customers. Hopefully I'll be able to post about a better experience in the future.

Wines of interest:

2007 Clone 115 Pinot Noir - Deep earthy nose, heart of darkness. Herbs and earthy flavor. Top notch.
2007 Terraces Pinot Noir - Herb nose, tarragon? Something green and delicious. Spicy finish.

Next we made a stop in the 'Lompoc Wine Ghetto' to taste at Palmina Winery. Despite the tasting room's location in an industrial park, this was a much more satisfactory and intellectually stimulating experience than our prior stop at a beautifully manicured estate. (Perhaps it is true that beauty and personality are negatively correlated!) Although Palmina's wines can pretty much sell themselves, one has the opportunity to taste the wine sitting down, paired with cheese and prosciutto. It certainly makes sense to place the wines in the context in which they should be enjoyed. Palmina is focused on Italian varietals, which seem to have intrinsic streak of earth and minerality, but their wines also show the extroverted fruit one would expect of California wines. Although the single varietal bottlings were uniformly excellent, their blends were the most interesting aspect of the tasting as they represented the sorts of wines that can only be produced in regions like Santa Barbara County with great geographic diversity over small distances. There aren't many wine regions that can produce a blend of Refosco, Cabernet Franc and Merlot or a blend of Nebbiolo, Syrah and Barbera. There's a certain feeling of 'rightness' to a winery producing unique wines that express its region, especially when so many wineries attempt to emulate a model that is ill-suited to their climate and geography.

Wines of interest:

2007 Dolcetto - Floral, medium body. Minerals and wet earth. Tannic.
2004 Mattia - Refosco, Cab Franc and Merlot blend. Plum and red fruit. Big fruit attack, then mineral finish. Alisos Vineyard and Bien Nacido Vineyard fruit.
2005 Savoia - House of Savoy simultaneously ruled Piedmont and the Rhone, hence the name for Nebbiolo, Barbera and Syrah blend. Big blueberry and floral. Round; tannic finish. Structured.

Our last stop was at Cold Heaven Cellars, a winery devoted almost exclusively to cool-climate Viognier. Although tastings are by appointment only, winemaker Morgan Clendenen took the time to meet us at the winery and pour her favorite selections from the current releases. How often does a winemaker pour his or her own wines, especially those that are respected as some of the best Viognier in California, and chat informally with common folks? It's experiences like these that allow one to learn a lot. For example, Morgan Clendenen explained that the historical purpose of blending Viognier and Syrah in the Northern Rhone was largely pragmatic. Although Viognier's aromatics lift up Syrah, it also reaches high sugar levels earlier than Syrah and can be used to 'fix' under ripe Syrah in tough years. As far as the wine is concerned, Cold Heaven's Viognier is unmistakable aromatic in that flower blossoms and peaches way, yet it is retains lively acidity. Often a lack of acidity is the largest failing of Viognier from warmer regions.

Wines of interest:

2007 Viognier Santa Rita Hills - Initially found it crisp with an orange cream-sickle aroma. Drinking it again as I type now, that's not nearly enough credit for this wine, the "basic" cuveé from Cold Heaven. The wine smells like springtime hillsides in bloom, fresh peaches, green apple and orange cream-sickle. It's fully dry, yet tastes like nectar; the flavor lingers for minutes.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Trip Through Santa Barbara County: Day 1

My girlfriend's birthday took place a few weeks back, and to celebrate we spent the weekend wine tasting. Over two days we tasted, well, just about everywhere in Santa Barbara County. Not everywhere in the sense of every winery, but we did visit tasting rooms in Los Alamos, Santa Maria, Foxen Canyon, Santa Rita Hills and Lompoc. Aside from the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley, that's a wide swath of Santa Barbara County ranging from the warmer inland valleys to cooler coastal vineyards. For now, I'll touch on the highlights and lowlights and post notes on the wines I found most delicious or interesting from each tasting.

