Sunday, April 20, 2014

Naked Vine Double Barrel -- Waterstone: The Winery that Wasn't There

Sometimes a winery can be just a load of grapes and a plan.

Estate winemaking, especially in well-known areas like Napa Valley, is an expensive proposition. Land is expensive, as can be cobbling together a winemaking infrastructure. Equipment, tanks, barrels, bottling lines, storage – the list of expenses goes on and on.

Winemakers with good relationships, however, can take advantage of their connections and start an operation of their own. That’s what winemakers Phillip Zorn and Brent Shortridge are attempting to do with Waterstone Winery – a winery that doesn’t exist as a brick-and-mortar place.

Zorn and Shortridge source the grapes for their various wines from growers that they know around Napa Valley and assemble the various blends for the wines in Zorn’s kitchen. They rent time and equipment at other wineries to put together their finished product. According to the Waterstone website, the pair attempts to “develop balanced wines of varietal character through intelligent sourcing…rather than the accumulation of land and facilities.”

Thanks to the good folks at Folsom & Associates, I received a pair of bottles from Waterstone to sample. What sort of wines does this phantom winery produce?

Waterstone 2012 Carneros Chardonnay – The notion of balance in a Napa wine is something I’m still getting used to. Many of those wines are strong and in-your-face. That’s not so much the case with the Waterstone. This is a much more mellow wine than many oak bombs I’m used to from Napa Chardonnay. The nose is fragrant with apple blossoms, oak, and a little bit of a toasted, yeasty undertone. This chardonnay is about as far from buttery as you’ll find. Instead, there’s a distinct mineral character that connects green apple and pear with an oaky backbone, although not as much oak as I thought there’d be after getting a whiff. The finish is oaky and fruity, with a slight astringency that fades a bit as the wine gets a little air. It’s a fairly solid middle-of-the-road chardonnay if you’re looking for something on the lighter side. Alongside a cheese and apple board we had as a snack, it was OK. It retails for $18, which may be just a tad high.

Waterstone 2011 Carneros Pinot Noir – I could have clacked out (or, more accurately, copied) the first few line of the Chardonnay review for this pinot noir. Again, this is a much more restrained glass of pinot noir than I expected from Napa. The nose, full of plums and cherries, had me ready for a big wave of fruit that didn’t materialize. Instead, a well-constructed cherry cola flavor (without sweetness) dominates the palate, along with a light trace of tannin that lingers for just a bit on the palate before deepening on the finish into long smokiness. It’s got one of the longer finishes I’ve had in a pinot in quite some time. The Sweet Partner in Crime deemed it “delicate and really pretty.” With a dinner of pork chops and citrus-flavored lentils, it proved to be deliciously food-flexible. According to the winery’s notes on this wine, the 2011 growing season was a very challenging one for their sources. If that circumstance led to the balance and focus of this wine, I hope they took good notes – because whatever technique they used worked wonderfully. We really enjoyed it. Retails for $22.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The “First Family of (US) Chardonnay” -- Wente Vineyards

In 1883, German immigrant Carl Wente bought 48 acres of land in Livermore Valley in Monterey County, California and planted a mess of grapevines. Fast forward to 2014, and Wente Vineyards is the oldest continuously operated winery in North America, run by the fourth and fifth generations of the Wente family.

Wente is a notablewinery in the history of American winemaking. Through the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, thanks to the efforts of Carl’s son, Ernest, the Wentes planted a number of different varieties of Chardonnay. Through experimentation and crossbreeding with both domestic and French vines, the Wente chardonnay grape clone emerged. Wente released their first varietally labeled Chardonnay (along with Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc) in 1936. Neighbors of the Wentes would take cuttings for planting on their own lands. Today, 75-80% of California chardonnay is grown from one the “Wente clones.”

Thanks to the good folks at Balzac, I had a chance to sample two versions of the new vintage of the Wente chardonnay, as well as one of their new releases of pinot noir. How did the “First Family of Chardonnay” do this time around?

Wente 2012 “Morning Fog” Livermore Valley Chardonnay – I was lucky enough to have a massage scheduled for a Saturday, and the SPinC was nice enough to put together a lunch for when I got home. She’d put together this very tasty oriechette pasta with chickpeas and Kalamata olives in a rich (but not buttery) sauce. I thought this might be a good accompaniment, and we ended up with a great team decision. This wine is everything you could hope for in a $15 chard. The wine’s got a nice nose of apple blossoms and vanilla. The body is substantial without being overly heavy, full of pears and vanilla. There’s creaminess without being too buttery, oak without being too charcoalled, and just a pleasant overall flavor. With the pasta, it was assertive enough not to lose its character along what could have been a slightly challenging pairing. “Middle of the road” may be curse words in some vocabularies, but for a California chardonnay, this sort of balance is a sweet spot I’m happy to find. Recommended.

Wente 2012 “Riva Ranch” Arroyo Seco Chardonnay – Now this is an interesting white. This Chardonnay comes from a blend of two of the Wente clones -- Clone 2A and Clone 4, if you’re keeping score at home. Clone 2A is the “classic” varietal, while Clone 4 is a more recent version that’s got some more fruit characteristics. Riva Ranch, a property in the Arroyo Seco region, starts you off with a bright bouquet of orange blossoms and toasted almonds, which led me to believe there would be more oak on the palate than turned out to be. Instead, there’s a cheek-puffing flavor of apricot and pineapple that leads to gentle buttery flavors. The finish is long with caramel and a little bit of oak gradually trailing off. It’s a forward chardonnay, but a good one. I put this alongside a really nice seared scallop dish with wilted spinach and a light citrus cream sauce. It held up nicely. I’d get this one again if I needed an assertive white. This retails for around $22.

Wente 2010 "Riliz Creek" Arroyo Seco Pinot Noir – In this case, what was good for the goose wasn’t necessarily good for the gander. The Morning Fog impressed me by being middle of the road – by holding a balance between the various elements of the flavor, which is what you might want in a relatively inexpensive bottle. But for the pinot noir, it’s as if they followed the same formula. All the elements are there for a pinot noir – cherry and berry flavors, a medium body, light tannins, and a little bit of smokiness. And these elements were in harmony for the most part. The problem was that there was so much balance that the wine became almost uninteresting. It wasn’t that it was bad, it’s just that nothing really stood out about it. It’s clearly a quality wine, and it’s much better to drink than most inexpensive pinots, but it’s fairly nondescript for the price point. It’s a nonthreatening wine. People will like it. I liked it, too. I just didn’t love it. Food pairing wise, we had it with a turkey meatloaf dish that sounds pedestrian, but calls for those flavors. It was OK, and a bit overpriced at $28.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Naked Vine Double Barrel: (Not Necessarily for) Brunch Wines

I’ve long said that brunch is my favorite meal of the day. I find something deliciously decadent about getting up late and having enough relaxed time in the morning to put together a meal that goes a bit beyond a bowl of Cheerios.