Tasting at Bedford Thompson in Los Alamos was certainly one of the high points of the trip. As I'd speculated in a previous post, this small producer holds its wines back before release. Whereas most producers are pushing the 2006 and 2007 vintages, Bedford Thompson is still offering the 2000 and 2001 vintages as current releases. Their style is ripe and forward, but the wines have good acidity and low alcohol (under 14% ABV); the former is almost an absolute prerequisite for aging. As a result, everything they poured, including their '01 Pinot Grigio, was drinking quite admirably. It's quite remarkable that a 7 year old Pinot Grigio that costs only a few dollars more than most mass produced examples still has much more going for it than the light, watery stuff you'll find at a grocery store from 2007 or 2008. The reds were doing just as well, if not better, from the lighter bodied Grenache to the earthy, meaty Mourvedré.

Wines of interest:

2001 Pinot Gris - Citrus, floral, fresh. Still going strong. Nice acidity.
2001 Grenache - Strawberry, floral, light mature tannin, medium body. Almost Pinot-like.
2001 Cabernet Franc - Red currant and violets. Almost round on palate, good stuff.
2001 Mourvedré - Meaty nose, again nice balance and maturity.

The next stop was Cambria Winery in Santa Maria. As you can see above, their vineyards and winery provide one of the most idyllic locations to visit in wine country. Cambria isn't exactly a small boutique operation as their vineyards stretch for several miles between the Sisquoc River and Santa Maria Bench and they produce around 200,000 cases of wine per year. But they have pursued Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in a location well-suited to the varietals and do what they do very well. I didn't love everything I tasted; their Katherine's Vineyard Chardonnay had overwhelming aromas of smokey toasted barrels and their unoaked Chardonnay just seemed to be missing a little something. But each wine they poured had its own character with very few crossing into over-oaked or over-ripe territory. Their mass produced wines provided a more than perfunctory expression of the varietal, while the limited production wines highlighted a specific winemaking style, grape clone or terroir.

Wines of interest:

2006 Rae's Chardonnay - Nice balance of fruit, toast, vanilla, acidity. Long finish! Good body, but not too full.
2006 Julia's Pinot Noir - Top QPR. Earth-funk, strawberry, cherry, sage and a hint of vanilla. Delicious, great balance.
2006 Bench Break Pinot Noir - Similar to Julia's, but more earth-funk and tannins. Big structure.
2006 Clone 667 Pinot Noir - Big red fruit exploding from glass, hugely aromatic. Round fruit on palate. Simpler, but more intense.

Stop number three was at Kenneth Volk Vineyards. Winemaker Kenneth Volk seems to have an abundance of intellectual curiosity judging by the broad array of wines he produces. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are his primary focus, but he also produces Bordeaux varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, Rhone varietals like Syrah and Mourverdé, and a little bit of everything else like Tempranillo, Negrette, Malvasia Bianca, Zinfandel and Orange Muscat. The downside, however, as is often the case, is that it's very hard for a small winery to do a dozen things that one person will really like when it's extremely difficult to make just several great, broadly appealing wines, especially when individual tastes of customers are so variable. There wasn't a bad wine out of the handful we tasted, but there were a few that were not all that exciting or were somewhat unbalanced to my palate including a pair of Pinot Noirs that seemed somewhat disjointed, heavy and alcoholic. My preference is for a winery to aim for excellence in just a few varietals, though the adage that you can please some people all the time and all the people some of the time is applicable here. Volk's approach is probably best suited for those who'd like to try a broad range of wines from one producer.

Wines of interest:

2004 Negrette: Nice aromatics. Somewhat meaty and earthy. Smooth like a Southern Rhone blend. Good find.
2004 Claret: Blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Plum and raspberry, nice mix of fruit. Round palate, great structure. Clean, well-made.

Foxen Vineyards was our penultimate stop on the day. Unfortunately, we hit at what appeared to be happy hour and it was like a loud, raucous party in their wooden shack/tasting room. You can't blame the winery, but it's hard to learn about the wine if you must fight to get a pour like you're at a bar trying to buy a pint. Regardless, the overall impression was of generally big, ripe, but reasonably balanced wines. All were ambitiously priced without crossing the line into the realm of being outrageous head-scratchers given the quality.

Wines of interest:

2007 Vogelzang Vineyard Viognier - Great aromatics, honeysuckle, peach. Crisp and fully dry. Top notch. Big, ripe style.
2005 Range 30 West - Blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petite Verdot. Black fruit, tobacco, deep nose. Top notch. Hits palate on all levels. Best Bordeaux blend of the day.