With brunch, I’m usually a bloody mary man, although I’ll occasionally nip over to the sparkling aisle to get the makings for some mimosas (especially if I can get some good oranges to squeeze). The folks at Colangelo PR (thanks, Megan!) suggest dispensing with all the prep work for morning beverages. “Just crack a bottle of food-friendly wine!” they suggest. They recently sent a couple of brunchable bottles to Vine HQ for review. Here’s what landed on the doorstep:

Mulderbosch 2012 Sauvignon Blanc – I wrote about the 2011 vintage of this light-styled Sauvignon Blanc from South Africa’s most famous winery last August. I found it quite delicate, flavorwise. It does have a pretty pronounced citrus fruit flavor, but one more in the sweet grapefruit range than many that end up with tart lemon or lime flavors. There’s also a fair amount of creaminess that belies the light body. The finish is more fruity than crisp and isn’t particularly lasting. I can see why this would be recommended as a brunch wine, although at 13.6% percent alcohol, it might be a strong way to start your day. I could see this going nicely with some fruit crepes or other dish that’s got some light cream in the recipe. Pleasant enough to sip on its own, as well. The price has risen a bit from last year – from $13 to around $18.

Berlucchi “’61” Franciacorta Brut Metodo Classico – Sparkling wine with brunch? Now we’re talking! Like many French sparklers, the Berlucchi is made primarily from Chardonnay, with a little bit of Pinot Noir thrown in for good measure. (Of course, I don’t need much of an excuse to crack a bottle of bubbly…) First off, a quick piece of translation. “Metodo Classico,” (“The Classic Method”) is the designation of an Italian sparkling wine made in the same method as the original French “Methode Champenoise,” so a wine like this will be as close as an Italian sparkler is going to get to Champagne. (Here’s a refresher on Methode Champenoise if you need it.)

The result was one of the most gentle sparkling wines I’ve ever tasted. The Sweet Partner in Crime declared this wine “silky” from the style of the bubbles. I concur. This wine is super smooth, with layers and layers of apple, pear, and pineapple. It’s very clean tasting and has just a little citrus snap at the end. Very pretty. We hadn’t had a good brunch occasion because of work and travel, so one night, the SPinC declared she was going to make “brinner,” so we had salmon benedict with a side of some nicely seasoned steamed veggies. I have to say, it was simply marvelous.

Now, this isn’t an inexpensive wine. The Brut retails for about $35, which means that it needs to be a really nice brunch. (The “61” in the name comes from the year of the first vintage of Berlucchi wines.) There is a less expensive “Cuvee ‘61” that retails for around $17, but I haven’t had a chance to try that one yet.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Naked Vine Luxury Double Barrel: Frisson Wines

Frisson (free-SOHN) – French, “a sudden, passing sensation of excitement; a shudder of emotion; thrill”

The Wine Fairy’s been pretty good to us here in Vine land.

I received a message from Tara at Balzac offering me the opportunity to sample a couple of bottles from one of their newest clients, Frisson Wines. Frisson is the brainchild of Pam and Terry Davis, native Texans who made their way to Yountville in Napa County.

With the help of winemaker Wayne Donaldson, formerly of Domaine Chandon and Moet-Hennessey, and an initial purchase of three tons of cabernet sauvignon grapes from the Napa Valley’s Diamond Mountain growing region, Frisson began making wine in 2009. Initially only available in Texas and in a few places in Napa, Frisson is set to expand its retail footprint.

Their current releases include a pair of Cabernet Sauvignons, as well as a both a Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc sourced from Russian River Valley (Sonoma County) fruit. The good folks at Balzac sent along a pair of bottles for review. As with many boutique winemakers, a bottle of Frisson does not come cheaply. The Chardonnay will retail for $48, while the Cabernets each retail for right around $65. (Both are currently slightly cheaper on the website.)

I was intrigued. I don’t often drink whites wine not named “Sauternes” that nudged up against the $50 price point, not to mention the delicious potential of the Cabernet. How was the experience?

Frisson 2012 Russian River Valley “Dutton Ranch” Chardonnay – I had a conversation a few years ago with a good friend of mine who was in the process of studying for his sommelier exam (which he did eventually pass). We were talking about what sets certain wines apart. “Balance” was the term that we bandied about for awhile, but I’m learning that wines can be very well balanced, but not particularly interesting at the end of the day. “Integration” is a term I’m coming to use more and more, and that’s what’s remarkable about this wine. It’s one of the best integrated chardonnays that I’ve tried. The various complexities of the wine are all on display, and they all mesh to create a very pleasant drinking experience.

The Sweet Partner in Crime really enjoyed that a wine that displayed rich flavors of pineapple and pear could have a nice mineral backbone. There’s an oak characteristic, but it’s certainly not overdone, and it bolsters the finish nicely. The finish is a little oaky, a little buttery, and almost a tad honey-sweet. If I’d decided to drop two and a half fins on a Chardonnay and wound up with this, I’d be pretty happy.
Frisson 2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – After the “frisson” of the Chardonnay, I had high hopes for the Cabernet Sauvignon. At the end of another particularly long week, I wanted to grill up a couple of filets and relax with the SPinC over a good meal and a great wine. And we just happened to have this bottle. Convenient! Opened it up and decanted it for about an hour before we started dinner, and we had an initial glass. 

OK. Let’s not mince words. This is a very good cabernet. It’s very tasty, and, again super well integrated. If you want to know what classic “blackcurrant” aromas are, this wine will show you. The flavor is full of blackberries, cherry, and cocoa. The tannins are firm without being too much, and the finish goes on for a long time. With both our steak dinner and with our evening chocolate, it was pretty decadent. All in all, it’s a really good wine.

But is it $65 good? Honestly, I’m not inclined to think so. I’ve had a couple of cabernets over the last few months that were half the price and seemed just as tasty. Now, this may be a wine that will really blossom over the next couple of years and live up to its price point. Perhaps my palate just didn’t quite tag what made the wine so different – that’s also possible. I’d have guessed $35-40 for the retail if I’d not seen beforehand.

For more information, check out

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Naked Vine South American Triple Delight: Montes/Kaiken

Let’s nip back down to South America for a quick sampling of a few tasty Chilean delights. I haven’t written about Chilean wines in awhile, so I appreciate the good folks at Feast PR for giving me the opportunity to try a few bottles from Montes, one of the leading producers of Chilean wines.

Montes began producing wine in 1987, and their Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon was, according to their website, the first “premium” wine to be exported from Chile. They followed that with Chardonnay, Syrah, and Merlot – then began producing an “Icon” series of higher-end wines as well as some more affordable options. Eventually, the Montes operation expanded across the Andes into neighboring Argentina, where they began producing wines under the “Kaiken” label (“Kaiken” is a wild goose, native to the area, often seen flying over the Andes…)

I received three bottles from the Montes collection to sample:  

Kaiken 2012 “Terroir Series” Torrontes – This wine, from the Argentina side of the mountains, is a decent sipper if you like wines with a pretty bouquet. I found it very strongly fragrant without being so perfumey as to be overpowering. It’s got a lovely nose of pears and apple blossoms. The body is medium-weight, and it wasn’t as fruity as I expected after the big ol’ nose. In fact, I thought it was almost bitter at first taste with a flavor of lemon rind, but that quickly passes into a softer fruit middle of limes and green apples. The finish is a little grapefruity and it lasts for quite awhile. It reminds me a bit of a viognier, except a little more acidic.  It’s OK, especially with lighter meals or to file away for when the temperatures pick up. $13.

Montes Alpha 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon – The latest vintage of the wine that started it all for Montes. I’ll just state up front that I liked this wine a lot. It’s a much more Old World styled cabernet than I was expecting. I got a nose of vanilla and smoke that led into a palate of dark plums, leather, and graphite. There’s a bunch of tannin here, but it’s balanced, smooth throughout to the finish, which is graphite-y and hangs around for a long time. It’s very elegant and nicely balanced. When I poured it, The French-funk loving SPinC was expecting a real fruit bomb, and was pleasantly surprised to get this instead. With both a dinner of flank steak and roasted sweet potatoes and with evening chocolate, a very solid bottle. Recommended. It’s a little higher in price than usual, $25, but it’s worth it if you're looking for a nicer bottle.

Montes 2012 Cherub Rosé – Easy to find on the shelf with its Ralph Steadman-designed label. (If you’ve read anything by Hunter S. Thompson, you know Steadman’s work.) If you’ve come looking for a light, crisp rosé, you’ve come to the wrong place. This pink one made from 100% Syrah pours bright sunset pink and has full, solid weight on the palate. The nose is very light and slightly floral. The flavor reminded me of a dry version of cranberry juice, right through the midpalate and into the finish, which has a bit of a tart cranberryish note to it. There’s also some considerable acidity. This combination of slight bitterness and acidity makes it a much better food wine than one to sip on its own, but it’s a good match for a wide range of food, including some that might overwhelm whites but get buried by reds, like spicy Asian or Mexican dishes. If subtlety and balance is what you want in a pink wine, head for Provence. If you want one that drinks like more like a red, try this. $15.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

The Alphabet Soup Project -- "O" is for "Oak"

(c) Mike Rosenberg 2014
Wood is good.
Go to any winery and you’ll find oak barrels everywhere being used for fermenting wine, for storage, or just for decoration. But why? Obviously there’s some reason that, for years, wine and barrels are united in the wine drinker’s consciousness? Why do winemakers use barrels? While they look neat, it seems like they’re not particularly airtight, and there are many other ways to store liquid.

For an answer, let’s set the Wayback Machine for the early days of winemaking – 4000 years ago, give or take several centuries. Early winemakers figured out how to ferment grape juice into something delicious – but once you’ve got wine made, you’ve got to be able to store it and, just as importantly, move it around. The storage containers available were fired clay pots. The Greeks called them amphorae. They worked well – so long as you didn’t drop them, or have them fall over, or have a stray mule kick a hole in one out of spite.

Around 800 BC, during the Iron Age, fully enclosed wooden barrels were developed. By the first century AD, they were commonly used for containers for liquids of all sorts. They were stronger than clay, obviously, they didn’t usually break into a million pieces at the drop of a hat, and they could be stacked, rolled, and moved much more easily. They became the medium of choice.

Somewhere along the line, winemakers began to notice that the flavors in many wines change, improve, and become more complex during time in barrel. There are two reasons for this. First, especially where red wines are concerned, small amounts of oxygen get to the wine while stored in a barrel. This gradual oxidation tones down the sharpness of the tannin in the juice, makes the wine a deeper color, and preserves the wine for a longer period of time.

Second, as the wine seeps into the grain of the wood, it picks up chemical compounds that imparts certain flavors and aromas -- usually vanilla, tobacco, spice, and a “toasty” flavor. The wine also picks up tannins from the wood itself, which are a different sort of tannin than what’s in the juice in the case of red wines, adding additional complexity. White wines pick up less of the flavor than do reds, since the barrels are usually used for fermentation rather than storage. They still do change in barrel, however.

As time passed, winemakers found that different types of oak affect the wines in different ways. There are three common types of oak – American, French, and East European (usually Hungarian). The differences in the effects of the oak basically come down to the wood grain. American oak has a wider grain than French oak, so the wine penetrates the wood more deeply. American oak imparts a stronger, smokier flavor than does French oak, with stronger vanilla flavors. French oak tends to bring a spicier flavor. Hungarian oak is similar to French oak, although there’s a sweeter characteristic that gets imparted from those barrels.

If you’re reading winemaker notes, you might see references to a wine being “done in new oak.” Barrels are expensive, so they’re commonly reused. New oak barrels impart more flavor to wines than do used barrels. Since barrels are so expensive ($300 for a typical 55 gallon American oak barrel and $750 for a French), some winemakers cut corners by fermenting or storing wines with oak chips or old oak staves. The results of that cost cutting measure tend to be inferior.

The flavor of oak, like any other flavor in wine, can be overdone. I basically gave up on most California chardonnay for a long time because the wines in the late 90’s and early aughts were made so oaky. I remember Meridian chardonnay for years tasted to me like chewing on a charcoal briquette, but lots of people obviously call for that sort of flavor. Thankfully, in my opinion, cooler heads have prevailed on the oaking of wines – and there’s a great deal more balance to be had out there with both reds and whites.

Also, as a reaction to the heavy oak, some enterprising winemakers began marketing “unoaked” wines. This means that they’re fermented and stored entirely in a different type of container – be it stainless steel, concrete, plastic, or what have you. Removing the oak, as you would imagine, creates a very different wine, even with similar starting juice. Many unoaked wines are excellent. They do require a certain amount of skill to balance the flavors.

As an experiment in the difference between oaked and unoaked wines, I selected a couple of wines for a side-by-side tasting. I tried to find something from the same producer, same area, same vintage, and a similar price point. But I wanted one of the wines to be done with oak; the other without. After a bit of searching, I came across this pair of chardonnays:

Estancia 2011 Monterey County Chardonnay
Estancia 2011 Monterey County Unoaked Chardonnay

Doesn’t get much more similar than that, I guess! Both of these are $10-14 bottles. To go as a pairing alongside these wines, we went with slow cooked salmon filets with chickpeas and mustard greens.