Our last stop was at Fess Parker Winery. Again there was a happy hour atmosphere that made it kind of difficult to appreciate the wine. Unfortunately, nearly every wine was mediocre and I can't recommend anything from the tasting. The Chardonnay was a Cali-style butter-bomb complete with overwhelming smokey and nutty aromas. The Viognier was not fully dry, and Viognier is already rich enough as it is without being vinified off-dry. Although Riesling is often produced with residual sugar, their Riesling came across as flabby, though the nose had an intriguing mix of lime and tarragon. The reds were even worse. A Pinot and a Syrah were both hot on the finish, and the final Syrah they poured was corked! This might even have been a pretty good wine, but the pourer apparently did not check to see if the wine he was pouring was spoiled. If there was anyone there who was halfway sober, he or she would have come away thinking their top Syrah smelled like a moldy basement. That's not a good impression to give a potential customer.

Day 2 will follow in my next post.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Off the wine club free agent market

My girlfriend and I settled on a new wine club and went the direction we had always anticipated, joining the Longoria Wine Club. We already have several of their wines in our cellar and have been impressed by the vast majority of their wines we've tasted. Although their wines aren't cheap by any means, the yearly allotment via wine club shipments is 8 bottles per year (most wineries aim to send at least 12 if not 16 or 24 bottles yearly). This might not be enough wine for a trophy hunting collector, but it's just about right for an eclectic drinker who wants to sample a cross-section of a winery's new releases.

There are quite a few aspects of Longoria Wines that are positive from the perspective of an informed consumer. Their business is small and family-run, for one. In terms of their winemaking, Rick Longoria has been making wine in Santa Barbara County, quite literally, since before I was born. While his portfolio has expanded to about a dozen different bottlings, he initially started with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. There's almost always a positive correlation between winemaking skill sensitive to varietal and regional characteristics and the production of Cabernet Franc; it's not a varietal one can harvest super ripe, heavily oak, then sell it based on varietal name recognition. It's also a positive in my mind that Rick Longoria started producing Pinot Noir well before Sideways made Santa Rita Hills en vogue. Although he may have been able to raise his prices due to growth in demand, he is not beholden solely to current trends and can make wine based on his personal aesthetic and experience.

One final note of interest come from Longoria's promotional material. Promotional material is often little more than propaganda and is not all that trustworthy, but the following statement resonates given the Longoria wines I've tasted: "My goal has always been to discover the 'grand cru' vineyards in our region and to work with their owners to grow the best possible grapes every year." Implicit in this statement is an appreciation of the French model where certain vineyards are designated as Great Growth, First Growth, Second Growth, First Great Growth, et cetera based on their established reputation over decades if not centuries. There's a certain anti-democratic sentiment to a system that legislates greatness via legal designation, but there's also an undeniable truth that certain sites are better than others. In this sense, Longoria's wines combine the best qualities of Old World and New World wines. There's a respect for the terroir and for specific vineyards, yet because Santa Barbara County is still very young as a wine region, an ambitious winemaker by nature must constantly be evaluating his sources. Longoria does have an top-notch estate vineyard, Fe Ciega, where he grows Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the Santa Rita Hills, but otherwise sources from others' vineyards. He purchases Cabernet Franc, for example, from Alisos Vineyard in Los Alamos, and based on my experience with several other producers' Alisos Cab Franc, as well as the Los Alamos region in general, this may well be a 'grand cru' vineyard for Cabernet Franc. Moreover, the reputations of the vineyards from which Rick Longoria sources his Pinot Noir speak for themselves.

I suppose that exposition is a bit longwinded, and what really matters is in the bottle. But this synthesis of Old and New World does extend to the finished wines. Perhaps what I've enjoyed most in Longoria's wines is the combination of classical, Old World structure with the layers of rich flavors typical in California wines. He's not trying to produce one-dimensional blockbusters, nor is he trying to duplicate a French model that likely does not apply in a vastly different climate. His wines are substantial, yet not exaggerated, and have sufficient acidity and tannin to hold up over the long run. This style simply seems right, and what better way to vote as a consumer than to patronize a business whose approach you appreciate.