The difference in these wines was pretty striking. We started with the unoaked one. Rather than being fermented in barrels, this wine was done in stainless steel. Typically, I find most unoaked wines to be fairly crisp and light. This Estancia was not light at all. In fact, it had a pretty considerable weight – I’d go so far as to call it a little “fat.” The main flavors I pulled from this were pear and lemon, if you smeared both of them in butter. The finish was full of cream and almost cloying. I honestly didn’t care very much for it. As it got some air, the buttery characteristics toned down a bit – but just the same, I thought the flavors weren’t all that interesting. With the food, it was just OK.

The reason for oak became pretty clear when we tried the oaked version. According to the winemaking notes, half of the juice for this wine is fermented in oak, with half of the oaked wine being in new barrels. Not surprisingly, this imparted a very strong vanilla and toasted wood flavor to the wine, which was a shock to the palate after tasting the first one. As it got air and the smoke “blew off” a bit, the wine improved greatly. I toss the word “structure” around a lot when I’m writing reviews – and that’s what the oak added in this case. The flavor profile of the wines is basically the same…except that the vanilla and toast of the oaked version balances the wines’ flavors and makes it, ultimately, a more pleasant wine to drink.

Only through tasting and trial will you decide how much oak is best for your palate. Once you find a wine you like that has that toasty flavor, however, make sure you look at the winemaker notes. That way, you’ll be able to find other wines made in a similar style. I think that’s a good way to be a smart wine consumer.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Vote for Me!

A pause for some shameless self-promotion. The Naked Vine has been nominated for "Best Blog" in CityBeat's 18th Annual "Best of Cincinnati" competition. Follow that link and vote in as many categories as you wish. My competition is the first category under the "Public Eye" section.

Voting closes this Sunday, February 16th Vote early and often!

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

A French Four-Pack for the Freezin' Season

It’s cold and dreary. The sun barely peeks out – and when it does, it’s not much of a help warming things up. These are richer food days, my friends. For me, richer food calls for wine with a backbone of earth – and that leads me instinctively to one place – France.

My French wine palate perks up in the winter, because these wines go so nicely with foods that have some heft to them. Butter, mushrooms, rich meats and root veggies – French wine is a lovely accompaniment to those sorts of flavors, generally.

(Now, I admit – I do try to cook in at least a reasonably healthy manner. It’s not beef bourguignon every night of the week, and what I and the SPinC consider rich these days might be a bit of a stretch. But we feel like it’s rich – so there.)

The good folks at Bourgeois Family Selections – one of my favorite importers of reasonably-priced French wine – recently sent along a four pack of their latest offerings. Bourgeois does a good job finding solid biodynamic and sustainable wines. We knocked the chill off our bones and cracked these over the period of a week or so. Here’s what we found:

Domaine des Gerbeaux 2012 “Le Clos” Macon-Solutre – Macon-Solutre is an area in Southern Burgundy. You may have seen “Macon-Villages” – which is a Chardonnay made from particular areas within the Macon region. Solutre is one of those areas. The specific name of a village on a wine usually connotes a higher quality of juice, and this was no exception. This wine reminded me of lemon custard – rich and citrusy on the nose and body, but the finish leans out into a grapefruity, minerally denoument that becomes more pronounced as it gets some air. There’s a hint of smokiness, as well – even though this is an unoaked wine. I liked this quite a bit. You should find it for around $17-20.

Chateau Les Ancres 2010 Bordeaux – Bordeaux, especially most value-priced Bordeaux, tends to be made with a backbone of merlot. This one is no exception – it’s about 2/3 Merlot, with the rest mostly Cabernet Sauvignon. There’s 2% Cabernet Franc to round it out. This wine really needs decanting – since at first sip, there’s very little flavor. Have patience with this one. It started with a light flavor of blackberry and cocoa, widened out across the midpalate with some nice smoke and earth, and then landed with a tannic bag of hammers on the back of my tongue. Once it opens up, there’s a surprising richness to it. With stews, superb, especially for $11-13. And it goes better with chocolate than many Bordeaux.

Chateau La Faviere 2009 Bordeaux Superieur – “Bordeaux Superieur” is a wine sourced from grapes grown anywhere in Bordeaux, but the process of the winemaking is a little different. The reds with that moniker have somewhat higher alcohol contents, are aged a little longer, and tend to be a littlemore complex than standard Bordeaux. This wine, however, I didn’t get a chance to write many notes on. The SPinC and I opened this before a dinner of roasted chicken in a tarragon and butter sauce, and it was a splendid accompaniment. So splendid, in fact, that we got to talking and laughing – and the next thing we knew, we’d killed off the prettily embossed bottle. Take that for what it’s worth. I’d snag this again for around $15.

Domaine de Chateaumar 2012 “Cuvee Bastien” Cotes-du-Rhone – I’ll admit to looking a little askance at the name of this wine. Cotes-du-Rhone are generally blends, known as cuvees – usually made up largely of varying amounts of Syrah and Grenache. This wine, however, is 100% Grenache – so I assume it’s Grenache from a number of different vineyards. I enjoyed the difference. This is a somewhat lighter-styled Cotes-du-Rhone which I can imagine flexibly working with almost any food pairing. Nice plum and berry flavors with enough weight and structure to be interesting. We had this alongside a pecan-crusted trout with sautéed cabbage with a cream sauce, and it worked quite nicely. Again, recommended at $13-15.

Stay warm out there! 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

In time for Australia Day – A double barrel from Hardy’s

In case you’re wondering what to do with next weekend, since the Super Bowl is still a week away, you could consider throwing an Australia Day party. Australia Day is often likened to the 4th of July in the U.S., and there is a connection. After we declared our independence in 1776 and kicked the Brits out for good in 1783, the British Empire was in need of a new expansion. The British First Fleet landed at Botany Bay in Australia on January 26th, 1787 to set up a penal colony and outpost. The day became an official national holiday in Australia in 1994.

With Australia Day as a backdrop, the good folks at Folsom & Associates sent along a pair of Australian wines as potential accompaniments to however and whatever you’re going to be celebrating over the next couple of weeks, and beyond.

This pair of wines is from Hardy’s, one of the older winemaking operations in Australia. They were founded in 1853 by Thomas Hardy, who is not to be confused with this guy, the author of Jude the Obscure or either of these guys:

Nope. Not winemakers.
The fifth generation of Hardys currently operates the winery, which produces wines under the Nottage Hill, William Hardy, Tintara, Stamp of Australia, and Whiskers Blake labels. (Whiskers Blake actually makes a very tasty port, if memory and my archives hold.) This mixed pair pulls from two of these labels. Here’s what we got to sample:

Hardy’s 2012 “Nottage Hill” Shiraz – You don’t even have to get this wine to your lips to know this is an Aussie Shiraz. The nose is a dead giveaway. Australian Shiraz tends to be big, fragrant, and full of big, extracted fruit. This is no different. On the bouquet, I got big, ripe plums with a little cut wood in the back of my nostrils. The flavor follows right along initially. At first sip, it’ll hit you with a whallop of big dark fruits, but therafter it settles down a bit and reveals some nice structure with good, firm tannins that linger throughout. This tannin is necessary as balance for the considerably fruit, which turns more blackberryish towards the end. At $13, this is a very drinkable wine if you’re looking for a good winter red. I had this alongside a thyme-spiked mushroom and beef ravioli soup and it was a good match. Great with dark chocolate, as well.

Hardy’s 2012 “William Hardy” Chardonnay – This bottle turned out to be a very different style of Chardonnay than I’m used to. I’m accustomed to either the bigger Chardonnays of California or the leaner styles of Burgundy. This wine tries to split the difference. I saw in the winemaking notes that it’s a combination of fruit. It’s largely juice from cool growing regions, which usually means a leaner style, but it’s blended with some warm weather grapes to round it out. The result? I found a nose of lime and melted butter. The body is fairly substantial with more citrus flavors than the peachy ones I was expecting. The flavor transitions into an oaky finish that’s slightly cut through by more lime flavor. While there was apparently some malolactic fermentation, which usually turns chardonnay creamy, I didn’t get those flavors at all – although it did add to the weight, I’m certain. All in all, it’s not a bad wine, especially if you like citrus and oak. I think it’s a little pricey at $17. I think it probably would be good with shellfish or any sort of grilled fish or chicken.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

The Seven Vectors of an Evolving Palate

I was poring over The Naked Vine Index while working on a review of a South African wine. I swore that I’d written about this particular wine – Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc – in the recent past. I went back to the archives to see if my new notes paralleled my previous review. There were some parallels with the previous review...that I’d written almost six years before.

I sometimes lose track of how long I’ve been at this. I first clicked “Publish” on The Naked Vine on August 1, 2006 and I first appeared in print in the Dayton City Paper on January 3, 2007.  A lot of bottles have gone into the recycling bin since then. When I look at some of those early columns and reviews, it’s blatantly obvious that my tastes, my palate, and my outlook on wine in general have changed a lot over the years.

Everything evolves in stages -- whether biological organisms, psychological states, or a wine taster’s palate. One doesn’t leap from Manichewitz to Chateau Petrus in a day. When we’re going through an educational experience --and my last decade of wine tasting has most certainly been that – we gain a little knowledge through experience, try to figure out What It All Means, and then apply it to the next situation. Through fits and starts, we gradually get a clearer picture.

Tucked away among dusty remembrances of my University of Arizona grad school seminars in higher education two decades ago is an identity development theory by a school psychologist named Arthur Chickering. His “seven vectors” of the psychological growth of college students are commonly cited in the higher education literature. Working on my doctoral qualifying exams last November (which I passed, by the way!) I revisited Chickering’s work.

Since this theoretical stuff has been on my mind so much recently, I thought it might be fun to apply the vectors to the “higher education” of learning about wine. Sure, developmental psychology might seem an odd framework to think about wine appreciation – but we taste as much with our brains as we do our tongues and noses. And while I don’t claim to be fully developed as a wine connoisseur, I think this process holds up pretty well. Here’s my wine-related application of Chickering’s seven vectors:

#1 -- Developing Competence: You’re just getting started. You’ve had some wines you liked. Maybe you’ve gone to a wine tasting or six and even figured out that you prefer reds to whites, but you really don’t know merlot from your elbow. You need the basics here. The fundamentals. If you’re in this stage – a good place to start is with The Big Six, my term for the six grapes everyone should know: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Riesling on the white side; Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah on the red. Also, peek back through the archives to my old Wine School articles to get an idea.

#2 -- Managing Emotions – This stage refers to the challenge of handling one’s feelings and acting appropriately – whether to positive or negative stimuli. As a wine student, you’re going to find yourself overwhelmed once you start trying new types of wines. You’ll find one you like and you’ll feel the urge to buy two cases. I was firmly in this phase on our first trip to Sonoma in 2005, as you could see from our credit card receipts. While you undoubtedly will burn out on a type of wine you like in this stage, it’ll be fun getting there. If you’re ready to branch out, go with flavorful wines: Zinfandel, Gewurztraminer, and maybe a rosé or two.

#3 -- Moving through Autonomy toward Interdependence – Oh, this is the fun phase…learning how everything is connected and how to state preferences for what you want. By this point, you have a basic idea of what flavors you enjoy. Now you get to apply the Naked Vine First Law of Wine Pairings – people make wine to go with the food they like. As you start to understand the lovely interdependence between food and wine, you start to pick certain wines for certain meals (or pick certain meals for certain wines!) and you start to gain a greater appreciation for why certain wines are made certain ways. If you’ve made it this far, now’s the time to start playing with Italian and French wines, especially Chianti, Barbera, Cotes-du-Rhone and Bordeaux.

#4 -- Developing Mature Interpersonal Relationships – One of the terms that comes up in this stage is “cross-cultural tolerance” – being able to negotiate relationships with individuals that you may not have been comfortable around previously. With wine, this is the time when you get over the biases that you developed in the managing emotions stage. You get a glass of that Muscadet next to some peel-and-eat shrimp or some oysters on the half shell and go, “Oh…*now* I get it.” Context plays such a strong role in understanding wine. So, try that Muscadet here while at a raw bar – or crack open (and decant! decant! decant!) some barnyard-laden French wines – earthy selections from Burgundy and Chateauneauf-de-Pape (preferably with some rich French foods and cheeses) to gather some knowledge.

#5 -- Establishing Identity – This phase is about becoming comfortable with one’s self and gaining self-esteem. By this point in the process, you’ve tried scads and scads of wine. You’ve got a good idea of what’s what. You know what you like and what you don’t. This is the point when people start handing you restaurant wine lists because they figure you know what you’re talking about. At this point, you’re ready to hone in on a grape or region and really explore. For me, this was about the time when I started to love pinot noir, which can be a challenging grape. I know that my favorites come from Burgundy and from Oregon. You’ll find your favorites, too.

#6 & #7 -- Developing Purpose & Developing Integrity – I take these two stages together, because this is the developmental point where you start setting goals, deciding on your core values, and living them. In the wine development process, this is when you make the important live decisions like whether to build a wine cellar, how much you wine you have around the house, how special an occasion has to be to crack that particular bottle you’ve been saving, and so on. This is the most dangerous stage for your wallet, as you might find yourself tracking down 80 year old dessert wines as I once did. Wine is now as much a part of your life as anything else you have around the house. You are now fully integrated in the oenological sense. Congratulations. This process never ends, but the journey is most of the fun. Thanks for hanging in there with my journey over the last seven-plus years, and let’s raise a glass to more good times ahead.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The End of the Bottle. The End of the Year.

I get reflective when the calendar flips to this chunk of the annum. I like it – and I think it’s healthy. It makes me appreciate how nothing happens in isolation. And how the interplay of circumstance and happenstance creates our day to day lives.

I believe it’s a natural time to do it, considering how our society looks at the calendar. We talk about the changing of the seasons, but not many folks are out there celebrating Beltaine or Saturnalia. Our collective point of annual reflection is the last week of December, culminating in the concrete marker of New Year’s, with its resolutions and promises sometimes kept.

What does a semi-professional wine reviewer reflect on during this time of year? Open a magazine, go online, or just read the rest of the issue where this column appears. You’re going to run into Best of 2013 lists, Top 10 lists, Bottom 10 lists – we love our lists. We collectively enjoy putting things into categories.

I thought about doing something like that, but I quickly realized that my own experience isn’t broad enough to put together a proper spread. I’ll leave that sort of thing to some of my other compatriots in the wine world.

When people I meet discover that I’m a wine writer, the countdown begins to the inevitable, “A wine writer? What’s your favorite kind of wine?” I’ve learned, in the spirit of Bull Durham’s Crash Davis, to have my clichés ready. “Whatever’s open!” is my usual quip.

That usually earns me a couple of weak chuckles and I can move on to other topics. Why? Because if I try to answer the question honestly, I fall to stammering. An honest definition of my favorite wine is my “one hand clapping.” It changes and slides, depending on the season, the day, even the hour. When I try to think of the best juice to cross my palate – I can’t conjure a singular image.

That doesn’t mean I can’t try. When I do, little vignettes play across my cerebral cortex of times that I’ve tried this wine or that. I can recall opening a shipping box to pull packing material from a particular wine I’ve been waiting for, or the memories of a particularly good meal that the Sweet Partner in Crime and I put together to go alongside a bottle we’d bought on one of our travels. I can sometimes close my eyes and remember the music I was listening to when I experienced a certain wine. I still, however, can’t definitively identify a favorite.

While I may never be able to come up with a singular answer to that seeming simple question, meditating on it a bit made me consider why I like wine as much as I do – and I’ve come up with an answer that, for me, is good enough:

Every glass of wine, whether from a jug of cheap plonk or a thousand-dollar bottle of Bordeaux, tells a story, and wine tells more stories than any other beverage. Wine comes from earth, air, water and sun. (And yeast.) A glass of wine communicates the soil the grapes were grown in; how they were harvested; how long ago they were bottled. There’s a direct, unadulterated line from the seed through the harvest past the winemaker to the glass. And that’s pretty astounding, if you take the time to think about it.

Other alcoholic beverages require additional work. Beer requires mashed grain. Whiskey, vodka, rum, tequila – they need to be distilled. You can brew a craft beer in any of the 50 states and it’ll taste like a craft beer. I’ve seen bourbon from New Jersey and scotch from Washington. But pinot noir won’t grow in Maine. You’re not making good sparkling wine in South Florida. Each glass of wine communicates something unique. Scent. Taste. Flavor.

I don’t have an extensive wine cellar, but there are some pretty good bottles down there. Many of those bottles came from trips that we took. There might have been something about the description of the wine that resonated with me – be it a detailed description of the terroir or just an interesting tale about how the winemaker came to follow that trade.

For instance, I have a number of bottles of pinot noir from a winery we discovered in Oregon called Libra. We tried these wines on the back deck of the home of the winemaker, Bill Hanson, at the end of a beautiful day. We swapped tales. We drank wine and watched the sunset. Is it the “best” pinot in the world? Who knows? But every time I open one of those bottles, I flash back to that deck, and it’s glorious.

In fact, the night I wrote this, I was doing dinner prep. Roasted duck breasts on sweet potato puree with wilted greens. I asked the SPinC what pinot she thought would go best. Without skipping a beat, she said, “One of the Libras.” She said later, after she read this column, that she’d pictured that moment on Bill Hanson’s deck before she made the suggestion.

Every civilization lives through its stories. Stories connect the present to the past; demonstrate place and longevity; and connect an individual to something larger. The story, the ritual -- that’s what keeps me coming back, and that’s my favorite thing about wine.


So as not to leave you empty handed on Christmas or New Year’s – you might need a bottle of sparkling wine before heading out this time of year. If you’re looking for a bottle under $10, you can’t go wrong with my old faithful – Freixenet Extra Dry Cava. In the black bottle. Simple, basic bubbly that’s good with just about anything, food-or-occasionwise.

If you’re thinking under $15, consider Da Luca Prosecco. This Italian sparkler was the bottle we cracked as an aperitif when my family came calling for Thanksgiving. Prosecco makes you happy, and it goes delightfully with almost any appetizer that you might want to throw down.

And if you want to spend up to $25 for a bottle to ring in 2014, I’d be hard pressed to find anything better than Mumm Napa Brut Prestige. Extremely elegant, flavorful, and appropriately celebratory. I think you’ll like it very much. If you don’t – I’ll be happy to take any unopened bottles off your hands.

And with that, The Naked Vine closes the books on 2013. Thanks for continuing our mutual wine explorations. May your year be full of good health, much happiness, and excellent times.

Later days.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Naked Vine Double Bubble -- Mumm Napa and Biltmore Estates

OK, folks – we’re coming down the home stretch to New Year’s. Do you have your sparkling wine for your big end-of-year bash? If you’re planning to spray bubbly all over your fellow partygoers, feel free to load up on Korbel and Asti Spumante. However, if you’re looking for something with a little more complexity and style, you can still find perfectly good bubbly without shelling out fifty bucks for Taittinger or Veuve Cliquot.

Thanks to the good folks at Folsom, I had the chance to preview a spread of sparklers in the $20-30 range, which in my opinion, works just fine for an end-of-year celebration.

First off, a pair from one of my favorite California sparkling producers, Mumm Napa:

Mumm Napa (NV) “Cuvee M” Napa Valley Sparkling Wine – I would certainly recommend this as a classy aperitif. The Cuvee M is a soft, slightly sweet sparkler that explodes on the palate with a rush of pear and peach, followed by a nice zingy acidity. The peach blossom bouquet is quite pretty, and it holds up all the way to the creamy, fruity finish. All in all, just a very pleasant, friendly, subtle wine that brought a smile to my face. The smile broadened when I tried this with some paté. Sparkling wine is usually good once you’ve “got a little fat in your mouth,” and this was no exception. If you’re doing a swanky party with a spread of nice appetizers, you’d be well-served to pop a bottle of this alongside.

Mumm Napa (NV) Napa Valley Brut Prestige – If the Cuvee M is the greeter, then the Brut Prestige is the dignified hostess, making sure everyone’s glass is filled, needs are met, and that all are having a good old time. “Elegant” is one of the terms I put down for this, and I found drinking this to be a lovely experience. The nose is full of ripe melon and bread yeast scents, which leads to a very tight, persistent “bead” (WineSpeak for “those wonderful bubbles”). Once you take a swallow of this wine, you can feel the bubbles tingling as they make their way tummyward. The melon and peach flavors transition to an expansively dry citrusy finish that’s just delicious. One of our traditions around here is bubbly with homemade pizza – and we had a bit of an odd one to pair: prosciutto, artichoke, roasted tomato, and olive on a thin crust with pesto. Not to fear – it went together like it was made to do so. Thumbs up.

Both the Mumm wines retail for around $22. Money well spent.

As you know, I love doing experiments with wine. And did ever I get a good setup with this pair of wine from the Biltmore Estate winery, which I’ve written about on a couple of other occasions. I’ve never had the opportunity to try two wines from the same producer, made in the same fashion with the same grape – except that the grapes were grown on opposite sides of the country. To wit:
  • Biltmore Estate Blanc de Blancs 2009 Methode Champenoise Brut
  • Biltmore Estate Blanc de Blancs 2010 Chateau Reserve Methode Champenoise North Carolina Brut
Both these sparklers are 100% Chardonnay. They’re made in the traditional “Methode Champenoise” style, which to review, works like this: After a wine has barrel-aged for what a winemaker deems a proper length of time, the wine is bottled with a little extra sugar and yeast and capped. The additional yeast and sugar causes fermentation -- but since the CO2 cannot escape, the bubbles are forced back into the wine, carbonating it. However, as most wine drinkers prefer a clear product, after the carbonation is complete and the wine has "rested on the lees" for an appropriate length of time (usually at least a year, the wine is “riddled.”

During riddling, the bottles are racked with the neck pointing downward about 45º. The yeast settles into the neck of the bottle. The bottles are turned a quarter turn every day or more often and the downward angle is increased. After a month or two, we are ready for the removal of the yeast or "dégorgement." At this stage, the neck of the bottle is plunged into a sub-freezing liquid, and the settled yeast freezes into a plug. When the plug is fully formed, the cap is removed and the carbonation forces the plug from the bottle. The bottle is then quickly corked and "caged." There are, of course, less expensive methods of bottling, but méthode champenoise tends to create the best quality of carbonation (meaning the tiniest, longest lasting bubbles) and flavor.

The differences? Well, one you can guess. One bottle is made of chardonnay grapes from the Biltmore’s North Carolina vineyards, while the other is sources from the Russian River Valley in California. The other difference is in aging. The California wine is aged in the bottle for 24-30 months before dégorgement. The North Carolina version ages for 12-16 months. Oh, also – the California one retails for around $25. The North Carolina is about a $30 bottle.

Side-by-side tasting, you ask? Absolutely. We cracked these at the same time and gave them a try. First impression? I expected the NC bubbly, as with most whites I’ve had from North Carolina, to be a little sweeter. Not so! This was a brut that earns its stripes. This wine is bone dry. As a refresher, when it comes to sparkling wine, the classifications from sweet to dry go: Doux, Demi-Sec, Sec, Extra Dry, and Brut. There’s actually a dryness level beyond Brut called “Brut Sauvage” – and the NC wine reminded me of one of those. There’s pineapple and apple and a nuttiness to go with the tight sparkle. It’s very refreshing.

The California Blanc de Blancs is still “brut,” but there’s more of a roundness to it. There’s more of a creamy yeastiness, along with a basketful of Granny Smith apple flavor. The bubbles are tight and firm with this wine as well. It’s much more of an elegant wine than its Carolina-based cousin. Both wines are quite good. It just depends on the mood you’re in.

Though we opened both, we decided that we’d save most of one bottle and have the other later (and if you don’t have a sparkling wine stopper – run, don’t walk, and get one). We decided to start with the NC bubbly. We had this with a smorgasbord of appetizers – bacon-wrapped scallops, liver pate, and creamy cheese with crackers – and it was simply delicious. Get a little fat in your mouth with this one and you’re golden.

The California sparkler we saved for one of the Sweet Partner in Crime’s homemade pizzas. I stand by my notion that pizza is second only to KFC as a perfect sparkling wine accompaniment. The pizza – with roasted tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil, lots of garlic, and shredded parmesan couldn’t have made a better match for this wine. Delicious.

If you’re looking for some wines that fall into the “classy” range but you don’t want to break the bank – any of these four will do you. I am interested in seeing if North Carolina can consistently create sparkling wine like this, though. If they don’t take advantage of what seems to be good terroir, they’re missing a big opportunity.

(Thanks much to Michaela and Kate at Folsom & Associates for the samples.)

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Crazy for Chianti

How does a wine so flexible get overlooked so often?

I ask the question for myself as much as anything. Chianti, the most well-known Italian wine in the U.S., is a
delicious, easy-to-drink wine that pairs up with almost anything. I love the stuff. But when I make my trips to the wine store, I usually scoot right past Chianti completely. Or, if I’m in the Italy aisle, I’m usually wandering to other areas – snagging myself a Barbera, a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, or a Dolcetto depending on my mood. Then I get the chance to drink one and I think to myself, “Well, hello there! Where have you been?” I almost take it for granted.

Not exactly.
Chianti was one of the first wines that I wrote about in this space, and I won’t go back over my old tropes about straw basket candleholders and Hannibal Lecter’s food pairings with the organs of certain government employees (which he got wrong, in my opinion – he’d have been better off pairing that poor census taker’s liver with a Bordeaux) – but let’s get a quick review in of what Chianti actually is.

First off, Chianti is not a grape. Italian wines are named after the region from which the wine is made. Chianti is a large region in central Tuscany which encompasses parts of several Tuscan sub-provinces. A wine simply labeled “Chianti” can be made from grapes harvested anywhere in this region. Speaking of those grapes, at least 70% of the wine must be made from Sangiovese to fall into the Chianti category. The balance of the wine is usually a blend of other Italian indigenous varietals, along with the occasional addition of Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Chianti tend to be relatively lighter-bodied, full of cherry and raspberry fruit flavors, and with a mineral character that feels a little “chalky” to me.

You might see “Chianti Classico” on a bottle if you’re looking. “Classico” has nothing to do with being a “classic” wine. The term refers to the area in the heart of the Chianti region bordered by Florence on the north and Siena on the south. This was the “original” area of Chianti which produces arguably some of the best wine. Chianti Classico must be a minimum of 80% Sangiovese. The complement of Chianti Classico is “Chianti Superiore,” which is wine made from grapes sourced from anywhere in Chianti other than the Classico region.

There is one other Chianti-related terms with which you should be familiar. “Chianti Riserva” means that the wine is aged for a longer period of time in barrel – a minimum of two years. A standard Chianti is only aged for 4-7 months. Chianti Superiore must be aged for at least nine months and Chianti Classico for at least ten. The terms can be stacked, so you might run into a “Chianti Classico Riserva” in your travels.

Not long ago, Italian wine producer Banfi did a promotion called “Crazy for Chianti” to drum up renewed interest in the wines of Chianti. I was fortunate enough to receive some samples of the various sorts of Chianti from Banfi and their affiliated producers. As you’ll see, I found some distinct differences among the styles:

Bolla 2011 Chianti – If you’d like to classify a wine as “perfectly serviceable,” you’d probably land on this inexpensive bottle of Bolla. For a whopping eight bucks, you end up with a table wine that will go perfectly well with just about anything. It’s very straightforward – nice red fruits on the palate, some chalk and mineral in the middle, and a gentle, fruity, lightly tannic finish. It’s not what you’d call a memorable wine, but it falls squarely into the drinkable category. It’s also readily available in a 1.5l bottle for around $12. Not a bad red to have around when you’re feeling indecisive.

Cecchi 2010 Chianti Classico – A very different bottle from the Bolla. While the “regular” Chianti is fruit driven and simple, this Chianti Classico has a great deal more depth and structure. The characteristic cherry fruit is backed by a deep earthy flavor that reminded me a lot of a Bordeaux. This wine felt considerably heavier to me, and it wasn’t quite as good a food wine with somewhat lighter fare. This one would need something heavier – meat sauces, sausage pizzas, or something along those lines. If you like a richer version of your Chianti, it’s not a bad choice.

Banfi 2011 Chianti Superiore – A very interesting contrast to the Chianti Classico. Rather than the light red fruits in the Chianti Classico, there are strong notes of dark fruits like plums. There’s also a strong earthy component that adds a lot of richness. The finish is tart with a little bit of earth, and the traditional Chianti chalkiness popping in to say hello right at the end. It’s a really nice wine. I liked this one a lot. With penne in a goat cheese marinara with bits of cappacuolo “bacon,” it was absolutely delicious.
Recommended as a killer value at $11.

Banfi 2010 Chianti Classico Riserva – Certainly the richest of this set of wines, and also my personal favorite among them. Again, a much more deeply flavored wine than a standard Chianti, hearkening back to the earlier Chianti Classico, but this one had a richer, smoother texture. The nose is scented with cherries and vanilla. It’s about as full-bodied a Chianti as I’ve experienced, with plenty of dark cherry and spice flavors, along with a backbone of cocoa instead of that signature chalkiness. The chalkiness does show up at the end, but it’s complimented by more of that bitter chocolate flavor. It’s an exceptional food wine. We had this with a pan-cooked chicken puttanesca over orzo tossed with parsley and olive oil. Really nice, and a solid value for $16-18.

If you’ve been drinking an array of wines and Chianti has somehow become lost in the shuffle, make it a New Year’s resolution to get back on this Tuscan train. You’ll be glad you did.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Naked Vine Double Barrel -- A Perfectly Serviceable Pair: Mandolin

Sometimes you just need WYSIWYG wine.

For those of you unacquainted with the acronym, WYSIWYG (pronounced “wizzy wig”) is old tech slang for “What You See Is What You Get.” The term refers to a user interface where the content you see on the screen is more or less identical to what you’d see if you printed or displayed it. For instance, as I’m typing this, the document looks more or less like the post will end up the way you see it now.

As this relates to wine, when I’m thinking about a certain meal or if I’m in the mood for a certain flavor, I can say to myself, “I’m in the mood for a chardonnay.” I know I want a decent wine, but I don’t really want to spend a lot of time with pairing or subtlety. In other words, a solid quaffer in a general category. Both bottles of the recent pair of samples from Mandolin Wines qualify as WYSIWYG.

Mandolin, though headquartered in Napa, focuses on making wine from Monterey County, California and a few other areas along the Central Coast. Their wines all retail for around $10-12. They’re straightforward wines that, in both cases here, made me say, “Yep. That’s a decent [insert grape name here].” Was I blown away by either of them? No. Would I buy either of them again? Sure. They’re table wines. Think of them along those lines, and you’ll be very pleased. For a little more detail:

Mandolin 2012 Monterey Chardonnay – Definitely a California chardonnay, but a middle of the road once, intensity wise. I got cream and sweet apples on the nose. “The flavor doesn’t explode your tongue with oak,” said the SPinC, “but it’s definitely there.” The label mentions tropical fruits. I’d say that pineapple is the dominant of those types flavors, but it’s not sweet pineapple. The fruit quickly gets overtaken by considerable oak. Rather than lingering on the finish like many oaky chardonnays, the oak gets clipped by a wave of lemony acidity. All in all, a good quaffer on its own or with food. Our meal was salmon filets “poached” over white beans, rosemary, and bacon. Tasty meal.

Mandolin 2012 Monterey Pinot Noir – “Perfectly serviceable” reads my note, especially since it’s twelve bucks. A decent “drinking not thinking” wine that would be solidly food-friendly. Cherries and sawdust stand out on the nose. Body is quite light, although there’s good cherry and raspberry flavor that segues into a considerable amount of smokiness which continues through the finish. I don’t usually find the kind of smokiness and silkiness at this price point. Alongside leftovers of a roasted cauliflower soup with toasted almonds and prosciutto, it made for a pretty good pairing. The soup was tasty and the wine was there. Neither of us had the brainpower that evening to think much, so it made for a good pairing.

Mandolin also makes a Riesling from Monterey, and Central Coast Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah.

(Thanks to Folsom + Associates for the samples.)

Friday, December 06, 2013

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Da Luca Prosecco

Prosecco is generally a solid aperitif, as it’s a lighter-styled sparkler with nice fruity flavors that complement many cheeses, fruits, and other appetizerish finger foods. The Da Luca (NV) Prosecco certainly fills the bill. It clocks in at 11% alcohol, so it’s not going to beat you over the head right off the bat. The effervescence is a bit sharp, which isn’t out of the norm for an Italian sparkler, so it’ll certainly perk up your taste buds. Nice apple blossom scents get carried up by the bubbles. Flavors start out as apple and pineapple and get a little more tart towards the end. The finish has some fruitiness along with the dance of bubbles on your tongue.

All in all, a very nice wine to start a party with. I opened my sample bottle over Thanksgiving as an aperitif for my family and people seemed to enjoy it. As appetizers for folks’ arrival, we laid out shrimp cocktail, baked brie with apples and cranberries, salami chips, and roasted carrot dip and the wine flexed easily enough among the various flavors. For $12-14, a good starter wine for an event or an evening.